“I love you, Charlie,” Sumner whispered to Charlie before the world turned white hot. The Sworne’s ion blast swallowed Charlie and erupted like a dying star.
This could be my end, Charlie reasoned as she sorted through the sensations coursing through her body. The ion blast should have melted her into a gooey pile on Kander’s surface; instead, it was rather peaceful and calm. For a tick she almost believed it was all a dream, a terrible dream, and that she would wake up next to her Alpha. Then the blinding whiteness began to soften and other colors dialed in, especially blue and black. Slowly, a few shapes formed in her vision, including an all-too-familiar one. The Sworne ship was hovering above her and was raising the strange device from the ground.
Now flat on her back, Charlie sat up and scanned her immediate surroundings. She was still in Clabonne, not back at home and in bed with Kal. The ground was charred all around her, and white smoke was slithering into the burned dirt as if called back. Several of the nearby buildings’ walls were no longer bright white from the heat of the ion blast and were left scorched. Kaden rolled off her back and sat dazed for a beat. Charlie mirrored her locke, until the Sworne spaceship’s soft hum recharged her.
“Sumner,” Charlie said in a hitched breath. She scrambled to her feet, and then a wave of people was swarming her. Several voices spoke at once, but only one broke through the cacophony.
“Charlie, are you okay?” Raine asked and touched Charlie, looking for injuries.
“I’m fine, actually.” Charlie searched inward for any signs of the Spirit of Kalatas, but it was gone. Not only had the god spirit vanished, but Kal was kidnapped. Charlie was more than alone; she was weakened by Kal being taken from her. Their connection was fractured for the first time, as if the Sworne had the ability to cut away at it. Although Raine continued to talk, Charlie listened to the garbled mess of her link to Kal. The Sworne had taken her mate.
“I have to get her.”
“What?” Raine squeezed Charlie’s shoulder and shook her head. “There’s nothing we can—” Charlie cut her short and left. “Where are you going?” Raine hollered and chased after her.
Running at top speed, Charlie left Clabonne, darted around soldiers, and headed toward the vehicles. Several of them had been overturned during the battle, and she prayed that their particular vehicle was okay. Her heart slammed against her chest and adrenaline flowed through her veins. Again and again, her spirit pulled and jerked against her to find her mate. As she jumped over a Sworne body, Kaden caught up to her and howled with purpose.
“Charlie!” Raine had fallen behind, but she skidded against the ground next to Charlie at the back of a rover. She gulped air and neared her friend one step at a time. “Charl…”
Not wasting time, Charlie jerked open the vehicle’s door, scrambled into it, and located the one thing that could truly help her. With it in hand, she bolted out of the rover, removed her heavy winter coat, and started putting on the Galactic Hammer.
“Wait, no. Charlie!” Raine closed the gap and held out her hands. “I haven’t finished testing it!”
Next to them, Andren appeared from around the rover after a brisk run. She gaped as much as a soldier could and said, “Raine is right.”
Charlie ignored them and ordered, “Galactic Hammer, activate.”
“Fuck!” Raine rushed forward but it was too late. The battle suit had already started to plate itself around Charlie’s body. “You can’t use it! It’s not safe.” Her voice was threaded with sheer panic, but it did nothing to ward off Charlie’s determination. After the suit finished covering Charlie, Raine sprung forward and gripped the metal shoulders of the suit. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“They took my mate,” Charlie said through the helmet. Even with it shielding her face, her voice came out broken and shaky. She ordered the helmet to retract. “I have to get her back.”
“Then what?!” Raine waited for Charlie’s pending plan, but there was none. Charlie only knew she had to get to Kal. “The suit can’t go beyond the planet’s atmosphere. You know this!” Raine shook her sister and growled when Charlie stepped back from her.
Kaden whined in Charlie’s direction. She pinned her ears back and lowered her head closer to the ground.
“I don’t have to fly past the atmosphere. I just have to catch them.” Charlie glanced at Andren, who had a grim expression. She refused to allow their concerns to halt her. Up there, her mate was being held prisoner and being harmed for her role as Kal.
