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Hello and welcome to this month’s SFR Showcase. To check out all the other great posts from the featured authors, click here.

I’m R. A. Steffan, one of the authors of the Other Worlds boxset, and I would like to share some material related to my book in the collection, Antidote: Love and War, Book 1.

Click the audio player button below to listen to a free, streaming audiobook of the exclusive prequel to the Love and War series, Antithesis. (It’s about 45 minutes long—perfect for a commute to and from the office!)

Then scroll down to read the first few chapters of Antidote. If you like it, pick up Other Worlds today for only $0.99 and get my book, plus 19 others by award-winning and bestselling authors in the SFR and PNR genres!

Antithesis: Love and War, Book 0

by R. A. Steffan, narrated by Gwendolyn Druyor

Antidote:

Love and War, Book 1

By R. A. Steffan

Copyright 2017 by R. A. Steffan

CHAPTER ONE

IF I DIE NOW, everyone back home dies with me. I can’t die now.

“Oh, gods, I can’t die now.” The words were barely audible over the shriek of a space vessel pushed to its limit and beyond.

Skye Chantrell was not normally a religious woman, but there was something about the sight of a planet’s surface rushing far too quickly toward the cracked viewport of her stolen, rusted-out shuttle that brought the old superstitions flooding back.

Please, please, please, she prayed. Not now, not here, not like this!

When she’d fled the Regime’s complex at the border of the demilitarized zone, she’d barely managed to escape with her life. If the shuttle she’d taken hadn’t already been damaged and leaking fuel when she entered the wormhole gate at the edge of the system, her pursuers would have tracked her down and finished the job in no time at all. As it was, the craft’s malfunctioning engines had flung her randomly through the vortex before spitting her out here, in the gravitational well of an old, abandoned outpost on some unremarked, forgotten moon.

With no other options available, she ran through the emergency restart procedure one last time. Her breath locked in her throat as the aging thrusters coughed, sputtered, and fired weakly into life. She was thrown forward, hard, against her seat restraints as the engines tried to slow the descent, but she could tell it wasn’t… going… to be… enough…

Her father had entrusted her with the most important data file in the Seven Systems, at the cost of his own life. She hadn’t even had a chance to mourn him yet, and now she was going to join him.

She had failed, and that failure meant a death toll on a scale she could barely imagine. Her hands slid from the controls and fell to her sides.

“I’m so sorry, Daddy,” she whispered, as the ground raced up to meet her.

* * *

The alarm blared through the old lunar outpost, shrill and jarring. Hunter jerked his head up from the holographic star map he and Kade had been examining, meeting the other Vithii male’s cold gray eyes with a frown.

“Perimeter breach,” Kade said unnecessarily. The two of them moved toward the door as one, jogging side-by-side through a warren of dingy gray corridors toward the control room.

Hunter already had his comm unit out as they ran, and was barking into it. “Draven! What have we got?”

“Ilarian shuttle,” came the static-riddled reply. “Looks like Regime registration, but it’s outdated. They don’t use these codes anymore. It’s coming in hot—crash-landing trajectory. Engines are inactive.”

“Where?” Hunter snapped.

“About half a klick north of us,” Draven reported. “Just west of the big crater.”

They were nearly to the control room. “Right,” Hunter said. “Kade and I will be with you in a moment. Stand by.”

Kade’s voice was grim. “This could be bad.”

“Or it could be nothing,” Hunter countered. “It all depends on who else—if anyone—is following along behind our unlucky shuttle pilot.”

The only reply was a skeptical grunt.

Hunter slid to a stop in front of the heavy durasteel door and slapped his palm to the reader. The slab of metal screeched open on ancient tracks, exposing the simple control center beyond. Draven was alone, his massive, hard-muscled frame bent over the sensor interface. He glanced up as they entered, gold eyes glittering beneath his head of spiky copper-colored hair, then looked right back down again, intent on the screen before him.

“Kill that klaxon,” Hunter said. “I think we’ve all got the point by now. Is the shuttle down yet?”

Draven fumbled for the override without looking, and the shrieking alarm cut off. “Looks like the pilot managed to get the thrusters firing on emergency power. It’s veering southeast, closer to us.”

There was a low rumble, vibrating the deck plates under their boots. “That was it. It’s down,” Draven reported.

The door screeched open again, admitting Ryder and Pax. Pax immediately crossed to join Draven at the controls; his metallic facial implants glinting in the blue light of the readouts.

Ryder—a strongly built Vithii woman with a head full of spiky red hair—turned to Kade and Hunter instead. “What the fuck was that?” she asked. “Meteor strike?”

Kade snorted. “Yeah, right. We should be so lucky.”

Hunter—who preferred to leave most of the sarcasm to Kade, who had a flair for it—filled Ryder in quickly on what they knew.

She frowned. “I don’t much like the idea that someone could have just randomly crashed on our doorstep. There’s no sign of other vessels approaching?”

“Not so far,” Draven said. “Looks like your standard engine malfunction. Which is not to say that no one was after them. I don’t know about you, but when I see a rusted out piece of junk with bad ID codes, I think stolen.”

Kade raised a dark, sardonic brow. “Maybe they came to the right place after all, in that case. Assuming they’re not charred meat now, of course.”

