A hunky alien with only a week left to live finds love with a human woman while on the run from pirates!
Balanced on the edge of life and death…
Death comes early for unmated Detyens, and Tyral is heading home to say goodbye. But when pirates attack his ship and kidnap him, he finds a hope he never imagined.
Most Detyen women are dead. Could a human really be his mate?
Someone wants her dead…
When pirate scum abduct Dorsey from a journey that should have been safe, she can’t believe it. And when they let slip they were hired to grab her she’s even more confused. Who would kill a simple freight hauler?
Her only hope for survival lies in the hands of a mysterious alien stranger who awakens things within she’s never felt before. His kiss is strong enough to claim her soul.
What does he mean when he calls her denya?
Ty has enemies of his own, and they’ll have to work together to fight them off and carve a life for themselves. Can a human woman make a life with an alien mate?
Tyral NaRaxos had the gate in his sights. One more jump and he’d be landing on Jaaxis to see his family one last time. He’d hoped that this would be a celebratory trip. There were rumors of unmated Detyen women living in a system that few Detyens ever traversed. But the rumors hadn’t been true, not as far as Ty could tell. He’d spent more than a month scouring the nearly barren rocks in search of the lost women.
They remained stubbornly unfound.
With one week left until his thirtieth birthday, he planned to use the time to say goodbye. His ship wasn’t much, but someone else in the family could use it. And while he knew that pain and endless darkness was all that he would have by week’s end, he hoped that his family could find some joy in memories of him.
The proximity alarm blared to life and Ty snapped to attention, adrenaline surging through his veins and sending his heart pumping. This gate normally saw little traffic and Jaaxis was a backwater. Nothing should have flown within a thousand kilometers of him.
He flipped up his view screen and saw nothing. The blackness of space stretched out as far as his sensors could see. But Ty kept his machine in battle-ready shape. He knew that the sensor couldn’t be malfunctioning. Not a week after he’d done his final maintenance check.
He switched the view from visual light to a different spectrum. Just because his eyes didn’t pick anything up didn’t mean that something wasn’t there. And just on the edge of the view screen he saw the blip.
Ty bit back the curse. The tell-tale ultraviolet blast showed at least one ship disengaging faster than light travel. And no FTL capable ship bothered with the gates. They were expensive and time consuming to use. Which meant this ship wasn’t here for the gate.
It was here for him.
The parasites of empty space haunted certain shipping lanes to pick off unsuspecting ships. And while Ty’s ship was nimble enough to evade them under ideal circumstances, he had no countermeasures to defend himself. His only choice was to run.
Ty sent up the distress signal and pulled up the manual controls. He’d notified the Gate Station in the Jaaxis system when he came within contact range, but like with all gates he’d been placed into the queue and forced to wait his turn. With the distress beacon lit he had priority access.
The engines engaged and his ship hummed with energy.
For a moment Ty thought he was going to make it. The gate grew closer and closer, a rip in front of him that looked blacker than the vacuum around him. But then he jerked forward and his progress stopped dead.
A tractor beam. First they would hold him in place and then they’d pull him in.
Ty wasn’t fooling himself. He had nothing of value on the ship and the ship itself wasn’t valuable enough to make him a target, not compared to some of the merchant freighters that he’d worked on.
Which meant these weren’t just pirates. They were slavers.
Ty unhooked his safety harness and whipped around to open the small compartment behind his seat. There he found his blaster stored right where it belonged, in the travel safe he used whenever he sailed alone for days on end. There was no use in carrying the weapon when he was the only life form around.
He clicked the safety off and held the blaster up. They weren’t lethal weapons unless they hit you just right. But at point blank range, Ty knew that he could get the job done. One pull of the trigger and he’d foil the pirates.
For a moment Ty considered sending a message home. His family hadn’t known to expect him. He’d planned his visit as a bittersweet surprise. And it was for that reason alone that he decided not to try and contact them. Twenty-nine year old Detyens often went missing. For many families it was so much easier to deal with the hope that they still lived than to face the certainty that they’d perished.
Ty held up the blaster.
It was only the difference of a week. There had never been any hope for survival anyway. He knew every eligible person on Jaaxis and not a single one of them was his denya, his mate. Not a single woman there could save him from his fate.
And yet he hesitated. With that hesitation he realized that he hadn’t truly accepted what was about to happen. He didn’t want to die. His need to live burned a hole in his gut. He needed to live so badly that he couldn’t end his life in this moment and save himself from the week of torment that a roving band of slavers would no doubt commit.
With a growl, Ty stashed the gun back in its safe and closed the compartment.
He wasn’t going to die today. And if he had to die in a week, he was taking as many of these assholes down with him as he could.
To hell with going quietly.
Dorsey Kwan sat huddled in the corner of her black walled cell. She didn’t know how long she’d been locked up, though she didn’t think it had been that long. Not more than a week. Her captors, whoever they were, knew how to keep a prisoner disoriented. She wasn’t fed on any regular schedule and it had thrown all her body’s needs off kilter.
The dim light that shone far overhead barely gave her enough room to see, but the brightness never faltered, except when they wanted her to wake up. Then the light blazed bright enough to sting her retinas even behind the safety of her eyelids. And they didn’t let her sleep long enough to rest. If she’d caught more than two hours at any given time, she would eat her left foot.
Pirates had snatched her on her latest shipping run. While her ship wasn’t much, she was classed to pull freighters across three star systems. Everything was clearly marked as Consortium goods, and pirates didn’t mess with the Consortium in her part of space. Which probably explained why they’d left her freight flying free and snatched her up.
She wasn’t Consortium goods and her employer wouldn’t bother coming for her.
It was times like these that Dorsey questioned her decision to leave Earth five years before. There’d been nothing for her there except a few casual friends. No job, no family, no future, but at least people didn’t get kidnapped by roving slavers while going about their daily business.
Her ears twitched at the sound of commotion down the hall. At least it sounded like a hall. They’d knocked Dorsey unconscious when they grabbed her and she’d woken up in this tiny cell. Her only glimpse of the world beyond was when her captors slid food and water in through a slot in the door.
Feet dragged and someone struggled, but it was all too distant for her to make out any words. Dorsey scampered over to the door and pressed her ear flush up against the food slot.
Even though she was pressed up close, the sound was getting further away. All she heard was struggling footsteps until a loud thump caused her to jump back. Footsteps pounded toward her cell, but the tell-tale sound of blaster shots echoed down the hall, and whoever was running fell with a heavy thump.
More footsteps followed slowly and Dorsey recognized these as belonging to the ship’s crew. There was a distinctive clip to the step as if they’d all received military training. As they dragged the body away she wished she had enough leverage to open the slot from the inside so that she could see what was going on. Even if there was no way to escape, she wanted to see her fellow prisoner.
No one deserved to be left alone to suffer in this place. And even if all she could offer him was a glance, that’s what she would give.
The sound didn’t fade completely away, but she could almost follow it around the edge of her cell and back to where it grew stronger once more. There must have been a hallway that ran on both sides of her, though she hadn’t realized it. After a little more commotion, she heard a door slide shut and the people who’d carried the prisoner walk away.
It was deathly quiet.
She hoped her fellow prisoner still lived. Anyone who fought against their captors was a friend in her book.
More time passed. Dorsey stood at one point and paced back and forth, but the cell was so narrow that she barely got two steps in before she needed to turn around. Walking along the very edge of the wall gave her the greatest distance, but she still felt like one of the caged jungle cats she’d seen in vids back home. She could stretch her arms way above her head and still not touch the ceiling, but she couldn’t even lay down and straighten her body out without touching the walls.
She had nothing but the clothes on her back to keep her warm. And those clothes were barely sufficient. Two of the pockets of her dark cargo pants had torn, leaving her skin exposed in tiny chunks. Her long sleeved top was great in a heat controlled cockpit or under a space suit. In the open air, goosebumps pebbled under the cotton-synth fibers.
At first she’d been glad that she’d resisted the newest styles that called for ultra-short hair, but Dorsey could feel the black strands all knotted together. It barely kept her neck warm and was going to hurt like hell to comb out when she got out of here.
Because she was getting out of here. She didn’t leave Earth to end up a slave.
A knock on the wall caught her attention and she froze in place. The hollow sound echoed through her cell, far louder than it could have actually been. She could barely breathe, afraid the noise would bring the guards.
They hadn’t done much too her yet, but she wasn’t about to confront them without a plan. That was suicide.
But there were no footsteps and she realized that the sound had come from the innermost corner of the room. Between the thick walls of the cell and what had to be a long hall outside, they probably couldn’t hear.
There was another knock and then three seconds later, a third.
The man they’d dragged away.
She didn’t know why she thought it was a man. Gender was hard to distinguish with a lot of the alien races. But she pushed that thought aside. However her fellow inmate identified didn’t matter. What mattered was that he might be alive.
Dorsey took one big step and tilted her ear up towards the small vent near the ceiling. She could just barely brush her fingers against it if she stood on her tiptoes, but it wasn’t even a hand span wide and it would never work as an escape route.
But that wasn’t why she studied it now. No, now she thought she could almost hear the labored sound of another being trying to breathe. She curled her fingers into a tight fist and rapped them against the wall first once, then a second time.
The wall knocked back.
“Are you okay?” she tried asking. If she could hear his breathing then maybe he could hear her. And just maybe she wouldn’t have to bust out of this place alone.
Was he okay?
Ty could barely hold himself in a sitting position with his back propped against the wall. The blasters had done a number on him and these goddamn slavers had taken more than a few potshots while he was unconscious. His ribs were miraculously unbroken, but he’d have bruises until his dying day.
No. He wasn’t going to think about that. If he let himself spiral then he’d never defeat these people. And he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He’d gotten a glimpse of rooms when they started to drag him through the ship, but they weren’t the glorified cattle pens he’d seen on other slave ships. That give him a little privacy, which he appreciated, but it also meant he had to find a way to communicate with any other captives.
And talking was so much easier than knocking.
“I’m alive,” Ty called back in Interstellar Common and flinched as the air in his lungs pushed against his ribs. He clutched an arm to his side and clenched his jaw. His ribs weren’t broken and he kept talking just to prove it. “Though I’d rather be on a beach right now with a frothy drink and the most beautiful woman in the galaxy.”
“Oh.” That one syllable was filled with something that Ty couldn’t define and just a hint of amusement. “I’m Dorsey and I don’t have any drinks. And the other thing…” She laughed.
“My name is Ty.” He would have given his full name, but each word he spoke burned deeply where he was badly bruised.
“Are you human?” Dorsey’s tone made Ty want to sit up a little straighter and smile. There was a light in her voice that he couldn’t ever remember hearing. With just a handful of words, he already knew that he was going to do everything he could to make sure that she got off this ship and to safety before it was too late. Maybe one final good deed would see him on to a happy afterlife.
But he needed to answer her. “Detyen.” Normally a question like that wasn’t asked so baldly, but normally conversation didn’t happen through a ventilation pipe between prisoners on a slave ship. Adjustments to the typical flow were necessary.
“I don't think I've ever met a Detyen before,” she responded. “Do you have any neat tricks to get us out of here?”
Now Ty did smile. “Unfortunately all superpowers were bred out of my species long ago.”
A heavy breath that might have been a laugh traveled down the air vent. “Damn, then I guess we're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.”
Distantly it occurred to him that his captors could have planted her in that cell to give him false hope or to thwart any of his plans. But there was honesty in her voice and Ty had nothing to lose. She didn't have enough time to betray him.
Ty looked around his cell. The light from the ceiling barely illuminated anything, and what he saw was beyond sparse. There was absolutely nothing in the cell that could be used as a weapon. Other than himself, there was nothing in the cell at all. They hadn't furnished a cot or chair, and the solid door meant that there were no loose bars to pry off. He ran his hands across every centimeter of wall that he could reach, but it was all completely flat.
“Is your cell empty, too?” he asked Dorsey, clenching his jaw against the pain in his ribs.
“Affirmative,” she called back. “And all of the meals are sent in on some sort of degrading plates. They only last a few minutes before they're basically dust.”
That was not helpful. “Have you been here long?” He leaned against the wall to give his legs a rest. The kidnappers hadn't been kind and he wanted to sleep, but he feared wasting even a moment.
“Not too long, I don't think.” But she didn't sound certain. “They mess up the time.”
Of course they would. Disoriented prisoners were more likely to be docile.
Ty massaged his knuckles as he and Dorsey spoke. She explained how the guards came and what they did. From her experience, they didn't stand guard outside the cells when they weren't giving her food or bringing in the hose to bathe her and clean out the cell.
And he didn't think they could hear them in the cells. Letting any rebellion foment among the prisoners was a recipe for disaster. If the guards could hear them, they would have come in and shut them up.
At least Ty hoped that was correct. He knew he was placing a lot on instinct and the knowledge that they couldn't hurt him for long.
But they could hurt Dorsey.
It was a long time later that she spoke. “I think they're going to bring food soon.”
“How do you know?” If they hadn't been consistent there was no way to time it.
“I'm starting to get hungry and they haven't starved me yet.”
She was right. Several minutes later, he heard footsteps outside of his cell, and when they stopped, the slot at the bottom of the door slid open. He couldn't see outside to the hallway; it was blocked by a darkly gloved hand and a bowl containing an unappetizing stew and a separate small container of water.
Since Dorsey hadn't warned him off it, Ty drank the water down quickly and ate the stew before his plate dissolved. It began to crumble in his hands before he finished the last bite.
“Is that how they always come?” he asked her.
“So far it is,” she confirmed.
“I think I can work with that.”
Long after the food settled in her stomach, Ty told her to sleep. Dorsey liked his voice. He didn't sound like the humans she knew or the men back home. There was something gravelly and deep with an unexpected lilt to his words. It wasn't merely gruff, it was self-assured.
She hoped he wasn't about to betray her. She knew the slavers who'd taken them prisoner could be playing games with her, but Dorsey couldn't understand why they would. Well, other than out of plain old sadism. And if that was why they acted, she couldn't do anything about it.
She wanted to trust Ty. She wanted to go home. And if he had a plan for making that possible, she'd follow his lead. The worst that could happen was death, and she'd rather die escaping than live as a slave.
Sleep didn’t come. She couldn’t move enough to burn up the energy burning through her, and excitement sizzled within. Ty gave her hope, an unexpected piece of joy in this antiseptic cell. And she was afraid that if she fell asleep she’d wake to find he had just been a dream.
Dorsey curled herself up into the corner and angled her head toward the vent. “Are you still awake?” she asked.
He didn’t respond for several moments, and Dorsey thought he was either asleep or that she’d spoken too softly. But then Ty answered, “I told you to sleep.” He was wide awake.
“You’re still going to be here when I wake up, right?” She hated the vulnerability, but sleeping with that niggling thought in the back of her head would only lead to nightmares.
She believed him. And with his promise fresh in her mind, she closed her eyes. This time sleep came quickly and her exhaustion kept the dreams at bay. She could barely think straight when she was awake; she had no focus to dream.
By the time a rattle outside her cell woke her up, she didn’t feel rested, but she was closer to it than she’d been since the day she was kidnapped. One of the guards pounded on the door to her cell long enough that even the dead would wake. Then they slid in her meager rations and let her be.
Nothing had changed.
Not knowing if the guards could still hear her, Dorsey was afraid to say anything to Ty. Instead, she knocked twice against the wall. She breathed a sigh of relief when he knocked back.
He was real. He was still there.
She pulled the tray they’d slid into her room close and scooped up the food with hungry fingers. It was all tasteless, textureless gruel, but it filled her stomach. She gulped down the water, licking a little against her parched, dry lips, still thirsty by the time she was through. They’d given her less food. She didn’t know if that was a good sign or bad, nor could she have said what good or bad news from her captors would have looked like.
Several minutes later Ty spoke. “Wait for it.” She held her breath waiting for more, but had to let it out when she realized that Ty wasn’t going to say anything else. She knocked back in acknowledgement and sat with her back against the wall.
Time passed slowly. Dorsey traced patterns in the dust on the floor of her cell. She’d erased and redrawn her patterns nearly a dozen times, now working on one that took up half a meter of space, when Ty knocked three times against the wall.
Before she could say anything, she heard an outer door open.
Dorsey waited, but they passed her by and walked on around the corner to Ty’s cell. Even pressed up against the wall she couldn’t make out much more than a pained grunt and dull thuds when the captors made it to his door.
She rolled up to her feet, ready to move, when the fighting went silent. Then there were footsteps coming towards her. Dorsey hoped with all her heart that it was Ty and that he hadn’t just gotten himself killed with attempts at thrilling heroics. When she heard only one set of footsteps coming back down the hall toward her, she perked up. Two guards had gone to check on him.
With a hiss and a click, the lock to the door disengaged and a blue hand with wicked looking claws shooting out of its knuckles appeared and wrenched the door the rest of the way open.
She almost got a good look at him before he jerked back towards the hallway and a laser blast caught him in the face, dropping him to the ground. Dorsey hauled herself over to him and pulled him far enough into the cell so that he would not be a target. The door started to close, but she caught it before they were trapped once more.
Footsteps started toward them. Half in the cell and half out, Dorsey had cover from any blaster shots, but she had little leverage. She shirked back into the shadows as best she could, a pang of guilt striking her for basically leaving Ty as bait. But she only had one shot and the wickedly sharp bloodstained claws shooting out of Ty’s hands weren’t going to do her any good until he was conscious.
The steps clicked closer and Dorsey’s heart beat double time. Her veins danced with energy and she sprang like a coil in an almost suicidal move the second the shadow of the alien guard fell over Ty. She slammed the door out and pounced, reaching blindly for the alien’s blaster and trusting it would be there.
With a spin, she jerked around and found the small metal device clenched in her dark fingers. She whipped it out and fired first at the alien and then back behind him, not knowing whether he had any friends still taking cover. When no one returned fire, she knew they were safe for the moment.
All in all, it had taken less than two seconds.
Dorsey slipped the blaster into one of her pant pockets and looked down to see Ty beginning to move, the shock of the shot wearing off. With a groan, he clutched a hand to cover his eyes, his strange claws slowly retracting.
They were safe for now, but there was no way to be certain how long it would last.
With the moment of reprieve, Dorsey stole a second to study her fellow escapee. And maybe it was the adrenaline buzzing through her, but heat curled low in her body and her insides clenched as she got a good look in.
Damn, he was handsome.
Ty had to be at least six feet tall, broad shoulders and muscles currently covered by loose fitting dark clothes. He was shaped like a human, with the proper number of arms and legs in the right proportion, but the blue of his skin and the strange dappled markings she glimpsed through a tear in his shirt told her his ancestors hailed from a faraway planet. And that wasn’t even counting those deadly claws.
He let his hand fall from his eyes and Dorsey had to bite back a gasp. Demon’s eyes, her mother would have called them. They shone red and black, practically glowing with whatever emotion coursed through him. The eyes and his claws should have scared her, but she wanted to reach out and cup his cheek, run her thumb over his thick lower lip, and then steal a taste for herself.
But her own desire had to wait. She tamped it down as hard as she could and sealed it away, tightly locked under layers of discipline and survival instinct.
A nasty bruise blossomed between those ruby eyes of his and it had to hurt. Added to that, Ty stared just over her shoulder, his eyes unfocused. As he struggled up to his feet, he stumbled into the door, and used a hand to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling over.
“Can you see?” she asked as she watched with one arm ready to shoot out and catch him. He’d looked right past her and had almost fallen through the doorway.
Ty blinked several times and shook his head like he was trying to clear water from his ears. “Everything is a bit… dim at the moment.”
He was blind.
Dorsey stepped fully into the hall and looked in both directions. It was brightly lit, but there were no windows. On a spaceship that meant nothing. They might have been flush up against the vacuum of space or in the innermost corridor.
“Can you walk?” It came out harsher than she’d intended, but she needed to know what he could do. He’d given them this chance to escape and she wasn’t about to waste it. But she wouldn’t even think of leaving him behind.
Ty nodded once, his lips, a darker almost cerulean blue, pulled tight. “I’ll be fine once I get my hands on some regen gel.” He spoke of the backbone of all interstellar first aid. The thick gel could fix most of the injuries that any spacefarer would encounter, or keep them alive long enough to get to a doctor.
Taking him at his word, she pulled the blaster out of her pocket and grabbed for his hand with her empty one. “Follow me, I think the door is this way.” She shut the alien guard up in her old cell and led Ty down the corridor, her heart beating wildly in her chest. Every little sound—and ships had the nasty habit of creaking and groaning—made her jump out of her skin. But she needed to stay steady. For Ty. And for herself.
The flesh of his hand was warm against her own, and Dorsey’s skin practically tingled in response. She could feel the shock of the contact reverberating through her and once again was seized by the crazed desire to pull him close until they were skin to skin and he was all hot and full inside of her.
What the hell was wrong with her?
Only when she felt Ty’s muscles flex under her fingers did she realize how tightly she’d squeezed him. She loosened her grip and started to lead him slowly down the hallway, careful of any debris the lasers had knocked loose.
They made it to the end of the hall, and though Dorsey’s back was as tight as a Dortanian Seal, she didn’t hear their guards sound the alarm. She and Ty had been swift in their attacks and it hadn’t been more than three minutes since he broke out of his cell.
At the end of the hallway, she stopped when she found the door. “There’s a keypad and some sort of bio sensor,” she told Ty, acting as his eyes. “You’re not a super awesome hacker by any chance?” Put her in the cockpit of a ship and she could fly, but that was her one skill.
Ty huffed out a little laugh and Dorsey had to grit her teeth against the onslaught of sensation that her body responded with. Did this dude give out pheromones or something? She had never acted around anyone like this, and certainly not the human males who would be much more appropriate targets of lust. Things were so much trickier with aliens, even ones she wanted to strip naked and lick from head to toe.
His hand tightened in her grip and she wondered if he had the same reaction to her. But when he spoke, it was all business, with not even a hint of nasty thoughts. “I’ve neither the tools nor the eyes to hack the lock,” he said with an air of disappointment in himself. “Besides, my so-called hacking skills leave much to be desired.”
Crap. Whether it was nerves or her hyper-attuned senses, she could almost hear footsteps beating down the hallway outside. They didn’t have much time, and if they were discovered in this hallway, they’d either be thrown back in their cells or killed in seconds. She took a deep breath and pressed her hand against the hull of the hallway, trying to get a feel for the size of the ship and a sense of where exactly they stood in it.
“Just shoot the lock with your blaster,” Ty said when she fell silent.
Dorsey ignored him and placed her other hand on the wall. There was a feeling of space beyond the metal. Not the cold, deadly vacuum beyond the ship, but of a hallway or ventilation shaft. She looked back down the hall and then up to see the crisscrossing plasteel beams overhead.
“I know what class of ship we’re on.” A Y14 J Series freighter. They were one of the most ubiquitous large ships out there and had been on the market for decades. The cells had been added in a retrofit, but a retrofit couldn’t change the bones of a ship.
“How can you tell?” he asked, not with doubt, but curiosity.
This was her world. “I’ve been flying freighters for five years. This is just a retrofit, and a cheap one at that.” And now that she knew what type of ship they were on, she knew how to get them out. She traced her hand over the panels built out from the door. They were a little more than a meter tall by a meter wide and went from floor to ceiling.
A hollow knock on the third panel gave her their way out. She reached up until she found the hidden latch to release the panel. On a ship like this, almost every centimeter of space was accessible from the hidden wall panels, but most shippers forgot about them and never secured them. She peered inside the narrow ventilation shaft and eyed Ty. It would be a tight fit, but he’d make it. “Come on,” she said as she pulled him gently in and pushed him back the wrong way. She stayed behind for a moment to secure the panel behind them and then crawled in front of him. “I’ll get us to the med bay.”
“Can you get us to another ship?” he asked, his words surrounding her from the echo in the shaft.
“But your eyes—” She didn’t want to risk permanent damage, not when he’d been hurt helping her.
Ty was adamant. “Any ship that can fit us both will have a first aid kit. I just need some regen gel. If we stop, they’ll catch us. Now. Can you get us to another ship?”
“Yes.” She didn’t like it, but he was right.
She led him towards the ship bay without any more argument. A ship as big as a Y14 had the capacity to carry a limited number of smaller ships, usually at least one space to air short range cruiser and a human-handful of longer range ships that could be used if the ship needed to be abandoned.
The crawl through the ventilation shaft didn’t take long. When Dorsey found what she thought was the right place, she pressed her ear up against the panel and listened. It didn’t sound like anyone was waiting for them. It would take much longer for someone not in the shafts to reach this point, and she hoped her captors checked other more likely escape routes first.
Dorsey opened the panel and looked out for a moment before she helped Ty to the ground. As she’d suspected, there was one short range ship and three longer range vessels all lined up and ready to be stolen. She grabbed Ty’s hand and pulled him through the room, pausing before one of the longer range ships and reading the shipping diagnostic printed out beside a mechanic’s station.
This would do nicely.
She opened the door, led Ty inside, and found the first aid kit with the regen gel. “Use it,” she told him. “I’ll be back in three minutes.”
He grabbed her wrist with the dexterity of a sighted man. “Stay here, we need to go.”
Dorsey pulled free. “If I don’t disable the other ships, we’ll never get away. The freighter can’t go fast, but any of their small ships will be able to catch us. It only takes a minute to disable a ship from the inside if you know what you’re doing.”
For a moment she thought he would argue. Instead, he grabbed her hand once more, gently this time, kissed her palm, and let her go.
Dorsey flexed her hand, the imprint of his lips seared onto her nerve endings. Oh, if they weren’t fleeing for their lives she would have him naked and spread out before her in a second.
She shook her head. It wasn’t the time for that.
As promised, it took her three minutes to disable the starter systems of the ships. It wouldn’t take long to fix them, perhaps an hour at most, but it would give them enough time to get away, and that was all they needed for now.
Dorsey ran back to her chosen ship and found Ty sitting in the small kitchen area, his eyes covered with a thick coat of regen gel. She closed the door behind her. “Strap in. I’m getting us out of here.”
Ty didn’t need to be told twice. As he moved to secure himself, she climbed into the cockpit and powered up the ship. It turned on with an ease that indicated all of the kidnapper’s machinery was well cared for. On a hunch, she flipped down the hatch that covered all the nav wiring. In the heart of the nav system she found a tracker. It took another precious minute to extract it without damaging the system, but she wasn’t about to risk broadcasting their coordinates to the very enemy they were trying to escape.
