STORY

On a sleepy agrarian planet, Sila Gatherer hides a deadly secret. When an accident brings her into the orbit of alien starfarers long believed to be extinct, it sets off a chain of events with repercussions for Sila, her world, Sector Araloka and the war between the Budh-Ketaari Empire and the Kampuchan Alliance.

Star Captain Zh’hir Mu’raat is Ur’quay – legendary starfarers renowned across the galaxy as warriors and explorers. On a desperate mission to Sector Araloka, he encounters an alien with an astonishing gift. As the warrior and his accidental captive learn to trust each other, they forge a bond.

After centuries of isolation, the Ur’quay enter the war. Drawn to each other against all odds, Sila and the Star Captain must fight for a future together as the war, Sila’s ability, Ur’quay tradition and a complicated legacy tests their faith in each other and their new allies. When a centuries-old secret threatens their new coalition, Sila becomes a pawn in the war. As the stakes ratchet up for the Ur’quay and the sector, can the Star Captain follow his heart or will history repeat itself again …

Will history repeat itself when a girl with a deadly heritage and a mysterious  starfarer fight for a future together?

 

This is Book 2 of The Araloka Chronicles  — a collection of  SciFi Romance tales with Space Opera adventure

The story is standalone, though a reader’s experience will be enhanced if the books are read in order

GLOSSARY
A brief recap of the main entities in the Aralokan universe


AUTHOR’S NOTE

If you own a kindle copy of The Mercenary, please update it. Amazon is offering an update for the book. The book series name has changed from The War Chronicles to The Araloka Chronicles with a few subtle changes, though the story remains the same as before.

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Emblem - The War Chronicles by Petra Landon

 

 

 

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Help me, O Goddess.
O Goddess. O Goddess!
Please, O Goddess.

The panic-stricken cries of a distinctly feminine voice reverberated in the confines of his mind, seeping through the mental barriers he’d spent a lifetime perfecting. His eyes snapped open, his body transitioning abruptly from deep slumber to sharp alertness — an invaluable ability for a warrior whose profession demanded battle-readiness at all times. He lay still in the darkness, his head resonating with the echoes of the desperate cries. But try as he might, he could no longer hear the unfamiliar voice. In the dark rest-chamber, everything lay silent around him — no exotic intonations reverberated in his mind. He sat up slowly, switching to his night eyes to guide him in the dark. Could it have been a dream, he mused? Every instinct in him screamed that the voice had been very real. The cries had been unfamiliar, feminine and in Alliance Standard. Despite his lack of vocabulary in the language, he could comprehend the tenor of her thoughts — she invoked her deity hysterically in blind terror. It seemed unlikely that his mind could conjure up such an improbable and exotic dream. He had never possessed a fertile imagination. There had to be a simpler and more likely explanation. Perhaps, his mental shields had relaxed a little in slumber, allowing the voice to seep into his well-guarded mind.

Deliberately, he lowered a few of his formidable mental barriers, silently willing the voice to call out again. There was no danger in relaxing the shields — his shipmates would never infringe on his thoughts. But lowering the barriers was all he could do. Sending out any mind-feelers to seek the feminine voice was out of the question. His people had stringent laws against mind-breaches of any kind, both intentional and inadvertent. Ur’quay law deemed any invasion of the mind a crime punishable by death. Every child on Ur’Qia was taught to safeguard his mind from an early age and to never attempt to breach privacy through thoughts.

Abandoning further attempts at slumber, he sprang up from the bed to pad to his desk. Much as his body needed the rest, his mind was restless, insistent on solving the puzzle that preoccupied it. His arm-band, embedded with his communication device, lay on the desk where he had tossed it before disrobing for bed.

He reached for it to ping the Command Chamber — the nerve center of this starship.

“First Commander” Sub-Commander Sh’stral’s voice responded alertly.

“Are we flying through Alliance territory, Sub-Commander?” he inquired.

“Not one protected by their security net, First Commander” Sh’stral answered promptly, with just a hint of query in his voice.

