Prime Selection

The Prime Chronicles, Book Two

Monette Michaels

 

Chapter 1

Sunrise, Cejuru Tarn

Galactic Alliance Commander Nadia Petrovich, recently appointed science officer of the Starship Galanti, scanned the flat plain upon which the Prime Military had built their fortifications. She hunted for movement, for anything out of place, to clue her into the enemy’s position.

The “enemy” in this instance was the Prime Elite squadron that had been selected to challenge the battle-readiness of Gold Squadron and its newly merged Prime and Alliance soldiers. The real reason for the joint exercise was to test whether Prime soldiers could work effectively with the female soldiers of Gold, which was why Nadia was in charge of this particular session and her equal-in-rank Prime counterpart, Commander Aeron Ard, was not.

Nadia took in a deep breath of the thin, cool morning air, appreciating the fact Tarn had enough oxygen in its atmosphere that they could do away with head-to-toe survival gear. Then something in the air made her stiffen. She looked around and saw nothing to cause the uncomfortable feeling. Her skin prickled and the fine hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. Her pulse increased as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. Her body’s fight-or-flight response had kicked in big time—but over what?

Something wasn’t right on Tarn. This feeling of impending danger had been there in one way or another since her Gold Squad team had been dropped off on the planetoid two standard hours earlier. She’d written the feeling off as nerves for the upcoming training session, but now, with her scouting partner alongside, it forced its way to the forefront of her mind.

For the second time in as many minutes, she swept her gaze over the flat, dry land toward the octagon-shaped compound built of the gray limestone found on the planet. It was built for optimal defense with three of its sides abutting the foothills of Tarn’s main mountain range and the other five facing the stark, flat plains of what was once an ancient sea. The compound’s perimeter was fully lit, but the military facility inside looked abandoned. Her empathic senses told her that was a lie.

The buildings teemed with the emotional auras of sentient beings—a chaotic cloud of emotions that created the anxiety she felt.

But where were the perimeter guards? Where were the Prime scouts who should have been scouring the land and gaining intel on her team for the war games? Was this part of the Prime squad’s plan?

For over the last standard half hour, she and her scouting partner, Commander Joen Dakkin, Communications Officer for the Galanti, had made their way from the mountain cave system where their team had secured a base of operations. They’d seen no one. Something was very wrong, and her heart rate elevated another notch or two.

“It’s been too easy,” she muttered. “Do they think we’re stupid? That we’ll just waltz in because it looks abandoned?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Aeron agrees. It’s wrong. All wrong. Has been since we landed without anyone attempting to score points on us.” Joen’s voice was flat, emotionless.

Nadia glanced at him and instinctively used her empathic ability to test his mood. He was boiling mad under the calm demeanor, a volcano ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.

“Shit. I knew something wasn’t right.” Mentally, she kicked her own ass for not going with her gut. “Our landing wasn’t challenged. When we secured the cave system as our headquarters, Aeron seemed happy, but as we set up base operations he grew more and more concerned. I should’ve confronted him then.”

She’d treated Aeron with titty fingers since she’d been given command of the op. She hadn’t wanted to challenge him overly much, since that might damage his stupid Prime male machismo. All the Alliance female soldiers had been tiptoeing around the Prime males—and the Prime males, around the women. It had been like watching a nature video of skittish she-cats and a bunch of alpha-cats scenting each other out, testing each other’s limits.

Both races still had a long way to go before they understood the other. But then, this training session and others like it had been arranged for that very reason.

Lesson learned—next time her gut told her to challenge the big Prime male, she would.

Since Aeron wasn’t here, she only had the Prime male next to her to obtain the information she needed. Her sense of dread was increasing exponentially now—something bad was coming down. “What do you think is going on?”

Joen scowled and shook his head. “Not sure. But something’s awry. Our empathic feelings are connected to our fellow Prime during battle situations—and that would include the Prime stationed here. Aeron and I sensed nothing on landing. No excitement or anticipation of the war games to be played out. We should’ve sensed something.”

And wasn’t that odd? She sensed all sorts of emotions, so many she had a hard time singling out any other than Joen’s. But unlike the Prime, Nadia’s empathic abilities worked with all sentient beings—and there were sentient beings out there. She just didn’t see them—yet.

Joen stared at the empty plain. The only thing visible out there was scrubby foliage and dust devils as the heat of the early morning sun met the chilled air of the night. He turned to look at her. His eyes glowed with the intense emotions roiling within him. “Aeron chalked the lack of emotional readings, other than our own Prime team members, up to the fact no other Prime were nearby when we landed and set up base camp.”