With that done, she fired the thrusters and aimed for the air lock.
“Exit sequence engaged, please enter sequence code.”
Dorsey bit back a curse as the dulcet tones of the computer filled the cockpit. She entered the standard Consortium exit code, hoping that the ship practiced Galactic Standard procedures. The warning beep told her that her luck had run out.
“Please disengage thrusters and re-enter sequence code.”
Fat chance of that happening.
Dorsey fired up the blaster cannon on the ship and aimed for the airlock. The blaster wasn’t strong enough to fire a hole in the hull, but it just might do enough damage to break the airlock. She said a prayer to her mother’s gods and fired, the green light of the blaster momentarily blinding.
A siren blared, their escape no longer a secret.
But Dorsey didn’t have time to worry about that. The air lock disengaged and the doors started to slide open with jerky movements that spelled out their freedom. She forced herself to sit in place long enough for the doors to open wide enough for them to escape. Damaging their ship in haste wouldn’t do them any favors.
An eternity later, the doors were wide enough and she shot through, immediately diving into evasive maneuvers to evade both recapture and enemy fire. She warmed the hyperdrive on the ship and punched in coordinates for a Consortium allied planet she knew well. The war loving planet had some of the strongest space defenses around, and unless their attackers were allied with one of the War Lords, they would be shot down immediately.
Only when the hyperdrive engaged and the computer lost sight of the freighter did she allow herself to breathe. Her hands shook and her stomach roiled as thoughts of what could have happened to them assailed her. How long had they had her? Why had they taken her? And would they come back?
She looked over at the nav tracker laying innocently on the floor. Disconnected from the nav system, it should have been safe. But she wasn’t taking any chances. She unbuckled herself from the pilot’s seat and scooped it up. Dorsey threw it down to the ground and stomped on it, feeling the fragile plastic break into tiny pieces with every stomp.
She didn’t know how long she worked at destroying the small piece of technology, but when she finally stopped, she was breathing hard and felt a fine sheen of sweat pop up on her arms. She heard more than saw movement in the doorway and looked up to see Ty watching her, the regen gel gone from his eyes. Those rubies stared at her with something akin to hunger, and that lust she’d felt on the ship crashed into her, its effects tripled now that they were momentarily out of harm's way.
“Frustrations?” He quirked up a brow and when he spoke, she caught sight of canines that were sharper than human teeth. Fangs and claws. She should have been scared of the animalistic features. Instead, she wanted to see what else he was hiding and feel his power beneath her, over her, in her.
Dorsey smiled and let that heat sink into her eyes. “I don’t want any uninvited company.”
Ty stared at her without saying a word, but his nostrils flared and she knew that she wasn’t alone in what she was feeling. He wanted her too.
The shock of recognition tore through him and Ty took half a step forward before he realized what he was doing. Before he realized that he must still be blind. A human denya? Impossible.
She stood before him, her brown hands on her hips, her pose defiant. Curly hair shot out from on top of her head, giving her a halo in dark and light browns, the light from the console behind her making her glow. Her eyes were luscious and dark, with those strange white spaces that humans possessed.
And he wanted to kiss along the edge of her chin and down her throat, to where the pulse beat with living fervor in her neck. His cock stirred, reminding him that he was alive and whole.
Well, more or less whole. There was no way that his eyes had completely healed. Because right now, they were playing a horrendous trick on him. Dorsey was human. She could not be his denya. The only woman in the universe who could save his life, be his mate, was Detyen, if she existed at all. And with less than one week left until his demise, he knew it must be with desperation and vain hope that Dorsey looked like the mate for him.
And if the fire in her eyes was any indicator, she wanted him too.
He took a step into the room, bringing himself within reaching distance of Dorsey. If he only stretched out his hand, he could cup her cheek and feel if she was as soft and smooth as she appeared.
“Do you think we’ll be followed?” he asked, trying to sound normal.
Dorsey shook her head. “They can’t reach FTL. Our biggest worry is that a lookout warning for this ship goes out before we can ditch it.” She licked her lips until they shone a glossy pink and flicked her eyes up to meet his.
Ty swallowed, that pulse of desire growing thicker, harder. If this was false hope, let him never know the truth.
He stepped close to her, their bodies brushing front to front, and ran the tips of his fingers up the dark fabric covering her arm, resting his hand on her shoulder. Her own skin burned hot through the fabric. “I am glad we can finally see each other, Dorsey.” Her name rolled off his tongue like a promise and he wanted to say it again, rolling it around, tasting it, until he knew every corner of the word.
She grinned, her lips tilting up to one corner, and she raised her hand to cover his own. “We survived. For now, at least.”
For a frozen moment, he thought she spoke of his fate, that she knew on sight what he was and what was coming. But what little logic he still clung to surfaced at the last moment, and he realized she was speaking of their pursuers and any trouble that they would give.
“I’d say survival calls for a celebration.” And then he covered her lips with his own, no longer able to hold back the feral beast inside that howled for a taste of her. There was a heady sweetness as her tongue tangled with his own and the overwhelming taste of woman, of mate. He let all thoughts of impossibility dissolve. He no longer cared whether she was his forever so long as she was his for now.
Her arms came up and he felt blunt fingers digging into the flesh of his shoulder. She clutched him close, her mouth open beneath his, letting him pet and suck and taste as they tried to dissolve the distance between them. She was wearing far too many clothes for that, but right now, he was happy to feel the soft skin beneath his fingers and smell her heady scent.
Her arousal was thick in the air, bringing out the beast within Ty. If he had brought her so close with one kiss, what could he do with her spread out naked before him?
She pulled back, planting her hands on her shoulders, but she only moved far enough so she could speak. Their lips still brushed with every word. “Wait,” she breathed.
Ty didn’t want to wait. His cock felt ready to burst from his pants and he feared he would spill before he brought her to completion. But he made himself hold still, though his answering “what?” was more growl than word.
Dorsey reached up and traced her thumb over his brow and down the sharp ridge of his cheek, her eyes shining and full of wonder. “You’re not human,” she said, the statement obvious and completely irrelevant. This was sex, not interstellar diplomacy.
Ty cupped the back of her neck, holding her in place, not letting her put any more distance between them. He pressed their bodies together and heard Dorsey suck in a sharp breath. “No, I’m not. Any problem?”
She hitched a leg to the side, letting him rub his body against her most sensitive space. “Are there… compatibility issues?” The last word came out as a low moan, her eyes fluttering closed for a moment while he showed her just how compatible they were.
He’d never fucked a human before, but he knew enough anatomy to know they both had all the right parts. He knew his eyes gleamed, the fire of his irises bright, and he couldn’t stop the grin that tugged at his lips. “Shall we find out?”
Dorsey was going crazy. There was no other explanation for why she was pressed flush up against an alien stranger, wet and ready for him to take her. It was the exhilaration from their escape all mixed up with this strange, unexpected attraction, and she was too weak to resist.
She was alive. They were alive.
The stars stretched out before them, not visible during FTL, but she knew they were there. And she’d set a course to safety. Which meant that it was okay to open her mouth and swipe her tongue against the strange ridges of Ty’s. It was okay to run her hands up his tight abs and curl her fingers under the hem of his shirt and pull it over his head. It was okay to feel the strange ridges running across his chest and down his arms, ridges that were darker in color, strange markings that reminded her once again that she was a human and he was not.
But right now she didn’t care, because he was hers.
The hard jut of his cock pressed against her abdomen, begging to be freed from the confines of his pants. Dorsey arched up into him, rubbing herself against him, fitting his covered length between her still clothed thighs.
It wasn't enough, but when Ty bit out a curse and jerked his hips, she almost laughed from the joy of it all. This was life. This was what they were meant to do.
Her breasts were heavy and full of want, her nipples tight peaks begging for his attention. Ty tried to undo the top buttons of her jumpsuit, but when he fumbled, he gave up and used one of those sharp claws of his to rip at the fabric, baring her from throat to belly button.
The reminder of his lethal claws should have scared her, but then his lips were on her breast and Dorsey forgot all about the danger, moaning as his tongue on her tit pulled her tight like a bowstring and echoed all the way down to her core. She felt helpless against him, a being of pure want who would die if she didn't feel his hard cock buried deep inside of her.
She reached down and undid the tie of his pants, grateful that he wasn't wearing a jumpsuit. She reached in and closed her fingers over the hot, rigid length of him, squeezing just tight enough for him to know that his cock was hers now.
He froze against her breast for a second and the sound that Dorsey made when he stopped licking, stopped pleasuring her would have embarrassed her if he hadn't been mad with want. “More,” she moaned, offering her tits up to him like he were a pagan god and she his sacrifice. And perhaps she was. Maybe the ancients had misunderstood first contact all those years ago, confusing travelers across the universe for divine beings.
“Stroke me,” Ty demanded before going back to her breast, swirling his tongue around the puckered areola and making her gasp.
Who was she to deny him?
She moved her hand from the base of his cock up to the tip, fascinated by the textured surface. His cock was ridged, small protrusions jutting out from the shaft that her fingers glided over. Out of curiosity, she circled her finger around one and found she wasn't able to close her hand around it. Oh god, what would it—he—feel like inside her?
She shivered and lifted her hands from him, pushing off the sleeves of her clothes and maneuvering herself out, never once letting Ty break his contact from where he savored her breasts. It took some contortion to get the jumpsuit completely off, but once she did, she was naked before him, pressed against the console of the cockpit and bare to his desires.
“Fuck me, Ty,” she practically begged, wet and aching for him.
He flicked his eyes up and she gasped when she saw just how red and glowing they'd become. They shone like beacons in the dim light of the cockpit. He kissed down and around one breast, coming to the valley between them where he took his time, kissing and licking a trail up over her chest and neck and finally taking her lips once more.
“I could keep you,” he growled against her mouth. “I'd fuck you for days, pleasure you so well that you'd forget to walk. You'd be so well taken that everyone in the galaxy would know that you're mine.”
Possessiveness had never sat well with her, but from him, she wanted it. Still, she was no simpering dove. She bit down on his bottom lip, almost hard enough to draw blood.
“Fuck me,” she demanded, one hand working on his trousers, trying to push them down enough to expose his beautiful cock to her. She felt light and filled already, like there was something different about this fuck, something she didn't—couldn't—comprehend.
“Spread your legs,” he commanded. And Dorsey was happy to oblige.
She widened her stance, hooking one leg over his hip and leaving her sex exposed to him. He looked down her naked body, and if anything, his eyes somehow got even brighter.
Then he inserted a finger in her and she forgot to breathe. He was kissing her neck as he moved it within her, his breaths already as ragged as hers, even though she was the one under assault. When he added another finger, she cried out, already so close to the edge that she was seeing stars and weird colors and things that didn't exist.
“You're so wet,” he said, “so damned wet for me.”
“Give me your cock,” she ordered. If he didn't put it in her soon she was going to explode.
And then he was fitting himself to her entrance, the blunt head of his penis sliding into her pussy. He eased himself in and she could feel each of the ridges of his cock spreading her out, amplifying the feel of him inside of her.
He buried himself to the hilt, his balls brushing up against her, and it took all of the remaining fragments of Dorsey's self-control not to move over him, to thrust her hips back and forth. But the look Ty gave her was so grave that she knew there was something about him, something about this that was more important than pleasure. She could feel it in her heart, a connection blooming that she didn't understand. Maybe it was that they'd survived together, but whatever it was, it bound them close.
Ty laid his forehead against hers and said, “Thank you,” with all the force of a condemned man suddenly saved.
But she didn't have time to question it, because then he was moving within her and she moved with him. His fingers found the stiff nub of her clit, and his cock brought her close, brushing against that spot deep within her that was the seat of her pleasure.
It came on so fast that she didn't realize she was coming until she cried out against him, her insides rippling with pleasure, the shock roiling through her body. And finally, he gave a shout and she felt the hot splash of him inside her as he came with her, barreling over the edge and joining her with a pleasure she didn't quite understand but knew that she'd never forget.
Ty remained locked in Dorsey's embrace, the shock and pleasure of their lovemaking still rocketing through him. He felt the denya bond deep in the seat of his soul and couldn't keep himself from gently running his hands up and down her body. She was so soft, all curves and warmth, still holding his cock deep within her moist depths. He'd never made love to a human before and didn't know if this sense of rightness came from the minor differences in their species or if it was from her.
And Ty knew he was never going to find out.
With the bond sealed between them, he could leave and never look back at her once they made it to safety. There was no longer any danger of dying on his thirtieth birthday, at least none that came from being Detyen.
But Dorsey was his. The stars had done their magic and placed them together just when his hope grew dimmest. And if he let her go now, he knew he'd be missing out on the greatest thing he'd ever hold.
He clutched his other hand to the back of her head, digging his fingers gently into her curls as she leaned her forehead against his chest. She was shaking a little, her shoulders shuddering.
"Are you alright?" he asked, hoping that he hadn't scared her off. If he had, well, that just made his job a little harder. She was his now and he wasn't letting go.
Dorsey tilted her head up, and first he saw the gleam of tears in her eyes and his chest tightened, but it loosened just as quickly when she laughed. "Well that was one hell of a way to celebrate," she said. Her arms were draped casually around his shoulders, and she showed no signs of pulling back. "I swear I don't normally fuck a guy after ten minutes' acquaintance."
Ty kissed her cheek, tasting the tang of salt from her sweat. "Was anything about the past two days normal?"
The low groan she gave sounded nothing like the sounds she'd been making minutes earlier. "Stupid damn pirates!" Her arms tightened for a second before suddenly loosening. She stepped back from him, or rather pushed him back, as she was wedged between his body and the console of the cock pit. Ty didn't want to let her go, but he would not force her to stay in place. She kept talking, oblivious to his thoughts. "The damn corp is going to charge me for the cargo they took and they're going to want me to fly the route again." She bit out the words as she tried to right her clothing. It was mostly a lost cause, as his claws had decimated the front of her jumpsuit. One button did survive, letting her close the cloth, but leaving delightful swaths of flesh peeking out.
"Is that how they got you?" It was strange that he knew next to nothing about her when she meant everything.
"Yeah." She reached into her pocket and absently shook her head, pulling her empty hand back out as if she'd gone to grab something before remembering that she didn't have it. "Right out of Consortium space. What about you?"
Ty remembered the tractor beam, remembered the cold fear of being captured. "I was near the final gate to Jaaxis. They took me then."
"Ja—Jaaxis?" She sputtered. "That's three hundred light years away from where we escaped." She narrowed her eyes. "You're not royalty or something, are you?"
Ty shook his head and tried to ignore the pang of melancholy. The Detyen royal family had all burned a hundred years ago, their line obliterated into nothing, along with the rest of the planet. "No. The gate is poorly guarded on the away side. Perhaps they were merely looking for easy targets." But he knew of no Consortium near Jaaxis. Why had they been plucked from different ends of space?
Something on the console beeped, drawing Dorsey's attention away. She leaned over and pressed a few brightly colored buttons. After a moment, she cocked her head to the side and addressed him once more. "We don't have enough fuel to get to Jaaxis. But I've got some friends on Tarni and I'm sure one can spot you the passage fare to get home."
"Tarni?" The galaxy was far too large to remember the name of every inhabited planet, and most planets had more than one name depending on how they were inhabited.
"It's the second biggest planet in the Consortium." At his blank look, she continued. "It's a four planet system, and they're all allied, more or less. Each planet is ruled by several warlords who control specific sectors."
That was simple enough. "And you worked for one of the warlords?" he asked, trying to piece together her life story.
Dorsey shrugged. "The corporation I worked for did business with several warlords from three of the inhabited planets. There's…" She trailed off with a shake of her head. "Never mind, the politics get messy and uninteresting. I've set a course for Tarni and we should be able to dock at Nina Station and take a shuttle down to her territory."
"And then what do you plan to do?" Ty wanted—needed—to help her. He just didn't know how, not yet. The best he could do was learn her plans. He had his own resources and skills.
Dorsey thought for a long moment and pursed her lips, staring silently into the inky blackness out the view screen beyond the console. "I guess I'll see if I still have a job. Find out how long I was gone. Check what Droscus is up to and hopefully get on with my life."
She sighed. "Another warlord. Nina's main rival for control of Tarni. I can't think of why he'd care to hurt me, but if I've stumbled…" She trailed off again and shook her head. Ty stored the name Droscus in the back of his mind. "There will be a ship to Jaaxis within a week of our arrival, I'm sure of it. Then you get to go home and… I don't know, whatever." She gestured vaguely as if that would help him understand.
"Let's get to safety before we start buying my ticket," he said. She wouldn't look at him any longer and Ty got the hint that she wanted to be alone. "I'm going to go look at our ration and supply situation."
She nodded once and Ty forced himself to walk away. It was much harder than escaping from that puny prison cell. He turned his attention to the ship, keeping his head forward and not looking back.
The ship design was fairly straightforward. It could house a crew of a dozen, but the automation systems made it possible to fly with only a pilot. Ty walked down the central corridor from the cockpit. The small hallway outside contained the main crew and passenger storage, large lockers built into the hull of the ship. A little beyond that, he passed the captain's quarters, the largest crew cabin, and then the four remaining crew cabins. It was possible there was clothing in those rooms, but he passed them by for the moment.
That brought him to the kitchen. Ty started opening the cabinets, searching for meal replacement bars or supplements. Luckily, the ship carried more than enough water. The food processors—little machines that could whip up just about anything that was programmed into them—sat empty. While the food they made was synthetic, they still required basic ingredients.
The first two cabinets were empty save for dust. On opening the third, he let out a little whoop and had to stop himself from running to Dorsey to tell her the good news. A full box of ten meal replacement bars sat unopened at the very back of the cabinet. Clearly one of the crew had missed it when they were clearing out the ship.
The brown bars were mostly flavorless and had a texture that could best be described as overly chewy. He wouldn't want to eat them every day for the rest of his life, but for short term survival, they couldn't do better.
Unfortunately, that one box of food was his only good news. The kitchen had been stripped of all other food. Ty turned his attention to finding clothes and weapons rather than focusing on the disturbing future.
If they didn't get to Tarni in a few days, they'd starve.
Dorsey didn't know how to act around Ty after their bout of mind blowing sex. Morning after awkwardness was one of the main reasons she wasn't into one night stands. Though, if she were being honest, things didn't exactly feel awkward around her new alien shipmate. He seemed content to let her pilot the ship, his only time at the helm when he insisted that she grab a few hours of sleep.
He'd shared his discovery about their limited food supply the day before and then spent a few more hours searching the ship for anything they could use. Unfortunately, the slavers had done a decent job stripping it. Luckily, Ty had uncovered an entire box of clothing. Nothing quite fit either of them, but at least she wasn't wearing a torn and tattered jumpsuit. Instead, she wore black leggings that were really too tight to be considered pants, and a shirt that fell to her knees, hanging off her like a sack. Ty had the opposite problem. His pants fit fine, but the shirt clung to his chest, outlining every delicious muscle on his upper body.
Which she wasn't thinking about.
It had been madness to sleep with him. And it was even crazier to think about doing it again. He was a freaking alien. That was all sorts of wrong. Even if he'd given her the best orgasm of her life and she couldn't stop thinking of touching him again every time she closed her eyes or let her mind drift from piloting the ship.
Unfortunately piloting a ship gave her plenty of time to think.
It was like he'd somehow hacked into her brain and scrambled it until too many of her thoughts were dedicated to him. But that wasn't possible, at least she thought it wasn't. And once they arrived on Tarni, she could put him behind her. It was hard to fuck a guy who lived on the other side of the galaxy.
A warning alarm on the console jolted Dorsey out of her unwanted thoughts. She sprang forward, consulting the readout screen and swearing when she saw the SOS. Without taking a moment to reconsider, she powered down the FTL and called up the coordinates for the distress signal.
Footsteps pounding down the central hall announced Ty before he burst through the door, expression dark with the tiniest hint of sweat over his naked torso. Apparently he'd decided that the tight shirt wasn't for him. Dorsey practically had to cover her mouth to keep from licking her lips.
Even his smell did things to her she didn't want to talk about.
"What is it?" Ty demanded, "Why have we stopped?"
Coming out of FTL gave the ship a telltale jolt; clearly he'd sailed through space enough to recognize it. She flicked the display screen his way. "Distress signal, Consortium frequencies engaged along with general channels."
"We're…" She thought he would argue, but he cut himself off. "What do you need me to do?"
"Go put on whatever armor you can find and see if there's a blaster around here. If not, find anything that you can use as a weapon. There shouldn't be anyone out on this edge of space, let alone anyone in distress." The hailing signal belonged to a ship that was barely more than a blip on the view screen. The only thing keeping her from jumping straight back to FTL was that there would be no one else coming.
"Could it be a trap?" Ty asked.
She'd been wondering that herself. But Dorsey shook her head. "We're in one of the least traveled reaches of inhabited space. I can name maybe half a dozen pilots who could even guess this path. It's a back door into Consortium territory and we had to pass way too close to a handful of stars. Pirates wouldn't take the risk."
"And the Consortium?" She hadn't said that much about it, but she could tell that he didn't like it.
"They don't patrol outside the system." They didn't have the manpower. And any spare soldiers wouldn't be wasted in space when they could fight in the wars on the ground.
Time stretched, with Ty remaining suspiciously silent. But he finally relented with a nod. "Let's see what's up."
Dorsey let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. For an uncertain minute there she had thought he would suggest they abandon the distressed ship. And while that would have done a hell of a lot to get rid of the inconvenient feelings in her pants, she didn't want to think that he was the type of man—alien—who could ignore someone in trouble.
"Bring the med kit to the air lock. We might have injured." He nodded once again and took off.
Dorsey turned back to the black expanse of space. The distress signal still blinked at her, but she'd disabled the sound. On her view screen, she caught her first glimpse of the ship and bit back a curse.
It was a Consortium freighter. Just like the one she'd been piloting until those slavers captured her.
A prickle of fear climbed from her neck down her spine. Freighters were always at risk from pirates, but they were some of the sturdiest ships built anywhere in any galaxy. And she knew with one hundred percent certainty that this ship hadn't been hit by pirates. Bandits like that always followed the money. No matter the haul, a route like this simply wasn't worth it.
She took over the manual controls and finally got a good enough view of the ID number on the ship.
Dorsey closed her eyes for a second and sucked in a harsh breath. It wasn't the number she recognized, but the overly stylized geometric design on the hull. What are you doing here, Lex?
Their roommates back in flight school had started sleeping together in the second week. By the fourth week, she and Lex had rebelled and claimed Lex's room for their own. He'd come from a poor farming village on Thanatos and he hadn't asked many questions when she didn't want to talk about her life back on Earth.
He might be alright.
Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn't true. Fate didn't work like that. Dorsey had survived the pirates more or less intact, she'd escaped. The universe needed to balance that all out.
So when the broken hull of the ship came into view she didn't even wince, though her heart wept.
It was careful work to pull the ship close enough through the small amount of scattered debris. But even with Lex's ship wrecked, the dock was intact. She didn't know what she expected to find. With as large a hole in the hull as she saw, the chances of his body still being there were slim. Still, she needed to know.
She docked the ship and left the cockpit to find Ty waiting for her with a spare spacesuit. Luckily, those things were never taken off a ship when it was docked, not unless someone was wearing one. She climbed into the suit and secured the helmet over her head while Ty did the same.
Dorsey spared a glance back at their ship. Leaving it unmanned wasn't smart, but she couldn't send Ty out there alone. There was no one out here to hurt the ship, and she'd already made her decision.
"Let's do this," she said and stepped into the air lock.
A destroyed ship in a little traveled pocket of space—Ty knew a set up when he saw one. But whether that set up was there to entangle him and Dorsey or if the trap had already been sprung on an unsuspecting ship, he didn't know. Something about this situation, about this specific ship, had disturbed Dorsey. He could practically feel her roiling emotions through their nascent bond.
However, he didn't need anything metaphysical to tell him she didn't want to talk about it.
The ship they'd stolen wasn't equipped with a short range teleporter, so they both enabled the nav functions on their suits. They'd be able to pilot themselves through the gravity free layout of the dead ship and make it back to their own vessel even if there was a need to spacewalk. After a quick test of the suit mics, Ty pressed the big red button inside the airlock, sealing them off from their own ship.
The outer door opened to reveal the closed hatch of the Consortium freighter. Dorsey punched in a code on a keypad and they were in.
They floated into a silent, deathly hell. The only light came from the lamps integrated into their helmets. With no gravity, debris—boxes and clothing and anything that wasn't nailed down—floated all around them, bobbing and swaying in the eerie gloam. Ty's heartbeat kicked up and he spared a glance over his shoulder. There was nothing there, but it felt like eyes were crawling all over his skin.
This was a bad idea.
He wanted to call Dorsey back, to abandon the ship and continue on their way. But the set of her shoulders told him that she wasn't about to back down. And if she wouldn't leave, that gave him only one choice. He'd protect her to the end. If there was something sinister waiting for them on this ship, he'd fight it, end it, and see her home safely.
They came to a split in the hallway. "Crew quarters or cargo?" he asked. From his view inside their own ship, the cargo container had appeared intact. He didn't need a med scanner to know that it was the only place where someone might have survived.
But Dorsey turned to the right. "Crew quarters first. I have to see it."
There'd been no spare blaster on their ship, so he was left with a heavy pipe as long as his arm as his only weapon. In zero grav it weighed nothing, but it had been nearly impossible to lift before he stepped into the airlock. It was no defense against a blaster or las fire, but he could do plenty of damage to anything else.
Ty engaged his suit and pulled himself a little in front of Dorsey. If there was anything waiting for them in the crew quarters, he would take care of it. He couldn't let her get hurt.
They came into the kitchen, which he only realized when an unwrapped meal replacement bar floated near his head. He swatted it out of the way and found five more wrapped bars floating freely. Those he grabbed and stashed in one of the pockets of his suit. He saw Dorsey doing the same with several packages of dehydrated fruit. He tried to say something to her, but she looked away swiftly, as if scavenging food from the dead ship embarrassed her.
