With slow, awkward steps, Carmen heaved her magnetic boots up and down on the asteroid’s surface. She’d opted not to wear a tether this time so she could travel farther from the ship, and fortunately the magnetic boots served their purpose and kept her from floating away. A sense of freedom thrummed through her, as well as a sense of déjà vu. The hassle of suiting up for a spacewalk always reminded her of suiting up to play in the snow as a child during the long Wyoming winters on her grandfather’s ranch. Sorrow panged in her heart and she blinked back burning tears at the memory. Her grandfather would have loved to see her dreams coming true, and she twisted around to gaze at Earth, a bright blue glow amidst the stars.
After turning away from Earth, she checked the oxygen level on her airpack and sighed with relief. She had at least thirty more minutes of peace before she was forced to return to the Russian mining ship, an older model Dastok 22 that had been her home for the past six weeks. In about six more weeks, after the mining operation was complete, the ship would travel to Mars to deliver its payload to the space station—and to deliver Carmen as well. She couldn’t wait.
Ancient caves containing fossils and other evidence of life had been discovered underneath the red planet’s surface, and her employer, the ABS Institute, had offered her a chance to study the findings mere months before the terraforming process began and much of the planet’s history was lost. For an astrobiologist fresh out of graduate school, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Static noise suddenly filled her ears, and a second later Command Pilot Erik Manning’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Carmen, what are you doing walking so far away from the ship?” Agitation rumbled through his deep voice, along with a note of worry.
She groaned and felt like pinching the bridge of her nose, but the spacesuit prevented her from doing much besides waving her arms around. “I’m busy. I need to log twenty more hours of spacewalking time in order to get my Ingalls 5 Spacewalk Certification. I have thirty more minutes of oxygen left. What do you want?” It was impossible to keep her tone civil. Being stuck in close quarters for weeks on end was beyond frustrating, especially when Dr. Erik Manning, Air Force test pilot and astronaut extraordinaire was her bunkmate.
“The guys in control were worried about you because you didn’t wear a tether, but they were hesitant to speak to you themselves. Seems you aren’t very polite when they check in on you during your walks, so they asked me to check on you. I believe I also told you I wanted to accompany you the next time you went on a spacewalk. Remember?”
Oh, she remembered. They’d had quite the fight after her last spacewalk. Just because he was older than she was and had traveled in space dozens of times, he thought he could boss her around. She’d watched the miners suit up enough times that she was confident she could handle a little stroll on the asteroid though, and she didn’t need Erik trying to babysit her. She blew out a dramatic breath and turned around, taking a few steps in his direction. “Of course I remember. I also remember telling you to bite me.” He’d threatened to spank her too, but she wasn’t about to mention that. At the memory of his stern expression and stiff posture as he’d glowered down at her, a tingle raced up her spine and warmth pulsed between her thighs. She ground her teeth together, angry that his macho act was turning her on.
“Carmen, come here. We’re going back in.”
She ached to fold her arms over her chest and glower up at him, but she was at the spacesuit’s mercy. She settled for a deep sigh. “Fine.” As she tried to take a step, her leg didn’t rise. Slowly glancing down, she peered through her visor at the asteroid’s surface. Crap. Her foot was stuck underneath the ledge of a little hole. She tried to move again, but her foot wouldn’t budge.
“What’s wrong?” Concern resonated in his words, and Carmen was suddenly thankful she wasn’t alone out here.
“M-my foot is stuck.”
“Okay, hold on. I’m coming to get you.”
She was stunned to see Erik move so fluidly and quickly in her direction, for a man in a spacesuit with magnetic boots. Relief washed over her when he finally reached her. “Thanks, Erik.”
“This is exactly why I wanted to accompany you, but you had to do it your way.”
“Are you going to scold me, or are you going to help me?”
“I’m going to help you, then once I get you back in the ship I’ve a mind to scold you some more, little girl, right before I take you over my knee for a sound spanking.”
She felt the blood drain from her face and opened her mouth to retort, but no words came forth. He’d stunned her speechless, just as he had the last time he’d threatened to chastise her. She was a grown woman with a PhD. He had to be kidding. She wished she could see his expression through both of their visors, but she only glimpsed the outline of his face.
