Book: Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 2



Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 2

CONTENTS


Kurtherian Gambit

Dedication

Legal

Introduction - By Michael Anderle

Who would you choose

An Opening Poem

SENDIA'S JOURNEY

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Author Notes

CONFUSED KITTY

Chapter One

Author Notes

BEK

Chapter One

Author Notes copy

THE CAVE

Chapter One

Author Notes

THE ALBINO WERE

Chapter One

Author Notes

H’LAGEH FREEDOM

Chapter One

Author Notes

HOLDING ON IS SOMETIMES LETTING GO

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Epilogue

Author Notes

ADVENTURES OF ARMI-GEDDON

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Author Notes

CORDELIA'S SEARCH

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Author Notes

NOTES FROM THE THREE SISTERS

Series List Michael Anderle

Tales from the Kurtherian Universe

Fans Write for the Fans, Volume Two


By: Micky Cocker, Tracey Byrnes, Logan Caird, C. R. Wood, Samantha Harmer, Virgel Mitchell, Tim Bischoff, Dominic Novielli, and Craig Martelle






Tales from the Kurtherian Universe: Fans Write For The Fans: Book 2




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 LMBPN Publishing.





Tales from the Kurtherian Universe

Fans Write for the Fans, Volume Two

Thank you to the following JIT Readers 


Erika Everest

James Caplan

Peter Manis

Larry Omans

Micky Cocker


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor Lynne Stiegler

Tales of the Kurtherian Universe, Volume Two (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 Micky Cocker, Tracey Byrnes, Logan Caird, C. R. Wood, Samantha Harmer, Virgel Mitchell, Tim Bischoff, Dominic Novielli, Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle


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, June 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, June 3, 2018




You might notice that I wrote these notes the day before release. I probably drove Erika Everest nuts by doing this.

I’m sorry Erika! You don’t deserve to be driven nuts!

I think Craig said it best in his author notes…I created an opportunity, but others delivered the time, energy, motivation, and care necessary to create a NEW Fans Write for the Fans anthology.

An anthology with not just one, but two volumes coming out.

All with very little input from me.

You see, those who liked doing it the first time asked if they could do it again. Friendships were made by many, and those who were published enjoyed supporting others in this new profession.

I answered, “Yes, but I can’t help much.”

Their answer? “No problem, we got this.”

And they did.

We went from less than about fifty people in Volume One involved to over five HUNDRED writers, readers, support people, and fans just loving what was going on.

I’m rarely in there. I feel ashamed (a little) but I have to realize there are some things I can do, some things I can’t do, and some things I can get started and support.

Fans Write is in that last category.

I can create the opportunity and help fund it with money and resources, but I lack that necessary piece to make it work.

TIME!

Frankly, a LOT of people who made this anthology work lack time, our most precious resource. Once spent, you can’t get it back.

But it happened anyway.

I believe it happened because those who like these stories are drawn to each other Why? Because they ARE the living embodiments of the ideals represented by Bethany Anne, John Grimes, Michael, Eric, Darryl, Scott, Yuko, Akio, Tabitha, Molly, Terry Henry and Char, ADAM and TOM…

And Craig, PJ, CM and Lee, Amy, Scott, Candy, and so on and so on…

And now Erika, Sarah, and Nat, with Lynne and Stephen running support—and all of YOU.

Fans who are reading our stories. Giving your time to take in the creative work of fans by day, authors by night.

By reading these stories, providing comments in the Facebook group, reviews, and conversing with the new authors (or old geezers like Craig ;-) ) and just being involved, you have changed lives.

I haven’t read the author notes from those published in this book, but I KNOW the stories of those who are published in the first book.

You made all six of them very happy.

So to all of you I say “Thank you’ for making the dreams and aspirations of so many people the world over a reality.

We did this together, so together we shall raise our glasses and salute!


Ad Aeternitatem,


Michael Anderle




Who Would You Choose?

By Micky Cocker

A poem about Volume Two of Fans Write for the Fans.










Who Would You Choose?

By Micky Cocker


What would you do if given the chance to write?

Which character keeps you awake at night?

Who makes you itch to set out their beats;

And drives you crazy till the words are complete?


Would you go with Michael and Bethany Anne?

Maybe Jean Dukes, or John the big man.

Tontos, Barnabas, Ranger Two?

Whose story is screaming to be told by you?


How about Eddie and the Ghost Squadron team?

Tales of Hatch, wouldn’t those be a scream?

Shadow Vanguard is loads of fun,

Adina could have Tc'aarlat on the run!


Bad Company is always at their best;

TH and Char never fail to impress.

Don't forget Valerie and her Elites–

It didn't take ‘em long to clean up the streets.


BMW, top scientists and engineers

Work so much better when they have a few beers.

And then there’s Molly, and her trusty team,

Doing their best to live up to the Queen.


 Alpha class always has a scheme.

Anne’s doing research and living her dream.

Ava's team has seen some of the worst;

Thank God they got to the hive mind first.


You see, our authors have fulfilled our requests,

And Volume One gained best-selling success.

Here we give you Fanfic Volume Two;

How well it does is up to you!


So, will there be another volume or three?

Well that, future authors, remains to be seen…




Micky Cocker





Sendia’s Journey

By Tracey Byrnes


She’s young. She’s emotionally damaged. She’s also a genius—and she may well be the best hope the crew of the Bastante has to survive against a threat they didn’t know existed.


After being rescued from a life of hell in the Ma’azaré system, Sendia is slow to trust her new circumstances. The captain and crew are in awe of her talents, even while they despair at her disregard for her safety.


When trouble once again rears its ugly head, will Sendia and her crewmates be able to thwart it? Or will they succumb to the machinations of a saboteur?


Dedication

This one’s for everyone who helped me get to this point: Friends, family, fellow fans and readers, authors, and even a miscreant from my past. Without the many circumstances that kept enticing me to ‘take a walk on the wild side,’ this story wouldn’t have been written.

Cheers! xoxo













CHAPTER ONE



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Captain’s Ready Room

(En route to asteroid base S97-05391.1)

Captain Rolanin eyed the waif-like young girl standing before his desk. Most people hated being outside in vacuum. Most people spoke about going EVA as a nerve-wracking hell.

But not this one. Oh no.

To her, it was fun—even better than a game of low-gee jai alai in the ship’s gym. Never mind that one usually went EVA because something was wrong, and since the last pitched battle with pirates there had been a lack of functional repair ‘bots’.

No, Captain Rolanin mused, Sendia was uniquely different from his seasoned crew of spacers and their families in that respect. He didn’t doubt that she’d find her way into an opportunity that most others would cringe at when she was older. Perhaps she would end up with one of the black ops groups that were very quietly known in certain circles to have extremely close Federation ties. Judging by what he’d learned of her background and skills, she’d be an asset to their R&D team.

“Might I ask why someone from Scan needed to comm me with an urgent report stating that you were hanging—literally, and more than a little precariously—from the forward railgun mount?” Captain Rolanin asked. The tone and measured cadence of his speech told the girl that while he wasn’t surprised to learn she’d gone EVA again, he also wasn’t amused.

“I figured out how to fix that cracked plate in the mounting without having to remove it or the railgun. I told Scan, Weapons, and Engineering that I was going out, and why—plus I had Tully suit up and stand by in case something happened.” Sendia cocked her head to the side. “That meets the safety requirements you made me agree to, so I’m not sure why they felt they needed to comm you.”

Barely refraining from rolling his eyes, Captain Rolanin reminded himself that Sendia was both young and precocious—and that while she scored off the charts on every aptitude test she’d taken, her detached and analytical way of looking at things didn’t help her understand the emotional side of why he’d made her agree to the additional safety requirements.

“Sendia,” he told her quietly, “they did it because they knew I’d be worried about you—along with everyone else who knew what you were doing. It’s not because we don’t think you can do the work, it’s because we worry about the things that can happen when you’re EVA. Things like a piece of debris that punctures your suit and causes decompression, or the ship suddenly needing to take an evasive action that causes you to lose your grip and become a Flying Dutchman. It’s because we care, Sendia.”

Her eyes widened in surprise and confusion as she slowly repeated. “You…worry? About me, the least important person on board?”

“Stop right there,” he told her. “You’re not the least important person on board. If someone is telling you otherwise I want to know who it is, because they’re going to answer to me.”

She shook her head vigorously, strands of hair flying about her face. “No, no… No one has said anything like that to me. They don’t need to, though. I already know it’s true.”

Captain Rolanin stood up and moved out from behind his desk, gesturing toward the comfortable chairs set along the side wall. “Have a seat, young lady. It’s clear we need to talk.”

Sendia walked over and sat down, wondering what the captain wanted to say. No, she thought quickly. He said we needed to talk. Her thoughts were interrupted by the captain clearing his throat to catch her attention.

“Sendia, why do you say you’re the least important person on board? Has anyone on the Bastante said or done something—anything at all—that would make you feel that way? Please tell me.”

She fiddled with her cuff, squirming internally because she didn’t want to answer him. Didn’t want him to see her as worthless, as she’d been told she was for much of her life.

Please, Sendia!”

It was that quietly-uttered, almost-beseeching request that finally broke through the walls she’d built to keep everything contained.

“All my life, since I was first old enough to understand the most basic forms of communication, I’ve been told I’m worthless. That nothing I do will ever be right or be enough. Of course I’m the least important person on board. I’m not trained for anything the way you or the people in Scan or Weapons or Engineering are. I’m not smart enough or trainable enough, to do what all of you can do. So instead I do the jobs where it doesn’t matter if something happens to me, because I’m expendable.”

Captain Rolanin’s rage built as he sat there frozen with horror at the words of self-condemnation that poured out of Sendia’s mouth. He wasn’t sure he was the best person to help her, but he damn well knew he was going to try. He was the one she finally opened up to, after months of the entire crew trying to gain her trust and help her feel like part of their shipboard family.

Once the torrent of words stopped she seemed drained, chest and shoulders heaving with the intensity of her emotions. He noted there were no tears, though.

He looked straight into her eyes. “First of all, you do matter. You, the person—not just what you can do.” He held up his hand when she opened her mouth. “Don’t interrupt. There are things you need to hear, and then you can interrupt me as much as you’d like while we talk about them afterward. Okay?”

She nodded, trying to quiet her breathing and keep her nerves under control as she waited for the verbal storm.

“Sendia, I’ve been around for years—more years than you know. I’ve seen a lot—hell, done a lot—that causes me to lose sleep. But one of the worst things I’ve ever seen is what’s been done to you.” He watched her closely, noting her reactions to his statement before continuing, “The people we rescued you from—they were wrong. How they treated you…” His jaw tightened, and his fists clenched involuntarily, but when he noticed her slight flinch he hastened to assure her, “Sendia, I’m not mad at you. I am completely enraged by them, because they systematically worked to break down and enslave the greatest resource they had—you and your brilliant mind.”

She stared at him with slowly-widening eyes. His words and the intensity of his tone rendered her speechless as she processed what he’d just said.

“Me?” she managed haltingly, her voice the barest whisper. “You think I’m…” She stopped and swallowed audibly, then continued, “You think I’m…brilliant?”

He nodded slowly but emphatically as he held her gaze. “Sendia, my crew—no slouches in the brain department in their own right—often can’t follow the ideas you come up with, beyond working out that they’re not only sound but genius. In some cases they’re revolutionary. The fact that it’s seemingly effortless for you… Well, let’s just say that there are damn few among ‘em who haven’t been singing your praises to me on a daily basis—not to mention wishing out loud that they had half your smarts.” He winked at her conspiratorially, which earned him a small hiccupping laugh.

“Now,” he told her in a gentle but firm tone, “about that nasty business of you being expendable.” He raised an eyebrow when she started. “No, I’m not going to let that go, not when it’s the biggest damn lie in all of this.” He caught and held her eyes before saying deliberately and emphatically, “I said it before, and I’m going to keep repeating it until you believe it: you matter. You are not expendable. You belong here just as much as everyone else on this ship.” He paused briefly to let his words sink in, then continued, ”Regardless of whether you can work or whether you’re good at the same jobs as others, or even how much work you can do in comparison to someone else. You matter.”

He watched the myriad expressions flit across her face as she struggled to come to grips with everything he’d just told her. He didn’t doubt that he’d just upended her entire understanding of ‘the way things were’ with that little bombshell. While he worried that he’d thrown a bit too much at her in one go, he knew it had to be said for her to finally start building a healthy sense of self-esteem and heal from all the emotional damage she’d suffered.

Those sociopathic methane-huffing bottom-feeders had better hope they don’t cross my path again anytime soon, he thought.

Sendia started to speak, stopped, looked warily at him, and tried again when he nodded encouragingly.

“Captain,” she began, weighing each word before speaking, “what am I to do going forward?” He looked at her quizzically. “You’ve already said you don’t like me going EVA to make repairs. I’m underfoot when I try to work in Engineering or the other departments, and everyone on the bridge has made it clear that I’m not supposed to be up there.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa… One point at a time, please,” he exclaimed, taken aback by the flat statements she’d made. “First of all, I haven’t said you can’t go EVA. All I’ve asked is that you have a care how you do it and follow proper safety protocols—the same ones every other person on board is required to follow. And for the same reasons, I might add.” He raised an eyebrow to emphasize his point. “Second, you’re not underfoot so much as you’re popping in at random times and interrupting their scheduled work. Everyone in those departments has asked me several times if you could join their team. In fact, I heard a rumor that there’s a betting pool about which department you’ll join—and when.”

He chuckled at her shocked expression. “Third, the bridge is off-limits to everyone but the captain and bridge crew except for when repairs are scheduled, or when the captain has expressly given permission for someone to be there to watch—or shadow a crew member to learn.” He waited for her to make the connection, hoping she’d see and take advantage of the opportunities he’d just dangled in front of her.

“So, I can…keep doing the work I’m doing? I don’t have to stop?” she asked slowly, clearly trying to put the pieces together in her mind.

“Not only can you keep doing it, Sendia, the crew and I want you to keep coming to us with your ideas and solutions.” He tipped two fingers at her. “But we need you to work with our scheduling so that no one is working at cross-purposes. And to do that, you need to spend some time working in each department and learning their rhythms and routine.”

Her entire demeanor changed and her face lit up from within with the dawning realization that she was getting the opportunity she’d been longing for.

“You mean…” She floundered, at a loss for words.

“Yes, Sendia, I’m going to make arrangements with every department head to have you rotate through so you can learn everything you need to know. You’ll be doing the routine grunt work as well as helping to fix the damages caused in the fight with those misbegotten pirates. Don’t hold back if you see a way to improve something either; that’s part of why I want you learning about everything on board and how it all ties together. Think you’re up for all that?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. He knew she couldn’t resist the offer.

“When and where do I start, Captain?” she replied.












CHAPTER TWO



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Engineering Department

The next morning, Sendia stood in the doorway of the main engineering area, looking for Chief Engineer Zi’layrus. The striking emerald-haired Sarnassen was easy to spot since she was standing at a nearby workbench soldering some wires to a circuit board that belonged to the disassembled ‘bot beside her. Sendia gently cleared her throat to get her attention and waited to be acknowledged before she moved any farther into the room.

“Come on over, Sendia,” Zi’layrus told her, not looking up from her work. “The captain told me to expect you.”

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“You’re not interrupting if I’m expecting you,” the chief engineer replied, putting her tools down before straightening to her full height. Her elongated and willowy frame was a clear indicator of her low-grav planet of origin. She casually lifted the disassembled ‘bot and swung it onto the workbench, her almost ethereal looks belying her physical strength.

Sendia walked over, her interest piqued by something she’d seen as Zi’layrus lifted the ‘bot. She reached out, belatedly remembering to hesitate long enough get the chief engineer’s nod of permission, and grabbed a scorched piece of the ‘bot’s metal carapace. She looked at it intently, turning it in her hands to see both sides of it from all angles.

“This scorching looks more like internal heat damage than exterior blast damage,” she concluded, setting the metal back down on the workbench before lifting another piece. “The same with this one, although they appear to be from two different sections.” She stood for a moment, thinking hard before looking up at Zi’layrus. “Malfunction? Or…” She hesitated before continuing so softly that only the chief engineer could hear. “Sabotage.”

Zi’layrus’ expression never changed, although she was more than a little surprised that Sendia would come to that conclusion so quickly. Then again, she thought to herself, she’s seen as much and maybe more of the seamier side of things in her young life as I have in all my many decades of knocking about the galaxy.

The chief engineer gestured toward her office. Once they were both inside, she bio-locked the door and activated her security scans and a sophisticated privacy shield—one that wasn’t the ship’s standard model. “The captain knows I have this,” she told Sendia. “And he’s given his approval for us to discuss what you saw on that ‘bot, as long as it stays between the three of us. Is that understood?”

Sendia nodded, her serious expression reinforcing that she did indeed understand.

“You asked me if the ‘bot was sabotaged. The answer is, I don’t know…yet. But the fact that you suggested the possibility after pointing out that the damage looked internal rather than external, suggests that it’s a stronger likelihood than I’d originally thought.”

Zi’layrus shifted in her seat. “You’re going to be working directly with me while we handle that ‘bot’s repair. Several others have the same kind of scorch marks on them, and you and I will handle repairing those as well. Beyond ordinary talk about those repairs, I don’t want you to say anything out loud or put anything in writing about the damages or what might’ve caused them if it’s something that wouldn’t commonly be known. In other words, you talk only to me or the captain—under shield—about potential sabotage and how it was accomplished. You’re young, and I hate like hell that I’m asking this of you, but you may be the only person on board who can figure this out quickly enough to keep us all from getting killed the next time those pirates attack.” She inhaled deeply before finishing, “If we do have a saboteur on board, I don’t want him, her, or it going after you because they think you’ve learned too much and threaten their plans.”

Sendia stared at the chief engineer, stunned. Of all the things she’d expected after her talk with Captain Rolanin yesterday, being told she’d be assisting Zi’layrus in a sabotage investigation wasn’t one of them.

“I-I thought…” she stammered as she tried to gather her wits enough to speak coherently. “The captain said I needed to learn the ordinary stuff…” Her voice trailed off as she tried to process everything she’d just heard.

“Indeed you do! And you will, I promise. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re going to hate me by the time you’ve had to deal with all the less-than-glamorous things that keep us alive, healthy, and able to travel anywhere we can navigate. But what better way—and better cover, I might add—to do an investigation than to do it right under everyone’s noses under the guise of teaching you the ropes?” Zi’layrus smiled conspiratorially, although the serious look in her eyes never wavered.

“Does the captain know?” Sendia asked suddenly, a thought crystallizing in her mind.

“Does the captain know what?” Zi’layrus replied.

“Does he know you’re planning to make me part of your investigation?” Sendia clarified.

“Yes, he knows. He’s no happier about it than I am, but he not only knows, he agrees—both with you being part of it and how you and I are going to go about it.”

“He really does think I can do the work,” Sendia murmured, feeling a warm glow at the realization.

“He knows you can, Sendia,” Zi’layrus replied just as quietly, startling her out of her thoughts. She hadn’t realized the chief engineer had heard her. “He just wants to keep you as safe as possible while doing it because he, like the rest of us, hates putting young people at risk.”














CHAPTER THREE



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Engineering Department

Sendia and Zi’layrus walked back to the workbench and the waiting ‘bot. Sendia was a little nervous after their closed-door meeting, but figured everyone would chalk it up to “newbie's nerves” and having to face the chief engineer on her first official day.

“Now that you’ve had a quick look at the ‘bot and we’ve chatted about what I need you to do, take a look at the pieces and make notes about the damage you find before getting the ‘bot ready for reassembly. I’ll be working over there.” Zi’layrus gestured to a workbench some twenty feet away. “If you have any questions or find something you think I should know about right away, come get me.”

With that, she turned and headed toward the other bench, leaving Sendia staring at the pile of parts and pieces in front of her.

***

Several hours later a tap on her shoulder caused Sendia to jump. She’d been so engrossed in what she was doing that she hadn’t heard whoever had just come up behind her.

“Easy… It’s just me.” Tully stepped back, hands up in a non-threatening way, as she spun to face him and landed in a balanced stance. “You missed lunch, so I thought I’d come find you and make sure you got something to eat. I know how you are when you get focused.”

“Thanks, Tully. I didn’t realize I’d been working on this for so long,” she replied, the tension in her body easing a little. Right on cue her stomach grumbled, causing both of them to laugh.

“Can you break for a bit?” Tully asked, looking around the room.

“Let me check,” she replied. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I can’t just duck out without letting the chief know. She and the captain would both have words with me if I forgot what I agreed I’d do, especially this soon after our last discussion.” She rolled her eyes before hurrying over to Zi’layrus.

When she got to the other workbench, Sendia saw that the chief engineer was engaged in some very delicate and precise work that needed all her attention. Waiting until she’d finished the tricky repair, Sendia began in a low voice, “Tully noticed I missed lunch and came to find me. I don’t want him wondering about anything, even though he’s helped me in the past.” She raised her voice to normal conversational tones. “Is it all right if I go grab something to eat? I missed lunch. Or are we on a different rotation in here? I forgot to ask earlier.”

Zi’layrus shook her head in amusement. “Go eat. I was about to pry you away from that workbench myself. Tully just beat me to it. Unless you’re working on something that can’t be interrupted, take your breaks when you need them. Just let me know when you do, and check in when you get back in case I need you to switch to a different task.”

“Okay.” Sendia’s stomach rumbled again and she blushed. “I’m off. I sent my notes about the cleaning and repairs needed for that ‘bot so I didn’t forget. There are a couple of things I had questions about, but they can wait until we’re ready for reassembly.”

“Eat first, questions after,” Zi’layrus told her, surmising that Sendia’s questions were probably of a nature that should be discussed privately.

The chief ran a hand through her hair and sighed before calling to one of her crewmembers, “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my office grabbing a quick bite to eat and going over reports. Oh, and make sure Sendia checks in with me when she gets back. She’s not used to our routine.”

“You got it, Chief,” the man replied before turning back to his work.

Zi’layrus glanced around the room, noting who was there and what they were working on before heading into her office and ensuring the door sealed and locked behind her.












CHAPTER FOUR



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Chief Engineer’s Office

After putting together a sandwich that was piled high with her favorite fixings, Zi’layrus grabbed a drink and brought both to her desk. While she preferred not to read reports while she ate, she wanted to take a look at what Sendia had found. She knew that documenting her work was not at all Sendia’s thing; the young genius preferred to fly by the seat of her pants.

Luckily for everyone, including Sendia herself, she was just as gifted at remembering exactly how she had done things. That had saved their asses more than once, and several times people had talked her through what she’d done so they could document everything properly.

Zi’layrus pulled up her queue as she took a bite of her sandwich and checked to make sure the encryption protocols she’d surreptitiously added to the ones already in use ship-wide hadn’t been compromised, then scrolled through the list until she found Sendia’s report. Tapping it open, she stopped mid-chew as she took in the bold one-word statement at the top.

SABOTAGE.

She sat back in her chair, then forced herself to finish her sandwich and washed it down with her drink even though the food had lost all flavor after seeing that damning headline. Only then did she resume reading the report, bracing herself for bad news.

Sendia had been as thorough about documenting everything she’d found as the detail-oriented chief could have hoped. She’d then taken it a step further and outlined thoroughly but succinctly what she thought had happened based on the scorch marks, shredded alloys, and odd scoring patterns that hadn’t been produced by normal wear and tear. She’d further explained exactly how those malfunctions could be replicated and amplified if the saboteur knew what he or she was doing and had the time and access needed—in enough detail to make the chief blanch when she realized the girl was right. A timeframe, Zi’layrus noted, which was appallingly small for the amount of havoc it could wreak.

At the end of the report, Sendia had included a note saying she had an idea but didn’t wish to include it because she needed more information.

Her thoughts whirred as she processed Sendia’s findings, and she pulled up her hidden notes to scan for one in particular: the list of people who could’ve done what Sendia had outlined. It was a short list, less than a dozen names total, with about half of them starred to indicate that they were the most capable if not necessarily the most likely. Still, Zi’layrus thought, I can’t afford to cross people off just because I don’t think they’d do it. There’s got to be a way to get proof. She shook her head, still baffled.

A sudden thought struck her as she recalled Sendia’s initial comment before the girl asked about getting food. Did she not trust Tully as much as everyone thought? Or was she just being careful after her earlier conversation with Zi’layrus?

Either way, they needed to discuss it soon.












CHAPTER FIVE



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Engineering Department

A crewmember she hadn’t yet been introduced to looked up as the door hissed closed behind her. “Hey, are you Sendia?” he asked. “If so, the chief wants to see you.”

“Yeah, I’m Sendia. That’s right, she did say that before I left. Where is she?”

“In her office. Just hit the intercom button on the right.”

“Got it. Thanks.” Sendia hit the button once she reached the chief’s office.

“Yes?” came Zi’layrus’ disembodied voice. “Who is it?”

“It’s Sendia. You told me to check in when I got back.”

The door clicked and slid open, closing hard on Sendia’s heels and clicking again when the lock engaged. Captain Rolanin was there too.

“Have a seat,” Zi’layrus suggested, motioning to an empty chair near her desk.

“I’m going to cut straight to the point, Sendia. I read your report, and the evidence you found and the conclusions you drew parallel my findings. The ‘bots were sabotaged. Taking it a step further, much of the other damage we suffered was probably due to sabotage as well. That’s above my pay grade, which is why the captain is here. In addition to that, all three of us need to review some information I’ve been quietly pulling together and put together a plan to catch our saboteur before she or he strikes again.”

After Zi’layrus finished speaking Sendia opened her mouth, then looked between Zi’layrus and the captain before asking, “Do you have your privacy shield up?”

Zi’layrus nodded.

“May I speak freely then?”

The captain answered this time. “Of course, Sendia. We can’t keep everyone safe if we don’t say what needs to be said.”

Sendia’s shoulders relaxed a little, although her body was still noticeably tense.

Zi’layrus projected a screen onto the wall so they could all see it. On it was a short list of names, several of them starred. Sendia leaned forward, and her intent gaze suggested she was working through something in her mind. When the captain started to speak Zi’layrus shushed him wordlessly, not wanting Sendia’s thought process interrupted.

“Five of those people didn’t have the time, opportunity, or skill to do it,” Sendia told them abruptly. “Three more did, but wouldn’t because they’re absolutely loyal—and there’s nothing that could be used to blackmail or coerce them, either.” She looked at the list again, clearly weighing something in her mind before continuing. “Two of them could’ve done it, and if I had to guess I’d say one or both of them probably did. They’ve got motive as well as the time, opportunity, and skill. But there’s one person whose name isn’t on that list, and it probably should be.” She stopped, visibly torn.

“Whose name, Sendia?” the captain asked gently.

“Tully,” she choked out before slumping in anguish.

Zi’layrus sat stock-still. The captain was surprised, but set it aside to try to calm Sendia down. The girl’s emotions were passing across her normally inscrutable face, which for once was totally transparent—and heartbroken. The chief engineer could only imagine what the girl was going through, putting someone who’d been her confidante since before she came aboard the Bastante on their list of possible suspects. And yet, she was right to do so. He’d been her close companion and protector, but that didn’t mean he was automatically exempt. Except, in this case, he probably was.

Zi’layrus cleared her throat. “Thank you, Sendia. I know it wasn’t easy to do that. However, I have some good news for you. Some confidential sources of mine checked him out before we ever let him aboard. They checked you out as well. I can’t divulge who they are, but I can tell you that there’s no way in hell they’d ever make a mistake about a person’s character, and a vanishingly small chance they’d miss it if he were a hidden saboteur. I can say with certainty that Tully is one of the very few people on board whose name doesn’t need to be on that list.”

Relief dawned on Sendia’s face and the captain seemed to breathe easier.

“He’s cleared?” Sendia whispered shakily, looking at the chief engineer.

“He’s cleared,” she stated firmly. “As are the three of us. That was all we had time for before we had to haul ass out of the Ma’azaré system or risk becoming collateral damage in someone else’s war.”

Sendia flinched, remembering what her life had been like before she had been rescued, and how the leaders who assigned all her tasks had grown increasingly irate even as they demanded more and more work on weapons and defenses.

“Who else came aboard there?” she asked urgently as a memory tried to work its way to the surface. “Someone did; I remember that much. Who was it?”

Captain Rolanin and Zi’layrus looked at each other before answering in unison, “Kevvan.”

Sendia turned ghost-white and whispered, “Find him.” Clearing her throat and trying again, her voice came out a little stronger as she elaborated. “Find him now and lock him up in isolation under heavy guard. Do not under any circumstances leave him free to roam this ship. You don’t know what he’s capable of.” She shivered and fear rolled off her in palpable waves as she bolted to her feet. “I need to warn Tully!”

Zi’layrus tossed her an earbud. “Put this in. It’ll keep you connected to the captain and me while we handle things on our end.” She looked at Sendia appraisingly. “I know you got the implant for communication, and now would be a good time to find out if you can use it. If you can, you’ll be able to talk to us as well.” She smiled slightly at Sendia’s start of surprise. “Did you really think we wouldn’t keep an eye on you?” She shook her head. “Go. Find Tully, and keep yourselves out of trouble. If trouble finds you, yell.”












CHAPTER SIX



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Engineering Department, Command Deck and Cargo Bay 12

Zi’layrus killed the privacy shield and unlocked her office door just before Sendia would have run into it as she dashed toward Cargo Bay 12. She and the captain weren’t far behind as they hustled out to round up the people they needed to deal with Kevvan.

“Marty, Sanchin, Q’rey, Tank… Grab your heavy gear and suit up on the double. Active threat, boys. Don’t waste time, and don’t bother with anything light. We’re going after Kevvan. When we find him we’ll subdue him and lock him up under heavy guard in isolation.” As she spoke Zi’layrus donned her gear and checked her weapons. When she was done her team was ready and waiting for her. “Good. The captain is also putting a team together and will be running this mission jointly with us. It’s entirely possible it’s going to take all of us to subdue Kevvan. Recent intel says we don’t know the half of what he can do.” After one last check to make sure she had all the weapons she wanted, she gave the command to roll out.

On the command deck level the captain was grabbing his gear as he communicated via implant with his chosen team. “Shoop, gear up and make sure you bring that tangleweb you devised. Mairin, heavy gear and stasis cuffs. Amrie, also heavy gear and stasis cuffs, and bring that bolas you love as well. Not sure if you’ll be able to use it, but if nothing else it’s an additional way to tie someone up. Terras, I need you mobile but protected. Possible sniper work, tranq rounds unless there’s no other option. Gear up however you think best to protect yourself and others against a target with unknown abilities.” He hesitated for a split second, then continued, “V’lok, I want you in full stealth gear. That includes weapons. You’re my ace in the hole; I don’t want anyone but us to know you’re involved in this unless the shit hits the fan so severely that there’s no other choice.

“Everyone, we’re on a search, subdue, and contain mission that’s running jointly with Chief Engineer Zi’layrus and her team. Our target is Kevvan—one of the people who came aboard with Sendia and Tully in the Ma’azaré system. Recent intel says he’s probably hostile, and definitely has more abilities than we know. It’s also a good bet he’s looking for Tully and Sendia and will use them as hostages to get whatever it is he wants. When we find him we subdue him and contain him under heavy guard in isolation. This is critical, people; we need him alive to find out what he knows and is planning.” The captain locked the last of his gear into place and gave his team the meetup location and green light in one brief phrase: “Cargo Bay 12. GO.”

***

Sendia sprinted down the corridor, fear lending her extra speed. She careened off the main cargo bay entry and all but flew down the metal stairs, leaping to keep her balance as her momentum threatened to send her head-over-heels. She stumbled as she hit the floor but recovered and ran on, weaving between the stacks of crates and dodging the occasional automated loading crane as she worked her way through the interconnected bays that led to 12.

Her blood pounded in her ears and she was panting for air by the time she saw the giant ‘12’ on the wall. Slowing her breakneck pace and trying to catch her breath before going through the hatch, she heard Zi’layrus’ voice in her earbud. “Green Team is go at Cargo Bay 11. Zi’layrus, Marty, Sanchin, Q’rey, and Tank are active.” A quick break, then Captain Rolanin’s voice came through. “Acknowledged. Prime Team is also go, working our way in from Bay 13. Rolanin, Shoop, Mairin, Amrie, and Terras are active. V’lok is ace. Confirm.” Zi’layrus acknowledged and ordered her team to resume their approach to Bay 12. Time to go, Sendia thought.

She slid quietly through the door and moved into the shadows, pausing only long enough to get her bearings before throwing her senses wide open. She’d need every edge she could get against Kevvan if he was already here. Even if he wasn’t, she needed to be smart about getting to Tully and trying to get them both to safety. Other than Kevvan, they were the only two on board who could expose what the scaly bastard was up to. Which makes us really big, juicy targets, she thought grimly as she eased between the towers of stacked crates one careful step at a time.

A hushed voice spoke in her ear and she almost lost her footing mid-stride. “I have eyes on Sendia, captain. Your eleven o’clock, moving toward you. Shit, you didn’t warn us she had an earbud! I almost made her blow her approach.” Sendia shook her head slightly, miffed at the interruption and resulting misstep but somewhat mollified by the chagrin in the man’s voice. She decided to see if she could communicate with them as well. Shifting her mental focus to her implant for a moment, she replied, “Nice going, hotshot. How about making yourself useful and telling me if you see Tully?”

A quickly-stifled snort was the first clue that she’d managed to connect. “Roger that,” came the reply. “Tully is at your three o’clock; six rows up and three rows to the right of your current position.”

“Any sign of Kevvan?” she asked.

“Negative.”

“Watch high. That scaly douche-nozzle likes to get above people and use the drop to his advantage.”

“Acknowledged. We’ll keep eyes high and low. Now keep moving.” That was definitely the chief engineer, Sendia thought as she resumed her careful movements.

When she cleared the last tower and saw Tully’s back, Sendia breathed a silent sigh and gathered herself to step out and get his attention.

“Hold!” came the sharp order through her earbud.

She froze, controlling her breathing and her body as she waited.

“I have eyes on Kevvan. Repeat, I have eyes on Kevvan. Sendia, he’s on top of the tower just in front of Tully and it looks like he’s getting ready to jump.”

Sendia closed her eyes for a moment, desperately hoping she could pull off a trick she’d managed only once before. She sought internally for the link she’d accidentally formed with Tully so many years ago.

Tully! she cried, pushing her need to reach him through the link until she thought she’d pass out from the effort. Tully! BACK UP NOW!

Whether he got her message or just sensed something above him she didn’t know, but Tully suddenly leaped backward, spun, and took off directly toward Sendia. When he came abreast of the crates she was hiding behind, she grabbed his arm and pulled him toward her. “This way!” she hissed as she took off running beside him.

“Sendia, how good are you at playing keep-away?” came a new voice in her ear.

“Pretty damn good,” she replied. “Why?”

“We want you and Tully to lead Kevvan on a merry chase while we set up a trap. Can you do that?”

I can. Not sure how long Tully can hang, though.”

“Roger that. We’ll have another plan when needed. On my mark, break hard left and bring Tully with you. Three…two…one…mark!”

Sendia cut left as instructed, hearing a flurry of updates in her ear as the other team members called their updates in response to Kevvan’s actions.

“Here we go again, Sendia. This time break hard right, go past three crates on your left, then break right again.”

“Got it.”

“Break now!”

Planting her foot and pivoting mid-stride, she used herself as the fulcrum to swing Tully onto their new trajectory. Sendia just hoped this would be the shortest game of Cargo Bay Keep-Away she’d ever played. She was in excellent condition, but this was orders of magnitude more draining than the regular version of the game. Per the instructions, three crates later she swung right again, Tully seeing the direction she leaned in this time , made the turn unassisted.

“One more time, Sendia. This time tell Tully to keep running straight while you use that tower of crates at the next cross-aisle to go high.”

“Go high?” she repeated in disbelief, looking at the rapidly-approaching tower.

“Go high,” came the confirmation. “There’s a ledge halfway up where you can stop and stay hidden.”

“Okay,” she muttered, not convinced she could do it but knowing she had to try.

“Tully,” she hissed, touching his arm to make sure he heard her. “Keep running straight to the end of the aisle. Don’t stop, and don’t turn back when you see me jump. I’ll be fine.”

“What?” came his startled reply.

“Save your breath for running. Go!” With that Sendia launched herself upward, running up the side of the tower until her momentum failed and she was forced to climb instead. Moving as fast as she could, often clinging and pulling herself up with her arms until she could find another foothold, she finally made it to the ledge her spotter had seen and tucked herself into the shadows formed by an overhanging crate. There she waited, forcing herself to breathe deeply and evenly to re-saturate her body with oxygen.

“Got him!” came the triumphant cry over her earbud. “Subject is down and contained. Repeat, subject is down and contained.”

“Good work, teams,” Zi’layrus said.

Captain Rolanin spoke next. “Now let’s make sure he stays contained. Mairin, stasis cuffs on his wrists. Shoop, keep that tangleweb on him. If he struggles at all, put Amrie’s stasis cuffs on his ankles and wrap him in her bolas as well. We’ll use them to drag him to his cell.”












CHAPTER SEVEN



Aboard the Freighter Bastante, Isolation Cell

“He’s as compliant as he’s going to be, Captain. I don’t know how much information you’ll get out of him, but this is our best shot.”

Captain Rolanin was watching through the one-way viewscreen set into the cell door, and the look on his face didn’t bode well for Kevvan. “Oh, I think we have something that’ll make him talk,” he answered almost offhandedly. “Sendia? Are you ready?”

