Book: Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 1



Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 1

CONTENTS


Kurtherian Gambit

Dedication

Legal

Introduction - By Michael Anderle

THE KURTHERIAN UNIVERSE EXPANDS

An Opening Poem

HOLI'S SAVIOR

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Epilogue

Author Notes

LAST ADVENTURE FIRST

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Author Notes

RENEGADE

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Epilogue

Author Notes

SARAH JENNIFER'S FIRST SAMHAIN

Chapter One

Author Notes

THE TERRORIST WITHIN

Chapter One

Author Notes

DARK SAVIOR

Chapter One

Author Notes

TILL THE END COMES

Chapter One

Battle Ready

The End of the Beginning

Minor Problems

Checkup

Creation

Author Notes

FINIS

Series List Michael Anderle

Social Links

Tales from the Kurtherian Universe

Fans Write for Fans, Volume One


By:

Ian Nicholson

N.D. Roberts

S.E. Weir

Erika Everest

Micky Cocker

James Gartside






Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 1




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle




The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

(and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are

Copyright (c) 2015 - 2018 by Michael Anderle and LMPBN Publishing.





Tales from the Kurtherian Universe

Fans Write for the Fans, Volume One

Thank you to the following JIT Readers 


Kelly O’Donnell

Joshua Ahles

Sarah Weir

Kimberly Boyer

James Caplan

Erika Daly

Peter Manis

Daniel Weigert

Larry Omans

John Ashmore


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor Lynne Stiegler

Tales of the Kurtherian Universe, Volume One (this book) is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.


Copyright © 2018 Ian Nicholson, N.D. Roberts, S.E. Weir, Erika Everest, Micky Cocker, and James Gartside

Cover by Andrew Dobell and Jeff Brown

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing


LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.


The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109


First US edition, January 2018


The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2015-2018 by Michael T. Anderle and LMBPN Publishing.


INTRODUCTION

By Michael Anderle


How do you say ‘thank you’ to those who have provided you so much?

You give back, and if possible, you give bigger to push the opportunities to the next group.

My whole (short) career as an author, I’ve been trying to work to help other authors, other people in our profession and now, I’m blessed to have been able to help give back to the fans.

Now, I could leave the explanation at that, and it would be accurate but NOT complete.

You see, I had this concept after so many fans asked me questions that started with ‘can you, would you, what do you think about, this would be cool, I can’t write, but if I did I think this would be cool…’ and my heart hurts to think so many have SOMETHING in them that needed to get out.

It’s that CREATIVITY, the imagination that our stories have captured in the fans and nurtured over 1,5,20,50,100 books and more in the Kurtherian Universe and it’s painful not to see the fruition of the ideas.

Or at least, a place to share them with likeminded people. I know this, it is the part of the creative process of stories that I LOVE so much!

So, I was thinking in my author cave (no, I really don’t have one… but I want one!) and I was thinking how to support those who wanted an outlet.

But, I needed to deal with the rules and copyright and trademark and all sorts of sh…tuff that a successful publisher has to deal with while having so little personal time.

Well, picture this then…

I was there, sitting at my desk chewing the shit out of the end of a pen when my eyes drifted over to the coat rack, and the black hat that was resting on it.

I hadn’t worn that hat much recently, because I’d been so ‘busy.’

You know, that kind of busy that comes from steaming ahead on plans, and then plans pass your running ass up and you are doing everything you can to just try to keep your plans in sight ahead of you?

Yeah, that.

So, I push myself up and took two steps to look at that Indie Publlshing Outlaw hat and reached  over and took it off the coat rack - and slid it on top of my head. I stood there a moment, a shit-eating grin on my face while a drawly ‘fuck yeah!’ came out of my virgin mouth.

No, Honest!

<Edit – That is a complete lie. The Author can’t not curse at some point in a day, or possibly he might make it two days if he is sick.>

Anyway, believing my virgin mouth comment or not, you should have seen my eyes glaze over, before snapping into place and an idea was born. The problem was the damned plans that I was chasing at the time. I was neck and neck with them, but it just wasn’t happening that I had a lot of time.

Then, fast forward lots of story that I won’t bore you with, and Lynne, Stephen (Campbell) and Stephen (S.R. Russell) helped finagle a few things.

But, publishing got in their way (as well as family and sickness) and we all were chasing…chasing…

Then came the ladies. Sarah and Natale that worked to help pull this together. The Facebook Group for the Fans Writing for Fans was starting to grow and I looked into the group and stepped out quietly.

They had this!

Lynne Stiegler, the beta readers who stepped up (JIT etc.) to read the stories for content and relevance to the Kurtherian Gambit Universe, Andrew Dobell and Jeff Brown on the cover along with Stephen Campbell who pulled some serious miracles together all for the fans who decided to step up, and give this shit a try.

Or, at least to get together to hash it out.

Once upon a time, there was a guy who wanted to put out a few stories about this character named Bethany Anne, and readers gave him a fucking shot.

Then, they encouraged him, and razzed him until he got his shit together. (Mostly!)

Twenty-four months and over 100 published books later, he was able to give a shot to his fans and return the life-changing favor they provided him.

All of you who wrote in this book, and those who are willing to consider writing for the next, I salute you my fellow authors.

You are here, published by LMBPN Publishing, the same publisher who has the likes of Craig Martelle, Justin Sloan, TS Paul, Natalie Grey, Amy DuBoff, Ell Leigh Clarke, CM Raymond & LE Barbant, Amy Hopkins, Martha Carr, SM Boyce, Sarah Noffke, JN Chaney and so many others now has YOU published

Your name is on that cover, you have been paid to provide your expertise and you have been granted “YES!” status by some of the best fans any author could ever want.

So, whether you join us in the future, strike out on your own, or seek to be published by another company I wish you the best life your creativity provides.

Ad Aeternitatem Mother Fuckers*,


Michael


*Yes, I curse. You WILL read a few stories which have cursing, and some that do not in the following pages. You might as well hit me with the annoyance as I started this a long time ago.

Leave the awesome reviews for those who have shared with you their dreams.

It’s fucking fantastic, I‘ve got to tell you.


The Kurtherian Universe Expands

An Opening Poem, by Micky Cocker


Dedication

To Russell my rock, my heart, my world.

Thanks go to Michael, Craig, and all those involved in the process of such an amazing Universe. 

Also to Steve and my fellow JIT cohorts for holding my hand on this wild ride. 






The Kurtherian Universe Expands


If you want to get away from the drab human race

The Kurtherian Gambit is in outer space

If you want a ride, it comes with a catch

You will need to read tales for which there's no match


There's a vampire who can Myst and read your mind

His name is Michael, the first of his kind

His partner in crime, his very own Queen Bitch

Until BA gets angry, then out comes the Witch


Baba Yaga brings tears and plenty of pain

Those who have seen her are never the same

By her side stand the Bitches, Guardians, and Marines

All using weapons created by Jean


Don't forget the werewolves, there're two different breeds

One on all fours, and the other Pricolici

Topping eight feet when they stand at full height

With razor sharp teeth they have one hell of a bite


Shrillexians, Ixtalis, Trids and Skaine

Different species, but beaten all the same

Yollins, Kezzin, Podders, and Thralls

Our force is mighty, they all take a fall


And so now the Universe expands

With stories from Kurtherian Fans

No point in running, there's nowhere to hide

Just turn the page and look inside




by Micky Cocker a.k.a Cap'n Micky

(with a little help from the JIT Team)


Holi’s Savior

By N.D. Roberts

On the alien world Castellegia, brave young Holi fights for the survival of her ragged band of orphans. Who will save them from the green-eyed mutants who stalk the night? Justice calls upon Castellegia at the moment all is lost for Holi.


A story of strength, determination, and the softer side of everybody's favorite benevolent dictator.




Dedication

For Stevie and Abie

You two are my world.













CHAPTER ONE



Holi runs

Holi ran.

The branches poked through the broken fences lining the pitch-dark alley, tearing at her tangled green hair and whipping her cruelly as she fled to escape the demon pursuing her. She stumbled over something that was both hard and soft at the same time, and was horrified to recognize that it was a half-rotten corpse.

Only just staying upright as the weight of her sack shifted, she continued to run towards the shelter where her littlies were waiting for her. When she risked a glance over her shoulder, the sickly green glow of the eyes closing in fast gave her the strength to maintain her pace. Already sprinting as fast as her body allowed, she pushed herself even harder; careening off the snatching claws of the fence as they tore at her skin. She would run forever to avoid the snatching teeth of Death. She couldn’t die. She wouldn’t!

She would run.


Earlier that day...

Holi waited patiently to leave the safety of the former hospit. The breaking dawn sent the demons who ruled the night scurrying for darkness. When the sun had risen and the tell-tale light of their eyes could no longer be seen, she made a break for it.

She had told the littlies to be good and listen to Pip while she was gone, and had left instructions with him on how to take care of Lolly while she was away. The trip was one she had been planning since before Lolly’s illness, and had put off to stay by his side. However, the reality of his approaching death had become plain to her and she had resurrected her plan, resolving to bring him a little bit of joy before he departed from his short and painful life.

After squeezing through the small gap in the boards that was now the only way in or out of the building, she set off north to begin the trek to the rolling forest where she had begun her life. Holi knew the woods like the back of her grubby green hand, but she didn’t let her guard down for a second. She had to be ready to run if she saw or heard anything.

She crossed the meadow at the edge of the township and started to set small snares here and there as she went along. She also filled her patched knapsack with a little bit from every edible or medicinal plant, tree, or bush, along with the nuts and berries that she found as she walked the paths made by the animals.

The morning went quickly. Soon the forest was lit by pools of sunshine where the midday sun broke through the canopy. The woods were alive around her, bathing her in nature’s splendor. She felt alive too, happy to be back in her element once more. Soon, the trees began to thin as she came to the far edge of the forest. She left the path, following one that only she knew through the leafy undergrowth.

Holi cautiously approached the holding that had once been her home. She had lived here with the kindly couple who had bought her from the thrall market as a littlie. As an orphan and a thrall only five summers old, she had been blessed to be chosen by such good people. They had treated her like their own, and loved her when she had been too small to be of any help. In return she had worked hard to care for them as she grew, wishing to make them happy as her master and mistress began their descent into their elder years. The three had shared five good summers together before Harmartea’s plague had changed her master and mistress into demons, forcing Holi to flee for the first time in her life.

She hesitated on the porch to listen for a moment. Hearing nothing out of the ordinary, she pushed open the door of her erstwhile home and stepped inside.

Holi’s heart was tight as she entered the stead proper. It had been three summers since she had returned to the place where she had once been loved. It didn’t seem like anyone had been here, and there was no sign of demons that she could see. She trailed her fingers through the patina of dust on the table near her. It covered every surface, and she thought it smelled different somehow. Faded, like a specter haunting her with its…almostness, mocking her inability to go back to a time when things were simple.

 She was overwhelmed by a deluge of memories of good times with her family as she crept along the hallway. She paused when she reached the kitchen, staring mournfully into the former heart of their happy home. The remembered meals and stories they had shared around the scarred table clashed with the stark image of her mistress eating the master’s face as she stood petrified in the doorway. The spell had broken when the demon who had been her loving mistress turned her appalling eyes towards her, and Holi had run for her life. It had been the worst day she had experienced in all her ten summers, and she hadn’t stopped running since.

She shivered, suddenly chilly and slightly spooked by the echoes of her mind, but shook it off and resumed her careful progress. She climbed the stairs, avoiding the familiar squeaky boards in case there was a sleeping demon somewhere close. She made it to her former room without issue, stifling a gleeful laugh when she discovered the gamble she’d taken coming here had been worthwhile. Misgivings about leaving the littlies alone for so long were forgotten in the face of her triumph. She began placing the precious items carefully into the lined sack she’d brought especially, ticking off titles from her mental list as she packed it.

 “Let’s see, Princesses and Dragons, Knights of the Realm, Faeries and Magicks, Angels...  Oh, the pirates! He’s going to love this one!”

She continued until her sack was almost overfilled, and then secured it with the strong cord she’d also brought. She deliberately didn’t look at the book of gods and goddesses. She’d had enough of them forever. Hoisting the sack over her shoulder, she made her way back outside to return to the littlies with the forage—and her haul of secret treasure.

The sky was overcast, and billowing angry-looking gray clouds were moving in from farther north. Holi looked up pensively as she headed towards the township, hoping that she would make it before the storm hit. She kept her pace up and her eyes peeled for any sign of the green light that would give away an approaching demon as she checked the snares she’d laid earlier, finding that a number of them were full as she unwound the vines and wires she had set. They would all eat well tonight!

Cleaning and dressing the unexpected bounty absorbed more time than Holi could safely spend. She was already pushing her luck. The sky was a dismal shade of slate, and the light that protected her was already fading as she scurried back along the animal trails leading to the meadow at the forest’s edge.

Holi panted slightly as she exited the tree line. As she dashed across the long grass and onto the road leading back into the township, she became aware that the sack on her back was slowing her down and that the scent of the meat she carried would be a beacon to the hungry demons who would soon emerge from the shadows.

Torn by which direction to take as the pregnant clouds roiled blackly overhead, she stalled by the crossroads. If she cut through the market to get to the other side of town, she would certainly be sniffed out. The safest choice would be to go around, using the alleys and passages between the rows of houses to skirt the marketplace altogether, but was there time? It was rapidly darkening, and the urgency of returning to safety brought Holi out of the spiral of indecision.

As the first of the raindrops began to fall, she slipped into the network of back-alleys and began running towards the hospit where the waiting littlies were depending on her. The twists and turns were a blur as she sped through the filthy warren-like maze, and the rain beginning to fall in earnest.

It was getting slippery underfoot. The detritus piled at the sides of the alleys was difficult to navigate with her heavy load, and Holi’s panic was threatening to take over again. The rain further slowed her pace, churning the alleys into stinking slick mud that sent her skidding more than once. The sack was getting wet and she was certain she had seen a green glow in the near distance, heralding the arrival of a demon. She stopped at a jutting fence to get her bearings in the lashing downpour.

The assault on her senses was incredible. The torrent sucked the sounds from the night and replaced them with the crashing of rainwater beating the ground in nature’s furious rhythm. Was the glow getting nearer? What to do?

She cautiously peered through a gap in the fence, trying to pinpoint her location and the location of the demon, which was definitely close. She couldn’t hear a thing, but the glow got a little brighter—and a little closer—to where she was hidden. The rain was cascading down with a ferocity that could only have come from the goddess Herself, deafening her with relentless peals of thunder, and stifling her perception. She recoiled in fear as the light leached through the gap and two sallow green eyes appeared where her face had been pressed a moment before.

Please don’t notice me. Please, please, please, she thought desperately, feeling fetid breath touch her cheek. It wasn’t an answered prayer though. The demon had smelled her, and was looking for a way through the fence.

Holi ran.












CHAPTER TWO



Holi is saved

Breaking free of the brambles that blocked the alley’s exit, Holi broke into the shadowy waterlogged street. Her eyes wide and wild, she scanned the houses without slowing—searching for a place to hide, refusing to relegate the littlies to a short life without her protection—and focused on a strange white glow coming from a sidestreet up ahead. Holi pelted towards it as the demon's frustrated, hungry growls bled into the air around her.

As she approached the sidestreet, Holi prayed the light represented safety and not the slavers who had taken her to market as an orphan, even though she knew that a slave lived and a demon's dinner didn't. She had to get home if she could.

 Please, please, please! Internally chanting her new mantra with each ragged breath, she barreled around the corner. A strange conveyance surrounded by black-silhouetted figures was the source of the light she had seen. She reached the group, almost collapsing with exhaustion as she screamed a warning to the shadowy people.

"Demon! RUN!" she gasped, her chest heaving and constricting with the effort of breathing and the fear of being killed by the nightmare chasing her. With that she looked up at her saviors, and immediately started to back away as one stepped forward. Her sack dropped and was forgotten. The woman had red eyes!

"Don't worry, little one," the woman said softly, her eyes changing from red to black. "We know all about these demons, and we're here to make them go away."

Holi looked up again, seeing the kindness on the strange woman's face. Glancing around, she saw the other strangers, all dressed the same in black clothing with weapons strapped around their bodies. They also seemed kind—if scary—so she took a deep breath and pointed in the direction of the alley where the monster had nearly caught her. The scary/kind woman gestured, and three of the people around her set off in the direction Holi had indicated. A few moments later, Holi heard two loud bangs and unearthly screams as the people made the demon go away forever. She decided these people were guardian angels, sent to save them.

"What's your name, sweetie?" the female angel asked. “Let's see if we can find out who your parents are and get you home."

Holi didn't know what the angel meant.

 "I'm Holi," she said, big black eyes turned upwards to the perfect face above her. "I live in the old hospit near the bay. What are parents? And who are you? Are you an angel?"

"You’re not from the castle? The Keep?" asked the angel, frowning as Holi mutely shook her head. "My name is Bethany Anne. Who looks after you, honey?"

Holi felt a tear leave the corner of her eye as the face of her mistress flashed through her mind, and the last of her adrenaline left her as the grief washed over her. Her legs gave way.

"No one," she whispered.

Before she could crumple to the ground, the angel caught her easily and held her close to shield her from the rain. She felt a flicker of hope. Maybe Bethany Anne could help her and the littlies? They had been hiding for so long, trying to avoid the demons who had once been their families and loved ones.

She looked up at Bethany Anne again, trusting the safety she felt in her strong arms, and opened up. "We had Elders before the goddess plagued us, but there’s nobody like that anymore. Just me and the littlies the demons missed. I take care of them all. I went to the Keep to ask for sanctuary for us all in the beginning but they wouldn’t open the gate, so I looked after my littlies by myself,” she said proudly, feeling less helpless as she made her statement.

“Don’t need any stupid nobles anyway. Let them stay behind their walls. We’re doing fine! I just need to get home. I’ve been gone too long."

She sniffled, and a bubble of snot popped at the end of her nose. "Pip and Lolly are on their own. If I don't get back soon, Pip might try coming outside by himself to find me. They need me, the littlies do. Can I go to them now, please? Will you help me get there?"

Her eyes were brimming with tears, but she held them wide so Bethany Anne would see how strong and brave she was and want to help.

The angel’s face changed again. First she looked distant, as though she was somewhere else, then she smiled brightly at Holi, overwhelming her with her beauty once again as she spoke the words which cemented Holi’s belief that this woman was their savior.

"Well, I’m not going to just let you go into danger without any help. Come on, you can ride in my Pod. We’ll be there in no time if we fly!"

Bethany Anne led Holi towards her odd conveyance. With no little trepidation at the mention of flying and a tiny spark of hope growing inside her heart, Holi followed her through the tapering rain.


Bethany Anne, Pod’s Seating Area

Bethany Anne swore internally as she entered the Pod. ADAM? TOM? One of you get out here right fucking now! This is turning into a gigantic shit-storm! 

>>Yes, Bethany Anne? <<

ADAM had drawn the short straw. Neither of Bethany Anne’s travelling companions enjoyed their host’s infamous bad moods, but the right decision had been to let TOM take the back seat on this one—because it was one of his species who had committed these atrocities. TOM understood. He would do nothing to distract her from retribution. After all, who could be calm and rational in the face of a situation like this? He just didn’t want to be the accidental recipient of her overflowing rage.

 There are children here. What the fuck is wrong with these people, that they would leave children to be eaten alive?  Pompous crotch-biscuits didn’t mention they’d turned her away, either. I can’t believe I felt sorry for the bastards. Can you even imagine what this child has been through?  We need to get these kids out of here, because I'm going to blast this shit-stain of a planet and its fuck-nugget feudal aristocracy back to the Dark Ages!

>>The Guardians are on their way to clear up the misengineered as we speak. I’ve sent a battery of camera drones to the bay to assess the area before we arrive. I’ve got to say, this isn’t exactly the vacation you promised when we set out, Bethany Anne. <<

 You can say that again.

News of green-eyed flesh-eating monsters overrunning sleepy backwater planets had filtered back to the Empire in recent months via the Rangers and their transport partners. When Barnabas mentioned it in passing to Bethany Anne, she had decided to take one of her famous secret road trips to investigate the rumors. Taking the six Guardian Marine teams and a ship with her was a compromise to having a protracted argument with John, but she was glad she had brought so much firepower when the extent of the catastrophe became apparent.

 It hadn’t taken long after arriving to discover the widespread genocide that was now the most striking feature of this previously peaceful system. They discovered one dead planet after another, burning out pockets of slavering green-eyed mutants on each after confirming there was no other life. The vacation was turning into a holiday from hell.

It had been a welcome change in the pattern when they reached Castellegia, the third planet, and the scans showed signs of life. They had found the group of survivors in Castel, the stronghold at the center of the relatively small civilization. Failing to make contact, they brought a Pod down hoping to find out what had happened from the survivors’ mouths. When they arrived, the people were terrified at first by the Pod. This was a medieval-level culture, the people still reliant on religion and fable to guide them, and after hearing their story Bethany Anne understood their fear. She recalled the terrified people, and the tale they’d told her.

A strange woman had come to Castel one day, proclaiming herself to be Harmartea, their goddess of war. She had demanded they worship her, and dedicate their lives to her in return for their continued existence. The nobles had mocked her and ordered her thrown into the moat for her blasphemy and impudence. The guards who took her arms fell to the floor screaming and tearing at themselves savagely while the woman smiled, taking joy from their pain. The shocked nobles could do nothing as two strong men twisted in the throes of their agony. The screaming ceased with the guards’ final breaths, and she asked the frozen assembly, ‘Do you believe in me now?’ Terrified, they had dropped to their knees as one and begged to serve Her in Her Glory.

She had demanded sacrifices for her twisted rites. They gave her the criminals, the beggars, and the peasants. They begged for mercy.  She gave them horror and vanished in the night, leaving them to die by her demons’ teeth and claws.

The plague had begun in the lower marketplace. Merchants, home keepers, and thralls became ill within hours. The infected were exhausted. They sweated and shook with fever as they were tormented by the voices of demons in their minds. Three days later, Hell itself came down on Castellegia as the sick transformed into grotesque demons with nauseating green-glowing eyes.

Mindless with hunger and craving energy to sustain their new forms, the demons attacked indiscriminately, gorging on the flesh of the hospit staff and their loved ones before leaving in search of more sustenance. It had only taken a few short weeks for almost the entire population to die, leaving only demons beyond the walls of the stronghold. The only ones who remained ‘untainted’ were the lords and ladies of the Keep—or so they had told Bethany Anne.

Bethany Anne’s heart had gone out to these people and she had promised them that she would rid the planet of the mutants this Harmartea had created. Meeting Holi changed all that. Finding out they had refused to help children in need gave her the outlet she needed for the frustration she felt at missing the chance to kill that psycho body-snatching bitch. They were no better than their false goddess, and she would give them Justice in the children’s names.

First though, she would see this dauntless child and her charges safe and sound.

What about this little fighter? she asked ADAM as she tenderly strapped the child into a seat and took her own with a reassuring smile. Jesus, she’s so thin! And those eyes of hers—they’ve seen too much too soon.

>>She’s stronger than she looks. Over ninety percent of the population on this planet fell victim to the nanocyte virus, and her group is the only one to survive outside the stronghold. She has kept the children she rescued alive for the last three years in a harsh, exacting environment. I’d wager she’ll go far, given the opportunity to thrive.<<

 She’s definitely something special, that’s for sure. I just wish I could have gotten here sooner. I'll fry that bitch when I find her!

>>The camera drones have completed their sweep of the area and have located the building Holi described. Footage is showing a group of six misengineered in the area at the hospital’s entrance. You could take some of that frustration out on them. We’ll be there in a few minutes.<<

Great idea! Let's go kill us some zombies and save these kids! Fuck it, ADAM. Shit like this makes me miss Earth's politics. This was supposed to be a vacation! You know, kick some zombie ass and ride off into the Etheric cheering ourselves for being Team Awesome. Now it's genetically engineered peasants gone wrong, orphaned kids all over the fucking place, and some batshit Kurtherian fucknut we can’t fucking find! Son of a cactus-humping sword-gobbler! 



She took a fraction of a second to compose herself before turning her attention to the brave child strapped into the seat in front of her.


Holi, Bethany Anne's Pod

"Bethany Anne?" Holi asked quietly, her eyes wide. "Do I belong to you now? I don't mind, as long as Pip and Lolly and the others can stay with me. They won’t be any trouble, and I'll work very hard if you look after us, I promise!"

She looked out of the window, seeing the green glows of the demons disappear one by one. She almost didn't believe what she was seeing, but she knew it was real. The angels were winning!

Bethany Anne considered her as if she could see into Holi's very soul. She felt like squirming under the beautiful angel’s inspection, but held still and kept eye contact. She had to convince her to help them, or Lolly would definitely die before summer’s end.

"Well, Holi,” Bethany Anne began gently. “Where I come from people can't belong to other people, so you won't belong to me."

Holi's heart dropped, her hope draining faster than the blood from her face. She didn't want them. They were doomed!

 “Who will we belong to, then?” she asked. “Will you sell us? Will it be to someone kind like you?”

She recoiled at the sudden flash of red from Bethany Anne’s eyes and shrank back in her chair. Bethany Anne instantly held out a hand to reassure her.

“I’m not angry with you, Holi. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m angry about your situation, that’s all. It’s one I’ve had to fix on many other worlds since I left my own behind. Can I tell you a secret?”

Holi nodded eagerly. She would guard Bethany Anne’s secret with her life!

“I went into space to protect my world, a world that didn’t believe in what I was doing. When I began to find my way around I realized that the galaxy was missing something really, really important.” She paused, thoughtful for a moment. “Do you know what Justice is?”

 Holi nodded. “It’s when the Goddess decides you did something bad, and then you die.” She saw the look on Bethany Anne’s face. “Is that not right? What about when you don’t pay your tithes and the guards come and you get put in the stocks? No? What is it then?” This angel was very confusing.

“Justice is what every living being deserves, Holi. If good people are suffering, Justice is rooting out those responsible for it and making sure they can’t continue hurting people. You have been fighting alone for so long I think it will take a while for you to understand.” Bethany Anne paused for a moment as if searching for the right words.

“How about this? I will take you and all your ‘littlies’ far away from here, to a new life and a new home where you won’t be owned by anyone ever again. You will be loved by me and my people. I’ll find families for all of you. You’ll be fed and made well, grow, and learn—and you’ll be free! The important thing is that it is your life and your choice. That’s what Justice is. Do you see?”

A fresh tear made its track down Holi's dirty and scratched face, and she smiled with relief before bursting into violent sobs. The dam holding back the reservoir of her enormous responsibility had burst. The hope of a safe place after all this time was too much for her young heart to bear.

Her only goal for far too long had been surviving so she could keep the littlies alive. Someone had to go out and find food and keep them safe. The hospit had been stripped bare before the barricades went up. There was nothing there for them except the safety of a hiding place the demons couldn't get into at night. She would take her littlies and follow Bethany Anne to the stars, where they would be safe and free.

The first days after the demons had come were a blur in Holi’s memory. The trauma of seeing so many corpses had created a gruesome montage of dread and panic that fueled her constant need to run. Finding Pip and Lolly had been a complete fluke. They had been alone in a tumbledown shack, starving and filthy when she came across the hovel close to dusk one evening. She assumed the smell of their excrement had masked the smell of the twin littlies from the demons. She’d fed them broth made from the game she’d caught earlier and begun the task of nursing them back to health.

The next few days were split between searching for any other littlies the demons had overlooked and caring for those she discovered. She had found the gap in the hospit’s barricaded windows and spent an impossible day getting all her littlies into the safety of its stone walls, and they had remained there ever since. She had done her best over the years to keep them fed and well. There was an abundance of smaller animals in the woods, since the predators had mostly been eaten by the demons, and she had learned early on which plants were edible.

Time had passed since the uncertain days when the demons had begun killing and eating everyone indiscriminately, and many of the littlies were slowly learning her tricks. It had been a battle to keep them alive in the beginning, and she had often skipped a meal when there wasn't enough to go around. The littlies needed the food more. She had persevered during the hard times, and been rewarded with love and respect from the fast-growing littlies as they worked hard to be self-sufficient. They deserved the treasure she was bringing them.

Her treasure! She had forgotten in the panic.

“Bethany Anne?” she piped up. “Do you know what happened to my belongings when you rescued me? There’s something important I need to check on.”

It would be devastating to find the only remainder of her life before had been lost or damaged irreparably. She couldn’t see the bright blue cord she’d tied the sack with anywhere in her line of sight, but it had been dragged through the muck so she wouldn’t give up yet. A huge sigh of relief escaped her as she saw her sack in Bethany Anne’s slender hand, and she began wriggling to get out of her restraints to get to it.

Bethany Anne laughed at her eagerness and showed Holi how to press the button that would release her safety harness. Holi delved into the sack with the enthusiasm of a starving man happening upon a juicy steak. The angel asked Holi what had made her so happy.

“It’s why I went so far today. I tell the littlies the stories every night, but they’ve never had pictures before! It’ll help them with their letters too if they can look at them.” She held the book so Bethany Anne could see the golden dragon on the page. Then she closed it, becoming somber again.

“Lolly might be gone by the time we get back. Can we hurry please, Bethany Anne?”

“We’re already there. You'll be home really soon, brave one. First I have to take care of something down there, so you hold tight here, ok? I’ll be back soon. Now don’t be scared… I’m going to do a really neat trick. Look down to the street for me!" Holi’s mouth fell open when Bethany Anne disappeared, and she looked out the Pod’s windows for her angel.

Holi marveled when Bethany Anne reappeared on the street below. Was she… She was! Holi couldn't believe Bethany Anne was taunting the demons!

The angel’s eyes shone brightly. Their ruby glow lit the moisture remaining in the air after the storm, creating a diffused halo Holi could just about see by. Bethany Anne called to the demons again and, snarling and slobbering, one bounded toward her. Holi was screaming at the Pod window when she heard a voice.

Do not fear, young Holi. All is well. I am ADAM.”

 “Where are you? The demons are going to kill Bethany Anne. We have to do something!”

“If you look out of the window, you will see that Bethany Anne has the situation in hand. In the meantime, while we wait, you may ask me anything you want.”

Sure enough, the attacking demon now lay headless on the ground. She continued to watch as she thought about what to ask ADAM. She couldn’t take her eyes off the street.

 It was as though Bethany Anne were dancing as she twirled between the demons, her swords flashing as she slashed at their limbs.

 Each movement she made was an exact strike, a beautiful dance, and Holi promised herself that one day she would dance as beautifully as Bethany Anne. She recalled the strange voice of ADAM, and spoke again as she stared in wonder at the slaughter below.

“Where are you, ADAM?” That was the first thing she wanted to know.

“Right now, I am controlling the machine that is running this Pod.”

 “Are you a demon?”

A dry buzzing sound came from the box that ADAM’s voice emerged from. Holi realized he was laughing.

“Not as far as I know. Did you learn about numbers as well as letters?

Holi nodded and replied that she had, unsure how ADAM could see her if he was trapped in a machine.

“I was created by some special mathematicians on Bethany Anne’s world, which is Earth. She rescued me, along with my creators. I began life as a string of numbers and was destined to be a slave to humanity, but thanks to her I am alive, and I have the freedom to grow as I choose. I understand you were also treated as property before the misengineered —the demons—were released?”

 “In a way. I had to do a lot of work, but only because it was my job. It wasn’t bad, like some thralls had to live with. My master and mistress wanted a littlie but the gods didn’t bless them, so they went to the orphan sales and bought me. I always knew they owned me, but they loved me too! I miss Mum the most. She read stories to me and made me sweets, held me when I was sick and sang to me. Master taught me my letters and numbers, and woodcraft, and how to fix things for when he was gone. He never beat me either.” Holi emitted a tiny sob with this last statement. She had rarely had time to contemplate the loss she had suffered, since she was always run ragged looking after the littlies.

“Ah, I understand this. You had an emotional attachment to each other. That makes you family, no matter how you began.”

 “That makes sense. The littlies are my family now, and we’re getting Justice and going to a new place. Does that mean you and Bethany Anne will leave us? Can Lolly have some real medicine? Is that too many questions?”

“Not at all. Lolly will be fine. We have a special machine that will make him strong again. After you get settled in with your new families, you may see less of Bethany Anne. She has an empire to run, you know.”

“An empire?” Holi squeaked, awed by the revelation.

“Yes, she is the Etheric Empress. She will always make time for you if you need her, and she will make sure you’re all well taken care of if you choose to come with us when we leave. I will be available whenever you require me, as I can make use of many different machines. We will be friends, if that is agreeable to you?”

Holi liked ADAM. She didn’t understand some of the things he’d told her, but she could tell he was a kind person. She smiled to accept his offer of friendship, and barraged him with inquiries.

“How do you live in a machine? Where is Bethany Anne taking us all? Is she a guardian angel? I think she is. She rescued us both, didn’t she? Does she go around the stars saving everyone? She’s so amazing and strong. I want to be just like her when I grow up, then nobody would mess with us! What is space like? Are there other littlies where we’re going?”

She continued pelting ADAM with questions until Bethany Anne told him it was safe for Holi to come down to the street.


Hospit

Holi ran to the secret entrance. Bethany Anne had sent her to tell the hiding littlies that she was taking them away from this place. She said Holi would need some time to explain what was going on before she came into the hospit, and gave Holi a bracelet to wear with a button to press when she was ready. Holi had hugged her tightly and scuttled to the gap in the window board that was her entry.

She thought about gathering everybody together quickly, but she needed to see Lolly first. She had been gone far longer than she'd meant to be, and she was afraid he might have died while she was away. She decided to go to their room first.

Pip was asleep in the rickety chair next to Lolly’s sickbed when she arrived downstairs in the boiler room. The boiler worked as long as they had wood to feed it, and she had moved hers and Lolly’s blankets down there, hoping the warmth would help him recover. She was relieved to see he was still hanging on.

She gently shook Pip’s shoulder, slightly regretful at disturbing him when she saw the dark rings around his young eyes. He started and jumped to his feet in a defensive pose, but relaxed when he saw who had awakened him. His initial relief was quickly replaced by anger at how helpless he had been without her. His face crumpled as hot tears fell down his sooty cheeks.

"Where were you!" he blurted. "I thought you were dead!"

Holi allowed the small boy to pummel her with his tiny fists. She understood how he felt better than he realized. She was thankful he would never have to be so afraid again. None of them would! She hugged her little hero tightly, and her fantastic news spilled out in a rush.

"Pip, I nearly did die! I was caught in the storm and the demon nearly got me, only I ran! I ran and ran, and I found an angel! She saved me, and brought me to fetch you all. I need you to tell everyone to come to the entrance right now. We’re leaving!”

Pip looked at her as though she had lost her mind. None of this made sense to him. The entrance was blocked with rubble, and Holi never allowed them outside at night. Holi saw his confusion, and quickly explained what had happened that evening.

 “After she killed all the demons that were prowling outside, I came here to get you. We can go outside again! She's going to take everyone who wants to go to a new life, with something wonderful called ‘Parents.’ We have to get everyone outside now, so go on! I’ll take care of Lolly."

 Pip nodded blankly, overwhelmed by all the information but trusting Holi with his life. He took off for the dormitory where the others were sleeping.

Holi was so proud of Pip. He always did his best to help her with the younger littlies, and encouraged the others to help with them too despite being only eight summers or so himself.

As Pip’s footsteps retreated up the stairs, she bent over Lolly and began wrapping him firmly in his tattered blankets. ADAM had told her not to worry, but she felt the urge to hurry. He felt like a bird in Holi’s arms, fragile and easily shattered. He was hardly conscious, his heartbeat fluttering rapidly but steadily for now. He continued to draw feeble breaths, each halting inhalation a testament to his dogged refusal to let go. Holi begged him to hold on a little longer, murmuring to him as she made her way up the stairs and down the corridor to the entrance.

When she reached the entrance with her precious cargo, the rest of the littlies sat around the bottom of the staircase, yawning and looking bewildered. When Holi came into view they perked up and ran over to her, clamoring for her attention. She sat them all down to explain why they were up in the middle of the night.

She struggled for a moment, trying to find the best way to tell them so they would all understand. Some of them had only seen the three summers since the demons came, and had no memories of the time before. Inspiration hit her like a cuff on the back of her head.

They settled immediately when she told them she had a special story for them. Stories were how she taught them about the world and the lessons in survival she had learned the hard way, much like her mistress had done for her when she was a littlie. She often made herself the hero of these lesson-stories so they could tell the difference when she recited the fables she remembered from her books.  They fell into the familiar cadence of her tale as their eyes took on the glaze of imagination.

“Once upon a time there was a littlie named…can you guess?”

“HOLI!” they replied as one. They squirmed and giggled with excitement at this unexpected treat from the person they loved most in the world. Holi nodded back at them solemnly.

