Book: The Academy
The New Arilion Knights Book 1
Into the Breach (Gateway to the Galaxy Book 1) - Advanced Look
Copyright © 2018 by Archimedes Books. All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons— living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.
Editor - Kimberly Grenfell
Cover Illustrator - Christian Bentulan
For everyone who has gotten knocked down and refused to stay there. This one is for you. - Jonathan Yanez
“We have to go now.”
“She knows that. For pity’s sake, give her a moment.”
Tistan Duel ignored the arguing voices of her two companions. All that was in her blurred vision was the sight of her newborn daughter. Compared to the small miracle she cuddled in her arms, the rest of the world fell away into a quiet oblivion.
Her daughter was asleep and perfectly content, her tiny chest rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. How a blanket so small could contain something so pure was lost on Tistan. How a being so helpless and fragile had the power to brighten her day or fill her heart with hope for the future was a mystery.
A war was being waged deep inside Tistan. On one side, what she knew she must do. On the opposite side, motherly instinct begging her to abandon all reason.
If not for a simple truth, her decision would remain deadlocked. But the truth was glaring her in the face: her daughter would have no place amongst her mother’s people. She would be looked on as a half-breed. What kind of life would she have? It was only Tistan’s inability to say goodbye that made her still embrace the bundle in her arms.
“I’ll always be watching over you,” Tistan whispered. She nuzzled the baby’s tiny nose with her own. “I love you with everything I am, my star.”
The warrior spirit living in Tistan was humbled and then broken in that moment. What dozens of enemies and battles failed to achieve was accomplished by the most unsuspecting of infants. Hot tears fell down Tistan’s cheeks and onto chubby feet below.
Further words were unnecessary. If they were, Tistan didn’t have them. Tistan understood it was time. She pulled the soft, pink blanket over the exposed feet of her daughter.
A hollow feeling, as if her insides were being carved out, consumed Tistan. She placed her daughter in the crib. Leaning over the railing, she kissed the baby on the brow one last time.
Tistan’s lips left the soft forehead of her daughter. The baby released a contented sigh from her tiny lungs, followed by the tiniest fart that ever existed.
No one had to tell Tistan; she would never be able to love another being like this again. Perhaps she would be capable of love one day, but not like this. Never like this.
“The sleeping potion we gave her mate will wear off soon,” Drown’s harsh voice came once again. “Our window of opportunity is closing.”
“Tistan.” Slain placed a gentle hand onto her shoulder. “We must be going soon. Take comfort that you are doing the best thing for your daughter. She’ll grow up in a world she understands, with a father who loves her.”
Tistan turned from the crib, abandoning not only her newborn daughter, but also the very best part of her. “Let’s go.”
Without another word, the spies exited the home and disappeared into the night.
Fifteen Years Later
I need to talk to you. I’ll meet you tonight, where you gaze at the stars.
That was it. Emma stared at her phone, half confused there wasn’t more to the message, half in shock anyone had texted her at all. Mrs. Debbie Drawls, the English teacher, carried on, oblivious to any snoozing student or side conversations taking place in the classroom.
Emma swallowed hard. She could list on one hand the number of names in her phone and one of them was her own. What was more concerning was the number the text message had been sent from. A “0” was the only clue to the identity of her mystery person.
How did this person know where she looked up at the stars? Not even her father knew how many times she stole to the top of their roof, wrapped in a blanket to enjoy the wonder that came with the night sky.
Sweat dampened Emma’s palms as she texted the number back. The phone was inconspicuously placed in her lap below her desk, barely visible if she tilted her head down at just the right angle.
Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.
There. That should be the end of that, right? Emma took a deep breath, surprised by how a single text could pull her into such a state of panic. Emma licked dry lips. She took a deep breath, readjusting her attention on Mrs. Drawls. She moved to place her phone back into her pocket. Before she could, it vibrated again.
I know this is confusing, Emma. Trust me, I’m a friend.
A gasp escaped her lips, bringing all eyes in the room zeroing in on her. Emma felt heat rise to her face. What she wouldn’t give to sink into her seat, or better yet, become invisible altogether. So far this year, she had managed just that. But not now.
“What was that Miss… Miss…” Mrs. Drawls hesitated while she searched her databanks for Emma’s last name.
How much of an outcast did you have to be for your own teacher not to remember your name?
“J-Jackson.” Emma cleared her throat. “It … it’s Emma Jackson.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Drawls shrugged off the topic as if she’d remembered her name all along. “Miss Jackson, did you have something you wanted to share with the rest of us?”
“No … no, ma’am.” Emma wished for the hundredth time any kind of public speaking required of her wasn’t accompanied by shaky words. “I-I’m sorry.”
Snickering rolled through the class just above a whisper.
“You’re a good student.” Mrs. Drawls turned back to her famous rant that followed the final exam of the year. “Don’t ruin it on the last day of class.”
Out of her peripheral vision, Emma caught sight of Amber and Christina, the two girls who sat next to her who were now sharing a quiet laugh. The latest form of cyber bullying to wash over Triton High School was seeing who could snap a picture and create a cruel meme the fastest.
Amber was openly showing her latest meme—a picture of Emma taken only seconds ago while she spoke with Mrs. Drawls. The image was of her side profile, her uncharacteristically pointed ears peeking through long, blonde hair. The caption read, “Um … um, my ears are s-sorry, too.”
Emma took a deep, internal sigh. What was better: to be bullied at school, or not to have anyone take notice of you at all? For the longest time, Emma had prayed for the latter. Now that she had achieved anonymity, she wasn’t so sure. There were only two days left of freshman year and Emma hadn’t made a single friend. None who would last. At least there was always the janitor, Alan, who had a smile for everyone, or the obligatory lab partner who spoke only when spoken to.
The school bell rang, drowning out Mrs. Drawls. Students who seemed almost catatonic while school was in session now moved like lightning to pack up their books and head for the door.
“Remember,” Mrs. Drawls said closing her own book, “even though you are done with my final, you still have one more day left of class. Study diligently and apply yourselves.”
Emma gathered her belongings and moved into the current of swarming students mobbing the school halls. Everyone was in a hurry to meet up with friends. Dozens of conversations erupted all around Emma, most on who planned to do what for the coming summer vacation.
As always, Emma walked by herself, catching bits and pieces of passing chatter.
“Did you hear Julie Anne’s parents have a timeshare on the river…”
“Donna and Shirley are coming, too. I wonder if their boyfriends will make it…”
Emma had a clear view of the front doors. She was a half-head taller than most girls her age, yet another reason she had been singled out at the beginning of the school year to be the brunt of jokes.
Before she knew it, Emma was outside. Hot California sun beamed down on her. Her sneakers carried her down the sidewalk to her home, undisturbed. She still couldn’t tell whether she enjoyed living three blocks from her high school or not. The short trip made for extra sleep in the morning but allowed for little excuse if she was ever tardy.
Her mind wandered back to the cryptic text messages she received while in class. If it was a mistake, how had the person known her name? Could that also be a coincidence, that they’d guessed her name? What were the odds of that?
For a brief moment, Emma thought about sending another text, but her father’s voice interrupted her train of thought.
“There she is. How was school today, Killer? Did you crack a few skulls?”
“Oh, yeah, Dad, that’s exactly what I did.”
“That’s my girl.” Mr. Jackson straddled a ladder near the front door, a power drill in one hand, a small camera in the other.
“Trying to catch your mystery man?” Emma stopped by the ladder, placing both hands on a chest high rung to steady her father’s slight sway. “You know, it could be a woman. You should just invite her in. When’s the last time you went out on a date?”
The whirl of the drill brought a pause to the conversation.
“There.” Mr. Jackson looked down at his daughter with a mischievous grin. “How do you know I haven’t been sneaking off on dates? I’ll have you know, Miss Starling thinks I’m quite a catch.”
“Our ninety-year-old neighbor, Miss Starling?” Emma returned her father’s playful grin. “I think that’s just her cataracts talking, Dad.”
“I know.” Mr. Jackson climbed down the ladder and took a step back to admire his work. “If only she were fifty years younger.”
“Ewww, that’s so gross.” Emma shook her head, her previous grin twisting into a grimace. “Too far.”
Mr. Jackson shrugged. “Well, my dating life aside, if there’s anyone creeping around here at night, we’ll catch them now. I installed a light on the other corner. It’ll go off if it detects motion.”
“Cameras, motion-detecting lights … what’s next, a home security system?”
“Don’t tempt me.” Mr. Jackson had that look on his face again, the one not exactly worried but intrigued.
“You thought you saw a shadow a few times.” Emma walked to the front door. “But that was all. It was probably nothing.”
“Maybe.” Mr. Jackson crossed his arms. “But you said you felt it, too. Like someone’s been watching us.”
Emma’s hand paused midway to the door, a snarky remark already on her lips, though the truth in what her father said had silenced her.
“Have you given any more thought on how you want to spend your summer?” The question Mr. Jackson asked was the beginning of an ongoing debate between father and daughter, one that still had no peaceful conclusion. “There’s plenty of hip camps, or you could always get a totally cool part-time job.”
“You’re butchering the dialect of my youth.” Emma looked up from her desk where she sat, studying for her finals. “I don’t know yet.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Mr. Jackson said, walking into his daughter’s room and flopped, face-up, on her bed. “But you need to get out more. I can’t believe I’m saying this, maybe get into some trouble.”
“Wait, what?” Emma turned in her seat to give him her full attention. The image of her bearded, muscular father lying on her pink down comforter brought a smile to her lips. “You want me to get arrested?”
“Hey.” Her father sat bolt upright as if Emma’s words had sent a current of electricity through him. “I didn’t say get into trouble with the law. I’m just saying get out, make some friends, come home an hour later than curfew. Heck, who are we kidding, Em? At least stay out until curfew.”
“Oh boy, here we go.” Emma turned back to studying. “We’re about to embark on the whole ‘making friends is good for you’ talk, aren’t we?”
In a small, circular mirror she kept on her dresser, Emma could see her father get up from her bed and walk toward her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her head.
“I love you, kid, but if you don’t bring a friend or two home soon, I’m going to start having to make some for you.” Mr. Jackson caught her eye in the mirror with a sly smile. “And who knows how that will go? I might even get arrested for trying to befriend high school freshmen. Just tell me you’ll give some serious thought to a camp or a job this summer. It’ll be good for you, Em, trust me.”
“I’ll give it a shot.” Emma placed her right hand on top of her father’s. “Oh, and Dad, can you promise me one thing?”
It was clear the request had caught her father off guard. The silly grin disappeared from his lips and his eyes met his daughter’s, full of concern. “What is it, Em?”
“Can you let me do the cooking for tomorrow night’s dinner? My colon could really use a break from your famous Shepherd’s Surprise.”
“I would if ‘doing the cooking’ meant something other than calling for a pizza.” Mr. Jackson gave his daughter another kiss before walking to the door. “You’re lucky you’re cute, kid. You’d starve without me.”
“If I call for pizza, I am technically making dinner.”
“Debatable. Don’t stay up too late studying. You’re going to ace the tests anyway.” Mr. Jackson left the room.
“How do you know that?”
“Because you’re Emma Jackson,” her father said, his voice carrying down the hall behind him.
It was late before Emma closed her final book. Tired eyes focused on the impossible time glaring back at her from her phone: 11:15. Emma stood and stretched on tiptoes, extending her arms high overhead, and let out a deep sigh only hours of studying can bring.
Despite her body’s call for slumber, Emma walked toward her window. It was a clear, warm southern California night, one of those rare nights where the stars were bright despite the suburban city lights. Emma grabbed a light blanket from the foot of her bed for comfort rather than warmth.
She unlatched her second-story window, which provided her a bird’s-eye view over her neighborhood and into the secret lives of her neighbors. Emma’s mind wandered to memories of the neighbor across the street, Mr. Calhoon, a widower who sat with a bottle of whiskey and his wife’s picture almost every night.
Or there was Mrs. Buchterdon, a large woman who lived next to Mr. Calhoon and insisted on wearing the smallest workout outfits she could find while doing aerobics with the blinds open.
Emma felt a shudder race across her body that had nothing to do with the weather.
“Some things you just can’t unsee,” Emma said out loud as she stepped out onto the roof tiles.
Many people would be frightened to journey onto a roof after the sun went down. Footing was tricky; visibility, worse. Emma would be one of these people if she had not followed this exact routine for the last five years.
She was quiet so as to not wake her father, although Emma had a sneaking suspicion that he knew all along. It would be just like him to allow her time to herself and act surprised if and when she ever decided to tell him.
Emma could find her favorite spot on the roof if she were blindfolded. The dark grey shingles protecting the roof from the elements were a welcome sight. Emma reached her favorite spot, a perch just above her own window, where this section of the roof met the brick chimney.
The firmness of the chimney was a comfortable reminder she was safe despite her precarious position. Emma sat down, the blanket loosely over her shoulders. She let out a deep sigh as she stared out into the night sky.
From her childhood, Emma had had a fascination with stars and planets. As she grew older, the solar system on her bedroom ceiling and the pop-up books of the cosmos in her bookshelf were left behind, but the intrigue of the unknown was as strong as ever. Emma felt the social anxiety of school and the stress of exams melt as her eyes played over the many constellations she knew by heart. Even her father’s insistence she find friends, or something to do with her summer, paled in comparison to her view. Emma loved her father and knew he was only trying to help; still, her introverted disposition registered these topics of conversation as tension.
Emma was so wrapped up in the stars above, she failed to notice the figure next to her until it was too late.
“Don’t panic, or you’re going to fall off the roof,” spoke a woman’s voice strangely familiar to Emma, from somewhere to her left.
Despite the warning, Emma felt her body jolt. Fear raced down her spine as her heartbeat intensified. The fight-or-flight conundrum was realized and satisfied at once with an answer of flight.
Streetlights and illumination from the moon and stars provided just enough light to see a tall figure wrapped in shadows.
Emma rose on shaky legs, her back pressed so hard into the brick chimney, she thought she could feel sharp edges digging through her blanket and clothes and into her skin.
At once, the memories of the cryptic texts she received earlier that day flooded back. She should have taken them more seriously. How could she have forgotten them altogether?
“Who … who are you?” Emma managed to say over the sound of her own racing heart. “You were the one texting me today.”
“I did send you those messages.” The woman took a small, nonthreatening step forward. “As for who I am, showing you would be better, but you have to do your best not to scream. If not for your sake, then for your father’s.”
Emma got a better look at her visitor. The woman wasn’t wrapped in shadows; rather, it was a long, hooded cloak. The material was like nothing she had ever seen. It remained still, only adjusting when the woman moved forward. Its color was impossible to tell, but it seemed to change and blend in with the colors around it.
Something the woman had said bothered Emma, to the point she felt anger rise in her chest. “What do you mean, ‘for my father’s sake’?”
“Only that it would be difficult to explain my presence to him. I mean him no harm.”
“Well, who are you?” Emma repeated, her mind already racing to find an escape route. Would it be best to try to make it back into her room? A fall from her roof if she had to jump wouldn’t kill her, would it? “What do you want?”
The woman in front of her reached up and removed her hood.
Emma’s mouth dropped open despite herself. Her legs felt weak. Before she knew what was happening, she was sliding back down the chimney wall.
The woman in front of her wasn’t human at all. Light orange skin covered sharp human-like features. Pointed ears even more severe than Emma’s poked up through a mess of dark orange hair.
“My name is Tistan Duel. I am your mother. I’ve come to take you home.”
“You are … I am…” Emma put a hand to her stomach where a deep gurgle erupted. “What did my dad put in that shepherd’s pie?”
“Excuse me?” Tistan took another step forward.
“Nothing.” Emma swallowed hard before regaining her footing. The woman was taller than she’d first thought; six, maybe six-and-a-half feet tall. Dark eyes stared back at her with intrigue.
“I understand this must be a shock for you.” Tistan took a deep sigh, searching for words. “I will explain things to you later. Right now, we must return to—”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Emma’s voice came out higher-pitched than she would have liked. “Are you even human? Why would I believe that you’re my mother? I’m still asleep, aren’t I? This is some kind of mental breakdown or nightmare. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe I need to get out more.”
“I am not human. I am a Halyna from the planet Renia. Sixteen years ago, I was sent here along with two other infiltrators to assess Earth. I fell in love with your father. We were married despite my understanding it was forbidden. When the mission was over and I was called back, I made a decision to return, a decision I have regretted every single day since then.”
“Well, you just have an answer for everything, don’t you?” Emma felt the return of the anger she had experienced when she thought her father was being threatened. “My mother was human. She left just after I was born, without so much as a letter.”
Tistan Duel touched her own pointed ears, then pointed to Emma’s. “Yes, I did. And you are every part my daughter, from your features, to the warrior spirit that burns inside you now.”
Emma’s mind was doing cartwheels. This couldn’t be possible, but what other options did she have? Could she—would she—open her mind to the unthinkable truth that this orange-skinned woman could be her mother?
“I’ve played this scenario through in my mind a million times or more.” Tistan shook her head. “None of them work out with your forgiving or believing me right away. Do believe this: that I have come to check on you and your father whenever I can, that I do care for you, Emma, and that I’m here now to protect you.”
“Protect me? Protect me from what?”
“An enemy known as the Shay has taken an interest in Earth. When they come, your planet will fall. Your military is not equipped to handle the invasion. I’ve secured safe transportation to my planet for you.
“Well, that’s just way too much for me to process right now.” Emma shook her head against the oncoming migraine, but the action only made the pain intensify. “Wait, what about my dad? You’re not taking him, too?”
“I can only take one of you at a time.” So far in the conversation, Tistan was nothing short of commanding and blunt. She faltered now, looking down as if suddenly there was something interesting on the roof tiles. “I’m still securing an exit strategy for him.”
“No way.” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not leaving my father or—I can’t believe I’m even saying this—my planet.”
Tistan Duel narrowed her eyes at Emma. She crossed her own arms in a similar fashion. “I’m the Captain of intelligence for the Alliance forces, Emma Jackson, a multi-planet coalition formed to combat the Shay. I am not used to my orders being denied or even second-guessed.”
“Well, that sucks for you.” Emma met Tistan’s stare head-on although she couldn’t stop her voice from trembling. “E-Earth’s not part of this alliance, and I’m not one of your minions. I’m not going with you, even if you are my mother.”
The two women stood staring at one another. Emma could tell Tistan was capable of overpowering her if she desired. Even though the cloak covered most of her body, it did not soften the hard lines of a muscular build. It did nothing to mask the intensity in her eyes.
“You are impossibly stubborn, Emma Jackson.” Tistan shook her head. “Forcing you to come with me will do neither one of us any good.”
Emma was revisiting the thought of throwing herself off the roof and hoping for the best, when another idea crossed her mind.
“I get Earth isn’t in this alliance of yours, but why don’t you come and defend us from the Shay?”
“Planets and their inhabitants must be able to defend themselves.” Tistan dismissed the question as if it were one she had already thought of and had to answer herself. “It must be humans who defend their own home.”
“I … I can do it,” Emma spoke, without actually thinking about the repercussions her words would bring.
“That would be unlikely, although I do admire your spirit. The Arilion Knights are the only ones powerful enough to combat the Shay empire in a direct confrontation. Word of their return to the universe has only just reached our ears.”
“I can learn,” Emma said a little too loudly.
Both women halted the conversation to listen for any sound from within the home signaling they had been heard. In the interim, Emma could hear the steady gallop of her own heartbeat. What was she doing? Volunteering to fight for Earth, when she couldn’t even make a single friend all year? Her body was made for unicorn frappuccinos and video games, not training to defend an entire planet.
The silence lengthened until Tistan spoke again.
“You are stubborn like your father.” Tistan held Emma’s eye until it passed from ordinary to uncomfortable. “However, there may be a way.”
Emma’s brain felt like a beehive of activity. There were so many emotions coming and going, and coming again, she couldn’t hold on to more than two or three at a time. Foremost among these were fear, anger, and confusion. At the moment, fear and anger were taking a backseat to confusion.
“If … if I believe this crazy story you’re weaving … I can’t even believe I’m saying this … that you’re an alien and my mother, I should be pretty pissed at you.” For the first time that night, Emma was allowing herself to believe Tistan Duel’s explanation of things. “Growing up without a mom has been hard. I’ve played this scenario out in my mind a thousand times, and none of them allowed for you being orange, but most of them end with me yelling at you, a few where I even say a curse word or two to show you I mean business.”
“I’m not here asking for forgiveness.” Tistan reclaimed her stoic, commanding voice once more. “But if you are willing to fight for your planet, I have a way this can be done. When the Shay attack, they will send a minor reconnaissance team. This team will be small enough for one well-trained warrior to turn. If the Shay deem Earth too costly to overtake, they will move on to another planet.”
Emma swallowed hard. This wasn’t the first time her mouth had landed her in a corner. Already she was having second thoughts. What was she thinking? That she alone could stop an alien invasion?
“There is a place called The Academy where those seeking to defend their planets and the universe from threats such as the Shay learn to hone their skills. Now that the Arilion Order has returned perhaps a few Arilion will even be chosen from the Academy’s ranks.” Tistan tilted her head skyward as if she could see past the visible stars into a much larger universe. “If you begin your training immediately, you should know enough in time to turn the invasion.”
“Okay w-well maybe I spoke too soon, there,” Emma said, trying to keep the stutter out of her voice. “I’m no warrior, I … I don’t even like talking to strangers. Even ordering fast food gives me anxiety.”
“You seemed fine up until now.” Tistan returned her gaze to her daughter. “Perhaps you are only remembering to be frightened and insecure because it is what you imagine you should feel.”
“Nope, nope, I’m pretty sure I’m actually feeling it.” Emma racked her brain for the many reasons she couldn’t go. Despite her efforts, she was surprised to find the possibility of traveling into space exciting. “I mean, I have my last day of finals tomorrow. My dad wants me to get a job or go to a summer camp. My schedule is actually pretty full, now that I think of it.”
“Your finals end tomorrow. I will come collect you here the day after tomorrow. Eight a.m. by your time. Your father wants you to join a camp for the summer? That is the perfect cover for your training.”
“You’re talking like you didn’t hear what I just said.” Emma shook her head furiously as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Emma felt sick to her stomach. “I can’t go. Even if I did, I’m not a fighter.”
“Of course you are, Emma.” Tistan slipped one slender hand from her cloak, revealing what looked like a thick, metal watch on her wrist. “You don’t know how great you are, because you’ve never been required to be. As my daughter, you hail from the most brutal warrior line on Renia. I’ll send you information tomorrow to a space camp your father will approve. The day after tomorrow, don’t be late.”
“No … no that’s not the end of the conversation. I—”
Tistan swiped the pointer finger of her right hand over the watch on her left wrist. There was a brief moment where a soft light twinkled around her, and then she was gone.
Emma stood on the roof by herself, stunned by the course of the night, hating herself for what she had already decided had to be done.
“Space camp, huh?” Emma’s father poured himself a generous amount of coffee into a travel mug. “That’s wonderful, Em. This is what I’m talking about. Get out there, have some fun. Where is it?”
Emma sat at the kitchen table, shoveling her sugar-laced cereal into her mouth like an engineer feeding coal into a train’s furnace while the conductor screamed for more speed.
“Oh, it’s not too far. I’ll send you all the information today so you can look it over. I’m running late for school.” Emma said a silent prayer that her years of being a good daughter would pay off now. She hated lying to her father, but wasn’t willing to put him in harm’s way. “If you think it’s okay that I go, I’ll have to leave tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow?” Mr. Jackson’s eyes lit up in surprise, and for the first time, suspicion lined his words. “Why do you have to leave tomorrow, Em? This is kind of sudden, isn’t it?”
“I know.” Emma took a steady breath, reciting the answer she so carefully planned. “I just discovered the program last night. Trust me, I was surprised myself that it existed. It’ll give me a chance to study the stars and galaxies. You know how much I love that stuff.”
Mr. Jackson shrugged on his own backpack. Despite being a history teacher at the local community college, he still preferred the backpack over a briefcase.
Emma knew he was taking the time to think on his daughter’s words. Mr. Jackson turned and held Emma’s gaze.
More than anything, Emma hated having to stare into his eyes, knowing she had told a lie. It wasn’t a total lie, though. Tistan did appear last night, and she was surprised to find out what the alien had to say. She was going to study stars.
Mr. Jackson finally broke the silence. “Send me the info. If everything checks out, I don’t have a problem with you going. You’re a good kid, Em, better than I was. I want you to have a great summer.”
The words were like knives slicing through her soul. Emma broke her father’s gaze by getting up and taking her bowl to the sink. Her breakfast felt like a lump of guilt in her stomach.
“Thanks, Dad.” Emma turned on the sink to rinse off her bowl and spoon. “It means a lot.”
“You got it, Killer.” Mr. Jackson opened the front door. “Want a lift to school?”
“It’s three blocks.”
“I’m just trying to be polite.”
Emma’s final day of exams passed in a hazy fog. Gone was all of the anxiety of knowing answers or finishing within the allotted time. Emma’s brain was fixated on other things now, like a mother she never knew and an alien force coming to assess Earth’s defenses.
During the few minutes Emma had between her math exam and her science test, she received a text message from the now not-so-mysterious, yet still far from normal number “0.”
A façade for a summer youth camp focusing on the universe has been created. You can direct your father to the attached link without hesitation.
That was it. No “Hey, it’s your alien mom who scared you on the roof last night,” or “Sorry about abandoning you at birth, but here you go.”
The part of Emma that wasn’t grappling with the hundreds of questions that still needed answers was debating whether or not to text Tistan back. Instead, she copied the link and sent it to her father. Hopefully, he would approve, and then Emma’s problems could really begin.
The rest of the day dragged by. Emma was more than prepared for her exams, but the nagging question of any of this really mattering kept prodding at her. If she failed and aliens came to the Earth and destroyed it, then what would it matter if she got an A or an F in science?
Finally, her day ended, and like any other, Emma found herself walking home alone. Over and over again, the events of the previous night played in her mind. How Tistan had seemed so matter-of-fact and not motherly at all. How she had told Emma she heralded from an ancient line of warriors, and about this Academy.
If the Academy was anything like high school, Emma guessed she could learn quickly. The social and physical aspect of the equation was anyone’s guess. Could she adapt more gracefully into an alien school than her own suburban high school?
“You look like your mind’s a million light years away.” Miss Starling, their ninety-year-old neighbor, was outside talking to her father. “Must be all that late night talk with the orange woman that’s got you in a fuss.”
Emma opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“Orange woman?” Mr. Jackson looked from Miss Starling to Emma. “Is that some kind of inside joke you two have?”
Emma’s jaw worked up and down, but still no words escaped. The best she could do was a shrug and an awkward laugh.
