Clalls stood on the bridge of the transporter, looking at the derelict spaceport. A wide globe with a transparent shell on top was displayed on the navigation screen. The bottom half of the sphere was metal. So far, it didn’t look too beyond repair.
Six protruding landing zones funneled into the sphere.
It was a clunker, but it had massive potential. He grinned.
Clalls’ Minky pad pinged in his pocket. He pulled out the tablet, expecting it to be the new communications officer on Garna, calling for help. But when he saw that the caller ID was a series of numbers and letters with no name… Clalls narrowed his eyes.
Accepting the call, he said, “Who is this?”
“You broke our contract, you bastard.”
Clalls let his head drop back. He knew that voice, and he really didn’t have time to argue with her. He had a spaceport to claim, and an empire to build.
Nova had the worst timing.
Blandly, he responded, “The last contract we had was when I hired you to deliver a Minky pad to my captain’s mother. Which you did, and were paid for—in full and upfront.” It had cost him much, but the promotion from officer to commander had earned him better retirement pay.
“Not that contract, you double-crossing Demon. The one where you were supposed to rescue Nue from Debsa’s transport and keep her safe on your ship. I did not agree that she would end up married to your captain. She is my sister, and you will return her to me.” Nova’s voice rose as she yelled.
Clalls set the pad on the console as he programmed the autopilot to dock with the open landing pad. When he finished, he told Nova, “They’re mated. Even you should know what that means. There is no separating them.” Plus, Clalls didn’t want the fury of the Federation brought down on him. And that is precisely what would happen if Admiral Rannn lost his new mate-slash-wife.
“She’s a Sennite. We don’t mate,” Nova said sternly.
The transporter he was in had docked, but the outside temperatures were low. Meaning, the port didn’t have power or heat in this area. If he wanted to keep from freezing in the sub-temperatures of space, he would have to layer up.
Picking up the Minky pad, he headed to his cabin to change. As he walked, he replied, “She’s half-Sennite, and half-Terran. Since she’s your sister, I assumed you knew that, but maybe your mummy didn’t tell you. Anyway, Terrans can mate and marry with the same unbreakable bond as other races. But again, you should know that.”
“Don’t you dare talk down to me, Demon. I’m already contemplating killing you for what you did to my family. Don’t tempt me to do worse.”
Clalls stopped and looked down at the black screen and smirked. If she planned to kill him, she wouldn’t have bothered to call him. So, her threat was pointless. She wanted something—something he would naturally say no to. Hence all the theatrics.
“You’re not going to kill me. You want something. What is it?”
Clalls almost laughed at the lack of response as he stepped into his cabin. But then he heard Nova’s voice in front of him, and on the Minky pad. “I want you to suffer.”
He cursed as the female’s evo-suit transitioned to solid black. She held a dart gun in her hand. He didn’t get a chance to run before he was struck in the chest. Clalls pulled out the metal projectile as his legs gave out, and he slumped to the floor. Hitting the back of a cabinet, he was left half-sitting and half-slouched—and utterly out of it.
His body was numb.
Nova removed her helmet and shook out her mane of wine-red hair. He remembered tugging on it so he could introduce himself. He loved the idea of having a Rana—a female assassin—as a contact. However, that relationship had twisted into this. And now he was being punished.
Clalls’ heart thudded heavily in his chest. This was going to be bad.
Nova set down the black hood and grabbed one of the collectible crossword puzzles he had been working on. It was not the most expensive thing he owned, but it was one of his valuable items, considering how old it was.
A true paper crossword puzzle book was priceless. Especially if it hadn’t been used. He’d found it over a hundred years ago.
Nova turned the book over in her hand before she dropped it, then pulled out a Spark and turned to burn it. She eviscerated it in seconds. Black ash wafted into the air, and Clalls took care to breathe slowly.
A year ago, he would have made a black deal with Seth to allow him to get his revenge. To strip Nova of all her prized possessions. But that was before he’d almost died surrounded by his things and had noted their uselessness.
All his worldly goods couldn’t keep him alive. Same as now.
Nova grinned maliciously. “Don’t worry, Demon, I’m just getting started.”
He tried to remain unfazed, but it was impossible given her unpredictable nature.
Nova dug into her pocket and pulled out a mini-grinder. Grabbing his ankle, she yanked him forward until he slammed down on the floor, face-up. Crawling above him, she smiled, “Now, be a good Demon and listen closely. You think that just because you don’t love anyone, that you were being clever. Never making yourself weak to me. But you’re wrong. I notice everything.”
Cold, icy fear coated his skin. She was going too far.
Nova grinned. “And now, I’m going to take away everything you care about.”
She flipped on the grinder, and a high-pitched whine rattled in his ears. Nova’s raspy voice carried over the noise when she said, “Now, open wide.”
His teeth were his Night Demon marks. His identity.
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The meeting had ended, and everyone was now retreating from Captain Rannn’s office. It had been weeks since the battle with Fynbar and his killer bots. They’d won, but all this time had been spent locating the slaves and healing them as best as Ansel could.
Chollar and his new mate were slow to exit the office. Rannn assumed the telepath had something to say, maybe a warning regarding what someone had been thinking. Rannn didn’t care.
He couldn’t care. Mostly because he couldn’t concentrate on anything but the images in his head. Good Seth, he was thankful that no one had noticed how truly lost he felt.
The mission was over, they were headed back to Garna, and he had his own issues to worry about. Namely, whether or not he was still fit to be captain. The vast horrors he’d experienced courtesy of the memories he had gained, knowledge of the crime the sadistic Numan had committed for hundreds of years, tortured him.
The things that Fynbar had done. They horrified and consumed him so much that he didn’t even remember if he had showered today or not.
Even now, he flashed on a memory of Fynbar cutting out a male’s rib cage and installing organs of his own design. The male had bled out within hours. The cybernetic organs were not aligned right when installed. An entire life gone because of a miscalculation.
Another memory from Fynbar slithered across Rannn’s mind. The time he’d unleashed nanites into a prison cell, infecting two families. The nanites had destroyed the part of the brain that controlled the feeling of being sated. Less than a week later, they started to eat each other. That was after they had eaten their clothes.
So much evil.
Rannn had to push those thoughts back. He had a ship to run, a crew to think about. Rannn had to get his crew back to safety. Back to Garna. Deep down, he felt as if his mind were crumbling, and he didn’t know how long he would last.
Rannn gasped and hit a knee.
Searing, white-hot pain clawed into his mind. He had no idea why. He hadn’t done anything, had he?
His whole body shook. Grabbing his head, Rannn couldn’t see anymore, and he wasn’t sure if he had closed his eyes or if the pain had blinded him.
All he could do was survive the burn. Images of death and carnage flashed quickly behind his eyes. Blood, death, bodies, cries, pleas…it was too much.
Rannn could smell the floor and feel the hardness of it as he pushed his forehead against the coolness. Faint groans echoed in his ears. His heart pumped hard in his chest as he kept gasping for breath.
Was he dying? What was happening?
The mental claws receded, and he felt his body being lifted into the air. Floating weightlessly. It took a few extra seconds to open his eyes.
He could breathe easier. His chest was…his whole body no longer felt constricted.
When he felt his feet, Rannn leaned over and grabbed the table, taking a deep breath. It was all he could do, considering that his brain felt like it had been beaten and scrambled. But it didn’t take more than a millisecond to figure out what had happened.
Chollar had removed the evil Numan’s memories.
Rannn couldn’t recall anything. And he tried.
Rannn hadn’t known that Chollar could do that. If he had, he would have asked him to do it seconds after he’d gotten back. Even though his head felt fatigued, and he was still recovering from the onslaught, Rannn tried to voice his genuine gratitude.
His voice was lost, though. His brain lagging.
Chollar didn’t bother waiting for a thank you. Instead, the Master Elder Cerebral said, “And just so you know, Nue didn’t lie to you. She didn’t change or forge her prison transfer paperwork. And the reason she was being sent to Debsa is because the Federation messed up and thinks she’s a contract killer named Nova.”
