For those of you who haven’t gotten a chance to purchase Mate Call yet. I thought I’d help you choose your weekend read 🙂
Colton Lanx clenched his fingers around the console, clinging for his life as the starship shuddered through a meteor field. The large planet quickly growing closer on their right sent tendrils of fear through him. This wasn’t the course he’d set. Somehow they’d strayed far from his original coordinates.
“We’re too close!”
“Don’t be an idiot!” Captain Jael snarled. “I did those calculations myself.”
Colt’s short temper spiked. “What do you mean you did them?” Anger pushed down Colt’s fear. He’d spent hours making sure they had the proper trajectory to make it safely through the narrow slice of space between Dragait and the planets, moons, and meteors surrounding it. The slightest error could result in being pulled into a planet’s gravitational field. Any change in Colt’s numbers could be catastrophic.
“I didn’t trust your calculations, so I entered my own.”
Jael’s smug tone had Colt biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. His self-control, never strong on a good day, broke under the pressure. “Do you have a degree in starship navigation, Captain?”
He didn’t bother to keep the sharp edge out of his voice. As far as he knew, the captain only had degrees in starship management and tooth whitening. Neither skill gave Captain Jael the ability to properly compute the correct passage around any spot in space.
The captain bristled. “Watch your tone, Lanx. Any idiot can type in a few numbers. The ship does all the real work. I don’t need any fancy papers to do your job.”
Colt had suspected the captain’s stupidity before, but it had never been so clearly exhibited as then. He brushed off Jael’s slights on his training. After two months on board, he was no longer surprised over the captain’s opinion of navigators.
Colt was careful not to look at his hands as he discreetly slid his right index finger beneath the console to press the record button. Despite changing the coordinates, Jael would blame him if they crashed. Jaw clenched, he made a quick examination of Jael’s numbers… he’d need dental surgery after this flight, if the crash didn’t kill him first. “You entered the wrong trajectory!”
“Then fix it! What the fuck do we have you for?” Captain Jael’s shout reached ear-splitting levels.
Colt winced and frantically tried to input new coordinates. Before he could tap more than a few keys, however, warning lights lit the panel brighter than the fire planet Freil.
The proximity siren blared, alerting the crew of their dangerous closeness to the planet Dragait.
If the captain had listened to Colt yesterday, they wouldn’t be in this situation. He’d told Jael over and over that they were too close to the planet’s gravitational field, but as usual, Jael had ignored his advice. Colt should’ve jumped ship at the last port. Instead he’d ignored his instincts for the chance to see Dragait, the planet where his father had grown up but never returned to. Now, instead of a nice flyby with a few memorable photos, they would all be crushed by the ship’s kiss with Dragait’s gravity. Maybe his father had been right when he called it a dangerous planet.
Colt’s father, Seltin Lanx, had left Dragait as a young man and always claimed he’d gone because of a compulsive need to explore the stars. Maybe Colt would’ve believed him if his father didn’t always change the subject when Colt asked why he never returned.
Colt’s parents had been planetary travelers since before his birth and had continued their journeys after Colt left them to pursue his own schooling. He’d never met any couple as in love as his mother and father. Dragon-bonded, his father had declared them. Maybe one day Colt would find a bondmate of his own. Even if he couldn’t shift into a dragon like his father, he longed for the same connection his parents shared. But none of the men or women he’d dated came near to inspiring any kind of devotion.
Colt joined the Exploration Guild fresh out of training, eager to continue his space study. The Guild’s stated mission was to act as mediators between worlds in order to smooth out shipping lanes and political differences. Unfortunately, Captain Jael didn’t have the sense of a Mecrofilian mud bunny. How Jael had reached the rank of captain baffled Colt on a good day and irritated him on the other ones. Jael must be related to someone influential, otherwise his crew would’ve stripped him of his duties years ago, or beaten him to death.
“Bear left,” Lieutenant Phelps, Jael’s right-hand man, ordered.
Colt privately believed the lieutenant had his lips surgically attached to the captain’s ass. Not once had Phelps contradicted any of Jael’s orders, no matter how idiotic they were.
“I’ve got it!” Colt snapped. Typing madly, he tried to counteract Jael’s coordinates. Now wasn’t the time for Phelps to try to learn how to navigate.
“You’re going to crash us, you fool,” Jael shouted.
