Trapped with the Kagethi Lord

Harper

“Harper, watch out!”

I looked up too late to avoid walking into the metal crate hovering in the air before me. An oof escaped my throat as my stomach collided with the edge. Since the crate was in hover mode, suspended in an anti-graviton sheath, it meant it flew away from me to careen through the camp.

An alien resembling an elephant crossed with a tomato plant cried out as the runaway box nearly struck him…or her. I’m not even sure if that species has a gender. At any rate, my implant translated his speech well enough.

“Stupid human!”

I didn’t have time to be angry at his racism. I was too busy chasing after the crate as it careened through the camp. Sapient races of all different planets and star systems were all here because of the Torvian Intergalactic University expedition, sponsored by Madhfel HQ.

And every single one either struggled to get out of its way or stopped and stared as it flew past. Not a single one of them attempted to stop it, the bastards.

As I ran after the crate, I was joined by another human woman. Mia’s red mane flashed in the sun as she stretched out her legs to outrun me.

“Hurry, before it gets over the river.”

The crate zipped right for the edge of the open meadow we’d set up our camp in. I thought for us we’d lost it for good, but then a golden-haired amazon stepped out into its path and caught it adroitly. She cocked an eyebrow at us as we caught up.

“You were staring at your computer pad instead of where you were going again, weren’t you?”

I sheepishly shrugged.

“Sorry, Charlie. I’m just super excited. The Tankyr Latt temple is located in a section of the jungle untouched by anyone not native to this planet. Can you imagine what kind of discoveries are waiting to be made? This civilization might just predate the Kagethi civilization itself.”

Charlie smirked at me.

“No, really? You don’t say?”

“It’s not like she mentions it, ever,” said my red haired companion, her green eyes full of mischief.

“Come on, guys,” I said with a groan. “Give me a break, will you? The ruins in this jungle are like heaven to an archaeologist.”

“Yes, we get that…but you don’t have to go around trying to discover things that the Kagethi already likely know about,” Charlie said.

“Much less name them after yourself,” Mia added cheerfully.

I gave them both a rueful look. Charlie laughed and pushed the hover crate ahead of her.

“Is this the last thing that needs to be loaded?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Mia replied.

“Are you sure? Let me see the inventory list.” Charlie held her hand out and I placed the computer pad in it. I noticed the calluses on her palms from wielding the twin pistols at her belt. Charlie was a Firearms Kata Specialist, an anti-Suhlik soldier trained on Earth as an answer to a galaxy full of aliens that are almost universally bigger and stronger than humans.

Or, as Mia and I and just about everyone else referred to her, a gun ninja. She hated that more than anything, which may have had something to do with how Mia constantly pushed the nickname.

“All right,” Charlie said, handing me back the computer pad. She stared up at the red gold of the morning sky. “We should get moving. I want to be back to camp before dark.”

“Why?” Mia cocked an eyebrow. “Surely the gun ninja isn’t afraid of the dark?”

“What I am is practical, Mia. Fear is irrelevant.”

She always said things like that. There is no quitting on this team, we stay till the job is done, so on and so forth. I could never figure out if she was talking to us…or herself.

“I don’t know why you’re so worked up about this,” Mia said. “It’s going to be boring as hell.”

“Boring?” I gasped. “We could be dealing with an unknown alien species who mastered star travel tens of thousands of years before the Madhfel Alliance. Who knows what cultural and scientific contributions they might have made before their disappearance? This is star shaking stuff, and you think it’s boring?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find plenty to occupy my time,” Mia said, patting the silver case at her side. “I’m going to collect samples of the local flora. No offworlder has ever been that deep in the Vastgreen Jungle. And who knows? Maybe we’ll run into someone from one of the local tribes.”

It was quite unlikely we would see any of the notoriously shy Jungle Kagethi. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to study them up close. Boy, if I had any idea of just how close I would get…again, I’m getting ahead of the story.

We finished loading up the crate onto our small shuttle. The vessel was about the size of an Earth delivery truck, but shaped like a flattened cigar with wings. Its hull had a dull gray sheen, because the university funding our expedition wasn’t big in frills. We had to struggle to get them to give us a portable restroom facility. No squatting over a log for us, thankfully.

Charlie took the pilot’s chair. I wasn’t going to argue. She’d logged a lot more flight time than either of us had.

I sat down and strapped myself in with the crash webbing. Charlie turned on the engines, and the ship started a sonorous hum. She pulled back on a lever and we rose gently into the morning sky.

“Please keep your tray tables up and your seat in the full upright position,” Mia said.

Charlie gave her a dirty look. I’ve never met anyone so utterly cheerless in my life. I’d started to wonder if she even knew how to smile or laugh. Check that, I’d seen her smile before, but it was rarer than rain in the desert.

“Shutting up, Sir,” Mia said, offering a mock salute.

Charlie shook her head and returned her eyes to the cockpit glass. Below us, the jungle slipped by like a multicolored tapestry. Jungles on Earth were predominantly green when seen from above, but the foliage came in every shade here. Mostly it was green, red or yellow, but there were purples, whites and even some bright orange trees. On the surface, it was even more colorful. Some of the flora even glowed, though you could only really see it at night or in the densest parts of the canopy.

At sub-light speeds, it would take roughly three and a half hours for us to reach the temple. As I said before, the jungle was simply huge. Our shuttle kicked up a flight of avians, who flapped away into the sky in our wake.

A light on the console flashed, accompanied by a buzzing sound. Charlie didn’t seem too concerned at first. She just flipped a couple of switches.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She might not have been worried but I certainly was.

“I’m not sure,” she replied with a frown. “We just lost our communications array.”

“Lost it?” Mia scowled. “You mean it fell off?”

“No, it’s just not working. I’m running a diagnostic right now…huh. There’s nothing wrong with it, according to my diagnostics.”

“Then why isn’t it working?” I asked.

Charlie paled several shades and performed a sensor sweep. The buzzing noise came again.

“Our sensors are down, too,” Charlie said, and I didn’t like her tone. She sounded worried. If super ninja was worried, I was damn sure worried, too.

“Why would that happen? Maybe we should head back to camp?”

I gasped and stared at Mia.

“But I’ve been waiting a week already to get a crack at Tankyr Latt.”

“The ruins have been there for a long time, Harper,” Charlie said. “They’ll wait for you a little bit longer. I’m changing course and returning to—”

The ship shook violently, and all of the lights flickered on and off. If not for our crash webbing, we’d have bounced around the cabin like ping pong balls. As it was, the straps dug into my skin, so hard I knew it would leave bruises.

“What was that?”

“We’re taking fire.” Charlie’s hands danced over the controls. “Taking evasive maneuvers.”

“Taking fire? Who would—”

The shuttle shook violently again, and the hum of the engines ceased being harmonious and became an intermittent coughing.

“Our engines are down to less than twenty percent,” Charlie said.

“Who’s even shooting at us? I thought the Kagethi in the jungle didn’t have ships.”

A dark green vessel three times the size of our shuttle flew overhead, darkening us with its shadow. I didn’t recognize the design, but I knew the sight of weapons arrays when I saw them.

Charlie recognized it.

“It’s a Vune vessel,” she said, her voice edged with panic.

“A what?”

“Vune, kind of like mercenaries employed by the Suhlik. How did they make it past the Mahdfel security net?”

I looked out the cockpit and noticed that the trees were getting closer.

“Um, how far can we make it on twenty percent engines?” I asked, trying not to panic.

“All the way to the scene of the crash,” Charlie said.

“Ha ha,” Mia said. “How far can we make it really?”

“I wasn’t joking.”

The belly of our hull scraped across a tree limb with a terrible wrenching sound. The shuttle dipped ever lower, and soon the branches grew thicker and more numerous.

Then we were flying under the tree line. I looked up through the cockpit glass just in time to see a branch thicker than my thigh smash right through it. I threw my arms up as crystal shards flew directly at me.

One thought ran through my mind at that moment.

Are we going to die?

Hann

By Mother Moon, I love to run.

I stretched my long legs out, racing through the jungle and its many splendors. I startled a preewee on the branch of a velder tree. The creature shrieked and chittered, disappearing into the foliage. The last sight I had of it was its long curled tail before that vanished, too.

The scent of the dangrig herd grew stronger in my nostrils. I was getting closer to the rear of their herd, now. I slowed my pace a bit so I wouldn’t overrun them. It was all going according to plan.

Off to my left, I saw a spotted figure flash through the jungle. Zey, chief of the southern tribe and a close friend. It had been his idea to hunt the horned dangrig, who ran swifter than the wind…but not swifter than a Kagethi.

I had the idea to drive the herd up against Koller’s Cliff, where they would be forced to bunch up together. Then the three of us could pick out the fattest, juiciest of their number for the slaughter.

It was a race as old as time itself. For time immemorial, my people had hunted the Vastgreen Jungle, learning its ways, understanding its creatures.

If we didn’t hunt them, they would overpopulate and do serious damage to the foliage. There are other predators, but most of them are too slow and clumsy to catch the swift runners.

Besides, racing through the jungle, feeling the blood in my veins, I almost felt like smiling. Almost.

I herded the prey toward the cliff, knowing that my comrades, Zey and Tolmok, would do their parts to gather the dangrig together. I spotted bright sunlight streaming in through the trees ahead. Nearly there.

The prey animals burst through the treeline, their cloven hooves striking on bare rock rather than the softer jungle floor. The sound reminded me of thunder. We exploded like lightning from the jungle, the three of us.

I leaped through the air and slashed at the throat of a dangrig. It fell over, throat torn wide open as it bled out onto the rock. The kill was clean and my prey suffered little before its death.

Zey leaped atop one of the herd, probably the largest of them all, tearing it literally to shreds. It looked like he had given in to his rage again. I wondered if there would be enough of the beast left for him to eat.

Tolmok leaped out from behind a boulder. His white teeth flashed a moment before they were sprayed with crimson as he tore into the flesh of the dangrig. Like me, his kill was clean. Zey still tore and ripped at his kill.

The panicked dangrig started fleeing back into the jungle. I watched them go, the taste of fresh blood in my mouth, gushing down my throat, making me feel whole. Alive.

“Zey,” Tolmok said, wiping his maw with the back of his forearm. “You can probably stop that now.”

Zey lifted his gory face from the torn to shreds dangrig and gave us a snarl. We didn’t take it personally. That was just the way Zey was. Always on the verge of exploding with anger.

As the thunder of the dangrig’s cloven hooves grew more distant, I became aware of another sound. A sort of crackling, like kindling snapping inside of a giant fist.

“What is that?” Tolmok’s ears radared forward, facing toward the edge of Koller’s Cliff. I stepped up and joined him on the rocky precipice, my eyes not on the verdant valley below, but on the skies.

“Look.” I pointed at the sky where the blue and white were marred by flashes of red, green, and silver. “Those are starships.”

Tolmok grunted and squinted his eyes.

“I think one of them is just a shuttle. The smaller of the two.”

He turned back and looked at Zey as the spotted Kagethi tore into the viscera of his prey with cracks and crunches.

“Zey, you have the best eyes among us. Can you see what kind of ships those are?”

Zey snorted and leveraged himself to his feet, coming to join us at the cliff. He shielded his eyes from the morning sun with his hand.

“The silver one I do not know…the green vessel is Vune.”

He growled to punctuate the last word. A growl echoed in both of our throats. I hated the Vune and their cursed masters, the Suhlik, like all Kagethi.

“What is a Vune vessel doing here? Don’t our cousins on the other side of the world keep watch?”

“They and the Mahdfel allies,” I replied. “But the world is vast, as is the galaxy. What matters is that they are here and we must deal with them.”

“It looks like the Vune are firing on the smaller ship,” Zey said, his anger replaced by fascination. “Why aren’t they fighting back?”

“They don’t seem to have any weapons,” I said. The ships were closer now, and I could make out more details.

A bright flash of red as twin lasers erupted from the Vune vessel. The lines scored a black gash along the hull of the smaller shuttle. Smoke trailed from the crippled vessel as it spiraled for the jungle below.

“It’s going down,” I said grimly.

“And the Vune are vectoring as if they wish to land,” Tolmok added.

“Of course,” Zey added. “They ran down their prey, now they will consume it.”

“Not if we can help it,” I growl.

The shuttle crashed into the forest and disappeared. I could follow its path by the way the trees above shook violently. After a moment, the carnage ceased, and black smoke billowed up from the forest floor.

“We should try to help the survivors,” I said. “If there are any.”

“I think we have other problems,” Tolmok said. He pointed his furry finger at the smoke. “The smoke is growing denser. I believe it started a forest fire.”

“And the Vune represent a threat to our people,” Zey piped in. “We must warn the tribes.”

I looked over at my friends and considered the situation.

“My friends, we have three objectives it seems to me. One, we must check on the survivors and protect them from the Vune. Two, we must deal with the forest fire before it spreads. Three, we need to warn our people of the Vune threat.”

Tolmok chuckled softly.

“Then it’s serendipitous indeed that there happen to be three of us. I will warn our people.”

I nodded in agreement. Tolmok had the longest legs and was therefore the swiftest runner in spite of his heavy bulk.

“And I will go and slaughter the Vune who dare trespass on our sacred forest,” Zey growled.

