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?

Opening Move: Chapter One

Emily

I crawled up the back end of the old, beat-up ranch truck and over the big dent in the tailgate. The truck squeaked, settling under my weight. I wondered how long ago we should’ve replaced the truck’s shocks for the half second it took to look around for my younger sister, Alyssa.

She stuck her head out the door of the local burger joint long enough to yell at me.

“Calm down, Emily. I haven’t been kidnapped. It’s just taking Carlos a few extra minutes to drop fresh fries.”

She whipped herself back inside the door without waiting for a reply. I crossed my arms over my chest and tapped my foot on the layers of hay and baling wire blanketing the bed of my truck. I grabbed an empty feed sack from the flattened pile in another corner while I waited for Alyssa to stop flirting and bring out our dinner.

I grabbed handfuls of bailing wire from the truck bed and bent them into compact bundles which I stuffed into the waxed, paper feed sack. Alyssa returned just as I finished. She carried two paper bags speckled with ever-expanding grease stains.

“What are you doing up there? Can’t you just relax for five minutes?”

“I got bored while you were flirting with Carlos.”

“Carlos is a fascinating man.”

“Carlos is a very pretty, empty package you’d tire of as soon as you tried to have a conversation.”

I hopped over the side of the truck, landing heavy on my work boots. Though covered in mud, hay, and probably cow shit, I hadn’t had time to change them. We’d just dropped off ten heads of steer at the closest auction barn earlier. Five hours later, neither Alyssa, nor I wanted to cook once we finally got home and out of the truck’s seat for the night.

I crawled into the dusty cab, buckled up, and checked my mirrors with great care. I put the diesel into first gear and crawled up to second. The truck moved slowly. The trailer we hauled behind us might’ve been empty, but it was still big and awkward.

We pulled out of the parking lot, cutting over to the market road leading out of town and to the ranch we inherited from our grandfather. We rolled the windows down by hand and Alyssa looked at me. She spoke around a mouthful of fries.

“We should get a new truck, Emily. This thing’s damn near an antique.”

“It was Grandpa’s and it still runs just fine.”

“I miss him, too, but, one day, this thing is gonna finally die.”

“Hush, Aly. Don’t you listen to her. You’re a good truck. Just get us home, baby.”

I patted the dusty dash. Alyssa rolled her eyes. The truck’s power died.

“What the fuck?”

“I didn’t do it…”

“Aly! Help me with the wheel! Power steering went out…”

Alyssa grabbed the wheel, helping me correct as best we could. The weight of the trailer pushed the truck along the road, though the engine had lost power with the lights. We jerked the wheel, trying to keep the truck and trailer from rolling or jackknifing behind us.

Even with our best efforts, the truck slid to a stop nose-first in a ditch. Alyssa and I stared at each other in the darkness of a Texas backroad. No one would drive down this road again for hours. There’d be no passersby, no help…besides, even if there was someone to stop and help, I always wondered if I could trust them.

“You okay, Aly?”

“I think so. Might have a seatbelt bruise, but nothing serious.”

“Good. Let’s get out of here, okay? This thing is at a bad angle to climb out the top…”

Alyssa nodded, unbuckling herself. She carefully opened the front passenger door, and slid down onto the wildflowers choking the thick, wiry grasses. She turned to me, flashing a quick, “be brave” smile.

I unbuckled myself and contorted my body ‘til I slid out next to her. We collected our purses and Grandpa’s rifle from the gun rack behind the truck’s bench seat. I took a quick walk around the trailer.

“I’m calling the sheriff, Emily. Don’t worry. We can’t get it out of here without a tractor, anyway. What the fuck?”

I turned back to look at her. She shook her phone, pushed buttons, and got nothing. The phone refused to work. The truck’s old, steel body panels rattled. I felt a deep, throbbing vibration shake the ground under my feet.

The trailer’s inner, steel-pipe gates shook loose of their latches, slamming against the side. Alyssa and I ducked, trying to put some distance between us and the truck. A bright light shot from the sky over us, blinding me. I threw my arm in front of my eyes.

