Kade was dozing in the cockpit of his ship when a soft chime alerted him to an incoming message. The tone indicated it was a prerecorded vid, and the sender’s name flashed up on his screen a moment later.
“Again?” He sat up and stretched until his shoulders popped. Nesht was not one of Kade’s favorite beings. Like most of his species, Nesht’s personality matched his appearance—thorny and highly unpleasant. No doubt the damned Jeskyran was sending another vid reminding Kade what he owed and how many days he had left to pay up.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and grunted in frustration. He couldn’t ignore the message for long or his “business associate” would get annoyed and start sending more messages.
This close to the new colony, Kade couldn’t take any chances. The inhabitants of Liberty weren’t likely to be intercepting communications, but it was possible. He’d have to play the recording and send a reply to appease the petty jerk.
Kade shifted in his seat, leaning forward enough to let his wings shift and refold into a more comfortable position along his back as he activated the message.
Nesht’s gaunt yellow face filled his monitor. “D’vrayn. I expected to hear from you before now.” His thin lips parted in a smile, revealing a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth that added a slight hissing quality to his words. “I hope your silence means you’ve been busy making arrangements to acquire the information you owe me. If not…” His expression hardened. “It would pain me to have to end our friendship in such a messy way, but business is business.”
As threats went, it was more subtle than usual. Kade wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a worrying one.
Nesht kept talking. “Because we’re such good friends, I’ll do you a favor. I’m on my way to Liberty’s shiny new orbital platform. I should be there in a day or two, so we can do the transfer in person. I’ll let you know when I’m due to arrive and we’ll set a time to meet for a drink. I’m buying.” The Jeskyran nodded once, and the recording ended.
“Fraxx.” Kade cursed in Galactic Standard, shifting mental gears as he composed his response in the same language. The Jeskyran didn’t speak any of the Vardarian dialects, not even the simpler trade languages.
This news complicated things. He hadn’t expected Nesht to make a personal appearance. Usually Kade sent along whatever information he’d gathered in an encrypted file, and that would be the end of it.
He pulled his dagger from its sheath and started flipping it between his fingers as he considered this new twist. Liberty was several weeks of travel away from Nesht’s usual haunts, which meant the Jeskyran had been in transit almost since he’d given Kade his newest assignment. This entire stunt had been planned, and he hadn’t been informed. Not a good sign.
“They don’t trust me. And they’re really eager to get their hands on those codes.” The blade of his dagger flickered with the reflected lights of his console as it spun. In the beginning, the arrangement had seemed simple enough. He passed on information about the colony on Liberty, and in exchange, Nesht deducted an agreed-upon amount from the debt he owed.
It wasn’t the first time he’d traded in facts instead of material goods. Good information was a currency all its own, but this time something was off about the whole thing. He didn’t like the way this deal tasted, but he also didn’t have a choice. He owed them too much money. A three-day lapse in judgment had put him in debt to Nesht’s employers, and this was what they wanted in payment. “I should have never set foot in that damned casino.”
“Ship, take over piloting duties. Notify me five minutes before we’re due to transition to standard drive engines.” His nanotech enhancements allowed him to interface with the ship directly, but he preferred to issue his orders out loud. If he didn’t speak to the AI, he’d have no one to talk to at all.
“Affirmative, Captain D’vrayn.”
He rose from his chair, sliding the dagger back into its sheath as he did so. His cabin was only a few paces down the corridor from the cockpit, and it wouldn’t take him long to clean up and change. He ran a hand over his unshaven jaw. Time for a shave, too. He’d answer once he looked like a successful trader instead of an interstellar vagabond. Impressions were important, and Nesht had enough leverage on him, already.
When next he took his seat at the console, he was cleaner, neater, and had his reply ready to go. He activated the recording function and leaned back in his chair with a practiced grin on his face.