A soft boom drew everyone’s attention to the Sworne ship. The gigantic device had reached the belly of the ship and attached itself to it. Even though the folded device was a little damaged, it seemed the Sworne still found it important. Charlie regarded her sister again and said, “If there’s anything you have to tell me about the suit, tell me now.”
Raine bit her lip, sighed, and then explained, “You’ll feel the suit connect to your brain through your neck. It takes a minute to sync, but you can use the suit like normal until then. I’ll get on the comms to explain the rest.” The Sworne ship’s engines thundered with life and started to lift it. Charlie hesitated for half a beat until Raine ordered, “Now go!”
Charlie used the regular controls in her hands to launch herself into the sky. She reactivated the helmet, which covered her face in a few ticks. The Galactic Hammer sliced through the sky at an alarming rate that made her feel as though her heart were in her throat, yet every moment was a snail’s pace with Kal so far from her grasp. Time was precious on all accounts, and Charlie used her experience as a mercenary to formulate a plan, but she needed help.
“Betty May, do you read me?” Charlie hailed over the comms that worked though the planet’s satellite system.
“I need you to fly to my location on the double,” Charlie ordered. “The Sworne have taken Kal.” She squeezed her eyes shut from the stinging heat at the back of her neck. Betty May confirmed the command, but her voice was distant. The Galactic Hammer stalled in midair, rolled, and started to dip downward. The shift was the start of a downward rollercoaster back to Kander. For a brief instant, Charlie cursed her sister for being right about the battle suit.
“I have the controls,” Betty May chirped in her ears after she intervened before it was too late. The battle suit curved upward and continued its ascent toward the Sworne ship that was growing larger. The AI had full control over the battle suit.
“Charlie, are you all right?” Raine asked over the comms.
Charlie groaned after the sting faded from her neck and the heat around her head receded. She released a strained breath, opened her eyes, and studied the beautiful blue sky around her. She shifted her finger to touch the comm button, but the channel already opened for her as if reading her thoughts. With a frown, she replied, “Ja.”
“Has the suit connected with you?” Raine asked.
“Ja, I think it just did.” Charlie wanted to rub her brow, but it wasn’t possible right now. She blew out a breath and refocused on her mission to find Kal. “How does the suit work with the nanolites?”
“The nanolites enter your brain through the back of your neck and head. They are mainly connected to your cerebrum and cerebellum. The nanolites listen for your thoughts and respond to your actions.” Raine paused before further explaining the connection. “So basically, you can think the commands you used to speak or the buttons you used in your hands.”
“Okay, got it,” Charlie replied over the comms.
“The problem we were having was if Andren tried to use a button and think a command at the same time, it was too much for the suit to process. I was trying to work out better code to handle the overload of inputs.”
“So I should just stick to one or the other,” Charlie concluded and already decided on the mental commands. “Maybe you should program it to block out the hand commands unless there’s some kind of failure with the nanolites, then the suit reverts back to its old software.” There was a long pause before there was a weak laugh.
“Captain, I am en route to Clabonne,” Betty May interrupted in the shared comms.
“How long we got ’til you’re here, Betty May?” Raine inquired.
“I estimate fifteen minutes, Lady Raine.”
Charlie decided it was enough. Above her, the Sworne’s black ship had grown in size from a distant building to a glowing city. She gritted her teeth and prepared for whatever trial rested ahead of her. “Betty May, I have the controls now.” Once the AI released the suit, Charlie used her mind to maneuver her way toward the enemy.
“Charlie,” Raine started, “there’s one other upgrade I made to the suit. I attached a high-powered, focused laser to the right forearm. It can cut through rock or steel like it’s butter. But it will drain the power cells quicker.” The news about the weapon was welcoming and placed a measure of relief in the back of Charlie’s mind.