She stepped forward and Tully was right behind her, watching the captain anxiously. “Relax,”  the captain told him. “She won’t actually be in the room with him. It’s just a projection that he’ll think is her.”

Tully shook his head, still uneasy. “I’m not so sure that’ll work, Captain. Kevvan’s uncanny like that.”

Sendia put her hand on Tully’s arm. “It will work. I figured out the missing piece that will make it seem real to him.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“Trust me,” she requested. “It will work.”

He heaved a sigh before stepping back a pace. “Lead on, then. I’ll just watch and try not to say, ‘I told you so’ if it doesn’t go as planned.”

Sendia smirked at him, knowing his griping was covering the fact that he didn’t have a clue what she’d come up with to get around their issue. “Watch and learn, Tully. Watch and learn.” She spun to the face the door and reached out to tap the viewscreen in specific locations, following a pattern only she knew.

When the screen cleared again Sendia seemed to be inside the cell.

Kevvan began screaming at her as soon as he saw her. “What have you done, you little bitch? You’ve ruined everything! Everything! I was so close to achieving my task!”

“I’ve done nothing, Kevvan. I tried to leave you in peace, but you came after me. The question is, why? Why did you follow me on board? Why was it so critical that you would take out an entire ship filled with people and their families?” She stopped talking and just stood there, fists clenched and glaring at him, as she waited.

“Because you saw too much that night on Baal’t’rin when you followed me out of the city to the plateau. You saw who I met with; you were close enough to hear what was said and the promises made. You saw the Naga give me her kiss before vanishing again, and because of that, she charged me with your death. For the promises made, her price was the death of all you hold dear, either while you watched, helpless to stop it, or as part of it; that choice was mine. And the price if I don’t accomplish these tasks is my soul bound to her in servitude for eternity.”

Sendia recoiled from his now matter-of-fact recitation.

Kevvan saw it and smiled; it was a ghastly look on his scaly face. “The Naga has no patience for those who fail,” he told her. “You might as well kill me now before she shows up to do it herself. It won’t spare you her wrath, but it might buy you some time.” With that he lay back on his cot, his eyes closed and his breathing even.

Sendia took a deep breath before vanishing from the room.

“You heard?” she asked the captain as they continued observing Kevvan.

“I heard. Is it true?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Everything he said was true. I didn’t remember all the details until he jarred the rest of my memories loose just now.” She shuddered, recalling the sheer terror the Naga had aroused in her.

“So what do we do now?” the captain asked, a troubled look on his face.

“We prepare,” she replied and started heading back toward the more hospitable parts of the ship, Tully at her side.

***

Captain Rolanin tapped three very specific spots on the viewscreen. A ‘bot slid out of the wall and approached the bed, a syringe filled with a cloudy yellow liquid held in the clamp at the end of its arm. It injected the liquid directly into Kevvan’s heart, stopping it almost instantaneously. A screech rang through the captain’s head, the echoes of a distant rage almost bringing him to his knees.

“Youuuu willlll payyyy!” came the sibilant hissing of the Naga.

FINIS



AUTHOR NOTES - TRACEY BYRNES

What a wild ride! Three-quarters of this story was written in one marathon session after an agonizingly slow and often derailed beginning. Honestly, there were plenty of times I wasn’t sure it would ever make it off the ground, let alone into vibrant life. Just goes to show that when a character wants his or her story told, they make it known…vociferously! And then they have fun watching their author(s) scramble… (shakes head, mumbling to self). I’m just grateful that when Sendia was screaming her loudest (and believe me, that girl can scream), I was able to make sure her story was told.

On to the massive gratitude bombs. While there isn’t enough space to name everyone (and at this point in the writing I’d probably forget to list a bunch of ‘em anyway, LOL), there are some people who deserve special recognition for making this possible.

—Michael Anderle for opening his sandbox in the Kurtherian Gambit Universe and letting me and my fellow fans-turned-authors have the opportunity to play in it.

—The amazing team at LMBPN Publishing that takes dreams and turns them into reality. Not just for myself and my fellow authors in these anthologies, but for every author who writes and publishes under the LMBPN banner. The talent pool they collectively represent is deep.

—Craig Martelle. Yep, that Craig Martelle. Some time back, he announced that he was going to do a couple of special things for this anthology. One was writing a short story specifically for it; the other was for the authors who were selected for this volume of Fans Write. Craig, you rock.

—All the admins on the Kurtherian Fans Write Facebook page. They’re the keepers of the rules and deadlines, as well as writing coaches, cheerleaders, beta/JIT readers, authors, Information Central, and all-around genuine people. They’re right there in the thick of things, all while working on their own projects.

And finally, a heartfelt thank you to every author in the KGU for creating an ever-expanding universe I can get lost in. Your stories keep me grounded while simultaneously setting me free to fly.

Ad Aeternitatem,

Tracey




Confused Kitty

By Logan Caird

The station isn’t safe.

The Human fleet arriving in Yollin space, and taking over, made an impression—and pissed off a lot of people. Cindy Qin just wants to help the Yollin get their equipment back in working order, but people with vested interests have other ideas.

What happens when a mechanic with secrets even she doesn’t know runs into someone sabotaging a space station?

You might say the results are explosive.


Dedication

I want to thank both my wonderful parents for supporting all my creative endeavors over the years, my loving girlfriend for telling me more or less daily I need to focus on writing if I want to be an author, and Piper, my adorable (I swear!) Doxador lap warmer. Finally, I want to thank Michael Anderle for creating such a wonderful world and giving so many of us the chance to write in it.















CHAPTER ONE



Yoll Orbit, QBBS Meredith Reynolds 

Cindy Qin leaned against a cargo container in one of the shuttle bays aboard the QBBS Meredith Reynolds. She was waiting for her ride to show up. Her bag at her feet, she yawned and pulled out her tablet, pulling up a game to pass the time.

“Meredith?” she asked, tapping on her tablet.

Meredith replied through her tablet’s speaker. “The shuttle is five minutes closer than the last time you asked, Cindy.”

Cindy bounced her leg as she played on the tablet. She pushed off the wall and paced back and forth with her head down and her eyes on the screen. During each pass, she stepped over her bag without paying much attention to where it was.



Several games later Meredith spoke again.

“The shuttle will be docking momentarily.”

Cindy turned off her screen and slid the tablet into her pants pocket and grabbed her bag on her way to the door.

The carapace-covered alien standing on the other side of the airlock was easily more than two feet taller than her. He clicked his mandibles lightly together. “You should fit.”

Cindy held back a laugh. “Right, I’ll just pretend that’s a normal thing to say. Let’s go.” She walked past him into the shuttle.

The Yollin looked confused but followed her. Cindy tucked her bag into a bin on the wall and dropped into the passenger seat.

After getting approval from Meredith he pulled away from the station and turned on the autopilot.

“I assume you know my name’s Cindy. What’s yours? We’ve got a bit of a trip ahead of us, so tell me about yourself.”

The Yollin said, “My name is Keldyn, Secondary Station Engineer for space station four, of the Mont caste.”

“Nope. No more castes,” Cindy told him

Keldyn scratched his knee and rapidly tapped his mandibles together. “As you say.”

“Awkward.” Cindy made a face. “I’m an engineer too. HVAC systems and electronics mostly, but I dabble in a variety of things. Especially ship systems over the last few months.  You guys have some interesting tech. You’ll still have to tell me exactly how some of your systems work when we get there. I’m not that familiar with most of your equipment, but I’ve got a good enough general understanding that it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Keldyn gaped and his mandibles froze for a moment before he spoke. “Of course.”

“Good! Talkative one, I see. Which systems are having problems? Meredith told me your environmental systems are causing all kinds of problems, most of which started just after we got here. Do you think it’s sabotage? Accidents?”

“Laziness.” He shook his head. “Many in the lower caste have stopped working since the caste system was dismantled.”

Cindy quirked an eyebrow at the Yollin. “They’re not lower-caste anymore.”

“Yes,” Keldyn agreed. “What I meant was, those Yollins who were once lower caste no longer see any need to obey the commands of those in charge, and the station’s maintenance has suffered as a result.”

“Got it—and since they were the smallest, the people who are left can’t fit into the places where things have started to fall apart. Hence, me.”

Keldyn nodded. “Correct. We requested the smallest engineer the humans brought with them, and your artificial entity Meredith provided you.”

Cindy burst out laughing and leaned back in her chair. “Oh, that’s good. ‘Provided me.’ I’ll have to thank her for ‘providing me.’”

Keldyn paused to consider, then tapped his mandibles together several times. “She did not say you would be so…energetic.”

“I’m feisty. ‘Energetic’ is for reactions. I’ve been meaning to ask, but keep forgetting to corner a Yollin—where’s the best place to go diving on Yoll? I’ve got vacation time coming up, and it’s been almost two years since I’ve been able to go diving. Getting antsy.”

Kelydn’s mandibles were getting a workout today. “I do not think the translation software is working correctly. The worddive’ means to jump out of an aircraft. Is that what you want to do?”

“No, I don’t mean jumping out of a plane. I mean going down below the water to look at the plants and animals under the ocean. We call it ‘scuba diving.’”

The Yollin jerked back, his mandibles tapping rapidly…again. “You do this on purpose?”

“As often as I can. It’s great! On my home planet, it was the only way that I could experience something like an alien world. The creatures living down there were nothing like the ones on the surface. I could float under the water for hours on end, watching fish swim past, exploring the corals. I bet you guys have some great beaches and amazing coral. On Earth, I love fan coral. They come in dozens of colors, and even deep down without color they look beautiful.”

Keldyn’s mandibles tapped fast enough to hum. “Cindy!”

Cindy held her hands up. “What?”

“Yollins do not swim. We sink.” He pointed to his exoskeleton.

“Virgin ocean. Holy shit, that is awesome. Wait, are there laws against it? What would people do if I went down to some random beach and dove into the water?”

“Assume you were killing yourself,” he replied flatly.

They were interrupted by an announcement from the overhead speaker.

“Shuttle Six-Two, this is Space Station Four. Dock in Bay One-Six-Seven.”

Keldyn keyed the shuttle’s comm. “Acknowledged Space Station Four. Moving to Bay One-Six-Seven.”

 “No wonder you’re having issues,” Cindy muttered.

“I do not know what you mean.”

“Nothing I’m sure. My dad always said four was an unlucky number.”

He lightly clicked his mandibles together but said nothing before flying the shuttle into the dock.


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four 

Keldyn reached for Cindy’s bag as he got up from the pilot seat.

She stuck a foot out and held the bin closed. “Nope. I got it.”

“Security will want to look through it when we board the station.”

 “Good for them. I can still carry my own bag.” She grabbed the item in question and headed for the door. Keldyn shrugged awkwardly and followed her out of the shuttle.

When they got to the checkpoint Cindy held out her bag and barked, “Gunnery Se…err, Cindy Qin, engineer. I’m here to help.”

The Yollin, another of the two-legged variety, accepted her bag and set it on the table. “Welcome to Space Station Four, Cindy Qin. The station commander is busy with other tasks today, but hopes you will work with Keldyn to resolve our difficulties.”

“Fine by me,” she told the Yollin. “I don’t like chatting with the brass much anyway.”

The Yollin pulled the toolbox from her bag and peered inside. “Are any of these weapons?”

“Nope.” Cindy unsheathed her Ka-Bar and set it on the table. “This is, though.”

The Yollin shrugged, still eyeing the open toolbox. “That blade is no threat. You do not have any guns?”

“No weapons to declare, Mr. Security Yollin.” Cindy snickered and sheathed the Ka-Bar.

The Yollin slid the toolbox back into the bag and pushed it across the table toward her. “You are cleared.”

Keldyn walked past the security checkpoint. “This way. While I was out picking you up, the base suffered further damage. One of the environmental systems has been acting up for several weeks, but now it has completely shut down.”

Cindy slung her bag over her shoulder. “How many environmental systems do you have, and what happened when this one started to fail?”

“Sixteen total. This is number…” He paused and glanced in her direction. “It is number four.”

Cindy snorted and waved for him to continue.

“It started with a bad smell, then the airflow slowed, and it completely shut down three hours ago.”

 “What kind of smell?” she asked.

“Like a failing air filter. Organic, mild rot. It faded after a day.”

“If you were able to smell it for a full day, why didn’t you have someone fix it then?”

Keldyn tapped his mandibles together. “The door to the room where we change the air filters for that system stopped functioning a month before the smell.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but what the hell?”

“I do not know this word ‘hell,’ or what it is,” he stated.

They reached the maintenance room and Cindy pulled her coveralls out of her bag and put them on. She fixed him with a wry look as she pulled the zipper up. “Better that way. Okay, if the door failed, I should fix that first. Then we can both look at the environmental system. Easy enough.”

“No.”

“No?” she asked.

“No. We repaired the mechanism, but something inside the room has fused with the door. The motor nearly burned out again trying to open. It cannot be fixed from outside.”

Toolbelt halfway around her hips, Cindy froze.

Keldyn looked behind him and back at Cindy. “Is something amiss?”

“I’m realizing that I’m going to be here longer than I thought. I’m going to need a blowtorch and some kind of pick or solvent to remove whatever buildup sealed that door shut.”

Keldyn gestured around the room. “This room was restocked yesterday. You may use any tools or equipment you can find here. Only tell me, and I will attempt to acquire anything else you might need.”

Cindy made a circuit of the room, picking up a tool here and a can there. A few tools she kept, hooking them to her belt, and the rest she packed into her bag. “If the door is jammed, how am I getting in?”

“The ducts for the environmental systems are large enough for you to move through them.”

 “Lead on.”


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four, Environmental Subsystem Four

Keldyn stopped in the hallway and pointed at a panel in the ceiling. “This is the closest duct to the damaged system. Behind this panel is a maintenance hatch.”

He gave her directions which way to go through the ducts to reach the number four system room. Even with this being the closest entrance, it would still be a good distance.

Cindy looked up at the duct. “When I get near the end do I need to worry about fans? Some kind of electrical air pump? Pneumatics?”

“The system has failed. Nothing is running.”

Cindy glared at the Yollin. “And if it was?”

“Electromagnetic fields filter and evenly recirculate the air. If it was working properly you would be unable to bring metal into the ducts because it would stick to the walls. The air pressure would not be sufficient to harm you.”

Cindy nodded. “Good. I have to fix the door first, because otherwise I won’t be able to leave the room once I get the system up and running.”

“I had not considered that.”

“Two heads and all that,” she quipped.

He was horrified. “Are there humans with two heads?”

Cindy cracked up. “Well, that depends on who you ask. Actually, scratch that—no. It’s just a saying. I mean that sometimes a second person can see something the first one missed.”

“That is true.”

“OK, give me a lift.”

“Give you a what?”

 “Help me so I can get into the duct. You may have noticed that I’m short.”

“Of course,” Keldyn told her. He knelt to make it easy for her to step onto his shoulders, and she pushed the hatch open once she was up.

“You are heavier than you appear,” Keldyn complained.

 “You must be single,” she snarked.  She pulled herself up into the ceiling and stuck her head back out of the hatch. “Do you have a comm so I can reach you if I need anything?”

“Meredith gave us the protocols to communicate with you through your tablet. She said you could use the standard communication applet.”

“That works. I promise I’ll call. Wish me luck.” With that, she pulled the hatch closed behind her and crawled down the duct.

As small as she was, Cindy had difficulty getting past some of the corners. At one point she had to pry off a deformed metal bar that had been fused at an angle across her path. She tucked it into a cargo pocket on her coveralls and kept going.

After she’d crawled for nearly twenty minutes, the air started to smell musky and heavy with organics. When Cindy opened the hatch into the systems room she gagged on the stench of ammonia and rot.

The engineer coughed several times, covering her mouth with her elbow, and her eyes watered in protest. She dropped back several feet and coughed some more to clear her lungs. With the hatch open the stench in the room started to clear, though the smell in the duct got worse.

She called Keldyn from her tablet. “Made it to the environmental room. Smells horrible. I’ll find the source and call back.”

Cindy coughed several more times, then held her breath and stuck her head into the room and exclaimed, “Ay! Freaking space rats!”

Crawling all over the floor of the room were dozens of two- to three-foot-long rodents. Each had exoskeletal plates on their sides and a row of spines running down their backs down to the tips of their tails. Their six legs helped them grip the wall as they started toward her.

She yanked the metal rod out of her cargo pocket and swung at the approaching vermin. The first hit sent one flying, but they were climbing faster than she could knock them away.

Cindy pulled herself back up and unsheathed her Ka-Bar, then stuck her upper body through the hatch again. Knife in one hand, rod in the other, she stabbed, bashed, and kicked the swarming creatures away. She killed many and dazed enough of the others that eventually the attack petered out.

Many of the creatures got past her and headed through the ducts into other parts of the station. Breathing heavily, Cindy pushed several corpses out of the way and looked down into the room.

Dios mío, space-freaking-rats.” She pulled herself back into the duct to clean and sheath her knife, stuck the rod in her cargo pocket again, and lowered herself carefully to the floor.

She was drenched in sweat, and her coveralls were covered in bloody rat bits.

She pulled out the neck of her shipsuit and fanned herself, but the air in the room was too hot to make a difference so she undid the top of the coveralls. After tying the arms around her hips she fanned herself with her t-shirt, which helped.

Most of the room was covered in rat debris. That included the door, where their droppings had fused with the door to stop it from moving.

 She poured some of the solvent on the nest. Acrid smoke burst out of it, she stumbled back covering her mouth with her arm. Eyes watering she waited for the smoke to clear, and sighed. Other than making a mess it didn’t do anything. She tried the pick, with similar results, so she called Keldyn.

He answered immediately. “Have you found the source of the problem?”

“Space rats. Three-foot-long things with armor plates, spikes on their backs, and six legs. Their nest covers the room.”

“Yelnak-barook. Those pests always find a way onto stations.”

Cindy continued, “Whatever you want to call them, I don’t think this door is going to open. You’re going to have to blow it.”

“That is unfortunate. Is there damage to the main systems?”

“Haven’t checked. I’ll clear some of this nest away and let you know.”

“Thank you. What happened to the yelnak?”

“Killed a lot, and a bunch more got into the air ducts. Have fun hunting them.” She ended the call.

Cindy picked her way over to the machinery. When she got near the main console, the maintenance panel was already clear. Chunks of the rat nest lay on the ground below it, and the latch on the panel was broken off.

She pulled out a rubber hammer and used it to lever the panel open a few inches. When nothing happened, she shined a flashlight inside.

The unit had been set manually to Off, and inside was a little black box with a thin wire running from it to a patch of glue on the panel. Opening the door only a few inches had pulled the wire tight; any farther and it would likely have snapped.

She slowly backed away and pulled out her tablet, but before she could call Keldyn something scrabbled at the hatch she’d used to get into the room—something louder than the rats.

When Cindy ducked behind one of the machines to shield her from view she almost fell over an open cage. A moment later a blue head and two short arms poked into the room, gun at the ready.

She held perfectly still as the four-legged alien swung into the room, hanging by its legs from a pipe across the ceiling.

It flicked out a long tongue as it scanned the space, and a moment later it coughed and shook its head, then pulled itself back through the hatch and closed it.


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four, Environmental Ducts

Cindy waited until she couldn’t hear the alien’s retreat before coming out from behind the machinery. She frowned at the rat cage, glanced at the door with a sigh, and pulled herself through the hatch. Crouching, she listened. She could hear faint movements down some ducts she had not been in.

She pulled out her tablet to call it in, but it had no connection. Moving with deliberation she followed the alien, pausing at each intersection to make sure it was still in front of her.

There was a sudden screech of metal grinding on metal and Cindy crept toward the noise. She wiped her Ka-Bar on her shirt sleeve and, using it as a mirror to peer around the corner, she saw the alien open a hatch and drop through.

She crawled to the lip of the hatch and glanced down, but ducked back immediately. She closed her eyes to picture the image of the room. Empty. She leaned forward again to get a better look.

Below was a locker room that hadn’t been cleaned or used for some time. Paths through the dust showed that more than one of these aliens was using the room now, and she could hear voices coming from farther back in the room.

She lowered herself into the room and each step took her closer to the voices but they were speaking too quietly for her to hear. Her tablet still had no signal, so she set it to record both audio and video and glanced around the corner—only to find one of the aliens staring straight at her.

Five of them stood in a circle, and the one who had seen her grabbed its gun and started firing wildly.

Cindy ran. The energy blasts sparked when they hit the lockers, but missed her as she ducked behind anything she could use as cover. She slammed into the exit door, but it didn’t budge.

A bolt of energy from one of the guns punched through her left bicep as she yanked the door open. She pushed through it and sprinted down the hall.


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four, Maintenance Tunnels

Cindy ran into a different part of the station from where she’d come in. Exposed pipes ran across the ceiling, and the walls were covered with dials and panels. She sprinted for the nearest corner, reaching it just before the aliens burst from the locker room.

One of the pipes next to her blew apart when the aliens fired again. She dropped a chair across her path, then jumped off the catwalk to the floor below. She stumbled when she hit the ground, then hissed and grabbed her arm. Blood poured between her fingers as she headed for a nearby maintenance hatch.

The aliens were fast. She wasn’t even halfway there when they dropped to the floor behind her and started firing again, but she dodged their shots and finally slid into the open hatch. After she slammed it shut she kicked the latch down, and the aliens started pounding on it from the other side.

She pulled out her tablet and exclaimed, “You have got to be kidding.”

The screen was a spiderweb of cracks, and it would not turn on. She hurled it to the floor and it shattered.

The aliens hit the hatch hard enough to shove Cindy back, so she yanked out her Ka-Bar and jammed it under the door to keep it from opening farther.

She unhooked her tool belt and slipped the tools off, then used the belt to tie a folded square of cloth from her coverall over her wound, cursing softly and gritting her teeth against the pain. “Same arm the Iraqis blew off. At least this time it’s just mostly useless instead of gone.”

She ran down the maintenance tunnel and started looking for a way back to the main part of the station, but had only made it a few hundred feet before her ka-bar was dislodged and the hatch flew open. She dodged into a side-passage—and straight into a tangled mass of deformed piping.

The aliens wasted no time. One of them rounded the corner and opened fire. Throwing her arm up to block her face, Cindy screamed in rage—

And changed.

One moment she was certain she was going to die, the next her shirt ripped apart as she sprouted fur and a full set of feline teeth, then her form rippled and she became a tiger. Her already-loose coveralls stretched enough to stay on her back legs and around her middle, but her feet shrank and fell right out of her boots.

The alien gave a wet, gurgling scream and stopped in its tracks. Cindy pounced and crushed its neck, then roared at the rest.

Now they were running from her.


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four, Maintenance Tunnels

The aliens scattered, but the closest didn’t even make it out of the tunnel before Cindy caught up and removed its back legs with a swipe of one massive clawed paw. She jumped over it to continue her pursuit and…

The back of her coveralls snagged on the flailing, screaming alien and she sprawled in a heap. Cindy snarled and crushed the alien’s head with her jaws,  then pulled her coverall free of the corpse and prowled into a maintenance room.

She could hear even more clearly now. The remaining three had each gone a different way, so she chose one and ran toward it, leaping onto a table and up to the catwalk above.

Moving as quickly and silently as she could, she tracked the alien back to the locker room, but the door was closed. She sniffed the panel; it was nearby.

Cindy backed up, got a running start, and jumped to the pipes that ran across the ceiling, then walked along the tops until she could look down into the locker room.

The alien was crouched behind an overturned garbage can with its gun aimed at the door. It flicked its tongue out, extending it at least a foot from its mouth, and cocked its head to the side.

She positioned herself above and behind it, then leapt and crushed it to the floor under her weight. One twist of her jaws snapped the alien’s spine.

She growled and batted its gun away, then left the room to track down the next. She was finding that walking on the pipes gave her enough room to move easily without being obvious.

She rounded a corner and came face to face with one of the aliens, but this time she reacted first. One swipe of her claws knocked the gun out of its hand— and took the hand with it—but didn’t kill the alien. She lunged and slammed into it, knocking it off the pipes, and it bounced off the wall on the way down.

The alien wasn’t moving, but it was still breathing, which was enough. She left it there to track down the last one.

She returned to the hatch they’d cornered her behind and sniffed at the ground. Apparently, even as a tiger I don’t have a very good sense of smell. Her tail swished as she deliberated which of the two remaining directions to take.

Cindy paused every few dozen feet to listen as she headed down the hallway. As she padded past a closed door she heard a high-pitched buzzing noise that sounded like static, so she got closer to listen.

The static was louder near the door, but over it she could hear fast, scared, wet breathing. The pipes didn’t run this far down the tunnel, and the room behind this door didn’t have any windows. How to get in?

She stepped to the side of the door against the wall and stretched one paw out to push the lever down.

Bzzzzt crack!

The door blew open as the alien fired wildly, and Cindy jerked out of the line of fire and waited for it to spend its rounds.

It took several minutes. Those guns have impressive magazines, she thought ruefully. She was starting to get impatient.

The gunfire slowed, then stopped.

Cindy wasn’t sure whether it was out of bullets or had just gotten control of itself so she continued to crouch, waiting. The alien stood up and knocked one of the mops in the closet over, then jumped backward in fright, firing two more shots and obliterating the mop. That answered that.

Cindy slammed into it and knocked the gun out of its hands, then flipped it over and pinned it to the ground with her massive paw.

The alien froze in place when she glared at it and let out a deep growl. Its eyes rolled up, and it passed out.

Cindy sat back. Things were settling down, so she took the time to fully explore the changes to her body. She was both tiger and human! As she thought about it, her body rippled again and she shifted back to her human form.

Her coveralls had mostly survived the ordeal, but everything else was in tatters. When she pulled the coveralls up over her shoulders she found that the zipper was broken.

You,” she pointed at the alien, “are buying me new clothes.”

She created a makeshift top from the excess cloth, tying the sleeves around her neck.

Once she was satisfied—though not happy—with the results, she searched the alien and stripped it of anything electronic. She put her booty in the bag it had on its back—which she also took—and tied it up.


Yoll Orbit, Space Station Four, Main Tunnels

Cindy strolled into the main tunnels of Space Station Four with one unconscious alien over her shoulder and another stumbling at her side, one hand tied to its front leg in a way that restricted its movements. The other arm ended in a stump that was tied off with its belt.

When she found a part of the station she thought she recognized she started yelling, “Keldyn! Where are you? Come out, you overgrown yelnak!”

A four-legged Yollin stepped out of a door down the hall and gawked at her, clacking his mandibles. “What are you doing here, human?”

She jerked the alien at her side in front of her. “Saving your station. Who are you?”

The Yollin moved toward her. “I am Stationmaster Eorac. Who are you, and what are you doing with those Vlex?”

The stationmaster was easily four feet taller than her, so she tossed the Vlex she was carrying at his feet. Eorac reared back, his front feet barely missing the unconscious alien on the floor.

Cindy poked the prone Vlex with her toe. “These Vlex—is that the race’s name?—were sabotaging your facilities, Stationmaster. I am Cindy Qin, the engineer you requested to help fix your jacked-up station. You didn’t mention I’d be fighting aliens or I’d have brought a gun.”

Eorac nudged the Vlex with his foot and asked, “Is it alive?”

“I assume so. It’s breathing, and this one is barely injured.” She shoved the one standing next to her toward the Station Master. “Good news—they’re your problem now. Where’s medical? They shot me.”

Eorac indicated the hall behind him. “Six corridors that way, on the right.” He looked her up and down. “That is a lot of blood.”

Cindy looked down at herself and shrugged.“Most of it isn’t mine. Right, about that…there are three more dead Vlex in the maintenance tunnels back there. Also, someone put the yelnak-barook in that systems room on purpose.”

“One small unarmed human took out five armed Vlex? I find that hard to believe.”

Cindy grinned. “If you think that’s impressive, just imagine what my Queen can do.”





AUTHOR NOTES - PAUL BARKLEY

April 25, 2018


Thank you for reading one of the first, though hopefully not the last, of my writings in the Kurtherian Gambit Universe. I’ve been telling stories for almost twenty years, though most of them have been in the form of Dungeons and Dragons games. Last January, though, my mom died, and it gave me a bit of a shock. Since then I’ve actively focused on planning out a writing career. Life is too short to do anything less than what you love, and I love telling stories.


This story in particular nearly wrote itself. I posted a list of ideas to the KGU Fans Write group and this one was the most popular by far (ten votes vs four for the next most popular). The next day I outlined it, and that night I wrote it! Cindy is a blast to write, although I gotta admit she became a lot snarkier than I originally expected.


I hope you liked my story. I look forward to having more to tell. If you liked it enough to want to hear from me, please stop by my site LoganCaird.com and sign up for my mailing list, or follow me on Facebook at  Logan Caird. I’ll let you know, through both of those, when I write anything new.


—Logan Caird




Bek

By C. R. Wood

She was 14 and invisible in her own family. Constantly pestered by her brother’s friend, she hid in plain sight to avoid everyone. Only a vicious attack by blood thirsty pirates could bring her out of the shadows.


Dedication

To all the fans who supported Michael Anderle to make The Kurtherian Universe a hit and continue to support their fellow fans in Fans Write with encouragement, suggestions, and affection. You are all awesome people.










Planet Coraxa, Alaxar Trinary, Near the Etheric Federation’s Borders

My name is Bek. Okay, it is really “Rebecca Skye McKenzie,” but I prefer “Bek.” Of course, no one actually calls me by my preferred name, because I am the invisible sibling. They mostly call me Becca. I am taller than average, and although my blue eyes and red hair are typical for our family I have an athletic build, unlike most of the McKenzie females. I keep my hair buzzed because I don’t want to fuss with it in the morning.

I belong to Clan McKenzie, which started the McKenzie Trading Company. Our family came from Earth with Bethany Anne and did some general trading on the Meredith until my da and our master trader, Padraig McKenzie, moved us to Coraxa. Now we run the Coraxa Trading Post. We trade with the other planets of the trinary, and we’re a clandestine emergency supply depot for the Etheric Federation.

The trading post, which was built like a fortress with plastcrete walls, armored gates, and weapon turrets, is a couple of miles outside the city. It has a bunker in one corner, and the rest of the compound is comprised of a series of walled residences, workshops, warehouses, fields, barns, and business buildings.

Our family is my da, my ma, and seven kids. Brandon is the oldest at nineteen, and he’s a master-at-arms for the security team. Fiona is the oldest girl at seventeen and my ma's favorite (she will deny it, but you can tell). She is training with Ma to become the family’s housekeeper and cook. We don't have servants, and never will. Devon at sixteen is the third kid. He's not sure what he wants be, so he is interning in various departments of the company. I am the fourth child at fourteen and I want to be on the security team, but they don’t allow girls—which is one of the reasons I am angry all the time. According to my da McKenzies don’t show their anger, but…

Anyway, twelve-year-old Gordon, Ian, who’s ten, and Seonaid, who at eight is the baby of the family, are all in school. They don’t have company or family jobs yet. In our family schooling is intense from five through twelve, then it's time to do something productive.

I don't know a lot about our clan’s history. I was born on Coraxa, and McKenzies aren’t big on educating their young on ‘unnecessary topics’ like history, especially the girls.

My da asked me to record my experiences during the attack. What attack, you plaintively ask? Wait for it…

My day usually is pretty routine. I get up early to do my chores—I got the ones I wanted, mainly because no one else would take them and I prefer to be alone. I get up very early to shower in the communal bathhouse, because I don’t like other people around when I'm naked. My first chore is to clean the bathhouse, so I combine that with showering.

Now, I don't want to give the impression we're a commune. We're more like a military unit, because trading requires effectiveness and efficiency. Margins are thin out where we trade, and we are very successful because we are so disciplined.

My next chore is to tend the chickens, which are in a separate barn, and bring in the overnight eggs for breakfast. Then I eat with the family, because Ma insists that everyone be there for breakfast and supper. I consume my habitual four eggs, four pieces of bacon (okay, six pieces of bacon, but who’s counting), two glasses of whole milk, and a large helping of hash browns inside of twelve minutes. My Ma often comments that she can't understand how I'm so thin when I eat so much, but no one else notices. I'm invisible, remember?

  I wait in the pantry until I know everyone has left the girls’ dorm and I clean it while they’re all gone for their morning ablutions. They all know better than to mess up the dorm after I've finished. When I first started this chore it took about a week to explain the consequences of messing up my work to the other girls. Don't worry, there were no permanent injuries.

My company job is storekeeper, which means I keep the inventory of all our trade goods. It used to take three people to maintain those records, but when I started my internship in Stores my Aunt Kristie, our family’s master planner, gifted me an EI and I taught it to keep an accurate and timely inventory during my first year on the job. At first it was difficult to get the salespeople and receiving clerks to send my EI exact and prompt reports of sales and receipts, but over a couple of months they learned that failure to do so had uncomfortable consequences.

I remember a conversation with one particularly stubborn receiving clerk.

“So, Thomas, your receipt report was late again and was extremely inaccurate.” 

“So what? You're not my boss, and I don't answer to you.”

“You are correct, Thomas. You can do what you want, but I will report your incompetence to the master trader at dinner tonight. He’s my da, you know.”

“Yeah, I don’t work for him either.”

“That's true, but you might want to consider that your boss went to university with my Da and they play rugby together every month in the local league. Your boss might consider that a more competent man might make his life easier—but that’s up to you. I did want to say I was sorry to hear they put you on the security watch this weekend and you won’t be able to get away with your girlfriend as you planned. I’m sure some other guy will be happy to fill in for you.”

He took a step toward me. “You bitch. If you had anything to do with that, I will track you down and give you a right beating.” 

“Take it easy, Thomas. First, how could I have had anything to do with that? And second,” I said, casually pulling the dagger my da gave me for my twelfth birthday, “I will remove your wedding tackle if you ever come at me with ill intentions. I'm sure you know how the McKenzies handle attacks on our family.”

Somehow I found ways to…um, negotiate with those who were not eager to toe the line. Just because I’m the invisible sibling doesn’t mean I can’t become very visible when I need to convince someone not to mess with me. Now the work that took three full-time people—verifying the input reports, running trending charts, and managing stocking levels—takes me four afternoons a week. I spend one afternoon a week with my Aunt Kristie learning from her five decades of trading experience. And I can work alone; no one bothers me as long as I do my job well. Yay, me!


Yeah, I know, what about the attack? Hold your horses! You've got to understand the situation before you can understand what went down. Don't worry, I'm getting there.

Where was I? Oh, yeah…Festival. Once a year the trading post has a Customer Appreciation Festival, where we wine and dine our regular customers—and coincidentally hold a trade fair to show off our goods.

I hate Festival. Why? Because I must wear a dress, and smile, and mingle per my mother’s edict. Shove Festival up your fourth point of contact! (Ancient paratrooper reference, look it up. There are history subjects I like, so I make it a point to study them on my own.) Why do I have to take part in this dastardly abomination? I’m a storekeeper, for Odin’s sake. I keep records; I don’t deal with customers. I hate customers! They always want to talk to you, and ask you questions, and be friends with you.

I don't do friends. I became a storekeeper because they don't have public contact, and I maintain the inventory because I don't even want to deal with the other people in the company. Why don't my ma and da get that? I. Am. Not. A. People. Person. Sometimes I'm not even sure I'm a person. Enough ranting. Yes, Da, I am calm. No one can see my frustration. I am a still pond on a quiet summer day. Sure I am. Smile!

Back to Festival. So, I’m wandering around, aiming for the areas with the fewest people as if they were clearings in a forest. I wear a slight smile and I peer into the distance as if mesmerized by some glorious vista. I’m wearing the most boring loose grey dress, which covers everything from my neck to my shoes and my wrists. I sport ugly beige gloves, and the dress’s hood conceals my buzz-cut red hair. I am largely successful at avoiding interaction with the milling crowd, and when someone does address me I nod dully and murmur, “Ummm hmmm,” and drift away.

Suddenly, as I veer toward an opening in the throng, my nemesis Sean confronts me. He is on the security team with my brother and is also his best friend. He’s tall, buff, and too good looking. I would like to get to know him better, but he is so hateful to me, plus he’s my brother’s friend. It could never work. He is also the only one in the company who views me as a real person besides my parents, but he never fails to pester me whenever he tracks me down. I want to sneak into his room one night and drive a stake through his heart, but I’m sure I would get in a lot of trouble if I did—and I’m not sure it would get rid of him.

Back to the interaction.

“Becca.” He nods.

“S,” I reply.

“It’s ‘Sean,’” he says.

“It’s Bek.”

“You look so nice in a dress, Becca.” He grins, knowing I hate dresses.

“You look like a right idiot in your oh-so-corporate buttoned-up, buttoned-down prim-and-proper business suit. Trying to impress the customers, are we?”

“Can’t you just say thank you, Becca?”

“Can’t you?”

“Your comment wasn’t a compliment.”

“Neither was yours.”

“But, Becca, I had the best of intentions.”

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, though I doubt you’ve ever had one. In any case, why don’t you stay the hell away from me, you irritating dunce?”

“Becca, why so negative?”

“I'm afraid that I have been as positive as I am able in your presence. You should be grateful I haven’t treated you in the manner you so richly deserve. My parents raised me not to return hate for hate, so I have no more to say to you now, or ever.”

“But, Becca, I don’t hate you!”

“So you say, but I cannot imagine how much worse you would treat me if you did. Good day to you, sir and I implore you not to trouble me again this day.”

With that Parthian shot (history again) I moved swiftly toward the food tent. Glancing back, I noticed Sean standing dumbstruck. What was his problem? I moved quickly through the food tent and slipped into my office in the central warehouse, where I locked the door and tried to think of what horrible sin I had committed to deserve a fate as bad as Sean.

