Lia ran her hands along a crack in the corridor wall. A chill swept through the air and the overhead lights flickered. The constant power fluctuations and environmental control glitches didn’t bode well for the Constantina, the massive worldship that housed the last of the human race. She doubted they would survive one more attack by the Varishans, and the frequent sensor malfunctions made locating the nearest habitable planet difficult.
She paused at the dining hall entrance to peer out the expansive window. Stars sparkled in the vast blackness of space. Somewhere out there a blue-green planet similar to Earth had to exist. It was just a matter of finding it and hoping it wasn’t already occupied by an alien race, particularly a race as barbaric as the Varishans.
A shiver coursed through her and a sense of foreboding put a knot in her stomach. Were the warmongering aliens nearby, cloaked and waiting for the right moment to strike? She worked in the aeroponics center and didn’t have clearance high enough to view detailed information about the Varishans, but perhaps that was for the best. The rumors about them were the stuff of nightmares.
Lia’s roommate, Nicole, claimed the aliens derived a sick pleasure from torturing their enemies, often attacked without provocation, and forced all females captured during battle into sexual slavery. The rumors came from those in command positions who were privy to the captains’ communications with the aliens, and from the threats the captain said the Varishans made against the humans. It was said that each time the Varishans attacked, the captain had to surrender via a view screen. Her grandfather had spoken to the aliens before, had seen them on a view screen, and she shuddered at the memory of his description of the barbaric alien race.
She prayed the Constantina reached a lush, habitable planet soon, because she had no wish to discover whether or not the rumors held any truth.
A screeching groan from above increased her nerves. The hull had taken so much damage it moaned as they traveled full speed through space, desperately searching for a salvation that might be out of reach. The energy cells were almost depleted, and if they didn’t find a new energy source within the next thirty days, the Constantina would come to a standstill and all would be lost. Their situation had never been so dire.
“You’re up late.”
Lia turned at the sound of Nicole’s voice, then smiled and followed her roommate to a vacant table amidst the murmuring late night crowd.
“I can’t sleep.” She glanced over her shoulder and out the window again. The Varishans were out there, biding their time and preparing for one final attack. She sensed it. Maybe she’d gone completely paranoid, but she thought if she stared long enough, their ships might materialize amidst the stars. Red lights would flash and alarms would blare. The ship would rock under the impact of weapons fire as another battle commenced. She felt powerless to stop it, and frustration welled up inside her. To think the human race had traveled so far and lasted for generations on a worldship only to perish in the middle of space, decades after their ancestors had fled Earth… the possibility of such a profound failure wrenched at her heart.
“Something wrong?” Nicole stirred the soup on her tray with a look of disgust. The aeroponics center wasn’t producing at optimum levels, and what fruit and vegetables were harvested usually withered within days. Meals had become unappetizing and at times barely edible.
“They could attack at any moment.” Lia ran a hand over her braided ponytail. “I had hoped our generation would be the first to set foot on a habitable planet. My grandfather always promised it would happen in my lifetime.”
Nicole pushed her soup away and blew out a deep breath. “Your grandfather was an excellent captain. I wish he was still here.”
“Me too. I miss him. I just wish I knew what the Varishans wanted. They’ll leave us alone sometimes for years at a time, but then they’ll return and try to kill us all over again. I overheard my grandfather talking to my father about them once, and he claimed they’d offered to help us in some way, but my grandfather insisted they weren’t sincere and were likely trying to lure us into a trap. He said no alien should be trusted. Judging by how many times they’ve attacked us, he was probably right. I mean, remember the first aliens the Constantina encountered after leaving Earth? The Branzians? The stories about them beaming aboard the worldship and trying to conquer us in hand-to-hand combat are horrific. We’re lucky to have prevailed against them.”
“All aliens are savages, Lia, and the Varishans are no different. They don’t want anything but the perverse satisfaction of our blood on their hands.” Nicole’s expression turned comforting. “Try not to worry, hon. You should get some sleep. You have an early shift tomorrow.”
“Tell me the truth, Nicole.” Lia leaned back in her chair, emotion tightening her throat. She felt like she was mourning the demise of the human race as if it had already happened. The premature grief weighed on her heavier and heavier as of late. “Do you think we’re going to make it? Do you think any of us are going to make it?”
