I stared up at the gravel-faced Proxilar, hoping that his lack of brain cells and my unwavering voice would make up for my shortfall in size. It wasn’t that I was that small, although my brothers Storm and Wraith would say otherwise.
And whatever bullshit they said, small horns did not automatically mean anything else about me was small.
No, ninety-eight percent of sentient life in the universe is smaller than the average Proxilar male. However, that same population is smarter than the average Proxilar male, which was the only reason they hadn’t conquered the universe.
“If you touch Maria again, I will fucking kill you,” I warned him.
Erkesh’s dark eyes drifted to her pretty, shiny curves, then back at me. “I’ll give you ten thousand for her.”
“I should kill you for making such an insulting offer,” I snapped back.
I could practically hear the sound of rocks scraping as Erkesh’s three brain cells clamored around in his skull. They reached a consensus.
Erkesh reached for Maria.
“Don’t do it,” I warned him, hoping that the rocks in his head would reconvene and come to a wiser conclusion.
His grimy, ichor-encrusted hand brushed over her slender frame.
No such luck.
“I warned you,” I said.
He let out a rumbling rockslide of a laugh and started to pick her up. I sprang at him, ducking low and popping up between his outstretched arms. With a growl, I butted my forehead into his. Pain split through my brow.
Right. They were as hard-headed as my kind.
While he flailed to pull me off, I kicked him in the crotch, then dug my bare hand up into the plates protecting his throat. Hot slime met my fingertips, and I nearly retched. I dug my fingers in until I felt that soft, warm give of his windpipe. His fists rained on my back, but I held on.
“All right, boys,” a low voice growled. The captain didn’t sound particularly invested in getting us to stop.
“Off!” the Proxilar grunted, still thumping my back. I was wrapped around him like a sleepy toddler on his mother’s hip, and he couldn’t get enough leverage to do any damage. Judging by his grunts, he’d even managed to punch himself in the head once.
“Apologize to Maria!” I shouted.
“If you two don’t pipe down, you’re going to bring that whole damn nest on us,” a reedy voice said. Erkesh whirled around, and I caught a flash of Nirrat, a Vaera male who’d recently joined Scarlet Company. His eyes flared bright yellow. “Then I’m going to kill you both if there’s anything left of you when you get shit out.”
“This is just foreplay,” Lieutenant Davish said, glancing up from his portable computer. “One of these days, they’ll get tired of it and just fuck it out.”
“Gross,” Erkesh grumbled.
“That’s rude,” I told him. “You would be lucky if I fucked you.”
“I would fuck you,” Erkesh replied. “Stupid Zathari.”
“Ember,” Captain Naviran said mildly.
I finally released Erkesh’s throat. The looming Proxilar tossed me across the clearing in a manner that did not say truce, but I landed on my feet and brushed myself off. “You apologize to Maria right now,” I told him. I picked up the buxom, steel-brushed weapon and inspected her.
One of only twenty-five in the first run, Maria was a top of the line unit, twenty pounds of indestructible synthetic metal that used experimental momentum drive technology to blast very big holes in very hard things. I only took her out for special occasions, because recharging her was expensive, but she was worth every last credit.
Maria was an unofficial payment from helping one of my idiot brothers get out of trouble. It was hard to keep up these days; while I managed to have a real job and avoid law enforcement, my brothers kept finding themselves balls-deep in trouble. And every time, it was Ember, come help us. Ember, come blow things up. Ember, come help us stage a prison break. Ember, come be the handsome backup so we can get the girls and live happily ever after with our dicks eternally wet.
Because that was the new twist, the one with the big eyes and sad stories. In the decade since we escaped Kilaak together, I’d done plenty of work with my brothers. But lately, they kept finding themselves pretty little human to keep them warm. And stranger still, they were finding starbound mates, something we thought was impossible.
Hell, I didn’t believe it until I saw my brother Mistral gazing at a red-haired human woman like he’d seen the fabric of the universe. And then Viper, who went back to prison for his girl.
