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…

Timcur: Chapter One

Nora

The full-spectrum recorder I checked out of the University’s Student Media department floated near my shoulder. The world had become a much larger place since Earth discovered life in the greater galaxy.

The woman who approached me could barely keep her comments to herself. I smiled. The upcoming local city budget proposal might not be the most glamorous event to cover for my Political Science class project, but Professor Eggers liked to see his students out talking to the masses.

“How do you feel about the budget pro…”

Her words exploded from her mouth.

“Well, let me just tell you. Councilman Rogers has no idea what he’s talking about. That man couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a map…”

This lady is gold. She’s the perfect face of community outrage. This is going to look great in my project.

The woman continued to complain, giving me everything I needed to wrap up my short documentary project in a matter of minutes. Fifteen minutes later, I had my equipment packed. The project didn’t specifically call for full-spectrum recording, but I like to think big.

Many species in the galaxy saw light spectrums human eyes couldn’t and I wanted my professor to see I was thinking beyond just Earth. Politics always excited me. I salivated at the thought of running for office, and not just for the excitement. I really wanted to make the galaxy a better place.

And find Human women an alternative to the Lottery…

First, though, I must learn to play the game…and edit together clips of the outraged masses. With the full-spectrum recorder carefully packed so I could return it without losing my deposit, I headed home.

I walked through campus, past the majestic buildings and carefully manicured lawns. Large, old trees planted hundreds of years ago, when the university had been founded, shaded my path. The light breeze ruffling my blonde ponytail hinted at warmer temperatures to come.

My comms bracelet buzzed on my wrist.

“Hi, Mom. I’m so glad you…”

“I’m happy to hear your voice, too, Nora. Now, don’t get too worked up. He’s fine, now…”

“Who’s fine?”

“Your father had a medical incident. He’s going to be okay…”

I froze in my tracks. My heart raced. “Medical incident?! Mom, what happened.”

“Well, you know his heart hasn’t been the best.”

“Mom, get to the point.”

Mom sighed over the phone.

“Mom?”

“Your father had a small heart attack…”

“What the f…small? Heart attack? You act like this is normal—”

“I’m not acting like it’s normal, Nora. Well, I guess this is the new normal. Dad will be fine if I can convince him to follow the doctor’s recommendations.”

“I’m coming home right now.”

“Don’t you dare. You can’t leave your classes now.”

“Mom, I’m coming home. Dad is way more important.”

“No, Nora.”

Mom sighed again.

“Mom…”

“Nora! Listen for once. I’ll have him call you tonight, okay? Don’t you dare waste the education we’ve worked so hard to pay for.”

“Ouch.”

“Sorry. It’s just… Nora, find a place to sit. Don’t say anything yet. Let me get through this. Honestly, having to have this conversation with you is almost worse than driving your father to the Emergency Room.”

I dropped onto a nearby bench. I took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m sitting. Let’s…just say what you need to say.”

“I know we promised to put you through university…”

“Yeah?”

Mom drew in a deep breath. When she spoke, her words came out in a rush. “With…with this…heart thing…”

“You need the money to take care of Dad.”

“I’m so sorry. It’s getting so hard to make ends meet. I…I just don’t know what to do, but your father is going to need some therapy and the new medications…I just don’t know what else to do, Nora.”

“Mom, don’t cry. It will be fine. Give me a minute to…to digest all of this, okay? There’s a solution, just let me think.”

“Okay. I’m so sorry…”

“No, Mom, don’t be sorry. Of course, Dad needs what he needs. That’s no one’s fault. Just…let me think. We’ll talk later, when you have Dad call, okay?”

“Alright, Nora. I’m so sorry.”

“Hush, Mom, everything will be fine. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I sat on the bench long after the call ended. I tried to think, but my thoughts kept hitting the same walls—Dad. Money. My future. Mom sounding so worried.

Mom has enough to deal with now. She doesn’t need to worry about both Dad’s health and my future. Mom needs to focus on Dad. What am I going to do? Where am I going to find enough money?

I shook my head to clear the tangle of thoughts warring inside. I took a deep breath and decided to take care of what I could at the moment, and headed to the media department to return the full-spectrum recorder.

I walked in a daze, head filled with newly born anxieties and impossible choices. Before I knew it, I stood at the media department counter. I downloaded my footage, wiping the recorder’s memory.

“Are you okay?”

My head snapped up.  “What?”