Other than the free floating food, the kitchen was empty. Dorsey floated up to a computer panel on an interior wall and tried to bring up the command screen. It remained steadfastly black.
"Why did the door panel open if the power is dead?" Ty asked.
"There's independent power to all outer doors. The interior is centralized, but there's a battery backup in the engine room." Her sure movements would have told him that she had experience with this type of ship even if she'd never mentioned the Consortium. "I don't think we need to waste time trying the backup."
Ty agreed. "Let's keep moving." The longer they stayed in one place, the more exposed he felt.
She held up a hand. "One minute." Without waiting for a response, Dorsey opened up a small cupboard and pulled out a canvas bag. She opened a second cupboard that was full of spherical containers of food. "It's not like anyone on the ship needs it," she justified as she secured the canvas pack to her belt.
"I know." He floated along the wall of the kitchen until he was right next to her, their suits lightly brushing, though it was impossible to feel through the fabric. "There's no shame in survival."
She tilted her head up towards him and her eyes blazed. "You don't—never mind. We need to keep going."
She took off down the central hall, propelling herself forward with a practiced application of her thrusters. Ty was a bumbling boulder behind her. But he didn't need to go far. Dorsey stopped in the central hallway, just before a sealed door. A body unprotected by a spacesuit floated in the center, frozen in the vacuum of the ship.
She reached out a hand to stop the body's gentle spin, pinning him in place with two fingers. "Lex always said…" The sentence ended with a ragged sob and Dorsey jerked around, throwing her arms around Ty and holding tight.
Ty couldn't do anything but hold her. "He was your friend?" he asked. Lex had been frozen in death, his lips a pale blue and his skin more beige than brown. A human like Dorsey, from her system. Someone she knew well enough to cry over.
Ty would not be jealous of a dead man and he was not stupid enough to ask if they'd been lovers.
"He's got a wife and they live in this tiny apartment on Tarni with her brother and an obnoxious cat who thinks she's a lion," she said through her tears. "We were going to-to-to go on…" Her words dissolved into jagged cries.
Ty kept her cradled close and murmured nonsense that sounded good. He didn't say that it would be alright. He didn't have the right to say it, and he wouldn't lie. "The med bay on the ship is equipped with a cold storage unit. We can take him home."
She nodded against him. "Yes. Let's take him home."
They stayed with Lex's ship for a little more than an hour. After disengaging and taking back off towards Tarni, Dorsey plugged in the ship's manifest and studied the cargo list and travel log. It was all completely mundane, no hint of how he came to be floating dead in space, a hole punched in the side of his ship.
For a change of pace she sat in the galley, the manifest displayed on a tablet she'd dug out of a closet in the cockpit. A list of cargo numbers and labels scrolled by, making her eyes blur. TG544 - Rations; TR563 - Clothing; TF555 - General. Nothing looked strange. And for Lex to be dead, there needed to be a mystery. He was twice the pilot she was and even more cautious. It wasn't his fate to end up a popsicle.
Movement out of the corner of her eye brought Ty to her attention. He'd showered after handling Lex's corpse, changing into some clothes they'd recovered from the dead ship. He leaned against the doorway, his arms casually crossed and his skin somehow even bluer than before now that they were in the bright light of the kitchen.
Had she really taken this man into her body just a day before? Everything had seemed so simple then. She wanted to pull him down beside her and climb on top of him, take his hard cock, and pleasure herself with it until they were both more than spent, passed out from heat and exhaustion and passion. She wanted to take him and make herself forget.
Those sexy, dangerous red eyes of his narrowed, and she got the feeling he knew everything she thought. "Can you read minds?" It slipped out and Dorsey's eyes hurt from how wide they strained before she snapped them shut, trying to regain some tiny bit of control over her expression.
Ty looked down with a grin. "You're thinking of the color orange and…" He sucked in a breath and waved his fingers around near his head, straining to think. "Alcohol?"
She rested her elbow against the edge of the table and let her forehead fall against her fingers. "So that's a no?"
"Our psychic bonds don't work that way," he confessed.
She didn't know what he meant by 'psychic bonds' and almost felt bad for how relieved his answer made her. Dorsey held out her hand. "Join me?" she asked.
Ty placed his hand in hers and took the seat next to her. He laced his fingers with her own and the fit was so tight, so perfect, that it would have been impossible to tell that they were different species were it not for the blue tint of his skin covering the brown of hers.
She set the tablet down on the table and pulled his hand closer, idly tracing the dark, square-shaped patterns in his flesh. They were raised a bit like a birthmark, but much more intricate. "Are all Detyens blue?"
He squeezed his hand but didn't pull away. "No, we come in all sorts of colors. What's… what's left of us anyway." He said the last bit deliberately, almost cutting himself off but continuing at the last moment. "We're a doomed species."
Dorsey knew he threw it out there to distract her from what they'd found. Pain laced every word he spoke, but she grabbed onto the life support suit he threw her and held on. "What do you mean?" She scooted her chair closer. If it hurt to talk, he shouldn't be alone. And if the warmth of his body comforted her, her warmth must have comforted him as well.
But next to each other wasn't good enough for Ty. He pulled her forward with their locked hands and placed his other hand on her hip, hoisting her out of her chair with surprising ease and lifting her so that she straddled his lap, their chests facing each other. She could feel the strong beat of his heart, even and loud as a drum next to her ear. He threw an arm over her back, clutching her to him, and Dorsey anchored herself with a hand on his waist. It felt so damn right to be flush up against him that her muscles started to feel like jelly.
"We're from a place called Detya," Ty said once she was settled. His lips didn't quite brush her ear, but the air from his words ruffled her hair, tickling a little.
"I've never heard of it," she said against his shoulder.
His arm tightened painfully before loosening just as quickly. "I've never seen it." Now that was pain, the kind that only came from an unfathomable loss. Ty kept talking. "A hundred years ago, the planet was attacked, destroyed. In hours it went from a beautiful, thriving, peaceful world full of art and culture and… it was a home. A good one. We weren't at war with anyone, nothing more serious than a few territorial skirmishes in the sector like every starfaring planet faces. But then someone attacked. They had a weapon that's never been seen before or since. It blackened the land, rotting it and killing everything the rot touched. Someone tried to burn it out, but it caught light and it didn't stop burning until there was nothing left. Over four billion Detyens and millions of people from other species died that day. A few thousand made it to escape ships, and there were some others off planet at the time. But since that day we've been planetless. And we die far faster than we replenish our number. In another hundred years I'm not sure anyone will be left who remembers us." His voice was empty when he finished, emotion leeched out in the telling of his people's tragedy.
The wet splotch on his shirt told her she was crying. Dorsey sucked in a deep breath and tried to wipe her tears as subtly as she could. This man didn't need her pity. She knew he didn't want it. "Do you war still with those who tried to destroy you?" To kill a planet was an unforgivable crime. There was always a way to avoid destruction at that level.
"We still don't know who or what did it. A few garrisons of our soldiers escaped and gave pursuit, but they never caught anything." His hand rested against her head, cushioned by her soft hair. "Don't cry for us, sweet, we are as strong as we need to be."
If he could talk about it, she could control herself, but it took a moment for her breaths to steady. "You said you had psychic bonds?" That seemed like a safer, less bloody topic. But his body froze beneath her, just for two seconds, but long enough for her to notice. "You don't have to talk about it," she said.
Ty took the reprieve. "Did you find anything in your friend's logs?" And like that, the spell he'd weaved over her with the tragedy of his people was broken. Dorsey pulled back, but she didn't slide off his lap. The feel of him so close to her, his masculine scent enveloping her, made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside and she wasn't about to let go of that, not after what happened on Lex's ship.
"His log looked almost identical to what I've been shipping for the past several months," she said. "But most of our work is done within the system. It doesn't make any sense to come all the way out here." Though 'out here' was no longer entirely accurate. They'd left Lex's ship behind and jumped back into FTL, speeding towards Tarni.
"So he wouldn't have been shipping these products to another system? Another Consortium?" Ty loosened his grip on her hand and flipped it over, idly tracing the lines on her palm with his thumb.
"I don't think so." That touch burned and something coiled within her, ready for another go at him.
"May I see the manifest?" he asked. If she hadn't been sitting on his lap, his tone wouldn't have given away that he wanted her. So badly that she could feel it.
Dorsey twisted around and grabbed the tablet, handing it over. She flipped on the projector function so that they could both see the data. "I'm running a compare and contrast algorithm to see what was still in his inventory compared to what he left Tarni with. So far the only things that aren't there are all in the general category."
"Could be anything. Most companies throw anything that they can't easily identify into it. It's hell on inventory systems, but I don't have to deal with that crap."
"Do you think it could have been an accident?" Ty asked gently. "Perhaps there was a mistake with your friend's navigation or life support system."
Lex didn't make mistakes. She almost said it, but Dorsey forced herself to think it through. Anyone could make a mistake and Lex would be the first one to remind her of that. He was good, but that didn't make him infallible. "Sure, I guess. But it still doesn't explain how he ended up where he did."
Ty flicked a hand and the tablet turned off. "Obsessing about this isn't going to solve the mystery tonight. Get a few hours of sleep, I'll watch the nav system. Once we're on Tarni, we can find out what happened." He kissed her cheek and let her slide off.
She didn't remind him that he was going to leave her once she got to Tarni. What was the point? Right then she needed to believe that there was one person in the galaxy that she could count on, even if he was an alien almost stranger.
Even if she had to let him go.
The last three days of their journey passed in relative calm. Though a four day trip through hyperspace wasn't long by any count, Ty hadn't realized just how far away they'd been kept from where Dorsey was taken. Jaaxis was further away still. The path that put the two of them captured on the same ship at the same time made little sense so far, especially since they'd been the only prisoners.
The slave markets were close enough to the Jaaxis gate to explain the pirates' presence, but why had they crossed half the galaxy to get there? If anything suspicious turned up regarding the Tarnian pilot's death, then Ty was concerned that there was more to the situation then he realized. If there was foul play, then this was a Consortium issue, and Ty was unwittingly caught up in it.
If there was foul play, it meant that Dorsey was in grave danger.
"Strap in," Dorsey patched through over the intercom. "We're ten minutes from Nina Station."
Ty sealed the tools he'd been working with in the cabinet. There were always spare parts that needed fixing floating around in a ship's engine room, and it helped him to think when his hands were busy. The old emergency filter he'd been working on wasn't any closer to being salvageable than when he'd started working on it, but at least the screws were properly fastened now.
He climbed out of the engine room and sealed the hatch behind him. Perhaps it would have been the proper thing to change into a fresh shirt or towel off the sweat that the heat of the room had brought out, but he wanted to sit next to Dorsey. Besides, he'd seen the way she looked at him any time he did a little heavy lifting. Her gaze did plenty of lifting where his body was concerned.
Ty slid into the co-pilot's seat in the cockpit just as Dorsey engaged the landing system. Docking to a space station was easy enough work with a competent autonav, but it still required a great deal of attention in case something went wrong. Ty told himself what was the reason that she didn't spare him a glance when he buckled in.
It was difficult to avoid someone on a two passenger space ship. Now all he had to make sure of was that she couldn't do it once they reached land. Ty wasn't giving up on Dorsey, and he wouldn't leave her to fend off danger by herself.
The view screen in front of them suddenly brightened as Dorsey punched out of FTL and Tarni and Nina Station came into view. Tarni took up most of the view, blue oceans covering wide swaths of the surface interspersed with clouds and large land masses. This close to the planet, Ty felt small and was reminded of just how tiny one person truly was in the grand scheme of things.
Nina Station was massive as well, but nothing compared to a planet after weeks of empty space. A new hope filled Ty. Jaaxis was meant to be his final stop, yet here he was, on the other side of the galaxy with the woman who'd saved him, even if she didn't know it.
Finally, finally, she glanced his way, a genuine smile shining on her face. "It's almost as good as home," she said.
"You're not from Tarni?" From all her talk of the Consortium, he'd assumed it was her home system.
"No, you're looking at the real deal here." She gestured to herself with a little laugh.
"The real deal?"
"Premium, Grade A Earthling. You don't get that many of us this far out, but there are a few hundred of us planetside from the homeland and several thousand more who are only a generation or two removed." She had to look away from him to engage the docking controls.
"If there are so few humans, who are Tarni's people?" Jaaxis was full of different alien species, a land of refugees and travelers. Perhaps the Consortium was the same.
"Humans, Oscavians, Rogtanis, Neen, there's tons of folks here. But it was founded by humans who were abducted from Earth thousands of years ago." She paused for a moment and then tilted her head towards him. "If you stick around for a bit I can show you some of their history."
Ty grinned. "I'm in no rush to leave you."
She grinned back and hope bloomed. But at that moment, the ship finalized docking and their attention turned back to the matter at hand.
"Shuttles run to the Nina Base port every few hours," she said. "Hopefully there's no issue with station security and we can make land by nightfall. Worst case scenario, we stay the night up here and go down in the—"
"REMOVE ALL WEAPONS AND REPORT TO YOUR AIR LOCK FOR IMMEDIATE INSPECTION." A booming voice over the loudspeaker cut Dorsey off.
"It's not normal," she said, eyes wide and worried. "Do as they say, this is probably just a misunderstanding."
"Maybe this ship has been reported stolen?" he suggested. It was unlikely that the pirates had paid for it with honest money.
"Let me do the talking. Please?" She added the last as an afterthought, but Ty wasn't about to contradict her, not here. This was her place, she knew the people and the consequences.
He wasn't about to step on any toes out of misplaced masculine pride. Besides, seeing her confidently taking on anyone as authoritative as the men they were about to meet heated his blood and showed him just how formidable she was. His denya was no simpering maiden. But he kept all that to himself and simply said, "Of course."
Dorsey grabbed a data crystal from the console and slipped it into her pocket. They both walked in silence to the air lock. They had no weapons to divest themselves of; with just the two of them on the ship Ty saw no reason to carry around the pipe he'd used on Lex's shipwreck.
"I don't think they'll shoot us," Dorsey said once they reached the air lock. "But be careful."
On that reassuring note, she opened the door to reveal a unit of four station security officers, weapons in hand and pointed right at them. He and Dorsey both had their hands raised, palms flat. After a tense moment, the leader, possibly human based on his height, but impossible to tell since he was completely covered in black tactical gear, lowered his weapon. Shortly after, his people followed suit. He raised his hand and pressed a button on the side of his helmet, causing the whole thing to retract into the suit.
Ty's hunch was right. The man was human, mostly. But the silver sheen of his eyes belied mechanical enhancements. He was a cyborg. Stronger, faster, and more ruthless than any human, cyborgs made up many of the top ranks of human military and police forces. Without similar enhancement or a vehicle, a person couldn't hope to outrun a cyborg.
Luckily, this one seemed reasonable enough, and when he started talking, the knot in Ty's chest loosened. "Dorsey? What the hell are you doing on a Granda Pirate vessel?"
Granda Pirate? Was that their name? They hadn't bothered to introduce themselves when they'd captured him.
Ty stayed silent beside Dorsey and kept his back straight and eyes menacing. Maybe he couldn't outfight a cyborg, but if any of those men tried to put a hand on his denya they wouldn't see tomorrow.
"I haven't turned pirate, Max," Dorsey said with the exasperation of acquaintance. Ty leaned half a step closer to her, tempted to put his arm around her shoulders, but that would only set off the guards.
Max the cyborg eyed him with appraisal as Dorsey spoke, and Ty's claws itched to shoot out and see what the man was made of. Had Max shown interest in Dorsey? Did he want her still? Worse, did Dorsey want him? It was easy to make plans for the future while alone on a ship, but when life came calling, things got complicated.
"You have skirted the edge of the law before, Dorse." That the cyborg hadn't holstered his weapon hadn't escaped Ty's notice.
Dorsey lowered her hands and crossed her arms, her foot tapping nervously. "We were both taken by pirates. Slavers, we think. Luckily, they were better at kidnapping then guarding, and we escaped and stole this ship from them."
"And who's your friend?" Now he turned his gaze full bore to Ty.
"Tyral NaRaxos," Ty introduced himself with a nod. "Detyen pilot."
Max's eyes flashed and Ty realized that his eyes weren't his only enhancements. "Detyen?" Max said. "How old are you?" To hone in on that he must have a database of alien characteristics wired into his mind.
There was no reason to lie. "Twenty-nine."
Max glanced between Dorsey and Ty, his gaze too sharp. But he said nothing more and holstered his gun. "Beqk, take them to Quarantine One."
"Wait!" Dorsey cried before they could be hauled off. She reached into her pocket and held out the data crystal. "We found the body of Lex Omacnaron, another freighter pilot, on our journey here. He's in the medbay."
Max snatched the crystal and nodded. "We'll see to it." Ty doubted that was the end of it, but one of the officers led them away and there was nothing to do but wait.
Quarantine One sounded much scarier than the reality. Dorsey had forgotten about the standard procedure of isolating anyone coming in from outside the system. If Max and his goons were able to verify her story, she and Ty shouldn't be stuck in holding for more than a few hours.
One of said goons sealed her and Ty into the room and left them without a word. A bed just large enough for two people was shoved up against one of the walls and a two-person couch stood against the other. Bathroom facilities were behind a door and there wasn't a kitchen, but a basket of snacks sat on the table in front of the couch.
"At least there aren't any bars," Ty said as he looked around.
"I know Max, he's not going to hold us for long," she said, hoping. She slipped off her shoes and flopped down on the bed. At least they'd fitted the place with a proper mattress. It felt like heaven and she had to bite back the moan that almost escaped.
"You know him well?" There was something that she couldn't define, something almost dangerous in his voice. Why it sent a chill down her spine, Dorsey didn't want to know.
"He's one of Nina's top officers. We're not that close, but I suppose we know each other well enough." She curled onto her side and watched as she slid off his shoes and stripped out of his top. "What are you doing?"
"There's a shower in there with my name on it." He hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants and Dorsey did her best to look anywhere in the small room but at him. The man didn't have a lick of shame and she knew exactly how good and hard those muscles of his felt up close to hers.
Thankfully, he closed the door to the bathroom behind him and after a moment turned the water on.
The sound of the spraying water was a lullaby, and after a minute, her eyes drifted closed, her body relaxing for the first time since she was taken. They weren't home safe yet. Ty wasn't even close to home at all. But once the quarantine was over, they'd make land, relatively safe in Nina's territory.
And together for however long Ty decided to stick around.
That thought tickled at the back of Dorsey's mind. Did she want him to go? Or stay? What did she want from him at all? Now that she'd had a little time to adjust to what they'd done together and get to know him, she wasn't sure it had been a mistake.
Sure, sleeping with him had been a snap decision, but adrenaline and lust and something she couldn't name had all knotted up and made it absolutely impossible to resist falling into bed—or, well, the cockpit, technically—with him.
She drifted, not quite awake, not quite asleep, the thoughts and wants turning over in her mind. Sometime later, the sound of the water turned off and Ty stepped out of the bathroom, releasing steam and warming up the room. A few minutes later, the bed dipped behind her as he slid in, wrapping his arm around her midsection and pulling her close.
Dorsey murmured something that didn't quite resemble speech. Ty didn't seem to mind. She lay there with his arm wrapped around her for a few minutes, but as good as he felt against her back, it wasn't enough. She wanted to see him.
She flipped over and tilted her head up. It was still a bit of a shock to look at him, especially now. She ran her finger down from the top of his forehead and over his nose. They didn't make them like this back home. At least not in blue.
Some aliens made it to Earth, but the planet was so out of the way that they were limited to a few species. Most of them were sort of gray and grew imposing horns out of their heads. Dorsey had never been allowed to go near them when she'd lived with her family. And by the time she'd left Earth, she hadn't cared at all to meet them.
Ty didn't remind her of those scary creatures. And he didn't remind her of a human man, despite their similarities. There was something primal about him, something that pulled at her from deep within. She'd never been one to surrender easily to passion, except when she was near him.
She realized he was naked, which hadn't been obvious with the sheets scrunched up between them. But it felt natural to be all tangled up with him like this. She regretted the sleep shirt she was wearing, her skin aching to be next to his.
Dorsey traced her hand down Ty's arm, surprised to find it almost tough to the touch. It wasn't scaly, but it felt slightly calloused, each of the dark markings on his skin raised from the rest of him. "Do you all have marks like this?" she asked. As soon as the words were out, she wanted to reel them back. What if what she said was super offensive? That was the problem when dealing with aliens, a girl just never knew.
But Ty shivered a bit as she traced the edges of one of the thick dark blue squares and she got the idea that they were more sensitive than they appeared. "They're called clan markings," he explained.
"You have a clan?" She couldn't remember him mentioning family before. Maybe people like him didn't organize themselves the same as humans.
"Raxos is my clan. My full name is Tyral NaRaxos. But the clans mostly disappeared a long time ago." When his people had been destroyed.
Dorsey dipped her head down and ran her lips over the edges of his markings. There were too many to kiss them all right now, but she promised herself that she would learn every centimeter of him. The material of the bedding scratched against her naked legs, only emphasizing just how warm and alive Ty was next to her.
He had a taste all his own, almost sweet on her tongue with just a hint of something masculine and completely foreign to her. It should have been weird, but he was so achingly familiar, so destructively right, that she couldn't resist.
He shifted, and suddenly there was more of him, all around her, drowning her senses.
His arms were heavy weights around her, and his mouth was on hers, tongues tangling as her senses exploded. Dorsey arched up, offering herself to him completely, practically begging for his touch.
And Ty obliged, his kisses more forceful, his hands everywhere, moving over her body like roving marauders. Sparks of pleasure trailed his caresses and Dorsey moaned around his tongue.
But then he pulled back, breathing heavy. They stared at each other, both wide eyed, and she felt some indefinable thing click within her.
Oh, it seemed to say, it's you. What took so long?
It was like there was a cord stretching between her and Ty, a connection that couldn't exist between two people. If she closed her eyes she could almost see it. It was exhilarating.
Ty tightened his arms and Dorsey rested her head against his chest, his heart beating in her ear as fast as her own.
They didn't say anything else, there was no need. And eventually Dorsey drifted off to sleep.
It was hard to tell time with no outside light and no clock in the quarantine chamber. Ty was certain they hadn’t been there a full day, though he didn’t know for how long he and Dorsey slept. She’d just gotten out of the shower and sat drying her hair with a towel on the bed. He was contemplating rigging up some sort of water clock using the contents of the food basket they’d been given.
“You’re going stir crazy, aren’t you?” Dorsey asked, the height of serenity.
Looking at her covered in just the towel, Ty thought that there were much better ways to pass the time than makeshift engineering. “Want to keep me sane?” he asked, stalking towards her and leaning in close, hands planted on either side of her.
Before he could kiss her, the door to their room buzzed as the lock disengaged. Ty straightened and swirled around, blocking Dorsey from sight of their visitor. He didn’t recognize the young, pale human in the door, curly blond hair sticking out of his head at all angles and face splotchy with red. He seemed more child than man.
“Your transport has been arranged,” he said. “I’m to escort you individually to the transpo depot.” His voice squeaked on the last word, undercutting his authority.
“Can we have a minute to get ready?” Ty snapped. They’d been locked up like criminals and hadn’t even been given the decency of a warning that it was time to go.
“How about he takes you first and I follow after?” Dorsey offered, peering over his shoulder.
“I’m supposed to take you first,” the kid said, shaking his head and trying to sound strong. Ty pictured a kitten trying to roar. This had to be the kid’s first assignment; Ty refused to believe otherwise.
“Then give me five minutes,” Dorsey said. “And shut the door behind you.”
“Very well, but you’re leaving in five minutes if you’re dressed or not.” He slammed the door but didn’t engage the lock.
Ty turned around to see Dorsey trying to hold back a smile.
“Were you not intimidated by all the might that this station’s security has to offer?” he asked, holding back his own laugh.
That was enough to break her. She leaned forward until her forehead rested against his shoulder, shaking as the sobbing laughs ripped through her. “They have to learn some time. I get it, but I’ve met actual puppies scarier than that kid.” She pulled back and hitched her towel back up from where it was falling down, offering a tantalizing glimpse of her breasts.
They only had five minutes. Ty stole a quick kiss and stepped back so Dorsey could put on her clothes.
Exactly five minutes later, the guard came back and took Dorsey away. Ty didn’t know how far away the transpo depot was, but he doubted it was close. No use for a quarantine section if escapees could easily run to land-bound ships.
He put his own shirt and shoes on and waited for the kid to return.
It turned out the time passed even slower with Dorsey gone, or at least it felt that way. He sat down and sorted through the packages of dried food they hadn’t eaten from the basket. When that was done, he tried stacking the packages, cursing the artificial gravity when they toppled over.
Time stretched and still he was alone.
Impatience could get a man killed, but it was hard to be wait like a trapped animal when his denya had been taken from his reach. He knew it was all psychological bullshit and that he hadn’t been left alone for long, but his heartbeat kicked up and he felt boxed in. He paced the room, trying to let off some steam, but it only made it worse.
What was wrong with him?
He pounded a fist against the wall, his claws shooting out as he pulled away, almost scratching deep gouges in the surface.
As if summoning the guard, he heard a mechanism in the door spin and it started to open. Ty stepped back, expecting to see the kid guard here to retrieve him.
Instead it was Max.
The cyborg eyed him, gaze flicking down to Ty’s swiftly retracting claws and back up. “Is everything alright, Mr. NaRaxos?” he asked.
“I’m ready to get out of this cell,” Ty growled, clenching a fist.
The cyborg was unmoved by the implied threat. “In due time,” he said. “Would you please tell Ms. Kwan that I must speak with her?” He glanced past Ty to the partially shut bathroom door as if she were in there.
Alarm zinged through him. “What are you talking about? Your man came and took her to the transpo depot.” Something tensed at the base of Ty’s spine, trying to ice its way up and freeze him out.
“Who retrieved her?” Max barked, as if Ty were one of his goons.
But Dorsey might be in danger and Ty didn’t have time for a pissing contest. “Some kid, young, human, blond hair, red cheeks. He didn’t give a name. This was at least a half hour, maybe an hour ago.” He spoke fast. There was no time to waste.
Max’s eyes flickered as he processed the information. Ty wondered if he did it on purpose or if it was a side effect of whatever cybernetic enhancements that had been done to him. “Collins,” he said, like a curse. And then he actually cursed. “An official transfer request has come in for Dorsey Kwan.” Max said ‘transfer request’ like he meant ‘execution order.’
