elinwyn

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker

 Chapter One

There was something wrong in the air. 

Something, very, very wrong.

Gavin circled, catching the breeze that danced through the high plains which his wandering patrol had led him to.

He crouched down, senses stretched to feel the vibrations of the earth under his paws.

It wasn’t here, whatever the problem was. 

But something made the fur of his ruff stand up, his hackles raised, ready for a fight.

Nothing was hidden in this tall grass, burnt orange and purple fronds waving, except for small animals as they scurried about their daily tasks.

The danger wasn’t here,

Find it.

Kill it.

Destroy it.

The familiar words beat their drum as Gavin ran towards the source of the wrongness, cutting through the landscape at full speed, rather than the meandering path he’d taken for the last few days.

There was no losing this track, no risk of taking a wrong turning through the grasslands.

The stink of smoke and blood, fear and death soaked the air by the time he found what was left of the camp.

The wreckage of the caravans was so complete it was hard to tell how many there had originally been. Eight, maybe ten, had been drawn up into a circle around a central fire pit.

He’d seen covered wooden wagons like these before on patrol, brightly painted and decorated, no two the same.

The men and women who sat on the front seats, guiding the horses down the hard packed roads of Crucible had been friendly enough, even if the older children walking behind had been wary, the sounds of young ones playing inside silencing as he passed.

A quick glance of the bodies scattered around the camp made it clear these people wouldn’t be traveling anywhere.

He shifted, relishing the feel of his body reshaping, turning from a giant cat into a human male.

More or less.

“Hail the camp!” he called out, despite knowing in his bones it was a futile attempt.

Starting from the smouldering fire, he started a slow spiral, examining the debris.  A small black-clad form was the first he found. Gently he straightened the clothing of the gray-haired women, her face lined with age, her eyes staring out into the sky.

Her back had been sliced open, and something had made an ugly hole in her chest.

Either of them would have snipped her life short.

Then the rage, his constant companion, unfurled at the back of his mind when he saw the long black dart embedded in her neck.

He reached towards it, nostrils flared.

And that was odd. 

There was no smell of the Haleru here. The flesh around the dart didn’t look inflamed, nothing like Jormoi’s arm had.

Laying the old woman down tenderly, he went to check the rest of the bodies.

All had darts.

But he would’ve sworn that they had all died from other injuries.

He should know.

He’d seen a lot of bodies in his time.

“Kennet and Adena will want to see this,” he mumbled, gently pulling each of the darts away from their victims, carefully bundling them in a scrap of cloth and enclosing it in a battered tin he’d found in the wreckage.

Probably the damn things were poisoned, even if he couldn’t smell anything on them. 

No point in being stupid.

“There you are.” 

A soft voice sent him whirling, eyes searching the camp.

He dashed forward towards the sound, tossing aside scorched pieces of caravan frame until he found her.

A woman, but a young one this time, her tanned face framed by loops of black braids. The navy vest she wore over a short dark green dress was slashed open savagely, soaked with blood.

Under the gore, the white glint of her ribs was clear to see.

“Dammit!” Gavin swore and went searching for something clean enough to use as a bandage.

She didn’t speak as he bandaged her ribs, didn’t react to his snarl as he discovered the second wound lower across her belly, a more complicated injury. 

He tapped his cuff. 

“About time you reported in,” Nic said. “When are you coming home?”

“As soon as you send a sled out to get me with Adena on it,” Gavin growled. “There’s wounded.”

“What happened?” Nic snapped. “I’m not sending her into combat.”

“Whoever did this is long gone,” Gavin roared. “Now quit wasting time and get here!”

The woman’s eyes opened and he froze, words lost, mind unable to even form the next sentence, trapped in the dark blue gaze.

“I knew you’d come,” she said, then was silent, unconscious once more.

Gate Jumpers Saga: Chapter Four

Kanthi

Kanthi smelled her just before he saw her. It was like there was an explosion of comforting scents in the darkness, a gust of breezy summers, sun-kissed fruit, and dirt soaked fresh from a light rain. Kanthi almost didn’t realize that he was getting those happy mental images because of what he was smelling – one moment, he was devising a strategy to break out, and the next, it was like he had been physically filled with hope and optimism, a kind that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager and his people had finally been free of the Thagzars.

Before they had any knowledge of the toxin that would one day spoil their freedom.

When he found himself breathing deeper, loathed to exhale, he understood that it was his sense of smell, and that it could only be coming from the woman that the two reptilians had just shoved into the cage across from his.

Unlike himself, who was sitting in a silver cage pushed up against a corner of shadows, they had locked her in an antique, a bronze trap of bars strategically placed directly under a light. He could only figure that she was special to them, and that they wanted to keep an easier eye on her more than most.

As Kanthi inhaled another breath, he stared at her, watching her glare at the snakes as they jeered at her from beyond her cage.

“Such a pretty little Eiztar,” one of them hissed.

“A healthy slave,” the other agreed. “And no infection. She’ll make a delicious breeder, when we retake our planets.”

They left to walk further down the hall, their hisses echoing in the quiet. Kanthi, usually eager to be the first to bash in a snake’s head and silence them forever, found himself leaning after them, eager to hear more. What did they mean, no infection? Was this woman immune to the toxin?

He looked at her, leaning against his cage in the comfort of her scent. She shined in the fluorescent light, her olive skin giving off a beautiful sheen against the surrounding darkness. She was tall, for a woman similar to Kanthi’s race, with intelligent hazel eyes that searched the shadows. After a moment, she took to the ground, bending her knees to sit flat and closed her eyes. Strands of her long brown hair fell past her ears, though the rest stayed up, pulled in a high ponytail that kept her vision clear.

If Kanthi had to bet, he’d say that she was some sort of warrior.

He leaned forward, looping his arms outside of his own prison bars and considered talking to her. Perhaps she was even from his own planet, though her appearance was unusual for the women of Eiztar. But then, he hadn’t been home in years. Not since his voyage had begun to find the toxin and bring it home to craft an antidote.

Shuffling feet snapped Kanthi out of his stupor, and he jumped back against the far wall of his cage. He was in Thagzar territory – he needed to be on his guard.

“Well, well!”

Kanthi could tell it was a snake just from the hissing of its voice, but the light above the woman’s cage cut through the shadows to properly reveal it. It was a giant flat-face, jogging down the hallway with narrowed eyes on the woman. He went right past Kanthi’s cell to stop in front of the woman’s, his muscles shaking from the obvious run he’d just put himself through to get there. Kanthi raised an eyebrow as the reptilian clutched a deep plate and a filled glass in his hands.

So. He’d brought trouble in the guise of food.

Juggling the items, the alien pulled a black metallic square off of his belt, hitting a button on it that caused the door on the woman’s cage to pop open. Kanthi narrowed his eyes, already thinking of how to acquire it.

“Food,” the man hissed his offering, stepping into her cage as he did so. The woman didn’t move from the floor, but merely looked up at the intruder. A smart move, as it made her seem less threatening. “Take it,” he ordered, thrusting the plate and cup in her face. Eyes wide, the woman hesitantly accepted them.

“Good girl,” the man hissed, smiling down at her cruelly. Kanthi watched the Thagzar chuckle, a sudden anxiety in his gut. He’d been in his cage for hours before the woman had shown up, and he had yet to receive any nourishment. No, this scum meant harm.

The woman set the plate in her lap without glancing at it, but she eyed the cup, sniffing it carefully before taking a sip.

“You’re an Eiztar, aren’t you? Bet you’ll be real fun to play with,” he chuckled, reaching out a hand to touch her hair.

The woman dodged his fingers, and by the sudden stiffness of her shoulders, Kanthi wondered just how much Thagzar she really understood.

She growled in response, her own language a song punctuated with clicks and hisses. Kanthi didn’t understand a word of it, but her tone reminded him of rushing water flooding through a pebbled bed. Like the creek he used to play in, back before—

Kanthi mentally shook himself, trying to stay focused on the situation at hand. The Thagzar was full on smirking at her now, growing excited by her show of defiance.

“Oh? You sound against it. Yet I highly doubt—” as he reached for her again, the woman leapt to her feet, slapping his hand away as she moved. The snake only laughed, mocking her as he hissed, “You won’t have a choice anyway, my pretty little Eiztar.”

Kanthi felt his heart sink as the woman’s back hit the wall, and she stared at the cup in her hands. She must’ve loosened her grip, because it slipped from her fingers to shatter on the ground near her feet. Kanthi could see the clear liquid that splashed there – it looked like water. She said something then, her tone questioning as she panted slightly. She put a hand to her head, and Kanthi wondered if she had a fever.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and Kanthi moved to the front of his cage again, pressing his face against the bars. The Thagzar just watched her, perfectly content to see the horror and fear written across her face. When she opened her eyes again, Kanthi felt his heart stop as she stared straight at him and yelled.

She was calling to him. Kanthi cursed, retreating back into his cage, but the woman persisted, moving to the edge of her own prison. She yelled, her tone growing more and more desperate with every word.

The reptilian scum only chuckled at the scene she was making. “He can’t help you,” he hissed. “He’s the same as you, an Eiztar locked up for good. But if you follow my lead, then maybe you won’t end up the same as him. Maybe you can be spared.”

Kanthi tried to control his temper, doing his best to cling to every word the Thagzar spoke. He certainly liked to talk a lot, more than he’d ever really heard a snake speak, really, but perhaps he was just trying to impress the woman. Not to mention, why should he care what he said in front of a prisoner? Especially one sentenced to death, by the sound of it.

The woman was shaking now, her stress and fear cutting through her original scent of an Eiztar summer to emit a smell of gunpowder and the after burn of a laser – the smells of war. It was driving Kanthi crazy with bloodlust, starting with the fucker laughing at the woman in her cell.

“You can be mine, if you’d like. I could use an Eiztar – need something to keep me entertained,” the Thagzar continued, oblivious.

The woman was still yelling, completely ignoring her attacker as she kept her eyes on Kanthi. She was shaking, with fear or rage Kanthi couldn’t be sure, but her plea for his help couldn’t be misunderstood.

It was irrational, Kanthi thought to himself, to call on the help of someone in an equally pathetic situation as your own. The woman clearly wasn’t thinking straight, but then, neither was he – not with the way he was pushing and shoving at his own cage, desperate to get out and help her.

The realization made him pause, his mind reeling.

Could his body be initiating a bond?

“I can see that you need some time to consider my proposal,” the flat-face smirked, moving to the exit but never turning his back on the woman. “I’ll be back with another drink,” he said, glancing at the broken cup on the floor. “Think quickly, will you?”

He locked her cage with the same device that he had used to open it, and the sight of it calmed Kanthi down, making him refocus. He knew he needed to get that remote, preferably before something happened to the woman.

