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Using Fejo: Chapter 26

Vanessa kept her posture loose and her gaze vacant, but she couldn’t keep the beads of sweat from trailing down her back. She could only hope that Capra and Maladek were too occupied with whatever they were doing to notice.

After Uja had finally realized he wasn’t getting her to go anywhere, he’d waited in the communications room while she’d snuck to the cafeteria and returned, stuffing his ears with soft pieces of bread. They’d made sure to crack open the door and see that he was unaffected before making their way to the bridge.

Their plan was mediocre at best, but they hadn’t had the luxury of time to think of something better. All they could do now was wait for an opportunity to strike. Maladek and Capra were large and strong, and there was no way in hell Vanessa could take either of them down on her own. But maybe if the element of surprise were on their side and if Uja was as good of a fighter as he made himself out to be…they had a chance, however small.

Vanessa focused on keeping her breathing even and calm as the open bridge doorway grew closer and closer.

Uja glanced over at her and hissed, “You look like you’re about to pass out.”

“That’s because I am about to pass out,” she hissed back, knowing he couldn’t hear her past the bread in his ears. She took another calming breath and thought of Fejo, realizing that if she didn’t pull this off, he was as good as dead.

She thought about his whispered words and his soft touches and her breathing slowed, calmness washing over her. She pictured him standing there on the bridge and told herself that every step she took was one step closer to him.

Thudding steps vibrated from behind them before she heard Maladek’s deep voice rasp, “Ah, there you are.” Rather than stopping or giving them any further notice, he stomped past and shouted into the crowded room, his voice brash with urgency. “You’re taking us down too fast!”

Vanessa kept her gaze unfocused as they slowly followed, crossing the threshold of the room now. But out of the corner of her eye, she saw Capra wave Maladek off. How can they hear each other with their ears plugged up?

“Just let me fly,” Capra said. “The controls all say our speed is fine. Did you find the stragglers?”

Maladek hovered behind Capra, eyeing the controls himself. “Yeah. A few males were in the lower engine. As soon as I got them into the hall and they heard the song, they went under. I found the human and Uja just outside. They must’ve been off somewhere together when it started.”

Capra let out a lecherous chuckle. “I wonder if our captain knows his mate likes to spend time alone with his second-in-command?”

A small silence ensued, then Maladek spoke again. “They’re here now.” Was that regret she heard tightening Maladek’s voice? And was his voice louder? As if he were looking in her direction, even now?

She followed Uja until he stopped and took her place out of sight behind him while trying to keep her breathing deep and calm. Slow footsteps pounded toward her, and she forced herself not to gulp down the knot in her throat. If Maladek studied her too closely, he’d see through her for sure.

“Are they all here now?” Capra shouted, halting Maladek’s approach. “She said everyone has to be here. They all have to hear it, or we can’t land.”

“The last two are coming down the hall now. This damn noise makes them fucking slow,” he grunted in answer.

“Good, because I’m ready to get off this ship. As soon as we make the drop, we’ll head back. I’ve already planned out my hunt on the mountain. No more of this fucking ship. Agreeing to take this job was such a mistake. You and I don’t belong in space.” Capra let out a harsh chuckle. “At least she said we could take what we wanted after this was done. I think I’ll take that human.”

“She’s mated,” Maladek growled.

Vanessa felt some relief at his admonishing tone, but it was wiped away when Capra rumbled back, “Would you rather her stay there? What do you think they’ll do with her? She can’t work, and they already have too many females. She’ll be thrown out with the waste or drowned. Besides, I’ll treat her well.”

Vanessa’s blood turned to ice in her veins. Fuck that, she thought, her jaw grinding.

“It’s his own fault,” Capra continued. “If he’d just stayed on schedule, we wouldn’t have had to divert them at all.”

Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Was this because of her? Because he’d decided to go to Earth first before picking up Klinara’s shipment?

Maladek let out a grunt as though he neither agreed nor disagreed, then changed the subject, announcing, “Entering the atmosphere now.”

