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.
Below is an interview, written in second person to give the interview an intimate feel.
You’ve read about him in the Federation archives. At a hundred and twenty years old, he’s the youngest most distinguished Yunkin, with a promising career. You looked at his picture more times than necessary. Piercing blue eyes, pale white skin with icy white hair. His Federation photo had not been updated to show his scar, but even if it did, it wouldn’t take away how striking he was. Something about his picture, no, his eyes kept bringing you back. Something that implied, he’s not what he appears to be. Of course that’s why you suggested the interview, but you never thought you’d be right here, with him.
He stays seated and greets you with a silver mug filled with dark coffee. This is the first interview of your career where a backup audio technician didn’t come. Trying to smile, but feeling nervous you take the mug with two hands so you don’t do something embarrassing like drop it.
You sit adjacent and try to pull your thoughts together. This is your job, you know how to do this. Taking a sip you taste the bitter drink and swallow it down. Black. No sugar or creamer. Nasty.
“Thank you,” you say.
Rannn takes another drink. “You don’t like it?”
“Black’s not my favorite, but it’s not as bitter as coffee usually is, did you brew this or get it made?”
“I made it,” he said without elaboration on what planet he bought it from.
“How do you take your coffee?” you asked stretching your neck to see inside his cup.
“The same way I made yours.”
Nodding you try and think of something causal to talk about. Something to get him talking freely without short and clipped answers. “Can you cook? If so, what is your best dish?”
He looks away and shrugs. “I’ve been with the Federation for over fifty years. I don’t cook, but I can warm up a bag of food like the best of them.”
“Over fifty years,” you repeat respectfully, “You must like being a part of the Federation. What’s your favorite part of the job?”
Rannn sets the mug on his knee. “Doing what needs to be done.”
That’s it? You’re a little disappointed in that answer. Probing forward you ask, “What’s your favorite time on the ship?”
“Any of them.”
His eyes wonder for a moment before answering, “I don’t think I’ve had a favorite time on any of my ships because there is always a mission, there’s always someone in trouble, or dying. But for a few hours after a mission, I drink with my W&T Commander. He’s good company, and he usually supplies the drinks.”
You knew about his crew. Enough that you were sure who he was talking about. “You drink with Pax after your missions.”
He looked over a gave one nod.
“What made you pick this path out of all the others?”
Rannn looked away, and you thought you saw a slight eye roll. “It’s what Yunkins do. We join the Federation, we get married, we have a family, and the process starts all over again.”
There was enough sarcasm in his tone to make you wonder if being in the Federation wasn’t his dream. But you decided not to press that topic. Instead, you wanted to address marriage. Rannn was married, but now he was a widow.
No one knew why he hadn’t taken another wife, and there were plenty of females interested, but as far as you had found out – Rannn never responded to any message that asked about getting married again.
Pushing a little out of your comfort zone you asked boldly, “How would you describe your type of woman? Or better yet, what attracts you the most?”
“Bloody Seth…” he said shaking his head. He didn’t answer right away. In fact, he scratched his brow and even grunted. “I won’t be accepting any wedding offers, if that’s where this is going.”
“Nope,” you cut in quickly. “I’m just curious.”
“Right,” he said mockingly. “I’m not sure what you want me to say. I like all kinds of females. Tall, short, thin or thick, they can be anything so long as they are levelheaded. Since I have no interested in getting married, I don’t care much about looks, I just want to make sure that if I blitz them, they won’t try to pull me into a love trap.”
“How do you maintain the distance between being a friend to some crew members and being the captain of the ship?”
Rannn’s snort turned into a chuckle. “I don’t know if I do. I’d like to think I treat everyone the same.”
“Are you happy being the captain on Garna or would you exchange it for a small ship -with a small crew that you know and can depend on- to go out and explore new worlds?”
Rannn looked over and this time you noticed he was really looking. Not in a sexual way, but in away that said, how clever are you?
“In the Federation, I get told where I go. There’s no point in fantasizing about another crew or ship.”
A polite answer, but not one that said what he wanted to say. Interesting.
“If you could be any other race, what would you be?”
He frowned. “I’ll always be Yunkin. Even if a Numan took me and stuck my brain in a Grach’s body. I’d still be who I am.”
A man with Honor, you said to yourself. And in the last few minutes, you heartedly agreed.
“What do you do for entertainment, other than drinking?”
Rannn picked up his coffee and took a sip. His voice was low and you almost didn’t hear it when he said, “I read.”
“What do you read?”
He nodded his head one way then the other. “Whatever looks good.”
Good Seth of Stars, he was the worst interviewer. “Okay, then what weapon do you prefer in close combat, or do you rather fight with your fists?”
“In a fight you don’t worry about your preference. You use whatever it takes to stay alive.” His tone was dark and omniscient. You knew he had a blank spot in his record for about seven months. During that time, he had been a fighting slave on the Angny planet. It was a brutal time where most of his crew died.
Letting that topic die, you ask, “What is it you’d like to do, but can’t in your current position as a captain?”
“If you are asking if I want to be an Admiral one day, the answer is no.”
That wasn’t what you were asking but understood what he was saying. Captain Rannn wasn’t ever going to take another position. Or at least not anytime soon.
Checking the time you had about three minutes left. You set the coffee down on the large wooden stump. “Well, my time’s about up, so I guess my last question is, what is your goal in life? What do you expect to do to get there?”
He let out a long breath and peered over at the icy river. One moment passed and then another. Rannn set his empty mug down on the stump and stood up.
You followed wondering if he wasn’t going to answer you. Then just before you were about to say goodbye he said, “My goal is to die and old father. And I have no idea how I’m going to get there.”
Amee checked the time on her Minky watch as the androids continued to unload the shipment from her hauler. Small rolling bodies with long pincher arms moved faster than the usual dock workers.
The hotel must have got an upgrade, she guessed.
Her dark bronzed tug swayed hard against the dock as a baby wave hit at the right moment. Her stomach didn’t lurch or even notice the jerk. She was a Dirth – a descendant of the native people.
Her small feet and ankles adjusted easily to the constant sway of the ocean. It was normal and comforting to be in motion. The two times she ventured to land to meet with potential buyers, made her sick. The ground was hard and unyielding and she decided she didn’t really need the wobblers money after all.
When the androids finished removing the fresh fish and ocean fruit, they sent a transmission to her Minky alerting her that the order was complete.
Amee hit the hatch button and the top cover slid over the ship, sealing her in. She took the stairs to the lower levels heading for the bridge. There she used the electronic screen to depressurize. The ship sank further under the waterline. Welcoming her home with ease.
As soon as she was deep enough Amee took the hand controls and directed the rig to her next destination.
It was a free-floating platform that was a mile in diameter. The Dirths that lived on the platform lived in small spheres underneath. The tents they erected every morning were colorful and usually adorned with strings of pearls, coral and shiny stones. They vendors sold ocean fruit, fish medicine, and all the oceanic items a water living person would need.
Amee was late to the market, and the underwater dock was full. She found a spot on the top deck near the landing pads.
Just as she opened her hatch she heard the high pitch whine of a flying ship. Peering over her shoulder the long-nosed craft settled on a landing pad nearby. She rolled her eyes, not understanding why anyone would want to live in the air. It made no sense.
Stepping from her tug, on to the dock, she secured it with two-inch thick rope and then headed for the main walkway. At the intersection between the ship docks and landing pads she neared, two males. They came from the air ship.
Both males were tall, but one caught her eye. Not because he was a friend but because something about him was… different in a way she couldn’t understand visually, but her instincts told her so.
He looked like the kind of guy who would sink faster than an anchor. Dense with wide shoulders and thick muscled extremities. There was also a strange scent in the air and without knowing, she knew it was him.
Even more curious was the fact he had stopped to stare at her.
It took a moment to realize she had stopped first, and he was responding to Amee’s unusual reaction.
Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the market, and sped up to make sure she drew out the distance between the stranger. Amee should have been embarrassed, he was probably a wobbler, or worse, someone from another planet. She didn’t associate with others unless it was for business.
But there was something about him.
Amee used the first tent to stop and glance back without being too noticeable. The male wasn’t light on his feet, and she caught the uneasy steps of being on moving ground.
Snorting at his absent sea legs, she turned back to the owner of the tent who was giving her a tilted glance. “What’s caught you eye, Amee?”
“It amuses me to see wobblers walk on the planks. They look so uncomfortable.” It was a non-answer, but true enough.
The woman, Hesel, nodded like a patient old parent that knew her child was trying to hide something. Hesel’s withered fingers wriggled in the air, slowly descending to a newly made batch of necklaces. One finger pointed, to a black pearl and coral necklace. “This one, is calling for you.”
Amee looked over the long string of abnormal shaped dark pearls and chunks of coral. It was a pretty but it wasn’t calling to her. She would have felt the pull.
The stranger and his companion stepped up beside her. She could feel the weight of him from the give of the planks under their feet. Her insides sparked in delight at his nearness. She inhaled slowly, filling her lungs, taking in the surrounding scent of him. It was a mixture of morning after a rainstorm and bokah wood.
She had no idea how a wobbler would smell so good, but she wasn’t going to complain.
“Hello wobbler. How can I help you?” said Hesel with a warm sun-tanned face. “Something special caught your eye? Or are you looking to give a special someone a rare gift?”
Amee tried to keep her expression still but she couldn’t help the small smirk. She should have walked away, to give him privacy with his purchase. But she couldn’t, not yet, Amee wondered if Hesel could find out what drew the man here.
Hesel was old, older than she looked and she had an annoying habit of knowing things that would happen, before they did. Or at least, that’s what Amee was told.
“Wobbler?” the stranger asked.
“It’s what we call those who wobble when they walk on water,” explained the woman.
“And what do you call those who aren’t wobblers?”
The woman cut her eyes to Amee before answering. “There are some wobblers that leave the land to sing with the sea. We call them harpins.”
“Are you a harpin?” he asked casually, but Amee was sure there was something underneath the question.
The woman touched her delicate handmade jewelry, tapping the tops as if she was thinking about the answer. “I’ve known the sea a long time, if I ever was, I have forgotten.”
The male moved his stance as a medium sized wave lifted them up several inches. When the planks were even he said, “Memories are a fragile thing. I understand.”
He turned to leave, and the woman called out, “Wait, before you leave. I wonder, if you can tell me which necklace would look best on my friend?”
Amee made a sound at the back of her throat warning the female Dirth. Giving gifts was a dangerous thing. It wasn’t done, because once you gave a gift, the person who received would have to repay. No matter what.
Hesel smiled at the male, ignoring her warning. Amee wasn’t the type to let things go, so she decided to put a stop to it. Looking into the male’s eyes that were peering down at her she said sternly, “Don’t.”
His eyebrows pulled together. “Is there…
Hesel cut him off. “She’s stubborn. Forget what I asked. Are there any you like most? I will give you a good deal for it.”
He scanned the items, reached down and picked up the black pearl and coral necklace. “This one.” Pulling out a few coins he dropped them on the table. More than what the necklace was worth, Amee was sure. Then he said took her hand and dropped the necklace in her palm. Leaving the gift in her possession.
“This one will look best on you,” his voice was choppy, as if he was uncomfortable and yet determined.
Her heart sunk or maybe it was her jaw.
The horrible sneaky woman sucked in a breath, but Amee caught the smile.
“You don’t like it?” he asked letting go of her hand.
Closing her fingers over the gift she looked up to the male, dreading the responsibility in having to explain the consequences of his actions. But there was something in his eyes…a knowing.
Wait… did the know what he did? The twitch of his lips said so.
“What do you want?”
His expression never changed, but Amee was sure she saw his eyes lighten with victory.
Amee shoved her necklace in her pocket already possessive of the dark and beautiful thing. It was long enough to fit around her neck twice just like her old necklace she wore for two years. The string thinned and during a dive she lost it.
Foolishly she had wanted to replace it with something identical to it. But the black necklace would be better because it wasn’t a replacement, it was new. It was going to look great against her bronzed skin and she couldn’t wait to wear it.
Unfortunately, she didn’t want them to know she liked it so it would stay in her pocket.
The gift was good and she would repay as best she could. “A map to where?”
“I’ll explain on my ship.”
Amee hoped the stranger wasn’t going to ask her for a map to the underwater cities. There were five that she knew of, on this side of the sea. “Even if I drew you a map of the Dirth cities, you wouldn’t be able to make it. Let alone get in. Pick something else wobbler.”
“It’s Calo,” he said firmly, “And I didn’t say I wanted you to draw me a map of the Dirth cities.”
So just one? She guessed.
“Don’t ask my Amee for a gift, she can’t give,” said Hesel watching them with a predatory gaze.
Calo, didn’t respond to the old woman, he kept his eyes on her. “Amee?” He spoke her name as if he was testing to see if he liked it. Or maybe it was her, who was deciding if she liked her name in his mouth. “I won’t ask, what you can’t give. But you need to come back to my ship and I’ll explain.”
Why was he being so secretive? And how did he know she could give him the map he wanted?
And why was she staring at his mouth when he talked?
Looking away she looked over the vastness and centered her thoughts. “All my maps are in my navigation system. Going to your ship would be a waste of time.”
“Fine, we can talk on your boat.”
Amee looked back at him nodded in her agreement then said, “But first I have something I need. I will meet you back here in a bit.”
Turning from Hesel’s tent she walked down the planks of the floating market. From the sway of the boards she knew Calo was following her. Maybe he was afraid she wouldn’t honor the gift she owed him. It was rude of him to think so.
Amee stopped at a tent with a small pile of tools. She scanned the items looking for the specific instrument she needed.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“What kind of tool?”
Looking up at him she saw the underlining impatience. “It’s a tool that we use underwater, not in the air. So, I doubt you’d know it.”
An eyebrow rose. “Try me.”
The owner, of the tent looked between the two rubbing his hands. “Wobbler, hello, hello. Looking for something in particular?”
Calo broke their connection to answer the man, and Amee used that as an exit.
Amee stopped minutes later, when she thought she spotted one, but at a second glance it wasn’t.
She found a stinger in a scavenger tent. She made a sound of interest to alert the owner. Sometimes Dirth’s made noises rather than used words. The owner she knew was not from her side of the ocean, so his return noise was higher pitched than her low one.
Grabbing the stinger she inspected it, looking to see if it would still work. She couldn’t ask outright because it would be rude. A person bought item as is, not to make sure it was in perfect working order.
Deciding to keep it she caught the male’s eyes and gave one huff.
He held up three fingers.
Amee didn’t move and didn’t give back the item. Her silence would let him know she didn’t like the offer.
Frowning he held up two fingers.
Amee reached in her pocket to get the two coins when Calo leaned over and laid down three coins.
The old Dirth looked up with a toothy smile. “Very good, wobby.” The male picked up the coins and backed up, as if he was afraid Calo would realize he paid too much.
Her skin tightened with anger. “What is wrong with you? You already have a gift. Demanding gifts, will give you bad luck.”
“I know what that stinger is worth, and I think the man deserved more than two gold keleps.”
Amee didn’t know if he was being truthful or not. But she did know that she had to put a stop to the gifts.
Dirth’s didn’t go around telling of their culture secrets, but there were some who knew about it. What she was certain Calo didn’t know was that giving three gifts in one day was a sign of intention.
A sign that you wanted to mate. If the female accepted the gifts, then she showed that she accepted the matehood.
Pointing at his chest she said, “Turn around. We’ll go back to my ship and talk. But no more gifts, wobbler.”
