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Freed by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Tadraa

Downing a shot of energy goop from one of the sub level station vendors, I pushed open the door to the Bounty Hunter Guild and strode inside. From the number of hunters wandering in and around the office, the official meeting had yet to start, but it was only a matter of time.

“Tadraa!” My friend, Yndon hailed me. As I walked up, he noticed my cup of energy goop. “Did you get that from the vendor on sub level three?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“And you didn’t get a cup for me?” Yndon looked mockingly hurt.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not getting you your morning energy goop. Don’t you have a human mate to do that sort of thing for you?”

“Eh, she left our quarters earlier than I did this morning on some human scavenger emergency so dire that they couldn’t live without her expertise…” He rolled his eyes, but there was an undertone of fondness that he didn’t bother to hide.

I ignored him, looking away. My own feelings were a mix of annoyance and vague jealousy. As a young Mtoain, I felt the need to take a mate. But until I completed my personal mission, that wasn’t going to happen.

One of the senior hunters hailed us from the conference room next door. The meeting was soon to start, and we obediently trooped in.

I let my mind wander as Landri and Khenja, his second in command, went through the usual morning business. Not much of it affected me directly. As one of the newest and youngest hunters, I didn’t have a full buy-in with the Guild, and unlike Yndon, I wasn’t interested in changing my status.

Finally, Landry and Khenja began to talk about assignments.

The most senior hunters — and Yndon — were of course given the choicest, most lucrative missions. I caught a few dark looks from the other younger hunters who were all itching to prove themselves. I didn’t care. None of the offered missions were what I was looking for.

Then, the least wanted assignments began to get handed out. Again, I let my mind wander. None of those fit my requirements, either.

Not until…

“This is mostly recon work,” Khenja said. “The hunter who takes this mission is required to seek out activity within the sector. Once confirmed, the hunter is to submit the evidence here so that the Federation can assign a bounty. The fee is nominal—”

I gestured for attention. Landry, who had been looking just as bored as I had been, nodded for me to ask my question.

“Which sector was this?” I asked.

Khenja checked over his file before he answered. “Omicron.”

“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation.

There were a few scoffs around the table. Khenja narrowed his eyes at me. “As I said,” he continued. “The fee is nominal — at the low end of this guild’s pay scale, even without your fees.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

One of the other senior hunters snorted. “Let the boy take it. It’s a good job to cut his teeth on.”

I had more than a few jobs under my belt already. There was no need to cut my teeth on anything. But at the same time, I wasn’t in the mood to argue.

Neither was Khenja, it seemed. “Okay Tadraa. It’s yours.”

Then he moved on to the next job.

Yndon leaned over to me. “Why are you taking something like that? That is a trash run. It won’t even pay your fuel costs.”

I flicked him a glance, but ignored him. My business was my own to deal with.

Getting the hint — and hearing Khenja describe a much better paying job — Yndon turned away.

Meanwhile, I scrolled through the information that Landri forwarded to my private account. All of the details of the so-called trash job.

It was perfect.

***

As a Guild member, I had access to their supply of ships to complete a job. Unfortunately, as a new member, not fully bought in yet, I had to pay a steep rental fee. The fuel costs and any damages incurred to the ship would also come out of my final pay.

It didn’t matter. I wasn’t doing this for the money.

I was just about to go over my preflight inspection when I heard the sound of footsteps from behind me. I turned to see Khenja, a personal tablet in his hand, and a frown on his face.

I glanced at Khenja, and when it became obvious the senior hunter wasn’t just passing by, I straightened. “Is there something I can do for you?” I asked, putting as much ice as I could in the words.

“Yes, you can tell me what on Mtoain you are thinking.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“I know you are not actually stupid,” Khenja said, “And you can do basic math, yes?”

I didn’t answer, simply narrowing my eyes at him. Whatever point Khenja was trying to make, he needed to make it quick.

Khenja turned his digital clipboard towards me. I could see that he had opened up a log of my most recent bounty jobs. Before I could focus on any one line, Khenja pulled it away.

“Between the rental and gear fees, you will end up owing the guild money after this job.”

Damn it. The gear fees. I knew the profits would be slim to none, but in my haste to get to the Omicron sector, I had neglected to take the gear fees into account.

Instead of answering, I simply crossed my arms. Khenja still had a point to make and I wasn’t going to help him along with it.

“So, I pulled up your records,” Khenja continued. “Some patterns became immediately clear.”

My jaw clenched and I stayed silent.

Khenja managed to stare me down for the space of ten heart beats before he sighed. “Why are you taking every bounty that goes anywhere near Omicron?”

And… there it was.

“What does it matter?” I asked, turning away. “They’re crap jobs. No one else wants to take them — you should be glad someone is picking up the slack.”

“That is not a good enough answer,” Khenja barked.

“How about this: Guild leader or not, this is none of your business.”

I turned away, but the other Mtoain put his hand on my shoulder and twisted me around again.

“As your guild leader, it is very much my business,” Khenja growled. I could tell that I had pissed him off. “If the next words out of your mouth are not a satisfactory explanation, I will take you off the job for your own financial good.”

My fists clenched and I had to resist the urge to punch my senior guild leader in the jaw. “You would not dare.”

It was his turn to stare at me.

I grimaced, feeling myself folding. “It isn’t… what you’re thinking.”

“Really? Because what I’m thinking is there is a very public, well-known slave auction house in that sector—”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t mind if Khenja thought I was an idiot for taking jobs that cost more than they were worth, but if he suspected I was a slaver… that was unbearable.

“I’m searching for my sister,” I admitted, and had to resist the urge to spit to the side. The reminder that I couldn’t take care of my own blood left a bitter taste in my mouth. “We left Mtoain together. We were separated soon after, and I’ve been trying to find her ever since.”

Immediately, Khenja’s posture changed. Became gentler. His eyes lost their hard, accusing look and was instead replaced by pity.

His sympathy felt as burning to my ego as the shame.

“That isn’t as uncommon of a story as you may think,” Khenja sighed. “It’s why it’s so dangerous for female nywosi to leave the planet.”

“You don’t need to remind me,” I growled. “I know that, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to find her.” I couldn’t resist throwing out the last barb. “Are you still determined to kick me off this mission? Give it to someone who has their own ship and who doesn’t care?”

Thankfully, the pity in Khenja’s eyes vanished, replaced with annoyance. “No, I will let you go.”

“Thank you—”

Khenja raised a hand in warning. “However, you must remember that there is no bounty attached to this job. As such, you do not have the law or the guild to shield you from your own actions.” His gaze met mine, once again hard and unflinching. “If you start something, you will be the criminal.” An unhappy smile twitched at his lips. “And then you may very well find yourself being hunted by me.”

“How ironic,” I replied, deadpan. “I will keep that in mind.”

“See that you do.” With a last nod, Khenja left me to finish rigging out my rental ship.

I grimaced and turned back. One thing was for certain: Khenja was correct that I operated at a loss. If I didn’t find my sister soon, I wouldn’t be able to afford to search for Tiyisi for much longer.

Avenged by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Two

Rene

A harsh knocking at my bulkhead door woke me from a dead sleep. Instincts, long honed from my years of being an abducted slave kicked in. I jerked, fists and feet lashing out at nothing… tumbling from my hammock bed straight onto the cold floor. Several holodisks, and my collection of music crashed and scattered around me.

“Ow.” I sat up, staring at my office/bedroom. Right. I was no longer on the slaver’s ship. I was back home on good old Station Four, in the area Phoenix Incorporated rented.

Another bang echoed through my bulkhead door.

“Rene!” Syd’s voice sounded muffled and annoyed through the door. “You dead in there?”

“Wishing I was,” I muttered, rubbing my head. I glared at the door. “What is it?”

“Meeting’s in ten minutes. Don’t you remember?”

Double ugh. “I know, I know!” I lied and got up to scavenge around for something not too dirty to throw on. It was just us ladies in Phoenix Inc, but Syd would not appreciate me coming to work in a t-shirt and panties.

Her evil deed accomplished, Syd backed away from the door. She was the type of person who thought if you weren’t five minutes early then you were late. I… was not.

It was amazing that we got along as well as we did.

Locating some clothes, I pulled them on and then took a moment to give a luxurious stretch.

Then I walked out to face the music.

Phoenix Incorporated had been an active scavenging operation for just about a year now. We were unique as all of us were human

And all of us were female in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Scavenging space wrecks was a hard business, and I, for one, enjoyed sticking it to people who thought I was not up for the challenge.

Unfortunately, it was an industry with a lot of ups and downs, and it seemed that Phoenix Incorporated was perpetually on the financial edge.

Which was why I hated these types of meetings.

Syd gave me an arch look as I walked to the main area we used as an ad hoc meeting hall.

“Long night?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Her expression relaxed a little bit into one of sympathy. All of us who had been abducted from Earth knew that feeling. “Want to talk about it?”

I snorted my answer. Really, she should know better by now.