After about an hour, I took some hidden passageways to my dorm and changed into my regular attire—a patterned pair of cargo pants and a long sleeve T-shirt that let me fade into the background inside the compound or outside in the lush greenery of the countryside. On the weekends I would wander outside the walls, blending into the vegetation, tracking the wildlife, occasionally taking a small animal for my meal, and generally living off the land. It was the one place I could be me. I had the dagger Da gave me, a 3mm pistol my aunt gave me as a reward for solving the EI inventory programming problem for her, and a 5mm rifle my Da gave me for my thirteenth birthday. I added suppressors to both pistol and rifle so I wouldn’t disturb the animals when hunting and I kept a full supply of ammunition in my dorm safe, paid for by my salary. I considered taking off into the bush but it would have disappointed my da if I left during Festival.

I had gotten a bunch of work done and was thinking I should go back and mingle some more when the alarm siren blared, which only went off if there was an attack. I jumped up to get my armored vest, pistol, rifle, extra magazines, and all the extra ammo I could carry. Good thing I had changed into my regular clothes when I got here. Through a window that overlooked the Festival site, I saw everyone racing for shelter as a dozen Skaine poured through the open gate. Holy cow patties! You know about Skaines, right? Thin blue-skinned pirates with large heads and bulbous blue eyes who are notorious for raiding, killing, and enslaving?

I opened the window and started to concentrate on taking down the Skaines inside our perimeter. One vicious brute was preparing to bash in a woman’s head and I put a bullet through his, sure the building behind him would prevent penetration. Good thing those scurvy slimeballs had big heads; I couldn't miss. Someone had closed the gate, and I continued to drop the vermin until  the security team that had been patrolling the Festival was reinforced and I could stand down.

I took a deep breath and counted the casualties. Medics were treating most of them, but it looked like a couple of them were gone. Rats!

When I called the emergency number, my brother Brandon answered and I cut him off with, “Did any Skaines get into any of the buildings?”

“No, we got them locked down in time, and the security cameras show the outside areas are clear. We're doing a camera audit to ensure we have accounted for every one who made it through the gates. Thankfully someone took out about half of them before the security team got there and took down the rest.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What? Becca, you’re not Security. You’re not allowed to engage.”

“Yeah, well, tell that to the five people I saved by putting a bullet through a Skaine's head before he could stick them or bash in their head. I'm prepared to answer for my actions.”

I ended the connection.

I could tell by the firing from the turrets and the walls that we weren’t done with the Skaines yet. What if they had heavy weapons or explosives? Could they breach the walls? I pulled some homemade grenades and explosive packs from my wall safe. I might be a girl, but I planned ahead. Who knew when we would need efficient ways of stopping an attacker? I had mentioned this to my da once, but he’d figured I didn’t know anything about that stuff, so I did what I always do—I took care of it myself.

I was an expert at avoiding others and had worked out many ways to get around and in and out of the compound without being seen, so it wasn't long until I was moving through a drainage ditch outside the walls. Scout first, know your enemy, I thought. I moved silently through the heavy vegetation until I found an open tent where Skaines were issuing orders to communications operators and couriers were going in and out. One seriously big Skaine was standing at the back watching everybody and occasionally yelling at another Skaine.

I moved on and found a large group heading toward the back wall of the compound, several of them carrying man-portable rockets. Well, crap on toast! That couldn’t be not good. I crept about twenty meters from the Skaines and contacted my brother on my communicator, trusting the thick foliage to muffle my voice. “There’s a large group with several rockets heading toward the back wall. They should be there in ten minutes or so.”

“How do you know, Becca?” he yelled.

“Hold the noise down, jerkface. I am out scouting the Skaine positions, and I saw them assembling and heading out toward the back wall. Do we have any mortars or whatever?”

“What are you doing out there? Get back inside right now,” he hissed in a lower tone.

“I’m helping make sure I have a safe place to live, now shut up and get someone on that back wall to take out those rockets.”

Orders were shouted in the background that included “and make sure our best snipers are there.”

My brother came back. “Okay, we’ve got it covered. Why do you want to know if we have mortars?”

“Because I’ve got their headquarters position and I can direct the fire if you have that capability.”

“Oh… Well, unfortunately, we don't but the planetary militia are on their way and they do. Give me the coordinates and I'll let them know.” I gave him the numbers and he passed them on then got back to me. “Thank you, now get your little butt back inside the walls before it gets shot off.”

“Yeah, I’m on it, bro. I’ll get back to you if I have any more intel.”

I closed the connection. After scouting around some more, I nailed down the other Skaine positions. The snipers and the Skaines were duking it out on the back wall, and I took the opportunity to slide by and take out three rocket carriers from behind—which they figured was sniper action. I love my rifle; it's quiet, accurate, and deadly.

I headed toward the path the militia would have to take and tied a red bandana to a tree branch with a note pinned to the material:


My name is Bek. I am a McKenzie from the trading post. I am a friendly and have intel on the Skaine positions. Please don’t shoot me


About minutes later the militia came down the path in tactical formation with two men on point about ten meters ahead of the group, with carts in the back carrying mortars and ammunition. The man on my right noticed the bandana and held up his right fist. The formation stopped and stepped into cover within the foliage. The man slowly came forward to the bandana while his partner covered him with his rifle. He read the note and moved backward to his previous position. He passed the note to his companion, who trotted back to the main formation. A few minutes and a brief conversation with another man in the formation had the companion trotting back to the other point man. “Bek, can you hear me?” he asked in a low voice.

“Yep,” I returned at the same volume.

“Can you come out so we can see you?”

“If I hold my empty hands out into the path, will you come to me so we can talk? I am concerned one of your men may be nervous and shoot me.”

“Okay. Cover me, Sam.”

I held my hands out into the pathway and he moved carefully to my position. He shifted his rifle to his left arm and shook my hand, looking me in the eye. “Good to meet you, Bek. I'm Ranger.” He continued, with a surprised look on his face, “You're a girl.”

“You’re very astute, Ranger. How did you guess?”

“Even dressed to hide your shape and your short hair, I can tell from your face you’re definitely female. And if I had to guess, I would say you’re about thirteen?”

“Fourteen, but you’re good, Ranger. You have sisters?”

“You got me, Bek. What do you have for us?”

“If you got coordinates for the Skaine headquarters, they’re from me. I also have coordinates and rough counts for each of their other formations.” I passed him my notes with the coordinates and counts. “Except for several rockets at the back wall, they don't seem to have heavy weapons. Each grunt has a bolt-action rifle and some kind of sword or machete. About half their officers are at the headquarters, it looks like, and there is a really large officer controlling the whole thing with communicators and couriers. If you want, I can probably take him out. Oh, and I have six grenades and four explosive packs if you can use them.”

“Good report, Bek. Let’s get with my lieutenant and see what he wants to do.”

The lieutenant thanked me for the intel and invited me to stay while he and his Sergeant planned their attack. At the end he turned to me and asked, “Any advice?”

“You may want to signal the compound when you’re about to attack so they don’t fire on you folks. Also, I can walk your indirect fire into the headquarters if you want.”

“Good idea. I will signal them before our attack. And how accurate are your coordinates?”

“Spot-on. I used the latest satellite mapping system receiver we stock. It has an invisible ranging laser and an azimuth direction determination system. I recorded the visual center of the formations and the exact center of the headquarters tent.”

“Right, so we won’t need you as a spotter then. How do you feel about taking out the general before we call in the indirect fire so we know he’s down?”

“I can do that. My rifle is suppressed, I can’t miss his big head, and I will be lost in the bush before they know what happened.”

“That works. I’ll call you when we’re set, you call me when the deed is done, and I will initiate the mortar fire followed by the movement to contact. Make sure you’re clear before you call. I’d say around forty minutes until we’re set. That work for you?”

“Works. Don’t forget to call. I get seriously annoyed when I give a boy my number and he doesn’t call.”

Lieutenant Phillips guffawed and responded, “You’re a real piece of work, Bek. Do you want to take Ranger with you as backup?”

I thought for a minute. “That would be great, if you can spare him.”

“You’ve got him. With your scouting, we have his expertise covered.”

“You up for it, Ranger?” He nodded and we headed overland. As we moved through the undergrowth, I noticed Ranger was as stealthy as I was. We should have no problem making it to the headquarters in time.

A while later my communicator flashed and I answered it. We were hunkered down within five hundred and sixty meters of the headquarters tent and its was commander in plain sight. “Set, over,” I heard as I answered.

“Roger that, out here,” I replied.

I snugged my rifle tightly into my shoulder, took careful aim, and smoothly took up the slack on the trigger. The large ugly Skaine jerked as a small hole appeared in his forehead, and in less than a second another hole appeared in nearly the same place. He started to fall back, so I prodded Ranger and we headed out into the bush. Five minutes and a number of changes of direction later I called the lieutenant. “Clear, target down, over.”

“Roger, out.”

Mortar shells briefly fell on the headquarters, followed by silence. The other formations of Skaine were hit by mortars in sequence, with short ground battles after each bombardment. Ranger and I were performing a sweep of the headquarters area when a hidden Skaine jumped out of a bush behind me, looped his left arm around my neck, and waved a wicked curved blade in front of my eyes. “Skaine live to kill. Now I kill and you die,” he roared. I dropped my rifle, pulled my pistol, and shot him in the right wrist several times, and he dropped the blade, released my neck, and screamed in rage. I spun and shot him in the eye, and he dropped. “You talk too much, you smell like week-old garbage marinated in a backed-up sewer, and you’re dead,” I muttered.

“Damn, girl, you’re hardcore,” Ranger exclaimed in a low voice as he moved past me to continue our sweep. That was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in years and I grinned behind his back, not wanting to spoil his impression of me. I might be hardcore, but I was still only fourteen. We took down a total of seven Skaines who had been too far away from their units to be casualties of the mortars and walked into a scene out of a slasher movie when we reached the headquarters area. Body parts littered the ground and there was demolished military materiel strewn everywhere. I walked into the remains of the main tent and searched until I found what was left of the commander. “Yep, dead.”

“You had doubts?” Ranger asked.

“Just wanted to be sure,” I replied. “This guy was too good to leave alive.”

“I get it. We always need to do a BDA after an artillery strike.”

“’BDA?’”

“’Bomb Damage Assessment.’”

“Oh. Well, I would say this strike did its job just fine.”

“Affirmative. Let’s link up with my unit and see what’s left.”

“Let’s do it.”

We met the militia outside the front gate of the compound. The lieutenant motioned Ranger and me over to him. Ranger filled him in on our activities, and he acknowledged our actions with a “Well done.” My big brother Brandon came through the gate and approached us.

“There you are, Becca. You are in so much trouble.” I just stared at him with my icy war-face. No way was I going to take any grief from the arrogant twit.

“And you are?” the lieutenant demanded.

“Brandon McKenzie. I was in charge of holding off the Skaine attack until you got here. Thank you for protecting Becca and getting her safely back where she belongs.”

The lieutenant and the men around him broke down laughing. There were tears in their eyes, they were laughing so hard. Ranger just looked at Brandon with pity and shook his head. When he stopped laughing, the lieutenant walked up to Brandon and looked him in the eye. “Mr. McKenzie, I don’t know what this young woman is to you, but she is the only reason my unit was able to completely annihilate the Skaines with a minimum of casualties. It was a miracle, but I didn’t lose a single man. She provided us with the coordinates for every Skaine formation including the headquarters so we could decimate them with mortars before our assault. She personally assassinated the Skaine commander and, with one of our men, cleared the area of their remaining personnel. Hell, if she were one of mine I would promote her and pin a medal on her. You obviously don’t know this woman at all.”

Brandon stood open-mouthed. “What the ifrinn are you talking about? This is my little sister Rebecca. She cleans the toilets in the girls’ bathroom and collects chicken eggs for breakfast. She counts the inventory for our company. We almost never see her except for breakfast and supper, because our ma makes her attend, and even then she’s in and out like a whirlwind. She shouldn’t have been outside the walls during an attack. She shouldn’t even have been outside the women’s and children’s bunker.”

Bek must be your stealth-attack warrior then, because she is as good in the field as the ranger attached to my unit.” The Lieutenant grinned and pointed to Ranger, “and he is one of our elite Rangers, the best scout-snipers and field soldiers on the planet. If she’s such a nonentity in your organization, can I have her for the militia? Providing she agrees, of course.” I had a problem keeping my war face on, but I was determined not to let Brandon think me anything less than a consummate professional. “I can’t picture her ever cowering in a bunker when you are facing a determined enemy. If she worked for me I would have her on the point of the spear, striking confusion, terror, and panic into the hearts of the bad guys,” the lieutenant continued.

“If she’s interested, I will guarantee her acceptance into the scout training program. I bet she will graduate near the top of her class. She already has better field skills than some of the scouts in my company,” Ranger added. I was catching on to the fact that Ranger wasn’t his name, but rather his specialty.

Sean was with the group behind Brandon, and he had a bloody bandage on his forehead. He’s wounded, I thought. I hope he’s all right. He doesn’t care about me and I won’t let him see I care about him.

Pride from the praise from the militia leaders was warring with glee that my big brother had been confronted with my true worth and chagrin that my nemesis was waiting to infuriate me once more. Hold it together, Bek. Courage in the face of the tides of emotion. Icy strength for the social battle that is normally your weakness. You can do this girl, I thought, firming my demeanor and stance.

Brandon shook his head, looking as if his whole worldview and been forcibly changed. “Whatever,” he finally replied, and invited the militia into the compound for some food and drink. McKenzie hospitality won out.

***

Well, there you have it, Da—the story you asked me to write. Sorry about the side story about me, but I needed to include that to make the rest understandable. I know you and Ma have concerns about my new path, but I hope you can see how the real me came out because of the attack.

I don’t want to be storekeeper the rest of my life, after all.





AUTHOR NOTES - C. R. Wood


I have never written a story before but I am a voracious reader and prefer military, paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction so, after I read Death Becomes Her, I was hooked on Kurtherian everything. I followed the extraordinary story of Michael opening his universe to the first volume of Fans Write and was intrigued. Could I write a story? It turns out I could and did.

As with any new venture, I enter this one with hope and trepidation,  expecting the best and prepared for the worst. Will the fans like my story? Will they hate it? Only time will tell (I know, clichés, right?). I hope you all enjoyed my little story of an introverted teenager, invisible to most of those around her, who finds joy and acceptance in protecting them from death and destruction.


-C. R. Wood




The Cave

By Samantha Harmer


Stenya and her mining team achieve their biggest score the day their colony comes under attack. With no way to defend themselves, Stenya leads her friends to temporary safety.

Will anybody receive their distress call in time, or will their sanctuary become their tomb?

Dedication

For my wonderful husband, Mum, and Nat.















CHAPTER ONE



Myrani Colony, Mining Valley, Section 36

Shouts of uncontained excitement echoed along the passageway. After a disappointing morning, the glimpses of open space through the clouds of dust and debris filled the workers with the hope of a good payday.

The three waited with mounting tension. None of them cared how tired and dirty they were. After a few moments, the dust settled and the rocks stopped moving. Confident of the ceiling’s integrity, Stenya stepped into the opening.

Once inside the drilled entrance Team Leader Stenya stowed her tools. She marveled at the immense underground cave they had discovered, illuminated in the lights of the digger.

Mining could be a fantastic experience, she mused. Nothing comparable to this cave exists back home.

Stenya beckoned to her colleagues. “Dannu, Riard, you must see this.”

They followed her inside and stopped short. Mouths open, they turned in silence, drinking in their discovery.

“Have you ever seen so many colors in the rocks? Look how they sparkle!” Dannu gasped a moment later, his voice filled with awe and wonder. He reached into his trouser pocket for his recorder. Dannu liked to show the images to his girlfriend, who was also a miner, when he got home. The walls of the cave glowed and scintillated as their torchlight passed over the precious gems and veins of ore.

Soothing colors swirled in the different layers of the rock; the formations within the cave were ancient. Stenya’s experience told her that there was a body of water nearby given the remarkable stalagmites and stalactites, but she couldn’t see or hear it.

The group walked inside, remaining in sight of the recorder on the drill. Supervisor Rakla expected as much detail as they could remember to assess the deposits worth.

Rakla detested it when teams of excitable workers got injured or killed by being nosy.

“Never mind the colors. Have you seen how big it is?” Riard remained beside the entrance and looked around the cave, his body tensed for flight.

Stenya couldn’t see the entire roof and wondered what was up there. “Men! Always comparing sizes,” Stenya teased. Riard stood two inches shorter than her, and she guessed his height bothered him. She found him good-looking regardless.

“Is your mind always in the gutter?” Riard grumbled, glaring at her.

Well, Stenya considered, at least now he’s looking at me. The reaction she provoked in men always amazed her. Previous lovers had called her gorgeous and complimented her soft skin, a darker shade of blue than most of their race, and called her deep purple eyes mesmerizing.

I wonder if Riard thinks I’m more stunning than the cave?

Their eyes met, and his expression became neutral. Thank the gods Dannu didn’t see or he’d never stop teasing Riard.

Dannu glanced at Riard and shrugged. “Hey, don’t bring us down just because you had your fun genes removed.” Dannu raced across the cave with a torch. “Wow, the view is amazing. There’s a huge lake over here. No way can we cross it.”

Stenya watched him as he inched to the edge to look over it and cursed his impetuous nature under her breath.

“There’s a black expanse as far as my light can reach. No visible movement; the surface is as smooth as glass.” Dannu sniffed disgustedly. “But, gods, Stenya, the stench of this water is making me gag. It’s completely stagnant.”

“Hey, Dan, I have to agree with Mr. Serious. Come back. We need a safety review before we explore.” Stenya sighed, frustrated by the need to wait for the paperwork. She didn’t want a death on her watch, though. Deaths rarely happened, but when they did, they were career-limiting for team’s leader.

Dannu wandered back looking sheepish. “You guys worry too much!”

His eyes brightened, and a half-smile played on his lips. “The quicker we file the reports and get old Rakla to sign the paperwork, the sooner we get to explore, right?”

Stenya  chuckled at him as she walked back to the entrance. Stenya called over her shoulder, “Your priorities worry me, Dan. Now haul ass.”

“We will be the talk of the colony for finding the biggest haul to date,” Riard declared.

The team hurried to the supervisor, eager for tomorrow’s exploration. Other teams had found caves and underground waterways, but none of their discoveries had approached this one in size or mineral variation.

They had been working the mine for over three months. Automation meant the miners’ primary task was ensuring the robotic unit completed the programmed assignment and enabled them to earn more money with less danger, which increased morale. With at least forty mine sections active at any one time across the seam, worker morale required proper management. The seam was twenty-three thousand units long and six thousand three hundred units wide. New sections always started a thousand units away from an active section so as not to cause injury.

Or worse, accusations of stealing.

A team of three or four workers manned each section. Their jobs included reporting extraordinary issues and fulfilling their quota of ores and minerals. If one section had an abundance of one material, they traded for one they lacked. Strict controls made sure prices stayed fair. The punishments ranged from losing their license to mine to death, so crimes were rare.


Myrani Colony, The Miner’s Refuge

 That evening the Miner’s Refuge was noisy and full within an hour of opening, as usual. Miners needed to let off steam, so the colony had lots of bars, casinos, arcades, theaters, and other less reputable forms of entertainment.

They worked hard and often under dangerous conditions, so they enjoyed their excessive rewards.

The Miner’s Refuge was the team’s favorite bar. The music wasn’t too loud, so they could chat without yelling at each other. The three of them were sitting on two sofas while they waited for Dannu’s girlfriend to arrive.

They had a friendly rivalry with Arrawa, since she worked in Section 12. Arrawa is going to love this find, but she’s going to wish her team had found it, Stenya thought.

Dannu bought a round to ease the mood and tried not to drop them as he wound his way back from the bar. He placed the mugs on the low table and collapsed onto the sofa opposite them.

“Thanks.” Stenya took a long pull on her drink, finishing half of it in one gulp.

Dannu looked impressed and then dismayed. “You’re unbelievable! Even I can’t drink as fast as you. Oh, and I won’t be buying you another. You need to learn to enjoy your drinks.”

He sat back and relaxed, taking a sip of his drink. He might have looked calm, but his eyes roamed the room looking for his girl.

“I don’t want to be sober when Arrawa arrives and have to watch you two be cutesy…” She made a gagging noise, then smiled at him.

Dannu just laughed. “We are not cutesy! Annoying, maybe. You know, she may be ‘The One.’”

“I thought the last girl was ‘The One?’” Riard hadn’t picked up his drink yet and looked uncomfortable.

“And the girl before her,” Stenya added.

“However, three girls ago definitely wasn’t ‘The One.’” Riard joked.

Stenya recalled the crazy ex-girlfriend throwing Dannu out of her room butt-naked. She had then thrown his clothes out the window. He had been the gossip of the colony for a month.

Dannu smiled and winked at Stenya. “She might have been crazy, but the sympathy I got from the rest of the lovely ladies more than made up for the inconvenience.”

“Pig!” Stenya shot back. “You’d never be like him, would you?” she purred at Riard, placing a hand on his arm.

He jumped at her touch. “No. Err, excuse me.”

Riard made his way to the washroom and Stenya turned to Dannu in exasperation. “Do I have to get naked and dance on his lap for him to ask me out?”

Dannu, who had been taking a sip of his drink, laughed so hard he sprayed it across the table. Stenya didn’t look impressed, but at least it hadn’t hit her.

He reached for a napkin and cleaned up. “It would make it worse. Riard likes you, but he’s old-fashioned and scared. I mean, have you looked in a mirror? You’re a goddess.”

“So why have you never flirted with me?” Stenya was curious. She didn’t think about him sexually, but he flirted with every other woman.

“For one, I like being alive. For two, I’ve always known Riard fancied you and I won’t hurt him.” He paused and took another sip of his drink. ““For three, you’re too much of a guy!”

They both laughed.

“Ah, thanks for the laugh.” Stenya nodded toward the door. “Arrawa has just walked in and she looks tired. Is she okay?”

Stenya had heard rumors about Arrawa’s lazy team and how she often picked up the slack. As the woman approached, Stenya noted her slumped shoulders and the dark circles around her eyes.

Dannu’s face darkened. “She works with lazy fools. I’d have broken their noses if she hadn’t begged me not to.”

He lowered his voice and growled, “They cause her so much pain; it makes my blood boil. Despite what you two say, I really do love Arrawa. I hope I don’t mess things up.”

He stopped talking as Arrawa reached them. Stenya had never seen him behave this way before, so maybe he had finally grown up.

“Hi, guys. Where’s Riard?” Arrawa dropped into the chair next to Dannu and snuggled into him.

Stenya pointed to the washroom, then picked up her glass and finished her drink. She stared at the empty vessel.

“Do you want a drink? I need another.”

Arrawa sighed. “Ahh, yes, please. I need a drink. It’s been one hell of a day. I’ve asked to transfer to a new team.” She raised her hand in a gesture of triumph.

“About time!” Dannu gave her a huge hug and a smacking kiss.

Stenya wanted to give them some space, so she made her way to the bar. The crowded room made it difficult to move without bumping somebody, but she reached the bar without too much trouble. She decided she deserved a prize, and had a quick look at the drinks on offer.

The busy bar staff took a while to ask for her order, but she didn’t mind. She liked Dannu and Arrawa brought out the best in him, but seeing them together reminded her of her loneliness. She wondered where Riard had gotten to, since she couldn’t see him. She hoped she hadn’t scared him away. Stenya thought he might be her “One”—if he ever let her get close enough to find out.

She had just ordered the drinks when she saw a bright flash in the mirror behind the bar. She screwed her eyes up to dispel the after-image.

More bright flashes lit the window as she turned to get to safety.

Windows shattered as a shock-wave hit the building with a loud boom.

Stenya was hurled into the bar like a ragdoll. Her vision darkened and her face was suddenly wet. She put her hand to her forehead, where a small cut oozed blood. It didn’t feel severe. Stenya shook her head to clear it and pushed herself up to survey the room.

People were screaming. Many lay bleeding, some were unconscious, and others dead.

Her people weren’t at war with anyone, they kept to themselves, so why would anyone attack them?

More bright lights appeared in the sky above the ruined bar and balls of blue fire streaked toward the ground. When the fireballs hit the surface, they destroyed structures and threw up debris.

Inside the bar, people shielded themselves from the effects of the explosions.

She realized in horror that they needed to get to safety. The mines were nearby; their section, number thirty-six, lay only a hundred and twenty units away.

She helped people stand up, mimed heading to the mines, and signed thirty-six. People who weren’t too confused nodded their understanding and headed out, gathering their fallen companions.

No one walked out alone. They all either carried somebody or helped somebody else.

Stenya scanned the room to find her friends. Relief washed over her when she saw that Riard had returned to where Dannu and Arrawa sat. They all got to their feet and looked around for her, and although she felt a little light-headed she walked as fast as she could to meet them.

“I’ve told people to head to our section. The cave is far underground, so it should protect us,” she blurted as soon as she reached them.

“Good idea. Let’s go,” Dannu shouted. Stenya assumed the blast had damaged his hearing.

Dannu took Arrawa’s hand and they made their way outside. They checked for survivors, but there weren’t any more. With tears in their eyes from physical pain and loss, they started toward the mine.

From overheard conversations, the news of a potential haven was spreading and colonists were flooding toward the mine. Stenya hoped that others had found their safe spaces as well.

After the flashes of the bombs, the night appeared ink-black. Stenya focused on the sky. Where are you?

There was the faint outline of a ship hovering in the air, but it wasn’t one she recognized. Her vision darkened again, but once she overcame her dizziness she led her friends toward the mine. Their progress was hindered by debris and bodies.

When they reached the tunnel entrance another blast hit, throwing the four to the ground. Arrawa screamed in agony; her ankle was broken and the bone was protruding through her skin. Dannu picked her up without a word and hurried inside. They had to reach safety. Survivors knocked senseless by the blast were trampled by others who were too scared to watch where they ran and too focused on their own survival to offer aid.

In the few minutes it took to reach their section a series of blasts hit the surface and they sprinted to the cave’s entrance. Riard and Stenya had made it through, but a loud groan in the rock above their heads warned them the ceiling would soon collapse.


The tunnel

Dannu was struggling to keep up. He couldn’t keep his balance while carrying Arrawa. Arrawa screamed at him to let her go and get to safety. The tears streamed down her face, but he refused to leave her.

Amid a rain of dust and rubble the ceiling collapsed, separating the couples. Stenya and Riard screamed their friends’ names, but the noise from the blasts  and the collapse drowned them out.

On the floor of the tunnel Dannu shielded Arrawa with his body, desperate to keep her alive.

“Arrawa, please! I love you. You have to survive.” His tears fell as rocks bombarded his back and pinned his legs in place.

“I love you too. I—”

A rock fell dealing her head a glancing blow. When the dust settled Dannu could see her lifeless eyes and he gave an anguished cry.

“No, no, no! Please, noooo...” He clutched her limp body and murmured, “Wait for me, my darling. I’ll be there soon. Wait for m—”

Another blast struck. It dislodged more rocks from the ceiling, and Dannu joined his love in the afterlife.


Inside the cave

A few minutes passed before the blasts finally stopped. They waited for the attacks to start again, but the lack of explosions deafened Stenya as much as the blasts had.

Riard still called for Dannu and Arrawa, his voice cracked and hoarse. They must be dead, she thought. Her heart hurt and she blinked back tears.

  In their panicked flight only a few of them had brought light sources with them and the cave lay in semi-darkness. Nobody had wandered far from the entrance.

Stenya called to the group closest to her, “I’m an idiot! We left our mining gear behind this afternoon. The digger has its own independent power source and lighting rigs. It’s about twenty paces away. Help me to set the rigs up around the cave entrance.”

With the groups help the area around the cave entrance was soon well lit.

“Great guys, thanks. It won’t last forever but at least we can see while we plan our next move,” Stenya mumbled.

Some of the group smiled at her but worry clouded their eyes.

She’d experienced several waves of dizziness and nausea and that had affected her ability to think. They had to get help. She looked around to try to get her bearings.

She looked around at the frightened people who were huddled together for warmth and comfort and prayed death would claim them swiftly if no aid came.

“Riard, would you please help me with the equipment?” she requested, trying to recapture his focus. She couldn’t afford to join him in his sorrow; not yet.

“What, Stenya? How will the equipment help? We can’t tunnel through—it’d bring the whole wall down! What if the attackers are in the tunnel waiting for us to come out?” He became hysterical, so she shook him by the shoulders.

“I know, I know, but the equipment has a transmitter. We can try to get a signal through and get help.” Stenya looked into his eyes.

She needed him; she didn’t want to be the only stable person, and she couldn’t lose a friend to this senseless act. But his last question bothered her. Would they send in ground troops to finish the conquest?

After a few minutes, he returned to his usual self and helped her to remove the access panel. He had worked on electrical systems before, so she let him focus on the task. She hoped it would keep him from sinking into despair.

In the meantime, she gathered people together and told them to not wander too far away.  Stenya told them she would transmit a message and help would come soon, but nobody seemed inclined to believe her. Many told her to just leave them alone so they could die in peace. Disheartened, she returned to see Riard’s progress.

He had done well; the transmitter could send and receive, but Stenya didn’t know its range and anyway the unknown enemy might intercept it. What would they do, though—bomb them more? Come down and break through the wall? Leave them to die of starvation? None of those thoughts helped.

“Riard, see what you can find to help secure the tunnel, just in case we get the chance to remove the rock fall.” She could see he was about to argue with her. “Please, I need you to be strong for me. I need to believe we will survive. I need to believe somebody will care enough to help. Can you help me?” She gazed into his deep blue eyes.

He looked shocked. She had never shown him her vulnerable side before. He nodded, squared his shoulders and hurried off. Thank the gods he’d agreed to help her.

She took a deep breath to calm herself and spoke into the transmitter. “This is Section Thirty-Six. We have a hundred survivors in a cave three hundred units underground. The entrance has collapsed, and we can’t get out. If you can hear me, please respond on this frequency.”

No response.

She waited for a few moments and repeated the message.

Still no response.

She continued for an hour, to no avail. The lack of response from the colony didn’t bode well. She wondered if anybody was still alive up there. Almost eight thousand miners and their families had settled here, and now perhaps a hundred of them survived.

The dizziness and nausea returned.

She wanted to scream. Wanted to smash the transmitter to pieces. Wanted to give into the despair of having lost everyone she had held dear since her arrival. Feeling his gaze upon her, Stenya raised her eyes to Riard’s. No, they hadn’t taken everyone. Riard remained. He still needed her. With renewed vigor, she picked up the transmitter.  She would keep repeating her message until she couldn’t talk anymore.

Stenya couldn’t keep the anguish from her voice. “Help, please. Can anyone hear us? There are a hundred of us trapped in a cave. We have little fresh water or food. Please if you can hear us, save us.”


QBS Hermes, Near the Etheric Empire’s Borders


“Sally, we appear to be receiving a transmission from an unknown source,” Hermes, the ship’s EI, announced. “We picked it up as we exited the Gate.”

“Audio or video?” Sally hadn’t been aware anybody lived out here. Their mission was a routine patrol of a border system.

“Audio only, checking for any signs of infiltration.”

While Hermes checked the signal Sally reviewed their records. She searched for ships and settlements in the area. She had been correct in her previous thought—no record existed of known inhabited worlds nearby and no ships frequented the area, so friend or foe?

Hermes returned. “The signal appears genuine, but I cannot determine the point of origin. Shall I play the transmission?”

If Sally wasn’t mistaken, Hermes sounded a little frustrated. “Yes, please.”

Everyone on the bridge stopped working and listened to the distorted signal.

“Help, please. Can ... hear...? ...trapped...little...or food...”

Sally called to her comms officer, “Can you clean the signal up? They sound like they need our help.”

Aubrey worked at his console as the message kept repeating. After five minutes he gave a frustrated sigh, closely followed by a whispered, “Oh, you idiot!”

“Aubrey?” Sally fidgeted, impatient and helpless. Only hearing part of the message and not knowing the origin frustrated her.

“Sorry, ma’am, I’ve cleaned up the connection.”  He had joined the crew on the last mission and still displayed nervousness under pressure. She would make allowances…for now.

The signal came through stronger, and they had a location.

“The source is within this system. It’s coming from a moon orbiting a gas giant,” Hermes reported.

“Please, if you can hear me. We have about a hundred people trapped in a cave about three hundred units below the surface. An unknown force has attacked us and the colony has gone dark. We are alone and we have little food or water. If you can hear me, please help.” The woman sounded scared and her words were punctuated with sobs.

Aubrey was concerned. “Err, ma’am? The moon doesn’t appear on our charts and the signal is Estarian.”

Hermes interrupted. “That would explain why I couldn’t determine the origin. This is unusual. Our charts are usually very accurate.”

“Ma’am, we should get there within half an hour. If we message the Meredith Reynolds we can ask them to send additional support. They will also want to let the Rangers know we have another alien race attacking small colonies.” Even as Liam spoke, Aubrey prepared the communication.

“Agreed, see to it, Aubrey. Liam, good work. I’ll try and send a message to our frightened survivors. Then hopefully we can find out why a group of Estarians are so far from home.” Sally took a deep breath and put her game face on, even though they wouldn’t see her. “Hermes, I want you to determine how a moon can appear from nowhere after you’ve matched their frequency and we’re transmitting.”

“Sally, you are transmitting. I am translating the Estarian into English and vice-versa.” They all loved the efficiency of the EI. There were rumors about EIs who developed personality issues, but Hermes had their backs.

“This is Sally Hall of the QBS Hermes. We have received your transmission and are on our way.” She crossed her fingers, hoping she had input the correct data.

“Oh, dear gods, thank you,” came the woman’s relieved voice. “My name is Stenya of the Myrani mining colony. We hid underground, but the bombardment has made the cave unstable. I suspect we have heavy casualties.”

“Our ship will make haste. Is there a way to reach you?” Sally’s stomach clenched as she awaited the answer.

“The entrance to our cave has collapsed. We can try to dig through, but we fear another cave in. There are also many who believe we are safer in here, since the attackers may have landed to finish what they started.” Sally could perceive Stenya’s concern.

“No, stay where you are for now. There could be further rockfalls if you move the rubble. Did you recognise your attackers?” Sally called up tactical displays and enabled all their sensors. She didn’t want to bump into any nasty surprises when they arrived at their destination.

“No, everything happened so quickly. I only saw the ship’s outline. Maybe the colony admin team could identify them, but given the lack of communication from the colony I’m assuming they’re either all dead or captured…” Her voice trailed away.

Sally wanted to comfort Stenya but she had to stay detached for now.  I hope we arrive in time. A lump formed in her throat and swallowing became painful. What if we make matters worse by trying to help? 

“I know I am asking a lot of questions, but the next one is important. Have the attackers left?”

Stenya’s voice trembled. ““We don’t know. It’s been quiet for some time.”

“Hey, Stenya, don’t worry. We are still on our way, and we have called our main base for additional support. You need to keep your people calm and stay together. Can you do that for me?” She glanced at the display; they had almost arrived at their destination.

“I-I can try,” Stenya’s voice slurred. “I hope you’re not going be too long.”

“We’ll be there soon. Hall out.” Sally cut the transmission.

“Sally, she identified herself as Myrani and yet she uses the Estarian language?” Hermes queried.

“I noticed that too. Do we have any records about the Myrani?” Sally started to check her own console.

“Negative. A mystery?” Hermes offered.

“Agreed. Hermes, given our supplies, what are our options?” Sally asked as she motioned for the team to don their armor and grab weapons for when they landed.

“The sensors show that there is no alien presence in the system, so either the enemy has a cloaking device or they have already left. We will land as close to the signal as possible, provided we aren’t attacked. We will need to remove the debris from the blocked tunnel and reinforce the roof with materials from the ship and surrounding area. If we can rescue the survivors, we will need to triage until more help arrives.”

Sally, almost battle ready, prepared medkits. “As I thought, and thank you. Please let me know if you notice anything out of place. I don’t think these guys are lying, but I’d hate to walk into an ambush. Liam, did you get a response from Fleet?”

“They acknowledged my message. Command will send a Ranger as soon as possible. We may have to meet with them when we return to the Meredith Reynolds, since they are busy now. They are sending a ship to collect any survivors and reckon they will be here within four hours.” Liam re-read the message from Command to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.


QBS Hermes, Above Unknown Moon


The ship entered the atmosphere and they would soon be on the ground. The moon looked Earth-like, which surprised them. Only difference was, the sky had a strange green tinge.

On the approach, they saw the devastation wrought on the colony. The crew looked on in horrified silence. Where structures had once stood were craters. Unless survivors found safety elsewhere, they doubted anyone else had survived.

“Sally,” Hermes interrupted. “I can find no record of the blast signature of the enemies’ weapons. We have not had contact with a race capable of this kind of destruction. Also, I cannot explain why the moon does not appear on our charts. And there is one final anomaly: the average density for the moon does not match that of other bodies in the system.”

“What do you mean?”

“Either the moon formed at a different time than the other bodies or it originated from outside this system.”

“Understood, Hermes. Thank you.” His information bothered her, and would require further investigation. Right now, though, she had to focus on saving the survivors. Somebody would pay for this crime, but not today.

The ship landed close to where the broadcast had originated.

“Keep your eyes open. Here we go.” The door opened and Sally exited the Pod, followed by Liam and Aubrey.

They paused before heading to the mine’s main entrance. A few bodies lay on the ground, and they checked for survivors but found none. They looked Estarian.

“Report.” Sally wanted to get the survivors out as soon as possible.

“The signal originated two hundred yards inside that tunnel.” Aubrey pointed to the entrance.

