Kral by Ava Ross

One

Mila

Mila woke up lying on a hard surface, blinded by the light generated by a flat, rectangular, glowing creature pinned to the ceiling above her. She blinked as the blue-green, hairless being writhed, struggling to break free.

Like Mila. When she tried to lift her arms, they remained pinned in place. Her ankles were also tied. Her moan slipped out.

“Hey,” she said in a croaky voice. “Hey.”

No answer.

The creature on the ceiling flinched, but then went back to tugging at the metal pins holding each corner of its rectangular body in place. Its beady black eyes focused on her for a long time, and she swore she read desperation and sorrow there. A feeling they shared. There was nothing worse than having no control over the bad things that happened in life.

Where was she? The white walls around her gave nothing away and, when she cricked her neck, the tiles on the floor looked like something found in any random building on Earth. The smooth walls were windowless, with only a small, opaque window at eye level in the single door. She guessed it was locked.

From the low hum rumbling around her, she assumed she was on a spaceship. The slight vibration reminded her of the star cruiser she’d been traveling in from Earth to reach Crakair. She didn’t sense enough rocking for a smaller vehicle; the vibration was smooth, almost seamless. Back on the small ship they’d taken to reach the larger star cruiser, she’d been thrown off balance and fell on her big ass, her feet going out from underneath her when the craft pitched sideways.

“Don’t worry,” her new friend, Taylor, said with a sympathetic laugh. “In no time, you’ll find your sea legs. Until then, keep ‘em wide and let your body shift with the subtle movement.”

“Sure,” Mila had said, rubbing her sore butt.

She’d met Taylor and Lily moments before. They were two of the twenty women who’d signed on as mail-order brides matched to alien males from a distant planet. During the days traveling to Crakair, she, Taylor, and Lily had grown close, sharing their hopes and dreams for their new lives with their matches. They’d even held a bridal shower for the three of them. That was when they’d been…

Taylor. Lily.

Halfway to their destination, they’d been kidnapped and taken who knows where. Four-armed, blue-skinned aliens had attacked and kidnapped her. The last thing she remembered was one of them tapping her temple with a black stick, and then lights out.

So much for meeting her alien match and getting married.

The creature on the ceiling struggled. Her heart pinching to see the poor thing in pain, she wished there was a way she could help it.

“I’ll free you somehow,” she whispered, “I promise.” Once she figured out how to free herself. “Taylor?” she called out. Her voice rose as panic took hold. “Lily!”

No reply.

Mila choked back a sob, but it did no good. Tears trickled down her temples and landed in her hair. Were her friends okay? They could be tied to a table like she was, only in a different room. She’d break free, find and release them, and they’d escape this trap together.

Resolve shot through her, giving her the strength to strain against her ties. She refused to play the victim, waiting for someone to rescue her. Mila was going to rescue herself.

Plus the greenish creature pinned to the ceiling.

The door opened, and a four-armed, blue-skinned alien strode inside. She’d heard of this species, the Al’kieern. They called Mara, one of Crakair’s three moons, home. They’d attacked the star cruiser and taken Mila and her friends. Her gut clenched and her hands went sweaty. What were they going to do to her?

He shut the door and crossed the small room to stand at her side. His beady eyes drifted down her body in a clinical way, and she was grateful nothing sexual shone in his dark gaze. Though she wasn’t sure she could do much about it if he decided to take things in that direction.

“Who are you?” she barked, sniffing back her betraying tears. Shit, she hoped he didn’t see them.

“I am a noble Al’kieern. A scientist.” He laid a palm on his chest and bowed. “Pleased I am to meet you. Sad I am that I must do this.”

Sure. She could tell from his almost-gleeful tone.

“There’s nothing noble about kidnapping women,” she said. “Let me go, and I won’t whip your ass. I also won’t tell the Crakairian government what you’ve done.” Brave statements for her to make but, before her dad died, he taught her to bull her way through dangerous situations. Don’t ever let anyone sense your fear, he’d always said. She missed him; he’d died a year ago from the mysterious disease that swept through the galaxy, killing most of the men on Earth and nearly all the women on a variety of alien planets throughout the galaxy.

Hence the mail-order bride proposal and contract with Crakair. How far Mila had come since signing up for a match.

“Why am I tied to a table?” she snapped, barely keeping her lower lip from trembling.

“You cannot be free. Not until auction.”

“Auction?” She couldn’t hold back her whimper. “What are you talking about?”

He smirked.

Great, great. She had to lie here until…whenever the auction took place? Her body trembled, but she found the will to glare at him. “I’m not being auctioned off like a flock of chickens.”

