Chapter one – Rescuing Prince Charming

Rescuing Prince Charming
Alien Contact for Idiots, book 4

Chapter One

Time: Four years from tomorrow.

Place: A top-secret, underground facility on a Pacific Northwest island that doesn’t exist . . . yet.

Dusty Johnson really didn’t want to do this.

She took a deep breath, trying without success to dispel the dread clogging her belly. Some women daydreamed of rescuing princes from dragons. Not her.

Yet here she was, all alone, creeping through the dark guts of the half-built starship, searching for a time bomb about to explode. If the siren ordering evacuation of the research facility had summoned the expected herd of guards, she would’ve offered advice then fled with the rest of the staff. Having come this far, though, she couldn’t leave without branding herself a coward in her own eyes.

And so she dodged through machinery that smelled of oil and ozone. Nothing was neat and tidy down here; in a prototype, speed and ingenuity trumped meticulous design. Everything was makeshift, a giant kludge sprawling through eighteen-hundred cubic yards. That meant a lot of places for saboteurs to hide a bomb, but only two where technicians wouldn’t discover it in the course of a workday.

The first hiding place was a niche behind the backup life support nexus. Staring into its shadows, she paused. A heroine wouldn’t hesitate, of course. An ordinary, everyday woman, though, would think twice about squeezing into a dirty cranny while wearing a new, cream-colored chambray skirt with filigree trim.

Maybe she should just walk away.

Or run.

But there was no one else around to save the ship, and reaching the stars was her dream . . .

Imagining she was watching a movie heroine who’d never had a second thought in her life, Dusty slipped between a girder and the grease-streaked life support housing. When her skirt survived unscathed, she felt an instant’s relief . . . until she spied a cheap plastic lunch bucket.

Oh God. The bomb?

Her heart thumped. Hoping it wasn’t the last thing she ever did, she opened the lid with shaky hands.

Two empty wrappers smelled of fish and chips. No bomb.

She jerked her hand away and pressed it to her chest as though to keep her heart from leaping out to freedom. She’d been plenty brave. She could, in good conscience, leave. Right?

“No,” she said aloud. The word was a regretful groan.

To reach the second hiding place, she threaded her way to the back of the mechanical deck and climbed a ladder to the top of Lontreau Engine number one. The alien-designed engine would hop the ship instantaneously across the galaxy — if everything worked perfectly. Its metal casing, as big as a room, hummed and vibrated as though filled with demons impatient to claw her soul to perdition.

She headed toward the engine’s far end, where unexpectedly large equipment had turned a passage into a tunnel just big enough to crawl through. The tunnel led to a closet-sized opening walled with massive wire harnesses. That was where she’d plant a bomb, if she were a saboteur.

She rounded a bank of gauges and saw the tunnel. But a man — or rather, a man’s legs — filled it like a cork in a champagne bottle. Apparently one guard valued duty over death.

Her legs wobbled with relief. “Am I ever glad to see you!”

The tunnel muffled a baritone yelp of surprise. Then: “Take my pants off.”

Dusty blinked. “As pickup lines go, that one’s really bad.”

Newly arrived Kwadra Island

“An American female,” the guard groaned. “Spirits save me.”

“A Kwadran male with an attitude problem. God save me.”

“My pants are hooked on something, and I can’t reach back to remove them. Pull them down, and hurry. That’s an order.”

“You’re ordering me to strip you?” If she laughed, she’d tumble head-first into hysteria. She held herself to a nervous chuckle, instead.

“I am in no mood for American truculence,” he said impatiently. “I’m staring at an Adidas shoe box jammed between wire harnesses.”

Her chuckle died a gasping death. “The bomb?”

“Pull down my pants!”

“Yes, darling.”

She couldn’t reach in cleanly — not enough room — so she slid her palms up his legs and hips. His pants were velvety twag cotton, an alien fabric from the alternate Earth. She’d never touched a Kwadran this intimately before. Never wanted to. Hoped never to do so, ever again.

She reached his waist, bent her fingers into claws, and pulled. He edged forward. Between the two of them, his slacks edged downward.

“Leave my underpants on, klootch.”

“I’m a respectable woman, not a klootch.” Hysterical laughter threatened to return. “This is an awkward reach, and we haven’t even been introduced.”

