A Sneak Peek at Her Cyborg Rangers

Chapter One

The Bar None was quiet for the moment, but Jade knew that wouldn’t last. She’d thought the place was hopping in the winter months, but spring had brought even more customers flocking to the only human-run tavern in Haven colony. She had less than an hour to finish up with the bar droids and then test them to see if her upgrades had any unintended consequences before business picked up.

Kneeling behind the bar wasn’t comfortable, but it was the only way to do a visual scan of the new code. While she worked, she did her best not to think about how much easier this would be if she still had her implants. They’d been ripped out of her during interrogation sessions she’d endured while a prisoner of corporate-backed mercenaries. She’d been one of the best cyber-jockeys in the known systems before the fraxxing mercs had caught her. Now? She was stuck in normal space forever, interacting with machines one keystroke at a time.

Of all the sacrifices she’d been willing to make to escape from Earth, she’d never imagined she would have to give up one of her defining qualities.

The calm was suddenly broken by the thud of booted feet on the tavern’s veranda accompanied by rough male laughter. Someone shoved the door open hard enough it flew back to strike the wall with a loud bang.

Jade froze, her hands locking into fists as an icy chill flowed down her spine. She struggled to think, to move, to do something besides cower like a wounded animal, but she stayed where she was, teeth clenched, muscles screaming with tension, and heart pounding so fast she felt sick.

This was the other price she’d paid for freedom—panic attacks. Her time as a prisoner had left her with more than physical scars, and she was still learning how to deal with the sudden, gut-churning fits of panic that could be triggered by something as simple as a loud noise. She was broken in ways no nanotech or surgery could fix.

Her best friend Maggie hurried out to greet the customers, deliberately standing beside Jade and placing a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“Welcome to the Bar None. Take a seat wherever you like. I’ll come around to take your drink orders in just a moment,” Maggie said.

Several of the new arrivals rumbled words of thanks, some in Vardarian, others in Galactic Common. Thanks to the translators implanted in all of Haven’s citizens, communication wasn’t hampered by language barriers.

“You okay?” Maggie murmured once the others had moved off.

“As a duck in peach sauce,” Jade replied. Her voice was tight and shaky, but she had breath enough to talk, so she’d call that a win.

Maggie snorted. “I swear you make up new expressions just to fraxx with me.”

“Don’t blame me. That was one of my father’s expressions. I have no idea what it means either.” The friendly banter was exactly what she needed to ground herself and regain control. She leaned against Maggie’s leg, trying to slow her breathing and relax her knotted muscles.

It took a few minutes before she was calm again. Then she tapped the screen she’d been working on and activated the upgraded bar system with a still-shaking hand.

“The system and the droids are good to go. We’ll want to test them before it gets busy,” Jade announced as she rose to her feet, determined to keep it together in front of Maggie and the others.

“I’ll test them. You’re on a break,” Maggie stated firmly.

Jade waved her off. “I’m fine. Just need to stretch my back after being crouched on the floor so long. Remind me to talk to Anya about moving the central hub somewhere more accessible.”

Maggie narrowed her eyes and then muttered low enough only Jade would hear her. “If you don’t take a break, I will tell Anya and Saral that you’re pushing yourself too hard.”

“Whoa. You went straight to the nuclear option? How is that fair?” Jade protested. Saral and her two mates ran the tavern’s kitchen, creating some of the best food Jade had ever tasted. The Vardarian female was also a natural caregiver, and she was determined to provide Jade with food, advice, and mothering whether she wanted it or not.

“Who said anything about playing fair?” Maggie smiled and nudged her shoulder against Jade’s. “Grab a seat and relax for a few minutes. Saral has put together a plate for you already. If you don’t stop for a meal soon, she’s likely to come out here and glare at you until you’ve eaten every bite.”

Jade managed a small but genuine smile. “She’d do that. Wouldn’t she?”

“Without a doubt,” Maggie agreed. “She cares about you, Jaybird. We all do.”

Jade still didn’t know how to deal with that. Until Haven, Maggie had been her only friend—the one person she trusted to have her back. Haven was different. The beings here were kind, accepting, and honestly concerned about her. It made her uncomfortable, especially because she couldn’t offer much in return.

“I know, Magpie. It’s just weird. You know?” she replied, using Maggie’s nickname. Those names were part of their shared past, the years they’d spent on Earth, struggling to survive the hellhole that was the hive city known as Athens Two.

“I know. Remember, I’ve had a lot more time to get used to this place than you have.”

“Long enough to fall in love with a hot as hell cyborg and learn to be a badass with that fighting stick of yours.”

Kes’tarv,” Maggie corrected her with a snicker. “If Striker or any of the others hear you call it a fighting stick, you’ll wound their egos.”

“Yeah? Then I should probably say it to my bookend bodyguards the next time they start looming over me.”

“They’re not looming,” Maggie protested and then threw up her hands defensively when Jade raised both brows and stared at her.

“Okay. They loom a little. They’re protective of you. It’s kind of sweet.”

“No, it isn’t. They get all growly with anyone who even tries to flirt with me, which doesn’t happen much as it is. They’ve got cock blocking down to an art form, and I don’t know why they’re doing it. It’s not like they’re interested. They don’t trust humans. Not that I can blame them.” She shrugged. “A lot of us are assholes.”

“Truth.”

Maggie caught her by the hand and dragged her back into the kitchen. “Now, get some food and take a break. Shoo.”

She did as she was told. Experience had taught her that a few minutes of rest after a panic attack lessened the aftereffects significantly. Saral waited in the kitchen. The Vardarian female made a disapproving clucking noise and then handed her a plate stacked high with the Vardarian version of sandwiches with a side order of spicey fried tubers.

“Sit. Eat. Rest,” Saral instructed. “You should have mates to take care of you, but yours are slower to come to their senses than most.”

“Mine?” Jade shook her head. “Who would want me?”

Saral snorted. “Is this some sort of human affliction? That none of you can see what is as clear as the sky on a sunny day to everyone else?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, I’m going to follow your advice and find somewhere out of the way to eat this delicious meal. Thank you.” She nodded to Saral and then to her mates, Antas and N’tev, before fleeing. Saral was kind, generous, and determined to see everyone around her as happily mated as she was. Jade appreciated the female’s good intentions, but she was too broken for any man to want, no matter what their species.

The closest she had to male company were Wreckage and Ruin, but they treated her like a little sister, not a romantic interest. If she couldn’t even interest the two battle-scarred cyborgs who shadowed her like a pair of overprotective gargoyles, what chance did she have with anyone else?

She slipped into the tiny space they called a staff break room and sat down to eat. Three mouthfuls later, the door opened again.

“No need to check up on me, Saral. See? I’m sitting and eating as instructed.”

“It’s not Saral, but she did tell me to make sure you were eating.” Phaedra’s distinct voice and unexpected laughter filled the air, and Jade leaped to her feet. “Phreak? Uh, I mean Princess Phaedra. What are you doing here?”

The fuchsia-haired woman smiled and settled her very pregnant body onto the nearest chair. “I’m here to recruit you.”

*

Wreckage swung the axe with practiced ease, each strike taking another bite out of the trunk of the tree he and Ruin had chosen to harvest from the area around their cabin. The spring sunshine felt good on his bare back, the warmth soaking into his scarred skin. Every stroke of his blade filled the clearing with a crisp, satisfying thwack.