Gate Jumpers Saga: Chapter Three

Taryn

Taryn had to physically unscrew the lock mechanism on the ship’s door to get it open. Not the easiest task in the world with Willovitch’s tools strewn all over the place, courtesy of Taryn’s botched landing. Apparently, the crash had done more than simply alert an alien planet that she had just flown in unannounced through their atmosphere – it’d also destroyed her ship.

“It’s fucking planet parked,” Taryn grumbled to herself, kicking a pipe out of her way. She had to pull herself up and out of the doorway, what with how the ship had landed, and she was reminded of building a bridge in gymnastics as she struggled with it.

What sounded like human fire alarms were going off all around her, though none of them sounded particularly close. She was just glad that she hadn’t crashed into any buildings (talk about a bad first impression). Instead, the ship had landed in a stretch of open land, no casualties to speak of. “A good landing is any landing you can walk away from,” she remembered from her pilot instructor, muttering to herself.

She checked the pods next. They were all safe and accounted for, appearing like part of the ship’s decoration due to how they were attached. She’d leave them for the moment, just in case the citizens of this planet were less than hospitable.

If it weren’t for those alarms though, Taryn might have had half a mind to think that the planet was uninhabited. It was a boring looking place, full of dirt and empty canyons. Even the spot she’d crashed into, a flat and level spot that would’ve been perfect for construction, wasn’t developed.

“Maybe they’re nature freaks…?” she wondered aloud, leaning up against her ship while she kept an eye out. “Hear that, Sherre?” The girl was a self-proclaimed vegan, all about her Earth’s environment. Taryn, being from Mars, had never put much stock in it. “I found your people,” she told the girl, knocking on her pod. And hell, even if they weren’t green beans, they’d still love Sherre – it was hard not to.

Taryn waited out there for a few minutes. She had half a mind to go back inside the ship when finally, she saw movement. A weird glint of green under the hot sun, and then it was gone. “Wha…?” Taryn uncrossed her arms, taking a step forward as she narrowed her eyes to try and get a better look.

That’s when she felt the cool metal of a gun on her neck and the click of the safety being turned off.

She immediately put her hands up, her eyes downcast as she’d been taught in training. She didn’t resist when they put her in chains, nor did she struggle when they cinched them up tight, tugging for good measure. When they were satisfied, the alien behind her pushed her down to her knees by the shoulder, and it was then that she saw just what she was dealing with.

The thing she’d seen – the alien – was walking in plain sight now, coming up the way straight towards her. It had green skin, reflecting the sun’s light like an old tin can, and bright yellow eyes that she knew were looking straight at her. Funny, then, that what unnerved her most about the alien was its nose – it didn’t have one. Its face was flat, with slits just above its pale mouth and holes for ears. It looked like a snake.

When it got close enough, it even started hissing. For a moment, Taryn thought it was doing it at her, but then the one standing behind her responded, and she realized it must be how they communicate. She wondered if they knew any other languages – like hers, for example.

After a moment the one behind Taryn grabbed her elbow and jerked her up, forcing her to her feet. It hissed in her ear, and shoved her forward. The other alien didn’t catch her, but merely made a face and started walking, leading the way. Oh, so they wanted her to stay in the middle. She wondered, idly, if they thought she looked as unnerving to them as they were to her. Maybe they didn’t want to touch her because of it, as if she had a whole new kind of cooties or something. No complaints there.

As they marched, Taryn kept her eyes wide and her ears open, searching the barren landscape for anything that could be useful. She didn’t expect them to march her up to a rusted box, type in a code that she could obviously see (and proceeded to memorize), and suddenly find herself standing before a giant metal wall that appeared out of nowhere. Other snake men were guarding it, the guns on their sides sleek but no doubt dangerous as they waved them through.

Just past the gate was a huge, circular building, and they led her right to it. The snake guy hissed at her, sending her stumbling as he pushed, and she rolled her eyes. Seriously, impatient much? She glanced at the other guy, the one who had put a gun to her back, and did a double-take. Unlike the snake man to her right, this guy had a giant nose – a snout, really, and hundreds of little teeth peeking out over the edge of his lips. He looked like the scariest form of crocodile she’d ever seen.

With a few more pushes and shoves (though not from croc-man, she wasn’t letting him near her) she found herself in front of a metallic door, one that required the same six digit pin to get in.

As they urged her through, more hissing erupted as a dozen or so snake and crocodile men surrounded her in the doorway. After a few hisses between them and her captors, they dragged her inside the room, the doors sliding closed behind her (and in front of the men who’d captured her, keeping them outside). She glanced at the snake men in the room, checking for weapons, but was surprised to see that not one of them had a gun. She’d have to keep an eye open for possible escape routes.

She went along with them as they crowded her into a chair, all the while poking and prodding her bare arms and face. She had half a mind to close her eyes and ignore them, but that could mean her death, and even she wasn’t that stupid.

A hiss, and one of them was reaching between the others, unzipping her suit as if it was the most normal thing in the world to undress a captive. Hell, maybe to them it was. Taryn tensed up, forcing herself to stay still as it gently tugged at her clothes and removed her captain’s shirt and pants. It left her tank top and undershorts untouched, which was probably the only reason why she didn’t flip shit on them, especially as they urged her to the bed in the corner.

It seemed normal enough, but the crappy white paper down the middle of the plastic mattress wasn’t fooling her. She was in some sort of hospital bay, and she was the patient – or, more likely, the test subject. Her chains clanked as she moved onto the bed.

As she lay down, one of them switched on a light. It blinded her, making their faces seem like shadows in the distance, so she considered it a win-win. It also just meant that she couldn’t see what the sudden electronic whirr was that filled the room. At least, not until it was touching her forehead.

Oh. They were giving her a brain scan.

It was really similar to the scans on Mars, actually, and she allowed them to ghost it over her crown, confident in the knowledge that it was simply checking for injuries and abnormalities. At least, she hoped so. All human attempts to make a device that could read minds had ended up with the test subjects in terrible pain, most of them mad. After about a minute they removed it, turning it and the light off to pull her back up to a sitting position.

They seemed to be doing a lot of hissing amongst themselves as they calmly put her clothes back on her, as if redressing a doll. Taryn wasn’t about to complain though, so she very obediently went along with it, even raising her arms for the jacket.

Finally, the snakes added an accessory that she didn’t have before: an earpiece, cold to the touch. Static betrayed it as a piece of technology, and – as the hissing grew around her – she realized that it was translating their words to English.

“Hiiiiiisssss – odd, never seen an Eiztar quite like this.”

“No sign of any contamination with the toxin. Do you thin-sssssssss!”

And so it went, back and forth like a bad radio station as it constantly cut in and out to hisses and words. It was a communication tab, she realized, though probably the worst one she’d ever used. Typically, a comm translated unknown languages with ease, commonly leading a person to forget that they were even wearing one. Yet the one she had now was faulty, at best, and incredibly primitive compared to those that she had used before for work.

One of the snakes crouched in front of her, and very plainly hissed something that the comm only managed to translate as, “Up.”

She didn’t have to be told twice.

Taryn stood, taking the scaly hand that he offered, and all around him the other men hissed in approval.

“She’s an Eiztar, they all look like hissss,” the one assisting her boasted, and she got the impression that she really didn’t like him. Regardless, he was the one who led her back to the door, where – surprise, surprise – her original captors were waiting for her.

“Hissssss isssss concussion,” the snake told them. They nodded, grabbing her arms and leading her away towards a door that she assumed was the exit. She raised an eyebrow when they walked right by it, the quick pace they forced her at never slowing.

The series of tunnels and stairs they took her through next had her head reeling, even with all the training she’d been put through at the academy. Although, she did feel a little bit better about it when she heard even the aliens arguing over which way to turn next. They finally decided on right, and after a few more feet she saw their destination.

Metal cages, some silver and some bronze, were pushed up against the walls of the hallway, big enough to house even a human adult comfortably. As they got closer and walked past an empty one, Taryn compared her body size to it, and realized that even one of her captors, a snake man, could fit inside. She wondered if perhaps the original purpose of the cages were to hold traitors rather than enemies, then.

“Here,” the snake man hissed, leading her over to an empty cage. Taryn saw something move out of the corner of her eye as they marched, a big something in the cage across from her, though the shadows made it hard to see. With a final shove, the aliens pushed her inside and slammed the door, the clank of metal loud in the dark hallway.

They hissed some nonsense too fast for Taryn to catch, leaving only after taking a moment to laugh – at her expense, she could tell. When they finally turned their backs and exited, the relief she had expected at being free of her captors had a bitter aftertaste as she eyed the cage they’d left her in. She sighed, and moved to sit cross-legged on the steel floor.

It was time to create a plan.

Gate Jumpers Saga: Chapter Two

Kanthi B’Halli was, for the first time in his life, exactly where he needed to be. Hard to believe that he’d had to travel into enemy territory just to get there.

As a door opened, Kanthi withdrew into the shadows. He was hiding in the rafters, just out of view and safely out of range of the creatures beneath him. As they stepped into the room, lights snapped on, illuminating the room laid out under his feet.

Thagzars, half-lizard men he’d only ever seen before in his nightmares, circled below. They walked on two legs, their green scales glinting in the artificial light while their yellow eyes glowed. From what Kanthi’s people knew of them, Thagzars were mainly descended from two types of creatures, resulting in a very basic (but exaggerated) differentiation in the snout. Depending on their ancestry, they either had an elongated snout full of uneven rows of sharp teeth, or a flat face with two poisonous fangs.

There had always been endless speculation about which Thagzar was worse to meet, but as far as Kanthi was concerned, both were equally dangerous. They’d all earned the name of ‘snakes’ from his people. And he currently had ten in the same room with him, six flat-faced and four well-armed.

They seemed to be moving with purpose, approaching various tables and hissing at each other in calm tones. It was creepy – almost conversational.

Kanthi watched them, memorizing everything. He knew the room to be a laboratory, one that he had searched long and hard for because of what it housed.

Suddenly, the door opened, bursting with such force that it banged into the wall, bouncing off of it. A single Thagzar stood there, heaving with his arms outspread as the other creatures looked up at his entrance. Kanthi tensed, silently drawing out one of the knives sheathed in his armband, straining unsuccessfully to hear their words.

He wasn’t going down without taking a few of the demons with him.

Finally, the creature spoke, his hisses wheezy and out of breath. The other snakes chimed in with strangled hisses of their own, and Kanthi watched as they became increasingly agitated. Rather than keep up the easygoing pace they’d all exhibited minutes before, the snakes were rushing now, haphazardly placing jars and files all over the place. They were scared, which only worried Kanthi more.

Did they know that he had infiltrated their base? Had they found his camp? As the dozens of possible scenarios (all of them bad) buzzed around in his brain, he forced himself to sit quietly in the ceiling, and wait.