Hunter brought his focus back to the matter at hand. “Life signs?”

“Weak,” Draven reported. “Human. Just one, looks like.”

Hunter’s brow furrowed. What was a human doing with a possibly stolen Regime shuttle, way out here in the badlands? “What’s the craft’s condition?”

Pax answered, the slight robotic rasp of his implants giving his voice a flat, mechanical dimension. “Engines are burned out. Life support fading quickly. Multiple cabin leaks. It’ll lose atmosphere before long.”

“Better decide what you want to do here, Hunter,” Ryder told him. “Or the problem’s going to be a self-limiting one.”

While there was something to be said for letting this possible witness to their whereabouts expire quietly in the wreckage, there was also something to be said for finding out who they were, what they were doing here, and—perhaps most importantly—who, if anyone, was likely to be coming after them.

As was often the case, Kade’s mind was traveling on a parallel course to his. “Of course, the smart thing to do would be to let the pilot die and vaporize the evidence that anyone was ever here,” Kade said. “The less smart thing would be to drag them back here to the base, patch them up, and question them.” His flat gaze rested on Hunter for a long moment. “So I’ll just go set up the medbay, I guess, since I assume you’ll want Ryder to go out there with you.”

Ryder’s lips twisted in displeasure, but she only said, “Let me go grab a kit. I’ll meet you at the airlock. Pax? I may need you when we get back, depending on how bad it is.”

Pax nodded—a single, precise movement of acknowledgement. Hunter left without another word, heading to the airlock to check the environmental suits. Ryder was their medic, and a damned good one, for all that she hated having those skills called on. Little wonder, given her past—but the fact remained that when someone needed to be put back together, she was the one to do it.

This particular search and retrieval mission would be complicated by the lack of an atmosphere on the tiny moon. At least the low gravity outside of the artificially generated field within the compound would let them move faster.

The e-suits in the locker next to the main airlock were old, but they were also carefully and regularly serviced. Hunter pulled out his and Ryder’s and started safety checks, inspecting the seals and venting the air tanks to confirm the system pressure. A moment later, Ryder came jogging down the corridor, med-pac in hand.

“Dunno what we’re likely to find,” she warned. “There may not be much I can do.”

Hunter shrugged. “Then you’ll make Kade happy. Win-win.”

She scoffed. “Kade? Happy? You’re bent. You must’ve been at his stash or something.”

Hunter didn’t bother to point out that anyone stupid enough to raid Kade’s stash of neurotonin stabilizers wouldn’t still be upright and using both legs afterward. Instead, he helped her suit up, and she did the same for him. He grabbed a portable sensor padd and the human-sized environmental suit they kept on hand for Ash to use when he was here. When he had everything he thought they’d need, he followed her into the airlock, where they waited for the air to cycle.

The outer hatch rolled open and they stepped out onto the moon’s barren surface, steadying themselves across the gravity gradient. Hunter spun slowly on the spot, the sensor padd held in front of him. When the directional map lit with an orange star indicating the crash site, he pointed and led the way, falling into the long, efficient, low-grav hops that carried him quickly across the dusty gray landscape—confident that Ryder was right behind him.

* * *

The crash site was a mess. Of course, it could have been worse—one of the few saving graces of these old Dorish-class shuttles was that the cabins had been built like assault tanks.

The thing had come in low, plowing a furrow with its square belly rather than nose-diving straight into oblivion. Pretty much every extraneous piece of it had been deposited along the way in a trail of crumpled metal that stretched easily for a quarter-klick. Hunter supposed they’d been lucky that it hadn’t smashed into the compound directly. In the grand scheme of things, it had come uncomfortably close to them.

Which once again raised the question of whether this whole scenario was a coincidence, or whether someone knew to come nosing around this particular lunar outpost, looking for them. Hopefully, there would be enough left of the pilot to give them some answers.

The ugly, angular central mass of the downed ship was slowly venting atmosphere from a number of leaks, but the airlock was accessible and didn’t look too badly damaged. He and Ryder approached cautiously, but the sensor padd confirmed only a single life sign inside, badly injured. Hardly a threat to two Vithii, given how much stronger they were than even a healthy human.

They tested the airlock controls, but the system was dead. Hunter pulled a battery pack lead from his suit and plugged it into the controls, cursing as his heavy gloves made the movement clumsy and slow. After the few moments it took to power up, the outer door shrieked open halfway and stuck.

He unplugged the battery lead, and they slid through the gap. After a repeat of the process on the other side, the door reluctantly screeched shut again. There was no way the failing systems would be able to pump air into the lock to equalize it, so they immediately set to work on the inner door.

With a thin whistle of wind as air from the cabin rushed in to fill the airlock, the inner door slid open, revealing a dark interior lit only by the intermittent sparking of damaged electronics. They both switched on helmet lights, the beams cutting jagged, sodium-yellow swathes through the smoky cabin.

The airlock was aft; the pilot’s seat was fore. A slender figure lay face down across the sputtering control panel like a broken doll. Human, as the sensors had said. Female, with long blond hair half-covering the face, matted in places with that startlingly red human blood that never looked quite real to Hunter, even after all this time.