Viper, of all people. I mean, I was absolutely onboard to go fuck things up on Kilaak to get him out, but it took me the entire flight to accept that Viper had willingly gone back to prison.
And when Wraith settled down to play house in Phade with a sweet little thing named Naela, I knew it had to be real. Because there was no way in all the fucking galaxies that Wraith would be tamed unless there was an entire pantheon of gods at work.
And every time they called, I was Lieutenant Reliable. The one who didn’t have anything to lose, nothing better to do but help his brothers. I didn’t mind. Of course I would help, and of course I would happily blow up anything that needed blowing up.
And possibly a few things that didn’t.
But I couldn’t help wondering if the Wayfarers had forgotten me while they were giving out the happy endings. Had I done something wrong? Why wasn’t I worthy? Those were thoughts that needed to be chased away by something much stronger than the recycled water in my pack.
For now, it was me and Maria, and the rest of my high-caliber harem. I had a collection of weapons that would have made Wraith so jealous he might actually kill me, and unlike my housebroken brothers, I used them to kill very large bugs for very large amounts of cash.
Lieutenant Davish set aside his computer. “Captain, drone watch is complete. No movement within a mile. Target nest is dormant.”
Captain Naviran nodded to him. “Lock it down for the night.”
I avoided Erkesh as I helped several of my crewmates clean up what remained of our packaged dinner. Bland protein bars and mush were high cuisine in the wilds of Tahukal. Minimal flavor meant minimal scents to draw in the Reapers and their other kin.
In pairs, we stepped out of the perimeter of the campsite to piss, then hurried back. I curled up, laid back on my inflatable pillow, and dozed off immediately.
Someone shook me awake, and I sat bolt upright. Golden eyes gleamed at me in the dark. Narrit put a finger on his lips. “Watch time,” he said. I swiped at my mouth and joined Captain Naviran for a swig of caffeine; it was one of Surgeon Trell’s specialties, a concentrated energy booster that supposedly wouldn’t make our hearts explode.
At Naviran’s signal, I took one of the display pads, scaled a tree, and started my watch. Once I was up, I fitted a halo-like device over my horns. The glasses gave me a heads-up display, while feeding information back to the computer. It would pick up movement that I missed, as well as changes in the wind and the temperature.
The jungles of Tahukal spread thick and dark around us, a blanket of foliage that looked peaceful and serene beneath the bright gaze of the stars. It looked like a vacation paradise, the kind of place where a Malonumas ship would dock so their rich passengers could see untouched beauty.
Looks were deceiving. Tahukal was infested with bugs that had sprung wholly formed from a collective nightmare. Some poor souls had tried to colonize the planet a few times. They were probably still being digested somewhere in an underground Reaper nest. Supposedly Tahukal really had been a pretty little paradise long ago, but the would-be colonizers had brought larvae from some other planet. And something in the water, something that permeates the air and the earth and every last leaf, made those harmless bugs grow to monstrous shit-out-fullgrown-men sizes.
We weren’t here to colonize. We were here to make a fuckload of money. Right here on Tahukal, the Meritan-Corvus Mining Company had discovered rich veins of oxitanium, one of the essential ingredients in fuel cores for jump ships.
So they paid a bunch of us idiots to come out here and clear a path and take samples. Once we found a good site, we’d bring in the big guns to wipe out the bugs, and Meritan-Corvus would dig up all the treasure. We got a decent cut, a vacation, and then headed back out for more. It was messy and dangerous, but it was honest work. I preferred the danger of getting bitten in half to the danger of getting arrested and thrown back into prison, so I stuck to what I was good at instead of getting into smuggling and bodyguarding rich assholes like my brothers did.
Another day came and went as we inched closer to our target and set up camp. After a night’s sleep, we got up early and prepared for the best part of the mission. We armed up, and I caught Erkesh eyeballing Maria as I zipped myself into an acid-proof tactical suit. “Don’t even think about it,” I warned him.
“So big,” he sighed.
“You’re damn right,” I said. “Put on your collar, dummy.”