Within minutes, the reptilians were leaving the room, some at a run. They slammed the door, making Kanthi jump as he had half-expected them to throw grenades back inside at him. But, as the silence remained and no one was sent inside to find him, he breathed easier.

If the commotion just now hadn’t been about him, then he had to assume that some other poor bastard had just gotten their full attention, which meant that he may very well have a distraction on his hands while he raided their lab. In which case, he knew that he’d better act fast.

Kanthi left the ceiling much more easily than he’d hidden in it, taking off at a run to swoop down and literally hang from a banister, using the acceleration to swing his feet and let go so as to land in a tight roll, protecting himself from injury. In the end, he finished on his feet, crouched with his fists out and his eyes open.

Still, no one came in.

Keeping his guard up, Kanthi stayed low, sweeping the room with precision and detail. He may not know how to read their language, but he knew the Thagzar sign for what he was searching for: two harsh slashes inside a circle, something his people had come to associate with death.

As familiar as he was with it, he still almost missed it. It was in a small vial that was shadowed by far more impressive ones, hidden in the back of a test tube rack on a high shelf with a yellowed label. It seemed to Kanthi that it had been deliberately hidden; not much of a surprise as Kanthi’s people had been hunting for that single formula for decades.

It was a biological weapon, the best the Thagzars had ever created and the worst Kanthi’s people, the Eiztar, had ever been cursed with. It was an airborne toxin, designed to target female embryos and inhibit them from taking hold and, ultimately, result in miscarriages. It was a tragic thing, to watch mothers and sisters become pregnant, only to know that they would wake up one morning and lose the child, becoming forever scarred from the experience. It was a loss that touched not only the victims but everyone around them, a reoccurring tragedy that had been plunging his people into a planet-wide depression for decades.

Not to mention, now that it had been going on for over twenty years and his generation was old enough to see it, they were finding that the initial loss of life was only a small price in the toxin’s overall process. By targeting their women like this, the reptilians were ensuring the extinction of the Eiztar’s species, once and for all.

The reason for the toxin’s invention was, in Kanthi’s opinion, even more sinister. It had been less than thirty years ago – a generation – that his people had still been completely and totally under the rule of the snakes. They were aliens that had overtaken his own and four other planets long ago, too long to remember a life without them. Using their advanced weaponry and technology, they’d brought the five planets to their knees, ensuring a complete and total takeover in order to steal their natural resources.

But one generation ago, the natives – Kanthi’s people – had finally risen up from the shackles and managed to take back their proper place as master of their own world, killing and banishing every last Thagzar that had dared to ever control them. Kanthi knew that, at least on his planet, they’d acted quickly and carefully to steal as much of the alien technology as they could, advancing themselves leaps and bounds with war ships and space travel. Soon, they were even creating their own technology, specifically weapons and defenses that protected against Thagzar attacks.

Which was when their old enemy took the initiative and started dabbling in bio-warfare.

The council that ruled over the five planets’ alliance believed that it was the reptilians way of weakening them, and ultimately paving a way to reconquer them. It was why they were holding out hope for a cure – it would be far too great a loss to lose a slave force, so an antidote had to be available or, at the very least, possible. It was why the alliance had started sending out teams to hunt down Thagzar bases and seek out the formula, and why Kanthi, the leader of his squad, was stealing a vial of the weapon now.

He just hoped the alliance was right.

Taking an apron from a nearby table, Kanthi used it like a towel to pick up the vial. He was debating how best to transport it (pocket or boot) when a bang erupted outside.

Alarms suddenly burst through the speakers in the lab, leaving Kanthi stunned for a moment before he regained his wits. His main objective was the formula; he couldn’t lose it now that he finally had it, not when the fate of his people rested on it.

First, he locked the lab door, buying himself some more time. He couldn’t scramble back up to the ceiling, not before someone came in – besides, now that they were on alert, some snake might notice him up there and shoot him down. No, Kanthi would have to get caught if he wanted to make it out alive with the vial. Not that he could let them discover it on him; then they’d lock it away somewhere that he’d never be able to find and throw away the key.

A crash sounded, and then something hit the door. The Thagzars were trying to get in.

Kanthi made a hasty decision and stuck the vial in a separate test tube rack, hidden even better than it had been, hopefully away from the scientists themselves, too. Just until Kanthi could get back in and steal it properly.

A second crash, and the lock busted, the door finally giving way and falling to the floor with a loud thud as metal met metal. Kanthi put his hands up, his eyes on the ground, while the guards hesitated a moment at the unexpected Eiztar on their lab floor. They recovered quickly enough, though, and pushed him to the ground.

So much for being in the right place.

Gate Jumpers Saga: Chapter One

Part One: Bound to the Alien

Chapter 1

Taryn was bored. She moved her fingers aimlessly over the touchscreen in her lap, numbly flicking through digital page after digital page of reports. She sighed, and glanced to her right. Jeline and Sherre, her pilot and navigator, were talking in excited tones. They had been happily slaving over the Solar Positioning System tabletop for the past hour, their heads bent together as they pointed and made marks. Taryn grinned in spite of herself. At least someone was having fun.

“I really think you should take something.”

Taryn rolled her eyes, and pointedly ignored Lyra standing directly to her left. She was the ship’s medic and a decent colleague, but there were moments when Taryn felt like the woman had been assigned as her own personal nurse from hell. Moments like now, when she was trying to force-feed her pills.

“Taryn.” Lyra crossed her arms, towering over Taryn, who merely slouched under her shadow. “What’s an earache now could be a migraine by the next jump—”

“Nope,” Taryn said with a particular hard flick to her screen. “I’m not taking that crap. It puts me to sleep, and I’m not playing the nod-off game in a jump sequence.”

Lyra pursed her lips, glaring at Taryn. She stood there for a few seconds, holding the pose until her infamously short patience ran out and she huffed a sigh. “Taryn—”

“Leave me alone.”

“But—”

“That’s an order, Medic Conrarson.”

Lyra threw her hands in the air, exasperated. She turned on her heel and marched away – with any luck, back to sick bay. Sure, a scout ship for five wasn’t exactly extravagant, but it did mean a medical lab down the hall between the café and the dorms. Just far away enough for Taryn to avoid Lyra completely, so long as she planned it right. “I’ll show you an order,” Taryn heard Lyra mumble as the doors opened for her.

Taryn waited until she heard the click of them closing behind Lyra to relax. She turned off the reports, tired of the endless figures, and tossed it onto the table before her. With a sigh, she let her head flop back against her headrest, ignoring the headache brewing behind her left eye.

“Sherre, report,” Taryn groaned. She’d meant for it to come out as more of a bark, but really, Sherre was young enough to do anything but not take her captain seriously, anyway.

“We are proceeding to Gate Three, ma’am!” she beamed, her two braids bouncing on her shoulders as she whirled around to look at Taryn. Jeline smiled as she leaned on the Solar Positioning System next to her, softly shaking her head at the girl’s enthusiasm. She was the youngest of them, just barely at the cutoff age of nineteen.

“…How much longer?” Taryn sighed.

“ETA is…” The beeps of the buttons Sherre typed filled the room. “Twenty minutes, Captain!”

Taryn groaned, scrubbing a hand over her face. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was the time it took to do jumps. Oh sure, when the first jump gates had been found it’d revolutionized space travel. They might as well be called time travelers now, what with how far a jump gate could really jump someone into new space; into a new solar system. But all those jumps had to be kept track of so a crew could find their way home, only to turn around and jump through them all over again. Maddening, really. Not to mention how far apart each new set of gates were from each other. Taryn hated jumping through one and feeling that jolt, that addictive vibration of speed and light, only to have to spend an hour or so cruising to the next closest one.

“And after that? How long to the next gate?” Taryn almost hesitated to ask.

“After that, we don’t know,” Sherre shrugged. “It’ll be a new set of jump gates.”

That made Taryn sit up a little straighter. If there was one thing she loved about working on a scout ship, it was the exploring. It was the reason she’d joined as a pilot for jump service, rather than enlisting as a fighter on a weapons ship. Sure, she probably would’ve seen an alien life form by now, but there was a good chance that the form would’ve been an aggressive one. No, out here she was with the stars, alone to venture forth and explore space without the deadlines of war.

“Well? What do you think, Willovitch?” Taryn called to her engineer, Stephine Willovitch. “Should we go right, or left at the new gates?”

Willovitch looked up from her computer, owlishly blinking her large green eyes at Taryn. “There’s no telling that there will only be two jump gates, Captain,” she said flatly. That was the other problem with making jumps – you had to remember which gate you went through, because there was never just one. “There could be a third. Or an undocumented fourth.”

“But say there are only two,” Taryn leaned toward her. “Right? Or left? What are you feeling?”

“I have never had a feeling solely in charge of which direction I should take,” Willovitch replied blandly, already turning back to her screen. “Though when we come across them, I will be sure to run diagnostics as per the usual and give an educated guess.”

“Well, sure,” Taryn grinned. “I never expected less.”

“Captain,” Jeline interrupted them. “We’re approaching the gates.”

“Excellent,” Taryn left Willovitch to her own devices, just how the engineer liked it, and turned her attention to her pilot. “Jeline, where are we?”

“Two miles out,” she reported, clicking away at her desk. “Three gates.”

“First appears unstable,” Willovitch was already running tests, using protocol to count the gates from left to right. “Running tests for the second and third now.”

“No one has jumped here before,” Sherre chimed in. “None of my reports match these gates. First and third have some unusual markings with a flexible outer layer of green.”

“Agreed,” Willovitch nodded. “I advise the second gate for our next jump. It appears the most stable.”

“Well,” Taryn stood up, clasping her hands behind her back. “Let’s get to it then. Jeline, take us in. And Willovitch – put it up on the central hologram.”

Jeline typed away, sending command after command to the autopilot. Manually controlling a ship in space was always risky, especially during a jump, and Jeline had long learned to copilot the ship automatically, prompting – almost nudging – the ship in the direction she wanted while the autopilot remained online and compensated for any complications. It took Jeline seconds to align the ship with the middle gate, at which point she added speed, lightly rolling her fingers over the screen to give the ship a gradual boost.

“Is this it? Are we jumping?” Lyra asked, the doors whooshing open as she jogged into the room. One glance at the hologram sporting three ethereal gates in the middle of the room, and she knew that they were in the middle of performing a jump. She practically flung herself into the nearest chair, yanking the safety straps up and over her head as she buckled in.

Taryn laughed at her, grinning as she watched her pilot and navigator.  “Jeline—”

“Taryn, What are you doing?” Lyra interrupted her. 

Taryn didn’t make a move to sit down. “My job,” she answered dryly, her mouth twitching as she fought a smile.

“Standing? Before a jump?”

“Yes,” she said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Now, if you don’t mind, Medic Conrarson, I’ve got a jump to orchestrate.”