Ryder was already unsealing and pulling off her suit gloves, rummaging in the med-pac for a scanner. Hunter stayed back, fighting down the hot rush of painful memory that seeing a badly injured human woman always raised in him. It was a reaction he could have lived without, but he knew all too well that scars laid down in childhood never healed quite right, whether they were physical or mental. It took only a moment to push the unwanted images from the past back where they belonged, and then he stepped forward to join the reluctant medic.

“Concussion, spinal trauma, five broken ribs, multiple breaks in the arms and legs…” Ryder recited, as if to herself. She paused to glare at the med sensor and give it a shake. “Fucking human anatomy, how does any self-respecting species manage to evolve kidneys without some kind of protection—”

“Ryder,” Hunter prompted.

She grumbled something under her breath and continued. “Internal bleeding, oxygen levels falling fast. Let me get everything splinted up as best I can and we’ll make a run for the base. Comm ahead, will you? Tell Pax I’ll need to requisition some of his bots for this patch job.”

He nodded sharply and toggled his suit’s comm unit so he could relay the message. Meanwhile, Ryder efficiently encased the injured pilot’s broken limbs in kwick-sleeves to hold them rigid, the thin cylinders inflating instantly to mold to the body’s contours and stabilize the fractures.

After she had applied a compact forcefield generator around the woman’s neck and torso to minimize further spinal damage during transport, she administered a pressure injection directly to the main artery beneath the jaw.

“Oxygen booster,” she explained. “It won’t work forever, though. Help me get her into that extra e-suit and let’s go. She doesn’t have long.”

Fortunately, though it was sized for a human, Ash’s suit was still huge on her. That made it easier to manhandle her into it while trying not to exacerbate her many injuries more than was necessary.

Hunter studied her silently as he and Ryder worked, trying to figure her out. She was wearing civvies—a sleek black jumpsuit with cargo pockets on the sides of the trousers and a form-fitting sleeveless top. Her face—slack in unconsciousness—was strong-featured, with full lips and sharp cheekbones. A small crystal earring glinted in the lobe of her right ear, and a fine gold chain hung around her neck. Her obvious beauty was marred by a broken nose and swelling all down the right side of her face, already turning to dark bruising. Again, Hunter’s gut churned, memories swirling together with Vithii male protective instincts in a muddle of distracting urges that he definitely did not need to be dealing with right now. He clenched his jaw and quashed the feeling ruthlessly.

She was not dressed for space travel. And even with the damage inside the shuttle’s cabin, it was obvious that the ship had been practically derelict. Hunter was surprised it had flown at all. What was she even doing out here?

Finally, Ryder eased the suit’s helmet over the human woman’s head and checked the seals. “Right. We’re good to go. Let’s move.” Her face twisted in irritation, lit oddly by her helmet’s internal illumination. “Shit. We should have brought a stretcher. I’ve been hanging around the rest of you too long. I must be going soft in the head.”

“We’ll manage,” Hunter said. It wasn’t ideal, but with the forcefield stabilizing her spine and the splints holding the broken bones steady, he would simply carry her. Ryder helped him scoop her up and position her in the way that was least likely to do more damage.

Her weight would have been nothing to him even in standard gravity. In the moon’s feeble point-six-five gees, it was like holding air. Ryder strode across to jump-start the power systems controlling the outer door. Hunter sheltered the injured woman with his body as the remaining atmosphere inside the shuttle whooshed through the opening in a blast of wind.

Carefully, they maneuvered her unresponsive form through the gap of the bent portal, and headed back to the compound. Hunter covered the distance with long, shallow leaps, absorbing the impact with his knees to avoid jolting the woman in his arms.

They arrived to find Pax waiting in the medbay as promised. His massive arms were crossed, and he regarded the human with his usual impassive expression. Ryder directed Hunter to lay his burden on her less-injured side on the exam table. After setting aside her helmet and gauntlets, she went to get a protoplaser to cut off her patient’s environmental suit and clothing.

“Ash is going to blow a gasket when he finds out you sliced the only human-sized e-suit we have to ribbons,” Hunter observed.

Ryder shot him a deeply unimpressed look before returning to her work. “Kade can buy him a new one,” she said. “Now get out of my hair. I’ll let you know if she makes it. In return, you let us know if a fleet of Regime goons shows up looking for her. Preferably before we’re all vaped.”

With a nod to Ryder and a tip of his chin to Pax, Hunter made himself scarce and headed back to the control center to update Kade and Draven. He studiously ignored the way the memory of the human woman’s battered face kept rising to the surface of his thoughts.

That kind of sentimental shit was the last thing he needed.

CHAPTER TWO

SKYE SURFACED BY degrees from one of those dreams of falling endlessly—panic stretching until it seemed impossible for it to go on any longer. Her body jerked hard, coming fully awake, heart pounding a staccato rhythm against the wall of her chest.

She tried to bolt into a sitting position, but her muscles were strangely weak. An invisible pressure held her in place, preventing even the smallest movement, and a new burst of adrenaline flooded her body.

What the hell?

She tried again to move her hand… to wriggle her feet… to lift her head…

Nothing. Her breathing grew harsh with raw, instinctive terror at being trapped, and the distant beeping sound that had tickled the edges of her awareness ratcheted up another notch. Where was she? What was happening?

