Collecting Stars Sample

Please enjoy a sample from Collecting Stars from Lexa Luthor.

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Chapter 1

Charlie moaned from the horrible throbbing behind her skull. She attempted to lift her arms, but they were so damn heavy so instead let them hang there for now. Her eyelids were the simplest things to move, and she focused on the cracked dash under her forehead. A bloody droplet rolled down her nose, then fell off the tip, further coating the console.

Earlier memories of chasing after the Serrato fighter ship drifted back to her. Then she’d had a brilliant idea to jump to light speed so they could take down the enemy ship. Hopefully the pilot of the fighter ship was bleeding out in pure pain—or even better, buried in ice and frozen to death.

Taking a deep breath, Charlie tested her rib cage and flinched from the sharp heat in her upper chest, but her ribs felt okay at the moment. Again, she attempted using her arms and managed to place her palms against the console. Bits of glass cracked under her hands and allowed the blood to soak through, creating a red spider web.

Charlie gritted her teeth and lifted her upper body off the dash and discovered the soft stabbing pain in her chest was from the yoke. She slumped back against the pilot’s chair and rolled her head toward her sister. “Raine?” she called, her voice twisted like the ship’s hull.

Raine was still, too still.

“Andren?” Charlie closed her eyes when no one responded to her. She groaned at her stupidity for risking their lives. It was one thing to forfeit her own, but now two friends might be dead. Angry energy charged her body, and she yanked the lap belt free. “Nova, do we have any satellite connection?” She moved her weak legs, hoping she could stand from the chair.

“Attempting to connect,” Nova replied in Charlie’s earbud.

Charlie lifted from the pilot’s seat, but she tumbled to her knees. With her bloody hand on the metal floor, she regained her balance and fought to stand again.

“Connection failed,” Nova chirped.

Charlie groaned and hoped it was because the Betty May‘s airframe was blocking the signal to her techbit. She stumbled twice before latching onto Raine’s armrest. She gently lifted her sister’s upper body and whimpered seeing Raine’s bloody features. “Raine?” She patted Raine’s cheek and coaxed her more, to no avail. With her fingertips, she searched for Raine’s pulse and found it, but it was weak.

With renewed determination, Charlie scaled the three steps and used the railing to help her to the upper level. She toppled into the empty chair next to Andren, who was folded over. “Andren, come on.”

After Charlie pushed Andren back in the seat, she remained limp and unconscious, but her pulse was stronger than Raine’s. Charlie hoped Andren would soon wake. Raine’s current state plagued her the most.

Sitting back in the seat, Charlie took a minute to work through their current situation. They had flown north, very north based on the amount of snow around the ship. The flight deck was already chilly, and it would get colder by sunset. Charlie hadn’t taken a look at the flight path earlier and with Betty May‘s systems down it was impossible to verify their exact location. If she tried to reboot the systems, it could spark an electrical fire. But with luck, Charlie could load everyone into the shuttle and return to Tarrak in a few hours.

“I’ll be back,” Charlie whispered. She took a deep breath and pushed out of the seat. On her slow walk through the Betty May, she had to lean against walls or sealed doors for a break. She clutched her side. It was the same area where she’d broken a few ribs during her first crash into Kander. Once by the shuttle bay’s sealed door, she propped her body against the wall and glared at the thick door that required manual opening.

“Fucking great,” she muttered, then slid open the door’s panel. She reached in and pulled out a manual door handle, which turned and locked into place. After a deep breath, Charlie pushed and forced the door to move. Giving up about halfway, she slipped through and into the bay, but the sight before her killed all hope.

The nose of the shuttle looked like an accordion. At some point, the anchoring system between the shuttle and the Betty May had failed during one of the impacts, and the shuttle had rammed into the bulkhead and crushed the cockpit.

Charlie fell to her knees and raked her fingers through her tussled hair. “Oh gods no.” Tears pricked behind her eyes, and she fought against a breakdown. Andren and Raine were depending on her; she’d risked their lives. She inhaled deeply, sat down on her heels, and thought about the next best option.

The Betty May and its shuttle couldn’t fly. They had no other means of transportation. The ship’s radio communications were down. The electrical system was compromised, but some electricity could possibly be routed or directed to certain parts of ship without sparking fires. Charlie wasn’t sure she had the skill to do it, but Raine could manage it. However, with Raine’s shallow breathing and low pulse, her sister was in dire need of medical attention, and the ship’s medical bay was nearly useless without power. But they had food onboard.

“I need to get help.” Her best option was to go outside and hope that her techbit could connect to the satellite array. If she could contact Kal, then maybe they stood a chance.

To her left, the bay door was still shut tight. Like the hallway door, it would require a manual release for Charlie to exit the ship. Forcing herself to stand, she stumbled over to the far right corner, yanked open the panel, and felt around for the release mechanism that would disengage the lock system.

