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by Sandra Sookoo
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: Major Rick Keenan has a difficult mission: repair his broken shuttle, rescue a missing crew member and get off a near-dead planet. Angry that the U.S. is discontinuing the space program, he wants to find a discovery that will revise the government's position. Unfortunately, that discovery might just kill him, not to mention put his libido, on a quick launch sequence. Marin is one of the last of her people. Forced to flee to the planet in her childhood, she's kept herself hidden away in darkness, safe in a castle-like fortress, only coming out when she needs to feed--from human blood. Convinced she'll never fit in, she shuns all contact, yet taking Rick hostage as a food source chips away at her perceptions even as he ignites her desire. Though their differences threaten to tear them apart, their humanity binds them together. In a world where only the strong and determined survive, does a happily ever after stand a chance?
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: January 2012
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [164 KB]
Reading time: 101-142 min.
Milky Way galaxy
Outside of Saturn, 2061
"Major, I'm under attack!" Static crackled over the com-link, but didn't hide the panic in Private Jenkins' voice. "...requesting back-up!"
Rick Keenan depressed the talk button on his handheld com-link. "Where are you?" He'd made the decision to send the lieutenant out alone. The man had escaped from trickier situations than this before. It shouldn't have been a problem.
Another long period of static broke the response. "...castle... couldn't see... Oh, my God!" The static gave way to a man's terror-filled scream.
Rick's gut clenched. "Be there as soon as we can. Hold on." He glanced around the Redemption's interior. Auxiliary power flooded the cramped space with anemic white light. Hoses hung from a few built-in compartments while the crystal panel gave off intermittent flickers then finally blinked off. We're so screwed.
"Reigen, what do we need to get this bird back in the air?" Rick barked out the question as he strode to the crystal panel. Down a power source, they'd be sitting ducks to any being--dangerous or otherwise--on the planet.
"Without a whole crystal array replacement, we're not going anywhere. Power core's busted, but I think we can get moving, given enough time." The wiry, red-haired man turned to face him, his long face tight with stress. "Core's needed for hyperspace; crystals are needed to get airborne. You choose which you want more. I'll figure out how long we'll survive without both."
"No time to argue. Grab your gear. We're going after Jenkins." Barely waiting for an acknowledgement, Rick strapped a dagger to his right thigh. "If we're lucky, we'll find someone who can help us."
"And if we're not?"
"Then we'll have a fight on our hands."
So far, the mission had been a bust. He shoved the disappointment from his mind in the face of the new plan. Find Jenkins. Fix the damn ship. Get home to Earth--and settle into boring bureaucratic red tape.
Reigen slammed a Beretta pistol into his shoulder holster. "Looks like we're inside some sort of environmental shield."
"Yup. Good thing that damn tractor beam pulled us in. It was the only way into the portal, I'm betting." Which was strange and a blessing. Without the "rescue" they would have been floating and helpless, but it prompted another set of questions. Who had operated the thing and why?
"Oxygen level on the outside, sir? Do we need the suits?"
Rick darted to the control panel and jabbed a few keys. "The atmosphere's a ninety-eight percent match to Earth. We're good to go."
Once free of the beam's pull, they'd been forced to crash land on the moon they'd identified as M-281 outside of Saturn. For all practical purposes, it'd been designated one of that planet's irregular satellite moons. A routine patrol of the area had resulted in their shuttle being hit by space debris and disabling the engines. Now, as he and Reigen jumped out of the shuttle, a glance at the area confirmed what their computerized recon had suggested--this wasn't a moon as much as it was a large chunk of a planet that had been pulled into Saturn's gravitational field--which would explain why sections of it were surrounded by a biosphere. Some of the more ragged parts probably couldn't sustain life, yet other parts were intact and habitable. From the looks of the forested area around them, much of it was deserted.
Yup, this will go a long way into convincing the powers-that-be in our government to overturn disbanding the space program.
"Which way, Major?" Reigen held his FN P90 tight in his right hand. "We have no idea where Jenkins went."
"Yeah, I know." Rick peered through the overcast gloom. Nothing but heavy forest as far as the eye could see. In the distance, a collection of foothills rose out of a gray mist. "There. In those hills. Looks like some sort of fortress or compound. He probably went there searching for alien life." The rolling fog obscured the structure from view. So much for visual confirmation. "He said castle. That comes close."
Reigen nodded. "This place gives me the creeps."
"Just consider it an impromptu vacation to the rainforest of your choice." He hefted his own P90 and started off through the dense underbrush that reminded him of the Amazon back home.
"No thanks. On my time off I have a beer, my ass on the beach and a woman in a bikini on my lap."
