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Across the Crimson Sands: Chapter One

Arilee

“Kneel.”

I stumbled forward as the chain yanked me down, my bare knees scraping against the scorching sand. Pain blazed through me as fresh wounds opened over barely healed scabs. Gorin didn’t even glance back. He never did.

“Well met, Captain Gorin,” an unfamiliar Krelaxian greeted my master.

From my vantage point near the ground, all I saw were identical boots. But this one lacked a kneeling slave – so this guy was clearly outranked by Gorin.

“And to you. Any reports from the Crimson Sands?”

The Crimson Sands. That barren, war-torn hellscape. A vast graveyard of shattered ships, rusted tech, and sun-bleached bones stretching endlessly across the dunes. A grim monument to senseless destruction, the last battle ground of the war that had swept this system.

“My men believe we’ve found a buried cache of Vinduthi weapons. Old data pad entries gave the location. Apparently, an elite squad was meant to rendezvous there and retrieve the cache before descending on the Krelaxian fort due west. Of course, they never made it.”

Gorin’s pleased hum grated on my nerves. “And what became of this ‘elite’ squad?” he prodded.

I could practically hear the other Krelaxian’s eager smile. “Why, they were taken out by an aerial bombing run, sir.”

“And who ordered that bombing run?”

I suppressed an eye roll. Here we go again. Gorin’s endless quest for validation, desperate to remind everyone of his supposed brilliance during a war fought ages ago. How much longer could he milk that victory?

“You did, sir.”

“That’s right. I did. How wonderful for us. Let me know when the cache is found. If the weapons are well preserved, we can add them to the armory. If not, sell them for scrap. The treasury will thank us. Either way, you and your men will most certainly receive commendations from Governor Kael.”

“Thank you, sir!” The man’s boots snapped together, practically vibrating with excitement. “And may I say, sir, your pet is quite lovely.”

My stomach twisted. I hated being singled out, even though that was my entire purpose. A living status symbol for men like Gorin. 

Five years I’d been his property, traded away by my previous owner of three years for a taste of Gorin’s favor. The sole survivor of a refugee transport, spared only because a pirate deemed me the “only thing of value” aboard.

Some twisted compliment.

My first master cared nothing for my looks, wanting only a housekeeper based on stereotypes about human women. I faked competence to avoid punishment, but his buyer’s remorse was obvious.

Then Captain Gorin stumbled into the village, drunk on victory and hungry for a trophy. Suddenly, I became useful as a bargaining chip.

You’d think being reduced to a living decoration might offer some relief. You’d be wrong.

“Incredible. How long does it take to get those marks to stay?” the other man asked, leering.

Gorin’s fingers dug into my chin as he wrenched my head side to side, showcasing the purple-red ring of bruises circling my neck. “Several weeks of consistent binding, plus regular maintenance. She has matching marks on her wrists and ankles. Show him.”

Wearily, I raised my hands, displaying the angry red bands encircling my wrists like grotesque bracelets.

“They’re starting to fade, though. I’ve been so busy with this salvage mission that I’ve been neglecting her upkeep. We’ll be sure to remedy that this evening.”

Life with Karx left me too drained to even flinch at the threat.

These “fashionable” bruises were the brainchild of Governor Kael, the tyrant who ruled the three planets of the Caroma system. He’d taken to yanking his slaves around so brutally that swollen bruises became a constant feature. The sadistic trend spread like wildfire.

And Gorin, ever the sycophant, was quick to jump on board.

“Sir, I hope I’m not out of line, and I know you’re not at our base for long, but the men were hoping you’d stick around this evening. Maybe have a few drinks at the canteen with us, tell us some of your war stories. They admire you a great deal, and it’d be great for morale, I’m sure.”

That, finally, made me cringe. Their pathetic need for approval from this twisted, insecure creature turned my stomach. But he likely wouldn’t drag me along. No pets allowed in the bar, after all. 

“Well, how could I say no to something like that? Arilee, up!” The chain jerked violently, choking me as I scrambled to my feet. “I’ll freshen up and meet you and the boys there. Tell them to leave a seat at the bar for their old Captain.”

***

Back in the shuttle, it wasn’t any better.

Gorin grabbed my chin, forcing me to meet his gaze. “You’re an extension of me now. Act like it, or I’ll make you wish you had.”

I nodded, swallowing hard. His fingers left indents on my jaw. 

He released me with a grunt of disgust. “Pathetic. Can’t even walk properly.”

My leg muscles twitched, phantom pains from old injuries flaring. I wanted to explain, to defend myself. 

Instead, I kept my eyes lowered and my hands busy, smoothing out the creases in his dress uniform.

The ship’s recycled air felt stale against my skin. My neck chafed where the leather collar dug into my flesh. That damned tracker charm taunted me with each tiny jingle.

The security system hummed, a constant reminder of my captivity. Sure, my wrists and ankles were free inside the ship. But that freedom was an illusion, as false as Gorin’s smile.

“You’ll be given half rations for dinner tonight. Eat them slowly. Whether or not you receive breakfast depends on how well this ridiculous morale visit goes. For your sake, they’d better be lapping up every word I deign to speak.”

I nodded again while finishing buttoning his jacket. Then, I presented his cap, keeping my eyes cast down. He put it on and surveyed himself in the mirror.

“Something is missing… Ah, I know. A little gratitude from my pet for letting her dress me.”

I stayed placid and emotionless as I carefully moved to my aching knees, bent over, and placed a lingering kiss on each of his leather boots. 

“That’s a good girl. Eat and bathe yourself. We’ll work on your ‘jewelry’ when I get back.” He patted me gently on the head, a mocking gesture that promised violence on the horizon.

I stayed motionless on my knees as he left his cabin. I waited, seemingly for hours, to hear the sound of the transport door sliding shut. 

The moment I did, I jumped to my feet and scurried to the galley. Since the collar had a lock on it, there was no way I could remove it normally. Instead, I dug through a drawer and found the only knife I could. It was dull and practically useless, but it’d have to do.

I was going to escape. 

I had to. I couldn’t keep going like this. Gorin was eventually going to kill me. Hell, he’d kill me in public if he for one second thought he’d get any attention at all. 

It would have been better to wait until we were back on Quixa, maybe. The sprawling city that Gorin was based on would have more places to hide, surely.

But right now I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the night. Gorin hadn’t wanted to come back here to Caroma, hadn’t wanted to leave his cushy post to visit this small garrison next to the sprawling, deadly desert.

And if the evening didn’t go well, he’d have no qualms taking his annoyance out on me. Slaves were easy to replace, after all.

I ran the dull knife over the collar in a sawing motion as quickly as possible. For ten minutes, I worked furiously. And then I looked at my progress. 

There was none. I felt like crying. But I had to keep trying. Another ten minutes and the faintest of indentations appeared on the collar. It was something – barely nothing – but something. 

My tired and shaking hands slipped several times, leaving knicks and cuts on my neck. A small price to pay for freedom. 

I heard footsteps outside the shuttle and froze. But those steps receded and I continued to saw. 

Hours went by with such pitiful progress that at times I wondered if I should just give up. 

But every time I thought that, I looked at my bruises. And I sped my efforts. 

And now I was committed. If he found me like this, there would be no forgiveness. I was running out of time. I closed my eyes and moved my hands furiously.

When the collar finally fell free, I heaved a sigh and tossed it on his bed, exactly where he’d be expecting to find me when he stumbled drunkenly back onto the ship. I nabbed a sack from his closet and placed the knife, a small canteen of water, and two ration bars inside.

It was all I had time to grab. It had to be enough. Even dying in the desert was better than living one more day with him.

 I slipped on my sandals, took a deep breath, and punched in the ship’s security code.

194035. The date of that damn battle that he bragged about, over and over. 

And Krelaxians think humans are morons.

“Security protocol disengaged,” the robot said sweetly.

I set it to re-engage in thirty seconds. It was all I needed. Anything longer than five minutes, and the system would alert the account holder directly.

I slipped out onto the sands, seeing nothing for miles all around me. But I knew the sun set in the north, and the military barracks were in the south. So towards the lingering sun I trekked, ready to take on anything standing between me and freedom.

After two or so hours, I found the remains of someone else who was claimed by the sands so long ago. I gratefully took their jacket, pants, and boots. I layered my thin shift over the pants, pulled the jacket over my shoulders. And though they barely fit me, it was good enough to get me through the coming cold desert night. 

My feet ached, limbs shook, and my head spun with anxiety. I could hear the calls of the nocturnal beasts emerging from their caves in the distance. My throat was parched, but I didn’t dare drink my limited water too quickly.

Every instinct in my body begged me to turn around and go back to the safety of the ship. The guaranteed food, water, and shelter.

But I would never go back into his chains.

Never.


Alien Devil’s Fortune: Chapter One

Ryrik

“…double down.”

“No, no…again.”

“Dammit!”

“Keep going.”

Words filtered around me as I made my way through the casino floor like a Trolovian river snake. I shuffled, head down, nearly indistinguishable from an everyday patron. Even the staff didn’t really recognize me, and that was the point.

I was collecting intel. It’s what I do best. Blend in, listen, and report my findings. I honed this skill during the war. It’s amazing what deep secrets and critical information people will divulge if they think you’re not listening.

Back then, the intel I dug up was lifesaving. These days, it’s almost as critical. The information I gather and pass on keeps this casino running. The stuff people chatter about, off the cuff, uncensored and unfiltered, is so paramount for keeping guests happy. An old woman at the slots will easily complain about the discomfort of her chair to the stranger at her side. Stick a survey in her face, though, and she’s too dazzled by the gift shop coupon to give real feedback.

“The buffet here is pretty good. I don’t know, they do a great job of grilling the meat just right. But what good is that to me when it’s closed half the time? Sometimes I think about going to that other place down the way. You know the one. Food is crap, but at least they’re open.”

This made my ears perk up. The voice came from Sami Greengall, a high roller who always had nothing but the highest praise to give to my boss’ face. Good to know there’s something we could actually do to make him stay longer.

Full bellies equal open wallets.

I wrote that down and continued on. A lady expressed disappointment in the color choice for the tile in the lady’s bathroom. An old man complained about how bright the lights were over the card tables. One couple audibly spoke about how unfair it was that they couldn’t bring their kids onto the game floor. Well, there was nothing we could do about the actual law, at least in this case. But maybe an offsite child watch program would be lucrative.

This was all very good intel. I finished noting my observations down and forwarded them to Draven, the owner of the Black Star Casino and my old friend. He would read what I found for him and decide how to act from there. He was always the real numbers guy, able to take data and make the best decisions based on it. I left all that to him.

A message beeped through on my percomm. Draven never usually replied to me that quickly.

Again with the kids thing, it read.

I let out a quick chuckle as I pushed my way through some double doors. As I did, I grabbed my suit jacket, straightened my tie, and fixed my posture. Just like that, I’m Ryrik once again. Entertainment director of the casino and respected member of Draven’s inner circle.

Without breaking stride, I walked back onto the casino floor. Suddenly, people acknowledged me. Staff scuttled away and guests greeted me with familiarity. I was no longer invisible. Amazing what such a small change in demeanor could accomplish, especially in a place like a casino.

I made my way to my destination. Our new restaurant. In a far cry from the ever-popular buffet, it was fine dining. We hired a new sommelier and celebrity chef to give the finest luxury culinary experience to our more discerning guests. The kind of guests that even Sami Greengall wished he was.

“Chef,” I said with a nod. He looked at me with enormous, dark bags under his bloodshot eyes. From what I knew about the culinary world, this was a mark of a well-seasoned professional. Even in the endless twilight of Thodos III, dinner service had only just started, and he already looked like he had one foot in the grave.

“Ryrik,” he replied, handing me the menu for the evening. A smattering of guests were already seated, enjoying their aperitif while the kitchen banged out the first round of hors d’oeuvres for the night.

