“I’m Charlie,” she repeated, her throat gurgling with blood that oozed between her split lips. She rolled her head to the left, breathing in the odor of fiery, charred wood that had taken her on a memory trip back to Earth. This time, she wasn’t running through the burning forest or dodging trees engulfed in flames. The darkness she felt then was familiar now, except today it had a strange comfort. It wasn’t a cold blackness but more of a warm summer night cloaking her from the world. Somehow, it felt like seeing an old friend and hugging each other, accepting the trustful bond.
Get up, Charlie.
Darkness seeped through Charlie’s veins, invading her body. It should have put her under and kept her there, but it helped her lift her head. She forced her eyes open, more alert than when she first crashed on Kander. Gazing down, she studied the snapped tree limb protruding about a foot from her stomach. But it was if she was seeing it for the first time even though she knew it had been there since the crash.
Groaning, Charlie followed the powerful command vibrating through her head. She clutched her lower gut and glared at the branch still stuck in her. For a moment, her foggy mind weighed snapping it shorter, but she decided it was a waste of energy. Through the dark haze, she tilted her head and stared at the smashed shuttle a few steps in front of her.
Turn on the locator beacon, the thick voice rumbled in her head.
Charlie wobbled step by step, but her body felt animated as she returned to the shuttle. Once there, she lifted the jarred pilot’s door higher.
Beacon, the voice commanded again.
“The switch is here,” Charlie whispered, stretching her arm across the cockpit. Her shaking fingertips swiped the manual switch, which flipped and engaged the alert beacon for help. Straightening up, she noted that the red strobe on the rear of the airframe was flashing to give a visual aid. The alert system would send out both sound and a mayday signal for anybody that might be listening to the numerous frequencies it broadcasted on. “It’s working now,” she said.
The darkness swirled heavily in Charlie’s head and in her bones, as if she’d been drugged. Medical supplies, it whispered to her.
“They’re behind the pilot’s seat.” Charlie used the shuttle for support as she stepped over thick, damp branches. In front of the rear door, she caught her face mirrored in a section of unbroken window. She stared at the black eyes reflecting at her, realizing they were her own.
Get the medical supplies, the voice snapped, nearing a growl.
Tapping the handle twice, Charlie grunted when the automated door didn’t open. She was forced to open it by hand, panting from the depleted energy. Clutching her lower gut, she struggled with the compartment in the back of the pilot’s seat.
Hurry, it commanded her.
Successful, Charlie tore out the medical kit and stumbled back one step, feeling a different kind of darkness closing in on her. It was the kind that told her she didn’t have much time left, and she welcomed it. She lowered to her knees, in the mud and debris, the kit’s whiteness contrasting against the planet’s nature.
“I’m still going to die,” Charlie said, working the kit open and not quite understanding how she was doing it. Her limbs moved like a puppet on strings. “It’s too late.” However, she continued searching for the right items to slow the bleeding down in her gut.
We need more time, the voice said, a hint of concern laced in each syllable.
Charlie had a wicked smile and laughed at the situation. “Time is a funny thing.” She lifted a needle-like instrument that was loaded with a special serum for slowing bleeding. After she peeled the seal off the flat tip, she lifted her shirt and exposed her bloody stomach. She pressed the flat tip against her belly, then pushed the button on the side, hissing from the rush of new pain. “And it’s finally my time.”
Collapsing onto her back, Charlie stared up at the trees’ wet canopy, just making out the cloudy sky beyond it. Again, her eyelids grew heavier, and her grip on the world began slipping from her hands. Soft rain drops patted her cheeks, but it did nothing to wake her.
Closer… Charlie, the distant voice called in her head.
Resting her eyes, Charlie whispered, “My old name was Charlene Larson.” Then the black light swallowed her whole.
* * *
At first it had been peaceful and perfect, except for the strange yearning in Charlie’s heart. Still, the beautiful sunrise in front of her was enough to make her stay for awhile, maybe even ignore why her heart felt divided in half. Each new stream of sunlight crept over the horizon and warmed Charlie’s face. Any moment, she was sure that her mother and father would join her here. She smiled at the sheer promise of seeing them again.