The male didn’t turn, he lowered his voice when he said, “It’s Calo.”
“Calo,” she said back letting him know she understood he didn’t want to be called a wobbler.
Calo’s tone didn’t soften as he said, “It’s going to be a long talk, we have two gifts to go over. We’ll talk in my ship and then you can show me the maps on yours.”
“I’m not getting in a flying ship.”
He tilted his head held up thee more coins, silently threatening more gifts.
She grabbed his hand to cover the coins, “No more gifts, Calo.” To her surprise she didn’t take her hand from his. Holding him she watched and waited for him to agree to her terms. To agree that he wouldn’t buy her anything else.
There were on a Dirth market, and if they witnessed his actions she would be expected to accept him. Even if he wasn’t giving gifts to mate, but to get her favors.
Calo was the first to move and return the coins to his black utility vest. “We’ll talk on your boat, but if we need to go to mine. We do that.”
“If I get on your ship, I’ll throw up. I can’t handle flying ship.”
Calo’s eyes flashed for a second before saying, “You get sick being in spaceships?”
“They are unnaturally still.”
The side of his lips twisted up. He was laughing at her.
Amee refused to let a wobbler laugh at her. Her condition was natural or at least she knew her mother had suffered from the same thing.
When the next wave rolled them high, she decided to teach Calo, a lesson. She leaned into the fall knowing he would wobble. If she timed it right, he would fall overboard.
On cue she stomped the wood boards as they swayed back down.
Calo raised his arms, jerked once and then proceeded to fall. She watched and then the other male cursed and proceeded to take off his boots.
She was about to ask what he was doing when she realized Calo was not swimming. He was sinking.
Bad luck to let someone drown. If he died, she would carry his ghost as a curse.
Amee dove in, eyes wide as she kicked her powerful legs. Calo was sinking fast, not even trying to swim, he was messing with his stupid vest.
When she got closer he looked up and stopped moving all together.
Pushing her legs, she kicked faster to catch up.
She grabbed the vest and pulled. Kicking her legs she thought she was swimming up, but she wasn’t. The water was still getting darker.
He was too heavy.
Turning back she looked him over and then wrapped her legs around his waist to keep them connected while she check out his bulky looking vest. There was something inside… coins. Way too many coins.
She reached to her boot and pulled out her diving knife and cut the thing off. They stopped sinking, but checking the light from the surface she knew he was too far from the surface.
Amee touched her mouth with her fingers twice and then tapped his. She hoped he wasn’t too dumb to understand that she would give him her extra air.
He shook his head and pointed to the surface.
He didn’t want her air? Did he want to suffer?
Unwrapping her legs she started to kick again. Pulling him with all her might. As Dirth she was a natural swimmer. She also had bigger lungs. Transferring oxygen wasn’t uncommon and she knew he had to know that.
By the time they were almost to the top Calo struggled to swim next to her.
She could see the pain in his eyes. He needed air.
Without asking, she covered his mouth and gave him what he needed. He grabbed her arms and squeezed. She could have sworn he was going to push her way, but another moment later he pulled her close and took her gift.
When her lungs were empty she pulled back and then pointed up. He didn’t look happy, but he was going to have to get over it.
They broke the surface a moment later and Amee took a deep breath with a smile. The dive invigorated her senses. She almost felt light leaning back and spending the day floating. But then it hit her – she gave him air.
Oh, he wasn’t going to like that. Amee smiled bigger as Calo swam over hand to the plank.
“You okay, Calo?” his pale friend asked reaching out.
Calo turned right then and she saw his disappointment. He knew she gave him a gift.
Shrugging she said, “Opps.”
His face hardened, as he reached back, grabbed her upper arm and pulled her to the planks. “Opps? You think it’s funny?”
“My gift cancels out one of yours.”
The friend pulled her as Calo pushed her and she had never felt so helpless and amused in her life. She was a Dirth. She had been getting in and out of the ocean – by herself – for years.
But it didn’t hurt to let them. When she was sitting she told the friend, “Thanks.”
Calo pulled himself up… expertly. Which was strange considering he wasn’t swimming when he fell in.
Wait…something wasn’t right.
“You were down there for a while,” the friend said.
Calo reached down, pulled her up and then kept his hand on her upper arm. “The vest was heavier than I thought it was. Amee cut it off and then kissed me to give me air…the idiot.”
Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Excuse me? I saved your life and I’m the idiot?”
“I’m a Grach, you can’t kiss me.”
“I did not kiss you. I gave you air.”
“Same thing,” he snapped back.
“No, it’s not, you ungrateful…” and she let the word wobbler stay unsaid.
Calo’s nostrils flared and she could tell he was holding back words. When he did speak again it was soft, but the stiffness in his body made the words colder. “You don’t get it. You didn’t save me. You doomed yourself to an addiction that will never go away.”
Amee didn’t believe him. A lifetime addiction? Not likely.
Calo scanned her eyes. “Yeah, your pupils are dilated. Not too bad though.” He looked down at her hand and then told his friend something too low for her to hear. A moment later the friend left and Calo turned back to her saying, “I have some pills that will help with the withdrawal, but you have a nasty week ahead of you.”
She wanted to roll her eyes, but he spoke sincerely. It would be rude to say he was crazy. “Okay, thanks for telling me.”
“You don’t believe me, but you will.”
She nodded, albeit a little patronizing.
“Wobbler?” called Hesel rushing down the way, “What happened?” The old woman was tinkling as she walked. Beads hung from her neck, wrist and even on her clothes. Amee grumbled to herself at how worried Hesel was acting. It wasn’t like Amee would drown.
“You fell in?”
Amee was so stunned she couldn’t speak. Did the old woman really ask if she fell in? As if she was a child?
“I fell,” Calo said. “She came in after me…” he stopped talking when Hesel moved in closer, eyeing Amee with a frown.
Amee wanted to slap the woman’s hand from touching her face, as if she was looking for signs of distress.
“I’m fine,” Amee said a little grumpier than she intended.
Hesel looked up to Calo. “What happened to her? She’s never like this.”
Who was Hesel to say that? She didn’t know her.
“My vest was too heavy and took us down pretty far. On the way up she,” Calo pointed to his mouth, “gave me air. The thing is, I’m a Grach, which means my skin, my mouth – everything is addictive. She got a little of my gramones. Not enough to last, hence the reasons she’s getting cranky. Soon she will feel the full effects of the withdrawals.”
Hesel looked him over and then at his hand on her upper arm. “If your touch is addictive, why are you holding her arm?”
Calo looked at his hand as if he too wondered why he was holding her. “It’s best if I walk her back to the ship.”
“My ship,” she said.
He gave her a look that said, yes, I know.
“I’ve never heard of a person having this ability,” Hesel said. “But I know that she’s repaid her debt to you by giving you the sacred gift of air.”
“He bought me a stinger,” she said.
Hesel’s eyes widened. “A second gift.”
“Not a third gift though, I told him no more gifts,” Amee said to make sure the old woman knew that it wouldn’t go that far.
Hesel nodded understanding.
Amee pointed to the docks and the direction of her tug. “Let’s go get this over with.”
Hesel was blocking the way. The old woman turned and led the way back to the entrance. Every few steps she would turn back and look at Calo and his grip on Amee’s arm.
The walk didn’t take long. They reached the intersection and Calo stopped as his friend walked up. “Thank you, Sem,” he told his friend taking a box. Then he pushed it in her hands. “An extra stinger for the one you lost coming to save me.”
“Oh,” she said taking the box and then saw Hesel’s face fall forward with a loud exhale.
Wait… “No!” Amee yelled violently dropping the box as if it burned her.
“Three gifts, Amee,” Hesel said solemnly.
“No!” Amee said, grabbing Calo’s shirt. “Take them back or we…
Hesel cut her off, “It’s too late. You took the box.”
