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Claimed by the Alien Bounty Hunter – Sneak Peek

Deanna

The human mind does strange things when deprived of stimulus – or so my textbooks tell me.

Not having much psychiatric clinical experience, I could only go by what was happening to me now.

“A patient comes to the emergency room complaining of muscle pain that woke them from a sound sleep,” a chipper robotic voice said. “What is the most appropriate NANDA?”

High risk of activity intolerance. Sleep pattern disturbance.

The voice wasn’t really there, so there was no need to answer it out loud. It belonged to the tutorial assistant embedded in my licensing study course.

The course was on my computer back on Earth along with everything else, except the pajamas I was wearing.

I could only hear it because for days–and I didn’t know how many–I hadn’t heard any other language I could understand.

Over the last four years, nursing diagnoses–NANDAs–had become my life. Every surface in my small rundown apartment was covered in printouts and notecards.

I’d written detailed symptom breakdowns on some. On others, I made up fake patients and used them to test my diagnostic skills.

Sometimes, probably too many judging by the grease stains, I would review my notes over a meal. I wasn’t above cramming a study session into a commercial break, although I didn’t watch television to make it a habit.

Once or twice, I’d even woken up to realize I’d been testing myself in my sleep.

“A patient on the unit asks for water chips. What do you do first?” The voice chimed in my ear.

Except, it wasn’t really there.

It was just in my head.

Becoming a nurse was my dream, and I was going to make a damned good one.

At least…I thought I would be. Now my notes were only giving my fragile mind stable ground against the threat of losing my shit.

If they’re not my patient, check the chart for restrictions.

I rolled onto my side, shifting my view from the drab gray ceiling of my cage to the crackling strip of blue light that made the sides. There was just enough room for me to lie in a fetal position or sit with my legs folded under me.

 The monster who’d brought me here was on the other side of the barrier, hunched over a console. My eyes settled on him for a second, taking in the spikes on his shoulders and twitching of his antennae.

There was a view screen in front of him, but from my angle I could only see a sliver of it. The view was always the same, an endless clip of black punctuated by the occasional dot, limitless space.

I looked away, imagining a cartoon stethoscope was on the floor outside of my cage.

A lifetime ago, I’d been walking through the woods near my apartment to clear my head. A brain can only spend so much time focusing on NANDAs and care plans without going berserk. When I saw the hovering gray ship with red lights embedded in the hull, I assumed I had overestimated my brain capacity and needed a long break.

A tour of space while imprisoned in a cage of light wasn’t what I’d had in mind. At least he let me keep my pajamas.

That wasn’t a given in the alien abduction myths I’d read.

Ineffective protection. Ineffective coping.

The alien was nearly twice as tall as me, with spindly arms that were faster and stronger than they looked.

It shoved a dry square that looked like pressed black beans at me at regular intervals. I thought it might be twice a day, but without a watch or my cell phone, I didn’t know for sure. A pit in the side of the cage served as my restroom. I would have killed for a shower or a bath or even a sink. Anything to get the smell of filth and fear off my skin.

It’s not as if anyone would notice I was missing. My study group had drifted apart, and I didn’t have any family. The few friendships I had managed to carry past my twenty-first birthday hadn’t survived the brutal schedules of nursing school. I had stellar grades and a smoking crater for a social calendar.

I had a new roommate, but with my hectic schedule, she probably wouldn’t notice I was gone until the rent was due. Then she would probably assume I had skipped out on her.

Nobody was coming for me.

A harsh, rhythmic sound came from the ship’s speakers. Seconds later, the hull dipped forward and rumbled. I craned my neck to look at the sliver of the view screen.

It was gray instead of the usual black. As I was watching, the gray dissolved into bumpy terrain.

We were landing. Whatever the alien had in store for me was about to become my permanent fate.

My stomach clenched. The cartoon stethoscope vanished in a puff of smoke. I pushed myself to my hands and squeezed as far back into the corner of the cage as I could.