A large hiss sounded and the ten locks popped, and then the bay’s huge door dropped down and hit snow. Cold air rushed into the bay, biting at Charlie’s exposed skin. Once the puff of snow settled down, an endless white landscape reached out before her.

Taking a few steps down the ramp, Charlie looked out in awe at the whiteness all across the lands. For a moment she marveled at its peaceful beauty, until it reminded her that they were very isolated and lost. Charlie swallowed against the building fear in her chest, descended the ramp, and waded through the knee-deep snow. Once far enough from the Betty May, she ordered, “Nova, connect to Kander’s satellite array.” She removed the earbud and returned it to the techbit.

“Attempting to connect,” Nova reported aloud.

Charlie zipped her leather jacket and dug her hands into the pockets. The blood on her face was solidifying from the cold air. Her next breath was shaky, but she rocked on her boots and hoped for good news.

“Connection failed,” Nova announced in her ear.

J-Joh.” Charlie dug out the techbit and tapped on the screen. The comms application showed the techbit could pick up one satellite, but it wasn’t enough to make a connection. “Vuk!” She lifted her hand with the device, almost ready to chuck it. She growled, shoved it into her pocket, and stomped back up the ramp. Toppling to the metal floor, Charlie cupped her head while hopelessness swelled inside of her.

Then soft clicks against metal caught Charlie’s ears. A furrow creased her bloody features as she twisted toward the sound and located the source. Her jaw slackened when the familiar locke stood there, several paces away.

The locke stared back at Charlie, as if considering something. She appeared unharmed until she continued toward Charlie, limping with each step. Once at the open ramp, she sat down, and stared out at the white lands.

“Got you hurt too,” Charlie whispered and shook her head. She crossed her arms against her sore body and glared at the snowy world beyond the ship.

Without any communications, they had little chance of survival, even with the minimal food in the storerooms. And, even if they could all walk, they had no clue where they were or much less where to go. They were shit out of luck.

“At least Sumner is safe,” she murmured, recalling the frantic need to get to the Betty May so she could annihilate the Serrato ships that threatened Tarrak. They would have destroyed the city with Kal in it. But in her crazy state to protect Kal, she had harmed Andren and Raine. “But what do I do now?”

The locke kept staring outside, as if humbled by the great whiteness. She whined once and looked at Charlie.

“You can go,” Charlie said and turned her gaze to the flat, cold landscape. The freezing air was soaking through her clothes already, and she needed to go back inside the ship soon, but she sat there feeling lost. Maybe Andren would have an idea, if she woke up.

The locke whined again and shuffled her front legs, claws clicking against the metal floor. She then slid down to her belly and rested her muzzle on her paws.

Charlie shook her head, then peered over at her furry companion. It was strange that the locke continued to shadow her. Perhaps Kal was right that she had accidently imprinted the locke. But it was odd that the animal was willing to sneak onto the Betty May, twice now. The locke’s blind trust in Charlie would only get it killed at some point.

With a sigh, Charlie glared at the snowy lands and propped up her legs for more warmth. For a moment, she sent out prayers to Kalatas for help or insight and hoped somehow that Kal knew she was okay. Kal’s final radio transmission had been filled with hot demand and had masked Kal’s fears. The longer Charlie sat there, the last of the earlier panic receded from her chest and left her exhausted. She nearly fell to her side, wanting to ball up. But then a low hum grew stronger in her chest and stirred her heart.

Charlie covered her chest and closed her eyes, feeling the string tighten and call to her. It wanted her to fight, to try harder, and to follow it. For a moment, she listened and remembered the first time she felt this line hooked to her. It first called to her when she died, and she answered it. Now the string was attached to her very being. It was a part of her.

Deep inside, Charlie knew it was a connection to Kal that was perhaps created during her death. When Kal called her back, she suspected it generated a line between them that could be loosened and tightened. On some level, it was similar to when Kal took control of someone’s body, but not nearly as intrusive. The connection was a constant, whereas Kal’s power to control someone was a switch.

A set of low whines caused Charlie to open her eyes. She glanced again at the locke, who seemed anxious for some reason. “What?” she whispered.

The locke stared at Charlie, as if reading her. She then huffed and gazed out at the snow again.

Pursing her lips, Charlie wished she understood the animal’s needs, but she shook her head. For a moment, she glared at the snow and realized this might be where she dies. This place was opposite of her last death in the soft green and rustic woodlands around Tarrak. At least last time, Kal had reached her with the god’s spirit and been with her during her death.

“Wait,” Charlie whispered and narrowed her eyes at the snow. New purpose recharged her, and she sprang up from the floor. She raced to the workbench and yanked open drawers one after another until she found a foldable shovel. Adrenaline charged, Charlie hurried down the ramp, boots booming against the metal.