“Got it. Tah, sis.” Charlie narrowed her eyes at the view she had of the space ship. She slowed her rate of ascent and concentrated on her frail connection with her Alpha. Kal was alive but hurting badly. From the feed on the suit’s screen, she noted they were already several marches above the ground, which meant oxygen would become a problem soon. Unlike Earth, Kander had a deeper atmosphere due to its larger size, but it wasn’t infinite.
After a minute, Charlie followed the familiar tug against her spirit and banked to her right, still headed upward. Her connection with Kal was reeling her in toward the starboard rear of the vessel. So far, the Sworne ship had climbed half a march into the sky, if not less. They were ascending at a snail’s pace, which was to Charlie’s benefit. The massive device was perhaps fragile, and the Sworne didn’t wish to risk a fast climb in case the winds and gravity damaged it. It was even plausible that the device might be sensitive to pressure changes.
“How are you making out?” Raine inquired.
“I’m almost to the ship’s hull,” Charlie reported and increased the thrust power.
“Try to find access rather than using the laser,” Raine said. “You’re better off conserving the suit’s power as much as possible.”
“I’ll try my best.” Charlie would use any means to locate and save her Alpha. The link with Kal drew her closer to a midlevel deck area near a convenient platform. Most likely the Sworne’s maintenance crew used it to access the exterior for repairs. With a grin, she spotted a door that went into a pressure chamber. It would be locked, but it was better than opening a hole directly into the ship’s hull and drawing plenty of unwanted attention.
Charlie touched down on the platform and engaged the boots’ magnetic anchors so that she clung to the ship. She pushed forward to the access door and studied its locking system. “Raine, are you seeing this on your techbit?”
“I am.” From the helmet’s visual feed, Charlie could see Raine’s connection to the suit. “I think your best option is to lower the power on the laser and fry the locking mechanism. Once you’re inside the air lock chamber, it might not automatically pressurize, but it doesn’t matter since you’re not in outer space just yet.” The idea that they could end up in outer space was scary, because then it would be next to impossible for her and Kal to escape the Sworne. Charlie had to move fast and break out of the ship before they went into orbit.
“All right.” Charlie raised her arm, lowered her wrist, and sent the signal for the laser to hit the lock. It grew bright red and fell away within a few beats. Charlie hastened and forced open the door without any resistance. She hopped into the chamber and shut the exterior door. As Raine predicted, the air chamber was off-line because they were still in Kander’s atmosphere. Regardless, reclosing the door might minimize anyone noticing her entry into the ship.
A chirp sounded over the comms. “Captain, I am less than ten minutes from your location.”
“Be sure to stay back from the Sworne ship, Betty May. I don’t want them to attack you.” Charlie latched onto the solid door between her and the rest of the ship. It groaned in protest, but it started to slide open under the suit’s incredible strength. “Let me know when you’re near, then wait for me to hail you.”
“Ja, Captain.” Betty May went silent, allowing Charlie to focus on her mission.
Charlie stepped onto the ship’s deck but first closed the air lock’s door. Refacing the long hallway, she stole a quiet moment to focus on her connection with Kal. Once a Sworne spotted her, pure chaos would ensue. After another deep breath, she had a strong hold on her connection, which was buzzing with renewed life, as if it was Sumner rather than Kal. A tremor passed through her body as she considered the task at hand.
With a deep breath, she softly ordered “Nova, play ‘Army of One’ inside the helmet.” Once Coldplay was singing in her ears, she steadied her nerves and gritted her teeth.
Moving forward, Charlie curled her metal-clad hands into tight fists and jogged down the hallway, allowing her connection to guide her. The ship’s decks were as dark as the exterior, reminding her of the Liberator. But the helmet’s superior vision made seeing much easier. The blue lighting was the only dab of color.
Turning left at an intersection, she drew closer to Kal but also ran into trouble. Two Sworne beings gave pause and stared at her. Their gigantic crests were dusted with a brilliant green that indicated they had a different status or job from the ones with red crests she had fought on the planet. Charlie noted they were weaponless and wore everyday attire rather than armor and padding. They weren’t soldiers, but they were military personnel in Charlie’s mind. One of them retrieved a round device from her pocket and radioed for help.