“What’s happening?”

No answer.

There never was.

The surface crackled as my back pressed against it, sending a stinging pain across my skin. I yelped and jerked forward.

This wasn’t right. I wasn’t supposed to be here! I had plans. I… I had a future!

The tilt of the ship steepened. Then the whole thing shook. Not a gentle rumble like before. A deep, jarring quake that clacked my teeth together. The force of it threw my body against the other wall of the cage, then to the floor.

The alien roared. Lights on the panels around it blinked frantically. My kidnapper wrenched itself from its chair and stomped toward my cage. It waved a three-clawed hand over the top and the blue walls slid away.

It reached for me. I rolled to my knees, scrambling away, but the monster was too fast. It grabbed me by the arm and hauled me up.

“No!”

I twisted my body, determined not to go along with whatever the alien had planned. If it was going to probe me or–gulp–implant me, I wasn’t going without a fight.

The ship lurched again, and I stumbled. The alien tightened its grip, pulling me tighter against its wiry body. It pushed a button with a claw, and a panel opened next to it, revealing a padded cell just tall and wide enough for my body.

“Let me go!”

I screamed and thrashed. Every instinct I had told me to avoid going into that box at all costs. Pain shot through my neck as I wrenched my head from side to side and bit at the air.

Could my teeth penetrate the alien’s shiny red skin? I had no idea, but I was damn sure going to find out if I had the chance.

 The monster didn’t seem fazed by my wild movements. It lifted me higher in the air until my toes lost contact with the floor. Then it shoved me face-first into the box. By the time I’d turned around, the panel was closed again and the top half had turned transparent. I could see out, but there was nothing I could do. 

I beat against the door. “Let me out of here!” Then a painful jolt of energy zapped up my arm.

Apparently my captor wanted to monitor me, but wasn’t going to put up with anything, not right now.

Swallowing, I let my head fall back again. Even if I could have gotten away, what good would it have done? I didn’t know what planet I was on. For all I knew, I wouldn’t be any more able to communicate with whoever or whatever I found than I could with my kidnapper.

There was no hope of a rescue mission in my future, either. Sane and rational people back on Earth didn’t believe in alien life. And if they did, they probably wouldn’t bargain with one on behalf of a broke nursing graduate.

Diagnosis: Early mourning.

The ship rattled violently. It tipped forward at an angle no aircraft–or spacecraft–should. I closed my eyes and tried to find the bright side.

Whatever the alien had had planned for me wasn’t going to happen now. Not with all the blinking red lights on its ship and the smoke coming from the console. This ship was going down and it was taking us with it. I realized that the box must be some kind of escape pod.

I tuned out the thin blare of the alarm through my sealed box. The universe owed me a favor and, boy, did I need to cash it in now. My life couldn’t end in a crash on a planet I didn’t even know existed two hours ago. There were too many things I still wanted to do.

I wanted to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or maybe ride a dirt bike through Death Valley. And drink hot espresso in an Italian cafe, or maybe syrupy sweet tea on a deep porch somewhere in the South, and go whitewater rafting in Colorado.

I wanted to pass my licensing boards!

There were too many things in my life left undone. Too many adventures I still wanted to have.
           It couldn’t end here for me.

I was saving this for something else, I said to the universe, but I’m gonna have to cash it in now. I need a miracle. Whatever happens next…I want to live.

The ship lurched and shuddered, coming to an abrupt stop with a dull splash. The force of it slammed my head against the walls of the box. They were padded, but at those speeds, it didn’t matter.

An egg wrapped in cotton hitting a brick wall was still going to get a few cracks.

Throbbing pain shot through my skull, moving down my neck and out to my limbs. As it went, I lost all feeling in my muscles, leaving me with heavy stumps I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t scream or run. I couldn’t get away, but I was alive.

That totally doesn’t count.