The locke jumped up on all fours, went halfway down the ramp, and whined at Charlie, who dug up the snow.

After clearing the snow, Charlie tossed the shovel into the ship and stared for a beat at the frozen ground. “Gods this is stupid,” she muttered, but it was worth a try. She squatted down in the snow in front of the patch of ground. Taking a deep breath, she pressed her palms flat against the ground and called, “Sumner, I need your help.”

The locke paced across the ramp and came back to Charlie, whimpering and scratching at the ramp.

“Kalatas, hear me,” Charlie prayed. “I need help and my friends need help. I can’t do this alone.” She clenched her teeth as the freezing ground burned against her skin.

Krafka!” She gasped in shock when black tendrils bled from the ice. She jerked away her hands and the black wisps started to fade until Charlie pressed her hands down again. “Krafka,” she whispered.

The dark smoke rose again, followed Charlie’s hands, and slipped underneath the sleeve of her leather jacket. It brushed along her arm’s skin, twirled, and climbed up to her neck. There was warmth everywhere it touched as it snaked up her throat.

Charlie cut her nails against the ice and shut her eyes when the tendrils crept past her jaw. She took a deep breath, trying to ease her racing heart. Within ticks, a dark rush raced through her body, and it shook her already weakened frame. She felt herself toppling, and then she blacked out until a comforting warmth lulled her awake.

The locke’s whines and pacing prompted Charlie to open her eyes. She was on her back in the snow and stared at the stern of the Betty May. All around her white smoke spiraled in the air, reminding her of being in a sauna. Even her body felt like it was in a hot tub, and she unzipped her jacket to find relief. “Vuk,” she muttered, then sat up and noticed all the snow around her had melted away to reveal the ground. She touched the area and found that it was also soft. “What the—”

Kardos.

Charlie’s brow furrowed after the strange thought drifted through her mind. It had been foreign but strong and certain.

You’re in the Snowlands of Kardos.” the now firm voice spoke in her head.

Placing her hands under her body, Charlie lifted herself and smiled at the locke. She strode with confidence and entered the bay, scanning it as if the first time. With a tilt of her head, she frowned at the damaged shuttle and said, “It won’t fly.”

And the ship?

Joh,” Charlie whispered. She heard a displeased rumble in her head and moved closer to the shuttle. The vehicle’s shiny finish reflected Charlie’s bloody features, and she stared at the black irises of her eyes. She touched her smeared cheek and said, “Andren and Raine are unconscious. I think Raine is hurt worse than Andren.”

Andren has basic medical training.”

Charlie headed to the half open door but called back to the locke. She and the locke went through the maze of halls until they arrived at the flight deck.

“Charlie!” Andren was awake and bent over Raine, who was still unmoving. “I can’t wake Raine.”

“I know.” Charlie rushed down and said, “Let me see.”

Andren stepped aside and asked, “What happened?” Her voice was weak and shaking.

“I boosted the ship with light speed, and we hit the stern of the Serrato ship,” Charlie replied. She pressed her fingers into Raine’s neck and confirmed her pulse.

Place your hand over her mouth.”

Charlie tilted Raine’s head and followed the whispered instruction. With her hand on Raine’s face, she watched the black tendrils seep from her skin and slither into her sister’s nose and mouth.

Andren gasped and whispered, “It’s the Spirit of Kalatas.”

With a groan, Charlie closed her eyes and felt information flood her mind before the spirit returned to her. She looked at Andren and said, “She has internal bleeding and two cracked ribs.”

Andren swallowed and shook her head. “She’ll die from the internal bleeding if she doesn’t get help.”

“How long?” Charlie asked.

Andren dragged her fingers in her hair and stared in worry at Raine. “It depends on how bad it is and where.”

“Two to three hours or less,” whispered the voice in Charlie’s head. She frowned and repeated the amount of time to Andren.

“Oh sweet Kalatas,” Andren muttered and peered up at Charlie. “We need to find help.” She peered out the cockpit window and whispered, “Where are we even?”

“We’re in Kardos.” Charlie closed her eyes and allowed the god’s spirit to fill every part of her being. She started breathing harder and leaned against Raine’s chair for support. “We’re about a two to three hour walk from New Earth.” She gazed back at Andren, who stared oddly back at her.

“How do you…” Andren shifted closer and cupped Charlie’s face. “Your eyes are black.” She examined her for a long moment, then asked, “How did you get the spirit?”

“I asked,” Charlie replied. She turned to Raine, breaking the contact between them. “If we can get her to New Earth, then she might make it.”

“What about the shuttle?”