To their astonishment, the Ur’quay had discovered that not all of Alliance territory was enclosed within a security net to guard against enemy incursions. Their months long clandestine survey of Alliance-claimed space was the only reason he could translate a few words from the terror-stricken wails permeating his mind. The Ur’quay, not of this corner of the galaxy, were unfamiliar with the languages of Sector Araloka.

“Have we taken on any prisoners recently?” he queried the Sub-Commander. It was unlikely, but he had no other explanation for those frantic calls to her deity.

“Yes, First Commander. We picked up traces of shtoal on a planet we passed through a half hour ago. The pod sent to pick up samples returned with a tiny female. The autoport beam scooped her up with the shtoal.”

Success, he mused with satisfaction tinged with puzzlement. This might explain the mysterious cries in his mind, but not how she had breached his mental shields.

“Where is the prisoner now?” he asked.

“In the holding cells, First Commander. I would have brought it to your attention at the next duty rotation.”

“That is correct procedure, Sub-Commander” he acknowledged to his junior officer. “However, I am awake now and will speak to the prisoner.”

“She is in Cell One, First Commander.”

“Acknowledged” he signed off.

An acute sense of urgency assailed him. The voice in his head had been terrified. He donned his armor with practiced haste to stride out towards the holding cells. The warriors aboard the starship slept in partial armor, their life onboard driven primarily by their duty rotations — accustomed to taking short naps in the intervals between shifts. The Ur’quay on the ship had been forced to acclimatize to their circumstances as they wandered unstable corners of the galaxy, far from home, in search of scarce resources for their people.

As he approached the narrow corridor that led to the cells, her voice slammed into his head again.

O Goddess, I pray to you. Please spare me.
I promise to never again shirk my gathering duties!

He barely understood her thoughts, but her desperation and terror came through. Despite his rudimentary command of Alliance Standard, her emotions swamped him through the connection of their minds. To comprehend her words, he’d need a translator. And no ordinary translator would do. He would need an implant to mind-read the cries echoing in his head. His ship did carry such implants for emergencies, just like it had translators to allow the Ur’quay to communicate, if warranted, with alien species they were likely to encounter as they travelled an unfamiliar slice of space. But it would take time and a medic to embed the implant in him. He’d also have to answer awkward questions about his sudden and inexplicable request for one. That he could handle should he need to. It was something else that beckoned him to urgency — a sense of running out of time. It was imperative he get her to stop projecting her thoughts before she ran afoul of Ur’quay law.

Females had become progressively rarer on his world, as birth rates declined steadily. He wondered how no one had thought to protect this one by teaching her to shield her mind from others of their kind. Ur’quay were born with the ability to mind-read most species. Only those highly trained to erect mental barriers could prevent an Ur’quay mind-scan. To him, it was obvious that she shared this ability with his people. If that was the case, the laws of his people would apply to her on this starship. She would be put to death for inadvertent invasion of privacy.

O Goddess, hear my prayer!
I promise you that I’ll even listen to the advice Peruthan gives me next time.

She sat unguarded in a corner of the dim holding cell, hunched over defensively in the near darkness. As he punched in the code to disable the energy shield that protected the cell, she glanced up warily. Her alarm, already dangerously close to hysteria, seemed to ratchet up at his presence — her emotions washed over him in a deluge of apprehension and horror.

The cell’s overhead lights switched on automatically, as the shield came down. In the harsh light, her diminutive figure appeared vulnerable and defenseless, more so than her huddled silhouette had in the near darkness. He could feel her fear escalate, despite her attempts to pull herself together. Yet, she rose to her feet to face him determinedly, her back to the wall and her posture defiant.

He hesitated outside the cell, not wanting to intimidate her. Her eyes widened as she caught her first glimpse of him, the jewel-bright depths flaring as she took note of the Ur’quay male.

He’s huge!
And so strange not like anyone … so different. What species?

This he understood, more than some of her other cries. Inordinately pleased by the small flicker of curiosity, he took advantage of it. Stepping into the cell carefully, he attempted to appear as non-threatening as he could. But despite his efforts, her curiosity was soon wiped away, vanquished by despair and fear.

How will I ever get away from them?
Help me, O Goddess. Please … help me!

