The Lost Star Episode One

The Lost Star Episode One


Chapter One

Ava stared as the other priestesses came towards her out of the darkened room. Their bare tattooed feet padded over the dark black stone of the temple.

She felt a flutter of fear chase through her heart.

They began chanting. The sonorous hum of their voices filled the high-ceilinged chamber, vibrating through the floor and up into her naked form.

A crackle of energy escaped over her hands, flecks of electric blue lightning that sunk back into her flesh.

Her nerves were getting the better of her for the first time in years.

“Control yourself.” The head priestess appeared out of the shadows, her luminescent purple eyes flashing in the dark.

Ava took a breath and did as she was told, forcing her nerves to settle as a spark of exhilaration took their place.

This was it.

“You have chosen the path of the stars,” the priestesses chanted as one in the old tongue of the Avixan people.

“I have,” Ava responded.

“You wish to leave the clan to continue our work beyond this planet.”

Ava hesitated. The others would believe she was pausing for effect.

She wasn’t.

Ava wasn’t doing this to continue the work of the priestess Clan of Avixa.

She was doing this to get away.

To live the kind of life she’d always wanted. A simple one devoid of responsibility.

Voice a word of that, and the Chief Priestess would lock her away. So she took a breath and nodded, her vibrant red hair slicing over her bare shoulders. “I vow to continue our work amongst the stars.”

“You will watch the Rest?”

“I will watch them.”

“If they do the forbidden—”

“I will stop them.”

“If they turn against the Others—”

“I will stop them.”

“And if you hear the call?”

She paused again. Once more she forced herself to give a nod, her red locks sliding over her shoulders and forming a veil over her face. It blocked her eyes as she squeezed them shut and lied: “I will come.”

“Then you are ready. Your locks have been completed.” The Chief Priestess drew her hands forward, her long fingernails suddenly crackling with energy.

A charge of power exploded over them, wisps of smoke curling around her crooked upturned fingers.

With a deep reverberating breath, the priestess wrought space, and something appeared right in her hands.

Two enormous golden armlets.

Locks.

All priestesses wore locks. It was part of the pact – the sole agreement that had protected her people for thousands of years.

Ava’s current locks were little more than slim golden bracelets around both wrists.

They sapped her energy, kept her powers in check.

She shuddered to think what the enormous armlets in the priestess’ hands would do.

They’d been made specially. Though the Chief Priestess had transported them here with her abilities, she hadn’t crafted them out of thin air. The Clan’s best scientists had been working on them for two years.

Only now they’d perfected them could Ava leave Avixa.

A nervous knot formed in her stomach as she stared at them, the gold glinting under the light of the Chief Priestess’ power.

“These locks will keep you in check—” the Chief Priestess proclaimed.

“As we must all be kept in check,” the other priestesses continued the refrain.

“Even over the great distance that separates you from this, our home world, you will remain connected. If you hear the call—”

“I will respond.”

The call would unlock her armlets. A call that would never come.

For all the pomp and circumstance of the priestess Clan, they were never used.

Their sole purpose was to keep the rest of the Avixa devils under check. Though devils was a pejorative term, at times, it was accurate.

Ava’s people had natural power, far greater than most other races in the Milky Way.

In the past, they used that power to enslave and steal – to rule over other races.

No more.

The priestess Clan consisted of the most powerful in Avixa society. They existed to keep the others in check. And they in turn were kept in check by the locks they wore.

“You are ready,” the Chief Priestess proclaimed. It wasn’t a question – it was a statement. “Kneel.”

Ava knelt, soft knees pressing into the cold floor.

“These locks will cost you greatly. You will be weak, all your powers kept in check. But if you hear the call—”

“I will respond,” Ava replied softly.

“You will respond,” they all repeated, their strident voices echoing through the room.

“You will be the first among the priestesses to walk amongst the stars with the Rest and the Others. You will continue our ways.”

The Rest referred to the rest of Avixan society. Those Ava had to watch and keep in check. The Others referred to every other being in the galaxy.

“I will continue your ways.” Ava held her wrists up, her hair fanning in front of her face, a few loose strands straying over her wrists and her upheld forearms.

“You will continue our ways,” the Chief Priestess corrected immediately.

Ava’s stomach kicked as she realized what she’d said. “I will continue our ways.”

“You will watch over the Rest. Be their shepherd.”

“I will watch. I will guide.” Though the words slipped from Ava’s mouth, they meant nothing.

The priestess Clan wasn’t called upon anymore. Tight control was held on Avixan society by the ruling government. Democracy was now doing what the priestess Clan had done for thousands of years – keep its people on a peaceful path.

The priestesses, for all their self-importance, just weren’t important anymore.

That’s why Ava needed to get away so desperately – she knew that out there in space none of this would matter.

She wouldn’t be a sacred Avixan priestess – she’d just be another recruit at the Galactic Coalition Academy.

It would be quiet, it would be simple, and there’d be no more responsibility.

For once, she’d be normal.

So she kept her arms held up.

The Chief Priestess loomed above her as the others began to chant.

Nerves mixed with excitement and darted hard through her gut and up into her chest making it hard to breathe.

Suddenly the chanting cut out.

In total silence, the Chief Priestess held the open armlets under Ava’s wrists.

The chanting started up again, growing louder and louder until it felt like it would cause the hall to crumble, let alone tear through her bones.

The priestesses hit a certain pitch, and Ava’s existing bands fell off, falling onto the floor with a clang.

For just a second – a split second – Ava felt her natural power.

It poured through her, so much energy she felt as if she could rival a sun.

It didn’t last.

As the priestesses fell into silence, there was a click, and the armlets snapped around Ava’s arms.

At first she felt nothing.

Then she screamed. She pitched backwards, hair fanning over her naked body as she thrashed over the cold black stone.

She felt the armlets lock her in. They slammed around her like the thickest most impenetrable walls.

A part of her screamed as she was shut away from her true power.

But gradually it grew silent.

Then she stilled.

She lay there breathing.

“Stand.” The Chief Priestess beckoned her up with a sweep of her hand.

Ava stumbled to her feet.

Despite the numbing pain, she smiled.

Though it was truly painful to be blocked from her true powers, it was a pain she would gladly endure for the promise of freedom.

She forced herself to take a step forward, then another, until finally she walked out of the temple and out into the light.



Five years later, Coalition Academy, Earth

Ava walked up the steps, heavy data pads in her arms.

They banged against her armlets.

Most of the hurrying cadets around her paid her and her armlets no attention. They never did. Ava had been at the Academy five years now. Today she would graduate.

She doubted more than a handful of people knew her name.

Sighing to herself as the heavy weight of the data pads started to get to her, she mounted the last step and turned briefly to catch the view.

And what a view it was. Whole sections of the Academy main grounds had been rebuilt after the Axira incident several years back. Now the primary command building had a grand sweeping set of steps that led up to it. Even without climbing all 100 floors of the megalithic building, you still got a great view of the bay beyond.

She stood and waited for her breath to return as the ships sailed in and out of the horizon, darting like silver minnows in a crystal clear pool.

A few young first-year cadets sprang up the steps past her, none out of breath, even though they were carrying heavy equipment just like she was.

Ava would never be fit like them, no matter how much training she underwent.

Unless and until her armlets were removed. But they could not be removed by her, or by the entire combined engineering expertise of the Academy.

They could only be removed by official decree from Avixa – or the call, as the priestesses put it.

"Stop slacking off," someone growled from behind her.

She turned to see Commander Sharpe.

Around the Academy he had a reputation for being harder than a chunk of diamond. He would gleefully gruel incoming cadets until they shaped up to the Academy's exacting demands.

Sharpe had never left her alone, even though she was graduating this very day.

And yet, despite his constant attention, she'd never begrudged him.

He was doing his job.

She nodded, repositioned the data pads in her arms, and continued on, a slight sweat prickling her brow.

Her stomach didn't even sink when she heard Sharpe's determined steps pound the polished floor behind her. "Haven't you learnt anything, Cadet Ava?"

She glanced around as he reached her, a grimace cast over his leathery skin.

"I've learnt everything I can," she said politely.

Some students became nervous wrecks around Sharpe, especially when he went into bulldozer mode.

Sharpe didn’t honestly bother her.

Not much did.

She liked the silence and peace of the Academy. It was a luxury to be given simple orders.

"You'll never be more than a middling ensign unless you shape up," he growled,

Great. She didn't want to be more than a middling ensign. She had no intention whatsoever to climb the ranks. She recoiled at the very idea of making life and death decisions.

It wasn't in her anymore.

These past five years had proved to her she could be normal, and she would never give that up again.

Sharpe maintained his sneer for a few more seconds before deflating. He stared at her with narrowed eyes, then oddly let out a punch of a laugh. "I'll grant you one thing, Ava, you may be the weakest cadet I've taught in a long time, but nothing much fazes you."

She shifted her shoulders up in a small shrug. "I'm sorry, sir, but you're not particularly scary."

A few younger cadets overheard and stood bolt upright, eyes locked on Sharpe, ready to see how ballistic he’d become at that comment.

His lip twitched, then he let out another laugh. "You can't run, you can barely do physical labor, and you sure as hell can't fight."

She twitched. Stiff fingers brushing over her armlets.

" – But you're brave, cadet. Or maybe just stupid. Up there," he pointed a stiff finger at the ceiling, clearly indicating space beyond, “You'll find out."

She stared at him impassively. "I think I'm both," she pointed out evenly.

Again his lip twitched, then once more he burst out into low laughter. "Good luck, ensign." He looked her right in the eye as he said ensign in a direct, strong tone.

She returned the gesture and bowed low. "Thank you."

"When do you leave? I heard you got a position on the Mandalay?"

"Yes. This afternoon."

"Good luck. I know her captain. You're going to need it."

With that baffling statement, Sharpe turned hard on his boot and strode off.

Ava stood there watching him before turning and continuing her thankless task of lugging her data pads through the Academy.

She caught sight of the few cadets who'd stopped to watch the show.

They began chattering amongst themselves.

She may have caught their attention by standing up to Sharpe, but they'd forget her in an instant.

Ava blended into the background around her, despite her enormous gold armlets.

She was a wallflower.

Some may care about that.

She didn't.

She'd chosen this life.

It was better than the one she'd led before.

As she strode through the halls, she let her head tilt to the left as she stared through the plate glass windows to the sky above.

She marveled at the view for as long as she could.

The priestesses were primarily confined to the training halls and temples of the Avixan high mountains. She’d stared at nothing but black carved walls for half her life.

So she’d never stop marveling at the view.

Before she could pause at the glass and get truly lost in the sight, her wrist device beeped.

She knew what it meant.

It wasn’t a message from the Academy, or the Mandalay, for that matter. Nor was it from her best friend Nema.

It was a reminder.

Time to train.

Though it had been hard, Ava had kept her true identity mostly hidden over her five years at the Academy.

It was easy considering Avixan society was largely a mystery to Others. It was an offense within Avixan society to share too much with outsiders.

No one would have the faintest clue what a priestess was, or, more importantly, what she could do.

She didn’t know if the Academy higher ups knew what she was. She wasn’t privy to the information her people shared with the Coalition. She doubted it was much. Everything in Avixan society was couched in opaque tradition that wouldn’t make sense to an outsider.

There were, however, others within the Academy and the Coalition who knew exactly who she was and what she could do.

Other Avixans. The Rest, as the priestesses called them.

And right now, as Ava made her way down the corridor, she saw one. Lieutenant Commander Shera. Statuesque, startling, and one of the most powerful Avixans in the Coalition.

She wasn’t a priestess, and didn’t have anything near the level of power Ava did when she was free from her locks. Still, to the rest of the Academy, Shera was like a god. Stronger than ten men put together, faster than a cheetah, and agile like a cat. She’d climbed the ranks as fast as a cruiser speeding into BLS.

With her luminescent white hair and shocking bright blue eyes, she was stunning too.

Ava was a mismatch. Though she too possessed the bright vibrant hair and eyes of her people, the burning red of her hair didn’t match the royal purple of her eyes. She looked – as she’d heard one unkind cadet point out in first year – like a paint accident run through a luminosity filter.

None of that mattered.

Ava didn’t care what Lieutenant Commander Shera looked like. The only relevant factor was how the lieutenant commander treated her.

As soon as Shera saw Ava, she deliberately stopped, turned, and walked in the other direction.

It was the same with most of the other Avixans on Academy grounds. There were no other priestesses like Ava – only the Rest. And the Rest avoided her like the plague.

They knew exactly what she was, even if the rest of the Academy was ignorant.

In Avixan society priestesses were revered, and yet feared at the same time. Amongst certain sects, they were also derided. A minority of Avixans didn’t understand why they needed the priestesses anymore – an empty threat that reminded them of a past they were all too ready to forget.

There were approximately ten Avixans in the entire active Coalition army, as far as Ava could tell, and of the five or so she’d met, they all treated her the same.

As a pariah.

She didn’t care.

Ava barely gave Shera a fleeting glance as she continued quickly to the second storage facility. There she dumped her data pads before returning quickly to her room.

Her personal wrist device kept beeping, reminding her she was overdue for a training session.

Though these days Ava had a fraction of the strength and speed she’d once possessed, she still had to train every day.

Every priestess did.

As soon as she pushed into her empty apartment, Ava let out a sigh, undid her collar, and marched to her room.

Her roommate – a thankfully quiet and unobtrusive Samarate female – had already graduated the day before, and had left.

Ava wasted no time in striding into her room, closing and locking the door, and collapsing onto her bed.

She pulled her legs into a cross-seated position as she grabbed a device from her bedside table.

It was a neural interlink.

Some students used them to record their dreams, some even used them to cut out distractions while they studied.

She used them to train.

She pushed her red locks from her face, thumbed the neuro link on with a practiced, easy move, then positioned it an inch above the centerline of her brows.

The neuro link exuded a self-adhesive and stuck to her skin immediately.

She settled back, propping her back against the cool wall, and she waited.

She closed her eyes, a growing energy building behind them.

There were a few disconcerting seconds as solid familiar objects formed out of the haze of blackness.

She lost awareness of her body propped against the wall.

Almost immediately the training dream began.

She looked down to see she was no longer dressed in the trim uniform of the Academy, but rather the official outfit of the priestesses. Though the priestess clan technically had many ceremonial outfits, there was only one they used to fight in.

Ava was a powerful priestess, though she would have to fight and train for many years to come if she wanted to rival the Chief Priestesses of the clan. Still, Ava was strong enough that she was considered an advanced fighter, and she wore the corresponding colors of the code.

While chief priestesses wore blue and white, Ava’s tunic was cast in vibrant red and white. It always made her hair all the more startling accentuating her red locks like bright bursts of flame licking around her face.

The tunic was sleeveless, and crossed along her front, tying at her right hip. It had two slits up her legs to give her maximum maneuverability. A ceremonial belt with gold insignia was fixed around her waist, a range of weapons housed within.

She wore thigh-length leg armor, with thick carved plates that ran the length of her shins.

Her hair was clasped behind her head with six needles. And finally, her face and arms were adorned with inch-wide tattoos that ran down her neck all the way to her fingertips.

As soon as the vision formed, the fight began.

She was in the black belly of a priestess temple. It was dark, with only her glowing tattoos as illumination and a few fire torches dotted through the expansive hall.

She heard the soft patter of feet. Slow at first, it pushed into a violent shuddering sprint.

She twisted to the side, the flaps of her tunic flaring around her legs. She snatched the two ceremonial knives from her belt and spun them around, sending an electric charge blistering through them just as a shadow sprang towards her.

In the darkness all she could see were the whites of its seven eyes.

Her boots skidded backwards as she pivoted and leapt into the air with a powerful kick.

The creature – possibly a Bosian Cave Dweller, considering the eyes – flapped towards her with its megalithic wings.

They sent bursts of air whipping past her face, catching a few loose hairs and slicing them across her neck and cheeks.

The Bosian shifted sharply to the side, but Ava was too quick. She twisted in midair, and her kick slammed into one of its many appendages.

It shrieked, whipping towards her with its spiked tail.

Its tail was covered with poisonous spines. One touch from those, and the training session would end prematurely. Then Ava would be penalized, and she would have to repeat the session three more times.

She pushed backwards, landed on her hand, flipped, and lay on the ground as the Bosian’s tail sliced in front of her face.

Just as it passed her, she snagged it with her knife, plunging the electrified blade right through the tip of its tail.

She used it as traction as she flipped up, landed on the tail with her armored boots, and sprang towards the creature’s face.

It opened its gaping wide mouth, and within she could see its eighth eye – a red gelatinous glob that could send out a burst of light so strong it could blind a man.

She threw her remaining knife right at it as she twisted to the side and protected her head.

Then she jerked up, flipped, landed a hand on the top of its head, and pushed off.

Her strength was sufficient to shove the Bosian down, despite its madly flapping wings.

She vaulted off its head and kicked it in the back on the way down.

Just as she landed, the scene changed.

More enemies arrived. Mancor pirates this time.

20 of them.

They circled around her, pulled out their pulsers as one, and started firing. Blistering hot blaster bullets spun around her as she flipped and leapt out of the way.

Their growls and curses filled the black room, bouncing off the far walls and echoing like an earthquake.

She leapt at one, twisted in the air, landed with her legs wrapped around its head, and pulled it to the ground, grabbing its blaster and taking down two more as they lurched towards her.

In like manner, she dispatched all 20 pirates without picking up a sweat.

Then the true test manifested.

In a spike of blue light that illuminated the room like a flare, a chief priestess appeared in the center of the room, her blue tunic lit up by spikes of power.

The priestess considered Ava for a single moment, then attacked, pushing forward so quickly she crossed the room in half a second.

While Ava had used knives and hand-to-hand combat to take down her other tests, this was different.

She couldn’t win this fight.

The entire point was to see how long she lasted.

It was less of a test, too. If she was defeated too easily or – heaven forbid – gave up, she would be injured.

So she backed off as the priestess rammed towards her.

The priestess had no weapons. Instead she brought her hand around and a pulse of energy formed right into a vibrant blue shaft of light.

It had taken Ava years of training until she’d been able to form her own sacred sword, but now, as she staggered back, she formed one with ease. With nothing but a thought, a purple shaft of light formed right out of her palm.

Just in time.

The priestess flipped, somehow changed direction in midair, and sliced towards Ava’s face.

Ava grunted as she brought up her sword and parried the blow. She skidded back a full meter as the priestess pushed forward with all her might.

Ava looked up into the priestess’ emotionless gaze.

Then the priestess let go of her sacred sword and dropped to the side, creating another sword in her other hand and swiping towards Ava’s head.

Ava had just enough time to shove backwards, the blade sizzling so close to the side of her face she could see the arcing hot tip of light.

The priestess thrust forward again, but this time Ava was ready. She deliberately fell to one knee, rolled, and kicked out with both her feet, collecting the priestess on the kneecap.

The woman jolted backwards, and Ava responded by rolling to the side, vaulting to her feet, and aiming a kick at the priestess’ back.

The kick landed, but didn’t do much. The priestess twisted, jerked around an arm, and grabbed Ava’s ankle.

Ava screamed as the priestess viciously jerked her leg to the side. Pain exploded up Ava’s leg, eating deep into her hip.

She tried to jerk out of the priestess’ grip, but couldn’t.

In a split second, the priestess formed another sword.

Ava formed one of her own and tried to defend. Just when it looked as if she’d be split in half by the blistering beam of light, she managed to wriggle her ankle free from the priestess’ claw-like grip.

She fell to her back just as the priestess’ sword sliced into the black stone beside her wide open eyes.

Ava shoved up and retreated.

“You must learn to fight while you are injured,” the priestess suddenly said.

In the blink of an eye, Ava’s leg broke. It snapped out from underneath her as if it were nothing more than a toothpick.

She screamed as she slammed into the ground, sweaty fingers scrabbling for purchase as she tried to pull her crippled body up.

The priestess paused. “You must learn to fight in all conditions.” With that, she thrust forward again.

It felt like every bone in Ava’s leg had shattered. So much pain filled her awareness it was like the rest of the world had ceased to exist.

Yet a scrap of awareness remained.

As sweat soaked her brow and her now-messy hair stuck to her face and neck, she pushed backwards with her good leg and rolled over her back. She stumbled to her feet, incapable of putting any weight on her broken leg.

She formed another sword as the priestess flew towards her.

The priestess brought her blade up high and struck toward Ava’s face.

Again Ava just managed to parry the blow in time. As she did, she looked right into the priestess’ emotionless stare once more.

It was cold, direct, uncaring. It was the kind of stare that belonged to someone who knew exactly what they had to do and had no qualms about it.

And that there was the part Ava had never been able to accept.

Though she’d been one of the most promising priestesses of her time, her skills couldn’t make up for her emotional deficiencies.

She couldn’t be used as a tool.

Maybe the priestess could somehow tell what Ava was really thinking, because with a vicious burst of speed, she cut right through Ava’s sword and sliced her through the chest.

Ava screamed and the test ended.

Her eyes slammed open and she returned to the real world.

For a few seconds she did nothing as she pushed away the memories of the test. Finally she rose, shook out her arms and legs, smoothed an even expression over her face, and got back to her real life.

Over the past five years she’d learnt to masterfully compartmentalize her training and responsibility. Daily training was the one concession she made to her past – the one price she had to pay for her new freedom.

She let out a deep sigh and walked from her room. Glancing at the time displayed on her personal wrist device, she realized she had to hurry.

Soon she would graduate, and then she would begin work as an ensign aboard the Mandalay.

While most of the other eager graduates joining that ship and countless others were thrilled at the prospect of serving their people and exploring the galaxy, all Ava wanted to do was keep her head down.

She wouldn’t get that opportunity.

Captain Harvey McClane

Captain McClane sat in his private office aboard the newly commissioned Mandalay. She was a beautiful ship, top of the line, with every bell and whistle the Coalition had come up with in the past few tumultuous years.

She was armed to the teeth, massive, and as fast as they came.

And she was all his.

For now, at least. His commission wouldn’t last. He knew he was here just to put the Mandalay through its paces in its first mission out of space dock. He was here to iron out the inevitable creases, shape the crew up, and get this ship running at optimum before she was handed to another commander.

Captain McClane had a habit of finding problems on ships, and in crew too. He had a well-deserved reputation for making things work.

He liked to handpick every member of his team and obsess over every detail.

And that’s why he now frowned as he stared at the hologram hovering an inch above his desk.

Ensign Ava.

She wasn’t top of her class. Her academic grades were fine, but her physical grades were abysmal.

She was definitely not the kind of ensign he’d pick for this ship’s first mission out of space dock.

And yet she’d be coming aboard anyway. He wouldn’t get a say in this.

Ava had been assigned by the higher ups.

For what reason? Why would the Academy’s top brass possibly want a middling ensign on the Mandalay?

Diplomatic concession.

The government of her world had specifically asked for her to be assigned. And by asked, they’d probably demanded.

She was Avixan, and the Avixans were about as subtle as a blow upside your head.

Captain McClane pushed his crooked fingers into his creased brow as he tried to make sense of this.

Why the hell would the Avixans want Ensign Ava on board? She was low-powered, pretty ordinary even by human standards. Even though Avixan society was a mystery to most in the Coalition, he’d learnt enough to know most Avixans had incredible powers of strength and speed. Some didn’t.

Ava was one of those – she’d barely scraped past minimal combat training. She was slow, physically weak, and became easily tired.

If he’d been in charge of the Academy, he would have cut her from the draft in her first year.

And, heck, knowing Commander Sharpe, maybe he’d tried. But maybe he’d come up with the same problem Harvey now had. Diplomatic Concessions.

The Avixans were an extremely important new asset for the Coalition. For most of the Coalition’s existence, the Avixans had largely kept to themselves. Now, with the ever growing tensions in the Milky Way, the Coalition had convinced the Avixans to join forces. Not only did the Avixans have a wealth of resources, but some of their people were the greatest warriors in the Milky Way.

So when the Avixans wanted something, the Coalition gave it. Making the odd diplomatic concession here and there was worth it if the Avixans stayed with the Coalition.

As such, Harvey knew there was no way he was going to fight this.

That didn’t stop the burning curiosity.

A curiosity he knew would never be satiated. The higher ups weren’t going to tell him why Ensign Ava of all people had been assigned, essentially by her own government, to the Mandalay.

Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t keep an eye on her. All diplomatic concessions aside, if she proved to be a spanner in his finely tuned machine, she’d be out on her ear.

...

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

He stood in the middle of the room trying not to look too ecstatic. "Are you serious? You've been stationed aboard the Mandalay?"

Meva sashayed across the carpet, a seductive smile pressed over her perfect lips. She didn't come to a stop until she stood in front of him. She looked right up into his eyes as she hooked her arms around his neck. "Yes," she finally said.

He let out a whoop of a laugh as he wrapped his arms around her middle. "I can't believe our luck."

"Luck?" she smiled around her words, and goddamn if it didn't send the same tingles racing through his gut that he'd experienced when he'd first met her. "This doesn't have anything to do with luck," she purred.

When Meva had first joined the academy two years his junior, she'd been an instant sensation. A member of the Avixan race, she looked humanoid, save for her vibrant, luminescent eyes and hair, and paler skin.

She was startling from head to toe.

She also had power that rivaled even most sets of sophisticated armor. She was an incredible security officer, and though she’d only been out of the Academy two years now, she’d already climbed the ranks to lieutenant.

She kept her arms locked around his neck as she stared up at him, her lips parting gently and curling into a hands-down fantastic smile.

It made him giddy just to see it.

“How did you get assigned?” He unhooked an arm from around her back and brushed away a few strands of her luminescent hair.

She looked as if she’d keep playing with him – possibly for his whole life – then she caved with a seriously pleasant laugh. “Shera.”

For a second confusion crumpled his brow. “Ha?”

“She requested my presence aboard the Mandalay, and you know she has the ear of your big brother.”

Hunter let out an uncomfortable laugh. “Technically a captain’s decision on recruiting shouldn’t be influenced by junior officers.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone but you,” she purred. “Plus, it doesn’t matter how it happened. All that matters is that you, Lieutenant Hunter McClane, and me,” she said in a soft sultry voice as she pressed her forehead against his, “Are going to be on the same ship.”

He didn’t need any more encouragement to kiss her.

Hunter’s life hadn’t always been easy. He’d always fallen into his brother’s shadow.

Harvey McClane was an exception leader, a renowned soldier, and had climbed the ranks to captain quicker than anyone in years.

Hunter was a good leader, a good soldier, and a competent career man.

But he wasn’t as good as his brother. He wasn’t as smart, as strong, or as capable. Maybe Hunter beat his brother in the looks department, but that was it.

In every other way Harvey would always outshine him.

So when Harvey had requested Hunter be assigned to the Mandalay, Hunter had tried to get out of it. He’d joined the Academy to forge a life away from Harvey, not to come under the direct command of his brother.

If Hunter did have to endure his brother’s command, at least having Meva by his side would soften the blow and distract him.

So he locked a hand on the small of her back and leaned in as she ran her lips along his jaw.

Her distraction – though intense – wouldn’t last.

 

Chapter Two

Ava

She stood in line as Captain McClane surveyed his new crewmembers.

Everyone stood in the main promenade of Dry Dock Alpha – the primary ship yard around Earth.

Behind Captain McClane ran a massive bank of windows that showed an unrivaled view of the ship docks. They were megalithic, large enough to house a city on Earth. As she stared past the pacing captain, she caught sight of the various Coalition ships being built. Everything from light cruisers to the new super-heavy cruiser class.

A massive gravity ring encased the station, bringing artificial gravity and atmosphere to the ships in dry dock, allowing the engineers to work on them without popping like balloons.

It was a heck of a sight. Nothing on Avixa rivalled it, or at least nothing she’d seen. Avixan society was so cloistered and compartmentalized that, as a priestess, she’d barely been allowed out of the mountain temples. This was the first time she’d seen a ship being built, and it took her breath away. Robotic arms locked the various ships’ skeletons in place as crews of engineers on flying ramps soldered hull plating into place.

It was such a distraction that she didn’t see Captain McClane making direct eye contact with her until too late.

For the past five whole minutes he’d been silently stalking up and down in front of his new crewmembers, assessing them each in turn.

Now he stopped, stared at her, and shook his head curtly.

Before her stomach could sink, he took a step back and cleared his throat. “You have all earned your place aboard this vessel.” He kept staring right at her. “You all have the skills it takes to protect the citizens of the Coalition and to continue our peaceful operations throughout the Milky Way. But though we are explorers, we are also protectors. And each of you has the skills it takes to save others.” Though his gaze had sliced away briefly, now it jerked back and settled on her once more. “Times have changed. Though it is still the primary remit of the Coalition Forces to explore and chart the galaxy, it is now more important than ever that we protect her. Mark my words – you will be called upon to bravely sacrifice to save others. And you must be up to this task,” again he looked at her, “For responsibility and a clear conscience will demand it of you.”

Finally Captain McClane broke eye contact with Ava and began pacing down the line again, staring at each recruit in turn as he continued his speech.

Maybe Ava’s stomach should have been lurching at the captain’s direct attention. It wasn’t.

He just reminded her of Sharpe. Plus, unlike Sharpe, there would be a limit to how much direct attention Captain McClane would be able to pay her. He was in charge of running the Mandalay.

He’d forget her soon enough.

She’d fade into the background just as she’d done at the Academy.

She smiled just thinking about it.

After a few more minutes of his chest-punching speech, Captain McClane dismissed the new crewmembers, allowing them a single hour aboard the station before they were to report to their new quarters.

As soon as the crowd dispersed and Captain McClane strode out of sight with his XO, Ava felt a small hand curl around her arm.

She knew who it was even before she turned her head to see the smile playing over Nema’s face.

“Wow,” Nema said, “Can you believe that?”

“What?”

“That we get to be aboard a ship with the great Captain McClane. You know he’s currently the youngest captain in the fleet?” Nema slipped into an easy step beside Ava.

“No. Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! He has a list of accolades as long as my arm. He’s one of the most decorated captains in the fleet, and he’s so young!”

“Oh,” Ava said, trying to keep the boredom from her tone.

Nema picked up on it and sighed. “Sometimes I don’t get you, Ava – you’re not impressed by anything. And nothing scares you either.” Nema leaned in and looked at Ava analytically, a frown pressing over her lips. “How come you’re not a sweaty blubbery mess after Captain McClane stared at you like that? I mean, he wasn’t even looking at me but my heart was thundering at a million miles.”

Ava shrugged. “He caught me looking at the ship yards while he was checking us out. He’ll forget about me soon enough.”

Nema chuckled, ending with a friendly sigh. “What I wouldn’t give to be you. Nothing scares you.”

Except for responsibility, Ava felt like adding.

She couldn’t.

While Nema was her best friend, Ava could not confide in her. About study and ordinary events, sure. About being a priestess of Avixa, never.

Nema had no idea who Ava really was. As far as Nema was concerned, Ava was simply an Avixan with no special skill.

Nema hooked an arm around Ava’s and dragged her forward. “We have to check out this primary bar on this station.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a bar aboard a shipbuilding station! It’s going to be so hard ass. Just walking in the door is going to do wonders for your cred.”

Ava couldn’t help but laugh as she was led forward.

It was easy to become distracted by the sight of the station as she was pulled through it.

Huge high-ceilinged halls snaked into the belly of the ship where a host of stalls and stores were arranged.

They were a hodgepodge of styles – sleek Coalition depots with white-silver walls abutting rusted storefronts cobbled together with reclaimed engine parts.

Ava stared with wide open eyes and a smile pressing across her lips.

The place was packed with aliens of all sizes and shapes, all milling about and haggling for ship parts.

Nema spied the bar – which had a long entrance the size of two shop fronts – and gave an excited squeak. “This is so cool.”

Ava stared as she was dragged through the doorway.

The bar was massive. It sprawled into the back of the room a good fifty meters away. There were several branching halls and doors that led into even more rooms.

It was an expansive warren, and it was packed.

It felt like half the crew of the Mandalay were in here, enjoying their last opportunity for R&R before their ship set sail.

Unlike the rest of the ship, the ceiling in here was low, painted a dark brown-black, and offset with rows of powerful lights that dimmed or brightened depending on how many people were seated somewhere.

“Okay, we’re going to have the strangest, grossest, most expensive alien cocktails on the menu,” Nema said excitedly.

“I can’t consume stimulants,” Ava said distractedly as she stared at the enormous bar that cut like a writhing snake through the room. It was being serviced by a colorful array of humans and aliens.

“Oh my god, sorry, of course. You’re culture doesn’t permit it. I can’t remember how many times you’ve told me that. Then you have to have the grossest most expensive food on the menu. My treat.” Nema dragged Ava all the way up to the bar.