Amee pulled out of his hold, angry that he put her in this situation. The wobbler didn’t understand their ways. She shouldn’t have to honor a tradition that he didn’t understand.
“Take it back. Or we become mates.”
“Mate?” he said like it was a foul word.
“Mate,” Hesel confirmed. “Giving three gifts in one day is an act of intention. If the Dirth accepts them, the matehood is confirmed.”
Calo looked between the two of them as if she was crazy. Lifting his chin he declared, “My kind does not mate that way.”
He reached down and grabbed the box but he didn’t give it back to her.
“How do you mate, then?” Hesel asked coyly. “Do you share your addictive gift with your chosen mate?”
Calo hesitated then sharply said, “Yes. But this was an accident. She didn’t know.”
Hesel pointed to Amee’s arm. “Amee would say the same about you. You didn’t know. But here’s what I see… you continued to give her your addictive gift; from the beginning, you touched her hand to give her the necklace. And since she has emerged from the water, you didn’t let her go. As if, her skin calls to you.”
Calo leveled his gaze. “You can’t force me to mate.”
“I am not forcing it,” Hesel said as she dug her hands into the long flowing skirt. The old woman snatched Amee’s hand, pressing her old withered thumb on the top. Quickly she did the same to Calo.
Calo looked at the black mark with a scowl. “What is this?”
When the old woman stepped back Amee let her hand drop without looking. The sudden itching was the Dirth’s mating mark and would be there forever.
“Why is it burning?” Calo asked next to her.
Amee didn’t look at her or Hesel’s retreating body. Instead, she lifted her hand so he could see the identical mark. “She mated us. The symbol is the time of our union and the day. The light wavy line is the water. There are no clouds or storm, just a breezeless day. The dark dot is the moon, and it’s under the waterline. The small circle above the line is the sun.”
Calo was silent for a moment. “We can’t be mated. I don’t want to live under the sea. And I didn’t know about the three gifts would equal this.”
“I know. We don’t tell outsiders about our mating traditions.”
“And look how well that turned out,” he said sarcastically.
Amee huffed. He was right. And Hesel would spread the word. Which meant she didn’t have a choice.
Calo was her mate.
It didn’t feel right to be mated accidently. She doubted he would even honor the union. Which would be irritating, but not too different from her isolated life now. Although up to now, Amee thought she would find her mate one day.
With that thought she ignored the mating label and figure out what kind of map he needed. Stick to business. She could focus on the one thing she was good at.
But first, she took the box with her stinger. “This is mine. And we have to talk about your map.” Tilting her head to the tug. “This way.”
Amee sat in her captain’s chair powering on the navigation screen. Calo’s scent was filling up the bridge. She thought she liked it before, but being saturated in it, she knew that she loved it. If his scent was on a pillow, she would rub her face in it.
Thankfully, he was not a pillow, and she had the self control to keep her feelings to herself. Clearing her throat, she asked, “What map do you want?”
He was standing next to her looking over her equipment, as if he was not use to being in any other seat but the main one.
“I need details on the Trough Islands.”
That made her peer up. “Near Point Baeo?”
He nodded. “There’s a race. Usually a Dirth’s only kind of race, but this year they opened it up to us,” he said the word us but she knew he meant wobblers. “The thing is, those islands have been sanctioned off, and no one knows what’s out there. Getting the map from you will even the odds.”
“Okay,” she said. But she wasn’t sure he was correct. Even if he got the details, it wouldn’t ensure a win. He would have to drive a boat better than a Dirth – who would have spent their entire life on water.
Turning back to her screen she tapped the map she used for those islands.
Trough Islands was a section of beach with several medium to small mounds and rocks. It wasn’t enough to see the land from on top. You had to know the bottom too. Had to know what was too shallow, what rocks hid just under the waterline and if the coral had closed off a path.
“I haven’t been to Trough in a long time. The sea life will differ from what I remember. But this is the basic layout.”
He tilted his head one way and then the other. “This looks like you used a finger painting application from a Minky pad.”
Amee was proud of her map. By Calo’s tone, he seemed to think otherwise. She wasn’t a person prone to insecurities, but in that moment, she wondered if he saw her as less capable. She didn’t have a lot of technology. Mostly because she never had that kind of money, but also because the tug couldn’t support newer technology.
“I used what I had. There was a free painting option on the Minky screen. I used that to recreate the area.”
Calo held her eyes. “It’s fine. I can work with it.”
Amee felt a rush in her blood. His nearness, his size, his scent was hitting her. She looked away when she felt a blush creep up her cheeks. “Um, I was able to make it bigger,” she said hitting the tab that turned it from 2D to 3D. The image was not perfect, but it was the best she could do with what limited knowledge she had.
“I’ll be damned. Paint had a 3D filter?”
She watched him closely as his lips curled at the ends. Amee liked that she impressed him. Living alone, she forgot how good it felt to have her work admired. It was odd that she’d forget about something like that, and yet seeing it again, it was like that knowledge never left.
Calo reached up to touch the screen, but paused. “Do you mind?”
His fingers moved around the screen expertly. She had no idea what he was doing, but she was enthralled. The simplistic image that she had made turned into something with sharp edges, true colors and real shape.
It was… amazing. There was no other word for what he did.
When Calo moved back he asked, “It’s a rough remodeling. But it will show the depths better. Is there anything you see that needs changed? Corrected?”
Amee didn’t think it needed…. Wait. Looking closely, she pointed, and updated the few parts that were incorrect.
Calo fixed the image as she explained.
When they finished he updated her system and sent the file to himself. There was a moment of silence then. As if the tug or the air was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen.
Was this it? Would Calo take the map and leave? She didn’t want him to leave. Not when she knew he could be so useful. And spending time with him felt right.
“Thank you for the map,” he said breaking the silence.
Amee’s sunk in her seat hearing the goodbye in his tone. Reluctantly she tried to smile. “Anytime.” Then she started the tug and let the engine rumble. It was her way of letting him know that she understood he was leaving.
But, he didn’t leave. He looked, pained. Or maybe confused. “What is …. That’s a diesel engine, right?”
He pointed to the power button. “Turn it off. I need to check something.”
Amee turned it off and watched Calo take the stairs to the engine room. She didn’t know if he’d appreciate her following him around, so she remained seated.
While she waited, Amee grabbed a bottle chilled water in her cooler. She took a long drink, because she had been thirsty, but it wasn’t enough. Amee finished off the bottle still thirsty.
Holding the empty bottle she wondered if she was dreaming. It was only in her dreams that she couldn’t quench her thirst or hunger.
Calo, thankfully came back in, taking her from her internal musing. Not only was Calo real in touch, and voice. But she could smell him. Amee didn’t think she ever had a dream where she remembered someone’s scent.
He looked at the bottle and frowned.
Was he thirsty too? Holding up a new bottle she asked, “Would you like a drink?”
“No, thank you. I wanted to ask if you can start to engine again.”
She put the drinks away before walking back to the consul and hitting the start button. The engine clicked and then roared to life. She didn’t know what to say because it sounded the same.
Calo, on the other hand smiled. “Better.”
Amee smiled back, but she had no idea what was better.
He must have noticed because he said, “Take her out, and see how she runs.”
She sat down, tapping button to close the hatch. It was routine, that she had perfected. When the ship was low enough underwater she grabbed the throttle and powered it forward.
Calo moved to the seat next to hers, covered her hand and pushed the throttle down to full power. The engine roared louder. She tried to slow it down but Calo wouldn’t let her.
“You’re going to bust my engine. Why do you think I needed a stinger in the first place?”
“You’re engine’s fine,” he said calmly.
“You don’t know my ship,” she snapped back.
“Listen to her, does she sound clunky anymore?”
She listened and no it didn’t. “What did you do?”
“Fixed her. I’m pretty good with boats.”