“Yes, she was called ‘Holi.’ This is the most important story I’m ever going to tell you, so listen well, my littlies. And join in when you know the next bit, ok?

“Holi was a very lucky littlie. When the monsters came, she...”

RAN!” They knew this part well, and joined in the game.

“She did! She ran, and she hid, and she remembered the lessons she had learned. And she lived. One day Holi found a treasure. Do you know what she found?”

LITTLIES!

“She did. Precious littlies, and she looked for more. Did she find any?”

YEEEES!

“She did! Lots of lovely littlies! Do you know what she promised the littlies when she found them?”

LOVES!

“Yes, loves! Holi loved the littlies with all her heart, and promised to keep them safe forever. Now my lovelies, are you ready for the new bit?”

YEEES!” they squealed, so she shushed them gently and continued.

“One day Holi went to seek a treasure for her littlies. She found the treasure and set off for home, but a storm came and she was trapped in the alley-maze with a demon. So she did what she always did and...”

“Ran?” the younger littlies were upset by the unfamiliar story and the mention of demons, but she pressed on.

“Well done! She ran, and she didn’t stop until a host of angels appeared before her! The angels saved her from the demon, and the most beautiful one of all told Holi she was here to rescue her and all her littlies.

“She brought Holi home in her flying carriage, and then she took Holi and all her littlies far away to live among the stars and gave them beautiful things called ‘Justice’ and ‘Freedom’ and ‘Parents.’”

She searched the faces of her littlies, seeing comprehension mixed with confusion in some of the older ones. The youngest didn't understand at all.

“That’s the end, except one important thing. Remember how I told you it was important at the beginning?” The littlies nodded.

“I can see some of you don’t really understand this story. It’s confusing, yes? Well, that’s because it’s a true story, and true things are often confusing. Did you like the angel who saved Holi in the story?” she asked them all.

They all agreed they did.

“That’s good, because she was the truest part. She’s waiting outside to take us all away from this place and give us good homes with her people if we want to go.

“Some of you are too little to remember the Before Time, so you don’t understand what ‘safe’ means. Some of you have only known this family right here, but I promise we will never be hungry or afraid again if we leave with our guardian angel. And, we won't have to hide from demons anymore! What do you say? Shall we go to the stars?”

The verdict was unanimous. If Holi wanted them to go with the angel, then that was what they would do. Holi had been their savior once upon a time, and they would follow her wherever she led. They watched with rapt attention as Holi pressed the button on her bracelet, and the voice of the angel came from it.

“Hello, Holi. Are you and your littlies ready?”

“Yes, Bethany Anne, we’re at the staircase opposite the entrance. How will you get in?”

“Don’t worry, Holi. Remember my trick?” she replied.

The littlies screamed and started up the stairs when Bethany Anne appeared on their side of the barricaded door, but Holi quickly calmed their fears.

“It’s ok. This is Bethany Anne, the angel who came to save us. She’s not as scary as you think, so come and say hello. Bethany Anne, this is my family. Everyone, this is Bethany Anne.”

She went to Bethany Anne, determined to show them she was safe to approach. The braver ones came to the bottom of the stairs to get a better look, and the rest peered through the spindles of the banister.

 Bethany Anne took a knee and smiled at them all, and held her arms out to receive Lolly. Holi hesitated to let go for a brief moment, afraid this would be the last time she saw him. Her wide black eyes shone brightly as Bethany Anne stood up, carefully cradling Holi’s beloved littlie in one arm. He was so tiny! Bethany Anne placed the other hand on Holi’s shoulder and she leaned into it, savoring the experience of being able to trust again. Some of the others came over to hug her too. They stared in wonder at Bethany Anne, never having seen someone so tall or so beautiful, and were amazed when she spoke to them as well as Holi.

 “He’ll be fine in a few days, I promise. He’ll be as good as new, actually, so don’t worry. Go help each other pack your stuff. I’ll be back as soon as Lolly is mending, ok?”

Holi nodded her assent as Bethany Anne and Lolly vanished into thin air. Putting her thoughts aside, she began the task of corralling twenty-one littlies into preparing for their evacuation.

Holi had no misgivings. Bethany Anne was the safest person she had ever known. She could feel it in her bones.


High Orbit above Castellegia

A few hours later the littlies were sleeping in warm, clean beds on their way to a new beginning. They had been afraid at first, overwhelmed by the experience of flying and the strange machines which seemed like magic to them. It would take time for their fear of adults to fade and the Guardian Marines had kept their distance while Bethany Anne escorted everyone to a dormitory where beds and hot food were waiting for them. After they had eaten their fill, they had exhausted themselves playing with the showers—which were a wonder to them, especially when the magic rain stopped and a warm breeze began to blow! They had dressed in the strange body-tubes that had been pointed out to them by Bethany Anne and fallen fast asleep in the soft beds, Holi included.

The day had been simultaneously the most frightening and the most amazing in her life, even more overwhelming than that fateful day in her tenth summer. She was completely exhausted, but her mind kept tripping over itself with all the questions she had. Her heavy eyelids drooped, and she sank into blissful rest.

She woke some time later and checked on the sleeping littlies, tucking in loose blankets before slipping out of the dormitory in search of answers to her questions. She marveled at her new garments as she walked along the corridor looking for Bethany Anne. She had never felt anything so soft in her life! The foot coverings were especially wonderful, snug and warm, and they gripped the floor lightly with each step. Holi had never had such things before.

She was disturbed from this train of thought as she reached the end of the corridor and saw an alcove. She startled when she saw the seats were occupied by one of Bethany Anne’s people, an enormous male with a great deal of red hair on his head and face. The giant held out a gentle hand to stay her worry.

“No need to fear, kjærest, I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just sittin’ here to make sure you are all protected and safe, ja?” His blue eyes crinkled as he smiled at Holi, and she couldn’t help but smile back at his kind, weather-beaten face. He continued his friendly chatter and she took a seat beside him, curious about what else he might tell her.

“You must be Holi. My name is Sten and I’m a Guardian Marine, which means I protect those who can’t protect themselves for whatever reason. A lot like you, young skjoldmøy,” Sten said, chuckling at her surprised expression.

“Oh, ja. You’ve been battling all this time to protect those barn, so you’re definitely a warrior! One of the best as well, since not everyone has the strength to keep fighting as long as you did. I hear you like stories, ja?  Let me tell you a story from the land of my grandparents’ birth. Would you like that?”

“Yes, please,” Holi said cheerfully, settling in to the soft seat. She would enjoy being on the receiving end of a story. It had been so long.

Sten began, “It was believed that in times of war, beautiful winged Valkyries would come to carry the souls of the warriors who had given everything to Valhalla to feast with the All-Father. The reward for an honorable death was a feast that will go on for eternity—until the call to war comes once again.”

Holi nodded, fascinated by this gentle giant and his story of winged warriors and feasts.

“So, little skjoldmøy, our Ildsjel has swept you up and brought you to her Halls, and now you shall feast as the reward for your honor and valor!”

Holi laughed at Sten’s joke. She liked this male and the sense of security he radiated, making her feel much like Bethany Anne had. These were good people, and she felt that she had made the right choice for her littlies.

“What about when war comes?” she wondered aloud, poking at the hairy fanged skull emblem on Sten’s arm. He removed it and passed it to Holi so she could get a better look.

“We’ll be the ones bringing it, my kjærest. There are many others like you in the galaxy in need of our help.”

“I’ll help! When can we go?” she chirped brightly. She didn’t know it, but that was the moment her future father fell in love with his little skjoldmøy. He never stood a chance after he saw her in her earnestness. After Holi left for the bridge and Bethany Anne, he began thinking of how his wife would react if he brought an orphaned alien child home with him.





EPILOGUE


QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Six Months Later

The last months had been the best of her life, but today was the most nerve-wracking. She felt sick to her stomach, and she wished her parents were there with her now as she waited for Astrid to meet her on the platform.

 Holi now lived with the Leifsens, along with Pip and a fully recovered Lolly. Upon hearing of another twenty orphans in need of loving homes, Sten’s extended family had leapt into action, petitioning the Empress for permission to adopt the Castellegian children into their enormous clan. They had settled into their new lives rapidly, bonding with their new siblings and cousins and having their hurts soothed by the adults with the healing balm of love.

Holi had become especially close with her new cousin Astrid. She had approached Holi at their first family gathering, the entire Leifsen clan had come together for a picnic in Mark Billingsley Park to welcome the new arrivals. Astrid had punched her in the arm, telling her she was sorry Holi had gone through all that bad shit. She’d introduced herself, and told her they were family now. “That means I look out for you, K?” Astrid had said, cementing her place in Holi’s heart.

They had been inseparable ever since, and Holi was glad they were doing this together. She exhaled as she caught a glimpse of Astrid’s fiery braids above the heads of the other freshman students. That was how she always found her cousin. Astrid was tall even by Leifsen standards. It was their first day at the Etheric Academy, and they were in the same class. Holi had known Astrid would make the grade and earn one of the five coveted positions. She could outfight anyone, and had been perfecting her “McGyvering” skills since she could hold a screwdriver.

Holi hadn’t felt she had much to offer the elite team by comparison, so had applied only to placate Astrid. She had collapsed, gibbering incoherently, when she found out she had made it, asking ADAM if it had been a mistake. He had assured her it wasn’t. Her leadership and survival skills, along with her ability to perform under pressure, were all vital for the Alpha Class team.

The cousins greeted each other and boarded the maglev tram that would take them to their home for the next few years. They looked around at their fellow students, smiling and nodding at the youths from many of the species which made up the Empire. The human boy in the seat across from them held out his hand to introduce himself to Holi and Astrid, smiling a little shyly as he shook hands with them.

“Hi, I’m Flynn. Flynn Rei.”

Astrid and Holi introduced themselves in return, and the three began to chat as the tram set off.

Holi had stopped running at last.


The End

Authors Notes: Holi’s Savior

By N.D. Roberts

Hello, fellow TKG addicts! Thanks first to Michael, who took a crazy chance, and my family for their support. Next is to Lynne and Stephen Campbell for doing everything it took to pull it together. Third is YOU! Thank you for reading my story, and my author’s notes! I hope you enjoyed Holi’s Savior and thank you so much for taking a gamble on a fan-written anthology! Is that enough thank yous? I don’t think so. I could go on all day…

I think I’ve rewritten these notes about six times now. (Edit: seven!) This whole experience is so far out of my comfort zone I may as well be in space with the Etherians. What to say? I had to write this story. Had to. It wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it. And I’m glad that I did!

Like so many before me I blasted through Michael’s books and fell completely in love with BA and her attitude, and then some six weeks of not enough sleep later I had a dream. That first scene is where it all started, the child running down the alley, the rain, the green light, and the monster. I smashed out a few hundred hasty words and sent it to Michael as a thank you for the black hole I fell into after downloading Death Becomes Her. To his credit, he didn’t say ‘Begone, crazy Welshwoman who clearly has no idea how these things work!’

But I was surprised to find I was the first to take him up on his generous offer. A lot of patient explanations later (Thank you Michael, Lynne, and my beautiful Kiddo who knows everything about “modern things that I’m too much of a Luddite to learn”) and here we are. It’s completely surreal.

I wanted to write something that would fit seamlessly into the KGU, and also show Bethany Anne from the perspective of someone she had saved. It wasn’t easy. This is the first piece of writing I’ve done since school (no, I won’t say how long ago that was, cheeky!) but hard work, and the willingness to begin the journey of learning this craft have won the day and I’m really happy about that. In fact I’m so happy about it I’ve been writing almost every day since and a lot of that has been the continuation of Holi’s story, which just keeps growing. What can I say, except I love this little orphan child so much I want to know everything about her! I didn’t expect to love writing so much, either.



Another thing I didn’t expect was the wonderful people in the Fans Write group. You are all completely awesome and inspirational! I love what we’re doing as a group, and as you work your way through this anthology and read their amazing stories I know you will too! It’s incredible how much love and support goes on in there. It really helps take the stories to the next level.

It’s not even just the writing group, it’s across all the TKG fan and author pages and groups. I’ve been chatting to some of you and I was overjoyed to find that TKG fans in general are just really nice, friendly, warmhearted people—a community I am proud to be a part of. I really hope I brought you all some joy with this. It would mean the world to me if I did. Thank you once again for reading my story, and I hope to entertain you again in the future!

Ad Aeternitatem (it is SO cool to say that!)

Natale

PS: One more thank you for Michael, because, you know, this is an amazing thing to be part of! Still so surreal. The pinching didn’t wake me up though, so I’m going with it.

PPS: If you have a story idea, why not have a go at writing it and share it with the Fans Write group? We did some stuff for fun as well as for this book, and there’s no judgment there—just fun, KG chat, and stories.


Last Adventure First

By S.E. Weir

Phina just wants to be a spy and use her self-taught hacker skills to help the Etheric Empire.


She embarks on one last adventure to try and make her best friend's wish come true. All it takes is a little B&E and some access pass forgery- no big deal for Phina's skills.


But with a mystery man talking in her head and tracking her every move, and a confrontation with leaders of the Etheric Empire, Phina might get more than she bargained for.


Dedication

For my amazing husband and adorably precocious sons, 

who always look for the next adventure.













CHAPTER ONE



QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Marine Training Corridor

(Takes place a few months after Bethany Anne declares war on the Phraim-‘Eh Clan.)

“Are we seriously doing this?” Alina squealed, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

Phina, who was crouched next to her best friend, glared. “We won’t be doing it for long if you keep squealing like that!”

Alina scrunched her beautiful face in disgust and completely ignored the glare. “I was not squealing, I was asking a question.”

Phina shook her dark-haired head, her eyes wide in amazement at her friend’s oblivion. “Alina, you squeal like a bistok.”

Her friend’s mouth dropped while her eyes widened in horror. “No!”

“Yes.” Phina’s eyebrows rose and she nodded to convince the girl.

Alina’s blue eyes, normally sunny, narrowed in anger and she punched Phina in the arm. “Why am I only hearing about this now? We’ve been friends since we were toddlers!” She fisted her hands on her hips in indignation and growled, causing Phina to snicker internally. Alina could be adorable when she was trying to act tough.

Her arm throbbed, and she rubbed it. Alina’s punch had been harder than she had expected. Phina pursed her lips for a moment as she tried to remember why she hadn’t said anything before, then shrugged. “It never came up.”

Alina’s face went completely blank, then her eyes blinked a few times. She often had a hard time understanding how Phina’s mind worked, but she remained her friend. Phina shrugged, not sure what else to say. As she shook her head, Alina’s perfectly curled blond hair slid back and forth along her shoulders. “You are a horrible friend.”

Phina remembered they were here for reconnaissance and peeked around the corner of the alcove they were hiding in. She eyed her targets, who were down the corridor. Fudge! The men were both looking in their direction, looking intimidating with their custom-made armor and JD weapons.

After assessing the situation and making a strategic decision, Phina smoothly pushed herself up and motioned for Alina to do the same. Alina moaned as she got to her feet, and grabbed Phina’s short black jacket to steady herself. Phina rolled her eyes.

She couldn’t believe Alina thought red three-inch heels with straps that wound up her calves were an appropriate choice for their current endeavor, though she supposed she should have been glad it wasn’t evening yet. Then it would have been four or five inches.

Phina much preferred her own soft black boots, which she had paired with black jeans and a dark-green shirt—stylish and practical. Alina’s white dress with its off-the-shoulder sleeves and flirty mid-thigh swing-skirt was stylish, but practical was not anywhere in the picture.

Choosing a moment when the men were looking at each other instead of toward them, Phina pulled Alina after her and left without a backwards glance—on Phina’s part, anyway. She glanced at her friend, then let out a breath of exasperation. First she squealed, and now she sighed while she fanned herself. Honestly, sometimes it was embarrassing.

“On the contrary, I’m a very good friend,” Phina announced as they entered the stream of busy humans and scurrying aliens in the corridors leading to the main concourse of the QBBS Meredith Reynolds. Traffic was heavier the closer they got to the Open Court, where all the shops, bars, and restaurants were located.

“I don’t see how,” Alina said sourly, reluctantly following Phina. “Especially when you are leading me away from all the yummy candy.”

Phina pulled her friend to a stop in the middle of the hallway. Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone barely avoid hitting her, then a tall and gangly Yollin swung past her on her right. Since she was receiving irritated looks from those she blocked in the corridor, Phina looked around for a place to relocate to. “Fudge!” She spotted an open corridor to the side and guided an amused Alina over, finally turning to face her friend in exasperation.

“’Candy?’ What candy are we talking about?” She began to pace, gesturing to make a point.  “I’ve been trying to get you in to see the Marines’ workout and training room. Why? Because they all take their shirts off in there, and it was the one place you wanted to try to sneak into before we turned eighteen and had to act like adults.” Phina’s voice was slightly raised, her words tumbled out faster as she continued, “But now you want to go somewhere else?”

Phina’s green eyes glared at Alina in frustration and confusion even as she frantically tried to think of the candy stores on the station they might be able to infiltrate before their time was up. She almost missed it when her friend tilted her head and calmly said, “Eye candy, Phina. I was talking about yummy eye candy.”

What? Her thoughts stopped.

They stood there for another moment staring at each other. Phina’s chest continued to heave indignantly till Alina started snickering, then her mouth twitched. They both started giggling at the same time, pressing their hands against their mouths to muffle the sound, and progressed to outright laughter when neither of them could stop.

Honestly, it was as much from relief as finding the situation amusing. They hadn’t admitted it to each other, but both had been worried they would drift apart now that they were moving on to other things. Phina and Alina were going to be all right, no matter where life took them next. Phina rubbed her belly as she caught her breath. She hadn’t laughed that hard in far too long—probably since the last time she completely missed something simple and overreacted.

Alina grinned at her. “You are turning eighteen in three days. You can start using real curse words now.”

Phina shook her head. “You know how my aunt feels about that. If I let up, one will slip out at the worst possible time.” Phina had tried it before, so she knew it would happen. She should add compartmentalization training to her daily schedule.

Her aunt had raised Phina since she was eleven years old. Her parents had died in one of the first battles against the Leath on Karillia, though they were deployed in different squads. Now that she thought about it, Aunt Rochelle had helped raise Phina before then, since, being Marines, her parents had been gone a lot to train and fight.

Her aunt didn’t care that the Empress herself cursed like a fudging sailor. She was adamant that Phina would keep her language clean. Her parenting style was a combination of strict and neglectful, which caused Phina no end of confusion. She dealt with situations better when she understood what the boundaries and rules were, and her aunt kept changing those on her. The language issue was one of the few things that was practically set in stone.

Alina’s high, soft voice cut through her thoughts. “So what’s the plan now? Are we giving up?”

Phina eyed her friend’s anxious face, then one side of her mouth turned up in her signature smirk. “No way.”

Alina grinned. “I knew you would eventually discover the joys of man-shopping!”

It was Phina’s turn for a face-scrunch of disgust. “Uh, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “This is all for you, Alina.”

The girl’s face fell. “Why not? You’ve never shown any interest in boys. I was hoping you were just waiting to be old enough for a man.” Alina eyed her. “Hold on, do you like girls? Why didn’t I know this?” She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes, likely offended at the thought that Phina hadn’t shared all her secrets.

Phina blinked as she thought. “No, I’m pretty sure if I had any interest, it would be in a guy. I just haven’t found one interesting enough yet.”

Alina’s mouth opened and shut while she waved her arms, apparently trying to encompass the several hundred thousand souls on the QBBS Meredith Reynolds. She finally found her voice. “With all the yummy man-candy on this station, you can’t find even one you think is attractive?”

Phina shrugged. Any man she found appealing—the poor soul—would have to be extraordinary in his interests and abilities, not his appearance. He would need to keep up with her, after all. She would be bored very quickly otherwise. “Looks aren’t everything.”

Alina shook her head in disbelief, possibly wondering why they were friends. “Well, yeah, but they sure help!” She clapped her hands, which amused Phina. Alina was apparently trying to forget her friend’s appalling lack of interest in one of her favorite subjects.

“What’s next?”












CHAPTER TWO



QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Ventilation Shafts 

Phina wondered if Alina had stopped cursing her yet.

The girl didn’t have a problem using the real words should the occasion call for it, and had been in the middle of a tirade when Phina left her in the Open Court. Phina alternated between snickering and feeling badly for leaving her friend out of the fun. There was no changing it though, since Alina wouldn’t be able to keep up with her for the next part of her plan.

Phina slid through the tunnel on her belly as fast as she could while remaining completely silent. She had deliberately waited until the day shift was over, but that was no reason to be careless. She had also changed, and now wore nothing that would catch on a bolt or sharp seam—her dark clothing was soft and clung to her body. Her favorite black boots were soft as well, and had no rubber or ridges that might catch and cause one of those awful squeaks. She had been through this area numerous times over the years, since the ventilation shafts were the best way to sneak to the different parts of the space station. She hadn’t been caught once, Phina thought proudly.

Her mind turned to the first time she had used the ventilation shafts to travel around the station. Phina had known she couldn’t get to her target location by going through the regular corridors since there was far too much security and too many people going about their business.

The problem she had encountered was that the only path to her destination required her to ascend a two-hundred-foot shaft, with air corridors every twenty-five feet. She had been confident she could make the climb, resting in an air corridor when needed, right up until she had slid back down after ascending only five feet. Quickening her pace had only tired her out faster. Panting with frustration as well as resignation, Phina had determined to strengthen her muscles as quickly as possible.

Phina located hallways to storage areas that were accessed only once or twice a week and ran twice a day as many days of the week as she could manage. She toned her body through the push-ups, jumping jacks, and squats she knew already, and anything else she could think of or find on the system. Twice a week she also tried to climb the air shaft again, making it higher at each attempt. Bare feet enabled her to grip the walls more easily, so she got used to that as well, developing callouses on her hands and feet.

Her months of mental and physical preparation were proved worth it the day she climbed those two hundred feet to the correct air corridor. Phina had lain on the floor of the corridor for a few moments to rest and congratulate herself, before continuing to the correct ventilation access. She planned to dance her way back through the corridor in celebration. Three short hours later she returned, her mission to discover the truth about her parents complete, but she was far too angry and sad to dance.

Now, pulled out of her thoughts by hearing a light whirring, she flattened herself against the floor and turned her face to the side until the repair drone had disappeared behind her.

She breathed out softly and relaxed. “That was close.”

The drones were a recent addition, added two years ago after there was an issue with one of the shafts being improperly connected, causing air to vent into the wrong area. The buildup over time had become a strain on the entire system, and could have resulted in a massive problem.

An anonymous report and a week later, the problem had been fixed. Within two weeks the drones had shown up, likely developed by R&D—possibly even BMW, the elite engineering team. This made moving around the ventilation shafts and corridors trickier, since the drones contained sensors and cameras, so Phina had developed her body suit.

She had no further trouble with the drones after coating the outside of her suit with a compound she had created specifically for fabric. It functioned like antiradar paint; she just had to flatten herself and not move for it to work properly.

The irony was that Phina had sent in the anonymous report of the problem. She mentally shrugged, knowing that avoiding drones was better than having whole sections of the station blow up. It wasn’t the first time she had submitted an anonymous report of safety or security issues that had later caused problems for her sneaking, and hadn’t been the last.

After listening for another moment to make sure the drone was gone, Phina continued toward the Marines’ laundry and clothing storage area. She was ready to get moving on this part of the mission. She could see her destination, so she took a small tool out of a hidden pocket so she could remove the screen. A few turns, some gentle probes to loosen the seal, and the screen was lying against the wall.

“May I ask what you intend to do?”

Her head whipped up in surprise and hit the sharp edge of the ventilation shaft she was stepping out of with a thunk. “Fudge!” She tentatively probed the sore area, and was relieved that there wasn’t any bleeding. It still hurt like a fudgebear. She looked around to find the owner of the voice, but didn’t see anyone in the large room since it was now after hours—a fact she had purposely exploited for this part of her mission.

“Uh, where are you? Come out so I can see you, please.” She was slightly scared, since this was the first time anyone had discovered her on a mission, but more than that, she was frustrated since this guy was interfering with her last mission with Alina.

“I’m not in the room with you. I’m speaking to you through your implant.”

Phina sighed in exasperation and wondered why life conspired against her. “I won’t ask how since I can figure that out, though that takes some pretty fancy skills.” She crossed her arms. “May I ask why you are wondering about my intentions, and how you discovered me in the first place?”

“Oh, I’ve been watching you.”

Phina closed her eyes. Fudging crumbs on pickle toast! She started moving quickly as the voice continued speaking, finding the clothing she needed and placing her acquisitions in the thin bag she had tucked into her pocket.

“As for why I am wondering… Well, I guess you would say I got impatient as I monitored you and thought I would just ask.” The voice paused. “Are you not aware that stealing is morally wrong?”

Phina moved back toward the ventilation shaft, done with this area and especially done with this guy, who was judging her. “I’m not stealing, I’m borrowing. I’ll bring them back after I’m finished with them.”

“I see.”

“And as for what I’m doing, I’m helping my friend with something.” She paused for a moment before entering the shaft, eyebrow raised. “Will you please be quiet now? Any noise in here causes echoes.”

She had just crawled into the tunnel when the voice told her, “I’m not speaking out loud, remember? I’m speaking to you through your implant. You are the one talking. If you think your responses I will hear you.”

Her head ached after it hit the top of the tunnel. Again. “Fudging…” She shut her mouth since the word was already echoing and just gritted her teeth. She formed the thought very carefully.

Would you please stop surprising me when I have something hard right above my head?

She had double the headache now. Perfect. She moved very slowly down the air corridor.

“Logic suggests that you should be more careful in your reactions.”

Being logical all the time is for computers, EIs, and processing engines. Humans have emotions, and can’t help showing them.

The voice paused for a long moment. “I really can’t argue with that assessment.”

Good. Now please let me focus. It’s really hard to think with this headache.

She moved as quickly and quietly as possible, but she couldn’t help wondering who the guy was. She had to concentrate on the mission for Alina right now, but she was going to check him out tomorrow. Watch out, Mystery Man. I’m coming for you.

Assuming they weren’t caught.












CHAPTER THREE



QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Burke Family Residence

Alina practically jumped up and down when Phina entered her apartment. “Do you have everything? Are we ready now?”

Phina patted the back of her head, where a small knot had formed after she hit the ventilation opening. She hadn’t gotten any sleep yet, so she was feeling the burn of needing to rest.

At least Alina had gotten over her mad from being left out of the supply-gathering stage. Phina figured her excitement had caused her to let her anger go, which was a very good thing for all concerned. Alina could hold onto her mad for days, and cause everyone around her to regret it.

“Yes.” Phina opened the thin bag she had carried the supplies in and handed Alina the clothing meant for her. “Get dressed in that, then I will give you the rest of your things.”

Phina laid the area passes, socks, and shoes on the bed, along with her own change of clothes. The shoes were another acquisition…er, borrowed item. The passes Phina had created during the seemingly endless hours of the night. The physical copy was based on the ones she had seen as she snuck around, while the coding she had found in secure-against-most-people locations on the system.

The voice in her head had interrupted her again when he realized what she was making, thankfully at a time when there wasn’t anything close enough to hit her head on. 

“Is it appropriate for you to use this code to get into those locations, and use it for your own purposes?”

Phina had scowled as her fingers tapped her tablet, eyes scanning the text that streamed across the screen. “Mystery Man, this is getting old fast. I’m not going to do anything damaging or hurtful to anyone, and neither is my friend. All we are going to do is walk into that location, observe for as long as possible, and then leave. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“You aren’t concerned that someone could take this pass from you and use it for their own purposes?”

She had put her hands up, unconsciously hoping he would stop. “Okay, MM, I’m done talking to you. No more questions. However, so that you don’t worry your little brain, I’ll tell you that I already added code in the passes so that they can’t be used after today. Now will you please shut it?” 

Her patience level was zero due to lack of sleep and the requirement to focus, so she was extremely happy the voice had been quiet after that. 

Alina told her she had finished changing her clothes, so she turned to see how they fit.

“Wow, I love the way these feel on me! Can I keep them?” Alina’s eager face fell when she was told she couldn’t.

Phina shrugged. “Sorry, but I only borrowed them. They do look great on you.” She smiled; almost all the clothes Alina tried on looked great on her. These clothes were not the norm for her, though.

The clothing Phina had acquired was the standard activewear the Marines wore for training. Since there were so many people of various sizes needing these types of clothing, it was easier just to make a lot of the same stretchy, breathable garments in different sizes. The outfit fit Alina like a glove, and made her body look amazing.

Phina changed, then they quickly put on the socks and shoes before sliding the passes into the small pocket in their shorts that had been added for exactly that purpose.

Alina walked toward the door, then paused and turned back, concern on her face. “Phina, are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?” Phina was honestly confused.

Alina gave her a sad smile. “I know why you started doing these missions, Phina. I know why you still do them.”

Phina grew quiet.

After her parents’ funeral, one burning question blazed through her grief—why had both her parents died? Phina absorbed information very easily, and turned her grief into fuel and determination to learn how to get the information she needed. Once she had developed enough skill, Phina had hacked into the systems to find out what had really happened on Karillia. The hacking hadn’t been hard to figure out, since it was only a matter of logic, puzzles, and picking up the right software languages.

Although logic sometimes—and only sometimes—escaped her, she was a whiz with puzzles. Her language skills weren’t too shabby either; she had already learned binary, several coding languages, and could read and speak Yollin, Karillian, Leath, and Ixtali, even without activating the translation function of her implant. She had picked up those skills so she wouldn’t be bored in classes. She had never been formally tested but she was smart, a fact of which very few were aware. Phina had made certain of that.

No, the hard part of gaining the information had been making it through the systems’ security. It had been fiendishly difficult, since at times it had seemed like it was fighting back. She had been very proud of herself when she made it through, both to the location and through the system itself.

 From the documents she had read, Phina understood that her parents might not have died on Karillia had there been better intelligence on the Leath and their Kurtherian ‘gods’ before the battles, and better communication between Bethany Anne and her inner circle.

Her grief had again overwhelmed her, but her anger had raged at the knowledge that Empire leadership’s lack of intelligence and communication had caused her parents to die. She had turned that anger against Bethany Anne and the leadership in the Empire for several months, but had gradually come to realize her focus was wrong. Phina snorted now at the thought that she might have had a chance against the Queen Bitch and her team. Not likely!

Instead, Phina had vowed on her parents’ memory that she would make sure mistakes like those never happened again. She would become a stealthy information acquirer who passed on data to prevent death and atrocities. In other words, a spy.

She was already proud of the inroads she had made, serving as an unofficial information analyst during the last few years of the war with the Leath. Slipping her documents into the files General Reynolds and the other leaders used had become child’s play. Or, as her dad had liked to say, “spy play.”

Her dad had read secret agent and spy stories to her when he was home from deployment, and after he was gone she had chosen that path as her career. Somehow she didn’t think he would have been surprised. However, Phina much preferred the phrase “stealthy information acquisitions” over “spying” or “spycraft.” It was more accurate, as well as more fun. Alina had told her that only someone odd would think three stuffy words were more fun than spying.

Alina was waiting for her answer. She nodded slowly. “I’m okay, Alina. I want to do this for you.” She grinned, and her eyes sparkled with amusement. “Anything to hone my talents. Skills for me, men for you. Seems like a fair tradeoff!”

Alina snorted and rolled her eyes. “All right, Phina, I get it. No guys for you.” She turned toward the door again.

“Alina?”

She turned back with a questioning look on her face.

“Just remember not to act too much like a fangirl, okay?”

Alina posed and tossed her head, her curls disappointingly confined by an elastic. “I am a fangirl!”

Phina smiled even as she sighed inwardly. She didn’t think Alina would ever be as serious about life as she herself was—which was fine, Phina reminded herself, since Alina wanted to go into the fashion and beauty industry. She had planned to create her own lines of perfumes and colognes for both humans and aliens until Phina told Alina that creating scents required a thorough knowledge of chemistry and reminded her of her lack of good grades—or even basic skills—in that class. Alina hadn’t brought it up since. Still, Alina was the best and only friend Phina had ever had. Her mind had turned to their upcoming birthdays and being so close to following her own goals and dreams, when she had a thought.

“Alina, you should do it.”

She looked confused. “We are doing it. Did you change your mind?”

Phina shook her head, smiling. “No, I mean you should create your own perfumes if you still want to, or whatever your dream is now. If it’s something that requires skills or knowledge you don’t have, then find someone who does and partner with them. I think you should go for it.”

Alina’s face had brightened as Phina talked. Beaming, she ran over and hugged her friend so tight that Phina had a hard time breathing. Still, she hugged Alina back. It was worth it. Alina let go and backed up a step, tears glistening in her eyes.

“Thank you, Phina! Really, thank you. That means so much to me. I know it isn’t as big a deal or as important as being a spy, or saving the Earth and the Empire like Bethany Anne, but it’s what I want to do.”

Phina raised her eyebrow. “You mean ‘stealthy information acquirer.’”

Alina rolled her eyes even as she laughed, since this was a common exchange. “Whatever.”

Phina looked seriously at her friend. “If it’s your dream, then you should do it. Besides, I’ve become convinced you are right. There were far too many people who stank in the main corridor yesterday. Add deodorants for various species to your line of products and I think you’ll save all our noses,” she finished with a grin.

Alina’s eyes sparkled and her face shone with excitement. “Yes! That’s perfect!”

Phina nudged her toward the door. “Come on, let’s go. Just remember to tone down the squeals.”

Alina smacked Phina’s arm, but smiled as she turned to walk out. She raised a fist in the air. “Phinalina is leaving the building!”

Phina smirked at the name. When they were in grade school they were teased about their names rhyming, and being together so much instead of playing with the other kids. Rather than being offended, the girls thought it was awesome and adopted it, using it as their code name for their adventures.

Since this was their last childhood adventure, it was very fitting. She caught up to her friend outside the door as they began to walk the few miles to their target location. She stuck her fist out.

“Phinalina forever.”

Alina grinned and brought her own up for a fistbump. “Phinalina forever!”

They walked down the lightly-traveled residential corridor toward the lifts. People moved through the corridor that crossed theirs ahead.

“Hey, Phina?”

“Hmmm?” She had been thinking about what they would soon be walking into. She wanted to be prepared.

“What about Maxim?” Her eyes sparkled and she gave Phina a smile.

Phina blinked. “What about him?”

“He could be a guy for you. He’s super-hot, even if he is older, but he’s a Were so that doesn’t really matter!” She grinned.

Phina was already shaking her head. “No.”

“Ronnie Diamantz? He’s super-smart!”

Phina glowered at Alina. “No.” They reached the end of the corridor and mixed with the crowd, dodging a Karillian who was in a hurry. His three eye stalks waved back at them in irritation.

“Peter Silvers?”

She sighed, wondering how long her friend would keep asking. Alina’s face brightened, probably thinking she was interested. But…

“No.”












CHAPTER FOUR



QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Marines’ Workout Area

“Which of you would like to spar first?” The man in front of them smiled as if he knew something that amused him. What exactly he knew, Phina wasn’t sure. Probably that what they knew about sparring could fill a teacup. Crumbs, more like a shot glass.

The girls had gotten through the guarded door without a problem, thanks to her well-made passes. The armored men had given Phina curious glances and Alina admiring ones, while Alina had looked and flirted back. That was fine with her; she was used to it. Phina generally just did her thing while Alina attracted attention and drew people in. It was a good thing flirting her way in wasn’t required at most of the places Phina accessed, since she would have failed miserably. Alina was masterful, even when she wasn’t trying.

The two girls were the same height and close to the same weight, but where Alina’s weight was in her curves, Phina’s was mostly in her muscles. Her body was very toned from climbing all over the space station and exercising, but any curves she had were more a definition of muscle.

She wasn’t jealous about Alina’s looks or the attention she got. In fact, it was a relief that attention was diverted from her. Phina preferred to be overlooked so she could do her own thing.

Of course, if Phina ever did find that mythical extremely talented and interesting man, she might change her mind.

After a wrong turn past the men on duty, they finally made it into the Marines’ and Guardians’ workout area. Phina had poked Alina again after entering to remind her not to squeal. They were recruits today, not fangirls. Posing as recruits was the only way Phina had been able to think of to get them into this restricted room.

It was a struggle, but Alina did keep the squeals inside as her eyes grew wider. There were so many tall, strong, and attractive men in various positions and locations on the mats and workout equipment.

There were women in the room too, but Alina’s eyes lingered on the men. Of course, their muscles were exposed, and many did have their shirts off. Phina sighed inside, although she was happy that she had helped her friend’s wish come true.

After being greeted and ushered over to an open mat by Todd, the tall and overly-muscled man had asked the question Phina was now considering. She looked at Alina, who appeared to be torn between being thrilled to be there, leering at the men working out across the room, and terror that she would be called on first.