“I just thought I would ask,” she said, tapping her hollow tablet against the desk in a way I imagine she used to do with a big stack of papers on Earth. Some habits die hard. “So, our first order of business…”

I had not yet set at the table, and I raised a hand to stop her. “Coffee, first. Business, after.”

Syd gave me a look. “One, it’s not called ‘coffee’ out here.”

“Hot brown energy goop first,” I corrected. “Business after.”

“Two, you would have had time to wake up if you actually bothered to set an alarm.”

“Why should I bother to do that when I know you’ll wake me up in time? It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy. Really, you have only yourself to blame.” I quickly poured a few glugs worth of the finest space station energy sludge and tossed it back. It tasted hideous, but it wasn’t as bad as the stuff one of the vendors sold down on the third level, though. I would live.

Other than taste, another difference from good old Earth coffee was that the benefits kicked in almost immediately. By the time I sat down at the table, my mind had kicked back into gear. I smiled suddenly and said, “Okay, I’m all yours. What’s the damage today?”

It turned out, there was a lot of damage. We weren’t behind on rent at the station, but that was only because we prioritized this little living space before everything else… Including food. But our supplies were running low. We soon wouldn’t have enough to feed ourselves and our crew if we did not come by a decent score, and fast.

“What we need,” Syd said, “is something low risk and low labor but high reward.”

“So, basically we need the perfect job,” I said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Syd smirked at me and turned the tablet function to a holo-display. A recent scan popped up between us, showing a floating hulk among the stars. “On the contrary, this space yacht has been parked for cycles. It’s dead in the water. No movement, no power fluctuations. I think whoever was on it had a coronary or whatever the alien equivalent is, and for some reason, the autopilot never kicked in to re-dock it.”

The lines of that ship looked eerily familiar.

A tingle of apprehension crawled up my spine, and for some reason, I had an impression of the dream that I had been trapped in before Syd woke me up. My mouth went dry. “What’s the serial number of the vessel?”

Frowning, Syd brought it up. Immediately, my suspicions were confirmed.

“I know that vessel,” I said flatly.

“You do?”

I nodded. The apprehension had gone to my stomach where it burned low and hot. An old anger that I would never be fully rid of. “That ship belongs to the low-level gangster who enslaved me.”

Syd’s eyes widened, but then they narrowed again. “Are you sure?”

I locked eyes with her. “Trust me, I know that ship inside and out, and I want the pleasure of scavenging it.”

Avenged by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Yndon

It was too early in the morning for politics.

With a slug of energy goop in hand, I hooked an ankle around the stem of a chair, pulled it around, and flopped down in it. I downed the goop in one long pull. Ugh. I knew that the vendor cart I’d picked it up from looked suspicious, but he’d promised the drink would be strong.

He didn’t mention anything about it being so thick, it was chewy.

Pulling a face at my own bad decision making, I glanced across the table to see my fellow Mtoain bounty hunter, Maza, watching me with a smirk on his face.

“You got that from Lower Deck Three, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He’d given me the lecture several times already on buying from unlicensed vendors. But Space Station Four was out at the edge of what most considered civilized space. That meant unless you wanted to pay credits out the nose, you didn’t get choosy.

Maza opened his mouth and I cut him off, not in the mood for a lecture. Yes, I was one of the youngest Mtoain bounty hunters but I could wipe my own ass without help, thanks.

“Do you know what this meeting is about?”

Maza’s face fell. “Not a clue.”

I glanced around the room, cataloging who was here, who was gossiping, and who was listening. “Bet Khenja’s new mate is pregnant, and he wants to crow about it to us single Mtoain.”

Maza smirked back, but before he could reply a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.

“Why? Jealous?”

I glanced up to see one of the senior hunters. Paktal, I think his name was. He shrugged off his shoulder. “Of what? If I wanted a mate, I wouldn’t be out here in the middle of space.”

Even a mate as… enticing as Deanna.

I was very careful to keep that thought clear from my face. No one with sense lusted over the boss’s mate, and some instinct deep down told me that Deanna and I would never make a good match. Still… There was a reason why human women were regularly captured and enslaved from their backwater home world.

The door to the meeting hall opened, admitting the last few stragglers as well as Landri, Khenja and his mate.

Instantly, I blanked my expression from jeering to professional and arrogant. Across the table, Maza looked Deanna over, up and down. No tell-tell sign of pregnancy, but who knew how it worked with humans? I was a bounty hunter, not a doctor.

There was some good-natured grumbling as the other Mtoain bounty hunters picked their seats and sat. Above, the environmental control vents hissed as it recognized a full room of adult males (and one scrumptious female) and adjusted its air scrubbers accordingly.

Landri waited at the head of the table until most of the conversations died down. “Thanks for coming in, everyone. I know this time of the morning was suboptimal for many of you.” He casted an amused eye to the low ranked dead end of the table, where I and the other new hunters sat.

“What’s going on, boss?” one asked.

“Suck up,” I muttered under my breath to the low growling chortle of Maza.

Landri cast me a swift glance my way as if he’d heard the comment but could not identify the speaker. Then reaching over, he gestured Khenja forward so that they stood at the head of the table as a unified team. Deanna looked on proudly.

My inner eyebrows rose.

“Khenja and I are going to use the proceeds of his most recent bounty to file the paperwork to form a guild,” Landri said.

There was a moment of brief stunned silence — I was not the only one who was taken off guard — before a ragged cheer went up from the rest of the group. I joined in, enthusiastically.

This was very good news. I was new to bounty hunting, but already knew I’d hit a jackpot with this outfit. There were definite advantages, economical and prestige wise—to be a part of a guild. And to get on the ground floor of one as it was starting… well. Those were once-in-a-lifetime events.

Landri held up his hand to quiet us down.

“Naturally, the hunters who have been with us the longest will get the full stake.” Another cheer, this time with some back-slapping.

My end of the table was notably silent. I myself felt my hopes plummet and frustration take its place. I should have known better than to entertain a brief flash of hope. New guys always got shorted. It had been that way on Mtoain, too, which was why I fled for space the moment I qualified for a Deh-Ria ritual. A sour taste invaded my mouth.

I opened my mouth and spoke without thinking about it. Bad habit. “What about the rest of us?”

A couple of harsh laughs from the more senior Mtoains answered that question. My expression darkened.

I also didn’t appreciate the soft look of sympathy Deanna sent my way. As a human woman, she no doubt knew what it was like to be at the bottom and what it took to earn your way up.

Landri flashed a tight smile. “You younger hunters have not been forgotten. You will have the option to give up a percentage of your credit taken to earn guild support.”

“So we have to buy our way in.” My voice was just short of a snarl. Maza and a couple of others muttered their own agreement.

Landri extended a hand to gesture around the room. “We have all bought our way to our current standing, in one form or another. The elder hunters have purchased their places through their loyalty and dedication. You don’t get to jump to the head of the line just because it seems unfair.”

Some of the more senior hunters looked proud at his words. I tried and failed not to glower.

“If you still object to the pay scale,” Khenja added, “You can choose to stay out of the collective.”

I snorted. What, and start fresh at a new outfit at the very bottom in seniority? That was not going to happen.

Khenja’s words caused a ripple of laughter from the more senior Mtoains. I had to raise my voice to be overheard.

“What would it take to buy my own stake?” I shot a glare to the upper part of the table. “An equal stake?”

Landri and Khenja exchanged a look. Khenja nodded as if in agreement and Landri turned to me. He crossed his arms, radiating ‘smug’ from every pore. “We’re a small guild seeing as we’re just getting started, so an equal stake won’t be worth much.” He paused, holding the moment. “Ten million credits.”

I choked. That was twice the amount of the last bounty that I had brought in.

But I had my goal set now. What was the point of fighting and scraping only to rent the privilege of guild security? I had no doubt that under Landri and Khenja’s leadership, the guild would thrive. If I played it safe and waited for seniority, the buy-in amount could be twice that or more by the time I had years under my belt.

I stood, acknowledging Lendri with a head bob that stopped just short of formal. “Only ten million credits? That’s reasonable.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

Lendri turned in mute dismissal and I sat down. I could feel Maza eyeing me speculatively, but I didn’t turn his way. My mind was filled with ideas—something high risk, high reward was needed.

Because I swore I would do whatever it took to gather those credits, even if I died trying.

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Three

What was he doing? Kennet railed at himself. He had projects enough already.

And whatever this woman thought, he was certain that the Garrison hadn’t been so sloppy as to have brought this… creature with them. He scowled slightly. The very thought was insulting, and given Ship’s method of travel, technically impossible.

Well, nearly so.  

He’d check again. 

He always checked.

Guiding the woman into one of the smaller conference rooms, he stopped short.

“There is not a suitable place inside for your horse,” he explained. “However, there is a stable outside. Would that be acceptable?”

The human woman looked around, blinking, as if all the fire had burned out of her.

He didn’t like it.

And he didn’t know what to do, which he liked even less.

