Raxor stalked over to the bar and slammed his mug down on it. The sight of a seven-foot-tall, orange Vaznik warrior apparently demanding more booze was too much for the white-furred, Hothian barkeep. The barkeep squealed, hurrying to refill Raxor’s mug. Raxor’s horned head didn’t even turn toward the Hothian before the fellow Vaznik warrior returned to our table.
Raxor wasn’t even angry at the barkeep. He was angry at me.
We’d been going around the topic for an hour now, and were no closer to agreement.
“All that I’m saying is, there were dozens of Humans and Kimicusian on that research center on Yimïk III.” He settled into his seat and fixed me with a steely gaze. “Something happened to them.”
“Yes, maybe a solar flare took out their comms relay.” I still nursed my first mug of ale as I returned his glare, spark for spark. “Or there was a gamma-ray burst, or some other explanation.”
“Or maybe it was pirates. Or Suhlik.”
I gave him a long, searching look. “Raxor, do you really think they’re going to dispatch the Honor’s Blade to a forsaken swamp like Ymik and the edge of the known galaxy?”
“Don’t you want a chance to earn yourself some honor?”
I tapped my fingers on the table and sighed.
“You really think there’s honor to be had in a swamp—”
Our comms flashed, and a general communique came through.
“All hands of the Honor’s Blade, Nova, and Sunder are to report to their ships immediately. This is not a drill. And before any of you pansies whine about it, yes, I’m canceling your shore leave. Now MOVE.”
“Sounds like the Admiral’s mate made him sleep on the sofa again.”
I gave him a look as we rose from our seats and jogged into the streets of the space port.
“On the sofa?”
“It’s a human thing.”
I laughed as we rounded a corner and startled a pair of Akle. They trumpeted at us in annoyance as we jogged past.
“You ever think what it might be like if your match comes up in the lottery, Raxor?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s statistically unlikely to occur, so I don’t bother even considering it.”
At least, not much.
Ever since the humans had become the newest species to join the lottery, we’d all become a little obsessed with their culture.
Just in case.
We reached the docks and found Honor’s Blade waiting for us. She was a magnificent Explorer-class vessel, with the sleekly designed hull meant to deflect weapons fire. The elegant look was merely a side effect of good engineering.
As we boarded, our comms pinged again, directing us to the muster point.
Captain Soanzo greeted us with a short nod, and as we stood at attention the decks hummed as the engines sprang to life.
Soanzo was an older Vaznik, the red of his skin fading to a dull pink. Don’t tell him that, though, unless you want his pink knuckles in your mouth. He stood nearly as tall as Raxor and I, but had a bit of a stoop to his back due to his age.
“Kavok,” he rasped in his growling, take-no-shit voice. “Have you been keeping up with the situation on Yimïk III?”
“I heard the Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center ceased all communications with Mahdfel HQ a few days ago.”
“He heard that from me, actually, Captain,” Raxor said. I shot him a dirty look, but Captain Soanzo was in no mood for any of it.
“I want you to assemble an away team and investigate when we reach the planet.”
He stood there, staring at me for a moment.
“I meant now, Kavok,” he snapped.
“Yes, Captain.” I turned to Raxor. “Here’s your chance for glory if you want it.”
“I’m in. I knew this was going to be a thing.”
“Yeah, don’t break your hand patting yourself on the back.”
He gave me a look, then twisted about and tried to touch his own, massive back.
“What does that even mean?”
“It’s a human saying. It means don’t expend too much energy congratulating yourself or you might be injured.”
“The humans are so barbaric. ‘Eye for an Eye.’ ‘Break a leg.’ ‘Break a heart.’ There is no end to their cruel metaphors.”
“I’m not sure the first one was a metaphor. I think humans actually did that in the distant past.” I considered him for a moment.
“Yeah, yeah, I feel you. So who are we bringing?”
“I’m thinking Vrako, Rikov, and Jakar.”
“Jakar? But his breath smells like Toyolian vomit cheese.”
“He’s a hell of a shot with a plasma rifle, and he never complains. Unlike someone I could mention.”
“Yeah, you’re a laugh riot. You should try being one of the human’s stand-up Canadians.”
“Canadian?” I shook my head. “It’s stand-up Kardashians.”
“Whatever. Let’s go collect the team so we’re ready to go when we arrive at Yimïk III.”
I felt the engines throbbing through the deck plating. We were powering up the faster-than-light drive. It wouldn’t be long before we arrived at Yimïk III, along with our twin, Cruiser-class escorts.
Despite what I’d said to Raxor earlier, I was quite eager to distinguish myself with excellent service. Most likely it would turn out to be a false alarm.
But if it was not, then I would show the galaxy what Kavok the Vaznik warrior was capable of—
“Kavok.” My comm buzzed. “Change of plans. Report to Administration immediately.”
“Admin?” I blurted.
“That’s an order.”
