If you like your science fiction blazing with adventure and your space opera spiced with romance, this boxed set is for you. From first contact to battles for survival and love on war-torn planets, this collection from bestselling & award winning authors, including Cathryn Cade, Veronica Scott, PK Hrezo and more, will leave you sighing with satisfaction.
Still on the fence about this collection? Enjoy these excerpts…
THE KEY by Pauline Baird Jones
It was deeply quiet in the cave, quiet enough to hear her own breathing. And someone else’s. An icy trickle made its way down her back. Who, or what, was sharing this cave with her? Sara sat up, stifling a groan when various bruises and bangs registered formal protests to her brain housing group. She’d planned to stand up next, but something stirred across from her. Who—or what—ever it was rose, throwing an ill-formed and very large shadow against the wall and roof of the cave. Maybe it was the bad light, but the outline was very Sasquatch-ish—shaggy and kind of ominous. The icy trickle turned to a rushing stream. It moved toward her, passing into the half light cast by the sort of fire. Not Sasquatch, though he could have been a second cousin. He had a head full of dreads, he bristled with armament, and he bulged with muscles wrapped in what appeared to be tight fitting leather. It was hard to find features—his face was darkened by dirt or camo, or both—but his eyes were deeply, sharply green. And he was really, really tall. Sara had to tip her head way back to look up at him. He didn’t speak, which upped the eerie factor a few more degrees. She somehow managed to get her legs under her and stand. She was a tall girl—Tall Girl was actually her call sign—but the top of her head didn’t reach his chin. He’d have to be around seven feet to top her by that much. He looked like a ragged cave man, but there was a sharp intelligence in his eyes. And he’d managed to get her clear of her bird. Not exactly cro-mag man skills. She wanted to say something, but all she could think of was, crap. Not particularly useful.
THE IRON ADMIRAL: CONSPIRACY by Greta van der Rol
Allysha was there, waiting,just inside the infra-red barrier. She smiled, a taut lifting of the lips, when he came in.
“Hello. Nervous?” Saahren said the words in his head.
She nodded. “Yes. But I’m ready.”
He dropped the infra-red barrier for the time it took to pass behind the counter and went to the secret warehouse for the explosives. He pulled down the carton and took out two packs of shardite and detonators, enough to blow the room to smithereens but not bring down the mountain, and slipped the blocks into his pockets.
She had her oblong device—she called it her techpack—in her hand. “Give me a sec to adjust the inventory.” She raised her head. “Done.”
“Now for the medical research center.”
She followed behind him, back to the main drive, along to the medical center and into the laboratory.
“Copy some of the data off the system so we have the evidence and then destroy it all.” He’d made it an order, damn it. “Please.”
While she worked on the computers he pulled the two shardite charges out of his pockets. Where best to place them? One on top of the benches to cause maximum damage. He molded the material around the fixtures and attached the detonator. And another here. Allysha had disappeared, he guessed into the foyer. He opened all the cupboard doors, switched off the climate conditioning and set the second charge.
A screeching howl from the room with the cages froze the blood in his veins. He leapt to his feet, heart racing.
Allysha charged toward him, eyes wide, mouth open. “A kartek.”
She tried to slam the door behind her but a heavy, clawed foot stopped the movement. A hooked talon, long as a saber, appeared in the gap above her head.
ESCAPE FROM ZULAIRE by Veronica Scott
The lights along the path and beside the benches flickered and went out, plunging them into darkness.
Glancing around, Deverane frowned in the moonlight. He released her, keeping one hand around her wrist and putting the other on the butt of his blaster. “Is that normal?”
“The generators have been known to be troublesome in the summer. Probably nothing.” The moment was gone, the spell she’d been under broken. Am I disappointed? Relieved? Things had been moving way too fast between them for people who had just met. “Fortunately, we still have enough moonlight to see the path.” Andi took a step toward the clubhouse.
He tightened his grip on her wrist, forcing her to stop. “Wait.”
Yelling broke out in the large building on the rise behind them. Glaring, sporadic flashes burst from the general direction of the parking area and from the main wing of the celebration hall itself. Making the forest brighter than day, a sizable explosion obliterated the light of the two moons for a moment. Clapping her hands to her ears at the concussion, Andi ducked, crowding into the reassuringly hard-muscled captain.
In one fluid motion, he had his blaster in hand. Still keeping his grasp on her wrist, he drew Andi farther away from the path, taking cover behind a wide, multiple-trunked tree. Placing himself between her and the building, he leaned out, reconnoitering the pathway. The screams and shouts were increasing in intensity and number.