Tolmok and I exchanged glances. That was not a good idea. Zey should be checking on the survivors first, but he would not do that. He would seek out battle immediately rather than helping the crash victims.

“Perhaps Hann should be the one to handle that task,” Tolmok said.

“What? Why?”

“Because you are clever,” I lied. “You are better suited to putting out the forest fire.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” Zey snarled.

“I don’t know. Like I said, you’re the clever one.”

He snorted, but nodded his head.

“Very well. Just try and save some of the tuskers for me.”

“I’ll make it a priority,” I lied again. I had no objection to slaughtering some of the green skinned, nasty mercenary servants of the Suhlik. But if I did my job right, I would have the survivors to safety before the enemy arrived.

“Be careful.” Tolmok’s jaw set hard. “You have the most dangerous task of us all, Hann.”

“Save your pity for our enemies,” I replied. “They are the ones who will need it.”

“Yes,” Zey agreed heartily. “Let the gates of the underworld soon be lined with our victims.”

I turned to them and smiled.

“Farewell, my friends. We will meet again once these crises are past us.”

“Or perhaps sooner, if it turns out to be more than you can handle on your own,” Tolmok said. “As soon as I deliver the warning to our people, I will return to help you both.”

Zey snorted.

“I will put out the fire. The two of you save some Vune for me to kill.”

He loped off, and Tolmok and I watched him disappear into the forest.

“How are we supposed to do that?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Tolmok said with a chuckle. “We could trap a few Vune and keep them alive until he comes around to kill them, I suppose.”

He often thought he was humorous, but this time I joined him in a laugh at the sheer absurdity of his suggestion.

“I must be away as well,” I said. “Be safe, old friend. And do not worry. I am not as hot tempered as Zey.”

“Not quite.”

We clasped our arms, fingers wrapped around each other’s forearms. I gave a firm shake and then I leaped over Kotter’s Cliff. I stretched out my body and caught hold of a high branch, using it to partially arrest my momentum. The leaves enveloped my body as I descended below the tree line, and at last landed on the forest floor.

The crash site was easy to detect, from the smell of fire and starship fuel. I ran hard as I dared without leaving myself too winded to fight.

Because I had a feeling there was going to be a fight.

Harper

“Harper.”

My name seemed to come from a long way away. I didn’t want to answer the call. I was far too comfortable snuggled up in my blanket of darkness.

“Harper!”

Again, more urgent the second time. I stubbornly refused to rouse myself. I had a feeling if I woke up, I wouldn’t like where I found myself.

“Damn it, Harper, wake up!”

A sharp blow to my cheek finally roused me from the darkness. I opened my eyes to see Charlie’s concerned expression hovering over me. I no longer felt the softness of the shuttle’s seat beneath me. Instead, I was on a hard, lumpy surface, and the smell of smoke choked off all other scents.

“What happened?” I asked, struggling to my feet with her assistance.

“We crashed,” Mia replies, her face streaked with dirt.

“We were shot down,” Charlie replied. “By the Vune.”

“I remember the Vune.” I shook my head and immediately regretted it. I grew nauseous, and my vision blurred. “Oh fuck, I think I need to sit down.”

“No time,” Charlie snapped. “We have to get going—Mia what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m not leaving my botany kit.”

Mia disappeared into the ruined shuttle. It looked like a tube of toothpaste which had exploded at the front end. I don’t know how we survived. I guessed the force fields and crash webbing had done their job.

My whole body was kind of achy, and I knew I had some bumps and bruises, but otherwise, I was unharmed. Charlie had a small scratch under left eye that had already stopped bleeding. She ignored the crimson stain marring her otherwise pretty face and checked her holstered pistols.

“Listen,” she said, her eyes hard as diamonds. “The Vune landed not far from here. They’re probably already on their way.”

“What do they want with us?”

“What do you think? To turn us over to their Suhlik masters, of course.”

That thought did not make me feel all that comfortable.

“We need to get the hell out of here.”

“No kidding.”

Charlie raised her voice to parade ground levels and bellowed.

“Mia, get your ass out here, now! If you’re not out here in ten seconds, we’re leaving without you.”

Mia reappeared, holding her trusty blue backpack, filled to the brim with the tools of her trade. I thought about my own kit, but I figured I could live without it. Besides, we were out of time. A sound of excited voices and crashing through the underbrush drew my attention to our immediate north.

“It’s the Vune,” Charlie said. “Move!”

She pushed me, and then pushed Mia. I ran, my mind reeling. It didn’t seem real. It was supposed to be a safe, relatively boring trip. Nothing like this was supposed to happen.

Only it was happening, and I had no choice but to run for my life. Mia and I kept running, but Charlie stopped running long enough to fire blindly into the woods behind us. The sounds coming from the Vune sounded more panicked now, as they sought cover from their unseen assailant.

“Go!” Charlie said. “You two don’t stop running!”

“But…” We couldn’t leave her. All the gun ninja teasing aside, we just couldn’t.

“GO!” she shouted, then grinned. “I’ll be right behind you.”

I took off running again, quickly outdistancing Mia. I slowed a bit so she could catch up. Brambles and vines tore at my skin and clothing, but I was too scared to slow down more than that.

I burst out into a clearing and despaired. It looked as if we’d run right into a sheer rock wall.

“Oh fuck,” I said.

Mia erupted from the trees a moment later and ground to a halt.

“Are we trapped?”

“I think so…no, wait! Look, there’s a pass through the cliff.”

She stared at it and scowled.

“What if it doesn’t go all the way through?”

“Then we’re fucked.”

She gave me a look. A moment later, Charlie burst onto the scene. We were all glazed with sweat, but while Mia and I panted for every gasp of air, Charlie seemed barely winded.

“Keep going,” she said, instantly spotting our escape route, the one it had taken me and Mia several moments to find. I made for the fissure, hoping it went all the way through the cliffside.

I saw sunlight ahead, causing my heart to leap with hope. The only problem was the fissure was plenty wide enough for them to pursue us. And where else could we run?

I didn’t think too long about it, though. I plunged into the shadowed chasm, followed by Mia. But Charlie had stopped in the middle of the clearing and turned around to face the oncoming Vune.

“Is she crazy?” Mia asked. “Charlie! Come on, don’t just stand there, run!”

Charlie turned around and gave us both a grim, hard look. Then she silently shook her head.

“Run!” she cried, turning back around as the first of the Vune entered the clearing around the cliffside. She pointed her guns and fired apparently without aiming. A sizzling beam of yellow sliced from each barrel. Both beams struck their intended targets, and two Vune fell to the ground.

It was the first time I’d seen one of the bestial aliens in real life. They were big, well over six and a half feet tall, rippling with muscle, and had dark green skin and prominent tusks sticking out of their lower jaws.

They had weapons, too, and fired, but Charlie was already moving in the beautiful and deadly ballet of her gun katas. There are only so many possible fractals of a gunfight, and she had memorized them all. She skimmed out of the way of their fire like a water bug skimming over a pond. Every time she pulled her triggers, Vune fell dead to the ground.

And yet, still they came.

“Come on,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach as I dragged Mia along.

“What about Charlie?” Mia asked. “We can’t just leave her.”

“We have to,” I snapped. “Don’t you get it? She’s sacrificing herself so we have a chance to escape.”

“But—”

“For fuck’s sake, Mia, we’re scientists. She’s a soldier. All we would do is get in her way, and we don’t even have weapons.”

I pulled her hard, and she started running.

“I hate this,” she cried.

“Me, too.”

I wasn’t lying. I felt like a piece of shit leaving my friend—one of the few I’d ever had—to fend for herself like that. What choice did I have, though?

The sounds of battle faded behind us as we raced through the fissure. Something with a bunch of legs and long antennae stuck its body out of a hole in the wall, but I was more afraid of the Vune than it. I ducked underneath its feelers and kept running.

We erupted from the other end of the tunnel. I felt like I couldn’t run much further. Already, my side ached terribly, and I could barely get air to go into my lungs before it blew back out.

“Don’t slow down,” Mia said, taking my hand for a change. “Come on.”

I gave one last, longing look at the way we’d come. Poor Charlie. We couldn’t do anything to help her now, though. The only thing we could do, the best thing we could do, was try to reach help.

“Do you have your comm unit?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes brightening. Mia opened up her backpack and took out the flat, rectangular device. She tapped on the screen, and the signal search loading circle spun around on the surface.

“Come on,” she snapped. “Come the fuck on! Work, you piece of shit!”

“Mia,” I said. “It’s broken, or you can’t get a signal in this valley. Either way, we need to keep going.”

She stuffed the comm unit back into her pack and shouldered it as we started into the jungle. We weren’t running as fast now, because we were both winded. Not to mention the denser woods were harder to navigate. Before, we had followed a game trail. Now the trees and underbrush slowed us to a crawl.

“Do you hear that?” Mia asked.

“I can’t hear anything over the thudding of my heart,” I gasped.

“I think there’s a river ahead. Maybe we can use it to swim downstream?”

It was a good idea. We hurried as much as we were able, and then came out to the steep banks of the river. One look at the rushing white water told us there would be no swimming to safety.

“Fuck,” I groaned. “We’re cut off! There’s no way across.”

“Yes, there is,” Mia cried, pointing to a moss-encrusted log that had fallen over the river. “We can use that as a bridge.”

We ran toward the log, and I pushed her ahead of me. As we crossed, her foot broke through the fragile bark and she nearly fell.

“Careful,” I said, dragging her back to her feet.

“Thanks.”

We continued on, me pushing her ahead. I tried to put my feet only on the spots where it felt the most sturdy, but grew harder the further we went.

When we were most of the way across, I heard a sharp crack and the log noticeably sagged in the middle.

“Oh no,” Mia said. “We’ll never make it.”

I never saw myself as a hero, or even a ‘good’ person, but in that moment I guess I found out who I was.

“Yes,” I said, “you will.”

I shoved her hard. She flew the remaining few feet and landed safely on the other bank.

Then the log gave way under me and I tumbled to the rushing waters below. I hit hard and sank fast, carried away by the torrent. I hoped that Mia made it to safety. Otherwise my sacrifice meant nothing.

Mated to the Kagethi Lord

Shelby

My shoes made little sound as I strode down the corridor of the testing center. 

When I got dressed this morning, I knew there was a chance I was about to be sent to an alien planet, after all. Sensible shoes seemed like a good plan.

I like plans.

My reflection looked back at me as I approached the final room. The woman in the mirror had her ebony hair pulled back into a tight bun, held in place with two pencils. 

I’d been studying for my entrance exam right up until I’d had to leave. The tweed blazer and matching charcoal slacks made me look like a sophisticated business woman instead of a grad student.

Then I drew nearer and got a good look at the sour expression on my face. I’d never thought I was anything special in the looks department. Guys didn’t go ga ga over me the way they did, say, over my blonde-haired bubble headed roommate.

Or maybe it was just that they were all afraid I was smarter than them. Either way, I didn’t put up with their nonsense. 

I had a plan, and I was sticking to it.

Until 10 minutes ago when my DNA match came back positive.

Now I was just numb. 

Time for a new plan, but my brain couldn’t think, running in circles.

I was nervous. I was never nervous, damnit!

Except…who wouldn’t be, if they were plucked right out of their life and sent halfway across the known galaxy?

All because of a stupid treaty I had nothing to do with.

“Shelby Thomas?” A woman dressed as a doctor came forward, guided me through the door. “Congratulations on your match. I know it’s a shock, but so many of our matches fall in love. Let yourself enjoy the experience.”

I wasn’t expecting any such thing. Love was a chemical reaction in the brain. 

As real as the delight you get when eating an ice cream cone and gone just as quickly.

“I’ll enjoy the day I get to come home and return to my actual life. This is throwing off my ten-year plan.”

“Ten years?” she blinked. “That’s impressive. I have trouble planning what I’m going to have for lunch.”

Not exactly reassuring to hear from the woman who was implanting my translator.

Finally, I stepped up on top of the teleportation pad while the technicians fiddled with their doodads. Now I was really nervous. I was about to be converted to an energy state and then transmitted like a radio signal across the galaxy. 

I had literally nothing to compare it to.

No way to plan for this at all.

I clenched up as the light flashed bright and golden and my eyes closed on reflex. I felt a strange tingle, but then it was over just as quickly as it had begun. 

I opened my eyes and nearly freaked out.

“What the hell?”

A whole freaking tribe of aliens stared back at me. Anthropomorphized cat people alien to be exact. The overall effect was doubly disconcerting, considering the way they were dressed. 

Elaborate brocade surcoats worn over spun silk shirts, long flowing gowns with lace trim and complex embroidery. 

Sort of like you might expect to see at a Renaissance fair, only, it was mixed with bits of high technology that destroyed the illusion of anachronism. Computer tablets were affixed to forearms, and the liveried guards bore plasma weapons as well as curved swords.

One of the cat people took a step toward me. Her pattern of fur reminded me of an earth tiger, only a bit off. She moved with liquid grace, but I got the feeling she was at least middle aged, if not older. 

Her green and gold finery glistened in the floating globes of light drifting about the room in a slow, random dance.

“Greetings, Shelby Thomas of Earth.” She offered a sweeping bow. “I am Queen Nala Kastigeer. My son Valloa is your match.”

I stared blankly for a bit until I remembered my manners.

“Hi,” I said, feeling awkward as hell. “Nice to meet you. I’m Shelby Thomas…but you know that, because you just said so.”

