The chemistry between Raze and Sierra is too hot to ignore, even if it should be impossible for a mate bond to form between them.
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One Hundred and Three Years Ago
The morning burned hot and bright and the people of Detya awoke to a pleasant summer day, just like all the summers before. Birds flew from tree to tree and small animals scampered through the forest. The defense monitoring stations sensed no threats and even the summer monsoons were a month away from threatening the peace of the planet.
But two million miles away, at the interstellar gate at the edge of the solar system, trouble brewed. A dark ship slipped through the black sky, setting off no sensors and communicating with nothing. It did not identify itself to the Detyen crew monitoring the galactic shipping lanes and it silently crushed a small pleasure craft which crossed its path.
No insignia identified the origin of the ship and the design could have come from a hundred different civilizations.
As it sped closer to the planet, no one sensed the danger. A military ship launched an hour before the silent threat passed Detya’s final moon and did nothing to defend the planet.
With a single shot, the mystery ship destroyed the planet and the billions who lived on it. Fire coated the land and the seas dissolved. The damage ate through everything, leaving nothing but a burnt-out husk, incapable of sustaining life.
And before the few survivors who’d managed to make it off planet prior to the destruction could even begin to fathom what had happened, the ship was gone.
The kingdoms and republics of Detya were dead.
The military was destroyed.
And from a planet that had once hosted billions of lives, fewer than a million remained.
The Detyens were extinct. They just didn’t know it yet.
No matter where they went, home was gone, and there was no way to know who had stolen it away.
Sierra didn’t know why she’d agreed to family dinner. Her father sat ramrod straight with a glass of whiskey clenched in one hand and studiously ignored the insignia on the sleeve of her uniform. She ate her peas one by one and only spared him glances when he shifted or sighed. Three years of this shit and she still hadn’t learned.
“I talked to Commander Mitchell about the training course I told you about. Two years of officer training and then you’ll have a command. Say the word and it’s yours.” He wasn’t using his General voice, which Sierra appreciated. But it also made her want to cry. He’d given up ordering her around. How long would it be before he gave up on her all together?
It was moments like these that she could still smell the stench of the Wastes where she’d spent her first years sticking to her skin. Her father, General Remington Alvarez, had saved her life. And all she was to him was a disappointment.
“I like my job, Dad.” She forced herself to look up. Even though he was in his mid-sixties, her dad barely had any gray hair and his muscles made her think he could lift a tree if he had to. He’d been stationed behind a desk for more than a decade, but none of the work had made him soft. No, Remington Alvarez was all hard edges and strict rules.
“The job that means I have to spend every night you’re in the field wondering if you’re safe? The job that I can’t talk about to any of my friends? The one that will steal away your future before you even realize it?” He jerked his glass up to his mouth and threw the whiskey back, hissing as the liquid burned its way down his throat.
“I wouldn’t be any safer in the fleet,” she felt the need to point out, even as his other statements flayed her alive. “And if it weren’t for the work I did, the fleet would be flying blind.” He made it all sound so sordid, and not a necessary part of any defense apparatus.
Her father sucked in a deep breath and Sierra had to look away, staring at a still photograph her father had taken at some fancy event with an alien with bright yellow skin and sharp teeth. They’d had this fight a hundred times before and the only sure thing about it was that both of them would be left hurting and resentful by the time the night was over. “I’m—” she cut herself off before the apology could flit across her tongue. That was the problem. She wasn’t sorry.
“Sneaking behind enemy lines, lying to people. It’s not honor—” he, too, choked on his words.
Sierra still flinched. It’s not honorable. Yeah, she’d heard that one plenty of times too. This had to end now. If they spoke for any longer, it would lead to more months of silence and shitty tempers.
She placed her napkin on the table and scooted her chair back. “Thanks for dinner. I’ll give you a call when I get back and we can do this again.” Emotion lodged in her throat and she swallowed it, unwilling to break in front of this man.
“Back?” her father demanded, throwing his own napkin down. “Where are you going?”
“A mission. Classified. Dishonorable stuff, you wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.” Her eyes itched and if she didn’t get out of there in the next minute she’d end up crying. Sierra didn’t cry in front of her father, not ever. That was even worse than dishonor, that was weakness.
“Erra—” he tried to stop her with her old childhood nickname. Sierra didn’t even pause as she scooped up her jacket from where she’d laid it on the back of his couch. She made her way through the narrow hallway of his quarters and to the front door.
Something that might have been regret danced in his eyes as he met her at the door. “Be safe,” he finally said, grabbing her in a tight hug and yanking her close. “Come back in one piece, I still need a date to the reception for Ambassador Yormas of Wreet.”
Sierra squeezed her eyes shut, but when she opened them again, her eyelashes were wet. Her dad said nothing. “I’ll give you a call,” she promised, not ready to agree to anything when her emotions were so raw.
He just nodded and let her go.
The hallway outside of his apartment was the same boring gray as the walls inside her father’s quarters. He shared the floor with three other units, but she saw no one as she made her way down the faded carpet to the stairwell beside the elevator. She took the stairs at a fast clip, as if speed were enough to outrun everything on her mind and in her heart. She hated disappointing her father. He’d saved her from a short, hard life of unspeakable cruelty and darkness. She doubted she would have made it to twenty-nine if he hadn’t adopted her. But Sierra had long ago realized that being grateful for her existence didn’t mean she owed her dad her entire future.
He saw it all for her: officer training, command, rank. Everything he’d doggedly pursued for his entire life. The only life he could conceive of. She’d taken one look at the training manuals and run screaming. Sierra was no stranger to discipline. How could she be when her father was General Remington Alvarez? But if she made that life hers, she’d be extinguishing herself. And as much as she loved her dad, she couldn’t do it.
He’d give her that derisive laugh of his if he knew she thought that way. How, he’d ask, could she be more true to herself as a spy than as a soldier?
She didn’t have the answer, but he wouldn’t care to hear it even if she did.
Her vehicle was located in the parking garage under his building. Sierra scanned the area, noting the android attendant near the entrance and a flickering light near where she’d parked. Awareness prickled at the back of her neck and her muscles loosened, her stride long and confident as she waited for the threat to make itself known.
A cat darted out from a dark corner and Sierra’s blaster was out, her finger on the trigger before she even registered the movement. When the animal jumped on top of her vehicle, she laughed and put her weapon away. She needed a damn vacation.
But vacation was the last thing she had to look forward to, not when planetary defense had to come first. Sierra gave the cat a gentle pet and then shooed it on its way before sliding into the car. As soon as she was on the road, her communicator lit up. She engaged the call without video and didn’t bother to glance at the identification to see who was calling. Anyone who had her code wouldn’t call if it wasn’t an emergency.
“Joyce is calling us in,” her friend and navigator, Mindy Branch said in lieu of a greeting.
“Right now?” A glance at the clock showed it wasn’t even close to midnight, let alone their 0500 call time.
“Yeah, Jo’s already on her way.” Mindy sounded about as pleased with that turn of events as Sierra was, but neither voiced their concerns.
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Got it. Drive safe.” She disengaged and the communication’s display went dim.
Sierra sent a silent prayer of thanks to anyone who was listening and turned her car around to head to the rendezvous point. She needed to get the fuck off of Earth to remember why it was worth saving in the first place.