And then there was one group of gentlemen, seemingly enjoying more than what was on order. Amber, our new hostess, was cozied up to their table. She was supposed to be at the stand, not lingering tableside.

The group was VIP Mondions. I considered that maybe she was buttering them up, encouraging them to spend to their heart’s content. I noticed a coy smirk on her face and found that turn of events strange. I’d met Amber a few times, and she always struck me as a little quiet. During her orientation, I noticed she didn’t look me in the eye while speaking to me.

That was why I had her assigned to the hostess position. I figured someone shy like her would do better if she didn’t need to interact with the guests as much as a waitress. Yet there she was, sharing a joke with some of the richest men on the Thodos III space station.

Perhaps I’d misjudged her. That was a realization that settled as fact when I watched her reach out and trail her hand suggestively up the arm of one of the guests. She leaned in closer, almost like she whispered something in his ear.

A tickle of irritation pricked at the base of my spine as I watched Amber flirt with those Mondions. I immediately chided myself. It was ridiculous to get worked up over a human woman I barely knew. Even if she was pretty with her honey-brown hair hanging loosely over her shoulder.

“Ryrik?”

“Yes, it’s good.” I shoved the menu, despite not looking at it for even a moment, back into the chef’s hands. The man needed to get to work and so did I. I had misread one of my staff. That was something that needed rectifying immediately.

My ability to judge people, to gather information from the slightest of cues, had saved our lives on the battlefield.

Now it was my way of helping to build a fortune for myself and my brothers.

If I’d been that wrong about one little human female… it didn’t bear thinking about. I needed to understand her better.

As Amber left the table and went back to the podium, I made my approach.

“Amber?” I asked. She looked up at me with big brown eyes. Something flashed behind them and that wide flirty smile settled into something more demure and polite. I saw her gaze travel all the way down my body, from my horns down.

A flame of desire rushed through me and I quickly smothered it. She was a professional. It was her job to evaluate who she was talking to.

That was all.

“Mr. Ryrik,” she said softly. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes. Walk with me.” I signaled to the front of the house manager that I was taking Amber aside and he nodded in understanding. They weren’t at all busy that day.

Amber matched my pace as I led her to the casino floor, her hands folded in front of her.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ryrik, but did I do something wrong?”

“Not at all. I just wanted to get to know you better.” I stole a quick glance at her face and noticed the slightest blush of pink spread on her cheeks. “I realized I failed in that regard. I should be better acquainted with all my staff. Like him,” I said, gesturing towards a man working at one of the bars. “That’s Clancy. He’s been here about two months now, and he’s already pulling in more tips than some of the bartenders who’ve been doing this for years.”

Amber whistled. “How does he do it?”

“He listens to me. I gather information on our guests and pass it along to my staff. It helps them perform their jobs better. See the woman he’s serving?”

Amber nodded. “Mrs. Perkins?”

I hesitated a moment. How would she know who Mrs. Perkins was? She never eats here, just drinks and plays slots.

“Yes. I told Clancy about her two dogs, and Clancy knows to ask her about them every time she drops by.”

“That’s genius,” Amber replied. “So you don’t just know all the staff, you know all the customers, too?”

“Yes, that’s part of my job. If you ever have trouble with a customer, come to me. I can probably help you get along with them much better. Like those two.” I nod at two brothers, green-skinned Darguns loitering by the bathrooms. “That’s Tumeil and Turnbal. They’re brothers. They seem suspicious, but they just prefer to play at otherwise empty tables. They’ll wait hours for one to open up if they have to.”

“Oh, are they shy?” she asked.

“Paranoid. But otherwise harmless. And that gentleman.”

“Veran Kwiskill,” Amber said. Again, I had to pause. “Let me guess. He’s a widower three times over, so be extra flirty but don’t go home with him. Unless you want to be his number four in the ground.” Amber looked up at me with a knowing little smirk.

“Good guess.” She was dead right. Veran had lost three wives under suspicious circumstances, but this wasn’t common gossip. He was a deeply private person in public. I had to dig to find that much out about him.

How did Amber know?

As an indentured human, she knew just a few too many details about our clientele. She was either very good at her job, or she was up to something.

I studied her, noticing that smile still on her pretty face. Her cheeks were bright pink and her eyes wide as she looked up at me. And there was that pesky feeling again. A sort of possessiveness for something that had never been mine.

I’d never felt like this for a woman before. Certainly not one of my own employees. I indulged a quick daydream of her grabbing me by my horns as I fucked her against the wall.

I shook my head. I had to focus. But the urge to move in closer and take her by the hand persisted. Even as I was sure there was something amiss.

I wanted to let it go, but something about her bugged me.

I brought Amber back to work and had a drink at the bar. I settled in for another round of intel gathering, this time much less lucrative.

Until a few hours later, when I noticed Amber standing in the corner of the casino with someone I could not place. Even after getting a better look at his face, I had to admit I had no idea who he was.

They spoke for some time, then he bought her food from a grab-and-go kiosk. That feeling squirmed around in my stomach again. I couldn’t tell if it was jealousy, suspicion, or a horrid mix of both.

Alarm bells rang in my ears. I had a bad feeling about that pretty little hostess. But I also couldn’t deny the allure of her smile. I hoped, for both our sakes, my suspicions were unfounded.


Alien Devil’s Match: Chapter One

Jalik

            “The one to watch all the way to the end is Jalik,” said the commentator from the box. “He’s got that warrior mentality that doesn’t let up until the final bell.”

            My Nazok opponent locked eyes with me in a split-second halt. His gray skin poured sweat from his brow into his deadly teeth, which seethed in anger at the jab that I just spent across his face.

            I marked his left eye as swollen and raw from the endless jabs my right hook landed. In a moment of decision paralysis, he paused just a second too long.

“Oh, that right hand from Jalik, right to the face again. Denzin has to be feeling it now!” The crowd roared in approval, and not a moment too soon as I dodged a hit to my breadbox.

The maneuver took me back a step too far, and Denzin stepped in with a jab to my back.

“That’s Jalik temporarily on the ropes.”

“Denzin’s been holding his own in this fight. He isn’t done yet, Bovy.”

The Nazok twisted to my right side, trying to distract me with his footwork. Too bad for him, he met me on my good side.

            I landed two shots across his middle, knocking him down to the ground. The ref put his hand across my chest to stop me from finishing him there.

 I looked up, and through the sea of faces, I spotted Ryrik, Black Star’s head of entertainment.

            “Take your time!” he commanded from his seat near the commentator box.

            The bell dinged, ending round eleven. We had a mere minute to regain our senses before the final round. Ryrik shot out of his seat and came to my side while Sakkar, my friend and close coworker, dabbed the sweat from my brow.

            “The people want a show, Jalik,” he said in his sly, opportunistic way. Breath from my lungs burned hot as Sakkar fed water to my mouth.
            “A show?” I wheezed from my stool. “No problem.”

            “Finish him slow,” came the voice of the owner of Black Star, Draven. I was tired. Dead tired. But hell, this was what I lived for.

            “You got it, boss.”

The dinging of the bell called us back into action, with the ref hot between us.

With only three minutes left in the final round, I could see sweat clouding Denzin’s eyes. A jab to his right jaw sent him back, eyes rolling into his head towards the rope.

I bobbed in place, watching him regain his senses. He was slowing down, and I was just getting started. Every solid inch was laced with sweat over my gray skin, making my muscles gleam. My dark gray tracery lined the sides of my arms, flexing with me while my opponent cooled his heels.

            “Nice recovery from Denzin. But the fight’s wearing him down. See how he breaks form, thrashing his weight into every punch.”

            The spectators around the ring swallowed their words to almost nothing. Somewhere in the haze, I could just make out their remarks apart from the din.

            Denzin squared up to me, throwing his right hook toward my ear. But I had my elbows high, protecting my face. The drawback from Denzin’s right arm gave me just enough time to line up my next shot.

            “Oh!” The sea of voices shouted as my left hook found his right ear, sending him to the floor.

“The thing about Jalik,” the commentator buzzed. “He’s got one of the most explosive punches in the game. It’s just a powerhouse of force you don’t want to find yourself in front of.”

            “And the heat he packs into his build.”

            “Yes, Jalik is a hell of a lot stockier than his competitor, but look how he moves in the ring. He keeps himself tight.”

            Denzin squared up to me again, the final seconds on the clock ticking like mad, the crowd losing their minds in the seats below. That final jab across my brow sent fury through me. I stepped into my next punch. One, two, cross to the left side.

            “Argh!” I heard him grunt. That left side had taken a hell of a beating all night. I made sure of it.

            I saw the rage gutting him to the quick. He threw his next punch wildly, his whole body heaving into the lunge. But he was no match for me. Not after eleven rounds to that left side.

            “Denzin’s barely hanging on!” With only seconds to go, I couldn’t waste a moment more of his time.

            The temperature in the room changed quickly when I set into my final attack to finish Denzin for the night. Hit one found his chest, throwing him back onto the ropes and then forward, nearly to the floor.

“Jalik throws right one, two, steps into a right hook and Denzin is powerless.” The ref tried to come between us, and Denzin dug his arms around me in a defensive maneuver. But there was no stopping me.

“That’s why they call him ‘The Train,’ gentle folk. Look at that speed.”

Denzin wobbled on the ropes, his head swinging like crazy while the shutters of cameras flickered in his sweating face. Finally, he lurched backward and hit the ground.

He was out cold.

The audience ate up every moment of it.

The final bell ended the match, and the ref came to me in the center, throwing up my arm to a wave of cheers from the crowd beyond.

“All folks of all kinds, Black Star Casino’s still undefeated heavyweight champion, Jalik Vanut!”

With my arm towering my victory in the air and the waves of approval from my fans beyond, I was fired up. It was irreplaceable, this amusement. Some called it sport, others barbarism. I called it freedom.

After the match, I found myself chest-deep in an ice bath, soothing my wounds and thanking Celestia for my lot.

Like my comrades, I helped run Black Star as Head of the Guards. Unlike my comrades, I won my wages with my fists. Breaking up fights, escorting drunks to the sidewalk. It was all in a day’s work.

They sat in offices half the day, passing off orders and signing their names. I imagine they had to be bored as fuck half the time. But hey, who was I to judge?

As I walked from the locker rooms back into the casino’s main lounge, I saw my fellow Vinduthi, all sitting in our V.I.P. booth. A round of freshly poured Slinta sat in front of Laux, our pit boss who oversaw the gaming tables.

Laux sat next to Draven, who was, as usual, surrounded by papers and percomms. He was a diligent boss, I had to give him that.

“Jalik!” He brightened as he saw me approach the table. He stood up and slapped me on the back. “Another fantastic win. Tonight’s crowd was insane.”

What started as a last-ditch effort to make use of the arena to entertain guests became something of my own pet service to the casino. Aside from my regular duties, it was like giving back, but with my fists.

Next to him sat Thelev, our VIP host, and Ryrik, already plotting the night’s next line of entertainment.

“I’ve got that troupe from the upper levels performing their contortionist routine all week, but after that, I’ve got nothing for stage B in the evenings,” Ryrik said to Laux, passing him his percomm.

“I think I’ve got a solution for that,” Draven answered for him. Without our crew running schemes night and day, Black Star could never be the top-tier establishment that it was.

Of course, it wasn’t only the casino we ran on Thodos III. This station would be nothing without the might of the great Vinduthi mafia, keeping law and order and anything else that could be bought, working to serve the beautiful conglomeration that was this space station.

“Boys.” Draven opened to address us just as Sakkar came to join us from the security control room. We were six Vinduthi, all kings of this station with our own ways and means. Together, we were what made this place the envy of Thodos III.

“We’ve seen a major turnaround since Conii made her latest attack on our slot pits. Since the remodel and the new improvements to our bar area last spring, we’re seeing a steady upswing in customers. Largely due to Jalik’s weekly exhibitions.”