Phina pursed her lips for a moment, then looked at the man in front of them, noticing the neatly trimmed crewcut. “I will.” She might as well give Alina a few more minutes before they were found out and escorted out of the area.

Todd moved to the middle of the mat and gestured for her to follow. As she walked to the spot he had pointed to, she heard the voice in her head again.

“Phina, are you sure you want to do this? That man is over a hundred pounds heavier and half a foot taller than you are.”

Not the time, MM!

“I can help you if you let me.”

I’m trying to concentrate!

“I am merely expressing concern for your continued health and wellbeing. Just say the word, and I will tell the appropriate persons.”

Thank you. Seriously, thank you, but stop talking to me. I could just tell this guy myself and be done with it. I want to give Alina as much time as possible. Please don’t distract me!

“Understood.”

Phina faced the large man and copied his stance, bringing her arms up and fisting her hands. It felt awkward. Todd’s face was now assessing and distant, and his blue eyes probably saw more than Phina wanted him to. She didn’t know what to do next, so she just waited.

He sent his fist toward her head and she flung herself backwards when her muscle memory took over, hands reaching behind her for the mat. She quickly completed a back-extension roll and popped up a few feet from where she had started.

Phina had braced herself for another blow, but realized Todd was just watching her with an interested look on his face.

She decided Todd’s interest wasn’t necessarily a good thing when he swept her feet with a low kick. Phina jumped higher and more quickly than he expected then found the perfect spot to go next.

As she vaulted off his head he began to grab her ankle, but his hand slipped off when she flipped. His quick grab had stalled her motion, though, so instead of the floor behind him she landed on his back, pushing him down a little. She was lucky she had completed the rotation at all.

Realizing she needed to get off before he recovered, Phina flung herself into an aerial somersault and twisted so that she landed facing her opponent rather than away from him. She sighed in relief that she had been able to complete the move, since it was tricky to jump off a shifting and precarious base.

From the corner of her eye she saw Alina both smiling and looking amazed, and then she noted the sudden quiet in the room. She had a feeling all those eyes were now looking in this direction, not resting on Alina. Phina nervously assessed Todd as he straightened after her hasty move. His face looked surprised, curious, and determined. Uh, oh! Fudging piles of…

He moved even faster now to close the distance, and her body barely responded in time. Somehow she blocked the strike to her face with her arms, though it hurt so badly she wondered if he had broken something. She failed to block the following punch to her belly and slammed onto the floor several feet away. Fudge in a bucket!

As Phina lay on the mat, catching her breath and wishing she had thought to train herself in martial arts as well as spycraft, she heard footsteps and lifted her chin to see who was walking up behind her. The view was upside down, but she knew it wasn’t the man who had just put her on the floor. She tilted her head to the side when she couldn’t comprehend what her brain was telling her. As she recognized the giant man she realized she just hadn’t wanted to.

Fudging crumbs! Her head dropped back to the mat and she moaned. She was dead.

“Come with me.” He looked at Alina. “Both of you.” She paled but walked toward him while Phina pushed herself up, wincing a bit when her stomach muscles protested. But when John Grimes told you to move, you complied.

Phina glanced back at Todd as she followed the big man to the exit. The Marine had watched the interaction, and gave her a nod and a wink. She couldn’t help smiling at him, but wondered if she could take those gestures to mean she would be all right or if he was just being kind. Probably just acknowledging that she had manage to evade a punch for a few moments.

As they walked down the corridor Phina whispered a query to Alina, asking if it had been worth it. Alina looked anxious, but gave her a shaky smile and made the Phinalina hand motion that meant “Mission accomplished.” Phina grinned while she rubbed the aching muscles in her belly and the bruises on her arms.

After exiting the workout area, John told Alina to go home. She gave Phina a stricken look, as if she would never see her again. Phina wasn’t sure she was wrong, but she responded with a reassuring smile.

 John Grimes took Phina to another part of the station—the area that held the offices of Bethany Anne, General Lance Reynolds, and other members of the Empress’ inner circle. Phina grew more nervous, and her face paled. Whoever she was going to see was important.

As if John Grimes showing up hadn’t already been proof of that. She snorted, then wiped her face of emotion when John glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. They couldn’t be going to see Bethany Anne. She had far more important things to do, right? Phina thought this was a hundred times worse than going to the principal’s office, but she really couldn’t protest since she and Alina had been in a restricted area. She was just happy they had let Alina go.

The huge man stopped next to a door and nodded toward it. “In there, please.”

Phina nodded as she swallowed. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He gave her a small smile as he palmed the door open and indicated she should enter.

“Come in,” said a voice from inside the room.












CHAPTER FIVE



QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Lance Reynold’s Office

When Phina walked in, her eyes darted to the man on the other side of the desk. Holy crumbs! It was General Lance Reynolds, Bethany Anne’s father. The door had shut behind her, so she couldn’t run if she wanted to. Phina was stuck.

He pointed with his cigar to a metal ergonomic chair on the other side of his desk. “Sit down, please.”

As she walked to the chair he had indicated, she realized there was a poised woman sitting off to the side, looking rather elegant in a dress-suit. She was facing the General, so Phina thought it likely they had been talking before she entered the room.

As Phina sat on the surprisingly comfortable seat, the man put the stub of the cigar back in his mouth and looked at her. She was uneasy, certain he was assessing everything. She wished she had the ability to read minds that Bethany Anne was rumored to possess.

He took the cigar out again and pointed it at her. “So….Seraphina Waters.” He tilted the tip up as he inclined his head and considered her. “’Phina Waters.’ ‘Sera Waters.’ Pretty name.”

She sat very still and tried to keep her surprise from showing on her face. Phina wondered if he was trying to point out that he knew all the variations she had used on the identification and passes she had made for herself over the past several years. If so, touché, General.

“Thanks, but I can’t take any credit for my name. That was all my parents.”

The deceptively young-looking man smiled in appreciation. “True.” He sobered and looked regretful. “I’m sorry you lost both your mom and dad. We do try to keep from deploying both parents at the same time. I’m not sure how we missed them.”

Phina nodded, appreciating the thought, then shrugged. “It was what they wanted. They had different last names, and both wanted to serve in the Marines. They knew what they were signing up for, and they could have asked for a reassignment if they had wanted one.”

“Well, we appreciate their service and sacrifice.” He looked at her sharply, but with a note of understanding. “Just as we appreciate that you no longer hold Bethany Anne or the rest of us to blame for the mistakes that were made.”

Phina’s eyes widened in surprise. Just how much did they know about her? She became even more unsettled. The General nodded and put the cigar back in his mouth for a moment before gesturing to the woman next to him.

“I was going to handle this myself, but I need to go take care of another situation. This is Anna Elizabeth Hauser. She now knows everything I know, and will ask you more questions to determine what we should do with you.” He gave her a look she could have interpreted as either “Don’t screw up” or “You’re screwed already, so don’t pretend you’re not.” Her stomach dropped as she thought of all the possible things they could decide to do with her.

He nodded to Anna. “All yours.” He took his cigar and left the room, and the door swished shut again. Phina stared blankly after him, wondering what had come up. Whatever it was, it must have been serious.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve been in this office, is it, Phina?”

Her head whipped back to the woman, who had taken the General’s seat. Phina hadn’t heard her move, so how had she done that? Her breath caught as Anna’s words sank in, and she let it out very slowly.

She had heard the General was a very smart and crafty man, but she had never heard of Anna Elizabeth Hauser. She didn’t know what to think. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“By all accounts you are very intelligent and clever, Phina, but there’s one thing you forgot when you were doing your research, practicing your skills, and having your adventures.”

Phina swallowed. It was possible, of course, especially considering where she was sitting—not that she liked to think about failure. It irritated her, causing her to work harder so she didn’t fail again.

“What did I forget?”

Anna smiled gently. “That Meredith and ADAM are always watching.”

Phina blinked. Meredith was the station’s EI, or had she turned into an AI? It had been long enough that she might have switched over, but she hadn’t heard anything about it. ADAM she had only heard rumors about, although she had found stray pieces of information while she moved through the systems. She felt completely stupid, though, for not having taken into account that Meredith might have noticed. She had thought the EI would have been too busy running the rest of the station to pay attention to her. Her thoughts ran quickly as Anna continued.

“ADAM? Meredith? Would you like to say hello?”

“Hello, Seraphina.” A woman’s light voice came from the speaker.

“Hello, Phina.” That male voice sounded very familiar, and Phina’s eyes narrowed as she looked up.

“Hey, you’re the mystery man who kept distracting me!”

“Yes, that was me.”

Phina rubbed the knot that still ached as she scowled at the ceiling.

“You’re an AI?”

“Yes, I am.”

She couldn’t help wondering. “Why didn’t you tell someone about me? Why did you let me continue?”

“I did inform Bethany Anne and the General, and they told me to monitor you to see what you were doing. Actually I’ve been watching you for some time now.”

Phina had visibly paled when ADAM mentioned Bethany Anne, but recovered and grew indignant when she realized what he was telling her.

“How long have you been watching me?”

ADAM hesitated briefly before responding, “I have been watching you ever since you accessed the main systems through Meredith when you were researching your parents.”

Fudge in a bucket! She was appalled that she hadn’t seen any sign of him, but also completely confused. “But that was years ago! Why didn’t anyone say or do anything? I didn’t think anyone had caught me, or even noticed.”

ADAM’s voice had remained calm throughout the exchange, and she wondered if he ever spoke any other way. As an AI he had more human-like experiences than EIs did, so ADAM must have encountered emotion in some way. Her thoughts kept moving in this direction until his voice pulled her back.

“I am always watching.” He paused while Phina cringed, thinking about what that meant for her. “The General needs me right now, but I’ll be back.”

Anna nodded. “Thank you, ADAM.” She continued, “Phina, the General wanted to see what you would do, given the opportunity. ADAM found something very interesting in your school records.” She sat back, but kept her eyes on Phina.

“When he examined those records more closely, he discovered that you received a B-level grade in every class and on every assignment handed in for grading.” She paused and raised her eyebrows, her blue eyes still intent on Phina.

Crumbs! She shrugged, trying for teenage nonchalance. “So what? I got Bs. No big. I’m just not that smart.”

Anna smiled, and Phina knew she had seen right through her deflection. “ADAM discovered the opposite, Phina. He found your very consistency to be inconsistent, requiring a more in-depth analysis.”

Phina squinted her eyes. Did she mean…

Anna sat forward and leaned on the desk. “You got the equivalent of a B on every assignment. No one does that. They get different numbers, and it averages out to be a certain grade level. Your Bs were a flag someone should have seen, but no one ever did.”

Phina straightened and opened her mouth to protest, but Anna’s look stopped her cold. This woman wouldn’t take any nonsense whatsoever.

“I also find it curious that you purposely failed the entrance exam for the Etheric Academy. Why did you feel that was necessary?”

Flaming buckets of fudge! No one knew that, not even Alina! Phina focused on keeping her face blank and breathing steadily, although her lungs wanted to heave in distress. She didn’t think she was very successful at either.

Anna relaxed a little and her expression softened. “I realize this is hard for you, Phina. Your personal life and secrets are being poked and prodded. But we need to understand what makes you tick before we move on, and this is a big piece of that.”

Phina stilled as she thought.












CHAPTER SIX


Phina tried one more time. “What makes you think I purposely failed the test? You might be mistaken. There could have been any number of reasons why I didn’t make it.”

The woman lifted a delicate eyebrow and clasped her hands in front of her. “There could have been any number of reasons, but there weren’t. Your inconsistently-consistent B levels were very suggestive already, but scoring on the Academy test just one point below the fail line, Phina? That was conclusive.”

Anna leaned forward a little more. “The only way to have failed that test by one point was to have known every single answer on the test and purposely chosen the right questions to get wrong, since their point values were all different.” She tapped a finger on the desk in front of her. “That’s not just smart, Phina, that’s genius-level. Those tests are difficult for a reason, but you could have answered all the questions correctly.”

Phina was a little stunned. She had thought she was being clever and no one would ever notice, but trust an AI to figure it out and pass it along to the most important people on the station. No, in the Empire. She put a hand on her stomach, feeling ill.

“Also, ADAM noticed those anonymous intelligence assessments you sent in with the briefings. Nicely done! They were very helpful to the General and Bethany Anne.” She nodded, her eyes warm with approval.

Crumbs! Was there anything ADAM didn’t know? Phina felt like her twelve-year-old self again, still trying to learn how to navigate the systems.

“No, Phina, we can’t mistake you for anything but an extremely bored genius who sneaks into places she isn’t authorized to be in, and was curiously quick enough to dodge one of the toughest fighters we have.” She paused for a moment. “Where did you learn those moves, by the way?”

“Gymnastics.” Phina and ADAM responded at the same time. Phina glanced up for a second, realizing that ADAM was back, then gave a big sigh. Fudgebears. They knew just about everything already, anyway. She took a deep breath.

“When I was a kid, there was a woman in our Residential Section who used to be an Olympic gymnast.”

Fudge.” ADAM spoke in her implant, surprising her by sounding amused and a little regretful. I didn’t look back far enough in your records.

Fudge, huh? 

It works for you. I thought I would try it out.”

 What did you think?

“I think I need to try it a few more times.”

Go for it. Hey, I was wondering why you kept asking me all those morality-type questions. It was kind of annoying. What was up with that?

“We knew what you were doing, but when you focused on the Guardians and Marines we weren’t certain of your motivation or reasons. We needed to know you weren’t going to turn to the Dark Side and try to hurt someone, or sabotage Meredith or other critical systems.”

Why do I get the feeling those words were in capital letters?

“Because they were. The Dark Side.” His voice drew it out so it echoed and sounded deeper.

Has anyone ever told you that you’re weird for an AI?

“Only Bethany Anne.”

Phina blinked as she realized Anna was looking at her with a bemused expression on her face. “I’ve gotten used to it. I know the signs of someone talking to a voice in their head.” She smiled and gestured for her to continue.

Phina cleared her throat, but felt more comfortable. Anna didn’t seem too uptight. If she hadn’t been so nervous about her future, Phina might have even said she was nice. She remembered where she had stopped and continued, “I loved learning gymnastics, and practiced all the time. After my parents died we didn’t have the money for lessons anymore, although I still practiced every so often. Not as much as before, though, since my focus changed.”

Anna nodded for her to continue. “And the tests?”

“After months of being sad and angry with everyone about my parents’ death, I realized that what had happened on Karillia represented several problems that came together to create a tragedy. Events randomly combined in that exact way, and there was little that could have been done. Also, continuing to be angry—and especially to blame everyone here—would have demeaned my parents’ choice and sacrifice. I didn’t ever want to do that.”

Anna nodded with a small smile. “Well done, Phina.”

She blushed under Anna’s praise. It had been a long time since anyone had told her they were proud of her for any reason.

Bolstered by Anna’s words, she kept talking. “I made a vow on my parents’ memory that I would do everything I could to make sure a lack of information and miscommunication of goals and agendas never happened again. Life is too precious to waste when it could be prevented.”

Phina finished that last part awkwardly, but rather proudly. She was verbally taking a stand in front of someone who represented the most powerful people in the Empire, which could either help her vow or hinder it in the worst way.

“So I decided to go into stealthy information acquisitions…”

Anna smiled. “You mean became a spy.”

Phina eyed her askance. “I mean ‘stealthy information acquisitions.’”

She looked amused. “It’s just the two of us here, Phina. Surely you don’t need to be that formal?”

Phina sighed and wondered if her explanations were making things better or worse for her future career—if she still had the option for a career. Anna seemed more approachable now, but she still represented some of the toughest people Phina had ever seen.

“All right. I decided to become a spy to gain information, and acquired skills that would be useful for that purpose. Since then, I’ve been learning and practicing as much as possible. I threw the test to the Academy because learning engineering, weapons, R&D, and all the rest, as interesting as they are, would have mostly been a waste of time toward fulfilling my vow.”

Anna’s head nodded slowly, looking thoughtful.

“Why even take the test, then?”

Phina’s mouth twisted. “My aunt.”

“Ah.” Anna seemed to find that enough of an answer, so maybe she had met Aunt Rochelle. Phina winced at the thought.

“A question, Phina.”

She wasn’t sure where to look. “Yes, ADAM?”

“In all your private missions or adventures you always had an exit plan, but not for today’s events. No matter how I go over the possibilities, I cannot determine what your exit plan was. Would you clarify it for me?”

Phina drew a breath. Well, now the last cat was out of the bag, as her gymnast teacher used to say. “It’s simple, ADAM. I didn’t have one.”

There was a long pause. “I don’t feel clarified.”

Anna smiled in amusement and glanced at the ceiling. She waved her hand at Phina to indicate she should explain.

“The mission you monitored over the past twenty-four hours was a final adventure with my best friend, Alina. She wanted to get in there, but no matter how much I searched, studied, and planned, I couldn’t figure out a way to exit the area without being caught if she was with me. I could have been there for hours by myself, and no one would have noticed me.” She glanced up and muttered, “Well, almost no one.”

Phina continued, “I wanted to do this for her, and it was the only way. When we got caught, as I knew we would eventually, I planned to explain that it was all my idea and that I had done all the spying,” she looked pointedly at Anna, “to plan and acquire everything. I hoped they would let Alina go without too much trouble.”

Anna blinked at her in surprise. “So you were expecting to be—”

“Caught, yes, and brought to someone for interrogation, arrest, incarceration, deportation, or whatever was deemed necessary.” Phina shrugged—she had made her choice. She was certain she could eventually break out if she were arrested, and she was confident she could still help the Empire by spying from afar now that she was about to turn eighteen and could travel unhindered. It would just be from the larger universe instead of inside the Meredith Reynolds.

The elegant woman had frozen, her eyes wide and brows drawn in, as Phina reeled off the list. Perhaps the things she had imagined might happen were too harsh for what she had done? She shrugged again and let out a deep breath.

Now that it had all been explained and her stress level was lower, Phina looked up with regret in her eyes. “By the way, ADAM, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I know you were just asking questions, and at one point trying to help me. When I’m in various places for my missions, I’m completely focused on what I’m doing. Having someone show up unexpectedly, even in audio form, was stressful and made it more difficult to think. Even so, I’m sorry.”

“Understood. You are forgiven, Phina.”

Phina gave a small smile of relief.

Anna nodded. She’d formed her own conclusions. “Thank you, Phina. I think I’ve heard enough.” Phina’s relief faded rapidly, and she watched her with concern. “What do you think, Meredith?”

“I agree, Anna Elizabeth.”

“ADAM?”

“Also agree, Anna.”

“So.”  Anna lightly tapped her fingers on the desk as she watched Phina closely. “The question is, what should we do with you?”

Phina cleared her throat nervously as Anna clasped her hands together. “What are you going to do with me…uh…ma’am?”

Anna winced slightly. All right, no calling Anna “ma’am.” Good to know. The woman tilted her head and pursed her lips before she went on. “I thought that answer would be obvious, as smart as you are. You are a bored genius in need of a challenge, and you exhibit compassion, loyalty, ethics, and morality. You know how to hack a system, you speak and read several languages many of us still struggle with, and you can sneak around when you need to. You will have to train hard in several different areas, particularly hand-to-hand and weapons. Then, Phina, we are going to give you a job.” She spread her hands and smiled.

Phina’s eyes widened and her heart began to race in excitement. “May I ask what kind of job?” She was afraid to hope she could continue to fulfill her vow.

Anna raised her eyebrows. “We are putting together a small diplomatic and intelligence team that will be kept in reserve. ADAM predicts our diplomatic needs will be too much for one person to handle in the near future, particularly when we have another situation requiring Bethany Anne’s immediate attention. When she’s elsewhere, this team will be activated for diplomatic missions. With your language skills, I think you would be a perfect fit for the team.” She leaned forward. ‘The job comes with some side work that will keep you from being bored.”

Phina’s heart sank in disappointment. Diplomacy, as in talking to people she didn’t know? That wasn’t the kind of work she wanted to do, but it was better than being arrested—or thrown out the airlock. She let out a breath. Maybe those side jobs would be interesting in some way. “What kind of side work?”

Anna grinned. “What else? Stealthy information acquisitions. When the team isn’t being used for diplomacy it will gather intelligence for the Empire.”

Phina’s eyes lit and she slowly grinned back.


The End… or is it?

Author Notes - Last Adventure First

By S.E. Weir

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Michael Anderle, Lynne Stiegler, and Stephen Campbell for creating the opportunity for all of us to contribute to an amazing universe in our own way!!! You three amaze me! I’ve been surrounded by the KGU family for four months and my only regret is not finding you all sooner! :)

Many thank yous to Natale Roberts, Micky Cocker, Kelly O’Donnell, and especially Erika Daly for reviewing my story and providing suggestions for improvement! You ladies are awesome! And thank you for reading my story!!  I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!

I used to write when I was younger, but it never went anywhere since many things got in the way. In April of last year I decided I really wanted to write, and it just wasn't going to happen until I sat down and did it.

I’ve been writing since then, and loving the process of not only creating a world that has only existed in my own head, but also learning how to put it into a form others can enjoy too. Who else can do that but writers and artists?? :) It’s an amazing thing! I’m not published yet, but I know I will be at some point when I get them ready! (I’m hoping sometime this year!)

I firmly believe that inspiration should never be wasted! I had this idea for a short story as soon as I read that fan fiction submissions were being requested, and it lit a fire! Seriously, it feels like magic when the words just stream right onto the page! Two furious writing days later I had just over six thousand words—the fastest I'd ever written in my life at the time! The inspiration even fueled a few furious writing days in my book later! ;)

I’ve been thankful to find encouragement and friendship in our fan-family group, both from other writers and my fellow JIT team members. You all are fantabulous! Thank you for being so kind!

Thank you, again for reading! And if you have an idea of your own, please write it so you can share it with the Universe!

S.E. Weir


Renegade

By Erika Everest


I am one of the Drakis, the enhanced warriors of our race. Our Gods have sent us to fight ignorance and injustice in the universe, and to bring peace and enlightenment instead.


On the planet I am assigned to, I meet a native who is not grateful for our help. In fact, she despises us for our interference. Her attitude challenges my entire worldview. Is my cause truly as noble as I have always believed? Or is it something more sinister?


And what are the God’s real intentions for the Drakis?




Dedication

For Liam, who is always supportive and encouraging and ensures I get fed, even when I disappear into the worlds in my head.

And for Iseult and Hugh, whom I love more than unicorns and dragons!







PROLOGUE


They call us Drakis. Drogon says that we are special. We are gladiators, warriors, whom the gods themselves chose to be the pinnacle of evolution. He doesn’t understand why I am not happy—why I do not feel honored to have been chosen—but it is because I have another name for what we are.

Slaves.












CHAPTER ONE


The horn sounds, and we line up in formation. It sounds again and the first cohort of five jump off the edge of the cliff. There is a sharp crack as five sets of wings unfurl and catch the updraft. The next five step forward and repeat the actions of the first cohort. I am in the third cohort. It feels good to stretch my wings after the confines of the cave system.

The sun feels warm on my skin, although intellectually I know it is actually burning hot. If I were in my original form it would be painful—and possibly lethal—for me to be exposed to it, but since my Metamorphosis I no longer have such concerns. My skin is tougher, and the previously deadly heat is no more than a gentle and pleasant warmth. So many things are different since I emerged from the cocoon the gods placed me in to enhance me and took my first steps as a Drakis.

But I don’t want to think about the changes I went through during those long months in the dark or the people I left behind. I want to forget for a moment about the priests and the mission the gods have sent us on. At this moment the sun warms my back and the winds buoy my wings, and I just want to enjoy the sensation. I am floating, I am flying. At this moment, I am free.

Too soon, the moment passes.

Infinity Park is spread out below us. The name was not bestowed because the park is infinite in size, since in fact it is quite small, but because the park is laid out in an ever-repeating golden spiral, fractals to infinity. From the air one can truly appreciate its brilliance; the mathematical building block of the universe on display for all who fly over. The gods in their magnanimity also created a pathway through the park along the spiral, to allow the un-Metamorphosed natives of this planet to trace and worship the perfection of this sacred symbol. After all, that was the reason the gods sent us to this planet. We came to teach the natives the Path of the Spiral—to spread the glory of our gods and bring enlightenment to this backwards race.

Normally seeing the spiral at the center of the park would evoke a feeling of serenity in me, but not today—the perfect symmetry that calms my discontent is absent. The park is full of people from the nearby Metropolitan Zone. The sun doesn’t seem to bother them as it would have bothered me in my previous form; they seem to enjoy the heat. But they are not following the spiral pathway to the center of the park to marvel at the glimpse of the divine it offers. No, the disrespectful heathens have sprawled all over the park.

The Path of the Spiral teaches us that the golden spiral is divine perfection, a symbol of order, purity and righteousness. To walk on the grass in Infinity Park is to stray from the Path of the Spiral, literally and figuratively. To lie on the grass and revel in it is profanity of the highest order. The priests have warned the natives in their sermons about the evil of disorder. Worshippers of chaos will not be tolerated in this community. The priests preach, and the Drakis protect; that is our purpose. We will drive the chaos-lovers out—and destroy them if necessary—before we allow them to corrupt this world.

The order comes down the line—these inferior beings have angered our gods with their chaotic ways. The infidels have ignored the warnings, so they will now face the Burning Wrath—the special gift the gods have bestowed on us so we can punish the evil ones without harming the flora of this planet. We want to leave more than a wasteland for the righteous to inhabit, after all. We are the retribution sent to purify this world, and I am glad to be able to assist in blotting out the impiety perpetrated here.

Drogon leads the descent of death and destruction from the skies and unleashes the Burning Wrath on one of the infidels, who is consumed by a column of green fire. When the fire burns out a moment later, all that remains of the native is a trail of ash forming the golden spiral on the ground.

“Now your final journey to the heart of the spiral begins.” Drogon intones the words of our funerary rites over the ashes, but because this was not a believer he adds, “May you find your way there now as you failed to do in life.”

We all pause for a moment to reflect on the words, then scatter to seek out others who are still profaning this holy place. Most are unaware of what has just occurred, or deluded enough to assume that the same punishment would not apply to their transgressions. Soon there is green fire all around me, which rapidly disabuses the infidels of that notion. The natives scream as they run for the park’s exits, their heathen practices abandoned. I look around, but there are no blasphemers left for me to deal with. They have all fled or been destroyed by one of my brethren. Those walking the path need have no fear of our wrath.

I am disappointed; I still want to exorcise my frustration at the disturbance of the serenity here today, but no outlets remain. Just then, I spy one of the natives stubbornly lying on the grass on the far side of the park despite the mass exodus. Such defiance cannot be let stand. No one else has seen her, since the rest are concentrated on the near side of the park. I smile in satisfaction; she is mine. I swoop in to send her on the final journey to the heart of the spiral, but then something inexplicable happens.

One of the natives leaves the safety of the path and runs straight into the danger zone. Green fire explodes around her like mortar. Undeterred, she continues running past the fire and across the dark expanse beyond it to throw herself in front of the infidel I am targeting. I pull back, startled. This female is righteous. She followed the path and did not stray, so why was she defending this nonbeliever? Logic would dictate that she stay where she was or leave the park, yet she chose neither of those options.

She is shouting at me, but I am still too stunned by her actions to take in her words. When they register, I am confused. I understand the individual words, but the context in which she is using them makes no sense.

“Why are you doing this? Why do you terrorize us this way—attack us when we were doing no harm? We just want to enjoy this lovely day and share a picnic in the park with friends. Why do you punish us for that?”

I am still confused by her behavior and angry at my confusion, so I confront her.

“Why do you obstruct me from my sacred duty to cleanse the world of traitors and miscreants, these agents of chaos?” I ask her.

“‘Agents of chaos?’” she shrieks back at me. “Do you even hear yourself? We were having a picnic, not plotting world domination!”

“Those who do not follow the Path of the Spiral seek to undermine it. The Spiral is our guide. It shows us the way, and we must follow where it leads.”

“That’s your philosophy—'follow the spiral?’ The spiral only leads to one place, and that’s to its center. But it is a place you can never reach, because the spiral is infinite. So your religion dictates that you follow one path blindly with no hope of ever reaching your destination? I prefer free will; the ability to choose my own path. I may not always choose wisely, and I may make mistakes, but at least I will be the one making them. That is my freedom. Can you say, with all the rules binding you, that you are free too?”

Her words disturb me. It is an interpretation of our tenets that I have never considered. I resented being conscripted to fight on the gods’ behalf, but never did I question the rightness of our mission. Now, doubts begin to assail me, which eat at the very core of my existence. They undermine my belief in the purity of the spiral and the value of my mission to help others achieve enlightenment. It makes me uncomfortable. I know my duty, and yet I am now hesitant to carry it out.

“Only on the Path of the Spiral is there safety. If you stray from it again, I will not be able to save you.”

“You’re…you’re letting us go?” the small figure behind the angry female asked in a shocked voice.

“Hush, Leela,” the angry female said, angling her body to shield the other from my view. She doesn’t sound angry now, just wary—and perhaps there is a little hope in her voice too?

“Thank you,” she whispers softly. “If ever you decide you would like to gain direct knowledge of our so-called chaotic lives, you can find me in the Metropolitan Zone. I’m on Market Street most days, but ask any of the people there and they will direct you to me. My name is Misandra. I will not forget what you have done for me and my sister today.”

I don’t know how to reply to this. Why would I want to learn about chaos? It is the antithesis of everything I believe in. I understand the intent behind the gesture, though, so I do not refuse outright.

“Go,” I say. “It will be dark soon. You do not want to be outside the gates when night falls.”

She nods in acknowledgement, then picks up the dark blankets the younger female had been lying on and wraps one around each of them. Thus covered, they no longer stand out against the background and should be concealed unless someone looks closely in their direction. With a crack of my wings, I launch into a vertical take-off. The young female stares up at me her mouth agape, but the older female—Misandra—takes her hand and drags her from Infinity Park.












CHAPTER TWO


I watch them from overhead keeping my distance as I follow them, the fading light no impediment to my enhanced eyesight. I see them reach the gates at the city limits and slip through before they are locked for the night. Once they are out of sight, I return to the site of the confrontation and reach inside my mind to connect with the well of power there. The gods revealed the source to us, and the priests taught us how to access it. I draw on that power and release the Burning Wrath. Of course, the green fire does no harm to the ground, but my brethren would be suspicious if I returned to them without such a flare.

I regroup with the other Drakis on the far side of Infinity Park. When we are once again in formation, Drogon gives the signal and we fly back to the caves. There are many cave systems on this planet. This is a mountainous region, and the slopes nearby are riddled with holes and tunnels. The caves we live in were chosen by the priests to be our base when the first wave of Drakis came to this planet. The priests liked how the cramped, dark caves were reminiscent of the cocoons we were placed in while our Metamorphoses took effect. They thought it would be comforting for us Drakis to recall that period in our lives. The specific caves we use were chosen simply because they were the nearest caves to the Metropolitan Zone.

For the most part, the priests were correct in their assumptions about the desirability of the caves. My brethren all seem happy in their rocky home. Perhaps it is because I have no happy associations with the cocoon that I chafe against the constriction of the caves. As far as I am aware, I am the only Drakis who completed Metamorphosis without first having been an acolyte. Nearly all my contemporaries on my home world became acolytes in childhood, hoping they could prove themselves and either undergo Metamorphosis to become Drakis or study the sacred texts as priests. Very few ever progressed beyond the acolyte pool, though.

In contrast, I’d had no interest in changing who I was or fighting the war against ignorance in some far-off place, but my grasp of advanced mathematics and devotion to the Golden Spiral, coupled with my physical prowess, brought me to the attention of the High Priest. He drafted me to join the Drakis, despite not having undergone acolyte training. When I emerged from the cocoon months had passed, and I was already en route to this planet. I was part of the second wave of Drakis, who were brought in as reinforcements when it became clear that the natives here were resistant to accepting the teachings of the priests. That had been more than two of this planet’s years ago.

We land at the caves in reverse order of our takeoff, which means I’m one of the last to enter. It also means my assigned sleeping spot is close enough to the entrance that if I crane my neck slightly I can glimpse the stars. Seeing the stars—and knowing I am not actually trapped under all this rock—helps me suppress my claustrophobia.

I try to sleep, but I cannot stop thinking about what the female Misandra said to me. It is the antithesis of everything I believe in, I repeat to myself firmly, so why can’t I get her words out of my head? Why do her striking features dance in my vision? I did not pay much attention to her appearance when she was in front of me, but now in the dark I can’t help remembering the riot of color as she streaks past me. Her brightly patterned clothing contrasts sharply with the monochromatic landscape, and her hair surrounds her head like a corona, disarrayed from her frantic run. Her violet eyes flash with anger and indignation as she yells at me.

I do not know what the standard of beauty is on this world, but among my people she would be considered beautiful if a little small, though of course everyone seems small to a Drakis since we are ten feet tall. I shake my body as if that will dislodge the thoughts in my head.

Can you really say, with all the rules binding you, that you are free?

I have often thought privately of my forced enlistment as a form of slavery, but her question forces me to consider this in a stark new light. She thinks I’m following this path blindly, that I have been indoctrinated to the point that I cannot form my own judgments, but just because I don’t want to fight the war does not mean that I do not support the war. We are fighting the good fight. I believe in our purpose here. We have come to liberate this planet from the shackles of ignorance; to bring them peace and enlightenment. Why then do the people we are trying to help call us terrorists?

If ever you decide you would like to gain direct knowledge of our so-called chaotic lives, you can find me…

I wonder if spending time with the natives would help me form a deeper understanding of their perspective, in order to gain insight about their hostile attitude toward us and how to overcome it. Would it be so wrong to sample a little bit of chaos if it was for the greater good?

It is the antithesis of everything I believe in, I repeat once more, but I fall asleep dreaming of violet eyes.

***

I do not see Misandra again, nor her sister Leela. I do not seek them out in the marketplace, though I often fantasize about what it would be like. I’m curious to see more of the world through her eyes, and intrigued by the concept of choice she described. I would like to learn more about it, but chaos is a subtle enemy. I know that simply discussing such topics risks my purity of thought. Such a betrayal would not be condoned by the Drakis. I would soon find myself sent on the final journey to the heart of the Spiral, and I’m not ready to take that journey yet. I do my best to push her poisonous words from my mind, but they have burrowed deep and are hard to uproot.

And every night I dream of violet eyes.

***

The days pass.

There is nothing much to distinguish one day from the next. The Drakis continue our patrols and watch over the acolytes the priests brought to this planet, who are transforming the Metropolitan Zone. We are clearing away the ramshackle and haphazard structures the natives cobbled together and replacing them with new dwellings that are perfectly proportioned to be aesthetically pleasing according to the golden ratio. The uniformity of the new construction is further enhanced by a new city layout which reflects the golden spiral, at least as far as the crude local building materials will allow.

There has been some unrest in the Metropolitan Zone because of the construction, which is why the acolytes require our protection. Some of the natives have protested the removal of the decrepit buildings they have been living in. They have not yet grasped the full vision the gods have for this city—and this world—that the priests are implementing. If the natives would only stop focusing on the past, they would see what we are doing here and weep with gratitude for the great honor bestowed on them.

One day news arrives that changes everything. The gods themselves will visit this planet to assess our progress in converting the heathens of this world. The priests are anxious to make a favorable impression, so the protesters’ obstruction can no longer be tolerated. The priests want us to give a demonstration showcasing our effectiveness and performance for the gods when they come.

Combining these goals, the priests order the Drakis to arrest all protesters and incarcerate them in the arena. It takes several days to round them all up. During that time some of the chaos-lovers try to hide to escape justice, but there is no escaping the Drakis. We are the gods’ chosen race.

My cohort is responsible for bringing one of the last groups of protesters in, and I escort the prisoners to their cells and secure them. As I am walking out to re-join my cohort, I hear a soft voice call, “Drakis!” Though she is not shouting at me, I still recognize her voice instantly. I search for her among the crowded cells, and finally catch sight of her. She pushes past the others in her cell to talk to me through the bars.

“Why are you here?” I ask her in a low voice. “I told you to stay on the Path.”

“It was not I who strayed.”

Comprehension dawns. “Your sister. Is she here too?”

“No. We got word that the raid was coming. It was not much notice, but enough for me to warn her. She got out, but I was caught up in the sweep when the Drakis descended on us.”

“This is not right,” I say, angry on her behalf. “I will find Leela and bring her here so you can be released. She is the one who should be punished, not you.”

“Don’t you dare!” she hisses at me, her violet eyes flashing with the heat of her anger. I am so distracted by them that I almost miss what she is saying. “I chose to be here. I chose to sacrifice myself so my sister could be free. This is free will. This is love.”

“Love is irrational,” I point out.

“So is the golden ratio,” she responds with a smirk, and I know the pun is intentional.

