Chapter One: Lynna

I missed duct tape.

I suppressed my frustration as the bulb attachment belonging to one of the Rogue Star’s pieces of medical equipment fell onto the floor for the third time that day.

This time, the fragile bulb cracked.

I picked it up and examined it. It should work just fine if I screwed it back in, however, I had nothing to stop it from falling out all over again.

I’d recently learned how to use everything in the Rogue Star’s med bay, sometimes in crisis mode. Despite long hours with the auto-tutor, I didn’t know the technical names for all of the equipment, but even I could tell that everything was in dire need of replacement.

It was a good thing I didn’t have any patients to tend to at the moment.

The Rogue Star was en route back to Katzul. Unless someone was particularly stupid, I wasn’t going to be patching anyone up until we’d made port.

Considering that we were wanted criminals and all, we’d been lucky in terms of injuries.

Kayln’s leg wound had been bad, but the worst was Orrin when he was shot close range by a bounty hunter. If it weren’t for Zayn, the Rogue Star’s medic, I wouldn’t have known what to do.

It still made me shudder.

I didn’t think Zayn would like me when Captain Dejar asked me to take on some of the doctorly duties.

Turns out, Zayn had no issue with letting me have free rein in the med bay. He came in every once in a while to check supply levels but, for the most part, he seemed to enjoy taking a break.

It made me wonder what the Rogue Star crew got up to before myself and the other human women ended up here.

“Lynna!” Kalyn burst into the med bay, startling me so I lost my grip on the bulb.

This time it shattered. I pressed my lips together to hide my annoyance.

“Sorry!” Kalyn gasped. “I shouldn’t have burst in like that.”

“It’s okay.” I managed a smile. “It was already cracked. It was going to break sooner or later. Is everything all right?”

“I need you to come with me.” Kalyn extended her hand, practically vibrating with excitement.

“Why?” I swept up the shards of broken bulb and tossed them.

“You’ll see!” she squealed, never before so animated. Humoring her, I let her drag me out of the med bay and through the ship’s narrow corridors.

“The mess hall?” I asked when we approached the double doors. “If you wanted to get lunch you could’ve just said so.” Kalyn grinned, saying nothing, and pushed both doors open with a flourish.

The lights came on to reveal the other human women standing around a table. On the table was a white, square cake with Happy Birthday Lynna! written in sloppy red cursive.

“Surprise!” Everyone exclaimed. “Happy Birthday!”

My hand flew to my chest and my eyes widened. “It’s not my birthday, is it?” I looked at Kalyn.

“It is,” she confirmed. “I’m your Commander. It’s my job to know these things.” 

“I must’ve lost track of Terran Days.” Now that we weren’t in Terran space, I found it difficult to stick to the old calendar.

Kalyn held up her watch, which still reflected the Terran day and time. She was right, it was my birthday.

“Thank you, everyone,” I said. “You really didn’t need to go to all this trouble.”

“You would’ve done the same for us.” Kalyn nudged me gently.

That was true. Back on the Persephone Station, I loved organizing things like this. It brightened up the monotonous day to day of life on the station.

“Sorry there aren’t any candles on the cake,” Kalyn said. “I couldn’t find anything safe enough to light on fire, and we can’t waste the oxygen, anyway.”

“Understandable,” I laughed.

“Speaking of cake, let’s cut into this one,” Maris said, rubbing her hands together. “I’m starving.”

“It’s still not exactly the kind of cake we’re used to,” Shenna said, sounding apologetic. “Sars and I got it as close as we could, though. We’re getting better.”

“If it’s anything like the stuff we made on Valentine’s Day, I’ll be happy,” Maris declared.

Kalyn glanced at the doors. “We have to wait for the others to get here.”

“Others?” I asked.

“I invited Dejar and the rest of the crew.” Kalyn shrugged. “They’re family now, after all.”

“Yes, they should be here,” I agreed, faint amusement making me smile. If we’d stayed on Persephone Station, it wouldn’t be much of a family. And to think Kalyn of all people had been the first to…well, integrate so well with the Shein.

“If they aren’t here soon, I’m calling for a free for all on the cake,” Aryn said, swiping icing off the side of the cake with her finger.

Shenna smacked her hand away, but Aryn grinned, sucking the icing off her finger.

“Are we late for the party?” Dejar asked as he strode into the mess hall with Aavat and Orrin in tow. Other crew members filed in behind them.

Including someone I didn’t expect to see.

Valtic, the head of ship security, stood in the doorway with his arms folded over his chest.

I looked away quickly, my cheeks warm because so many people were close by.

