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!”

Timcur: Chapter Four

Nora

“Mom…”

“Nora, there has to be another way…”

“Mom…”

“I’m just not sure this is the best idea…”

“Mom! Listen for a second…”

“Nora…”

“The chances my DNA will match some random alien are astronomically low.”

“Well, I know, but…”

“And, even if I do match, we’ll split the money. Half-a-million dollars will set me up for the rest of my schooling and you can’t tell me half-a-million wouldn’t help you and Dad.”

Mom fell silent. I held my breath, waiting for her to process the idea.

“But…Nora, what if you don’t come back?”

 I laughed.

“Mom, nothing, and I mean nothing, will keep me away from you and Dad for long. I’ve never even heard of a DNA-matched human woman complaining. Everything I have managed to research says the DNA-matched women are happy. And it will look great on my resume! Galactic experience, are you kidding me? Everyone in polisci would kill to get galactic experience on their resume, especially at this point in their career…”

Mom sighed. “Are you certain, Nora? This is a huge decision.”

“Mom, I’m sure. I’ve thought it all through. It’s not that much different than when I left for college…”

“Nora! This is, literally, millions of miles away from leaving home for college.”

“Ok, well, one weak analogy doesn’t change the fact that I feel this is an acceptable risk.”

Mom chuckled. “You always were hard-headed.”

“I prefer to think of it as confidence in my life choices.”

“I know you do.”

Mom sighed.

“Mom. You know I love you and Dad. You aren’t losing me.”

“I believe you, I just never really thought about you coming back from college with a half-alien child.”

I laughed long and deep.

“Well, that’s one way to look at the bright side. Would that really be so terrible?”

“Ask me next week, when I’ve had time to think about it.”

I laughed. “Mom, I love you.”

“We love you, too, Nora. What are you going to do about your things?”

“Well, I don’t have much. I mean, I’m living in the dorm. But I spoke to student services. Apparently, Earth Authorities have worked out a deal for students who DNA match. The testing center notifies the school, the school packs your things, and sends them to the student’s permanent address. Unless you don’t want to store my stuff…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course we will. Just…Nora, just call me immediately as soon as possible, okay? I’m not going to stop worrying until I know you’re alright.”

I hung up before Mom could cry. I wasn’t certain I could walk through the doors of the university’s testing center if Mom started crying. For all my big talk to Mom, my stomach fluttered. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.

I walked up to the counter. The receptionist looked about my age. She smiled.

“Hi. How can I help you? Are you here to be tested?”

I took a deep breath.

“Yes.”

“Excellent. Just step this way, please.”

She rose and led me past the counter and down a hallway. We passed several doors before she opened one. She waved me inside.

“Here you go. A technician will be with you shortly.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled and left, closing me into the small room. I picked up a random magazine, prepared to wait patiently. I looked at it, but my mind saw nothing on the page. I fidgeted. A few minutes later, a technician opened the door and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Hello, my name is Darriel and I’ll be your technician today. We just need a small blood sample.”

“Hi.”

He reached for my hand, pricked my finger, and collected a drop of my blood with a pipette. He squeezed the drop into the collection well of a complicated-looking device built into one wall. On the device’s screen, a circular loading message flashed.

Darriel and I watched the loading symbol circle long enough for my mind to wander. The screen flashed, “CODE 459”.

“What does Code 459 mean?”

“Uhhhhh…give me one second to find out. I’ve never seen that before. I’ll be right back…”

Darriel rose, exiting the room. My nerves jangled, and my knee danced.

What could that mean? Is there something wrong? Am I dying or do I have some terrible gene hiding in my DNA? Am I about to find out I have some horrible genetic disease? Maybe it’s just the machine…maybe it just needs servicing…

The door to the testing room opened and a uniformed man entered.

Earth Authorities? Why would…

A strained smile spread across the man’s face.

“Hello, Nora. I have some awkward news. First, you have matched to a Mahdfel. Unfortunately, that Mahdfel is a wanted terrorist.”

“What? What do you mean, terrorist?”

“Have you been following the news feeds?”

“I’m a polisci major, I eat news feeds like candy.”

“So, you are aware of The Golden Meridian?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am dead serious.”

“But…but I can’t match with a terrorist!”

“And, for that, we are very sorry. This has never happened before, to be honest.”

The man sat in the chair opposite me.

“That would be a terrible blow to your political career, certainly. We have an offer, though, which may turn this lemon of a match into lemonade.”

“How? This is the most bonkers thing I’ve ever heard of…”

“It is certainly a first for us, as well. Obviously, on the surface this must look like a nightmare for you. But we are hoping we can all turn this to our mutual advantage.”

“We?”

