After his unusual reaction to a weapon, Commando Varean Donnelly is accused of being a shape-shifting alien and imprisoned onboard the Imojenna. Sure, he has abilities he keeps hidden from everyone—including the gorgeous doc examining him—because the government makes sure people as different as him disappear. For good.
Imojenna doctor Kira Sasaki knows there’s something different about the handsome commando the captain’s thrown in their brig. She doesn’t think he’s Reidar, although he might have been a victim of their cruel experiments. But when Kira learns the stubborn commando’s racial make-up, she finds herself torn between defending him to Captain Rian Sherron and his crew or urging Varean to escape while he still can.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.91(d)|
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By Jess Anastasi, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Jess Anastasi
All rights reserved.
Kira Sasaki wasn't sure she wanted to know what he was up to now. Because when it came to Rian Sherron, the captain of the Imojenna, often a person was better off pretending like she hadn't seen anything.
She came to a halt at the bottom of the ship's ramp, making way for the aforementioned Rian and his apparently-not-a-pirate cousin, Qaelan Forster. The two of them were dragging an unconscious soldier they'd seemingly removed from the Swift Brion, the flagship where the Imojenna was currently docked.
Considering all she'd seen in her years onboard as the ship's doctor, this latest of her captain's escapades didn't particularly surprise her. She wheeled the case she'd been lugging just inside the atmospheric doors as the trio passed her, Rian not bothering to ask what she'd acquired from the Swift Brion's extensive and state-of-the-art medical deck. It'd been a rare treat getting to view the facilities and grabbing a few supplies she hadn't seen in years. Though she made do with what they could source in the outer systems, she couldn't deny there'd been more than one day when she'd wished she could go supply-gathering somewhere that didn't consider second-rate disposable gauze a marvel of modern medicine.
Abandoning her goodies, she tagged along after Rian and Qae as they headed across the cargo bay and hauled the soldier deeper into the ship toward the engines, instead of heading up to her medbay as she'd assumed.
By the time she caught up with them, they were dumping the soldier in Rian's makeshift brig. The man wore the dark blue military uniform of the Swift Brion's crew, the shirt stretched taut across his broad shoulders and defined biceps. His light brown hair was chopped short but thickly spiked on top, and as his head lolled to the side, she got a good look at the square, masculine angles of his face. Well, he was a handsome one, no doubt about that.
"What's wrong with him?" She moved to just inside the cell door, putting aside her superficial assessment and casting a critical doctor's eye over the groaning man.
Rian stepped back, while Qae made a big show of stretching his shoulders, muttering about how heavy the guy had been.
"He and the new Reidar stunner didn't get along," Rian answered.
"It bitch-slapped him like a two-credit shag." Qae had one hand resting on the stunner in his belt. "If mine wasn't out of ammo, I'd be mighty agreeable to hit him with it again."
Her attention cut to the soldier's face, but he looked completely human. There was no hint of shimmery scales in his flesh nor the typical flatness over the forehead and bridge of the nose that the Reidar possessed in their true form. If the stunner had worked, she'd have seen evidence of a shape-shifting alien beneath his attractive form.
"Is he —?"
"Reidar?" Rian crossed his arms, staring down at the man with cold detachment. "I don't know. Maybe. We don't know enough about how the stunner works yet to say either way. He could be an alien that's somehow resisting the change where others haven't been able to. Until I work out otherwise, everyone should consider him dangerous and keep their distance."
She nodded, though the doctor side of her brain had already taken over, cataloguing his condition: pale, clammy, tension in his body as if maybe he was in pain. And semiconscious — not with it, but mumbling and groaning as if he was having a bad dream or hallucinations.
She'd pulled the small palm-sized medical scanner out of her pocket automatically before her mind had even registered the decision.
"Before we leave him —" She stepped over and knelt down, holding the scanner above his chest and watching the readings scroll across the screen. "His blood pressure is a little on the low side."
"Fascinating." Rian's tone told her exactly the opposite. "He's still breathing, so I'd call that good for him right now."
"I don't like the idea of someone being down here in the brig under questionable health." She gently grasped the soldier's chin, tilting his head toward her. Maybe it was a coincidence, but he seemed to settle somewhat at the contact. At least she wasn't losing her touch out here in the barrens of space.
She gently lifted his eyelids, and with a startled half breath, found his eyes were an astonishing light blue, almost silver. She'd never seen that exact shade of blue before. It was utterly gorgeous. But she pushed the thought aside, noting that his pupils were reactive but a little sluggish.
"Since there's a chance he's not a someone, but an alien, don't make it your concern, Kira. When he wakes up, he just needs to answer a few questions and this can all be settled up — if he's human, I'll let him go. If not ..."