It was dark—not pitch black, but dim, like a room with heavy shades drawn. She was lying on something unforgiving. Not hard like metal, but definitely not a proper bed or a mattress. The sound of tech filled the room around her. Not just the fast, rhythmic beeping that seemed to stab at her ears, but also a sort of constant low hum, like you sometimes got with the life support systems in a spaceship or a shuttle.

Her mind stumbled over the thought and seized up completely.

A shuttle.

Gods and prophets. The shuttle. The wormhole gate.

The ground, rushing up to meet her. Was she… paralyzed? Dead? Was the afterlife a dim room where you lay alone on a hard table, unable to move? Where was… where was her father?

Another memory surfaced, playing silently, like the old Earth films from history class when she was a kid. Her father, spinning in place under the force of the blaster beam that tore a smoking hole out of his chest and stomach, his body crumpling to the ground in slow motion.

Blind panic surged and dragged her under. The shrill beeping sped up until it was almost a continuous tone. She fought with rabid, animal intensity against the strange force holding her immobile, her mouth open in a silent scream.

There was a sudden commotion next to her, though she couldn’t even turn her head enough to see. Something cold pressed against her neck with a stinging hiss.

“Five minutes,” said a gruff, female voice, irritation weaving through the words. “I can’t even take five minutes to go to the lav for a piss. You’d better be worth it, girl, that’s all I can say.”

Skye tried to struggle. Tried to drag enough air into her lungs to give voice to her terror. But within seconds, gray fog swirled across her vision and she was back in the dream, falling endlessly.

* * *

The next time she regained awareness was a little better. Her arms flailed, grasping for purchase in the darkness, her movements still weak and uncoordinated. She tried to sit up, only making it partway before falling back. Her lower body was still stuck, and her stomach muscles felt like rubber.

The shrill beeping stabbed her ears again, but this time she was able to identify the sound as a pulse monitor.

“Where—” she gasped. “Where am—” Her voice was a croak. It caught on the second word and she descended into coughing.

“Don’t try to move,” said a deep, accented voice from the shadows at the edge of the darkened room. “Lights, twenty percent.”

Ancient strip lighting sputtered into life overhead, pushing the shadows back enough for Skye to see the hulking figure lounging in the corner with crossed arms, the tall, broad body radiating easy grace.

Her first thought was Vithii.

Her second thought was, Oh, shit, they caught me. They caught me. I’m as good as dead.

When the figure pushed away from the wall and crossed the short distance to the bare medical cot where she was lying, the dim lights played over a riot of tattoos running up the length of his hard-muscled arms. They disappeared under the short sleeves of his form-fitting black shirt, only to reappear above the neckline—black feathers, swept and ruffled as if in flight. His features were hard. Cold. Brutal.

Familiar, from a hundred grainy surveillance photos on a hundred vidcasts over the past few years.

Holy prophets.

She hadn’t been captured by Regime soldiers. It was worse than that. Instead, she’d somehow managed to stumble into the hands of The Rook—the most feared and hated criminal in the whole of the Seven Systems.

And the gods only knew what he was going to do to her before he killed her.

* * *

Hunter watched as recognition slid over the human female’s face, followed closely by terror. Her pupils grew huge inside the summer-blue rings of her irises, and her rasping breath grew labored as she tried to drag recycled air down her dry throat. Her chest heaved under the plain medbay gown Ryder had dressed her in earlier as a nod to modesty.

Vithii in general had a dim view of humans’ bravery, and considered them frightened prey animals who froze or bolted at the first sign of danger. Hunter knew this to be a belief instilled and reinforced largely by Regime propaganda. His own experience had shown him quite a different side to the upstart species that had shared the colony on Ilarius with his own people for more than a century.

Which led him to wonder yet again about the human on the medical table in front of him. She was not reacting like a soldier or a field agent, or even a spy. She was reacting like a civvy who had lapped up every horror story the government-sponsored news media had ever dished out about him—because there was no question that she knew who he was.

As far as she was concerned, that meant he was a murderer, rapist, and torturer who probably ate babies on his days off. However, it did nothing whatsoever to answer his questions about who she was and what she was doing here.

He gestured with his chin toward the container of water resting on the tray table next to the cot. “Drink something,” he said. “You’ll need it so you can answer my questions.”

Her eyes were darting around her immediate surroundings now, as if looking for a weapon or means of escape.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “There’s still a forcefield immobilizing your lower body. You’re not going anywhere.”

Just then, the medbay door slid open, admitting Ryder.

“She awake properly this time?” asked the medic.

Hunter grunted, aware that Ryder could see for herself. The human’s gaze flickered to her, still fearful, though perhaps not quite as panicked as she’d been when she was alone with him.

After inclining the head of the cot to support the woman’s upper body in a more upright position, Ryder brusquely picked up the water and positioned it so the straw was at her patient’s lips.

“Drink,” she said in a no-nonsense voice, “or I’ll insert a stomach tube and get fluids into you that way.”

The woman hesitantly wrapped her lips around the straw and sucked, her huge, frightened eyes flicking back and forth between Hunter and Ryder.