Andi huddled against the tree, rough bark scraping her arm. He was right, this sounds like the beginning of war. Trembling, she had to lock her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering as one piercing shriek rose above the rest of the general uproar.
“I’m afraid we missed our deadline for a clean escape.” His voice was harsh, the words angry. “Come on.” Pulling Andi to her feet, he laced his fingers in hers and drew her from the safety of the tree, setting a course around the edge of the lake to the east.
REMOVED by S. J. Pajonas
Behind these two men are the brothers our age Miko referred to earlier. The older one is around twenty-four or twenty-five and his brother a few years younger. Yes, Miko, they are definitely cute but the younger one is more my type. He is seriously handsome with longer, floppier hair than his older brother, a strong chin, and what looks like a white streak in his hair just over his ear. He reaches up and tucks his hair back before turning and spying the three girls staring from the bar.
“What did I tell you, Sanaa-chan?” Miko whispers. “The older one’s mine.” A slow, seductive smile comes over her face, and I do my very best not to roll my eyes. Miko has her sights set on him. He’s done for.
But I’m watching the younger brother. Yes, just my type, I can tell already. Strong and confident in the way he holds himself. I love longer hair on men, and that black kimono. Sigh. I love men in kimono. His eyes are on me and now that we’re staring at each other, my breath is slowing, slowing, slowing down until I’m holding it and not breathing at all. I don’t blink. I don’t move. I am completely entranced.
“It’s a good thing neither of these two are my type,” Helena whispers at me, but I barely hear her. The younger one has turned from me at the behest of one of the other men, the two brothers bow to Miko’s father, and turn to exit the izakaya through the back door. No! Wait!
No, wait. He’s looking at me again before he goes. Did I say that out loud? I don’t know. Smile, Sanaa.
I smile, trying not to be too eager nor too subtle. I’m usually at one end of the spectrum or the other and know nothing of moderation. Moderation? What’s that? No clue.
A smile brightens his face for a moment, but he’s gone. They’re all gone.
STARK PLEASURE; the Space Magnate’s Mistress by Cathryn Cade
Kiri lowered her hands far enough to look up at the male crowding her coffee stand. Sure enough, he was still watching her, and it wasn’t with the abstracted kindness of a good-doer. His gaze held enough latent heat to run that security grid. Maybe he’d help her. And if he wanted something for it, well, he was certainly the most attractive man she’d seen in a long time.
She tried a smile. A poor effort, given the winged thing inside her, now hissing with a voice darker than the constant fog outside the space port. It fed on her twinge of shame at even considering hitting up a stranger for money.
“Thanks. I guess you kept me from getting fried. But you must have things to do, so…”
When his eyes crinkled slightly with amusement, her panic veered in a new direction.
“Wait. You’re not some uppity-up in the space port authority, are you? I wasn’t really going to kill the Vulpean.” Well, she was, but not publicly.
“Do I look like a helmet to you?”
She let her gaze drift down over him again. For the first time she noticed the charcoal gray business suit tailored to his lean, powerful frame. “Um, no. You don’t. So who are you?”
He smiled, creases grooving his taut cheeks. He had a beautiful mouth, with thin, sensitive lips that belied the ruthless set of his jaw. His teeth gleamed white and straight. The twinkle in his eyes sent a curl of heat straight inside her. Amazing, considering her turmoil. This guy was truly a powerful force.
“I’m the man who’s going to take you to dinner. Close down your machines, and let’s go.”
“Why do you want to take me to dinner?”
“Maybe I need a barista.” He waited by the opening in her counter as she finished tidying the area, cleaned her hands on a moist wipe and tossed it away.
She grinned over her shoulder, charmed in spite of her turmoil. “No, you don’t. Excuse me, I need to close that. I go out the back.”
“Not today. My cruiser is waiting across the concourse. Come.”
A private cruiser? Who was this guy? She planted her feet, facing him. “I’m not going anywhere with you until I know who you are. Name and credentials, please.”
He gave her an approving look. “Wise of you to ask.”
She shrugged. “Slavers have been out. And you don’t look like one of those either, but…”
When a strange slider with no markings cruised slowly along her block for the third time in recent weeks, it had been the final impetus behind Kiri’s reckless gamble. She had to get out of the port slums before she disappeared as well. The slavers had already taken more than she could bear to lose.
This man didn’t look like a slave runner, but appearances could be deceptive.
Instead of answering her, he sauntered out onto the concourse, beckoned to her to follow him. When she did, he nodded toward a huge holovid screen hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The ever-present fog swirled high above, carrying the dank smells of cruiser exhaust, dirty streets and the mildew that pervaded the city, summer or winter.