“Oh, you know the youth of today, Richard.” Miss Starling ran a hand that resembled more a claw with acrylic red nails down Mr. Jackson’s shirt. “Into all kinds of strange things. But enough about that. When are you going to come over and take a look at my stove, like you’ve been promising?”
Panic evaporated, then was replaced by nausea as Emma got a handle on what Miss Starling was implying. Since the conversation changed, Emma got a look at the low top the woman was wearing.
“Well, you know I’ve been so busy with work, I—”
“Hey, Dad, can you come inside? I really need to talk to you about that camp I mentioned this morning.”
“Oh right, the camp.” Mr. Jackson waved apologetically to Miss Starling. “Got to get going, but it was great seeing you. Maybe I can check on that stove another time.”
“Well, don’t take too long, honey.” Miss Starling waved with her red nailed claw. “This stove isn’t going to stay warm forever.”
Emma entered the house, followed by her father. He closed the door and locked it, as if he half-expected Miss Starling to walk through behind them.
“I owe you one.” Mr. Jackson smiled. “That was perfect timing.”
“It was either save you or disown you as my father.” Emma turned a mock frown of disapproval at her dad. “Or did you want to be saved at all?”
“Hey, I’m not interested in working on any stove made in the 1920’s.”
“Yuck. Okay, enough of this.” Emma couldn’t help laughing as she shook her head. “Did you get a chance to look at the summer camp?”
“Sure did. Even gave them a call and checked all their references.”
“Oh. Really, you did all that, huh? What, ah—what did they say when you called them?”
“Only that you were being way too modest.” Mr. Jackson headed to the fridge, looking for a snack. “You didn’t tell me you were requested by the camp. What was it? They choose a few students every year and invite them to participate?”
“Uh … yeah.” Emma fidgeted with the tip of her right ear. It was a nervous habit she had picked up over the years. Always self-conscious about her appearance, she did her best to hide her ears behind a curtain of blonde hair. “Crazy, right? So everything checks out?”
Emma continued to play with the tip of her ear, only because her father had his back turned at the moment. He knew just as well as she did she performed the action when she was stressed or telling a lie.
“Yeah, you’re free to go. I feel safe knowing you’ll be able to check in every day and the camp is accredited for its program.” Mr. Jackson emerged from the fridge too late to see Emma’s hand fall to her side. “It’s only a few hours away. I’ll be there in no time at all if you need me.”
“Great, thanks, Dad.” Emma wrapped her arms around her father, heaving a huge sigh of relief. “I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you will, Em. One last thing.”
Emma stiffened under the weight of her father’s words. She hoped it would be a question she could answer.
“I couldn’t quite place the accent of the staff employee I talked to. Mr. Slain, was it?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Emma removed herself from the hug. She shrugged her way to the stairwell. “I’d better get packing, though. You know how teenage girls can be.”
And she left her father behind with a bewildered expression on his face.
That night, Emma’s dreams were invaded by what her subconscious imagined as the Shay. Dark figures full of teeth and nails chased her in an inky-black sky. Pinpricks of light were the only things giving off any glow. Stars too distant to do any real help illuminated her impossible run through space.
At every turn, Emma was met with long arms reaching for her. A voice like a hundred people whispering hounded her as she ran. It was a voice she had never heard, yet one she knew as well as her father’s.
“Do not interfere with our plans for Earth,” the haunting whispers said in unison. “Flee Halyna, half-blood, and your demise will be swift and painless. Stand in our way, and suffer an eternity of torment.”
To Emma’s surprise, anger at the audacity of the voice brought her run to a jog, then to a standstill. Yes, fear was very much present as she stood in space, confronting the coming Shay, but fear was outweighed by a courage she had only ever imagined.
A single, inky figure, more reptile than human, was barely visible in the darkness of space. It was taller than her, with yellow eyes. Large wings splayed out to either side of its menacing shoulders.
Again, Emma was impressed by the idea that she should be more frightened than she was. Whether it was terror rooting her to the spot, or some kind of courage, she stood her ground.
“Well, well, you truly must be Tistan Duel’s daughter to be so foolish.” The large reptile walked around her, examining her as one would a car for sale. “So much like your mother, even down to the pointy ears. I wonder what she’ll do when your plan fails and you die at the hands of the Shay?”
“I … I won’t die.” Emma’s hands clenched. “And neither will Tistan.”
“Still unwilling to call her your mother?” the shadow teased, still walking in a slow circle around her. “Not much of a mother at all, I suppose. More of a stranger who brought you into this world and then abandoned you.”
“What … what is it that you want?” Emma grimaced. Even in her dream, she was having a hard time not stuttering. This was a dream, wasn’t it?
“As I said, all I want is for you to stay on the sidelines during the coming invasion. You and your father will be spared the fate that Earth is destined to.”
“That’s, not going t-to happen.” Emma’s mouth was dry. Trying to get out words was not only difficult, but it was also downright painful. “I’ll s-stop you.”
A roar of laughter tumbled out of the Shay’s mouth. Emma cringed at the horrible sound, then forced herself to stand tall. She understood how bullies operated. They poked and prodded until they found vulnerability. As soon as they detected a chink in your armor, there was no stopping them.
The laughing finally faded into the vast openness of space. Without warning, the Shay lunged at her, grabbing her arms and pinning them to her sides.
“I will consume you, then. Your father first, as you watch, and then piece by piece we’ll take your body until what remains will be tossed aside like an empty husk.”
Despite herself, Emma let out a scream, half in terror, half in frustration. The creature’s grip was too strong for her to break free.
“We are coming, half-blood.” The Shay lowered its head to her own until she could feel hot breath against her cheek. “And we will destroy your planet.”
At once, Emma woke. Her father was sitting beside her bed, shaking her.
“Emma. Emma!” Mr. Jackson’s face was lined with worry. “Wake up. It’s okay. It’s me.”
Emma panted as if she had just run a mile. Her shoulders shuddered at the memory of the nightmare. The dream had felt so real, even though at no point had she ever actually believed it was going on.
“I’m … I’m okay, Dad.” Emma took a long, deep breath to compose herself. “It was just a bad dream.”
“You’re telling me.” Mr. Jackson let go of his daughter’s shoulders and stroked her wet hair. “You were sweating and everything. Must have been one heck of a dream. Too many late night zombie movies?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Emma reached over to her nightstand and lifted her phone. It was twenty minutes to the agreed upon time when Tistan Duel would be coming to collect Emma. “Aren’t you late for work?”
“I was headed into your room to say goodbye, when you started screaming.” Mr. Jackson pulled his daughter in for a hug. “Are you sure you’re okay? You still feel up to going to camp?”
Her father’s embrace, much like her rooftop view, was one of the few places Emma felt at peace. She hugged him back, her arms feeling so small in the space of his wide chest and torso. She needed to remember this moment. Drawing on her father would be important if she was going to go through and succeed at the Academy.
“I’m fine. I’m still going.” Emma finally released her grip and looked into her father’s green eyes. “You need to get going, too.”
“I know.” Mr. Jackson leaned in to kiss his daughter on the forehead one final time before turning to leave. “I love you, Em. Check in every day, and if you need anything, you know all you have to do is ask.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” Emma waited to hear her father’s footsteps going down the stairs, then the door open and close behind him, before she whispered, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
In the minutes that remained before Tistan’s arrival, Emma jumped into the shower then dragged her suitcase and backpack downstairs. She wasn’t sure what to bring to an interplanetary school teaching students to become cosmic warriors, but she guessed she would need clean underwear and a toothbrush. These thoughts led to shirts, pants, sweaters, shoes, boots, and so on.
Emma heaved her belongings down the stairs. A nagging feeling itched at the back of her mind, telling her she’d forgotten something though refusing to admit what it was.
A figure moved to her left. Emma gasped. She released her suitcases, allowing them to fall to the floor with a heavy thud.
Tistan Duel stood in her father’s study. It was Emma’s first look at the woman not masked by shadow or wearing a cloak. She was tall, with hard edges of muscle running across her arms. She wore her orange hair back in a ponytail. Long ears slanted up and behind her head.
“What are you doing here?” Emma placed a hand on her chest. She could feel and hear the unhealthy tempo of her heart. “You gave me a heart attack.”
“Unlikely.” Tistan held something in her hands. It was her father’s prized possession: an ancient Greek helmet. “You’re in fair physical health. That, coupled with the fact you house my DNA, and heart attacks are pretty much out of the question for you.”
“Okay, from now on, you have to start knocking.” Emma stalked forward, took the helmet from Tistan’s hands, and placed it back on her father’s desk. “No more showing up on my roof or in my house. Did you know our neighbor saw you last night?”
“The old whore?” Tistan didn’t seem off-put at all by either Emma’s comment or the fact Emma took the helmet from her hands. “Yes, but instead of killing her, I thought her word would be considered that of a senile senior citizen. Should I have killed her?”
“No, no.” Emma shook both of her hands out in front of her as if warding off the thought. “All I’m saying is, you have to stop appearing like this.”
Tistan ignored the request. Instead, she busied herself with reaching for a worn leather bag resting at her feet. Her clothing was simple, something Emma expected to see in a renaissance fair more than from an evolved alien species. Tistan wore what looked like heavy boots, leather pants, a steel-and-leather vest with the symbol of a red bird, and gloves that showed her fingers.
When Tistan found what she wanted from her satchel, she extended them to Emma in an open palm—two pills and two small needles.
“No thanks, I don’t do drugs.” Emma couldn’t help smiling, pleased by her own wit. Apparently, the joke was lost on the stoic Tistan. “What are these for?”
“One of the pills will turn your skin pigmentation orange like our people the Halyna. The other pill will interpret your own language into the common tongue of whatever species you are communicating with. And the needles are for two small microcomputers to be injected behind your ears. They will allow you to understand other species when being spoken to.”
“Nobody said anything about needles.” Emma stared hard at the tiny syringes, debating her options. “I hate needles.”
“You’re willing to be taken to an alien space academy, sign up to fight an alien invasion, and do all of this on two days’ notice, but you won’t allow yourself to be injected with a small needle?” Tistan’s left eyebrow rose in mock disbelief. “This should be the least of your worries.”
Before she could second-guess herself, Emma reached for the two pills, palmed them, then threw them into her mouth. She swallowed hard. The two pills slid down her throat without hesitation.
“Hurry up, let’s get this over with.” Emma motioned to Tistan. She lowered her head and brushed her hair to the side. “Talk to me to get my mind off what you’re doing.”
“The pill you took to change your skin tone is very similar to the one I ingested when I came to Earth. It changed my skin to the color of your own.”
Why was it so hard for Emma to think of Tistan as her mother? If she thought of the woman as just an alien, it was easier for her to accept. A mental block kept pushing away the idea that Tistan could actually be her biological parent. Whenever she did think of the idea, anger boiled deep within.
“Ouch!” Emma jumped forward, rubbing a spot right behind her right ear. “No countdown? No, one, two, three? Not even an ‘are you ready’?”
“Three.” Tistan advanced so quickly on her daughter with the second syringe clenched in her right hand, Emma didn’t have time to process the movement.
By the time Emma realized what Tistan was doing, the alien warrior was already behind her. For the second time that day, the familiar sting of a needle pierced Emma’s skin.
Emma clenched her jaw against the brief pain. Whether Tistan thought she was being clever or comical was irrelevant to Emma.
As fast as Tistan had moved to inject the microscopic hearing device, she was done. In a blur of motion, the tall warrior was back beside her satchel, placing the two empty needles carefully inside.
“How long until all of this starts working?” Emma was still angry at being used as a pincushion, but at least it was over now. “How will I know if it’s working?”
“The effects will be immediate. Can you understand what I’m saying to you now?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, I’m speaking in my native tongue, so if you can understand me, and I you, then the transition is complete.” Tistan stood from her bag. “Between your ears and the pill, you’ll pass for a Halyna. A bit short, but that can’t be helped without extensive surgery.”
Emma took a moment to register the words before she looked down at her skin. What she saw shocked and amazed her. A light orange hue identical to Tistan’s now covered her arms and hands.
“You’ll need to study books on the history of the planet Renia. If you’re going to pass as one of us, then we need you to—”
Somewhere in the back of Emma’s mind, she knew Tistan was still talking, but the idea of seeing her face completely orange seemed a higher priority at the moment. Emma ran for the bathroom. Tistan’s voice came to a halt behind her.
Emma threw open the downstairs bathroom door and flipped on the lights with wonder. What she saw in the mirror made her mouth drop. True to her word, the pill Tistan had given her had changed her appearance completely. Not only was her skin the color of an orange jolly rancher, but her hair and eyes were also different now, as well. Her hair was a deep shade of orange, like the peel of an orange. Her eyes were closer to the color of her skin, maybe even a bit lighter.
Emma lifted her left hand and ran carrot colored fingers through her dark orange hair. At the moment, her ears weren’t noticeable at all. Was this how she could have been born?
“As I was saying.” Tistan joined Emma in the bathroom. “You’ll need to spend your time at the Academy reading up and learning about Renia. In the meantime, try not to talk about the planet you’re supposed to be from. I think it goes without saying that if you were to be found out as a human, both you and I would be executed.”
Emma stopped brushing her hair and batting her eyes in the mirror. Suddenly, the full weight of what she was doing pressed down on her. Since Tistan visited two nights before, it seemed Emma had been caught up in a rush of events. Now, time slowed as Emma looked into the mirror at the very stoic face of Tistan Duel.
“I understand.” Emma cleared her throat. “I’ll be sure to hide the fact that I’m studying the world of Renia, as well. What about contacting my father?”
“What about it?”
“I mean I’ll be in space somewhere. He’s going to expect a call, or at least a text every day. How’s the reception on Mars?”
“Mars is a desolate wasteland. These are the kinds of remarks you should stay away from at the Academy.” Tistan looked down at her left wrist. “We’ve mastered teleportation, travel faster than the speed of light and intergalactic coalitions. We can manage reception to your father. Now we must be going. Slain is expecting us. He’s waiting to debrief you.”
“Slain?” Emma turned to Tistan with a raised eyebrow. “I thought no one else was supposed to know?”
Tistan pressed buttons on a brace she wore on her left wrist as she spoke. “Besides you and I, there are two others who already know about you. Slain and Drown were the other two spies who were sent here with me sixteen years ago. They know what I’m doing and why. It’s our luck that both of them now work at the Academy—Slain as the dean, and Drown as the combat instructor.”
Emma massaged her temples, trying to keep track of everything. “So, don’t tell anyone I’m human, outside of us four. I need to study the planet I’m supposed to be from. I’m at the Academy to learn how to protect Earth from the invading Shay. What else am I missing? Do I get a pet wookie or something during all of this?”
“No, I don’t know what that is.”
“Are you kidding me? How are you from space and you’ve never seen Star Wars?”
“Try not to vomit.” Tistan ignored Emma’s outburst. Instead, she placed a firm hand on Emma’s right shoulder. “Everyone’s first time is rough.”
“Wait, what?” Emma felt panic seize her stomach and work its way up to her chest. “I still need to grab my—”
“I’ll come back for your belongings so as not to make your father suspicious,” Tistan interrupted. “You won’t be able to use any of your things where we are going anyway.”
The next moment a light glimmer enveloped Emma. Her head tingled, then felt weightless. Her dinner from the previous night demanded to be returned.
Emma fell to her hands and knees, dry heaving. Spit flew past her lips. She was forced to fight the urge to throw up, or surrender to the urge and be done with it. The choice was decided for her as pepperoni and jalapeño pizza painted the floor in bright reds. Why did it have to be jalapeños?
A hand gathered her hair behind her, while another rubbed her back.
Emma heaved again. So far, space wasn’t as glamorous as she had dreamed. So far, her view of the great unknown consisted of white marble-like flooring and her own puke.
Emma’s eyes watered. She spat out the last remaining flecks of jalapeño, doing her best to keep her coughing to a minimum. Her throat and mouth still burned, but the worst of it was over.
The entire time, Tistan had kept her hair gathered up and out of the way. At the same time, she had rubbed Emma’s back in wide soothing motions. Maybe Tistan wasn’t as horrible as Emma had first thought. Maybe she had done what she had to do to save Emma and her father.
Finally, Emma felt well enough to stand up. Confusion, and then the familiar sense of anger, filled her. Emma looked into the eyes of Tistan Duel, who stood lounging against a heavy desk. Her arms crossed, eyes full of something worse than disdain, disapproval.
“I warned you, teleports can be rough the first time around.” Tistan shrugged.
“Take it easy on her, Tistan,” spoke an unfamiliar male voice directly beside Emma. “I recall a similar occurrence happening to the mighty Tistan Duel her first time out of Renia. What was it you kept spitting out? Dryslex Eggs?”
Tistan grimaced. “I still can’t eat them to this day.”
Emma turned to thank the man she had at first thought was her mother. His hand fell away from her back as she looked him over. He was a Halyna. A good six inches taller than a human male, with dark orange, almost black, hair, long and swept up behind pointed ears. His face was strong but kind. The type of person you wanted as a friend, but would fear as an enemy.
“Don’t mind the floor, Emma Jackson.” The Halyna extended a hand from beneath the folds of the long cloak he wore. “I am Dean Slain Extile. Slain, when we are alone; and for the sake of our ruse, Dean Extile when we are in public.”
Emma shook the Halyna’s hand, finding herself drawn to and already liking Slain. She chided herself for ever thinking Tistan had the slightest inclination to help her once she’d teleported.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Emma released her host’s hand. “I’m s-so sorry about your floor. I can clean it up if you have a mop or a towel.”
Slain lifted his hands. An easy smile played across his lips. “I already said don’t worry about it. If a little bile is the worst thing that has come out of this venture so far, then let us consider ourselves lucky.”
Emma nodded along with Slain’s words. For the first time, she took in the room where Tistan had teleported them. The chamber was massive, with ceilings so tall, they didn’t end, the top simply vanished. Bookshelves lined the walls, with a dark brown desk in the center and relics displayed throughout the room.
Statues of species of animals Emma couldn’t even dream of sat on mantles or rested on tables. One in particular caught her eye. It was a bust of what looked like a sabertoothed tiger. At least, that’s as close as she could get to putting a finger on what it reminded her of.
“Oh, you’re a fan of the predators, I see.” Slain pointed to the bust that had caught Emma’s attention. “You’re in luck. Instructor Textul has been breeding them for our bestiary class. You’ll be in time to see them born.”
Tistan coughed from her position perched on the table.
“Right, but we have more pressing things to discuss. Some of us are not as patient as others.” Slain shot a disproving look at Tistan. Before she could respond, he had moved on. “Tistan’s explained everything to me. You’ll be able to use my office as a safe place to call your father while you’re at the Academy. The new recruits are just arriving now, so you’ll be able to slip right in.”
Slain paused, taking the time to look Emma up and down.
“What?” Emma said, still tasting the aftereffects of her teleportation adventure. “Do I have something in my teeth?”
“No, no, not at all. It’s only you’re a bit short for a first-year Halyna, but no sense bothering what can’t be changed without extensive surgery.”
“I have to be going.” Tistan began making her way to a large set of double doors. “You’re in good hands with Slain and Drown. My duties to the Alliance forces brings me to the Academy from time to time. I’ll be able to check in on you, but only able to speak with you in secret. It’s not normal for an officer of my standing to converse with a recruit, much less a first year.”
Emma clenched her teeth. It was taking all of her willpower not to make a smart retort to the woman who’d abandoned her sixteen years ago. Then her willpower dissipated and she just couldn’t help herself.
“That’s fine. Go ahead and go. I can take care of myself. I’ve had a lot of practice at it over the years.”
Tistan hesitated, her long strides pausing for the briefest of moments. She half-turned as if she were going to say something, then thought better of it and continued toward the doors. In the next moment, she was gone, leaving Emma and Slain alone with the stench of vomit.
“You should really be easier on her.” Slain motioned for Emma to follow him to a seating area in his office. A comfortable-looking couch sat next to a long, glass table and two fluffy chairs. “She loves you very much.”
“Well, maybe someone should tell her that,” Emma mumbled. She followed the Academy’s Dean, choosing one of the two chairs, sank into the material as if she were seated on a bed of clouds.
“Tistan Duel is a warrior. It’s not in her nature to be motherly or nurturing. How she shows affection may not be what you expect, but know she is trying.” Slain seated himself on the couch. He spoke to Emma as he would a friend, not preaching nor judging, just talking. “I’m not here to convince you one way or the other.”
Emma nodded, biting her lower lip. She was pushing down emotions just as she had her entire life. Whenever the subject of her mother or lack thereof came up through the years, this is how she dealt with it the best: repressed in silence.
“There’s still a lot to cover. I understand how overwhelmed you must feel, having all of this thrown at you at once. I’ll try to be as quick as I can before I let you settle in. Some of this may have already been explained by Tistan.”
Emma locked eyes with Slain. She ignored everything else and gave him her full attention.
“You’ll need the required curriculum for all first-year recruits. I’ve already had the texts send to your holo band. You’ll be bunking with two other first years, as is customary. I’ve also provided a new wardrobe for you.” Slain looked at Emma close, shaking his head. “You’re about as inconspicuous as a black hole right now.”
“What?” Emma looked down at her converse, blue jeans, and black top. “I thought this was pretty neutral, all things considering.”
Slain’s face lit up with a smile. “You use comedy as a means to cope. Not the worst thing in life, but be sure it’s not the only means you employ when dealing with serious situations.”
“Good. Here at the Academy, we are proud to train species from all three planets in the Alliance. I’ll give you a brief glimpse at them now so you can mask your surprise when you meet them.”
Slain waved his hands over the glass table, where a display panel appeared. The language was foreign to Emma, although the symbols reminded her of Egyptian hieroglyphics she had seen in movies.
With a few flicks of his wrists, Slain maneuvered through the display.
“Here we go. Let’s start with what you know. The Halyna from the planet Renia.” Slain moved his hand again in a lifting motion. A hologram of a Halyna male popped up through the glass table. Alongside the rotating figure was a small orb that looked like a planet covered in green landscape. “My home world, as well as your mother’s. We are the founding species of the Alliance. We understand there is strength in numbers and peace to be had across the galaxy.”
“Your planet looks beautiful.” Emma’s eyes never left the tiny circulating globe of green land and light blue sea. The landmasses were nothing like Earth; the southern- and northernmost points on the globe were completely covered by water. Most of the land was located at the center of the planet.
“Thank you.” Slain’s smile, the way his own eyes never left the planet, spoke of a deep love for his home world. He motioned through the display again. This time, a large, bulky human-like figure emerged from the table. Muscle covered most of the figure’s body. Strong features and long, dark hair gave it an intimidating disposition. Even at its miniature size, Emma could tell it was far larger than the Halyna.
“The Ree are from the planet Brimly. As you’ve probably guessed, they are not only taller than the Halyna, but stronger, as well. They were the second planet invited to join the Alliance.”
Emma looked from the giant-like figure to a planet covered in red crust. It took her only a moment to realize what was so off about what she was seeing.
“They don’t have any water?” Emma looked at Slain, then back at the small orb that represented the home of the Ree. “How do they survive?”
“A fair question.” Slain pointed at the planet of Brimly, his finger piercing the hologram. “Their water source is located underground. A wonder unlike anything I had seen before. Giant lakes and vast oceans hidden beneath the surface.”
“Cool,” Emma breathed.
“Finally, we have the Bracka from the planet Brewit. Physically, they are the smallest members of the Alliance, but don’t let their stature deceive you. They are among the most feared warriors in the galaxy.”
Slain was right. If it weren’t for the beards and the braided hair, the Bracka in front of her could have passed for a stout child. It was hard to guess how tall they might have been in real life, but the hologram showed a figure far shorter than Emma. Their planet was the closest to resembling Earth, with landmasses on both the northern- and southernmost points.
“But enough with all of this.” Slain motioned to his desk as he headed for the door. “Your clothes are in the upper left hand drawer of my desk. Replace it with the clothing you have on now. I’ll wait outside. Join me when you are done.”
Emma was still enchanted by the hologram display. Her mind was still soaking in all of the knowledge, questions stacking one on top of the other. By the time she understood what Slain had said, he was already gone, waiting for her on the other side of the door.
“What have you gotten yourself into this time?” Emma asked herself. She stood, heading to Slain’s desk. Alone for the first time since her arrival at the Academy, Emma took a moment to admire Slain’s office. The many shelves of books grabbed her attention. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of volumes lined his office bookshelves, making her wonder how much knowledge of the universe lay secretly waiting for her behind the thick book covers.
Emma finally made her way to the large desk. As instructed, she pulled open the designated drawer and reached inside. Cool cloth met her fingertips. Emma pulled out a cream sleeveless top, long pants of the same color, and a pair of simple brown boots. Emma had no idea what was going on with the latest fashion trends, but neither did she have a burning desire to be dressed like a monk.
A look to her left, then one to her right, confirmed what she already knew: she was alone. The only eyes in the room were those belonging to aliens in pictures or unmoving in the sockets of busts. Emma slipped off her own clothes with a reluctance she was only just able to overcome.
The new clothes fit her perfectly, the soft, sturdy material light and easy to move in. Her boots were taller than she had at first thought, their laces ending just below her knees. As told, the newest addition to the Alliance folded and placed her sneakers, socks, jeans, and shirt inside the drawer. They looked so out of place in the present environment, Emma almost laughed.
The thought of Slain waiting for her brought her back to the present moment. With the last anchor to life on Earth safely tucked away in the desk drawer, Emma crossed the office, stepped over her puddle of vomit, and opened the door.
“Your classes will start tomorrow. You’ll be taking all the normal first-year courses: Beast Prevention, Combat Training, Elixirs to Live By and Entry to Arilion.” Slain interrupted his own train of thought with a slight chuckle. “Oh yes, I’m sorry. Please take a moment.”
Since leaving Slain’s office, Emma’s eyes were presented with amazing and impossible sights one right after the other. As soon as she stepped through the doors, the impact of being in an alien environment hit Emma, full force.
The doors to Slain’s office were actually covered by a waterfall on the opposite side. As soon as she opened it to let herself out, the fall of rushing water parted to provide her a dry exit.
The same strange effect of there being no ceiling still boggled Emma’s mind. Light was overhead, but like the sky itself, it was just there, never ending. The floor rippled slightly with every footfall, like sand, although it appeared as solid as any ground. To her right stood statues of Halyna, Ree, and Bracka, imposing and strong. Giant entrances offered corridors and halls deeper into the Academy.
All of this paled in comparison, though, to what Emma was witnessing to her left. The entire left side of the walkway wall wasn’t a wall at all; instead, glass from rippling floor to unknown ceiling had opened, showing Emma her first look into space. A black background showcased thousands of lights and colors. In varying brightness and shades, planets, stars and, moons Emma had never seen greeted her now.
