“I’m so going to miss you, baby girl. No matter where I go, it’ll never compare to what we’ve been through together. You’re my number one girl forever.”
I must’ve knocked some engine dust loose because my eyes were watering under my safety glasses. I was all alone with my Aurore and I didn’t know when I would see her again. My heart was breaking knowing I had to leave her.
“Me and you, Aurore. Me and you.”
Our song was playing on the garage speakers, loud and raucous, just like us on the track.
I swore when my comm began ringing, interrupting our last moments together. I decided to ignore it and pressed my hand to the heart of my beautiful beast. It’s what I loved to do, work on mechanical things. Sure, I had a knack for anything mathematical based – like languages – but building and working with my hands was what I loved the most.
Why won’t the comm stop ringing? I told everyone to leave us alone! Dammit!
I slid out far enough to fumble around for the comm and managed to push it in the opposite direction I wanted it to go. The comm tumbled into the engine compartment, banged against the sidewall and landed squarely on my forehead.
I rubbed my head with one hand and answered the comm with the other.
“WHAT. THE. FAWWW–?!”
“What did you just say?”
“ ‘Ama…is everything ok?”
“Yes, Meli. What could be wrong with your mom checking on you?”
Here we go.
“ ‘Ama, you know I –”
“Yes, Meli, I know you’re with that car. I don’t know why you would spend so much time saying good-bye to a car when you could be with your family. Unless you’ve changed your mind and you are going to stay?”
“Aurore is family, too, ‘Ama.”
“Aurore. I don’t even know why you gave that ugly car a name, or why it’s a pretty one.”
“Because she’s a sleeping beauty, Mom. She’s what Daddy and I wanted to build and race together. That’s why.”
Mom must’ve caught the same lump in her throat that I had because her voice sounded sad when she spoke.
“So you are still going? How am I supposed to talk to you so far away?”
“I got the hookup from the boys in J-town, mom. They were so happy to stop losing races to me and Aurore, they practically paid for this intra-galaxy comm themselves. They say IGCs get reception anywhere.”
“Okay, Meli. I’m just going to miss you so much.”
“I will miss you, too, but I will be home soon, and with the money they pay me, you won’t have to worry about my schooling, or my tools, or paying for the house, Mom.”
We talked a little longer but I don’t remember what about. I just remember that, in that call, I felt like our family was whole again, and I was saying goodbye to them.
It took me a few minutes to gather myself after we hung up. Family was everything to me, but this was something I had to do.
I grabbed my tool pack and stuffed it into the bottom of the bag of clothes I was allowed to take with me. I walked to the door, flipped off the shop lights and blew a kiss at Aurore.
“I’m coming back for you.”
My ride was waiting right outside the door as I locked up. My favorite cousin, Johnny, leaned back in the driver seat, smiling.
“Hey Mel. I thought this would be better than a limo to drop you off.”
His lowrider was one of those giant cars from the 1970’s with a hood you could land aircraft on. It was painted green with gold metal flake, gold trim, with a white, leather interior, and stood about a half inch above the ground.
“Oh, my God, Johnny. For reals?”
“Well yeah, ‘cuz. This one has an Aztec mural of a virgin sacrifice, so I thought it would be like, appropriate and shit. You know?”
I couldn’t help but laugh as I slid into the passenger seat. We made jokes and laughed all the way to the testing facility.
I knew Johnny would make me laugh so hard I wouldn’t change my mind and chicken out. That’s why I had asked him to take me. If it had been my mom, I wouldn’t make it out of the car.
By the time Johnny drove away from the testing facility, I was feeling optimistic and confident again. As he turned out of the parking lot, he hit the hydraulics and gave me a three-wheel salute.
Alright, Mel. Let’s do this.
I still don’t quite remember everything that happened after that. I remember walking into the facility and it being full of people rushing in every direction. I could hear crying, a few screams, and a lot of cursing.
The people in lab coats were trying to escort women, one-by-one, through a set of doors. They just weren’t having a lot of success getting them to the other side.
“Birthdate?” said a deep, raspy voice.
“Ahh.. no. I’m a volunteer, not a lottery candidate.”
Before I knew it, I was being rushed through the doors and into an exam room. Not a minute later, another white coat walked in muttering to himself about lottery weekends and took a drop of blood from my finger.
“There we are. Now, I’m just going to slide this into the machine, and we should have an answer in no time.”
“That’s the whole test? No physical or anything?”
A light on the machine turned bright green and a bell chimed.
“Well, there is one more thing. Walk over to that wall and let me see your head.”
“Ok. That’s weird.”
“Part of the exam.”
“Take a deep breath in.”
I did and then the doc punched something into my temple so hard I dropped my bag. I heard the sound of metal hitting the pad underneath my feet, and saw the doc raise an eyebrow.
The world was spinning now, and all I could do was drop myself on top of my bag before he snatched it from me.
Oh, hell no.
Suddenly, the spinning stopped. Dizzy and still swaying, I forced all my strength into my hands. I felt the hardness of metal in my hands.
Thank you, God or goddess, or spirit, or whatever alien beings make miracles.