Hunter was considering the most efficient way to begin questioning her without frightening her into a dead faint when the proximity alarm screeched into life for the second time in the space of two short orbital rotations. The human flinched at the sudden noise, jerking back from the water bottle.

“What’s that?” she asked, her voice restored enough that it didn’t crack on the words.

Again? You have got to be kidding me,” Ryder said under her breath.

Hunter’s mouth pressed into a grim line. “Stay here,” he ordered the medic. “I’ll go see what’s on our doorstep this time, and comm you if you’re needed.”

Ryder shook her head in disgust and shrugged a shoulder. “Go on, then. You know where to find me.”

Hunter turned his back on the disgruntled Vithii woman and the slender human with long golden hair and frightened blue eyes. He ran down the familiar corridors, activating his comm unit as he went.

Making a habit of this, he thought, and snapped, “Report. Who’s up there right now?”

“Kade,” came the tinny response. “Pax is with me. Draven’s on his way. We’ve got an unfamiliar ship entering orbit, but it’s transmitting Ash’s codes. I haven’t responded, but it’s obvious whoever it is knows we’re here. They’re hailing us directly.”

The door to the control room slid open reluctantly, and Hunter heard the final few words in stereo as Kade turned around to look at him.

“Go ahead and reply,” Hunter decided. “No visual. Use voice distortion on our end.”

“Shoulda let me install those defensive laser systems we talked about,” Pax grumbled from his perch against the console next to the communications relay.

“Figure out a way to mask the energy signature from long-range scanners and I will,” Hunter shot back, weary of the longstanding argument. “Weapons won’t do much good if having them here lights up the whole moon like a beacon whenever someone passes within a light-year of us.”

Pax only made a scoffing noise of disgust.

“Approaching ship, identify yourself,” Kade said into the comms microphone. Computer generated masking lowered and flattened his voice, turning it odd and mechanical sounding.

There was a pause, during which the door opened again, grinding on its tracks, and Draven came in. “What is it this time?” he asked, his heavy brow furrowed.

“Not sure yet,” Hunter said tersely.

On the small vid-screen above the main control console, the chaotic stream of code indicating a secure, scrambled signal coalesced into the pixelated image of a human man with brown eyes, sharp features, and shoulder-length black hair. The tension coiling Hunter’s shoulders and back relaxed as the familiar figure spoke.

“Who the hell do you think it is, Kade?” Ash asked rhetorically, the corners of his broad mouth turning down. “Nice voice masking, by the way. Did you buy that distortion unit off the back of a hover-van?”

Kade flipped the switch controlling the voice masking to the off position with a crisp, irritated flick of his fingers. “In case you failed to notice, leetha, you’re flying the wrong ship. What did you expect?”

Ash looked sour. “Yeah, well. About that. Kind of a long story. And not a terribly interesting one, I’m afraid. Not compared to what I really need to tell you. Let me get this bird down and docked so I can grace you with my presence face to face.”

He looked off to the side, reaching for something on his instrument panel. The low-res image revealed an ugly bruise blooming over one high cheekbone for only an instant before the transmission cut off. Beside Hunter, Draven made a sharp hissing noise as he sucked in a breath.

Hunter ignored him, well used to both Ash’s knocks and bruises, and Draven’s subsequent sniping about them. The ship Ash was piloting was a standard courier—nothing fancy. The vessel’s codes had been wiped; it was running unregistered, which told Hunter that Ash must have acquired it on the fly. Otherwise, he would have taken time to forge new registration—child’s play to a seasoned tech-worm like their mercurial human ally.

If Ash were being pursued by anyone, he would have said. Well, actually, if he were being pursued he wouldn’t have come here in the first place. The fact that he was here at all meant he must have something vitally important and time-sensitive to relay. Something that couldn’t be entrusted to subspace communications.

Though there was nothing to suggest any connection between Ash’s abrupt arrival and the shuttle crash, the proximity of the two events made the back of Hunter’s neck prickle. And Hunter had only managed to stay alive as long as he had because of his uncommonly good instincts.

The sleek little courier ship was already descending, coming to a neat landing cozied up to the compound’s main airlock. Ash was quick and thorough as always, shutting down the ship’s systems and deploying an umbilical link to the base. Before a quarter-cycle had passed, he was striding into the control room, wearing a glare that sat poorly on his finely drawn features.

“What the hell happened to my e-suit?” he asked. “If you think I’m flopping around in a Vithii-sized suit whenever I have to leave the base, you’re all barking mad.”

“Your e-suit?” Draven asked. “What the hell happened to your face?”

The human curse word rolled oddly off of Draven’s tongue. Hunter stifled a sigh. Draven knew perfectly well what had happened to Ash. They all did. Indeed, Ash turned to him and adopted an exaggerated pose of contemplation, chin resting in his fingers, irony rolling off him in waves. In the cold light of the control room, the bruising on his cheek stood out starkly, along with finger-shaped marks around his throat.

“Hmm, what could possibly have happened?” he said, milking every word. “Maybe the same thing that happens pretty much every time I have to go roll around in the dirt to dig up information.”

A rumble sounded low in Draven’s chest. “Oh, so there was dirt involved this time?”

“Enough,” Hunter said sharply, before the sniping could escalate from opening salvos to something more intense. “Draven, put a spanner in it. Ash, what have you got for us?”