“Damn!” Charlie surged forward and grabbed the female before she could utter a sound. She tossed her aside with ease, but the male had backpedaled, raised his hands, and gritted his bare teeth. Charlie smirked and lunged for him. He landed a punch to her shoulder, then howled from slamming his fist into metal. With ease, Charlie threw him into the wall and knocked him unconscious. Without peering over her shoulder, she sprinted forward and heard the female Sworne calling on the comms once more.
Overhead blue lights turned stark white and burned against Charlie’s eyes until the helmet adjusted for it. Charlie came to a T intersection and turned to her right, following her connection. As soon as she stepped into the new hallway, all the blue lights turned white, as if following her. “Fuck!”
“How do you know where she is?” Raine cut into Charlie’s frantic marathon. In the background, she heard Andren’s voice, but Charlie couldn’t make out what Andren said.
“I know,” Charlie replied with firmness. Ahead of her, three Sworne soldiers stepped out from an opening doorway and faced her with their weapons. The first shot was quick and forced Charlie to drop, roll, and spring up. With the suit’s improved programming and nanolites, she moved faster than the last time she used it. The next laser shot was closer to her waist, but she used the thrusters to launch higher, tuck, and land on her feet. She bolted toward the three soldiers, who were only a few steps from her.
“Surrender!” a Sworne soldier barked in English. He fired a shot and missed when Charlie jumped toward the left wall. The magnetic anchors locked her to the wall, and she sprinted toward him. He yelped when she collided with him, causing him to drop his rifle.
Now back on the floor, Charlie sprung up toward the remaining two soldiers and spread out her arms. She slammed both her arms into the soldiers’ chests. Once they were down, she stomped on their heads hard. There wasn’t a single thread of regret in her for killing them. Leaving the first Sworne in misery, she bolted down the hallway and looked to her left for a turn or a door. She needed to go that way. Kal was so close that Charlie could feel her like a second skin.
Finally, a sealed door emerged on her left. Charlie slammed into it with her shoulder and dented it with ease. The familiar hiss of lasers turned her attention to the swarm of soldiers coming after her. They were far enough that their aim was less accurate, but she didn’t have a lot of time. Taking a wide step back, Charlie hurled her entire weight forward and crashed through the door, tearing it open. She hit the floor and whipped her head up but remained in a knelt position.
A yell came from her right and a soldier charged her. Without fail, Charlie lifted in sync with the enemy’s attack. She shouldered him, grabbed him by the waist, and tossed him across the room. His rifle clattered against the metal floor. Another soldier managed to jump on her from the right, and pressed a handgun to her head. Charlie growled and tore him off her back before he fired the weapon. She swung him around and released him in time to collide with the other soldier. Both groaned and slumped against the floor. Charlie turned when the arriving unit of soldiers neared her.
“Move that case in front of the opening,” Raine suggested.
Charlie agreed and grabbed the tall metal case, which she sunk her fingers into and pulled down. Its contents rattled and fell inside of it. Going to the far end, Charlie pressed her back against the upturned base and pushed it across the floor. Once the gigantic case was set, she had the ruined entrance blocked off. She faced the room and scanned her surroundings.
“I think you’re in their brig,” Raine concluded. “You must be close.”
Charlie suspected the two unconscious soldiers were guards for the brig. She sprinted down the hallway and passed one empty cell after another. Her heart was tugging at her to travel lower. Kal was under her feet. Seeing a staircase at the end of the hallway, Charlie sprinted to it and expected to see more guards, but it was quiet other than her heavy movements. Ahead of her was a cell that glowed a warm and soft white. She almost dropped to her knees upon finding her Alpha inside of it.
“Sumner!” Charlie took a step closer but the vertical blue lights hummed with dangerous energy and barred her from Kal. “End music.” She raised her hands and willed the helmet to retract so she could see for herself.