He scowled and rubbed a hand over his dark, close-cut hair. “But that read wrong also. Any Prime soldier worthy of the name would have, at the very least, established perimeter alarms on the cave system we chose and had spotters in the mountains.”

The caves had turned out to be a storage area for excess supplies and munitions for the military facility and would’ve been a coup for any invading force.

“Plus, why didn’t our opponents challenge our predawn landing?” Joen frowned. “They knew we were coming sooner or later. Prime are always vigilant.”

“We’re on the same page. I had the same thoughts and feelings.” Nadia clenched her jaw. “And there are other intelligent beings on this planetoid—and the emotions I’m picking up aren’t particularly friendly. Call me overcautious, but we need to send our scouting teams back to base, regroup, and figure this out. It smells like a clusterfuck in the making.”

“That’s not overly cautious. It’s a very wise call.” Joen’s golden eyes darkened with his concern. “You’ll find Aeron has arrived at the same conclusions.”

Nadia didn’t particularly care if Aeron had or not. This was her op, her responsibility. If something bad happened, it was on her. There were too many science, engineering, and medical personnel and officers on this particular operation, crew members who normally didn’t get exposed to battle situations. This training was supposed to be not only a test of the newly merged crews, but also a refresher training for skills some hadn’t used since basic training. She refused to risk her people. The situation was feeling more and more explosive.

Nadia switched her com unit to team-wide communications. “All team members are ordered back to base. Code Foxtrot-Uniform-Bravo-Alpha-Romeo. Proceed with caution. Commander Nadia out.”

If it wasn’t FUBAR yet, it soon would be. Her gut was doing backflips at the increasing sense of danger.

“Ard, here. Logistics officer is in total agreement.” Aeron sounded grim. “My teams are securing base camp. Suggest switching to alternate Com Code Tango-Tango-Two-Four.”

“Agreed. All team members switch to Com Code Tango-Tango-Two-Four.” Nadia sighed with relief. Aeron was thinking along the same line—regroup and defense. Maybe, between the two of them, they could figure out what was wrong.

“Let’s pull back, Joen.”

Nadia rose to a crouch behind the boulder where they’d taken shelter. They’d gotten as close to the Prime facility as they could and were about thirty meters away from a side entrance to one of the buildings that did not back up to the foothills. She hadn’t been overly concerned about being seen since their uniform jackets and pants changed colors to blend with the desert and mountainous landscapes surrounding the military facility. Even the laser target sensor vests, which registered the low impulse laser fire for war gaming, had the same ability to merge into the background.

Between their camo and the large rocks scattered on the flat land from some past tectonic activity, she and Joen should be able to retreat as easily as they’d infiltrated. Once they made it into the foothills and the thick forests that grew there and up onto the mountains, they would be home free.

Empathic senses blaring and movement on their right had Nadia tackling Joen to the ground as a stream of laser fire streaked across where his torso had been. If Joen had been hit, it would have registered on his vest as a kill shot.

Instead, the stream hit her arm, and she hissed in pain. The searing burn of a fully powered laser blast shot up and down her dominant arm. Her eyes watered as she inhaled the smell of her burnt flesh and jacket sleeve. Her nerve endings screamed. She called upon every iota of her warrior forebears’ strength to stay alert and aware and not succumb to the bowel-burning pain.

One hundred Gold Squad members relied on her command decisions, and no laser burn would stop her. Only death could do that—and she didn’t intend to meet death today.

“Live fire! Live fire! Code Red. Code Red,” she screamed into her com unit as she shoved Joen behind a boulder.

While she listened for chatter in response to her call, she pulled her laser sidearm. Thank God, her hand still worked. The laser hadn’t cut any major nerves, just all the little painful ones. She rearmed her laser for live fire.

Nadia glanced at Joen who’d rolled out from under her once they were behind cover. He was dirty, but uninjured, and was arming his laser for live fire also.

“Nadia…” Joen’s voice was a low snarl. It reverberated over her skin like a swarm of stinging insects.

His aura glowered in her mind’s eye. The heat of his anger danced and burned its way along the edges of her empathic senses as if seeking a connection, warrior to warrior. And isn’t that strange? The energy flowed from his body in churning waves. So, this is what a Prime male’s battle rage, his batel rabia, felt like. The man could power a transport shuttle on the energy coming off his body.

“Nadia…” Joen touched her hand.

She flinched and pulled her hand away. His touch had disrupted her ongoing sensory scan of him, of their surroundings. She focused on his grim face.