"I hear that. The sun would be a nice addition to this Godforsaken world." Something about the overcast sky sent tremors down his spine. Most likely midday and already cold enough to see his breath on the air, he wondered how far the temps would drop after nightfall. For a simulated environment, it was cold. They'd be out of luck without shelter or proper gear. "Let's pick up the pace. I want to get in and out before dark." No way in hell would he be trapped here.
He plunged onward. Reigen crashed through the plant life behind him. Dripping moisture on the bracken beaded on Rick's clothes. Not an ideal situation but one he'd have to endure to rescue Jenkins. No one got left behind. Especially now, on this last mission.
Long minutes slid by without communication between them or further calls from Jenkins. Unseen animals in the canopy chattered overhead. Once he saw the dart of a small rodent-like animal through the brush. No other life forms presented themselves.
"You think this place is inhabited?" Reigen adjusted the bill of his dark green hat. "Looks too lonely for anyone to live here, and why would you want to? It's not exactly welcoming."
"Something took Jenkins, so it's a good bet it's not alone." Though he supposed the creature who had the other member of his team could be the last of their kind. It wasn't outside the bounds of possibility, especially here on an abandoned planet fragment. He'd seen too many unbelievable things during his time with the exploration program.
As they gained the top of a hill, Rick gazed down into the valley below. "There's your answer. It's inhabited." He gestured to a sprawling village with the nose of his gun. A few curls of smoke drifted from chimneys. The faint scent of roasting meat wafted on the air--a clear indication of life. Farther off and securely nestled in more hills was the castle-like fortress he'd seen earlier. "Let's see what kind of welcome we'll get."
Plant fronds snapped as he and Reigen hustled down the slope. The sharp scents of wet dirt and growing flora hit Rick's nose, immediately putting thoughts in his mind of home. Growing up in the Midwest, he'd spent many summers tilling the family garden or riding the lawn mower over the couple of acres they owned. Not rich and not poor, he'd learned middle-class values, the glory of working hard for what you wanted, and the satisfaction of going to bed exhausted at the end of a long day.
He slashed at a low-lying fern. His life pre-military and now were almost the same, except for the endless frustration of having to follow orders he necessarily didn't agree with.
"Major, looks like we got a welcoming party." Reigen's excitement-riddled voice cut through Rick's musings.
He followed the direction his teammate indicated. At the edge of the village, an older man in brown robes stood with arms crossed and a grim expression on his face. A young woman, probably not more than nineteen, waited next to the older man. Unlike him, her eyes reflected curiosity and fear. "Turn on the universal translators." Rick quickly pressed a tiny button on the device that rested along the curve of his left ear. Reigen did the same. Rick then relaxed his right arm and let the machine gun dangle at his side as a sign of peace. Thank God they were human. "Good afternoon, folks."
They gazed at him, silent.
He sighed. "Okay, I guess we're not exactly making the best impression." Unless they needed a universal translator. He had an extra one in his utility vest, but he'd hold off parting with it until he knew for sure. He darted a glance at his teammate, who shrugged. Rick trained his attention on his hosts. "I'm Major Rick Keenan and this is Lieutenant Jon Reigen. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
The man nodded. "My people have been taught the languages from Earth. Proceed."
Thank God. "We're explorers from the planet Earth. Our shuttle was pulled through the shield." He paused in case they'd offer commentary. When they didn't, he continued. "Our engines are damaged and we need replacement crystals to get her off the ground."
"I am Sharn. This is my daughter, Elisa. Welcome to Oolita, the village of the damned." The man rubbed a shaking hand along his forehead.
"Damned?" Rick narrowed his eyes. "How do you figure?" He made another sweep of the medieval-style village and assessed his hosts' period clothing. This planet's not as advanced as Earth. Fantastic. Won't be able to grab some guys from the village to help with repairs.
Elisa took a step forward. "There are beings who hunt these woods. If we do not bring them offerings or they are not interested in what we give, they come to kill. The victim is drained of blood and left as a soulless shell."
What could you say to that? He glanced at Reigen. "Well, that doesn't sound good."
Sharn laid a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Forgive Elisa. The stories still fascinate her. The monsters have not come to the village for months."
"Maybe they found a new hunting ground." Reigen shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"No. It is said after they feed, they are satisfied for days before the need arises again and there are many villages scattered in the jungle."
Rick shook his head. "Be that as it may, we're here for a couple of things. First, do you have any idea where we can find one of these?" He reached into a pocket on his utility vest and pulled out a flat, square crystal, holding it up for Sharn to see. "We're also missing a crew member. He'd be wearing clothes like us. Have you seen him?"
Sharn shook his head. "Anything we find of value we take to the ackarn orcha."
"And that means?"