Khenja

The exhaust trail stretched forward into eternity on my view screen. I scowled at the dissipating cloud of blue and purple gas left behind by my fleeing bounty.

To some, there might have been something beautiful in the way the chemicals danced around one another for a few precious seconds before drifting their separate ways into the reaches of space.

For me, it was a sign of how much space Orat had put between his ship and mine.

His ship had my bounty on it.

“What’s his trajectory,” I asked the ship’s computer. “Where’s that chentak going?”

There was no answer, but I’d expected none. My ship, the Angga, flew true, and no ship in the galaxy could escape her sensors. But the sensors and navigation system were the only things on the ship that didn’t need an upgrade or refit.

Thanks to a broken temperature gauge and loose sonic sensors, the shower was less effective than dunking my body in a stream. I hadn’t had a decent shower since I’d left the last fueling station.

The guns had power behind them, but the criminals I hunted for a living were already using technology two generations ahead of mine. Being the misery-sucking scum of the galaxy gave them access to better toys.

The vocal interface on the computer was the latest piece of tech on the Angga to break, but it wouldn’t be the last. It couldn’t answer back, but it could still hear me…for now.

My pilot’s chair and half of the switches to the environmental controls were busted. It was too cold in space and didn’t keep out enough heat when I landed on a planetary surface…but the Angga was home.

A soft chirp camp from my left, drawing my attention away from the exhaust trail. For a second, I thought the Angga’s computer had somehow fixed itself. Then I saw the light on the communications console.

Incoming call from Landri.

I pressed the button on the console and a twelve-centimeter image of my boss appeared in golden light in front of it.

“You missed assignment handouts.” Landri stroked the flexible twigs on his chin. “By my count, that’s four in a row. Do you ever plan on bringing in another bounty?”

Landri had left the forests of Mtoain before almost any nywosi I knew. He’d taken on too many of the habits of other galactic species for my liking.

The beard, which our people did not wear as a rule, was only the most visible evidence. For my mentor, they were a symbol of his continuing effort to assimilate better into the galaxy. 

I had never cared enough. Sure, I’d rid myself of many of the old ways, too, but more for convenience’s sake than anything else. “Nah, figured I’d run the engines ‘til the fuel is gone and see where the universe takes me.” I glanced at the navigation computer. It still hadn’t given me Orat’s destination coordinates.

In fact… it wasn’t even calculating them. One more thing to fix.

Stifling a growl of frustration, I punched the command in manually. 
          Landri sighed. “It’s been three cycles, Khenja. Put that hunt aside for now.”

“Ah, this conversation again. By my count, that’s half a dozen times, and it always ends the same.”

“And we’ll keep having it until you see reason, Khenja. This has become an obsession.”

“I haven’t broken any laws in my pursuit or put my life in any more danger than usual.”

“What are you planning to do, grind the Angga into durasteel dust around you?”

“That will never happen,” I said. “The engines will burn out long before that.”

“Which only means you’ll have the pleasure of starving to death instead of feeling your body burst.”

“Remind me, what’s Orat’s bounty up to again?”

Landri shrugged his shoulders. “Forty million credits. It went up a few hundred thousand after he blew up that cafe on Yasnu VI.”

“That much property damage tends to do that.”

The computer spat out the coordinates and my heart sank.

“We both know Orat caused all of that damage trying to get away from you, Khenja. You should follow another bounty for a while. Clear your head.”

“I can’t.”

Landri raised his chin. “Don’t make me order you. Neither of us likes that.”

“The nav computer just gave me Orat’s terminal coordinates.” I sent him the coordinates of Orat’s terminal destination.

Mtoain.

The home all three of us–Landri, Orat, and I–had left behind. Ground we were only allowed to set foot on once more in our lifetimes after our choice to abandon it.

For a different kind of hunt than the one I was on.

My mentor was silent for a long time, but the trembling branches of his beard gave way his emotion.