Several Coalition officers were standing around it, talking and chuckling amongst themselves. They ignored Ava and Nema completely. The officers, like everyone else, were here to enjoy their last hour before the Mandalay set sail.

Nema sprang up to the bar and locked her hands on the polished metal.

Ava hung back and laughed at her friend.

Almost immediately an attractive young ensign from further along the bar slid over to Nema and started chatting her up.

Ava chuckled and decided to give them some space.

She took a step back and banged into someone.

She turned as Lieutenant Commander Shera strode past. Shera stiffened as she saw Ava.

Ava did nothing.

When Shera finally tore her cold gaze from Ava and strode up to the group of officers, she’d smoothed a friendly smile onto her face.

Ava’s stomach threatened to sink.

It seemed likely Lieutenant Commander Shera had been assigned to the Mandalay too.

But just before Ava could feel too nervous, she reminded herself it was ultimately irrelevant.

Shera could be rude, dismissive, and even ignore Ava completely. But she couldn’t do anything more.

Shera may have a problem with the fact Ava was a priestess, but there wasn’t a single thing the lieutenant commander could do about it.

Threaten violence against a priestess, and Shera would be sent straight back to the home world where she’d likely be placed into locks for the rest of her life.

So Ava didn’t even baulk as yet another Avixan pushed through the crowd and made it up to Shera’s side.

Ava recognized her as Meva. She was powerful, just like Shera, and had been a virtual sensation at the Academy. And, just like Shera, Meva had always ignored Ava.

Now the two of them steadfastly did not turn her way as they greeted the other Mandalay officers standing at the bar.

Ava frowned for just a second before turning away.

There were now two Avixans on the Mandalay, not including her.

Ava stopped herself before she could start to wonder what that meant.

Instead she hung back and waited for Nema.

The bar was made from a polished reflected metal, and as she stood there, occasionally she darted her gaze over to stare at it.

She saw Shera staring at her back a few times, gaze unfriendly.

Perhaps Ava should take the opportunity to push further out of sight.

She didn’t get the chance.

Someone grabbed her armlet.

She looked down into the wiry face of a Parkian trader. A race known for their unrivalled tenacity.

“Can I help you?” she asked, blinking in surprise.

The trader completely ignored her, grasping his sucker-like fingers around her right armlet as he pressed his eye close to it. “I’ll offer you 200 GSCs for it.”

“Ah, it’s not for sale. Now can you let go?” Ava tried to tug her arm back to no Avail.

She wanted to get rid of this trader before she started to draw a crowd.

“250. That’s my final offer.” The trader now latched the suckers of his other hand over the top of her armlet. He was shorter than her, and it caused her to bend in half, her once neat hair jerking messily over her shoulder.

“They’re still not for sale. Now let go.” She tried to tug her arm back but failed again.

It was now too late to end this uncomfortable scene without drawing a crowd. As the alien jerked her arm to the left to get a better look, he tugged her along with him.

Though Parkian traders weren’t known for their strength, he was still much stronger than she was.

“Get off,” Ava insisted.

The trader darted a quick hand into his utility belt and produced a triphasic wrench.

Incapable of stopping him, he latched it onto the edge of her armlet, the edge of the wrench cutting into her arm.

She yelped.

“What the hell is going on here?” A resonant voice demanded from behind her.

She was still bent in half, her long red locks now completely free from her bun and obscuring her sight.

She heard someone stomp up beside her and saw a pair of polished Coalition issue boots.

The owner of the resonant boots and voice grabbed the trader and pulled him backwards.

By now blood had drained down her arm from the deep wound the wrench had dug into her wrist. There was a small pool of it just under her feet. As the trader was yanked back, he kept hold of the triphasic wrench with his suckers, and pulled Ava with him.

Her boots slipped on her blood and she fell backwards, taking everyone with her.

The trader loosened his grip on the wrench and rolled to the side lithely. The guy who’s saved Ava did not.

He fell right on top of her.

His hard torso practically crushed her as his face banged into her cheek.

Immediately he stiffened – she could feel every muscle down his stomach and legs lock like a board.

He jerked his hands down either side of her middle and shot to his feet.

Ava didn’t move.

There was no point.

She was still trying to catch up to what the hell had just happened.

Then Nema snapped down to her knees, her worried face darting close. “Oh my god, are you okay? What the hell just happened!”

Ava flirted with the idea of lying there longer, but knew every eye in the bar would be on her.

With a significant groan, she pulled herself to her feet.

The trader was being restrained by two burly security guards. Though restrained was a generous term. He appeared to have lost all interest with her.

“Are you okay? Your wrist!” Nema gasped.

Ava brought her right wrist up. The wrench had cut a chunk right out of her flesh. It was bleeding profusely, her silver-flecked cold blue blood slicking down her arm and the front of her uniform.

Ava sighed again, even blowing a puff of air up against her fringe.

With one hand, she undid the wrench and threw it on the floor.

Then she glanced around the room. Everyone was staring at her.

The group of officers from the Mandalay were closest, and as she flicked her eyes to her immediate left, she saw the lieutenant who’d intervened.

Handsome by human standards, he was tall and broad, with grey eyes and cropped sandy-blond hair.

He also looked mortified, though he was trying hard not to show it.

Part of her training as a priestess had taught her to follow subtle micro expressions. Even though the guy was clearly human, she’d been around enough in the past five years to know what he was thinking.

Lieutenant Commander Shera and lieutenant Meva were still at the bar. They hadn’t moved a muscle, and likely wouldn’t.

They were staring on with cruel amusement.

“Th-that was crazy,” Nema spluttered as she tried to hold Ava’s arm up to stop the bleeding. “This looks really deep. You must be in a hell of a lot of pain.”

“It’s fine,” Ava managed truthfully. She stopped herself from saying she’d had worse. Much worse.

Every single day she trained to the death using her neural link. It had a way of putting pain in perspective.

“You’re always so goddamn brave. I’ll get a med kit.” Nema skidded towards the bar and demanded one from the surprised barman.

“I’ve already called a med team,” one of the officers said. From her collar, she looked like a commander.

“I’m medic class,” Nema said politely.

“Then continue,” the Commander snapped. “Now you two,” she pointed to the burly men guarding the trader, “Take him into custody. I’ll inform the captain.” Finally the Commander turned her attention on Ava. “Are you alright, ensign?”

Ava shrugged, then, as she realized who she was talking to, nodded stiffly. “I’m fine, Commander.”

The Commander nodded and walked away. “Then this situation is dealt with. All parties involved return to the ship,” she added as she strode away.

Ava guessed that included her. Though, honestly, she still had no idea what happened.

The lieutenant who’d saved her cleared his throat and brushed past.

“Thank you,” she tried to get his attention, but he wouldn’t look at her.

He strode away.

“Never mind,” she muttered under her breath as he cut a quick path through the crowd.

Shera and Meva chose that exact moment to walk past. Though Ava was certain they’d ignore both her, Shera stopped and picked up the thriphasic wrench Ava had discarded on the floor. “I’ll requisition this for evidence,” she announced to no one in particular, “Though it’s clear what happened,” she added in a low unkind tone.

Ava didn’t ask what she meant. Instead she stood patiently as Nema saw to her arm.

“It shouldn’t take long to fix it up,” Nema chatted kindly as she worked. “It’s kind of remarkable though.”

“What’s remarkable?” Ava asked distractedly as she watched Shera stride out of sight.

“There isn’t a single mark on your armlet. That wrench was on a pretty high setting.”

“Hmm,” Ava managed.

“Anyhow, I think you’re fine for now. I can’t detect any nerve damage. I guess we should return to the ship like Commander Hutchins told us to.”

“You weren’t involved. You should stay here and enjoy your last couple of minutes of shore leave.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ll come with you. I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Nema leaned in and whispered quietly, “But everyone’s eyes are on you. And I think you’d draw less attention if you have someone by your side.”

Ava smiled up at her friend but shook her head gently. “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

Nema gave an exasperated laugh. “Which proves my point perfectly. You, Ava, aren’t scared of anything.”

“Trust me,” Ava took a step back and returned her searching gaze through the crowd as she tried to spy Shera, “There are things that scare me,” she said offhand.

“Ha? Really? What?”

“I should follow orders and return to the ship.” Ava took the opportunity to pull back, nod, and walk away with a wave.

She pushed through the crowd, ignoring the stares.

When she was out of the bar and away from the primary shopping strip, she brought up her arm and checked her lock.

She ran a finger expertly along the rim.

It was undamaged. The priestesses had assured her there was nothing in the Coalition arsenal that could destroy it without taking Ava with it.

She headed straight back to the ship, though a few times the view threatened to pull her back in. By the time she made it to her quarters, there was a message waiting for her.

She’d been summoned to the captain’s office.

She turned on her foot and walked out of the door.

Her back was itching.

For some reason, she felt uneasy.

And she had no idea why.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

“What the hell happened?” Harvey rested back in his seat and shook his head at Hunter.

“I tried to intervene when it became clear the ensign couldn’t save herself.”

Harvey leaned over his desk, locking a hand on the polished wood as he shook his head. “Skip to the bit where you fell right on top of her.”

Hunter let out a stiff breath. “It was an accident. She slipped.”

“Yep. The entire thing was an accident. An embarrassing one. It should never have happened.” Harvey pressed a hand into his brow and massaged it.

“It’s not my fault, Harvey.”

Harvey stopped massaging his brow and shot Hunter a pointed look. “Captain. We’re not brothers on board this ship, lieutenant.”

Hunter drove his teeth together. “If we’re not brothers, then why the hell am I here?”

Harvey’s jaw stiffened. “I don’t like your tone.”

“Really? And I don’t like the fact I’m working under you. I didn’t ask for this assignment, and I don’t deserve it.”

“Yes you do,” Harvey said seriously, locking Hunter in a direct gaze. “The reason you’re on this ship is because I want you to stay on this ship once I’ve got her into shape. I requested you because you’re one of the best. And I got you because the top brass agree.”

Hunter locked his teeth together. There were so many things he wanted to say, but precisely none would be appropriate to tell your captain.

Instead he sat there and simmered.

Before Harvey could come up with another bullshit excuse as to why Hunter had been dragged on board, the door beeped.

In walked the ensign from the accident.

She didn’t look perturbed. Most fresh-faced ensigns cowered when the captain called them to his office.

She looked almost bored.

Still, she snapped a salute. “Sir, you summoned me.”

“Yes I did, Ensign Ava. Now please take a seat.” Harvey gestured to the seat beside Hunter. “I want you to tell me in your own words what happened.”

“I assume you’re talking about the incident in the bar. Not much. The trader grabbed my armlet, offered to give me 200 Standard Galactic Credits. I told him they weren’t for sale. He offered 250. I tried to pull my arm back, then he pulled out a triphasic wrench. The wrench gouged a hole out of my arm and left a pool of blood at my feet. When the lieutenant here,” she nodded at Hunter, “Tried to intervene, I slipped on my blood and he fell on me. The trader was restrained—”

The captain put up a hand.

Hunter twitched. He wanted to point out he hadn’t fallen on this Ensign Ava – she’d pulled him down.

This whole sorry affair had nothing to do with him. He should have just left her to tussle it out with the trader.

“I want you to tell me why it happened,” Harvey continued, expression unreadable.

“I don’t know. Perhaps the trader believed my armlets were expensive.” Ava shrugged.

“That’s not what I’m asking. Ensign, I want to know why you didn’t have the bodily strength to defend yourself in the first instance.” Harvey pressed his fingers together and leaned forward, eyes locked on Ava.

At first she didn’t respond. Then she shifted her gaze to the side as she stared at the wall. “I tried. I was incapable,” she summarized, still not making eye contact.

Harvey sighed. It was quiet, and you had to know him as well as Hunter did to pick it up. “Your physical fitness scores are below par. I’m surprised you graduated with these. Still, it’s not for me to question the Academy. It is, however,” Hunter leaned forward again, piercing gaze locked on Ensign Ava, “Up to me to question whether you are fit for duty aboard my vessel.”

Hunter’s brow crumpled in confusion as he looked between Harvey and Ava.

What the heck was going on here?

Ava – despite the fact she was facing off against a captain questioning her fitness – looked relatively nonplussed.

“Why are you aboard my vessel, exactly?” Harvey leaned back and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Because I was assigned here.”

Harvey drummed his fingers on his arms and he got a particular look in his eyes. A look Hunter knew all too well.

Harvey didn’t trust Ensign Ava.

“By your government?” Harvey suddenly asked, eyes narrowing as he keenly watched Ava for her reaction.

She looked confused. “Ah, I’m not sure I understand. I was sponsored by the Avixan government to join the Coalition Academy. They didn’t assign me to the Mandalay – they couldn’t. If you’re questioning why I was picked for this program, in light of my… deficient skills in comparison to the other Avixans in the Coalition, I can’t answer that on cultural grounds.”

Hunter was confused. He had zero idea what was going on. The only thing he knew for sure was his brother didn’t entirely trust this Ensign Ava.

Harvey was a lot of things, but he was a great judge of character.

“I am aware your people do not discuss their society. However, I need you to tell me one thing – should you be on my ship?”

Ava considered him. “That’s up to you, sir.”

“You’d be comfortable if I reassigned you?” Harvey challenged, expression once more blank.

Ava nodded. “I’d be comfortable if I was reassigned or if I stayed. Serving the Coalition is all that matters,” she added as if as an afterthought.

Most ensigns would beg to stay on the Mandalay – she was a heck of a ship to cut your teeth on.

Hunter could tell Harvey had no idea how to deal with that statement.

Harvey rocked back in his seat and typed something on his personal screen. He didn’t make eye contact with Ava as he worked.

Hunter knew exactly what Harvey was doing – he was trying to make the ensign stew. Only problem was, she looked fine.

Eventually Harvey dropped the act and stood. “Report to your duty station, ensign. And don’t come to my attention again.”

Ava snapped a salute, turned, and walked from the room.

Hunter caught sight of the side of her face. Her eyes weren’t screwed up in fear or shame.

She looked fine.

As soon as the door closed behind her, Hunter spun in his seat to stare at his brother. “What the hell was that about?”

Harvey pushed a breath through his lips. “Never mind. Now, back to you.” Harvey sat and stared directly at Hunter. “I know you have it in you to be a great captain someday. Today was embarrassing, but put it behind you. I know you’ll flourish on this ship. That being said, don’t fall on top of anymore ensigns.”

Hunter winced as he pushed to his feet. “Will that be all?”

“That’ll be all.” Harvey nodded. “You’re dismissed, lieutenant.”

Hunter turned and headed for the door.

“Hunter,” Harvey suddenly said, “I believe in you. Now start believing in yourself. And that’s an order.”

Hunter hung back for a single second. Then he walked out the door.

By the time he made it onto the bridge, he saw Ensign Ava entering one of the lifts on the opposite side.

It’s not all he saw. Lieutenant Commander Shera had her head twisted towards the ensign, her expression….

Strange.

She wasn’t angry, but something close. Come to think of it, she hadn’t done a thing when that trader had attacked Ensign Ava.

Did they have a history?

Harvey was close with Shera, even though he wouldn’t admit that to anyone. Maybe Shera had warned Harv about Ava. In which case, why the heck was she still on board? The captain of a vessel had complete veto power over his crew.

The questions settled in Hunter’s skull as he strode quickly across the bridge and reached the lifts.

Only one led down to the crew quarters. The rest were priority routes to major decks.

He needed to head down in the same lift Ava had taken. He wanted to wait until she’d disembarked in case the lift rerouted back to the bridge to pick him up.

The last thing he wanted was to face the ensign.

She’d already ruined his day.

When he’d waited long enough, pretending to neaten his collar, he jammed his thumb onto the panel.

The lift doors opened immediately. Ava was still inside, expression muddled as she looked at the controls.

She looked up as he paused at the doors.

Figures that she was so goddamn dumb she couldn’t operate the lift controls.

He briefly considered using another lift and taking a circuitous route back to his quarters. He knew a few of the officers on the bridge were already casting curious glances his way, though. So he pushed into the lifts.

The doors closed behind him.

He pushed past Ava and quickly typed something into the control panel.

Ava took a polite step away from him. “Thank you for your assistance in the bar, lieutenant.”

“Harvey- Captain McClane was right – you should have been able to defend yourself,” he snapped. He knew he should hold it in. He couldn’t. He also knew he didn’t really have a good reason to be angry at Ava – she’d been attacked. He was just transferring his frustration at being at the beck and call of his brother.

Still, he didn’t retract his statement.

“You don’t need to feel ashamed that you fell on top of me, lieutenant. If was my fault. I accept that,” she said in an even calm tone.

Her direct statement cut right to the core. Because yes, he was goddamn embarrassed at falling on an ensign in front of a bar full of his crewmates. He’d flattened her, torso-to-torso. If it hadn’t been for her thankfully soft voluminous hair, he would probably have nutted himself on the floor. And if it hadn’t been for her equally soft and voluminous… other assets, he would have jammed the top of his chest against her ribs.

He felt his skin redden at the thought. Which was frankly pathetic. He hadn’t flushed like this since his first date. And that had been a long time ago now. He had a deserved reputation at the Academy, and men with deserved reputations didn’t blush like school children.

Something about her must be irritating him, he reasoned quickly. Probably the same thing that had irked his brother.

In his current mood, it only took another half second to conclude that Ensign Ava was untrustworthy, pathetic, and deserving of any anger he felt towards her.

“So thank you for your assistance once more,” Ava finished.

“You don’t need to keep saying that,” he snapped. “Once is enough. You want to thank me, learn to look after yourself. We watch each other’s backs on a ship like this. If we can’t rely on you, you shouldn’t be here.”

His words were vicious, his tone sharp.

Though he wanted to keep staring at the doors, he couldn’t help but slice his gaze towards her.

She looked fine.

He’d just given her a verbal dressing down, and she looked as if they were discussing nothing more offensive than the weather.

And that right there – her lack of reaction – made him all the angrier.

He knew he wasn’t controlling his expression. Any self-aware ensign would be cowering in the corner.

She stared at him out of the corner of her eye impassively.

As a kick of frustration flared in his gut, he suddenly realized the lift was taking too long. “Why is this—”

“Lift taking so long?” she finished his question. “Because I think there’s a fault in the coordinate map. I noticed it before you got on. I guess nobody’s tested the quarters lift from the bridge yet. This is the ship’s first run, there’s bound to be problems.”

“You knew there was a fault with the coordinate controls and you didn’t tell me?” he snapped.

“I assumed you knew what you were doing when you shoved me out of the way,” she replied evenly.

There wasn’t much he could reply to that. Not reasonably, anyway.

“Why is it that everything is going to tell around you today, ensign? Are you cursed?”

“Respectfully, sir, I don’t know how to answer that. I can point out, however, that if you want to get out of here, we need to make a call to engineering. I’m pretty sure this lift is just going to circle around the shafts without a functioning coordinate map.”

He dearly wanted to snap at her again, but she was right.

Instead he tapped his wrist device and cleared his throat.

She walked past him, a few locks of her vibrant red hair brushing past his arm. She pushed a finger into the communication link on the lift. “You’re wrist device won’t work in here, lieutenant. All communications have to be rerouted through the communication links for the next 24 hours until they complete the installation of the communication guidance network.”

He knew that. He’d been at the briefing where Chief Engineer B’cal had told all the officers that.

But he’d forgotten. Why? Because Ensign Ava was irritating the hell out of him.

She kept her finger pressed into the link button as she turned to him, her expression still impassive. “Should I make the call, or should you, lieutenant?”

“I can make the call,” he said through stiff lips.

Was she questioning his abilities? Sure, he’d fallen on top of her rather than save her, had failed to pick up this lift didn’t have a functioning map, and he’d clean forgotten communications were offline.

But he wasn’t an idiot.

This was all her fault.

He cleared his throat. “Engineering bay, this is McClane.”

There was a pause, then a gravelly voice answered, “There’s two McClanes on board, you might want to narrow it down, lieutenant,” Chief Engineer B’cal rumbled in his grating voice.

Hunter winced. “This is Lieutenant Hunter McClane. I’m in the quarter’s lift that departs from the bridge. It doesn’t have a functioning coordinate map.”

B’cal sighed. “Add it to my list. If we actually depart this afternoon, I’ll eat my fist. This ship has a long list of problems right now. It’ll take us a while to get to you. I’ll inform your superior you’ll be out of action for a few hours.”

“A few hours,” Hunter nearly choked on his voice.

“Sorry, lieutenant, we just don’t have the manpower. Lifts are a non-critical system. Right now we’re working on life-support and gravity control. I’m sure you can appreciate how important they are.”

Hunter gave an internal groan. “Yes,” he forced himself to agree in an even tone, “I can. Do what you have to.”

The thought of spending another minute, let alone a few hours, with Ensign Ava was murder.

Ava cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Chief Engineer B’cal, I assume?”

“Yep, that’s me. Who’s speaking?”

“Ensign Ava.”

“You only got one name, ensign?”

“I am Avixan. My culture only permits single monikers.”

“Another Avixan, ha? That makes five aboard now, ha,” B’cal noted with a gruff laugh.

Ava stiffened. From head to toe, she resembled a statue. “Five?”

“I guess you haven’t been onboard long enough to meet the others yet, ha? Anyhow, what do you want, Ensign Ava?”

She looked pale. For the first time since he’d met her, Ava looked thrown.

“Ensign?” B’cal prompted.

“Wouldn’t it be quicker to return the lift to its cradle and walk?”

“Its cradle’s right at the bottom of the ship. None of the other lifts in that section work. Hell, some of the corridors aren’t finished yet. You’d have to travel by access shaft for a whole deck.”

“But it would still be quicker than waiting for technicians to fix the lift, right? Plus, wouldn’t it be easier for your engineers to fix the lift once it’s back in its cradle?”

“True. But like I said – that’ll be one hell of a walk. But you’re right – it’ll be quicker than waiting. To be honest, the rate new faults are coming to my attention, you might be stuck in that lift half a day.”

“We’ll walk,” Hunter snapped.

“Walk it is. Though the coordinate map of your lift is broken, Ensign Ava’s right – it’ll still be able to return to its cradle with the automatic override. Lieutenant, if you pry the primary panel back, the override switch should be behind it. Press it, then get ready to become intimately acquainted—” B’cal dropped off the line for a second as he mumbled an order to someone.

Hunter stiffened. What the hell was B’cal about to say? Christ, people hadn’t been spreading dumb rumors about that dumb incident in the bar, had they?

“Sorry about that,” B’cal came back on line, “What was I saying? Oh yeah. Get ready to become intimately acquainted with the belly of the Mandalay – you’re about to trek through the whole thing. Have fun,” he added before he signed off.

Hunter wasted no time in prying off the primary control panel and thumbing the manual override.

The lifts groaned to a halt, shuddered slightly, and slowly began to descend.

Normal lifts aboard a normal Coalition vessel did not groan or shudder.

Clearly yet another problem to add to B’cal’s list.

The lifts kept shuddering as they descended. It sent a nervous worry plunging through his gut.

These lifts were operational, right? The numerous safety mechanisms that would stop the lifts from falling – or worse, speeding up to their full velocity and slamming into a wall – were in place, right?

He caught Ava looking at him.

He stiffened his jaw and subtly clutched a hand behind his back, sure that she couldn’t see it.

He hated not being in control. He hated facing an enemy he couldn’t see, even if right now it was a goddamn faulty lift.

Ava looked like she wanted to say something, but clearly thought better of it as she turned back to stare at the doors.

The lift gave a violent shudder and she was pushed off balance.

She tumbled towards him.

On pure instinct, he grabbed her just in time, lurching to the side to cancel out the momentum of her fall.

She’d fallen towards him face-first, and now that same face was pressed into his chest as he anchored her to the spot.

Before he could push her away or become too distracted by the soft touch of her hair along his arms, or the press of her chest against his side, the lift lurched again.

“What the hell?” he barked.

“Lift loosing integrity,” the computer droned in an emotionless tone.

“Shit,” he swore. “Stop the lift in place. Now.”

“Brakes are failing.”

“What?! How can they fail?”

Ava wriggled out of his arms. He’d been holding her. Tightly. Without even realizing it.

She lurched towards the controls, yanked back the panel, and pulled something out of it.

Before he could ask what she’d done, the lift started to free fall.

He fell from his feet and tumbled into her, knocking her to the floor. For the second time that day, he fell right on top of her, chest-to-chest, face-to-face.

It didn’t count this time, though, because he was about to die.

Just as true terror tore through his chest, the lifts screeched to a halt, violent shudders ripping through the cabin.

Without realizing what he was doing, he pressed against her, fear locking his muscles in place.

With one more metallic screech, the lift stopped.

He let out a tortured, trapped breath, and it pushed Ava’s hair over her face.

Though his eyes were squeezed shut, as he opened them, he realized she was staring at him. “We don’t have much time.” She pushed into him.

It was then he realized he was still on top of her.

He fumbled to his feet. “What did you do to the lift?”

She was still holding onto the section of neuro wiring she’d pulled from the control panel.

“I pulled out the primary safety circuit.”

“You did what? Why?” he barked, heart pounding faster than a drum.

“To force the shaft to engage its magnetic brakes.”

He opened his mouth but stopped.

She’d just saved their lives.

The shaft had its own brakes to control the lifts in the case of a hull breach. The harmonic resonance of a ton of metal thundering down a damaged shaft could do untold damage.

Usually the shaft’s mag brakes were overridden by the lift’s primary safety controls. Controls which were clearly faulty. If the mag brakes hadn’t already caught the plummeting lift before Ava had yanked out the safety controls, it meant they were sending inaccurate information to the shaft.

By pulling out the controls, Ava had saved them both.

Rather than point that out, he nodded at the com link. “Put in a call immediately.”

“We need to get out of here,” she overrode him.

“We’re fine now the shaft mag brakes have engaged. They’ll hold us here until help arrives.”

“The mag brakes are groaning.” She pointed towards the door. “Listen carefully.”

As he calmed his rocketing breath long enough, he heard it.

Metal fatigue. There was a fine but perceptible shudder vibrating through the lift floor.

“We need to open those doors.” She pointed at them.

“They’ll open onto a shaft wall.”

“There’s a chance they’ll open onto a maintenance hatch or an open deck.”

“A single chance in hell,” he spat.

“It’s all we’ve got.” She shifted past him and considered the controls warily.

“I wouldn’t touch them,” he warned.

“I don’t intend to.” She grabbed the open panel and tried to tug it from the wall.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Trying to use this as a lever to pry the doors open,” she struggled through her words as she tried but failed to pull the panel off.

He kicked into action, grabbed the panel, and yanked it free with a single move.

He doubted this would work. His thundering heart beat told him they were seconds from death, but he still anchored the sharp end of the panel into the smooth door seam, and pulled.

It was agony fighting against the door’s mechanism, but with a guttural grunt, he managed to pry the doors back a centimeter.

Instantly Ava stepped in by his side and crammed her fingers into the small gap, leaning back and pulling with all her might.

For all it was worth.

She was barely helping him. But that didn’t matter. He didn’t give up, and with another stomach shaking grunt, he pulled the doors open an inch.

In front of him he saw nothing but the smooth silver walls of the shaft.

Above, however, he saw a dark recess. Right at the top of the doors, there was a 40cm gap that led into an access shaft.

“Christ,” he spat as he grabbed the side of the door and started pulling with all his might.

The lift started to shudder more and more, every vibration more violent than the next.

They had seconds.

With one final gut-wrenching pull, he opened the doors. Then he jumped, caught the lip of the access tunnel, and pulled himself up and into it with a single strong move.

He waited for Ava to do the same, expecting her to be right by his side.

She wasn’t.

Though she tried to jump for the access tunnel, she fell short.

“Move,” he bellowed as the lift gave a grating groan.

She tried to jump for the access tunnel once more.

He jerked a hand down and caught her. Locking one hand onto the lip of the tunnel around him, he pulled her up.

Just in time.

The lift fell, the mag locks failing in a hail of sparks.

As the top of the lift sailed past the access tunnel it sliced off a lock of Ava’s hair and caught the side of her right armlet.

She was flung back into him.

He locked an arm around her and pulled her back into the access tunnel, as far below the lift impacted the cradle with a jaw-shuddering bang.

He didn’t stop pulling her back until they were several meters away.

Then he realized they’d just dodged death.

A second later, and they’d have been liquefied at the bottom of the shaft.

She breathed against his arm, and his chest pushed hard into her back as he struggled for air.

He sat there for god knows how long until she gently placed a hand on his arm. Her cold armlets brushed against the bare skin of his wrists.

It shocked him to his senses.

Though the access shaft wasn’t tall enough for him to stand in, he pushed to his feet nonetheless and crouched with a hand locked on the wall.

He looked down at her as she pushed unsteadily to her feet.

“Are you alright?” he asked, words tumbling from his lips before he could stop them.

She nodded slowly. “You?”

“Fine. But Christ, what the hell just happened back there?”

“I guess there was a critical flaw in the safety program.”

“Critical flaw. More like fatal flaw. This ship’s a death trap. Now, you sure you’re alright? Hey, wait – you’re bleeding,” he realized as a bloom of blood slicked down her fingers.

She brought up her right arm. “The side of the lift caught me as it fell.” She revealed her wrist. A chunk of flesh was missing, the sides charred and mangled.

He recoiled. “Just hold onto it. There’ll be a med kit around here somewhere. In the meantime, use this.” He dug a finger into one of his sleeves, loosening the stitching, then he yanked on his cuff and ripped the sleeve off. “Hold it tightly against your wound and concentrate on your breathing to distract from the pain.”

“It’s okay,” she assured him, “It doesn’t hurt that much.”

Before he could point out a chunk of her wrist was missing, she pushed past him with a nod. “We should make it to a com link to warn B’cal.”

He paled as he realized she was right.

“You go ahead and find one – I’ll follow.” She nodded.

“I’m not leaving you behind,” he snapped, words instinctual. The same instinct that had seen him catch her in the lift and pull her into the access panel.

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. I’ll be too slow, though. Lieutenant, it’s more important to warn B’cal so he can stop all the other lifts. Just go.”

Reason told him she was right, but something else – something he couldn’t put his finger on – told him to stay.

Eventually reason won out. “You shouldn’t move too much with that injury. I’ll find a com link, find a med kit, and meet you back here. Head along the tunnel until you reach a blast door. Close it so you’re shut off from the lift section, and wait for me. You’ll be fine,” he added needlessly as he backed off down the tunnel without turning from her.

She nodded once. “Go.”

So he went.

 

Chapter Three

Ava

She followed Lieutenant McClane’s orders, crawled down the access shaft, found a blast door, and closed it.

Then she leaned with her back against it.

And she waited.

She had no idea how long he’d be.

The injury to her wrist was significant. At first pain pulsed up her arm, sinking so hard into her shoulder it felt like it would fall off.

As seconds ticked past into minutes, the pain gave way to a dead cold sensation that spread into every finger.

She could barely move her hand anymore.

Sticky blue blood oozed from her injury and pooled over her lap as she cradled her hand.

With nothing more to do than sit here, she began to sing.

She’d sung her whole life. It was a sacred tradition amongst the priestesses. Not only did they sing to amuse themselves in the cold dark tunnels of their temples, but their strident songs were also used as a warning.

She could reach the kind of shaking pitch that could not only shatter glass, but echo through a room and steal anyone’s attention.

Long ago, when priestesses were still used to control the Rest, they would sing as a warning. Their haunting melodies would play through the cities and forests of Avixa whenever they were on the hunt.

So now she sung.

She chose a powerful but haunting melody the priestesses used to drive away the darkness.

As she sang, every low note rumbled through the floor as every high note echoed through the cramped darkened tunnel.

Though there were a few strips of bare illumination running down the floor and ceiling of her access shaft, some of the lights were malfunctioning. They kept flicking on and off, plunging her into ever longer periods of darkness, until finally they blinked out entirely.

That left her alone in the dark, singing to herself as blood pooled over her legs and arms.

She wasn’t distressed. It would take more than that to scare her.

Still, one unsettling thought did play through her mind.

There were five other Avixans on board the Mandalay… and she was the only priestess.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

He half-crouched, half-ran through the access tunnel. Technically, a com link should be at regular intervals, but he couldn’t find one.

He was running out of time.

As another expletive cracked for him stiff lips, he threw himself around a corner.

He spied a med station. Throwing himself at it, he yanked open a panel and grabbed the small flexi box within.

Then he searched around for a com link.

Nothing.

He hesitated. He could head back to Ava or try to find the link.

She was injured pretty badly, even if she wasn’t prepared to admit that. That gash could have nicked a vein, and right now she could be bleeding out….