Relief and nausea ran through me. I made it and my plan was going to work.
I opened my eyes, trying to keep the spins at bay, but that was no use. All I could see was a large, orange blob with horns coming towards me. It looked annoyed.
Do I throw up or scream?
In the end, instinct took over. I whirled my bag at the orange blob’s head area, but it ducked my swing and tried to take my bag from me.
Stupid orange blob!
I might’ve yelled that, and right before I passed out, I made my fingers lock around the straps of my bag.
The celestial sea slipped past my porthole window in its endless ebb and flow, but I didn’t have time to appreciate the beauty.
I didn’t even have time to appreciate the potential glory of being a Vaznik warrior stationed on one of the mightiest cruisers on the fleet, the Sunder. The datapads piled before me demanded my full attention, even here in the far reaches of the Xiltri Sector.
I picked up the top one, my orange hand contrasting against the dark, heavy-duty touchscreen. It blinked to life when sensing my body heat, displaying text which our best translator circuitry couldn’t handle. It wasn’t an alien tongue, or a long-forgotten dialect. Rather, it was the coded journal of one Dr. Garcia.
The fact she’d written her journal in code proved especially vexing, because the biggest mystery about her disappearance wasn’t the fact she was missing, in and of itself. Rather, it boiled down to one question.
Was Dr. Garcia a hapless kidnap victim—or was she in full allegiance with the strange armored mercenaries who wiped out the research center on Yimïk III, where she’d been working as chief scientist?
I set the coded journal pad down and rubbed my eyes. I wasn’t cut out for all the paperwork that went with a command position. I really envied my best friend, Kavok. He was on his honeymoon with his new mate, Helena.
I didn’t envy him his mate—to be honest, I never gave much thought to being matched with a human woman. The odds seemed astronomically low it would ever happen, so what was the point in worrying about it?
I did envy that he didn’t have to sit at a desk during his ostensible off hours poring over intelligence reports. I was more of a man of action. I had always been content with letting Kavok take the lead, because it freed me up to do more of what I wanted.
But when you’re just a smidge too competent in the Vaznik military, they have an annoying habit of promoting you. They promoted Kavok, and I was bumped up into his position as squad leader just to see if it would be a good permanent fit.
I hadn’t realized there would be so much padwork to do. My eyes had grown strained from staring at the lighted screens, my neck had developed a crick, and worst of all I was no closer to figuring out what happened to Dr. Garcia than I was when I started sifting through the mess.
I tried a different pad, this one with photos, video, and telemetry taken from the research center on Yimïk III. The Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center had been abandoned by anything living before our team investigated.
The memory of its cold, silent halls, the sight of crumpled bodies laying in twisted agony, came back to my mind unbidden. Whoever those armored thugs were, they lacked honor or integrity.
I vowed to find them—and make them pay. If Dr. Garcia was innocent, then she would be freed. If not, then she would face justice along with all of the others.
Of course, before I could put these grandiose schemes into action, I had to actually find them first. We had teleportation pad coordinates, but were waiting for a go-ahead from top brass.
In the meantime, I was trying to make it all come together in my head. Kavok’s mate was a fan of mystery stories. I never was. I was the type who would scroll to the last page to get the answer without going through all the actual evidence.
Maybe I was being punished by the patron deities of mystery writers by being forced to slog through all of the information.
I decided to summarize things on a pad to get my head around them. I typed out what we knew, which wasn’t very much, quite frankly.
At some point in the last few weeks, a group of unknown armored sapients—soldiers? Mercenaries? Private army?—attacked the Hep Tháblois Bouhek Research Center and killed all of the staff with one notable exception.
Dr. Garcia had traveled to two different derelict spacecraft in the Yimïk system, and had been either pursued or accompanied by the armored murderers. Then she’d departed for a third ship, an ancient, hulking alien craft which became the sight of a bloodbath between us and the armored thugs.
Dr. Garcia had used an ancient teleport pad on the ship to go someplace else, and at least some of the armored soldiers went with her.
We still didn’t know quite what she was looking for, what we might expect to find at the coordinates, and whether or not she was a victim—or a bad actor.
I started at the sound of the intercom on my wall buzzing my name. It sounded like Captain Thadood’s voice, calling me in person. I was either in a lot of trouble or about to get some kind of commendation—which always meant more trouble.
“I have excellent news for you. Your mate has arrived.”
At first, I heard him, but didn’t really comprehend it.
“Report to teleport pad A immediately. And congratulations.”
“But—I didn’t even know I was signed up for one.”
“All Vaznik have their DNA entered into the system to find a match.”
“I—what if I don’t want to?”
A long silence.
“There will be no more talk of this ‘not wanting’ a mate. You’re a lucky Vaznik, Raxor. You’re being eyed for a promotion AND you just got matched. Things are going to get mighty interesting for you from here on out.”
Mighty interesting. That’s great in most walks of life, but when you’re a soldier, ‘interesting’ usually means getting shot at.
Perplexed and utterly discombobulated, I had little choice but to leave my quarters and meet my match.
At least I got out of the paperwork.