A strangled breath. “You can’t be—”

“Jeline!” Taryn shouted over her. “Are we a go?”

“Yes, Captain!” she replied from her station.

“So far so good,” Willovitch agreed.

“Initiate countdown!” Taryn ordered, her eyes on the hologram portraying the gate ahead of them, the jump imminent.

“Five,” Sherre began. “Four, Three, Two—!”

It happened before Sherre could even open her mouth to form the next number. One moment they were staring into the hologram’s best impression of the black abyss of a gate, and the next Taryn was stumbling forward, bracing herself on the bridge’s chrome railing. She laughed at the lightning igniting her bones and filling her veins, watching as the hologram grew to a vast black hole.

And then, something horrible happened.

The ground shuddered under her and seemed to flip, throwing her over the railing and onto the lower floor. Someone called out, yelling for her, but everything was moving too fast. She reached out a hand to grab a nearby chair, silently panicked as it took her three tries just to get a grip strong enough to right herself. The ship seemed to stabilize, gaining some semblance of solidity, and she pulled herself to her knees until she could get into a crouching position. Glancing behind her, she felt her heart sink at the sight of the broken hologram.

“Willovitch!” she barked. “Status report!” If anyone knew what was going on, it was her engineer.

“Captain,” she grunted. “We’ve taken a hit.” Even as she spoke, the ship bounced sharply, as if under attack. In fact, Taryn didn’t have any reason to believe that they weren’t.

“Jeline! Have you got eyes on the outside?!” she demanded.

“W-we’ve entered a meteor storm, Captain,” Jeline announced distractedly, her eyes on the screen in front of her as her hands danced over the keyboard.

“A meteor storm…?” Taryn shook her head, trying to clear it even as things banged and crashed all around them. Doing her best to stay close to the ground so as not to fall off-balance again, she half-crawled to where her pilot and navigator were furiously working.

“Sherre,” she hooked her arm around the girl’s armrest. “Talk to me.”

Sherre didn’t even look at her, her eyes wide as they glanced repeated between the print and the screen. She was relying on two different medias, shifting through the papers and online accounts at her fingertips. “I-I don’t know,” she finally muttered. Papers were falling to the floor around her feet, and those that she was clutching in her hands were becoming wrinkled and damaged. “I have no idea where we are. We’re in an unprecedented jump, and I can’t see anything!” She gestured to the hologram, quiet and useless in the center of the room.

Taryn opened her mouth to tell the girl to focus, but before she could someone else laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Calm down,” Lyra said, her amber eyes calm as she appeared beside Taryn. “The last thing you want to do is panic.”

“Lyra!” Taryn cursed. “What are you doing? Get back to your seat—”

“Says the woman who stood up during a jump!”

“Says the Captain who is relying on her only medic to be alive and kicking!” Even as she yelled at her, the ship rumbled all around them.

“Sorry,” Sherre pipped up, her head down.

“Why are you apologizing?” Taryn huffed, still glaring Lyra down.

“No, I mean…” she shrugged, throwing a hand to indicate her cluttered desk.

“You can do this,” Lyra insisted, squeezing her shoulder. “I have faith in you. So does the captain. Right?” she glanced at Taryn.

“Of course,” she agreed. “Why else would I have allowed a rookie to join my crew?” Not that any of it was her choice, really – every citizen was required to serve four years in some sort of space-related occupation. After that, they were free to continue in their field or lead a life where their foot never had to fly outside of a planet’s atmosphere again. Sherre’s service had just begun, which made her status as a navigator all the more rare.

Taryn turned to Willovitch as another bang erupted near the back of the ship. “How are we holding up?”

Willovtich just shook her head, the ends of her short dark brown hair swishing to brush her cheeks as she moved. She was muttering in her mother tongue, the scowl on her face making her appear even more intimidating than usual. “It’s bad,” she finally ground out. “We’re taking hit after hit – this is not good, Captain.”

Taryn sighed, looking around at her crew. Sherre was bent back over her work station, flipping through her papers while Lyra whispered words of encouragement in her ear. Jeline, her hands forever moving, was tense, her back straight as she stared, unblinking, at the screen before her in an attempt to try correcting the ship. Willovitch, back to muttering to herself, was glaring at her screen as she furiously typed away.

“Alright, that’s it.” Taryn said it to herself, first, but then she shouted, “Okay, everyone get in a pod!” When they all just stared at her, baffled, she growled, “Now!”

Sherre moved first, even if it was just to give a jerky turn as she did a double-take at her captain.

“Let’s go, ladies!” Lyra chimed in, yelling as she gripped Sherre’s chair to stand up in the trembling ship. “Move out!” she said, urging Sherre and Jeline to get to their feet.

Willovitch gave Taryn a frustrated look, as if irritated at being interrupted in the middle of her work, but Taryn simply shot her a look right back. Willovitch eventually huffed a sigh, standing with a grip on her chair as the ship took another jolting hit. That made Sherre stand up out of her seat, which left Jeline as the only one not moving.

“Pilot Montias!” Taryn ordered, grabbing her arm and yanking her up by it. Jeline frantically moved her hands, trying desperately to keep control of the ship. “Please,” she pleaded. “Captain, I’m so sorry. If you just let me; if only I had—”

“What?” Taryn asked angrily. “If only you had the ability to see into the future and predict the meteor shower?” Taryn forced a laugh. “Sure, great. Let me just take a fucking seat and wait for you to fix it, then.”

Jeline opened her mouth, no doubt to argue, but Taryn beat her to it. “But,” she said, “In the off-chance that you’re just a normal fucking person doing the best she can, how about you follow my orders and set an example?” At that, she made an obvious glance at Sherre. The girl was becoming more nervous and panicked by the second. Jeline nodded after a moment, the meaning clear.

“Sherre,” she said, grabbing the younger girl’s arm on the unsteady ground. “We can do more research from the computers in the pods.” Pulling her along, the two started for the back of the room. Willovitch, growling under her breath, followed after them.

Taryn watched them go, while she herself retook her seat and punched in a code on the right armrest. A blue shield seemed to spring up before her, acting like a translucent tray across her lap. She typed a few more digits, and a flash of white across it read, “Autopilot Offline.”

“You aren’t coming?” Lyra asked from behind her.

Taryn merely shook her head. “Protocol. Someone has to stay behind.”

“Don’t give me that crap,” she hissed, but Taryn was already waving her hands over the holographic control panel, the ship responding in kind with her gentle movements. “There are six pods, and if you don’t want to leave a record that you took one, you can just squeeze into someone else’s. They fit two,” she insisted. “Get in mine, and—”

“Lyra,” Taryn said quietly, her eyes on her hands. “You remember the first time we served together?”

“Hm,” Lyra hummed, remembering. “You mean when you managed to steer the ship between two gates and miss a jump completely?” Taryn grinned, so Lyra continued. “Captain was furious. That was years ago, but you’re still just as bone-headed now,” she sighed, the sound lost to the rumbling of the ship.

“I was just a pilot back then,” Taryn agreed. “I became a captain after three years, and no offense Lyra, but I’m not going to survive this just to get demoted for breaking practice. Not on my last tour.”

Lyra gave her a look. “If I go in there,” she pointed over her shoulder. “And I go into torpor hibernation, then I’m useless to you. We all are.”

“Yes,” Taryn agreed. “And it’s where I’ll let you all out of once we’ve reached a relatively safe place, and then you can be useful again.”

Lyra scowled. “You really—”

“Lyra,” Taryn stopped her, never even turning to meet her eyes. “As your captain, please, enter the silent safety of your pod and let me concentrate.”

It took a moment, but soon the retreating scuffs of Lyra’s boots mixed with the groans of the ship, and before Taryn could say another word Lyra was through the doors to the emergency pods.

“Well, that was easy,” she grumbled to herself. Removing her right hand slowly so as not to confuse the ship, she typed another series of numbers into the keypad on her armrest, relieved when a voice sounded over the speakers.

“State your purpose,” the robotic female voice prompted.

“Search for a nearby planet,” Taryn called out to it. “One with oxygen, if you don’t mind.”

“Scanning… Scanning…”

“C’mon,” Taryn muttered.

“Planet found. Analysis—”

“Doesn’t matter,” she rolled her eyes. Then, louder, “Coordinates!” The voice cited off a location, and she typed it into her keyboard. Immediately, a spot of red appeared on the control panel. Taryn smiled – she might not have any eyes on the outside, but blindly steering with the panel would put them in the right direction. She waved a hand, and sent them towards it.

Alien Explorer’s Mate: Chapter Two

 Talex

“You’re not listening to a thing I’m saying, are you?” My older brother’s voice nagged from the holoscreen set to the side of my work console.

“Of course I am,” I protested, eyes riveted to the flow of new data coming into my monitors.

That might have been a lie.

Maybe a half of a lie.

I’ve been sort of listening, but really Bretav had been on and on about my responsibilities since we were kids.

It wasn’t anything new.

But right now, my ship, the Torch, had just emerged out of a wormhole at the edge of the Panstora nebula.

Just before this trip I’d outfitted the Torch with the latest in multispectral sensors in preparation for the job, and the readings I was getting from the nebula were fascinating.

And the information was new.

I’ll let you guess which screen I was paying more attention to.

“Drix, run the calvita formula on the readings from sensor twelve, would you?”

“As you request,” the cool voice of the AI sounded as if from everywhere in my compact lab.

“Seriously?” Bretav snapped. “You’re paying more attention to your AI than to your king?”

All right, there was that.

And if Bretav played that card, it usually meant he was serious about something.

“Fine,” I sighed. “Just remember, you’re the one who’s been encouraging the Kaltarra Science Academy to take the lead on more of these joint missions.”

I leaned back in my chair, studying my brother’s face for clues as to how important this discussion really was.

He’d always been a lousy tonk player.

It was almost, but not quite, like looking at a mirror.

Same jutting jaw, we’d both gotten that from our mother.

The broad shoulders were from our father.

Teal skin with the purple pectoral markings were from them both.

And the best gift of all?

My brother had been born 15 minutes earlier than I was.

So he had to deal with ruling our fractious system.

Not me.

“You know,” he said. “I can always tell when you’re thinking how glad you are not to be in charge,” he said, black eyes narrowed. “You get that same self-congratulatory look on your face.”

Actually, we were both lousy tonk players.

“Every time I see that look,” Bretav continued, “I think I should just abdicate and let you deal with the pieces.”

“What? No way,” I argued. “You’re the oldest, whatever the issue is, that’s your problem.” I waved to my screens, the images flickering through the masses of incoming data. “I’m contributing to the good of the system as I am.”

“But you’re not contributing to the system’s political stability,” he argued.

A light flashed on my far console. “Hold on a minute, I really need to check this.”

“Seriously?” he started, but I didn’t listen to the rest of the complaint.

This was interesting.