Emma could hear Slain talking, but she was too dumbstruck to process what he was saying. When he repeated himself, she heard him again, but her mind was still struggling to fully comprehend her new surroundings.
“The Academy is a space station orbiting the planet of Stardox.” Slain joined Emma, and together they walked toward the glass, staring into the vastness of space. “Stardox was chosen because it’s uninhabited. We can run training operations without fear of harming the planet’s inhabitants. Also, it’s located between Renia, Brewit, and Brimly. A fair place to create a lasting bond between our species.”
“I can’t … I don’t have words for how beautiful it is.” Emma took another step closer to the glass, placing her right hand against the cool surface. “I always knew there were an infinite number of stars and planets, but to see them like this is … is…”
“Breathtaking.” Slain finished her thought. “Wonderful and dreadful at the same time. So many species to recruit, others to protect; some, who will not see reason, to fight.”
For the first time since she had met him, Emma sensed a deep sadness in Slain. As soon as she detected the modification in his voice, he seemed to notice his own change and altered the course of the conversation.
“Well, Emma Jackson … saying your name out loud reminds me that your new identity also comes with a change of name. I’ve chosen something easy for you to remember, something that will fall in line with the dialect of the Halyna. You’ll be known as Em Duel.”
The use of Tistan’s last name was enough to finally break the spell space held over Emma’s attention. She turned to Slain with a frown. “Won’t that be kind of obvious?”
“Duel is a popular family name on our planet,” Slain explained as they continued to walk down the hall. “No one will think twice.”
Emma wasn’t a fan of the idea, but it seemed petty to argue over it now.
“There are multiple levels to the Academy, all of which are open to the recruits, so feel free wander and explore.” Then Slain stopped with a heavy sigh.
Emma followed his gaze to a large figure hurrying toward them. Even at this distance, whoever it was seemed gigantic. An outfit much like her own flapped in the wake of the approaching alien. It was a Ree; its size made no mystery of that.
“Ahhh, good.” Slain’s tone did nothing to make his words believable. “You’ll get to meet one of your instructors now.”
With every footfall of the coming Ree, waves rippled in the floor until the Ree finally stood in front of them. She was a good foot taller than Emma and had to outweigh her by over two hundred pounds. She had wild brown hair and a pair of thick goggles that made her eyes look twice their normal size.
“Oh, I see you’ve already begun welcoming the first-year recruits,” said the giant in front of them. She gave a slight nod to Emma. “I’m Talisha Tescot, your Elixirs to Live By instructor.”
Emma began to lift her hand, then caught Slain’s large eyes and slight head shake. Emma immediately abandoned the action and mimicked Talisha’s head movement instead. Panic grabbed Emma. What was the appropriate way to address an instructor? Why didn’t she bother to ask Slain before she was face to face with one?
“This is one of the new recruits from Renia.” Slain stood to the side and motioned to Emma. “Her name is Em Duel. I was just showing her to her barracks.”
“Of course,” Talisha said with a smile, displaying thick, square teeth the size of playing cards. “It’s very nice to meet you, Em Duel. Welcome to the Academy.”
“Th-thank you,” Emma managed.
As luck would have it, Talisha Tescot was not looking to have a formal conversation with a first-year recruit. The giant turned to Slain with concern etched deep in her goggle-magnified eyes.
“Might I have a word with you in private, Dean Extile?” Talisha mumbled the next few words, but Emma was able to pick out the words “accident” and “panic.”
Whatever news the Ree instructor relayed to Slain had an instant effect on the Dean.
“Em, if you follow this corridor down and take the third entrance on your right, you’ll be able to find someone to take you down to your barracks. I’m sorry I cannot personally guide you, but it seems a very serious matter has arisen, and I must see to it right away.”
“Of course.” Emma looked to Talisha with a respectful nod. “It was very nice meeting you.”
“Likewise, Em Duel.” Talisha forced a hurried yet genuine smile. “I look forward to having you in class.”
Then the dean and the instructor were gone in a rustle of cloaks, Talisha slowing her strides to match the dean’s.
Emma watched them go down the hall until the corridor eventually curved and they were lost to sight. Her imagination had a field day on what Talisha had whispered to Slain. One thing was certain, with the words “accident” and “panic” in the sentence, it was not pleasant news.
So far, Emma’s first day at the Academy had not disappointed, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.
Emma followed Slain’s directions down the corridor. She turned into the third entrance and slammed into someone going the opposite way. Her left shoulder absorbed most of the impact, striking the other Halyna in the chest.
“Wow, easy there. Combat drills haven’t even started yet.” The young male smiled. He was taller than Emma, with deep orange skin and piercing eyes that made Emma want to both stare and look away.
“I-I’m sorry.” Emma rubbed her shoulder, wondering if she could still blush with orange skin. “I’m trying to find my way down to the barracks for the first-year recruits.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m lost, too.” He put out his right hand. “My name’s Daylon.”
“I’m Emmmmmm.” Emma remembered at the last second not to use her real name.
“Well, Emmmmmm…” Instead of grabbing her offered hand, Daylon clasped the portion of her wrist just below her palm, making her do the same to his. His grip was firm. “Let’s find someone to take us to our barracks. I’ve heard horror stories of what they do to first-year recruits who are late to check in.”
“Perhaps I can provide some assistance,” chimed in a mechanical voice from somewhere behind Daylon.
Daylon turned, allowing Emma a view of a robotic figure walking toward them in short strides. It was the size of a human with white metal arms, legs, and torso. Its head reminded Emma of a cyclops; a single red light shown through the otherwise seamless steel plating.
For what seemed like the dozenth time that day, Emma was at a loss for words. In her new reality, where she was a member of an intergalactic space academy, the existence of a walking, talking android shouldn’t have seemed that out of the ordinary.
“Uh, hi.” Daylon either didn’t pick up on Emma’s surprise at seeing the machine, or he was as awed as she was. “We’re looking for directions to the first-year recruit barracks. I think it’s down below somewhere.”
“You are correct, Daylon Allbright.” The machine turned to Emma with a tilt of its metallic head. “It will be my pleasure to escort you and Em Duel to your quarters. Please, follow me.”
Without waiting for a response, the android started down the hall. Emma exchanged a look with Daylon, who shrugged in return.
“After you.” Daylon motioned to Emma.
Emma and Daylon didn’t have to follow the android far. Within the space of a few yards, the trio stood in front of a cylinder-shaped hollow in the hall wall, brightly lit and large enough to accompany five or six people.
“Please, step inside, recruits.” The android motioned them forward. “Using the display on the inside wall, you’ll be able to teleport yourself to whatever level of the Academy you’d like. The barracks for first-year recruits is located on level two.”
“Thanks.” Daylon stepped inside the hollow, already maneuvering around the keypad, searching for their level. He looked up, a question on his lips when Emma didn’t follow. “Are you all right, Em? You look … sick.”
When the android mentioned the word “teleport,” the taste of pepperoni and jalapeños flooded her mouth. Not only did Emma have no desire to relive that experience, but now there was also an attractive-looking Halyna to impress.
If it was strange to think of someone with orange skin, eyes, and hair as attractive, the thought was lost on Emma. She would consider that later, but not in front of those piercing orange irises.
“I’m fine,” Emma lied. “I think I’ll take the stairs, though. You know, want to see as much of the Academy as I can.”
“The sweat on your brow and the way you’re rambling indicate you are lying, Em Duel.” The android shifted its head to the side as if trying to understand why she would be so against teleportation. “Are you afraid of something?”
‘”Okay, well, that’s enough out of you.” Emma waved away the android. “Thank you for showing us the teleportation thing, but—”
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fine.” Daylon reached out, grabbed Emma by the wrist, and gently pulled her in. Before Emma could stage a protest, Daylon pushed a holographic button.
The same feeling of sickness overwhelmed Emma. One second, she was nervous and afraid in front of the android and Daylon; the next instant, she was stumbling out of the teleporter, dry heaving, too sick to feel much of anything else.
Emma fell to her hands and knees. Luckily, she had expelled everything from her stomach the first time. Only dry hacks and spit erupted from her stomach now.
To her credit, Emma recovered much faster than the first time around. Apparently, her body was getting used to being transported from point A to point B.
“Hey, that wasn’t so…” Emma stood up to find herself in a crowded hall. Eyes from members of all three species in the Alliance looked her up and down. Snickers and smiles already rippled through the crowd. “…bad,” she said. “No, now this is horrible.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Daylon reached her side and placed a hand onto her shoulder. His eyes spoke of his sincerity. “I didn’t know you’d react like that. I thought you were just being shy.”
“Well, I was feeling kind of shy. But I also throw up when I teleport, so there’s that.” Emma watched as those passing in the hall went along their way, most laughing, others giving her looks of apathy while they shook their heads in amusement. “Well, I’d better go now.”
“Of course.” Daylon pointed to the left side of the hall. “Girls on the left, boys on the right. Don’t worry, there’s so much going on, I’m sure everyone will have forgotten about the whole incident soon.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Emma waved as she started down the girls’ corridor. “That sounds just like a group of adolescents—quick to forgive and willing to accept.”
The hall was simple, the same impossible ceiling dimming now as the day progressed toward evening. Four sliding brown doors opened from the corridor into rooms that would be shared by the first-year recruits.
Emma passed recruits from all three species as she traveled the halls. Everyone seemed eager to learn their room assignments, friends were being made, with general pleasantries exchanged.
Emma got her first look at a Bracka. The girl had long, thick, red hair, and she was short, only reaching Emma’s chest. Despite her size, Emma couldn’t imagine anyone picking a fight with her—the girl was built like a tank, her arms and legs as thick as Emma’s torso.
As Emma wondered how she was going to find her own room, she noticed three names were written in copper on each door. Emma looked for her own but didn’t find it until she reached the very end of the hall. A door on her right had been etched with the names:
Emma took a deep breath and opened the door. The instant she stepped into the room, something large was on top of her, and as Emma struggled, whatever it was consumed her.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m at the Academy, and now I’m meeting my very own roommate!”
Emma struggled to breathe, hugged by the Ree. Her feet dangled above the floor. Emma got a glimpse of a large space with three beds, but everything else was obscured by the fabric of the girl holding her.
“I’m sorry, did I scare you?” The girl placed Emma back onto the floor. “I’m so sorry. I’m just excited to meet you. My name’s Layga, and we’re going to be best friends here at the Academy, I just know it.”
Emma regained her breath, trying to keep up with the energetic Ree, who shook her hand so furiously, it made her teeth chatter.
“I’m Em,” Emma managed after the handshake. She flexed her palm, trying to regain feeling. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Layga.”
Layga reminded Emma of the Elixirs to Live by instructor, Talisha Tescot. Layga was a foot taller than Emma, with long, dark hair, large teeth, and a broad back.
“Well, come on in.” Layga moved so Emma could get a better look at their room. “Our third roommate hasn’t arrived yet. I started putting my things away near the left bed, but if you’d rather have that side, I don’t mind moving. It wouldn’t be much to move, just a few pictures and things to remind me of home.”
“No, no, I’ll take the middle one.” Emma stepped into the room. It was circular, painted in white, no windows, and three pairs of matching furniture: a bed with drawers underneath, a desk, and a chair.
On top of the middle bed were two stacks of clothing. One pile consisted of duplicates of the pants and the sleeveless shirt she wore now, while the other pile had black stretch pants and tops intended for the bane of Emma’s existence: physical exercise.
“Oh, an android dropped those off for you a few minutes ago.” Layga joined Emma, looking down at the clothes. “I’m so excited to have such great teachers instructing us this year. I’m sure we’ll both do well. What with the news of the Arilion Knights re-emerging across the universe maybe we’ll even be selected as Arilion to represent our own home worlds.”
“Well, of course, silly. Not just anyone who wants to be an Arilion Knight gets to. We have to be chosen by the vambraces of our own planets and admitted into the Arilion Order.” Layga made her way over to Emma’s desk as she spoke. She swiped over a display with one large hand. A similar holographic interface as the one Slain had used in his office popped up. “Now, what shall we pick for a display? Something bright and cheerful, I think.”
Layga scrolled through a few options of what looked like scenery before deciding on one. She motioned from the desk to the wall with her hand, and at once, all four walls in the room came alive with the most beautiful blues and whites of the sky and clouds.
Emma heard her own gasp, but she didn’t care. There was nothing plain about their room anymore; all of the walls had been left blank in order to act as projection screens. Instead of a room, Emma was now standing in the middle of the sky, with a green sun clearly not belonging to her solar system hovering to her right.
The door to their room opened.
Layga was the first to move. For someone her size, she was surprisingly swift. In the space of a heartbeat, she crossed the room and opened her arms to embrace the third and final member of their party.
“Embrace me, Ree, and it will be the last thing you attempt in this lifetime.”
If the words coming from the short Bracka weren’t so harsh, Emma would have thought the scene comical. Despite the bold words, though, Emma was having a hard time keeping a smile from her lips.
The Bracka had deep red hair, and she wore the same tunic as Emma and Layga. Her right arm was extended, but even lifted high, it only came up to Layga’s chest. Placed firmly, it stopped Layga’s forward momentum. Despite the obstacle, Layga still had the arm range to hug the much smaller Bracka, although she moved instead off to the side with a smile.
“Welcome to our new home, sister Bracka. I am Layga Sunkissed, and this is Em Duel.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Emma waved from her spot next to her bed. “Don’t worry, I won’t try to hug you.”
“Well, it’s too early to tell if it’s really going to be nice to meet one another.” The Bracka moved into the room, carrying a satchel over her left shoulder. When she reached her desk, she dropped the bag with a loud slam. “My name is Jeba Warbreath. I suppose we should act cordial to one another to make the time we spend together less uncomfortable.”
“I totally agree, and I know where you’re going with this.” Layga dragged the chair from her own desk into the middle of the room. “Let’s play a get-to-know-you game.”
Emma and Jeba exchanged confused looks.
“No, giant.” Jeba didn’t make a move to join her. Instead, she began unpacking her belongings. She removed a heavy jug of dark liquid, a knife with runes carved into the handle, and a box. “There will be none of your ‘get to know you’ games today.”
Jeba turned to Emma as she placed her belongings in her desk drawers. “You must be the Halyna I’ve heard of.”
“You’ve heard of me?” Emma looked to Layga for clarification.
The Ree shrugged, trying to hide her disappointment as she dragged her chair back to her desk.
“Yes, you were the one vomiting out of the teleporter, were you not?” For the first time, Jeba cracked a grin. “I must say, that was quite amusing. The entire floor is talking about it.”
“Oh, great.” Emma flung herself onto her bed. Somehow, she had already made a reputation for herself and classes hadn’t even started.
“It will be all right, Em.” Layga came over and smiled down at her new friend. “I’m sure it will be forgotten soon.”
“I wouldn’t give the weak stomach such counsel, giant.” Jeba came over to look down at Emma from the other side of her bed. “They already have a nickname for you. They’re calling you ‘The Retch.’”
Jeba couldn’t contain her own laughter any longer; a deep, booming laugh came from the Bracka, and she threw her head back, roaring with unbridled restraint.
The nickname had more imagination than Emma had first thought, and the chuckling from Jeba was intoxicating. Whether it was from her own exhaustion or something else, Emma also started to giggle.
Layga, seeing that Emma was okay with the action, joined her two roommates, and all together, their room boomed with laughter.
“Well I’m off to explore this structure.” Jeba was already heading for the door.
The girls had spent a few hours unpacking, projecting different displays of various planets on the walls, and as the hours passed, there was little talk from Jeba and too much from Layga.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to do the same.” Layga edged toward the door, waiting for an invitation to join Jeba. “I’ve just been waiting for a friend to go with.”
“Well, I wish you luck in finding such a friend, giant.” Jeba turned, her hand already on the door. “However, your incessant chatter may prove such a task difficult.”
The next second, Jeba was gone, leaving a disappointed Layga in her wake.
“She’ll warm up.” Emma said, consoling Layga. She was lying on her bed, head propped up by pillows. Her stomach rumbled loud enough for Layga to hear.
“I know she will, but what we need now is some food to put in that tiny stomach of yours.” Layga opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a bag full of dark red, dried meat. She offered it to Emma. “Here. You are welcome to have as much as you like.”
“What is it?” Emma tried to hide the grimace from her face. The meat looked wrinkled and old like the cleavage of her neighbor, Miss Starling.
“It’s Rethark,” Layga replied, as if that simple explanation would be the end to their conversation.
“Oh.” Emma took a piece of the large meat out of the bag. The smell wasn’t that bad; not too far from beef jerky.
“Well, dinner will be in a few hours.” Layga collected a few more items from her desk. “I do need to look my best to make a good impression on the other first years and instructors. I’ll be in the restroom if you need me.”
“Sounds good.” Emma smiled at the Ree as she left the room. Her focus turned back to the meat strips when the door closed. “What are you?”
With breakfast missed, the previous night’s dinner displayed on Slain’s office floor, and the lunch hour already late, Emma decided to try the Rethark. The consistency was softer than she expected, the meat a perfect mix of spicy and sweet. Emma settled in with her bag of Rethark and the projection device that allowed her to light up the room with otherworldly scenes.
The interface was simple—a scrolling list of planets that moved along her desk’s surface when she touched it. Luckily for Emma, the list was in alphabetical order. She found herself swiping through the A’s then the B’s, C’s, and D’s. Planets with foreign names like Atmos, Brytannia, and Creete passed her wandering fingertips.
Emma paused her scrolling when she came to Earth. She tapped it, making a scene of her planet fill every wall in her room. She was able to zoom in and out of countries to ridiculous degrees. Although her hands were busy playing with the projector, her mind was on the reason she had come to the Academy in the first place. A tiny voice was poking at her.
Are you really going to be able to learn everything you need to know to save Earth? You can’t even teleport without vomiting. What makes you think you’re going to be able to repel an alien invasion? I mean, you can’t even do a pull-up.
Emma was so lost to her own thoughts, that time and the bag of Rethark passed unnoticed. It was only when Layga entered the room with a massive towel wrapped around her that Emma realized she had eaten almost the entire bag.
“I’m so sorry.” Emma pulled herself from the depressing thoughts. She closed the bag of meat. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”
“No need to apologize, friend Em.” Layga accepted the bag from Emma with a smile. “The Rethark are plentiful on my home world.”
Emma was about to ask what a Rethark was, when her stomach bubbled with contentment. She decided her intestines had been through enough for one day. Instead of ruining the feeling, she turned her thoughts on other things.
“You should be preparing yourself soon, Em.” Layga dropped her towel to change. “We should be leaving for dinner shortly.”
“Oh, yeah.” Emma turned to look at the wall, avoiding eye contact with the naked Ree.
At the same time, the door opened, and Emma could hear Jeba walk in. She couldn’t see the Bracka’s face, but she could imagine all she needed to. Jeba’s strong, sure voice filled in the missing gaps.
“If this is some alternate method of welcome in your culture, I am not interested. Save your scandalous ways for another who might embrace you as friend.”
“What?” Layga sounded shocked. “No, I’m changing for tonight’s dinner.”
“Clothe yourself quickly, then.” Emma could tell Jeba was walking across the room by the sound of her voice. “You’re making Em blush, and my eyes cannot withstand much more of your puckish nudity. Have you no shame?”
Emma knew she needed to jump in before Layga’s feelings were hurt further. She turned around, still avoiding Layga’s form. All she could see from her peripheral vision was a mass of cloth and arms.
“Did you find anything cool on your excursion?” Emma fixed Jeba with a disapproving stare.
“I did. I traveled to the class where our combat training will take place. The space is most impressive.” Jeba winced past Emma’s shoulder, as if she were trying to get a sneak peek at the sun. “Oh good, the nudist is clothed. Come, let us break bread and eat hearty. I’ve heard the opening dinner is one to remember.”
The mess hall was breathtaking. Two gigantic steel doors opened to a room that could fit three of Emma’s houses. The ceiling was the same as everywhere else, reflecting what she guessed was the time the Academy operated on. A dark sky opened overhead, with bright stars giving off enough light to see by.
Four massive circular stone tables sat crowded, with chairs all around. On each table, a banquet had been provided. Every piece of food looked mouthwatering, although Emma had no idea what any of it was. There were baskets of what she guessed were fresh bread, platters of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and trays of steaming meat. The aroma that tickled Emma’s noise reminded her how little she had eaten that day.
Past the round tables was a raised platform where a long tabletop sat. A dozen high-backed chairs waited for whom Emma guessed would be the Academy’s dean and instructors.
“The first-year recruit’s table is over here.” Layga motioned to the table on the left side of the hall. “I hope we’ve come early enough to get a good seat.”
Emma followed Layga and Jeba to their table. Spots were already filling up with wide-eyed first-year recruits. There were three seats together facing the raised platform.
Emma sat next to a gorgeous Halyna girl. From her perfect posture to her manicured nails, she looked every bit the entitled elitist Emma was so used to avoiding from high school. Despite her own presumptions about the girl, she decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Emma tried to make eye contact, but it seemed the girl had other plans. She turned away from Emma to give her full attention to the person sitting on her right.
On the other side of the Halyna girl was the familiar face of Daylon. He looked bored. Arms crossed over his chest, eyeing the food in front of him instead of his companion to his left. When his eyes did stray Emma’s way, a smile spread across his lips.
“Em Duel.” Daylon leaned back in his chair to look around his companion, who was sure to take offense at the action. “I was hoping I’d see you at dinner tonight.”
“Me?” Emma cleared her throat looking to her right and left. “Why?”
“Why, indeed.” The Halyna between Emma and Daylon lifted an orange eyebrow. “Aren’t you the one throwing up everywhere? The Retch?”
If Emma wasn’t so taken by the Halyna girl’s beauty, she would have shot back a sarcastic remark. Despite the wheels in her mind turning, it was difficult to come back with an insult. The girl beside her had high cheekbones, flawless skin, and eyes that sparkled.
“It wasn’t her fault. I didn’t know she was still getting used to the teleporter. I brought her in behind me.” Daylon moved from addressing the Halyna girl to looking at Emma. “How was the teleport up to dinner?”
Even the mention of the journey to dinner brought back the taste of Layga’s meat snack. She had managed to keep her food in her stomach this time, but just barely. The meat had fought its way up to her mouth but instead of vomiting it all over the ground, she had swallowed it back down.
“It was … manageable.” Emma ignored the girl beside her and smiled at Daylon. “It’s really all right. You don’t have to apologize for the whole teleportation thing anymore.”
“I’ll make it up to you.” Daylon pursed his lips and scrunched his brow in a way Emma found strangely attractive. “How about we go on a—”
“Recruits!” A booming male voice filled the room. “Your dean will address you.”
“Thank god,” the Halyna girl sitting between Emma and Daylon whispered. “I was about to retch myself, if I had to listen to any more of that.”
Emma ignored the comment and turned her attention to the long table on the raised platform where the instructors and dean sat. Some time during Emma’s conversation with the two Halynas, the teaching body had entered the room and taken their seats.
The booming voice belonged to another Halyna with a dark orange skin tone and darker eyes and hair that were almost black. Emma had a hard time breathing all of a sudden as she realized he was staring directly at her. His gaze wasn’t inviting, either. Jaw set, he glared at Emma with such intensity, other recruits began to take note and look from Emma to the instructor and back again.
Emma withered beneath the stare, wishing for the second time that day she was anywhere else. It was Slain’s voice that saved her.
“I want to take a moment to greet both our returning students and those who have just begun their journey. From our fourth-year recruits who have endured and overcome: remember, graduation does not mark the end of learning. The wise realize the advance of knowledge is a never ending pursuit.”
Emma looked to her right, past two tables to the fourth table, where the fourth-year recruits sat. To her surprise, the table was less than half full. Out of the twenty-four seats, only nine were occupied. Those who sat at the table all looked resolved and determined. Each table leading down to her own was also missing students. Emma’s table of first-year recruits was the only one that remained completely full.
Before Emma had time to wonder further about the wellbeing of these missing students, Slain continued. “To our first-year recruits, bright-eyed and ready to begin: remember your enthusiasm this day, and always understand there is no shame in taking a position outside of being a warrior. Our coalition exists because thousands of our brothers and sisters work everyday over hundreds of titles. Combat is not for everyone. Who knows? We may have a few instructors, or even our next dean, sitting right here.”
Slain paused, looking over the room. He smiled at both the familiar and unfamiliar faces at the tables. Unlike the previous instructor, he did not linger on Emma.
“Eat well and sleep better.” Slain raised a glass in salute.
Immediately, all hands at the tables fumbled to do the same. Emma almost dropped her goblet.
“Because tomorrow,” Slain added, “the work begins.”
The liquid was cool and refreshing like the most perfectly chilled water Emma had ever tasted. After the toast, Slain took his seat, and dinner began.
The food was better than it smelled, which was saying something, because the aroma that came off the spread was mouthwatering. Emma threw caution to the vacuum of space and ate until she was full.
“Perhaps you should think about the ride back down to our barracks.” Layga’s voice was barely above a whisper. “I’d hate to see you sick again.”
“Seriously.” Emma put down a loaf of warm buttered bread. “You’re probably right. The upside is, I’m going to lose a ton of weight if I keep throwing up after meals. I’ll be in bikini shape in no time.”
“‘Bikini shape’?” Layga repeated the words as if hearing the term for the first time. “What is that? Is it something on your home planet, Renia?”
Not for the first time, Emma’s mouth had gotten her into trouble. How could she respond accurately, when there were two Halyna sitting next to her, who were from the planet to agree with or contradict her answer?
A deep burp saved Emma from having to say anything at all. Every head at the table turned to Jeba, who tore a large piece of meat off the bone of some recently deceased animal. “This food is delicious,” Jeba’s voice boomed across the table in response. She turned to her left, where a Ree male sat who was twice her size. She pointed at his plate. “Are you going to eat that?”
The table returned to private conversations and chatter. Emma found herself grateful for her burly roommate’s intrusion. It seemed Layga was content to let the previous subject go. Instead, she addressed one more complicated.
“How do you know Instructor Drown? What did you do to make him so angry with you?” Layga popped a red tart into her mouth.
“That’s who that was?” Emma shivered, remembering the uncomfortable stare. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Well, he looks like he knows you and you owe him a debt,” Layga said around a mouthful of dessert. “Or maybe he was just having a bad day. He’s notorious at the Academy for being the strictest instructor.”
Realization hit Emma like a sledgehammer. Drown was the third spy who had infiltrated Earth sixteen years ago. Along with Slain and Tistan, he was the only one who knew of Emma’s reason for being at the Academy and her true heritage.
“I guess we won’t have to wait long to find out why he was looking at you like that.” Layga pushed the normal-sized chair, that she made look like a piece of child’s furniture, away from the table. “I should get to bed. We have an important day tomorrow.”