Birds sang in the trees and the breeze stirred a hundred branches and a thousand leaves as it blew through the forest. On the far side of their cabin, Ruin prepared a freshly fallen tree, trimming off the branches and peeling the bark. They’d need more logs to have enough to expand their home, but they had months of good weather ahead and plenty of incentive to get the job done.

It had only taken a single winter for them to realize they’d need more space if they were going to get through the cold, dark days of winter without killing each other, though it got easier once their young charge had been granted full citizenship and returned the colony. Cam had proven himself trustworthy and loyal to his new home.

If they moved back into Haven, they’d also be entitled to separate residences that would both be bigger than their hand-built domicile, but neither of them were ready for that. The colony was nice, but it lacked the calm and peace of the forest. After a lifetime of war and then confinement on Reamus Station, Wreckage needed solitude and quiet. The only exception to that rule was the company of his batch-brother, Ruin. The other colonists generally understood and gave them space, welcoming them when they came into town and leaving them alone the rest of the time. It was what they wanted. At least, it had been. Wreckage wasn’t sure about that anymore.

Another swing of his axe made the tree shudder and groan as it gave way. “Timber!” Wreckage called out as he moved adroitly out of the danger zone.

The tree dropped to the ground in a cacophony of breaking branches and tearing wood that ended with a thump he felt through the soles of his boots.

“Why do you insist on saying that when you have no idea what the fraxx it means?” Ruin demanded, his voice clear despite the distance between them.

“Because it’s faster than yelling, ‘Hey, asshole, pay attention to the big tree about to crush you!’” Wreckage called to his batch-brother.

Three seconds later, a fist-sized rock soared over the roof of the cabin. “Hey, asshole, watch out for the rock about to smack you!” Ruin yelled and then added, “Huh, your way is faster. Point to you.”

Wreckage didn’t bother to move. The rock would miss him by ten meters or so. “That gives me ten points. You know what that means?” This time he sent the message via an internal comm link so he didn’t have to shout.

Fraxx,” Ruin swore inside his head. “Already?”

Yep. Which once again confirms that I’m the smart one. We’re going into town tonight and the first round is on you.”

Ruin didn’t respond, which wasn’t normal. The two of them bickered like it was a sporting event, and they were both vying for the championship.

A moment later, Ruin appeared around the side of the cabin. His shoulders were tight, his hands fisted at his sides, and his face was twisted into a scowl. Great. Ruin was in one of his moods.

“Problem?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

Ruin ran a hand through his dark hair and grunted before answering. “We’ve been in town too much lately. We should stay away for a while.”

“Because everyone is going to forget what we look like if we’re gone long enough? The Vardarians might, but the cyborgs have perfect recall,” Wreckage reminded his friend. This argument had been going on as long as they’d been on Liberty, and he was tired of it. Eventually, someone would figure out their secret. At some point, they’d have to face the consequences.

Ruin’s lips twitched into a momentary snarl. “I know. And I know we’ve had this conversation so many times we can both recite the other’s point of view verbatim, but I…” he trailed off and smacked his fist into his open palm.

“You think I’m looking forward to having that conversation?” Wreckage shot back.

“You’re acting like it.”

“Seriously? That’s the best argument you’ve got?” Wreckage set down the axe and folded his arms across his chest. “We can’t hide out here forever.”

“It’s only been a year,” Ruin argued. “What’s the harm in giving things more time?”

“More time for what? For our brethren to figure it out for themselves? Or for someone to put the moves on Jade while we’re out here hiding?”

“We’re not hiding.” Ruin smacked his fist into his palm again, but it lacked the force of his previous action. “We’re keeping a low profile, but we see Jade every week, and we’re there when she needs us. She’s still recovering. It’s too soon.”

“There’s a small vething gap between too soon and too late,” Wreckage grumbled. That thought had been niggling at the back of his mind for a while now. Jade was brave and tough for a human, but she was still human. They were so weak they’d created cyborgs to fight their wars for them. Jade was stronger and braver than most, but she’d endured hardships and cruelty for most of her life. Then she’d been captured and tortured by mercenaries. He and Ruin knew too well what kind of scars that left.

Jade needed time to heal. But how much? If they left her alone too long, someone else would move in and take the woman they wanted for themselves.

That couldn’t happen. She was the only woman he and Ruin had ever wanted for more than a night. He’d felt it since the moment he’d carried her out of the mercenaries’ ship. She belonged with them, but only when she was ready. Until then, he wanted to stay close enough to ensure they didn’t miss their moment.

“Is Jade the only reason you want to go into town so much these days?” Ruin asked.

“Not the only reason, no. Your cooking is almost as bad as mine, which means the only way to get a decent meal is to pay someone else to make it.” Their future plans included having enough off-grid energy to support a food dispenser, but that wouldn’t happen for at least another year, especially now they were dividing their time between the cabin and their new duties as rangers. Between training sessions and the time they spent patrolling and mapping the areas around the colony, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. Not that he was complaining. Staying active made it easier to forget about the past, and sometimes he managed to push himself so close to exhaustion he actually slept for a few hours before the nightmares woke him.

Ruin nodded in grudging agreement. “Whatever that was we had for dinner last night made me nostalgic for the days of nutri-bars and algae paste.”

Wreckage winced. “You cooked it. Don’t you remember what it was before you turned it into a burnt offering?”

“Something I found in the back of the cooling unit. It was only slightly green and fuzzy, so I figured it was safe to eat.”

“You bastard. I don’t know whether to laugh or worry you poisoned me.” Even if Ruin was telling the truth, it wasn’t really anything he had to worry about. His medi-bots granted him accelerated healing and protection from illness… or food poisoning.

Ruin’s grin faded after a few seconds, and his expression turned thoughtful. “Do you think Jade would like to come out here? You know, for dinner?” He held up a hand. “We’d do takeout, of course. But the place is looking good these days. I’d like to show her around and see what she thinks.”

“Of what? Of the woods? The cabin? Or us?”

“All of it. This is our home. It could be hers, too. I mean, she doesn’t have a permanent job yet, and she hasn’t been assigned housing. We could offer her another choice.”

Wreckage didn’t know whether to laugh or smack his batch-brother upside the head. “Whoa. We haven’t even asked Jade out on a date yet and now you’re suggesting we ask her to move in with us?” He shook his head slowly as he imagined all the ways that could go wrong. “Do I need to contact Skye and some of the other cyborg women to explain to you what a terrible idea that is?”

Ruin cringed. “Fraxx, no. Do not involve the women. I’ll never hear the end of it.”

We would never hear the end of it, because they’d blame me for letting you even consider the idea. As clueless as I am about dating, I do know we’re going to need to make more of an effort than that. We’ll need to romance her and make her feel special.”

“She is special.” Ruin’s sun-bronzed features collapsed into another scowl.

“Yeah, she is.” Wreckage took a deep breath before locking eyes with Ruin. “So, what are you saying? Do you think it’s time we let her know?”

“Not yet.” Ruin chuckled ruefully. “As you just pointed out, we’re clueless about this dating stuff. I think it might be time to start making plans, though.”

Wreckage clapped his batch-brother on the shoulder. “I think you’re right. We can start tonight while we’re having dinner at the tavern.”

“I still don’t think it’s smart to go into town so much.” Ruin ran a hand over his close-cropped beard. “I could grow this out and you could, too. That worked before.”

“It worked because you and I were kept in isolation most of the time. I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life that way. If we do that, we’re not really free.”