“Earth Authorities would like you to choose to participate anyway. We want you to be our spy and help us bring those terrorists to justice. That would look good on your resume.”

“Wouldn’t that be dangerous, though?”

“Possibly. Which is why we are offering you twice the usual bounty.”

“Two million? I’m not sure I’m willing to take this risk for two million…”

“Is there a way we can come to an agreement?”

I blew out a long breath, my mind calculating faster than I even thought I could think.

“I’ll do it for four million.”

The man seemed to choke for a moment. He began to sweat.

“That’s pretty steep…”

I shrugged. “What options do you have? And I want half upfront, sent to my parents.”

He leaned back, whistling. He tapped onto his comms bracelet.

“Done.”

I blinked. Things were moving really fast. My comms bracelet dinged. I looked down. The text message read, “Holy shit, Nora, why is there two million in my account? I thought it took a year to get one…”

I typed in my response. “Trust me. I matched. I’ll explain later. Love u.”

I looked up at the man who’d just sent my parents two million dollars.

“Okay. What do I need to do?”

He pulled a necklace from his pocket, a locket hanging on an eighteen-inch box chain.

“Just wear this. It will record everything you hear. It has a locator so we can find you and will transmit all collected data anytime you get close enough to a communications network.”

“So…I just wear this, and that’s it?”

“And don’t get caught.”

“Well, obviously.”

“Are you ready?”

I nodded, drawing in a deep, fortifying breath.

Timcur: Chapter Three

Timcur

Captain Gratham’s gaze scanned the crowd. He put up his hands, palms out. The urchins gathered in front of Thelkor, Olath, and I. Thirty-some-odd children forming a defensive line between my crew and the Captain of Diana’s Arrow both terrified me and filled my heart.

“No one needs to cause trouble. We will cooperate with Captain Gratham.”

Captain Gratham eyed the crowd of children before him. “Please, calm yourselves. There is no need for trouble.”

The urchin we had arranged to meet eyed Captain Gratham down, tapping his shank against a palm.

“We have proof Captain Timcur and the crew of The Golden Meridian saved Diana’s Arrow no matter what the news feeds say.”

“I believe you. We watched the entire thing on the security cameras.”

Captain Gratham removed a memory drive from his pocket and offered it to me. Every shank and shiv disappeared within a moment. The crowd released a collective sigh.

“We found every video we could, as well as a list of witnesses who have provided video testimony on behalf of The Golden Meridian.”

The urchin fished a memory drive from his own pocket and held it out to me, as well. Profoundly moved, I dropped to my knees before the urchin. I accepted the drive.

“Thank you.”

I could think of nothing more to say. These people, strangers one and all, believed in Goldie, believed in our innocence—believed in me. Captain Gratham closed the distance between us, placing the memory drive in my palm, next to the one the urchin had given me.

“Captain Timcur, your crew saved this starferry. Every soul onboard owes you and your crew their life. We saw your struggle on the security cameras, your bravery… I dispatched backup as soon as I could, but they didn’t arrive in time to assist. Thank you.”

The crowd cheered. I rose to my feet, humbled.

“Thank you.”

“Captain Timcur, on behalf of the ten-thousand and seventy-nine souls aboard Diana’s Arrow, I guarantee The Golden Meridian, her captain and crew, sanctuary, safe passage, resupply, repairs, and anything else you may ever need for as long as I remain captain.”

I stood, stunned, unable to speak. Captain Gratham slapped me on the shoulder, chuckling.

“Well, Captain Timcur, I think this calls for a celebration.”

“Oh, you don’t need to go to any trouble.”

“Nonsense! You saved all our lives and my starferry. First Officer, Plit!”

The Chawwaw standing behind Captain Gratham saluted, focusing all four of his eyestalks on Captain Gratham.

“Yes, sir!”

“Notify the head chef. Emergency party, right here, ASAP, to honor those who saved Diana’s Arrow.”

The four-foot tall, neon-pink Plit grinned ear to ear, saluted, and dashed off to the nearest teleport pad. The urchin we had originally docked here to meet pulled his shiv again.

“Is there going to be enough for everyone, Captain Gratham?”

Gratham laughed. “Of course. This is a party.”

The shiv disappeared. The urchin smiled, then tapped a code into his comms bracelet. Urchins began teleporting in. I turned back to Olath.

“XO, notify the rest of the crew there is a party in their honor.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Olath trotted back into Goldie. Five minutes later, Rachel, Storgin, and Evelyn, carrying her kehppû, peeked out. Mr. Fluffbutt sauntered out behind them. He took one look at the gathered urchins and flopped on the floor.