Both Maladek and Capra were blocked from her view by Uja’s large wings, so she took a moment to steal a glance at Fejo. Her breakfast roiled in her gut when she noticed a deep gash on his cheek that hadn’t been there before. They’d hurt him. Capra, most likely. Had taken a swing at him when Maladek was out of the room and Fejo couldn’t defend himself.

Blood oozed down the side of his cheek and collected in the emerald-green collar of his coat. To her horror, she spotted another oozing wound on his abdomen. Had that fucker stabbed him? She forced her gaze forward, just preventing her fingers from balling into fists.

The ship vibrated and rocked to the side, causing some of the entranced men to tip over like dominoes. They remained where they fell with that same stupid look on their face. The man in front of her, next to Uja, tipped toward Vanessa, and she had no choice but to let him fall onto her, crushing her to the ground. A spike of pain lanced up her back as her spine crashed into the hard floor. She just kept her skull from bouncing off the ground.

“Careful,” Maladek bellowed. “The Sieliji want them healthy. They’re only letting Klinara use their world for this pickup if we provide workers. Uninjured ones.”

She saw Uja’s wings flutter as if he were holding back from peering at her. He hadn’t tipped over like the others. She inched one foot toward his ankle and rested it there to let him know she was okay. His shoulders relaxed a fraction.

A few minutes went by where Maladek and Capra bickered, but there were no clear openings to attack. For one, Vanessa was on the floor, pinned under a heavy man. And second, there were at least fifteen guys standing between Uja and the primary control station. By the time he plowed through the men to reach Maladek and Capra, they would’ve been alerted and ready.

“Stash the human somewhere,” Capra commanded. “It’s easier if they never knew she was here. Besides, Klinara might want to meet the female who stole her favorite pet away.”

She heard a snort before Maladek spoke. “Klinara pushed Fejo away all on her own.” His voice continued to grow louder, and Vanessa realized he was moving toward her.

Her body tensed with the effort to remain still, her eyes burning in an attempt to stay unfocused. Suddenly, Maladek was crouching above her. Fear skittered over her skin and wormed its way through her stomach. Had her pupils dilated and given her away?

He let out a weary sigh and dragged the man who’d toppled her over off her, then hooked her under the armpits, hefting her to her feet. Stooping, he tipped her over his shoulder.

She let her body remain limp, swaying back and forth as he carried her out of the room. Maladek held her in place with a firm hand around the back of her knees. Once they were alone in the hallway, she scanned every inch of him she could see, trying to find anything she could use as a weapon. Nothing.

Her chest constricted, as did her throat. She was so fucking helpless. Maybe she could find something to knock him out with wherever he was taking her. Dread coated her throat in acid. What if biding her time never paid out?

They rounded a corner, and the slide of a door sounded. Carefully, Maladek crouched again and pulled her off his shoulder, setting her on her feet. Should she crumple to the ground or remain upright? Her brain was still racing when she realized the horrible screeching noise had gone quiet.

“You can stop acting now, female,” Maladek growled.

Every part of her froze in place, her mouth going dry. Slowly, she let her vision focus and lifted her gaze to Maladek. He stood just before her, towering above her with his hands on his hips and his eyes narrowed. A small black cord was embedded in the waxy substance, plugging his ears, and extended toward his mouth. It must’ve been an earpiece or something, and the reason he could speak with Capra.

He dug into the other ear and popped out the wax so he could speak with her as well.

“How—” she began. Another tremor rocked the ship, and she stumbled to the side before catching herself.

Maladek curled his lip, cursing about Capra under his breath. His gaze focused on her again. “You’re not a very good actress,” he said. “Still good enough to fool Capra, though.” He shrugged.

“Why are you doing this?” she breathed, her anger coming back to her and giving her strength.

His jaw slammed shut, his brows cutting a crease into his forehead. He turned on his heel and Vanessa gasped, “Wait. You don’t have to do this. Just get control of the ship back, and we can leave. I’m sure Fejo would forgive you.”

Facing away from her, Maladek’s form stiffened. Vanessa scanned the room but couldn’t spot any weapon that would take down a man like this.

“This is just a job,” he rumbled. “If Fejo hadn’t diverted us and forced Klinara’s hand, we wouldn’t have had to do this at all.”