“Nesht. Good to hear from you. I’m a few hours out from Liberty at the moment, and I have no reason to expect any problems. You didn’t need to come out all this way just to buy me a drink, but hey, who am I to argue with such largess?” He opened his hands in an expansive gesture and widened his smile. “Have a safe journey. We’ll talk again once you have arrived. I look forward to concluding our business deal.”
He ended the recording and sent it on its way to the automated resupply station that also acted as a message depot. It was easier to send and receive messages from one fixed point than to try to route communications directly. Kade grimaced. It also allowed Nesht to hide his location. It was a good thing this was the last favor he needed to do for these beings. He’d done what they asked, and soon he’d be free of the arrangement. So far, he hadn’t provided them with anything that would put the colony at risk. He wanted to keep it that way. He liked the beings who lived in Haven—Vardarian and cyborg alike.
The colony had ambitious plans but a simple premise. Everyone was equal. He’d even seen the prince working side by side with the people he led, as tired and dirty as the rest of them. And the princess… Kade grinned. Phaedra was tiny, human, and as fierce as any Vardarian warrior he’d ever met. She was delightfully different from the pampered females of his home world. If he were destined to have a mate, he would have asked the ancestors to send him one like her. He’d never made that request, though. There was no point. He was one of the onar. He had no mate. He was certain of it. He had lost that chance long ago.
Still, his life wasn’t so bad. Instead of duty, family, and expectations, he had freedom, friends, and a fast ship. His life was so full he didn’t have room for anything else, or anyone.
Shadow put away her hand terminal and stylus and then got to her feet, her head full of new data and fascinating tidbits. Her onboard systems had the entire lecture itemized and stored for future reference, but she’d discovered that the act of writing notes helped her think about them as more than abstract facts. It was one of the many things she’d learned about herself since arriving at Haven.
“Hey, Shadow, joining us for drinks?” Skye asked. The cyborg female was part of the panel that had presented today’s session on sexuality, mating, and courtship rituals.
“Sure.” She grinned at her mentor. “Do I get to ask more questions?”
Skye laughed. “Only if you’re buying.”
“Deal.” She had more than enough scrip to her name to afford a few drinks. She’d been offered the same corporate-sponsored compensation package as the other cyborgs living here. They had all been held captive, some of them for years, and the corporations had turned a blind eye to their existence. As far as Shadow was concerned, giving them a bit of money and a place to live was the least the bastards could do.
She walked with the others, letting the conversation flow around her without taking an active part. Shadow hadn’t been held captive with Skye and the rest of the cyborgs at the colony. Her experience had been very different. She’d been kept isolated from almost everyone for most of her life, and as much as she enjoyed the comradery, it took some getting used to.
Her freedom had come only recently, and she was still adjusting to a reality where she could make all her own choices. There were no punishments, no threats, and no one issuing orders she had no choice but to obey. Just thinking about it triggered a rush of unwanted memories. Recollections of all the things she’d done against her will pushed in on her until it was hard to breathe.
She slowed her steps and looked up into the wide blue sky. “I’m free,” she reminded herself softly. A glint of gold caught her attention, and she turned her gaze to the high-flying form of a Vardarian wheeling through the endless blue. She envied them their wings. If she could fly like they could, she’d never want to land.
“You okay?” Skye asked.
“Memory ambush,” Shadow explained. The first thing she’d learned at the colony was to be honest about how she felt. It wasn’t always easy, but after a lifetime of hiding their thoughts and reactions, it was freeing to be able to talk about it all.
“Ugh, I hate those. You okay now? Or do you want to take some time on your own?” Skye asked.
“I think I’m good. Besides, I still have questions!”
“Drinks first.” Skye slid a companionable arm around her shoulders. “And nice job fending off the ambush. It took me months before I could move past them as fast as you can. Care to share the trick?”
Shadow pointed up. “It’s easy to remember I’m free when there’s nothing above me but open sky.”
“Which is exactly why I picked my name.” The cyborg turned her head to glance at her. “Can I ask why you picked Shadow?”
