But this was no solo performance. She had a partner, and he needed to prove that he deserved on the mission. He couldn’t shoot, not without risking hitting her, leaving him with just one option.
One of the guards stumbled back, repelled by her kick. Nils launched himself at the enemy. He traded blows with the guard and then fought for breath when the enemy’s fist connected with his ribs. He remembered the countless hours he spent training and launched into a combination he had practiced so often it became instinct. A kick, two jabs, an uppercut. The guard dodged some of his strikes, but the others hit home. With a final hit to the jaw, the enemy went down.
He spun when he heard a groan. Celene stood over the prone body of a guard, her hands still raised in a defensive position, her body poised and ready. When the enemy stirred, she dropped to a knee and slammed her fist into his face. He twitched, then went still.
Panting, she glanced up to find Nils watching her. Her gaze slid to the two other guards, also unconscious. When she looked back at him, there was no mistaking the approval in her expression. Approval, and something else. Awareness of him as more than NerdWorks. She actually looked at him as if he were…a man.
Which he most assuredly was. As Celene rose to standing, he became acutely conscious of a very unwanted sensation pulsing through his body. Arousal.
Watching Celene in combat might’ve been the most alluring thing he had ever seen, and he’d watched more than a few sex vids on late, lonely nights. Seeing her in action, with his own blood high from combat, Nils had the strongest urge to stride to her, haul her against him and kiss them both into antigrav.
A number of reasons why he couldn’t do that: they still had to complete SimCom, and she would likely kick him in a very important, very precious place. You didn’t kiss a legend without suffering the consequences.
He turned so she couldn’t see exactly how intriguing his body had found the demonstration of her combat skills. “One level left.”
Holstering the fallen guards’ weapons, she nodded. “I’ll take point. You watch my ass.”
As they slowly edged their way up the stairs, he tried not to watch her ass, but it was a feat even an android couldn’t have accomplished.
“Careful, NerdWorks,” she said over her shoulder. “You’ll get your dick shot off.”
But whether the enemy or she would do the shooting, she didn’t specify. He kept his gaze focused on anything but the sweet curve of her butt. There had been no time to put his boots back on, so he moved quietly up the stairs.
Two more guards waited for them on the second floor. The enemy stood outside a metal-walled enclosure, with a control panel securing the gate. With their commandeered weapons, Nils took down one of the guards, and Celene made fast work of the other.
He reached the control panel before she did. The code took only microseconds to break. Clanging, the bolts within the enclosure released. He pulled the gate open, revealing their objective sitting on a pedestal.
An antique toy blaster.
Chuckling, she strode forward and picked up the toy. She aimed it at Nils and pulled the trigger.
Zap! read the tiny flag that popped out of the barrel.
“Got you.” She smiled and set the toy back down.
As soon as she did, the scene shifted. The storage facility disappeared, as did the fallen guards, the blasters he and Celene had taken from the enemy and everything else. All that remained was him, Celene and his boots lying on the other side of the empty chamber.
She glanced down at his sock-covered feet. “You could crush whole stellar settlements with those things.”
He fought to keep from blushing. Gods, of all things to talk about, and now, the last thing he wanted to discuss was the size of his feet.
The door to the SimCom chamber slid open. Admiral Gamlyn, Commander Frayne and Ensign Skiren walked into the room.
“Well done, Lieutenants.” The admiral held up her digitablet. “Excellent accuracy and problem-solving stats. Top percentile. You two work well together.”
“So, did he pass?” Ensign Skiren directed her question to Celene. “Is he on the mission?”
“The decision is ultimately mine,” Admiral Gamlyn noted. “But I do welcome Lieutenant Jur’s input.”
Celene turned her attention back to Nils. He straightened his shoulders and met her gaze, while his heart beat hard in his throat. The mission to find a traitor was the most important he might ever undertake. He wanted to ensure the safety of the Black Wraith ships, and with them, keep the 8th Wing strong in its fight against PRAXIS. And he wanted Lieutenant Celene Jur’s approval. That victory would be for him alone.
Her expression was cool, assessing, as she gazed at him.
“Cargo is limited,” she said at last. “Don’t pack too much.”
He let out a breath. “Just the essentials and my tech gear. I haven’t confused this operation with shore leave.”
“You’ve got a damned tough mission coming up,” Frayne said. “Not sure if I should envy or pity you.”