That was it.

Really.

I liked to say that I considered everyone on the Rogue Star a friend, even the deck hands and cabin workers.

Valtic, on the other hand, was still a mystery to me. I rarely saw him and didn’t know where he spent his time. He had to have an office somewhere.

To my embarrassment, I’d only learned his name the other week. Since then, I decided to make an effort to get to know him but that was proving to be a difficult task.

Especially since every time I saw him something in me fluttered.

“Of course you’re not late!” Kalyn exclaimed. “There’s still cake.” The crew members stepped into the mess hall and helped themselves to pieces of cake cut by Shenna.

Dejar lifted Kalyn, kissing her deeply before turning to me, one arm still wrapped around her waist. 

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the occasion,” he confessed. “Kalyn just said cake.”

“Lynna was born thirty-one years ago today on the Terran calendar,” Kalyn explained. “Humans celebrate their birth annually with a gathering of friends, cake, and an exchange of gifts.”

“Please tell me you didn’t get me anything,” I said.

“Okay. I won’t tell you.” Kalyn grinned shamelessly, then turned to Dejar. “Traditionally, the guests wish the birthday girl happy birthday.”

“Happy Birthday?” he said hesitantly.

“Well done,” I grinned. “And thank you. Go help yourself to some cake.”

“I’m supposed to be the hostess,” Kalyn chided. “You just focus on enjoying yourself.”

“Done and done.”

Kalyn and Dejar laced their fingers together and moved off toward the cake table. Taking a moment to survey all of the wonderful friends I’d made, contentment bloomed in my chest.

Someone cleared their throat behind me. I turned.

Valtic’s deep, bronze eyes stared at me, his expression blank.

My stomach clenched.

I cleared my throat. “Fancy some cake?” Smooth, Lynna.

“No,” he said. “I came to give you the traditional well-wishes and depart. I have work to do.”

Oh.

“Are you sure you can’t stay for a little while?” I asked. “It’s a party, after all.”

“Unfortunately, no,” he replied, though he didn’t look at all regretful. “Happy Birthday.” He nodded and left the mess hall.

“Don’t take it personally.” Kovor appeared at my side. “Lighthearted fun has never been his forte.”

“Parties aren’t for everyone,” I shrugged, trying to push off my disappointment. “Has Aryn eaten all of my birthday cake?”

Kovor chuckled. “She’s had three slices.”

“I better get in there before it’s all gone,” I laughed. I made my way through the packed mess hall, accepting birthday wishes left and right.

I had plenty of friends here, I reminded myself. Even if someone was determined to be difficult.

The cake was half gone by the time I reached the table. Kalyn presented me with a piece she’d put to the side just for me. It had some of the icing that read my name.

“Can you put a second piece to the side?” I asked, even as I said the words, a little nervous about the plan that had just sprung to mind.

“Of course! You’re the birthday girl. You get to eat as much cake as you want.”

“It’s not for me.” Kalyn gave me a curious look. “It’s for Valtic.”

Kalyn looked more confused. “I don’t think he likes cake.”

“Maybe not.” I shrugged, trying for casual. “But he left to go back to work. I want him to know his absence was noticed.”

Kalyn furrowed her brow but didn’t say anything more. She cut an extra piece of cake as asked. I felt like I was missing a piece of information, but I didn’t know how to ask for it.

I went around the room, making sure to say hello to everyone. Kalyn and the other women presented me with a hand-knit scarf they all took turns working on. It was messy and filled with small holes.

Perfect.

As the party wound down, I gathered my nerve.

“Be right back!” I waved to the room, taking the slice of cake that’d been set aside.

I knew where Orrin’s workspace was. I remembered Maris saying that Valtic’s office was nearby.

I tried three doors near Orrin’s workspace until I found him.

The only light in the room came from four monitors. Valtic sat at his desk flipping through the same pieces of footage over and over, but nothing looked out of the ordinary.

“Have a minute?” I asked.

“What can I do for you?” Valtic replied without turning around. He wasn’t rude, just focused.

Distant.

“Nothing.” I stepped into the dark room. “I brought you some cake from the party.”

I set the plate down on the desk next to him.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because you didn’t get any. And you should know that your presence was missed.”

Valtic looked at the cake with a blank expression, then to me, then back to his monitors. “I have a lot of footage to look through.”

I pursed my lips. “Right. Well, enjoy the cake.” I backed out of his office and closed the door quietly.

It was dangerous to spend too much time in isolation, I knew that better than anyone.

Valtic was about to have a special friend, like it or not.

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