He paused at the entrance to dredge through his limited Alliance Standard for some words to reassure her. His presence in full battle armor had unnerved her, he surmised. That had not been his intention. In an attempt to soften the image, he directed a small smile at her — a subtle quirk of his lips. Only to inadvertently flash his sharp canines. Meant to reassure her, his gesture seemed to instead open the dam to her worst fears. A palpable escalation of her terror enveloped him.

He’s going to eat me. O Goddess!
Oh please, please O Goddess, don’t let me be food. Please, I pray to you. Oh please!

This time, she could not control her emotions. A gasp escaped her to echo in the cell — a helpless whimper that she attempted to stifle by pressing a small fist to her mouth. Eyes closed, she slumped against the wall, as if to shut out the vision of the large creature poised at the entrance to her cell.

Stupefied, he went utterly still — immobilized by horror and a feeling akin to insult at this impugning of his intentions. He had caught the word eat to arrive at the right conclusion. His species did not feed on sentient beings, he fumed silently. Did this strange female consider the Ur’quay to be barbarians?

“No eat” he growled out vehemently in Alliance Standard, his finger pointed at her. All thought of attempting to cut a non-threatening figure had vanished in his ire at her unmistakable insult to his species.

“No eat” he repeated again, his finger stabbing angrily in the air to gesture at her.

The furious words, gutturally growled, echoed in the cell. After a long moment, she opened her eyes, slowly and with infinite care, to tilt her head warily and meet his incensed gaze for the first time. There was a pregnant pause as they stared at each other. He was the first to break it, turning on his heels to stride away from the cell. Grimly determined to disabuse her of her false imputations, he made for the cubbyhole in the holding area that stored translation devices. He knew they could translate Alliance Standard — it was one of the few Aralokan languages Ur’quay devices had been programmed to handle in the last few months of traveling clandestinely through their space.

She watched him walk away, confused and surprised by his action. Only for her earlier wariness to return in force when he strode back in. This time, he did not remain at the edge of the cell. Her bright eyes followed his progress, holding back her terrified gasp with sheer will-power.

When he stopped a few feet away from her, her very breaths seemed to suspend as she awaited his next move. Holding out his arm to her, careful to keep his distance, he extended his palm, unfurling his fingers to show her the tiny device it held. With his other hand, he gestured at her to take the device. The Ur’quay stayed silent for the simple reason that he didn’t know the words in Alliance Standard for either translation or communication.

Her eyes took in the big palm extended to her and the strange webbing between the long tapering fingers, before she glanced up at him uncertainly. It was clear that she did not understand him, but a little of her fear seemed to melt away at his unthreatening gesture. He took note of the pronounced air of puzzlement about her now, though her fist still pressed up against her mouth.

He pointed at the translation-cum-communication device embedded in the arm-band that encircled his right bicep over his armor, willing her to understand. She remained immobile, her wary gaze alternating uncomprehendingly between his face and his palm.

With a little growl of impatience, he reached for her. She shrank back until she was tucked up against the wall behind her with nowhere to go. He felt a pang — she had no reason to not fear him. At least a foot and a half taller than her, his physical appearance was as different from her as could be. Attired in a shapeless, all-covering work-suit cinched in at the waist, her fiery red hair was pulled off her face, tied back with a scrap of cloth, to fall to the middle of her back. Her eyes were a jewel-bright green, the irises encased in white, with dark round pupils at the center — a stark contrast to his. Even the pale skin of her face, dotted with a smattering of darker spots, was a far cry from his darker bronze skin with the pale stripes that covered him all over.

He stopped at touching distance to her, reaching out slowly to attach the translator to her right shoulder over the work-suit. Closing her eyes, she flinched away from him, her cries stifled by the fist over her mouth. But as she felt his gentle touch on her shoulder, she opened her eyes cautiously, her curious gaze drawn to the device. Tapping it lightly, he stepped back. Pointing at the device clipped to her shoulder, he drew her attention to the arm-band on his bicep, his eyes on her.

“Translation device” he explained.