“To Jalik!” Ryrik said, holding his glass high. While the others cheered in unison, I saw something playing in Draven’s mind.

“I know they were supposed to be temporary, but the numbers don’t lie. This is a cash cow we just can’t walk away from.” I couldn’t tell what Draven was fishing for.

“That’s fine,” I said, sitting back in my seat, the knuckles on my right hand wrapped in a nanite ice pack. “As long as I don’t have to fight every night.”

“Well…” Draven grinned. “I want to talk to you about that. This week only. I want to sponsor a championship fight between you and anyone up to the task on the station. Pay to play. Five nights and five fights. What do you think?”

“Winner takes all at the end?”

“Naturally, my friend.” I saw the smile playing across his lips. Five fights in five nights. I’d be a bloodied, battered mess at the end of it, but hey, I’d be a well-paid one.

“That’s not all I’ve got in the works this week, either. I came across something this morning. Something that will have the Black Star crowded every night.”

“Uh, Draven?” Laux asked. “Care to clue us in?”

“I’ve come across a solution to our entertainment problem, right under our noses. Boys, I’m bringing in some fresh talent.”

I nearly choked on my drink at the words. “I thought I was the entertainment,” I said, mocking a sheepish simper for them. Sitting next to me, Thelev responded with an ineffective punch against my rock-hard bicep.

            Ryrik piped in, his face buried in his percomm. “Draven, is this resume for real? She has no real experience.”

            “You’re just going to have to trust me on this one,” Draven said. His hand held up high, motioning for a dark figure standing by the bar to join us.

            “Here she is now.”


Alien Devil’s Wildcard: Chapter Two

Alyssa

As if my day could get any worse.

The massive Vinduthi towered over me, accusing me of stealing. It was just the icing on top of what was already a shit day.

Starting with a bang, and I mean literally. The first thing I heard that morning was the pounding on my door I’ve heard time after time. Desi, looking for his girlfriend, or Romana, looking for her pimp. Whatever the reason, a kick or a bump or someone passing out drunk was the most common feature of every morning.

That morning, when I stepped straight into filth before I even made it out the door, it was just business as usual. Somehow my door frame in what can barely be called an apartment was the ideal location for a vagrant. That day was no exception.

Then after a credit misunderstanding at the baths, I ended up taking the most frigid shower of my life. I arrived late, got chewed out by my boss, banged my elbow on a passing money cart, and forgot my lunch.

So yeah, shit day. As if it needed any competition, I, the first person who tried to figure out what was going on when the machines started to fritz, was somehow accused of being behind it all.

Sure, I didn’t have a background in tech. But I’d been learning as I went, studying late into the nights. Anything to keep this job.

And now this had happened.

Just my luck.

“Well, Alyssa?” Sakkar stared down at me, taking my breath away and pissing me off all at once. Whatever question he asked me was long gone from my memory as his dark yellow eyes pierced into mine.

“What was the…?”

“Are you aware of what would happen to you if you were caught stealing the casino’s money, data, or even a hand towel?”

Gulping before I could answer, I managed to squeak out a reply. “Jail time?”

“Jail would look adorable compared to what I could do to you.” He took a step closer, bending at the waist to hover his face closer to mine. I could feel his anger rising.

He was so close. I felt his breath on my neck, and my pulse quickening thinking of the heat moving inside of him. I saw it, dancing inside his gray skin in the orange-colored signs that swirled across his body.

I was too close to this heat. It radiated.

“I had nothing to do with this, I swear,” I said, unable to stand his proximity in silence any longer. “I’m just a floor tech doing her job. Like any other day, sir.”

“I’m just supposed to believe that?” he scoffed. Standing up now, I caught him looking down as if unsure what to do with me. Kill me? Keep me? It was a coin toss.

I lost all air in my lungs when I felt his grip on my elbow. He was firm but careful. I knew he could easily break me with one wrong move.

“Okay, tech. Which machine did you first notice acting up?” It was like a snap to the face, and within a blink, my brain jumped back into work mode.

“Over here, number 788.” Motioning to the back near an emergency exit sign, I followed the man to the initial scene of the crime. “Looks pretty ordinary to me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said. Stepping closer to the door, he pushed it open with ease. The alarm that should be blaring was dead silent. “That explains how they got in.”

“Or out,” I offered, happy to hear some evidence in his mind that maybe I wasn’t the mastermind behind everything.

“That explains why this one was the first to go off. It was the last one they programmed to receive the hack.”

“Why every other machine, though?” I asked.

“Any number of reasons. It could be that they just aren’t very good. Could’ve been strategic.”

“I’m just wondering out loud,” I said. “Cause if I wanted to steal something, what’s the point of only stealing part of it?” I realized too late they were the wrong words to say. His eyes, deep-set, crossed my face for clues I hoped like hell I didn’t give him.

“Interesting words for someone who stands accused,” Sakkar said, eyeing me again. I felt every fiber of my body begging me to bolt, but it just wouldn’t. These Vinduthi were notoriously fast. And smart. And could practically see through walls.

 There’s no way I would measure up if I dared to cross him. If I wanted to keep my skin, I had no choice but to jump at his orders and hope for the best.

But that didn’t mean I had to be silent. “If my name’s involved in this, I want to help.”

I could see he wanted to relent. I knew I was just a worthless human to him. All these aliens saw us that way.

But this useless human had nothing to lose. I wasn’t about to just sit at home knitting while some unknown criminal stole thousands of gigs of data in my name.

“Then show me that percomm again.” Did his yellow eyes soften, or was I seeing things? It was a start, and a girl’s gotta start somewhere.

I handed it over, and he grabbed it from under my palm to receive it. Strangely, a cold shock hit my system the second we touched. Five seconds prior, I wasn’t sure if he was going to kill me. I couldn’t figure out what was happening.

We got closer to #788 with my percomm to see if there was any link. Using a backdoor connection, he paired our devices and brought up a command bar I didn’t know existed in my server.

“How did you –?”

“Never mind that,” he briskly interrupted me, pointing at his screen. “Look at those markers.”

“They’re identical to the machine’s.”

“Exactly.”

“Any idea where they came from?” I had my own agenda while sleuthing with him, of course. I had no idea why my percomm was used in this scam, but I wouldn’t go down with it.

“Other than your comm?” he asked, eyebrows raised. Damn, I almost had him. “Your comm doesn’t say anything different, actually. To any ordinary tech, this would look like a problem coming from the machine.”

“And from the machine, it looks like a problem coming from my percomm,” I said, finishing the thought for him. “What about the door?”

“Whoever entered the casino could’ve slipped these hacks in months ago. Your percomm was just the remote signaling device they used to initiate the process. All someone would have to do would be near enough to your handheld to signal the op.”

“Then that must have been today.” Maybe this would be easier than I thought. “There has to be security footage from today. Can’t we look back and see if someone was in the area acting, I don’t know, funny?”

“Funny?”
            “You know, watching over their shoulder or whatever.”

He seemed reluctant to admit that it was a good, and probably our only, idea. We walked over to the main security desk where that day’s footage was easiest to review.

“See anything?” he asked with a tight smile. His thumb gently toyed with his lower lip when he looked at me to ask the question.

“No, nothing.” But somehow, I thought that was exactly what he wanted me to say.

“Exactly, Alyssa.” He grimaced at my stupidity. “This is a casino during the dinner rush. Everyone looks over their shoulder and acts suspicious. When don’t they? But I guess you’re trying.”

I didn’t say anything. I knew my innocence, and I was just trying to put it forward the only way I knew how.

“Thankfully, I have a better idea.”

“And what’s that?” I asked with my back turned to the now useless plan to get me out of this mess.

“Good old-fashioned hacking.” He seemed proud of himself, and an hour later, maybe it was not unfair to say I’d seen the best coder I didn’t know existed. It was like he was born with a computer in his hands.

“Do you see that?” he asked while waiting for the search term to break through on the screen.

“Yeah?”
            “It’s a neat shortcut I wrote a few years ago. It leads me through the source code disguising my hack as repairware. And just like that.”

I hadn’t noticed it before, but this Vinduthi was hot when he thought he was right about something. When he thought he was in the know, the swagger came out.

“What does it say?” I asked with my eyes concentrated not on the screen but on his gray skin and orange sigils.

“Hmm. Source code source external. Fuck.”

“I take it fuck’s not good.”

“No, fuck’s not good. Finding the source code externally will be a hell of a lot more difficult.”

“Is there anything we can do? That’s right, Mr. High Brows. I said ‘we.’ I’m not useless, you know.”

His face turned to disbelief when I said the words. It took him a second to think it over, but as I was the only person in the room not dealing with the angry mob or watching the fight, I would have to do.

“Okay then, head back to #788. I’m going to ping you a patch with a multiplier. With any luck, we can get it to transfer its data to the other affected machines. Can you do that, Miss Not Useless?”

“No.” I couldn’t help the grin of victory taking over my face. He was going to let me help him. I thanked whoever was listening up there that at least I had a shot of getting my name out of this mix.

“No?” I saw the anger building in him again. He didn’t like to be countered. But I liked to tease.

“Not until you tell me what you’re going to do to me.” Standing a little taller now, I could see the effect on his face. “Are you going to report me? Am I losing my job?”

“I haven’t decided what to do with you yet. For someone with very little technology skills, you managed to do a good job for a while,” he said. “Let’s say I’m going to reserve my judgment till we find the cause and neutralize our enemies.”

“I’ll do whatever you want. And if that doesn’t prove my innocence, then I don’t know what will.”

“I’ll be the judge of your innocence, Alyssa. You can count on that.” The determination in his eyes as they struck mine filled me again with that dread from before. But it was no matter. I had a dog in this fight now, and I wasn’t backing out just yet.

As per his instructions, I made my way back to the slot pits. It was strange seeing all the colored displays dead and silent.

788 lay waiting for me with its control panel still hanging on its hinges. Once I was in place, I connected with Sakkar, my newfound friend. Well, friend was probably not accurate. Enemy? Boss who might kill me? I’d have to work out those distinctions later.

For now, someone needed to make heads or tails of this mess. Somehow these machines synced together, which they were not supposed to do, and started skimming data. They must have sent that data somewhere. It must have come from somewhere, too.

“Okay, I’m back in. Now what?”

His voice over the comm was even harsher than in real life. Tender pricks licked my ears with his gravelly tones. “Log back in.”

“Yes, did that.” I had to stop myself from sounding impatient. Soon enough, a ping dropped on my percomm.

“So, then I guess you know what to do with that?” Dead silence. “I thought so. Find system settings then bring up the command prompt.”

A few flicks of my fingers across the screen, and the command prompt waited with its simple black and gray format. I couldn’t deny how cool it all was and how much I wished I knew more about it. This simple box was the basis for most computer operations and always had been.

“Okay, download the patch and drop it in the command key with the following code.” He read the rest back to me in an indescribable slur of letters and numbers. I was lucky to receive a half days’ worth of training for this job, but what I would give to be able to know it like he did.

“Now enter this code and hopefully, assuming they still hold the connection, the other odd-numbered machines should ‘tell’ us if they’ve received it, too.”

A few keystrokes later on the machine and my percomm, and the old girl brightened up good as new, save for the odd flicker now and again. In another minute, the odd-numbered machines were up and running.

“Okay, we’ll need to reboot all of the machines running this new patch. It’s not a fix, though, just a patch. We can likely expect that whatever this is, it could happen again, and soon.”

“So does that mean I can get back to work?” I asked, hopeful that at least for now my innocence was assured. I doubt he needed me anymore. “I’ll just get back to the floor then.”

“Not so fast, girly.” He sounded stern, voice cracking like a whip. “Until I get to the bottom of this, I’m not letting you out of my sight. And that’s final.”

I scoffed and turned away quickly, not able to say a thing.

Like I said. Perfect shit day.