Charlie shook her head and whispered, “It’s too damaged.” She stared at Raine and realized her earlier worries for her sister had faded to the background. It wasn’t from lack of care, but her mind was clear now rather than plagued by fear and hopelessness.

“I could run to New Earth and bring back help,” Andren said.

Joh.” Charlie looked at Andren and frowned at her. “You are too weak to run that far. And it might be too late.”

“A search party will be leaving New Earth in fifteen minutes,” the voice rumbled in Charlie’s mind.

Andren shook her head and said, “We can’t waste any more time if she’s going to make it.”

It felt as though something was searching her mind, painfully poking at her memories. She took a deep breath and the pain faded away, even though the hunting continued in her head.

Andren touched Charlie’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? Where are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.” Charlie released a shuddered breath after the frenzy in her head halted at a particular memory. “The Galactic Hammer.”

“What?” Andren asked, bewilderment coloring her voice.

Charlie straightened up and replied, “We can use the battle suit to carry Raine to New Earth.” She licked her chapped lips, shifted away from her friends, and started toward the upper level. “Stay here with her. I’m going to grab what we need; then we’ll go.” She hurried up the steps and brushed past the locke, who followed her out of the flight deck.

She sprinted through the Betty May and went to the berthing sector, stopping at Raine’s quarters. Like the bay’s door, Charlie had to use the manual handle to enter the quarters. She started a frantic search for the Galactic Hammer and whispered, “I hope she charged it.” The battle suit was tucked away in the closet, and a tap on its side revealed full power.

“Thank the gods.” Charlie slung the battle suit on and buckled it around her waist. “I just need blankets to keep us warm.” She went to Raine’s messy bed, stripped off the comforter, and tossed it to the locke.

The locke chuffed at her and stepped away from the offending item.

Food.

Charlie grabbed a throw blanket from the closet. She took it and the comforter from the quarters, then crossed the hallway and entered the captain’s quarters. The only item she needed was a small satchel for food; the rest of her things would have to wait another time.

Picking up the blankets, Charlie hauled them with her and went to the galley next. She searched for protein-dense food and took two canteens of water with a hint of alcohol, in hopes it would keep the liquid from freezing and a side benefit of keeping them warm. It sounded like a short walk to New Earth, but it was freezing outside and would become colder as the suns set.

“How long until sunset?” Charlie asked.

“About an hour and a half,” whispered the spirit in Charlie’s head.

“Great,” Charlie muttered and closed up the satchel. So much was working against Raine, but she refused to let her sister die out here. “Come on, girl,” she called to the locke after snatching up the blankets.

The locke was snacking on something as she darted out of the galley and followed Charlie through the ship.

“You came,” Charlie remarked aloud after thinking about the Spirit of Kalatas in her. Somehow it also tied her to Kal, but she wasn’t sure what it all meant. There wasn’t time to consider it right now.

“Ja. You called for us,” thundered a voice in Charlie’s head. The dark warmth pulsed throughout Charlie’s body, keeping her secure and strong.

Charlie returned to the flight deck with the supplies and noticed that the locke stayed on the upper level again. Charlie went down to Andren, who remained beside Raine’s unconscious body. “There’s a blanket for you and one for Raine. I also have some food.”

Andren took the blankets and bag, then set them on the pilot’s chair. “So what’s the plan?”

“I grabbed the Galactic Hammer. I’ll be able to use it to carry Raine without getting tired.” Charlie took a step back, prepared to activate it.

“Can’t you fly her there?”

“It’ll only last for an hour, maybe less with Raine’s added weight.” Charlie pulled free her handgun and Grasshopper, handing them both to Andren. “Galactic Hammer activate.” Within ticks, the battle suit’s armor plated over her entire body and covered her face last. “Once the power is gone from the suit, then it’s pretty useless.”

Andren frowned and held out the weapons to Charlie, who took them and stowed them in the suit’s gun holsters. She then grabbed the food satchel and put the strap across her back.

Charlie turned to Raine and unfastened the lap belt. “Can you open the larger blanket over the pilot’s chair?” Once Andren was done, she lowered her sister into the comforter and bundled her in the blanket for warmth. She picked up Raine and said, “We only have an hour and a half of daylight left.”

Andren went up to the upper level and swung the throw blanket over her shoulders. Its tightly woven, heavy threads would block out a lot of the cold air, but it wasn’t a long-term solution to the low temperatures.

Leading the group, Charlie went to the shuttle bay, which was much colder than earlier thanks to the open bay door. Once they were outside, she went to the right side by the ramp and opened a panel for the bay door. She punched in a code into a mechanical lock that freed the manual control. After a few twists and pulls, the ramp hissed, lifted up and sealed the ship. Turning, Charlie found Andren staring out at the endless white landscape.

“Which way?” Andren whispered in awe.

