“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.”
***Available in Kindle Unlimited***
Get your copy here
Ryya was on the plush couch inside her apartment living room watching a video on home improvements. This episode demonstrated how to a covered patio with adjustable walls and a swing bed.
She wanted one.
The house was brand new two years ago when she bought it, but it had absolutely no personality. So, she spent all her free time upgrading and decorating.
Her eyes were heavy, but she needed to finish the episode to figure out the material costs, the directions and possible challenges if she was going to start on it tomorrow.
Putting in a patio by herself wasn’t going to be easy, and she needed to know exactly how to get it done. The show paused as her screen chimed, alerting her to an incoming video call from her mother, Meradi.
Rolling on to her back she covered her eyes and groaned, “Accept call.” Her video transitioned to her mother’s face glaring at her with narrowed eyes. “Why are you still up? Don’t you have work in the morning?”
Rubbing her eyes, she sat forward. “Why would you call if you thought I would be asleep? Which I was. Asleep, I mean. Until you woke me up with your call,” she lied.
“You didn’t look like you were sleeping.”
“I’m learning to sleep with my eyes open, Ma.”
Meradi rolled her eyes. “Anyway, your sister called. She said she needed money to cover a new yearly fee. I need to keep things even between you two so I’m sending you a thousand keleps too.”
Ryya’s skin tightened with frustration. Her sister was a liar. Earlier in the day Wrey called with the same sob story. And yet, knowing it was a lie, Ryya still gave her the money. She knew the kind of life her sister lived. Plus the female couldn’t budget to save her life. And her piece of crap husband wasn’t any better.
It rubbed her raw to know right after Ryya transferred a thousand keleps to Wrey, her sister went to their mom looking for more. Rubbing her mouth, she shook her head. “Don’t you dare send me anything. I have money. I work, and I don’t need you to dip into your savings.” Her mother lived on the interest of an eight figure savings account. Ryya’s father had saved so he and her mother could travel when he retired. Too bad he didn’t survive the on-the-job accident. “Ryya… are you sure? I have the money.”
Her mother lived so far away all she could do to show her love by sending money. It both pleased and upset Meradi that Ryya supported herself.
“Ma, I have the money.”
Meradi frowned. “Okay.”
Internally she rolled her eyes at her mother. It was the same argument every time. “And even if I didn’t have plenty of money, Ma, I’m interviewing for a roommate tomorrow, so I will have more than enough.”
“Who are you interviewing?”
Closing her eyes, Ryya honestly couldn’t remember the name. “I don’t know. I forget. I’ve met with two others, but they didn’t like the room. Or maybe they didn’t like me.”
“How can you say that? You are beautiful. Your house has all those new things. What time are they coming over?”
Trap. Big trap.
Her mother would take a Nack Krawler and come for the interview.
“I forget. I’ll check my calendar in the morning.” Yawning Ryya added, “Okay, Ma, I’m serious. I need to go to bed.” “Okay, baby. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Night.” The call terminated and Ryya walked around the couch toward the central hall that intersected the kitchen, living room and back bedrooms. The carpet was brand new with a soft spongy texture that her toes gripped as she walked. It was like walking on squishy clouds.
Ryya absolutely loved it. And soon, she’d love her new patio too.
Read all about Ryya’s interview, and the crazy arrogant Demon who shows up. It’s a 90-minute Sci-fi romance – perfect for the woman on the go.
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Mali was in bed, reclined on three pillows, watching a movie that was on her to-watch list for two years. On her nightstand was an empty six-pack of Niffy drinks and the floor was littered with brown bags of left over greasy and fried diner food that she had yet to pick up.
There was a double knock on her bedroom door before her roommate, Cabute pushed it open and gazed at the littered floor. He had dark grey skin with dark black hair, dark black eyes and a pair of tusks at the bottom of his mouth that stretched past his upper lip. Classic Angny.
“Hey,” Mali said not bothering to apologize for the mess.
“It’s been a week.”
“And?” she said back wondering if he would tell her to suck it up.
His head tilted to the side. Cabute was a massive six-foot-seven beast of a man who fought at The Pit. He beat up other males for money and yet, in their apartment, he was the quiet one who seemed to be a mountain of calm-assertion. The kind of guy who only asks once.
“You going to come out of your room anytime soon? I know you’re not bawling your eyes out, the walls are paper thin and I would have heard you.”
He was a thousand percent correct; she hadn’t been bawling her eyes out. And she never would. Her ex-job was not worth her tears. She didn’t love-love it, and two…they were stupid for letting her go.
With the remote in hand she waved it over her mess and declared, “As you can see, I’m not morning my being fired. I’m literally throwing a weeklong celebration.” Pointing at the far container near her trash can she said, “See that Charlie’s BB-Q bag? I haven’t eaten there in over two years. Two years.”
Cabute lifted an eyebrow, as if to say, and your point is?
“Doubtful you’d know this, but Jama Marketing liked their executive females to look a certain way.”
“So stuffing your face is your way of celebrating?”
“Are you really asking me that?”
“Yes,” he said without sarcasm.
Was it cute that he didn’t understand? Yes, she decided, it was cute.
How did she get so lucky to room with Cabute? Oh yeah, by begging him to take her in with the last apartment manager had proposed sleeping with him to cover her rent.
Back then she didn’t have time to find a new one before she had to travel to another planet in the Federation to talk with a client about letting Jama Marketing to do their work for them. She was good at the numbers, the strategy, and the images.
What she failed at was being a poised, soft spoken-dominate personality with a small waist. They wanted the type of marketing assistant that would sit at the table, let the main group talk themselves into circles then come in, clear the air and tell them what they would do, and why it would make all the difference.
So again, she didn’t love the job, but she was good at marketing. So her food fest was… “Celebrating may be a little exaggerated, but yeah, I’m indulging in everything I wasn’t allowed to eat for the past two years.”
Cabute was silent for a moment before asking again, “Okay, but are you going to come out of your room anytime soon?”
“To do what?” she asked not sure if he was asking because he needed her to do something.
He shrugged his massive shoulders as if to say, you’re going to have to come out and see.
Mali powered off her Minky screen and threw off her covers exposing her bare legs and a t-shirt dress she doubled as a sleeping gown because it was soft and comfy. Cabute’s eyes zeroed in on her legs and she watched the hunger in his eye come and go.
His jaw set hard before turning away leaving the door open because he knew she would follow. Or maybe he hoped.
Either way, she got off the bed and checked her purple curly hair in the mirror. It was too wild. She pulled it back into a messy bun and then double checked that her sleeping dress was tight enough to hug her hips, and to dab on a touch of lip gloss.
Her purple eyes were sparkling which meant she was happy. They usually sparked when she was home.
Cabute was in the kitchen, Minky on the counter and he was scrolling through something. “What are your plans today?”
“Hey, you made me get up from my plans. I was fine to lay in my bed for another day,” she said looking around the apartment. No dust, not trash, everything in its place. “I’m assuming you don’t need help cleaning.”
“I didn’t make you do anything. I just asked if you were coming out of that stench you call a room.”
“That stench if called delicious food,” she said jumping up on the counter. “Do you have friends coming over? Is this your way of asking me to clean my room?”
