“Hurry, hurry,” I whisper, my voice hoarse with urgency. “Faster.” I nudge the taller female with my hand. “Come on.”
Her wide eyes, glazed with anxiety and stress, are uncomprehending.
“Do you speak Ocretion?” I swipe sweat from my brow and cough. It’s the most common language in the galaxy, and these are human slaves—surely they understand my words. “If you want to leave, we do it now.”
The smaller one lurches into motion. “Mama, come on!” she wails, and tugs at her mother’s hand. “Please.” Then she coughs; the air here is inhospitable for human lungs. But the woman stands frozen and starts to tremble.
I’ve rescued over fifty humans, and this isn’t anything new, but it’s awful timing. Because out of the corner of my eye, I spy a being across the galactic ship lot look over with more than a passing glance. I’ve been noticed.
I don’t need any being watching me, figuring out who I am and what I do. It’s dangerous enough to even be here on this planet. I shouldn’t have come, but I can’t resist humans in need. I have to save my own kind.
I assess him the way I was taught, scanning quickly: Muscles. Horns. Purple skin. Daggers at the waist. He’s a Zandian, a nearly extinct but powerful species of warriors who recently took back their planet. Double fuck—he was with the Zandian who outbid me at the auction.
“My ship is just 800 paces away.” I take the woman’s hand. “What’s your name? I’m Mirelle.” The Zandian eyes us. Even across the tarmac, which sends up heat ripples, I see his dark eyes flash in the brutal sunlight.
She blinks at me and I curse. “Mother Earth. You come with me, it’s safe passage to Jesel, where humans are free. You wait around here? They’ll take you back to that auction, punish you for leaving, and sell you off to a sadistic monster.” I’m not sure that’s true: The Zandian, who won her purchase, surely plans to take her to his planet, Zandia. But there she’ll still be a slave. I’m offering her something far better.
The woman finally moves, jerking her neck. “I don’t know what to do. Help me.”
I scoop up the child, even though the mother probably needs assistance more, but this spurs her into action—she follows me as I jog to the ship. But just as I set down the child and unlock the portal, allowing the entrance steps to descend, I see motion.
It’s the Zandian. Mother Earth, he’s fast and graceful, like a wild predator on the Jeselian plain. Intent. Something warm and slithery slips through my body at the sight of him.
My two rescues sense the urgency and scamper onto my well-worn craft. It’s too late for me to follow, though, because he’s here. In front of me.
He backs me up against my ship, the one I constructed with my own hands back on Jesel from old parts scavenged from galactic trash. His large, muscled body towers over mine, the heat of his masculine flesh seeps through my worn tunic.
He pins me with a dark brown, purple-rimmed gaze. His horns are alert. “You took something that doesn’t belong to you.”
Mother Earth, that voice! Deep and resonant, it vibrates in my chest.
I don’t speak. I assess him, watching as he leans forward, his quad muscles tensing, ready to attack, although his arms are loose. And I sense his adrenaline in the air, his odor. Masculine. Powerful. He must assume I’m weak, because I’m so small. Fool.
“I am from Zandia,” he continues. “And you absconded with two females that Captain Archer bought. Turn them over or there will be consequences.”
I take a slow breath in. Out. Transfer weight to the balls of my feet. But I don’t say a word. I’ve learned silence is an advantage; it confuses opponents. Plus, my voice would give me away. I dress like a male and play my role flawlessly, but it’s hard to disguise myself when I speak.
His gaze shifts to the entry of my craft, and I make my move. I dart forward and jump, twisting in the air as I do, my left metal-toed boot connecting hard with his jaw.
He grunts, I think from surprise and anger more than pain. Still in my aerial twist, I whip around and land, crouching low, then shoot out my leg and wrap it round his, going into the tumble I practiced for a year straight back on Jesel. The move is automatic, all the bruises and breaks merely preparing me for this. Life or death struggle against stronger opponents.