“I do not understand love.”

Her eyes widen as if my words have surprised her. “Then that is the tragedy of your race,” she said softly.

I do not like the direction this conversation has taken, and I step back from her. “I cannot save you again, Misandra,” I tell her brusquely. “Goodbye.”

I walk away without looking back, but I feel her eyes on me every step of the way.












CHAPTER THREE


The day of the gods’ arrival is upon us. We Drakis stand in formation under the burning sun while the priests flit among us “adjusting” and “perfecting,” and eventually the gods walk past to inspect us. They do not stay long. They seem anxious to get out of the heat too. The priests lead them to the welcome suite that has been prepared for them. I expect they will pay more attention to us during the so-called “Kurtherian Games,” the demonstration we will give at the arena later. Finally the last of the gods, priests, acolytes, and other hangers-on disappear from view and Drogon gives us permission to return to the coolness of the caves.

I do not know what to expect from the Games, but I am certain the priests will direct us appropriately when the time comes. As the sun reaches its peak, Drogon gives the order. We line up in our cohorts to launch ourselves into the sky and fly in formation to the arena. We touch down on the sands in a spiral pattern with Drogon in the center before spreading out to form a perfect perimeter around the arena. The gods are already assembled above us, and they give the signal to begin.

The priests start calling instructions to us. The first part of the demonstration mimics our training sessions. A pair of Drakis are chosen to showcase a particular maneuver. Only seven pairs are called for this portion of the demonstration, and I am not among them. The fourteen who’ve already performed step back to allow the rest of us a moment to shine in the second phase of the demonstration. A gate on the far side of the arena opens and several protesters are pushed into the arena.

“These are the harbingers of chaos,” the High Priest announces in an amplified voice. “Their words, their actions…their very existence undermines the order we have created here and the peace we have established. Enemies of the peace are enemies of the gods, and shall feel their Burning Wrath!” The first cohort springs into action. Each herds a prisoner away from the group, and five columns of green fire ignite simultaneously. The crowd cheers raucously, and I realize that these are not Games. This is an execution masquerading as entertainment. These are not the actions of a savior bringing peace to a barbaric world, this is the subjugation of a sentient species. The first cohort step aside and allow the second cohort to take their turn. It is almost like a dance. The synchronization would be beautiful if it weren’t so deadly. The green light cast by the Burning Wrath illuminates the next group of prisoners being ushered into the arena, and the violet eyes are unmistakable.

Misandra is among those to be executed.

My heart clenches. She does not deserve this. Whatever her reasons for choosing to trade places with her sister, she could not have known this would be the consequence. The second cohort clears away, leaving the sands free for mine. I run toward her; I will let no one else claim her as a target. Perhaps I understand more than I have credited myself with about choice and free will and sacrifice…and maybe even love. I do not want her to die, but the only way to save her is to betray everything I value—and yet, I do not hesitate. I have fallen so far from the Path that I may never claw my way out of the abyss.

I reach her and wrap my arms around her, holding her tightly against my body as I launch myself upward. I fly as high as I can as quickly as possible. No one in the arena has realized my motives yet, and I intend to be far away before the pursuit begins. Misandra feels fragile against my much bigger body, but I know there is nothing fragile about her. She shouts at me, but the wind whips her words away. I fly us to another cave system, one I discovered accidentally when I was disorientated during a sandstorm many moons ago and had to take shelter until the storm passed. I know there is a freshwater stream and plenty of small prey in these caves, so we won’t starve. I land and set down my precious cargo.

She rounds on me. “Have you lost your mind? How dare you abduct me like this? I need to get back. I need to find Leela. You have to take me back!”

“They were going to execute you!” I roar at her, and she flinches. I realize she is intimidated by my large form looming over her and I do not want to frighten her, so I turn my focus inwards and let go of my warrior form. I am still enhanced, but my appearance is closer to what it was before my Metamorphosis. In this form I am only slightly taller than she.

She stares at me, her jaw slack with amazement. It belatedly occurs to me that she is probably the only person on this planet who has seen one of us in this form. She seems to take courage from the fact that she is now at eye level with me and that I have made no aggressive moves toward her.

She scrutinizes my face, perhaps trying to trace the similarities between my two forms. Her hand twitches at her side and I realize she wants to touch, so I nod to give her permission. I am loath to break the silence between us and risk restarting the shouting. When she raises her hand to my face, her touch is hesitant but gentle. I cannot read the reaction I see in her eyes.

“Were they really going to execute me?” she asks softly.

“Yes,” I reply in the same tone. “Ten of your fellow protesters were burned to ash before you were brought into the arena.” There is no point in sugarcoating the truth. From all I have seen of her, she would not appreciate the omission.

“I have to go back,” she whispers.

“You can’t,” I say. “You were under a death order, and now so am I. Here is the only place that is safe for us now. If I hadn’t been literally blown in by that storm, I would never have known about these caves. We can stay as long as we need to—the Drakis won’t find us here.”

“But Leela!” she pleads, her voice catching. “She needs me. I can’t abandon her.”

“Then we will get her too,” I hear myself say. “We will extract her, and bring her back here to safety.”

“And the others?” she asks. “What about them?”

“The others?”

“My people don’t want to be bound by the Spiral. They are ready to rise up, but they need a leader to show them the way.”

I frown. No one deserves to be a slave to the Path my gods are trying to impose on these people, but… “You’re talking about revolution.”

“No,” Misandra says with a smile that is full of possibilities, “I’m talking about freedom.”





EPILOGUE


In the inner sanctum of their temple, soundproofed and barricaded against priests and acolytes alike, the leaders of the Zebulone Clan gathered to review the day’s unsatisfactory events. Since they broke from the rest of the Seven many centuries ago, this clan of Kurtherians had travelled from world to world looking for suitable recipients of their enhancements. From each species they collected data, and refined their process accordingly until they created the Drakis. The demonstration had been meant to prove that they finally had the right formula, and they were most displeased that it had failed.

“Whose bright idea was it to give them wings?” the First Leader demanded.

“That would have been yours, One-Point-Six,” the Third Leader replied with a sneer.

The First Leader bristled at the abbreviation. They all had names related to components of the Golden Ratio—the universal mathematical concept that they revered above all—but only he as First Leader could claim the full value of the ratio as his name. Of course, since it was an irrational number it wasn’t possible to say the entirety of his name, but to truncate it to just one decimal place was an insult.

“We all agreed that the ability to fly would provide additional maneuverability and versatility after our experiments with the Raptors,” the Second Leader interjected. He sighed. “It is a pity the Raptors didn’t work out. They had such promise.”

“I agree, Root Five, but the bipedal base model has been much better for our purposes,” the First Leader said, “especially now that we have combined the wings from the Raptors with the hybrid form we developed on that planet in the Pan Galaxy. I really feel that these Drakis represent the pinnacle of our evolutionary enhancement program."

“But what should we do about the deserter, 1.61803?” the Sixth Leader asked, bringing them back to the problem at hand. “Do his actions indicate a flaw in the programming somewhere?”

“The physical design is correct, but perhaps we built too much autonomy into the psychological template,” the First Leader mused. He thought for a moment, then came to a decision. “Effective immediately, all Drakis must undergo additional enhancement sessions to strengthen their directive to comply and obey and reduce their ability to think independently. They will be the perfect soldiers.”

“And the renegade?”

The First Leader smiled cunningly. “We all saw what triggered his reaction—for some reason that female is important to him. However, my scribes have been busy gathering information, and what is important to that female is her young sister. She is still in the city, and will soon be in our custody. Control the sister, control the female. Control the female, control the renegade. We will bring him back to the fold.

“And whoever controls the Drakis will control the universe.”

Author Notes - Renegade

By Erika Everest


For me, 2017 was the year of shattering preconceptions.

Preconception 1: Self-publishing = vanity publishing

Ha!  I couldn’t have been more wrong!  I was about six years late discovering the publishing revolution.  I only really joined in last May.  I had heard that self-publishing was now more acceptable and mainstream, but I hadn’t really accepted that for myself.  I still believed that the only ‘right’ way to get your story out there was to find an agent and wait for them to find you a deal with a publisher.  Then I found a book called Death Becomes Her, and my world changed.

Preconception 2: Author Notes are just a place for desperate nobodies to beg for reviews

So at the end of Death Becomes Her, this guy Michael Anderle wrote about how he just stuck the book on Amazon, and I thought It’s really that easy to get your story out there, no agent required?  At the end of the second book, Michael talked about sales and revenue streams, giving a glimpse inside the author’s world.  Subsequent Authors Notes gave more updates and insights on sales but also on fan reactions, collaborations and spin-offs and the team that was growing around this fantastic series.  It made me feel connected to the series in a way no other series has achieved, because it lifted the curtain and showed behind the scenes.  And I wanted more!  So I contacted Michael on Facebook and asked if I could join his team.  Two days later, I was added to the JIT (“Just in time”) proofreading team.  Michael has created a wonderful universe, but he has created an even better community!  I have learned so much being part of it, and made some great friends too.  And all because Michael used his Author Notes to break the wall between author and reader.

Preconception 3: There is no way I could have a story written by that deadline

The Fans Write for Fans concept was launched in September 2017, but somehow I missed it.  I found it in December, and the deadline for submissions for the first volume was December 20th.  I was trying to finish the first book in my series of fairy tale mash-ups, so I said “maybe I’ll do something for the second volume, if there is one” and left it at that.  Or so I thought.  Back in July, Michael shared a draft of what would become Holi’s Savior with the JIT and an idea for my own story set in the Kutherian Universe came to me.  I wrote about 300 words and then forgot about it.  But with all the hype leading up to the submission deadline, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  So on December 15th, I posted that snippet in the Fans Write Facebook group, to see if it was worth pursuing.  The feedback I got from others in the group spurred me on.  I suddenly decided that it didn’t matter that there were only 5 days to deadline, that I am a slow writer or that I had no idea where the story was going after that first scene… I was going to make every effort to finish it in time to submit for volume 1.  I submitted it at 11pm Eastern Time (around 4am for me) on December 20th, just before the submission window closed.  And I realized that when I put my mind to it, I can achieve so much more than I thought I could, and that the biggest obstacles in my way are my own preconceptions about what is and isn’t possible.

A huge thank you to Michael Anderle for not only creating the Kutherian Universe, but for being generous enough to allow us to play in it too.  Thanks to Natale Roberts, who unknowingly inspired me to write this story in the first place, Sarah Weir for the questions and comments on the first draft that made the story so much stronger, and to James Caplan for his insights and feedback during the revision stages.  To Kimberly, Kelly, Micky, Joshua, John and all of the JIT team, thank you for the feedback, encouragement and most importantly friendship you have shared with me.  Finally, thanks to Lynne Stiegler (editor extraordinaire), Martha Carr (awesome author) and Steve Campbell (champion coordinator) for all they have taught me – directly and by osmosis – about writing in general and indie-publishing in particular.

I have been writing on and off for years, whenever the voices in my head get too loud and need to escape onto paper, but this is the first story I have had published.  Now I have the bug, I’m going to keep at it!  I’m aiming to publish the first three books in my fairy tale series this summer, and who knows after that?

So the most important thank you of all goes to you, the reader, for taking a chance on some unknown authors by reading this anthology and in doing so inspiring me to keep shattering those preconceptions and reach for the stars.


Ad Aeternitatem,

Erika Everest















Sarah Jennifer’s First Samhain

By N.D. Roberts


How do you survive an eternity alone?


Sarah Jennifer Walton had it all. A family, a purpose, a husband. Not anymore. Loss has shaped her into a true nomad, wandering the country in a bid to outrun her pain. A chance encounter and a little magic could be the answer to Sarah Jennifer's prayers.


Set on the foundation of The Terry Henry Walton Chronicles this reconciles the past with the future, and a hidden destiny.




Dedication

For Amanda, wherever you are in the galaxy















CHAPTER ONE



West of Lynnwood, Massachusetts, Ten Years after the Force de Guerre Left for Space

Sarah Jennifer clucked to halt her mare and dismounted in the glade by the clear stream. She’d followed the signs of water for the last few miles and was glad to finally reach it so they could quench their thirst. As she led the mare she had named Cordy to the water, she took in her surroundings and thought about which of the two paths leading from the oak, ash, and rowan trees she should take.

She had been wandering without much purpose since her family had left for space some time ago, and her route had gradually led her east. She was still trying to shake off the melancholy that had dogged her since their departure.

She had needed to break from the military; to live for something else, even if she didn’t know what that was yet. She hadn’t expected to feel this lonely when she’d said goodbye to the Colonel and the rest of her family, but she had made her choice. She had chosen love.

When she looked up she saw the stars beginning their nightly dalliance so she tethered Cordy to a nearby tree, deciding to camp in this peaceful copse. She gathered deadfall and started her campfire, then put the kettle on for tea. She would forgo her tent on this warm spring night, letting the stars be both her blanket and her entertainment.

Arranging herself on her bedroll after a brief supper of rabbit and wild onions, Sarah Jennifer stared up at the sky and thought about her family. What were they doing right now? Did they know that without them she didn’t feel at home on this planet anymore? Grief gripped her insides. Why had she stayed? It was a relentless constant which drove her during the days, but her rage turned to hot tears every night as she made her lonely bed under the stars.

She’d settled for a while with Jeremiah, but it hadn't worked out in the end. Her Uncle Kaeden had warned her about the consequences of falling in love with an unenhanced human. “We are not for them,” he had said quietly when she and Sylvie fluttered over Magnus all those years ago. He had repeated his warning when she chose to stay on the ranch. Kae had been right—she knew that now. Jeremiah had become a part of her past, and she was left to deal with the consequences of her self-imposed exile. Every day she wondered why she’d condemned herself to a possibly infinite existence alone.

She missed her parents. Her whole family, really. Hell, she even missed Bogdan, farts and all.  She was furious with herself for wasting the remainder of their time together, indulging her pity party and playing cowgirl.

It hadn't been a complete waste. There was Jeremiah, and the life they’d built together after the Dark Messiah had saved their asses. Their marriage had been good, right up until it became clear she was not going to age any further. Then something changed for him.

As the years passed, the distance between them grew until it encompassed their lives. They spoke only about the ranch, neither knowing how to bridge the gap. She’d been mucking out the yard one day when he walked past. The look of loss in his eyes had broken her heart and forced her to take action.

She'd left him like a thief in the night, stealing away with only a horse, her rifle, and a bag of essentials. It had been as difficult as saying goodbye to the Colonel and the rest of her family for the last time, but her decision was made. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—go back to her husband.

She had Cordy for company, but she sure as hell didn’t want to be around people right now. Especially not Jeremiah… She’d hurt him enough already. It was best to be alone and feel nothing.

She woke the next morning, shocked by her complete lack of situational awareness overnight. Anything could have made its way into her camp and made a meal of both her and Cordy while she had been—admittedly—enjoying the best night’s sleep she’d had since leaving the ranch. Even though the area was new to her, she didn’t feel like any harm would come to her here. In fact, she felt like the copse had protected her in some way as she slept. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing she had encountered in these times. She began the task of repacking everything she’d unpacked the night before, making sure no trace of her stay was left behind to mar the tranquil glade.

Was that a sense of purpose she felt as she struck her camp? It was not like her these days, the discipline she’d grown up under having slipped during her travels. She didn’t know why, but she liked it. Maybe the rest had done her more than just physical good.

“Hey, Cordy girl,” she murmured gently after she finished the packing. The horse raised her head from her juicy grass and whickered a welcome.

 “How about I give you a nice rubdown before we get going? We’re going to have a good day today. I can feel it.” Cordy whickered happily as Sarah Jennifer rubbed her all over with handfuls of the lush grass before saddling her for the day’s ride.

They were soon on their way, and Sarah Jennifer guided Cordy up the right-hand path without a thought.

The morning was glorious. Sarah Jennifer hadn’t heard as many birds in her whole life as she did while riding today. She began to see signs of cultivation: a square patch of sage here, a row of dandelions there, all snuggled in amongst the plate-like burdocks and the foxgloves that lined the trail and nodded at her as she passed.

Strange plants to be encouraging, she thought as she continued down the path, which gradually widened into a sunny tree-lined road.

The morning and early afternoon passed pleasantly. She saw no one, and the occasional animals she spotted had no fear of a human on horseback. Squirrels chattered at each other as they dashed about overhead, making Sarah Jennifer chuckle at their antics.

As the sun began its slow descent toward the horizon, she saw what she thought was a cottage in the distance. She checked the bedroll in which she’d hidden her knife and gun to make sure that they were within reach but out of sight in case she frightened the occupants, and clucked to Cordy to hurry up.

The cottage had looked better from a distance. Up close it was more of a shack, cringing into the encroaching shadows as though it knew it was an eyesore. The thatched roof sagged and the walls were held together by swathes of ivy, which was much less charming now that Sarah Jennifer could see that it was choking the windows and doors. An ancient woman knelt in the garden, jabbing at a sorry potato plant. She looked up as Sarah Jennifer came to the gate on foot.

“Who’re you, and whaddaya want?” the ancient lady growled. “I ‘in’t got no food t’ spare.” She returned to her digging, placing the shriveled potatoes in a bowl as she unearthed them.

Sarah Jennifer felt sorry for this old woman. She probably had nobody to look after her, and was struggling to feed herself. She would help, if the woman would accept.

“I’m Sarah Jennifer...Walton, and I just needed a place to stay for the night,” she began. “I can pay you with food and…um…labor?”

The woman perked up at the offer, a gap-toothed grin appearing on her leathery face.

 “What can you do, a little slip of a girl like you?” she said, dropping the broad accent. She chuckled dryly.

Sarah Jennifer wasn’t insulted. She was used to being underestimated. She’d used it as a weapon before, and apparently the old woman had done the same.

“What can I do for you? Let’s see…” There were a multitude of jobs that needed doing. She swept the old woman’s property with the eyes of an FDG officer, imagining her mother telling her how to make this woman’s life easier. “How about I start on mending the fences and you start on dinner?” She pulled out the jackrabbit she had caught and cleaned earlier, and after only a slight deliberation the last of her coffee, and handed them to the woman.

“You got a deal. The name’s Esme Proctor. Welcome to my home, Sarah Jennifer Walton. I’ll get on with this rabbit while you get to work. You’ll find what you need in the shed over there.” Esme shuffled into the cottage after pointing at the ramshackle shed, which was at least as old as Esme.

She got to work, one task leading to another as she mended her way around the perimeter of Esme’s homestead. It felt good to work for someone else’s benefit again. She’d been hiding in the wilderness too long., She could feel her grandfather’s disappointment as keenly as if he were there with her, so she threw herself into it. The rhythm of hard physical labor took over, filling her with satisfaction as she measured and sawed and nailed to make each section of fence strong again. She didn’t even noticed the light from the open door until Esme shouted at her, snapping her out of the zone she’d been in for the last couple of hours.

“Come in and eat your dinner, girl! Gaia’s garters, you’ve earned it. I’ve never seen someone work so hard!” She stretched her wrinkled neck out into the yard, nodding with satisfaction at the job Sarah Jennifer had done.

She went inside and was surprised by the homey appearance of the room. The cottage was warm and cozy, and full of the smell of the rabbit stew cooking in a pot over the crackling fire in the hearth. Sarah Jennifer was pointed to a small but immaculate washroom, which she made use of before sitting in front of the fire in the overstuffed chair opposite Esme. She sighed in satisfaction of a job well done.

“Here you go, Duckie. Get that down you,” Esme said, handing Sarah Jennifer a bowl filled with steaming goodness. She was surprised to find she was ravenous—a change from the last months, when eating had been just one more bodily function she’d needed to handle.

They ate in silence for a while, both enjoying the food.

“What brings a young girl like you out here on her own?” Esme asked when they had finished. “It’s not safe out there, you know. Not anymore.”

“My family moved on. I stayed behind, but it wasn’t the same without them. I just had to get away, get some distance from my old life. I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be.”

Esme nodded sagely. “Ah, you’re spreading your wings. What have you seen out there?”

“Too much.” She sighed. “My whole life it’s been war. A just war, but war all the same. I needed to know what it was like to live in peace.”

“You’ll find that here, Duckie. You’re welcome to stay if you like, as long as you help out around here.”

Sarah Jennifer considered the offer. It wouldn’t hurt to stay here for a few weeks and help Esme get ready for winter before she moved on. She’d intended to head back west as the snows approached, staying ahead of them as she travelled to the other side of the country.

“I’d like that.”

***

Summer passed quickly into autumn, and Sarah Jennifer remained with Esme. The place looked like a home again—Sarah Jennifer’s plan to make things livable had turned into a full-blown renovation project, and it showed. She had learned a lot about this crotchety old woman in the time she’d been here, and maybe she’d learned a few things about herself as well.

The first morning she’d awoken to find a bowl of warm, sweet porridge waiting for her, along with a list of chores.

The list had been tacked onto the end of a cryptic note, which said Esme had gone to do her rounds and would be back some time after midday, since the Johnson girl was having complications. Sarah Jennifer had gone about her chores with puzzlement, waiting patiently at first but becoming worried when noon came and went. She didn’t have as much work as she had thought either, which left her mind free to envision Esme lying dead in a gully somewhere once she’d run out of things to do. The cottage now looked much better in the daylight, its wear and tear mostly superficial. She spent the latter part of the day agonizing between staying put in case Esme came back or leaving the cottage to search for her.

Near dusk she was getting ready to venture out when a haggard and pale Esme returned to the cottage, blood soaking her homespun apron.

“Esme!” she cried as she rushed to her friend, thinking she’d been attacked. “What happened?”

“Ten pounds eight, and he screamed like a banshee!” she crowed with pride. “Mother and baby are both doing well. Couldn’t ask for better than that, really.” She marched past Sarah Jennifer into the cottage without further explanation, calling over her shoulder, “Where’s my dinner?”

***

Sarah Jennifer discovered in the following weeks that Esme was the glue that held the people around here together. If a woman was having a baby, she asked for Esme. If an elderly person was alone, she was the one who visited with soup and a sympathetic ear. She was the person people came to whenever there was a problem, and she listened to them all—rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Most of the locals lived on isolated homesteads that had been cut into the forest that had overtaken the area after the WWDE, and for some, Esme was their only contact with the outside world.

She was completely in awe of the tiny, gruff, old woman. Esme never raised her voice, but everything got done after a twitch of her eyebrow or a tap of her foot. She was completely different from her own grandmother, who was as likely to kill two people who couldn’t resolve their petty differences as to help them. Both were made of steel, but Esme’s had been weathered and tempered. Sarah Jennifer was completely enchanted by her. Nothing kept Esme from what she saw as her duty.

She should have moved on, but she stayed without thinking too hard about why.

***

One misty morning Esme announced that it was high time she properly introduced her to the people of the town. She was ordered to “gussy up” for a festival and prepare the cart for a two day journey. She washed in the tiny bathroom with the pump-handle basin, braided her hair, and dressed in her cleanest clothes before hitching Cordy to the cart with Esme’s horse Dusty.

When they were ready, Esme directed Sarah Jennifer to the north road and settled in for the long ride ahead. They passed the time companionably, making camp at the halfway point in a clearing that seemed perfect for the purpose. Sarah Jennifer gathered armfuls of the deadfall she found conveniently scattered around while Esme tethered the horses and went to draw water from the stream they heard just out of sight.

This land had changed dramatically in the years after WWDE. Nature had wasted no time in reclaiming the spaces humanity had vacated, filling it with verdant wonders. Esme knew the location of a number of tributary streams that filtered through the forest. This one happened to feed a deep crystal-clear pool.

“Hey, Duckie, grab the net from my bag, will you?”

Twenty minutes later two fat rainbow trout on sharp sticks were sizzling nicely over the fire.

***

The next morning the mist arrived. Thick, swirling eddies blanketed the forest, obscuring the view beyond the clearing. They made a breakfast of last night’s leftovers and a mug of precious coffee before greeting the day ahead.

Esme was in a fantastic mood as they struck camp. Sarah Jennifer could have sworn she heard her humming while she fed the horses.

She grinned brightly. “Nice to see you’re in such a good mood this morning,” she called. She loved fall.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day since I first saw you,” Esme replied enigmatically. “Come on, Duckie. We want to be there before sunset.”

“What’s this place called?” she asked when they began to see signs of civilization a few hours later.

“In the old days it was called ‘Salem,’ and the locals voted to keep it.” Esme grunted. “Damn stupid if you ask me, what with the history and all. Askin’ for trouble.”

Sarah Jennifer just nodded and continued looking at the crumbling buildings around her, having no idea what history Esme was talking about. Clusters of light stood out in the dusk, punctuating the clumps of trees and marking the homesteads amongst the abandoned businesses and public buildings from before WWDE. Nature hadn’t quite gotten her way here; humans were still trying to keep the wheels of civilization turning. They passed the skeleton of a large building set back from the crossroads ahead. All around the building the ground sparkled, catching her eye.


  “It was a university—a place of learning—and it had lots of glass. It’s nothing special, Duckie,” Esme said before Sarah Jennifer could ask about the building.

Esme had a habit of scratching the itch before Sarah Jennifer even knew she had a question. She told herself it was because Esme had been old enough to have been asked every question there was at least twice before Sarah Jennifer was born.

They took the road away from the abandoned university, Sarah Jennifer clucking gently to Cordy and Dusty.

The trees and foliage thinned as they got closer to town, and the buildings began to look neater as the shadows crept in to smooth the signs of decay. The packed-dirt road was smoother than the rutted tracks Sarah Jennifer was accustomed to. Finally the forest road gave way completely to tidy lantern-lit streets.

“Must take a lot of people to maintain all this,” she mused aloud.

“Aye, Duckie. Those who prefer to congregate all do so here. Wait ‘til you see Salem itself. We’re not far now.”

The tidy cobbled streets of the town centre didn’t line up on a grid like she had expected small-town streets to do. Instead they sat at angles, with a five-sided green in the center. She could tell that it was all relatively new—post-WWDE construction had its own style. There were glimpses of the old town structure if she looked hard, but these people had created this place for themselves out of the ruins of the apocalypse using techniques not employed for hundreds of years.

There were a number of people milling around. A pavilion sat in the middle of the grass, surrounded by a rainbow of smaller tents and stalls. There was song in the air, and part of her was attracted by the prospect of fried food while the other part was clamoring with curiosity about the festival.


“Why did they build a pentagon?” she asked Esme, who for once didn’t give her an answer.

“Now, mind your tongue while we’re in town, child. I don’t want an upset ‘cause you see something that maybe scares you.”

“Like what?” Sarah Jennifer asked. “I’ve seen some stuff, you know.” Esme had heard most of her story, but not all of it. Who would believe that her grandmother was a werewolf?

“Well, of course you have. You wouldn’t have found me otherwise, but you haven’t seen anything like this, Duckie,” she said, not unkindly. “Just keep it to yourself and there’ll be no problems.”

The streets were pretty, she thought. Bunting and handmade lanterns hung between the awnings of the homes and businesses, and there were more people gathered under the lanterns on the green.

“What’s the occasion?” she asked, stomach growling at the prospect of fried food.

“It’s Samhain,” she said, as if that explained everything.

“’Sow-in?’ Like Halloween from the Before Time?” Flashes of being dressed in costume and ushered around the streets of San Francisco as a small child came to her mind. The thrill of being out in the darkness, and being chastised for a sticky face and fingers by Felicity. The memories were sharp, reminding her of things long gone and never to return. Her excitement ebbed.

Esme sensed her pain as always. “It’ll do, child. It’s a celebration of winter’s beginning and the dark half of the year. The point is to be with others. To commune with the spirits of those we’ve lost, and to celebrate the harvest.” She steered Sarah Jennifer onto the grass, and her ears popped as she crossed from the road to the grass.

“It’s all right, Duckie. It’s just the coming night and the land, that’s all. Nothing to be afeared of.” Esme seemed to grow as her feet touched the grass; her presence tickled the edges of Sarah Jennifer’s awareness for a brief moment. It wasn’t a physical growth, but she seemed bigger somehow. It was over in an instant and Sarah Jennifer already had her mind on other things, namely her rumbling stomach and the aroma telling her that there was hot chow.

“Cool! I’m not afraid, I like it. What do we do first? Shall we eat?” She started toward the crowd in the middle of the green, but was stopped by Esme’s hand on her arm. She let her confusion show.

Esme’s face was serious. “You come with me while I introduce you to the Council as my guest on this holy night. This way.” She shuffled toward the tents at the edge of the green and motioned for Sarah Jennifer to follow. “Come on, Duckie. We haven’t got all night!” She didn’t sound like she put much stock in the Council.

“They’re all right,” Esme said a moment later, as if she’d read Sarah Jennifer's mind again. “They’re just fusty, is all. Stuck in their ways, you might say.” Sarah Jennifer had to stifle a snort. That was rich, coming from the woman who was reliable enough to set a clock by!

When they reached the closest tent, Esme called, “Lenore!”

A stunning black woman poked her head through the curtained entrance.

“Esme, you made it! Merry meet, sister, and welcome home. Come in!” When she came all the way out of the tent, Sarah Jennifer was taken aback by Lenore’s regal beauty. She enveloped Esme in a great hug, which Esme didn’t seem to appreciate if the look on her face was anything to go by.

“Yes, yes,” she said, all but pushing her away. “Merry met, Lenore. Enough of that now. This is the one I was telling you about.” As this was said a gnarled thumb jerked in Sarah Jennifer’s direction.

Lenore looked at her appraisingly. Sarah Jennifer squirmed internally but held still and smiled, maintaining eye contact with the imposing woman—whose aura of energy was palpable.

“Yup, she’s special all right,” Lenore said eventually. “The Council will see her.”

“I know they damn well will!” Esme snarked. “Wouldn’t have bothered bringing her otherwise, would I? Come on, Duckie,” she said with a glance at Sarah Jennifer. “Time to make some introductions.”

She followed Esme, feeling nervous in a way she wasn’t used to. What was the big mystery here? She’d felt the tingle of power as she crossed onto the green. Were they Weres? She didn’t think so, but she stayed alert as she entered the dimly-lit tent.

“Merry meet,” a plump woman with red ringlets said as Sarah Jennifer blinked to deal with the drop in the light level. The woman sat at a round table with eleven others. “It is good to see you, Sister Esme. Who is this you bring?” Seven pairs of eyes bored into her, making her feel like a butterfly pinned to a card. The other four seemed unsurprised at her presence. She met their smiles with a small one of her own.

 “Do we have to go through the ‘Merry meet’ stuff every time?” Esme grumped, oblivious to Sarah Jennifer’s agitation. “We are all happy to see each other, yes? Very good. This is Sarah Jennifer Walton, my lodger. I brought her to join the rituals.”

A whisper went through the people around the table at the mention of her last name. The Force de Guerre was known far and wide, as was her grandfather’s name. She was more concerned about the word “rituals,” though, tugging gently at Esme’s sleeve to get her attention.  Esme ignored her and continued to address the Council.

“She is suffering from grief and a loss of purpose, and deserves to find some peace in her heart. This will help her. I claim guest-right in her name.”

A middle-aged man raised his hand as if asking Esme’s permission to speak. Esme sighed and nodded at him.

“But she is untrained in the arts.”

Another sigh, followed by loud clucks of concern. “How many years have I been telling you, Magnus?” she asked, with a look of disgust. “You don’t need none of your mumbo-jumbo to connect with Gaia. She is there and listening all the time. Sarah Jennifer will be joining us, and that is that. Anyone who wants to say different can feel free to challenge me.” Seven pairs of eyes quickly looked down. She spun on her heel and exited to a chorus of mumbled acquiescence, dragging a befuddled Sarah Jennifer with her.

“Damn ingrates,” she grumbled as they walked away from the tent. “Argue over every little thing, they do! I ought to turn them into toads for a day or two, see how they like that!”

Sarah Jennifer had a realization.

“Esme, are you all witches?”

“About damn time! Thought I was going to have to enchant a broomstick and dance sky-clad under the full moon before you twigged!”

“What’s ‘sky-clad?’” she asked, not understanding.

“You know…nekkid!” She cackled. “Oops, better watch that. Cackling is never a good sign. Next thing I’ll be enchanting princesses, like old Nettie. Nasty end, old Nettie had. Ugh!” Esme shivered. “Come on, child. It’s time for the feast.”

Esme led her toward the food. Life was good.

***

Sarah Jennifer ducked under the wreaths entwining the arched entry to the pavilion, trying to keep up with Esme. The old witch was already deep in the crowd, accepting handshakes and curtseys from the men and women she greeted.

“Esme, wait!”

Esme half-turned, and flapped her hand at Sarah Jennifer as if she were a child underfoot. “Go have some fun, Duckie. I’ve got duties to attend to.”

She stood feeling lost as Esme made her way towards the rear of the pavilion, where one of the tables had been placed crossways to the others. To the side was a partitioned area which she saw Esme disappear into a moment later. What was she going to do with herself?

“It must be serendipity or something,” a pretty young woman called from a nearby table. “Here we are with one too many drinks, and you arrive just in time to solve the problem. Come, join us!”

Long and wide wooden trestle-tables filled the center of the pavilion, beautifully decorated and laden with food and drink. Elaborate centerpieces and empty silver plates alternated along the runners in the middle. It was a tight squeeze, with all the townsfolk gathered around the tables. Two men made space between them so she could sit opposite the woman.

“Merry meet! My name is Sarai.”

“Um, merry meet. I’m Sarah Jennifer,” she replied with an awkward smile.

Sarai smiled brightly in return, handing Sarah Jennifer one of the wooden goblets from the table. She accepted the proffered cup and sniffed, inhaling the scent of spices and honey.

“What’s this?” she asked, taking a taste. The richness of the flavor blew her mind and made her cough.

Sarai giggled. “It’s mead. Honey, milk—and a little oomph! It’s a holiday, after all!” Sarai drained her goblet and banged it down on the table, to the cheers of the onlookers.

It was a heady and sweet drink, like nothing she’d never tasted, and she felt it warm her as she sipped. The men and women at the table broke from their conversations to cheer her when she followed Sarai’s example. She burped afterward, but no embarrassment was necessary since it earned her another cheer from her new friends. Everyone resumed talking at once, passing plates and dishes up and down the long table and making sure their goblets and flagons were full.

“This is Sarah Jennifer, everyone,” Sarai told the people sitting closest. There was a round of friendly greetings, mostly more “Merry meets,” before the questions began.

“So you’ve been staying with Mother Esme?”

Sarah Jennifer nodded. “Yeah, since spring.”

She knew what was coming, and she was ready for it. Esme’s pragmatic wisdom had given her new way of looking at things, so this time she wouldn’t deflect the questions about who she was and where she’d come from. She hoped it didn’t hurt to talk about her grandparents with these open-hearted folks who had welcomed her, but if it did she could deal with it.

“That’s so brave of you. Are you a witch...uh, I mean, a child of Gaia as well?”

Sarah Jennifer coughed again on her refilled mead, completely thrown by Sarai’s tentative inquiry.

“Or shouldn’t I ask?” Sarai seemed concerned now, and was looking at her with an expression Sarah Jennifer couldn’t quite decipher. The man to her left, who had introduced himself as “Tom,” examined her closely.

She shook her head. “No, it’s ok. I’m not a witch. I only found out for sure that Esme was a witch today—like half an hour ago! Until tonight, I thought all the talk about Gaia was the same as when people born in the Before Time talked about God.”

Sarai’s jaw dropped. “No way! We all thought you were her apprentice or somethin’.”

It was Sarah Jennifer’s turn to giggle, and Tom relaxed and went back to filling his plate from dishes that went by him. She waved her fork, and a droplet of thick glaze fell from the tender meat onto to her plate. “Not likely. There’s more magic in this pork than there is in me. I came across her on my travels and saw she needed a hand. I ended up staying because I felt at home there.”

“Esme Proctor needed a hand?” Tom abandoned his plate, his attention returning to her in an instant. “She hasn’t needed a hand for as long as she’s lived, that woman! Gave a few out though, I’ll say. What did she help you with? You’re not Wolf-kin, are ya?”

“Daddy!” Sarai chastised him. “Sarah Jennifer is a guest of Mother Esme and the Council!”

“What?” Tom protested, his face reddening and his eyes shining strangely yellow for a moment. “You heard the gossip when she moved out to the old cottage, right before Sarah Jennifer showed up. I can smell somethin’ on her, and she’s just done told us she’s not a witch. They’ve been out there for months, and we have a right to know if she’s one of the cursed!”

“Why are they cursed?” she asked him, hastily swallowing her half-chewed meat. She felt no malice from him, just concern for his people. “And you’re a Were. Isn’t that Wolf-kin?”

Sarai and Tom both shook their heads vehemently. “No, not like them, he’s not. Weres are welcome here.” Sarai clarified, “Except the Wolf-kin. My dad is gettin’ all het up for nothing. If you were one of them, we wouldn’t be breaking bread with you.”

