Check out The Ophelia Prophecy, a new SF romance from Sharon Lynn Fisher, available March 1st from Tor Books!
Asha and Pax—strangers and enemies—find themselves stranded together on the border of the last human city, neither with a memory of how they got there. Asha is an archivist working to preserve humanity’s most valuable resource—information—viewed as the only means of resurrecting their society. Pax is Manti, his Scarab ship a menacing presence in the skies over Sanctuary, keeping the last dregs of humanity in check.
But neither of them is really what they seem, and what humanity believes about the Manti is a lie. With their hearts and fates on a collision course, they must unlock each other’s secrets and forge a bond of trust before a rekindled conflict pushes their two races into repeating the mistakes of the past.
Water pooled around Asha’s hips, soaking her thin cotton dress. She studied the glimmering surface of the lake, and the rocky hillside looming on the opposite side.
The reservoir. How did I get here?
Closing her eyes, she pressed her fingers to her temples. The last thing she remembered was climbing to the roof of the Archive with her father. It was a beautiful fall evening, and they’d planned to picnic and watch the sunset. She’d stepped off the ladder onto the corrugated, whitewashed metal, and then…
She grasped at the words as they breezed across her consciousness. They had the ring of command, yet she had no memory of who had spoken them, or why.
A masculine moan sounded, so close she rolled into a crouch and skittered into the shallow water. The lithe movement of her own body surprised her almost as much as the unexpected voice.
Just beyond the depression she’d left on the beach, a naked form stirred. A stranger. His gaze riveted on her. He sat up straight, fists digging into the sand. No, not sand. His body rested on a bed of some soft, fibrous material.
She remembered the flimsy dress—now wet and clinging to her body—and hugged her bent legs, concealing herself as best she could. Her heart pounded against her thighs.
“Who are you?” they both demanded.
So the confusion was mutual.
“You first,” he said. A command, not a courtesy.
She hesitated. The man now seemed familiar—something about the eyes. They curved down at the inside corners, making them appear to slant under his dark, arched eyebrows. But she couldn’t place him.
He rose to a crouch, eyes moving over her like an extension of his arms, prying at the locked arms that concealed her body from him.
She reached up to release the clip that held her coiled hair to the back of her head, thinking she would cover herself with it. She gasped to discover her heavy tresses were gone.
Tears of confusion welled in her eyes. Fear knotted her stomach.
“What’s your name?” the stranger insisted.
“Asha,” she whispered, uncertain. There’d been another name a moment ago. A name that had seemed to mean something. Her throat tightened, strangling her words, as she said, “I don’t understand.”
“What are you doing here?”
She raised her eyes to his face, shrinking from the heat of his gaze. “I don’t know.”
His eyes bored into hers, probing for the thoughts behind them. He frowned, brow furrowing with doubt. He doesn’t believe me.
“Who are you?” she repeated, indignation nudging past the fear that gripped her.
He slid his hands up his shoulders to rub his neck, baring the hard lines of his stomach, revealing pale marks under either side of his rib cage. Scars.
“Paxton,” he said. One hand moved to the back of his head, and he winced. He probed the sore spot with his fingers.
“Why are you here?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know.”
She glanced again at the fibrous nest. “What’s that?”
She blinked at him, no more enlightened than before. Before she could question him further, he rose to his feet, scanning the horizon. Her eyes lingered on the marks below his ribs. She glanced away before her gaze could slip lower.
He stood so long—motionless and studying the edge of the sky—she began to think he’d forgotten her. His composure was troubling. There was a shared mystery here, clearly, but they were not equal participants.
“How can you be so calm?” she asked, voice lifting with anxiety. “Do you know something I don’t? Has this kind of thing happened to you before?”
Paxton glanced down at the nest. “Yes.”
She waited for him to explain, but the low whine of an approaching ship changed the subject. Panic jolted her as the black beetle hummed into view, dragging its own reflection across the surface of the lake.
She sprang to her feet. “That’s an enemy ship!”
The war was over, but the Manti ruled the air, still keeping tabs on the last dregs of humanity. Citizens of Sanctuary were forbidden to wander away from the city—and the reservoir marked the boundary.