The sorrow in Nicole’s dark eyes confirmed Lia’s worst fears. The ship was falling apart, the supplies were dwindling, and the crew had tried to mutiny three times during the last two weeks. The brig teemed with some of the most gifted science officers, security officers, and engineers. Captain Renard struggled to hold the remainder of the crew together.
“Yeah, me neither,” Lia said. “But sometimes I like to pretend we’re not doomed. I imagine I’m walking barefoot through a grassy field while the sun is beaming down upon me, and I imagine I live in a secluded cottage in the woods, like from a children’s fairytale book. I can escape there and be alone whenever I wish. The air is fresh and fragrant. Not stale and recirculated.”
The Constantina housed over ten thousand people, all descendants of those who’d fled Earth before the Errtazins arrived in their warships to claim the planet. Two other worldships had been under construction, but tragically, they weren’t space travel ready by the time humans had to abandon Earth. The aliens had given humans a five-year warning to evacuate, promising to annihilate all those left behind. To back up their threat, they had sent missiles barreling into New York City, Tokyo, Moscow, London, and Shanghai, demolishing all five cities and killing over one billion souls in a single day. Anyone who hadn’t left Earth on the Constantina was presumed dead, and only a tiny fraction had been lucky enough to be chosen for the voyage. Some had been selected through a lottery system, while others had been picked because of their scientific backgrounds.
Lia stared out the window. Blackness. Stars. Nothingness. It was all she’d ever known, but she yearned for more. She ached to experience a warm, sunny day on an exotic beach while listening to the ocean waves lap at the shore. She’d read about such places in books and watched nature documentaries from Earth, but oh, how she longed to experience it for herself. Surely there was more to life than gray corridors, tasteless food, cramped quarters, and increasing hopelessness. Blackouts occurred frequently on most decks, and in the hours between darkness and light, Lia teetered on the edge of madness.
“Another woman vanished during the last attack,” Nicole said in a hushed tone. “That makes it forty-five women gone missing since the Constantina first encountered the Varishans over fifty years ago. That’s why some crewmembers mutinied after the last attack. It was Security Officer Hendricks’ sister this time. He rallied his friends against the captain, and now they’ll all be in the brig for God knows how long.”
Curling one hand into a fist, Lia pounded the table, rattling the untouched bowl of soup. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing.” If only she hadn’t scored low on the command portion of the aptitude test she’d taken at age ten. Maybe she could’ve made a difference. Instead, she was doomed to work in aeroponics and remain in her quarters during an attack, per regulations for all nonessential personnel.
“We’re not sitting anywhere. The Constantina is traveling at full speed. Don’t you hear the ship groaning?”
Panic rose in Lia and she stood up, feeling disoriented. She met Nicole’s worried gaze. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m suddenly exhausted.”
“Sure thing, roomie. I’ll see you later.”
Lia longed to rush to the bridge and give the captain a piece of her mind, but she would only end up in the brig with all the other crewmembers who had crossed him. Like her father.
Tears burned in her eyes at the memory of his mysterious death in the brig. She suspected the captain had had a hand in it, but she had no proof. Her mother had called for an investigation, but she had been silenced too, passing away in her quarters one evening, along with several others on her deck, due to a carbon monoxide leak.
Sleep was Lia’s only salvation, because if she was sleeping she might have a wondrous dream of running through a grassy field, barefoot and laughing while the wind blew through her hair. In her dreams, she wasn’t a passenger on the Constantina, nor was she the orphan daughter of parents who had challenged the captain and lost. She hoped sleep came quickly tonight.
But the moment she reached the corridor outside the dining hall, the ship rocked with an earsplitting blast that threw her to the floor and knocked the wind from her chest. A second later, red lights flashed and the familiar sound of the alarm blared in her ears, a deafening noise that always filled her with dread. This time was no different. Her heart raced and she scrambled to her feet, holding onto a rail as she gasped for breath.
She attempted to navigate her way through the chaos and back into the dining hall, but she couldn’t glimpse Nicole through the panicked crowd. Science officers rushed to their stations and security officers attempted to establish order, but to no avail. Bodies rammed into her from all directions. The air tensed with paralyzing fear. Everyone assumed this was the end. The last battle. The last few minutes of human life.
Six Varishan ships loomed in the distance, blasting red beams at the Constantina. Lia staggered amidst the crowd, stunned. The ship shuddered and she heard the unmistakable sound of the particle accelerators powering up as the Constantina’s antimatter cannons fired one last barrage, but she knew the worldship’s weapons were no match for the more advanced Varishan ships.