“Here.” He pulled out a chair for her, and put the box holding the pieces of the flying creature down on the far end of the table. 

At the replicator panel set into the wall, he programmed up Adena’s favorite drink.  In moments he had a warm mug pressed into the woman’s hands. “Drink this, and I’ll be right back.”

Grabbing the dangling reins, he led the horse off towards the stables. At least, he tried to.

The massive beast refused to budge, just lowered its head and rolled its eyes.

The woman looked up from the mug. “Go ahead and go with him, Goliath. I’ll be fine.”

Goliath chuffed. Clearly, he wasn’t so sure about that, but was willing to humor his mistress.

Kennet didn’t care, as long as the animal moved.

Quickly he led it along the shortest path to the stables that had been built in the first days after the Garrison had arrived on Crucible.

The air sleds were quiet, fast and efficient. but Nic insisted on using local beasts whenever they could, in order to disturb the local population as little as possible. 

A boy from Grasmere came up daily to care for the animals, and Kennet was pleased to find an empty stall and the grain boxes full in the warm building.

The animal settled, he hurried back to the woman, slowing his steps as he came closer to the door. She would be fine. Nothing here would harm her. But that didn’t explain his sense of urgency.

“Shall we start again?” He sat across from the table, watching her.

Her cheeks had more color now.

That was just an observation. It certainly didn’t mean that he had been concerned.

“My name is Kennet. I am the analyst of our group, so it is good that you have brought the specimen to me.”

She looked at him over the rim of the mug and put it down slowly. “I’m Zuri Sturmveld. I’m from the village of Solibek, in the northern mountains.” She tweaked an eyebrow up. “Pleased to meet you, and sorry the flyer tried to eat your face.”

Kennet lips twitched. “If I had allowed it to do so, the fault would have been my own.”

She shook her head, wide eyes fixed on his. “The rumors said the soldiers from the stars were fast, but I didn’t even see you draw a weapon.”

Ah. A topic for another time. Or never. 

That was also an acceptable time.

Kennet could still feel the slightly sticky goo from the creature’s innards on his claws. It was unpleasant, but certainly not the worst thing he’d sliced open.

“Northern mountains,” he muttered, flicking open a globe showing his updated maps of Crucible, repositioning and zooming in until it showed the area to the north of Ship. “Somewhere over here?” He tapped the range close to where Adena’s aunt Vania lived, in the foothills bordering the Haleru’s territory.

“No…” Zuri’s wide eyes were fixed on the map. “We’re more to the east, over here.” She reached for the hologram, pulling the focus to the side, and further north. “Halfway up the mountain, there’s a little valley.”

“Let me,” Kennet started to take control of the map from her, then lowered his hand at her glare.

“Why don’t you show me how instead?” 

That was reasonable.

Not entirely efficient, but he didn’t mind. Much.

“Move your hands like this,” he lay his fingers over hers. “Slowly now.”

The view changed, bit by bit, until with a slip the globe spun wildly before them.

Zuri covered her face with her hands, laughing. “Not what I meant to do, but fun anyway. Alright, you steer, and I’ll tell you where to go.”

Soon enough the image focused on a small valley near the top of the peaks that lay at the northwestern-most point of the range that curved down, cutting off the grasslands from the river and forest that lead to Raccelton, and down to the coast.

“The lake is fed from the waters that come down from Mount Urhom. The water is clean, if a little cold,” Zuri explained, running the tip of her finger down the wavering blue line that trailed down the mountain’s western slope. “It collects in the lake here, and then continues down to the lowlands.”

Kennet nodded, thinking. The lake looked as if it covered the valley floor. With a flick of his fingers, he lay his most recent satellite imagery over the map.  “These houses further back into the valley. That’s your village?”

She nodded, reaching for her home, before pulling her hand away sharply. “So clear,” she wondered, then sat back, studying him sharply. “Did you know I was coming? Why do you have an image of my home?”

Kennet spun the map into a globe again, more slowly this time.  “Having a complete survey of Crucible in its entirety is useful for our work here. That your home was mapped in the process is purely incidental to the project.”

Her lips quirked up. “So you’re saying we’re not that important?” 

“I’m saying that it is impossible for us to know what is important, and what is not, before the information is needed. Therefore I collect it all.” Somehow it felt as if this conversation was slipping out of his control. Surely his surveying methods were not the point. “Tell me when these creatures first began to bother your village,” Kennet asked.

“Almost a year ago,” Zuri’s voice drifted into silence and he winced. This was going to be another one of those disjointed, fragmented tales, wasn’t it? Maybe it would be better to talk about satellite imagery after all.

Then her fingers tightened on her mug, and her chin went up. “Almost exactly one year ago, I noticed that the flock was agitated when they came into the pens at night. She pointed to a section on the map.  “It happened just as we shifted from the winter grazing here, here on the higher side of the lake.”

Kennet pulled the map tighter into the area. Nothing looked out of place, but perhaps he didn’t know what he should be looking for yet.

“Depending on the snowfall, the water level of the lake is unpredictable. That is why our village is further up the slopes, and we’ve got two good wells.  The chatha are smart enough to work their way down to the lake for water they want during the day while they’re grazing, and come into the pens at night.” 

She took another long sip from her mug, eyes fixed on the lake. “Not long after we moved, the flock started coming back agitated, almost hysterical.”

“How exactly do you know when an animal is hysterical?” Kennet asked, curious.

“Spend your life working with them, you’ll know.” Another long sip. “We couldn’t figure it out. And then we noticed that the wool around their shoulders was tangled and torn, as if it had caught on brambles and been pulled halfway out. But nothing like that grew in the area.”

“What about local predators?” Kennet drummed his fingers on the table. This sounded far too much like the troubles Vania’s village had with the Haleru. Except there hadn’t been any maiming of the herd animals there. Just disappearances. 

She shook her head. “One of the reasons our family settled in the valley in the beginning is the lack of large animals. Sometimes we’ll get an aphin coming through, but they’d have eaten the chatha, not just scared them. Even the beastmen don’t come this far north.”

Well. Good to know the Haleru weren’t a surprise to everyone.

“After a few days of wondering what was going on, I went out with the flock, and noticed that they were avoiding the lake.” She pointed to the river that cascaded down the mountains. “They were going all the way up there to get water. It’s rocky on the shores there. No reason for them to go to the trouble.” She pushed the empty mug away. “Then we got busy with lambing season, and I didn’t think too much about it. Until the lambs started going missing.”

“Did you see what was taking them?”

“Those things.” She jabbed a finger at the box that held the pieces of the creature. “Came leaping out of the water, dragged the lambs under.  By the time I got to the water, it was long gone.”

“The lambs were bad enough, but there’s more of those things now. They’ve been breeding all through the summer, and their range is getting farther. It used to be safe enough for the children as long as they avoided the lake shore. Now it seems like they’ve reached the village itself. Going outside now you’re as likely to get a face full of flyer as snow.” Her shoulders slumped. “People are talking about leaving the valley, trying to start over somewhere else.”

“If the lake has been infested, and you have no way to combat the spread, then it would seem to be the logical solution,” Kennet offered.

“No.” She snapped. “The logical solution would be for you people to do something about it. That thing isn’t from here. We’ve never seen such a thing before your castle arrived. You came from another world, right? No one on this world has ever seen anything like that. So it’s your problem. Fix it.”

“We did not cause this,” Kennet started, then caught himself staring at the lines of exhaustion and worry around the woman’s eyes.

Did it really matter? 

Something had happened. Possibly a native creature the colonists knew nothing about had changed its migration pattern. Or perhaps it was a life form with a long dormancy cycle, just now reawakening. That might explain why there were no large predators in the valley, when the human colonists had arrived.

It might be something interesting.

Kennet’s mind ran over the experiments he’d already started in the lab, each waiting for his attention.

But Nic’s parting words still nettled him. Just a bit.

“I will be happy to investigate this. Even if this is simply an unknown organism of this world it will be a valuable bit of information.”

Then he thought of Nettie sitting alone in the garden, staring into the sky.

“However, I’m afraid I cannot go with you at this moment,” he finished. “Perhaps with the others have returned–”

“You’re an idiot, aren’t you?” Coracle said as he materialized on the table between them.

Zuri pushed her chair back quickly, scrambling to her feet.

Kennet’s back stiffened. “That is distinctly and provably untrue.”

Zuri watched the two of them warily.

“Please allow me to introduce another resident of Ship. This is Coracle.”

Coracle leapt gently off the table, twined between her legs and sniffed Zuri’s boots. “Why wouldn’t you go?”

“You know perfectly well,” Kennet growled. “Our guest needs protection.”

Zuri examined Coracle with narrowed eyes. “You’re not a cat,” she said flatly. “I don’t know what you are.” She tilted her head. “Are you real?”

Kenneth blinked quickly. 

While Coracle’s  appearance and disappearances were always disturbing, no one had ever so quickly commented on the question of his physical existence.