Raze’s indicator alerted him that his required physical exertion period had come to an end. He glanced at the readout on the machine to see that he’d improved his last run time by three seconds and noted the statistics for his file. A quick swipe with the cleaning pad took care of the sweat that had dripped onto the machine, and he used a separate towel to take care of the moisture beading on his forehead and at the base of his neck.
The material was rough and cheap, but sturdier than anything else the legion had been able to purchase. He dragged it slowly across his skin and nearly couldn’t suppress the shiver that tried to climb up his spine from the almost painful friction. A moment later he pulled the towel away and disposed of it in the laundry chute. He mechanically stripped himself of his clothes and they followed the towel down to where they’d be laundered and returned to the rotation.
He nodded to Kayde, one of his fellow warriors, as he walked naked to the shower station. The cold water hit his skin with bruising force and this time he couldn’t stop the hiss from the sensation. The water quickly warmed to a sufficient level and he cleaned himself in his allotted time. Another swipe of a different abrasive towel saw him dry, and he barely spared a glance for the marks it had left on his green skin. He pulled on a clean uniform and exited the shower station before the next warrior to finish his training could be delayed.
Though Raze knew he was scheduled to join his team for the final briefing before their scheduled mission, he consulted his schedule before heading toward the administrative building in case the plan had changed. The legion and its soldiers were slaves to their schedules, especially those like him. To eschew routine was to eschew control, and when the soulless lost control, there was only one solution.
If he could still feel fear, Raze might have felt the shiver in his spine. But just like everything else, those emotions had been taken away from him, given up, two years ago, just before his thirtieth birthday. He couldn’t regret his decision, and he chose not to dwell on it. The legion had saved his life, he owed them his loyalty and his service.
A quick walk through one of the service tunnels brought him to the administrative building. The entire compound was connected through underground tunnels and elevated walkways so that no soldier or staff member would need to brave the harsh weather of their home moon by walking between buildings outside. The moon was habitable, but the weather extremes made it less than ideal, and for that reason, it had been sitting uninhabited after a failed colonizing attempt six decades before. The legion had bought the rights to the land and had spent years making their own little colony into a fortress.
No one would be able to do to them what had been done to their ancestors.
Something that might have once been sorrow clenched in his chest, but Raze paid no attention to it. If he chased the phantom emotion, he could easily find himself out of control and scheduled to be executed within the hour. Punishments were harsh and final for the soulless, but it was the only way to protect the legion.
The familiar path inside the administrative building centered Raze with the comfort of routine. He walked down the brightly lit hallway and spared a glance at the Detyen art that decorated the walls. When he was younger, it would have brought to the forefront all of the sorrows and joys of a home he’d never seen. Now he merely noted that one of the frames hung slightly askew.
He entered the assigned meeting room and took his seat, nodding in greeting to Toran NaLosen, a younger Detyen warrior who smiled at him in response. Unlike Raze, Toran still possessed his soul. He wouldn’t need to choose between death and soullessness for a few more years. “Kayde and Sandon should be here soon,” Toran said. He tapped his fingers against the table, the small sound loud enough to fill the room.
Raze let his eyes rest on those moving digits. Toran’s clan markings climbed down both of his arms and covered parts of each hand, making his golden skin appear almost spotted. The door slid open and two more men walked through. Toran pulled his fingers into a fist and stilled as he studied the newest entrants. Raze spared them a glance, nodding at Kayde and Sandon before settling his gaze on the holo projector in the center of the table. Kayde settled in beside him and Sandon took his place at the front.
With a flick of his fingers, Sandon brought up a projection of the planet they would be heading to and their target. “The planet is called Fenryr 1,” Sandon said, calling up the basic climatological and population statistics as he spoke. “It technically sits at the edge of the Oscavian Empire, but has no native population and no Oscavian development. Flares from the dual stars at the heart of the system make it difficult to monitor the planet and it’s become a haven for pirates and slavers. Our intelligence has detected a small gathering here,” he pointed to a peninsula on the globe. “There are few other inhabited pockets near the southern pole, but we have no interest in them. Your target is the Lyrden, which is located a hundred kilometers away from the peninsula. It was brought to the planet two years ago and we think it is meant to be scrapped. Due to the extensive number of scrap ships collecting there, the Lyrden is not heavily guarded and we have no reason to believe that it will be destroyed before you can find it. We need all of the data that you can scrape from the onboard computer. Questions?”
Both Raze and Kayde glanced at Toran, who was reading through the mission parameters on his personal tablet. “This says the Lyrden is a XA-1. That’s more than a hundred years old. It’s possible, if not likely, that the system can’t be scanned or recovered. Do we have the authority to bring parts back? Or do we not want the inhabitants to know we were there?”
“This is a high priority mission. Use any means necessary to recover the data,” Sandon pierced Toran with his steely gaze. “The Lyrden was recorded in the Detyen system the day of the attack. We have reason to believe the information on that ship could lead us to whoever attacked us or supplied the weapon. Are we clear?”
They were. Sandon left them alone to plan. If Raze weren’t soulless, he’d describe the blood coursing through his veins as excitement. He sat forward, ready to talk the mission through. They couldn’t save their home, but they could get revenge, and this was the first step.
Within two hours of her disastrous dinner with her father, Sierra was on a ship and off planet, speeding towards the jump gate. The mission had suddenly moved up when a gap in scheduling provided her team with a quicker route to their destination, but the gap would be closed by the scheduled launch time. She could still hear Jocasta Nelson, her pilot, grumbling about missed sleep. Sierra kept her distance, opting to spend the time from Earth to the gate strapped in one of the chairs in the kitchen.
Mindy had shot her a glare and taken her position at the navigator’s station beside Jo. The two traded barbs as they worked through the checklists that would see them safely out of the solar system and on their way to Fenryr 1. Fucking pirates were stealing women from Earth and selling them off as slaves… or worse. Hundreds abducted over the course of a decade, and it wasn’t until the niece of a US Senator disappeared that anyone paid any attention to the victims. Sierra was trying really hard not to be angry about that, but she had three days to get her emotions under control. By the time they reached the pirates, she’d be ice. Until then, she wanted to hit something and not stop until it bled.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
A warning alarm buzzed and the lights flashed as they approached the gate. The interstellar passageways were seeded throughout the galaxy and made it possible to travel throughout inhabited space in a relatively short amount of time. Humans hadn’t put them in place, but the Sol system had free use of one gate and that gate opened to a highway of other passageways that led anywhere a person could want to go. Not that Sierra particularly wanted to go to Fenryr 1, but she’d do the job, gather the intel… and leave any women behind.
She clenched her jaw as her ears popped. Pressure built in her head as they slipped through the portal and out the other end. An all clear alarm sounded and the first leg of the journey was complete.
A minute later, Mindy came bounding back and plopped into the seat beside Sierra, pulling her legs up to curl into a ball of fluffy woman. She wore a gray sweater that was soft enough to pet, but it was covered in soft balls of an unfamiliar fabric. The ensemble was matched by tight, synth leather pants and a bright green headband that held her long blue hair back. She didn’t look like a spy, but she was one of the best navigators in the entire Sol system.
“We’ll save them all,” Mindy promised.
Sierra wasn’t surprised that her friend had read her mind. The parameters of the mission hung heavy over all of them, even the standoffish Jo. “It’s a lot easier when we get to go in and steal data from rich assholes or plant a bug in some government official’s communicator.” Sierra unbuckled her safety harness and turned so she could more easily face Mindy. As her body shifted, the chair reshaped itself to accommodate her new position. They were designed for comfort on long journeys, something regular military vessels didn’t need. Though she’d never use that point in an argument with her dad.