For a moment, she looked confused and uncomprehending. His voice, with its guttural undertones, sounded strange to her, especially with her mind clouded by fear. He repeated it again, slowly and deliberately, and suddenly, her bright eyes blinked, glancing up at him with a glint of understanding permeating them. His eyes — a throwback to his reptilian forebearers, like much of the Ur’quay’s physical characteristics, with the gold-colored iris that covered the surface punctured by an elliptical-shaped vertical stripe of black that served as the pupil — raked her. Gathering her courage, she gave him an almost imperceptible nod to signal that she understood him.

He rushed into speech, without giving her an opportunity to say anything.

“You are not food” he spit out the words precisely, unable to mask his fury. “We do not eat your kind. Do you understand?” The guttural tones were colored by emotion she could not miss.

She nodded mutely, this time with more confidence, her eyes on him. Finally, her fist fell away from her mouth. She seemed to understand that he meant her no harm. Yet, her bright expressive eyes clouded with confusion — she had taken note of his inexplicable displeasure. That he was responding to thoughts she had never voiced aloud escaped her. To her, the very idea was preposterous. And, she had bigger fears to conquer at the moment.

“Do you understand?” he growled again, impatient now.

My Goddess, so impatient.

“I understand” she answered in a soft voice.

His eyes narrowed at her answer, though it was her thoughts he was responding to. Silence descended in the cell as captor and captive studied the other.

“First Commander Zh’hir Mu’raat” he announced abruptly, pointing at himself.

She remained silent, despite his introduction, though she continued to stare up at him.

“What are you called, female?” he asked, at her continued silence.

“Sila Gatherer” she stammered, her hands reaching for the wall behind her to hold her up.

“Sseela” he drawled out in the guttural voice, hissing out the s, his head cocking as if he didn’t know what to make of her.

She gave him a short tilt of her head, her green eyes wary.

His eyes wandered over her, cataloguing her appearance and attempting to match it to the reports he had been provided before the mission. Only to come up empty. His ancestors had never met hers, for if they had, they would have kept a record of it. They were starfarers — a race of explorers and warriors. And once, a long time ago, his ancestors had fulfilled their destiny by wandering the stars and fostering legends about Ur’quay prowess in far-flung corners of the galaxy. Including Sector Araloka.

“What kind are you?” He shook his head with a sharp flick, to try again. “What species?”

“Terran” she responded with more confidence, her eyes on the scales that covered his body.

The guttural sounds of his tongue, so strange to her, were becoming easier to comprehend as her ears adapted to them. Plus, the translator helped by smoothing them out. As the conversation continued and the male’s questions displayed more curiosity than any intent to intimidate or threaten, Sila found herself agog with questions for the huge alien. It was sheer fright that held her tongue-tied.

To her, he looked extraordinarily alien. Massive and muscular, his strapping body was covered in scales the same color as the thick pelt of hair that hung down his back. Strange-looking instruments covered one muscular arm and a hefty wrist. She suspected they were weapons of some kind. His face and palms were marked by faint vertical stripes on bronze-colored skin, the fingers of his hand connected to the base by a web-like spike of skin. The gold eyes, bright and unblinking, catalogued her every movement. He moved like a predator — deliberate, measured and determined. He had been careful with her. She was beginning to understand that, as her anxiety slowly ratcheted down. But every sharp flick of his hair, each guttural word out of his mouth, and every cock of his head reminded her that she was at the mercy of these powerful-looking aliens. Even the tiniest movement of his big body caused his scales to ripple like the surface of a clear pond, shimmering and dancing in a bright undulating wave — reminding her that she knew nothing about the aliens or why they had captured her or even what they intended for her.

He cocked his head again, a gesture that signaled his curiosity. He had never heard of her species. There had been no references to Terrans in the detailed journals their starfaring ancestors had left behind of their foray into this part of the galaxy centuries ago. And while the Ur’quay had learnt more about Sector Araloka in the months spent here, their knowledge was limited.

“Terran” he repeated thoughtfully. “Are you part of the Kampuchan Alliance?”

“I … think so. The Alliance claimed our planet three rotations ago, though no representative has ever stepped foot on it since. There’s nothing of value on my world” she stated simply.

Zh’hir stared at her. This was the longest sentence she had volunteered so far. Her apprehension and misgivings were in slow retreat — it was time he delivered a blunt warning.

“Why are you projecting your thoughts?” he asked abruptly.