He frowned, patted his neck, then reached into his pack for a collar and hood that went up over his rough-textured skull.
A hundred yards from our camp was a roughly hewn hole. It was wide enough to drive a small overland vehicle through, but it hadn’t been dug for that purpose. It had been dug by a bunch of male Reapers to make way for their huge carapaces and their thousands of skittering young.
Dead skippers and leafslugs littered the ground outside the hole, along with the occasional large ribcage from some unfortunate prey animal. The Reapers had scared most of the local wildlife out of the area, but they could travel far through their tunnels to find fresh meat.
Or they could wait for it to be delivered in the form of a dozen mercenaries who were a little more greedy than smart.
Captain Naviran barked orders while Erkesh and I finished suiting up. I squeezed into my helmet. The padding inside sealed around my horns, and I secured the thick visor, which made my vision slightly warped and grayed out.
The captain’s voice was brusque through my earpiece, but I was only half-listening.
Wayfarers, take me in and bring me out safe, I prayed silently, bringing my fingers to my lips and raising them to the sky. My brothers used to say the Wayfarers didn’t give a shit about us, but considering four of them now had mates and we were all still miraculously alive despite decades of bad choices, I took issue what that statement. So far, I’d come out of every filthy bug nest mostly in one piece, and I wasn’t going to break my streak now.
On the captain’s order, Erkesh and I took off. Something about the oxitanium in the ground attracted Reapers, one of the nastier denizens of Tahukal. They dug deep to make their nests, and the metal itself interfered with our instruments. We had to be careful about firebombing them, lest we ruin the rocket fuel we were hunting.
Ahead of me, Erkesh prepared a sonic grenade, then lobbed it into the hole. I followed it with what we called the Dinner Bell – a sealed package of fresh meat with a tiny charge on it. Running closer to the mouth, I threw it in and waited for the little burst of explosives to split the seal and release that fresh smell into the cave.
“We got movement, Captain,” Lieutenant Davish said.
Without missing a beat, Erkesh and I slammed autoshields down into the ground and triggered the mechanism to expand. Whirring mechanisms spun and assembled into a shield with a dense glass viewport and moving panels we could shoot through.
The ground began to rumble.
“We got company,” Nirrat said from his position in the tree.
Gunfire erupted as the Reaper young came swarming out of the hole. Carapaces clacked and mandibles chittered. Erkesh and I sprayed them with a nasty pesticide, slowing them down so the others could pick them off.
Eventually, the swarm slowed, and Erkesh tossed another sonic grenade.
“Here comes Daddy,” one of the other mercenaries commented. “Big movement.”
“I like it when you call me Daddy,” I said.
“Ember, shut the fuck up,” Captain Naviran said amiably.
“Yes, Daddy,” I replied, darting out from behind the shield as the first of the Reaper soldiers emerged. Each was the size of the auto-shuttles that skimmed down the streets of Ir-Nassa. All eight of their legs were tipped in razor sharp claws, and their vicious mandibles dripped with foul bluish poison. Tiny larva squirmed across their backs.
Seeing the Reapers made me wonder what in the world would create such a thing. What insane god thought that the universe really needed murderous, poisonous bugs with mouths big enough to eat me whole?
“One of three,” Lieutenant Davish told us.
The Reaper let out a deafening shriek and spat a glob of blue mucus at the shield, where it sizzled and dripped down the surface. I lined up a shot with Maria and carved a hole in its carapace. With a roar, it recoiled, and Erkesh shot an explosive round into the hole.
It barreled for Erkesh, then stopped short as the round burst and split it in half.
“Good job, fuckface,” Yahair said from above.
Two more soldiers emerged, and we dispatched them as they came. Tracking the heat signatures was dicey this close to the oxitanium deposits, so we had to go in blind for the final part. This was where it got fun, and this was why the others didn’t leave me to die in the jungle when I got on their nerves.
“Let’s go find mama,” I said. A chorus of predictable variations on I fucked your mother followed, but the chatter went silent when we breached the tunnel.