A cold sweat prickled across his brow and down his neck, slicking between his shoulder blades as an even colder sensation settled in his heart.

He had to make a decision. As a lieutenant, there was only one choice he could rationally make. Go and warn B’cal that there could be a critical flaw with the lifts.

Still, it was the hardest thing to force his adrenaline-fueled body to leave Ava behind.

He may have decided he hated her only a half hour ago, but he couldn’t let her bleed out….

There was only one decision he could make, goddammit.

He pushed off down the narrow access tunnel, the med kit still held in one sweaty hand, his chest filling with cold dread.

For a woman he'd just met, Ava filled his mind as he forced himself forward.

He had no idea how much time passed. The access tunnels were a warren. They were missing most of the basic gear you'd expect in a top-of-the-line ship like the Mandalay.

When he was out of here and Ava was fine, he told himself, he was going to have a stiff word to his brother.

This ship was not ready to launch.

He held onto that idea as he pushed forward, winding through narrow tunnel after narrow tunnel. He even came across sections where the paneling that usually held back the wiring and innards to the ship were missing.

With every shuffling footstep his heart beat harder and harder, until he felt it vibrating into his jaw.

"Come on, you bastard," he screamed into the tunnel, voice punching and echoing through the narrow confines, "Where the hell is that com link?"

The minutes ticked by, the dread winding so hard around his stomach it felt as if it would cut him in half.

Finally he found an exit hatch.

He jammed a sweaty thumb into the release button, but it slipped off.

Grunting and jerking down, he locked a hand next to it, wiped his fingers on his pants, and tried to open in again.

It beeped back in a dull tone. A tone that meant it too wasn't operational.

Striking it with a curled fist and letting out a bellow of anger, he dropped to his knees so hard it sent an aching jolt sinking into his hips.

He yanked the large panel open. Behind it was a manual release lever. It would operate even if half the electrics on this goddamn ship wouldn't.

He grabbed the lever and pumped it backwards and forwards until the hatch opened.

Then he spilled out into the corridor with all the force of water breaching a dam.

He spied Lieutenant Commander Shera.

She looked up at him, surprised. “Lieutenant, what's the matter?"

"Not enough time to explain. Get on the line to B'cal. Tell him there's a critical flaw with the lifts’ safety protocols. They all have to be taken offline until they can be checked." As soon as he blurted out his warning, he twisted on his foot, boot skidding over the polished metal floor, and he threw himself back in the tunnel.

"Where are you going?" Shera insisted.

"Back to get Ava. She's injured." He'd dropped the med kit on the ground by the hatch, and now he jerked down and picked it up, pressing it protectively against his chest.

Shera didn't react.

As he practically vaulted back into the narrow access tunnel, he turned to glance at her.

Her expression had that exact same edge he'd seen on the bridge.

What the hell was her problem with Ava?

Whatever it was, right now he didn't care. "Just warn B'cal and inform Harvey – I mean the captain about the issue. Tell him where we are. I'll do what I can for Ava – send a med team." With that, he twisted and began shuffling back down the crouched tunnel.

He left the hatch door open, and though his steps were hurried and his breath jagged and panting, he heard when Shera finally turned and walk away.

She didn’t run.

She just walked.

He didn't have time to wonder what she was doing. Instead he flung himself forward.

He'd memorized the route back to her. He wasn't lying when he said this place was a warren – there were so many interconnecting tunnels it was like being stuck down a mine shaft.

Worse – half the lighting didn't work. Occasionally he'd enter whole sections that were as black as night.

He'd memorized enough unique features to guide him. He threw himself around every corner until finally he reached a closed blast door.

She had to be behind it.

The blast door had a release panel on his side, and he jammed a shaking hand over it.

Thankfully it worked.

The door swished open.

And out tumbled Ava.

She'd obviously been sitting with her back against it. She flopped down in front of him, her surprised face staring up into his, her loose hair splaying around her face like a halo.

On any other day, her expression would have been funny. Today, he looked past her surprise and saw the blood blossoming over her uniform.

He'd underestimated her injury.

She'd already lost a heck of a lot of fluid.

"Shit," he swore as he grabbed up the kit and tore it open. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," she managed as she pulled herself up.

Immediately he locked a hand on her shoulder and forced her to stay still. "You've lost too much blood."

"I'm fine," she insisted as she shrugged off his hand and sat.

It was a miracle she was still conscious, let alone able to move.

He fumbled through the kit, casting away useless supplies until he reached the spray-on skin.

He grasped the slim metal device with shaking hands and tenderly pulled her arm up.

She didn't wince; she just looked at him evenly.

"Sorry I took so long. This ship's a warren," he mumbled in a nervous voice as he sprayed the skin right over her injury. Technically he should remove the excess blood first, but he wasn't thinking. His brain was a haze of adrenaline.

"It's alright. I kept myself amused."

He couldn't help but let out a curt chuckle. "How exactly did you do that while bleeding out over the floor?"

"I sang to myself."

One lip half curled as he finished applying the skin. Then he snatched up the medi scanner. "You've lost a lot of fluid—”

She reached past him and picked through the kit with her good hand. She selected a syringe and a few metal vials.

"You need to hold still—”

"I know how to fix myself up," she said off hand, still never wincing or recoiling from the agony he knew she'd be in.

Before he could stop her, she'd injected herself with a mixture of the vials.

Almost instantly the color returned to her cheeks, and, more importantly for her race, her eyes.

Her iridescent purple eyes.

They were startling, just like all other Avixans. They didn't quite work with her, though. Maybe it was her flame red hair or her complexion, but they looked out of place.

Meva's eyes, on the other hand, never failed to take his breath away. Crystal clear blue, they looked like sapphires lit up with fire.

His stomach clenched as he thought of his girlfriend, and he had no idea why.

Ava experimentally moved her damaged hand up and down, but didn't appear able to shift her fingers.

"We need to get you to the med bay, ASAP." He locked a hand on her shoulder and looked right into her eyes, worried gaze darting over her face.

She looked right back at him.

She had a strange kind of silent watchful stare. It put him in the mood of a shepherd standing upon a hill and watching its flock.

"Shera should be sending a med team in to find us. We just need to sit tight—”

Ava began to move. Somehow she pushed to one knee then the other. Her whole front was covered in blood.

As fear clutched his gut, he realized he'd got here just in time.

She swept the contents of the med pack back into is flex box, locked it to her side with her good arm, then began shuffling forward. "Where's the nearest exit? Do you think it's worth trying this direction, or retracing your steps?"

"Didn't you hear me? I said Shera's sending help."

Ava turned from him, her messy hair obscuring her expression. "I'm fine to get myself out of here."

“Ensign," a growl caught his voice, “This is an order – you're staying still."

"I think it's wiser to push on. I'm not that injured anymore. Plus, how are they going to find us?"

He snapped his mouth open to repeat his order, but stopped.

She had a maddening point.

"I doubt internal sensors work properly in this section yet – otherwise we'd have been swarmed with help the second our lift exploded. And I'm fine to keep going." She demonstrated her point by shuffling forward, her injured arm still locked against her chest. "Judging by the fact this tunnel had a blast door, I'm guessing there's an exit in this direction," she mumbled to herself.

Reluctantly, he pushed off, negotiating around the significant puddle of blood she'd left next to the blast door.

He caught up to her as she determinedly shuffled down the tunnel, wrapped an arm around her back, and looped her good arm over his shoulder.

"I can walk," she pointed out. "My legs aren't affected."

"Stop being brave," he snapped back, though his words were quick, not unkind. "You've lost too much blood, ensign. Let me help you." He flicked his gaze down to her.

Slowly, she nodded.

It was a peculiar move. Despite how haggard she looked, it was regal. Graceful.

It was awkward shuffling side-by-side, and his leg kept banging against the wall of the shaft as he gave her as much room as he could.

Soon they made it to a hatch.

She'd been right. Again. They'd barely had to travel twenty meters to find it.

He propped her against the wall as he dropped hard to his knees and skidded over to the hatch controls.

He jammed a thumb into them, and this time they worked.

The hatch swished open.

She ducked her head down and jumped out before he could stop her.

Though she wobbled on her feet, she didn't fall.

If it had been him, he'd have fallen all the way back against that blast door.

Ava might have been physically weak, but he was starting to realize she made up for that in spades with resilience.

That didn't stop him from vaulting out of the tunnel and securing an arm around her back. "You've got to be careful," he chided.

"I'm fine," she insisted in a light tone, though she didn't turn to him.

She looked distracted.

He could bet it wasn't fatigue or pain distracting her, too. Ever since he'd mentioned coming across Shera, Ava had looked bothered by something.

He wanted to ask what the heck was going on between them, but he knew he'd get no answer.

Even Meva would never breathe a word about the Avixans.

As they turned another corner they came across two crewmembers.

"Thank god," he spat. "Are you guys the medics?"

The two crewmembers turned. It was Shera and Meva.

He was too relieved to care. "Christ, did you call the med bay? Where are the medics? Has B'cal been warned?" his words spilled out of his mouth like blood from a broken artery.

He was just so goddamn relieved this was over.

Ava stiffened. With his arm still locked around her back, he could feel every single one of her muscles contract. It was like she turned to stone.

He caught a glance of the side of her face, and watched her cheeks pale to alabaster white.

Meva didn't even look at Ava. "Hunter? What the hell happened to you?"

"I'm fine. I just need a goddamn medic. When will they get here?"

"B'cal and his engineers are on the way," Shera informed him in a professional tone.

"That's great, but where's the medic?" He knew he was being too informal. Shera was his superior. Call it adrenaline or the fact Ava's blood was covering his arm and side, but he needed to get her to the med bay. Now.

"We're facing some difficulties with internal communications," Shera pointed out in that same professional tone.

Ava shifted away from him. At first it was subtle. Then she broke his grip.

She took a step back, flicked her hair to the side, and stood on her own.

As he turned to ask what the heck she was doing, he caught sight of her expression.

It was... he couldn't describe it. Or maybe he could. He'd seen that look before. Just not on the face of a junior ensign.

It was the kind of determined hard-edged stare an admiral would give their enemy. "I'm fine to walk to the med bay on my own." With that, she turned and walked down the hall, the bloody treads of her boots leaving footprints on the smooth polished floor.

"Hey, what are you doing?" he called, skidding as he turned to follow her.

"The ensign appears fine," Shera pointed out. "Right now, it's of greater importance that you show us exactly where the problems occurred with the lift. Take us to the direct section of tunnel – we can't currently pick it up on internal sensors."

He stood there. Amazed. Was Shera just going to ignore Ava? Sure, maybe there was bad blood between the two, but Shera knew protocol, and this wasn't it.

Maybe Shera could guess what he was thinking, because she angled her regal head backwards and gave him the kind of stare a subordinate could not ignore. "It's a priority that we track down any issues with the lift system. Ensign Ava is physically fine. It may not seem that way, lieutenant. But understand that I am Avixan and I am more familiar with our biology than you are."

That statement humbled him and yet pissed him off at the same time.

"Now, show us the problem with the lift," Shera said with a curt nod, direct stare making it clear it was an order not a suggestion.

He took a deep grounding breath. It was that or spin on his foot, disobey a direct order, and run after Ava.

“Lieutenant," Shera prompted.

"Fine." Hunter turned around and led them back to the hatch. As he did, he couldn't stop from staring at Ava's bloodied footprints.

 

Chapter Four

Ava

She walked herself to the med bay. Most of the crew were busy on other decks, so no one saw her until she reached the imposing metal doors.

When she walked in, the handful of doctors and medical staff ignored her until she ambled up to one of the beds with a wet, bloody squelch.

"Jesus," the closest doctor – a human male of Asian descent – sprang towards her. "Are you okay? Is that your blood?"

She replied by digging her fingers under the skin graft and tearing it right off. "Yes."

"Hey, no, don't do that," he snapped as he lurched towards a medical tray and waved it towards her bed.

"It has to come off. There's nerve damage," she said impassively.

Though she could still feel the pain, her mind was elsewhere.

What exactly had Shera and Meva been doing? Had Meva been there when Lieutenant McLane had run into Shera, or had Shera specifically gone to get her?

A cold uncomfortable sensation ran through her gut as she thought.

"What the heck happened to you?" the doctor continued as he waved over another staff member.

"I was in a lift that malfunctioned. Lieutenant McClane and I had to get out of the lift before if fell. We managed to, however the lift caught my arm as it went past and sliced off a section of my wrist."

"Hunter? Hunter was with you? Is he alright?"

"He's uninjured."

"He's an old friend of mine. I'm Doctor Chen Ming, by the way." Ming moved quickly and deftly as he stopped the bleeding and stabilized her arm.

"It's nice to meet you."

He stabbed his fingers into his medical scanner and whistled. "You're lucky to be alive...."

"Ensign Ava."

"Ava. You've lost a lot of blood. I'm not too familiar with Avixans, but you shouldn't even be walking, let alone talking. Come to think of it, how the hell did you get here?"

"I walked."

He stared at her in startled amazement. "You walked. From where?"

"Deck 4."

He paled. "All on your own?"

She nodded.

"What about Hunter? Why the hell did he leave you alone?"

"He was called away by Lieutenant Commander Shera," she tried to keep her voice even, impassive, unemotional. She couldn't. Not quite.

What did Shera want?

What kind of game was she playing?

She would know the stakes if she threatened Ava directly. All Ava would need was a scrap of evidence, and the Avixan government would lock Shera in extended stasis for fifty years.

"He shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have been left on your own. What the hell was he thinking?"

"It's alright, doctor. He did what he was told. And I'm fine. I walked here without incident."

"Who told him to leave you? Why didn't someone call the medics?"

"Lieutenant Commander Shera needed him for another task."

"Well I'm going to tell the captain, because that is completely out of line."

She paused. "... It's okay, doctor. Lieutenant Commander Shera, as an Avixan, is familiar with our biology. She knew I was in no immediate danger. She made a call, and it was a correct one."

Chen opened his mouth, but closed it with a sigh. "Maybe you're right. But that was still unnecessary."

"Perhaps," she agreed in a dull tone.

Then she shifted her gaze and stared at the floor behind Chen.

She'd just covered for Shera, not out of loyalty to the woman, but out of loyalty for her people.

As of yet, Ava had no evidence Shera had done anything wrong. And she'd need evidence if she wanted to go against the lieutenant commander.

As she took another deep sigh, she tried to convince herself once more that this must all be an unfortunate coincidence.

Shera would never make a move against her.

It would just be too costly.

...

Lieutenant Hunter McLane

As soon as he was finished with Shera, he rushed to the med bay.

Every now and then he passed a bloodied footprint, and they sent guilt and fear kicking through his stomach.

By the time he reached the med bay he was running at full pelt.

He swung through the open doors and almost plowed right into someone.

He looked up to see a shocked Chen. "Whoa? You okay?"

"I'm fine. How's Ava?" Hunter craned his neck past the lanky Chen. "Ensign Ava. Tell me she got here, right?"

Chen's expression crumpled, his lips pressing into a tight frown. "Oh, she got here alright. She's been fixed up and is back in her quarters. But what the hell were you thinking leaving her alone to walk through the ship with an injury like that?"

Despite the fact Chen had just told him she was fine, Hunter couldn’t stop himself from pushing past and checking the med bay with jerked movements. When he was sure she wasn't there, he turned and let out a trapped breath. A breath it felt as if he'd been holding since that lift had given way.

Chen watched him carefully, the edge of his terse gaze turning into concern. "I told you, she's fine, Hunter. How she walked here on her own with that much blood loss, I don't know though. But she was in good spirits and is obviously pretty resilient. She didn't even ask for any pain killers."

"You gave them to her anyway, right?" for some reason Hunter kept stumbling over his words.

"Of course I gave them to her. I know my job, do you know yours?" As soon as he said it, Chen looked like he regretted it.

It was too late though. Hunter took a stiff breath, blew it through his even stiffer lips, and dropped his gaze to the floor. "I thought I did. But today's been kind of crazy. Shera gave me a direct order. She said Ava would be fine...." Hunter couldn't help but trail off. He was cold even thinking about that interaction.

"Well, she was fine. So I guess Shera's right. Despite Ava's insistence, however, I'm still going to have to flag this with the captain."

Hunter nodded. Even if Chen hadn't brought it up, Hunter would have done it anyway.

Harvey needed to know something wasn't quite... right between Shera and Ava. If he didn’t already know, that was. Hunter couldn't rule out the possibility that the reason Harvey was suspicious of Ava was because Shera had told him to be.

Hunter withdrew into a pensive silence only broken when Chen shot him a pointed look. "Are you just going to stand there blocking the doorway forever? I told you where she is. Her quarters are on B Block."

Hunter’s brow crumpled with a twitch. "I'm not going to go see her."

"You burst in here looking for her, running at light speed, and you don't have the gall to go see her in her quarters? I'm sure she wouldn't mind. She seems pretty reasonable."

Hunter opened his mouth. He had no idea what to say to that.

He didn't get the chance anyway.

His wrist device beeped. Surprised, he shook his head. "These are working now?"

"Sure. B'cal got them up with limited use for senior staff a couple of hours ago," Chen said offhand as he walked away. "If that's the captain – and I bet it is – inform him I will be preparing a report on this incident." With that, he waved and ducked out of sight.

Hunter took a steeling breath and tapped his wrist device. "Lieutenant McClane here."

"Hunter. Get to my office. Now. I want you to tell me why the hell one of my lifts is a smoking pile at the bottom of the ship."

Hunter let out a slow breath. "On my way."

He twisted hard on his foot. Rather than use a lift to get to the bridge, he settled for sprinting through the corridors.

It took him a full fifteen minutes, but finally he reached Harvey's office.

"You chose to walk?" Harvey snapped as soon as Hunter entered, the doors swishing closed with a hiss.

"Can you blame me? I think I'll give the lifts a miss for now."

"Fair enough. Now sit down and tell me what the hell happened."

 Though Harvey looked as though he was trying to control his expression, he was failing. Badly. Stress lines marked his brow, his mouth drawn into such a thin frown it looked like it had been drawn on by a ruler.

Hunter told him the full story from beginning to end, leaving out nothing.

Harvey sat there silently as he either tried to take it in or decide how much to believe. Then he let out a sharp sigh and collapsed his hand over his eyes briefly before letting it drop to his desk. "So you're telling me I almost lost two crewmembers without even leaving space dock."

"Almost. We're still alive, Harv. Nothing happened."

"Nothing? By the sounds of it, Ensign Ava almost bled out in an access tunnel. How'd she get to the med bay, by the way? You left that part out."

Hunter stiffened.

He had no idea what to say next.

He'd known Shera for years. She was a close friend of Meva and nearly all the other Avixans he'd ever met.

Apart from Ava, obviously.

But worse – Shera was very much romantically involved with Harvey. Harvey had never told Hunter this, but Hunter wasn't an idiot.

"What aren't you telling me?" Harvey pushed.

Hunter winced.

"Just spit it out."

"You want to know how Ava got to the med bay... she walked."

"Sorry? I don't understand."

Hunter couldn't control his expression. He knew it was a confused mixture of guilt and confusion. "She walked herself to the med bay."

"W-h-y?" Harvey asked, enunciating every syllable, his expression becoming dark. "If she was as injured as you claim...." Harvey quickly typed something on his personal computer panel. His expression stiffened even further as he read something. Finally he jerked his gaze up. "And the medical reports confirm," he continued in a truly dark tone, “Then what the hell was she doing walking herself to the med bay?"

"... Shera pretty much ordered her to."

In a single second, Harvey was derailed. His expression went from barely-restrained anger to shock. "What are you talking about?"

"I wanted to go with Ava to the med bay, but Shera insisted I show her where the lift crashed. She said she knew more about Avixan biology, said Ava would be fine on her own."

Harvey didn't move a muscle.

Neither did Hunter.

"I see," Harvey managed eventually.

Really? Because Hunter didn't.

The more he thought about this, the more he didn't understand.

He pressed forward in his seat before he knew what he was doing. "I think Shera has a problem with the ensign." Maybe he should have chosen his words better – phrased things differently. But he had to say something.

Harvey visibly stiffened. "Why do you say that?"

"It's plain as day. You should see the way they look at each other."

"So Ensign Ava has a problem with the lieutenant commander," Harvey concluded, stressing Shera's proper rank.

"I didn't say that."

"You said you should see the way they look at each other. That suggests the problem, if there is one, is mutual."

"Fine. But it's not like that. I don't think Ava's the problem."

Harvey drew his arms back and crossed them, a telling move – a move that, if Hunter was in the mood to listen, would tell him to stop.

He wasn't in the mood to listen.

"Really? Barely a few hours ago you were in here telling me she shouldn't even be on this ship."

Hunter couldn't help but let out a bitter laugh. "Yeah, then I almost died," he spat, “And she's the only reason we're both alive. So that kind of put things in perspective for me."

He shouldn't be talking to the captain like this. But the captain was being a jerk.

Harvey had one defect, though he'd never admit it – he was too loyal.

"I've known Lieutenant Commander Shera for years. She's a trusted member of my senior staff—”

"And your goddamn girlfriend," Hunter interjected before he could stop himself.

Harvey stiffened. Heck, stiffened wasn't the right word. It looked like all the blood drained from his body and he became nothing more than a plank of bone and hardened flesh. “Lieutenant, what the hell did you just say?"

Hunter clenched his teeth and drew a deep breath through them. "I'm sorry, captain. I wasn't speaking as a lieutenant."

"Well you sure as hell better not have been speaking as my brother either – I'd hope my brother would have more tact than that."

Hunter sunk back into his chair, the barbed insult sinking hard into his gut.

"At times I don't get you," Harvey spat. "You have everything going for you, but you keep making stupid decisions."

"Fine. You're right. I'm an idiot and I'll never live up to you. But that's not the point, captain. I'm telling I believe Lieutenant Commander Shera has a problem with one of the ensigns under your command. I'm telling you, her understanding of Avixan biology aside, it was damn out of line to make an injured crew member walk themselves to the goddamn med bay," Hunter's voice became louder and louder as the injustice of the situation caught up to him.

He shouldn't have followed Shera's order. It had been the right thing to do in terms of the chain of command, but the wrong thing to do morally.

For a few drawn out seconds, Harvey did nothing. He said nothing. He didn't even blink. "Go back to your quarters."

Hunter shook his head, pressed his lips closed, and rose. "Aye, captain." He turned on his foot.

"I don't know what you think of me, Hunter, but you should know I'm capable of putting my personal feelings aside. I will talk to Shera. I'll find out her side of the story before I throw away her years of loyalty and condemn her."

Hunter was damn lucky he had his back to Harvey. If Harvey saw the snide frustration scrunching Hunter's brow, there'd be a court martial.

"Is that all?" Harvey asked.

"Yeah."

"Yes, captain."

Hunter paused. He wanted to stalk through the door without kowtowing to his brother. A single scrap of reason held him back. "Yes, captain." With that, he walked off.

He came across Shera on the bridge. She looked up and nodded at him courteously. "Did everything go okay?"

"Fine." He forced himself to nod. Then he walked for the door that led back into the hall beyond.

"The lifts are now fixed," Shera called from behind him.

"If it's all the same, I'll keep my feet on solid ground for a while." He strode out of the doors and into the corridor. Only when he was alone did he allow his expression to crack. And his calm cracked along with it.

He balled up a fist and struck it into the wall. It sent out a resounding, thumping echo.

A few ensigns took that moment to walk around the corner. He straightened up just as they looked around curiously. "What was that?" one asked.

"Probably another problem. We'd better tell the chief."

Hunter strode past them, locking his hand behind his back as he clutched his fingers in and out.

He wanted to hit something again. Specifically his brother.

What the hell was Harvey's problem? He was a captain. He was also Hunter's brother. Did Harvey think such little of him that he'd ignore a direct warning? Or was Shera more important than his goddamn flesh and blood?

Hunter strode through the corridors aimlessly.

He should follow Harvey’s order and return to his quarters.

He didn't.

Block B. Ava was in Block B. A part of him wanted to see her, a part didn't.

A part reasoned that if he'd never met Ava, he wouldn't be in this position. He wouldn't have just been insubordinate.

Then again, if he hadn't met Ava, he'd be a pancake at the bottom of that lift shaft.

His conscience got the better of him. He walked towards Block B.

He didn't reach it.

Meva found him. She walked up to his side and tipped her head down, a few loose strands of her silky white hair shifting over her shoulders. "You okay?" She kept step beside him, her hands locked behind her back, her head still tilted towards him.

He didn't want to look at her for some reason.

"Hunter." She pushed out a hand, her warm fingers curling around his arm.

It was enough to stop him in his tracks.

"I know you. I know that expression. You're pissed about something."

He locked his jaws together.

He didn't want to speak, but when she placed a flat warm hand on his back and sighed, he caved.

She always knew just how to comfort him.

"Just come back to your quarters and I'll explain everything," she said in a hushed tone as she dropped her hands and took a step away.

A few seconds later two hurrying engineers rushed down the corridor.

He hadn't heard them coming. Then again, he wasn't an incredible Avixan warrior.

It took him a moment to realize what she’d said. “What do you mean you’ll explain everything?”

“Just come back to your quarters.” She reached a hand out to him.

He was torn as he looked at it. “Meva, what’s going on?”

“Hey, Hunter, just come back to your quarters. I know it’s confusing now, but just trust me.”

On the word trust, he moved.

He followed.

Meva didn’t breathe a word until the doors shut behind him and he walked into the center of his room.

Meva immediately pulled her hair out, grasping the strange clasp she used to hold it back and throwing it on his recliner.

He raised an eyebrow at the move.

As she fluffed her hair up and brushed it over her shoulder, she lifted an eyebrow too. “Don’t get any ideas. I’ve got a shift in half an hour.”

“Then skip to the bit where you tell me what’s going on.” There was an edge to his tone.

She picked up on it as she tilted her head towards him and shook it. “Don’t trust her.”

“What?”

“Ensign Ava,” Meva’s lips moved jarringly around each syllable. “Don’t trust her.”

A cold sensation sank through his gut. “What are you talking about? Why not?”

“I can’t tell you. You just have to trust me. Believe me, if you’re feeling any sympathy for her, she doesn’t deserve it.” Though Meva’s expression was normal her tone wasn’t. It was bitter.

“What’s going on?” he insisted. “What the hell is so wrong with Ensign Ava?”

Meva stretched an arm over the back of the recliner and shifted until she was looking at him, her glistening hair arranged attractively down her front, a few strands caught in her half-undone collar. “What’s going on, is you need to trust me. As for what’s wrong with Ava… I can’t really get into that.”

“What? For cultural reasons? She almost bled out today,” he found himself snapping.

He knew the rules. He’d been with Meva long enough to know never to ask her about her people.

Now, that didn’t matter. First his brother, now Meva – what the hell was everyone’s problem with Ava?

Granted, he’d convinced himself to hate her on pretty slim evidence this morning. A lot had changed in the intervening hours.

So now he pushed.

Meva stopped arranging her hair over her shoulder. She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know what she’s told you about me, but don’t believe it.”

“About you? What? She hasn’t said a word about you. We were too busy almost dying. Now, if you want me to trust you, you have to tell me what’s going on.”

She rested her hands on her lap and pushed her back hard into the recliner.

She looked at him, her luminescent blue eyes catching the light. “I would have thought I didn’t have to earn your trust. You don’t have to earn mine.”

Her comment punched through him. He felt his shoulders deflating.

“But fine. I’ll tell you… what I can.”

He looked up sharply, anticipation making the move jerky.

“Ava believes she is better than us.”

“What?” His nose crumpled in confusion.

“She is from a different clan to Shera and myself. In fact, she’s from a different clan to every Avixan on the Mandalay. A clan that assumes superiority over everyone else.” Meva wouldn’t look at him as she spoke. Instead she stared at the large window behind his bed. “Her people have enslaved us for thousands of years.”

Hunter’s stomach kicked.

“They’ve repressed us, jealous of our power,” Meva continued in a slow cold tone.

He swallowed. He’d never seen her like this, never heard her speak this way.

This wasn’t an act. She believed every word she was saying.

“I can’t tell you much more. Just don’t trust her.”

He took a sharp breath and stood back, reeling. “I… had no idea.”

“Of course you didn’t – it’s a crime to discuss Avixan society with outsiders.”

“But… if your people are still enslaved, you need to appeal to the Coalition. They’ll be able to help.”

Meva stretched her arm along the back of the recliner and tapped her fingers against the fabric. “We can look after ourselves.”

“So… Ava comes from a different clan to you,” he repeated, trying to wrap his head around this new information. “Has she ever directly threatened you? You didn’t interact at the Academy, did you? I’ve never seen you two together.”

“We lived in fear. We still live in fear.” Meva pushed slowly to her feet and pushed towards him, only stopping when she was right before him. “Every day. We live in fear of retribution if we step out of line. They control us, stifle our abilities so we can’t threaten them.” She suddenly looked away, then pushed against him, collapsing her head against his shoulder. “I came to the Academy to get away. So did Shera. Then one of them followed us. So you can understand if we don’t trust Ava. We have good reason.” She nuzzled against him.

Automatically, he wrapped an arm around her. “God, I’m so sorry. But there’s got to be something we can do. Your people shouldn’t have to live like this. If the Coalition find out—”

“They’ll jeopardize diplomatic relations. And they won’t get directly involved in a sovereign state’s issues, anyway. This is an Avixan problem. And don’t worry, we’ll deal with it.”

“What does that mean?”

She nuzzled against him harder, her loose hair bunching against his neck. “I don’t know what I’m saying,” she sighed as she hooked a hand on his sleeve, her face still pressed against his chest. “If I tell myself that, it’s easier to sleep at night.”

“Meva… I had no idea.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it. I’m okay now. I’m not on Avixa anymore. I’m here with you. And you’ll look after me, won’t you, Hunter?”

“O-of course.”

“Then just hold me.”

He pressed his arms closer around her back and locked his chin over her head.

And with open eyes, he stared through the window.

Harvey had been right. Christ. Of course he’d been right.

Hunter shouldn’t have turned against Shera so easily.

If he’d been in Shera’s shoes, he would have done worse.

Ava was turning out to be the monster every one kept telling him she was.

 

Chapter Five

Ava

“You seem kind of distracted,” Nema said as she walked by Ava’s side.

They were on a scanning detail through the belly of the ship.

The Mandalay had megalithic storage bays. They’d yet to be filled. Nema and Ava had to scan them to ensure internal scanners were properly aligned before any cargo was shipped in.

They walked down a wide, massive corridor used to ferry cargo from bay to bay.

Every footstep echoed.

“I’m not distracted,” Ava suddenly answered when she stopped thinking long enough to consider Nema’s question.

Nema snorted. “Yeah, sure, that’s why you keep sighing. But it’s totally okay to be distracted, considering what happened to you yesterday. I can’t believe you’re back at work already.”

“I’m fine.”

Nema gave a long-suffering sigh. “If you were anyone else, I wouldn’t believe that. But because you’re you – the bravest damn person I have ever met – I guess you’re right. So what’s distracting you then?”

Ava dropped her gaze.

“Come on. I knew you have to keep a lot bottled up for cultural reasons, but unload what you can.”

“… I’m starting to question whether this is the right post for me,” Ava answered. It’s not what she wanted to say. What she wanted to point out was she felt nervous.

Not fearful, just concerned that something wasn’t right.

Her locks withheld most of her subtle powers. In her true form, she had senses beyond the ordinary. With the armlets hemming her in, she could access nothing more than this diffuse feeling that something was wrong.

She tried to tell herself it was nothing. But it wasn’t working.

Nema suddenly nudged her softly with her elbow. “Hey, the next hangar bay we’re meant to scan is enormous. Great acoustics.”

“Ha?”

“I’m trying to tell you I’ll go ahead and do the corridors – you scan the bay. And then you’ll get a chance to sing. I know you love it. And you never get a chance to practice. So go ahead.” Nema pointed to the massive cargo bay doors.

Ava considered her friend, a true smile spreading her lips. “Thank you,” she said honestly.

Nema shrugged. “What are friends for? Now go ahead.” She gave Ava another friendly shove.

Ava needed no more encouragement. She walked towards the massive doors.

They reminded her of the dark temple’s gates.

Every priestess had to undergo intermittent periods of isolation. They started as an initiate at the age of nine. You were taken into the temple tunnels and left to survive for a year.

Those who could not look after themselves could not become priestesses.

Those who could, would never forget the darkness.

As Ava walked forward and the massive doors opened, the lights took several seconds to blink on.

In those several seconds she enjoyed the dark and she began to sing.

It was the one skill that wasn’t locked off from her. The one skill that reminded her of her true power.