“Lead the way. Liam, prepare the area for evacuation and watch your back.” She passed him the medkits and followed Aubrey.

“Yes, sir.” Liam saluted and carried out her order.


Myrani Colony, Mining Valley 

Blast damage marred the surface as they approached the main entrance, but the opening itself had survived the attack. Sally and Aubrey made their way inside.

Luckily for them the tunnel ran straight, so the daylight from the entrance lit their way. Unfortunately, it also let Sally and Aubrey see the bodies of colonists who hadn’t made it to safety. One had crawled thirty feet back toward the entrance before succumbing to his wounds; that was clear from the trail of blood behind him

After a hundred yards visibility became poor, so they switched on their lights. The dead showed them the way and soon they arrived at the cave-in, where a few arms and legs stuck out from the rubble. Nearby they saw a couple. The male had shielded the female with his body, but the falling rock had been too heavy. Sally hoped they hadn’t suffered and wished she could find a guy willing to die for her.

“Stenya?” Sally shouted as she climbed the rocks to a small opening near the top.

“Oh gods, you’re here,” shouted a tired male voice.

“Where is Stenya?” Sally struggled to maintain her composure.

“She’s trying to get the other survivors to move closer to the entrance, but they’re staying put. They think falling rocks will kill them.” He didn’t sound convinced that the ceiling wouldn’t come down on him, but he was trying to help Sally.

“Okay, I want you to go find her and bring her back. We will move the rubble.” Sally made her way back down to firmer ground. She assumed he’d done as she had asked, since he hadn’t replied.

“Right, Aubrey, we’ll work in sections—and no heroics! Our armor will give us some protection, but don’t overdo it. We have enough time. Understood?” She had seen an uncharacteristic flash of fear cross his face as she talked and hoped he could keep it together.

“Yes, Sally.” He swallowed hard and looked at the pile of rocks. “Have I ever told you I have a fear of being buried alive?”

Sally smiled. “Good. It means you’ll be careful, and you already know your limitations. Fear is useful, but don’t let it rule you. Now move it.”

They combed through the pile, removing stones which wouldn’t cause a further rockfall. Sally kept wondering why Stenya hadn’t come forward.


Inside the cave-in

“Stenya, there are people outside the cave. They are asking for you. What do we do?”

Riard sounded terrified. She recalled his fears earlier; probably lack of sleep and paranoia magnified them. “Calm down, Riard. They are here to help. What did they say?” Stenya found talking difficult because of her dry throat. On top of that her head spun, and her eyes were half-closed with tiredness.

“The woman wants you to come to the rockfall.” Judging by his tone, Riard wanted her to stay in the safety of the cave. She realised she never listened to him. All these months he had looked out for her; made sure she stayed safe. I should have told him how I much I love him. How much his unwavering support has meant. Once they escaped, she would talk to him.

“Fine. Then can convince these people that help is here and they need to move? They won’t listen.” She turned toward the rock fall. “I will...” Her eyes lost focus, and she slumped to the ground.

Riard shouted her name and tried to wake her. She was alive but pale, and her breathing was slow and labored. He held her close and stroked her hair, silently promising to get her out of this godsforsaken hole.

He turned on the group who had refused to move and pointed his finger at them. “Cowards! She made sure you survived the attack and guided you to safety. And when she asked you to come forward and help prepare for our rescuers you refused. How dare you!”

The crowd in front of him looked ashamed. A few of them tried to mumble excuses, but their words died in their throats as he pointed at each in turn.

You will help me carry her. You will bring the supplies. You will help us escape.” He gave them no option and nowhere to go, and he looked like he would kill them if they refused.

A tall man walked forward and picked Stenya up before moving toward the rockfall. The rest followed sheepishly after, and none of them looked at Riard or said a word.

Once they reached the entrance and Riard had placed Stenya safely to one side, he climbed the rock fall. For Stenya, Riard would succeed, he had to get her help. “Hey, how can we help?” he shouted down to the two outside.


Outside the cave-in

“Is he the same guy?” Aubrey asked, shocked.

“Yeah. Sounds like he grew a pair, but still no Stenya.” Sally stood and dusted herself off a little.

“Hey, where is Stenya?”

“She collapsed and I need to get her out of here. To get them all out of here. How can we help?” His response caused a lump in her throat.

“Try to clear the area around the blockage. Then if the pile collapses a large enough gap should form without, I hope, causing further injury. We can use rocks to reinforce the walls, but I’m not sure if they will help much.” She thought being honest would be the best approach.

“They will. We have a few supports left from when we opened the cave wall. We can reinforce the walls and ceiling from our side.” His voice sounded stronger now, and full of hope. She caught his words as he said under his breath. “I won’t fail you, Stenya. You will live, even if it kills me.”

The task took longer than Sally had hoped, but they opened a large enough gap for people to pass through safely. They exited in groups of four, fearing all the while that the ceiling would collapse again. Weak from the hunger and fear, many wept with relief that they wouldn’t die here today.

Aubrey led them to the surface, where Liam administered first aid as best he could. After so long in the dark cave, the bright daylight left them dazed. Triage took less than an hour.

 Liam had received a message informing them that the larger ship would be here soon. The QBS Athena would send down Pods to transport the survivors. He had orders to prepare them as best he could for transfer.

Riard was standing by Stenya. His eyes looked red, and he spoke quietly to her. He stroked her hair with one hand and gently held her hand with the other. She still hadn’t regained consciousness.

Sally walked over, trying not to startle him.

“They died together. In each other’s arms. Turns out I was wrong. Arrawa really was Dannu’s ‘The One.’” Riard blinked back tears and took deep breaths to compose himself. She understood that he wanted to remain strong for Stenya, but he also grieved for his friends.

“The man called Aubrey said it must have been quick, so at least there was that. Please come back to me, Stenya. I need you.”

His voice was barely a whisper, but Sally overheard every heartbreaking word. She made a note to give Aubrey a reward for his kindness.

She made her offer quietly.“If you need anything, just let me know.”

“Will she be okay?”

“We don’t know. Our doctors will do whatever they can.” She stopped talking when a ship appeared in the sky.

Many of the survivors cowered in fear and Sally shouted over their terrified cries. ““It’s okay, it’s ours. They are here to help. They will send down Pods to take you to safety, and once on the ship you will receive medical care, food, and anything else you require.”

They were still wary when the Pods arrived. Each Pod carried a member of the ship’s crew to help with the evacuation. Once the survivors had left the scene of destruction, Sally turned to Aubrey and Liam.

“Excellent work, boys. You’ve done me and yourselves proud. Next time we are back on the Meredith Reynolds I’m buying at All Guns Blazing.”

Their grins would have been visible from orbit.

“Now we have the gruesome task of investigating the area and trying to work out what the hell happened here. Are you ready?”

“Sir, yes Sir,” they responded in unison.


QBS Athena, Briefing Room

Sally reported to her commanding officer.

“What did you find?” He got straight down to business, indicating she should take the chair opposite him. Sally sat on the edge of the seat. Their findings still made her uneasy.

“It’s strange, sir,” she began. “We found nothing useful on the moon.”

He looked confused. “Explain.” He had expected lots of useful data after reading the survivors accounts.

“The weapons signature is not on file, and we found no sign of another ship’s passage in the system. The team are frustrated by the lack of data, even though we have searched extensively.”

“The attack on the colony was staged?” He sounded suspicious.

“No, sir. The enemy leveled the settlement, but what caused the damage is unknown. If the colonists had all died, we might have noticed nothing unusual about the moon itself. We would have discovered a moon which had appeared from nowhere.” She had wanted answers. Wanted to discover the murderers responsible for the devastation she had witnessed.

“What a mystery! These survivors…what do you make of them, Hall?” He hadn’t met them yet.

“I think they are just as confused as we are, sir. The Myrani have no known enemies. According to the survivors I have spoken to, none of them have ever even seen an alien before. When I asked what other races they knew, they couldn’t answer the question. They had only a variety of rumors, stories, and tales; nothing about any existing races. Our Empire came as a surprise to them.” She smiled, remembering how they had questioned her and the team about the Empire while boarding the Pods.

“They look and sound like Estarians, is that correct?” her commander verified.

Sally had asked the survivors as tactfully as she could. “Yes, sir, but they claim to be Myrani and say they have never heard of the Estarians.”

He looked hopeful. “Do we know where their homeworld is?”

“They have a different coordinate system to our own, but we have a good idea of where the planet should be. It appears to be just beyond our borders.” Sally hoped he wouldn’t send them all home.

“Excellent. We need to help the survivors return home. If they refuse, what will we do with them?” He appeared doubtful these refugees would bring anything of benefit to the Empire.

“Well, sir, since they come from a mining community, they are used to hard work. I believe many of them are finding the concept of bed rest difficult.” She paused. “I understand they don’t wish to return home. They don’t know if the colony was the target, or if their whole race will soon be at war. Whatever the reason, they’ve seen enough to want to stay away. I would recommend that we offer them asylum, sir. They would make fine additions to the Empire.”

He took a few moments to consider her words and smiled for the first time since she entered.

“Agreed. Offer the survivors asylum. The attack needs further investigation, and a Ranger is in transit. When they arrive I will brief them on the situation and send them to the refugees, but if you would keep an eye on our guests for now?” He motioned toward the door.

“Sir.” Sally snapped a crisp salute and left his office. She made her way straight to the area allocated to the survivors.

The doctor and his team exited the bay as she approached. She jogged to catch him, calling, “One moment, doctor. How are your patients?”

“They’ll live. Some will need more treatment than others. I’m amazed so many of them survived, given the images I have seen of the destruction of the colony.” He looked thoughtful. “Plenty of bed rest and good food is what they need now.”

“Thank you, doctor.” She nodded and headed into the bay.

Once in she glanced around, hoping to find the two she wanted to talk to. Stenya and Riard were holding hands and whispering in the far corner and she made her way to them, smiling and exchanging pleasantries with the other survivors as she crossed the room.

“I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“No, you’re not interrupting. We want to thank you for answering our distress call. We would be dead now if you and your team hadn’t received our signal.”

Stenya’s gratitude and Riard’s joy brought a smile to Sally’s face. “I’m glad we could help. My commanding officer would like to offer you asylum on behalf of the Etheric Empire. You and your people are more than welcome to join us, and we promise to keep you safe. We always need skilled people.” Sally hoped they’d say yes. She liked this couple.

“We would love to. I know we are all feeling lost, and we don’t feel we can ever go home. Not after...” Stenya’s voice trailed off.

“I have one request,” Riard stated. The shy man had disappeared. He even looked taller.

“What can I do?” Sally asked, happy to help.

“I would like to hold a memorial for our lost brothers and sisters.”

“I would be honored to arrange something for you.” As she spoke the words, he hugged her.

Stenya laughed at him. “Should I worry about you having eyes for another woman?”

Sally noticed she had tried to sound annoyed but had failed.

Riard laughed. “I have never been this happy or this sad. Why, my dearest, would I look at another when I have you?”

Stenya bit her lip and blinked back tears. Riard leaned over and they shared a long kiss.

 For the next hour they planned for the memorial. Sally found another chair, took notes and made a list of people she would rope in to help. Liam and Aubrey were at the top of her list.

They didn’t notice when the door opened, then Sally noticed the other survivors reacting and followed their gazes.

A woman entered and her commanding presence silenced the room.  The survivors watched her every move, some with their mouths hanging open. To Sally she appeared both beautiful and frightening. A warrior, by her garb; someone she could respect.

She walked to Sally and Stenya and Riard and the woman nodded to Sally.

Sally had never met a Ranger before, although she loved to hear stories about them. The woman before her filled Sally with awe. “Ranger…”

“Lieutenant,” the Ranger acknowledged.

The Ranger winked at Sally and addressed the couple.

“I am one of the Etheric Empire’s Rangers, and I’m here to bring the cowards who attacked you to Justice. My name is Tabitha.”





AUTHOR NOTES - SAMANTHA HARMER


A massive thank you to Michael Anderle for opening his Universe to us so that we may share our view from the gallery.

Thank you to everyone at Fans Write who helped me craft this story.

And thank you for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed it!

I have been writing on and off for over a decade, but for the last two years the itch has been harder to scratch. When I started writing this short story I knew I had to include Tabitha in some way. I have a long list of favorite characters, and she’s in the top three. I’m a bit clumsy as well, so I totally get how she gets herself into trouble.

If you are reading this and you have a cool idea for a short story, join us on Facebook and get involved. The community is super supportive and we have a lot of a good laughs. By being part of the Fans Write experience I have already learned so much and I plan to keep building on the experience.  You can find us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/TKGFansWrite/

My next big project is writing for The Hunter Legacy universe written by Timothy Ellis, and I am working on my own dystopian science fiction series, so stay tuned! You can keep up with my projects on www.samanthaharmer.co.uk




The Albino Were

By Virgel Mitchell


Celine is an average girl in a backwater town.  As the daughter of a couple of guides, Celine has always known what her future would be.  But, when her parents are killed saving a hunter, Celine’s future is suddenly up in the air.

Jeff is anything from average, as a member of the Guardian Marines he knows without a doubt what his future is.  But while on leave things take an unforeseen turn and now Jeff finds he may not want the future he fought so hard to get.

Can Jeff help Celine find the stability she once enjoyed?  Is Celine the one thing Jeff never knew he wanted?  Or, will their relationship mirror that of another, far more famous, couple?

This book contains profanity and touches on adult subject matter, Parental Discretion Advised!  You have been warned.

Dedication

 This story is dedicated to all the women who’ve ever been  faced with a Landover.



















CHAPTER ONE


Planet Yoll, Southern District, New Providence


Celine sat in a darkened doorway across the street from the building her family had until mere hours ago called home. Located in the heart of bistok-barook territory as it was, life had never been easy in New Providence. Sane people visited, but never ever stayed. It took a special kind of crazy to want to live here, and Celine’s parents had been loaded with it.

On the upside, most Yollins and some humans visited at least once a year to try their luck against the unusually large bistok that lived in the region. Celine didn’t really understand why the town had been founded, but she supposed it had been inevitable. When humans were involved, if someone was interested in going somewhere stupid to do something stupid, someone else was willing to make a credit off their stupidity.

Celine’s parents had started a guide business after the family had spent a few years learning the area and how to deal with the bistok safely, but something had gone wrong on the hunt yesterday and now Celine’s parents were dead. They had been trampled beneath a bistok’s clawed feet whilst attempting to save a particularly stupid customer who had decided to try for the bistok’s calf.

Celine’d barely had time to absorb the news of her parents’ death before the landlord, Joseph P. Landover the Third, had demanded that Celine either pay the month’s rent or vacate the building immediately. She knew her father had already paid the rent for the month, but there was no way to prove it since no one wrote receipts here. But money hadn’t really been what the creep wanted.

He had hoped–or more likely expected–that Celine would offer herself as payment. He had been after her father to give him Celine as his wife ever since she’d turned sixteen.

When she had refused the deal, the craptacular-reject-from-a-bistok-feed-factory had driven her from the house with nothing but the clothes on her back and stood guard until the locksmith had arrived. So here she sat, trying to figure out what to do now.

Without money there was no way to buy a ticket on the morning hopper, and without her weapons, she wasn’t likely to survive a trip across the wilderness.

“Celine?” her former neighbor Mr. Algiens called from behind her. “I was so sorry to hear about your parents. What in the world are you doing on my porch? You should be at home, getting ready for bed.”

Celine responded with some embarrassment, “Landover came by. He claimed our rent hadn’t been paid this month, and when I refused to spread my legs for him he evicted me. He wouldn’t let me take anything, either.

“Landover, you say?” Mr. Algiens rubbed his chin. “I should have known that piece of bistok-shite would do something like that. Well, don’t just stand there, come on in! You can’t very well sleep on the porch, now can ye?”

Celine smiled to herself as she followed the crotchety old Brit into his home.  Mr. Algiens was so old that Celine sometimes wondered if he might be the very last person in the Empire that could remember what humanity’s home world had looked like.

“I really don’t want to impose on you, Mr. Algiens,” Celine told him as he led her into the kitchen.

“Nonsense—and you might as well call me George,” he replied. “Besides, my Abigail, God rest her, would have skinned me alive if I’d left you sitting out in the cold.” Mr. Algiens began rummaging around In the cupboards.

“Thank you again. And are you sure? I don’t want to be ungrateful or anything, but calling you by your first name seems a bit familiar,” Celine replied uncertainly.

George turned to look at her as he pulled out a loaf of bread. “Nonsense again. You’re old enough to be calling me by my given name. I don’t hold with all these newly-revived ancient manners anyhow. My friends and neighbors have called me George since I was a wee lad on the shores of Whitehaven, and I don’t see any reason to change it now.”

“OK, then, George,” Celine replied with a smile.

“That’s better,” George told her. He opened the chiller. “Since that good-for-nothing Landover has done you out of your home, you’ll be wanting something to eat. Ah, there it is,” he interrupted himself as he pulled out a dish. “Now then, my dear old mum taught me how to make this back when I first started courting my Abigail. I make it every now and again to remind myself of better days.”

Celine blushed at the thought of being courted as George served her a slice of the meat pie he’d pulled out. “Thank you for letting me try this, George.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any genuine Earth cuisine.”

“Ha, now don’t you be getting no funny notions in that pretty little head of yours,” George replied as he slid the plate in front of her. “You’re too bloody young for the likes of these old bones.” He continued with a smile, “Besides which, I’ve a mind to see my sweet Abigail soon. This old world just keeps on spinning and I just can’t keep up no more.”

“Surely an old soldier like you isn’t planning on ending things?” Celine exclaimed, taken aback by his words.

George’s head snapped up to look at her for a moment before he answered, “No, lass, but when you get to be my age… Well, you just seem to know when the end is near. No, I’ll keep on going ‘til the Good Lord or the Empress calls, but truth is, I can feel the bony fingers of death reaching out for me.”

The two of them sat in companionable silence for a time, the only sound the tap of Celine’s fork on the china as she enjoyed George’s meat pie. Soon enough the plate was empty, and after rinsing it George showed Celine to the guest room.


***


Celine woke well after the sun rose the following morning and was surprised at how silent George’s home was. She was used to waking at dawn to the sound of her mother bustling about in the kitchen as she made ready for the day.  Celine crawled from between the covers, made her way to the bathroom to do the necessary and headed down to the kitchen. Celine made a small breakfast for George and herself, but when he hadn’t come down by the time the coffee was done brewing she made her way back upstairs.

“George?” Celine called quietly when she reached the top of the stairs. When she didn’t get an answer, she went to the master bedroom door and called his name again before knocking politely. “George, are you awake?”

Remembering what George had said the night before, Celine blushed as she opened the door to peek in. She didn’t want him to think she had any designs on him, but at the same time, she was afraid of what she might find. When she could see into the room, she was simultaneously relieved and distressed. George lay fully clothed on his bed, and she was almost certain he was gone.

Not wanting to wake him if she was wrong, Celine slipped through the door and made her way quietly to the bedside. She had been right, though, and silently wept for the man who had outlived nearly everyone who had meant anything in his life, and for her parents as well.

After a bit, she wiped the tears away and straightened the bedding around George’s body. “I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to get to know you before last night, George,” Celine told him before pulling the comforter over his face. When she started to leave the room, she spotted an envelope on the bedside table with her name on it. Celine took it back to the kitchen with her and called the constable’s office, then sat down with a cup of coffee to read the note while she waited.


Celine-


If you’re reading this, I guess Death got his fingers on me. Like I said, I had a feeling, so I wrote this just in case. It’s sorry I am to have left you like this, but at my age things can happen quite unexpectedly no matter how bloody expected they are. Now, don’t you be crying over me, lass. I’ve had a long and full life, and been more places than my dear old mum and dad could have ever dreamed. And I’ve done more things than one man should.


You will have seen the pack by the door by now. That’s meant for you. This misbegotten rectal orifice of a village ain’t no place for a young lady like yourself. And if I was sitting here, I’d say you should try and make your way back to civilization if at all possible. I put a few outfits in the pack for you, along with a bit of coin and some food for the road. Speaking of coin, you might as well grab the rest of it. You’ll find it on the top shelf of the pantry behind the cheese. Take that too, lass. 


Now, mind, the clothes might not fit quite right since my Abigail wasn’t quite so blessed about the bust as you, but they should see you through ‘til you get somewhere with a real clothing store.


In the closet next to the door you’ll find my old rifle. She’s clean and in working order, and the ammo for her is in the box on the shelf above, along with a cleaning kit. Take care of her, lass, and she’ll keep you safe. Good luck with whatever you decide to do, and sorry I couldn’t be around to see you off.


Sincerely,

George


Celine felt her heart wrench as she read the final words. Obviously, there had been more to the old man than she’d realized. She finished her coffee and rinsed her mug, then pulled down the cheese in the pantry and retrieved the antique coffee can she found behind it. She took the contents of the can and went to the closet by the door, where she found the gun in a case marked with a stylized vampire skull with wolf ears.

She added the ammo and cleaning kit and added them to the pack which, as George had said, contained a bit of food and a few outfits of clothing. To this, she added the wheel of cheese, the old coffee can–which she’d filled with ground coffee–a couple small pots, and an old thermos which also bore the vampire-head logo.

She decided not to wait for the constable after all. After one last look around, she slung the gun case over her shoulder and headed out of town.

 She knew she’d never return.


Planet Yoll, Southern Continent

Celine snapped to alertness at the sound of something rustling in the dead brush around her campsite. She had learned how to survive in the bush from her parents and slept lightly when she couldn’t find a protected area to make her camp. Grabbing the bowie knife she’d recovered from the corpse of a dead hunter on her third day of walking, Celine listened for the telltale sounds that would identify what was stalking her. Two people, one human and one Yollin, were trying to sneak around.

Celine put the bowie back in its sheath and open the gun case she was using as a pillow. She carefully slid George’s assault rifle from the case, along with a clip of ammo. Whoever these scumbags were, they were about to have a very bad night.

By the time the first idiot—the human—had made it into Celine’s camp, she was ten feet above him in a tree. She didn’t shoot him right away since there was always the possibility that he was just a lost hunter looking for a friendly campfire for the night. He removed all doubt by pulling a knife and jumping on her bedroll as if to pin her in place, so she gently stroked the trigger and his head disappeared in a fine mist. Moments later the Yollin rushed into the clearing.

When the thug saw his partner lying across Celine’s bedroll he called, “You might as well show yourself, girl! Landover sends his regards and says he’ll forgive you if you give him what he wants.”

Oh, for bistok-shit’s sake! Celine thought to herself. “You can tell that spunk-sucking piece of bistok-bait to go to hell!” Celine yelled back as she ducked behind the trunk. “I wouldn’t give him a glass of water in the middle of a drought, let alone marry his ugly ass.”

“Leave now, kiene, and I—”

She was still speaking when the Yollin opened fire on the tree she was hiding in. Maybe I shouldn’t have called him a kiene, Celine thought as she cowered behind the trunk, trying to think of a way out of her predicament.

Spotting another tree within jumping distance, Celine slung the rifle across her back and made ready to move as soon as the idiot ran out of ammo. Hopefully, she’d have enough time to pack up the camp before the local wildlife came to investigate the disturbance.

As soon as Celine heard the first click of the empty gun she made her move. Taking three steps down the large branch she had been standing on, Celine leapt to the next tree and used her momentum to swing up to a higher branch. From there she was able to leap to a second and then a third tree, this one with a clear sight-line to where the Yollin was standing.

Celine settled herself on a sturdy branch and pulled the rifle from her back. She flipped the fire selector to 7, took time to line up her shot just as she would against a dangerous predator, and pulled the trigger. The pain in her shoulder was so horrendous she passed out.

Celine woke to the sound of something sniffing around in the underbrush. She couldn’t remember clearly what had happened, but she remembered killing two of Landover’s goons. At least she thought she had killed the second. She couldn’t be sure with the pain in her shoulder and back, so she could have just imagined the two goons. But worst of all was the pain in her crotch, which felt like she’d been straddling a branch all night. Then Celine realized that she was about twenty feet up in a tree, and was in fact straddling a branch a couple of inches in diameter.

“How in the name of the Bitches am I still up here?” she asked no one in particular, so it came as a complete surprise to hear a voice below her.

“Offhand, I’d say you were just lucky enough to land on an exceptionally strong limb. Of course, you could just be as light as you look.” The voice sounded amused.

Celine’s surprise was so great that she fell out of the tree, something she hadn’t done since she was seven. When she landed, the force of the impact caused her to pass out.


Planet Yoll, Southern Continent, Wilderness




When Celine regained consciousness she smelled coffee brewing and woodsmoke. Thinking herself in danger, Celine started to get to her feet, only to stop when she heard a familiar voice.

“Not so fast! You’ll aggravate your injuries.”

Looking towards the sound of the voice, Celine was only slightly relieved to see that the voice’s owner was an unfamiliar man. “What happened?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” he countered. “Here, let me help you sit up. There’s a log next to you that you can lean against if you’re careful.”

“What do you mean ‘if I’m careful?’ And the last thing I remember was falling out of a tree. Were you really naked when I saw you before?”

“Falling, you say?” He smiled at her. “I thought maybe you had decided to throw yourself at me for some reason.”

“Oh, God,” Celine whimpered, “don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.”

“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that, but at least you’re alive,” he replied, and offered her a cup of coffee. “So let me ask…were you trying to kill yourself, or what?”

“Oh, no!” Celine cried as the events of the previous night came back to her. “My rifle! I’ve got to find it!”

“Relax, girl. I went searching for it as soon as I saw the case. It’s sitting over there next to the rest of what I could salvage from what I assume was your camp.”

“It’s not too badly damaged, is it?” Celine asked worriedly.

“You kidding?” he asked incredulously. “It looked like the Empress fought a war in that clearing. Name’s Jeff, by the way.”

“Oh God, oh God,” Celine cried as she fought not to laugh. “Not the camp, you ass, the rifle.! It was a gift from a neighbor. Before he died he wrote me a note telling me to take the rifle with me,” Celine told him a bit sadly, remembering the kindly old man. “I’ll need it to stay alive out here.”

“Well, I’ll ask again…were you trying to kill yourself?” Jeff asked angrily, “’Cause you damn near succeeded.”

“No, I wasn’t— Oh, where are my manners?” Celine interrupted herself. “I’m Celine Ashborn. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jeff. And no, I was not trying to kill myself. I was trying to kill the bistok-licking Yollin who attacked me in the middle of the night.”

“Celine, I’m glad to make your acquaintance. And to answer your question, it takes more than a loose grip to damage a weapon like that.” Jeff smiled. “And offhand I’d say you succeeded rather spectacularly in killing that Yollin. All I could find of him were a few pieces of chitin.”

Celine sighed. “Thank the Empress!”

“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you should know that the attack happened three nights ago.” After pausing to consider her, Jeff continued with a bit of a wicked grin. “I patched you up as best I could after you threw yourself into my arms, but without a Pod-doc you’re gonna be in pain for a while.”

“You Empress-cursed ass!” Celine choked out between gasps of pain.

Smiling, Jeff continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “You managed to dislocate your shoulder and break your clavicle in three places, along with two of your ribs. You also seem to have bruised at least half a dozen vertebrae in your upper back. All in all, I’d say you’re Gott Verdammt lucky to be alive, Miss Ashborn!”

“There’s no need to be vulgar,” Celine responded with a smile. “And I would have preferred death to being dragged back to New Providence. Landover can kiss the Empress’ royal size sevens if he thinks for one minute that I’m gonna go back there and marry his ugly antediluvian egomaniacal avarice-riddled leatherette ass!” she finished with a steely growl that made Jeff’s hackles stand on end.

“Well, don’t sugar-coat it, girl.” Jeff smiled. “So, since you’re not headed to New Providence, where might you be going?”

Celine looked down contritely as heat crept up her neck. Her mother would be furious if she knew how bad Celine’s language had turned in the last week. “I’m not really sure,” she responded in a whisper. “I was just heading east, thinking I’d figure out where to go once I found a way to get there.”

“Well,” Jeff replied as he rinsed his coffee cup and started tidying up the camp, “I’m just a simple Guardian myself, but it’s been my experience that it’s generally easier to figure out the how when you know the where.”

“Oh, and just which Were do I need to know then?” Celine challenged him.

“A wise gal, huh?” he responded with a grin. “Well, wise gal, if by some miracle you manage to survive long enough to make it to the Meredith Reynolds, maybe I’ll introduce you to the only Were that matters.” He started putting his things in his pack.

“Wait, you’re not gonna just leave me here, are you?” Celine asked, panicked. As soon as she spoke his shoulders began to spasm and she knew she’d been played—and had fallen for it. “Ooo,” she growled, and threw her coffee cup at his back. “Men!”

When the cup hit Jeff’s back he couldn’t contain the laughter anymore. “I’m sorry, Celine, but that was just too funny.” He regained control. “Look, I realize you’re a fairly independent woman who doesn’t like to rely on others. I can stay a couple more days, but I am expected back pretty soon. I don’t have a lot of control in this matter. My unit could be sent on a mission without warning, and if I’m not there for deployment I’ll wish it was the Empress’ size sevens I was kissing!” He pulled a container from his pack and sat next to her on the log.

“Thank you, Jeff. I understand your situation and appreciate your willingness to spend your leave helping me,” Celine responded, “I’m not sure how far I could have made it alone all busted up like this. What’s in the container, anyway? It smells horrible.”

“You’re gonna have to let me take a look at your shoulder and back. I want to make sure the bones haven’t shifted with all the moving around you’ve been doing,” he told her with a significant look at the blanket she’d been subconsciously holding closed. “This salve will help with the swelling and pain around your spine. I would have applied it earlier, but I wanted to get your permission before I put my hands all over you.”

Celine scooted around a little to give him better access to her back before replying, “You can put your hands anywhere if it will reduce the pain.” It wasn’t until she lowered the blanket that she realized she was topless. She blushed furiously about her comment and tried to keep her chest covered while he rubbed the salve into her back.

Her mom would be so disappointed in her right now…


Planet Yoll, Southern Continent, Wilderness




Jeff was pacing a bit outside the camp, far enough away not to be overheard by the girl—Celine, he reminded himself—but close enough to keep an eye out for trouble while he waited for his call to go through. He wasn’t sure what, but something about that girl just called out to him.

“Corporal Derrington,” Commander Silvers answered.

“Sir!” Jeff replied, mildly surprised. “I was expecting Sergeant Stone, sir.”

“Stone’s a little preoccupied at the moment, Jeff. What can I do for you?”

“Sir, I was calling to request an extension to my leave.”

“Let me guess: you found a girl and you just can’t bear the thought of leaving her,” the commander teased. When Jeff didn’t answer he went on, “You’re shitting me! You did, didn’t you?”

“Well, not quite the way you meant, sir, but that sums it up rather nicely,” Jeff replied ruefully.

“Okay, let me have it, Jeff. What’s so special about this girl that I should make an exception?

“It’s like this, sir.” Jeff regretted the cliché as the words left his mouth. “I came down to Yoll to get out in the country. Caught a hopper from the spaceport to this little town in the middle of nowhere on the Southern Continent, and I’d been out for a few days—just running, you know? I figured if I met a bistok, well, I’m faster than they are. Anyway, a few nights ago, all hell broke loose on the other side of the ridge from me. By the time I got there all I found was a destroyed camp, a human who had lost his head, and a few pieces of chitin.”

“Sounds like someone had a party,” the commander replied when Jeff stopped to consider how to word the next part.

“Sure looked that way to me, sir,” Jeff replied. “Thing is, when I was checking the camp I found a couple items marked with the Corps’ logo, so I stuck around the area to search for survivors.”

“What exactly was it that you found to indicate possible survivors?” Peter interrupted.

“Well, sir, I found a canteen and a gun case that belonged to an assault rifle. And then I found the assault rifle, with the selector set to 7,” Jeff replied.

“Someone must have wanted something dead bad!” Peter exclaimed.

“Yes, sir,” Jeff replied with a smile. “Seems a local tough sent a couple goons after a slip of a girl and she objected rather pointedly to his plans.”

Jeff smiled to himself as he gazed towards camp while he waited for his boss to get control over his mirth.

“So, as I was saying, sir, I found the gun a couple hundred yards from camp and as I was walking the trajectory taken by the gun’s flight, I hear this voice out of nowhere ask how it was still up there. At first I thought it might have been an angel talking seeing as how there wasn’t anyone around, but when I looked up there was this girl straddling a tree limb. I guess I must have startled her cause next thing I know she fell right into my arms.”

Jeff had to stop because the commander was roaring with laughter. Once Commander Silvers had regained his senses, Jeff resumed speaking. “In any event, sir, the girl broke her clavicle in three places, dislocated her shoulder, broke two ribs, and bruised her spine. It’s a miracle she’s still alive, and I just don’t feel right leaving her down here in that condition.”

“Oh, God,” Silvers pleaded, “please tell me that’s all there is to this story!”

“More or less, sir,” Jeff responded.

“Why don’t you just bring her up when you come back from leave?”

“Yeah, well, we’re not at the meet-Mom-and-Dad—” Jeff was cut off by the laughter of multiple people. Well, nucking futs, Jeff thought to himself. I’m never going to live this one down.

“Okay, angel bait,” Silvers managed through his amusement. “I’m placing you on detached duty, but be aware that there are a few people who want to meet this angel of yours!” The line went dead, cutting off a fresh round of laughter from the listeners.

“Look on the bright side, Derrington,” Jeff muttered to himself as he started back to camp. “They could have come up with an even worse nickname. Not sure how, but they could have!”


Planet Yoll, Southern Continent, Wilderness




Celine knelt just below the crest of the ridge as Jeff sauntered towards the bistok below. He wasn’t what she imagined when she thought of beefcake, but he certainly wasn’t hard to look at either. Four days ago they had been walking across the open plains enjoying the weather and each other’s company when she had innocently asked when he had to return to his unit.

His reply had both shocked her and left her feeling secretly pleased.

“I would never leave you to fend for yourself,” he had told her.

Celine wasn’t a stranger to dealing with guys who thought they had game. She had heard lines from more men than she cared to count, but this one was definitely right out of the blue. Celine had begun to relax after the first couple of days and was enjoying the easy friendship with Jeff, so his comment caught her by surprise and she had rattled off her standard reply—which normally sent they guy running back to his friends.

“I could never be with someone who doesn’t respect the bistok they hunt, and I would never marry a man who couldn’t kill a bistok with his bare hands.” Celine was mortified when she heard the words coming from her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say anything like that to Jeff after all he had done to help her.

Jeff had just smiled at her and said, “I accept your challenge, fair lady,” then sniffed the air a few times before setting off on a course just a bit more southerly than the one they had been on.

It had taken three and a half days to find the creature, and for most of that Celine had tried to get Jeff to give up his crazy quest. She’d even resorted to promising to let him take her on a date, but all her protests had fallen on deaf ears.

When they had finally found the bistok, Jeff had asked her to set up camp and then hunkered down to observe the beast for the rest of the afternoon. When he’d finally walked into camp after dark, Celine had asked, “What was so interesting up there?”

“Interesting?” Jeff had replied, “I don’t think I’d call it interesting. I just wanted to make sure she was in good health and not a new mama.”

“Really?” Celine had snorted. “In good health? ‘Not a new mama’ I can understand, but in good health? You do realize don’t you that a fully-grown bistok in good health is one of the most dangerous creatures on this planet, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, the key phrase there being ‘one of.’”

Frustrated, Celine had stormed off to her bedroll and not spoken to him for the rest of the evening. She had woken this morning to find him squatted in the very spot she occupied now, as naked as the day he was born. After working through her shock at his lack of attire, Celine had joined him on the ridge where he was once again watching the bistok.

And it wasn’t just any bistok. This one looked to be nearly three meters at the shoulder and at least fifteen in length from horns to the tip of its tail, making it the largest specimen she had ever seen.

“More observation today?” she had quipped snidely.

“Not today, my lady,” Jeff had replied sweetly, with a smile that had made her anger melt.

“You wouldn’t!” she had gasped in horror a few minutes later when it dawned on her that he intended to hunt the beast below them without so much as a loincloth for protection.

“You said bare-handed, and bare-handed it shall be,” Jeff had replied before standing and striding over the crest. Celine had been a bit ashamed of herself as she watched his muscles ripple, but she also hadn’t looked away.

Jeff stopped about a hundred meters from the bistok and gave her a cheesy grin before turning back to his prey. Celine had the sudden feeling that “prey” was exactly how Jeff saw the bistok.

He let out what could only be described as a war cry and charged.

Celine was thunderstruck when the bistok, upon seeing the man charging towards it, gave a blood-curdling bellow and fled the scene. Certain she was seeing things, Celine squeezed her eyes shut and gave her head a shake. But when she opened her eyes the scene before her hadn’t changed: the bistok continued to do a very credible impression of a locomotive with a full head of steam as it fled the human chasing it.

Jeff vanished in mid-stride, replaced by a great white wolf. Celine gave the wolf a good once-over as it tore across the plains with incredible speed with its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth. The beast appeared to be twelve hands at the shoulder and possessed an unblemished snow-white coat.

“Just my luck,” Celine muttered to herself, “I finally meet a guy who’s not full of himself and he turns out to be a bat-shit crazy Were.”

Celine hadn’t noticed the hopper that had settled to the ground a short distance behind her, so when she stood to return to camp she was taken completely by surprise when someone grabbed her from behind.

“Well, well, well,” came a voice she was all too familiar with. “If it ain’t New Providence’s little lost birdie, and with a busted wing, no less.”

“Rieol,” Celine ground out. “What brings a slimeball like you this far from town? Landover finally grow a brain and send you out here to get killed?”