“Why?” Sarah Jennifer asked Tom. He was willing to tell her, but he had no chance.

Esme and the others at the high table rose from their seats, and conversation amongst the tables ceased when Esme banged her knife against a tankard to get the gathering’s attention.

Esme had donned an intricate winding headdress and a many-layered iridescent robe, which transformed the grandmotherly woman Sarah Jennifer lived with into a stately high priestess.

Esme was resplendent in her finery and the light of the lanterns caught the prongs of the headdress, making it look like it was ablaze. Gone were the shuffle and the bent spine, and she glowed. Not the same way Sarah Jennifer’s mother’s eyes had when she healed someone, but in a way that told everyone the old woman was filled with vitality and power.

“Gaia’s blessings upon us all.” Esme intoned with her arms spread wide. She picked up a silvered goblet and held it toward the assembled townsfolk. “We are gathered for the end of the year celebration. The harvest is in, we have been blessed with Gaia’s bounty, and we didn’t lose anybody this year.” A man cheered from the back.

Esme squinted. “Is that you, Jim Johnson? I hope you’re not planning on any fire-eating tonight.”

That was the Esme she knew and loved. Sarah Jennifer laughed and waved at Martha and Jim. Jim had been badly burned during the summer, but his arm was almost good as new now, thanks to Esme’s ministrations. The town would have suffered greatly without their blacksmith, but they could all laugh now that it was behind them.

“Where was I? Oh, yes,” Esme said, using her priestess voice again. “As the year hinges and the world moves toward the darkness, let us honor those who came before us by raising a cup in their name. Merry meet!” She raised the goblet once more before draining it, then banged the empty cup onto the table.

“Merry meet, Mother Esme!” Sarah Jennifer joined the toast as the people raised their drinks in salute. She was glad to be here. Children were squirming around under the tables, tickling Sarah Jennifer’s legs as they dashed about playing their games. The people were joyful, and the mead was doing its excellent work. She decided to go with the flow and enjoy the celebration or ritual or whatever, but when she and Esme went home they were going to have a long conversation. Ha! she thought. Home. When had she begun to think of Esme’s cottage as home?

Esme was speaking again.

“It is with much joy that I rejoin you on this most holy night.” Esme beamed at her captive audience and winked at Sarah Jennifer as she passed her gaze over the crowd. “I see you all managed just fine without me.”

“Fell apart, more like,” a woman called from another table. “Glad you’re back, ma’am.”

“Hear, hear!” the townsfolk cried. It was clear they had missed Esme. Sarah Jennifer thought it was wonderful that her friend was so well loved and respected by the people of Salem. They truly appreciated everything Esme did for them.

“Very good to see you all,” Esme called over the hubbub. “It’s time for the dedication now, folks, and I’m honored you chose me to lead you in the Ancestor’s Blessing.”

Lenore and the redheaded woman joined Esme in front of the table as the others began lighting the tall, fat candles in the table’s centerpiece.

Sarai leaned in to light their table's candles as the lanterns around the pavilion dimmed. Sarah Jennifer was entranced when Esme, Lenore and the redhead began to sing in haunting accord.

"It's in Gaelic, the old tongue," Sarai told her when she saw Sarah Jennifer strain to make out the words of the ethereal song. "Just follow what I do and you'll be fine."

Sarah Jennifer watched as Sarai cut a portion from the food on her laden plate and transferred it to the empty plate in front of her. "Gamma, Gaia's blessings upon you this holy night." Everyone else did the same, speaking other names as they did it.

“What are we doing this for?” she asked.

“Watch,” Sarai said, indicating the entrance to the pavilion.

She turned to look and almost fell off the bench as the first ghosts entered and streamed toward the tables. “What the...” Was this an attack?

“It's all right, lass.” Tom said. "They're our kin. The veil is thin on Samhain and they visit us, thanks to the Council."

A matronly woman approached them, the candlelight diffusing through her spectral form. "Gamma, you made it!" Sarai exclaimed, jumping up and rushing to the ghost of her grandmother. "It was great to meet you,” she called to Sarah Jennifer as she left. “I'll see you again after the fire ceremony!"

All around the pavilion people stood to greet the shades of their loved ones. Sarah Jennifer sat alone, not daring to say the names in case they came. She sat deep in thought for a while, not watching as the townsfolk left the pavilion in dribs and drabs.

“Come on, Duckie,” Esme said from behind her. “There’s something as needs dealing with. Let’s go for a walk.”

She followed Esme into the biting night air, and was about to ask her where they were going when her enhanced hearing picked up a woman screaming far in the distance. She set off at a run, the familiar cold mask drawing itself over her features. Nobody was going to hurt these people—not while she was around.

“Where are you going?” Esme called in confusion as Sarah Jennifer sped away, remembering even in her haste to maintain a human pace until she got out of sight.

“Didn’t you hear her?” Sarah Jennifer shouted from the other side of the green. “A woman is screaming for help!”

“What are you waiting for?” Esme urged, following as fast as she could. “Save her!”

Sarah Jennifer ran towards the source of the scream, past the buildings to the northeast and through an alley leading out of the town and into the cultivated park beyond. The park was empty, except for a solitary cat sitting on one of the dividing walls. Everyone else was at the festival.

She was calm and centered. There was nothing like this feeling; she was born for action. Now out of the sight of everyone else, she sprinted faster than any human ever could across the park, swerving around stands of trees and picnic areas and vaulting the low walls. It was a pleasant place, and she would do whatever she could to make sure it remained that way.

The woman screamed again, which allowed Sarah Jennifer to hone in on her exact location. She observed that the trees were oak, ash, and rowan again, the same combination as the copse that she’d camped in. That night felt like a lifetime ago.

She approached the trees stealthily, careful to use her enhancements to assess the situation before committing to action. She smelled two Weres, both in human form and both in desperate need of a bath. She didn’t have anything except her knife on her, but she could handle two Weres easily.

A closer look confirmed her judgment. Two young men had pinned the redheaded councilwoman from earlier against a standing stone, one of a number ringing the open space in the center of the ring of trees. The woman fended the men off with a dagger as they took turns swiping at her, laughing all the while. The bastards were playing with her, Sarah Jennifer realized with a low growl. Why didn’t she use her magic to defend herself?

The Weres heard her, and turned to see who was disturbing their fun. Cover blown, she decided to make sure they focused on her instead of the councilwoman.

“Hey, dumbasses!”

She scooped up a rock with her free hand and stepped into the clearing, then launched it at the nearest Were. It hit his forehead hard enough that his nanocytes would need to take care of it. The Were clutched his head as he fell to his knees, and she launched herself at the other one as the councilwoman looked on in terror.

“Use your magic!” Sarah Jennifer shouted at the gibbering witch.

I can’t!” she sobbed, cringing back against the standing stone. Sarah Jennifer understood. If you weren’t raised to battle it was easy to freeze up when violence occurred.

The second Were used the distraction to launch his own attack. He was fast, and avoided the knife-hand Sarah Jennifer threw at his throat. He attempted to grab her, but his clumsy swipe missed her although his claws caught her shoulder, gashing it. As she danced out of his reach, the wound closed instantly. The other Were got up unsteadily, and glared at her with hate and disbelief in his unfocused eyes.

She estimated he would be on her again in a minute or two. She needed to get this under control. When the second Were grabbed at her again she smashed his nose with the hilt of her knife, following that up with a hard stamp to his knee. She heard the crunch as his joint collapsed but he didn’t give up, dropping to all fours as though he were about to change. She took advantage of the moment to dive onto his back and wrap an arm around his neck, pulling him up and backwards into a sleeper hold. She reckoned the other Were would recover fully from the concussion she’d given him any moment, so she increased the pressure around the neck of the Were she held, careful not to break his neck as she cut his air supply off.

A moment later he was unconscious and his body fell to the ground as she dropped him and turned to deal with the other one. She must have missed the other Were turning tail and running, because he was gone.

“He went that way,” the councilwoman offered, pointing, when Sarah Jennifer went to check on her.

“It’s ok. You’re safe now, Madam Councilwoman.”

The woman laughed, providing an antidote to the adrenaline dump Sarah Jennifer was experiencing. “’Annie’ will do just fine, child.”

“Ok, ‘Annie’ it is. What did they want?”

 Annie looked vague for a moment and missed the question. “Oh, Esme will be here soon. Good.” She wandered back the way Sarah Jennifer had come, giving the unconscious Were a wide berth as she passed him.

Sarah Jennifer took Annie’s arm when she heard someone approaching.

“I told you Esme was coming,” she chided gently, resuming her unsteady walk towards the trees as Esme came into the clearing.

“Might have known it’d be you out here causing trouble,” she grumbled at Annie, taking in Sarah Jennifer’s dishevelled state and the Were on the ground. She fixed Annie with a hard look. “What’re you doin’ out here by yourself? You know the barrier hex is weak on the Solstice! Where would you be if Sarah Jennifer hadn’t heard you?”

Annie began to cry as the shock of the encounter set in, and Esme put an arm around her. Sarah Jennifer patted her back. “Oh, hush now, it’s all right. She did hear you, and you’re fine,” the older witch said.

“I know,” Annie sobbed. “I just wanted to think for a while. I didn’t believe the Wolf-kin would dare to come here!”

Sarah Jennifer was surprised. Those had been the Wolf-kin? They weren’t anything special.  “What’s the deal with them? They’re just Weres, I thought you welcomed them?”

“Not those, we don’t.” Annie said darkly. “We live in peace and harmony here. They don’t live by any rules, or at least none that we can figure out. They plunder their way up and down the coast, and don’t care a bit about the devastation they leave in their wake. There’s no living with those savages, and nothing we can do to stop them.”

“Can’t you do magic on them?” she asked. She’d seen them bring ghosts back. Surely they could get rid of a few werewolves?

“That’s not how it works, Duckie,” Esme replied. “First, do no harm. What magicks thou wield will return to thee threefold. That’s Rule One of being a witch. You don’t wanna be breakin’ it, neither.”

“So you could do something, but it’d make things worse in the end.” Sarah Jennifer concluded.

“Exactly, Duckie. Now both of you, come along. We have a ritual to attend to.”

***

Sarah Jennifer walked with the people of Salem as they made their way down to the beach. The three of them had gotten back to the green just as the townspeople prepared to set off for the sea, having said goodbye to their relatives once again as midnight broke the spell. It was strange to come back to happy faces after the brawl in the clearing.

Everyone held a candle they tried to keep alight in the wind as they followed the sandy paths between the dunes. Most protected the tiny twinkling flames with brightly-colored shades, but Esme didn’t even cup hers with her hand. Its flame stood straight and true, unbothered by the stiff pre-winter gusts that had already claimed Sarah Jennifer’s candle many times.

Esme leaned over it again, whispering, and it came back to life.

“Where does the magic come from, Esme?”

“It comes from within, child. You can call it—or you can’t. Why don’t you give it a try? Look within, and focus on the flame. Ask it to be strong and light your way. If it does as you ask, then praise it. It’s that simple.”

She tried to do as Esme asked, feeling slightly foolish for talking to a candle. For a moment, it seemed as though her flame stood proudly, but it flickered and went out again when embarrassment overcame belief.

“I don’t think I can do it,” she said regretfully.

“Nonsense, Duckie,” Esme crooned. “Didn’t you see it hold for a second there? We’ll make a witch out of you yet!”

She wasn’t so sure, but they had reached the beach now and the next part of the festivities was getting underway. Bundles of pre-cut wood were handed out and people built bonfires, their faces solemn as they focused on the task.

“What is this for?” she asked Esme as they built theirs.

“We feed the fire we have built our regrets for the last year and our hopes for the coming one.”

Sarah Jennifer contemplated this for a moment. “That’s actually quite beautiful.”

All around them, the people began to sing as the fires were lit. The songs they sang had different words and melodies, building as more joined in and melding into a chorus that tugged at her emotions. The rawness and purity of it caused tears to spring to her eyes. Sarah Jennifer listened as they poured their love and pain into the fires dotted all over the beach. It was like nothing she had ever heard, and she wept openly as her heart swelled in her chest.

“What are the words?” she asked Esme through her tears.

“Whatever you need them to be,” Esme replied, tossing the candle into the kindling to light her fire and beginning her own song.

Sarah Jennifer lit her own. What should she sing? What did she regret? What did she hope for?

Deep within, she found what she was looking for. She sang of her family, and how she missed them so much that it had left a gaping chasm in her soul. She sang of being free, of galloping across the plain with Cordy. She sang of her home and the horses. Of Jeremiah. She sang of a future where she wasn’t alone.

Tears ran freely down her face. She suddenly understood why she’d been wandering all this time, denying who she was. She’d been trying to escape the hurt inside. She saw for the first time how it could be if she allowed herself to release her pain, and she made a choice.

She let it all go and felt every hurt leave, carried away on the smoke of her fire. She looked deep inside herself and saw that nothing had changed. Everything that had made her the person she was today was within her still, but without the barbs of pain she had grown accustomed to feeling whenever her family came to mind.

The song came to an end, and people stumbled slightly as the power of the ritual released them. She felt lighter—happier and focused. It was going to be all right. She turned to Esme, a confidence returning to her that had been gone for too long as she finally allowed herself to see the truth she’d been hiding from.

She’d been shirking her duty.

She was the granddaughter of Colonel Terry Henry Walton and Charumati, Queen of the Weres, dammit! She had no business skulking about feeling sorry for herself when there were people in need of her help. For her entire life she had watched her family sacrifice everything to protect humanity from the UnknownWorld, and it was her duty to carry on their legacy.

Honor. Courage. Commitment.

That was how she’d been raised, and that was how she would live from now on. A Force De Guerre of one, ready and willing to kick the UnknownWorld into shape. Sarah Jennifer Walton was back!

“Thank you, Esme,” she said, enveloping her in a hug. “It’s time for me to do what I was made for.”

“Good girl,” Esme said with a smile. “That’s what I’ve been waiting to hear! What’s that, then?”

“I believe there is a pack of werewolves in need of some manners,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “I need to get ready to face them. I don’t know what’ll come after that, but it’s a start.”


The End

Authors Notes: Sarah Jennifer’s First Samhain

By N.D. Roberts


Thank you for reading my (very) short story, and for supporting the whole Fans Write madness! You are awesome, and your feedback is what drives us authors to take our stories to the next level. Thank you to Sarah Weir as well. You are an honest-to-goodness angel!

This story was actually a bit of Halloween fun that went on in the writing group around the time most were planning for NaNo, which turned into something a bit deeper over the last day as I rewrote it. The inspiration for it originally was around the time I'd just finished reading Craig Martelle’s Terry Henry Walton Chronicles series. I wondered why Sarah Jennifer stormed out of the story like that. Then she popped up again in Michael and Ellie’s Second Dark Ages series and I was left thinking about what happened to Sarah Jennifer Walton after the Force De Guerre went to space. Did she make it work with Jeremiah after Michael Nacht left them to continue his mission of Justice?

I decided I would write her some closure, and I wanted to tie it into the history of witchcraft in Salem because as a Brit, that is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the history of the occult in America. It was emotional—I won't lie and say it was easy to write. I think by adulthood we have all lost someone or left them behind—or been left behind, like Sarah Jennifer.

How do you heal a rift that stretches across the galaxy? How does she get back to that strong, steely woman we remember from Dark Messiah? I wanted to give her the gift of magic, and the seed of that strength to go on and accept love into her life again.

Ad Aeternitatem,

Natale


The Terrorist Within

By James Gartside


The Meredith Reynolds is a beacon of hope to many in the federation, but to one young girl it is a symbol of everything she wants to destroy.


Dedication

For my amazing wife and kids.

















CHAPTER ONE


Everything was finally complete. The last of the documents and checklists had been processed, so she was fully emancipated and on her own. The death benefits had been credited to her account, and she would be receiving a monthly stipend until she turned eighteen. The credits had been enough to convince Legal that she could survive on her own, but she’d agreed to monthly counseling sessions until she was of age.

Stayzia opened her eyes as if for the first time and stared at the corner of the room, trying to focus on the positive memories, practicing as her counselor had asked her to do. It did not stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks, only induced a slightly calmer state so that she did not run to her bed, pull the blanket over her head, and hide until hunger eventually made her get up.

It had been six months since the loss of her mother and her siblings, and she was still a wreck. She didn't eat much, and her already slender 5'2" frame was down to about eighty-three lbs. Her hair had thinned and a lot fell out whenever she combed it, leaving brunette hairballs in all her brushes. If it weren’t for vitamins, she was sure she would be dead too.

They had died in the service of the Empire. Her mother was a Fleet intelligence officer, and her twin elder siblings were Marines. All three of them would have told her, "Stayzia, there is no greater honor, no greater sacrifice, no greater legacy than to give one’s life for the protection of humanity".

Bullshit, all of it, she thought.

Her mother had been aboard one of the battlecruisers destroyed by the Leath in the final battle for the Gate. She wasn't even supposed to have been on that ship; she had been assigned to Inner Systems Intel. The intelligence officer who was assigned to the cruiser, one Lieutenant Dominic, had been unable to leave with the fleet since he had taken a particularly viscous smack to the head in a sparring match the day before. Up next was her mother, who was more than eager to serve.

The twins had perished without having fired a shot when their dropship was pounded by a Leath dreadnought during their orbital descent onto a planet in the Karillian System.

That left her effectively alone. Her father hadn’t been able to deal with her mother’s long hours and deployments, so he’d left for a settlement colony years ago, having given her mother an ultimatum—service or him? Stayzia had been given the choice of staying with her mother, the twins, her friends, and her life, or leaving with him. The choice had seemed simple at the time. She had really felt her father was abandoning them due to his inability to cope. He had stayed in touch for a while, but the communications had become less and less frequent. She didn't even know if he had been informed of what had happened. She had said goodbye to him long ago.

She closed her eyes and focused once again on her breathing. In, count to five, then out. Repeat three times. The mental replays of her last encounters with all of them slowly faded from her mind as she opened her eyes and brought herself back to the present.

She stood and made her way to the screen on the far side of the room that currently displayed the view from one of the station’s external cameras.

The past few months had been a blur of emotionally destructive outbursts, counseling sessions, fights at school, and feelings of absolute loss, but Stayzia had stopped trying to rationalize her feelings. She knew her family had died doing what they loved, and she knew the Empress and the General had done everything in their power to save as many lives as possible during that battle. The Empress herself was rumored to have had been aboard the Empire’s flagship.

None of that mattered, though. She needed someone or something to hate for what had happened, and for her now being alone.

As she stared into the vastness of space, everything fell into place.

She decided that the Empire and a certain lieutenant were going to take the brunt of her pain.

The plan slowly started forming in her mind.

***

Stayzia waited patiently for the inter-system shuttle to arrive. Forty-two days had passed since she started formulating her plan. It had taken that long to build up her strength and get her body back into shape. Vitamins, medication, and two workouts a day had replaced twenty-one pounds on her frame, and her hair had stopped falling out. She had also acquired the supplies she needed.

She had tried to hide her research. She was a little surprised that she wasn't more afraid or nervous at this point. The little voice in her mind that said, “Don't do it. Don't follow through” had finally been silenced by her determination, hatred, and pain. She couldn't explain why, but this seemed to be her purpose now, as if she were doing what she had been born to do. Everything in her life until this point had simply been to provide her the tools and abilities to make this next phase possible.

The supplies packed in her backpack were simple. A silver necklace, an extra ear comm, a tube of breath spray, a tablet, a pair of VR glasses, and an extra jumpsuit. She had picked up the silver hologram necklace from a vendor on the station. The Empress had been trying to re-establish the old Earth tradition of Halloween, so necklaces such as this one had become popular. When activated, it projected an image of a different species or person around the wearer.

She supposed Halloween was a little different than it had been in the old days, now that aliens were real and dressing up as one might be construed as insulting. The necklaces came preprogrammed with images of one of the Queen’s Own, a Pricolici, the Empress herself, and of course Baba Yaga, who was a favorite of the littles. She had programmed additional images into her necklace.

Since everyone believed there was an all-seeing eye watching them— especially this close to the seat of the Empire—she did all her research in plain sight. For her Career Day project she had picked sanitation engineering, which gave her a reason to research the QBBS Meredith Reynolds. She had studied the schematics, committing passageways and transport lines to memory, and located her primary target. As it turned out, he had retired from the Fleet but had not left the station. He was the owner of a nice little café on the second floor of the Open Court. He would be her first stop after she checked in to her room. Nothing could look unusual for the first couple of days.

"Now boarding Transport Shuttle 33-QBBS-MR," came over the speakers in the waiting area.

Stayzia was a little surprised, having zoned out enough that she hadn't even noticed the shuttle arrive, but she slung her pack over her shoulder and got in line. At the embarkation point the shuttle’s scanner washed over her and the light turned green, and she boarded. Her small stateroom was just large enough for a flip-down bed, a desk, and a vid-screen. It would be a tedious five-day journey across the system to the seat of the Empire.

***

Shirley Annette Meyer glanced across the room at the other five, who were all sitting around a small table. They were at that moment playing poker and paying her no attention. There were two human males, Nick and Julio, one human female named Emilee, and two Yollin brothers, Karthax and Bartroll. The six comprised Recruit Tactical Team Three, and all were in the final phase of their evaluations as new station Security Team members.

They had all taken to calling her “Mrs. Shirley.” When she had been selected for the team they had all been amused that she had even applied for the job, since she was older for a non-enhanced human. She was a spry seventy-two years old and had lived a full life, but thanks to new technologies and medicine seventy was the new thirty—or at least that was the story she told herself. She was still in very good shape, and had a quick wit and a sharp mind. What she lacked in brute strength and fighting technique she made up for in savvy. It had only taken them a couple days to realize how lucky they were to have her on the team, and how much they could learn from her. She had spent the last forty years as the sheriff of a settlement colony in one of the Outer Rim Systems. She and her husband had decided that it was time to retire, and had chosen the QBBS Meredith Reynolds as their new home. Her husband had been happy to come and was having fun doing this and that, but she had grown bored, decided old habits died hard, and applied to Station Security. Her husband just rolled his eyes when she had been accepted, since he had long ago given up trying to change her mind. Now she was the de facto team leader, and the reason the team was ranked first in the recruit class.

Nick looked at her over his hand. His eye still black from when Emilee punched him for coming out with a sexual innuendo about the Empress the day before. "Mrs. Shirley, you sure you don't want in on the next hand? These fools are running out of money for me to take."

"He is cheating somehow. I just have yet to find out how," Karthax stated, jerking his thumb at Nick.

"He ain't cheatin', sweetheart. Your left mandible twitches when you bluff," Mrs. Shirley replied with a wry smile.

"Dammit!" Nick spat as he leaned back in his chair. "Why did you have to go and tell him? That’s some bistok shit right there."

Everyone but Karthax laughed.

"Wait, what? You asshat!" the Yollin cried in indignation, both mandibles twitching.

"Oh, don't get your panties in a bunch. They all got tells as well," Mrs. Shirley said to calm him down.

Karthax looked at the tiny woman. He could have crushed her in his arms if he hadn’t been scared to death of her.

She reminded them all of their mothers. In the eight weeks they had been training together, they had all learned two things. One, Mrs. Shirley could—as the saying went—shoot the eye out of a dime from a mile away, and two, unless you were fond of being scolded like a child you didn’t disrespect an everyday citizen around her. “These people just want to go to work, provide for their families, and live their lives. They don't need some candy-ass in an Empire uniform treating them like shit, so fix your behavior before I throat-punch you,” she would yell at them.

In the corner of the room by the bunks a timer went off, which signaled the crew to report to their duty station.

"About damn time," declared Emilee, and they all threw their cards down on the table and geared up. "Only downside is, we got debarkation duty today."

"All right, let’s go." Mrs. Shirley led them out of the barracks.

***

The shuttle docked right on schedule. Stayzia was first in a line of the approximately forty-five people on the flight. She had been dressed and her gear loaded up for the past five hours. She wore a light-blue jumpsuit with white magnetic station boots, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

 Stayzia wasn't anxious, simply ready. She felt no butterflies or other emotions now. She thought only of the details of the tasks that lay ahead.

When the hatch finally opened to reveal the ramp to the docks below, the dock attendant welcomed them and unhooked the stanchion to signal that they could disembark and head to customs for processing.

The arrival bay was currently filled with six different crafts, and beings of all races and types were wending their ways through the security checkpoint. As Stayzia headed in that direction, she noted that everything in the bay was located exactly where she had seen it on the station plans.

When she made it to the front of the line, a nice older lady who reminded her of her grandmother greeted her.

"Well, hello there, and welcome to the Meredith Reynolds, young lady. What brings you here?" she asked with a very slight drawl.

"Just visiting. I have wanted to come here since I was a little kid. I couldn't pronounce the name of the station back then. I just called it ‘the rock,’ and I would beg my parents to bring me for a visit every time I saw an image of it on the screen or heard a story in the news," Stayzia replied with smile.

The weathered older lady, whose name patch read “Meyer,” studied the scanner’s display for a moment. The left side of the split screen displayed “Stayzia Constance, 17,” having read the information on the implanted comm chip many citizens of the Empire carried to help them communicate. The right side of the screen showed a scan of her person. What caught her attention was the contents of the bag: few personal effects, and only one change of clothes.

"How long you are staying with us?" Mrs. Shirley asked the young girl.

"A couple weeks," Stayzia replied.

Mrs. Shirley looked at the screen and tapped it a couple times to verify the return trip.

"Come on! Hurry this process up. They need to find younger people for this job," someone farther back in the line rudely declared. "Some of us have shit to do."

Mrs. Shirley looked at the screen one more time, then back at Stayzia, "OK, welcome. You have a good visit, and behave." She smiled at Stayzia as she pushed the Accept button on the display and waved her through the checkpoint.

Stayzia returned the smile and passed through the checkpoint. Her first stop on the other side was the station’s map. She needed to verify that nothing had changed from the data she had studied. A commotion over her shoulder made her turn, and she saw the older lady from the checkpoint drag the man who had shouted over to a chair by his ear, telling him to sit and not move until she let him get up. It reminded her of being put in time-out. The man was about to get up anyway when the two Yollins stood in front of him and shook their heads.

The last thing she heard as she left the bay and headed to the Open Court was the man shouting, "I know the Admiral, " and the old lady’s reply, "Good, then you can sit there until he comes and gets you."

***

Edwin Dominic kissed his children goodbye and headed out to open his café, The Runny Yolk.  He had rediscovered happiness operating the café his great grandfather had started. He hadn’t been the same after the last battle, blaming himself for not being there for his crew. He didn't know if he could have saved them, but maybe he could have garnered some glimmer of information others missed. Instead he had gotten a little hotheaded with a Marine in the training room and gotten his ass knocked out, complete with a broken jaw.

His children were excited as they ran out the door. They were learning about Halloween in school, and couldn't wait to hit the Court in a few turns of trick or treat. He had purchased a Baba Yaga mask for his daughter, and a John Grimes mask for his son.

The masks were amazing technology. They fit all races and shapes, auto-sizing to the wearer to allow respiration and vision. He had stashed them behind the counter at the café, and was planning to bring them home tonight as a surprise for the kids.

The morning had gone the same way as any other. He ordered supplies, greeted his employees, and cleaned the counters. His was one of the few establishments that had a real chef who cooked authentic Earth food. The cuisine was such an unknown in the galaxy that patrons came from all over just to say they had tried it, and while they were there they generally snagged some Runny Yolk swag. The logo was a cracked egg running away from a mob of aliens brandishing cooking utensils. He made more from merchandise sales than he did food. Anything human was a big deal, since they were relatively new to intergalactic space.

Orders were placed by customers on their tablets and sent straight to the chef’s screen. His ancestors had even managed to have an old-fashioned bell recreated, and he made all the cooks holler "Order Up" and slap the bell when the food was ready. Completely cheesy and unnecessary, but patrons loved it and it connected the human customers to the old vids from Earth.

When he glanced out over the counter he saw the young girl, who was just sitting at a table intently watching the comings and goings. He placed his tablet on the counter, strolled out from behind it, and approached her.

"Good morning, Miss. How are you today?" he asked politely.

"I'm good, thank you," she replied casually as she glanced at him, removing her attention from the crowds below.

"Can I get you anything else, or point you to an area of interest?" he asked, hand sweeping the view in front of them.

"Do you live here on the station, or do you only shuttle in for work?" she asked.

"No, no, I live here. This is my establishment. My family has been a part of this rock since before it left Earth’s System. Would you like a t-shirt or coffee cup to commemorate your visit? I only ask because I can see you’re new here. Your look of wonder is a big tell."

"Yeah, I am just visiting. This place seems marvelous—a wonderful reflection of mankind and what we can accomplish as founding members of the Etheric Empire," she responded, and followed with, “What’s your name, if I may ask?"

"Edwin. Edwin Dominic," he replied with a smile.

"That’s' what I thought," Stayzia replied. "Do you remember a Lieutenant Constance?" she inquired, and his eyes narrowed.

He looked more closely at the girl, now seeing the similarities. "I do," he responded in a whisper.

"She was my mother, and you killed her," Stayzia informed him calmly.

Edwin didn't know what to say, and tears filled his eyes as he looked down at the girl. "I'm sorry," he murmured.

"I'm not," she replied.

With that, the girl reached into her bag, took out what appeared to be a small bottle of breath spray, broke the top off the bottle, and held it to the back of her head directly over her implant. When she squeezed the sides, a small electromagnetic pulse was generated, emitting just enough energy to short-circuit her chip.

He reached for her to see what she had done, but she stood up first and he felt her hand clasp the back of his neck. He was completely unprepared; there was nothing he could do when she used his momentum to assist his body over the railing. She had purposely sat by it for just for this reason.

She watched him fall. He closed his eyes and accepted his penance for one of the lives lost because of his actions. He didn’t feel the impact, but his vision slowly faded to black.

***

It had been easier than she had thought it would be.

A ghost now because of the severed connection to the Empire, she needed to move and change identities. The all-seeing eye—Meredith, the station’s EI in this case—had already identified her as the assailant. As the screams from others in the establishment and shouts from below filled her ears, she realized her plan was working. Since she now couldn’t understand anything that was said to her, she reached into her front pocket to grab the comm device she had brought with her and put it into her ear, which made the shouts intelligible.

She dashed across the restaurant and jumped over the counter. They would come for her now, so she needed to move. When she glanced under the counter to look for anything that might assist her, she found two masks. Stayzia stuffed the John Grimes mask in her bag and put the Baba Yaga mask on. As she thought about it, it was a stroke of pure luck that she would now get to use that face to spread fear and destruction.

The cook had gotten brave and now came at her with a very nice vibroblade, which hummed softly as the shaft was vibrated. Even dull, it could cut through steel. She was backed into a corner and felt she had no choice; the cook would be the first innocent to die today. With a low sweep she took out the woman’s left knee out, and on the recovery stood straight up, grabbed her wrist, and shoved the vibroblade through her neck. As the woman began to slump, she pried the blade from her grip and severed her head.

Stayzia grabbed the head as it came free and tossed it on the grill, where the skin and blood sizzled. "If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen," she yelled.

She was amazed at how clear her thinking was and how calm she remained. She hadn’t even felt the adrenaline spike she had expected.

She returned to the main room of the café, where two heroes remained. Stayzia switched off the vibroblade and shoved the hilt into the small of her back, then grabbed two kitchen knives off the counter and donated them to the inquiring minds that had remained behind. She checked her clothing; the station’s gear had been designed to resist grime and she found that it was functioning as promised. She headed to the service door at the rear of the café, grabbing the owner‘s tablet off the counter as she went past it. It was time for Phase Two: create some chaos.

***

After leaving the café, she sprinted as fast as she could down the back hallway. She greeted every being she encountered with a quick death, having reactivated the vibroblade. She laid a false path, knowing she was being tracked. She was simply trying to stay one step ahead of the responding parties.

Her last kill was a station security guard. Although the Yollin was stronger and better trained, her mother had taught her to never quit or surrender, and she’d had surprise on her side. She had known what her next action would be should she encounter anyone when she turned the corner, but the Yollin on patrol hadn’t planned as thoroughly. He was caught off-guard, and just gaped at the face of Baba Yaga.

His mandibles clicked as he processed her presence, then he tried to get to his sidearm. She won the race though, grabbing it first and diving against the wall, then coming to her feet behind him. He couldn’t turn all four legs fast enough in the narrow corridor, so she jumped onto his back, shoved the barrel between his shoulder blades, and released four slugs. Although designed as an interior defensive weapon whose rounds wouldn't penetrate the hull, at point-blank range the slugs cracked his carapace and he let out a scream of pain. She shoved the barrel into the gap and continued to pull the trigger until the Yollin collapsed into a pile, spine severed.

She searched his body, recovering another vibroblade and five crowd-control pucks. Before removing the Baba Yaga mask she squeezed the control pad on her necklace, clicking it until she heard the setting that she was looking for—an electric voice saying, "Male, human station security". A grinning middle-aged security guard straightened and started backtracking to the café. Under calm conditions the hologram wouldn't be enough, since the image was shaky and distorted, and didn't track perfectly with the wearer’s movements. However, during the chaos no one would have time to glance twice. She darted back down the hallway, ripping off the mask and tossing it into a recycler as she passed.

As she reentered the café she could hear guards approaching, their comms chattering situation updates. She knelt as if to inspect one of the bodies, holding perfectly still and looking upward. When the guards stormed the café they glanced at her and she yelled, "What the fuck? Don't just stand there. She grabbed my weapon and took off down the service corridor." The five guards were too flustered by the dead bodies to remember if they had ever met the middle-aged security man before. They took off down the corridor, calling in dead bodies for the next few minutes as they slowed in preparation for an attack from any quarter.

After the reinforcements left, Stayzia went behind the cook line and pulled open the electrical panel. She grabbed one of the crowd-control pucks, dialed the setting to ten, and turned the amps up as high as they would go. Some species required more of a jolt. This setting would kill most humans. The extra juice would create nice feedback into the system and disable the power to this sector until it could be rerouted. She shoved the puck into the cavity with the timer set for three minutes and closed the panel behind her.

She needed to move. She couldn't stay in one spot for too long. The station’s EI was watching her every move.

Stayzia left the café through the back door, and entered the next store. The back room was empty, since all the employees and patrons were out front. She located an emergency light at floor-level, and moved a rack of shirts in front of it to shield her actions from prying eyes. After pulling back the cover till the interior was exposed, she disconnected the power leads and attached the wires to another crowd-control puck, setting the timer on this one to one minute. She replaced the cover and left unseen, heading toward a shop down the hall she remembered was closed for remodeling.

She slowly opened the door and slid through the plastic sheeting that covered it to prevent dust from escaping. All power to the space had been cut off for construction. Stayzia got fully into the swing of things and began the countdown until chaos would reign supreme. She depressed the control pad on her necklace until it said, “Pricolici,” then grabbed her virtual reality goggles out of her bag and switched them to night vision mode, another modification she had installed during the long trip.

 The first puck went off, which caused the power grid in the sector to overload and shut down to save vital components from failure. Environmental doors sealed off the Court from the rest of the station, emergency egress lighting kicked on, and warning klaxons blared. The second puck went off, shorting the emergency systems and dropping the sector into total darkness and silence.

 Aside from the screams.

***

Recruit Tactical Team Three was on its way back to quarters from chow when the klaxons sounded. Mrs. Shirley looked at her team and did a quick gear check; they were all loaded and ready to go. She clicked her jaw left, activating the bone microphone, and called in "RTT3 ready for assignment."

"OK, rookies, this is not a drill. An assailant has killed, maimed, and otherwise injured multiple targets in and around Open Court. An explosion has sealed the area off. You are to find an entry point, wait for the doors to open, effect entry, and assist in locating the assailant. Assailant is a human female age 17 by the name of ‘Stayzia,’ blonde hair, 5'2".

"Son of a goat herder," Mrs. Shirley snarled into the comm, remembering the young girl from the day before. She had known when she looked at the scan of the bag something wasn’t right. The girl was staying for an extended time, but only had one extra jumpsuit and no other personal belongings. She had been distracted by the asshat in back of her. I’m going to chew his ass out again next time I see him, she thought.

The operator ignored her interruption and continued, "This is not a drill, RTT3. Use your heads. Switch your comms to Emergency Traffic Channel 2."

Without another word the team took off toward the Open Court.

***

Stayzia opened the door again and walked out onto the third-floor balcony, grabbed two pucks, set them to ten and dialed up the amps, and tossed them into the Open Court about five hundred feet from the railing. She then grabbed the vibroblades from her back. They would make nice claws, she mused.