“Wait.” Emma grabbed Layga. Her hand didn’t even close halfway around the Ree’s wrist. “What do you mean?”
Layga patted Emma’s hand before gently pulling away. “I mean he’s our instructor for combat training. We begin with his class first thing in the morning.”
Emma felt something worse than the urge to vomit fill her stomach; anxiety and dread for the next day.
“I’m surprised you didn’t lose your breakfast, Retch.” Jeba looked over at Emma with a broad grin. “Perhaps you’re getting used to the teleport experience. That’s good for me. It’s embarrassing when your roommate paints the floor in such awful colors of reds and—”
“Okay, okay I get it.” Emma shouldered her satchel as they exited the teleporter and made their way down a long corridor to their first class.
Breakfast had again taken place at the main hall. Unlike the previous night, Emma had found if she concentrated she was able to keep most of her food where it belonged. With any luck, Jeba was right and she was getting used to the experience. Hopefully a few more days and she wouldn’t even have to re-swallow the food that came up into her mouth.
Emma, Jeba, and Layga maneuvered down the long hall with the rest of the first-year recruits. For the most part, staying with one’s own species wasn’t an issue; it seemed aliens from all three planets were getting along fine, with some laughing and others nervous, talking quietly about what to expect on their first day.
Everything was going well until Emma caught sight of the Halyna girl she sat next to the night before. She was walking with the two other Halyna first-year recruits. Emma tried to hunker down and slow a half-step to hide behind Layga. It didn’t work.
“Hey, look who it is, Dana,” one of the Halyna girls addressed Emma’s dinner partner from last night. “Isn’t that the girl you told us retched all over herself yesterday?”
Apparently the story of her trouble with the teleporter had not only spread, but had also been blown entirely out of proportion.
“Yep, that’s the Retch.” Dana stopped her own forward progress and waited for Emma. “Take a good look, Triv. You, too, Lisha. This is what we don’t want our species becoming—weak-stomached and ready to drop out before classes even start.”
Emma felt the heat of anger reach her face. She expected to be made fun of from her previous incident with the teleporter, but being accused of quitting was something she couldn’t have foreseen.
Emma zeroed in on Dana. “What are you talking about? I’m not quitting.”
“Really?” Dana raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Well, by the looks of last night, Instructor Drown has it in for you. You’ll be quitting soon, and until you do, hands off Daylon. He’s mine.”
Before Emma could get a word out, Dana had turned away, followed by her grinning lackeys as she strode down the hall.
Emma was boiling with frustration, mostly from being accused of quitting, but if she was being honest with herself, it was also that Dana had taken an interest in Daylon. It seemed the queen bee was already sinking her talons into him.
“Are you okay, Em?” Layga put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Don’t listen to them. They give your species a bad name.”
“I’m fine.” Emma began to move forward, motioning to Layga and Jeba. “Come on, let’s hurry or we’ll be late for class.”
The three girls jogged along the corridor until they reached a stone archway on their right.
“Is this the place?” Emma examined the worn entryway and the dark room beyond. “Stone is kind of a weird thing to have on an orbiting space station.”
“This is where we are supposed to enter,” Jeba confirmed without hesitation. “Come, comrades, let us begin.”
Jeba walked inside, followed by an apprehensive Layga and Emma. The entryway was poorly lit, but as they continued inside, the way became illuminated with blazing braziers and torches along the walls. In a moment, they had been taken from the bright lights and high walls of the Academy corridor and dumped into a medieval castle.
Soon, Emma and her friends reached a square room with padded flooring. The walls were lined with every kind of weapon Emma could think of, and most she couldn’t. Swords, bows, spears, axes, and hammers of all shapes and sizes had been mounted carefully. Blades caught the fires’ light and gleamed bright and dangerous.
Twelve girls and twelve boys from the first-year recruits stood nervous but ready.
“I’ll make this as simple as I can for you.”
Students in all directions jumped as their combat instructor walked in behind them. He met the preconceived mold of a Halyna: tall, orange skin, eyes and hair so dark they were almost black. What made him different was his muscle tone and the scars he carried across his arms. One scar began just above his right eye and continued down to his cheek. Whatever had cut him had been centimeters from taking his eye with it.
“I’m not your friend, I’m not your mentor,” Drown began. “I’m here to separate the wolves from the sheep, so the sheep don’t get slaughtered in the years to come.” He moved to the center of the room and stood on the mat, looking each one of them in the eyes. The silence was uncomfortable. Every student shifted or turned from his gaze.
Emma was ready when it came her turn. She was done being singled out. If he wanted to stare at her, she would stare right back. Drown held her gaze for only a moment, though, not longer than any other student this time. Emma set her jaw and glared into his black eyes.
When Drown had made his sweep of the room, he motioned the recruits forward. “The best way to learn a new skill is to practice until you can perform the motion in your sleep. Two lines, facing each other.”
The students ran to obey. Emma paired up with Layga, Jeba with the Ree boy she sat next to at dinner the night before. Emma could see Daylon and Dana square off on the opposite side of the mat. Daylon looked less than pleased about his sparring partner, though Dana couldn’t have looked more happy with herself. She shot a smug smile at Emma.
What came next were two of the most difficult hours of physical exercise Emma had ever participated in. High school PE class seemed like a leisurely walk around the block compared to Drown’s instruction. Emma was far from the athletic type, and her muscles and lungs reminded her of this over and over again.
Drown’s methods in hand-to-hand combat were peppered with cardio exercises like box jumps and sprints, along with muscle-building routines like push-ups and sit-ups. When they weren’t working out, they were preforming jabs and punches, while their counterparts blocked the strikes. Layga was apologizing for the dozenth time for hitting Emma when Drown asked for a volunteer.
“Break,” Drown barked across the room. Sweat-laden faces looked to one another in relief. “Who can tell me why we’ve been practicing these movements all class?”
“Because you hate us,” Emma whispered to herself at the same time the large Ree boy, Jeba’s partner, raised his hand.
“Yes, Alexon?” Drown stood, hands behind his back, staring at the Ree.
For a moment, the boy looked shocked Drown knew his name. He teetered as if he were going to faint. Sweat matted his sleeveless Academy uniform. “Can we … can we have water, Instructor Drown?”
Emma could see the muscle on Drown’s jaw twitch as his stare turned into a glare. Instead of speaking, Drown retreated to a corner of the training room where a narrow door was set into the wall. He opened the door and came back a moment later, carrying a small table in one hand and a large clear pitcher of water in the other.
The glass container was cold with condensation. Emma’s dry throat silently screamed at her to attain the water by any means necessary.
Drown placed the table behind him and set the pitcher of water on top of it, then he stood between the students and the water. Emma could guess what was coming next.
“I’m glad you asked, Alexon.” Drown motioned him forward. “Why don’t we turn this into a drill? If anyone would like water, you may have your fill … if you can get past me.”
Emma and the rest of the students exchanged uncertain glances. Was he serious? No one in their right mind was going to take on Drown no matter how thirsty they were. Emma was actually in the middle of this very thought, when Drown’s dark eyes zeroed in on her.
“How about you, Em Duel?” Drown motioned her forward. “You look thirsty.”
Emma looked at Drown, dumbfounded. He knew who she was, what she was. He should be among the last calling attention to her.
“I … uh, I—” Emma mentally kicked herself for stuttering, but there was nothing she could do about it now. “I’m good, actually. I drank a lot at breakfast.”
“Probably vomited it all up on the way here, though,” Dana muttered to her giggling friends.
Emma ignored the girls. Something inside her was stirring, something only recently discovered when she found out who she was and her true heritage. It was the same feeling of unbridled courage that had brought her here in the first place.
“Come now.” Drown smiled a predatory grin at her. “I’ll level the playing field for you. We’ll only use the strikes and blocks we went over today.”
The thought that he was trying to make a fool of her, perhaps even undo her before she had a real chance at learning how to protect her home world, burned at Emma. After all, this was why she was here, wasn’t it? To learn and practice? If she didn’t have the courage to stand against her instructor, then how would she have the courage to stand against the Shay when they came?
You’re an idiot, and you’re going to regret this if you live past the next few minutes, Emma told herself. Despite her self imposed-warning, she advanced.
An audible gasp came from the students as they witnessed one of their own make the ultimate sacrifice. Emma placed herself square in front of Drown, her stance the one they had just been taught—knees slightly bent, chin in, hands up and ready.
Drown looked her directly in the eyes, his hands down by his waist, chest out, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “What are you waiting for, Em Duel?” he asked, his voice thick with disdain. “If you wait any longer, the water behind me is going to evaporate, or we’ll all die of old age.”
The warrior spirit inside of Emma burst forward. She was sick of Drown’s attitude and his bullying way of teaching. She struck first with her left hand, already following up with her right fist, before the initial blow landed.
Drown was so fast, he was a blur. One moment, he was standing, hands by his sides; the next, he was batting away her punches with open hands and sending a strike to her stomach.
Emma was too slow. His blow landed full force. Pain first, then a feeling of suffocation as all the air in Emma’s lungs was sucked out of her, like a vacuum had magically stolen all of her oxygen in the space of a single moment.
Another gasp came from all the students behind her. Emma staggered, hating herself, and she dropped to one knee, coughing and gasping for air.
“Let this be a lesson to you all.” Drown moved beside Emma and offered her a hand. “Practice will bring you speed, and speed will bring you victory. That is all for today.”
Emma didn’t know what Drown was thinking. If he thought he could force her to be his own punching bag and then be friends after, he was wrong. She ignored him altogether, lifting herself off the mat and joining her friends.
Her insides felt like she had been forced to lie on her back and allow a tank to roll over her stomach. Emma gritted her teeth against the pain. She didn’t allow herself to slouch; back straight, she waited for Drown’s next words.
“You are all dismissed,” he spoke without looking at her. “You can pick up your homework assignments on the way out.”
“Are you okay?” Layga’s eyes were full of concern as the girls joined the rest of the recruits in exiting Drown’s classroom. “He shouldn’t have struck you like that.”
“I’m fine,” Emma lied, knowing, come morning, there would be a bruise to accompany the pain she felt. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Upon exiting Drown’s classroom, an android greeted all the students handing out metallic silver wristbands. Thinner than a watch, it was cool to the touch. Emma followed Layga’s example as she slipped it onto her wrist. At once, the metallic material shrank to fit her wrist perfectly.
“And what am I supposed to do with this?” Emma looked over to Layga for assistance. Where her own band had shrunk to meet her needs, Layga’s had grown to fit the Ree’s muscular wrist. “This is our homework assignment?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Layga grimaced as the pair maneuvered through the busy halls to their next class. “It’s a holo band. I thought the Halyna were familiar with this technology? In fact, weren’t they the ones to invent it?”
Emma felt a wave of panic wash over her as she looked into Layga’s large, curious eyes. Why hadn’t she just waited to see how her classmates interacted with the band instead of asking questions?
“Well … I…” Emma began, searching for the right words that would get her off the hook.
“Em.” The voice was Alexon’s, the Ree boy who’d asked for water in Drown’s class. “Em, hold up.”
Emma said a silent prayer of thanks as she used the interruption to redirect the uncomfortable conversation. “Hi, Alexon.”
Alexon came to an awkward halt beside the girls. His tunic, although gigantic, was still a tad too small for his frame. Muscles bulged from beneath the fabric. To Emma’s amusement, she noticed Layga staring. Her Ree friend was anything but inconspicuous as her eyes roamed over Alexon’s frame. In any other scenario, Emma would have been terrified to look up at such a large being. It was amazing what one could get used to in such a short time.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” Alexon looked down at Em with true regret in his dark eyes. “If I hadn’t asked Instructor Drown for water, he wouldn’t have started that whole exercise. How are you feeling? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, and it’s not your fault at all. We were all thirsty.” Emma motioned to Layga with an open hand. “Have you met my roommate, Layga Sunkissed?”
“I don’t think I have.” Alexon gave a short bow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Layga’s normal tanned features were a hot pinkish red. The smile on her face was one part awkward, one part afraid, and one part shy. She nodded as if that were a normal response. It was the first time Emma had seen her friend with nothing to say. Usually, she couldn’t get the Ree to shut up.
Alexon smiled back. He looked to Emma with confusion.
“Well, we all better get going to our next class now, and grab some water on the way.” Emma snagged Layga’s elbow and pulled her along. “Don’t want to be late for whatever it is we’re doing next.”
“Oh, we have Beast Prevention next.” Alexon hurried alongside them. “I heard there’s a new teacher. There was some kind of horrible accident with the last one.”
“Great.” Emma smiled, still steering along a speechless Layga. “Can’t wait.”
As it turned out, Beast Prevention wasn’t at all as safe as it sounded. Emma sat in a large room lined with single-person desks. Brightly lit, the ceiling was once again open as if they were outside on a warm summer day. Instead of brick walls like Drown preferred in his classroom, lush vegetation sprouted on three sides. Lively red grass gave way to thick trees made of green trunks and yellow leaves. Although the colors were far from what Emma was used to, the plants and trees themselves brought a sense of familiarity.
“I heard the last teacher was mauled to death,” Dana said, loud enough for the entire classroom to hear. Her two accomplices, Triv and Lisha, sat beside her. “It just happened yesterday. He got too trusting with a saberling.”
Murmurs rippled across the room. If Emma had any idea what a saberling was, she might have had an opinion on the matter.
“I’m glad you are plain and boring, not one for attention, like your counterparts.” Jeba leaned in from the seat on Emma’s left. “I think if I had been bunked with one of them, I wouldn’t last more than a week without strangling someone.”
“Thanks.” Emma frowned for a moment, trying to decode the Bracka’s words. “Wait, are you insulting me, or giving me a compliment?”
Before Jeba could respond, a familiar voice filled the room. “Welcome young recruits from all three Alliance planets. I am so glad to have you in my class.”
Heads turned as an android walked into the room. The voice had belonged to the android that had greeted Emma and Daylon the day before when giving them directions to the teleporter. Its face was different now.
Yesterday, there had only been a single red light inside a square to represent any kind of facial features. Today, an actual face looked back at them. Granted, the skin was stark white, so the illusion of talking to an actual person ended there. Beyond the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of the android, black-and-white metal plating made up the rest of the body.
“Wait until I tell my parents a bucket of metal is teaching our class.” Like before, Dana didn’t try to whisper. “This is ridiculous.”
Whether or not the android heard her and had decided to ignore her or he missed the comment altogether, he went on.
“My proper name is Android 040816. But you may call me Instructor Andy if it is more comfortable for you or easier to remember.” Andy took a spot at the front of the class, a wide smile on his white lips. “I do regret to inform you that Instructor Zhou suffered an accident yesterday, but he is alive and recuperating in one of the most advanced health facilities. He is expected to regain full use of his bowels and digestive tract.”
Emma looked from her right to left to confirm she was actually hearing what she thought she was. Layga was staring at Alexon. When Emma caught Jeba’s eye, the Bracka shrugged and patted her belly.
“I’ll be filling in as instructor while the Academy searches for a full-time replacement. But let me be clear, with the knowledge base of the entire library at my disposal, I am more than qualified to teach, and my metal body guarantees an accident such as the one that befell Instructor Zhou will not occur. Please consult your holo bands and turn with me to page one of Mastering the Beast.”
Emma peeked over at the students around her to understand how the holo band worked. For all intents and purposes, it was like having a phone on your wrist, if a phone projected whatever you were doing in a small beam of light.
In a matter of minutes, Emma was scrolling through different functions. Everything was in the holo band, including a map of the Academy, curriculum for every class, and of course, homework assignments.
Emma would have spent more time exploring the technology, but Andy was already halfway through page one by the time she brought up the textbook. Once displayed by the holo watch, Emma was able to move the floating book and position it in front of her or on her desk. Although there were no actual pages to feel, it responded to her fingers when she wanted to turn a page or maneuver the book itself.
The class passed quickly, not because Andy was a particularly energetic teacher, but because everything was so new and wonderful to Emma. They passed over chapters of best practices for safety when encountering alien animals, proper care for them, and danger signs.
“I know your young, inquisitive minds must be itching for some practical application.” At the front of the class, Andy closed the holo text he was reading from. “Before we end the day, let’s all get acquainted with the first animal we will be studying: the saberling.”
A gasp from the first-year recruits filled the room. After what Dana had said, it was obvious everyone was having second thoughts about Andy’s suggestion.
Andy disappeared into the dense foliage a moment later, his sleek legs carrying him forward as smoothly as any species.
Emma felt a twinge of fear. If this was the same creature responsible for the previous instructor’s accident, should they even be interacting with it at all? Instead of joining the panicked whispers, Emma decided to consult her copy of Mastering the Beast.
What she found wasn’t heartening.
An image displaying the saberling dropped Emma’s jaw. The creature reminded Emma of every picture she had seen of a saber-toothed tiger, except the saberling was larger, almost the size of a horse, and instead of short fur, its coat was a bit longer and much thicker like that of a wolf’s.
Emma was still processing what she was seeing on her holo band, when rustling in the forest trees silenced the entire room. Breaths were held as a low growl began. It gathered volume into a deep, predatory snarl. Twigs snapped under the pressure of paws; tree branches were broken.
Emma traded concerned looks with Layga and Jeba. A moment later, the monster emerged.
Andy exited the trees, holding a soft pile of orange-yellow fur. Two comical spikes descended from the upper jaw of the baby saberling. The growl it made was more of a purr, and the snapping tree branches were from the android, not from the alien feline.
“All who would like to see a saberling up close are welcome to come and pet him. I promise you, he is safe. In my vast records of the known history of the galaxy, there has never been a report of a baby saberling attack.”
Most of the students looked to one another for courage before getting in line to say their hellos. Emma noticed out of the corner of her eye that Dana and a few others remained in their seats, ignoring the android.
When it was Emma’s turn to pet the saberling, it looked up at her with large, green eyes. It nuzzled her extended hand, pushing its entire small body against her with purrs so loud, it made even Andy take note.
“It seems he enjoys your scent more than anyone else’s.” Andy looked Emma in the eyes, holding her gaze for far too long. “Strange, he has smelled other Halyna and did not have this same reaction.”
“Oh, well … you see…” Emma retracted her hand despite the saberling’s cries of protest. “It’s probably this … this new body wash I’ve been using.”
“Body wash.” Andy repeated the words as if it was the first time he’d ever heard them. “Yes, well, all students who have had their chance to pet the saberling are dismissed. You’ll find your homework assignments on your holo bands.”
In the wake of the saberling’s protests, Emma speed walked out of the classroom. So far, she wasn’t doing a great job of blending in. Layga was on to her lack of knowledge of Halyna technology, and now the saberling knew she smelled different.
To make matters worse, her holo band had begun to blink a bright red. A message popped up from Dean Slain. The subject line was simple: Come to my office. We need to talk immediately.
Anxiety twisted in the pit of Emma’s stomach. This time, it wasn’t even from the teleportation trip to the Dean’s level. On Earth, Emma had never been called into her principal’s office. She was sure Slain wasn’t calling her in to scold her, but the thought still sat at the forefront of her mind.
What if I already messed up somehow? Emma pushed back the queasy feeling that told her she was walking to her doom. What if something’s happening with the Shay?
Emma’s thoughts were beginning to spiral into ridiculous assumptions, when she reached the Dean’s office. Stepping into the room was nothing like exiting. The outside of Slain’s office was covered in the most beautiful waterfall Emma had ever seen. From somewhere so high it was lost to sight, crystal clear water rushed down, protecting the door, only to disappear into a carved hole in the ground. Whether the water traveled down to the next level or somewhere else entirely was left to the imagination.
The sound the rushing water emitted made Emma want to relax and go to the bathroom at the same time. While Emma was wondering if there was time to find a restroom before her meeting with the Academy’s Dean, the waterfall parted, revealing the Dean’s door and stealing her opportunity to relieve herself.
With a heavy sigh, Emma reached for the door’s wet handle and stepped inside.
“There you are.” Slain’s smile immediately put Emma at ease. “I’m sorry to pull you during your lunch break, but it seems your father is a very suspicious man.”
Slain sat behind his large desk. His fingers laced behind his head, he lounged in his chair. Emma crossed the gigantic open room, once again impressed by its size.
“What do you mean?” Emma took a seat in front of Slain. “Does my dad know about the Academy?”
“Oh, no, no.” Slain leaned forward and, with an outstretched hand, motioned to Emma’s holo band. “Only that he’s anxiously pacing. He’s tried texting and calling you on your cell phone. Instead of having you come here every time you need to speak with him, it will be easier if I link your holo watch to your phone.”
“How do you know he’s pacing?” Emma obeyed, removing her band and handing it to Slain.
“Because I’m having him watched, of course.” Slain accepted the holo band and began tinkering with the display as he spoke. “Nothing sinister. I just want to make sure everything transitions smoothly. Your stay here at the Academy is unprecedented. If anything were to go wrong and your human identity found out … well. It would be both our heads.”
There was that familiar twinge in her stomach again.
“That’s … that’s just a saying, right?”
“What is?” Slain handed back her holo band. “Oh, that it would be our heads? Of course, the Alliance would just have us both incarcerated for the rest of our lives. Sent to a tiny hole in the middle of the worst planet to live out our remaining days in such extreme solitude, we’d go mad.”
“Oh.” Emma placed her band back on her wrist. “I feel so much better.”
“Good. Now, when you scroll through the functions on your band, you’ll see an option marked ‘Extra Credit Homework.’ I don’t think that will be of interest to any student who may get his or her hands on your holo. You’ll be able to talk and text with your father through that function.”
Emma opened the display on her band and a small hologram popped up. She ran her finger down the options until she came to the one marked “Extra Credit Homework.” With a tap of her finger, the familiar screen and keypad of her cell phone popped up.
“It should go without saying that you are only to use this option when you are absolutely positive no one is around.” Slain stood and moved across the room to the seating area, where he made himself comfortable with a large, blue book entitled The Guide to Caring For Dragon Eggs. “I suggest you call him now before he gets into his vehicle and tries to go find you.”
“Right.” Emma tapped an icon on the hologram of her father’s name. She touched the phone symbol next.
Her father picked up on the first ring. “Hello?” She could hear the relief in his voice. “Emma, are you okay?”
“Hey, Dad. Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Oh, good.” Her father blew out a long, pent-up breath. “Sorry, you know I’m not usually like this. It’s just weird not having you here.”
“I know, it’s … it’s a lot different here than at home, but I’m liking it so far. You were right. I did need to get out.”
“Did you get to meet your new teachers yet? How are they?”
Emma’s mind fixated on being punched in the stomach by Drown. She searched for something she could tell her father that wouldn’t be a total lie. But what did she have to choose from so far, an instructor who was okay with hitting students, and an android?
“Emma, are you there?” Her father’s voice brought her wandering mind back.
“Yeah, I’m here.” Emma cleared her throat. “My instructors are passionate about their work.”
“That’s great to hear, Killer.” All of the tension from her father’s voice was gone now. “Have you made any friends yet?”
“I have actually. My roommates are pretty cool. I think things are going to work out here.”
“I’m so happy for you. You know how much I miss you, but I’m glad you’re having a good time and learning about something you’re interested in.”
“I am. Thanks for pushing me to do this.” As she spoke, Emma was reminded of why she was at the Academy in the first place. The Shay were coming for her father, for Earth. “I need to be here.”
“Well, go have fun. I’ll try not to worry too much and keep my stalking-like texts and calls to a minimum. I love you, Emma.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
“Where did you disappear to?” Layga caught Emma’s eye from across the room.
Recruits were already finishing their midday meal. All around her, seats were being pushed back as they began the walk to whatever class called their names next.
“I, uh … I had to go to the bathroom.” Emma winced under the flimsy excuse. “It was bad.”
“We’ve all been there.” Layga nodded as if she were recalling a recent experience. “We’ll grab something quick. We have Elixirs to Live By with Talisha Tescot next.”
Emma ran to a long table loaded down with a variety of foods she didn’t recognize. She chose an orange piece of fruit shaped like a pear and what she guessed was some kind of protein bar, though there was no way for her to be sure.
The Ree girl waited for Emma, and the two speed walked to their next class.
“I’ve been looking forward to being mentored by Instructor Tescot.” Layga slowed her walk so Emma could keep up. “She’s a Ree from my own home city.”
“Cool.” Emma spoke around a mouthful of the protein bar that wasn’t a protein bar at all, but a piece of chewy mass that felt like peanut butter in her mouth but tasted like eggs.
A quick teleport ride and a near-vomit experience later, the two girls stood outside of a clean, white door. The last students were just making their way into the room.
Emma stepped inside, not sure what setting to expect. To her surprise, it was the closest room to an actual classroom so far that day. No torches lit a dungeon-like atmosphere. Neither were there forests to obscure their view.
Talisha Tescot had chosen a very simple layout: white walls and floor, with lines of desks and stools. Each desk mirrored the next, and three stools stood behind each one. On top of the desks, a variety of tubes, beakers, and burners were ready for use.
The instructor herself was already in the room. She sat comfortably behind a small desk, smiling and nodding to students as they came in.
Jeba motioned for Layga and Emma to join her at a desk near the front of the room.
“Thank goodness.” Jeba breathed a sigh of relief when her roommates joined her. “I thought I’d have to socialize with two more boring recruits.”
“Oh, I’m glad we could help.” Layga sat on Jeba’s right with a genuine smile.
“I’m not sure that was a compliment.” Emma lifted an eyebrow in Jeba’s direction. “Was it?”
“Good morning class.” Talisha stood, showing off her impressive size. As a Ree, she stood nearly eight feet tall. “I see everyone has made it on time. Let us begin.”
The next hour was spent going over safety habits when handling dangerous substances. The second hour was a detailed course overview on what they would be learning the next few months.
Emma found herself liking the Ree woman. Talisha was kind, and she welcomed questions as she explained the curriculum. In a way, she was the exact opposite of Drown.
Despite Talisha’s pleasant demeanor, Emma found her mind wandering off-topic. The conversation with her father earlier that day reminded her of the true reason she was here. She had a finite amount of time to learn what she needed to know. Then it would be up to her to defeat the incoming Shay scouting party. What did she really know about the Shay anyway?
Emma made a mental note to take advantage of the library the Academy offered. The more she knew about her enemy, the better off she would be.
“Over the course of the class, you’ll be able to create healing salves, sleep potions, and accelerant elixirs.” Talisha’s voice brought Emma back to the class. “For those of you who are chosen as warriors and maybe even Arilion Knights, these will prove invaluable. For those of you who choose other positions in the Alliance ranks, the information you gather here will still be helpful in your everyday workings.”
Talisha glanced at a plain, white digital clock on the right side of the wall. It was the only piece of decoration in the Spartan room.
“If there are no other questions, then I’ll see you tomorrow.” Talisha gave the entire classroom a broad smile. “Homework assignments will be light and can be found in your holo bands.”