“What does that mean?” The politics of this place were too complicated to grasp in a day. But he thought punching people might cut through some red tape.
“Commander Droscus has put a claim on her file. She’s scheduled to be sent to his citadel this morning.” Max grit his teeth, frozen in place. “It’s officially sanctioned by the station chief.”
“I thought this was Nina’s territory?” There were at least two warlords who ruled the planet, he recalled. But if this was Nina Station, why could another commander make demands?
“Unofficially, yes, but all space stations are technically neutral territory. If I intercede, it will cause… complications.” And he was clearly not happy about that, bucking at the reins of his position. “The Commander would not be pleased.”
“Do you think I give a shit what your commander thinks?” Ty snarled. He took two looming steps towards the cyborg, who remained preternaturally still.
Max tilted his head and studied him. “She cannot protect a freighter pilot with no connections, not here. Not without consequences. I cannot help a woman I consider my friend.”
“Then get out of my way and I’ll protect her.” If he didn’t move, Ty would shove him aside and do the thing himself.
“Is she your mate?” Max demanded with knowledge he shouldn’t have.
Ty wanted to pounce and snarl, but the man seemed to be trying to help, however inefficiently. “And if she is?”
“Does she knew what she’s up against? What the stakes are?” And that confirmed it. The cyborg may have called Dorsey a friend, but he had wanted more. Too bad, too late.
“I will tear this station down tile by tile if you do not let me go,” he promised.
Max nodded. “I suppose that answers it.” He pulled a thin device out of his pocket; it looked like a sheet of paper but when he waved a hand over it, Ty saw it was an ultra-thin tablet. Max held it out to Ty. “I can’t pull her off the shuttle or stop it from departing,” Max said, deceptively calm, “but if you make it to the Nina Port shuttle, you’ll both be let on. Tell the gate attendant your names and tell them you’re under the authority of Captain Staunton. Follow the red line and you’ll reach the transpo depot. Collins couldn’t have taken a vehicle there, he wouldn’t want to make a record. His vehicle code is 0227, take one of the hover bikes and you’ll make it there in fifteen minutes. Good luck.”
Ty took the map and ran out the room, not even pausing to thank the head of security. Not when every second counted.
When the first door down the hallway opened before him, Ty knew that Max had done one more thing to help him along the way. Maybe he should have taken that second to thank him. Once outside the corridors of the quarantine zone, Ty took a moment to orient himself. The walls here were a gentle blue, as if to remind those walking down them of the sky on a perfect day.
A red line down the center of the floor defined lanes, though this hallway was practically deserted. A glance down at his map showed Ty that he could grab a hover bike at the end of the next hallway. He wanted to sprint, but he forced himself to walk at a brisk pace. He didn’t know if the guards that had to be lurking about would detain him.
He passed a porthole and glimpsed the planet below them. A ship had just undocked from the station and was speeding towards land. Another shuttle was moments away from docking. He needed to believe that Dorsey wasn’t on the departing vessel; he couldn’t lose her now.
At the hover bike locker, he punched in Collins’ code and grabbed the bike closest to the door. Another entry of the code into the ignition lock saw the bike powered up.
He sped down the hallways of the station, avoiding pedestrians and other vehicles and consulting the map every few minutes. Once he was sure he’d memorized the path, he stuck the map in his pocket and sped up. He wasn’t far now.
He turned a final corner and a large door came into view a hundred yards away, blocking him from going any farther. A sign over the door said TRANSPORTATION AND TRANSFER DEPOT. He slid off the bike and parked it in the small room off to the side designed for inner-station vehicles.
The door wasn’t passcode locked and opened when he waved his hand in front of the motion sensor. It opened to reveal a bustling hall full of people, machines, and guards, all too busy to pay him any attention. Different staging areas were set up against the four walls, a dozen in total, though only three were packed with waiting passengers. The open space at the center of the room was piled with luggage and guarded by a sleepy looking woman in a rumpled uniform.
Announcements in Interstellar Common and a language that his translator didn’t know blared out over loudspeakers, announcing the arrival and departure of shuttles and space-bound vehicles. There were hundreds of people in the room and he didn’t see Dorsey anywhere.
A monitor on one wall listed the incoming and outgoing ships. All he knew was that Dorsey was bound for the shuttle headed for Droscus’s territory. He didn’t know the citadel’s name or when the ship was scheduled to leave.
He looked back to the waiting areas and chose the one where the people looked the most depressed. From all accounts, Droscus’s territory was not a happy one. Ty approached a young woman with a bag slung over one shoulder.
“Is this where the shuttle to the citadel leaves from?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound completely insane.
The woman stared at him blankly. He tried his question again in another language, but she still didn’t understand. A woman next to her wearing a dark dress with blue silk draped over her head glared at him and said, “Over there,” pointing towards a crowded gate on the other side of the room.
The gate she pointed to was the most crowded, but everyone stood in orderly rows between laser grid stanchions. Ty walked back and forth, looking for either Dorsey or the traitorous Collins. But they weren’t standing in any of the five rows, nor were they sitting in the chairs set off to the side.
Hope wasn’t lost. The shuttle hadn’t left. Ty made himself stand still and breathe, centering his focus on the room and reaching out to the nascent denya bond between them. It was a weak connection, newly formed and not completely certain of its welcome. But it was enough.
Ty turned and strode back towards the door where he’d entered, veering off to the side at the last moment. A small hallway was hidden behind a drape designed to look like a decoration. He ripped it aside and barreled through, claws primed to spring to the surface at the first hint of trouble. They were deadly weapons, but he wouldn’t have said no to a blaster.
It didn’t matter. He was getting his denya back, blaster or no.
Dorsey realized her guard—Collins, according to his nametag—wasn't on the up and up ten minutes into their walk to the transpo depot. Her first clue came when he bypassed the hover bikes that made getting around the station swift business. Then he shoved her into a closet when one of his fellow guards turned a corner and walked towards him.
What really gave it away was the sweat. The kid wasn't built for clandestine work. But he had a blaster and passcodes for anywhere on the station. If she ran, she wouldn't get far.
That he took her all the way to the transpo depot was a surprise, but instead of leaving her by the gate to Nina Port and leaving to retrieve Ty, he led her down a hidden hallway and sat her down, binding her hands to a chair specifically designed to hold prisoners.
There was no proper door to the room, but the hallway was long and no one would hear her scream if she cried out. Well, no one except Collins, and he wouldn't be a sympathetic audience.
"The Commander won't like it if I go missing," she told the corporal. It was just barely true. Nina might recognize her, but they didn't have much of a relationship. Still, this was Nina's station. Even if it was neutral, she had command.
"You're a two bit freight pilot who's cozying up to some off-worlder. Do you think she'll care?" Collins snapped, his cheeks even redder. He couldn't control his blushing and was little better at keeping his physical reactions to a minimum. His hands were balled up into fists and he scowled hard enough that it had to hurt his face.
"I think she'll care that one of the guards she pays betrayed her." He flinched, but Dorsey was still strapped to the chair.
"If you hadn't found—" He cut himself off and turned away from Dorsey, facing down the hall as if watching for a relief guard to come back him up. They stewed in silence for a long time, the minutes ticking by with only the faint echo of the loudspeaker from the depot breaking through.
If I hadn't found what? Dorsey wanted to demand. Was it Lex's body? If she hadn't found a way to escape from the pirates? If she hadn't found Ty? What was the cause and effect? And why did Droscus—because it could be no one other than Droscus—care? She'd done business with him through her corporation, all pilots did eventually, but she'd never even met the man! Why would he hire a guard to smuggle her off station?
An awareness tugged at the edge of Dorsey's mind, something she couldn't make sense of. It felt like Ty. She couldn't explain it with her senses, not with sight or smell, but it was the feeling of his presence. She would bet her entire being that he was close, that he was coming for her.
"Collins!" she called out, trying to drag his attention away from the hallway. If Ty was coming, there was only one way in. It was crazy to believe that he'd come for her, but she knew it in her heart to be true.
The guard ignored her.
"Come on, Collins, I want to play your game," she tried again. She just needed to buy time. "Come over here."
Collins whipped around, "What?" he demanded. "What could you possibly want to say you… you…"
"Cat got your tongue?" The taunt slipped out and Dorsey didn't have time to regret it.
The sting of his hand radiated out across her cheek before she realized he was going to slap her. Damn, the kid was fast and strong. He could have been something someday. It was almost too bad he'd never become a real soldier, not after she was done with him.
Her ears rang with the power of the contact and she tasted the coppery tang of blood blooming on her tongue. Dorsey rolled her head back towards him and stared him right in the eyes, one brow quirked up. "I offer you info and that's what you give me?"
"I don't need to hear anything you have to say," he sneered.
Not good. That impossible awareness of Ty was getting closer, but it wasn't with her yet. Ty, she tried to call out with her thoughts, please, find me! Maybe this was what he'd meant when he mentioned psychic bonds. If there was some bond between them right now, she'd thank all her lucky stars.
Collins started to turn toward the hallway and Dorsey tried to reach out to stop him, her arms still held by the metal bonds of the chair. The sound of her struggle caught his attention and he turned back with a sickening smile plastered on his face.
Dorsey tried to keep her expression even as bile churned in her stomach and climbed up her throat. She'd seen that kind of smile before. It was always when a certain kind of man had a woman helpless before him. And it never ended well.
Collins loomed over her, absolutely certain that she was completely at his mercy. And she would have been, if she didn't catch a whisper of movement just past his shoulder. Dorsey jerked her gaze back to Collins as he laid a hand on her arm, his grip too tight to be anything but menacing.
"You're just a little girl who doesn't even know that she's in over her head," he crooned, flattening his palm and moving it down her chest.
"I'm pretty sure you're wrong about that," she said, the fear transforming back into rage with every second she waited for Ty to make his move.
He jerked back as a blue hand with spikes coming out at the knuckles clenched his throat. "Oh," Ty said as he held him in place, "yeah."
"Don't kill him, he might know something!" Dorsey said before Ty could take revenge. She'd be lying to herself if she didn't admit that a part of her wished he didn't listen to her.
But Ty held himself still. "Is she right?" he asked, his voice dangerous and so sexy she felt heat creep up her neck. "What do you know?"
"Nothing!" Collins squeaked, the powerful attitude dissolved into a puddle of jelly at the smallest sign of duress.
Ty glanced over at Dorsey, his expression glacial as he took stock of her situation. "He knows nothing, may I kill him now?"
She wanted to say yes, and she wanted to kiss Ty. She'd never known she was so bloodthirsty. "We need to take him to Max." She still trusted the captain, despite the quarantine.
"Our shuttle leaves in ten minutes, there's no time." He didn't explain how he'd procured them passage on a shuttle and Dorsey didn't ask. She could do that later, once they were safe.
The restraints bit into her arms and she smiled. "Then we leave him here. Max can question him once we're gone." And though it hadn't seemed possible, Collins got even paler.
Ty grinned. "I like the way you think." He tapped his claws gently against Collins' pulse. "If you run, I'll kill you. If you scream, you die. Let Dorsey out and take her place." With his free hand, Ty held up the blaster that had been resting in Collins' holster. The boy was weaponless and terrified. He didn't try to resist.
It took a minute for him to free her and another one to get the restraints settled back into place. Ty used a spare piece of cloth as a gag and left the boy bound as they sprinted down the hall towards the shuttle to Nina port.
It was time to find a safe place and rest.
And then she could figure out what the hell was going on.
The shuttle looked like any space station to land shuttle on this side of the galaxy. It was built to be sturdy enough to withstand multiple daily breaches of the atmosphere and stay in operation for years. They were on a smaller model, made to hold a few hundred passengers rather than several thousand.
Max had been good to his word and the gate attendants had let both Dorsey and Ty go on without question. They sat beside one another now and Ty couldn't keep himself from touching Dorsey, from convincing himself that she was okay.
If she hadn't stopped him, he would have killed that boy soldier and felt no regret. No one was allowed to hurt his woman. She was his denya and he would tear apart all the worlds of this galaxy to save her.
And even if she weren't meant for him, Ty was coming to believe that he'd do the same thing anyway. Dorsey was one hell of a woman. Smart, sexy, with a wicked wit that kept him guessing. He'd never been in love before, but if this wasn't the road, he didn't want a map. A Detyen woman could walk across his path right now and he knew he wouldn't be tempted. He wanted his denya, no one else.
Dorsey laid her head on his shoulder, her curly hair tickling his chin. Their row was isolated from most of the shuttle, reserved for high paying customers or important passengers. No one had booked it before Ty talked their way on and this row was the only one with two empty seats next to each other. No one on the shuttle had argued when he took the seats. He knew he still radiated anger, but Dorsey didn't seem to mind.
"How did you know to come for me?" she asked. She wasn't looking at him but out the little screen shaped like a porthole. It simulated the view outside the ship while leaving the hull intact.
How? He could name a dozen reasons, but few of them would make sense to her without explaining their bond, and now was certainly not the time for that. She needed to rest, needed to feel safe, and if he told her they were psychically bonded in the ways of his people, he feared that he'd lose her forever.
For the first time he realized that he should have said something before, back when there was a chance to stop this. But he'd been so caught up in the rush of escaping and the confusion of his temporary blindness that the act had been completed before he could think to prevent it.
With a start, he realized that it had been a week since his capture. If they hadn't made love when they'd escaped, he'd be dead now.
"Ty?" She turned toward him when he took too long to respond.
"Your friend Max came to ask you some questions," he explained. "He couldn't take direct action but he could send me."
She grinned. "My hero."
He bristled for a moment before he understood she was talking about him, not the cyborg. "I will not let you fall into enemy hands. Not while I'm around."
She snuggled into him and Ty threw his arm around her, keeping her close. She hadn't left his sight since they'd left the would-be traitor tied to the chair; he didn't know if he could let her have her space. Not yet, not until his protective instincts receded enough for rational thought to intervene.
The loudspeaker crackled to life and announced that their arrival was imminent. The trip from space station to land had taken less than half an hour. The shuttle rocked as they broke through the atmosphere and Ty's ears popped as the artificial gravity of the shuttle gave way to the true gravity of Tarni. It was always surprising how different real gravity felt from that which was simulated on ships. He'd been out to space so long that he'd forgotten just how heavy his body could feel.
When the shuttle docked, he and Dorsey unbuckled their restraints and disembarked with the rest of the passengers into the shuttle station of Nina City. They walked down a narrow flight of stairs to the black stone of the tarmac. The sun beat hot overhead, though it was not yet midday on planet. Space lag meant Ty and Dorsey would have the joy of adjusting to a sun-regulated day. Space hours worked on the Interstellar Common Day, which was an entire hour shorter than Tarni time.
He looked past the shuttle and over to the shuttle port. It was a sprawling sandstone building with large windows taking up most of the walls. The roof was made of several domes, and columns supported the whole structure, solid lines of stone that looked like they'd been plucked from somewhere by a giant and put in place in one piece.
The oppressive weight of age seeped out of the port, and from a view of the surrounding areas, this had to be an older part of the city.
Jaaxis City had been all cobbled together over the years with metal and grit. Shining towers soared above ramshackle hovels next to perfectly respectable dwellings. Nothing matched all squished together like that.
Here in Nina City, they'd taken a different approach. This looked like the Old World, one of those planets that had grown into itself long before its people had the ability to traverse the stars. But from Dorsey's history of the Consortium, Tarni and its sister planets were decidedly New. Clearly the settlers had taken to the technologies of space with aplomb while holding to the aesthetics of their home planet.
Dorsey sucked in a deep breath, her chest puffing up before she let it out. "Ah," she breathed, "That's air that hasn't been circulated through the filtration system a thousand times."
Ty took a breath. She was right—there was the stink of exhaust and heat and something faintly spicy all around them. It wasn't the stale, sterile cleanliness of a life support system. No, the air here smelled like life itself.
Out of the corner of his eye Ty saw a vehicle coming towards them. At first he thought it was a shuttle port transport, but the four armed men gave lie to that assumption. Ty stepped closer to Dorsey, ready to jump in front of her if anything went wrong.
"Is that our ride?" she asked, shifting back and forth, light on the balls of her feet.
They could run and try to get lost in the crowd of Nina City if they could get out of the shuttle port. But there were at least two hundred meters of empty space before the fence to the populated areas of the city, and guard towers dotted that stone structure. They were slightly closer to the shuttle port building, but an area like that would have airtight security. There was nowhere to run.
"I think it may be," Ty responded, dread and resignation settling in.
The vehicle stopped in front of the two of them. It was a land speeder designed to hold six. There were no doors on the front or back positions, but the middle row of seats was enclosed by solid walls, meant to hold detainees.
Two soldiers stepped out of the backseat. Ty saw that the woman closest to them was the leader. Three yellow braids covered one shoulder of her otherwise unembellished black uniform. The soldier on the other side of the speeder wore only one braid. He couldn't see the other two to be certain, but since she was the one who talked, she was the one he'd listen to.
"The Commander requests your presence and offers her hospitality," said the soldier. "I am Octava and have been sent to retrieve you." Octava waved her hand and one of the sides of the speeder slid down to reveal a padded bench. "Please take a seat."
Dorsey glanced at him and gave a slight nod. She was telling him not to resist. Ty nodded back and stepped up to the vehicle and took his seat. Octava was too well disciplined to visibly relax, but she nodded to her fellow soldier, who lowered his weapon.
And then they were off. None of the passengers from the shuttle glanced towards them, and that told Ty more about this city than he'd known before. Nina may have been a better warlord than Droscus, but she was still a warlord, and the city lived in resigned fear of her.
Once Dorsey sat beside him, Octava sealed them into the vehicle and instructed her driver to move. While the roads were packed with traffic and pedestrians, all moved out of the way without any need for a siren or horn.
The people of Tarni wore bright colors in many different styles. Some men and women covered their heads with silks and fine hats, while others left their hair free under the light of the sun. While most wore jumpsuits or pants, there were a fair number of dresses and robes as well. At first, Ty thought the crowds were overwhelmingly human, but as his eyes adjusted to the scenes he passed, he noticed the non-humans within the crowd. His eyes even caught onto a familiar clan marking for an instant before they turned a corner.
He'd seen a Detyen. But they drove on too fast for him to get a better look.
A bazaar covered by cloth drapes was propped up in between two tall stone buildings. Though they were only tall by Nina City standards. There couldn't have been more than ten floors. In the bazaar, people of all colors and species traded their wares in the open air and the sound of voices and music drifted through the speeder.
"It's so lively," he said. The Jaaxis city center was a place of commerce and speed. It was meant for trade, not for life, and always felt monochromatic and sterile.
Dorsey looked back towards the bazaar as they passed it. "It doesn't suck," she said.
They drove for several more minutes until they came to another sandstone edifice in the center of the city. This was Nina's palace, the seat of her power.
The road dropped off suddenly thirty meters before they reached the walls. A proper moat would be filled with water, but from his vantage point, all he saw was sheer rock over a dark pit. That was one way to discourage the rabble from storming the castle.
A bridge extended for them when they got close enough, and they drove into the heart of the castle courtyard. Soldiers and civilians walked around, some drilling in squads and others doing their own work. Their driver parked the vehicle in a spot designated for "Authorized Personnel" and the four guards got out, Octava waiting to let him and Dorsey out until they were properly covered.
Their guard led them inside and Ty craned his neck around, trying to take in everything at once. It wasn't every day that a man got to be prisoner in an actual working castle. In comparison to the view outside, the inside was almost a letdown. The place was built for function over form, with sensors and cameras built into the walls and ceilings, the windows small with laser grids protecting them from invasion.
No one greeted them as they were led up a staircase and down a narrow hall. They walked past a great door that looked like it could turn into a gate with the push of a button. The walls were a happy yellow and the bright skylights made the place feel much bigger and homier than the corridor was.
But it was still a prison.
Nicer than the kidnappers' ship, but Ty was getting very tired of being held captive.
Octava dismissed the three guards when they reached two heavy wooden doors. "The Commander has provided each of you with a week's worth of fresh clothing and a bath. If you are hungry, there is food a little farther down the hallway. Until your… situation… can be sorted out, you're to remain on this level. The Commander will want to meet with you tomorrow, but she understands that you've had a trying journey and must need rest. If you need anything that is not available on this floor, please contact Keeda, the floor maiden. She will see to all of your needs."
"Thank you," said Dorsey, somehow tamping down the resentment she had to be feeling about once again being placed under lock and key. "Please relay my regards to the Commander and let her know that I look forward to meeting her."
Octava nodded and left them alone in the hallway.
Ty opened the door to his room and looked in. It was nice, modern even, with dark walls and a metallic decoration on the ceiling. The bed looked soft and big enough that he could sprawl with room to spare. "It beats a dark cell," he said.
Dorsey smiled and opened her own door. "I think I could sleep for a week."
They went into their rooms, and when the door shut behind her, Ty had a strange moment where the world wobbled on its axis. He'd been apart from Dorsey on the ship, technically, but they'd been in space. There was no place for her to go if she wanted to get away. On the space station, they'd been confined to quarantine and placed together once more. But here in the castle, though they were technically under guard, he knew Dorsey could find a way to leave.
Ty shook himself out of it. That was the danger and exhaustion talking. He couldn't just barge into Dorsey's room and demand her attention in the first moment she had to herself. He wasn't that desperate.
Lovesick, yes, but not a fool.
He found the clothes that Octava mentioned and pulled on a fresh set. Compared to what he'd been wearing for days, the soft synthetic fibers felt decadent on his skin. He briefly considered taking a shower, but the weight of gravity and everything else struck him down and he suddenly felt too tired to do more than stumble into the bed.
When he rolled over, he saw a second large wooden door that looked nothing like the flimsy thing that slid to reveal a bathroom. This one looked like it joined to another room.
A few minutes later, that door opened and Dorsey peeked her head through. She, too, had changed into new clothes, her outfit made of an orange silk top and dark pants. "Hey," she said, wedged in the doorway, half in her room, half in his.
Ty gave her a sleepy smile. "Hey."
"I…" Dorsey looked back at her room and bit her lip.
Ty patted the sheet next to him. "Lay with me?"
She nodded and stepped into the room, closing the door behind her.
Dorsey tried to stop herself from glancing over at Ty every ten seconds as the floor maiden, Keeda, led them through Nina's fortress to the audience chambers. She was in awe of this whole place and the fact that she was actually about to meet Commander Nina herself. Sure, Dorsey knew Max, but that was what came from spending half her life on space stations and going through processing for her shipments. She was on vaguely friendly terms with at least half of the higher-ranking guards on all four Tarni space stations.
But Nina was something different.
She was the ruler of this chunk of the planet and she took it very seriously. By bringing Dorsey and Ty into her castle, she'd shown them a courtesy that few low-ranking citizens ever received. That was unless this was a precursor to imprisonment. Keeda might have been tasked with seeing to their needs, but Dorsey saw the thin outline of knife sheaths under the young woman's peach silk sleeves.
Tarni, the Consortium, wasn't like Earth. There was no democracy here, and no transparency in the government. When Nina made a decision, no citizen had the right to question it, nor did they have the courage. The only way to get out from under the thumb of a bad warlord was to leave or to rebel. Droscus had quelled a handful of rebellions in his dozen years of leadership; Nina had dealt with one in the five years she'd been in power.
No one in her territory even remembered the rebel's names.
The palace looked like something ancient out of a period drama on Earth media, but that was all for show. The giant wooden doors to the audience chamber slid aside with a gentle whoosh just like any normal automated doors and the security measures didn't even try to pretend that they were unobtrusive.
Nina stood at one end of the room, a bevy of guards and officials surrounding her. She was not the tallest in the room, but she stood out, her bright blonde hair a beacon in the sunny room. She wore black pants and a white jacket, green braids covering both of her shoulders. This was her every day dress uniform, nothing she would wear into battle. The white was a simple statement—she was too powerful to need to fight for her place. No one dared bleed around her.
Keeda left them at the door, her job done. Nina saw Dorsey and Ty and smiled. It was neither wide nor bright, but welcoming enough, as if she were saying please, join me, I'm not a dictator who rules with an iron fist.
Dorsey led the way into the room. Ty seemed to understand that this was her world and she appreciated that he followed her lead. So many men became barbarians after a bout in the sheets, mistaking sex for ownership. Ty respected her.
And that was more dangerous to her heart than any romantic gesture.
A smallish red box had been painted on the floor, large enough for a few people to stand in. This was where they were meant to stop. Dorsey did so and Ty stepped up next to her. She bowed quickly; on Tarni they did not stand on ceremony. A simple bow was more than sufficient to show respect.
"Dorsey Kwan, my captain tells me much about you." Nina greeted them with a brief nod. She turned to Ty. "You, Tyral NaRaxos, prove more of a mystery."
Dorsey bit her tongue to keep from saying anything. Nina didn't stand on pretense; it didn't mean she had invited them to talk. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ty standing straight, his blue skin practically glowing in the bright light and the markings crawling down his arm visible and as vibrant as a fresh tattoo. He wasn't the only non-human in the world, but he stood out like a statue to male strength and virility.
And Nina saw it too.
If their lives and freedom weren't at stake, Dorsey would have stepped in front of Ty and placed her hands on him, claiming his as her own. He was hers.
The ferocity of the thought shook her. Because he wasn't hers. There was no claim between them, nothing besides what they'd done together. They'd never spoken of commitment, not talked of anything beyond getting to Tarni and sending Ty home.
But Dorsey didn't want him to go home. She wanted him here with her. And this was a hell of a time to figure that out.
Nina looked between the two of them, but didn't seem to read Dorsey's distress as anything out of the ordinary. She stared at Ty for an extra second before turning back to her. Dorsey felt her scrutiny like a ton of bricks.
"Lex Omacnaron will be given a funeral suitable to his post and his widow will be compensated," Nina promised. "His death will be investigated by my top people. And you have my thanks for bringing him home to rest."
With those words, Dorsey realized why Nina held onto her power. She truly believed them and her thanks was genuine. Lex may have only been a freight pilot, but he shouldn't be dead, and whoever or whatever had killed him needed to be dealt with.
"Thank you," said Dorsey, "That means a lot."