“Still think I should break off the pursuit,” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Blast it, what season is it? Are they expecting a dual moonrise?”

“Why else would a slaver be heading there?” Tapping the view screen, I brought the ship’s operating system up on my computer and diverted more power to the engines. I couldn’t afford to fall too far behind.

“There’s no proof Orat ever captured or enslaved anyone.” Landri rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Only that he was a facilitator. Which is bad enough.”

“We have proof now. There’s no other reason for him to go home.”

“Khenja–”

“Right, the GDF won’t increase the bounty unless there’s previously documented proof of an additional crime.”

May the chentak take them. What kind of defense force couldn’t help the citizens in their space until after something bad happened?

“So you remember the statutes.”

“Sure I do, I just don’t care.” Mtoain appeared on the view screen, a glowing orb of green and gold.

Home. How many years since I had laid eyes on it? There was no time to savor the sight of it now. The Angga’s engines whined as it raced to make up the distance between me and Orat.

One more hunt, my little prowler, then we can both rest.

“Much as you want to ignore it, here’s one very important reason a nywosi might return home. We all get one chance to come back and only for one reason.”

Turning away from the long-lost vision of my homeworld, I climbed to my feet and went to the weapons locker.

“I drove Orat out of a palace where he was surrounded by silk, wine, and pleasure slaves.” While I spoke, I loaded my belt. A blaster pistol, extra plasma cuffs, concussion grenades. “He’s not going to Mtoain to claim a mate.”

“Maybe not, but if anyone catches you on the surface, you won’t be able to.”

“No chanting of the great myths from you, Landri. This is a chance to get the proof the GDF needs to put Orat in a plasma cell until his skin hardens to bark.”

“It is an unnecessary risk,” Landri said. “Break off the pursuit. You have Orat’s exhaust trail. One of the others can chase the bounty. Someone who isn’t forbidden to set foot on the planet’s surface.

“Orat will have a female in plasma chains and be halfway across the galaxy by then.”

“Khenja–”

I cut the comm feed before Landri could order me to return to headquarters. My distaste for taking orders wasn’t specific to my mentor. If I had wanted to spend my life following the commands of my so-called betters, I wouldn’t have abandoned my homeworld for the privilege. That life would have been mine in the forests there as sure as the moons would rise.

Life on the hunt for bounties was not easy.

It was lonelier than I would admit to anyone but Landri, and even then, it would take more tankards of ale than my meager credit account could cover.  But this life, every second of it, had been my choice.

The female that fell prey to Orat’s twisted mating hunt would have no such choice.

I had to take Orat the moment he landed. If he reached the ground and somehow convinced a female to follow him to that ship….

The Angga dipped into the planet’s atmosphere, still following the exhaust trail. Towering red trees covered the planet’s surface, punctuated by lakes of the purest water and swamps of the deepest foulness.

 Orat’s ship had faster engines, but my ship wouldn’t be shaken. There was a time when the Angga was the fastest ship in the sector. She still had much of her old speed.

“Not too close. We can’t afford to scare him off.” I decreased the speed manually, easing off.

Too late. The engines of Orat’s ship burst into light for a fraction of a second before it zipped away.

I knew that trick. As soon as there was enough cover from the landscape, Orat would find a hole to hide in and avoid my sensors. Not this time. I pressed the Angga on, zooming through the towering red trunks, slipping between them at speeds too fast for even a Mtoain mind to calculate.

His ship had a faster computer, too.

Irrelevant. This was the best chance to capture Orat that had appeared in three cycles. I wasn’t going to let something as trivial as topography stop me.

Suddenly, my view screen blinked, alerting me to another ship in our proximity. I furrowed my brow and pulled up the image. It wasn’t unusual for deep-space traders to stop by Mtoain. The ritual exploration that marked my people’s coming of age provided a regular supply of cheap and grateful labor. But never in my years on the surface had I seen a trader come this far away from the larger villages.