A Mahdfel man with purple skin and slightly curved horns stepped up beside the queen. I noticed a silver crown with a single sapphire set near the forehead upon his brow. 

“Please don’t be so nervous,” he said. “You may have noticed that I’m a transplant to this world, too.”

His lips curled in a warm smile, but his gaze roamed the room as if searching for something. 

Or someone. 

I started looking over the other Kagethi and trying to figure out which of them might have been my match. 

None of them were looking at me in a way that showed that kind of interest, though.

“Anything you need, Shelby, to make you more comfortable, please let us know.”

“Thank you, but…” I felt bad, but it’s better to be honest, right? “I sort of left a life behind on Earth and quite frankly, I can’t wait to get back to it once my time is up.”

His smile deepened, enough that I could see he had dimples.

“That’s a lot like what I said when I first came here. I hope that in time we will be able to change your mind.”

“I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I hope you’re not investing too much in me emotionally. You might be disappointed.”

A man nearby caught my attention. And by man, I mean another tiger striped Kagethi. His finery was a cut below that of the King and queen, and he was easily twenty years their junior. He smiled at me politely enough, but sort of wanly.

He did nothing for me. Not a damn thing, even though he was sort of handsome for being a cat man. 

I looked at him and swallowed the lump in my throat.

“Are you my match?”

The Kagethi blinked and shook his head.

“No, my Lady. I am Duke Vorath. Your match, Valloa, is my cousin and the crown prince.”

“Oh.” I looked around and frowned. Judging by the clothing, it looked to me like the rest of the entourage were either servants or guardsmen. I didn’t see anyone who looked like a prince. “Um, then where is he?”

The King and Queen grew silent, and Vorath avoided meeting my gaze.

“I believe he’s been delayed,” Vorath murmured.

“Delayed?”

As if on cue, the doors banged open, and a gigantic, furred form strode in the room. 

My eyes widened, because he was simply huge. Rippling with muscle obvious even under his tiger fur, he looked like the other Kagethi only bigger. Much, much bigger. He had to be over seven feet tall.

Something in the back of my stomach started to churn.

No. This couldn’t be it. This wasn’t my match. There was no way. 

But I knew, somehow, that he was.

He looked even bigger because he had a grotesquely tusked thing on his back that looked like a dead boar. Blood dripped from a wound on its neck onto Valloa’s fur. 

Because without a word, I knew in my gut this was him.

My match.

“Where is my mate?” Valloa called out boldly, his golden eyes flashing. “I have brought her a feast.”

I stared at him for a long moment, and then shrank back toward the teleportation pad before he could lay eyes on me.

“So much nope,” I said, stepping back on the pad. “Send me home. Now.”

Valloa

“Well?”

My voice boomed in the cavernous chamber as I cast my gaze about searching for the Earth woman matched to me by the Mahdfel DNA system. 

My curiosity had gotten the better of me.

Originally, I had intended to avoid meeting her altogether. A kind of silent protest of the fact that I really didn’t want an Earth woman. It did not matter that my friends Reo and Karr had found so much happiness with the smooth skinned creatures.

All that mattered was my choices were being taken away from me. I’d gone out hunting instead, hoping to upset my match so much with my absence the whole mating thing would be dissolved.

Then, as I’d stalked through the warm, verdant green of the jungles surrounding our keep, I’d developed something of a crisis of conscience. Avoiding the arrival of my match from Earth would upset my parents greatly. It would be a major blow to their public image, not to mention their honor.

To make up for my tardiness, I’d taken a detour into tarsk hunting grounds, and found myself a prime buck. His neck wasn’t swollen with the rutting season yet, so his meat would remain succulent and flavorful, instead of tough and bitter.

But for some reason no one seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness.

“Your match is probably cowering somewhere because of your boorish ways.”

I turned to see my mother stride up toward me. The stiffness in her posture and the fire in her gaze let me know I was in trouble. 

Familiar territory, unfortunately.

“I thought it would be impolite not to bring a gift. Look, is it not a fine tarsk, Mother?”

“It would be fine roasting on a spit or laying in chunks on a butcher block. Not dripping blood all over the teleportation chamber. Have some decorum.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but then I spotted her. 

My match.

I only saw her from behind at first, a long-haired woman with her hair pulled into a tight bun. She was arguing with one of the Mahdfel technicians over the comm screen. 

It sounded like she was trying to convince them to send her back.

“Shelby Thomas!”

She stiffened up, and then grumbled as she turned about.

“Who wants to know?”

I could not respond. My jaw had fallen open in awe. I had not expected her to be the loveliest creature I had seen in all my years of life. 

Her dark eyes were the color of magic, her ebon hair like spun silk. Her furless skin should have been repulsive, and yet it looked just right on her. I longed to stroke my fingers along her smooth, soft neck.

“Well?” she snapped, drawing me out of my reverie. “I asked you a question?”

“Introduce yourself, my son.” My father sniffed, trying to pretend like I hadn’t insulted everyone in the room with my tardiness.

“But of course.” I swept into a polite bow. “I am Prince Valloa Kastigeer. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Eventually,” she said dryly.

I cocked my head to the side. Though she was little, she was fierce. “What do you mean?” I asked when she did not elaborate.

“You didn’t even bother to show up to greet me on time, and when you do finally show up—late, I might add—you’re dripping blood all over the place from the animal carcass you have slung over your shoulders. I thought you were some kind of sophisticated alien prince, but it turns out you’re Conan the freaking Barbarian.”

“I do not know this Ko Nan, but I am far from a barbarian. I am skilled in philosophy, debate, music, and culture.”

Mother covered her mouth with her hand in a vain attempt to hide a smile. My father didn’t even bother with that. He burst into guffaws.

“My son, there are many words I would use to describe you. Sophisticated and refined do not number among them.”

Shelby smirked, and it raised my ire. 

I carefully laid the Tarsk corpse on the floor and turned to regard my mate. I had gotten a bit of blood on my vest, but not very much. I don’t know why she shrank back like she was afraid of it touching her.

“Shelby Thomas of Earth,” I said with stiff formality. “If I were the sort of man who offered apologies, I would give you one right now for my tardiness. Most vociferously and vehemently.”

I cast a dark look at my father so he would know that I was more refined than he thought, then continued.

“However, I consider apologies a sign of weakness. I do not apologize. But if I were to offer an apology, I would offer one to you.”

My mother sighed and rubbed her temples like she had a headache. My father covered his mouth and muttered under his breath.

Shelby stared at me, mouth open.

“Are you kidding me right now? Why would I want to be matched with a jerk who shows up late, flings blood everywhere and then refuses to apologize for any of it?”

“Kageth is superior to Earth,” I said. “You should stay for that reason alone. Plus, I am a prince. You will be queen one day.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously.

“What makes you think I want to be a stupid queen?”

She turned to my mother.

“No offense.”

Then she turned back to me.

“I have my life all planned out. I’m supposed to be taking my grad school exam right now. Instead, I’m stuck in the basement of some alien castle with a giant tiger man telling me how lucky I am to be in his company. Even though he’s a total jerk.”

She made a strangled grunt.

“I have plans, you big jerk, a ten-year plan, and you’re screwing it up.”

“Ten-year plan? What comedy is this? Planning is for those who are too weak to live in the moment.”

“Weak?” The ice in her tone made me want to shiver. I turned to my mother and father for moral support. Father just looked disappointed, but Mother looked angrier than Shelby.

“Ah,” I said. “Well, I suppose I’m sorry for dripping blood around and offending you.”

“You suppose you’re sorry?”

She rolled her eyes to the ceiling.

“I guess that’s as good as I’m going to get, isn’t it? Well, fine. Just stay away from me. Because this?”

She gestured between the two of us.

“This is going nowhere.”

She pushed through the guards and stormed out of the chamber.

“Somebody better show me where the bathroom is,” she muttered on her way out.

I was stunned. “What did I do wrong?”

My mother scowled.

“You are going to have to navigate these waters on your own.”

She left the chamber as well, as did my father. I stood there alone wondering what in the Void just happened.

Not an auspicious start, to be sure. 

Yet, something inside of me was hopelessly intrigued.

I wanted to see more of her. 

Only that seemed a vain hope, since she had just declared she wanted nothing to do with me.

It was a good thing I liked challenges.

Rejected by the Kagethi Lord

Nina

Form without substance. 

Light without a source. 

Me, but not me. 

A burst of crackling electricity, like summer lightning.

I staggered forward a few steps, momentum unchecked by the teleportation device. My foot hit something immovable and I sprawled to my knees. 

They’d told me not to run. I was a little freaked out at the time, though. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention as much as I should’ve.

Okay. Definitely.

But how could I not be freaked out? Thanks to a treaty with an alien alliance, I’d been selected to get beamed across the galaxy to an alien world. 

Random chance or fate had decreed my DNA to be compatible with an alien.

And due to some stupid treaty, I’d been sent here.

I shook my head to clear it, skin tingling as if I just touched a live wire. 

The guy at the testing center had told me the law of conservation of matter and energy meant my momentum would transfer to the destination. 

But he wasn’t the one who’d be beamed across the universe.

If I’d thought too much about the fact my body would be sheathed in energy and then transmitted millions of light years away, I’d never have gone through with it. Treaty or no treaty.

So instead, I’d decided it’d be easier to run and jump in, like a terrifying leap from the high dive.

That was a mistake.

Slowly, I dragged myself to my feet. I stood on the worn stones of a circular dais, surrounded by a dense jungle. 

It sort of looked like the jungles in adventure movies back on Earth.

Except it was completely, totally wrong.

Colors and scents had a strange, odd tinge which made me mistrust my senses.

I spun in a circle, physically and mentally. Coming in alone in the middle of a jungle wasn’t what I’d been told to expect, not at all. 

There were supposed to be people there to greet me, right?

Instead, I appeared to be alone on an alien planet. 

The sky was the wrong shade of blue.

The air felt different, too. 

I felt different. Higher gravity? Lower?

I tried jumping, but honestly everything was just too much to take in to try to figure it out.

Seriously, it wasn’t what I’d planned for this week.

I’d minded my own business, running my dog walking gig in New York City and making enough money to pay rent and eat. 

It wasn’t a great life, but it was my own.

Of course, none of it mattered in context of my current predicament. I was alone in an alien jungle. The more I thought about it, the more I realized somebody had made a major mistake.

The only question I had was: how big was the mistake? Had I been sent to a different place on Kagath than I was supposed to arrive at? 

Or was I in a totally different alien world?

Why wasn’t anyone here?

A flash of seized me, causing my breaths to come in ragged gasps and a sweat broke out on my body. 

If I’d been stranded on an alien world, then how would they ever find me? 

I checked my communication device, a small rectangle roughly the size of a cell phone, but it’d shorted out or something and the screen stayed dark.

Did it need a charger?

Oh hell.

My bag wasn’t with me either. 

I had no equipment, I was all alone, and I had no idea where I was, not even what planet I was on. My luggage probably made it safely. I was the one who’d been lost.

Pull it together, Nina.

Panic wouldn’t do any good.

Should I stay or should I go? Should I remain at the stone dais and hope a rescue was imminent? 

Or should I try to find my way out of the jungle to some semblance of civilization?

I studied the dais beneath my feet for clues. Smooth gray stones shot through with specks of lavender, clearly worked by the hands of an intelligent being. 

There were people on this planet. Or there had been.

I just needed them to come find me.

Because going out into a jungle alone with no equipment was tantamount to suicide. 

I sank down on the gnarled, exposed root of a thick trunked tree. Its bark had lovely purple highlights breaking up the dark brown of its coarse surface. 

Somewhere a sound like a bird call, but tinged with exotic strangeness, echoed in the sky. It didn’t sound very big, but I shivered with fright nonetheless.

“I miss my dogs.”

My voice sounded hollow and tinny to my ears. Maybe a side effect of the teleportation, or perhaps because of the sound absorbing qualities of the stone dais.

Maybe because I was afraid.

Something bounded out of the wood, startling me to my feet. About the size of a rabbit, the creature had a body shaped like a swollen bowling pin with two bent back, thick legs. I saw no sign of any forelimbs. 

The creature hopped like a rabbit, coming a bit closer to where I stood.

Its little black eyes glittered in the half light as it turned its head as if puzzled to find me there. 

“Hey there, little guy,” I cooed. “Aren’t you adorable? I don’t suppose you have a master you can take me to?”

It made a cute little chittering sound and hopped nearer. I squatted down to make myself less threatening, holding my hand out, palm facing up.

The creature hopped a bit closer, slitted nostrils testing the air. It stopped about two feet from my outstretched hand. 

I wished I had some treat or something, but then again I’d no idea what that thing ate. Given its size and cute fluffiness, I found it hard to believe it ate meat.

Until its head tilted backward like a Pez dispenser to reveal double rows of sharp teeth. Green saliva trickled out of the stalactite like teeth, perhaps a venom of some sort.

“Holy shit!”

I leaped back and snatched up a rock off the ground. I flung it at the creature, but it reacted like lightning and my errant missile bounded away into the underbrush. The creature hopped a few feet away, stopping in the knee high grass to peer out at me.

“You just stay right over there and we won’t have any problems, you and me.” I picked up another rock just in case. “You hear me?”

Something jumped out of the tree line. 