“I asked him to do it,” she cried. “I pushed him to help my family. You’re going to punish a whole ship full of good men because of me? Because I wanted to help a dying woman and a little girl?”

Maladek’s shoulders hitched higher, tension radiating off him at her words.

“Oh, you didn’t know that, did you? You thought he was just making a detour for fun?” she taunted. She stepped toward him and saw his hands fidgeting, the pad of his thumb running back and forth over the tips of his fingers. “You know what will happen to him if we’re separated. If he lives, he’ll get more and more sick.” She stomped her foot. “I thought mates were sacred to you people!” White-hot anger laced her voice, and she took a breath to calm herself. She should’ve been trying to catch this fly with honey, not vinegar, but she couldn’t control her temper.

Without a word, Maladek took two steps toward the door.

“Then let me stay with him wherever you’re abandoning us!” she screamed, just as he stuffed the waxy plug back into his ear and walked out of the room. “At least do that!”

But he was gone, stooping so his horns could clear the tall doorway.

Vanessa spun around the room, not knowing exactly what she was looking for. It was a bedroom like Fejo’s, except this one was smaller and had two sleeping lofts rather than one. Scrambling to find anything at all that might help her, she opened every compartment she could. In her hand, she gripped a dull butterknife and stared down at it. It was a useless weapon, and she had the sudden urge to throw it against the wall, but she didn’t.

The ship shook and jolted more frequently, and she assumed they were about to land. She rammed the dull knife into the edge of the solid metal door. Unsurprisingly, it wouldn’t budge.

She slammed her fists, shouting herself hoarse. Frustrated tears escaped down her cheeks and her heart squeezed in her chest. The ship shuddered and then settled, everything going quiet. She held her breath, gaze focused on the black metal of the door. Long minutes passed, and she wanted to shriek with frustration.

She pressed her ear to the cool metal, and it suddenly slid open. She lurched forward into the hallway and fell into the solid frame of Maladek. She righted herself and, in a clumsy panic, raised her arm, trying to jab him with the knife. With a grunt, he caught her wrist, easily twisting until she dropped the useless piece of metal.

He gripped her around the bicep and hauled her forward through the ship.

Her pulse pounded in her throat, her chest tight and aching. “Where are we going?” she asked. He didn’t answer. Vanessa continued to volley question after question, but Maladek remained silent, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

They were headed toward the ramp that led out of the ship, and hope gurgled in her stomach. It was stupid to hope to be left on a planet where she’d most certainly die. But as idiotic as it was, being separated from Fejo was worse. Love had messed with her survival instincts. Was it somehow the mating bond rearing its head inside her? Did their odd connection cause her to be more afraid of never seeing Fejo again than of death? Or did she just love him that much?

A briny scent hit her nose as they neared the open door at the back of the ship. The ocean? The smell was similar to Fejo’s fresh, salty scent, but it had a sickly sweet undertone, like seaweed rotting on the sand.

The second alien planet Vanessa had ever seen came into view, and she shivered despite the thick, muggy air. Muted pastel blues, grays, and greens stretched as far as the eye could see. Patches of pale tan sand, interspersed with wet puddles of murky water, covered a large stretch of land. The water reflected the sluggish green-blue sky and blended with the gloomy seafoam color of the ocean, making it hard to see where the land ended and the sea began. The sky was bright, but there was no sun to be seen.

What was most terrifying, though, were the piles of metal and enormous, curving bone that formed triangular buildings in the near distance. Vanessa squinted and her breath caught. They were old spaceships. She could make out large portions of vessels that’d been dismantled and manufactured to create buildings. In the center of these shipwrecked piles was one that stood higher than the others. A sort of castle made of broken metal and curved white bones.

Her gaze darted around, searching for any creature large enough to have bones that big, but she saw none. Cold sweat beaded on her skin.

Uja had said these people were scavengers, but she’d never imagined this. There were hundreds of mangled ships half buried in the sand as if they’d been left where they crashed. How many people must’ve died in those crashes?