Kiri frowned up at the display. A panoply of stars against the midnight of space swirled through a complicated pattern that became a gleaming white space cruise ship speeding toward a guiding star. As the ship neared the star, words became visible.
“‘Fly LodeStar,'” she read aloud. “‘Where the ride is as good as the destination.'” Starry. Like she had credit for a cruise.
The ship accelerated out of the hologram, and a group of beings in silver flight suits filled the screen. With muscular builds and direct gazes, they looked like the Intergalactic Space Forces pilots who came through the space port, tough and cool.
In their center stood her rescuer, the only one wearing business attire. And clearly the man in charge.
Kiri peered at the man waiting beside her. As arrogant as he was patient, those smoky quartz eyes fixed on her.
“That’s you,” she blurted. “You’re …”
“Yes. Logan Stark.”
HER CYBORG AWAKES by Melisse Aires
Kaistril dreamed. A woman was in his arms…his Mistress Sabralia, with her dark hair, dark blue eyes and white soft skin. His cock roared into hardness. He tightened his arms around the woman, pulling her closer…she was so sweet, smelling of flowers, her soft bottom cradled his straining member…
Something is wrong.
His eyes snapped open in a starless night and he sat up so fast he swayed, dizzy. They were on a cushioned pallet in thick woods. A body was pressed tight against him and he knew it was his mistress, Sabralia. They were hiding from…unrest.
Something is wrong. My name is Kaistril. No! I am Qy, in service to my mistress.
He couldn’t remember…but Kaistril seemed right. He shook his head to try and clear his confusion. The air reeked of smoke. The fire, soldiers, danger, weapons…
His head ached, as did his stomach. He was thirsty. He reached into Sabralia’s food basket and got a fruit drink, which helped a little, but his mind was still clouded.They were in the woods…a fire at the palace…
Something is wrong. Breathe deeply, calm yourself, a voice he recognized as being from his past, told him. He closed his eyes and breathed in through his mouth and out through his nose, concentrating.
There was a sound. It was important. He listened.
Far away, so far away he could only feel the vibrations through the earth—death! He slid off the pillows onto the forest floor and placed his palms on the ground—
−-The Strafe, attacking his Tier, the entire contingent in their observation units, dying. Burning, blinding white flashes, men falling dead in an instant, dead bodies everywhere… He knew it well. It had killed his men. The Strafe was coming!
“Wake. Wake!” He hauled the sleeping woman into his arms. “We need to get down to the beach, to one of the caves.”
A timer went off in his brain, the timer he was to obey, for his nightly maintenance. He groaned with confusion. No− The caves! He threw the queen over his shoulder with her blankets over her, and loped toward the beach, ignoring her protests and squirms. She was round and soft, not strong, not a warrior woman and he was able to subdue her struggles easily without harming her. In the far distance the Strafe slashed through the air, lighting the way with its killing white light, and the woman screamed in shock, her whole body going tight.
“Underground. The Strafe,” he grunted. She probably had no idea what the Strafe was. But he knew. He remembered. Fierce triumph filled him. He remembered and they would not kill this warrior, or his queen.
“What’s wrong?” she cried.
The soft voice of his mistress sent a shiver down his spine. His body was still hard, clamoring for her touch, despite the raging light. The danger, the excitement flooding his body, his memories, the woman in his arms. He paused for a moment, suddenly overwhelmed with confusion.
The Strafe moved closer, so its individual tines of killing light were visible.
“We need to get to one of the tidal caves. The Strafe will kill us.”
“The Strafe.” Comprehension colored her words.
He sat her down, pulled the blanket from her face then grabbed her hand and they raced down the beach.
He found the section of beach with shallow caves. They’d explored them before, collecting shells… Once inside he shoved her against the back wall of the cave and covered her body with his own.
“The Strafe doesn’t go through soil. We might live if we…” His words trailed off.
She was staring at him, mouth agape, eyes huge and dark in the night.
“You are different.” His mistress sounded faint.
“Yes. There is no time. Close your eyes,” he said. “The light can damage your vision.” He pulled the blanket over them, holding it cupped to her eyes with one hand while he did the same to his own with his other hand. Kaistril listened carefully but could hear nothing now except their breathing, heavy with fear. The Strafe was concentrating on populated areas, though it would eventually sweep outlying areas for strays.
Bright, deadly tines stroked the beach and suddenly clashed around them, lighting even their closed, blanket covered eyes. They sank to the ground as the light sizzled just feet from them, close enough they could feel its strange heat. It disappeared, though they could still hear it.