“I know,” Ruin said and then followed it with a heavy sigh. “But when they figure it out…”

“Then we’ll deal with it.”

“My way is easier. Feed her dinner. Show her around. Offer to move her in and take care of her. She might say yes,” Ruin grumbled.

“And she might laugh in our faces,” Wreckage retorted. “That’s not a chance I’m willing to take. We’ve still got time. We’ll work on a plan and then dazzle her with romance and flowers and stuff. Maybe Striker has some suggestions. He managed to get Maggie to fall for him and he’s a sullen, silent bastard most of the time.”

Ruin grunted in agreement. “That he is. If he can figure out romance, so can we. Besides, we’re much better looking.”

“Truth. We’ll clean up the worksite and then shower and head into town. I need a brew and decent food. If we’re in luck, Jade will join us.”

Ruin nodded. “I’ll admit, she’s worth going into town for. That, and I’m tired of looking at your face.”

“And I’m tired of eating charred food that may or may not have been green and fuzzy,” Wreckage shot back.

Once he was alone again, he set to work cleaning up the site and storing the tools for tomorrow. He smiled and hummed to himself as he worked, already looking forward to tonight. They weren’t ready to make their move, but they were ready to make a plan. By the time Jade was ready, they would be, too.

***

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Sneak Peek at Marked For Menace

Chapter One

Days like this were a struggle. Not because Menace hated being with his clanmates. They were his brothers, his only family. It had always been them versus the universe, and he’d happily lay down his life to save any of them.

His life would be easier if he did hate them, or at least was indifferent to them. If he didn’t care, he could leave this place and go live somewhere else. It was a big planet. He’d find somewhere quiet and far enough away he’d never be tempted to see his brothers again.

They were his family, but some dark, primal part of him didn’t care about that. Every time he spent too long with the others, his dark side would rouse and pace the confines of the mental cell he’d sealed it inside.

One day, it would break free. On that day, he feared what would happen. Not to him, but to the only family he had—the fa’rel.

The problem was that he didn’t hate them, which was why he was with two of his brothers, helping Mayhem extend the roof of his home. Weaving grass and slender branches into the existing roof wasn’t physically demanding work, but what it lacked in backbreaking labor it made up for with mind-numbing tedium.

Still, it needed to be done, and it went faster when they worked together. This week, he and Strife were helping Mayhem. Next week, the three of them would be at Strife’s home, and the week after that, they’d all be coming to help him prepare his place for the rainy season.

They’d struggled their first year on this planet. In the beginning, they had nothing but the supplies they’d salvaged from the wreckage of their crashed ship. They’d huddled inside the ruined shell as the rain fell day after day. Being in such close quarters had nearly driven him to the breaking point more than once, and he’d spent most of his time outside. Flash floods, carnivorous wildlife, and the constant rain had been better than being stuck inside with his brothers.

Mayhem worked on the roof from above while Menace worked from below. They’d fallen into a comfortable silence that made it easier for him to stay focused on the job and not the proximity of the others. The longer he could work uninterrupted, the longer he could stay.

So of course, his brother had to do something stupid. Mayhem growled and tugged so hard at the thatching he was working on that part of it pulled loose and showering Menace with bits of vegetation.

“If you fuck that up, you can fix it yourself.” He glared up at his clanmate while brushing plant bits and dust out of his beard. A long blade of orange grass hung from one of his horns and he swiped at it absently.

“You grumble more than Strife when it rains. It’s fine,” Mayhem replied unapologetically.

His dark side wanted to grab his brother by the horns and drag him through the hole in the roof. Instead, he flashed his fangs and made a joke. “No need to be insulting. I don’t grumble anywhere near as much as he does.”

A moment later they were caught in a shower of freshly cut branches. Strife had obviously heard them.

“Asshole,” he hollered loudly enough his brother couldn’t fail to hear. Then he sighed and looked around at the mess. “Now we need to stop and clean up before we can start the next section.”

“You’re grumbling again,” Mayhem said.

He swallowed an angry retort and rolled his shoulders to disguise some of his tension. “One more comment from you and I’m going home. You can finish this yourself.”

He didn’t want to leave until the work was done, but it wouldn’t be the first time. His brothers understood. They all had the same problem, though he’d always been affected more than the others. He hid it as best he could, but they gave him space when he needed it. The need to dominate was part of their design, but the verexi had—by intention or by accident—ramped his up to dangerous levels.

He rarely thought about the scrawnies—their name for the race responsible for creating him and his brothers. Thinking about their captors only made him seethe and wish for a chance at payback. Not that the verexi were stupid enough to come down to the planet where they’d imprisoned his clan. Losing control of their creations was an embarrassment for them. From time to time, the verexi would hire mercenaries to try and exterminate the fa’rel. Each time that happened, the mercenaries died and his clan would add a few more weapons and other tools to their limited supplies. Hunting down the mercs was the best way to keep his dark side satiated.

As if in answer to his thoughts, a sharp series of beeps erupted. He’d never been here the other times, but he knew what that alarm meant. The verexi’s hired killers were back.

It was time to go hunting again.

He followed Mayhem to the small shelter that protected some of their most important assets—a cobbled-together mess of components that allowed them an illicit link to the verexi’s satellite network. It warned them when anything entered the planet’s atmosphere.

“What is it?” he asked Mayhem once the other male had a chance to look at the monitor. Strife joined him at the door and they both waited for confirmation of what was happening.

“We’re about to have company.”

Good. That would take the edge off his anger and give him a few days of relative peace. Long enough to make sure everyone’s homes were ready for the coming rainy season.

Mayhem and Strife knew more about computers and constructs than he did, but he’d seen enough to understand. A cluster of small ships fell away from a much larger one that continued on its original heading. The bigger ship would fly over his territory and should land on the far side of a range of hills while the smaller ships were descending rapidly toward fa’rel territory. In fact, one of those vessels should land in the area he’d claimed for himself.

Even better. He’d be hunting on familiar ground.

They watched the screen, trying to estimate where the ships would land. The system lost track of them as they neared the surface, but Menace knew where to start looking. Each of them had a ship coming down in their claimed territory. It was an odd strategy, one none of them had seen before. None of them understood what the enemy was up to. Not that it mattered. They were the enemy and they would die.

“When will they stop trying?” Menace asked, slapping his fist into his open palm.

Mayhem turned away from the monitor. “Let them come. This is our home and we’ll defend it.”

“To the death,” Strife added.

“To the death,” Menace repeated, meaning every word.

The three of them butted heads, their horns clacking as they touched. They bid each other good hunting and set out.

Menace didn’t bother taking the stairs. He vaulted over the railing a split second faster than Strife, both of them bounding from limb to limb, letting gravity do most of the work.

His claws carved new gouges in thick branches as he descended, slowing him enough to let him land on his feet. He was already sprinting toward his territory when the distinct sizzle of a signal gun discharging sounded followed by an ear-piercing screech intended to catch the attention of anyone who’d missed the light show.

He didn’t bother slowing to look. He knew what had happened. Mayhem had sent up a bright green flare, letting the others know a hunt was underway. Since only three ships were nearby, the hunt would be short and simple, each of them dealing with the invaders in their territory. The rest of the clan would prepare their defenses and wait. They didn’t have communication equipment. When a flare went up, everyone returned home and got ready. If another clanmate arrived with news, they’d react. Otherwise, they would stay near home and prepare.

