Freed by Eva Priest

1Dorn

The outpost was old,dark, and dank. It was a floating derelict that reminded me of the skeletal remains of a felled creature. The force field that surrounded the once bustling city was still intact. The holographic clouds drifted past a sea of stars with only ghosts as their witness.

It was the perfect drop site for smugglers.

A series of beeps tapped against my wrist from my gauntlet. I was getting closer to the stash of goods that Silar Praxis had negotiated on the Legion’s behalf. Funny how mere months ago, Legion command had tasked my squad for hunting that smuggler down, and now here I was protecting him.

Slipping through shadows, I found myself at the mouth of a tunneled pathway. My head grazed the low ceilings as I approached my target. I curled my lip as the musty scent of dead air managed to seep through the multiple filters of my Reaper suit’s rebreather. Water drips echoed from unseen pipes, and I ignored the urge to track down the leaks and fix them.

The tunnel spilled out into a nearly empty arena. We had decided that this would be the best place to make the transfer. Easy in, easy out. I checked my coordinates once more. My prowler blipped onscreen, indicating where I had parked it underneath the stadium seating opposite from where I stood. Another ping hit dead center from the middle of the arena.

The supply cargo for the Legion colony.

At least the supplier had lived up to their part of the bargain. Now to make sure that there wasn’t any funny business. I activated my scans for any triggers or traps. When my retinal screen reported an all-clear, I let out a breath. I activated my comms to hail the two recruits I was training in the field. “Reaper Two to Away team. What’s your status?”

“All quiet, Reaper Two,” Markus’s eager voice boomed over the comm. “Aside from your pings and activity, I see nothing moving on the surface.”

I addressed the other recruit who was supposed to be on the lookout for possible ships. “Liam? What about you?”

“Can confirm. No other signs of life.”

“Any sign of the Lucky Duck?” I asked.

“No sir.”

A moment later, a high-pitched scree wailed over the comms. I muted the line before the sound deafened me. Before I could bellow out an order, the signal lights for the Lucky Duck turned on full. They were practically on top of me, slowing down as they approached the surface.

I took my comms off mute, and as expected, it was full of wild chatter from both Liam and Markus. At least I was used to calming down excitable warriors to focus on the mission priority. “Report.”

“Shit, Reaper Two, we didn’t realize they were that close.”

“Nothing came over on the sensors? No readings?” My sensors hadn’t alerted me either, otherwise I would have had a very different response for these recruits.

“Not even a blip, sir.”

“Affirmative,” Markus added. “Nothing on my scanners. I would have seen.”

Markus’s earlier enthusiasm had dimmed a little. The boy would have more than enough reasons to become hardened and jaded as a Reaper. I wouldn’t let that happen while he was still under my command, though.

“I believe you, recruit. There was nothing on my sensors either. This is why we have teams. We watch each other’s backs. Remember that. Come in tight. No reason to be on the look out when we might not even see what’s coming. Let’s keep an eye on those we can see.”

I listened for their confirmation as they began maneuvers to come in closer to the surface. It was a good thing that more Reapers had been assigned to the Aurum. Soon, it will be a warship of note, and we might get an upgrade.

Speaking of upgrades, the Lucky Duck sure had one. I eyeballed the boxy craft as it touched down. It wasn’t flashy or sleek, but then again, that was the point. Smuggling vessels were meant to blend, not stand out. Even so, it was more than it had been a few months back.

It had been patched up, overhauled, and apparently, they’ve added new cloaking tech. My hands itched to check out their engineering bay to see how they crept up to a Reaper team completely undetected.

The landing pods opened and two males stepped down from the loading bay.

“You’re late,” I said by way of greeting. I didn’t need to raise my voice for it to carry around the arena.

“What are you, my date?” The gray-skinned male looked up at me. He had the carefree air of a child, what with his lanky build and ridiculous pouf of orange hair that seemed to defy gravity. But he was every bit a combat-hardened soldier. It was in his eyes, which narrowed at me with annoyance.

“I’m here, that’s important. Now are you gonna bitch or are you ready to work?”

Silar was getting too comfortable if he thought he could speak that way to a Reaper. I answered with a low-level growl that reverberated through the air.

At least his head of security still valued his life, since the burly male sucked in air through his teeth. “Uh, let me get the pallet jacks activated,” the male said, and scurried off to make himself useful.

I smiled extra wide to make sure he got a hint of fang. We had the reputation of being ruthless killing machines, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

After the Pax tournament, which took place on the Concord of Sovereign Worlds, we obtained intel about a conspiracy threatening the entire Legion collective. The more we could maintain a “don’t mess with us” vibe, the more we could avoid needless bloodshed.

Apparently, there were those of the Sovereign Worlds who would rather push for an outright war rather than continue to pretend to be allies. Worse, those shadow groups were working with the yet unknown Kridrin.

Though we have seen directly the harm the Kridrin could do, no one knew anything about them. Not their origin, motives, or even their biology. They somehow appeared on our radar only a few months ago, and yet, they seemed to be behind every shady business around.

The worst offense being slave trading. More and more reports of trafficked females have been popping up, and it had spread our resources thin over this sector.

All of this had made it necessary for us to take precautions, because it had become apparent that there were more enemies in secret than we realized, and we needed to be careful, including being careful with whom we did business.