“But you might actually get to shoot someone this time,” Mindy countered. She glanced back toward the cockpit and then lowered her voice. “Dinner not go great?” It was more of a statement than a question.
Sierra shrugged. “Could have been worse. We’re still talking to each other, so that’s good. I think he’s still kind of pissed off that I grew up.” Feelings weren’t something that they talked about in the Alvarez household, and Mindy was one of the few people who didn’t let Sierra get away with deflecting the discussion.
“And he knows that you’re doing dangerous shit,” Mindy pointed out. “My parents think I work in accounts receivable. They’d be terrified if they knew what I really did. But it’s not like this is a secret you can keep from the great General Alvarez. No one keeps secrets from the man who singlehandedly saved a city from alien destruction.”
Sierra groaned. “Don’t talk about Mumbai, please!” She covered her face with her hands and burrowed further into the chair. The trouble with being a hero’s daughter was that she could never escape his heroics. No one saw Remington Alvarez as the guy who’d panicked when he needed to help her buy bras. No, he was the man whose astute observations and quick thinking had turned a would-be massacre into a minor skirmish.
“He wishes you had your own Mumbai,” said Mindy. “It’s not that he wants destruction, but he wants you to be recognized. And as long as you’re doing this, recognition is the last thing you can have.”
“I don’t give a shit about medals and ceremonies. This is what I’m good at.” She’d been nine when her dad had swooped in and saved her from the Wastes, but that was old enough to already know how to wear a dozen different faces depending on what she needed. A safe home and years of therapy had given her the opportunity to live a fulfilling life, but she couldn’t escape those early years, not completely. They’d given her the tools she needed to survive and now that she could control her own destiny, she wanted to use those tools to help others, to help her people. Anyone could hold a gun, but only someone like her could lie to the face of the head of the Oscavian Diplomatic Corps and get away with it.
“You ever regret what we have to give up?” Mindy asked. She grabbed a blanket from the storage bin overhead and wrapped herself up, adding to her already high level of fluff.
“Like what?” She still had her dad, the money was good, and when she was home she was pretty much safe. What more could she need?
Mindy scoffed. “Really? You know, a guy? A family? It’s kind of difficult to maintain a relationship when we’re called off planet for months at a time with no way to communicate.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy worth more than a few weeks of my time, and even those are rare. What’s wrong with having some fun? We’ve got plenty of time for families later.” Though now that Mindy mentioned it, Sierra tried to remember the last time she’d been on a date. Had it even been this year? She had a feeling her friend wouldn’t count a hookup with one of the marines they’d been briefly stationed with.
“So you don’t want any of it?” This truly seemed to baffle Mindy, whose face screwed up in a look of confusion and something approaching pity.
“Not enough to give all this up.”
A slew of curses followed by fevered hammering came from the cockpit as the ship did something Jo didn’t like. Sierra and Mindy shared a look and both bit their bottom lips to keep from bursting out laughing. A moment later, footsteps pounded down the metal catwalk leading from the cockpit to the kitchen and Jo stomped through. She paused to look at both of them.
“One of you babysit the damn autopilot. I need to take a shower.” Without waiting for either of them to agree, she headed off towards the bathroom, muttering more curses.
For once, Sierra said her silent thanks to the temperamental pilot. A few more minutes of Mindy’s questioning and they’d be talking weddings or babies or some shit like that, and Sierra was not in the mood to discuss things that weren’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon. Unless there was some man out there who could respect what she did and appreciate her for the woman she was and not some perfect princess that he wished she’d be, she’d rather be single and fulfilled than paired off and miserable.
And she hadn’t once met a guy who wouldn’t want to change her. So single it was. And that didn’t make her regret anything.
Not at all.
An uncharted topographical disturbance derailed the initial plan to land near the Lyrden and quickly retrieve the data. Toran directed Kayde to a secondary location and within the hour, they had the ship hidden among an outcropping of rocks and were hiking over the stony terrain down the windswept peninsula. The gusts beat at Raze’s hair, sending some of the longer strands into his eyes and mouth. He normally kept it cropped short, but his scheduler had malfunctioned and deleted his appointment for his last haircut. He smoothed his fingers through it and the slight mist in the air was enough to wet his hair and keep it slicked back.
From space, it hadn’t been obvious why Fenryr 1 remained mostly uninhabited. The weather seemed moderate, despite what they’d been warned of, and green covered huge swaths of the planet, both over land and sea. But once they set down, the inhospitality became more apparent. The green that looked like trees from space was actually a dense and malodorous moss that covered everything and stuck to their boots where they walked. A few small animals darted out from the cover of the moss, only to be snatched up by birds that swarmed in dense black clouds.
There was no sign of the pirates and slavers, and the path that they’d charted to the ship was meant to keep them out of range of whatever detection devices and patrols they used.
After several hours of walking, Raze’s legs burned and his lips cracked, parched for water. He took a drink and surveyed the area around them. There was little cover, other than some stone outcroppings, and if he hadn’t been tracking their coordinates, he might have believed they’d been walking in place. It all looked almost the same. The suns were setting on the far horizon and a chill froze the air around them. His clothes were meant to withstand subfreezing temperatures, but he suspected that Toran would soon stop them for the night.
In another setting, Toran, as the youngest of the three of them, might have been the junior member of this team. But among the legion, it was those who still had their souls who led in the field. They had the ability to adapt and follow instincts that Raze and his like had surrendered in the name of survival. And it was only soldiers who still had their souls that could make the choice to put down one of the soulless if he went over the edge. They could see the danger long before he would, long before the bodies hit the floor and blood coated the walls.
Toran held up a hand to stop them. Kayde and Raze came up beside him and waited for him to speak.
“Those rocks look like they’ll give us some cover. I want the two of you to set up camp. I’ll see if I can round up food or water. Don’t break into the rations until I’m back.” He handed off his supplies to the two of them and took off.
Kayde followed Raze toward the area Toran indicated and they worked in silence to set up tents and ignite the warming block that would act as a heat source and a way to cook any potential food Toran hunted down. It gave off no scent and little light, which helped with stealth.
More than an hour later, Toran returned with two small animals in hand. They were covered in fur with large ears and looked to have a good amount of meat on them. He handed them over to Kayde with instructions for him to clean the kills and test them for digestive compatibility before taking his place in setting up camp.
“I’ve set up the drones to monitor a perimeter,” Toran told him. “Kayde can take first watch, but I’ll want us to keep to the camp in case we need to make a quick retreat.”
Raze nodded and finished adjusting the final strap of the tent he was working on. Once he was finished, he stepped back and looked around the little camp. Tents, warming block, refuse pit, everything was set up. He took a seat on a fallen log and stared into the dim glow and let his hands soak up the heat as night fell around them.
“You can’t get bored, can you?” Toran asked as he set up one of the portable chairs beside Raze.
Raze thought about how to answer that for a moment. “Not like you mean, I don’t think. I could sit here until it’s time for me to sleep, but my mind is sharper with stimulus.” The first week of training after becoming soulless had been all about how not to fall into ennui now that he couldn’t desire anything. The warriors who survived were the ones who found a way to keep engaged, even when engagement no longer seemed to matter.