“Carmen, I’m going to brace myself right in front of you and tug on your leg. I want you to pull up at the same time, okay?”
She gulped and eyed the ship in the distance, wishing she was safe and sound on the crowded craft, even if a spanking really did await her. “Okay.”
Just as Erik dislodged her foot from the hole, the ship erupted in a ball of fire. She saw the explosion reflected back on Erik’s visor, and he turned around to gaze upon it with his own eyes.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Oh my God, oh my God…” A wave of heat pelted them, but it wasn’t enough to scorch them thanks to the protection the suits provided. As she stared at the devastation, she knew no one on the ship had survived. A jerking sensation on the back of her suit brought her attention back to Erik. He was attaching a tether between their suits.
A second explosion lit up the darkness, and the force of it sent them both flying from the asteroid. Carmen screamed, waving her arms and kicking her legs, as if the action would help her make it back to the asteroid. Not that there was any safety there since the ship was destroyed, but the thought of floating in open space terrified her.
“Erik!” Her breaths came quick, and she fought to calm her racing heart, not wanting to deplete her oxygen supply just yet. In the back of her mind, she realized there was no hope. No way to return to Earth or make it to Mars. No way to survive this disaster.
“Carmen, stop moving.” Erik’s calm command broke through her panic, and she latched onto his voice, needing to feel his human contact. At least she wasn’t alone out here.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them his space helmet filled her vision. Erik grasped her hands, his grip tight even through the thickness of the protective gloves.
“Shh, shh, calm down, Carmen. I’m right here. You’re not alone.”
“The ship is gone! Everyone on board… gone in a flash. How can I calm down?” She closed her eyes and willed her nerves to settle. Near death was a certainty. The least she could do was die with some dignity, rather than going out sobbing and screaming. Finally, she opened her eyes and stared into Erik’s visor. “Okay, I’m calm now,” she forced out, her throat burning.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Dastok 22 had been cleared for at least one more year of asteroid mining missions, as well as travel to Mars to deliver and take on more passengers. What could’ve gone wrong? Sadness squeezed her heart as she thought about the four Russian miners who’d perished in the explosion, their lives cut short. Their families would grieve and miss them. Just like she still missed her grandfather five years after the fatal heart attack that had taken him from her.
“Here,” Erik said, pressing a few buttons on the control pad on his arm. “I’ve got a full oxygen pack. I’m diverting half of mine to yours.”
“No, Erik, you don’t have to do that. I mean, thank you, but what’s the point? I’m sure NASA and the Russians already know the Dastok is gone, but they probably don’t think there are any survivors. And even if they did, I know they can’t get a rescue shuttle here before our oxygen is depleted.”
Erik was silent, and for a while they simply floated together. The asteroid the ship had been secured to with a large magnetic strip had continued on its journey, somewhere behind them where Carmen couldn’t see. Debris from the Dastok began to gather around them, long pieces of white and metallic gray that occasionally reflected the sun’s light. By some miracle, none of the debris had hit them. Yet.
“How are you doing?” Erik asked.
“As calm as one can be while floating in a debris field in the middle of space with less than two hours of oxygen left.” She laughed, and her heart picked up when Erik pulled her closer. There were a million layers of protection between them, but she imagined his hot breath was tickling her neck, and his warm hands were trailing down her arms.
She should hate him. Years ago, he’d expelled her from the prestigious Manning Flight School, a school for aspiring astronauts founded by his late father, for going on an unauthorized flight to the moon with a few other students. Looking back, she understood she’d behaved badly, but she’d been so young, and it had been the equivalent of stealing a car and going for a joy ride. Over the years their paths had crossed many times in the scientific community, and each time she saw him, the hatred she expected to feel in his presence burned away for something much hotter and more dangerous. He was a commanding, no-nonsense type of man. Strict. Unyielding. Devastatingly handsome with a deep, rumbling voice. One glance into his dark brown eyes and her legs turned to jelly.
“I never congratulated you on your new job at ABS. They rarely hire new graduates. You must have impressed them,” he said.