This place reminded her of the mornings on the cabin’s porch with her mom, who was an early riser. They vacationed in the mountains when Charlie’s dad could get away from his job. Her father often slept late, like Charlie, but on cabin vacations she loved getting up to spend the time with her mom. She would snuggle into her mom’s lap, and, together, they listened to the day’s start.
Today’s sunrise was different, hollow somehow. Charlie might feel at peace, but it was a shallow serenity like a story without a proper ending. She shifted and groaned from a strange pain low in her stomach. Peering down, she saw nothing other than her leather jacket and her shirt. Lifting her head, she continued watching the sunrise and realized that this place was silent; nothing was coming to life. There were no birds, no breeze, no bugs chirping… no sound of her own heartbeat.
Then pain shot through her stomach, reached up into her chest, and pulled her down. She was falling and tumbling back to the ground, just as she had been in the shuttle hours ago. It felt as if the hand of God had latched onto her very soul and pulled her from the heavens, beckoning her back to life. She could have denied it or warded it off, but it called to her.
Her heart thundered to life, pumping life force through her entire being again. She gasped for air and screamed out all the pain wrenching in her stomach. With eyes flying open, she gazed at the dark light swirling above her exposed stomach, burning and searing torn flesh. Charlie cried out again until the white heat vanished from her abdomen, then she passed out from exhaustion.
Time was indeed a funny thing, Charlie recalled. She had crashed the shuttle in the morning hours, but she stirred awake at night. But this time, it wasn’t inky black, and she could make out faint outlines overhead. It was difficult to focus her eyes after not using them for hours, or maybe it was days. Charlie had no idea of time or even location, other than a ceiling above her instead of autumn tree leaves. The soft flicker of firelight soothed her worries.
Taking a deep breath, she smelled fire and heard a low pop of wood burning somewhere. Earlier she had been cold, and now she was warmer, thanks to the silky sheets around her. The delicate bed sheets were somehow familiar to her, but her memory was fuzzy. Deciding to test her body, Charlie wiggled her fingertips and toes; both were in working order. Next she turned her head to the left and groaned from the stiffness in her neck.
Charlie assumed she was in a guestroom in the Great Tower. Ten steps away from the bed, there was a silhouette of a large-frame body seated by a table. Whoever it was remained slumped in the chair, legs spread, and head resting in their hand. For a minute, Charlie’s eyes struggled adjusting to the soft light, and she hoped that the figure was a friend. Over the ticks, the tall, broad figure revealed feminine features, full breasts, and rosy lips that reflected the firelight. Charlie’s heart drummed louder as she remembered who had called her back.
“Sumner,” Charlie whispered, voice rough from disuse. She bit her lip when Kal lifted her head and stared at her, as if trying to gauge if Charlie was awake. Attempting to sit up, Charlie hissed and clutched her side, which made it worse.
Kal was like lightning, bolting across the distance and holding Charlie’s side with a delicate hand. “Easy.” With great care, she lowered Charlie back onto the bed, then adjusted the bed sheet and comforter.
Groaning, Charlie touched her throbbing forehead and asked, “W-whaaat…” She started coughing, her throat dry and raw.
Kal turned and picked up a ceramic cup, holding it in front of Charlie. “Try to drink.” She assisted Charlie with sitting up a little while she drank the cool water.
Settling back down, Charlie cleared her throat and enjoyed the sensation of the liquid rushing down her chest and into her belly. She sighed and looked at Kal again. “What happened?”
“You went out with a bang,” Kal replied.
Charlie grunted and closed her eyes.
“Your ship exploded,” Kal said, a curious hint to her words. “And you crashed back on Kander in your shuttle.”
The statement recharged Charlie’s memory, and she touched her forehead. “Fuck.” She released a heavy breath and looked at Kal’s glowing features hovering above her. “Starr and Raakor,” she muttered, feeling bitter sympathy for them.
“You returned alone.”