Rian didn't need to spell out what came after if not. She'd seen the way he'd dealt with the Reidar, and it always ended bloody. Not that the sociopathic parasites didn't deserve it.
"And you think waking up in your brig will put him in a chatty mood?" She glanced over her shoulder, a low spike of annoyance cutting through her. Usually she took Rian's cavalier attitude toward people as it was, but for some reason, it'd started getting on her nerves today.
"Not to sound like a walking cliché, but" — Qae cocked a hip, patting the Reidar stunner — "we have ways of making him talk." The last words were uttered in an extra deep, foreboding voice.
She pushed to her feet, slipped her med scanner back into her pocket, ignoring how her annoyance was swiftly turning into frustration. "Let me know how that works out for you."
As she headed for the doorway of the brig, she paused to look up at Rian. "You'll comm me if his condition worsens?"
The captain gave a single nod, and it seemed like that was all she'd be getting from him in the way of agreement, which didn't leave her with much reassurance. The notion that the soldier might be a Reidar left a creeping sensation under her skin, like skittering insects, but her ingrained sense of compassion as a doctor pushed back against the anxiety, especially since, more than anything else in the universe, she hated seeing patients mistreated.
Her gut feelings had always gotten her a long way as a doctor, so she never ignored them. Something was up with this guy — not that she necessarily thought he was Reidar. As Rian had said, they hardly knew anything about the experimental energy weapon that revealed the alien's true form. What if he wasn't Reidar, but human, and for an unknown reason the stunner had seriously affected him in some way it hadn't done to anyone else so far?
If she hadn't heard anything by the following morning, she'd sneak back down for another check. Rian might want everyone to leave the soldier alone, but he surely knew her well enough by now to realize she wouldn't sit idly by in her medbay while there was a clearly unwell person within the bulkheads of the Imojenna.CHAPTER 2
Hell was an eight-by-eight-foot storage compartment converted into a brig by benefit of the bars in the hatchway instead of a door.
Varean groaned as he rolled onto his back, blinking against the bulkhead lights above him, eyes too sensitive, like his retinas had been burned by staring at a solar eclipse. Time had become a blur since he'd been stunned with that energy weapon, punctuated by periods of lucidness where Sherron's crew had locked him down, while his dreams had been more like someone else's memories — too real to be a figment of imagination, but so out of context and confusing he couldn't make any sense of them. Sometimes he'd gotten completely lost in those dreams, unable to find his way back to reality, battered by a language he didn't understand and places he'd never been but were familiar in some bone-deep way.
The only anchor had been a voice. The sound of it like honey soothing bitter acid.
The voice tugged at his consciousness and led him out of the dark. Her tone hadn't been wary and belligerent like the others, but steadfast and practical. And for some weird reason, the cadence of it had rippled through him like warm water. Except the few times he'd been conscious, had been able to crack his eyes open or with-it enough to sit himself up, he hadn't found a face to match the voice, and he put it down to one of the dreams he'd confused with reality. Probably a good thing too, 'cause someone with a voice like that probably had the power to get whatever she wanted in life.
Yeah, it was kind of hard to keep track of reality when that bastard marauder, Qaelan Forster, had made shooting him with the energy weapon his new favorite pastime, keeping him immobile and out of it like a junkie on a bender. The damn thing was like getting jacked by a thousand volts of electricity. It locked up all his muscles, leaving him rigid with rippling pain that just kept on coming, growing in waves, beginning from deep inside him and expanding outward like a tide of shattered glass shredding his insides to a pulp. The agony had taken over, become his only reality, melting and reshaping his cells until there was nothing left of him except a mass of inexorable torment, fighting the crushing darkness.
Varean half rolled and forced himself to sit up, leaving his head throbbing. It'd been a few hours since they'd last hit him with the stunner and, while he still felt like he'd been used as a landing pad for a battle cruiser, his mind was clearing a little. Enough that a good dose of pissed-off was feeding life to his muscles and limbs.
But something within him wasn't right, like a piece of himself had been knocked out of place. Or maybe that wasn't the right way to put it. More like something inside him had mutated, giving life to a kind of dark anger and need to lash out he'd never experienced before.
He'd always prided himself on being calm and collected, on remaining levelheaded and acting with logic. Even through the weeks of hell that'd been commando training, he'd kept his shite together. The more they threw at him, the more locked down and in control he'd become. But this — this dark mutation that had bloomed within him, it tempted him toward reckless violence.
His superior officer on the Swift Brion had put in a perfunctory attempt to stand up for him after he'd been stunned, but Sherron and Forster had dragged his half-unconscious carcass in here anyway. So what? He was their prisoner now? Well, he might have a goddamn opinion about that.