Toran studied him for several moments, his form quickly disappearing into shadow as the suns finally set. He was little more than the outline of a Detyen, the soft glow of the warming block not enough to discern details. “Can I ask what it’s like?”
Raze didn’t need to clarify what he meant by ‘it.’ Most people back at the base wouldn’t ask, but there was only one thing he knew that they didn’t. “It isn’t like anything,” he said after taking another few minutes to gather his thoughts. “I can remember emotions, remember desire and goals and everything else. It hasn’t completely vanished. But it’s the difference between a steaming hot spring and a tepid bath. Water surrounds me no matter what, but now it merely serves a function. I neither like nor dislike it.” Raze paused for a moment and then unexpectedly added, “I would not have chosen this if it weren’t for my debt.”
“Debt?” Even in the shadows, Raze could see Toran jerk his head in his direction and lean a little closer.
“For surviving,” Raze explained. “My brother and I were saved by the legion, not born into it. And we owe it to our people, as the last link to Detya.”
He could almost feel Toran’s stare boring into him. “Do you really believe that?”
“I used to.” It was hard to believe anything these days. He hadn’t realized just how much emotion went into belief until his life dissolved into the nothing of soullessness.
Toran said nothing for several moments after that before changing the subject. “I hear chatter.”
Raze stayed silent.
His teammate let out a small huff that might have been a laugh. “I'm going to talk at you until you tell me to stop.”
Raze had realized that. “We’re outside of surveillance range, I have no reason to stop you.”
This time he was sure he heard the laugh. “You know about that Detyen colony in the Consortium?”
“Yes.” The Consortium was a system of several planets mostly ruled by humans. They’d been abducted from their home world over centuries and set up their own civilization which welcomed almost any race. Raze had never been, the legion tended to stay in less populated areas of space unless a mission called for something else.
“They say that one of the leaders there found his denya.” Toran spoke so quietly that Raze almost had to strain to hear.
“It does still happen.” Even among the legion, a few had found their mates.
Those two words froze Raze in place, rooting him to the ground. “What?” Something like curiosity nipped at his mind.
“A human denya.” Wonder filled Toran’s voice at the thought. “Mated to a Detyen. I don't know if it's just a fluke. Maybe she's not all human. But wouldn't that be…” he trailed off.
“Why now? Detyens have had some contact with humans for a long time. Why did none find a mate among them until now? This sounds like a story, a legend.” Though humanity’s expansion into space hadn’t begun in earnest until after the destruction of Detya, there’d been some level of contact for centuries, whether through the Consortium or humans abducted from their home planet. Raze had never heard of a human becoming mated to a Detyen in that time.
“You mean like warriors who give up their emotions to live longer than a biologically mandated death sentence?” Even he could recognize the sarcasm dripping from Toran’s words.
“Toran… don't get your hopes up.” If he’d heard this story three years ago, Raze could only imagine how he would have felt. And how he’d have been crushed as his birthday approached and that hope was snuffed out again.
“Aw, I'd almost think you were worried for me.” Toran placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a friendly squeeze. Raze sat still and took it. Contact didn’t exactly hurt, but it reminded him of things that were no longer his.
“I would be.” If he still had the capacity.
A beep cut through their conversation and Toran’s wrist communicator lit up. He sighed. “I need to go check on Kayde. He's due for an eval.”
“And me?” He and Kayde needed to be closely monitored to ensure that they didn’t compromise the mission. Toran would run through basic diagnostics on a daily basis while they could spare the time.
But his fellow Detyen only shook his head. “You're good. I'll see you later.”
Raze let him go without another farewell. He sat there for a long time staring at the warming block and considering everything that had just been said. Thankfully, he could not hope and he could not regret. He didn’t know what he’d do with the information Toran had given him if that were the case. And the hollow core in his chest might have ripped open and bled if he could feel anything other than the mildest pang of longing.
“I’ve got us landing by this piece of crap old ship,” Jo said as they orbited Fenryr a final time. “Should give us good cover from any surveillance. This craft is small enough that they’ll just think we’re another piece of debris.”
Unlike the departure from Earth, Sierra was strapped to her seat in the cockpit for their entry into the potentially hostile planet. She had her blasters strapped to her sides, communications devices secured, and a first aid kit within reach if they needed it. All signs indicated that the slavers and pirates had no idea they were coming, but she liked to be prepared in case the cold mission turned hot. That was a lesson she’d only needed to learn once.
“Entry path is clear,” Mindy confirmed. The navigation visor covered half of her head, feeding her information from the hundreds of sensors studded to the outside of their craft.
“Affirmative. Entering orbit in thirty seconds.”
Anticipation bubbled in Sierra’s veins. A feeling of restless uselessness had been dogging her for the entire flight. She could take over either Jo’s or Mindy’s position and do an adequate job if the circumstances called for it, but everything had gone off without a hitch so far, leaving her sitting on her ass for the past three days. That was a good thing, she reminded herself. Still, it was just about her time to shine.
Best navigator. Best pilot.
And now, it was time for the best operative to get into position.
She didn’t say anything while Jo concentrated on getting them through the atmosphere at a blistering pace. They came in hot in the hopes that any sensors would read them as a meteorite, rather than a hostile ship. Once they were in place, they’d split, with Jo guarding the ship, Mindy finding high ground to run surveillance, and Sierra getting up close and personal with the kinds of assholes who thought it was okay to steal and sell people. Well, as up close and personal as a person could get without actually being seen or sensed in any way by the enemy.
With a final jolt, they punched through the atmosphere and crashed down in what felt like a free fall. Sierra gripped the armrests of her chair hard enough to hurt her fingers and her jaw ached from being clenched so tight. Jo's the best, she reminded herself. This is all going to plan.
That didn't make the semi-controlled landing feel any safer though. But in a matter of minutes they were out of the sky and nestled into a rocky outcropping within sight of the shipyard.
“They must be stripping these pieces of junk,” Mindy said as she leaned forward to get a better view through the screen. “That guy over there has to be more than a hundred years old. God, the tech must suck.”
Jo started to scoff but the noise lodged in her throat.
“What?” Mindy demanded.
“That's an XA model from the Oscavian Empire. It's not some dinky Earth ship that could barely make it out of the solar system without a malfunction. Some of the best ships in the galaxy are old as fuck. Just because humans haven't been travelling for millennia doesn't mean the rest of space is so far behind.” Jo, too, leaned forward, but from what Sierra saw of her face, she wasn't disappointed by the old ships. She looked like a kid in a candy store.
“We don't have time for sightseeing,” Sierra reminded them as she undid her safety harness. “I want our scans done ASAP. The sun is getting low and I don't want to lose the light.”
Both women whipped around and glared at her. Sierra sent them a smirk. Not much could get her navigator and her pilot on the same side, she'd need to remember this for the future.
Despite the glares, they got to work while Sierra got ready. While her goal was to remain unseen by any of the planet's inhabitants, she knew she couldn't count on it. Most of the human women on Fenryr would be caged and possibly collared. But Sierra wasn't about to dress herself up as a slave. While media shows back home liked to portray slavers and pirates as barbarians, from experience Sierra knew they didn't look all that different from the mercenaries she'd worked with on various jobs. Knives went into sheathes on her arms and around her waist. She pulled an old synth-leather jacket out of her luggage and slid it over her shoulders. Heavy, tight pants and thick boots gave her protection from the elements and some weapons, and a dark knit hat covered her hair, disguising the burnt umber tone. If they'd been on a space station or some civilized place, she might have taken the time to do up her makeup and play up the sexy vibe. But Fenryr 1 wasn't designed for socializing, and she was here for business.
