A Prize for Ckzarr: A Sci Fi Alien Romance (Tallean Mercenaries Book 9)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Ckzarr

Roxy

Chapter 2

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 3

Roxy

Chapter 4

Ckzarr

Chapter 5

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 6

Roxy

Chapter 7

Ckzarr

Chapter 8

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 9

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 10

Ckzarr

Chapter 11

Roxy

Chapter 12

Ckzarr

Chapter 13

Roxy

Chapter 14

Ckzarr

Roxy

Chapter 15

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 16

Roxy

Chapter 17

Ckzarr

Chapter 18

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 19

Roxy

Chapter 20

Ckzarr

Chapter 21

Roxy

Ckzarr

Chapter 22

Roxy

Chapter 23

Ckzarr

Roxy

Chapter 24

Ckzarr

Chapter 25

Roxy

Ckzarr

Epilogue

Roxy

Also by Author

A Prize for Ckzarr – Tallean Mercenaries

Book 9

By Lynnea Lee

Copyright © 2024 Lynnea Lee

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or used in whole or in part, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction, and the characters and incidents found within are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons, living or deceased, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 1

Ckzarr

Ckzarr took another swig of his Rhean spirit, his eyes fixed on the female dancing in the middle of the room.

The crew of the Revenge were celebrating the mating of their captain Ulrek with Delaney, the greenroom technician. There would be a larger official celebration later, when they were ready to deal with any bounty hunters that might show up to drag them back to the Dominion, but today was just for those close to the couple.

It was the perfect opportunity for the entire crew to relax, let loose, and celebrate. For once, they didn’t need to watch their backs. They knew they were safe here in Kean’s stronghold, and they had splurged on the best food, drink, and “extracurricular substances”. That last part was easy: Kean, one of Ulrek’s close friends, produced some of the cleanest and best Euphora around.

The substance now coursing through Ckzarr’s veins made everything feel happy and perfect. But nothing was quite so perfect as the female rolling her hips in front of him, her blue, purple, and pink hair flashing hypnotically under the lights. The driving beat of the Earth-inspired music had her undulating with a sensual rhythm that reminded him of their encounters in his room when they’d tested for compatibility.

But all that was in the past. Stars! Ckzarr wished he’d never let Roxy out of his bed. Now all he could do was dream of her. He knew he would be touching himself tonight while picturing her dancing, her body moving to the beat.

As the song ended, Sarah and Chrissy, the two sisters who had the ruler of Vosthea and his second-in-command Zharor at their beck and call, danced back to their respective mates. Ulrek and Delaney were in the next room, and judging from the breathy screams that were audible even over the thumping beats, Ckzarr was pretty sure his boss, who was also his long-time friend, was currently ravishing his new mate. They hadn’t even bothered to close the door.

The sounds of their pleasure made him itch to hold Roxy in his arms again. It had been almost an entire galactic year since he’d had that privilege.

With the mated couple now off celebrating on their own, the night was winding down, and soon, their hosts would be off to bed with their mates. The captain had a permanent room here in Kean’s private wing, but the rest of the crew, including Ckzarr, had only temporary lodgings in an adjacent wing of the stronghold.

Roxy wiggled her way back over to her seat and picked up her drink, which was the amberberry wine Earth females loved so much mixed with watered-down Rhean spirit. She drained her glass quickly, then set it back on the table a little harder than needed.

Zharor had his mate sprawled in his lap and his hand up her skirt, though that wasn’t saying much since the slit on her dress went so high it showed the tiny scrap of fabric covering her sex. Zharor liked seeing his female in this traditional Tallean garb, which was usually encrusted with jewels and barely covered anything important.

Ckzarr preferred the simple, slim-fitting dress Roxy was wearing.

“All right, boys,” she said to the group in general. “I’m heading out. Have fun.”

“Did you want one of us to walk you?” Emil was the ship’s communications specialist and was extra protective of Roxy. All the human males on their ship were. They thought of her as their little sister; for the longest time, she’d been the only human female on the ship.

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”

Then Roxy was sashaying away. Emil and Gavin exchanged a look, clearly considering getting up to follow her anyway to make sure she got back to her quarters safely. Ckzarr let the alcohol and Euphora in his system make the decision for him. Perhaps if he’d been sober, he could resist her pull, but right now, he’d do anything just to have her in his sight. He stood.

“I’ll go.”

Emil relaxed. “Thanks. It’s best you go and not us anyway. If she sees us, she’s gonna get pissed and say that we’re keeping tabs on her. She doesn’t get that way around you.”

Ckzarr grunted.

Emil and Gavin’s opinion of him had improved a lot since that first morning they’d seen Roxy stepping out of his quarters. The two humans had cornered him and threatened to gut him if he broke Roxy’s heart. Little did they know that her heart wasn’t the one they should’ve been worried about.

Since then, though, the two humans had started trusting Ckzarr with the little female. He was a known quantity—and perhaps they had realized by now that he’d rather rip off his own arm than hurt her.

Ckzarr excused himself and followed Roxy into the hallway, keeping far enough back that she wouldn’t hear him. Instead of heading to the sleeping quarters, she turned down another hallway. He knew immediately where she was heading. It was where he’d first met her.

Sure enough, she was heading to the training simulator.

The facilities were still open, and there was a young male that Ckzarr didn’t recognize warming up in front of the simulator. Next to him was Mikun. Ckzarr knew him; he was a guard here.

Mikun recognized Roxy the moment he saw her. The younger male did not. The interest on his face was clear and immediate, however. He sent her a toothy grin, and Ckzarr clenched his hands at his side, stopping himself from lunging out to rip out the male’s eyes for even daring to look at her.

“Hello, little female. Are you lost?”

“Nope. I’m exactly where I want to be.” Roxy slurred her words a bit, giving away the fact that she’d imbibed, and her pupils were large and round from the Euphora.

The unknown male recognized these signs and tried to step a little closer and put his arm around her. Ckzarr gritted his teeth but held back. Roxy could take care of herself. He wouldn’t interfere unless he absolutely had to.

Roxy ducked out of his arms. “Are you going to use the sim or not?”

“Well, I was, until you came along.” The male puffed out his chest, preening. “How about we head to my quarters instead?”

Roxy narrowed her eyes at him, then walked around him to the simulator and punched in the code for a mission. Ckzarr couldn’t see which mission it was from his angle, but he knew. It would be gunner training. That was his position, and hers too. The Revenge had so many weapons that one person couldn’t possibly fire them all at once.

“How about this…” Roxy said. “We both do a round on this mission and if you have the higher score, we can head back to your quarters. Deal?”

The male grinned like he’d already won. “Deal. I’ll even go first so you’ll get to view the mission.”

Roxy made a grand gesture at the simulator. “Be my guest.”

Oh, this was going to be good.

Roxy

The Tallean male stepped out of the simulator with a wide grin. He probably thought he had put up a good enough score to win, but he had no idea who he was dealing with. Roxy had played this mission so many times she knew it like the back of her hand. In fact, she’d thought she still held the high score for it until the leaderboard showed up at the end, and she saw with annoyance that it wasn’t her name at the very top but Ckzarr’s.

Grr. Well, at least she still held the second-highest score.

The male entered the glyphs for his name; his score placed him in the top twenty for the past year. That was only because Roxy had been on the Revenge for most of that time.

This training simulator was the reason she’d been hired as a gunner in the first place. She used to work as an evening cleaner and had started sneaking into the simulator every night after her work was done. To her, it wasn’t training but a really freaking good video game. It was virtual reality, but much more advanced than anything they had on Earth. She’d gotten hooked quickly and gotten really, really good.

It was her high scores taking up the entire leaderboard that had finally alerted everyone to her nighttime training activities. At first, they hadn’t realized it was her; they had thought it was some kid sneaking in. Then one day, after beating her own high score yet again, she’d stepped out of the simulator to see about a dozen Tallean males with their arms crossed, eager to see who emerged. She still remembered the shocked looks on their faces.

Ckzarr had been standing with Ulrek, and they’d immediately offered her a job aboard the Revenge. Knowing who Ulrek was, she’d rejected the offer. She had been reluctant to work for a captain who had once brought humans just like herself across the galaxy on slave ships.

Ckzarr had proposed the same deal she’d just made with this unknown Tallean male, except in that case, instead of heading to his room if he won, she would sign on with the Revenge for one galactic year. She’d lost. Just barely.

She double-checked the sensors strapped to her body using the smallest size, meant for young Tallean males in training, and slipped through the door before the male could get too handsy.

That was one thing she’d had to get used to living out here: Tallean males were a lot more aggressive when it came to sex. But then, so were the females. It was a bit of a culture shock. Fortunately, here in Kean’s stronghold, slavery was outlawed, and women, or females, as the Talleans preferred to say, were protected. And dealing with blunt advances was a hell of a lot better than being someone’s property in the Dominion.

The door to the simulator closed behind her, and the blank gray room changed as the mission loaded.

She grinned as she found herself back in her element. Could she beat Ckzarr’s high score in her current state? Maybe not; she was both tipsy and high. She was glad she’d only sampled a bit of the Euphora earlier and stuffed the second tab into her bra.

The one tab wouldn’t be enough to dull her responses too much now, but it had been enough to make her want to hurl herself into Ckzarr’s lap the moment the couples started partnering up. That was why she’d had to leave. Euphora made everything tactile extremely pleasurable. The tiniest dose was enough to make her want to rub up against her sexy co-gunner. Well, technically, he was her boss, but with the fantastic way they worked together, it was easy to forget that.

It didn’t help that her body remembered what a talented lover he was, even though she’d tried really fricking hard to forget it. Back when she was new on the ship, she’d visited his quarters several times. It was perfectly fine in Tallean culture to sleep with coworkers and bosses, and you know, when in Rome and all that. He was hot as sin, and she wasn’t going to let the opportunity slide.

It was only when she’d realized she was falling hard for him that she’d made herself stay away. She couldn’t imagine having to work beside him every day if things didn’t work out, or if he found his mate in some other woman. It surely wasn’t her. If they were true mates, he’d know already, considering the substantial amount of time they spent together.

She realized she was still wearing her slinky silver party dress as she strapped herself into the seat. Oh well, at least it had a super high leg slit, like most Tallean formal wear. It wouldn’t hinder her movement too much, especially since this mission was mostly shooting from a seated position.

There was a short part of the simulation where the “ship” would be hit, and she’d have to get up and put out the “fire,” but she could handle that in the dress. She twisted the stretchy fabric, and the harness locked into place as it tightened automatically around her curves.

The mission launched, and all the ship’s controls and screens appeared before her eyes. She was ready to shoot some NPC Dominion bastard ass!

Chapter 2

Roxy

Roxy read the summary of her mission and grinned. It wasn’t her best score, not even close, but it was definitely better than the other guy’s. And that was all that mattered.

Her? Competitive? Nah. Okay, maybe a little. But only with video games—and that included her favorite training missions, which were all the shooting and problem-solving ones.

The younger Tallean male stood looking at her, his jaw on the floor. Next to him, Mikun stood with a neutral face. He’d known all along she’d win. Mikun had been there that fateful day she was hired.

“Sorry, maybe another time. I only sleep with guys who can beat my high scores.” She went to the screen and entered the Tallean glyphs for Rocks, which was the name she used on the simulator scoreboard. When she turned around, the male’s eyes were even larger.

“You are Rocks?” The Tallean word didn’t sound anything like her name, but her translator did most of the work.

She grinned. “Yep. Or Roxy.”

That was when she noticed Ckzarr leaning against the wall, his thick, tree-trunk arms crossed over his wide chest. He’d let his hair down for the celebration, and there were several braided strands nestled in the shiny, dark mane. It was a good look for him. She swallowed hard.

Of course he was here. He probably had the same idea she had, to play a mission for funsies before heading to bed. He sent her a panty-wetting grin.

“According to the numbers on the board, I still have the highest score,” he said, his low rumbling voice going straight to her belly. “Does that mean you’re sleeping with me tonight?”

His words didn’t shock Roxy at all. Didn’t make her feel uncomfortable, either. The two of them went through this song and dance so often that Roxy wasn’t sure if Ckzarr was even still interested in her or if he was just saying it because it had become some kind of running joke between them.

“We’ll have to do a rematch,” she said, digging out the spare tab of Euphora from her bra, “when I don’t have a double handicap.” She tossed the tab at him.

He caught it. “Sounds like a plan. Let me walk you back.”

“You’re not here to play? “

“What for? I still have the highest score, so there is no need for me to defend my title.” He tossed the Euphora tab at the younger Tallean male, who was still gathering his wits.

“You came here because you were worried I was going to beat your high score?” She raised an incredulous brow at him and tried not to smile. She failed.

“I did. But since it appears I am still the reigning champion, I guess I don’t need to stay. Come, let me walk you home.” He held out an arm, and Roxy hooked her arm through his elbow.

Her body lit up at the touch, but she tried to hide it. “Okay, boss. Walk me home.”

Roxy didn’t need to look at him to know he was rolling his eyes. Talleans did that, too, and it meant the same thing. At first, she’d thought it looked strange on their faces, but she was used to it now.

“I’d rather you were screaming my name than calling me boss.”

“I know…boss.”

She did her best to ignore their closeness all the way back to their wing. “You know, the only reason I couldn’t beat your high score is because I’m drunk.”

His body vibrated with a laugh. “I don’t doubt it.” He stopped outside the door to her room. “If you need anything from me, anything at all,” he said, “I’m next door.” He was so close that she could smell his masculine scent when she inhaled. Today, it was tinged with the aroma of Rhean spirit, which, strangely, she found sexy.

Roxy swallowed hard. Whatever Euphora was left in her system flooded her senses. She found herself imagining herself straddling him and his impressive package. If there was anything she needed, it was that.

Fuck! Get a hold of yourself, girl.

“Good night, Ckzarr.”

“Good night, Roxy.”

Argh! Even the way he said her name was too much for her to handle right now.

She stepped into her room and closed the door firmly. She took a deep breath of relief. Crap. His spicy, masculine scent had drifted into her room, making her head spin and her body ache for his attention.

He did this to her all the time. Did he know how ridiculously hard it was for her to say no to him? She knew it was only a matter of time before she gave in again, and this time, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from falling in love.

It would hurt when he finally found his mate. Just the thought of it made her heart ache. Maybe it was time to start looking for a job somewhere else. It would be difficult to leave, though, because over the last two years, she’d grown to love the people she worked with.

She’d renewed her initial contract, and it was coming up for renewal again. Tomorrow, she thought to herself. Tomorrow, she’d start looking to see what else there was out there. For tonight, she needed sleep. She went to the facilities, washed her face, and rinsed her mouth out. Then, with thoughts of Ckzarr still in her head, she climbed into bed and closed her eyes, knowing full well she would dream of him tonight.

Ckzarr

Ckzarr pressed his forehead against Roxy’s door, wishing he was on the other side with her.

They had tested compatibility many times when she was new to the ship, and although he had enjoyed it immensely, no mating bond had developed on his end. Clearly, Roxy hadn’t thought their testing was as successful as he had. Because one day, she’d suddenly declined to spend the night with him…and had declined every single offer of his since, even though she was still clearly attracted to him. He could smell her arousal every single time she was near.

The only reason he didn’t push the question when she turned him down was that he worried he’d bond with a female who didn’t want him back, which would end him completely. Unlike Tallean females, human females weren’t controlled by such a thing as a mate bond. Without one, Roxy could easily leave him with no consequences, while he would be doomed to pine for her for the rest of his life.

Perhaps it was lucky that a bond hadn’t formed already. Still, working and living beside her every day, knowing how good they could be together, was difficult.

It hadn’t been that bad at first, though that could have been because he hadn’t been looking for a mate at the time. But he sometimes wondered if the timing had been different, and they’d tested now, if he’d find his mate in her.

Ckzarr hadn’t told her that he’d also beaten her high score in another one of their favorite missions in the training simulator on the ship. She’d once offered him a blow job if he could do that, but he knew better than to ask for it these days. So he’d kept quiet about it. He wondered if she knew anyway.

It was the sound of voices speaking in English that had him stepping away quickly from Roxy’s door. He composed himself just as Gavin, Emil, and Dex walked into the shared hallway. Behind them were Tahra and Tuhror. This meant Kirek, Vhast, Berus, and Cage were out looking for females to join them as they partied the rest of the night away.

Emil looked at Roxy’s door, and at Ckzarr still standing in front of it.

“You two just get back?”

“Yes. She stopped by the training facility.”

“Ha! Of course she did. How did she react to your new high score?”

Ckzarr shrugged, a strange gesture he’d picked up from working with a crew that was half manned by humans. “Let’s just say I’m not sure how long I’ll hold the top spot.”

“We should think about adding some new missions to the Revenge’s sim,” Emil said. “I heard Hullean Vision just put out two new ones.”

New missions weren’t something they’d splurged on for a while, even though they were quite an important thing, considering the amount of time the crew spent out in space. Like the humans he worked with, Ckzarr was beginning to think of the training simulator as a gaming system, like many others in the outer planets.

Hullean Vision, the human-Tallean tech start-up out of Reka 5, made proper games for the system. Not only were they outlandish missions—scenarios made purely for entertainment—but they were cinematic masterpieces too, and were a big hit throughout the outer planets. There were even reports of copies being smuggled into Dominion space.

“I’ll do up a budget for it,” Dex said, walking to his door.

Dex was short for Poindexter, which the human had explained was someone who was particularly studious. Ckzarr didn’t think Dex was particularly studious, although he had to admit the guy was really good with numbers.

That didn’t stop Dex from playing up the look. He insisted on wearing glasses, even though his vision had been corrected when he signed his contract with the Revenge. The frames, together with the button-up shirts he favored, gave him an appeal that certain females gravitated to—in fact, Ckzarr sometimes wondered if the whole get-up was simply to attract the type of female he liked. It helped that, for a human, he was exceptionally fit.

Dex was very good at his job as the Revenge’s treasurer. Aside from their base and hazard pay, everyone on the crew split bonuses for taking on special missions. It was a generous system that encouraged everyone to work together for the greater good.

The ship itself got a share, too, which was used for upgrades and improvements, the little extras that made the ship a better place to live and work. They decided on these upgrades as a team.

It was Dex who’d suggested taking whatever was left over of the ship’s funds after upgrades and investing in the newer start-ups on Reka 5. The investments were already paying off, making them a secondary stream of income.

Emil yawned. “I’m too old for this partying all night shit. I’m heading to bed.” He disappeared into his room.

Ckzarr headed into his room too, glad his colleagues had shown up to distract him from the beautiful female next door.

Chapter 3

Roxy

Roxy closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh air of their ship’s onboard greenroom deeply. It was hard to believe that just a few short weeks ago, this place had smelt like the devil’s asshole. Felt like it, too. They’d clearly bungled the greenroom with their ignorance.

Delaney was the reason for the complete one-eighty, and Roxy was glad they’d decided to bring her on board. She would’ve been an outstanding addition to the crew even if she hadn’t turned out to be Ulrek’s mate.

A ship’s greenroom was responsible for keeping the air clean and fresh, but not all ships were lucky enough to have one. The Revenge itself, for example, had started out without one. This had once been barracks for troops. But then again the Revenge was very different from the ship it was when it served the Dominion.

For one thing, it had been modified so it could now run on a skeleton crew. There were only thirteen on their team, including Delaney, their newest member. Much of the space once reserved for personnel had been converted into recreational space or given over to other upgrades. It really was a great place to work for someone who didn’t mind being in space—as long as you didn’t mind that half the crew had crazy high bounties on their heads. Hence the hazard pay.

But it wasn’t just the good pay and the great working conditions that made it work for her; she’d come to care for her crewmates. Which was why it was so difficult for her even to be looking at other job postings today. The door to the greenroom opened, and Roxy closed her PPC—short for portable personal computer—as inconspicuously as possible.

The captain’s mate, Delaney, narrowed her eyes at her. “I know what was on that screen,” she said.

Oops. It wasn’t like Roxy was actively trying to hide the fact that she was looking for a job elsewhere. Okay, maybe she kinda was. She felt guilty for even thinking about not letting her contract automatically renew at the end of the term. But she wasn’t sure how long she could handle this limbo she and Ckzarr were in.

Maybe this was why people weren’t supposed to sleep with their bosses or even coworkers on Earth. It made things…complicated.

Delaney came to sit next to her on a bench they had installed in front of the largest grow bed. “Emil tells me you’ve been looking at job postings on Reka 5.”

Of course, he’d know. As the communications guy, everything went through him, and he could see it all. But there were no rules about looking elsewhere, especially when a contract was almost up.

“He wasn’t snooping on you, he swears. He just gets a report every morning, or whatever is considered morning out here in the ass end of the universe. It was the first thing he saw on his screen when he woke up today. But he hasn’t said anything to Ckzarr or Ulrek yet. He thought I should ask you what’s going on first.”

That was decent of him, Roxy thought. Emil had been on the crew since the very beginning, and he really cared about everyone on it, especially the other humans, which was a good half of the crew—more than half, now that Delaney was here. He was kind of like the bigger brother Roxy never had, though he was probably old enough to be her dad. Yeah… He’d be upset.

Man, the whole crew would be upset if they knew. Even she was pissed off at herself now. What the hell was she thinking?

It wasn’t like Roxy wasn’t allowed to leave. They’d had people leave before. Some had simply transferred to another ship in Ulrek’s fleet, while others straight up left for other employment opportunities, either on Vosthea or Reka 5.

But the team they had now? Shit, they’d been together for years, except for Delaney. Roxy liked her, but seeing her and Ulrek so happy together kind of made her envious. She wanted that for herself, and if it wasn’t going to happen with Ckzarr, then she had to keep looking. She wasn’t getting any younger.

“I wasn’t trying to hide anything. My contract ends soon.” Yeah right, as if that was the reason she was looking.

“Yeah, and a contract auto-renews unless there’s a problem. Is there a problem? Anything we can do to help?” Then the professionalism fell from Delaney’s face. “You can’t leave me here alone, Roxy! It’s a sausage fest! I’d die from testosterone overload.”

The description of the ship’s gender imbalance had Roxy chuckling. It wasn’t really that bad. Roxy and Delaney were indeed the only human females on the ship, but there was Tahra, too, who was a Tallean. Still, Roxy understood. It was nice to have another Earth woman aboard.

She didn’t want to tell Delaney that she was considering leaving because of a guy because that just sounded pathetic and dumb, so she hedged. “I’m not really set on leaving. I’m just seeing what there is out there. It feels like this job fell into my lap, and I’m curious to see what else the galaxy has to offer. Reka 5 was great when we visited, and I kind of feel like I might be missing out by not being a part of it. I mean, it is the first Tallean and human mixed colony of its kind. It’s making history.”

Delaney beamed. She’d lived on Reka 5 for the last two years herself. “Reka 5 really is making history.” Then her face clouded again and she peered at Roxy hard. “But that’s not all, is it? Are you sure this doesn’t have anything to do with Ckzarr?” Delaney clearly wasn’t about to mince words.

Roxy’s face crumpled. Was it that obvious? “Yeah,” she admitted. “It’s…complicated.”

The rest of the crew knew their history; it wasn’t like they’d hidden their intimacy or anything.

“The crew must have filled you in…” Roxy trailed off. She didn’t mind if Delaney knew. If there were anyone she could talk to here, it would be her. Despite Emil’s offer to lend an ear, it just wasn’t the same. Talking about boy problems with her older brother, biological or not, was just…ugh. Weird.

And besides, what would he do about it? Rumor had it that he’d already done the older brother thing and threatened Ckzarr with a horrible death.

That wasn’t fair. Ckzarr wasn’t the problem here. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d only asked to test compatibility, which was kind of like officially dating. They’d spent tons of time together, and there was a big focus on sex and physical chemistry. The goal was to see if a mate bond formed between the two. Since Roxy was human and didn’t experience mating bonds, it was up to Ckzarr to feel it.

Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Roxy started getting attached. So she did what she had to do: she put an end to the ongoing tests. They’d already tested longer than many Tallean couples did. It just wasn’t meant to be.

“Not really,” Delaney said. “No details, anyway. They said it’s your story to tell. Look, you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to; I just thought maybe you might want to talk to someone.”

“Thanks.” It had been a while since Roxy had had female friends aside from Tahra. Tahra was great, but her solution to Roxy’s dilemma of getting over Ckzarr had been to go out and find some other male for her to get under. And while that would be a great distraction, it didn’t actually solve their problem. And besides, it wasn’t like Roxy hadn’t tried. She’d gone out to the bathhouses and bars with Tahra, but had never found anyone she was interested in.

Roxy gave Delaney a quick rundown of her sorry situation. “And before you suggest it, yes, I’ve tried going out with Tahra to find someone new, but…” She shrugged.

“No dice?”

“Nope. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure Emil has been warning every guy in port off me. He’s taking this pseudo-older brother thing seriously. I heard he had three younger sisters growing up so he’s had lots of experience.”

“But he didn’t warn Ckzarr off of you?”

“Ohh, there were talks.”

“Oh! But since you were the one who ended things, he couldn’t beat Ckzarr up for breaking your heart?”

“Bingo.”

“But if he thinks you’re looking for other jobs because of Ckzarr, then I’m sure the beatings will be back on the table.”

Roxy squinted at Delaney. “Which is exactly why you’re not going to tell him…right?”

“My lips are sealed.” Delaney made a motion as if she was zipping her mouth closed. Then she sighed. “But there has to be a better way than just up and leaving. Is it because he’s still bothering you? These Tallean guys are persistent.”

“Oh, I don’t mind that at all. Okay, I’m gonna come off as a bit of a bitch now, but honestly, it’s kind of nice to know he’s still interested.”

“Even though you’re not? Yeah, that’s kind of bitchy.”

“Oh, I’m interested. But I’m not his mate. Like, I refuse to fall in love with someone who might bond with someone else. That’s just asking for heartache and trouble. I guess, yes, I’m a bit salty that I wasn’t good enough to be his mate. But that’s not his fault. Ckzarr can’t control that. I’m sure if he had a choice, he would’ve bonded with me already. I did my research. Tallean males don’t ask a female to test compatibility as many times as we did unless they really, really want that bond.”

Delaney nodded. “I think I understand now.”

“Yeah. And after we celebrated your mating with Ulrek, I realized I’m not getting any younger. I want someone special in my life. And if it’s not Ckzarr…” Roxy blew out a breath. “I’m not going to find him hiding here on the ship.”

Delaney put a comforting arm around Roxy’s shoulder, and she leaned into her.

“Thanks for letting me talk it out.”

“I’m not sure I was much of a help,” Delaney admitted sadly.

“No, but I needed to say it out loud. Tahra might be right. The best way to get over him is to find someone else. But I think for me, the order needs to be reversed. I need to get over him first, and that seems impossible to me if I’m working with him every day.”

“I hope we find a solution for you that involves you staying on the ship. But I understand now.”

“Thanks for understanding. Can you keep this to yourself for now? Maybe tell Emil to keep it to himself as well. I’m not sure I’m willing to leave such a great crew yet, and I don’t want any trouble.”

“Of course. I might be new around here, but I can already see how close-knit everyone is. Have you ever thought of taking Ckzarr up on his offer one last time? I mean, just to make sure there really is no bond.”

“I’ve thought about it.” She had, many times. “But I’m not sure I could handle it.”

The ship’s PA system chimed, and Ulrek’s voice filled the room. “Emergency crew meeting. Everyone to the common room. Now.”

Chapter 4

Ckzarr

Ckzarr was in the common room, reading up on the latest volume of Ships & Guns Digest. on his PPC, when the ship’s communications officer plopped down next to him with his arms crossed, looking very unhappy.

“Drinking on the job?” Emil eyed Ckzarr’s heavy-bottomed glass of cheap liquor suspiciously.