Alien Devil’s Wildcard: Chapter One

Sakkar

“You know you can leave this to me,” called the voice of my lead technician, Kardik.

I took another sip of my mug of trishem, my umpteenth for the day.

“Yeah, right, K. Now run that diagnostic again while I calibrate the code to fix the interface. It should be running with two sensors, not three.”

“Okay, fine.” He huffed under his breath, following my command. With the main frame schematic before us, Kardik ran the diagnostic with a quick attack of his fingers across the keyboard.

Our control room in Black Star Casino was state-of-the-art. The nicest on Thodos III by a long shot. As head of security, I was more than proud of the work I did there. It was like my girl.

“You know, I could fix the interface.”

“Not on your life, bud.” Kardik loved to push my buttons, but he knew damn well that no one took care of my girl like me. The mainframe was the work of countless hours, constantly teasing the network for breaks in the code.

I pulled up the prompt box with a flick of my wrist and punched in the command fixes as easy as breathing. Soon the machines started to whirr in unison. Beyond me, the chill of the server room beckoned. And once I stepped in, I was allowed the opportunity to marvel at my handiwork.

The servers blinked in harmony at the back end of my command code. I knew what people saw when they looked at work like this. It was all hardware and numbers; how could it be beautiful? But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this beholder only saw art.

There’s a transient beauty to these machines when they work in harmony and these numbers that guide and direct them to do the work for us. As far as I was concerned, computers were the only technology really worth a damn. There was so much they could do for us in the way they made machinery come alive.

I stepped back into the mainframe control room as Kardik just finished running the numbers. The screen showed its readout over our heads.

“You see that?”

“See what?”

“That code on line 18, it’s supposed to read Cpx0771, not Cpx0770.”

Kardik’s eyes went wide. His dark black sigils swirled dimly in the faint control room light. My own orange sigils swirled across my face and lit up with the victory.

“Good thing I didn’t take off just yet, huh?” Forcing him to admit he needed me was just part of the job. They needed me desperately.

They needed my fingers brushing keystrokes a thousand miles an hour to keep the software of the slot machines working with the hardware. No casino can operate without machines, and between floor technicians, service engineers, and coders, someone had to sit at the top.

“Good thing,” Kardik admitted reluctantly. I knew how desperate he was to take full hold of this operation, and someday, I might even let him.

Just not that day.

“Okay, let’s bring up that report again. I see one more sensor going off on the server in sector 8.”

“That’s unusual,” Kardik said, turning to read the mix of numbers and letters of the otherwise indiscernible language known only to us coders. “You see that readout on the slot pits?”

“Looks like about half of the machines are reporting system failures. But I don’t see any weak points.”

“Okay, that is something. I’ll bring up the readout.” Kardik set to typing feverishly.

At length, the screen read an answer, albeit a confusing one. “Well, this can’t be.”

“What is it, Sakkar?”

“It doesn’t make sense, but it says that half of our machines are stealing data.”

“That can’t be right.”

“No, it can’t,” I told him, sitting at his side. We were serious about hunting down an answer. While it was usually just a glitch in my otherwise flawless security protocol, it was possible for someone to hack the system and get something past me.

It wasn’t likely, but it was possible.

“Okay, there, see. I’ve traced it, whatever it is, to a handheld on the floor. Looks like the percomm of floor technician FT#32. We’ll need to interface with them.”

“Uh-oh,” Kardik teased. He wasn’t wrong. Our soon-to-be-discovered suspect didn’t know what was coming. “Somebody’s in trouble.”

“I’d better head down and check this out myself.”

The elevators down to the casino floor cleared my head only slightly. Breaches like that shouldn’t happen, not with the level of work I put into beefing up the main frame and security protocols over the years.

As soon as the smoky casino air reached my lungs, a voice from opposite the game room hit my ears.
            “Sakkar! What the fuck is happening to my machines?” It was Draven, Black Star’s head of operations. “People are freaking out.”

“I know, I’m on it. We’ve been hacked from the inside.”

My assurances fell on deaf ears as the incoming rush of angry customers all scrambling for a seat at the remaining slot machines had become too much to handle.

“I need to see what this is about,” I explained.

“You need to stay and help me deal with this mob, or else the breach won’t be the only problem here tonight,” he said insistently.

“Okay, but what can we do?”

Fortunately, we were soon joined by Laux, the casino’s pit boss, to deal with the most pressing problem first.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Well, I’m all ears.” Draven laughed. People tugged at his elbow demanding his attention every second of the day as it was. But this was relentless.

“It’s my turn at that machine, that lady cut me,” a patron screamed over our conversation.

“Ma’am, you’re just in luck,” Laux said, escorting her towards the bar area. He shot a look at his mate, Lila, behind the bar. “Li, we need drinks, stat.”

“For everyone?”

“Everyone.”

“What’s this big idea, Laux?” Draven called before he could be ushered away by the angry woman.

“Get Jalik in the ring and promote it as a free event. Easy loss leader. We can stay as long as we need to!” His voice disappeared at the bar as patrons filled the area hoping for free drinks, tickets, anything to appease their tirade against the broken machines.

I realized that Laux’s idea wasn’t half bad. Despite the epic loss in time that could be spent running fixes to prevent this from happening or even spreading, I jumped on my percomm and summoned my friend.

“Jalik, we need a boxing match.”

“You mean now?” As head of security, Jalik had his hands full already. I could hear the din from opposite the call. “They’re freaking out.”

“That’s the point. We need a distraction.”

“And who are you suggesting I fight? My guys are employed all over the casino. I’ve got no one. Unless you mean to grab some bum from The Under.”

“Hey, now you’re talking!” I said, turning on my heels for the entrance doors.

“I wasn’t serious!” Jalik cried into the percomm, but it was too late. The call was over, and I could already see my quarry dressed in rags with some others near the back corridor garbage dump.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, approaching a bedraggled man who looked like he had nothing to lose. “You wanna make some easy credits?”

Easy indeed. With literally no convincing, the stranger followed me to the boxing ring where Jalik stood confused. Hungry spectators crowded around the area, ready to take advantage of their free drinks or seats or anything we offered them.

“I just need time,” I assured him while helping the hobo into the ring by lifting the ropes with my hands for him to pass. Jalik wasted no time building up drama for a fight and motioned for the bell.

“Ding!” In seconds, the fight was on, and the punch thrown by the vagabond took Jalik back half a foot. He looked at me sideways, and I heard his voice over the crowd.

“You better get to it, bud, before this guy takes my lunch.”

“He would, too!” I hollered to the back of him as I made my escape back down the gaming hall to the slot pits.

Half of the machines were fritzing and blinking, and, if that wasn’t the worst of it, gamblers-turned-tech-experts all gathered around thinking they’d be the ones to repair it.

“Okay, folks. I need everyone to back away from all the machines. Technical difficulties.”

The crowd turned angrier than before but eventually dissipated towards the roar coming from the boxing hall. I left it to blood and mayhem to keep them appeased while I tried to remotely disable the responsible device.

Without the roar of a mob to distract me, all that was left on the floor was a handful of employees.

“Technicians,” I said, addressing the mostly human lower staff. “I need you all to present your percomms.”

Faces changed expression quickly. It wasn’t an accusation per se, but these dogs knew well enough that the question alone spoke volumes. Slowly, each hand presented its communication device.

Walking by them one at a time, I took note of the call sticker on the back of each device until, at last, I found it.

“So, FT#32.” My eyes followed a shock of auburn hair down to a pair of eyes that caused my own to widen. They were so green. She was small, even for a human, with a peppering of freckles splayed across her nose. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

She said nothing, but what did I expect? We Vinduthi had a certain reputation that exceeded far beyond the walls of that casino. We ran the station, and every person on Thodos III knew it.

“Well, FT#32? What do you have to say for yourself?” I asked, looking down over her head like she was little more than a doll.

“I asked you a question, technician,” I repeated, watching her tremble. For a thief, she seemed scared shitless. Did she think she wouldn’t get caught?

As my shadow paraded over her face, however, I noticed a bubble of gumption rising within her until at last she spoke.

“My name isn’t FT#32,” she said hotly, her breath trying to escape her lips before she could even get the words out. “And it’s not technician.”

I looked down at the little firecracker, wanting more than anything to laugh. She had no idea how physically powerful we Vinduthi were. How effortlessly I could snap her with a flick of my fingers.

Looking back at the other puzzled workers, I made a quick decision. “The rest of you can go.”

The others disappeared in haste, none wanting to be left behind with the helpless human.

She stood with fists clenched, her percomm shaking alongside her until she met my gaze.

“What’s your name, human?”

“Alyssa.” She shook. “Alyssa Watson. Not that you care.” She was determined to speak, showing herself to be quite brave and quite stupid. “But I was the first person who responded on the floor to the breach.”

“Yeah, and that’s not suspicious,” I reasoned, looking down at her and crossing my arms over my chest. “What’s your tech classification?”

“My what?” She looked confused and angry. Very unlike a thief.

“What systems and languages and platforms are you certified in?” I asked, rolling my eyes. Typical dumb human.

“Uhm…” She trailed off.

“Never mind,” I said, pulling up my percomm and typing in a few digits. “It shows here that you should have the tech background to run these machines with your eyes closed.”

I saw her face fall and I realized the truth.

“But you made that up, didn’t you?” I asked. I had heard about it before. Humans so desperate for some sort of job that didn’t involve stripping or sex work that they tried their best to fabricate credentials. Hoping they’d stave off being forced to sell themselves for just another day.

I could turn her in. But at the moment, I had bigger fish to fry.

“Whoever initiated the breach on this percomm stole thousands of gigs of data. Very valuable in the black market, yes?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She continued to defend herself while also showing signs of relief, her hands crossing her body.

I had to follow up on her, that was for sure. Because if she could lie about having skills, then she could lie about anything else. And she could steal.

Plus, the fact that she had no real background in the tech that we used but still managed to work the floor meant that this woman could learn. And she was very smart.

“You live there, don’t you?” I showed her my percomm with her employee status at the top. “My records show your dwelling under corridor 9F, yes?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” she asked, her voice getting hotter by degrees. “Most humans live there.”

“It’s a known location for data mining and transfers.” I raised my eyebrows to prove the point. The black market was the known lifeline for the humans in the Under. The buying and selling of data were just the tip of the iceberg.

“If I was skimming data, then why the hell would I stick around to get caught?” she asked, dragging the question to the forefront of my brain, too. She was cute but the mastermind of a hack that single-handedly ended machine gambling for a day?

Not likely.

But at least the question caused her enough stress that she relented and handed over the device.

After an initial check, it yielded only one piece of the puzzle. The breach came from this com, but that didn’t rule out if it was simply targeted by the person who did hack the system.

How easy would it be to dupe a dumb earthling into handing over a percomm, even for a minute? Too easy.

Unless, of course, it was her, and she was just a good actress. Her face gave nothing away. She was determined at that point not to show me anything more than contempt for being accused. It seemed innocent, but of course, that’s how an actress would play it.

Her eyes narrowed again, but it wouldn’t do her any good. Until I got to the bottom of whatever this was, Alyssa Watson wasn’t going anywhere.


Alien Devil’s Stake: Chapter One

Claire

I rushed around behind the counter, trying to keep up with what seemed to be a ceaseless barrage of trishem orders. The machine was steaming, the plant milk foaming, and the customers just kept coming. Same as every day, really.

“I asked for nian milk,” an impatient Mondian snapped at me. The Mondians were one of the least offensive alien races on Thodos III, even though they resembled dragons if one was imaginative enough. I pictured the customer breathing fire at me in annoyance. It was something I wasn’t certain the Mondian could actually do, despite their appearance.

The idea wasn’t particularly upsetting. If he took me out right then, at least I wouldn’t have to fill any more orders. But I shook the thought off. No time to be morose about the fact that I was basically a slave here on the station, doomed to live the same day over and over. Until I died, most likely.

