Authors: Susan Grant
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy
The missile pursued Lt. Jasmine Boswell's fighter jet across the sky with heartless accuracy. Fear-fed adrenaline pumped through her veins.
No time to be scared.
"Thunder Flight, break left! Bandit in your six!" Her wingman's warning roared inside her helmet. "Harder left!"
Jas gripped the control stick in her gloved hand and pulled. Nine times the force of gravity crushed her into the seat. Her oxygen mask slid lower on her sweaty face as she struggled to suck in enough air to fill her compressed lungs.
"Bandit right—seven o'clock. Two miles."
Her thoughts spun in a whirlpool of fear, denial, and anger. This was Saudi Arabia, the no-fly zone, for Pete's sake. Who had fired at her? And how could she not have known they were there?
"Take it down! Reverse right!"
Jas shoved the stick the opposite way and forward. Her seat belt and shoulder harnesses kept her bottom firmly on the seat, but the effect of negative gravity propelled her insides upward, as if she'd just crested the highest hill on the world's biggest roller coaster.
"Missile in your six, less than a mile. Thunder Flight, break right, hard right!" Urgency slipped into her wing-man's tone.
right!" A heartbeat later an explosion bleached the cloud-starved sky.
Teeth-rattling vibrations shook her against her harnesses while warning lights in her snug, single-seat cockpit flashed like a Christmas tree gone berserk. Then the F-16C began a slow sideways slide, barreling crookedly along—pulling left like her grandfather's old pickup truck.
"I'm losing hydraulics ... and fuel," she said, wrestling with the stick and rudder pedals. "Can't keep her level." She glanced outside. Hundreds of miles of barren desert yawned beneath her. If she lost control, then—
The horizon plunged as the jet tumbled. The sudden violent acceleration pinned her head and shoulders to the top of the canopy. Distantly, she heard "Eject, eject, eject" in her headset. But she couldn't. She tried to stretch her left arm to reach the ejection handle below her, but her limb felt as if it weighed hundreds of pounds. She gasped past clenched teeth, battling to move her hand while her trusted stoic inner voice scrolled through a litany of options. If she bailed out trapped in this awkward position, she would likely break her back. But the fighter was out of control—if she stayed inside, she'd surely die.
She slid her hand lower, lower.
Her arm trembled and her shoulders burned. Sweat stung her eyes.
Oh, God. One ... more ... inch.
Her gloved fingers closed over the handgrip and she pulled for all she was worth.
* * *
"By all that is holy, no!" Romlijhian B'kah vaulted from his starfighter cockpit to the ground below. Propelled by urgency and dread, he raced from his ship to a massive furrow littered with rocks and slag. Long-ago wars had ravaged Balkanor, turning the planet into a lifeless desert of coarse, shifting sand. Rom grimly acknowledged it was a fitting base for Sharron, the fanatic he'd come here to kill.
Where the ditch ended, the wreckage began: his brother's starfighter, a once beautiful now broken bird, vapor hissing from vents torn in its hull. Although the breathing apparatus in Rom's helmet did not draw upon outside air, he could well imagine the stink of leaking propellant.
"Lijhan!" Rom scrambled up the handgrips. At the top, he cracked open the cockpit, reaching for the man inside. "Get out!
He yanked open the fastenings crisscrossing his brother's chest.
Lijhan shoved at his hands. "Go without me." His voice was hoarse, impassioned. "I—I can't move my legs."
Rom jerked his attention downward. Glittering shards from what had once been the navigation panel snagged Lijhan's trousers like teeth.
He sagged on the handgrips. A sudden, soul-deep weariness threatened to overtake the adrenaline rush of combat. Freeing his brother's legs would be a delicate, time-consuming job. If he rushed, he risked puncturing Lijhan's protective suit, and his brother could die of radiation poisoning before they made it off Balkanor. Conversely, if he took the time the chancy procedure demanded, he'd erode the advantage of surprise he'd gained by evading Sharron's defense forces undetected.
Rom's fists tightened over the handgrips. Too many months spent and too many lives lost weighed on his conscience to risk failing today. He had to continue on.
"I'll return for you," Rom said, his voice flat. "Propellant's leaking; don't turn on the power."
"Be mindful of sparks when you detach the panel."
Rom clenched his jaw. How could he in good conscience leave his brother behind? "Show me your weapons." His brisk tone camouflaged his inner turmoil. "I must know you can protect yourself, if need be."