Rannn was dead-silent. He understood the words but couldn’t process them.
“Also, you’re right to assume she’s going to try and escape the ship the second you get back. Considering how you locked her down, you’ve fed her fear. She thinks the second you go back, you are sending her to Debsa. So, either stop being a coward and do what you really want to do, or let her escape.”
Rannn watched Chollar leave the room, hand-in-hand with his mate. The warning echoed through his mind. Nue didn’t lie to you. It was a crushing blow to his soul.
He remembered being furious when he found out.
Irate that another female had lied to him so convincingly. And to think, she’d thought his anger would force him to send her to a prison planet that would take her life.
Slumping into the nearest chair, Rannn leaned back, closed his eyes, and cursed. By all the power of Seth, he had become his worst nightmare. He had become his father, unable to see past his duty. His responsibilities. Unwilling to see the truth in a female’s eyes.
Rannn remembered the look in his sister’s eyes when she told him about what had happened to her. Rannn had vowed to himself right then never be so heartless.
Seth of Stars, he couldn’t breathe.
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Chivva stepped out of her apartment, feeling a quick vibration on her wrist from her Minky watch. Tapping the screen, she accepted the voice call from her boss. “Hey.”
“Got a new contract this morning. Don’t go to Grand Canal like I told you to yesterday.” Before she could ask where she was going, her boss said, “I’ll call you back, the client’s calling.” He ended the audio call abruptly.
Chivva stood in the middle of the hallway, debating if she should wait for a callback or spend the extra time at the Fast Star, grabbing a quick breakfast. Before she’d made a decision, she saw the building manager, Naff, on his knees, breaking away a section of the wall.
A plethora of basic tools and broken floorboards were scattered around him. Chivva figured that now would be the perfect time to tell him about a recent change in her lease. “Um, Gini moved out about a month ago. I didn’t know if I should just tell you or update the lease.”
The black-horned Night Demon grabbed the broken piece and flung it on top of his growing pile. Answering without looking up, he said, “I don’t care, as long as the rent gets paid.”
“Right,” she said, scratching the side of her head. Demons didn’t care about stuff like that. He probably didn’t even know her name.
Walking around his mess, she tried to stay out of the ring of old, moldy planks.
“You plan on living alone, or are you going to sublet your extra room?” the Demon called out.
Chivva stopped. “I don’t know. I’ve never rented to a stranger before.” Gini was a friend from work at Mete-Net. They were both nuclear engineers.
The Demon broke another part of the floorboard away. “If you want to offer it up, I have people on a waitlist.” Naff peered over at her.
“Better than nice, they have money.”
Chivva didn’t want to pay all the rent by herself. She’d done that this past month, and it had been a hit to her account. Biting her lip, she said, “Okay.”
Chivva hoped he didn’t mean Demon deal. That was a death wish. As her manager, he wouldn’t do that, would he?
Just then, her watch vibrated with another call. She tapped the screen. “Hey, boss.”
“Be at Scape-Goat as soon as you can. Talk to a Red Demon named Roody.”
“What’s broken?” she asked, utterly confused. Scape-Goat didn’t sound like an industrial park, which is where she usually worked.
“His power’s out. He didn’t know how or why.”
“Why didn’t he call the power company? Why am I going?”
“Because he doesn’t pay for power. He uses a transverse cell system.”
She cursed to herself because no one used cell systems anymore—they were death traps. The cores weren’t stable, though using a transverse gave them a longer life span. Her boss was sending her to a job she couldn’t do. Which meant she’d have to think of a way around legally fixing it.
The call ended before she could tell him that she didn’t want to take the job—not that anyone else was a nuclear engineer. Dropping her arm, she simply stood there, seething.
Exhaling, she doubted she’d have enough time to get food. It was going to be an all-day job, especially if it was really bad. Checking the distance between the Scape-Goat and the apartment on her watch, she saw it wasn’t that far away. She could still get Fast Star’s coffee and cookies and arrive at a decent time.
Turning back towards the elevator, she heard Naff call out. “Chivva. Come here.”
He knew her name?
Slowly whirling around, she said, “Yes?”
Naff used two fingers and beckoned her forward.
Feeling like a kid in trouble, she walked slowly and defensively. When she was almost at the edge of his tools, he told her, “Go back to your room and put on the ugliest outfit you have.”
“You heard me.”
“I did. I’m just not sure why you’re telling me to change.” Looking down at herself, she added, “I’m not indecent.”
The male’s eyebrow rose. “Have you ever been to the Scape-Goat?”
She shook her head because it didn’t really matter if she had been there before.
“Exactly. Now, go change. The place is a Red Demon bar-slash-back-room-blitz. Females who go there are only looking for one thing. Demons who go there see only women to blitz. Add to that the fact that you look like…that, and they’re going to think you want to roleplay.”
Scowling, she said, “That’s disgusting. I’m a professional who has an actual contract to fix…to manipulate the power. Not to mention, I’m not dressed in any way that says…’Hey, you want to find a room?’.”
Ignoring everything she said, he asked, “Do you have anything moldy? Or maybe something old that smells like death?”
Honestly, should she be insulted? Did she look like someone who owned things like that? “No. Who the hell keeps moldy, old clothes?”
Kadin’s door swung open, and her neighbor slithered from his room, almost knocking into her. Chivva’s heart sank as the nightmare himself cut his eyes at her as if offended that she was in front of his door.
Stepping back, she waved her hand. “Don’t let me stop you from getting to your important day.”
Kadin’s lip curled. “As if standing in my way could stop me.” The bastard shook his head and acted as if he didn’t have the time to even breathe in her space.
Her jaw flexed. Seth of Stars, she hated him. Loathed how much he thought she was simple. How…beautiful he looked. How much she’d crushed on him when she first moved in.
But how could she not? His hair was perfectly styled with a casual flare, almost messy as if he rolled out of bed looking hot. No one got out of bed looking that way. Maybe they were hair implants that stayed that way. Yeah…that sounded like a Bolark thing to do.
Kadin wasn’t full Bolark, though. His skin wasn’t scaly, but it did have multiple shades of green and a little yellow like a full-blooded Bolark’s did.
She wondered if that was why he was so mean—making up for his lack of proper scales.
Naff pointed at Kadin. “Hey, you. You want to cut half off your rent this month?”
Chivva’s head spun back to the Demon. What? Why was Kadin getting half off his rent? She wanted half off.
Her evil neighbor lifted his chin arrogantly. “I’m listening.”
Naff pointed his crowbar in her direction. “Take her to Scape-Goat. Make sure no one touches her. Stay with her until she finishes her job and then bring her back. This Terran will get blitzed to death if she goes alone.”
What did the Demon just say? That she was going to get sexed to death? That wasn’t even a thing. Was it? Besides, Kadin wouldn’t protect her. With her rotten luck, he’d probably kick her in the door and say, “Have at her, boys.”
No. Hell no. “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Kadin’s Bolark green eyes widened dramatically as he took her in. His gaze slowly roamed down her body, stopping briefly at her chest. On the scan up, she saw a curl form on his upper lip as if he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to blitz her.
She should feel violated. Chivva had just told Naff that she wasn’t dressed for a blitz. But Kadin made her…extra-sensitive. She didn’t know why, but he did.
Kadin arrogantly peered over at the Demon on the floor. “Two months of free rent, and I’ll stay with her while she does her job.”
Kadin was actually considering escorting her to a Red Demon bar to keep people from touching her? No, that had to be a lie.
Naff had better not be stupid enough to believe this jerk-face.
Stepping in front of Kadin, she told Naff, “There could be a million Red Demons in that place, and they wouldn’t even compare to Kadin. Trust me, I’ll be fine.”
Naff tilted his head slightly. It took another second for her to figure out what she’d said that had made him smirk.
“I meant…Kadin is worse than a million Red Demons.”
Behind her, she heard Kadin’s mouth open with a slight wet click. “I have higher standards. Of course, they’re worse.”
“You don’t have higher standards. Having perfect hair and clothes does not make you better than everyone, despite what you think. You’re mean on purpose. That’s not a virtue,” she said, not looking behind her.