She paused and really listened. “It’s sounds brand new.”
Calo shrugged as if it wasn’t a deal. He left his hand on hers. She didn’t know if he forgot about it, or if he liked her touch. Either way she wasn’t going to make a big deal about it.
The big deal was that she had to admit her engine never sounded better. Whatever he did, he fixed her ship better than she could have.
A gift a hundred times the value of her necklace, which she liked. Better than the stinger she needed. This was something she couldn’t repay. Feeling that gratitude, she was going to do whatever she could to help him in that race.
“When is the race?”
A loud rumble sounded from Calo’s pocket. He removed his hand from hers, to pull out a Minky pad. “Hey, Sem.”
“Alarm is going off at the warehouse.”
Calo exhaled loudly before saying, “I’ll meet you there.” When he ended the call he turned to her, “Can you take me to my place in Point Baeo?”
Of course she could take him there. She planned to go there anyways. She needed to help him win the race. “Yes.”
She nodded and then noticed him rubbing the top of his hand. He caught her looking. “I tried to wash it off earlier. It’s permanent, isn’t it?”
Amee didn’t know how he thought about the mating, but she wouldn’t lie. “It’s permeant.”
He was quiet for a moment then, “Why do Dirths brand each other?”
“It’s a symbol to remember that you have a family that lives in your heart. That no matter how far you are, you are never alone. Dirths mate for life.”
He was silent, and she kept her eyes a head of her.
“Aside from you, I’ve never meet a Dirth I didn’t want to punch in the face. You all think you’re so smart, and yet not one of you has decent mechanical skills.”
She felt his words burrow into her skin. He did think she wasn’t capable. He was never going to accept her as a mate. A subtle coldness settled into her stomach.
Calo didn’t stop there. He continued, “I grew up in Point Bao. I know exactly how much Dirths hate everyone else. I know you think we’re wobbly legged idiots, but I also know that groups of Dirths helped or let kids drown. I was dragged under water to see how long I could hold my breath. They held me down until I drowned. My friend Sem was pushed into the deep water when he was too young and hadn’t learn to swim. They pumped our chests and brought us back, but no one ever forgets drowning.”
His voice took on a dark edge. One she wanted to shrink away from. She purposely put him in the water today. “I’m sorry for digging the plank to make you go in. I didn’t know you couldn’t swim. Had I known I would have never done that.”
Calo turning in her direction he leaned. “I can swim and hold my breath for a long time. And I knew the vest would take me down. I was about to take it off when I saw you jump in after me. That’s when I stopped swimming to see what you’d do. I thought you’d let me drown and then save me. When you cut the vest and then offered me air, I didn’t expect that.”
“But you didn’t let me give you air.”
He scoffed sitting back. “For good reason. I’m a Grach.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
Tilting his head back he whispered, “Yes, you do.”
“Are you thirsty?”
“What?” she asked not sure if he was changing the topics.
“Are you wishing you could drink a bottle of water?”
Yes. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Tilting his head back down he said, “The need to drink is from me. A withdrawal symptom. Graches all have addictive properties. The thing that makes us different is our unique withdrawal symptoms. No that everyone has a different one, but more or less that there is no set symptom. Until your body gets over the addiction, you will be constantly thirty.”
That explained a lot. And she was grateful for the explanation. But he was wrong about one thing. “If what I feel is the worst part of giving you air, I would do it again. In a heartbeat.”
“You say that now. Give it time,” his voice was grave and she could see that it bothered him that he affected her.
She let the topic die. He wasn’t going to believe her when she said it wasn’t that bad. She had suffered worse. She knew what real thirst was. Thirst that was only minimally quenched when she caught food with the rustic items she had. Or when it rained.
That was thirst.
Knowing that water was always chilled and plentiful would keep her mind right.
The silence wasn’t comfortable so Amee asked, “How did you learn to fix ships?”
Calo took in a breath. “My dad was a diesel mechanic. But he cranked on large trucks. Taught me to help. When I got older, I left to build engines for speed boats. I make the engines and Sem makes the bodies. We have a good business. Top of the line.”
“How long have you been in business?”
She nodded letting him know she heard him. The bridge got quiet, for a moment and then he asked, “Do you live in an underground city?”
“Nope. I left when I was sixteen.” She could see him watching her out of her periphery.
“Is that normal?”
She shrugged. “At sixteen we’re given a choice to live in the community or leave. If you leave, you can’t come back.”
“Why did you leave?”
She peered over, “Because it’s crowded and everyone knows your business. And it stinks.”
Cautious amusement passed over his face.
She smiled for him before focusing back on her objective.
“You left the underwater city because it was too crowded? Do you belong to another community?”
“I’ve never heard of someone not belonging to a community.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Most surface communities are harpins. A few true Dirths that were born from the water.”
“You sound like harpins aren’t good enough. Are Dirth’s prejudice against harpins?”
“I assume some are, but that is because of the person. Not a Dirth thing. I don’t have a problem with harpins.” She looked over at him, “And all of my business are with wobblers. So I don’t have a problem with anyone.”
Calo looked her over and then asked, “What do you do?”
“Deliveries. Fresh foods, whatever they need. I deliver to the floating hotels.”
He gave her a slow nod. She didn’t know if that was because he thought it was stupid or not. She tried not herself feel inadequate. At sixteen she had to first survive the weeks at sea until she hit land. And then she had to find a way to live on the surface. So many things she didn’t understand or know.
Calo was probably a million times craftier, but she was not helpless.
“Do you like it?”
She shrugged. “It’s good pay.”
“That always helps,” he said with an understanding smirk.
Inside Calo’s garage he handed her a motion sickness tab. She took it but her eyes kept going back to all the bright-colored ships. The sharp lines, and sleek sides. Or at least that’s what they were supposed to look like. Several of them had been battered. Many with broken windows.
When she did nothing with the tab, Calo took it back, removed the thin plastic and reached behind her to lift up her hair. He pressed the sticky thing against her neck and said, “It works best near the spine. Let me know if you still feel sick, though. I keep these things for people with motion-sickness, not stillness-sickness.”
He let down her hair and then said, “If you take the walkway up the hill, it leads you to my house. Feel free to whatever you like.”
“I’m fine,” she said not wanting to leave his side. Not yet. Not in a place she didn’t know.
Calo used his head to point to the damage. “I need to check the boats, and make sure the one I’m using in tomorrow’s race is good to go.”
“I can help,” she said earnestly.
He hesitated for a moment. “Okay.”
Amee felt that hesitation. He probably thought she was useless, but she wasn’t. And she would prove to him that not only was she a fast learner, but she could work all night if needed.
Sem was working on a red boat with black and blue details. Calo pointed and said, “This is the one I’m racing tomorrow.”
Sem peered up to Calo and then looked at her. Sem’s expression went from blank to curious. As if he didn’t understand what she was doing there.
If Calo saw the look, he didn’t comment on it. Instead, he climbed up and began asking questions and then giving orders. He reminded her of the Dirth leader in her old community. Confident and able.
Amee didn’t want to admit it, but she admired him. Respected him. And that assessment had nothing to do with how good he smelled, or how she wanted to reach over and touch his skin.
It was late; the moon was on its downward journey. Calo’s racing ship had been fixed – at times by taking items from the others. She learned a lot about ships in those hours. Her mind was a little foggy with the need to drink, but she kept an eye on how much she consumed. Knowing she could easily over drink.
Calo watched her too. She could see his wince every time she took a sip.
He wasn’t to blame, and she didn’t know how to get him to understand that. Since she couldn’t think of anything, she decided to wait until the next day.
They were walking back to her tug, to get her things. Calo didn’t argue so much as he told her, she had to sleep in the house. He didn’t give excuses or reasons. Just laid out what she would do.
Amee finally agreed but said she had to get her things. Calo, left with her, telling her it wasn’t’ safe to be alone near the water at night.