“I have finished my work for the day.” Ckzarr took the glass and downed it with a dramatic flourish.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with Roxy, would it?”

Ckzarr frowned, not understanding what the human male was going on about. Had anything happened to the little human female?

“What do you mean?”

They’d done a full check of the ship’s weapons together earlier today, and she’d seemed a little distant, but she’d been acting that way for a while. He hated it, but he didn’t know what he could do to change it. Other than that, he hadn’t noticed anything different about her.

“What about Roxy?” Ckzarr asked again when Emil didn’t reply. “Did something happen? Where is she now?”

“Nothing happened between you two recently?”

“No, nothing. We did a full diagnostic of the ship’s weapons today, but that was all. Why? Is something wrong?”

Emil blew out a breath. “Never mind. It must be something else.”

Ckzarr wasn’t going to let it go that easily. “What must be something else?”

Emil waved a hand as if to brush aside his question. “You know what, forget I said anything. I’m probably just overreacting. You know how moody women can be sometimes. Maybe she’s having her period.”

Ckzarr could tell the male was lying. He knew what menstruation was, and he also knew from the smell that Roxy was not currently bleeding. Tallean females didn’t experience the odd monthly phenomenon, but the crew had all been briefed on it before Roxy, the crew’s first human female, had joined them. The scent of blood on a female could make Tallean males dangerously overprotective, and Ulrek had wanted to make sure they were all forewarned.

Emil was clearly trying to change the subject, and Ckzarr knew he wasn’t going to get anything more out of the older male.

Emil picked up the bottle of cheap spirits, uncorked it, and downed a hefty mouthful.

“Hey, get your own.” Ckzarr snatched the bottle out of the male’s hand and poured himself another glass.

“That shit’s disgusting,” Emil said, making a face.

“You stole my drink, and now you’re complaining about it?”

The human opened his mouth to say something, but before he could speak, the comm unit in his pocket beeped loudly. Emil frowned before fishing out the unit and focusing his attention on the screen. He read it with a scowl on his face.

“What the hell? That doesn’t make sense.” He punched a code into the comm before holding it to his ear.

Moments later, the captain picked up.

“I’m going to send you the distress signal we just received,” Emil said. “Let me know your thoughts, sir.”

He looked up from the comm, and Ckzarr leaned over to peek at the screen as Emil sent the information over to their captain.

It was a distress signal, all right. But it wasn’t coming from a ship in the mercenary alliance, or a merchant vessel, or even a Wildview cruise ship, which were the usual suspects in this sector of space. No, it was a Dominion distress call. Not just any Dominion distress call, either; it was one from years ago that was no longer in use.

Normally, only other Dominion vessels would be able to pick up the signal, but since the Revenge had once belonged to the Dominion, the ship had retained those capabilities. This was strange indeed. What Dominion vessel would be out here? And why was it broadcasting a distress signal not used for decades?

Well, stranger things had happened out in space.

They were also on the edge of pirate territory, and the Dominion was known to work with some pirates in secret. Had a deal fallen through? The Revenge was not typically in the habit of rescuing Dominion scum, but the presence of a Dominion ship in these parts combined with the strange archaic signal was enough to make Ckzarr very curious indeed. He suspected it was the same for his communications officer and his captain.

Sure enough, Ulrek had plenty of questions.

“According to this information,” Emil said, checking his comm, “the ship is carrying prototype weapons.”

That only compounded Ckzarr’s curiosity. If the Dominion had been working on any new weapons since he’d left, he wanted to know about it.

The last he heard, they were working on a special combination of chemicals to give soldiers the benefits of bloodlust—superior strength, exceptional pain tolerance, and heightened senses—without actually entering the altered state. The chemicals were supposed to make the soldiers more robust too, able to continue fighting through injuries that would kill a normal Tallean.

The Dominion was clearly hoping to build an army of super soldiers. The news of the recent attack by pirates augmented with such chemicals on one of the Wildview Starliner Company’s flagship cruise ships, the Star Beauty, was broadcast all throughout the outer planets, erasing any doubt that the Dominion was using pirates as guinea pigs to test its new technology.

They probably promised them extra strength and a longer life, a handsome reward considering many pirates were riddled with disease and suffered from radiation damage. Goodness knows they would have to be desperate to agree to be testers for anything coming out of Dominion labs.

“Put the information up on the screen in the common room,” Ulrek said through the comm. “I’m calling an emergency meeting.”

Ckzarr took another drink before hiding his bottle under the table. If he left it out, every crew member who walked in would grab it and take a sip like Emil had. By the end of the meeting, there wouldn’t be any left. That was an unspoken rule on the ship: if you’re going to be drinking or using any substances, there’d better be enough for everyone.

It wasn’t long before the crew started filing in. Ulrek walked in with Tuhror, the Revenge’s second-in-command and main pilot, though Emil was known to pilot the ship sometimes. Tahra showed up next. She was Tuhror’s sister and the ship’s medic.

Next was Gavin, a human male younger than Emil; he was the ship’s mechanic and did a damn good job at it. Then came Kirek, their handheld weapons specialist. Ckzarr and Roxy worked on and fired the ship’s guns, while Kirek was responsible for all the other weapons. He also procured special gadgets and tech for the crew.

Dex came in with Vhast, Berus, and Cage. The last three were the ship’s muscle. Cage was human, but a massive specimen who towered over the other humans on board. Back on Earth, he’d done a similar job, which was how he’d ended up in the penitentiary where Ulrek had picked him up together with the other human males. As for Berus and Vhast, they had been simple soldiers with the Dominion, paid not to think but to obey. Vhast was barely old enough to join the fleet but had filled out a lot in the past two years. And Berus? He’d always been a big bastard.

The next to walk in was Delaney. Aside from the greenroom, which was her official domain, she’d also started up the ship’s food production lab, though technically, that was supposed to be a second person’s job. She walked in with Roxy.

Ckzarr studied his object of desire closely but couldn’t find anything that would have Emil worried about her. She looked the same as usual to him, her hair dyed blue and purple and pink, something she’d started doing early on in her time on board the Revenge.

It was unique, and Ckzarr loved it. It was a shot of color in an otherwise drab existence.

By the time he was able to tear his eyes away from her, Ulrich was already gesturing for Emil to explain the recording they’d received.

“According to the information attached to the distress call, this is a Dominion ship with prototype weapons.”

That had Kirek’s eyes going wide. Roxy, too, sat a little taller. The rest of the crew looked mildly interested.

“Problem is, this particular distress signal hasn’t been in use in the Dominion for at least half a century. And Ulrek hadn’t heard of any new prototypes in development before he left, but that was admittedly a while ago. These could be brand new, but”—Emil spread his hands—“this is all very suspicious. It could also be a trap.”

“It’s definitely odd for a Dominion ship to be carrying sensitive material in this sector,” Tuhror said.

“What other information do we have on the ship?” Kirek asked.

“None. It’s a bare-bones communication.”

“This is a tad suspicious,” Delaney said. “Maybe we should just ignore it.”

“Aren’t you just a little curious?” Gavin asked.

“Didn’t the first Alien movie start out with a distress call?” Delaney countered.

“I really don’t think we’re going to get infected with chest bursters,” Gavin said.

“What are chest bursters?” Vhast asked. His question resulted in graphic descriptions of fictional creatures that incubated in humans and burst out of their body cavities.

Ckzarr scoffed. He was sure that if such creatures existed in known space, he would’ve heard of them by now. No, they must be strictly fiction.

“Can we stay on track?” Ulrek tapped a toe claw on the floor impatiently. “Let’s vote on it. I know some of you will want to check it out, even if it is a trap.”

“A trap for whom? And why?” Roxy asked.

They didn’t know. It could be made specifically for them. There were quite a few large bounties on the ship to collect. But it was only a small detour, and they were headed that way anyway. They voted on it, and the majority wanted to check it out, albeit with plenty of precautions put in place. And they would scout the area thoroughly first to make sure another ship wasn’t lying in wait for them behind a moon or an asteroid.

“All right, then,” Ulrek said. “If we’re all in favor, let’s set a course for the signal.”

Chapter 5

Roxy

Roxy wasn’t one bit surprised when they got to the distress signal that there was no one in need of rescue. She was, however, surprised that it was indeed a Dominion ship. Judging by the look on everyone else’s faces, they all were.

The ship was old. Very old. If it was indeed carrying weapons, they wouldn’t be some new exciting technology. Tuhror had been quick to point out that none of the ships of this style were even in service anymore.

According to the ancient ship’s data logs, it hadn’t been in contact with the Dominion for decades. This made sense, because Dominion ships had been a lot more common in this sector back then. They’d been mining on some planets and moons and had used planets like New Rhea and Vosthea as stepping stones to the mining sites.

Vosthea had since declared and fought for its independence, and New Rhea was Dominion in name only; that would change as soon as the New Rheans realized they didn’t want Dominion representatives calling the shots anymore. Or perhaps the reps themselves would rebel when they realized the Dominion no longer had their backs.

Even before Kean made his stand in Vosthea, the Dominion had stopped focusing their energy on this sector because the outer planets had always actively fought them. Also, the Dominion had found Earth, and Earth and its surrounding planets were much easier to plunder. Many humans had been taken as slaves, including Roxy herself, and when they escaped, they ended up in the outer planets.

Then about two galactic years ago, the Dominion made their final attempt to push into the sector. Humans had taken arms beside their Tallean neighbors. They’d been essential in protecting their new home and freeing it from the Dominion’s clutches.

Roxy considered the outer planets home now. She spent most of her time on the ship but had visited so many planets and moons that she could honestly say she’d been to more places here than she had been on Earth.

Back on Earth, she’d worked a shitty dead-end job doing data entry in an equally shitty office for way too little money. She’d barely had enough to pay for her tiny apartment, forget traveling.

She’d been alone, too, having lost her parents in a car crash. She hadn’t had many friends; in fact, the only person who would probably have noticed she was gone was her brother, and he’d taken a job in another country. She wondered how long it had taken for him to realize she was no longer on Earth.

“It’s clean,” Kirek said, pulling her out of her thoughts and back to the present.

They’d been careful to scout out the area before making themselves known. There were indeed no ships hiding in wait for them.

“But…If this isn’t a setup, then why would the ship suddenly put out a distress call now after so many years?” Roxy asked.

They were in the common room again, deciding as a team what to do next. She was extremely aware of Ckzarr sitting next to her. They’d been at the helm together, ready to fire at any ship that attacked, but none had arrived. Roxy had been simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

“The ship could have drifted close to a nearby star and collected enough energy to get the system started again,” Gavin suggested. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

That made sense.

“Or, it could have been broadcasting this entire time, but there weren’t any Dominion ships to receive the signal,” Kirek said.

“The Second Chance would have the ability to detect the signals too,” Ulrek said. “And Trenton is frequently in this sector.”

Trenton was the first human captain in the outer planets. He’d stolen the Second Chance, previously called the Stellar Fortune, from Ulrek himself when he’d been on the other side.

“No, the star idea is more likely, I think,” Ulrek finished.

“The big question is: what are we gonna do about it?” Roxy asked.

Her words had Ckzarr grinning. “You’re always about the action, aren’t you? But Roxy is right: what are we going to do about it?” There was a note of respect in his voice.

Roxy hated the sudden butterflies in her belly from his appreciative tone. Damn it, why did he have such an effect on her? Every time he complimented her on her work, which was often, her body reacted like he’d told her she was a “good girl” or something. It wasn’t fair. She schooled her features, told her libido to suck it up, and said with a grin, “Because talk is boring,” hoping he hadn’t noticed her body’s reaction.

Boring and pretty damn useless in her eyes. She hated meetings where the higher-ups talked big about all the changes they were going to make but never actually got anything done.

In the end, they decided to do another sweep of the area, to be extra careful, before sending in a team. She was excited to see what the Dominion had considered top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art new technology a few decades ago. There was a chance she would be disappointed, but she was still curious.

Emil attempted to connect with the ship’s cameras so they could take a peek inside, but the ship was too ancient for that to work. Ulrek insisted on having eyes in the ship before they sent in any personnel, so they docked with it, and Kirek sent in two orb-like drones, which quickly expanded with blue-green light in a grid formation as it mapped out the corridors.

They found no life on the ship, not even dead bodies, although the dust had been disturbed more recently. Someone had been on the ship before them. But how long ago? They didn’t know.

As one of the two drones rounded a corner, Roxy gasped. There on the screen were the coolest things she’d ever seen. They stood as tall as the ship’s ceiling, which in this particular area was extra high. She reached out beside her and grabbed the first thing she could, which happened to be Ckzarr’s arms.

“Holy crap!” she squealed, unable to contain her excitement. “Are those mechs?!”

Ckzarr

Ckzarr wasn’t sure what made him happier: the feel of her hands on his skin or the excitement in her voice. He wasn’t sure what “mechs” were, but he could guess from the context that it was the English word for robotic warriors. Well, if that was what she thought they were, she was one hundred percent correct.

He was as excited to see them as she was. He’d read about them in history books but had never seen one in real life. Most young Tallean males going through the Dominion’s academies dreamed of controlling one of these marvels of engineering one day. Too bad the project had been scrapped long before he was old enough to join the fleet.

Roxy wasn’t the only human on board with eyes as wide as saucers. The males looked just as excited. If they had similar technology back on Earth, Ckzarr had never heard of it. It had certainly never been deployed against the Dominion, and surely a planet would send out every weapon available in that situation.

Earth had been an easy conquest for the Dominion with the inhabitants too busy fighting amongst themselves to defend against the Dominion’s superior firepower. But they must have had something similar because their mechanic already looked half in love with the machines on the screen. Ckzarr doubted they’d be leaving without taking at least one of these creations with them.

“They are robotic suits meant to augment the wearer’s power and strength,” Ckzarr explained.

“Cool!” Gavin said. “I’ve never known the Dominion to use these before. Not even when they attacked the outer planets.”

“This is old, outdated technology,” Ulrek said. “I’ve been in one as a young male.”

“Your sire had one, right?” Ckzarr said, remembering.

Ulrek’s father, Ulren, had been the Dominion’s top captain and had received many gifts in the course of his work.

“Yes. The Dominion realized their upkeep was too expensive. It’s easier and cheaper to breed more soldiers and feed them concoctions of performance-enhancing drugs than it is to keep these ‘mechs,’ as you call them, going. So they scrapped the project, gave the existing ones to their best and brightest, and focused on making super soldiers instead.”

“You mean like those crazy pirates that attacked the cruise ship?” Delaney asked. The cruise liner company was based out of Reka 5, where she’d lived the past few years. The attack had been all over the news broadcasts.

“Yes, just like those. Clearly, the chemicals have not yet been perfected. There are still too many side effects.”

“Did Earth’s military have something similar?” Ckzarr asked. “None were deployed against the Dominion.”

Gavin chuckled. “Hell no. They exist only in stories and movies.”

“Yeah, they were only science fiction,” Roxy said. “I’m sure we would’ve made them if we could. At least until the powers that be realized they weren’t cost-effective. Most decisions on Earth were made by weighing how rich it would make the few at the top.”

Ckzarr snorted. “Then we are not so different.”

“You can say that again—do you think they still work?” she asked hopefully. “Man, I’ve always wanted to control a mech. If I’d known that it would take being abducted from Earth and transplanted to the other side of the galaxy for that to happen, I’d have volunteered long ago.”

“I don’t know.” Ckzarr looked first at Kirek, then at Gavin. If there were anyone who could get the mechs working again it would be their mechanic and their weapons specialist. “What do you think?”

“No idea, but I’m willing to try,” Kirek said.

Gavin nodded emphatically.

They explored the vessel a little more with the drones until Ulrek was certain it was safe for them to board. “I need volunteers,” he said.

“Me me me, pick me!” Roxy waved her hand in the air frantically, looking more excited than a youngster about to do his first mission in a training simulator.

“All right, you can come.” Ulrek scanned the rest of the crew as Roxy stifled a very unprofessional squeal. “But partner up with Ckzarr. That goes for everyone. Stay in pairs. Gavin and Kirek. And…Vhast and Cage. The rest I want watching the comms and the feeds in case anyone shows up.”

“Gotcha, boss.” Emil rubbed his hands together and stood.

Roxy was already on her feet, zipping up her jacket and strapping on her blaster. “Last one out the door is a rotten egg!”

Chapter 6

Roxy

As it turned out, most of the ship had been looted, but Roxy didn’t care. She wasn’t interested in decades-old food replicators or the belongings of some crew that was long dead. She was interested purely in the mechs and mech accessories, which had all been left behind, most likely because the pirates who’d looted the ship before hadn’t been able to bring the large pieces of machinery with them or get them in working condition.

In their current state, the mechs were nothing more than extremely rare paperweights and thus worthless to the pirates, but Roxy had faith that the geniuses on her ship would be able to get them working again.

For a mechanic from Earth, Gavin knew a lot about Tallean technology. He’d had years of onboard experience fixing up the Revenge and whatever vehicles and transports they’d come across. The look in his eyes told Roxy that he wasn’t going to leave without trying his hand on the vast machines in this cargo hold.

Kirek wasn’t bad with this kind of stuff either, although he specialized mainly in weapons and tools. Technically, a mech suit was a mashup of a vehicle and a weapon. So he and Gavin were currently talking animately about how they’d go about making these marvels of past engineering service-ready.

Vhast and Cage, not knowing the first thing about antique technology, were off exploring the rest of the ship. Of all the Revenge’s crew, Vhast was the youngest, and when Roxy had first joined them a little under two years ago, he was still in the process of filling out his gangly teenaged frame. Roxy still thought of him as no more than a kid, though he was rapidly growing into a fine young Tallean man.

He had been super excited about the mechs until it became very clear that they were not operational. Then he and Cage, who was the former security detail for a crime family, had gone off to poke about. Cage was almost as big as Vhast, despite being human. On Earth, he’d had one job: protect his employer.

The guy didn’t talk much, but Roxy had slowly come to know him over the years. He had been an orphan, picked out to protect some rich kid from a big crime family. He’d lived with the family and had been trained to protect them with his life. When the shit hit the fan, they’d thrown him under the bus and right into a high-security prison.

Roxy was glad he’d gotten another chance out here. He got along with Vhast, even though he was quite a bit older, probably because he’d spent much of his adult years behind bars and had never been given a chance to really mature. In fact, she was glad that everyone on the Revenge had been given a second chance, even though all the human males had been convicts. The ones that were still on the crew were the good ones.

The Talleans on the ship, all except for Tahra, were ex-Dominion military with large bounties on their heads, so trust and loyalty were big things. Ulrek also demanded discipline from his crew. They’d gradually whittled the crew down to what it was now.

Those who were straight-up problematic were let go—one crazy asshole was even spaced, according to Emil, but that was before her time—and those who didn’t jibe with this particular crew’s dynamic but were still an asset were transferred to other ships in Ulrek’s fleet. Those ships were currently protecting Vosthea from attack and acting as part of the planet’s standing military.

On the face of it, it would appear that the Revenge was a terrible place for someone like Roxy. Their captain was Ulrek the Horrible, and the rest of the crew was either ex-Dominion or former convicts. But as Roxy took an inventory of the mech parts and accessories left behind on this ancient ship, she felt guilty for even looking for a job anywhere else.

She found a side room, barely bigger than a closet, and turned on the lights, glad that they’d gotten the emergency power on the old ship up and running.

“Cool,” she breathed to herself for the nth time today.

The room held weapons for the giant mechs—because the experience of being inside and controlling a huge humanoid robotic suit wasn’t complete without an equally oversized and ridiculous-looking weapon. She made a beeline for a giant gun that she couldn’t possibly pick up without the help of the mechanized limbs. She tried to anyway before giving up and just admiring it.

Ckzarr would probably be able to hold it, she thought, though it would still look ridiculously massive on him. It could be a hot look, though.

“Ckzarr!” she called out. “Come look at this.”

She waited, wiping the thin layer of dust off the beautiful contours of the weapon. It was a shame that it was just sitting here languishing when it could be on display in a museum or something. The Dominion might think of this as garbage, but she didn’t.

When there was no reply, she turned around to see that the door to the closet had closed. She’d been so excited about what was inside that she hadn’t even noticed. Suddenly feeling apprehensive to be disconnected from everyone else, she went to the door to open it again, but it wouldn’t budge.

What the fuck? This better not be the guys playing a joke on her.

She pressed the button on the communicator she wore on the collar of her uniform jacket. On missions like this, they didn’t use their normal comms and instead used something that connected to the ship so everyone could hear in case there was an emergency. The speaker was nestled securely inside her ear, and the mic was attached to her jacket.

“Ckzarr? Where are you?” Roxy suddenly remembered Ulrek’s order for everyone to stay in pairs. Oopsie. Well, at least they weren’t both stuck in here.

“Inside one of the mechs. It feels great. I can’t wait to get these things working. We’re keeping at least one of these, right, Captain?”

Ulrek’s chuckle came across the line. “Affirmative. I don’t think I have any other option. If I said no, I’m sure I’d have a mutiny on board.”

The answer was followed by several chuckles and a single emphatic “damn right.” This was one crew that had no problem joking about a mutiny.

“I’m glad we’re keeping them,” Roxy said. “But I’m kinda stuck in some spare room. The door locked behind me.”

“I’ll come open it for you,” Ckzarr said.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and Ckzarr stepped in.

“Stars! Look at that.” His eyes went to the very weapon that had drawn Roxy into the room. The gun was far too large for him to handle, but that didn’t stop him from picking it up. It looked ridiculous, being clearly meant to be used with the mech suit.

He grinned and posed with it, looking like he belonged both on the cover of the romance novel and a gun magazine. Roxy bit her bottom lip, begging her body not to react to his display of masculinity. They were in a tiny room, and any arousal she felt, he would totally smell it. It didn’t work: he looked sexy as hell. As she pressed her legs together, Ckzarr grinned, his attention moving from the weapon in his arms to her. He knew the effect he was having on her.

Behind them, the door slid shut. The click of the lock instantly doused whatever flame had sparked between them.

“Fuck!” Roxy ran to the door, and sure enough, they were locked in. “Why the hell would they make something like this lock from the inside?” she wailed.

Ckzarr put the massive gun back down and scowled. “Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense to me, either.”

“Hey, Gavin? Kirek? Can one of you come and unlock this door? We’re both stuck in here now.”

“I’m elbow-deep in one of the mechs right now, and Kirek is the only thing stopping me from getting crushed by it. Can you guys hang on for, like, five minutes? We’ll be right there.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t as if they could go anywhere.

Ckzarr sat down cross-legged on the floor and pulled her down into his lap.

“Hey!”

“What? Gavin told us to hang on. I’m hanging on.” His lips quirked up at the corners, and his gorgeous blue-green eyes sparkled with mischief. “To you. This room is small, and this is the best way for us to relax, don’t you think?”

He had a point. Roxy just didn’t trust her body not to take this as some sort of invitation. Oh, who was she kidding? It already had. The feel of his strong arms around her and his thick muscular thighs under her ass made it hard to think about anything except the places where their bodies touched.

Ckzarr stifled a groan before pressing his face into her neck, nuzzling her. It was the Tallean version of a kiss, and they hadn’t shared something like this for ages. She tried to find the strength in her to tell him to stop, but couldn’t. She’d been depriving herself of intimacy for too long.

The worst part was how tender it was, like he’d missed her terribly and couldn’t help himself now that she was so close.

She closed her eyes and nuzzled him back, rubbing her face against his rugged jawline and along the Tallean cheek crease. His masculine scent filled her nostrils. A wisp of his hair that had escaped the leather cord tying the ponytail at the nape of his neck fell forward to brush against her face. It reminded her of what it was like to tangle her fingers in those wiry strands in the heat of passion.

Would it be so bad to turn this nuzzle into a kiss? She’d missed this intimacy, this connection, for so long.

But suddenly, the room around them started to shift and rumble.

“What the fuck?” Ckzarr growled, pulling away.

“Get the fuck out of there now,” Ulrek’s voice came through their earpiece.

“We’re stuck,” Roxy said. “Locked in.”

“Well, get yourself unstuck, then. That’s an order.”

Everything continued to shift and rumble.

“What the hell is going on?” Roxy got up and tried the door again. Still locked.

“You guys.” Emil sounded frantic. “Get out of that pod now.”

“What pod?” Ckzarr said, looking around. “We’re in a small storage room just off the side of the cargo bay—”

“Not according to my screen, you’re not. You’re in an escape pod.”

Roxy and Ckzarr exchanged a baffled look. Why the fuck would anyone deck out an escape pod to look like a closet?

Even as she asked herself the question, Roxy knew the answer: it was for idiots like them. It had been a trap, and they’d walked right into it.

Chapter 7

Ckzarr

Ckzarr held onto Roxy as the pod lurched from side to side, jostling them against the walls and shelves as they descended through the atmosphere. It wasn’t as bad as it might have been since they’d secured everything else to the shelves after one of the oversized weapons had nearly brained Ckzarr as they detached from the ship.

But the modified pod had neither seats nor safety harnesses for the occupants, which meant it was up to him to keep Roxy from knocking her head as they arrived at their preprogrammed destination—wherever it was.

Roxy held onto him tightly and made a soft whimper. It was torture for him to be in this tight, confined space with the scent of her fear. He wanted to just take her in his arms and tell her everything was going to be all right, but he didn’t want to lie to her.

He had no idea where they were going or what they would be faced with when the doors to the pod finally opened. He sure hoped it wasn’t the Dominion because if that were the case, he would be sent to a mining prison for the rest of his life, and Roxy would be sold back into slavery.

The Revenge was following the pod. They received the occasional communication from the ship, but it was spotty, probably because the pod had something blocking their transmissions.

The landing when it finally came was rough, and Ckzarr was sure he’d have quite a few bumps and bruises to show for it. He wasn’t completely sure all his brain cells were intact, either. Roxy was still hanging onto him, and while she looked a bit worse for wear, he was happy to see she was in one piece.

“You okay, Roxy-baby?” His old nickname for her slipped out.

She blinked up at him. “I’m fine. How about you? You hit your head.” She reached for his forehead but didn’t touch it.

“I’ll live.”

“Ckzarr? Roxy?” It was Emil. Ckzarr was about to assure him that they were all right, but Emil continued speaking. “Our route is being blocked by a bounty hunter vessel.”

Roxy tensed in Ckzarr’s lap.

“There’s no indication that they care about the pod. We are sure they know about it, but they haven’t moved to intercept it. All the same, we’re going silent.”

“Understood,” Ckzarr said.

Roxy and Ckzarr turned off their communicators. Roxy got up and checked the door; it was still securely locked. Ckzarr tried to pry the door open with a piece of the shelf but failed.

There was nothing left to do but wait for rescue.

After a while, a warm draft started coming from the vents, which meant that the pod was bringing in air from outside. It wouldn’t do that if the air were not breathable for Talleans. Humans were more sensitive to high levels of CO2, but they usually did well in atmospheres that Talleans thrived in. Wherever the pod had gone, it must be a habitable planet or moon.

Ckzarr tried to guess which one it could be. There were plenty of options here at the far ends of known space, which was why the Dominion had tried so hard to conquer it. Planets and moons with the right criteria to support Tallean and human life were always found in clusters or bands, hot zones for colonization.

Breathable or not, the air coming through the vents was hot, and it soon became uncomfortable. If they couldn’t get the door open soon, they would cook in here. Roxy had already removed her jacket and was only in her body-hugging tank top. There was a light sheen of sweat on her skin as she leaned against the shelf.

They decided to send a single message to the ship explaining their situation. Hopefully, their ship would receive it the moment it came out of hiding, and it wouldn’t be too late. Then the two of them sat down, their backs leaning against opposite sides of the storage-closet-slash-pod. They closed their eyes and soon fell asleep.

They didn’t wake up in the clutches of the Dominion but to see the ugly mugs and rotting breath of pirates.

