From the pilot’s seat, Charlie continued singing one of her favorite songs and carefully navigated the spaceship, Pacifica, closer to the broken moon, Lerto. The rocky, split sphere orbited an uninhabitable gaseous planet in a nearly forgotten solar system at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. As the Pacifica slowed, the dark moon’s artificial gravity hugged the ship’s hull.
Behind the captain’s chair, Charlie sensed one of her crewmembers standing over her shoulder, but nothing had to be said about their current location. Shortly, the ship’s flight systems were put into standby now that they were settled into the orbit for the next several hours.
In the co-pilot’s seat, Raakor, the second crewmember, was busy tapping the flight control’s touch panel a few times before he touched a visible piece of bionic tech imbedded in his neck. The tech in his purple skin flashed a soft red, indicating he was connected with the ship’s system.
After a glance at the screen, Charlie confirmed the artificial handshake between Raakor and the ship before she shut down the flight and navigation modules.
From behind the captain’s chair, Starr folded her arms and said, “I hope we’re going down for drinks.”
Charlie smirked and turned down the music from the control panel, then spun the seat around to face Starr. “Yes, considering tomorrow’s meeting on Kander.”
“How far are we from Kander?”
“Almost three hours from Kander. We just hop over one solar system.” Charlie carefully studied Starr, who was keeping it together despite tomorrow’s pending meeting at a nearby planet. “Thanks for doing this, Starr.”
After a low grunt, Starr glared out the front window at the broken moon. “Stills are stills. We need the money. Gods know the Pacifica could use an overhaul.” Raakor’s huff brought her attention to him.
Charlie scanned the interior of the ship and agreed that it needed maintenance now that wiring was exposed, peeling paint, squeaking doors, and glitchy touch panels. And similar to Starr, she was struggling with going back to Kander after so long and tried to keep her emotions in check. If nothing else, a few good beers on Lerto would settle her nerves. “Wanna jettison in ten?”
“Sure.” Starr canted her head and tapped Raakor’s chair. “You coming with us?”
Raakor was silent and seemed to be considering his options.
Charlie knew he wasn’t usually the one to join them for drinks, but this time she wanted him to come with them. “We should talk more about this mission.”
Raakor gave a soft sigh but nodded and stood up from the co-pilot seat. “See you in ten.” He slipped past Starr without another word and vanished deeper in the ship.
Starr folded her arms, revealing her thick biceps highlighted by her short-sleeve shirt. “Raakor already knows about the Kalmar people.”
“Not enough,” Charlie argued. “I want to make sure he doesn’t accidentally piss off an Alpha, especially thee Alpha.” She believed in Raakor’s ability to handle many difficult situations logically until it came to personalities. Logic rarely worked against emotions, especially when it came to the Kalmar people—their possible new client.
Starr nodded before heading out of the cockpit.
Charlie followed and entered the row of aft cabin doors. She, Raakor, and Starr had separate quarters while the other two remained empty for the occasional guest.
Once in her quarters, Charlie hastily changed out of her rundown canvas pants and black shirt. She put on a pair of tight, weathered jeans that had cost her more stills than she cared to tell anybody. Next was a deep red shirt that hugged her curves, but her black leather jacket hid it all. After pocketing a lectra gun inside the jacket, she ducked into the head, which automatically lit up and revealed the mirror over the sink.
From her reflection, Charlie decided time and space were indeed catching up to her now that she was around thirty-two in Earth years, at least. Her wavy hair had once been golden like sunshine, but due to life in outer space, it was now a light amber shade. Besides a few freckles over her smooth cheekbones, she had rather pale and square features. After pulling a brush through her tangled strands, Charlie applied a soft shade of red lip gloss, then rushed out of the quarters.
With a techbit in hand, Charlie checked her current balance of stills, and the low number made her sigh heavily. It looked like her dinner would mainly consist of liquids. Starr was right that they needed the stills from this upcoming job, or they would be hard-pressed to survive any further.
After a grumble or two, the techbit’s screen shut off, and Charlie tucked it inside her leather jacket. She peered out the round window and studied the fractured moon, which was mostly dark other than a patch lit up by the moon’s residents. Her thoughts drifted, much like the ship, until heavy boot steps made her look at her crew.
“Ready?” Starr asked.
Charlie silently answered by approaching one of the two small four-person shuttles that they would take to the moon’s surface. She studied Starr, who had a different air to her than normal.
Under the bay’s dim light, Starr’s short, dark hair had a silver hue, and her brown eyes were more blown than normal. Due to her biology, she was naturally tall and had a bulked-up wide frame, which made it easy for her act as Charlie’s muscle. Unlike Charlie, she wore gray pants and a heavy, dark shirt that hugged her muscular figure. A thick leather belt hung loosely around her waist and held a lectra handgun.