Ash’s expression went from annoyed to grim in the space of a heartbeat. He looked around. “Where’s Ryder? Do you want her here before I start?”

“She’s otherwise engaged,” Hunter said. “I’ll brief her afterward, or you can.”

With a nod, Ash dropped into one of the molded duraplast chairs, and blew out a breath. “Right. So we’ve all known for a while about the whispers of something big coming—a move from the Regime that will topple things in the Capital into full-blown interspecies conflict.”

Hunter nodded. The government had been cracking down ruthlessly on the human residents of Ilarius for months now, ever since the last vote had shifted the balance of power to a Vithii supermajority in all three houses of the legislature. Things had been tense, with widespread rioting and brutal police actions against human civilians in response. It was still—arguably—within the realm of the rule of law. But only just.

Lately, though, there had been rumbles of something darker. Something that would change the course of things in a way that could never be undone.

“That’s not news. It’s been inevitable ever since the last election,” Kade observed, bitterness making the words come out cold and hard.

Ash shrugged, still grim. “Maybe. But it was all conjecture and fear mongering until something concrete came out. Well, now it’s out. The Premiere has been secretly developing a bio-weapon for the last six months. It’s ready now, and he intends to deploy it. Sooner, rather than later, I gather.”

“Deploy it where?” Kade asked, his cynical facade giving way to a look of sick queasiness.

“The Capital. Where else? He wants to make a statement.”

“That’s madness,” said Kade. “There are more Vithii in the Capital city than humans. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Actually, it makes perfect sense,” Ash said tightly, “since the bio-weapon only affects humans.”

CHAPTER THREE

SILENCE FELL.

“Shite,” Draven said after a long beat.

“Bio-agents are a coward’s weapon,” Pax said, his flat voice sounding odd in the charged atmosphere.

Ash shrugged, his hands coming up to rub at his shoulders as if he were cold. “Yeah? So what’s your point, big man?” The human took a deep breath, as if to shake himself free of the heavy silence. “Anyway, that’s what I’ve got. Unfortunately, while I was busy elsewhere, the security sneaks managed to track me down through the hypernet and link to my hopper’s systems. They must have been more adept than the usual government hacks, because the emergency failsafe kicked in and fried the system to prevent them from getting anything out of it. It’s totally bricked, so I had to, er, creatively liberate a courier to get off-planet.”

Hunter frowned. “Can they get anything physical from the hopper? Do they know where it is?”

Ash shook his head. “Nah. If they find it at all, it’ll just be a burned out hulk. The fire from when the computer system roasted itself will have destroyed any DNA evidence, and the ship itself is clean of anything incriminating.”

Hunter didn’t question him further. If the human said it wasn’t a problem, then it wasn’t a problem.

“So. Anyway,” Ash said. “I should probably split. I’ve got a business to run—”

Draven straightened to his full height. “You’re not going back to the Capital.”

Ash shot him a look that implied he had some sort of mental deficit. “Well, of course I’m going back to the Capital. I’m not going to find out anything useful skulking around out here, now am I?”

Hunter heard Draven draw breath to say something else and cut him off. “See Ryder in the medbay before you go, Ash. We’ve had our own bit of excitement recently. I’d be curious for your take on it.”

It was very possible that their mysterious prisoner would open up to another human, saving Hunter the necessity for a protracted and potentially messy interrogation. One that he was decidedly not looking forward to, with his fucked-up instincts screaming at him to protect his vulnerable female prisoner rather than intimidate her.

Ash raised an eyebrow. “Sure,” he said easily, curiosity plain on his face. “Care to share a bit more detail?”

Hunter waved a hand, impatient to start talking with the others about plans and contingencies. “Ryder can explain it. Send her up here when you’re done.”

Ash gave a shrug and nodded, heading for the door with a final brief glare at Draven, whose burning eyes followed him until the door closed behind him, cutting him off from view.

* * *

In the medbay, Skye continued to watch the female Vithii medic with wary eyes. After a few minutes, the blaring alarm went quiet, and she relaxed by increments. Shortly afterward, a comm unit in the corner beeped, and the woman answered it.

“About time you remembered me,” she said. “How worried should I be?”

Skye couldn’t make out the reply, but the woman softened visibly. “Right. Good. You need me there for anything?”

Another crackling reply, and she grunted and cut off the link.

“Crisis averted,” she said in a dry voice, returning to Skye’s cot. “Now, aside from elevated blood pressure, racing pulse, and whatever the fuck is going on with your brain chemistry at the moment, how do you feel?”

Skye swallowed. “What happened to me?” she asked in lieu of an answer. She was in such a deep hole right now that she couldn’t see a way out, but one thing was clear. She couldn’t let these Vithii know about the data crystal she was carrying. Maybe if she could get them talking, she would learn something she could use to escape, or at least get a message out.

Yeah. Right. Sure you will. A message to who, exactly?

Her father was dead. Her stepmother was being held in a Vithii prison. It was very likely that her foster brother had been captured or killed while trying to act as a decoy for her.

She shook off the unhelpful internal monologue and glared at the Vithii woman with as much bravado as she could muster.

It must not have been very effective, because the woman only snorted.