“Drix, see if you can clean up any of this. There’s a whole stream of theta radiation coming from here.” I tapped the screen.

“As you request,” the system answered again, and got to work.

“Tell me one reason why I shouldn’t cut off your project funding right now,” my brother snarled.

Void.

Maybe I had pushed him too far.

“Because theta radiation is the best possibility we have for a new clean fuel source?” I offered.

“Fine, you get a pass for that one,” he said, scowling. “But you’re still avoiding the main question.”

Which was true.

And I intended to go on avoiding it.

“If you are that interested in ensuring the political stability of the system,” I snapped, tired of being badgered about this, “you go get married. I’m not involved, remember?”

“For me to get married I’ve got paperwork,” my brother replied, throwing his arms in the air. “Ambassadors. Trade negotiations that have to be considered. You can just start dating someone. Anyone you fancy. Seems like you could at least get started with that.”

“Not a chance,” I said. “I’ve got my ship, my work, and a whole new system to explore, map and report my findings on. Doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for a social life.”

“I know,” he said.

And then he smiled.

I knew the smile far too well from when we were growing up.

Not exactly a happy smile, like something wonderful had happened that we would both be excited about.

This was like he’d pulled something off that was going to get him praised, and me in trouble.

“What did you do?” I asked flatly.

“Just helping my baby brother out,” he said, blinking his eyes innocently.

Like he’d ever been innocent.

“What. Did. You. Do?”

“I think you’ll be finding out shortly,” he said. “I asked the agency to flag me first, as soon as a match had been found.” He shrugged, and grinned again. “Maybe being the king does have a few benefits.”

“A match?” I looked around the lab wildly. “What am I going to do with a match?”

“Take her shopping, take her to dinner, show her a good time. You know, date?” Bretav leaned forward, all traces of amusement wiped from his face. “Seriously, just give her a chance. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll at least know you tried.” He rubbed his eyes. “We can’t let the past happen again.”

And he had me there.

The Kaltarra system had been torn apart by three generations of civil wars.

Our mother and father were the heads of the two leading factions, and only their alliance, sealed by our birth, had put an end to the fighting.

As much as I hated to admit it, the people of the system, the ones whose lives had been torn apart by the endless civil war, deserved to know the stability of the throne was insured.

I just didn’t want anything to do with it.

But maybe it was like science.

It didn’t matter what you wanted. The facts were the facts.

“Your Highness,” Drix said. “A message has come through, coded top priority.”

“Read message,” I ordered.

My brother was wearing that grin again.

Dammit.

Drix’s toneless voice was disturbingly at odds with the perky words of the message.

“Congratulations. A match has been found for you, and a new life of love and fulfillment is just around the corner.”

Yeah, right.

“Your match has been transported to Central Station Five and will be arriving on the 16 of Wev at 26 in the afternoon.”

Fine. I’d meet this woman, take her to dinner, do whatever it was my brother suggested.

Give it a chance.

At least I had….

I checked the ship’s clock.

Checked it again.

“Maybe this is why you shouldn’t have had the message go to you first.” I glared at my brother. “There’s no way to get there in time,” I snapped. “Good job, your majesty.”

I cut the channel and started powering up for a warp jump.

Late for the first date.

This was not starting well.

Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Five

She had a starship. The drumming in his ears almost drowned out whatever she said next.

How in all the Void did she, cut off from even the primitive tech of Crucible, know what one was?

Jormoi followed her into the kitchen, almost stumbling over the sprawled, sleeping form of the dog. She sat at the table and carefully unwrapped the cord that held the cover closed, then stopped.

He stood next to her, waiting. Whatever was in those pages, she wasn’t ready to show him. Not yet.

Jormoi broke the silence with a loud sniff. “Is something burning?”

“The stew!”  She scrambled to the stove and used tongs to push the earthenware pot onto a holding tray at the side.

“Here, let me,” he offered.  “Where do you want it?”

She pointed to a spot on a nearby workbench, and gasped as he picked up the pot. “Your hands!”

He nudged another bowl to the side as he set it down. It was hot, but nothing he couldn’t handle. “It’s cooling already, don’t worry. Just get the bowls, all right? All of a sudden, I’m ravenous.”

His stomach growled as if to reinforce his words, and she grinned. Her shoulders inched away from her ears, and a glow of satisfaction ran through him.

Situation defused, at least temporarily.

She spooned a big helping of stew into her largest bowl and handed it to him. His hands wrapped around it as he held it up for another sniff. “Smells pretty good.”

“Glad to hear it.” She froze. “Wait. If you’re from,” she stuttered just a bit, “from another world, are you sure everything here is safe to eat?”

He laughed and took a bite. “There’s not much that I can’t eat, no worries there. You should meet my brother Gavin. There’s nothing he won’t eat, anywhere, anytime.”

She laughed and joined him at the table, bringing with her a small loaf of bread.

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you have enough trade with the outside to get flour?”

She tore off a piece and dipped it in the stew, blowing on it to cool it. “No, my mother made a small mill behind the house. It doesn’t do much grain at a time, but,” she shrugged, “I don’t grow a lot.”

Xandros laid his head in her lap and looked at her with soulful eyes. “I haven’t forgotten you, shaggy beast, but you were sleeping. Should I have woken you for dinner?”

She was answered by an insistent woof, and they talked of nothing more than the ways of dogs and the making of bread until the end of the meal.

The light outside faded entirely, and she lit more lamps, avoiding touching the book again.  When she returned to the table, he stood, watching her as she approached. He bowed slightly. “Since we haven’t been introduced yet, I thought I should rectify my lapse in manners. I’m Jormoi.”

She stood stiffly and bowed back, no doubt thinking him a fool. “I’m Rhela.”

“I know,” he waggled his eyebrows. “You mentioned it before, when you were talking to me and that great goof over there.”

“At some point I want to talk to you more about that,” she said, “but now I want you to look at this picture and tell me, is it real, or just stories?”

She took a deep breath and opened the book to the first page. She gasped, closing her eyes.

“What is it?” Jormoi was at her side so fast she didn’t see him move. He didn’t touch her, just stood near her, ready.

She shook her head. “I’m fine, I’m sorry. I was the one that wanted to find the drawing of the ship. It’s just hard. I haven’t looked at this in so long.”

She turned the pages, her hands brushing lightly over the smooth paper, until she found the sketch, just a few pages in. A large, boxy shape with stubby wings, odd cylinders sticking out of one side, and the opposite side drawn to a blunt taper. Jagged rocks framed the whole unlikely contraption.

“This. Is this like your ship?”

She pushed the book towards him, and he sat next to her, running his finger over the lines of the ship. “This isn’t like my ship, no, I’m sorry.”

She sagged. “Then it was all just a story.  I wanted to believe him, but it never made any sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“My parents always said that we came from another world. But that didn’t make any sense. How would we have gotten here?”

“I wasn’t clear, I’m sorry. This isn’t like my ship, but I do recognize this model. It’s a lander. It would have brought colonists down from the generation ship to the surface.”

He paused, searching her face for a reaction. “Your parents were telling the truth.”

“What? But, how?”

“Rhela, do you know where your parents were when they found the lander?”

“I wasn’t there, but I remember their stories.” She flipped a few pages back, and handed him the book.  Jormoi fought to keep a snarl from escaping his lips, for on the page stared out the visage of a Haleru warrior.

“Somewhere past the caverns of the beast men. I didn’t think they were real, either.”

“Oh, they’re very real,” he said darkly.

“What does the writing around the sketch say?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I never could read it. Mother used to tease him about being stuck in his ways. She taught me to read and write, but not that language.” She traced the elegant script with a finger.

Jormoi turned the pages back to the drawing of the lander. For months, his team had been searching for information about the original colonists; could it still be in the lander? Could there even be an active comm link to the generation ship, after all this time?

But how to explain everything—the colonists, the Haleru, and, Void help him, her only friend’s involvement in kidnapping and murder? Jormoi shook the thoughts free. It would be better to skip over as many details as he could and focus on the important thing, getting the intel back to the garrison.

“May I take an image of this?”

She put her hand possessively over the book. “I’d rather you didn’t take it away.”

“No, I won’t. Just a picture, like a sketch, so that I can show it to one of my brothers. It might help him with the project he’s been working on.”

She still didn’t look convinced.

“I can do it right here; your father’s journal doesn’t need to leave your side.”

Small, even white teeth gnawed at her lower lip for a moment, then she nodded. “That sounds all right, I suppose.”

Jormoi quickly passed his cuff over the page, and bright light covered the image.

Rhela yelped and grabbed the book away, hugging it tightly to her chest. “You said it would be just a drawing! That you wouldn’t hurt it!”

The need to ease her fear twisted Jormoi’s stomach. “No, it won’t.  Here, let me show you.”

He looked around for something to use. A small pottery bowl decorated with dark red glazes caught his eye. “May I?”

She nodded, but the wariness in her eyes stabbed at him. Quickly, he scanned the bowl, then projected it back onto the middle of the table.

She gasped and leaned forward to touch it. As her hand passed through the projection, her eyes opened wide.  She ran over to the original bowl and turned it in her hands. “It’s fine. It’s not scorched at all.”

She took a deep breath and handed the journal back to him. He finished the scan of the page with the sketch, then repeated the motion on the facing page, and the one following it.

“That should be enough. Who knows,” he said, feeling lighter than he had for weeks, “maybe once he’s solved the writing, he can teach it to you.”

Rhela laughed. “I have been trying to figure that out for years, and I had access to my father.”

“My brother is very, very good with puzzles. And not a bad teacher, either. I’m going to step outside for a minute and send this to him.”

And decide if I’m going to tell Nic about her connection to Phaylle, he added silently.

Confusion clouded her face, then she just shrugged. “You realize that makes no sense at all, don’t you?”

He stood and walked to the door, gangly Xandros following behind, ready for an excursion. “I promise I’ll be back in just a few moments.”

Outside, he pinged Kennet on his cuff. “I’ve got a present for you,” he chuckled, and sent the file of the scanned book pages to the ship.

“Thank you. I’m sure whatever it is will be intriguing.”  Kennet’s toneless voice answered. “As a return favor, let me remind you that to the best of my knowledge your check-ins have been somewhat irregular over the last few days.”

Jormoi leaned against the cool turf covering the hill-hidden house.

The autumn air was filled with soft sounds of the forest. He could hear the stream running over stone, and everything everywhere felt quiet and calm. For the first time that he could remember, everything was at peace.

“I’m checking in now, aren’t I?”

Nic cut into the channel.  “Don’t you think this patrol has been long enough? If you’ve got something, great. But head on home.”

“You’ll think this was worth it. Besides, I think I’d rather wait until the morning.”

Nic laughed, “That’s a first. Afraid to travel at night?”

Jormoi sat on the ground and the dog immediately attempted to lie across his lap.