“They recruited me after my thesis was published in a journal one of their researchers edits.” Carmen had ambitiously submitted her paper about how to improve field techniques on Mars to Astrobiology Monthly knowing several researchers from ABS reviewed the submissions, but Erik didn’t need to know that. She’d been hired because she showed promise in a field that was just taking off, because she wasn’t afraid to take risks and try new things the older astrobiologists sometimes scoffed at.
“It appears you’ve done well since…” His voice trailed off and he cleared his throat.
Carmen laughed. “You mean I’ve done well since you tried to destroy my career?” She’d accused him of that once, of trying to sabotage her career by not giving her a second chance after her little joy ride, but that was before she’d decided to go into astrobiology. As a little girl she’d dreamed of being an astronaut. Hell, every kid did. Although it had taken her years to realize it, Erik kicking her out of flight school had been one of the best things to happen to her. It had forced her to reevaluate her options and discover her true passion—searching for evidence of alien life. A passion she’d never get to fulfill. Life was certainly full of surprises. And disappointments.
“Just because you could fly circles around most of the other students didn’t mean you had a future in space flight. You weren’t careful. You often skipped the preflight inspection, and you also—”
“Okay, okay. I’ve heard this speech before, Dr. Manning.” She sighed. “I loved the freedom I felt when I was behind the controls. It was kind of like a drug. No hard feelings though. I love the research more. The excitement I feel when I discover a new alien organism, even the tiniest microorganism, makes it all worth it. It’s better than passing the Karman Line in six seconds.”
“Which is a dangerous speed, by the way. You really didn’t pay attention in my classes, did you?” He chuckled, a smooth vibration that traveled to her ears through the speakers.
“My father named me after the Karman Line, you know. Except my mother didn’t like that spelling and insisted my name start with a C. At least that’s what my grandfather always said. I don’t remember them, of course.” The Karman Line was the point a shuttle or spaceship had to reach to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, approximately one hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Some of Carmen’s earliest memories were of staring up at the stars, dreaming of passing over the line that was her namesake. Before she understood the finality of death, she’d dreamed of soaring into the stars and finding her lost parents.
“The world remembers them, Carmen,” he said gently. “The world remembers all those who were lost on the Gallant X.”
“I know. NASA has had me placing the wreath in front of the Gallant memorial during the annual remembrance ceremony since I was three years old. I’ve never missed a year.” Until now.
Carmen blinked rapidly and tried to focus on the debris floating behind Erik. For a second, she thought she saw a strange movement, as if a large black object were passing through. She shook her head, deciding the reflections from the sun must be playing tricks on her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Erik asked.
“Nothing. I thought I saw something, but—”
A flash of radiant white blasted into her vision, and Carmen slipped into blackness.
● ● ●
The sound of footsteps and light clattering noises permeated Carmen’s consciousness as she struggled to wake up. A sense of urgency that she didn’t understand beckoned her to sit up and take action, but her arms and legs were too heavy, and falling back asleep was a strong temptation. She listened for voices but heard none. Perhaps Erik was about to settle into the bunk atop hers. Tomorrow they would be another day closer to Mars. Her thoughts were muddled, as if a thick fog filled her brain and she couldn’t think clearly enough to focus on something important, something that nagged in the back of her mind.
The footsteps grew louder and terrifying memories descended upon her, causing her to gasp and jolt upright. The Dastok 22 and the asteroid. The spacewalk. Her foot, stuck. Then Erik. An explosion. Floating.
A flash of light.
She blinked, trying to focus on her strange surroundings. Wasn’t she supposed to be dead? Or at least still floating in space? What had caused the blinding white flash before she’d lost consciousness, and where the hell was Erik?
Worry crashed upon her. She hoped he was all right. He’d dislodged her foot from the asteroid and then diverted half of his oxygen to her pack. Despite their many differences in opinion, it seemed he was always looking out for her.