The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was a lost child.

At this moment, maybe I am.

“Are you okay?”

When I opened my mouth to assure her I was fine, the tangled mass of my thoughts came out instead.

“I just found out my father had a heart attack, and my parents are struggling to handle the medical bills and now I don’t know how I will be able to pay for school and I hate myself a little for worrying about my school when Dad’s sick and Mom is so worried and…”

I broke down in chest-heaving sobs. Big, fat tears erupted. My knees gave way. I wrapped my arms around my core as if to hold in my shock and grief. I plopped onto the floor, dropping my bag.

“Sorry, I’m sorry…”

The woman wrapped her arms around me. She petted my hair and made soothing sounds, rocking me while I ugly cried on her shoulder.

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

We sat there, on the floor ‘til my tears emptied themselves. To my relief, no one else stopped by to interrupt us. As soon as I could, I pulled myself together enough to pull back.

“Thank you. I’m so sorry, I think I snotted all over your shirt.”

She laughed, this stranger who had taken time out of her day to comfort me when she didn’t have to.

“It will wash. Feeling better?”

I nodded, digging tissues from my bag and blowing my nose. “Yes, thank you. I’m Nora.”

“Hi, Nora. I’m Jeannie. It sounds like you have a lot on your mind right now.”

I laughed. “Yeah.”

“Have you considered Student Services? They have counselors you can speak with.”

“I, literally, found out right before I got here. Returning the recorder was the only thing I could concentrate on, after Mom’s call.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. Look, I don’t know the details of your situation, but my best friend was in, what sounds like, a very similar situation.”

I looked at her, the desperate need for hope gripping my guts. “What did she do?”

“She volunteered for the Lottery.”

I blinked.

The Lottery?

“What happened?”

“It worked out for her. Her family got the million dollars and she fell in love.”

“Well, shit. You make it sound not so bad.”

Jeannie laughed, then shrugged. “It was a long shot, anyway, matching an alien. So few match. But she did and she’s happy.”

I could split the money with Mom and Dad…

Protected: Chapter Three

Nora

Sofia’s words hounded me through the remainder of my day. Tired of random people dropping by my little research garden and distracting me with perfectly reasonable questions, I packed my bag.

I scanned the garden. Seeing nothing demanding to be done anytime soon, I slung my bag over my shoulder and walked to the market. On one of my many visits to the garden the prisoners worked, I had mentioned to Mellida how useful a good pair of work boots in my size would be.

A week later, Mellida took me to the best cobbler in town. After extensive negotiations, a wagon load of sketches, and a few false starts, I bought three pairs of the best boots I had ever owned.

I liked the way the thick soles slapped the cobblestones with each step. The old, teal D’Tali cobbler tailored them just to me. The iridescent white and green scales of the pafu leather sparkled like club shoes, but I loved them.

I looked at the D’Tali walking the streets with me. One almost never saw a female D’Tali in Tahkath. Few were ever born and the D’Tali mated for life, bonding with their partner in the most amazing ways.

Or so the mated human women claim, at least.

Mom claimed I had been a scientist since birth, and I had no evidence to prove or disprove the mated women’s claims. I did believe the children were miracles, though, so I knew miracles happened.

Delusions also happened, especially to people isolated in bizarre and extreme situations. Being abducted from one’s planet while still unaware of life beyond one’s planet of origin and plopped here qualified as extreme.

I pushed those endless thoughts aside and lost myself in the myriad open-air market stalls. All manner of locally made, and imported, goods covered display tables and filled barrels and crates marked with writings in many languages.

What we have in our heads is all we have of our place of birth.”

Sofia’s words floated through my head. She might as well have slapped me with them.

Sofia caught on to Maximum Queenage fast.

I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and wiped sweat from my brow. I tucked the handkerchief away and browsed. My eyes roamed past sheafs of dried plants in shades of reds, tans, and browns.

I slowly passed up the common plants I had already seen and thoroughly studied. More of Sofia’s words bobbed to the surface of my thoughts.

“I need every human on this planet writing down everything they knowevery story they remember.”

No, you don’t Sophia. You think you want us all to write down all we know, but…do we really want to preserve all of it?

I noticed a small bunch of flowers of which I needed more samples. A few coins and a smile later, I carefully tucked them in my bag.

Even if we wrote down every detail we learned about the atomic bomb, should we ever let anyone see it? Would anyone even understand what we were talking about in a generation? Two generations? Would we even want them to, or can the burden of that knowledge die on this planet?