Raxor and I exchange glances. Whatever they wanted with me at Admin, it was likely to be trouble.
I just hoped it wouldn’t interfere with my honor and glory, whatever it turned out to be.
“You know you don’t have to do this, right?”
There was the slightest tremor in his voice. I always hated when Dad worried about me.
“She will be fine, Charles. She’s not six anymore, you know.” Mom wrapped her arms around him, smiling as she used her hug to shake him a bit.
Dad gave in and let mom shake the stiffness out of him. His worry face slowly turned into his goofy face. He had never won a single argument with my mother. Somehow, Mom’s ideas always had everyone’s best interest in mind and who would want to fight with that?
I watched my parents as they comforted each other in their own way and hoped that a genetic match meant more than just biological compatibility. Just a little of the magic my parents shared would be more than I could hope for.
No time to go all mushy cakes now, Helena. We’ve got things to do! Focus!
“All right you two, thanks for not making out and making my last memory of you totally awkward.”
Dad laughed and Mom winked.
“We are saving that for when you’re gone.”
“OH MY GOD, MOM! Why would you tell me that?”
She flashed the impish grin we shared, the one that let you know she was about to play dirty.
“Since we are sending our child off to consort and bear children with an alien species, do you think we should finally have a chat about the birds and the bees? It’s our responsibility to make sure she’s prepared, isn’t it?”
Dad took one look at my face and busted out laughing.
“Come one now, Helena. I’m pretty sure little Jacob hadn’t got too far when Dad caught you in the shed that one time.”
“Mooooommmm! That was years ago! Here I am, leaving to explore the galaxy and…”
“See, Charles? She’s perfectly fine with her decision. She’s not even one bit nervous when she says it. She won’t even miss us one bit.”
Her face softened into a sad smile and her eyes had tears in them. Mine did, too.
“My baby girl. I love you so much and I am so proud of all you’ve done, and I am so hopeful for your future.”
I don’t think I had ever hugged my parents so hard as that moment just before they got back in the car and watched me head into the testing center.
No turning back now.
I stepped into the lobby, hearing the soft swoosh of the doors close behind me. A kind-looking lady was at the reception desk.
“Hello, young lady. Are you here to volunteer?”
A noise that sounded more like a squeak than a word came out of my head when I opened my mouth.
Get a grip, dammit. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“Ahem. Sorry about whatever that was, ma’am. My name is Helena James, and I would like to volunteer to be tested for the Madhfel program.”
“I understand. I need to remind you that, if your birth date has not been called, you don’t need to volunteer, and you can still change your mind.
“I understand, ma’am. I’ve made my decision and I am ready.”
“Alrighty then, please follow me.”
The kind woman led me past another set of doors into a hallway with rooms on either side. She stopped and motioned me into Room 9.
My lucky number! See? Good signs are already happening!
“The proctor will be right with you. If there is a match, we will know very quickly.” Before she closed the door behind her, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of candy.
“You look like a good kid. Eat this. It’s a ginger candy. It will help your stomach later.”
“Oh! That’s very kind of you- Ms.—”
“Betty. Everyone calls me Betty. You go have yourself some adventures now, ya hear?”
“Yes ma’am, Ms. Betty.”
Betty hadn’t been gone long when the proctor came in. He hurried around the room, turning things on and gathering a few supplies.
“If you will just have a seat and hold out your hand, palm side up, please?” He swabbed a fingertip with alcohol and used a needle to prick it and take a tiny blood sample. He placed the sample on a slide and slid the slide into one of the machines he had turned on.
He said nothing while the machine did its work. Within just a few seconds, the machine dinged, and a green light turned on.
“Looks like we have a match. If you will please walk to the wall with your belongings? Yes, just like that. Now turn and face me. Deep inhale and…”
He jabbed something into my temple.
A second later, my mind felt like it was in one of those twisty-turny movie effects. When it was over, I found myself in, what I could only describe as, a control room. My knees turned to jello, and I, with all the grace of a drunken ostrich, crumbled onto the floor.
I heard voices and noises, but everything blurred together, and I couldn’t make sense of it.
I was about to pass out when I felt strong arms wrap around me and heard a sound that felt like velvet to my ears. I opened my eyes and looked into eyes that I somehow knew.
“Are you well? What is your name?”
Oh, thank goodness! I can hear again!
Some more noise in the background- another voice, maybe?
Okay, maybe it will come back after I take a nap. I could feel my head begin to bob.
“Is your name Helena James?” kind eyes asked me.
“Yes, my name is Helena. What is yours?”
“I am Kavok.”
“Kavok. That’s a cool name. You have kind eyes.” I put my hands on his arms to try and help myself up and his tattoos changed color. “Hey, your tattoos are glowy. Cooooool.”
I think I smiled at him, or at least tried to, but I must have looked like a drooly idiot because he was not smiling back at me when the lights went out.