“Real enough to take care of visitors to my realm,” Coracle said, turning his back on Zuri with the swish of his tail. “Leave our guest to me,” the-not-quite-cat announced as he walked towards the conference room door. “You can handle this rude human.” 

Coracle walked through the wall without another word.

“Well then,” Kennet said, still surprised. “I’ll need a few minutes to attend to some things, and then we can be off. Shall we take a look at the air sleds?”

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Two

Zuri pushed her nerves back into a box, slammed the lid and threw away the key.

Just entering the castle had been terrifying. Approaching it from the small town of Grasmere, it stood alone in a wide field. She’d begun to circle it, looking for any signs of life, before finding a wide open door.

As if whoever lived here had no reason to fear anything.

Now that she was inside, this immense room was more terrifying. She was sure it shouldn’t even fit inside the castle, as large as it had seemed.

But if she wanted Goliath to stay calm, she needed to do the same.

She studied the strange man in front of her again, his pale skin cast into sharp relief by the simple grey vest and black pants he wore.

Ha. Maybe he didn’t know it was winter outside.

At the moment, the horse wasn’t scared of this room, with its spiraling, unsettling endless space. 

So she wouldn’t be scared either.

The man who studied her was another matter though.

Tall and thin, his skin wasn’t just pale, it was grey, unlike anything she’d ever seen on a person. And the bright blue eyes and jagged charcoal stripes that marked his face and arms made it clear.

This wasn’t actually a person.

This was one of the starmen.

“I’m not certain what you believe I have done,” he said calmly. “But it seems unlikely.”

And the anger that had kept her warm during the long trip down from the mountains flared again at his words.

“This!” she turned away from him, his calm, dismissive words doing nothing to calm her.

“May I assist you with that?”

She jumped. 

He’d been all the way over there, almost across the room from her. And now he was right next to her, peering down where her fingers fumbled at the fastenings of the saddlebag she’d so carefully lined.

“No,” she muttered, edging away slightly. 

There. The first layer was unwrapped.

A thick layer of wool wrapped tightly around a large box, waxed and watertight. She hoped.

She tugged at it, wiggling to get it loose from its surroundings, but she’d filled it after placing it into the saddlebag.

Now it was unbelievably heavy.

“Please, miss. Allow me.”

And then without even waiting for her to move, he reached around her, pulling the container free.

“Hey, watch it!” she exclaimed. “I would have had it in just a minute.”

“I am afraid that I do not have an unlimited amount of time to spend with you,” the tall man answered absently as he set the box onto the floor, bending over it. “I have other duties to see to.”

Well, if that was the case…

“Be my guest,” she said, stepping away, just a bit, wrapping her fingers in Goliath’s reins.

Her horse had seen plenty of the damn things, but didn’t like them.

Neither did she.

Would the grumpy ass starman, who was even now lifting the lid?

Probably not.

The instant the lid to the box was opened the flyer splashed in agitation. 

“This water smells as if there has been–” 

That was as far as he got before the flyer launched from the box, straight for the man’s face, gray, fleshy triangular wings extended fully.

Hell. 

“Duck!” Zuri yelled, reaching to knock the flyer from its path.

But she moved too slowly

Before she quite realized what had happened, the flyer lay in three neat pieces, scattered around the box.

And the man kneeling before her looked more than grumpy now.

Double hell.

He slowly straightened, eyes narrowed as he studied her.

“For the moment, I will assume that you did not come here with the intention of attacking me,” he growled.

Zuri swallowed hard. “No. I just want you to fix what you did.”

Eyebrows raised, he looked at the pieces of the flyer at his feet. “I suppose it might be an interesting exercise to reconstruct it. However, I have other experiments planned for the day.”

“What?” Zuri was back to angry now. 

Angry was more comfortable than scared. 

“I don’t want you to fix it, I want you to get rid of them. They’re all over the lake and they’re killing our chatha! You brought them,” she pointed to the shriveled pieces of the thing on the floor. “You need to take them back to wherever they came from.”

The man didn’t even bother to look. “No.”

“What?” Goliath stamped his hooves, agitated by her tone now. “What do you mean no?”

“We did not bring them. We are not here to interfere with the natural order of your world.”

That did it.

She pulled back her lips into a snarl, stomping up to the starman. “They came when you people did. We’ve lived by the lake ever since the first colonists arrived. We’ve raised chatha there, raised our children there. And there has never, ever been a problem until you came!”

His eyes were flat, face serene.

Uninterested.

Zuri’s fingers curled into a fist, wanting to punch something. But she remembered how quickly the flyer had turned into limp strips of flesh, and instead crossed her arms in front of her chest, as if to hold the trembling rage inside.

But then he surprised her.

“I am not familiar with this creature. We did not bring it to your world.”

Indignation washed over her, then he raised a hand. “However, if your statement is correct, then I do not believe it is native to this planet. Therefore, it is a mystery.”

He tossed the pieces back into the box with a splash, closed the lid and stood. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Then he turned and walked away, leaving Zuri and Goliath standing in the middle of the echoing, empty room.

He was leaving.

He wasn’t going to help them.

No.

Leaping up to Goliath’s back, Zuri charged across the room after the jerk.

Swinging around to cut him off, she blocked the exit with the horse’s broad body. 

“Wait!” she snapped, then exhaustion took over. Too many hours of worry, of travel. 

She slid back down to stand on the floor, leaning heavily on Goliath for strength.

“It’s not just a mystery, some abstract problem. Those things are killing our livestock, and there’s worry that the children will be next.” Staring into his dark eyes, she stumbled, just a bit, and effortlessly he caught her, his hand sliding under her elbow, keeping her upright.

“Please,” she murmured.

His face didn’t soften, his uncannily bright eyes still expressionless.

“Perhaps we should talk more,” he answered, with a slight inclination of his head. “Please follow me.”

And his hand at her elbow still holding her up, Zuri went with him, deeper into the castle.

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter One

Kennet studied the results of his latest round of tests.

There. That might be useful.

“I don’t know how long the hearings will take,” Nic said. “So you might be holding the fort for a while.”

“That is acceptable.” Kennet answered, diving deeper into the readings. It would be better to work on this in his own quarters, but Nic had called him into the Ready Room.

Things had been quiet lately.

Well, perhaps quiet wasn’t the precise word.

In the month since the secret laboratory had been exposed underneath the oldest part of Raccelton, the colony on Crucible had nearly been torn apart.

The news that a group of Elite had been kidnapping women and children, running experiments on them in an effort to understand how the psionic Gifts worked, had understandably shaken the rest of the colony’s faith in their leadership.

Civil war hadn’t broken out.

But tensions were high, and the frightened Council had applied for admittance to the Rakian Alliance.

And now that they had the upper hand, the Alliance wasn’t going to let the renegade colony in without serious concessions.

“Sasha is coming with us to testify, but Nettie,” Adena’s voice drifted into silence as she looked over at another screen.

Esme and Nettie sat in the garden, Gavin hovering in the background.

“I don’t think she’s ready to leave yet.”

“There’s no reason she’d need to,” Nic said. “Once the shields are up, nothing could break into Ship. Certainly nothing on this planet, and damn near nothing off it.”

Adena still looked worried, and Kennet attempted to explain. “When the shields are up, we are partially occupying these coordinates, and partially not.” 

Neither Adena or Rhela seemed convinced, so he tried again. “For instance,  when we traveled here. We folded space from our previous location and homed in on the beacon the child from your village placed in the meadow.”

Rhela nodded slowly. “Folded space. Like fabric.”

Good. Progress.

“If Ship were to be under attack, the most logical defense is to simply not be here.”

Adena narrowed her eyes. “Sometimes I think you’re trying to be confusing.”

“Not at all,” Kennet said. “It’s simply how it works.”

“Either way,” Jormoi said, pushing up from the table. “The only person that she’s spoken to is Coracle. And now that we know what Coracle is, I suspect our guest will be the best protected person on the planet.”

A small feeling of annoyance ran through Kennet.

“Even without substantial defenses of Ship, I would be a formidable protector.”

“But you’d rather be in your lab,” Nic said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Give me a hand, Jormoi. If we’re going to be gone for a while, I have a sneaking suspicion our mates are going to want to pack half of the still room.”

“Not half,” Adena mumbled as she walked through the door her mate held open for her. “Well, maybe almost half.”

Jormoi and Rhela followed and Kennet stayed in the ready room, his mind quickly emptying of trivialities.

There were, it was true, several experiments he would like to dedicate more time to.

And he’d almost perfected a new method of stabilizing communications through the acetanium fields.

It wasn’t that he disliked his brothers’ mates.

They were strong, capable women, who added to the strength of the team.

But there was no denying that Ship had become a little noisier.

Yes, this would be a welcome break.

***

In three days, life on board Ship had fallen into a pleasant routine.

Every morning and evening Kennet spoke briefly with Nic about the affairs at the capitol.

“All these humans do nothing but shout at each other,” Nic had grumbled. “They’re going to need to get their act together before the Alliance representative arrives if they expect to be dealt with seriously.”