This time, her response was to gaze at him in utter incomprehension.

“I can read your thoughts. You called out to someone named Goddess. And presumed that I would treat you as my next meal.” The last sentence was spoken with palpable emotion. The implied insult had not yet lost its sting for him.

His words seemed to stun her. Her eyes flashed to him, her alarming circumstances temporarily forgotten.

“You … you heard my thoughts” she exclaimed, amazed and puzzled by his statement. For once, Sila’s astonishment took precedence over her wariness of him. She straightened, her face reflecting her wonder; fear superseded by consternation at his revelation.

He nodded brusquely, his eyes noting the tell-tale signs of her receding fear.

“On my world, I’m the only one with the ability to read others’ thoughts. I’ve always assumed that I was different” she offered artlessly.

“On my world, it is a crime punishable by death if you read another’s thoughts without permission” he bit out acerbically, intending to drive his warning home.

“Oh, I would never do that” she assured him. “I can block out everyone — I’d never have survived with all the voices in my head otherwise.”

“Make sure that you are careful” he warned her. “Even an unintentional attempt at touching the mind of another is considered a crime.”

She nodded, her expression earnest. Her big green eyes stared into his strange gold ones for a moment, before looking away.

“What do you intend to do with me?” She finally asked the question that she most feared the answer to.

“That will be up to my Captain” he said shortly.

His bicep beeped abruptly to interrupt them, a timely reminder that his duty rotation started in ten minutes.

My Goddess, they can read my thoughts. But how I’ve never heard of a race of mind-readers?
They will kill me. Or perhaps, sell me to the slavers.

As despair assailed her once more, the big warrior’s eyes snapped to her in fury, his gold gaze with the slit-like pupils piercing her.

“We are Ur’quay — feared and respected across the galaxy. We do not mistreat our prisoners” he declared angrily. “Nor do we condone slavery.”

Sila blinked, flabbergasted by his words. This had been a day full of shocks and revelations.

Ur’quay! Bless the Goddess, aren’t they extinct? Or pure myth?

The supposedly extinct alien narrowed his extraordinary eyes at her. Sila gaped at him. On her world, tales still abounded of the mighty Ur’quay, feted as warriors with extraordinary strength and mysterious abilities. And even though no Ur’quay had been sighted for centuries in this corner of space, paeans about their fierceness and prowess in battle continued to be sung on most Aralokan worlds. As her wondering eyes took in the massive male with the shimmering, scaly body and strange eyes, Sila sent up another silent prayer to the Goddess.

O Goddess, I’m in so much trouble.
This short-tempered one can snap my neck with a single twist of those arms!

The short-tempered male was moved to glare at her, irritated, exasperated and puzzled by her chaotic and insulting thoughts that continued to spear him in waves.

Watch over me, O Goddess! And help him with his anger issues, please, I ask of you.

Zh’hir brought his raging temper under control, as his fair-minded self asserted itself. She was merely in shock, he reminded himself. Much like the other Aralokans would be, if they ever discovered that the Ur’quay had returned to their old stomping grounds after abandoning them for centuries.

“Mind your thoughts, Terran” he said impassively as he turned to exit the cell.

Emblem - The War Chronicles by Petra Landon

Star Captain Pe’luk strode into the Command Chamber, an hour into Zh’hir’s shift.

“First Commander” the Captain greeted him warmly.

“Star Captain” Zh’hir returned his Captain’s greeting, his voice tinged with affection. This was the last mission he would be serving under Pe’luk before the Star Captain was slated to retire. Zh’hir would have command of the starship Henia on her next mission and was acutely aware of how sorely he’d miss his Captain and mentor. Two decades separated the two Ur’quay males. The bonds of friendship, developed fourteen rotations ago when Pe’luk had taken an interest in a new recruit orphaned by the Ten Year Famine that had devastated the rural hinterlands, had only strengthened over time.

“Are we done testing the latest shtoal samples?”

“Yes, Star Captain. The quality of shtoal is average but there is an abundance of it on the planet. It might be worth a mining mission in the future.”

“Any indications of life on the planet?”

“It is populated” Zh’hir said slowly, the unexpected meeting with the Terran female still fresh in his mind.

