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.
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.
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?”
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.
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