Her thoughts of Erik faded as she gazed upon her surroundings. She was in a small room that looked very much like a nursery. Pastel colors lined the walls in a soothing striped pattern. Odd shapes decorated the walls, many of them glittering and moving slightly, mechanically. She was in a soft bed with lots of colorful blankets. The bed was pushed into a corner, but the front and side of it were blocked by a tall railing. Like a cage. No, like a crib. She stood up and peered over the side. She could easily crawl out.
She hesitated and glanced out the window behind her. Flowering trees stretched to a blue sky, and the vegetation appeared tropical. Too tropical.
Where the hell was she? If she’d been rescued from the accident, why wasn’t she on a ship? She racked her brain for a possibility to explain her current circumstances. Clearly she wasn’t on Earth. The strange birds swooping down upon the trees confirmed it. Sunlight reflected on their brilliant purple feathers. And though the sky was blue, it was too blue. Too perfect. Had she fallen asleep for years and woken up on the terraformed Mars?
No. That theory didn’t explain the purple birds.
Her gaze swept around the room again. She spotted a small table with four chairs, and beyond that what appeared to be a hospital bed with medical instruments on a shelf nearby. A lamp and several other gadgets hung from the ceiling above the bed. Memories struggled to resurface as she stared at the hospital bed. Tall shadows stood above her, holding her down while a light shined in her face. She was poked and prodded until every last part of her body was thoroughly explored, even her pussy and her bottom hole. She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to vanquish the memories of being restrained and examined by strangers that left her flushing despite herself.
Continuing her observation of her surroundings, she looked down at herself. She was wearing what appeared to be a nightie. It was white with pink ruffles adorning the bottom, and it only reached mid-thigh. She felt along the curves of her body, searching for an injury or any other clues that might shed light upon her predicament. When she touched her bottom, the bulk of something beneath her nightie startled her. Lifting up the fabric, she inspected what she hoped was underwear, only to discover she was wearing what appeared to be a cloth diaper.
She started to tear it off, then stopped. Better to keep it on for modesty’s sake until she had more appropriate attire. Gazing across the room, she spotted a door. She gripped the edge of the crib and hoisted one leg over, intending to crawl out. Whoever—or whatever—was keeping her here was obviously crazy. She needed to escape and find Erik.
The door opened and Carmen froze with one leg dangling out of the crib. A tall, regal-looking creature walked inside. Not human. Holy shit. Not human! The alien appeared very humanlike though, with two legs and two arms. Clearly a female, with long, blue-streaked brown hair and large breasts that were encased within her white gown. Her eyes were larger than a human’s though, and set wider apart in her face.
“Who are you?” Carmen demanded. She tried to move her other leg over the crib, but the woman swatted her diaper-clad bottom and shook her head. Rage and disbelief combined, and Carmen felt her face redden. “I said who are you? And where is Erik?”
The alien woman scowled at her, shook her head again, and pointed at the mattress. Carmen knew the woman wanted her to get back into bed, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not without a fight. She pretended like she was about to lie down, then once the sternness on the woman’s face disappeared, Carmen jumped over the edge of the crib with the swiftness and skill of a practiced runner leaping over a hurdle.
Heart pounding in her ears, she headed for the door, and collided with it. She pounded on the solid surface, trying to get the blasted thing to open. There was no handle or any buttons, and before she could attempt to pry it open, strong hands gripped her shoulders and spun her around. The sternness had returned to the alien woman’s face. After another shake of her head, the woman turned Carmen to her side and bent her over slightly, then delivered several sharp swats to her diaper-covered bottom. Continued struggles only earned her some even sharper swats to the backs of her unprotected thighs.
Carmen cursed and wrenched out of the woman’s strong hold, putting space between them before turning around to stare at the alien. What the hell was going on? Nothing made sense. Perhaps she was still floating in space, delusional from a lack of oxygen. A pinch to her arm didn’t rouse her, and she backed against the wall as the young, attractive alien approached.
“Please tell me where Erik is.”
The alien cocked her head and narrowed her startling blue eyes, and with a sinking heart Carmen realized they didn’t share a language. She peered out the nearest window. The purple birds continued to swoop up and down atop the trees. The whiteness of the clouds against the blue sky appeared more vibrant than on Earth. A rectangular aircraft hovered in the distance, and as she walked closer to the window, the clouds parted to reveal twin suns beaming down across the lush landscape.