“Oh, you think you’re a funny girl, do you?” Rieol asked as he squeezed her shoulder.

Celine didn’t mind the pain since it gave her the perfect excuse to scream. And she let out the loudest scream she could; far louder than the pain deserved, knowing it was likely the only chance she’d have to get Jeff’s attention.

As a general rule, once a Were set their mind to pursuing a relationship, they were exceptionally loyal to that person. Given his behavior over the last couple of days, Celine suspected Jeff might have decided that she was the one. Since Weres were also known to have a keen sense of hearing, if Celine figured that her scream didn’t bring Jeff barreling back to camp he didn’t deserve her anyway.

“Oh, don’t worry, girl,” Rieol continued with an evil leer. “You’ll be with Landover soon enough, but what he don’t know won’t hurt him, will it?” He shoved her down onto one of the bedrolls.

“Now, I’m a fair man. Even you can’t deny that,” Rieol told her as a wolf’s howl cut the air. After glancing around nervously Rieol continued, “Here’s the deal, sweetheart…I want that gun! Not for Landover, for myself. That piece of bistok shit doesn’t even realize how fucked he will be if you make it out of the wilderness alive. If you give me the gun, I will forget I ever saw you and we can go our separate ways. Both alive, and neither of us any worse off than when I found you.”

“What if I refuse?” Celine asked, trying to buy time for Jeff to get to her.

“Then like I said, I’ll drag your pretty little ass back to Landover, but not before I ransack this camp for the gun. And don’t think your pretty little Marine will stop—”

Rieol was interrupted by a loud growl from behind him.

Celine smiled. “I’m thinking he doesn’t mind you calling him ‘pretty,’ but I think he takes exception to being called ‘little.’”

With a roar of anger, Jeff sprang from his crouch just as Rieol spun to face him. Rieol never got the chance to use the gun he was holding before the giant albino wolf tore his head from his shoulders; nor did he see the other two wolves who sprang into the clearing moments later.

As soon as the new wolves arrived Jeff placed himself in front of Celine. The wolves, much closer to standard size but still out of place on a planet that hadn’t evolved anything even resembling a canine, quickly backed up to the edge of the camp and prostrated themselves.

“I suggest you change,” Celine called to them as she tried to shove his furry bulk aside. “That is, unless you want to fight him.”

“Holy Smokes!” Celine heard a girl say. “Where did you find him?”

“Tina, quit being rude!” said an older female. “We don’t mean you any harm. We heard the girl’s scream and came as quick as we could,” the elderly voice continued, obviously speaking to Jeff.

“Jeff, you may be as big as a horse, but if you don’t move your hairy ass out of my way I swear on the Empress’ sevens I will find a way to make you regret it,” Celine stated as she pounded on his leg.

As soon as she had room, Celine stood up and threw a pair of pants over Jeff’s neck. “Now do something helpful and haul that bistok-shit-for-brains’ body off. And put those on before you come back to camp.”

Jeff just chuffed, much to their guests’ amusement, and did as he was asked.

“Behave yourself or I’ll buy you a saddle!” Celine called after him.


QBBS Meredith Reynolds, Main Docks

Celine felt just the slightest of bumps as the ship settled to its landing skids. She was just a bit nervous to be coming to the Empire’s headquarters, and felt out of place among so many people who had chosen to make their home in space. Celine had grown up on Yoll, and loved the openness of the wilderness. She found it difficult to relax without nature around her.

Following Jeff’s lead, Celine filed out of the transport with the other passengers. “Jeff,” she began. “Are you sure they can provide the illusion of planetary wilderness?”

“Yes, Celine,” he replied with a smile. “The technicians up here are practically miracle workers. And if you need to be able to see wide open spaces on a planet to be comfortable, I will not only find someone who is capable of giving that to you but someone who is willing to!” He twined her good arm in his.

“I’m sorry, Jeff. It just feels so closed-in up here. Like people are afraid of being able to stretch their arms to the sides without hitting another person.”

“Don’t worry, my lady.” Jeff chuckled. “This,” he paused to wave his arms around, “is just the outer commercial area. It is visited by pretty much every species we’ve ever met.  Once we pass through inner security there won’t be so many people. We even have a couple of parks where you can go to feel closer to nature.”

“That’s not the same and you know it.” She playfully kicked him in the shin.

“No, it’s not,” he agreed, “but it does help a bit when you can’t just run off to a planet at the drop of a paw.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Celine sighed. “I’ll just have to get used to the idea of living up here.” Celine prayed silently that she had made the right decision to follow Jeff back to the station.

And she still wanted to know what was so special about that rifle.





AUTHOR NOTES - VIRGEL MITCHELL


Well, first let me thank Michael Anderle for opening his universe to the fans! I’ve enjoyed reading almost all the books in the KG Universe (yeah there was one I put down and won’t pick back up) and getting a chance to let my imagination run free has been an enjoyable time.

I’d also like to thank all the other members of the Fans Write group. They are a great bunch. But a special thanks to Louise Bishop who was kind enough to review George’s part, since I wanted him to speak with a British accent.

And of course, who can forget the FANtastic fans. Thank you all for coming along on this journey with Celine and Jeff. I’m feeling like there is so much more to write for these two, so maybe at some point in the future I’ll do an expanded version of this story.

When I opened my writing program (Scrivener) to begin this story, I knew exactly two things about it. The first was that the hero…well, heroine, was going to be a young(ish) female. The second was that I wanted the story to be about a real person facing real problems. Like my other stories, this one just seemed to write itself, with little direction from me. I hope I accomplished the second item without offending too many people.

To MA and the fans, let’s hope Fans Write for Fans Vol II is successful enough to garner Vol III.


Ad Aeternitatem,


Virgel Mitchell




H’Lageh Freedom

By Logan Caird


When her isolated planet is taken over by pirates, Agent Blackwood goes undercover as a slave to undermine their efforts. When she learns of an imminent attack by aliens against the pirates, she has to act quickly to get the slaves to safety. But with only minutes to break free, she fears she won't be able to save them all. In a race against time, time is going to win.

Dedication

I want to thank both of my wonderful parents for supporting all my creative endeavors over the years, my loving girlfriend for telling me more or less daily I need to focus on writing if I want to be an author, and Piper, my adorable (I swear!) Doxador lap warmer. Finally, I want to thank Michael Anderle for creating such a wonderful world and giving so many of us the chance to write in it. 

















CHAPTER ONE



Note:  The events in this story take place simultaneously with certain events in AHEAD FULL, TKG19.


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth, Skaine Barracks 

Jade Blackwood ducked back with a laugh and grabbed a dirty plate to shield her face as Karina splashed soapy dishwater at her. Karina scooped up a handful of water and hurled it at Jade, who deflected most of it with the plate, but when the water splashed the floor both of them froze.

The Skaine slaver in the corner, chair tilted back against the wall, only adjusted his butt before falling back asleep.

The women grinned at each other and went back to doing dishes. Karina adjusted her slave collar, trying to keep it away from the burns on her neck. The slavers were fond of shocking people.

Jade caught the motion and glared at the slaver. She leaned next to Karina’s ear and whispered, “In another few days we’ll be out of here—promise.”

Karina sighed and her shoulders slumped. She shook her head and turned away from Jade to continue her work.

Jade took a long slow breath, rolled her shoulders, and joined Karina at the sink.

Everyone in the room jerked when static crackled from the radio. The slaver jumped out of his chair so fast he knocked it over and fumbled to answer, missing the button the first time. He thumbed it on and the voice of Braez, the local Nat-Nis gang leader, came through clearly. “Dinner. Now.”

“Yes, sir,” the slaver responded and turned to Jade. “You heard him,” he snapped. “Get to work.”

Jade bowed. “Yes, sir.”

She put a plate of food from the warmer onto a tray and headed out to deliver it. As she left the room she heard another of the Skaine slavers yelling at Karina, demanding that she go clean up a mess in the barracks.

When she reached the end of the hall Jade knocked on the gang leader’s door, balancing the tray of food on one hand.

A Skaine voice called, “What?”

She answered just loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to be considered disrespectful. “I have your dinner here, master.”

The electronic lock buzzed and Jade pushed the door open with her hip, then bowed. “As you requested, master.”

He grunted without looking up from his tablet. Keeping her head down, Jade crossed to his desk, her eyes marking everything important in the room. She bowed again and set the plate on his desk, then backed away, tucking a strand of hair behind her pointed ears.

“Is there anything else I can do for you, master?”

The Skaine snorted and waved his blue three-fingered hand, then dug into his food. “Go away. I’m busy.”

“Yes, master.” She bowed one last time before leaving the office. As the door closed, she felt a slight vibration on the inside of her arm.

She went back to the kitchen and put away the empty tray, then started washing dishes again. As she reached into the water, she subtly pressed against the subdermal patch embedded in her inner arm and a voice came through the implanted speaker in her inner ear. “The monster seen in the princess’s dream arrives to destroy the Skaines. Get those you can to safety. You have ten minutes.” She didn’t acknowledge, because it was a one-way transmission to make it harder to track.

Jade fished around in the dirty water to find a knife and cut her palm, turning the water red. She yanked her hand out of the water and dropped the knife with a hiss of pain.

The Skaine in the corner looked up when the knife hit the floor to see her holding her bleeding hand as she hurried toward the cabinet. “Make it fast,” he demanded. “Those dishes won’t wash themselves. Don’t think this gets you out of it.”

Jade bobbed her head as she bandaged her hand. “Of course, master.” Her silver slave collar hit her jaw, so she reached up to adjust it—and slipped a patch from the cabinet under it. A moment later she felt a slight jolt of electricity as the patch shorted the collar out.

She put the bandages back in the cabinet and palmed a tiny needle launcher and a tube of glue, then slipped the doorstop into her pocket.  She’d gathered all these and secreted them away over the last few weeks. On her way back to the sink she shot the Skaine, who had been foolish enough to close his eyes again.

When the needle hit his neck he slapped at the spot, and when he pulled his hand away he saw a dot of blood. He looked surprised for a moment before slumping forward.

Jade got to him in time to catch him…but she didn’t. She stepped to the side as he fell forward and his head thwacked on the tile floor, then lifted him back into his seat and leaned him against the wall again.

Her lip curled. “Hope you’re comfortable, master.”

The other six Helagethians in the room looked at Jade in confusion as she pulled out the tray and ushered them toward the door. “The princess called. These scum will be driven from our planet, but we have to get out of this building. Line up so I can disable your collars and we’ll get out of here.”


***

Jade listened at the door to the hallway, the tray hanging loosely from one hand as she held up her other halt the others. She counted to three, then drove the door forward hard enough that there was an audible crack as it slammed into the Skaine on the other side.

She stumbled through the door and dropped to her knees to land halfway on the tray. One of the two Skaines on the other side staggered away holding his nose. Blood flowed between his fingers as he muttered, “What the hell?”

The other Skaine—Raaz, maybe?—laughed. “Clumsy idiot.”

He kicked at Jade, but she leaned back and braced the tray with her knee at just the right height so Raaz’ foot hit it instead. He stumbled back, hopping on one foot.

Jade stood and slammed edge of the tray into his throat, silencing him before he could shout. He clutched his neck, tripped, and landed on his back. She kicked the inside of the forgettable Skaine’s knee and he choked as it popped out of joint.

Jade jumped knees-first to land on his stomach. The air whooshed out of him before he could call out, and she slammed a kitchen knife into the side of his head.

When he went still, Jade stood up and shook the blood from her hand with a look of distaste. “This would be easier if these freaks had hair.”

In only a few seconds both Skaine were dead or dying. She pushed open the door into the kitchen and called to the others. “Drag these two into the kitchen. I’m going to check our route.”

Jade didn’t wait for a response. She headed to the corner at the end of the hall to check for other Skaines. Not finding any, she went partway down one of the halls to the door into one of their sleeping chambers and listened at the door. Nothing but snoring.

Jade looked both ways to make sure she was unnoticed and knelt to lock the door using her stolen master key, then emptied part of the tube of quick-acting glue into the lock. No one was going in or out of this door without knocking it down.

When she pressed her ear to the next door she heard laughing Skaine voices and arguing Helagethian ones. Jade checked herself over; blood covered one of her hands. “Shit.”

After a quick glance down the hall, she went to the nearest closet and used a rag to wipe off as much of the blood as she could, then re-wrapped the cut on her hand with fresh bandages. She smirked as she tossed the used bandage away. “It’s a good thing Skaines have the same color blood as we do.”

She walked into the dorm with her head down and approached the group. The Skaines were sprawled around playing a card game, and the two Helagethian women she’d heard were scrubbing the floor where a drink had spilled.

She ignored the Skaine and approached the women. “Sonja, Karina, the commander wants you upstairs now.”

The two stood and started to head for the door, but one of the Skaines got in their way. “Not happening. Clean.”

He pointed to the spill and turned to Jade. “Tell that overgrown paper-pusher that if he wants my slaves he can buy them.” He grinned and leered at her. “I’ll accept double what I paid.”

Jade bowed to hide her anger. “I will tell him what you said, sir.”

He crossed the room before she could back away and grabbed her arm. Jade tensed but didn’t react.

“You listen here,” the Skaine told her. “You will tell him that I said my slaves are busy. If I hear any more of your insolence I will break your arm. Accidents can happen, even to the paper-pusher’s pet.”

Jade stumbled when he shoved her toward the door, but she caught herself and bowed. “As you say.”

She left the room and closed the door. Resting a hand on it, she fingered the launcher and muttered, “Sixteen Skaine, but only eight needles. I’m so sorry, Karina and Sonja. You will be mourned, but there isn’t enough time.” She locked the door and put glue in the lock.

She repeated the process on the other three doors in that hall before returning to the kitchen.

Just before entering she stopped, gut instinct warning her. “It’s me,” she whispered. “I’m coming in.”

She pushed the door open. One of the other Helagethians stood to the side of the door with a butcher’s blade at his side.

Jade shook her head when he offered her the knife. “Keep it. I’ve locked most of them in their barracks, but we have to hurry.”


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth, Skaine Barracks

She led them past the locked doors to the entrance to the vehicle yard. There she paused and pulled out the needle gun, then inched the door open and looked around, crouching to avoid being seen.

Three Skaines were within sight, but only one could see the door and the other two couldn’t see him. He was barely within range of Jade’s needle gun, so she took a slow, steadying breath as she lined up her shot and waited. Wish I had a rifle, she thought.

The Skaine grabbed a wrench from the toolbox next to him and bent into the engine of a truck. Jade fired two quick shots—one to each butt cheek—and the Skaine jerked up, but the poison in the needles was quick-acting. He slumped back into the engine before he could call out.

Jade glanced at the others to check that they hadn’t noticed anything, then pushed the door open and motioned her people through the door to the yard. As they filed through she kept her needler pointed at the other Skaines in case they turned around, but neither did. Both were staring at the sky and pointing animatedly.

After the last of the Helagethians exited, Jade quietly shut the motor pool door and followed them along the edge of the yard to the fence. When she caught up, the person at the front had already pulled the fence away from the wall and was sending the rest through. She nodded to him and ducked through, stopping on the other side to help him. Everyone looked at the massive ship coming out of the clouds overhead.

Ducking, they ran along the side of the building and hid behind some bushes. Jade kept everyone down while several vehicles passed on the street. Once everything was clear, they crossed to the rear of the supply building and crouched next to the stairs.

Jade motioned for everyone to stay down. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

She shook her arms out and cracked her neck, then lowered her head and dropped her shoulders. Doing her best to look beaten down, she walked around the corner and up to the supply building’s entrance.

The two Skaines guarding the door gave her only a cursory glance as she walked between them and started up the stairs.

Halfway up the stairs, she turned back and fired the needle gun twice into the back of the Skaine on her left. He jerked to the side and tripped over his feet before dropping into a heap. The other pointed his gun at her, so she shot him in the face. The needle left a little drop of blood on his forehead, and he fell on his back.

She checked the magazine of the needle launcher. “Three left.” Pocketing the weapon, she appropriated a guard’s assault rifle and slung it across her back. She knew it wouldn’t be as quiet, but if the choices were noise or death she knew which one she would pick.

She locked the door and poured the rest of the glue into the keyhole, then knelt and slid the doorstop from her pocket under the door. After kicking it solidly into place, she retrieved her people and they headed to the edge of the compound.


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth

Jade drew up next to one of the force-field-generating fence posts and motioned to the others. “Stop here. Remove your collars and drop them.” She pointed across the street. “Go through that alley and continue straight for two blocks to a house with a red door. Go around back and into the cellar. Stay there until tomorrow, then go to your homes. Hopefully, it will be over by then.”

She muttered to herself as she knelt by the post, “One way or another.”

She applied the patch to the post, and when it sparked a section of the fence shorted out and vanished. The six rushed across the yard and disappeared into the alley.

She headed back toward the center of the compound, giving the supply building a wide berth, and went around the side of the main building.

Just before she reached the door twenty Skaines ran out of the building in the vehicle yard. She dropped flat, tucked against the building. One of them checked the unconscious mechanic and slammed the hood of the truck on him in frustration, then motioned for the rest to get into other vehicles.

Four of them climbed into a pair of fast-attack vehicles and the rest hopped into two armored troop-transports. They roared out of the vehicle yard just before the explosions started. Tiny objects moving almost too fast to be seen came down from the sky and slammed into the barracks.

The windows above Jade shattered outward and she covered her head with her arms as glass shards and debris rained down on her. Most of the damage was internal to the building so she was not harmed, but she rolled away from the building and lay flat anyway, tucking her stolen rifle under her body.

A moment after the streaks hit the barracks another round of them hit the supply building. The front door was rattled from inside but held and a moment later the building was reduced to rubble. She smiled to herself and looked toward the vehicle yard.

There were large holes throughout the barracks. One of the troop transports had been hit but the rest of the vehicles had made it out, one fast-attack vehicle in the front and the other in the back with the troop transport between them.

Jade flattened her body and lifted her head to follow the convoy. The vehicles were driving away from the building as fast as they could, but they had only made it a few hundred feet when a small shuttle flew past overhead. An armored figure dropped out of the bottom and two more streaks took out the fast-attack vehicles.

The troop transport barely managed to stay on the street. It dodged to the right to bypass the destroyed fast-attack vehicle, then skidded to a stop as the armored figure hit the road in front of it. As the figure started moving forward, the roof of the vehicle opened and a Skaine emerged.

Too fast for Jade to follow, the figure sprinted forward and jumped over the vehicle. The body of the Skaine, minus his head, dropped back into the troop transport and the figure landed a dozen feet behind the transport. He started walking toward the burning remains of the barracks and drew a handgun.

He turned back toward the vehicle without slowing his pace and blasted holes through it, and after a few shots Jade couldn’t see anyone moving inside. It was easy enough to tell since the vehicle was more hole than armor at that point.

The armored man started to run and Jade lowered her head again and remained still, hoping to avoid notice.

Ducking at the last second, the armored figure slammed shoulder-first into the wall of the barracks. It didn’t even slow him and he vanished from Jade’s sight.

She listened to the building burn less than ten feet away, and scrambled further away from the building. The crackling of the flames was only occasionally interrupted by the distinctive sound of the mystery figure’s handgun.

While he was in the barracks another handful of streaks slammed into the supply building. They must have struck something important because after this wave of strikes the building exploded, sending rubble flying in all directions for hundreds of feet.

A few minutes later the figure came back out of the barracks the same way he had gone in, directly through a wall and into the vehicle yard, dropping from the second floor in the process. He walked to an almost-clear space and pushed a truck out of the way with one foot, then stepped back. The shuttle that had dropped him off landed and he boarded, then it flew away.

Jade gave it five minutes before heading into the burning barracks herself. She left her needler in her pocket but drew the assault rifle across her body. She didn’t think any of the Skaines would still be alive, but it would be better to be sure.

As she approached the hole the figure had left in the wall, she reached into the neck of her robes, unfastening a pocket she’d sewn there, and pulled a mask up across her nose and mouth, then reached behind her head to pull a hood across her eyes from above. Touching a spot on her collar sent a charge through the hood that pulled it flush against her face and turned it on.

The fabric allowed her to easily see through the smoke while the bottom portion allowed her to breathe without inhaling smoke or other toxins. She pulled gloves out of the same hidden pocket and carefully climbed through the crumbling hole.

A few steps in she found that the stairs to the second floor had failed under the weight of the attack—or the weight of the armored figure.

She slung the rifle across her back and used her shoulder to shove the remains of the door back enough to get into the stairwell.

She looked around in amazement. “No wonder he didn’t come out the same hole.”

Balancing carefully, she jumped to grab the ledge up to the next floor and easily pulled herself up.

On the second floor, she found two Skaines crumpled against the wall with their chests caved in. One had a boot-shaped indent where his chest should be. She pushed him into the stairwell to get into the hallway.

A blast of heat and fire flared up from the influx of fresh air when she opened the door and Jade jerked back and covered her face with her arms to protect it. She pulled her hood tighter across her head and cinched the arms of her robes closed, then jumped through the fire and rolled to a stop, clutching the rifle with one hand. The floor behind her collapsed and left a ten-foot hole.

The door near the gap was hanging at an angle. It was the room she’d had to leave Sonja and Karina in. Her hand tightened on the rifle and her knuckles went white inside her gloves.

Jade sprinted to the gang leader’s office and found that getting in was easier than expected; she just reached through the giant hole in the door and unlocked it from the inside. When she tried to push it open the door was stuck, so she blew holes around the frame with the rifle, then gave it a shove. It opened enough for her to get inside.

In the office, she pushed the Skaine leader’s remains out of his chair and grabbed his tablet computer and comm device. She used his sleeve to wipe the blood off the screen and made sure it was still working before quickly leaving the building. She didn’t want to spend any more time in there.


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth

Jade glanced at the vehicles as she left through the hole in the side of what remained of the barracks. After looking skyward, she shook her head and jogged past the yard. Don’t want to chance being mistaken for an escaping Skaine by driving one of those, she thought.

As she left, the barracks groaned and fell in on itself and a blast of heat slammed into Jade’s back. She ran to the edge of the compound and through the nearest alley, then she slowed to a walk.

She undid her hood, pulled down her mask, and uncinched her sleeves. She checked herself for obvious signs she’d been in a fire; her robes were singed in several places. She ducked behind a trash bin and took the robes off, then tossed them into it. Grudgingly she added the assault rifle.

From a slot in the wall behind the bin she pulled a fresh set of robes and put them on, then walked out into the street. She was not the only person on the street, so she wasn’t out of place. She kept her head down and glanced in the direction of the burning compound as she made her way to the safe house a mile away.

The building was an apartment complex with eight floors. The elevator was still broken from when the Skaines had raided the building earlier in the month and taken a family away to sell them off-world, so Jade took the stairs.

Once inside her apartment, she pulled the refrigeration unit out of the way and ducked into the hidden room, which was barely bigger than a closet. After pulling the unit back into place, she set the Skaine leader’s computer down and plugged it in, then booted up her secure computer.

Almost immediately she got a text.

Where lies the sixth city?

 In the darkness where it can guard the rest, she replied

A voice stated, “Authenticated. Report, Agent Blackwood.”

Jade leaned back and took a second to compose herself. “I was able to get all but two of our people out of the compound before the alien ships destroyed it. Those two were in the barracks with the Skaines at the time and I could not extract them without compromising the mission.”

At the memory of that Jade’s lips tightened.“Unknown alien forces attacked and destroyed both the barracks and the supply building. Nothing significant remains of either building. The tablet of the Nat-Nis leader is hooked into my computer.”

“Thank you, Agent Blackwood. The two losses are regrettable but were unavoidable. Leave the tablet connected and we will extract what data we can, but we need you for another task immediately. You are the closest available asset.”

She straightened.“Yes, ma’am?”

“The leader of all the Skaines on our planet, the Torcellan Allahnzo, and several of his guards were on a shuttle on their way to Bah’aranteck when the aliens attacked. Video to follow.”

Jade’s screen flicked on and showed a long-range view of a Helagethian shuttle flying above the gas clouds and then coming to a sudden stop. Behind the shuttle distant lights flickered and sparked, then the shuttle resumed its flight. The camera view switched several times to show the shuttle approach the ruins of several compounds, stopping above each.

As it turned to leave the last compound a massive silver ship slid down from above and flew next to it, blocking the view of the camera. The view changed to another more distant camera and the shuttle was once again visible.

The two ships flew next to each other for a few minutes, then the shuttle sank slowly into the inky darkness below. The last sunlight faded as it passed into the thick gas. When the shuttle was gone, the silver ship disappeared.

The screen went blank and the voice came back on the line. “Our flight control systems tracked the shuttle as it went deep into The Darkness before losing connection in the static, but we believe it was going slow enough at that point the passengers could have survived the impact. We need you to go down there and find out. If Allahnzo is alive, interrogate him and determine what drugs he and his people were using in our schools and in our food so we can start to wean our people off them.”

Jade nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Anything else I should know before going?”

“The last signal we got from the ship was a message that it was being updated, so bring your computer. There’s no way to tell what the alien ship did to the shuttle, but we doubt that its computer will be useful to you. We want to determine who the aliens are and why they did this, so if you can get any information from Allahnzo or his men on that front, do so.”

The connection cut off and Jade gathered her equipment before leaving the hidden room. She took her computer, her special suit designed for travel into the gases below the cities, a bag of rations, and a small portable generator with her when she left her apartment.


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth, City Edge

Jade approached a less populated section of the city. Since there was only so much space on Mount Aerlinn, the Helagethians built arches that reached out from the mountainside, some of them up to several miles long.

This part of the City of Citiseereth was on such an arch and extended out over the black gases below. The gases were thick enough that the sunlight hit the surface without penetrating, and the gas undulated and crashed in waves against the mountain behind her. No normal light could breach those depths.

Jade slipped behind a mansion that had been abandoned when its previous occupants were killed during the initial Skaine invasion three seasons back. She made her way to a balcony that looked out over the edge of the arch.

After checking that no one was in sight, she pulled her mask up and hood down, activated them, jumped over the railing, and dropped toward the Darkness.

She spread her arms, and her loose robes caught the air and let her steer away from the side of the mountain into the deeper part of the inky blackness.

As she penetrated the surface her hood switched to a mode that let her see through the gases. In the fire in the barracks this mode had cut through the smoke as if it were not even there, but the inky blackness down here was something else. Even with the best technology available to them, the Helagethians could only see a few hundred feet through the gases.

Jade plummeted, relying on the internal map in her suit and the display on the inside of her hood. If anything significant was wrong on the map, she would die before realizing it.

It showed a wire-frame overlay of the terrain, an outline of the valley floor far below and highlighted the area where she would most likely find Allahnzo. She steered in the direction of the marker.

The foothills flashed past her. Her robes did not let her fly, only fall with style, but her hood allowed her to see the long-abandoned remains of the Lower Cities atop the peaks.

It had been over a thousand years since the darkness had gotten any higher and the scientists did not believe it would do so, but whenever Jade came down here she felt a chill despite the heaters in her suit. Seeing what was now long gone, she couldn’t help it.

She shot down the side of the mountain and approached the landing zone. At a glance she couldn’t see the shuttle, so she aimed for the highest point in her search area and pulled her parachute. It jerked her up and slowed her fall enough that she could run to a stop when she hit the ground. She gathered up the parachute and stuffed it back in her pack, then approached the ledge.

From here she could see partway down the side of the mountain to what looked like a recently damaged segment. She zoomed in and took a snapshot recording an audio message “The shuttle likely hit the mountain there and continued down.”

She pulled three small drones from her bag and threw them into the air, then sat down to guide them. They spread out far enough to provide good coverage of the area and flew down the mountain. Here in the Darkness, the normally crystal-clear image was black and white and full of static, but her target was large enough that it shouldn’t matter.

Guessing the route of the shuttle, she took the drones down the mountain where she found two more places the shuttle had bounced on its way to the ground. She finally located it lodged nose-first into the side of a ruined building. Part of the roof had collapsed on the back half of the shuttle when it crashed. She set the drones to autonomous mode and climbed down the mountain to the shuttle.

It was completely dark as she approached the shuttle and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Without her suit Jade would not have lasted long down here, and it was the same for the shuttle. If the crash had breached the hull this trip would be a waste.

She pried open the maintenance panel on the shuttle door and plugged her computer in. Nothing. The connection was good, but there was nothing to read. The drives for the shuttle’s computers were blank and powered off. They only turned on enough to show they were blank because of her computer’s inquiry.

She hooked up the portable generator and booted the virtual shuttle operating system on her computer. The lights went on inside the shuttle and the air recycler hummed when it kicked on. She immediately locked out the cockpit controls and locked the door, then walked around to look in the front window.

As she rounded the corner a wraith stepping into the light thrown from the shuttle, and Allahnzo jerked back from the window when he saw her. He had seatbelt burns across his chest, but the Skaines inside hadn’t fared even that well. Neither of them had been properly strapped in, and now they lay crumpled against the walls.

Jade touched the comm switch on the side of her hood. “Hello, Allahnzo.”

The Torcellan scrambled back from the window and tried to get through the door at the back of the shuttle.

“I wouldn’t do that,” she told him. “You can’t breathe what is out here.”

He stopped pushing at the door and stood straight. “What do you want?”

Jade took a slow step back to fade from his view and waited. Watching from the shadows, she saw his eyes dart around. The microphones in the cabin picked his breathing as it became more and more panicked.

Allahnzo stayed against the back wall. “Look,” he pleaded. “I don’t know who you are, but I have contacts. Influence. Tell me what you want and we can make a deal.”

Jade backed up a few steps and then ran forward, jumping at the last minute to land with a BANG on the roof of the shuttle. She leaned down to look in the window from above. “You know what I want, Allahnzo.”

He cowered on the floor against the back of the cabin, “No… No, I don’t. Please, just tell me. Anything! It’s yours.”

“What were the drugs you were giving the Helagethians, Allahnzo?”

He looked surprised for a moment, then a shrewd look crossed his face. Before he could open his mouth Jade tapped a command into her computer and the lights and air recycler in the shuttle went off again. She slammed her fist on the side of the shuttle. “Time’s wasting, Allahnzo. Or should I say, air?”

Allahnzo whimpered. “Sorry. I’m sorry. The drugs, yes. They were a special concoction designed specifically for Helagethians. The Skaine Council off-world has the specifics. I just get the deliveries and distribute them.”

She hopped off the roof and stood in front of the shuttle, then turned the lights and air back on. “Oh, Allahnzo, then what use are you to me?”

“Wait!” he called. “Wait, please! I can still be useful. The next shipment is supposed to arrive in a week. If the Skaines realize the Etheric Empire attacked the planet they won’t come. I can send them the right messages to let them know it’s safe. Just let me out of here.”

Jade said nothing. She stared coldly at Allahnzo and keyed her recorder. “The aliens that attacked the Skaines were from the Etheric Empire.”

He ran forward and pressed against the window. “Please! I’m telling the truth. Don’t leave me here to die.”

“I hope you are telling the truth, Allahnzo, for your sake.” She walked around to the side of the shuttle, took out the rations, and cycled the airlock. “The supplies in the airlock will last you a week, and the shuttle’s remaining power will keep your air breathable for twice that long. If you were not lying to me, Allahnzo, I’ll be back before then.”

“I promise I wasn’t. Please don’t leave me.” He banged his fists against the window.

Jade left the comm recording but stopped listening as she walked away and started the long hike back up to the cities.


Planet H’lageh, Citiseereth City, Jade’s Apartment

“I left him with enough supplies for a week and returned to report,” Jade finished before muting her side of the comm link.

The reply came a moment later. “While you were on your mission we cracked the password on the tablet you retrieved from the gang leader. What we found verifies what Allahnzo told you. There is another shipment of the drugs scheduled for delivery soon.”

Jade sighed. “Should I retrieve him from the shuttle, ma’am?”

The reply took a little longer this time. “No, leave him there. Other agents have retrieved several undistributed caches from locations around the cities, including a large one that one of the minor Skaines stashed to use as part of a personal power play. We do not need Allahnzo. Leave him to his fate.”

 “Good,” Jade muttered. She keyed her mic. “What are our next steps?”

“Our scientists will study what we’ve found and figure out how to cure our people. Good job, Agent Blackwood.”

After they broke the link Jade sat back and rested her hand on the gun case beside her. “Not good enough.”

She opened the case and ran her hand over her sniper rifle, then took out two military pistols and several extra magazines of ammo. They were decades old at this point, but had been well-maintained since her time in the service. She clipped them onto her belt and left her apartment.

There were still Skaines left to find.





AUTHOR NOTES - PAUL BARKLEY

Written March 30, 2018


Thank you for reading the first—and hopefully not the last—of my writings in the Kurtherian Gambit Universe. I’ve been telling stories for almost twenty years now, although most of them have been in the form of Dungeons and Dragons games. Last January, though, my mom died, and it gave me a bit of a shock. Since then I’ve actively focused on planning out a writing career. Life is too short to do anything less than what you love, and I love telling stories.

Sometimes it’s easier than others. I did NaNoWriMo last November, finishing the minimum fifty thousand words in twenty days but those words never flowed as easily they did with this short story. A little over five thousand words in three hours—I hope you don’t mind if I say I’m proud of that. There’s just something about the Kurtherian Gambit universe that demands stories.

It helps that the universe feels like home. I was in the Marines for five years, and I live in a Coke-only household in Atlanta. My girlfriend’s dad, one uncle, and one aunt all work (or worked and have retired) for Coke, so I was told Pepsi wasn’t a valid option when we moved in together.

I hope you liked my story. I look forward to having more to tell. If you liked it enough to want to hear more from me, please stop by my site LoganCaird.com and sign up for my mailing list, or follow me on Facebook at Logan Caird. I’ll let you know through both of those any time I write something new.







Holding On Is Sometimes Letting Go

By Tim Bischoff


There are many times in life that changes a person's perspective. Roles are reversed, memories can be torturous, and peace difficult to achieve. When hard decisions have to be made, which way would you decide?

Dedication

This story is dedicated to my parents, who are large part of my life and unfortunately this story. 


Michael Anderle, Craig Martelle, all the JIT Team, members of the Kurtherian Gambit Fans Write page, and especially Erika Everest who was kind enough to allow me to tell this small part of her story that is to come. Without all these people this story would not have come to life. Thank you all.

















CHAPTER ONE


Sometimes when a person has come so far, we realize that we never really left at all, even though change is the natural order of things. But I digress, in the way people do when heavy things are weighing on their mind.

 A chapter in both our lives was coming to a close as my father became weaker, no longer in control of his body and mind. I knew it would not be much longer before the next adventure would begin for this larger-than-life man. As I sat by his side–which I had not left for weeks–my mind wandered back to the start of the journey that brought us so far from the soil of Earth.

I was young when it all started, and the world was caught up in amazement, fear and jealousy of TQB and their Queen. At the age of eleven the larger events of the world are not always clear. Our thoughts are formed by the conversations we hear from our parents and other adults discussed around the dinner table, for the most part. I can still clearly remember the first time I heard the name “Bethany Anne” from my father’s mouth, one morning at the breakfast table while the news played on the TV.

“Can you believe Bethany Anne has taken TQB to the moon? Just what in the hell are they going to do up there?” my father remarked aloud to anyone who would listen among my mother, brother and me between bites of the bacon and eggs my mother had served him. My father, brother and I had just finished feeding the calves and milking the cows that morning, and one could still smell the distinct odors associated with making a living on a farm along with the hickory smoke of the bacon. It was the good thick kind you can only find in the original country-style meat markets, none of that paper-thin crap they call bacon you find in the big groceries or they serve you in restaurants in those days. Of course, I can’t ever forget the unique orange color of sunny-side up country eggs with a richer tasting yolk than the pale yellow of mass produced varieties. No matter how old a person gets, they never forget certain smells and sights. I have read studies that say scents can be the strongest triggers of memories both good and bad.

But I digress once again.

To hear that someone was going to the moon to live grasped my full attention and would not let go. It seemed so much greater than my simple existence at the time: going to school, milking cows, and helping raise the crops. My world at the time was so small compared to what was happening on the rest of the planet, and all I could think about was chasing much larger dreams as far from the farm as I could travel.

Never would I have dreamt that thinking of the world was thinking small.

***

It was a difficult time for small family farmers to try to make a living, since larger corporate dairies and huge grain operations were mass-producing at lower costs than the little guy could hope to compete with. I had already learned in school that it was just basic economics: if the production costs exceeded the profit a farmer could make, the farm was not going to stay in business.

In fact, I had many friends whose parents were no longer farming. Their folks had taken jobs in other industries and sold off most of their land and livestock to keep paying the bills. I worried more than a kid should that we would soon suffer a similar fate.

Back then my parents seemed to be huddled together in whispered conversations all the time. Looking back, I know now that they were worried about our farm and where the future would be taking our family. Farming was in my father’s blood; his family had been doing it for several generations. In fact, much of what is considered the southeastern side of the closest large city was once owned and farmed by my great-grandfather. My grandfather had been born nearby. The place was now on the historic registry, and was known as Farmington. Abraham Lincoln had stayed there in 1841 and it had been designed by Thomas Jefferson. My father had played there as a child while visiting his grandmother.

As the city grew the family went farther into the surrounding countryside to continue farming, since working the land had given them a joy nothing else would or could. Family and farming; I think that was the unspoken motto of the clan. Which they certainly seemed to be, as a good German-Catholic family. There had been fourteen kids in my grandfather’s bunch, and in my great grandfather’s, I believe twelve in total.