Jormoi played with Xandros’ ears while considering what to tell Nic.

“I’ve come across a colonist. She’s something of a hermit and hasn’t heard about the attacks.” Or much of anything else, he added to himself silently. “I think she has information about the colony ship or at least the lander.” He paused, thinking about whether he should say anything else. But duty forced his hand, as it always did. “And she knows Phaylle.”

“Bring her in,” Nic snapped.

“I want to try to talk to her, but unless we’re going to be the ones running around kidnapping women, I think I had better proceed with a little more delicacy,” Jormoi answered, anger rising in him again.

Nic sighed. “You’re right, and Adena would kick me for that. Do what you think is best. And be careful, all right?”

“I will,” Jormoi answered. None of them went in for much in the way of emotional stuff; that was about all the concern he was going to hear from his commander and brother.

Kennet got back on the line. “I can’t read this.”

“What?” Nic and Jormoi blurted simultaneously.

Jormoi stared at his cuff. “I nearly promised our new contact you’d be able to teach her how to read and write whatever that is. When has there ever been a language you didn’t know?”

“There hasn’t been.” Despite his surprise at the situation, Jormoi couldn’t help but feel amused at Kennet’s frustration. “You swear this is not some kind of joke?” Kennet demanded.

“I wouldn’t do that.” Jormoi thought for a moment. “Not right now, at least.”

“While Nic wants you to bring in the hermit, I want that book. I need a larger sample if I’m going to translate this.”

Jormoi sighed. This was going to be more complicated than they realized. “Give me until tomorrow. I’ll scan the whole thing for you.”

“No. Something about this bothers me. I want to see the material composition.” Kennet sounded annoyed, as Jormoi knew he did when things didn’t line up neatly. “A simple scan won’t give me all the information.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”  He cut the connection but stayed for a few more minutes outside, just enjoying the dark and quiet while he stroked the soft puppy’s muzzle.

“Come on, fella. Time to go back in.”

He started to get up, but Xandros just squirmed tighter into his lap until he gave up and picked up the sleeping dog, placing him half over his shoulder.

“You are far too big for this, you know?”

When he entered the kitchen, Rhela placed her hands over her mouth to smother a laugh that still managed to escape.

“You could have just woken him up.”

“You try it,” Jormoi grumbled as he carefully put the dog on the pillow he’d been lying on earlier.

“Did you…” she stopped. “I don’t even really know how to ask what I need to ask. Did you do whatever it was that you needed to do?”

Jormoi took a deep breath. He had a feeling this wasn’t going to be easy. “I did.”

He went towards her and took her hands. The softness of her skin startled him, even as she stepped closer to him.  “What’s wrong? You look like you have to say something terrible.”

“I don’t know if it is, it might be.” He flipped through options in his mind, settling on what might be the easiest for her to agree to.

“My brother can’t translate from the scans I took. He’d like to borrow the journal.”

“Can’t you scan the rest of the book?”

“I could, but he wants to see the book itself, see if it gives him indications as to where and when it was made. That might be the clue he needs to decipher the language.”

Rhela shook her head slowly but didn’t step away from him.

The terrified look in her eyes gutted him, but Jormoi grit his teeth and pressed on. “There’s another option, maybe something you’d like better? Come back with me. See my ship, meet my brothers. If you wanted, you could be with the book the entire time while Kennet works on it.”

“Starships, other worlds,” she breathed the words, her terror replaced by such a look of sorrow and defeat that he wanted to wrap her in his arms. “It’s all real, isn’t it?”

“It is. And I’ll show you everything I can.”

She shook her head and turned away, her shoulders bowed over the book as if braced for a blow. “I can’t. I can’t ever leave.”

Alien Explorer’s Mate: Sneak Peak

Emily

“Bye, Mrs. Flynn!” I called out as I passed my neighbor in the hallway.

“You look pretty this morning,” she said. “Heading out for a date?” Her bright blue eyes twinkled, the fine mesh of lines crinkling around them with her smile.

“Much more important,” I answered, cringing slightly. The suit dress wasn’t my favorite outfit by a long shot. It wasn’t flattering, or even in a color I liked, but it was all I had that was slightly appropriate for the situation.

“A job interview.”

She shook her head, fluffy white curls bouncing. “I keep telling you, girl, you should be focusing on your art. You do lovely work.”

My cheeks heated. “That’s nice, but my paintings don’t pay the rent.”

I headed down the stairs of the apartment building, my mood tinged more than a little bit by the growing worries that never seemed to leave the back of my mind these days.

The rent was coming due quickly.

And if this interview didn’t work out, I didn’t have anything else in the pipeline.

Despite the slight ringing in my head, and the current chaotic state of my life, I couldn’t help but cross my fingers as I hopped on to the bus.

It was the first interview I’d had in weeks.

I checked the email again. All I really had was the address, but not much detail about the job itself.

Last night I’d blown the last of my fun money on a cheap bottle of red wine.

After far too many of the cat videos I’d used to numb myself from not hearing back from any of the jobs I’d applied for, I’d noticed a little banner on the side of the screen.

Change your life today.

Boy did I need to do that.

I clicked it, half expecting it to be a cheesy sales site or some sort of multi-level marketing scheme.

I wasn’t sure if I’d be any good at selling candles or kitchen equipment to my friends and neighbors.

Especially since I didn’t have many friends, and Mrs. Flynn probably didn’t want to cook that much.

But I was desperate enough I was willing to try.

Last month my roommate had decided she wanted to move in with her boyfriend.

Which was great.

Love was great.

It just would have been a little better if I’d had more notice, and much better if I hadn’t gotten fired the same week.

It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. I was an awful waitress.

Mrs. Flynn thought it would be good for me to focus on my art, get my online store running.

“How is anybody going to see your lovely things if you don’t show them,” she’d said time and time again.

She was sweet, and I appreciated her support.

But sweet grandmothers weren’t going to get me an interview with a gallery manager.

 And there was nobody else I could rely on financially.

I had no real family, no close friends. I certainly wasn’t dating anybody.

Not since the last asshole.

Which was why I was so excited about this stupid survey. I didn’t know what this job was or what it entailed but I didn’t care.

Frankly, the worst job in the world would be life changing right now. At least it would be income.

I’d already sold most of my possessions, as the month dragged on, and none of the other jobs I’d applied for had responded.

Although it was strange… I’d lived in this city for the past five years, but I didn’t recognize the building at the address, even when I’d zoomed all the way in to try to get an idea of what it looked like on street view.

But five years isn’t really that long, right? Maybe I’d just never been down that street.

Hopping off the bus, I checked my directions again.

Just a few more blocks.

As I walked, I worried, wishing I knew a little more about the job. It would have been nice to be able to research and prepare for the interview before it happened.

The survey gave virtually no clue to the kind of work I’d be doing.

All the questions had to do with my personality.

I assumed it was to assess how well I would do in their work environment but I still expected some kind of follow-up description of the job.

When I reached the address listed in my phone, I only grew more confused. Checking and double checking didn’t change the fact that the directions had led me to a very old brick building that looked abandoned.

There was no sign , just a black “204” in large numbers next to the heavy wood door. The black paint was chipping but the numbers were still completely clear and they matched the address I’d been given: 204 Lorento Lane.

Damnit, was this some kind of prank?

Of course it was.

How could I be so stupid?

What kind of job offers are based on a personality survey?

Stupid, or desparate.

It didn’t matter much at this point.

I groaned as I let my body drop to the stone steps that led up to the building, all my positivity and hopefulness faded.

“And now what?” I muttered. “Singing on the streets, in hopes that people will pay me to stop?”

Possible, but whatever the next move was, I wasn’t going to figure it out just sitting here.

I stood up and dusted myself off as I let out a long sigh. Just as I was walking away, I heard the wooden door behind me creak open.

“Emily?” A young woman with sleek black hair asked. “Emily Bell?”

“Uh, yes,” I answered, dumbfounded.

So this interview was real after all?

“We were expecting you, come on in,” she waved me by and I tentatively entered.

“I have to admit, I thought I had the wrong place at first,” I told the woman as I followed her into the building.

“Yes, well, unfortunately we’re a startup and our funds are a little limited. We’ve focused on the interior for now. Thankfully, for the work we do, location isn’t particularly important, so this building suited our needs fine.”

It looked sleeker inside. I stood on a silver tile floor, surrounded by large, buzzing ranks of servers. Several holographic computer screens set up around the room, each displaying something different, fantasy scenes and landscapes in incredible detail.

I never would have imagined that inside this decrepit building would be hiding a high-tech wonderland.

“Wow, you said you’re just starting up?” I asked, gaping. It would be a dream to work in a place this cool!

“Yes, but don’t let that fool you. We’ve been highly successful. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with us.”

She’s sure I wouldn’t be disappointed?

Does that mean I was going to get hired immediately?

My heart pounded in my chest.

Surely, even the lowest paid job in a place like this would pay enough to take care of my money worries.

Maybe I could even get an advance…

“Sit, sit,” She motioned to a black leather couch in the corner of the room. “I just have a few more questions for you.”

“Really? That’s it, just a few more questions?” I asked hopefully.

She looked at me skeptically. “Well,  you’ve already done the bulk of the work. You are familiar with how our company works, right? You did your research before you came?” She glanced at me over her eye glasses seriously.

I didn’t want to cost myself the job opportunity so…. yeah, I lied.

“Oh, yes, tons of research! I’ve got to say, I love everything your company stands for and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

She smiled as if relieved. “Fantastic. You’d be surprised how many women come through that door confused about our operation.”

Did they only hire women?

Wasn’t that illegal or something?

I laughed it off.

“Oh, yeah, not me. I always do my research.”

“Fantastic. Well, I just need to be reminded of your birth date again to confirm your identity.”

“May 16th,” I said happily.

“Great. Can I get a blood sample as well?” She grabbed a small pen-looking device from her pocket.

What? A blood sample to confirm my identity?

That seemed bizarre.

But weren’t there companies in Japan, or maybe South Korea, that treated your blood type kind of like your horoscope?

Maybe a high-tech place like this did the same thing.

I complied and gave my hand to her. There was a sharp sensation on the tip of my forefinger, nothing too painful. She promptly bandaged the bleeding finger and then looked at a tablet as she continued.

“And you said in your survey you have no family ties? Does that mean you aren’t close to your family or are the deceased or…?”

“No, they’re very much alive, but we don’t talk at all. I haven’t seen them since I moved out at eighteen. I’m not even sure where they live now.”

When my parents divorced, they’d both found new partners right away. Even as a teenager, I wondered if they’d been with their new spouses before the divorce.

And then when they had new families, there really wasn’t a place for me.

Easier for me to keep moving, find my own life, since it was pretty clear I was just a reminder of a mistake they’d made.