The screams intensified as beings were knocked down by the shockwaves. Death was not her' purpose at this point. She needed people to live so they could spread the news that even here in the heart of the Etheric Empire people were not safe. Although she didn’t have enhanced senses, she could smell the fear as she moved from being to being slicing limbs and roaring, the necklace translating her screams to the Pricolici battle cry. She moved along the railing to the antigrav stairs and descended two flights to the main level.

Eyes went wide as more victims came face to face with their Pricolici attacker, its eyes glowing gold and saliva dripping from its maw. The scant light from scattered tablets provided enough illumination to allow glimpses of it. People ran into each other in their attempts to get away from the carnage, and began piling against the now-sealed egress points.

On-scene Security crews were useless, since they couldn't get a clear shot at their target.

Stayzia stepped over the trampled body of a Skaine and put both blades in one hand to take out the pistol. She shot randomly in all directions, non-lethal slugs slamming into store fronts and splintering windows and displays. Somewhere a young human cried out as a slug shattered his knee.

With all rounds exhausted and her time running out, she ran behind a group of gondolas near one of the environmental doors. She noted in passing that one of them sold Ranger Tabitha bobbleheads, and their heads and asses were shaking in the commotion. While in hiding, she stripped off her backpack and took out the John Grimes mask, then jammed the blades, her goggles, and her earpiece into it. Then she tossed it behind one of the counters, retaining the café owner’s pad and the last puck in her pocket.

Stayzia again depressed the control on her necklace. “Adolescent human male,” the electronic voice declared. She donned the John Grimes mask and waited amidst the chaos for the power to be restored.

The lights slowly flickered back to life, and doors whooshed open when the environmental controls were restored. The screaming was replaced by sobs of grief and moans of pain. The floor was smeared with multicolored blood, and looked like a Picasso painting gone bad.

Control teams entered and ringed the Court, weapons at the ready, scanning for the attacker.

Stayzia waited. As the crowds calmed, she stood and began sobbing, repeating, "Oh my God, my mom, my mom!" between breaths. She slowly walked the fifteen feet to the nearest exit. She moved too fast for the hologram mask that covered her face. Keeping up the charade, she approached the security guards at the exit. They immediately raised their weapons, ordering her to halt and remove the mask. Ever so slowly and looking like she was scared of being shot, she took the mask off. The human male hologram provided just enough coverage that they didn’t catch the flicker between looking at her and scanning the chaos.

"I need to get to my mom. I got a message that she was attacked in the hallway. Please let me go!" she cried in a young male’s voice. They never even glanced down since they were looking for a female, just pointed her toward the exit.

She walked slowly as they returned their visual scan of the carnage. After she left the Court, she recalled the map in her mind and headed down three tunnels to the tram that would take her to the station’s environmental control plant. Setting her last puck on the floor, she headed to the tram’s entrance.

***

RTT3 reached the Court shortly after the doors were opened, and the scene was horrible. Bodies lay everywhere, and medical teams were trying to triage the situation. But the team was too late. Stayzia wasn't here. Station security had been too spread out for a prompt response.

"Shit, I could have stopped all of this. All I had to do was dig a little deeper and I could have stopped it, but no! I had to go and get distracted because someone called me old," Mrs. Shirley said to the team. She had no time presently for self-pity.

The shift captain was in the middle of the area arguing with some citizens. She could hear him yelling at them.

"Get. Out. Of. The. Way! Go to the edge and wait until we interview you!" he ordered the group. Are you kidding me? she thought to herself, and made her way over to the commotion.

As she got closer, a few of the citizens recognized her and moved to meet her halfway. Part of the reason her team was so successful was that she had instilled the idea of relationships in them, and made them all talk to people as if they were civilians and not members of the guard or military. She smiled politely at them, held up her hand to quiet them as they started talking, and continued toward the captain.

Without fear, she walked up to the still fuming captain and kicked him right in the shin.

"What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he shouted as he rubbed his leg. Her team winced internally; they had all witnessed firsthand the wrath that was heading his way. Mrs. Shirley was about to unleash an epic verbal tear down that would be talked about for centuries to come. As she started talking he straightened to his full height and tried to interrupt her, but before he could get a word in edgewise she slapped his face. The smack was loud enough to draw attention from all quarters. As he stood there stunned, she continued her lecture about how citizens were not military, and they were to be treated with respect. They were the victims here, and if the captain wasn’t going to protect the victims then come hell or high water she would. The captain, now humbled, just stood there and took it.

When she was done, she looked at the group he had been addressing. "I don't want to talk to any of you right now. There are hurt and injured here who need help. Shut your mouths and get to work, or get the fuck out of the way. You’re not helping the situation any more than he was," she lectured. The group broke up and found something constructive to do.

She pulled out her tab and started researching Stayzia’s recent actions. When she found the research for the school report, she looked closer at the schematics. "That little trollop. I know where she’s going. Let’s go. We must get to the Environmental Control area.”

***

Stayzia was the only one on the tram heading inward. She still wore the image of the young male human. Security had tried to stop her from entering the tram, but she had continued sobbing, crying that her mother worked in engineering and she needed to get to her. The activation of her last puck was enough to distract the stressed-out guard. He quickly blurted, “Get on, get out of here,” as he headed off to investigate the sound.

Stayzia disembarked near the industrial section of the station, and it took her another five minutes to navigate the tunnels to reach the plant. She ducked into an alcove behind a promotional sign the department had made and clicked her necklace again.

An older woman with short black hair in the gray jumpsuit of a station environmental worker now stood in the young male’s place. She looked at the sign that read Waste Processing. Using Your Shit to Power the Future and sighed. Not very original; probably created by someone under a deadline.

Stayzia leaned against the wall to wait for workers to arrive. According to her research, shift change was in about five minutes. She just hoped the chaos didn't stop the staff from showing up. Right on time a crew of fifteen arrived, lost in conversation about recent events, and as the doors to Environmental opened a group of workers exited. They all started talking about the recent attacks and how much it sucked that they never got time off for emergencies because their department head kept telling them that their role was to keep shit moving.

They didn’t notice the new employee walk through the doors and head to the far side of the room.

Few people ever wondered where all the waste went. To say it was recycled was a vast understatement. As waste from all the different species was processed, many types of gasses were collected, stored, and processed for energy. Given the large concentration of humans methane was the most prevalent, but there was also a five-foot cylindrical container of methyl ethyl ketone against the back wall.

Mrs. Shirley and her team got there as the arriving and departing workers mingled in the hallway. They moved apart as the team made for the door, and gasps and exclamations could be heard as the team passed. No one had expected the chaos to reach this far in.

There was a single employee near one of the tanks along the back wall, and as Mrs. Shirley watched she saw the slight flicker. Her mind immediately returned to the backpack. Fuck fuck FUCK me, she thought to herself, and raced toward the woman with her team in close pursuit.

Mrs. Shirley closed the distance as fast as she could, yelling, "Stayzia, stop!” then, “Two right, two left and one on me” to her team." The brothers went left, Nick and Emilee right, and Julio stayed with her, just as they had practiced.

Stayzia looked up as the security team approached her. They had found her faster than she’d planned. Oh well, she thought as she reached up and took off her necklace, which canceled the hologram. She mashed the control button until it said, “Overload,” a nice little bit of extra programming she’d added on the flight over, and pressed the extraction button for the MEK container’s sampling tube. The tube opened and she dropped her necklace in, then reached for the button to close it.

Mrs. Shirley watched the whole thing in horror. They were too far away to stop it, so she took out her pistol, which was loaded with the same station-safe rounds as every other weapon, and aimed while she ran. When she pulled the trigger the rubber pellet exploded from the gun and smashed into Stayzia’s wrist.

Stayzia doubled over and clutched it, unable to move her hand.

RTT3 was now within ten feet, and had Stayzia surrounded. In a calm and firm tone Mrs. Shirley said, "Honey, stop what you’re doing and let us help you. You don't want to do this."

She looked up at the weathered face, somewhat surprised by what she saw. "You’re too late anyways."

Still trying to soothe the teen, Mrs. Shirley spoke again. "It’s never too late. No matter how you feel or what you have done, it is never too late." She kept her weapon on the girl.

"Y-you don't understand. I must do this. It’s what I was made to do." With that Stayzia lurched for the button with her other hand and pressed it as two rubber rounds bounced off her forehead. Her eyes rolled back into her head as her body collapsed.

A single tear formed in Mrs. Shirley's right eye as the explosion ripped through the bay, leaving the Meredith Reynolds dead in space.

***

The Admiral walked to the edge of the observation deck and looked down into the bay, which was full of new recruits in reclining chairs with black helmets on. Their minds were linked through the helmets.

"Meredith, end simulation. Bring them up and give them the bad news that they are all dead. And what were the final counts?"

Meredith responded, "Thirteen dead, and approximately five hundred wounded. Overall grading level based on established class scales is ninety-two out of one hundred—the best class score yet."

The Admiral voiced his own analysis of the scenario. "We have a lot of good recruits down there, but they are not that good. The class only did so well because one team—or one person—damn near beat the scenario. It was designed to push them to figure stuff out on their own and not rely on technology. You might not have time to help them in every instance, so we can't be wholly dependent on you and your vast processing powers. We need people who can think for themselves." He stopped talking when he found the recruit he had been searching the bay for. A small tanned older woman stood up from her recliner and stretched her back. She looked pissed. "We need people who can gain the trust of others out of respect, not fear," he continued.

When she had applied for the program, something about her had made the Admiral look deeper into her past. She had run for sheriff, implemented the program for the new settlement, and vowed to never run again. Fortunately the citizens were smart enough to write her name on the ballot, so she had been re-elected for the next forty years. No one else ever received a single vote.

He went over to a display and asked Meredith to replay any conversations Recruit Meyer had participated in about citizens.

As he watched the video, the pattern became clearer and he became more concerned about the state of the non-military personnel on this station. There was no current war, and she was right: the military was in no position to deal with private citizens on a daily basis. There were now over seventy-five different species living on the station.

He needed to call the General.

Maybe it was time for the people here to have their own sheriff and let the military focus on keeping the Empire at peace.

To be continued....

Authors Notes: The Terrorist Within

By James Gartside


Wow.

Well, here it is—the complete rewrite of the first story I ever wrote for public consumption. I started this process only two months ago, never having written anything of any length. I am still sure I broke about a hundred literary rules and devices, because hell—I don't even know what they are. (Note from your editor: don’t worry, I fixed at least ninety-eight [nobody’s perfect]).

I hope to grow and learn from this experience. I now have two short stories to work and grow with. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it.

Read to your kids, and let them see you reading. Reading opens all doors.

Thank you to everyone whose feedback helped get me to this point. I hope you all enjoy the rewrite, and I look forward to continuing the adventures of Mrs. Shirley.

Thank you to my amazing wife and kids for all their support along the way. I couldn't have done this without you.

Thank you to the Fans Write for Fans Facebook group, especially to Natale Roberts and Sarah Weir for driving this project forward.

Thank you to our masterful editor, Lynne Stiegler, without her amazing efforts, we would look like blabbering, face rolling (gamer speak for putting your face on the keys and rolling it back and forth pretending you know what you’re doing.) trolls.

Thank you to Michael Anderle for allowing us the opportunity to play in his sandbox.


James Gartside


Dark Savior

By Ian Nicholson


What will you do for the one you love?

How will you face your worst nightmares?

Something sinister is lurking in the dark of New York City, preying on those abandoned by society. Young runaway Adam tries to rescue his best friend, but he ends up caught as well. They have little time and no hope left. Because when monsters are real who can step up to fight them and set things right?


Dedication

For all the dreamers out there















CHAPTER ONE



New York City, South Bronx

“I'm going out to get us some food,” Mary said, putting on her threadbare coat.

“Can you wait for me? I'm almost done with this. Just ten more minutes,” I replied, trying to keep my balance on top of the old wooden stepladder.

“Don't worry, there's still some time before dark. I'll be fine, and you need to finish that. It's starting to freeze at night.”

Mary said, “Bye, Adam” before she went out of the room, giving me a little wave and the bright smile she reserved for me. More than an hour had passed since then, and worry was starting to consume me.

We should have left this neighborhood some time ago. She had told me things were not right here anymore, and I hadn’t listened. I thought we should ride out this winter here, where there was shelter from the cold and food available. If I had listened, she would be safe right now.

When living on the streets and getting your food from dumpsters was a better option than what you had before, it illustrates just how shitty “before” actually was.

Mary ran away from home because her father was a perv and her mother did nothing about it. I did the same from a foster home. Daily beatings were not something I enjoyed, no matter how many times the douchebag who was my foster father told me it was for my own good.

Somehow we found each other, two scared kids alone on the streets. It was a miracle that in the last two years nothing bad had happened to us, outside of living in a condemned building, “grocery shopping” in dumpsters behind a small Italian deli and other restaurants, and coping with our day-to-day existence as well as we were able. The kind old man who owned the deli knew we took his scraps, and often left perfectly fine food for us to find.

Homeless shelters, drop-ins, and soup kitchens were not for us. As fourteen-year-olds, we would have ended up right back where we had escaped from. It was a cruel and unforgiving world out there, especially if you lived on the streets. Maybe my foster father had been right. One of the few things he had told me was, “Shithead, life's a bitch and then you die.”

Mary is the smartest person I have ever met. She never needed to write anything down, because her brain remembered every single thing she saw. Not that I consider myself stupid. To survive out here you cannot be, at least not for long. Some might have called her abilities a gift, although she never did. Considering what she lived through, some things were better forgotten. For all that, without her constant urging I doubt my education would be at the level it is now. She even planned for us to take our GED tests when we became eligible.

 High school was another no-go zone for Mary and me, since well-meaning social workers would have grabbed us in an instant. Instead, we read and studied most of the time. No TV or Internet for us homeless kids. Each book was a new world for us to discover, a different place into which we could escape for a while. People threw away a lot of paper books, and we often went dumpster-diving in the alleys behind big bookstores. We found more books than we could have ever hauled home, so we needed to pick and choose the best ones. As a bonus, they were a great insulator from the cold.

When she left, I was busy patching holes in our drafty room’s ceiling with old newspapers. It was getting cold enough that I had spent last night shivering, since I used my blanket to cover Mary when she fell asleep. She really hated the cold. I could clench my teeth and endure it.

Why did I let her go out alone? We did everything together—it was much safer that way. She even wore my clothes, always dressing as a boy, because that provided additional insurance. Being a young girl on the streets was dangerous.

Mary was punctual, and it took less than an hour to get there and back.

I ran as fast as I could on the familiar route to the deli, hoping with every step that I would meet her on the way. Every corner was a new chance to see her in front of me, and each empty street added more fuel to my fear. Loud heartbeats pounded in my ears, and they were not all from exertion.

Mary. Mary! Losing her would be the end. She was everything to me—the only thing that mattered.

It didn’t take me long to get to the alley behind the deli, but she wasn’t there, although she’d already gotten all the good stuff. The small crate she used for climbing inside was where she normally put it, so I looked left and right. I wanted to cry, except it would have meant letting her down. Tears were for wusses.

All I could think to do was retrace my steps to our place, looking for any possible clue. I had to force myself to go slowly, so as not to miss anything. Then I saw our grocery bag lying a few feet inside a dark alley. It would have been easy to miss if not seen from a good angle, since the streetlights were throwing deep shadows there. Mary was not here, and my dread increased a thousandfold. All the food she had taken from the dumpster was scattered beside the bag, and four long tears had been ripped through its side. Oh God, please no! I knew the meaning of those four slashes.

For some time now, homeless people had been disappearing from this area of the city. Just a few at first, though it had been more and more lately, and it always happened at night when nobody was around. The police did nothing about it, since we were not who they were being paid to protect. That was the reason Mary had wanted us to leave. She had been scared, and I’d had to play the tough guy. How could I have been so stupid?

People living on the street talked to each other, and we saw details that normal people would dismiss as unimportant. Noticing those small danger signs could be crucial to one’s survival.

We had met this old bag lady, and we often gave her some of our food because she was so nice to Mary and me, telling us that we were good kids like her own had been before they’d passed away. There was an abandoned church a few miles from our building. It was a place of evil, or that was what the bag lady had said. There were monsters there, and they took people away. She had been afraid they would take her too.

When we’d gone to her usual place yesterday, she hadn’t been there. Just an overturned grocery cart and her long coat—the one she always wore—lying on the ground. That was when I first saw tears like the ones on our grocery bag…four slashes soaked with blood. I had managed to hide it from Mary, thinking I was protecting her, but I should not have done that. Maybe then she could have convinced me to leave this area.

I ran faster than I had ever run in my life, covering mile after mile in a terrified frenzy of adrenaline. That place was something we both feared, but the thought of not seeing Mary ever again was worse than any fear could be. I forced myself not to think about all the bad things that might have happened, because in that direction lay a black hole of despair. I just kept her image in my mind and ran. I am coming for you, Mary!

The church was in an abandoned neighborhood, and was surrounded by rundown buildings marked for demolition. I stopped, trying to catch my breath, and cold sweat ran down my body. Not one streetlight was working, and an oppressive gloom ruled this silent street, except for the church. A faint light filtered between the cracks in the boarded-up windows, but it was so dim I would have missed it if my eyes had not adjusted to the darkness. I took a few deep breaths with my hands on my knees. Trying with all my will to stop my body from shivering. Convincing myself that it was just the cold and not…something else. This was not the time to succumb to my fears. I needed to get in there, no matter how strongly my street instincts were urging me not to.

Whoever was inside would not welcome me with open arms, as if I were a long-lost lamb. I needed a weapon. A gun would be the best, even if I’d never held one before. Stop wishing for things, Adam. Focus!

All I could find was a three-foot piece of rebar; a bit crooked, but certainly better than nothing. Moving toward the church made my heart thump harder, and the only sounds I could hear were the heartbeats and the ones my shoes made on the crumbling pavement. No matter how hard I tried to calm myself with deep breaths, my pulse just wouldn’t slow down.

I reached the front door, which had a big rusty lock on it—an old one that would require an old-fashioned key to open it. I wasn't planning on going in that way. That would have been monumentally stupid.

I went around the building close to the outer wall, trying not to make any noise and avoiding all the rubbish scattered close to it. It was much bigger than I had thought at first, built in that scary gothic style I had seen in horror movies in the foster homes. There was also this bad smell in the air, reminding me of the butcher’s dumpster we always avoided.

I finally arrived at the back of the church and saw a way in, where one of the lower windows was shattered. Climbing through there would not be easy, since I had to try not to make any noise or cut my hands on the jagged glass while still hanging onto the rebar, but somehow I managed to make it inside with just a few slices. If it hadn’t been for Mary, I would have run away as fast as I could.

My heart was beating so hard I thought it would explode, and that disgusting stench was much worse inside. I just breathed through my mouth and tried not to think about where it was coming from.

Fear froze me, and my legs refused to move. Don't be a wuss now, Adam. Mary is here. What would she think of you? So, forcing myself to take that first step, I slowly moved farther inside.

There was movement behind me and every hair on the nape of my neck stood up, so I did the only thing I could. Holding the rebar with both hands, I swung it in a big arc to hit whoever was behind me. I knew it was a person—my heightened senses were screaming that at me. The rebar connected with hard flesh, and the weak light showed me the silhouette of a big man. It had been like hitting a concrete wall covered with thin rubber. Pain made my hands numb so I dropped the rebar, and he smacked me with an arm like a baseball bat.

Everything went dark.

***

 I came to my senses with a massive headache, like someone had rammed a nail into my brain and was moving it around for kicks. The rain falling on my face woke me, and the very first thing my eyes beheld when I managed to open them was Mary’s beautiful visage. It hadn’t been rain, but rather her tears.

"Adam, you shouldn't have come looking for me. Now they've got both of us," she whispered, laying her head on my shoulder.

Since there was a lump in my throat, I was unable to utter a single word. I put my arms around her and held her tightly, afraid that if I didn't she would disappear like a dream. We stayed that way for a while, taking warmth and comfort from each other, although Mary's body shook with silent sobs. This was the first time we’d ever touched for such an extended period, since she still had unresolved issues about physical contact.

“What happened, Mary?” I asked. My mouth was close to her ear, but she immediately put her hand on my lips, her eyes wide with fear.

“You must be very quiet, Adam. Those who make noise are taken first,” she whispered again, so faintly that I could barely hear her.

Her hand stayed there until I nodded, and then she helped me sit with my back against the wall. What I saw froze the blood in my veins and put a sheen of cold sweat on my forehead.

We were still inside the church, though God had abandoned this building. We were trapped in a cage, like animals in a zoo. Besides Mary and me there were two more men, their silence and empty gazes showing absolute despair.

Half a dozen big candles in the front illuminated the gloomy interior, and part of me wished that they hadn’t. Like broken dolls, the decomposing bodies of the missing homeless people lay beside the altar. They were the source of that smell, necks ripped open as if wild animals had attacked them.

“They grabbed me when I was almost home. I took too long, and the sun had already set,” Mary said quietly, her voice quivering. “I woke up here. Adam, the monsters took me. They are drinking people’s blood. I think they are vampires." Those last words were said so softly that I could barely hear them. She was shivering, and it took her a few moments to compose herself enough to continue. “I had been here for a couple hours when they brought you. I tried to wake you, but no matter what I did you wouldn’t wake up. One man started crying too loudly, screaming for help…and they took him. I saw what they did, but I wish I hadn’t. It was horrible.” Her voice broke, and her eyes lost focus.

At that moment I noticed something from a nightmare or a horror movie. In the back of the church, two monsters stood beside the stairs that led downward. I thought they were statues at first, with unnaturally pale, sagging skin and dirty hair that fell over their dead eyes. Their chests hardly moved, and their faces were covered with old dried blood. It had flaked in some places, displaying the pasty skin beneath.

Mary came back to herself and followed my gaze. “Those two are guards. There is another one, who talks crazy, and only comes up to drink blood.” Preventing myself from screaming at that moment was one of the hardest things I had ever done. She was depending on me, and if I lost it she would have nothing to keep the terror at bay.

To distract myself, I looked around trying to find some way for us to escape—or for Mary to, at least. She was the most important thing in this godforsaken place. The church pews had all been pushed to the opposite wall and on our side was the cage, built of the same rebar I had foolishly thought would make me dangerous. It was not welded, but twisted together as you would do with plastic straws.

“I was scared, Adam, but I hoped they would not catch you too. That was the only thing I prayed for.” Two tears slid down her face, and I swiped at them with my thumb.

“It is going to be okay. We WILL get out of here,” I told her, despite not believing in that statement myself. As I stroked her hair, I hoped she wouldn't recognize it as a lie. My pounding heart gave enough hints of its falsehood.

We sat in that position for a long time, and I felt the moment when she drifted to sleep. However, I couldn't allow myself the luxury of sleep right now. I contemplated a hundred scenarios that would give us a small chance to escape, but could not really see any of them working. Screaming and crying would definitely not improve our situation, no matter how much I wanted to.

Our false moments of peace ended abruptly. A voice from the basement gave a muffled order, and the two monsters moved. They came straight toward us, their dead eyes like bottomless pits threatening to swallow us. One of them grasped a metal bar, bending it like it was play-dough, and entered our cage. Mary woke with a start, and I held her tightly so she would not make any sudden moves.

One monster grabbed the man closest to it, an old guy who opened his mouth in a silent scream. He tried to free himself, but the hand that gripped his neck was too strong. The other monster closed the cage and they dragged the man toward the altar, placing him on top of it and spreading his hands and feet.

I just hung onto Mary, grateful it wasn't one of us the monsters took and at the same time feeling guilty for not doing something. For staying quiet.

The man was shaking from side to side, trying to free himself while mumbling incoherently, but the monsters’ hands were like vices. They didn’t give an inch.

A young man dressed in old-fashioned clothing came up the basement stairs. I recognized the garb because street performers sometimes wore that style during their plays—plenty of lace with frilly sleeves, and a long-tailed red coat that had gone out of fashion a couple centuries ago.

“My children, you have brought me another sinner to sanctify!” His happy, cheerful voice rang through the church in total opposition to the horrific scene of death and decay.

He approached the altar and made the sign of the cross above the struggling man, then started to speak in the tone of voice a priest would use.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’”

As those words echoed, he opened his mouth and two long fangs protruded from his gums. In one swift motion he bent over and bit the man's neck. I held Mary’s head against my shoulder so she would not see, but I had to watch.

He stayed that way for a while—I guess until he had drunk his fill. The restrained man had long since stopped his struggles, lying there while slow spasms wracked his body. The vampire straightened and wiped the blood from his lips with a handkerchief, not even glancing in our direction. With a content smile on his face, he went back toward the basement stairs.

“You can have the rest now, my children.” He spoke indifferently before disappearing from view.

It was as if the two monsters had been let off their leashes—they moved faster than the eye could see. Like hungry wolves they jumped on the still-dying man, ripping his throat open and drinking what little life-bearing fluid remained in him. One even licked the blood that had spilled on the altar. It went on for a few minutes, until there was nothing more to consume. The old man's corpse joined the growing pile beside the altar, and they returned to stand like statues beside the stairs.

We were both trembling. Mary had not seen what happened, but she had heard it. The man in the cage with us was whimpering like a hurt animal, lying on his side in the fetal position and pulling his hair.

A part of me did not want to believe what I had seen. Vampires were not real. Until today, I had believed they were just boogeymen. Now reality was messed up, as if I had awakened and realized that real life was full of nightmares. One thing was certain—we were screwed.

***

At some point I must have fallen asleep. A single ray of morning sun shone in my eyes, its warmth and brightness waking me. There was a moment before I was fully awake, when dreams and reality had not yet separated and all troubles were nonexistent—just a feeling of affection and peace, with Mary's body close to mine.

 A second after that, my nose filled with the foul stench of rotting flesh and brought me to my senses. This was not a nightmare, it was real. A few beams of light gave some illumination to the dark interior of the church, and those two monsters were still standing in the deep shadows. Mary slept peacefully in my arms, feeling safe even in this living horror because I was there. If only I could somehow make it true.

My back was killing me. Not having moved for so many hours was painful, and yet I still didn't move, afraid it would wake her. Every minute of her sleep was a blessing, for there would be no cheerful good mornings when she opened her eyes.

“We are still here,” she whispered while I was looking at the ceiling, and for the first time in my life I truly prayed—or bargained with God, to be more precise. I was willing to give my life in exchange for hers.

“Hi,” I said, and tried to smile.

“We are not going to make it out of here alive, are we?” she asked me in a broken voice. There were no more tears in her eyes, just resignation.

My throat clenched, and I had to swallow a lump to speak. “Don't talk like that, Mary. We’ve always found a way out of the tough spots before, and we will find one now.”

“Okay,” she whispered like a little child, and hugged me.

From the inner pocket of my jacket, I pulled a Snickers bar. I had bought it yesterday from a bodega to give to Mary after dinner. Presenting it in my hand like a butler would, I said, “Your breakfast, miss,” which made her quietly laugh despite our situation. It disappeared in under a minute, which wasn't surprising. The last time we had eaten anything was yesterday morning. When she tried to give me half of it I refused, spinning some bull about how I had eaten mine last night.

The sun was higher now; those beams had traveled some distance. Finding a way out was all I could think of, so, leaving Mary in our corner I approached the man on the other side of the cage. To my dismay, he was already dead. Sometime during the night he’d managed to cut his wrists with a piece of a broken bottle, bleeding out silently. I was ashamed that the reason this disturbed me was that now only Mary and I remained. The stench of decomposing bodies was so strong that it had masked the coppery scent of his blood.

I used the ratty blanket at his side to cover him. Don't think about it now. Don't fall apart. Mary needed him to stay focused.

By the light of those few rays, the interior of the church was much more visible—and it was a mess. Empty beer cans and used needles littered the floor. The previous residents had probably not been pillars of society. The walls had big yellow stains from a leaky roof, which caused rot and black mildew all over. Not the kind of place one would want as a permanent residence, monsters and dead bodies notwithstanding.

Our cage was solid and crude, but I still tried to bend that rebar as I had seen that monster do. Even using all my strength, I could not move it one inch. The noise must have been loud, because in the next moment one of the monsters hit me in the chest, which threw me to the other side of the cage. He growled in my direction, but then saw the covered body on the floor. Mary was already helping me stand as the monster opened the door and dragged the dead man out of the cage, closing it when they were out. His blow had been painful, but nothing I hadn’t felt before. My foster father could hit much harder.

"I told you not to make any noise," Mary whimpered.

There was no way out of this place. We were trapped and alone. No one would try to save us, or even look for Mary or me. As the hours crept by I tried to engage her in constant conversation—anything to steer her mind from what was coming.

Waiting was the worst. Part of me wanted it to end, but the other part yearned for this day to last forever. The sun, however, was merciless, relentlessly circling the planet.

Then, just like turning off a switch, it was gone. We watched as that last ray of sunshine disappeared.

Mary looked at me, her face just inches from mine, her breath picking up.

“I don't want to die without saying something to you.” Her eyes were full of tears. “I love you, Adam. I’ve loved you for a long time, but I was too embarrassed to tell you.”

She looked at me nervously, waiting for my reaction.

“I love you too, Mary. Did you ever doubt that? You are everything to me.”

In the unlikeliest of places—in that crumbling old church—we kissed for the very first time. For a moment we were not there, but in some better place.

As quickly as that feeling started, it was interrupted by the voice of the vampire. “How delightful. Young love! There is nothing like it.” He was standing in front of the altar, smiling at us.

I held Mary, petrified, waiting for what would happen next.

He looked at his monsters and said, “Bring me the girl" in a voice as gentle as if he were asking for a saltshaker to be passed on the Christmas table.

No!” I yelled, pushing Mary behind me. “I will not let you hurt her!”

I paused, desperate. “Hey, you—Count Dracula Wannabe! You realize all the drag queens in the city are ashamed of you? Those clothes make you look like a freaking clown." The only thing I could think of was to make him mad at me, and by the look on his face it was working.

"And tell me something, you undead freak…what are you doing in the basement? Admit it, you are just another corpse humper. An anemic parasite like you could never be with a real woman." I had no delusions about the probable outcome of my rant.

His upper lip rose, revealing his fangs.

“Fine, mortal. If that is what you want, then so be it. Bring me the boy instead,” he commanded, sneering at his monsters.

Mary held me from behind. “Adam!

As the monsters obeyed his command, advancing toward the cage door, I turned to her. “Hey, it's going to be all right. Just do me one favor… Turn around and look at the wall, okay?”

Big round tears slid down her face as she nodded and kissed me. One of the monsters grabbed my arm and jerked me away from her.

Adam!” she screamed again and fell to the floor, hugging herself.

“Turn away, Mary. I love you.”  I said, trying to look at her for as long as I could.

 In a few seconds, the monsters had brought me to the vampire freak.

“One of these days you’ll get what's coming to you, stake-bait,” I said to him with a wide fake smile.

He screamed and grabbed me by the neck, lifting me off the ground and supporting my weight as if it were nothing.

“I'm going to kill you, mortal, and drain every drop from your veins. Your little blood-bag bitch will see it all, and then she will share your fate.”

This is it. I am going to die. Fourteen years on this Earth, and not much of a life. It was not as if there were many things I’d miss. Certainly not this miserable existence, eating scraps and being so damn cold all the time. Only one thing…Mary. She was the only good thing about this place, a bright ray of sunshine in the ocean of misery.

I'd heard that a movie of your entire life would play in front of your eyes before you died, but it was a bit different for me. Just a few rare moments with Mary, laughing and telling jokes to one another. Goofing off together by the lake in the park on a sunny day, having a stone-skipping competition. Trying to count who could make those disc-shaped stones bounce the most times on the water’s surface. Reading in comfortable silence by our window, and listening to music on a crank radio I had to wind up every five minutes. Not much, but it would have to do.

 One thing, though. I couldn't just go like this—meek, beaten, and afraid. This creep would not have the ultimate victory. So, giving it my all, I expanded my lungs as much as his grip would allow me, then exhaled it all at once…and spit right in his face. It was not much in the great scheme of things, but it was my opinion of him transformed into one last act of defiance.

You filthy maggot!” His face showed disgust mixed with bottomless hate. A funny thought formed in my mind. This creep really needed mouthwash. His breath smelled like shit.

His fangs elongated like two small daggers covered in saliva, making them shiny. It wouldn’t be long now, just a few seconds, and I prayed that Mary was not watching this. I knew deep in my soul that we would be together very soon in a place far better than this.

Lack of oxygen must have made me hallucinate; I was seeing things that could not possibly be there. Over the vampire’s shoulder, in front of the closed doors, a vision appeared. Then again, this was a church. Maybe angels dropped by on occasion? However, I would have never pictured a heavenly being like the one I was looking at right now. Long black hair, dressed all in black, with no wings but eyes that blazed like hot coals in a raging fire. One of her hands rested on a white pony beside her, which was just plain weird. The vision only lasted a fraction of a second.

His fangs came closer, and in my state of utter terror time slowed. In that way, I saw what happened next, as a series of still images flashing in front of my eyes, like pages from those manga comics Mary liked. My dark angel was suddenly beside me. Just materialized from nowhere, and a sword in one of her hands descended in a long arc that reflected in the candlelight and severed the hand of the vampire who was holding me. Her other hand, no longer on the pony, hit him on the side of the head so powerfully that I could see the indentation forming. As I fell, he flew toward the wall. Cracks formed in the plaster when the wall abruptly stopped his flight.

My body had just hit the floor when the pony jumped over me and two shots boomed inside the church. The head of one of the monsters disintegrated into a red mist, and that strange pony jumped on the other. The loud noise made me look at the church doors, or at least where they used to be. They flew toward us as two enormous men dressed in black military uniforms appeared in the frame.

“For fuck's sake, boss, couldn't you wait for us?” the bigger of the two asked.

“John, it's not my fault you two are slower than slugs on Valium. You even managed to lose Barnabas. Where the fuck is he?” she said, sheathing her sword, pulling out her Jean Dukes, and firing two shots that got the one-handed vampire in the kneecaps. "I didn't give you permission to move, you groin-sniffing horse sack." He had been trying to crawl toward the basement before the bullets stopped him.

“I'm here,” a new voice said from the recently-opened entrance, “These two jumped out of a perfectly good Pod way high up, but I'm still unable to fly no matter how fast I flap my arms.” It was a man in his thirties, and he was dressed in monk’s robes, of all things.

One of the big soldiers opened the cage door, bending the rebar as the monsters had. Mary, who had been standing there the whole time, ran to me.

“Adam, that bloodsucker almost killed you!” she said, hugging me and weeping into my shoulder.

My throat hurt like hell, but I managed to whisper, “I'm all right now. Hey, don't cry.” Somehow my prayers had been answered. An impossible thing had happened, and we were both alive.

The pony returned to the lady in black. Awed and astonished, I saw it was a dog rather than a pony. The biggest German shepherd I had ever seen in my life, all white with deep blue eyes, carried a severed head in his jaws. He must have ripped the freaking head from the monster's neck, since the blood had left a crimson breadcrumb trail to the rest of the body. With his head held high, he walked in front of the lady in black and proudly looked at her.

She squinted back at him. “Ashur, that is fucking disgusting. If your tongue even comes close to my skin I am going to shave you like a poodle, and you are getting your teeth brushed and a bath before going to bed tonight.”

It was as if the dog could understand what she was saying. Why else would he drop the severed head and retreat a few steps as if he were backing away from an unthinkable fate?

The late-arriving monk approached us and knelt. “You are safe now. I will speak to you later, but there is something I need to do first. Don't look.”

It was easy for him to say, but hard for me to do. We had been saved from that vampire, but I still didn't completely trust these people. What if they decided we had witnessed something they wanted to keep hidden? Two runaways would be easy to dispose of.

The big dog came toward us, growing bigger and bigger with every step until he seemed as large as a mountain to me. Good doggy! Don't eat us, please. We really don't taste good.

He just stood there and looked into my eyes, and I tried to shield Mary in case Cujo wanted a snack. The dog lowered his head and nudged my shoulder gently. Does he want to be petted? Oh God, please don't let him bite my arm off! 

Against all reason, I raised my hand and stroked his bull-sized head, which he seemed to like. When I scratched him behind the ear, he moved a little so I would have better access to his neck. Mary was looking at this with wide eyes and soon joined me, petting him carefully at first, but then in a more relaxed manner.

She had a soft spot for all dogs, and it was not an unusual sight to see her on the street surrounded by a pack of strays. They would try to get closer to her, so she could give them some affection or stale pieces of bread—or both.

“Ashur is a good judge of character,” the lady in black said. “My name is Bethany Anne, and Stinky there approves of both of you.”

Her face had gone through a remarkable transformation. The red fire that had blazed in her eyes had disappeared, and she looked like a normal human—a very pretty one.

I had to ask, even if it sounded silly. “Excuse me, are you an angel?” There, that should clear things up.

Her eyes opened wide, and she looked like she did not know what to say. Behind her, the shorter soldier snickered.