“I’m not mean. I’m honest. That is a virtue…according to Terrans.”
Naff waved his tool absently. “He sounds like a perfect bodyguard, especially if you’re going to see Roody.”
Kadin cursed as if he knew who Roody was. It didn’t matter. She argued, “I’m not having breakfast with the guy, I’m just going to have him point out where the cell system is located.”
“Cell systems are ancient.”
Chivva was surprised that Kadin knew what a cell system was. A little impressed, she turned to him, ignoring how close she was now standing to him. “I know. And I have to fix it or find another way to get the power back up.”
The side of Kadin’s lips turned down, and she could see the perfect straightness of his jaw. Being so close was bad. She should back up.
His words sounded half-annoyed and half-contemplative. “If it’s dead, the core is dead. There’s no preserving that.”
His frown deepened. “Then how are you going to fix it?”
She thought about it. “Depending on how big the place is, I can probably put in a water-fusion refractor. I think I have an extra one.”
Kadin’s jaw dropped, and something that hinted at interest sparked in his expression. “You have one lying around? Where?”
“In my shed.” Duh. Every self-respecting crank had a shed.
“Where is your shed?” His tone was lighter, as if he wanted to see it…or break in and inspect it, laughing arrogantly at how unimpressive it was to his high-grade tastes.
“Where I built it. And it’s legal.” Trying to step around him, she said, “Excuse me.”
“Not a chance,” he said, holding a hand out in front of her. “If I’m going to be your bodyguard today, then I need answers. Lots of them.”
Shoving at his hand, she said, “No, you don’t. Because you’re not going to watch me. You just want to know my private business so you can find a reason to throw it in my face later. The reality is, you couldn’t care less if I ever came back.”
“Is this your Terran way of getting me to confess some feeling towards you?” Kadin said mockingly.
She tried to take a step forward again, but he refused to let her pass. Then he got very close, so close she could smell a subtle hint of crisp early morning rain. Chivva forced herself not to lean in.
His voice was low when he told her, “Three things will happen today, a trio you can’t change. One, you’re going to realize that you have no say in what I do. Two, you’re going to accept that I’m going to watch you work. And three, you’re going to show me your shed.”
Kadin stayed in her space. She didn’t know if he was waiting for confirmation or what. When he finally pulled back, she heard him tell Naff, “I want two months rent-free for this, not one month half-off.”
Naff, who she’d almost forgotten about, chuffed. “Should have taken the first deal, Bolark. Because if you want me to eat two month’s rent, then I’m moving you into Chivva’s extra room.”
“What?” She gasped as Kadin echoed her words.
There was no way she was that unlucky. Seth of Stars didn’t hate her that much…did He?
Naff continued. “You wanted to move into a one-bedroom because, and I quote, you don’t need a second room. Well, there it is. My one-bedroom offer.” Naff didn’t wait for a response. He turned around and shoved the head of the crowbar in between the wall and the floorboard to crack them apart.
“I said I wanted a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t say anything about sharing.” Kadin moved to her side.
“You’re not sharing a room now. What you wanted to do was pay less rent. This is how business works, Kadin. I figured you knew all about that.”
“I know business, Demon.”
The air was thick with tension, and Chivva didn’t want to add to it, but there was one small thing that needed to be said. “I don’t want to live with Kadin. I literally set my alarm an hour early every day just to avoid him.”
Kadin frowned at her as if that were the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard.
Naff didn’t turn around. “Chivva, our deal was for me to find you a roommate. Your opinion has nothing to do with our deal. You already agreed. It’s done.”
Kadin, the bastard, gave her a look that said: sucks for you.
“Don’t look at me like that. You don’t want to live with me either. Not that you could even handle it. You can’t stand me, and I will likely make your life hell. I listen to music nonstop, and I sing all the time. I hate cleaning, and I snore.”
Kadin folded his arms over his chest. He wasn’t pissed like she’d expected him to be. Instead, there was a small smirk on his face. “You’re a horrible liar. I live next door. You listen to music in the shower and when you’re buzzing yourself happy. That’s it. You vacuum every other day, and I can smell cleaner from outside your door every Saturday morning. You snore, that part is true. And for the past month, you’ve binge-watched Drifting Treasures. Sixteen seasons of people scavenging space garbage. If there is anything that would make my life hell, it would be listening to another episode of that.”
Chivva hadn’t known she could feel equal parts murderous and embarrassed at the same time. But here she was, living that nightmare.
Next to her, Naff cleared his throat. “I’m starting to get the feeling that you want the room.”
Kadin scowled. “Knowing what she does wasn’t an indicator that I want any part of it.”
Shaking his head, Naff said, “You really should have taken the first deal. My last one will be you finding your own place to live.”
“You can’t do that,” Kadin said with a growl.
Turning his head back towards Kadin, the tip of his horns swiveled by, and Chivva leaned back to ensure they didn’t catch on her pants.
“Your rent’s been late three times, and I’ve already sent you two warnings. Legally, I can evict you.”
Chivva watched Kadin. His head lowered, along with his threatening voice. “You sent me two warnings. Three years ago. Both times were when my wife at the time emptied my bank accounts. Since I divorced her and kicked her out, I haven’t gotten another warning.”
“Rent was paid an hour late yesterday.”
Kadin’s lips pulled back in a snarl. “Wouldn’t have been late if your mate didn’t let my ex-wife inside my apartment. That female got the numbers to my new bank account. Which, as you can guess, meant she drained every last kelep.”
Chivva had had no idea that Kadin was married. She’d moved in two years ago, and she’d never seen a female leaving his place. When did he get divorced? How long was he married?
Also…Chivva would lose her mind if someone emptied her bank account once, let alone three times. She didn’t want to feel bad for the jerk, but…she couldn’t help it. That was awful. And she thought she had bad luck.
Kadin’s green eyes shot to hers, offering a threatening glare. His look silently told her that she’d better not repeat a word of this.
“She had a marriage certificate and valid Bolark citizenship. Marnak and its business must obey the laws of the race.”
Kadin growled. “The marriage was voided. The certificate was invalid, and if your mate had taken a second to verify it, she would have known.”
Chivva bowed her head and stepped back, needing to leave the conversation. This was too personal. Kadin deserved a modicum of privacy.
A green hand pressed against her stomach, stopping her from leaving. It was the first time he had ever touched her, and it felt too intimate. Kadin’s voice was only a hair above a whisper, but it vibrated with command. “Go put on that ugly mud-colored sweater. It’s the most off-putting thing you have.”
Her skin tightened at his tone and the insult. Pushing back her shoulders, Chivva stood tall and pressed against his hand. “I don’t have that anymore.” Because she’d lost weight and had gotten rid of all her fat clothes.
“The stained red one, then.”
Green-eyed bastard. How did he even remember that one?
Through flattened lips, she told him, “I threw it away eight months ago.” She’d worn it once, a year ago. Kadin had seen it and told her that she looked as if she’d tried to take a bath in grease.
Kadin hummed to himself. “Fine. I guess this vomit-looking thing will have to do.”
She snapped forward and got in his face. “It’s not vomit. They’re pink and green flowers, you jerk!”
Kadin didn’t look the least bit remorseful. “You’re a construction worker. Why are you wearing flowers in the first place?”
“Nuclear electrician.” She wasn’t a builder, not that she looked down upon them, but her designation deserved respect. She’d worked hard through school.
“As if that changes anything. Why dress nice to work in sludge?”
The same reason she always did her hair and makeup—because she liked looking pretty. Was that so bad? And she didn’t work in sludge.
“It wouldn’t matter what I wore, you’d find something nasty to say regardless. Now, I have a job to do, and you are not invited.” Chivva sidestepped the male and stomped all the way to the elevator. Thankfully, Kadin didn’t follow her, which meant that he wasn’t going to take the Demon’s offer. She was thankful. Maybe her luck wasn’t completely gone.
Kadin was an asshole. He knew that about himself. He cultivated and refined it, especially when dealing with people like Naff. “Don’t ever bring up my personal business again,” he said as calmly as he could, considering that his blood was boiling.