Menace raced through the forest, using the shortcuts he’d long since memorized to reach his territory as fast as possible. Their territory was set out in a rough circle, and each of them claimed a triangular section with the crash site at the center. Most of the others had built their homes a short run from the middle.

He hadn’t. His house was near the distant boundary of the land he’d claimed for himself, and as it happened, it was the opposite edge from where he’d estimated the ship would land. Going home to gear up would waste valuable time, so he chose a different route—one that would take him to the right area and straight to a cache of supplies he’d placed for this kind of scenario. He didn’t know if any of the others had done the same thing, but he assumed at least some of them had.

They’d spent too many years stashing food and hiding what few items they’d managed to create or steal from the scrawnies to stop now. They’d want to be prepared for anything. Just like him.

The cache was stored in a cave partway up a hill. It wasn’t large, but it was high enough to stay dry even in the rainy season, and he’d fashioned a door heavy enough to keep out any of the local fauna. He stayed there sometimes when he didn’t feel like facing the summer storms that drenched the forest and sent lightning dancing through the clouds overhead.

He only took a few minutes to gear up, tying greaves to his lower legs and securing wide bands of leather to his wrists. He fastened a short kilt of boiled leather straps around his waist and adjusted the fit so it didn’t rub the fur over his hips. He hated wearing the thing, but it offered too much protection to forgo it. Not that it would do much against blaster fire, but the mercenaries weren’t the only dangerous predators on this planet. Teeth and claws were a much more common threat, and he’d likely run more of them than the mercs.

He grinned at that thought. More than once, the local wildlife had reduced the enemy’s ranks before the fa’rel joined the hunt. Menace was fine with that. He was happy to share the kill with anyone or anything, so long as they didn’t get in his way.

He armed himself with a variety of weapons and then jogged further up the hill to a rocky outcrop that offered a good view of the valley they called home. The boundary of his land was marked by a slow-moving river they called the bend.

Bysshe had tried to argue for something more poetic, but the android’s suggestions were all shot down by the fa’rel. It was a river. It had many bends in it. The name was simple and obvious. Bysshe had muttered about their lack of imagination, which seemed odd coming from the only artificial lifeform in their clan. Bysshe was an honorary member of the fa’rel despite the fact he’d been created by humans. He never spoke about how he’d ended up under the control of the scrawnies, and none of them had pressed him about it. The past didn’t matter. Their future was uncertain. All that mattered was the moment and the memories of those they’d lost along the way.

As he scanned the river with one of the few sets of functional binoculars they possessed, he couldn’t help but think about one of his clanmates. Rage had been the oldest of them, and he’d done what he could to protect them from the worst of the scrawnies’ cruelty. He would have loved this planet with its open sky and stretches of forest so vast you could lose yourself for days. Rage had died in an escape attempt not long before the verexi finally gave up on their experiment and pretended to arrange for the surviving fa’rel to live the rest of their lives on an uninhabited planet. They’d even sent down supplies, though the containers were mostly full of useless gear like bathtubs instead of what was promised.

None of them had any idea why their captors had provided them with anything at all. It didn’t make sense. The verexi had promised them a new life, but their plan had always been to kill them. Bysshe had figured that out and warned them once they were on the ship that brought them here. The crash landing was the best they could manage once they had taken the ship’s AI offline.

Rage had missed his chance at freedom. He’d died trying to find a way for them all to escape. It wasn’t fair. Menace smacked his fist into his flat palm. Nothing in their lives had ever been fair, but losing Rage stung the most. One day they would take the fight to the scrawnies. Then, he’d dedicate every kill to the brothers he’d lost, starting with Rage.

When he spotted debris along the edge of the river, his thoughts of revenge shifted from the future to this moment. The enemy appeared to have crashed their ship into the water. A tiny ship. Hmm.

He increased the magnification until he could make it out clearly. Not a ship. An escape pod. At least that’s what he assumed based on the fact it had inflated some sort of flotation device to keep it from sinking. He’d initially expected a scout ship, but that wasn’t the case. This pod was a one-way delivery system, not really a ship at all.

His grin widened until his fangs showed. If the three small ships were all pods, the larger ship must have had serious issues big enough to make it crash. If they could get to the wreck before the mercs could destroy it, there would be plenty of supplies and weapons to scavenge.

Today was a good day after all.

He put away the binoculars, checked his weapons were secure, and set off toward the river. It was time to go hunting.

***

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Sneak Peek at Her Alien Spymaster

Chapter One

Skye ran as fast as she could manage, which wasn’t nearly as fast as she would have liked. The ice and snow on the ground made it impossible to reach anything close to her top speed, but the added difficulty almost made up for it. She’d come out here to burn off some energy and try to find some semblance of calm, but despite the solitude and silence of the wintery woods, she couldn’t find even a moment’s peace. All she could think about was the threat to Haven colony… her home.

The worst part wasn’t the fact there was a threat. She was a fraxxing cyborg after all. She was designed from the DNA up for combat, but she had no idea how to fight against an enemy she couldn’t even see. Something was sickening every Vardarian in Haven, and none of them knew if it would spread to the other species that called the colony home.

 Nothing about the illness made any sense. The Vardarians were born with cutting edge nanotech that gave them a number of advantages, including accelerated healing and the ability to cleanse their systems of any toxins or viruses. The cyborgs all carried a different kind of nanotech, which they called medi-bots, that provided the same benefits. So why were the Vardarians the only ones getting sick? And why hadn’t any of the humans been infected? Most of them hadn’t been given the medi-bot treatment yet. They should have been the first to fall ill.

Skye snarled in frustration and increased her pace. Two strides later, her foot hit an icy patch. She skidded, cursed, and caught hold of a tree to prevent herself from falling ass over afterburner.

“Don’t get cocky,” she muttered her herself. “Or in this case, don’t get emotional. Emotions get you just as dead as cockiness.” Then she winced. She’d just butchered one of the cyborgs’ favorite mottos. Good thing none of them were around to hear what she’d said, or she would never hear the end of it. That was the problem with having cyborgs as friends and family… they never forgot a damned thing and were more than happy to bring up choice tidbits at the most annoying moments.

It’s a good thing she loved the rowdy group of survivors who had made it off Reamus Station. If she didn’t, she’d have dropped-kicked most of them out an airlock by now.

Once her mind and body both were balanced again, she set off at a slower pace. She enjoyed the stark beauty of the woods when it was blanketed by fluffy frozen water, but the way sound behaved in this environment intrigued her and held her attention.

The crunch and squeak of snow beneath her boots was sharp and immediate. Every exhalation seemed louder than normal, punctuated by the puffs of vapor that accompanied each breath. Other sounds were muffled by the blanket of snow. The wind blowing through the trees and the creak of branches were harder to detect despite her enhanced senses.

She let her mind wander, chasing after stray thoughts until she finally outran her worries, at least for a little while. She’d needed this.

After another few kilometers, she circled back, breaking a new trail instead of following her previous tracks. Her new route would eventually take her to the bridge that linked the two sides of the colony, but it also took her through one of her favorite spots, a wide meadow with a stream running through it. It had been covered in soft green and blue grass with wildflowers the first time she’d seen it. Now, it looked very different. The wind had blown the snow into drifts that looked like frozen waves, piling it up against the trunks of trees along the far side of the field. She saw tracks here and there, most of them from small animals, but something larger had been through here since the last snowfall.