Erkesh and I led the pack; he was practically invincible, and I was a lot hardier than the rest of the soft-skinned mercs. A soldier sprang at us from the darkness. I was smart enough not to drink much before a mission or I’d have pissed myself.
Inside, we set out automated drones to collect data, while we hunted down the center of the nest. Maybe we’d be lucky, and there wouldn’t be a queen. Not every nest had one. But the sticky egg sacs and the godawful smell told me we weren’t going to be lucky.
Story of my life.
* * *
Two hours and twenty-seven minutes later, I was stumbling blind uphill with Erkesh on my back. Acid was eating through his throat, but if I stopped to neutralize it, we were both completely fucked. We might have been bulletproof, but that wasn’t going to help us when a Reaper princess stuffed us both into her gaping maw and swallowed us whole.
“Erkesh, don’t you fucking die,” I grunted. I ran into a wall, stumbled back, and caught my balance. My boot crunched into a squealing Reaper and I shrieked.
“Fuck you,” he groaned.
“That’s right. If you survive this, I’ll take you out for dinner and fuck you like a princess,” I teased.
The screaming of the Queen’s court echoed down the passage. My foot caught on a rock, and I went down hard with several hundred pounds of Proxilar on my back. White-hot pain lanced through my knee and hip, and I nearly blacked out. Erkesh rolled onto my head, trying in vain to get up. I rolled him back, got on one foot, and yanked him back into the nearest crevice.
He was breathing raggedly now, and I finally took a moment to swipe the thick mucus off my visor. Erkesh’s skin was bubbling, and I could see the exposed purplish flesh beneath. In our tussle with the Queen, his helmet had been knocked off, leaving him vulnerable.
Adrenaline speared through me, wrangling my heart into a mad gallop. I handed him Maria and said, “You hold her. She likes it when you tell her she’s pretty.”
“Tell her she’s pretty,” I told him, digging the tiny emergency medkit from the pocket of my jacket.
“Pretty,” he bit out. He instinctively reached for his throat, but I slapped his hand away. Without warning him, I opened the acid-pak, then slapped the dripping square of fabric over his sizzling skin. He roared with pain, but I held it firm, letting the base neutralize the spit. At least it wouldn’t keep eating into his windpipe and he might not suffocate.
The captain’s voice finally crackled through. “Em – kesh. Copy.”
“We’re here,” I said. “Two princesses on our tail.”
“Dead,” I confirmed. We’d fed her a nice big batch of poison, then followed it with explosives to be safe. Her favorite little chittering children weren’t happy about it.
A shockwave slammed me, and I realized Erkesh had fired Maria down the tunnel. A piercing shriek scraped my ears, and in the blast, I saw one of the spiny-backed princesses fly backwards.
I scowled at him. “I didn’t say you could shoot with her. Ask for consent, dickhead!” I tried to get up, then swore as my knee gave out. It felt like my entire left leg had turned to molten metal. “Oh, fuck my face.”
“Can you run?” Erkesh asked.
“Not very fast,” I said. Not at all, but I wasn’t going to admit it.
Before I could protest, he hauled me up over his shoulder like I was a little kid.
“I run now. You shoot.”
“You got it,” I told him. His big hands squeezed my twisted joints painfully, but I hoisted Maria and aimed down the tunnel. With her scope on, I could see two more princesses gaining on us. They were fast and mean, and they were not happy that we’d killed their queen and poisoned their eggs.
“Firing!” I warned him.
He stopped, planted his feet, and I squeezed off another explosive round on the princess. It winged her and slammed into the one behind her. Erkesh ran, and I tried to aim again.
“Stop!” I told him.
“Almost to the light,” he said.
I thwacked him on the back, and he gave me a warning squeeze. Still, he stopped, and I squeezed off another shot. It missed. “Oh fuck, she’s flying,” I said. “Go, go, go!”
My horns scraped against bone as Erkesh sprinted, then tripped headlong into grass. I heard the warning trilling sound of the queen’s personal court, and I instinctively rolled myself over Erkesh’s uncovered head. His protests rumbled beneath me, but there was a sudden splash against my back.