“I know.” Charlie blew out some air and tried to hold back the memory of Raakor’s head swinging in the cockpit. “Raakor was killed and Starr was taken or killed. I don’t know.”
Charlie heard a low rumble in Kal’s chest, knowing it meant the inner Alpha was peeking out. “I don’t know.” She shifted and hissed from the pain it caused her. “They blew up my ship. I’m going to fucking skin them alive when I find them.”
Kal gave a displeased growl, then huffed and said, “It’ll be several days before you can do any skinning.”
Groaning at the truth, Charlie agreed. She felt like a damn loaded transporter landed on her. She released a low breath and asked, “How did you find me?”
“You crashed not far from the city, about ten marches or so.”
Charlie narrowed her eyes and argued, “That’s still a lot of forest to cover before I could bleed out.”
“You turned on the ship’s distress beacon.” Kal tilted her head and continued studying Charlie with a curious expression.
“Weird. The distress signal should go on automatically after a crash.” Charlie rubbed her forehead, pushing stray hair out of the way. From her spotty memory, she recalled getting up from against the tree and turning on the beacon, but at the time, she didn’t know the beacon wasn’t working.
“Impact might have damaged it.”
Charlie hummed, then closed her eyes that were getting weighted again. “Thanks for saving me,” she whispered.
“You saved yourself by turning on the beacon.” Kal moved and then there was a creak of wood.
Rolling her head toward the sound, Charlie forced an eye open and saw Kal had returned to the chair. Even if she was in a guest room, she still felt like a nuisance. “Lay in bed with me.” When Kal didn’t move, she grumbled and said, “Don’t get all Alpha on me. You can’t keep sleeping there.” She wondered if Kal had spent every night here, watching over Charlie, but she doubted it. Kal had more important concerns than nursing a human. After a few huffs from Kal, Charlie smiled when she heard movement, then a large body crawled into the bed next to her and settled into the comforter.
Just from the heavy breaths, Charlie could tell that even the godly ruler had her own limits. More at ease, she dozed off again herself, all the strain making it easy to sleep through the night. It was also wonderful to get away from her body’s pain, at least until the morning. By the time she woke up, the sunlight was streaming into the room. Lying there, she wondered why Kal had taken it upon herself to nurse Charlie back to health, or so it appeared.
Shifting to her left side, Charlie began sitting up, but a string of curses tumbled from her lips. She gasped and clutched her stomach with her arm, falling back into the bed. Blinking back tears, she inhaled and waited for the fire in her to ease. After another deep breath, nimble fingers pulled up the simple white shirt and pushed the comforter out of the way. Craning her neck, Charlie caught a glimpse of her stomach, which was bare of anything including blood, wounds, or even a bandage. Bewildered, she ran her fingers over the place she was sure a branch had pierced her gut and left her for dead on Kander.
“You’re still healing internally.”
Charlie sucked in a startled breath, as she hadn’t realized Kal was in the room. Dropping her head onto the pillow, her hand slid off her stomach to the side of the bed. For a moment, the memories from crashing into the woods drifted through her head, and she knew they were real. Again, her fingertips grazed the area where she had been skewered like meat. After considering Kal’s words, she said, “I should be dead.”
Kal neared the bedside, revealing that she was dressed. “Ja, you should be.”
Meeting the green eyes above her, Charlie asked, “Why aren’t I?” Even from her horizontal position, she could discern the tiredness in Kal’s face, dark coloring, and slumped shoulders. She wondered how many nights Kal had slept in the chair.
Clutching her hands in front of her body, Kal replied, “Your people would call it a miracle.” She tilted her head and continued speaking before Charlie could question her further. “I will send in a healer and have food brought to you.” She turned and departed the guest quarters.
Groaning, Charlie touched her forehead and muttered, “What is going on?” She hated the idea of staying in bed for whatever hour or day straight, but Kal had run out of the room. She had a minute alone before a brief knock caught her ear. “Great.” She grumbled and groused until she saw that the newcomer was Dorlon.