The end. The fucking end.
She stared out the window and her insides trembled as another round of weaponry shook the worldship. Sparks flew above her and smoke filled the air, burning her lungs. The hull groaned louder.
Her arms and legs felt weightless and she looked down at her hands, confusion sweeping through her. Dark spots clouded her vision and her knees hit the hard, cool surface of the dining hall floor.
She inhaled deeply and floated away into oblivion, believing she had just taken her last breath.
Admiral Cavvik glared at the human captain on the view screen. The admiral snarled and leaned forward. “We gave you a map of the Varishan regions of space you are expected to avoid. Your toxic fuel emissions are tainting the atmosphere of two of our nearby colonies. Perhaps it is time the Varishans eliminate the humans. We have been far too lenient with your kind.”
“Please, no,” the pale-faced human known as Captain Renard sputtered. “We were trying to take a shortcut to survey a group of planets on the far side of this sector that show promise.”
“And you thought if you traveled fast enough, Varishan protectors wouldn’t intercept you?”
The captain’s wide, frightened eyes told all.
“Please, give us another chance, Admiral Cavvik. We won’t travel too close to your territories again. Please, er, take another one of our females as compensation for your troubles.”
“I already have.”
The captain paled further and started coughing. He covered his mouth and turned away from the view screen until he got his outburst under control. “Good. Now, please, if you’ll allow us to alter course, we will continue on our way and make an effort to avoid traveling too close to your colonies.”
“See that you do.” Cavvik slammed his hand down on the controls. The view screen went black.
Cursed humans. He was sick of their careless pollution of the regions his people called home, and their refusal to accept the Varishans’ clean energy resources grated on his nerves. Captain Renard was just as paranoid as the captains who had preceded him. They all believed the Varishans’ offer of clean fuel was a trap.
“Admiral Cavvik, the human female is waking up.”
Cavvik turned and met Protector Reuz’s gaze. The rest of his men fidgeted at their posts and cast eager glances at the door. The human female had been transported into a room a short distance down the corridor.
Before Varishans destroyed a ship, they transported all their enemies’ females aboard and took them as mates, but during the times they merely had a minor battle with another ship, they only took one or two females as compensation. Many Varishan protectors had a taste for the exotic and thrilled at claiming alien beauties from faraway worlds, and the possession of an alien mate was viewed as a status symbol among his kind.
Human females were soft and petite, and many of his protectors hungered for him to command the destruction of the Constantina so they would each be given a human female of their own. But Cavvik did not wish to be responsible for the destruction of thousands of lives, even if they were human males. He’d seen enough death to last a lifetime, and the humans would soon exit Varishan territories for good.
He passed command over to Protector Reuz and stalked into the corridor, his blood pumping with the thrill of another battle won, even if the humans had surrendered almost at once. The puny creatures were lucky they hadn’t ventured into the Franlians’ nearby territories during their search for a habitable planet. The Franlians weren’t so merciful, nor would they spare the females and children of their enemies.
Cavvik, however, wouldn’t be around to witness the fate of the Constantina and her passengers. Once his fleet reached their home world, in ten days, he was retiring his command in order to work as an adviser for the rest of his days.
He would also finally take a mate and start a family, and as the time to select a suitable female approached, he found himself aching for feminine companionship. Having achieved the rank of admiral, the highest possible rank of protector, he would have his pick from any unmated female on his home world. A seven-day mating ceremony was planned for his arrival, during which time the wealthiest and most powerful Varishan families would present their daughters for his choosing.
In his younger days, the thought of being honored with a mating ceremony had appealed to him and even driven him to become one of the most respected protectors of his time. Now the thought of being in the spotlight darkened his spirits. He sometimes wished he’d taken a mate long ago so he didn’t have to endure the public ceremony.
After spending much of his life fighting to protect Varishan territories, he wanted to settle down in his lakeside home atop the Mohanna Mountains as soon as possible. His grandfather had gifted the household and all the servants to him after he’d attained the rank of admiral, and he had always planned to make the mountains his permanent home. He would raise sons and daughters in the secluded residence, and he hoped their laughter along with the sweetness of his mate would help calm the storm in his heart.