“Because I was cloned from a cyborg who called herself Nyx. Apparently, that was the name of an old Earth goddess of night who was also the daughter of chaos. I’m sort of her daughter…so I figured, Shadow.”
“I like it. Even though you are the least dark and shadowy person I have ever met.”
Shadow appreciated the compliment, but she knew it wasn’t true. She’d been created as part of the Fury project, and while there had been some minor adjustments to their design, all the furies had one thing in common. They were assassins.
Most corporate-created cyborgs were soldiers. A handful were made to serve other purposes. Some were spies. Others were capable of incredible data processing that made them almost prescient. She and her sisters—the furies—were executioners.
“C’mon. It’s time for drinking, not thinking,” Skye teased and pointed ahead of them. “After all that talk about sexuality, pleasure, and mating, the males of this place better watch out. I’m thinking about taking a few of them home with me tonight!”
“A few?” Shadow was intrigued by the idea of having more than one mate, but her seduction programming had all involved enticing one being at a time. And her personal experiences… well, she might have been ordered to sleep with various beings, but she’d never made that choice for herself.
“Why not? That’s how most Vardarian relationships are structured, and the ratio of male to female cyborgs skews heavily to the males.” Skye shrugged. “And for me, it’s all about blowing off steam. I’m not looking for a relationship. I just want to have fun.”
Shadow nodded, but she felt a discordant twinge of emotional energy from her companion that told her Skye wasn’t being entirely honest. She did want more, but she couldn’t admit it yet. Fair enough. They were all on a journey, and it wasn’t her place to try to change someone else’s trajectory just because she could tell what they were feeling.
“What about you? You ready to find a little fun? Or maybe put some of the things you learned today into practice?” Skye waited a beat before casually adding, “Like, oh, flirting with a certain broody Torski male who happens to be due back this afternoon?”
“Denz is home?” Her query somehow bypassed all her internal filters and was out of her mouth before she could zip her lips shut.
Skye’s blue eyes flashed in triumph. “Ha! I knew it.”
“Does everyone know?” One thing Shadow had learned in her time here was the colony’s cyborgs were the biggest gossips in the galaxy. They shared data files and tidbits of information with breathtaking speed and unrepentant glee, and she had a great many reasons to keep her interest quiet.
“I don’t think so. I’m training to be a counselor, and I’m your mentor. It’s my job to watch out for you and make sure you’re acclimating to your new life. That means I’m paying more attention than most. I saw your face when you heard he was leaving.” Skye winked. “And I’d bet another round of drinks that at least one of the questions you wanted to ask me about had to do with Torski courtships.”
“Anyone ever mention that you’d have made an excellent spy?” she asked.
“Me? Fraxx, no. I think it’s more that you’re becoming a worse one. When you first got here you had three expressions, and only one of them involved smiling. Now, you’re not hiding your feelings as much. It means you’re settling in.”
Shadow twisted a lock of hair around her finger and tugged. “I guess. But that’s really not information I’m ready to share. I mean, I like him, but trying to initiate anything with Denz would be…complicated.”
“Maybe.” Skye pitched her voice low enough so there was no chance of being overheard. “But you’re not the one who pulled the trigger. He knows that.”
Shadow tugged a little harder on her hair. “I might not be the one who murdered Zale, but you can’t tell by looking at me. The killer was my clone. Same face. Same design. Same programming.”
Skye grunted. “What was the first thing I told you when you and I started talking?” She asked as they crossed the bridge to the small island that sat midway between the cyborg and Vardarian sides of the colony.
“We’re more than our programming,” Shadow answered automatically.
“Exactly. And Denz has been around cyborgs enough to know that too.”
He’d said as much to her the first time they’d met, but she’d sensed the unease he felt being around her. Hell, she hadn’t needed to be empathic to tell he avoided being in her company for long. Once she’d gotten more settled and started exploring, they’d crossed paths more and more often. Every time it happened he’d made himself scarce within minutes. Then, he’d volunteered to leave the colony on a diplomatic mission that had kept him away for weeks. She might not have a lot of experience discerning other beings’ personal motivations, but his had been as clear as the air above her. Denz Talorn didn’t want to be on the same planet as her.