When I tug my leg forward, he topples, as expected. But what I didn’t anticipate was for him to catch his balance so quickly! While I’m still on the ground, he somehow manages to right himself and grab at me.
“Surrender,” he commands. His strong hands press into my shoulders, push me down into the baked ground. It burns through my camo gear. I kick out automatically, but he straddles me, one strong thigh on either side of my lean torso. His body heat affects me as intently as the radiated sun on my back.
I pant and look up into his eyes, letting him see mine are green—that always confuses an opponent. I’ll know when to move. One moment. Two. Mother Earth, his eyes are so clear, so intelligent. The curve of his lip—is he smiling? How cocky. I’ll show him who’s in charge.
I swallow and watch his eyes dart to my lips, my neck. His smile fades; his expression turns to one of consideration. Like he’s trying to figure something out.
That’s it. I harness all of my energy into my buttocks and legs, then twist and turn.
He grunts and shouts but I’m away from his hands, those powerful hands.
Back on my feet, I crouch, bounce, staring at him.
He’s up too, and as we lock eyes, I feel a tension I’ve never experienced. When he was over me, his face already victorious, I can’t describe—
He lunges, his fist raised.
I block him, child’s play, then use another aerial leap—a new one.
But damn, it’s like he anticipated it, because he blocks my kick and then he’s got me again, and he’s pressing me up against the hot metal hull of my craft. Arm against my neck, other hand grabbing my arm. Hips pressed into my body. Thigh to thigh.
His breath is hot on my neck and smells—oddly—sweet. Not fetid, as I might have expected for a warrior. I ignore the tingles over my skin from his proximity.
We both pant.
“Who are you?” he demands. “Answer me.”
I stare at him, defiant. He’s not going to get a word from me. My headgear has come loose in the struggle and my red hair spills over my shoulders. His gaze sweeps over it and down to my bound breasts.
“Veck, you’re a female.” His voice is full of disbelief. “And human.”
And he figured that out, too. I supposed it wasn’t too hard.
The corners of his lips curve, but the smirk doesn’t seem malicious, more impressed. “A little female warrior.” He narrows his eyes. “Where were you going with his slaves?”
I grunt and shake my head. I’ve never had such trouble getting away from an opponent. Zandians are clearly as skilled as the rumors say.
He tightens his grip on my throat, showing me he’s in charge now. I notice he doesn’t actually block my air passage. And I have to guess that he knows it. He could snap my neck with a quick twist of his wrist. I am fully at his mercy. And despite the pressure on my windpipe, and his unyielding body holding me back, tingles flit across my skin again. Across my arms. My belly. My nipples. Sweet Mother Earth, this is no time for my body to awaken sexually. I’ve gone this long without any interest in males.
I suck in air, forcing myself to center. I need to get away from this male, for more reasons than one. I shift my hips but he immediately matches my move with his body, pressing himself to me even more closely. The bulge of his male parts connects with my belly, large and firm. A shiver runs through me. His hand moves on mine, but he doesn’t release me. This Zandian has no intention of letting me go.
“I’m taking back the other females.” The air from his lips, from his words, as he speaks, blows on mine. “And you’re coming with me, too.”
His body is lean and hard, muscles everywhere. His lips hover only inches from mine, and for a split second I think he wants to kiss me. I’ve never done this, but I’ve seen others—
I need to take every advantage. I dart my tongue out and lick my lips, and make a small, breathy murmur. The kind of thing I know females do when they want to entice a male. At the same time, I press my hips forward and whisper something to him that he can’t understand, because it’s in English. A dead human language. Words I’ve only recently learned.
“My name is Mirelle, and I’m a freedom fighter.”
I sense his surprise and interest, and once again, I use the opportunity. Elbow drop, then slam it up. Arm press and push. Knee jab. Battle scream right into his ear, high and piercing, the first loud sound I’ve made.
I’m free, once again, and he’s rolling on the ground, quick to spring back into action.