Charlie adjusted Raine in her arms and allowed the spirit to guide her to New Earth. She turned to her right and replied, “This way.”

A few times Andren glanced at the locke that tailed them. She shouldered the dark green throw and said, “The locke has grown attached to you.”

“That’s a bad life choice,” Charlie joked. She gazed up at the sky, allowing the battle suit to scan the area. She still hoped it would connect to the satellites, but after a minute the failed connection flashed on the screen.

We are with you,” whispered the god’s spirit.

“I know.” But Charlie grumbled after hearing the voice in her head. She preferred the hard data from technology after so many years of using it in outer space. Even now, if the battle suit hadn’t been on the Betty May, she wasn’t sure what she could do for Raine.

“What’s it like?” Andren asked, tilting her head to one side.

Charlie bit her lip and weighed her response to Andren’s curiosity about the spirit that burned in her veins. “It’s powerful… and comforting.” Andren’s soft smile made her release a strained breath. Even with Kalatas’s guidance, she was worried about Raine’s survival if they didn’t make it to New Earth in time.

Andren was pushing herself, trying to keep up with Charlie, who had the suit’s advantage. Their pace was steady and unwavering. The snow was deep enough to make it tiresome, especially for Andren. Occasionally the locke bounded ahead of them, sniffed in the snow, and waited for them. After an hour, they came upon an island of rocks and boulders that broke up the sea of white.

Charlie leaned against one boulder but kept Raine in her arms. With the suit’s sensor in the tip of her finger, she checked Raine’s vital signs for the fifth time since they left the ship. They were still weak but consistent.

“The suns are low,” Andren said from her huddled position on a rock. She was staring at the two suns that hung inches above the horizon. “We don’t have much time.”

Concentrating, Charlie used the spirit to determine their location in relation to New Earth. “It’s still thirty to forty-five minutes from here.” She released a sigh and peered over her shoulder in the direction of the human settlement.

The rescue team should be close. A healer is with them.

“Are you ready?” Charlie asked.

Andren ate another piece of jerky and handed the rest to the locke. “Do you want anything?”

“I’m okay.” Charlie pushed off the boulder and adjusted Raine.

Andren closed up the satchel and jumped from the rock, landing beside Charlie. “How is she?”

“Same,” Charlie replied, leading the way again.

The locke bolted past them, then looped back and panted.

“At least someone is enjoying the snow,” Andren said, her voice a bit gruff. “Have you picked a name for her?”

Charlie rolled her eyes; but if the locke continued to follow her, then Charlie had a new responsibility—though she didn’t want to consider caring for a wild animal that had an affinity to her.

“She looks healthier,” Andren rambled. “It must be from all the meat she stole from the storerooms.”

“There was plenty of food,” Charlie argued, a defensive hint in her tone. She huffed at Andren’s low laugh. “Her coat does look better.”

“Her white winter coat is coming in,” Andren agreed and tugged the blanket closer to her body.

Charlie frowned. “Are you okay?” As the dual suns hugged the horizon in front of them, the suit indicated that the air temperature was dropping.

“I’ll be fine if we keep moving.” Andren lowered her head when a soft breeze hit them.  

“I can carry you—”

“I will not be carried into New Earth,” Andren cut off and her chest inflated a degree.

Fucking Kalmar egos, Charlie thought but cringed from the spirit’s low growl in her head. She cleared her throat and silently apologized to Kalatas before it was too late. The experience of sharing her body with a god’s spirit was exciting and scary. Perhaps it was a glimpse into Sumner’s life as Kal, but it was probably different and more intrusive.

Ahead of them, the locke pushed through the snow but halted and stared into the distance. Her tall ears perked up while her tail lowered, touching the snow. She started rumbling by the time Charlie and Andren made it to her side.

“What’s wrong?” Andren asked the locke.

Pausing, Charlie used the battle suit’s visual scanners to locate any distant anomalies. A few degrees to the right, a square object formed in front of the lower sun.

“See anything?”

Ja,” Charlie replied. “It looks like an enclosed hover vehicle.”

Andren didn’t waste time and hurried the trek through the snow, heading for the vehicle. “Let’s hope it’s someone to help.”

Charlie caught up to Andren’s side and kept a trained eye on the approaching vehicle. “There’s a second one behind it.”

The search team radioed that they have you in sight,” the spirit rumbled in Charlie’s head. “It’s them,” she told Andren, who picked up the pace. Charlie hastened, too, but kept Raine’s body still, not jarring her.

The locke was in the lead, seeming to sense the excited energy. She howled a few times and hopped over larger drifts of snow.

“By Kalatas, I hope those vehicles are heated,” Andren called over the soft wind. “Or I will kill someone.”