“Right, very well. That makes this whole process easier,” she continued. “We usually counsel that if you have strong family ties, this may not be a decision you enter into lightly.”

What?

Now I was really confused and desperately wished I actually had done my research. What kind of job requires you to have few family ties?

“Any pets?” She asked.

“No, no pets. I love animals and my roommate had a cat that I spent a lot of time with but she recently moved out.” I was going to miss little Lucy.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said sympathetically before continuing “And you indicated you love travel and are well adapted to it?”

“Oh, yes, love to travel.”

At least, I thought I loved to travel, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to actually test that out considering I didn’t have a lot of time or money to do so.

“Great! And you have no travel restrictions? We can send you somewhere far away?”

Was I going to get to travel in this position? I was grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh, absolutely! I love new places, I’d go anywhere!”

I wondered if this job had any intergalactic travel.

That seemed unlikely for a start up but then again, why else would she ask how far I was willing to travel?

I loved the idea of it. I’d always been intrigued by the alien species that visited our planet.

I’d never even spoken to an alien, never actually seen one in person. Most aliens traveling stuck to the bigger cities for business or tourist activities.

But still, wouldn’t it be amazing to talk with someone about a whole new world?

“Then there is only one thing left for you to do.” She smiled brightly, and I hoped my expression didn’t show how completely lost I was.

“Now, I know it might feel a little unorthodox to choose this way, but I promise there is no wrong answer here. Whoever you choose, I trust you’ll be incredibly happy with any option. So don’t stress, okay?”

I forced a smile as if what she was saying made sense to me. “Sure!”

She grabbed her phone and clicked a few buttons causing three holograms to appear before me.

To my surprise, they were three different alien men, all entirely different from each other.

One had a long fish-like tail with red shimmery scales adorning his body.

Another one was bulky and yellow with four large arms.

The last was a bald man of a blue-teal color, with jagged grey marks adorning his arm and chest. A vest covered most of his torso, but where it opened I could see a flash of purple on his chest.

As the holograms revolved before me, I could see a pair of ridges running down the sides of his head, forming a V at the back of his neck before disappearing into the collar of his vest.

And suddenly, I was very, very curious to see what else was under there.

Woah, Emily, I caught myself.

It’s just a quiz.

Fascinating, and to be honest, a little hot… but I didn’t understand the question at all.

How could this possibly indicate whether or not I’d be a good fit for the job?

It had to be like the random questionnaire I’d taken. It had a lot of silly questions like “if you were a tree, what kind would you be?”

Stuff that was clearly meant to determine my personality.

And she’d assured me no matter what I picked, I’d be happy with my choice.

Perhaps I had already gotten a job and choosing an alien would help decide what type of role I took on within the company?

If that was the case, I wanted to pick carefully.

Which alien best expressed my personality? Definitely not the scaly one, I never had been a big fan of marine animals. Plus I liked the thick, muscular builds of the other two. The four arms were a little off-putting and I did adore the color teal.

“This one,” I pointed at the teal and grey alien.

“Fantastic. Well, we’re about done here, please follow me.”

What did that mean, we were done here?

Had I gotten the job? I desperately wanted to ask but I didn’t want to seem overeager.

She took me into a back room and had me fill out some paperwork on her tablet.

My face flushed as I filled out my information. If I didn’t get the job, there would be no reason to have me fill this out.

When I’d finished, I handed it back to her and she took a sticky black square and placed it behind my ear.

“You are most definitely going to need that, aren’t you?” she smiled.

I am?

She slid a silver bracelet around my wrist and handed me a small suitcase.

“Go ahead and step on that red circular platform over there and you’re ready to go.”

Surely they wouldn’t be sending me off to work already? I hadn’t even learned what my job was!

My feet mechanically moved to the platform as I willed myself to finally ask the question I’d been dying to know: What kind of job was this?

I nearly got the courage to question the woman when, suddenly, a bright yellow light blinded me.

I closed my eyes instinctively and covered them with my hands, dropping the bag. The light quickly went away and I blinked slowly to adjust to seeing the room again.

Except when my vision came back to me, I was no longer in the office.

I was standing in a huge hall, that reminded me of something.

Right.

Old photos of Grand Central Station.

Except, instead of men and women in elegant, old fashioned clothing… I was surrounded by aliens.

Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Four

Rhela should have been terrified. The small voice in her head shrieked at her to run, to hide. This couldn’t be right; it couldn’t be safe.

Was this the danger Phaylle had tried to warn her about?

But yet, she wasn’t afraid.

Not of the giant cat, with his golden fur and bright blue eyes, clear as a cloudless summer day.

And not of this stranger, sitting in her kitchen, playing with her dog as if it were the most natural thing in the world, instead of a man who somehow hid a creature with razor-sharp fangs, paws the size of dinner plates, and claws that could shred muscle from bone without a thought.

Still, he’d offered no threat, instead offering only calm.

And patience and ear scritches for a puppy.

She took a soothing breath, pulling the earthy scent of home, of her family, deep into her lungs. She was still safe.

Rhela gripped the kitchen table beside her until her fingers ached, then she released it, willing the strange tension in the room to fade with the pain.

“How did you get here?” she asked, proud that her voice didn’t even shake.

Much. 

No matter what he was or where he came from, that he’d gotten past her defenses and found the hidden valley was of much more immediate concern.

He rose to his feet and turned towards her. In her shock, she hadn’t had time to realize how tall he was, or to notice the slight point of his ears peeking out from tawny hair.

“I climbed over the akro vines and went through the trees.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, nobody can climb that high—” she broke off. Of course he could. She had never thought of making her defenses against the animals of the forest. Her parents had been concerned only about two-legged predators.

He must have read the thoughts playing on her face. “I wouldn’t worry too much,” he said and stretched an arm out as if to encompass the entire room. “You’re hidden well. There aren’t many people who could do what I did. I think your secret is safe.”

His words stabbed at her.

The secret. It had to be safe.

She had promised.

“How did you even find the vines, or know where to go?” She had never been outside the valley, but Phaylle often teased her about the difficulty her parents had made for her every time she wanted to visit. Rhela believed her.

He paused, just long enough for Rhela to notice. “I was following a trail,” he said, “and it led here.”

She held her breath. A trail? Was he following Phaylle? But why?

“Who were you following?” she blurted out.

“It doesn’t really matter anymore,” he shrugged and looked around the room again. “I was curious, and so here I am.”

He really did sound just like every cat she’d ever known, nosy and into everything. The way he gazed around at a room that he had already been in, as if it were new, she wondered…

“Is it different, seeing a place from two different perspectives?”

He blinked and grinned. “Actually, it is. I don’t think anybody has ever asked us that before.”

“Us? Aren’t you and the cat the same person?”

“Us, myself and my brothers.”

She gripped the table harder as her stomach clenched into a tight ball. “There’s more of you? More who can do what you do?”

He took a half step towards her as if to touch her arm, then stopped, walked around to the side of the table, and pulled out a chair for her.

“You may want to sit, I’m not sure if you’ll believe what I have to say.”

“Never lie to me, and I’ll always believe you.” Something her mother had said when she was little and prone to getting into trouble.

He laughed but waited for her to be seated before resuming his story. “My brothers and I came here from another world. We’re the only ones who can change like this, and I promise, my brothers would not harm you.”

Rhela knew she should’ve been more concerned about the number of people who could find her home, but her mind had stopped on a previous phrase.

“Came here from another world?” She leaned forward across the table towards him. “How did you get here?”

“Well,” he frowned, a furrow forming between his brows. “We came here in a starship that landed at…”

Rhela shot up from her chair. “Wait right here. I’ll be right back.” She grabbed one of the lamps and ran into the back room that her father had used as an office. As she burrowed through a pile of baskets on a long work table, she felt more than heard the presence at the door.

“Is everything all right?” the stranger asked.

Rhela didn’t turn to answer. “I know it’s in here, just the last few years I haven’t really done much with his things.”

Even over the bundles and baskets of roots and drying herbs, the strange man’s scent, spicy and warm, overlaid the room. His presence in the small room was almost overwhelming. Rhela forced her mind back to her task.

She pushed a stack of baskets to the side, and he grabbed the top one as it tottered. “If you tell me what you’re looking for, I can help.”

She paused, stopping her hands from flitting over the cluttered surface of the table. Was she sure this was her secret to tell? Phaylle had seen the book, been shown it by her father. But a stranger?

Rhela rolled her eyes at herself. Of course no one else had seen it, there’d never been a chance.

But she hadn’t made any promises about this.

“It’s a small book, about this big,” she showed him with her hands, “with a brown cover and a symbol with two circles on the front.”

She lit another lamp and tried to remember where her father had kept the book. It had been four, no, five years since her father had died. For the first few years, she hadn’t entered this room at all, wanting to keep it just as he had left it, but as the seasons passed, it had felt foolish to waste the space, and so, like her parents’ bedroom, this had turned into another storage area.

Still, through all the baskets and clutter, she could almost see his stooped form bent over one of his projects, always writing in his elegant hand by the flicker of the rushlights.

His large wooden chair still sat here, unused and dusty. She sat, remembering him at work. Trying not to think of how silly she was being, she thrust her hand out between two baskets of dried harva fruit she had put aside to process this winter to the shelf behind them. Her fingers brushed the smooth, cool surface, and she knew she had found it.

She pulled it out. Over the years, she had watched her father make many books, helped him with pulping the paper from bark, smoothing it with hours of rubbing with river stones. Eventually he’d let her help bind and rule them. But of all those books, this was the one he returned to, noting the details of special occasions.

Unlike the books they’d made together, the sheets of this volume were unnaturally smooth and soft, the dark brown cover of a material she’d never seen elsewhere.  “One of the few things I miss, little frog,” he’d said, when she ran her hands over it as a child, tracing the concentric circles with a finger.

She closed her eyes, clutching the book to her chest. This was why she hadn’t organized his papers, had covered over his office with the detritus of day-to-day life. She missed him too much.

“Is that it?” The gentle question broke the spell of her loneliness.

“Come on,” she said as she headed back to the kitchen, taking one of the lamps with her and gesturing for him to take the other, “the light’s better in the other room.” She paused in the doorway and searched his eyes for a flicker of truth, or maybe a lie. “I have a starship I want you to see.”

Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Three

A whiff of perfume burned through Jormoi’s awareness of the wet moss under his paws.

He froze.

That scent… he’d crossed it before, but not here, not in the forest. In the caves, where they’d rescued the captured women.  He padded forward, took another breath and let it swirl within him. Not one of the women from the village. He’d scented this in the garrison as well, when Adena’s family had visited.

Phaylle or Matilde, then. What would either of them be doing this far out in the woods?  Jormoi followed the trail, picking up speed.

If it was Matilde, she could be hurt, and the entire unit had taken a liking to Adena’s gentle cousin.

If it was Phaylle… that was a different story altogether.