He growled and fumbled with the shiny implements lying on a silver table near the head of her stretcher. “Silence, breeder.”

“Mila.” She matched his growl. “My name is Mila. I’ll never be silenced, and I for damn sure will never be a breeder.”

The alien’s sneer revealed long, rot-riddled fangs. She’d read fang-baring was a Crakairian way of smiling. When she’d watched the video sent by Kral, the Crakairian male she’d been matched with, he’d bared his fangs. On her mate/husband-to-be, it was cute. No, he was hot when he bared his fangs. On this guy? Nasty.

In the video, Kral had said sweet, thoughtful things to her, and he’d made promises he could no longer deliver. That he’d be kind. He’d treat her well. He’d keep her safe. Her chest ached at the loss of what could have been, but she stiffened on the hard mattress. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but she’d get through this and find Kral.

“What are you going to do to me?” she asked as the blue guy lifted a long, thin metal tube into the air.

“I think word is…testing?”

Past jokes about alien abductions and probes shot into Mila’s mind, and she struggled against her bindings. It was all fun and games when she and her friends were teasing each other about their matches and probing. When faced with the reality of a creepy alien guy holding a long, silver implement, the notion sent terror bolting through her.

“Testing for what?” she said.

“Fertility.”

“Let me go!” she shrieked, bucking as fear took control of her limbs.

The creature pinned to the ceiling above her groaned. One of the metal pins holding it in place released and fell on the table by Mila’s hand. The Al’kieern appeared too focused on the silver probe to notice.

“Sad I am, but I will not release you,” the Al’kieern said, his sneer suggesting he was anything but upset about this.

“No tests,” she said, wrapping her fingers around the tiny wooden stake. When it pricked her palm, she nearly shouted with satisfaction. It wasn’t much, but it was sharp and now a weapon. She shifted her fingers, twisting the jagged end around to face her bindings.

The Al’kieern lowered the long silver tube onto the table and lifted a big syringe into the air. He squirted deep blue liquid up in an arc. The point descended toward her arm as she writhed, trying to escape. “This over quickly. Rest now.”

Blubbering and no longer able to hide her tears, she tried to yank free, but the ties bit into her skin. Hot wetness trickled down her wrist, telling her she was bleeding. She sawed with the metal pin, feeling part of the strand holding her wrist give way.

The needle descended.

“No!” Flailing, she yanked herself to the side, but there was no avoiding the needle.

A prick on her upper arm, and the world went black…

Mila woke on what she believed was her fourth day in this room, tied to the table.

Twice each day, the blue aliens had released her, let her use the stinky bucket in the corner of the room, fed her, paced her around for a few minutes, then tied her back on the table.

Each time she was free, she’d kept the pin clutched in her hand, hoping she’d find a use for it.

And each night, she’d spoken to the flat, luminescent light creature still pinned to the ceiling. A few times, she could swear he’d replied—in her mind. But that couldn’t be true. The drugs they’d been giving her were making her imagine things.

For the first time in days, no four-armed blue alien stood at her side. But she had the metal pin, and she was determined to get out of this hellhole. No more drugs. No more being tied to the table. She would break out of the room, find her friends, and burn this fucking place down.

After sawing the bindings for what felt like hours with the metal pin, her left hand snapped free. Yes. It was quick work after that to release her other hand and ankles.

Overhead, the poor creature continued to struggle.

“Hang in there, Firefly,” she whispered as she rose to her feet on the table. “Sorry for the nickname, especially if you don’t like it, but you remind me of a firefly. But don’t worry. Help is on the way.”

Thank you.

She had to be imagining things.

When the door opened again, she—they—were ready.

The surprise reflected on the blue jerk’s face as she brought a trash bucket down on his head. Mila grinned. She laughed out loud when Firefly sprung from the ceiling and plastered himself across the blue guy’s face.

Adrenaline lent her the strength of a thousand suppressed women.

While the alien gulped and gasped and whirled around, trying to pry Firefly off his face, she kneed him in the groin. It worked with men; would it work with aliens?

His four hands left Firefly and cradled his crotch. Yesss.

She rushed around him and opened the door, turning back. “You leaving this shithole with me, Firefly? Or do you want to stay here and chow on the blue guy some more?” Freedom was so close, Mila could taste it.

Go.

The blue alien danced around the room, alternately clutching his groin and smacking at Firefly, who still clung to the alien’s face.

Wait. Firefly had no mouth. How had he spoken to her?

“Did you talk to me in my mind?” she asked, her jaw dropping.

Yesss. Yousss gooo.

