Series: Maelstrom Trilogy #2
Published by: Meankitty Publishing
Release Date: November 2019
Contributors: Jody Wallace
Buy the Book: Books2Read; Amazon; Kobo; Apple
Genre: Adventure, Post-Apocalypse, Romance, Science Fiction
ABOUT THE BOOK
He was branded a traitor. And he may be humankind’s salvation…
Captain Nikolas EstherVorn is a traitor. Or so it was decreed after Niko disobeyed protocol while trying to save Earth from other-dimensional creatures. Stuck in a prison cell, the last thing he needs is to be in close proximity to sexy-as-sin Dr. Sarah CallenJoseph. Not with him damn near ready to break out just to get to her.
Niko’s desire isn’t quite his own…and Sarah can prove it. He—along with the other soldiers on the disastrous mission—were drugged with some kind of toxin. Niko has no clue how the drug got into his body or why, but Sarah suspects there’s a link between the toxin and the fertility crisis of Shipborn humans.
To investigate is forbidden. But as lust becomes something deeper, binding them together in a way neither expected, Niko and Sarah must battle time—and their superiors—to uncover the secret that could save humanity…or destroy it.
Tropes: This apocalypse set romance novel features a redemption arc, coworkers in space, the military, an alpha male, and a marriage of convenience. There’s also a matchmaker, but I don’t want to spoil anything.
Note: This book was previously published by Entangled Publishing, It has not been textually altered.
Also in this series:
Nikolas wadded the thin paper communiqué from Ship’s medtech into a ball and pitched it into the waste slot in his quarters. If he hadn’t responded to Dr. Sarah CallenJoseph-daughter’s six electronic summonses, the squandered paper wasn’t going to prompt him to endure the post-mission checkup, either.
He’d avoided it for weeks. He had his reasons. Until he could address them, he’d continue to avoid it.
Along with the persistent doctor.
“Dr. Sarah requires your presence in the main medlab for your routine examination,” Ship informed him in its flat tones.
“Is there another medtech available?” Niko asked, like he always did.
“Negative. Dr. Sarah has been assigned to handler reintegration.” After a dirtside op, the handlers, who were sent to work with a native population, sometimes experienced post-mission issues that could be physical or mental.
“Then override the request, on my authority.” As a captain, he outranked doctors and most other crew on Ship 1001, the AI sentient spacecraft that currently orbited the planet Terra.
“Override number seven recorded and transmitted.” Niko had lived on Ship 1001 almost his whole life. As such, he could detect the condemnation in the way it emphasized “seven.” No one who interacted with Ships for any length of time labored under the misapprehension that the massive techno-organic beings were anything but sentient—possessed of their own opinions, thoughts, and personalities.
The personality of Ship 1001 was that of an extroverted, somewhat uptight, and insistently nosy next bunk neighbor. If Ship had had a throat, the electronic crackle before it spoke again would have been a harrumph. “Complete examinations are required after Shipborn return from any non-Shipborn planet surface. Your continued noncompliance is not recommended.”
“I’m fine. The humans on Terra have similar germs to us.” Cross-species ailments, such as the Haetherian flu, were of greater concern than anything they might encounter on a human-evolved planet.
Either way, cross-species ailments had nothing to do with Niko’s reluctance to report to Dr. Sarah CallenJoseph.
“Invalid. Terra’s biological neutrality is not yet confirmed.”
“Nobody’s sick, and it’s been nearly a year since we arrived. I think that’s confirmation.” For the first time in fleet history, a pre-code planet was being sponsored like a post-code planet, and the eyes of the entire fleet were on them, inasmuch as interstellar communications would allow.
How much longer they would stay in orbit was uncertain—though Niko suspected General Vorn and Ship were closer to a decision than most of the Shipborn and Terrans realized. Niko only knew because of his relationship to the general.
And to Ship, who considered Niko family. A dubious honor at best, since the result was a nearly omniscient AI constantly up in his business.