“Stay down!” the captain roared over the comms. Gunfire erupted, and we were pelted with the shattered remains of the last princess.
I waited until Captain Naviran thumped me on the head and said, “Clear.”
I rolled off of Erkesh, who was swearing in Proxilar as he brushed dead brush off himself. His dark eyes swept over me. “Asshole.”
“I love you too, buddy,” I told him.
Just another day in the office.
* * *
After being on Tahukal for a month, I was getting used to most things: the sweltering humidity, the dozens of safety protocols, hungry looks in the mess hall, and the constant smell of sweaty men in the corridor.
I had not, however, gotten used to the decontamination protocols and the fact that most of the roughnecks were perfectly content to walk around naked afterward. Cocks out, big smiles, they were all too pleased to be back in the air conditioning after weeks in the jungle.
Sometimes, the views weren’t too bad. There were a couple of Il-Teatha and Shal-Kihn men who were so well-built, they made me think of stone statues guarding temples to forgotten gods. Their musculature was like one of my anatomy textbooks come to life, not an ounce of fat to hide every striation and vein on them.
Scarlet Company had just come back to Promise Island after three weeks out. Most of them just needed standard post-mission care. It was so well-oiled that we had meds and instructions prepackaged, ready for them to take back to their barracks. But there were two exceptions, one of whom had been rushed in on a gurney from the landing pad.
My supervisor, Rymond Trell, was up to his elbows in a Proxilar male who’d had a chunk of his throat melted off. The crew had done their best to neutralize the acid, but it was filthy and likely infected. Meanwhile, preliminary checks had left just one other merc that needed personal attention beyond a take two of these and get some rest.
I cleared my throat as I checked the computer at my station. The merc was Cal Selang, nicknamed Ember. Zathari male, frequent flyer here at Promise Island. I hadn’t met him yet, but I’d only started here a month ago. Presumably, he’d been keeping himself in one piece until recently.
The picture had him frowning at the camera, looking like a mug shot. During my onboarding, Trell had told me not to think too much about where these guys came from. They were here because they were good at killing and had virtually no fear, but they also had enough sense not to shit where they ate, nor to bother the handful of medical professionals who took care of them.
So far, Trell was right. The worst of it was crude comments in passing, most of which I thought were a really terrible attempt at flirting. So far half a dozen mercs had graphically told me how they’d keep me company, but it didn’t seem threatening. It was more of a matter-of-fact offer, which assured me if I got too lonely in this little steel-and-concrete cage, there was a veritable buffet of dick available.
Good to know.
Down the hall, I heard the rumbling curses of the Proxilar patient, followed by Tanzi’s sharp-tongued admonishment to stay still. I was in the other surgical theater, although I hopefully wouldn’t need anything extreme. In the month since I’d arrived, I’d done mostly first aid, as well as decontamination protocol on a couple of crews coming in. Last week, I’d done a marathon of vaccinations, pre-treatments, and screenings before Sapphire Company headed out for an exploratory hunt.
My heart thumped as I put my hands under the sterilizing light, waited for the pleasant ding, then bumped the door open with my hip.
“Good God,” I muttered when I entered.
My patient was sprawled over the exam table, one leg twisted awkwardly and the other propped up. Naked as a babe, he had his entire – incredibly impressive – anatomy on display. Smooth, chiseled muscle armored in that pretty gray skin gleamed under the light. Tiny flecks of white foam from the decon room still clung to him here and there, making me want to wipe him clean.
With every breath, I got an entirely new perspective on his perfectly shaped chest, the subtle spread and clench of hard muscle over his belly. Who in the hell had abs like that? Was he a fucking cyborg?
“Good morning,” a friendly voice said. Not just friendly. He sounded half-drunk.
“You must be Mr. Selang,” I said, trying to maintain my composure.
“Ember,” he said, sitting up suddenly. Pale gray eyes scraped over me. “What happened to Tanzi? Are you the new nurse?”