The one skill she wasn’t ashamed of. It came with no responsibilities – just freedom.

She began with a haunting melody. It echoed around the expansive room, easily filling the cargo bay, despite its size.

The more she sang, the less unsure she felt.

It reminded her she was no pushover.

It reminded her, that under these locks, whether she liked it or not, she was an Avixan priestess.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

“You must be in the dog house, lieutenant,” B’cal chuckled to himself as he walked side-by-side with Hunter.

Hunter pretended not to know what B’cal was talking about.

“Captain McClane is usually reasonable. To put you on engineering duty, he’s either punishing me or you. Now as far as I’m aware, I haven’t done anything wrong. You on the other hand, trashed a lift.”

“I think you’ll find I didn’t trash it. It was faulty. I did almost die yesterday, chief.”

B’cal laughed. He also clapped a hand on Hunter’s back.

B’cal’s race said it how they saw it. They were about as subtle as a slap.

“Shrug it off. You lived. Most wouldn’t have in that situation. Now, whatever you’ve done to piss off your brother, shrug it off too. The captain’s a reasonable guy. He’ll let you off the hook.”

Hunter didn’t respond.

“Cheer up, lieutenant, that’s an order. Today’s a different day. I promise.” B’cal stopped before one of the enormous cargo bay doors. “Here we go. I think this is the one. According to my exceedingly unreliable sensors, this cargo bay should be the best to adapt to a weapons depot. Why the captain thinks we need another, I don’t know. But he’s put you in charge of assessing this. So here we go.”

B’cal walked towards the massive doors and they opened.

Instantly, singing met their ears.

Powerful incredible singing.

At first, due to the clarity and sheer volume, he thought it was a recording being piped through the internal audio system.

Then he saw her.

He knew who it was, even with her back turned to him.

There was only one person aboard the Mandalay with hair like that.

Ava.

She obviously had no idea the doors had opened. She was leaning over something, maybe a scanner, her song so strong and strident, it could have muffled a cruiser engine.

B’cal gave a soft, impressed laugh.

Hunter didn’t make a sound.

He was too engrossed.

His body was, too.

It was the kind of singing that sent tingles racing up your arms and stood your hair on end.

Finally B’cal started clapping.

Ava stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Oh. Sorry,” she called, “I didn’t see you there.” She jogged up.

B’cal put his hands on his hips and laughed. “Do not let us stop you,” he said with honest passion spreading his wrinkled face. “That was amazing. I haven’t heard a performance like that in years. My people value singing as the highest art form, and you, ensign, have a true talent.”

She blushed slightly. When Avixans blushed, they turned blue, and a pretty smattering touched her pale cheeks.

She nodded forward. “I didn’t think it would be a problem. The cargo bay was empty, and I was still completing my scans.” She proffered her scanner as evidence.

B’cal didn’t even glance at it. He was too busy looking ecstatic at Ava’s performance. “Ensign, I don’t care if you were slacking off – that was a pleasure to hear. Why didn’t I know you could sing like that?”

“Ah, we’ve only met over an intercom, sir.”

B’cal’s face crumpled. Then his smile froze. “You were the ensign from the lift incident.”

She nodded. “Ava.”

“Well, by all reports, you did some pretty quick thinking yesterday, Ava.”

She nodded bashfully again. “I had help. I wouldn’t have survived without the lieutenant here.”

Hunter didn’t say a word.

There was no point.

Because this was all an act, wasn’t it? Sure, she looked sweet and decent, but he knew the truth.

She looked up at him, and he knew she registered his hard expression.

B’cal, on the other hand, was clueless. “What rotation are you on right now, ensign?”

“General. I’m assigned to whatever department needs hands.”

“Well I’m going to make a request to have you transferred to Engineering. You’re quick, and I need people like you. Especially now this whole ship is falling apart.”

She gave another polite nod. “Thank you, sir. Though I should warn you – I’m not physically quick. I have… an impairment.”

B’cal snorted. “I don’t care. This is the future. We can account for that. And now you’ve told me, I’ll just adjust your detail.”

She glanced up at Hunter before returning her attention to B’cal. “Thank you for being understanding, sir.”

Hunter knew 100% what she was thinking. He was the asshole who couldn’t accept her physical limitations, while B’cal didn’t appear to care.

Except Hunter knew the truth here. All questions of physical ability aside, Ensign Ava shouldn’t be on this ship.

She didn’t deserve it.

“Plus,” B’cal suddenly boomed through a laugh, “With you under my command, I can get you to sing whenever I want.”

“I’m not really sure singing comes under your command, but I’ll see what I can do,” Ava replied with a friendly smile.

B’cal gave a satisfied laugh. “Alright then. Get back to work, ensign. And don’t let us stop you from singing.”

“Don’t you think that would be inappropriate?” Hunter spat.

B’cal slowly slid his gaze over to Hunter. “No. But do you have a problem with it, lieutenant?”

“It’s distracting. She should focus on her tasks.”

B’cal slowly lifted his single eyebrow and focused his single eye on Hunter. “I didn’t see you complaining a couple of minutes ago. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.”

Hunter became rigid as blood rushed to his neck and chest.

He cleared his throat and took a step back. “It’s inappropriate. It will distract people.”

“Well, that’s your opinion. She’s under my command,” B’cal stressed, “And I say it’s okay. With a rank of commander, I trump you on this one. So, sing away, ensign. And I’ll finalize that transfer when I get back to my office.”

Hunter didn’t react. B’cal had given him a not-so-subtle dressing down in front of Ava.

Then again, Ava didn’t seem to care.

She looked calm, a marked difference from the distraction she’d shown yesterday.

That calm irritated him more than anything. She must have realized he was angry at her – anyone with an ounce of emotional awareness would know he couldn’t stand to be this close to her.

Yesterday, he hadn’t wanted to leave her side when she’d been injured.

Now he’d changed.

She should be shocked. Hurt. Angry. Something.

Instead she looked as calm and unperturbed as ever.

Which only served to prove everything he thought he knew about her. He cleared his throat. “Chief, can I have a word in the corridor?”

“What’s this about?” B’cal asked.

“It’s to do with the captain’s intended purpose for this cargo bay,” Hunter lied.

B’cal conceded with a shrug, nodded at Ava, and left the room.

As soon as the doors closed behind him, B’cal turned and locked a three-fingered hand on his hip. “What’s this really about?”

“Don’t trust her,” Hunter blurted.

“Excuse me?”

“Look… ah…” Hunter had no idea what to say. Not without it sounding stupid.

“Speak up, lieutenant.” B’cal crossed his arms. “What’s your problem with Ensign Ava? You sore that she saved you yesterday?”

“No. Just… look, she’s not loyal.”

“And how exactly have you concluded that?”

“Look, I can’t really go into it, but the other Avixans have a justified problem with her. She’s not loyal,” he defaulted to saying, knowing he couldn’t break Meva’s trust by revealing the full truth.

“Ah, Avixans. I’ve worked with a couple. Strange mob. Usually as spikey as a Waridian tiger. But Ava’s been competent, polite, and friendly in both the interactions I’ve had with her so far. So I’m going to go on that,” B‘cal concluded pointedly.

Hunter locked his jaws together.

He wouldn’t win this.

Suddenly the doors behind them opened. Ava burst out.

B’cal spun to her. “What’s wrong?”

“My scanners are picking up a fleeting life sign,” she blurted, scanner clutched in her hand as she spun around on the spot.

B’cal used his tail to snatch the scanner from her hand.

“I only picked it up when I walked to the far corner of the room. I ran out here, but.…” Her eyes were wide with fear as she twisted around in the corridor. “My friend Nema’s out here somewhere.”

B’cal’s fingers flew over the controls.

Then he punched forward, showing considerable speed for his large form. “She’s in the second air lock.”

Ava sprang forward.

Though she could barely keep up, her breathing so labored she sounded as if she’d cough up a lung, she didn’t drop behind.

The three of them ran to the second air lock.

It wasn’t a primary air lock. It was used to vent atmosphere in a controlled manner before the airlock was opened.

And right now it was running through a venting procedure.

A terrified female ensign was banging against the glass window of the door as the atmosphere slowly vented from the lock.

“What the hell?” B’cal roared as he threw himself at the air lock. His fingers raced so quickly over the controls, he could have started a fire.

With a beep the doors opened.

But only for a fraction of a second. Long enough that a burst of oxygen sailed past them and whipped into the rapidly venting room, but not enough to get the ensign out.

“Nema,” Ava screamed as she threw herself against the door.

Nema fell back, face practically blue.

B’cal swore in his mother tongue, the word cracking out with all the ferocity of a blast. “I can’t stop the venting. These doors are jamming. I can’t keep them open long enough.”

They opened again for a fraction of a second, then closed with a snap.

B’cal swore.

Nema was on the ground. Hunter watched her from the glass window, heart in his throat.

There was nothing any of them could do.

“Can you get the door open again?” Ava screamed.

“It won’t do any good,” B’cal snapped.

“Just do it,” she snapped back.

He did it.

And in that split second, Ava shoved her right arm through the gap.

His heart froze as he expected her arm to be clean cut off.

It wasn’t. The doors jammed against her right armlet.

They slammed into it with enough power to snap steel, but they couldn’t snap the armlet.

Atmosphere rushed past them into the venting room.

Ava’s body was crunched at a painful angle, but she squeezed herself forward, pushing her face against the gap in the door. “Nema? Nema? You okay? Grab my hand.”

Nema slowly lifted her head, stretched out a weak arm, and grabbed her friend’s hand.

She was alive.

Hunter felt like whooping.

He didn’t get the chance.

The atmosphere sensors in the corridor started blaring.

“Aha, at least something still works,” B’cal spat in triumph. “The hull breach shields should come on and secure the vent system.” Even as the chief spoke, it happened – blue crackling shields spread across the top of the secondary vent room.

They prevented the vents from sucking the oxygen out.

“Right, let’s get these doors open.” He pressed himself into the task, drawing his face close to the panel as he broke it open in a powerful move and started manipulating the neural circuits within.

There was a beep, and the doors opened.

Ava fell forward, but punched out a hand so she didn’t fall on Nema.

There was a crunch. It was Ava’s wrist.

That didn’t stop her from pushing back and folding over her friend. “Are you okay?”

Nema pushed up slowly with Ava’s help. Her dark features were understandably drawn. After a deep reassuring breath she nodded. Then she collapsed her arms around Ava. “Thanks to you.”

“Chief B’cal saved you,” Ava clarified with a happy laugh.

“I’m not sure about that,” B’cal pointed out, “If you hadn’t sacrificed life and limb, that room would have vented. Now get out of there.”

Ava pushed up, wincing as she helped Nema to her feet.

Hunter was no expert, but it looked as if Ava had broken her wrist.

Ava supported her friend until they walked a few meters down the corridor. Then she propped Nema against a wall and jogged back. “What do we do?” Ava looked straight at B’cal.

“Me, I pull my hair out trying to figure out how the hell another fatal accident almost happened on my watch. I also pull another detail off gravity control to fix it. You, ensign, you go to the med bay because unless I’m very much mistaken, you broke your wrist. How you didn’t lose an arm, is another story.” He looked across at her right armlet. “It’s not even dented. What the hell is that thing made of? Triplated bularium?”

At first she looked as if she wouldn’t answer. Then she slipped her gaze towards the wall. “They’re ceremonial. They’re the most important objects I’ll ever own.”

B’cal shrugged. “Well they sure came in handy. Now get to the med bay. Lieutenant, take them both,” he ordered as he took a step back and considered the secondary vents.

Hunter stiffened.

He had no option but to follow orders.

Ava rushed back to Nema and wrapped an arm around her back.

Before Hunter could turn to leave, B’cal leaned in close. “You were questioning her loyalty, lieutenant? You don’t see selfless acts like that every day. She belongs on this ship,” he concluded as he turned and started manipulating the controls to the door, conversation clearly over.

Hunter didn’t respond.

There was nothing to say.

He walked in silence as he followed the two ensigns to the med bay.

His head was swimming with questions by the time they made it.

Nema was a little out of breath, but mostly fine.

Ava’s arm, however, was a different matter. Her wrist was already turning purple, the break obviously a bad one.

As soon as Ava walked in, Chen saw her. With a frown denting his cheeks, he walked up. “Don’t tell me you’re injured again?”

“There was an accident with one of the secondary air locks. Ensign Nema Baka here was almost suffocated.”

Chen snapped into action.

He motioned several junior doctors over and they helped Nema onto a gurney.

Hunter stood there staring at the back of Ava’s head, gaze darting down to her broken wrist.

“Aren’t you going to tell them about your injury?” he eventually snapped.

She didn’t even bother to respond.

He took a sharp step beside her.

She glanced up at him slowly. “My wrist can wait. When there’s time, I’ll get myself seen to.”

He pressed his teeth together so tightly it felt as if he would bore down into his jaw. “There’s no need to pretend you’re selfless. You’re injured, now get your injuries seen to.”

She didn’t move. She returned her gaze over to Nema. “I believe you’re done here, lieutenant. I can watch over Nema.”

He let out a stiff bitter laugh. He could pull her up on that, or he could just walk out and leave her to stand there in pain.

He knew which was more satisfying.

He turned and stalked out.

His cruel bravado didn’t take him far.

As soon as the doors swished closed, a pang of guilt crossed his heart.

She was injured.

He had a duty.

So he turned and walked back in.

He expected Ava to be over with a doctor. He expected – no, wanted to believe – that she’d just put on a face of bravery to irritate him.

He was wrong. She was standing exactly where he’d left her.

Swallowing his pride and anger, he walked up to Chen. “There’s another injury. Ensign Ava broke her wrist.”

Chen looked around, gaze locking on Ava’s left wrist.

It was purple and black now.

Chen paled and rushed over. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

“No, please, concentrate on Nema. I’ll be fine,” Ava tried.

“I’m not talking to you, ensign,” Chen said as he sliced his gaze towards Hunter.

Chen’s look said it all.

Hunter took a step back. He didn’t need this right now. He turned to leave.

“Lieutenant, do you mind hanging around? I’ll need you to clarify exactly what happened,” Chen said.

Hunter had to swallow his pride for a second time as he forced a nod.

Chen helped Ava to a bed and began scanning her arm. “I’m going to need you to take your armlets off. I know Avixans don’t take their ceremonial wrist bands off, however I also know on extreme medical grounds they can be taken off. This is an extremely bad break. I was able to work around your armlets twice yesterday, but I have to access the bone under your band.”

“I can’t take them off,” she answered in a quiet tone.

“I know it’s a ceremonial faux pas. I can do it in a private room. But they have to come off.”

She wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. “I can’t take them off.”

“Ensign, this is a direct order. You need to show me how to remove them.”

“I can’t take them off,” she repeated, still staring at the wall.

That pissed Hunter off. Here Chen was trying to do his best, and she was ignoring him.

Prickly anger spiked up his back. “Ensign, follow a direct order.”

“My armlets do not come off,” she said in a stronger tone, the first time she’d ever responded in like kind to his anger.

“Yes they do. I know they can’t be that important; I’ve seen Meva take hers off plenty of times,” he snapped.

Ava looked at him, shock shattering her expression. Her eyes grew wide, her cheeks slackened, and her lips stiffened and parted.

The intensity of her reaction was enough to send a bolt of nerves shooting down his back.

“She… takes her bands off?” Ava asked in a stuttering tone.

It was like he’d just told her Meva was the devil.

He suddenly realized he might have just shared an intimate detail that could get Meva in trouble.

“Is that such a bad thing?” Chen asked diplomatically, a touch of concern arcing through his words, no doubt at Ava’s strong reaction.

“It’s forbidden,” her voice dropped low. “Avixan society does not permit the removal of locks.”

Locks.

She called them locks.

All this time he’d thought those bands were just adornments. What if they weren’t? What if they were reminders of how shackled most of Avixan society was?

Come to think of it, Ava’s armlets were massive. They spanned her entire forearms and were made of an unusual gold metal that looked expensive. Were they a symbol of her position in Avixan society? A permanent reminder to the other Avixans on board that she was better than them?

His muscles constricted as he thought about it. “Just take them off. Stop playing the cultural-reasons card. If it’s fine for the other Avixans, it should be fine for you. Unless you think you’re better than them, which you aren’t. Now, Chen’s trying to help you.”

“I suggest you don’t comment about things you don’t understand. And they don’t come off,” she said once more, meeting his gaze directly.

He’d finally done it. He’s pissed her off.

Good.

She deserved it.

“Okay, guys, we all need to calm down. But I have to stress once more, I need to get these bands off,” Chen tried in a calm tone.

“Doctor, they can’t come off. They are physically locked on. You would have to amputate my arms.”

Chen looked shocked. “But… I… the other Avixans—”

“I’m nothing like the other Avixans. Check my file. I can’t take my locks off when I feel like it.” She looked directly at Hunter.

“I… I’ll check your file.” Chen took a step back, brought up his wrist device and typed something into it. A second later he sucked a deep breath through his teeth. “I am very sorry,” he nodded low, “I didn’t realize. I should not have insisted. If we’ve offended you culturally, we apologize.” Chen made brief eye contact with Hunter.

Hunter ignored it.

So what if Ava couldn’t remove her armbands. It didn’t mean anything.

“I guess I can work around this.” Chen nodded. “It might take longer to heal, and you’ll have to come back for a couple of checkups, but it’s doable. I’m sorry again.”

“It’s okay.” Ava’s expression mellowed, and she nodded politely. “You didn’t know. Avixan society can be… confusing to those from the outside.”

“Sure can, but that’s no excuse for being insensitive.” Chen grabbed a scanner up and waved it over her arm.

Hunter stood there for a single second, then pushed back hard on his heel.

“Lieutenant, wait up. I need to speak to you – clarify what happened. Can you please wait in my office for me?” Chen didn’t even look up.

The only thing Chen wanted to clarify was why Hunter was being such a jerk.

Chen had seniority in all medical matters, so Hunter had no choice but to obey.

A few minutes later, Chen walked in, waited for the door to close, crossed his arms, and leaned against the wall. “What the hell was that?”

“Don’t even start. She deserved it.”

Chen didn’t answer. He just stared at Hunter. Then slowly, forcefully, Chen shook his head. “That’s a pretty ugly thing to say. And you’re not an ugly guy. So what the hell is going on?”

Hunter’s stomach clenched. “It’s complicated.”

“Well, let me simplify it for you. You don’t treat people like that, Hunter, especially crew, especially 24 hours after saving your life. I saw you yesterday, Hunter, you came barreling into the med bay to check she was alright. Now you’re treating her like a monster. What the hell happened? What did she do? What did she possibly say to deserve this?”

In truth? Nothing. It’s who she was.

Chen uncrossed his arms and took a step forward. “If you can’t answer, I’m guessing your excuse isn’t good enough.”

Hunter darted his gaze up. “Meva hates her.”

Chen looked thoroughly and completely unimpressed. “And that accounts for what, exactly? Are you honestly going to stand there and tell me you’re going to blindly pick up someone else’s animosity? Children do that, Hunter, not adults, and certainly not Coalition personnel.”

“It’s complicated,” he repeated through bared teeth.

“Sure is. You’re basing your entire judgement on hearsay from a third party. I call that pretty goddamn complicated. Why don’t you just try the direct approach? Why don’t you ask Ava herself? Maybe Meva has a good reason to dislike Ava, maybe she doesn’t – you’re only going to find out if you ask. And trust me, you want to ask. Blind loyalty is nothing more than ignorance. You’re better than that. You’re better than this.”

“You have no idea. Ava… she’s from a section of society that… controls the rest. Meva and the other Avixans are below her. They—”

“Are you serious? That’s your argument? My father used to be a space pirate. He personally murdered hundreds of people. Now I’m a doctor in the Coalition. Why? Because the day you walk into the Academy is the day you fight for a different cause. So what if Ava comes from the ruling class, she joined the Academy. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, lieutenant, but she can’t rule over anyone here. She can’t even try. Meva’s a lieutenant, Shera a lieutenant commander. What exactly do they have to fear from an ensign? They’re the ones in control. Not her. And you, you should technically be in control too. But right now, you’re being blind. So wake up.”

Hunter jerked his mouth open, but there was no way he could defend himself.

Chen was exposing a fatal flaw to the rage that had filled Hunter since Meva had collapsed into his arms yesterday.

Ava wasn’t in control, was she?

She was weak. Shera and Meva were full warriors. They were also Ava’s superiors….

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the kid sitting out there,” Chen pointed through the glass walls at Ava’s bed, “Is nice. Decent. She just saved her friend. Yesterday, she saved you. And today, you rewarded her with absolutely zero loyalty. I don’t know what it takes to buy loyalty in your books, Hunter, but in mine that’s enough. Now, I suggest you base your treatment of her based on her treatment of you.”

“It’s… it’s not that easy….”

“Yeah it is. We have no idea what goes on behind the closed doors of Avixan society. None. We don’t get to condemn someone based on rumor. If it wouldn’t stand up in court, it shouldn’t stand in your heart either. Maybe in Ava’s past she was involved in whatever social inequity Meva’s suggested. Maybe she fled to the Academy to get away from it. We don’t know. But we do know one thing – she hasn’t abused any Avixans since coming on board. Her Academy file is squeaky clean.”

“Meva said—”

“Wasn’t Ava Meva’s junior at the Academy? If Meva had such a problem with Ava, why didn’t she do anything about it then? She would have seen her around on campus.”

Chen’s question floored Hunter.

“The bottom line is we don’t know anything. That means we do not have the evidence to condemn anybody. Innocent until proven guilty, Hunter.”

That was Harvey’s favorite saying too.

It cut right to Hunter’s bone.

“Maybe Ava’s just as bad as Meva’s suggesting, but for the love of god, find out – don’t just assume. You’re better than that.” Chen took a step back and marched for the doors.

Hunter stood there, unable to move.

Slowly, eventually, he let his gaze draw across the room and out the glass wall to his side.

Ava was at Nema’s side, her face pressed with friendly concern.

Instantly he remembered the look of stone-cold determination that had flared in her eyes before she’d shoved her arm through the air lock door.

Eventually he pulled himself away from the view and left the med bay.

Though he’d started the day with his mind caught in a mess, now his confusion was an intractable tangle that hung over his awareness like a thick veil.

He had no idea who to believe.

He only knew one thing for sure: he deserved to feel the guilt that currently goaded his gut like a raging bull.

Chapter Six

Captain Harvey McClane

Despite her issues, the Mandalay finally set sail.

Harvey McClane stood ramrod straight on the bridge, hands clasped hard behind his back as he angled his stiff neck at the view screen.

It offered an unrivalled view of the Mandalay slowly slipping away from the shipyards.

The shipyards were a testament to Coalition technology, and they sat stark in the center of the screen. The Mandalay would be more. Better. The top of her class. The first of a new breed of ship.

If he could find a way to stop the issues that plagued her.

This was where he should give a speech. Tradition dictated that as a ship first set sail its captain would lead the crew in a rousing oration.

The problem was, he couldn’t find the words.

Why? Because unease had settled deep in his gut, cutting out every other feeling.

He was a young captain, granted, but he’d still been in command long enough to know he should shut off his disquiet and lead his crew.

But he couldn’t. Deep inside the unease kept growing. It crawled up his back and sank deep into the back of his head, leaving a prickling sensation curling around his neck.

His XO turned to him. She nodded low. “Captain?” she prompted.

He cleared his throat, gaze fixed on the shipyards as they grew smaller and smaller, the expanse of star-studded space swallowing them.

Captain Harvey McClane had made a career out of tracking down problems. He was self-admittedly one of the best troubleshooters in the fleet.

So why did he feel as if this problem – whatever it was – was beyond him?

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

He walked to the cargo bay, ignoring his brother’s speech as it echoed over the Mandalay’s audio system.

Most other crew he passed stood to attention in the hallways and corridors, heads tilted up in pride as they listened to their captain’s rousing words.

Hunter blocked it out.

He had work to do. Because he reasoned if he threw himself into it, he’d stop thinking about everything else.

He hadn’t seen Ava for a full two days. It had taken that long for Chief Engineer B'cal to fix the critical issues with the ship.

Though B'cal had assured a meeting of senior staff that most issues were under control, Hunter couldn’t say he felt at ease.

For the past two days his nerves had been growing like wild fire. He could feel them simmering in his veins, occasionally catching in his heart and exploding into full-blown panic.

It wasn’t just the accidents. It was a heck of a lot more than that.

From every angle he looked at it, he didn’t want to be here – on this ship, under Harvey’s command, and smack bang between whatever was happening with the Avixans.

He knew he was being unkind to Meva. She deserved better. The truth was, he was never really sure where he stood with her anyway. She was beguiling, sure, passionate and stunning, absolutely. In short, she was everything he’d always thought he’d want in a relationship.

And yet, at the back of his mind, he was always questioning how long it would last. She’d either wake up one day and realize he was never going to step out of his brother’s shadow, or he was going to stuff it up some other way.

“I never even wanted to join the goddamn Academy,” he admitted to himself in a dark whisper as he petulantly plucked his scanner from his hip holster.

He walked around a sharp corner and walked smack bang into someone.

He knocked them off their feet and they tumbled against the wall.

He jerked out a hand to help, but it froze in midair as a woman with shocked purple eyes and flame red hair turned to stare at him.

His hand remained there, as if cast in stone.

He recoiled with a sharp breath that drew hard into his lungs and he took a curt step back. “Sorry. I should have been more careful,” he forced himself to say. With that, he turned sharply on his heel and walked back in the direction he’d come, even though the cargo bay was past Ava.

“Stop,” she said.

He couldn’t say her voice was authoritative. It wasn’t brimming with anger.

But it had a certain subtle force behind it that quickened his nerves.

Body turning rigid, he ground his boots into the floor, twisted over his shoulder, and shot her a warning look. “Why?”

She knelt down and slowly plucked up his scanner with her left hand. Her move was awkward, her fingers obviously weak. She fumbled with the scanner before swapping it to her right hand and holding it out to him. “You dropped this.”

He hesitated before pushing forward and snatching it from her. He didn’t say a word.

“Aren’t you headed to cargo bay four?” she asked as she dropped her left arm to her side and gently massaged the wrist.

He snapped his head around again. “How the hell do you know that?” He bristled.

“Your scanner’s on. Your task is displayed on the screen. I caught a glance of it.”

He turned around fully. “That could have been sensitive information. You had no right—”

“I glanced at it, lieutenant. If it was so damn sensitive, you shouldn’t have barreled into me and flung it at my feet.” She tried to hide a wince as she kept massaging her wrist.

His cheeks became as hard as bone as his lips drew into the thinnest frown he could manage. “I don’t like your tone, ensign.”

“I apologize, lieutenant.” She took a deliberate step back and gestured down the corridor beside her. “But your cargo bay is that way.” As she gestured her left arm twitched.

Reason told him to ignore it. Reason was far from his mind right now. “If you’re still injured, go to the med bay, tell B'cal, and be replaced with someone more competent. This ship is barely holding together as it is. Don’t waste your shift when someone—”

She turned from him and began walking away.

“Hey, I'm talking to you.”

“No,” she looked sharply over her shoulder, “You’re berating me. I don’t know what I've done to offend you, lieutenant, but this is out of line.”

His cheeks smarted as if he’d been slapped. “What did you say?”

“If you have something to tell me that directly relates to my task, go ahead. If not, I’m busy.” She kept stalking away.

His anger got the better of him and he jogged up to her. “I’m not done here, ensign.”

They rounded a corner. She flicked her hair over her shoulder as she tried to ignore him.

He put on a burst of speed, trying to get in front of her, not glancing at the floor once.

Her eyes locked wide as she looked at something past him, then she lurched forward, grabbed his arm, and pulled him back.

He banged into her left arm, her fingers catching on his side as he jolted past.

She let out a choke of pain, locked a hand on her wrist, and fell down to one knee.

“What the hell was that?” He rounded on her. Then he looked past and saw the slowly seeping puddle of neuro fluid.

It was covering half the corridor.

A sticky black fluid, it looked like watered-down tar.

If he’d stepped in it, it would have electrocuted him.

He acted on instinct, grabbed a hand on her good shoulder, and pulled her back.

He felt her wince in pain.

“God,” he spat, “The gel packs are leaking. Why the hell didn't the sensors warn us?”

“They’re still not fully operational in this area. They keep turning off. That’s the reason I’m down here. B'cal sent me to figure out where the problem is.”

His anger slipped away as he saw how carefully she cradled her left wrist.

Guilt punched through his gut quicker than a bolt of lightning. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I caught your hand on the way past.” Genuine compassion twisted his features, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to hide it.

She looked up into his face, her lips pressed together as she obviously tried to figure out whether he was being serious. Eventually she nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

“Didn't Chen fix your arm up?”

“As best as he can. It's going to take a while. I should be okay soon though.”

He found his gaze fixing on her armlets. They caught the light from above, the strange carved metal glistening.

She saw him staring at them, and she half turned, obscuring them from view. “I know what you’re going to say. Just don’t bother, please,” there was a plaintive, emotional edge to her tone. “I can’t take them off. Not unless you want to take my arms with them. And that would kill me.”

His stomach clenched so hard it felt as if his gut tied itself into a knot. It was her reaction – the vulnerability crumpling her shoulders and shifting in her weary gaze.

Not much seemed to rattle Ava. Or maybe she was just good at hiding her true feelings.

He found himself swallowing, a lump forming in his throat. “I… I’m….”

Reason dictated he should say he was sorry.

He wanted to, but he couldn't push the words out.

He kept going back to Meva. How she’d reacted when she’d told him about Ava.

Ava’s eyes drew wide again as she glanced past him. “There are more leaks.”

He jerked his head to follow her move, and his cheeks paled. “Come on, we need to move back.” Without thinking, he tenderly placed a hand on her good shoulder and guided her back. At the same time, he tapped his wrist device. “B'cal?”

His com link crackled for a few seconds, but finally connected. “This better be good. I’m knee deep in problems right now.”

“This is Lieutenant McClane. I’m near Cargo Bay Four. There’s a significant neural gel leak covering the corridor, and it's growing.”

B'cal swore bitterly. “Right. Get out of there, and I’ll send an emergency cleanup crew. I’ve got a crewman down there right now—”

“Ava?” Hunter didn't even realize he left out her rank. “I’ve already found her.”

“Right. Both of you get out of there. That area is cursed. I’m telling you. We don’t need an engineer, we need a goddamn exorcist.” With a shrill beep, B'cal’s call ended.

“Right, come on.” For some reason he kept his hand tenderly locked on her shoulder.

She didn't shrug him off.

A few strands of her fire red hair brushed over his bare fingers and thumb.

It was different to Meva’s hair. Not just the color – the feel. It was softer. It felt like satin slipping over his skin.

When his face had fell against it after he’d tumbled into her in the bar, it had been like nuzzling up to a cloud.

… It took him too long to realize how inappropriate that thought was.

While it was easy to chase it from his mind with a short reminder of how treacherous she was, it was impossible to chase it from his body.

Reluctantly, he forced himself to pull his hand back.

They headed around another corridor, and stopped.

There was another gel leak.

This one covered the whole floor from wall to wall.

He stood there in stunned silence, staring at it and wondering what the hell was happening.

Suddenly Ava knocked into him with her shoulder and pushed him back.

His eyes jerked down to see a spurt of neural gel spill from a seam in the floor right by his feet.

He grabbed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, his face slicking with ice-cold sweat. “What the hell’s happening here?”

Ava stabbed a finger against her wrist band which – due to her armlets – was located around her upper arm. “Chief, we’ve got another—”

Her communicator crackled back with silence.

He brought up a shaking hand and crammed a sweaty thumb over his wrist device. “B'cal—”

Nothing but static.

“You have got to be kidding me. The communication system cannot be on the blink again. Come on,” he bellowed as he slapped a shaking hand over his device.

Nothing but static.

“We need to pull back. More gel’s leaking,” she pointed out in a shaking tone.

He looked down to see she was right.

They retreated further into the corridor.

They were trapped.

His furious heartbeat rang in his ears, its shaking vibration shuddering down his throat and hard into his head.

“We’ll be okay, we’ll get out of here,” he promised.

She didn't say a word. Instead she locked her wide-eyed gaze on the slowly encroaching deadly liquid.

“B'cal’s sending a cleanup team. We will get out of here.”

“He has no idea how bad this is,” she pointed out in a quiet tone, “We have to do something.”

She took a step back, face locked on the black pool of gel.

He grabbed her arm and yanked her close as a leak appeared right under her boots.

She fell hard against his chest, soft hair tickling the underside of his chin.