Naff tilted his head, not to look at him but down the hall.
Kadin didn’t need to follow his line of sight to know that Chivva was headed to the elevator, stomping and clearly hurt. He’d done that. He knew it, and yet he never liked the aftermath. But it was either that or lose the last shred of self-dignity he had left.
His ex-wife had already destroyed his trust in relationships and females that appeared sweet and helpless. He wasn’t going to let another one trick him.
Chivva had moved in the day after he’d kicked out his ex-wife. One day later, Seth of Stars was clearly trying to destroy his last piece of sanity when he stepped out of his apartment to discover that his neighbor was a sweet, smiling Terran with lush curves and dimples.
Kadin had been rude to her from that moment on, pushing her as far as he could. Now, two years later, he’d started to hate himself more every time he cut her down. Her soft smiles were gone. Long gone. And she walked with her head down, seeming almost…broken.
He did that.
He hated himself for it.
“Chivva won’t survive Scape-Goat,” Naff said as if Kadin cared. Maybe he did, and that pissed him off even more. Naff was a Night Demon. He was supposed to be the scum of the planet, yet even he showed that he cared.
Kadin followed Naff’s line of sight again, making an educated guess that Chivva wouldn’t go straight to Scape-Goat. She’d hit up Fast Star first for some coffee, the black garbage that Terrans drank.
The Demon didn’t bother looking at him when he asked, “Are you taking the deal or not?”
Yes, he was taking the damn deal.
He couldn’t let the manager know how much he liked the idea. Kadin wasn’t an idiot. Dealing with Demons was tricky, and he now had all the legal ammunition he needed after finding out that his ex-wife had conned Naff’s mate.
Now, all he had to do was add a little more leverage to solidify the plan he had already carefully organized. Adding Chivva to the package was like a signing bonus. “5303 is finished. I talked to the head of maintenance last night. I checked with your mate this morning; it’s not assigned.”
Naff turned the top half of his body, eyes narrowed.
“We’ll take that one.”
“It’s a one-bedroom.”
“I’m aware,” Kadin said, and saw a small flash of something in the Demon’s eyes as if he knew more.
He couldn’t know how Kadin truly felt about Chivva. No one could.
“And I know,” Kadin continued, “you got a quote from Emmerson to upgrade the elevators so that everyone has to have a keycard to operate them. That will be happening this month, or I will go to the Federation authorities and tell them you let my ex-wife into my room without my permission. All I have to do is show the voided marriage cards, and security will come to the same conclusion I did. You broke the law.”
Because if his ex-wife took another kelep of his, he was going to hire an assassin and have her murdered. That nasty, soulless brat couldn’t stop making his life hell. He’d already had to get the Federation involved to bring her up on charges.
If they found her, which he knew they would, he was going to push for her to be sent to Debsa, the prison planet. She deserved to be with others of her soulless kind.
Naff typed something into his Minky pad. A few seconds later, he told Kadin, “Have your apartments cleaned and emptied by the end of the day. You can have 5303.”
Kadin would hire a team to move everything. Considering the deal complete, he said, “Leave both sets of keys to the new apartment at the front desk. And pull the rent from my account—in two months.”
Kadin turned on his heel and headed towards the stairs.
Behind him, he heard Naff say, “Careful, hybrid, your Yunkin side is showing.”
Kadin whipped around, then went back and picked up a wall cutter to point at the Demon’s scarred face. “You know who I am and what I do. Nothing I have ever done was honorable.”
Naff looked at the cutting tool, seeming unintimidated. “You’re not the only Yunkin in the building whose honor code is literal and not philosophical.”
Dropping his arm but not the tool, Kadin replied, “That makes no sense.”
“Doesn’t it? Why don’t you keep that with you, you may need it.”
That’s why he picked it up, he wasn’t an idiot.
Stuffing the wall cutter in his pocket he turned back around. With luck, he wouldn’t have to rush to catch her. Then again, if Chivva wasn’t across the street stuffing her face like a starving child, he would have to break open Scape-Goat and search every room. Because there was no way Chivva wouldn’t look like perfect prey to those who frequented the place.
Aside from those dark thoughts, Kadin could still feel the excitement in his blood. He would be sharing a room with Chivva. All those months of pushing her away were over. Living with Chivva would not be like living with his Bolark wife.
The rules weren’t the same.
Seth of Stars, he couldn’t wait.
Chivva was not prepared for the likes of him.
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Elder Irin and Elder Munker had no idea that they were about to die a rather gruesome death. The two doomed men were having a conversation in Elder Irin’s office in the west wing of the reproduction section at Pettemway Hospital when Elder Munker made the fatal error that would eventually cost both men their lives.
We don’t want another one like him walking around. Elder Munker projected the words to Elder Irin’s mind as he leaned back in the swivel chair in front of Elder Irin’s desk. Chollar has been nothing but trouble.
Usually, the Elders avoided even thinking the name Chollar out of fear of catching the fearsome telepath’s attention.
Even hundreds of miles away, Chollar was capable of hearing his name being mentioned. When and if that happened, he sometimes reached out mentally and linked his mind to those conversing telepathically about him.
If they were lucky, all Chollar did was listen in, eavesdrop a little.
Elder Irin’s and Elder Munker’s luck would run out soon, however. Neither male seemed to notice Munker’s careless blunder while their telepathic conversation continued.
Well, we haven’t had any other like him, so it would seem that our little solution is working, projected Elder Irin.
Yes, but not without unintended consequences, Munker added. I’ve double-checked the numbers. There has been a 40% reduction in the birthrate of Elders. If things continue at this rate, our community will be left in the hands of barely functional Cerebrals in less than two generations.
Elder Munker wasn’t aware of the moment when Chollar’s consciousness entered his mind and started sifting through his memories, curious to discover the nature of this solution the men spoke about. Munker didn’t find it all suspicious that his thoughts suddenly drifted back to the previous afternoon when he’d assisted Elder Irin in aborting several fetuses, all of which had been developing at alarming rates within their synthetic wombs.
Elder Munker felt a sudden wetness trickle out of his left nostril. He reached for a tissue just as Irin mentally informed him that his nose was bleeding. Munker dabbed at his upper lip with the tissue before holding it out and verifying for himself that his nose was indeed bleeding.
Neither male thought it too terribly odd. Noses did that sometimes.
Until a stream of red began to trickle from Irin’s nose, as well.
Munker’s eyes went wide. It’s him! He’s heard us!
Suddenly, bright-hot pain burst behind Munker’s eyes, and he fell to his hands and knees, clipping his chin on Irin’s desk in the process.
Irin tried to reach out with his mind to their colleagues just a few feet away in the hallway beyond his office door. However, he couldn’t project his thoughts. It was as if a wall had been thrown up around his mind. Intending to rush out into the hallway and get help, he pushed himself out of his chair. He was not able to take even one step. He wobbled for a moment before collapsing back into his seat. Then pain erupted in his head as if someone had inserted a hot knife into his brain.
Irin opened his mouth and screamed, hoping the sound would alert the Elders within earshot that something very dire was taking place within his office. Unfortunately, his scream was little more than a choked whimper given how long it’d been since he’d actually engaged his vocal cords.
Irin sat frozen in agony, his usually silent world now filled with Munker’s pathetic moaning and his own sobs.
Jandy was curled into a ball, stiff, taking shallow breaths.
Locked inside a lifepod so small she couldn’t extend her legs, the deep ache in her hips throbbed. However, she was unable to gain relief due to the lack of space. In addition to the pain, a slow churn of nausea made it difficult to think. The metal grates she lay on kept her cool but did little to ward off the illness.
Jandy had never been this sick before.
She was on a one-way trip to the male who’d bought her. A life of slavery would have been terrifying if she were healthy. But there was no reason to believe she would live long with the poisoned blood in her stomach.
For no reason at all, she flashed on a memory of Jaccy, the male who’d poisoned her. He had been angry that Fynbar had scared off the other buyers so he could pay half the price. In a fit of revenge, Jaccy had cut his hand and fed Jandy his blood.