“Perhaps you should shout louder,” Kennet had advised, absently.

Three times a day he checked on the recovery of Nettie.

She no longer turned away from him, but neither did she speak.

That was fine.

He’d watched what food she picked from the trays he left in the garden, and made sure that her needs were met.

Besides that, the biggest gift he could give her was time.

“Load the results of experiment 336 on tertiary screen,” Kennet commanded. “Overlay with 278.”

Interesting.

The graph lines were almost identical in their movements. He reached for another window.

“Someone is approaching the entry hall.”

Kennet blinked for a moment, mind still wrapped in the delicate dance of figures before him.

He sighed.

“Save everything to date,” he commanded as the screens vanished from the air. “Display visitor.”

The tall figure, wrapped tightly in a hooded cloak against the winter chill, stroked the shoulder of a massive black horse, then looked around as if waiting for someone to appear.

“I suppose I should greet him. Her. It,” he muttered.

The visitor wasn’t Matilde, Declan, or any of the small group of people who he’d bothered to learn their names.

It wasn’t that it was difficult, it just seemed like a waste of effort.

Nor was this any of the other townspeople he’d met, automatically filing their physical profiles into memory.

His lip curled in irritation as he strode down the corridor, nearing the entry hall.

Which meant this would take more time than he’d like.

New humans would be reduced to staring incoherence by the vast, deliberately disturbing emptiness.

It did discourage most visitors, but was inexcusably inefficient.

You needed to spend minutes coaxing information out of the messenger, instead of dealing with them quickly and sending them on the way.

The doors slid open, and he stopped.

A figure stood inside the hall, and with the hood pushed back he could tell it was a woman, dark auburn hair twisted back away from her face, eyes calmly scanning across the room.

That was surprising.

But even more so…

“What is that creature doing in here?” he said, pointing at the dark horse who stood calmly at the woman’s side.

“You might not have noticed in your fancy castle, but it’s snowing outside,” the woman snapped. “I’m not leaving him out there.”

She narrowed her eyes, studying him and for a moment Kennet felt a twinge of something in his chest as her gaze met his.

Curious.

But any urge to explore the feeling further vanished with her next words.

“My village has a problem, and I think you’re to blame.”

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Five

 Gavin

“You don’t have to stay.”

The flattened tone of Esme’s voice made Gavin want to bundle her back in the air sled, take her back to Ship with the others despite her protests.

But he wouldn’t.

“I can’t believe you got rid of Adena so easily,” he answered instead. “She’s not usually so easy going about the health of one of her patients.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “But you’re not going to get rid of me.”

The faintest hint of a smile lifted the corners of her lips. “I appreciate it,” she said. “Even if I don’t know what you can do to help.”

He didn’t either.

There was nothing he could do but wait, and watch, as she walked down the long row of the dead, calling their names.

Around each shrouded form she paced, singing in a low haunting voice.

All the way down the line, all the way back.

And when she finally stumbled, he caught her in his arms.

“They’re your family, your clan, right?” he asked gruffly.

She nodded, eyes shining in the dark with tears she still hadn’t shed.

“Then they’ll know you need to rest.”

She stiffened in his arms, then he felt her body slump with resignation. “You’re right,” she admitted. “Just, if I keep thinking about the next step and the next, then I’m not worrying about the children and Aunt Layla. Not worrying how we’ll get them back. What I can even do with them if we do get them back.” Her voice dropped to a horse whisper. “They must be so scared.”

He led her back a few short steps to where he’d spread blankets on the ground, built a low burning fire, hoping that its friendly warmth would give her some comfort.

“We’ll find them, but you need to be in good shape to help them when we do,” he nudged another one of the field rations at her. “Trust us. My brothers and I, we’re good at what we do.”

She picked up the bar, but instead of opening it, turned it over and over again in her hands.

“Speaking of the things you do,” she said, “What exactly happened when your friend turned into a cat? That’s not like any Gift I’ve ever seen.”

“My brother,” he answered automatically.

Not that the definition of family was the point of the question.

Or maybe it was.

He leaned back on his arms, eyes fixed on the cold stars above.

“The Alliance has been at war with the Empire for generations,’’ he said, searching the sky. Easier than watching her reaction. “Both sides are willing to do almost anything to win. Along the way, they made us. Made others like us. And they made us into weapons.” He took a long, slow breath, let it out. “That’s really all there is to it.”

“It seems a little more complicated than that to me,” she said, her hand resting on top of his, the light touch sending a spark through his blood. “You’re not just a weapon.”

“I know what I am,’’ he said.

The silence stretched between them, the only sound the crackling of the fire.

She leaned back next to him, resting on her elbows. “They say that somewhere out there was our home, once upon a time. The oldest story.”  Her shoulder was close enough he could feel the heat of her body.

“Usually when a clan member dies, we sing them home. And I’ve always wondered which? Here where we’ve traveled and loved the land for so long, meeting new friends along the way? Or back there, the place we all came from, lost in the stars?” A soft laugh. “It seems impossible. How would they even know the way back to that old, lonely world?”

Gavin could answer that at least. He searched the sky, checking against his memories of the updated star maps since his Enforcer Unit had arrived on Crucible.

“It’s one of my favorite things about what we do,” he said. “Every place we go, the sky is different. The same stars, but you’re looking at it from a different angle. The ancients called them constellations, imaginary pictures they drew in the sky.” He could draw his own constellations here.

An air sled, over there, maybe.

Maybe that cluster was a flower. Maybe a horse.

“But on a different world, everything is out of alignment. You’re forced to take a new perspective, a new pattern every time you move to a new place.”

He pointed towards a faint nebula, a cluster of three stars to the right. “But I think the world your generation ship left from is that way.”

“New worlds,” she said, leaning a little closer as she followed his pointing finger into the black.  “I can’t imagine exploring everything there is to see on this one in my lifetime, much less having time to see another.”

Gavin snorted. “We’re not exactly seeing the sights. Like I said. We’re just weapons.”

Esme sat up, staring into the fire, and the loss of her nearness struck him like a physical blow.

This was ridiculous, he thought, then was startled by her low laugh.

“You have a gift, a skill like Rhela and Adena, I think,” he started cautiously. “You read minds? How does that work?”

She shook her head and the low flickering light of the fire cast shadows across her face.

“Thank the Lady, no,” she said. “With most people, I can occasionally pick up on strong emotions, and the rest is just watching body language.” She shot him a sidelong look, then stared back into the fire. “Sometimes I get glimpses of the future in dreams. But I never know the truth from a dream until it’s too late. It’s not so much a gift as something I live with.”

Esme pushed herself back up to her feet, swaying with exhaustion.

“What are you doing?” he asked, watching her intently.

“Normally the clan would take turns, staying up with the one who’s passed, and then bury them the next day,” she said, straightening her back, eyes bleak. “But now, there’s only me.”

He followed her to the row of bodies, standing at her side.

“Are they particular about bloodlines in your clan?” he asked.

She looked at him questioningly. “Good thing for me they’re not, no. Why?”

“Then swear me in, do whatever you need to do, and let me take my turn.” He smiled. “Have pity on me. Adena will have my hide if you don’t get some rest.”

Her lips pursed. “They’re not your people. This isn’t necessary.”

“Does it break any taboos if I do?”

“No, I guess not, but…” She gazed around, as if looking for someone to give her a better reason.

“Is it going to help them if you fall over where you stand?” He pressed on, feeling a twinge of guilt at using dirty tactics. “Don’t you want to be in good shape tomorrow, when we meet with someone who might be able to tell us anything about the children and Layla?”

She glared at him. “Of course, I do. That’s not fair.”

“But you know I’m right.” The guilt wasn’t nearly strong enough to overcome the need to see that she rested.

And whatever her gift revealed to her of his thoughts, she finally gave in.

“Thank you again.” She shuffled back to the fire, curling into a ball on the blankets.

He knelt by her side, pulled the second blanket over her. “Is there anything special I should do or say?” he asked, suddenly aware of the magnitude of his offer. “I’m not much of a singer.”

“Just stay with them, let them know they’re not forgotten,” she murmured. “Let me know when you need a break, all right?”

“Of course.”

***

The pale moons gave more than enough light to work by, and Gavin made good use of the time.

When Esme stirred with the first morning rays, he moved to her side.

“Still warm enough?”

She struggled out of the blankets he’d piled on her through the night, eyes wide. “You didn’t get me! You said you–”

He held up a hand. “You said someone needed to stay with them. I did.”

Esme rocked back, pulling the blankets tightly around her shoulders against the cool fall air. “All night? By yourself?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I told them stories of places I’d been. Figured them being a traveling people, they might like to hear.”

A slow smile spread over her face. “That was perfect. I wish I’d been awake to hear.”

The nervous knot only tightened in his gut. “I can tell them again, if you really want. And, um. I did another thing.”

A dark eyebrow raised, but she said nothing.