He caught sight of her wide luminescent eyes. This close, he could see the pale-blue flecks that rimmed her pupils. They looked like halos.

“Behind you.” She wrapped her arm around his middle and pulled him closer.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a spurt of black.

His heart jumped into his throat as his mind spun.

They had to get out of here.

How?

His gaze darted around the walls, looking for anything.

Anything.

He caught sight of an access vent above him.

It was too high for even him to jump, let alone Ava.

But then he saw the release valve beside it.

He snatched his scanner from his belt. If he could just get it to connect to the release valve, he could open the hatch.

The deadly black liquid encroached on them from all sides.

His fingers slipped over the scanners controls, so much sweat building between them he couldn't hold them steady. “Come on," he screamed.

They were still pressed together on the only section of safe flooring. He had to loop an arm up and around her back to work on the scanner.

Suddenly he felt her wriggle an arm free and grab something from her belt. She brought it up.

It was a magnetic lock used to secure a tool to the floor or wall if you were experiencing gravitational issues.

She obviously knew what he was thinking, and this was the perfect tool.

Slamming his scanner on his belt, he shifted back as far as he could.

She ducked down to her knees, giving his arm the space it would need for a throw.

He jammed his tongue behind his teeth, said a short desperate prayer, and threw the mag lock at the vent control.

Heart ringing in his ears and blood turning to ice in his veins, he was sure it would fall short.

It didn't. Just in time, it changed direction and hooked right over the vent control.

There was a beep, and the vent hatch opened, swinging down low.

In an ideal world, you didn't have to throw a mag lock at the ceiling to get a vent to open. You did it remotely.

The Mandalay was far from an ideal world. It was a death trap.

As the vent hatch swung open, a ladder formed, rungs locking into place with resonant clicks.

Fortunately the ladder didn't extend all the way to the floor – it stopped just a foot off it.

By now the black gel had encroached so far they were stranded on a tiny island two feet in diameter.

The ladder was a good meter away.

He rocked back on his feet getting ready to make the jump.

He stopped.

She wouldn’t make it. Especially with her wrists.

She didn't say a word though.

She was going to let him make the jump, save himself, and….

He lurched to the floor, sure his knees didn't push into the liquid.

“What are you doing?” she spluttered.

“Get on my back,” he commanded. “Now. You won’t make that jump. Now move.”

She hesitated, then clambered onto his back, legs hooking under his arms, chest pushing against his back.

He stood, clenching his muscles to carry her weight. “Hook your arms around my neck and wrap your arms around my waist as tightly as you can,” he ordered.

She did it, her armlets pressing against his throat, the metal cold and smooth, her legs locked in front of him.

He sucked in a breath that shunted hard into his lungs, and released his arms from her legs, letting them swing loosely by his sides.

He rocked back, took a single step, then threw himself at the ladder.

….

He just made it.

His scrabbling hands grasped the rungs. With a grunt that punched down the corridor, he swung his legs up just in time so his boots didn't drag through the gel.

His heart could have exploded, his mind could have crumpled.

They’d made it.

Thankfully Ava was strong enough to keep herself locked around his back, her face pressing hard against his cheek.

He started to climb the ladder.

Suddenly, one of the rungs gave way. He managed to grab another, jerking to the side and almost falling but saving himself just in time.

The rung fell heavily into the ever-deepening pool of gel.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something splash onto Ava’s right armlet.

Neuro gel.

He froze, expecting the both of them to be electrocuted to a crisp. Neuro gel was so energy rich that a single drop could kill ten people.

His terrified gaze locked on it.

But nothing happened.

“It's okay," she managed. Slowly, she pulled her right arm from around his neck and held it out at a right angle, pushing in closer with her chest as she secured her remaining arm harder around him.

He couldn’t help but keep his gaze locked on that single drop of black liquid until finally they made it up the ladder.

A grunt tore from his throat as he pulled them both up into the vent.

Carefully she unwrapped herself from around him, always keeping her arm held as far from him as she could.

He twisted and crouched in the tunnel, gaze locking on the liquid again.

She looked fine for now, but who knew how long her armlets would hold up – neuro gel was extremely corrosive.

“We have to get that off you,” he stuttered, desperate gaze slicing from side-to-side as he looked for anything that could help.

He spied a loose section of rubber-like insulation running along the walls. He secured a hand around it and yanked it with a hard breath that puffed Ava’s hair over her face.

The insulation would stop him from being electrocuted, but it wouldn’t be able to mop up the neuro gel.

He needed something absorbent. Anything.

He cast around until his gaze settled on his shirt.

Without another thought, he tugged it off, revealing his bare chest underneath.

Ava politely looked to the side, never letting her arm drop as she held it at an uncomfortable angle.

He ripped his shirt in half and wrapped half around the rod of insulation, which was luckily rigid enough that it didn't flop around in his hands.

“Alright, come here.” He gestured her forward.

“This is too dangerous. We should just wait. If any of that gel gets on you—”

“And if any of it gets on you," he spoke in a strident tone that drowned her out, “You’ll die. So come here.”

Reluctantly she brought her arm forward. “Just be careful,” she begged in a quiet voice.

“Don’t worry. I have no intention of letting you die today.”

“I was talking about you,” she corrected.

He didn't answer. He drew his lips together, clenched his jaw, and carefully began to mop up the black liquid.

It was a delicate task.

A long one, too. He didn't stop until he was damn sure he’d mopped it all up – every goddamn particle. Then he reached past her, shuffling forward on his knees, and discarded his shirt and the rod of insulation out of the open hatch.

He heard it hit the floor below with a squelch.

She began to shift forward.

“Not so fast.” He shifted past her again, naked torso brushing against her side as he reached into a side panel and yanked out a long section of insulation. He proceeded to wrap it around her armlet, tying it in place with the other half of his shirt.

She didn't once stare at his bare chest, even though it was right in front of her, instead shifting her head to the side.

When he was done, he rested back on his haunches.

She shifted her head around and looked straight into his eyes. “Thank you.”

His stomach kicked. Maybe it was adrenaline, left over fear from the fact he’d almost died.

Maybe it was the way she looked at him.

He cleared his throat.

She shifted forward, a few strands of her long hair brushing perilously close to her armlet.

He’d cleaned it with all the precision of a doctor scouring a wound, and covered it in insulation, but he knew he still had to be careful. “Hold up.” He brought a hand forward in a stopping motion. “We need to secure your hair tightly. It could transfer micro particles onto your clothes.”

“Oh.” She moved to do it herself.

“No. I’ve got this.” He shuffled around her on his knees, flesh digging hard into the ridged gangway-metal of the floor.

He let his fingers trail along her neck, gathering all her hair.

She shivered.

Or maybe he did.

It was hard to tell.

He pulled out the clip that was only holding half her hair in now, secured it in his mouth, bunched her hair into a bun, and locked it in place.

He tested it, gazing up and down her back, even bending around and checking the side of her face to ensure no strands could come loose.

The struggle for survival was over, but his heart was still beating wildly. Not too fast, but hard. He felt it thump through his chest like a metronome keeping rhythm.

He sucked in a breath, tried to calm himself, then nodded down the tunnel. “Come on. Try to keep everything away from your armlet.”

He shifted in front of her, got down on his hands and knees, and began to crawl.

As soon as he locked his hands on the painful grating, he recoiled. Not from pain, but because a realization struck him.

“Your wrists.” He jerked his head back to her.

“I’ll be fine.” She shuffled past him, expression controlled, even though he knew every movement would be putting her through hell.

He winced in sympathy. “Okay. I’d tell you to wait here, but the truth is, I don’t want you anywhere near here. This place is too goddamn dangerous. Just… distract yourself from the pain,” he encouraged, trying to crawl beside her, despite the cramped tunnel, just so he could keep his gaze locked on her.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve faced worse,” she said off hand.

There was something about the way she said it that told him she wasn’t lying.

Maybe he should keep quiet, but he didn't want to. “What do you mean?”

She didn't answer.

Curiosity burned in his gut. He wanted to know – no, needed to know – who the hell she’d been on Avixa and why she was here now.

Maybe she could guess what he was thinking, because she suddenly broke eye contact and stared concertedly at the floor. As she did, a strand of hair cut down from her bun and flared around her eyes.

He lurched forward and caught it, fingers brushing against her cheek.

It, like her hair was soft. Her skin was supple and smooth, her cheek cushioning his fingers as he swept her loose hair back into her bun, securing it tightly behind her clip.

Throughout the whole move, she didn't move a muscle. She did look at him though.

His stomach kicked at the question behind her gaze.

He found himself swallowing hard again.

Then he remembered his question. A spike of courage flared through his chest.

Chen had told him to just ask, so he would.

“Ava,” he looked at her directly, “What were you on Avixa? Why did you join the Academy? And why do the other Avixans have such a problem with you?”

She froze, a breath trapped in her throat as her chest pushed hard against her arms.

“I… I just want to know your side of the story. Meva… Meva said you came from the ruling class,” he blurted before he could stop himself.

There was no way he should be sharing this information with Ava. But he couldn't stop himself.

Ava let out a snort. It wasn’t derisive. It was hurt.

It piqued his curiosity even more. He pressed closer out of curiosity, which wasn’t hard considering these closed confines. “I know it's a faux pas in Avixan society to discuss these things, but just help me understand.”

He thought she’d ignore him.

She even shuffled a few meters down the tunnel. Then she stopped. “I’m not from the ruling class. Not really.”

“What do you mean?” He reached her side again. “Meva said you… your people oppress hers.” Again, he knew he should stop himself, but again he could not.

Ava’s shoulders hunched, then she suddenly pushed back and collapsed against the small wall. Drawing her knees up, she let her left arm rest in her lap as she kept her right arm held as far away as she could.

She looked right into his eyes. “Why are you asking this?”

“Because I want to know the truth. Is that so bad? I know you can’t tell me everything, I know your society doesn’t share information with outsiders, but you’ve got to give me something.” He had no idea why he was being so earnest.

No. That was a lie. He knew exactly why. Ava had been willing to die for him.

Chen was right. That did count for something.

He met her hard gaze, never looking away.

Eventually she did. She closed her eyes. “You want to know why I left Avixa? Because I can’t handle responsibility.”

It wasn’t the answer he’d expected.

It did something to him. Slowed him right down.

As Ava sat pressed against the wall, her eyes still closed, he recognized exactly what she was feeling.

He’d felt it before. Just this morning, in fact.

He didn’t want to be here, either. He couldn’t hack the responsibility his brother seemed so determined to pile on his shoulders.

“I wanted to get away. Live a normal life,” she continued, never opening her eyes.

“Ava,” the last knot unwound from his heart, “I’m sorry I treated you like that—”

“Hunter?!” suddenly Harvey’s voice boomed over Hunter’s wrist device. He jolted back in surprise.

“Harvey? I mean, captain?”

“Christ, you’re alright. The whole section of corridor you were in is a mess, neuro gel everywhere. How the hell did you get out of there?”

“Long story. Glad to hear your voice though. Communications were down.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“In the vent system. Do me a favor, send me through a map. I want to get out of here as quickly as I can.”

“Alright… done. Confirm receipt.”

Hunter yanked up his arm and checked his WD. “Got it.”

“Make contact when you’re out.” With that, Harvey signed off.

Hunter began to grin, then stopped.

He realized something. Not once had Harvey asked where Ava was. Maybe Harvey had no idea she was in this section, but B'cal would have told him, surely.

Which left another uncomfortable possibility.

Hunter found his stomach knotting as he thought about it, a cold sweat prickling between his shoulders.

The rational part of his mind told him he was jumping to conclusions. The irrational passionate side couldn't push away the fear Harvey wasn’t concerned about Ava.

As Hunter’s stomach clenched even harder at that thought, he couldn’t stop himself from appreciating the irony.

Literally half an hour ago, he’d been certain Ava was the enemy.

Now….

“Come on.” She shifted forward, flexed her wrists, then locked her hands on the floor. “Where should we head?”

He didn’t tell her he wanted to stay right here and finish the conversation they’d just started.

She had to get out of here and her right armlet had to be cleaned of neural liquid.

So he assessed the map Harvey had sent him and made some quick calculations.

Then he winced. “I’m sorry, Ava, but it's going to take at least ten minutes of crawling to get out of here. Are your wrists going to hold up?”

“I’ll be fine.”

He couldn’t stop himself from chuckling lightly. “You’re meant to be weak, Ensign Ava, so how come you’re turning out to be so strong?” He had no idea where that comment had come from. It had sprung from his lips before he’d thought it through.

Now it hung there in the air.

Slowly she shifted and glanced at him. He could just make out those little pale blue halos of light around her pupils. He found himself wanted to get closer to study them in full.

“True strength doesn’t have anything to do with how much you can lift,” she noted as she turned and kept shuffling forward, “It’s to do with how much you can withstand without breaking.”

Her quiet words sent a tingle down his back as he followed her down the tunnel.

Ava

There was too much to think about.

The passionate Hunter McClane kept revealing facts she couldn’t ignore.

Meva had lied to him about Avixan society. Worse, apparently she frequently took her bangles off.

Unless under exceptional medical circumstances, a non-priestess was never meant to remove their bangles.

They weren’t mere adornments. They were locks. While they did not function the same way as Ava’s – holding her completely off from her powers – they could be activated.

Should an Avixan forget the most sacred rule and begin using their powers to rule and destroy, a priestess could activate their locks, and the offending Avixan would fall unconscious into a specialized stasis that could only be broken by a priestess.

All Avixans wore locks, not just as a constant reminder of what they should not become, but as an insurance measure, lest they ignored all decency and became devils once more.

As for the fact Meva had obviously been lying to Hunter, that was a different matter.

Avixans considered sharing information about their society a crime for one reason and one reason alone: so the truth did not come out. They couldn’t let the modern Milky Way know what they’d once been. Devils. Murderers. Vicious conquerors.

Meva had not breathed a word of this true reality, so technically, she’d committed no crime.

“Hey, you’ve gone all quiet,” Hunter said gently from in front of her, twisting over his shoulder to check on her, “You okay?”

She nodded.

She was not okay.

She didn’t know what to do.

Technically she could contact the Avixan government and share her suspicions with them, but she didn’t have any evidence, just hearsay.

She’d need evidence to have Meva extradited back to Avixa. Not just because her case wouldn’t stick, but on moral grounds, too. Putting aside the fact Meva hated her, Ava couldn’t get her extradited if she’d done nothing wrong. In all likelihood, Meva’s unusual behavior was just a reaction to her freedom. The same freedom Ava as now trying to enjoy.

“What are you thinking about? It’s… not what I told you about Meva, right? Look, I think I might have made a mistake; I shouldn’t have shared that information. You’re not gonna… get her in trouble, right?”

Hunter plucked her problem right out of her head and laid it before her.

She had to make a decision now.

She took a breath and found herself shaking her head. “No.”

“… You’re not actually lying, are you?” he asked after a few seconds of peering at her intently.

His observation threw her, and she blinked hard. “Sorry?”

“I think I’m the one who should be sorry, Ava. I’ve judged you too harshly.”

“I… oh…” she trailed off, head dropping down as she gazed at her hands.

He chuckled lightly. “You’re not usually lost for words. I guess that was one of the reasons you, ah, irritated me so much,” he gave another bashful chuckle as he massaged the back of his neck, “You always seem so calm and in control. Nothing fazes you. Nothing scares you.”

“There’s plenty that scares me,” she answered in such a quiet tone her voice could barely carry. Her gaze sliced naturally towards her armlets. When she looked up, she realized Hunter had followed her gaze.

He looked pointedly from her armlets to her face. “I guess there is. I misjudged you. I’m sorry.” He stopped and reached a hand out to her. “Friends?” His direct gaze took on a strange quality as he stared right into her eyes.

She didn’t take his hand.

He grinned awkwardly. “I’m not going to bite. It’s okay, you can shake it.”

“I kinda don’t want to kill you.” He’d reached his left hand out towards her right hand. She pulled up her right arm and pointed to the insulation.

He gave an embarrassed wince. “Sorry about that.” He dropped his hand.

On instinct, an odd energy playing through the pit of her belly, she pulled up her left hand and held it out.

She said nothing.

He hesitated for the briefest moment.

Then he reached out and grabbed his firm hard fingers around her own.

They shook hands.

There was energy behind the move, and a prickly heat spread through her chest.

Suddenly his WD beeped. He jolted back, clearly not expecting the distraction. “Yeah?” he answered.

“Where are you?” it was Captain McClane.

“Still in the tunnels, Harv. We’re almost out.”

“We?” Captain McClane questioned.

Hunter’s lips drew together in an unmistakably angry move. She’d honestly seen enough of the wrong side of Lieutenant Hunter McClane’s anger to recognize it easily.

“Ensign Ava’s here with me. I assumed you knew.” Hunter said.

Then he mouthed something.

Most wouldn’t have been able to pick it up. Ava could. As his lips moved harshly over his lips, he mouthed, “Though you didn’t ask.”

There was a long pause. “That’s good to know. How long until you get out of there?”

Hunter didn’t answer right away. Instead he jerked his head to the side and stiffened his jaw. “Not what you should be asking, Harv,” he whispered.

“Lieutenant?” the captain prompted.

“She’s holding up great considering the circumstances, but she is injured,” Hunter replied, even though the captain hadn’t asked that.

There was another considerable pause from the captain’s end.

Even though she was just guessing, it seemed uncomfortable.

“Yeah, she’s injured her wrists again,” Hunter continued in the kind of tone that suggested he was responding to a question.

A question that had never been asked.

“We’re also going to need a decon team. She got some neural liquid on one of her armlets. I’ve cleared away as much as I can and covered the armlet with insulation. But it’s still going to have to be cleaned.”

“Right,” Captain McClane eventually answered. “I’ll relay the message to the Chief.”

“Hmm,” Hunter grunted. “We’re about three minutes away.” With that, Hunter ended the transmission.

She stared at him in shock. “What was that about?”

Hunter shifted his jaw around. “Sometimes Harv needs to be reminded of what really matters. I’m sorry, Ava.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Your captain shouldn’t have forgotten about you,” Hunter blurted, looking at her meaningfully from under his crumpled brow.

“It’s okay.”

“Maybe to you, but not to me. Anyhow, I guess we should push on. The sooner we get you up and off your wrists, the better.”

She nodded, another strand of hair cutting in front of her face.

He automatically leaned forward, bare chest brushing against her left arm as he tucked it into her bun. “Come on,” he said in a strange tone when he finished.

She followed him.

She was sure not to look at his naked torso.

She knew humans were not as free with their bodies as Avixans. Nudity was not an issue within Avixan society. Humans found great indignity in baring their skin.

So, though her gaze kept slipping back to the hard muscled line of his back, she determinedly returned her eyes to the floor.

Those three minutes flew past in a flash.

Finally they found a hatch.

“Hold on,” she said before he could open it.

Carefully, she began removing her tunic top.

His eyes widened, gaze snapping down to her chest. “Ah, what are you doing?” he choked.

“It’s okay. I have a singlet on underneath. You can have my tunic top.” It was hard undressing with only one arm. She’d have to be extremely careful when pulling her arm out of from her right sleeve. But she knew she could do it without the fabric touching her armlet.

“It’s okay, Ava,” his words were still choked for some reason.

“I understand humans aren’t comfortable with showing bare skin. Please, you can use this.” She reached her right sleeve, and found it was much harder to wriggle out of it than she’d accounted for.

“It won’t fit, and it’s okay,” he chuckled.

“No, but I—”

He kept chuckling.

He had a nice chuckle. Light. Melodious.

“Just stop before you get stuck.” He gently pulled her top back over her head.

Then he rested back on his haunches and laughed again.

She couldn’t tell if he was laughing at her, but it certainly didn’t seem derogatory.

“Come on.” He tilted his head towards the hatch. As he broke her gaze and turned to the hatch, his eyes lingered on her for a few seconds.

Then, with a cough, he opened the hatch and clambered out.

There were already people in the corridor. B'cal and a few other engineers.

B'cal took one look at Hunter’s naked torso and cleared his throat. “I’m not even going to ask.”

Hunter visibly flushed. “I used my top to soak up the neural gel on her armlet. It was the only thing at hand absorbent enough.”

B'cal shrugged. “Well that does make sense. Anyhow, where’s my gel leak?”

Ava hesitated, then proffered her arm.

B'cal raised an eyebrow. He pursed his lips together and whistled. “Those armlets of yours save the day again, ha? One of these days you’re going to have to tell me what they’re made of. Most metal would have been eaten away within a few minutes of exposure to neural gel.”

She didn’t say anything.

She couldn’t.

“Anyhow, come here.” B'cal plucked a scanner from his belt and waved it over her armlet. He nodded. “Damn, it’s holding up alright. The residual neuro gel hasn’t eaten through it. Hasn’t even dented it as far as I can tell.” He whistled through his teeth.

“So there is residual gel?” Hunter blurted.

“Sure is. Only so much you can mop up with a lieutenant’s top. We’re going to have to clear the rest back in a decon room. In any another circumstance, I wouldn’t advise walking, but you seem fine,” he nodded at her, “So let’s go.”

“Wait, is that safe?” Hunter blurted again.

“Relax, lieutenant – you’ve done a pretty good job containing any residual gel with that insulation. She’ll be fine to walk. And frankly, considering the state this ship’s in, it’ll be quicker. So come on.”

She pushed off, and Hunter took up step beside her.

B'cal arched his eyebrow. “Lieutenant, you might want to take the opportunity to nip back to your quarters and put on a top.”

Hunter cleared his throat.

He looked at her once more before reluctantly pushing off into a sprint.

He’d changed.

Quickly.

When he’d argued with her this morning, she’d been ready to write him off.

Now she was starting to realize he was a decent man. Maybe something even more….

“Keep your arm steady, don’t go banging it into anything,” B'cal warned from beside her. “Luckily for us, a decon room is close.”

She nodded.

They reached the room at the end of the deck. By the time she’d walked inside, somehow Hunter was back.

B'cal narrowed his eyes and looked at him warily. “How in the hell did you run back to your quarters so quickly?”

Though Hunter was puffed, he didn’t look as if he’d run the more than kilometer expanse of the Mandalay.

“I ran to the armory,” Hunter explained as he quickly caught his breath. Then he nodded at her. “Have you cleaned it yet?”

“We haven’t even begun,” B'cal snorted. “Some of us aren’t as fast as you.”

“Well, what do you need?” Hunter asked hurriedly.

“Nothing. This should be relatively simple,” B'cal mumbled.

It wasn’t simple.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

Something wasn’t right. He didn’t need to rely on the sinking feeling pushing through his gut – he could see it in B'cal’s pressed stare.

After several minutes of trying, Ava seated on a metal bench, her elbow and wrist locked in place by robotic arms, B'cal took a sharp step back. “There’s only one thing for it. We’re going to have to remove the armlet.”

Ava stiffened, her head tucking low as she snapped her gaze away from B'cal.

“I know, I know – you’re not allowed to. Don’t worry, I’ve met enough Avixans to know this isn’t the done thing. But unless we do it, your life’s going to be in danger. I have no idea how long your armlet is going to hold up against the gel, but it won’t be able to do it forever.”

Ava withdrew into a pressured silence, her gaze locked on the opposite wall.

“She can’t remove it,” Hunter found himself rising to her defense automatically, “Apparently they don’t come off.”

“What?” B'cal frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“There’s a note on her file. Look it up.”

B'cal didn’t waste time. He looked up her file on a holographic panel.

He pushed a breath through his thin lips. “I really don’t see any way around this. Ensign, your file says we shouldn’t try to remove them, but—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish. At that moment Harvey and Shera walked in.

Ava’s gaze locked on Shera so quickly it was a surprise her purple eyes didn’t spring from her head.

Her breathing became short, her chest barely shifting as it seemed she devoted all attention to watching Shera.

Harvey drew to a stop and nodded at B'cal. “I was informed we have a potential neural gel contamination. Have you cleaned it?”

B'cal looked uncomfortable as he shook his head. “The contamination is on one of her armlets. I’m not sure why, but I can’t clean it with standard procedures. Nothing’s working.”

“Then remove the armlet and dispose of it,” Harvey ordered easily.

“We can’t remove it,” Hunter interrupted at once.

“Why not?” Harvey challenged. “I’m well aware of Avixan protocol around their ceremonial wrist bands. However, considering the direct danger this poses to my ship, I’m ordering you to take it off.”

“I understand, captain, but there’s a note on her file saying we shouldn’t attempt to remove it,” B'cal said diplomatically.

“Ensign, explain this to us. How do we remove your armlet?” Harvey demanded.

Ava couldn’t look at him. As she sat there, her face became blotchy and she drummed her left hand against the metal table in a flighty, nervous move.

She was barely breathing.

“Ensign,” Harvey snapped.

Hunter’s hackles rose. “Captain, I don’t think this is that simple,” he said through bared teeth. What he really wanted to say was Harvey was completely out of line.

“Fine. Lieutenant commander,” Harvey turned to Shera, “How do we remove that armlet?”

Shera hadn’t looked away from Ava once. Her expression… was enough to curdle his blood.

“You can’t remove the armlet. I suppose you could chop her arm off.”

Hunter lurched, his limbs jolting at the mere suggestion. “What the hell?”

“You do that and it’ll kill me,” Ava said in the smallest voice imaginable. Finally she turned and looked right at Shera.

“Sorry, ensign?” Harvey demanded.

As Ava looked at Shera, something happened. The terror that had been pulsing through Ava’s gaze seconds before hardened. “If you attempt to remove them in any way or chop my arm off, you will kill me,” for the first time she spoke loudly and directly, all the time staring at Shera. “Which is something you already know, lieutenant commander.”

“I’d would watch your tone,” Harvey snapped almost immediately.

Shera didn’t move a muscle.

“Are you serious, it’ll kill you?” Hunter asked.

Ava nodded.

Harvey still looked angry, but Hunter could see as he cast a nervous glance from Ava to Shera. “Is she telling the truth?”

Again, Shera didn’t move a muscle.

You didn’t need to be a genius to realize Shera was trying to make her mind up. Nor did you need to be a genius to realize how much animosity she held for Ava.

Or maybe you did. Because Harvey still turned fully from Ava and nodded at Shera. “Is the ensign telling the truth?”

Shera opened her mouth.

Was it just Hunter, or was there a flare of cold victory flicking in Shera’s gaze.

Ava put her left arm up, dipped her head low, and stared up at Shera. “I would be very careful, lieutenant commander. They’re all witnesses. Tell them the wrong thing, and the Avixan government will find out.”

There was so much tension surging between them, he was surprised the air didn’t crackle.

“How dare you threaten a—” Harvey began.

Shera cleared her throat and dropped her gaze to the floor. “I didn’t mean to suggest cutting your arm off was a safe option. It was merely a logical extension of the captain’s question. Not a practical one.”

“No, because it would kill me.” Ava still held her hand up, still looked at Shera with an unflinching gaze.

“… Yes, it would kill you. I apologize if my words were mistaken. I will clarify: there is no method to remove those armlets, captain, without killing her.” Shera’s voice was cold, emotionless, withdrawn.

The voice of someone who’d just lost a gamble.

Harvey looked shocked. The guy usually controlled his expression, even in the toughest circumstance, but now he looked floored. “Shera?”

B'cal was still in the room, so was Ava. As a captain, he shouldn’t be talking so informally.

“Captain?” Shera appeared to smooth a nonplussed expression onto her face, then flicked her gaze up and nodded.

Nerves mixed with anger in Hunter’s gut. “Why would you suggest that if you knew—”

“It was not a suggestion, just a comment. I now realize it was an inappropriate one,” Shera replied smoothly.

“Bullshit,” the word exploded from Hunter’s mouth before he could control himself.

“Lieutenant, outside, now,” Harvey barked.

Hunter stood there, stock still.

Fuck Harvey.

Fuck the Coalition.

This wasn’t right.

He was seconds from punching his brother and buying himself a court martial.

“It’s fine, lieutenant,” Ava broke the tense silence.

There was a direct, controlled, gentle quality to her tone.

It saw him slice his gaze over to her.

She nodded evenly.

“Outside, now,” Harvey barked again.

Reluctantly, Hunter followed.

Just as they reached the doors, Harvey hesitated. He glanced at Shera over his shoulder. “Lieutenant commander, thank you for your assistance here. You can return to your duties now.”

Shera nodded low, turned, and strode past him.

Not once did she look at Ava, letting her gaze slip along the floor like a river avoiding a stone.

She strode past, down the corridor, and quickly out of sight.

The doors closed behind Hunter and Harvey. Harvey waited until Shera was completely out of sight before he turned on Hunter, his face pressed with livid anger. “What the hell were you doing in there? That was way out of line.”

“What the hell was I doing? What the hell were you doing?”

“Do not argue with me, lieutenant. I will have to reprimand you for this.”

“You go ahead,” Hunter spat, “Because I’m going to look forward to the opportunity to explain to the probation committee why a captain suggesting chopping the arm off one of his ensigns.”

Harvey paled. Not just with indignant shock – with what Hunter hoped was realization.

“You do realize what just happened in there, right?” Hunter barreled on. “An ensign told you removing her armlet would kill her. And you were willing to override that advice with nothing more than the word of a woman who clearly hates her.”

Harvey opened his mouth.

Hunter still wouldn’t let him speak. “Do you have any idea how bad that would look, captain?”

Finally the penny dropped.

Harvey’s face – once red with rage – paled considerably. “It wasn’t like that,” he finally managed.

“Bullshit, Harv, it was exactly like that. If Shera had told you to remove Ava’s arm, you would have made the order. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I would not have made the order,” Harvey tried in a firmer tone, but his gaze was weak.

“Harvey, I know you, and this is not you. Shera clearly has deep seated animosity towards Ensign Ava. It is affecting her ability to work. She should not be in the same room as Ava, let alone in a position to decide about Ava’s physical wellbeing,” as Hunter spoke, some of the strident anger evaporated from his tone, being replaced with concerned exasperation.

Despite the fact Harvey was Hunter’s brother, he was still the captain. At any moment Harvey could end this conversation and put Hunter in the brig for insubordination.

He didn’t.

He just stood there and stared at his brother.

“I have no idea what’s going on between Ava and Shera, but you can’t afford to ignore it. Nor can you afford only to take Shera’s side. You’re the captain of this crew. You have a responsibility to everyone.”

That comment reached Harvey like nothing else could. All the blood appeared to drain from his face as he took a hard step back. “Lieutenant, that’s enough.”

“Prove it. Do something,” Hunter challenged.

“Hunter, stop,” Harvey snapped.

Just before Hunter could fear he’d booked a one-way ticket to the brig, Harvey dropped his gaze.

He looked disappointed. Hunter could guess who he was disappointed in.

Himself.

“Harvey, this morning I was just like you. Then I realized there’s always two sides to a coin.”

“What does that mean?” Harvey asked, tone measured, most of his anger gone.

“It means I made a snap judgement based on one person’s story. It means I made a mistake, and this is me trying to fix it,” Hunter said, realizing the truth of his statement as he said it. He was making up for what he’d put Ava through.

In the tunnels, she’d earned his loyalty.

Harvey didn’t appear to know what to say.

Hunter did. “Guilty until proven innocent, brother, you always say that. Now live by it.” With that, Hunter turned back around and entered the decon room.

Ava hadn’t moved. She was staring at the wall, lost in nervous thought.

She looked up as he entered.

He nodded low. “We’ll figure out what to do, Ava. Any luck figuring out a work around, chief?”

B'cal was ready to answer, but stopped as Harvey strode back in.

Maybe he was trying to hide it, but Hunter could tell Harvey looked chastened.

As he should.

Hopefully now he’d do the right thing.

Harvey cleared his throat. “What are our options, chief?”

No, Harvey – Hunter thought – this is where you acknowledge your mistake to Ava and apologize.

B'cal looked warily around the room. It was clear he had no idea what was happening. Or maybe he did. Was it just Hunter, or was B'cal standing protectively close to Ava. “Just as long as no one suggests cutting anyone’s arm off again, I should be able to come up with a solution eventually.”

It wasn’t exactly a pointed comment, but it was close.

Harvey tensed.

Come on, Harv – Hunter thought – do the right thing and apologize.

Harvey’s stiff posture deflated somewhat. “Ensign, I’m not entirely sure what just happened. I don’t know what exactly went on between you and Lieutenant Commander Shera. However, in light of your circumstances, I will not note a reprimand on your file. That being said, I am ordering you to tell me everything you can about those armlets. We need to find some way to remove the neural gel without endangering your life.”

At first Ava withdrew into an edgy silence.

“Ensign, please,” Harvey tried once more, and this time his tone was genuine. Not stiff, not strict.