Then, the bastard had locked her in the miniature traveling pod.
Turning her mind from the memory, Jandy concentrated on the grates and the pod’s simplistic design.
Another memory flashed in her thoughts, this one of her helping Sasha escape the planet.
Jandy hoped that Sasha was okay. Sasha was her best friend. Actually, she was Jandy’s only friend, and she missed the stubborn Terran desperately. Being inside the lifepod, it was impossible to tell time. Needing to see her friend’s face, Jandy slipped out of her conscious mind and her physical body and into her second consciousness. Her mind palace.
As she withdrew, pain lingered in her joints, but the nausea disappeared.
Jandy floated inside her palace where a front door would be. As her body solidified, she grounded herself in the dream living room.
The walls were grey, and a large photo hung on the wall: a picture of the ship Sasha had escaped on.
Immediately to her left was a light grey couch with yellow accent pillows. In front of that was a black wood coffee table with a crystal vase and flowers.
Hanging down from the vaulted ceiling were long, metal poles with thousands of little teardrop lights.
The lights were varied sizes and emitted different shades of illumination.
Leaving the living room, Jandy took the stairs to the second floor. There, she entered a large open-plan bedroom. There was no wall on the far side of the space, it remained open to offer a view into the living room.
The bed was large enough to fit three. The blankets were black, the pillows a dark grey.
Hanging out in the corner, giving off a gentle, yellow glow, were the aura lights of the three people she valued most in life: her mother, her best friend Sasha, and Sasha’s mother.
She really needed to see her friend. With luck, Sasha would be asleep.
Reaching up, Jandy touched the light. Using their connection, Jandy’s body faded to vapor and slipped into the tube. On the other side, Jandy emerged in Sasha’s dreams.
Sasha was inside a small rectangular room with dark grates on the floor and a metal bed. Bars in the middle of the room separated her from the other side as if Sasha were locked in a cell.
“Why are there bars in your room? Are you in trouble?” Jandy asked.
Sasha turned and jumped off the bed. “Jandy? How did you get in here?”
Jandy knew Sasha wasn’t talking about being inside her dream, but she answered honestly nonetheless. “I missed you.”
Sasha’s expression fell. “Are you mad at me for leaving?”
“No, but I’m worried that you’re in trouble and have been thrown in a cell.”
Sasha looked back at the bars. “I’m not in trouble. These bars are to keep Sci from hurting the team.”
Sci…? Who was that? “Is he dangerous?”
Sasha sat back down and faced the bars again. “Not anymore. The doctor on board took away his abnormal abilities so he wouldn’t hurt anyone. But he shouldn’t have done that. Sci’s really nice, and he doesn’t deserve to be in a cell.”
In the corner of the room, Jandy felt something move but she didn’t see it. Whatever it was, it felt real. Like a nightmare waiting for Sasha’s weakest moment.
“Are you mad that I left?” Sasha asked again.
Jandy looked down and shook her head. “I’m not mad. I just miss you.” A part of Jandy wanted to sit down and spend as much time as she could with Sasha, but the shadow in the corner was giving off a very strong I’m-watching-you vibe.
“I hope my mom isn’t mad at me. Did she get in trouble?” Sasha asked, still focused on the other side of the room.
Jandy lied. “Nope, your mom isn’t mad either. She thinks you’re going to be the best pilot in the Federation.”
Sasha looked at her hands. “I don’t know if they will keep me. The captain said it depends on how well I fly.”
Jandy snorted. “Well then, I know you’ll get the job. You are the best pilot I know. Not that I like flying, but you’re still the best.”
Sasha’s lips curled up. “When I come back, I’m going to make you fly with me again.”
Jandy didn’t answer at first. “I don’t think you should come back. Ever. It won’t be safe for you.”
Sasha’s eyes cut to Jandy. “I’m coming back.”
Standing, Sasha was a few inches taller. In her dreams, she thought she was a lot taller. “I said, I’m coming back.”
Before Jandy could respond, the shadow in the corner shot out through the bars and directly at her. It felt like two hands pushed her back. But they didn’t knock her down, the shadow thrust her out of Sasha’s dreams.
Inside her mind palace, Jandy was lying on her back, spread out and stunned.
What the hell just happened? Did she just get kicked out of Sasha’s mind?
That had never happened before.
Jandy rolled to her side and pushed off the ground. Confused at what had happened, she walked down the stairs, replaying the scene from Sasha’s mind in her head.
“How do you have a house inside your mind? What is this place?”
Jandy jerked to the side, shocked to see a strikingly handsome male sitting on her couch. With grey skin, faded black clothes, and dark hair, she wondered if the male might have been an unconscious addition to her mind palace.
“Who are you?” At the same time, she wondered if her subconscious was trying to tell her something important. A manifestation of her inner health.
“My name is Chollar, the Examiner.” He lifted his chin, and she felt the devastation of his yellow eyes. If he was a subconscious apparition, she didn’t need to hear his message, she could tell by his predatory manner that she was in danger.
Cold and calculating eyes narrowed in her direction.
Cautiously, she asked, “What are you doing in here?”
Chollar, her apparition, lifted both arms and rested them on the back of the couch. “I would tell you, but you’ve yet to explain where here is.”
“This is my home. My Silk Demon mind palace.”
He tilted his head. “Interesting title for what resembles a dream-like fantasy.”
“How did you get in here?” This time, she spoke firmly.
“I followed you.”
He’d followed her…to her mind palace? Not possible.
“You couldn’t have followed me.” Hearing herself say that, she had a sinking feeling that maybe this was what happened when Silk Demons were dying. Maybe her body was trying to subconsciously tell her that her time was almost up.
“I’m not a hallucination. I’m a Cerebral.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Cerebrals are a race of telepathic and telekinetic people. We live in communities with fluid harmony, every person assigned a lifelong responsibility. I am an Examiner. Meaning, I find the reasons behind things happening.”
Jandy took an extra few moments to process what he said. It was so foreign to her, it was hard to believe.
His head tilted slightly to the side, his tone saturated with contempt. “It’s really not that hard to understand, Jandy. I’m an Outworlder. You know what that means. So, process that, and let’s move on.”
Stepping back, she thought about all the reasons an Outworlder would be in her mind palace. In those few seconds, she couldn’t think of anything, and that worried her.
“What do you want?”
The stranger dropped his arms and leaned forward. “First, I want to know what these are,” he said, pointing to the teardrop lightbulbs.
“Are you talking about the shape or the different shades of illumination?”
Chollar stood and flicked one of the smaller lights, it swung hard towards a larger one. Jandy jumped to keep the delicate object from breaking.
The smaller light was connected to her previous employer, a very fragile woman who was old and dying.
“Don’t touch. Please,” she said as she grabbed the small bulb and settled it. Then she touched the larger one with the tips of her fingers to steal a few hours of sleep. The bigger light was connected to a Roth Demon in his prime.
Pointing a finger at her, Chollar commanded, “Explain what you just did.”
Explain? Didn’t she already explain when she’d confessed to being a Silk Demon? “How about this, I’ll explain what I did, and you tell me how you followed me.”
Chollar folded his arms over his chest. He was taller than she was but lacked the muscles she normally liked. His shirt looked like a long strip of fabric that had been sewn in asymmetrical angles. Now that she took a better look, he wasn’t that attractive.
“I already told you how I followed you. I’m a telepath.”
“You’re saying words, but they don’t mean anything. Explain better.”
His upper lip curled for a moment before he said, “I am a Master Elder. That means I have unlimited access to your mind, your memories, and even your body if I want. How I followed you will never make sense to you because you lack my ability.”
Had she really thought he was attractive before?
Because he was…not. Not only was he unattractive, he was also rude. Jandy put up with people like him in the real world. She wasn’t going to cower to one in her mind.
Chollar’s jaw flexed as if he too were upset.
His voice sounded controlled but still irritated. “I’m a telepath. I was searching your memories when you left your thoughts and came here. I followed the neural pathway.”
The creepy stalker was riffling through her memories and then followed her to her mind palace? And everyone thought Silk Demons were intrusive.