“I don’t have friends,” he said not in a way that said he wanted them, but that he actively made sure not to have them.
“Are we not friends?” she asked teasingly, but deep down she wanted to know.
Cabute didn’t stop what he was doing and peered up. “I wouldn’t consider you a friend.”
“Ouch,” she said playing off the hurt.
Cabute went back to his Minky pad, and she took his silence as his way of saying you’re not that important. Especially after telling her they weren’t friends.
Sliding off the counter his hand shot out and pressed against her stomach. His warm and strong grip pushed her back up to her spot. “Where are you going?” The question sounded like a threat more than a curious statement.
Mali thought he would take his hand away, but he didn’t, and the touch was seeping through her thin fabric and warming her skin. It was the most intimate he had ever been with her and she, was equal parts confused and delighted.
Coming up with a quick answer she said, “Food shopping.”
Cabute looked at his hand on hers and then caught her eyes, as if he was waiting for her to push his hand away. Which she didn’t. “Wait until I finish and I’ll take you.”
“I know how to shop,” she said not wanting to tell him no, but also not wanting him to think she needed him to go.
A faint expression crossed his face before he said, “Every time you go shopping, you buy crap you never eat and I have to throw it out a week later.”
Mali scoffed at that but stopped when she realized it was true. Cabute must have seen her acceptance and then went back to what he was doing.
“What are you looking at?”
“Why?” Mali worried that he might leave her. What if he was tired of living with her?
He closed the screen and powered off the Minky pad. Then he wrapped his large hands around her waist, digging his finger into her skin, and dousing her blood with instant lust.
She didn’t know what he wanted, but she hoped his touch said, he was interested, because she was very interested. Had been into him before she even moved in.
Cabute’s eyes softened. “You going to answer me?”
“Am I ready for what?”
The way he was in her space, holding her hips, she figured he was asking if she was ready for a blitz. If so, she would like to brush her teeth and get all the food pieces out.
“Mali. We’re going shopping.”
“I need to get my shoes,” she said rushing from the kitchen to her room. He followed her to the doorway and watched.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said calmly.
But Cabute had a weight to him. A sense of raw animalistic strength that made her want to hurry.
“You didn’t have to,” she didn’t mean to sound snappy.
“What does that mean?”
“Means your very presence says hurry or else.” She finished strapping her shoes and stood up to make sure they felt right. Looking up she saw his unamused expression.
“Or else what? What do you think I’d do to you?”
Walking towards her door she said lightheartedly, “Hopefully not beat me to a pulp.”
His arm shot across the doorway, bending the frame slightly as the echo dinged through her chest. The movement was so fast she didn’t even see him move.
She jumped back.
He leaned in. His voice deceptively quiet. “You think I would hurt you?”
“No,” she blurted.
His arm fell and he closed the space between them. The radiating heat and irritation so thick it made her want to fall to her knees. A thick and callused finger reached under her chin, forcing her to look up.
“You are the one person who could stab me in the heart, and I’d let you.”
“I won’t hurt you Mali.”
Her knees still felt weak, but at the same time, her stomach fluttered at the declaration.
“You said we’re not even friends.”
He dropped his finger, giving the moment a drawn out pause before answering. “We aren’t. Friends are people you like but let them live their own life. I have no intention of letting you do your own thing – not anymore.”
“What does that mean?”
“My people don’t live with friends, co-workers or strangers. We live with our family.”
She wasn’t family. “I don’t understand. Are you asking me to move out?”
Cabute reached down and grabbed her hand, pulled it up and nipped the fleshy part. Her heart beat harder in her chest at the implications.
“I’m not asking you anything. I’m letting you know that I’m taking you as mine.”
**If you want to learn more about Mali and Cabute, visit Amaon.com or click here.**
Naff’s lids were heavy and his muscles ached as he lurched through the restaurant kitchen’s double doors with a helio-carrier topped with dirty dishes.
Hickory smokers full of ribs and brisket lined the back cooking area. The sweet undertone of Charlie’s barbeque sauce combined with the woodsy odor of cooking salty meat stung Naff’s nostrils.
Steam and smoke haunted the ceiling with an eerie white glow churning on the currents.
Passing the hot grills and fryers, Naff continued to the rear where an android moved to rinse, wash and sanitize the dishes. A second android took the clean plates and bussed them to the front where the cooks could refill them for the Seth-forsaken-filthy-mouthed Terrans that loved their nasty barbeque.
Naff hooked the helio-carrier to the magnetic bar and unloaded the top plate with three uneaten ribs. He glanced around to make sure no one was watching, took the ribs, wrapped them in the extra foil he had carefully folded in his pocket, and wedged them in his pocket. Then finished unloading the plates and utensils.
Removing the red-stained glasses, Naff’s Minky watch trilled. His alarm. Time to clock out.
“Naff,” a male voice called.
Naff turned his head, waiting for the Terran male to speak. He could never remember his name. Terran males all looked the same.
His own race made things easy to distinguish them apart. All Night Demons had distinctive bone formations. Some had claws or spikes along their spine. Others had sharp teeth or horns.
Naff was one of the Night Demons with forehead horns. Black ones. Ten inches long… with spikes.
A hellbeast. That’s what the Terrans call him behind his back.
The male Terran in front of him was short, thin and had baby soft hands. Whatever his name was, this one liked to think he was important. And he liked to tell Naff how to do his job.
If this Terran lived on Lotus Adaamas, Naff’s birth planet, the Demons there would call him a nip. In other words, a nobody.
“Hey, you need to clear off table sixteen.”
Not a chance. “Sixteen’s still full. They haven’t left yet.”
“I know. I have eyes. You need to go over there and start clearing their table, so they get the point. If I go over there, the two lovers will ask for more coffee. And they already drank a pot.”
Naff shrugged. “If they’re paying for it, make another pot.”
The Terran’s eye twitched. “We have other people waiting. You need to pick up the table.”
Last he saw, there wasn’t any line. “Not gonna happen, Chip. My shift’s over.”
“My name is Gage, and it’s not over if you still have tables to clean.”
Naff untied the black stain-free, fire-resistant apron and tossed it in the laundry chute. “You want them gone, Chappy, you do it yourself. I’m off.”
“You do understand that I’m the manager’s nephew, right? If you leave, I’m going to tell him you left with a table full of dirty dishes.”
With a yawn, Naff walked to the back door. On the wall was a hand scanner to clock in and out for each shift. Peering back at the arrogant Terran, Naff held his hand up to the device. “You do that.”
Naff turned back because he enjoyed pissing off the arrogant little nip. Just as predicted, the little Terran glared at him like he could actually do something, but while the Terran stood there sputtering with impotent anger, Naff had years of fighting in the bare-knuckle arenas on his side. Which was why he was tired and his shoulder ached.
Chap or Chip or whatever his name was, curled his upper lip and walked away. Naff would have laughed, but he didn’t have the energy. For the last three years, he worked non-stop just to make rent.
And rent kept increasing.
Outside pushed open the back door the emptied into a small parking alcove.
Adjusting to the dim light of dusk, Naff walked to the side street and used his Minky watch to alert nearby Nack Krawlers he needed a ride.