“I don’t know too much about their design. I do know they form a neural link with my brain. If someone tries to forcibly remove them, or the arm they’re on, it’ll fry my nervous system.”

“Wait, they must be electrified then,” B'cal interrupted.

“Chief?” Harvey asked.

“Ah, hold on.” B'cal put up a hand, walked over to the equipment locker on the other side of the room, and removed a huge field scanner. He returned to Ava and scanned her arm. Anyone smaller than B'cal would have had to anchor the scanner on a table, but the chief’s massive form hefted it easily. “Ah, there we go. Very subtle.” He whistled through his teeth. “I couldn’t pick it up with the other scanners. You’re right, ensign, forms a permanent link with your nervous system. And that very same energy field is why I’m having so much trouble removing the remaining gel.”

“Chief, do you have a solution?” Harvey asked.

“Sure do. I’ve got this now.” He chuckled as he marched over to the equipment locker and started rooting around in it.

Hunter deflated so much it was a surprise his shoulders didn’t detach and sink through the floor.

As he glanced over at his brother, he realized Harvey appeared to relax too.

Harvey waited there until B'cal finally gave the all clear.

Then he left the room.

Hunter caught sight of Harvey’s expression as he walked through the doors.

A cloud of confusion and guilt hung over his brother’s face.

B'cal ordered Ava straight to the med bay. As Hunter turned to follow, B'cal asked him to hang back.

As soon as Ava left the room, B'cal turned on Hunter. “What happened here?” he asked directly.

Hunter didn’t need clarification. He knew what B'cal was asking.

Hunter drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

“And I don’t like it,” B'cal stated flatly. “Lieutenant Commander Shera was out of line. I’m no doctor, but from what I’ve figured out of those armlets, Ensign Ava was right – their removal would’ve killed her. So what the hell just happened back there? And more to the point, why would anyone wear those?”

All good questions. All questions that were screaming out for answers.

First things first. “Chief, do me a favor. You’ve already transferred Ava to engineering, right?”

B'cal nodded. “Why?”

“I know there are two other Avixans on board, not including Meva and Shera. Do you reckon you can give Ava tasks that will keep her away from all four of them?”

“Consider it done.”

Hunter let out a breath of relief. “Well at least that’s something.”

“What else are you going to do?” B'cal crossed his arms, looking serious.

“I’m going to find out everything I can.” Hunter nodded at him and left the room, his own promise ringing in his ears.

Chapter Seven

Ava

Ava sat on the edge of her bed. She’d been discharged from the med bay eight hours ago.

She hadn’t moved since.

She had no idea what to do.

Fear, confusion, and anger locked her in place.

She simply couldn’t believe Shera had done that, couldn’t believe the lieutenant commander would be stupid enough to make such an open and obvious threat.

Shera hated Ava, that much was clear, but Shera couldn’t do anything about it….

Ava shivered, drawing her shoulders together.

With her armlets on, she was defenseless. Slow, weak – a soft target, especially for a full Avixan warrior.

Shera could literally cut Ava to shreds.

… But she wouldn’t. Because killing a priestess was a mortal sin. Shera would be locked in stasis under the black temples and never let out.

Shera would know this. So… that meant… what? That had just been a cruel joke?

Ava shook again, drawing her arms in tightly around her middle.

The truth behind Shera’s actions wasn’t what was making Ava shiver.

It was the fact she’d shared information about her locks.

If the Avixan government found out, she’d be shipped back to the temples and never allowed to leave the planet again.

That thought chilled her, saw her arms wrap all the way around her middle as she crunched her head onto her knee.

The door opened without warning, and in walked Nema.

They shared quarters.

This wasn’t the first time Nema had walked in over the past eight hours.

Ava didn’t even bother to uncoil herself.

“God, you’re still like this. Ava, honey, whatever happened, I’m sure it’ll be okay.”

Ava didn’t move.

There was no point. The Avixan government would find out sooner rather than later, then she’d be shipped away.

“Honey, it’s okay.” Nema bent over her and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “Your shift starts in an hour. Ava?”

“There’s no point. I won’t be allowed to stay. There’ll come for me.”

“Who? You keep saying that. What’s going on? Ava?”

Ava wouldn’t answer. After a few failed attempts to comfort her, Nema took a step back, let out a worried breath, and left the room.

Ava squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block out the pain.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

His mind was spinning summersaults through his skull.

There was too much to think about.

That’s why he hardly noticed when Ensign Nema walked up to him in the mess hall.

She cleared her throat and pressed her hands together. “Excuse me, are you Lieutenant McClane?”

“Yeah. Can I help you?”

“I’m hoping you can,” the ensign said in a quiet tone. “You were involved in the accident with Ensign Ava this morning, weren’t you?”

“How do you know about that?” he asked immediately. The nature of that accident had been kept quiet from the crew. The last thing Harvey wanted was for news of a split between the Avixans on board getting out.

The ensign clasped her hands tighter. “I know Ava was in an accident, and, ah… you were seen exiting a hatch with her with your top off. News like that travels. I don’t know what the accident was about though. And Ava won’t tell me.”

Hunter baulked. “I can explain. I didn’t have my top off because—”

The ensign looked mortified. “No, I wasn’t suggesting anything like that. I just... I came to you because I think I need your help. I share quarters with Ava. Ever since she came back from the med bay, she’s done nothing but sit on the edge of her bed with her arms wrapped around her middle. She won’t move. Won’t respond to me. And every time I remind her that her shift’s coming up, she just mumbles there’s no point. That she won’t be allowed to stay. That they’ll come and get her.”

Any fleeting embarrassment burnt up as panic gripped his heart. “What? Who’ll come and get her?”

“I don’t know. She won’t explain. I’m guessing it has something to do with the accident. I think she’s scared there’ll be repercussions. I know you were involved. I was hoping you could put her mind at ease or at the very least put her out of her misery.”

Hunter didn’t need to be asked twice. He snapped to his feet. “Where are your quarters? B Block,” he suddenly remembered as he clicked his fingers.

The ensign looked shocked. “How do you know that?”

“Never mind. I’ll go see what I can do.” He nodded genuinely, turned sharply on his boot, and half jogged out of the mess hall.

He’d wanted an excuse to see Ava after the incident, anyway. But this wasn’t the kind of excuse he’d wanted. The thought of her cradled on the edge of her bed in fear shook through his gut like a punch.

He raced to B Block.

It didn’t take long to find her quarters. Her name was on the door.

He didn’t hesitate. He jammed his thumb into her intercom. “Ava? It’s me, Lieutenant McClane. Hunter. Open up.”

She didn’t respond.

“Ava, I know you’re in there. Your roommate’s worried about you. Now, please, open up. Don’t make me override the door controls. Come on.”

“Come,” she called.

The doors opened.

She was on the edge of her bed, just as Ensign Nema described.

Nema hadn’t been able to describe the exact look of total dejection crumpling Ava’s brow and whitening her cheeks, though.

He slowed right down as he entered, a cold sensation spreading through his chest as his heart went out to her.

“Ava,” the door swished closed behind him.

He’d never seen her like this – never been able to imagine the strong calm Ava in such a state of fragility.

She didn’t look at him.

Her arms were wrapped so tightly around her legs that her hands had gone white.

She stared dejectedly past him, her eyes wide, her gaze dead.

“Ava.” Without deciding to, he sat down next to her on her bed. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s all over now. You’re okay. The neural gel’s all gone.” Even as he said it, he knew that’s not why she was acting like this.

“It doesn’t matter," she managed in a weak voice.

“What doesn’t matter, Ava? Are you… scared of Shera?” Protective anger flared in his gut at the very thought of it.

“No,” she answered in that same dead tone.

“It’s okay. Tell me what’s going on between you two. I’ll tell the captain. He will listen to me this time.”

“It doesn’t matter. I won’t be allowed to stay.”

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as a cold shiver pressed down his back. “What do you mean? Who won’t allow you to stay? You’ve done nothing wrong – the Coalition aren’t going send you away for this.”

“My people. I committed a crime,” her voice was so quiet he had to lean close to pick it up.

Fear locked him in place.

God, he hadn’t been wrong, had he? Ava wasn’t the monster Meva had made her out to be, right?

Even as he thought it, he knew it couldn’t be true. “Ava, what are you talking about?”

“It’s forbidden to share information about my locks. I shouldn’t have even told you there were called locks,” she admitted through a crushed laugh. She brought a hand up and collapsed it over her face.

He could see tears streaking through her fingers.

What she’d said struck him. “What are you talking about? You barely shared any information with us.”

“It’s enough. They’ll take me back to Avixa.”

“No. Look, there’s got to be some way to appeal. I mean… how do you know they’ll even find out? I’ll talk to Harvey, I’ll let him know to leave that bit out of his report. I’ll let B'cal know, too. I’ll make sure no one says anything.”

Slowly she let her hand drop. Her pale face was covered in tears, her skin flushed with blotchy specks of blue.

He couldn’t say she looked truly hopeful, but there was a flicker in her eyes.

“Ava, I will make this work. I owe you considering how much of a jerk I was. You deserve to be on this ship.”

She uncurled her legs, locked her hands on the bed, and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she shook her head. “It probably won’t work.”

“Sure it will. If news never spreads, they’ll never know. I don’t know anything about your society, Ava, but I know you didn’t do anything wrong. So I’m not going to let you go down for this.” He stood, the passion pushing him to his feet like a swell battering a ship at sea. He looked down at her, heart beating hard in his chest.

In that moment, he was completely aware of his body. His attention centered in his beating heart, his stiff back, his eager gaze.

He forced himself to take a step back. “Wait here. I’ll make this right.” He turned and half-jogged out of her door.

If he’d had time to pause, he would appreciate how far he’d come since this morning.

Maybe things were moving too fast, maybe it meant he couldn’t think things through.

Maybe it didn’t matter.

Hunter McClane was different from his brother.

He wasn’t a great commander. He wasn’t the perfect strategist.

But when he knew something was right, he followed it through.

And that was more important.

Chapter Eight

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

News had spread.

Not just about Hunter taking his shirt off.

But about the true nature of the accident and the aftermath. Not amongst the crew, amongst the Avixans.

Hunter saw two of them in the corridors as he plowed towards the bridge.

Tough they appeared to be engaged in some kind of work with an open communication panel, they stared at him as he powered past.

They even twisted their heads to watch him as he flew down the corridor, straining their stiff white necks until he was out of sight. He could see how eagerly they watched him as he glanced at one of the reflective panels beside him.

If he needed any more evidence Shera had spread information about the accident, it came sashaying around a corner and latched a hand on his wrist.

Meva.

Her expression, as always, was unreadable. At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking it was playful, intimate even.

At second glance, he saw the fine wrinkles rumpling the skin around her eyes, the hard edge to her jaw. “Hunter, there you are. I’ve been looking for you.”

“I don’t have time,” he snapped as he went to brush past.

She wouldn’t let go of his wrist.

She curled her strong fingers around it like a clamp.

He stopped, arched his neck, and shifted around to look at her pointedly. “Meva, let me go. I’m busy.”

“I need to talk to you.” Her smile stiffened as her crystal blue eyes narrowed. She wasn’t glancing at him – she was watching him, surveying his every micro expression.

Naturally he stiffened.

He took a step back.

She kept hold of his wrist and stepped with him. Her smile – that crazy, seductive smile that usually drove him wild – made him uneasy as hell.

“Hunter, we need to talk. Now. You’re not on duty, so whatever it is you want to do can wait.”

“Meva,” his tone dropped low in warning, “Let go of my wrist now.”

His voice carried, and as two confused ensigns walked down their section of corridor, Meva finally dropped her grip and took a step back.

Hunter tugged down on his shirt as he fixed her in an angry pointed stare.

“Fine. Go.” She curled one arm around her middle and gestured dismissively with the other. “But come find me as soon as you can, once you’ve done whatever it is that’s more important than me.”

The confused ensigns hadn’t finished traversing this length of the corridor, and he could tell their attention was transfixed on him.

He didn’t want his relationship with Meva advertised. She apparently didn’t care as she took a step forward and seductively inclined her head to the left, letting her gaze slip up and down his form.

He took a solid step backwards, reinstating his personal space. “That’s enough. We’re in public,” he dropped his tone to a harsh whisper.

“So we are.” She gestured with her elegant fingers. Then smiled again.

Once again that smile set him on edge.

He’d never noticed the predatory quality to it before today.

“Anyway, come find me,” she purred, maybe realizing she was likely to catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

He shook his head tersely. “Good luck with that. I’ll be busy the rest of the day.”

She looked down at his feet then slowly slid her gaze upwards as she arched an eyebrow. “I don’t appreciate your tone, lover.”

He cringed. “My tone is the least of your problems. You’re behavior here is out of line.”

Her head tilted to the side with all the menace of a snake jerking to follow its prey. “What are you saying?”

He stopped.

What was he saying?

He’d had an emotional couple of days. He’d almost died twice. A rational man would step back, deal with his feelings, and try not to make any important decisions.

“Hunter, what are you saying?” Meva repeated, lips curling hard over her teeth as her eyes flashed.

He brought a hand up and dug his tensed fingers into the back of his neck.

His single moment of indecision was enough to see her smile.

And that smile was all it took.

“I guess I’m breaking up with you,” he realized out loud.

Once the words were out, he couldn’t pull them back.

Meva stiffened. Her face looked as if it had been cast from steel.

Slowly one lip twitched up, then she let out a derisive snort.

His hackles rose.

“I suppose you are. Oh well, better you than me,” she said as she slowly tipped her head to the side and took a step to his left.

She drew up alongside him, hooked her hair gently behind her ear, and slowly flicked her gaze over to him.

He held it.

“This way, with you breaking up with me, you can keep whatever little dignity you have left.”

His jaw locked with tension.

“Oh, little Hunter, you’ll never break out from behind your brother’s shadow, will you? You’ll always be half the man he is. No matter how pathetically you struggle.” She tilted her head and gave a soft, lilting laugh. Then she clenched her teeth and pulled her lips back. “I was always too good for you, Hunter, you know that, don’t you?” She smiled triumphantly. The exact same move, the exact same curl to her lips.

This time he saw it for what it really was.

He took a hard step back, never dropping her gaze. “I hope your next boyfriend realizes how great you are, Meva, because I have a feeling I’m going to forget real fast.” He turned and walked away.

At first his stomach sank.

It didn’t sink too far.

He couldn’t even begin to feel sorry for himself.

Meva had shown her true colors. Better to find out sooner rather than later.

So, despite his messy breakup, he fixed his mind back on the task of helping Ava.

Realizing he had no time to waste, he made it to the bridge as fast as he could.

Ordinary crew members couldn’t march onto the bridge and demand a meeting with the captain.

Hunter was hardly ordinary, and nor was he in an ordinary mood.

The more he thought about this situation, the more screwed he realized it was.

Sure, the Coalition needed the Avixans, but they also needed to know who the hell the Avixans really were.

No more lies and half-truths.

When Hunter marched onto the bridge, Harvey swiveled to look at him. Then, in one continuous, smooth move he stood from his seat, motioned towards the discussion room with a flick of his head, and led Hunter forward.

Maybe Harvey had been expecting Hunter to come striding onto the bridge sooner rather than later, because he didn't ask a single question until the doors to his discussion room closed.

He strode behind his desk, sat down quietly, and looked up.

Hunter's chest punched out as a swirl of frustration and plain confusion stormed in his heart. "This isn't right."

"What isn't right? The fact you just stormed onto my bridge?"

"Screw that, Harvey. You know what I'm talking about. I can't stand the fact we don't know anything about the Avixans. We have no idea what’s going on. We can't make informed decisions."

"For once," Harvey let out a stiff breath, "I agree with you."

Hunter's brow crumpled. "Aren't you going to take another serve at me for marching onto your bridge and snapping at you?" He looked at his brother keenly.

At first Harvey didn't make a move, then he let out another plainly frustrated breath. "I probably should. Your behavior has been completely out of line for these past few days." He trailed off, gaze dropping to his desk. "... But so has mine."

It was the first time Harvey had actually admitted to doing something wrong.

Hunter didn't know if he was gratified or relieved. Probably both.

This was the Harvey he knew and loved.

He let out his own relieved sigh, took a step forward, and folded into the seat behind Harvey's desk. "First thing's first, I've got to tell you Ava's terrified."

"Of what? I took your advice... I have instructed Shera to stay away from her." Harvey's expression was cold, hard, a touch defeated.

It must have been goddamn hard giving that order to his girlfriend.

Still, it was the right thing to do.

"Ava's sitting in her quarters. Hasn't moved for the past eight hours according to her roommate. Keeps mumbling she's going to be taken off the ship."

Harvey's brow crumpled hard. Concern flashed in his gaze.

It gave Hunter immeasurable relief to see it.

It confirmed his brother wasn't an asshole after all.

"Says her government are going to extradite her. Said she committed a crime when she shared information about her armlets."

Harvey frowned, cheeks practically sinking off his face and falling on the desk. "She barely told us anything."

"She says it's enough. She's terrified she's going to get taken away."

"... Maybe she's overreacting."

Hunter leaned forward, hooked his arm on the desk, and stared at his brother seriously. "Yeah, Harv, and maybe she isn't. We have no goddamn idea what the Avixans will do – because we have no goddamn idea who they really are."

Harvey didn't respond. Maybe he didn't know how. Heck, Hunter didn't either.

This problem was intractable. Bigger than them both. They didn't have the power to go against the Coalition top brass and force the Avixans to give them information.

Yet at the same time, they desperately needed to know what was going on.

"What do we do, Harv?" the words were out of Hunter's mouth before he could stop himself.

As a kid, he'd always looked up to his bigger, stronger, smarter brother.

But when Harvey continued to hesitate, it became clear Hunter had to forge his own path on this one.

"I told Ava I'd come here and ask you – no, beg you," Hunter leaned forward again, until his back was practically bent in half, “Not to include anything about her telling you information on her armlets in your official report. It's a tiny detail. It would be easy to leave it out. Come on, Harv. It may not be protocol, but if the Avixans find out—”

"It's too late, Hunter."

Hunter's stomach sank so quickly it could have reached light speed. "What?" he asked through a dry, scratchy mouth. "What do you mean it's too late?"

"I already submitted my report."

Hunter paled. His cheeks felt colder than deep space, and a nasty prickly sensation rushed down his neck and front. "What did you write in your report—”

"All the relevant facts." Harvey wouldn't make eye contact. Then he sighed. "Including the fact Ensign Ava willingly shared information about her armlets, or locks as she called them."

Hunter winced, closed his eyes, and recoiled, muscles feeling weaker than if he'd run flat out for a day.

He'd failed. "When did you submit the report? Is there time to retract it?"

"Right after the incident."

Hunter swore, locked a stiff hand on his brow, and practically hid under his hand.

Every time he blinked his eyes closed, he saw an image of Ava crouched on the edge of her bed, defeated, fragile, and alone.

It made his stomach crawl. It was easily the strongest sensation he'd ever felt in his life.

"We don't know what the Avixans will do," Harvey tried.

Hunter laughed. "I don't know, Harv, if they treat Ava anything like the other Avixans on board do, I'm thinking it won't be nice. Speaking of which, I thought you were deliberately keeping information on this morning's incident amongst the crew directly involved?"

"I am. Why?" Harvey's brow crumpled in a snap.

"Because I'm pretty sure the other Avixans know. You should have seen the way they looked at me."

"Looks are not evidence, lieutenant," Harvey defaulted to using that serious, officious tone once more.

"No, but I'm dead sure Meva knows. She accosted me in the corridor as I headed here."

"And?"

"And..." Hunter trailed off as he realized Meva had never actually said anything to him about the incident.

"Do you have any actual evidence that she knows what happened?" Harvey demanded.

Hunter winced and shook his head. "No. Just a gut feeling. She was real insistent that I had talk to her right now."

"Maybe she was justifiably pissed off that you appeared out of an enclosed tunnel with an ensign and without a shirt."

Hunter swallowed the insult that punched to the fore of his mind, and cleared his throat. "You know exactly what happened to my shirt, Harv."

"Presumably, Meva didn't. You should cut her some slack. She was probably worried about you."

Hunter gave a whooping internal laugh at that.

Maybe Harvey could make out Hunter's incredulity, because he leaned forward. "She's the best thing that ever happened to you, Hunter. You've never made a relationship stick before her."

Slowly Hunter dropped his head back and looked into his brother's eyes.

... Harvey was being serious, wasn't he?

To him, Hunter had finally moved up in the world when he’d scored a girlfriend like Meva.

And now Hunter had gone and lost her, he was back at square one. Maybe that should piss him off more than it did, but right now he was too concerned for Ava, so he tipped his head back and shook it. “I broke up with her, Harv. Pretty sure she’s not the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Harvey looked genuinely shocked. “What?”

“Sorry to ruin your opinion of me, Harv, but I think I’m better off without her.”

“Hunter, don’t tell me you let this situation get to your head? Okay, I get it – you’re pissed off over what happened to Ava. But that’s no reason to break up with Meva,” Harvey looked genuinely exasperated. Heck, he looked like he wanted to get up from his seat, stride over to Hunter, and grasp him by the shoulders.

Hunter just looked at his brother with an even expression. “I guess I realized it’s not a good idea to have a relationship with a member of the crew.”

Hunter recoiled, though you had to know him to pick it up. To anyone else, the captain’s expression hardened like reinforced steel.

He also pushed back in his seat, his shoulders tensing as they flattened against the backrest.

At first Hunter thought Harvey would tell him to get out.

That’s not what happened.

Harvey pressed one hand on his polished desk, then the other, his knuckles tensed and white. “I am not letting my relationship with Shera affect my judgement.”

Hunter knew he was going too far. There was only so much he could push his brother before his brother pushed back.

But this needed to be said. “I trust you, Harvey. If you’re telling me Shera hasn’t affected your judgement – that your inability to trust Ensign Ava has nothing to do with the lieutenant commander, then okay. But I’m going to admit to you that Meva got to me. I took her side wholeheartedly, didn’t ask Ensign Ava for hers, and I made a grave mistake in doing so.”

Harvey didn’t respond, which threw Hunter.

For just a second, doubt crept into Hunter’s mind.

“And how do you know Meva wasn’t wrong? Why are you so willing to trust Ava?”

“And why aren’t you? What do you know?” Hunter crumpled forward once more and pressed his hands on the edge of his brother’s desk.

Harvey dropped his gaze. It was clear the captain was trying to figure out whether to share some crucial piece of information.

Hunter’s heart quickened. He could feel it fluttering in his chest like a trapped bird.

His stomach started to sink.

Eventually Harvey looked up, the move sharp, his head even jerking as his chin jutted forward. “I had no say about Ensign Ava coming on board. She was assigned here.”

“Excuse me? By whom?”

“Her own government. She’s only on board because of a diplomatic concession.”

Hunter finally understood the opaque comment his brother had made when he demanded to know if Ava was fit to be on board.

“After the incident in the bar, I made inquiries, tried to get her transferred off the Mandalay. I failed. Her government wants her on board. So I would take the fact she claims she will be extradited with a grain of salt.”

Hunter sat there, gut a bundle of nerves as cold sweat slicked down his shoulders. His throat was so dry he could barely breathe, but he pushed out a pressured, “What?”

“I shouldn’t have shared that information with you. I’ll trust you’ll be discreet about it. I only told you, because I think it’s relevant. I think you made a mistake with Meva, Hunter. I’m sure you still have time to fix it.”

Hunter’s head was spinning.

“Now, I have no idea why the Avixan government would demand that a physically weak and mostly ineffective ensign be stationed aboard the Mandalay. It certainly isn’t for our benefit. The only thing I can think of is if she’s here for one reason.” Harvey looked directly at Hunter and paused. It was clear he was waiting for Hunter to come up with some obvious conclusion.

When Hunter didn’t respond, Harvey shook his head and pressed forward, that same white knuckled hand spreading, his fingers pushing hard into the desk as he stood up.

“Hunter, there is every possibility Ava is here to spy on the other Avixans.”

“What?”

“Think about it. That accounts for why the other Avixans are so wary around her. It also accounts for… Shera’s anger. And it’s the only reason why Ava would be stationed aboard considering she has no real power. And you said yourself, Meva told you Ava is from a higher level of society. She said Ava’s kind oppressed the other Avixans and held them in place. So doesn’t it make sense that they would station a spy on the Mandalay, the only ship in the Coalition fleet with four other Avixans?”

Hunter’s mind spun. No, that was an understatement, he couldn’t describe the way his thoughts and feelings shifted and intertwined together, locking him in place like chains around his throat and wrists.

Harvey took a step back from the desk, locked his hands behind his back, and twisted his head to the view.

Space flitted past outside. A dark swathe split here and there with lines of light as they passed stars at far beyond the speed of light.

“Like I said, you can’t breathe a word of this to anyone else. I won’t have dissent amongst the crew.” Harvey didn’t turn, just kept his head angled towards the view, his expression blank.

Hunter couldn’t sit still any longer. He stumbled to his feet, ashamed his body was so undone by his reeling mind.

For the briefest second he closed his eyes and dragged his stiff fingers down his brow.

As soon as he did – as soon as his lids locked close – he saw Ava again. Crumpled there on the edge of her bed.

Lost.

Completely alone.

… Could it really be an act?

Maybe Harvey could see Hunter in the reflection on the window, because Harvey turned, a stern expression on his face. “Don’t be loyal to the wrong person, Hunter. That’s got you in trouble before. Think. Be smart.”

That reprimand sent a flare of anger arcing through Hunter’s gut. It was enough to see him curl his hands into tight fists, enough to gain a moment of clarity from his spinning, freefalling thoughts. “Aren’t you just guessing, Harvey?”

That smooth, calm control Harvey always got when he was playing the competent captain cracked.

Hunter saw his opportunity and took a sharp step forward, boots squeaking across the polished floor. “Bottom line,” his voice bottomed out low, reverberating hard through his chest and down deep into his legs, “We know nothing about the Avixan people. Nothing. Not a goddamn thing,” his voice arced up higher and higher until it filled the room.

Maybe it was the intensity behind Hunter’s expression or the force of his words, but Harvey swallowed, his once direct gaze becoming momentarily confused.

“This morning, neither you nor I knew that those armlets Ava wears can kill her. We found that out the hard way. Because you know what, Harvey? We don’t know a goddamn thing,” Hunter repeated, voice punching out with so much power his words were like shots from a canon. “Do you really want to keep finding out the truth about the Avixans the hard way? Maybe you’re right about Ava. Maybe she’s a spy,” he couldn’t control his voice and it twisted with uncertainty and fear, “Maybe you’re wrong. But are you really arrogant enough to base a command decision on nothing more than a guess?”

It was the word arrogant that got Harvey’s attention.

His brow flattened, cheeks becoming sallow and slack. “This isn’t your call, Hunter,” he spoke through clenched teeth, every movement of every muscle in his cheeks, jaw, and neck visible like twanging springs.

“You’re goddamn right this isn’t my call. It’s your call. So for the love of god make sure it’s the right one. You realize what could happen if you’re wrong, right?”

Harvey’s jaw twitched again, this time the move more violent, more erratic, as if that spring holding his anger in check was about to snap. “What are you talking about?”

“That the terrified ensign sitting in her quarters is about to be extradited because you forced her to share information she knew she shouldn’t. You happy to live with that, Harv? You didn’t see her. I did,” Hunter’s words became slow, snapped as his teeth locked together like magnets. “Maybe you think she’s acting, but maybe she’s not. You really going to just stand there when you have the power to find out?”

“What the hell are you suggesting I do?”

“Your goddamn job. Innocent until proven guilty, Harvey. One of your crew members has come to you with a request for help. You can either condemn her based on an assumption, or act like a man. Act like a captain.” Again Hunter drove his teeth together so hard it was a surprise he didn’t crack them. In his current mood he would have torn his beating heart from his chest and slapped it on the floor in front of Harvey if it would only get his brother’s goddamn attention.

Harvey opened his mouth, the move stiff like a stone door cracking open, but he didn’t get the chance to speak.

There was a beep over the intercom.

“Sir,” Commander Hastings said in a clipped, quick tone, “You are receiving a priority one call from Coalition Control. Patching it through now.”

Harvey stiffened, his body becoming so rigid as he stood by the window, he resembled one of the struts holding the wall in place.

He cleared his throat. “Captain McClane here. I should warn you, I have a junior member of staff in my office with me now. Is this message intended to be classified?”

“Even if we wanted it to be, it wouldn’t be for long. You need to change your course and pick up Diplomat Tarka.”

“Who? Why?”

“The official Aide of the Ambassador of Avixa. As for why: diplomatic concession.”

“With all due respect, what the hell does that mean, sir?” Harvey asked.

“It means,” the Admiral snorted, “That the Avixans have called and we’re jumping. Get used to it if we want to keep them in the Coalition. And, captain, we have to keep them in the Coalition. I shouldn’t need to remind you how trying times are getting. The Milky Way simply isn’t what it was 10 years ago.”

“Admiral, the Mandalay has been plagued with problems. I can’t advise this.”

“We are fully aware of your current condition. We advised the Avixans of this, but they don’t seem to care. They want to get on the Mandalay to access their people on board. Before you point it out, I already know how much of an ask this is. That’s why it’s not an ask: it’s an order. Our relationship with the Avixans is already on shaky grounds. We need to please them. If rerouting and picking up one of their diplomats is what they want, then it’s a small price to pay for their help.”

“Shaky grounds?” Hunter asked before he could stop himself.

“Who just spoke?” the Admiral demanded.

Harvey shot Hunter the kind of look that told him he’d crossed the line.

Too late now.

So Hunter cleared his throat. “Lieutenant Hunter McClane, sir. Sorry for interrupting. However, you mentioned that our relationship with the Avixans is currently on shaky ground. The last I heard, it was stable. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s changed? The only reason I ask, is we have quite a few Avixans on board.”

Harvey cracked his stiff lips open and mouthed, “Shut up, don’t waste his time.”

Again, it was too late.

“You have a point, son. The short answer is: we don’t know. The long answer is: intelligence around Avixan sectors suggests they may be heading into a period of civil instability. It’s hard to tell, of course, because they’re the most secretive goddamn race we’ve ever met.”

“Civil instability?” Harvey and Hunter said at once, tones displaying almost the exact same note of tension.

“Like I said, it’s a guess. But something sure is happening behind their borders. We can only assume that the reason this Diplomat Tarka is coming on board is to address the concerns of the Avixans of the Mandalay.”

“… When do we pick up this Tarka?” Harvey asked after a long, cautious pause.

“I’ve sent the coordinates. You’ll rendezvous in the Harkan Sector tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Isn’t that a little quick?” Harvey asked, surprise slackening his features.

“Whatever this is, apparently it can’t wait. Make the proper arrangements,” the Admiral ordered.

“Aye,” Harvey answered, features still crumpled with concern. “But, Admiral, send through everything you have on this civil instability. I want to know everything. We’ve got too many Avixans on board for me to ignore this.”

“I’ll send it through. Keep a close eye on your Avixans. We don’t won’t the civil disturbance on their home world to spill out onto the Mandalay.” With that, the Admiral signed off.

Harvey stood there for several seconds, head turned to the floor, eyes hooded by shadow.

Slowly he lifted his head and craned it towards Hunter. “There’s your answer, Hunter.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Civil disturbance. You want to know why the other Avixans can’t stand Ensign Ava – there’s your answer. She’s obviously from a different social strata. Maybe the others are finally rising up.”

“… Listen to what you’re saying. You want a civil war on your ship?”

Harvey stopped.

“Harv, bottom line: we know nothing.” Hunter walked forward, footsteps resounding through the room. “Not a goddamn thing. We have no idea what will happen next.”

Chapter Nine

Ava

She’d been confined to her quarters.

The order had come through from the captain.

Nema had even been reassigned to a new room.

No one had explained a thing.

Worse. Hunter, after promising to fix everything – after staring her right in the eye and giving her hope – hadn’t come to see her again.

It had been over 24 hours now.

She’d never felt so alone. Even in the forever-dark tunnels of the Avixan temples, she hadn’t felt this way.

Because now she knew what it felt like to be free.

She sat in the corner of her room, back pressed up against the wall, left arm locked around her knees as she considered her right armlet with a morose expression.

… She shouldn’t have come here.

As another pang of guilt and sorrow crossed through her gut, she moved to push a hand over her eyes.

She stopped.

Her hand tensed, her fingers curling in together tightly and stabbing hard into her palms.

She wasn't meant to be weak. Goddammit, she was a priestess of Avixa.

She shouldn't be pressed against the wall in her quarters, dejectedly staring at her hands.

But what could she do?

Try to break out of her room, and she'd be sent to the brig.