My father was a much-respected steward of the land in our community, and was conscientious about doing that which kept the soil and land in the best possible condition. Renewing and nurturing the land while getting bountiful yields (when the weather cooperated) was the prayed-for outcome. He had received awards and recognition for his practices over the years, and I guess those were what brought him and others following the same philosophies to the attention of TQB Enterprises.












CHAPTER TWO


Bethany Anne tapped her nails on the table. The offer she had made to the people of Earth was on her mind. She had fully expected the exodus, but what she hadn’t expected were the logistics that came with the sheer number of people she was now responsible for. The question of how she was going to feed them all weighed heavily.

ADAM, we need to focus some of our recruitment on being able to feed everyone we take through the Gate, both during our time in artificial environments and planetside at some point. Human beings need a tether to where they came from. They need parks and fresh food to eat. I sure as hell don’t want to eat recycled crap all the time–and don’t even think about taking that literally.

>>What did you have in mind? <<

She pushed her chair back and got up to pace in front of the table. We will need farmers, gardeners, arborists, and hydroponic specialists. Those are the main ones I can think of off the top of my head. I want you to research other possible agricultural professions that would fall into these categories. Also, start running searches for people to fill these positions; people who would be a good fit to join us. I want you to focus on family-owned operations when you run these searches. I want people who will bring good strong family values with them, and focus on those who have been screwed over royally by big business and politics—especially those the banks have foreclosed on, and those who had to sell their farms in order to survive. You know I hate bullies, and these people have been bullied by the established order for way too fucking long!

>>I’ll search using the parameters you gave me, and provide you with a list for interviews as soon as I’m done, << ADAM told her.

***

Months had gone by since that first newscast about TQB going to the moon. The stress was starting to show on my parents, and they were short or sometimes even ill-tempered more often than before. I now understand that they were wondering if they were going to be able to feed and clothe their children. Wondering if they would even be able to keep a roof over our heads. At the time I could only see what I didn’t have compared to some of my friends, and that the long hours I worked on the farm prevented me from doing the things I wanted to. Selfish, I know, but a that’s a child for you.

In retrospect, I think of those years on the farm very fondly as I look back from an adult perspective. I learned my core values during that time, and I would not trade those moments for anything in the world.

It is so true that you never miss what you have until it is gone.

***

The day had finally arrived when my folks put the farm up for sale and started going through their things. They only kept the possessions that held the most meaning, and my father told my brother and me that we would have to do the same, which we really didn’t understand. It was so strange at the time; although it appeared like we were losing so much, my parents were more at ease and even excited than I had seen them in a long time.

Of course, we didn’t know they had been approached by TQB Enterprises and selected to leave Earth behind. They were bound to secrecy until it was time to leave, so they could not tell us until the last minute since there was no way we would have ever kept it quiet. TQB’s exploits were all anyone could talk about, and I would have bragged about our upcoming adventure to every friend I had.

Our life had been reduced to a few suitcases and several boxes in preparation for the trip. It was at this time my father took us on one last ride around the farm. Both my brother and I had long faces as we climbed on the gator that we had always used around the farm for work and play. Fishing and hunting were two of the few pastimes available to us in those days, and we could generally manage to slip in an hour or two at the end of the day.

At least on those days when we weren’t working from dawn till sunset.

My memories of fishing with both my grandfathers along our creek will always stick with me. Those men taught me what it took to become a man. To me, they were larger than life; tall, hard-working men who reminded me of my favorite childhood movie actor, John Wayne. He walked tall and stood by his beliefs, doing what was right on and off the movie screen. I doubt too many people remember him at this point, but he epitomized what a true American was to a lot of people.

One grandfather was farmer, and the other was also from the country but had taken a job in the city working for one of the distilleries. I later learned they had both been exempt from serving in World War II because their occupations were vital to the war effort. Dad’s father for raising crops, and Mom’s dad for overseeing rail transportation for all alcohol moving from the distilleries in Kentucky to military installations.

Plenty of my uncles served in both the European and Pacific theaters; I recall a story of one getting blown out of a tank and surviving, and another being captured. My father served in the Army but was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. I still recall his story about the Cuban missile crisis. His unit had been told to be prepared to deploy and was ready to ship out when they got the word to stand down, that the missile boats had turned back to Russia. He had been ready to do his duty for the country, though. The sense of duty continued into the Vietnam War—and you bet your ass it was a war, as my second cousins would tell you. They survived one of the worst attacks our local National Guard unit ever endured. Firebase Tomahawk was the location, and both my cousins made it home while many of their brothers did not.

Yes, duty and honor run strong in my family, so in hindsight it was little wonder that my father would step up once again when called.

We stopped at the creek, though calling it that never did it justice. It had been a great escape for young boys, though I can’t say we stayed out of trouble. After all, growing up where all the bourbon in the world comes from can lead a young person to try a few things before they became legal. Hearing stories of bootleggers and moonshiners from your uncle—who claimed to have run some of that moonshine from the area during Prohibition—certainly put things in a light of fun.

“Well, that wraps things up boys,” my father stated. “We have a long way to travel before our next stop.” My brother and I were sullen by that point, with anger looming on the horizon. Our father seemed to understand. “I know it is a hard thing I am asking of you, boys, but I need you to trust me. Just remember that I love you both more than life itself. Even though your mother and I could not have children ourselves, we were blessed with the chance to be your parents. I remember the first time I laid eyes on you boys. I knew then that no matter what I accomplished in life, the two of you would one day far outdo any of my successes.

“No matter how far or where you go in life, never forget the place or family you come from, whether it’s by choice or blood. Always stand up for what is right and the things you believe in, but at the same time respect the beliefs of others if they have honor in their hearts. I have no doubt that in the coming years you will see and do many strange things, and much will be asked of you. Everything will make much more sense shortly, but right now it’s time to be getting back to your mother.

   Now, we were teenagers who had no idea where we were going. We had said goodbye to other family and friends, many of them confused by the strange circumstances and odd secrecy involved with our leaving. Our focus was not on the words Dad was saying but rather on our current circumstances.












CHAPTER THREE


So there we stood, surrounded by our few belongings. They were nothing, compared to what we had previously owned. We waited in the field closest to the farmhouse as the sun was setting.

“What’s the deal?” I snarled at my father. “We gonna be living out of the car now?”

In hindsight, this was pretty brave of me. My father was not a small man, being over six feet tall and pure muscle from the years of working the land. He also firmly believed in the “spare the rod and spoil the child” theory, and honestly I probably earned every lick I ever got—not that he was abusive in any way, but two wild country boys sometimes took a bit more than just a talking-to.

He just smiled at me in an odd way “Not at all. We are just waiting for our ride to our new home. And drop the attitude, because this is only the end of this part of our lives. Something good’s about to happen.”

It was now dark on that balmy, moonless summer night, and without warning something appeared in the sky. My father continued, “That must be our ride. I guess it’s time to finally let you boys in on the secret: we have joined TQB Enterprises. Seems they need folks who know how to grow crops.”

My jaw must have hit the ground. I couldn’t believe it. I sort of stuttered “W-we’re g-going into s-space?” Dad nodded, and he and Mom apologized that they hadn’t been able to tell us before. All my anger disappeared when my pea-sized brain got it and I yelled, “We’re going into space. YAHOO!

“Yes, boy, now help get our stuff loaded on this contraption. We’re burning daylight.”

“But it’s night!” I quipped, now full of energy. He gave us the look that said ‘less talk and more work,’—the one my brother and I had come to understand clearly over the years— so we chose not to say any more.

It was a fast start as we broke Earth’s orbit.

The pilot spoke over the intercom system. “Relax, folks. It’ll be a bit of a trip since we’re headed to the asteroid belt.”

I don’t know how long the trip took; I was still reeling. There was a screen on the wall above the cockpit door that showed the outside view, and I was glued to it anxiously.

Sometime later I drifted off to sleep—too much excitement, I suppose, but the pilot’s next announcement woke me. “If you take a look at the screen, you’ll see your new home.” On it was an object about the size of a quarter and I must have said something out loud without realizing it, because my father spoke up about then. “Don’t be so fast to judge when you don’t have the entire picture of it.”

It got larger the closer we drew, of course. I remember staring in amazement at the size and the activity around it. “So, what is it?” I asked.

The pilot heard that question through the intercom and replied, “That is the QBBS Meredith Reynolds. Your future home.”












CHAPTER FOUR


The rest was a blur. We were met at the dock and shown to our quarters with a reminder about the next day’s orientation for all newly-arrived families. The compartment was not large, but it had the necessities and enough room for our belongings. My brother and I shared a small room with bunks, my folks had their own room, and a small kitchenette/ living room rounded it out. It didn’t matter to me how much room we had. I was focused on all the possibilities offered just by being here.

The years went by, and I must say my folks had never seemed happier. They were integral to the setup of the Plants and Ecologies level and later their jobs were to nurture and produce a sufficient crop of corn, soybeans, and wheat in outer space. Soybeans and corn were useful for their high protein content—which was of course crucial to feeding large numbers of people in space—and wheat was grown because people liked their bread.

My brother followed his own path. He became a Guardian Marine, but was lost during one of the many engagements after we had gone through the Gate. He had always been the rough-and-ready type, more physical than me by far. During those years we fought, as brothers do, then made up. My biggest regret is that we hadn’t been speaking to each other when he shipped out and I never got to say goodbye.

If Pope Francis was right, though, I will see him again, and after all I have seen out here I wouldn’t bet against it.

I found my calling in the medical field. There was so much advancement so quickly, like nanocytes and the Pod-doc, but my first love was emergency medicine.

Emergency medicine is about “the Golden Hour” where minutes matter and time seems to both slow down and speed up at the same time. Where life can be snatched from the jaws of death if you’re fast enough.

Though sometimes death wins.

When we won, we liked to say that we had been “just in time,” which led to the nickname “JIT teams” for those medical personnel who are on the front lines when it all goes to hell. They are my family now—brothers and sisters who work our proverbial asses off at home or on battlefields across the galaxies.

For the common person who is not fully enhanced, medical care is not all that different from the way it was back on Earth. We live longer now due to all the advancements, but in the end most of us still age and eventually die.

Sometimes it just sucks—especially when your patient is family. Though we have now eradicated a lot of the common diseases like diabetes, heart disease,  and dementia, to name a few, the new treatments don’t work on those who were older when we left.

Which brings me to where I sit now, with my father.

He is but a shadow of the man he once was, both in body and mind. They called it Alzheimer’s on Earth and it was a terrible disease, robbing a person of themselves. It left only brief glimpses of who they had once been, be it fathers, mothers, siblings, or friends. People with the disease don’t understand what’s happening most of the time, and often when they do it’s utterly terrifying for them.

Sometimes I can see my father trying to hang on, but other times he’s obviously trying to let go. The personal indignities aside, he lived through it with his grandmother and sister before we left Earth. He must have wondered if the disease would come for him one day.

I care for him these days, as he cared for me when I was a child. Our roles are totally reversed, which seems so twisted. After over sixty years together it has come down to this travesty.

I’m mostly numb, but when I’m not I try to keep my emotions in check since my mother is right here too. There are moments where she breaks down and cries on my shoulder, but overall she is strong. She accepts that life is not always pleasant, and that death is a part of it. As close to nature as she’s been all her life, she’s seen a lot of life and a lot of death. I’ve come to the conclusion the farming lifestyle shapes strong individuals and families. I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think about it as we sit and wait.

***

I can’t say how long mother and I have sat here in silence. Father has long since withdrawn into himself, and nothing we have tried in the last few days has brought him back to us.

There is a soft sound behind me and I turn.

“You know, he was one of the first to agree to come with us.” The Empress’ voice was quiet and her expression was sad.

I was speechless. I couldn’t believe she was here.

“He left Earth for his family. He knew that the best opportunities for his sons would come out here, whatever they might be. He helped feed the thousands who followed me, and for that I am grateful. Without people like him and your mother we could not have succeeded. I never understood why people back on Earth continually undervalued the farmer’s importance. The great military leaders certainly knew that armies could not move on empty stomachs.”

His condition had truly touched her.

“He has earned his rest, and I can help him find it,” she told us. “Do you agree?”

Mother immediately said, “Please. I would appreciate that. He deserves peace.”

Al I could do was nod. There was nothing more I could do for him.

Bethany Anne placed her hand on his chest and closed her eyes and Dad relaxed, breathing ever more slowly. It was time to say goodbye, and we did.

Afterwards I thanked the Empress and she simply nodded.“Be at peace,” she told us. “For he is, now. When you have grieved, look forward and be as great as he was in life in what you choose to do.”

She then hugged Mom and whispered something to her. I didn’t hear it, but it brought my mother a lot of peace.

Holding on is sometimes letting go, I realize now. We must hold onto the memories of the good times and let go of the bad or we can’t move forward.

Life is always changing!





EPILOGUE

In the amphitheater with me were many people I knew. Some were from the civilian side and others military, but everyone there dealt with medicine in some form or another.

The Empress would bestow the Annual Honors today. None of us were concerned with receiving awards, but we were determined to make it through the ceremony with respect.

So many years, so many lives. Some we saved and some we lost, but we kept pushing ahead; never forgetting our gifts and never ceasing in our efforts  to help others learn to use their talents.

As I waited for my name to be called, I remembered a quote from my youth:  “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.” Those words were spoken by Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who devoted her life to caring for those in need.

In the long run I think she was right. A lot of us do small things because we care and it comes together to make great things happen.





AUTHOR NOTES - TIM BISCHOFF

I want to thank you from the depths of my heart if you are reading these notes. It has certainly been an interesting journey to reach this point. In the past year my father has been in and out of the hospital several times. During this time, I came across Craig Martelle’s End Times Alaska series, which in turn led me to Michael Anderle and the Kurtherian Gambit series. They helped me relax and escape some of the reality I was experiencing with my father, and I got hooked on their writings. Next thing you know I offered to read something for Justin Sloan, and he passed me along to the JIT team. I have never regretted that decision. That choice has helped me accomplish a childhood dream. I have always loved to read and I told myself that one day I would write, so this is a dream come true.

This story was influenced by my own career choices and what is actually happening with my father in real life. A similar topic had been going around in the JIT readers group for some time before I decided to write this story and another writer had moved on the theme already, but she was kind enough to let me play in her sandbox.  Be sure to watch for Erika Everest’s story, which will focus on the JIT (Just In Time) Medical Corps. I certainly look forward to reading it.

The following has been used in many academic settings including medical institutions and emergency medical organizations and I think it fits well.

Non sibi sed omnibus

Not for myself, but for all

This has been an honor and a pleasure. Who knows, maybe this little stress relief I started will lead to other things.

A big thanks to Michael Anderle for letting all of us play in his universe.

Ad Aeternitatem

Tim Bischoff







Adventures of Armi-Geddon

By Dominic Novielli

Armi’ is only six but has enough gumption to be much older.  With Conrey, her best and only friend until she receives Geddon, they get into troubling situations.  In this adventure they stumble upon a high reaching Noel-Ni wanting to take over the space station, their home.  A life altering experience occurs affecting them all increasing their age mentally and emotionally making their friendship that much greater.


Dedication

This story is dedicated to my parents, who are large part of my life and unfortunately this story. 

Michael Anderle, Craig Martelle, all the JIT Team, members of the Kurtherian Gambit Fans Write page, and especially Erika Everest who was kind enough to allow me to tell this small part of her story that is to come. Without all these people this story would not have come to life. Thank you all.

















CHAPTER ONE


C’rowley was a very mean man—not nice at all.

He was fair, Armi hated to admit it because she wanted to hate C’rowley for being so mean. Her mother had always told her, “You must judge others by their actions, not their demeanor.”

Well, here she was in front of C’rowley. She wanted to rent one of his new hovercarts to move her toys from her house to Conrey’s. Well, that was the story, anyway. Really she just wanted to ride a hovercart.

C’rowley peered at her closely. “I’ll tell you what…you bring me a note from your parents that says it’s okay for you to rent one of my hovercarts and I’ll let you do just that. Sound fair?” C’rowley crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked thoughtfully down at her. He was a Yollin, one of the two-legged kind. Armi had been told there were four-legged ones but she had yet to meet one.

“Okay, I guess negotiations are over then,” Armi told him with a downcast look. Her lower lip curled just slightly. She had worked on this look for hours in front of a shiny metal pan to perfect it.

“Off you go. That pout is pretty good, but I still need that note. I’m not in the habit of letting six-year-old girls drive a sophisticated piece of machinery without their parents’ consent. That’s final.” C’rowley turned to attend to the next customer.

Oh, nuts!  She could lose her bet with Conrey. Armi wasn’t finished yet, though. She had another idea of how to get one of those hovercarts, and she definitely did not want to lose this bet.

Conrey was a seven-year-old Noel-ni, a race of bipeds with faces like old-Earth foxes and fur-covered bodies. Armi thought Conrey was cute, and she especially loved to pet his head and pull his tail—which he hated. He always yelled at her. She did not want to run into him just yet, since she knew he would only harass her about not having the hovercart in her possession.

 “Hello, honey.” Delani called as she came through the door. Their home was small, only five hundred square feet split into two rooms. The back room had only enough room for a small cot and her parents had let her have it even though she had protested that they should have it instead. Their reasoning was that since she was special she should have her own room.

Now was her chance! Maybe she could convince her mom before her dad got home. “Mom, don’t you think that now that I’m older I have much better judgment that I have had in the past?” Armi asked shyly, adopting one of her many practiced looks.

Delani looked at her daughter with a straight face, doing her best not to chuckle. “What is this about, my little miracle?” Armi’s mother was Torcellan. She had alabaster skin and white hair. She was tall, at least to Armi, who was only four and a half feet. At five foot eight, her mom was normal height for a Torcellan female. What made her mother special was her ability to read others and discern whether they were telling the truth. Not only that, she could feel their intentions.

“I was thinking…I should learn how to operate some of the equipment on the space station. The more I learn, the better prepared I will be to handle different jobs when I’m older.” She finished setting up her story’s base. It was like stacking blocks; as long as the foundation was firm it wouldn’t collapse.

“What is this really about, Armi? Out with it, little wonder.”

She hated when her mother looked at her like that. It meant she was being read.

“You said you would never read me,” she accused with a perfect look of shock.

“You,” Delani pointed a finger at Armi, “have had way too much time to practice those looks of yours. I’m going to have to find something to keep you busy.”

Armi briefly looked afraid and her mother smirked in satisfaction.

Armi quickly composed herself and got ready for round number two. “I was just saying that you promised you would never read me, that’s all. I thought promises were special and shouldn’t be broken for any reason.” She pouted at her mother.

“You are so much like me, Armi. I knew I was in trouble when I realized I was having a girl.” Delani stared into space, remembering the moment she had learned she was pregnant with Armi. The station’s medics had told her that it shouldn’t have been possible for her and Norn to have a child.

Norn was Armi’s father. A Kezzin. He was not a normal Kezzin. In fact, he looked more like a bald red Torcellan than a Kezzin. First with his wit and then his charm, he had earned Delani’s friendship. Then with insurmountable patience and boundless enthusiasm, he had won her trust. Norn was an engineer and an inventor of some renown. He created devices that helped people with their daily jobs.

That was the reason they were on the space station—Norn worked for some mercenaries. Well, not worked for them, but was certainly forced to comply with their demands. He was getting paid, if you could call it that, but he had only enough currency to get a very small room, and if it hadn’t been for Delani’s lucky guess in the weekly supply drop pool they would be really hurting. She not only won once, but twice in a row. She had quickly been banned from entering again.

Armi was getting upset because this conversation was not going at all like she had planned.

“Mom, I need permission from you to rent one of C’rowley’s new hovercarts.” There, she’d said it. She crossed her fingers behind her back and tilted her face up at her mother with a look of pure hope.

“No.” Delani said flatly. Armi knew she had no hope of changing her mother’s mind.

So it was on to Plan B.












CHAPTER TWO


“The bet was that I would get a hovercart to ride around in,” Armi told Conrey, reminding him of the rules of the bet.

“I thought you meant to acquire the hovercart legally, not steal one,” Conrey whined. He did not want to do this. He wasn’t scared, it was just too early. Conrey let out a yawn and stretched his arms over his head.  It was two in the morning and no self-respecting kid under the age of eight would be out at this time. That was, if they were normal. Armi was not normal, so he, being her friend, was abnormal by association.

Conrey let out another huge yawn.

“Stop that and come over here.” She pulled on the sleeve of Conrey’s jumpsuit to get him closer to the edge of the roof. The jumpsuit was the universal garment of all the inhabitants of the space station. Some were personalized with patches or even dyed different colors, but they were all the same pattern. They looked like prisoners, which Armi thought they may as well be. With nowhere to go and very little space for anyone to call theirs.

Conrey relented as he rubbed sleep from his eyes. “Okay, okay. What is the plan?”

“See that vent over C’rowley’s office door? We can pry it off and get in that way.  You have a longer reach, so your job is to hold the vent while I loosen the two screws that keep it in place.” When she finished explaining the plan, Conrey looked at her like she was from a different planet.

“Well, what is the problem?” she asked, raising her eyebrows in a way that made her look at lot older than six.

“What if it’s too heavy and I can’t hold it?” Conrey whined.

“Stop whining! You’re an insufferable brat. You will grab the vent cover and hold it or I will bean you in the head when you’re not looking.” She threw her hands up and stomped toward the edge of the roof to get closer to C’rowley’s building.

It was only a four-foot jump, so both of them made it without difficulty. Conrey, being a Noel-ni, was very fast. Armi, didn’t look as if she could pick up a chair without it dropping on her foot, but looks were deceiving. She was very strong and used it to compete against Conrey at every opportunity. That was why Conrey liked Armi; she made him want to be better.

“Ok, grab the edges and hold on. Don’t tell me if you are going to drop it, because you’re not. Got that?” She poked him in the chest.

Conrey whined,  “You didn’t have to poke me. That hurt!”

She just shrugged. She knew Conrey was tough. He used his meekness and cowed manner to avoid his father’s beatings. She didn’t blame him at all. She just wished she was bigger so she could beat up Conrey’s dad for him.

“You ready?” Armi asked. When he told her he was, she bent down and leaned over his arms to get to the two screws holding the vent cover.

“Get it done,” Conrey snapped. Armi looked quizzically at Conrey, then smiled. She liked him much better when he was like this.

She quickly had the screws off and Conrey did almost drop the cover, but Armi grabbed a corner and Conrey recovered his grip and hauled it back over the edge of the roof.

“Whew! That was close.” She patted her friend on the back. “Okay, me first. Then you follow.” She swung herself over the edge of the roof and smoothly entered the now-open vent.












CHAPTER THREE


It was dark, but both of the youngsters could see fairly well. Conrey due to his Noel-ni heritage.  Armi was a different story. She could see better, throw farther, and jump higher than most, a mystery that Armi did not think about too much.

“Shush!” she hissed when Conrey tripped over a box.

With Armi in the lead they made their way to the back where the hovercarts were stored, but before they got there they heard whispers coming from the area. They slowed their pace and carefully peeped around the last corner.

“Where is the damn paper,” an older Noel-ni demanded

“I don’t know,” the younger one replied. “He said it would be in the wall safe.”

“I don’t like this one bit,” the older one said, shaking his head. They were rifling through the cabinets and drawers in the makeshift office of the warehouse. “If Papyon wants this so bad, why didn’t he send one of his goons to get it?”

“What are they looking for, I wonder” Armi whispered in Conrey’s ear. It tickled and he swatted at his twitching ear, but hit Armi in the chin by accident.

“You’re an ass, Conrey,” she blurted, rubbing her chin where Conrey’s nails had clipped her. She immediately regretted saying that so loud, because the younger Noel-ni stopped what he was doing and looked in their direction.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

“No. It was probably your imagination. Get back to work and find that paper.” The older Noel-ni swatted the younger one and continued to search the dark warehouse.

“What are we going to do now?” Conrey whispered, still upset by having accidentally hit her.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you just hit me again?”

“Don’t be such a sissy. It was an accident,” Conrey growled.

“Don’t ever call me a sissy again or you will regret it.” The look she gave Conrey convinced him that she was more than serious.

Finally the two Noel-ni gave up their search and headed out of the warehouse.

Armi and Conrey slowly moved toward the other end of the warehouse. As they neared the gated room where the carts were kept, a hand snaked out of nowhere and grabbed Conrey by the back of his jumpsuit.

“Got you now, boy,” a gruff voice shouted.

The older Noel-ni was holding Conrey. Armi thought of rushing him, but the younger Noel-ni appeared by his side and she thought better of that idea. She started running toward the hovercarts.

“Get her!” the older one yelled.

She quickly opened the latch, which was thankfully not locked, and was inside the enclosure holding the carts in a second. She didn’t have a plan, but she had an idea. It was better than nothing.

She hopped onto a hovercart. The controls were fairly basic, so she started it and sent it at high speed toward the oncoming Noel-ni, then hopped off and got onto another one. While she was driving toward Conrey, the first hovercart crashed into the oncoming Noel-ni, hitting him in the side and knocking him down when he tried to dodge it at the last moment.

If the horrendous noise didn’t bring anyone it would be a miracle, she thought. “Get out of the way, you piece of bistok poop!” she yelled, driving the hovercart directly at the Noel-ni, who was still in a heap on the floor. He rolled to the side, barely grazed by the cart, and she headed toward the gate which–thank the Empress–was still open. Armi went through and corrected her course to go toward the older Noel-ni still holding Conrey.

“Jump on,” she yelled to Conrey as she turned just in time to avoid hitting him. The older Noel-ni let go of Conrey, surprised by the oncoming hovercart, and Conrey didn’t hesitate. He jumped onto the back of the cart and held onto her waist.

“Here we go! Whoop! Whoop!” Armi shrieked as they tore through the warehouse toward the front.

The two Noel-nis gave chase, but soon stopped. “We better get out of here.” the older Noel-ni wheezed. “Somebody is going to be coming, after all that noise.” He wiped the drool from his chin and turned toward the exit. They did not want to get caught on top of failing to find the document. They knew that Papyon would be even more upset if that happened.

Armi and Conrey were almost at the front of the warehouse when the lights came on and C’rowley appeared at the same exit the two Noel-ni had left by. He was very angry, if the rapidly-tapping mandibles and clenched fists were any indication.

“What the hell is going on!?” C’rowley boomed. His voice sounded like a cannon, and for a Yollin that was spectacular. Armi didn’t have a translation chip, but she could speak Yollin, Noel-ni, and Common. Her ears turned red as she listened to C’rowley cuss at them.

She came to a stop just in front of C’rowley and climbed off the hovercart, followed by Conrey.

“We stopped a robbery. Don’t we get any thanks for that?” She glared defiantly at C’rowley, who was much taller than her. She had to tilt her head back to look at his face. She had her hands on her hips and was giving him her best tough-girl look.

C’rowley almost laughed at her display of bravado.

“What robbery? The only hooligans I see are in front of me right now.” C’rowley bent down and looked Armi straight in the eyes. She did not flinch, just told him what had happened with the two Noel-nis.

“Papyon, you say?” C’rowley repeated.

“Yes, sir. That’s what he said. Told him to ransack your warehouse to look for a piece of paper.” Conrey nodded in agreement.

“Well, well,” C’rowley mused. He knew what paper they were looking for and of course where it was…which was not in the warehouse. He looked at Conrey and Armi and shook his head. “What am I going to do with you two?”

“Well, you could let us go, since we stopped a robbery,” Armi suggested. She smiled sweetly at him.

“You broke into my warehouse and you expect me to just let you go? You did give me information that will be very helpful, but I can’t just let you go. You shouldn’t be out at this time of night without your parents, for one thing. I’ll tell you what. I will escort you both home, and if you don’t tell anybody what you witnessed tonight I’ll let you ride the hovercarts in the warehouse. Agreed?” C’rowley put his hand out and Armi shook it smiling sideways at Conrey.

Conrey just nodded, realizing he’d lost again.












CHAPTER FOUR


Papyon was livid. He had sent two of his pilots, who were unknown on the space station, to get the deed to C’rowley’s shop and they’d failed him. “Dammit!” he yelled, swiping at his desk in frustration. A frame with a portrait of his ex-wife crashed to the tile floor. The tile was custom and had inlaid wooden flowers, and there were thousands of them in his office. The amount he’d spent on just one of the tiles could have fed several families on the station for a month.

He paced back and forth across his office. The tiled floor and walls were soothing to his senses. He’d spent a lot of money making things the way he wanted them, and that included the space station. C’rowley’s shop was the last holdout in the lower sections.

He wasn’t big for a Noel-ni. He was short and stocky. His deceptive build had suited his rise to power because others had often underestimated his speed and cunning. Those who made that mistake about him soon found out why he had been made commander of his platoon of the Noel-ni Armed Forces.

Papyon did whatever it took to get what he wanted, and if he had someone killed, it was for a reason. He never did anything without a reason, and he was currently trying to find a reason to get rid of C’rowley, the thorn in his hide. He had tried to reason with him, but his offers had been refused. He had sent his best men to intimidate C’rowley, but the Yollin had remained steadfast. Time was running out; he had to take care of this before the governing tribunal met to approve the new taxes and the medical program he wanted to implement. C’rowley’s ownership of that shop gave him a say at the tribunal, and that could cost Papyon everything.

Papyon spoke into the communicator on his wrist. “Mrs. Thidwit, would you come in here, please?” Mrs. Thidwit opened his office door, which was uniquely designed to be invisible when closed. Papyon thrived on the fear people displayed when they came into his office and couldn’t see a way out. Mrs. Thidwit was a young female Noel-ni who cut a striking figure, to say the least. Papyon prided himself on hiring strong men and beautiful women to work for him.

“Please sit and take notes,” he told Mrs. Thidwit.

She gracefully complied and sat across from him. Papyon liked to have his notes taken by hand. He disliked relying on technology to do this work, even in this day and age.

He began, “To whom it may concern. The tribunal will be held shortly, and new laws and medical initiatives will take place. These have been developed to better the lives of everyone on this station. It would behoove everyone if these laws and initiatives passed.” Papyon stopped talking and contemplated what he was going to say next. He wanted to sound like the space station’s benefactor rather than its dictator. He continued, “Therefore, I will be holding a meeting in the Great Commons to hear all comments pertaining to these issues. Sincerely, Papyon Von’Dittermoot.” He waved Mrs. Thidwit out, telling her to set the meeting two days hence at noon.

Mrs. Thidwit pressed the secret mechanism to open the office door and left, closing the door behind her.

Now, he thought, it was time to create chaos and form a vacuum to suck all the power to himself. He punched a couple buttons on his communicator and spoke into it. “Thaddeus, I need your services.”

Mrs. Thidwit sat down at her desk and started to enter the proclamation that Papyon dictated to her. She hated working for the blowhard. She thought Papyon was the biggest crook ever and would work elsewhere if she could, but when Papyon wanted someone to work for him they did – or they ended up out an airlock. She was worried for her son Conrey. She would do anything for him. Working for Papyon gave them extra currency to live on. With her husband Rey’s paycheck as well, they made enough to live relatively well compared to some. She finished inputting the proclamation and sent it to the station’s news agencies, The Bugle, and The Hound. She couldn’t wait to get home to her family, whom she loved beyond words.












CHAPTER FIVE


Armi was having fun taunting Conrey as they walked to C’rowley’s shop the next day. “I don’t lose, ever. You should just take that as gospel.” It felt great to rub it in.

They sauntered down the metal walkway. This part of the space station was their favorite. Armi lifted her nose to the air and took a deep whiff. “Ahhhhh, smell that delicious bread. Nothing like fresh lamnas bread.” This was where all the bakeries and food processing shops were situated and the aromas of fresh bread and tangy spices assaulted their senses. Their stomachs rumbled at the mouthwatering smells.

“I have enough currency to buy us both some lamnas bread and some spicy protein,” Conrey told her. She was always broke, so Conrey never jested about her buying. His mother always made sure he had enough currency to buy both of them lunch.

“Why are you being so nice to me when I’m such a bitch to you?” she asked Conrey, real concern on her face. They stopped walking and Conrey looked at his feet and thought for a moment.

“You’re my friend, Armi. You keep me on my toes, you’re funny, and I like being around you.” Conrey looked into her luminous violet eyes. She felt slightly ashamed and looked away.

“I don’t know what to say,” she told Conrey, staring at her feet as they continued walking toward C’rowley’s shop.

“You don’t have to say anything. It’s what you do that makes you who you are,” Conrey stated philosophically. She just nodded.

 “It’s been two days and there’s been no word from the Federation,” Armi and Conrey overheard as they entered C’rowley’s shop. C’rowley looked up when he noticed the two children. He was sitting at his desk in the front office.

“Well, look here—the saviors of the day.” C’rowley cheerfully greeted the two. Another Yollin was standing beside him and looked curiously at Armi and Conrey.

C’rowley introduced the Yollin. “This is Wi’ck.”

Wi’ck’s mandibles tapped slowly. “Hello, children.” Conrey looked elsewhere to avoid the Yollin’s inquisitive stare, but Armi didn’t blink.

“Hello, Wi’ck, very nice to make your acquaintance,” Armi replied. Conrey did a double-take. He had never heard her sound so respectful before.

“What!” she snapped at Conrey. “Do I have a horn growing out of my head or something?” She felt around her forehead.

“No, just…” Conrey sputtered, and just stopped talking.

She threw her hands up in the air. “Whatever.”

“Are you here to test my hovercarts?” C’rowley teased.

“You bet we are,” Armi enthusiastically replied.

“Okay, you know where they are. Just stay in the clear area in the back and keep the speed down.” C’rowley waved them back and they both jogged to the waiting carts.

***

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re in big trouble, but all Armi saw was the wall coming toward her. The wall was coming up way too fast and her choices were to jump off or crash with the hovercart.

It took Armi only a second to release the restraining straps holding her to the seat of the hovercart. Then, almost as if she planned it, Armi left the seat and rolled to a stop, landing on her feet as if she were taking a slow jog. A moment later a loud klaxon that sounded like a wounded bistok bellowing its mournful song alerted everyone in the vicinity that there was a problem. What she didn’t hear was the noise a cart would make when it crashed into a solid wall. She glanced that way, only to find the cart stopped next to the wall and surrounded by a blue nimbus of light that was just fading. In another blink the light went out completely.

“What the heck?” Armi was flabbergasted.

“That was precious.” C’rowley wheezed between chortles of mirth when he reached her. “I had that option installed in case one of the carts tried to get away, so to speak. If you were wondering, that was a nimbus forcefield designed by the geniuses of the Federation. It uses the cart’s kinetic energy to create the field and will protect both the cart and the rider. If she had stayed in the cart, that is.” C’rowley laughed all his way back to his makeshift office at the front of the warehouse.

Conrey, who was off to the side, stared in awe at the cart, then looked at Armi with such relief that you would have thought it was his mother who was about to be splattered on the wall instead of Armi.

“That was close. What happened? You came from behind me, then veered toward the wall.” Conrey had a perplexed look on his face. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt, and that dismount and roll on the ground were awesome. It was like you’d practiced that move all your life.”

She blushed, which caused her cheeks to turn a slight shade of orange. The last thing she had expected was praise, and she was not used to it. Although she didn’t have a lot of experience to go on, she thought she was well on her way to knowing what true friendship was. Armi gazed at Conrey while he was busy fooling around with the controls on his hovercart. She had been seeing him differently lately, and wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Conrey saw her staring at him and winked, and she threw her head back. She was smiling, but she didn’t want Conrey to see.

She went back to her un-smashed hovercart. While she was trying to figure out how to turn it around, Conrey asked, “What do you say we call it a day and head home? It’s late, and my mom told me to be home early for dinner.”

“Yeah, yeah, no problem. We’ll put the carts back and head home.” She was relieved that Conrey wanted to end their cart adventure. She still didn’t know how to feel about him and needed space.












CHAPTER SIX


Before she even entered her home, Armi knew her father was there. She always got a special feeling when he was around. She was still trying to figure out if she felt that way about her mother.

She went through the door and jumped into her dad’s waiting arms. “Hello, kitten.” Norn smiled at Armi, holding her close to his heart and squeezing her hard enough to let her know how much he had missed her.

“Oh, Dad, I missed you so much. Where have you been? What have you seen? Did you make any new gadgets? What is space like?” Armi spewed the questions like a rifle on automatic.

“Slow down, baby doll. I will tell you that I have created something wonderful for you.” Armi’s father let his answer sink in and saw the understanding dawn on Armi’s face. He smiled at his little miracle.

“What is it? Can I see it? How big is it?” Another gaggle of questions poured from Armi as she tried to find the present without leaving his arms. Their home was very small, and the only thing out of the ordinary was a bundle of rags in the corner by their makeshift oven—another gadget her dad created. It baked lamnas bread in half the time and was self-cleaning, which her mother was tickled about.

“Is that it?” Armi asked, pointing to the bundle.

“Yes, it is. Go on, you can take a look.” Norn pulled Delani to him. Armi’s mother had been quiet during the exchange, happy just to enjoy the moment. Norn was gone more often than he was home, so it was rare for him to be able to spend time with Armi. Even though he was bald, that only made his looks that much more endearing to Delani. She loved her Kezzin husband.

Armi finally untangled the rags to reveal the prize within. It was an Empress Bethany Anne doll.

“If you plan on harming the Federation, I am only going to tell you once. Don’t try it, or I’ll kick the ever-loving bistok crap out of you!” The doll had a metallic voice that strangely sounded like the Empress.

“It’s wonderful!” The excitement Armi had displayed earlier deflated in an instant. It was just a doll. Not that Armi didn’t play with dolls, but she only had one friend and he didn’t play with dolls. Armi’s father walked over to her after giving his wife of eight years a meaningful glance that told her everything would be right as rain.