The ship was smaller and slower than Orat’s or mine. It had no numbers or insignia marking its planet or government of origin. Something about it perked my branches.

While I contemplated, Orat took action, turning his rear guns on the third ship and opening fire. The first shot hit the mystery ship’s engines head on. It shuddered and tilted forward on an arc toward the surface, releasing a spray of black water as it plunged into the swamp below.

Orat’s engines flared again, burning fuel as he streaked across the blue skies of our homeworld, oblivious to the devastation left in his wake.

Chentak!

The Federation had clear rules on what a ship registered in its space should do in the event of a crash of another ship. Investigate, rescue if possible, or face the loss of your registry.

A bounty hunter who failed to keep to the distress protocol would face the loss of his license. And depending on who they failed to save, the hunter might earn a bounty of their own.

If it had only been my license to hunt at risk, I might have followed Orat and left the souls on the ship to their fate. But Landri’s license would be burned for the crime of having sponsored mine. The GDF would burn every license associated with our team, from the newest recruit to the most grizzled veteran—which happened to be me.

I gritted my teeth and changed my course to hover over the crash site.

No Mtoain female will go with a male without amre. He cannot fake that. I will have time.

The words were true, but they were poor salve to soothe the wound of delay. Following the statute would cost me time I did not have. But it was the only way to capture my prey and remain in the Federation’s good graces.

I could only hope that, were there any survivors, they wouldn’t slow me down more.

Deanna

For a while, I wasn’t sure where I was. It felt like I was floating. Not quite in water but almost…above it. Like a water bed. I’d always wanted one, but I could never find a landlord in Monee that would give me permission without adding a small fortune to the lease.

Thinking of landlords reminded me that I was running out of the savings I had been using to stay in the good graces of mine.

But there was a big, ugly obstacle that stood between me and steady paychecks.

The NCLEX. A long exam, made up of seventy-five to two-hundred-and-sixty-five questions, which was supposed to prove I had the critical thinking skills necessary to be a nurse. Six hour time limit. One bathroom break. My entire future on a plate.

I had already bombed it twice. One more failure and… well, I didn’t know what the Illinois State Board of Nursing would do to me. To be honest, I didn’t want to find out. All I wanted was to pass my boards, get a job, and pay off the small mountain of student loan debt I’d racked up on this crazy journey.

So I opened my eyes and tried to muster the enthusiasm I needed to get through a marathon day of studying and practice quizzes.

But my apartment wasn’t there. The escape pod the alien monster had shoved me into was. The antennae on top of its hairless head swiveled. Water had flooded so much of the cockpit, it came up to the towering alien’s waist.

 I closed my eyes again and groaned, half against the pain throbbing inside my skull, and half in despair.

Right…this is happening.

This wasn’t my apartment. It wasn’t Earth. That future wasn’t waiting for me anymore. Not that I could think about that or much of anything at all through the sharp pounding in my head.

The alien finally tore the door off the pod, sending a wave of water rushing in that soaked right through my pajamas. It grabbed my wrist in one of its pincer-like hands and wrenched me out of the pod. I twisted and wiggled, but a fresh wave of pain and nausea rocked my body.

A soft groan escaped my lips and I went limp. That was all my kidnapper needed. It hoisted me over its shoulder. While I lay there, it carried me through the flooded wreckage of its ship to the outside.

Think, Deanna. Think.

The alien sloshed through the waist-high black water, carrying me with ease.

 My kidnapper’s ship had embedded itself cockpit-first in the putrid, muddy water. Judging by the bubbles coming from the front end, it was still sinking.

There went my one way home.

We were surrounded on all sides by trees that rose much higher than any I’d ever seen on Earth. The bark was reddish-orange, the perfect color to play with the otherworldly golden glow of the sun.

“Let me go.,” I whimpered for what seemed like the thousandth time since this all started. Like every time before, my alien kidnapper didn’t acknowledge me. For all I knew, it couldn’t even understand me.