I moved on to the next booth, scanning mounds of earthy-smelling, earthy-colored spices.

“Anything new for me, Tavin?”

An apologetic smile softened Tavin’s blue-scaled face. He spread his hands wide, palms up.

“I am sorry, Lady Nora.”

I rolled my eyes.

What’s with the ‘Lady’ thing?

“Just Nora, Tavin. Being called ‘Lady’ feels very strange.”

Tavin bowed. “Of course L…y Nora.”

I chuckled.

“Mumbling it doesn’t make it better, you scoundrel. Is my order in, yet? Or not?”

Tavin’s hand disappeared into a crate under his booth’s counter and retrieved a small crate of exotic spices.

“Arrived fresh this morning.”

I dug out a small handful of coins and laid them on his palm. “Thank you, Tavin. Good doing business with you.”

Tavin bowed. “Anything for the Lady.”

“That’s it. I’m leaving.”

I turned from Tavin, waving away his nonsense. From the corner of my eye, I saw a single, preserved bloom sealed into a glass jar.

That’s new.

The rest of the world seemed to fade away. The bloom called to me, demanding I appreciate her full glory. She must have been huge when fresh. Large, beautiful white petals, broad and erect, faded into a cascade of deep mauve petite petals and long tendrils.

“You like? This one is very rare.”

I blinked, noticing I stood in front of the bloom. The thinnest D’Tali I had ever seen smiled at me and gestured to the jar.

“I’ll take it. And any more you have.”

He laughed, orange scales flashing in the light. “This is the only one.”

I handed him more coins than I had ever spent on a single specimen before and carefully placed the jar in my bag.

“What do you know about it? Where does it come from?”

The merchant gestured away.

“This one comes from far upriver in the jungle. It is said the people who trade it, the Vivutians, are fiercely territorial and vicious warriors. They say the flower is so precious and rare, the Vivutians only trade a few of the flowers at a time.”

“What is it supposed to do that makes it so precious?”

“The Vivutians use it to heal everything.”

“A panacea…”

“Forgive my ignorance, Lady, but I do not know that word.”

“Don’t worry about it. It means a cure-all.”

“Ah! Then, yes. This is said to cure all. But don’t drink it. Or put it in your eyes, though I don’t know why people keep trying that with everything. Why can’t people leave their eyes alone? It’s enough to drive a healer mad.”

I chuckled. “I agree. Leave the experimentation to the professionals.”

“Exactly, my Lady.”

I sighed at the ‘Lady’ but didn’t feel up to trying to explain how weird it felt to constantly be called ‘Lady’ or ‘my Lady’.

“Thank you.”

“Come back next week. I will have new delights.”

I waved and moved on. I looked forward to testing his claims. In a much better mood, I hurried back to my lab to begin the tests which would take the longest to complete.

When the sun set and writing became a challenge, I scarfed down some fruit, crackers, and cheese. I must have fallen asleep on the couch, eating, because I woke in a nest of cracker dust.

I cleaned up my mess and put myself together, then checked my samples. The new bloom, whose label read adhku chung in a thin, shaky script, showed excellent anti-inflammatory properties.

Very similar to turmeric, really…

With no hint of anything I could identify as harmful to humans, I decided to test the adhku chung topically. I had a swollen bug biteon my leg irritating the shit out of me.

I mixed a pinch of powdered adhku chung to a rich, plant-based lotion I had thrown together a few months ago and rubbed a tiny bit into the swollen skin. The powdered bloom gave the lotion a sweet, musky smell.

The bug bite retreated, returning to near-normal within minutes. The pain and itching subsided.

Impressive. I have to show Camilia.

I packed the bloom, the powder, and the lotion into my pack and trekked to Camilia’s new medical clinic. A D’Tali with his arm in a sling walked out of the clinic’s front door. He saw me approach and held the door.

“Thank you.”

Camilia’s voice hit my ears.

“Now Sofia is talking about turning this into a nursing school…oh, hi, Nora.”

“Hi Camilia. Sorry to interrupt.”

“Not at all. Same old gossip. What brings you here?”

“I think I found an anti-inflammatory at least as effective as turmeric or Boswellia, maybe. I’ve tested it topically on a bug bite.”

Camilia’s eyes lit up. “Really? You have a sample?”