“I’m trying to countermand your ridiculous orders!” Colt banged on the console when the computer beeped its disdain over his input.
“Address me with respect, Navigator!” Jael’s blustering demand rolled off Colt’s emotional shield of indifference.
“I will when you earn it.” Colt typed in another set of coordinates, barely holding back a scream when it had little impact. Nothing he entered appeared to make too much difference. “Right now I’m trying to save us from crashing and dying.”
“Phelps, take over. Ensign Talword, go lock Navigator Lanx in the brig for his insubordination,” Jael ordered.
“Are you fucking crazy? We’re about to crash, and you’re worried about protocol!” Colt shouted.
Jael’s blotchy face turned redder in his fury. “Remove him!”
Colt glared at Phelps, then Jael. “If you get us killed, I will haunt you both into the afterlife!”
Talword grabbed Colt’s arm and dragged him away.
“When I’m done reporting you, you’ll be lucky if they put you in charge of a barge!” Colt shouted as Talword pulled him off the bridge.
Guild Admiral Killan Stanforth would demote Jael to scrubbing ship floors after he heard the recording. Uncle Killan had been the reason Colt joined the Guild instead of going independent.
“You should’ve kept that threat to yourself,” Talword warned. “You don’t want to have an accident while in the brig.”
“If I’m killed, my uncle, Admiral Stanforth, will destroy everyone on this ship. You don’t want to know what happened to the pirates who attacked my parents’ vessel. They were begging to die in the end.” Colt didn’t usually like to name-drop, but he’d reached the end of his patience with this crew. A bunch of sheep, led by an idiot, who would be Colt’s downfall.
Talword opened the door to the brig, then pushed Colt inside, making him stumble and topple onto the only bunk.
“Brace yourself, Tal, we’re going to crash. You’d best go find an escape pod instead of going back to the bridge,” Colt warned.
Talword made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat. “We’ll be fine. Captain Jael will get us out of this. You’re just trying to scare everyone.” But Talword’s worried expression didn’t match his words.
Colt snorted. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Talword’s scornful glare didn’t reassure Colt. People who depended on others to think for them were dangerous. But even with his blind belief in the captain, Talword didn’t deserve to die—none of them did.
Talword programmed the door shut before walking away; his stomping steps echoed against the metal floor. Colt hoped Talword would pass the news of their imminent demise to the rest of the crew. The sooner people headed for the crash pods, the better their chances of escape before the ship collided with Dragait. The crew’s survival rate would plummet if the pods were sucked into Dragait’s atmosphere.
It wasn’t ego that had Colt declaring he was the only one who could fix the navigation problem. He had been running his father’s ship long before the legal age to fly. Colt’s flying skills saved more than one mission. Navigation school had been an easy pass, and he had graduated with honors with little effort.
But now it was time to abandon ship and use the survival instincts instilled in him by his father.
“Computer, release lock.” Colt could almost hear Seltin’s calm voice in his head: Expect nothing, but anticipate everything. After meeting Captain Jael, Colt reprogrammed the ship’s computer to accept his orders. He hadn’t anticipated this exact event, but he’d suspected Jael’s ego would eventually put them in a situation where Colt would need to escape.
A shudder shook the ship.
“Command acknowledged.” A loud click reverberated through the small cell before the door slid open.
Colt peeked through the doorway, but no one stood outside his prison cell. No doubt Talword expected him to stay put and had gone to save his own ass instead. Colt couldn’t blame him. The culture on the ship was to save yourself first; there was little honor among the crew. They all wanted to be the one to discover a new species or planet, or to bring back a new alien contract to the higher-ups. They might claim to be a pacifist company formed to spread interplanetary peace, but underneath all the hype lived a soulless corporation that wanted to reap whatever it could from other civilizations.
Since all the people who knew of Colt’s incarceration were on the bridge, he didn’t bother hiding. He nodded to other crewmembers as he passed, but he didn’t speak. He couldn’t risk them putting him back in the brig.
Colt wished there was another way he could warn the others, but he hadn’t grown close to any of them during his time as a crewmember. As far as he could see, they all thought the captain knew what he was doing. None of them listened when Colt tried to tell them otherwise. After enough scornful looks and whispers that he was trying to start a mutiny, he stopped cautioning the rest of the crew and left them to their self-inflicted blindness.