“You are not a medtech,” Ship informed him.
“You’re not a medtech, either.” Granted, Ship’s vast knowledge probably included everything it needed to train or advise a medtech, but that didn’t make it one. Mostly just a know-it-all pain in the ass.
“Sarah is a medtech, and she requires you to report to your checkup.” Ship was fond of Sarah, too, hence the first name basis, an honor it didn’t bestow on just any sentient.
“I outrank the doctor. She can’t require me to do anything.”
The last person in the universe he wanted to deal with right then was Sarah. He’d rather juggle histrionic Ships, deadly flying daemons, and pissed off Terran cats than allow Sarah to get within ten feet of him.
If she hadn’t been the one in charge of handler reintegration, maybe he’d be through with that exam.
“Sarah is permitted to submit a grievance to Vorn if you cannot prove your noncompliance is due to scheduling issues. You do not outrank General Vorn.”
“I have an actual scheduling issue—I’m busy.” Eventually she’d give up and assign him to another medtech. She wouldn’t bother Ship’s ranking sentients with something this minor.
“Sarah is permitted to escalate public health concerns to the trine advisors as well.”
“This isn’t a public health concern.”
But Sarah would become extremely concerned about her own health if she had to be around Niko for any length of time. He had no idea why she was being so stubborn about conducting the exam herself. Practical and shrewd, she wasn’t one to fritter her time on lost causes. “Let me know if she goes running to my father.”
With Ship no longer nagging him, Niko was able to return his attention to the data table and pore over the reports.
Opting to bend code, Ship had supported the human population’s war against the invading entities that had swarmed out of the now-sealed rift to their dimension. But the Terrans weren’t making saving their asses any easier, and they had no idea how close they were to being abandoned.
Ship had sent emissaries and technology to the natives but wouldn’t risk its soldiers in battle. One single Shipborn misstep against the soul-sucking entities, and everyone on the planet and Ship alike would die.
Many segments of the human population assumed the aliens were lying about that, like they’d lied about so much already. Niko, restricted from the Terran surface after his illicit mission, was doing whatever he could to persuade Ship and Vorn that the planet was worth helping.
When the planet was initially considered a lost cause, a number of Terrans had been white-lighted—involuntarily—to preserve the natives’ invaluable genome. Nearly all of those Terrans had opted to remain at Ship’s safe and hidden dirtside base in Yellowstone National Park once the mission shifted into a global rescue op.
Or until Ship and Vorn decided they were done with the aggravating Terrans.
Niko had never had to strategize on a pre-code planet whose religions, superstitions, technologies, and cultures hadn’t achieved the level of enlightenment that code required for open communications. Territory ten wouldn’t allow any refugees from North America, twenty-one required larger concessions, five wanted more technology to fight the entities, four wanted permission to scavenge in three, thirty was trying to get its hands on nukes to shoot Ship down, sixteen had taken advantage of the chaos to go to war with fifteen, and so on and so forth.
He wanted to shake them all and tell them if they couldn’t cooperate, they were going to die. Be mauled or carried off by daemons. Eaten by shades.
But maybe intentionally destroying the planet was the ultimate plan. Who’d believe him? It wasn’t something any Ship would do. It wasn’t code. Wasn’t ethical.
His father, General Vorn, the most powerful individual on Ship. The head of the military unit. The sole Shiplink, connected to the AI. As the Terrans would say, Ship’s BFF.
The crew assumed that Ship was the deciding vote on important issues.
Niko knew better. It was Vorn.
His father’s BFF, aka Ship, interrupted Niko’s reading. “Sarah requested that, should you override her latest summons, she be notified immediately.”
“So?” He hadn’t instructed Ship to withhold information from the doctor. Since he wasn’t Vorn, it was debatable whether Ship would follow an order like that from Niko anyway.
After the original Terran mission devised by his father and Ship had flopped—although it should have been a cinch—Niko couldn’t, didn’t, trust Ship any more than he did his father.
