“We’rebeing boarded!” A cheerful voice cut through Trent Rolston’s dreams like a knife. He bolted upright in his bunk and swore loudly.
Having a Class Seven spaceship that was once the seldom-used property of a baron was not without its drawbacks. As captain of the Cygnus, Trent was all too aware of that fact. The gorgeous vessel was fast and had all of the amenities necessary for a comfortable journey through the void, plus a few extras, but it was also a glowing white beacon for pirates.
“Nice work getting those alarms fixed, Reyla!” Trent shouted to the darkened room. It was empty except for his belongings, and he knew it. The girl was Tithan and therefore, like the rest of her species, telepathic, magically inclined, and obnoxiously optimistic.
Trent quickly tugged on his pants and boots, then grabbed his pistol without bothering to turn the lights on. The main hallway was dimmed to evening lights, which might prove an advantage. He’d be surprised if a random bunch of pirates knew the layout of a yacht. His crew, on the other hand, knew the Cygnus perfectly well. It had been home to them for at least three years, longer for some, and Trent was intent on keeping their home in their possession.
He made his way through the eerily quiet ship. The hum of the engines and his own steady breathing were the only things he could hear. That was odd. A boarding party usually made plenty of noise, even if it was only the horrid scraping of metal against metal as a docking bridge met the hull.
“They’re standing around in the docking bay, Captain. I believe they’re having a meeting. There appear to be six of them, though there could be more on their ship. Winston and Lindi are on their way, but we weren’t able to rouse Vince. Lindi and I have a running bet on whether or not he could sleep through an entire attack!” Reyla’s voice tittered in Trent’s ears again. He sighed. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. They’d need Vince’s help, especially since he was the fastest with a gun. Not to mention five against six was much better odds.
Trent made a snap decision and doubled back. If the pirates were stupid enough not to have thought out their plan before they boarded, Trent was certainly not going to complain. He guessed their mistake would buy him a few extra minutes before they started cavorting about his precious ship.
He didn’t bother trying to knock on the cabin door since Vince was dead asleep. Instead, he did something he hated to do. He popped off the keypad next to the door and hotwired it, remembering the last few times he’d done the same thing. Seconds later, the door slid open.
Trent flipped on the lights and snatched the covers off his mechanic.
“Get up, Vince! Grab your damn guns. We’ve been boarded,” Trent said directly into Vince’s ear after brushing his shaggy brown hair out of the way. He was rewarded with a pained wince. “And this is yet another reason—”
“—not to drink myself into a coma,” Vince finished the familiar phrase with a froggy voice as he sat up. Fortunately, he’d passed out with his clothes on, guns safely in their holsters. He pushed himself off the bed and massaged his temples as he squinted at the too-bright lighting in his cabin. “Lead the way, Captain. Hung over or not, I’m ready to kick some ass.”
Trent hoped he was right. He explained the situation to Vince as they hurried toward the docking bay. If anything about the situation had changed, one of the girls would have notified them already.
“Must be worse pirates than us, eh, Trent?” Vince whispered and chuckled. He nodded to the docking bay door five feet away from them. “What d’you say we bust in, guns blazing?”
Trent considered the suggestion and ran a hand through his dark, sleep-tousled hair. They would have the element of surprise. The rest of his crew was already gathered above the intruders on the catwalks. The invading pirates were surrounded. He nodded to Vince as they approached the door, which was wide enough to let both of them through at once.
“Too bad that Tithan connection only works one way on us non-Tithans,” Vince said, and not for the first time. “Not that our pals won’t get the hint once we start firing.”
Vince drew his pistols and nudged the butt of one onto the keypad beside him. Twin door panels slid aside and were replaced by the two men, who instantly saw their mistake as six sets of cold yellow eyes turned to them.
“I’m going to kill Reyla!” Trent mumbled as they both started firing on the intruders. They had no choice now.
Fenrites. Or werewolves, as some humans liked to call them. An entire race of barbaric, shape-shifting, canine humanoids. They were some of the best pirates in the known galaxy. Reyla should’ve known to mention we’ve been boarded by Fenrites, Trent thought in annoyance. Should have.