Her attention shot to a group of people a few feet in front of them. The crew were all gathered, still unmoving. Six aliens she’d never seen stood before the group of hypnotized men. One scaly green reptilian alien spoke to a grinning Capra. He was wrapped in layers of clothing, as if he was walking through Antarctica and not a humid beach.

The other five aliens looked almost identical and fit in so well with the eerie scenery, she assumed they were the Sieliji. Each of the five were the same pale green color as the ocean.

Their skin was slick and hairless, and shimmering scales ran over their bare shoulders, arms, and legs. Bulbous, shining, black eyes bulged from their heads like orbs and rippling fins framed the sides of their face, neck, and arms. Each fin was scalloped and had sharp, pointed tips. They didn’t wear much. Just wispy, silver fabric stretching from under their armpits to their knees.

“Don’t bother trying to pretend. I already told Capra you’re unaffected.”

Maladek dragged her along toward the group, and she spotted Fejo, placed slightly farther away from the others. Two of the Sieliji were singing loudly. The sound was even worse in person, and she squinted against the stabbing ache in her head. This must be how they were controlling the crew now that there wasn’t a sound system to use. One of the Sieliji moved, and she followed their progress as they crossed to Uja.

Her throat constricted. The alien tugged at a thick brown cuff and shackled it to Uja’s ankle. She followed the trail of the chain and, to her horror, saw it was attached to a massive boulder. They were ensuring he couldn’t fly away. And he’d let them. Was he still faking? She prayed he was.

Even chained, if they spotted an opening, she felt Uja could easily take out some of the Sieliji. There were only five, after all, and they looked frail. Though their features were the things of nightmares—much like what she imagined a horror-movie version of a mermaid would be—they were small and sickly looking.

As Vanessa and Maladek neared, Capra caught sight of them, and his mouth turned down. “What are you doing?” he asked, his gaze hard and accusatory.

“She was still on the ship,” Maladek said without elaborating. Vanessa realized he’d conceded to her request and had openly defied Capra. Though Capra looked furious, he couldn’t argue now. He’d hidden her existence before. Now that the Sieliji had seen her, they’d expect her to remain with the rest of the crew.

When they reached the group, she wrenched free of Maladek’s hold and dashed to Fejo. She shook him by the shoulders, calling his name, but he continued to stare forward. She pressed her hands over his ears, a sob bubbling up in her throat, and shook him more forcefully, but it was no good. The sound still seemed to penetrate.

A powerful arm wrapped around her waist and hauled her back. “Control yourself, female. There’s no waking him up.” It was Capra’s slightly higher-pitched, rasping voice. She struggled in his grip, but he dragged her away easily. Maladek appeared next to Fejo, and she stared at the horned man, pleading with her eyes.

“I have orders to contact Klinara so she can ensure business is completed to your satisfaction,” the lizard man hissed out in a slimy voice that slithered over her skin. He was speaking to one of the Sieliji who’d stepped forward from the group.

As the Sieliji in charge spoke, their voice was the same screeching, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound as the singing except more clipped. “I will speak to her.”

The lizard man produced a communicator from his pocket, typing something in and waiting. From the corner of her eye, she spotted Uja inch forward. He stilled when the reptilian alien held up the communicator toward the group.

A woman’s voice echoed through the space. “Flimoi, it’s so nice to see you again.”

Vanessa hadn’t known what to expect. A snarling voice of a gremlin, perhaps? But the light, feminine voice of Klinara surprised her, not at all matching the raging beast she’d built the woman up as in her mind. Fire surged through Vanessa’s body, and she struggled against the hard, muscled arm at her waist.

The woman now speaking was the one who’d controlled Fejo, manipulating him since he’d been a boy, and now she was going to leave him to die on this fucking planet.

Flimoi, the Sieliji in charge, spoke. “We have housed your delivery, and in exchange, you’ve brought us healthy workers. Our business is done until next time.”

“Splendid,” Klinara said, her voice ringing with satisfaction. “Just one thing,” she added, making Flimoi’s bulbous eyes narrow and their thin slash of a mouth open, exposing widely spaced, pointed teeth. “I need for the human female to be placed back on our ship. She was never meant to be part of our trade.”