She shrugged. “I know he doesn’t blame me. But not holding me accountable for Zale’s death is a few hundred light-years away from wanting to share a meal or a drink…or any of the other dating rituals I’ve been learning about. I have no idea how to get him to think of me that way.”
Skye’s peals of laughter carried across the water and blended with the burble of the river as it flowed beneath them. “I am about to tell you one of the secrets of the universe—a truth that was taught to me by the princess herself.” She leaned in and whispered in Shadow’s ear. “Males are not complicated. If you like him, tell him so.”
“Nothing in life is that easy. What if he doesn’t like me?”
Skye shrugged. “Then he’ll say so. It’ll sting for a few minutes. Phaedra also taught me that copious amounts of ice cream can be used to moderate emotional pain. She recommended chocolate.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for that, but…I’ll remember about the ice cream. Just in case.”
They reached the front doors of the Bar None and she followed Skye inside. This would be so much easier if she were Vardarian. They didn’t fall in love the way humans did. They scented their mates and were overtaken by the sharhal, the mating fever. It wasn’t emotionally driven at all. It was a biological response, pure and simple.
She thought about that for a moment and then decided she didn’t want that either. She’d lived most of her life without the freedom to choose for herself. Given the choice between random biology and risking rejection… fraxx it. Maybe she’d just stay single.
The corridor Denz walked down was so new he was surprised he couldn’t still smell the ozone-and-metal scent of fresh welds. How long ago had this docking arm been completed? He tried to remember if it had been here when he’d last been on the orbital platform. He didn’t think it had, which was yet another reminder that Vardarian technology was light-years ahead of anything seen in his part of the galaxy. Their recent allies had transported the pieces of the platform to the colony and assembled it with a minimal workforce. Most of the tasks had been completed by semi-autonomous robots, working with a speed and precision no flesh and blood crew could match.
He was studying the coding of the artificial intelligence programs involved, and the more he read, the more he felt like he was a student in his first year of training again. He’d thought the work he and Zale had done together had been cutting edge, but compared to what he knew now? It made him miss his friend and kinsman even more.
Zale would have loved the chance to learn more about nanotech from the Vardarians.
Denz acknowledged his moment of grief but didn’t hold on to it. He’d gotten better at dealing with these sudden pangs of loss. Or maybe they weren’t as strong as they’d been before. He didn’t know which one he preferred. They both meant the same thing. He didn’t miss his friend as much as he used to. On one hand, he was grateful the pain was fading, but on the other, he wasn’t sure he wanted it to stop. The pain kept him focused on the task he’d set himself—forging Zale’s legacy.
Zale had sacrificed his life to protect the spokeswoman for what was now Haven Colony. Since he couldn’t be here to see the dream take shape, Denz would do it for him.
He reached the docking hatch he’d been instructed to find. The moment he arrived, the airlock door opened and a small, pink-haired female bounded into view, grinning like the lunatic he knew her to be. “Denz! Welcome back, big guy!”
“Good to be back, Princess Pipsqueak.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and then stepped in to give him a hug. “When I got promoted to royalty, I really thought you’d stop calling me that.”
“Never going to happen.” He hugged Phaedra lightly and then moved back before either of her mates could take offense.
“Relax, they’re not here. They’re stuck in yet another holo-meeting with Neha, so I volunteered to come get you.”
“They’re still not letting you speak to the Empress?”
“Apparently telling my sister-in-law she needed to put on her big-girl panties and pull the stick out of her ass was not considered helpful.” Phae grinned without a hint of remorse, gesturing for him to come aboard the ship.
“Diplomacy is a foreign concept to you. Isn’t it?”
She laughed and tapped a spot behind her ear. “Sorry. My translation program doesn’t recognize that word. Can you explain it to me?”
“And proud of it.” She stepped onboard, and he fell in behind her. After a quick look around, he realized the vessel was one he knew.