“I’m Doctor Winter,” I said archly. “Do you always lie around naked when the doctor is coming?”
“Obviously you’re new,” he said. How in the hell was he so calm when he was bare-assed? I could not look at his cock, no matter how pretty it was. “Decontamination before medical checks. They took my clothes.”
“And you don’t have any replacements?”
“All my stuff is in my bunk,” he said with a shrug. “You don’t think I’m pretty?”
Oh, he was very pretty. And he obviously knew it, judging by that shit-eating grin. Most of the men here seemed to have a drastically overestimated sense of their attractiveness, but Ember couldn’t possibly overstate it.
“I think you should put your dick away,” I told him.
“Well, if I could bend my leg, I would be glad to put on pants, but that’s why I’m here,” he said. He flashed me a grin that had probably melted off uncountable pairs of panties.
I thought my panties were quite fireproof, but I did feel a little twinge of heat in my belly that had me wondering.
“What’s your first name, Doctor Winter?” he asked.
“Doctor,” I said firmly. I grabbed the handles of our Readi-Scan, then nudged his shoulder. “Lay down flat, please.” As I calibrated the machine and entered his ID number to access saved information about his species, genetics, and size, I inspected the awkwardly twisted leg. “It looks like you’ve dislocated your knee and your hip. Are you in pain?”
“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” he said.
I frowned at him. “Do you want something to ease it? I’m going to have to reset it before the tendons can heal properly.”
He shrugged, but I checked the cooler and instinctively took out a syringe pre-loaded with a mild painkiller. Still avoiding the sight of those legs, I gently sprayed his arm with alcohol and prepared to give him an injection. When the needle pressed to his skin, he laughed. “Can’t use that on me. Have you ever worked on a Zathari before?”
“No,” I admitted. “I studied in school, though.”
“And what did you learn about my people in school, Doctor Winter?” he said. “One would think you’d learn on day one that needles don’t go in Zathari skin.”
My cheeks heated, and I headed back to the computer to look up the appropriate alternative for our tougher-skinned patients. I knew that, but I was trying so hard not to be flustered that I went into autopilot. I was a professional, dammit.
“Are you always this talkative?” I snapped. Between him being naked and giving me a hard time, I felt like a first year medical student getting called on in class. The system recommended ValMed, an aerosolized drug that could be administered to Proxilar and Zathari. I checked the cooler, then headed back to the supply room to find a can. I took my time scanning out the can with my ID, double-checked the dosage for his weight, and pre-loaded a clean canister with a plastic face mask.
When I got back, Ember was still lying there with that cocky smile on his face. I leaned over him and said, “I’m going to put a mask over your face, and-“
“I’ve been doing this for years. I know how it works,” he said. “Do you?”
I bit my tongue and pushed the mask over his face. At least he couldn’t talk this way. When I depressed the nozzle, he coughed a little, then breathed deep. His spine arched as he drew it down. Then he relaxed, and those rainy-day gray eyes opened wide to look at me. I felt like I’d never been seen before. Those eyes drifted up, then down, then back to me. They closed slightly, creasing around the corners as he smiled. Something fluttered in my chest.
When I pulled the mask away, he caught my arm firmly. My heart came to a complete halt as I stared down at him.
“You have such pretty eyes,” he marveled. Then he laughed. “Oh fuck, that hit me fast.”
With my heart pounding, I pulled away and set the canister aside. “What happened to your leg?” I asked.
“I was tap dancing and slipped,” he said with a laugh.
He sighed. “You’re no fun.” He laid back, one hand propped lazily under his head. “I was carrying someone out of a Reaper nest, and I tripped. My foot got caught, and the extra weight threw off my balance. I twisted around the wrong way.”
I gently touched his left hip. “Does it still hurt?”
“Yeah, it hurts,” he said. “But it’s a little better.”
Taking even breaths, trying not to stare at the chiseled perfection, I focused on my gloved hands, gently touching his hip, then down to his knee. When I was done, I moved back up to his chest and gently probed at his ribs. He hissed a breath, and I asked, “Does it hurt to breathe?”