I squinted around my arm, flailing with my empty hand, searching for Aly. I felt her flailing hand grip mine and we pulled ourselves together. I held her tight. Small rocks floated around us. Our two bodies began to rise into the air.

I tried to scream to Alyssa, to tell her I loved her, but no human could hear anything over the sound of whatever hung heavy in the air above us.

Then everything went black.

Someone shoved my shoulder. I pushed them away, not wanting to wake. Then a vision of overpowering light jolted me to consciousness. Aly looked down at me, face terrified. I grabbed at her, so happy to wake and find her still alive.

“Aly! Aly, what happened?”

“I have no clue, but we’re not alone and there’s someone coming.”

Well, that was never good.

I scrambled up, crouching into a defensible position next to my sister. I looked around, hoping to gather some clue as to where we found ourselves. Little light streamed into the container around us.

The beam, which had woken me, must’ve been a fluke—sheer chance. I noticed air vents on one wall, but no windows.

Before I could notice anything more, the door opened, and my mind was taken up by other things.

Giant—things—monsters—grotesque, humanoid creatures stepped in and roared. One grabbed the nearest person—another human woman— and shoved her out the door. He looked at us and waved.

I was all about fighting back, but at the moment, all I could do was stay standing.

Heart in my throat, I held Alyssa’s hand as tightly as I dared and we followed the first woman.

Storgin: Chapter Two

Chloe

My heart raced. Fleeing a Mahdfel terrified me nearly as much as stealing one of Daddy’s starships all those years ago. Vials of troxcillin clinked in my pocket. I’d been fortunate to swipe those few vials, but I knew I’d need more.

Maybe I’m losing my touch. I used to be a much better thief. Damn me for getting caught pilfering medications.

I sighed, deciding there was little use in cursing myself.

Besides, the hot Mahdfel couldn’t have picked worse timing for me…and WTF even happened?

Flashes of the memory of his intricate shoulder tattoos turning white sprinted through my mind as I ducked and dodged around aliens of every description. Bouhek Intergalactic Gaming Center drew in aliens from all over the galaxy to compete for fame, glory, and tons of galactic credits.

The space station dedicated to extreme sports also had all the same problems of any big city. With thousands of beings of every shape and description traveling through the Bouhek Center’s corridors, kids got lost every day.

I ducked low, hoping the Mahdfel lhad ost sight of me in the crowd. I slid to the right and around a booth selling some sort of wriggling, gelatinous, sickly green substance. The merchant manning the booth tipped his wide-brimmed hat at me and waved me away with a fin.

“Thanks.”

I disappeared behind his booth and stopped to catch my breath. I pulled a soft hat from the pocket of my shipsuit and pulled it over my hair, peeking around the booth’s corner.

The Mahdfel who’d chased me had been followed by a second Mahdfel, who now sat on the first. I decided to call them Handsome and Tank.

I suppose I should call them Vaznik warriors. I wonder why he’d chased me. A couple vials of troxcillin and a handful of syringes hardly seemed worth chasing down a thief.

I pulled out the vials and looked at them. They meant everything to me—life and death, really. I had enough to treat some of the sick kids, but how could I possibly choose which children to heal?

I’ll simply have to find more…

Handsome and Tank raced each other back to The Golden Meridian. I released a relieved breath. Had I been running from them in the open, they would’ve easily caught up to me. I knew only the crowds of the game center had allowed me to escape capture.

I slipped back around behind the booth and examined an access hatch hidden in a shadow. A few quick adjustments, and the application of the digital lockpick I shouldn’t legally have, and the hatch opened. I slipped through, leaving the chaos of that dock.

I snuck through the deserted maintenance tunnels until I reached a hatch to the docking bay reserved for tourists.

If only Daddy could see me now, sneaking through maintenance tunnels.

I chuckled. Then I wondered if Daddy even missed me. It’s not like he ever had time for me before I ran. I heard the memory of his voice in my head telling me he was busy or had work or…whatever his excuse was at the time instead of bothering to parent.

Whatever.