I fished the stuff from my bag. “This is the bloom, common name adhku chung. Comes from upriver and appears to be quite rare. I know it cost me. Anyway, I made this powder, ran the standard tests, and check out my bug bite.”

I pointed to my leg, pulling up the hem of my shorts. “Stopped hurting, too.”

“Nice find, Nora. Hand me the lotion.”

I handed her the small pot of lotion.

“It’s the usual base recipe I developed last year.”

“The love butter?”

I slapped my forehead.

“Why you call it that…”

Camilia laughed.

“Because it’s funny. Loosen up.”

“Might as well call it jizz.”

Camilia laughed harder.

“Follow me.”

She wiped tears from her eyes and led me to a patient room. She smiled at the D’Tali who sat there. His red scales had long ago faded with age ‘til he bore the barest shade of pink. Thick, swollen knuckles warped the joints of his fingers.

I hurt to look at him bearing what must be terrible pain, unable to do even the most basic tasks for himself without arthritic agony. I hung back in the doorway while Camilia spoke to him in low tones.

She explained the lotion and he agreed to try it. I felt certain he would have tried anything to find relief. I watched as Camilia applied the lotion in gentle circles. A few minutes later, the old D’Tali gasped.

He carefully moved his shrinking joints, shedding a tear when he finally didn’t hurt. I fought tears. So much emotion overwhelmed me. Camilia looked at me, determination in her eyes.

“We’re going to need more of that.”

I nodded.

“I’ll talk to Sofia. I think I have an offer she can’t refuse.”

Protected: Chapter Two

Nora

Princess Alyna ran through my garden as fast as she could, screaming as loud as she could. Queen Sofia chased after her, attempting to wrangle the half-Human, half-D’Tali two-year old.

“Get back here, right now, Alyna! And put your clothes back on!”

I chuckled, remembering my younger cousins. “An I-hate-clothes phase?”

“I swear that child lives to vex me.”

The little Princess stuck her tongue out at her mother.

All the human women on this world had arrived the same way. Some nasty aliens called Zarg had abducted us from our life on Earth. The Zarg had intended to sell us, but we were rescued by the D’Tali.

Queen Sofia fell in love with Dojak, King of the D’Tali. At first, the mere thought that a human woman and a dino-man could fall in love threw me for a loop. That was two years, seven human-D’Tali mate pairs, and several babies ago.

Conventional Earth wisdom denies Princess Alyna could exist, yet she rolled naked in my garden while Queen Sofia tried to fit her back into her dress.

Once I had adjusted to the glaring fact that miracles existed in the form of half-human babies, I dedicated myself to finding out what other miracles existed on the D’Tali’s planet.

Since none of the human women can go back to Earth, now.

“She’s not hurting anything, Sofia. Leave her be and come tell me why you dropped by. Alyna will entertain herself.”

Queen Sofia looked torn between trying to keep her child in clothes and getting off her feet. Aching feet won and she plopped into one of the wrought-iron, human-sized bistro chairs around the garden bistro table.

Queen Sophia had commissioned the set to be made from the remnants of the crashed starship which had brought us humans to this planet. She released a breath of tension and her body relaxed as she melted into the thick cushions.

Her eyes darted about, but I knew she was looking inside of her own head, searching for the perfect words.

“Nora, I know we’ve talked about this before—”

“And I’ve turned you down, before.”

“Four times and counting, but hear me out—”

Old tension, born of too many repetitions of the same argument gnawed at my nerves.

“I’ve already made it clear I am not a good fit for a classroom setting. My specialty is fieldwork. Tethering me to a classroom is like…like…might as well chain me to a stake in the yard, Sophia.”

Queen Sophia raised an eyebrow at me. “And you’re not being even a little hyperbolic, are you?”

“No. I exaggerate nothing.”

I leaned forward, taking her hand. I looked into her face, as honest and open as I could be.

“Sophia, this is an entirely different world. There is so much out there waiting to be discovered…seeking out those discoveries is what I love. Do you realize? No scientist has catalogued anything the way we can. Everything out there is new! That’s what I need to be studying—what we have available to us here on this planet.”

“But, Earth knowledge…”

“What good does it do me to try to teach my Earth knowledge to the D’Tali? They will never see a philodendron or poison ivy. They will never see Earth wheat or anthrax or aspergillus or…or a horse.”

“Are you into animals, too? Or just plants?”