That was the reason behind his argument she thought. And at the time she thought he was being paranoid. She lived in the water. It was the safest place.
As they neared the boat she slowed because she was sure she saw something moving in the dark. Her arm came out to stop Calo.
“There’s someone on my boat.”
Calo lifted her up and moved her aside as he rushed forward. Amee followed close and the intruders on her ship yelled out, “he’s coming,” and then four dark figures jumped from the boat.
Calo went right towards her ship. She jerked left and dove off the platform.
The water was dark, but her hearing was good. The intruders were swimming towards her right, so she followed.
The one she was following was slow. Amee caught up, grabbed his leg and wrapped him up like an octopus. He kicked and punched but she was able to regather the male’s limbs. As they floated towards the surface, she took in a lung full of air and let him, then dunked him back down as she used her one free arm to move towards the dock.
The swim would have taken longer if Calo didn’t come looking for her. He threw a floating contraption at her and used it to pull her in. He pulled up the intruder and held him down with a knee to the other male’s neck. Then he leaned over and pulled her up.
Once she was on the dock he said, “If you were trying to impress me, you’ve succeeded.”
Calo carried the intruder to her tug at her insistence. On the ship she noticed several boxes were gone from the top deck. On the way to the bridge she scanned the area and noticed her cooler was open and nothing was inside.
Some Dirths became that way because it was easier to steal than to hunt for their own food and water. She had only come across them once. Interestingly enough it was around the Trough Islands.
She wondered if that meant the whole community were scavengers.
Amee had Calo put the male down in her cargo room. At first the intruder tried to fight his way out, but Calo was there to stop it.
Amee waited in silence watching the male, taking in his small size, his light skin – not bronze skin that was expected with a surface Dirth.
“You can’t keep me here. Beme will come for me. And he will kill all the landwalkers,” the male said to the floor.
She turned to Calo, “Do you know who Beme is?”
He nodded. “He leads the Dirth community right off the Trough Islands.”
Amee could see in his expression and tone that he didn’t like Beme. No, that was too nice a word. Calo looked as if Beme was a nuisance, the digging consistent kind.
“You do not speak the names of a Dirth!” the male said with venom.
Calo’s lips pursed, and she watched as his irritation rose a notch. And in that moment, something clicked inside her. Something dark, vindictive and possessive.
This male, whatever his name was, vexed her mate. Intruded into his home and destroyed the things he created. This act was not random, nor was it the first time.
Without Calo saying a word about it, she knew, deep within her bones that he suffered the theft, the damage and everything else for years. And this race, would be one of the few times he could dig back at them.
As his mate, she liked his motivation. But as a Dirth, she had a message to send to the community.
Standing next to Calo she said, “Would you mind getting me a drink of water?”
His eyebrows furrowed at her.
“Please,” she said with a sweet voice that belayed her true intentions.
Calo looked at the male, “I’m not leaving you here alone.”
She mocked a frown, “I caught him, remember. I’m sure I can take care of anything he tries while you’re gone.”
Calo hesitated, so she pushed him gently on the arm and he left. When he did she shut the door and slowly began to unfasten her wet shirt.
The male had seen her in his periphery when she first began. Now that she had his full attention she pulled off the top and let it land in a wet plop.
The male’s eyes widened. “You’re a…
“Yes, I am.” Her chest, belly and upper arms were covered in black marks. If the harpin knew what the marks meant, they he knew that she was a whale killer. Something that was practically impossible to do on your own, but she accomplished it at fifteen.
“You’re a Dirth, like me,” he almost smiled as he got up. She could see the look in his eyes. He didn’t think she meant him harm. He expected to be let go.
Amee wrapped a foot around his ankle and pushed him back down. “You’re not a Dirth. Your chum.”
The male struck out. She took his hand twisted it as she slammed his face down on the floor. She heard the sound of cartilage breaking. Blood sprayed on the white paint.
The male rounded back she let him, so he could see her calm face. “Dirths don’t take things that aren’t theirs.”
She watched to see if he showed any remorse. He didn’t. “Dirths don’t destroy what another made.” Again, she waited to see remorse or guilt. All she saw was hatred.
Good. Because she wasn’t done yet. “You don’t respect the sea. And you don’t respect yourself. You’re old enough to be mated, but you’re not, which means you have no talents to keep a family. You’re worthless.”
When she said the last word, the male roared as he lunged at her. She was not in a good position at first. She took the hit, and then rolled, jerking up her hip to roll him over. He was heavy, and it didn’t work on her first try.
He scrambled out of her old when she flipped him. Amee moved to her feet and watched her prey.
“Calo is our enemy, he took our piece of ocean. Got the land people to declare Trough Islands no longer belong to us. That we have to allow landwalkers to touch out land. Our water. They disrespect the sea – and you’re fighting for them. When Beme finds out a Dirth has sided against him, he will kill you.” The male spit blood on the floor. His nose was twisted, already dark blue and swelling.
“The sea cannot be claimed by you or anyone else. The sea owns itself and we are its family, invited to live inside her. If you want to live alone, you live in the cities. The surface waters are for those, who want to be alone. Who answer to the sea – not to a leader. Not to anyone.”
“You may have left your city. But I was born into mine, and I will not leave it. We will fight for what belongs to us.”
Amee turned when the door opened and Calo walked back in with a frosted bottled of water. He looked at her with a frown. When he looked at the male his frowned turned into something else.
Amee took the bottle, removed the lid and took a deep gulp before capping it and setting it down. Then she recapped what the male said regarding the islands.
Calo nodded. “He’s right. I did get it reversed because you had multiple deaths every year for the past six years. Surfers who got too close to your area were pulled under and drowned. I know a guy who works on the force and he told me the few that lived all said they were pulled under by Dirths and held down until they died.”
Amee’s heart went out to the men who were taken and killed. It was a tactic that Dirth’s used by those who got too close to the underwater cities. She didn’t like it then; she didn’t like it now.
“They trespassed on our ocean.”
Calo tightened his wrists at his side. She could understand that reaction, in fact she felt the same way, but killing this man would accomplish nothing. They had to go after the whale. They had to take down Beme.
Amee crouched down and picked up her shirt. “I’ve told you before, the sea is not yours. But you’re not the brains of your community, so it’s pointless to waste my time explaining it.” Standing up she said, “I expect you to return everything you took by tomorrow morning. If you don’t, I’ll help Calo get all of your homes relocated.”
When the male didn’t move she jerked her chin to the door. “You’re not welcome on my ship. Get out.”
When the male left, and she was alone with Calo he looked over her body. “You have a lot of marks.”
Amee twisted her shirt in her hands to get the water out. She did so because she felt a deep blush. “I accomplished a lot growing up. My father liked to push me to see how capable I was.”
He lifted a finger, but didn’t touch her skin. “What is that?”
He pointed to the last mark she achieved. The one that made her superior to most of the citizens in the underwater city. No one but her and her father had that particular mark.
“It’s the mark of a whale killer.”
At first he just looked at it then he his mouth dropped. “An actual whale?”
She nodded. “My myself with a very long and sharp spear.”
He made a sound and backed up. “Are you serious? A whale? There are no small whales.”
She nodded and then pointed to the mark next to the whale killer. “This means I can hold my breath for fifteen minutes.”
“What?” Calo rubbed his head. His eyes still wide.
She pointed to the second symbol fighting a grin at his astonishment. He sounded impressed and she really liked it when he was. “This means I brought more than twenty pounds of food in one hunt.” When his eyebrows furrowed she explained, “It’s a lot. And it feed a lot of families.”
He nodded, but she knew he would never truly understand.
She pointed the first symbol and said, “This is a symbol of my family. Family lines have unique symbols.”
“It has a trident,” he said lifting a finger. “I’ve never seen anyone with that before. Most of the Dirth’s I see only have one or two of these circle looking things.”