Soon, the corridor filled with the happy shrieks of children, kehppû, a cat, Rachel and Evelyn wrestling in a pile. I worried someone might get hurt, with all the weapons the urchins carried, but figured Rachel and Evelyn had it all well in hand.

A hand thrust up from the pile. With a great roar, Thelkor appeared from the bottom of the pile. The children screeched, and Thelkor chased them. DNA matches, mates, and offspring being so rare among the Mahdfel, spending time with children felt like a treat.

With two of my crew now mated, perhaps soon if we are very fortunate, Goldie could welcome children, too.

Perhaps I will get lucky, as well, and find my own mate…

I sat at a table, munching on the finest slox I had ever eaten when Captain Gratham returned. He slid into the seat next to me.

“Captain Gratham, I’m a little concerned about spending so much time here. What if Earth or Mahdfel authorities track us here?”

“Well, first of all, anyone looking for you will experience extreme difficulty and delay getting permission to dock. Then, they will experience great difficulty accessing the teleport network and the doors of their docking bay…well, those will have trouble, too…”

I chuckled.

“You’re a good man, Captain Gratham. I suppose the only thing left to do is figure out how to distribute all this evidence. I mean to clear Goldie’s name and the names of my crew.”

Captain Gratham waved away my concerns.

“That, Captain Timcur, is something to worry about after this party. Besides, I wouldn’t dare discuss this without the UIN. As long as I stay on their good side, they stay out of trouble.”

I laughed, thinking of the small army of armed children chasing Thelkor through the corridor.

“Have they no families?”

Captain Gratham shrugged.

“Some are runaways. Some are orphans. There are so many reasons…well, the same reasons as any city, I suppose. Diana’s arrow sees so much traffic, it can be difficult to tell where they all come from.”

“Children are so rare and precious to the Mahdfel, it is hard for me to imagine leaving even one behind.”

“I can tell you their circumstances have greatly improved since you first came here. As I understand it, your pilot, Rachel, has set up services for them. Clothing, housing, education… You have much to be proud of, Captain. Even before your crew saved Diana’s Arrow, The Golden Meridian’s reputation had reached us all.”

Stunned, I couldn’t find words.

“When the newsfeeds began to call your crew terrorists, none of us could believe it. Had we detected Goldie’s transponder, we would have greeted you with open arms. No one who invests in a way to care for so many could have done the things of which you are accused.”

“Thank you, Captain. I am humbled.”

Captain Gratham grinned. “Next time you change your transponder, just let us know it’s you.”

He stood, winked at me, and trundled off to the extravagant buffet the chef had sent our way.

Timcur: Chapter Two

Timcur

Cloaked, The Golden Meridian floated in the blackness behind Ginaaak V’s fourteenth moon. Diana’s Arrow, the starferry, had drifted on along her route many hours ago. The edges of the planet peeked around the moon behind which we hid.

Perhaps I should have moved on long ago, but I struggled to find direction. The Mahdfel authorities had abandoned Goldie, believing the lies of that slimy, snake-headed Suhlik terrorist, Zarklac. Now my own superior officers believed Goldie and her crew had attempted multiple acts of terror across this sector of the galaxy.

Something deep inside me strained, stretched near to my limit. I had dedicated my life to my people, followed every order, respected every regulation…

How could the Mahdfel, my own people, have turned against me so quickly?

Guilt gnawed at my gut.

And now Goldie and her crew had been declared outlaws, rogues.

Pain and frustration fueled the roiling chaos of emotions inside me. My eyes searched the spectacular ruin below. Some tragic cosmic event had smashed another planetary body into Ginaaak V long ago. Only three quarters of a planet remained. The missing quarter made up the fourteen orbiting moons.

I felt like that shattered planet. My superior officers’ betrayal had hit me like that rogue celestial body cracked and sundered Ginaaak V. All I thought I knew and could rely upon, orbited me the way the planet’s shattered pieces orbited its frozen landscape.

How do I even put myself back together? Can I even put the shattered pieces of myself together? Or will I forever remain fractured?

Goldie’s intercom crackled to life, drawing me from the dark thoughts swirling in my mind. Rachel’s voice spoke to me in the darkness of my quarters.

“Captain! Message from the urchins on Diana’s Arrow.”

I jabbed the intercom button, energized by the prospect of actionable intel.

“On my way.”

I rose from my chair, shoving my worries deep into the dusty recesses of my mind. I squared my shoulders and walked through the corridors. As I approached the galley, Mr. Fluffbutt Clawson, Evelyn’s cat, nearly tripped me. I dodged at the last minute. Fluff wasn’t after me, he was stalking Lucky, Evelyn’s kehppû.