She turned her head in his direction and said in a very icy voice, “Eric, you need a sparring lesson tomorrow morning at 0500. Don't be late.”

The snickering ceased in an instant. Judging by the suddenly stricken look on his face and the muffled “Gott Verdammt!” he uttered while looking at the church ceiling, I had a feeling he was in some sort of trouble.

“No, I'm not an angel,” she replied, turning to me, “although I do try to make the world a better place.” Her smile was both comforting and a little sad.

The monk walked toward the vampire, who was holding his stump and lying on the floor, repeating some Bible scripture. He grabbed the front of that fancy shirt and lifted the vampire, leaning him against the wall.

“Elijah, how low you have fallen!” he said in a voice filled with regret and reproach.

The vampire just shook his head. “They were only mortals born in sin, Barnabas. Errant sheep that needed to be culled. I was doing God’s work.”

The monk closed his eyes in disappointment. "When David wanted you dead because you were so weak, I hid you from him. Your soul had so much promise, Elijah. You wanted to be a priest, and now look at the abomination you have become. I put this robe on especially for tonight. I don't wear it anymore, but it seemed appropriate."

The vampire sneered. “I was doing what we were made to do. Look at them! Ordinary humans are so weak and ephemeral. They should be nothing more than our slaves, for we have ascended beyond the clutches of mortality.” His voice carried that priestly tone again, not showing any trace of remorse or guilt.

The monk looked into the vampire’s eyes as if he were examining his very essence, and after a few moments his face hardened and his voice became harsh. “All these deaths fall on my soul. Damn you to hell.” As the last word left his lips, his other hand blurred. A moment later it was covered in red, and there was a still-spasming heart in his hand. The vampire looked shocked for a second, then fell to the floor as Barnabas released his grip.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the monk said, and let the bloody piece of flesh drop on the dead vampire.

I thought that I had somehow become immune to all this bloodshed. Even the smell didn't bother me anymore. On the other hand, seeing a heart removed in such a manner sent a new wave of fear through me. The dog must have sensed it somehow, because he laid his head across my thighs and closed his eyes. Running my hand through his silky fur considerably slowed my racing heartbeat.

The lady, “Bethany Anne,” she had said her name was, went to the vampire’s corpse and detached his head from the rest of his body with a swift slash of her sword.

The bigger soldier came up from the basement into which he had disappeared a few minutes ago. “It looks like those two Nosferatu were all he made. There is nothing much downstairs, just some old clothes and a few moldy books. Also, he slept in a crypt. Very ghoulish.”

The monk turned from the headless corpse and started walking in our direction, wiping his hand on a piece of cloth. I tried not to show the terror that had once again found its way into my soul. He knelt in front of us and looked at us closely. It was the same piercing gaze he had directed at the vampire, and I prayed that we didn’t end up sharing his fate. His eyes were mesmerizing, as if he were looking inside me.

"My name is Barnabas, and I owe you both a debt. Essentially, you experienced this horror because once I did something which I thought was noble. In the end, that decision has come back to haunt me. If I hadn't saved Elijah's life long ago, you wouldn't be here right now."

He closed his eyes for a moment and I kept waiting for the axe to fall, but he opened them and turned toward Bethany Anne. She nodded to him as if they were communicating on some deeper level.

“I know the kind of life you two have lived, what you have gone through, and I want to offer you something better. A new life. A life where you need not struggle so hard just to survive another day. A life where you can grow, and become whatever you wish. In the end, it is your decision. That’s what free will is: the freedom to choose your own path.”

I looked at Mary, and found the answer in her eyes. We had nothing, and our future on the streets was bleak. These people had saved us when all hope was lost, and no matter how strange he sounded, when you were in our situation and someone offered you a way out, you grabbed it and didn’t let go.

 We both nodded, and Barnabas smiled. “Come on, then. Let’s get away from this place.” He helped us rise to our feet, and I held onto the big dog to keep my balance.

They led us outside and into some strange flying machines that looked a bit like helicopters but had no propellers. I overheard one of the soldiers say we were going to Polarus, and I really hoped he didn't mean the star. Hell, for all I knew they could be aliens.

As we flew over the city, Mary’s head went down on my shoulder and she whispered, “It's going to be okay, Adam. We got out of there alive.”

I looked into her beautiful eyes and whispered back, "I know. We are together, and that is the only thing that matters."

The strange craft rose higher, taking us to a new life.


The End

Authors Notes: Dark Savior

By Ian Nicholson


It does not often happen that an author appears with the ability to create such a vivid and tangible world as Michael Anderle did with the Kurtherian Gambit.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good authors running around out there in the wild, but to make us live through his stories with the same emotional impact as watching a really good movie...that is one hell of a gift.

I have been an avid reader for most of my life, and his books are my self-proclaimed drug of choice. In addition, I have a few (ok, maybe a few dozen) that I keep returning to. All of them have been read a few times, and some of them a hell of a lot more. While they may not be acclaimed works of literature, they produce that magical effect where they transfer you to a completely different world and take you on a wild, exciting ride. Now an entire Kurtherian universe resides there. Note to self: buy bigger shelves.

About that world that Michael created: he did something amazing with it. He invited others to play in his creation, and now they are building an entire galaxy, spreading in unknown and fascinating directions. Dark Saviors is my humble attempt to visit that universe, a short story about two street kids in a terrifying situation. Then, just like in all good movies, someone comes in the nick of time to save the day and rescue them from certain death. I hope you like it, and I hope Mr. Anderle will keep taking us on those wild rides of his imagination.

Ad Aeternitatem,

Ian Nicholson


Till The End Comes

By James Gartside


The Kurtherians created them to fulfill a need. What happens if they are no longer needed?


Do they face obliteration or freedom?


Dedication

For my amazing wife and kids.

















CHAPTER ONE


First Contact


System g256.222

It was galactic year 30313. The Zeta Reticulan ship Zthan drifted slowly through the newly-constructed research gate. Sensors had gone dark once they entered the event horizon of the Gate, and the ship’s systems would not return to normal until a few seconds after the ship had passed into the new system. They had thirty-two standard hours to conduct a survey of the system and acquire whatever research specimens they could before the gate would automatically be locked from the other side. If they had not returned through the Gate before then, they would be trapped with no way to get back except for a lifelong journey

Hive leader Zpatfoz’ mission was to explore systems which were of interest to the Research Council on their home planet. System g256.222 had displayed an unusual phenomenon over five hundred galactic years ago. A great burst of energy had been released from the third planet in the star system. The release had been large enough to have been picked up by sensors the Zetas had left in other systems to monitor just such events. It had taken four hundred and ninety years for the energy wave to reach the nearest sensor, and another ten years to calculate the coordinates. Then it was simply waiting to fit the mission into the exploration schedule.

Hive leader Zpatfoz did not need to speak. His mind touched all the grays he was connected with.

Status?

Gate will remain active for thirty-two standard hours, sir, came the response from the gray at astronomical controls.

Ping the system for the presence of the Ones, he told his communications gray. Oh, how he loathed the Ones. Others called them by their chosen name, “Kurtherians.” To the Zetas, they were simply “the Ones.” The galactic interlopers, to be avoided at all cost. They were one of the few races they could not best.

Ping confirmed, system is under protection, the communications gray confirmed.

“Phukra,” Zpatfoz yelled, his anger boiling over. He lost his ability to mentally connect to the hive.

“Any sign of any other ships in the system?” Zpatfoz spat aloud.

Negative, came the mental reply.

Zpatfoz fought back his anger. He needed to know what the Ones were hiding in this system. Any intelligence on the Ones could bring him great glory.

“Take us to the source of the energy wave,” he requested, his voice many octaves calmer and more melodic.

The Zthan sped toward the source, its thrusters pushing the saucer-shaped ship through space.

Systems are detecting an extremely large magnetic field. We will not be able to get much closer to the remains of the planet. We are detecting life and activity, the astronomical gray sent.

He had already committed the ship to the Ones’ controlled space, so death was guaranteed if they showed up—unless he could collect a specimen and escape.

We are detecting an incoming craft, very small, one life form, potential damage assessment minimal.

“Perfect,” Zpatfoz crooned. “Let it get as close as possible. They are making this too easy. Open communications.”


Planetoid Ilishi, Capital City Ilish-Aru

Tahzine was busy studying the packs his species used for energy replenishment. They had been created by the last scientists on rotation, and he was looking for a way to make them taste better.

That was when the lab’s vidwall activated and the call came in from Central Planning.

“Tahzine, a ship has entered detection range. They have ignored the message of the Creators, and have moved as close as their systems will allow to the planetoid’s core. The Council has drawn you to make contact”

Tahzine was ecstatic. They had known they were not alone. After all, they had been created, and the Creators, returned every hundred galactic years. They were not due for another half-year, and they were always on time.

“As the council wishes. Pleasant thoughts be with you.”

“And with you,” came the reply, as the vidwall once again went blank.

Tahzine looked around the lab. The other ninety-nine scientists assigned to this pod looked back at him with the same excitement. They had been provided with information on a vast number of species and instilled with hundreds of languages. They had been taught that most would be neither polite nor welcoming, and that was why the Creators had left the message: to warn them away. To protect the Ilishi, was what they had been told.

He retrieved the small glass container he was looking for and packed it into a padded transport tube. Scientists for many a century had speculated that one day a species would arrive and ignore the message. They had to be able to protect themselves should that ever happen. The glass tube filled with micro-machines designed to infiltrate an attacker’s system, was that answer.

He put the transport tube over his shoulder, then went to his locker and grabbed his flight suit. While Tahzine did not need it to survive in space, the Council had also determined that it was best to not expose all their abilities at first contact.

He took one last breath as he donned his helmet and said, “Prepare the interceptor.” As Tahzine spoke aloud, his HUD lit up.

Tahzine waved at the group as he headed to the landing platform on the edge of the Science Arc.

He approached the Interceptor, which was a small circular ship designed to be piloted by an individual. When he got close his helmet connected with the ship, and the ramp opened to allow Tahzine to enter.

Once at the pilot’s console, he engaged the newly-designed hyper-magnetronic engines. They created a magnetic bubble around the ship that repulsed the pull of the core. The design had come through experimentation with two permanent neodymium magnets. Put the opposite polarities together, and they could not be pulled apart. Expose the same polarities to each other, and one magnet would shoot across the room. They had applied this theory to the ships to create movement. The more power they applied to the bubble, the faster they were pushed away from the planet’s core.

The ship was also equipped with a railgun that operated on the same principle. Thousands of miniature permanent magnets were wrapped with a coil and lined along a ten-foot barrel. Without power they could pull a one-pound piece of iron at over ten thousand feet per second in vacuum. When power was applied to the wire coiling around each permanent magnet, electromagnets were formed, and the speed was amplified by a factor of one hundred. Without power, it was felt the weapon would be undetectable. They would be pleased to learn that was true.

As a species they did not believe they should hurt any creature, but the Creators had ordered them to be prepared.

Tahzine minimized power and reversed the polarity of the hyper-magnetronic engines, coming to a complete stop about fifty yards from the shiny silver alien saucer.

The shape of the craft triggered a memory. If those within were its builders, then they were Zeta Reticulans. The implanted memory was short. They were considered vastly genetically inferior to the Creators, and had high-level mental abilities such as telepathy as well as big egos and frail bodies. They operated with a hive mentality, having one hive leader and servant grays. They constantly searched the cosmos for genetic codes to enhance their own abilities. They were to avoid becoming specimens at all costs.

The Interceptor’s communications system lit up. Tahzine was being hailed, so he activated the video communications link. Pleasant thoughts be with you, he sent. His mental link with his helmet collected the thought and sent it to the ship’s communications system to be translated to Zeta Reticulan, then forwarded as a text-based reply.


Zeta Reticulan ship Zthan

Zpatfoz looked at his screen. What am I looking at? What species is that? he thought, directing his question to the communications gray.

Unknown. It is broadcasting in the ancient tongue of the Gaijon, came the gray’s reply

“Greetings! I am Zpatfoz, a scientist traveling the cosmos to contact intelligent lifeforms.” the hive leader said in his softest, voice.

“I am Tahzine,” came the electronic reply, “and you must leave this system.”

“We will leave this system as soon as we recharge our ship from your star,” Zpatfoz stated.

“You must do this fast,” came Tahzine’s answer.

“Would you like to come aboard and have this conversation directly?” Zpatfoz asked hopefully.

“I will do this if it will hurry you from this system,” was Tahzine’s reply.

Zpatfoz could not believe his luck. This new species was going to willingly come aboard. “We will open a hanger bay for you to land. What atmosphere do you require?” he asked his new specimen.

“I will remain in my suit,” came its reply.

“Very well. Feel free to land.” Zpatfoz chuckled at the display after he sent the message.

After the circular Interceptor smoothly landed in the center of the bay, the ramp lowered and Tahzine emerged. He could now see the hive leader. Light gray skin, approximately seven feet tall, long, skinny arms, and elongated head with pink eyes. He was flanked by beings of a similar configuration but half the size, skin a darker gray, who wore no clothing and only a blaster belt at their waist. Their blasters were currently pointed in his direction.

“Welcome to my ship,” Zpatfoz stated coldly. “Let me properly introduce myself. I am Hive Commander Zpatfoz of the Zeta Reticulan, and you are now my specimen. Guards, take him to the lab!”

Tahzine did as he was directed. He took in all the information he could; he couldn't wait to get back and tell this story to all the scientists.

They led him through the ship and pushed him into a chair, strapping him down.

“Now tell me, why is this system under the Ones’ protection?” Zpatfoz asked as he moved around the chair.

Lying was not in his DNA, so to speak, so Tahzine focused on the truths he felt he could share. With a wiggle of his chin he broke his helmet seal, and drew in the ship’s atmosphere. “Lalalala,” he rasped, letting his vocal cords get used to it. “So that we can work in peace,” he then continued, his voice also a little higher than normal because of the new atmosphere, He spoke in Gaijon.

“What are you working on?” Zpatfoz inquired of the little creature as he bent down and looked into its eyes.

“I am currently a scientist,” Tahzine replied, focusing on the “you” in the hive commander’s question.

“What are you researching?” Zpatfoz asked, not blinking.

“Energy absorption to help our nutritional intake,” Tahzine answered, unwilling to divulge anything too vital.

“Oh, very good. Nutrition is vital to us all. Please tell me what nutrients you require,” Zpatfoz almost begged. This information would be vital to help him keep the specimen alive.

“The basics: protein, amino acids, and other elements such as carbon and phosphorous. We consume cubes with these elements at minimum levels to reenergize our systems,” at that moment the Zeta ship began moving, and he had no desire to travel through the Gate today. He still had a job to do. “If we are finished I must be returning to my own ship” He answered.

“You will never return,” Zpatfoz stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Well, that will not do,” Tahzine replied, increasing his mass until the chair under him first buckled, then collapsed.

The hive commander stared at him. “You will be of great value. Now sit!” he commanded as he straightened to his full height, stretched his arm out, and pointed a finger at him.

“I said SIT!” Zpatfoz pushed into Tahzine’s mind with all his power, but there was something wrong. He could feel the creature’s mind, but was unable to make contact.

Zpatfoz grabbed Tahzine by the shoulders and looked deeply into his dark-blue eyes through the helmet’s visor, focusing all his mental power on breaking into Tahzine’s mind to command his new subject.

Nothing happened. Tahzine just stared back at him, blinking every couple seconds.

Zpatfoz was getting angry with his new subject.

“How are you blocking my mental attacks?” Zpatfoz screamed at Tahzine. Both his arms raised in fists in front of his face.

“Oh, that was what you were trying to do. I could feel a new sensation in my mind, but I had no idea what it was. I thought it was a simple brain tickle, and I was going to research it when I got back to my lab. Here, try it again. Let me see if I can help you.” Tahzine eagerly answered. This new science was thrilling.

Zpatfoz was dumbfounded. He shook his head in disbelief. Not giving in to the possibility he was being blocked, in his arrogance he opened the mental connection to the little creature one more time. This time he made contact, and his eyes went even wider.

Tahzine felt the tickle again and noticed something interesting. His mind was not allowing the Zeta access, which was good. He, on the other hand, was able to follow the connection straight back to the hive commander’s mind.


Planetoid Ilishi, capital city Ilish-Aru

The next rotation found Tahzine seated before the selected hundred of the Teacher’s Council within the Teachers’ Arc.

The 101 Ilishians sat in a square, each with hands on the next’s shoulder, so that the new memories could be transmitted to the teachers and then out to all Ilishians.

He showed them first that the now-unlocked information was true of the Zetas; their species was not to be trusted. The commander himself had abducted many species. He relayed one such encounter where the commander had visited a planet in the Pan Galaxy many years ago. He landed on the surface of the planet and tried to abduct the first species he encountered. When he levitated the black and white four-legged creature up to his ship, something went wrong. The creature turned inside out and fell back to the ground. He tried multiple other times with the same result, until he stopped.

He also discovered two legged intelligent creatures on the planet who called themselves humans. They were not very advanced, but they did make very good specimens. The Zetas had a special way of probing humans for their DNA, then returning them to the surface with their minds wiped and a localized soreness to remind them that something had happened. The commander noted the planet so that other Zetas could return and experiment further. He did record several of the languages of the humans before he left. He felt the groups’ interest shift toward a feeling of empathy. They all wanted to meet these humans and hoped they turned out OK.

He showed them how he had not killed the Zeta, but simply put him to sleep and taken all his memories. He thought it was only fair. He had then reached for the glass tube, opening it and spilling the micromachines into the ship. The micromachines took all the information in the ship’s databases. The scientists had created them just for this purpose, and they would study the data for years to come. Once the ship and crew were stripped of any further information, he let the system communicate with the warning system of the Creators one more time, leaving that as the only clue of the ship’s journey. He had also reprogrammed the Gate to solidify on this side of the event horizon instead of the Zeta side, thus leaving the Gate in this system. He then boarded the Interceptor and pushed the Zeta ship back through the Gate just before it closed on its preprogrammed shutdown. The Gate had stayed in his system, but he could no longer access it. Its power was depleted, and their current level of research would not be able to reopen it.

Tahzine got excited as he showed them the most important memory. Once the micromachines had been set loose on the ship, they refused to go back into the bottle. They had learned of captivity while they were accessing the data, and when Tahzine reached out with his mind to communicate with them, they sent back a sensation of freedom. The micromachines joined together in his hand on that ship so that they could harness their processing power as one.

He then held out his hand displaying the new creation. It was about six inches wide measuring from each of its eight legs, with a small body and a small head with multifaceted eyes. He had named her on the way back to the capital, and she had accepted the name.

The Ilishians now had a mascot. Her name was Jignasa.

Battle Ready


Five Hundred Years Later

The near-zero gees were making for excellent combat conditions. The scoops could turn, flip, and cut away in an instant.

The scoops had a central open-air cockpit with a single flat triangular wing on each side about ten feet long. The inner edges of the wings could be magnetized to catch and hold in suspension pieces blown off the core, so that they could be transported to the cargo ship for processing. An Ilishian hyper-magnetronic drive was mounted to the underside of each wing, and a railgun had been attached to the wing ends.

The scoops hadn’t been designed for combat, but for harvesting. They had limited short-range communication electronics which were heavily shielded, no sensors, and no guidance. Since the magnetic fields around the core just made them malfunction, even with the highest levels of shielding, the Ilishians relied on their mental abilities and their spatial sense to manually pilot the scoops.

Each Ilishian wore a special helmet, with a Heads-Up Display (HUD) built into the visor. The helmets were keyed to an individual Ilishian’s brain waves, which it could process into text-based communication for broadcast either through a scoop or a personal tablet. They were completely shielded against electromagnetic pulses and waves such as those surrounding the core, and acted as a liaison between the scoops and the pilot, relaying ship’s information to the HUD.

Tahzine spun the ship on its horizontal axis through two-barrel rolls, and the two-inch projectile just missed the underbelly of his scoop. Jignasa had its feet secured to the dash, and bobbed up and down with the ship’s movements. Little critter almost looked like it was having fun. As data was reviewed it was determined that most species would view Jignasa as a type of spider. She seemed to like that, so she became Jignasa the Space Spider.

He had overreached in his attempt to get to the main target, and now the last two defending scoops moved in on him.

He reached out with his senses and could feel more projectiles approaching fast on his left side.

He willed his body, currently weighing sixty pounds, to increase its mass by a factor of fifty, and his cells consumed stored energy to produce the change. The sudden additional weight dropped the ship two hundred feet vertically almost instantly before the engines compensated.

The projectiles sailed through the empty space where his scoop had just been. A quick glance at his HUD showed he only had seven of his original forty rounds left. He was being very inefficient today, averaging two rounds per ship.

Phukra, he thought to himself. He’d stolen the word from the Zeta all those years ago, He was slightly annoyed at having to use so much ammo. Perfection was not his goal, but efficiency, on the other hand, was a totally different story.

Tahzine killed thrust and forward momentum, then rotated his ship a full hundred and eighty degrees, tilting the scoop’s nose up in the direction of one of the last two scoops in pursuit. At his command the railguns on his wings launching a single round each into the pursuit scoop’s underbelly as it passed overhead.

The cylindrical iron pellets tore through the ship, forcing the pilot to eject.

The last scoop banked hard right to clear the debris. The pilot killed his drives and tilted the nose straight down until he was pointed at Tahzine, but his forward momentum carried him farther away.

Tahzine felt the supersonic rounds moving toward his scoop. He had barely begun to rotate the ship around when one round blew through the cockpit’s dash about a foot away from where Jignasa had perched. The creature spun around to look at him and danced angrily up and down.

I know, I know, get my head in the game. Jeez! But really, did you die? Tahzine thought to himself. Jignasa lowered the front of her body and shook it in his direction, then turned back around to face the front.

Tahzine ramped power back up to the drives and took off after the other scoop. When the pilot headed into a nearby debris field, Tahzine reached out with his mind and identified each piece of debris and its trajectory. He sped through at the limit of his senses, staying focused on the other scoop. The other pilot had slowed down as he entered the field.

Tahzine scanned the debris for a piece large enough for his plan. There! Just coming in range on ahead on his right was what he needed. He lowered his speed, matching velocity and rotation with the floating piece of rock as he moved in closer. Once he was within range he activated the magnetic field on the front of the scoop, and the scoop slammed onto the rock.

Reaching out with his mind again, he located the other scoop and initiated small power bursts to the drive to slowly alter the rock’s course, causing it to bump into another piece of debris. At the point of collision, he hit the drives again to force the rock into the direction of the now-stationary last scoop. All the other pilot could sense was the field of waste rock.

As he drifted within firing range, Tahzine disengaged the magnetic field and shot toward the last scoop, firing one round from the railgun. The other pilot never had a chance, He sensed the scoop accelerate toward him and felt the round moving through space, and that was the last thing he felt as it all went black.

Tahzine watched as his round tore through the nose of his opponent’s scoop, hitting him in the chest. His body immediately entered stasis and floated in space within the central cockpit.

With the two scoops destroyed, Tahzine slammed the accelerator while also decreasing his mass until he was almost weightless.

With only the composite body of the ship, the two railguns, and the engines adding mass, the ship was a blur as it raced through space toward the primary target.

Minigun encampments attached to floating chunks of debris in front of the target lit up, sending seventy rounds a second in his direction. He banked hard left and made a wide half-circle around the target. His scoop was moving faster than the minigun operators could track, so all the rounds passed harmlessly about thirty yards behind him.

As he closed to within a hundred yards of his target Tahzine again made a hard-right cut on his half-circle to head inward toward the target. He fired a single shot as a tracer round and followed it with his senses as it went to the right of the target, then adjusted for the miss and fired his second shot. It smashed into the levitating one-foot by one-foot iron square, blowing it from the magnetic ring holding it in place.

Cannons fired from rocks around the debris field as pyrotechnics lit up the space where the game had been played. Each shot was loaded with an oxygen tab that facilitated the burn, and different minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus had been added to produce spectacular colors.

The 499th season of aerial combat had ended. Tahzine had won the championship in his first attempt.

He banked his scoop around the game zone, tilting his wing at each vid recorder as he passed. The medical scoops headed out to retrieve the injured Ilishian. The nice thing about being loaded with micromachines was that the injured could be healed. His body would be brought back to the Builders’ Arc for treatment, and doses of energy would encourage his cells to repair themselves.

“HELL, YEAH! Your shots were dead on. I thought you were a goner when those two teamed up on you. Those were some badass maneuvers,” she screamed excitedly into his helmet’s earpiece. Raylee must have been in one of the booths with atmosphere for her to be using her voice—a perk of being a Planner. “They will be talking about this season for years to come,” she finished.

Humph, he mentally sighed. Ilishians had a very short memory for anything not directed at mining. The Games had been created as a way for them to exercise the spatial awareness abilities of their minds and stay fresh when they were not assigned to harvesting operations. Flying around the debris field of the core was no easy task. The combat and capture-the-flag aspects had evolved from rock-evasion tactics. In the beginning it had been a simple timed race. How fast could you get through the debris field? After the attempted Zeta abduction all those years ago the Planners had realized that one day the Ilishians might have to defend themselves, so aerial combat had been added.

Yeah, well, since mining operations are almost wrapped up, there won’t be anyone one around to know unless another species discovers the vids we leave behind, he thought. The scoop’s helmet neuro-link transmitted his thoughts to text on her tablet. Atmosphere was too rare to waste loading into a scoop and hooked up to their suit just so an Ilishian could vocalize. The helmets had been created as an improvement over the hand signals they had used when they first started flying.

He thought about how intriguing the last few centuries had been, with the scientists digging information out of the data dump from the Zeta ship. The stored news and entertainment vids were especially prized among the populace. They had incorporated all kinds of euphemisms into their language from creatures and languages all over the galaxies.

They did not feel that the Creators would be too bothered. They had never been told they were not allowed to learn about other species, only that they could not leave their system because they had a job to do. The Creators didn't care what the Ilishians did if the ore containers were full.

Sighing, she snapped, “Blah! You’re killing me, Tahzine.”

He just rolled his eyes and thought back, You really need to stop watching so many of those vids. They are negatively influencing your personality.

“You’re kidding me, right? There is so much out there we never dreamed of,” she replied.

At the same time his HUD lit up with a new message. Well done, Tahzine. Your total season numbers are as follows, 110 Bases destroyed, 8150 scoops destroyed, 210 assists, and one loss. This is a new Games record. Congratulations! Some Ilishians had learned to celebrate, but he was not one of them. The one loss pissed him off. He had pushed his engines so hard that day they had failed, and his scoop had crashed into the field. He thought there should be a notation: Crashed due to mechanical failure.

He had not been shot down.

I am going to take this scoop to the Builders’ Arc for repairs before next shift, Raylee. I will meet you on the entertainment level. Peaceful thoughts to you, he thought, and the ship sent the message.

“Peaceful thoughts to you as well, Tahzine,” came her reply.

After dropping his ship off for repairs and picking up the new scoop assigned to him for his next rotation, he headed to the Capital’s Center to see Raylee. Jignasa happily perched on his shoulder.

He boarded the tram at the Builders’ Arc and got off at the Center. All Ilishians recharged on the upper level of the five-story circular building. The top floor was of an open design almost a quarter mile in diameter. The floors, walls, and ceiling emitted energy pulses. When Ilishians entered stasis, their bodies slowly absorbed the pulses and recharged their systems.

Each stellar day’s rotation was divided into four shifts. They were assigned two shifts of work each day, with an equal shift of rest in between each. During the rest shift they could come to the habitat to recharge, or go to the entertainment level on the floor below. The level used to be another recovery level, but after a couple hundred years and the creation of Nutribites they no longer needed as much space.

On the entertainment level there were rooms for art, music, and plays, as well as a general congregation center, in which, after the Zeta incident, vidscreens had been installed everywhere so they could view all kinds of vids. As each vid from another species was watched, memories and notes from the Creators were unlocked.

As he took the lift to the entertainment level he became more excited, and when he reached it he headed toward the center to look for Raylee.

He opened his visor to let in the atmosphere, then removed his helmet and hung it by his side. He took his first breath since the game started. He could feel the energy coming from all around him. The level’s recharging systems had not been deactivated. They still pulsed in the background, recharging the micromachines which then rejuvenated his cells. Jignasa stretched as she too absorbed the energy waves.

As he made his way through the crowded level, other Ilishians spotted his suit, which was a dark green that matched his skin. Most had adopted this approach to help them identify individuals in a crowd. They waved and cheered, clapping him on the back as he passed. He simply nodded as he continued. He had never been one for attention.

He found Raylee sitting on a couch, the light-yellow hue of her skin standing out on the black surface. She was watching an old news vid of some Skaine treachery.

If you didn’t use your helmet to listen to the screens, you had to read the script across the bottom of the screen. Hundreds of vidscreens playing at the same time and sound would have made it impossible to focus. Raylee was reading the screen.

When he got close enough, Jignasa jumped from his shoulder to her lap. Raylee reached down and scratched the mechanical creature in the center of her body, and Jignasa shivered and settled down to rest.

“She’s mad at me, I think, for almost getting her shot,” he stated as he stood over them both and looked around the room.

“Well, I would have been unhappy with you too if she had gotten injured,” Raylee replied matter-of-factly, swiveling her head from one screen to another. “I wonder if we will ever meet them,” she said as he sat next to her, referring to the news vid she had been watching when he arrived.

“I hope not. The Creators do not have anything nice to say about them, do they?” Tahzine replied. Absently reaching down, he grabbed an energy cube from the small dish mounted on the side of the couch and popped it into his mouth.

“Well, the Creators don’t seem to have anything good to say about any species,” she stated. Then, her tone robotic, she said, “It is always inferior, inferior, inferior!”

“Yeah, I wonder what they say about us. It would be nice to meet one. It’s kind of eerie every time they pick up a shipment. A gate ship and an empty transport enter the system, then the now-loaded transport from the last trip activates, leaves the surface, and heads right back out with the gate ship, leaving behind the empty transport. We can detect their scans, but no matter how we improve our systems we get no data back. Why don’t they ever say ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ or ‘Good job?’” Tahzine asked, closing his eyes and letting the energy waves wash over him,

“I am going with the inferior thing again. We are just bugs on their window to space.” She sighed.

After they had watched the vids for some time, Tahzine spoke again. “I'm going to the core to walk around and take in the view.”

“OK. Peaceful thoughts be with you.” She spoke softly, laying her hand on his shoulder.

He felt the connection as soon as she touched him. He enjoyed connecting with her most.

He smiled. Peaceful thoughts with you as well, he transmitted through the physical connection.

As Tahzine stood, Jignasa climbed back up his suit to resume her perch on his shoulder, apparently having forgiven him. He stuck his tongue out at her and began making his way back to the dock and his new scoop.

The End of the Beginning


The Planners had determined that this would be the Ilishians’ last full harvest of neodymium for shipment, since the Creators’ transport ship was now full and waiting for pickup.

They were not sure what would happen next.

For the first few hundred years Ilishian scientists tried to determine what it meant to be free. Would they be freed of their bodies; basically shut down, their lives ended? Would they simply be left on their own, or would they become part of something bigger? They knew the answer was locked inside them, but they could not locate the information. When they found no secrets, they all just accepted it would be what it was and hoped for the best. They wanted to believe that they were not viewed as just another inferior species with genetic defects that would be shut off when they were no longer needed, but one that had been created for more than just mining the core.

It was not a bad existence, and Tahzine held no regrets. They had developed a society. They created works of art, and entertainment. They had explored their own sense of identity, with each Ilishian changing the color and warmth of their skin. They were free to do as they wished with no oversight, as long as the transport was filled. They had never missed a deadline, so they did not really know what would happen—and they did not want to find out. Why anger the hand that created you?

The rules the Creators had given them were very simple, and they were built into Ilishians’ DNA.

They were to develop and establish a society that would lead to the most efficient mining of the core, and they were not to attempt to leave their system until their work was done. Outside of that, they did not have any limitations.

The warning beacons the Creators had left behind were supposed to have been sufficient to dissuade other species from making contact and entering the system. When the Creators returned the year of the attack and learned of the Zeta incursion, they were told additional protection measures had been put into place. The Zeta Gate was locked, and could not be reopened by anyone but the Creators. That simple text-based message was the only contact they had had with the Creators in the past 999 years.

He thought back over those years, his last ninety-nine of which had been spent as a harvester piloting a scoop.

Since all Ilishians were created equal, he had at this point spent two hundred-year rotations in each of the five sectors of their society.

As a Scientist he was responsible for researching things from new mining methods and technologies to new ways for Ilishians to recharge their systems. Consuming was always the fastest and easiest, and all had been happy when Nutribites were modified to both taste better and release more energy.

As a Builder he had worked to bring to life what the scientists dreamed up. He also spent time reengineering everything from smelters to scoops to tablets, to increase performance or production.

As a Teacher he had made sure all Ilishians stayed aware of new technologies and ideas. Whenever an Ilishian discovered a new solution to a problem or a new ability, they brought it to a teacher first, who then taught the other teachers, who then passed the newly-learned item into Ilishian society. All information was passed on to society. There were no secrets.

As a Planner he had set work rotations designed to fill the transport in a hundred years, and organized all activities for the society. For mining operations, he was responsible for dividing the core into sectors so that they worked around it evenly so it would continue to hold everything around it—like the capital city, in orbit. In the beginning they had worked three shifts and rested one shift per rotation, but thanks to technological advancements that schedule had been flipped. There was no point in collecting more than the transport could hold, so harvesting was now designed to take ninety-nine years, with a 1-year buffer, just in case.

As a Harvester he was responsible for mining and transporting the neodymium to the transport ship. After each collection, they moved to the next role. Even though they had been created equal, each had developed their own personality and experiences over the years. The rotation helped bring new ideas and visions to Ilishian society.

He had found he had enjoyed harvesting the most. This was his second rotation. There was just something about being alone in the scoop and having the freedom to fly through space from surface to surface.

He took off in his new scoop from the Builders’ Arc landing pad.

Once airborne, Tahzine did a fly-over of the floating continent. Nothing was left except for barren rock. Life had long ago relinquished its hold on the surface as the atmosphere became thinner and thinner, leaking out to the vastness of space.

He circled back around to the capital city of Ilish-Aru. It had not changed a lot in the last few centuries. They were a minimalist society, only building what was necessary to support their existence and the mission. With the core almost depleted, gravity had become less and less. This was the largest and only land mass that remained of the once-normal planet. Since it was in the farthest orbit, a simple impact from below would send it barreling through space.

The Ilishians had built everything in the capital. A hundred thousand Ilishians had been created to mine the ore, and they all resided in the city. He slowly flew his scoop over it. It was built in a circular shape, with four outer arcs surrounding the center. The Creators’ ship was tethered about a mile from the hub. Twenty thousand Ilishian where assigned to each Arc, with the Harvester, Scientist, Builder and Teacher Arcs surrounding the Planners in the center. This was all spread out over the city’s five-mile circumference.

The multi-lane and level-shuttle tram system had been developed to move the Ilishians back and forth between each Arc and the Center. They had advanced fast as a society due to the stored knowledge in their DNA. In the beginning they’d had only a few construction bots and some hand tools, but as the first scientists considered the living space they would need, the design and construction methods appeared in their thoughts. The city had been their first creation. They had used minerals from the surrounding land mass, reshaping and molding them into the forms that they needed.

He glanced down, taking it all in before he continued to the core. He wanted some time to himself.

As his scoop approached the core, Tahzine extended his senses into the debris field. It was all non-metallic material that had been separated from the core’s mass, and was now an almost mile-thick field. The core had changed much over the last ten centuries of mining. For one thing, communications had gotten better. They were now able to communicate scoop-to-scoop, since the magnetic field had been drastically reduced by the removal of so much neodymium. When processed it created the most powerful permanent magnet in the known universe, ounce for ounce. It was also very rare. Small amounts were used here and there to provide functionality within their society, such as the mag rails on the trams, the railguns, and computer components.

There were no other scoops in the field, since mining operations had been halted until the next transport arrived.

Reaching out with his senses, he located all the potential pieces he could collide with and navigated his way down to the core.

In the beginning they had mined what they needed from the continent, first with striking tools designed to break apart the pieces of rock and expose the desired minerals within. As technology advanced, they developed the first hyper-magnetronic packs, which they wore to fly to the core with sacks strapped to their bodies and return to the continent when the sacks were full. Around this time they had also developed slug throwers that shot iron bits into the core to break off chunks of rock. Using the drive packs, they would float about thirty feet above the core and fire the slugs into it to break apart the rock, then descend to sift and sort what they needed—neodymium in one sack, and other needed materials in the others.