She pinched herself again. And again. A frustrated scream built in her throat, but she swallowed it and turned to the alien woman, a woman who appeared to be the same age as Carmen. Well, judging by human standards. Human standards weren’t the norm here though. The blue streaks in the alien woman’s hair contrasted with the lighter blue of her eyes. She had smooth porcelain skin, long legs and long, slender arms with five fingers on each hand, and thin lips that were pursed at the moment.
Blue obviously wasn’t happy with Carmen. Not that she cared. She only cared about escape. Finding Erik. Perhaps the pieces of this crazy puzzle would fall into place once she spoke with him. Worry shadowed her thoughts as she once again wondered about his location and safety. Was he being held captive in a similar room?
Another alien entered, a male carrying a tray of brightly colored food. Exotic. Everything about this place was exotic, yet somehow soothing because of the pastels in the room. Exhaustion tugged at Carmen and she glanced back at the bed. No, the crib. That’s what it was, as unnerving as it was to accept. She cupped her bottom, still stinging from the spanking Blue had administered.
Her stomach rumbled as the male with cropped blond hair placed the tray on a table. He left the room without a word, only nodding at Blue as he slipped through the door, which zipped shut the moment he exited. She frowned, figuring it was automatic and programed not to allow her escape. She’d have to figure out a way to force her way outside.
Blue gestured at the table, and Carmen’s stomach rumbled again. She hesitantly approached, taking the seat farthest from Blue, but the woman sat next to her anyway. Before Carmen could scoot away, her wrist was grasped as Blue pressed a spoonful of dark green goo into her mouth. It tasted bland at first, but after resting on her tongue for a few seconds, rich flavors exploded. Fruity, yet with a hint of nuts. Like the almonds she used to devour by the bag as she worked on a research proposal late at night. Whether it was due to surprise or hunger, Carmen allowed Blue to feed her several more bites before she slowly reached for the spoon.
Smack! Cradling her stinging hand, she glared at the alien as fury built in her chest. Her blood boiled. The crib was annoying. The diaper insulting and embarrassing. Spoon feeding crossed the line. Why the hell wouldn’t Blue at least try to talk to her, or communicate in some other way? Humans had theorized about alien life for thousands of years, and while Carmen had never thought intelligent alien life would be discovered during her lifetime, she’d always thought the aliens would at least be smart enough to figure out how to communicate with them if such a meeting occurred.
Instead, Blue was treating Carmen as if she couldn’t complete the simplest of tasks. Anger simmered as her sense of helplessness increased. She refused to eat another bite, despite the continued rumbling of her stomach. Disapproval shone on Blue’s face, and Carmen glanced down at the dark green, red, and orange goo on the tray, impulsively deciding that her new alien friend could use a bit of color on her stern face.
With a quick flick of her hand, she sent the plate flying upward with a satisfying splat. But before she could try to make her escape, she found herself on Blue’s lap. Bottom up. Nightie pushed up, and diaper pulled down.
She kicked her feet, trying to flail off the woman’s lap, but a flurry of spanks stung her bare flesh. She grabbed onto the table and lifted her head, a cry ripping from her throat as the pain built and built. A noise by the door caught her attention, and Carmen froze over the stern woman’s lap, unable to move as she stared up at the new visitor who’d showed up just in time to witness her humiliation.
Erik stood in front of her, tall and perfectly healthy looking, wearing a pair of dark slacks and a simple white tunic. He folded his arms across his chest and his lips curled with amusement. The same male alien who’d delivered her tray stood at his side, only a few inches taller than the smirking human man.
“Don’t just stand there, you bastard! Help me!” she yelled at Erik.
Blue continued to thrash her bare bottom, even swatting the tops of her thighs. Frustratingly, the woman’s strength surpassed hers, and Carmen had no choice but to accept her punishment.
Erik’s amusement deepened, a smug smile breaking across his face. “Judging by the food covering your nurse’s face, I’d say you richly deserve the spanking you’re getting, Carmen. Looks to me like you’ve been a very naughty little girl.”