Much like her own high school, as soon as the okay was given to leave, the room erupted in a bustle of scooting seats and quick exits.
“Oh, she’s everything I could imagine and more.” Layga sighed. “I’m going to talk to her before heading to our last class.”
“Suit yourself, giant,” Jeba shrugged, motioning to Emma with a short wave. “Come along, we’ll need good seats for this last class. I’ve heard stories of Instructor Grimm before he took up his position as a teacher. He was a god on the battlefield. Perhaps we’ll see some blood spilled today.”
“Oh, great,” Emma followed Jeba from the room, touching a tentative hand to her still-sore stomach. “I can’t wait.”
“Can anyone tell me what the alliance warrior’s greatest weapon is?” Instructor Grimm asked from his cross-legged position in front of the class.
The classroom was different from the other three yet again. Instructor Grimm chose a mountaintop view. The students sat on a grass-softened mountain peak. On every side, the terrain sloped down. Unnatural sun shone on the group, with an ever-so-slight breeze ruffling their robes now and again.
“Yes, Jeba Warbreath.” Instructor Grimm nodded in her direction. “Do you have an answer?”
“I do, Instructor.” Jeba stood from her place on the grassy ground. “It’s a combination of speed as swift as the wind and a physical force unequaled in the universe.”
“Both necessary to any alliance warrior,” the Bracka instructor played with his long, grey goatee, “however, that is not his or her most important tool.”
Jeba sat down with a confused look at Emma as if her entire world had been shattered.
Emma gave her roommate a shrug. She was seated between Jeba and Layga, once more at the front of the class. From her close vantage point, Instructor Grimm didn’t look like much of a warrior. As a Bracka, his stature was short and bulky. A small belly protruded from his brown robe as if he were smuggling a watermelon from a grocery store. His face was wrinkled; his eyes were alert, not quite kind but passive.
“Yes, Daylon.” The Instructor’s gaze focused past Emma. “Do you know what an alliance warrior’s greatest tool is?”
Emma took the opportunity to shift from her seated position and look behind her. Daylon sat two rows back next to Alexon and, to Emma’s disgust, Dana. The latter looked at Daylon with fluttering eyelids and leaned in as he spoke.
“Alliance warriors, much like the Arilion Knights draw their power from harnessing their will,” Daylon explained, making eye contact with Emma. A smile passed over his lips as he did. “The more focused and determined an alliance warrior is, the stronger he or she becomes.”
“Very good.” Instructor Grimm stood. “You are correct. Although we as alliance warriors are held to a stricter set of rules than Arilion Knights, we can still reach our full potential. And as I am sure you all have heard, the rumors are Arilion Knights are once more appearing across the universe. I’m getting off topic now. I am a visual learner myself, so allow me to demonstrate.”
The teacher reached into the folds of his robe, producing two fist-sized rocks and a dagger the length of his forearm. He handed the items to Jeba as he continued to explain the exercise.
“Test the strength of the stones, as well as the sharpness of the blade. Though be cautious; the dagger is recently sharpened.” The Bracka instructor took a wide stance with a straight back. “The power you channel, the will and determination that is required to perform the impossible, comes from here and here.”
Instructor Grimm placed two fingers to the spot over his heart, then moved them to his temple.
Emma bit her lower lip as she was handed the stones and the knife. The rocks were solid, unwavering to anything short of a sledgehammer. She tested the knife-edge on a tuft of grass beside her, and it sliced through the green blades like a scythe.
Emma carefully handed the items to Layga. She didn’t want to miss any of what the instructor was demonstrating or had to say. All along, Emma had been wondering what the power of the alliance warrior actually was. This was all of utmost importance for her to learn if she was expected to repel the Shay’s attack on Earth.
A few silent moments passed as each student was allowed to examine the items. Eventually, the rocks and the knife made their way back to the front of the class. The instructor accepted them from Jeba with a polite nod.
“This is only a small example of what an alliance warrior can do when his or her mind, and spirit, are united by the bonds of practice and focus.” The instructor placed the stone at his feet; throwing the knife high in the air, the blade spun in a blur. It twirled high into the space above Instructor Grimm’s head and came down just as quickly. He plucked it from the air like a feather floating down to the ground.
An audible gasp escaped from the students. A high-pitched scream more befitting of a child than a giant came from Alexon, although no one made a move to make fun of the Ree. Everyone was amazed, eyes locked on their instructor.
“My body is impervious to blade, blaster, or blows when my mind tells it to be.” Instructor Grimm exchanged the dagger blade from hand to hand, squeezing the sharpened steel blade until his knuckles whitened under the pressure. No cuts showed on his skin when he opened his hands for the recruits to see. “Not everyone can channel their focus into a direct physical manifestation. You all showed signs of unnatural willpower, and that is why you are here at the Academy.”
Grimm threw the dagger to the ground. It stuck in the soft grass, buried to its hilt. Next, their teacher leaned over and picked up a rock in each hand.
“Just as focus and speed are tools of the alliance warriors, so, too, is physical strength.” A tiny explosion of pebbles and dust spewed from his right hand as he crushed one of the stones without showing any sign of exertion. “With practice, you are all capable of great and wondrous things, as long as you apply yourselves.”
Instead of crushing the last stone he held in his left hand, Grimm balled his right hand into a fist and struck it. Just like the first stone, this rock also cracked under the pressure. It turned into a handful of pebbles and dust that fell to the ground.
Emma was speechless. Thus far, she had been amazed by what the Academy promised, but durability and strength like this was something she had not expected. Again, something inside of Emma stirred. The warrior she never knew she was capable of becoming yearned to be set free. Already Emma was accepting the forthcoming challenge.
“We’ll begin with durability and strength, but do not think these are the only tools of an alliance warrior. There is so much more to be mastered.” Their instructor shook off his hands in a small cloud of grey dust. “We’ll begin with strength in focus. Everyone choose a stone from the side of the mountain and let us begin.”
For the next hour, Emma strove with the rest of her class to perform the same act of strength as their teacher.
Instructor Grimm walked up and down the lines of students, offering advice and encouragement. By the time he arrived beside Emma, her hand ached from gripping the stone so tightly. Tiny beads of sweat had formed on her brow.
“Em Duel.” Instructor Grimm folded his hands inside his robe. “How goes the training?”
“I can’t … I can’t seem to make any progress.” Emma opened her right hand in which she held the baseball-sized rock. Her palm was wet with sweat and red from the pressure. “I can’t do it.”
“With that mentality and those words, you will never be able to do it.” Instructor Grimm’s words were blunt, but not unkind. “Don’t think you can’t. Know you can, and with practice, I promise you will. If you are determined, there is nothing inside or outside of being an alliance warrior that you can’t achieve. There are only two choices here, Em Duel. Either you will succeed, or you will give up. You decide what you can and can’t do. No one else; not even this rock.”
Emma was still digesting his words when Grimm stepped away to offer his advice to a struggling Layga beside her.
By the end of the class, everyone’s hands were sore. A few students even managed to draw blood from gripping their stones too hard.
“Do not be disheartened. Trust that, in time, you will succeed.” Instructor Grimm gave a slight bow. “Homework can be found in your holo bands. You are free to go.”
Emma filed from the room with the rest of the class. She moved from the mountaintop view to the door that emptied out into the pristine white halls with nonexistent ceilings.
“So do we wait until after dinner to look at our homework, or are we masochists and see what’s in store for us now?” Daylon had caught up to Emma, flexing his hand. “Or do we take a third option and go ice our hands?”
“Oh, I, uh … I don’t know,” Emma said, stumbling over her words. “I guess we look now?”
Together, they examined their holo bands. The groans around them were already being voiced as other students also examined the amount of work in front of them.
“Are you kidding me?” Alexon’s voice could be heard from somewhere up ahead. “Ten laps around the track after the workout he already had us do? I’m convinced Instructor Drown is trying to kill us.”
“Ten laps sounds easy compared to what Instructor Andy has written down.” The voice was new to Emma, gruff and raspy. She looked over to see a Bracka boy scratching his head as he looked at his holo display. “He wants us to clean up after the animals? Like muck out the poop?”
“I’m not doing that.” Dana walked by the group, her head held high. “If he thinks I’m caring for those little beasts like a servant, that android has another thing coming. Let’s go to dinner, Daylon.”
“I’ll catch up with you,” Daylon answered, still keeping stride with Emma.
Dana turned to sneer at Emma. She looked like she was about to say something, but instead, she pivoted on her heel and walked away, her two Halyna lackeys in tow.
“At least our other two assignments don’t look too hard.” Daylon scrolled down his holo. “For Elixirs to Live By, we only have assigned reading, and Instructor Grimm’s homework is only a single word long.”
“Meditate.” Emma looked down at her own holo, reading the solitary word that came under the class title of Entry to Arilion. “That seems easy enough.”
After dinner, Emma decided to dig into the books of her alien home world included in her holo band. Layga had taken off to run her laps, while Jeba was still enjoying her meal at the mess hall. The night’s dinner was something that smelled like chicken but tasted like fish; the entire meal was delicious but confusing to Emma.
She was lying on her bed, flipping through pages of Renia history; the more she knew about her planet, the easier it would be to fit in. There was also no denying that she was genuinely curious about her heritage. For her entire life she had been content to think she was one hundred percent human, and why wouldn’t she? Now, an entire culture had opened up for her to explore.
Emma started with the first book entitled Renia, The Planet of Power. Page after page showed bright greens and blues—the planet was mostly forested with beautiful oceans and rivers. The Halyna were known as the founders of the Alliance, their expertise on technology, and their fighting spirit.
Unlike Earth, one governing body ruled the entire planet of Renia. Civil wars had broken out across their history, but every time, it was dealt with swiftly, the vast majority of the population banding together and supporting one another.
After her eyes ached from reading, Emma decided it was time to start Instructor Grimm’s homework assignment.
She sat in her room, still alone, cross-legged on her bed, like Instructor Grimm had been in the classroom. Emma closed her eyes and tried to block everything else out, but random thoughts kept pushing to the surface like a dozen floating buoys she struggled to keep under water.
First and foremost was the pressure to succeed. Earth, along with her father, was counting on her.
Next, was the nightmare she had before she left for the Academy, where her dreams had taken on the form of the Shay. Although she hadn’t told anyone of the dreams yet, she had a feeling she had not seen the last of them.
Finally, Daylon kept popping into her mind. Those orange eyes of his, the way he looked at her, and his strange relationship with Dana, as though he didn’t want to be around her but was forced to be by some invisible bond.
Ugggghhh! How am I supposed to meditate with so much going on? Emma thought. It looks so easy in the movies. I just have to channel my inner Buddhist monk.
Emma let a long, slow breath move from her lungs to her lips. Again, she breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth.
She ignored the many possibilities in her near future. Instead of focusing on the negative, she allowed herself just to be present, and a calm, freeing sensation unfamiliar to Emma settled on her shoulders.
Until the door to Emma’s room swung open, banging against the wall, the sound loud enough to wake everyone in their hall.
“I ate too much, Halyna.” Jeba stumbled into the room, holding her stomach. “That third serving of the Triton Fish was not a wise choice.”
Emma snapped out of her newly discovered meditative trance in time to see Jeba fling herself face-up on her own bed.
“Jeba, do you mind? I was med—”
“I need a shower.” Layga stepped into the room, sopping sweat. “Ten laps around the track is enough to make you feel like you’re swimming in your own clothes.”
The Ree wasn’t exaggerating. Her black, tight-fitting exercise clothes clung to her body like one large leech. Along with the Ree came a distinct smell. Emma wrinkled her nose at the odor, a familiar stench that reminded her of her own high school gym.
Emma reconciled herself to the idea that meditation for the night was over. Instead of complaining to her roommates, Emma rose and began changing into her own exercise uniform. She fumbled with the clothing, ignoring that she was getting undressed in front of other people in the room. It was something she knew was silly but hadn’t been able to shake, even after a year of high school. She hurriedly pulled on the black leggings, the plain, black tank top, and the running shoes provided for every recruit.
“I’d offer to go run with you, but I think I may need to allow dinner to digest a bit further.” Jeba lifted her head off her bed to address Emma. “Also, your pants are on backwards.”
Emma’s unfamiliarity with the alien clothes had again hinted at her human heritage.
“How do you know?” Emma looked down at the plain black pants. There was no tag on the inside of the material, and neither was there a design to hint at a front or a back.
Jeba exchanged glances with Layga as the latter gathered shower supplies.
“The stitching always goes in the front.” Layga cocked her head, examining Emma as if this was the first time she had seen her. “Are you all right, Em?”
“Oh … oh, yeah.” Emma felt heat rise to her face. She ripped off the pants, turned them around, and pulled them on again. “Sorry, it’s been a long first day.”
Without waiting for their response, Emma slammed her feet into her black shoes that didn’t require laces. Instead, they adjusted snugly once they were on. The shoes surprised Emma, but since she was in the presence of her roommates, she masked her amazement. As a Halyna, she probably should be used to the melding foot ware. Emma gave Layga and Jeba a brief wave and a smile before she left.
“I’m going to go knock out the rest of these assignments before it gets too late,” Emma said over her back. “I’ll see you two in a few hours.”
Emma hurried down the girl’s dormitory hall, to the teleporter, hoping her roommates wouldn’t read too much into the scenario.
She stepped into the cylinder-shaped cove in the wall, consulting her holo band for the correct floor to visit. It would make the most sense for her to perform her beastly duties before running the track.
The Academy schematics popped up on her holo band—the entire orbiting space station looked like a pinwheel, with dozens of levels on the diagram, including levels designated for dormitory, teaching, exercise, library, mess hall, storage, and more. One level with the plain title of ”Observatory” caught Emma’s eye. She made a brief mental note to explore that section of the Academy when she had a chance. In the meantime, she waved her hand over the teleporter’s control panel and selected the appropriate option to take her to her Beast Prevention class.
She had to clean up after a few baby animals. How hard could it be?
Emma would have rather slept with Layga’s sweaty clothes as a pillow than to clean up after the saberling. One hand over her mouth and nose, the other holding a shovel, she examined her furry friend.
The saberling was on his hind legs, tailing wagging furiously. He licked his giant feline teeth, sniffing the air and making tiny purring noises. He leapt over and over again, but was always short of vaulting over his pen wall.
Emma glanced over at the homework list Instructor Andy had placed on a tree; a scroll with detailed instructions had been set on one of the many trees surrounding the classroom. On the list was each recruit’s name with a duty to be performed. Alongside her name, Em Duel, was a clear message: Clean the saberling’s pen and feed him his evening meal.
Emma looked down on the energetic ball of short, orangish-yellow hair. It wasn’t that she hated animals; to the contrary, she loved dogs and cats. But this little creature was going to hint at something off about her; it was practically doing cartwheels sniffing at her and purring non-stop.
“I think he likes you,” a familiar voice called over Emma’s shoulder. “He didn’t even get up when I walked into the room.”
Emma turned to see the Bracka boy who had been walking alongside Alexon when the conversation of homework had come up.
“I think you’re right.” Emma studied the saberling again, with his large pen and the piles of stinking excrement she was doomed to encounter. “This little guy really has it in for me.”
“Well, at least you don’t have to trim the Mamothons’ tusks.” The Bracka boy sidled up next to Emma with a pair of long shears in his hand. “You know how that can be.”
“Oh, yeah, Mamothons,” Emma repeated uncomfortably, already looking for a way to steer the conversation away from things she wasn’t sure if she should or shouldn’t know. “I’m Em, by the way.”
“Jaymore Hammerfist.” The Bracka boy moved the shears to his left hand and extended his right. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Both recruits shook hands. There was a shared wince as the raw skin on their palms reminded them of Instructor Grimm’s class.
“How’s your gut feeling after Instructor Drown’s lesson?” Jaymore asked hesitantly. “A lot of us thought it was wrong of him to pick on a student. I mean, especially the first day, when we’re all so new and still learning.”
“I’m fine,” Emma lied. Truth be told, her stomach felt as though it had been forced through a hundred sit-up workout routine. “Thanks for asking, though.”
“Of course.” Jaymore scratched the underside of his jaw with the shears. “We all have to stick together. These next four years are going to be tough. If we want to be alliance warriors, maybe even Arilion Knights one day and protect our home worlds, we’ll have to help each other out.”
“Oh look, isn’t that cute.” Dana’s voice sounded like nails on a chalkboard to Emma’s ears. “Shouldn’t you two be mucking out the stalls and trimming tusks right about now?”
“Oh, hello, Dana.” Jaymore turned with Emma to address their classmate, his cheeks already rosy red as blood rushed to his face. He hurried off into the forest, mumbling an excuse. “Yeah, you’re right. I was just about to start.”
“Don’t you have chores to do, too?” Emma examined the list of recruits’ names, along with the coinciding tasks to be performed. Sure enough, Dana’s name was there alongside the chore of feeding the turlock.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me.” Dana flipped her orange hair over her shoulder. “I have an allergy that keeps me from shoveling manure. All I have to do is throw a few pieces of fruit to a stupid beast and I’m done.”
“I should have known you’d find a way to get out of work.” Emma shook her head. She could be in an orbiting space academy millions of light years from Earth, but students would always be the same. There would always be bullies and slackers.
Students carrying out their own assignments hurried around the two girls, chancing sideways glances and whispers.
“By the way,” Dana said, hands moving from folded across her midsection to her hips. “Stay away from Daylon. He’s mine.”
“Or what?” Emma felt anger burn in her chest, the possibility of a physical confrontation exciting her in a way that was both surprising and unexpected. Emma had never been in a fight before in her life.
“Or you’ll regret it,” Dana growled.
“I’m sure.” Emma waved her free hand at the Halyna girl. “I’ll talk to whomever I want. You can’t claim people. Now get out of here. Some of us have real work to do.”
Emma could practically feel holes being drilled into her by a seething Dana, but she didn’t care. She was too proud of herself at having directly confronted the bully and without even stuttering. Maybe Tistan Duel was right. Maybe she was cut out for this warrior stuff after all.
Emma heard Dana stalk off into the forest as she climbed over the waist-high fence and into the saberling pen. The baby saberling attacked her in a series of jumps and nuzzles, its muscular body causing Emma to stumble more than once.
“Okay, okay, little guy.” Emma bent down to scratch the creature behind his ears, the odor of the pen making her gag in the process. “Let me clean this place up, then I’ll give you all the pets you want.”
While cleaning out the saberling’s pen, Emma held her breath until she felt light-headed and saw spots in front of her eyes. The poop was easy enough to scoop up in her shovel. The ground was nothing more than dirt with a thin layer of hay-like straw.
A few minutes of almost making herself pass out and Emma was finished. She closed the trash bin where the poop was held, refusing to look inside. She placed the shovel back in its stand next to the fence, all the while trying not to be tripped by the enthusiastic saberling.
“Okay, come on.” Emma dropped to her knees.
The saberling took her cue, launching itself in her arms. It seemed to like her face the most. Its soft, pink tongue slid back and forth between its comically huge upper two front canine teeth.
“Oh, you’re a sweet boy.” Emma wrestled the saberling on his back, where she gave him furious scratches to his belly. “You need to stop sniffing me so much, though. You’re going to get me in trouble.”
The saberling opened one eye as his tongue lolled out the side as if to say, “Okay as long as we both know you’re not fooling me.”
Emma found herself laughing out loud at the expression.
“Okay, kiddo.” Emma forced herself to her feet. “You need your dinner, and I have a track to run.”
On the other side of the saberling’s pen was a food receptacle bin and a water supply. Emma scooped a healthy serving of red meat from the bin and placed it inside a black bowl. She did the same with the water.
The saberling chomped down his meal, all thoughts of Emma and her human scent lost as he went to work on his dinner.
“Okay, buddy.” Emma stroked his back one last time. “Have a good night. I’ll be back tomorrow for class. I’ll come and say hi, I promise.”
Emma climbed over the gate pen, her mind already thinking of the ten laps around the track that waited for her, when the ground trembled and hysterical screams from the other students in the forest classroom ripped though the air.
The ground shook again, not like an earthquake, but like a herd of some large creatures had been let loose. It was too difficult to see what was going on through the trees, but a handful of students ran from somewhere deeper in the forest.
Emma caught sight of Jaymore pumping his short legs, shears forgotten somewhere in his panic.
“Jaymore”—Emma waved at him—“what is it?”
“Run, Emma,” Jaymore labored past heaving lungs. “Someone let out the turlocks.”
Emma was still processing his words when she got her first glance at what was causing the mass panic. A creature the shape of a rhinoceros but with shaggy hair and twin horns that resembled a bull’s, charged through the forest.
It was massive, like a Volkswagen bug made from muscle and bone, hell-bent on destroying anything in its path. Right now, its red eyes were zeroed in on Jaymore and a group of other students who were running for the classroom door.
Through the dense trees, Emma could have sworn she caught sight of a grinning Dana, but confirming seeing the Halyna girl would take more time than Emma had. She needed to make a quick decision—turn and run, or stay and help.
The same warrior spirit recently awoken from hibernation screamed inside her to take action. Without thinking what she was going to do, Emma ran toward the charging animal.
Shocked looks of confusion passed over the other students’ faces as they ran in the opposite direction.
“Emma,” Jaymore huffed past her. “No—run!”
In the next few minutes, Emma was either going to call on what Instructor Grimm had taught them that day, or become the galaxy’s largest shish kebob. Her body was traveling toward the infuriated animal, but Emma’s mind was somewhere else entirely.
Foam flecked from the alien beast’s mouth as its hooves struck the forest ground like hammers on an anvil.
If Emma had taken the time to concentrate on these details, fear might have overcome her. Instead, she harnessed her will. Emma felt heat from a reserve deep within warm her body.
Arms outstretched, Emma gripped the turlock’s horns, one in each hand, as recruit and alien animal clashed.
It was hard for Emma to imagine who was more shocked by the outcome as they met with a mind-numbing force. The two combatants struggled against one another, so evenly matched, they stayed rooted to the same spot, grunting. Emma’s arms trembled, and her mind refused to allow herself even a second to be amazed by what she was doing.
The turlock stared at her with wild, frightened eyes. The glare she had mistaken for rage a moment before was actually fear. But there was no time to wonder why the animal was terrified, and this became painfully true as the turlock changed tactics. Instead of focusing all of its effort in pushing through Emma, it began to shake its massive head from side to side.
First to the right, then to the left, it dug its hooves into the soft forest ground, trying to throw off Emma.
Emma gritted her teeth as everything around her dulled except for one thought: If I let go I’m dead.
She tried refocusing her willpower, but whatever miracle she had initially stopped the turlock with was fading. Emma’s hands began to sweat. Her feet churned, struggling to find balance as much as the turlock was.
Then her right hand slipped off the creature’s pointed horn, followed by her left. Up close, the horns looked like spears more than anything else. Emma fell to her knees, exhausted. Defeat meant death.
The turlock snorted, spraying mucus from its nostrils as it lowered its head and bore down on its target.
A roar—no, a growl—unlike anything Emma had ever heard interrupted the last few seconds of her life. Instead of the turlock impaling her with its horns, it threw its hind legs back, and the alien animal bucked like a rodeo horse, desperately trying to throw something off.
By some unknown miracle, the saberling had escaped his pen and hung onto the turlock’s back, both gigantic fangs stuck into its skin. With its front and rear legs, the saberling clawed like a rabid wolverine.
Emma was instantly aware of all the screaming and shouting from fellow classmates; the cacophony accompanied her struggle, like music playing in the background of an action scene.
Emma fought her way to her feet, her hands slick with not only sweat, but also blood. It seemed the turlock’s horns weren’t only sharp on the ends.
“Em, get back!”
She heard all of the pleas for retreat, and a part of her even wanted to run. But Emma Jackson was discovering something about herself: she had no desire to run from a fight. It wasn’t in her nature to leave a friend, even an animal, behind.
Beads of sweat rolled down her brow. Emma ignored the pain in her hands, clenching them, hoping it would somehow trigger what she knew was inside.
Specks of red flew in the air as the saberling punished the turlock. One particularly violent buck dislodged its hold on the animal’s rough skin and sent the saberling flying. Two heavy rear hooves kicked out just in time to connect with the baby feline’s ribs in a sickening sound. The saberling came to a skidding halt in a heap, unmoving. The turlock lowered its head in its tiny attackers direction, preparing to charge.
“No!” Emma shouted, light-headed but still running forward, not quite sure if her power had returned, but unwilling to stand by and do nothing. “Leave him alone!”
Out of her peripheral vision, Emma saw Instructors Grimm and Andy. The former was like a bullet speeding toward the turlock, the latter running on his bionic legs as fast as he could.
Faster than any human or alien species Emma had witnessed to date, Instructor Grimm was there. He grabbed the behemoth around the midsection, lifting it as if it weighed no more than a thin textbook.
The scene looked almost comical, with the short Bracka Instructor holding the thrashing turlock above his head. Slowly, the thrashing diminished and the wild snorts turned to pitiful moans.
Emma dropped to her knees, exhausted in a way she never knew. Her hands were drenched in her own blood. Her vision began to blur.
“Em, Em Duel are you injured?” Instructor Andy skidded to a halt next to her. He placed both hands on her shoulders, his nearly human face etched with concern.
Emma opened her mouth to answer, but she never got a word out. Unconsciousness came for her faster than vomit rose to her mouth after teleporting.
“The Arilion Order is returning but is that what we witnessed? It is possible for an Arilion to use their power without the aid of the vambraces but unlikely. The vambraces help channel the strength of will. For a newly chosen Arilion Knight it would be unlikely. Plus she’s not even on her home world of Renia,” Emma heard Instructor Grimm’s voice as she swam up from the silent darkness. “As long as I’ve been an instructor at the Academy, I’ve never seen something like this. There are so many questions. Not the least of is why wasn’t there the familiar purple glow that comes from a knight using his or her power?”
“You don’t need to remind me, old friend.” Slain’s voice sounded soft and mellow, despite his words. “Trust me, we’ll figure out what is going on. With the emergence of the new Arilion Knights perhaps some of the rules have changed.”
Bright light made Emma blink as she took in her new surroundings. She was lying on a clean, white bed in a gigantic room with empty beds to her right and left. Likewise, a row of beds mirrored her own on the other side of a wide walkway.
Along with the discovery of her new surroundings came two things:
First, she felt like she had been run over by a tractor. Every muscle in her body ached, and her hands felt like hot, stabbing pokers had been inserted into each palm.
Second, she wasn’t alone. Three faces looked at her. Dean Slain’s familiar orange hue and pointed ears; Instructor Grimm’s bald head and long beard; and a female Bracka she didn’t know.
“How are you feeling, Em?” Slain asked, leaning in a bit to show his concern. “You’ve been through quite a first day.”
