Daisy should have known better than to think their mission would be anything except a complete disaster. How Mack still had faith in them after three months of their diplomatic-discussions-turned-violence strategies, she had no idea. “Your team is efficient and capable,” he had reassured her. Capable of what, exactly? Running into trouble at every turn? That, she could agree with.
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not your fault,” Kora said, their legs sprinting in unison through the waist-high blue-green alien grass. It stung Daisy’s bruised hands with every stride. The Zephyr Three was just barely in sight, a tiny dark lump on the horizon. The garden walls stretched high into the sky on either side of the two sisters, creating a long, grassy hallway. It was either a genius hiding spot or a funnel straight into danger. And she didn’t want to wait around long enough to find out which. Either way, it was their only way out.
“That’s what you say every time,” Daisy shot back, risking a glance over her shoulder at the gun turrets trained on the retreating pair. We will destroy everything you love, had essentially been their farewell. So they ran, hoping they could escape—praying they would be invisible long enough for the Zephyr to swoop down and pluck them up.
Kora raised her hand to her ear. “Kora to Zephyr! We could use some help,” she shouted through the comms. Feedback screeched in Daisy’s ear, but she was too focused on running to care.
“Sousa here. We’re still powering up,” came the almost-instant reply. “Everything okay?”
What does it sound like, genius?
“Fine,” Kora snapped back before Daisy could answer. “Just hurry.”
The horizon stretched further and further, it seemed, the longer they ran. The Zephyr was still distant—out of reach.
“Probably should have had a better extraction plan.”
Kora rolled her eyes. “Didn’t need one. This was supposed to be the peaceful planet.”
“Those guns . . .” Daisy gasped for air, “don’t look so peaceful to—”
But the world went silent.
That was the only way she could have described it later. Complete, utter silence that made her eyes water and her stomach turn.
She saw the ground sink far below her, before it smacked her in the face. She tried to send out shockwaves to cushion their fall, but it was not enough.
Lights flashed through her eyes, and her brain ricocheted in her skull.
The grass rolled up in front of them like a wave in the ocean, rippling and rolling, rising up almost fifty feet, the great stone walls cracking, splitting, crumbling . . .
Her vision swam.
With the force of a freight train, her senses came back. She heard Kora’s pained screams, heard her own voice somehow, heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire . . . Felt her face pressed against rocky ground, heard something whirring.
Engines above her.
Something was lodged in her side. Her leg was numb. Was she supposed to have two legs . . .?
Her eyes closed, and her last thought was how nice it would be to just sleep for a while.
“What do you mean, gone?”
Agent Larson looked up, eyes wide. He swallowed. “They . . .” he motioned to the blinking panel in front of him, “I had their location when Kora called in. Now I don’t. They just—disappeared.”
An icy spike began lodging itself into Sousa’s chest. “Scan again,” he ordered, unwilling to go into panic mode just yet.
While Larson punched buttons and waited for some kind of signal, Sousa stared down at the panel in front of him. “Daisy,” he called into the comms again, straining his ears for any answer; any bit of static that might give him a clue. “Agent Johnson, do you read?”
Feet clattered up to the bridge. “Sousa, look!” Agent Payne shouted, arm stretched toward the cockpit window, eyes wide with terror.
Sousa followed her gaze and a heavy weight settled painfully into his stomach. In a moment of blind adrenaline, he dove for the controls, Payne right on his heels.
Right in front of them, the ground seemed to be rising, up higher and higher . . . and moving toward them at full speed.
Time almost seem to slow around him as he recited the startup sequence to himself, grasping desperately for every piece of training he’d ever received. The Zephyr lurched as Payne gunned the engines, and he held his breath as the repulsors made the grass churn below them. Finally, they rose up, up, out of range of the tsunami-size anomaly.
But Sousa’s stomach did not stop churning. His jaw did not relax, and no matter how he tried to think rationally about the next course of action, his mind couldn’t stop repeating the same word over and over again.
“We’ve grown tired of you humans disrupting our peaceful way of life.”