She bit her lip not if she should tell him about her family. “You won’t see another person with a trident. My family runs the five underwater cities in this ocean. My father ran mine.”
Calo waited, but didn’t push. She could see the curiosity though, and she appreciated that he let her decide if she was going to speak or not.
“I have a brother. He’s younger and he would be a better leader. But because I was born first, I would end up leading the community. I chose to leave – against my father’s decision to make me stay.”
She swallowed and faked a smile. “So… I’m just going to grab my stuff and put on some dry clothes.”
Amee took a step to walk past Calo when he stopped her by grabbing her hand. The one with her mating mark. He raised it up and inspected it again. Then said, “So what you’re telling me is… I’m mated to a water princess?”
His tone broke the emotions she was keeping down. She laughed so hard she cried.
Just before sunrise Amee woke up, thirsty and feeling sick. She also noticed a hand around her stomach. It took her a few moments to remember where she was and who was holding her. Slowly moving out from under Calo’s hand was easy. Until he grabbed her and pulled her back.
“Calo,” she said pulled at his hand that was holding her tighter than before. “I’m going to throw up. I need to go.”
He groaned rubbed his forehead against her neck and then stopped. “Sick?”
“Yes,” she said making quick breaths, so she didn’t upchuck.
Calo let her go. They both got out of bed. She went for the bathroom that was connected to the room. Calo walked to the bedroom door saying, “I’ll get you another tab.”
Amee splashed water on her face and then followed him silently. He didn’t know she was there until she walked into the garage behind him.
Just like the time before he put the tab on her neck. But this time when he let down her hair, he kissed it.
She turned to him in surprise.
He opened his mouth and then shut it. then made a noise as if he was saying, I don’t know why I did it either.
She would have laughed at him, but she was still unsettled. Her thirst was intense and she was hungry as well.
When they walked out of the building a man was standing at the end of the bridge. He wasn’t too tall. He had bronze skin, and long light sun weathered hair. He moved with the waves expertly.
“Do you know him?” she asked.
Reaching down she took his hand in hers and they walked casually, as if they didn’t care there was a stranger standing shirtless with a clear dagger on a homemade rope on his waist.
As they got closer, she saw the males marks. Apparently so did Calo. “He has for marks too. One looks like yours.”
“From right to left, the first as you know is family, the second is a great hunt, third is he can hold his breath for ten minutes and the last is … he killed a shark.”
Calo snickered. “Probably a pygmy shark. It grows about ten inches, they are all over the islands.”
Amee tried not to smile, but failed.
As they neared she told Calo, “Let me speak to him.”
He didn’t look pleased, but then said, “You’re the princess.”
She was not a princess. She as Amee. No longer an heir to the underwater cities.
When they stopped a respectable distance, she made a Dirth sound. It meant, who are you?
“I’m Beme. And I was told you threatened the community. And that you’re a Dirth who’s sided with the landwalkers.” He pointed at their clasped hands and said, “And now I realize why. You mated the enemy.”
Amee held his eyes as she said, “I’m sure you didn’t come here to tell me what I know.” Her tone was slow and insulting.
“I came to demand you explain yourself. No Dirth’s are allowed in my community without first getting approval.”
Amee never blinked or looked away as he talked. And neither did Beme. It was what leaders did when they first meet. The first to look away had to relent to the laws of the winner. She was doing that now. Showing her authority.
Beme had no idea what or who she was, and his frustration showed.
“I answer to no one but the sea.”
“You’re in my territory,” he growled.
Her tone dulled as the fight to not look away intensified. “Your community is not recognized by the leading family. Surface dwellers are just that. If you commune together so be it, but you have no authority.”
His lips pressed together. His eyes dark with furry. “You’re from the underwater cities. You don’t know that the surface Dirths have their own authority.”
Her eyes hurt and almost started watering. She needed to end this conversation. “Chum doesn’t have authority.”
Beme lunged at her, drawing his knife. She was thrown back by Calo in a swift move as he intercepted the attacker.
The fight was quick. Calo had Beme’s arms behind his back. The Dirth looked full of fear and rage, as his own knife was held steady at his neck.
Amee got up in one fluid motion. Leaning into his face she said, “You’re no leader. You’re a poor excuse for one. You probably killed a dwarf shark just to get your last mark.”
“It was a white!”
She looked unimpressed.
It was then she had an idea. On impulse she said, “I challenge you, for the rule of your people.”
“Never,” he ground out.
“What?” Calo mouthed with a look of displeasure.
But she knew what she was doing. She said again, “You can’t back down from a challenge. You have to accept or I will make sure very one knows you feared me.”
“I fear no one,” Beme hissed.
“Then you accept. The winner of the challenge rules your community.”
Beme’s nostrils flared. “Fine. The winner of today’s race rules the community.”
“She can’t join the race,” Calo said, “she would have had to sign up and pay the fee.”
Beme’s smile was full of mirth. “As her mate, you will take her place.”
Calo let the male go, but didn’t return the knife. “You’re saying if I win, that I rule the community?”
“No,” Beme scoffed. “If you win, she rules the community. You’re not Dirth. You can’t rule.”
Calo looked at her in question. She told him, “As the challenger, I can’t name the fight. He chose racing. And you will have to race for me. Will you do that?”
Her mate’s chest rose and fell. Multiple times before he said, “Yes. I’ll do that.”
Beme chuckled. “A landwalker won’t win the race.” To her, he said, “And when I win, I will make it clear to my people that you are not welcome here. That if you step foot in or on the water, your fair game.”
She gave him a long look and said, “And that is why I’ve challenged you. You’re chum and you’re not a worthy leader.”
The Dirth didn’t like her words she could tell. But he didn’t speak. He turned and dove off the end of the bridge and swam in the chilled morning water.
Calo took her hand and pulled her back toward the house. “Come on, before you start a fight with the mayor.”
Amee was standing on the dock next to Sem. The sun was high in the sky; the air was sticking to her skin. It was not a hot day, but her thirst made her feel like it was scorching.
She was able to keep focused on Calo until he left her on the dock. As soon as he drove off, she remembered her thirst. The need to drink was strong and demanding.
Taking a breath she tried to push it out of her mind, but it didn’t work.
Amee clenched her teeth and hoped she could power through it.
There were seven boats lined up. Calo’s red stood out to her, but many of the boats were bright and slim.
The countdown clock ticked backwards. Ten…nine…eight…
She swallowed hard, but her mouth still felt dry. So much was riding on this race and she was fighting a stupid thirst.
Sem held up his hand and started to yell.
She had missed the start. Damn. Amee eyes scanned the water and found his boat. He was not in the front, but he wasn’t far behind. The lead boat was white and took the corner hard, the riff made another boat fly into the air.
And that was the beginning to the carnage.
The longer the race went on, the more boats flipped and crashed. Some did so when there was no reason for it. Amee worried that the Dirth’s had traps in the water.
Calo’s red boat was on a straight away and then suddenly the ship wobbled.
Amee’s hand reached out and grabbed Sem’s shirt, terrified that Calo would crash like the others.
When he righted it he was behind, but not by far. She noticed something was wrong; he wasn’t going as fast as before, and that worried her.
“Come on, Calo,” Sem said to himself. Or maybe to her.
The white boat was still in front but Calo gained on him as they took two corners. Then they were on the last long straight away. The white ship was fast. Calo’s paced not gaining not losing.
Her stomach was in knots. “Oh, please, mother of the sea, smooth his path.”
They were almost there.
Calo’s engine was loud, and it got louder. The boat jumped as if it had extra energy and jumped ahead of the white boat right before the finish line.
Amee screamed, feeling the adrenalin rush hit her stomach. He won! Her feet started moving to the end of the dock. Her screams were long and loud, a warrior’s cry.
Calo pulled up to the dock, spotted her running. His mouth pulled up to a victory grin. She jumped off the dock, and he was there to catch her.