“Let me introduce you to your new best friend,” Norn told her enthusiastically, theatrically sweeping his arm out. He slowly pried the doll from Armi. She may not have been overly enthused by the gift, but she was still reluctant to give it up.

“Just for a second, honey. I promise.” She nodded and let go.

“This is not a normal doll. It has a new chip I created to hold an EI,” Norn explained, with his soft voice and endlessly patient.

“Really?” she asked, surprised.

“Really,” Norn replied. “Ask the doll whatever you want to know, and if it can’t tell you the answer it will go get it for you from the StationNet.” Norn smiled. He was very proud of his latest creation.

 It had been a labor of love for his Armi, designed to enhance her mind. There were no schools on the space station and since he had been coerced into working for the local Skaine and Noel-ni bandits he was never home and couldn’t teach her himself. Delani had enough to worry about, trying to make ends meet and dealing with her expanding business. She had recently begun acting as an intermediary in negotiations for settlements and her abilities kept everyone honest and on track. They were a blessing to some and curse to others, but that was why they hired her.

“Wow, really?” she gleefully shouted and grabbed for the doll.

“Wait a second.” Her father told her, keeping the doll out of Armi’s reach. “You have to name it first. It has to be a strong name, one that says I am the best of the best and I’m not going to take nonsense from anybody.” Norn looked sternly at her and held the doll out.

She hesitated for a second, then grabbed for it hungrily. “Ok, what do I call you? Maybe…Lucy? Maybe not.” Armi went into her small room where only she took up floor space. She muttered to herself, oblivious to her dad and mom for the moment.

Norn and Delani watched Armi retreat to her room. Both were smiling with love for their miracle child. “Will she be okay with that, whatever it is?” Delani asked with a look of concern on her face, which vanished when she realized this was Norn she was talking to—a devoted father and husband who would do anything for her or Armi.

“Oh, most certainly. She’ll be fine. Better than fine. That EI will keep her out of trouble better than you or I ever could.” Norn looked into the deep well of Delani’s violet eyes and lost himself for a few seconds. When he finally focused on his thoughts again he continued, “I programmed the EI to teach Armi continually throughout the day, and at night when she sleeps it will emit an extra-low frequency, an ELF for short, that contains information for Armi to learn.” Delani hugged her husband who was the most intelligent, caring, and sexiest guy she ever met.












CHAPTER SEVEN


Armi couldn’t come up with a name that suited an empress. The doll stared at her with unblinking eyes, offering not a single clue as to what to call her.

“How may I help you?” the doll asked.

“Uh, I’m not sure. I’m trying to pick a name for you, but I am coming up short.” She felt silly talking to a doll. Only children talked to dolls, right? Her mind was blank, which was strange. This should be simple. Just pick a name. But nothing came.

“If you let experience define you, a name should be forthcoming,” the Empress Bethany Anne doll suggested.

It had been a long day. Armi’s eyes closed and she was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. Her dreams were too numerous to count. It was as if she were going through history on a magic carpet ride from one scene to another. The history spanned the time from before Bethany Anne left Earth to when she met and defeated the Yollin king–or Kurtherian, as the monotone narrator described him in the scenes she was dreaming. One second she was looking into Empress Bethany Anne’s blazing red eyes, and the next she was wide awake staring at a smaller version of the Empress.

“What the bistok just happened?” Armi exclaimed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and massaging them as if to relax from hours of reading. “Why are my eyes so tired?” she asked, looking straight at the empress doll.

The doll told her, “I have been programmed to teach you various subjects and I started history last night.”

She gasped in amazement. “Wow, that was incredible. How did you get into my dreams like that?”

“Through an ELF or extremely low frequency, I am able to communicate with your lower brain-wave functions and interface with your learning centers to incorporate the data into your dreams.”

She interrupted the doll’s lecture. “Stop, slow down! I’m only six and I have no idea what you just said.”

“You will understand as your knowledge increases,” the doll assured her.

“Okay, but I still don’t have a name for you. I guess it will have to wait. We are going to see Conrey, and maybe he will have an idea what to call you.” Armi gathered the pile of clean clothes her mother had put in front of the door for her to dress in and went through her morning routine, but today it included kissing her dad as well as her mom. She wished she could do that every day. She quickly went to the shared bathrooms to brush her teeth and also took a sonic shower which she preferred because it was faster than using water. She dressed and kissed her parents again, and told them she was off to Conrey’s.

“Be careful not to lose that doll. It is extremely valuable, Armi, do you understand?” Armi’s father looked at her sternly and she nodded her agreement. He nodded back and she went out of the door without another word.

***

Conrey’s living quarters were a little nicer than where she lived because his mom working for that crook. She was bright enough to realize that not everyone had the ability to choose who they worked for, especially on this station. She liked Marcy and thought Conrey was very lucky having such a sweet and pretty mother. Plus, Conrey’s mother always gave Conrey enough currency to buy them lunch.

“What is that?” Conrey asked, pointing at her doll.

“My dad made it. It’s a special doll, kind of like a teacher.” She tried to explain what the doll was as fast as she could since there was lamnas bread waiting for them. Armi was drooling and had to use the sleeve of her jumpsuit to wipe her mouth. “Okay, enough talking. Let’s go eat.”

The common area, or Great Commons as it was mostly called, was packed. There were several thousand individuals milling about, including just about everyone at the station, which included Yollins, Kezzins, Shrillexians, Torcellans, and Noel-ni. She didn’t see any Skaines, which was a relief. She had hated the Skaines since learning they kept and sold slaves. They were horrible, she thought.

Armi, the doll, and Conrey headed to the stand where they normally got their lamnas bread.

“Ah, crap. It’s closed,” Armi whined. “What now?” She put her hands on the glass front and rested her forehead above them.

“I’m so hungry.” On cue, Armi’s stomach grumbled loudly and Conrey’s stomach followed. Conrey looked around.

“There’s my mom,” Conrey shouted to Armi to be heard over the crowd’s noise. He was pointing toward a raised podium in the middle of the gathering, and she saw his mother Marcy standing next to that crook Papyon.

Papyon was dressed sharply and plainly, as he liked to think, being attired in a very clean and shiny jumpsuit with no embellishments of any kind. He walked to the raised podium and climbed the makeshift stairs that had been erected for him. Marcy, Conrey’s mother, tried to keep the crowd back from the stairs and podium so that her boss could move unencumbered. As soon as Papyon reached the podium, he raised his arms and spoke into the built-in microphone so no one would have any trouble hearing him.

“Dear fellow Spacers,” Papyon began, calling everyone by the nickname that had been given to the inhabitants. This station was situated in the middle of nowhere. It was so far out that the Federation felt little need to police their little paradise’s goings-on, “little” being relative. As time has progressed the station had added more and more sections.

It was easy: create a force field, add a bulkhead or two, then seal and pressurize. Finally, remove the force field and start over. This practice had increased the size of the station to that of a small moon. The number of workers required to maintain it had increased as well, but unfortunately that problem hadn’t been fixed. Every worker had to do two to three times their share of work to compensate for the lack of so-called “manpower,” a term that had been coined by the humans of the Federation.

Before Papyon could say any more, a big explosion tore through the south side of the station and the depressurization alarm sounded.

“WAAAAaaaaaoooo! WAAAAaaaaaoooo!” On and on it went, and there was mass panic.

The wave of screaming spacers flowed through the station, trampling over any who could not get back up. Those lucky enough to gain high ground looked over the ocean of spacers still left and dropped their heads in mourning, adding tears to the flowing pandemonium.

A young Noel-ni girl holding a doll cried out for her mother. She was snatched up by a passing middle-aged Noel-ni female.

“Bastards! Get out of the way!” the female shouted and shoved several Spacers from her path.  She had been struggling as much as everyone else, but when she had seen the little female in distress she had gone out of her way to save her despite her own peril.

Conrey tried to get to his mother and was thrown back by the rampaging crowd. He got a glimpse of her by the podium, but the last thing he saw was her going down in the sea of bodies as she was sucked under the wave.












CHAPTER EIGHT


“Mom, Mom!” Conrey shouted. He tried to get through the panicked crowd, but he couldn’t make any headway. Armi grabbed his arm and pulled him toward C’rowley’s shop, which happened to be where the explosion had occurred.

Conrey screamed, “What are you doing? I have to get to my mom!”

“We will. I have a plan, trust me.” Armi looked into Conrey’s brown eyes and saw the fear written there.

She latched onto him as if there were no tomorrow. “Let’s go save your mom,” she whispered into Conrey’s twitching ear. Conrey leaned back and looked into Armi’s violet eyes.  “Do you trust me, Conrey?” Armi yelled. Conrey just nodded and followed her toward the explosion.

The front of C’rowley’s shop was in a shambles. The bomb or whatever had caused the explosion had blown out the front of the warehouse and burned everything it touched. Black and white smoke was billowing out of the gaping hole that had once been the entrance to the warehouse.

“You want to go in there?” Conrey asked worriedly. He was clearly anxious. The fight-or-flight syndrome was on.

“Trust me.” Armi put her hand on Conrey’s shoulder, trying to pass on her strength to give him the will to do what was right.

“We need a couple of the hovercarts to get around the crowd.”

A lightbulb went off in Conrey’s head and he smiled his understanding. They held their breath and went through the hole into utter blackness.

Armi knew that if the walls had been breached the in-place forcefields would activate and block any leak. As she traversed the darkness of the warehouse she tripped over something large and fell on her hands and knees. She was staring straight into C’rowley’s eyes.

A dead C’rowley’s eyes.

She backed away with the empress clutched doll tightly to her chest. Armi was in a daze; she had never seen a dead person before. Conrey caught up with Armi, almost tripping over C’rowley just before he reached her.

“What happened?” Conrey asked, gulping.

“I’ve got a fairly good idea who was behind this,” Armi told Conrey. With a look of sheer grit, Armi got up and grabbed Conrey by the front of his jumpsuit. “Let’s go.” They went to the hovercarts and each commandeered one.

“What’s the plan? It’s like Armageddon is occurring outside,” Conrey told Armi, clutching the controls of the cart. Armi looked at Conrey with wide eyes and told him he was a genius, which made Conrey smile and look proud of himself.

“Don’t be getting a big head on me now.” Armi chuckled. She knew what to call her Empress Bethany Anne doll. Armi held up her doll and proudly proclaimed, “Your name is Geddon!”

It was a good, strong name; a name that said, ‘If you mess with me, I will destroy you and the world you came from.’

They maneuvered the hovercarts out of the warehouse before the smoke could get to them and swooped toward the podium where Conrey had last seen his mother.

The utter devastation hit Conrey like nothing he had ever felt before. Armi put her arms around him and held him tightly to her when they found his mother dead. It looked as if she had been trampled. At that moment Armi made a solemn pledge to stamp out evil and give crooks like Papyon what they deserved—or die trying. There would be no mercy.



AUTHOR NOTES - DOMINIC NOVIELLI

April 17, 2018

Hello! I just wrote the Author’s Notes for Armi and her juice business and I’m writing these second, although this was the first story written. Well, not the first story but the second; the first one went way over the number of words by upwards of thirteen thousand too many. Instead of trying to fix that one (which would have been impossible—I’d have had to destroy it and start over) I wrote this. What is it with fast-moving sleds that had kids breaking and entering to enjoy a little R&R? Well, if you’re six and have Torcellan/Kezzin parents, you would probably be in the kind of trouble Armi seems to find herself in most of the time.

I have had so much fun writing about ArmiGeddon and her friend Conrey, a Noel-ni compatriot who goes along with Armi and all of her schemes. He doesn’t want Armi to get hurt, and feels if he’s around to protect her everything will be right in the space station.

Somebody asked me the name of the space station and I told him I didn’t want to step on any toes so I just called it “the Space Station.” In my second story, I re-emphasized that and said it hadn’t been named because it was in a far-off system that was out of everyone’s flight path. It kind of works. It ties in with the first story I wrote—remember the one that was way too big?

Thank you for reading about Armi. I know she is as tickled about your support as I am. Really, I know that for sure.

Thanks again, and until next time…keep reading.

Dominic Novielli









Cordelia’s Search

By Craig Martelle


A Bad Company Short Story

Humanity’s greatest export – Justice. Space is a dangerous place, even for the wary, especially for the unprepared. The aliens have no idea.

Here comes the Bad Company.


Warning—Story takes place during events of Liberation. Contains spoilers for Price of Freedom.


Dedication

We can’t write without those who support us

On the home front, we thank you for being there for us

We wouldn’t be able to do this for a living if it weren’t for our readers

We thank you for reading our books

















CHAPTER ONE



Earth, Ramses’ Chariot

The blue and green planet with its usual cloud cover filled the front screen. A blue stalk-head craned around the humans to better see.

“Is that your home planet?”

“Yes.” Cory touched the screen and smiled. “It looks so different from up here.”

“That is a lot of water,” Bundin replied. He supported his stalk with his tentacles as he leaned sideways.

“Don’t worry, Bundin. We’ll be on dry land the whole time.”

“Unless we take a dirigible,” Ted interjected. “We’ve been gone less than six months. They know who we are. First thing to do is call Kailin. If he’s running the business he’ll know where everyone else is.”

“Why don’t we just take the frigate? It has gravitic drives and can fly within the atmosphere,” Joseph suggested.

“Right,” Ted agreed. He chewed his lip in contemplation. He’d reverted to the familiar comfort of the technology he’d left behind, and it bothered him to have been sidetracked by their location. Then he smiled, remembering where he was now. “Plato, please disengage planetary defenses so we can transit to the surface.”

“Sending the codes now,” Plato confirmed. “The transit window will open along a set flight path. Coordinates received, engaging now.”

The ship slid toward the deadly defensive layers circling the planet. Only Plato could ‘see’ the corridor that had opened in the intricate defenses before the ship: a one-time-use path randomly assigned by the defensive satellites. It would close immediately behind Ramses’ Chariot as the ship passed.

Dokken watched the humans intently. Their excitement was contagious. He didn’t know what they were going to find on the surface, but clearly the humans were looking forward to it. His tail started to wag of its own accord, picking up speed as San Francisco got closer.

“That tickles,” Bundin grumbled. He moved to get away from the tail that was brushing back and forth beneath his shell. Cory scratched the dog’s head, oblivious to everything else that was going on.

“Test, one, two, three, test, test.”

Joseph leaned around Ted to see who or what he was talking to.

“I hear you loud and clear,” Felicity drawled. Her face filled the front screen. “Ah, there you are.”

“We are descending into San Francisco. I am counting on Kailin to know where everyone is and to make sure we have landing rights to the dirigible fields across the world. I’ll report back when I’ve found the kids.”

Felicity opened her mouth to speak as Ted cut the feed.

“You know she was still talking,” Cory told him softly.

“She what? She was?” Ted looked up at the screen, which now showed the final approach to the landing field north of Alameda. He shrugged and disappeared into a private conversation with Plato.

The frigate was smaller than the dirigibles plying the world’s skies. Ted sneered as he looked at the airships. To think that he and Felicity had once been the envy of all because they traveled in such luxury. “’Terrence, Charlita, and Billy, you’d better come home with me, or your mother will be very angry with me.’ No, no, no. That won’t convince them,” Ted argued with himself, trying to find the right words for his children. “’The universe needs you. And your mother. The galaxy needs you. I need you to give your mother something to do besides me.’ No, no...”

Bundin fought to turn around and headed for the hatch. Cory coughed politely as the ship settled onto the closely-cropped turf of the landing field.

“You better let us go first, Bundin. These people are not used to seeing aliens.”

“I take offense at that word!” the Podder declared.

“You’re alien to them; stranger than anything they’ve ever seen before, and this ship is probably giving them fits. Our departure from Earth was fairly quick, and is probably an urban myth by now. Maybe they’ll think we’re the aliens.”

“Aren’t you?” Bundin asked.

“Thanks to the damn Kurtherians, I think we may be. Still, let us go first.”

One by one, they squeezed past the edge of Bundin’s shell.

Joseph was first out, and he stopped at the bottom of the stairs to breathe deeply. He took small steps, letting his feet sink into the grass as he moved. Petricia grinned by his side.

Cory stepped onto the turf and enjoyed walking on something other than a hard deck. This part of the greater San Francisco city-state didn’t hold any memories for her. She had visited, but the airship facility wasn’t special to her. She didn’t want to go to the old naval station where they’d lived and raised their children…and where she last saw Sarah limping away to catch a bus.

We raised them to be independent, she thought. I can’t be angry that they went their own way, can I? 

A small crowd was gathered some distance from Ramses’ Chariot. Some were passengers queuing for their airship from San Francisco, while others had recently arrived. Many stopped to look at the sleek ship parked between the dirigibles—and its small but odd crew.

Bundin squeezed into the daylight. “It is nice to see the sun again. Do you have any caves that we can explore?”

“Oh, no,” Ted’s eyes were on the crowd as he spoke. “No caves. Terry Henry was held prisoner in a rather extensive cave system. It took us a while to dig him out.”

Joseph stopped gawking at his old home and turned around. “Are you out of your mind?”

Ted looked around to see who Joseph was talking to.

“Akio and I almost died in there. Terry Henry almost died. Adams did die, and you stole a shuttle Pod and were lucky not to get your ass shot down!”

Cory leaned into the conversation, pointing to her blue glowing eyes. “And that’s where this happened. No, Bundin, we won’t go back there.” It was also near where she had met Ramses.

“This is a big planet. There have to be other caves.” Bundin’s stalk head swayed as if he were in a tornado.

“We’ll see what we can do, but not Mammoth Cave. Anywhere but there.”

“We’re going to Chicago,” Cory whispered.

Joseph’s breath caught. Petricia froze. Dokken started to whimper.

Joseph tilted his head back and started to laugh. “And we almost died there too. Is there anywhere on this planet where something didn’t try to kill us?”

“Jamaica?” Petricia suggested.

“Jamaica,” Joseph agreed. “At least this time—if anyone messes with us—we have a spaceship that will cause them no end of grief. We aren’t the same as when we left.”

“Maybe we can go see the Eiffel Tower,” Petricia offered with a snicker.

“This tower is tall?” Bundin asked.

“Not anymore.” Joseph continued to laugh and the onlookers stayed where they were—at a safe distance from the crazy people and their alien.

Ted worked his way around the others and assumed a laser-like focus on the air traffic control center, which was little more than a two-story shack in the center of the field.

The others followed, treading lightly on the soft grass. The smell of it filled their senses, so different from anywhere else they’d been since leaving. They were unable to grasp fully what their emotions were trying to tell them. It was almost intangible; a certain sense of belonging that remained just beyond their fingertips. It felt like home.

Dokken ran circles around the group. I like grass.

Joseph chuckled. “You and every hippie from the sixties.”

I don’t know what that means, but I’ll take it they were a good bunch…not unlike German Shepherds.

“Not unlike them at all, Dokken.”

Dokken bounded into the grass, his tongue flopping sideways out of his mouth. Catch me if you can, Cory!

Cory jogged into the grass after him and they played a brief game of tag. Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight and Joseph and Petricia held hands, happy to see her smile.

“I think I will wait in the ship,” Bundin told the group. The edgy eyes of the crowd showed him that he was not welcome.

“Probably not a bad choice, my friend,” Joseph replied. “The people of Earth aren’t yet ready to expand their minds with the possibility of an infinite universe populated by races like yours.”

The Podder worked his way inside the hatch and watched the others leave before he secured it, closing himself off from the outside world.

Ted forged ahead, undeterred. The group waited outside while he went in.

A man stood at a small counter. “Registration and landing fee, please,” the man said without looking up.

“What? Don’t you know who I am?” Ted asked.

The man dragged his eyes from the counter, up Ted’s body, to rest on his face. “Nope.”

Ted’s lip curled and quivered. “I’m Ted. I built this place, and I’ve returned with my spaceship. I need to see Kailin.”

“Who?”

“He runs this place. Where is your supervisor?”

The man half-shrugged. “Off.”

“I’ll say,” Ted retorted.












CHAPTER TWO


The factory looked the same, just like the sky and the bay. Everything looked the same, but nothing felt the same.

“Have we been gone that long?” Petricia asked.

Ted stormed out of the control center and strode past them without a word toward the factory, which was a brisk two-mile walk away.

Joseph placed a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe we have. There’s something off about this place. Ted? Is Plato picking anything up?”

 “Uncle Ted?” Cory called.

He heard her the third time she hailed him and slowed abruptly. He tapped his foot as he waited for them, his chin resting on his chest.

Cory came to stand beside him. “You feel it too, don’t you?”

Ted frowned. “Plato can’t find anything. He continues to search and analyze.”

“But you do feel it,” Cory stated.

He scuffed the floor with his toe. “I don’t know what I feel.”

Cory wasn’t surprised at Ted’s revelation. There were too many different emotions bombarding him. When she put a gentle hand on Ted’s shoulder, a soft blue glow emanated from between her fingers.

Ted remained still. When he finally looked up, his eyes were clear and his face relaxed. “Let’s get to the plant and talk with Kailin.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing my nephew,” Cory told him.

“You not only have a gift, you are a gift, my lady,” Joseph told her.

Dokken barked and panted happily. I couldn’t agree more, the dog added. He stopped when he reached the pavement. Can’t we stay on the grass?

Cory pointed to the massive buildings that housed the gravitic engine factory and dirigible construction facilities. “We cannot. We’re going over there.” She kneeled next to him to make it easier for him to see where she was pointing.

If that’s where you’re going, I’m going there, too. But we’ll be back because our ship is here. Maybe we can cover the decks with grass? Ted could do it if he wanted to. Make him want to? 

Cory chuckled. “I’ll ask because it’s important to you, but not now. We have some things to focus on first. I need to find my daughters.”

Dokken nuzzled her hand. Of course. I got distracted for a moment. It won’t happen again. Shall we?

The large German shepherd trotted ahead, waited for the humans to start walking, and then ran farther.

Joseph kept his eyes moving as he watched the world around them. “The longer I’m here, the more familiar it feels. Maybe our lives aboard the sterility of starships and space stations have changed our perceptions regarding the chaos of nature.” A rough young man stepped from the shadows. “Look, a dog!” A group of his fellows appeared on both sides. “What’s with the blue eyes, honey?”

Ted waved dismissively with one hand. “Get out of our way. We have things to do,” he told them gruffly.

Joseph stepped forward. “I think you grossly underestimate what you’ve gotten yourself into. Leaving is your best option. Nothing else will turn out in your favor.” The vampire looked into the mind of the young man before exploring the minds of those around him. They didn’t care. They were the worst kind of scum, and harassing people was the least of their crimes.

Dokken growled and bared his fangs. Ted sighed and shook his head. Joseph stretched his fingers and cracked his knuckles. He didn’t want to see the others embroiled in a fight not of their choosing.

I will be their champion, he thought.

Cory cocked her head, looking confused. “Why would you do this?”

“We take what we want. Come on, boys. Kill that dog while I introduce myself properly to Miss Blue Eyes.”












CHAPTER THREE


The street tough sneered as his gang spread out in a circle, outnumbering Ted and the group two to one. One pulled a long knife and angled toward the German shepherd.

They don’t have a clue. Dokken, if you’d like to take care of the punk leader, I’ll dispatch those closest to me. If you could handle the man with the knife, Ted, I’d appreciate it. Petricia, my love, I think those on your right side will run when all the others are down, but just in case... 

Dokken didn’t bother answering, just launched himself at the young man with all the speed in his enhanced body. The punk’s eyes shot wide just before the dog landed on his chest. Before they hit the ground Dokken’s jaws were locked on, his canines digging into the man’s throat.

Joseph accelerated to vampiric speed to head-punch the five on his side one after another. They didn’t have time to move as the force of a sledgehammer drove their senses from them.

Ted lunged forward and grabbed the man with the knife and snapped the man’s forearm before he picked him up by the front of his shirt and slammed him to the ground.

Petricia sashayed toward those on her side. One took a clumsy swing, but Petricia easily dodged it and spun to back-kick the young man. He puked as he flew backward, landed heavily, and rolled onto his side to cradle his assaulted abdomen. She followed through from the kick, stepping back to elbow the next street tough in the head. He didn’t have time to put his hands up to deflect the blow. His nose shattered, and he went down.

The last two ran.

Cory frowned and anguish seized her. “Why?” she demanded. Dokken let go and hurried back to her. The punk leader struggled to take a breath through his crushed windpipe and blood oozed from where Dokken’s fangs had punctured the skin. The man started to flop on the ground as hypoxia set in. Without a final exhale, he stilled.

Cory started to go to him, but Joseph stopped her.

“I can help him,” she pleaded.

“Not that one. I saw his mind. He was beyond help. There’s hope for that one.” Joseph pointed to the man with the exploded nose. Cory looked at the dead punk, nodded, and went to help the last man to fall.

Her hands glowed blue as she shared her nanocytes with their injured attacker.

“Any of the others?” she asked sadly.

“I’m afraid not,” Joseph replied. He searched the faces of the fallen. “So young. What has happened that people cannot safely walk the streets of the town we built?”

Ted rubbed his hands on his pants as if trying to remove the stench of the knife-wielder. He looked at the factory nearby. “I think Kailin will have answers.”

Cory finished with the man, who looked at her with wide eyes. “Don’t attack people anymore,” she told him. “It’s a good way to get yourself killed. You’ll find there’s a greater reward in protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”

He ground his teeth together. When she rose to walk away he grabbed her ankle, and Petricia made a fist and reared back.

“Thank you,” the man told her, and let go.












CHAPTER FOUR


“Kailin? I don’t know where he is. No one knows. He took off four months ago. The guy in charge is called Timmons.”

“No, his name is Thompson. That’s what it is. We don’t see him much either. He mostly stays in the office.”

The man tried to point, but Ted was already headed for the stairs. He knew the way.

The others nodded as they passed. Dokken forced his way between the man and Cory, watching him the whole time. The dog lagged back to make sure no one came at them from behind.

“Now I know something is wrong,” Joseph shouted over the noise of the factory.

They plowed up the stairs, forced their way past a secretary, and burst into the office. Ted was furious. The others weren’t happy either.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” the man yelled, then recognized who it was. “Ted?”

“Where is Kailin?” Ted demanded.

“Gone. He resigned and left,” the man replied.

Ted walked around the desk. Thompson back-pedaled until he hit a seam in the carpet and fell over backward. Ted grabbed him by the lapels of his cheap suit jacket and pulled him upright.

“Why would he resign?”

“I don’t know. Too much pressure, maybe?”

Joseph looked over Ted’s shoulder and reached into Thompson’s mind.

“Pressure from you and your cronies. You threatened to destroy the plant if he didn’t leave,” Joseph accused.

Ted picked the man up and flung him across the room. He hit an I-beam with a sickening crunch and slid to the floor, landing in an awkward heap. Blood began to pool around the dead man’s head.

“I’m not sure it rated that,” Joseph said.

Ted didn’t give Thompson a second look. “We need to call Kim and Auburn and see where their son might have gone. In the meantime, we’re going to Chicago. We’ll land wherever the hell we want. They need to know that we’re back.”

“They don’t need to know we’re not staying,” Joseph replied.

“No, they don’t need to know that. I will get answers. We won’t leave until Cory finds Sylvia and Sarah and I find Terry, Char, and Billy and give them an IICS so they can call their mother.”

Ted stormed from the office. The secretary froze and stared wide-eyed until she was forced to dive out of his way.

Joseph, Petricia, and Cory walked past, sullen and lost in their own thoughts. Dokken sniffed the body before carefully pulling a piece of beef jerky from the man’s pocket and trotting after the others.

Ted never slowed down. He took the steps two at a time on his way down and walked through the factory like he owned it, which he still did. The rest didn’t apologize as Ted pushed people out of his way. The workers decided it wasn’t worth trying to detain the man, as security was requesting.

Security! They’d never needed such people when he ran things. The thought of it galled him.

Ted stopped once he reached the parking lot. Ramses’ Chariot descended to hover above the vehicles, almost but not quite touching them. The ramp descended to the pavement and Ted climbed up and went inside. The rest never hesitated.

“Saves us a hell of a walk,” Joseph remarked as Petricia entered in front of him. Cory followed, and Dokken ran up the stairs last. The German Shepherd could still taste the jerky. He wanted more, but he wanted to find Cory’s daughters first. If they smelled anything like her, he could lead Cory to them. They only had to get close.

And then he would ask for more jerky.


***


The trees surrounding the cabin prevented the ship from getting close so it hovered, pressing down on the uppermost branches.

“Looks like we’re going to have to climb down,” Ted grumbled.

Joseph tapped him on the shoulder. “He’s not down there.”

“Where is he?” Ted asked.

Joseph held his hands up. “Plato, take us past the other cabins in the area. Slowly.”

Ted sat on the deck and used his ability to see the Etheric dimension to look for those who could also tap into its power. He often forgot that he was a werewolf, but Joseph’s search for minds to touch reminded him.

Together they explored the land below, searching for Kailin and any of the others. Sylvia and Sarah both knew about the cabins, so maybe they were nearby too.

Cory watched, grinding her teeth in anticipation.

Joseph gripped her shoulder and smiled. “Kailin is far up the hill.”

“I see him,” Ted called. The ship lifted out of the trees and shot away, following a track that took it over Kim and Auburn’s son. He started to run at the appearance of the ship.

Ted activated the ship’s external communication system. “Kailin, it’s Ted. We heard about the factory. We need to talk.”

Kailin stopped running. He turned uphill and found an opening through the trees from which he waved at the strange ship. They opened the hatch, and Cory waved at her nephew.

“Rope!” Joseph called. Petricia jogged down the corridor to a storage locker where, as part of the provisioning process, she’d added everything she could think of, including what they used to carry on missions before they went to space.

She handed a long coil to her husband and he passed the end back to her. “Tie it off, if you would.”

“Wrap it around my stalk—that’s plenty tough—and we’ll hold it together,” Bundin told her. She looped it twice. The Podder grabbed it with his tentacle arms and she coiled the end around both her arms.

“Go,” she called.

Joseph sent the rope into the clearing and Kailin let it hit before starting to climb.

“Pull,” Joseph told the others and they started to pull the rope hand-over-hand, letting the excess coil on the deck behind them.

In no time, Kailin was pulled through the hatch. He looked as young as ever. He smiled broadly, showing perfect white teeth against the milky caramel of his skin.

“Look at you!” he exclaimed, and did a double-take at the sight of Bundin. “And look at you, whatever you are.”

“My name is Bundin. I’m from Poddern. Your family rescued me.”

“Of course they did.” Kailin’s wide smile returned. He shook hands with Joseph before rushing to hug his Aunt Cory. “Where’s Ramses?”

Everyone froze, and Cory burst into tears. She was unable to answer him.

Petricia spoke softly. “That’s why we’re here. We’re looking for Sylvia and Sarah to tell them that their father didn’t survive the mission to Benitus Seven.”

“My Uncle Ramses is dead? But we don’t die.” Kailin continued to hold Cory.

“We do, actually, and it makes it that much worse.” Petricia and Joseph both put a hand on Cory’s shoulder to wait for her.

When she finally pushed back, she looked up at Kailin. Her eyes glowed blue and carried the question they all had.

“I think Sylvia is in Pittsburgh. Sarah and her husband split and no one knows where she is. Ted and Felicity’s kids were still in Chicago last I heard.”

“Plato, take us to Chicago,” Ted ordered. The ship smoothly gained altitude and turned to race east.

“What happened?” Joseph asked, afraid of what the reply might be.

“They saw the power. They wanted it. They took it.” Kailin ran a hand through his dark and curly locks. “I could have fought them, but why? I wasn’t going to live my life with my back against the wall so no one could put a knife in it. They are little people with big envy. When ambition exceeds ability, you get that kind of garbage—a bunch of no-loads who use bigger and bigger sticks to control the people.”

“And the result is that you get less and less. It takes more power to get less, so they wield it heavily,” Joseph added.

“Sounds like it’s happened more than once in history.”

Joseph nodded. “It’s far too common. But let’s not lament the past; let’s celebrate the now and where you are—which is here on our spaceship, flying across the country to gather our family.”

“Are you taking us all to space?”

“Only if you want to come, but the offer is there,” Cory told him, leaning into the conversation.

“I’ll have to think about that,” Kai answered. “Earth is my home, and this?” He pointed to the metal walls of the ship around him. “This isn’t.”


Chicago, Earth

“Taxi! Get your taxi here!” the hawker yelled. His vehicle was behind him. There were no others in the area. There were no other people either.

“I think he’s yelling at us,” Ted stated the obvious.

“We do need a taxi,” Joseph admitted. “It beats walking. I’ve already done that here more times than I can count. Lots and lots of walking.”

“No one will recognize you—not this time. No black leather.” Cory pointed to their casual slacks and short-sleeved shirts. Joseph’s hair was slicked back. He was still pasty white, because starships weren’t the galaxy’s best tanning spots.

Bundin hung out in the hatch once again, angry at being left behind.

Dokken was happy to be going, but he had sworn never to let Cory out of his sight. The German Shepherd had adhered to his commitment and had no intention of changing.

“You said you know where to go?” Cory asked.

“I do,” Kailin answered. “At least, they were in the same area the last time I talked with them.”

Joseph carried the IICS like a briefcase. He wore a light jacket, under which he had the cavalry short sword he’d traded Terry Henry for over a century earlier, not far from where they now stood.

Petricia was also hesitant to move for the some of the same reasons as Joseph, and a few others, too. She had great memories of their time in North Chicago and of their whirlwind romance after Joseph rescued her from the clutches of Forsaken in South Africa. Then the renegade werewolves had tried to kill her, and the blood traders had taken her prisoner. She was happy to have no memories of that time. Joseph was more aware because he’d seen the depravity in his captors’ minds. In terms of a vampire’s lifespan, their liberation had not been that long ago.

“We should have suggested Aaron and Yanmei come instead of us,” Joseph offered as his feet refused to move.

Petricia hugged her husband’s arm. “You guys go without us.”

Kailin held his hands out. “I’m not a warrior.” Kailin motioned to both Cory and Ted. “And neither are you two.” He looked at Dokken. “You might be, or you could be just a dog.”

I am not just a dog, Dokken replied, the hackles on his back standing up. Kailin didn’t hear since he didn’t have the chip.

“Want some jerky?” Kai asked. He produced a small piece from his pocket and held it out, but Dokken didn’t move.

“He’s sentient, and he talks.” Cory looked down her nose at her nephew.

“Clearly not to me,” Kai replied.

“Need a chip. Go ahead,” she told Dokken. The German Shepherd smiled wryly as he took the jerky, nipping Kai’s fingers as he pulled it free.

“Dumb dog!” Kai sucked his injured digits.

Ted shifted uncomfortably. He leaned toward the taxi, wondering why they were delaying.

I can’t believe you’re related to the dumb human.

“I am,” Cory answered, reaching down to scratch Dokken behind his ears. He leaned into her hand and the faint blue glow appeared as they briefly shared nanocytes.

“You are, what?”

“Related to a dumb human.” Cory faced Joseph and Petricia. “What my clumsy nephew is trying to say is that we need you. We’re a team. We have to find Terry, Char, and Billy, so we can move on, find Sarah and Sylvia.”

“I know you’re right, but I have bad memories of this place. And they didn’t happen that long ago. Do you know anything about the blood trade, Kailin?”

“The separate battles fought by Grandpa, Michael, and Valerie drove it far underground, but it still exists. With a group our size, we’ll be fine. It’s never good to be alone.”

“Like you were in San Francisco?” Cory wanted to hug him, but he stepped back.

“What’s with evil people and their ability to find like-minded souls, the heartless bastards?”

“Maybe the evil convinces decent people that the dark path is the right one to travel.” Joseph took a step, relieved that his feet had decided they were able to move. “I have my short sword, just in case.”

“I have Grandpa’s .45.” Kai lifted the back of his shirt.

“Are you any good with that thing?”

“Have you ever fired this thing?” Kai told Cory. “Close counts when you’re shooting a cannon.”

“You should see Dad’s new toy. He can blow up buildings with it.” Cory smiled at Kailin and turned to Joseph.

“Shall we, my dear?” Joseph asked pleasantly, motioning for Cory and Petricia to precede him. Dokken trotted ahead to sniff the ground and make sure the way was safe. The taxi driver waved for them to come his way even though they were already walking toward him.

Kailin hurried ahead and caught up with Dokken.

“You’re sentient? I didn’t know, buddy. I never thought about what to ask a dog before, but I guess, what I want to know is how do you know where to pee?”

Dokken looked forlornly over his shoulder. His ears sagged against his head. His mouth popped open and his tongue fell out as he started to pant. Cory nodded in sympathy.

Yes, you’re clearly related. I pity humanity.

The taxi driver got out and held the door open as they arrived. “I’m not sure you’re going to all fit. Maybe just the women and the dog,” he suggested. “I can come back for the rest.”

Joseph didn’t bother with pleasantries, just grabbed the man’s face and stared into his eyes to deepen the effect of digging into his mind. The driver winced as Joseph forced his way in. Joseph started to growl deep in his throat, like an animal.

“Okay, pal. There’s clearly something wrong with you, so you’re going in the trunk.” Cory didn’t bother to find out what had made Joseph upset. She opened the lid and waited. Joseph dragged the man to the rear of the car and stuffed him inside and she slammed the lid closed.

“Anyone know how to drive one of these?” Joseph wondered.

“I do, and I know the way,” Kailin answered. He jumped into the driver’s seat and the others took the empty seats. Dokken climbed in the back with Cory, choosing to sit on her lap instead of Joseph’s and Petricia’s.