Or much of anyone.
He wasn’t even sure he trusted himself.
“Sarah is currently outside your quarters and has employed a medical override on your security,” Ship informed him, far too blandly.
“What the hell? Belay that,” Niko exclaimed, but even as he said it, he heard the hiss of the retracting door.
His enhanced senses immediately detected the near-silent tread of Sarah’s feet, the scent of her soap, and the swish of her medical bag against her pants leg.
Fucking Sarah and her perseverance. If it weren’t for the fact she was discreet and possessed of some very kissable lips, she’d be Ship 1001 in human form.
Niko didn’t turn from the data table.
“At last, we meet again,” she quipped. Her voice was nowhere near as expressionless as Ship’s, and her amusement was evident.
He tried not to tense up. If she noticed, she might suspect his avoidance was due to more than his duties. “You can’t employ a medical override without cause. I’m not lying in here passed out. Dismissed, doctor.”
“Hm. No. Your post-mission examination is weeks overdue.”
“That’s an order.” If she hadn’t contacted Vorn to complain about him yet, would she do it now?
“I’m going to ask you to reconsider that.” Sarah, unsurprisingly, didn’t sound the least intimidated by his pulling rank. “It’s just a checkup.”
“A checkup I don’t have time for. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re trying to save a planet. Reschedule for next week.” At which point, if he couldn’t figure out his little problem or get a different doctor, he’d cancel the appointment again.
She crossed the small living area to stand behind him.
Niko braced himself. And still, his body responded to her proximity. He was as well-trained, disciplined, and enhanced as any Shipborn human could be, yet he couldn’t control his body’s response.
His libido. His lust. His desire to procreate.
He hadn’t been able to control his lust around women since arriving on Terra, and he had no idea why. He should stay as far from her as possible, which meant a physical exam was out of the question.
“I’m here now.” Sarah’s medical kit thunked when it hit the floor. “As are you. We may as well get this over with.”
He didn’t have to see her to imagine how she looked standing behind him. Her thick blond hair would be smoothed carefully back from her face. Her golden skin would be flushed with health, and perhaps success, at having waylaid him. Her crystalline blue eyes—when the fuck had he turned poet?—were probably regarding the back of his head with a clinical detachment that should cool anyone’s ardor.
It wouldn’t cool his.
He would not stand. He would not turn around. He would not let her see him like this.
“Not now.” He gestured over the complex spread of data on his table. “I’ll come in when I’m done. If it’s after your shift…” And it would be. “…Keltin can perform the exam.”
“I’m in charge of handler reintegration, not Keltin.” Plastic snapped as she donned medical gloves. “You’re the final patient on my list, and I’d like to complete this duty so I can turn my attention to more important things.” Her tone sharpened. “Such as obstetrics. Terran mothers often prefer a female physician. You may have heard that I’ve been assigned that role as well. In fact, I’m returning to the dirtside base tomorrow, where I’ve been for most of the past three months. I’ve met so many interesting people. There’s a woman pregnant with twins, if you can believe it.”
Niko hid a flinch. Celibacy had been part of his team’s original mission parameters. Except for Gregori, none of the handlers had behaved according to code while masquerading as Terra’s saviors. The handlers had posed as angels, wearing white tunics with gold combat armor over their torsos and hips. Endo-organic wing packs created the illusion they were avian deities.
They’d tried to conceal their lust. Tried their best to control it. Niko had restrained himself better than the others, but opportunity and need had defeated them time and again.
It wasn’t that they’d forced themselves on anybody, thank the Mother. But enough women had approached the angeli, curious and persistent, that they’d all succumbed to multiple encounters. Oddly, now that he and his men were aboard Ship again, the team’s urges seemed to have ebbed, as far as he could ascertain. Their shit-ass, code-breaking, bed-hopping behavior was definitely on the “do not share” list of the nondisclosure agreement they’d signed post-mission.