Footsteps echoed, and he lifted his head. Light tread, shorter stride, most likely female. He used the bulkhead at his back to steady himself as he pushed upright, his legs giving a good impersonation of undercooked pudding. But he locked his muscles and took a couple of unsteady steps, bringing him into the middle of the cell as a slight figure moved toward him, her features obscured by the shadows and half lighting along the passageway.
"Good, you're awake."
A low shudder tumbled through his weak limbs, a chaser of relief like rain on the dry, cracked ground of a desert. It was the voice he'd heard in his dreams, the one that had constantly tugged and teased him back when he thought he was completely lost. His pulse kicked up, giving new energy to his dull, aching limbs.
Varean forced his feet to take him the last remaining steps across the space and braced both hands against the bars. The woman stepped closer, moving into a direct beam of light.
She was short, lucky to top out at five foot five, and a wavy mop of dark hair was haphazardly pinned back from her face of cinnamon-toned skin. When she glanced up at him, his heart jammed into his ribs as the light caught her unusual sage green eyes — made even more exotic by the wide, angular set of her thick lashes.
"When I came to check on you last night, you were totally out of it, so you probably don't remember," she continued, as though there wasn't a row of bars separating them and he wasn't being held here against his will. The new mutation within him stirred, mocking him with the idea of throwing himself against the bars in a rage like a wounded animal. He shook his head, dispelling the unsettling notion.
But he couldn't quell the low burn of anger starting up in his chest and spreading outward. Yep, he'd just run out of patience where this situation was concerned. He wrapped his hands around the bars and shoved at the door, making it clatter. "Let me out of here."
A flash of annoyance crossed her features as she folded her arms but didn't step back from him. "I'm a doctor. I'm here only to check on you. I can't let you out, but I can make sure you're treated well."
"Treated well?" He gave a harsh laugh and rattled his cage again. "Where were you yesterday?"
Her posture tightened as her expression took on an affronted edge. "You want out? Then give them what they want."
Frustration poured through him, and his fists contracted around the bars. "What do they want?"
There didn't seem like much point asking the question when he could already guess the answer.
"Rian wants to work out why the energy weapon affects you. He wants to make sure you're not Reidar."
Though he'd been expecting it, her words still landed in his guts, effective as a punch. He could guess why the energy weapon had knocked him on his ass — and it wasn't because he was a damned shape-shifting alien. Every man had his secrets, it was just that his went deeper than most. He'd worked hard to put his past behind him and build a life free of his heritage. It wasn't the kind of thing he liked people to find out. So no, he wouldn't be giving Captain Rian Sherron War Hero shite about anything.
Thwarted aggravation gave strength to his legs and sent him pacing across the small space. When he came to the far bulkhead, he slammed the heel of his palm against the wall he'd woken up to earlier. Words on his lips he couldn't understand kept welling from somewhere unknown.
"I'm not one of those damned things. And what if I don't cooperate? Are Sherron and that pirate Forster going to keep me here against my will? Forcibly remove me from my post?"
The doctor didn't answer him, and he turned to face her. She was studying him, of that he had no doubt. He could all but see her dissecting him.
He crossed his arms and sent her a cutting grin. "You keep looking at me like that, Doc, and I'm going to start getting all the wrong ideas."
She tilted her head a little, gaze blatantly shifting down his body, considering, as if she were entertained by his taunt instead of intimidated like he'd intended. But then, maybe he'd imagined it, because by the time her attention came back to his face, she seemed nothing but detached. "I was planning on taking your vitals. They were a bit on the low side last night. But I'm going to assume that opening the door at this point wouldn't be a good idea."
The anger returned, harder and hotter this time, propelling him back across the short space of the brig to the bars. "Sure, if you want me to snap that pretty neck of yours. Because you and the rest of your friends aren't getting anywhere near me. Go tell Forster he can come down here and shoot me with that stunner until my brain turns to goo because I have nothing to tell you, and I refuse to spend another rotation locked up like a damned animal."
From the expression that crossed her face, it seemed she didn't like his ultimatum. She stepped closer to the bars, either unaware or uncaring that she'd put herself within reach.
"If you're not Reidar, then why does the stunner affect you?"
Aggravation pounded him, burning through his stressed muscles. Was this some different interrogation tactic? Send a pretty face in here to soften him up? Did they really think he was that much of a moron? He was an AF-one commando, for jezus sake. Resisting torture one-oh-one was a basic requirement soldiers had to pass, or they got booted from the training unit like trash on garbage day.
"This is the last time I am having this conversation with anyone. So go tell that to whoever sent you down here. I don't know a thing about frecking shape-shifting aliens, and I don't know why in the hell that stunner knocks me sideways. You're a doctor, you figure it out."
A kindling flare of interest sparked in her gaze as she stared at him, leaving some kind of weird ripple chasing beneath his skin.
Excerpted from Diffraction by Jess Anastasi, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2017 Jess Anastasi. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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