“You look like a damn human,” Starr remarked, then loaded into the vessel from the co-pilot’s door.
Raakor ducked under the rear passenger door and sat in the bucket seat.
After getting into the pilot’s chair, Charlie grinned and stated, “Because I am.”
Starr rolled her eyes and buckled up as the shuttle came to life. “It doesn’t mean you need to look like one… be so fuckin’ obvious.”
Charlie glanced at Starr and noticed the soft shine in Starr’s brown eyes. “It’s Lerto, and they have no laws against humans.” Hell. There were only two laws on Lerto—no murder and no rape.
“Not yet,” Starr muttered.
The dashboard beeped, which indicated it was safe to reverse the shuttle out of the bay of the Pacifica. Charlie carefully steered the shuttle while she considered Starr’s deteriorating mood, which could affect the meeting tomorrow. Maybe it was the pending meeting that was rattling Starr, but Charlie had a sixth sense about Starr’s biology.
Once the shuttle was out of the bay, Charlie flicked several switches and started navigating toward the moon. “Don’t tell me you’re flaring, Starr.” From the thick silence, she scowled at her and snapped, “This is really, I mean, really bad timing.”
“It’s early for some reason,” Starr snarled back.
With white knuckles, Charlie gripped the helm controls and said, “We are going to the planet Kander tomorrow and if they—”
“I know,” Starr yelled, and the fire in her eyes silenced Charlie, for now.
Charlie held her tongue and tried focusing on the flight to Lerto, but she kept thinking about Starr’s hybrid body due to her bi-species background. As half human and half Kalmar, Starr faced prejudice on her former home planet of Kander. However, there was less bigotry in outer space until an occasional cutthroat wanted to collect on old bounties for Starr’s hybrid nature.
After a low huff, she spotted the landing pads at Lerto’s ship port. She and Starr had gone to Lerto over forty times in their two years together.
But Raakor, who remained silent in the back, had only been to the moon a handful of times. He usually preferred to keep to himself and always had a few projects to work on or spent time taking care of maintenance on the ship. For the past celestial year, he had become an essential asset to Charlie’s team.
The flight to the landing port was easy, and Charlie lowered the shuttle with expert skill. She and the crew walked to the local watering hole in the city. The dirty streets were lit by torches, and every humanoid and not so humanoid species passed by them. Charlie received most of the stares and heard the whispers behind her back, which was normal. Starr walked closer to her, a clear indication of Starr’s flare-up.
At the bar, Charlie immediately downed two shots and ordered a warm beer when they sat down at a table. Starr drank her first beer quickly but sipped on the second one while Raakor nursed a Whirly ale, one of his favorites from what Charlie could tell.
For a moment, Charlie stared at Raakor and thought about his time since joining her crew. Outwardly, Raakor was large and bulky with a rich purple hue to his skin, typical of his species. There wasn’t a single hair on him, but tattoos decorated his body. He was always shirtless but kept his dark jacket zipped up, hiding many of his old scars. His grey pants had oil splotches, and his thick heeled boots made him even taller. Raakor rarely fought, and Charlie had nicknamed him the Gentle Giant.
From their small corner, the three mercenaries enjoyed the view of the busy bar and hums of conversation in various languages. The most common language among the customers was Jero, a universal language from the oldest race in the galaxy called the Jerothian. There were at least eight or maybe nine different species between the tables and stools. Two bartenders, who were twin Rath species, worked the long bar while a dozen servers rushed around to bring drinks or food.
At times, the place could be a little dank due to it being built into a cliffside, but Charlie liked the natural gray stone walls all around them. Gazing up, she smiled at the shiny moonstones that peeked through the rock ceiling. The unusual stones were natural to the moon and acted similar to a mirror, reflecting any light, such as the torches that lined the walls. In the center was a round fire pit that helped to heat and dry out things, mostly.
As Charlie’s crew enjoyed their drinks, different people approached them and solicited offers for the night, and Charlie waited to see if Starr would accept any. There were many species, throughout the galaxy, who could often sense Starr’s flare-up, and it made her an easy target for prostitutes. They assumed her natural biological need to reproduce overcame her better senses when she was in a flare. One particular fair-haired, emerald-skinned beauty had caught Starr’s attention, but the price had been too high. The next person was a furry creature from the Jerhath race that Charlie kept calling a bat.
Starr waited until the Jerhath was gone before she leaned over the table toward Charlie. “He smelled like rotten eggs.”
Charlie choked on her sweet alcohol and asked, “You were that close to him?”
Raakor shook his head and finished off the ale.