He held out a hand, and she took it.

That was a good sign, right?

If he hadn’t just ruined everything.

“Stop worrying,” she said, as they picked their way across the camp in the pre-dawn mist.

And then she froze.

“What did you do?” she whispered.

He watched her face. He knew what she saw, he’d spent the long hours of the night digging them all, one by one, grave by grave.

“Is it right?” he asked.

She knelt by the first shrouded body, stared blankly into the neatly dug grave beside it. “How did you do this?”

Gavin coughed, embarrassed. “I told you. We’re built as weapons.”

“Nonsense,” she snapped, flying to her feet. “However you were born, whatever your gifts are, it’s what you do with them that counts.” Her eyes softened. “And what you did was an act of kindness. Don’t forget that.”

It didn’t take long to complete the burial of her clan. As the sun rose, Esme took one last walk around the destroyed camp while Gavin watched her every step.

“Is there anything you want to bring back with you?” he asked as she finally turned away, walking quickly towards the air sled.

“No,” she shook her head. “I’ll get a message to the other clans, see what can be reused. But none of this matters to me, not anymore.”

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Four

 Esme

Life was made of rhythm and routine. The long ambling stride she used to keep up with the caravans. The slow, steady search for the plants and herbs needed for medicines, candles and dyes.

The gentle, easy routine of setting up camp, caring for the horses, breaking it all down again.

This should have been no different.

But it was. Terribly so.

Each family in her clan had their own caravan. 

Each had been destroyed, burned and hacked at.

“It’s like someone hated the very existence of this camp,” Rhela said shuddering in the dusk.

Adena frowned, eyes calculating. “It seems clear it was meant to look like a haleru attack.”

Surprise pulled Esme’s attention away from the flame-scorched green and yellow panel embedded in the ground before her.

The door to Beatrice and Yanni’s home. 

They’d been madly in love for as long as she could remember. Beatrice had just finished repainting their caravan while they were at the market in Malterresy.

They’d found Beatrice’s body already. Yanni’s was sure to be somewhere near.

“The beast men?” Esme answered. “I don’t think anyone has seen them on these plains for years.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Adena said. “Those darts Gavin brought back weren’t poisoned, weren’t even the right shape. And if Nic and the others haven’t picked up the scent of the haleru, they weren’t here.”

“But who would want to frame them for this?” Rhela asked.

Gavin returned, another body cradled gently in his arms.

“Looks like he fought back,” he said grimly as he lay Yanni down next to Beatrice’s still form. “Not that it did much good.”

Esme took another length of the fabric that she and the women had scavenged from the wreckage, began the job of winding it around the body.

“No one in the clan was much for fighting. Hunting, building things, telling stories.” She paused, trapped in memories. “Yanni carved toys, beautiful intricate things that always made the children laugh.”

Her throat tightened and the words caught.

Nothing really left to say, anyway.

Gavin rested one large hand against her shoulder, then went back to bring another body.

The three women worked in near silence, straightening the clothes’s best as they could, washing faces, still and gray, a last, useless gesture to try to give the dead a little of the dignity that had been stolen from them.

Dusk turned to night, and Gavin brought some type of lanterns from the air sleds, set them around where they worked.

He didn’t seem to need extra light for his task, as he brought back another body, and another.

Finally he returned, arms empty. “I can’t find anyone else.”

“Are you sure?” Esme asked, startled. 

He nodded. “And Jormoi just reported in. He found the trail easily enough.” His face twisted. “Children tend to leave a particularly pungent scent, especially when afraid. They were herded together from the camp by men on horses, forced to walk south for a good ways down the river. The raiders took whatever horses they could round up, tried to use them to cover the trail, but it didn’t work.”

Gavin squatted down next to her, put his hand on the ground near hers.

Nothing more.

Still, it was a comfort.

“Nic spotted where wagons had been hidden around the next curve of the river, but we’ve got an extra mystery. How many children did you say should be here?”

“Twelve,” she answered. She closed her eyes, the children’s faces clear in her mind. 

From Roddy, the oldest and born troublemaker to little Pia, only six months old.

“The wagons,” Gavin said. “From the marks, there were at least four. Far too many to carry so few children.” A short growl escaped his throat. “And Jormoi thinks there were already children in the other wagons.”

Of course. She moved her hand towards his. Just a bit.

“Not just children,” Esme said slowly. “I don’t think so at least.”

“What do you mean?” Adena asked quickly.

“You haven’t found anyone else?” 

“I’ve gone round the camp three times,” Gavin said “I’m sure I haven’t missed anyone.”

“But I have,” she said pointing down the row of shrouded forms. “Auntie Layla. Not really my aunt, but she cared for the children, kept them all happy and busy, and taught them whatever lessons they would stay still for.”

She met his gaze.

“She’s missing as well.”

 ***

 By the time Nic brought Jormoi back in the air sled, Adena and Rhela had cleared one section of camp, one small island of calm in the chaos.

Esme sat with the dead, watching the others in the circle of artificial light. The strangers, so willing to help.

And with secrets of their own, apparently.

Gavin came back from where the others congregated, stretched his hand down towards her.

And this man. She studied his hand for a moment, the deadly power it held.

The barely contained violence.

And still, something within him called to her. 

This time she let him raise her to her feet.

“Thank you,” she said, legs stiff from so much kneeling.

He nodded, eyes grave. “You’ll want to hear the news, what little of it there is, straight from them.”

Hand still in his, she followed him back towards the living.

The others stood around a metal table she’d never seen before.

“Where did this come from?” she asked, the completely irrelevant question easier to ask than the important ones.

Had they found the children? 

It didn’t need to be asked aloud. It was clear from their stern faces that there’d been a setback.

Adena tilted her head back towards the air sleds.

“Basic supplies in the storage compartments,” she explained. “And field rations.” She handed a silver wrapped parcel to Esme, showed her how to tear it open to reveal a brick-like cake within. “Not particularly tasty, but you’ll need something in your stomach to keep going.”

Esme chewed at the cake. 

Adena was right. It was solid, heavy in her throat, with almost no flavor at all. But it didn’t really matter. She wasn’t sure she could taste much of anything right now.

“We followed the wagons’ trail for as long as we could,” Jormoli started. “I stayed on the ground and Nic from the air, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything, a sudden turn off, or a cluster of buildings over a hill, out of sight.

He took a brick but didn’t open it. “The trail was clear, after that first attempt at deception with the horses they weren’t bothering to hide. Speed seemed more important.”

Nic picked up the story. “I was beginning to think we might have an easy challenge for a change. And then the track merged into another road. The main road to Kinallen and Raccelton.”

Esme’s chest clenched.

Jormoi dropped down to the ground, Rhela curling up next to him.

“I went back-and-forth as far as I could, but there’s just too much traffic. I’d get tiny hits of the scent, but just in the last day who knows how many other wagons have passed that way.”

“But that helps a little bit, doesn’t it?” Adena said. “We know the children are probably somewhere in one of those towns. If I had to bet, I’d say Raccelton.”

Nic let loose a short bark of laughter. “For all the help we had the last time we went to the capital.”

Esme frowned. “Are you sure they wouldn’t stop anywhere before the towns?” 

Vague, half-forgotten memories tugged at her thoughts. Nothing useful, just distractions.

Nic shook his head slowly. “Maybe something on the outskirts, that might be a possibility. But still…”  he paused 

Gavin spoke up. “If they were taken to Raccelton, it means dealing with the Council again, doesn’t it? They might not like it, but we can’t give them any choice.”

“Nic’s right,” Rhela said, handing Jormoi another cake absently. “You said that the Council members denied asking for help from the Alliance. How can we be sure they’ll even listen?”

“They’re not likely to help us anyway,” Esme said. “The traveling clans are so far outside of their perfect little world that they prefer to pretend we don’t exist.”

“Maybe we don’t need the Council,” Adena said slowly. “Maybe we just need someone who knows the towns, the people who live there. Someone who listens to rumors.”

Esme nodded slowly. “Four wagons full of children would need someplace to go. People to take care of them. That sort of secret would be hard to keep, even in one of the larger towns.”

“Which would be great if we knew anyone friendly to us in that place,” Nic answered. “Last I checked, we didn’t.”

“That’s because you didn’t stay to talk with Matilde at her last visit,” Adena said. “Her oldest brother Declan has taken over their father’s trading business. She says he is doing well, making lots of contacts in the capital.”

“Is he less of an asshole than his father was?” Gavin asked.

Esme listened to the talk flow around her.

She needed to participate. She knew that. These people were trying to help her, trying to help the children. 

It wasn’t their problem. Wasn’t their clan.

But still, all she felt was numb. 

Her energy drained, as if every stitch in every shroud had taken another little piece of her soul until there was nothing left.

Every nightmare she’d ever dreamt had found her now, and there was no escape.

“Then it’s settled,” Nic said, snapping her attention back to the present. “We go back to Ship, find Matilde’s brother, see if he can find any information for us.”