Kal was on the floor, body stretched out and chest moving at a steady pace. Her one hurt eye was swollen shut, and the skin around it had already darkened. Dried blood was splotched across her cheek, over her chest, and on her clothes. At some point, her long coat had been taken, along with the Sword of Kalatas. She remained unmoving and unaware of Charlie’s presence.
Charlie stepped forward, but the power coursing through the blue lights zapped her suit. She dropped to her knees and waited for the Galactic Hammer’s alarms to shut off. “Raine, you read me? What do I do now?”
“Is there a panel nearby for the cell?”
Charlie lifted her head and scanned both walls adjoining the cell’s entrance. “Ja.” She hopped onto her feet and neared the strange panel that had unfamiliar symbols. When she was back on Earth, the United States had little time to study—much less teach—the Sworne’s language, both verbal and written.
“The suit can use nanolites to access the panel. Just raise your right arm and touch your fingertips to the panel.”
Charlie did so and willed the nanolites to penetrate the panel. The suit gave readings that the nanolites had infiltrated the electronic system. A spark came from it, then the nanolites returned to the Galactic Hammer. The blue bars flickered twice and then faded away, giving Charlie access to the cell.
“Sumner?” Charlie called and took a few wide steps. She crumbled to her knees and then gently touched her true mate’s shoulder. “Sumner, come on. I’m here now.”
“She looks pretty beat up,” Raine murmured in a forlorn tone.
Charlie retracted the plating from her hands and sighed when she felt the heat of Kal’s skin. “Sumner, wake up.” She cupped her Alpha’s dirty cheeks and patted one.
Kal groaned, then one eyelid drew up and revealed a dark green orb. For a beat the fuzziness in her gaze lingered, until she focused on the face above her. “Charlie?” Her lips pulled at a slight angle. The warmth in her eye was familiar, and the air around her was comforting rather than commanding. This wasn’t Kal gazing back at her; it was Sumner.
“Shit,” Charlie whispered, but they didn’t have time to discuss and ponder why Sumner didn’t have the Spirit of Kalatas while still in Kander’s atmosphere. “It’s me. We have to go, like right now. Can you stand?” The alarm in her voice inspired Sumner to wake up further.
Sumner pressed a hand against the floor, rolled, and started to lift her body. She groaned but made it to her knees and paused for a moment. A sudden boom overhead stirred her attention in that direction. “Where are we?” she asked in a hoarse tone.
“On a Sworne ship,” Charlie replied and hooked her arm around Sumner’s back. With ease, she raised Sumner to her feet and said, “We have to go. They’re coming.” There was no direct or safe exit from the brig.
“Go? Where?” Sumner snaked an arm across Charlie’s shoulders.
“Off this boat,” Charlie replied and faced the cell’s back wall. After the plating encased her hands again, she raised her right arm and tilted her wrist down. The laser activated and cut through the wall’s metal. She guided it and sliced an opening large enough for them to escape.
“The sword,” Sumner murmured and touched her empty hip. “We have to retrieve it.”
Charlie frowned and peered up at her Alpha, but the booming of boots on the steps rung in her ears. She opened her mouth to argue that their lives were more important than the sword, yet it was a crucial weapon for everyone on the planet.
“It’s not far,” Sumner said. “I can sense it.”
“All right.” Charlie urged them forward, kicked out the cut she made in the opening, and rushed them through it. “Keep going. I’m going to stall them.”
“Go!” Charlie urged Sumner and slipped free from her. “I will find you.” If Sumner stayed near the fight, she would be hurt worse than she already was. Charlie lingered and watched Sumner stagger down the empty hallway that turned its lights from blue to white, tracking them again. Spinning, she barged through the opening and slammed into two soldiers. Charlie drove them to the ground and grabbed the rifle pointed at her. With a cry, she used the blocks and thrusts that both Andren and Sumner had taught her. One of the seven soldiers managed to fire a laser shot to her back, but the Galactic Hammer absorbed the blast. The suit could only handle so many before it would start to fail. Twisting, she jabbed her elbow into the last Sworne’s throat and sent the female to the floor. She snatched a laser rifle off the floor and headed back through the opening.