“Where am I?” Emma tried propping herself up but her entire body protested, making her submit after only moving a few inches. “I feel like one big sore.”
“You’re safe in the infirmary, child.” The Bracka woman stepped up to her side with a smile on her wide lips. “You’re going to be okay. Once you get some rest and elixir into you, you’ll be up in no time.”
Emma knew nothing about the Bracka woman, but she found herself immediately liking her honest words and kind face.
“Yes, we’ll be quick, so as to not keep Madam Cherub from her work.” With a slight head tilt, Instructor Grimm addressed the woman. “I just wanted to make sure you’d be okay and to find out how you managed to master the first two lessons of Will so quickly.”
The honest truth? Emma had no idea how she had accomplished channeling her will into physical power. A guess would be that somehow being a hybrid human and Halyna had helped her, but there was no way she could tell Instructor Grimm that.
“I … I don’t know. I had to, so I did.” Emma slid a glance toward Slain, asking for help. “How did the turlock get free in the first place?”
“We’re working on that now.” Slain steered the conversation in the direction of the previously loosed animal. “All locks were secured when Instructor Andy left the classroom. It had to be one of the students when they were caring for the animals.”
A vision of Dana smiling in the forest flashed in front of Emma’s thoughts. Ratting someone out wasn’t exactly Emma’s style, and even if it was, she had no proof.
“Yes, turlocks are naturally peaceful animals. We’re working on what infuriated it, but that doesn’t answer the question of how you became a master of strength and durability in one day.” Instructor Grimm looked hard into Emma’s eyes, searching. “Unless there is more here than meets the eye.”
Emma looked away. Instructor Grimm’s gaze was like staring into the sun. Obviously he realized something out of the ordinary was at play, here.
“Well, I didn’t exactly master the lesson.” Emma raised her hands, only realizing now how heavily they were bandaged. “I wish I was some savant. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or something else.”
“Turlock horns are among the sharpest in cataloged history.” Instructor Grimm stroked his beard. “The shallow slices on your hand I’m sure are painful, but the turlock horns should have cleaved them in two.”
Emma shrugged, wincing at the action. She could only speculate, herself.
“That’s enough interrogation for one night, with all due respect, Dean and Instructor.” Madam Cherub started shooing Slain and Grimm away with her thick hands. “I told her roommates she wasn’t allowed visitors, and I’ve made exceptions for both of you long enough.”
Instructor Grimm looked like he was about to open his mouth to protest, when Slain placed a gentle hand onto his shoulder.
“Come along, old friend. Cherub is right. Em needs her rest.” Slain gave a sideways look to the Bracka woman one last time. “And we both know how she can be.”
Instructor Grimm allowed himself to be ushered from the infirmary under Slain’s steady hand.
“Layga and Jeba came to see me?” Emma smiled at the thought. “I guess I’ve managed to make some friends already.”
“I dare say you’ve made quite an impression at the Academy.” Cherub drew up a stool to sit by Emma’s side. “And not just your two roommates. There was a handsome Halyna boy named Daylon and a Bracka boy and Ree boy, as well. I think they said their names were Jaymore and Alexon. Not to mention all the gossip spreading like wild fire now calling you an Arilion Knight.”
Emma’s smile widened. A strange feeling came over her when she thought of the idea of having friends. It was so foreign, it was both exciting and wonderful at the same time.
“Now, now…” Cherub reached inside her white apron, producing a long, corked vial of bright blue liquid. “Let’s not get too carried away with ourselves. Arilion Knight or not you’ll be needing a solid night’s rest. This elixir is called Dreammend. It’ll accelerate your healing factor while you sleep. If all goes well, you’ll be ready to continue your training tomorrow.”
Emma opened her mouth as Cherub poured in the serum. It was actually the best thing Emma had ingested since her stay at the Academy had begun. Her taste buds puckered at the flavors of orange and lemon.
As soon as she had drunk the elixir, her eyes began to close. If the potion was indeed that strong, or if the idea of the potion being that strong, was the reason, Emma would never know. Sleep came for her quickly, and with it, nightmares.
Her home was alive with bright red-and-yellow tongues of fire. Not just her own home, her entire neighborhood, her entire city, maybe the world. Smoke curled up toward the cold night sky, becoming lost to the darkness.
Emma stood in the middle of the street, shivering, wearing a black compression suit outlined with purple stenciling.
A sound beyond the roaring fires dominated the scene for supremacy—a heavy buzzing sound, high overhead. Emma looked up in time to see the night sky’s stars blotted out by giant airships. These massive floating fortresses patrolled the sky, surveying the destruction.
Bright lights from the ships spotted her. Emma blinked against the illumination, her eyes dancing with black spots as she raised a hand, trying to focus. Thuds hit the ground all around her, accompanied by a whoosh of wings.
Before Emma lowered her hand to address her assailants, she already knew what she would find. Courage fought back the wave of fear that rushed down Emma’s spine.
The Shay were all around her. Impossible serpent-like humanoids standing on two feet, wings folded against their backs. The black uniforms with steel armor they wore made the aliens even more intimidating.
The warrior will rose up in Emma like a comet streaking for the surface. Heat not from the multiple fires tingled across her skin.
“Bend your knee, human.” The Shay in front of Emma took a step forward, raising a long rifle in her direction. “These sheep are not worth saving. Join us and be our ruler of this world.”
Somewhere deep in Emma’s consciousness she knew she was in a dream, maybe even a premonition of what could be if she failed to protect the Earth. Never had she imagined she would ever be given the option of ruling the world.
“Your father will be spared,” the Shay continued, taking Emma’s silence for intrigue. “Even your mother, with her many sins against our kind, could be spared if you surrender the Earth now.”
“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?” Emma realized what had been bothering her during her parlay with the enemy. “You wouldn’t be asking me to join you, if you could just crush me.”
The Shay lifted his weapon to his shoulder. Those around him did the same, leveling their giant blasters on Emma.
“Last chance, Halyna mutt,” the Shay roared in anger. “Will you yield?”
Emma woke, remembering her dream vividly. She had kept her first nightmare encounter with the Shay a secret—it felt childish to do anything else—but if this was becoming a trend, she needed help.
With no windows or clocks to offer the time, Emma turned to the ceiling to determine the hour. The space above her where the ceiling should have been, glowed light grey, as if the sun was just starting to dominate the day.
Next, Emma forced herself to sit up, and the pain that followed was nothing like she had experienced the day before. Her soreness was reduced tenfold; her hands still wrapped in gauze stung only the tiniest bit when she flexed them.
“Dreammend works wonders, doesn’t it?”
“Oh!” Emma jolted in bed. “Cherub, I didn’t see you there.”
The Bracka woman was sitting two beds down in the long infirmary room. Her white uniform and apron blended into the bed’s covers as if intended.
“I’ve lived a very long time.” Cherub stood and made her way to Emma’s side. “I’ve seen many strange things.”
Emma took a moment to study the Bracka’s face as she spoke. Cherub wasn’t lying about her age. Her rough features were lined with wrinkles, and her hair was pulled back in a tight, white bun. There was even an ever-so-slight hobble when she moved.
“But I have never seen a human in the Academy.” Cherub crossed her arms, peering down at Emma. “Much less a human-Halyna.”
Emma’s mouth fell open. What was she supposed to say? Cherub wasn’t even asking; she knew the entire truth already. Somehow Emma had been found out while she slept.
“I … I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emma sputtered. “I—”
“You can save your lies, child. Someone as brave as you doesn’t deserve their name tarnished with excuses. I’m not going to tell anyone. It’s obvious you couldn’t have gotten here without help. It’s even more obvious from last night’s meeting that Instructor Grimm has no idea and Dean Slain is helping you.”
Emma literally bit her tongue.
“I did a blood sample to make sure your bloodstream wasn’t infected from the turlock’s horns.” Cherub reached under Emma’s bed to produce a folded Academy uniform. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I know right and wrong when I see it. It’s a gift that comes with being too old.”
“Thank you.” Emma didn’t think offering gratitude to the woman was admitting anything. “I feel much better.”
“You take care of yourself, young lady.” Cherub patted her gently on the wrist before walking away. “You’re playing a very dangerous game. If the Alliance finds out…”
Cherub didn’t finish her sentence, and Emma thought she meant to leave the words to her own imagination. One thing was certain, Emma needed to get to the bottom of her dreams, and there was only one person she had access to who could help.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” Drown growled, looking up from his place on the practice mat in his classroom. “At the very least, you should be eating breakfast with the others. Our class doesn’t begin for another hour.”
“You know who—what—I am. Tistan told me,” Emma said so loudly, she almost shouted out the words. “I want answers.”
Drown raised a pointed finger with a scowl, signaling her for silence. He rose from the mat. Drown crossed the room before looking down the long stone hall connecting his dungeon-like area to the rest of the Academy. When he was satisfied they were alone, he turned back to Emma.
“You need to watch your volume and what you say. This place has ears of its own.” Drown glanced down at Emma’s wrapped hands before addressing her again. “Why don’t you go to Slain for answers?”
“Because he’ll try to protect me.” Emma scowled at the tall Halyna Instructor, remembering the strike he landed from the day before. “I know you’re not pulling any punches.”
“Babying you while Tistan and Slain entertain this stupid idea of you protecting Earth isn’t doing you any favors.” Drown scowled so hard, the scar on his face seemed to deepen. “What is it you want to know?”
“I’m having dreams of the Shay.” Emma hesitated, trying to decide if dreams were the best way to describe them. “Nightmares, maybe. Maybe even glimpses into the future. I don’t know.”
“No one knows, Emma.”
For the first time since Emma had met the Halyna instructor, Drown’s voice was something other than commanding. Not soft, but a hint of concern was buried somewhere deep in his words.
“You’re the very first of your kind. A hybrid of Halyna and—” Drown grimaced as if a bad taste had entered his mouth and taken up permanent residence. “Human. You’re operating in uncharted territory. I heard of your advanced learning to harness the first two tools of being an alliance warrior. That turlock should have trampled you and shredded you in the process. It seems having a mother from my own race and a father from the humans has positioned you to live a very interesting life. Some are saying you’re even an Arilion Knight. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that though. I’m chalking up your accelerated learning to your mixed DNA.”
“Yeah.” Emma hadn’t meant for so much sadness to sit in that word. She hated showing weakness to anyone, especially to a teacher like Drown. “Well, thanks for nothing, I guess. I’ll have to figure this out on my own.”
Emma turned, her mind already at work on where next to look for answers.
“Like I said, you’re the first of your kind, so there are no other cases to learn from.” Drown’s voice followed her down the hall. “But if you go to the library, you may be able to track down some special cases of recruits who were quick learners here at the Academy.”
“Thanks,” Emma called over her shoulder. It seemed if answers were to be found at all, it would be up to her to find them.
“I bet it was Dana.” Layga stared across the mess hall to where Dana sat uncharacteristically quiet with the other two Halyna girls and Daylon. “I should go over there and give her a piece of my mind.”
“Easy, giant,” Jeba said around a mouthful of oatmeal-like gruel. “There are strict rules of no fighting in the Academy. I mean, no fighting outside of practice.”
“Plus, I don’t have anything to prove she actually did let the turlock go.” Emma shoved another spoonful of the breakfast mash into her mouth. Apparently, being nearly killed by a turlock created quite an appetite. “For now, we’ll just have to be careful around her.”
The three girls nodded in unison.
The rest of Emma’s day passed in a blur of concerned friends and questions as to her health. It seemed the word had spread quickly of her encounter with the turlock. Emma was surprised to see nearly all of the first-year recruits worried for her well-being; all, that is, except for Daylon, Dana, and her clones.
It didn’t surprise Emma that the other Halyna girls refused to talk to her, but she did feel a stab of pain when Daylon failed to even look her way that day.
The classes were all what Emma had expected. Another brutal sparring session with Drown, mixing healing elixirs with Talisha, and a nervous Andy reiterating beast safety.
Emma was happy to see the only injuries the saberling had endured were a set of mild bruises where the turlock had struck. After class, Emma hung behind to give the creature some special one-on-one time.
“It’s obvious he enjoys your company.” Andy wiped the homework assignment board clean with a rough brush. “Saberlings aren’t known for their attachment to anyone, Halyna or otherwise.”
“Well, if we didn’t share a bond before, we do now.” Emma ruffled the saberling’s ears with her left hand. “What’s his name, by the way?”
“Oh, he was only just born when the last instructor suffered his injury. He hasn’t been named yet.” Andy extended his mechanical pointer finger. A cap opened and the tip of a pen protruded forward. He began writing down homework assignments for the evening. “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had a chance, what with all the curriculum to keep up with and turlocks running about. Perhaps you would like to name him, Em Duel?”
“Me?” Emma stopped stroking the saberling’s soft fur amidst loud purrs of protest. “Are you sure?”
“It seems most fitting.” Andy took a break from writing down the class homework assignments to fix Emma with a sad smile. “Besides, I may not be here much longer. It seems some of the recruits have parents who don’t appreciate their children being taught by an android.”
“Who?” Emma didn’t have to ask, but she did anyway. “That’s horrible. You have as much right to teach as anyone else. Your knowledge and ability, not what you are, should define you.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Andy snapped out of his defeated state. He went back to work on his list. “What does matter is that you give your new friend a name.”
“Too bad you’re not more like a dog,” Emma whispered into the saberling’s ear. “I’d call you Wolf.”
“What was that?” Andy asked.
“Oh, nothing.” Emma got up, covered in saberling hair. She dusted herself off, winking at her four-legged friend. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Instructor Grimm’s class was last, and Emma caught him eyeing her on more than a few occasions. Her ability to harness the skill of durability and strength were still at her disposal. Emma crushed a small rock in her right hand, and her skin didn’t even redden under the pressure of a dull knife.
When Entry to Arilion was over, Emma wasted no time in heading for the exit. The last thing she wanted was another awkward conversation with Instructor Grimm.
“Hey, where are you going?” Layga asked as they left the mountaintop classroom. She pointed an outstretched hand to where all the students were headed like a herd of turlock. “The mess hall’s this way.”
“Oh, I know,” Emma said, preparing to use her premeditated excuse. “I’m going to go to the library to get a head start on our homework for Elixirs to Live By. I’ll grab something later.”
Jeba and Layga exchanged looks with one another that said anyone willing to miss a meal should be committed to an asylum, then left.
Emma breathed a sigh of relief. She hated lying to her new friends, but she needed to do this on her own. If there was the slightest chance she could find out what she was or why she was experiencing this link with the Shay, she needed to take it.
Her holo band told Emma where the closest transport was. It also gave her a detailed schematic of the library on a higher level. Emma managed to teleport to the library level with minimal nausea. Either she was getting used to being teleported around, or her mind was too inundated with the survival of herself and her world to care about upset stomachs.
When Emma stepped out of the cylindrical opening in the hall marking the teleporter, she stood still for a moment, stunned. The library was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Impossibly tall shelves rose three stories, where long walkways connected overhead, forming arching patterns along the second and third floor. Chairs and tables were clumped together here and there, allowing studying students to take their pick of reading spaces.
Trying to do the math in her head of how many volumes had to be contained in the Academy’s library was pointless. Most of the recruits were at dinner, save for a handful of third- and fourth-years who barely gave her a second look.
Emma chose a random hall between two massive shelves. It felt like walking into a canyon. She didn’t have the first clue of how to find what she was looking for. Was there a librarian to ask or computer to consult? If there was either one, was it worth putting out into the open what she was looking for?
“Emma.” Her mother’s soft voice had caught her off guard.
Emma whirled around and looked up to where the voice had drifted down. Tistan Duel stood on a second-level walkway near a supporting pillar. She wore the same long cloak that blended with her surroundings perfectly.
In one graceful move, Tistan vaulted over the chest-high railing and landed next to her daughter. Her moves were like a cat, and Emma found herself admiring the performance.
“What are you doing here?” Emma whispered, looking up and down the aisle to make sure they were alone. “I thought you said we couldn’t be seen together.”
“I needed to talk with you.” Tistan moved a finger to her lips, then motioned with an outstretched palm for Emma to follow.
Emma bit back the barrage of questions begging to escape her lips. Instead, she followed her mother through a winding maze of bookshelves. Hugging the corners, they stayed in the library’s limited shadows. Soon, Emma found herself lost in the twists and turns with the smell of old books tickling her nose.
Finally, Tistan called a stop in a hidden reading corner buried deep in the library, where two overstuffed chairs sat next to a lamp. There was only one way into the secluded reading corner and only one way out.
“We can talk freely here.” Tistan sat in one of the chairs. She opened her robe to cross her legs. Underneath the fabric was a black-and-red uniform emblazoned with the symbol of a winged creature that reminded Emma of a phoenix.
“So, what are you doing here?” Emma repeated her previous words. “You said we couldn’t meet.”
“And I was correct to say that.” Tistan cleared her throat, searching for the right words. “If we’re found talking, it will only raise questions neither one of us want to answer. I came because Slain said there was an accident, and Drown is worried about you.”
“Drown?” Emma gave her mother a sideways look. “I can understand Slain letting you know what happened with the turlock, but … Drown’s worried? I thought the only thing that goes through that guy’s mind is training exercises and drills.”
“Life experiences have shaped Drown to be a blunt instrument when it comes to peacetime, but underneath the rough exterior is a loyal … friend.” Tistan tried to hide the hesitation between the rest of what she said and the last word she’d chosen.
It didn’t work. Emma was an expert when it came to picking up on the subtle ways girls spoke about men. It was her unique power to be able to binge entire seasons of TV shows. Hours of show watching while snacking on sugar and fats had taught her there was a history between Tistan and Drown.
“Secrets aren’t going to help me.” Emma plopped down onto the seat next to Tistan. “I already have enough to deal with.”
“What are you talking about?” Tistan leaned forward, concern in her eyes. “Is this about the dreams you’ve been having? Drown told me about your conversation.”
“No, no, no, back up.” Emma frowned. “You’re not going to get out of this that easy. What’s going on between you and Drown?”
“Nothing is going on between Drown and I.”
“Really?” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “Because it sounds like he hates humans, and you’re the only reason he’s helping me in the first place.”
“It’s true, Drown has no love for humanity. When we were stationed to assess Earth’s inclusion into the Alliance, we saw some very disturbing scenes. Humans are capable of some very evil acts, as well as some very loving deeds. It’s a shame Drown chooses to focus only on the worst one is able to achieve.”
“And … ?” Emma wasn’t exactly sure why she was so positive there was more. Maybe it was the level of disdain Drown had for her, or perhaps it was some intuition Emma was only beginning to understand.
“And,” Tistan went on, “perhaps there was a time I knew Drown had a personal interest in me, but that was a very long time ago.” She took a deep breath, as if every word from this point on in the conversation required some physical effort. “That was before I met your father. Drown knew my choice. Since then, he has not so much as hinted at feelings for me. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. My heart already belongs to your father.”
“When you came down to Earth to see if humanity was ready to know about the Alliance and other species, about all of this,” Emma waved her hand around at the Academy, “you voted that Earth should be told, didn’t you?”
“I did. I was able to see humanity for what is was: primitive, capable of evil, yes, but it holds a capacity for so much good. In this way, humans are no different than Halyna, Bracka, or Ree.” Tistan’s gaze fell from her daughter as if she were recalling a vivid memory, long past. “I was outvoted. It seemed Slain and Drown didn’t feel the same way I did.”
The conversation between mother and daughter paused as a wandering student came close to their alcove. The lost student muttered something about finding a sleeping elixir book, and Tistan waited for the light footsteps to fade before continuing on.
“Now, I didn’t come here to talk about my past.” Tistan opened the folds of her cloak, pulling a small book from her belt. “I came here to help you with your future. Since you’re the first of your kind, a hybrid between human and Halyna, there is no way to be sure what the dreams you’re having really are.”
“That’s reassuring.” Emma accepted the book from her mother. It was new, and a soft, black cover with two simple words etched in the front read: The Shay.
“Until we know otherwise, I’m going to operate under the assumption that your dreams are a physical manifestation of the stress you’re under.” Tistan stood, reminding Emma of how tall her mother really was. “I understand bearing the fate of Earth can’t be easy.”
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me.”
“Maybe if you understood exactly what you’re up against, it would provide some comfort.” Tistan ignored Emma’s last remark, moving to the exit of their reading nook. She paused on her way out leaning down to tap Emma’s holo band. “I’m going to add a function to your holo band. You’ll be able to contact me whenever you need me.”
“Tistan.” Emma still wasn’t willing to call the woman her mother. The name was too intimate. If she was honest with herself, she still harbored a grudge against the woman who’d left her. “Thank you.”
“I understand it will take some time for you to trust me.” Tistan turned. If she was hurt by having her daughter refer to her by her first name, she didn’t show it. “But we have time now. I’m not going anywhere. I’m very proud of the woman you are becoming, Emma Jackson. I just want you to know that.”
“I hate feeling feelings,” Emma muttered in the wake of her mother’s departure. Like any good teenager her age, Emma bottled up the raging emotions battling inside of her, to address at another time … or never.
Right now, she needed a quiet place to crack open the book she held in the crook of her right elbow. The library seemed like the obvious choice, but Emma was having a hard time concentrating with random students walking the halls, muttering about finding books.
Instead of trying to find another nook to read in, Emma opted for traveling to the observatory. It was marked on her holo band as the highest level in the Academy. Since she’d first discovered it, she’d wanted to once more make a trip to see the stars and planets surrounding the Academy.
A short ride through the teleporter and a queasy stomach later, Emma stepped onto the observatory floor. If she thought the library level was something special, she had no idea what to think of what lay in front of her now. It was one wide-open room with glass walls and an actual ceiling. A glass dome opened up to the galaxy beyond the Academy.
Across the floor that hummed with light were recliners, tables, and the odd potted plant added for decoration. It was clear this level was meant for a single purpose: to gaze up into the stars with awe.
Emma wasn’t surprised to find the massive room practically empty. Students would be studying for exams and finishing homework, not traveling to the observatory to waste time.
The rogue idea that she, too, should be completing homework entered Emma’s mind. As soon as it had voiced its opinion, though, Emma silenced it. She would complete her assignments after she studied her enemy. If Tistan was right, then maybe, just maybe, learning about the Shay would answer her questions and put her mind at ease.
Emma chose a dark brown recliner in the middle of the observatory. Before opening the volume in her hand, she took a moment to admire the view.
The glass walls and dome provided the perfect view to a breathtaking scene, where thousands of lights and swirling masses marked the planets and stars. The multitude of colors amazed Emma. It reminded her of how small she really was in the grand scheme of the universe. The planet Stardox, which the Academy orbited, reminded Emma of Earth—vast bodies of water separated by massive landmasses.
Emma allowed herself one last look before she turned to the book in her hands. The table of contents organized it more as a resource guide than a novel. Each section was titled with words like: origin, weaponry, physical attributes, political structure, etc.
Without a second thought, Emma turned to the section of the book about the Shay’s physical appearance. What she found made her stomach do a backflip: a detailed drawing of the same creature from her dreams—tall and lizard-like, with a long snout, wings and a tail.
This had to be something more than a coincidence. How had she accurately imagined what the Shay looked like in her dreams, without ever having laid eyes on one before?
“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?”
Daylon’s voice startled Emma. She shoved the book between herself and the recliner seat cushion.
“Sorry.” Daylon took the recliner next to her. “I didn’t mean to scare you. What were you reading?”
“Oh … uh … uh … it was a book on the Shay.” Emma mentally kicked herself for not only for telling Daylon about the book, but for also stuttering. “Trying to keep informed, you know?”
“Keep informed on the Shay?” Daylon lifted his brow. “They’ve given every Alliance planet a wide berth. I don’t think you have to worry about them.”
“Right.” Emma licked dry lips. Trying to maintain eye contact with Daylon was nearly impossible. “So what are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, actually.”
“Yeah, I just wanted to say I’m sorry for not asking you about the incident with the turlock yesterday.” Daylon looked down as if he were actually ashamed. “It’s just the Academy and all of the politics have me in a weird headspace.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of embarrassing.”
“You’re talking to the girl who still has to fight back her vomit when she rides the teleporter.” Emma couldn’t help smiling. “How much more embarrassing can your story be?”
“Good point.” Daylon took a long breath, trying to figure out where to start. “Well, my family isn’t very well-off. No, I’m lying when I say that. My father and mother work hard, but we’re poor.”
Daylon paused to search Emma’s eyes for any judgment.
Emma’s gaze remained vacant. She never had to worry about food being on the table, but at times she had seen her father wait to buy a pair of shoes he needed or drive the same vehicle for the last decade instead of taking on a car payment he couldn’t afford.
“My father works for the company Dana’s father owns.” Daylon couldn’t make eye contact with Emma now. “I thought if I made a good impression on her, maybe word would get back to her father and somehow things will get better for my family. I know its weird and stupid, and it might not work out, but I thought it’s worth a shot.”
“It’s never stupid to try to help your family.” Emma could practically feel her heart warm with compassion for Daylon.
“No…” Daylon agreed, sinking deeper into his recliner. “But I also shouldn’t use people or neglect friends because I’m worried about what other people think.”
Emma felt her heartbeat quicken. Her palms began to sweat as if the temperature of the recliner she was sitting in had risen by ten degrees.
“You’re my friend.” Daylon sat up, gently placing his hand on top of her bandaged palm. “I ignored you today because I knew Dana was going to, and she’s an attention magnet. I’m not going to ignore you anymore. I felt horrible when everyone was going up to see how you were doing, and I hung back.”
“It’s … it’s okay,” Emma managed, grateful her hand was still wrapped in gauze. Hopefully, Daylon wouldn’t be able to feel the sweat. “Thanks for letting me know. That means a lot that you came here to talk to me.”
Daylon removed his hand and leaned forward. Emma felt herself doing the same. Her heart beat like she had just chugged a large vanilla mocha. She closed her eyes and leaned toward him.
“What are you doing?”
“What?” Emma opened her eyes to see why Daylon had leaned in. His holo band was open with their homework assignment for the day. “I—I don’t know.What—what are you doing?”
“I was going to see if you understood Instructor Tescot’s homework assignment for us tonight.” Daylon turned his head, giving her a sideways look. “Why were your eyes closed?”
“My eyes weren’t closed.” Emma swallowed hard. “I was just blinking.”
“That was a long blink.”
“Yeah, well, I have a condition.”
“Anyway.” Emma stood, grabbing her book on the Shay. “I’d better be going. We have all that homework, you know. See you later.”
Emma was already on her way to the teleporter, speed walking like she was in dire need of the restroom.
“Okay, see you tomorrow in class,” Daylon shouted behind her.
“See you tomorrow.” Emma reached the teleporter, pressing the button for her floor as she muttered, “Really, a blinking condition?”