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll get your correct order out right away.” I apologized and reached for the offending cup.

He grumbled under his breath. “Never mind. I don’t have time to waste for some stupid human to just mess it up again. What’s a guy gotta do to get a decent cup of trishem around here?”

You could make your own trishem! I clamped my lips shut tight, resisting the urge to say it out loud, though I wanted to. If you weren’t a human on Thodos, you most likely had a nice apartment somewhere on the station. That apartment almost definitely had a trishem maker, and if you were really that tight on time, you could brew your own.

The alien races, whether Vinduthi, Mondian, Fanaith, Nazok, or any other of the numerous species that inhabited the station, only came to a shop like mine as a luxury. A small luxury, but still, one I didn’t have. They had the disposable income to ignore their trishem makers at home, leaving them to collect dust while spending four times what a damn cup of trishem was really worth.

If a fraction of that went to my pocket, I probably wouldn’t have been so bitter. But it didn’t. It all went to the owner of both the shop and my contract as an indentured servant. Orcan, the owner, was a green-skinned, tusked Dargun who didn’t even bother to come into the shop most days. Why should he, when he could collect his profits virtually by percomm while I did all of the work?

“Have a nice day, sir,” I called at the Mondian’s retreating backside. I almost felt him roll his eyes as the door at the front of the store slid open. I didn’t have time to worry about an unhappy customer now, though. Not that I really cared, anyway. What were they going to do, complain to Orcan? If they managed to find him, I had a few complaints of my own.

“How can I help you?” I asked, forcing a fake smile for the Kolluskian next in line. His tentacles waved in the air as he stared at the holographic menu board, clearly having no idea what he wanted to order despite having already had fifteen minutes in line to figure it out.

“I’m on a low-pthymalate diet,” he murmured. “Do you recommend the laxian flavored trishem or the double shot of carotine?”

I had to force my jaw to unclench to answer him. “Sir, I’m not a nutritionist. You can scan the barcode at the end of the counter with your percomm for nutritional info.”

He glowered. “You work here, and you don’t know what you serve? If I have to look up the nutritional info myself, then I’ll have to get back in line!” He waved a few of his tentacles behind him, indicating the massive pile-up that had only gotten longer while he deliberated. Like I wasn’t aware.

“I’ll just do the laxian,” he finally grunted. “Though I wonder what I come here for if you can’t even make a simple recommendation. I could brew my own trishem at home, you know.”

“That’s true. You certainly could,” I replied shortly, trying hard to control my temper. Humans were at the bottom of the food chain here on the station, and mouthing off was a dangerous game for sure.

After the morning I had, though, it was hard to remember that. Not like he’d ever roll off his round ass to figure out how to work a trishem maker when it meant he couldn’t come here every day to boss me around instead.

Eventually, one annoying and demanding customer after another got their chance to berate me and left more or less satisfied. I, on the other hand, was only left with sore feet and the beginning of a headache.

Truthfully, a cup of trishem probably would have helped, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t allowed to sample the goods, and I didn’t have the money to pay the ridiculous prices set by Orcun.

Still, the sweet smell of the laxian flavoring made my stomach growl lightly. I skipped breakfast that day to cut down on my ridiculous food bills. Groceries ate up the little money I got every week, so I had to figure out a way to stretch my budget. Starving, I guessed, was the answer.

Exhausted and finally facing an empty shop, I shuffled my tired legs out to the tables to grab a chair. My plan was to move it behind the counter for now so that I could at least sit, but when I got to the chair, I didn’t have the energy for another step.

Instead, I sank down into the seat right where it was and prayed whoever came in next didn’t scream at me for unprofessionalism.

“Just a couple more hours, and at least the rush is over now. You can do it, Claire. You do it every day. Every day because it’s not like you ever get a day off. So, suck it up. One more day down on the contract. 3,076 more to go.”

Nearly two years ago, I signed an agreement to work here on the station for ten years in exchange for free admission. The majority of the residents here had money and could buy their way on the station outright, but for a broke human like me, it was the only way to afford a place here.

At the time, I thought at least I’d have a safe, warm place to stay with easy access to food. The station was completely self-sustaining, with medical care, grocery stores, restaurants, entertainment, and more. The choice seemed obvious compared to staying stuck on Earth, where I was probably going to freeze or starve to death on a street somewhere.

“Maybe it was,” I reminded myself. “Yes, it feels like it’ll never end, but you’re alive. It’s something, right? There are worse things you could be asked to do than serve trishem to snotty aliens, you know. Don’t be so ungrateful. You’re just cranky because you’re hungry.”

The door slid open, and I jumped up so fast that I knocked over the chair I was sitting on in the process. I hurried to straighten it, glancing up anxiously to see who caught me sitting on the job.

I sighed in relief when a familiar face with the most gorgeous, swirling, dark red lines etched across the side, crowned with a set of horns running back from each temple, looked back. He raised an eyebrow at me in amusement.

“Bad day?” Thelev asked.

“Aren’t they all?” I muttered, but I moved to return to my proper position behind the counter anyway.

Thelev reached out to grab my arm, stopping me before I could get away. My heart skipped a little at the touch. I’d always thought Thelev was almost unbearably sexy, though, of course, I’d never dare tell him that. Even if I had the nerve or thought there was any chance a powerful Vinduthi like him could have any interest in a human like me, I still wouldn’t dare.

The Vinduthi were the most powerful gang on the station here. I was scared of the rat-like Ewani, mostly because they were disgusting. Even the Nazok, with their creepy jagged teeth and manipulative, untrustworthy nature, were best avoided.

But all those concerns were at least tripled when I thought about getting involved, even superficially, with a Vinduthi. I’d heard they ran at least a third of all the organized crime here on Thodos. And there was a lot of organized crime.

Nope. Better to keep my nose clean, work my way out of this damn contract, and just admire Thelev from a distance. I could appreciate his fine muscular form with my eyes and stay safe at the same time.

“Sit,” he urged me. “You know I’m not going to tell on you. Vinduthis aren’t snitches. Besides, who would I tell? There’s no one else here!”

I laughed a little, but he didn’t have to twist my arm. I collapsed back into the chair, eager to at least take another minute or two to rest. “Just let me know when you’re ready to order.”

He shrugged. “You think I haven’t served trishem before?” And with a wink that made my stomach feel like the station just lurched under my feet, he headed behind the counter.

I gasped at first, glancing toward the door to make sure no one was there to witness this. Then I couldn’t help but giggle as he continued to strut around like he owned the place.

I watched with intent as his fingers nimbly worked around the tiny metallic knobs and buttons on the expensive machinery. He had an air to him, like someone who took great pride in handling delicate procedures with ease. I momentarily considered how else he might be good with those agile fingers.

I shook my head in an attempt to rid myself of those thoughts. They were wholly inappropriate, if not completely welcome.

“Do you have a similar machine at the casino?”

He stared at me blankly for a moment. “Maybe?” he finally pondered. “It’s not really in my job description.”

The truth was, I had no idea what Thelev actually did at the Black Star Casino. I knew he was an employee there, and that was about it.

I figured because he always came in for a pick me up late in the morning, he must have been some kind of a go-to for the big shots running the casino, kept up till all hours of the night just to have to do it again the next morning. Maybe that was another reason I was so attracted to him. I felt like I could relate to his hardworking, bottom-of-the-barrel spirit.

“Hey, are you guys getting some new customers at the casino?” I asked suddenly, remembering the unfamiliar faces I’d seen the past couple of days. It wasn’t like we got a lot of passersby here on the station, so new people definitely stood out.

“Business is going well,” he agreed.

“That’s not… no, never mind.” I decided maybe it was better not to ask. Maybe the Vinduthi had a connection to these newcomers, with their reptile-like, scaly skin. The less I knew, the better. That had always been my policy with the gangs, and I wasn’t going to let myself get curious now.

Curious girls were dead girls here on Thodos. I’d rather stay stupid forever. Stupid girls could ogle the hot Vinduthi as he strutted around behind the counter, biting his sexy lip while he tried to work out how to use the data pad to charge himself for the trishem he just poured.

And if he noticed, well, I’d just play stupid then, too.


Alien Devil’s Bluff: Chapter Two

Lila

My first week at the Black Star Casino had been… interesting, to say the least. Especially after my training ended and they put me on the “night” shift, not that day and night really meant much on a space station.

I met more interesting characters than I ever could’ve imagined.

Most significantly, my boss, Laux.

I heard story after story about him in training. By all accounts, he was an intimidating Vinduthi who was used to getting exactly what he wanted when he wanted it. A boss who would snap and yell at you at a moment’s notice, regardless of whether or not you did anything wrong.

Luckily, Laux was hardly the first asshole I’d ever encountered. I knew to stand firm and not give them the reaction, the fear, they were looking for. But he was certainly the most interesting asshole I’d met in a while.

“Good evening, Lila.” Laux approached me almost immediately after my shift started on my third night. His voice was smooth and deep, sending an involuntary shiver down my spine.

“Good evening, sir. What can I get for you?” I asked politely, ignoring my body’s reaction.

“Oh, nothing yet. I just came to talk with you because I like to get to know all of our new employees when they start.”

Somewhere down the bar, I heard another bartender scoff. Laux shot them a deadly glare, and the scoff went silent. Judging by the fact that they weren’t immediately fired, it was probably Gwak. Even I could tell that guy was useless, but I heard his dad was powerful on the station or something.

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything interesting about me to know.” I kept my tone light despite the uneasy feeling in my stomach. Something about the intensity of his gaze unnerved me.

“I’m sure that’s not true.” He stared deeply into me, as if he was trying to intimidate me into spilling my guts, but it wouldn’t work.

Because it was mostly true. There really wasn’t much to share. At least nothing that would be interesting to some rich and powerful Vinduthi.

Even if that wasn’t the case, why would I tell him anything? I’d only known the guy for three days. It’d take a lot longer than that to get me to say anything more.

At first, I found it odd how often he’d come to me to put in orders rather than the other bartenders. Then he asked all these questions and clearly flirted with me. His motives became pretty clear.

I tried to keep from reacting to his antics as much as possible. But as much as it annoyed me, he was handsome. His piercing red eyes stood out from his luminous gray skin and drew me in. I ended up flashing him a smile here and there despite my better judgment.

But I needed to stop myself from doing that. Laux was a Vinduthi after all, and my boss. That was not something I dared to start.

Why would I ever trust a Vinduthi? When had their species ever been anything but disinterested in humans like me? We were on the ground floor of the hierarchy around there while they got to live high above us in their towers.

If being a Vinduthi wasn’t enough, Laux was also my boss. That was even more of a reason not to respond to his advances. I wasn’t exactly working here of my own free will.

But, fuck, he was handsome. His always finely tailored attire clung to his body perfectly. He may have been fully clothed, but every inch of his muscular and toned body was not hard to find. I couldn’t help but check him out when he wasn’t looking, biting my lip.

Then his charm came into play. Watching him switch tones so competently between scolding Gwak, flirting with me, and schmoozing with guests presented a compelling side of him that all the stories seemed to miss.

When he would pace around the casino out of sight, I had no doubt ignoring his flirtation was the best course of action. He was my boss, he was a Vinduthi, and by all accounts, he could ruin my life if things went wrong. By some accounts, he would gladly end it, depending on who you asked. 

But then he’d appear at the bar again, and my sense would all fade away. It was like I was at war with myself and my better judgment. There was just something about him that pulled at me.

“I imagine you’ve lived quite a fascinating life before ending up here. A beautiful girl like you must have some stories.” His voice was like velvet, caressing my skin. I suppressed a shiver.

As much as I hated it, a warmth grew in my chest when he called me beautiful. I wished I could ignore it or be disgusted by it. But the best I could do was hide the fact that I was blushing.