The corridor split before him. Colt headed right. He might be court-martialed for this, but he refused to go down with the ship. Emergency pods were at the end of the corridor, and Colt planned to be on one when the ship broke apart. He’d just reached the first stairwell when the ship-wide emergency announcements began.
“Prepare for impact. Prepare for impact,” the ship’s computer blared.
Colt ran back to the computer panel he’d just passed, and activated the preparation of the pods. He doubted the captain would think of emergency procedures during an actual emergency. Jael had no common sense, and Phelps didn’t seem to have any either.
“Pods prepared for evacuation.” The computer’s voice echoed through the hallway, repeating the phrase over and over, accompanied by flashing arrows lighting the way to the transports.
The escape pods would drop from the ship as soon as they reached capacity. Colt’s conscience assuaged, he continued to the stairs and toward the hatchway. He would bet good money that Jael had already abandoned the ship. The captain kept a small shuttle to fly to other planets and scout before the official parties landed. It was an open secret, but Jael thought his sly maneuverings went undetected. Colt didn’t trust him not to flee and leave the crew to deal with the aftermath.
The starship tilted again. Colt’s foot slid on the metal stair, sending him tumbling to the bottom. His face slammed against the steel floor, his ears rang, and liquid trickled down his right cheek. In shock, he grabbed the railing to pull himself upright. He wavered for a moment before stiffening his spine and releasing his grip from the support.
He didn’t have time to deal with minor injuries or possible head trauma; he could worry about the damage after he got off the ship and avoided imminent death.
The thunder of footsteps above propelled Colt farther down the corridor. If he didn’t hurry, all the pods would be taken. No one cared about courtesy during an evacuation.
Proximity alarms blared louder. They were getting closer to Dragait.
“Fuck!” Colt’s ankle throbbed, and a stabbing pain speared his head with the agony of a thousand fiery knives. Sucking in a breath, he hobbled to the pods. With his luck, he’d be the one who missed out on escaping because he’d tried to alert everyone else to danger.
Dragait’s gravitational field must have completely taken control of the ship’s trajectory despite Jael’s bravado. Sweat trickled down Colt’s spine as he limped as fast as he could toward the escape hatches. Blood dripped from his cut and slid down his face. Each siren burst added to the brutal pounding inside his skull. Only his survival instinct kept him moving instead of giving up. His parents hadn’t raised a quitter, and he wouldn’t shame them now.
Even with a pod, the odds of surviving weren’t great. Colt was counting on his half-dragon-shifter genetics to help him through his injuries. He’d always been quicker to heal than ordinary humans had. Now, it might be the only thing keeping him alive—if he avoided Dragait’s pull.
He purposely headed to the last section of escape ships. The other bays would empty first, and he didn’t want anyone seeing him before he escaped. If Jael and Phelps hadn’t already abandoned the vessel, he didn’t trust them to prevent him from leaving.
A door slid open as he approached. Colt stumbled through the opening, collapsed against the wall, and didn’t move again until he caught his breath. A few minutes and a couple of siren alerts later, he gathered enough energy to slide along the wall and reach the keypad. He activated the external camera, looking for stragglers, but didn’t see anyone else heading his way.
“Evacuate ship. Collision imminent,” the computer warned once again.
“Computer, is anyone entering the hallway?” Colt wouldn’t release the pod if someone remained behind.
“No other life forms remain on board.”
As he’d expected, no one had gone looking for him.
He strapped in. With the crew evacuated, his conscience was clear. “Release the pod.”
A loud snapping noise had Colt gripping the handrails mounted on either side of the seat. The tiny ship must have broken free from the main vessel. The pod’s jets activated to push away from the larger ship. Colt focused his attention on trying not to hurl as his headache caused his stomach to swirl uneasily.
Heartsick with dread, he lifted the window flap, revealing a sea of stars. Abruptly the pod spun, and before Colt’s horrified gaze, the main ship crashed into Dragait’s atmosphere. The explosion wasn’t any less terrible for the lack of sound.
A lump of terror grew in his chest as he watched a string of pods sucked into the planet afterward. Flares of bright red around the emergency shuttles weren’t reassuring.
“I hope someone finds me before I join them.” The pod had limited jet capacity. Unless he floated closer to the atmosphere, he wouldn’t waste the little craft’s energy.