Charlie agreed even though she was plenty warm inside the battle suit. As they drew closer, she zoomed the visual screen on the vehicles and saw the people’s heads beyond the glass. Their faces were unfamiliar, at least from this distance. Soon the vehicles’ hover engines emitted a soft hum, which echoed inside the battle suit.

Andren slowed down and shoved the blanket off her shoulders, then retrieved the laser rifle strapped on her back. With the weapon aimed at the snow, she waited for the vehicles to near them.

“I’m not sure the rifle will do any good,” Charlie remarked.

“It’ll probably do more than my frozen blade,” Andren said, ready for a fight if they had come across the wrong people.

The locke remained in front of them, ears down and growling low. She crept forward when the two vehicles came to a stop a few paces ahead of them.

“It’s okay,” Charlie told the locke, who huffed and rumbled in warning. Adjusting Raine, she stepped up to the animal’s side and noticed Andren did the same.

One passenger from each vehicle stepped out and hiked through the snow to them. They were covered in white fur, their faces barely visible behind goggles. They probably had blades under their heavy, long coats. From their size and stature, they were most likely humans from New Earth. Once in earshot, they cautiously neared Charlie and Andren.

“We were sent from New Earth by Commander Dorlon!” a man called over the increasing wind. The last vestiges of the sunlight behind him and his partner made it even harder to see their faces.

Andren glanced at Charlie, allowing her to take charge of the conversation.

“We crashed a few marches from here,” Charlie hollered back.

“They said someone was badly hurt!” The same man approached them while the other person stayed back. “We brought a doctor and medical supplies.” His lower face was covered, but he pulled it down to his chin.

Go,” the spirit rumbled in Charlie’s head.

Moving forward, Charlie went to the man and asked, “Which vehicle?”

“Follow me.” He re-covered his lower face, turned, and hastily guided Charlie to the second vehicle. He twisted a handle on one of the bi-doors at the back of the vehicle and pulled it open. “Doctor Slater,” he said, “we have the patient.”

Doctor Slater stood up from the bench and hastened to the doors, opening the second one. “Put the patient on the board quickly.” He hesitated and stared at Charlie when she stepped up to the vehicle. After a tick, he pushed the board, which slid out on metal rails.

Charlie did her best to not bump into the vehicle with the suit and placed her sister on the board carefully. “Raine has internal bleeding and two cracked ribs on her left side.”

“Raine Ramos?” Doctor Slater asked and pulled the board back into the warmth of the hover truck.

Ja,” Charlie replied. “Do you need help?”

Doctor Slater reached for one door and shook his head. “There’s only enough room for me, but we should go.” He looked to the man behind Charlie.

Ja, Doctor.” The man shut the second door and relocked them. “This way. We have plenty of room in the other hover.” He slapped the driver’s door to the ambulance hover truck, signaling it was time to go. But he faltered a few steps from the back of the truck. His hand darted into an opening in his fur coat, and Charlie saw the hilt of his weapon.

Latching onto his forearm, she said, “It’s okay. The locke is with us.” Charlie released the man’s arm after he relaxed a degree.

Andren and the locke were standing at the back of the last vehicle while the ambulance rover zipped off.

“Nice pet,” the man said, then unlocked the back door. “I’ll ride with you both. It’s plenty warm in here.” He swung open both doors and allowed them to go first.

Charlie pushed Andren, who was the most chilled between them. She turned to the locke and patted the metal floor, hoping the animal would understand the invitation.

The locke whined once, but she hopped in and curled up at the very end between the cushioned benches that lined the interior. Charlie went next and sat near the locke to protect them all. She watched their host and how he moved with care, sitting in the center of the same bench as Charlie.

“Tap on the wall a few times,” he instructed Charlie. He closed the double doors, which switched on a soft overhead light.

After rapping on the divider, Charlie felt the hover truck lurch as it started to move and turn.

“It’s about a fifteen-minute ride from here,” he said while removing his hood, goggles, and face covering. “I didn’t get any of your names.” His dark features were handsome, even with the aged scar across his left cheek.

“We didn’t get yours either,” Andren retorted, huddled forward for warmth.

“It’s Berwin.” Bending down, he tapped a hidden drawer with his snowy boot and pulled it open. He fished out a blanket and tossed it to Andren. “Do you need one?” He held out one to Charlie.

Joh, motah,” Charlie replied.

Berwin returned it to the drawer and resealed it, looking between the pair expectantly.

“I’m Andren.” Holding out an arm, Andren clasped his forearm for a beat.

Berwin smiled, his features a bit boyish. He turned to Charlie and lifted an eyebrow.

“Deactivate helmet,” Charlie ordered the battle suit. After the plating receded from her head, she smirked and asked, “How you been, Berwin?”