"This isn't just about one man's death, is it?" asked Ty. He clutched his hands in front of him and spoke like a king. "It's connected to why Dorsey was taken."
Nina turned to him, and where Dorsey expected to see censure, she only saw intrigue. The commander took a step closer to Ty, not quite turning her back to Dorsey, but closing her out of the conversation all the same. "Nothing is certain at the moment. But as they both worked for the same corporation, it's a connection that must be investigated." She stepped back towards her advisors and grabbed two small badges. "Until this investigation is completed, consider yourselves my guests in this city. These identification cards will take care of your expenses and clearance. However, I must ask that you remain within the city walls for your own safety. I would not want anything else to happen to you."
Dorsey took the badge from the servant that carried them over. Her name and image appeared in a hologram. "I want to help with the investigation," Dorsey said before they were dismissed. "Please, is there anything I can do?"
Nina looked her up and down, eyebrow ever so slightly raised. "My investigators will handle it. The matter is none of your concern." She turned away and that was that.
Dorsey almost took a step forward, but Ty put his hand on her arm and shook his head. She wanted to break his hold and run after Nina and demand to be let into the investigation. But it wouldn't work. No one questioned Nina.
Not if they wanted to survive.
Pacing never solved anything, but it made her feel like she was doing something, so Dorsey supposed it was better than nothing. The hole she was wearing in Ty's carpeting probably didn't agree. She knew their audience with Nina could have gone much worse.
"We're not even prisoners," she told Ty while she bit her nails, an old nervous habit she'd thought she'd cured herself of years ago.
Ty sat on his bed, arms posted behind him, his entire posture deceptively relaxed and feline. His gaze swept back and forth with her movements, never leaving her. "Not technically prisoners seems more apt. We're confined to the city." He was all coiled power ready to jump.
"I'm sorry I got you into this." She forced herself to stop and lower her hand and look him square in those demonic red eyes of his. His stare did things to her, made her want with an ache she knew only he could soothe.
Ty glided up until he stood centimeters away and tilted her head up with one of his hands. "You didn't get me into anything I didn't want. I'm with you, Dorsey. And I'm not going anywhere."
His gaze didn't leave hers, the red embers burning her down to her core. She wanted to reach up and kiss him, forget all of her problems, and solve them with him by her side. The bed was right behind them—just two steps and it would all go away for a little while.
Ty's other arm came around her, cradling her close. "You know what we should do?" he asked, a grin tugging up one corner of his mouth.
She had plenty of ideas. "What?" It came out little more than a whisper.
"You should show me the city." The grin pulled into a full smile, those sharp teeth of his glinting in what might have been a threatening expression to someone who didn't know him as well as she did. To someone who didn't care for him.
And looking up at him, hearing that he was with her, let her believe that he might feel the same way. She wanted him, but whether he meant he was with her for the time being or forever, she didn't know. And right now, she was too scared to ask.
"Let's go into town."
Now that they had Nina's blessing, they were no longer bound to one floor and a quick question into Keeda's ear saw them outfitted with a vehicle and comms that could put them in contact with her if they found they needed anything while they were gone. Apparently, her duties had transferred from floor maiden to guest attendant.
Ty slid into the driver's seat and Dorsey almost argued with him about it, but the vehicle was completely automated; manual controls were only there as a redundancy. "Let's go to the Center Square Market." It was a suggestion to Ty and a command to the car.
They rolled on. Dorsey watched Ty watch the city pass. It had long since become a normal place for her, the crowded streets, diverse people, the districts and markets all inspired and brought in from other planets and cultures. The different cultures didn't always mesh, but the conflict gave the city part of its flavor.
"What's this market?" Ty asked.
"It's the official marketplace of Nina City," she explained. She could just see the permanent structure of the marketplace at the edge of her view. "It's the best place to get a feel for the city as a whole." It looked a little like one of the old parking structures that still stood in her hometown. Except this had never been built to hold cars.
The market took up four stories of an open air building, the sides open to the elements and billowing with colorful drapes. Over the top of the entire thing there was a metal roof, vaulted up to the sky to protect the top floor from rain and the punishing sun. The force fields along the sides of the building regulated the temperature, making it pleasant year round.
Thousands of customers and tradesmen milled about, buying and selling and gossiping and spying. Every secret in Nina City could be learned here, and every good purchased. You only had to know who to ask.
They pulled to a stop and the car parked itself on a side street only a block or so from the building. Dorsey reached for his hand and tugged him further down the street. "The grand entrance is this way, it's worth the walk."
Ty's hand was warm in hers and Dorsey linked her fingers through his. Even though she was human and he was an alien, they fit just right. "Evolution is weird, isn't it?" she mused.
He looked down at her with a smile. "Why?"
She held up their linked hands. "Different planets, light years apart, same shape. Seems like it should be impossible."
He leaned over and kissed her knuckles. "Did you know that before the end of Detya, my people traveled the galaxies for millennia?"
She shook her head.
"I can't say for certain that our people bear similar traits because of Detyens, but I would not rule it out." They walked on and Dorsey mulled that over. She didn't know if she believed him, but there was something comforting in the thought that they might be similar somewhere in their long shared past.
The sound of music coming down a side street dragged Dorsey's attention from the market. "It sounds like someone's having a party, want to check it out?"
He disentangled their hands and slung his arm over her shoulder, pulling her close. "Are you trying to get me alone, you human seductress?"
A laugh burbled out of her throat. She couldn't remember anyone ever accusing her of that before.
Oh, what the hell. She leaned forward and swiped a quick kiss against his lips, pulling away before he could deepen it. She wasn't going to make out with him on a public street, not right now.
Not if she kept enough distance between them to keep temptation at bay.
"Come on, I think someone's throwing a party." She dragged him further down the street and turned a corner when the music got louder.
Passing down that street would be impossible. Dozens of people in bright colors danced along to the quick beat pumping out from a stereo hidden somewhere. In the center of the crowd, she spotted two huge golden hats that were linked together by gossamer chains and fine lace.
Dorsey smiled and looked over at Ty. "It's a wedding."
"What's with the hats?" he asked, gesturing vaguely towards the crowd.
"It's to symbolize their joining. Each of the chains is given to them by members of their families or clans. The lace is made by friends and siblings. They have to wear them through the celebration to show that they are bound to each other and to their community." She'd purchased lace for Lex and Reina's wedding. Her face fell as she remembered that he wasn't coming back. "If the couple is parted," she said sadly, "through divorce or death or anything else, the two hats are unchained and burned."
Ty hugged her and ran his hand over her hair. It was so comforting when he did it, and he always touched her so carefully, like she was something precious to him. She turned to him and threw her hands around him, burying her face in his side. "Friends aren't supposed to just die," she cried.
"I'm sorry," he murmured against ear. He tugged her back down the street towards the market and away from the wedding. He found a small bench within view of the market and sat down with her, keeping her close. "I know how hard it hurts to lose."
"Who did you lose?" The smell of his soap seeped into her nose, surrounding all her senses with the essence of him. It grounded her.
"A few friends, some family. Even when you know it's coming, it hurts." Pain laced his voice, but there was something he wasn't telling her, something he was holding back.
Dorsey didn't press. She had no right to all of his grief—he wasn't hers. "What makes it better?" She'd left Earth before she could lose anyone. She hadn't been on Tarni long enough for many strong ties. Truly, she hadn't been incredibly close to Lex, not since flight school. But this was the worst one yet.
"Thinking of good things helps."
Ty looked back towards the wedding party in the street. "Do you want to hear how my parents met?"
She wanted to know everything about him. "Yes, definitely." Already she felt the weight on her chest lightening, her stress unfurling.
Ty huffed out a little laugh. "She was the mechanic on a merc ship out near the Oscavian Empire." He referenced one of the larger interstellar empires in a quadrant far away from the Consortium. "My dad was a scholar, which is rare."
"Your people don't study anything?" There was always some form of scholarly pursuit among space faring people.
"Not when we're young," he explained. "Most of our academics are in their fifth decade or later."
She wanted to ask why, but she didn't want to interrupt his story. Dorsey made a mental note to ask him more later.
"Dad wanted into an Oscavian planet that was closed to anyone not in the Empire. There was a rumor of an old data file that contained a collection of ancient Detyen poetry thought lost to the ages." He didn't say it, but she gathered his father was a gentle man.
"So what happened?"
"He sweet talked his way onto the ship by implying he was an important agent of a distant and powerful planet. I don't know if the mercs bought it, but money is money. He and Mom were on the ship for more than a month before they met. And when they did, he said it was like fireworks. He just knew she was his… he just knew. She tried to stop him from going down to the planet and said he was going to get himself killed for some stupid book. Of course, he wouldn't be swayed. So she went with him to protect him."
"Your mother sounds like quite a woman." Dorsey could almost imagine it. Her own mother had never been on an airplane, let alone gone into space.
Ty tilted his head up and looked at the bright sky, a distant grin making him look young. "She is." He looked back down toward the wedding and his eyes narrowed. Dorsey followed his gaze and saw two men walking beside each other. One had orange skin and the other was yellowish, almost green. Their bare arms revealed markings incredibly similar to Ty's own. She hadn't realized that there were Detyens on Tarni.
"Do you ever want to get married?" she asked once the men disappeared from sight into one of the buildings.
His red eyes glowed as they did whenever he felt a lot of emotion. "I plan to spend the rest of my days with the one woman in the galaxy who is meant for me."
Dorsey's heart skipped. She wanted him to be talking about her so badly it hurt.
"Let's head back," she said. She wanted him too badly to wait any longer.
Ty couldn't stop touching Dorsey. It started innocently enough, a brush of their hands in the transport. That led to a lacing of the fingers and the tracing of his thumb over the delicate skin on her wrist. She shivered, but she didn't want him to stop. Especially when she tightened her hand on his.
He barely paid attention as they made it back to the fortress, the vehicle's navigation doing the job of finding them a place to park. And then they were out in the open and he could pull her close and conquer her mouth. Only a quick taste for the moment. This was between them—the prying eyes of Nina's agents could go eat a slice of Jaaxian picklefruit for all he cared.
So Ty forced himself to pull back, but the grin on his face when he saw Dorsey's dazed eyes might have gotten him slapped under other circumstances. He cupped her cheek and ran his thumb over the sharp bone there. "You're mine, Dorsey Kwan." There was no backing out anymore. There never had been, not since the moment they met.
She clamped a hand down on his wrist and squeezed. "Are we going to just stand around all day?"
He wanted to sweep her up into his arms and run. Even with her delectable curves, it would hardly be a strain to carry her up the stairs. But the more attention they attracted, the longer it would take him to have her undressed, his cock buried deep inside her.
When the door to their room loomed before him, he cursed the gods and scooped her up, running the final steps, delighted by the excited shriek she gave. Only when they were alone at last, the door locked behind them and the rest of the world shut out, did he set her down.
Her face only came up to his shoulder, though her curly hair gave her another few centimeters. Her brown skin glowed golden in the yellow light of the lamp and her lips begged to be kissed.
"What?" she asked. He couldn't pull his gaze away. He never wanted to stop looking at her.
"You seem so much bigger when you're not standing right here." He circled his arms around her waist and pulled her close. She was wedged between his hard body and the thick wood of the door.
Dorsey tipped her head back and laughed, the sound echoing. "I don't think that counts as a compliment." But she didn't stop smiling when she said it.
Ty traced his fingers along her cheek again, reveling in the soft give of her skin. Detyen skin was tougher, made to survive naked on the high plains of their lost planet. Not quite scales, but perhaps once, long ago, they'd had the feature. Next to him, Dorsey was all softness and life, everything about her comforting and right, just perfect. "You're larger than life," he explained. "Like one of the dancers of Haal Krae."
Her face scrunched up in confusion. "Where?"
"A planet far from here. The dancers cast their shadows out and appear dozens of meters tall. But when the show ends, they reveal that they are all barely taller than my chest. It is their art and their magic, like you."
"I don't have any magic," she protested.
"Is that so?" he whispered as he laid kisses against her jaw and up around the edge of her ear, biting and pulling very gently with his teeth. "You have me ensorcelled." He could feel the bond thrumming between them, growing stronger by the second. It was no longer a mere thread, liable to snap. Now it was a strong tether, binding them and supporting them. He placed his hand over her heart. "Do you feel it?" he asked.
Dorsey gasped as his fingers grazed the underside of her breast. "What…?"
"We are one, my denya. And I plan to keep you." He swallowed her next words, not because he thought she would reject him, but because he could not go another moment without her taste on his lips. Then Dorsey was pulling him closer, rising on her toes so that he didn't need to stoop down.
He scooped her up and strode across the room, setting her gently down on his soft mattress. He'd never been gladder for the accommodations than he was at this moment. This would be no hurried coupling in a cockpit, and even if they'd tried, the cots on their stolen ship would have required a lot of flexibility to make love properly.
Tonight he would worship her.
Ty climbed on top of Dorsey, spreading his legs over her hips, his hands still wrapped around her, pinned under her back. Though he was on top, he was under her power, unable to move unless she let him. He could try to pull away, but he wouldn't risk jerking back and hurting her. Never his denya.
She rolled to the side and he pulled his arm free, taking the other back when she moved again. But they never broke apart. He'd been waiting for this, dreaming of it since he first laid eyes on her. She lived within his heart now and Ty could not imagine sex without her. He was hers completely.
With his newly freed hands, he worked on the edges of her top, unflicking the buttons and revealing her stomach centimeter by tantalizing centimeter. Her skin here was even softer than that of her hands, but with an underlying layer of muscle that flexed under his touch. She gasped softly as he glided his hands down her sides, caressing sensitive flesh.
"Tell me what you like," he said. In the few minutes he'd had alone, he'd taken time to study human erogenous zones, which were similar to those of Detyens. But a manual could only take him so far. He needed his lover, his mate, to tell him what she needed, to show him what she loved.
"You," she said, "I like you." She gazed back at him, her eyes soft and brown and so inviting that he dipped down again to kiss her. It was better than breathing. Who needed air when he could have her?
With a quick flick of his claws, lightning fast and retracted before she could react, he sliced her top the rest of the way off. This way she didn't need to maneuver out of it. This way he got to see her glorious naked body.
"Do you like this?" he asked as he skimmed his fingers up from her navel to right under the swells of her breasts. The flesh on her breasts tightened, nipples stiffening to peaks as he played with her.
"Yes," she said, holding still. Tension coiled within her and he could sense she was holding onto control by a thin leash. But she let him explore.
He cupped her breast, playing with her nipples, changing his actions from the little movements and facial expressions she gave him. She liked when he played a little rough, but didn't want it to hurt. And when he was pressing hard enough against her, she clamped her hand over his and showed him.
He shifted himself, sliding back just a little and wedging one leg in between hers. He dug down until he could feel the heat of her through his pants, his erection pressing gently against her abdomen. It was a tortuous mix of pleasure and pain, so close to salvation and yet so far away.
But right now was about her, and Ty would gladly take the punishment if only for the look in Dorsey's eyes.
He placed his lips over one nipple and sucked, rolling his tongue around her bud and tasting her flesh. This she liked, a loud moan tumbling out of her throat as she clutched his head to her. Her hips ground down on his leg and Ty hitched himself up enough to give her more of the pressure and pleasure she needed. She wasn't leaving this bed until she was completely marked and bound by him, tied to his touch.
As he would be to hers.
But she only needed one hand to hold him in place and her fingers had a mind of their own. He felt her brush up against the seam of his pants and groaned against her. And when her hand brushed up against him, he stiffened. Well, stiffened even more.
She couldn't get a good hold on him through the fabric, which was the only thing that saved him from spilling right then. Ty pulled his head back, knowing his eyes glowed red with passion. If she was coherent enough to touch him, he was not doing his job.
His claws sprang out and sliced down the sides of her pants, making them as easy to swipe away as gauze. He kissed his way down her stomach, over the swell of her abdomen and around the small collection of curls covering her sex. He licked his way down, too, tasting the salt of her skin, the purely feminine scent that intoxicated him.
"You don't have to—" She cut herself off when he flicked his gaze up.
"Would you deny me this pleasure, denya?" He knew he should explain what she was to him, but that could come later. What did words matter now? This, action, was the only real thing.
"Why do you keep calling me that?" she asked, her eyes narrowed.
"Because you're mine and I am yours." Seated at the apex of her legs, that was the only coherence he could manage. "And I would love you, if you let me."
A smile cracked her lips. "Well, if you insist."
Stars above, he insisted.
The first taste of her was pure divinity. He breathed her in, her scent and taste becoming his everything. She gasped, choking out a pleasured cry, and writhed against him. Her skin was silk and heat. Ty's own cock pounded, the taste of her the strongest aphrodisiac. His fingers sank into her depths as his tongue swirled around the nub at the seat of her sex.
This, he'd realized, was the source of her pleasure. And he put his full effort into coaxing that little point out until Dorsey bucked against him, her cries hoarse and begging him for more. He teased her, his fingers plunging in and out of her wetness, until she stiffened against him and shuddered, her sex rippling with orgasm.
He kissed his way back up, stopping just long enough to worship her breaths once more, and then as he took her lips, he settled himself between her thighs, his cock hard against the entrance to her pussy.
Her eyes were intent on his, the brown so dark it was almost black. Ty saw his own desires revealed within Dorsey's depths. The bond between them was fully formed and vibrating from the connection, hot and full and consuming.
They were in a place beyond words. Their actions and their sounds were language enough.
Dorsey reached between them and stroked his cock, her delicate fingers a vise around him. Ty's hand fisted in her hair, his mouth devouring hers as she guided him to her entrance.
And then he was easing himself inside of her, the tip of his cock hot inside the wet heat of her pussy. Dorsey's fingers dug into his shoulders, her nails leaving dents, marking him with her passion.
Ty's own claws wanted to spring out, not to hurt, never to hurt her. But he was no green boy and he kept that one bit of himself under control.
He meant to go slow, to give her the loving that she so richly deserved. And then Dorsey moaned, loud and deep, and moved her hips against his, drawing him deeper into her.
The beast within him unleashed, and he drove deep, taking complete control. Ty grabbed one of Dorsey's hands and pinned it above them, all the while moving in and out, marking her as his. His teeth ached and his primal instincts beat at him, driving him to take her in the old way and show everyone that she was his own.
His world narrowed until the only thing that existed was Dorsey and her sweet, sweet sex. Her breath came in uneven pants, and she struggled a little against his hold, not fighting him, but moving purely on instinct.
And with that beautiful cry of hers, she came, convulsing around him.
He couldn't take it anymore. Ty reached forward and sank his teeth into her shoulder, marking her irrevocably as he emptied himself inside of her, his pleasure wrung dry.
When he could think enough to pull back, he saw the mark and a thrill of pride rang through him. Dorsey was his denya now, properly marked and claimed.
Dorsey was pulling on clothes in what was technically her guest room. She had spent all of an hour in the space, mostly showering and changing, since they'd been led to the castle two days before. There was nothing inherently nicer about Ty's room, but he was there, which made the choice to sleep over obvious.
It had been different last night, and her mind kept trying to parse one word he'd said to her in the heat of the moment. Denya. The sub-dermal translator she had was top of the line. Anyone who traveled as much as she did needed to be able to communicate. So when she ran into words that didn't translate, she remembered them.
It sounded important.
She hadn't asked him what he meant by it while her thoughts were muddled by his attention, and afterwards, she'd drifted to sleep more sated than ever. It was more intense then that time on the ship. That had been an affirmation of survival. This was something else entirely.
It had been a declaration. He was hers now, just as she was his. And she was going to make sure he understood that. It didn't matter how many sultry looks Nina threw his way, she'd fight the warlord for him, and in this one matter, she would win.
She was just about to turn around and speak with him when the communications console in her room chimed. A robotic voice spoke: "Incoming call from Reina Draven."
Lex's wife. Anguish struck Dorsey anew.
"Accept the call," she commanded.
The screen gave way to the incoming view, and for a moment, Dorsey thought her viewer was malfunctioning. It was too dark to see anything except the faint outline of a female form. A light flickered, illuminated her from below, and casting her in an almost monstrous light.
"Dorsey, are you there?" Reina whispered, the words cutting through the darkness, their desperation and pain as clear as day.
"Reina?" She couldn't be certain, but it looked like Reina's face was swollen and bruised, a nasty wound planted right above her right eye. "What happened?"
"I need help," she stuttered, as if she were afraid to talk too loud. "They took Haylio, but I didn't let them see it. He gave me time to hide."
"Slow down, who took Haylio?" Reina's brother lived with her and Lex—just with Reina now. "What didn't you let them see?"
"Please," she begged, her teeth white against the blackness around her. "I can't stay here; I need help."
She wasn't going to talk on the line, not when she was so scared. Dorsey's own palms were wet with sweat and her hand shook slightly as she raised it to the comms device. She could tell Keeda about this and have a team out to Reina in an hour.
But Reina was already shaken, and she wouldn't trust strangers. A bitter part of Dorsey also knew if she told Nina's people about this then she'd never know what had happened. They'd keep her in the dark or lock her up, never bothering to let her know why.
She lowered her hand.
"Give me your coordinates."
After Reina gave them, Dorsey cut the call. It would be foolish to assume the transmissions weren't monitored, but she would be willing to bet that they weren't watched in real time if nothing in the calls tripped an algorithm. Eventually Nina would know, but it could be hours.
Dorsey changed her clothes once more, opting for a tight pair of black pants and a black top that gave her room to move. She'd never trained to fight, but she was scrappy and motivated. She stormed into Ty's room to find him already changing into similarly dark clothing.
"How did you know?" she asked. The walls were too thick for him to hear anything.
Ty gave her an inscrutable look. "I had a feeling."
Bless the man and his feelings. She kissed him quickly and grabbed a bag off the table, stuffing the clothing she'd brought from her room into it. "We've got to go quietly," she whispered. The room was probably bugged. "I want you to meet one of my friends. You've already met her husband."
With that, Ty understood. His eyes widened, the red only a dull ember, not the glinting ruby she'd come to love.
No one stopped them on their way out, and Dorsey was counting the seconds until they were home free. The vehicle they'd used to go to the market was waiting where they'd left it, and Dorsey slid into the driver's seat, waiting just long enough for Ty to close the door behind him before taking off.
She punched in their coordinates and they were off.
"Aren't you worried about someone coming after us?" Ty asked.
"They can track the car whether we use the nav or not." If she'd disabled the tracking mechanism like she'd done on the ship they'd stolen that would have called Nina's entire guard down on them. There was no use tempting fate; they hadn't technically broken any rules.
"So what happened?"
The rundown didn't take long to explain, but the coordinates weren't far from Nina's fortress. By the time their vehicle pulled to a stop, Dorsey had finished talking. "She's really scared right now, and she might be armed."
"We really need to get our hands on some blasters," said Ty. She could tell he was remembering the pipe he'd purloined fondly.
"You're not using a blaster on my friend."
Ty grinned over at her and something deep within her clenched. Not the time, she told herself. "If anyone's coming after her, that's when I'd use it."
They got out of the speeder. This area was only a few blocks away from the central market and the street where they'd seen the wedding. The coordinates that Reina gave didn't lead them to her and Lex's apartment, but they were close. If someone had come for Haylio, she might have been able to run this far to escape them.
The area was solidly decent, but by no means rich. The streets were dusty with the fine sand that covered the dunes outside the city, and small bits of trash could be seen in the gutters. It wasn't dirty, but the street sweeper bots didn't come by often enough to keep it pristine.
A few people milled about, but no one looked suspicious. She didn't think the mother and child at the far end of the lane had chased a terrified woman from her home or kidnapped a full-grown man. But stranger things had happened.
The exact coordinates that Reina had given her led to a brick wall. They'd come to get her, but Reina was gone.
Dorsey stopped short right in front of Ty and let out a short yell of frustration. Her hands fisted and she raised them up as if she was going to beat them against the blank wall. Ty grabbed her shoulder to stop her from hurting herself.
"Is this the place?" he asked. They'd come to a small street with a few storefronts built into the first level of each building. A door a few paces down from the blank brick had numbers above it and a small intercom suggesting that it lead to a suite of apartments.
But Dorsey just stared at the brick. "These were the coordinates."
And she wasn't there. "Could she have hidden somewhere?" If she'd been on the run, it made sense.
Dorsey held up a hand and peered even closer at that one spot on the wall. Then she leaned back and smiled. "It's a distortion field. She's hiding right in front of us." Dorsey reached a hand out, but it came flat up against the brick. "It's warmer than it should be."
A distortion field disrupted the senses in several species. They could create temporary walls where there were none and keep someone hidden for hours. But they were quick and dirty tricks with a nasty habit of failing at just the wrong moment. And they trapped you inside. A person had to be desperate to use one.
"We need heat," he said. They didn't stand up to flames, and a laser also did the trick. But both he and Dorsey were low on supplies. Ty looked around. The shop closest to them sold clothing and the one across the street advertised the finest soups in the city. "Stay here," he told her. "I'll get something we can use." He didn't like leaving her unprotected, but he knew she wouldn't leave her friend and the biggest danger was past.
For the moment.
Ty jogged down the street. In every city on every planet there was some kind of corner store within walking distance. That was how cities worked. But when he got to the corner of the street he was on, he only saw another café.
"Slow down, cousin. Why the rush?" At first he didn't understand the words or realize that they were meant for him. But then it clicked. Someone was speaking Detyen.
Ty whirled around and saw a young Detyen man, his skin aquamarine with clan markings covering one arm and climbing up his neck. His hair was cropped short and he carried a thick walking stick that looked like it could double as a blunt weapon in a pinch. Ty had not heard Detyen outside of the message recordings from his family in a long time, and when he spoke, it felt rusty. "Well met, cousin." They were most likely not related, but with so few Detyens left, all were considered distant family by default.
"I am Stoan NaTakandey. You must be new to this city." He seemed a nice enough man, but Ty didn't have time to chat.
"Do you have a lighter? Or a laser light?" he asked, eschewing introductions. They'd talk later, when Dorsey wasn't depending on him.
Stoan nodded and reached into his pocket, pulling out a slim device that looked tiny in the palm of his large hand. "Is it for that disruptor field?" he asked, nodding down the street.
"How did you…?" He didn't want to give it away, but the man shouldn't have known it was there in the first place.