“We have no intrateam communications,” he said. “I can’t raise any of our squad. We have no off-planet communications either.”

“Fuck!” she muttered, testing the air around them for any hint of a further attack. “Can you fix the problem?” As Joen opened his mouth to answer, Nadia motioned for quiet.

The shooter approached their hiding place. He was very close. His eagerness for the kill was palpable; it tasted like day-old meat and copper.

She pointed one finger in the direction from which the would-be killer approached … no, wait … there were two of the fuckers. She added another finger. At this point, she could care less who the shooters were; they’d used live, full-stream laser fire and had attempted to kill Joen. They were the enemy. They needed to be eliminated.

Joen nodded, raised his weapon, and indicated with an angling of his head that he’d go right.

Nadia mouthed, “Go” and went left as Joen dove right; they let loose killing streams at the same time. She nailed her target in the torso and knocked him on his back. Joen’s man was down also.

Joen checked on the two assassins. He turned and sliced his hand across his neck. Both were dead. He hurried to join her as she headed away from the Prime installation.

“Prime?” she asked in a low, noncarrying tone as they used boulders and dips in the land to hide their retreat.

From her quick glance, neither man had the look of a Prime male—who were almost uniformly tall, very muscular, dark-haired, and bronze-skinned with golden or amber eyes—even though they wore the Prime uniform. Some really bad juju was going on. She and her officers would try to make sense of it later—once all her people were safe and their base camp secure.

Nadia only hoped her order to return to base camp had been received. But in case it hadn’t, she headed south to where another scouting team would’ve set up for surveillance of the military facility. She wouldn’t head back to base until she was sure all her scouts were heading in and weren’t under attack. As she and Joen moved swiftly, she listened for the high whine of laser fire.

“Not Prime,” Joen finally answered. A sense of urgency poured off his aura.

She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. His normally bronze skin was more of a pale gold. He was scared—almost sick with it. “What’s wrong?” She looked around searching for the enemy and saw and felt nothing. They were alone for the time being.

“Lia is out with one of the scouting teams.” Joen’s voice held more than concern for a fellow officer; it held gut-wrenching anguish. “She’s a doctor, a healer. She shouldn’t be here.”

“Lia’s a trained Alliance soldier. This is exactly where she should be. Give her some credit.” Nadia would question what was going on between Lia and Joen later. “Stay alert, soldier. We have to get all our people to safety.”

Joen’s lips firmed and his color returned—but underneath, his emotions stirred and reflected rage and determination.

Laser fire sounded ahead of them. They increased their speed. As they sprinted from the cover of one set of rocks to the next, Nadia shoved away the pain of her wound and her worry. This was war—and her soldiers needed her.

* * * *

Sunset, Cejuru Tarn

Whirling dust clouds danced along the valley floor. The setting sun’s rays created weird optical illusions through the haze, casting shadows over the arid land. Visibility was deteriorating at a time when the watchers on the cliff needed it most.

Nadia selected a different colored filter on her goggles and upped the magnification to get a clearer view of the wadi. Sorting through the wavering shadows among the large rocks that littered the dry creek bed, she located the two humanoid-shaped figures she’d lost for a few seconds in the glare of the day’s last gasp. The duo slunk from rock to rock in a furtive manner; they wore Prime military camouflage.

Jury was still out on whether they were actually Prime soldiers or not. Her vote was “not.”

“What do you think, Nadia? Friend or foe?” asked Commander A’tem, a Volusian member of her training team and the chief engineer on her former ship, the Starship Leonidas. He was her partner for her third scouting mission of the day.

God, she was tired. The pain of her laser wound was a constant reminder of the potential of danger. There’d be no rest until she had a handle on this clusterfuck. Pushing her goggles up, she turned away from the scene below and focused on A’tem’s emotionless face.

His pale blue skin glowed in the lowering light. His demeanor was calm and alert. But underneath the facade he was boiling mad; his anger had texture as it vibrated over her skin and made her itch.

Nadia snorted. “Foe until proven otherwise.” She replaced the goggles and focused on the scene below.

Her team had suffered numerous casualties during the surprise attack just after sunrise. Three of her injured were in critical condition and fighting for their lives back at base camp. Someone had to pay. But who? That was the sticky issue.

The action reports from the less severely wounded had been divided as to whether the ones who’d shot them were Prime or not. The bodies of the enemy dead—so far—had been non-Prime males dressed in Prime uniforms. That didn’t mean the enemy soldiers who’d gotten away weren’t Prime. She’d rather err on the side of caution.