Several streams of unmanned hover crafts followed a single glowing cable above the buildings. A few seconds later, a Nack Krawler left the yellow-sky line and descended to the street, stopping right in front of him. The passenger door opened and a young Terran jumped out, saw him and slunk back into the Krawler with both arms pulled into his chest.
The idiot was wearing a black t-shirt with a red Charlie’s Barbeque logo on the chest. The same logo that was on several t-shirts in his drawers at home. Not that he wore them, he refused. He had a reputation to maintain.
“If I was going to hurt you, you’d already be on the ground with a broken neck. Now move.”
Amazingly, the kids’ eyes widened further. And he didn’t leave.
“Now,” Naff barked. The half-grown kid zipped forward, running in a wide arc away from him and the open door.
He sneered. Terrans.
Slinking into the seat, he programmed the navigation to his apartment building, then moved to the back bench, laid down and threw his arm over his eyes. A twenty-minute drive meant a twenty-minute nap.
The smell of barbeque sauce wrinkled his nose. After three years working in that Terran slop of restaurant, he still couldn’t stand the stink.
An audible growl resonated from his stomach followed by an acidic burb. He needed to eat, but he didn’t have time to stop.
That’s when he remembered the ribs.
Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he pulled out the foil and sat back up, already feeling nauseous. He needed the food, but this sticky sweet stuff was going to make him sick. He scraped away most of the sauce from the ribs with the foil and forced himself to take a bite.
Naff needed the energy or he would get his ass handed to him in The Pit tonight. Rent was due, and he needed to win to cover the bill.
Shine stood on the beach in Northend, clutching a handful of white daisies while staring vacantly at the reddish-purple ocean. His shoulders slumped, as was customary on this particular day. He stood in this spot each year and tried to think of something that would have made his mother proud of him.
Today was no different than all the others. There was nothing, not one thing that he had done to make a difference. Nothing that mattered. Another year wasted.
The acidic water tumbled onto the land like a clumsy child. It wasn’t graceful, and it was never-ending, hammering at the sandy shore. Like his guilt. Most of the time, he could push it down and focus on his life, his job, and the myriad things he had to take care of. But on this day, he allowed his emotions to rise, let himself remember how much he’d messed up, and how he couldn’t fix it.
His mother was dead, and he couldn’t bring her back.
She had been a working Terran, holding down two jobs from the time he could remember. Sometimes, she would slip in a third for a month or two. He shouldn’t be able to remember all those years ago, but his guilt didn’t let the memories die. He couldn’t forget that he used to be so angry that his mother spent all her time working instead of spending time with him. He felt she should have been there to watch him play with all the toy ships he created from scraps or look at the drawings he made for her.
The only time she had to spare was Saturday mornings. On those days, they would wake up early, eat breakfast at Tegan’s Diner, and then spend the rest of the morning at the beach.
Then it was back to hours alone, watching documentaries that Mom programmed on the Minky screen and locked so Shine couldn’t watch shows that were too mature for him.
When he was a teenager, he’d finally realized why his mother worked so hard. Their apartment was expensive, he ate constantly, and she owed a monthly allotment to the Demon in apartment 112 to ensure that nothing happened to him while she was away at work.
Shine didn’t know the Demon who had been hired to watch over him. Even after she’d told him about his babysitter, he’d never seen the Demon, not even once. He’d thought his mother was being ripped off and had told her to end the deal.
When he was a little older, he’d found out that she was paying the Demon a premium to leave them alone.
Shine had moved out of the house in his early twenties. He’d figured that his mother would be happy because she didn’t have to pay that much in food, and she could get a better place to live. But she never did.
But life had been starting for him and he didn’t have time for her. He had his own things to worry about.
Shine didn’t help her when something broke in the apartment, nor did he stop by or visit her at the beach on any of the hundreds of Saturdays that he knew she would likely be there.
Less than ten years later, his sweet mother died of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven.
The call from the landlord had nearly crushed his soul. Shine had ten minutes to get the body before they threw her in the acidic ocean. He begged the Demon to wait, but there was no waiting. The landlord said he had things to do and people looking to move in. The only thing Shine could arrange was for the Demon to let Shine dictate where she was thrown in and allow him to watch it on a Minky video.
When he saw what the ocean did to her body, Shine had lost the contents of his stomach. His self-loathing was so keen that he’d taken an entire month off and practically camped out in their spot on the beach, trying to apologize to the water, hoping that she heard it.
From that year forward, he visited her here on her birthday, and on the anniversary of the day she died. From starup to stardown, he thought of her—her smile, her voice, and their times together on the beach.
Terrans were weird about their birthdays. His mother had always made a big deal about it, so he thought it fitting that he continued to make it special.
Shine didn’t think she would be proud of him, though. Knowing that he made weapons that not only killed but also tortured their victims. His mother had always had a straight moral compass. He remembered the late nights when she would sit him down and explain right from wrong.
Shine peered at the horizon. The red star was half gone. Minutes later, he took the handful of flowers, reached back, and threw them into the acidic water as far as he could. The blue ribbon that held them together unraveled, and the happy, white flowers dispersed. The petals curled, sizzled, and turned black. As soon as they were gone, he mumbled, “Happy birthday, Mom.”
Turning around, he trudged through the white sand and rocks back to his Hampton Dwarf, his speedy two-seater hover vehicle. When he stepped onto the blacktop, he saw a red-haired male wearing a dark grey zip-up, leaning against Shine’s car like he owned it.
Shine curled – lip. “What are you doing here?”
Shine cut him off. “No.”
“That’s not very nice,” Karr said with his hands in his pockets, still leaning against the Dwarf.
Shine waved his hand over the door. It registered his fingerprints and slid up. To Karr, he said, “Move.”
Karr’s blue eyes shined with amusement. “You know what I’ve always liked about you, Shine? The fact that you’re so predictable.” Karr’s pale and freckled hand waved between Shine and the ocean. “For example, I know that I can always find you right here on your mother’s birthday.”
Shine was not impressed by Karr’s memory. He was also not stupid enough to actually try and make a move against Karr. In the years since they’d gone their separate ways, the Silk Demon had become a powerhouse on the island. Rumor was that nothing happened that Karr didn’t know about.
Silk Demons didn’t have any unique physical traits. Nothing that made them stand out. Silks looked like Terrans. Shine’s best friend, Zane, was a Silk, and he liked to present himself as a Terran to bring in more business. Terrans trusted each other, and most other races didn’t mind doing business with them. But almost no one trusted Demons.
Hell, he didn’t trust Demons. Z was the only exception.
The fact that Karr wasn’t asking any questions meant that he wasn’t looking for information. “What do you want?” Shine asked.
Karr’s mouth slowly curled before he chuckled. “You know what else I like about you? You’re a smart one.”
Shine was smart. But Karr’s remark was a dig against Z, and Shine wasn’t going to comment on it. Instead, he stood by the open door and waited.
Karr held out a mesh bracelet and smirked wryly. “It starts with this.”
“You want me to have a bracelet?”
“I want you to wear this bracelet.”
Karr looked at him. “Just take it.”
Shine didn’t like or trust Karr. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a gift or some other noble gesture. He knew that without a doubt. Whatever the bracelet did would benefit Karr in some way.