“You’re flying Sevda’s ship? Uh, does she know you have it?” He’d known Phaedra long enough to know she was more than capable of bending and outright ignoring laws when it suited her.
“Yup. She knows.”
“Technically, I am flying myself. Hello, Denz. Welcome back to Liberty,” the ship’s AI joined the conversation.
“Hey, Eddie. Thanks. Everything okay with Sevda?”
“Pilot Rem is in excellent health. However, she is restricted to atmospheric flights only for the duration of her pregnancy.”
“And believe you me, she’s not happy about it.” Phae took a seat and curled into it, leaving as much room as she could for Denz. The little scouting vessel wasn’t built for passengers, but he managed to stow his gear and get settled without doing any permanent damage to himself. Thanks to his Torski fathers, he was more than two meters tall and rarely fit well into spaces designed for smaller species…like his human mother.
“I am awaiting permission to depart the platform and descend. Please remain seated until we are underway,” Eddie informed them.
“Thanks, Eddie,” Phae said and then turned her attention to Denz. “So, how did everything go? I have about a million questions, and this is a short flight. So start talking.”
“Things went relatively well. All your friends say they miss you and hope you come back to visit before long. Zura was talking to her husbands about taking some time away to come see you and introduce you to the twins.”
“And Chance? How is she?”
“You mean how’s the cyborg you indirectly convinced to escape the colony and break our agreement with the corporations and the Interstellar Armed forces?” The planet Liberty had been gifted to the Vardarians as a colony world in exchange for all sorts of tech and trade agreements, but after the aliens had invited the cyborgs to join them, the corporations and the military had balked. They weren’t comfortable with the idea of several hundred newly rescued and emotionally unstable cyborgs being free to wander the galaxy. To ease their worries, the agreement included a rule that the cyborgs could not leave the planet. It hadn’t taken long for that rule to get broken.
Phae’s lips quirked up at the corners. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just told her stories about my time on the Drift and my friends there.”
“Uh huh. Sure. I don’t buy that and neither does Colonel Archer, but since Chance is happy and has agreed to work for the Interstellar Armed Forces as a consultant, he was willing to let it go. He did, however, curse your name in several languages on more than one occasion.”
“So long as Chance is happy… I’m fine with being cursed at.”
“She is. I have no doubt she’s where she belongs. And neither does Erik.”
“Of all the guys on the station, I never imagined she’d end up with him. He’s good to her?” Phaedra asked.
“Utterly devoted. Smitten, even.”
“Good to hear. She was never going to be happy at the colony.”
“There’s a place for everyone. Chance has found hers,” he agreed. He let the silence stretch for a few moments before asking oh-so casually, “Speaking of finding their place, how is Shadow settling in?”
“From what I’ve heard, she’s adjusting quickly. No behavioral issues, and she’s integrating well with the other cyborgs at the colony. She’s still a bit of a loner, but that’s to be expected considering what her life was like before she was freed.”
“Good. I…” He rubbed his bearded chin and started again. “I met with Nyx while I was on the station.”
Phaedra just nodded without saying anything, so he kept talking. “I thought she’d be more like Echo. It’s strange. All three of them look identical, but their personalities are quite different.”
“That’s because they had very different lives.”
“Yeah. I mean, I knew that, but it helped to talk to Nyx.”
“Good. Does this mean you’re done avoiding Shadow now?” Phae’s words caught him off guard.
“I’m not avoiding her.”
Phaedra’s brows shot up, and she stared at him in bemused silence.
“I’m not,” he repeated.
“Okay, fine.” He finally relented and waved a hand. “I’ve been giving her space. She’s got enough to deal with without having to make small talk with me. It’s…” He grunted and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s complicated.”
Phaedra snickered. “Holy fraxx. I think I get it now. I was worried you had a problem with her being at the colony and I was going to have to figure out a way to smooth things over. But that’s not it. Is it? You like her.” She chuckled again. “How did I miss it? I must be slipping. Anyway, that’s great. It’s about time you started living a little. We all miss Zale, but life goes on. He wouldn’t want you to stay locked down forever.”