Another of the creatures. They sniffed each other, and then turned their mutual attention to me. They crept out of the tall grass, stalking me like a cat stalking a mouse.

“I said get away!”

I hurled the stone and they both bounded back, but not as far as the first time. A low growl escaped their throats, so deep and rumbly that I felt it in my stomach.

Another of the creatures joined the first two, this one a bit larger with dull black fur instead of brown. It made a chattering noise and suddenly the tree line was alive with the little monsters.

I spotted a twisted, fallen limb on the ground and snatched it up, wielding the timber like a club. The closest creature received a swat, but it didn’t seem to do much more than push it away a few feet.

“Stay the fuck away from me! I mean it! I don’t back down from Dobermans and Rottweilers, and I’m not backing down for you.”

The creatures turned and fled, streaming back into the tree line. For a moment, I felt a rare boost of confidence.

“Yeah, that’s right. And don’t come back—”

A thunderous roar split the air behind me. I spun around, raising my improvised club in the air before me.

A pair of eyes the size of basketballs glared out at me from the foliage and I saw the vague outline of a black furred shape beyond, something that looked similar to an Earth bear but three times the size with long, pointed ears.

Six legs, too, I noted as it trundled into the clearing. Its claws scraped against the stones of the dais, each one as long as my forearm.

It opened its maw and roared, the volume of air in its lungs so great it blew my hair back.

Am I about to die?

Fear paralyzed me, rooting me to the rounded stones of the dais. The monster pushed its way fully into the clearing, moving with liquid grace which belied its bulk.

No time to run now. 

I watched, transfixed with horror, as it raised a paw the size of my torso high into the air. 

I threw an arm up in reflex, though such a pitiful barrier would do nothing to stop my death. 

The monster’s claws descended. 

Then a golden humanoid shape blurred into my field of vision, interposing itself between me and the creature.

I tripped and fell hard on my rump. My jaw fell open as I witnessed a fur-covered person built like a pro wrestler blocking the descending paw with a rounded shield.

The monster recoiled, snapping its paw back. Blood spattered onto the stones. I noticed my rescuer wielded a short, curved sword in the other hand, wet with crimson. I hadn’t even seen the attack.

The stranger turned his head toward me, a lustrous mane flowing like water with the motion. I gasped, because his face was a mix of human and feline features. 

His nose had the black velvet look of a cat, but his mouth appeared quite like my own, albeit with more pronounced canines. His whiskers twitched as his amber eyes bored into me.

“Get back.”

He turned toward the monster and bent into a half crouch, a shield held defensively before him. The big monster’s eyes narrowed. It tried to move around him to get to me, but he sidled along to keep himself between me and the beast.

My hero took a half step backward to avoid the monster’s next attack. His foot hit my calf and he stumbled slightly.

“I said get back!”

He rounded on me, eyes narrowed and burning with irritation. 

Grumpy hero. 

I scrambled back in a crab walk until I slammed into the rough bark of a tree trunk.

The lion man turned around and roared a challenge at the beast. The huge monster reared up on its thicker hind legs and swatted with the other four paws but my savior leaped over the lowest, twisting his body in the air like an acrobat.

He landed in a crouch and I winced at the sight of blood running down his side. He hadn’t quite avoided all of the creature’s attacks.

The lion man leaped into the air, and I do mean leaped. My jaw fell open in awe as he launched himself a full twenty feet in the air. 

His sword darted out at the monster’s face and the answering howl of pain meant his weapon bit deep.

The six-legged beast dropped down to all of its paws and tore away from the clearing, half its face covered in blood. The lion man stood at the ready even as it fled, as if expecting it to come charging back at any moment.

Once the sound of crashing foliage faded into the distance, the lion man relaxed. 

He ignored me completely and went to grab a thick leaf wider than my body. I watched as he used the leaf to clean the blood from his blade. His side seemed to have stopped bleeding already. 

Neat trick, that. Super fast healing.

“Um, hey. Thanks for saving me.”

He started and turned his gaze over his broad shoulder. His glare sent a shudder down my spine. I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the inscrutable light in his eyes.

“My name is Nina, by the way.” I realized I was babbling, but I couldn’t stop. “Obviously I’m not from around here. Um, do you know the way out of this jungle, by chance?”

He didn’t respond at first. Then he let out a snort and turned his back on me.

“Come.”

The lion man made for the edge of the clearing and disappeared into the treeline without stirring so much as a leaf. 

It was insane that somebody so big could disappear so easily and quietly. He had to be pushing seven feet tall and not slender like a basketball player, either. 

More like if Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzenegger got put in a blender along with an escaped zoo lion. 

On steroids.

“Hey!”

I only stood there another moment before tearing off after him. I quickly caught up, following the same thin game trail he used.

“Hey, slow down!”

I struggled to keep up. He just kept eating the terrain with those mile-long legs of his. 

“Come on, please slow down,” I panted after only a few minutes. “I can’t keep up.”

The lion man stopped and turned toward me, rolling his eyes. Apparently, that expression was universal between our worlds.

“Are all humans as weak and slow as you?”

His voice was somewhere between a growl and intelligible speech. I was reminded of Clint Eastwood before he turned into a mummy. 

I wilted under his stern gaze and speech.

“I’m sorry. I’ve never been in the jungle before. I’m not even supposed to be here, you see. I was supposed to be sent to a population center. At least, I think that was the plan.”

His eyes burned hard and hot as coals. Then he snorted and turned his back, walking away from me again. This time, though, he slowed his pace enough that I could keep up. 

It still remained far from a casual stroll, but at least I wasn’t being left behind.

I hurried my pace for a half dozen strides, ignoring my aching calves, walking abreast of him. He didn’t look at me, but I could tell he knew I was there.

“So, ah…what’s your name?”

He didn’t respond immediately. His hand reached out and grasped a stout branch blocking our path. He bent it back, careful not to break it though I knew he had the strength to splinter the branch into kindling. 

Then he turned back to me with an expectant glare. I finally realized he’d held the branch out of the way for me and ducked underneath.

Once I reached the other side, he finally spoke.

“Reo.”

“Nice to meet you, Reo. I’m Nina, in case you’ve forgotten. So, how’d you find me? I wound up teleporting to the wrong planet.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t?”

He shook his head, still not looking at me. His gaze remained focused down the path ahead.

“I didn’t? But if that’s so, how come no one was there to greet me? I was told specifically that I was supposed to meet people there.”

He paused, turning to me with his leonine features.

You know what? I was shocked by his appearance at first, but now I think he’s actually rather handsome. Very distinguished, too. This is no barbarian, despite the fact he’s not wearing much clothing.

It was true. He wore a leather breechcloth keeping his rippling torso and thick legs visible. I’m pretty sure the circumference of his muscular thighs was greater than my waist.

“The teleportation device malfunctioned. You should’ve arrived safely in the palace. Instead, you were sent to an old rallying point half a day away.”

I pursed my lips into a frown.

“Wait, what? How’s that possible? I thought Mahdfel tech was infallible.”

He turned a brief glare my way.

“How the fuck should I know? Do I look like a scientist?”

“No,” I agreed. “You look like a warrior. I’m assuming you’re a man at arms, or a guard for Prince Nafaria, the man I’m matched with. Am I right?”

He flinched a bit at the prince’s name, but otherwise didn’t respond.

We walked for what felt like hours, but probably was only one, if that. 

Going through the jungle proved harder than I would’ve thought. The game trail wasn’t a sidewalk, it wound crazily through the jungle. 

He took it all in stride, but I had a hard time keeping up.

I almost collapsed with relief when he called a halt next to a steep river bank overlooking a blue ribbon of rushing water. I settled onto a moss covered rock and sighed, rubbing my calves. I thought I got a good workout as a dog walker. 

It turned out, not so much.

I guess all those paleo enthusiasts who think you should run up hills and crap have a point after all.

Reo reached into a leather pouch at his side and withdrew what looked like dried fruits. He handed me a few, and I was surprised when my belly rumbled. 

I bit into one and it tasted a bit like a fig, but maybe with a bit of plum thrown in as well.

He then handed me a sloshing leather bag. When I looked at it suspiciously, he spoke.

“Water. Drink. I can’t have you collapsing. I’m not carrying you.”

I unstopped the top and tilted it back, noticing the waterskin had a patch branded into it. It appeared to be a cat’s paw clutching an ax and a sword, their blades pointing out in opposite directions. 

Name brand? Or a royal seal? 

More and more it seemed likely Reo must be one of the prince’s guards.

The water was warm and tasted of leather, but it was wet. I guzzled half of it before I worried I was rude. I handed it back to him and he shook his head.

“Keep it for now.”

He leaped up onto a boulder taller than I without apparent effort. Then he crouched down, nose testing the wind, rounded ears moving independently of each other on top of his head.

He’s certainly not Mr. Congeniality. But he saved my life and now he’s taking care of me. I’ll have to ask the prince to give him a commendation or something.

Maybe he’s not as mean as he seems?

A dark shape skittered across the sky, darkening the river with its shadow. He stood up, body tense like a bow string and watched it go, trailing smoke in its wake.

“Was that a ship?” I asked.

He growled in response.

“Suhlik.” He spat the word like it was a curse. I felt a shiver travel down my spine. 

Suhlik were the ones the treaty protected us from. Reptilian and coldblooded as the snakes they resembled, the Suhlik were galactic boogeymen for good reason.

“We’ll take a slight detour,” he growled, still watching the direction the ship went. “It can’t be helped.”

I started to ask where we were going, then thought better of it. I didn’t think I wanted to know the answer.

Most sane people ran from the Suhlik. I got the feeling Reo had the exact opposite plan in mind.

Oh boy. This day just keeps getting crazier and crazier.

Raxor: Sneak Peek

Amelia

“I’m so going to miss you, baby girl. No matter where I go, it’ll never compare to what we’ve been through together. You’re my number one girl forever.”

I must’ve knocked some engine dust loose because my eyes were watering under my safety glasses. I was all alone with my Aurore and I didn’t know when I would see her again. My heart was breaking knowing I had to leave her.

“Me and you, Aurore. Me and you.”

Our song was playing on the garage speakers, loud and raucous, just like us on the track.

I swore when my comm began ringing, interrupting our last moments together. I decided to ignore it and pressed my hand to the heart of my beautiful beast. It’s what I loved to do, work on mechanical things. Sure, I had a knack for anything mathematical based – like languages – but building and working with my hands was what I loved the most.

Why won’t the comm stop ringing? I told everyone to leave us alone! Dammit!

I slid out far enough to fumble around for the comm and managed to push it in the opposite direction I wanted it to go. The comm tumbled into the engine compartment, banged against the sidewall and landed squarely on my forehead.

Fucking hell!

I rubbed my head with one hand and answered the comm with the other.

“WHAT. THE. FAWWW–?!”

“What did you just say?”

Oh shit.

“ ‘Ama…is everything ok?”

“Yes, Meli. What could be wrong with your mom checking on you?”

Here we go.

“ ‘Ama, you know I –”

“Yes, Meli, I know you’re with that car. I don’t know why you would spend so much time saying good-bye to a car when you could be with your family. Unless you’ve changed your mind and you are going to stay?”

“Aurore is family, too, ‘Ama.”

“Aurore. I don’t even know why you gave that ugly car a name, or why it’s a pretty one.”

“Because she’s a sleeping beauty, Mom. She’s what Daddy and I wanted to build and race together. That’s why.”

Mom must’ve caught the same lump in her throat that I had because her voice sounded sad when she spoke.

“So you are still going? How am I supposed to talk to you so far away?”

“I got the hookup from the boys in J-town, mom. They were so happy to stop losing races to me and Aurore, they practically paid for this intra-galaxy comm themselves. They say IGCs get reception anywhere.”

“Okay, Meli. I’m just going to miss you so much.”

“I will miss you, too, but I will be home soon, and with the money they pay me, you won’t have to worry about my schooling, or my tools, or paying for the house, Mom.”

We talked a little longer but I don’t remember what about. I just remember that, in that call, I felt like our family was whole again, and I was saying goodbye to them.

It took me a few minutes to gather myself after we hung up. Family was everything to me, but this was something I had to do.

I grabbed my tool pack and stuffed it into the bottom of the bag of clothes I was allowed to take with me. I walked to the door, flipped off the shop lights and blew a kiss at Aurore.

“I’m coming back for you.”

My ride was waiting right outside the door as I locked up. My favorite cousin, Johnny, leaned back in the driver seat, smiling.

“Hey Mel. I thought this would be better than a limo to drop you off.”

His lowrider was one of those giant cars from the 1970’s with a hood you could land aircraft on. It was painted green with gold metal flake, gold trim, with a white, leather interior, and stood about a half inch above the ground.

“Oh, my God, Johnny. For reals?”

“Well yeah, ‘cuz. This one has an Aztec mural of a virgin sacrifice, so I thought it would be like, appropriate and shit. You know?”

I couldn’t help but laugh as I slid into the passenger seat. We made jokes and laughed all the way to the testing facility.

I knew Johnny would make me laugh so hard I wouldn’t change my mind and chicken out. That’s why I had asked him to take me. If it had been my mom, I wouldn’t make it out of the car.

By the time Johnny drove away from the testing facility, I was feeling optimistic and confident again. As he turned out of the parking lot, he hit the hydraulics and gave me a three-wheel salute.