It gives me only a few precious moments, but it’s all I need to leap into my craft and shut the hatch. I rush to the controls and blast off the godforsaken ugly planet with my precious cargo. Down below, the Zandian looks up at the craft. He doesn’t shake his fist or point, and yet somehow I see the determined promise in his stance, the steadiness of the way he watches my departure.
The promise of retribution. He’ll be coming for me.
I move my fingers over the ancient controls on my dash. My craft is slow but steady, and if I just get enough of a head-start, I might be able to hide.
But worry pricks at my neck: The Zandians, it’s known, have upgraded ships. The fastest in the galaxy. Cloaked. With every advantage. If he follows me—no when—because I’m sure he will…I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ll have to fight.
No way am I letting anyone take me hostage. Because this is my life’s work—saving humans, bringing them to freedom. And no being is going to stop me, unless they kill me first.
* * *
“Vecking hilarious.” Domm slaps my back. “You in the dirt blinking up at the female who bested you.”
Archer shakes his head, not nearly so amused. “You lost my females.” He petitioned King Zander last lunar cycle to purchase a female to mate and the king granted him leave. He just traded his entire life savings for the human and her child only to have my little tormenter fly off with them.
The female’s scent remains in my nose, the feel of her body squirming beneath mine forever imprinted in my mind. I shrug at Archer’s rebuke. “You two could’ve stepped in to help.”
Domm laughs so hard he coughs, then manages, “We didn’t know you’d have trouble with one tiny female.”
“Veck you,” I growl and raise my fist.
Archer sidesteps and Domm backs up, eyebrows lifting, horns quirked, still laughing. He puts up his hands. “Where in the universe did she learn to fight like that?”
I replay her skilled maneuvers, allowing fascination to creep in. “No vecking idea.” I hold up my hand, where a small scrape trickles purple blood, already sealing over to heal. “Look at that.” I can barely believe it myself. “She was fierce.”
The three of us gaze at the display on our craft, watching the blinking dot of her shuttle inching across the inky black of the galaxy.
“Where is she trying to go?” I hear the disbelief in my own voice, because what she’s doing is insanity. There is no safe harbor for humans in this galaxy. How is she even alive at this point? Part of me is awe-stricken, wanting to figure out all her secrets. Connect with her like a respected warrior colleague. Another part of me wants to wrestle her to the ground, straddle that slender waist, the way I had her on Shirtang. And then…
My cock throbs to life and I clear my throat and focus. This is absolutely not the time. “A human rescuing other humans. And she’s headed on a course for Lat 34 X-4. That means—”
“She’s headed to the Midrian Belt area.” Domm’s voice is serious now. “Maybe to the human community on Jesel?”
“Impossible. It’s far too distant and dangerous. She won’t make it a quarter of the way,” I say.
“Even so, that’s her course.”
“Veck.” I cross my arms and lean forward, as if bringing my face closer to the screen will give me more information about the human female and her plans. “We have to follow.”
“A bit of a detour for us,” Domm says doubtfully.
“You don’t say.” Archer narrows his eyes. He pushes a button on his wrist communication and links into home command on Zandia. “Commander Enten? This is Zandia 8-X. In pursuit of an enemy combatant to retrieve two humans. En route to Jesel.”
“Three,” I correct him, pursing my lips. There’s no way I’m leaving the feisty fighter on her own. She may not be for sale, but she certainly can’t roam around the galaxy unprotected. Humans are not a free species. She’ll be dead or enslaved in a lunar cycle.
“Three.” Archer doesn’t flinch. “Requesting permission to engage.”
Normally we make our own decisions; as advanced warriors and trusted scouts, we manage our own tours. And Archer is an experienced captain, just edging out me and Domm in both combat and flight experience.
But going to Jesel means travel through enemy territory and chances are we’ll encounter Ocretion pirates or other miscreants, so we want to check with our commander that the risk is worth the reward.
Archer gets the full go-ahead, and the three of us buckle into our seats, preparing for hyperdrive or combat maneuvers.
“She’s plodding along in that clunker.” Domm points at the screen and laughs, a sound less of humor than disbelief. “How that even flies is beyond me.”