She jogged over and looked at the prints, trying to discern what might have made them. Striker would know, but she didn’t want to disturb the big, somewhat grumpy cyborg. They were friends now, but she’d been wary of him at one time. She understood him better now, but that didn’t mean she was ready to call him on their internal channels and have a chat about the tracks left by the local wildlife.

Besides, the antisocial cyborg usually had his channels switched off. “What Maggie sees in him I will never understand. When I’m ready to settle down, I’ll find someone cheerful, all charm and sass. Yeah.” She glanced up at the sky. “That comment was not a request for said male to arrive just yet. I’m still enjoying my freedom, thank you very much.”

It was a habit she’d picked up from the human colonists. Most of them believed in one higher being or another, and all of them seemed to look up when they were communicating with them.

She stayed in the field long enough to enjoy the tranquility and capture a few images of the tracks with her onboard optics. Given their size, it had to be either a ghost cat or a kopaki. Both were large predators that had developed a taste for the colony’s assorted species of livestock. She’d have to let the rangers know what she’d seen. They’d take care of it once the more immediate crisis was over.

That thought shattered her moment of peace. “I’d take a pack of ghost cats over this damned bug. At least then I’d have something to hit.”

She was halfway back when River pinged her over their shared channel. “Skye, I’ve got an update.”

“I’m listening.”

“I heard from Maggie. Since the council can’t get anything done, we’re going a different way. I’m rounding up everyone here and taking them to the Bar None. Meet you there?”

It was the best news she’d heard in days. “I’m already running. Let’s see who gets there first.”

Skye turned and took off at the fastest speed she could manage. She had no chance of beating River and the others to the bar, but she wouldn’t be far behind them. They were going to do something, and that was all she needed to know.

*

At this time of day, the bridge was usually humming with activity. Haven’s citizens should be socializing and shopping at the various vendors and market stalls that lined the street, linking the two sides of the colony. Today, though, it was silent and empty. All the shops and stalls were shuttered, and the only sound she heard was the rush of water beneath her feet and the occasional crash as chunks of ice slammed into each other.

She was well onto the bridge before she heard voices. It was no surprise they came from the Bar None. The meeting must be underway already. Good.

She spotted River’s vehicle parked nearby. A quick scan showed the engine hadn’t started cooling yet. She wasn’t far behind them. She knocked the snow from her boots and opened the door. A rush of warm, richly scented air wafted by as she stepped into one of the most comfortable places she knew.

The building wasn’t even a year old yet, but somehow this place already felt older and more broken in. Entering the bar was like slipping into her favorite pair of boots. She’d barely crossed the threshold when everyone else erupted into excited cheers.

Hope bloomed, and she raised her voice to be heard above the others. “Does this mean we have a plan?”

The only male present rose from his seat. She recognized him immediately and wondered what the fraxx he was doing here. The prince’s spymaster was dour and distrustful, especially when it came to the non-Vardarian citizens of Haven.

She expected him to say something to dampen the mood or point out something they’d all overlooked. Instead, his golden skin lost most of its luster and he crashed to the floor.

Shit.

Phaedra was at his side in a second, concern shadowing her normally sunny expression. “You stubborn fraxxing, idiot. You didn’t tell me you were sick, too.”

Well, that explained what the spymaster was doing here. He didn’t have much love for humans, but Phaedra was the prince’s mate. She was also stubborn, impulsive, and resistant to authority. Since her bodyguards weren’t present, Yardan had come himself. Phaedra must have loved that.

Yardan waved everyone off. “I’m not sick. I just got up too fast.”

Skye scanned him. He had an elevated temperature, a rapid pulse, and several other indicators of illness.

Stubborn fraxxing idiot indeed, she thought and walked over to help him up. She hadn’t intended to do that, but she was halfway there before she even realized she was moving.

He glared at her for a few seconds, just long enough for her to wonder if he’d refuse her assistance, but then he took her hand in his and tried to pull himself up.

Skye saw him struggling and simply lifted him off the floor, using her enhanced strength to get him on his feet. That’s when it hit her… a subtle rush of warmth and desire. Oh fraxx, no. Him? Now? This couldn’t be the sharhal. Surely she’d been close enough to him before today… Her mind raced as she accessed her memory, cross-referencing every time she’d encountered the spymaster or his anrik. Wait. Did he even have one? She checked his wrist for the scar that every other Vardarian male wore with pride. His skin was smooth. No scar. No anrik. No blood-brother to journey through life with. That meant if this was what she thought it was, she wouldn’t be the filling in a sexy male sandwich. Pity.

By the time she’d worked through that, though, her memory crosscheck confirmed that the two of them had never been inside the few times they’d attended at the same functions, and they’d never been introduced.

Typical. Her mahoyen had been here all along, and she’d never crossed paths with him until today. She managed a sidelong look at him as he leaned against her. His hair and beard were both dark and closely trimmed, framing a handsome face with a strong jaw and green eyes that glittered with intelligence edged in ice.

Grumpy but good looking—she could work with that.

She draped one of his well-muscled arms over her shoulders and caught him around his waist with the other. “I got you,” she told him as she drew his hard body in close to her side.

He shot her a disgruntled look. “Apparently. Damned females shouldn’t be that strong. And I’m fine.”

Phaedra chimed in before Skye could. “He’s not close to fine. Can you help me get him home?”

A moment ago all she wanted was to take on the threat to Haven and find a way to help her adopted home. Strange how quickly things could change. She glanced at Yardan and then nodded. If she was right and they were destined to be mates, she would go with him. Besides, Phaedra would need help running things while both of her mates were down with whatever the fraxx this plague was. “You can fill me in on what’s happening on the way.”

“Suki, grab our coats. Will you?” Phaedra asked one of the human colonists. Then she picked up Yardan’s heavy cloak from the back of his chair and managed to toss it over his shoulders. Phae was too short to place it carefully, so Skye took a moment to adjust it before helping the spymaster outside.

Skye kept expecting him to say something about the sharhal. The Vardarian should be feeling the effects even more than she was. So why hadn’t he said anything? She’d been prepared for the possibility that she’d end up mated to a Vardarian. From what she’d seen, it wasn’t so bad. Hell, it was probably better this way. Dating wasn’t something the survivors of Reamus Station knew much about. She’d enjoyed a few no-strings-attached encounters here in Haven, but that wasn’t the same.

She glanced over at Yardan again. All his attention was on Phaedra, walking a few steps ahead of them. Just her fraxxing luck. She finally met her destined mate, and he was too sick to notice her.

Once he was healthy, things would be different. They had to be. Otherwise, she was in trouble. Once triggered, the Vardarian mating fever couldn’t be stopped. Either she’d wind up mated or she’d lose herself to madness and death.

She knew which option she’d prefer. The rest was up to Yardan.

***

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Sneak Peek at Marked For Mayhem

Her last shot at love just crashed and burned… literally.

Bella signed up for the interplanetary courtship cruise hoping for travel, adventure, and maybe a chance at romance. Now she’s crash landed on a strange planet with no one around but a horned alien hottie who showed up and laid claim to her gear, her ship… and her.

He’s too brash, too pushy, and much too young for her. He’s also not taking no for an answer…

This wasn’t the adventure she imagined, but it might be the romance of a lifetime, if she can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.

**Buckle up. This sci-fi romance contains an alien with fur, fangs, horns, and a very possessive attitude when it comes to the woman he’s claimed for his own.

Chapter One

“This was not in the brochure,” Bella muttered as she clung to the straps of her safety harness. She kept her eyes tightly closed as she spent what she assumed were the last minutes of her life trying to pin down which of her many dubious choices had led her astray.