When she came out of her quarters, Jo looked her up and down and gave a licentious whistle. “If you showed up at a bar back home looking like that, I might just buy you a drink.”
Sierra laughed and shook her head. “You just like that I look like I could kick your ass.”
“Well, yeah.” When Mindy came up behind Sierra, Jo’s face shuttered and she turned back to the console. “Scans are finished. There’s activity to the south, but we should be out of their range. If anything comes up, I’ll follow protocol to evade them and protect the ship.” She handed over two bracelets. “The locators are working well. If the light turns red, I’m heading your way. Standard call procedure if you need a pick up.”
Sierra slipped on the bracelet and saw Mindy do the same. “Good luck, be safe,” she told her team. “Let’s get this done.”
Something about what Toran said the night before nipped at Raze’s conscience, but when he woke up the next morning, he pushed the thoughts aside. So what if human mates had been discovered? It couldn’t change his situation. He’d given up the part of himself that could sense or care for a mate, so even if she did exist, he’d never know. That, at least, was a small comfort. If he could sense his mate and never claim her, he’d go over the edge for sure. And while he had little life to live, his will to survive still pushed him forward every day.
The three Detyens took down their camp and covered any hint that they’d spent the night in the area. Once that was done, they took off on foot, heading closer to their destination in silence. Raze kept his mind alert as they moved. In the distance he saw a ship flying, but it headed away from them. Even if its sensors detected life, it was unlikely to check them out.
As the suns rose high overhead, sweat dripped down Raze’s neck and clung to his top. Removing a layer would be more comfortable, but he couldn’t risk it when they could come under enemy fire at any moment. Even Kayde seemed bothered by the heat. He placed his fingers in the collar of his shirt and pulled, trying to circulate some air. Though his face remained impassive, his lip twitched and he gave up the effort after a moment.
They came to a rise in the land and moved carefully, unable to see the path ahead of them. The caution was warranted. As soon as Toran cleared the hill, a shout rang out and he cursed, dropping down low and waving at Raze and Toran to do the same. They did without question.
Crawling on his elbows and knees, Raze moved closer until he could see what Toran saw. He would have cursed too. Ten pirates, armed to the teeth, were running their way. One of them clutched something that might have been a perimeter drone, specifically, one of the drones that Toran was using to ensure that they weren’t seen. They were almost impossible to detect.
“Engage your camouflage and try to flank them. We can’t let them call in any backup.” Toran kept his gaze glued to the pirates while he gave the command.
Raze slunk back, making space for Kayde to take up his position. Under other circumstances, they may have been able to get away from the engagement without any bloodshed, but the drone changed things. It was military grade and didn’t belong on this planet. If the pirates called for backup, the mission would be compromised in no time. They were too close to the shipyard to be discovered now.
The camouflage in his uniform made him blend in seamlessly with the area around him, but the battery wouldn’t last more than an hour before needing a charge and constant use caused the tech to overheat and malfunction. Raze noted the time he’d engaged and moved slowly, following Toran’s orders. As he got closer, he counted the pirates again and confirmed that there were ten, all armed and ready to shoot at anything that moved. Raze couldn’t use his own blaster until he was in position, and he spotted at least two las cannons among the pirate’s weapons. They wouldn’t need to see him to kill him with those. One blast in his vicinity and he’d be cut in half by the searing flames.
Shouts rang out as the pirates climbed the hill where Toran and Kayde had waited. He didn’t spare a glance, his men needed a distraction to handle the problem. He couldn’t take out the enemy before anyone else was in danger. All he could do was his own job. And to do that, he needed cover. The moss all over the place was no good—even if he laid down he’d still stick out. But the territory here was even rockier than where they’d bedded down for the night. He found what he needed a short jog away. Three towers of stone, close enough to dart between if he was spotted while giving him room to move if the pirates had any friends coming up behind him.
He disengaged his camouflage and grabbed his weapon. Rather than aim for the men still rapidly climbing the hill, he sent a charged shot to a moss-covered rock behind the men. It exploded, the wet moss smoking wildly and making visibility hazy. He sent another shot and watched it blow a hole in what he’d thought was a rock but must have been a fallen tree of some kind.
The pirates didn’t scatter, instead falling into a formation that suggested they had some sort of training and discipline. It wouldn’t save them. Not against three warriors of the Detyen Legion on a mission to finally discover who or what had destroyed their homeland.
Raze aimed his weapon, but the smoke was too much for him to risk firing. He couldn’t get a shot, could barely see the outlines of bodies scattered on the ground. When the blaster fire subsided, he engaged his comms, calling up Toran for confirmation of his next move. But his comms were strangely silent, the barely audible hiss that indicated an open line too quiet.
“Toran, are you there?” he requested.
Toran didn’t respond and Raze tried to call again. Still nothing.
The smoke began to clear and Raze counted the bodies lying on the ground. The number was difficult to discern. Someone had lost control of a las cannon and body parts were flung about. He counted seven heads on the ground. Potentially three survivors. And no response from Toran or Kayde. Raze waited a few minutes more to see if the clearing air revealed any more heads or if he saw movement from the pirates or his fellows. But all was still on the hill. The bodies needed to be hidden before the pirates and slavers could find them, and he needed to find Toran and Kayde to ensure they were safe and continue the mission. There weren’t enough Detyens left in the legion, they couldn’t afford to lose anyone else.
That was his only concern, he tried to tell himself. But the warring priorities buzzed in his head, freezing him in place. This was why the soulless didn’t lead. Both objectives were equally important: hide the bodies, find the men. And Raze didn’t know which one he should do first.
Calm down, Raze. He could almost hear his younger brother, Dryce, speaking to him. You can do this, just pick one. He’d said that at their first meeting after Raze lost his soul when he’d needed to choose a meal in the mess. Raze had frozen in place, unable to choose between one dish and another since neither held any significance to him. He didn’t crave the taste or texture and they had the same nutritional value. Neither was better or worse than the other.
Toran and Kayde could be right there, injured or simply with malfunctioning comms devices. If Raze went to deal with the bodies, then he could find out whether that was true or not. And if it wasn’t, he’d use any information he found on the bodies to hunt down Toran and Kayde and recover them before continuing with the mission.
Plan in hand, he took off at a fast clip, almost choking on the rotted stench of the smoke as he ran through it. Whatever that moss was made of, it smelled terrible, like fish guts and bile that had been left out in the suns for weeks.
He climbed the rise with care, weapon in hand and senses alert. But the only sound was of the gentle breeze and the dying fire. He didn’t hear Kayde or Toran, and there was no sign of the surviving men. Raze studied the spot on the hill where they’d crouched only minutes ago. A small patch of green caught his eye and he knelt down, placing his hand in the sticky fluid.
Detyen blood. Not enough for a killing blow, but one or both of the men was injured and in the hands of the enemy.
The mission had just changed. The ship and data on it could wait. He needed to find his men, make sure they were okay, and kill whoever he needed to make sure that they posed no threat to any of his people ever again.