Ohhhh-kay. It didn’t seem possible yet here she was, talking to an alien creature in her mind.

She cupped her head. Damn, telepathy made her brain pound. “Are you sure?”

Gooo.

With a twinge of sadness, she nodded. She got it. He was free, and he’d want to track down any friends or family he had here, not hang out with Mila.

She’d lost her mom, her dad, and her new friends, Lily and Taylor. She could deal with losing her new friend, too.

Shoving aside the pinch in her heart, she pushed for a smile. “Okay, Firefly. You, um, look me up if you need anything, okay?” She darted through the door and out into a long hall, calling over her shoulder. “I’ll be around for a little while.” Hopefully only a little while. It shouldn’t be too hard to escape this place, right?

Thank you,Firefly said in her mind.

Mila paused a moment in the hall, unsure where to go. Left or right? Each continued a long distance with doors interspersed at regular intervals. Each seemed to end at a junction with another hall.

While she gnawed on her lip, shouts from her left were followed by four Al’kieern stomping around a corner in her direction. Two ran on cloven feet, but the others skip-hopped, their webbed wings unfurled.

“Breeder!” one shouted.

Not in this lifetime.

With her heart rushing up into her throat, she took off, racing in the other direction. She passed a series of big windows. The stars outside had cloned themselves, filling the sky with a billion sparkling lights. No time to take in the view. As she ran past the openings, she saw long metal posts extending from the craft and smaller, round, satellite-like pods that could be ships or space houses or creatures, for all she knew. The structure reminded her of the pictures she’d seen of Earth’s space station.

The big planet in the distance did not resemble Earth, however. Even without the huge expanses of blue peppered with small landmasses, the four moons of varying sizes would’ve given it away. Mila wasn’t in the Milky Way Galaxy any longer.

“Halt,” one of the aliens shouted.

Yeah, sure. She would, because he’d asked so nicely. Sucking in a deep breath, she ran faster.

One of the flying guys caught up and latched onto her hair, wrenching her backward.

Grunting, she whirled and kicked his leg. She bit down on the arm wrapping around her hair deep enough to draw blood. The guy bellowed and wrenched back, releasing her.

With her pulse galloping a thousand miles an hour, she pivoted and shot down the hall again. She hadn’t run since quitting track in high school—damn Janie and her “fat girl” sneers. But Mila had been good. Record sprinter good. While she’d gained some weight since then, her legs had not forgotten how to take her where she wanted to go.

Luck was on her side, because she hit a stairwell at a run and bumped through the door and onto the landing. Not stopping, she went down, taking the steps two at a time. A few floors below, while the aliens clambered above her shouting for her to come back (really?!), she exited the stairwell into another long hall. Partway down the corridor, she found an unlocked door and darted inside, finding an office. Rounding the desk, she dropped to her knees and scooted beneath.

She waited there for what felt like forever before leaving the room, listening until she heard the aliens entering the stairwell and the door banging shut behind them. Using a different stairwell, she crept down multiple flights until reaching a door marked maintenance.

There were lots of nice hidey-holes in maintenance areas. Boiler and electrical rooms felt like home.

Dad had been a high school janitor and, as a kid, Mila had hung out on Saturdays with him after Mom left when Mila was eight. She’d driven away and never looked—or called—back. It wrecked Mila, but her dad stepped up and did everything he could to help get her through it. Some could say it was the best thing that could’ve happened as Mom hadn’t been happy raising a kid. Dad loved her more than all the planets combined. He’d died, and Mila missed him more than a severed limb.

She slunk inside the room and was relieved to find no four-armed, blue-skinned guys waiting for her.

Creeping across the big open surface piled with boxes and weird-looking mechanical devices, she poked through the rubble, trying to find some place safe.

Here, Firefly said from farther inside the room, surprising her. How had he made it here?

You okay, buddy? she said in her mind. I was worried about you.

No fear. Free.

Sort of, if living inside a big tin can could be called freedom. But at least she wasn’t tied, and he wasn’t pinned to the ceiling. Where are you?

A glow ahead pulled her in that direction, toward the back of the room, where she found a pile of wood stacked to the ceiling. She scooted around the side and found a small passage behind.

Here, Firefly said from ahead. Yousss safe.

Safe was a relative term on an alien space station.

Scooting sideways, Mila shimmied through the narrow strip of area between the woodpile and a metal wall. At the end, she found a beat-up door.

Safe.

Firefly’s light faded. He was leaving.

Her eyes stung, but she swiped the wetness from her face. She had no reason to feel sad.

She could handle whatever came next alone.

She opened the door and crept inside a tiny, hidden room.