“Well, look what we have here.” The male’s breath reeked as he poked his head into the pod.

Ckzarr put Roxy behind him and widened his stance, clearly ready to fight.

“Told you we’ll catch something with that,” a thinner Tallean with wiry muscles crowed. He shoved the door to the pod wide open, and the light from the setting sun shone in. “Those stupid idiots always want to help when there’s a distress call. Then, the useless robotic suits catch their eye, and boom, they’re ours. Works every time. Sure beats boarding ships by force and risking our hides.”

The first male, the one with rotten breath, pointed a weapon at them. “Step out with your hands up in the air.” His eyes landed on Roxy, and he grinned, showing that he had several teeth missing.

“This one looks familiar,” said the skinnier male, his eyes on Ckzarr.

“Knowing you, it’s probably from one of your sex vids. He probably fucks that piece of sexy human ass and puts it out there for a few extra credits. You’d think you’d recognize the bitch and not the male.”

“Quit fucking around. Seriously. I think he has a bounty on him.”

That had the other pirate’s attention. “You.” He gestured to Ckzarr with his weapon. “Stand here. Hands up in the air where we can see them. Try anything, and she gets it.” He waved the blaster at Roxy.

Ckzarr considered fighting but noticed a third motherfucker behind them. He was almost as big as Berus, the largest Tallean on their ship, and must come from similar stock. If it was just his ass on the line, he might try to go for one against three, but not with that weapon pointed straight at Roxy.

“Communicators off, and all your weapons on the ground,” the one who’d recognized him said.

He did as he was told, hoping that these idiots wouldn’t realize Roxy was armed as well. No such luck.

“You too, bitch, we’re not that stupid,” said the one pointing his weapon at Roxy.

Roxy removed her main firearm, but not the knife Ckzarr knew she had in her boot. That wouldn’t really give her an advantage anyway, considering these Tallean males, like Ckzarr, had giant talons on their toes, but unlike those who lived in polite society, they had not been filed down and dulled. They patted both of them down and cuffed Ckzarr’s hands behind his back. They missed the knife in her boot but got both parts of their communicators.

“I say we sell the female,” said Skinny.

“Fuck that. All we have is one Fiete between us. I say we keep her,” countered the big one.

A Fiete? How had one of those gotten all the way out here? Unlike Tallean and human slaves, Fietes were usually obedient. They did the bulk of the domestic work on Dominion planets. They were sexually compatible with Talleans, but not as mates.

“I agree,” said the one with the stink breath. “And I think I should give her a try right now.”

He grabbed Roxy, and Ckzarr couldn’t hold back a growl as he lunged at the idiot for daring to touch her. Despite having his hands tied, he was not without weapons. His heavy boots had an opening at the front for his claws, and Ckzarr kept them sharp. His feet shot out, ready to rip the pirate to shreds. But the others were ready for him. They hauled him back.

Roxy was not defenseless, though; she grabbed the knife from her boot and swiped it across the male’s face. Now he’d have a scar to go with his missing teeth.

“Fuck you, bitch.”

Before he could hit her, his friends stopped him.

“What the fuck!” The male angrily shrugged his buddies off.

“We haven’t decided what to do with her yet, and if you leave a mark on her, she’s not going to sell for nearly as much at auction. I mean, I guess we could take it out of your share…” The big male grabbed Roxy’s blade and pocketed it.

“Besides,” said the skinny one, “you don’t want to be caught with your pants down when it gets dark.” He looked at the sun, which was already setting. “We don’t have long now. Only a few minutes.” He smirked. “But then again, maybe you only last a few minutes—”

“Shut up.”

The big one had been looking for something on his comm unit. He held it up next to Ckzarr’s face. It was the last image the Dominion had of him on file. He was in his old uniform, and his hair had been shorter, but it was still very clearly him.

“That’s him, all right,” Stinkbreath said.

“Well, says here he used to be a big shot in the Dominion, then he decided to switch sides. Fuck. Me. That’s a lot of fucking zeroes.”

“Oh yeah, his bounty is huge.” Skinny eyed him appreciatively. “You’re going to make us rich.”

“But who’s going to go collect the bounty?” said Stinkbreath as they walked the two prisoners to the transport. “You? Maybe you are dumb enough to go to the inner planets and ask for credits for this guy. We’re fucking pirates. They come to us when they have work; it’s never the other way around. They are more likely to shoot you than give you the credits.”

“So we don’t collect the bounty ourselves,” said the big one. “We’ll find someone else to bring them in and give them a cut for their pains. I’m happy with a lesser amount. There are plenty of stupid idiots out here.”

That was true. There was no shortage of stupid in the universe.

“Whatever. Let’s get out of here before night falls.” Skinny looked up into the sky nervously before stepping into the transport behind them.

Ckzarr had no idea what happened on this planet once night fell, but whatever it was, it instilled a primal fear in even the meanest pirates. He didn’t want to wait around and find out. Better let the pirates get him, and more importantly Roxy, to safety, then he’d figure out what to do next.

Chapter 8

Roxy

Roxy twisted in her seat and tried rubbing the bindings around her wrists against the rough piece of metal on the chair, but it didn’t work. The rope held tight.

The pirates’ hideout was not far from where they’d landed. Their captors had pushed the transport to its limit to get there before the sun disappeared over the horizon. Whatever happened after dark, none of their captors wanted to be out there for it.

The sign in front of the shuttered and reinforced building had read Mining Station 4, so at least she now knew they were on a mining planet. She’d learned from her mandatory history lessons aboard the Revenge that the Dominion had contracted several large mining companies to set up bases in this sector in the past, but most of the mines had been abandoned now for at least half a galactic century.

The pirates had separated her and Ckzarr the moment they got back. At least a dozen pirates seemed to live here, and they argued over what to do with her. Some wanted to sell her for credits, and some wanted to keep her since they only had a single Fiete slave to serve and service them all.

They’d dumped her in a side room while they voted on whether to keep her or not, but Roxy didn’t plan on staying put while they came to a decision. Not with the asshole who she’d cut earlier already wanting first dibs. She didn’t know where she’d go when she got out. She doubted she’d want to face whatever lurked outside the walls, but she sure wasn’t sticking around here.

The door of the room opened, and a diminutive Fiete female walked in, her head bowed. This must be the one they spoke about earlier, poor thing. Stuck out here with a dozen pirates.

Fietes were humanoid, almost elfin, and were usually very soft-spoken and timid. Most never even tried to escape, even if their situation was dire. They were obedient to a fault; the Dominion had bred them to be that way over generations.

If this one had made it all the way out here to the outer planets, she must be one of the more intelligent ones. The majority of Fietes never even considered leaving their lives of servitude and had no wish for a life of their own. The few strong-willed ones who escaped and made it to places like Reka 5 or Vosthea needed a lot of guidance to make something of their lives. They usually ended up in service roles where they were happiest.

“You need to leave now.” This female spoke with a rhythm and accent that sounded very inner planets to Roxy. “They have decided to keep you and are having a knife-throwing contest right now to see who gets you for the first night. You must leave before they finish. Khorst is currently winning.”

“Which one is Khorst?”

“The one with the missing teeth.”

Shit. Of course, it had to be Stinkbreath. He’d been the one to tie her wrists, and he’d smacked her hard before leaving her here. Roxy could already feel a bruise blossoming on her left cheekbone.

“I will help free you. The vents in the station connect to the mines underneath. You can leave the station through them.”

The female was uncharacteristically assertive for her kind. It explained why she made it all the way out here.

“How do you know where the vents lead?” Roxy knew better than to blindly trust anyone, even a Fiete bred to serve, especially this one, who was looking at Roxy like she was single-handedly ruining her life.

“They have me clean the vents once a year. The Talleans are too big to fit inside.”

The Fiete approached with a knife and cut the ropes around Roxy’s wrist, freeing her. Roxy rubbed the sore red marks.

“Thank you. Are you going to come with me?”

The Fiete frowned. “Oh, no. I’m staying here.”

“Then why are you helping me?”

“You do not want to be here, and I don’t want you to be here either. I do not wish to be replaced. I have heard humans are better at everything than we are.”

Roxy scoffed. “We are horrible at following orders.”

“Still, they are never happy with my work. If they find someone better, they will throw me outside at night.”

There it was again, the mention of night as a thing to be feared.

“What happens outside after the sun goes down?”

The Fiete shuttered. “Horrible things come from the sky, carry you back to their nest, and feed you to their young.”

“I see.” So it was something physical that could be fought, not something like temperatures that froze you solid in seconds. It had been so hot outside that Roxy had wondered if this planet had little to no atmosphere to protect it from boiling hot temperatures during the day and freezing cold ones at night.

“I will die out there. I am not very strong.”

She wondered if the Fiete really did want to stay with the pirates or if she wanted to stay purely because she was frightened of what was out there.

“What if we promise to protect you and keep you alive? Will you come then?”

“No. There’s nothing out there for me.” She looked down at her hands. “I belonged to a Dominion Captain once. Then I met a human male, and he convinced me to run away with him. That’s how I ended up here. Peter…didn’t make it.” A sadness rolled over her face.

She’d cared about this man enough to dare to escape with him. “He was eaten. If these pirates hadn’t found me, I know I would be dead too. They keep me alive here. They feed me when I’m hungry, and give me medicine when I’m sick. If there is another here to serve them, they might not do that anymore.”

How sad. This Fiete had never known a better life and wanted to keep hers the way it was. She only saw Roxy as competition. Roxy knew she couldn’t force anyone into anything they didn’t want. She didn’t know if the pirates would actually dispose of the female Fiete or not, but if she wanted to stay, then so be it.

“What is your name?”

“Seela.”

“I’m Roxy. Thank you, Seela. I will get out of here, and you can keep your pirates.”

Seela showed her an opening in the wall covered by a grate that led to the ventilation shafts. The opening was just big enough for Roxy to wriggle through.

When Roxy looked back, Seela was already gone.

Ckzarr

Ckzarr was strapped into a reclining chair usually used in ship med bays for examinations. Chairs like this were also used during unlicensed implants and other illicit body modifications, except they were usually attached to the machine the sketchy medics used to do the work. This one was freestanding, and like everything else in this room, it looked old and like it had seen better days.

There was junk of all sorts piled in here, all of it decades old. These thugs didn’t have a proper brig to keep someone like him in and were using their storage room instead. He really needed to stay out of storage rooms from now on.

They’d shot him up with some sort of sedative so he couldn’t cause trouble, but it was beginning to wear off. The mention of Roxy’s name somewhere outside his door pulled him the rest of the way out of whatever stupor he was still in.

The pirates were livid because, apparently, Roxy was gone. They’d found the ropes binding her next to the chair they’d tied her to and no sign of her at all. They thought maybe she’d run outside, but none of them was willing to brave whatever terror stalked the darkness to look for her. They questioned the Fiete female, but she’d been washing their clothes and had seen nothing.

“Maybe she’s still hiding in the station,” one of the pirates was suggesting. “She can’t be dumb enough to go outside.”

“We never told her what was out there. She wouldn’t know. She could be dead already.”

“What a waste of a good female. I didn’t even get a taste yet.”

If Ckzarr had any say in it, the scum never would. He knew Roxy was smart enough not to run out into an unknown planet at night, especially not after seeing the way the pirates had reacted to nightfall.

“I’m getting sick of that Fiete. She’s all loose now from all of you rutting in her.”

“She’s not loose, idiot. You’re just small.”

“Ah, fuck off.”

“Enough! You can fight over your cock size later. The bounty hunters are comming us.”

“Are you sure you want to connect the comm? Aren’t these the guys using the Dominion-made chemicals? They creep me right the fuck out.”

“Yeah, but they’re our best bet. They’re willing to pay upfront. Now shut the fuck up.”

The voices died down. A moment later, the door to the room opened, and Ckzarr pretended to be still knocked out. He didn’t want to be dosed again. If Roxy had gotten free, she’d be waiting for him to join her.

“Here he is,” said the voice at the door. “Just like the photo.”

“We want genetic confirmation. It might just be someone who looks like him,” said a rough voice over the comm.

“How the fuck are we supposed to give you that? We don’t have a functioning lab here. And even if we did, none of us would know how to do that medical shit.”

“You have a med bed?”

“We have one, but it’s old.”

“All you need is a sample of his blood. We will send you the program needed to match up the data. It’s that, or we don’t have a deal.”

The pirate at the door grunted, clearly not happy about being pushed into a corner. “Fine, send us the program.”

“What model is your med bed?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fucking useless,” muttered the exasperated voice on the other end of the line. “Okay, why don’t you show it to me, and I will tell you.”

The pirate left, closing the door behind him.

The moment he was gone, a scuffling sound started coming from the ceiling. Ckzarr looked up to see a panel from the ceiling lift away and disappear into the void above.

The fuck?

Roxy’s head poked through. “Hey. Miss me yet?”

Ckzarr grinned.

She started lowering herself down.

“There’s a camera in the corner.” Ckzarr pointed his chin at it.

“It doesn’t work,” she said softly. “Nothing in this place really works. They haven’t kept it up properly and only maintain what they really need to.”

She dug into her top and produced a key. The storage room was dim, but his eyesight was keen, and he spotted a bruise starting on her cheek.

“Who did this to you?” Whoever it was, Ckzarr wanted to pay him a visit before they left.

“The same idiot from the pod. The one I got with my knife.”

She went to his ankles and undid the cuffs around them. She was moving onto his wrists when footsteps outside alerted them that their captors were returning. Roxy slapped the wrist restraints closed again and tucked the key into her bra before disappearing behind a crate in the corner.

Ckzarr went limp and pretended again to still be unconscious. He really hoped the idiots didn’t notice the missing ceiling panel. They used a small pen-like item to extract a drop of his blood.

“How long is this going to take?” the male asked. The bounty hunters were still on the other line.

“Not long. We’ll know in a few minutes. But you need to get that blood in the medical unit right now. Stop standing around.”

The pirate hurried out of the room without noticing the missing panel or the fact that his prisoner’s legs and feet were no longer restrained. Ckzarr could have killed him then and there, but no. That would have alerted the rest of his friends.

Roxy reappeared again and freed him from the chair.

“What now?” Ckzarr asked. Roxy was always thinking and planning, and he knew she probably had their escape all figured out. It was one of the many things he respected about her. He looked up at the ceiling. “I can’t climb up in there—”

“Of course not. The vents are too small for your body. We’re escaping into the mines. And there’s about to be a distraction.”

“There is?”

“Yep. Just wait.”

She climbed back up into the ceiling and retrieved a single blaster—it wasn’t their own weapon but an inferior one—a lantern, two nutrition bars, and a flask.

“I know I’m the better shot, but here, take it.” She handed him the blaster. “It’s the only one I could find. Our communicators and weapons are in the main room, along with my jacket, and I wasn’t able to get them. This one’s fully charged, though, so there’s that.”

She strapped the lantern, which was designed to be worn on a miner’s shoulder, to her chest, then handed Ckzarr the flask, which he put into the thigh pocket of his pants. Then, as they waited for the advertised distraction, they dug into their nutrition bars.

Sure enough, a scream soon pierced the air.

Ckzarr stuffed what was left of his bar into his mouth and wolfed it down while Roxy abandoned hers.

“What the fuck?” yelled an irate masculine voice from outside. “How the hell did that thing get in here? Who the fuck left the door open?”

There was a round of colorful swearing before blaster fire rang out, and chaos exploded outside the room.

“That’s our cue. Oh, and one last thing.” She reached up into the ceiling panel again and then handed him a stim. “In case whatever they gave you to knock you out earlier makes it hard for you to run.”

“Thanks.”

One stim later, they stepped out into the hallway.

Go time.

Chapter 9

Roxy

Holy. Shit.

Roxy gawked at the giant pterodactyl-like creature in the middle of the station’s main room. The thing was huge! Definitely big enough to swoop down from the skies and carry off a full-grown Tallean male. No wonder Seela had been so frightened just to talk about them.

Earlier, Roxy had snuck around to the front, opened the door, and dumped out some rotting food and garbage she’d found at the station entrance. Without a Tallean’s amazing night vision, she hadn’t seen anything outside but darkness, but she’d heard the sounds of wing beats and a strange clicking that immediately sent her running back into the vents, leaving the door wide open.

Currently, all of the pirates were focused solely on the creature. Poor Seela was cowering in a corner, screaming her little head off. Perhaps Seela had been right to try to keep the pirates to herself since it seemed they were trying their best to keep the creature’s attention off her. They might not show her their appreciation, but they protected their assets. An obedient Fiete female must be a valuable treasure out here.

Well, Seela could remain the pirates’ only damned treasure. Roxy wasn’t interested.

The creature whipped around, screeching and lunging at the circle of pirates closing in on it with their weapons drawn. With everyone’s attention focused on fighting the beast, Roxy led Ckzarr to the back hallway, at the end of which was the door to the mines.

She glanced behind her and saw that there were now three of the enormous creatures instead of one. That meant three times the distraction. They just had to make sure to close the door to the tunnels tightly behind them in case the pirates lost, and the creatures followed her and Ckzarr into the bowels of the mines.

“Hey! They’re getting away!”

Fuck! Roxy turned to see Stinkbreath coming out of an adjoining hallway carrying something that looked suspiciously like a flamethrower.

Beside her, Ckzarr reacted quickly, lunging at Stinkbreath before he could even aim his weapon. He grabbed the asshole by the neck and shoved him up against the wall. He punched him hard enough for Roxy to hear a sickening crunch, exactly in the same spot where Stinkbreath had hit her earlier. She wondered if he’d done that on purpose, kind of like an eye for an eye thing.

The pirate tried to fight back, but it was already too late. Her Tallean warrior had the upper hand, and all it took was a twist of the neck. There was another sickening crunch, and Stinkbreath slid lifelessly to the ground.

“I don’t think anyone heard that,” Ckzarr said.

Probably not. Seela’s screaming was enough to drown out the little exchange, but when they unbarred the door and shoved it open, the door made a loud metallic scrape against the station floor. There was no way they’d miss that. But by the sound of it, they were still busy fighting the beasts.

Ckzarr bent to remove the flamethrower from Stinkbreath, but just then, one of the alien pterodactyls stepped into the hallway and screeched at them. He left the flamethrower and dashed for the door instead. They shoved the door closed behind them just as the beast lunged. There was a loud crash on the other side of the door, and they were plunged into darkness.

Breathing hard and with her heart pounding in her chest, Roxy clicked on her lantern, illuminating the dank, dark tunnel.

“Come on,” she said, still panting. “I stashed a bunch of stuff by the vents. I found my way into the mines earlier through them but wasn’t able to open the door since it’s barred from the station side.”

She led Ckzarr to where she’d put everything she’d found that might come in handy. There was another flask filled with water and an extra stim, but the piece de resistance was the map of the tunnels. Not a digital one, either, but one printed out on cellulose film that they could carry with them. She hadn’t had the time to look at it yet since she needed to get Ckzarr out.

“Stars. This looks ancient.” Ckzarr leaned over the map as Roxy angled her body just so that light from her lantern hit it. “Looks like we were in Mining Station 4.” He pointed to their location on the map. “The next closest station is…here: Mining Station 6.”

So what had happened to Mining Station 5? A cursory glance revealed that the tunnels to it had collapsed, and the area had the glyph for NO written over it in large, red lettering.

“We should get there in a few hours at my pace,” Ckzarr said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you mean at your pace?”

Ckzarr

Ckzarr knew his words triggered Roxy’s competitiveness, which always lay just below the surface. He was hoping to use that to keep her going until they made it to safety.

“You are slower. Your legs are shorter. I am simply stating facts.”

“Those are pretty incendiary facts for someone who just got his sorry ass rescued.”

He chuckled, then cupped her face in his palms. “You are very brave and intelligent. You have impeccable aim, and you are the most beautiful goddess I’ve ever seen,” he corrected himself.

“That’s better.”

“And you did a very good job.”

She beamed at him. Roxy had always reacted well to praise, especially when she knew in her heart she’d done good work. Since he could no longer tell her she’d been a good girl in bed or when on her knees, he made sure to praise her work often.

He released her and turned back to the supplies she’d gathered. “Your legs are still very short,” he mumbled under his breath.

That earned him a punch in the ribs.

“Ooph.”

They marked out a path on the map, folded up the old cellulose sheet carefully, and started on their way.

The air in the tunnels was stagnant and smelled mildly organic. The sounds of dripping water and the scurrying of tiny, unseen feet were the only things other than their footsteps that broke the silence. It was dark, and the only light they had to go by was Roxy’s lantern. There were occasional rusted signs pointing the way through the labyrinth of tunnels.

It wasn’t long before they found their first sign of life—or, rather, death. It was a pile of humanoid bones. By the looks of it, namely the lack of claws on the feet, it was not of Tallean origin.

“Human or Fiete?” Roxy wondered aloud.

“Human.” Ckzarr’s voice was confident. “The Fiete have protrusions at the base of the spine like little tails. You don’t see them on the body because, most of the time, they are fused under the skin. But some have actual little tails.” He knelt by the skeleton. “I’m not sure if it was a small male or a female, though. The bone structure is slight, and it seems to have had a broad pelvis, but I cannot be sure.”

“You seem to know a lot about human skeletons.”

Ckzarr grunted. “It was required reading while in the Dominion military.”

“Did it come under the heading of Know Thy Enemy or Take Care of your Possessions?”

“Yes.” It truly had been a bit of both. He squinted at the marks on the bones. “I’m not sure how old these remains are, but one of the arms is missing, and that femur looks like it was…chewed off? I’m not sure what type of jaw could do damage like that, though.”

Roxy looked around. “Something with big-ass teeth.”

“Asses do not have teeth. You are thinking of the other end.” That earned him another playful punch, this time on his shoulder. He’d known exactly what she’d meant.

She knelt down next to him and gazed down at the unfortunate soul who’d unsuccessfully braved the tunnels. “I don’t know if you believed in any higher power, but may the Stars guide your way to him, or her, or anywhere else you need to go.” She was silent for a moment, then nodded and said, “I think that covers it. Let’s get going.”

They double-checked their maps to make sure they were heading in the right direction and continued on their way.

“That skeleton makes me wonder if I’m not the first human Seela sent into the vents.”

“Seela?”

“The pirates’ Fiete slave. She’s the one who told me the vents were connected to the tunnels. I asked if she wanted to come with me, but she was very adamant that she had no interest in leaving the pirates. She just wanted me gone so I couldn’t take her place. I wonder if she knew what happened here. Somehow, I doubt she explored the tunnels. And even if she had, I think seeing this would’ve ended her exploration early.” She looked around again, her eyes peering into the darkness.

Ckzarr already knew there was nothing where she was looking because he could see much better than she could in the dark. It must be terrifying for her as a human, lacking sight adapted to nocturnal hunting, not being able to see more than where the light reached.

“I do not sense anything nearby, Roxy. We are alone.”

“Good. I’m not sure I want to meet whatever gnawed on that leg. Do you think it’s still around?”

The tunnels were extensive, and Ckzarr was sure there was a thriving ecosystem down here that would include predators, but he didn’t want her to worry. “That one is long dead.”

Roxy snorted. “Is that your way of saying we should worry about its babies instead?”

Ckzarr chuckled. She was always one step ahead.

He threw an arm around her and pulled her in close. “I will protect you. You’ve seen me in bloodlust before. Think about that instead.”

She blew out a breath, and the slightest hint of her arousal tinted the air. She did enjoy seeing him in that altered state…very much. Some human females found it terrifying, repulsive even. But not Roxy.

He thought back to the first time she’d seen him like that. Ckzarr had just torn apart Dominion scum with his bare hands and she’d called it “sexy as fuck”. Then he’d let the tail end of the bloodlust wash over him, the part where he needed desperately to fuck something, and he’d taken her up against a tree. Then he’d brought her back to his quarters and didn’t let her leave until morning. That had been their first time together, and he still fondly thought of it often.

Stars! His cock grew hard just remembering her screams as he pounded into her. The scent of her arousal had grown as well, and Ckzarr wondered if she was thinking about it too.

The eerie silence of the tunnels was suddenly broken by a low hum, indicating activity back where they had come from. The pirates had clearly gotten rid of their winged friends and had followed them into the mines. Luckily, Ckzarr and Roxy had a respectable head start. But Roxy’s legs really were short, and they’d need to hurry if they didn’t want to lose their advantage.

Chapter 10

Ckzarr

They were almost at Mining Station 6 when Ckzarr first sensed it: something was hunting them. Something big. Something quiet. He increased their pace, but it was clear that Roxy was tiring.

She wasn’t the only thing running out of energy. Their single lantern was waning too. It had already emitted the sound warning of a low charge. It had been at full when they’d first started, and these types of lanterns usually lasted for days on a single charge, but who knew how old this lantern was?

“There.” Roxy gestured to a sign pointing the way to the station. “It can’t be far now.”

The sounds of the pirates pursuing them had kept Roxy motivated despite her obvious fatigue. The bounty hunters must be willing to pay a decent amount for Ckzarr if the pirates were following them this far. Or perhaps the bounty hunters had told them to retrieve their mark or else. Some bounty hunters were ruthless, and many were better armed and trained than a band of pirates.

A shuffling sound came from behind them, and Roxy stepped a little closer to Ckzarr. “I think there’s something following us. I thought I felt it earlier, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Something big. Whatever had eaten the other human, I think.”

“Crud! Let me guess. It’s fast too.”

“Probably.”

“Then we’d better hurry.”

She moved a little faster but slowed again after a few minutes. She was tired. Roxy had been hired for her impeccable aim and quick thinking, not for her physical capabilities. Ulrek required every crew member to train regularly in basic fighting skills, and that meant she was fitter now than she was when she was first hired, but still. They’d been traveling for hours.

“I will carry you,” he announced. He scooped her into his arms before she could protest, and with her safely there, Ckzarr took off and ran.

To his surprise, she didn’t complain, just threw her arms around his neck and hung on for dear life. They continued this way, making better progress, until finally, they reached another sign and the final turn toward the station.

Somewhere in the tunnels, there was a loud masculine yell, followed by an animalistic screech that echoed through the narrow corridors. There was a blood-curdling scream, then silence.

“I guess whatever it was, it found the pirates,” Roxy said nervously.

That was good. It bought them some time while the predator dealt with its prey. But Ckzarr didn’t slow. He wanted to get to that station as soon as possible. The feeling of being hunted, being followed, stayed with them, driving them ever onwards through the darkened corridor.

The light strapped to Roxy gave another low-energy warning.

“No! I’ll need that light to get into the station.”

“I will see for us.”

“But you won’t be able to fit into the vents,” she said. “I’ll need to crawl in to unbar the door.”

“Turn the lamp off. Save the energy. There are glowing fungi lining the walls in this area. It is enough for me to see.”

She switched off the light, and he continued on, using his superior night vision to make his way toward their destination. The Talleans had evolved from predators that hunted under many different conditions, including under cover of darkness. As a result, they had developed an impeccable sense of smell, great hearing, and the ability to see in low light. They weren’t able to see in complete darkness, but as his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, the bioluminescence became enough for him to see comfortably.

Unfortunately, it was also enough light for whatever was hunting them, and Ckzarr was sure now that there was another beast close by.

Even Roxy sensed it. “We’re still being followed,” she said, her arms tightening around him.

“The entrance is near. We will make it.” He wasn’t wholly sure if he was saying it for her or for himself.

“But the entrance is locked from the inside. I’ll have to go through the vents and unlock it.”

“Then I will get you to the vent safely, and I will fight the beast off while you unlock the door from the inside.”

“But—”

“Are you frightened for me?” he asked as he put her down. They were at the vent. “Do you not think I could take on a wild, unknown predator in the dark? I am a Tallean warrior. I have trained for this. I love a good fight.”