Jormoi’s hackles rose as he thought how she had betrayed Adena’s family and the town. Adena may have healed the captured women’s injuries, but he knew the fear in their eyes would be a long time subsiding.

And as with B’tar, no one knew what Phaylle’s real goals were. If she was around, he wanted to find out what she was up to.

The trail moved in a straight line to the woods, but followed no path that Jormoi could detect.

He didn’t scent any fear overlying her smell, so she wasn’t blindly running from something.

No taste of blood in the air, either. Just quick, confident strides.

So the chances were good he followed in the steps of Phaylle, not Matilde.

She must know the way very well; it wasn’t the first time she’d come that way. What was she going towards?

The scent ended at the edge of another stream, a larger, wilder one, with water crashing over rocks in small rapids then turning aside deeper into the forest.

The trail ended here. Obviously, she had crossed, but he couldn’t see where, and it didn’t look deep enough for a boat. Maybe a raft? Or… Jormoi shifted back to bipedal form, then, with longer legs, he stepped cautiously into the stream. A large, flat stone lay only inches beneath the surface of the water.

Feeling each step as he went, he made it across with his boots barely damp.

Stones formed a hidden bridge all the way across. Not only had she come this way before, she’d come often enough to know exactly where the submerged stones were. A frequent visitor, then, to a secret place.

He shifted back to all fours and picked up the scent again right where he had stepped off the final rock onto the far bank. Here the path twisted and turned, but he still smelled no urgency.

He came to a stop when the scent trail led straight into a dense, hanging cluster of akro vines between sharp outcroppings of rocks on either side.

She couldn’t have gotten through there.  After Nic’s misadventure with the insects, he’d gone out himself to test how bad the swarming really was. He didn’t feel like testing it again.

He paced, circling, but there was no question. The scent led straight through the vines.

Wait. There was another, newer trail, from the same woman but doubling back out of the tangle of vines and away. Jormoi was torn. Follow the fresher trail, or find out what she had been so interested in visiting that was so skillfully concealed?

The soft sound of a woman singing determined his choice. 

Phaylle might not be behind the concealing curtain of vines right now, but someone was there. And that someone likely had been meeting with a known enemy.  Damned if he was going to leave a potentially hostile agent at his back.

Jormoi eyed the vines with their stinging insects carefully. Even for him, getting through them in bipedal shape would be difficult. Shifted, his thick sandy fur might buffer the bites. Possibly.

But situations like this were why the gen-engineers had given garrison soldiers alternatives.

He paced to the foot of a nearby tree, then sprang to the lowest of its branches. He continued upward with ease, climbing and leaping from one tree to another, working his way around and past the barrier.

Back on the ground, he paused. The soft song continued without break. He crept in the underbrush, careful to pad silently in the shadows toward the sound of singing. As he moved from the low-hanging branches of one shrub to another, the voice fell silent.

He froze. Had the mysterious woman heard him after all, sensed him somehow?

No.

Within moments she’d started talking to an unknown person. Jormoi crept closer, his tufted ears perked to catch the words.

“I don’t know why she worries so much, but it was nice to see her again.”

“Yes, and to get the matches, so much easier.”

Jormoi was close enough he should have been able to hear who she was talking to, even a murmur of a soft voice. But he heard no reply. He crept closer.

He stopped as the edge of bright sunlight fell across the shadows like a knife, marking a wide open clearing.  Within the glade, a young woman bent and rose repeatedly, her long brown hair braided down her back, cleaning dead vines and shoots from light wooden frames.

“What do you think, Xandros? Harva fruit for dinner again?”

Jormoi looked around, but saw no other person, just a shaggy gray and black dog sprawled at the woman’s feet.

He crouched lower, willing the wind to shift away from them, knowing it was unlikely to matter.

And as if he’d made the problem appear, the dog’s head lifted, his nose raised to the air, sampling.

Jormoi could retreat, come back another day, but if she was constantly with the dog, it would scent him eventually. 

And he was too curious to back away now.

He took a step into the light, and in a tangled rush of limbs, the dog shook off sleep and stood, straining toward him.

“Xandros, no!”  The woman’s voice was shrill with fear as she tried to hold the dog back, but he slipped away from her.

Jormoi could tell from its awkward gait it was still a puppy, just a very, very large one.

The woman’s face was pale and frightened. Jormoi lay down and tried to make his feline form, smaller than his brothers’ but still larger than any cat this woman had likely seen, as nonthreatening as possible.

Not surprisingly, the puppy reached him first. It snuffled at his muzzle, then gave a tentative lick. Jormoi fought the urge to wrinkle his nose and instead continued to lie quietly as the woman reached them.

“Come on, Xandros, don’t annoy the kitty. The very, very big kitty.”

The puppy wasn’t paying any attention to her and had moved its sniffling down Jormoi’s side to investigate his tail. Despite his best intentions, Jormoi’s tail twitched slightly in irritation. The puppy apparently found this fascinating and pounced on it.

One way to win her trust, I guess, Jormoi sighed as the puppy began to chew on the tip of his tail. It couldn’t really hurt him, but he’d forgotten how sharp little puppy teeth were.

The woman had stopped desperately trying to pull the puppy away and now stood quietly watching him.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like you in my valley before.”

Her valley, Jormoi thought. Interesting.

“But you don’t seem to be a threat, and honestly you’ve got more patience with his teething than I do some days. I guess you can stay.”

He kept his bright blue eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to truly relax. She seemed to settle and make a decision.

“Come on, Xandros. It’s dinnertime.”

The puppy immediately stopped snuffling Jormoi’s tail. She looked back over her shoulder at him. “You can come, too, if you want.”

A hill, covered on one side with thick vegetation, rose sharply at the other end of the clearing. As the strange party curved around its base, Jormoi noted with amusement that the woman now included comments directed to him in her ongoing conversation with the dog.

“I don’t know if you’re new to this section of the forest, I assume that you are, since I haven’t seen you before, but I had been telling Xandros a little less rain would be great. It’s nice to have soft ground to get the seeds started in the spring, but I really am tired of the mud everywhere.”

She looked affectionately at the puppy at her side. “Not as bad as Xandros, but still…”

The puppy darted back and forth, off to investigate grasshoppers and other new smells, but always quickly back to the woman’s side.

Jormoi stayed a pace behind, observing it all.

The clearing, he could see now, was actually divided into several gardening beds, each tucked either next to the forest or in the middle of the glade. He knew little about farming but would guess decisions had been made based on how much sunlight each plant needed.

He glanced around. Everything was very tidy, but he couldn’t see any trace of any other humans living here, just Phaylle’s maddening scent. Was it just this young woman? Surely she couldn’t have cleared all the land and cared for all the gardens on her own.

The only obviously manmade structure was a multi-tiered undulating fountain, half the height of the woman, exuberant foliage carved from stone bursting from every level’s lip.

He saw no other tools or machinery and was still looking for a house or any buildings at all, when she stopped.

He avoided running into the back of her legs by barely a whisker’s breadth and sat back on his haunches, annoyed with himself. She looked down at him, and for a moment he thought she was going to ruffle the fur on his head.

“Luckily my friend was here earlier, so the house is a little cleaner than it normally is. In the summer it’s far too much fun to be outside to worry about housekeeping and now that it’s fall, I’m far too busy. I’ll deal with it in the winter.”

He stared at the hillside, then back to her. Maybe he’d been spending his time with someone with a tenuous grasp on reality. That wouldn’t bode well for any information she could give him.

She reached forward and grabbed a stone from the sharp slope above her, and a door-sized section of rock swung open as if shaped by the finest craftsmen.

“Come on in, let’s see what we can do about dinner.”

Jormoi followed her into a cozy, well-lit room, obviously a kitchen, which apparently ran the full length of the house. Farther back, it changed into a workroom with small tables.

Three openings led from the long, bright room farther into the hill. Jormoi guessed either sleeping or storage chambers. Small windows opened into the hillside above, letting in plenty of light. Jormoi would have been surprised if they looked like anything more than rabbit holes from the top.

The woman talked while she moved around the kitchen, lighting small lamps from the banked fire. Her motions were swift, graceful, almost a dance. “Would you believe she doesn’t think I’m safe out here? ‘Rhela, what if someone finds you? Rhela, what will you do when winter comes? Rhela, you need to have more friends.’”

She looked around at Xandros and the other animals who had followed her in through the open door.

“Who does she think you guys are, if not my friends? I wouldn’t even know what to do around other people,” she muttered. “She didn’t even stay for dinner, had to rush off.” She stirred something in a pot pushed to the back of the small stove. “Well, it’ll be better with more simmering time anyway.”

Rhela. Jormoi tested the name out. It fit nicely in his thoughts, fit well with her somehow. The young woman rummaged in some woven baskets arranged by one of the long tables.

“I don’t exactly know what you are,” her words were slightly muffled as her head disappeared into the containers, “but I know your shape, and I know what those teeth mean.” A long pause, and her head reappeared. “Aha!”

She withdrew from the final basket two large, lumpy maroon roots. They were flattened, as if they had been roughly pounded out before being set to dry.

She held one out. “What about lianever root? Phaylle says chopped up into stew they taste a little like meat, so maybe that would work for you?”

It was confirmed. She knew Phaylle, though how this gentle gardener and the garrison’s cold enemy could be connected, Jormoi couldn’t imagine.

She laid it down near him, but he didn’t move towards it. The root did not smell particularly appealing, and he wasn’t hungry.

The puppy wandered up, snuffled the root, and pounced on it, happily gnawing away.

“Xandros, don’t!”

The woman eyed Jormoi cautiously. “You’re definitely more patient than I would’ve expected. I suppose you’re going to have to hunt.” She closed her eyes and nodded as if to reassure herself.

“I know how the world works. But I do wish you wouldn’t hunt near the house, and please don’t bring it inside, even as a gift.”

It was enough information. As much as he was going to get in this shape, anyway.  Jormoi took the root from Xandros and carried it in his mouth, trying to ignore the bitter taste and the drool.

He walked out the door, around the curve of the hill and spat out the disgusting thing.  He shifted and wiped his mouth on his arm. “The things I do in this job…”

He carried the root in his hand when he reentered the cottage. He heard Rhela’s gasp, but didn’t look at her for more than a second. Instead, he went over to Xandros, sprawled on the braided rug before the stove.

“Here you go, fellow.” He handed the dog the root, and after a quick lick, Xandros took it, apparently unconcerned about the changed shape of his new friend.

Jormoi stayed crouched, scratching behind the floppy ears, and said nothing. Waited.

He heard her step towards him, her breath fast and shallow.

“I know you. I don’t know this shape. But I recognize your eyes, your stillness. I know you.”

“Are you afraid?”

A long silence, long enough his muscles ached from the fight not to turn around, to let her have time.

“No.”

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