Sierra cursed and dove for cover when the weapons started firing. She tried to call Mindy over the comm, but something was up with the signal and all she heard from her ear piece was silence. The moss that seemed to be everywhere didn’t offer much in the way of cover, but a large boulder was enough to squat behind to wait out the firefight. She tried to get a look around to see if she was in anyone’s sights, but the band of pirates climbing the hill off in the distance seemed more concerned with the blaster fire coming from their front and the explosive charged shots aimed at their rear.
Trouble in paradise? Intel hadn’t said anything about factional violence, but pirates and slavers weren’t the most forgiving bunch. She’d keep her eyes peeled for any other signs of trouble, but this could just as easily be some dumb squabble.
Smoke stung her eyes and the stench made her gag. What the fuck was the damn moss made of? She was far enough away that she didn’t have trouble breathing, but that didn’t help when she still wanted to throw up from how bad it smelled. While the smoke grew thicker, the sound of blaster fire cut off. A few strangled moans echoed eerily across the rocks near her, but otherwise it was silent. She tried her comm again, but still nothing. She was still close enough to the shipyard that she suspected something there might be causing interference.
Sierra waited to see who came out the winner of the firefight. Her fingers itched to grab her blaster and finish off the unsuspecting champions. Chances were, anyone who found the bodies would think they’d all done each other in. But she kept her hands off her blaster. That wasn’t the mission and she wasn’t going to screw this up and endanger the women who’d been captured. The information she gathered out here could be instrumental to freeing them.
Minutes ticked by and nobody moved. Maybe they had finished each other off, but something was bugging her, something was off. Sure, pirates fought all the time in space, but whoever was living here had to be living under some sort of organization. They might not have any law or military, but they wouldn’t have lasted a year if gangs of a dozen men got into fire fights with any regularity. And that had been some heavy duty weaponry. Despite the stench of the smoke, she caught a hint of the burning ozone smell of las fire. That shit meant business. It could eat through just about anything and had only one use: destruction. A blaster fight between rivals? That she could understand. But bringing a las cannon to this kind of battle showed they meant business.
Maybe this was all part of some leadership challenge and the place was on the brink of war. Given the intel they had, that might be why the pirates were moving on. But one fight wasn’t enough to think that was true. Not yet. She pushed the thought to the back of her mind with a note to keep an eye out for anything that might be relevant, and then she was on the move.
She didn’t make it far before darting back behind her boulder as some of the survivors started moving. She grabbed binoculars from her belt and slipped the sleek glasses on. She spotted three men in gear not that dissimilar from her own. One had a blaster out while the other two dragged two other men, one with golden skin and the other a greenish blue. Two of the slavers were human, the other a humanoid with purple skin and no hair. Oscavian if she had to guess from this distance. She couldn’t identify the species of the guys being dragged, but that didn’t matter for the moment.
They moved with the slick efficiency of those accustomed to stealing people, and though Sierra was watching them closely, they disappeared between one blink and the next.
What the hell?
She refocused her binoculars, but it was like they’d never existed. All that was left in their place was the haze of smoke and a pile of dead bodies. Curiosity urged her closer. Though it was a trait that served her well in her line of work, Sierra forced herself to stay still. Unless there was a hidden entrance or a stashed vehicle of some kind over there, those slavers hadn’t just disappeared. There were types of camouflage that could disguise people like that, and she didn’t want to march on up there if she couldn’t see them. Besides, it wasn’t her problem.
Just as she was ready to move again, she caught movement coming from the other direction. Though most of him was obscured by his clothing, she caught a hint of light green skin on his face and hands. She pressed the button on the side of the binoculars to take a recording. If the AI system couldn’t identify him, maybe Jo or Mindy would recognize his kind.
Something rooted her in place as she watched him cross the killing field and climb the short hill with the self-assurance of a man who thought he was invulnerable to blaster fire. He barely spared a glance for the dead bodies of his fellow slavers, but why would he? Pirates and slavers were a heartless lot, and he’d been one of the guys firing at them. Hell, she was surprised he wasn’t grinning from ear to ear. She couldn’t quite make out the details of his face, but there definitely wasn’t a grin. She couldn’t see any expression at all.
Her heart clenched and Sierra shook her head to clear the unwanted thought. She could barely see the guy, let alone read his emotions from almost indecipherable expressions. For all she knew, he’d eaten a bad sandwich for lunch and was trying to keep from throwing up.
He crested the hill and froze in place. Sierra wanted so badly to stay and see what he did that she forced herself to turn away. She needed to continue on to the coordinates where the slavers were keeping the women and plant her surveillance gear. The sooner she had that information, the sooner they could work to get the women to safety.
The first step was the hardest, when something in her chest was tugging at her to turn back around and… well, she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. She only knew that she didn’t want to leave. But that was too bad. He was just some pirate, better off dead or caught in a power struggle. And there was no reason for her to tell him that his buddies had been dragged off by survivors. No reason to offer help.
That was crazy talk, and finally got her feet moving away.
Nothing. No scent, no tracks, no more blood. Nothing that would tell Raze where Toran and Kayde were. He recounted the bodies they’d left behind and was sure that only seven of the ten pirates they’d encountered were there. He spared a minute to dig out his information tablet to try and call up the trackers that Toran and Kayde were both wearing. Neither of them came up, but neither did his own, which meant that whatever was interfering with the signal in their comms was also interfering with the tracker. He stuffed the tablet back in his pocket and turned his attention to the bodies.
It was grueling work to make them disappear. The ground was too rocky to easily dig a pit, but he got lucky. A little more than a hundred meters from the hill there was a moss covered bog and a quick scan showed that it was deep enough to make seven men disappear, at least for a little while. It didn’t matter if they were discovered after he’d retrieved his men and they’d completed the mission. The bodies just needed to stay gone long enough for them to get off the planet without being found.
By the time he finished he was covered in sweat and his muscles ached. Each of the slavers was covered in muscles and many of them were just as big as he was. The work took hours and the suns were beginning to set. But he couldn’t take the time to find a place to camp. He needed to get a signal and see if he could call up information on the trackers. If not, he’d need to figure out another way to find them. Raze called up his scheduler and set the time. Protocol gave him seventy-two hours to act in his own capacity without reporting back if Toran and Kayde were incapacitated. If he didn’t find them before that, he’d need to return to the ship and get orders from HQ.
But as soon as Raze put the scheduler away, he let that thought slip from his mind. He would find his fellow soldiers.
He searched the area methodically after setting a drone to scan for any other hostile forces in the area. But it seemed that the group they’d encountered was the only danger for the moment. He covered every centimeter of the hill and the area beyond it, what would have been out of sight when he was shooting from beyond the rocks.
No more blood. No tracks. No clues. If he hadn’t been nearby for the entire encounter, he might have believed that a stealth ship of some kind had taken them hostage. If that were the case, he had no prayer of finding them. He had to examine his other options, the ones he could do something about.
Raze turned around. Night had fallen, but the moon in the sky overhead was bright enough to see by. His bones were heavy from the long trek and the exertion of disposing of the pirates, but he could go for a long time before collapsing, days perhaps. He let the pain and weight of the day lay heavy on him and held the physical sensation close. It wasn’t emotion, but it was as close as he could get now.
He gave up on the hill and fanned out. While there were no clues at the abduction site, that didn’t mean that all hope was lost. A few hundred meters away he found tracks that had pressed hard into the mossy ground, as if a heavy vehicle had sat there for some time. The tracks headed toward the hill before disappearing, he discovered as he walked alongside them a second time. They disappeared so quickly that the vehicle must have engaged its hover mode.