Roxy made an exasperated sound. “Of course you do. I know you. You can’t wait to get into bloodlust. But the pirate was a Tallean male too, and I’m pretty sure he lost. Sure sounded like it.”

The light turned on, and she quickly found the entrance to the vent.

“Well, then,” he said with a grin as he helped her remove the vent cover, “you’d better hurry. You don’t want to miss the fight.”

He expected her to head straight into the vent, but instead, she did something she hadn’t done in a very long time.

She kissed him.

Chapter 11

Roxy

Admittedly, Roxy had an ulterior motive when she decided to kiss Ckzarr. She wanted to make sure that he fought this unknown creature with everything he had. If she opened that door to look out and see him being torn apart, it would destroy her. So she gave him the one incentive she knew would make him fight twice as hard: her.

It only took a moment of their mouths touching for her body to remember the amazing things he’d done to her—and all the things she’d missed.

This was different from the gentle nuzzling back in the storage closet turned escape pod. This one was filled with desperation and tinged with adrenaline.

Ckzarr took control of the kiss, his hand moving to hold the back of her neck possessively as he captured her lips and stole her breath. His other hand moved down to grab her ass and pull her to him. She let him, pressing herself against him, wanting to feel his heat all over her body. His delicious, masculine scent surrounded her, pushing away the damp decay of the tunnels.

He kissed her with a desperate hunger, his lips and tongue exploring every inch of her mouth. His predator fangs pressed against her lips, and lust blossomed in her belly. She moaned, and he swallowed the needy sound.

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over, and she was trying to stand on wobbly knees.

“You have a blaster,” she reminded him when she had caught her breath.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Use it. I know you Talleans have this thing about taking down wild beasts with nothing but your bare hands and all that crap, but I need you to live. I need you to survive. I need you to win. So use the fucking blaster. Now is not the time for pride. I let you carry me. Now you use that blaster.”

“Does this mean you care about me?” The membrane in his eyes that helped him see in the dark reflected the light of the lantern, making his eyes glow.

Roxy sent him a look of disbelief. “I’ve always cared about you. We are crew, remember? That makes us family.”

“That’s not how I meant it, and you know it.” His hands tightened on her ass.

Her body decided now was a good time to crave him. What horrible timing!

But was it? In Talleans, and some humans too, the wires for violence and sex sometimes got a little crossed. That was why after going into bloodlust, Tallean males often needed to fuck. Roxy wouldn’t mind being the object of his desire if he made it out of this fight alive.

A low bellow reverberated through the tunnels, and Roxy whipped her head around to peer into the fungus-lined unknown. That was way too close!

“Win this fight,” Roxy said, “and I’m all yours. That’s a promise.”

Ckzarr grinned like he’d already won.

“Crap!” Roxy swore as the metal vent cover that opened into the station refused to budge. It was welded shut or perhaps corroded from years of disuse.

She heard a growl echo through the vent, followed by an answering roar.

Was that roar Ckzarr? Wow!

Roxy’s arm pebbled with goosebumps. Her Tallean mercenary could really hold his own. He sounded just as terrifying as the beast. Maybe even more so.

But was he as strong? Was this creature venomous, or did it have some other unknown advantage? She had to get out there and help him soon.

She didn’t hear any blaster fire but didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing. Did he consider the beast too small or too easy to beat to warrant using the blaster? Was he being a typical proud Tallean male, wanting to fight the wild beast with his bare hands? She approached the second grate; this one opened to the kitchens. She pushed on it, but it was stuck too.

“What the fuck?” She shoved at it again, but it didn’t move.

Turning her body so that her feet pointed straight at the vent opening, she kicked as hard as she could. The entire ventilation shaft filled with reverberations, but it didn’t move.

Damn it.

“Okay. Third time’s a charm,” she muttered as she continued to the next opening. It was the mess hall. She didn’t even try using her hands this time. She went straight to kicking with her feet.

The vent grate fell right out, clanging to the floor. She gasped as her legs burst right out of the vents from the momentum. She hadn’t expected so little resistance.

But at least she was through. She climbed out of the vents, happy she hadn’t needed to climb up to the ceiling like last time. If this station was anything like Station 4, shimmying up there would be difficult: she’d almost gotten stuck last time. She hurried out of the mess hall and into the main area.

Fortunately, this station was built exactly like the previous one, and everything was in the exact same spot. She headed to the back of the station and to the doors leading to the tunnels. Just like in Station 4, this one had two locks and a heavy metal beam barring it shut.

Without Ckzarr, she would have to move the metal beam on her own. She heaved and barely got the thing to move more than an inch. How had Ckzarr moved the other one like it was no more than a paperweight? She looked around and found a folding table leaning against the wall.

She grabbed it and leaned it up next to the door, just underneath the corner of the bar. She heaved the beam up, then pushed the table under the bar, hoping it would hold the weight. It did. The beam stayed put, hovering an inch over its resting place.

This could work, but she had to move more quickly. She needed to get to Ckzarr.

It was slow going and tedious, but inch by inch, she managed to lift the beam until it no longer barred the door. She undid the two locks and shoved the door open just in time to see something about the size of a very fat cat come flying toward the tunnel wall right next to her. The creature hit the wall with a wet splat.

The beast reminded her of the Pacman frog her brother had had as a pet when they were little. He’d called it Paco, a portmanteau of Pacman and taco, two of his favorite things. Paco had been mostly mouth and stomach. It’d had an insatiable hunger, swallowing its prey whole. It had even tried to eat her brother’s glasses once, with little success.

This alien frog-creature she was looking at now had three eyes atop its head instead of two. And it wasn’t green, brown, and orange like her brother’s pet but glowed faintly red in the darkness of the tunnel. Giant razor-sharp teeth lined the mouth that took up a good third of its body. And it seemed to share Paco’s singular focus on food because despite having hit the walls of the tunnel hard enough to turn its insides to mush, it quickly righted itself, its attention still on Ckzarr, and scurried back into the fray.

That was when she realized there wasn’t one but dozens of these things. No wonder Ckzarr wasn’t using his blaster. There were just too many to focus on. They didn’t reach for him with their tongues but instead lunged at him, using their hind legs to hop up, biting down on anything they could reach.

Ckzarr had one latched onto his arm and another attached to his leg, and he was flinging them away from himself left, right, and center.

It would almost be humorous if it weren’t for the fact that these little guys surely hadn’t made that low bellow from earlier. They weren’t big enough to make a sound like that, even if they used their whole bodies. Ckzarr flung another of the annoying creatures off of him, and it landed right on top of the source of the roar.

Oh shit. There was the mother, and it was huge.

The massive creature was on its back and flailing its six stubby legs wildly, trying to flip itself back over. Remembering the way Paco had swallowed his crickets and mealworms whole, Roxy shuddered. The little alien frogs were just annoying and confused babies. The mother could swallow both of them in one gulp if it wanted to—and if it didn’t feel like doing that, its teeth looked very adept at cutting right through flesh and bone. It certainly explained the gnaw marks on the femur they had seen earlier. And what if it had venom?

Just then, one of the babies noticed her standing by the door and turned toward her. She backed into the room and reached for the closest thing she could find, which happened to be a metal chair. It was heavy, designed as it was for a large Tallean, but she managed to pick it up.

“Come any closer, and I’m gonna squash you,” she said with more confidence than she felt.

The creature did not come closer. In fact, every single time she angled her body to face it head-on, it shied away. These things were afraid of light! The lantern was nowhere near as bright as it had been earlier, but it was enough.

Keeping the light pointed in the little murder froggo’s direction, Roxy headed to the station storage room where the mining lights and lanterns had been kept at the other station. Sure enough, she found them there. One of them must still have enough charge to use the floodlight function, even if it was just for a short period.

Unlike the batteries she was used to back on Earth, which wouldn’t work after half a century of storage, Tallean technology was different—even the older stuff. This mining planet had been abandoned decades ago, and yet, everything in it still functioned—well, the basics anyway, like the light she was using, the communication systems, and even the pirate’s single medical bed.

The first lantern she picked up worked fine. It didn’t have much juice left since it hadn’t been charged after the last use, but it was a lot better than the one she had right now. She turned it on and aimed the beam of light directly at the creature that had followed her into the station. It shrieked and scuttled back into the tunnels.

With two fresh lanterns in hand, she followed after it. She aimed them into the tunnel and turned on the flood function. The tunnel lit up, and all the little alien frogs made tiny shrieks as they scurried toward the big one. They dove at the bigger one’s skin and burrowed in, making squelching sounds that had Roxy suddenly wishing she hadn’t eaten that nutrition bar earlier.

The whole scene was creepy as fuck, but soon the alien babies were nothing more than bumps under the skin on the mother’s back. Roxy tried to remember. Weren’t there toads on Earth that carried their babies under their skin? But those babies weren’t the size of dinner plates.

The mother—or was that the father? Whatever—did not shy away from the light. It had righted itself and now shook itself out, ready to fight.

With all his focus on the creature, her Tallean warrior let out another roar and let the bloodlust take over. Same as the first time she’d seen it happen, Roxy was transfixed by the transformation. A Tallean male in full bloodlust was truly a sight to behold.

Chapter 12

Ckzarr

Ckzarr let the bloodlust consume him. It had been simmering just beneath the surface, begging to be let out. With a thunderous roar, his cheek creases unfolded, his jaw dropped open impossibly wide, and his fangs extended from their partially retracted state. Strength and aggression surged through him, and he found great pleasure in the raw, savage sensation.

Back in the Dominion, it was considered barbaric for a male to go into bloodlust unless they were soldiers fighting for the Goddess. It wasn’t something accepted in polite society. However, watching a fighter paid to fight to the death go into bloodlust was a completely acceptable pastime. It was common for rich males who would never be caught dead letting their cheeks unfold to pay exorbitant sums to go to wilderness reserves so they could let loose against wild beasts.

Ckzarr had been to those reserves back when he served the Goddess. It was a common way for the Dominion to build camaraderie within its ranks. Those reserves were nothing like the real thing; the animals were nowhere close to as deadly as the ones he’d encountered here in the wilds of the outer planets. It was all imitation for the rich.

This creature was new to him, but Ckzarr was sure he’d heard of something similar before. He focused on the monster before him, glad its attention was on him and not the delicious human female at the door.

Now that the bloodlust had heightened Ckzarr’s already keen senses, he could smell and even taste the tantalizingly sweet and tangy scent of Roxy’s fear. This beautiful female would be his prize for besting this beast.

The adult creature wasn’t nearly as bothered by the light as its young were, but it wasn’t attracted to it either and actively avoided getting too close. This was a good thing because he did not want its attention anywhere near Roxy.

The creature lunged at him, and when it opened its mouth wide enough to swallow him whole, he saw it: the creature’s beating heart. It pulsed behind a thick membrane at the back of its throat. Despite his acute night vision, Ckzarr had missed it the first time the thing tried to swallow him. It was doubly dark inside the beast’s maw.

If it weren’t for the front incisors that could easily bite him in half, not to mention the numerous grinding teeth on the roof of the creature’s mouth above a strong muscular tongue, Ckzarr would have just let the beast engulf him so that he could rip out its heart with a swift kick of his taloned feet. But no. He had to find another solution. That was simple enough: he’d shoot it with his blaster.

It wouldn’t be nearly as fun, and it would be a waste of his altered state. If this had been a recreational hunt, using a blaster would not have been at all acceptable. But this was not a recreational hunt. He had a very beautiful, exceedingly intelligent, massively brave human female to keep alive. Roxy’s safety was his number one priority right now.

He dove out of the creature’s way just as it lunged for him. The monster threw so much weight behind its body that its front teeth clanged on the hard tunnel floor, and its stubby hind legs kicked up into the air. Every attack had a long recovery, and it gave Ckzarr plenty of time to position himself.

But the creature was also angry. Ckzarr had, after all, killed several of its young. He hadn’t wanted to harm the smaller ones, but they’d been persistent and hadn’t known when to give up. Just like their mother.

The creature prepared to lunge again, opening its mouth wide. Ckzarr aimed his weapon carefully at the beating heart. Just then, a small one that had been hiding in the shadows sprang up on its hind legs and attached itself to his hand that was holding the blaster.

Its teeth might be a lot smaller than its mother’s, but they still hurt as they dug in. He managed to shake the creature off, earning him several scrapes, but the damn thing took the blaster with it. Baby and blaster flew together into mama monster’s mouth.

The beast, too stupid to spit its own baby back out, swallowed both.

Fuck! So much for his weapon and that idea. He’d have to find another way.

He spotted the metal grate covering the vent entrance. It was set into the wall and attached with just two small flimsy hinges. He ran over and grabbed it, tearing it off. The loud sound it made ricocheted through the tunnels.

He turned back to see that the creature had turned its attention to Roxy while he had been distracted. She’d left two lanterns on the ground, shining its light into the tunnel, and had returned with more, including a set of work lamps on a stand.

“Get back!” he ordered.

It was hard to enunciate clearly with his jaw extended and his cheek creases unfolded, but she understood. However, Roxy, independent as ever and with a mind of her own, ignored him.

Instead of getting back, she flashed the work lamps on their highest setting at the creature. It stopped advancing and turned its attention back to Ckzarr. The creature might not be scared of light, but it was clearly sensitive to it.

Ckzarr waved the metal grate in the air and snarled at the creature, trying to goad it into attacking using the universal language of aggression. It took the bait, springing forward with its mouth open. Roxy let out a shrill scream as he dove into the creature’s gaping maw.

Oops. He should’ve warned her about his unconventional maneuver so as not to scare her. Too late.

His initial goal, which he accomplished easily, was to get past the first set of deadly teeth. Now, he used the metal grate as a shield between himself and the smaller rows of teeth on the roof of the monster’s mouth as the strong, muscular tongue pressed him up toward the sharp protrusions.

The metal grate broke some of the beast’s teeth, and it opened its mouth wide again. This was Ckzarr’s chance!

He went for the back of the throat, kicking with his feet. His sharp talons ripped through the thin membrane and tore into the heart. The creature flailed wildly, trying to spit him out. He emerged from the beast covered in its blood and watched as the creature went still.

With the creature slain, his thoughts went to his prize, but he didn’t want to taint her with this grime and blood. He remembered a water valve he’d noticed earlier when they first arrived at the station. It was next to the vent Roxy had climbed through.

He went to the valve, turned on the water, stood underneath it, and let the flow of cool water clean his body.

Then Roxy was under the spray with him, her arms wrapped around his body.

“You had me so scared.”

He wanted to tell her he’d known what to do because he’d seen the beating heart in its mouth, but words were too difficult right now. He was still in bloodlust, with his cheeks unfolded and his fangs elongated, and it was difficult to speak more than a few words.

He lifted her up and her legs wrapped around his hips. Then she was kissing him like it was their last moment together, hungry, passionate, needy. She obviously didn’t care that his fangs were out, or that he could barely talk. She wanted him, accepted him like this.

Her neediness made it difficult for him to control the lust part of the bloodlust. His cock pressed against the tight confines of his pants, and he groaned as she rolled her hips, pressing against him.

Ckzarr wanted his prize now.

He tore at their clothes, wanting to feel her skin against his, but it wasn’t easy because the original lantern was still strapped to her. That reminded him that they were still in the tunnels. He hauled her inside the station itself and let the door slam shut behind them.

Their clothes came off piece by piece as they made their way deeper into the station. Soon he had her naked and pressed up against the wall, the only light coming from the fading lantern on the ground. That was fine. They didn’t need light for what he planned to do next.

Remembering how much she’d liked it when he held her down before, he pressed a hand to her collarbone, holding her against the wall. She gasped and made a needy, mewling sound when he nudged her knees apart. He reached between her legs and found her slick with honey.

As his fingers slid through her wet folds, she clutched at the forearm of the hand holding her in place. The scent of her lust filled the air. Ckzarr could have drowned in it. For the hundredth time, he begged his body to recognize her as his mate.

He found the little nub between her legs and rubbed until Roxy’s knees went weak and Ckzarr had to support her. Her breathing grew shallow, and she moaned as she closed her eyes. He reached lower, gathering her wetness on his fingertips, and pushed two fingers inside. She was so ready for him.

“Ckzarr.” Her lids fluttered open, and her voice was shaky. “Please. I need you.”

He needed her, too. And while he wanted to drive into her now, he could hold on just long enough to sate his hunger.

“Just a little taste…”

He sank to his knees in front of her and covered her mound with his mouth. Her flavor, sweet and salty, utterly feminine and completely addictive, overwhelmed his senses. He thrust a tongue into her, and her channel clenched around him like it wanted to keep him there forever.

His cock was envious of his tongue. It pulsed and bobbed, growing so hard he didn’t know if there was any blood left for the rest of his body. He continued to focus on her clit, drawing tight circles on it until she was gasping and moaning against his mouth.

She clawed at his arm, crying out as he thrust his thick tongue into her, and he didn’t stop until her cunt pulsed around him, and he tasted fresh wetness.

“Good girl,” he growled, lifting his head to gaze at her face in the lantern’s dying light.

Fuck! She was so beautiful in the throes of pleasure.

Urgency commanded him as Ckzarr released her. She slumped against the wall, her knees too weak to support her weight. He picked her up again and wrapped her legs around him. The head of his fat cock slid along her wet slit, seeking entry.

He lined them up just as the lantern gave out, plunging them into darkness. Overcome by lust and wild with need, he thrust into her warm, welcoming depths.

Chapter 13

Roxy

Roxy screamed as Ckzarr’s cock filled her. It had been so long that her body had forgotten how to take him, even though he’d spent plenty of time preparing her, despite the uncontrollable lust that usually came after a fight.

He was so thick and long it felt like she could never take him all, but she knew better. They were perfectly fitted. Always had been. But it was always a struggle to begin, and she struggled to accommodate him.

He pulled out and thrust back in again, this time encountering less resistance.

“Fuck!” The snarl barely sounded like a word.

“Yes! Fuck me! More!” She rolled her hips, begging him to continue.

She wrapped her arm around his neck and tried to use the leverage to increase the rhythm, earning her a growl of warning. His fingers dug into the flesh of her ass. Fuck taking it slow. She said she wanted more.

She wanted to lose herself in him, especially after the day they’d had. She wanted reassurance that everything was going to be all right. As long as they were together, she knew they were.

“Please.”

Ckzarr’s self-control shattered, and he started to fuck her, setting a brutal rhythm.

He rutted into her like a savage beast, grunting and snarling as he thrust into her, fucking her like he’d been starved for her for too long. Perhaps he had been. Roxy knew she was. She didn’t know how she’d survived so long, depriving herself of him. Of them.

There was only him and her, fucking in the darkness. Roxy clung to her Tallean warrior, gasping and sobbing from the intensity of it. The pleasure was so overpowering that it bordered on pain, and there was nothing she could do but feel as her body climbed to the very edge.

Their combined sweat made the wall slippery, and she slid down a bit before Ckzarr could haul her up again, a little higher this time. The new position had him bumping her clit with every thrust, and it sent her over into the abyss. She screamed as she crested, and her world exploded in rapturous bliss.

Then she was sliding again, but this time, Ckzarr ground wildly against her, his powerful frame holding her up as he poured his seed into her body.

Strong hands cradled her as she rested her cheek against his chest, still breathing heavily. They were both hot and sweaty, but she didn’t mind. Not when she felt this sated. She knew sex wasn’t love, but it was so easy to pretend, wasn’t it?

“Hold on, Roxy-baby,” he said when she started to slide again. “I’m not done with you yet.”

His words sent tingling arousal shooting through her again. Ckzarr was still inside her, and his cock twitched. Tallean males could go all night if they wanted to, with very little rest in between, and she had a feeling that was what he wanted now.

But the wall wasn’t very comfortable for either of them and the moment her arms tightened around him, he was carrying her. She wasn’t sure where they were going since she was completely blind in the dark, but she trusted him.

When he released her, it was onto a soft, padded surface. He pushed her back and crawled to cover her body, his cock, still wet from her and again impossibly hard, heavy against her inner thigh.

Then he was nuzzling her, burying his face against her neck.

“You’re so perfect, Roxy-baby.”

He lined them up, teasing her slick entrance with the thick head of his cock.

“And I’m never letting you go.”

Then he was plunging into her again, taking her to the stars.

Roxy stretched, expecting to feel the familiar comfy sheets on her bed on the Revenge. What she got was rough, standard issue, survive-the-apocalypse “fabric.” She blinked and saw Ckzarr sitting on the edge of the bed and grinning down at her, his green eyes glowing.

“Good morning, beautiful.”

He flashed her some sexy fangs, and the memories of last night all came flooding back. So much for never sleeping with him again. But this had been a special situation, and desperate times called for desperate measures and all that. She didn’t know if her promise had actually made him fight better, but she liked to believe so.

“Sorry to wake you up, but we need to leave soon. The pirates knew we were heading toward Mining Station 6. Once it is daylight, they will start arriving by transport.”

“Shit, is it morning already?” She had no idea how long night or day lasted on this planet. It felt like she’d just fallen asleep, curled up against Ckzarr’s warm, powerful body.

“No, it’s still dark out. According to information I found in the office, we still have a galactic hour or so before sunrise. I wanted to give us time to look around the station for anything useful before dawn. I hate being unprepared.”

“Me too. We have no comm device, and our only weapon is inside that…thing. I’m not sure I want to fish it out.”

“Me either. But this place must have something we can use. The people mining this planet left in a hurry.”

“Is that maybe a bad thing? Why would they drop everything and leave? Is there something about this place we don’t know?” She looked around her, uncertain. “Do we even know where we are?”

“It’s nothing sinister. And yes. I know where we are. This is the mining planet Fortuna II. I’ve read about it in my studies. The Dominion abandoned it half a century ago. A lot of the companies contracted by the Dominion only work for as long as they are paid. When the Dominion pulls their funding, companies usually leave right away, bringing only things they know they can liquidate to turn a profit.

“Most of the equipment here has been in use for decades already, even back then. It wouldn’t fetch much on the market. It would probably cost them more in fuel to lug it back, especially way out here.”

“Well, that’s better than fleeing some unknown plague or deadly virus.” Or chest bursters, Roxy thought, remembering Delaney’s mention of the Alien movie when they’d first received the distress signal.

She got up and went to use the facilities. While they weren’t in tip-top shape, they weren’t disgusting either; they were just really dusty from disuse. They found a new filter for the water station, changed it out, and let it run to flush out any impurities.

“We’re in luck.” Ckzarr held up two packages of rations triumphantly. “We’ll bring the bars with us on our trek and eat these now.”

The ration packs were like alien versions of MREs, complete with single-use heating elements. Like the bars, they would outlast the personnel they were created for. They wouldn’t be particularly tasty, but they would be edible and give them energy. Ckzarr tested the water and declared it potable. They drank, refilled their flasks, and started cooking their meal. They explored the rest of the place while they waited for it to be ready.

She found her clothes scattered in a trail leading from the door to the tunnels to the wall against which he’d taken her last night. They were still slightly damp from their impromptu shower and dusty from the floor. She shook them out and hung them over the back of a chair so they could dry the rest of the way. Then they went to check out the other rooms.

A hand-drawn map of the tunnels caught her attention in one of them. “Hey, look at this,” Roxy called out.

There were notes handwritten in complex Tallean glyphs. She still found the language hard to read. She knew just enough to do her job and read common signs and the occasional broadcast, but even then, she was often guessing. Most of the time she relied on her comm unit or the translation programs on board the Revenge.

“What does it say?” she asked as Ckzarr stepped up next to her. “It’s a little beyond my reading level.”

He leaned in to read. “It’s a way into Mining Station 5. They carved an alternative route to the lower tunnels so they could get through after the cave-in.” He picked up a notepad that had more scribbled glyphs. “According to this, the company contracted by the Dominion refused to send another shuttle to Station 5 since there were only three survivors. The station is only reachable by air.” He flipped the page. “They staged a rush rescue mission to bring them back here. They had only a few days to dig down to the lower tunnels, dig back up past the point of the cave-in, and get the survivors back here before their ride left without them.”

“And? Did they succeed?”

He turned the page. “They encountered poisonous gas in the lower mines. That’s one of the reasons the Dominion abandoned these mines. But the miners anticipated it would be there and brought breathing apparatus.” He flipped the page again and tilted his chin. “And yes! The mission was successful. Everyone made it off the planet.”

Well, at least the story had a happy ending. Roxy hoped they, too, would get rescued soon.

“Do you think the Revenge can track us here?” she asked.

Many of the crew on the Revenge had personal trackers embedded in their bodies. She didn’t, but Ckzarr did. After this whole experience, Roxy might consider getting one, just in case.

“I’m not sure if they would be able to detect us in the tunnel, but here, I am sure they could. I am a little surprised they have not found us yet.”

“Do you think the bounty hunters are stopping them?” Roxy suddenly found herself worried about her crew. What if she and Ckzarr weren’t the ones who needed help the most? “Emil mentioned a bounty hunter ship before he cut contact, remember? Do you think they’re the same ones the pirates contacted? Because if so, they’re close.”

“They could be. I’ve considered contacting our crew, but the communication equipment on this station is not fully operational. Also, it would give away our location if the pirates still haven’t figured it out.” Ckzarr headed back to their food, and Roxy followed him.

“I’m sure they know we’re here,” she said. “With the route we took through the tunnels, this is the only place we could logically be.”

“Since they couldn’t reach us through the tunnels, they’ll come by vehicle once it is light. Perhaps our crew is delayed for the same reason. Those creatures out there would probably attack anything that moved, including shuttles and transports.”

“Yeah, you’re right, that’s probably it.” Roxy liked that explanation a lot more. Their crew just couldn’t get through because of the alien pterodactyls.

“By the time the pirates come, we will be long gone.”

“Where exactly are we planning to go?”

“There’s an outpost that’s reachable by foot about a half-day trek from here. With your short legs, it’s more like a full day’s trek—”

Roxy rolled her eyes, even though it was probably true.

“—but with any luck, our crew would locate us and pick us up before we got there.”

Roxy sure hoped so.

Chapter 14

Ckzarr

Ckzarr peeked out the corner of the shuttered window. “We should get going now.”

They had chosen to wait a little longer in the hopes that rescue would arrive before the pirates did. But it had been almost half a galactic hour, and there had still been no sign of the Revenge.

“We will take a path toward the outpost through thick jungle. The crew can locate us via my tracker, but the pirates and the bounty hunters need visuals. The vegetation will help hide us.”

In their exploration of the station, they’d found a few notes about the wildlife in the area. There were some daytime predators they should be wary of, but none as deadly as the terrors that came out at night. Even if rescue didn’t arrive, and even at Roxy’s pace, they would be safe if they headed straight toward the outpost because they would get there before nightfall.

Ckzarr didn’t know if the pirates realized Roxy was with him. The only one who saw them together was dead, and the rest might believe he’d freed himself on his own. If they didn’t know, it might be to their advantage. They would assume he’d travel faster, throwing off their estimate of his location.

They’d already filled a pack they’d found with tools and equipment they thought might be useful, and there was plenty of extra water. Ckzarr wasn’t sure if the water on the planet’s surface was safe to drink, and he didn’t want to chance it. The last thing they needed was parasites or dysentery adding to their problems. They packed light enough that Ckzarr could lug whatever gear they had and still carry his female if need be.

But luck was not on their side. Just as they were about to head out, the sound of an approaching vehicle had them both instantly on high alert.

They scrambled to lock up the place just as the first of the pirates stepped out of the transport. They must have risked leaving before sunrise to get here so early.

“Shit! What do we do now?” Roxy pressed her lips in a firm line and quickly threw on the clothes which she had left drying on the back of a chair.

It might take some time for the pirates to get into the station, but eventually, they would. And even if they didn’t, their presence would make rescue more difficult.