“I know some basic Zoology, but I prefer plants. Of course, there is always some overlap. Zoology, Entomology, Geology…all play a part in Horticulture… Okay, Sofia, that’s not fair, distracting me with my favorite subject.”

Sofia shrugged a shoulder.

“Don’t be mad just because I made my point that you are a good teacher. And knowledgeable.”

“And all those disciplines require samples to use and teach. Data points, tests, reams and reams of paper, miles of filing cabinets, in the absence of computers. Not to mention scores of scribes just to write the textbooks…”

“All of which I will work out. Eventually.”

A half-grin tugged one corner of my mouth. “Before I go insane? Knowledgeable plant people are not the best people people, Sofia. Plants, I understand. People…confuse me. I could be discovering the metaphorical cure for cancer during the time I waste trying to figure people out.”

Queen Sofia ran her hands through her dark brown hair as her eyes watched Princess Alyna dig up half of a mound of good topsoil, then turned back to me.

When she spoke, her haunted tone sent chills down my spine.

“Nora, what we have in our heads is all we have of our place of birth, our cultures, our stories, our knowledge…everything our children may ever know of Earth. What we carry in our minds is a treasure more precious than gold. We carry every remnant of a culture more advanced than the one in which we live…hundreds of years of thought and knowledge.”

I picked at a loose thread on the shorts I had talked the tailor into making me. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“And it breaks my heart, Nora, thinking it will be lost in a single generation.”

We fell silent, watching Alyna play while Sofia wiped a tear from her eye. She sucked in a deep breath.

“I have a question for you, Nora. When did you become fascinated by plants?”

“Uhhh…I guess it all started when I was six or so…”

“What started it?”

“My aunt, Cindy. Like, the most amazing crazy ex-heroin addict crazy, artsy aunt you can imagine. She bleached half her hair and never wore matching earrings.”

“Sounds like a blast.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, Mom was not happy the year Aunt Cindy gave me a Ouija board for Christmas.”

Sofia cackled.

“Anyway, she read me The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola. The bluebonnet is such a fascinating flower and the story was so profound. I started looking at the world in a different way.”

Sofia pointed at me, face serious.

“That’s what I’m talking about. I’ve never read that story, but, after hearing you talk about it, I regret missing it. Would it inspire Alyna to plant things rather than dig?”

I chuckled. “It might. I was a digger, too.”

“Then there’s hope…”

Sofia and I laughed.

“At least she stripped before digging. You can wash most of that mess off in the rain barrel when you need to leave. There are even clean towels.”

Sofia craned her head around to locate the towels.

“Oh, Bless you. The trick, of course, will be getting her out of it, after we get the dirt off.”

“After all that digging, I bet, once you get her clean, she’ll be asleep in your arms before you even get her to bed.”

“One can only hope.”

I shrugged. “Mom always said it worked on me.”

“Do you miss her?”

“My mom?”

“Yeah. Back on Earth.”

“There’s only a grave back there to miss.”

Sofia laid a comforting hand on mine. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. She went out happy. Snowboarding.”

“What? Really? How old was she?”

“Sixty-two.”

“Wow.”

“I was a surprise baby.”

“I bet you were.”

Princess Anya sculpted a mound of soil with her little hands, sticking random twigs and leaves into the sides, like trees on a mountainside.

“Could you write that story down? For Alyna? I want her to have stories with humans in them…”

My heart broke for her a little. “Give me some time and I’ll see if my memory holds up. I’m sure I can recreate it.”

“Awesome. Just get me the pages and I’ll have it copied and bound.”

“You really make a great Queen.”

Sofia cackled. When her laughter faded, her somber mood returned. She pinned me with her eyes. “Seriously, though, Nora. I want to establish a Department of Science. I need someone to train people on basic science theories and lab procedures. I need every human on this planet writing down everything they know—every story they remember.”

I sighed. “I agree that those things are important, but I can’t deal with a classroom setting.”

Sofia nodded. “Let me think, Nora. I’m certain we can find a way to make this work for both of us.”

We watched Alyna sculpt a mountain and I leaned towards Sofia. “Ever watch that old movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”

Sofia laughed so hard she choked. When she stopped spluttering, she sighed.

“I was thinking the same thing, Nora.”

“My mom was a huge sci-fi fan. We would stay up late and watch old movies. I guess that’s what I’m getting at, Sofia. While I watched these old movies with Mom, she would try to explain what the world was like when those were filmed…”

I held up a finger, asking Sofia to wait for me. I took a sip of water and continued.