“We need to go!” she cried.
Again his eyes skewered her to the spot. “No need. That’s my ship.”
“Your ship? I don’t…”
And then suddenly she did. She sidestepped a couple meters down the beach, gaze flitting between ship and enemy.
Overhead, the beetle whirred to rest, cupped wings lifting to allow a controlled vertical landing. With a series of loud clicks it nestled into the sand, hover gear lowering and locking back against the hull. The skin of the vessel was lusterless and black—a secreted resin that looked like rubber. She watched the hull lighten from jet to blond, until it was almost invisible against the sand.
“Pax, you okay?” The feminine voice came from the ship.
“I’m okay,” called Asha’s companion. “Drop the ramp.”
“Who’s that with you?” the voice asked.
Paxton frowned, glancing at Asha. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
Pax could see the woman was ready to bolt. He could feel it.
She was a wisp of a girl. Narrow shoulders. Graceful limbs. Cropped brown hair—unruly except where it was tucked behind her ears—and round eyes the color of coffee beans. Despite her fair complexion, sun exposure had stained her arms and shoulders a light copper. His eyes explored the curve and swell of flesh exposed by the threadbare dress. His fingers twitched at his hips.
“Whoever she is,” his pilot continued over the com, “I can smell from here she’s scared half to death.”
“I know, Iris. Drop the ramp.”
“Lord of the goddamn flies, Pax, you’re not thinking of bringing her on board.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because obviously it’s a trap. Your carapace was activated. Something went wrong down there.”
“Obviously,” he said, rubbing at the knot on the back of his head. He stared at the woman, and she took another step back. “But short of exploding, I’m not sure what she can do to us.”
“Well, for starters, explode.”
He gave a groan of impatience. “Banshee can scan her for internal com or explosive devices. Besides that, she might have the answers I don’t, so drop the fucking ramp, Iris, because this is no place to be arguing about this.”
The ship’s boarding ramp opened with a thunk and lowered to the sand.
He took a step toward Asha and held out his hand. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She stared like he was a snake. Her gaze drifted for the third time to the scars on his abdomen. Something prickly and unpleasant rolled in his stomach.
“Come with me,” he ordered.
Like hell, was the reply conveyed by her expression.
No time for this. Pax lunged for her.
A moment later he was flat on his back, staring at blue sky, trying to reactivate his diaphragm. What the fuck?
He turned his head, watching the woman run along the water’s edge.
“Want me to catch her for you, Brother?” Iris taunted over Banshee’s com.
Growling in irritation, he jumped up and bolted after her.
What Pax lacked in the more exotic of his family’s genetic advantages, he made up for in strength. The woman was stronger and faster than she looked, but he caught her in less than a minute. She shrieked as he hoisted her over his shoulder.
“Hurt me and I’ll hurt you back,” he menaced, curving his arm over her hips.
Her teeth sank into the soft skin just below his ribs.
Pax seized her around the waist and dumped her onto the sand, falling on top of her. Blood smeared her lips—his blood. He caged her between his legs, gripping her wrists in his hands. He wouldn’t underestimate her again.
“I warned you.”
Pax dropped his face to her neck, breathing deeply. He’d only meant to confirm she wasn’t transgenic—modified DNA didn’t always manifest in obvious ways—but instead he got a nose full of something else. His Manti senses told him that mating with her now would very likely produce offspring.
His nose grazed her cheek without any conscious impulse of his own. Her chest rose and fell with her panicked breathing, her breasts moving against him, making everything worse. He pressed against the leg she’d raised between them, hardening so fast it hurt.
She gave a horrified cry and writhed against him, waking him from the trance of arousal.
You’re not an animal! Pax strained for control. He understood the biology. He knew that pheromones were to blame, and the inherited mutation that enhanced his sensitivity to them. But his understanding did nothing to decrease his drive.
Through no fault of his own—through the fault of humans, in fact—he was an animal. At least part of him was, and sometimes his preternatural urges and abilities flared beyond his control.