Lijhan showed him a laser pistol and a sheathed blade. Uncharacteristically solemn, he squeezed Rom's shoulder. "Follow your senses, Rom. Trust what is revealed to you, as our ancestors did, and the Great Mother will guide you to your destiny."
Rom covered Lijhan's hand, glove over glove, and stared into his brother's black-and-gold helmet visor that reflected his own equally unfathomable visage. “To victory," he whispered. Then he jumped to the sand.
Lijhan thrust his fist in the air, the warrior's gesture for victory. "Crush the darkness!"
Bouyed by the war cry, Rom ran toward his objective: a cluster of caves housing a vast underground labyrinth of tunnels, from where he would penetrate Sharron's compound. But his body was depleted from the hours of space combat preceding the invasion, making every stride feel like twenty. He'd barely reached several monolithic boulders, a landmark his spies had given him, when static erupted in his helmet comm link. He slowed, scanning the sky for enemy craft. It was empty. The hair raised on his neck.
He spun around.
His brother's starfighter was on fire. "Lijhan!" he bellowed, bolting forward as flames spread over the fuselage with horrific efficiency. Before he took a second step, the heat detonated a propellant tank, and the star-fighter exploded in a blinding fist of orange light. "No!"
The sand around him began percolating in erratic little puffs. Shrapnel! He dove away from a whirling projectile. It glanced off his chest, slicing through fabric and skin, searing him like a molten blade.
Pain squeezed his lungs in an invisible vise and almost clamped off the flow of air. His legs buckled. Gasping, he fell to the sand, holding closed the tear in his protective suit. Lijhan had been his virtual shadow since childhood, his devoted ally and closest friend. More than brothers, they'd shared a friendship forged by blood and love, the kind of bond broken only by death—which was supposed to come long after they had both lived full lives and aged into feeble old men.
Hoarsely, Rom shouted at the amber-hued sky, "Great Mother—why this! Why did you not take me?" Dizzy with agony that was far more than physical, he doubled over and nearly blacked out.
The good of the people outweighs the concerns of an individual.
The oft-recited words invaded his delirium. Drawing strength from the age-old maxim, he regained control slowly, blocking out his grief over Lijhan's death to focus on his mission. When the tremors in his hands stilled, he removed his gloves and assessed the damage
to his body with the cool objectivity he employed when inspecting his starfighter after combat. Blood saturated the frayed, bloodied cloth across his chest. But the wound was the least of his worries. He'd been exposed to radiation; if it didn't kill him, it would likely render him sterile. If he couldn't produce an heir—his responsibility to his family as the Crown Prince—there would be no marriage. And now, with his younger brother dead and unable to take his place, Rom might have single-handedly obliterated his eleven-thousand-year-old family line.
will not have it!"
He winced at a particularly vivid memory of his father storming toward him, the man's golden eyes dark with uncharacteristic rage as he'd forbidden Rom to fight. But Rom had defied him.
Even now the memory of that insubordination, the first in his twenty-three standard years, alternately exhilarated and sickened him. His pacifist father refused to see the reason for this war. He'd scoffed at Rom's claim that Sharron's ideas threatened the age-old mores of fidelity and family, and that the renegade religious figure was swiftly growing in both power and influence. Rom had hoped to prove him wrong. But in the wake of this disastrous invasion, he doubted his father would see anything but his firstborn's failure as heir and the shame it would bring upon their family.
The sun settled toward the horizon, flooding the valley with shadows of russet and gold, reminding Rom of the planet Sienna, his ancestral home. Somehow, he had to return to the palace there, to inform his family of his brother's death—and his own accountability for it.
He attempted to sit up, but his muscles disobeyed him, and blackness appeared at the edges of his vision. Groaning, he laid his head back, but did not go willingly when unconsciousness claimed him....
* * *
"Don't move," said a female voice in a language Rom had never heard, but somehow understood. Long before he'd heard her, he had sensed her presence in the darkness, coaxing him to awaken, to not give in.
To not die.
Rom's eyelids grated open over eyes as gritty as sand. He propped himself on his elbows to better discern whoever it was who was calling to him. The rocks beneath him bit into his back, but inexplicably, the sickening pain in his chest and ribs was gone. As was his helmet.
He did not recall removing it.
Rom stared dumbly at the apparition walking toward him. By the heavens, he had never seen anyone like her in his life. Her skin looked as pale and soft as sea-swept sand, contrasting vividly with her hair, silken strands cropped below her jaw in an impossible shade—the color of deepest space.