That water is dark. If I can get into it, maybe it’ll lose me.

I kicked the alien hard. Every inch of it that my knees, elbows, and toes could reach, I pounded as hard as I could. The skin beneath my fingers felt closer to thin plastic than soft tissue.

Can I even hurt this thing?

The alien growled. It pulled me from its shoulder and gripped my body between its pincers. For a second, it turned me around to face it. Its beady, pupil-less black eyes stared into mine. There was no part of the alien’s face that resembled a human, but its rage came across all too clearly.

How dare a little shit like me fight back against it?

Then it threw me backward away from it. I sailed over the surface of the water for a few feet before plunging in. It rushed into my mouth and nose. Somehow it felt heavier than water back home, and it smelled like mud and decay.

Instinct took over. My arms and legs kicked through the slurry water, propelling me forward. I couldn’t breathe, but my only chance was to put distance between me and it.

Something snagged my hair, sending a stinging wave of pain across my skull. It pulled me backward, hauling me out of the water. I knew it was the alien, and it wasn’t getting me again without a fight. Not this time.

I kicked and thrashed. The alien’s rage-filled growl intensified to a roar. One of its pincers wrapped around my throat.

This is it…

It was over. I closed my eyes and braced myself for whatever happened next. But suddenly, the alien’s roar of anger faded, and the rumble of an engine rose in its place. I opened my eyes again, turning them upward as a ship sailed overhead.

Someone fell out the back end of the ship and collided hard with the back of my kidnapper’s head. The insectoid alien lost its grip, dropping me back into the swamp water. It reached for me again, but a firm hand clamped on its wrist and wrenched it back.

That was all the help I needed. I took a breath and dove back beneath the surface. My heart was pounding in my ears. My lungs were burning. But my limbs propelled me through the water in desperation.

I swam to a mound of mud gathered around the base of a large tree. With what little strength I had left, I hoisted myself as far out of the water as I could manage. The aliens were still splashing in the water behind me.

The new arrival was shorter and leaner than the other. He dodged my kidnapper’s massive pincers with the fluid motions of a dancer. But it was hard to tell through the constant splash of swamp water which of them had the upper hand.

Suddenly, the new alien rose above the water. Streams of it dripped from his green skin as he rammed his fist into my kidnapper’s mandible. The insectoid alien whined, it’s body slumping into the swamp.

Is it over?

The new alien pulled something from his belt and reached into the water. He fished his opponent’s pincer above the surface and pressed the object from his belt against it. A small beam of purple light slithered around both wrists, snapping them together.

He let the insectoid alien fall back into the swamp and heaved a deep sigh. Then he turned to me. His hair was arranged in long, branch-like locks that were bound to one side. Cold eyes with irises of warm green focused on me, leaving me nowhere to hide.

My rescuer clipped the cuffed insectoid kidnapper to his belt and waded toward me.

Damn it, I should have swum for it when I had the chance.

Tyntheck Khenja,” he said. “Ya’rhloweh belahn tuok.”

He looked down at me and waited. When I didn’t respond, he repeated himself.

“English?” I asked with a shaky voice.

The alien held up his index finger as if to tell me to wait. He pulled something from his belt and extended his hand to me, revealing a shiny white object the size of a pebble.

Menqu’clot,” he said, motioning to his ear.

Back on Earth, if an otherworldly being who looked like a tree come to life told me to shove a pebble in my ear, I would have politely refused. And probably run to the next mental health professional for a checkup.

But out here? I had nothing left to lose.

I grabbed the pebble and slipped it into my ear. A pleasant vibrating sensation started where the device touched my skin, then reverberated through my head.

“I am Khenja,” he said. “Can you understand now?”

“Yes.”

Khenja stepped forward. His eyes narrowed as they moved over my face, down my body, and back. “I’ve hunted many species in the stars beyond these moons, and seen many more. But your kind is rarer than most.”