Alright, Mel. Let’s do this.

I still don’t quite remember everything that happened after that. I remember walking into the facility and it being full of people rushing in every direction. I could hear crying, a few screams, and a lot of cursing.

The people in lab coats were trying to escort women, one-by-one, through a set of doors. They just weren’t having a lot of success getting them to the other side.

“Birthdate?” said a deep, raspy voice.

“Ahh.. no. I’m a volunteer, not a lottery candidate.”

“Even better.”

Before I knew it, I was being rushed through the doors and into an exam room. Not a minute later, another white coat walked in muttering to himself about lottery weekends and took a drop of blood from my finger.

“There we are. Now, I’m just going to slide this into the machine, and we should have an answer in no time.”

“That’s the whole test? No physical or anything?”

A light on the machine turned bright green and a bell chimed.

“Well, there is one more thing. Walk over to that wall and let me see your head.”

“Ok. That’s weird.”

“Part of the exam.”

“Okay, then.”

“Take a deep breath in.”

I did and then the doc punched something into my temple so hard I dropped my bag. I heard the sound of metal hitting the pad underneath my feet, and saw the doc raise an eyebrow.

Oh, shit!

The world was spinning now, and all I could do was drop myself on top of my bag before he snatched it from me.

Oh, hell no.

Suddenly, the spinning stopped. Dizzy and still swaying, I forced all my strength into my hands. I felt the hardness of metal in my hands.

Thank you, God or goddess, or spirit, or whatever alien beings make miracles.

Relief and nausea ran through me. I made it and my plan was going to work.

I opened my eyes, trying to keep the spins at bay, but that was no use. All I could see was a large, orange blob with horns coming towards me. It looked annoyed.

Do I throw up or scream?

In the end, instinct took over. I whirled my bag at the orange blob’s head area, but it ducked my swing and tried to take my bag from me.

Stupid orange blob!

I might’ve yelled that, and right before I passed out, I made my fingers lock around the straps of my bag.

Raxor

The celestial sea slipped past my porthole window in its endless ebb and flow, but I didn’t have time to appreciate the beauty.

I didn’t even have time to appreciate the potential glory of being a Vaznik warrior stationed on one of the mightiest cruisers on the fleet, the Sunder. The datapads piled before me demanded my full attention, even here in the far reaches of the Xiltri Sector.

I picked up the top one, my orange hand contrasting against the dark, heavy-duty touchscreen. It blinked to life when sensing my body heat, displaying text which our best translator circuitry couldn’t handle. It wasn’t an alien tongue, or a long-forgotten dialect. Rather, it was the coded journal of one Dr. Garcia.

The fact she’d written her journal in code proved especially vexing, because the biggest mystery about her disappearance wasn’t the fact she was missing, in and of itself. Rather, it boiled down to one question.

Was Dr. Garcia a hapless kidnap victim—or was she in full allegiance with the strange armored mercenaries who wiped out the research center on Yimïk III, where she’d been working as chief scientist?

I set the coded journal pad down and rubbed my eyes. I wasn’t cut out for all the paperwork that went with a command position. I really envied my best friend, Kavok. He was on his honeymoon with his new mate, Helena.

I didn’t envy him his mate—to be honest, I never gave much thought to being matched with a human woman. The odds seemed astronomically low it would ever happen, so what was the point in worrying about it?

I did envy that he didn’t have to sit at a desk during his ostensible off hours poring over intelligence reports. I was more of a man of action. I had always been content with letting Kavok take the lead, because it freed me up to do more of what I wanted.

But when you’re just a smidge too competent in the Vaznik military, they have an annoying habit of promoting you. They promoted Kavok, and I was bumped up into his position as squad leader just to see if it would be a good permanent fit.

I hadn’t realized there would be so much padwork to do. My eyes had grown strained from staring at the lighted screens, my neck had developed a crick, and worst of all I was no closer to figuring out what happened to Dr. Garcia than I was when I started sifting through the mess.

I tried a different pad, this one with photos, video, and telemetry taken from the research center on Yimïk III. The Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center had been abandoned by anything living before our team investigated.

The memory of its cold, silent halls, the sight of crumpled bodies laying in twisted agony, came back to my mind unbidden. Whoever those armored thugs were, they lacked honor or integrity.

I vowed to find them—and make them pay. If Dr. Garcia was innocent, then she would be freed. If not, then she would face justice along with all of the others.

Of course, before I could put these grandiose schemes into action, I had to actually find them first. We had teleportation pad coordinates, but were waiting for a go-ahead from top brass.

In the meantime, I was trying to make it all come together in my head. Kavok’s mate was a fan of mystery stories. I never was. I was the type who would scroll to the last page to get the answer without going through all the actual evidence.

Maybe I was being punished by the patron deities of mystery writers by being forced to slog through all of the information.

I decided to summarize things on a pad to get my head around them. I typed out what we knew, which wasn’t very much, quite frankly.

At some point in the last few weeks, a group of unknown armored sapients—soldiers? Mercenaries? Private army?—attacked the Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center and killed all of the staff with one notable exception.

Dr. Garcia.

Dr. Garcia had traveled to two different derelict spacecraft in the Yimïk system, and had been either pursued or accompanied by the armored murderers. Then she’d departed for a third ship, an ancient, hulking alien craft which became the sight of a bloodbath between us and the armored thugs.

Dr. Garcia had used an ancient teleport pad on the ship to go someplace else, and at least some of the armored soldiers went with her.

We still didn’t know quite what she was looking for, what we might expect to find at the coordinates, and whether or not she was a victim—or a bad actor.

“Raxor.”

I started at the sound of the intercom on my wall buzzing my name. It sounded like Captain Thadood’s voice, calling me in person. I was either in a lot of trouble or about to get some kind of commendation—which always meant more trouble.

“Yes, Captain?”

“I have excellent news for you. Your mate has arrived.”

At first, I heard him, but didn’t really comprehend it.

“What?”

“Report to teleport pad A immediately. And congratulations.”

“But—I didn’t even know I was signed up for one.”

“All Vaznik have their DNA entered into the system to find a match.”

“I—what if I don’t want to?”

A long silence.

 “There will be no more talk of this ‘not wanting’ a mate. You’re a lucky Vaznik, Raxor. You’re being eyed for a promotion AND you just got matched. Things are going to get mighty interesting for you from here on out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mighty interesting. That’s great in most walks of life, but when you’re a soldier, ‘interesting’ usually means getting shot at.

Perplexed and utterly discombobulated, I had little choice but to leave my quarters and meet my match.

At least I got out of the paperwork.

Kavok: Chapter Three

Kavok

“Helena Jones!”

The human crumpled toward the floor. I moved in a blur, catching her before she could hit the deck plating. I cradled her in my arms and rushed her to the med bay.

My tattoos flashed. She was my match for certain. I couldn’t wrap my head around the implications because I was concerned for her safety. The only thing I knew for certain was she seemed both pretty and sweet. She told me I had kind eyes.

Dr. Ikari’s eyes widened when I walked in, carrying the woman.

 “Well,” he said, gesturing toward the nearby exam table. “I’d just been informed we were getting another passenger, and a human at that. Is this your match?”

“Yes,” I said, laying her carefully on the table. I brushed a soft ebony lock of hair out of her eyes.

“Congratulations.”

“That may be premature. This human appears to be defective.”

“What happened?”

“She collapsed.”

“Between being matched with Vaznik warrior, the trauma of the translator implantation, and instantaneous matter transportation, it’s quite normal her system was overwhelmed.”

He ran a scanner over her. I waited nervously nearby, trying to peer over his shoulder even though the readings meant almost nothing to me. I recognized blood pressure—humans had a naturally lower rate than us, I noted—and her heart rate, which seemed slow but steady.

“Her vitals look good. I think after a brief rest she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”

I sighed, letting out a lot of tension with the gasp air. My match would recover. The doctor said this was all normal.

“Thanks, Doc.” I turned toward the door to leave. “I know she’s in good hands.”

“Where are you off to?”

“I’m leading an away team down to the planet’s surface.”

“Glory and honor be yours,” he said, bowing his head.

“Glory and honor,” I replied.

I met my team in the shuttle bay, next to the supply lockers. They were gearing up already as I joined them.

“So glad you could make it, fearless leader,” Raxor said with a grin.

“I had another matter to attend to,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” Vrako, a lanky, yellow Vaznik who always thought the things he said were wittier than they actually were. “I heard Kavok here got matched.”

“Holy shit, congratulations,” Raxor said.

“Is she pretty?” Asked the big, stout, red Sakor.

“In a word, no,” said Jakar, our blue final member. “She’s a human. They have that smooth skin, no horns, I mean, did you know they’re all hairless primates?”

“And we’re evolved from a creature that used to nest in dung piles. What’s your point?” I snapped. I didn’t like him saying things like that about my mate even though we’d just met.

“Um, I don’t have a point,” Jakar said, holding his hands up. “Easy, Kavok. Easy.”

I stopped bristling and turned toward the lockers.

“Everyone pack an extra med kit. We have no idea what we’re going to encounter in that station. There could be wounded.”

“There could be hostiles,” Raxor added.

“There could be Suhlik.”

“There could be nothing,” Taxan said.

“True, but I’d rather bring the extra gear and not need it than be fucked once we get to the station.”

“What were they researching here anyway?” Vrako asked as he secured an extra med pack to the brown, animal-hide webbing on his uniform.

“From what I understand, there’s some kind of ancient ruins of an unknown race. It’s an archeological dig. Boring as fuck, most likely.”

“Yeah, but I heard Drayk saying some of the artifacts were still active and powered up, even after tens of thousands of years.”

“That’s wishful thinking on Drayk’s part,” I said. “You know how much he loves a good fight. I still think we’re going to go down there and find out they have a busted comm unit or something.”

“Maybe we should do a pool?” Raxor asked.

“That’s a great idea,” Vrako said. “My creds are on some kind of savage alien life form with acid for blood and a xenophobic outlook.”

“Damn, that’s what I was going to say,” Sakor said.

“I bet that there’s some kind of interstellar gate that taps into a dimension where time moves slowly, and everyone is frozen in place.” Jakar said, pantomiming being stuck in time.

“That’s also what I was going to say,” Sakor said. “Damn it, dude.”

The doors slid open behind me. I had my back to them, but from the way the rest of the crew stood at attention I figured it must have been an officer.

I turned around to stand at attention as well. The sight of Captain Soanzo didn’t surprise me. He often stopped to give last minute instructions to away teams.

The surprise turned out to be Helena Jones, my match. She’d recovered, apparently, which was of great relief to me. She no longer wore her civilian clothing, but one of the non-military crew flight suits. The body-hugging garment accentuated her curvy figure well. I took a long moment to appreciate just how well, when Captain Soanzo spoke.

“At ease, warriors.”

“What’s she doing here, Captain?” I asked.

“Admiral Aussym’s orders. He doesn’t want any matches separated so soon unless absolutely necessary. Something about stress bonding”

“It is absolutely necessary in this case,” I said, confused. “We’re about to go on a mission.”

“Of course you are,” Captain Soanzo snapped. “I’m the one who ordered you out.”

“But, Captain,” I said. I was focused on the job. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with Helena Jones—I wanted that very much—but I didn’t think going down to a potentially hostile planet was a great idea for a first date.

“This isn’t a discussion. She’s going with you. Unless you want to bring it up to the Admiral?”

Helena Jones seemed quite pleased about the turn of events. The captain took his leave, and I turned to her. It was difficult not to be distracted by her physical charms. The way she looked at me was…invigorating.

“All right,” I said in my best parade voice. “Here’s how it’s going to go. I have to take you with us, but you have to listen to every word I say. If I say jump, your duty is to inquire about the vertical measurement of said leap.”

I stumbled over the human phrase, and I must have gotten it wrong because she chuckled. Embarrassed, I tried to forge on and recover my lost dignity.

“You will keep your head down and stay out of the way, and once we establish a base camp, you will remain there in concealment. Is all of this clear?”

She looked up at me and laughed while the other Vazniks hid grins behind their hands.

“Yeah, I’m just not into being snapped at. I’m not one of your warriors.” Her eyes sparkled. “Want to try again, but asking nicely?”

Helena

The big alien in front of me stared with open-mouthed amazement. His fellows stifled laughter.

“You may not be in the chain of command,” he said icily. “And I may not have the right to exclude you from this mission, but might I SUGGEST that you at least CONSIDER listening to what I have to say, as it may well keep you alive. I do not mean to offend, but you have, to my knowledge, little experience with this sort of situation.”

“Well, okay, when you put it that way, I’ll listen to what you say.”

He tilted his horned head to the side, looking at me quizzically.

“Now you are compliant?”

“Now that you’re being reasonable, I am,” I said, mimicking his posture. “I knew you had it in you from the moment we met. It was in your eyes.”

One of the aliens couldn’t stifle his laughter any longer. Kavok shot him a withering glare.

“Since you’ve got so much extra energy, Taxan, YOU get to run down to the armory deck and grab a human-sized PV and helmet.”

“What’s a PV?” I asked as the alien jogged out of the shuttle bay.

“Protective vest.” He unstrapped what, in his hands, looked like a modest-sized, pistol-type weapon and handed it to me. It was so heavy, I almost couldn’t hold it up with one hand.