“How long do you think that door will hold?” Roxy asked as she peered out the corners of the shuttered windows. “They brought some crazy weaponry with them. And a plasma cutter. Wow. They must really be desperate for the credits the bounty hunters promised them.”

“It will not hold for long,” Ckzarr said. “These doors were not meant to keep things out. They may not even need to cut through the whole door, just the lock.”

His little female blew out a breath but stayed calm. “So…change of plans?”

“Affirmative. Back into the tunnels we go.” He hurried into the office and came out with the handwritten notes and map they’d found earlier. “We’ll pay Station 5 a visit. If the old map is all they have, then they think it’s still blocked.” He folded it up and stuffed it into his pack.

“What about the poison gas?”

“There must be protective masks and air canisters somewhere.”

Roxy perked up. “Yes! Now that you mention it, I think I remember seeing something like that in the same storage room where I found the lights.”

They went and grabbed the masks and canisters they needed.

“What about the signal from your tracker? Can the ship still locate you if we go underground?”

“It might not be a clear signal in the tunnels, but it should still work. We’ve received signals from deep inside a prison when we’ve lost a crew member to the Dominion.”

“That’s grim.”

Now Ckzarr wished he hadn’t mentioned it. It was before Roxy’s time. There’d been nothing they could do as the signal from the tracker changed, alerting them that their friend had died.

“I apologize for the horrible image. But all that is to say that when we are on the top level of the tunnels, the crew should be able to track us. They might even be able to guess where we are heading and get there before us.”

“We can only hope, right?”

Roxy

Roxy flinched when a male voice rang out outside, made tinny by a loudspeaker. “Come on out, criminal. We have you cornered.”

Roxy scoffed. “Criminal? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.”

“The beast is right at your door,” the voice continued. “At least we won’t eat you.”

“They think it’s still alive,” Ckzzar mused. “They don’t know I’ve bested that particular beast.”

“You know there could be more, right?”

“Yes, there probably are. But we now know how these creatures work. The little ones are afraid of light, and the weak spot of an adult is inside its mouth, at the back of its throat.”

“Yes, behind a row of razor-sharp teeth!”

“Its attacks are slow. And the prize for winning is too good for me to fail.” He grinned at her.

Who could argue with that logic? “Just don’t get too cocky,” she said, mollified.

“Never. All my cock is for you.”

“Ugh!” But Roxy couldn’t help the grin that tugged up the corners of her mouth despite their situation. If she had to be stuck running for her life, she was glad it was with him.

“Let’s grab some extra power cells for the lantern,” she said. They hadn’t initially packed those since the original plan had been to go topside.

They headed back into the tunnels and found the alien frog babies milling around. They immediately tried to get chompy, but a quick flash of the lantern kept them back. The creatures followed them for a while before scurrying back to their now-dead parent.

“Oh, man. I kind of feel bad for them,” she said, “even though they were trying to eat us. Are they going to survive, do you think?”

“I hope so. I didn’t want to harm the little ones. I didn’t even want to harm the big one, but it was intent on having us as its next meal. I’d assume these creatures are resilient. Life finds a way.”

“That’s great, Dr. Ian Malcolm.”

Ckzarr frowned but didn’t question her. He’d lived with humans long enough to know it must be a joke he didn’t get.

Instead, he just said, “I’m sure the reason they have so many young is that many of them perish. It’s all just a part of the cycle.”

Roxy thought back to Paco. These creatures weren’t very frog-like at all upon closer inspection, but first impressions reigned supreme. Frogs on Earth spawned thousands of eggs, but only a few made it to adulthood. Nature was one mean bitch, even here in the mines where nature had reclaimed its hold over civilization.

With the creatures no longer following them, they reduced their light to just the one wrapped around Roxy’s chest, like when they’d gone through the tunnels the first time. They headed toward the intersection specified in the hand-drawn map, tracing their steps back the way they came.

They weren’t worried the pirates had anyone in the tunnels waiting for them; if they had, they would’ve known that the creature at the door was already dead.

“What if they can smell us?” Roxy asked. “You guys have an amazing nose for tracking people and animals. Wasn’t Tuhror one of the Dominion’s best trackers?”

“Right now, we are backtracking. Everything has our scent anyway, so it is easy to hide. But yes—once we deviate from the route, we will need to hide our location.” Ckzarr dug into his pack and brought out the hand-drawn map again. “You see right here?” He pointed to the spot where a tunnel down to a lower corridor had been started. “The miners were worried the mouth of this was going to crumble and close off the tunnel because the ground was very sandy. But over here, a little ways in, it is solid with no worry of collapse. I plan on collapsing the entrance on purpose once we are through.”

Roxy looked back at him in horror. “That’s crazy. You’re going to pull the tunnels down on us!”

“Not on us. Behind us.”

“But how do you know the collapse won’t spread to other parts of the tunnel? What if we get trapped in—”

She was interrupted by the sound of voices behind them. Being trapped with pirates was probably much worse than being trapped in the mine tunnels.

But it wasn’t just her own future she worried about, she realized. Ckzarr would be sent back to the Dominion to face the crime of defection, and his actions in the outer planets would have him going straight to a mining prison. He’d end up in a mine just like this one for the rest of his life—or worse. Roxy thought of what he’d said earlier about the crew member they’d lost to the Dominion. It would kill her to see his signal blinking from inside a prison and know that they’d never be able to get him out.

Roxy couldn’t allow that. That decided it.

“Okay. Let’s get into those lower tunnels and blow up the entrance.”

Chapter 15

Roxy

Roxy turned her body so that her light shone directly at the alien frog creature in front of her. Just their luck, it had been waiting for them right here at the intersection.

“This must be the one that got the other guy,” Ckzarr said.

Roxy remembered the anguished screaming. Maybe it wouldn’t be as hungry since it was still digesting its last victim. Would that make it easier to deter? This one had babies, too, judging by the way the skin of its back was shifting. She turned up the light, and the movement stopped.

Good, she thought. Stay in there!

Still, once again, they were trapped between one of these cave frogs and the pirates. At least this time, they were able to keep it at bay with the bright lights. It stood right at the entrance to the tunnels down to the lower levels, blocking their way.

“If we can trap this thing on this side of the entrance, it will be a nice little surprise for the pirates when they catch up,” Ckzarr said.

“Okay, that’s the plan. With any luck, they’ll think it ate us and call off the search. But we need to make sure it stays out of the tunnel, or else it’s going to get buried when we collapse it. I kind of feel bad for all the little babies already. I don’t want to kill this big one unless it’s about to eat us.”

“Let me try something. Give me the brightest light we’ve got..”

She dug into the pack on his back and handed the light to him. Ckzarr turned it on and took a step toward the creature. The creature took a step back. Ckzarr advanced again, and the creature inched back a little more.

They continued doing this dance, one step at a time, until they were at the tunnel entrance. The mutant froggie always stayed just outside of the light. It was almost as if the light caused it pain, somehow.

Roxy got an idea. “Maybe we can sacrifice one of the lanterns. The heaviest one. We can place it at the entrance while we make our way into the tunnel. Hopefully, it’s bright enough to keep it from following us.”

While they were talking, the light moved slightly, and the creature took a step toward them. Ckzarr quickly reoriented the light at the beast. It squeezed all three of its bulbous eyes shut tightly, then turned its head and retreated a step to where the light was tolerable.

“I think the light hurts its eyes. Did you see how it immediately closed them and turned its head? It can’t look into the light. We might need to sacrifice two lamps, one behind the other, in case this thing has enough brain cells to realize it could just charge right through the light and get to us.” Roxy sure hoped they weren’t dealing with an animal with that much intelligence, but you could never be sure.

“You’re a genius, Roxy-baby.” Ckzarr hauled her in and kissed her on the forehead.

The praise started that warm, happy feeling churning inside Roxy like it always did. The feelings she’d been trying to avoid by not sleeping with him returned—the ones that made her long for him to tell her she was his mate and that he wanted her forever and ever.

She had worked so hard not to fall in love, and here it was rushing back after just one night together. Damn it!

It wasn’t fair. They were so well-matched. Did Ckzarr not feel the same? Was that why the mate bond stubbornly refused to start for him? She’d learned from Tahra that Ckzarr had been just like all the younger Talleans on the crew before meeting her, always eager to head into port and find a female with whom to spend the night.

It wasn’t a negative thing in their culture but rather a phase that was expected and normal social behavior. She had to remind herself not to judge them with human ideals. For Tallean’s not showing interest in casual sexual relations when they were young was considered a red flag for other anti-social behavior.

Was Ckzarr just not ready to settle down? Was she not good enough?

She gritted her teeth and stopped the silly and self-destructive thoughts from filling her head.

She didn’t need them distracting her while they were trying to avoid getting eaten and making sure the tunnel didn’t collapse on them. She focused on their goals instead.

“All right, let’s do this!”

Ckzarr

Ckzarr couldn’t miss the sudden change in Roxy’s demeanor. She was pulling away again, and he didn’t like it. Now that he had her back in his arms, he didn’t ever want to let her go. He didn’t want to hear her weak excuses for not spending time with him. He wanted her in his bed every single night until the stupid mate bond finally showed up.

Everything about her was right, so why wouldn’t his body recognize her as the one?

He’d been pretending everything was normal this whole time, going out with the others and staying out overnight while in port. He knew that if he didn’t, the rest of the crew would get concerned and wonder if he was okay. But he wasn’t staying with another female when he was in port. He spent the nights alone.

The truth was, other females had ceased to interest him ever since he had been with Roxy. But he couldn’t tell her that—he couldn’t tell anyone that! Not when it was abundantly clear she wanted her freedom.

Besides, since there was no mate bond, he had no claim on her. So he’d gone back to pretending he was enjoying bachelor life so as not to worry his crew.

But he wouldn’t be able to continue that charade now, not after last night. Roxy was his. He knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt. His stupid body just had to catch up to his brain.

Sounds in the tunnel back in the direction of Station 6 had him focusing back on his task. The pirates were in the tunnels.

They moved forward with their plan, positioning the two brightest lights—one at the entrance to the narrow, haphazardly made tunnel and another a little farther in. They still had two more lanterns for light later, but they weren’t as bright, and Ckzarr doubted they’d be enough to hold off one of those creatures for long, especially if it was hungry.

With the beast held at bay at the tunnel opening, they headed on. The tunnel leading down to the lower level was much smaller than the main mining shaft, and it got even narrower as they went. Soon, they realized they hadn’t needed such an elaborate plan to hold off the alien tunnel dweller after all; eventually, it became so tight a squeeze that Ckzarr could barely fit through. This had been dug for a rescue mission, and time had been of the essence. The miners had only done what was necessary and not an ounce more.

“Stay here. I’ll go back and retrieve the lights; then I’ll collapse the entrance. According to the map, this area is safe from a cave-in. Did you see how they had beams holding everything up at the start of the tunnel? This area doesn’t have them. It mustn’t need it.”

Roxy nodded but held out a hand. “Wait. If you remove the light, won’t it follow you into the tunnel and get caught in the collapse?” They needed it alive to distract their pirate friends from looking too closely at the collapsed tunnel.

“I will leave the brighter one at the entrance.”

Her small hand clutched at his shirt. “Do we really have to do this?”

“Do you doubt my skills?”

She made a face. “Not at all. It’s this tunnel I don’t trust. We don’t know how far the debris from the collapse will reach. What if we get buried?”

“Most of the debris will settle there,” he said, indicating where the tunnel leveled out. “It’s narrow and will clog up quickly. It won’t reach us here.”

“You’re putting a lot of faith in that hand-drawn map. What if you don’t make it back? What if the tunnel collapses on you?”

Ckzarr’s eyes softened. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust his skill: his little human was worried about him. “Do not worry. I was analyzing the support struts as we were walking through. I know which ones to take out in which order to give me the most time to get clear of the collapse.”

“I was looking at those, too,” she said. “I’ve been trying to treat this like a video game so that I don’t panic. And now we’ve reached the part where we have to solve the puzzle to get to the next level.” She chuckled nervously. “I guess this is how I deal with stressful situations: pretend they’re video games.”

“You call them video games. I call them training simulators. And that is a good way of looking at our situation. This is just a new level, an unexplored scenario we have not yet conquered. We will get through it together. Just like we used to in the simulators.”

He thought back. Working as a team on new training missions had been a lot of fun until she’d decided to stay away, claiming she’d decided not to pursue a relationship with anyone on board. He’d countered by telling her that what they had wasn’t a relationship, but somehow, that had made things even worse. He still didn’t know what the right response would have been. Nevertheless, he was glad she was here with him now, although it would be better if this was only a training mission, and failure merely meant they had to start over. The perma death part wasn’t so much fun.

“Okay, so which of the struts would you take out first?” he asked, yanking his thoughts back to the situation at hand.

She wrinkled her nose the way she always did when she was thinking. It was adorable. “The one on the right.” She pointed it on the map.

“I agree. Then I would skip one and do the other one on the right.”

She nodded. “Definitely. And then the final one is the first one on the left. That should bring everything down, but slowly, because the third set of supports is still up. You’ll have time to make it back here.”

“Looks like we’re in agreement,” Ckzarr said. “I promise I will return.” He handed her the pack, and she folded the map up and stuffed it securely inside.

Then, before turning around, Ckzarr bent his head and tenderly nuzzled her cheek with his face. She tensed for a moment before melting in his arms and nuzzling back. He inhaled her addictive bouquet, wishing he could bottle it and smell it whenever he wanted.

Then, with her intoxicating scent still filling his lungs, he turned and started back along the corridor.

Ckzarr found the creature still frozen in place, right outside the beam of light. Removing the second lamp and strapping it to his shoulders, he grabbed a large pickaxe resting against the tunnel wall. He hadn’t spotted that the first time through, and he was glad to find it now. It could come in handy as a weapon.

Then, following their plan, he took down the support beams one by one. He ran back down the corridor, his legs pumping as fast as they could as the tunnel shook and shuddered all around him.

Then, the walls came tumbling down.

Chapter 16

Roxy

Roxy ran to Ckzarr and threw her arms around him the moment he came into view. She opened her mouth to tell him how worried she’d been and how glad she was to see him, but Ckzarr wasn’t coming down from the upper tunnels alone. He brought with him a halo of debris.

Roxy coughed as she inhaled a bunch of dust.

Ckzarr lifted her up, pack and all, and took several large steps away from the settling particles. The dust was so thick in the air that even the light on her lantern didn’t help them see. Luckily, the miners had built this tunnel with a single purpose, and it was easy to forge straight ahead until the dust cleared.

Ckzarr didn’t slow when he got past the dust; he marched on. Roxy held on to him, wrapping her legs around his hips as her arms tired. He only held her with one arm. She figured that must be tiring for him.

He finally set her down where the tunnel started angling down again. According to the note, this was where the poison gas had settled. The gas was clear but had a distinctive odor, reminiscent of burning rubber with overwhelmingly sweet undertones.

“I’d hoped the gas would have dissipated after all these years, but I can still smell it. Here.” Ckzarr took the masks out of their packs, attached the air canisters, and handed one to her.

“I don’t think this mask is going to fit me.” The straps were as tight as they could go, but the mask was meant for a much larger head.

“Allow me.” He took the mask from her and cut the strap in two, then proceeded to tie it carefully around her head. “Is that better?”

The mask now stayed on her face, but there was still a small gap where her nose was. “Better. I’ll just need to hold here and press down to form a seal.”

Ckzarr took the pack, which she’d been wearing despite it being much too large for her, and put it back on himself. It was only now that she noticed the pickaxe. So that was why he’d only been carrying her with one arm! He’d found another weapon. It wasn’t a blaster, but it was better than nothing.

She remembered that Ckzarr was very good at throwing knives. She hoped he’d be equally good at throwing an axe, because that was one thing she wasn’t good at: throwing weapons. While her aim was impeccable when a screen was involved, like on the ship, and also pretty damn impressive with a longer firearm like a rifle, she couldn’t throw for beans.

Before long, the tunnel started upward again, and they left the gas behind. Here, they took off their masks. She allowed herself to relax a bit because now she knew that their pirates wouldn’t be able to follow them. Even if they had figured out they were in the tunnel and found a way in, they wouldn’t be prepared for the gas.

But her respite was short-lived because the tunnel started downward again. This time, there was no gas. The tunnel was also a lot more irregular as if it was a natural formation rather than man-made.

She tried to ignore the little voice that whispered something was most definitely wrong. If they couldn’t trust the map, then what guarantee did they have that they weren’t trapped down here with no way out? Then again, the miners had been in a rush to rescue their friends. They wouldn’t have wasted time drawing every single curve, nook, and cranny.

She kept hoping that the rest of the tunnel would start resembling what was on the map again, but in that, she was sorely disappointed. The tunnel opened up to a large open cavern complete with a subterranean lake that had not been mentioned at all.

The lake looked deep and calm, and she detected no movement at first. But as she watched, she saw faint ripples on the surface. Something lived in this lake. Perhaps many somethings. They were definitely not alone.

The glowing fungi that had lit the tunnels near Station 6 were back, too. It lined the walls in thick clusters and glowed so brightly that Roxy could probably dispense with her lantern.

But she didn’t dare turn it off because there were creatures all around them, many of them scurrying away from the bright lights. They moved so quickly that Roxy couldn’t really see what they were, except that they had a lot of legs and moved really freaking fast.

However, there was a row of animals that weren’t bothered by her lamp one bit. They were furry, with large disk-shaped ears and big, shiny eyes, and they sat on ledges along the cavern walls, watching them. They were gray with a slight purplish tint, but she wasn’t sure if that was just from the glow of the fungus.

From where she stood, they looked really sweet, but Roxy wasn’t so sure that would be the case up close. Who knew what horrible weapons these creatures hid?

“Those are kind of cute, but this lake is definitely not on the map.” Her voice echoed shakily in the large cavern, and the worry she’d been trying to hide rang out loud and clear.

“We are going the right way,” Ckzarr assured her. “The first collapse that blocked the way to Station 5 was due to an earthquake. Those are frequent in these parts; another one could have opened up this cavern, especially if the miners dug into it without stabilizing it properly.

“The lake might not be on the map, but there are many hints that the rescue team came through here. The tunnel we came from is irregular, but the ground is level and easy to traverse. And look.” He pointed out gouges in the walls and marks from the rescue team’s equipment, still there after so many years.

Roxy breathed a sigh of relief. They were still on the right path. If Ckzarr wasn’t worried, then neither was she. They took out the map, laid it out on a flat rock, and tried to figure out where they were.

“Up there.” Ckzarr pointed to a ledge three-quarters of the way up the cavern walls on the opposite side of the lake. “That should be the opening that leads back to the upper levels.”

She frowned and squinted at the map. “I think you’re right. But I don’t think I can make it up to that ledge. I’m not even sure I can make it over the water.”

“What? Haven’t you been training on the climbing wall?”

They’d recently added a digital climbing wall to the Revenge. The wall created a series of hand and footholds tailored to each crew member that scrolled seamlessly as they scaled the wall, so that the climber was never more than halfway up it. There were crash mats at the base specifically for humans, but Roxy still rarely used the wall.

“There’s a reason why I pick the missions in the training simulator that involve shooting, piloting, and problem-solving and avoid the ones that test physical prowess at all costs, you know.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “This is—what? Swimming to evade underwater predators in the dark and then climbing up a sheer rock face? Nope. No way. I wouldn’t even make it ten feet. We need to find another way.”

She aimed the light at the cavern wall. More big, round eyes belonging to the cute, furry creatures blinked back at them. Crap. There was no other way. That ledge was their one and only route back up to the other level and the only path that led to Station 5. She looked back down at the map. Now that she knew where she was, it made a lot more sense. “Let’s look around to see what the miners left for us to use.”

They searched the area, and sure enough, around a corner they hadn’t noticed before was a shelter. It was the modular kind that came in small pieces and was assembled on-site. This was where the miners had camped before digging their way back up to the top level. This was supposed to be a small chamber and a launching point for the next leg of the trip. It looked like it would be Ckzarr and Roxy’s too.

The door to the shelter opened with a loud creak, and several long creatures with exoskeletons and many, many legs scrambled to hide from the light.

Startled by one that dashed between her legs, Roxy shrieked as she danced away. “Holy giant alien centipedes.” She waved her arms like she was trying to get them off her, even though the creatures were easily as long as her forearms. “They give me the fucking creeps.”

Ckzarr tucked her close to his body. He already knew that Roxy reacted badly to certain invertebrates. Too bad every planet had its own version of them. At least these ones were dull-looking and not brightly colored, so he hoped it meant they were not venomous.

So sue her. Everyone had their irrational fears and weaknesses, and this was hers. At least it was something physical Ckzarr could protect her from, and boy, she knew he’d enjoy doing that. He had a protective streak a mile long. She just hadn’t been giving him the opportunity to show it until now.

Sometimes, she felt like she had something to prove since she was the only human woman on the ship before Delaney arrived. But not around Ckzarr. He knew her worth, like how he’d asked her her opinion back at the entrance to these tunnels.

He knew that what she brought to the table was her quick reflexes and quick thinking. She might not be as strong or as fit as the others on the crew, but she didn’t need to be, and he understood that, and he never made her feel like less. When they used to do missions in the simulator together, he covered her weaknesses and augmented her strengths.

And that was the problem. They were too good together. Add in their compatibility between the sheets, and she was ready to fall in love. That was why she’d had to keep her distance: they’d spent enough time together for her to know that she was not his mate. He would’ve bonded to her by now if she was. The fact that he’d stayed out overnight when they got to port only confirmed her suspicions. Tallean males who had bonded with their mate would have no interest in anyone else, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be going out and adding more notches to their bedposts.

Crap! Now she was thinking those annoying, recurring thoughts again. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone?

A sound had them both turning. One of the fluffy, wide-eyed creatures had jumped down from the ledge and was scurrying after a many-legged arthropod. It pounced, and a struggle ensued.

The alien centipede-like creature never stood a chance. Just moments after the struggle started, the fluffy ones were munching happily on it.

“Back up,” Ckzarr said. “I’m going to flush out the rest.”

Roxy did, staying well clear of the door, and soon, another half dozen of the arm-length bugs scurried out, their legs making loud sounds on the ground.

Ckzarr looked up at the adorably deadly creatures on the ledge. “Dinnertime!”

They all hopped down, each chasing one of the creatures.

“I think I got them all,” Ckzarr said a few moments later. “Come on in.”

Roxy joined him in the shelter. It was actually quite cozy, especially compared to the damp cavern outside. There were more handwritten notes and drawings of the area before it had flooded.

“Let’s stay here for the night,” Ckzarr said. “I haven’t heard any voices, footsteps, or noises that would suggest the pirates have followed us down.”

“They probably thought we got caught in the cave-in. Or killed by the frog beast. They don’t know there’s a tunnel behind it.”

“Fur-Og beast? You had similar creatures on Earth?”

“Kind of. Not really. It just reminded me of an animal my brother once had as a pet that he called Paco. It only had two eyes. Paco ate anything that would fit into its mouth. Instead of teeth, it had a sticky tongue, but when it lunged at its food, it moved just like this one.”

“Your brother actually kept one of these deadly creatures?”

Roxy laughed. “It was much smaller.” She held out her hand. “Fit in my palm.”

“Ah, yes. The scale is important.”

“For sure.”

Chapter 17

Ckzarr

Ckzarr did one more check for large predators in the area before returning to the shelter. Aside from the small creatures they’d already encountered here, they were definitely alone—on land, anyway.

He was positive there was something big and dangerous in the water, but no amount of taunting or teasing by throwing objects into the water and wading knee-deep in the shallows had lured it out. Whatever it was, it hunted in the depths and stayed there.

Roxy met him at the shelter door, holding aloft a length of heavy cable and a pulley. “Check it out. This must be what they used to move their equipment up to the other level.”

According to the notes, the pulley system had been easier and faster than building a ramp up to the tunnels above. The lake hadn’t been here back then, but the cavern had, albeit quite a bit smaller.

They stepped out to the edge of the lake and peered up. Now that Roxy had gotten used to the dimmer light, she was reserving the remaining charge in their lanterns for emergencies. They might very well bump into another one of their three-eyed friends in the tunnels above.

As he surveyed the giant underground chamber, an idea started to form in Ckzarr’s mind.

“You see that ledge over there?” He pointed to a narrow shelf on their side of the lake, near the top of the large underground cavern.

“Yup, what about it?”

“It’s quite a bit higher than the opening to the upper level. If the cable is long enough, and we find a way to anchor it, we could draw it tight between the two ledges.”

“If you could do that, you would already be across.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t know how to tell her that the problem wasn’t that he couldn’t get across but that she couldn’t. “I can get up to that ledge. But not with you or our pack.” He pointed to a spot where he’d have to use his arms only to climb as there was nowhere to place his feet. “I can’t carry you at that part, but I could carry a cable.”

“Wow!” She gazed at him admiringly. “It must be nice to be able to do that. I‘d never be able to do that, no matter how much training or practice I got on the climbing wall. Okay, so you draw a line between the two ledges. And then what? I guess I could make it across if I had some sort of harness. But how do I get up to the first ledge?”

“I can get you up to that. With that height differential, you might not even have to do a lot of work to get to the second one. If the cable is pulled tight enough, you’ll just slide across using the force of gravity.”

Her eyes lit up. “Oh! Like a zipline. I’ve always wanted to try one of those. Except I’d thought I’d be going over the treetops rather than a creepy underground lake full of who-knows-what.”

“If you wish, we will do this again over the treetops when we are out of this place. Vosthea has some beautiful forests.”

Ckzarr took a moment to imagine spending his next leave from the Revenge with Roxy, exploring the Vosthean jungles. The wilds of Vosthea were beautiful but dangerous. It would mean he’d always need to be at her side to protect her, and he’d love every moment of it. Of course, if she went back to acting the way she had on the Revenge, she might try to reject his offer. But he wouldn’t be taking no for an answer this time, not until he’d convinced her to join in a partnership of convenience with him.

He’d decided. It wasn’t the mate bond every couple dreamed of, but plenty of mate bonds started out as partnerships. The very unromantic name was a nod to the fact that many such partnerships had been used to strengthen family alliances.

It didn’t mean that the partnerships were loveless; in fact, many such couples went on to become true mates. It was one way to force a mating. Forcing a mating meant spending as much time together as possible to trigger the mating bond between both participants. With him and Roxy, it would be easier because they’d only need to trigger it for him. He knew it was just a matter of time. There was no way Roxy was not his mate.

Roxy squinted at the faraway ledge which was illuminated by patches of bioluminescent fungus. “I think that might work. And it sure beats swimming or even paddling across.”

“I’ll need to rest before the climb,” he admitted. “Let’s see if we can find any more of those pre-made meals.”

“Mmm, expired mining rations. I can’t wait.”

Ckzarr stared across the gaping chasm. He’d gotten Roxy up on the ledge as promised, and they had wrapped the cable securely around an outcropping of rocks.

“I’m kind of glad it’s too dark for me to see just how high we are.” She peered down over the ledge.

“You are not afraid of heights. We have trained in high places.”

“Yes, but that’s in a simulator. If I fall, it’s not that bad because it’s only a foot or two off the simulator floor. This is real life. There’s no restart after a game over.”

“There will be no need to restart. You are securely tied to the harness. All you have to do is trust the system, and I’m the one who rigged it up. You trust me, yes?”

“You know I do.”

Her words gave him the extra shot of confidence he, frankly, needed. Ckzarr hoped his own nerves were not showing. There were a hundred little things that could go wrong, and this climb would be a tricky one. He was a lighter-weight Tallean compared to someone massive like Berus. It gave him an advantage when climbing, but he didn’t know the conditions of the handholds he would be using. They could be wet and slippy, crumbling, or just a little too far out of reach.