Returning to the hallway, Charlie ran in Sumner’s direction and was unsurprised to find Sumner a short distance from her. At first she thought Sumner was resting against the wall, but she was glaring at something. She skidded to a stop beside her Alpha and took in what was in front of them. A clear door blocked them from a display room. Different items were hung on a wall like a museum. In the center of the room was a large black table with Sumner’s jacket and the Sword of Kalatas on it.
“Bingo,” Charlie whispered.
“Captain, I am two minutes away from your location,” Betty May alerted over the comms.
“Thanks, Betty.” Charlie drew Sumner away from the door and handed her the rifle gun. “Stay back.” She hesitated to ram the door when the soft blue glow at Sumner’s neck caught her eye. The same black disc that Vaal-da ordered to be attached to Kal was still there. It’s doing something to her, she concluded with a snarl. But time was precious and Charlie hurled herself at the door, which shattered upon impact. Charlie hadn’t expected it and tumbled to the floor, crashing into the table.
Sumner knelt beside Charlie and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Ja.” Charlie refused to have her hurt mate help her and jumped to her feet. “Let’s get your stuff and go.” She grabbed the sheathed blade and handed it to her mate. At first, she was going to forgo the jacket, but she realized Sumner was going to need it. “Put this on.”
Sumner finished adjusting the sword belt around her waist and collected the jacket. She shrugged on the dirty clothing and hastened to tie it in place.
Charlie glanced about the room, which had countless items. The more she studied the objects hanging on display, she recognized the room for what it was: a trophy room. It reeked of Vaal-da’s taste. Then a natural light caught her attention, and she stared at the circular window at the far end of the room.
“More soldiers are coming,” Sumner declared and reached for the hilt of her sword. Her first instinct was always a blade before a gun.
“Joh.” Charlie grabbed Sumner’s wrist and restrained her. “We can’t keep fighting them and wasting time. We have to go.” She pulled Sumner toward the rear of the room, closer to the window.
Sumner frowned at her mate and Raine echoed her unspoken concern.
“Charlie, what are you planning?” Raine asked over the channel.
Charlie ignored her sister’s rising worry and drew them to the window. Behind them, the soldiers were arriving in loud fashion. A soldier hollered an order that prompted the soldiers to march forward and raise their weapons. Charlie snared Sumner around the waist, pushed Sumner against the left wall, and covered her mate with her body. “Stay between me and the wall. The suit will shield you!” Nothing else mattered to her other than saving Sumner. Before the chaos restarted, Charlie extended the helmet over her neck and shielded the back of her head, leaving her face exposed toward Sumner. Laser blasts whistled in their direction, but Charlie’s attention was on the window to her right. Lifting her hand, she engaged the laser and sliced away at the thick metal, finding it slower now than it had been, but more and more sunlight started to peek through the thin cut.
Sumner growled when another laser struck Charlie in the back. She weaseled the rifle out and fired on their attackers. Several howls and yelps rang out, followed by the crash of different items from the walls.
“Betty May, I’m going to need your help with this!” Charlie had arched the laser cutter through the ship’s hull and was starting downward. “I need you to send out the shuttle to my location.”
“Yes, Captain. Little Betty is powered and departing the shuttle bay,” the AI reported over the comms.
Charlie had a faint grin at the shuttle’s new name but focused on finishing her job by drawing the laser to the right, closer to the start point. “Almost there,” she hissed between gritted teeth.
“Charlie, are you insane?” Raine was hollering over the comms. “There might not be enough oxygen out there.”
“It’s better than staying here!” Charlie prayed that Kander’s atmosphere was thicker than Earth’s once had been. The battle suit sounded a new alarm, warning her that it was low on power. The laser hits were draining it faster that she liked.
“What are you doing?” Sumner’s voice held a soft quake to it. Their connection was riddled with fear because Sumner now understood Charlie’s plan.
