Hers, Times Two
Liz accelerated through the asteroid belt, green rays from the pursuing spaceship shooting past them.
“Watch out!” Jax yelled, as an enormous asteroid rotated toward them.
“I am watching out, no worries,” Liz replied, adrenaline thudding in her veins. She cranked the controls, and the Vixen ducked under the asteroid, avoiding a head-on collision by an inch.
“The merchandise took a hit,” Alyssa, Jax’s woman, reported from the seat behind Liz.
By merchandise she meant the wreck of a spaceship the Vixen was hauling. The valuable raw materials were the reason why they were under fire. The rival space scavengers were prepared to kill for the loot.
Jax groaned. “Damn it, Liz, every dent you put on it decreases the value.”
“Who gives a damn about the merch?” she tossed at the captain. “I’m trying to keep them from putting dents into us!”
The lives of her friends were in her hands. As the pilot, it was Liz’s job to get their asses to safety. Green rays clipped at the Vixen’s tail.
“You haven’t shaken them yet,” Jax observed.
“I know, I know.”
“The weapons still aren’t responding,” Alyssa said, her voice anxious, flicking through her screens. “They should be online by now. The connection must be fried.”
Liz gritted her teeth. “Fine, we’ll do without weapons.”
“You better slow down or the engine will blow,” Zaster’s deep voice spoke into her earpiece from the engine room.
The sound of his voice sent a shiver down her spine, although Liz kept her focus on flying. Instead of slowing down, she sped up.
“Never mind, Zaster, Liz can probably do without an engine as well,” Jax replied, exasperated.
“You hired me to fly this baby, Cap,” Liz returned. “I’m just doing my job.”
“The Vixen is falling apart.”
“We’ll be fine.” This part of the asteroid belt had too much space. She frantically searched for a tighter corner.
“We can’t outrun them.”
“Of course we can.” She raised her voice to address everyone, “Hold onto something.” She put the Vixen into a nosedive toward a dense cluster of asteroids.
The rival ship followed, firing mercilessly. Liz kept accelerating, darting into ever smaller spaces between the enormous boulders.
“Goddamn it, Liz,” Jax muttered.
“We’ll be fine,” she assured him.
“You’re gonna fucking kill us.”
“I can handle this obstacle course, but I bet they can’t.”
As if on cue, the pursuing ship smashed into an asteroid and veered off course, spinning. Liz saw on the radar the frantic maneuvers of the pilot trying to bring the ship back under control. The collision hadn’t been big enough to pulverize the pursuers, but the damage they took would keep the suckers busy long enough for the Vixen to limp away with the loot and jump to their destination: Taraseba Scavenger Colony.
Liz slowed down and glanced at the others. Next to her, Jax loosened his grip on the armrests and checked the ship’s status. Behind them, Alyssa pushed hair from her face. “Did we lose them?”
“They’re busy for a while.” Liz guided the ship under the cover of a bigger asteroid to allow the engines a second to cool. “Next, we clear the asteroid belt and jump out of here.”
Alyssa let out a breathless laugh. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
Jax tapped his earpiece. “Zaster, Jackal, how’s the engine?”
“Not good, but it hasn’t blown up yet,” Jackal replied, his gritty voice making a shiver run over Liz’s skin. “What happened?”
“Liz shook off the pursuers,” Jax replied. “Is Zaster okay?”
“Busy plugging a leak. He’s fine.”
“How’s the wormhole generator?”
“Functioning, same as the jump drive. We can jump, but only if the engine holds.”
Jax nodded at Liz. “All right, I’ll take over. You and Alyssa, go see how bad the damage is.”
Liz surrendered the pilot seat to Jax. She turned to Alyssa who had also gotten up and straightened her clothes. The blond Silenian beamed at her. “Whew, that was exciting. I’m all shaky now.”
“I hope I didn’t scare you.”
“Oh no, I’m great,” Alyssa assured her. “Awesome flying. Better than any ride in a virtual park. Let’s go see how the guys are doing below.”
They headed toward the engine room. Alyssa was the ship’s designated engineer, and she was already examining her favorite gadget: a handheld device that controlled the maintenance bots. Liz knew about ship repairs, too, but didn’t mind taking the backseat in the matter. It was nice to have another human woman around, even though Alyssa came from Silenia, which represented a different culture to Liz’s Earth. Liz also didn’t mind the captain ordering her to check on Zaster and Jackal. The thought of the two men caused her pulse to flutter, although the sensation was laced with the disappointing knowledge that they’d never feel the same way about her.