“Celene should be careful.” Ensign Skiren chuckled, and eyed Nils. No one doubted that she and Frayne were a couple, but as she sized Nils up, there was healthy feminine appreciation in her gaze. She looked back at Celene, grinning wickedly. “The quiet ones are always the most dangerous.”
Celene glared at the Phantom-class ship in the docking bay. Its lines were sleek, and she’d flown other Phantoms enough to know their engines packed a decent thrust. Calder and Kell were busy making last-minute adjustments to the systems, while she, Admiral Gamlyn and Mara had one last confab before setting off on the mission.
“Engineering has run a protocol,” the admiral said. “All the ship’s systems are working at peak ability. It’s armed with front and rear-facing guns. The shields are at one hundred percent. What seems to be the problem?”
“It’s not a bad ship.” Celene eyed the Phantom. “But it’s not my ship.”
“I know how you feel,” Mara said. “After I joined 8th Wing, I couldn’t get rid of my old tow-ship. I still take the Arcadia out every few solar weeks. Kell says it’s a heap of junk, but I think he’s got some sentimental attachment to it.” The former scavenger’s eyes gleamed, and Celene could guess that Mara was reliving the early, combustible days of her relationship with Kell.
“It’s not just sentimentality.” Celene waved a hand toward the Phantom. “My Black Wraith has superior maneuverability, better weapons.”
The admiral answered, “Black Wraiths aren’t designed for deep space missions. The Phantom is. Further, if Marek’s disruptor is implemented against your Wraith, you and Lieutenant Calder would find yourselves alone and helpless.”
Exactly as Celene had been once before. She wouldn’t let anyone else in Black Wraith Squad feel that way. If that meant she’d have to fly a Phantom for this mission, she’d do it.
Admiral Gamlyn smiled, wry. “Delighted that my decision meets with your approval, Lieutenant.”
The admiral walked over to Calder and Kell, and the three of them began discussing the modifications, including the device Calder had installed to track Marek’s power signature.
“Hey, look at it this way,” said Mara. “Everyone knows you kick ass flying a Wraith. Now you get to show ’em what you’re really made of. Prove your skills as the best pilot in the 8th Wing.” She paused. “Third best.”
Celene raised a brow. “Third?”
“Kell’s first. Then me.”
“When I get back from this mission, you and I are going to have a little competition. A few races, some obstacle courses. Then we’ll see who claims the title.”
“Deal.” Mara stuck out her hand, and Celene shook.
“Being a legend isn’t all free drinks and backslaps.”
Mara rolled her eyes. “Right. The naked idol worship is extremely inconvenient.”
“Try having a bad day when your lover thinks the Corvalian sun shines out your ass. Break a nail. Stub your toe. Or, hells, maybe you don’t want to talk about what an amazing pilot you are. Maybe you simply want to watch dumb comedy vids that night. When he looks at you like you just killed the Solstice Bird, then you and I can talk about the price of being the best.”
Mara stared at her. “Fuck. Celene, I—”
With a shake of her head, she refused any sympathy. “The cost of expecting the best of myself. If making sure the 8th Wing can beat PRAXIS means I don’t have a date on shore leave—” she shrugged, “—that’s a damn small cost.”
Still, Mara’s gaze held far too much sympathy for her comfort. Mara planted her hands on her hips and directed her attention toward the Phantom.
“Hells, no. I just want to get this mission started.”
Mara nudged her shoulder. “Can’t wait to be alone with Calder? It’s a cozy little ship. Room for two. Close quarters.”
She snorted. “You’ve inhaled too much meteor dust, scavenger.”
“We watched you two in SimCom on the vid feed. I’d seen you in action, so I know you could fight. But Calder…” Mara lowered her voice. “Holy gods, that was unexpected. I didn’t know NerdWorks threw down like that.”
“Neither did I,” she admitted.
“He looked incredibly hot doing so.”
Her mouth curled. “Aren’t you Kell’s woman?”
“Kell’s my man. But just between us…” She leaned closer. “Calder’s pretty sexy. The moves on that guy. Not to mention his ass. Nova-level.”
“Didn’t notice. Too busy fighting off sentries.” Untrue. She had noticed, and in addition to being pretty damned impressed by Calder’s fighting skills, she hadn’t failed to appreciate that he had one fine body. She saw it now as he moved around the Phantom showing the admiral the modifications he had made to the ship.