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Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Three

Sasha

“You should stay inside with the others,” Coracle insisted, standing in front of Sasha to block her way.

“I don’t think so,” Sasha said, squatting down so as to be able to be eye-to-eye with the cat. Because that made as much sense as anything else in her life. “Look, I am grateful for everything you have done and are doing with Nettie. But let’s be clear. I’ve spent far too long taking orders. I’m done with that.”

The black-and-white tail thrashed. “It’s not an order. Think of it as a strong suggestion. For your own safety.” The golden eyes glared. “Besides, you don’t know what’s coming.”

“No,” Sasha said, standing again. “But I’m not going to go hide, just in case. Is it an enemy?”

Coracle sat upright, his tail wrapped tightly around his front paws. “No,” he admitted. “A stranger, a GeneTech from the Alliance.”

Sasha shrugged and walked past the cat toward the reception hall.

Vast and empty, it seemed to unsettle the others. She kind of liked it. No one could sneak up on you, not in there.

“I thought the Alliance was your team. Shouldn’t everybody be getting ready to make this new person feel welcome?”

Coracle reappeared in front of her. She stopped again, sighing. She really hated when he did that.

“Everyone here is on edge between the situation with Matilde and whatever was done to Merren,” Coracle snarled. “Anyone, even an ally, could upset whatever fragile equilibrium we’ve managed to obtain.”

Sasha shrugged and walked straight toward the cat, not slowing this time.

He flickered out before she stepped through him.

“None of that has anything to do with me. And I’m going out.”

The night still held a touch of coolness, the late spring sweetly perfuming the air.

Sasha stared up into the purpling twilight and swallowed hard.

She wasn’t afraid. Not at all.

She just didn’t want to meet this stranger, whoever it was. No matter why he was here.

That was all it was.

She headed across the open field that stretched around the castle the starmen called Ship, her boots silent on the newly green grass.

A light in the tree line caught her attention, and she called a flicker of flame to her hand.

The stranger?

The crackle sparked again, like blue lightning trapped beneath the budding trees.

No.

She knew who that was. Not a stranger.

Well, not exactly.

Despite herself, Sasha let her feet carry her closer.

“You didn’t feel like sticking around and saying hello to the company either?” she asked Merren.

Now that she was closer, she could see how the storm traced over his entire form, snapping and sizzling.

His face twisted into a snarl as he turned toward her. “I don’t think you’re stupid, so what are you doing here?”

This was much more interesting than being stuck inside.

She stepped closer still. “I’m just curious as to why everyone is nervous about this guy’s visit.”

The lightning storm around him grew in intensity, and his shape flickered, the tall dark-haired man flashing to a giant striped cat and back again in the space of a heartbeat.

“I’m not nervous,” he snarled. “I’m just tired of being the problem of the week.”

Sasha leaned back against one of the trees, trying to calm the heartbeat that raced in her ears.

In the months that she’d lived in the castle, she’d learned these starmen had their own kind of Gifts. Heightened senses were the least of them.  The last thing she wanted was for him to smell the fear on her.

“That stupid cat won’t give me any straight answers,” she said. “What is the actual problem with this visitor?”

Merren shook his head. “Of all the things I did not expect to happen around here while I was busy having whatever it was done to me, a talking cat wasn’t even on the list.”

“I know that he isn’t on anybody’s list, but you didn’t answer my question,” Sasha pressed. “Coracle said the guy was a GeneTech? What the hell is that?”

Merren snarled, rage pouring off him to such a degree that she could feel it change the air around her.

Interesting.

“You need to get back inside,” he ground out from between clenched teeth.

“It’s not safe for you to be so close to me when I’m like this.”

Sasha summoned the fire, let it wash over her.

“You’re not the only one with issues,” she snapped. “I think I can take you.”

He bent double, the change ripping through him over and over, until he fell to the forest floor, his hands gripping the soil.

“You might be the only one that is safe,” he muttered. “Everybody else’s too busy being careful around the dead man.”

She called the fire back into her skin and bent forward to offer him a hand up. “You’re crankier than I expected a dead man to be.”

For a long moment, he stared at her with dark eyes, his expression blank, then he doubled over again, this time laughing.

“I’ll rely on you to tell me when I’m being cranky.”

“I’ll make it easy on you,” she said as her defenses relaxed. “Are you awake? Then you’re cranky.”

A soft chime sounded in the air between them, then looking around, she realized that it came from the thin silver bangle at her wrist. It chimed again, and she looked up to see Merren staring at the broad cuff encasing his own forearm.

He tapped the cuff to answer, and she stepped closer.

“Ship says you’re nearby, both of you,” Nic’s rumble filled the night air. “If you’re done having your snit, get back here. Adena wants everyone in for dinner with GeneTech Sonoda.” The cuff fell silent, then his voice came back on. “And try not to be an asshole about it. She’s curious about this guy, and I won’t have it ruined for her.”