Although she knew all three-hundred-and-ten people sequestered in this isolated cavern, his voice wasn’t familiar. Surprising, but understandable. Rumor said the project was changing leaders, and if the new boss belonged to a different clan, he’d bring his own security people. That was how the alien version of Earth worked; it didn’t matter how good you were at your job, only what clan you belonged to.

This guy must be a bomb disposal expert. Who else, besides her, would be fool enough to search for a bomb set to go off in a few minutes?

Grunting, she dragged the pants down to his knees. She tried not to notice that he had great muscle tone and that his butt was wow-level firm. “After this,” she said, panting, “you’ll have to make an honest woman of me.”

“You are dishonest?”

“I didn’t mean –” Despite the sexy body, this jerk typified alien arrogance. Lack of humor, too. “Look, do you want me to free you or not?”

“The rest I can do myself.”

Creeping forward, he left his slacks behind. A jagged shard of metal had snared them, an inexcusable design flaw even for a prototype. Unreasonable deadlines might literally be the death of them all.

Dusty pointed her flashlight to help him see, and was rewarded with tight buttocks in typical Kwadran underwear, resembling a thong. She turned her flashlight aside a moment later than she should have.

And then regretted it. She’d never have such a chance again — might never have a chance to do anything — so what did it matter if she peeked?

When she looked again, the tunnel was empty. He’d reached the closet-sized room at the other end. After a moment he shouted, “I have the box.”

Figuring she was small enough to avoid the depantsing shard, Dusty crawled into the tunnel. She bunched his pants around the sharp metal to pad the tip.

“Removing the lid,” he said.

She squirmed to the end of the tunnel and poked her head into the closet. Harsh shadows from his flashlight moved like snapping wolves as he turned to her.

“Are you insane?” he demanded. “Or the saboteur?”

“Yes and no, respectively. Is that the bomb?”

“I . . .  think so.”

“You think so? What kind of bomb disposal expert are you?”

“Expert?” Shaking his head, he stared at the box and scowled.

“Oh, God.” Dusty’s eyes went wide. “You don’t know bomb disposal, yet you removed the lid? That could’ve set it off, you stupid idiot.” She’d done the same thing when she opened the lunch-pail lid, but that was different . . . somehow. “Give it to me.”

He shined the flashlight her way and looked up for the first time. “It is too dangerous.”

“Like I’m so far away it won’t kill me? Since you can’t disarm it, I’ll have to carry it to someone who can. Hurry.”

He took a deep breath and held out the shoebox. “This goes against my sense of chivalry.”

“Screw chivalry.” She reached for the box — but he pulled it away from her grasp.

“I’ll have you know I’m a gentleman.”

“And the School for Gentlemen taught you that take off my pants is a polite greeting?”

“Is please take this bomb off my hands an improvement?” He gave a tight-lipped sigh. “I don’t like handing this to a woman.”

But he did it anyway. Holding the box reassured her . . .for a moment. Just an everyday shoebox, heavier than most, but just a shoebox. “Maybe you aren’t as dumb as you look.”

In truth, she hadn’t paid enough attention to know if he looked like a genius or a dunce. A bomb-disposal pro would be trained to handle terror fear yet remain polite, but she was just a timid tech writer holding death in her hands. That was the best excuse for rudeness she’d ever had, but still… “Look, I apologize for –”

“Get moving!”

Mindful of the metal shard, she wriggled backward. Despite the cool air, sweat ran down her temples and tickled between her breasts. “I’m out of the tunnel. How much longer now until the message warned that the bomb” — a bomb she held in her hands, and she was very attached to her hands — “is supposed to explode?”

“Seven minutes, eighteen seconds.”

She wasn’t surprised at the precision of his answer. Kwadrans, who hailed from the future of an alternate Earth, had tiny computers-slash-thought-activated-radios implanted under their collarbones. One of these days, she wanted an implant for herself, if she lived that long. Which, at the moment, was doubtful.

She retraced her steps to the ladder leading off the Lontreau engine. Getting out of the ship would take a while, leaving almost no time for bomb disposal experts to work, but that wasn’t her problem.

Uh . . . yes, it was.

She cradled the bomb in one arm until she reached the bottom of the ladder. The Kwadran was right behind her, shining her flashlight to help her see.

He jumped down the last four rungs. “Hand it over.”

From the front, Kwadran shorts left little to the imagination…which was a stupid thing to think about at a time like this.

“Give it, you stubborn American. You move too slowly.”

