Authors: Zoe York
She closed her eyes and licked her lips, her heart pounding at the speed of light as she nodded roughly.
avena paced back
and forth across the end of the common room closest to the cockpit. This wasn’t her ship and it wasn’t any of her business what cargo was in the crates stacked outside the hold, ready for inspection.
That didn’t stop her from being curious and having a damn hard time holding her tongue.
Aldric stood in a should-be-ridiculous manspreading stance, taking up the space of two men with his chest puffed, arms crossed, and feet planted wide.
She wanted to climb his body and kiss him senseless.
It reminded her of the day they met on Midgard. He’d been dangerous to look at that day, too—larger than life and intense. More classically Viking than this good man still cloaked in a bad guy persona, with his short hair and dark, hooded gaze. She missed his long braid. But the piercing looks weren’t that different, really—she just understood all the murky depths now.
Whatever happened, this time together had changed her. She didn’t put any stock in the idea of her being his fated mate, as he’d hinted around more than once, but chosen mate she could live with.
Of course, there was still the pesky matter of her being enlisted in the FedNat Forces—but if they thought she was dead…
No. She couldn’t shirk her duty.
She’d have to go through the process of un-enlisting. Hopefully being abandoned would help speed up that process.
The thought of shedding her uniform was both terrifying and thrilling.
The thought of doing it to be with Aldric was surprisingly calming—probably the only calm thread in her over-worked brain. Every other thought-chain was working overtime to figure out what she was missing about what was going on in front of her. If it was her, she’d kick that pink-and-gold-skinned alien chick out the hatch and be done with her.
That right there proved that whatever was going on, Aldric was the better, more noble person between them. He owed this woman for helping him, and he’d pay that debt no matter the cost.
“What in Odin’s name is
?” Aldric’s nostrils flared as he peered into the fifth crate. The first four had held basic chemistry supplies. “No. Get this the hell off my ship.”
“It’s not what you think.” Bel’eel reached into the crate and lifted up a skull. It looked a hell of a lot like a humanoid. Navena’s stomach turned. The mercenary ignored both of their reactions and kept going. “Yes, they’re remains. Ancient ones, that need to be protected.”
Aldric snorted. “Tell that to someone who will believe it.” He stalked past the crew and hit the airlock open button. “Get. Now.”
“No. You owe me, Aldric Gunter, and I’m calling it in.”
“I don’t traffic in human remains. The only customers for…” He trailed off and shoved his hand through the air toward the crates. “
material are seriously dangerous people with frightening beliefs.”
had that desire for this material,” Bel’eel said as she swanned closer to him. “They were dug up from the Credweert Mines on Drendali 7 and taken out of that solar system by a trophy hunter who meant to sell them. We were hired by
who wanted it intercepted. We’ve done that. Why must you assume that I’m always up to some nefarious purpose?”
“Because every time I’ve needed your services, it’s to do something illegal!”
“For a good cause!”
They were yelling at each other now, their voices shaking. Navena barely had time to process what Aldric was saying before he launched into another tirade. “I am not your messenger boy or a storage unit. You know my bounds, Bel’eel. This violates every rule I’ve ever laid down between us.”
Bel’eel wilted for a split-second, then her face softened and her voice smoothed over in an attempt to please a man she’d once been intimate with. Their history dripped off every word, every look and Navena felt it like acid on her skin. “You don’t need to do anything with them besides hang on to them. We need to enter the Drendali System to pick up a scientist that is going to travel with the remains to a safe location. It’s not wise for us to take the cargo with us when we do that. You know my word is good, Aldric. You can trust me.”
If it were possible for Navena to grow claws and fangs, she’d have done so in that moment. She’d have hissed and pounced and sliced and ripped. The force of her reaction, again, to a mere expression of interest from another female was distressing.
This wasn’t her.
It is now
“Shouldn’t the cargo be returned to the Drendali System? No, wait, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” Aldric glared at the Verveenian captain, the rest of their conversation happening in an unspoken tense exchange of glares. “We need to be on our way in seven days at the most.”
“We’ll be back in plenty of time,” Bel’eel said smoothly.
Too smoothly. The hairs on the back of Navena’s neck stood up. She bit her lip to keep herself quiet, but she could feel that false wall crumbling.
“I will jettison the entire shipment if you aren’t.” Aldric’s threat reverberated through the entire ship. Navena moved a few steps closer, willing and ready to back him up as needed. “You can pick it up from amidst the stardust,” he continued, thunder rolling off his every word. “If you can find it. And I won’t give a damn either way.”
It was both disturbing and fascinating to see how the other woman responded to his words. Like she knew Aldric to be a formidable man. Like she’d known his dominance far longer than Navena, and while that was life, it still rankled.