“Welcome back, Charlie.” Dorlon stood in the doorway, grinning and too amused by Charlie’s current situation. “Returned for your darakar finally?”
“Shut up,” Charlie said, heat in her tone. “And help me get to the bathroom.” If she was being babysat by her old friend, she planned to work her, considering their last interaction ended on a bad note.
Dorlon took pity, shut the door, and assisted Charlie with sitting up in the bed. “Just take it slow.”
“I fucking am!” Charlie sighed after snapping at someone helping her; she hated relying on people. Like Dorlon, she remained quiet other than a few grunts and hisses until she was somewhat on her feet. A strong arm hooked across her back and took a lot of her weight off her feet, making it easier to cross the distance to the bathroom. Dorlon wasn’t so muscular when they were kids, but Omegas were still rather strong compared to humans.
Once in the bathroom, Charlie was relieved to lay eyes on the waiting toilet that almost made her filled bladder tilt over. She latched onto the upper half of the toilet and said, “I can take it from here.” Whether she could didn’t matter because she wasn’t about to pee in front of anybody.
“Yell when you’re done.” Dorlon took her exit, standing just outside the doorway in case something happened to Charlie.
Still clutching the toilet and nearby sink counter for support, Charlie worked down the worn out, stretchy pants that were not hers. She was happy to sit down after contending with her weak muscles. After getting up and straightening herself out, she sagged against the sink for a moment before washing her hands and face, looking forward to a shower soon. She called Dorlon back for help and was escorted out of the bathroom, nearing the bed again.
“Can you take me to a chair?” At Dorlon’s worried look, she sighed and said, “I just need to sit up for awhile.” After Dorlon agreed, they shuffled to the table, and Charlie slid into a wooden chair.
“The healer should be here soon.” Dorlon took the other chair and studied her friend.
Charlie was stretched out, panting, and hoping she recovered soon. “Great. Can’t wait to be poked and prodded.” She dragged her fingers through unkempt hair, then pinned her friend with a look. “How long ago did I crash?”
“Three days ago,” Dorlon replied.
Blowing out a breath, Charlie sagged against the chair and wondered how everything went so wrong in the matter of minutes. She’d lost her ship, almost her life, and her crew—one being dead and the other missing. “I need to get out of here.”
“Not anytime soon.”
Fire rekindled in Charlie, and she jerked up, groaning at her mistake. “Starr might still be alive.” She tried to push off the chair, but the movement forced her to clutch her stomach. “Fuck!” Then a firm hand nudged her back, making her halt her attempt to stand. She peered up into Dorlon’s concerned features.
“You’re not helping anybody if you don’t heal first.”
Still clutching her stomach, Charlie glowered at the truth in her friend’s wise words. “And somehow I’m already half-healed. I had a damn tree branch in my stomach, Dorlon.” She read the flicker of guilt in Dorlon’s eyes. “How am I still alive? Why am I?” When Dorlon parted her lips, she had hoped to find out the truth, but the front door’s movement announced the healer’s arrival.
The healer, Brexton as he introduced himself, was rather gentle for an Alpha, even if Charlie fussed as he checked over her. Dorlon stood to the side, arms folded, and listened to Brexton’s assessment of Charlie’s current health. He closed up his bag and slid his hands into his blue robe’s pockets, half turning toward Dorlon.
“It will be at least another nineth before she is healed.”
Charlie felt the sweat on her brow, after being poked by Brexton. “A nineth?” She refused to wait a full nine days before getting mobile and finding out what happened to Starr.
“If you rest,” Brexton insisted, scowling at her, “which I suspect you will not. All you Betas are as stubborn as Alphas are long.”
Flushing at the crude remark, Charlie wanted to smack him but was spent of her energy. She knew she needed food and drink so she could regain her strength.
“Kal and I will do our best to keep her calm.” Dorlon bowed her head to him and said, “Tah, Brexton.” She walked him to the door, whispering a few times. Charlie listened to their goodbyes then Dorlon’s movements until a cup of water was held out to her. “Tah.” She slouched in the chair and held the cup between her hands. “So what really happened to me after I crashed?”