There was also the possibility that there wouldn’t be enough cable left or anywhere to secure it when he got to the other side. They’d searched the temporary mining dwelling thoroughly and found several shorter lengths of cable, but while they could technically join two together, the ring holding the precious cargo to the cable wouldn’t be able to glide over the joint smoothly.

They’d kept the extra cables anyway, just in case. He’d secured the shortest length to himself, loosely connected to the main cable, and wrapped around his body to keep his hands free. Roxy had the other one. She also currently had their pack with all their supplies.

Roxy was right: unlike the missions in the training simulator, they couldn’t restart if they wanted to. The good news was that if he fell, it would be into water. The bad news was that he knew for a fact that something dangerous lurked beneath the surface.

He pressed his forehead to Roxy’s, whispered a little prayer to the Stars, and started across.

It was too soon that he got to the challenging part. The only handholds were on an overhang, which meant he would be gripping them with just his fingertips. He’d trained with the best of them, but grip strength and agility were not his strong suit. That was his impeccable eyesight and aim, along with his quick reaction time and hand-eye coordination.

Luckily, the handholds here were dry, unlike earlier in the climb across, where humidity had made the surface slick and climbing difficult. But his good luck ended there. A clump of mud from his shoe fell into the water, making a splash that echoed through the cavern.

There was an answering splash below him, followed by a big gasp coming from Roxy. He didn’t need to look down to know he’d woken the beast, and it was hungry. Ckzarr reached for the next handhold, his body swinging. Suddenly, there was a sound of water, then the loud clang of jaws and teeth snapping very close under his feet.

Roxy stifled a scream. He dared a look just in time to find himself peering down a bright red throat, the mouth lined with multiple rows of razor-sharp teeth. It disappeared under the water, and the only thing left of the creature’s presence was the rippling waves it left in its wake.

Ckzarr hated feeling so vulnerable with his feet dangling like this, but there was nothing else he could do. There was another sound, and he looked down again to see a giant mouth coming at him this time. He jerked his feet up—a good thing, too, because the jaws snapped closed just a toe length away. This earned another stifled squeal from Roxy.

The big-eyed, big-eared creatures that had preyed upon the invertebrates chittered and chattered along the ledges. They were clearly afraid of this monster in the water.

Roxy began yelling and screaming and throwing everything she could into the water in an attempt to distract the creature. From his vantage point, the thing looked like nothing more than a giant red gaping maw. He couldn’t see any eyes or other discerning features, just mouth and teeth.

The creature’s body was as dark as the water where it lived, which explained how such a large creature had remained hidden out of sight. Still, the lake must be much deeper than he had initially thought if it hid such a large creature. Whatever had caused this lake to come into existence must have split open the ground underneath. And who knew how far down the water extended? He was very glad they hadn’t considered swimming across.

Several of the furry creatures followed his progress along the walls curiously. They had no problem hopping from ledge to ledge or climbing on the roots of the large trees that hung down from the top of the cavern.

He was over the worst of it now. He engaged his abs and kicked his legs up high, the claws on his feet catching on a stone that protruded from the wall in front of him. With his claws digging in and bearing some of his weight, he climbed onto the narrow ledge, shimmied across, and then went down to the opening of the tunnel.

He didn’t have much rope left, but there was just enough length to loop it around and tie it tightly to the roots of a giant tree that extended into the chasm. The root was as thick around as his body and looked sturdy enough to hold Roxy’s weight as well as the weight of their pack.

He held on to the cable and tested it with his weight It was tight and had very little give. That would do nicely.

“I’m over, and the line is secure, Roxy-baby,” he called. “Send over the pack.”

That had been their plan, to send the pack over first and make sure the line was tight enough under its weight. A loose line would sag in the center; if it sagged enough, the load would get stuck in the center.

But the pack slid over easily, and he removed it to lighten the load. When he looked up again, Roxy was shooing one of the fluffy creatures away from the cable. They seemed very interested in what they were doing and showed no fear of Roxy or himself.

“You ready?” he yelled across the chasm.

“Yeah. But this annoying little guy is chewing on the cable.”

The cables were strong and designed to handle a lot of wear and tear, so the one he’d used should be able to handle some sharp teeth, but he didn’t know for how long. Also, the cables were old. And hadn’t been stored in ideal conditions.

“Then you’d better hurry over, Roxy-baby.”

Chapter 18

Roxy

Roxy’s tummy flip-flopped hearing that nickname yet again. She’d noticed it earlier but had let it slide, in case it was just from the extenuating circumstances they were in. She’d asked him to stop calling her that when she quit spending the night in his room. It’d felt too intimate. Nicknames like that were for special people, and he wasn’t her special anything…no matter how much she wanted him to be.

She’d lied and told him that she hated the name, but that wasn’t true. Coming from him, she loved it. But she didn’t need one more thing like a cutesy nickname holding them together artificially.

Crap. She’d tried so hard to drive a wedge between them, but this impromptu adventure was prodding them back together, and she didn’t know if she could stay away once it was over and they were safely back on the ship. Well. She’d cross that bridge when she got there.

Right now, she wasn’t even sure she’d make it across the lake.

There was movement from where Ckzarr had tied off the cable on her side of the chasm. The damned critter was chewing at it again. She shooed it away, glad that the creature ran off again instead of turning to attack her. It might be small, but those teeth were mighty.

She really had to make it across before this little troublemaker ruined her chances. She checked her harness one last time and mumbled a little prayer to the Stars. She’d never been particularly religious, but out here in the butt-end of the galaxy, the Stars was as good a thing to pray to as any.

“Here goes nothing.”

She put all her weight on the harness and shoved away from the ledge with her feet. She immediately regretted using her feet rather than just letting gravity do its job because it made her body turn on the swivel holding the harness to the line. Now she couldn’t see which way she was going. She was facing backward when she would much rather be focusing on Ckzarr.

The creature was back at it again, and this time, she was too far away to be able to chase it off. The animal made happy-sounding pip-pip noises as it chewed, and several more creatures joined it, deciding that whatever the cable was made of was tasty. Would the cables hold? Ckzarr had built in some fail safes by wrapping it around several times and tying it more than once, but you never knew.

“Ckzarr? We have a slight problem. I think they like the taste of the cable.”

“Hold still, Roxy-baby. I’m going to see if I can knock them off.”

She held as still as she could while sliding backward toward the lower ledge. Something small whizzed by, so close to her face that she could feel the wind as it went past. There was a ping right next to one of the creatures. It squealed, then ran off.

Roxy turned her head, curious to see how he had managed to launch the pebble across the vast chasm. He certainly hadn’t thrown it. Even Talleans couldn’t throw that accurately that far. Her eyes widened when she saw that Ckzarr was holding a leather strap in his hands. A sling. He put another pebble inside, swung it, then released one end. Another pebble whizzed by her ear.

If she’d been just a few inches over, it would have struck her. Instead, it hit the ground, right at the feet of another of the fluffy creatures. Two of them scrambled away, but the original, persistent one remained.

She was about a third of the way across when the line suddenly went slack. She dropped, her stomach flying up into her throat as a shrill shriek left her mouth. For a moment, she was sure she was plunging to her death, down into the murky waters and into the mouth of the creature that lurked there. But just as abruptly, she lurched to a stop, and the wind was knocked right out of her.

She was at the midpoint of the cable, which now sagged over the water. She was glad Ckzarr had wrapped the cable so many times. Whatever damage the little critters had done to the rope had loosened it, but at least it hadn’t plunged right into the lake. But now she was stuck.

Nibbles was back at it again, though, and she didn’t know how much longer the cable would hold.

There was a heavy, exaggerated sigh from Ckzarr, and the next rock hit the creature’s hindquarters. It squealed, then limped off. He’d clearly been trying to scare it off without hitting it, but it was far too stubborn for its own good.

The sound of water swishing below her had her heart pounding. She had to get across soon before the whole system failed. She was much lower than Ckzarr had been, and the creature would be able to get her for sure. But no head poked out from the surface. She was safe. For now.

“Fuck my life,” she muttered as fresh movement along the cavern wall drew her attention.

The little creatures skittered along the ledge and chattered among themselves as they watched the proceedings with way too much interest. They had no problem getting across, she thought bitterly, watching some of them taking flying leaps from one ledge to another.

“I’m going to throw you the end of my extra cable,” Ckzarr said. “I’ll haul you the rest of the way across.”

He tried, but the cable was too short.

“Let me try with mine.” She did have the longer spare.

Tying one end of the cable to her harness, just in case—she didn’t want to drop their only lifeline into the water below—she tried to toss the other end to Ckzarr. But dangling in midair gave her no leverage, and despite throwing as hard as she could, it was just out of the Tallean’s reach.

Because this cable was longer than the other, when it fell, the end of it dipped into the water. She hauled it back up as quickly as she could, praying to whatever gods or goddesses were out there that the thing with the crazy teeth wouldn’t snap it up. But nobody answered her prayers.

The creature caught the end of the cable in its powerful jaws moments before she was able to retrieve it from the lake. It pulled, and since the line was attached to her harness, she was pulled down with it. Luckily for her, the cable above didn’t break when she tried to haul the spare rope out of the creature’s mouth. She finally succeeded when the creature opened wide to try to take another bite.

As the creature let go, she sprang back up. She bounced on the line, catching and holding the creature’s baleful attention.

Tucking her feet up just as the creature lunged out of the water to snap at her, she removed one of her boots and tied the laces around the end of the cable. It would be much easier to throw something with heft, like her boots, than just the end of a cable. Adrenaline gave her extra strength as she threw with all her might.

This time, her Tallean warrior caught it easily and started reeling her in, even though she was still bouncing up and down on the cable.

The creature, seeing its prey escaping, leaped out of the water, catching Roxy’s other boot. She cursed and kicked as the thing tried to pull her down. She tried to reach and undo the laces but couldn’t, not with the creature’s weight pulling on her leg.

Desperate, she removed the sock from her bootless foot and tried to undo the laces with her toes. Success! She shook her foot, letting the creature have her boot. Its teeth had punctured partway through the tough polymer-infused leather, scratching the skin on her feet. She yelped as the boot was ripped away.

Ckzarr

Ckzarr’s heart pounded in his chest, and the sight of Roxy’s blood dripping from her foot made him want to roar. It gave him the strength to haul her in faster. She was higher now, and closer to his end of the line, but all her bouncing around had loosened another loop on the other side, and the cable wasn’t going to hold for long.

The climb over had been tiring, and his arms hadn’t had much of a chance to recover, but he was a Tallean warrior whose female was in danger. He summoned all the strength he had. His cheek folds extended, and his fangs elongated even though there wasn’t any physical monster to fight. He’d gone into bloodlust just from fighting an unruly length of cable.

On the other side of the cavern, the loops were slowly sliding on the anchor. He roared, pulling and hauling, as the cable slipped another arm’s length away, taking Roxy farther from him.

“No!” he bellowed.

Nothing would take his mate from him! He wouldn’t allow it!

Technically, he still had a hold of her now even if the cable fell, but the other end was tied to her harness in such a way that she’d swing toward the rock wall headfirst and upside down. It was dangerous.

Understanding her predicament, Roxy started pulling and hauling on her end as well, looping the excess around her arms as she went. Together, they made progress. Just as she came within arm’s reach of Ckzarr, the cable on the other side slid off the anchor.

She screamed as she dropped a few inches, but Ckzarr reached out and grabbed her hand. Now, the harness and the cable were a hindrance. The cable had fallen into the water, and the creature was pulling on it.

With one final heave and an enormous snarl, he hauled her onto the ledge and started ripping off her harness. The lake monster pulled it down over the ledge. Roxy clung to Ckzarr, panting, and he did the same, holding on to her like she was the most precious thing in his life.

Because she was. He hadn’t just saved a crew member from certain death; he’d saved his mate.

Roxy was his mate.

Stars! Why hadn’t he realized it all this time?

He wrapped her in the circle of his arm and buried his nose in her hair, breathing in her beautiful scent. It had taken almost losing her to make him realize she was the one for him. For some reason, he’d never thought that he was ready to settle down, even though he’d never once touched anyone else after having her in his bed.

He’d been so sure he wasn’t ready for a mate. After leaving the Dominion, he hadn’t known what to do with his life aside from seek revenge. None of them had, hence the name of their ship.

He’d had his share in female flesh, of course, both at pleasure houses and in the form of gifts the Dominion had given him for jobs well done. But Roxy had been the first female he’d chosen to test compatibility with. Surely, he’d thought, he wouldn’t be so lucky that the first female he tested compatibility with was his mate.

He’d been so naïve and inexperienced in matters of the heart that he hadn’t recognized what he had.

It had been his failing, not hers. She was human, and they didn’t form mate bonds. He was cured of his error now.

“When we get back to the Revenge, you are moving into my quarters,” he said, struggling to enunciate through his elongated fangs and extended jaws.

“But—”

“If my quarters are too small for the two of us, I can take Kirek’s room next to yours, and we can remove the wall between them. It is an easy modification.”

“But—”

“No buts, unless it is your butt in my lap. You are mine. Roxy. Mine.”

She reached up to touch his face, and he leaned into the caress, letting her touch calm his bloodlust. His need for her burned, barely controlled, under his skin, but there’d be time enough for him to lose himself in her later. Right now, he needed her to understand how much she meant to him.

“You want a partnership of convenience?” Was that hopefulness in her face?

“I do not. You are my mate.”

Her eyes widened as a mixture of emotions washed over her face: first shock, then happiness…then, to his horror, denial. She shook her head.

“No. That can’t be. If I were, it would be impossible for you to be with anyone else, and you have been. This must be the adrenaline talking. Please, Ckzarr. Don’t do this to me. You can’t tell me I’m your mate, then take it back later.”

He snarled. “I will never take it back. You are my mate; I am sure of it. I have not been with anyone else since you.”

She shook her head again. “But you went out with the others to find females and spent nights off the ship—”

“Yes. Alone. I spent my nights alone. I didn’t want the others to worry if I didn’t go out with them.” He took a deep breath and said the words he never thought he’d admit. “And also, I worried I’d come back to find you renting a room at the docks or staying out with another male.”

“Oh.”

He couldn’t read the emotion on her face.

“Yeah, I went out with Tahra but never found anyone I wanted, either. Sometimes I grab a room when we’re docked just so I don’t have to be on the ship all the time. The only thing you have to be jealous of with me is the shower nozzle.”

Ckzarr frowned, and that had Roxy giggling.

“We are quite a pair, aren’t we?”

“We are,” he agreed.

She had been his since the beginning, and he hers; they just hadn’t known it. He wasn’t going to drag this out any longer.

“You are mine. I don’t want any other. You will move into my quarters. My bed is big enough for both of us.”

“Oh…I remember.”

He looked out into the cavern, and dozens of curious eyes looked back from the ledges. “I proclaim you my mate, in front of all these witnesses.”

That lightened the mood and made her laugh. The animals chattered at her sudden outburst.

Humans didn’t have mate bonds, but they had love. Her love was all he’d ever need.

“I don’t care if I have to spend the rest of eternity making you fall in love with me, Roxy. It will be my mission from now on.”

Roxy made a small, strangled sound like she was struggling to hold back a sob. “I don’t think you’ll have to try very hard. I think I’m already in love with you.”

Ckzarr wanted to roar in triumph, but he wasn’t sure the ledge they were on wouldn’t give out from the vibrations. He bent to nuzzle her neck gently instead. Despite still being trapped underground in a mine and having almost been eaten by an unknown voracious lake monster, he’d never been happier.

Chapter 19

Roxy

Roxy felt the stifling heat the second they were back up on the top levels of the tunnels. They must have been shielded from the worst of it when they were deeper underground.

Ckzarr hadn’t let her go since their moment on the ledge, but she had needed the closeness after their near brush with death. She was also without her boots and didn’t want to step barefoot over the sharp rocks.

So she had let him carry her. But now it was getting uncomfortably hot, and the Tallean male was also emitting massive amounts of body heat.

She was still wrapping her head around Ckzarr claiming her as his mate. Had she delayed his realization by refusing to continue testing for compatibility with him? Or was this something he’d had to work out himself?

No matter. A successful mate bond was what she’d hoped for when they first started spending time together. She didn’t need to look for another job now…and she’d never need to worry about seeing him with another woman.

They stopped when they found another modular portable shelter. This one had been set up much earlier than the other and had clearly been in use while the mine was still active, and unfortunately this meant they didn’t find any extra food in it, or any water left in the reservoir.

They did, however, find some fabric to wrap around her feet so Ckzarr could finally put her down. His arms must have been tired after the treacherous climb and hauling her across the chasm, but he still acted like it was a punishment to put her down and grumbled about it.

Roxy compromised by holding his hand. It was better this way anyway; he would have his hands free if they bumped into anything dangerous. The little creatures from the cavern had followed them up, and she was sure they would alert them to any danger.

Their little furry friends seemed to be right at home here, and judging by the numerous bite marks on every surface of the shelter, Roxy decided this must be part of their territory. She was glad the creatures had welcomed the two of them in, despite the cable incident. She was sure Nibbles wasn’t trying to drop her into the lake on purpose. They might not be very strong individually, but there were enough of the little guys to overwhelm her and Ckzarr if they decided to get aggressive. Those teeth were sharp.

There weren’t as many glowing fungi here, so they had to rely on their lanterns. A moving shadow had her adjusting her step carefully to avoid stepping on a furry tail.

They seemed very curious about the two intruders, and she wondered idly how smart the creatures were. They lived in groups and seemed to have a social structure, which was typically a sign of intelligence in animals.

There was a table and some seats outside of the shelter. Ckzarr pulled two chairs next to each other and placed their pack on the table. “Let’s take a short break.”

They sat down to a meal of nutrition bars and stale water, their legs touching. Curious and hungry, the animals crept in close, hiding behind boulders and rocks.

Several loud squeaks came from behind a rock, and one of the cute, fluffy creatures got pushed out from behind it. It tried to dive back behind the boulder but was immediately pushed out again after a scuffle.

“Denied!” Roxy was amused by the social dynamic.

The creature found a much smaller rock and tried to hide behind it, but its ears stuck out and gave it away. It moved strangely compared to the others.

“I think that might be the one I tagged with the stone,” Ckzarr said.

Oh! The little troublemaker who chewed through the cable! Technically, he hadn’t done it alone, but he’d been the last one there. Now, it seemed like his friends didn’t want him behind the boulder with them. Was it because he favored the side that had been hit by Ckzarr’s pebble?

Roxy broke off a small corner of her nutrition bar and made a little clicking sound with her tongue before tossing it in front of the creature. The creature looked at the piece of food warily, then up at Roxy.

“Fine, don’t eat it.”

She pretended to ignore it, and sure enough, it soon inched slowly toward the piece of food. With only two feet to go, it made a mad dash for it and shoved it in its mouth. Food in tow, his friends now allowed him back behind the big rock.

Roxy grinned. No better peace offering than food.

Then, several of them hopped out from behind the boulder together, their big eyes going from her to the nutrition bar.

Oops. Wasn’t there a rule about not feeding the wildlife? Now they were in for it.

“I hope this isn’t bad for them.” She broke off another small piece.

“I doubt it. They seem to eat everything they find.” Ckzarr eyed the gnaw marks all over the base shelter.

“Yeah. Like the cable. I had a hamster when I was little,” Roxy said. “His teeth grew continuously. I wonder if it’s the same for these guys.”

She smiled to herself, remembering the time their parents had given her brother and her a choice in pets, and her brother had chosen a frog because a snake was out of the question. Roxy had gone for a fluffy little hamster. Her brother had threatened to feed it to Paco several times until their parents told him that one more joke about feeding Nutterbutter to Paco and Paco would need to start living outside.

Unlike Nutterbutter, these creatures didn’t have big front teeth, but the front teeth were sharp, that was for sure, and Roxy could have sworn she saw a pair of fangs when she chased it from the cable earlier.

She took another bite of the beyond bland-tasting bar, decided she wasn’t that hungry anyway, and broke the rest into little pieces. She’d probably have more fun feeding them than chewing through the tough bars herself. I mean, she’d already fed the wildlife; might as well continue, right?

She tossed the pieces to them one by one and watched in amusement as the creatures squabbled over the food. Then, when there was nothing left of the bars, she and Ckzarr got up and started the last leg of their journey, with their new little friends following close behind.

They ran into a problem in the form of a monster blocking the way the second they stepped into the tunnel leading to Station 5. Their new challenger gave off total Mountain-Lion-Meets-Killer-Easter-Bunny vibes.

“Stand back.” Ckzarr placed himself in front of her and squared off against the beast.

Instead of cowering in fear or scurrying away, their fluffy friends ran headlong toward it, pouncing on it playfully.

“Wait! Don’t attack yet.” Roxy put a hand on his shoulder. “Our new friends here don’t seem to be scared of it at all.”

Keeping a wary eye on the two intruders in its cave, the monstrous creature started grooming the little ones.

“Umm, I think we’ve been playing babysitter. See the similarities? The fangs? The eyes? And look at the tail. I just hope that Nibbles doesn’t tell Mom that you threw a rock at it.”

Ckzarr grunted dubiously. “Nibbles?”

“Why not? It’s cute.”

“Nibbles was trying to drop you into the lake.”

“Not on purpose, I don’t think. It was just curious.”

The big one looked curious now too, eyeing them but not making any move to attack.

“I wonder if the little ones put in a good word for us,” she mused.

“I do not believe they know any words.”

Roxy rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“We are about to find out because we need to cross her path—or his. It could be their sire.”

“Isn’t there another way around?”

“No. The way to the station is through here.”

Some of the smaller floofs returned to their side, having been thoroughly groomed, including Nibbles. True to his name—Roxy had started thinking of him as a boy— he nibbled on the fabric wrapped around her feet.

“Hey! None of that, little guy. You already cost me my boots.”

He looked up at her with big, innocent eyes. It was almost impossible to stay mad at him.

Hmm. She had an idea. She dug into their pack and retrieved another foil-wrapped nutrition bar of cardboard. Nibbles recognized it immediately and started begging for some. He seemed to have zero fear of her, and she wondered if she’d be able to pick him up in her arms and walk by Big Mama while holding him. A parent wouldn’t attack its own baby, would it?

She hoped this one was a little smarter than the frog thing they had fought earlier. She was beginning to see a pattern in the creatures that called this abandoned mine home. Lots of little ones and a few big ones. She wondered if the creature in the lake also had many young as well.

Instead of tossing the piece of food on the ground, she sat cross-legged and held it in her hands in her lap, showing it clearly. Completely fearless, the creature climbed right into her lap and took the food from her. She scooped it up, held it to her chest, and slowly started forward. Ckzarr followed close behind her, pickaxe in hand, just in case.

She held Nibbles in front of her as it munched away happily. Several other little ones trailed behind them, begging for food, a little put out that this one got more food than they did. She held her breath as she crossed Mama’s path, but the creature did not attack. The fangs were a lot more prominent on Mom, and the more Roxy looked, the more similarity she could see between the mother and the cutie in her arms. It would take a lot of food to get these little guys to that size. No wonder they were constantly hungry.

Only now did she see another mountain lion killer bunny behind the first. Both parents were here.

They were soon past the creatures, though, and she put Nibbles back down. Ckzarr still watched their backs, concerned about a surprise attack, as they continued toward Mining Station 5 with their entourage of fluffy tour guides.

Nothing else blocked their way, and Roxy was soon crawling into the vents to let Ckzarr in.

The station was hot but thankfully empty, which was good because she was exhausted. She found a cot and tossed her jacket onto the chair next to it. Next to come off was her bra. She didn’t want that thing on for a moment longer. She tossed that onto the chair as well and flopped down onto the cot.

She felt like a fully squeezed tube of toothpaste, the bottom all rolled up and clipped so as to get every last bit out. There was simply nothing left in her.

“Rest, my mate,” Ckzarr said, nuzzling her forehead. “We are safe for now.”

Chapter 20

Ckzarr

The station was a mess.

The survivors trapped here had completely trashed it. There was clear evidence of a deadly fight in the main room, and there were still the remnants of bloodstains on the floor.

“Man, it must have sucked to be stuck here.” Roxy looked around the room. “I’d have gone crazy, too.”

“I wonder if they trashed the place before or after they found out the company planned to leave them here.” Ckzarr also wondered privately if the three survivors had butchered the rest in order to stay alive but didn’t say that part out loud.

The survivors must have been stuck here for quite some time because not one edible bite was left in the entire place. There were, however, still plenty of other supplies, though some had been damaged in the fight. Most of the equipment looked intact, but they wouldn’t know if it still worked until they got the station powered up again.

They only needed to survive long enough for rescue to arrive. If the Revenge had had difficulties detecting them in the tunnels, they’d be able to track his signal easily now. So their isolation wouldn’t last long, but it would be good to get the lights and climate control working, and the water running. The water purifier was still operational, and there was a large cistern full of rainwater outside, but they needed power to operate the pumps.

Earlier, Ckzarr had pulled another cot next to hers and they’d taken a nap together, both of them exhausted from their trip here. They’d woken up hot and sweaty with her leg tossed over his body. But despite their less-than-ideal current situation, he’d never felt such contentment.

Roxy was now standing in front of the quiet communication hub. They’d opened some of the shutters on the windows to let in natural light, and the sunbeams danced on her hair, the colorful blues, purples, and pinks reminding him of distant nebulas. She was so beautiful, and he had an overwhelming urge to go pick her up and just hold her in his arms.

“Hey, look.” Roxy picked an old leather book out of a drawer and flipped it open.

One of the inhabitants had kept a journal that included drawings of the plants and animals in the area. Roxy pored over the sketches, and her eyes sparkled in delight. One page even had a drawing of a primitive trap designed to catch small game.

“They must have lived off the land to survive,” Ckzarr said. That was less gruesome than resorting to cannibalism.

Roxy looked hesitant to put the journal down.

“We should keep it,” Ckzarr suggested. “It would be a shame to lose such thorough records forever.”

His female nodded and happily tucked it into their pack. “Let’s get the climate control and lights working. I’ve had enough of tunnels, heat, and darkness to last me a long ass time. With light and air conditioning, this place might actually start resembling the inside of a ship.”

Ckzarr grinned. “That’s a good thing? Most Tallean females consider living on a ship a form of torture.”

Roxy laughed. “When I first started working on the Revenge, I’ll admit I worried about being stuck on a ship, but I’ve gotten used to being in space by now. And the Revenge has all the amenities. I can say with authority that being stuck underground is worse.”

“Agreed. Let’s get this station up and running. The solar power cells outside must have become covered with debris.”

As mentioned in the information he’d found earlier, there was no way out of the area except by air. There were sheer cliffs bordering the north, west, and east sides, and the south led into a forest so thick and dark that no ground transport would be able to get through.

He had no idea how the station had been built if access was so difficult. But according to the logs he found, the mines it oversaw were particularly productive, so it must have been worth it.

They went outside and found the ladder leading up to the roof. It was positioned high up off the ground beyond their reach, and the crank mechanism intended to bring it down had rusted away to nothing.

“I’ll get on the roof somehow and let it down manually.” Ckzarr looked around for a route up.

Stars! When he got back to the Revenge, he’d make sure to add climbing to his regular training regimen. Who knew he’d need to do it so often? The side of the building was rough, but not enough for him to get a good grip. He’d have to figure out another way up.

Roxy pointed to a large nearby tree. “Can’t you jump across from one of those branches? Then she frowned. “Or—sorry—am I overestimating your abilities? Now that I look at it again, that tree is pretty darned far away.”

Ckzarr looked at the tree and frowned. “You are not overestimating my abilities. I can make that jump.”

He turned back to see her grinning and realized too late that she’d said it in jest, and he’d fallen for it. She knew full well he could make that jump. He may not be the best fighter or climber, but he could jump.

He scaled the large tree easily, the rough bark giving him plenty to hold onto. The leap over to the roof wasn’t bad either, and soon, he was lowering the ladder down for Roxy to join him.