He’d spent more than half of his life battling aliens, such as the humans, who dared to venture too close to Varishan territories. Many of the aliens weren’t as easily conquered as the humans, and he’d taken thousands of lives during his reign as admiral. He’d also lost many protectors during battle, and he longed for a more peaceful existence.
He reached the transporter room and strode inside, his gaze immediately falling upon a petite female form huddled in a corner. She sat with her knees drawn up in front of her, hugging them to her chest and peering at him with wide, fearful eyes.
Blue eyes. Like the skies of Varishema. It had been so long since he’d seen the skies of his home world that he paused in the center of the room and stared at the pretty female, awestruck by her delicate beauty.
He dismissed the other protectors from the room, and his heart thumped against his ribcage once they were finally alone. His fingertips tingled with the urge to stroke her smooth, pale flesh.
“Welcome to the Zurrina, little human. Please stand up,” he said, speaking in perfect English. Like all protectors, he had learned the tongues of the aliens they battled, including the humans. Her eyes widened further, betraying her surprise over his usage of her language.
“You speak English?” Her voice trembled. Tears trickled down her cheeks, and to his shock, he had the sudden impulse to wipe them way. But no, that couldn’t be right.
There was a hardness inside him, and he had never experienced the desire to coddle another, not even a crying female. The stress of his admiralship must be affecting him. Yes, it was good he would retire soon.
“All Varishan protectors speak English,” he replied. Her lack of knowledge about his kind revealed she hadn’t held a command position on the Constantina. Few human females did, but some of those taken hadn’t been surprised to hear the Varishans speak English.
He wondered if this human female would be as feisty as the last one taken, the one he’d gifted to his lieutenant during their last fleet patrol. The human known as Nola had escaped from her mate’s quarters on several occasions and caused an uproar on the ship. Cavvik had taken the young protector aside and explained that females often needed discipline and guidance, occasionally with a firm hand applied to their bare backsides, and ever since then Nola’s behavior was much improved.
His cock throbbed at the thought of taking this female over his knee. Would she squirm and look over her shoulder at him with those pleading blue eyes? Would she promise to be good and submit to his desires?
She shrank deeper into the corner, as if sensing his thoughts. Or perhaps she noticed the hardness pressed against the front of his pants. He fought the urge to adjust himself and stalked closer to her. Crossing his arms, he stood above her and donned his sternest look, feeling sullen over the task set before him.
Which protector would he gift her to? Galok? Nimu? Terul?
Keep her. Tame her. Make her yours.
Dark, primal needs whispered in the back of his mind. Keep her.
He wanted to pick her up and cradle her in his arms, to feel her flesh pressing against his. Desire heated his blood and his muscles tensed.
Temptation rose and the urge to carry her back to his quarters became all consuming. By the Blessed One, he needed her. He ached to feel her body beneath his as he pounded into her tightness. And she would be tight, untouched. A virgin. All the females the Varishans took from the Constantina were as innocent as the holy sisters on his home world.
Inhaling a deep breath, a shudder ran through him at her faint feminine scent. As expected, he detected no hint of another male. Keep her.
“Stand up, human. I won’t ask again.”
She rose to her feet, but leaned against the wall, her whole body shaking. She wrapped her arms around herself and her lower lip trembled. A pang of pity for the girl resounded in his chest, and he ground his teeth together until the tender emotion passed.
“Tell me your name.”
“My name is Lia.” She looked around the transporter room, her gaze desperate as if searching for an escape. But there was nowhere to go. All the freedoms she’d known on the Constantina were no more. She was his prisoner, and soon she would become the mate of one of his protectors.
Again, the thought of passing this particular female over to another male left him hot with rage. His nostrils flared and he growled, unsettled by the realization of his jealousy, the possessiveness he felt for the female known as Lia. He shouldn’t want to bury his face in her golden locks and inhale her scent more deeply, but he wanted to do that and so much more.
“Lia.” An erotic thrill raced through him when he said her name. He imagined himself pushing her sweater off one shoulder and nibbling on her smooth flesh. Perhaps he would bite down hard once, just for the satisfaction of making her struggle and cry out, only to capture her wrists and subdue her in the next moment.
“Please, send me back to the Constantina. I don’t want to be here.”
He encroached on her space and loomed over her, needing to feel the waves of heat emanating from her small form. The stiffness between his legs hardened to steel, throbbing thick and long. But it was more than physical attraction that had him going rock hard. Something in her eyes called to him and beckoned him to claim her, care for her, and protect her for the rest of his days.