“Alliance?” his Captain inquired.

It was a fair assumption for the Star Captain to make. They’d been running clandestine reconnaissance in Sector Araloka for months now. Their foray had indicated a bloody civil war between two major powers — the Kampuchan Alliance and the Budh-Ketaari Empire. Most civilizations and worlds seemed to have allied themselves with one or the other, their decision driven by the elemental desire to survive. The Ur’quay surmised that few in Sector Araloka had the resources and military might to remain neutral, without being overrun. Both Alliance and Empire safeguarded their territory with the deployment of sophisticated border security nets. The Ur’quay, even with their advanced technology, had been unable to penetrate the Empire’s net without raising an alarm. Since their mandate for this mission was strictly to survey and not engage, except in self-defense, the Star Captain had decreed that they would survey neutral and Alliance territory first before making any further attempts on Empire-protected space.

“The planet lies in space unprotected by the Alliance security net. But it is claimed by the Alliance, though no representative has set foot there for three rotations. My guess is that the planet is not worth their time or resources to protect.”

“You are thorough as usual, First Commander” Pe’luk responded with a pleased smile.

“This time I had assistance, Star Captain. When the shtoal sample was autoported from the planet, we also inadvertently gained a prisoner. A young female who goes by the name of Sseela Gatherer.”

“We have a female prisoner!” Pe’luk exclaimed in surprise. “What species is she?”

“Terran.”

“Never heard of them. Ur’quay do not get many opportunities to meet other species, except in battle.”

Zh’hir sighed inwardly at the implication of his Captain’s words. Once, the starfaring Ur’quay had been reputed across the galaxy as both fearsome warriors and fearless explorers. They had travelled far and wide to explore other worlds, civilizations and cultures, bolstered by their technology, military arsenal and prowess on the battlefield to go where others feared to tread. But now, they were an almost-forgotten species desperately clinging to the old ways and obsessively insisting on segregation to preserve their culture. Until this mission, he reminded himself. Like the Star Captain and his First Commander, many Ur’quay were hoping that this expedition would be the precursor to a more aggressive outreach — praying it would bring an end to the isolation that had brought their civilization to the brink.

“What do you suggest we do with her?” the Star Captain asked him.

“We could autoport her to her world if we head back at some point.”

The Star Captain said nothing, contemplating Zh’hir calmly. They both knew that this ship was no abode, even a temporary one, for an alien female unaccustomed to their ways.

“The female is rather puny and fragile. She will not survive for long if we drop her off at a space dock” Zh’hir explained circumspectly to his Captain. Space docks were lawless and dangerous, especially for someone who could not fend for herself. She was no warrior — he had felt her terror as she lay incarcerated in the holding cell. And she was a prisoner on his starship for no fault of hers. Zh’hir would rather no harm come to her for what was essentially an Ur’quay mistake.

The Star Captain studied him thoughtfully before announcing his decision.

“I leave it to you, First Commander. In any case, you will soon be making all the decisions on the Henia.”

The Captain moved on swiftly to a discussion of other matters. While his First Commander attempted to shove to the back of his mind the nagging thought that he was duty bound to bring the female’s mind-reading abilities to his Captain’s attention.

Emblem - The War Chronicles by Petra Landon

The First Commander found his thoughts drifting to the Terran as he neared the end of a long shift. He wondered idly how she fared and hoped his brief conversation with her had managed to allay some of her fears.

The just concluded shift had been rather successful. They had discovered a planet with shtoal reserves. On approach for a closer scan with their sophisticated sensors, they had come under attack from Alliance ships guarding it. The Captain had put his First Commander in charge of successfully repelling the ships while getting the Henia close enough to take scans of the planet for further analysis. The feat had proved easy enough, for the starship Henia was primarily a warship equipped with powerful offensive and defensive capabilities, including a cloaking mechanism that rendered it invisible to others. Zh’hir had avoided using the powerful weapons by exploiting the starship’s slick maneuverability and the ability to cloak at the press of a control button.