"Saw a streak of a woman run by. She was quick, but I didn't get a good look with her hood pulled up like it was. My brother was at the other end of the street, but she never came out. He said she just disappeared." He shrugged. "Now you come looking for heat, seems like you've got a disruptor field."
A normal person wouldn't make that connection. But Ty doubted this man had anything to do with the taking of Reina's brother. He didn't look like he'd come from a fight. "We should speak later."
Stoan nodded. "Yes, I would like that." He gave Ty his communication code and left.
Some might have offered more help, but Ty appreciated the discretion.
He ran back towards Dorsey and saw her casually leaning against the wall as if she didn't have a care in the world. He was struck anew by her beauty. The sun hit her just right, turning her hair into a curly dark halo around her head. She'd given herself to him, and even if they hadn't sorted out every last detail, she was his now. And no one else could claim her.
"Did you get it?" she asked.
He handed over the lighter. She took it and pressed her thumb against the bottom of the device. A small spark of flame spurted from the top, growing into a three centimeter long yellow orb of flame. It wouldn't extinguish until Dorsey removed her finger, immune to wind or rain or anything that would douse it.
She bent over and grabbed a crumbled up wad of paper that someone had thrown on the street. It looked mostly dry and not too terribly trampled, but all that mattered was that it could catch fire. Ty hoped Reina was nimble enough to jump back from the flame. The disruptor field worked both ways. She wouldn't know they were coming until the fire did its job.
The paper caught fire and Dorsey set it down at the base of the brick wall. It smoked and curled in on itself, but nothing seemed to be happening to the wall. A tiny piece of kindling couldn't do anything to brick. It especially couldn't make it hum and shiver like a scared prey animal.
But that was what was happening.
As the smoke climbed, the wall in front of them vibrated, the hum growing to a whine and then a shriek until it gave way with a giant pop and fizzled out completely, revealing a human woman no older than Dorsey, crouched against the real brick wall a few paces beyond where the disruptor had placed it. The hiding spot would have stood out if two supporting posts hadn't created a crevasse just big enough for a person to creep into.
The fire kept burning for a few seconds after the field collapsed, but without anything else flammable near it, it died to embers and then little more than smoke. Reina vaulted over the hot remnants and into Dorsey's arms. Dorsey clamped down around her and held her close while Ty surveyed the rest of the street.
No one was watching and no one seemed to notice that part of a building had just changed shape.
"Who's that?" he heard Reina ask.
He turned around and looked her over. Her skin was much lighter than Dorsey's and her blond hair fell flat down to her shoulders. The bruise over her eye had transformed from that red welt they'd seen over the comms to an ugly mass of purple and gray. It looked incredibly painful, but he knew humans could take a lot of damage.
Her bottom lip was swollen and cut, but she stood straight when she stepped back from his denya, and the rest of her seemed uninjured. As Stoan had noted, she wore a dark hooded robe and loose fitting black pants. At a sprint, she'd be little more than a dark blur.
"That's Ty, he's a friend," Dorsey said. "We need to get you out of here and somewhere safe."
"What about Haylio?" She sounded weak, broken. She'd just lost her husband and now her brother had been taken as well. But Ty knew that looks and words could be deceiving. She'd run from her attackers, hidden herself well, and called for help. A broken woman would have let herself be taken or killed. There was more to Reina than met the eye.
"We came straight here," Dorsey told her. "Let's go to our rooms and then call for help. Someone will go looking for him if we let the authorities know."
He noticed that she didn't say where their rooms were located.
But Reina was waving her personal communicator around, pointing intently at the screen. "You need to see this, I tried to send it to your account, but something blocked the transmission."
"What is it?" Dorsey swung around and stood beside her.
Ty joined them. "Anyone can see us right here. We can watch it in the speeder with the privacy shield engaged."
Reina looked at him like she wanted to argue, then she looked back to Dorsey for support. But Dorsey was already nodding. "Good idea, I already can feel eyes crawling all over me."
It was probably just stress, but Ty knew the feeling.
The street was just as busy as it had been when they got there, which was to say not busy at all. Not more than ten minutes could have elapsed, but it felt like a lifetime. The speeder was parked in the same spot and looked undisturbed. Still, Ty held up a hand and did an inspection of the undercarriage and the doors before he let Dorsey or Reina touch the vehicle.
Something felt wrong. It might have been paranoia, but they didn't call it paranoia when a person ended up in chunks on the street after an explosion.
Once he was satisfied, they climbed into the speeder. It was a tight fit, but they all huddled around in the front seat and set Reina's communicator to hologram mode.
A light flickered, and then the screen resolved itself in front of them, a very alive Lex sitting there, smiling and waving from the cargo hold of his ship. "Hey, babe," he said, his voice higher pitched than Ty expected. "I know I'm not supposed to be back here, but I didn't think that you'd tell."
He snickered to himself and Ty saw Reina wipe a tear from one eye. Dorsey's arm came around her shoulders and she rubbed her gently, offering comfort.
Lex hitched himself onto a big red crate, and Ty could just make out a circular symbol with a triangle in it. It was stamped on several red crates within view of the holoprojection. "This is going to be the last run for a while. I got a sweet delivery deal, and after that it's smooth sailing. I know you wouldn't like it if I told you who gave me the job, but trust me, this is just business. Nothing to be afraid of."
Reina wasn't bothering to wipe away her tears anymore; she just let them fall.
"They gave me the flight path and clean papers, so it's all going to be good. And they even gave me a little present for you." He held his palm open and Dorsey gasped as she saw the shining pink stone. Lex winked and closed his fist. "Now keep quiet again. We'll have a nice dinner when we—"
His speech was cut off by a blast and the holovid went black.
"That bastard," Dorsey hissed.
Ty still didn't have all the pieces, but he knew she wasn't cursing her dead friend. "What is it?"She looked at him, eyes glinting. "Droscus had Lex killed, and he tried to do the same to me."
One view of the video and Nina believed her. Especially when Dorsey admitted she'd been carrying red crates much like the ones in Lex's cargo hold. They couldn't all have carried Tarnian amethysts, but some of them must have.
Nina controlled the gem trade on and off the entire planet not due to her position as warlord, but as the scion of a centuries old family that had laid claim to the mines. A short conference that Dorsey, Ty, and Reina were permitted to attend revealed that Droscus had found a source of gems and had been funneling them off planet for some time.
"I had no proof," said Nina, "and could not act. Not without causing an incident." She sneered the last word as if concern for political repercussions was a weakling's excuse.
Nina's top ranking advisor, Captain Kayn, stood by her and kept his mouth shut. But his lips compressed into a tight line, and Dorsey thought he probably had something to say that Nina wouldn't like.
"How many times did you make these shipments for Droscus?" Nina asked, more accusation than question.
Dorsey began to reel back, but Ty was there, his arm brushing against hers in silent support. "I carried authorized loads for him several times," she admitted. It wasn't illegal to work for different powers, but they didn't like it when someone acknowledged that they'd take money from the enemy. "But I stopped agreeing to his shipments about six months ago. His people demanded deliveries in impossible timeframes and through dangerous space." It had never been Droscus himself making the demands, but why would he? Intermediaries had been designed to deal with nothings like her. "The red crates showed up maybe two or three times after that. They didn't have any markings on them, but they were under a containment order."
Containment usually meant biohazard. The jobs carried a bonus with them and she'd always trusted the seals to keep her safe.
"And you think he continued to use you?" Kayn pressed. "Why?"
Dorsey thought about it. She'd been trying to figure that out since they'd seen the holovid. Ty grabbed her hand and squeezed, her silent guardian. "I have clearance to ship outside the system." It wasn't rare, but only about thirty percent of Consortium pilots bothered. "And," she added, "I'm not from here. I'm from Earth. Maybe… I don't know, but that might be part of it."
"Do you think your capture was related?" Nina asked. Her hair was braided in a pattern on her head and she wore dark battle leathers rather than her uniform coat. "Why didn't he kill you?"
"They were supposed to kill her," Ty broke in, a rough edge in his voice.
"What?" Nina demanded, her narrowed gaze zinging from Dorsey to him.
But Dorsey understood what he meant and picked up his thought. "Freight pilots get killed by pirates often enough that it wouldn't raise many questions," she said. "So if you were going to kill one, you'd hire them. But the pirates were also slavers. So they could take Droscus's payment for killing me and then possibly go so far as doubling their money by selling me at the slave markets."
"You place a high value on your worth," Kayn scowled.
Dorsey flinched back. These people didn't know Earth history; they wouldn't know why the prospect of slavery was particularly painful. That didn't make the bitterness abate. "Plenty of freight pilots wouldn't catch a high price. I'm young, exotic," she spat, even knowing it was because she was human and not due to the color of her skin or the tilt of her eyes, "by some standards, at least. And pretty enough. That's a few thousand more credits in their accounts."
Ty's grip on her hand almost hurt. She squeezed back. "There's at least one or two slave markets closer to where Dorsey went off course," he said. "I was at the Jaaxis gate, and the only reason to go that far out from the Consortium is to hide the trail."
Nina nodded. "Yes. I agree."
That was great, mystery solved, but Dorsey didn't care about the whys right now. After a quick interview, Reina had been given a room of her own and a guard to make sure she stayed in place. She was a danger to herself while Haylio was gone, at least that was what Nina's security force claimed. And Dorsey wouldn't wish Droscus's attentions on anyone, especially not a friend.
"What about Haylio? He was taken because of Reina. Because of Lex, he's innocent in all this. We need to get him back." That came very close to making a demand of the Commander, but Dorsey was feeling reckless. She wanted a fight.
And if Nina wouldn't get him, she and Ty would.
But that wasn't going to be necessary after all. "You are in luck. A transmission came through with information about his location. You, and your friend," she nodded to Ty, "along with a small unit, will go in and retrieve him. All necessary gear is in your rooms. Rendezvous in two hours."
With that, they were dismissed.
In her room, Dorsey found tactical gear, two blasters, and a utility belt with a dozen buttons on it. Most were labeled, but she didn't press them for fear of setting off something she couldn't control.
When she entered Ty's room, he was just pulling on his shirt, covering up those delicious ridged and spotted abs of his. She wanted to reach out and touch, rev herself up, and spend a little of the vibrant energy pulsing through her. But mostly she just wanted him.
"Are you sorry you got mixed up in all this?" she asked. There might have been some nice girl back on Jaaxis who could have made life simple for him. "I know I'm not who you would have…"
Ty stepped up to her and placed a finger on her lips. "Not another word," he commanded, sending another thrill through her. Just his presence was enough. "You are mine. Do you understand that? You were meant for me as no other could ever be."
He shifted his hand so that his thumb brushed against her lower lip; her tongue darted out and licked him. "I do know," he vowed. "When we return, there are things we must discuss. But know this, I will keep you beside me for the rest of my days. When we are old and our grandchildren's children are off finding their way, I will be as much yours then as I am today. Do you understand?"
He was saying he loved her. Maybe not like a human would, but Dorsey knew it. And she knew the only thing to say in response. "I do."
Ty wasn't a soldier, not by Consortium standards. But he'd apprenticed at a young age on a mercenary vessel. True, he'd been a pilot and mechanic, but everyone learned to fight. From the way Dorsey handled her blaster as their transport prepared for takeoff, she was at least passingly familiar with combat.
He couldn't wait to learn how she knew what she knew.
But it soon became clear that their presence on the transport was merely Nina humoring them. The four soldiers chosen for the mission were huddled to one end of the vehicle, discussing the mission amongst themselves, leaving him and Dorsey out of it.
The ride wasn't long and they landed with a wallop. The head of the unit finally turned his attention to Ty and Dorsey. "You two stay here and guard the vehicle with Hahns. He's in charge. Don't do anything stupid."
And then the team was gone, leaving Ty and Dorsey alone in the passenger hold. Hahns was only available over the comms. "Stay back there and keep your eyes open on the security vids," he commanded, voice crackling, "and yell if you see anything suspicious."
Ty wanted to growl or pace. Instead he held himself still and forced himself to focus. If something happened to the vehicle, they would be stranded here, far outside of Nina's territory and without hope of rescue. This was a quiet mission, she'd said. Her distraction would only work once.
"Security vid, full view," he said, summoning up the view screen to take up most of the interior walls. They had a near three hundred and sixty degree view of the surrounding area, or would have, if Hahns were not quite so good at hiding them.
They'd set down in a rocky outcropping, dark stone hiding the darker skin of the ship. It wouldn't fool the human eye, but machines were rarely calibrated well enough to see the distinctions and patterns that the conscious brain could make out. The team that had been sent to get Haylio was already out of sight or using their camouflage. Their emergency beacons would light them up if they got in trouble, but until then, they were ghosts.
"I should have expected something like this," Dorsey said. "Why would she ever let us in?"
"We're doing something," he replied, the situation easier to justify to someone else even if he didn't believe it.
She just huffed out an ironic laugh.
They both stood in the center of the ship and looked out for anything dangerous. A tumbleweed blew past, but other than that, they were too well hidden to be in real danger.
"Let's promise ourselves not to get stuck waiting for anything next week," Dorsey suggested. "I've had enough of this crap."
The waiting continued. At least this time, Ty had a timepiece and could see the minutes passing by.
"They said it shouldn't be more than half an hour, didn't they?" Dorsey asked. She was barely containing her fidgeting. It was hard to stand and do nothing. She walked over to the hatch of the vehicle and breathed deep. It was open so that the team could not be locked out if they ran back. But it was only open a crack and she couldn't get much fresh air. She placed her hand on the door to pull it open a little more.
The screens around them went black.
"Hahns?" Ty asked, barely whispering. "Are you there?"
In the dim light, Ty saw Dorsey snatch her hand back and look between it and the door. She looked at him, her expression clearly saying I didn't do it.
"View screen, full," she said, trying to re-engage the holovid.
A persistent beating rumbled in the distance, growing closer by the second. Ty pulled his weapon and Dorsey followed his lead. He beat against the hull separating them from Hahns, but their pilot didn't respond. He tried the door to the cockpit and found it locked.
Dorsey kept trying voice commands to get the screens working while Ty pounded on the door. His heart raced and he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. There was no manual override of the cockpit door from the passenger hold, but there was an outside entrance. With their view cut off, they couldn't stay in here anyway.
He turned around to find Dorsey running her hands against a seam in the hull, most likely trying to find a comm control box. Ty let her work and strode to the only other exit they had, the door to the outside. He listened, ears straining for any sound that shouldn't be there. His knuckles ached and his claws pricked at the surface of his skin, but he kept them sheathed for now. They were a weapon and an advantage that he wasn't about to give up because of nerves.
It was silent outside—not even the wind rustled.
Dorsey gave up on the walls and came up close to him, barely breathing as she spoke. "We have to go out, don't we?" She didn't seem as confident now, but her determination burned bright.
Ty nodded. "I want you to cover me while I go around the front."
"No." That came out in a normal tone, a crack in the silence. She continued quietly. "You're a better fighter, and probably a better shot. If Hahns is… you know, I can fly the ship. You need to fight the bad guys." Her faith in him was rock solid.
Ty kissed her and agreed. If he could have, he would have left her in relative safety, but she wanted to come and he couldn't hold her back. Not now. "When I say it's clear, move slowly. If you hear shots, drop to the ground or find cover. Got it?"
Her head bobbed. "Got it."
He said a prayer to the ancestors who watched over him and the gods of this land, not for himself, but for his denya. As long as she survived, he'd pay any price.
Ty eased the door open and stayed low, his blaster drawn and ready. The area outside the door looked like a cave, but it was really just a rock wall with a small outcropping above them. There was a faint hiss of wind in the cave, barely audible even to his sensitive ears. Besides that, Ty heard nothing. If the enemy was out there, they were behind an audio dampener.
He nodded to Dorsey, letting her go.
She moved with a fluid grace that denoted some form of training, even if she wasn't combat ready. Perhaps she'd been a dancer once. He stepped out beside her and closed the door behind him. The hand print scanner on the ship's exterior was keyed to every member of their team, so they could still get back in. Even if that failed, it was better to be locked out than to let the enemy hitch a ride.
Dorsey hugged the side of the ship, crouched slightly, blaster at the ready. Her steps were light, but rocks and soil still crunched under her feet. But if Ty was to protect Dorsey, he couldn't be focused on her.
He looked beyond and out of the little covered area they'd hidden in. Out past their rocky outcropping was… more rocks. This whole section of the planet seemed to be nothing but scrub, dirt, and rock. The rocks came in colors ranging from near white to a brown that might have been confused for black in dim light. There were layers to the taller rocks, showing their age as the planet grew around them.
But overall this place felt dead. There was no life to sustain it.
And there was no one that Ty could see waiting to pounce.
Dorsey made it to the front of the vehicle and froze. She straightened where she stood and strained to see into the window that she could just barely glance through while crouched. She banged on the window and Ty nearly jumped from the sound, but she didn't seem to be paying any attention to him.
There was a small hatch a little further in front of her, and when she tried the handle, it was locked. She holstered her blaster and pressed her hand up against the reader. A blue light flashed, and Ty realized that he wasn't paying attention to the right place. He turned back around and stepped away from the vehicle. He needed a better vantage point.
With a click, the door to the cockpit opened. He saw Dorsey move out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't turn back around. Not even when he heard her let off a stream of Earth curses. He didn't need her to tell them what had happened.
The pilot was gone.
And before she could say anything else, the rock beside his head exploded. They were under fire.
Not good, not good, not good.
Dorsey's head snapped back towards Ty when she heard the crack of the rock. He dropped down to the ground and she screamed, ignoring the empty cockpit and the problem in front of her. Just as she was about to jump down and run towards him, he rolled away and she realized that he hadn't been shot.
She forced herself to stay in place, to not run to him even though her heart threatened to beat itself out of her chest if he was hurt. Hahns, the pilot, had abandoned them. Even worse, he'd ripped out a handful of wires from the center of the navigation console. The vehicle might have been salvageable, but it would take time, tools, and a much calmer environment to get it fixed.
Dorsey tamped down her panic, pushing it deep into a hole inside her where she could deal with it later. She couldn't focus on how they were trapped, how the enemy had the high ground, and how Ty was out there alone. If she did that, they'd die here.
Instead, she took the pilot's seat and started the ignition sequence. To her surprise, the engine fired, indicator lights dancing on the dash as colorful as the Diwali celebrations back home. But the flashing red light just above the ignition lever told her that they wouldn't get far. The engines could fire up, the ship could even take off, but the navigation was completely scuttled, useless. If they tried to use the ship, they'd have no control.
Ty was out there, Nina's team needed them, and Haylio was counting on a rescue. She didn't let herself believe even for a second that the rest of the team proved as cowardly or traitorous as Hahns. The four men Nina had sent would get Haylio, and now it was up to her and Ty to get them all home.
She opened the interior door in the cockpit and went back into the passenger hold. In there she opened the weapons locker and took a string of las grenades, popper packs, two blaster chargers, and a mini-medkit. It all went into a rucksack that she slung over her shoulders.
Then it was back into the cockpit. She used the sensors to find Ty where he was pinned down behind a rocky outcropping. It wasn't safe there, but the enemy also didn't have a clear shot. She turned the sensors away from him and switched the readout, trying to find the enemy. The infrared did nothing; they must have had something to disguise their body heat, or whatever was shooting at Ty didn't have body heat to disguise.
Dorsey changed the search parameters, looking for mechs, but that gave her nothing.
With none of the automatic scans giving her anything useful, she turned to the manual. Human pattern recognition was off the charts. If the computer couldn't see something out of place, maybe she could.
She scanned the edge of the ridge above them, looking for changes in color, in natural features, anything that shouldn't be there. When she saw nothing on the first go round, she scanned again. On the second round, she almost passed by it, but the sun hit the smallest strip of silvery metal at the right moment, lighting the enemy up like a beacon.
She punched the coordinates into the aiming system and fired off a las shot, coating the cliff's edge in fire so hot nothing carbon based could survive it.
It should have been loud. In the action vids and VR games, there was always a blast and a rocking thud. But inside the enclosed, protected case of the cockpit, she heard nothing and only saw what looked like a minor fire and rockslide.
She waited, hands poised over the weapons controls, but nothing moved. No one fired again.
Dorsey vaulted out of the cockpit and down onto the rocky ground, sprinting for where Ty had taken cover. She practically tackled him when she spotted him, and they both stumbled. His arms came around her, hugging her close, but she kept patting him down, trying to see and feel if he'd been hit.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," he reassured her. And when he didn't let go, she knew he was just as rattled as she was.
"I shot them," she said, somewhat unnecessarily.
"You shot them," he confirmed.
She was shaking, adrenaline wracking through her. She couldn't quite suck in a deep breath and stars danced in front of her eyes. Ty could tell. He kept her steady and leaned her against a natural bench carved into the rock. It wasn't low enough for her to sit, but she could put some of her weight on it.
"I'm not cut out to be a soldier," she confessed. They were still stranded on the wrong side of the planet and more of Droscus's men could be coming for them at any minute. And here she sat freaking out.
Ty smoothed his hands down her shoulders. "You're amazing." He kissed her quickly and leaned against her. "And we don't need to be soldiers. We're survivors. This is nothing."
He said it like he believed it. Dorsey hugged his words close. Her breathing evened out and her heartbeat started to come down. She could feel his steadiness deep inside of her, like they were bonded together somehow.
Dorsey nodded against his shoulder. "Okay," she said. "Let's do this. We need a vehicle."
"That bad?" he asked.
She nodded and straightened. "Hahns either freaked or he was paid off. Judging by the mess he left, I don't think he owes his allegiance to Nina anymore."
Ty swore, the consonants hard and not caught by her translator. She didn't need to know the particulars to agree. "Our friends up there had to get there somehow." He nodded to the ridge, referring to the people who had pinned them down.
"I didn't see any transport drop when I fired." Something that size would have been easy to spot.
Without waiting for anything else to go wrong, they took off. The ridge above them was at least twenty meters up. Even with proper gear she wouldn't be able to climb it, though she wouldn't be surprised if Ty could do it. He had the muscles, and the claws.
But a sheer climb wasn't the only way up. With little risk of being shot at anymore, they were able to clamber up the hill behind where the ship sat. Sweat drenched her clothes and her heart labored under the steep walk, but Dorsey didn't let herself slow, no matter how much she wanted to throw up.
They got to the top and Dorsey fell on all fours, sucking in breaths. Ty was breathing heavily, but he managed to stay on his feet. She scrambled back up, her mouth both dry and full of bile at the same time. But she kept that all in. She wasn't going to throw up.
Dorsey looked back down to where they'd been pinned. They'd been sitting ducks down there. And sitting on the other side of the ridge, a short range speeder shined under the sunlight.
Short range was a bit of a misnomer. The vehicle couldn't break atmo, but it could travel thousands of kilometers on one engine charge. It was just big enough to fit their entire unit if they squeezed in. The trip home didn't need to be comfortable, it just needed to be fast.
Dorsey turned to Ty. "I think it's your turn to try your magic on this one," she said. "You've got the engineer's brain. I'll cover you."
They didn't have time to argue. They ran the rest of the way to the speeder and Ty got to work hacking his way in. It wasn't technically engineering, but bypassing the palm scan by re-wiring the security sensors was outside of Dorsey's skill set. She could fly anything, but that didn't mean she could program any ship.
She kept her blaster out and eyes peeled for danger. It was quiet around them, but the right kind of quiet. The wind still whistled, and in the distance, she heard the caw of a carrion bird. It wasn't homey, it wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't a quiet that sent a shiver of fear down her spine either.
The door hissed and Ty jumped back. It turned into a jump of success when the door slid open. They clambered in.
"The gods have favored me today!" Ty said, his smile broad and showing teeth. "They didn't reduplicate the security."
Dorsey grinned. Droscus's men, if that was who'd attacked them, hadn't bothered to put an extra lock on the ignition sequence. The speeder hummed as Ty started it up, but he didn't take off. They didn't know where to go.
"We can't send a broadwave," she said, referring to the wide band radios that could pick up any unencrypted message.
"They don't have trackers either." It had made sense when they told them, but still, Dorsey wished they'd been trusted with just enough information to provide a rescue.
Dorsey was frozen with indecision. Getting here had been easy, or, if not easy, then at least it was the obvious move. She let the rucksack she'd put together fall to the ground and eased down into the co-pilot's seat.
The bag rolled over and landed on top of her feet, the weight heavy even over her thick leather boots. She looked down at the unassuming canvas and her mind flashed back to her mad dash to stuff everything that could be useful into it.
Had she grabbed an encrypted communicator?
She shot forward and unknotted the tie with ferocity. She dug her hands in, careful to avoid disturbing the weapons. She pulled out the string of las grenades and set them gently down beside her.
"What's all that?" Ty asked, stepping back gingerly as she handled ordnance that could kill them both with one slip of her finger.
"I grabbed it before I ran out. Figured we could use some firepower." She placed the las guns beside a blaster. "In retrospect, I should have probably packed all of this more carefully." She said it lightly, but Ty didn't laugh. She couldn't bring herself to look up at him, knowing she'd only see censure.
But at the very bottom of the bag, she grasped a familiar shape. Dorsey pulled it out and held the thin black device in the palm of her hand. The screen was blank, but would engage if she punched in the correct sequence. She could have kissed the little communicator.
They didn't have time for that.
She smiled up at Ty, who was still looking like he wanted to lecture her, and punched in the code. The line crackled, but after a few seconds a voice came on. "Kadelon, receiving you."
"We've got a problem, sir." She would have called him by his rank, if she knew what it was. The soldier types were always touchy about it, so she didn't try to guess.
"What?" he barked.
She explained as quickly as she could, and the soldier was not happy. Dorsey and Ty shared a glance, silently communicating as the accusations piled up.
"So you stay put and we're coming to you!" Kadelon concluded in the harshest yell he could manage while technically still whispering.
He cut off the communication before she could ask if they'd found Haylio.
With no other option, they waited.
Two soldiers carried a heavy burden between them as the other two marched them forward, guns at the ready. They hadn't been waiting more than ten minutes from when Kadelon cut off the communication. He'd seemed purely human at first, but from a distance, Ty caught his loping run, and he remembered the strange color of the man's eyes. He wasn't a human, not purely.