She was quick to act now, however, joining her cousin Lindi in firing glowing blasts of kinetic energy from their perch on the metal catwalk above. The Fenrites were quick to retaliate. They drew their pistols, adding instantly to the crossfire. One fell down with a piercing, mournful howl. The smallest and most visibly scarred of the intruders, most likely the battle-worn leader, snarled some sort of command.
“Winston’s down!” Lindi’s panicked voice filled Trent’s ears.
“Trent, move!” Vince shouted and then followed his own good advice. He threw himself sideways and slid down the walkway, circling the central area of the docking bay. A net narrowly missed him as it flew by.
Trent wasn’t as lucky and found his legs tangled in the Fenrite’s net. The invaders howled gleefully until two more of their party were shot down by the girls’ kinetic blasts and Vince’s pistol fire. Suddenly the Fenrite leader didn’t look as smug. He barked another order and his crew stopped pulling Trent toward them.
Vince called for everyone to cease fire but kept both guns trained on the leader. He growled something at the intruders and gestured with a tilt of his chin for them to get off the ship. The remaining wolfmen paused.
“You are very brave or very foolish to be with these beings. They cannot understand your true nature,” the leader said in garbled Basic. For a moment, he looked Vince over. His yellow eyes narrowed as he barked something else in his native language, then spat on the floor and bared his teeth. “You are traitor!”
“Go home, whelp! Before I decide to skin you after all,” Vince shouted.
Trent finally kicked off the net and scrambled to his feet, pistol aimed at the retreating Fenrites. They hauled the bodies of their fallen comrades over their shoulders and crossed the docking bridge to their own ship.
Reyla and Lindi concentrated on healing Winston. The healing light surrounding them steadily increased in intensity. Trent shielded his eyes from the brightness long enough to see the inner airlock seal itself shut again. They all heard the loud groan as the Fenrites’ docking bridge was retracted, this time with no attempt at caution.
“Anyone you know?” he asked Vince, walking over as he spoke. There were some things about Vince’s past he wasn’t clear on. Why he’d turned away from the culture of his home world, for one. Vince didn’t like to talk much about himself, preferring to make jokes and drink himself into a stupor whenever he got the chance. Certain things were obvious, though, like the reason behind wearing the guise of humanity. No one wanted to be singled out because of his or her species, and Fenrites had a nasty reputation.
“Nah. Just some kids out for a joyride. You know how it is. Cross the galaxy trying to hijack the shiniest ship you can find, sell the crew as slaves on the home world. The usual juvenile hijinks,” Vince said with a shrug. His smile was quick to fade, replaced by a more serious expression. “I think they were from my tribe.”
“You’re not allowed to make yourself sick worrying about it. That’s an order,” Trent said. It couldn’t be easy knowing you might have injured or killed a cousin or nephew. He put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and led him out of the glowing docking bay. They were both squinting from the healing light, and Trent didn’t want to break the girls’ concentration. There was no telling how badly Winston was hurt, but he had full confidence that Reyla and Lindi would patch him up. “Now you can get some decent sleep. You might want to try sleeping without your holsters strapped on for a change. I think you’ll find it makes the whole experience comfortable.”
“I’m not tired anymore,” Vince shrugged. “I think I’ll finish off the vodka Winston got at the last port.”
“The Tithan vodka? Does he know you’ve been drinking that?”
“Why do you think my door was locked? And I was thinking about sharing it with my captain if he can keep his mouth shut about it.” Vince gave Trent a crooked grin.
“I can keep my mouth shut,” Trent nodded. “I’ll be sure it’s still shut when Winston starts shooting off his mouth about how untrustworthy Fenrites are.”
“I can’t believe he bought this stuff anyway,” Vince said once they were in his cabin. “It’s expensive.”
“And he can’t hold his liquor,” Trent added with a grin as he watched Vince get the vodka bottle from its hiding place. The crew liked to play drinking games now and again. Winston was usually the first one to puke or pass out.
“See? I’m a concerned friend protecting him from himself,” Vince said. He sat heavily on his bunk and took a long swig from the bottle. His fingers turned the bottle cap over and over, but his deep amber eyes were on the wall, unfocused.
