When I began writing Without You I didn't it to be such an emotional book, however the story turned deep and a bit dark, twisting through the most trying of times for Zander and Layton. Enjoy the first chapter of Without You. Available at Amazon ARe and B&N
After the human wars, the governments of Earth fell apart. Distrust wove through the very fabric of humanity as they searched for something good. When the aliens came, they were welcomed. Encouraging the humans to come together, thus creating one governing body, the aliens brought people closer, creating peace.
With the aliens came advancement in technology, medicines, and an overwhelming feeling of goodness. Humans bred with aliens, producing superior beings known as skiffs. Travel to distant planets became a reality, scattering humans and skiffs across the galaxy, giving them hope for a better tomorrow.
Present Year 2316 A.D.
Zander crooked his lips into a smile and tapped Layton on his ass. “This one is your show. Where to now?”
“My show. You brat, you made the plan for this rescue, you lead.” Layton backed up and ground against Zander, leaving him needy as hell.
“You’re insatiable and you’re not distracting me from this path. Those are some nasty beasts in there. I don’t think I want to lead.”
“Ha, you’re too funny. Of course they're nasty, that’s why we’re here.” Layton pushed back again, laughing when Zander groaned.
“So you take the left and I’ll go to the right,” Zander whispered.
“That’s what you put in the plan.”
“Helmets on.” Zander shoved his helmet over his short-cropped dark hair, covering his face with the breathing mask and flipping on the oxygen. As Skiffs, a human-alien hybrid, he and Layton could breathe in almost any atmosphere, their bodies designed to be precision instruments, making them both ultimate fighting machines, but they always wore their masks when entering a battle situation because surprises were the norm and the enemy could throw anything at them.
“Yes sir,” Layton growled over the mic system as he covered his head and face, leaving him looking like any of the other eighteen Skiffs in their unit, but Zander could always spot Layton, even in full gear he knew his lover.
“My count,” Zander uttered into his mic. He had faith in the guys on his team and didn’t turn to check if they were ready, he knew they were. He held up his hand, making quick signals that would mean nothing to civilians, but his elite Kito Fighting Force understood completely.
They would be silent from here on out, only speaking once they’d located the captives and began their rescue. Zander stepped into the large vent tube to the right, his feet rolling with each step, minimizing sound. The bowels of Granton, the fifth planet from Ziar, a red giant, stank like garbage. It was the vilic beasts that contributed to the stink. Their eating habits were disgusting, leaving half-rotted carcasses strung across the caverns as they moved from place to place. He hated vilics, hated the way they looked, hated the fact that they were huge, but most of all he hated their poisonous saliva.
Granton was famous for their mines and their volatile political and economic systems. He wouldn’t even touch their slave habit that cost them more trouble than the slaves were worth. If they hired laborers instead of trying to own them, most of their issues would be solved. This particular uprising was because of the slaves.
Months ago, the government’s balancing act had come crashing down, leaving a mess when a few slaves broke free, capturing their owners and killing them. The citizens spiraled out of control and the army freaked out. Instead of the skirmish ending quickly, the Granton natives, the ones sold as slaves, rebelled. For some stupid reason the army leaders traveled to Lalvo, a neighboring planet, and captured their rulers thus drawing in the Kito. Galactic peace dictated that Zander and his crew move in for the rescue. That was the only reason he would go crawling through the ventilation systems on the side of this mountain full of beasts that blocked the path to the Lalvo President and his cabinet.
The air vent changed directions and Zander followed the trail. Four guys were behind him, the rest with Layton or Brant circling around the mountain, preparing to swoop in and release the prisoners. Micha’s five were following Brant’s team, ready to jump in if necessary, but their primary duty was to escort the Lalvo president to safety.
After an hour of crawling through the vents, his team of Kito fighters were in place. Zander looked through his view scope and spied Layton and Brant’s teams on the opposite side of the cavernous prison, their hands raised to indicate they were ready. He lifted his hand, signaling the beginning of the attack. They descended quickly on ropes, dropping to the floor inside the innermost prison cell, bypassing the vilic caves.