“I can’t,” Esme said quickly. “I mean,” the words felt thick in her mouth, tangled. “I need to stay here, with them,” she waved her arm towards the still forms at the side of the camp. “It should have been last night.”

And she couldn’t go to Raccelton. Just couldn’t.

Adena scowled. “Last night we were busy trying to make sure that you weren’t going to join them.”

“I know that,” Esme said. “And I’m grateful. But tonight, I need to sing them home.”

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Three

 Gavin

He was a feared warrior, a member of one of the deadliest Enforcer Units in the system.

He’d cut a swath through enemies of the Rakian Alliance across more planets than he cared to remember.

So how could asking one small human woman a simple question be so difficult?

“Do you want to ride with me?” he forced out, the sound harsher than he’d wanted.

Esme stayed still, studying the air sleds before her, Rhela at her side.

“They’re safer than they look,” Rhela reassured her. “And sometimes it’s actually kind of fun.”

Esme’s expression didn’t change.

“I’m learning to fly one, but I’m not good enough yet to pilot by myself,” Rhela added apologetically. “But if you’re more comfortable with Jormoi, I can ride with Gavin.”

Esme’s gaze snapped to hers, then back to Gavin, head tilted. “What? No, that’s fine.” She smiled slightly. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to force the two of you apart. Not so soon.”

The smile that broke over Rhela’s face made Gavin’s chest swell with happiness for his brother.

“I guess you did see us near the very beginning,” Rhela said. Then her smile fell. “I never did thank you for the warning.”

“Did it help?” Esme asked.

Rhela shook her head. “No, but no fault of yours. I didn’t pay attention, didn’t understand. But it all worked out in the end.”

“That’s the problem with dreams,” Esme said. “You think you can change something, stop it from happening. But whatever you do, never seems to make much difference. Most of the time you never know if it was a true dream or just something you ate the night before until it’s too late.”

Her voice sounded filled with regrets, and Gavin fought the urge to draw her close, protect her from whatever past haunted her.

“Are you sure you need to go at all?” he asked softly as Rhela returned to Jormoi’s side.

“You don’t need to be there. I can track them. Void, if I can’t find the trail of the children, Jormoi can,” he admitted grudgingly. “He’s the best tracker we’ve got. Nearly the best in the Alliance.”

Her eyebrows raised. “And do what, while you’re rushing off?”

“You can stay here with Kennet, help him see if the satellites picked up anything. He might not know exactly what he’s looking for.” Gavin hoped that the cool analyst never heard him make such a comment.

He’d never live it down.

Esme shook her head, tiny looped braids swinging on either side of her face. “I have a duty to the dead,” she said. “Would you deny me that?”

Gavin thought about Merren. There’d been nothing left.

Would a ritual have helped his brothers’ grief?

Helped them move on faster?

Her soft voice continued. “And they may have taken more of my people than the children. How would you know?”

She was right. He just didn’t like it. 

Nic and Adena had already left the hanger, hovering outside, waiting for them.

“Do you want to sit up front where you can see, or behind me where there won’t be quite so much wind?” Gavin offered.

“The wind on my face helps me know I’m alive,” she answered and using her hand as a balance point sprung lightly into the body of the air sled.

He climbed in after her and in seconds they were in the air, heading back to the site of the massacre.

***

 It had been late afternoon when Esme had awakened. The meeting with the others, short though it had been, had still taken almost an hour. 

As the year moved deeper into autumn, darkness fell sooner and they pushed the air sleds to reach the campsite while the light was still good.

He studied Esme’s straight back before him as they cut through the sky, wishing like hell he was doing anything but bringing her back to the site of her family’s murder. 

Knowing that it might be the murder of half, and the kidnapping of the rest, didn’t make it any better.

“Where had you been before the high plains?” he asked, partially for the information but mostly to try to break the silence that seemed to wrap about her like her own armor.

“Malterresy, most recently,” she said, the wind catching at her words, nearly blowing them away too fast to hear. “It’s the largest town to the north. There’s a good market there, and the people are friendly, always happy to have us, trade fairly.”

Gavin frowned at what her words implied. “We haven’t been stationed on Crucible long,” he said. “It seems like every day we’re finding out something everybody assumed was common knowledge, so they didn’t bother to tell us. Help me out here. Was there some sort of tension between your people and the towns?”

She looked back over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “People who live in one place for most of their lives often find it strange that being so still sounds like a death sentence to other people.” 

Those dark eyes of hers smiled at him. Not much, just the tiniest bit. But he’d take it. “Don’t you find that to be the case?”

He made a slight adjustment to their course while thinking about her words. Remembering how it felt, almost every time they were sent somewhere new.

Even if they were there to protect the local population, there was no telling how an Enforcer Unit would be received.

Sometimes with open arms, a welcome asset.

More likely with suspicion. 

Hostility.

“I had always assumed that people’s reactions to us had little more to it than just that we’re new to the area,” he said grimly. “It’s not exactly like we come through on a regular basis with goods to sell. If we’re sent somewhere, usually there’s already trouble.”

He scratched behind his ear.

“But yeah, being different, not having a settled place other than where the Alliance sends us, probably doesn’t help.”

They rode in silence for a few moments, then she looked around sharply. “We’re almost there, aren’t we?” she asked.

“Do you recognize anything?”

“Not from up here, it’s all strange, unreal looking. But you stiffened, went on alert.” She brushed the side of his hand with the edge of her own. “I’m stronger than you think.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he growled. “Nobody should have to see that done to their family.” 

He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but her back straightened, just a little more.

“But it happened anyway,” she answered as they began their curving descent. “And I need to see it made right.”

All three air sleds landed closely enough that Gavin didn’t need any of his enhanced senses to hear Nic muttering to Adena.

“I can’t believe you talked me into letting you come here. You shouldn’t be anywhere near this.”

“You think we’re going to let Esme face this by herself?” Adena snapped. “I’ve laid out the dead plenty of times in my life.”

Nic gave an unhappy growl. “What about Rhela? Surely she hasn’t had to deal with something like this.”

“Who do you think took care of her parents when it was their time?” Adena said quietly as her mate carefully lifted her to the ground. “We may not be warriors, but don’t think we’re weak.”

Gavin dismounted the airsled and reached back to help Esme, but she vaulted over the side and strode off through the ruins of camp, head swiveling quickly from side to side as she took in the disaster. 

Rhela’s hands flew to her mouth, her eyes wide at the scene. Jormoi wrapped an arm around her shoulders and for a moment she leaned into him. “I’m alright,” she whispered, then straightened and ran after Esme and Adena.

“I guess they know what they need to do,” Jormoi said grimly. “And we’ve got our own mission. Find the trail of those children.”

Nic looked around at the carnage, face twisted in disgust. “These people didn’t have a chance to fight back. It doesn’t even look like they had weapons, other than cooking knives.”

He stomped back to his sled. “I’ll see what I can spot from above.”

“We’ll catch the scent down here,” Jormoi added. “One way or the other, we’ll find where they went.”

“Matching spirals for the initial search pattern?” Gavin asked, then spotted Esme and the two other women picking their way through the wreckage back to them.

Esme’s face was pale, and drawn, but her determination was clear in the set of her chin.

“Can one of you help us…” she faltered and Rhela took her hand. “Help us with the bodies,” Esme finished. “Some are still caught underneath wrecked caravans. We won’t be able to dig them all out.”

Jormoi looked at Gavin and nodded. “I’ve got it, you go help them.”

In a cloud of blue lightning he shifted.

Jormoi’s sand cat form twisted once around Rhela, headbutting her stomach,  then bounding away to circle the camp.

Rhela and Adena exchanged panicked glances, but Esme said nothing.

She closed her eyes, opened them again, looking nowhere but directly at Gavin.

“Later I’m going to have questions about that.  But right now, I don’t care. I need your help.”

He wondered how much it had cost her to ask for assistance. To admit she couldn’t do it all alone.

“And you’ll have it.” he answered, jaw set.

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Two

 Esme

The darkness was sticky, like tar that kept trying to pull Esme back under.

She was so tired, surely a little longer wouldn’t matter.

Then the touch of another mind startled her. Familiar, but somehow different. 

When she forced her eyes open he wasn’t there.

A woman with dark masses of curly black hair and olive skin sat at her side.

The room was unfamiliar, clean and bright, but strangely sterile smelling.

The door slid open and another woman bustled into the room, brown hair pulled into a thick braid over her shoulder, a bundle of fabric in her hands.

“I know you,” Esme whispered.

The second woman nodded. “We met by the river two, no, three weeks ago,” she answered. “I’m Rhela, and this is Adena. She patched you up while you were sleeping.”

Esme’s hands fluttered at her side, finally realizing that the pain, the tearing screaming pain that had wracked through her, breaking every shred of concentration was gone.

No bandages were underneath the thin shift she wore. She couldn’t even feel any tenderness where the wound had been.

Astounding.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m Esme. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to repay your skill.”