The First Commander reflected with quiet satisfaction on the successful acquisition of resource and population scans of the target planet as well as sensor readings of the Alliance ships guarding it. Ur’quay were primarily a warrior race and his officers had been eager for a skirmish. But they were good soldiers who recognized the significance and gravity of this mission and understood that their current directive to gather data and evade battles made any chances of action on this expedition low.

 Four of their most sophisticated starships had been dispatched to different corners of the galaxy on this mission. Four centuries of isolation and obsessive focus on their warrior culture to the exclusion of all else had wrought many changes and some unexpected side-effects on the Ur’quay. There had been a loss of certain skills within their population. The lack of new trading partners had caused its own problems. Without trade, they were left with a surplus of certain resources and a severe lack of others. Although technological advancements had continued, albeit at a much slower pace, their population was in decline with the ratio of female to male Ur’quay at an all-time low. In desperation, the High Council had finally deemed it necessary to relax their segregationist policies for the survival of their species. The data brought back by the four starships sent on this mission of exploration and survey was to be used to determine the best course of action for the future of the Ur’quay.

No echoes of a feminine Terran voice rang in his mind as he strode towards his rest-chamber. Zh’hir counted that as a sign that she’d taken his warning to heart. Yet, a niggling inner voice urged him to be sure. Heeding that voice, he lowered his mental shields as he neared his rest-chamber. The Terran’s thoughts slammed into him the moment his barriers had thinned. The last time, her cries had been fearful and panic-stricken, her terror drenching him in its wake. This time, she seemed rambling and incoherent, but also curiously sanguine.

Check the shaku plants; need more water and less light. Check the hantu trees; only bloom at low temperature. Check the minua saplings; the moisture content must be regulated. Check the yanzu fruits; ripen only during high tide of the Meklen river.

What in the blazes of the High Mountain Deity, Zh’hir wondered in bemusement, breaking into a dead run towards the holding cells. The alien female’s thoughts made no sense to him. However, she would definitely get in trouble if anyone else picked up her loud mind. He came to an abrupt halt before her cell, even as her incomprehensible ramblings continued to echo through him. The cell sat plunged in darkness. As he switched to his night eyes, he could see her in a corner, huddled on the floor. Zh’hir disengaged the cell’s energy shield to step into it, as the harsh overhead lights flickered on abruptly. She appeared to wince a little, scrunching up her eyes, but otherwise lay unmoving. All the while, her mind kept repeating the little ditty as if desperate to hold on to some semblance of reality.

He moved closer, bending down to a crouch. She lay inert, her eyes closed. He stared at her, puzzled by her comatose state. She still wore the translator he’d affixed to her shoulder. And he attempted to communicate, hoping to get through to her despite whatever ailed her.

“Sseela … Sseela! Can you hear me?” he inquired urgently.

After a few frantic attempts, she responded with a murmur that sounded vaguely like ‘tired’.

Tired, he wondered in consternation. They’d not asked her to do any physical labor. She had been incarcerated in the holding cell doing absolutely nothing since her capture. Something didn’t seem right here! He looked her over again, more carefully this time, wishing he understood her physiology better. The soft skin of her face looked subtly different from when he’d last seen her. He cocked his head, thinking furiously. Reaching for her, he carefully skimmed her face with the tip of a blunt finger. She remained listless under his touch. He frowned, his eyes wondering over her face. The lush lips he’d noticed before looked dry and cracked.

The first signs of comprehension burst in on him abruptly. She is dehydrated, you dolt, he admonished himself. And probably starving to boot! Ur’quay bodies had evolved over generations to go long stretches without water or other sustenance — the evolution a natural step in a race of warriors and explorers. Ur’quay warriors possessed the ability to gorge before battles, only for their bodies to store and release the nutrition slowly as required. This diminutive female probably had no such adaptation and had slowly been starving in her cell due to their neglect.

Zh’hir reached for his communicator to ping the junior warrior on the ship – he was in charge of portioning their food and doling out the rations to his shipmates on a periodic basis. The Ur’quay home world faced acute food shortages. As a result, everyone had been put on strict synthesized food rations.

“Enlist Mh’hir, please bring some water and liquid nutrition to the holding cells” he directed urgently into his device.

He cast a glance at the slight body lying defenseless on the floor.

“Just a small amount from my rationed portion will do.”