“The only Prime I trust on this rock,” she added, “are the ones assigned to Gold Squadron. Mel and Wulf vetted them all and weeded out potential rebels. Any Prime soldier on this piece of shit planetoid not a member of a Gold ship’s crew is the enemy until proven otherwise.”

The culling of the Prime soldiers who’d been merged into the Gold Squadron had occurred as the result of several treacherous acts. The last such act had occurred a little over two weeks ago. Nadia along with Mel Dmitros-Caradoc, her longtime friend and the Galanti’s co-captain, had been the victims of a kidnapping from the home of the treacherous aunt of the Galanti’s other co-captain and Mel’s mate, Wulf Caradoc. The two women had been taken and roughed up by the Pure Blood rebels.

“I agree.” A’tem’s voice rang with certainty and his ire. His cousin was one of the severely injured being cared for by Lia.

Something in his voice had Nadia once again shoving her goggles up. She glanced at the Volusian with whom she’d served for many years in the Alliance Military. His normally silver-blue eyes were as dark as midnight, reflecting his tangible need for revenge. Volusians, like the Prime, were a warrior race. This sneaking around went against his nature and training. A’tem would much rather roar his family’s battle cry and take the enemy head on.

She could relate. Her Siberian ancestors were all warriors and had managed to survive the twenty-first century Armageddon on Earth. Later they had been instrumental in bringing back stability to the remaining inhabitants in lower Siberia, often having to use draconian methods to do so. Tough situations had called for tough methods until the order of civilization had once again reigned. Her nature, her nurture, had led her to the Alliance military. And while she was a science officer, a job she loved, and spent most of her time discovering and documenting the secrets of the galaxy, she had no problem taking the fight to the enemy when appropriate.

That time would come soon.

Laying a hand on A’tem’s tense shoulder, she squeezed. “Patience, my friend. We can’t go on the offense yet. We don’t know for sure who the enemy is and how many of them we might have to fight.”

Nadia pulled her goggles back down and turned to continue to track the two prowling along the valley floor. “We go by the book. When dropped into enemy territory, we evade. Establish and defend security perimeters. Gather information. Take out any enemy straying into our protected area. Survive until help arrives. Then we go on the offensive.”

“Agreed.” A’tem’s tone said he really didn’t.

He wanted to rush down into the valley and kill the enemy. But he’d hold the line, follow orders.

To her astonishment, so far the Prime under her command had done the same. Her decision to send the scouting teams back to base camp earlier had saved lives. Her risking her skin to make sure her soldiers made it safely back to camp had earned her respect. She’d impressed the notoriously chauvinistic Prime—for now.

Prime warriors weren’t used to following orders issued by a woman. She had the feeling she’d have to continue to prove herself worthy of their deference. The meshing of the Prime military into the Alliance was still too new.

“Who do you think the enemy is?” A’tem’s piercing, navy-blue gaze focused on the valley. His Volusian vision was different than a Terran’s—he could see the two furtive shadows without the aid of specialized goggles. A trait she’d love to have; the goggles were heavy and bruised her nose and cheekbones when worn for too long.

Nadia remained silent for several seconds. “Not sure. I suspect the real soldiers are either captured or dead. The ones who attacked us are probably mercenaries hired by the Pure Blood fanatics. They would love to cause a galactic incident and damage the new treaty between the Prime and the Galactic Alliance.” God, I hate fanatics.

She angled her head toward the two men on the valley floor; they wandered up and down the dry riverbed in a standard search pattern. “Those two aren’t Prime military, that’s for damn sure. While they have some military training, they’re searching the low ground when any Prime soldier who’d trained on Tarn would look to the high ground and the caves hidden among the rocks. They aren’t familiar with this planetoid at all.”

“I concur.” A’tem turned away from the activity below and looked at her through narrowed eyes. “An Alliance or Prime-trained soldier also wouldn’t have tipped their hand so soon. Instead, they should’ve lured us into the war games and annihilated us during mock battle. By acting prematurely, they’ve allowed us to gain the better defensive and ultimately offensive position.”

“Exactly,” Nadia said. “They hurt us, but we’ve recovered quickly due to superior training. With our better knowledge of the terrain, thanks to our squad’s Prime soldiers, we’ll be able to hang on until Mel and Wulf realize we haven’t reported in.”

Unfortunately, Nadia still couldn’t radio for help. Whoever the enemy were, they had control of the military facility and had blocked all off-planet communications.