“So, what exactly do you have to do on Taraseba?” she asked Alyssa, seeking a distraction. “Captain told me you want to go planetside.”
There was no need for Alyssa to join the supply run; she could remain on the Vixen in orbit. The other crew members would divide the tasks of selling the scavenged goods at the space station and fetching supplies from the planet.
“I want to tell the local hybrids about Silenia,” Alyssa replied.
Silenia was an isolated human colony that supplied Earth with various mined metals. Liz never knew anything unusual went on there before Jax and Alyssa told her the colonists abducted humanoid aliens and hybrids from space and kept them as pets. A recent revolution had deemed the practice illegal, and Silenia was now in a state of change.
“My people are eager to meet new hybrids,” Alyssa went on. “They want consensual relationships now, and they’re willing to pay a lot of money for it. So maybe some of the Taraseban hybrids will want to visit Silenia for sex and money.”
Liz gave her a wary look. “I don’t know about that. You know how suspicious hybrids are of humans.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“And Jax thinks it’s safe for you to go down there?”
“He says the risk is within reason.”
Liz remained skeptical. “Hybrids have been screwed over so many times that the ones on Taraseba probably wouldn’t listen to what you have to say, even if you paid them.”
“Well, I have to try.” A small frown clouded Alyssa’s usually bright expression. “Chase is convinced there are hybrids like him out there who’d want to have sex with Silenians. He asked me to look for them because Silenia’s reputation being what it is, they’re going to stay away otherwise.”
“The people we’ll encounter on Taraseba will be like the ones who just chased us.” Liz hadn’t visited Taraseba before, but she had seen enough hybrid colonies to know what to expect. “Rough. And pissed.”
Alyssa only shrugged. Liz couldn’t help but be impressed with how the promise of big, armed, and bad-tempered hybrids failed to intimidate the Silenian woman. Liz wasn’t intimidated, either, but for different reasons: she had combat training. Alyssa was only armed with positive attitude.
Maybe I could use some positivity, too.
When they reached the cargo bay, a hatch in the floor opened. Jackal and Zaster crawled out of it amidst a cloud of steam. The Wolfman hybrid and the Crasnian were sweaty and covered in grime. Liz forgot to breathe as she glimpsed Jackal’s bare, muscular arms. The way they flexed and bulged as he pushed himself up made it impossible to look away.
“Why didn’t you use the door?” Alyssa called out to them.
“It’s jammed,” Jackal replied. “Among other things. You have to take a look.”
Liz hung back as Alyssa went to talk to the guys. Her presence wouldn’t be welcomed, and she appreciated the opportunity to admire their physiques while their attention was elsewhere. She leaned her forearm against a steel beam and let her gaze wander.
Zaster wore a dark green jumpsuit, dirty and worn in places, but for some reason the guys only looked hotter the dirtier they were. He was Crasnian. Typical for his species, he was tall—the tallest guy on the crew—and his body resembled something cast out of bronze. He was bald, which accentuated his statue-like appearance, bringing out his well-formed cheekbones and broad jaw. Like all Crasnians, he had red eyes. Liz couldn’t decide whether his eye color reminded her of jewels or of blood. He was quiet but intelligent. Jax named him second-in-command after Chase Decker ran off because Zaster was level-headed and reliable in an intimidating kind of way. The thought of being face-to-face with him in some tight corner caused her pulse to quicken.
She admired his profile as he talked to Alyssa about the repairs.
Her gaze slid over to Jackal and her heart jolted. He was pulling off his grimy tank top, revealing washboard abs. She swallowed as her gaze roamed over his muscular frame with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Jackal was a hybrid with human and Wolfman blood, and while he resembled human, there was something attractively savage about his appearance, inherited from his alien ancestors. The shock of dark hair on his head was thicker than that of an average man. The same color hair covered his chest and forearms, and his jaw bore a sexy stubble. Liz knew he also had a tail, furry like that of a wolf, although he kept it tucked down the leg of his loose cargo pants, out of sight. She wished he wouldn’t hide it. It was part of him, and she found everything about him attractive. His eyes under the bushy eyebrows were the color of quicksilver. Unlike his quiet, controlled friend, Jackal was more open and talkative.
Zaster and Jackal were inseparable. They always worked together if given a choice, and no one would ever want to get on their bad side. In a fight, they were a force to be reckoned with. They didn’t share a room though. Liz knew they preferred women, but neither seemed to be committed to anyone. She entertained a hope that they were looking for someone special, and maybe, just maybe, she could be that someone.