“I’ve only shot guns a couple times, and that was laser tag.”

“Laser tag?” His eyes lit up. “I had no idea humans participated in war games for leisure. You surprise me, Helena Jones.”

“You don’t have to say my surname.”

“Right, of course.” His brow furrowed in confusion. “Which one was your surname again?”

“Jones. Just call me Helena, okay? You don’t have to be so formal.”

Even under his battle gear, his powerful physique was obvious. I remembered that moment when I’d touched him and his tattoos flashed. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought our attraction was a two-way street.

Taxan returned with a vest and a helmet, and then went to put them on my body.

“Touch her and I’ll rip your arm out of its socket and beat you with the bloody stump,” Kavok sputtered. He snatched the armor away from his subordinate and proceeded to help me don the vest. I was surprised to find the dull, gray, metallic vest proved to be lightweight.

The helmet, on the other hand, was both heavy and cumbersome. It might have been human-sized, but not this human. In the end we traded it out for a thinner cap made out of some mystery metal.

“All right,” Kavok snapped. “Everybody on the shuttle. Vrako, you’re on the stick.”

“I can fly us,” Jakar said with a frown. “I’m the one who served in the Air Corps.”

“Jakar, the last time you tried to take us down into an atmosphere, we all puked on our boots. Your ass is on copilot.”

“Aw come on, the atmosphere of Hawking II moves at three-hundred miles per hour in a constant storm. We got down in one piece, didn’t we?”

“What about Rikov? He flew out a hole in the hull a thousand feet from the surface?

“Um, he told me he was really depressed anyway—”

“Just get in the co-pilot seat, Jakar,” Vrako said.

I could tell that despite their nattering, the Vaznik were as one. They had each other’s backs. I couldn’t help but feel like I was the intruder somehow, and yet, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to visit an actual alien planet.

We climbed into the shuttlecraft, which resembled a metal teardrop. The seats were arranged around the walls in a circle. In the center laid the controls. The pilot’s chair had scarlet upholstery, while the co-pilot chair was done in blue.

I sat down next to Kavok, feeling like a little kid next to these seven-foot warriors. He helped me secure my crash webbing, and then Vrako powered up the engines. The teardrop lifted off the deck plating via anti-grav, and rotated around to the shuttle bay doors, mounted on the floor.

An alarm sounded as the doors drew back. A force field kept the environment stable inside the cargo bay, but I guess it was a safety protocol just in case. The teardrop dropped through the force field and sped toward the green-and-white marble below.

The shuttle shook on the way down as we sluiced through the atmosphere. Vrako made minor adjustments to the controls on a nearly continuous basis, his eyes carefully checking the readouts. Jakar sullenly assisted with the readouts, occasionally calling out the readings to Vrako.

The descent proved mercifully brief, if intense. Sweat beaded on my brow by the time we touched down.

When the hull cracked open to allow our exit, hot, humid air filtered inside. The smell of living and rotting vegetable matter and brackish swamp water concocted an aerial tea which clung to my tongue like a fur coat.

“Welcome to Yimïk III, we hope you enjoy your stay,” Vrako quipped like he was a commercial shuttle driver.

“Oh, what the fuck, Vrako?” Jakar snapped. “The damn gangplank is in the soup.”

“This was the most stable ground I could find to land on. The pylons are extended all the way, but you’re still going to get your feet wet. Best I can do.”

“Can the chatter.” Kavok’s voice brooked no argument. “Sakor, you stay here and guard the shuttle.”

“Aw man, the whole shuttle’s going to smell like cheese on the way back up.”

“Fuck you, Vrako.”

“No, fuck you. You ever heard of oral hygiene?”

“Shut it,” Kavok snapped. I think he was embarrassed they were acting that way in front of me, his match. He needn’t have worried. I was fascinated by the planet itself.

We’d touched down in a swampy jungle, with gnarled tree-like vegetation featuring ash-gray, fuzzy bark, sort of like a coconut. The leaves tended toward dark green, like most common photosynthetic life forms.

The whole place was alive with sound. Insectoid, exoskeletal invertebrates buzzed through the air on membranous wings. One of them landed on Vrako’s shoulder and appeared to consider him for a moment, rubbing its forelegs together. When he turned his head to see, the thing buzzed away.

Avians similar to earth birds were in the trees as well. As we made our way down the gangplank into ankle-deep water, something slipped away beneath the mud, startled by our arrival.

We didn’t have to walk through water for long. Jakar took point, trailblazing for the rest of us. I found that their longer stride made them faster than me, but on the other hand, the Vaznik had to slow down to weave their bulky frames through areas I could just walk through. I was able to keep from getting left behind.

Not that my match was going to let that happen. He continuously kept his head on a swivel, checking on me, the jungle, and what lay ahead. I found him fascinating on a lot of levels. Just the way he moved, so graceful in spite of his massive body, appealed to my baser instincts.

Now is not the time to think about doing the baby-making mambo. You’re in a possibly dangerous jungle, about to go to a research facility which has gone dark for weeks.

“Are there any dangerous life forms in this jungle?” I asked, a bit wary.

“A few venomous creatures, but they tend to stick to the jungle canopy. Most of the ecosystem here does. On the ground, though, we do have those giant, carnivorous, toad-like creatures.”

“Giant…carnivorous…toads?”

I swallowed hard and started being a lot more wary of what was going on around us.

“Facility is dead ahead, boss,” Jakar called back.

“Everyone fan out and stick to the tree line until we get a decent scan. Vrako, that’s your job.”

“I’m on it.”

We crept forward through the underbrush until we reached the edge of a clearing. The trees and vegetation had been scorched in a wide area, then thick, ceramic panels laid on the ground. In spite of their efforts, the jungle was already in the process of snarling the panels in its vines. Some of them had heaved up from the ground and stood in disarray.

Beyond the attempt at creating a courtyard, lay the research facility itself. One large, semi-domed building. Sort of like an opera house from historical movies. Big solar panels dotted the roof, and dark marks marred the exterior.

“That looks like plasma scoring, boss,” Jakar said.

“It sure as fuck does.” I wondered what word the translator was substituting in my ear for ‘fuck.’ They sure said it a lot. “Vrako, how’s that scan coming?”

“Not good, boss,” he said, his face tight and grim. He turned to look at us with cold eyes. “I’m not getting any life signs at all big enough to be a human or a Kimisusian.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means,” Kavok said in a tight voice “that either that research station is abandoned—or everyone inside is already dead.”

Kavok: Sneak Peek

Chapter 1

Kavok

Raxor stalked over to the bar and slammed his mug down on it. The sight of a seven-foot-tall, orange Vaznik warrior apparently demanding more booze was too much for the white-furred, Hothian barkeep. The barkeep squealed, hurrying to refill Raxor’s mug. Raxor’s horned head didn’t even turn toward the Hothian before the fellow Vaznik warrior returned to our table.

Raxor wasn’t even angry at the barkeep. He was angry at me.

We’d been going around the topic for an hour now, and were no closer to agreement.

“All that I’m saying is, there were dozens of Humans and Kimicusian on that research center on Yimïk III.” He settled into his seat and fixed me with a steely gaze. “Something happened to them.”

“Yes, maybe a solar flare took out their comms relay.” I still nursed my first mug of ale as I returned his glare, spark for spark. “Or there was a gamma-ray burst, or some other explanation.”

“Or maybe it was pirates. Or Suhlik.”

I gave him a long, searching look. “Raxor, do you really think they’re going to dispatch the  Honor’s Blade to a forsaken swamp like Ymik and the edge of the known galaxy?”

“Ymik III.”

“Whatever.”

“Don’t you want a chance to earn yourself some honor?”

I tapped my fingers on the table and sighed.

“You really think there’s honor to be had in a swamp—”

Our comms flashed, and a general communique came through.

“All hands of the Honor’s Blade, Nova, and Sunder are to report to their ships immediately. This is not a drill. And before any of you pansies whine about it, yes, I’m canceling your shore leave. Now MOVE.”

“Sounds like the Admiral’s mate made him sleep on the sofa again.”

I gave him a look as we rose from our seats and jogged into the streets of the space port.

“On the sofa?”

“It’s a human thing.”

I laughed as we rounded a corner and startled a pair of Akle. They trumpeted at us in annoyance as we jogged past.

“You ever think what it might be like if your match comes up in the lottery, Raxor?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s statistically unlikely to occur, so I don’t bother even considering it.”

At least, not much.

Ever since the humans had become the newest species to join the lottery, we’d all become a little obsessed with their culture.

Just in case.

We reached the docks and found Honor’s Blade waiting for us. She was a magnificent Explorer-class vessel, with the sleekly designed hull meant to deflect weapons fire. The elegant look was merely a side effect of good engineering.

As we boarded, our comms pinged again, directing us to the muster point.

Captain Soanzo greeted us with a short nod, and as we stood at attention the decks hummed as the engines sprang to life.

Soanzo was an older Vaznik, the red of his skin fading to a dull pink. Don’t tell him that, though, unless you want his pink knuckles in your mouth. He stood nearly as tall as Raxor and I, but had a bit of a stoop to his back due to his age.

“Kavok,” he rasped in his growling, take-no-shit voice. “Have you been keeping up with the situation on Yimïk III?”
“I heard the Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center ceased all communications with Mahdfel HQ a few days ago.”

“He heard that from me, actually, Captain,” Raxor said. I shot him a dirty look, but Captain Soanzo was in no mood for any of it.

“I want you to assemble an away team and investigate when we reach the planet.”

“Yes, Captain.”

He stood there, staring at me for a moment.

“I meant now, Kavok,” he snapped.

“Yes, Captain.” I turned to Raxor. “Here’s your chance for glory if you want it.”

“I’m in. I knew this was going to be a thing.”

“Yeah, don’t break your hand patting yourself on the back.”

He gave me a look, then twisted about and tried to touch his own, massive back.

“What does that even mean?”

“It’s a human saying. It means don’t expend too much energy congratulating yourself or you might be injured.”

“The humans are so barbaric. ‘Eye for an Eye.’ ‘Break a leg.’ ‘Break a heart.’ There is no end to their cruel metaphors.”

“I’m not sure the first one was a metaphor. I think humans actually did that in the distant past.” I considered him for a moment.

“Yeah, yeah, I feel you. So who are we bringing?”

“I’m thinking Vrako, Rikov, and Jakar.”

“Jakar? But his breath smells like Toyolian vomit cheese.”

“He’s a hell of a shot with a plasma rifle, and he never complains. Unlike someone I could mention.”

“Yeah, you’re a laugh riot. You should try being one of the human’s stand-up Canadians.”

“Canadian?” I shook my head. “It’s stand-up Kardashians.”

“Whatever. Let’s go collect the team so we’re ready to go when we arrive at Yimïk III.”

I felt the engines throbbing through the deck plating. We were powering up the faster-than-light drive. It wouldn’t be long before we arrived at Yimïk III, along with our twin, Cruiser-class escorts.

Despite what I’d said to Raxor earlier, I was quite eager to distinguish myself with excellent service. Most likely it would turn out to be a false alarm.

But if it was not, then I would show the galaxy what Kavok the Vaznik warrior was capable of—

“Kavok.” My comm buzzed. “Change of plans. Report to Administration immediately.”

“Admin?” I blurted.

“That’s an order.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Raxor and I exchange glances. Whatever they wanted with me at Admin, it was likely to be trouble.

I just hoped it wouldn’t interfere with my honor and glory, whatever it turned out to be.

Chapter 2

Helena

“You know you don’t have to do this, right?”

There was the slightest tremor in his voice. I always hated when Dad worried about me.

“She will be fine, Charles. She’s not six anymore, you know.” Mom wrapped her arms around him, smiling as she used her hug to shake him a bit.

Dad gave in and let mom shake the stiffness out of him. His worry face slowly turned into his goofy face. He had never won a single argument with my mother. Somehow, Mom’s ideas always had everyone’s best interest in mind and who would want to fight with that?

I watched my parents as they comforted each other in their own way and hoped that a genetic match meant more than just biological compatibility. Just a little of the magic my parents shared would be more than I could hope for.

No time to go all mushy cakes now, Helena. We’ve got things to do! Focus!

“All right you two, thanks for not making out and making my last memory of you totally awkward.”

Dad laughed and Mom winked.

“We are saving that for when you’re gone.”

“OH MY GOD, MOM! Why would you tell me that?”

She flashed the impish grin we shared, the one that let you know she was about to play dirty.

“Charles?”

“Yes, Madeleine?”

“Since we are sending our child off to consort and bear children with an alien species, do you think we should finally have a chat about the birds and the bees? It’s our responsibility to make sure she’s prepared, isn’t it?”

Dad took one look at my face and busted out laughing.

“MOM!”

“Come one now, Helena. I’m pretty sure little Jacob hadn’t got too far when Dad caught you in the shed that one time.”

“Mooooommmm! That was years ago! Here I am, leaving to explore the galaxy and…”

“See, Charles? She’s perfectly fine with her decision. She’s not even one bit nervous when she says it. She won’t even miss us one bit.”

Her face softened into a sad smile and her eyes had tears in them. Mine did, too.

“Oh, Mama.”

“My baby girl. I love you so much and I am so proud of all you’ve done, and I am so hopeful for your future.”

I don’t think I had ever hugged my parents so hard as that moment just before they got back in the car and watched me head into the testing center. 