For a short, chaotic period after the surprise attack, Gold’s com units didn’t work. But once back at base camp, Joen had managed to overcome the com unit block. He was currently working on fixing the off-planet communication issue.

“We’re lucky Commander Dakkin was scheduled for this joint training. If anyone can get the off-planet communications up and running, it will be him. Only Iolyn Caradoc could do better,” said A’tem.

“Luck is all well and good, but Lady Luck’s a fickle bitch. I’d rather rely on brains and training.” Deciding the two clueless mercs in the valley were no danger to her people sheltering in the caves, Nadia turned to A’tem. “Let’s finish setting up the perimeter alarms Aeron and I rigged. With any of that luck you mentioned, we might run across our missing team members.”

Renewed grief—and anger—streaked through her. Nadia was missing six soldiers—two Terran females from the Renard and four Prime newly assigned to that particular Gold Squadron battle cruiser. They hadn’t answered after the intrateam communications had been re-established. Nor had they made their way to base camp.

Remaining on her stomach so as not to skyline herself, Nadia wiggled her way off the cliff’s edge. “If the fuckers make a mistake and attempt to search the high ground, they’ll not leave alive. No more of our people will be harmed or go missing—we defend what’s ours.”

She and Aeron had incorporated some explosive surprises into their perimeter security. Aeron’s choice of caves had proven to be serendipitous with the Prime military base’s overstock of food, medical supplies, and explosives and other munitions. They could hold out for a very long time if they had to.

A’tem captured her narrowed gaze with his navy one. “No mercy to the traitors and their hired killers. It is a good policy—very Prime and Volusian.”

“And very, very Siberian.” Yeah, the Prime as a race underestimated Terrans and especially Terran women. This joint training should go part of the way toward dispelling that ignorance.

Nothing like getting dumped in head first, eh, Nadia?

Her arm throbbed as the local Lia had given her had begun to wear off. But she couldn’t stop and rest, couldn’t give in to the pain … she had her soldiers to protect. She also had a responsibility to represent all Terran female soldiers well. No pressure. Yeah, right.

Nadia let out a sigh and rubbed the back of her neck. Her head pounded so much she was forced to let go of the shields she’d built around a newfound psi ability; the energy she used to maintain the walls tapped into her reserves. She’d strengthened the mental walls two weeks ago when Huw Caradoc had held her naked against him after he and Wulf had come to her and Mel’s aid. She wasn’t only extremely sensitive to his emotions, but was also telepathic with him—and only him.

Since then, the stubborn ass, while always cordial and polite, ignored the psychic connection between them and the intense attraction they had for one another.

With Tarn at the outer edge of the habitability zone of the Cejuru solar system, Huw was over six standard hours away; he couldn’t sense her—and she couldn’t sense or feel him denying the bond between them.

Grow a thicker skin, Nadia Petrovich. The man has tunnel vision about mating a Prime female—and you ain’t Prime.

The relief from lowering her shields was immediate. Her headache lessened, and she obtained a second wind.

Yet, as soon as her shields were down, some deep-rooted urge had her seeking the connection she shared with Huw.

All she found was a bleak blackness. The resulting pain was soul deep.

What did you expect? The man is hundreds of thousands of kilometers away on the main planet. He’s at that party for Wulf and Mel—probably has some Prime sex surrogate on his arm. Later, he’ll go home and have sex with her … she’s Prime. You’re not.

Jealousy. Anger. Grief. The emotions overwhelmed Nadia. She closed her eyes, well aware A’tem watched her curiously.

“Nadia…” A’tem’s soft voice and light touch on her back brought her outside of herself. “You okay? You looked deadly there for a moment. I sensed … more rage in you than before. Then sadness … you were so deeply sad.”

Dammit. I won’t let whatever in the hell this connection is turn me into a weepy woman pining for a man.

“Not rage … fighting mad. There’s a difference.” That the mad was not only aimed at the enemy, but also at Huw “stubborn as a jackass” Caradoc and the thought of him having sex with a woman who wasn’t her … well, A’tem didn’t need to know that.

Her lips twisted into a parody of a smile. “I’m fine. Let’s finish setting up the perimeter defenses. I could use some food, and my arm needs some further attention.”

Nadia was back in control again. She didn’t need to touch Huw’s mind to do her job, to protect her soldiers. She was a goddamn decorated Alliance officer.

And soon the enemy, the Prime, and Huw “blind as a fricking bat” Caradoc would learn there was nothing more deadly than a pissed off Siberian female who could trace her ancestry back to the early days of Terran history when Attila the Hun had ruled all of Asia and parts of Europe.