Her breath came in quick puffs and her pulse point throbbed on her neck, enticing him to tilt her head to the side in order to trail kisses from the soft spot behind her ear all the way down to her collarbone, and lower yet. Despite the urge, he refrained from touching her. Later, he would touch her all over.
If he decided to claim her.
“You will not be returned to the Constantina, Lia.”
Beneath the fear, a fire ignited in her gaze, and she stood taller in a challenging posture, though the top of her head didn’t quite reach his shoulders.
“Is this how you end a battle each time you fight the humans? You steal a female and torture her? Murder her? I’m the forty-sixth woman taken from the Constantina by your people. Forty-six of us, gone. Am I to die like all the others?”
“The other forty-five human females are well cared for and on the planet Varishema and other Varishan territories, where they have mated with respected protectors.”
“I don’t understand.” Her voice shook and he longed to sweep her up in his arms, longed to hold her until the shaking ceased. She incited a tenderness inside him that he’d all but given up hope he still possessed.
“Reffa,” he said, cursing in his own tongue. He gave her a hard look and she shrank against the wall. It was fortunate he’d dismissed the other protectors from the transporter room. He didn’t want those under his command to witness his weakness for a human girl.
“So all those women, they aren’t really dead?”
“Of course not,” he snapped. “Varishans do not harm women and children. Had we destroyed the Constantina during this battle, we would’ve only slain your males.”
Some of the fear left her eyes, and her trembling lessened. “Why have I been taken?”
“Your captain ventured too close to our territories, yet again. It is the duty of all Varishan protectors to keep their settlements safe. When a violation occurs, we claim reparations. Sometimes we take supplies from our enemies, but in the case of humans and other compatible species, we take females.”
She shuddered. “But we haven’t threatened anyone. We’re just traveling through space, trying to find a planet to settle on. We have never attacked you without provocation.”
“The Constantina is emitting pollutants that are contaminating the atmospheres above some of our nearby colonies. That is provocation enough. We gave Captain Renard, and the captains before him, maps indicating which areas must be avoided. We only attack the Constantina when the ship intentionally veers off course and threatens our territories.”
“I don’t believe you.” Her voice rose to an inappropriate level. “You’re lying! It’s bullshit! Do you think I am stupid enough to believe such a story?”
“The Varishan who claims you as a mate will not tolerate such a disrespectful tone. Watch your tongue, or you will sorely regret your behavior, Lia. Females who use vulgar language are dealt with firmly where I come from.”
“Fuck you, and fuck every last fucking Varishan protector. Is that fucking vulgar enough for you?” She put her hands on her hips and lifted her eyebrows. “I demand to be sent back to the Constantina.”
He tensed and grabbed her upper arms, bringing her out from the wall and flush against his body. Though she’d raised his ire, his cock still throbbed with a fierce need for her. In fact, the brave way she’d challenged him only heightened his desire for her. Ah, what a pleasure it would be to tame her.
She infuriated him with her stubbornness; her refusal to believe the reason his people attacked the Constantina. As he peered into her eyes, he came to a firm decision.
This little human belonged to him.
“You will be punished for your language, Lia. I warned you to watch your tongue.”
She scoffed. “I knew it. I knew you were planning to torture me. Filthy, warmongering Varishans.” She pushed back and tried to kick his shin, but he pressed his body more firmly against hers, shoving his hardness against her stomach. Gasping, she peered up at him, the fire in her eyes burning bright despite her obvious fear.
“You misunderstand, Lia. There will be no torture. I’ve already told you we don’t harm our females. The worst punishment you can expect is the sting of a leather strap on your bare bottom. As most of the human females who have come before you have discovered, Varishan males will not hesitate to discipline their mates, and I know for a fact that your mate, Admiral Cavvik, will expect your absolute obedience.”
“My mate?” She gave a crazed laugh, thrashed about in his arms, then stilled and glared at him with intense, blazing eyes. “And when do I get the privilege of meeting this admiral I’m supposed to mate with?”
He stroked errant strands of golden hair behind her ears, delighting in the shudder that rippled through her body when his fingertips grazed the softness of her neck. “You already have, Lia.”
All the color drained from her face. She gulped. “You?”
“Yes, naughty human.” He held her out by her shoulders, his gaze sweeping up and down her body. “I have decided to claim you as mine.”