His mouth came down on hers, hard and passionate. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
Calo came to his senses before her. His eyes looking over her mouth. “The addiction.”
He looked worried, and it insulted her. “Kiss your mate, and stop worrying about everything else.”
To her surprise, he kissed her again, this time slower, taking his time to learn her mouth and draw it out, making her want to find a place on the boat where they could do more than kiss.
A male’s yell caused them to stop. Turning toward the noise, but not letting her mate go she saw Beme getting out of his white boat. His face flushed with anger.
“This doesn’t count. He used an illegal engine. The Dirth judges will verify it.”
Calo’s face hardened. “You want them to inspect my engine, that’s fine. But then they inspect yours too.”
That stopped him for a moment. “The winner has to prove he didn’t cheat.”
“Oh, I can prove it. Can you though? I think an inspection is in order.”
Sem who she didn’t notice called, out, “I’ll get them.” The pale-haired man pulled out a Minky pad and tapped it a few times then explained.
Amee had watched as a handful of Dirths gathered around during the inspection. There was a point in which the Dirths and the wobbler judges argued. As if the Dirths were looking for any reason to disqualify Calo.
After two hours, the judges finally admitted Calo didn’t have an illegal engine. He was the verified winner.
No one cheered for him. But she gave him another kiss.
When she finished, she held the angry eyes of the Dirths that belonged to Beme. The theif from last night spit in her direction. “I won’t follow a Dirth that mates the enemy.”
She nodded, “I expected that of you, chum. You don’t honor the Dirth ways, or the Dirth challenges. I would be happy to exile you to the loan waters. I will drop you off myself.”
He looked confused. “What are you talking about? Drop me off?”
“When a Dirth leaves their community, they are stripped of everything except their knife. And they are placed in a small dink deep in the horizon. The sea will take you to your new home – if you survive, of course.”
“We don’t do that here,” he spat.
“It’s a Dirth custom, and as leader I say we follow all of the rules.”
He looked around as if he expected someone to stand up for him. No one did. The one female there cleared her throat and said, “Will we still told who we will marry?”
Amee felt that question in her gut. “That is not the Dirth way. A woman will only be married if she accepts three gifts from one male under the same sun.”
The female’s eyes widened. “Truly.”
“That is the law,” said Amee.
Another female pointed to her hand. “Did your landwalker mate give you three gifts? Or did he kidnap you like Beme said?”
Beme’s eyes cut to the woman, and he kicked her off the dock.
Sem was closest. But Calo launched himself up the dock at the same time. Beme ran, or at least he tried to. Many wobblers, captured him and held him down. Sem looked over at her. “What do you do with people like him?”
She wanted so badly to say, death. But her father was never bloodthirsty. He was firm and strict and so she followed his example.
“He will be left in the horizon.”
Sem’s face pinched. “I’ll do you the honor of dropping him off.”
She nodded wondering if he planned to kill him anyways.
Another Dirth asked her about more and more rules. She spent the rest of the afternoon she discussed the rules.
Calo stayed by her side, and she appreciated it.
When it was late she told them, she would visit the community in the morning. The Dirth nearest to her frowned. “You won’t be living in the community?”
“No, I prefer to live in my mate’s home.”
Amee had been holding Calo’s hand. After she said those words, he squeezed her hand. She hoped that meant he was pleased.
Calo had made dinner in silence. In fact, he had been quiet after the judges validation. Sitting across from her, she said, “Do you think I should grab a few motion tabs before we go to bed?”
He shook his head. “I grabbed a handful.”
Amee moved a carrot back and forth as she asked, “Are you upset over something?”
Again, he shook his head. But he said, “Are you supposed to live in the community? Is that a law?”
“I think it’s expected for those who live in the underwater cities. The surface communities are spread out more. Or at least that’s what I gathered.”
He stabbed a slice of meat and asked, “Do you want to live there?”
“No. Not even a little bit.”
Calo finally looked at her, surprised. “What?”
So that’s what he was worried about. With all the passion she could express she said, “I left the community because I don’t want to rule. I don’t want to be accountable to others or have to watch over others. I don’t want to rule these people. I fully intend on passing it down as soon as I find a worthy person.”
“Are you serious?”
“Very,” she said firmly.
Calo went through a series of emotions. So many she couldn’t follow. Then abruptly he dropped his fork, leaned over and wrapped his hand around her neck and kissed her. A kiss that burrowed deep, needy and explosive.
She kicked out of her chair, climbed over the table to get closer. Calo brushed the plates to the floor, laid her back on the table and covered her mouth again. She bowed her back pressing her chest into his needing his touch.
Calo pulled back, lifted her up and carried her to the couch that was wide and deep set. She pulled off her own shirt and unlatched her bra. Her mate’s eyes darkened, and he removed his shirt and then covered her skin with his body. Heavy and dense and all hers.
He kissed her again and took his time loving every inch of her body.
Hours later when they were both limp and tired she couldn’t stop touching him. Leaving feather light kisses along his jaw.
“I’m mated to a princess,” he said in a voice that was tired and amused.
“And I’m mated to the best boat racer on this side of the ocean, if not the planet.”
She saw his smile move up this face and crinkled his eyes. “Amee, anything you ever want, know that I will do anything to get it for you. Anything. You name it.”
She kissed his jaw and said, “I have way more than I ever wanted. Just don’t be surprised if I kiss you a lot.”
“My addiction, I know.”
She shook her head. “Your addiction I can handle. It’s your touch that I’m truly addicted to.”
His head tilted. “Really?”
“From the start.”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. And then he pulled her up, took her to his bed and made love to her again.
No joke, I wrote 300 pages, sent it to a beta read and they hated it.
Me after getting their reply:
The next day, I deleted all 300 pages and decided to write Unintentional Addiction. By the time I got back to this story, I had a better outlook on my hero, who had an arrogant, cruel and restrictive personality until I made him a little more manageable.
I started slow, writing the first twelve chapters and then sending 2 to 3 chapters to one beta reader, who in turn would read it and then text back: Done.
After that I would send questions via text like: at the end did you hate Yon?
She would have to respond on our Marco Polo ap because it lets her get all her thoughts out without me interrupting.
It was great. It also let me go back and fix any scenes that needed fleshed out because I have a horrible habit to write fast.
After finishing I sent the 2nd draft to another beta. This was me after reading what they thought of the new version.
Unexpected Commander is the third book of the series but this one is darker than the first two because Yon and Yelena have been abused. Yon in his youth and Yelena after she was kidnapped and experimented on by an apathetic Numan.
In my final version I’m happy to say that I love how Yon had to work on his abrupt and harsh words, just as Yelena had to find her voice.
These two are perfect for each other and I loved how protective Yon was of her the entire book.
Here is a sneak peek into one of those protective scenes:
“Are you always like this?”
Yon placed her on the bed, took a pillow, and handed it to her. “Keep the foot elevated. And, no, I’m not always like this.”
She held up her hand, hoping he wouldn’t leave her yet. She wanted to understand him better. “And when you say, ‘not always like this,’ do you mean you don’t knock people unconscious a lot?”
His head tilted slightly. “No, I meant I don’t usually come down to the planets I hate just to find a specific female and bring her back safely.”
It took a half-second longer than it should have for her to process that. “You came for me?”
“You shouldn’t have been down here in the first place.”
Yelena didn’t know what to say to that.
“Good thing you didn’t like Lotus Adaamas, because it was the last time you’re going to see it.” Yon was still holding out the pillow. His tone didn’t sound angry, more matter-of-fact.
She took the pillow and said, “Is it because of my skin? Or because of something else?”
“All of that and more.”
“What else could there be?”
“I will write you a list.”
If you haven’t read book 1 and 2, that’s okay, this book is still good on its own. But if you have read the others, it will enhance your reading experience.