“Your turn. Explain what these lights are and how you use them. I know they are special, and you can pull energy from them, but I don’t know how.”
“These are my hosts,” Jandy said, tapping the large bulb again. This time, she didn’t take any sleep.
Chollar remained silent, and she could tell that he was waiting for her to continue. For some reason, his frustration made him look almost cute.
“I’m a Silk Demon. Or at least my father was. My mother is a Terran. Silk Demons can’t sleep. We don’t have the…whatever everyone else has that shuts our minds down. So, we steal sleep from our hosts.”
Chollar observed the bulbs with shrewd intensity. It was like he was trying to figure out how it all worked without having to ask another question.
While he scrutinized the length of the cables that descended past the second floor’s landing, Jandy took another look at her intruder.
Of all the fantasies she’d ever had…all the dreams she dreamed, this male was physically enchanting. Strongly cut jaw, high cheekbones, wide mouth, and unruly hair that looked desperate for a haircut.
He was breathtaking in an annoying, ugly-personality kind of way.
Chollar’s dark yellow eyes cut to her. “Your thorns, the ones in your fingertips, they give you the ability to connect with your hosts, correct? Regardless of distance?”
“How do you know about the thorns?”
Chollar raised a hand and, instantly, a series of her memories filtered in.
Remembrances of her hiding in corners and closets at night so the men her mother served couldn’t find her.
More memories of crying because she was tired but couldn’t sleep for fear that someone would find her unconscious body and do unspeakable things to it.
“Stop it. You’ve made your point. You can sift through my memories, which is how you found out about the thorns,” Jandy said, feeling embarrassment at the fact that Chollar knew more than anyone else in her life. More than even her best friend, Sasha.
Chollar flicked his fingers, and the memories stopped. “Like I said, I’m a Master Elder. I can control everything.”
Jandy opened her mouth to answer him when she realized that she didn’t know the answer to his question. Not really. Which was why Chollar couldn’t find the answer himself.
If she didn’t know the answer, and he knew that…what was he getting at?
Playing along, she said, “I have microscopic thorns in my fingertips. When I touch someone who I want to use as a host, I inject them by touching any part of their skin. Once the thorn is in their bloodstream, it enters the brain. Once it’s in place there, I see the addition in this form.” She pointed at the lights.
Chollar nodded once as if he was accepting her words. But he wore a look of…superiority. She didn’t like that.
“Once someone is infected, you control the connection,” he said. “You can invade their dreams and force them to lose consciousness, correct?”
“Yes.” But she never abused her hosts. Most didn’t even know they shared their sleep with her. She only took what she needed, and even then, she didn’t take from the same host each time.
“Good to know.”
Good to know?
Jandy didn’t like the uneasy feeling that swamped her. Does he think he’s going to use me to control someone else? Because that isn’t happening.
“That’s exactly what I plan on doing, Jandy.”
Oh, was it?
Jandy lifted her chin and pointed to her left, mentally installing a door. “It’s time you leave. You weren’t welcome to begin with, and now I’m uninviting you and banning you from ever coming back.”
“I’m very serious right now.”
“I know you are, but that doesn’t change the situation. I’m still your master.”
Her master? No. Not ever.
Slicing her hand through the air, Jandy’s furniture broke into splinters. Chollar jumped up, holding out both hands. Memories assaulted her vision.
She saw them but didn’t let them distract her. Jandy no longer cared that Chollar knew what she had survived.
“I don’t want to fight you. You need to stop. You have no idea what I can do to you.”
This wasn’t going to be a fight. This was going to be a smackdown. He thought he could control her from inside her own mind? Not happening.
Reaching out, she grabbed hold of Chollar’s essence and pulled at his sleep, at his energy. It was like drinking scalding-hot water. It burned all the way down. Refusing to let the pain stop her, she drew in as much as she could handle.
“What are you doing? How are you doing that? Stop. STOP,” Chollar bellowed.
She didn’t stop. She drew in more.
“Stop, or we’ll both die.” His voice broke on the last word.
Jandy stopped stealing his energy, but she didn’t let go of his essence. Chollar’s dream form was breathing heavily. His shoulders sagged as he held a hand to his forehead.
And he thought he was her master?
Pfft. “The next time you invade a Silk Demon’s mind palace, remember this, we don’t like being told what to do.”
Chollar didn’t respond for a moment. His grey skin seemed even paler.
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“Is that him?” Gini asked quietly as the massive beast of a male stalked out of her boss’s office.
Her supervisor, who had escorted her to the waiting room, nodded solemnly.
“And you want me to work with him by myself on Occa Lake?” Gini asked, knowing that Occa was a small body of water on top of a mountain ridge about six hours away. Secluded and without modern technology. Not a place to get stuck with a male like that.
Gini winced as the yellow-skinned Krant stalked down the hall as if he were a shark. Two people had stopped and pushed themselves back against the wall. One male saw him and turned all the way around, taking the first hall to get out of the way.
“Well, I’m not a genius or anything,” Gini started, “but he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who works well with others.”
The director stepped out of his office. “You’re Andy?”
“Gini,” she corrected as she stood up.
The director’s dark blue eyes peered down her body. “You’re the swimmer, right?”
That was one way to summarize her race, sure. But still…rude. “Yes.”
He nodded his head, which was a feat considering his short, thick neck. “Good, good. I need you to fly out to Occa Lake. The quantum network connection is gone. Destroyed over a year ago. Deo, your partner, will identify where the cables are bad, drill the lines, and lay the cable. You will uplink the network and notify me the moment it’s up.”
Sounded very routine. It made no sense that it would take a specialized team to fix it. The foreman also didn’t explain why he needed her swimming abilities in this situation.
“And if the lines are not up and complete, our contract terminates, and we will have a massive fine to pay to the Federation—which means lots of people will lose their jobs.”
Gini lifted her eyebrows as if she were interested in the fate of the company. She wasn’t, but it was impolite to say that. “I understand. You need…” She tilted her head towards the hall because they both knew who she was referring to. “To dig the trenches and lay the lines. You need me to check the hub and get the station working.”
The boss’s face crinkled as he smiled. “That’s exactly what I need you to do.”
Again, what did being a swimmer have to do with this? Why her? There were plenty of electrical engineers who knew how to secure a station.
“Great. Is there anything else I should know?”
The boss looked down at Gini’s supervisor. The way their eyebrows moved, Gini felt as if they were having a conversation.
Interestingly, the boss’s lips pulled back in a tight smile. “No, I don’t think there is anything I could say that would help.”
The jerk was going to let her walk into this job with no preparation.
“Is there a reason you picked me to go?”
“Your…reputation with working with difficult people is why I chose you.”
She had a reputation for working well with difficult people?
That was what she was known for? Wow. That hurt.
She expected at least a: you’re a hard worker, and no matter what, you get things done. Because that was true, too, but apparently, being a hard worker wasn’t a good enough quality.
Internally rolling her eyes, she grabbed her pack from the other chair and swung it over her shoulder.
“Oh, and Andy?”
Good Seth of Stars, he couldn’t even remember her name. “It’s Gini.”
“Right,” he said dismissively. “The thing to remember is, you have exactly one week to complete this job.”
One week? It would take two weeks with a team of five people. How the hell did this bastard think she was going to complete it in seven days?
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“Damn it. I’m going to need another project.”
Lita stood over her nearly complete all-terrain hopper. In two hours, it would purr to life, perfectly polished without anywhere to go. In total, it had taken six months working after hours to build the flying race vehicle from scratch. Hoppers were like motorcycles without the wheels. They could move over the ground at high speeds, but hers was designed to fly anywhere from eight inches off the ground to the far reaches of space.
It should have taken a year to finish…
She was going to need another project.
Being nearly finished didn’t make her blood gush with accomplishment, however. Instead, it felt as if she had eaten the last piece of a secret stash of candy.
Living on a giant Federation spaceship, there wasn’t any entertainment to keep her occupied. Hence the after-hours project. Now that it was done, she had nothing. Worse, it wasn’t like she could go to a local junkyard and cherry-pick an engine to bring back to life.