“Yeah, but that’s normal,” he said.
I sighed. “That’s not normal. Why in the world do you guys do this?”
“Good money,” he said.
I shook my head and nudged him to lie down. After calibrating the Readi-Scan, I gently guided the big device over the exam table, guiding it to Ember’s feet. “I need you to lie still,” I said.
“Why is a pretty doctor like you working in a place like this?” he asked as the scanner slowly whirred its way up. Blue light skimmed over his dark skin.
“Please be quiet so it doesn’t interfere,” I told him.
“I don’t talk with my ankles,” he said. “Come on, we have to be here awhile, and I don’t know anything about you.”
“I’m expanding my resume,” I said absently. What was I supposed to say? Thanks to my idiot ex, my entire reputation was trashed, and there wasn’t a damn hospital that would hire me in the Abeona Galaxy? That was definitely light conversation.
I watched the 3D image forming, with glaring hotspots from Ember’s ankle up to his hip. Definitely some ruptured tendons, with a hairline fracture in his lower leg. A couple of fractured ribs, and some swelling in one shoulder. In the scans, I could see the unevenness of his ribs, and crooked places in both arms where bones had fractured and healed over the years. His scans were a mess, like most of the mercs here.
“See anything interesting?” he asked.
“I need to reset the dislocated joints. Would you rather be conscious or asleep?”
His brow furrowed, and for the first time, that jovial smile faded. “Is my leg going to be okay after?”
“Probably,” I said. “You’ll need to rest for a few weeks.”
His nose wrinkled. “I’m supposed to go back out in a couple days.”
“You can’t,” I said.
“Watch me,” he replied. “Get it set.”
Ember swore profusely while I got Shemar, one of the other nurses, to help me reset the dislocated joints. I gave him another dose of painkillers, then used a thick blue gel to generously coat his skin from ankle to hip. He shivered, but didn’t make a comment even when I slid close to his groin.
I was rigging up the big webbed straps when he grabbed my wrist. “What are you doing?”
“I need you to hold extra still while I run the emitter. It’s targeted at your tendons and ligaments,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you think you should ask for consent before you strap me down on your table, Doctor Winter? What did they teach you in doctor school?”
My stomach lurched. His playful smile set me off, and I put my arms over my chest. “Do you think you’re charming?”
His expression faltered. “I was just-“
“You were just being like every other man here and thinking that the thing between your legs is a hell of a lot more interesting than it is,” I said.
“If this is how you flirt, you should try a new strategy,” I said, tossing the strap over his waist and ratcheting it tight.
“And maybe you should try some self-awareness and realize that everyone isn’t trying to get in your pants,” he said. “I wasn’t flirting, I was being friendly.”
“Well, don’t,” I snapped. He was silent as I rigged up the rest of the straps, though he let out a low oof when I positioned his ankle. “Sorry.”
“No sense of humor. Got it,” he muttered.
I considered strapping his jaw shut, but instead put a pair of glasses on him to shield his eyes and turned on the emitter. He didn’t say another word for the next two hours, as the Caduceus emitter slowly worked its way up his lower body, firing that focused energy wave to heal the ruptured tendons and ligaments.
While it worked, I got a needle, swiped the inside of his mouth with a local anesthetic, then drew a blood sample to make sure he hadn’t brought back anything. Teams coming back from outside were extensively decontaminated to prevent bringing in any spores or eggs.
He was annoying and cocky, so why did I feel like shit as I watched him gritting his teeth, bearing the discomfort of the emitter’s rapid healing? And why the hell did I want to lay my head on that chest, let my lips brush across the texture skin and feel the muscles expand slowly with each breath? What the hell was wrong with me?
While the machine was beaming that light down on his ribs, I left the exam room long enough to get a set of scrub pants for him. When I came back, Tanzi was in the room, laughing as she chatted with Ember. The Vaera woman was half the size of any of the roughnecks, but as far as I could tell, not one of them intimidated her. “Did you put your foot up a Reaper’s ass and get it stuck?” she teased.