“You’d be wrong,” I said, ducking below the bar to pretend to look for more glasses. “I lived a pretty boring life, just barely scraping by. That’s why I decided to sign the indentured contract. ‘See exciting new places. Meet exciting new people.’ That’s what the advertisements used to say, I think.” 

I couldn’t believe I just accidentally told him some stuff about my past. It wasn’t much but still more than I wanted. He just got me so flustered!

I took a few deep breaths to calm myself. When I was confident my face had returned to normal, I stood back up. Laux was still there waiting for me, a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Well, you’ll definitely get both of those here…with me.” He gave me a big smile, showcasing his disturbingly sharp teeth.

I pretended to ignore him, but I felt my face getting red. Before he could comment on it, some Fanaith with a huge entourage entered the casino floor and Laux was back to work. I exhaled in relief.

As I watched him walk off, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who was wrapped in his spell. A group of young Vinduthi women watched Laux move from across the casino and giggled. When he passed by them, they tried to pose their bodies in a sensual manner to get his attention, but he paid them no mind.

“There were worse places you could have ended up,” I reminded myself as I turned away and wiped down a glass. It was true, but this was hardly a paradise for a human. All night, every night, these other races flashed their wealth and carefree lives to us workers, while I just prayed to someday get a little bit of freedom. 

Euge, an older human man working in the stock room of the bar, had been there twenty years. He was only supposed to be there for five, originally, but he’d gotten sick, couldn’t afford medicine, ended up with his contract resold to the casino, plus a new debt for his medbay time. It made me nauseous every time I thought of it.

“You can’t take any chances,” I reminded myself for the millionth time. I couldn’t risk learning what the outcome of an affair with someone like Laux would be, no matter how attractive I found him. 

I had to walk a fine line. If anything went wrong, who knew what my punishment would be? I needed to play nice to all the creepy customers hitting on me. I needed to not openly reject Laux’s advances, but I also couldn’t give in like I wanted. I just had to smile. 

The next few days were more of the same. Laux flirted with me at every spare moment. Meanwhile, I tried to act like I didn’t notice in the hopes that he’d eventually get bored and move on to someone else. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of what the next few years of my life were about to become.

Late that night at the casino, everything had died down, and Laux disappeared into some meeting with the other Vinduthi in charge. I expected the rest of the night to be quiet.

Then, two Nazok approached the bar. “Ales, now.”

They barely glanced at me long enough to toss money on the bar. To some species, humans were basically invisible, except for workers or as sex toys. At least these two weren’t trying to flirt.

As I poured, the two Nazok kept talking to each other in the worst attempt at whispering I’d ever heard.

“We could place them anywhere in here. The initial blasts can claim a sizable number of lives. Then the rest will die in the ensuing chaos,” the first said.

Uh, come again?

“True. But that’s not what Munk wants, that was made very clear,” the second added, taking his mug of ale from me without a second thought.

“Whatever. Regardless, this will be a Luminance Day to remember.” They both unleashed a pair of ugly laughs as they walked away with their drinks.

I couldn’t believe they just said all of that in front of me. I knew Nazoks were arrogant, but I’d never guessed they were that arrogant. 

I had no clue who or what a ‘Munk’ was, but I needed to find Laux.

Fast.


Alien Devil’s Bluff: Chapter One

Laux

“Mr. Banek, I trust everything is to your liking.”

I approached Banek and his men the moment the large party arrived on the casino floor. He was the Mondion who managed the Pulsar dance club here on the Thodos III space station. As a result, he had enough credits to his name to be treated like a VIP guest when he came to the Black Star Casino to get up to some less respectable activities.

Even if he didn’t, he was also an old ally who had fought beside the Vinduthi in the Battle of Bauxwell. That would have made him a VIP in my eyes, regardless of his reckless spending habits at the casino.

“As impeccable as always, Laux,” Banek mused, already chomping on a cigar. I always found it amusing how many species, had taken to the human invention. The leader of our syndicate, Alkard favored cigars as well, though I had never understood the appeal. Now tequila, that I could appreciate. The smell, the burn, the slow intoxication. But cigars? Just never saw the draw.

“Your usual booth is waiting for you in the back. Can I get anything sent over to you while you get settled?” I offered. As pit boss at the casino, this wasn’t technically my job, but keeping the big spenders happy wasn’t a bad idea for anyone. A happy high roller meant happy bosses which meant happy me.

“How about a round of thump shots for the lot of us?” As his entourage shouted in agreement, he made his way to his booth and I headed to the bar.

My attention was already on the next task as I reached it. Even as I shouted the order over the counter, I scanned the room for the next high roller that might need my help. I knew them all by name, what games they liked, which waitresses they found attractive. In my line of work, those details were more precious than latinum.

“Nine shots of thump shots for booth 27. Top row stuff only for this guest. And don’t get smart. He can tell the difference. Send Queegan to deliver them, he really likes –”

I turned my head to make sure the bartender was listening to me and briefly lost my train of thought. Standing on the other side of the bar was a human, but not just any human. This was the most strikingly beautiful woman I’d ever seen.

Typically, their women hadn’t done much for me. Even though a few had made my friends turn their lives upside down, I couldn’t see the appeal.

But this one was different. She immediately gave me pause. Her shoulder length blonde hair seemed to glow in the lowlights of the casino. Her pale blue eyes shone through the smoky haze of the room like a beacon warning starships of asteroids.

Her curvy build was on full display under her bartender’s uniform. We dressed the bartenders much more simply so customers would keep their eyes on the sexy cocktail waitresses and not notice how much they were being charged at the bar. But this human’s body didn’t get the memo, and she looked incredible. What were we doing hiding her behind the bar? She should’ve been one of the cocktail waitresses. Though perhaps that was for the best – I didn’t need the distraction of other men staring at her all night.

“You’re new…” I finally said after collecting my thoughts. My voice came out lower than I expected.

“Yes, sir, started a few days ago.” She grabbed a top-quality bottle of thump and started pouring shots. Her hands moved swiftly and precisely. “Queegan, table 27.” So, she had been listening. She was already leagues ahead of her direct supervisor, Gwak. That idiot couldn’t pour a shot to save his life.

“Why haven’t I seen you before?” I asked. Queegan, one of our waitresses with long legs and huge…assets took the tray of shots away. Her skimpy outfit barely containing her figure. Once I would have gladly watched her walk across the casino floor. Now my eyes couldn’t leave the bartender in front of me.

“They’ve been training me during the quiet hours. This is my first time on the busy shift.” She barely looked at me as she typed the order in an electronic bill pad behind the counter. With a ding, I heard her send it to the device Queegan carried. Then Banek would swipe his percomm to instantly transfer the credits to pay the tab from the comfort of his booth. Efficiency like that was rare in new hires.

“I assume you know who I am?”

“Of course, I’ve heard… stories about you.” She continued to barely look at me as she made drinks for waiting customers. Her fingers nimbly slicing fruits and pouring mixes. Each movement precise and efficient. Who was this woman?

“All terrible things, I imagine.” Vinduthi were referred to by the rest of the station as both grimfangs and space vampires. Neither term was used with affection. Luckily, the Vinduthi didn’t care for affection as a general rule, so it was of no concern to us. I’d rather be feared than liked, so I had no objection.

At least, until faced with this pretty human before me. Now her, perhaps, I didn’t want to inspire fear in. I hadn’t made up my mind yet.

“Only the worst.” She flashed me a polite smile as she said it before returning her attention back to her work. That brief glimpse of a smile made my chest tighten.

“Well, don’t worry. You keep working here, you’ll have terrible stories about me of your own to share…” I leaned in to read her name tag. “Lila.” Her name felt sweet on my tongue.

“Oh, I bet I will.” She laughed. The sound sent a tingle down my spine. Focus Laux, you have work to do.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another high roller entering the casino floor. “This is the jerk that owns the Glimmering Moon,” I told her quietly. “Everything there is overpriced. You can give him the bottom shelf shit and charge full price for it. He wouldn’t know quality if it bit him in the ass.”

With that, I had to pull myself away from the bar and her.

Lila. Something deep inside me wanted nothing more than to stay next to her at the bar. To listen to the musical tone of her voice and watch her hands as she worked.

It was strange. Most employees would cower and get nervous when I started to talk to them. For good reason – I didn’t take any bullshit. Not during work hours, not ever. I liked it that way, but with Lila, I could already tell I was toning it down. I wanted something different from her, though I couldn’t put my finger on just what.

She just nodded in my direction and kept doing her job, barely giving me the minimum of attention, while still executing every task perfectly. No one ever acted that way towards me. Certainly not my workers, especially not the human ones. Even more so, never the new ones. 

She was so intriguing. A mystery I wanted to uncover.

But as much as I’d like to keep talking to her, I still had a job to do. Without me, this place would crumble to the ground.

“Mallip, we’re so pleased that you’ve chosen the Black Star Casino this evening,” I declared while approaching our latest guest. “We have booth seven waiting for you. First drink is on the house, I’ll have our best girls bring it over to you.” Only fair to give the first round free, since he’s going to be paying three times what it’s worth every other round. But if you’re too stupid to know the difference…

I turned back to the bar, pretending that I needed to micromanage this drink order any further than I already had. Normally, this would be far below my payscale, but I needed to learn more about Lila. I pulled the same move I did the last time, reaching the bar and turning my back to it and nonchalantly scanning the room as I gave my order.

“He’s in booth seven. Send Kyler and…” I turned my head and noticed that the bar manager, Gwak, a guy we only hired because of his extremely powerful father, was the one I was addressing. “Gwak? Where the fuck is Lila?”

“I sent her into the back, sir, we need more tomit fruit slices for –”

“Shut up, Gwak.”

“Yes, sir.” He paused. “Should I go get her?”

“No, you fucking idiot, get the drinks for booth seven. Bottom shelf, and this one is on the house.” I stormed away from the bar. Of course, Gwak of all people was getting in my way. Fucking Gwak didn’t know his horns from his ass, as far as I could tell. Probably sent her away on purpose just to piss me off.

But that wasn’t the end of it. It was madness, but everything I did that night was just an excuse to get back to Lila.

The draw I felt towards her was too strong. I couldn’t ignore it. I was also the pit boss around there, and I could do whatever the fuck I wanted. The only person who could tell me differently was Draven, and that was because I let him. Vinduthi had an unshakeable loyalty to each other, if no one else.

I moved around the booths and weaved between the tables on the game floor, just looking for a reason to head back to the bar. It really wasn’t difficult to do. When in doubt, I claimed it was for guest satisfaction, though I’m sure more than one employee noticed I had never been quite so concerned with everyone’s satisfaction before. This shit was normally Thelev’s job. He was good at it, but I didn’t have the patience on most days.

A famous comet ball player needed a refill at the rolt-jack table? I was on it. That tech entrepreneur wanted something to toast with? I knew just the thing. Banek needed some more cigars? I’d go to the bar and yell at Gwak to get them from the storage room.

Each trip back to the bar gifted me another small interaction with Lila before I’d be dragged away by my responsibilities to the casino. For the first time ever, I was wishing we had a slow night. The small but frequent talks didn’t reveal much other than confirming her resistance towards my usual intimidation. She met each of my quips with her own quick wit. I couldn’t seem to catch her off guard.

“Get someone to bring a lump ale for the gentleman at the thomball table. Immediately.” I barked the order, glancing at her reaction.

“Yes, sir,” Lila responded, continuing to work at the exact same pace she was when I arrived. Something about the way she said sir stirred something within me. I pictured her on her knees, calling me sir.

I swallowed hard, willing the image from my mind. Focus, Laux.

“Sir!” Another employee raced up to me. “Mr. Kraig is getting too… rambunctious on the game floor again.”

“Again? Fine, I’ll handle it.” Throwing assholes out of the casino was my specialty. Maybe roughing him up a little and sending him on his way would be a good use for my increasing frustration.

Later in the night, I finally did something that seemed to catch her attention.