Daisy’s eyes burned.
She couldn’t manage to lift her head, but she listened like her life depended on it. Below her cheek, ice-cold stone refused to warm to her body’s temperature, and she shivered. Violently.
“We were told . . . of your kindness to outsiders,” Kora retorted. Her voice mirrored exactly how Daisy felt. Weak and pained. Exhausted. Annoyed.
A rough clacking noise came from outside the cell bars, and Daisy watched as the Beurian’s long claws scuttled across stone. It made the back of her neck tingle.
“Our kindness has run out. We have no more patience for humans or—” the alien made a low, groaning, chattering sound, “—inhumans. You will rot in this cell for the rest of your short lives, and . . .”
The words faded into nonsense as Daisy fought to stay conscious.
Her side throbbed, and it was all she could do to repress some of the pain before she vomited. Breathe in, she ordered herself. Breathe out. She couldn’t feel her arms anymore, her leg was at a strange angle beneath her, and small rivulets of blood slid down the side of the stone cot she occupied.
Her mouth felt thick and dry, and her vision refused to focus correctly.
Kora’s weak yet furious words flitted in and out of her consciousness.
The almost birdlike alien replied with a few choice phrases, and Daisy only heard her sister’s sardonic, mocking laughter before she drifted back into sweet oblivion.
Daniel was pacing again, and it wasn’t helping.
“We don’t have time for a fancy op,” he said, trying and failing to keep his voice steady. In front of him, Larson and Enger worked furiously at their stations, fingers flying over the panels with practiced ease.
Payne nodded. “Agreed. Whatever we do has to be quick and efficient. If another one of those—” she motioned toward the cockpit, “—grass waves comes along, we’ll need to be ready to move. We can’t stay grounded.”
“At least two should stay behind,” Sousa agreed. “A smaller team is better anyway—"
“I don’t want to be harsh, Sousa,” Enger cut in. “But . . . We don’t even know if they’re still alive.”
Silence flooded the control room like a heavy storm cloud. Payne sent a dagger-like glance toward her teammate, wishing she could retract his statement for him.
Larson bent further over his work.
Sousa’s eyes glazed over just for a moment, and he crossed his arms. They couldn’t have gone far—he knew that. The inhabitants of Beur hadn’t invented space travel yet. The city was the only one for hundreds of miles, and there was no evidence that the girls had . . .
He refused to even think about that. They were fine. They were alive.
They had to be.
She had to be.
“They’re still in the city until proven otherwise,” he said with all the confidence he could muster, though his eyes stared holes through the floor and his shoulders slumped further as the minutes wore on.
Enger didn’t remove his gaze from his teammate until Payne moved behind him and delivered a sharp elbow to his ribs.
“We have one possibility, Sousa,” Agent Reed said slowly from her alcove. “Johnson’s tracker in her suit was mostly destroyed, but . . . I’m getting something.”
With three quick strides and a close call with a chair, Sousa was leaning over Reed’s shoulder, heart already pounding through his chest.
“It’s weak,” she admitted, turning her display for her teammate to see. “But it’s there.”
The control room scrambled to life again.
Payne was already typing wildly on her tablet, trying to scan the city for a basic layout.
“If her tracker was damaged,” Enger said, “that means she probably sustained some bodily harm.”
Sousa’s eyes flicked to where the team medic stood, meeting the man’s gaze as steadily as he could, but he knew his expression betrayed the sinking in his gut.
Enger clenched his jaw and continued. “I can’t get a read on Kora’s vitals either. If their trackers were damaged that badly, we need to act fast. They could be—” He stopped, keeping the rest of the sentence to himself.
Sousa hadn’t realized he was holding his breath.
As he forced oxygen back into his lungs (while cursing the stale, recycled air of the Zephyr), his vision seemed to sharpen. Daisy and Kora needed them now. They had called for extraction, and extraction would be what they got. No matter what.