I shrank back from him. “Hunted? You…aren’t here to help me?”

“That’s the GDF’s job,” he said, gesturing toward the wreckage of the insectoid alien’s ship. “I’m just here to check the skiff for survivors. Congratulations, you survived.”

“The GD…what?” He was speaking English–at least on my end–but his words didn’t make any more sense than they had before. “I don’t understand.”

“The Galactic Defense Federation,” he said. “They fancy themselves the peacekeepers.”

“So… more aliens? Like that one?” I pointed to the still unconscious one cuffed to Khenja’s belt.

He let out a deep, throaty laugh. “A Veschna would never be allowed to join a GDF rescue team. Especially not one so young. Too many are desperate to leave home, too many of their criminal syndicates deal in slaves, and there are too few paths off the planet for their youth not to fall into the trap.”

“Veschna? Slaves?” My translator was still working, because I could understand Khenja, but the words coming out of his mouth didn’t make sense.

Chentak, you are new out here,” Khenja shrugged. “They’ll explain it when they get here to pick you up. Or they won’t. I avoid them whenever I can, but from what I remember, they aren’t overly fond of explanations. Fair paths and calm winds to you.”

Chen–what? Why didn’t that word translate?

With that, Khenja brushed past me, trotting deeper into the swamp. I turned and noticed for the first time that the spaceship he’d arrived in was still hovering a few feet away. For a few seconds, I watched my rescuer lumber toward his ship, too stunned to move.

“But…can’t you just take me home?” The question came out more childlike than I meant it to.

Khenja paused and glanced at me over his shoulder. “Not a chance. I’m not here on a rescue mission, and you’ll slow me down.”

Then he turned and started walking again.

For a second, I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that I was on an alien planet having a conversation with a being I hadn’t known existed until a few minutes before. And I definitely forgot that Khenja had just saved me from slavery or worse.

One thought replaced the fear and the gratitude. The same thought whenever I crossed paths with a jerk–human or otherwise. I was a sucker for a kind voice, and once or twice I’d been charmed by dreamy eyes, but I couldn’t stand arrogance. 

How freaking dare he!

I let myself slide off the mound and back into the water–which came up almost to my chest–and half-walked half-swam after him.

“You can’t just leave me here!”

“Can and plan to,” he said without stopping. “That cruiser will be by to pick you up.”

“Where am I supposed to sleep until then?” I demanded. “I don’t have anything to eat!”

“This forest is full of game.”

“I don’t have a weapon!”

Khenja paused, pulled one of the high-tech looking guns from his belt and tossed it to me. It landed in the water with a thunk and splash.

My rescuer rubbed his temples. “Fish it out and let it dry. Then you’ll have a weapon.”

“That I don’t know how to use,” I panted. The prison diet the Veschna had fed me on the ship hadn’t given me enough calories for such intense activity. Anger and adrenaline were all that were keeping me going at that point. “Please!”

Khenja was standing beneath his ship. His green eyes looked toward me again as if he was considering me.

“Why should I?” he asked.

The question surprised me so much I stopped swimming. What answer could I give him that would convince him? What could I say that would talk him out of leaving me behind.

What do you wish you could have said to the Veschna?

“Because I… I’m someone.”

“Someone important?” he asked. “Among your people?”

It would have been easy to lie, but I shook my head. “No. Just someone. Nobody is looking for me. Nobody will miss me. But…I don’t want to die here.”

At first, he didn’t say anything. Then he reached down and pressed the cuffs on the Veschna’s wrists. The cuffs rose in the air, carrying the insectoid alien’s limp body as they floated into the ship.

“I’m leaving you at the first habitable station we find,” he said. “No matter what organization’s banner it flies.”

“Understood.” Relief washed over me for the first time in days.

For now.

 I didn’t know what he meant about organizations and banners, but he had agreed to take me with him. And that was enough.

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