“I tried,” Ember said. “You should put on Erkesh’s paperwork that he needs to lose a hundred pounds. He weighs a fucking ton.” Then his expression slipped. “Is he okay?”
“He’ll be fine. His vocal cords are a little screwed up, so he sounds even worse than normal, and it’s going to take a while to regenerate the plates. Trell’s going to print him a synthetic to help protect him until he heals,” Tanzi said sympathetically. Then she looked up and said, “Dr. Winter.”
At that, Ember’s smile dissolved. “Am I done, Doctor?” he asked.
Watching the way his demeanor changed made me feel strangely guilty. It was like a cloud had passed over the sun, leaving the room dim and cold. I was rooted to the ground, my stomach churning with nerves as I looked between him and Tanzi. Her brows arched, golden eyes alight with curiosity. “Almost,” I finally said. “I just need…” I looked through the nearest cabinet. “Adirantus,” I muttered. “Where is it?”
If I had been dealing with anyone else, I would have found the damn tube of gel in the first drawer I checked. Instead, I went from cabinet to cabinet to drawer to closet. It felt like I was naked in front of an audience, moving in slow motion as I searched. Finally, I stopped and said, “Tanzi, where’s the adirantus?”
“Cooler in the supply closet,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll get it for you.”
I leaned over Ember and unstrapped the webbing. “Hold still, please,” I said, gingerly touching his knee. “I’m going to touch, and you tell me if it hurts.”
Gently, I pressed my thumbs into the dense muscle just beneath his kneecap, massaging out the inflammation. I glanced up. “Okay so far?” He nodded. With a deep breath, I braced one hand against his hip, then slowly lifted his knee. I heard the catch in his breath, and looked back to see him grimacing. “Does that hurt?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
“Okay,” I said, trying not to scold. That’s why I told you to speak up, I thought irritably. I sat on the edge of the table and propped his calf on my thigh. Even through my scrubs, I could feel the intense heat radiating from him; Zathari ran warmer than humans, and the Caduceus emitter had him even hotter than usual. Cupping his calf gave me a hands-on appreciation for the firm muscle, and I had to remind myself that I was a fucking professional. I grasped his foot, and he laughed, jerking it out of my hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m ticklish.”
I laughed nervously, then carefully held it as I rotated the ankle. “How’s this?”
“Okay,” he said.
I nodded, then slid out from under him. Tanzi returned with the tube of gel, then flounced out of the room. I slathered the clean-smelling gel all over his leg, then dabbed it onto his chest. The emitter had left his gray skin slightly darkened and dry, but it would heal quickly.
“Do you need any painkillers to take?”
“Nah,” he said. “Not big on drugs.”
That was unusual. I shrugged and checked my charts. A colorful projected display took up one wall of the surgical theater, and I swiped together data from ReadiScan, the emitter, and my own notes. “You need another two sessions with the emitter,” I said.
He groaned. “Come on, Doc. I have work to do.”
“Can you do it with a permanently twisted leg?” I asked him. His eyes narrowed. “Two sessions, and you need to come in between to work with one of the nurses to exercise it.”
“Can you do it in one? I can deal with it.”
“Maybe you can, but your vascular system can’t. I’m not risking an aneurysm just so you can shoot bugs two days sooner,” I said.
“I’m tougher than you think.”
“Did you go to medical school?” I asked.
His smile was brittle, his eyes full of anger. “Some of us didn’t have the opportunity or the means, Doctor Winter.”
“That’s not my problem, Mr. Selang,” I said. His eyes narrowed. “Two sessions and rehabilitation with the nurses, or you don’t get your prescreening approved for your next mission.”
“Trell will sign off,” he said.
“No, he won’t,” I said. “Trell will agree with my assessment. But you’re welcome to go ask him anyway.”
I hit send on the files, then beamed a bright smile at him. “It’s in your personal comms now.” Then I tossed him the pants. “Get dressed.”
“Thanks for the help,” he said, scowling at me. “Looking forward to seeing you again.”