Daisy’s eyes fluttered open again, and she drew her brows together. Pain had awoken her for the umpteenth time, and she was almost ready to tell Kora to knock her out so she could just rest.
Speaking of Kora . . .
Something grasped Daisy’s good shoulder, and she looked down to see her sister, kneeling at the side of the cot, pressing her hands to Daisy’s wounds.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Kora whispered as her sister slowly woke, groggy and delirious with pain. “I wish . . .”
But she didn’t finish the sentence, instead collapsing with a thud onto the gritty, damp floor. Daisy reacted automatically, throwing her arm out to grab for her sister, but the pain was too great—her movements too stilted. Kora fell.
“No!” she croaked, her throat dry and unyielding.
Her eyes closed, and Daisy watched desperately, only releasing her breath when she saw her sister’s chest move once. Twice. Shallow and slow, but it was enough.
Daisy stared at her sister’s bloodied face.
They were stuck here. They were injured, bleeding, probably concussed, and they were going to die here. Here, in a heavily-fortified alien city the rest of her team had no hope of breaching, deep in the darkest dungeons. Here, where she would never see Daniel’s deep brown eyes again, or feel a breeze on her face . . .
A single tear slipped down her cheek, staining the cold black stone.
And in her state of delirious, utter despair and pain-induced numbness, she didn’t even notice the rhythmic buzzing on the inside of her sleeve.
They had a plan.
It was about as solid as any of their plans thus far, which was not saying much. But most of Daniel’s life up to this point had been decided by nothing but pure chance, so he was willing to bet it would work.
Payne was bouncing nervously on the balls of her feet—a bad habit left over from her childhood. Enger hefted his pack a bit higher on his shoulders, one hand braced on the holster at his hip. Larson yanked on the last strap of his bulletproof vest, and behind him, Reed, Soto, and Hoffman stood ready in full tac gear, waiting.
Sousa’s eyes blazed. Reed had confirmed Daisy’s heartbeat through her suit’s vitals monitor—what was left of it, at least—and that was good enough for him. It was weak and unsteady but she was alive, and he would fight every day until she was safe on the Zephyr again. They had a fighting chance, and that was all he needed.
Their feet hit the ground and the countdown began.
Daisy wouldn’t fall asleep again. She couldn’t. She had to stay awake, and that was that.
She dragged her body—broken and beaten until she didn’t even recognize it anymore—up from her lying position. Every inch was pure agony, and every centimeter she had to stop and just breathe for a moment, willing the pain receptors to please, just shut off. Give her some miniscule amount of relief. But none came.
And there was no shortage of tears on her way up.
Her right arm had been shot—that much was sure. If she craned her neck just enough, she could see the dried blood around the bullet hole, where Kora had been trying to stop the bleeding earlier. Whether it hit her bone or not, Daisy had no idea. She flexed her shoulder, keeping her elbow pressed tightly into her side. Don’t move it.
Her left leg was broken. There was no other explanation for the strange angle of her foot, and she tried not to look at it too much. Even the slightest movement felt like her entire leg was on fire, or worse. She fought back the nausea and tried not to think about the bone-on-bone, nerves scraping against each other, making her want to lay back down and sleep away the incessant, shooting, unbearable pain.
‘Pain’ is an understatement, she thought wryly. If she couldn’t at least try to joke about it, she would just be a helpless, broken puddle on the cot.
At least two ribs were broken, as evidenced by the proverbial flaming daggers in her side every time she so much as thought of breathing.
And as she stared across the tiny cell, she saw two doors. Two locks. . . Two Koras laying on the floor. Double vision. Never a good sign.
She couldn’t have said how long she sat there, staring into the dark hallway, hearing clicks and clatters of clawed feet above her and around her, and smelling putrid waste and coppery blood, feeling every nerve in her body as it tried to shut down again, begged her for rest.
But she couldn’t allow that. Rest meant being unaware of her surroundings, and rest meant not being able to watch her sister. The thought didn’t even occur to her that if Kora’s condition worsened . . . there would be nothing she could do about it.