It wasn’t enough evidence, not yet, but he was willing to think that this had been the vehicle used to take Kayde and Toran.
He took out the mostly destroyed drone that the pirates had discovered and checked to see if any of the memory or display function had survived. They were sturdy beasts, meant to work through the toughest conditions that a habitable planet could offer. And while they could be destroyed by a determined person, it took a little know how to truly damage them beyond use.
The pirates lacked that know how.
It wouldn’t fly again, not without significant repairs, but the memory drive and holo display had survived well enough that Raze could view what the drone had picked up before and during the fight. He found a boulder that came up to his waist and set the drone down, engaging the display and quickly navigating through hours of data that were useless to him.
The drone shook as something struck it and air whooshed by in a dizzying drop as it felt to the ground. He didn’t get a good look at the pirates, not with the machine so unstable, but he’d found the time he needed. He let it play through slowly and shut off any thoughts he had of the battle. This was an entirely new, if disorienting, perspective and he didn’t need his preconceived thoughts interfering.
At some point in the fight, the drone had fallen out of the hands of the pirate who was holding it and the angle was all wrong to see what happened to Toran and Kayde. But Raze let the holo play through in case there was anything that could help.
It took several minutes, though at the end of it all, the fight had taken less than a quarter of an hour. Skirmishes were always shorter than he’d thought they’d be before he became a warrior.
He didn’t see the survivors who took Toran and Kayde. He didn’t see most of the battle. But the holo feed gave him something just as important. A witness. It was a brief hint of a moment. She—and he was almost certain the pirate he saw was a she—ducked out from behind a stone pile and made her way closer to the fight. Raze enhanced the display, making it larger in hopes of getting a better view of her.
Dark leathers, bound hair, pale skin. Human, he thought, though the image was blurry enough that he could be wrong. His gut said he was right, though. A human female pirate who’d witnessed the whole thing.
She seemed to freeze after the fight, watching out for something. Did she see the pirates take his team? She walked away after several minutes of watching and he could not see any emotion on her face. Did the sight of her dead fellows make her feel… anything? Or was she just another heartless pirate bent on destruction and pillage?
This was a slave colony, he reminded himself. The pirates and slavers worked together to sell people to the highest bidder, which made this woman, this witness, one of the worst scum in the universe. He could do whatever he needed to get the information he was after.
His focus sharpened, noting the path she used to escape. He found it easily after stashing the drone away where it was unlikely to be found. It was too big to be easily carried.
Before setting off on the journey to find the pirate woman, he forced himself to eat a nutrient bar and take a half an hour to rest. Night was all around and if Toran were here, he’d be ordering Raze to take the entire night. But Toran was gone, captured and possibly undergoing torture or worse. The longer Raze waited, the longer they suffered and the longer it would be before they could complete their mission.
The time passed in silence with no animals or insects crying in the night. Once upon a time, he might have found that eerie, but now he merely noted the fact as he sat as silent as the night. Once his food digested and his limbs no longer threatened to give out from the stress of the day, he pushed himself to his feet and continued on, chasing down his lead.
Tracking a stranger on a strange planet at night was no easy task. But he’d find her or die trying.
She was so close she could taste it. As night fell, it got trickier to move around, but Sierra used the cover of darkness to her advantage. She moved with stealth, cloaked in shadows, unseen and unnoticed, taking stock of her surroundings and looking for points of attack and extraction that could be used when a team came in to recover the stolen women.
The static crackling in her ear was a welcome reminder that she’d made contact with Mindy after getting away from that dead zone. Dead in more ways than one. She idly wondered what had happened to the surviving pirate that she’d seen. Had he called help for his friends? Or was he now gathering allies to make a move against some weakened faction on this hell planet?
That kind of information needed to go in her report. She wouldn’t add that she’d wondered what color eyes he had or if he was as strong as he looked from a distance, wondered if he could lift her up with little effort while he—
Nope, she wasn’t going there. Pirate, she reminded herself. Pi-rate. Evil, bad, slaver, killer. Not a sexy alien dude who could fulfill some of the fantasies she didn’t even let herself think about while she was still on Earth. Besides, he probably wasn’t nearly as hot as he’d seemed from a distance. His teeth were probably all rotten out and he might have been all slimy and gross.
Alien-human relationships were becoming more common on Earth as more aliens migrated to the planet, but Sierra was going to have to draw her personal line at gross alien-frog man slavers.
She didn’t know why she couldn’t quite get him out of her head. Every step she took, every time she dodged away to hide from a patrol, every crevasse she hid in to get a better vantage to spy on the slaver settlement, he was squatting in the back of her mind, uninvited and unwanted, but she was unable to get rid of him.
Night had fallen in truth now and Sierra needed a place to hide for a few hours. At the moment she was close enough to hear the moans and screams of the captured women and her heart tore in half at the sounds. She wanted to rush in, open the gates, and set them free. But that would only end up with her dead or captured, doomed alongside them.
The slavers were enjoying dinner and… entertainment. She tried not to think too hard about what that entertainment consisted of, even as the screams gave her little doubt. But given a few hours of revelry, they’d be at their weakest, the watches minimal, the alcohol and drugs consumed, and the men, women, and other beings tired out from the partying. All she had to do was stay hidden for long enough and then she’d have plenty of time to gather data at the safest point of night.
She ended up on the middle branch of a squat tree on a hill near the settlement. There hadn’t been tree cover for most of her journey here, but around the settlement, there was a veritable forest of new growth. It might have helped with the air quality, or maybe they just liked the decoration, she neither knew nor cared. She took a few surveillance photos and settled in for the wait.
Would her— no, not her, what the fuck—that pirate show up here? Would she see him again? For a moment she imagined him showing up, guns blazing, in a reveal that he’d been a double agent all along. She shook her head with an embarrassed smile. There had to be something weird in the air here to have her thinking such crazy thoughts. She’d never before caught a glance of a dude on a mission—let alone an enemy—and started daydreaming.
But she wanted to know his name, and his species, and if they were biologically compatible. She wanted him to not be a pirate, to be an ally she’d never imagined finding. She wanted…
Okay, when she got back to Earth, she was going to get laid. This was fucking nuts. Thank every god out there that neither Mindy nor Jo could see her now. They’d be giving her so much shit. And she would 100% deserve it.
Crazy space air. There was probably sex pollen here, or sex moss, something that made her think of sex when it was beyond inappropriate. Something beyond hormones denied for far too long.
“I’ve detected movement three hundred meters away,” Mindy came in over the comms, almost like she could detect what Sierra had been thinking.
“Heading this way?” Sierra whispered back. The night wasn’t silent; wind whipped around her and the revelry and terror from the settlement was carried with it. But she couldn’t be too careful. A tree didn’t provide that much cover.
“Affirmative. Suggest you find a different position to the north of your current location.” Mindy was monitoring everything through a mix of a hijacked satellite feed and drone footage. They could have gathered most of the relevant information from her surveillance alone, but there was no use in wasting a trip of so many light years and not getting human eyes on the location.
“Copy that.” Sierra climbed to the edge of the branch and tried to see if she could spot the patrol that Mindy had warned her about. It was too dark and they were too far away, but that gave her the advantage. She clambered down quickly and made her move, keeping to the deepest shadows cast by trees, rocks, and buildings. Either drone and electronic security was too expensive, or the slavers just didn’t care, but it was her saving grace. She could evade people far more easily than she could technology.