“A mug of whatever is on tap, human,” some young Zequinid slurred out, slamming into the bar. “Quickly, hurry up!” His antennae twitching drunkenly. What an entitled little prick.

I watched the interaction from the side, waiting for a new problem to arise for me to solve, and it looked like one just arrived. Lila rolled her eyes and started pouring the drink. The Zequinid began waving his percomm around drunkenly and impatiently.

“Here you go,” Lila slid the mug to him. “That’ll be –”

“Here,” he said with a belch, shoving the device rudely at her. His lack of manners infuriated me. I would teach him a lesson.

“Everything good here?” I approached, standing to my full height.

“No problems,” Lila said, her face stiff. I could tell his behavior annoyed her as much as me.

“I’m having a lovely time.” The drunken slob slurred.

“Oh, that’s wonderful…” I leaned in close to the Zequinid, grabbing tightly onto one of his insectoid limbs. I whispered with a hint of anger, “Don’t forget the tip.”

Fear sunk into his eyes as I squeezed his arm tighter. Let him get a taste of pain. He seemed to sober up instantly, straightening up to politely close out his tab. Then he rushed away so fast he almost forgot his drink. Good. Now he knew not to disrespect my staff.

Before I returned to making my rounds around the casino, Lila flashed me a wary smile but nothing more. I lived for those brief smiles. Someday I would get more from her.

It was fascinating. The more I tried to talk to her, the more she pulled away. At first, I thought I’d have to give her a little time to get used to me, but I was beginning to think she was actively resisting the opportunity. What employee would pass up a chance to be on their boss’s good side?

Somehow, every aloof reaction only drew me towards her more. I’ll figure her out. I was no longer just interested in her, now I wanted her. And I was going to get her.

The night began to wind down, and the casino started to clear out. It should’ve meant more time talking to Lila. But as my obligations to the casino faded, my obligations to my friends and business partners began.

At the end of busy nights like those, we had a tradition of all hanging out in the casino at the end of the shift, celebrating another successful day and analyzing what could be improved. Usually, I’d enjoy knocking back a few drinks with my crew. But tonight my mind wouldn’t leave Lila.

“Laux!” I heard the call cut through the game floor as I was making my way to the bar and Lila yet again. It was Draven. “I already got the drinks, get over here!”

I paused, not wanting to walk away from the bar. But I had no choice. I’d been through war with that crew. I’d do anything for them, and they’d do anything for me. We were Vinduthi. Loyalty above all else. I couldn’t disrespect them by ignoring this tradition. 

With a last lingering look at Lila, I turned and headed to the booth.

“To another successful night at the Black Star Casino,” Draven said as I took a shot glass from him. We all drank the shots in one smooth motion. The alcohol burned down my throat. “Okay, everyone, give me a rundown of what went on tonight.” Draven, as the head of our group and the casino, liked to know everything. Information was power.

Sakkar, our security specialist, leaped into some rant about the upgrades to the security system, while I zoned out. Sakkar was a good guy, but his tech shit bored me to tears. 

Instead, my eyes fell on Lila across the room as she wiped down the bar. Her golden hair fell in her eyes as she worked. Her lithe body stretched to reach every part of the surface. I couldn’t peel my eyes away.

From that angle, I had a good look at her curves. She was incredible. I still couldn’t believe we had her as just a bartender. 

No. I was glad. I didn’t want other people ogling her all night. The fire inside me burned hotter at the thought of someone else touching her. She was mine, even if she didn’t know it yet.

A deep urge started to grow. I wanted to walk over to her. To stop wasting time and just take her in my arms. Consequences be damned.

“Laux?” I was brought back to reality and noticed the whole crew staring at me with smirks on their faces.

“What?” I growled.

“What… or who were you staring at?” asked Thelev, the VIP host of the casino, trying to hold in a laugh. His job was to handle the ridiculous requests of the high rollers, and he was used to accommodating anything they desired. Yet at that moment, he couldn’t keep a straight face.

“No one… Nothing… Fuck off.” After all the times that I’d teased those guys for similar actions, I could never let them know about my thing for the new bartender. They’d never let me hear the end of it.

As I walked away, I could still hear them holding back laughter. But even with their eyes watching me, I was drawn right back to Lila, and I decided I didn’t even care if they knew it. She was a drug and I was addicted after only one day.


Alien Devil’s Gamble: Chapter Three

Elara

The moment I returned from the Black Star Casino yesterday, I flipped the “Closed” sign in my shop window and dove into crafting the most spectacular floral arrangements of my career for Draven’s gala. I toiled deep into the night, fueled by prishem and determination, before collapsing into bed just long enough to rest my eyes.

My brief slumber was tortured by feverish dreams of Draven’s strong hands exploring my body, his hungry lips claiming mine. I jolted awake to my alarm, heart hammering, wondering just how big certain parts of the Vinduthi anatomy were compared to humans…

Shaking the scandalous visions from my head, I refocused on the monumental task at hand. This high-profile job had to be flawless to please both Draven and the elusive Alkard, who held my fate in his hands. I couldn’t afford to disappoint two powerful Vinduthi, especially my shadowy owner.

Yet despite the stakes, exhilaration flooded my veins. This was my chance to fully embody my family’s generations-old legacy as master florists, not just pretend to be one. I poured all my passion into crafting arrangements worthy of the Black Star’s grandeur, more alive in those feverish hours than I’d felt in years on Thodos III.

“The supply delivery should arrive any minute,” I murmured, checking my percomm messages again. By sheer luck, I scrambled to place a huge special order to stock up for Draven’s extravagant requests. My regular inventory could never handle an event this scale.

I kept the front door locked, only open for customers with prepaid orders to collect. The nonstop work would’ve exhausted anyone else, but I reveled in finally plying my trade after so long playing pretend. Every blossom was assembled swiftly yet meticulously, my standards refusing to slip under the deadline pressure.

As I worked, an idea popped into my head, eliciting a crafty smile. “Maybe I could make some complementary bouquets as an extra thank you for Draven’s business.”

I wondered suddenly if anyone had ever gifted Draven flowers before. What if I were the first? Heat crept up my neck at the thought…

Shaking off the foolish notion, I finished the arrangement in my hands and gently nestled it in a padded shipping crate with the others. I crossed another line off my preparation checklist, relishing the rare chance to put my rusty skills to use.

After a quick water break, I crafted an ornate ballroom centerpiece, painstakingly intertwining exotic alien blossoms. My percomm chimed with a new notification just as I secured the final knot.

“That must be the delivery now, right on schedule.” I scurried to the back entrance, sighing in relief at the stacks of crates awaiting me. I signed for the massive load and thanked the carrier before wheeling my precious cargo inside.

“Time to get all this unpacked,” I said under my breath, stealing a glance at the wall clock. Nearly the entire day gone already, though it felt like mere hours since I started. I set a soothing music playlist to keep me company while organizing the boxes.

I came across a smaller crate, promising rare botanicals within. Carefully releasing the airtight lid seals, I peered inside, then froze in utter bewilderment at the sole occupant nestled within.

“What in blazes is this?” I whispered aloud. Gingerly setting aside the lid, I knelt to examine the bizarre plant. No tag or invoice was included, yet clearly it had been packaged for shipping.

In all my years as an intergalactic florist, I never saw its equal. A slender violet stem spiraled upward, culminating in a fascinating bud cluster unlike any flower I knew. The swollen lavender ovary resembled a tiny bunch of grapes. Interspersed were vivid tangerine nodules, rhythmically undulating as if possessed.

Surrounding this colorful ovary, stark white petals shone with such brilliance, I had to avert my eyes. When I managed to look again, twin trails of delicate violet filaments tipped with minute anthers dangled below the petals.

“It’s… exquisite,” I breathed, leaning closer to inhale its perfume. The heavenly bouquet made my mouth water. Both the appearance and aroma were spellbinding in their allure. I stood mesmerized until my senses returned. This bizarre addition must have been a shipping mistake.

I snatched my invoice copy, certain I hadn’t ordered anything like this. But every item was already checked off as accounted for. Frowning, I studied the unknown plant again.

“Where did you come from?” I murmured. No answer was forthcoming. With a sigh, I moved the delicate specimen onto my work counter to call the supplier and sort out this confusion.

The line rang endlessly before someone answered. “How can I help you today, Elara?”

“Hey, Coreeshi. The delivery arrived fine but there’s an extra flower I didn’t order or pay for. It’s not even on the invoice.”

“Oh dear, my apologies for the mix up! What kind of blossom was it?”

I laughed softly. “Well, that’s the thing. I have no idea what this flower is. Never seen it before.”

“A mystery bloom? How intriguing,” Coreeshi mused. “Describe it and let me check through my catalogs.”

I recited every detail I could discern, even the sweet fragrance. Surely the abundance of information would let her identify it.

“Any ideas what it might be?” I asked hopefully. Silence greeted me. “Hello?”

“Sorry, Elara, I’m just… puzzled,” Coreeshi finally replied, confusion lacing her voice. “The flower you described shouldn’t be possible. It couldn’t have come from any of my greenhouses.”

My own confusion grew. “What do you mean ‘not possible’?”

I heard Coreeshi take a deep breath before answering gravely. “Let me explain. Last year, I acquired some rare seeds unlike anything in my current stock. I cultivated a small batch in the station’s greenbelt, intending to sell them as exclusive specimens.”

I leaned against the counter, a feeling of dread creeping up my spine. “What does this have to do with the mystery flower in my shop?”

“I’m getting to that. Before I could sell any, I received an anonymous threat warning me to cease all activity related to that particular flower immediately. I still don’t know how it ended up with you.”

A chill tingled across my skin at the mention of the ominous warning. Who would go to such lengths over a mere plant?

I licked my dry lips nervously. “Just tell me what I’m dealing with here. What is this flower?”

Coreeshi hesitated before answering grimly. “Most people dismiss the rumors as superstitious nonsense. But some believe the seeds are from an extinct alien civilization. That’s all I know about its origins. That bloom has always given me an unsettled feeling, to be honest.”

My knees nearly buckled in shock. This couldn’t be real. Surely a harmless flower couldn’t possibly have such a disturbing history behind it. And yet… the subtle aura of otherness it exuded left me deeply unnerved.

“I need to return this to you immediately,” I declared, steadying my shaking hands against the counter.

“All right, all right… I could organize something, but my inventory space is full right now. It’ll likely be two or three weeks until I can take it back.”

My wide eyes were irresistibly drawn back to the cryptic plant, its hypnotic colors and movements suddenly more ominous than alluring. As much as it unsettled me, destroying such a rare specimen felt wrong. But keeping it was clearly risky…

I forced a calm I didn’t feel into my voice. “On second thought, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll just keep the flower here for now. Sorry to bother you over nothing.”

Coreeshi didn’t sound convinced. “Are you certain? You seemed quite disturbed earlier.”

“Positive. I overreacted, my mistake,” I lied breezily. “No need to return what I didn’t pay for anyway. Let’s just move on.”

“Well, if you insist… Please accept 10% off your next order as my apology for this mix-up.”

“Sounds great. Thanks, Coreeshi. Talk again soon.”

I hung up, my eyes stuck on the plant like glue. I was clueless on what to do with it. Coreeshi’s words kept echoing in my head. Her story was frightening, but she said it herself, what she knew was just speculation.

It was a sight to behold and could sell for a high price. Any of the wealthier aliens on Thodos III would pay good money for a one-of-a-kind flower, and there were plenty of them around. Then again… maybe I wouldn’t be so lucky as to receive a warning.

I grabbed my digital encyclopedia. It contained just about every bit of information known on any flower to have ever existed, both extinct and living, dating back countless ages.

“There has to be something on this. There’s no way a seed still exists without the flower being recorded.”

I swiped through each page of the ‘extinct’ section, then the ‘living’ tab, all while comparing each picture to the beauty that sat on the counter before me. I checked twice for good measure but to no avail. I threw aside the encyclopedia, angered by the lack of answers.