“You have to trust me,” Charlie replied. The laser met the starting point and the wall blew out into the atmosphere. The wind’s power created a surge that snared the soldiers, ripping their guns right out of their hands. Screams echoed in the room as several were sucked out into the atmosphere. Thankfully the magnetic anchors of the suit kept Charlie and Sumner safe.
Sumner dropped the weapon and hooked both arms around Charlie. She was pale and trembling, but her good eye was full of love that bled over into their connection. Charlie could feel Sumner’s trust through their bond. If they survived or died, they would do it together.
Charlie tuned out Raine’s yells and focused on that pure trust because what she was about to do went against Sumner’s very nature as a Kalmar. They had no other option, but Charlie would see that Sumner made it. After a hard swallow, she lifted Sumner enough that her boots no longer touched the floor. Charlie pivoted and ran toward the howling opening that was their only salvation. With her final solid step, she activated the helmet again and covered her face.
Beyond the vessel’s confines, the world was bright and gorgeous. For a fraction of a heartbeat, Charlie and Sumner hung in midair, then Kander’s fleeting gravity wrapped around their bodies. They were free-falling toward life and death, taking back their freedom and their power. The Sworne had failed to keep them apart, to separate them and make them weak. They were true mates, and not even the Celestial Fates could divide them.
Under her, Sumner was vibrating faster than a flag in a hurricane, her cheek pressing against Charlie’s plated one and her mouth hanging open. Perhaps she was screaming, but the rushing winds from their graceful fall washed away her cry. Her jacket wrapped around the lower half of their bodies. Her grip on Charlie was tight and would have torn through if Sumner had the Spirit of Kalatas.
Charlie clenched her teeth and rolled their bodies until she was on the bottom. Sumner’s coat whipped and billowed in the air above them, followed by her mane of hair. She willed Sumner to find a measure of peace during their decent. If Sumner continued with her panic, she would pass out from the lower oxygen levels at this altitude. Peering around her Alpha’s broad shoulder, she spied the shrinking enemy ship and hoped they assumed Charlie and Sumner would die. In fact, she wasn’t certain they would make it, but she was more confident about free-falling than surviving against the Sworne.
“Captain, Little Betty will arrive at your location in thirty ticks. Your orders?” Betty May asked over the channel.
“I need you to take the controls of the Galactic Hammer too. Slow our descent and line up Little Betty underneath us,” Charlie replied, breathless and panting. She was an excellent pilot, but even she couldn’t time this right. Betty May was an AI with an unfathomable amount of artificial brain tech power to perform the proper calculations to make this work.
“I understand now, Captain. You wish for me to catch you with the shuttle,” Betty May concluded in a somewhat excited tone, if it were possible.
“You got it,” Charlie said.
“Very well. My controls,” Betty May ordered and took command of the battle suit.
Charlie relaxed her mind as much as possible. Or rather she returned her attention to Sumner and struggled to not tighten her arms, fearing she would hurt her Alpha. Under her, the two pairs of jets ignited across her back; however, Charlie focused inward and countered Sumner’s panic with confidence. Her mate’s sheer panic had created a barrier in their connection, so Charlie pushed soothing sensations through their bond. Sumner’s body trembled a little less, but her arms and legs continued with their iron grip. Nothing could pry them apart, not even a god.
“I am aligning the shuttle under you, Captain.” After a pause, Betty May added, “You should land inside its cockpit in T minus twenty-one seconds.”
Biting her lip, Charlie braced for the impact, unsure how hard or soft it would be. It was better than hitting the ground. In the end, she only cared that Sumner was secure and safe in her arms. She kept her right arm across Sumner’s back but placed her left hand over Sumner’s head to secure it to her chest.
“Seven, six, five…” Betty May rattled off the countdown and used the suit’s back thrusts one last time to ease their descent into the shuttle’s cockpit.
The shuttle was buzzing underneath them; then it lurched upward and caught them, depositing them in the back bench seat. Charlie grunted from the mild impact, but it was nothing compared to what could have happened. Overhead, the shuttle’s dome drew shut, which sealed out the cold.
