Elara Five, Deep-Space Medical Station
Outskirts of Sector Five
I won’t lose another one.
Blood coated Nia’s hands, the by-product of her patient’s wound, a defender she’d nearly sent to palliative.
But when she’d put her hand on his arm, felt the vibrancy running through his veins, his fight—her heart stuttered. She couldn’t speak the words that would have sent him to the last medical bay he’d ever see.
The sterilizer at the side of the hover bed whirred. She ran her hands underneath the bright white light, the blood disintegrating beneath the rays. Once clean, she picked up her regenerator tool and held it tight to stare at the unconscious defender with chin-length black hair—his wound went right to the bone.
“You sure about this one?” Ezra asked from beside her, their black medical uniforms matching hundreds of others in the triage bay.
“I’m sure.” She turned on the regenerator with a flick of her thumb. It hummed as she brought it close to the exposed femur. Save this one. Too many had died already. She took a deep breath. Focus. She’d already been on her feet for six non-stop hours.
“Stimulant,” she murmured.
Ezra shot the drug into the side of Nia’s neck a second later. The triage bay brightened. Her spine straightened and her heart rate accelerated, thudding heavily in her chest as her hands steadied.
The defender’s life blood spilled from his thigh to the bed. Ezra hooked him to fluids, lifted the transfusion portal, and paused.
Nia saw why—the dead PALM on the defender’s left hand. There was no way to get an identification number, name, or blood type. Without missing a beat, Ezra inserted the portal in his arm and the synthesized plasma ran into the patient’s system.
Shouts from across the triage bay echoed. A new surge of wounded entered on hover beds, shunted into neat rows in the voluminous space. More silver and gray uniforms.
Too many wounded. Too many to save.
Finish with this one. Move on to the next.
Ezra held the leg immobile as she ran the regenerator along the exposed muscle. “He’s a big one,” the med assistant murmured, hands steady on the man’s thigh.
She didn’t acknowledge the statement but had to agree. Even lying down, the defender dwarfed them both. The Tellusians would see this one coming and run in the opposite direction. Her patient twitched but remained unconscious.
Ezra injected another sedative into the defender’s bloodstream and his movements stilled.
The triage doctors shouting orders and the groans of the wounded drowned out the regenerator’s hum. Nia’s nostrils filled with the familiar but disquieting odor of lacerated flesh. She concentrated on healing each delicate layer of muscle, creating new tissues with her synthesizer. Every stroke of her hand brought the mended muscles closer to his epidermis. As her patient’s vitals stabilized, she resisted the urge to take a break and turn on her PALM, her Personal Automated Link to Media that was connected to her ocular implant, and find out what was happening with the nearby battle.
Her forehead beaded with sweat. With plasma and fluids pumping into his system, the defender’s vitals strengthened with each beat of his heart. She healed the epidermis of his thigh, the dark hair on the outer edge of the wound singed where the laser weapon had sliced him.
With the last of his skin healed, she turned off the regenerator and braced her hand against the bed. A deep breath fortified her enough to address her patient’s second wound: the laser burn that had cauterized a large portion of his oblique abdominals, his uniform partially melted to his body.
Ezra pressed and smoothed regeneration gauze to the newly healed flesh of the defender’s thigh. “It’s even a pretty scar,” he said with a grin, covering the last of the pale, pink skin.
She smiled. “You know I take pride in my work.”
“That’s an understatement.”
A shout made them both turn. Nia’s heart stuttered, and she froze in place. A defender resisted treatment two hover beds over. The large man swung, knocking a doctor to the deck, then flattened a medical assistant with his next punch.
Without hesitating, Ezra ran and dove, tackling the wounded man to the deck. Defenders on security detail rushed to help while her med assistant held the thrashing man.
“You okay?” she shouted over the noise.
Ezra nodded, his face a grimace until a doctor pressed a dermal syringe into the defender’s neck, tranquilizing the soldier.
Swallowing, she returned her focus to the wound on her patient’s torso. She lifted the fabric of his uniform where it wasn’t melted and—
Blinked, her brain not registering what she saw.
An intricate blue tattoo covered his abdominals. Tellusian blue. Her hands trembled.
Warrior. Terrorist. Slaver. Enemy.
She stepped back, a scream lodged in her throat. A hand snaked out to grab her wrist, and she dropped the regenerator. The man’s icy blue eyes captured hers.
He swung his legs over the bed and jerked her toward him at the same time. She spun as he whirled them toward the bulkhead. Her scream morphed into a sharp intake of breath as her spine slammed into his chest. A wafting scent of sweat and blood filled her head.
The triage bay muddied into a kaleidoscope of color. Doctors ran for safety. The defenders on security detail moved, everyone scrambling all at once. They aimed their guns right at her: AL-22s. Set to maximum, it would cleave her in two. Laser sights bounced in her vision. She couldn’t hear anything except someone gasping for breath.
This can’t be happening again. The defenders must be shouting words, but she could only hear a muffled buzzing in her brain. Her eyes focused on the transfusion portal swinging where it disconnected from the Tellusian’s arm, a red stream dripping to the deck beside where her black cap had fallen.