I shrugged the memories off and opened the hatch. I had better things to do than whine to myself about Daddy. I slipped out into the cacophony of Bouhek’s tourist dock and closed the maintenance hatch behind me.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the crowd. I mimicked the awed faces around me—well, the humanoid faces—and picked up the first unattended piece of generic-looking luggage I laid eyes on.

I wandered around the ships, staring at everything like a fresh tourist, stolen luggage in hand, until I found a likely ship. I looked around, paranoid someone would catch me again, like on The Golden Meridian, but didn’t see a soul looking toward me.

I stopped at the first terminal I could find, hoping to locate a map of the ship. The infirmary sat two lefts and a right from my location, and I wasted no time getting to it.

With speed and efficiency, I searched the cabinets and drawers for more troxcillin. For some reason I’m certain a medical person could explain had I bothered to ask, troxcillin was the only treatment for Smandradh, an infection like a really, really bad flu capable of killing.

The sound of the children’s hacking coughs haunted me day and night. Smandradh attacked the respiratory system of most species, effectively drowning the infected specimen in their own respiratory fluids, like super-killer pneumonia.

On top of that, Smandradh could cause random other horrible, gross, or hilarious effects dependent on the species infected, was extremely virulent, and was airborne. The Bouhek Center might not care what happened to the gangs of lost and abandoned children roaming its corridors, but I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t tried to help them.

My heart sank as I completed my search for this ship’s medical supplies. I found no troxcillin and had to settle for a few meds which would at least help some of the less sick kids breathe a little more easily.

I tucked the meds in my pocket and snuck back to the maintenance shafts. That Vaznik warrior having caught and chased me out of The Golden Meridian had really thrown off my timetable for this mission.

I better get back to the kids with what I’ve found. Kirz and Shannon are in bad shape. Who knows how long they have? I’ll never forgive myself if they don’t make it because I took too long.

The memory of Handsome chasing me refused to leave me at peace, even as I hurried through the maintenance tunnels. I felt the memories of him pull at me. The memory of the dock’s lights flashing off his horns…

I smacked my cheek with one hand.

Don’t you have more important things to do than mentally drool over an alien from a once-in-a-lifetime, chance encounter?

Logic might’ve been right, but my brain just wouldn’t listen. When Handsome’s tattoos flashed like that, I felt the strangest thing—an indefinable sensation—surge through me.And that feeling never fully left, did it? What’s he done to me?

Storgin: Chapter One

Storgin

I forced my way through the throng of beings milling about the Bouhek Intergalactic Games Center’s dock, following the glimpses of her beautiful blond hair as she fled from me.

Panic stabbed into my gut.

I can’t lose her. I must find her.

She…that fierce-eyed human woman with hair as bright as a yellow star…she’s my mate!

My body still tingled where our skin had met when I discovered her raiding my laboratory. I’d meant to apprehend a thief but, as soon as my hands met her bare arms, my tattoos flashed white.

Who is she? What’s her name? I must catch her!

My heart already ached for her presence, her company, even one more glimpse of her stunning eyes. Thelkor caught up to me, shouting as we ran.

“Why’re we running?”

“Thelkor! Thelkor! I found my mate!”

“What? Where?”

My heart squeezed in my chest. My eyes darted here and there, but I hadn’t found even a hint of where she’d run to. I slowed my pace. I turned, searching the crowd for a human among a galaxy’s worth of alien life forms.

“I…I lost sight of her… Where’d she go? Thelkor, can you see her?”

“What’s she look like, Storgin?”

“Human. Hair the color of sun-drenched Earth honey, hazel eyes. Tall for a human…. Perfection…a gaze like she’d blast me without thinking twice…”

Grief at the loss of my mate sunk into my gut. I struggled to breathe. My chest tightened, squeezing my organs. I turned to Thelkor, grabbing him by the upper arms.

“Thelkor, we must find her. Help me find her and I’ll never experiment on you again, I swear!”

Thelkor slapped me across the face. Stunned, I blinked.

“What’d you do that for?”

“Snap out of it, Storgin. You’re not making any sense.”

I tried to break from his grip and plow further into the crowd on my mad, desperate search for her…but Thelkor grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me to the ground.