"Place of death or place of infinite sorrow. Both are interchangeable." Sharn crossed his arms over his chest, hiding his hands in the robe's wide sleeves. "We have not seen a man such as you. If he is lost, the monsters may have taken him."
"Thanks." Rick tapped his thumb on his weapon. "Any idea how long it takes to get to this place of death?"
Elisa gasped. "Two hours on foot, but no one goes there without an offering."
"I never did believe in monsters." Rick shrugged and nodded to his teammate. "We'll just have to wing it and pray the 'monster' will go for my boyish charm." He chuckled at the joke, but when the villagers merely stared at him, he sighed. "Okay, obviously stand-up comedy is before your time."
Again, his gaze was drawn to the mist-shrouded fortress. Finally, the mission had a purpose. Maybe the monster would be an alien race they could begin relations with and use that dialogue to convince the president the space program wasn't a waste of resources.
Marin stared at the human she'd dragged into the glass detainment cell. He'd put up a fight, but then, they all did. Her appearance didn't exactly promote calm, and when the victims realized what she meant to do with them, that's when the terror started. She grinned, bearing her sharp incisors. The man inside the cage shrank back against the opposite wall. Terror was good. Adrenaline rushed through a victim's bloodstream and hyped their energy, which made feeding from them much more satisfying.
"Are there others of your kind on this planet?" She edged around the cell. Curls of pleasant anticipation expanded in her stomach as the prisoner scuttled to the far end each time she moved.
He said nothing, only stared back at her, his eyes wide in his brown face, his lips set into a thin line.
"Why did you come to this planet?" She drew her tongue along a fang. Where did he come from? A colorful red-white-and blue patch on a sleeve resembled a flag. Below that, the letters "USA" were emblazoned in black thread. She frowned. A race of humans previously unknown to her?
Silence met her inquiry. Chances were high he couldn't understand her anyway. The dark-skinned man crossed his arms over his barrel-like chest and glared. She'd divested him of the pocket-lined vest as well as his weapons. He'd never need those again. Her gaze jogged to a steel table on the opposite side of the room where she'd piled his belongings. Illumination from the many high windows lent a gloom to the area. Any being with half an imagination would know what the purpose of this chamber was--death.
Such was her lot in life. No more did she entertain for the sake of conversation or companionship. Ever since the Cleansing, her people--and other predatory races--were flung across the galaxy. Some were slaughtered. The rest who escaped fled and now lived in secrecy, doomed to inhabit the shadows of life due to fear and prejudice. Death was her business and vital for her survival. Nothing could change that.
"Most beings are warned from this place; certainly no humanoid life ventures into this building and not alone. Where are your friends?"
He remained silent, sullen.
Marin shrugged. No matter. Her sisters were out on a hunting mission. If there were other humans like this one, they would find them, especially since they'd operated the beam that brought the space craft inside the shield. Unfortunately, since her sisters left that morning, they wouldn't return from a hunting-and-feeding cycle for a couple of weeks. "How did you find this compound?" Usually, no one visited the hulking glass-and-steel structure unless it was to drop off so-called offerings.
As if that would be enough to halt her appetite and those of her sisters.
When he refused to answer, Marin tapped a fingernail against the glass. "I would advise you to rest and make peace with your deity. The next thing you experience will be death, and I can assure you, it won't be pleasant." She still tasted his blood on her tongue from the initial bite she'd given him upon capture. Though not enough to curb her hunger, it had staved off the pangs enough that she could wait.
Patience was a game predators indulged in. After that, it was only a matter of time.
Distracted by her reflection in the glass, she grimaced. Fangs, silvery-white hair and lavender skin might be pleasing on the surface, but when others realized she was a killer who needed blood to survive, no one stuck around. She'd never fit in with other's ideals of what was acceptable. She never had. Pivoting sharply, she left the room and its palpable pall of death.
At times, the fact she existed to cause others pain grated across her conscience, yet she rarely remembered the days when it hadn't been this way. Years of solitude had taken its toll. Knowing the stranger had found her sanctuary and there might be others with him caused mixed feelings. Back in the idyllic days of peace, she'd welcomed socializing with other races and learning about their cultures. Now, she viewed them with a superior detachment. They were nothing more than a food source; a way for her to survive. If she didn't kill them, they'd end her life.
Experience had taught her that.
Marin glided through the halls of the abandoned compound. As she passed tall, slender windows she caught glimpses of Oolita village nestled in the valley below. A snort of derision escaped. Stupid humans. Did they truly believe laying bits and pieces of found technology, food or whatever else they salvaged on her doorstep would keep them safe during a feeding cycle? Apparently so, as they'd continued the practice for years. Even when she was small, she remembered the elders telling stories of the villagers' devotion.