Qy ran out of their shelter. The Strafe had returned to the Palace area. “Come on. It has gone straight back to the city. This is our chance!”
He grabbed her by the hand and ran up the beach, dragging her along.
“Qy, where are we going?” she wailed.
He paused for a split second, then continued pulling her along.
“Staying alive is the plan,” was all he said. No need to tell her it’s a gamble. Soon the Harvesters will be here to kill those that remain alive…
SOLIA’S MOON – Lyn Brittan
After a few seconds, she rubbed her hand against him, finally getting hold of a good chunk of his trousers. “Let’s get back. Try to keep quiet though.”
Quiet? Yeah, right. They’d passed that marker a long way back.
With small, shuffling steps, they made their way to the camp and settled in. He tried to get comfortable, but something had changed in the moments they’d been away. He reached around Solia’s shoulder, drawing her near, while exposing the grip of his weapon on the opposite side.
“What is it?”
“So why are you holding me like—”
“What happened to staying quiet?”
The sounds were the same: Mol’s regular breathing and the soft snores coming from where Marius had gone into a fetal position earlier in the night. He didn’t hear anything from where he thought Lee would be, but then, he hadn’t expected to.
Every muscle twitched expectantly and he pulled back the action on his old-fashioned semiautomatic. He kept it mainly as a reminder of his father, but no matter how much weaponry progressed, this could still kill a man. He cocked it and sent up a silent prayer of retroactive thanks that the old man had reduced the pull to a hair trigger. Even though he heard nothing else, he stayed in the same primed position the rest of the night.
NOELLE IN HIS HEART – C.E. Kilgore
Mike cursed as Steve took another step back into him, causing him to splash hot coffee onto his sleeve. “Geeze, Steve,” Mike whispered, “what’s your deal?”
“Oh, uhm…” Steve double-blinked out of his stupor and stepped away. “Sorry.”
“Uh-oh. I know that look,” Garry grinned through a half-finished bite of bagel. “Someone just got bit by the love bug.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Steve became immediately defensive. “One does not simply see a girl and get bit by anything.”
Mike stood up straight and did a Steve impression, causing Garry to choke on his bagel. “One does not simply…”
Amber squeezed in to grab a roll of tape from the counter. “That’s what my brother said after he met Isa. Had that same ‘hit upside the head with a photon charger’ look you have. They were bonded two weeks later.”
“It’s also how Mike looks every time he comes out of Anna’s office,” Garry chuckled until Mike’s big hand whacked him from behind.
“No bonus for you!” Mike did another accented impression.
“You watch too much TV,” Amber shook her head at the boys’ common antics. “Can’t imagine why Anna isn’t falling all over you. Now, if you’re done stuffing your faces, I could use some help in the window.”
“Still eating,” Garry stuffed another overly cream-cheesed bite into his mouth before grinning at Amber to give her a full view. She huffed and walked back to the window with a few uttered words.
“Yeah, I certainly can’t imagine why you’re still single, Garry,” Steve smirked and followed Amber. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. “So, that girl was totally cute.”
“Oh, don’t you start, too,” Steve grimaced, holding the ladder as Amber climbed.
Amber snickered and peered down at him. “C’mon, Steve, you haven’t been on a date in… Have you ever been on a date?”
“You know it’s not as easy for me,” Steve sighed, down-casting his eyes. “Not as easy as it is for the lumberjacks, at least.”
“Lumberjacks,” Amber chuckled and nearly dropped the stencil. “Kind of funny that they’re both wearing plaid again for the fifth day in a row.”
“Indeed,” Steve grinned, happy for a change in topic.
“Really though,” Amber wasn’t about to let him off the hook that easily. “You have to at least try to assimilate a bit more. You need a social life outside the team. We’re stuck here for the foreseeable future, so you might as well make the most of it.”
“You make it sound so easy,” Steve argued. “Or do you forget that the rest of you don’t have the same anatomical hang-ups I do?”
“We all have our hang-ups, Stevverax,” Amber used his true name for the first time in over a year. “At least you don’t turn blue when you reach climax.”
Steve blinked, one set of eyelids then the other. “Have you… with Earthers?”
“I’ve been on some dates, sure,” she shrugged as her brush began edging the stencil with white paint. “I’m not just going to sit on my butt, waiting for a rescue that may never come. I’m not looking for a husband or anything, but I’m curious about them. Besides, what if Mr. Right does happen to be an Earther? It’s certainly not the Vragan brothers over there, and Anna isn’t my gender preference.”