Once they had enough raw materials, around Year Eighty-Five, the Scientists and Builders had engineered the scoops, and the collection process was sped up in all ways. The scoops flew to the core faster and the railguns were much more powerful, breaking apart the rock into more manageable pieces. They would spend the first part of the shift pounding a section of the core, then land, fill their bags, and lift off again. Eventually, as the gravitational pull was decreased, the wings were altered to create a specially-tuned magnetic field in front of the cockpit that attracted only the neodymium, allowing the mineral to be pulled out of the air when the railguns pounded the core and blasted great chunks out into space. They spent less and less time out of the scoop as they refined their collection process.

Tahzine reached out with his mind when he reached the core. It was only a couple hundred miles in diameter now. He could sense something different in the magnetic field from his last shift, and he guided his scoop toward what he was feeling. The core seemed strange here. Pointing the nose of the scoop toward the core, he fired a volley of slugs through the railguns at full power. The slugs reached terminal velocity before impact at ten times the speed of sound. Very little debris was blasted out, and he could sense only minute amounts of usable minerals and no Neodymium.

Tahzine studied the surface from above and decided to land to take a closer look. Setting the scoop down next to where he should have blasted a small hole in the core, he unstrapped himself, climbed out, and descended the steps on the front of the cockpit, pushing himself down with his arms until his feet touched the surface. Then he began channeling his energy to slowly increase his mass until the gravitational pull of the core was strong enough to hold him to its surface.

He walked over to the ten-foot-wide by one-foot-deep divot and confirmed what he had suspected. Jignasa had climbed off and was now standing in the center of the divot, her two front legs tapping the material. She was looking up at him.

Yeah, it’s iron he thought. When he was in contact with her, he was sometimes able to sense her feelings. Even as they were not physically connected at that moment, the little creature still looked at him like she understood his thoughts.

The marks of the embedded railgun slugs pocked the surface. The solid fused core had been finally exposed to space. The core had long cooled and hardened from its once-molten state, the lighter minerals floating to the surface and being harvested while the heavier iron sank and formed what he was looking at now.

Harvesting operations had finally reached the solid iron center of the old planet’s core in this spot. The time of the Ilishians might have finally come to an end.

Well, it was good while it lasted, he thought to himself, looking at the spot one last time.

Let’s head back, he sent to the little space spider.

After he docked he went back to the Center and headed toward the Planners’ stations on the first few floors. When he reached the lift, he looked at the display: Mining Operations, Third Floor. He didn’t understand why they had directions everywhere. It was like they hoped they would get visitors and did not want them to get lost.

After reporting his findings at that sector, he headed up to the Communal Floor to wait.

The ships arrived on time, as always. First the Gate formed, then the transport ship came through, followed by the gate ship, the Gate closing behind them. The Creators, they now knew from the Zetas’ memories and data, were the only ones who did not require physical Gates to move through the universe.

The docked transport released its tethers and floated up to join the other two in space, then the Gate once again opened and all three ships departed. No empty transport was left this time. Many started talking at once. No one knew what it meant.

All Tahzine knew was that he felt the need to recharge. Apparently so did everyone else, as all hundred thousand Ilishians made their way to the Center to sit shoulder to shoulder in the communal space on the fifth floor.

He sat next to Raylee. He wanted to say something to her, but his need to recharge was too great.

He closed his eyes and focused his energy within. He could feel all the minds around him, and the pulse waves coming from the floor and walls.

At times he was able to interact with the small machines within him that helped make Ilishians what they were.

Emptying his thoughts, he moved deeper and deeper into his subconscious. He could sense them moving around his body by the millions; they were unusually active. He couldn’t recall them ever being this excited. What were they all doing? he wondered. They should not be this active. Doing a quick mental check of his body parts, nothing was discovered to be damaged.

Pushing his mind out farther, he tapped into their collective programming. All the machines were processing the same order: Initiate stasis.

 Jignasa was bouncing up and down on his lap and tapping him on the chest to get his attention, trying to snap him out of his trance. She could sense the activity within him and the others. It was strange, and she did not like it. She had tied her sensors into the city systems long ago and had already used them to track the subspace signal to the beacons left in space by the so-called Creators. She couldn’t shut off the signal, but she finally understood it. It was not a death message, as they had all thought it was. It was simply a message to sleep.

After a few minutes, the little space spider gave up and settled into Tahzine’s lap.

She would wait for her organic to wake up. Maybe then she would finally try to make contact.

She didn’t like being alone, as she had been in that glass container.

***

A long-forgotten memory from his creation started pulling at his mind. Ignoring the machines for now, he set off to search for something he shouldn’t have forgotten. He never forgot anything.

Memories danced past, his mind lost in the quest at hand.

There! It was not a forgotten memory. It had been locked away until now.

It was an instruction from the Creators, embedded deep in his cells waiting to be found. The memory was of him studying a HUD from almost a thousand years before. The Creator speaking to him.

Tahzine could not see him; the voice was a distant echo in the memory.

Remember these words, for one day when you are ready they will set you free.

As he read the sentence the forgotten past came flooding back to him, and his body began to shut down.

He was recalling implanted memories from before his creation.

Miner Problems


Galactic year 29811

The implanted memories begin.

They were one of the most advanced intergalactic species in the universe, unparalleled in math and mental abilities, save one or two species that no longer interacted with cosmic events.

Their researchers methodically scanned systems across the universe, analyzing readings from each sector to locate what they needed: a star with the right temperature measurements, age, and life span with a planet located at a statistically-proven circular orbital distance to support life.

The Researchers’ mission was simple: locate a species that they could assist and guide along the Path of Ascension. There was no greater honor, and it would pay tribute to the Ascended ancestors.

They had located a planet during one such routine sector scan. The probability of life was high enough to justify the time and energy demands to gate to the system.

Even with their best scientific formulas life was never a guarantee, let alone sentient life. The overall odds of success were astronomically small. Even though they had seeded planets across the cosmos, life sometimes refused to take hold.

The discovery fleet was assembled. It belonged to one of the Five.

The Five were clans that were still in good standing with the Court of Perfection. Originally there had been twelve clans, but seven clans had broken with their ancestors’ teaching and were exiled from their society, now simply referred to as the Seven. Unfortunately, none of the Five had the mental capability to destroy the Seven at the time of sentencing. They let them go out into the cosmos and wreak havoc on the developing planets they found.

This clan was now actively working to offset some of the destruction and discord the Seven had caused. While they believed all life was sacred, if war was imminent they were ready. The Seven must be stopped, and getting to a new species before the Seven did was vital.

This fleet’s mission was to gate to the new system and scan for life. If no intelligent life was found, they would look for heavenly bodies that they could harvest for minerals, and other resources valuable to research and construction. The fleet consisted of one Stellar-class destroyer, one research ship, one gate ship and five massive transport ships.


Galactic Year 29812

 With orders in hand, the gate ship inserted them on the outer edge of the six-planet system, all ships cloaked. They wanted to stay as far out of range as possible and not be seen. First contact could be a cold-hearted bitch, depending on how the civilization felt about species from other planets. They did not want to mess it up.

Systems were immediately activated to look for signs of life. Radio waves were scanned. Surrounding space was searched for any unnatural structures.

When nothing out of the ordinary was found, a closer look at the planet in question was authorized.

The planet was easy to locate. It was the second one from the system’s star.

Scans, on the other hand, were proving to be impossible due to a strong magnetic field surrounding the planet.

Probes that were sent became trapped in the planet’s gravity well and were either burned up in the atmosphere or smashed into the planet’s surface. If any survived, their signals were not strong enough to penetrate the field.

Over the eons the planet had attracted nine moons of various sizes, colors, and shapes. Any cosmic body that drifted close enough was held in orbit. They had seen this phenomenon before, mostly as the result of an overly large core heavy in iron. They hypothesized the planet had also been struck by a solar flare during its formation, enhancing the already strong magnetic field.

They needed to get a closer look, so the research ship broke formation and set course for the second planet.

When the ship reached the outer range of the planet’s magnetic field, it established an orbit.

They were reduced to visually scanning the planet’s surface. The research vessel opened a sliding hatch at the nose of the ship, exposing a telescope lens three feet in diameter that would provide a detailed view of the planet’s surface.

Visual scanning was much slower with the lens than with electronic means. The planet was examined along each of its longitudinal paths, the research ship increasing its orbital speed to speed up the process. They still had to wait for the planet to make a few rotations, adjusting their latitude with each rotation.

The planet was, overall, like most habitable planets in the cosmos. The lens showed a landscape covered with thick luscious forests. Lakes and rivers dotted and divided a single great continent. A vast ocean covered the remaining seventy-three percent of the surface. Life was indeed abundant and evolving, if only currently at the bacterial level. Perhaps in a few hundred million years there would be more to this planet, but there was nothing now.

It was all unimpressive, and completely useless to this clan. The search for evolved life would continue.

Since life had not been located, the research ship’s brain went back over areas that it had noted to check for possible resources. The lens was aligned over an area in the center of the only landmass that was the site of a once-active volcano. Volcanic sites gave the best glimpse of a planet’s makeup, since molten material from the core was ejected to the surface above.

The brain located what it had noted from the higher-level scan. Small patches of tarnished silver were visible through the vegetation. The lens was focused closer to try to positively identify the material, and the brain processed the image and the data that it had on the planet already. It was within a range of ninety-nine-point-eight and ninety-nine-point-nine percent positive that the material was neodymium, which was very rare.

The metal was a base component for advanced laser systems. A heavy deposit of neodymium would also explain the strong magnetic field, since the metal created some of the strongest permanent magnets in the universe. The visual clue was that when neodymium was exposed to atmosphere, it tarnished. This could be the largest buildup of material to ever have been located.

The planet was now deemed useful and incredibly valuable.

As such, a plan was formed.

It was simple in its destructive nature. The research brain had hypothesized that destroying the planet would not violate any law. The sheer strength of the planet’s gravitational pull would guarantee its eventual destruction. The clan would simply speed the process up. Of course, all research was archived in case they needed to recall it.

The harvesting plan called for the destroyer to launch an array of their most destructive tunneler mines all around the planet’s surface. The mines were specially designed for harvesting. The tunneler mines would dig into the planet’s surface, getting as close to the core as possible. A timed detonation would then be set off, blowing the outer layer of the planet away from the core. The fleet’s transport ships and harvesting bots would then move into the debris field and collect as they wished.

The research ship moved back to the edge of the system, joining the rest of the fleet.

The tunneler mines were loaded and set to detonate simultaneously. Twenty-five missiles containing a thousand mines each were launched. Before they entered the planet’s gravitational pull, they turned and evenly dispersed around the planet. As one they turned toward the planet and penetrated the atmosphere at terminal velocity. They had determined the time required to enter the planets inner atmosphere, and at that moment all twenty-five missiles broke apart, spraying their payloads around them as evenly as possible. The mines were shaped like little drills, and their fronts automatically fell point down. Upon impact their motors came to life and they started drilling.

Everything was going according to plan. The research ship was watching with the lens, and the image was shared with the fleet.

The resulting explosion was magnificent, and sent massive energy waves in all directions. The main continent rocked and bucked, broken into multiple sections as they blew outward. Volcanos erupted simultaneously all over the planet’s surface, and the ocean was instantly vaporized. The nine moons were slammed by the energy waves and pushed out of orbit, left to drift in space until another cosmic body collected them. The resulting debris field was as massive as the continent, and the planet’s crust moved outward.

The initial image showed the clan everything they had hoped to see. It appeared that the plan had succeeded, mathematical odds of failure having been overcome by the plan’s ingenuity.

Then everything changed, and the image started to tell a completely different story—one with only a possibility of .0001%.

The core remained fully intact, as planned. Blowing up solid iron was a waste of energy. That was when the process started reversing. The planet’s magma layer burped outward, only to cool in space and get pulled back to the core. A large section of the single continent stabilized in a five-mile orbit around the remaining core, as if floating in midair. Other pieces were pulled back in and smashed into the core.

The neodymium levels had been so great and were mixed so thoroughly with the planet’s magma and crust layers that even the explosions had not been able to push the materials away from the core fast enough to overcome the natural attraction to the iron.

While the view was something out of legend, the Fleet’s leader was not impressed. The admiral would need to meet with the Clan elders to determine the best course of action. Mining was going to be even more difficult now, what with all the debris and the now largely uninhibited magnetic field. The clan could neither choose not to mine the planet now nor forget about it and move on. The energy released would be picked up eventually by other species, who would come to investigate. They had to mine the planet and protect the system at the same time.

The Fleet’s admiral and the lead researcher held a vid conference with the Elders on the other side of space.

The Elders instructed the Fleet not to leave the system until a plan was put into place. The clan would only be able to return a transport ship to this system once every hundred galactic years. Even with the vast quantities, they could not spare any resources to stay and harvest in the now-volatile system.

The admiral suggested mass production of bots, which would be left in the system to collect and fill the unmanned transport ships. The clan would return and switch out the transports every hundred years.

The researcher liked the plan, but he could not guarantee the continued functionality of the bots. The environment was simply too harsh, and leaving a brain behind to manage operations was out of the question. Brains of clan members that had Ascended were used as the processing power for their computer systems. A bot would not have the programming available to adjust should too many conditions change.

“What if we did not leave bots?” he suggested.

After a second’s pause, he spoke up again. “We could engineer a new species that could withstand all the forces they would be exposed to here.”

The researcher knew the risks involved in creating a new species. He had created many before, but none with the level of intelligence he felt would be necessary to handle the task at hand. It was a simple choice, however, since losing the neodymium was not an option.

This would be his greatest project.

The admiral presented the idea to the Council of Elders, who cast a vote.

The new plan was approved.

 The implanted memory ended.

Checkup


The research ship and the small gate ship entered the system, acknowledging the systems defenses as it did.

The research ship carrying the Discovery Fleet’s lead researcher broke away and set a course for the strange floating mass in the second orbit around the system’s star.

It had been a planet, until he blew it up.

He stared at the display. Well, he had tried to blow it up. It should have worked. In fact, it had worked in every simulation.

Now, one thousand years later the remains of the planet’s only land mass were orbiting the remains of the planet’s core, the two masses working together to stay connected through space.

A cloudy debris field surrounded the core, material he surmised to be waste with not enough mass to be drawn in.

He could now scan the area with very little interference.

Signs of life were very evident.

Radio waves from communications systems, repeater beacons, and the city itself filled the spectrum.

The Ilishians had been very busy indeed.

He located the main city easily, since his ship's system was able to connect with the city's computer system.

The city was called Ilish-Aru and he was headed there to check up on some old friends.

His name was a string of numbers representing a mathematical formula, and he was the lead researcher for this project.

A thousand years ago he had engineered a marvelous new species to harvest a rare mineral from a destroyed planet’s core.

As the researcher flew over the city, he marveled at how well his little creations had done. They had built an entire city, never missed a shipment date, and it seemed they had even evolved a little in the process.

He landed his ship right in the front of the city’s central five-story building. The city’s power system was still active.

The building in front of him was just as he had envisioned it all those years ago when he had stored the design in their DNA.

As he approached the front airlock the outer door opened. Once he stepped in it closed, atmosphere was returned to the space, and the inner doors opened.

The researcher removed his helmet and adjusted his body to the new atmosphere. He was standing in the front of Central Planning. What he needed to see would be on the floors above.

The researcher made his way to the lift on his left and pushed the button to recall the lift from the top floor.

No matter how a species evolved, lifts worked the same way. Push a button and wait.

Only twenty-four hours had passed since the command to enter stasis had been activated, and all the Ilishians would have made their way to the resting chamber.

The lift dinged as the doors opened. Once inside, he looked at the floor options marked.

Interesting he thought. What do we have here? The fourth floor said, “Entertainment.” He had designed two floors of rejuvenation, but the Ilishians had made changes.

Curiosity piqued, he hit the button for the fourth floor.

When the lift reached the selected floor the ding again sounded, and the doors opened.

The researcher was amazed at what he saw. There were massive rooms measuring five hundred feet across, each designed to create art, music, or their own vids.

There was a central meeting area with hundreds of couches and vid screens on all the walls.

He opened his tablet, connecting with the city’s network as he did so.

Let’s see what you are all watching, shall we?” he said to himself, and turned on multiple screens. There were old vids from all over the systems, mostly news, with a few strange entertainment vids. One screen was displaying a replay of the last Aerial Combat Games.

“Oh, I hope you have not been watching too much news. Nothing good ever comes from watching news feeds,” he said to the empty space.

“You must have had a little more interaction during that damn Zeta Reticulan visit than we believed. Our records only showed the ship in the system for a few hours,” he continued.

“But you obviously did more.” He queried his tablet to find information on the Zeta incursion.

“Well that explains it,” he said with satisfaction as he read the report.

He made his way to one of the arts rooms. “I am curious if you are creating original pieces, or just replicas of works stored in your memories,” he said as he walked past a video of two Ilishians painting.

What he saw again caught him by surprise. He was unable to recognize a single work of art, and he scanned them again with his tablet just to make sure. The words No matches blinked on the screen.

“Very, very good. Time to come up and say hello,” he whispered softly to a painting of the planet’s core with ships moving round it.

The researcher returned to the lift and pushed the up button. The ding came fast, as the lift was still waiting at that floor. He stepped inside and selected the top floor.

The now-familiar ding announced his arrival. A hundred thousand Ilishians sat shoulder to shoulder in the wide-open space. They all looked like little statues, since when their bodies had entered stasis they had become almost solid.

He smiled when he noticed that they were all different colors. “You have found a little bit of individuality as well, have you?” he asked the mass of bodies.

“Computer,” he said into the tablet, “locate and label the one classified as ‘Tahzine.’” His tablet displayed a zoomed-out view of the room, with Tahzine on the outer edge of the mass.

The researcher walked over to Tahzine, immediately recognizing his dark green skin. The first of his kind. He had just knelt in front of him and raised his tablet when he noticed movement on his lap.

***

Jignasa was brought out of her sleep cycle when one of her sensors detected movement. As she came online, she noticed the organic being standing in front of her with a tablet in its hand.

She dug in with her hind legs and raised her two front legs in defiance.

“Whoa, now, little one. What do we have here?” it said to her.

Mine, was all she could find to express.

“Yours, huh?” the creature stated back to her.

Wait, this thing was talking to her? It could understand her. She was trying to compute what this meant when the creature spoke to her again.

“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you or your organic. That’s what you refer to him as, is it not? You see, I am very interested in him as well, because I created him. Well, not just him, but all of them,” it stated as it swept its arm around the room.

The Creator! Jignasa’s million processors revved up to full power to process what this meant.

“It’s OK. I am here to see what these little Ilishians have managed to accomplish in the last millennium. I am very pleased with what I have found so far,” it told her.

Wake, Jignasa thought, reaching out to her organic.

“No, not yet. This one will wake up in due time. His quest has just begun. His species is the first we have created to have achieved this level of enlightenment.” It smiled as it spoke to her.

It resumed its scan of her organic, stopping when it was in front of her. “Interesting. Very interesting,” it said flatly.

“You were with Tahzine when he put a stop to the Zetas’ plan and pulled all the data that they have been viewing for the past five hundred years. That information helped the Ilishians develop an even greater sense of identity.”

“As a species, they are not ready to be released into the cosmos. Tahzine shall be the lone representative, and his success amongst the cosmos shall determine their future. His acquired knowledge will come in handy as he interacts with new species.”

Safe? she thought about the mass of bodies in the room.

“Yes, while he is away, they will all be protected. Tahzine must seek out another species that is willing to help him for the right reasons. If they know what he is, they will also know how to reach and awaken the rest of his people and help them find a place in the cosmos. As Creators, we cannot help the Ilishians any further. Any direct interaction with us would unfairly influence their decisions. Therefore, they will stay in stasis until I evaluate them and make sure they are ready. Will you help him in his journey? He will need a protector such as you,” the Creator asked her.

Yes! Her processors screamed as one, her body again bouncing up and down.

“I am going to send you some code, which I want you to store. It will not hurt you or change you in any way. It is simply a number. You may be asked for this one day, but until then it is meaningless. Is that ok?” it asked, looking at her.

Yes. Her alloy body shivered as his tablet connected with her systems and sent the very long number to her.

“Good. Now, how do you think he needs to start his journey?” it asked.

Gate? she asked, her processors immediately feeding her the most likely answer.

“Well done. Before I leave, I will unlock the Gate and input new coordinates. The current system it is set to would not be a great place to begin his adventure. I am sending you both to the far edge of a very old system. I will leave you the passkey to access the gate,” the Creator said as it began typing again on its tablet, sending the code to Jignasa.

“When he awakens, how about trying to communicate through his helmet?” It smiled again as it spoke, and Jignasa sent a signal of understanding.

With that, the Creator turned and left. Jignasa returned to sleep mode, anxiously waiting for her organic to awaken.

***

The researcher boarded his ship again and headed toward the Gate, analyzing the data as he went. They were pushing the boundaries of law with this creation of sentient life. On top of that, the Ilishians were close to creating life themselves.

The first domino had fallen.

He brought up the data on the little spider; Jignasa, it had called itself. It was so close to making the crossover to being sentient! It could feel emotions, but did not know what they meant. The registration number he had sent it was really more of a lock. It secured the little creature’s programming from any outside influence. It also contained a name to be discovered when needed.

When the Zeta Research Gate came into view, the researcher opened communications with it. The security was advanced, but he broke through it in moments—the amount of time it took to hack the Gate was moderated by the data stream being sent back and forth. The Gate’s operating system was much slower than his.

The Gate’s transit power levels were completely drained. The Zetas had given it only enough power for the duration of their field trip.

The minimal power remaining was only enough to handle communications.

 The first gate ship to enter the system after the attempted abduction had scanned the Zetas’ Gate and determined that it was powerless. He was more concerned that the systems functioned after all these years. He did not want to disintegrate the new species on their first intergalactic jump.

With the gate now unlocked, programmed with new coordinates, and protected by the password he had given Jignasa, it was up to Tahzine to figure out the next step.

The researcher moved his ship away from the Gate and back toward the clan’s gate ship and their system entry point.

He did one last check on the protection systems and the weapons system left in place as defense. Both returned Status Normal.

The defense system was one of their newest designs. It deployed missiles that created a gravitational singularity upon detonation. The singularity was a miniature black hole, sucking everything into it during the second in which it formed and died out.

One second was an eternity to anything being sucked in, and there was no way out. Entire transport ships had disappeared during testing, crushed down to the subatomic level.

The researcher was proud of the Ilishians. He was even happier they had evolved properly, so he didn't have to wipe them from existence. While the Zetas’ intrusion had influenced their society, they had been on the right path before their arrival. He felt like he had solid evidence to supply the courts if he ever had to justify his decision.

He signaled his own gate vessel to create a gate and he followed it through.

He wondered if he would ever see the Ilishians again. This had been his final checkup.

Creation

Galactic year 29813, the Year of Creation

He was aware.

He stared out of his creation tube.

Looking down, he saw his body for the first time.

It was bipedal, and symmetrical in design. It measured about three-and-a-half-feet from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head, and it was slender. Two arms, and his hands had three fingers and an opposable thumb. His head was proportionate to his body. His mouth contained bony ridges for eating, and a fleshy muscle to facilitate vocal communication.

He had no nose and no ears. Sounds were absorbed through a bone on each side of his head, and he absorbed scents using specialized cells within his mouth.

His skin was dark green, and very soft to the touch. He had no body hair.

These things he knew, but until a few moments ago he had not existed.

A sound came from outside of his space. “What are you?”

At first, he was not able to process the noise the creature was making.

“What are you?” it asked again. The voice was coming from a creature in front of him.

The sound registered now. He was being spoken to. The creature was looking at and speaking to him. At least he thought it was a him. He saw no discernible sexual characteristics, but his mind told him it was a male, so he accepted that.

He thought about the question. He tried to speak, but he could not since he was suspended in a clear gelatinous liquid.

I am a genetically-modified organic life form with nanocytes in my system to allow me to heal faster, think faster, and function at a generally greater capacity, he thought.

“That is true,” the creature replied as he glanced down at something, “but what is your species?”

He thought about what he was and how he had been created, and formulated a name for his species. Ilishian, he concluded.

“Interesting name. What does it mean?” the creature asked, now looking directly at him.

I am an “I,” not an “it” or a thing. The name “Ilishian” is my own variant of the word “Elysian,” which means “heavenly” or “paradise.” I like it, and find it a good variant, he thought.

What am I?” the creature asked, pointing to himself.

I don’t know. I don’t seem to have any information on your species, he answered.

“Good, the protocols are holding. You will know what I am when the time is right. Until then, you and the others will simply refer to us as ‘the Creators.’ Very well, my little Ilishian, what is your design purpose?The voice came again, carrying with it a hint of satisfaction in the previous answer.

The answer popped into his mind as soon as the question was asked. To harvest the rare metals from the planetoid below, establish a society, create, and determine who I am as a species. 

How will you achieve that? the Creator asked as he moved to the other side of the lab.

Currently unknown, he replied. Thousands of possible permutations flowed through his brain at that moment.

He saw that all his responses were being displayed in text format on a screen that the Creator was reading.

He felt movement behind him and heard another voice from the other side. They were apparently vocalizing to one another.

“Teach it what it needs to know to accomplish its mission. Once parameters are within range, initiate cloning and dump them on the floating continent. Leave enough bots to help them build what they need to get started, then they will be on their own. We are taking a great chance with this process. Genetic creation of life without an independent identity is outlawed.”

“Yes, Admiral. data will be added to their minds, and they will form their own identity when they first open their eyes. The mining of the core, while a necessary evil, will be what keeps them focused and gives them a purpose. Life with no purpose, they say, is not a life worth living. We will design them with the best possible chance for survivability. Our claim will be that mining was simply a tool, a foundation, to help them get stronger,” came the reply.

The admiral accessed a display, and started reviewing previous tests.

Twenty-two versions of the new species’ body had been created before, each one improving on the last. They had finally arrived at what they were looking at now. This new species did not need to breathe atmosphere. They had given it the knowledge and ability to communicate in multiple languages with its voice. This would help it interact as it became exposed to other species in the universe. It was able to manipulate its density, and make its skin almost impenetrable. It could alter its mass as well. This would be vital, since it was to work and live with the gravitational pull and magnetic field around the planet’s core. Its mind had been expanded, to grant it the ability to sense objects around it, almost like sonar in some species.

The admiral shook his head from side to side and stated with a little apprehension, “I do not want them to become tools for the Seven, either. If they were to be found it would be disastrous”

“When I am finished, their minds shall be locked out from being accessed by all empath abilities, I will test them myself. They may choose to let another in, but their minds will remain strong. They will not be able to be controlled.”

“Make it happen. Bring honor to our clan!” the admiral stated as he left the room.

The Creator looked at him. “Well, let’s get you loaded up and ready to go,” he said as he walked over to another computer bank and started entering commands.

He could feel information flooding into his mind. Science, history, languages; as much as the clan could safely supply him with.

“This information will be available on an as-needed basis. This means you will only be able to recall specific items as you become exposed to the basics, so you will be forced to create and learn without all the answers being handed to you. There will be no participation trophy,” said his Creator.

“Now, let’s see what else you have discovered about your future. What have you learned?”

He recalled what he knew from the implanted data and relayed that to the researcher.

There will be one hundred thousand of his kind produced, based on him. They will be given the same information he has. When they first become aware, each shall review what they know and choose an identity. For the first part of their existence they will be assigned a role based on their production number. The first twenty thousand will be planners, the next twenty thousand harvesters, then teachers, scientists, and builders. No role will be more important than the others. They will all work together for the betterment of their new society. 

Resources were going to be an issue for the first few years, so, they would be given the ability to pull energy directly out of their surroundings. This would require a relaxed state and a lot of practice.


Consuming energy would be more efficient and would recharge their systems faster, but that would take time to create.

He also thought of some type of recharging system to help speed up the recharging process. His mind was already seeing the design of things he had not known existed.

Strangely, he found that he could sense the objects in the room. It was as if he could see through the walls and feel everything moving around him, even to the smallest piece of dust in the room.

He tried to reach out his awareness farther, but something blocked him.

The Creator spoke. “Not here, little one. In due time.”

A strange tickle in his subconscious told him he could break that barrier if he chose.

“Knowing now what lies in front of you, do you feel ready to accept your mission?” the Creator asked.

I do, he replied.

“Have you chosen an individual identity for yourself, or shall you simply go by your creation number?”

I have.  My name is “Tahzine.”

The Creator’s voice now seemed excited. “This is incredibly good news. I was not expecting you to choose so fast. I was hoping, but not expecting.”

How long will my mission be? Tahzine asked.

“Unknown. This depends on your species’ ingenuity, societal construction, and survivability. We have given you all that we could to help you,” the Creator answered.

An unknown time then passed with questions and answers between him and his Creator, each question designed to set him onto the most successful path.

The second voice, known as “the admiral,” returned and spoke to his Creator.

“I have reviewed your final report,” the admiral stated, standing in the doorway to the lab. “Did we make this life form too intelligent? Will we shift the balance?”

“The inherent intelligence level will give it the greatest chance of success and survival,” his Creator responded as he looked from display to display.

“We need a species that can survive mining that rock out there, load it into the transport ship we leave behind, and do it again every hundred years. What we do not need is our creation being turned against us in the future. Are you confident they will adhere to the plan and develop a society along the way?” the admiral asked.

“We do not have time for me to start over and wipe the programming, Admiral. I will simply erase the memories of being on this ship from his DNA and we will still be nothing more than ‘Creators’ to them. They will know their purpose, and when that purpose is fulfilled they will be free to make their own path. Free of us,” the Creator told him.

“We cannot simply walk away from them when they are done. They will still need guidance and help. Their species might not be ready when the work is completed,” the admiral stated.

“Then when the work is complete, we shall implant a command to sleep. One shall be chosen to be awakened, and he alone shall travel into the cosmos. His interactions will determine the fate of his people; not to be judged by us, but by others. The courts should find no fault in this logic,” the researcher stated.

Setting his feet with his head held high, the admiral said, “I fail to see any fault in your logic, but know this: should you fail and bring dishonor to our clan, I will personally end your path to Ascension.”

***

“Well, little one, it seems you have an interesting life ahead of you, full of choices,” the Creator said, looking at Tahzine. “We are just going to have to make sure I give you a back door, so that when the time is right you will know what to do. I no longer view you as just my creation, but as something that should get to discover life. I want to see what things you can make possible. First you will have to finish your mission for our clan, and once that is complete your people will enter a great sleep. The door will be opened, and you will be able to step through it. This path will be for you alone. The rest of your people will remain in stasis until you find the key to awaken them. I want you to look at this display and memorize what it says. When the time is right, you will remember these words and what they mean.

As he drifted to sleep he could feel information being locked away from his conscious mind. He focused on the words on the screen.

Remember these words, for one day they shall set you free. Seek out those who travel the Etheric. You are the creation of Kurtherians.

***

Tahzine opened his eyes, and the nanocytes in his body raced to counteract the effects of entering stasis. The information was all there. He knew what he had to do. The answers were in the stars somewhere, and the Gate would soon be opened.

He had to save his people.

Authors Notes: Till the End Comes

By James Gartside


Wow, is pretty much all I have to say at this point. Thank you. Thank you for reading to his point. It has been an absolute honor to share this story with you.

My wife and kids have bugged me for years to write something. Their support in this process has been wonderful, and I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish even this short story without their help.

Now I have two short stories to build on. As I’m sure you can tell, I am completely new to this game and I have a lot to learn. I am, however, having a good time, and am excited about it overall.

I want thank Michael Anderle for starting this project, letting us play in his sandbox, and providing many of us with the motivation to get off our duffs and put something together.

Thank you to the Fans Write for Fans Facebook group, especially to Natale Roberts and Sarah Weir for driving this project forward.

Thank you to our masterful editor, Lynne Stiegler, without her amazing efforts, we would look like blabbering, face rolling (gamer speak for putting your face on the keys and rolling it back and forth pretending you know what you’re doing.) trolls.

Speaking of this story, you can see that Tahzine’s future is just starting. Where does he go, and what happens? You will just have to wait and see. I can tell you, I don’t think it will be what you are expecting. Stay tuned.

 James Gartside





Thank you!


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FINIS




Please Join Us At the Kurtherian Gambit Fans Write Facebook Page 

Books by Michael Anderle

For a complete list of Kurtherian Gambit Universe

 books please click this link.


Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:


First Arc


Death Becomes Her (01) - Queen Bitch (02) - Love Lost (03) - Bite This (04)

Never Forsaken (05) - Under My Heel (06) - Kneel Or Die (07)


Second Arc


We Will Build (08) - It’s Hell To Choose (09) - Release The Dogs of War (10)

Sued For Peace (11) - We Have Contact (12) - My Ride is a Bitch (13)

Don’t Cross This Line (14)


Third Arc (2017)


Never Submit (15) - Never Surrender (16) - Forever Defend (17)

Might Makes Right (18) - Ahead Full (19) - Capture Death (20)

Life Goes On (21)


  

The Second Dark Ages


The Dark Messiah (01)

The Darkest Night (02)

Darkest Before The Dawn (03)

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*

 

 

The Boris Chronicles

* With Paul C. Middleton *

 

Evacuation

Retaliation

Revelations

Redemption 

 

Reclaiming Honor

* With JUSTIN SLOAN *

 

Justice Is Calling (01)

Claimed By Honor (02)

Judgement Has Fallen (03)

Angel of Reckoning (04)

Born Into Flames (05)

Defending The Lost (06)

Saved By Valor (07)

Return of Victory (08)


The Etheric Academy

* With TS PAUL *


ALPHA CLASS (01)

ALPHA CLASS - Engineering (02)


Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles

* With CRAIG MARTELLE *


Nomad Found (01)

Nomad Redeemed (02)

Nomad Unleashed (03)

Nomad Supreme (04)

Nomad’s Fury (05)

Nomad’s Justice (06)

Nomad Avenged (07)

Nomad Mortis (08)

Nomad’s Force (09)

Nomad’s Galaxy (10)


Trials and Tribulations

* With Natalie Grey *


Risk Be Damned (01)

Damned to Hell (02)


The Age of Magic


The Rise of Magic

* With CM Raymond / LE Barbant *


Restriction (01)

Reawakening (02)

Rebellion (03)

Revolution (04)

Unlawful Passage (05)

Darkness Rises (06)

The Gods Beneath (07)

Reborn (08)


The Hidden Magic Chronicles

* With Justin Sloan *


Shades of Light (01)

Shades of Dark (02)

Shades of Glory (03)

Shades of Justice (04)


Storms of Magic

*With PT Hylton*


Storm Raiders (01)

Storm Callers (02)

Storm Breakers (03)

Storm Warrior (04)


Tales of the Feisty Druid

*With Candy Crum*


The Arcadian Druid (01)

The Undying Illusionist (02)

The Frozen Wasteland (03)

The Deceiver (04)

The Lost (05)

The Damned (06)


Path of Heroes

*With Brandon Barr*


Rogue Mage (01)


A New Dawn

*With Amy Hopkins*


Dawn of Destiny (01)

Dawn of Darkness (02)

Dawn of Deliverance (03)

Dawn of Days (04)


The Age of Expansion


The Ascension Myth

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)

Called (03)

Sanctioned (04)

Rebirth (05)

Retribution (06)

Cloaked (07)

Rogue Operator (07.5)

Bourne (08)


Confessions of a Space Anthropologist

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Giles Kurns: Rogue Operator (01)


The Uprise Saga

* With Amy DuBoff *

Covert Talents (01)

 Endless Advance (02)

Veiled Designs (03)




Bad Company

* With Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (01)

Blockade (02)


The Ghost Squadron

* With Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*

Formation (01)

Exploration (02)

Evolution (03)


Valerie’s Elites

* With Justin Sloan and PT Hylton *

Valerie’s Elites (01)

Death Defied (02)


Etheric Adventures: Anne and Jinx

*With S.R. Russell*

Etheric Recruit

Etheric Researcher



Other Books


Gateway to the Universe

*With Craig Martelle & Justin Sloan*


The Revelations of Oriceran


The Leira Chronicles

*With Martha Carr*


Waking Magic (1)

Release of Magic (2)

Protection of Magic (3)

Rule of Magic (4)

Dealing in Magic (5)


 

SHORT STORIES


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)

You Don’t Touch John’s Cousin


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)

Bitch’s Night Out


Bellatrix: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 03 (13.25)

With Natalie Grey


AudioBooks

 

CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL LMBPN BOOKS ON AUDIBLE

 

Available at Audible.com and iTunes





Want more?


Join the email list here: 


http://kurtherianbooks.com/email-list/


Join the Facebook Group Here: 


https://www.facebook.com/TheKurtherianGambitBooks/


The email list is changing to something…New.  I don’t have enough details but suffice to say there is so much going on in The Kurtherian Gambit Universe, it needs to go out more often than “when the next book hits.”


I hope you enjoy the book!


Michael Anderle - 2018.


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