“But I will never really understand a time before women could vote or get a credit card or loan without a husband’s signature. And how do we even explain the context of any of that to Princess Alyna or Camilia’s little Anya?”

Sofia sighed, watching Anya. “Like trying to explain why Alyna’s mountain made us laugh to Dojak when I see him later.”

“Exactly. And do we even want to bring all of that world with us? No one in D’Tali is going to treat us bad for being women—maybe for being mammals, but not for being women.”

I turned to Sofia and looked deep into her eyes. “Do we even want to introduce the concept?”

Sofia rubbed her forehead with her palm. “I don’t know, Nora. But these are good questions.”

Protected: Chapter One

Rojav

A six-foot, eight-inch slab of light-green-scaled muscle named Toc loomed over me. The sun shone behind him, casting his features in shadow. I squinted against the blinding rays, trying to make out his eyes. I held my breath, awaiting his next words. He spoke in a voice as deep as a bell.

“Today is the day.” Toc tilted his head to one side. “Are you ready?”

I glanced at the iron-barred gate to our large cell.

“I did all the time they gave me.”

The prison of thick stone and iron bars blocked most sunlight beating down on the city of Tahkath. Deep shadows filled our cells most of the day, keeping the prison cool through the heat. When the sun rose, though, rays of her light reached us through the windows set high in the prison’s tall, stone walls.

The sun rose past the high windows, plunging Toc and I into a world of near-perpetual twilight. When my eyes adjusted, I noticed Toc watching me. Concern pulled at his face.

“You served your time, Rojav. Your release comes with King Dojak’s forgiveness. Your work in Mellida’s prisoner rehabilitation programs earned her confidence.”

But do I really deserve it?

I looked away.

I may have completed my sentence, but I doubt I will ever free myself of the guilt.

“She says Zalko has already made some arrangements for me. I’m supposed to meet up with him at the garden.”

Toc nodded and clasped my shoulder in his giant hand. I looked him in the eye.

“Accept all the help you can get, Rojav.”

I was by no means small for a D’Tali but Toc towered over most people.

Few but Mellida’s mate, Jarlath could match Toc for pure size and power. Jarlath worked as one of the prison guards, and had always been fair to the prisoners he guarded.

Then, Jarlath met Mellida. In the six months since, she entirely transformed our lives.

With D’Tali women so scarce, spending time with one of the human women in any capacity felt special.

I wonder what it would be like to have a woman in my life? No, don’t torture yourself, Rojav. I’m more likely to find a talking rock than a mate.

More than that, though, Mellida had created the opportunity for prisoners to develop new skills with our time separated from the society whose rules we had violated. Many who had stolen to eat before prison now had the opportunity to earn a living.

Jarlath and his fellow guard, Kalan, sauntered up to the gate. Jarlath called into the cell.

“Rojav, Olanth, Madar, it’s your day. You know the drill. Step to the left wall. The rest of you, stay to the back of the cell.”

We prisoners divided ourselves into the requested groups without complaint. We had learned early on that causing trouble was a fast way to lose the chance to do more than sit in a shadowed cell all day.

I stepped to the left wall, lining up between the red-scaled Madar and purple-scaled Olanth. Jarlath unlocked the cell, swinging the door open. Madar, Olanth, and I stepped out of the shadowed cell free men. Jarlath closed and locked the cell behind us.

I wish it were so easy to lock away my own darkness. If only I could step out from under the shadow of my own crime.

We three newly free men walked through the prison’s entrance and into the light breeze blowing through the courtyard. An old numa turned her head in my direction and huffed. For a moment, I let my gaze roam, taking in the world outside of the prison.

I had stepped outside this gate many times, while participating in the various programs Mellida and Zalko had made available at the prison—like the garden work or making leather packs for Mellida’s prisoner release kits.

Mellida, herself, walked up and handed me one.  “Here you go, Rojav.”

“Thank you.” I looked the pack over. “I think I made this one, too.”

Mellida smiled.  “That pack is well made. I saved it for you, since your release day was near.”

I had to admit I enjoyed learning to work with the pafu leather and constructing packs for the newly free.

Now I’m the newly free. Does walking out of a cell really change a criminal into something new? How can it, when my crime can never be undone?

“Thank you. That was thoughtful.”