The lizard man angled the screen of the communicator toward Vanessa, and she realized Klinara was viewing the scene. Vanessa’s angry gaze shot to Maladek. She clawed at Capra’s arm, but he just shifted his position, slamming his other arm over her torso and pinning her hands to her side.

The Sieliji leader followed the lizard man’s gaze, clearly unaware which of the assembled crew was a human female. Flimoi studied Vanessa, looking her up and down with those dark, glassy eyes. Vanessa didn’t have the build of a strong worker and was obviously unaffected by their song. The fins on the side of their face fluttered as they surveyed her, then flattened against their skull.

Vanessa held her breath. She didn’t want to stay on this barren, harsh planet, but she feared whatever Klinara had planned for her was likely worse. She glanced at Maladek again and found his mouth turned down in a scowl, his eyes darting around the crowd.

The horned man had a heart. He’d been conflicted. She could hear it every time he’d spoken. He was an asshole, but if she could somehow reason with him… Her shoulders threatened to slump. Even if she convinced him, he was only one man. What could he do?

Her best bet now was to somehow escape once on the ship and find help. She could bide her time and come back to rescue Fejo. The Sieliji wanted workers. They had no reason to kill anyone. Her gaze flashed to Uja, and she gulped. Unless they thought there was a threat.

“Very well,” Flimoi said, apparently deciding Vanessa would be more trouble than she was worth.

Vanessa’s teeth ground together, and Uja’s chest stopped rising and falling, his body stiffening imperceptibly. Don’t do anything yet, she urged internally. At this moment, it would be him versus three strong men and five Sieliji. And he was chained to a rock. The odds weren’t in their favor.

“Wonderful,” Klinara all but cheered from her side of the call. “Oh, and please tell Captain Fejo I said hello.”

Heat rose on the back of Vanessa’s neck, and she aimed a deadly glare at the black communicator. Klinara was playing with him even now. When he came out of whatever trance he was in, she wanted him to know it was her who’d put him here and it was her who had his mate. Any sympathy Vanessa might’ve had for the woman and the hardships she’d faced vanished.

“The male will not live long after we disconnect,” Flimoi said flippantly. Vanessa froze, as did Maladek, his body growing rigid. “It’s best to kill captains. We learned long ago that a strong leader, even enslaved, can still rally inspiration in their people. We don’t want our workers distracted by such things,” Flimoi explained, as though this were obvious.

Vanessa finally found her voice and shrieked, “No!” Her heart thrashed in her chest, her stomach dropping out from under her. There was silence on the line, and she prayed Klinara still had a shred of decency left. If she’d ever cared for Fejo, even a little, she’d stop this.

Flimoi eyed the communicator, obviously wondering what Klinara would do as well.

The woman finally spoke. “Very well. Do what you must.”

Vanessa shrieked again; obscenities directed at Klinara flew out of her mouth until Capra clamped a firm hand over her lips. Her throat burned, voice raw, as she screamed and thrashed against Capra’s hold.

Her ears started buzzing and she couldn’t perceive the rest of the conversation. Her watery gaze landed on Fejo and Maladek, whose body was stiff and whose eyes had gone wide.

When Capra’s hand loosened a fraction, she tipped her chin up, then bit down on his finger hard. He yelped, pulling his hand away, and she took the opportunity to ram her head back into Capra’s face, hearing a satisfying crunch. Pain exploded from the back of her skull and stars danced in front of her.

She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision and spun to Capra, who was bent over, holding his nose. Darting forward, she ripped the cord out of his ear, then stumbled toward Fejo. Her head pounded, her vision dotting in and out, but she managed to reach Maladek. A wave of dizziness made her pitch to the side, but Maladek caught her. She could hear Capra cursing, the sound drawing closer. He’d reach her in moments.

She held the cord to her mouth, fisting Maladek’s shirt. Voice low and strangled through her tears, she held his gaze, pleading with everything in her, and whispered, “Drown him. You do it. Drown him.”

With the force of a sledgehammer, Capra’s fist collided with her temple, and everything went black.


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