And now the pocket of fellow Irtusians had dwindled to three--at least on this pathetic broken chunk of a planet. Such was life, no matter what she might have wanted--a mate, children, an existence apart from the endless cycle of killing and fear.
The soft scrape of a shoe against the marble lobby flooring jolted through her thoughts. As the sound of male conversation drifted to her spot on the third floor, she sneaked to the metal staircase that wrapped around the open interior of the building. She watched while two men came into view, both wearing the same type of clothing as her prisoner, both armed with the same kind of weaponry.
Ah, I knew he hadn't come alone. They never did.
"Jenkins, this is Keenan. We're in the fortress. What's your position?" Grainy static emanated from the device one of them held. The sound echoed from the room her prisoner occupied.
"Sir, I have a bad feeling about this place." The other man, a tall man with red hair, glanced around the lobby.
Marin edged around the staircase in order to get a better look at the intruders. The one with the flaming hair ducked into a side room and out of her view. The other one remained stationary. He slowly spun in a circle with the nose of his weapon leading the way. She leaned a bit farther over the rail of the staircase.
Once upon a time she would have favored a man such as him. Nearly six feet tall, he possessed a solid build of one who is constantly moving, prowling with the lean muscled grace of a predator, a man used to his own way. She narrowed her eyes. He would be a problem. Still, as she gazed at him, her heartbeat tripped into a rapid rhythm. Deep pangs of longing gripped her loins so sharply she let out a tiny gasp. He was prime mating material with genetics much favored by her race. His DNA would ensure species survival--too bad he was nothing more than food.
As if he heard her gasp or the frantic beating of her heart, the man looked up. Their gazes locked from floors apart. Marin froze. Her chest tightened with a fear she hadn't felt in years. This man held the power of her life or death in his hands as she most assuredly did his. He yelled for his companion and she sprang into motion.
She retraced her steps down the hall toward the prisoner's room. The intruders' steps echoed on the metal stairs. Her breath came in labored gasps. She had a chance of bringing down one of them, but she couldn't handle both at full strength. As Marin tore around the corner and into the death chamber, she skittered to a halt near the table.
The man in the glass containment unit jumped to his feet and yelled for his fellows. Without a second thought she grabbed the confiscated weapon. It lay heavy and awkward in her hand. Unaccustomed to wielding such a thing, long seconds ticked by as she familiarized herself with the mechanics of the piece. By the time she slid her finger onto the trigger and aimed at the door, the men had gained the room.
"Halt." She stared at the men, though her interest wavered to the blue-eyed man.
His lips moved. She couldn't understand his language or his words.
Marin shrugged. She gestured with the weapon. "Halt."
He dug in a pocket of his black vest. His lips moved again then he tossed her a small, curved object that was the same color as his skin. He pointed to his ear where a similar device rested. He pointed to the object on the floor and her.
Understanding clicked. A universal language translator. Watching him, she scooped up the device and fit it to her left ear. The supple material hugged the shell of her ear and fit as if it had always been there.
"Nod if you can understand my words." The command rang with authority as the two men came a few steps closer.
Marin nodded. The novelty of having a man's voice so close in her ear almost made her smile until she remembered reality. "Stop where you are and I won't kill you with this." She shook the weapon, but kept her gaze focused on the dark-haired solider.
"Which leads me to believe you'll kill us another way." He aimed a similar gun at her. "Why don't you lower your weapon, nice and slow, and we can talk about you releasing Jenkins."
The other man began to slink toward the glass cage. Marin pointed her gun at him. "I said do not move." Her fangs ached. Her stomach rolled. Expending so much energy meant she'd need to feed, and soon.
"Reigen, stand down." The first man took a step forward. He lowered his weapon and raised his free hand in a gesture of surrender. His head jerked almost imperceptibly toward the right. "Ma'am, look. We're not here to hurt you. We just want to collect our friend then we'll leave you alone."
Marin stood, poised to shoot one of them. Her arm ached from the unfamiliar stance, yet she didn't relax. Me or them. It can never be both. By degrees, common sense gave way to curiosity. Five feet of space separated them. At that distance, she took in the raven color of his short hair, strong chin and deep blue eyes the color of Guidon Lake on her home planet. She relaxed a bit more. "What is your name?"
"Major Rick Keenan from the United States space program on Earth."
The shock of hearing the name of his planet caused her jaw to drop open. Earth. One of the planets involved in beginning the Cleansing all those years ago. He would die first. She raised her weapon, and with a cry of rage, she charged. Moments later, burning pain lanced through the fleshy part of her left shoulder. Her arms were yanked behind her back and she heard,
"Subject secure, Major. You're clear to retrieve Jenkins."