“Immediately, First Commander” the young warrior acknowledged, not allowing even a hint of curiosity to enter his voice.

As he signed off, Zh’hir gazed down at the Terran female. She was in no condition to guard her thoughts. He could protect her mind easily by extending his shields to her, but he was reluctant to perform the service for her. Enlist Mh’hir would probably not hear her if his mental barriers were properly up as they should be, he told himself. It was a risky gamble though. If discovered, the penalty for her would be death. He stared down at her still form, all the life and warmth seemingly extinguished from the jewel-bright eyes and the agile mind he had sensed. Even her brightly-colored hair fanned listlessly around her. The color reminded him of the beautiful sunsets on the crystal-clear lakes of Mahonet he’d seen many rotations ago, when his father had taken him on a visit. It was this inconsequential memory that tipped Zh’hir to make the impulsive decision to extend his mental shields to her. His people used this between parent and a not-yet-fully-trained child. It was also occasionally used between baithoni during intimacy.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated on reaching across to her mind in a bid to shore up her mental barriers, segment by segment. He had never done this for anyone before and it felt alien to him. She murmured softly as she felt his mind gently but surely invade hers.

“Can you hear me, Terran?” he asked out aloud. “If you can, hold on. Water and sustenance are on their way.”

Check the hantu trees ….

“First Commander” greeted a voice from the entrance to the cell.

Zh’hir gestured the young warrior into the cell. Enlist Mh’hir strode in briskly to the First Commander who knelt by the girl. The young Ur’quay stared down at the alien female in curiosity and surprise.

“The female is small. She is too weak to survive for long” the young Enlist concluded.

The First Commander held out a hand for the liquid-packs before dismissing the Enlist. The warrior was young and had much to learn. If the Ur’quay were to break free of their isolation, they would have to learn to appreciate the uniqueness of other species and their differences with them. Prying open the Terran’s mouth carefully, he placed a few drops of water on her tongue. Then, he alternated water with a few drops of liquid nutrition, making sure to give her body the time to swallow and not choke on the liquid. It took about ten persistent tries before she twitched weakly. Her eyes blinked open slowly to gaze cloudily at the harsh lights over her.

Big alien … come to kill me … too bright here … feeling sick.

He managed to understand the gist of her thoughts, though he wished fervently again for a translator implant to comprehend her language better. Zh’hir glanced around the austere holding cell in vain for something to make her more comfortable. Noting nothing that fell remotely in that category, the First Commander found himself making yet another impulsive decision. The alien female would be more comfortable in one of the rest-chambers aboard the ship.

Like most Ur’quay starships, the Henia had been constructed with a limited number of rest-chambers — considered a luxury and provided only to the senior officers. The rest of the warriors shared a set of large dormitories. Rest-chambers for senior officers also came equipped with shields that could be enabled to prevent the inhabitants’ thoughts from seeping through the walls — a privilege accorded to warriors who wished to rest without expanding the energy required to shore up their mental shields. Most Ur’quay never enabled the feature, except during an illness. This female though, could definitely use a shielded rest-chamber. She would have to share his chamber, he decided. He was barely there anyway with the extra shifts they were all pulling to complete their mission in the time allocated to them.

He glanced at her again where she lay on the hard floor, her eyes squinting against the harsh lights while her arms hugged her body defensively. Little shivers wracked her body and Zh’hir realized that her species was probably used to a warmer environment. Ur’quay starships always maintained near-freezing temperatures since the warriors were attired in armor at all times.

Freezing … tired.

Her work-suit covered most of her, leaving only her face and palms exposed. He reached for the exposed skin of her hand to tentatively skim two fingers in a gentle caress. His intention had been to reassure her, but he seemed to realize that her skin felt both dehydrated and fragile. He worried that she would bruise if he carried her close to his armored body. Zh’hir reached out again to reassure her, this time using his mind, unconsciously projecting his thoughts to her, instead of communicating out loud.

Sseela … carry you … better place … be fine.

Sick … cold … tired.

He maneuvered the slight body into his arms with one arm under her knees and the other behind her shoulders, taking care to not graze any part of her body against the rough texture of his upper body armor.