The tentacle-mouthed kehppû jumped Fluff and I left them to their play. I had never intended to travel with pets, but who could tell Evelyn no? Besides, at this point, were anyone to try, I felt certain the human women on Goldie’s crew wouldn’t allow it. I chuckled.

The human women originally joined Goldie’s crew as DNA mates. They also quickly took over.

And seriously improved all our lives.

I stepped onto the bridge. Rachel, our pilot, turned and smiled.

“Morning, Captain.”

“Is it? Let’s hear this message.”

Rachel punched a button on her console. A child’s thin voice spoke.

“To the captain and crew of The Golden Meridian: Greetings. Big Momma invites you to meet at Diana’s Arrow. We believe we have evidence which could help prove your innocence. Please respond.”

Rachel looked at me, cocking an eyebrow. Hope blazed to life in my chest, fueled by all of my guilt, frustration, betrayal…

Mahdfel HQ may have turned their back on Goldie, but I have not turned my back on my crew. Every person on Goldie deserves the chance at exoneration.

“Would you like to respond, Captain?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Recording.”

The Golden Meridian accepts. Will transmit docking number upon arrival on Diana’s Arrow.”

“Sent, Captain.”

“Thank you, Rachel. ETA?”

“Two hours.”

“I’ll be in the galley. I’m craving slox.”

“Right, Captain. Do us all a favor and stay away from the news feeds, okay?”

I groaned. “Why? What are they saying now?”

Rachel’s eyes narrowed at me. She sighed. “Someone released a video of us on the Diana’s Arrow ag deck.”

“And?”

“And it makes it look like we planted the bomb.”

“But we saved them from the bomb!”

Rachel patted my shoulder.

“I know, Captain, I know. So we’re going to have to fiddle with the transponder a little and be careful when we return to Diana’s Arrow is all. I’ll get Evelyn on it. Go have your slox. We know the Urchin Information Network is on our side.”

I nodded. “True, true, and we need all the help we can get.”

“I’ll let you know when we get close, okay?”

“Thanks, Rachel.”

“No problem. If you see Thelkor, tell him to come give me a kiss.”

I spun on my heel and left for the galley, grumbling about nothing in particular. I struggled to maintain my normal jovial attitude.

I entered the pantry, grabbed my box of slox, and sat at the galley’s booth. I shoved a handful in my mouth. For a moment, I thought of nothing but the citrusy, sour notes of the crunchy slox. I couldn’t imagine why I was the only one who enjoyed the flavor of the little preserved bugs.

I shrugged, deciding their loss was my gain. I soon lost myself to my thoughts and the crunchy taste of my slox. Rachel’s voice over the intercom broke into my thoughts.

“Docking in ten minutes.”

I recycled the slox packaging.

This kitchen is a disaster again. Someone has got to do something about that eventually.

Olath and Evelyn jogged by hand in hand, on the way to the bridge. While passing me, Evelyn smiled.

“I masked the transponder, Captain. Now we look like a freighter called The Horse Face.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Evelyn. Goldie has never run more smoothly.”

Evelyn, our engineer, grinned from ear to ear. “Thank you, Captain!”

Olath, her mate and my executive officer, wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her to him.

“See, my love, you’re awesome.”

Evelyn kissed him. For a moment, I wished I also had a mate, but I couldn’t complain. The crew had never worked better since Thelkor and Olath had found mates. Everyone but Storgin, our medical officer/doctor/ccientist, who preferred to travel in his lab, was strapped into their seats on the bridge.

With her usual awe-inspiring skills, Rachel docked with Diana’s Arrow and transmitted our docking number to the UIN. Evelyn insisted we dress in some hooded cloaks. I wondered where she had gotten them but decided it better not to ask at the moment.

“Thelkor, Olath, let’s go.”

“Yes, Captain.”

We opened Goldie’s hatch and stepped out into the busy corridor beyond. We attempted to look casual, though I was certain Rachel and Evelyn were probably laughing at us. A small child casually approached our position.

Before I could make contact with the child, a Mawkwil flanked by two security officers caught my attention. Eight-feet tall, a bipedal alien with a three-foot long neck dressed in a decidedly official suit, the Mawkwil walked right up to our party.

“Captain! Captain Timcur?”

Oh, no. They must think we’re terrorists, after the news feed…

“Captain! I must speak with you.”

A crowd began to gather. The young urchin jumped between the Mawkwil and me.

“Captain Gratham, we don’t need no trouble here.”

“Stay out of this, child.”

The urchin flashed a shiv at Captain Gratham.

“Captain…if you’re here to arrest anybody, I promise you trouble.”

Thirty urchins stepped out of the crowd, flashing their own shivs. The crowd grumbled.

Please let this not be a war…