“Charlie fucking Larson!” Berwin laughed and rested both his hands on his knees, a huge grin on his face. “What in the hell brought you back to Kander? There were rumors you took a job from the High Commander.”

“Rumors were true.” Charlie leaned forward and offered her plated arm. From her peripheral view, she caught Andren’s narrowed gaze but ignored it. “Good to see you, Ber.”

“I should have known it was a Larson that crashed into Kander,” Berwin joked and leaned back against the wall. “Nice armor by the way.” He then circled his finger around his face and asked, “What’s up with your eyes?”

Charlie rolled them, then lied, “They’re black from the connection with the suit.” As kids, Berwin was obsessed with Charlie’s sky-blue eyes. He often told her that he would marry her for them. Her memory triggered an irritated growl in her head, and she cleared her throat after the spike of foreign anger left her.

“How did you end up here?” Berwin asked.

Andren was staring hard at Charlie and her lips were tight. After a tick, her low rumble increased in volume, but Berwin ignored her.

“Just finishing up another job,” Charlie replied. “Things went sideways, and we landed here.”

“Commander Dorlon said it was a crash,” Berwin teased.

Charlie shrugged and said, “We walked away, so it was a landing.” She chuckled at Andren’s deep snort.

“Not all of us,” Andren muttered.

Flinching, Charlie sighed and leaned forward until her elbows rested on her knees. “You said Commander Dorlon sent the rescue team?”

Berwin nodded. “She called into New Earth and spoke to Hoyt. You’re lucky you got your coordinates out to someone before it was too late.” He peered out the tiny window over Andren’s shoulder. “It’s already dark. You know how the temps get here at night.”

Ja.” Charlie was well aware from her childhood memories. She and Berwin chatted a little longer, but they were already slowing down, entering a wooded area. They weren’t much farther from the settlement that was nestled at the base of a mountain range. “I hope you have room for us for a while.”

Berwin grinned and said, “I’m sure we have a couple of cabins free.”

Charlie smiled and leaned her head against the wall. “Thanks for picking us up.”

After a shrug, Berwin mirrored the smile. “We’ll be there soon.” He leaned his head back too, closing his eyes.

Charlie gazed over at Andren, who gave her an inquisitive stare. She shrugged at Andren’s unspoken question, then reached down and petted the quiet locke. Once they were in New Earth, the locke might run off into the woods and vanish for good after the horrible crash landing.

Firelight began flickering past the two windows and piqued Charlie’s interest. She noticed Andren peering out the window next to her. The vehicle slowed more, turned a few times, and came to a halt. Berwin opened the doors and exited first. Andren went next, followed by Charlie and the locke.

It was dark outside other than the overhead torchlights or lighting from buildings throughout the settlement. Charlie vaguely recognized the area, but she was unsure now that it was night. Two newcomers were coming toward them; one appeared to be a soldier.

“Charlie Larson?”

Charlie heard Berwin’s chuckle, but she focused on the familiar face. “It’s been a long time, Hoyt.” She sensed the locke sitting down, closer to her for once.

Melissa Hoyt placed her hands on her hips and said, “A real long time. Commander Dorlon didn’t tell me it was you.” She looked over at Andren, studied her, and said, “Turen. I’m General Melissa Hoyt.”

Andren was formal in her stance and kept eyes locked on Melissa, never hinting at her weariness. “I am Blade Master Andren from the Tarrak Fio.” The mention of a fio military unit was an automatic indicator that Andren was a Kalmar soldier.

Charlie bit the inside of her mouth when Berwin went wide-eyed, and Melissa stared at Andren. No one would have suspected Andren was a soldier from Tarrak, but Andren hadn’t disclosed she was from the Guard, an elite warrior who protected the ruler. If people discovered a warrior from the Guard was traveling with Charlie, then it would stir talk. The Guard was reserved only for Kal or whomever Kal deemed necessary to protect. But Andren’s common attire made it impossible to distinguish her military status. Charlie even noticed that Andren no longer wore her military signet ring that marked her as both a soldier and part of the Guard. It was possible the silver ring was hidden on her somewhere for emergencies.

Melissa cleared her throat and held out her arm. “I’m sorry, Blade Master. I didn’t realize—”

“I wasn’t a low-life merc?” Andren asked, a rumble behind her taunt.

“My apologies,” Melissa offered again.

Lowering her head, Charlie stared at her plated boots, then peered up after she felt able to keep a neutral expression. “Where is Raine? I need to see her.”

Melissa shifted her attention to Charlie, seeming relieved for the change in topics. “She and Doctor Slater were taken to the medical center. I’m afraid you can’t see her until tomorrow.”

Charlie let out a growl, without any control. She flushed at Melissa’s wide eyes and wrangled the strange reaction until she realized it was the spirit’s response. “Sorry.” She cleared her throat and asked, “Will she be okay at least?”