If she hadn’t been injured, they would have broken out by now. The cell doors were some type of lightweight steel, easily burned. And if that didn’t work, the locks were simple keyholes, very similar to those on Earth. Easily quaked. But using her powers now would effectively shatter every bone in her body—she was sure of it. And even if it didn’t kill her immediately, she couldn’t walk. She wasn’t even sure she could stay sitting for much longer. And who could say when—or if—Kora would wake?
They were trapped. This was the end.
“Daniel,” she breathed, barely whispering to herself, tears springing to her eyes yet again. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry—” she choked on a sob. “Don’t blame yourself. I’m sorry.”
Daisy had nodded off again when she heard it.
Her head snapped up, aggravating at least ten of her injuries, which she stubbornly ignored, fighting the incessant waves of nausea. Those were human footsteps. Not the scratching, grating claws of the Buerians.
Excitement almost overpowered the pain.
She breathed too deeply, and her ribs seemed to punch straight through her lungs. She let out an unconscious, strangled sound that shocked even her. The footsteps outside the cell door stopped, then hushed whispers floated to her ears, and four black-clad figures appeared at the door.
Daisy had never seen such a beautiful sight in all her life. They might as well have been angels, with all their black Kevlar and helmets like halos.
She scanned the group as they went straight for the cell lock, already whispering their greetings and hushed exclamations.
Her eyes locked with Sousa’s, and she very nearly fell off her bunk. Tears clouded her vision, her head swam, and for just a split second, all her pain vanished.
But the second was over as soon as Payne sprung the lock and Enger rushed toward Kora, who still lay prone on the ground, her chest moving less and less every minute.
“Daniel,” Daisy barely murmured, reaching her left hand down to brace against the cot. Her right foot inched forward, and the tears only grew worse as he holstered his guns and let Daisy collapse into his arms. Her ribs screamed and she wanted to throw up, but he was here, and . . .
“Are you a dream?” she asked, letting her head roll forward onto his shoulder.
If she had to guess later, she would have said that he held her tighter, choked a little on his words, and whispered into her matted hair, “I’m as real as my love for you.”
But she never knew for sure, knowing only her pain and the blackness that overtook her once again.
“Let me just say,” Enger proclaimed with fire in his eyes, “you two are very lucky to even be alive.”
Daisy nodded, absorbing the medic’s words. Her head leaned heavily on Daniel’s shoulder, both their pairs of feet stretched out on the narrow hospital bed. Her arm was still aching from surgery, her leg was wrapped tightly in a splint, and the pain in her ribs was only slightly dulled by the medication coursing through her veins. Across from her, Kora offered a crooked smile.
“I’m prohibiting any field work for you two for the next eight weeks at least,” Enger continued, fixing both Johnson sisters with threatening looks. “Johnson, no weight on that leg until I approve it, and Kora—” his eyes softened just slightly but his jaw was still set, stubborn as ever, “—You’re on bed rest until further notice. Reed will help you with your meals and baths. Understood?”
With resigned mutters to the affirmative, Enger nodded, offered a hint of a smile, and pulled the curtains closed around their respective beds, offering some much-needed silence and privacy.
Daisy heaved a sigh and nestled her head more comfortably into the crook of Daniel’s neck. “Sorry,” she said hoarsely.
He squeezed her good hand. “What for?”
She let out a short, amused huff. “For making you have to come get me. And . . . for making you worry.”
Daniel craned his head around to meet Daisy’s tired, regretful eyes. Their faces were close enough so that two more inches and their lips would meet, but Daniel only pressed his forehead to hers, grasping the base of her skull with all the gentle care in the world. He lifted his head and pressed a soft, careful kiss to the sensitive skin just under her eye . . . to her forehead . . . to the corner of her mouth.
“Daisy,” he said, the word catching in his throat. “I’ll always come back for you, no matter the odds. And—” he smiled, ran his thumb across her knuckles, “—I might worry about you, but I’ll always be right here . . . to pick you back up.”
Daisy smiled. “I know.”