“Yeah, but what are you going to do?” Steve questioned. “Just ask the Earther to turn the lights off every time you want to get intimate? And what about children? I think he’d notice when your kid comes out after only five months and pinker than a flamingo.”
Amber sighed, setting her stencil brush down. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet, but I’d hope I could find a guy who’d be okay with me turning blue on occasion and with our kid being pink for a few months… then green for a year…” she finished with a frown.
Steve felt a sudden sense of deja vu, certain they’d had this conversation last Christmas, too. There was just something about this time of year that made the feeling of loneliness that much more oppressive and hard to stomach. They may be Earther holidays, but after six years, he was having a hard time remembering what going to the Turnax festival felt like.
BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE: THE BEGINNING By Catrina Taylor
~Good. Now, tell me how you ended up there.~ Yatrell projected, trying to hide the concern from his voice.
Softly she projected, ~I told you. I was sold.~ She reached in her pocket and found the now comforting feel of the listening stone. She was glad that none of the trainers had discovered it on her.
Astonished, Yatrell projected, ~Sold? To the military? That sounds wrong even for a Xenonian.~
~No. My master is expecting a wedding announcement.~ She paused briefly and then corrected herself, ~My former master. My new master is something of an enigma to me.~
He shuddered hearing that, still not able to get used to that idea. ~How long have you been there?~
Her projection even stuttered when she thought about it, ~A week.~Instantly his face turned downward, ~A week and you still can’t move with your team? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?~
He found it difficult to hide his frustration with her when he projected, ~You need to be paying attention to what your instructors are telling you. Not to the minds around you. They don’t know what you need to know, your instructor does. He will be the reason you survive your first battle and your next and every battle after that.~
Flustered and trying not to cry, Kala, projected to him, ~Yes, I believe this too. I am just not cut out for this. I … can’t do this.~
Yatrell asserted confidently, ~Yes, you can. You have no choice now Kala, you must.~
The elevator doors slid open, and Maddie was pushed into a long hallway. Jackson still held her by her arm and escorted her into what appeared to be a conference room. Maddie sat down in one of the chairs that surrounded the oval table and was left alone.
Maddie lost track of time while waiting. She had gotten lost in her own thoughts when the opening of the door startled her.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Jackson said upon entering.
“You’ve been apologizing a lot to me since we met,” Maddie flatly said.
“It’s not going to stop either.”
Maddie paused for a moment, remembering what Jackson had said earlier.
“Alright, I think I’m owed an explanation.”
“I’m afraid you’re right.”
Jackson paused right by the door.
“Again, I’m sorry, Madison,” he said before knocking on the wood.
It swung open and a woman walked into the room. The woman had short, pixie-like dirty blonde hair but there could be no mistake: she looked exactly like Maddie.
BUTTERMAN (TIME) TRAVEL, INC, – by PK Hrezo
Once Tristan sets the guitar down, stops singing, it takes a few minutes for my brain to register it’s over. The sound waves still echo his voice, caressing my ears. But once I’m aware, I’m very aware, and I reach out for his thigh, clutch it. “Where did you learn to sing like that?”
His blue-gray eyes dance with firelight. “You liked it?”
“Um, yeah. Like isn’t even the right word. That is so far from U-Turn style, I don’t even know if you’re the same person.”
He chuckles, airy and agreeable, his cheeks coloring. “Guess that’s good then.” He shrugs. “Or you’re just wasted. But I have been working on finding the right pitch and style over the last few months. Trying some things out.”
“That song … what is it? Is that the one—?”
“My song. Yeah.” He averts his eyes with what must be a dash of modesty, then changes the subject. “Thought you were passed out? Looked like it.”
“Maybe I was. I don’t even know. But I heard you singing…and…Tristan, sing it again. The whole thing. Please.” I don’t even care if I’m begging. I need to hear that again.
Tristan shakes his head. “Naw, I need a break. Throat’s dry.”
Anxious for another dose of his voice, I attempt a splash of flattery. “I had no idea you could sing like that. If you performed that as a single, in the same slo-mo mellow campfire style you just did, I guarantee you will have a whole new fan base.” I realize I’m still gripping his thigh and release it, sit back. My passion is coming to a head inside me. I might explode.
“Really, Butterman? We were just messin’ around. And I’m pretty loaded right now.” He chuckles, but maintains eye contact, as if my praise means a hell of a lot more to him than he’s letting on.
I’m silent for a few seconds that seem like forever and I can’t unlock the stare. Don’t want to.