A part of Shine was curious, but that was something he needed to ignore. “And if I don’t?”
Karr pushed the bracelet into Shine’s hands and said, “Put it on. Wear it until I come back for it.”
“No,” Shine argued, letting the bracelet sit in his hand.
A deep rumble caused Shine to turn his head. A Grummer hovered slowly into the parking lot. Shine only glanced at it for a moment, but that was all it took for Karr to grab his hand.
Shine tried to pull free, but Karr slipped the bracelet onto his wrist, and it automatically tightened against his skin. Too tight. Shine shook his arm, but the cuff didn’t give. Cursing, he checked to see if he could take it off. There were no latches. The only thing he saw was the three white dots on the outer rim.
Shine bent his hand to see if it would stretch. Barely. He could see wires under the mesh. It was an interlocking system with remote access. The smooth feel said synthetic carbon not tungsten or iron. More importantly, it was not coming off until he figured out the remote frequency. Which he could do if he were in his lab. Hopefully.
The Grummer hovered three feet next to them without turning off. Shine widened his stance in case someone jumped out of the vehicle, and he needed to defend himself.
The door didn’t automatically open. Karr took four steps to the Grummer, waved his hand, and the door slid up and over the top. Inside sat a Red Demon holding a phaser gun against the temple of a female with short, light blond hair and blue eyes so bright they resembled polished topaz.
Karr snapped his fingers and pointed at the ground while saying, “Out of the Grummer, Alieena. Meet Shine.”
Alieena didn’t get out. She peered over at him and briefly made eye contact as she scanned his body. Shine refused to square his shoulders and preen.
“Shine, the Night Demon? How unoriginal,” she said derisively.
As far as insults went, basically being called boring was nothing. But coming from the beauty inside the car, it was insulting. Peering over at Karr, Shine said, “Your girlfriend’s a nip.”
Karr watched him closely, and Shine wondered if this was all a game. Because for the life of him, he couldn’t think of a reason for the female to be there.
“She’s not my friend. But she is my problem.”
“I’m not the problem,” Alieena snapped. “And it’s Nara. I don’t go by that other name. Ever.” Neither Shine nor Karr acknowledged her comment.
Karr reached up into the floating vehicle and snagged her wrist, pulling her. Nara’s arms shot out to break her fall. Shine’s stomach squeezed with concern. He promptly stepped forward to catch her and stop her from falling face-first onto the blacktop.
Her legs landed hard on the pavement, but at least he’d saved her face. With a scowl, he asked Karr, “Is there a reason you’re pulling females from vehicles now? Seems pretty lame.”
Karr looked to where Shine was holding Nara and smiled. “Sometimes, I need to remind people where they stand.”
Shine wondered if pulling Nara out of the Grummer had been a test of some sort. Dropping the female’s arms, he stepped back. “So, she knows she can be dropped on her face, now what?”
Karr looked inside the Grummer and held out his hand. The Red Demon held out a small, black oval device and clicked the button on the top. Shine’s cuff trilled. He looked down and noticed that the three white indicators were now red and blinking.
Karr gave the device back to the copper-red-skinned Demon. “These are warrior training cuffs from Angny. They’re meant to keep two gladiators together during battle to teach them to be aware of where their partner is. But for Alieena, it’ll keep her from leaving the planet.”
Shine looked down at the female. She was brushing herself off after her tumble out of the hover vehicle, and he noticed two things. One was that he could see down her v-necked silver blouse when she bent over, and her light grey bra had a small amount of lace that looked tempting against her fair skin.
The second thing he realized after moving his eyes from her breasts was that she was wearing an identical cuff.
Nara must have been watching him watch her because she said, “I was about to thank you for catching me…” Her glossy red lips curled slightly. “But I remembered that Night Demons are slimy little creeps, and you just proved that.”
“Excuse me?” Shine was amazed that someone would talk to him that way. She didn’t even know him.
Her blue eyes shifted to his jaw, and she snickered. “Your Night Demon horns, or whatever they are, are pretty small. I’ve heard that the smaller they are…the smaller your”—Nara gazed down at the junction of his legs—“is.”
All Night Demons had a bone abnormality. Most had horns on their head, spine, and face horns. Shine’s longest horn was three inches, and it didn’t even come close to his actual size. Any other Night Demon would have opened his pants to show her how wrong she was, but he wasn’t going to be baited by a snobby, high-class nip. Instead, he gave her a disappointed look.
Karr cleared this throat. He wasn’t even trying to hide his amusement. “I knew you two would hit it off.”
The female cut her eyes to Karr. “I don’t think so—” Holding up his hand, Karr cut her off and said, “Shut up, Alieena.”
Shine noticed the slightly dazed look on her face. He wondered if many people talked to her that way. Inwardly, he wanted to laugh, but he didn’t want Karr to think that he was on his side.
Karr continued, “I’ve made myself very clear to you. You finish the job, and you get to leave. Until you do that job, you’re stuck on Adaamas.”
Shine was about to ask what job the Silk meant, but Karr turned his cold and calculating gaze on him before he could. “She stays with you at night. During the day, she’s to be working on what I hired her to do. You will house her and feed her. After that, I don’t care. But she better be ready to work when my driver picks her up.”
Shine didn’t know what was going on, but he didn’t want to have to watch over a female every night. He had his own life, his own responsibilities. “I don’t babysit,” he announced.
“You do now,” Karr said, pointing at his face. To Nara, he said, “You try to run, that cuff will stop you. You don’t believe me, try it and see what happens.”
“Why aren’t you listening to me? I can’t take—”
Karr got into her face, stopping her from speaking. “Get it through your arrogant, entitled head. This is going to happen. You have no options but to do what I want.”
Nara shut her mouth.
Karr leaned down farther into her face. Shine had seen the male do this before. He knew that the Demon would laugh in her face to prove that he could do whatever he wanted, when he wanted. But he didn’t do that.
Lifting a hand, Karr brought down a heavy finger and flicked her forehead.
Nara’s head jerked back. “What the hell?”
“That’s for being a pain in my ass.”
Shine remembered watching moments like these a long time ago. Back then, he’d believed that Karr was only acting. Later, Shine and Z had learned that Karr was not pretending. The Silk Demon loved to annoy people.
Karr snapped his hand to the driver. “Lower the Grummer.”
The hovering vehicle descended the last three and a half feet to the ground, and Karr stepped in. Without looking back, Karr said out loud, “And just so both of you geniuses don’t do anything stupid, if one of you breaks the link, I will personally find you and rip out your intestines so I can feed them to you.”
Nara gagged. Shine peered over. Her lower lip quivered. “Gross, I got a visual.”
Shine didn’t say anything to that.
Time slowed as he watched the dark grey Grummer rise up into the air and speed out of the parking lot, leaving Nara and him alone.
Shine didn’t move at first. Scanning the parking lot, his eyes found their way back to the beach. He remembered his mother. Recalled that this was her day, and Karr had ruined it. The peace that Shine had hoped to find in the abyss of isolation was gone.
His day was effectively ruined. The memory of his mother’s favorite day was stained.