But which one do I want, Zaster or Jackal?
She had been obsessing over them for so long she wasn’t sure when it started. Perhaps when they first met, although the situation had been the opposite of romantic.
Now, seeing them together reinforced her suspicion that she actually didn’t want to choose between them. In her secret dreams she wanted them both, but surely she was being ridiculous? Unlike her, Zaster and Jackal had their shit together. She wasn’t worthy of even one of them, let alone both, so she should just get over her mad fantasy.
She tore her gaze away from Jackal’s bare upper body and found Zaster gazing at her.
She straightened her spine. Zaster didn’t say anything, merely observed her while Alyssa and Jackal had an animated discussion over Alyssa’s gadget. Jackal didn’t seem aware of Liz. His focus was on Alyssa, their conversation punctuated by laughter.
Zaster hardly ever displayed facial expressions, but Liz could feel the weight of judgment and disapproval radiating off of him as he looked at her. She wanted to turn around and leave, but good crew members didn’t walk away from each other that way. Since she couldn’t hide in the shadows anymore, she braced herself and joined them.
“Sorry about the jostle,” she said to Zaster, trying to sound relaxed and confident even though she felt as if she were walking on thin ice. “I had to shake off the pursuer. Are you guys okay?”
Now, Jackal also turned his attention to her. For a second, both men were staring at her in a way that made her feel like an intruder.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Jackal said, his tone dropping to neutral, different from the warm, friendly tone he had used with Alyssa. Zaster didn’t speak, only gave a near-imperceptible nod.
Liz swallowed, breaking into a light sweat. “All right,” she said. “I just wanted to hear it from you. The captain took over the pilot seat. Is there anything I can do to help here?”
“No,” Zaster replied.
Liz looked at the pillar of smoke rising through the open hatch from the engine room. They wouldn’t want my help even if their lives depended on it.
“You sure?” she asked.
“We’ve got this,” Jackal replied. “Alyssa’s sending her robots in. No need for you to get your hands dirty.”
As if I give a fuck about getting dirty.
Giving up, Liz shrugged. “Okay. See you later, Alyssa.”
“Yeah, later,” Alyssa replied in a cheery but distracted tone, focused on her gadget.
Liz walked away, looking forward to hiding in her quarters. Of course they disliked her. Why wouldn’t they, considering their history together? Why couldn’t she just accept that and move on with her life?
“Hey, uh, Liz,” Jackal called after her.
She turned to face him in surprise. The hybrid was wiping his grimy hands with a rag and Liz tried not to think about how alluring those hands looked. Big, capable hands…the mere thought of them touching her made her ache with longing.
“Will you come to the gym with us later?” he asked, nodding at Zaster. “I need someone to be a referee while we spar.”
Even more surprised, Liz asked, “Is that so?”
“Yeah. I can’t deal with Zaster anymore. The asshole cheats if there’s no referee.”
“I do not cheat,” Zaster remarked.
“Yeah you do,” Jackal returned. “Every chance you get.”
Zaster didn’t reply, but the corner of his mouth curled up slightly.
“So, will you come?” Jackal asked her. “If you’re not doing anything this evening, come watch me beat the shit out of a smug Crasnian.”
They actually want me in the same room with them?
She was about to say yes when a slicing pain went through her temple. Somehow, she managed not to wince. She wished she could prolong the conversation. Getting to see Zaster and Jackal in nothing but shorts, sparring, was something straight out of her fantasies—simply talking to Jackal about it was exciting. The men hardly ever spoke to her even though they were on friendly terms with everyone else on the ship. Liz was starved for their attention, but she could feel her hand beginning to tremble. A ghostly pain crept into her bones.
I need to see Rogue.
“Sure, okay,” she said to Jackal, cringing at her quick, anxious tone.
That sounded the opposite of delighted.
Worse yet, Jackal picked up on it. His expression grew hesitant. “I don’t want to bother you if you have other plans.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” she said, trying to sound convincing while backing away from him. “What time?”
“That’s good.” Cold ache spread through her skull. She pressed her fingers to her temple. She had to get to the medbay before it got worse.
Jackal frowned. “Everything all right?”
“I have to take care of something. Talk to you later, okay?”
Liz pivoted and strode off. She knew what kind of impression she must have given and wanted to kick herself.
The one time they asked me to do something for them and I have to run away…
Of course she would go into withdrawal at the worst possible time; that was how the universe seemed to work. She was aware of Zaster and Jackal watching her and forced herself to walk, even though she wanted to run.