Such an extraordinary vision could mean only that he was hovering between life and death. The borderland at the edge of eternity was a world all its own—or so said those rare warriors who returned to describe it.
"If you're the angel dispatched to bring me to the Ever After," he said under his breath, "perhaps it will not be so bad to die."
She halted. "Move again and I'll shoot you in the balls and stitch you up from there."
Certainly she sounded more like a soldier than a heavenly being. Yet her uniform was not one he recognized, nor was it of a design to shield her from radiation. A muted green one-piece garment covered her arms and legs. Black patches filled the places where insignia might normally be worn, and a primitive helmet dangled from one gloved hand. In the other was a gun just as crude— and she was aiming it at his head.
He curled his fingers around his own pistol. She fired. A single shot plowed between his knees and sprayed dirt in all directions. Great Mother, he thought, swallowing his cough of surprise.
"The next shot will be higher, pal.
higher. Now drop that weapon," she said, weaving slightly. Her breathing appeared rapid and shallow, though from injury or agitation, he couldn't tell. She indicated with a curt flick of her arm that he should lay aside his laser pistol, but an inner warning stopped him. She might be one of Sharron's minions, a scout dispatched to investigate the crash.
Her gaze was too discerning, too intelligent, nothing like the glazed-over eyes of Sharron's cultist followers.
He set his pistol on the ground near her feet. "I have no reason to harm you."
"We can-debate that when you're unarmed." She used the toe of her boot to slide his weapon out of his reach, but as she did, thunder erupted. A series of explosions flared on the horizon, while rumbling beyond the hills heralded more of the same. Her jaw dropped. Four delta-winged craft soared through the twilight sky.
"What in the blazes are those?" she asked.
"Starftghters," he said simply. "Ours."
Jas's heart lurched. Like all combat pilots, she'd memorized images of scores of aircraft; it minimized the chances of firing on a friendly target during battle. But these incredibly sleek jets didn't resemble anything she 'd ever seen.
They looked like spaceships.
She swerved her attention back to her captive—the soldier or whatever he was. An iridescent blue, silver-trimmed uniform covered his long, well-built body from neck to boots. The bronze, almost amber skin of his face and hands matched his hair color, but his gold eyes were dark-lashed and disconcertingly pale. "You're not Saudi, are you?" she said in what had to be the understatement of the year.
A sharp blast shook the ground beneath her boots.
"Take cover!" The man lunged for her, yanking her down onto his chest. Her .45 discharged into the air. A massive detonation and answering ground fire drowned out the sound.
He wrenched the gun from her hand, dragging her backward to an outcropping of reddish boulders. Her world narrowed to a need for survival—
own. She fought back. Aiming the heel of her palm, she jammed it upward to shatter his nose. With deft agility he blocked her, twisted, and the knee she 'd aimed at his groin slid harmlessly past his thigh.
They rolled over the dirt. Sharp pebbles scored her exposed skin, but she continued to grapple, pummeling him with her fists and knees. Then he flipped her onto her back—expertly, easily.
Humiliation and surprise at being so handily defeated blossomed into fury. Gasping, she tried to wrench her wrists from his big hands, calculating how best to ram her knuckles into his larynx from such an awkward angle.
"Cease your struggles!" he commanded, equally breathless. "There is far greater danger to you than me."
As if to underscore his words, another pair of inconceivably futuristic ships flew overhead. Shielding her head with his hands, he protected her with his body while debris rained down from the sky. Jas swore, a muffled exclamation against his torn uniform, and tried to push away, but he held her close. When the fighting had stopped, he released her.
Dazed, she pushed herself to her knees, combing fingers through her damp and gritty hair. To her horror, the sand where she had stood only moments earlier was charred and steaming. Her discarded gun was a rapidly congealing blob of molten steel.
She fought to slow her breathing. "You saved my life."
"No," he said. "You saved mine." Oblivious to her confusion, he eased himself to a sitting position. "I felt myself slipping away. But I heard your voice, and I followed it back." His face contorted with pain, and he jammed his fingers into his hair. "Though I don't know why." Angry eyes accused her. "You should have let me die."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Her tone turned brisk, defensive, as if she were already at her court-martial, explaining why she'd fraternized with the enemy in the midst of an alien invasion. "I must have hit my head. None of this is real, including you. Watch, this time I'll touch you and you 'II disappear like a bubble. "
To her dismay, the man offered his hand. "Please."
Countless heartbeats ticked by as they observed each other within the deepening shadows. Kneeling beside him, she hesitantly touched her fingertips to his warm palm.