“Is there a reason you’re staring at nothing?” Nara’s voice cut into his growing exasperation. This was awful. One because he liked being alone, and two because he enjoyed silence. If the past few minutes were any indication, Shine had a sinking feeling in his gut that she was going to ruin both of those things.
Rubbing the cuff that was going to destroy his sanity, he said, “Get in the Hampton Dwarf and try to be quiet.” Shine growled.
Nara turned around and rolled her eyes at his vehicle, but she got in without protest. He programmed the navigator to take them to his apartment.
Minutes into the drive, he heard Nara say, “Just so you know, I already hate you.”
Shine looked over at her, taking in how she filled out her fancy blouse. Her body wasn’t thick or too slim. A perfectly trim size that no doubt left her firm but with softness around her breasts, hips, and thighs. No one looked that perfect unless they had the money to do so.
A simple gold chain with a grey and white inlaid charm hung around her neck. Gold was expensive, but it was the charm that said “money” as he watched the gem change from grey to pink. An Adroiz diamond. Even with the money he made, he would deplete his savings just to buy one half that size.
Nara was beautiful, no one would ever deny that. But her attitude was not endearing. Not that he would turn her down for a blitz, but he would ensure that she kept her mouth shut.
Responding to her rudeness, he said, “Just so you know, I don’t care that you hate me. And I wish I would have let you fall on your face. I’m the one who’s been screwed here. I have things to do, and watching you instead of working is going to ruin my schedule. So, whatever you need to do for Karr, get it done, and get out of my life. I have a couch you can use. But I don’t cook, so you will have to give me a list of things you want to eat or get used to eating takeout.”
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Rannn was sitting on a bench outside AdmiralOrin’s office. Back on Yunkin was suffocating with all the politics, the questions and requests to visit family. He couldn’t wait until he was back on his ship.
But first, he had to talk to his cousin, Orin to get authorization to claim a doctor from the academy. A doctor that would graduate with high honors in a few hours. Time was ticking and he had things to do. It was taking a great deal of energy to keep from barging into the office and tell, whoever Orin was talking to – to get out.
Orin’s office door opened and out walked a green-scaled Bolark. Admiral Armsono’s eyes leveled on him. “Captain Rannn, I didn’t see your name on any court sessions today.”
“I’m not on trial today,” Rannn responded.
The Admiral gave him a small side glance before walking away. Once he was out of ear shot, Rannn looked at his cousin.,“we need to talk.”
Orin swatted the air, gesturing for Rannn to follow him back into his office.
“When you say we I expect to have a say in the topic, but I have a feeling you mean, you have to talk.”
Rannn took a seat in front of the large desk with a single Minky screen. On the other side of the desk was a medley of pictures of his family, vacations to the ice lakes and a few of his children holding up fish they caught.
“It’s your lucky day because today you get to voice your opinion.”
Orin snorted, “What do you want?”
To the point, Rannn liked that about Orin. “I want the Numan.”
Orin’s eyes widened for a split second, then threw his head back and laughed deeply in his chest. Two seconds later he abruptly stopped and said, “You can’t have him.” The academy is hiring him as an instructor. They need him to teach what he knows and he will be re-writing the books, procedures – everything.”
“Who says he can’t update the procedures from a ship’s medical position?”
Orin sat forward putting a finger on the table, pressing down until the knuckles turned light grey. “The Numan has not only challenged our procedures, he’s created devices that heal. It’s so advanced we lost the first container., as in someone smuggled the healing tank straight out of the academy’s lab! It’s insane. He is not going to be allowed to leave the planet – not with all the valuable information he has in his head.”
“Exactly, he’s high valued and he will be treated like a lab rat for the rest of his life. You know that and I know that.”
Orin sat up straighter. “He won’t…”
Rannn cut him off with an raise of an eyebrow. “He will and you know it.”
“We’re Yunkins, we wouldn’t treat anyone like that.”
Rannn shook his head. “I have it on good authority the Admirals over the academy are keeping a close eye on everything the Numan does, where he goes, and who he can talk to.”
Orin frowned. “I’m sure that’s for everyone’s safety. He’s still a Numan. They are still a dangerous race.”
Orin was right it was for everyone’s safety – at first. But after years of being in the academy, they still were treating him like a hostile. Or at least, that was how Rannn’s mother described it. She was the one who asked him to rescue the doctor.
Orin shook his head, his eyes averted. “The Numan wouldn’t have the resources on your battleship, as he has here. We need him.”
Guarding the border between the Federation controlled space and the Outworlds was not for the weak hearted. His ship had survived hundreds of ship-to-ship attacks. The ship was midsized and keeping good crewmembers was hard. If the Numan was dangerous they would be far enough away from any real civilization that he couldn’t hurt anyone. If the doctor was what Rannn’s mother said he was, being on an active ship was essential. The Numan would get first-hand experience with a diverse crew, and impromptu dangers. Field experience was the best kind of knowledge.
But Rannn didn’t have time to explain it. He needed to get the Numan’s orders change and he needed them done before the beginning of the Academy’s graduation. “My mother contacted me and asked me to help the Numan.” Lowering his head, but not his eyes, Rannn added, “She also said that she asked you the same thing.”
Orin ran a hand over his right brow and rubbed. “Admiral Armsono has already asked for the Numan to work on a project he’s overseeing., By the time your mother sent me the message I already said yes to him.”
Rannn snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re too afraid to contact Armsono and let him know things have changed.”
Orin kept his face neutral, but Rannn suspected he was right.
Rannn stood and used his knuckles to tap the desk. “What did your mom always say?”
Orin glared up at him.
“A petty officer is the heart of the Federation. A commanding officer is their support. A captain is their protector. Character and skills are improved when a person is challenged and valued, not when they are belittled and ignored.” Rannn knocked one. “My ship needs of a medical officer. The ones I had are gone.”
“How convenient,” Orin shot back.
Rannn flashed back on the last medical officers he had. Just thinking about them made his fists tighten. “The last medical officers were mistaken that a Krant’s lethargic and agitated symptoms were a space cold. You know what it ended up being?”
Orin made a noise in the back of his throat. One that suggested, regretfully he could guess.
When Rannn had found out about the mix-up, he broke his office desk by beating his fists on it. Rehearsing the situation brought back all those memories. “You and I know that a Krants who works in the Federation are supposed to wear a hormone inhibiter at all times to keep them from digressing into their heat-season. His inhibitor was expired, no one checked. He was missing for two weeks, and his lead didn’t question it because they thought he was staying in his room recovering from his cold. For TWO WEEKS he held a female officer in his room, unable to leave, unable to contact anyone for help – and no one noticed.”
Orin cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“The Krant was a good crew member and I had to dishonorably discharge him because the medical staff didn’t do their job. I had to demote two leads for not checking on their crewmate and I had to transfer a female officer off the ship to a medical trauma facility to deal with what happened.” Rannn took in a deep breath as he stealed his emotions. “If my mother is correct, and the Numan is well versed in all races, and their sickness, then I want him on my ship.”
His cousin took in a shaky breath before rubbing his temples. “I am sorry for what you had to go through, but that was an honest mistake.”