Navena had stood and watched long enough. “We’ll deliver the goods for you,” she said suddenly. Anything to disrupt the connection between her husband and his ex-lover. Anything to get this woman off their ship. “Or tell us coordinates and we’ll meet you there, so you don’t have to come all the way back here. But we’re on a tight timeline and we would like to, at the same time, be sure that we honour
debt to you. It may be smoothest if we just take the cargo to its final destination.” She paused, letting her words sink in with everyone. “You may not know me, Bel’eel. But you told my husband to trust you. And I trust him. Now, I’m asking
hat are you doing
?” Aldric asked, alarm zinging through his gut.
Navena shot a hard look in his direction. Somewhere between
never you mind
and a more taunting
wouldn’t you like to know
. Either way, it wasn’t good.
Gods, she was beautiful when fiery. All the time, really, but as she prowled closer, strength emanating from every pore, he thought his heart might explode from pride.
“Your husband…” Bel’eel glanced between them, then straightened her back and canted her head to the side. “He is a wise man to marry you.”
“I’m beginning to realize that, yes.” Navena smiled coolly. “Coordinates?”
Aldric knew better than to tell his wife she was insane, but what other word was there for leaping into an unknown situation in a small, under-armed spacecraft with only him by her side?
Bel’eel gave her a long, hard look before nodding and muttering something in Verveenian over her shoulder. One of her crew pulled out a tablet, attached a data plug and tapped at the screen a few times before handing the plug to her boss, who passed it to Navena.
Who looked at him. “Shall I go to the cockpit and program in a flight path?”
Apparently Aldric had just gained himself a new navigator. At least she’d asked it in the form of a question. He nodded brusquely. “Fine,” he said, speaking to the Verveenians. “Tell me who we are meeting. And there better not be any surprises.”
through narrowed eyes as Navena wiggled into a zero gravity suit in the common room. “You should stay here.”
“Then who would have your six?” She shook her head, her long dark locks sliding silkily against the silver of the spacesuit. “Don’t be silly. I probably have more time doing moon walks than you do. This is going to be a piece of cake.”
It might be. But they hadn’t been able to establish a working comms link with the elusive scientist who would receive the contraband shipment and hopefully keep it safe. They’d taken a wormhole to their destination, a pre-space travel solar system that they really had no business sliding into, but on the other hand, nobody was watching them. There were too many political ramifications for meddling with the innocent, so the big guns stayed clear, and for that reason, the only civilization was on the planet below.
Well, and apparently a subterranean research station on this moon.
It was entirely possible Bel’eel had sent them on a fruitless mission to be a bitch.
. The shit he got twisted up in. He just wanted to drag Navena back to the farm and convince her to stay with him forever. Why was that so hard?
They zipped up and checked their weapons. Docked their comms devices inside their helmets and switched to voice commands. Loaded the cargo on the payload dock, ready to lower it from the ship’s belly to the moon’s surface as soon as the airlock was sealed and they transferred to the moon’s environment.
“You ready?” she asked him through the comms connection. Excitement reverberated off her. She lived for missions like this, and Aldric only did them out of necessity.
. He loved the space travel. It was the possibility of a showdown on a moon’s surface with his mate in the middle that made him uncomfortable.
With a deep breath, he nodded, and she went through the safety check on the portal before opening the door to the dark, deserted moonscape.
It took a moment to adjust to the weaker gravitational pull of the deserted moon. Navena had it down pat—she stood still for a second before taking a small step, then a larger bound. Her arms went out to her sides for balance, but she barely needed it.
Aldric, on the other hand…she hadn’t been overestimating when she said she had more experience at this than he did. His first step nearly toppled him sideways. The relative strength he had on the ship felt ten-times stronger on the moon, and lifting his knee practically launched him into the air. Falling on a jagged rock and ripping his suit open wasn’t his idea of a good time, so he focused on baby steps until he found his space legs.
The coordinates had been very specific. Two hundred meters from the landing spot they would find a heat-activated door disguised in a rock face.
If it was true, someone would have gone to a significant degree of difficulty to hide here.
Aldric moved slowly to the back of the ship to collect the pallet of boxes. It had large rubber wheels that should roll over the surface no problem—if he didn’t shove it too hard and send everything flying. Or falling slowly, maybe. He kind of wanted to drop-kick one of the crates to just see what would happen.
Breathing slowly, he restrained that inner boy and gave the pallet a slight push. Perfect.
It didn’t take them long to reach the rock face and, sure enough, when Navena waved a flashlight over the “rock”, a door appeared. She found the sensor panel and held her flashlight there long enough to trigger the open mechanism.
It was an elevator.
Aldric’s skin crawled at the thought of trapping them in such a thing, but Navena proceeded forward in a way that made him feel foolish for lingering.