“He was practically in my lap,” Starr replied and huffed but looked to her boss. “What time is the meeting again?”
Charlie shifted her mindset to business, wanting to ensure both her crewmen knew what to do tomorrow. She leaned against the table when Raakor answered the question. “Eleven hundred Kander time.”
“Did you download their native language?” Charlie asked him. “They only speak Kalamarese and sometimes a little English.”
Raakor folded his arms and nodded. “Uploaded to my brain and processed.” By nature, he was from the Hurr race, which was heavily steeped in technology. Like other Hurr, he had a bionic chip attached to his brain, and it allowed data to be downloaded or uploaded rather than having to read or watch to learn.
Charlie was pleased that Raakor’s chip was updated with the Kalmar’s language and shifted mental gears back to the main topic. “We need to go over the Kalmar and how they work.”
“I understand the Kalmar,” Raakor declared.
“Then I want to know what you know,” Charlie argued. “Because if any of us”—she cut her bright blue eyes to Starr, then back to Raakor—”screw this up then we’re fucked. But if we get this job, we could stand to make out really good.”
“Really well,” Starr corrected.
Charlie smacked Starr’s forearm and looked at Raakor again. “No other mercs have been hired by Kalmar, ever.”
“But they selected us,” Raakor countered.
“Maybe we’ll find out why later,” Starr replied.
Nodding, Charlie sat back in the chair and said, “Tell me what you know.”
After an aspirated sigh, Raakor slouched against the chair and folded his arms, showing his rich violet skin that reflected the bar’s low light. “Kander is a terrestrial planet eighty-seven point six percent land and the rest water. It’s been inhabited since—”
“Wait,” Charlie cut off and waved a hand. “I don’t need the planet’s dating profile. What do you know about the Kalmar themselves?”
Raakor finished off his drink, then set the empty mug to the side. “They’re a biped humanoid species who have a strong sense of smell, superior night vision, and they age slower than other humanoid species. They are divided into two types: one is Alpha and the other is Omega. The Alphas are generally larger and stronger and known for being aggressive, boorish, and volatile. The Omegas are considered more reasonable, submissive, and nurturing but can be protective. Physically they are smaller than the Alphas.” He paused when Charlie nodded at him; he grumbled and continued relaying what he knew. “They typically mate for life after the Alpha ruts, knots, and impregnates an Omega, who’s in heat.”
“Good,” Charlie praised. “But don’t let the Omega’s submissive thing go to your head. They’re actually feistier than what everyone thinks.” She glanced over at Starr, who was drinking her beer. “What do you know about their government?” she asked Raakor.
“The planet is controlled by a single monarch called the High Commander.”
“The Kalmar also call him Kal,” Charlie said.
Raakor had a curious glow in his eyes, silently questioning Charlie.
“Every High Commander is called Kal,” Charlie revealed. “It’s like every Roman Emperor being called Caesar after….” She faltered because she realized Raakor knew very little about Earth history. “Anyway, the Kal is always an Alpha, and they had a new Kal take power about….” She looked to Starr for help.
“About eight orbits ago,” Starr supplied. “During the messy civil war.”
Raakor hummed low and nodded once. “A war started by the Earthlings landing and settling on Kander.”
“Yes, it was a fucking mess.” Charlie frowned and muttered, “Probably still is.” Briefly, she thought back on her ugly childhood on Kander but refocused on the conversation and said, “The Kal is also considered their god.”
“Indirectly,” Starr debated and took over the religious explanation of the planet. “The myth is that their god, Kalatas, selects an Alpha, comes down, and merges with the Alpha so they can rule together. It stays inside the Alpha until death, then Kalatas chooses another.”
Raakor huffed low and looked between Starr and Charlie before asking, “Is it true?”
“It’s probably bullshit,” Charlie whispered, then took a last, huge swallow of her drink, finishing it. “We should get back.” She stood up when yet another curious individual neared their table, and she groaned at the damn species.
“Humansss rarely come here,” a Gyr said. “What’sss left of them.” The Gyr’s scaly, iridescent skin reflected the bar’s light, and it blinked with dual eye slits.
Charlie opened her mouth but was cut off by Starr’s chair suddenly scraping against the stone floor. At her side, Starr rose nearly a foot higher than her. Normally Charlie could handle any insults, slurs, or attacks about her dying kind, especially with her quick wit and trigger finger. But tonight, she allowed Starr to handle it, and amusement glowed in her blue eyes.
“And there’ll be less of you left if you bother us further.” Starr easily commanded the Gyr’s attention, along with the others in the bar. She was taller than most races in the galaxy, and her bulk intimidated many.
Raakor made his presence known next, standing almost as tall as Starr. He fisted his hands at his sides.