“Did you try any new foods? Were you anywhere near juniper berries? Have you tried any new ‘experiments’ on yourself?”

I struggled against his grip, kicking and trying to regain my feet. Thelkor sat on me. As one of the largest Mahdfel I’d ever seen, Thelkor’s move worked. Trying to move him felt like trying to move an entire starship with only my hands.

“I’m not intoxicated or hallucinating, Thelkor.”

I sighed deeply.

“I caught someone pilfering my lab. I grabbed the intruder and MY TATTOOS FLASHED!”

Thelkor’s eyes popped open about as far as they’d go without spilling the eyeballs out of his skull.

“Oooooooooo…”

“I tried to catch her, Thelkor. I tried to catch up with her. We must find her…”

Thelkor nodded.

“I understand. Yes, we must find her, and we will. But let’s be smart about it, like the human women keep telling us.”

“But…”

Thelkor grabbed the collar of my uniform shirt and shook me.

“Get ahold of yourself, Storgin! We’ll find her faster with help and surveillance footage than by running through Bouhek like you’ve lost your mind.”

The thought exploded in my mind like a supernova. I grabbed Thelkor’s collar.

“You’re right! To Goldie!”

Thelkor eyed me suspiciously.

“If I let you up, will you be a good Mahdfel and return to our ship?”

“What am I, a child?”

Thelkor looked like he was thinking hard about how to answer my question.

“I don’t know if I believe you…”

“I’ll bet you two-thousand galactic credits I can locate her before you do.”

“You have a bet.”

Thelkor leaped to his feet and sprinted Goldies way. I scrambled to my feet and ran with the energy of a Mahdfel in love. Thelkor had a head start, but I was fighting for my mate. I pulled up next to him, but he veered, pushing me directly toward into a tall pile of crates.

I leaped, landing atop the pile. I pushed off, leaping over a gaggle of tittering Akle. They trumpeted their trunks in alarm as I sailed over their leafy heads. I landed solidly on the deck and sprinted ahead of Thelkor.

He roared and surged forward, but I reached Goldies entrance three steps ahead of The Golden Meridians gunner. Evelyn, Olath’s mate, looked at me, cocking her head.

“What’s up, Storgin?”

“I’ll tell you, but I want to tell everyone at once.”

Evelyn nodded. I called Rachel, our pilot and Thelkor’s mate, on my comms bracelet.

“Rachel? I need you to call everyone to the galley ASAP.”

Rachel’s voice crackled over the comms.

“Everyone meet Storgin in the galley in five minutes.”

I ran for the galley, barely avoiding tripping over various supplies choking Goldies corridors. I made it without any major injuries. Evelyn and Olath sat together on the booth side of the galley table.

Thelkor followed me in and grabbed a seat on the bench side of the table. Olath and Evelyn cast questioning glances Thelkor’s way. Thelkor replied with a smile and a twinkle of his eye. Evelyn’s eyebrows shot up, but she didn’t push further.

Rachel walked in from the corridor to the bridge and sat in Thelkor’s lap. They smiled at each other with such love, I thought my heart would break right there.

What if I can’t find her… What if this is all the time I ever get with my mate? What if… No, Storgin. Stop it. The crew of The Golden Meridian have already performed miracles—we can find her. We will find her.

I felt a tugging on my pant leg. I looked down. Lucky, Evelyn’s kehppû, stared up at me.

“Not now, Lucky.”

Lucky disagreed and crawled up my leg by its mouth tentacles. Lucky looked a lot like Mr. Fluffbutt, Evelyn’s cat—except for the tentacles on its mouth.

“Lucky, I’m busy…”

Lucky refused to be deterred from climbing atop my head. Its tentacles massaged my scalp. I took a deep breath.

It’ll be fine. Fate has brought my mate and me together once. I just need to have faith…

Captain Timcur’s voice brought me back into the moment. He stood near the galley table, his mate, Nora, cuddled up beside him. With everyone present, I couldn’t hold my news inside any longer.

“It’s my turn! I found my mate!”