Niko’s urges, unfortunately, hadn’t abated. The only way he’d found to curb them was to avoid human females of childbearing age.
Especially ones he’d desired even before his Terran mission.
Sarah’s portable scanner beeped to life. Her medical kit snicked.
He would not look at her. No matter how much he enjoyed looking at her, he would not do it.
“I would appreciate it if you would disrobe now,” she said.
She wouldn’t suggest that if she knew what he was thinking. The idea of disrobing the coolly professional doctor seized him. Licking his way down her supple body. Tasting her intimately. Mounting her, filling her. Hearing her cry his name.
“Nikolas,” Sarah said, as if echoing his fantasy. “Did you hear me?”
The way she said his name, the ‘l’ tripping off her tongue like a kiss on his cock, hardened him all the way.
“I don’t want an exam right now,” he snarled. Combat adrenaline hummed through his veins, which her scanner would detect. It bleeped accordingly. “I refuse your services. Interference with free will is against code. Leave before I report you.”
Sarah’s clothing rustled, and she sighed. “Nikolas. Niko. How long have we known each other? Can’t you trust me when I tell you this is crucial? I’ve conducted some preliminary calculations that indicate… I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to complete the first round of exams.”
“Is this about our enhancements?”
She was their resident enhancements and augmentation expert, and they’d collaborated on his tech projects. Somewhat amicably. He wouldn’t normally hinder her work, but she was hindering his grip on civility.
“I’m not ready to share my information. It’s too inconclusive.” He could hear her tinker with the medical bag. “This exam will only take thirty minutes of your time, Nikolas, and then you can return to whatever it is you do now.”
He tilted his head until he could see her faint shadow on the floor to his right. “That’s Captain Nikolas.”
“I keep forgetting. I’m stunned greater sanctions weren’t instated after you…” Sarah expelled a small, disgusted breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not part of the trine. I’m your doctor. It’s not my place to judge. But I need to finish what I came here to do.”
Due to her role in the childbirths, she’d been drawn into the truth about the team’s indiscretions. Including his.
General Vorn and Ship had restricted the information as need-to-know. It wouldn’t do to have the heterosexual men on Ship ignoring the dangers and demanding shore leave while the planet teemed with various types of entities. Red, bat-like daemons with talons nearly as strong as tactanium that scouted new territories and food sources. Hordes of black, soul-sucking shades whose very touch meant death. Twenty-feet tall ovoid drones that linked up to create force fields and crank out shades.
And the grandfather of them all, the Ship-sized leviathan that appeared when a shade detected Shipborn DNA. Any time a leviathan had formed, all sentient beings—including all Ships in the vicinity—had been consumed within hours.
That was pretty much all they knew about leviathans, but it was enough.
“If you’ve come to tell me I’m a screw-up, consider yourself heard,” Niko said. Her unhappiness about his actions, an unhappiness that seemed based on personal acquaintance and not code, cut him more sharply than he’d expected. He reacted poorly. “Never mind that my Terran friends and I were part of the op that sealed the Terran nexus and saved billions of lives.”
“Many of your Terran friends are my friends now, too,” Sarah said, still in that disappointed voice. “I’m not so sure they should call you friend, considering your mission could have killed them.”
Niko lowered his chin. If he pissed Sarah off enough, would she leave? “They knew the risks. I didn’t involve anyone who didn’t volunteer.”
“They were pregnant. Pregnant because of you. And you endangered them.”
“Technically, only Claire Lawson is pregnant because of me,” he corrected, not allowing the shame coursing through him to bleed into his words.
Their mission had been worth the potential cost. He’d been desperate to protect the fertile blue planet and had basically committed treason despite a lifetime of trying to please his father. A planet like Terra should never be lost to the entities’ never ending quest to consume sentient life. No matter what.
“I guess that makes it a little better,” Sarah mused. “I do understand precautions were taken and accidents happened. However, many of the Terrans feel completely betrayed. They were innocent. They didn’t even know who you really were.”