He’d expected to see just enough energy panels to power the station. He had not expected for the roof to be completely covered by the outdated but still useful technology. The panels had been much cheaper to produce way back when. The materials for them were expensive now, and the Dominion rarely used solar energy as a power source anymore.

They’d invested instead in fusion technology to power most of their buildings and ships. The cells were dangerous to dispose of, but the Dominion had a simple, if inelegant, solution: dump them on a planet that was no longer useful to them.

But out here in the outer planets, they still used solar panels, though many decades more advanced. Ckzarr was surprised the pirates hadn’t recovered the panels of stations they didn’t inhabit and made a profit selling them. Surely, they knew what was up here. Even if most of the panels were covered by debris and they couldn’t see them from the air, someone must have gone up to the roof of a station to clear debris off the panels at some point. It was considered routine maintenance.

Maybe they made the Fiete do the unpopular task. She would probably have no idea of the worth of such things—and if she did, she might not wish to alert her owners, especially if she was worried about being replaced. The income from selling these panels would be enough to buy several more of her kind at auction, even out here.

Then again, Ckzarr wasn’t sure the Fiete would be smart enough to think that far ahead; they were not known for their intelligence. That was the difference between Fietes and humans.

Humans were much more like the Talleans themselves: ornery, stubborn, and hard to control. They were so much trouble, in fact, that the Dominion was actively trying to breed humans to be more subservient, based on the theory that it was easier to control people when you started them young. The Dominion had tried the same thing in the past with Talleans, but to his knowledge, that project had been shut down generations ago.

Now, the Dominion did to Talleans what they’d done to Ckzarr: take young males as children and train them to be obedient soldiers. It worked relatively well as long as they kept their propaganda machine going. There were always zealots who’d do anything in the Goddess’s name. He assumed it would be the same for humans born and raised in the Dominion.

Already, there were human converts who would give their lives to the Goddess. Surely, the so-called Favored would find a way to exploit humans’ similarities to the Talleans.

In his time in the Dominion army, he’d met several of the elite ruling class who called themselves the Favored of the Goddess. They were smaller than most other Talleans, with delicate bone structure and cheek creases that no longer extended. They didn’t need to be able to fight or do manual labor because the common Talleans and Fietes did all the work for them. Ckzarr was glad they didn’t have any power out here.

“Holy crap! Look at all these energy panels.” Roxy wiped the thick layer of dead and decaying leaves off of the nearest panel, exposing the shiny material. “They’re old, but I’m sure they still work, and the material could be used for newer designs. Maybe we should come back when the bounty hunters lose interest and disassemble them. We’d make a pretty penny.”

That was a good idea. They certainly weren’t doing anyone any good out here.

They got to work clearing off the debris so they could collect the sunlight.

Chapter 21

Roxy

By the time they finished clearing off the panels on the roof, the meter was already showing enough charge to get the station running.

“Here goes nothing,” Roxy said as she pulled the lever to power up the station.

They had to scramble to turn off all the external lights and communications in order not to give away their location. Hopefully, they’d done it in time.

It wasn’t long before the air conditioning and climate control had the station feeling cool and crisp again. Roxy was glad; she wasn’t sure how much longer she could have stood the sweltering heat. It had felt like an oven. Dirty and sweaty from clearing off the roof, Roxy decided to take advantage of the water cleansing unit.

She didn’t even wait to get inside the station facilities; she just started stripping off, throwing all her clothes over one arm. According to the station’s system, the clothing decontaminator was working, and she was eager for clean clothes, even if they were torn to shreds. She dumped everything into the unit and started the cycle.

She turned around and bumped right into a very fit and muscular chest. Ckzarr grinned as he took in the sight of her naked body. Instead of letting her pass, he blocked her way, cornering her at the same time as he shoved his clothes into the second unit. A giant palm came to wrap around her throat, pressing her up against the wall. With her thus trapped, he turned back to the decontaminator and set his clothes to clean.

Roxy swallowed hard. How the hell did he make something mundane, like doing laundry, so freaking sexy?

He didn’t release her when the clean cycle started. Instead, he turned his focus on her and walked her backward, his hands still on her possessively, until she hit the edge of the counter, trapped with nowhere to go.

Then he was devouring her, his mouth peppering her all over with licks, kisses, and nibbles. His magnificent cock jutted out between them, perfectly shaped and so deliciously hard that Roxy had to reach out and touch it.

The skin was as velvety soft as suede, despite how hard he was. She ran her fingertips over the ridge that separated the head from the shaft, making him growl wordlessly. She reached down to fondle his balls, which were also covered in buttery soft skin and completely hairless.

She had always appreciated the hairlessness of Tallean men. For a start, she never needed to worry about coochie beard burns. Facial hair would get in the way of their cheek creases, but their chests were hairless as well. This fuzzy suede was the closest thing they had to body hair, at least for Ckzarr.

Some had a narrow strip of fine hair, a “happy trail,” leading from the lower abs to the groin, but that was usually it. There was a rumor floating around that some Talleans did have hair on their chest and groins, but it was a rare genetic mutation.

Ckzarr’s generous girth was a handful, and she had to use both hands to jerk him off. It was always a marvel to her that she could fit so much inside her body.

Ckzarr lifted his head, his eyes half-lidded, breathing through his mouth like he was tasting her in the air. He had a look in his eyes that told her he was struggling to hold back. She loved it. He might have all the physical control, but ultimately, she controlled him.

She licked her lips and slid down to her knees so she could engulf him in her mouth and savor the clean, musky taste of him.

“Stars!” Ckzarr groaned, threading his fingers into her hair and gripping her tight.

He moved her head up and down his cock. Roxy took him as deep as she could, gagging softly when he hit the back of her throat.

“You feel so fucking good.” He tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

He was so fucking hot! From his washboard abs just inches from her eyes, all the way to his sexy fangs, which were currently slightly elongated and pressing into his bottom lip.

Roxy reached down to touch herself and found herself dripping wet.

“Yes, yes. Be a good girl and touch yourself for me.”

His words had her shivering. She knew he didn’t actually use the English words, but the device in her ears translated his words to “good girl,” and the meaning was there. It turned her on.

She thrust her fingers into her pussy and rocked against the heel of her hand, wishing it was him instead. She moaned and whined wordlessly on his cock, hoping Ckzarr understood her need.

He did. Pulling her off him, he hauled her up and turned her around. The counter was tall, built for a Tallean male, and he had to lift her up to bend her over it. She reached for the opposite edge of the counter—it was an island—and held on. Rough hands grabbed her ass, squeezing possessively. He smacked her ass lightly, and the sound reverberated through the room.

“This is mine.” He bent down and bit her just hard enough for her to yelp. She was sure that would leave a mark.

“All mine.”

Then the thick head of his cock was pressing into her. The position made everything more intense. She was completely helpless, bent over the island, her feet dangling a few inches off the ground. The only place she could go was farther down on his cock.

Oh god! He filled her so full she thought she might break. He didn’t let up but instead kept going, rocking their bodies so that every movement seated him deeper in her until she no longer knew where she left off and he began.

Ckzarr

Ckzarr loved being buried to the hilt in his mate. She was everything he’d ever wanted.

Sure, their current situation was less than ideal. He’d always imagined spending their first days as mates someplace beautiful, or maybe back on the ship in the training simulator. There were missions that started in gorgeous settings, but nothing actually happened until the participants left the initial room. One of those would be perfect.

But Ckzarr wasn’t really worried. They had the rest of their lives to make new memories together. He’d already made a list of places they could fuck.

He bent over her and clamped his jaw down on her shoulder, holding her in place. She hissed and arched her back when she felt his teeth, even though he hadn’t bitten down very hard. He dragged his fangs over her skin, leaving two parallel red lines.

Roxy was incredibly slippery and wet for him, but she was so tight that he had to fight to move. He reached around to play with her clit, circling his fingers over the little bundle of nerves. She cried out and spasmed, and her cunt squeezed him.

He was ridiculously stiff already but somehow felt himself growing even harder. Roxy whimpered as he fucked her and tried to crawl forward onto the counter.

“Where are you going, little mate?” He grabbed her ass and squeezed.

“Too much,” she gasped. “This position is…too much.”

“This position is perfect. I know you can handle me.”

He reached around again to tease her clit, while at the same time thrusting deep. She screamed. The sound was too much for him. He lost his last ounce of control and hammered into her, each powerful thrust eliciting another scream until she was hoarse and sobbing, her fingers clawing at the surface of the counter.

Her channel squeezed and milked his cock, pulling him over the edge with her. Ckzarr roared, coming hard until there was more of him in her than there was in himself. He’d given her everything he had.

He braced himself over her bent body, breathing hard. Their sweat and scent mingled together, forming something new…something better…something he was already addicted to. Happiness filled him.

His mouthy, competitive female was completely limp and satisfied now. He loved seeing both sides of her. Hell, he loved her from every angle! But he knew that this softer, trusting, dared he say, submissive side was a gift only for him.

It was his job to take care of her so she could sass him today, tomorrow, and every day after that.

He leaned in and nuzzled her neck, to which she responded with a contented little hum. Oh yes, he liked this very much. But they couldn’t stay on this counter forever; for a start, he doubted it was very comfortable for her.

He summoned all his strength and pulled out, his body missing hers immediately. He gathered her into his arms and walked them over to the nearest cleansing unit. It was just barely big enough for them to use together.

Then, setting the water to her preferred temperature of “too hot for him,” he let the water rush over them as he held her in his arms.

Chapter 22

Roxy

Roxy sat at the communications hub, flipping slowly through the illustrated journal she’d found yesterday. Whoever had done these illustrations they’d had a keen eye for detail. She found sketches of the frog-like creatures they bumped into earlier, as well as of the cute, nibbly ones. There was also a crude sketch of the large beasts Nibbles would grow up to be, though some details were perhaps a little off.

Ckzarr had gone out to explore the area more, and while Roxy had wanted to go with him, he’d insisted on scouting out the place first for any dangers. Just because nothing had attacked them on the roof didn’t mean it was safe, he’d reminded her.

Before leaving, he’d programmed a new passcode for the station door and made sure to board up the door to the tunnel as well.

There was a chance a small Tallean male would be able to squeeze through the vents the way Roxy had, and although Ckzarr doubted one would be working with the bounty hunters, and none of the pirates were that small, he’d still found some hyperbond adhesive and glued the vents in place to be sure.

Roxy had told him about the narrower shafts leading up to the ceiling, but there wasn’t much they could do about those. They just had to hope that there wasn’t someone small enough to fit through. Ckzarr sincerely doubted they would send the Fiete in to unlock the door.

“Even if they did, I’m sure I can handle Seela if I have to,” had been Roxy’s reply.

The loud sound of something metallic falling to the floor had Roxy scrambling upright from her reclined position.

What the hell?

She held still and listened carefully. Clear scuffling noises were coming from somewhere in the station. Whatever it was, it wasn’t even trying to stay hidden. Roxy picked up the axe she had at the ready against the wall and quietly snuck to the doorway.

She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

She checked the kitchen where she thought the initial loud sound had come from. Yes—something had knocked over a stack of metal cutlery. But the kitchen looked empty enough now from the doorway.

More noises had her whipping her head around just in time to see a container fall down from the shelves. The contents, a collection of measuring equipment, were scattered all over the floor. There was no sign of whatever had knocked it over, however.

Suddenly, a furry purple blur dashed out from behind some furniture and into the communications room she’d come from. Roxy relaxed. Back in the cave, the fluffy creatures had looked more gray than purple. In fuller light, it was more purple than gray.

One of them must have followed them in through the vents and had gotten trapped when Ckzarr glued everything shut.

She went back to the communications room and saw it chewing on the journal.

“Hey now! Not that!” She dashed for the leather booklet.

The creature bounded away, clearly favoring one side. Oh!

“Nibbles!”

She used a tiny corner of a nutrition bar to gain his trust again and picked him up. Then, with the sketchbook clutched in one hand and her arms around Nibbles, she went into the foreman’s sleeping quarters and closed the door. She double-checked to make sure there was no other way in and out of the room.

Until they figured out what to do with this little guy, she didn’t want him running around the station. Who knew what trouble he might cause? The last thing she needed was for the creature to accidentally contact their enemies by chewing through the wrong wire.

“Stay right here,” she said, even though she felt a little silly talking to a creature that couldn’t understand her. She tucked the journal into a drawer to keep it safe, then stepped out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.

She found a bowl and filled it with clean water and returned to the room. Nibbles came over to investigate the moment she set the bowl on the floor. He must have been thirsty, because he started drinking from it immediately.

Not knowing what to do with herself until Ckzarr returned, Roxy sat down with Nibbles to read the journal.

The sound of the front door opening had her running out happily to greet her mate. She was only halfway to the front room when the sound of feminine screaming stopped her.

What the actual hell?

Roxy stepped into the room to see Ckzarr manhandling a human woman into a corner. She felt a sudden pang of jealousy. What was going on, and where had he found another human woman?

“What the fuck is going on here?” she yelled, loud enough to grab the other woman’s attention, who stopped screaming and stared at Roxy in disbelief.

“Another human!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, female!” Ckzarr huffed in obvious frustration. He turned to Roxy and stepped away from the other woman, who was no longer freaking out. “I found her in the woods, living out of a crashed shuttle. I tried to tell her I wasn’t going to hurt her and that there was a human female with me, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“Wow,” the woman said, looking around. “You really did come from the station. I didn’t believe you because I’d tried to get in here, but everything was locked.”

“Told you I wasn’t lying.” Ckzarr pressed his lips into a thin line and stepped closer to Roxy.

His obvious disinterest in the other woman made Roxy feel better. She’d never claimed to be too holy for jealousy.

Roxy cleared her throat and stuck out a hand. “I’m Roxy.”

The woman took it tentatively. “Camila, but most people call me Cami.”

Roxy had always been one for efficiency, and she got straight to the point. “What are you doing here, Cami? How did you get here?”

“We crash landed here eleven days ago.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Me and my…my”—she looked down at her hands—”my owner.”

“Where is he now?” Ckzarr asked.

Camila cowered at his harsh tone but answered. “They took him.”

“And who are ‘they’?” Ckzarr demanded.

“The bounty hunters.”

Roxy remembered overhearing the pirates and the bounty hunters talking when she was in the vents. The bounty hunters had sounded pissed that they’d gotten the notice after they’d just left the planet, and mentioned already having someone in the brig. It must have been this human’s…ugh…owner.

These must be the same bounty hunters the Revenge went silent to avoid.

“How did you evade capture yourself?” she asked.

“I hid in the woods. When a big, scary thing came and attacked them, I guess they assumed I’d been eaten already and left.”

“And you’ve been living in the ship ever since.”

“Yeah.”

Roxy looked to Ckzarr. “Can we use that ship to get off the planet and back to the Revenge?”

Ckzarr shook his head. “It suffered extensive damage and is not airworthy. It would fall apart before it escaped the planet’s atmosphere.”

Just then, Camila shrieked. She grabbed the first thing she found, which was a chair, and held it in front of her protectively. Roxy followed her gaze to Nibbles, who had come out with her, curious about the newcomer.

“Don’t be scared. Nibbles is harmless.”

“Harmless? No way! It’s dangerous.”

Was there something about Nibbles Roxy didn’t know? “Are they venomous? Do they carry disease?”

“What? No, nothing like that. But they’re not as cute as they look. Sure, he’s cute now, but he’s not going to stay that way. And where there’s one, there are many, and the adults will be close. That’s what ate the bounty hunter. They’re very dangerous.”

Roxy and Ckzarr exchanged a look. They’d clearly had a very lucky escape.

“I think we met the parents…” Roxy began.

The other woman looked doubtful. “Are you sure? They’re not just bigger versions of the cute little ones.”

“I know. They’re big, cat-bear-murder-bunny things. Terrifying. With teeth and fangs. Bigger than him.” Roxy jerked her thumb at Ckzarr. “Right?”

“Yup, that’s them. There’s a pair that prowls around outside a cave opening near the crash. I was trapped inside the ship for days before it gave up and left the area.”

“We encountered them in the tunnels. Luckily, we had a whole bunch of the babies following us, so the parents didn’t attack. Or maybe they weren’t hungry.”

Nibbles took a step toward Cami, and she shrank back again, still afraid. Roxy scooped him up in her arms.

“I have determined that you pose no threat to my female,” Ckzarr said to Camila. “You may stay here while I hunt for us. We require food.”

Ckzarr left, and Camila visibly relaxed the moment they were alone.

“You are lucky your owner is so nice,” she gushed. “Did he form a mate bond with you? I’ve heard of that happening.”

Roxy almost choked on her own spit. “Oh, no. It’s not like that. I mean, yes, he’s my mate, but he’s not my owner. Never has been.”

She was suddenly very aware that the other woman was trying very hard not to stare at the bruise on her face. Oops! She was totally getting the wrong idea.

“In case you’re wondering, I got the bruise from one of the pirates. Ckzarr and I work together on a battlecruiser. I guess you can say he started off as my boss.”

Camila’s mouth formed a surprised little O. “I guess things are different out here in…wherever we are.”

“Yeah. They are. You’re free from the Dominion now.”

“I guess I am.” She looked at Roxy and tilted her head. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get out here?”

Roxy shrugged. “Just good luck, I guess. I didn’t need to make my own way to the outer planets like a lot of people did. I was bought by a hotel chain and sent to work on Vosthea. I heard a rumor that there were no slaves in Kean’s stronghold, and anyone willing to work was given a chance and offered a job.”

“You mean Kean the notorious druglord?” Her eyes were wide.

“The very same. I took my chances, hiding in the hotel laundry to escape. Almost died twice.” Roxy shook her head, remembering the stalker that had followed her through the jungle as she made her way to her destination. “If you think Nibbles’ parents are scary, trust me, they have nothing on Vosthean stalkers. It was just me, a flask of water, and a stolen blaster. On the plus side, stalkers don’t taste half bad when you’re hungry.”

Cami looked at her in awe. “No wonder you’re not scared of Nibbles. So… You made it, I assume.”

“Yeah. This was years ago, before Kean officially owned the planet. When I got to his stronghold, I got a job doing the exact same thing I’d been doing at the hotel, except I got paid for it, and I had breaks and days off. They set me up in the system so I could have my own credits and be my own person. I still think of the stronghold as my second home.”

“Is all of Vosthea safe for humans now that Kean rules it?”

Roxy shook her head. “Gosh, not at all. The planet is mostly populated by criminals and outlaws. It’s hard to control them. Kean could enact new laws, but enforcing them would be another matter. At least for now.”

She hadn’t understood it at first and had been angry that Kean hadn’t banned slavery outright, but the way Emil had explained it to her, the only reason Kean maintained his position as ruler was that he had the support of most of the regional leaders. Outlawing slavery would mean an all-out civil war, one they would not win. It would undo all the progress they’d made, and Kean’s stronghold, one of the few sanctuaries on the planet, would be lost.

“You said your owner was taken by bounty hunters. Do you remember much about them? The bounty hunters, I mean.”

Cami shuddered. “Only that they were really scary. They smelled bad, too—not BO bad, but like chemicals and decay. You know how the Tallean fighters go into bloodlust when they fight each other in cage matches?”

Roxy had watched cage fights at Kean’s big bashes. Fights and sexual performances were the norm at Tallean parties, but the fights at Kean’s compound were never to the death. That wasn’t the case in the Dominion, though, or even elsewhere on the outer planets.

“Yeah.”

“Well, these guys looked like they were stuck halfway, and they had strange growths coming out of their skin.”

That must be the performance-enhancing drugs they’ve been hearing the Dominion was using, the ones that were still in the testing phase and still causing a lot of horrible side effects. She’d also heard that they were quite addictive, and once someone started using them, they were stuck.

“Let’s hope our rescue gets here before they come back.”

Roxy looked Camila up and down. The poor thing was dirty from head to toe, and her hair had sticks and leaves in it.

“Why would they come back?” There was fear in her eyes.

“Because Ckzarr has a bounty on him too…and they know he’s here.”

Chapter 23

Ckzarr

Ckzarr checked the downed shuttle first, looking for anything edible or that could be salvaged. The logs were still accessible, and according to them, the female had not been lying: they’d crash-landed here eleven planetary days ago. The shuttle had belonged to a Dominion merchant, and its antitheft sequence had been overridden.

There wasn’t much food left, just a few more days’ worth of travel rations. If they hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to find her, Cami would’ve been facing hunger on her own very soon. He tucked the bars into the small hip pack he’d brought with him and left the crash site.

According to the journal Roxy had found there were avian creatures around here, much smaller than the terrors that came from the skies at dusk, that were good eating. They nested on the lower ledges of the cliff to the north.

The notes had gone on to say that the creatures had no fear of the miners and didn’t fly away. It was just a simple matter of getting to the nests and literally plucking them right out. Ckzarr hoped that was still the case. Unfortunately, it meant more climbing for him. He had not trained for this.

It was already hot, although the twin suns were only halfway up the sky. He hadn’t noticed them when they’d first landed since his attention had been so focused on their captors. If he had, he would’ve been able to guess this was Fortuna II. The days here were slightly longer than a standard galactic day, and he’d have plenty of time to get to the cliffs, bag dinner for them, and get back to the station before noon.

There was still no sign of the Revenge, and if they weren’t out of food, he wouldn’t be leaving two mostly defenseless females alone at the station.

When he arrived at the bottom of the cliffs, he saw many moss-lined nests dotting the lower ledges. On them were sizable bird-like creatures. They were covered in down, like most young birds. They must be juveniles.

Ckzarr was halfway up to the lowest nest when a ship’s rumble shattered the forest’s serenity. He tensed. That was not the Revenge.

Sudden fear for his mate’s safety had his blood pounding in his ears as he scrambled back down the sheer cliff. The ship was heading toward the mining station.

Fuck!

He kept hurrying down the cliff face, cursing himself for leaving Roxy there with only a few outdated blasters to protect her.

If these bounty hunters were here for him, they wouldn’t bother keeping her alive. What she would fetch at auction would be a fraction of his bounty. They’d kill her if she stood in the way of that, or worse.

Please, Roxy-baby, he pleaded silently, do not fight them.

He charged back toward the station, hoping to get there in time. The ship was coming in silent: if he’d been inside, he might have missed it. Roxy wouldn’t have a clue that it was coming.

But even as he pushed his lungs and legs to capacity, he knew he would get there too late. They wouldn’t leave without him, though; they were there, after all, for his bounty. But if they hurt his mate, they’d regret it. He would tear every last one of them limb from limb.

“Ckzarr!”

He turned at the sound of his name and saw Berus running alongside him through the trees. Help had arrived! He slowed to a jog so they could speak.

“Sorry for the delayed rescue, friend. Those fucking bounty hunters… We had to enter the atmosphere pretty far away and fly low to avoid detection. Where’s Roxy?”

“Back at the station.”

“Fuck!”

“They must be already landing.” Berus contacted the Revenge and updated the crew on their situation. “Vhast is by the shuttle. Only the two of us came down. We are less recognizable than the others.”

Their bounties were also negligible compared to the other Talleans on board.

“Berus.” Emil’s voice came from Berus’s comm unit. “We are coming down. Do not engage until we arrive.”

“We have the element of surprise on our side. They came looking for just Ckzarr,” Ulrek said, his voice sounding like he was a little far from the speaker. “They will not expect all of us.” There was a small pause. “Vhast. You there?”

“Right here, captain.”

“Head over to the station, but wait for Dex. We are sending him down with the other shuttle. You two try to split the bounty hunters up and get a few of them chasing you down. I don’t care if you stay in the shuttle or go on foot, just divide them up so they’re easier for us to deal with. And don’t die. That’s an order.”

“Don’t die. Yes sir, got it.”

Ckzarr continued toward the station, still cursing his decision to leave Roxy there.

“Shit, you guys.” Emil again. “They’ve made it to the station, but that’s not the worst part. The station is on fire.”

Anger turned Ckzarr’s vision red. He let out a massive roar that echoed through the woods.

They wanted him? They were going to get him.

Roxy

Roxy didn’t hear the ship coming until it was already landing.

“Fuck, what are we going to do?” she muttered, mainly to herself.

She had a blaster, but she doubted she could Rambo her way through all the bounty hunters like one of the guys could. She was a good shot, and she might take out a few, but the numbers said she’d lose in the end. There had to be a better solution.

Roxy was surprised when Camila replied to her question. “The tunnels. You said you guys came from the tunnels, right? Can’t we run and hide in there?”

“That’s where we bumped into Nibbles’s parents.”

She and Ckzarr had apparently gotten very lucky last time, and Roxy didn’t know if she wanted to push her luck. What if Mom and Dad hadn’t eaten today? What if all the little ones were hungry? This time, she didn’t have any nutrition bars to give them.

“Oh.” Cami’s face dropped. “Okay, maybe that’s not such a good idea then.”

A grotesque, twisted face suddenly appeared at one of the windows, and Roxy ducked behind a large chair, pulling Camila with her.

“What the fuck is wrong with his face?” Roxy hissed.

“No idea. A few of them are like that. The rest are normal.”

His cheek creases looked to be stuck in a half-unfolded position, but he didn’t just look like he was halted in the middle of entering bloodlust. It was worse. It looked like he was shedding a mask, and a mutant Tallean, the stuff of nightmares, was emerging from underneath.

His skin wasn’t the rich, healthy tan of a normal Tallean but was almost a ghastly yellow, and his eyes glowed a horrible radioactive green. Tallean eyes were always some shade of green, but Roxy had never seen any like these. He looked almost sick, but at the same time not.

The face disappeared from the window.

“Let’s get away from the window,” she said, pointing to the back of the station. “If we don’t want to go into the tunnel, maybe we can hide in the vents. They can’t follow us in there.”

“Good idea.” Cami followed close behind. “And maybe they’ll leave when they don’t find who they’re looking for.”

Roxy went to one of the vents, only to remember that they had glued it shut. “Shit. Okay, there’s a way in through the tunnels.”

There was a harsh grinding sound at the door. The bounty hunters were drilling right through the lock. They had to hurry.

With both of them together and adrenaline running high, they got the heavy beam off the door easily and ran into the tunnel. No full-grown nibbles were there to greet them.

“Fuck,” Roxy swore. “I forgot a light. That’s okay.”

She grabbed Camila’s hand and together they felt around until they found the entrance to the vents. The grate came off easily, and they crawled into the shaft.

Voices were coming from inside the station. The bounty hunters were already in.

Quietly, they crawled to a spot with a little extra room and a decent view of the main area of the station if they peeked through the grates. She stayed well back from the opening, just in case.

There were three bounty hunters, two of them looking horribly mutated and diseased, and the third one appearing quite normal.

A horrific stench filled her nose, like chemicals and rot mixed together. It pervaded the entire station and made her want to retch. Camila had mentioned one of the bounty hunters being eaten by a fully grown Nibbles; surely it wasn’t one like these horrors. Nothing would want to eat that.

“I don’t think he’s in here,” said the normal-looking one.

“No, but I smell humans. Female humans.” With his cheeks stuck half open and his fangs mostly descended, his words were distorted, but Roxy had been around Ckzarr and the others on the ship in bloodlust enough times to understand him. Mutant One sniffed the air exaggeratedly, then snapped his head around to the vent.

Shit! Roxy shrank back into the darkness. So much for hiding.

“Report in,” said a voice from Normal’s belt.

Mutant One turned away, and Roxy and Camila shuffled silently further into the vents. Roxy was glad the vents weren’t metal. They didn’t make much noise as they moved. From their new vantage point, they could still hear the conversation inside the station.

“We have located a male in the woods that we believe is our mark,” said the voice from the comm. “There is also a shuttle on our radar. We have sent a team after each of them.”

“Good. Capture him, and then we can finally get out of here,” said Normal.