He sucked in ragged breaths as he fought his body, fought his instincts. But god, the smell of her… He released her wrists and rolled her onto her stomach, ducking his head to inhale the scent at the nape of her slender neck, just below the hairline.
She was human, no question. And that was unfortunate. Because through the red haze of arousal he could feel his body tuning to her in a way that it should not. The shock of this discovery weakened him—for only a moment, but it was a moment too long.
The woman braced her arms and legs against the ground and heaved her body upward. The unanticipated movement toppled him, and she scooted away and scrambled across the sand.
But she made it no farther than the pair of black boots that planted themselves in her path.
Pax followed the line of the new arrival’s long and lean body, his eyes meeting hers. Iris frowned.
“Aren’t you the one who told me agitation makes a female more likely to chew off the male’s head?”
Sighing, he let his head fall back in the sand. “She’s human, Iris.”
“I wasn’t talking about her.”
The impulse to run fired impotently. Asha’s limbs had frozen with shock.
She suddenly understood the resurrection of archaic terminology like “changeling” and “fae.” For those who didn’t know, didn’t understand, or chose not to believe what these beings really were—next-generation byproducts of unsanctioned but well-funded biohacker projects—it probably seemed the only plausible explanation.
The inhabitants of Sanctuary lived a cloistered life. As an archivist, Asha had seen hundreds of images, but images were easily enhanced. Exaggerated.
But Iris was… devastatingly real.
Her exquisite face—small and pointed, dominated by large, pearlescent green eyes—was framed by a rigid, shield-shaped hood as brightly green as summer grass. The hood merged with her shoulders, and what was below, Asha had thought at first to be part of her costume—a set of elongated wings, the same color and texture as the hood. They lifted and settled, adjusting slightly with every movement she made.
As Iris strode toward Paxton, Asha noticed the Manti woman’s arms, slender and tapered like any woman’s—except for the row of spikes running from elbow to pinky finger.
Humanity referred to its enemy generically as Manti, though genetic experimentation had involved DNA from a variety of species. But Iris was mantis. Darkly alien—darkly other—with a beauty born of nightmares.
According to legend, a single creature like this one had triggered the fall of humanity. And yet at the moment it was the male Asha feared most.
Asha shifted her body slowly, crouching as she considered her next move. Paxton detected the motion, and his gaze cut her direction. She noted the rise and fall of his chest, his stilllabored breathing. She had no idea why her body was suddenly capable of amazing feats, but she didn’t dare run from him again. She wouldn’t give him another excuse to grab her.
The Manti woman knelt beside him. “You’d better rethink this, Brother. God knows I hate them, but I don’t want to see you…”
As Iris hesitated, Pax’s gaze slipped from Asha.
“Think of your mother,” Iris urged him.
His eyes flashed. “Do I ever stop thinking of her? I’m not Father.”
“I know.” Iris’s hand crept up, fingers combing through his short, dark hair. Some of the tension in his face released. “I know you don’t want it. But if she’s on the ship with us… Can you control it?”
His features grayed in the bright sunlight, but he said, “I can control it.”
The sister frowned. “I don’t like this. Your head is still clouded with mating.”
Asha’s heart took flight over the sand, wondering why the rest of her didn’t follow. She remained frozen, hoping her new talents included blending against the beach like the ship.
Iris rose, wings nestling close against her clothespin form. She held out a hand and pulled Paxton to his feet. The siblings were nearly the same height, and both taller than Asha.
“I need to find out what she knows.”
Iris started for the ship, resigned. “What are we going to do with her?”
“I want you to lock her in your quarters.”
Iris stopped, turning slowly. “You better be joking.”
“Just do it, Iris,” he grumbled.
Her frown deepened and she gave a curt nod. “My lord.”
He rolled his eyes at her servile tone and glanced at Asha. “Go with Iris,” he ordered.
“Don’t do this,” Asha pleaded, her voice choked with fear. “I don’t know anything.”
But she did know something. She knew if she got on that ship she’d never see her home again.
The Ophelia Prophecy © Sharon Lynn Fisher, 2014