No turning back now.

I stepped into the lobby, hearing the soft swoosh of the doors close behind me. A kind-looking lady was at the reception desk.

“Hello, young lady. Are you here to volunteer?”

A noise that sounded more like a squeak than a word came out of my head when I opened my mouth.

“Yeuu..chsss maaaaeem.”

Get a grip, dammit. I cleared my throat and tried again.

“Ahem. Sorry about whatever that was, ma’am. My name is Helena James, and I would like to volunteer to be tested for the Madhfel program.”

“I understand. I need to remind you that, if your birth date has not been called, you don’t need to volunteer, and you can still change your mind.

“I understand, ma’am. I’ve made my decision and I am ready.”

“Alrighty then, please follow me.”

The kind woman led me past another set of doors into a hallway with rooms on either side. She stopped and motioned me into Room 9.

My lucky number! See? Good signs are already happening!

“The proctor will be right with you. If there is a match, we will know very quickly.” Before she closed the door behind her, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of candy.

“You look like a good kid. Eat this. It’s a ginger candy. It will help your stomach later.”

“Oh! That’s very kind of you- Ms.—”

“Betty. Everyone calls me Betty. You go have yourself some adventures now, ya hear?”

“Yes ma’am, Ms. Betty.”

  Betty hadn’t been gone long when the proctor came in. He hurried around the room, turning things on and gathering a few supplies.

“If you will just have a seat and hold out your hand, palm side up, please?” He swabbed a fingertip with alcohol and used a needle to prick it and take a tiny blood sample. He placed the sample on a slide and slid the slide into one of the machines he had turned on.

He said nothing while the machine did its work. Within just a few seconds, the machine dinged, and a green light turned on.

“Looks like we have a match. If you will please walk to the wall with your belongings? Yes, just like that. Now turn and face me. Deep inhale and…”

He jabbed something into my temple.

A second later, my mind felt like it was in one of those twisty-turny movie effects. When it was over, I found myself in, what I could only describe as, a control room. My knees turned to jello, and I, with all the grace of a drunken ostrich, crumbled onto the floor.

I heard voices and noises, but everything blurred together, and I couldn’t make sense of it.

I was about to pass out when I felt strong arms wrap around me and heard a sound that felt like velvet to my ears. I opened my eyes and looked into eyes that I somehow knew.

“Are you well? What is your name?”

Oh, thank goodness! I can hear again!

Some more noise in the background- another voice, maybe?

Okay, maybe it will come back after I take a nap. I could feel my head begin to bob.

“Is your name Helena James?” kind eyes asked me.

“Yes, my name is Helena. What is yours?”

“I am Kavok.”

“Kavok. That’s a cool name. You have kind eyes.” I put my hands on his arms to try and help myself up and his tattoos changed color. “Hey, your tattoos are glowy. Cooooool.”

I think I smiled at him, or at least tried to, but I must have looked like a drooly idiot because he was not smiling back at me when the lights went out.

End Game: Chapter Two

Lor

For the first time since the Snaughians captured me at Fogslef VII, I felt at peace. The constant pressure of sharp, Snaughian minds at the experimental military lab where they studied me drove me half mad.

Since I woke up in this cage, though, I had not sensed another intelligent mind. Instead, I sensed immense pressure and depth, hidden pockets of heat and water, and veins of ore twisting into the distance.

The glow of plants and small animals filled the cracks and crevices, following the flow of water through stone. My mind flowed with them, expanding for the first time since the Snaughians had torn me from my peaceful retreat from the crush of a civilization-level concentration of minds.

The galaxy turned out to be a harsh place for my people.

I laid on the floor of the cage, relaxing into the subterranean world around me. My cage sped through vast tunnels, crossing a continent. While I assumed the cage had a destination, I had little desire to arrive just yet.

This may be the first time in years I’ve been able to relax. I sense no cities, no villages, no hamlets…only the peaceful hum of a wild world.

I drew a deep breath and let my mind drift in the moment. Thoughts came and went, some my own, others wisps of the small creatures which lived in the dark places. My cage ascended and I drifted into new, more complex minds.

Small rodents and deep taproots, insects and soil, and a huge sense of green, of interconnected life, flowed past me. Then I heard a call ring through all the rest. I opened my eyes. My cage came to a stop.

Entirely open, I sensed a being with an entirely new mind, a mind I had never before experienced. It shone like a star on the horizon, calling to me, piercing through the green haze of the rain forest surrounding us.

The cage opened, solid side panels falling away from the rolled steel bars of the cage. I stepped out, eyes confirming what my mind already knew. Trees towered into the sky, draped with vines. Thousands of life forms called to each other through the air.

“Hello?”

Her voice sliced into me. I gasped. Her cage had tilted and fallen. I sharpened my focus, trying to tune out the background noise of burgeoning life around me.

She is trapped. She is injured—arm…hurt.

I grabbed a handful of vines and yanked them down, tearing them from their moorings among the wide-leafed greenery. The vines fell into a heavy pile. I picked out the thickest and dragged it over to the other cage.

I threw one end over the top and set my end of the rope around my body. A moment later, I felt her tug. She groaned with the effort of the climb, but she managed to get to the top. She thrust out a hand. Before thinking, I grabbed it and pulled her all the way up, next to me.

Her touch seared my flesh like a star. A jumble of memories, fears, life experiences, desires, and the purest compassion I had ever seen slammed through me, knocking all the air from my lungs.

She jerked her hand out of my grip. My knees buckled and I crashed to the jungle floor. Air flooded my lungs.

What the fuck was that?

I heard the thought—but it wasn’t mine. Having sensed no danger, and being so much more completely open to the world than I had been in years, I had forgotten to turn on any filters, or bring up any walls or shields to block out the constant flood of psychic information I usually filtered.

When we touched…

When we touched, what?

I slammed my shield into place, raising my hand to her to keep her back until I could think again. She tilted her head to the side and leaned against a tree, cradling her injured arm.

Afraid, but…determined…curious…

“Your people…are telepathic…”

Her eyes widened with surprise and she pointed at her chest.

“My people…you mean, Humans? Ha. Some people think so, but we certainly have no proof. Maybe your people are telepathic? Is that what that feeling was? Like touching the sun…or are you like an electric eel? Will it always feel like that to touch you? Do you—”

I held up my hand again, still panting too hard to respond.

She must be. Perhaps she has a latent talent…

She stepped closer, reaching out a hand, coating it in soothing energy. I scrambled back, shaking my head. I grabbed a tree trunk and pulled myself to my feet. I closed my eyes and begged softly.

“Please… have you never heard of the Zorberu people?”

“No. Is that your species? Zorberu? Honestly, I found out life definitely existed outside of my home planet when I was abducted right before this. It’s hard to tell how long ago that was. I have memory gaps. I think they knocked us out for transport—”

“Wait. Slow down. Yes, I’m Zorberu. We are telepathic. I have never met a Human before. It was, uh…an overwhelming experience.”

She nodded at me. A small smile spread across her lips. Her essence threatened to pull me in. I could see her glow in the ancient way of minds and souls.

I don’t think she even realizes she does it…that she reaches out with her soul every time she tries to connect…but…I thought only Zorberu—and then, only between…could it be—or is it just Human?

She laughed, deep and strong.

“Oh, honey. I’m from Texas. No one knows what to do with us and we pride ourselves on being an overwhelming experience.”

I blinked a few times, working my jaw, trying to decide how to respond. Eventually, I laughed.

“You may be the first being I’ve ever met who proudly self-applies such a description. I am Lor and please have patience. I’m still recovering from the torture the Snaughians put me through.”

She gasped, hand flying to her mouth.

“Oh, that’s terrible!”

Once again, her compassionate instincts sent her hand reaching for my shoulder to offer comfort. I flinched back.

“Please, not yet. I’m still recovering from your first touch. With some rest, I will be far less sensitive.”

She smiled and stepped back, nodding.

“I’m Alyssa. My sister Emily was abducted with me. We have all been forced to play some stupid intergalactic reality game, apparently, and you’re my partner.”

End Game: Chapter One

Alyssa

I stared at the cage surrounding me. Solid panels encased rolled steel bars. Strips of dim lights glowed along the edges of the solid panels, illuminating little, but deepening every shadow.

I could feel the cage move through the air. My stomach flopped and clenched as the cage lowered and raised, like a roller coaster. I pressed my back against the bars and sank to the floor. My eyes darted everywhere, searching for anything hidden in the shadowed corners.

Emily always enjoyed those things more than I did. The aliens are probably recording the look on my face right now, too. The roller-coaster snapshot from hell.

I drew in deep, slow breaths, just like I did in dance class. I may have grown out of the I-Want-to-be-a-Dancer phase by the third lesson, but I never forgot my breathing exercises.

Time to think, Aly. What do I know? Abducted by aliens. Beam of light…

A flash of Emily’s truck rolling, nose first, into a ditch flashed through my memory. The whole rig had gone dead before that beam of light sucked us up. A flash of Emily, telling me to put on Texas swagger, followed the first memory, as it had over and over again my entire trip in that cage.

Yes, yes, then translator implantation, and cages, and that Charlotte woman…but what she said makes no sense…intergalactic survival reality show? Shouldn’t aliens with this kind of tech have better things to do than torture other species?

I felt so alone. Trapped in this cage, I felt cut off from the world. I had always had so much space before. Were I having a bad day, I could walk through massive, ancient oaks and along the streams fed by small springs bubbling up from the aquifer.

I could visit with the animals around the ranch. I could reach out and feel them with my hands. I could feel the cool breeze on my face and I savored the memory. I held onto it, filling my mind with the sights, tastes, and sounds of home.

I tried to forget that, at that moment, when I reached out, I could feel only cold, hard steel outside of my sweetest memories.

How am I going to get out of this? Emily would know what to do. She always knows what to do. When Mom and Dad died, Emily knew what to do, even so long ago. When Grampa passed, Emily kept us going. I have to get out of here and find Emily.

I searched the shadows again. While I had yet to see anything more than my imagination resolve from the shadows, this was space. Hollywood had made it clear that anything could happen in space.

And, when I do get out of here, my brute of a partner awaits me. Who will he be? Will he even be humanoid? What if he’s one of those giant snails I saw at the intergalactic slave auction? What if he looks like a giant snot bubble? Emily probably already has a plan to kick asses all the way out of here.

I giggled despite myself, then sighed.

Why worry about it? My partner is who he is. I am who I am. We are where we are, and complaining about it will change exactly nothing. We will have to make it work, whatever that looks like for us.

For reasons I could not pinpoint, I left lighter and more hopeful.

We must be getting close. This…feels like…the end of interminable waiting…

The cage shuddered to a stop, then dropped to the ground. I quickly suspected the ground must have been uneven, because my entire cage tilted against one side. I slid down to the bottom corner, slamming my shoulder into the bars.

Pain streaked up my arm. I hissed and inspected it. Finding no blood, I appreciated the red patch beginning to form where my body had smashed into the steel. I cradled the sore arm with one hand and looked around.

The cage whirred and clicked. The solid side panels tried to fall away, but most of them got stuck around my tilted prison. The doors on the ends of the cage opened. The one trapped below my feet stuck with only a three-inch gap. The door at the top of the cage remained far out of my reach.

Great. Now I get to choose between trying to climb out on a bad arm or trying to crawl under unstable metal panels after kicking this thing loose. If I don’t break my foot in the process of kicking solid metal. Delightful.

“Hello?”

My voice rang off the mess which had been my cage, echoing within their metallic confines. Sweat stuck my shirt to my chest.

Humidity so thick, I could cut it with a knife. Speaking of knives…

I patted my pockets, identifying their familiar contents by touch. In the pockets of my jeans, I located my pocket knife, whetstone, cell phone, and a ring of keys which had seemed so vital before my abduction.

A lighter, a spare twenty-dollar bill, and a hair tie remained tucked in my bra and grandpa’s Cross pen remained clipped to the small notebook in my shirt pocket.

I rotated my shoulder, trying to start working through the soreness in my arm and tried again to get my partner’s assistance.

“Hello? Are you up there? A woman named Charlotte said I should be partnered with a br— very strong individual. Well, I’m hoping you’re out there, because I’m going to need help out of this cage, considering the way it landed…”

I heard a susurrus hiss through the leaves near the upper part of the cage. I shaded my eyes, trying to get a clear view, but no head popped over the side.

“Hello? Please tell me you’re not a large predator…”

A long, thick vine unfurled over the side of the cage, the end landing within reach. I grabbed it, wrapping it under my rear end and climbed out, feeding the vine between white-knuckled fists.

At the top of the cage, panting from the sustained effort, and struggling against the pain in my arm, I threw out a hand, desperate for help. A massive hand, metallic-skinned, like dark silver with gunmetal shadows, grabbed mine and lifted me easily out of the cage.

An intense burst of white-hot energy seared me where we touched. My lungs seized in my chest. A flood of images, information, memories, and the barest wisps of thoughts flooded into me.

I jerked my hand out of his grasp. The raging tumult of energy disappeared as if it had never been. Contact broken, I sucked in jagged breaths.

What the fuck was that?

Gamepoint: Sophia

“Hey Mel, I need four heart-attack specials with sauce, two princess melts—naked—and a Thursday special.”