“What happened to you?” her Vithii captor echoed. “You crashed a shuttle and broke approximately one-third of the bones in your body. Not to mention the concussion, the partially collapsed lung, the spinal swelling, and the perforated bile duct. Oh, yes… and the bruised kidneys.”

Skye took in the recitation with a growing feeling of shock. The numbness was a relief in some ways, dulling her panic and the sharp ache of grief. She knew it would also dull her wits, though, and she couldn’t afford that. She made a concerted effort to take the words on board and sort through them.

She still felt terribly weak, but she was not in any appreciable pain. A terrible thought struck, and her eyes flew up to the woman’s. “How long—?” If she had been here for weeks—

“About sixty cycles,” said her captor.

A little more than two days. It still wasn’t too late. But… those injuries the woman had rattled off…

“Why am I not dead?” Skye asked. “Why do I feel… mostly okay?”

“I used nanotech to heal the worst of the damage. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Nausea flooded Skye’s stomach. “You used bots on me?” She knew what the Vithii did with nanotech. Had this woman turned her into some kind of laboratory horror while she was unconscious and unable to defend herself? She shuddered, trying to focus inward—to see if anything in her body felt wrong. Felt like… not her.

The woman rolled her eyes. “You can stop looking at me like some kind of monster, girl. We programmed them to deactivate and disassemble themselves once they’d finished putting you back together. They’re mostly carbon anyway. Your body will flush out the parts that aren’t within a day or two.”

Skye wondered if the ‘we’ referred to The Rook, or to someone else—but it seemed unlikely that the woman would tell her if she asked.

“Oh,” she said instead. “Well, I… um… guess they worked pretty well. My muscles are weak, but everything seems pretty much how it should be aside from that. Maybe you could… let me get up now?”

Not that she had a snowball’s chance in hell of overpowering this two-meter tall, hard-muscled woman and getting away. But she was painfully aware that her chances would be even worse once The Rook came back. It was probably now or never, and far too much was riding on Skye getting free. Getting out of here, before it was too late.

“I think not,” said her captor. “For one thing, the escape plan you’re so transparently considering will look pretty stupid when your knees buckle and you end up in a heap on the floor.”

The numb wash of hopelessness rose higher. She had to think of something. But there was nothing. That she had escaped from the Regime compound and survived the subsequent shuttle crash was a miracle. Yet all it really meant was that things were going to fall apart a few days later than if she’d simply died in a fireball. Everything depended on her, but she hadn’t been fast enough. Strong enough. Good enough.

Why did you put this on me, Daddy? she thought, grief stabbing through the numbness and settling around her chest like a steel band. Why me?

“Look. I need to go get a better idea of what’s going on,” the Vithii woman was saying. “The water’s right next to you. Drink it. We’ll see about starting you on nutrient broth when I get back. In the mean time, you might want to spend a few minutes thinking about your answers to some of the obvious questions, like who are you and what are you doing here.”

Without waiting for a reply, she strode out of the room, the door whooshing shut behind her. Leaving Skye once again alone, and trapped. Out of time and out of options.

* * *

Ash strode through the warren of corridors toward the outpost’s medbay, his mind already on what he’d need to do once he got back to Ilarius. The situation seemed so hopeless that he wasn’t at all sure it could be salvaged. Frankly, the only plan that suggested itself right now was trying to pirate the signal of a major media outlet and urge emergency evacuation of all humans in the Capital.

Whether anyone listening would believe him or truly understand the magnitude of the threat, however, was an open question.

He was distracted enough that he nearly walked face first into Ryder as they both rounded a corner at the same time.

“Whoa!” he said, as they each put out a hand to steady the other. “Sorry, doc—I was just coming to see you. Hunter said you had a situation.”

Ryder’s expression was dour. “You could say that.” Her eyes narrowed as she took in the state of his face. “You’ve been playing dangerous games again, leetha. I hope whatever you got was worth it.”

Ash stifled his sigh. “You could say that,” he parroted back at her. “The Premiere is planning on releasing a human-specific bio-weapon in the Capital.”

Ryder went pale. “That man. May the human gods damn him to their hell. I may have been a doctor once, but I will enjoy seeing him die in agony.”

“You’re still a doctor,” Ash said automatically.

Her face closed off, but her gaze wandered back to his bruises. “Is that you asking me to fix these up for you? Come back to the medbay and I’ll see what I can do.”

No, that was not me asking for your services, Ryder,” Ash said, feeling suddenly tired. “You know they always like to leave their mark where it can be seen. And I may have need of this one for a while longer.” He let the instinctive surge of bitterness drain away, as he had so many times before. “Thanks for the offer, though. Tell me about your situation, instead.”

Ryder still looked unhappy, but she let the subject go, for which he was thankful.

“An old Dorish-class shuttle crashed near the base a couple of days ago,” she said. “Real museum piece—practically derelict. One human female on board, badly injured. I patched her back together with some of Pax’s nanotech, and she’s recovering. Waiting for interrogation, now. She doesn’t look like military or undercover espionage. She looks like a terrified civvy.”

Ash frowned. Okay… that was definitely weird.

“Coincidence?” he asked, not sure what else it could reasonably be.