Colt leaned against the headrest, trying to breathe through the pounding in his head.
Would anyone come looking for him and the rest of the crew when the ship didn’t make contact? Had Jael pressed the emergency tracking button and ejected the beacon? Captains were responsible for alerting the authorities if a ship was going down so rescuers would know where to look for survivors. Colt couldn’t depend on Jael to be that responsible.
He pulled open the small cabinet beside him, revealing dozens of energy bars and rows of bottled water. “At least someone did their job.”
His fear of being in an unstocked pod faded. If he rationed his supplies, and barring a collision, he could survive for a few weeks.
“Coordinates?” the computer asked.
“I don’t know,” Colt whispered.
What the hell did he do now? Pods weren’t meant for long-range travel. The most he could hope for was to make it to the next space outpost, but without the larger ship’s computer, he had no way of knowing which direction to travel.
Colt gripped the safety harness, clinging to his sense of security. His gaze kept drifting back to the other pods. Dozens of orbs floated in space around him. How many of them were going to survive?
A large eyeball appeared outside the window, and all his thoughts derailed.
“Whoa!” Colt jerked back, only to be held tight by the safety harness. The belt allowed him a mere few inches of movement, and he’d used them all when he tried to scoot away. He resisted the urge to unbuckle and flee to the other side of the pod. It wouldn’t do him any good if the creature decided to attack.
“What are you doing so far from home, little dragon? You should be down below.”
The words whispered in his head like a warm, calming breeze and vanished his panic.
“Who are you?” The beast outside must have sensed Colt’s dragon-shifter blood. The fine scales around the visible eye reminded him of a dragon, but he’d never seen one so large before, and how could it survive without oxygen?
“I am Baroy, Duke Tor’s bonded space dragon. You must go down and find your mate. Shifters shouldn’t be alone.”
“I don’t think I have a mate, and I’m only a half shifter.” Colt didn’t have enough dragon DNA to transform into a dragon. “Besides, entry into the atmosphere may kill me.”
Escape pods were meant to remain in space and keep you safe until help arrived. According to the studies he’d read, pods had a 50 percent chance of survival when crashing through a planet’s atmosphere. Colt didn’t like those odds. He preferred a 100 percent survival rate.
“I will keep you safe.”
Colt didn’t know what to say to Baroy. What limited information he knew about space dragons rattled about inside his head with less content than a particle of space dust. He’d never met anyone who’d seen one before, not even his parents, and they’d traveled across several galaxies. “Thanks. I’d appreciate your help.”
Any other response could get him crushed in his tiny space pod, like a walnut in a nutcracker. He didn’t know why the large dragon wished to save him, but he was short of options or a proper plan at the moment. He would take any help offered.
A low rumble rolled through Colt’s head. It took him a second to recognize the sound as Baroy’s laughter.
“Be safe, little dragon.”
Colt didn’t know how he was a little dragon, since he’d never transformed, but he didn’t plan on arguing. If Baroy wanted to call him a little dragon, he’d take it. Most creatures in the universe were little compared to a space dragon.
The pod jerked and shook like a boat on rough waters. Colt tightened his grip on the handles on either side of his seat and swallowed back a scream. It wouldn’t matter if he made it to the surface if the descent killed him. The pod’s sensors blared a proximity siren as he plummeted toward Dragait. Colt’s stomach roiled, his knuckles turned white from the force of his grip, and his hands went numb.
“Please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die,” he whispered to any higher power that might be listening.
Fear chilled him, twisting him up inside. He’d never known true terror until right then, and he barely remembered to breathe. For countless minutes there was nothing but spinning and falling, and his fear only grew as he kept tumbling. He stayed focused on the window, but all he could see was clouds and more clouds. Was he passing through a storm, or did the planet generally have clouds around it? Just as he got used to nothing but clouds and blue sky, areas of green came into view. Lush vegetation passed by the window and caught Colt’s imagination as he pictured all the animals that could be living there.
He didn’t get much time to wonder before the pod slammed into the ground.
Colt’s teeth rattled in his head, and his body shook as the pod slid across the ground then rolled over and over until the lunch Colt had eaten earlier threatened to decorate the inside of the ship.
Finally the pod crashed against something hard. Colt smashed his head against the metal wall.
Then everything went black.