I slapped my food ticket on the stainless-steel line for Mel to pick up. Mel yelled his response from the other side of the kitchen window.

“Heard! Is there a full moon tonight, or some kind of burger shortage we don’t know about going on?”

“Fuck if I know, Mel, I haven’t had a break since lunch. Hell, I’ve barely had time to keep my tables bussed right all day.”

Someone shouted across the diner, interrupting my conversation with Mel.

“Hey lady! I could use some service over here. This table is dirty.” 

I rolled my eyes and scrunched my face so only Mel could see. He laughed and added my ticket to the rotating wheel just over the smoking, flat-top grill. I grabbed the tray of plates for table eight, turned around, took a deep breath, and shouted my response in my sassiest voice.

“Well, toots, why would you want to sit at a dirty table? I woulda sat you at a clean table—if you’d’ve waited—like the sign by the door says to.”

I smiled nice and big at the loudmouth trying to make my day harder. Loudmouth’s face turned bright red as all eyes turned to look at him.

“Aw c’mon now, lady. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Looks like you’re plenty busy, so I figured I’d just take a seat on my own and…”

“Wait for me? Why, that’s so thoughtful of you. Why don’t you do just that and I’ll see you in two shakes.”

Loudmouth sat down and quietly stared at his dirty table while I dropped table 8’s food.

“Long day Sophia? Need help taking care of that?”

Regulars are such a blessing!

The good ones always made sure you were looked after and safe. The real good ones made sure no one messed with you. One step too far and any of my regs would take care of business mighty quick-like. I loved them and they loved me back.

“No worries sweetie, I got Loudmouth read like a book. But I’ll let ya’ know if he gets out of hand.”

I shot my regular a quick wink, and walked past the serving station, grabbed a tea pitcher and extra napkins for table 10, before wiping table 13 where Loudmouth sat. My mental list of things to do whirled through my mind.

Table 8 needs their check soon. Check on table 7’s appetizers. Table 10 was ready to order, table 5 needs ranch dressing. After that, Loudmouth can order, but I’ll drop him the last of the coffee potbefore taking his order and starting a new pot.

Halfway through my list, I heard Mel’s voice in the ruckus.

“Hey, hey! Look at what just came in the door! Jakey, my man!”

A chorus of regulars greeted my brother as he walked into the diner and sat at his regular place at the end of the counter. His smile always made my day. It reminded me that deep goodness and innocence, which couldn’t be spoiled, remained in the world.

The regulars knew and loved Jake and they made sure strangers didn’t mess with him, either. They all knew about his autism, and they all had a special place for him in their hearts.

Jake smiled and waved at all of them as he passed before starting his evening routine. He wiped the chair, opened his backpack, and took out his placemat, special silverware, and cloth napkin roll.

Next, he wiped the counter, put down his placemat, and arranged his silverware just the way he liked. Satisfied, he closed and hung his backpack on the special hook under the counter which Mel had installed just for him. With a smile, he sat and clasped his hands while he waited for tonight’s dinner.

I walked over and stood on the other side of the counter and handed him a menu.

“Good evening, sir. May I suggest today’s special? Every Thursday night, our special is chicken fried steak with cheesy grits and green beans.”

He nodded and leaned in so I could give him a quick peck on the cheek. I smiled and mussed his hair before going to put his order on the line.

“Love you, kiddo”

“Love you too, Sophia.” Don’t forget you owe me a rematch on our game, tonight!”

“I didn’t forget. Just remember to charge the controllers before I get home, ok?”

“Ok.”

I hoisted the tray of food for table 4, grabbed two extra sides of ranch for table 13, a slice of apple pie for Loudmouth, and headed back out onto the floor. The diner closed in three hours and I hoped Loudmouth would be the worst of the day’s surprises.

An hour before closing time, I wished I had a diner full of Loudmouths. 

I wondered if Mel had been right about a full moon. Our diner sat just off a main highway and, as one of the only places open until midnight, we got our fair share of the I-was-only-going-to-have-a-drink-or-two-at-happy-hour-but-oops crowd. Most of the time, it wasn’t too horrible and nothing a little sass and some tough love couldn’t handle. Not tonight, though.

Tonight, I struggled to keep from killing someone. It was all I could do not to use heads to open doors as I tossed their drunk asses out. Not even the local officers showing up for their graveyard-shift coffee and pie helped. The dickhead comments were beyond absurd—

“You’re so pretty. Bet you’d be even prettier if you smiled.”

“Hey beautiful, what time do you get off tonight?”

“Can I get your number?”

“Baby, you’re prettier than a new set of snow tires!”

“Are you wearing space pants? Because your ass is out of this world.”

“Hey bitch, don’t talk to him. He’s mine.”

“I don’t tip because it’s their JOB to wait on people. I don’t get tipped for doing MY job.”

By the time we closed, I had slapped hands away from my ass—and invented some new curse words to describe the worst of that night’s League O’Dicks.

Taintscum was tonight’s special-feature dickhead who’d actually managed to grab a handful of ass, before getting kicked out of the diner. The guy had meant to grab mine, but got a handful of Mel’s by mistake.

Priceless.

I finished up my side work and headed out, locking up the diner for the night. This was the best part of these nights for me—the world quiet and the stars bright. I could be with my thoughts and the gentle breeze, and no one wanted anything from me. I took a long deep breath of fresh air and started walking.

Our little, two-bedroom rental wasn’t far from work. I had deliberately picked it just for that reason. If Jake was having a bad day, I could run over for a few minutes during a break to check on him or take care of him. It wasn’t the nicest place in town, but it was ours, and we had made it comfy and cozy for the both of us.

I’m so hungry. I hope Jake left me the piece of pie I sent home with him earlier…

A bright light came up behind me, interrupting my thoughts. Thinking it was a diesel rig attempting to park away from the truck stop, I turned around to wave it away.

Weird. I can’t hear the engine…or even see where the light comes from.

I put my hand in front of my face and tried to move to the other side of the street.

Wait a minute…I can’t feel the ground underneath my feet anymore. I looked down and saw nothing but the light and panicked.

Did I just die? Oh shit! What about Jake? Who will take care of him?!

A strange, sleepy calm descended on my limbs and the world grew fuzzy at the edges, like an old photograph.

I just want pie, dammit. Without any dickheads to ruin it. I think I forgot table 5’s ranch.

Alien’s Jewel: Chapter One

Millie

“Seriously?” I kicked a purple and orange striped rock, watching it skitter across the dark sound.  “I can’t even manage to have good dreams?”

The two blue suns beat down on me from the green sky, causing the prickly polyester of my pizza delivery uniform shirt to stick to my back.

At least the stupid visor was finally good for something.

“Other people get to have dreams about flying,” I grumbled as I stomped up another sand dune, swearing as I slipped back down half a pace for every step. “Or swimming with dolphins. That would be nice.”

Sand poured in through the holes worn into the bottoms of my sneakers, making uncomfortable lumps against the sole of my foot. “Or sexy time dreams. I’ve heard some people have those. With big, buff guys. But no, I get this.”

The dream had started with me waking up trapped in a weird box, getting out only to find myself in this horrible place.

This was even worse than those dreams where you thought you were awake, running late for work, dealing with cranky customers.

And then you woke up and realized that you got to live through the crappy day again.

So much fun.

Finally I made it to the top of the dune, glaring out into the desert that stretched out endlessly before me.

Well, endlessly probably wasn’t the right word.

In the distance I could see a pile of tall twisty rocks, looking as if Salvador Dali had decided to take over the artwork for a roadrunner and coyote cartoon.

At the far edge of the rocks I could almost make out a hazy smear of orange.

Trees?

Cliffs?

Who knew? Maybe my imagination was getting tired of building out all this stuff.

With a sigh I plopped down on my ass, covering my eyes with one hand, while with the other I pinched myself hard.

It didn’t work. It hadn’t worked the first time. 

Or the tenth.

“This is why I don’t do drugs,” I shouted out to the sky. “Because it’s no fun, and you’re trapped!”

No matter what my roommate had promised.

I’d let her talk me into it once, despite my doubts.

No fun. Couldn’t wake up.

And I was still a little bit convinced that the walls of our apartment were filled with spiders, gliding under the paint, just waiting to spring out at me.

I looked at the sand warily, wondering what it covered, until a puff of dust in the distance caught my attention, coming towards me.

“Great. Now some sort of sand storm. Fantastic.”

I should have watched more survival movies. Were you supposed to dig yourself under the sand until the storm passed?

Find a convenient rock to shelter under?

Maybe it was just an animal, moving very, very quickly.

Except the sun glinted on something at the leading edge of the plume of dust.

Something metallic.

A machine?

I bit my lip, considering.

As far as I could tell I had three possible realities to choose from.

Option number one: 

I was stuck in a dream. As usual, an unpleasant one.

Everyone had anxiety, I’d read somewhere.

I just didn’t know that everyone’s subconscious was trying to terrify them all the time.

Maybe I was just special.

Option number two: 

Maybe I’d finished my shift delivering pizzas, practicing my smile for lousy tips, had come home and my roommate had done something to my midnight snack.

Just because she never had before, didn’t mean it was impossible.

I’d kill her when I woke up, but honestly, I’d rather that was the solution.

Because if it wasn’t options number one or two, that left the highly improbable, deeply disturbing option number three.

That this somehow was real.

That I really was stranded in a desert, somewhere with magenta and gray streaked sand. Somewhere with two blue suns burning me from a green sky.

The puff of dust came closer.

Close enough for me to see was a vehicle of some sort. 

If this was option one or two, it wouldn’t matter if I stayed here until I woke up.

The rider of the strange machine could pass on by, and I could continue slogging through the sand or stretch out to broil in the heat.

No difference either way.

But if this was real…

My mind stumbled at the thought.

“Get a grip, Melli. This can’t be real.”

Fine, ignore the alien planet.

What if this was just a desert somewhere that I’d never heard of?

And maybe there weren’t two suns. Maybe it was just the heat doing something to my mind.

If this was real…

I swallowed hard.

I needed help.

“Hey!” I shouted, running and stumbling down the slope of the sand dune towards the machine.

“Over here!”

 The vehicle didn’t slow down, didn’t veer towards me, just continued in a straight line across the glistening sands.

And suddenly I was desperate, frantic for the rider to see me, help me.

“Wait!” I screamed, waving my hands over my head as I ran.

If they didn’t stop…

I didn’t have anything with me other than my stupid pizza delivery uniform and this visor.

Shoes that had holes in the soles.

No water. Nothing that would possibly help me survive in the desert.

A perfectly normal, not alien desert.

“Over here!” I shrieked as loud as I could, and then my knees buckled and I fell to the burning sands.

It was no good.

I’d better really really hope for option one or two, and that sooner or later I would wake up.

But then, so slowly I rubbed my eyes, to make sure I was seeing correctly, the line of dust curved,

The vehicle was heading my way.

“Thank you!” I struggled to my feet again and ran the best I could down the slope.

Now that the vehicle was closer, I could see it better.

I stopped, swallowing hard.

It was just the sun. That was why I couldn’t see the wheels at the ends of the four legs that came out from the sides of the vehicle’s frame.

But I could see the thin blue arms that gripped the handles.

Surely some sort of bodysuit.

I nodded to myself. Perfectly reasonable. 

Some sort of high-tech protective gear to shield the rider of a perfectly normal ATV from the sun.

With a spray of sand the vehicle pivoted, coming to a complete stop at the base of the sand dune.

“Thank you so much,” I babbled. “I wasn’t sure if you heard me and I’m not sure how I got out here, but–“

My voice dried up in my throat as the rider dismounted.

Tall.

Very, very tall.

He? She? Pushed the hood back from the sleeveless jumpsuit, and my mind stuttered to a halt.

A mask?

No.

A pair of huge, black pupilless eyes blinked slowly from above high cheekbones, lips so thin to be nothing more than a grey slash.

The dark blue that I could no longer pretend was just some sort of bodysuit accented by thick red marks, wriggling across the face and down the neck as if a child had played with its mother’s lipstick.

The head of my rescuer tilted from side to side, examining me closely.

“Little human.” The deep purr should’ve been soothing, and yet it sent chills down my back despite the heat. Feminine, but deadly, like a barely sheathed weapon.

“What is a little human doing here?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, stepping back slightly. “I woke up in a white box, and I was here.” I waved my arm behind me at the tracks I’d made in the sand. “Well, back there anyway.”

I took another step back, frowning as another thought pushed its way to the front of my mind. “How are you speaking English? Where are we?”

She laughed, and suddenly I wanted to do nothing more than run back over that sand dune, crawl back into the strange white box.

“I’m not, little human.” She tilted her head again, then raised her chin slightly. “Feel your neck behind your ears.”

I did, and there was something there.

“What is that?” I shrieked. “Why is there something under my skin?”

This time when she laughed I could feel a slight vibration through the device, and if I paid attention, could almost hear a gap between the movements of her lips and her words.

“Somebody’s invested in you, little human.”
She strode towards me, long legs quickly chewing the distance between us. “All the better for me.”

My feet churned the sand, stepping back as quickly as I could.

“Honestly, if you could just point me towards the nearest town, I’d really appreciate it.” The words tumbled out of my lips as I stepped away from her.

“Oh, I’d be happy to give you a ride,” she purred and I shuddered.

“All the way to your new owner.”

Excuse me, what?