Ryder lifted her broad shoulders and let them drop. “Good question. In fact, maybe it’s one you should ask her. She might be willing to spill everything to a sympathetic human ear. Save Hunter having to play the scary bad guy when it’s obvious he’s dreading it.”

Ash raised an eyebrow at that last part, but let it pass.

“Sure,” he said, already intrigued by their mystery pilot. “I’ll give it a shot. I’m told that charm is one of my defining characteristics.”

Ryder snorted. “One of them, maybe. Go on, then—save us some work. Does Hunter need me in the control room?”

“Yeah, they’re discussing strategy in light of the new threat,” he said. “He wants you in on it, for sure.”

“Right,” Ryder said. “Let us know if you get anything out of the pilot.”

“Of course,” Ash said, already turning to continue on to the medbay. Just now, any distraction was welcome. And even in the middle of a crisis, he always had enjoyed a good mystery.

* * *

Skye looked up as the door whooshed open only minutes after the Vithii woman left, already more than tired of the way the speeding pulse monitor broadcast her fear to everybody within hearing distance.

Instead of The Rook or another Vithii, though, it was a strikingly handsome human man who walked through. He was olive-skinned and dark-haired, with sharp, chiseled features and an easy grace in the way he carried himself.

He smiled when he saw her, and Skye’s attention was drawn to the marks of a vicious beating on his face and neck. Was he a prisoner here, too? She caught her breath at the sudden flash of irrational hope upon seeing a fellow human. He might be in roughly the same predicament she was, but he was at least free to walk around. Maybe he could get to a comm unit, or—

“Hey,” he said casually.

He stopped a meter or two inside the door—far enough to let it close behind him, but well out of her space.

“Who are you?” she asked breathlessly. “Are you a prisoner, too?”

“They call me Ash,” he said, watching her intently with dark brown eyes. His voice was pleasant and softly accented with the round vowels and crisp consonants of Old Earth Britain. “I heard you crashed near the base. Thought I should come by and check on you. Fellow humans and all that, you know?”

Skye bit her lip, unwilling to let anything slip until she could get a better read on him. “Can you… let me up?” she asked. “There’s a forcefield.”

He blinked, and nodded almost immediately. “Yeah, of course. Hang on, let me find the… ah.” He entered a command at the console across from the medical cot, and the pressure over her lower body dissipated like mist. “There you go. You might want to give it a minute for your circulation to get going again,” he added. “Would you like me to do a quick scan on you? Make sure the bots put everything together in more or less the right order?”

She nodded in relief. “Prophets, yes—please. I don’t even want to think about the fact that she used nanotech on me.”

His smile was quick and did not reach his eyes. “Yeah—it’s nasty stuff in the wrong hands, for sure. Still, it’s better than being dead, am I right?”

That remains to be seen, she thought, but forced herself to smile back. “I guess so.”

Ash turned back to the console, typing in more commands with quick fingers. The full-body scanner suspended above the cot hummed into life, playing a thin beam of red light over her from head to toe, and back up again. A few moments later, the image appeared on his screen, annotated with dozens of notes corresponding to different organs and body systems.

He hummed and mumbled to himself under his breath as he skimmed through them. “Mm-hmm… yeah… okay… looks good…” After clicking through a couple more screens, he spoke to her directly, his voice sympathetic. “I bet you feel like you’ve been through the wringer, but this all looks really good. You’re lucky that…” His voice trailed off and he frowned at something on the readout. “Hang on… what’s that?”

“What’s what?” she asked, the beeping growing faster again.

His frown deepened. “Your earring. It’s not an earring. It’s a data crystal.” Sharp brown eyes settled on her. “So, why are you wearing a lab-grade data crystal as jewelry?”

Her breath caught, the racing heart monitor making her head pound. She was trapped—she had to make a decision right now even though she could barely string two thoughts together. Stalling, she swung her legs over the edge of the cot and carefully put weight on them. Her knees wobbled, but held—possibly on the strength of all the adrenaline currently sloshing around in her system.

She took a cautious step, one hand on the rickety little tray table for balance. To her immense relief, the shrill beeping cut off as she moved out of the heart monitor’s sensor field.

If she didn’t tell him, she wouldn’t be any closer to getting the contents of the crystal to safety, where the files could be used before it was too late. And he could overpower her and take it by force if he wanted to, she was sure. If she told him, maybe he could help her. Maybe he would understand how important it was.

“My father… is Dr. Zarian Chantrell,” she said. Was, reminded the voice in her head. My father was Zarian Chantrell. She swallowed the lump in her throat that threatened to choke her. “He… worked for the Regime. They forced him to create a weaponized bio-agent that the Premiere plans to use against the human population on Ilarius. He gave me the formula for the antidote and helped me get away before he—” The lump grew, her voice cracking. “Before he was—”

Ash’s eyes grew wide, and he cut her off. “Holy shit. Holy shit. You have a data crystal with—” He paused, his mouth open like a fish, and dove for the comm unit the Vithii medic had used earlier. “Hunter!” he barked into the pickup. “Fucking prophets, you need to get down here right now!”

No!” Skye cried in dismay. She lunged for him as if to drag him away from the comm, even though the damage had already been done. As the medic had warned, her legs buckled beneath her, and she crashed to the cold metal floor.

To be continued…

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