The escape pod pitched and shook as it plummeted toward the surface at speeds she didn’t want to contemplate. If the thrusters failed, there’d be nothing left but a crater and a schmear of organic goo that had once been Bella-shaped.

She decided that signing up for the galactic matchmaking cruise had been the key mistake. What was she thinking, looking for love at her age? It didn’t matter what species they were. Males were all the same. They wanted someone young and pretty to warm their bed and boost their ego, and while Bella had been young once, she’d never been pretty.

She heard her father’s voice in her head, exactly the same as it had been the day he’d called her into the front room and laid out his plans for her future. “You’re a handsome woman, Bella, but you’ll never be beautiful. Beauty offers its own kind of power, but you’re not destined for that. You’re going to have to find other ways to get by in life. I’ve got no money or power of my own, but I know men who have both. The best I can do for you is to give you to one of them. You’ll have to make your own way after that.”

She’d taken her father’s advice and gone with the man he’d chosen for her, a crime lord named Felix Natar. Maybe that had been a mistake, too, but she’d had limited options back then.

The same could be said for her current situation. She’d traveled from planet to planet, watching as the other women made their choices and left for their new lives. Now only a handful of them remained, rattling around the lushly appointed ship like loose change in a rich man’s purse. At least, they had been… before it had all gone to the nine hells.

One minute they were zipping along in hyperspace, and the next the ship convulsed and shuddered as something that felt like a shock wave tore through it. After that, there’d been nothing but chaos.

The captain had come on, shouting orders Bella barely heard over the alarms that screeched and wailed from every speaker. Heavy, airtight doors slammed shut, sealing off various compartments.

Bella tried to remember the drills they’d all been put through at the start of the cruise. Emergency procedures. She needed to be somewhere right now… Shit! The escape pods.

She was only halfway to the nearest evac station when something loud happened and the ship rocked again, throwing her to her knees.

She was barely on her feet again before a new, even louder klaxon sounded and every monitor in view lit up bright red, all flashing the same message in various languages. “Abandon Ship.”

She’d followed the flashing arrows to the nearest escape pod and strapped herself into the one-man vessel. The moment she had her harness fastened, the door sealed, and she’d been ejected into space.

An annoyingly calm, automated voice came on within seconds of launch while Bella was still dealing with the sudden loss of gravity. The voice announced the pod would attempt to land on the nearest planet and began reciting instructions pertaining to various crash scenarios. “In case of a water landing…”

Bella ignored it. She had no idea what the surface looked like. It could be water, land, or molten rock, for all she knew. She didn’t even know where they were. All she had to go on was what little information scrolled across the pod’s single monitor. The planet had a breathable atmosphere, multiple healthy ecosystems, and not much else. No cities. No ports. No datasphere. She couldn’t even see what it looked like. The pod had no windows, and the monitor kept scrolling the same few lines of text. All she could do was hold on and hope.

Laughter bubbled up in giddy giggles that morphed into maniacal gales. She was about to crash land on a strange planet and probably die there… This was so not the way she imagined this cruise ending for her.

*

Bella didn’t remember the moment of impact. One second she’d been laughing like a lunatic, and the next thing she knew, she was staggering through the open door of her pod, coughing up the suspension gel that must have been triggered while she was still airborne.

The gel had saved her life, but holy hells, it reeked. She hacked and spat as much of the vile crap out of her body as she could, her attempts to clear her mouth and lungs triggering several rounds of nausea as her much-abused stomach got in on the action. Once her insides were dealt with, she switched her attention to the outside.

“Fuck.” She was drenched in the snot-slick stuff and more was oozing out of the pod. A goopy pool of it gathered around the open door, making the scorched ground sizzle and hiss anywhere the liquid touched.

Scorched ground. Right. So, the thrusters had kicked in like they were supposed to. She was still dizzy enough that falling back into the goop was a risk, so she moved a few meters away. Once she found a patch of reasonably clear ground, she planted her feet and took her first look around.

Trees. That was her first impression. She’d crashed into a forest of some kind. The ground was thick with a spongy carpet she assumed was some kind of moss, though it was a far cry from the blue-green stuff she’d seen before. This was a burnt orange color, though it looked to be healthy enough. The trees overhead had foliage of similar shades. Reds and oranges with a few splashes of gold here and there. She couldn’t smell much over the cloying smell of the goop, but the air was definitely breathable.

The second that thought popped into her head, she tossed it right back out again. Obviously, it was breathable. She’d have suffocated by now otherwise. Fortunately, the cruise came with a health package that had provided the women with all sorts of boosters to help them acclimatize to different oxygen levels and immunize them against dozens of pathogens and parasites. Handy when they were being toured around the galaxy looking for love… and damned useful now she was on a strange planet.

Whatever wound up killing her would have to be bigger than a virus. She looked around warily. “That was not an invitation for anything to try and kill me right now. In fact, I’d recommend waiting until I’ve gotten this crap off me first. Trust me, it does not taste good.”

She sank down on a moss-covered stone, gathered up a handful of the thick, orange stuff, and used it to scrub the worst of the gunk off herself.

Over the next few minutes, the natural sounds of the wood returned as whatever wildlife called this place home got over the shock of her sudden and noisy arrival. The pod had torn a path through the canopy, snapping off branches as it plowed through on its way to the ground. Sunlight poured through the gap, and after a few more minutes, she opted to move to a shadier spot. The sun was baking the remaining gel into a hard, tacky mess that itched.

She wanted to find a nice pool of water somewhere and clean up, but that couldn’t be her first priority. Being clean was a luxury. Shelter, food, and drinkable water were necessities. She eyed the pod that had brought her here. It was oblong, windowless, and a little worse for wear after atmospheric re-entry and the beating it took from the local plant life. Plus, the inside was coated in slowly dissolving goo.

Whoever had designed these things clearly didn’t intend for the pod to act as any kind of shelter once it was on the ground. Of course, most times escape pods would drift around in space and wait for rescue. The space-to-planet ratio was heavily skewed toward the empty space side of the scale.

 Still, it was better than nothing. And hadn’t that stupid voice mentioned something about emergency supplies at some point during the descent?

She crossed over to the still-cooling pod and took a closer look. There! Near the bottom, she spotted a panel marked in multiple languages. She couldn’t read them all—her translators only worked on spoken speech, not written words—but the ones she could make out all said the same thing. “Emergency kit inside.”

The metal was still hot, but she managed to get the panel open without burning herself. She found two containers inside. One was marked as rations and the other as an emergency shelter. She grabbed them both and lugged them over to the shady rock she’d used earlier. At least, that’s what she tried to do. The reality was something quite different.

The containers were heavy and awkward, and the thick moss made it almost impossible to pick her way through the uneven footing. After just a few steps she tripped over something and stumbled, dropping both items in the process.

Before she could recover her balance, she was deafened by an explosive whooshing noise and something hit her in the back, knocking her off her feet.

The moss was soft, but the roots and rocks she landed on weren’t. Ow.

She’d fallen too many times in her life to make the mistake of moving before she was certain nothing was broken. It only took a few seconds to determine she had a few bruises and scrapes but nothing more serious. Good enough.

Time to see what the hell had knocked her down and made that hideous noise. She got awkwardly to her feet, grateful no one could see her right now. Then she looked behind her. Something large and yellow was caught between the trunks of several trees. It shuddered and hissed like a suitcase full of unhappy snakes, and it took Bella’s scattered senses a few seconds to work out what had happened. Her shelter had attacked her.