Being a female born and raised on Earth, she was used to more options.
Lita dropped her tan leather tool bag with a plop. The dark patch that was precariously dangling with one last yellow thread broke and slipped onto the metal floor. Lita bent down and picked up the patch and rubbed a thumb over her father’s name.
Moving, she tucked the patch into a side pocket. The bag was soft and worn with black smudges on the bottom. The strong leather scent was gone, but the comfort it gave lingered.
She plucked out a Nebula green and a wrench. Adjusting her sitting position, she settled next to the back of the hopper’s engine. She remembered the first time she had taken a wrench to a rusted first-series hopper that her father bought at an estate sale. She had been ten, and her father, knowing nothing about raising a child on his own, had brought her into his shop and taught her everything about rebuilding engines, power and torque, boosting performance, body paint, and fabrication.
Lita had brought the frame and parts for the hopper when she moved from Earth to the Garna star carrier, knowing she would need something to occupy her time. Garna was a massive spaceship, miles wide and long. Built to take on a rogue planet or stop a planet-sized war. It was by far the most dangerous ship in the Federation. Which was why Lita had joined the Federation. The best ship had to have the best mechanics, right? Well, she was it. The best.
In the months of living on the ship, she had found a perfect routine. After a fourteen-hour shift, she grabbed a few packets of food, a Nebula green, and moseyed back down to Level 4—the docking bay—to work on her hopper.
Lita reached back into her bag again and scooped up a handful of bolts, stuffing them into her pocket for easy access. Gripping her wrench, she felt the tip of her spine tingle expectantly. Turning, she saw Katie, a fellow mechanic, walking up between two small ships.
Katie had survived a massive, ship-wide disease. She was a little odd and seemed to get lost in her head more often than not, but Lita assumed that was not by choice. It was likely a mental scar of living through the death of her entire crew. Out of six thousand and change, only thirty-six survived. Katie, being one of them.
“Hey.” Katie smiled. “I brought you a Nebula green, but it looks like you already have one.”
Lita took the offered can with a grin. “I don’t turn down Nebulas.”
Katie raked a cursory look over the hopper. “Your hopper’s coming along fast.”
Lita nodded. “I should have paced myself better. In two hours, I’ll be done, and looking for something to do.”
“There’s always work to be done on the ship.”
“Eh, but that stuff’s easy.” And boring.
Katie rubbed the side of her thigh and shifted from foot to foot. “Well, if you get bored…Sands tasked me with fixing 533. He said it has a leak.”
Lita nodded, remembering the spot, a dark blue liquid under 533’s tail-end.
“It will probably take me a month to find the leak…unless you already know where it is?”
Lita grinned. “You’re askin’ for my help, and all you brought was a Nebula? I thought we were better friends than that.”
“You said you were going to be bored. I was just saying, you could help if you wanted.”
With a sheepish smile, Katie pulled a small box out of her pocket and opened the top, holding it far enough away that Lita couldn’t touch it without reaching. “How about a trade? Tell me where the leak is, and I’ll give you this.”
The box was blue velvet, and Lita assumed the trinket inside was a ring or a necklace charm. “I’m not into trinkets.”
Katie held the box closer. “It’s a micro EMP with the electrical power punch of a nuclear bomb but cuts out at three feet. Super condensed.”
Holy crap. What was sweet Katie doing with an EMP like that? If anyone knew she had one, her butt would be in front of the captain in a hot minute.
At the same time, Lita shivered from the rush of tingles that tickled under her skin. Even though she didn’t know what she would use it for, her fingers itched to press the button.
“You sure it’s condensed to three feet? If I take out a ship by accident, I’m going to be pissed.” And sent to Debsa, the prison planet.
“Trust me, I got it a while back when I had a bad breakup with a cyborg. My sister, Adya, is close with our family doctor. She asked him to make something that I could use as protection.” Katie handed over the box.
Lita took the deadly treasure with both hands. Hello, beautiful. Tucking the EMP into her pocket, she told Katie, “533 has a hyper fluid leak. It’s not a seal, it’s a bolt that got loose and savaged the insides.”
Katie made a disbelieving face but didn’t contradict her. Lita explained in detail where the leak was and how to get to it. “That’s going to be a bigger job than a leak.”
“What else do you have to do?”
“True,” Katie said thoughtfully. “I don’t know how you do it. It’s like you have a telepathic link with the ships.”
“I wish,” Lita said with a sly grin. Although she was damn near omniscient when it came to anything with moving parts.
Getting back to her hopper, Lita leaned back until her spine almost touched the floor, then reached her fingertips out to catch the metal piece to be installed. Gripping the edges, she craned her neck to get a better view of a dark figure walking directly towards her.
“Sands,” Lita whispered as she used her stomach muscles to pull herself back up.
Sands didn’t interact with the crew. He usually sent their job assignments via their Minky pads and left it at that. A few times, she’d caught him working on another ship, but even then, he didn’t make a habit of talking to anyone. Not that he needed to. He did an excellent job of communicating electronically. Still, Lita couldn’t deny that every time she saw him—and his cybernetic arm—she gushed.
His arm was one-of-a-kind, and her fingertips itched to touch the rough and smooth cables. Whoever had done his work was an artful master because she had never seen anything sexier.
Katie sucked in a breath through her teeth. “He’s not happy.” The words were not an assumption, they were fact. Katie was a Hetten, a race that could read emotions.
“Bye. Thank you,” Katie said as she turned on her heel and left like a terrified pet.
Lita debated if she should stand up or stay on the floor. Deciding to stay down, she took a few breaths to remind herself that she had done nothing wrong. Yet. The EMP would go off one day. She didn’t have enough self-control not to push the button. But Sands didn’t know that.
Sands stopped at the front of the hopper, giving it a long glance. Lita’s nose caught a hint of something uniquely Sands. Warm beach, salty air, and sexy surf wax.
Restless from her physical reaction and the seconds of silence, she greeted him. “Hey, everything okay?”
His dark eyes moved from the vehicle to her. There was no expression on his face, just shrewd observance. “This hopper’s all-terrain, right? Does that include high altitudes?”
“Yes,” she answered slowly, wondering why he was asking.
“Space, too? You installed a teardrop canopy, right?”
“Yeah.” Lita did not like where this was going.
“Good. I need to borrow it.”
“It’s not done,” she said reflexively.
“You have a few body parts to put on, and it’s done. I estimate it will take you two hours.”
Lita didn’t give him the confirmation, but he was right. Two hours, and she would have finished.
“Does your silence mean yes?”
Not even close. “I don’t mean to question you, but what do you need it for?”
She waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t, so she asked, “You need my hopper for a mission? A hopper that goes into space? Won’t any of our other ships work?”
His face tilted. “If anything happens to it, I’ll pay you for it. Plus interest.”
“It’s one-of-a-kind.” He couldn’t just pay her a few thousand keleps and say, “sorry,” if he broke it.
A hiss followed by a loud snap echoed in the docking bay. Sands turned around for a second, and Lita followed his gaze. Like any mechanic worth their salt, she knew the sound of an engine starting. The guttural hum told her that it was a galleon ship, not one of the smaller ones like a transporter or sloop.
“Looks like they’re loading up. I need you and your hopper to come with me. You can finish this on the 817 galleon.” He reached down and gathered the remaining hopper parts.
He was taking her on an official mission? “Where are we going?”
He picked up a piece of the hopper and said, “You won’t have time to pack, but you have time to clean out the break room’s supply of Nebula green energy drinks. As far as I know, there isn’t any stocked on the ship.”
Lita’s mouth dropped. He knew her favorite drink?
“Close your mouth and get moving. I’ll come back for the hopper after I drop this off.”
This was really happening? She was going on a mission? Feelings bubbled, and she wasn’t sure if it was excited squiggles or nervous needles in her stomach.
“Lita. The break room. Now.”
Right. The Nebula greens. Half-turned, she paused and asked, “Where are we going? Just wondering if I need to grab anything else from the break room like…a handful of knives.”