All she could do was sit here and wait.

For what, she didn't know.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

Diplomat Tarka was seconds from arrival.

He stood nervously just outside of the arrival hatch.

He paced, boots practically skidding across the floor as he switched direction and paced the other way once more.

It was a testament to Harvey's trust in his brother that he'd allow Hunter this important role.

That, or right now Hunter was the only person Harvey could trust with this – the only person who knew just how screwed this Avixan problem had become.

A light above the hatch flashed blue and a sonorous beep echoed through the corridor.

He found himself gulping, swallowing for air, fighting against his dried and constricted throat.

He stood back just as the door opened.

Out walked an Avixan male.

It was the first Hunter had seen. All the other Avixans of the Coalition were female.

The man was tall, handsome, even by human standards. He had broad shoulders, a muscled chest, and the kind of body that bristled with power.

Unlike Avixans females, he didn't appear to have any hair. Just a smooth bald skull tattooed with intricate black lines that ran all the way down the back of his neck and disappeared behind his stiff dark blue collar.

He was wearing a pin affixed on the left breast of his tunic.

He suddenly flattened a hand over it, locked one foot in front of the other, and bowed low.

"It's good to meet you, Diplomat Tarka," Hunter began.

"I must correct you. I am not Diplomat Tarka. She could not make it. I am Aide Phar."

Hunter tried to keep the surprise from his face. "We weren’t informed of this change."

"No. You weren’t. Because it is irrelevant. Now, where is your captain?"

The man was direct and officious, but he also looked nervous. His moves pressured, quick.

Hunter's stomach sank. After hearing about the possibility of civil disturbance on Avixa, he’d hoped the intel had been wrong.

Everything with Ava and Meva aside, Hunter knew just how important Avixa was to the Coalition.

Especially now.

It wasn't just the rebuilder incident several years ago, or the recent Axira incident. It was the general mood of the Milky Way.

It felt as if events were quickening somehow, arcing up, building towards some calamity.

He stifled the thought as soon as it struck him, pushing it away as he offered the aide a low nod. "I will lead you to the captain."

“Incorrect. You will lead the captain to me." With that the aide turned sharply on his bare foot and began walking down the corridor.

Hunter baulked, pushing off and jogging up to him. "Sir, I'm here to direct you through the ship."

"I already know where I'm going."

"Excuse me?”

"I am only here for one purpose. I will fulfil that and return to my people. We cannot be away at a time like this," he added in a low distracted tone.

Hunter kept pace beside the man, even though he walked so quickly and with such a large stride Hunter practically had to jog to keep up. "Where are you going?"

"I believe you know her as Ensign Ava," the aide replied as he kept marching forward, the stiff flaps of his tunic jerking hard around his legs.

Hunter's stomach sank as a quick flighty feeling pulsed through his heart. "Ava? Why?"

"I cannot discuss that. However, you will have your captain meet me there."

"Why?"

"Because Ensign Ava is no longer a member of the Coalition. She will return with me to Avixa."

Hunter's heart constricted. "She hasn't done anything wrong," he blurted before he knew what he was saying.

Though the aide had been largely ignoring him before, now the man stiffly swung his neck to the side and narrowed his eyes. "Of what do you speak?"

Hunter's heart quickened, his fingers growing sweaty as he clamped them into fists behind his back.

He should just keep his mouth shut. One wrong word and he could condemn Ava. Yet he couldn't just ignore this.

It was so wrong.

… If, indeed, this aide was here to extradite Ava for her so-called crime. Perhaps Harvey was right, and she was just a spy who was being recalled due to the instability on her home world.

Hunter had to make a decision, didn't he?

Who to trust.

His brother, his goddamn captain, or an ensign he'd met barely a few days ago.

His body seemed to make his mind up for him as his heart beat harder and harder and his breath became shorter and shorter.

The aide slowed down his frantic pace and arched his neck to the side, locking Hunter in his full attention. "Has Ava shared information with you?"

Hunter recoiled. "No," he snapped immediately, “It's nothing like that. I barely know her," he lied. Or maybe it was true, he couldn't quite tell. Sure, it had only been a couple of days, but the intensity of their handful of experiences was enough to trick his mind into thinking he'd known her forever. His heart too. “She hasn’t told me anything. I just… assumed from your actions.”

The man held his gaze but said nothing. Then he pushed into a purposeful march once more.

“You can go and get your captain. I have already familiarized myself with the route.”

Hunter ground his teeth together. “With all due respect, sir, no.”

If Harvey had been here, he would have winced, probably clapped Hunter in restraints. Harvey wasn’t here, and it was time for one of them to do the right thing.

The man inclined his head towards Hunter again, that direct gaze of his like a pulse from a laser. “Excuse me?”

“It is against Coalition policy to allow a visitor aboard a Coalition warship unrestricted access to systems.”

“Avixa is a member state of the Coalition.”

“It sure is, sir, however you yourself are not a member of the Coalition army. I’m afraid wherever you go, I will go with you.” Though everything Hunter had told him to look down, to be non-aggressive, not to stare this guy right in the eye, he ignored reason. He dipped his head back, angled his chin out, and didn’t blink once.

The aide looked as if he wanted to complain, but he also looked as if he didn’t have the time. He pared his stiff lips back from his clenched teeth and nodded. “Very well,” he breathed hard. “But hurry.”

Why? Why was this guy in so much of a hurry?

And why did it make Hunter’s heart beat at one million miles an hour? So fast he was sure the muscle tore itself free from his rib cage and shot through the hull into outer space.

Captain Harvey McClane

He couldn’t deny his nerves. They raced up his back, lodged hard into his skull, felt like knives tracing a cruel pattern over his back and stomach.

As he sat in his command seat, he rested his chin on one clenched fist, his knuckles so white it looked as if all the blood had drained from his hand.

“Diplomat Tarka has arrived,” Shera said needlessly.

He caught sight of her expression as she spoke. Her head was tilted back, that regal angle to her neck he loved so much accentuating the curve to her chest and the dip of her back.

She looked expectant. Excited. As if she couldn’t wait to meet this Diplomat Tarka.

Harvey had tried to broach the subject of civil instability with her, but she had, as always, told him she couldn’t say a word. He knew not to push her about her people.

Now that curiosity burned within his gut as bright as a flare on a dark night. It climbed higher and higher as if it wanted to engulf every muscle and sinew, and burn right out of his mouth.

Hunter, in his usual ineloquent brutal style, had done what Harvey couldn’t. He’d set Harvey’s priorities straight.

Hunter was right. Harvey couldn’t keep making assumptions. He had to find out more about the Avixans, whether they liked it or not.

With five aboard his ship and civil disturbances on their planet, this was a risk. That’s why he’d confined Ensign Ava to quarters.

Did she deserve it? Was he sure she was the bad apple amongst this group?

… He was 90% sure. And it was enough for him.

He pushed to his feet, letting his tensed hand fall beside his leg.

He watched Shera glance down and note it. Then she made brief eye contact with him. He imagined she said a lot with that. She’d be telling him to calm down, to get a hold of himself.

This was just a simple diplomatic visit, right?

“Shouldn’t Tarka have arrived on the bridge by now?” Shera suddenly questioned.

At that exact moment, Harvey got a direct call from his brother.

Almost immediately Harvey’s stomach started to sink as he brought a hand up and tapped his wrist device. “Yes?”

“Change of plans. Aide Phar doesn’t want to meet you on the bridge…. He’s meeting you in Ensign Ava’s quarters.”

Harvey knew he paled. He knew he lost all control of his expression as he took a sharp step forward. “What? What’s—”

Before he could finish his question, Shera interrupted, pressing forward, her eyes growing wide. “Where is Diplomat Tarka?” she asked in a snapped, curt tone.

Hunter paused. “… Captain?”

Harvey cleared his throat. “Answer the lieutenant commander. Where is the diplomat?”

“I don’t know, apparently there was a change of plans. This Aide Phar is here instead. Is that a problem?”

Shera took an uncomfortable breath. Out of the corner of Harvey’s eye he saw her shift back, her shoulders jutting forward, her chin jutting down.

“Shera?” Harvey asked in a low tone.

“I assume I am speaking to Captain Harvey McClane,” a resonant deep male voice suddenly cut over the intercom. “I am Aide Phar. I do not have the luxury of time. If you wish to know why I am here instead of Diplomat Tarka, then you will meet me at Ensign Ava’s quarters.”

The transmission suddenly cut out.

All eyes on the bridge turned to Harvey.

Of course they did. It wasn’t every day that some random aide snapped at a captain.

Today wasn’t an ordinary day, and this situation had just taken another inexplicable turn.

Harvey found himself swallowing hard as he shifted on his foot.

Shera darted in front of him, heading towards the lifts.

He frowned. “Lieutenant commander, you’re in charge of the bridge.”

She hesitated. “I have a… personal matter to attend to. It is of… cultural importance.”

Harvey hesitated. “You also have a duty. Your personal matter can wait.”

She turned from him, darted towards the lift, opened it, and walked inside. “It can’t,” she said as the doors sliced closed in front of her face.

Harvey stood there, shock paling his features.

Had Shera just ignored a direct order?

He cut her slack wherever he could. But he couldn’t ignore this. She’d disobeyed a direct order in front of all the bridge crew.

Clenching his teeth hard, his heart sank. He opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally, shaking his head, he cleared his throat. “Contact Commander Hutchins,” he ordered no one in particular, “Get her to replace the lieutenant commander on the bridge. And inform… Commander Hutchins… what happened here,” he finally pushed his words out, every one snagging in his throat like fingernails catching along skin.

Shera was his partner. He honestly loved her.

But he had a duty.

So he walked forward into the lift.

Lieutenant Hunter McClane

His heart battled around in his chest. He could honestly feel it as it beat against every tensed muscle.

Aide Phar walked quicker and quicker, his movements jerky, snapped, almost frantic.

What the hell was happening here?

They reached B Block.

The closer they came to Ava’s quarters, the more Hunter’s mind rang.

Finally they arrived.

Phar let out a visible breath, his tensed chest sucking in. “Lieutenant, open this door,” he demanded.

“We need to ask Ava’s permission to enter.”

“Open the door, lieutenant,” his voice arced with tension.

Hunter’s fingers drew into a fist. Knowing he wouldn’t win this, he leaned past Phar and typed the override code into the panel next to the door.

The door opened.

The lights were turned off in her room, it was completely dark. But as the doors opened, the light from the corridor swept in and revealed Ava in the center of her room, seated on the floor, knees drawn up to her chest, head nestled between them.

She brought a hand up to her eyes and turned towards the open door, blinking at the sudden illumination.

Then her hand dropped, she sucked in a choked breath, and jolted backwards as if she was expecting to be struck.

He lurched forward, hand outstretched, fingers spreading towards her. “Ava? Are you alright?”

“You wait outside, lieutenant,” Phar snapped as he strode into the room.

Hunter was standing in the doorway, and as long as he continued standing there, the doors would not close.

He wasn’t going to move a muscle.

Phar twisted his sinewy neck around and stared at Hunter, brows pressing hard into his dark gaze. “Lieutenant, wait outside.”

Like hell.

He didn’t give a damn about the Avixans and what they meant to the Coalition.

He wasn’t going to leave her alone.

“Lieutenant—”

“Stay exactly where you are,” someone said.

Harvey.

He came striding down the corridor and walked purposefully into the room.

“Captain, you and your lieutenant will wait outside. Once I’m done here, Ensign Ava will be leaving this ship with me. She is no longer a member of the Coalition Army. And as such, you have no authority over her or myself.”

Harvey didn’t react. He did bring his arms up slowly and cross them. “Don’t tell me what to do on my ship.”

Phar bristled, a smattering of blue flecks charging up his cheeks. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Like I said, this is my ship. It has everything to do with me. Any business you have with one of my ensigns, you have with me. Now you’re going to answer my questions—”

“You would threaten the treaty with Avixa? Your behavior is unacceptable, captain. When the Coalition convinced Avixa to join its fold, we made it explicit that you are not to intrude in our society. So turn away, walk out that door, and stop intruding.”

“Like hell I’ll stop intruding. Like I said, any business you have with a member of my crew, you have with me. Now step out of these quarters.”

Ava hadn’t moved a muscle. She remained exactly where she was on the floor, limbs locked forward, tensed hands pressed against the soft cream carpet, head locked down, her hair forming a veil over her face.

It honestly felt like Hunter’s heart wanted to push from his chest and reach out to her.

His heart couldn’t. But he could.

He lurched into the room, got to one knee, and offered her a hand. “It’s okay.”

She wouldn’t look at him.

“Stop interfering,” Phar snapped. “We don’t have time.”

“What’s the rush?” Harvey growled.

“This is an internal matter, do not interfere,” Phar snapped so vehemently it was a surprise spittle didn’t fly from his mouth.

“If you intervene in the security of this ship or directly threaten any member of my crew, including myself, I have every power to lock you in my brig. Just give me one more reason,” Harvey warned, voice so low it was barely more than a rumble.

Phar took a jerked step back, lips crunching hard against his teeth. Then he jerked his head down to Ava. “Stand up. We will return to my ship. Sovereign Avixa land,” he emphasized with a hiss as he looked at the captain.

“You don’t have to do what he says—” Hunter tried.

Ava ignored him. She picked herself up. She was visibly shaking. Her hair trembled as it half covered her face. He saw enough to see how fearful she was.

It was worlds and worlds away from the strong unflappable ensign he’d met several days before.

“Ensign, he’s right, you don’t have to leave—”

“Come,” Phar snapped.

Ava took a step forward. She wouldn’t look at Hunter.

“Ava.” He stood right in her way. He ducked his head down, trying to get her to look at him. “Ava, you don’t have to do what this guy says.”

“Lieutenant, get out of our way,” Phar growled.

Ava still wouldn’t look at Hunter. Instead she walked around him towards the door.

Hunter snapped his head around, fear and anger curling his blood. “Harvey, do something,” he bellowed.

Harvey looked just as angry as Hunter did.

But it was also clear he wasn’t going to intervene. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Like hell there is, you just gonna stand there and let him kidnap her?”

Harvey wouldn’t answer.

At that exact moment Shera and Meva bolted around the corridor.

Shera looked incensed.

Then she took one look at Phar, her gaze slipping down to the pin on his left breast, and she stopped dead.

“Lieutenant commander, what are you doing here?” Harvey snapped.

Seconds before she’d looked ready to tear someone limb from limb, but now as she straightened and slowly strolled forward, you couldn’t deny the glint of satisfaction in her eye. “I’m sorry, captain, there was some confusion.”

Hunter couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if Phar gave Shera a meaningful look.

“What kind of confusion?” Harvey snapped.

“I apologize, captain,” Phar said, the anger that had once rung through his tone like thunder now slipping away to be replaced by calm diplomacy, “You may not understand this interaction, because you do not understand Avixan people. Ava has committed a grave crime,” his voice dropped so low it was barely audible, “The lieutenant commander here was no doubt coming to see that the criminal will be dealt with in correspondence with our cultural laws. And I can assure the lieutenant commander that she will.”

“What the hell is going on here?” Harvey barked.

“What is going on, is I am extraditing Ava. As I have full right to do under the treaty. She has committed an unforgivable crime and must be brought to justice,” Phar spoke easily now, most of his tension gone, as if he was comforted by something.

And the only thing he could be comforted by was Shera’s presence.

If Hunter had thought he couldn’t bristle any further, he was wrong. Every single hair along his body stood on end as nerves pulsed through his skin.

He looked at Harvey.

This was all down to Harvey now.

And Harvey… Fuck it, Harvey looked at Shera.

“It’s okay, captain, you can trust me. You may not understand this, but trust me,” her voice shook with emotion, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Harvey paused.

“Right thing to do,” he repeated to himself.

Shera smiled. Encouragingly. Lovingly. The kind of smile that would set anybody at ease. “Just trust me,” she said once more.

Hunter looked right at his brother.

He waited, waited for Harvey to either save Ava or condemn her.

If he condemned her – chose to let the Avixans take her away – then goddammit, Hunter knew what he would have to do.

“Trust,” Harvey repeated once more, this time his voice firmer, more resonant. He turned on his boot and faced Ava. “As captain of this vessel, I can and will offer you asylum. If you are fleeing an unjust system, the Coalition will give you safe harbor. All you have to do is say the word.” As Harvey spoke, Hunter could tell how hard it was for him, how much every word hurt.

Harvey wasn’t like Hunter. Hunter could throw a relationship away and bounce back. Harvey… Harvey was as loyal as they came.

And yet he was still doing the right thing.

Shera bristled. Blue dots exploded up her cheeks, pushing high into her brow. “What are you doing?” she said through clenched teeth.

“I’m using my prerogative as a captain. Lieutenant commander, you are no longer needed here. You and Lieutenant Meva will return to your quarters.” Harvey punched his chest out as he spoke, brought his head back, and stared right into Shera’s eyes.

“I don’t have time for this,” Phar practically roared. “Ava, you will follow,” he barked, treating Ava like a disobedient dog.

Ava hadn’t breathed a word, hadn’t moved a muscle. She just stood there, dead gaze locked on the floor.

He’d never seen someone look more lost.

“Ava, the captain is offering you safe harbor. Take it. I don’t know what’s going on here,” Hunter’s voice broke, “But we’ll keep you safe.”

She looked up at him briefly. In that moment it felt as if he could see right through her eyes and deep into her soul.

Then she closed her eyes. “Sorry, Hunter.”

Harvey took a strong step forward. “Ensign, we can and will keep you safe. If you’re worried about retribution from your government, just hang tight. Who knows what the result of the civil disturbance on Avixa will bring.”

Ava froze. With tiny, almost fractured movements, she shifted her head up, her mouth parting wide. “Civil disturbance?” her voice was barely audible.

The intensity of her reaction sent nerves jamming down Hunter’s gut, and he could bet it had a similar effect on Harvey as he swallowed hard.

“Weren’t you aware? If recent reports are correct, Avixa is on the brink of a civil war,” Harvey said.

Ava didn’t just looked shocked. She looked shattered. As if her worldview suddenly twisted around, fell at her feet, and crumbled to dust.

Then something else dropped. She clearly realized something as she jerked back and stared with wide eyes at Phar and Shera. “What’s going on here? Who do you represent? Captain,” she jerked her head towards Harvey, her hair spilling around her shoulders, “I have to make a call to Avixa. I have to find out what’s going on.”

“What’s going on, ensign?” Harvey snapped.

“You may not be able to trust these people—” Ava began.

“Do something,” Phar bellowed at Shera.

So Shera did. She snapped towards Ava.

But she didn’t reach her.

Harvey suddenly barreled into her side, wrapping his arms around her middle.

He couldn’t fight against her innate strength and pull her to her knees, but his move was enough to surprise her.

And to give Hunter an opportunity.

He wrapped an arm around Ava’s middle and tugged her backwards, the both of them falling through her quarter doors. “Computer, lock the doors and call security. Call security. The captain’s been attacked.”

The doors slammed closed before Phar could throw himself in, a heavy blue force field flickering in place before them.

Ava sat for a single second, eyes rimmed with white as she stared at the door in utter shock.

“Ava?”

She punched to her feet. “I need to call the Avixan government, now.”

“What’s going on? Ava, what's happening?” He jerked up to his feet.

She wouldn't look at him. Her chest was pushed out at a tense angle, her neck twisted to the side, her eyes still as wide as moons.

“Ava?” He lurched over to her side and settled a hand on her shoulder.

“They want this ship,” she said, realization cracking over her once terrified face like ice melt breaking up a glacier.

“What?!”

“Shera's after this ship.”

“Why?”

Ava turned to him. The terror was gone from her expression now, replaced with a quiet kind of shock.

It was clear she was weighing up the costs of telling him something.

He took a determined step forward and ducked his head down. “Ava, you can't keep us in the dark. We have to know what's going on. My brother is—”

“He’ll be fine. She won't hurt him. She’ll need his command codes.”

“Ava, what's happening?” he couldn't control his voice anymore. It slammed out of his throat and rattled through the room. “Why did Shera try to kill you?”

“… Because I can stop her. But first I have to get in contact with my government. I don't have the privileges to make an off-ship call without a superior’s approval.” She turned to him and faced him in full. “Hunter, you have to patch me through to my government.”

He took a breath. It settled high in his throat, incapable of descending down into his lungs, as if someone had stuffed a rag down there.

“… Not until you tell me what's going on.”

This wasn't a time to be playing with ultimatums. He could see how desperate Ava was.

And yet, the lies had to stop.

Now.

Maybe she understood his determination as she stood there, because she closed her eyes, tipped her head down, and took a breath. “We’re monsters.”

“What?”

“The Avixan people are monsters. We are extremely powerful beings. Many eons ago, we used this to our advantage. This… what I’m about to tell you, is the greatest crime an Avixan can commit. I’d be killed for this. But… you’re right – the lies have to stop.”

His stomach sank at her admission.

“Long ago, the Avixan people….”

Captain Harvey McClean

He didn't stand a chance against Shera. A fact she proved when she latched a hand on his shoulder, yanked him back, and slammed him against the floor.

He hit the metal with such force his breath punched out of his throat in an echoing choke.

The situation was happening so fast. He couldn't keep up. And yet, he knew one thing.

She was about to kill him.

Shera stood over him for a single second, her ice white hair catching the lights from above.

Harvey didn't wince.

Nor did he look away.

He waited for the final blow.

It didn't come.

Shera twisted her head back towards the doors. “Meva, get those open.”

Harvey opened his mouth to say something.

Instantly, with speed that could rival a cruiser at light speed, Shera jerked backwards and slammed a foot over his throat. She didn't kick down and cut off his air supply, but the threat was there.

“Don't say a word, Harvey. I know you can command-lock those doors. Try it, and I’ll be forced to intervene. Now,” Shera twisted her head back to Meva, “Get those goddamn doors open.”

Meva's fingers flew over the access panel, but to no avail.

The doors were now security locked.

So was the whole ship.

The truth was, he didn't need to give the command. His current situation was enough.

The Mandalay was trialing a new command security system to ensure situations just like this – mutinies and insubordinations – couldn't happen.

Harvey's body was constantly being scanned by his WD, which was in constant connection to the main computer. As soon as his WD picked up significant physical distress combined with threats to his life, it acted to lock out command controls. It was more than sophisticated enough to recognize Shera's voice, what she’d said, and, most importantly, that she was trying to crush his windpipe.

So Harvey smiled.

It caught her attention.

Shera's lip stiffened, twitched up, and she slowly pulled her boot off his throat. “What have you done?”

“You’re already locked out,” Harvey deliberately let his voice drop as low and menacing as he could. “Security would be on their way. Coalition Command would have been called. Shera, Meva, give up,” he enunciated those two words – give up – with all the clarity he could muster.

Shera looked livid, then sneered through a smile. “I doubt the Coalition have been called, dear – we took communications down before we got here. As for security – let them come. And as for your command codes,” she got down on her haunches, resting one elbow on her knee as she tipped her head to the side and considered him, “That's unfortunate. But I can work around it. Watch: Captain Harvey McClean, if you want your crew to live, open that door.” She extended a stiff finger towards Ava's door.

Harvey didn't move a muscle. “You’re in no position to give me an ultimatum, Shera.”

“I could crush your windpipe with a single twitch of my hand.” She extended a hand and gently rested it on his throat. “I call that the exact position to make an ultimatum. Now open the damn door.”

“Why?”

Her lips twitched into a tortured smile. “Because I have unfinished business with the priestess.”

“Who?”

“Never you mind. Now open the door.”

“Whatever you’re doing won't work. Just stop and think about this,” he tried. He wasn't attempting to get Shera to see reason. One look in her eyes and he knew it was a lost cause.

What he was doing, was wasting time to buy Ava a chance.

All Harvey had to do was hold on until security got here.

“I have thought about this, Harvey. I’ve thought about nothing else my entire life. And believe it or not, I’m doing this for the Coalition. I’m doing this for us. For the future.”

There was something about the fanatical note in her voice that told him she wasn't lying.

“… What are you talking about?”

“The Avixans can no longer be held back from our true power. We can no longer be shackled.” With that, Shera brought up a hand, latched it around her ceremonial band, then threw it off. She grabbed the one on her other wrist and did the same.

They both clanged onto the floor by his face.

He looked down at them for a single instant before returning his gaze to her.

“Stop wasting time,” Phar snapped. “We have to secure this ship. The priestess can wait. She’s trapped anyway. With communications down, there's nothing she can do.”

Shera slowly shifted her head towards Phar, her ice-white bun slicing across her neck. “Do not give me orders. This is my operation.”

“Then complete it. We must take the Mandalay. Do not let this man distract you. The priestess can wait. There's nothing she can do.”

Shera gave an angry shout that echoed down the corridor, then she snapped to her feet. She shot Phar a deadly look before turning and stalking forward. “Fine. Secure that door. I don't care what you have to do – make sure it can't be opened. Meva, bring the captain. Phar, find a nice quiet corner and sit this out,” she said snidely as she stalked past.

His ship. They were after Harvey's ship.

On any other day, with any other ship, there’d be no way a handful of crew would be able to take over a vessel of this size. But the Mandalay had been plagued since the day he’d stepped aboard. Now, as Meva grabbed him up, he realized something. The problems that had dogged his ship may not have been accidents.

The cause was likely striding off down the hall, her ceremonial armbands at his feet.

He’d brought Shera aboard this ship – deliberately asked for her to be transferred.

So he’d stop her.

No matter the costs.

Ava

There was only one thing she could do.

Tell him the truth.

All of it.

She didn't know if she had time, but that wasn't the point – she had to buy his trust.

She took a breath. “Long ago, the Avixan people—”

She heard something slam into the door. Though the door was noise proof, she saw the panel dent inwards.

Hunter jerked back, latching a hand on her shoulder and pulling her with him.

“What was that?” She kept her gaze locked on the doors, expecting them to explode inward at any moment. Though academically she knew that the shields should hold them in place, she also knew exactly how much Shera wanted to end this.

Now Ava understood everything.

Every so-called accident.

They were all attempts to kill Ava and get her out of the way so… what? What exactly was Shera's end game? Did it have something to do with the civil instability Captain McClane had mentioned?

If Avixa really was on the brink of civil war, why the hell hadn't Ava been told?

There was so much about this situation she didn't understand.

There was one thing she did understand.

Shera was determined to kill her.

Ava curled her hands into fists, letting the nails dig so deep into her palms, she excavated half-moon cuts.

She didn't have Shera's power, but Ava would still fight.

Not because it was her duty as a priestess, but because this wasn't right.

She expected the doors to fail at any second, but abruptly the banging stopped.

Hunter let out a sharp breath. “The shields will hold them back. They keep pounding on that door, the shields will just get stronger. Don't worry, security will make it here soon.”

She didn't respond.

“Ava, what were you saying?”

“That if I don't call my government right now, this ship will fall.”

“What?” he spluttered.

“I guarantee you the other Avixans will be working with Shera. This… would have been planned from the beginning. Every accident – the lifts, the neuro gel… god, even that trader in the bar, it was all Shera,” she realized, her cheeks paling.

“What?”

“Just let me access the off-ship communications… though I doubt they’ll work.” She paled even further.

“What?”

“Just do it… please.”

Hunter took a hard breath and appeared to make a decision. “Computer, give Ensign Ava permission to access off-ship communications—”

“All communications are offline,” the computer replied at once.

“What? How?”

“All communications are offline,” the computer repeated without explanation.

“Has security been notified? Does command know—”

“All communications are offline.”

“That's not what I’m asking,” he roared.

She reached out and latched a hand gently on his arm. “It won't work. Shera's been planning this since the day she got on board.”

“Planning what? Ava, what the hell is going on?” his desperation reached such a shaking pitch she couldn't ignore it anymore.

“Shera’s trying to take this ship.”

“What's that got to do with you? And why do you need to contact your government? What do you possibly think they can do?”

“She wants to kill me because she thinks I can stop her. And if I could contact my government, I’d be able to.” She tried to stop herself, but her gaze naturally locked on her armlets.

He followed the movements of her eyes. “What are those?”

“Locks.”

“Wh—”

A red alert suddenly cut him short. It blared through the room, the illumination cutting to half as a strip of red lights lit up along the ceiling.

“Computer, what's going on?” Hunter demanded.

The computer didn't reply.

“Computer?” he repeated once more.

Nothing.

“Christ. We have to find out what's going on. We have to get out of here.” Hunter looked warily at the door.

“We go through that door, they’ll kill us,” Ava stated with total certainty.

Hunter brought up a hand and locked it on his mouth. At the same time his gaze darted quickly from the left to the right as he surveyed her room.

Her room was small, plain. Though there was a bathroom and furniture, that was it.

She didn't have any weapons, no equipment. Nothing they’d need to break out of here.

Hunter's searching gaze suddenly locked on the floor. “What's under your bed?”

“Ah, what?”

“I think this room's over the aft ventilation system. There could be an access under your bed.” He lurched down to his knees and shuffled towards her bed.

“How do you know that?”

“Because, Ensign Ava, I’ve spent the last several days crawling through every service duct, ventilation shaft, and bloody nook and cranny of this ship. I’ve stared at enough maps trying to figure out how to get us to safety that I’ve started to learn the interior of this ship. And, if I’m not much mistaken,” he shuffled fully under the bed, “There's a vent here.”

She heard a metal clang as Hunter rapped his knuckles on something.

“Give me a hand moving the bed.” He shuffled back out.

“It's bolted to the floor.”

He swore as he shifted back and rested on his haunches. He brought up a hand, wiped the sweat from his brow, and cast another worried glance towards the doors.

As soon as he was done, he pushed forward, locked a hand under the bottom of the bed, and checked the bolts. “… We could remove these with the right tool.”

“I don't have an engineering kit in my room.”

He leaned back and began casting around again.

“Come on, Ava, there has to be something around here,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Anything that could get those bolts off. Come on, we're running out of time,” true desperation punched through his words. It crumpled his brow, drawing the rumpled skin hard against his eyebrows.

Her stomach crawled with anger, compassion, guilt.

And above all else, shock.

She had no idea how any of this could happen.

How could Avixa fall into civil war? Who would dare drive something like that?

... To think, she'd come to the Coalition to get away. To finally find a place where her origins didn't matter.

Now she was arm deep in this.

Instinctively, she brought her arms up and stared at her armlets.

Hunter caught her doing it again. He lurched to his feet and grabbed her shoulders, staring right into her eyes. “I don't know what's happening here. I guess I don't have time to find out, but, Ava, we have to act now. If you're right, and Shera's been planning this from the beginning, we may be the only two on this ship who can do anything about this.”

She looked up into his eyes. His gaze was so strong, so determined. It summed up Lieutenant Hunter McClane's personality perfectly.

She found herself swallowing, a cold dense feeling wending through her stomach.

She didn't have to search her memory too far to realize what it was – responsibility.

“Come on.” He let his hand slip down her shoulder until he grabbed her hand.

At first she had no idea what he was doing, then he pushed her towards the bathroom. “Look for anything that can get those bolts off. Come on, hurry. Everyone's counting on us.”

It was his tone that did it.

She finally found the strength to push past the confusion.

She darted into her bathroom, her keen gaze scanning over every surface.

Though she desperately searched for some kind of tool, her gaze did return to her armlets once or twice.

... If she could find some way to get them off, she could end this. Right now.

“Ava, come on,” Hunter called from the other room, as if he could tell she was getting distracted.

She sucked in a rattling breath and pushed herself into the task again.

That's when she saw it. The light fitting.

There should be a magnetic anchor lock behind it. Her gaze jerked over to the control panel by the bathroom door that adjusted water, humidity, and heat. If she was right, she could pull out selected pieces of it, cobble them together with the mag lock from the light, and produce a tool to burn through the bolts.

“Ava, come on,” Hunter called once more, voice somehow pitching with even more desperation.

“Hunter, get in here,” she snapped.

He practically skidded as he threw himself into the room. “What is it?"

“I need to clamber up onto your shoulders and reach the light.”

Surprisingly, he didn't ask what she was thinking. He jerked forward, skidded down to one knee, and brought his arms up. “Come on.”

She nodded hard and pushed towards him, clambering onto his back.

He wrapped his strong arms around her legs, anchoring her in place.

She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by the hard press of his shoulder muscles and back against her front. She pressed her lips together, locked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and reached towards the roof.

He held her steady, showing his considerable strength, especially for a human.

“Hold steady,” she warned needlessly as she pressed her fingers either side of the light switch.

“And watch yourself,” he added immediately. “Pull out the wrong wire, and you could electrocute yourself.”