Lowering his voice, Rannn said, “You don’t get to say things like that to me. You didn’t see the female’s swollen red eyes because she had been crying nonstop for days. You didn’t see the crushed look in the Krants face and how he couldn’t lift his eyes from the ground. YOU DIDN’T get the report that the Krant committed suicide as he was being transported back to his planet.”
Orin’s head fell forward, “damn.”
Rannn had said more than damn, when he found out. “Transfer the Numan to my ship. I’m attending the graduation with my mother. I will escort the new doctor to my ship that is orbit docked and waiting for me.”
Without looking Rannn in the eyes, Orin grabbed his Minky pad.
Rannn read the name of the Numan and took a good look at the student’s picture. The male looked young, thin with wavy brown hair. Next to his picture was the name Ansel.
The stone graduation building was cold and the entry was wet from all the attendees as they stomped the snow from their boots. The halls usually were illuminated with modern lights, but during graduation, the Admirals liked to burn the heavy torches. The orange and red firelight gave the walkways a sense of wonder.
It was a tribute to their ancestors that sailed the icy oceans and traveled the bitter cold, conquering the planet, and bringing all Yunkins under one authority.
Rannn could feel his mother’s hand wrapped around his forearm as he escorted her to the second row – reserved for the teachers of the academy. As her personal guest he sat next to her, watching the several hundred guests take their seat quietly in the auditorium.
“Were you able to get what I asked for?” his mother whispered out of the side of her mouth, but not turning her head.
“Of course, I did.”
“Good, good. He will be much better with you.”
Rannn wasn’t a hundred percent confident of that, mainly because he’d like to get his own impression of the Numan.
The Admiral that directed the school stood up and gave a speech about expectations and honor. After that another Yunkin stood next to a large translucent Minky screen that showed a picture of the students, their name and their duty station.
The class had hundreds of students like most years. But there was something missing from each student’s graduation sheet. Student ranking; anumber based on academic achievement and grades.
“When did they stop ranking students?” he asked his mother.
“This would be the first year. We had a meeting the last week and the Admiral thought it was impossible to account for a proper ranking since not all students studied the same information.”
Or the Admiral didn’t want a Numan with the highest ranking since the academy had started.
Ansel’s name was called and all the small hushed conversations stopped. The Numan walked with his head lowered. When the announcer read off Ansel’s duty station, the male stopped mid stride and regarded the screen, shocked.
The announcer cleared his throat and then muttered something about, that not being right, but glossed over it, handed Ansel his graduation coin and waved him to the other side of the stage.
“Mother,” Rannn began, but she cut him off.
“I know, you need to go, but use the back exit,” she warned.
His mother knew him well. And if she was paying attention to Admiral Armsono who was sitting on stage, tapping his heel as if he couldn’t stand to be on stage for one more minute, she knew how important it was to get a head start.
Slowly slipping down the row he exited the back way, trotting down the side of the narrow hall in effort to catch Ansel.
By the time he was in the great hall’s conference room his breaths were coming in quick pants. Ansel was surrounded by three academy security guards, not letting him out.
Rannn slowed to a walk, held up his arm and called, “Ansel.”
All four males turned.
“My name is Captain Rannn.”
When Ansel or the others didn’t seem to understand that importance, he elaborated, “I am the captain of Lowlett battleship.” AKA, your duty station. The guards were the first to move, keeping Ansel behind them.
Ansel remained still but his eyes darted between the three guards.
Rannn understood why the males were taking a defensive posture. They had not been given permission to allow the Numan out of their sight. With the quick change of the duty station, they were going to be even more suspicious.
When he stopped directly in front of them he pulled out his Minky pad, showed proof of his identity. He flipped the screen to the transfer orders signed by Admiral Orin. The orders had an addendum added, which Rannn pulled up after that.
“Now that you’ve been updated, I am taking responsibility of the Numan.”
The guards stepped back.
Ansel had not moved, and if Rannn was reading him correctly, the Numan didn’t trust him.
“I was told I would be staying on Yunkin. Why was my duty station changed?”
Rannn knew the three guards were curious too. It was impossible to lie, but explaining everything would break the confidence of his mother. So, he answered, “Because you’re the best, and my ship deserves it. I guard the border to the Outworlds, and we take a lot of hits. I need someone who can think on their feet, and keep my crew alive. Does that sound like something you want to sign up for?”
“You make it sound like I have a choice.”
The mild way Ansel spoke almost made it sound as if he wasn’t upset about the situation, but Rannn heard the words, even if the tone was casual. “You have a choice. You want to stay here and rot in a lab. I’ll get your orders changed. It may take a lot of explaining, but I can get it done.”
The Numan looked towards the exit and then at Rannn. “How securely will I be watched on your ship?”
Rannn understood why the doctor asked the question. And in a way Rannn wanted to keep an eye on the male until he could be trusted, but that wasn’t how he ran his ship. “I have many personal rules for my crew. One of the important rules is that I have to be able to trust them to do their job – as they trust me to protect them.”
“That did not answer my question.”
Rannn reached down and pulled out a knife from his boot, turning the handle so the blade flicked in the firelight. “You see this, I will cut your heart out if you end up experimenting or hurting my crew. If you are what you say you are, then the next time you see this blade will be when I’m using it to defend you from an attacker. In other words, if you’re loyal to me, I’ll be loyal to you.”
Ansel looked at the blade then at Rannn. “You’re a… strange Yunkin, and I think, despite your threats, that I’d like to work for you.”
Pushing the blade back in his boot, Rannn said, “Good, because I didn’t want to have to explain to Orin that I made a mistake.” Using his chin, he jerked it toward the exit.,“time to get your stuff and get the hell off this planet.”
Ansel snorted, but didn’t make another sound as they left the stone building.
Rannn’s body swayed as the Whisk Traverse crawled down the mountain. Rannn was in the driver seat even though he was merely watching the navigation screen instead of actual driving.
There was a puddle of water under his boots and he was sure the seat under his thick layer of pants was damp as well. The Whisk’s heaters were on full blast. Anything less would let the subzero temperatures creep in.
The academy dorm rooms were at the base of the mountain. Pulling off the main road he asked, “Which section are you in?”
“350,” he repeated thinking about his time in the academy. Those students who lived in 350 when he went to school were the Kirca Demons that the Yunkins didn’t fully trust.
Taking the road to the back of the building he stopped and let the Whisk continue to run. Rannn got out with Ansel and followed him to the first room. As he stepped inside the automatic lights activated and Rannn stood in the cleanest student room he ever saw. The bed was made, the corners tightly folded. The floor was clean and polished. Nothing on the walls, or on the counter.
Ansel walked straight to the closet, pulled up a black duffle bag, and moved it to the floor, opened it up and inside was folded academy uniforms, socks, undergarments and undershirts all folded neatly in the case.
“You never unpacked?”
Ansel pulled up two shirts and set them aside before answering, “I didn’t see any where to unpack.”
Rannn scanned the room and realized the Numan was right. There was no nightstand, no desk and no dresser. They gutted it leaving a bed, a chipped table and a single chair that didn’t match.
Ansel reached under the bed and something clicked. Then he pulled out a disk the size of the graduation coin, but it was round and smooth. The top part was lighter than the bottom black part.
The Numan’s hiding place? “What’s that?”