“There are a few coins so you can get some personal supplies, enough preserved food for three days, a cloak, and a token for the King’s new workforce program. Take it to Zalko at the garden and he will find you a bunk ‘til you find our own place. He will also help you find honest work, if you want it.”

Mellida handed packs out to Olanth and Madar, as well. I waved, then set my feet upon the path to the garden. Olanth and Madar fell in beside me.

I had never intended to make friends in prison, but, once Olanth and Madar had found out the three of us shared a release day, I couldn’t get rid of them.

Madar tossed his token high in the air, snatching it with a hand. “The last time I got out of prison, I slept in a ditch for a week, stealing bread ‘til I could find a gang who’d take me in. This time, there’s a bed to go to.”

Olanth laughed, showing the gap in his teeth where someone had punched him in a bar fight.

“Are you going to look for work, too, Rojav? Or do you have a job lined up?”

“Been in prison too long to know anybody to give me a job. I’ll take a sure bet on making coin to keep meat on my plate and Zalko has always been honest.”

Madar nodded. “Yeah. Zalko’s from the streets, like us. He understands how hard it is to get by.”

Olanth grinned. “When did you ever imagine you’d become a King’s man?”

Madar shook his head, laughing. “From criminals to working for the King. Life’s looking up, boys.”

Olanth laughed. I shook my head. We had walked this route through the city many times on gardening detail, but, this time, we walked it as free men.

Life is supposed to feel different, now. Isn’t it? Olanth and Madar act like children finally let out to play. Do I feel the same spring in my step?

Olanth punched Madar in the arm.

“What was that for?”

“Cause you’re so ugly.”

Madar laughed. “You’re just jealous of my gleaming, red scales. I am the perfection of D’Tali.”

Even I laughed with them.

We passed through the open plains between the prison and the city. Crops stood tall and high, birthing a bounty of fresh summer fruits. We wove our way through the outskirts of the city until Mellida and Jarlath’s cottage greeted us.

Zalko, an old, teal-scaled D’Tali—a fierce fighter, with a lifetime’s experience on the streets— reached many of the prisoners in a way no one else ever had. He listened to our stories and understood us in a way others couldn’t.

Jarlath has been a great guard, but he never had to wonder where his next meal came from or if Dad was coming home drunk again…

I pulled my mind back from the brink of my darkest thoughts.

Zalko was about to speak and proclaim our future. “Glad to see all three of you made it here.”

We nodded and Madar laughed. “Where else we got to go, Boss?”

Zalko clapped my shoulder, smiling.

“Not to worry. Grab any free bunk in the bunkhouse.”

Zalko pointed to a building set away from Jarlath and Mellida’s cottage. Several other D’Tali I recognized from the prison played cards at a table on the bunkhouse’s porch.

“We provide three meals a day. Well, we provide anything you can’t grow in the garden and you boys do the rest.”

Zalko pointed to the kitchen, a breezy, stone building set away from all the others to prevent any fiery kitchen mishaps from burning down everything. A few men worked the kitchen, preparing the next meal.

“What about the work?”

Zalko grinned. “I was just getting to that, Rojav. Right now, we have a few options. There are always construction jobs, when you can’t find anything else. The foremen come by at sunrise, if you want hard, hot, honest work.”

Madar chuckled. “It’s all hot and hard work, Boss.”

“Most of the time that’s true…”

Olanth cut in. “What about today, Boss? I know Mellida gave us some coin to get us by, but I’m hoping to save that for emergencies. My problem is, I’ve been dreaming of cheap beer for months, and I’d sure feel better about quenching that thirst with a bit more coin in my pouch.”

I shrugged and grinned up at Zalko. “Can’t argue with that logic, Boss.”

Zalko pointed to the kitchen. “All we have today is kitchen work. If anything comes up, I’ll let you know.”

I nodded.  “Thanks, Boss.”

Zalko pointed at us. “You three think you’ll stick together for a while? It’s hard to find men who can work together.”

I shrugged. “I suppose Olanth and Madar aren’t so bad.”

Olanth grinned and draped his arm over my shoulder.

“Sure, Boss. We’re buddies. Right, Rojav? I mean, if it will get us more work or coin, we’re best friends and no trouble at all.”

Madar grinned and patted my shoulder. “I can assure you, we are reformed. We’ve learned our lessons.”

“Yeah, Boss. Me and Rojav and Madar, we’re good boys now.”