And there it was again, that familiar, red-tinged presence.

“Why doesn’t he come in?” she asked the two women. 

They glanced at each other, and the darker haired one, Adena, smiled. “Because I sent him out. Gavin’s gotten bossy all of a sudden.” She tilted her head to the side. “But if you want him…” she trailed off and Esme nodded. 

The pain was gone, but her body ached, and in the back of her mind she knew there was more to come, an injury not to the body, but to the heart.

She just couldn’t imagine what it was, not yet.

Before anyone could say anything else, the door slid back again, only to be filled by the huge bulk of a man, broad shouldered, taller than anyone Esme had ever seen. 

He stepped in, brow wrinkled in worry that she could feel shedding off of him like rain.

“How are you feeling?” he asked gruffly, his eyes fixed on hers and for a moment her chest tightened. If only she had more than glimpses, more than fragments to work from.

“Terrible,” she answered, “but better than dead.”

“Do you think you’re up to telling us what happened?” Adena asked.

The giant spun to move between the healer and the bed, snarling. “No! She’s tired, let her rest.”

Esme studied the two women. Surprised, but not afraid, even at this show of temper.

Interesting.

She reached out for the giant’s hand, and at her touch he refocused on her.

“I’m sorry, I’ll leave.”

“No,” she said. “But there’s no reason for you to be so angry all the time. It’s going to give me a headache.”

She smiled as he ran his free hand through his hair. “That’s going to take some work,” he admitted.

But it wasn’t the constant tinge of his anger that pressed so sharply in her skull.

There was something else. 

Something she needed to know.

Even if she didn’t want to, even if she was certain the knowledge might break her.

“How many of us are here?” she finally asked, shoulders set for the blow.

“Only you,” he rumbled, fingers squeezing hers. “We were hoping you could tell us what happened,” he continued. “Who attacked you? What did they want?”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Again.

She ran her fingers through her braids, down the old scar hidden by her hair just behind her left temple, then struggled to push herself up from the absurdly soft mattress, 

Adena rested a slim hand on Esme’s shoulder and a warm glow flowed through her chest. “I’d rather you didn’t get up so soon.” she said. “But I understand needing answers. Come on, let’s get you dressed.”

The healer turned to the giant. “Gavin, that’s your cue to leave.”

His eyes suddenly widened in comprehension and a dark flush colored his cheeks. “Right, of course.”

And with a grace that his size made surprising, he fled the room.

Rhela stepped forward, a wry smile on her face. “Before you leave this room, let me try to explain where we are. Just the important bits. The details don’t really matter.”

Emse swung her legs over the side of the bed, paused to catch her breath. “That doesn’t sound encouraging, but go on.”

“You’re on a building that’s really a ship that travels between different worlds. The men here are from another place. Another planet, really. But they’re nice, despite how strange they may seem at first.”

Rhela paused, and Esme nodded slowly.  

“All right. Our clan heard talk about star men coming. It makes sense that they’d need something like their own caravan to arrive in.”

“That’s more than I knew in the beginning,” Rhela admitted. “The other thing to know is that everything in this place may as well be made of magic, even though they say it’s technology. It’s better to just pretend it’s normal in the beginning, and then it starts to make sense for real later on.”

Adena nodded her agreement. “I’ve been here for months, and if I just tell myself Ship has another kind of gift, one for making things out of nothing, it’s much easier.”

The flood of information made Esme pause, but only a few things mattered.

She can think about the rest later.

“These men, you say they’re good?”

Both women nodded, and Esme sensed nothing but sincere belief and trust.

But she knew all too well that trust could be mistaken, betrayed.

Still, in the absence of any other evidence, it was all she had to go on.

“Then I’ll trust them, too.”

For now, she added silently.

She stood, proud of herself for swaying only slightly, looking around the plainly furnished room for her garments.

Adena noticed her gaze. “Your clothing was almost destroyed. I’m not sure if they’re mendable. But Ship has a gift for making things very quickly. Do you want another set exactly like the ones you were wearing, or something different? It won’t make any difference.”

Esme thought of the vest she’d so carefully embroidered, the short dress that had been carefully passed down from kin to kin.

It might not make any difference to these women, or to this mysterious Ship, but it would mean something to her.

“Similar, but not the same,” she answered. “If they looked like my old clothes, but weren’t, well, it seems like it would be a lie.”

Adena squeezed her hand and then went to a panel in the wall.

“Ship, can you create a new set of garments for our guest, similar in style, exact in fit, but with these colors?” She touched the wall lightly, and it lit up in response.

“Just a moment, Mistress Adena.” 

The disembodied voice made Esme jump. “Who is that?” she gasped.

She had felt nothing, no approach, not even the slightest stray thought. 

Who could shield themselves that well?

“That’s Ship,” Rhela said with a small smile. “She’s nice too, but it does take a little getting used to.”

The two women left the room while slowly Emse changed out of the white shift and examined her new garments.

Ship, whoever that was, had done a remarkable job. 

The pants fit as well as her old ones, the vest of dark brown matched them perfectly. Raising her arms to slide the knee length dress of rich purple over her head, the fabric flowed smoothly, flaring over her hips.

Each piece was starkly plain, no embellishments at all.

As they should be.

And at the foot of the bed, were her boots. 

At least these were not strangely created replicas, but hers, every crease in the butter-soft leather as well known to her as the lines on her hand.

“Ready?” Adena’s voice called out from outside the door.

“I’m dressed,” Emse said. “Does that count?”

The door slid open at Adena’s laugh. She nodded at the clothing, a faint line of worry between her brows.

“Are they alright?” she asked. “I cleaned your old garments the best I could, but I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to transfer the embroidery to the new ones. Or if you’d even want to.”

Esme blinked, surprised. “Most townsfolk wouldn’t even know the significance,” she blurted. “How did you?”

“My parents traveled with a clan for a while,” Adena answered, “up and down the roads. They never stopped being townsfolk but I remember their stories.” A wistful smile crossed her face. “Seeing caravans on the move have always called to me, just a little.” 

She stepped back, revealing the passage outside the room. “The others are ready, if you are.”

The trip through the building made Esme itch. She didn’t like being indoors. Never had. None of her clan did. 

And this building was strange. Larger than anything should be.

“Almost there,” Rhela said, then ran through a final door, smiling as the sunlight fell on her face.

Esme stepped out into a beautiful lush garden and then froze.

At the edge of the green space was a short wall and passed it she could see treetops.

“We’re outside, but still on Ship,” Adena explained. Or, the words were meant for an explanation, but did nothing to ease the confusion in Esme’s mind.

Chairs were scattered in a rough circle on the grass under a vine draped shelter.

Waiting for her were four strangers.

Well, three strangers and her giant.

Gavin stood as if rooted to the ground, watching her slow steps forward.

But it was another man, not quite as tall but still huge, his skin blackest night, who moved forward to greet her.

“Glad you’re doing better,” he said. “I’m Nic, that’s Jormoi,” he pointed to a slightly smaller blond man with blue eyes, who she recognized. 

“That’s Kennet.”

A tall man, with gray skin and light charcoal markings bowed slightly.

“You’ve met Gavin.”

“Yes,” she said, forcing her hands to be still, her tone even.

These people had helped her, and she’d need even more of their help.

Even if this ritual seemed endless.

“I appreciate everything, but I need to know… how long was I asleep?”

Her wounds had been so severe. It must have taken days, if not weeks for her to recover.

And her dreams had been filled with teasing flickers of images that might have been hallucinations caused by the pain, might have been fragments of memories.

Or something else.

A warning. 

Either way, the pressure in her head insisted there was no time to lose.

Adena moved to sit in the chair next to Nic. “It’s been a day since Gavin found you,” she answered. Nic rested a hand on her shoulder, and the healer rested her head against it for a moment. “Your wounds, they were deep. For a while I wasn’t sure you would make it.”

Esme stepped back, legs shaky, and found Gavin at her side. “So quickly?” She swallowed hard, bowed. “I owe you more than just thanks, but that’s all I have.” She searched their faces. “Please tell me, where are the children?”

Gavin shook his head. “There were no children in the camp. None at all.” His lips pressed into a tight line. “Alive or dead.”

She stumbled. “Then the whispers were true. They took them.”

“You believe the attack was focused on the abduction of your clan’s children?” Kennet asked, and Esme bristled at the mildly curious tone.

“There were twelve children under the age of fifteen,” she snapped. “If none of their bodies were there, it seems pretty clear that they’re somewhere else.”

The flash of rage left her exhausted. To her surprise, Gavin held a chair behind her, as if waiting for her to finally accept she needed it.

The men didn’t seem to take any offence at her reaction, merely shifted their planning.

“Why do you think the children were the target?” Jormoi asked. “What have you heard?”

She sank gratefully into the chair. “There have been rumors going through the clans,” she whispered. “Children stolen from us, even from the townsfolk. And…”

She looked up, eyes only for Gavin.

“I think it’s happened before.”

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