But she couldn’t defend against a blow that she didn’t see coming. The skin on the back of her neck prickled, but before Sierra could even think to turn around and scan her surroundings, something punched her spine and she fell to her knees, the world around her blotted out to darkness.
She came to with a splitting headache and her nerves crackling from the stun blast. It wasn’t the first or the tenth time that she’d been shot, but it hurt like hell every time and she wanted to turn over and curl up into a ball to stop the pain. But Sierra held herself still, trying to keep her breathing even. One eye opened a crack and she saw everything through a veil of eyelashes.
Everything wasn’t much. The stars sparkled in the sky above. She’d need to move her head to see anything more than that sliver of freedom. The silence in her ear wasn’t a good sign. Normally she couldn’t feel the communicator that rested snugly against her skin, but it always gave off a faint noise when she was in range, like a very subtle ringing in her ears. She wanted to reach up and feel if the device was still there, but if she was under guard, she didn’t want that to be what alerted her captors to her consciousness.
Not if she could find a weapon.
For some reason her hands weren’t bound, and she hoped that was a sign of general incompetence. She let her fingers dig into the ground at her sides, searching for a rock or a piece of glass or anything she could use to bludgeon a slaver bent on making her his. All there was under her fingers was loose dirt and gravel. She curled a fist around some, deciding it was better than nothing.
She didn’t hear the sounds of the revelry, which meant it was either later than she thought, or she’d been dragged far away.
A shuffle to her right caught her attention and she gave up the pretense of unconsciousness and opened her eyes as she turned. Shock rocked through her as her eyes locked with the green alien slaver she’d seen earlier that day. He was tall, at least six inches taller than her. He kept his dark hair short, but her fingers itched to touch it, which was one of those crazy impulses that was going to get her killed one day. Under his thick clothes, he looked built enough to bench press a small car and he carried himself with a predatory grace she might have found attractive back on Earth. But not from a slaver.
She had to be suffering from a concussion or oxygen deprivation to be thinking like this now. He froze, a length of rope in hand, his dark eyes intent on her. For a moment, she thought she saw a flash of red, but it must have been a trick of the moonlight.
I know you.
What? No she didn’t. He was a fucking slaver who was about to tie her up and have his way with her. That was not how she was about to spend this mission, especially if she couldn’t rely on her comms.
She flung the dirt and gravel straight at his face and sprang to her feet, taking off in a run. She’d figure out where she was later, she just needed to get away, out of range of his blaster. She expected shouting or a curse and the silence was so unnerving that she had to turn around to make sure he was actually on her tail.
Yup, there he was, right behind her, his long legs eating up the distance between them like it was nothing.
She sped up, but despair blossomed in her chest. There was no way she was going to make it to safety. She was screwed.
A shock of something ripped through Raze in that moment when their eyes locked. He faltered and pain scored his chest as if claws raked him from shoulder to hip. In a blink it was gone as the pirate woman flung grit at him with astonishing accuracy and was off running like an Oscavian hound was on her heels. He stumbled for a moment, heart pounding so hard it threatened to beat out of his chest.
He clenched his fists and for one crazy second his claws threatened to slide out of his hands as something they couldn’t define washed over him.
Find her, that foreign urge demanded. Protect her. Claim her.
He could almost feel it, could almost recognize what it was, but his mind rejected the impossibility even before his feet moved and the chase was on. He didn’t pull out his blaster. Though the pirate had quickly recovered from the stun, far more quickly than he’d thought possible, two shots in such a short amount of time might do permanent harm to her. Why he cared about that, he wasn’t sure, but his gun remained in its holster all the same.
She glanced back and that was her undoing. He had height on her, and endurance. He could run for days and not give in to exhaustion or pain. No pirate training was a match for a Detyen warrior.
Though he wondered why she hadn’t cried out, hadn’t tried to raise an alarm. Surely she must have some allies in the nearby settlement. They were probably too far away to be heard, but didn’t creatures such as she rely on hope like that for survival? Or were her enemies too numerous that she doubted help would come?
He closed the distance between them in easy strides until he could almost reach her with a swipe of his arm. Just as he launched the final step, she dropped and rolled to the side, her hand coming up with a small knife he must have missed on her person.
“Fucking pirate scum,” she spat as she rolled to her feet, knife held confidently in her hand and absolute disgust written across her features.
Pirate scum? “You’re the pirate,” he replied without thought, keeping his distance. His claws should be out now, with her on her back at his mercy, her cheeks flushed and breath coming in hard as she panted under him. What that stirred froze him in place, his body rocking with sensation he hadn’t known in years, sensation he could barely remember.
The distraction cost him and she took advantage, swiping in with the knife in a move that showed practice and training to rival his own. His instincts took over and he rolled with her, taking her arm and flipping her as she cut a ragged wound across his shoulder. The hot flash of pain brought his focus back and they rolled together, neither able to take a position of advantage on the ground.
The woman—not a pirate?—sprang back up and jumped on the balls of her feet, those cheeks flushed like he’d imagined and her eyes glinting bright in the moonlight. “Of course a giant like you isn’t going to make it easy for me. What are you, anyway?” The run and the fight hadn’t winded her and as his subdermal translator worked, he realized she wasn’t speaking IC, interstellar common. His translator identified her language of origin as English, an Earth language. Strange.
Remaining silent would frustrate her, but Raze couldn’t stop himself from answering. “Detyen.” He should have kept it hidden in case she escaped and reported back, but he found himself wanting to talk to her, and he hadn’t wanted anything in so long that he couldn’t deny this one simple thing.
She blew at an errant strand of hair, ruby red in the moonlight, as her eyes narrowed. Her eyes flicked down to his hip, where his blaster remained holstered. The distance between them wasn’t long, both of them standing just out of reach of one another, but it might as well have been a deep chasm.
“Why aren’t you shooting me?”
“I don’t—” he couldn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. In the last ten minutes, he’d been more alive than he’d been in two years and his control was shot. If Toran or Kayde saw him, they’d order him put down in a second, and he’d deserve it. He wasn’t thinking clearly, wasn’t operating at acceptable capacity. He wanted to… he wanted and for a soulless Detyen, there could be nothing worse.
That narrowed gaze of hers relaxed a fraction and she took a step back, her knife still out, but the hold not quite as threatening as it had been only a moment ago.
They stared at one another, neither sure of what action to take. No, Raze knew what he should do, what he must do. Anything that would give him the information he needed about his men so that he could retrieve them and complete the mission, find the data they’d been assigned to retrieve and return home to his bleak existence, where nothing awaited him except years more of gray emptiness until he came to his natural end by his own hand or that of his fellow soldiers.
And that should bring up no reaction in him except acceptance. He’d chosen the path when he let his soul be ripped apart in the name of the survival of his people.
But in this endless moment between him and this strange woman, he wished that he’d taken another path, one he’d never realized was there in the first place.
The woman broke him out of his daze. “You’re not a pirate, are you?”
Before he could answer, he caught a hint of movement and light out of the corner of his eye. He moved without thought, launching himself at the woman and tackling her to the ground, his hand clasping her wrist and keeping the knife away from anything important. For a moment, their hands met, skin to skin, and agony ripped through his body and he held it close with a silent scream.
The Detyen Warriors series brings you feisty women, alpha aliens, fated mates, and relationships hot enough to steam up your screen.
Copyright 2019, Kate Rudolph