It would be fine.
He repeated that twice before his feet moved beneath him. She shifted out of the way, making room for the cargo, and as soon as he was inside, the doors closed.
From a distance, an alarm sounded—a long, slow warning noise that did nothing to reassure him this was fine. A dark screen lit up, beeped twice, then English words started scrolling.
Visitors, please stay inside the decontamination zone. Weapons detected. All areas monitored. Act accordingly.
Their descent was slow and quiet.
Arriving at station level
, the display read out.
Artificial atmosphere maintained. Helmets may be removed.
His tablet confirmed that fact, but in case it was a trap, they didn’t remove them just yet.
As the door hissed open, they both hugged the walls, out of direct line of fire from the…brightly lit lab. Full of people paying them zero attention.
The alarm they’d heard still sounded. But now that the elevator had arrived, it was clearly more of an alert that a decontam shield was in place, rather than a paramilitary warning sound. An almost invisible shield shimmered in the air between them and the lab.
Cautiously, Aldric stepped off the elevator, Navena by his side.
“They’re human,” she gasped, but her helmet was still on, so Aldric was quite certain he was the only one who’d heard her.
He tapped the release seal and lifted his own helmet off his head, drawing the attention of a few workers nearby. He waited until two of them approached, then he lifted his hand. “Greetings. We have a delivery for you. A purchase made on behalf of a Drendali scientist?”
The closest person, a woman, gasped and lifted her hand to her mouth. “Dr. Fews? Do you have him with you?”
Aldric shook his head. “Just the bones.”
Beside him, Navena’s shoulders shook as she also de-helmeted.
“What?” he asked her under his breath.
“Remember that whole cultural sensitivity thing we talked about?” She rolled her eyes and turned her attention to the now growing throng of scientists. “I am Navena. This is Aldric Gunter, of Midgard.”
“You are human, too?” The spokeswoman frowned. “Dr. Fews sent word that he’d hired Verveenians.”
“Right. It’s a long story, but you get us. And the shipment is behind us on the elevator.” Indecision warred across Navena’s face, then she gave in. “Can I ask… Who are you? What is this place?”
The other woman flicked a look across at Aldric. “You said you’re from Midgard?”
He nodded, and Navena answered honestly, “He is. I am—was—a FedNat soldier until very recently.”
“I was abandoned on a prison planet. So I’m not feeling super warm and fuzzy toward them right now, if that’s your concern.”
“Of course it is,” the other woman said, still obviously worried. “They can’t know that we’re here. And you should forget that you’ve seen us, too.”
“That’s going to be hard.” Navena said, blinking as she took it all in. It was massive, bright and clean and modern.
And completely full of humans.
“With all due respect, it’s none of your business. Do you have documentation of the shipment?”
Aldric held out a data plug and stepped out of the way as she moved through the decontam shield. She took the plug and approached the pallet with her tablet. She was older than them, middle-aged, and seemed no threat them. Not a friend, either, but no threat.
“Thank you,” she said firmly, tapping her tablet screen dark. “You may go now.”
“Wait!” Navena said, glancing around. She opened her mouth, then closed it again.
Aldric understood what she wanted to say. He stepped forward and held out his hand, still inside the glove of his spacesuit. “If you are human, then we are kin. Know that, for our kin, we would do anything.”
The scientist shook his hand. “With all due respect, Mr. Gunter, we don’t know you and it has been our experience that our
can sometimes do awful things.”
“Are you talking about the FedNat?” Navena shook her head. “You aren’t alone in thinking they’ve gone too far. On Midgard—”
It pained Aldric to interrupt his wife, but she couldn’t speak for his king. He could—barely—but had to be very careful. “We aren’t talking about governments. I don’t know what your history is here. My wife obviously would like to know more—everything, even. But I understand the desire for privacy. Can we convince you to perhaps share something of your journey to this moon? And in turn we would share how we came to be here. Perhaps our stories are not that different.”
The other woman shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s not for me to say. I could perhaps speak to the director, but you will need to return to your ship.”
They didn’t have enough supplies to stay much longer. He could feel Navena’s anxiety growing beside him.
This puzzle would need to be solved at another time, and as that would cause his wife distress, it pained him, too.
Something else she could take out on him with her fists.
“On that data plug is a confidential subspace code you can use to contact us at any time. It also includes my pertinent information. Please share it with your director. We would like to return.”
“Aldric!” Navena put herself between him and the elevator. “We can’t leave.”
“We must. Nobody is in distress here. We have not been asked to intervene in any way.”
Her eyes blazed at him but she held her tongue. Slowly, he set his helmet in place and she did the same—a brief reprieve from the conversation that would definitely continue once they were back aboard the ship.