“No serious weapons.” Our radar and tracking shows the details of her ship. “And no ability to jump to hyper or light. Total lack of shielding. We can take her at our leisure.”
My cock twitches in my flight pants at the idea of taking her at my leisure. Long and hard. Preferably with her wrists and ankles tied to my hoverdisk to pay her back for that brilliant move back on Shirtang. I force the thought from my mind.
For a second I pity our little quarry. She’s determined and smart, but stars, her craft is no match for ours. We could have incinerated her with long-range weapons the first second she took off. It will be child’s play to apprehend and board her craft. An unfair fight.
But my body is eager for it. I want to grapple with her again. Look into those angry green eyes. Hear that sweet, husky voice. Watch her pant under me—
“She’s changing course.” Archer points at the screen. We’re already in the no-man’s land of the galaxy, where ships rarely obey intergalactic accords and piracy is on the rise.
“To?” Domm leans forward, interest in his face.
Archer adjusts the controls. “Toward Techna. Local planet that sells craft parts and repairs them.”
“What’s that?” Something on the screen makes me frown and a strange feeling swirls in my gut. “What’s going on with her craft?” I lean forward, hands on my thighs. “Look at the vibration. It’s like her gyro doesn’t work.”
To be sure, her craft jerks and stutters, flops around. Rights itself.
“She’s fighting that rudder hard.” Domm’s voice is impressed.
Archer nods. “She knows she can’t make it all the way to Jesel. She tries to go through the Massin Asteroid clusters like that, her craft will vecking fly apart.” He pauses.
I rub my ear. “Take her before she lands on Techna, or after?”
Domm considers. “An aerial link with her craft will be simple.”
I agree. “And we’ll avoid ground interference from any being on Techna.”
Archer shakes his head. “I say wait until she lands, then do a surgical extraction for all three. Fast, invisible, silent. I’m not confident her hull can handle the magnetic pull when we overtake her. Don’t want to risk losing atmosphere. It’s worth the hassle of dealing with the Technians. They always look the other way when it comes to squabbles.”
We nod our acceptance of this command and prepare our ship for entry, the three of us working together effortlessly. We know this routine by heart.
“Company.” Domm’s voice is taut. “Starboard, three ticks, closing fast.”
Veck. My fingers dance over the air screen. “Ocretion pirates, outlaws. They’ve locked onto our ship and hers.”
I’m not letting those gray-skinned lumps anywhere near our humans. Yes, I consider them ours already. Because the little warrior is mine. Mine and Domm’s, if he wants to share.
“They know she’s got human cargo?” Domm’s voice rises.
“Don’t know, but they’re flashing the signal for takeover,” I reply.
“Model?” Domm asks.
“They’re got one of the newest Ocretion fighters. Veck, I’d like to get my hands on that and reverse engineer it,” Archer remarks.
I shove back my impatience. Archer should be more worried about the females than the vecking craft. “That’s what they want to do to us. Plans?” I ask.
“I say we grab her and the other humans, and jump. They’ve got a new warship but it can’t best ours in speed.” A beat.
“We can take them if we’re surgical,” I agree. Adrenaline spikes. “If we do it right, we can take their ship, too.” I know Archer’s fingers itch to examine their control system. Figure out what they do with their jump drive. But it’s the little female I crave. Leaving her behind, to the cruelty of the Ocretions? Not possible.
“Agreed.” Domm sets the controls and the G-forces nearly flatten us as our ship instantly presses forward, but our training and our physiology make us able to withstand it. “I was curious to see what’s happening on Techna.” Domm works the controls, deftly maneuvering us around an asteroid belt.
“Another time.” I glance at my holo readout. “The Ocretions are messaging.”
The signal comes up on our screen—a hostile warning to back off or suffer fire. Our shields can handle their fire, even with their newest warcraft—at least a few rounds.
We ignore it. Don’t reply.
“Shields up.” Domm adjusts our cloaking. “Prepare to board the human craft.”