In twenty-five seconds the room was secure, the Granton guards defeated without blaster fire, and the Lalvo President safe with Micha’s five. Now, all they had to do was escape the madness. The team knew what came next, no need to detail the operation. Everything progressed smoothly until Zander’s five ran into one of the hairy vilics roaming the mountain. The stench turned his stomach, the rancid odor reminded him of the open latrines on Jumac, the poorest planet in the galaxy. One bite and it would all be over. Not that their mouths were big or that powerful, just nasty. You’d die from one disease or another if their saliva made contact with skin.
He didn’t want to use his blaster, not this soon into their mission. The Granton guards would be alerted of the blast by sound traveling through the tunnels and send reinforcements, the last thing he wanted.
The vilic advanced and one of his men fired. Now the race was on. Zander’s team would be the last one out, so he took up position at the rear of the troupe as they rushed through the tunnels, blasting everything in their way.
“We’ve got problems.” One of the guys stated over their headsets, Jau if he had to guess.
“Go ahead,” Zander whispered.
“Granton guards have blocked the exit.”
Zander cursed, wishing that Jau were wrong but knowing he wasn’t. “Alternative route, let’s backtrack.” He wished they could use the ventilation tunnels they’d come in on, but there was no way they could get the president of Lalvo and his twelve cabinet members thirty feet in the air without more equipment, which he hadn’t wanted to bring in. Going down wasn’t difficult, but pulling up six very overweight men plus the other six in the cabinet would be difficult. Then having to hoist up the aging president would have been near impossible without someone being injured, most likely the president.
Layton’s voice sounded in his ears but the news wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “This exit is blocked too. Looks like we need to call in for a lift.”
Zander punched in the code, requesting air support. The mission was falling apart fast, leaving him wondering if they could get the president and his party out alive. The situation grew more desperate by the minute as more vilics were released to attack. The Granton guards had to have known a rescue mission would have been mounted, now they would have to figure out if someone in the Galactic governing body had tipped their hat, leaving Zander and his team vulnerable.
A hovercraft arrived, blowing a hole in the thinnest layer of rock over the prison. The Kito used their personal shields to deflect the rocks from hitting them and their charges, too bad the Grantons had shield-piercing rounds, otherwise escape would be easy. Ropes and baskets were lowered and the Lalvo president was pulled to safety. His men worked diligently to rescue the other twelve leaders. Zander’s team, Layton, and two other men were still in the cave when a sound that chilled Zander’s blood echoed through the cavern. The gurgling, boiling, zapping noise could be none other than boiling electric acid. The caustic acid burned everything in its path, even eating away at the rocky floors before the deadly liquid neutralized. That only occurred when the rocks began to melt, blending with and changing the acid to a base. But destruction would be wrought over the landscape long before the acid lost its potency. Few, if any planets would ever use the boiling electric acid because of its devastating effects on the ecosystem, but the Grantons were desperate.
The protocol was set, Zander would be the last to leave. Fear pinged through him as he glanced around. Too many men were on the ground, they had to get loaded on to the ship.
Layton tore off his goggles and mask, desperation swimming in the depths of his eyes. “Zander?”
“Go, I’m right behind you.”
For a moment it looked like Layton wasn’t going to leave, then Jau slapped the cable onto Layton and the decision was no longer his. Layton along with the last two members of his five rose out of the roof of the prison. Layton cried out, his growl of anger echoing around the room.
“Zander, you go next,” Jau called out.
“No Jau, I’m the leader, first in, last out.”
“Zander, you fucker, get your ass up here,” Layton screamed.
Zander tore off his helmet and pulled the ear bud from his ear, cutting off all communication from Layton. The ropes dropped again and three of Zander’s men were pulled to safety. All that was left was he and Jau.
Jau pushed his helmet back, his eyes filled with sorrow as the green acid sizzled into the cavern. They climbed up on a pile of rocks as the instinct to survive wove through them. Clinging to Jau, Zander lifted his gaze to the hole in the roof. The rescue cords were dropping but not fast enough to beat the acid.
"Take care, my friend," Jau growled.
"We'll get out of this."
"You are the best Zander, don't ever forget it."
Green goo rushed toward their feet, lapping at the rocks where he stood. A drop splashed up, melting a hole through Zander’s pants. Another small wave hit the rocks and sprayed on his skin. Pain ripped through him, taking his breath away.
Jau hugged him tighter and spun around. The cable jerked beside Zander and Jau reached out, grabbing it, slapping onto Zander’s suit. The acid rose, swamping his feet, eating away at his boots, socks, and finally the flesh on his feet. Agony seized his consciousness, blanking his mind as a scream wrenched from his lips.