Charlie sighed inwardly at the Gyr’s glare on Starr. A low hiss from the Gyr told her that it was assessing Starr in finer detail. As the heartbeats passed, she knew the Gyr was submitting to Starr’s dominance, and it somewhat disappointed Charlie. Over the years, she had grown accustomed to Starr’s aggressive personality and rarely yielded to it.
“A Kalman,” the Gyr said, in disdain.
Charlie flinched when the Gyr actually used the slur for Starr’s mixed species background. She finally reached into her jacket for the handgun in case a brawl started between Starr and the Gyr. Surprisingly, she caught a dangerous smile from Starr.
“Call me that again, and I’ll rip your tongue out.” Starr raised her hands, ready to launch herself across the table.
The Gyr hissed again but took one step back and said, “There’s a bounty on you half-breeds.”
Charlie folded her arms with the black laser gun in front of her chest. “And why do you think she’s still alive?” She smiled when the nervous Gyr looked at her again but with wide eyes. The Gyr was most likely surprised by her skill with the Jero language. “I’d back off.” She tilted her head as the Gyr reversed farther, nearly bumping into Raakor, then finally hurried off without another word.
Starr snorted low.
Charlie lowered her arms but gingerly touched Starr’s stiff shoulder and said, “We should go back to the ship.” They left the bar shortly after paying the tab and going directly to their vessel.
The ride back to the Pacifica was thick with tense air and Starr’s heavy breaths. Charlie rubbed the space between her eyes and realized the next day was going to be hell. Of all the times for Starr to flare up, right now was the worst. The Celestial Fates were toying with them, and it was the only explanation for such horrible luck. Charlie considered asking Starr to stay behind on the ship tomorrow, but her imagination had already played out the fight.
Once back on the ship, Starr stumbled out of the confines of the shuttle with Raakor at her side. She clutched her lower belly but allowed Charlie to touch her forehead.
“You’re burning up,” Charlie whispered. “Help me get Starr to her quarters.” Together, she and Raakor managed Starr’s bulkier weight and went to the cabins.
Once inside, Starr slid out of their arms and into the waiting bed.
“I’ll take care of her,” Charlie ordered Raakor, who slipped out of the cabin without a word. She then came to the bedside and offered, “I’ll stay with you.”
“No. I’ll be fine after I take the meds.” Starr could barely get up, still clutching her stomach.
“Just stay there.”
For a tick, Starr nearly argued but then backed off and sunk into the bed. They both knew the reality of Starr’s flare-up, thanks to her Kalmar father and a human mother. From birth, Starr faced one wall after another, never finding any peace from her hybrid body. After barely escaping Kander as a kid, she only found direction after she met Charlie and became a mercenary.
Long ago Charlie had learned about Starr’s flare-ups, which were similar to an Omega’s heat but slightly more subtle. Like an Omega’s heat, the flare-up was both painful and taxing on Starr and left her in a sexual haze, always on alert for a potential mate. Unlike an Omega, Starr’s flare-ups tended to mostly follow a schedule like a human female’s menstruation cycle. Thankfully, medication helped dull them and make them bearable.
After shaking her head, Charlie rubbed her forehead and gently said, “This is bad timing, Starr.”
While on her back, Starr growled low and closed her eyes. “It’ll be fine.”
“Raakor and I can handle the meeting.” Charlie tensed when Starr was suddenly upright.
“No,” Starr snapped, and her dark eyes drilled into Charlie. “If you think I’m letting you handle a planet full of fucking Alphas, then you’re—”
“I’m not going alone.” Charlie rushed into the bathroom, locating the medicine and filling a cup of water from the sink. “We can handle it.” She held out the items to Starr.
“Raakor is good with a wrench, not a gun,” Starr hissed before popping the pills and washing them down with the water.
Charlie clenched her teeth because she knew it was true. She brought Starr into her crew because of her brawn and common sense. Raakor was indeed large and looked menacing, but he preferred to keep a low profile during fights. He was an excellent mechanic, co-pilot, and back up.
After a sigh, Charlie tossed the cup into the sink with a dramatic force and started for the front door. “Just don’t fuck it up for us.” She was pushing her luck by challenging Starr, who was slipping into days of sexual frustration and pain.
“Don’t you fuck it up,” Starr countered. Huffing low, Charlie nodded once and nudged the door open. “See you in a few.” She went to her quarters and was happy to have the space from her now overbearing crewmember. The damn flare-ups were a mess, but she accepted that part of Starr when she took her on. They both had important skills that they brought to the team, and Charlie damn well hoped that Starr could focus enough during this mission. They stood to make a lot of stills and earn some fame at the end but only if they succeeded.
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