She looked on in dismay as the large inflatable structure slowly deflated through several freshly torn holes. She’d somehow managed to activate it when she stumbled. It had inflated and then rapidly run out of room since it was far too big to fit into the densely treed space. The rocks and branches had torn holes in it, and now it was dying a sad, leaky death as she watched.

Fucking hells. Even if she found a patch kit, it couldn’t possibly be extensive enough to fix all the leaks, and she didn’t see anywhere nearby to set it up if she did. The shelter was useless.

At least she still had the rest of the supplies. Maybe she could cut up the shelter to make a tarp or something. If she could find something to cut it with. She needed something to defend herself with, too, because anywhere as lush and full as life as this spot had to have wildlife in abundance.

“Something here is going to try to eat me. I just know it.”

Movement out of the corner of her eye made her spin around. Some kind of serpent-like creature had come up behind her, its red and orange coloring helping it blend into the forest floor.

Bella had no idea if it was dangerous or not, but she wasn’t about to take that chance. She slowly lifted one foot off the ground and eased her shoe off. It was a sensible flat, durable and comfortable.

She took aim and hurled it at the creature’s head. Her throw was off, but it was enough to make the serpent veer off and then turn to slither back into the forest.

“Something might eat me eventually,” she called after the snake as she limped over to pick up her shoe, “but it won’t be you.”

Ready for more? Marked For Mayhem releases March 29th. Preorder it today and have this hot, horned alien delivered straight to your reader on release day.

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Sneak Peek at Her Cyborg Champion

Cover for Cyborg Champion

Chapter One

Maggie looked down at the empty seat beside her and felt a pang of worry. Jade should be here. This was supposed to be their adventure, but her best friend had vanished the night before they were due to report for their flight, leaving her to make the voyage to Haven colony on her own.

The shuttle bounced and rocked a little as they descended into the planet’s atmosphere. Some of the others stirred uneasily in their seats, but over the last few weeks Maggie had come to trust Vardarian technology more than anything put together by human hands.

All the tech had operated perfectly, which was a new experience for her. From the air purifiers to the food dispensers, everything had performed its tasks quickly, quietly, and with no malfunctions. As far as she was concerned, any crew who could keep an entire ship running that smoothly could be trusted to bring her safely to her new home. She leaned back in her comfortable chair and enjoyed the ride.

“We’ll be through the clouds shortly. If you select the forward view on your screens, you should get your first look at the planet Liberty any moment now,” N’tash, their Vardarian pilot, announced from the flight deck.

The energy in the shuttle’s cabin quickly shifted from worry to anticipation. Everyone not already watching their monitors activated them and stared at the thick white clouds still obscuring the view. A buzz of excited chatter filled the air. Maggie shared in the sentiment, but she had no one to talk to, so she stayed quiet and kept her eyes locked on her viewscreen.

She’d expected the clouds to thin out gradually. They didn’t. One moment everything was gray and the next she saw a breathtaking expanse of blue. Water. No, she realized as her mind absorbed the scale of what she was looking at. An ocean. A vast, glorious stretch of unpolluted water. The reality of what was happening finally hit her.

She’d made it.

No more recycled air for her. She could bask in real daylight, and the water she drank would be so fresh it might have never been inside another being. If the price for that freedom was a lifetime bond with a pair of alien strangers? She’d gladly pay it.

Again, she looked over at the empty seat beside her and wished Jade was here. This had been her idea. Where was she?

Leaving her best friend behind had been the hardest decision of Maggie’s life, but in the end, she’d stuck to their plan. It was how they’d made it this far. No matter how fraxxed up things got, they got through it by sticking to the plan. So when she’d read Jade’s last message, she’d known exactly what she had to do, even if she didn’t want to do it.

Haul ass. You know the drill. See you when I see you. Stay safe. J.

P.S. Ping.

The last line was a code word. It meant Jade had sent something to Maggie’s implant. It was black market tech—undetectable to most scans and completely inaccessible to the one carrying it. Whatever data she was carrying, she couldn’t read it.

No other details were in the message, not even a hint as to what had gone wrong. But that was by design. The less the other knew, the less they could give away if they were caught. So instead of going looking for Jade, Maggie had downed her drink, dropped some corporate vouchers on the table, and gone to do the job they were supposed to do together—visit every secret cache they’d set up over the years and take what they needed. New clothes. Hard currency. Food. She’d gathered up enough for both of them. She’d still had hope Jade would find a way to join her at the last minute.

That hope was gone now. They were about to land at the colony, and she hadn’t heard from Jade again.

The shuttle had barely touched down before she unbuckled her harness and was on her feet, ready to go. She’d attended every class, worked out daily to build up the muscles she’d need for the higher gravity, and she’d spent as much time as she could in the sims to get over her brain’s distrust of open spaces.

It didn’t bother her as much as it did some of the other women. She guessed it was because she’d spent a little time near the outer walls. As a kid, she’d snuck out a few times to play in the small gaps between the buildings and the shields protecting them.

She bounced on her toes as two Vardarian females handed out sunglasses and advised them all to move slowly, especially on the stairs.

“If you’re feeling anxious, don’t look up. You’ll have plenty of time to watch the clouds later, once you’re settled in,” Vixi reminded them all in perfect Galactic Standard.

It was hard to remember why Maggie had been nervous around them the first few days on board. Every Vardarian she’d met was friendly, helpful, and spoke her language. Vixi was the Vardarian version of a doctor and one of the few unmated aliens on board. She took her duties seriously and made sure everyone took their meds and did their exercises every day.

Maggie and the other women had all been taking language lessons because they couldn’t be implanted with translation devices right away. Those would come after they received their nanotech injections, six months from now or after being claimed by one of the colony’s males, whichever came first.

Right now she didn’t care about nanotech, males, or language lessons. She just wanted to get off the shuttle and stand in the unshielded sun for the first time. It might not be the star she’d orbited for the first part of her life, but as far as she was concerned, sunlight was sunlight. Earth was her former home. Her future was here, on Liberty… or it would be as soon as they let her off this vething shuttle.

“We’re waiting for the unmated males to move farther away. Some of them let their curiosity get the better of their common sense,” Tanas announced.

There was a chorus of nervous laughter. They’d have time to settle in before the unclaimed males would be allowed close enough to scent them. If their mates were out there, they weren’t going to meet them for a few weeks yet.

Vixi opened the door. Sunlight streamed in, making her silver skin gleam.

Maggie tried to imagine what that would feel like but couldn’t. She’d find out soon, though she belatedly saw her mistake. She should have snagged a seat near the front, but going to the back of the shuttle had seemed like an easy way to avoid conversation. Now, everyone was ahead of her, which meant she’d be the last one off.

Fraxx.

Vixi stepped out first, followed by Tanas. Irisa stayed by the door, providing encouragement and support as the women filed out one-by-one. All the Vardarians had been welcoming and kind, but Maggie liked Irisa the best. The golden-skinned female was always laughing, and despite the fact she was over one hundred years old, she still looked at her mates with unabashed desire and affection. It gave Maggie hope that maybe someone in the universe might look at her that way someday.

She finally reached the doorway and Irisa.

“Take a breath, Maggie. This world can wait a little longer.”

“I won’t, though. I’ve waited my whole life for this.”