Layton watched in horror from above as the green glowing acid encroached on Jau and Zander’s perch. The wail of pain made him want to jump from the craft and rescue Zander himself. Why had he allowed his man to stay behind? It should be him down there. He was tagged to be the lead on this rescue, but he’d begged Zander to take the control, thinking it would build Zander up, improve his confidence, setting him up for another turn as the unit's commander.
Now his lover’s life hung in the balance, all because he’d shirked his responsibility. The rescue cord bonded with Zander’s vest, allowing the hovercraft team to raise him to safety, but not before the acid hit, burning everything in its path. The cords rose but Jau hadn’t been able to grab one for himself. Silence descended on the craft as Jau’s screams filled the air. It was like a concussive force, blowing the team away. The howls from Jau died off as Zander’s still body ascended through the opening of the craft. Layton looked down, searching for any of Jau's remains, but there was nothing. The acid had devoured him. Layton bit his lip hard, squelching the roar of anger building inside. The taste of blood tingled on his tongue as the loss tugged at his emotions, leaving him devastated. Jau was gone.
Layton turned his attention to Zander, taking in the tattered remains of his legs. Losing Jau was hard, but Zander had to live. The craft’s belly closed and a medical team swooped in, applying a mixture of white goop, lowering the potency of the acid. It would take hours to neutralize the electric acid and by that time more than just Zander’s feet might be gone. If the acid traveled with his blood to his heart, all would be lost.
The craft jumped speed, breaking through the atmosphere of Granton, but Layton paid no mind to the activities around him, instead he focused on Zander and the medics. Everything ground to a halt in his world as he watched the medics cut Zander out of his pants, applying the white paste on all the acid burns. He cringed and shuddered as Zander’s body bucked under their touch. Totally unconscious, the man still moved and writhed as the team worked to save his life.
The bone had been saved from destruction though it looked like Zander had lost two toes. Medics wrapped flexible living tape around Zander’s exposed bones, ensuring they would stay in place until they landed on Lalvo where a team of doctors would begin the drawn-out task of growing flesh and muscle, stitching together ligaments and tendons to put Zander’s legs back together.
It felt as though years had passed as he watched Zander on the medical table, but in reality only an hour had gone by when they landed on Lalvo. The doctors took off with Zander, barking commands as they rushed him to the clean environment inside the hospital.
Layton had only known one person who’d ever had their flesh regrown and the ordeal took months. They were painful months where the guy wished he were dead every day. Suddenly, Layton’s men were surrounding him, their eyes filled with sadness for Zander and for the loss of Jau. Layton couldn’t take the pressure and the pain that raced through him, clawing at his insides. He dropped to his knees, howling with despair.
His guys pulled him up, hauled him back to the unit’s quarters, divesting him of his gear and shoved him into the shower. Eventually one of the men pulled him out of the warm spray and barked orders for him to dress. It didn’t matter that he held the command position, no, they were there for him, forcing him to live as his mind caved in at the thought of Zander forever damaged all because he’d forced his lover to take command of this one operation.
The days turned to weeks and still the doctors kept Zander in a coma as they repaired his legs. Layton wasn’t allowed into the medical suite since they were keeping the room pristine, allowing no variant germs inside to mess with Zander’s delicate immune system that was forced to accept his new flesh, imprinting it with his DNA. Hell, Layton couldn’t even see him and they wouldn't allow him into the control room where monitors displayed his image. He was lost, a ship without a beacon to guide him home.
The flesh regrowth process had been developed ten years ago. Had this happened just a few short years earlier Zander would have no hope of having a normal life, as it was, he would have something close to normal, though his days as Kito were over.
Layton felt as though he was going out of his mind. His vacation had been blown through and he was forced to accept an assignment off world. The mission took him to the far reaches of space where danger trumped safety. The rush of running into blaster fire and pulling the plug on a hijacked reactor left him feeling alive for the first time since Zander’s injuries.
Layton searched the database for dangerous assignments, taking more risks every time he went out. Within weeks he had a reputation of the biggest and baddest Skiff in the system. He rejoiced in the danger, his blood pumping strong as he took down another bad guy in his quest to feel anything beyond the numbness invading his core.