Sands grabbed another part from the floor. “Your bolt gun and welding knife will do more damage than a disposable utensil. We’re going to the Outworlds.”
The Outworlds…where nightmares lived and thrived. It was forbidden.
A smile tickled her lips. If they were crossing the lines, this was a bigger mission than he was letting on. “I can do some damage with a disposable knife. You sure you don’t want me to grab some?”
Sands did not look like he appreciated her joke. The cyborg stood there, arms full of metal parts, holding her gaze, his jaw set.
Trying to look properly chastised, she said, “I’m going to the break room.”
“You do that.”
Sands was waiting for her near the hopper. Her baby was locked down with magnetic tip-toe tethers.
Lita leaned over and picked up her tool bag and then blew out a breath. “I’m ready.”
Sands scanned her from her feet up and said, “We’ll see.”
She suppressed an eye roll, and Sands unlocked the dolly and pulled it towards the idling ship. The heavy, textured, grey ramp was down. The angle was steep, and Sands pulled the dolly up as easily as if it were a hover dolly instead of one with wheels. It smoothly glided up and into the receiving bay that transitioned into the cargo bay.
Lita wasn’t one to stare because she’d worked alongside males before, but Sands had a presence. Not a bulking maelstrom of testosterone with a cleft chin and hydraulic grease on his cheek, but a quiet, unstoppable ocean current that refused to explain where he went or why.
A male like that hadn’t been born that way. He became that way. And she wondered if she’d ever hear that story.
Maybe in the confines of the mission, he might do more than ask questions or send her work orders. Perhaps…they could have a real conversation.
One could only hope.
Inside 817, she saw the well-organized straps and packs for emergencies. But there was a wall, ten feet directly in front of the ramp, that shouldn’t be there.
“You modified the receiving area.”
“You asking or telling me?” he said, not stopping as he moved forward.
Both. “Why would you build a wall?”
“Because I needed it.”
At that, she rolled her eyes even though he couldn’t see her.
At the far back of the cargo bay, he stopped and locked the wheels of the dolly and then leaned on the tongue, resting his flesh and blood arm on the top handle part. His shirt was black with a Federation logo, but the sleeves were missing. The small frays she saw meant that he’d likely cut or ripped them, and she liked him even more for the bold, rebellious display.
“I assume you have everything you need to complete the hopper, right?” His chin shot out, pointing to her tool bag.
“Yep. And when I finish, I will make sure it’s good. There’s enough room to run the engine.”
Sands scanned the bay and said, “Yeah, it shouldn’t be an issue, considering you put in a belirium core instead of alloric.”
Why was he acting like he knew everything about her personal project?
And why was he insulting her engine core? “Belirium’s better,” she said, looking at the engine and picturing all the hard banks and dives it would be able to do. A mechanical masterpiece.
“Alloric has more power.”
“It does,” she said, agreeing with him as she ran her fingertips over the polished metal. A condescending smirk flashed on her lips before she remembered that she needed to be polite to her boss. “But I built her to have three hundred sixty-degree torque on a dip. Better torque, better agility. Can’t get that kind of responsiveness with an alloric booster.”
Sands stepped next to her, and she saw him nod before adding, “You would’ve had the same control if you’d installed hydraulics in the handles.”
There were hydraulics in the handles. But he was talking about negative-z drive hydraulics. “Yeah z-hydraulics would work for a while, but the pressures would change in higher altitudes, and the hopper would stall.”
“The odds would be minimal if you did it right.”
If she did it right? Did he want to get slapped with her wrench? “Two point five percent chance of a stall, even when I do it right. I’ve built enough hoppers to see it happen.” Lita crossed her arms and waited for Sands’ undoubtedly stupid reply.
Sands held her eyes for a moment too long before saying, “I’ve never built one before. But I’ve been a crank since I was twelve.”
“I’ve been cranking since I was ten.”
“Those two years don’t give you more time as a crank. I’m older.”
Lita had never had this long of a conversation with Sands before, and now, she understood why the male didn’t converse often. He was a condescending prick.
Lita grabbed a piece of the body from the floor, lifted it up, not aligning it to the hopper yet. “I have a young face. I’m older than I look.”
The corners of his lips pulled back in a slow, sexy grin. The way his face lifted, and his eyes brightened, it made her want to blush. Damn him. The boss was hot.
“I checked your file. You’re not older,” he said.
Did he? Was he looking at her age or for something else? “You looked into my file to see how old I am?”
“I noticed your age, but I looked at your work history.”
When he didn’t add anything else, she chuckled. He was impressed. As he should be.
“I looked up your work history, too.” She didn’t think to check his physical section where it listed his age, race, or other things she thought were irrelevant to a person. She wanted to see his experience, to find out how good of a crank he was.
The grin faded to a moderate smile, but his tone was lighter than when he was talking trash about her engine. “You shouldn’t have been able to access those kinds of details.”
She shrugged, thinking about his entry exam. He’d maxed out the test, like she had. But his history said he was a cargo ship crank. That was all. “I noticed you have a lack of experience in planet-side jobs.”
Sands’ lips pressed together for a moment. She didn’t see anger, but withheld amusement.
Her tool bag sang out with a favorite song from Earth, bringing attention to her non-Federation communication device tucked securely in her possession. She called her device Burns because the artificial intelligence—AI—running inside needed a good name.
Sands peered at her bag. “What’s in there?”
Lita didn’t answer as Burns stopped and then started to sing again.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume you were hiding something,” he said with an underlay of warning mixed with relaxed curiosity.
Taking the opportunity, she pointed at her tool bag and said, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours, pretty boy.”
His head came forward. “What did you call me?”
Oops. “Are you going to worry about that? Or do you want to know what’s in my goody bag?”
His eyes narrowed as if he suddenly realized something about her. “You go first.”
She laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“I’m your boss.”
“Yes, you are. But if you want to see my little treasures, then you are going to have to show me what you’re working with.” She zeroed in on his metal arm with her gaze, marveling at the unpolished shades of grey and dark grey.
Sands pursed his lips and then held his cybernetic arm in front of his body. “Crescent wrench,” he said as his metal hand turned unnaturally back inside his arm, and a crescent wrench flipped out. His arm didn’t have a solid casing. Instead, it was cables and rods shaped like an arm, but in a functional and artistic way. She loved it. Needed to touch it.
That part of her that lived and breathed mechanical things woke up and took notice of Sands’ closeness. Lita watched the cogs move, and her inner need came alive. Her blood started to buzz, and she felt a flutter low in her belly. Early on in life, she’d felt like she had two souls. The Terran one and then the other. The other side had an uncontrollable need to possess everything mechanical. If it had moving parts, her dark side wanted to touch it and take it apart.
Sands continued, “Flathead screwdriver, and a ten millimeter. Pretty much…I can rebuild a battleship with these.”
Despite her coiled intensity, she laughed. Stopping shortly after realizing there was more inside that arm. She could do the math. Those four things didn’t take up that much room.
Sneaky male was holding out on her. Which was exactly what she planned to do to him.
Setting the bag down, she took a knee and opened the top. Reaching in, she pulled out Burns and stopped the song by declining the call as she held the black metal ball up with her fingertips. “I call him Burns. He’s like a walkie-talkie in that he can talk to his identical twin back on Earth. This is how my sister and I call each other.”
“Why not use the Minky pad for a quantum face-to-face call?”
Because every call and message was logged by the Federation. There was no such thing as privacy when you signed up for ten years of service. Telling him that wouldn’t go over well, so she said, “I don’t like having to hold or tip up a Minky pad to talk to my sister. This hovers around me while I work.” Lita took out her necklace from under her black t-shirt. “It has a GPS chip in it, with endless range. It’s more functional.”
He nodded then used his chin to point at the bag. “What else did you smuggle in?”
Lita didn’t bother hiding her smile. Reaching in, she said, “Reikett-powered welding knife, multi-purpose crescent wrench, socket mapper, powder adhesive, 3D molder, and a power jack.”
Sands rubbed his bottom lip. “Those aren’t tools to rebuild, those are tools to fix carnage.”
“You could say that.”
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