Sumner gasped a few times, then gulped oxygen into her lungs as if it were water. She continued to clutch Charlie and shook hard enough that Charlie felt it in her battle suit. The atmosphere at this altitude was freezing and without the Spirit of Kalatas, Sumner was more susceptible to it. Little by little, she relaxed against Charlie, and her breathing regulated.
From the suit’s sensors, Charlie watched Sumner’s heart rate de-escalate and her body temperature climb to a normal level. The Galactic Hammer had kept out most of the frozen air, but a few chills raced down her spine. She retracted the helmet and the plating around her hands, and shifting slightly, she threaded her fingers into Sumner’s hair and urged her closer. Sumner responded by moving up and nuzzling into Charlie’s flushed cheek.
For a few minutes, they remained quiet, entangled, and connected in their shared soul. Charlie thought she had almost lost her true mate, especially after the Spirit of Kalatas left her. She had always been resourceful and resolute when it came to getting what she wanted in life. These days, all she wanted was Sumner.
Charlie needed Sumner.
After a shaky breath, Charlie opened her eyes and peered through the clear canopy. The Sworne ship was nowhere in sight. She glared in its direction, as if they could feel it. Her mind skipped back to seeing Sumner spread out on the black floor of the cell. The reality of what happened to Sumner and what her fate might have been started to sink in. A cutting whine made it past her lips, then Charlie fought against the pinpricks in her eyes.
“Captain, my apologies for interrupting,” Betty May said through the shuttle. “But what are your orders?”
Charlie sniffed once and cleared her throat before saying, “Bring us back to the ship.” She hesitated and considered what to do after they were back on the Betty May. Sumner no longer had a connection with the Spirit of Kalatas, despite they were back in Kander’s lower atmosphere—the strange disc attached to Sumner’s neck seemed to be the culprit. First they needed to remove it before they could return to Barrik. No one other than their pack could see Kal with it. “Once we’re back on the ship, we need to find a remote location to land until Kal is better.”
“Ja, Captain.” Betty May turned the shuttle and engaged the engines. “Lady Raine is hailing you on the comms. I already informed her that you and Kal are safe.”
“Tah, Betty. I’ll talk to her.” Charlie needed the distraction and also her sister’s help. She opened the comm channel and allowed the audio to go to the suit’s speakers. “Raine, are you reading me?”
“I am going to hurt you when I see you again.” Raine’s tone was indignant.
Charlie sighed and pressed her nose into Sumner’s hair, which smelled of fire after today’s battle. “Perka gi, Raine, but it was our only chance to escape.” Raine understood her decision, but it was the scare of losing Charlie and Sumner that freaked out her sister. “We need your help.”
Raine gave a low sigh and said, “You know I’ll do anything I can to help you and Kal.”
“I know.” Charlie was well aware of Raine’s love and loyalty. She wished she had handled their relationship better when they were young. But it happened, and Charlie would make sacrifices and take risks for Raine. “There’s a weird disc attached to Kal’s neck. I think it’s separating her from the Spirit of Kalatas. We can’t come back until she’s normal again.”
Raine hummed and asked, “Is it that same one they put on her during the battle?”
“Ja. I’m hoping you can remove it. I’ll see if I can, but I suspect it won’t be that simple.” Charlie considered their plans and asked, “Betty May, after you get us to the ship, can you send out the shuttle to pick up Raine, Andren, and Kaden?”
“Ja, Captain. I would be happy to pick them up.”
Charlie bit her lip and decided that the AI was an important part of their team. She was unsure how she would have handled any of this situation without the AI’s intelligence and growing skills. “Tah, Betty. Did you get that Raine?”
“Ja. But one question.” Raine paused and seemed to be moving around for a beat. “What are we going to do about Gaveston and the other Kalmar? What are you going to tell them when they ask why Kal isn’t being brought back?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie replied and felt Sumner shifted against her. “But we’ll think of something. Just get here first.”
“You got it. We’ll see you soon.”
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