Ansel stuffed the object in his case and put the shirts back on top. “A prototype.”
Ansel stood up and tilted the case so the wheels activated. “I call it a medscope. I made another one before, much bigger, but somehow it broke and had to go out for repairs. Not that anyone told me about it until after it was gone. It never showed back up. I was told someone stole it. I’m more careful with who knows about my designs now.”
Rannn didn’t like how the Numan kept secrets from the school; not that he didn’t understand – he did. Orin said something about one of the Numan’s projects disappearing.
But something bothered Rannn, and he needed to know the answer before taking Ansel on his ship. “Do you regret applying to the Federation academy?”
Ansel’s eyes turned away. “I’ve wanted to quit every day from the beginning.”
Not reassuring. “What made you stay?”
Ansel raked a hand through his hair. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… your mom. She was my consulting doctor.”
“How would you know who my mother is?”
Ansel made face, “Because she has your picture all over her office, and whenever I picked something up quickly she always said, you’re smart – like my son, Rannn, he’s a captain now.”
It was almost amusing to hear his mother talk about him that way. His mother tended to talk to him like a boy, rather than an adult. At least behind his back, she spoke thoughtfully of him.
“I assume she is the reason I have been transferred to your ship.”
“She is,” he confirmed and then turned to the door.
Rannn led the way back to the Whisk and got in. Ansel pressed his hands on his thighs and announced, “I should warn you, there is a good chance your medical staff won’t like working with me.”
Rannn punched in the new destination into the navigations screen and pressed, confirmed. “I doubt it.”
“I’m not. Trust me, the second I step on your ship, the medical crew will try to get me to do things their way, which will be the wrong way, and we will argue and trust me when I say it will get ugly. I’ve fought with almost every teacher I had, and many failed me. The only reason I passed was because of a clause in the academy contract that states, if a student fails, we can state our case to the governing Admiral. Each time I failed, I was able to prove my point and he overrode the grade – pissing off the students and the teacher. I’m telling you this to warn you of what will happen.”
Rannn didn’t know about that clause, probably because he didn’t need to use it. He wondered if it had always been there, or if they rewrote the academy contracts. Either way he had to clear up Ansel’s misconception. “Currently you are the only medical staff my ship has.”
Because they had the time, Rannn rehearsed what happened between the Krant and the female officer. It wasn’t any easier to talk about, but he imagined that this was the last time he would ever tell this story. As he finished he added, the crew may have misgivings, but they will learn to adjust, especially when they see what you can do. And once we get them settled, we will hire support staff for you. Not transfer someone in that is above you.”
“I don’t work well with anyone who follows Federation medical standards. You will probably be uncomfortable where my science comes from and all the medical tools I will create. However, I vow I won’t do anything to hurt anyone. My Numan specialty is in healing.”
“Numan specialty? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.”
“Not all Numan’s are alike. Can we at least agree on that, right now?”
Rannn didn’t realize he held an entire race in that stereotype. Until right then he figured all Numans had the same medical interests and that they all worked in labs and experimented on people for sadistic purposes.
“I’ll agree to that,” he said at last.
“Thank you. But I’d like to explain what that means.”
Rannn pointed to the screen, where it read the estimated arrival time. “We have time.”
“Numan’s are higher functioning beings. We are like artistic geniuses. Except we don’t all have the same style of art or to better put it, the same interests.”
“And your interest is healing people?” Rannn asked.
At Ansel’s nod, Rannn followed up his first question with, and how long have you been healing people before you showed up to the academy?”
“From the beginning, and before you ask who I was healing I will be honest with you. My mother was one of those Numans that you hear about. I also need you to know, I never talk about it. So don’t ask. But just know that I have an undeniable need to keep people from suffering.”
Rannn took a long breath to steady himself. The Numan next to him was raised by the sadistic bastards that tortured people. Knowing that didn’t leave a good feeling in his gut. Did Ansel take part in that torture? Was he the Numan who healed the being after his mother ripped them apart? Thinking of the later, Rannn wondered if that left the Numan more than emotionally stunted. What if the male was also mentally unstable?
Of course anyone could look sane for a while, but Rannn was going to have to keep an eye out for any eventuality.
“You told me, you had to trust your crew to do their job,” Ansel said as he turned, leveling his light brown eyes at him. “Can I trust you, to not interfere with me doing my job?”
Using his words against him, Clever Numan.
“I doubt you trust me, and you know I have good reason not to trust you. If this is going to work, we are going to have to blindly trust right now.”
“You know what I find interesting? Is that you speak of blind trust instead of hammering in the concept that if we both act honorably, then we won’t have any issues.”
Rannn lifted a lip, “My father was an Admiral and my mother is a medical officer. One thing I learned growing up is, honor is interpreted differently from person to person.”
Ansel nodded, “I agree. Although I will be honest, I didn’t think any Yunkin realized that.”
Tilting his head, Rannn said, “Not all Yunkins are the same.”
And just like that, the Numan’s stoic expression cracked. His smile was genuine enough that it reached his eyes.
“I think, I’m going to like working for you.”
Admiral Armsono was waiting for him inside his ship. Rannn and Ansel had just crossed from the ramp to the cargo bay when the green scaled male stood with his feet apart, and arms crossed, on either side of him stood two Yunkin security guards.
Behind them stood Yon, a sour, indomitable, and insufferable pilot, that took his job and his title too seriously. Rannn believed it was because the Yunkin had been exiled after divorcing his wife.
The pilot kept his position in the Federation, but it was made clear he would never advance any further.
The council admirals thought Yon’s actions were dishonorable. That divorcing was a heathen practice. Rannn, who was married, believed otherwise. He’d never say the words out loud, but he wished he had the audacity to do the same to his wife. A wife who didn’t care about him at all. A wife who only married him to gain recognition of being a captain’s wife. And of course,she liked to make comments about being an admiral’s wife one day.
Rannn left those thoughts to the past when he noticed Ansel slowed. Not stopping, but drawing out the space between them.
As captain, he couldn’t afford to look weak. “Admiral Armsono, my ship is locking down and preparing to return to the boarder. I know you want the Numan, but the transfer has been approved.”
“He belongs in a lab,” the Bolark snapped. “His science needs tested, his methods have yet to be proven viable. You take him out to the far reaches of the universe and you can be sure, that male will experiment on your crew. Every professor has said the same thing about him–that he does not follow the rules. Every medical student must learn the rules before they can conduct proper studies to advance the science community.”
“I respectfully disagree.”
Armsono’s green face lightened with anger. “What is wrong with you? I just explained how dangerous he is? As a captain you are honor bound to protect each person on this ship. To allow the Numan aboard is a mistake. Do the right thing and reject the transfer.”
Rannn kept his eyes on the Bolark, but he saw a flash of red in his periphery. Without having to look, he knew it was the Red Demon, Pax.
His Minky pad pinged in his pocket and he knew without checking it was his second in command, checking to see where he was.
It was time to shut this down and get the admiral off his ship. Without picking him up and tossing him out which, he wanted to do.
“Admiral, I’m not going to reject the transfer, and I will not change my mind. The Numan and I have an understanding, if he hurts the crew, I hurt him. It’s simple. Now, please leave my ship, I’m already past my assigned take off time.”