Merren’s shoulders sagged as he leaned back against the tree, staring up through the branches.

“Your boss is serious about a lot of things,” Sasha said. “But I’ve noticed he’s really, really serious about it when Adena’s got her heart set on something. Is that new?”

Merren pushed himself away from the tree and began walking back toward Ship. “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here when they got together.”

Sasha lengthened her stride to match his as they walked back.

“But was he such a hardass before? I thought that people in love got soft and squishy or something like that. At least that’s how it always was in the stories.”

Merren cocked his head in her direction but kept walking. “I don’t care what stories you grew up on. The chance that Commander Nic Vistuv is ever going soft is nil to nothing.” His eyes narrowed. “At least, if he does, I don’t want to be around to see it.”

One of the things that fascinated Sasha about living in the starmen’s castle was the insane variety of halls and corridors it contained.

No matter how massive the building looked from the outside, every time she stepped into the small room called the elevator, it seemed possible that it might open out into an entirely new place.

There were far more chambers and corridors than could possibly fit, yet they obviously did.

As she and Merren exited the elevator on the floor with the dining hall, she couldn’t help but notice Adena had not only decided on a welcome dinner for their new guest, but had redecorated the hall, as well.

The warm twinkling lights and screen of the open sky above had been replaced with a staid grayish green which faded to brown at the bottom.

Sasha looked around. Everyone seemed a bit subdued, on edge.

Everyone stood by their chairs, waiting for the latecomer.

“I saved you a seat by me,” Esme called out to her.

Without a word, Merren walked around the table to take the chair that had been left for him between Kennet and Gavin.

Sasha’s eyes ran around the table.

That was strange.

While they certainly had nothing like assigned seating at meals, usually the mated couples sat closer together.

But tonight, other than Adena standing by Nic’s side, all of the human women were clustered together at the far end of the table, away from the newcomer.

But before she had time to think about it, her gaze fell upon the unwanted guest.

He stood, leaning across the table to talk excitedly with Kennet, giving her a chance to study him closely.

Adena had told her and Nettie when they first arrived that the starmen were crafted, part of their bodies carefully shaped to look like humans.

Sasha glanced at Kennet.

Well, mostly like humans.

But the Alliance that had created the Enforcer Units was formed by people from all over the stars, of every shape and size imaginable.

Matilde’s mate, Tirus, had been different enough, with his black scaled skin and horns peeking through his wiry hair, not bothering to masquerade as human.

But this person, this GeneTech, was stranger yet.

Skin the pale blue of a hot summer sky, he was squat, puffy, with lavender folds and frills at his throat, and a pair of short fleshy antennae above either temple.

Three fingered hands gestured impatiently at Kennet as he spoke.

While Kennet’s face was its usual mask, it didn’t seem to be a pleasant conversation, judging from Adena’s growing consternation.

Adena placed her hand lightly on Nic’s forearm, and he looked down at her, his stern face softening.

Maybe he really did get all soft and squishy around her, Sasha realized.

Eww.

“Now that we’re all here, shall we begin?” Adena said mildly. And everyone took their seats, then began passing platters and bowls around.

Dinner went smoothly, despite the heavy atmosphere of the room.

Sasha couldn’t help but wonder how much of the starmen’s usual fare Rhela and Adena had transformed with their knowledge of local herbs.

The meal was good. It was always good. That was one benefit of having someone else do the cooking, even if that someone else was one of the magical machines that ran the castle.

Not that she really had much to compare things to.

Not after the slops and crusts she’d been fed for years in the cage.

She must’ve faded away, lost in her own thoughts, because when Nettie reached for her hand, she jumped.

As usual, Nettie was silent, but her single dark blue eye was filled with questions.

“I’m all right,” Sasha whispered, glad for the clatter of conversations all around them. “I promise.”

Nettie turned, and Sasha couldn’t help but notice how intently she stared at the newcomer.

She didn’t think it was because of the blue skin.

Sasha didn’t have Nettie’s Gift of foresight, but the room felt off, tense, like the air before a storm rolled in.

Maybe the stupid cat was right.

Thinking about Coracle, Sasha frowned.

“Where’s the cat?” she whispered to Nettie.

Usually Coracle managed to rearrange rooms, furniture, and people for his comfort and convenience, but now he was nowhere to be found.

The corner of Nettie’s mouth quirked up as her eyes flicked downwards.

Sasha leaned slightly to the left until she saw a glaring black and white furred bundle underneath Nettie’s chair.

She sat upright, fighting a grin.

It was probably terrible of her, but anything that unsettled the cat was kind of a win in her books.

As the soup was cleared away, she leaned toward Esme, who’d been watching the table with narrowed eyes.

“What do you think of him?”