Ted sat up front and maintained an interface with Plato, and Ramses’ Chariot went with them as they drove away. It gained altitude but stayed over the taxi. Its shadow splashed across buildings as they drove into town from what used to be O’Hare International Airport.

Kai drove confidently, demonstrating that he did know where he was going. They turned frequently once they left the main road. The others quickly became disoriented, but not Joseph. These were his old stomping grounds. Decades of preying on those who no one would miss, the unwitting meals of an unwilling vampire.

They pulled up in front of a house in a more upscale area. The yard was overgrown with weeds like most lawns. but the windows were in good repair and their shades were open. “That was where Billy lived last time I was here.”

Ted jumped out and hurried to the front door but turned when he got there, annoyed that Joseph was still getting out of the car. Ted ran back, took the IICS, and returned to the front door, pounding on it unmercifully.

“Why doesn’t he answer?” Ted grumbled, and he kept pounding.

“Who for fuck’s sake thinks they can pound on my door like they’re swinging a battering ram? What’s wrong with you, dickless? I’m coming down there to kick your ass!”

“Billy! You get down here right now!” Ted yelled at the open window.

“Dad?” The figure disappeared from the upstairs window and they heard him pound down the steps. The door flew open and Billy launched himself into Ted, hugging him fiercely. Ted didn’t hug him back.

“You’re making a spectacle. I need you to call your mother.”

“Of course, I’m making a spectacle. I’m like Mom. I love people!”

“Moments ago, you were going to come down here and kick my ass.”

“Valid point. I love people who aren’t beating down my door at the crack of noon. Some people need their beauty sleep! Cordelia, is that you?”

Ted started setting up the IICS but Joseph interrupted him. “Maybe we do that inside?”

Cory hugged Billy and they all went inside.

While the others made small talk, Ted set up the comm console on the dining room table.

“Where are your brother and sister?” Ted asked as he put the finishing touches on the setup.

Billy pointed from one side of the house to the other. “Rence lives on that side and Lita lives over there.” “Rence and Lita?” Ted asked.

“There’s already Terry and Char, the galaxy’s power couple. They wanted their own identity. I’m good with Billy, Dad. I’m a down-to-Earth kind of guy, grassroots and all that good stuff. Rocking the ganja weed, living life to the fullest.

Ted’s expression didn’t change. “Are you speaking English? It sounds like it but it doesn’t. Plato? Please update the linguistics database.”

“That’s my Dad. I’ve missed you and Mom.” Billy was the emotional one, more so than the other two. They had lost patience with their father more than once when they couldn’t understand why he retreated so easily into an emotionless shell.

Their mother had told them that was where he felt safe, and they shouldn’t push him when his shields were in place.

“Felicity?” Ted asked the device. “Are you there?”

The units connected, but the screen remained dark. “Hello,” a tired voice drawled.

“Felicity! I found Billy, and he wants to talk with you.”

“Billy, my dear, how are you?” The light popped on and Felicity smiled beatifically at the pad she was using to interface with the IICS.

“We’re okay, Mom. If you give me a couple minutes, I’ll get Rence and Lita so we can all talk to you.” Billy handed the device back to Ted.

“They live next door. Three houses in a row,” Ted clarified. “They call themselves Rence and Lita, did you hear that?”

“I did,” Felicity drawled pleasantly. “It’s okay, Ted. Those are the names we gave them. They’ve shortened them a different way, but they are still our children. Billy looks good! Earth must be treating him right.”

Ted touched the screen. He knew she was on the other side of the universe, and as frustrated as her emotions made him, she understood him better than anyone else. “I’ll come home to you soon. We think Sylvia is in Pittsburgh, our next stop, and hopefully she’ll know where Sarah is.”

“If anyone can find them, I know it’s you.” Felicity touched the screen as did Ted.

Joseph and Petricia looked away. They weren’t used to seeing that side of Ted. Cory sat next to her uncle and draped an arm over his shoulders.

“Uncle Ted is magnificent,” Cory added. Ted blinked rapidly and looked at the floor.

Dokken shoved his face against Ted’s head so he could see the screen.

“Who is that delightful creature?” Felicity asked playfully when she felt more awake. “Dokken? We miss you around here. Maybe you can find yourself a mate and bring home some puppies. They would be loved from the top to the bottom of Onyx Station.”

Dokken stopped and cocked his head. Do they have German Shepherds like me on Earth? he asked. Felicity couldn’t hear, so Cory shared what he had said.

“There is no one like you, Dokken, but there are German Shepherds. Big, beautiful dogs. Irish wolfhounds, wolves, and so many more. The smaller dogs didn’t survive the Wastelands, but you’re a big handsome man, and you deserve a big beautiful woman!”

Yes, I do! Dokken exclaimed, his tongue hanging out of his face and drool splattering on Ted’s leg and the floor.

Ted and Felicity’s three children walked in together, saving Cory from having to relay what Dokken was saying.

“Dad!” Charlita called easily with a slight southern twang. Ted stood, stumbling over the big dog as he went to greet the kids.

He assumed his dad persona and hugged them one by one. Billy took it with a shrug, dismissing the earlier chill, which he had learned long ago not to take personally.

Ted shuffled his feet and looked at the device on the table. “Your mother wants to talk with you.” He pointed to the IICS.

“Is she in orbit? Why doesn’t she come down?” Terrence wondered.

“She’s on the other side of the galaxy,” Joseph clarified, smiling at the three werewolves. “Ted invented this device for one reason only: so that Felicity could talk with her children. And I don’t want to be dramatic, but the unit’s power source came at a very high price.”

“For us?” Lita asked.

“For all peoples,” Cory answered. “Even if that means aliens.” She closed her eyes and slowly moved aside to give the three space in front of the IICS.

“There you are, my lovelies!”

The group moved away to allow the family privacy. Joseph stayed near the window where he could watch out. “Do you think we should let the taxi driver out of the trunk?” he asked.

Kailin chuckled. “I’ll take care of it.” He went outside.

Cory sat in an overstuffed chair and disappeared into her own thoughts. Petricia knelt beside her. “We’ll be on our way soon. Ted will leave the IICS here. We’ll find Sylvia.”

Cordelia nodded slowly, her jaw clenched and her lips white from pressing them together so tightly.

“I’ll kill you!” the taxi driver yelled, trying to jump from the trunk and attack Kailin. He stumbled and pitched forward instead, landing on his face. He rolled to his feet and lunged at Kailin, but Kai dodged and tripped the man as he passed.

“You were thinking some pretty foul thoughts in regard to my aunt and my friend, so here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to calm the fuck down, or I will beat you senseless and toss your dumb ass back in the trunk. We’ll be returning to the airfield shortly. You can drive us, or you can ride in the trunk. The choice depends not on what you say, but what you do.

Veins stood out on the man’s face as he clenched and unclenched his fists.

“You’re making this decision easy for us. I want to punch your face so bad,” Kai told the man as he raised his fists and walked toward the driver. The man relaxed and held his hands up in surrender.

“See, that wasn’t so hard!”

Ted was the first out the door. When he reached the taxi he stopped to wave, but the others had followed him out. His children hugged him again, taking no notice of his embarrassment at their public display. The rest said their goodbyes and started to pile into the cab.

“Why are you taking that thing?” Billy asked.

“It’s our ride,” Ted replied matter-of-factly.

“We’ll take you back to the airport,” Rence offered.

Ted pointed at the ship hovering a few hundred meters overhead.

“Holy shitsicles, Dad! Is that your spaceship?”

Joseph laughed. “It is Ted’s spaceship, called Ramses’ Chariot. Ted and Plato defeated an evil AI named Ten, who was running a blockade that we were called in to break. I don’t want to brag, but twenty-five of us took over twenty ships and rescued over a thousand slaves. It was a masterful stroke.”

Kai threw the car keys at the taxi driver. “Don’t let us see your face around here again.” The man didn’t wait to be told a second time. He jumped in, revved the engine, and tore off out of the neighborhood.

“Ted and Ankh were both exceptional. Their minds defeated that of an alien Artificial Intelligence. We probably have a rematch coming, though. I expect Ten will be waiting for us, far more prepared than it was the last time.”

“If my dad has anything to do with it, this AI doesn’t stand a chance. Who’s Plato?”

“An AI that Ted created.”

“Damn, Dad! You’ve been busy.”

Ted’s eyes brightened. “You wouldn’t believe the technology we have access to. Immersive holographic interfaces, direct links between the brain and the AI, with aliens like my friend Ankh.”

Rence, Lita, and Billy enjoyed seeing their father that excited, but they had no idea what he was talking about.

“Ankh is an alien about this tall,” Joseph held his hand waist-high, “with a big head and no emotions. Loves nothing more than to think about stuff.”

“You don’t know Ankh at all,” Ted complained. “I thought we were getting a ride somewhere?”

“If all you need is space for your ship to land, there’s a park right around the corner. We can walk.”

Ted’s eyes became unfocused for a moment. “Plato says he can land the ship.”

The group walked away. Dokken stayed on the grass, preferring to fight his way through the weeds instead of walking on the pavement. Not if he didn’t have to.

Lita held her hand out to Dokken. “Nice dog.” Dokken trotted over to walk at her side, always keeping one eye on Cory.

“He’s sentient, or so they tell me,” Kai told her. Don’t feed him or he’ll get your fingers.” Kai held up his hand, but his nanocytes had already repaired the damage Dokken had done. “You get the point.”

“No, you got the point!” Lita quipped. Dokken dog-laughed and nuzzled his head against Lita’s hip. “He’s a sweetheart.”

They turned the corner and waited for the ship to descend. The hatch popped open and the stairs descended.

“Your chariot to the stars awaits, madam.” Joseph bowed and swept an arm toward the ship just as the Podder stuffed himself out through the hatchway. The Podder waved his tentacle arms.

“That’s our friend, Bundin.”

“You people are weird,” Rence informed them.

“Call your mother. Often!” Ted exhorted as he climbed aboard. The hatch closed and the ship rapidly ascended and raced to the east.












CHAPTER FIVE



Pittsburgh

“Do you have any idea where Sylvia might be?” Cory asked Kailin for the tenth time.

“Not a clue.” Kailin couldn’t expound further and was tired of Cory asking, but he couldn’t blame her. “We’ll find her.”

“Pittsburgh is a lot of ground to cover,” Joseph remarked. He indicated various points on the imagery of the city over which they hovered. “Three rivers join there; the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. The natives recognized how fertile the region was. Started with the Adena culture, then the Iroquois, Lenape, Seneca, and Shawnee moved in. Once George Washington and the French decided they liked it, the rest was a running battle for control.”

“Why the history lesson, Joseph?” Cory asked.

“Because I’m nervous, dear Cordelia. What we saw in San Francisco bothered me greatly. Chicago? Not much better. It seems as if mankind is devolving. I don’t want any of our families caught up in that, but they are. Look at Kailin and what they did to Ted’s factory.”

“I’m anxious, too.” Cory sighed heavily from her seat on the bridge. The others were wedged in around her. Her hand naturally went to Dokken’s head and she found some comfort in the warmth of his thick fur. “I’m afraid they won’t care; that they’ll still be angry that we left them.”

“They care greatly,” Petricia assured her. “I had the pleasure of their company a great deal when we lived in San Francisco. They are wonderful human beings. Sarah is very much like your father, and Sylvia takes after you. Terry Henry is a big personality, and sets an ideal that people don’t understand even as they try to live up to it.”

Kailin worked his way to the front of the small bridge. “I know exactly what Petricia is trying to say. After Grandpa left, there was a huge void. Everyone had their idea of what Terry would do, but the opportunists jumped in—the little people who could never be the pillar of moral strength that Grandpa was. No one was as selfless. People wanted for themselves—power, possessions, those things. It only took two months before they came after me. I’m sorry, Uncle Ted. I lost your factory.”

Ted didn’t look up. He was sitting in the captain’s chair, engrossed in a pop-up screen where rows of data scrolled past. His lips moved as if he were whispering to himself.

“Plato, take us on a slow pass over the populated areas of Pittsburgh, please. Petricia and I will search for anyone tapping into the Etheric.”

“I have a search pattern established. I only regret that my sensors cannot pick up these emanations. I will project a map before each of you. Simply tap the spots where you feel a disturbance in the Etheric, and I will build a database.”

“Looks like we need room to maneuver,” Joseph suggested.

“Please clear the bridge,” Plato requested.

The others wanted to stay, so Cory wished the vampires luck and left the bridge. Kailin dashed into the corridor—straight into Bundin’s shell. He bounced back and fell to the deck. Dokken looked from Kai to Bundin as he wondered what he’d just seen.

“When will I be able to get off the ship?” Bundin asked.

“For fuck’s sake!” Kailin sat up and rubbed his arm. “We’re looking for Cory’s daughters!”

“And that is exactly what I want to do. I came along to help.” The Podder sounded hurt.

“This time, you will go with us whenever we get off the ship,” Cory promised.

“I want to help,” Bundin repeated.

“Is this more of the Terry Henry Walton effect?” Kailin asked. Cory’s eyes glowed blue in the twilight of the corridor. The hatch to the bridge remained open, but the lights were dimmed as Joseph and Petricia worked with the holographic maps. Ted was in his own world, communing with Plato on the on what Ted considered as the most important project. No one else would know what that was until Ted told them.

“It wasn’t TH, but Joseph who saved me,” Bundin began. “The influence of this group of humans is being felt far and wide. They ended the civil war on my planet. They brought peace to us. At a high cost. As I’ve seen in the short time I’ve known them, everything comes at a price. Terry lets everyone know what that price is and lets them decide if they are willing to pay it. Everyone agrees. You should have seen Joseph break into that ship at Alchon Prime when I was starting to run out of air. We fight for each other probably more than we fight others.”

Cory closed her eyes and looked down. Softly, she started to speak. “Ramses was never a warrior, but he became one because I had to go to war. With my healing gift I couldn’t turn my back on the injured, and he wouldn’t turn his back on me. I’m not blaming myself for his death. The Skrima killed him. He fought as well as he could, but it wasn’t good enough—not against a hell-spawned enemy like them. Before we go back into combat, I want everyone to be sure that they will fight like warriors possessed, even when the enemy are the very demons we fear.”

“The battle with Ten will be far different. We may never fire a shot,” Bundin stated. “That man in there is the key to whether we can end Ten’s enslavement of the kidnapped humans or not.”

Together they looked at Ted, sitting in the captain’s chair. He looked completely uncaptainly. Petricia carefully touched a spot on her map that kept moving slowly around her. Joseph tapped a spot and thrust his arm in the air.

“Found her!” he yelled.

Cory ran back onto the bridge. “Where is she?”

“Take us down,” Ted said, seemingly to himself as he continued his engagement with the AI known as Plato. The ground on the screen raced up to meet the ship. Ramses’ Chariot pulled up and hovered about thirty feet off the ground because vertical obstructions like trees prevented them from going lower. The ship cast a great shadow over a house immediately below.

“She’s in there,” Joseph told them. Cory ran from the bridge, vaulted over Bundin, and pelted for the hatch. She flung it open and launched herself through.

“She jumped!” Bundin exclaimed as he wedged himself into the hatchway to look down. He twisted his stalk head forward. “She’s okay!”

Cory hit the ground, rolled to her feet, and ran for the house. She reached the door and started yelling as she beat on it.

Dokken tried to gauge the height, but couldn’t. Cory was down there, and he wasn’t with her. He stepped into the opening, and with his heart in his throat, he jumped.

Bundin’s tentacle arms lashed out and caught the dog before he’d traveled more than a few centimeters.

“It’s too great a drop,” Bundin exclaimed. Dokken started to struggle.

“Not for me it isn’t,” Kailin told them. He crawled over Bundin’s shell and hoisted the huge German Shepherd into his arms. “Wow, dog. You need to cut back on the treats.”

Kailin held him tightly and jumped and the pair accelerated toward the ground. When they hit, Kailin threw Dokken sideways and he rolled through the impact. Dokken hit and stumbled, but his legs churned and he found himself running toward Cory as the door opened.

A woman, the spitting image of her mother minus the glowing eyes, stood there, confused. “Mother?” she asked. Dokken slid into Cory, almost knocking her down. Sylvia caught her.

Cory pulled her into a hug and burst into tears.

Kailin stood back while Dokken leaned against Cory, trying to comfort her through his warmth and kind thoughts.

When Cory was finally able to get the news out, Sylvia didn’t change her expression.

“I understand.” The young-looking woman frowned.

Cory hardened up and brushed the tears away. She looked angry, and Sylvia asked her to be calm.

“I thought it inevitable that someone would die, although I didn’t expect it to be my father. I thought my grandfather would die first. He places his body between the enemy and everyone else, not because he thinks he’s invincible, but because he can’t stand someone else doing something that he thinks he’s supposed to do.”

“But your father...” Cory blinked before a new flood of tears could start.

“I’m sure he died saving the universe. Isn’t that how we were raised? In the service of others. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. Most people don’t respect that, but I do. Did Dad die for a cause worth dying for?”

Cory held her daughter’s gaze. “He did, and you’re right. Mom and Dad took the hardest part of the mission, but when things went bad, we were trapped with too many Skrima and our nanocytes were disabled. There was nothing we could do.”

“Why were your nanos disabled?”

“Without doing that we couldn’t kill the Skrima. Once they were disabled, the demon creatures were vulnerable.”

“I understand.” Sylvia’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Did you kill them—the Skrima?”

“Yes.” Cory wouldn’t meet her gaze. “We killed all of them, and Dad closed the rift so no more could come through.”

“I understand,” Sylvia repeated.

“We brought a device you can use to talk with us instantly anywhere in the universe.”

“We don’t have much technology here,” Sylvia told her mother, heading into the house and waving for the others to follow. “If it breaks, we won’t be able to fix it.”

“It won’t break. Ted assures us that the IICS will outlast us all.”

“Ted built it?” Sylvia’s lip twitched upward into a half-smile before it settled back into a tired frown. “Sarah’s not here.”

“Where is she?” Cory asked. Dokken was big enough that, standing, he could rest his chin on the table. He was between Cory and Sylvia. Both women petted him as they sat, not looking at each other.

“To be alone. She split from her husband and had to go find herself. The nanos were changing within her, or that’s what she said, anyway. She went away, saying that I wasn’t to look for her. She’d find me when the time was right.”

Cory chewed on her lip, her expression turning dark.

“No, Mom! I know what you’re thinking, and it’s the opposite of that. The last thing she said was that she needed to work harder to be the person you deserved her to be. She’s a kind soul and wants to lead the world to a better place, but she has the fire of her grandfather within her. She needed to balance the two. She still limps, by the way.” Sylvia stood and exaggerated the limp and mocked fainting.

Cory didn’t know how to take that. Neither did Dokken, but Kailin, who was watching from the doorway, burst out laughing.

“He gets it.” Sylvia pointed at her cousin. “Great to see you again, Kailin. It’s been awhile.” The two hugged.

“Are you going to come with us?” he asked. Before she could answer, there was a crash outside and the sound of something big ripping down a tree. Kailin took a few steps and stopped. “It’s Bundin. He jumped.”

“How’s he going to get back on board?” Cory blurted.

“I don’t know, but he’s down here now. How are we going to get back on board?”

Cory waved her nephew away.

“Bundin?” Sylvia asked.

“You have to see,” Kailin interjected. Cory wanted to talk with her daughter alone, but she gave up trying to make that happen. Dokken furiously wagged his tail as he received constant attention from Cory and Sylvia.

Sylvia stopped when she saw the Podder ambling toward her home. “What is that?”

“He’s Bundin, from Poddern. He’s a member of the Bad Company and he wanted to help us find you more than anything else,” Kai explained.

Sylvia nodded as the alien stopped outside the door. “What’s with human doorways? They are always so small. Cordelia, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Cory replied. She stood and went outside. “Thank you for coming to check on me. You are a good friend.” She could see that he was favoring one leg, so she kneeled down to examine it. A huge gash had been torn through the scales that protected the Podder’s stout legs.

She put her hands on the injury to help him heal and he didn’t resist. The pain was significant, but not overwhelming.

And he had no idea how he was going to get back to the ship. He trusted the humans and their ingenuity to figure it out.

“You must be Sylvia,” Bundin began in the deep voice the comm device gave him.

“I am,” she replied with a warm smile.

“You are truly blessed to know such people as these,” Bundin told her.

“I know,” she agreed matter-of-factly. “But I’m not coming with you. I need to be here when Sarah returns from the wilderness. It took Grandfather twenty years to find himself. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but I’ll be here when she returns. And if you give me that comm device, I’ll have that waiting for her. So you make sure you survive Colonel Terry Henry Walton’s adventures so you’re there to answer when we make the call.”

Cory smiled at her daughter.

“Mind if we stay the night? There’s no hurry to get from one place to the next. Our spaceship is state of the art.”

Sylvia pointed to the front door. “If he’s going to sleep in the front yard, the neighbors are going to talk.”

Bundin’s stalk head waved around as he took in his surroundings. “Maybe there’s a nice cave nearby.”

***

They stayed up late into the night talking. Dokken never left Cory’s side. Bundin worked his way into the bushes so the ever-present neighbors wouldn’t see him. Kailin slept on the couch. Ted called often to see when they were returning to the ship so they could go home to Keeg Station.

Morning came too soon.

Sylvia made a simple breakfast of vegetables and unleavened bread.

Dokken asked if she had any beef jerky and Cory relayed his request. Sylvia’s laugh was musical and took the sting away from her proclamation that she was a vegetarian. Dokken’s ears drooped, but Kailin yelled up to the ship for Joseph to throw down a portion of smoked bistok.

Kailin caught it, despite Joseph’s errant throw. Despite the vampire’s long life, he’d never partaken in sports so he wasn’t good at throwing things. Not knives, not balls, and as it turned out, not packets of meat.

The omnivores enjoyed the bistok, while Sylvia tried not to look at it.

Kailin ate and returned beneath the ship. Joseph held an IICS, but Kailin asked that Petricia throw it and Joseph shrugged. He wasn’t proud. She delivered it on target by dropping it straight down instead of trying to throw it.

They cleaned up after breakfast and Cory showed Sylvia how the device worked. They called the War Axe. Terry and Char’s quarters appeared.

“Dad?” Cory wondered.

Terry’s face popped out from behind a stack of bags and packages that he held in his arms. “Cory! Char, come quick. Cory’s on the blower.”

“They haven’t had ‘blowers’ for two hundred years,” Char chided as she helped remove the packages from her husband’s arms. They kissed lightly before she turned to the screen.

“Mom’s been shopping? Are you still on Onyx Station?”

“We’re at a firing range testing the combat support drone Ted and Ankh designed. Tell him it works great, but can’t fire the railgun in a hover. It needs to have forward movement to offset the release of power.”

“You tell him that yourself. He’s on the ship. In the meantime, look who we have here!” Sylvia and Kai both leaned into the picture.

Char’s purple eyes glowed brighter when she saw her grandchildren. “Sylvia! Kailin! You guys look great!”

Terry hugged her to him as he took in everything that was there, along with noting who wasn’t. He didn’t ask the question that was foremost in his mind. Where is everyone else?

As if reading his mind, Cory continued. “We found Terrence, Charlita, and Billy. They are fairly well settled in Chicago. They have an IICS now and have talked with Felicity at least once. Sarah isn’t here, and no one knows where she is.” Cory paused and looked at Sylvia and back to the screen. “She’s on a classic TH hide-from-humanity adventure.”

“She’s going to be gone for twenty years?” Terry looked disappointed.

 “Maybe. No one will know until she returns to the world,” Sylvia clarified. “It’s her time, Grandpa. I verified it for Mom, but I’ll tell you too… We aren’t angry with you. We aren’t upset with you. We love our family, and it took an alien to remind us to say it.”

“Bundin?”

“The ship couldn’t land, so he jumped. He got all fucked up bouncing through a tree, but Aunt Cory fixed him with that blue trick of hers.”

Terry bit his lip and Char poked him in the ribs.

Kailin spoke up. “I’m coming to space. It’s time to leave Earth behind. I hope you don’t mind. I’m bringing my girlfriend, too.”

“You’re coming with us?” Cory looked shocked. “You didn’t say anything about a girlfriend.”

“I’m kidding about the girlfriend. I hear alien chicks are hot!” He bobbed his head and licked his lips.

“Somebody punch him,” Cory joked. Sylvia held her head in her hands and groaned.

Dokken barked.

Terry leaned into the screen. “Dokken! I miss you!”

“He didn’t miss me,” Sylvia stated, looking directly at her grandfather.

“Goes without saying, but my dog...”

I’m not your dog. My God, he is untrainable? Dokken asked. Cory laughed.

“We’re going to be on our way, Dad, Mom. We’re coming home.”

The final image before the screen went blank was of Terry and Char waving.

“Alien chicks?” Sylvia slapped at her cousin.

“That’s as offensive as a Walton who’s a vegetarian. Your grandmother is a werewolf!” he prodded.

“And proudly so. Leave, you tactless buffoon. I won’t be insulted in my own house!” She stomped a foot and pointed. He lifted one eyebrow and she laughed in reply. “I couldn’t be mad at you, cousin.”

“I could be mad at all of you,” Cory deadpanned, “but I’m not.”

Cory looked at her daughter through the blue glow with eyes that sparkled once again.

“How are we going to get Bundin into the ship?” Kailin interrupted.




The End

Cordelia’s Search

A Bad Company Novelette





AUTHOR NOTES - CRAIG MARTELLE

Written June 3, 2018

Kurtherian Fans Write! What an auspicious project from the creative mind of Michael Anderle! He created a universe so fertile that it demanded more stories be told. He recruited a bunch of authors to write series within, and still that wasn’t enough.

I always wanted to write. I am a child of the sixties. My brother is eight years older than me and he had an incredible science fiction and fantasy book collection—Robert E. Howard, Tolkien, Norton, Heinlein, Jules Verne, and more. So many great stories…but there were more to tell. If the story isn’t there, then you must write it. That is the adage that drives authors.

The fans who love Bethany Anne and the Kurtherian Gambit Universe are just like me—avid readers who also see that there are more tales to tell— so Michael asked them to step up. Tell those stories. and the best of them—those that fit within the universe—would get professional editing, feedback, and the opportunity to be published. Fans would become professional authors.

Just like me. I may have over two and a half million words in print, but everyone has to start somewhere. There are storytellers in this collection. Real storytellers, and now published authors. From fan to professional author—that’s a pretty cool step.

One thing that we’ve learned over the years is that no one is in this business alone. We may write our stories from within the seclusion of our minds, but everyone needs a hand somewhere, even if only encouraging words. Erika, Sarah, and Natale—you three dynamos helped bring this to fruition, along with our mama bear Lynne. You people kept everyone on track. Michael may have created the opportunity, but you four brought it to life. With Steve managing the business aspects, it became a real thing.

The first volume earned the coveted orange Bestseller tag, and I hope this volume gets there too. There’s nothing like being a bestselling author, especially when you can repeat that success. Keep writing, because that’s what authors do.

And keep reading, because that’s where we all started. There are so many great storytellers out there. Live vicariously in the worlds they’ve created. Live full and wonderful lives enriched by the power of your imagination, both in what you read and what you create. You may disappear into those worlds, but when you come back, we’re here for you.

A rising tide floats all boats. The Kurtherian Gambit Universe is a tide that has swept us all to better places.

Peace, fellow humans.


Craig Martelle





ADMIN NOTES - THE THREE SISTERS

Written June 3, 2018

Thank you for reading the great stories in this book and supporting the crazy ride we’re all on!

Fans Write for the Fans was meant to be a one-off; an experiment by Michael Anderle wearing his Indie Publishing Outlaw black hat. No one was expecting the interest and success that followed. Volume 1 was an instant #1 Bestseller on Amazon—all thanks to YOU! Barely a week after Volume 1 launched in January this year, Michael was at a 20Booksto50K author conference and he had other authors inquiring about how to export the concept to their universes. So, naturally, this ‘one-off’ now had to be repeated!

Volume 2 was initiated.

This is where we come in. All three of us had stories published in Volume 1. We got to know to know each other through that process, and that bond has only strengthened throughout our time managing this volume. Working together and talking every day—both as the Fans Write Admins and supporting each other on our own writing projects—has made us a team…to the point where we now refer to ourselves collectively as the Sisters Three. (Seriously though, if Michael ever checks his Slack bill he’s going to be like, “What the **** do those three talk about all day and night???” LOL! It’s mostly work, Michael…cross our hearts!)

What does an Admin do, you might ask? We asked too! And then we made it our own. We wanted to do more than just collate the final submissions. We wanted to encourage and facilitate submissions from people who had never imagined that they could create a story of their own. We wanted to find the fans who were just so damn inspired by Michael, Craig, and all the other KG authors that they now had a story screaming to be told.

We put up posters in all of the Kurtherian Facebook groups (we’re so lucky to have two amazing artists, Jeff Brown and Andrew Dobell, for all our Fans Write artwork!), and we shared posts in Fans Write about all aspects of writing. But it wasn’t just us working hard to create this excellent standard. So many of the fans who joined Fans Write leaped in to help their fellow fans—they gave feedback, proofread, and simply offered much needed encouragement and support.

To borrow a few words from Craig Martelle, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and it was wonderful to witness the Fans Write group raise each other up throughout this process.

It has been our pleasure and privilege to facilitate this cohort of authors on their Fans Write journey. We could tell early on that this group was going to be something special. The number of participants alone was staggering! We went from less than 150 to over 500 group members over the course of the V2 submission period—but the quality of the drafts being shared was what really stood out. We knew it would be very difficult to select the stories to be included in the anthology, but thankfully that decision didn’t rest with us. All the stories are voted on by the fans, and the top rated stories as chosen by the fans are the ones that make it in to the book. All we had to do was collect the reader feedback and collate the results.

When the dust settled, there were twenty-six entries submitted in total (compared to just nine for Volume 1!) and over a thousand votes from the readers! Which left us with a dilemma: we had too many entries to put into one book. We weren’t willing to discard any of the great stories, so we (the entire LMBPN team) made the decision to divide the stories into two volumes! We can tell you now that there will definitely be a Volume 3—so look out for it at the start of September!

So what’s next? With the stories for Volume 3 already chosen by the fans, the rumblings of Volume 4 are already beginning in the Kurtherian Gambit Fans Write Facebook group. Not only that, but the Oriceran fans heard about Volume 1 and demanded their own Fans Write, which we’ll be getting ready to launch very soon! (Links to the groups are at the end, and if you want to get involved we would LOVE to see you there!)

Meanwhile, the Sisters Three are planning a trip to Vegas this November to attend the 20Booksto50K author conference. We are so excited, because it is the first time all three of us will actually be in the same place—not to mention many of the other friends we’ve made in the LMBPN family. We didn’t think we could be more excited about Vegas, but Michael proved us wrong!  If you read Michael’s notes in Payback is a Bitch you will have seen his open invitation to the Fan Event on Thursday 8th November. A chance to party with our fellow fans?

SQUEEEE!!

Because as Craig said when he asked to include a story in this anthology, it doesn’t matter how many books you have written in the universe—we are all fans first.

And that’s why we keep coming back to it!

So let’s take a moment to appreciate everything that went into bringing this volume about, and raise whatever beverage (caffeinated or otherwise) you are holding at the moment to the man in the black hat. No other author has opened up their world(s) for their fans the way Michael Anderle has. That’s why he has the most inspired fans in the world!

Why not step inside this world and join us on the Fans Write journey? No one else can tell your story, but we’ll be there to help you share it!

Ad Aeternitatem,

Sarah, Nat & Erika (aka the Sisters Three)

Your Fans Write Admin Team


We didn’t forget! Here are the Fans Write group links...

https://www.facebook.com/groups/TKGFansWrite/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/OriceranFansWrite/

For a complete list of books by Michael Anderle, please visit

www.lmbpn.com/ma-books/


Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:

Death Becomes Her (1) – Queen Bitch (2) – Love Lost (3) – Bite This (4) –  Never Forsaken (5) – Under My Heel (6) – Kneel Or Die (7) – We Will Build (8) – It’s Hell To Choose (9) – 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) – Never Submit (15) – Never Surrender (16) – Forever Defend (17) – Might Makes Right (18) – Ahead Full (19) – Capture Death (20) – Life Goes On (21)

THE KURTHERIAN ENDGAME

Payback Is A Bitch (1)

THE SECOND DARK AGES

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*

The Dark Messiah (1) – The Darkest Night (2) – Darkest Before The Dawn (3) – Dawn Arrives (4)

THE BORIS CHRONICLES

*with Paul C. Middleton*

Evacuation (1) – Retaliation (2) – Revelations (3) – Redemption (4)

RECLAIMING HONOR

*with Justin Sloan*

Justice Is Calling (1) – Claimed By Honor (2) – Judgement Has Fallen (3) – Angel of Reckoning (4) – Born Into Flames (5) – Defending The Lost (6) – Saved By Valor (7) – Return of Victory (8)

THE ETHERIC ACADEMY

*with TS Paul*

ALPHA CLASS (1) – ALPHA CLASS: Engineering (2)

*with N.D. Roberts*

Discovery (3)

TERRY HENRY “TH” WALTON CHRONICLES

*with Craig Martelle*

Nomad Found (1) – Nomad Redeemed (2)  – Nomad Unleashed (3) – Nomad Supreme (4) – Nomad’s Fury (5) – Nomad’s Justice (6) – Nomad Avenged (7) – Nomad Mortis (8) – Nomad’s Force (9) – Nomad’s Galaxy (10)

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

*with Natalie Grey*

Risk Be Damned (1) – Damned to Hell (2)

~THE AGE OF MAGIC~

THE RISE OF MAGIC

*with CM Raymond and LE Barbant*

Restriction (1) – Reawakening (2) – Rebellion (3) – Revolution (4) – Unlawful Passage (5) – Darkness Rises (6) – The Gods Beneath (7) – Reborn (8)

THE HIDDEN MAGIC CHRONICLES

*with Justin Sloan*

Shades of Light (1) – Shades of Dark (2) – Shades of Glory (3) – Shades of Justice (4)

STORMS OF MAGIC

*with PT Hylton*

Storm Raiders (1) – Storm Callers (2) – Storm Breakers (3) – Storm Warrior (4)

TALES OF THE FEISTY DRUID

*with Candy Crum*

The Arcadian Druid (1) – The Undying Illusionist (2) – The Frozen Wasteland (3) – The Deceiver (4) – The Lost (5) – The Damned (6) – Into The Maelstrom (7)

PATH OF HEROES

*with Brandon Barr*

Rogue Mage (1)

A NEW DAWN

*with Amy Hopkins*

Dawn of Destiny (1) – Dawn of Darkness (2) – Dawn of Deliverance (3) – Dawn of Days (4) – Broken Skies (5) – Broken Bones (6)

TALES OF THE WELLSPRING KNIGHT

*with P.J. Cherubino*

Knight’s Creed (1) – Knight’s Struggle (2) – Knight’s Justice (3)

~THE AGE OF MADNESS~

LIVE FREE OR DIE

*with Haley Lawson*

Unleashing Madness (1)

~THE AGE OF EXPANSION~

THE ASCENSION MYTH

*with Ell Leigh Clarke *

Awakened (1) – Activated (2) – Called (3) – Sanctioned (4) – Rebirth (5) – Retribution (6) – Cloaked (7) – Bourne (8) – Committed (9) – Subversion (10) – Invasion (11)

CONFESSIONS OF A SPACE ANTHROPOLOGIST

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*

Giles Kurns: Rogue Operator (1) – Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator (2)

THE UPRISE SAGA

*with Amy Duboff *

Covert Talents (1) – Endless Advance (2) – Veiled Designs (3) – Dark Rivals (4)

BAD COMPANY

*with Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (1) – Blockade (2) – Price of Freedom (3) – Liberation (4)

THE GHOST SQUADRON

*with Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*

Formation (1) – Exploration (2) – Evolution (3) – Degeneration (4) – Impersonation (5) – Recollection (6) – Preservation (7)

VALERIE’S ELITES

*with Justin Sloan and PT Hylton*

Valerie’s Elites (1) – Death Defied (2) – Prime Enforcer (3) – Justice Earned (4)

SHADOW VANGUARD

*with Tom Dublin*

Gravity Storm (1)

ETHERIC ADVENTURES: ANNE AND JINX

*with S.R. Russell*

Etheric Recruit (1) – Etheric Researcher (2)

Revelations of Oriceran Titles Include:

THE UNBELIEVABLE MR. BROWNSTONE

* Michael Anderle *

Feared by Hell (1) – Rejected by Heaven (2) – Eye For An Eye (3) – Bring the Pain (4)

I FEAR NO EVIL

*  Martha Carr and Michael Anderle *

Kill the Willing (1) – Bury the Past, But Shoot it First (2)

REWRITING JUSTICE

*  Martha Carr and Michael Anderle *

Justice Served Cold (1)

THE LEIRA CHRONICLES

*  Martha Carr and Michael Anderle *

Waking Magic (1) – Release of Magic (2) – Protection of Magic (3) – Rule of Magic (4) – Dealing in Magic (5) – Theft of Magic (6) – Enemies of Magic (7) – Guardians of Magic (8)

Other Books

*with Craig Martelle & Justin Sloan*

Gateway to the Universe

The Lone Ranger Returns (Pew!Pew!)

You Don’t Touch John’s Cousin: Frank Kurns Stories of the UnknownWorld 01 (7.5)

Bitch’s Night Out: Frank Kurns Stories of the UnknownWorld 02 (9.5)

*with Natalie Grey*

Bellatrix: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 03 (13.25)

Challenges: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 04

AudioBooks

Available at Audible.com and iTunes

CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL LMBPN BOOKS ON AUDIBLE


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