When his crewman was out of sight, Silar Praxis rolled his eyes. “You know how hard it is to convince my crew to work with you guys, and now here you go acting like that, I swear.”

I gave him a genuine smile. “Aw, come on. I have few pleasures in life. Intimidating folks is one of them. Besides, I don’t want anyone thinking we’re soft.”

Silar snorted. “Trust me, no one thinks your soft. Now come on, let’s go. This derelict gives me the creeps, and I want off of it five minutes ago.”

I moved behind him as he joined the rest of his crew hauling the cargo from a hidden rig in the arena floor. “You were the one that picked the drop site. If you don’t like it, why pick it?”

“I picked it because it’s abandoned. I don’t want to be here, which means no one else wants to be here, either. Fewer prying eyes, and all that. Sheesh, and here I thought you were the smart one of your crew.”

I let that comment slide as I helped load the pallets and watched as the precious cargo was loaded onto the Lucky Duck.

My skin crawled as one crate passed me. It was odd. A sweet taste seemed to enter my mouth though I smelled nothing out of the ordinary. Still, shudders rippled down my spine as if I was being watched. I looked around, knowing I would find nothing.

Silar went on alert. “What now?”

I shook my head as if trying to shake something off of me. “Nothing.”

Silar narrowed his gaze at me. “I know it’s not nothing. You have that look in your eye.”

“What look?”

Praxis shrugged. “You know. That ‘I’m going to kill something’ look.”

I lifted the corner of my mouth. “You seem to be an expert. Tell me, are you often in the receiving end of such a look?”

The male crossed his arms, his face flaming to a bright orange that nearly matched his hair. “As a matter of fact, yes. So tell me what’s going down. I have a right to know. I don’t want my crew being caught unawares.” Then the color drained from Silar’s face. “It’s not mate trouble is it? You Rodinians and the whole mating thing--”

I raised my hand to stop what could have been a good rant. “You don’t need to worry, Praxis. I’m unmated, and so far, fate has yet to reveal my mate to me.” I ignored the pang twisting in my chest. Emotions—feelings—had no place out here. I’d already seen what had happened when the others stumbled upon their fate-mates while on mission.

I refused to let that happen to me.

But Silar was correct about something. There was a feeling in my gut that there was something amiss, and I hated that I couldn’t put my finger on it. Ever since the tournament at the Concord of Sovereign Worlds, I had been on red alert, as if my whole body was itching for a fight.

“Just nerves, I guess. Maybe your talk about this place affected my perceptions.” I only half believed what I said. “I’ll grab my prowler and tuck in.”

I commed the recruits, letting them know that everything was going as planned. They would follow behind us in slipstream. Once I fetched—then secured—my prowler onto the smuggler’s ship, I paused again at the neatly secured cargo. One crate seemed to call to me.

“Reaper, are you coming?”

My head shot up and I peeked over the rim of the crate. Silar eyed me curiously. I forced myself away from the crate. I could be more cautious than the others on my team, but that was no without reason. There were lives at stake, and the last few months have proven that there was more happening beneath the surface than we had originally thought.

The fact that Legion command was essentially smuggling in supplies was proof of that.

I continued following Silar through the long halls of the Lucky Duck. The engine under us humming while the Lucky Duck moved through Lexili’s exiting airways. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

Silar smiled over his shoulder. “By tomorrow morning. Lunch time, the latest.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?” We were deep in the Savage Lands Sector, the no man’s land just outside of the Solarian Corridor. It would take a few days if not more to reach Legion command from here.

Silar shrugged. “I had some work done on the Lucky Duck. The whole space folding thing.”

My ears perked up. Maybe he would drop some hints about his tech upgrades. “How did you get that?”

Silar pressed a finger to his lips. “It’s a secret.” He nodded toward a room on his left. “This is yours. Chow’s in ten, if you’re feeling peckish. Drop a comm if you need directions to the mess.”

With that, the smuggler that made for an unlikely ally left me alone. I didn’t quite trust the sparkle in his eye, and as I opened my accomodations, I realized why.

He had used one of his cargo hauls as my room. It was clear that he had come from a run from Terra Prime, as it was full of greenery and other foliage. Despite myself, I smiled. It had been a long time since I spent time planet-side, and especially long since I’d been anywhere with live plants. This was a treat, and I had Silar to thank for it.

I flopped down on a makeshift bed, leaning back against the pillows and raising comms to my lips. I paused, shaking my head at myself. Comms wouldn’t work over this distance, but I would be able to send an encrypted wave through the nexus.

After entering a few access codes into my gauntlet, I spoke into the comms.

“Dorn to Aurum. Supplies have been acquired and secured. Now en route to Legion command. We’ll be there in the approximately two days. The recruits are doing well, following in slipstream. New tech on the Lucky Duck. Will research more when there is a moment. Over and out.” I sent the wave, and got ready for some down time.

I rested my head back against the pillows, gazing up at the dimly lit ceiling. My mind drifted to cargo bay. It was nothing I smelled before. It was wondrous and even now I was tempted to slip back into the loading dock and inhale my fill. I groaned and rubbed my head.

A nap would be good right about now. Commander Batair wanted me to train some recruits while I was at command. I rested my head on my arm and closed my eyes, inhaling deeply and imagining that smell. The darkness swallowed me and soon I was standing in a meadow filled with flowers.