Esme shook her head slightly. “I don’t know. I keep trying to get a read on him, but it’s too different, too strange.”

She didn’t sound happy about it.

Throughout the meal, it seemed that every time GeneTech Sonoda wasn’t speaking to Kennet, he was staring across the table at Merren. Sometimes even when he spoke to other people, his ice white eyes couldn’t help but stray.

But Merren didn’t seem to be equally excited.

He sat stonily between Kennet and Gavin, ate what was brought from the replicator with an almost mechanical motion.

He looked like a man who’d gone deep inside himself.

If Sasha didn’t know better, she would almost think he was scared.

Scared of this little blue man?

Nonsense.

In either form, Merren would mop the floor with him.

Then what was the problem?

A thin sliver of ice wrapped around her spine.

She didn’t know what was wrong, but somehow the introduction of this squat, excitable person was a threat.

And despite what she had said to Coracle in the entry hall, that had quite a bit to do with her.

This was her home now, these were her people.

She looked around the table and saw that everyone was tense behind their smiles.

Conversation quieted enough for her to catch the end of Sonoda’s sentence.

“And we’ll begin the treatment tonight.”

But she wasn’t watching him, she was watching Merren.

If she hadn’t been, she might’ve missed the spark of lightning in his eyes.

***

After dinner, the atmosphere had lightened somewhat. The men disappeared for their regular nightly rounds, while Rhela and Adena went up to the still room to tinker with another concoction.

Nettie wandered off with the disturbingly silent Coracle in her arms, and Esme was talking about the next trip she had planned.

“I’m going to get some more target practice in,” Sasha decided, surprising herself even as the words left her lips. “Want to come along?”

Zuri nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

They passed through the halls, down toward the terrace.

“Kennet’s not happy. None of them are,” Zuri added after long minutes. “He says that while Sonoda has requested the use of his lab, it wasn’t exactly asking. And Kennet can’t be around for the treatment.”

Sasha paused at the door to the terrace. “But shouldn’t Kennet know what’s going on? Who else around here does he think is going to understand any of this?”

“Exactly,” Zuri nodded. “But we need to remember that as far as the Alliance is concerned, our guys are just a bunch of soldiers. Following orders is what they do.” She grimaced, raised the small silver blaster to the target as it materialized. “What they were created to do.”

Zuri’s words echoed in Sasha’s ears hours later.

Hard to think that although the starmen were strange, powerful beings when it came to the technology-starved inhabitants of Crucible, to the rest of the Alliance, they were nothing more than soldiers.

Expendable.

Replaceable.

Weapons of war to be tinkered with, adjusted as needed.

The idea left a bitter taste in her mouth.

She stepped into the elevator and tapped the bracelet on her wrist.

“Take me someplace new, please,” she asked the empty air.

The delicate filigree decorating the door slid shut.

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

“I’ve told you before, stop calling me lady.”

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

She rolled her eyes, but there was no point arguing with Ship. The spirits that ran Ship were more polite than their more mobile avatar, Coracle, but just as stubborn.

She looked at the dimly lit wood-paneled corridor that appeared as the filigree opened.

Through the weeks since she had been brought here, she’d spent the nights exploring rather than sleeping.

Sleep had far too many dreams.

And here, where every corridor looked the same, she continually discovered new surprises.

Three nights ago, Ship had brought her to a vast warehouse filled with metal carts of all types. The airsleds she’d seen the warriors use and more, stretching out into the darkness, filled with more frightening, alien things.

She wondered what she would find here.

A strange humming sound echoed down the corridor, drawing her closer.

The whirr of machinery and soft beeps punctuated the drone.

And then a voice.

“Tell me what you remember,” it demanded angrily.

No answer came other than a low groan of pain.

“Tell me!”

“The fire…”

Sasha froze.

That was Merren.

She should stop, go back, go to her room, try to sleep, and explore somewhere else.

Whatever was wrong with him, whatever had been done to him when he was a prisoner, this was personal.

“Fine, we’ll just have to go deeper.”

That other voice must be Sonoda.

And while it was possible that all people of his species just sounded that way, to her it seemed like there was menace coiled within his words.

Maybe she was jumping to conclusions, but she didn’t think so.

A sharp zap cracked through the air and Merren gasped.

Slowly, Sasha moved closer.

Whatever this treatment was, she was sure she didn’t approve.

This didn’t sound like someone here to help Merren.

This sounded far too much like the cries of Braydon’s victims, tortured and tormented as he pried through their minds, digging to find out what made their Gifts work.

She was almost at the door when she stopped again.

How could she be sure that whatever was going on was wrong?

What if she was just overlaying her memories of the past, those years in the cages, onto something that was perfectly normal?

Another crack cut through the air.

Merren began to scream.

That was it.

Normal or not, this was going to stop.

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