Without thinking, I grabbed the flower and took it to a storage closet, making sure to take a lighter with me. Igniting the flame, I held the flower over a garbage can and brought the lighter close to within inches of the nearest petal, but something told me to stop.

What I had in my ownership could have potentially been the last of its kind. That in itself was enough for me to extinguish the flame. Frustrated, I cursed at my inability to decide what to do with the damned thing.

I carried it back into the shop floor and slumped onto a chair. It felt as if the efforts of my work for Draven were now hitting me all at once, for a wave of exhaustion came over me. It didn’t help that I still had a lot to do.

“Maybe I just need some time to think. I can’t make any rash decisions,” I whispered. “For now, I’ll just have to hide it away from prying eyes… but not before I get a closer look at it.” Yet I found myself unable to resist examining the cryptic plant again first. Each detail burned itself into my memory, from the hypnotic colors to its unearthly perfume. One thing was certain—I had to discover the truth about this impossible flower’s origins, no matter what darkness I uncovered.


Alien Devil’s Gamble: Chapter Two

Elara

“Thank you so much, Elara! I’m thrilled with the bouquet,” chirped another satisfied customer. “I’ll tell all my friends about your fabulous shop!”

“You and your friends are welcome any time,” I replied warmly as I tucked her flowers into one of my special airtight carrying cases, designed to keep the blossoms fresh. She admired the bouquet through the clear lid.

“These containers are so clever,” she remarked, clutching it in her mandible.

“It’ll help the flowers last as long as possible,” I explained.

“That’s exactly why people love your shop. No other florist around here offers anything close to what you do. I hope business is booming for you!”

I laughed softly. “Well, it could always be better, but I’m getting by just fine,” I hedged. For a human eking out a living on Thodos III, ‘fine’ meant not starving or being attacked on a daily basis. We were relegated to the shadows, either hiding to avoid notice or lacking funds to live anywhere better. Most of us bought passage here by signing indentured servitude contracts, sacrificing our freedom for the chance at a new life.

The fact that my particular contract entailed arranging flowers all day rather than performing as a stripper or sex worker made me one of the lucky ones. Celestia knew I had it far better than the majority of humans on Thodos III.

My elusive boss wasn’t completely heartless in his treatment of me. He even let me keep a tiny cut of any legitimate shop profits, paltry as they were. Between that and my meager living quarters tucked away upstairs, I really had little to complain about.

Especially considering the alternative fates that could have easily befallen a newly arrived human woman on Thodos III. I never met him, but I heard Alkard wasn’t known for his generosity. Yet for whatever reason, he showed me mercy. I dared not question his motives, however. Ignorance was bliss when it came to Vinduthi syndicate operations.

The chattering Nazok customer spun around to leave, jolting me from my thoughts. I logged the transaction in my holographic records, tidying up as the portal doors whisked shut behind her.

My gaze drifted over the shop’s simple inventory system. The meager sales I conducted were a far cry from my family’s sprawling greenhouse nurseries back on Earth. But carrying on the floristry tradition gave me purpose, even lightyears away on this cold metal outpost dangling in space.

When Alkard’s enforcers purchased my indenture contract, they came to outline the terms of my new shop’s operations. First rule: ask no questions. Easy enough, I complied without hesitation. Next, they emphasized the criticality of convincingly posing as the face of a legal retail business. For me, that obviously meant floristry.

At first, I thought it was some elaborate trap or scam to extort me. But Alkard upheld his end of the bargain as long as I held up mine. I could hardly protest or make demands in my position. Better to keep my head down and be thankful for each day that went by without incident.

The faint whisper of the front door whisking open snapped me from reminiscing. I glanced up from the counter, expecting to greet another customer. Instead, the imposing figure striding toward me stole the air from my lungs. I clutched the counter edge to keep my legs from buckling outright. Thank the stars my weak knees were hidden from view.

The alien man was tall and athletically built, devastatingly handsome in a crisp gray suit that matched his unique complexion. His bare forearms bore raised scarlet tracings that reminded me of ancient tribal tattoos. Small horns crowned his temples, peeking out from his shortly cropped black hair. Everything about his commanding presence screamed that he was someone important.

He froze momentarily upon seeing me, seemingly surprised to encounter a human proprietor here. While not entirely unheard of, we were still a rarity running independent businesses on Thodos III.

Drawing himself up, he approached with steady, purposeful steps. I tried unsuccessfully to still my hammering heart.

“Good morning, sir,” I managed steadily despite the adrenaline flooding my veins. “How may I help you today?”

Full lips parted in a smile both captivating yet guarded, a man focused on business rather than idle niceties. Still, that restrained smile suited his angular features perfectly.

“I’m doing very well, thank you,” he replied politely. Even his voice was compelling, rich and smooth. “Might I inquire what sorts of services you offer here?”

I gestured broadly around the modest shop. “Anything related to flowers, really. Bouquets for special occasions, arrangements for events and parties. Just name it.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, keen gaze sweeping the inventory. “I see. And might you have a spray on hand that would be appropriate for, say, a lively social gathering?”

I tilted my head, sensing an intriguing opportunity. “Perhaps a centerpiece for a special occasion instead? Those are quite popular for parties these days.”

“A party it is, indeed.” He flashed a knowing grin that made my heart skip. “In fact, I’m interested in commissioning your services for an upcoming gala event at the Black Star Casino.”

My eyes widened in shock. The notorious Black Star, owned by the shadowy Vinduthi syndicate? And he expected me, a lowly human florist squatting in their territory, to decorate their exclusive venue?

“Oh, I’m not sure I could handle an event that large alone,” I blurted uncertainly. It might never have been said outright, but I wasn’t stupid. Alkard owned this shop as one of his fronts, but surely he didn’t want me doing anything to attract that much attention.

“Not to worry, Alkard holds a vested interest in the casino’s success,” the stranger said smoothly, reading my hesitation. “He’ll be pleased with your participation, I assure you.”

I bit my lip, tempted despite myself. It would be thrilling to tackle such a large event, an opportunity unlikely to ever arise again once I returned to the shadows after this odd encounter.

And catering the gala for the notorious casino? Even just getting a glimpse inside would be the most excitement I’d had in years. As a human, I was relegated to the underbelly of Thodos III, virtually barred from such lavish places.

“Well, decorating a big event does sound like it could be fun,” I admitted, unable to suppress a giddy grin.

“Speaking of which, I don’t believe I ever properly introduced myself. I’m Draven, proud owner of the Black Star Casino’s restaurant and entertainment venues.” He extended a large hand.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I replied, clasping his hand. His warm, firm grip sent a tingle up my arm. Our handshake lingered perhaps a beat longer than appropriate before I reclaimed my hand, hoping my flustered state wasn’t obvious.

Clearing my throat, I met his mesmerizing amber eyes. “So, you really think I can handle decorating your gala?”

“I have every confidence in your abilities,” Draven assured me with a devastating smile. “Now, shall we discuss the details?”

Within minutes, we stood inside the lavish casino. I gaped in awe, having only ever glimpsed its exterior before. Gleaming rows of slot machines and gaming tables stretched as far as I could see. I didn’t miss how the staff straightened respectfully at Draven’s entrance, doubly so when his intense gaze settled on them.

“Now, we’ll have some of your arrangements displayed here in the casino and restaurant wings,” Draven explained, guiding me through the crowds. “But the majority will be in our ballroom for the gala.”

I gave him an incredulous look. “There’s a ballroom, too?”

He chuckled, steering me toward a nondescript side door veiled by a curtain. “Indeed, it’s used mainly for private events. I think you’ll be impressed with the space available for your floral masterpieces.”

Draven whisked back the curtain with a flourish, ushering me into a positively cavernous room beyond. My jaw dropped as I took in the soaring ceilings and expansive dance floor. Floor-to-ceiling viewscreens lined the far walls, currently displaying hypnotic nebulae swirling through space. For a moment, I almost imagined we were adrift among the stars.

Workers milling about prepping the space jumped to attention at our entrance, industry doubling under Draven’s watchful eye. The ballroom was in a state of controlled chaos, tools and boxes of decor everywhere. But I already envisioned the huge surfaces available to decorate however I pleased.

“As you can see, you’ll have no shortage of space to highlight your work,” Draven commented, clearly pleased with my reaction so far.

I laughed giddily. “I just hope my arrangements can live up to the grandeur of this place!”

He led me over to a sad discarded pile of flowers, handing me a limp bloom. Our fingers brushed, sending a spark up my arm. I prayed my blush wasn’t visible through my freckles.

“Our previous supplier was clearly inadequate.” Draven’s lip curled derisively. “This one’s nearly dead already.”

I examined the wan, wilted petals critically. “Yes, it has only hours left at most. With proper care though, blossoms can make all the difference.”

Draven nodded decisively. “I’ll be frank, Elara. For this gala, I expect only the finest, most elegant arrangements money can buy.”

His praise made my heart flutter, but the intensity of his gaze was almost overwhelming. I wondered briefly if his charming demeanor hid something more dangerous beneath the surface. He clearly wielded immense influence here, more than just a restaurant owner…

Banishing my doubts, I met his stare evenly. “I promise you’ll have the most stunning decor ever seen on Thodos III.”

A hint of surprise flickered in Draven’s eyes, followed by a crooked smile that made my knees weak all over again.

“Of that, I have no doubt. Now,” he purred, “show me what you’ve got.”

With the ballroom staff’s help, Draven projected my portfolio across a large floating holographic screen. While he reviewed my work, I tried unsuccessfully to rein in my soaring excitement. I still couldn’t believe this tremendous opportunity fell into my lap.

“As you can see, I’ve worked mainly smaller events before—birthdays, memorials, some business openings,” I explained as Draven scrutinized the images. “The restaurant across from my shop was the largest project so far.”

“These flowers are remarkable. Some I’ve never even seen on Thodos III,” he mused. His penetrating gaze met mine. “You clearly know your trade exceedingly well, Elara.”

Heat rose to my cheeks at his praise. I smoothed back an errant curl self-consciously. “Well, what can I say? Flowers are my passion.”

Draven’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “Admirable to see someone who appreciates flowers seriously. This casino is my greatest creation, so naturally every detail of the gala must be flawless.”

I smiled in understanding. “Of course. I assure you I’ll do everything possible to fulfill your vision.”

For a long moment, his piercing eyes searched mine intently. I held my breath, pulse racing. Everything about this fascinating man left me captivated.

“I must say, I’ve never worked directly with a human before,” Draven remarked. “You’re quite delightful to collaborate with.”

I exhaled in relief, touched by his words. “Well, I find I can talk to almost anyone who’s friendly.”

“In that case, there’s something I want you to know.” Draven moved closer, voice dipping low. I leaned in, pulse quickening. What secrets might he divulge?

“This event holds special meaning for me beyond business,” he confessed. “It’s a celebration of lifelong brotherhood amongst my inner circle, my most trusted compatriots.”

My eyebrows shot up in surprise. I wouldn’t have guessed someone in Draven’s powerful position would use his venue to selflessly honor friends. It hinted at a depth I didn’t expect.

“That’s really thoughtful of you,” I said sincerely.

Draven cleared his throat gruffly. “Well then, shall we make this partnership official?”

He extended a large hand. I clasped it without hesitation, electricity shooting up my arm at the contact. The deal was struck.

I bid Draven farewell outside the casino sometime later, disappointed our encounter ended so quickly. But I was eager to begin crafting arrangements worthy of the gorgeous ballroom.

As I strolled off, I pinched my arm just to ensure this hadn’t all been an elaborate daydream. But the lingering tingle where Draven’s hand enveloped mine was real enough. Despite the unanswered questions surrounding Draven and his intentions, one truth was undeniable: this commission was the most exciting thing to happen in my dreary existence since arriving on Thodos III. And I couldn’t wait to make the Black Star Gala bloom.