Trent joined Vince on the bunk and watched him in silence for a moment. He’d seen that pensive, pained look on his friend’s face before. Something dark was haunting him. Trent knew everyone had a past and issues. He wasn’t exempt from that himself, but it didn’t send him into deep bouts of melancholy, though it did occasionally make him seek solace in a bottle.
“Anything you want to talk about?” Trent asked, his voice low. He watched the plane of Vince’s cheek twitch as he clenched and unclenched his jaw.
Vince shook his head, then took another swig of the powerful Tithan booze. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and put a smile on.
“Seeing those kids made me think about Fenrich.” Vince shrugged and passed the bottle to his captain.
“My mom always told me ‘home is where the heart is’, but that was to keep me from getting upset about moving often.” Trent took a sip from the bottle and winced. Those Tithans sure knew how to make their alcohol strong. The smooth aftertaste was worth it, though. “Then I joined the Venusian Navy and got to pretend a few different ships were home. Should’ve been used to it, I guess. Now I’ve only got the Cygnus to call home. At least you’ve got a whole planet.”
“What’s the point if I can’t go back?” Vince’s brows furrowed as he peered over at Trent. His eyes seemed to be searching his friend’s face for something inscrutable.
“Good point,” Trent said, but he couldn’t look away. A familiar tension built up between them. Trent always tried to convince himself it was one-sided or his imagination. A few less-than-sober attempts to prove otherwise had failed miserably, leaving Trent feeling like a thwarted teenager. But he could feel it again, now. He wanted to reach out to Vince, pull him close, and kiss his worries away since talking never seemed to do the trick.
Vince closed his eyes and turned away, shaking his head at whatever mystery thoughts were crossing his mind. He was so closed off. It often amazed Trent how little he knew about Vince outside of shared experiences on the Cygnus. Still, he trusted Vince and counted him a friend. And he couldn’t shake his attraction to the guy, even if it was as pointless as Vince’s having a home he couldn’t return to.
Trent took another, longer swig from the bottle and passed it back to Vince. He needed the courage to ask what he’d never dared to ask before.
“Why can’t you go back?” he finally said, his tone cautious. He’d heard Vince say once, when they’d first met, that he was an exile. The Fenrites were a proud people, full of honor and rigid social hierarchies that made Trent’s head spin. He didn’t figure it would be hard to fall from grace in a society like that.
Vince downed more vodka in three big gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and exhaled a sigh. “They’ll kill me if I go back. And I’m kind of used to the life I’ve got now. You guys need me around.”
Trent listened, shocked that Vince hadn’t thrown a joke in to take the edge off what he was saying.
“You want to play cards? A drinking game?” Vince said in a jovial tone. A slow smile spread across his face as he passed the bottle back to Trent.
“Actually, I better check on Winston and get a report from the girls while I’m sober enough to walk around,” Trent said. He was sure Winston was fine. The girls would’ve already told him and Vince otherwise. Truth was he needed an excuse to not get drunk enough to put the moves on Vince again. Not right now, when Vince was dwelling on whatever ghosts were in his past. “I don’t want to be falling down drunk if those kids are tailing us.”
“You just don’t want to crash in my cabin again,” Vince said and chuckled. His grin widened at the stricken look on Trent’s face.
“Your bunk’s not meant for two grown men.” Trent shrugged and tried to pretend he wasn’t bothered by what Vince was getting at. That didn’t keep a recent memory from surfacing: the two of them half-naked in Vince’s bed. Trent had woken up with a headache, his arm draped over Vince’s hip, and a raging hard-on pressed against Vince’s ass. Vince had acted groggy and annoyed. Trent had apologized, unable to remember how they’d ended up that way. Everything had been awkward between them for a few weeks until they’d hit an old freighter for a good haul. Business as usual put the two men at ease once more, to Trent’s relief.
“Don’t tell Winston about my disappearing vodka trick,” Vince said as Trent opened the cabin door and stepped into the hallway. “It’s more fun if he figures it out himself.”
There was Vince as usual. Trent smirked and headed for the sick bay.