“I spoke to Doctor Slater before you arrived. He seemed optimistic about her recovery.” Melissa folded her arms and looked between Charlie and Andren. “Do either of you need to see a doctor or nurse?”

“I’m okay.” Charlie turned to Andren and willed Andren to be honest rather than a gruff warrior.

“I will be fine.” Andren gave Charlie a low rumble, seeming to end the silent argument between them. “But I would like to warm up.”

“And rest,” Charlie said.

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Melissa turned to Berwin and ordered, “Escort them to the guest cabins. They can stay in number eight and nine.”

Ja, General.” Berwin closed up the hover vehicle’s doors.

“Tomorrow you can see Raine. Berwin will give you a tour of New Earth.” Melissa stepped back, standing next to the soldier, who appeared to be her guard. “Much has changed here since you were a child.”

Charlie pursed her lips, then nodded in agreement. “Thank you, Hoyt.” She had a lot to catch up on, including the government system for New Earth. The role of general was new, and Charlie wondered what other things had changed here. “Have a good night.”

“Rest well,” Melissa offered as Berwin left with their guests.

On the walk through the streets, the buildings loomed in the darkness and brought back Charlie’s buried past. New Earth had been a settlement made from sticks, but today it appeared permanent. Even under the torchlight, the stone and large log faces of the refined buildings contrasted with Charlie’s childhood memories of the shoddy settlement.

They left the cobblestone street and followed different paths that snaked around newly built cabins. Berwin had slowed until he was on Charlie’s left side and explained the cabins that New Earth had built for guests were designed for one to four people at a time, but a handful could hold larger groups of twelve or more. Each smaller cabin had a sitting area, kitchenette, small bathroom, and a bedroom. From Berwin’s tone, it was clear he was proud of the new additions to the settlement.

“Here we are.” Berwin indicated the two cabins. “They’re close to each other, at least.”

“Let’s go to Andren’s first.” Charlie noted the carved and painted number on the right side of the cabin’s door the opened onto a porch. She followed Berwin up the steps, across the porch deck, and into the cabin’s interior.

Berwin spent a few minutes showing Andren and Charlie the cabin before he stepped outside and waited for Charlie, who spoke to Andren in the cabin. After Charlie ensured Andren was okay, she left and saw Berwin standing next to her cabin but keeping his distance from the locke. He perked up when she came over to him.

But first, Charlie went to the patient locke and knelt down. “Hey, girl. You don’t have to stay.” Even in the darkness, she could see the animal’s snow-white eyes that reflected the moonlight. “I know it’s not Tarrak, but Kardos is pretty.”

She won’t leave your side now,” the spirit whispered.

With a sigh, Charlie nodded once at the locke, then stood up. “Thanks again for the help, Ber.”

Berwin beamed and shrugged before saying, “Glad we could help. Do you need anything to eat?”

“I’m okay, but I’ll be hungry tomorrow.” Charlie stood beside the steps to the cabin’s porch. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight.” Berwin hurried off, his steps fading away.

Charlie climbed the steps and held open the door for the locke, who hastened up the steps, then sat in the corner of the porch deck. Going to the main door, Charlie shouldered it open, entered, and left the door open for the locke. For a few minutes, Charlie busied herself with prepping a fire in the fireplace, and after the initial flames started, she heard soft clicks and was surprised the locke joined her.

Closing up the cabin, Charlie faced the fire and stared at its growing flames. Today’s wild events started to catch up to her, and she wondered how she went from finishing a kidnapping mission in outer space to being stuck in New Earth. She needed to get back to Tarrak, back to Kal.

Stay,” the spirit rumbled in her head.

Charlie moaned and touched her forehead where a throb had begun behind her skull. Her lips started to move without her will. Her voice was heavier than normal as she ordered, “Galactic Hammer deactivate.” Instantly the battle suit’s plating receded and repacked itself at her back. Peering down, she watched her hands release the suit’s buckle, and then the pack slid off her shoulders.

As the repacked battle suit hung from her fingertips, Charlie stared again at the fire and felt her consciousness start to break apart inch by inch. The Galactic Hammer slid off her fingertips and hit the floor with a soft boom.

“We are coming for you.”

Charlie fell to her knees, swaying slightly. She whimpered and wished Kal was here now, holding her. But her legs were weak, her sides viciously throbbed again, and her face felt bloody. The dark heat in her veins was moving upward, rushing toward her head. What measure of strength was left in her was stolen in a heartbeat.

“Rest.”

Obeying, she toppled to the floor and the last of her strength bled from her being. As her eyes rolled up, Charlie caught a final glimpse of black wisps floating toward to the cabin door. The last thing she heard was the locke’s worried whine; then she finally succumbed to total exhaustion.


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