Irisa laughed. “You’re not going to do this slowly. Are you?”

“Nope.”

The female shook her head in mock dismay and then peeked out the door. “Kara is almost clear. Give her a few more seconds.”

“You’re not going to tell me to be careful?”

“Why would I do that?” Irisa stepped back. “Go. And welcome home.”

Caught up in a moment of joy, Maggie launched herself out the door and into her new life. She’d spent the trip worried that someone would realize the randomized draw hadn’t been random at all. No one had noticed. She was here. And no matter what happened now, she’d find a way to stay.

*

He shouldn’t be here.

Striker didn’t know what had drawn him to the edge of the landing field to watch the shuttle land. The beings on board were strangers. Worse, they were humans.

The thrusters kicked on as the shuttle neared the ground. The ground beneath his feet trembled, and the branches above him shifted in a sudden breeze thick with the scent of ozone. A shower of leaves fell around him in a flurry of red, gold, and purple, and Striker allowed himself to be distracted by the colorful display.

This was the first time the colony had experienced autumn, and he was enjoying the changes to his woods. Not that they were actually his, but given that he was one of the few beings who preferred the silence of nature to the bustle and thrum of Haven’s streets, he liked to think of them that way.

Would any of the humans on board want to explore beyond the colony? Veth, he hoped not. He didn’t want them intruding there. Besides, the woods were dangerous. Especially for an unenhanced human female. They had no implants. No nanotech. Hell, it was a safe bet none of them had ever been outside before. They were from Earth, transported here as refugees from a dying planet.

Typical. The humans had destroyed their home and then abandoned the least desirable members of their species to die a slow death along with their homeworld. Humans corrupted everything they touched, which was why he didn’t think of himself as human. He was a cyborg.

The shuttle settled on its landing pad. A few seconds later, the engines powered down. They’d be disembarking soon and taking their first steps on a new planet, under a strange sky. Haven’s newest colonists. That’s how the leadership council referred to them. As if they were just like the others who called this place home. They weren’t. They were potential mates for the males of Haven—Vardarian and cyborg alike.

Not him, though. He had no interest in pairing up with a woman for more than a night of mutual pleasure. He could find willing company among the cyborg women, as well as a few of the unclaimed Vardarian females. A committed relationship was not on his radar, and if he lost his mind someday and decided he wanted something more, it would not be with a human. They’d already taken too much from him. He didn’t trust any of them.

He caught a flash of bright pink hair among the crowd standing near the tarmac and amended his thought. At least one human had proven herself trustworthy—Phaedra Kari. The first of her species to be claimed by a pair of Vardarian males, she was now the consort of the Vardarian prince who had helped found the colony. Phaedra was smart, loyal and fiercely protective of Haven and everyone in it, particularly the cyborgs she’d helped to bring here. They might have been left in cryo-stasis forever if she hadn’t fought for them.

A message came through his internal comms channel. “You know I can see you. Right?” It was Edge, the unofficial leader of the colony’s cyborg population.

Striker scanned the crowd, using his cybernetic eye to zoom in until he picked out Edge near the back of the group gathered to greet the new arrivals. “Of course you can see me. It’s not like I’m hiding up here.”

“Yet you’re lurking in the trees instead of joining us,” Edge said.

“Lurking is not the same as hiding. I was in the area and heard the shuttle’s engine. Thought I’d check it out.”

It was a lie, and they both knew it. He also knew the other cyborg wouldn’t call him on it. It wasn’t only because Edge had command functionality embedded in his programming that they looked to him for leadership. He was a surly bastard, but he knew what his people needed from him. In Striker’s case, that was simple. He wanted to be left the fraxx alone.

“You’re welcome to stand with us,” was all Edge said.

“I know.” There wasn’t anything else to say. Not that he’d actually said anything out loud. He did most of his communication by his internal channels. His voice—what was left of it—wasn’t something he used often.

There was a minor stir of activity on the tarmac as the handful of Vardarian males present launched themselves into the air and flew back to the colony. The council had decreed that the males couldn’t approach the women until they’d had a chance to adjust to their new home. Once a Vardarian caught their mate’s scent, things happened quickly, with all three falling into a mating fever that couldn’t be denied without risking the sanity and even the lives of everyone involved. For now, the winged wonders would have to wait to find out if their mate was among the handful of women aboard.

An opening appeared on the side of the shuttle. Even at this distance, his enhanced senses allowed him to hear the hiss of air as the seal broke and the pressure inside the cabin equalized. A set of stairs unfolded from beneath the doorway, extending down to the tarmac.

Striker caught himself leaning forward and forced himself to take a step back. He wasn’t interested. Not really. They were humans. If they were lucky, maybe this first batch wouldn’t be able to acclimatize, and they’d end the refugee program before any more arrived. That could happen for plenty of reasons—the higher gravity, cultural differences, the change in climate. Hell, the fact there was a climate at all would unsettle some of them. It had taken some cyborgs months to adjust to weather and an open sky. They’d been created after the war and spent their lives as research subjects on a space station. These humans had lived their lives inside an enclosed system. If they couldn’t adapt, they wouldn’t send more here. They could find some other planet to live on. Somewhere far away from him.

A Vardarian female appeared first. Her silver skin gleamed in the sun as she unfurled her wings and glided down to the tarmac instead of taking the stairs. Another Vardarian female exited and flew down to join her companion. They both raised their hands and beckoned. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a human woman stepped out, her eyes shielded by a pair of tinted glasses. She looked around in obvious wonder and then gripped the railing and descended with deliberate care.

Others followed, each of them wearing the same glasses and moving at the same slow pace as they tested their legs against the new gravity. There was a gap in the flow after the eighth woman left the shuttle. There were supposed to be ten women, though he’d heard a rumor one had dropped out before they’d departed Earth. Had only eight made the trip?

Number nine waited until the woman in front of her was on the tarmac before exploding out the door like a comet. She let out a whoop, threw a leg over one railing, and slid down it to the ground, hitting hard enough to fall to her knees on impact. She bounced back to her feet, threw out her arms, and spun in a circle, her face lifted to the sky. Beaming and laughing, the woman danced, her red hair glowing like fire in the afternoon sun.

Striker couldn’t take his eyes off her.

He’d witnessed the arrival of hundreds of Vardarian colonists and had been present when many of his cyborg brethren were roused from cryo-sleep and told that their nightmare was over—that they were free. None of them had reacted with the joy of this small human. Was she intoxicated? Had her mind broken during the journey?

He used his implant to get a closer look at her. If he hadn’t, he would have missed the moment she took off her glasses to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She looked up again and called out, “You did it, Jaybird. You got me here. Wherever you are, thank you, now get your ass here as fast as you can.”

None of the other women reacted to her outburst. In fact, they seemed to be working hard to ignore her. That caught his interest more than her wild antics. She’s an outsider. Like me.

He knocked the errant thought away like he was swatting an insect. She wasn’t like him. She was human. Tiny. Unenhanced. She would barely come to his shoulder. She was nothing like him.

He tore his gaze away from the strange little human and stepped back into the forest, fading into the sun-dappled shadows. He had work to do, and he’d wasted enough of his day already. The humans were nothing more than a distraction. He had a home to build, traps to check, and the vast wilds of this world to explore. The humans could have the colony. The woods were his, and no fragile human woman was going to take them from him. They’d ruined their own world. He would not let them destroy this one.

Ready for more? Her Cyborg Champion releases April 6th, 2021.

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