She ignored him, pushed one hand harder into the wall to stabilize herself, sucked in a calming breath, and started to unscrew the light fitting. The little grating scratch the mechanism gave echoed through the room, the only sound apart from Hunter's regulated, controlled breathing.

Finally the light fitting came undone in her fingers. She cast it to the side, and it fell against the far wall with a crack.

She gently pressed her fingers into the hole it had left, careful not to brush up against any exposed wires.

“Slowly,” he warned.

The particular low pitch of his tone shook up her legs and into her belly.

Finally she clasped the mag lock. She yanked it out. “Got it.”

“Atta girl.” He shifted back, walking to the side until they reached a wall.

Ava pushed a hand into it for balance as Hunter slowly crunched down to his knees.

She jumped off, legs tingling from where there'd been in contact with his shoulders and arms.

She ignored the pleasant sensation as she pushed towards the room controls.

Hunter got there first.

He clearly knew what she was planning.

He used his superior strength to rip the panel off the wall and root around in the controls beneath.

Soon he pulled out exactly what they need. He proffered a hand, and she gave him the mag lock.

She saw a peculiar kind of smile spread across his stiff lips as he took it from her. Briefly he darted his gaze up. “You're pretty smart, Ava.”

His words – or, more importantly, the way he looked at her – sent a shiver darting through her gut.

She didn't have time to consider it as she watched Hunter work frantically. He walked back into the main room and faced the doors, gaze darting up to check on the integrity of the shields every few seconds. She could easily make out the beads of sweat collecting over his brow and down the side of his neck.

She waited in pressured silence until he was done.

With a soft “Whoop,” he stood back and revealed the makeshift tool, a true grin cutting his face in half. “Come on.” He didn't waste any time in ducking down to his knees and shifting towards her bed. “You keep the bed steady,” he said as he started to burn a hole right through the bolts keeping it locked against the hull.

“Got it,” she said as she jumped onto the bed, reasoning her weight would be a more significant force than her strength.

She caught him grinning at her again. Though it was nervous, it was also....

“One down,” he said triumphantly as he moved to the next leg. “We can do this,” he added softly under his breath. “Come on, we can do this.”

She watched him as he worked. She couldn't tear her eyes away.

His body was rigid with tension, his gaze locked on the bed legs without blinking.

... He really was a determined man, perhaps the most determined man she'd ever met. True, he had an anger. And as his previous treatment of her evidenced, that anger wasn't always justified.

But now he was doing the right thing – now he was busting a gut trying to save this ship.

Trying to save her.

Something swelled in her gut. A prickly kind of heat that climbed deep into the center of her chest.

She brought a hand up and locked it on her front.

He caught sight of her movement and jerked his head up. “You okay?" he asked in a truly worried tone.

She smiled. It was a genuine move, pushed on by the warmth growing in her chest.

No one had ever sacrificed for her like Hunter was now doing. The priestesses, though a close knit group, were not tender.

Could not love.

As soon as that word sprang into her mind, she pushed it away with a shiver. “Just nervous,” she lied.

“Don't worry, Ava,” he said as he darted around on his hands and knees and scooted to the other side of the bed, “We will do this. The ship can count on us.”

That statement caught her attention – especially the expression that swamped his face as he said it. Despite the fact his brow was covered in sweat and his head ducked down at an angle as he concentrated, she could still see the way he looked.

Confused, unsure.

... She suddenly realized there was more, much more to the mysterious Hunter McClean than she'd once thought.

Before she could delve too deeply into that thought, he punched to his feet, an enormous grin spreading over his face. He leaned a hand out to her, legs pushing into the side of her bed.

She stared up into his eyes, pausing before she reached out a hand and took his.

She didn't know why she paused.

Her stomach clenched and a tingly feeling raced up her back.

She sucked in a breath, tucked her hand in his, and let him pull her off the bed.

Instantly, he latched onto the bed and shoved it forward, revealing the hatch.

He proffered a hand towards it. “After you.”

“No, after you. I'm small enough that I'll be able to pull the bed back over the hatch. It might buy us a couple of seconds before they realize how we escaped.”

He nodded hard. “Do it.” He got down to his knees, latched a hand around the hatch, and pulled it up.

Instantly cold vent air met them.

She heard him groan quietly.

She smiled and waited for him to jump into the vent, then she got down on her hands and knees and joined him.

She maneuvered the bed as close to the vent as she could. She reached an arm out, locked a hand on one of the bed legs, and used whatever strength she had to yank the bed back over the vent.

It hurt, especially with her fragile wrists. But she ignored the pain and did what she could.

When she was done, she jumped from the tiny ladder that led to the bottom of the shaft, and met Hunter's gaze.

He nodded at her. “Okay. We've got to get to engineering. We have to figure out what they've done to the coms system. If we can get off a distress call, the Coalition will send help.”

She nodded. “Got it.”

He turned, gaze locking on her wrists for a single second before he let his shoulders deflate in a defeated breath. “I'm sorry about this, Ava.”

“It's okay.”

They pushed on.

In truth, it was easy to ignore the pain radiating up from her wrists. It was easy, because her mind was at war.

Every question she'd pushed back in her room came spiraling into her consciousness like bullets from a cruiser. They blasted away at her grey matter until a cracking headache spread through her skull.

... She just couldn't understand how things could have gotten so bad on her home world.

A few times Hunter glanced over his shoulder as he looked at her. “It'll be okay, Ava. Everything will work out.”

There he went again, trying to comfort her. It seemed that Lieutenant Hunter McClane had many faces.

... Then again, so did she. If he knew her real identity, would he be treating her like this? Or would he be justifiably angry that she'd let things get so far?

She should have raised her concerns about Shera and Meva's behavior earlier. She should have called her government.

Then again, perhaps they wouldn't have responded.

That Aide Phar had clearly been working with Shera. Which meant this issue was much, much larger than Ava had assumed.

She let out a tortured sigh.

“What is it?” he turned over his shoulder and locked his searching gaze on her. “It's okay, Ava, you can tell me. I won't tell a soul.”

His offer was tempting. God, what she wouldn’t give for someone to unload on.

Though these five years in the Coalition had been some of the most treasured of her life, she'd still felt detached from her friends and the crew around her.

They would never truly understand her, because she would never truly be able to tell them who she was....

“I understand it must be hard for you. But you've got to tell me what you can. We need to understand why Shera and Meva did this....”

She looked up. He'd twisted his head back around, so she could no longer see his gaze. She could make out his body language easily, though.

The defeat pushing through his tensed shoulders, the lost angle to his neck and back.

She sucked in a sudden breath as she realized something.

She'd heard from a few other crew members that Hunter was involved with Meva.

... And she'd just tried to take over the ship.

“Hunter, I mean, lieutenant, I'm so sorry. This must be so hard for you.”

“You're right – I have to hold onto the hope that Shera won't do anything to Harvey. She'll need his codes.”

“That's not what I meant. I meant... I meant Meva. I don't mean to bring up your personal affairs, but I....”

He turned right over his shoulder to look at her, even drew to a slow pace. He swallowed. She watched his Adam’s apple bob against the tight collar of his uniform.

“I'm sorry.” She repeated as she dropped her gaze. She couldn't be sure, but she half felt that statement pertained to more than his loss.

It pertained to hers as well.

However subtly, she was starting to have feelings for Hunter McClane. At least her body was. She wasn't a fool – she couldn't ignore the tingles that raced across her flesh and deep into her chest whenever they touched.

But the tingles were misplaced.

He suddenly laughed. It wasn't miserable or tortured. “There's nothing to be sorry about,” he appeared to speak honestly.

“I... thought you were... ah, with...” she couldn't push it out. Despite her burning curiosity, it was extremely inappropriate to have this kind of conversation with a superior.

“With Meva? Yeah, for a while,” he answered casually. “We broke up. Before she mutinied and tried to take over the ship,” he added with a dark look. “So there's nothing you need to be sorry about, Ava. In fact,” he darted his keen gaze back up as he locked her in it, “The only person who should be sorry about anything is me. I let Meva affect me. She convinced me you were a monster. Said you belonged to a higher social strata, said your people oppressed her people for years. I shouldn't have believed her. I should have asked for your side of the story. Heck, if I'd done that, we probably wouldn't be in this situation now,” he said with a tortured laugh.

“... She's right,” Ava found herself saying.

Hunter stiffened. “What are you saying?”

“I do come from a higher social strata... in a way. And my people did oppress her people... in a manner of speaking.” She had no idea why she was saying this. All reason, all training, all tradition told her to stop, sew her lips shut, and never speak of this again.

Even in the half light of the tunnel she saw his cheeks pale and slacken as his bright blue eyes widened. “Ava,” her name caught on his breath, “What are you talking about?”

“My people are responsible for watching Meva and her kind. They are powerful warriors, Hunter, capable of good, but capable of evil too....”

“Before, in your room, you were about to tell me something. What? You said... you said if you told me you could get killed. If that's... if that's true, Ava, I don't want you—”

“My people are devils,” she blurted. She paused after the words rocketed from her throat. Then she closed her eyes and continued. “Many thousands of years ago, we ruled over vast sections of the Milky Way with an iron fist. We stole, we murdered, we captured other races and forced them into slavery. We even destroyed whole cultures. We were true barbarians. Then they came, showed us the error of our ways, and we changed.”

He shivered. She could see the move as it shook from the tip of his head down to his legs. “What? Who... who are they?”

“That I don't know. It was so long ago, that all that remains in Avixan history is tradition. And you must understand, tradition is everything to our people. They – the outsiders – showed us the error of our ways. Told us that if we didn't change, we would be killed. So we did. The most powerful of the Avixans became priestesses charged with supervising the rest. It became a grave crime in Avixan society to wield your power against an outsider – our term for any non-Avixan entity.” The words pushed from her throat and there was nothing she could do to stay them.

Despite how wrong she knew it was to share the greatest secret of her race, it felt right. It felt like a weight was lifting from her shoulders.

Hunter watched her with keen attention, never blinking, never twisting his head around as he continued to crawl a few steps in front of her.

She couldn't quite face him. As she recounted her tale, she looked over his shoulder and locked her gaze on the end of the tunnel. The panels were made of a mismatch of silver and brown metal, a few loops and bands of wiring and pipes running alongside them, a strip of tiny lights running at even intervals along the ceiling. Below, the bottom of the vent shaft had a grating, presumably to stop Coalition boots from slipping against any condensation that built up in the cold vent.

As she crawled, the grating dug into her hands, pushing even more pain and pressure up into her wrists. Every movement ached, sending jolting pain twisting high into her shoulders and slicing across her collar bone.

She hid the true extent of her injuries from Hunter.

But that was the only thing she was prepared to hide anymore.

Everything else had to come out.

She took a steeling breath, half closed her eyes, and continued. “For thousands of years, the priestesses watched over the Avixans. If any Avixan – including a priestess – acted against our sacred treaty, they would be punished.” She brought up her locks. “These can be used to bind an Avixan's powers. They can also be used to send an Avixan into stasis.”

Hunter didn't breathe a word. He never turned from her, either. He was so engrossed in what she was saying, he didn't even notice when they reached a closed shaft door. He banged right into it, couched, twisted around, and opened it. “Keep going,” he said in a low voice as they made it through the shaft door.

“For thousands of years, this is how Avixan society was controlled. But in the last several hundred years, democracy came to the fore. The priestess clan slipped into the background as the Avixan government became strong enough to enforce its own rules. Tradition was still strong amongst our people. We had been living with the treaty for so many thousands of years, that it was part of every Avixan's soul.” She jerked her head down and stared at her armlets as she thought that.

It was a line right out of her training. A line the chief priestess would repeat to every initiate.

No Avixan would dare to break the treaty in this day and age.

“... It's okay, Ava. If you don't want to tell me anymore, you don't have to.”

His kind soft words were enough to see her dart her gaze up. She knew she couldn't control her expression. She knew her brows pushed high into her hairline, her cheeks weakening as her lips dropped open.

He smiled ever so softly at her move. “I won't push you. If it's too dangerous for you to tell me—”

“No,” she blurted, “I want to tell you everything. I have to tell someone. I've been running from this my whole life. I can't... I can't run from it anymore. I left Avixa to get away from this history. To get away from my duty. And now it's back.”

He watched her out of the corner of his eye but didn't say anything more than a soft, “It's okay.”

His words sent a pleasant warmth pushing through her chest. It struck a chord in her heart and started to wash away the cold dread that had built there.

She took another breath. “... This, what Shera and the other Avixans did, isn't meant to be possible. Every Avixan knows the danger of returning to our old ways. Not only is it abhorrent, wrong, evil,” her voice choked on that word, “But it will break the treaty.”

“... What’s this treaty?”

“The outsiders who came and made us change our ways, they gave us an ultimatum. Completely alter our culture, or die.”

He shivered again. Then he took a sharp breath. “Do you have any idea who these outsiders are? I mean, what period of history are we talking about? Could we figure it out?"

“I don't know those details, Hunter. I'm sorry. You have to understand that Avixan society has been steeped in myths... and lies, for thousands upon thousands of years.”

At first he looked away, then his brow crumpled as he darted his gaze back. “Do you even know if these so-called outsiders exist?”

She didn't react. Couldn't.

Though the statement might have seemed simple and innocent to him, it wasn't to her. It cut right to her core. She may not have been as traditional as most other priestesses, but there were facts even she couldn't push way.

Her culture, her training, her whole identity was engrossed in that one tradition.

Maybe he couldn’t catch the true extent of her shock, because he continued, “Couldn't it just be that Avixan society naturally realized how brutal it had become, and changed its ways? Perhaps, over the eons, this myth has built to explain what was really a natural process. Because, even though the Coalition doesn't know a great deal about the sector Avixa occupies, and even less about their history, I couldn't think of a possible race strong enough to lay down an ultimatum like that.” He turned to her when he realized she wasn't saying anything. “Ava, what do you think?”

“I'm not sure,” she forced herself to answer, though her voice was shaking. “... It's just, you have to understand that we believe this. All Avixans believe that there was a treaty. They believe that if we break it... we'll die.”

Hunter looked at her steadily. “I understand, Ava, I don't mean to cause you offense. I just think it's pretty clear the other Avixans onboard don't believe that anymore. Or they wouldn't be doing this. We need to figure out what they do believe.”

He had a point. Though it pained her to agree, she nodded her head.

“So, what do we do? You said these priestesses can help. Is that who you were trying to contact on Avixa?”

She nodded her head slowly, not making eye contact.

She could tell him she was a priestess – she should tell him. But she couldn't push the words out. They clogged in her throat like detritus blocking off a drain.

There was no point getting his hopes up. There was no point getting hers up either.

Shera would know exactly what would happen if Ava got the chance to contact Avixa. And Shera was going to do everything – absolutely everything – to stop Ava.

Hunter and the other crew might have a chance.

If Ava used herself as a distraction.

The thought snaked into Ava's mind subtly at first, collecting at the edges of her consciousness like a dark fog pooling thick over a bay.

She found herself taking a shaking, rattling breath that sent a dense cold pressure pushing hard into her chest.

Hunter darted his gaze over to her once more. “What is it? What are you thinking?” he asked perceptively.

She chose not to answer. “We have to find some way to stop them. I wasn't lying when I said Avixans are devils. Before the treaty, we thought nothing of killing outsiders. We were true monsters,” she said in a shaking tone that felt like it could tear her throat in two, “To us, other life forms were nothing more than dirt. I don't know if Shera thinks like that yet, but it's a possibility. We were always taught that if we began to embrace our power again, it would be an inevitable slide back into evil. There's something innate about our abilities – if not kept in check – that leads to that type of thinking,” she managed through a truly tortured breath.

This – what she was telling him now – was the heaviest weight she'd ever carried. The truth about her people was one thing, an academic thing. She was young, and couldn't really be responsible for what her brutal foremothers had done eons upon eons ago.

She could and would be responsible for herself.

She had grown up with every priestess telling her that if she ever lost her locks – if she was ever forced to embrace her powers – she would turn evil. She would forget the sanctity of life. She would gather and destroy, plunder and pillage, all for herself.

She took such a shudder, her palms jerked hard into the grating and she actually cut herself.

It was just a light gaze, but the small spatter of red was enough to get Hunter's attention. He shifted towards her quickly, tenderly grabbed up her hand, and wiped away the blood with the cuff of his sleeve. Then he looked right into her eyes. He was close enough that she could see how light and pale his irises were.

His direct gaze stilled her. Anchored her. It plucked her from her thoughts and brought her back to him.

“Okay, Ava, what do we do? If we can't contact your people or get to the Coalition, how do we fight Shera and Meva?”

Ava considered his question. Again her thoughts slipped back to one fact: she could easily buy him a distraction if she offered herself to Shera.

She'd seen Shera's hate. Meva's too. Every Avixan onboard wanted Ava dead. They would lose reason, opportunity, even sense for the opportunity to kill her.

Ava was never going to be a great priestess, but perhaps she'd be an okay sacrifice she realized with another terrible shiver.

Suddenly Hunter's gaze narrowed, hard, like his eyes were going to be sucked to the back of his skull. “What are you thinking?” his voice was suspicious, but before she could be worried that he'd question whether she was going to turn into a monster, he stopped, pushed forward, locked a hand on her shoulder, ducked his head down, and looked up into her eyes. “Ava, whatever you're thinking, don't do anything rash. You don't have to sacrifice yourself just to buy us a chance.”

She couldn't contain her shock as her brows pushed hard into her hairline and she sucked in a surprised breath. “How did you... how did you know what I was thinking?”

His lips crinkled up into a half smile. “I'm starting to get to know you, Ava.”

With that opaque statement, he ducked his head down once more until his face drew level with hers. He looked right into her eyes with such intensity it was a surprise he didn't start a fire. “You aren't going to do anything like that. And that's an order. There will be a way to save this ship, and everyone on board,” he added as he nodded at her. “Trust me. I may not be the best lieutenant in the fleet, and hell, I certainly haven't been to you, but I will do this.”

Though confusion, shame, and fear pulsed hard through her heart, her lips smiled of their own accord.

When she was around him, her body acted without need for direction. It did things before her mind had a chance to catch up.

She took a breath and opened her mouth to tell him she'd follow his order, but a crackle echoed from somewhere above.

Though the vents were a utility system, they still had access to the ship-wide audio, in case engineers needed to be notified of an urgent message.

Right now the audio crackled and hummed before a single recognizable voice boomed out. “This is Lieutenant Commander Shera. I am currently in charge of the Mandalay. If you don't want the crew to be harmed, you will come to the bridge.”

She stiffened. So did Hunter. His hand was still locked on her shoulder, and now he pushed it in a little harder, his fingers collecting against the fabric as if he was trying to hold onto her.

He sucked in a hard breath that punched his chest out and he twisted his head hard to the side. “Shit.”

“Ava. You will come to the bridge. Or the blood of this crew will be on your hands.” With that, Shera's strident booming voice cut out.

For a second Ava did nothing. She caught Hunter's terrified gaze and held onto it as if it could somehow offer her solace. Protection. An escape.

But there was no escape.

She squeezed her eyes closed and squeezed them tight as Hunter swore again.

“You can't go to the bridge,” he said in a shaking voice, “She'll kill you.”

“Yes,” Ava agreed in a dull tone, “But if I don't, she'll kill the crew.”

“I don't want to believe that....”

“It's true Hunter. You may not believe everything I told you about my people, but believe this – if an Avixan forgets the treaty, if they embrace their true power, there's nothing they won't do to get what they want.”

He looked away, then looked back at her, all the while his cheeks palling to the color of crushed bone. With a stiff breath that echoed through their closed confines, he pushed back on his haunches, still keeping a hand locked on her shoulder despite the uncomfortable angle. “... Ava, I can't see you die. There's got to be something we can do—”

“Time is ticking, Ava. Either you come, or we kill.”

An electric jolt of fear shot up Ava's spine. She jerked back, breaking Hunter's grip, his hand falling down to the grating and striking it with a dull thud.

“Ava—”

“We have to go. No, I have to go. Hunter, use the opportunity to do something. I’ll... I'll distract them for a while. Get to the communications system. Make a call. Call the Coalition. Call the Avixans. Tell them what's happening.”

“Ava, no.”

“Hunter, there's no other way,” she said in a quiet, almost still voice. It was as if her thoughts had turned to stone as a cold frozen feeling marched up her back and sank into the base of her head. “I won't let her kill this crew.”

He looked at her, desperation making his gaze shift as his mouth jutted open wide.

She took another shuffling step backwards. “I saw an exit panel back there. I'll take it. I imagine the minute I reach the corridor, they'll take me to the bridge.”

“They'll kill you—”

“No... I think Shera will want that particular pleasure.”

“There's got to be another way.”

“Hunter, there is. You need to use this distraction to get off a message. Please.”

His face twisted in pain as if she'd just stabbed something through his heart.

He jerked back, unbalancing as he slammed a hand out and caught the wall. He was breathing hard, the spasmodic movements of his chest crumpling the once smooth fabric of his trim uniform.

She didn't give him another opportunity to tell her to stay. She turned and headed for the nearest exit.

“Ava, please,” he called down the vent, his voice echoing and booming out.

She squeezed her eyes shut, reached the vent controls, and pushed herself out.

She exited onto the floor of some random quarters.

She pulled herself up. Locked the vent, and headed towards the door.

She'd already discarded her WD in the vents after Hunter had insisted on destroying them. With the shoddy internal sensors of the Mandalay, his hope was that Shera wouldn't be able to track them.

As Ava walked cautiously down the hall, she confirmed his suspicion. No Avixan came spinning around the corner – meaning the internal sensors hadn't picked her up.

As she walked, she curled her hands into fists.

Her fingers drove so hard into her palms she felt as if she could push them all the way through to the other side.

She shifted her head down, staring forward under her brows and the low cut of her fringe.

She locked her jaw together, grinding her teeth hard, pushing the tension deep into her neck and chest until it felt as if every muscle in her body was ready to snap.

Her steps pounded out, echoing one after the other like a resounding drum.

There were no crew around. She had no idea where they'd be, but it was clear Shera had cleared out the halls and rooms. Perhaps she'd locked them all in the mess hall or cargo bays.

Shera knew what she was doing.

There was no way out of this.

Despite her determined stride, Ava's thoughts exploded as she walked. Her life flashed before her eyes. Though she'd only spent five years with the Coalition, and only a few days on the Mandalay, it was her time aboard that filled her awareness. She saw flashes of her friends, of Hunter.

She reached the end of the quarters block.

She reached a lift.

She didn't even hesitate. She jammed a thumb into the panel and the doors opened with a barely audible hiss.

She walked inside, shoes slapping against the echoing metal floor.

Shera could have rigged these lifts to fall.

But Ava knew Shera wouldn't give up the pleasure of killing Ava with her own hands.

So Ava's heart didn't even flutter as the lift shot towards the bridge.

A few seconds later, it arrived.

It pinged.

She had a single second to stare at the closed doors.

Then they opened.

She walked out onto the bridge.

Thankfully, some of the crew were still there. The captain, Commander Hutchins, and most of the other essential crew necessary to pilot the ship.

They were down on their knees, ankles locked with mag cuffs, and hands pinned behind their heads with restraints.

They all watched her as she walked into the room.

Their expressions were terrified, but none more so than the captain. His eyes were so wide it looked as if he'd split his face in two. “Ensign—”

Shera didn't let him finish. She walked up to Ava, a satisfied smile spreading the lieutenant commander's lips.

Shera tipped her head to the side, her now loose ice-white hair trailing over her shoulder.

With her head still tipped to the side she walked all the way up to Ava.

Ava stopped in the center of the room as Shera circled her.

Ava didn't bother making eye contact. Instead she tipped her head back and stared first at the captain, then across at the view screens.

They still showed space outside.

Freedom. The same freedom that had opened her heart over these last five years.

She took a shaking breath.

"Shera, whatever you're planning, don't do it,” the captain snapped, words stringing together in desperation.

Shera smiled so hard her lips cut hard against her nose. “I would have thought what I was planning was obvious. It's time for the Avixan people to obtain their freedom. Get on your knees,” she mouthed to Ava.

Ava complied. She even brought her hands around and clamped them on the back of her head.

She settled her gaze on the view screen.

She watched space.

The universe. Just outside. All those stars, constellations, planets, civilizations.

All waiting to be explored. All that space, all that freedom. It reached deep into her heart and beckoned her forward.

But there was no more time.

This was it.

She felt Shera move behind her.

Maybe Ava should have closed her eyes. Maybe it would make death easier.

She didn't, because it wouldn't.

The only thing that could drive back her soul-crushing fear, the only thing that could keep the tears at bay, was that view.

“I'm going to cut your arms off one by one, little priestess,” Shera shifted forward and slotted her face alongside Ava's. “Hopefully you'll live long enough to feel the pain.”

Ava didn't respond. She shifted her head back, lifted her chin, and she stared at that view, letting it pull her away and out of her body, ready to claim her soul once she died.

Shera shifted back hard, a burst of air buffeting against Ava's neck.

This was it.

... But the final blow never came.

She heard a clang, and something dropped from above.

Something heavy, something that screamed.

She jerked to her feet and shifted to the side just in time to see Hunter spring on top of Shera from an open vent hatch.

... He'd clearly made it all the way to the bridge.

Not the communications system.

The bridge.

To save Ava.

Though Shera was surprised, it didn't last. Meva came from nowhere, rounded her shoulder, and knocked into Hunter's side.

She had a blade in her hand.

Not a sacred sword made of her own energy – only a priestess could produce one of those. Meva was holding a special version of an electrified blade standard in the Coalition inventory. It was powered with Meva’s own energy, though.

And it was deadly.

She shifted back for a single second.

“Kill him,” Shera snapped.

Hunter had a massive gash in his brow, blood spilling down his face and covering his eyes. But he saw as Meva tipped back, brought the sword around, and swung it towards his throat.

Ava's heart stopped.

So did time.

Somehow she pushed past her limitations, somehow she drew deep inside herself and accessed her true speed. She threw herself at Hunter.

Just as Meva's blade struck.

Ava twisted her right arm up and around, protecting Hunter's face.

The blade struck it, a burst of electricity slamming into her armlet.

“Kill them both,” Shera snapped. “Now.”

Ava was thrown backwards into Hunter. He wrapped his arms around her as they banged hard into the command seat.

Then Meva took a step towards them, her sword swinging close to her hip as her lips curled into a cruel smile.

Hunter's fingers stiffened around Ava.

Ava brought her arm up once more, wincing, finally closing her eyes. Not against her death, but Hunter's.

It didn't come.

As Meva took another step forward, something unclicked and fell against the floor.

Ava opened her eyes just in time to see her right armlet disengage and drop to the floor by her feet.

....

Meva and Shera stopped. Dead.

So did Ava.

Her eyes bolted open as she expected a lethal electric shock to pulse through her body and fry her brain.

When it didn't happen, she realized one thing.

She was free.

Meva jerked backwards.

She wasn't fast enough.

Ava sprang towards her, using every ounce of speed and strength she had.

Power – pure energy surged through her. It leapt through her body like a dry pyre of wood introduced to its first flame.

And yet, the energy only touched one side of her body.

Her left side was virtually immobilized. It still possessed reduced strength and speed.

It wouldn't matter.

In a pulsing heartbeat, Ava formed a sacred sword, a burst of bright purple light forming right from her hand as she twisted it forward.

Meva was terrified. Though Ava moved like the speed of light, Meva had just enough time for a scream to crack from her lips.

Ava sliced her sword around. It cut right through Meva's blade and sent it spinning over the floor until it struck the far wall and lodged a foot into the pylon.

Meva fell to her side, jerking one hand up in defense.

“What's going on?” she heard the captain scream.

“How did you get those off?” Shera screamed, her pitch so desperate it sounded like the screech of a bird being strangled. She stumbled back across the bridge, fear locking her limbs in place as her white face became so ashen she resembled an alabaster statue.

“I think you broke it, Shera,” Ava said honestly as she tipped her head down and glared at Shera. “Now give up.”

“Never,” Shera screamed. She had a gun at her side. She snatched it up.

It was just a blaster.

Ava would be able to endure over a hundred shots before it could cut through her natural power.

She brought up her sword and parried a shot, sending it slamming into the far wall. “Just give up.”

“Never. You've taken from us. Made us small. We will never bow to your power again,” Shera shrieked.

Suddenly Meva moved.

She jerked towards Hunter, her boots moving so fast they scratched over the floor.

Ava jerked her head down just as Meva clutched the electro knife from her hip holster and stabbed it towards him.

Ava dropped to her knees, grabbing Meva by the shoulder and jerking her back.

The electro blade spun out of Meva's grip and lodged into Ava's side.

Her left side.

... Her power should protect her. Her natural energy should rebuff the blade.

It didn't.

The blade slammed into the soft flesh above her left hip, gouging a quick bloody path towards her stomach.

She screamed, jerking backwards as her blue blood splattered the floor.

At the same time, she threw Meva against the floor with the superior strength of her right arm.

Meva impacted the metal so badly her body dented the floor.

It wasn't nearly enough to kill the Avixan warrior, just wind her.

Shera let out a shaking, choking laugh as Ava brought a hand up and stared at the blood spilling from her side.

Shera's whooping laughter became louder. “Oh my god, it only works on half your body. The rest is still as soft as flesh,” she pressed her teeth together, her lips jerking around them as she hissed each word. “And you get the other lock off, can you, little priestess?”

Still laughing, she took a slow step towards Ava.

Ava's mind spun. Blood spilled over the floor, a huge blue puddle forming at her feet.

“Ava, Ava!” Hunter called as he scrabbled to his feet.

Ava wasn't down yet.

Just as Meva got to her feet and lurched towards Ava, Ava brought her right arm around, collected Meva hard on the chest, and threw her back against the floor.

Stars exploded through Ava's vision, as the pain grew so all-encompassing it felt as if she would forget everything.

Meva pushed to her feet once more as Ava began to stagger.

“Just kill her now,” Shera spat from behind.

With a splitting scream, Meva moved towards Ava.

This time, Ava caught one of Meva's wrists.

Unlike Shera, Meva was still wearing her ceremonial wrist locks.

A mistake.

As soon as Ava slammed her right hand around one, Meva skidded to a stop. Wobbling, a terrified scream split Meva's throat as she staggered to her knees.

Great blue electrical arcs spun around Meva's lock, sinking harder and harder into her skin.

“No,” Shera spat as she jerked towards Ava.

She didn't get a chance to stop Ava – the captain sprang to his feet, despite his magnetic cuffs, and he threw himself at Shera.

It bought Ava the time she needed.

With a click. Meva's locks engaged fully.

Meva fell to the floor, in stasis.

The only way to wake her up, would be with a priestess. And Ava had no intention of helping out.

It was time to stop this.

She spun to face Shera just as she threw the captain to the side.

Shera's expression was like shattered ice. So much cold hatred cascaded down her face it looked as if she'd lost all reason.

She took a rattling breath, her nostrils flaring wide as a smattering of cold blue flecks charged up her skin. Shera jerked towards Ava.

Ava could barely stand.

She'd lost too much blood.

Her mind... she couldn’t hold onto anything.

And yet she still stood.

She still faced Shera.

Ava brought her sacred blade around. It was starting to fizz and crackle as her power ebbed.

Shera sprang forward with her own electric blade, another awful cry splitting her lips.

Just as Ava feared she would lose consciousness, Hunter called out her name once more.

Her eyes snapped open, and she parried Shera’s blow. Slicing right through the lieutenant commander’s blade.

Shera fell against the floor, ice white hair slicing around her terror-filled eyes.

Ava could barely see.

But she knew what she had to do.

She brought her blade around.

Shera was wearing a pin on her left breast.

Just as Ava staggered, Shera slammed a hand onto it.

A transport beam sliced through the ship and locked on Shera.

Ava jerked forward, but she wasn’t quick enough.

Light exploded off Shera as she was broken down on the atomic level.

Ava had just enough time to stare into Shera’s hate filled gaze before Shera was transported away.

The computer suddenly beeped a warning. “Avixan diplomatic transport disengaging from hull.”

Ava staggered from foot to foot.

Hunter punched to his feet and caught her just as she fell.

The darkness loomed in her mind.

It pushed at her every sense, submerging them under a numb sensation that crushed her from the inside out.

“Don’t die, Ava, don’t die. I’ve got you now. The Mandalay’s safe. You did it.”

You did it.

Those three words echoed in her mind as she lost consciousness, her head resting against Lieutenant Hunter McClane’s chest.

She had done it. The Mandalay was technically safe.

For now.

But neither she nor the Mandalay would stay that way for long.

A war had just begun, and Ava’s blood was the first to be spilled.

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and there are four episodes available. You can buy The Lost Star Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

 



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