Roxy could tell it was him because his words were clear and unaffected.

“Wait,” said Mutant One, “I smell females. Human. Healthy.”

“We’re not here to get your fucking dick wet,” said the voice from the comm.

“Easy for you to say. Pleasure houses don’t turn you away,” said Mutant One.

“Exactly,” said Mutant Two. “I say we find them and keep them.” He had trouble enunciating his words as well.

“Fine. You two find those females if it’s that important to you. Olum, get your ass back to the ship.”

All it took was one sniff for the two to locate them in the vents. With a single heave, one of them ripped the nearest grate off; the hyperbond adhesive never stood a chance. He reached in, and Roxy and Cami scuttled back to stay out of reach.

Then, another hand was reaching in through the next vent opening over. They scrambled to the midpoint and headed a little way into the vent leading back to the tunnels, just out of reach.

Those assholes would have to rip out the walls if they wanted to find them. They tore off several more of the metal grates, trying to reach them, but to no avail. Now, they were angry.

Several long minutes later, smoke started drifting into the vents, stinging her eyes and making her choke. The assholes had set the station on fire!

Blinded by the smoke, they felt their way back to the tunnel’s exit, coughing and wheezing all the way. But Roxy didn’t need to climb out of the vents; rough hands reached in and pulled her. She found herself looking up at a terrifying, mutated face.

Chapter 24

Ckzarr

Ckzarr arrived just in time to see one of the mutant bounty hunters dragging Roxy into their ship by her hair. He knew his orders had explicitly been not to engage until help arrived, but he couldn’t stop his body. His legs sprinted toward them, bloodlust overtaking him as he ran.

To his surprise, Berus came with him. They charged at the two armed guards at the front of the ship. His entire world turned into a bloodied blur of iron-rich red as he tore them apart.

Then he was inside the ship, following his instincts and his nose to the ship’s brig, where Roxy was struggling against her captor.

“Release her!” He didn’t even recognize his own murderous voice.

The male dropped Roxy, causing her to stumble back and smash against the ship’s wall. Her clothes were torn half off, her tank top just scraps around her middle. Her pants were in a heap on the ship’s floor.

Ckzarr lunged at the mutant, the need to protect his mate urging him on. He got in the first punch, the blow knocking his opponent’s head back.

But this was no normal Tallean male. Enhanced by the Dominion’s proprietary blend of chemical concoctions, his bones proved to be nearly indestructible, and his nose did not break. He didn’t even seem to have felt the punch. He grabbed Ckzarr and threw him across the room.

Ckzarr landed against a set of bars. The two fought, fists punching, legs kicking, both of them too feral for words. Snarls and growls sufficed.

Berus took on the other mutant male. This second bounty hunter was bleeding profusely from several wounds, and his arm looked broken in several places. Berus, being stronger, had also managed to punch the guy’s face in. It was completely concave where his nose had been. And yet, that didn’t change anything. He still fought like he couldn’t feel any of the injuries.

By the Stars! How the fuck was this guy still standing?

It must be the chemicals. These males would keep fighting until they bled out, unbothered by trivial things like broken bones and gushing wounds. Armed with this knowledge, Ckzarr decided to kick high, aiming for his opponent’s throat. The artery there would bleed out the fastest.

Ckzarr sliced into the mutant male’s neck using the sharp talons on his foot. Blood spurted out, and the male finally reacted, his hand flying to his throat. But Ckzarr’s bloodlust didn’t abate; he attacked again and again, slicing through fingers, hands, and finally neck, until the head was barely attached. He grabbed the head, its eyes still wide with shock and staring back at him, and tore it the rest of the way from its shoulders.

He held his trophy aloft and roared, then threw the head at the body.

He was still roaring his victory when, suddenly, he was caught in a net. Electrified cables shocked and tightened around him painfully as he struggled. Every time he moved, they tightened even more until he was completely immobile. The shocks stopped.

Next to him, Berus had met the same fate, but the mountain of a man was bigger and stronger, and he was still fighting.

Two smug males, both looking normal, stood at the entrance of the room with their net launchers still in hand.

“Looks like it’s our lucky day. Three catches, three bounties. And two females to celebrate our good fortune with.” The male looked down first at the one Ckzarr had decapitated, then at the one Berus had taken on, which was so mangled it was barely recognizable as a corpse. That male had been a messy fighter. “These two idiots were stinking up the fucking ship anyway. Their fault for taking chems from the Dominion.”

“Plus, fewer people to share the bounty with means more credits for us.” The other male leaned the net launcher against the wall, went to the controls, and pressed a button. “We need tranquilizers in the brig, Olum,” he said into the ship’s comm system. “The idiot came right to us, and he brought a friend.”

There was no reply.

“Olum?” The bounty hunter sighed. “Remind me why the fuck we pay him again? I’ll go. Watch these two.”

He left, and the other male glanced around the room, his eyes landing on the two human females. He advanced on Roxy and picked her up from the floor.

Ckzarr couldn’t stop the snarl that tore from his throat.

The male laughed. “This is the bitch you risked your freedom for? It’ll be fun fucking her in front of your cell. Maybe we’ll all take her together at once.” He held Roxy in front of him and dragged his fangs down her bare shoulder. “Mmm, such pretty colors.” He sniffed her deeply. “Have to say, she does smell good.”

Ckzarr roared and struggled in the net. The idiot was so focused on Ckzarr’s reaction that he didn’t feel Roxy reach for the blaster strapped to his hip. By the time he reacted, it was too late. Roxy brought the blaster up behind her head, smashing her captor in the face. He released her just long enough for her to turn the blaster on.

She fired as he lunged at her. The male fell onto her, and the smell of his burning flesh filled the room.

“Fuck! Get him off me,” Roxy screamed.

Camila, paralyzed with fear up till now, finally sprang into action, grabbing the guy’s shirt and pulling with all her might as Roxy pushed. Together, they got the male—now with a brand-new hole in his torso—off her.

“Quick, grab the second net launcher.” Roxy picked up the one her attacker had dropped before grabbing her. “Press the button on the right side, the one that’s flashing,” she ordered.

Soon, both Ckzarr and Berus were free.

“You did it!” Ckzarr pulled his mate into his arms, not sure what he’d done to deserve someone so perfect. “You brave, beautiful thing. You did it.”

“Tell me that again when we’re safely back on the ship,” she said, beaming.

“Okay, let’s get out of here before the rest of them come back,” Berus said. They made to leave.

“Hey,” said a male in one of the cells.

They all turned; they’d been too preoccupied with their own battle to notice him before. Camila backed away and tried to hide behind Berus. The movement was so slight Ckzarr would’ve missed it if she hadn’t been right in front of him.

“Is this…him?” Roxy asked.

Cami nodded silently.

The male ignored the humans and focused on the Tallean males. “I’m Rehden. Free me; I’d do the same for you.”

“What is your bounty for?”

“I worked for a Dominion merchant. Merchandise went missing, and they pinned it on me.”

Berus grunted, taking interest. “When was this?”

“About a galactic month ago.”

“I have read of this incident,” Berus said. “Shipments of missing weapons. Apparently, you had no history of violent crime, pleaded innocent, and disappeared right before the trial.”

“You know they don’t care if I’m innocent or not. They just need someone to pin the crime on.”

He had a point. Ckzarr wasn’t sure Rehden was truly innocent, but the lack of a history of violent crime was good. They didn’t need someone prone to committing murder on board. Ckzarr exchanged a look with Berus. One more person on their side was always a good thing for now. Like Roxy had said, they weren’t off the planet yet.

“We will free you. But if you even think about betraying us, it will mean your head on a platter,” Ckzarr warned.

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll never try for your bounty. I’m a wanted male myself. I just want to get off this rock. I can pay my way once I get access to my accounts.”

Ckzarr thought about it only briefly. He didn’t sense any deceit. He went to the control panel and opened the cell door just as a loud rumbling filled the air.

“That’ll be the Revenge landing,” he said. “Let’s go.”

They made their way out of the ship and found the Revenge waiting for them on the other side of the clearing. Gavin stood at the entrance, waving them over.

“Perfect timing, boys and girls!”

Then, they were lifting off again, flying up over the jungle.

“Good to have you back,” Ulrek greeted them in the common room. The captain eyed the two newcomers warily.

Rehden recognized him immediately. He introduced himself before mentioning that the human was his female. “If it isn’t Ulrek of the Stellar Fortune. If I’d known I’d be meeting a legend today, I would’ve dressed for the occasion.”

His captain acknowledged the male’s flattering words with a curt nod. “You may travel with us until the next port.” He turned his attention back to Ckzarr and Roxy. “And I need both of you at your stations now. Dex is coming in hot.”

“Dex?” Roxy asked.

“He and Vhast sent two groups of bounty hunters on merry little chases.”

The two went to take their spots on the bridge. Sure enough, one of their shuttles was dancing across the sky, trying wildly to evade their enemy. On the ground below, near where the other shuttle had landed, a half dozen males were chasing Vhast.

Tuhror expertly positioned their ship so Dex could fly in, and Gavin opened the shuttle bay doors.

“This one’s yours, Roxy-baby.”

His beautiful mate beamed at him. “Aw, thanks. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” He pulled her in for a quick kiss. “Why else would I give you first dibs on shooting down the enemy?”

Chapter 25

Roxy

Roxy walked hand in hand with Ckzarr out of the med bay, with Tahra following behind them at a small distance. Tahra had gotten them both patched up and tested them for any possible disease they might have picked up from their contact with the pirates and the mutated bounty hunters. They were clean.

They planned on announcing their union to the crew right away. Most of the crew would probably roll their eyes and tell them it was about time. They had already told Tahra, and that had been her reaction.

They stepped into the common room to find a tense situation. Berus stood facing Rehden. They stared each other down, both looking ready to fight.

Camila stood between them, a panicked look in her eyes, while she tried to prevent the fight from breaking out.

“She is mine.” Rehden hissed. “I own her.”

“There are no slaves on board this ship. She is free to be her own person and make her own choices.”

“Lies! That’s just an excuse to steal my property. I know who you are. You were responsible for bringing humans here in the first place. I’m not so stupid to believe that you are all suddenly against owning them.”

The two circled each other, and Dex jumped in to pull Cami out of danger. Rehden threw a punch, and the fight was on. It wasn’t a fight worth going into bloodlust for, though: this was a fight merely to establish dominance. But that didn’t mean it didn’t get violent. Ckzarr angled his body to protect Roxy from any accidental blows.

“What the fuck is going on in here?” Ulrich bellowed. “What are we, savages? Pull them apart. Now.”

As the rest of the crew wrestled the two fighting males into opposite corners of the room, Roxy told her captain what Berus and Rehden had said.

Ulrek was livid. “This is my ship, and I say there are no slaves on it. As long as you are on board, you follow my rules. I don’t care what you do once you’re off the Revenge. If you two want to fight, fight when we get to New Rhea.”

They were currently hiding out in an asteroid field, waiting for the bounty hunters to leave the sector. New Rhea was their next destination.

“So what’s going to stop your crew from using my human?”

That had the humans on board, Roxy included, itching to start fights of their own. This asshat didn’t care about Cami, not one bit. He just saw her as his property.

Roxy cleared her throat. “Nobody is using anyone. No one will bother her…unless she wants them to, of course. Until we get to our destination, Cami can stay in my room.”

“Oh no! I don’t want to be a bother. I can sleep on a couch in here.” She looked around the common room. “These are much nicer than I’m used to.”

“You won’t be a bother at all.” She exchanged a look with Ckzarr. This wasn’t the announcement they’d planned, but it would have to do.

“Roxy is moving into my room,” Ckzarr said to Cami. “You can have hers. There is a code to lock it so no one can get in unless you let them.”

“Thank you.”

“I suppose that is an acceptable compromise,” Rehden grunted.

“Nobody asked you,” Roxy said. She’d offered it to Cami so that she would have a safe space away from him, not so that his “property” would be protected.

Berus still looked like he was going to pummel the guy the split second he got a chance, so Rehden disappeared hastily into the spare room they’d assigned him. With him gone, the crew turned to Roxy and Ckzarr.

“So, you’re finally moving in together,” Emil said.

“She is my mate.”

“Ha! I knew it!” Gavin turned to Delaney smugly. “You owe me a bottle of Rhean spirits.”

Roxy had no idea the crew had been making bets about it. “Wait. Does that mean you thought we weren’t mates?” she asked Delaney.

“Oh no. I was sure you two would get together eventually. It wasn’t about whether you were mates or not; it was about when you’d finally figure it out. I bet that it would take you guys another galactic year. Gavin thought it would happen sooner.”

A sudden blaring alarm from the ship ruined everyone’s jovial mood. At first, Roxy thought that maybe the bounty hunters had found them. But that wasn’t it.

“According to this,” Gavin said, checking a readout on his comm unit, “we have several severed connections. I got an alert for one earlier, and I was going to check it out, but then all this shit happened. And now it’s saying there are multiple.”

“Kirek, why don’t you go check on our new friend in his room,” Ulrek murmured.

The problem had started before the altercation, but it was best to cover all their bases.

“Got it, boss.”

“Gavin, go find the severed wires. The rest of you, stay alert.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. It still didn’t mean that Roxy couldn’t help her new friend get settled in her old room, though. She turned to Camila, who looked a little overwhelmed at everything that was happening.

“Don’t worry. Everything will work out. It’s probably a false alarm. Why don’t I get you settled in.” She guided Cami to the crew quarters but turned the opposite way from Rehden’s room.

“You never told me you worked for Ulrek of the Stellar Fortune,” Cami said when they were alone. Was that a note of judgement in her voice?

“Formerly of the Stellar Fortune. He is no longer Dominion. And this is the Revenge. Well, on paper, it’s the New Horizon, but it’s been the Revenge for so long that we all still call it that.”

Roxy understood Camila’s unsure look. She’d initially been hesitant to work with Ulrek too, considering his past. Roxy hadn’t been taken from Earth on the Stellar Fortune, but many had, perhaps even Cami herself.

“Not a lot of people know this, but he’s a changed man. He’s been helping the outer planets stay out of the Dominion’s clutches for the past two years. I’ve seen it personally. We’ve intercepted multiple slave ships and freed the captives on board. We’ve disrupted arms deals and raided ships with human breeders. We usually bring the humans we find to Reka 5.”

Cami brightened. “I’ve heard of that place.”

“As long as you’re on board, Rehden can’t make you do anything against your will. We’ll space the fucker if he tries. And you don’t have to leave the ship when we get to New Rhea if you don’t want to. You can stay on board. Ulrek meant what he said: as long as you’re on his ship, it’s his rules. Those words weren’t intended just for Rehden; they were for you, too.”

“But what would I do after?”

“We’d drop you off at Reka 5, and they’d get you set up as a new colonist there. If that’s what you want.”

Cami’s eyes lit up. “You’d do all that?”

“Of course.”

“Then yes. That’s what I want.”

Ckzarr

Ckzarr held the wire up to the light. Whatever had severed it had not done so cleanly; the ends were more…chewed.

He had a feeling he’d seen those particular teeth marks recently.

“What do you say, Roxy?”

“I think we’ve got a Nibbles on board.”

“Nibbles?” Gavin asked. “I’m sorry?”

“We made friends with some of the local fauna,” Roxy explained. “One of them was particularly friendly, and I named him Nibbles. I wish I still had the sketchbook so I could show you because he’s super cute. But I think we lost that to the fire.”

That was too bad. Ckzarr had quite liked that journal, and he knew Roxy felt the same way.

“We can always go back to the planet and look through the station. Stations like those are often designed to contain fires to one or two rooms.”

Her eyes lit up. “Yeah! Maybe those panels will still be undamaged, too.”

“I saw them from the air,” Gavin said. “There’s a lot of them.”

Delaney walked into the room with an alarmed look on her face. “Guys, I think we have another problem in the green room. Something’s chewing up all of our plants.”

“Did you see it?” Ckzarr asked.

Delaney shook her head. “Nope. I took one look at how sharp the teeth marks looked and left. Came right here.”

“It must be our little friend again,” Roxy said.

“Your friend?”

“I’ll explain while we go find him,” Roxy said. “A nutrition bar will help.”

The four of them went to the greenroom, and as the two females searched for the little creature, Ckzarr and Gavin checked all possible escape routes. He found the cover for the vent was loose. It must have come into the greenroom through there.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Delaney asked. “Is it dangerous?”

“Hmm, yes and no,” Roxy said as she took out the food bar. “Right now, it’s a cute, bunny-like thing, with fangs and sharp teeth and a long, furry tail. It likes to chew things, and it’s not a vegetarian—by which I mean it turns into something that looks like a cross between a mountain lion and a bear. Camila saw one eat one of the bounty hunters.”

“Carnivorous bunny that likes to bite everything. Got it.” Delaney didn’t look reassured.

Nibbles turned out to be a lot easier to catch than Ckzarr had thought. All Roxy had to do was crinkle the foil wrapper of the nutrition bar, and he came scurrying out from the greenery to beg for a piece.

“Ahh! So cute!” Delaney squealed. “How did you get it so tame in such a short time?”

Roxy shrugged. “They’re just like that. I don’t think he views us as dangerous. No bipedal predators in their home, maybe?” Roxy turned to Ckzarr. “You missed him inside the station, and we kind of trapped him inside when we glued all the vents shut. He came to hang out with me while you were out hunting.”

“He?” Ckzarr asked. How could she tell the difference?

Roxy shrugged. “I’m not really sure either way, but it’s a troublemaker, and only boys can make this much trouble.”

“Females make just as much trouble.” Ckzarr squinted at his mate pointedly.

“We’ll change it if it turns out I’m wrong.”

The door to the greenroom opened, and Ulrek walked in. “Where is this intruder? And why are you in here unarmed? I said to stay out until we can catch it.”

“Oops. My bad, sorry.” Delaney rubbed the back of her neck. “I didn’t update you.”

“We already caught him.” Roxy held Nibbles up, and the creature just kept right on chewing. “We made a friend on the planet. I don’t know how he snuck on board. The ship was only on the planet for like, ten minutes. But he did.”

“Must have fled the station when that freak set the place on fire,” Gavin said. “Maybe hid in Vhast’s shuttle. He did keep that door open. What are we going to do with it?”

“We can’t take him back to the planet now,” Ulrek said. “Not with the bounty hunters after us.”

“He can stay with us until we return to look for that journal,” Ckzarr suggested.

“We’ll need to Nibble-proof the ship or at least a room or two to keep him in,” Gavin said. “I don’t exactly appreciate him remodeling the ship. This time, it was just the clothing decontaminator. I don’t want him wrecking something more important.”

“About that. Do you have the right supplies to get that fixed?” Ulrek asked Gavin.

“No. I never thought to stock spare wires for something like that. And I have to admit, alien laundry machines are not my specialty.”

Usually, there was someone on board to repair all the smaller equipment on the ship that kept the crew comfortable, but the Revenge was working with a skeleton crew. “I can help,” Ckzarr offered. “The ship’s weapons aren’t the only things I’m good at fixing.”

“Thanks. We’ll need to pick up some more wires first when we get to New Rhea,” Gavin said.

“Then it’s decided,” Roxy said, snuggling the fluffy creature. “You get to temporarily join the crew. You can be our emotional support Nibbles.”

“We are going to need more tepins,” Ckzarr said, remembering how the little guys were always hungry. Tepins were the fat, ground-dwelling birds most commonly raised in on ships for protein.

“Why? How big do these things get?” Gavin asked.

Ckzarr exchanged a look with Roxy, who just burst out laughing.

He picked the little creature up from Roxy’s lap and handed it to Gavin. “Do you mind babysitting for us?” That was the word Roxy had used to refer to minding children. “Now that our intruder has been found and the crisis averted, I would like to take my break. And I would like to take it with my mate.”

With Gavin still standing there speechless, Ckzarr took Roxy’s arm and guided her not to their room but to the training simulator. The door closed behind them, and the two stood in the empty chamber.

“I have something to show you.” He pulled up one of the missions they’d been competing over.

“You beat my high score!” Roxy gasped.

So she hadn’t seen it yet.

“I did. And do you remember what you promised me if I did?” He turned her around and slid a hand possessively over her breast.

“I think you’ve had a lot more than just a blow job recently,” she said, leaning into him.

“I still want my prize.” He kissed the shell of her ear.

He selected a pre-programmed scene of a lavishly furnished, palatial room and guided her to one of the velvet floor pillows. “Now, be a good girl and get on your knees.”

Her lust perfumed the air as she sank to her knees and looked up at him with half-lidded eyes.

And as Ckzarr tangled his fingers into her hair, he knew that he’d won the best prize of all: her.

Epilogue

Roxy

Two years later…

Roxy picked up the giant gun with her equally giant mechanized hands and aimed the weapon at the target. It felt good, natural, like an extension of her own body, yet still very video game-like. She took aim and fired, hitting the target easily.

Next to her, Ckzarr was in his own robotic suit.

Yep! They hadn’t just taken one of the mechs with them when they went back; they’d taken the entire ship. They’d sold the ship itself to some eccentric rich guy who collected antique warships, but they kept the mechs and mech accessories for themselves.

It had taken Gavin and Kirek two galactic years to get the mech suits into tip-top shape, mostly because none of the original parts was available anymore. The mechs had been so new when the original ship lost contact that the robotics suits were still missing some vital pieces. They’d had to get them custom-made.

As Ulrek had remarked when they’d first found the mechs, the machines were awfully expensive to run. And they certainly wouldn’t come in handy in wartime situations. But this wasn’t about war; this was about playing with something cool and fun.

She continued down the course, moving heavy objects out of the way and shooting at targets that popped up around her. Feeling temporarily invincible, she laughed. This was amazing!

The obstacle course had been Dex’s idea. Like all of his ideas, it didn’t stop there. He wanted to turn this into a business where, for a few credits, anyone could come in and fulfill a childhood dream. They’d run the idea by Kean, and he’d loved it. In fact, he and Zharor were next in line to give the mechs a try.

Of course, these original antique mechs weren’t going to be the ones out on the field. They planned on copying the external design and making newer, less deadly versions for the customers. They also needed to make them more energy efficient. The original mechs would be stored and maintained for their personal use only.

Dex had gotten Gavin and Kirek so excited about the idea that there was no way to talk them out of it. They would need to hire staff to help run it, but Dex was sure they could do almost everything remotely while still on the Revenge. It was also a great way for them to stay out of trouble between missions.

Roxy maneuvered the machine back into the charging dock, unstrapped herself from the seat, and picked up the booster seat they’d given her so she could see out the front. The mechs had been designed for an almost seven-foot-tall Tallean male, and they’d made some modifications to one of them so humans could use them as well.

“Good job out there, Roxy-baby.” Ckzarr said as he tossed an arm casually over her shoulder. “But I think I had the higher score.”

“There was no scoreboard,” she countered with a laugh. It wasn’t a scored game. “But I’m sure I did better.”

“I beg to differ.”

“I guess we’ll have to do a rematch, then.”

“Yes. A rematch sounds good.” He pulled her in and kissed her forehead.

“Let’s pick up Nibbles before heading to the clinic,” Roxy said, checking the time. “He’ll be happier digging up Kean’s garden than stuck on a ship.”

They’d spent a lot longer with the mechs than they had planned, and she had an appointment at the fertility clinic soon. While humans and Tallean were biologically compatible, it usually took a little bit of a nudge to get everything going.

Raising a kid on board a ship was going to be difficult, but they were both up for the challenge. Their child would have a whole lot of protective “uncles” growing up, and hopefully, he or she would grow up with a companion around the same age because Delaney was also booked for an appointment. She was going in tomorrow.

“That’s a good idea. I’m glad he’s okay now being left at Kean’s.”

Roxy giggled, remembering the first time they’d dropped him off at the sprawling estate. Poor Nibbles had thought he was being abandoned forever. But that had been their fault.

They’d returned to Fortuna II to grab the energy panels and look for the journal. Thankfully the book, having been shoved inside a fireproof drawer, was unscathed. Most of the panels had still been in good condition, too.

They’d opened the door to the tunnels for Nibbles, and he’d hopped right in. He was happy to sniff noses with his brothers and sisters. Roxy had cried big, fat, ugly tears, thinking it would be the last time she saw him unless they came back to visit. And would he even recognize her next time, or would she just be dinner?

But then, as they were loading the panels onto the ship, they’d found Nibbles was back again, chewing on one of the cables. When they’d tried to usher him back into the tunnels a second time, he’d refused to leave their side. He wasn’t dumb. They’d tried to leave him behind, and he was having none of it.

From that day on, Nibbles became a permanent member of the crew. He was huge these days and really scary-looking. His habit of chewing on the ship, which they’d tried to break by giving him lengths of old cables, had thankfully stopped after his adult teeth had come in. Roxy remembered finding his random baby teeth everywhere. She still wore one, polished to a brilliant shine, around her neck.

Nibbles wasn’t the only pet on the Revenge now. They’d picked up a tamed dragus pup from Reka 5—leave it to a human to start breeding those deadly creatures to be tamer—soon after leaving Fortuna II for the second time, and the two animals had became best buddies.

The pair was a terrifying sight to anyone who didn’t know them, but they were the sweetest things to everyone on the crew. The dragus pup had come pre-trained to obey basic English commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “lie down,” and she’d taught Nibbles. He didn’t always get it right, but he tried extra hard when food was involved and would do all three tricks in a row to hedge his bets.

Roxy blew out a breath as she stepped into the transport.

“Nervous?”

“Little bit.”

“You don’t have to do this if you’re not ready.” He held her close and nuzzled the side of her head as the transport headed out.

“No. I’m ready.” She looked up at his handsome face. The cheek creases, which had once looked so alien, now felt like home. “I’m just not sure that the galaxy is ready for a mini-Ckzarr.”

He chuckled. “It could be a mini-Roxy. That might be worse.”

She laughed and hit him playfully on the thigh. “What if it’s both?” There’d been plenty of instances of women having twins after fertility treatments.

“The horror!” he gasped. “The galaxy would never be the same.” Then he turned serious. “Whatever the Stars bless us with, we’ll face it together. We always do.”

Whatever doubts she had faded. He was right. They’d face it together. They were ready to play the next chapter in the game of life, and they were going to win!

THE END

Curious about the pirate attack on the Star Beauty cruise liner? Read Space Fighter’s Mate! Space Fighter’s Mate is a part of the Tallean Mates Novella series, a spin-off series with shorter, novella-length stories set in the Tallean Mercenaries universe.

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Also by Author

TALLEAN MERCENARIES

A Deal for Zeylum

A Chance for Arus

A Promise for Vore

A Claim for Calix

A Minx for Ryek & Holden

A Captive for Kean

A Future for Zharor

A Redemption for Ulrek

TALLEAN MATES NOVELLAS

Becoming Mrs. Claws

Space Pirate’s Treasure

Space Merchant’s Jewel

Space Mercenary’s Prize

Space Fighter’s Mate

XARC’N WARRIORS

Claimed by the Hunter

Wanted by the Hunter

Taken by the Hunter

Cherished by the Hunter

Rescued by the Hunter

Stolen by the Hunter

Captured by the Hunter

Protected by the Hunter

Desired by the Hunter

Coveted by the Hunter

Craved by the Hunter

XARC’N WARRIORS: MOUNTAINS

Hunter’s Quest

Hunter’s Price

Hunter’s Promise

Hunter’s Wish

Hunter’s Trial

Hunter’s Bounty

KADRIXAN MATES

A Monster’s Treasure

A Monster’s Heart

A Monster’s Love

A Monster’s Fate

OUTLAW PLANET MATES

Alien’s Stone Heart

Alien’s Fire

SHORT STORIES

Short stories available through Mailing List only.

Captain Bax’s Stowaway

Casch’s Runaway Mate

Pursued by the Hunter

Hunter’s Fate