Armsono took a step forward. “I’m not leaving without the Numan.”
Rannn closed the gap and whispered, “Unless he’s under arrest, you can’t take him. And he’s done nothing wrong in the past hour from his graduation, so I’d say… you are leaving without him.”
“I don’t know what’s motivating you do this, but I know it’s not honor. And the moment that psychopath hurts your crew it won’t just be him who gets discharged. I will make sure everyone knows I warned you about this, and you rejected my wisdom.”
Rannn bit back his response about Armsono being wise. Instead, he lifted his head and announced, “Time to go. Pax, escort our guests off the ship.”
Pax was at the admiral’s side, hand held toward the ramp, waiting for the Bolark to follow. When the admiral didn’t move, Rannn gave him a warning glare.
With reluctance he left.
Rannn pulled out his Minky and called his second in command. “As soon as the ramp is up, take off.”
Slipping the Minky back in his pocket he called over to Yon who hadn’t left. Rannn intended to ask Yon if he had something he wanted to say when Ansel made a noise in his throat.
“Huh… a half breed.”
Yon’s confident expression evaporated as his eyes darted to Ansel. “What did you say to me?”
Rannn was looking down at the doctor too. “Half breed?”
Ansel looked at Yon and then at Rannn as if he was looking at children. “He’s got Red Demon traits in his bone structure. What other Yunkin have you meet that has that curl in his shoulders and height. And his nose is flatter. Really, you didn’t know?”
Yon’s hand struck out and grabbed the Numan’s uniform jacket. Pulling him off the ground. “Shut your mouth.”
Rannn thrusted his hand between the two. “Let him go.” And when the pilot didn’t, Rannn yanked the doctor out of the grip and stood face to face–mostly, Yon did have a few inches on him. “Calm down.”
Yon’s jaw clenched.
Rannn was still processing what he heard. After all this time, he had no idea the male was part Red Demon. How he kept it a secret was beyond Rannn’s thought process at the moment. What he understood was how other Yunkins would view it.
A half breed.
Mixed blood was not something anyone should care about, but many would. Yon must have figured that out, and made it so no one knew. Or if they did, Yon found a way to silence them.
As captain, he wasn’t supposed to have biases… and for the most part, he didn’t.
Yon, should have known that, maybe he needed a reminder. “You kept it a secret for a reason. I’ll make sure it stays that way.”
Yon’s voice was harsh when he rumbled. “Make sure.”
Ansel cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Alright, what did I miss?” Pax said stopping next to the Numan. “Yon… you look more pissed off than usual? I need to know what happened so I can duplicate it.”
Rannn stepped back and looked at the Red Demon and saw the curved shoulders and flattened nose that Ansel was talking about. It was plain to see, now that he knew what he was looking at. Odd no one else noticed.
Grabbing Ansel by the shoulder he announced, “This is our new doctor. His name is Ansel.”
“And he’s a Numan, who according to a nasty green scaled Bolark, is going to experiment and kill us,” remarked Pax.
“Hurt me or my crew and I’ll rip your head off,” Yon threatened, then amended his threat, “but feel free to poison the Red Demon. I won’t tell anyone.”
Pax grabbed his chest, “Ouch.”
“Shut up both of you,” Rannn pushed Ansel’s shoulder forward. “I’m taking him to Medical. You two get back to work.”
“My work is to guard the crew so I’ll escort you, captain,” Pax said with a sly smile.
Yon mumbled something about being a nip before walking off.
In the medical bay Rannn and Pax stayed by the door as the Numan familiarized himself with the set up.
“Once we get settled, you can talk to logistics about hiring support staff.”
“I don’t need support staff,” said the Numan as he browsed through a drawer.
“Ships run three shifts that total thirty-six hours. You can’t be on call, all the time. So you’ll get staff.”
Ansel stopped and glanced at him. “I’m aware of Federation shifts. But you don’t understand, I’m not like you. I am a Numan, we don’t get brain fatigue. I work all shifts. I will live here, I will turn one of the operating rooms into my personal room where I can change clothes and shower, but other than that, I don’t need hours to rest.”
“No one could sustain that schedule,” Pax said standing next to him.
Ansel went back to searching the drawer when he said, “The professors at the academy couldn’t trust my logic because they had seen proof that their science was sound. It wasn’t until I could prove that my way also was true that they started to gang up against me. Because no one wants to be wrong, and even more,no one wants to have their truths shattered.” The Numan glanced up, this is the first truth I will shatter for you. It’s up to you to decide how you take it.”
Rannn on the other hand had to confront the candidness of the Numans words. Rannn was a thousand percent sure no one could work all three shifts. But if he put his foot down, he would be acting like the professors. And his mother trusted that he would protect Ansel and let him thrive.
“Fine,” he said reluctantly. “But if you crash out, I’m leaving you where you fall.”
Ansel’s lip twitched.
Then something else crossed Rannn’s consciousness. “The first time you misdiagnose a crew member, I’ll consider that a sign of fatigue.”
Ansel shut the drawer and took on a tone of contempt. “Fatigue is a disruption of proper systematic execution of conscious decisions. Symptoms include reduced mental and mechanical executions. For example, Terrans suffer headaches, dizziness, weakness, a reduced immune system, blurry vision, poor concentration and extreme hallucinations. Yunkins, suffer reduced empathy, appetite loss, bellows of rage and increased aggression and sexual desires.”
Rannn had suffered those when he pushed himself during battles. Mostly his appetite disappeared and aggression with people that were acting stupid.
Ansel continued, “Numans have superior mental abilities because our bodies can withstand longer intense activity with shorter rest periods. Your circadian rhythm is thirty-six hours. Mine is one hundred and four hours. And even then, I only need thirty-minutes of rest. So I will agree to your terms because I don’t misdiagnose.”
Rannn didn’t have a response so he kept silent.
“You forgot to mention how Demon’s look when fatigued,” Pax said.
Ansel’s lip twitched again. “You mean Kircas.”
“We like the term Demon. It sounds scarier.”
Ansel lifted his head and lowered it slowly as if he was willing to concede the name. “Demons, will become reclusive when stressed.”
“Hate to burst your all-knowing bubble, but that’s not true. I’ve been stressed and I never found a corner to hide in.”
Ansel tilted his head. “Demons for the lack of a better word are thick headed. Your culture is harsh, which makes full grown Demons mentally, physically and emotionally daunting. I doubt, you’ve ever been fatigued.”
Pax looked over at him and grinned. “What he means is that I’m pretty much a perfect specimen.”
Rannn rolled his eyes, but also thought the assessment was on point. Out of all his crew members, he could depend on the Demons to not freak out during an attack. Interesting, it took the Numan to point out something so obvious.
“I like him. Especially knowing he pissed off Yon in a matter of seconds. You gotta tell me what he said.”
“No,” Rannn said to Pax and then peered over at Ansel. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Ansel nodded, but Rannn doubted he would ever need anything. Rannn was going to give him a week to settle in then he would come down and check in on the doctor. And he would continue to do so, because Rannn cared about his crew. He doubted anyone was going to befriend the male. And everyone – regardless of race, needed someone to care about them.