At the Academy, life took on a pace all its own. Days turned into weeks, and before Emma knew what was happening, a full month had passed. She was first in her class in both Entry to Arilion and Combat Training. Beast Prevention was a bit more challenging, as was Elixirs to Live by, where Emma couldn’t get the sleeping elixir exactly right and kept knocking herself out halfway through class.
She spoke to her father nearly every day, and he couldn’t wait to see her at the end of the summer. If she was honest with herself, Emma felt the same way. The only thing that made being apart from her father bearable was what she knew she was preparing to save him from.
All things considered, everything was running as smoothly as it could … when you’re a teenager preparing to defend Earth from an invading alien force. Everything was fine that is, until the end of the first month, that is, when Emma was told the news.
“You’ll be leaving tomorrow morning on your first training mission to Stardox.” Drown looked at his line of recruits with a wicked grin. “While you’re there, you’ll be able to test everything you’ve learned over the course of the last month.”
Drown’s classroom, which usually lived with a sense of fear from the recruits, suddenly burst into wide-eyed whispers.
Emma looked around, confused. No one had told her about any training exercises on the planet the Academy orbited. She was one part scared, one part excited, and one part worried.
She looked over to Layga, whose eyes were as large as her own. Jeba just shrugged with open hands. Seemed they weren’t the only ones taken off guard.
“Yes, Daylon?” Drown motioned to the Halyna boy. “Do you have a question?”
“Yes, Instructor.” Daylon lowered his hand. “I was under the impression that the Stardox drills began after the second month of classes, and with more notice.”
“That’s how things have been done in the past.” Drown placed clenched fists on either side of his waist. “This year we decided to mix things up a bit. It’s not much of a test if you’re able to plan and prepare, is it? We want to see what you know now, not what you can learn, with a deadline in place.”
Every student stood stunned. Emma would have been more worried had she known exactly what a trip to the planet Stardox entailed. For now, she was left wondering what waited for her on the alien planet below.
“Your combat training has improved over the last month.” Drown walked up and down the line of recruits, looking everyone in the eye. He paused when he got to Emma. “But strikes, kicks, and throws, no matter how proficient you are, will do you no good against an enemy with a solid grappling technique. We’ll begin mat work today, and for those of you who survive Stardox, we’ll continue the lessons when you return.”
Every day, the twenty-four students rotated training partners. It was just Emma’s luck that today she was paired against Dana. The other Halyna girl grimaced when she realized what Emma already knew: it would be a long class.
“You sweat like a Bordou,” Dana said, completing a ground move that sent Emma to the mat with Dana on top of her. “You should really change your deodorant. It’s not working.”
As the two girls reset their stance, Emma fought back the anger. Incredible strength, thanks to Instructor Grimm’s class in Entry to Arilion, was at her call at a moment’s notice. She fantasized for a brief second what it would look like to hip-toss Dana through the opposite wall.
“I think you’re smelling yourself.” Emma threw Dana to the floor a little harder than she had to, and the air escaped from Dana in a loud whoosh that left her coughing.
Emma felt a twinge of regret as Dana struggled to regain her feet. She extended a hand to help the girl up.
Dana slapped away the offered hand. “I don’t need your help. But thanks to Stardox, there’s no need to worry about you anymore. There’s no way a clown such as yourself is going to make it off that planet.”
“Why are you such a bully?” Emma assumed the starting position again. “Does it make you feel better about yourself, putting other people down?”
“Actually, yeah, it kind of does.” Dana threw Emma to the ground violently. “Lower class filth like you is everything that’s wrong with the Academy. They’ll let in anyone who shows even a hint of spirit. You should be removed, just like the android.”
Dana’s last throw would leave a bruise. Emma jumped up from the mat, showing Dana she was more than fine.
“What are you talking about?” Emma’s voice rose louder than she’d intended.
Dana smirked. “You’ll see.”
“Is there a problem over here, ladies?” Drown walked over, his hands held behind his back.
“No problem.” Dana walked backwards with her own hands in the air. “I was just giving Em a little lesson in where she belongs in life.”
Talking to Dana was so infuriating, Emma chose to put her head down and just make it through the rest of the class. It felt like an eternity before Drown called an end to the lesson.
Emma filed from the room with the rest of the recruits, joined by Layga and Jeba. She made herself forget about Dana, and instead, focused on figuring out exactly what a trip to Stardox entailed and why everyone was so frightfully anxious about it.
“Well, like Daylon said, usually the first live exercise on Stardox doesn’t come until after month two into the program.” Layga waved her hands in the air, speaking as if she had just been injected with an elixir of pure caffeine. “There must be a good reason why they’re letting us go now. Maybe they think we’re ready.”
Emma shoved back the idea that the mission’s timetable was being pushed up for her. She had just over a month before she was supposed to be defending the Earth from the Shay. Instead of voicing this opinion, she asked, “What happens on Stardox? I mean, what are we supposed to do once we get there?”
“That’s why everyone’s so nervous.” Jeba grunted beside them. “We won’t know until we get there. Every year, the mission parameters change. Sometimes it’s as simple as a game of capture the flag or seek and evade. Other years it’s … a bit more fun. Oh, I hope we get to use weapons.”
“Weapons?” Emma looked at Jeba, trying to discern if she was joking or actually serious. It was impossible to tell.
“Whatever happens, we’ll be fine.” Layga sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than her friends. “We’ll be monitored by the Academy. No one has ever died on a training exercise to Stardox; they’ve dropped out afterward, but not died.”
“Some have been brutally maimed and disfigured, as well,” Jeba added, reaching into her pocket and pulling out what looked like a stick of dried meat. She crunched on it thoughtfully. “But you’re right. I can’t think of anyone who’s actually died.”
This uplifting conversation was all the girls had time for before they reached their next class.
Once all of the recruits were seated in Beast Prevention, Instructor Andy addressed them.
“It is my sad duty to inform you that this will be my last class.” Andy’s eyes lowered in a sign of depression. “I do not know who will be replacing me, but I’m sure he or she will be an adequate teacher for Beast Prevention.”
A series of groans erupted. Emma shot a hate-filled glare at Dana, who sat with her entourage, giggling at the android’s misfortune.
“We’ll write a petition,” Alexon said from his seat. “They have to keep you.”
“We can all go and talk to Dean Slain,” Jaymore added amongst the growing outcry.
“No, no!” Andy waved his mechanical hands at the outraged class. “It’s already been decided. I’m just grateful for the time we’ve had together. Besides, I was informed that tomorrow you begin your first mission to Stardox. We’ve covered saberlings and turlocks, both of which you will encounter there, but we need to go over zurlocks, as well. I won’t have my students wandering the jungle of Stardox with green fever and swollen toes.”
Elixirs to Live by and Entry to Arilion were much the same as Beast Prevention, with instructors scrambling to inform their recruits on what they might encounter. Talisha Tescot had them practice a cure for poison, as well as a simple recipe for cloaking their scent.
It wasn’t a surprise that Emma was all thumbs, fumbling with her burner and overheating the solvent. Her elixir intended to mask her scent ended up smelling like a cross between Jeba’s workout clothes and turlock poop.
“Any good elixir requires patience.” Instructor Tescot sidled up to Emma, lowering the flame on her burner. “You have all the knowledge on how to prepare the recipe, without any of the desire to wait.”
“I know.” Emma let out a deep sigh. “I guess I feel like I don’t have a lot of time to learn.”
“You have plenty of time, child.” Talisha patted Emma’s hand. “Slow down and try again.”
Emma wished Talisha’s words were true.
“Well, the upside of having to go to Stardox early is that there’s no homework tonight.” Layga was lying on her bed, looking up into a three-hundred-sixty degree view of the planet Stardox. “Right, guys?”
Emma was lost in replaying the day’s Entry to Arilion class over and over in her head. When the class was over, Instructor Grimm, who had kept a close eye on her ever since the turlock had gotten loose, had asked her to stay and talk.
“You’re special, Em Duel,” he’d said, searching for any hint she would tell him what she was hiding. When she didn’t, he continued. “You’ve mastered, in a month, what it will take others an entire year to do, and some may never reach the height you’ve already managed to achieve. With this power comes a responsibility to look after your fellow recruits.…”
“Em, Jeba, are you listening to me?” Layga sat up from her bed to look over at her two roommates.
“What?” Jeba snorted, clearly waking up from an impromptu nap. “No, I fell asleep. Your voice is like a never ending lullaby.”
“Sorry, I was lost in thinking about tomorrow.” Emma sat up, giving Layga her full attention. “Yeah, I’m glad we don’t have homework tonight.”
“It doesn’t look so bad, does it?” Layga looked at the walls and floor of their room, taking in the lush greens of Stardox projected on their wall. “We’ll be fine, as long as we stick together.”
“I hope so, Layga.” Emma lowered herself back to her pillow, thinking about the possibilities the next day would bring.
Emma tossed and turned all night, her brain on overdrive, imagining every kind of scenario from Dana finding a way to kill her in the jungles of Stardox, to letting herself, her friends, and her father down in not being able to complete whatever was asked of them on the planet.
It was dark and uncharacteristically free of snores in their room. Emma had no idea what time it was, but she knew it had to be in the very early hours of the morning.
“Em,” Layga whispered from her bed. “Are you awake?”
Emma’s eyes were already open, gaze drifting through the dark room. A dull light came from the floor, providing just enough illumination to make out outlines of furniture.
“I’m awake, Layga,” Emma whispered back. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you … are you scared at all?”
“Yeah, nervous, scared, anxious. I feel like an advanced elixir from Tescot’s class. I’m a bubbling mass of it all.” Emma was surprised to feel a hint of relief at having voiced her feelings. “You?”
“Yeah, of course.” Layga hesitated uncharacteristically, while her normal, bubbling optimistic tone took on a burden of doubt. “I have a lot riding on my success at the Academy. I don’t really get along with my family at home. If I drop out or get cut, I don’t think I can face them.”
“I’m sure they’d welcome you back, Layga.” Emma tried to choose her words wisely. The last thing she wanted was to open any wounds from Layga’s past. “The Layga I’ve gotten to know would be welcome anywhere.”
“Thanks, Em. And they would allow me back it’s just … do you ever feel … I don’t know. Forget it.”
“No, what were you going to say? I want to know.”
“It’s stupid.” Layga exhaled slowly. If Emma had to guess, the Ree was fighting back tears. “Do you ever feel like you’re a stranger to your own family? Like they don’t even know you at all?”
“I can relate to that.” Emma thought about the mother she’d never known and the father who still didn’t know she was half alien. “But we’re a kind of a family here.”
“What do you mean?” Layga sniffed.
“She means the experiences we’ve shared, and the experiences we will share, are forming a bond amongst us all, giant.” Jeba’s gruff voice filled the room. “I’ve tried to resist, but even I can feel the pull to befriend you two.”
“Jeba, you’re awake?” Layga asked.
Emma could make out Layga’s large silhouette as she sat up in her bed, her massive head tilting over to try to get a glimpse of Jeba.
“How could I not be?” Jeba sat up, tapping the light board beside her bed. She increased the illumination from the floor just enough so they could see each other. “I’m sorry about your family. I can’t empathize with you, but I can sympathize. I don’t form bonds very well myself. My mother is a high-ranking official in the Alliance. We moved a lot when I was younger. It just got easier not to get to know people at all instead of losing friends over and over again.”
It was Emma’s turn to sit up in bed. She looked at her roommates one at a time. She hated lying, but she would get as close to the truth as she could without putting them in a compromising spot.
“I guess I’m somewhere in the middle,” Emma started, trying to figure out what she was going to say next while she was saying it. “I never knew my mother until one day, recently, she just pops out of nowhere. Usually, I’m just a magnet for bullies. Friends have never been easy for me to make until … until I got here and made two really great ones.”
Layga got up from her bed, rubbing at her eyes. She sat down beside Emma, making Emma’s bed groan in protest. With one muscular arm, she wrapped Emma into a hug. Her other arm reached to Jeba’s bed, pulling the Bracka over to join them.
Emma was sure Jeba could have fought off the embrace. Instead, she allowed herself to be guided from her bed onto Emma’s.
“Just for a minute,” Jeba mumbled as the three girls embraced in a quick hug. “Okay, that’s enough.”
Emma felt like a weight had been lifted from her soul. The three girls sat on the same bed, talking about their lives before the Academy, Emma heavily edited her version but kept the core elements the same. The more they talked, the more Emma felt she was in the right place. Somehow, everything would work out. Then the sirens started.
The blare was earsplitting. Emma surged to wakefulness, not even realizing when she had fallen asleep. They were still all in Emma’s bed. Layga rolled off, hitting the floor with a heavy thud when the alarm began. Jeba was still snoring like a hibernating bear.
Along with the alarm, red lights began flashing on and off. Emma rubbed her eyes, trying to figure out if this was all part of their mission to Stardox or if something darker was at play.
“First-year recruits are to report to the teleportation level immediately,” Instructor Grimm’s voice spoke through the intercom. “The Stardox training mission begins in fifteen minutes.”
“Jeba. Jeba, wake up.” Layga shook the Bracka. “It’s time to go.”
“Five more minutes.” A line of drool traveled down the corner of Jeba’s lips to the cover beneath her head.
“We only have fifteen.” Emma climbed out of bed. She helped Layga shake Jeba until the Bracka’s eyes were open. “Come on, it’s time to do this.”
The three girls raced to wash up and change into their Academy uniforms before joining the rest of their level at the teleporters on their floor.
The air was filled with excited chatter. The last vestiges of sleep were fading from recruits’ eyes as they waited their turns to enter the teleporters. There were two teleporters on their floor, located between the girls’ and boys’ wings. The fact each could only teleport five recruits at a time made for a short wait.
“Did you sleep at all?” Daylon got in line behind Emma and her roommates. “I think I might have gotten a full hour in somewhere between all my tossing and turning.”
“I’m just ready to start.” Emma felt the warrior inside her tremble with anticipation. “I’m tired of waiting and stressing. Let’s just get this done.”
“After you.” Daylon smiled, extending his hand to their position now at the front of the transporter. “The transportation level is pretty far below us. It’s one of the last levels on the Academy.”
“Oh, okay,” Emma said. Emma, her roommates, and Daylon were joined in the transporter by a grinning Alexon.
“He’s telling you that so you can prepare yourself,” the Ree said, standing sideways so both he and Layga would fit. “The farther you have to be teleported, you know, the more likely you’re going to throw up.”
Everyone tried to shy away from Emma as Daylon pressed the button for the transportation level.
A second later, every one was rushing out of the transporter as Emma doubled over, wincing. Luckily for her, there was nothing in her stomach. Two dry heaves later, she joined the rest of the recruits on the teleportation level.
This floor looked a lot like many of the others in the Academy. Emma was getting a strong feeling that whoever had designed the space station had an inclination for massive rooms, with as much open space as possible. In front of her was a giant glass window overlooking the vastness of space. On the other three walls were teleporters of varying sizes and shapes, some only large enough to teleport a single person, while others looked like warehouse doors capable of teleporting a tank or an aircraft.
In the center of the room stood Instructor Grimm and Dean Slain. In front of the two veterans were neatly stacked piles of clothing and supplies.
“Good morning, recruits,” Dean Slain said. Dressed in a light-colored cloak, his hair pulled back to show off his pointed ears, he struck quite the figure. “If I can have your attention for just a moment, we can begin.”
Everyone immediately stilled, the silence in the large staging room palpable. Emma could hear her heart beating in her ears as she made eye contact with Slain. To his credit, he passed over her quickly.
“The entire purpose of this training exercise is to test yourself on what you know and what you still need to learn,” Slain began. “We’ll be monitoring your progress every step of the way. There are supplies and a uniform for you here to take with you before you teleport to the surface of Stardox. Once there, you’ll receive detailed instructions on how the mission will be accomplished. Take care of one another out there, and remember that the strength of an alliance warrior comes from harnessing the power of your spirit. Through this, anything can be achieved.”
Slain stepped aside, motioning for Instructor Grimm to continue. For what he lacked in height, the much shorter Bracka warrior made up for in presence. “Teleports to the planet’s surface begin in five minutes. Change, gather what supplies you think you might need. Remember your training and you’ll be fine.”
As soon as it registered to the recruits that the instructor was finished, the teleportation level became a scene of chaos. Emma was jostled from side to side, not maliciously but in pure pandemonium, as recruits raced to find a uniform their size. To Emma’s dismay, the uniforms were black-and-purple. Not only the exact colors of the uniform she had been wearing in her latest dream, but the exact pattern.
Black combat boots, pants, and a leather-like jacket with gold stitching. The purple raced down the side of each pant leg, as well as bordered the front of the jacket where the buttons and zipper overlapped.
Emma was aware of familiar faces all around her. There was no time to stop and think how awkward it was to strip down to her underwear in front of the opposite sex to put on her uniform. Emma raced to a corner of the teleportation level that was somewhat secluded and began to disrobe.
It seemed to be the unspoken rule as she was joined by more and more female recruits. The boys on their end did likewise, running to the opposite side of the level, some already ripping off shirts or stumbling with their pants at their ankles.
“Four minutes until teleportation to Stardox,” Instructor Grimm’s voice boomed around everyone.
Emma jammed her feet into boots that, despite their size, were surprisingly comfortable. Her pants and jacket were also deceptively flexible. The material was thick but pliable when Emma made any type of movement.
“Three minutes,” the warning came, jarring Emma from her thoughts.
“Come, Em.” Jeba ignored the jacket that hung open to reveal a kind of sports bra. “We’ll need food for the journey.”
Emma ran to the mound of supplies. Layga was already there with the first group of hastily dressed recruits.
“Backpacks, food, shelter, tools.” Layga pointed out individual piles of supplies as she loaded her own sack with items. “Hurry.”
“Two minutes,” Instructor Grimm shouted.
Emma snatched a black backpack from a pile on the floor, loading it first with water and food. She could live without most things, but hydration and nutrition would be essential. She had to make a split-second decision on how much of each to bring. They wouldn’t leave them out on the surface of Stardox for more than a few days, would they?
“One minute!” was all Emma received for an answer.
Recruits crowded one another as alarm spread throughout the room. As far as supplies went, Emma had just enough time to grab rations, water, a compressed sleeping bag, a small metal survival kit, and before she realized what she was stuffing into her backpack, a travel-size elixir kit.
“Time!” Instructor Grimm shouted across the room. “All recruits report to the teleportation bay, on the double!”
Emma ran with the other recruits who thundered out like a herd of nervous turlocks. Instructor Grimm extended a hand to the right side of the room and the largest teleportation cylinder Emma had seen. There was enough room in the hollowed space in the wall to fit a small army, much less twenty-four nervous recruits.
“As soon as you arrive, you’ll see a beacon with instructions.” This time, Slain couldn’t keep his eyes from traveling to Emma and staying on her for a second too long. “Use this time to learn.”
That was it.
The next second, Emma felt the lightheadedness that came with teleportation travel, a dull light, and then she was on her hands and knees dry heaving again.
Her mouth filled with the sour taste of bile. Her stomach burned, forging a blazing path of pain up to her throat. Emma spat out saliva.
There was movement all around her, but all Emma could do at the moment was struggle to her feet. It was the second worst teleportation Emma had been a part of, the first being from Earth to the Academy.
Alexon was right. Emma could handle teleporting over smaller distances fine, but she would have to work on her long distance travel.
“Come on, Retch.” Jeba helped her to her feet, with Layga pulling her up by the other arm. “We’re going to miss the beacon’s message.”
Emma wiped her mouth with the back of her uniform’s sleeve. She steadied herself. Trying to get one’s bearing after teleporting to an alien planet wasn’t as easy as it sounded.
The recruits had been sent to what looked like the only field on the planet. From the vantage point the small hill provided, Emma could see a blanket of thick trees and shrubs in every direction. Somewhere to the east there was a mountain range, but that, too, was covered in dense vegetation.
The heat felt like a good ninety degrees, with humidity. Emma’s ears were already picking up the foreign clicks of insects and caws of birds.
“You’re going to need this.” Daylon appeared next to Emma, handing her the backpack she didn’t even realize she’d dropped. “Feeling okay?”
“Oh, I bet she’s fine now.” Jeba made an obvious wink that Emma was sure she thought was tactful. “Come, you two.”
Daylon jogged a few yards with Emma and her roommates to their right, where the rest of the recruits had gathered around a metal podium. Jaymore was already there, accessing the user interface.
A moment later, a hologram of the planet appeared in baby blue light. A generic male android’s voice greeted the recruits.
“Hello, first-year recruits. In front of you is a holographic map of the planet Stardox. All of the information I’m about to share with you, along with the hologram itself, will be sent to your holo bands.”
A red dot appeared on the hologram planet as it zoomed in for a closer look. Along with the red dot came a highlighted rectangle of the planet’s surface.
“The highlighted portion of the map is the pre-designated safe zone where this training mission will take place. Recruits are ordered to stay within this zone for your own safety.”
The voice was flat and monotone enough, but Emma was already wondering what lay beyond the safe zone. Her imagination conjured images of killer alien animals and insects the size of Layga’s boot.
“The training mission is simple.” The android’s voice brought Emma back into the present moment. “Two teams will move from point A to point B.”
A broken line moved from the red dot marking their location and traveled the length of the safe zone to another red point.
“The first team to reach point B will be declared the winners. The exercise should not take more than two days, one night. If all teams fail to reach point B by the end of the second day, the mission will be counted as unsuccessful. Choose your leaders wisely, and be safe, recruits.”
That was the end of the transmission. As the hologram from the podium vanished, a series of beeps sounded from everyone’s holo bands, signaling the incoming file.
Emma swiped her holo band open, scrolling past the coded link to reach her father and the other coded link to reach her mother. Her scrolling stopped on a new file that read: Mission to Stardox.
Just like the bodiless android’s voice promised, a miniature rotating globe of Stardox erupted from the holo band, with a red dot designating their location, a broken line showing them the path to travel and another dot marking the end.
“Well, it seems pretty obvious to me who should be our leader.” Triv stood next to her other female Halyna counterparts, motioning to Dana. “Dana should lead one of the groups. She’s the head of our class in Elixirs to Live By.”
There were a few scattered approvals of applause, but the body of the recruit group remained silent.
“Well, if Dana is going to lead one group because she’s the best in a class,” Layga put a crushing hand on Emma’s shoulder, “then Em should lead the other group. She’s already mastered the first two lessons in Entry to Arilion, and she’s the best fighter in Instructor Drown’s Combat Training class.”
Emma lowered her gaze to the ground as all the recruits looked to her. She prepared herself for the laughs, the looks of distrust and jokes. She was used to it by now. Growing up too tall for her age, with pointed ears and a stuttering problem had made her an easy target. The strangest thing was, that when her classmates did look at her, most of them had smiles in place. A roar of approval Emma had never heard before accompanied a thunderous applause.
She could practically feel Dana and her two cronies glaring at her. But she didn’t care. Not now.
“Fine, then,” Dana interrupted the applause, unwilling to let Emma bask in her moment. “Who wants to be on the winning side and come with me? We’re going to get there first.”
Like an unspoken gun had been fired to signal the start of a race, the group of recruits ran to choose sides. When the dust had settled, Emma clearly had the larger company.
On Dana’s side were her two shadows, along with all of the Halyna boys minus Daylon. A large Ree boy Emma didn’t know and two Bracka boys rounded out those who’d chosen to side with her. It was clear to some Dana’s attractive physique counted for more than her personality.
“Well, I only have nine in my group.” Dana maintained eye contact with Daylon. “I still need three more.”
“The instructions said two groups.” Emma crossed her arms, stepping between Dana and Daylon. “It didn’t say the groups had to be evenly numbered.”
Rage curled Dana’s upper lip. There was a vein in her neck that pulsated just under her orange skin. “Fine, then.” Dana rotated on her heel. “The winning group, follow me.”
There was a scuffle of feet as Dana and her admirers fell in line behind her. Emma, too, felt the need to hurry, but not before she addressed those who had chosen to follow her.
“I … I, uh, thank you for choosing me.” Emma cleared her throat, not used to leading anyone, much less public speaking. Her heart hammered in her chest like a turlock was bearing down on her. “According to the map, the destination is twenty-six miles away. If we can average thirteen miles a day, we’ll reach it tomorrow before nightfall. Everyone stay hydrated, and if you need a break or help, just ask. No one’s getting left behind.”
A series of nods followed Emma’s words, and just like that, they were off. Emma took the lead at the front of the group, not because she wanted to, but because these fourteen other recruits had put their trust in her. If anything was going to harm them, she would meet it first, at the front.
“Great speech back there.” Daylon ran to join her at the head of the pack. “I just want to make sure you know it won’t be easy as trekking thirteen miles a day.”
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, looking at Daylon, who she now had a new respect for. He had publicly chosen her over Dana no matter what the fallout. It was a subject they both understood, but didn’t know how to broach.
“I mean—” Whatever Daylon was about to say next was lost beneath the screaming coming from the jungle ahead.
Everyone stopped to listen. More screaming echoed through the forest, but not like someone was being tortured, like the yelling; of more than one voice on the field of battle.
“We just started.” Alexon came up behind Daylon and Emma. “They can’t have set the holo warriors this early in the mission.”
“The what?” Emma turned to look at the tall Ree boy.
“You can’t tell me you’ve never heard of the holo warriors.” Alexon’s eyebrow shot up as he examined Emma’s face for any sign of sarcasm. When he saw she was one hundred percent serious, he started again. “There are tests the Academy has put in our way. The holo warriors are a classic. They’ll judge our spirit and combat training.”
More grunts and yells came from the forest.
“Come on, you’ll see.” Alexon waved them forward.
A few more yards into the thick jungle overgrowth, Emma’s party came upon the smallest stream Emma had ever seen. It was more of a line of water trickling through soil than a babbling brook. On one side of the stream, Dana and her company were trying to get across, on the other side stood nine translucent red warriors wearing battle gear. Every time one of Dana’s company tried to cross the stream, they were dealt a series of harsh blows and pushed back. Along with them being beaten back came a cry of victory from the red holo warriors.
“See?” Alexon didn’t take his eyes off the warriors. “Holo warriors. I’ve only ever heard of them before. They’re so lifelike.”
The rest of Emma’s party filed out of the jungle to see what was causing all of the noise.
“Once we defeat them, we’ll be allowed to cross.” Alexon motioned Emma to the side. “Only one party can try to cross at a time. We have to wait until Dana’s company needs a break, or crosses themselves.”
“How do you know all of this?” Emma found herself looking at Alexon with a newfound respect.
“My brother is one of the fourth-year recruits at the Academy.” Alexon beamed with pride. “If he completes this last year, he’ll be a full-fledged alliance warrior and sent out to protect our home world.”