Several of his friends had said much the same thing during his last visit. For that matter, so had his mother in her last message. “Why does everyone keep saying that to me? I am busier than I’ve ever been.”
“Busy isn’t the same as being happy. Maybe Shadow can help you with that.”
“I’ve barely spoken to her,” he protested.
Which was true enough. He’d expected to feel something the first time they’d met. He hadn’t been prepared for the gut-punch of desire he’d experienced when she’d looked up at him with a shy, uncertain smile and offered her condolences for Zale’s death. Then she’d watched him, so wary and on edge he thought she might bolt if he moved too fast. He’d gone into that meeting expecting to meet another battle-scarred cyborg and wound up meeting a soft-spoken female with haunted gray eyes.
“Well, that’s easy to fix. When we get home, talk to her.”
Phaedra snorted. “Veth. The guys at the Nova Club were right. Males do need a dating handbook. Talk to her about anything at all. The weather. Your trip. The fact you met her batch-sister. It’s not complicated. Either you like each other, or you don’t. If you do, great. If not…” She grinned. “I guess you’ll have to wait until we start bringing more human women here from Earth. We made progress on that while you were gone, by the way. The first volunteers are being vetted now. Haven will have a batch of new residents before the summer ends.”
“That is good news.” He’d heard enough about the conditions in Earth’s hive cities to know that the last few habitable places on the planet were overcrowded and slowly falling apart. The corporations hadn’t been thrilled about the idea of giving up a portion of their most lucrative recruiting pools, but eventually they’d agreed to allow a small number of women from the planet a chance to start a new life at the colony on Liberty. The volunteers were young, healthy, single, and understood that the only males available to them would be Vardarians, cyborgs…or him.
And that was the other problem. From the time they’d been younglings, he and Zale had planned to choose a mate together. Now, Zale was gone, along with the future family he’d always envisioned. As much as he loved his new home, he was the only one of his kind here. Even if he was ready to consider forming a new family, who could he build it with? Most Vardarian males had their anrik already, and the cyborgs were bonded through their shared experiences.
Shadow isn’t bonded to the others. The thought came to him unbidden. Phaedra just said she was a loner.
“It is great news.” Phae tugged at a lock of her bright pink hair. “But I don’t think you should wait that long to get back into the swing of things. If you like Shadow, do something about it.”
“I’ve got a lot of work I need to catch up on…”
Phae snorted. “You can make time to talk to her. Your schedule isn’t that crazy. Just think about it. Okay?”
“I’ll think about it,” he agreed.
Now that Phaedra had planted the thought in his mind, he couldn’t stop thinking about Shadow. He did want to get to know her better. Maybe ask her out for a drink and find out if she had any interest in him. They were both outsiders in some ways. It might work. Or it could crash and crater spectacularly. But still… it couldn’t hurt to try. Could it?
He and Phaedra spent the rest of the trip talking about everything that had happened while he was away. By the time they touched down, his head buzzed with information on harvest estimates, plans on where to house the human women when they arrived, and a disturbing discussion about a new predator that no one had seen yet but was responsible for several attacks on their livestock. Yet, even with all the new information, Shadow was still foremost in his mind.
“And that’s enough information for one day. I’m going to drop off my gear and go enjoy a drink and a meal that didn’t come out of a food dispenser,” he said.
Phae shuddered. “I miss some things about my old life, but nutri-gruel and shipboard meals are not on that list. See you at tomorrow’s meeting.” She darted in for another hug. “And welcome back.”
He gave her a one-armed squeeze. “It’s good to be back.” And it was. He’d missed this place—a proper atmosphere, dirt under his feet, and the comforting pull of real gravity. Haven wasn’t just where he lived anymore. It was home.
Want to know what happens next? Pre-order Her Alien Mates today, and get it delivered to your e-reader November 17th. (and get it at a special pre-order price, too!)