But whether he was a cyborg or cross-synth, it didn't matter.
Dorsey sat ready in the cockpit, and Ty manned the guns. For a moment, he thought they were in the clear, the enemy oblivious to their actions, then the blasters started firing.
Kadelon and his other man started shooting back, both falling behind the two who carried Haylio. He didn't think Reina's brother was dead. The soldiers wouldn't have bothered with him if that were the case.
Ty warmed up the las cannons and keyed into the signatures of their people. The cannons wouldn't fire if their own soldiers were in range. It wasn't a perfect set up, but he wasn't skilled enough with the guns to do anything else.
With the press of a button they fired, yellow-red plasma shooting out, cutting a line of fire behind their people and giving them enough cover to make it the rest of the way to the ship. Dorsey lowered the door to the passenger bay and engaged the thrust, shooting off.
They rumbled into the air, Ty firing at the enemy while Dorsey climbed high. The ship couldn't break atmo, but it could achieve a near vertical climb and jump above the clouds in under a minute. The weapons view screen kept the enemy in his sights, but they didn't have a vehicle capable of flight above a hover and Dorsey lost them as she climbed.
Still, Ty stayed engaged.
As the ship stabilized and Dorsey began to move forward rather than up, the door behind them slid open with a whoosh and Kadelon and one of the other soldiers stepped through. The second soldier put his hands on Dorsey's arm and tugged her away from the pilot's seat.
Ty saw red. He shot up from his chair and was on the soldier in a step. But before he could lay hands on him, Kadelon had a blaster at his throat. "Try anything and you'll be writhing on the ground," he threatened.
Rage beat at him. That damned grunt had laid hands on his woman.
The woman in question saw what was happening. Dorsey reached out and placed a hand on Ty's arm. "It's okay. Let's head back."
The words didn't calm him down, not really. But he placed his arms around Dorsey and turned his back on Kadelon and his man, already imagining what he could do to them if the tables were turned. Dorsey murmured comfort words to him, reassuring him that she was okay. Still, his heart beat fast enough to scare a hydix, a small, easily startled rodent from Jaaxis.
In the back of the ship, the remaining two soldiers had set Haylio up with an IV and regen gel on his external wounds. His head lolled forward and he only stayed upright by an extra strap attached to the wall and held across his upper chest. He needed to be laying down, but there was barely enough room for four people to sit, so they couldn't rig up a cot for him in the space.
Haylio's eyes flicked open and he spotted Dorsey, gasping out her name.
The two soldiers scooted away from him, making room for them. At least they didn't seem intent on violence. Still, he kept his eyes on them while she sat beside Haylio and took his hand. Her friend wasn't any danger to her; the soldiers could turn on them at any minute.
He still had a blaster in his holster. If one of them looked at them sideways, he would use it and damn the consequences.
"What happened?" she asked the injured man.
Haylio could barely get words out, each one little louder than a labored breath. "He came for Reina, that's what they told me. Wouldn't let them take her. Not after…" He drifted out of consciousness, unable to finish his sentence.
Dorsey looked up at Ty, concern written plain in her big brown eyes. He sat down beside her and threw an arm around her, hugging her to him. He didn't have the right words to comfort her; all he could give her was himself.
She was silent the rest of the way back to Nina City. Ty wanted her to talk, wanted to know what she was thinking, but Haylio's words had shaken her. Besides, he understood the impulse to keep quiet around Nina's men. They couldn't trust them.
The skilled flying of the pilot saw them back to the city without further incident. They landed at a hangar on the edge of town. The soldiers unloaded Haylio into a medunit vehicle and left Ty and Dorsey standing alone on the tarmac in the bright sun.
Dorsey tilted her head up to the sky and then looked over at the soldiers. Her shoulders dipped a bit and she finally glanced over at him, her face full of apprehension. She sucked in a deep breath, but then let it out without saying anything.
"What?" Ty asked, trying to sound gentle, though he still carried the rough edge from the encounter on the jet.
Dorsey swallowed and looked bleak. "I can't go back. It's not safe."
The Consortium had been her home for five years. Dorsey had hoped to build a life here, perhaps one day raise a family. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t suck. And in little more than a week she’d been kidnapped, escaped, almost kidnapped again, and attacked, all because she’d done her job and gotten mixed up in the high level politics of a power mad warlord.
She could see how this played out. Either Nina would bring her into the fold and own her life wholly as the cost of protection, or she’d leave Dorsey to hang, the cost of protecting her not worth the trouble.
And if she went back to Nina’s fortress, one of those things would happen. Dorsey was a loose end to Droscus and a pawn to Nina. And she’d entangled Ty all up in this, never even trying to separate his interests from her own.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Guilt crashed over her as she realized exactly how much she’d screwed up Ty’s life. He probably would have never even been kidnapped if it wasn’t for her! Those pirates were only near the Jaaxis gate at the same time as him because they’d needed to capture her.
His arms came around her and tears pricked her eyes. She clutched his shoulders and dragged in deep breaths, his homey masculine scent mixing with the fresh air all around them and making her feel safe when she had no right to it. “Don’t,” he told her. “Never apologize for us. I wouldn’t choose anything different, no matter how this ends.”
She tilted her head up and saw the intensity in his gaze, his expression. “I might get you hurt. Killed.” Didn’t he see that she was bad for him, that she’d put him in danger?
Ty gripped her shoulders tight and stooped down so that they were eye to eye. “You have saved me. More than you could ever know.” He glanced around them quickly, but no one was near enough to overhear anything they said, especially not with so many vehicles all around. “You are my mate. My denya, the only person in the universe I can call my own. You are mine, and whether it’s for a week or for a lifetime, it is my honor to keep you safe and stand by your side.”
“M-mate?” This was not a discussion to have on an open tarmac when their lives were at stake, but that wasn’t stopping them. Dorsey’s brain misfired. All she could think was that humans didn’t have mates. Not like he was talking about. “That’s not…”
“Do you care if you thought it was impossible?” he demanded, eyes shining red fire. “Would it make you walk away?” He grabbed her hand and placed it against his heart. “You can feel the bond between us, it’s been there all along.”
He was right. A snarling, reflexively independent part of Dorsey wanted to fight it, wanted to rebel against the bond for the sake of rebelling. But this was Ty. She’d already decided on him, he was already hers.
“I love you,” she said. She’d never said before, not romantically. And Ty was the only man she’d ever say it to. “Run away with me?” she asked.
His intensity didn’t dim, but after a moment, he grinned and scooped her up, hugging her close and twirling her around before setting her back down. She shrieked and clamped her arms around him before she could fall.
“I have an idea,” he said. “But we need to go now.”
She took his hand. “Then let’s go.”
Losing the soldiers was far easier than it should have been. But Ty and Dorsey weren’t under guard, and the soldiers’ first priority was seeing Haylio to safety, not guarding them. So when they came to the gate at the entrance to the landing pad, the guard let them out with a casual wave, not bothering to alert anyone that they weren’t accompanied.
“Do you still have that encrypted communicator?” he asked. They held hands and casually walked down the street toward the more crowded parts of the city. It wasn’t busy here, but there were a few shops and people waiting at the bus stop to get closer to town.
Dorsey reached into her pocket and grabbed it. “I thought it might be something useful.” Because the communicator was encrypted, they couldn’t be tracked by it. That didn’t mean Nina didn’t have the power to find them, but it did take away one tool.
She handed it to Ty and he punched in a code and held it up to his ear, using the private mode so that no one nearby could hear them.
“Who are you calling?” she asked. She’d lived here for five years and didn’t have anyone who could help them. How did Ty?
“A friend, I hope,” he replied. He spoke to his friend in a language that her translator couldn’t decipher. When she heard the word denya she knew it must be Detyen.
A minute later he handed the communicator back to her. “We have a ride.”
Ten minutes later, a hovertaxi showed up beside the bus stop. A Detyen male sat in the driver’s seat, but he wasn’t the same one that Ty had met on the street outside of Reina’s place. They climbed into the back seat and rode in silence.
They were dropped off in front of a discreet, squat building in one of the worst parts of town. Superficially, the place looked just as rundown as all of the other buildings. Two windows on the top floor were cracked, the paint only appeared in gray splotches at random intervals. The door was a simple wooden board, but when they got closer, she saw that it was a front. A much thicker metal door sat flush up against it, invisible to passersby, and sturdy enough to hold off an incoming army.
Ty had been on Tarni for less than a week. How had he cultivated a contact with a safe-house and a way off planet in one random meeting?
Dorsey didn’t have time to ask since the door opened, and they were ushered inside by a young Detyen girl who looked no older than nine. The girl led them through the well-maintained house to a windowless room on the second floor. She left the door open, but Dorsey knew it was merely a courtesy.
“You keep interesting company, Tyral NaRaxos,” she murmured. She didn’t have time to say more.
A Detyen man walked through the door. He and Ty grasped forearms in a familiar greeting. Then Ty stepped back and to the side to make sure she was included in the conversation. “Dorsey, this is Stoan. Stoan, my denya, Dorsey.”
Stoan’s eyes widened and he looked between the two of them. “A human? How is that possible?” She would have expected censure, not the grasping, desperate hope of a broken man. “We are saved, cousin.”
Saved? What could that mean? And why was Stoan looking at her like she was made of diamonds?
“Ty?” she asked, not sure how to word the question. “What’s going on? What is he talking about?”
Ty’s expression was carefully neutral, as if he was afraid of how she would react. Dorsey reached on and grabbed his hand, giving him a reassuring squeeze. He couldn’t say anything that would make her run. She couldn’t imagine it.
But Stoan was the one who spoke. He took a stumbling step towards Dorsey and placed his hand on her arm, his fingers barely brushing her skin. Dorsey glanced at Ty, expecting a spike of jealousy or the protectiveness she’d seen on the jet. Instead, she saw a deep well of understanding.
And pity. Not for her, but for the Detyen.
“We are dying,” said Stoan. “One by one. I have only three years left. And my… she…” He shook his head. “I have no one. But if we’re not limited to our own women…”
“Ty?” She’d accepted the mate thing, but this man’s reaction was freaking her out.
He looked over at Stoan. “May we have a moment?”
Ty watched Stoan close the door behind him and looked over at his denya. He had intended to tell her the full impact of their mating, but he had hoped to wait a little while and she had time to adjust. Stoan had not seemed like a man who would react that way to a human denya, but Dorsey was a chance at salvation for their race. If they could mate with humans, then all of the unmated men and women of Detya might not be cursed to a short existence, snuffed out too early.
He wondered if he was actually the first to discover this. News traveled slowly across the galaxy, and except for their enclaves, Detyens were few and far between.
“I told you that our race was dying,” he began, struggling for the right words as apprehension and a new sense of purpose filled him.
Dorsey took a step back, putting a little distance between them. Ty didn’t like that, but he made himself stay where he was. He wasn’t going to make her run, he just had to say this right.
“You said it was because your planet was destroyed,” she replied.
“Yes, that’s part of it. But there is something else.” It wasn’t a secret—Max had known and Ty suspected that Nina knew as well. But if a person didn’t make a habit of studying alien morphology, they had no reason to suspect. “Without a denya, without mating with our denyai, we die when we turn thirty.”
“What?” She whispered it with the force of a yell. She wobbled a bit but kept upright. Ty wanted to reach out, but he feared that she would pull away.
“When Detya still supported us, it was better. Not perfect, but something like ninety percent of people found their mates in time. We had an entire system set up to support it. We never had to look outside of our planet or our people because we sustained ourselves. In the last hundred years, it has become less and less common. Our men outnumber our women and there is no guarantee a bond will be triggered even if the women are there and willing. No one thought to look to humans. I didn’t even realize until…”
“Until what?” she asked, leaning against a chair for support. Her face had turned ashen, some of the color leaching out.
“Do you remember that my eyes were injured?”
He waved his hand in front of his face. “The first sign of the connection is by sight. It’s not the only way to tell, but it is most obvious. Because I couldn’t properly see you I didn’t realize what was happening, and by the time I did, the bond had snapped into place.” Though even that was quite true. He’d recognized the bond, he’d just thought it was impossible.
Dorsey sank into one of the black, padded chairs that had been placed in the middle of the room and rested her face in her hand. She took several deep breaths and then straightened back up, looking at him with tears glistening in her eyes. “You told Max that you’re twenty-nine.”
Ty knelt in front of her and clasped her hands. “I just turned thirty, actually. If our paths hadn't crossed…” He shook his head. “You said that you put me in danger, but in reality, you saved my life. Don’t pity my people. We have survived for this long. And if there are more people like you, then we will flourish.”
Dorsey’s brown eyes were wide, but some of her color was returning, that beautiful golden brown returning to life. “Don’t keep this stuff from me anymore. We can’t move forward, we can’t be a team if we keep secrets. Even if you think it’s going to hurt me, you need to say something.”
Relief flooded him, strong enough that he sucked in a deep breath to steady himself. Ty reached forward and hugged Dorsey. “No lies. You have my word. I love you, denya-mine, and I would not see you hurt.”
She clutched him close, “I know.” For several moments, she didn’t let him go, and Ty breathed the scent of her deep into his lungs. But they were sitting in another man’s safe house on a planet where they could be captured at any moment.
He forced himself to sit back and stood up, offering Dorsey a hand up. She took it and smiled. “Let’s do this.”
They let Stoan back in. He’d used the time to compose himself, and the man who stood before them now was icily polite, with no trace of the supplicant who’d fallen at Dorsey’s feet. Ty knew that part of him was still inside, but locked deep. Hope was a heady drug; it could sustain a man, then betray him with no warning.
Ty laid out their dilemma for the Detyen, telling him of their capture all the way up to the rescue mission they’d run from. Stoan waited patiently for him to finish talking, but he didn’t seem shocked at any of the information. Ty wondered where this man’s loyalties lay and what he did to need a safe house in the capitol city.
When Ty finished, Stoan nodded once. “I can help. You’ll be off planet by nightfall and headed to Jaaxis by morning.”
“We can’t pay you,” said Dorsey a bit guiltily.
Ty opened his mouth, but Stoan held up a hand to stop him. “You’ve given us all hope. Make sure that others know and that will be more payment than anyone could ask for.”
She stepped forward and laid a hand on his arm in much the same way he’d done to her. “I hope that you find your denya, whether she’s human or Detyen.”
Stoan was stricken, his eyes haunted with ghosts Ty couldn’t fathom. “I thank you, but my hope is for others. I am not…” He shook his head. “It is not for me.”
Dorsey opened her mouth to argue, but quickly closed it. She squeezed his arm and let her own hand drop. “Thank you for your help,” she finally said.
“Mirha will bring you what you need. Please listen to her and do as she says.”
“Wait!” Dorsey cried before Stoan could leave.
He paused, hand on the door latch, and half-turned around.
“I have a friend, Reina Draven. Can you let her know that I’m—that we’re alright? And that I’ll contact her as soon as it’s safe?” she asked. “Her husb—things aren’t good for her right now and I want her to know I didn’t forget about her. I want her to feel safe.”
Stoan nodded. “I will deliver your message and see to her safety.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Please, let me.” He turned and left without giving Dorsey a chance to argue further.
A little while later, the young girl that had let them into the house came to retrieve them. “These docs will get you onto a ship.” She handed each of them thin black cards with holographic image displays. “But once they’re scanned, they’ll only hold up for about a day. Once you’re out of Consortium territory you’ll be safe to use your own IDs and access your own accounts. Take the bus to the shuttle depot and keep to the shadows.” She held up a canvas bag and handed it to Dorsey. “Change your clothing before you leave.”
In less than fifteen minutes they were changed and gone. Dorsey wore a dark blue ensemble, her pants baggy, the shirt dark and long, and a hood pulled up over her head. Ty was dressed in gray and wore a hat with a wide brim and a bit of netting that obscured his face.
They looked like two normal people living in Nina City. Ty dropped his shoulders, trying to appear shorter than he was. Dorsey kept looking behind them as if she expected armed guards to pop out of the shadows at any moment.
“We’ll make it,” he reassured her. “Act natural.” It didn’t feel right and he wanted to sprint for the bus stop when he spotted it at the end of the street. But Ty forced himself to keep a sedate pace, and when Dorsey looked around again, he grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze.
There was only one other person waiting for the bus. The sun would soon set and no one would wish to be out in this area of the city after dark. Ty could feel the scavengers, the street toughs who preyed on the weak and downtrodden, waiting in the wings, ready to pounce as soon as the streets turned to shadow.
Ty’s blood pumped strong and he was ready to dance if anyone gave them trouble. Anyone they met out here would be a low-rent thug, nothing like Droscus’s trained lackeys. He could handle anything one of these bottom feeders threw at him.
But the light held and the sleek silver hover bus showed up right on schedule. The driver glanced at everyone as they stepped on, but once they paid their fare she didn’t seem to care what they did.
The bus wasn’t filled and Dorsey took a seat near the middle, close to one of the doors. She kept her head down and her hands out, ready to grab or run or punch. She clasped her fingers over her knees to hide the slight shake.
The driver waited, the door still open. Ty started counting the seconds, his mind flashing through all the possible scenarios for why a bus driver would care to wait in this part of town at this time of day. A boxy green speeder pulled up beside them, the privacy mode engaged on the windows so he couldn’t see who drove.
“What?” he asked.
“That’s a guard vehicle. I think.” She whispered so low that he could barely hear.
The driver of the bus took them out of hover mode and landed on the wheels, parking the bus at the stop. The lights shifted from yellow to blue on the speeder as it parked as well. The door opened and a guard stepped out, his uniform unrelieved black, his blaster an open threat at his side.
Ty barely breathed.
Dorsey watched the black clad guard step around the front of the bus. As soon as he stood in the doorway, she forced herself to look away. She cast her gaze down on the dark tile in front of her and tried to keep her hands relaxed.
Think calm thoughts, she told herself. Puppies, candy, Ty. Calm. Calm. Calm.
It didn’t make her calm, but it pulled her focus from the guard.
Palm trees. The beach. Ty wearing only a towel.
The warmth of his body steadied her and she wanted to lean into it and rub herself up against him, but that would draw attention. The one thing they couldn’t do right now was draw any attention.
Two black boots came into her line of sight. Dorsey didn’t breathe.
Then they shifted to the side and the guard turned to face the man who had boarded the bus with him. “Come on, Vatho.”
She didn’t breathe out her relief. Not even when Vatho, their fugitive seatmate, made a keening cry and stood up to be led off without a fight. The guard loaded Vatho into his vehicle and drove off, leaving the rest of them in peace.
The bus driver shut the door, reengaged the hover, and they were off.
The bus dropped them off twenty minutes later at the shuttle depot. The bright lights overhead made everyone stand out, and Dorsey was paranoid that the guards she saw casually strolling down the wide halls of the building would identify them.
The only luggage they had with them was the canvas bag that Mirha had given them. Stoan had given them enough credits to buy extra clothing and food on their ship.
The entrance of the shuttle depot was arched and high ceilinged with stained glass depicting a battle that had taken place hundreds of years before. Dozens of people were milling around, greeting and farewelling friends and family members. Everyone else moved toward the two lines funneling people through the security checkpoint.
Ty leaned down and spoke, his lips brushing against her ear. “We’ll make it. It’s okay.” He brushed his hand against the small of her back in a final gesture of comfort and strode ahead, scanning his documents through the automated system and walking through the scanner of the security screening bot.
She was frozen until the light flashed yellow. He was safe.
Then it was Dorsey’s turn. She could see Ty standing at the other end of the security bot, his stance deceptively casual. She kept her breathing even and stepped forward. Her tickets went face down on the scanner and the light flashed yellow after a second.
She didn’t let out a relieved breath, but it was close.
Next she stuck her ticket in her pocket and stepped into the scanner area. Lights flashed around her, swirling and buzzing. A crazed part of her imagined it all collapsing in on her and trapping her there until Droscus could be summoned to kill her or imprison her.
That was crazy. Nina would get to her first. And she wouldn’t be pleased.
The scanner beeped, a harsh trill that sent a shiver down her spine. Dorsey’s eyes flicked to the progress light, but it remained steadfastly blue, telling her to stay in place.
“Please remain calm,” said a robotic voice. “You’ve been randomly selected for additional screening.”
Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest and Dorsey’s palms were wet with sweat. She suddenly felt ten degrees hotter and her cheeks had to be beet red. She gulped in a breath, counted to three, and let it out, then repeated the exercise. A guard was walking over from across the room, her stride sedate. She clearly didn’t think Dorsey was a threat.
Dorsey saw Ty’s hands curl into fists and she imagined what he could do with those deadly claws he was hiding. She jerked her head back and forth almost imperceptibly. This was a random screening. Her papers would hold up and she wasn’t carrying contraband. It was okay.
It was easier to think that at Ty than to think it herself.
The guard stepped up to the security bot. She wore the dark green uniform of shuttle depot security. Though everyone in the city ultimately answered to Nina, the security at the depot was managed by one of the Consortium Corporations. There were layers and checks between them and Nina’s own forces. Dorsey wouldn’t just be handed over.
The guard punched some buttons on the control panel of the bot. The lights whirled again. Dorsey held herself absolutely still and her lungs burned as she forgot to breathe.
Finally, the light turned blue and the guard nodded at her. “Thank you, you may proceed.”
Dorsey nodded and stepped through. Ty placed his arm around her and they continued down the wide corridor into the terminal of the shuttle depot. This area wasn’t as ornately decorated as the main entrance. The ceiling was high and domed, but there was no stained glass, just a few blank windows and solid stone.
Their shuttle wasn’t due to leave for half an hour, so they found a bench near the boarding area and sat, their faces averted from a nearby camera.
“Why was Stoan so willing to help us?” Dorsey asked. He was a stranger, and they were running from two powerful people who could make his life and the lives of those he cared about hell. “And don’t say it’s because of me.” She was still reeling from what Ty had revealed about Detyen lifespans. If they hadn’t been running for their lives she would have been yelling at him for keeping her in the dark.
But there was no one else that she’d rather run away with, and she had more important things to worry about. He was okay, he was going to be okay, and he was hers.
Ty traced the tops of her fingers idly. “We’re Detyens,” he said. “If our positions had been reversed, I would do the same.”
“Just like that? Without knowing him at all?”
“There are so few of us. We all are almost like family.” His voice rang with grief.
Dorsey laid her head against his shoulder. “I wish it weren’t like that,” she said.
“I know, so do I.”
No one bothered them and their shuttle was called to board on time. Dorsey thought she would be relieved, but as they settled into their seats she realized that they’d trapped themselves. They were in a tiny ship, about to leave the planet to land on a space station where they couldn’t run away.
They were almost home free, but this was the most dangerous part of their journey.
She and Ty strapped in and the shuttle took off with a blast of its jets. Some of the passengers looked out the windows in wonder while others stared straight ahead, their faces stuck in a rictus of fear. Her ears popped as they climbed higher and higher and as the sky darkened outside, her arms started to float as the gravity faded away.
It only lasted for a few minutes until the artificial grav engaged.
When they docked with the station Dorsey only felt more nervous. Every muscle in her back locked up with tension. Ty was running his fingers over his knuckles, and she was willing to bet he wanted to claw at anything that looked at them wrong.
Nina Station buzzed with life. Dorsey looked across the terminal to the small hallway where Collins had tried to hold her. She shivered as she remembered the feeling of those manacles on her hands and feet.
“Just two more hours,” Ty promised, “And then we’re home free.”
Ty didn’t believe it.
A warning buzzed in the back of his mind, insisting that something was going to go wrong. They’d made it past every obstacle, even if he’d nearly blown their cover by almost attacking the guard who’d run the second screen on Dorsey. They had nowhere to run now. But Consortium space wasn’t large.
As soon as their ship transitioned to FTL they’d be free of Nina and Droscus and all the damn politics of this tiny civilization.
“Are you going to miss it?” he asked.
They were leaving the place that she’d called home for five years of her life. Ty had not stayed in one place that long since he was a child. Most Detyens left their homes at a young age, apprenticed out on starbound ships. It wasn’t until they settled with their mates that they made a real home.
Did Dorsey wish that they were making one here? If so, he’d take them both back and tear down the sun if that was what it took to make this place safe for her.
But she smiled and shook her head. “I thought I would. I’ve spent most of my adult life here. But I’m excited. I want to see what we can make together.”
He could imagine their future now. They’d have a handful of beautiful half-Detyen, half-human children. He’d be the engineer on Dorsey’s ship, flying around, finding the right planet to settle on or living one place and then moving when the time was right.
“I’d like to spread the word,” he said, “to tell my people that there is hope.”
She clutched his hand. “I’d like that as well.”
They wove a vision together of what their future would look like. The first stop was Jaaxis to meet his family, and then a trip to Earth to show him where she came from. And from there they would be their own family of two, making their way in the universe.
Planning made it easier to pass the time, and before he realized it, their ship was ready to begin boarding. It was one of the bigger vessels, a scheduled cruiser that would reach Jaaxis after a month of travel. When they were called to line up, Dorsey picked up their bag and followed the group of people ready to leave.
Unlike down on Tarni, this group was not majority human. A large alien, nearly eight feet tall with pointed horns grown out of his head, stood in front of them. Behind them was a being with tentacles on its face and suckers for fingers.
Dozens of passengers climbed aboard the small docking ship that would take them out to the cruiser. The cruiser itself was far too large to join with the space station.
Once they were on the cruiser, Ty would finally breathe free.
Dorsey found a seat near the middle of the ship and he sat down beside her. It would take a little while for all of the passengers to get on.
Dorsey was playing with the canvas strap of their bag, glancing up every few minutes to watch as someone boarded. No station guards came to retrieve them. No announcement blared over the loudspeaker demanding that they disembark.
With every second that passed, Ty could see her relax bit by bit. The ship finally took off and Ty leaned his head back in relief.
And then the warning siren blared.
As the ship returned to dock with Nina Station, and the passengers were ordered to disembark, Dorsey started to panic. She tried to think of any reason that the warning sign wasn't about her and Ty: there was a mechanical problem, someone on the cruiser had tested positive for a virulent sickness, their take off had been delayed. None of them rang true. She could feel it in their heart that they'd been found out.