“Carefully,” she corrected. “I move carefully.”

“No time for careful.” He seized the box, hugged it in the crook of his arm like a running back, and raced away.

“You’ll kill us both, you moron.” She followed as he dodged around a tall air filtration casing. He was taking a different route through the machinery than she had. Was it faster or slower? No time even to speculate. With a reckless burst of speed, she caught up to him.

“You’re fast,” he said as he vaulted over an insulated sewer pipe and rounded the purifier complex.

“Track team at The University of Arizona. But I’m surprised” — she slowed to climb over the warm sewer pipe — “to hear a Kwadran admit an American can do anything well.”

He glanced back at her. She wished he wouldn’t do that. If he ran into something, the bomb might explode almost in her face. It wasn’t a world-class face, but her head would look bloody awful without it.

Reaching an open stretch, he sprinted. “You dislike Kwadrans?”

“Stuff a sock in it and run.”

Too late, she realized she should’ve denied her disdain for the aliens. Even though he was just a security flunky who’d skipped bomb disposal class, her careless admission might go on her record, and if the Kwadrans started investigating, they’d discover her secret tragedy. She’d get kicked off the project before they’d finished thanking her for saving the starship.

If she saved the starship.

Not far ahead dangled the rope ladder leading up to the main deck. His leg muscles rippled as he started to climb.

“You idiot,” she said. “Hit the switch to open the trapdoor first. And give me the bomb while you climb. I’ll hand it up to you.”

“Calling me an idiot doesn’t help, you know.” But he held the bomb out to her.

He was right, of course, but though her face flamed, she was concentrating too hard on not dropping the box to do more than mutter an incoherent reply. The box didn’t feel deadly. But then, what did death feel like, if not ordinary and everyday—a truth she’d mostly managed to avoid until now?

After he slapped the switch that opened the trapdoor, light filled the gloomy mechanical deck and provided her first good look at him above the waist. He was scowling, but the furrows on his brow merely accentuated his rugged good looks. His long, dark hair was braided. So, he was one of those aliens who flaunted their Amerind ancestry to set themselves apart from the Americans of this world. On their alternate Earth, the Kwakiutl tribe, not Europeans, ruled Vancouver Island—or Isla de Kwadra, as it had been known on their world.

He climbed halfway up the ladder. Moving with supreme caution, she held the box toward his extended hand.

“Hurry!” He grabbed the box and climbed the rope ladder like an agile monkey. The lid nearly fell off, making Dusty’s heart pole-vault her ribs.

As she followed more slowly, her mind obsessed on two things: the nearness of death and the nearness of life embodied in the expanse of his male flesh. Then his footsteps pounded overhead on the metal floor of the starship’s corridor. Dusty poked her head out of the trapdoor. “You’re going the wrong way. That’s a dead end.”

The open trapdoor blocked his way back, so she leaped to the right side of it and held out her hands. “Give it to me.”

Miracle of miracles, he leaned over the trapdoor to give her the bomb without argument. While he closed the trapdoor, she ran along the corridor to the starship’s bridge. From there, she hurried to the open airlock and down the ramp to the melt-rock floor of the artificial cavern housing the Owikeeno Research Facility. Wiki, for short.

She ran. Behind her, the Kwadran’s footsteps banged down the metal ramp, barely loud enough to be heard over the klaxon that still screamed its warning. “Where are you heading?” he called.

He wasn’t even breathing hard. She wanted to kiss him for his bravery and his conditioning. “Only one place to head,” she said. “The terrace.” From there, she could throw the bomb into the ocean. She ran toward the only natural light in the huge cavern, where a pair of sliding glass doors led to a patio overlooking a fiord. “Time?”

“Seventy-eight seconds.”

Oh, God. It was still a long way to the doors. She tried to be a heroine and what did she get? A ticking time bomb eager to remove her appendix.

On the bright side, she couldn’t have asked for a sexier, more valiant companion on that long tunnel into the light. Rattled by fear, she’d called him arrogant, a jerk, and an idiot, but he was none of those. Well, maybe arrogant; he was, after all, Kwadran.

“Open . . . the door,” she panted.

He grunted with the effort of speeding up to pass her. His buttocks flexed with each step. When he reached the sliding doors, he yanked the handle.

Nothing happened. Except, of course, that a few more seconds ticked off the bomb’s timer. And her life.

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