The arm wrapped beneath her breasts was too tight, she couldn’t breathe. Nia struggled, kicking her feet. Something cold and narrow pressed against her neck. She tensed, recognizing the shape. Laser scalpel. One wrong touch to the control and her head would roll to the deck.
“Stay still.” He spoke with his lips next to her ear, he his Common accent throaty.
All the heat left her body. Another Tellusian’s voice filled her head from years ago. Here’s a pretty. Blood, so much blood. And it wasn’t from someone’s surgery…
“I don’t want to hurt you.” The voice behind her returned her to the present. “But I will if you keep moving.” The laser scalpel pressed deeper into her skin.
She squirmed and grasped his forearm, fingers twitching to grab the scalpel. Could she do it before he could cut her?
“That would not end well for you.”
Bile rose in her throat. She swallowed and forced herself to relax. Her feet barely touched the deck. Needing to gain space between them, she dug her fingers into the gap between his forearm and her breasts. His grip tightened, making her gasp, then he loosened his hold a fraction.
She closed her eyes, waiting for the kill order. One doctor wasn’t worth risking the whole station. The defenders would kill them both and be done with it. Please be painless.
An unnatural quiet fell over the bay. She felt every one of the Tellusian’s breaths in her spine.
“Drop her or die, you Tell piece of shit,” the lead defender yelled.
Her eyes popped open. They weren’t going to shoot her? The defender’s visor was translucent, revealing his face: Bradford, one of Calvin’s friends.
“Move back or I cut her,” the Tellusian barked, his accent guttural in her ear.
The defenders didn’t move, didn’t fire, their aim unwavering.
She felt the Tellusian’s thumb move closer to the laser scalpel’s controls. Images of cut throats filled her head, defenders she’d tried to save, blood leaving their bodies at a relentless pace.
“Which way out?” A curl of her hair moved with his words.
A negative sound, a denial, left her lips. She wouldn’t help a terrorist escape justice.
His arm twitched against her, and he moved, inch by inch toward the nearest exit, her body protecting his. The wall of defenders followed, keeping their formation. Behind the silver uniforms, Ezra stood with his face frozen in horror.
How did this happen? She’d been saving this man’s life. He wore a defender’s uniform. How had he passed the scans to get on board?
The Tellusian stopped next to a door. “Open it.”
Her fingers dug into his forearm. She wouldn’t help him. It would only mean her death.
A rough hand grabbed her wrist, twisted, and slapped her PALM against the control panel. A startled cry left her lips as the door slid open.
Three defenders waited on the other side. Laser fire erupted around them. The world blurred and spun with a grunt and a curse. Helmets smashed together with a hollow thunk. The scalpel hummed. A leg kicked. Someone gasped. Pop. The triage bay door sealed shut when the Tellusian shot out its control panel.
Nia blinked. In only a few seconds, three defenders lay on the deck, dead, and the Tellusian hadn’t let go of her. The acrid scent of weapons fire surrounded them. She couldn’t look away from the blood coming out a defender’s slit throat as it soaked his silver uniform. It should have been me.
Her captor tucked the scalpel away and reached for the defender’s guns, accessing the controls on their uniforms. She yanked her arm, but the Tellusian pulled her to him again, arm encircling her ribs.
“It’ll be okay.” He hugged her against his chest. “I just need to get out of here.”
His words sank into the calm, rational part of her mind, the place where she could analyze events with detached interest. She reached for that part, wanting to hold it close, needing it to counterbalance the other part of her brain trapped in a continual scream.
A distant blast rumbled and echoed through the corridor. The shiny light gray deck beneath them trembled. They’d paused, holding their breath at the same time.
The bulkheads shuddered with an eerie groan. Dread gripped her chest. We’re under attack!
The Tellusian’s arm around her tightened. Her feet left the ground as he propelled them down the corridor. She gripped his arm with her fingernails, trying to keep calm. He would let her go. She needed to believe that. He wanted off the station. He’d leave her here and she’d survive.
Boot steps ahead made him hesitate. Her heart leaped when a row of defenders turned the corner ahead of them, blocking their path. Relief shook her body. There was nowhere for the Tellusian to go.
The deafening sound split her head in two. An outside blast ripped through the corridor, the force of it propelling her backward. She and the Tellusian stumbled, a tangle of feet, crashing to the deck. Oomph. She landed on top of him.
Ears ringing, she lifted her head. Where the defenders once stood, a void remained. Only the SNAP shielding kept precious oxygen inside the station. Stars blinked at her where a bulkhead was supposed to be. Her mouth went dry, her heart trying to escape her chest.
A flash of light against the dark of space made her flinch. The Tellusian turned his body, blocking her view as another blast came almost on top of the first. The SNAP shielding sizzled, adjusting to keep as much atmosphere in the station as it could.
He pushed her to her feet, hands on her bottom, propelling her forward as he yelled, “Run! Run! Run!”
She didn’t think, just acted. Her feet scrambled beneath her. Boom. Another blast shuddered though the deck, the bulkheads seeming to swell around her. She pitched to the side. A strong hand grabbed her upper arm, keeping her upright.
The sound of the next blast felt like it disintegrated every organ inside her. Heat seared her body, her feet lifting. For a second, she had wings.
Then she was turning, spinning, two hands holding her as the deck raced to meet her face.