The mood in the station terminal was completely different from when they'd left only a few minutes before. Now dozens of guards stood around, glaring at passengers and barking orders. Everyone from their ship was ordered to leave their bags in a giant pile and line up in alphabetical order. Since Dorsey and Ty's false documents claimed they were married and had the same family name, they stayed together.
She was shivering, but her body felt hot all over. She'd never seen anything like this on any Consortium space station before.
A guard wearing the blue uniform found among Droscus's troops stepped forward. He shouldn't have been on Nina Station. But that didn't stop him from talking. "All humans are required to present their travel documents for a routine spot inspection. Your cooperation is mandatory and appreciated."
Wishing that they took one of the humans lined up before her would be absolutely dreadful. Dorsey forced herself not to think it even as the guard came ever closer. Ty's hand was on her arm, either to give her comfort or keep her from running, she wasn't sure which. When the scowling, blue-clad human finally stopped in front of her, Dorsey held up her forged ID and hoped that Stoan was better than he promised.
But the guard met her eyes and didn't even bother to take her card. He held up a hand and waved toward her.
Ty's fingers tightened, but she pulled away as discreetly as she could. If they only took her, then at least he would make it. At least he would survive. She could give him that much. So Dorsey didn't let herself look back at him, and when the guard asked her if she was traveling with anyone, she told him she was alone.
They made it two steps away before a second guard looked back. "Let's check that one's papers just to be sure. This one has already been too slippery and the General doesn't want any more mistakes." He spoke with a harsh nasal wheeze like the shepherds in the mountains of Thanatos. But his grip was as harsh as the cruelest jailer.
"This is an outrage!" she heard someone say from across the room. "I am an ambassador and you've no right to detain my ship."
"This will only take a mom—"
"I demand to speak with your authority. I am a representative of the Oscavian Empire!" She couldn't see the ambassador, but someone must have done something as he stopped yelling.
They dragged Dorsey away while another guard checked on Ty. She was still close enough to hear the scanner beep when his ID was discovered to be a forgery. The thuds that fists made against his flesh weren't dull. At first Dorsey struggled against them, trying to pull away or to hit, to do anything but go quietly. It didn't matter that she wouldn't win. She just couldn't be silent.
Dorsey grabbed for one of the green clad guards, a station guard rather than Droscus's handpicked bruisers. "Tell Max they grabbed Dorsey, do it!" She barely got the words out before she was yanked away towards the main entrance to the terminal. Still Dorsey fought back.
But as she struggled, one of the guards shoved a black baton with small metal nodes against her throat. "The shock from one of these isn't supposed to be deadly, but I've never tried holding it against someone for more than a minute. Care to be the first?"
Dorsey jerked around and spat in his face.
The blow came from the other side. Her forehead exploded in a storm of pain, halos danced across her vision, and then everything went black.
She came to in a dark room, her hands tied behind her back and her feet trussed up. She was leaning up against a wall and the pressure on her shoulders had caused one of her arms to fall asleep, the pins and needles stabbing her with every movement. Dorsey blinked a few times, trying to make out her surroundings.
Thankfully, it wasn't pitch black, but her eyes took some time to adjust. She squinted and made out the shape of another person across the room from her. Her eyes traced the shape of his shoulders and up around his head.
Ty. Her mate. Maybe that should have freaked her out, but there was no one that Dorsey would rather be locked up with.
She thought that she'd been quiet, but Ty spoke only a few moments after she woke. "We're going to be okay."
"Thanks for saying that." But this time she didn't see a way out. Pirates were disorganized by nature and escaping them was by no means unheard of. Collins had been one man and even he had almost succeeded in handing her over. Nina had never tried to detain them after the first night. But right now General Droscus himself was aboard the space station, his handpicked squad of goons had detained them, and the only hope she had was that Max heard about this and that he chose to help them.
"I told you that I would never lie to you," he said with the weight of his promise. "I do mean to keep my word."
"Unless you've been hiding laser eyes this whole time, I don't see how that's going to work." Though his eyes always seemed to glow she could barely make them out across the small room. Their feet practically brushed.
"I'm afraid not." His shoulders moved from side to side and if Dorsey strained she could hear a faint ripping noise coming from behind him. Her own bindings were made of some kind of fiber and his probably were as well.
He cut off her question with a sharp shake of his head and a glance up toward the ceiling. Dorsey couldn't make anything out, but his caution was warranted. Anyone could be listening.
"Still no regrets?" she asked. She was starting to understand what he meant. If someone opened the door right now and offered to free her so long as she left Ty behind, she'd rather rot in the cell.
"Well," Ty dragged the word out, "I'd rather be testing the soundproofing of our room right about now, but—" His shoulders sagged by a few centimeters just as the door opened and bright light flooded in, along with two heavily armed soldiers.
One pointed his blaster at Ty while the other made a target of Dorsey. And in behind them strolled General Droscus.
Dorsey had rarely seen him in person, and his pictures and vids didn't do him justice. He was as beautiful as a deadly curved blade, his cheekbones high and sharp, nose straight, eyes a piercing silvery blue. He'd come to power on Tarni at a young age and was now only about forty. His dark hair was cropped short but with just enough length for him to affect a tousled style. By looks alone, Droscus belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine.
His ambition and military acumen put his looks to shame. It was no secret that he planned to singlehandedly rule the Consortium one day. To him, Dorsey and Ty were bugs, nuisances that needed to be stepped on before they could cause any more trouble.
Droscus looked at one of his guards and nodded to Ty. "Take that one outside, Gaius." He gave no other command, but a block of ice froze in Dorsey's gut. The General was really going to kill both of them.
Gaius, the guard nearest Ty, kicked at Ty's side. "Get up," he commanded.
Dorsey held her breath as Ty moved, hoping his bonds wouldn't fall off and that he'd sheathed his claws. She might not make it out of this, but he could.
The door closed behind them, leaving Dorsey with Droscus and the remaining guard. That guard took a step back and stood next to the door, ready for trouble. The General waved and the overhead lights came to life, and a table with a chair on either side materialized out of the floor. "Please take a seat, Ms. Kwan." Droscus invited her as he pulled out his own chair and waited for her to join him.
It wasn't easy, but she wasn't in a position to refuse. So Dorsey flipped herself over and crawled on her knees, her balance off because her hands were still bound. Maneuvering herself into the chair took a bit of work, and neither of her captors offered to help. But after a few long, painful minutes, she'd arranged herself so that she sat opposite one of the most powerful men in the system.
He might have been beautiful, but he did nothing for her. The only man she wanted was outside, and she had to make this last long enough so that he could try and escape. But she didn't talk. She wasn't going to anger Droscus by saying the wrong thing first.
He leaned forward, one arm heavy on the table. "You have a lot of friends for a simple freight pilot."
That wasn't a question, so she kept her mouth shut. Droscus's gaze was heavy on her, the feel of it almost oily. But she held herself upright and still. She had to be strong for Ty.
"I am quite sorry that it's come to this," he continued, oozing false sympathy. "Someone as… clever… as you could have really gone places, especially with me. I have an eye for talent." Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the guard stand up a little taller as if Droscus's comment had been praise just for him.
Under the full weight of his power, she understood just how powerful those words could be. He almost made her want to follow him, even as he was about to kill her. "Why me?" she asked.
"You've foiled more than one of my plots and it seems that you've done it on accident." He waved a hand. "I can only imagine what you could do with a little training."
Plots? Plural? She opened her mouth to contradict him, but thought better of it before she could do little more than gasp.
But the General was smarter than that. He smiled, the grin boyish. "You didn't even know. Now that speaks poorly of my people."
"The smuggling." It wasn't a guess, but Dorsey didn't know how she was to blame for it ending. She'd been kidnapped by pirates and was half a galaxy away when Droscus had Lex murdered.
Droscus clapped once as if she were a puppy who'd performed a particularly good trick. "At least you're not a complete lack wit."
"Why me?" He seemed willing to talk so she'd prod him for answers. "I didn't even know about it."
The General sighed. "Four weeks ago you filed a status and maintenance report with your employer, do you remember?"
Dorsey nodded, though reports were so routine that she couldn't remember a particular one. She filed them at the end of every journey.
"Yes, well, in your visual report a few items that I had contracted were visible. You didn't know to hide them, but it was enough to raise inconvenient questions." He sneered out the last word, the curl of his lip transforming his face from something beautiful to something monstrous.
This all happened because she hadn't tidied up her crates well enough? Dorsey couldn't control the scoff that escaped her throat. "And the other?" she managed to choke out. "It was when you captured Haylio, right? Why didn't you just kill him?"
If this interrogation was anything to go by it was because he liked to play with his prey. He could squash her at any moment and yet right now, he answered her questions. He loved power too much not to exercise it at any chance he got.
"I never had any intention of killing him." She didn't believe him, but it sounded like he was telling the truth. Then again, so did everything else, and if Dorsey found out every word that came out of his mouth was a lie she wouldn't be surprised. "Aren't you familiar with the concept of leverage?"
Against who? Haylio had no lover, no husbands or wives, no children, and not many friends. The only person he could have been used against was his sister, and she didn't get into trouble with anyone. She worked balancing accounts at a shop in the city center!
He huffed out a small laugh. "I can see you dying to ask. But that is a secret for another day. For me at least." He looked over at the guard but Dorsey interrupted him before he could give an order.
"Why did you come yourself? Commander Nina will be pissed. There's no way I'm worth it." He knew that she'd been running away. She posed no obstacle to anything but his pride any longer.
Any hint of a smile was wiped from Droscus's face and he stood, ignoring her. "Kill her," he told the guard. "Make sure the discovery is public."
He left the room without a final glance.
Ty wiped the blood from his claws onto his pants and stuck the fallen soldier's blaster in his pocket. The struggle had been swift and merciless. His guard had only realized Ty's hands were free in the moment before his death. There was a reason the old saying said never to turn one's back on a Detyen.
But everyone forgot their past.
He found a keycard and old fashioned key chain in his guard's pocket. Ty grabbed those as well and tried not to think too hard about what he'd just done. He'd killed before, the situation very much like this. But he was not a killer by nature and his stomach rioted at the thought of the horror he'd just committed.
He would do far worse to save Dorsey.
They hadn't gone far from the interrogation room. The guard had pulled him to a different small room down the hall, and the moment his back was turned, Ty made his move. Now he left the guard lying dead in the corning. The only way the dead guard would be seen was if someone opened the door, and there was no reason to do that.
So Ty left him in the corner. He opened the door to storm back to Dorsey's interrogation chamber just as the door opened and Droscus, that skynlax-eating nightmare, walked out. Ty darted back into the room just before the General turned his way and saw that he was no longer under control of the guard.
Ty stood next to the door, claws out and ready to pounce if Droscus chose to look in. He doubted the fight would be as easy as overcoming an unsuspecting guard. The general walked down the hall, boots clicking ever closer. Ty flicked his fingers out, waiting, his breath overly loud in the quiet room.
And the click of the boots faded, steadily moving farther away. Whatever the guard was supposed to do to him, he hadn't needed additional orders.
Ty waited another ten seconds from when he couldn't hear Droscus anymore before flying out of the room and down the hall to Dorsey's cell. There had to be a security camera or bot monitoring the hallway, but Ty didn't let himself worry about that. Even more importantly, he didn't let himself think about all of the things they could have done to Dorsey.
He didn't let his fear freeze him in place, and he didn't let his rage take him over and boil his blood. All he did was move.
He swiped the card across the door lock and pulled out the blaster he'd grabbed from the dead guard. Ty crouched down as he busted in, aiming his weapon in front of him and shooting as soon as he caught a glimpse of the guard looming over Dorsey.
One blaster shot wasn't enough to take this guard down. Blasters weren't lethal and the guard was wearing armor to further diffuse the energy. They still hurt as much as a strong punch.
The guard wheeled on him, leaving Dorsey where she sat in a chair that hadn't been there when Ty had been taken away. Her arms were still bound, but she wasn't tied down to anything. He spared her only a second long glance before dodging out of the way as the guard raised his own blaster and fired. The energy bolt sizzled past his ear and blasted into the wall, scorching the dark paint.
Dorsey rolled out of her chair and crawled away from the guard while Ty shot again. He was hit by the blaster fire, punching him in the gut and knocking the air out of his lungs. It burned, but Ty grit his teeth against the pain and fired again.
The guard was a dancer, spinning and firing, avoiding more than half of the shots that Ty pointed his way.
Ty couldn't dodge. They were in close quarters and he didn't have the training to deflect. But he could take a lot of damage, more than a human could. So he stopped trying to dodge, straightening to his full height and charging towards the guard. He shot off his blaster as fast as the bolts would fire, all the while taking shots straight to his chest.
With the next hit, Ty realized that the guard's blaster was on a low setting, the goal to hurt, not incapacitate. Exactly what a person would use when their target was already tied up. He barely felt the second blast, the rage was so strong and overpowering. It was the third that nearly brought him to his knees, but he couldn't fall. If Ty fell, he was dead.
His own blaster was on the strongest setting, but between the guard's armor and his dodging they were almost equally matched for strength of the blasts.
Ty closed the last of the distance between them and tossed his blaster aside. He ripped out with his claws, swiping the guard against the side of his face and down one arm. This close, the blasters weren't much use, which the guard realized.
The guard was in trouble. Ty was too close to shoot and he couldn't get enough leverage to properly hit him. And with his claws, Ty was more wild animal than man. He knew exactly how to swipe and hit for maximum damage.
And still the guard would not go down. Bleeding from multiple wounds, favoring his side after a particularly vicious cut, and clearly overpowered by Ty's strength, he still fought back, kicking and hitting.
And then the guard got lucky.
He swiped out his leg and Ty tripped, falling backwards and unable to brace himself. He crashed onto the floor, narrowly avoiding the edge of the table. Shock rippled through him, the dull thud of his body an insult to the amount of pain inflicted as his head smashed against the cold hard tiles.
The guard advanced on him, a wicked grin made only more sinister by the blood dripping down his lip. He swung his leg back and kicked Ty hard in the side. Something crunched and pain stabbed him from the top of his abdomen down to his hips. Ty tried to roll away, but the guard had the advantage now and he kicked again, pushing Ty over onto his back and leaving bruises in his wake.
Metal gleamed as the guard unsheathed a blade and raised it up, ready to strike the killing blow. "You're not the only one here who can cut," he sneered.
Ty scuttled back in an attempt to give himself enough room to move, but it wasn't enough. The guard waved the blade around, savoring the final moments before his inevitable kill.
The guard's eyes widened, and Ty heard the tell-tale zing of blaster fire. Clutching his neck, the guard toppled forward and moaned in pain. Ty saw Dorsey advancing on him, one hand holding the blaster while her other was cradled awkwardly against her chest.
Only when he was prone did Dorsey stop firing, but the guard wasn't dead. Not yet.
Ty remedied that with a swipe of his claws. It was quick and clean and not over fast enough.
As the blood poured out of the dead guard's throat, Ty came to himself. He felt a fog lift around him as pain settled into place, nearly hobbling him. He was hunched over the guard's still form, breathing heavy. His hands dripped with blood and he could feel his face swelling and bruising. If he looked in a mirror he'd see a sickly purplish-gray instead of his normal blue.
The blaster shook in Dorsey's hand, and for a second, Ty was convinced she was about to shoot him. He knew he looked like a monster right now, claws out, face discolored, eyes glowing.
Slowly she lowered her arm and placed the blaster on the table beside her. Her other arm brushed against the chair and she winced.
Ty's eyes focused in on her left hand. Her thumb was red and bruised and hung loosely. It was broken.
"I was afraid you were dead," she said. She stumbled toward him and placed her uninjured hand against the only non-bloodied spot on his shoulder.
Ty hitched his arm up around her shoulder, sheathing his claws. "While you live, I will never let you stay in danger."
There was something feral about Ty. She'd say he was not quite human, but since he wasn't human at all, that didn't really fit. He'd torn her guard apart, attacking with relentless force, completely oblivious to the injuries being inflicted upon himself. And then he'd stood before her, drenched in blood, chest heaving, claws out, and promised to protect her.
She should have run away a long time ago.
But Dorsey had no interest in running. Not from him.
They didn't have enough uninjured parts between them to add up to one uninjured person, but together they stumbled out of the guard room and down the hall. If Droscus had control of the cameras, they'd be caught in an instant. But a spark of hope resided deep within Dorsey.
Ty had come for her. They were alive. They were going to make it.
Her left arm was on fire, pain radiating up from her dislocated and possibly broken thumb. She cradled it against her chest, trying to shield it from any further injury, but when she bumped into a door frame, she gasped.
"What happened to your hand?" Ty asked gently, though the knife's edge came out with the next question. "What did they do to you?"
"Did it to myself," she gritted out. If she kept her teeth clenched, it hurt a little less. "Had to get out of the bindings." But it hadn't been intentional. She'd tried struggling to get loose as soon as Ty started fighting. Then her thumb had cracked. How Dorsey tore her hand free without screaming she didn't know.
"We'll get it seen to first thing on the ship," he promised.
"No," Dorsey protested, "you're bleeding from everywhere! The docs will see to you first."
Ty actually growled. He stopped them where they stood and turned, looming over her. "Doctor. For you. First," he bit out.
She shivered at the command in his tone and she didn't try to fight it. He needed treatment, and if he was going to insist on waiting for her, then she'd act quickly. But as they stumbled down the hallway, the entire encounter with Droscus knocked around her head.
Why come to Nina Station? The only thing here were people and the ships that couldn't break atmo. "Lex's ship," she realized.
"What?" Ty asked.
"He wants something on Lex's ship. Nina must have brought it here." As she spoke, she became surer that it was the case. "We need to find Max. Droscus can't get whatever he's after."
Ty's entire body stiffened and he took a deep breath. She thought he was going to tell her that they needed to get off the station, that they were too injured to fight. Instead he nodded. "I don't want that bastard to win."
They moved faster, heading back toward the terminal. It was the most likely place to find friendly guards, but they tried to keep to lesser traveled hallways. There was no way to know who would hand them over to Droscus for the bribe of a few credits.
Turning a corner, they came face to face with three green clad guards. Station guards, they hadn't come here with Droscus. But one of them raised a blaster and commanded, "Stop right there!"
They stopped. Dorsey sized up the three guards. She didn't recognize any of them, but they were all human and each clearly belonged to Nina Station, not Droscus's contingent. Ty and Dorsey were no match for them, especially not with their injuries. Though only the center guard, a tall man with a hard face and blond hair, had his blaster pointed, the other two were armed and could take them down.
Her veins froze and Dorsey didn't know if it was fear or the shock from her injury finally settling in. Please be a friend, she thought. Please be loyal to Max.
Ty was a coiled spring beside her. She knew that if the guard made a move against her that he would block her with his own body, protecting her to the last. She couldn't let that happen. She wouldn't let him sacrifice himself, not until all hope was lost.
"For the gods' sake, stand down!"
Max came up behind them, his stride long and certain. He stepped in front of his guard and stared at him for a moment before the guard sheepishly lowered his weapon. Max nodded in approval. "Go tell Hovan to hold his ship," he said.
The guard retreated, running down the hallway. Max turned back to them.
"How did you find us?" Ty asked, panting.
Max's eyebrows shot up and he gave Ty a strange look. "We do have security cameras here, and my people are more than capable of tracking two injured civilians."
"You didn't stop him from taking her," Ty sneered, leaning forward as if to lash out at Max.
Dorsey gripped Ty's waist. "Don't," she whispered.
Ty didn't relax, but he didn't snap again.
"The General is after something. Is Lex's ship here?" she asked. The light in the hallway brightened and Dorsey's head spun. She felt bile rise in her throat. That wasn't a good sign. If she hadn't had her arm wrapped around Ty, she would have toppled over.
Max held up both hands. He took a step forward but stopped himself when Ty's arm tightened on her. Pain was bringing something wild out of Ty, an animal close to the surface. Max spoke quietly, "I have it under control. Come with me and I'll get you both off this ship."
"And back to Nina?" They shared no love for Droscus, but that didn't mean their goals aligned.
But Max shook his head. "There is only one ship that's been given the all clear out of the station. It's not going back to Tarni."
Max led them down the hall, but turned away from the terminal and took them through a door marked "Authorized Access." There were no decorations on the walls here and the ceilings were low, the entire feel dark. It was chillier too, but again, that might have been the shock.
Ty's breaths were ragged, and she knew he couldn't go much longer before falling. His shirt was wet with blood and it was starting to drip in a trail behind them. The hallway terminated at a giant airlock, a service entrance.
A ship was docked to the airlock. A tall purple man stood on the other side, his arms crossed and foot tapping. Max punched the giant blue button against the wall and the doors opened with a hiss and a groan.
"Put them in your smuggler's hatch until you've left the system," Max commanded of the impatient Oscavian.
That Oscavian's mouth dropped open and he made a sound of affronted innocence. "How dare you—"
"Ambassador Hovan, I don't care what you've got in there right now. I will consider it a personal favor if you see these passengers safely to Honora Station." He wasn't quite deferential, but the ambassador's metaphorical feathers were soothed.
Hovan's phosphorescent blue eyes narrowed. "I will call you on it one day," he warned.
"I would expect nothing less." Max waved Dorsey and Ty forward. "Now go. Droscus won't stop you once you've left, but he can prevent you from leaving. The window is closing."
Dorsey wanted to hug Max, but if she let go of Ty, one of them was going to fall flat on their face. She wasn't sure which. So she nudged his shoulder with her injured arm, wincing as the movement displaced her thumb even more, and nodded. "Thank you. Your friendship has meant a lot to me over the past few years." Many wouldn't have recognized it. They'd argued more than they agreed and had gone months at a time without speaking. But with some people, a person just clicked.
Max reached up a hand but pulled it away before he touched her. He nodded sadly. "Make this chance count. I wish you all the happiness in the galaxy."
"Save some for yourself." There was a sadness to Max that she'd never been able to cut through. She hoped he could find someone or something that made her feel as good as Ty did.
"Really," Hovan cut in, "we must go."
Ty and Max shared a nod. They weren't friends, but she could see in Ty's red eyes that he understood exactly what Max had done for them. And if Max ever needed Ty's help, it would be his. Ty reached into his pocket and held out an old fashioned key. "One of the guards had this. It might help you."
Max took the key and studied it. "Thank you."
They stepped onto the ship and walked down a narrow hallway as the airlock closed behind them, separating them from Nina Station. Hovan called for attendants, his tone crisp and commanding, no longer the affronted civil servant.
He stopped them before they reached any of the main pods of the ship and stooped down, pressing his hand against the corner of one of the floor tiles. Something beeped and the tile retreated, exposing a deep hole big enough for ten people to stand in with room to spare. A small cot was pushed to the side.
It looked like the ambassador practiced smuggling people in addition to goods.
A bot floated by and Hovan pushed it down into the hatch. "Med bot," he explained. "Now get down there if you don't wish to be discovered."
They maneuvered themselves down and as the hatch closed over the two of them and the bot, Ty's energy gave out and he collapsed down to the ground.
"Ty!" Dorsey rolled him from his side onto his back and smoothed his hair back. "Stay with me!" She waved down the med bot and watched it scan him, sinister beeps and whistles indicating when it sensed injury.
Ty groaned and tried to wave the bot away, but she didn't let him. She grabbed both of his hands, sucking in a harsh breath when his fingers brushed against her injured thumb. The bot whirred, and a sharp needle shot out and pricked him in the arm.
"Hey!" Ty tried to attack it, but Dorsey kept him in place.
When he wouldn't stop moving, she laid her body over his, trying to avoid the worst of his wounds. The ship rocked and her ears popped. They'd disembarked and engaged the FTL. Dorsey smiled and let out a breath.
"We're safe," she said.
"Are we?" Ty asked. His voice was a little hazy from the medicine, but his eyes were clear. Even better, the lines of pain around his eyes were dissipating as the bot worked on him.
"Yes," she replied. "First stop Honora Station. Then we're going to a sandy beach, grabbing frothy drinks, and I'm going to have my wicked way with you." She paused and saw the machine blink blue twice. It had sealed Ty's wounds, now the healing was up to him. "How does that sound? I know you said you wanted the most beautiful woman in the galaxy by your side, but you're going to have to deal with me instead."
Ty waved the bot towards her and Dorsey held up her hand for inspection. Under the yellow light of the molecule enhancer, she could feel everything knitting itself back together. The light also served as an anesthetic, and it itched rather than hurt.
"As far as I'm concerned, you are the most beautiful woman in the universe." He said it with such conviction that her heart stuttered.
Before she could object or thank him or even properly think, the machine beeped, signaling it was done, and Ty pulled her forward, covering her mouth with his own. To hell with it. Dorsey threw her arms around him and gave herself over to the kiss.
She was in the arms of her alien mate. What more could a girl want?
One Week Later
Stoan NaTakandey had been dreading this meeting since he watched Ty and his denya walk away. But it had been inevitable. A man didn't betray his mistress without consequences. He'd been summoned to her fortress and had no excuse to refuse the invitation. Not if he wished to continue living.
Commander Nina sat behind her desk in her office. Few guests ever saw this space, and few of her retainers were invited here. This was where she did her work, planning her conquests, managing her territory, delegating her responsibilities. Stoan had sat on the bench opposite the desk exactly once, four years ago, when she hired him to do the jobs she couldn't trust her normal operatives with.
She looked up from the computer pad she was working on when he took his seat. Her expression was grim and he knew this wouldn't go well.
Then Nina did something unexpected.
She held up an old-fashioned metal key and placed it in front of him. "This was retrieved by your friend Tyral NaRaxos. One of General Droscus's guard carried it."
Stoan grabbed the key and studied it. It was brass and fit in the center of his palm, the teeth jagged and uniform. A twisting design in the metal made it look decorative rather than useful. But no one used metal keys anymore anyway. "What is this?"
"I need you to find out. And I have someone I'd like you to meet. She'll be assisting." Nina looked up as someone entered the room behind him.
The hair on the back of Stoan's neck stood up and his claws ached to spring out. His gut clenched, and he knew with absolute certainty that if he turned around his life would change forever. As if being controlled by puppet strings, his head turned, and he caught a glimpse of blonde hair and a human woman's curvy figure.
Recognition tore through him, the universe realigning. Stoan's mind revolted and his guts churned. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not here, not now, not her. And even if his body recognized her as his denya, there was only one thought in his mind.