“Claire isn’t one of them. She knows everything now and, to be frank, she suspected at the time as well.” Niko swiped his data table, as if he were ignoring Sarah. The truth was, he could barely focus on the charts in front of him because all his nerves were attuned to the woman behind him. “Besides, I wouldn’t describe her as innocent. Would you?”
Plastic snapped. A soft, blue glove bounced off the back of Niko’s head. He blinked, surprised.
“Would you at least turn around and face me when I’m talking to you?” Sarah demanded.
“No,” he said mildly.
“You’re displaying signs of mental duress. I’ll add that to your chart to support my claim of medical necessity.” Her shoe scraped the floor. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, but from the position of her shadow, she’d only shifted her weight.
He didn’t want to seduce Sarah; he couldn’t imagine the havoc it would create. Better that he insult her than subject her to the things he wanted to do to her. None of the Terran women had been unwilling, but Sarah wasn’t interested in him sexually.
“We aren’t supposed to talk about this.”
“I’m your doctor. And Claire’s. We’re talking about this.”
“Is Claire all right?” he asked.
“She’s fine, but—”
“Then we’re done here. Get out.”
“Is this because of Gregori?” she asked. “You’re angry with my brother for telling us about the pregnant women. You can’t get at Gregori through me.”
As his doctor, she’d seen him in every condition—healthy, naked, nearly dead, bleeding. She’d taken away his pain, healed him, advised him, researched with him, occasionally kidded him, and always, always been untouchable.
He longed to touch her, and he couldn’t. Why did he find her so much more irresistible than the women on Terra who’d actually propositioned him? She had no idea what he was imagining right now—what he was struggling to keep himself from doing.
“I’m not angry at Gregori.” The man had been his friend, one whose skill and level-headedness Niko respected, but he didn’t know where they stood after that mission. “I was going to tell the trine about the women.”
“After you used them as daemon bait.”
“The women agreed of their own free will to lure the shades and daemons away from the nexus so Adelita Martinez could get close enough to shut it—and so your brother could rescue her. Technically, I’m not supposed to talk about it, because of my nondisclosure agreement.” He wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t know, but he felt compelled to defend his actions. To recapture her respect. “The women have certainly talked about it,” she said. “They didn’t sign agreements.”
He needed to chase her out of his room before her frustration with him turned into something a lot worse. He couldn’t let himself harm her.
“Look, doctor, the truth is, I just prefer Dr. Keltin to you.” His fingertips practically dented the data table as he struggled against his compulsion. His response to her, even stronger than he’d feared it might be, frightened the hell out of him. What would she do if he leapt up and grabbed her like some kind of primitive? “Your bedside manner is annoying. I just never wanted to say anything. Switch me to Keltin’s roster. He can handle endo-organics.”
“Give me a break,” she retorted. “Get off your surly butt and submit to this exam before I tranq you.”
Mild-mannered, good-natured, code-pure Sarah CallenJoseph, the perfect doctor and perfect sister of Gregori the Also Perfect, threatening to tranq him?
Niko couldn’t help it. He laughed.
“You don’t believe me,” she observed. “You’re making a mistake.”
As threats went, “you’re making a mistake” didn’t register on his hazard scale. He’d survived a ten-daemon attack on Raelta and had a daemon claw embedded in his skull to show for it. Sarah could probably have removed it, but he’d opted to keep it.
She was the one in danger—entering his quarters alone.
“I’ll ask you one final time,” he said. “Leave my room before I file a report that you’ve invaded my privacy.” The coolness of metal brushed the side of his neck.
“This is too important, Niko,” she whispered. “I did warn you.”
His vision blurred. Holy Mother, she’d actually tranqed him! He slumped sideways in his chair, the doctor’s capable hands catching him before he hit the floor.
His last sight was of Sarah’s blue eyes, beautiful face—and her damned dimples.