Emma was going to say more, but was interrupted as Dana’s company defeated one of the holo warriors. The Ree boy in her company had somehow managed an incapacitating blow to the warrior he fought. The warrior fell to the ground, blinking off and on like a pair of hazard lights before disappearing completely.
The roar of approval that followed his action was short-lived. The remaining holo warriors were able to rally, throwing their targets back over the stream and converging on the Ree boy. He was powerless against so many. Soon, he, too, sailed through the air to come to a crashing heap beside his colleagues.
“This is insane!” Dana screamed. She pressed a hand to her forehead, where a lump was already beginning to form. “They made the holo warriors too hard this year. It’s not our fault if we can’t pass an impassible test.”
“It’s not impassible.” Alexon’s voice was friendly and informative. “The holo warriors are the same every year. They even made you only compete against nine since there are only nine members in your party.”
“Well, feel free to do better than we did, you fat piece of flesh.” Dana motioned her team to move aside. “Please, show us how it’s done.”
“I’m not fat,” Alexon mumbled, shuffling his feet. “I’m just organically armored.”
“We’ll take a chance.” Emma jumped in, waving her team to the line, a plan already forming. “If you can’t defeat your opponent, hold on to him until someone can come and help you. We lose if we let them gang up on us.”
The heat of the jungle was already intensifying. Emma felt beads of perspiration form on her forehead and trickle down her back.
As her unit stepped to the line in a long row, holo warriors appeared on the opposite side of the water line, matching their number.
Emma took in a deep, cleansing breath. She looked inside herself for the will to succeed. She channeled this into every part of her being, and warmth soon spread from the center of her body to her fingers and toes.
“I’ll go first.” Emma fought back the warrior inside of her begging to race across the stream. “When they come for me, you all jump over the line. Remember, if you can’t defeat your opponent, hold on to them until someone comes to help.”
Before Emma could give the tiny voice inside her head any more time to convince her that her plan was stupid and doomed to fail, she leapt over the stream.
When Emma made her jump, two things happened simultaneously: First, all of the holo warriors moved to push her back, running for her without hesitation.
The second was all of the fear, anxiety, and doubt left Emma like she’d shed a soaking wet cloak.
Weeks of training, both in combat class and Entry to Arilion, took over at once. Instead of hulking, red figures bearing down on her, Emma envisioned Drown and Instructor Grimm putting her through drills.
Emma was finally able to see the holo warriors up close. They were all identical, about six feet tall, no face under their helmets. Their armor reminded Emma of the many pictures she had seen of ancient Roman soldiers.
The first holo warrior tried to grab her—bad idea. Ignoring its helmet, she leveled the warrior with a punch so strong, it could have felled a charging turlock.
The warrior dropped, blinking off and on and off and on until it disappeared totally. Emma’s victory was short-lived as the other holo warriors converged on her at once. Unfortunately, there was no room to maneuver, so her blows weren’t as effective as she was dog piled. Strong arms grabbed her hands and legs.
Emma fought to be free, twisting and grunting. It was useless as more and more red hands reached in to grab her and throw her back over the line.
Then, instead of red bodies all around her, Emma began to see familiar faces. Daylon tackled a holo warrior, forcing it to release its hold on Emma. Jeba was there, roaring like a bear as she threw punches. Layga, Alexon, and all of the others waded into the battle until only one holo warrior was left dragging Emma to the stream.
Emma reared back, planting her feet in the loose soil and stopping the warrior’s forward momentum. Breaking free of his grip, she turned the tables on him, lifting him from his shoulder harness and his belt.
With a deep grunt, Emma raised the flailing figure over her head and threw him past the stream. As soon as the holo warrior made contact with the boundary the stream signified, it disappeared.
“If you can’t defeat yours, throw it back over the stream,” Emma yelled to the rest of her struggling compatriots. “They can’t cross the line!”
Mayhem ensued as Emma got her closest experience to what a real battle would be like.
Instinct took over as Emma ran to help wherever she could. The weapon Instructor Drown and Grimm’s training had turned her into, made her a wrecking ball. Already the conflict was turning in her favor. Jeba and Layga managed to also wrestle their opponents over the stream. Alexon had pinned his to the ground, waiting for help. Jaymore was being dragged like a baby as his holo warrior brought him closer and closer to the stream.
Even as Emma turned in his direction to help, Jeba and Layga were on the holo warrior, freeing Jaymore and sending their holographic nemesis into oblivion.
Daylon was trading blows with his opponent, ducking and weaving strikes. Sweat from the heat of the day and the exertion from the fight poured down his face while his uniform clung to his wet body.
“Need a hand?” Emma walked over to where Daylon took a blow to the chin and another to the stomach. “I mean, I don’t want to step on your toes if you feel you can do it on your own.”
“Are you kidding me?” Daylon landed a kick to his enemy’s torso. The red holo warrior didn’t even flinch. “Please, step all over my toes. Come and help me out, Em.”
Emma smiled to herself. Grabbing the holo warrior around its right wrist, she flung it to the ground. The move was simple and elegant. With all her might, Emma raised her right boot and brought her heel down onto the holo warrior’s helmet.
The impact vibrated up Emma’s leg.
The red holo warrior blinked twice, then vanished.
A cheer rose up all around her as her team came to clap Emma on the back. If it wasn’t for the heat’s painful reminder, Emma would have thought she was dreaming. Never in a hundred years did she think she would be in a position to successfully lead a group of her peers in anything.
“You cheated,” Dana shouted from the other side of the stream. “How did you do it, Em? I know you cheated.”
Dana and the rest of her company were all on their feet. They were still in the shaded cover of the forest trees, but all of them were keeping a close eye on Emma and her group.
“She didn’t cheat.” Layga waved a large finger in the air. “We all saw it. Half of us were in the middle of it.”
“You must have cheated, and I’m—” Dana took a step toward the stream, reactivating the red holo warriors.
Emma retreated with her group, now on the other side of the line of water.
“Let’s go.” Daylon shouldered his pack, looking away from Dana and her company. “It’s their turn to figure it out.”
Emma took the lead once more, forgetting about Dana and her accusations. If they had just begun the mission and the holo warriors had already been sent to test them, what could they expect next?
“I’m dying. Oh, I’m dying, Em.” Layga trudged on beside Emma as the sun began to set. “My body wasn’t made for this.”
“You’re going to make it.” Emma ignored the ache in her own feet and the way her back screamed in pain from her pack. “We all are.”
“It would have been easier if they set another obstacle in our way.” Layga nearly stumbled over an outcropping. “At least then we would have had a break from this heat.”
“That’s exactly why they didn’t give us a break.” Emma moved her right hand to her forehead to wipe off the beads of sweat. It was a pointless act, one she had repeated over a dozen times that day. “We’re almost to the halfway point. We’ll stop there for the night. Hang in there.”
“I will.” Layga took a deep breath. “You were great back there, by the way.”
“Oh, don’t be modest. You were a goddess incarnate on that battlefield.”
Emma had never been referred to as a goddess before, but if she was honest with herself, she didn’t hate the idea.
“Wait.” Emma lifted a solid fist, signaling the caravan of travelers behind her to halt. “I think I hear something.”
“Oh, it’s probably just my stomach.” Layga patted her hefty midsection with an open hand. “Ree aren’t meant for the jungle life.”
“No.” Emma peered into the coming darkness. “Listen.”
Emma knelt with the Ree in the thick foliage of Stardox. The last rays of the day were playing with Emma’s imagination. All around them, the alien trees and shrubs that grew from the black soil caught the fading light and twisted shadows. Emma’s imagination was on overdrive as she swore she saw multiple moving figures in the areas in front of them.
“What’s holding us back?” Jeba joined her roommates at the front of the pack. “I need to relieve myself soon.”
The smell that wafted off Jeba was an odor in its own category—one part urine, the other sweat. Emma wrinkled her nose as she tried not to vomit.
Layga coughed like toxic fumes were gassing her. “Jeba, you smell horrible.”
“What?” Jeba stood, lifted both hands into the air and took deep wafts from under each armpit. “I smell nothing but excellence, giant.”
Emma couldn’t help chuckling as she waved a hand in front of her nose.
“But you didn’t answer my first question.” Jeba crouched beside them again. “Why have we stopped?”
“Listen.” Emma pointed a finger from her ear into the jungle beyond.
All three girls remained still. Emma slowed her breathing, focusing all of her effort in hearing what she swore was a deep rumbling.
There it was again—constant, like the steady white noise of a freeway.
“It sounds like a lot of feet moving around on the jungle floor,” Layga breathed after a moment more of silence.
“Not feet.” Jeba’s eyes were large in the light of the oncoming stars. “Hooves.”
Emma rose, giving the motion to those behind her to follow.
“Here.” Layga reached into her backpack and pulled out what for all intents and purposes looked like a giant flashlight. “Jeba, get yours out, too. I saw you snag one before we left.”
“Right you are.” Jeba reached into her backpack and produced the same black square box with a light that shot forward. “Em?”
“Sorry. I didn’t even know what those were when I saw them in the pile, or else I would have grabbed one.” Emma winced as soon as the words came out of her mouth.
“How did you not know what brightlamps are?” Layga let her light play over the forest foliage as they walked closer to whatever was causing the noise. “The Halyna invented them. They’re used all the time on your home world.”
Emma could feel both Layga’s and Jeba’s eyes on her now. This time, when she licked dry lips, it had nothing to do with the lack of her hydration.
“There.” Emma pointed into the dark, strangely happy for spotting an immense creature at that moment.
Panic came and went just as quickly as Emma realized what was making the deep rumbling sound. In front of them spread out a wide clearing, where a large herd of turlocks had taken up residence. Hundreds of the large, shaggy animals roved about, complacent in chewing shrubs, grass, even trees. If the light from the brightlamps bothered them, they didn’t show it. Instead, they were content to be left alone.
“Wow.” Layga’s brightlamp traveled across the herd, all thoughts of their previous conversation forgotten. “How are we going to get through that?”
“We aren’t going to try tonight.” Emma breathed a sigh of relief at her friend’s line of questioning. “Let’s find a place to camp and tackle this problem tomorrow morning in the light.”
“Are you sure you made that right?” Daylon knelt beside Emma and her small fire. “It’s supposed to be a dull blue, not green.”
Emma frowned, looking into her beaker. Daylon was right, she had somehow managed to ruin yet another elixir.
The group had found a small clearing under two gigantic trees just to the left of the turlock herd. Everyone was grateful for the break. Tasks were soon doled out, such as watch scheduling, inventory and distribution of foodstuffs, and of course, the task of making the masking elixir Talisha Tescot had taught them to ward off any roaming saberlings or flying zurlocks.
“I’m useless at this kind of stuff.” Emma leaned back on the soft grass. “I don’t know where I went wrong.”
Daylon stirred the beaker with a long, thin, metal spoon. Emma didn’t realize it until then, but he had unzipped his uniform, providing a view of his toned upper body.
“Emma, are you listening to me?” Daylon leaned down to catch her line of sight. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah … yeah, I’m fine … I’m fine.” Emma cleared her throat, trying to remember what they had been talking about. “What did you say?”
“It’s just that you’re not that far off from the correct recipe. Did you use wormwood?”
“Wormwood?” Emma repeated his words. “No, I used Trampson Clover.”
“There’s where you went wrong.” Daylon rose, leaving a slight indention in the grass. “I’ll be right back.”
Before Emma could agree, he was already gone in search of the right ingredient. As if her holo band knew they were alone, it beeped green with an incoming message. Emma placed her right hand over the holo band, hiding the flashing light. She looked around, but everyone was too busy in his or her own designated task to pay much attention to anything else.
Emma removed her hand and motioned with an outstretched finger through the holographic list. Just as she’d suspected, a message from her father. It read: Hey, just thinking about you while I eat this entire gallon of ice cream by myself. It feels less guilty when you’re here eating it with me.
Emma couldn’t help smiling. She looked around one more time before she responded: I’ll be home sooner than you know. Camp is great. Save me some of that ice cream!
No promises, was her father’s quick reply.
Emma heard Daylon before she saw him. She quickly closed her holo watch display, standing at the same time to greet him.
“Looking at the distance we still have to travel tomorrow?” Daylon asked, glancing to her holo band. “We’ll make it. We can start early and be there before sunset.”
“Oh, yeah.” Emma decided to go along with the idea. “It’s still a long trek, but we’ll be fine. We can scout a way around these turlocks tomorrow. We have to anticipate at least one more roadblock, though.”
“What do you mean?” Daylon bent over the beaker, adding in the dried bits of wormwood. He stirred the elixir gently. “You think they’re that cruel?”
“You bet.” Emma pictured a grinning Drown in her mind. “They’ll get us so tired we can’t think, then hit us with something horrible at the end.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” The elixir Daylon stirred was already changing color back to its intended shade of light blue. “Why does Instructor Drown give you such a hard time, anyway?”
“Beats me.” Emma shrugged with her prepackaged answer ready. “Every bully needs someone to pick on. I guess this year that someone is me.”
“Yeah, it just doesn’t seem fair, though.” Daylon stood, handing the metal stirring spoon to Emma. “You just need to let it cool and put it into a spray container to use on the perimeter of the camp.”
“Right.” Emma accepted the stirring instrument from Daylon as she tried to remember the exact way Instructor Tescot had explained to administer the protective spray.
“Your eyes are worth a thousand unspoken words,” Daylon teased. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Daylon retrieved his own backpack a few yards away. He unzipped the black material, reaching inside for his own elixir kit. Inside was a bottle that reminded Emma of a hairspray container.
“Here. This is it. Get yours from your kit,” Daylon urged as he blew on the beaker of light blue elixir.
Emma obeyed, handing him her spray container.
Daylon poured the elixir evenly into each container.
“Let’s get to spraying.” Daylon handed Emma back her now-full can of blue elixir. “We can start on one end of the perimeter and work our way around in a circle.”
Emma and Daylon traveled to the edge of their encampment, right where the light of the fires and brightlamps lost their battle to the darkness.
Emma couldn’t help feeling a tingling sensation run up and down her spine. She was alone with Daylon, again. Granted, the two were spraying what smelled like skunk on the outskirts of their camp, on an alien planet. Regardless, they were together.
Most of their time passed in silence as they worked together to coat the perimeter of their camp. It was either Emma’s imagination or Daylon was sneaking glances at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.
To be honest, she was doing the same. Despite his orange skin and long, pointed ears, she found him just as attractive as any boy she had ever seen. Maybe even more so, given his carefree personality.
The two were finished much too quickly. When Emma turned to go back to the camp, Daylon caught her hand in his own.
“Before we go back…” Daylon stood inches away from Emma, his eyes bright, catching all of the light offered by the hundreds of stars in the sky. “I just wanted to say how much I admire your warrior spirit. I know one day you’ll be a full-fledged alliance warrior protecting the Halyna people. I’m glad you’re leading us.”
Emma’s heart raced like a horse pounding down the track. Her lips were dry all of a sudden. Daylon leaned in, his eyes already closing.
“Daylon.” Emma turned away, not by instinct. More than anything, her mind was telling her heart to shut up and just kiss the boy already, but something he said found the guilt inside of her. “I’m … I’m not what you think I am.”
“Really?” Daylon gently turned her chin toward him with the tips of his fingers. “And how do you know what I think you are?”
Emma became lost in his eyes. She didn’t know how much longer she could resist the urge to feel his lips on her own. At least one more time, she had to try.
“There’s … there’s a lot going on here you don’t know … know about.” Emma once again hated the stutter in her voice, but for the first time she was grateful for it. It was giving her precious seconds to reconsider her options. “I don’t want to lie to you.”
“Lie to me?” Daylon inched closer, so close now, Emma could feel his warm breath on her skin. “Lie to me about what?”
“I’m ... I’m not fully Hal—”
Daylon pressed his lips to hers with a kiss she knew she would never forget. Not because it was the first time she had kissed a boy, but because something awoke inside her. A warm tingling sensation originated at her lips and ran down her body to the tips of her fingers and toes. She was lightheaded in a way she loved.
Their lips broke contact much too quickly for Emma’s liking. They stood there for a moment longer, not saying a word. Emma’s eyes, still closed, finally opened.
“I’m sorry.” Daylon smiled for a moment, lost in thought. “No, I take that back. I’m not sorry. You have to get out of your own head every once in a while. Whatever it is that’s burdening you, it can’t take away the Em Duel that I’ve come to know.”
Emma didn’t trust herself to respond. She had almost told him her secret.
“Sleep well, Em Duel,” Daylon walked past her, toward the rest of the camp. “When you’re free of whatever it is that’s bothering you, I’ll be here.”
Emma gave Daylon a head start, then made the short trip back to camp herself. Her mind was racing with possibilities, some she knew belonged in fairy tales, while others were closer to the truth.
The rest of the night went quickly with a shared meal, then sleeping bags were arranged. As soon as Emma closed her eyes, she was out. It was one of the best night’s sleep she could remember, until the screaming started—again.
Emma woke with a jolt, ripped from a dream where Daylon was able to come back to Earth with her. All around camp, recruits were jumping to their feet, frantically searching the area for the high-pitched screams as the sounds echoed through the night.
As soon as Emma’s eyes opened, she registered two things: First, that it was still night; the stars had just begun to fade as the whispers of another day caressed the horizon. Second, just as soon as the screams had begun, a thundering rush of hooves overshadowed them. The turlock herd was on the move, and if it was on the move, it could be headed for their camp.
“It was Dana and her company.” Layga came running to Emma’s side, yelling over the sound of hundreds of pounding hooves. “They ran by us, screaming at the turlocks in order to start a stampede.”
Fear grabbed at Emma’s heart for a brief moment as memories of her first encounter with a charging turlock revisited her. Just as soon as the thought came, she pushed it out of her mind. Already the sound of stomping hooves was diminishing. Whether it was by pure luck or something else, the turlock herd had run the opposite direction.
“I’m sorry. I was the one on watch.” A panting Jaymore reached the girls. “As soon as I saw Dana and her company pass camp, I was going to come tell you. Then they started screaming at the top of their lungs to start the stampede.”
“Dana and her group couldn’t have passed the holo warriors right after us, or we would have seen them following close behind,” Emma thought out loud. “They either got an early start, or they’ve been running part of the night.”
“Or both,” Alexon agreed as he pushed the last of his belongings into his backpack. “But we have rest on our side. I think we can catch them.”
“With Em leading us, I know we can.” Daylon was already strapping on his backpack, some kind of protein bar in his hand. “Shall we eat breakfast on the way? I want to see Dana’s face when we pass her again.”
There was a flurry of grins and nods as everyone broke camp and began the hike once more. Once again, Emma took the lead. The map on her holo band was easy enough to read. If they stayed within the safe zone, there was really only one way to go. An area up ahead did worry her, though—a place where the safe zone bottlenecked into a thin passage. Emma could only guess what waited for them there.
The rest of the morning passed much like the day before, except now, everything hurt more. Their water stores would be fine, if they were careful. Dry lips and a parched throat were manageable. Emma took a drink only when she thought she needed one. Her feet and back, on the other hand, were aching with pain.
She didn’t even want to look at her feet; she could already feel blisters forming on both of them.
The only sign of Dana and her group was the path they had forged through the underbrush. Emma, who had no experience at tracking, could easily see where they passed.
Emma set a quick walking pace, just under a jog. She wanted to catch Dana, but just as much, she wasn’t willing to leave anyone behind.
Toward midday, just when Emma was beginning to think they would need a rest soon, she saw a rock formation that jutted up from the jungle floor. Emma checked her holo band. Sure enough, it was where the safe zone bottlenecked. They would be forced to climb whatever that rock was.
“I bet they’re watching us, laughing right now.” Daylon joined Emma at the front of the pack as they neared the giant rock. There was no awkwardness or hitch in his voice; he was the same easygoing Daylon from the night before. “You were right.”
“Hopefully, this is the last obstacle before the end.” Emma looked down at her holo band one more time. “After we scale the wall, it’s only a couple of miles to the end.”
“I hope we brought enough rope.” Daylon’s eyes never left the massive rock formation in front of them. “We’re going to need it.”
When Emma’s company did reach the wall, they were staggered by how massive the barrier really was and surprised to see most of Dana’s company lying at the base of it.
“Hey, Davos.” Daylon nodded to one of the Halyna boys. “What’s going on? You guys look horrible.”
It was true. The members of Dana’s company were all present and accounted, except for Dana herself and her two Halyna shadows, Triv and Lisha. They looked as though they had been put through a meat grinder, and then run over by a tank, then the tank reversed and ran over them a second time just for good measure.
“She’s a madwoman.” Davos didn’t even get up from the spot where he lay, using his backpack as a pillow. “No offense, Em Duel, but my raging adolescent hormones were blinded by her long legs and full lips.”
“No offense taken. What happened?” Emma took off her own backpack, stretching her back. “Where did the three of them go?”
“They thought it would be faster to go around the rock face,” another of the Halyna boys volunteered. “When we refused, they took off on their own.”
The rest of Emma’s company reached the rock face now. Everyone was listening to the story.
“She ran us all night like a slave master,” Davos drawled on. “This is the most rest we’ve gotten.”
“If they went around the wall, then they’re out of the safe zone,” Layga thought out loud. “I don’t like any of them, but what if something bad happens?”
“Good riddance, then.” Jeba threw down her pack, already pulling out the coil of rope from within. “Hopefully they will have a quick death. I’ve heard there are manticores and scyths in the jungles of Stardox.”
Everyone took a brief moment to think on how they felt about the subject. Emma herself had no love for any of the other Halyna girls, but neither did she want them dead. Exhausted, maybe a twisted ankle or a scar to blemish their pretty little faces, maybe, but not death.
“Can we join your company, Em?” asked one of the three other Rhee boys Emma didn’t know. “We’ll pledge our undying love to your banner, I swear. We’ve learned our lesson.”
“Of course you can.” Emma didn’t even give the question a second thought. “Do any of you have rope? It looks like we’ll need all we can get.”
Emma was right. The rock wall in front of them had to be at least five stories tall. Everyone threw what rope they had into a pile. Tired hands began unraveling the ropes and securely knotting them together.
Emma worked with the others, getting a close look at how worn the deserters from Dana’s group really were. Deep bags hung under their eyes, and most of them were limping or favoring a wound from what she guessed was the aftermath of the holo warrior fight.
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Layga stood next to Emma, her hands on the ropes everyone was unraveling and knotting, her voice just low enough for Emma to hear. “I wouldn’t put it past Dana to try to pull something like this.”
Emma kept her eyes down, her hands at work. “I’ve thought about that, but look at them. I mean, they look horrible. I don’t know how far you can fake that.”
“Just be careful.” Layga rested a heavy hand on Emma’s shoulder, almost sending her to her knees. “If anything happens, we’ve got your back.”
“I know you do.” Emma regained her balance and looked up at the Ree. “And you know the same is true for you.”
“There we go.” Daylon looked down, admiring their work. “I’ll go first.”
The one long rope resembled some kind of thin jungle snake. It looked like it would be long enough, but looks could often be deceiving. Daylon removed his black-and-purple jacket uniform, revealing his bare chest.
Emma’s cheeks burned as she looked, then looked away, and repeated the process again.
Daylon began looping the rope around his elbow and his hand, over and over again.
“You’re not going up there,” Emma said, louder than she’d intended. “I volunteered to lead the group. It should be me to go first.”
Everyone stopped to listen.
“Yeah, can’t argue with you there.” Daylon continued coiling the rope around his arm. “You are our elected leader, but how much rock climbing experience do you have?”
Emma swallowed hard. Instinctively, she looked at the rock face. It seemed like it had somehow grown in the time since she had looked at it last. The rock was slate grey, with tiny handholds and a slick surface.
“I don’t have any.” Emma kept her eyes on the rock, trying to think of a point that would win her the argument.
“Daylon here is a champion rock climber.” Davos clapped his friend on his bare back. “Don’t let his good looks deceive you. He’s got some real talent when it comes to scaling things other people would just walk around.”
“I can do this, Em.” Daylon caught Emma’s eye as she turned around. “Trust me, I might not be able to channel the power of a turlock in my fist or take a punch from Instructor Drown but I know how to climb.”
“Okay,” Emma conceded, though she hated the idea of putting anyone other than herself at risk. If Daylon was as good as he said he was, there shouldn’t be much risk at all. “Be careful.”
“I will.” Daylon slid his head and right arm through the thick coil of rope, letting the bulk of it rest on his shoulder. He saluted Emma with a wink. “I’ll secure the rope onto something when I get up top, then lower it for the rest of you. I’ll have it done before you know it.”
Emma didn’t say anything. As Daylon began his ascent, a swell of something Emma had never felt before grabbed at her: she was very worried for Daylon.
He’ll be fine, Emma told herself as she watched him move up the rock wall. Man, you care about this guy more than you realize.
Daylon was halfway through his ascent, moving carefully, testing each handhold before he placed his weight on them, when the sound of something crashing through the underbrush came from the group’s left.
“Oh, by the gods.” Jeba stood from her seated position next to Layga and Emma. “What now?”
At once, two figures burst through the foliage, so dirty, Emma almost didn’t realize who they were. Triv and Lisha, Dana’s shadows, looked like creatures born on Stardox. Their normal pristine hair and flawless orange skin were caked with layers of sweat and mud. Even their pointed ears looked like they had been brushed with a coating of dirt. Their clothes were ripped in a dozen different places, what was even more disturbing was the fear that sat in their eyes.
“It’s got her!” Triv ran into the clearing, shouting to anyone who could hear. “It’s got her. We tried to help, but couldn’t. We did everything we could. We didn’t want to leave her, but I knew we needed to get help.”
After the outburst, Triv fell to the jungle floor, unconscious. As if a spell had been broken, everyone jumped into action. Some ran for their elixir kits, while others propped up Triv’s head and tried to feed her water.
Lisha stood, still in shock from whatever they had encountered while trying to go around the jutting rock wall.
While others attended to Triv, Emma made her way to the silent Lisha’s side. All animosity for the girl evaporated when Emma saw the tears in her eyes.
“You’re going to be okay.” Emma reached to place a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder like Layga had often done for her, though she second-guessed herself at first and pulled her arm back, then forced herself to do it. She rested an awkward hand on Lisha’s shoulder. “What’s happened? Where’s Dana?”
“Those eyes…” Lisha spoke slowly as if in some kind of trance. “We should never have strayed outside the designated safe zone. It’s got her now. She’s probably dead. How did it have those eyes?”
“What eyes?” Emma tried to keep pace with the broken information. “Whose eyes? Did someone take Dana?”
“Not someone.” Lisha turned to look at Emma, grabbing Emma’s arms and fervently shaking her with despair in her eyes. “Something, Em. Some creature has her. You have to go help her, please.”
Emma had already made up her mind to go. Not only was it the right thing to do, but a plan to help multiple people in the process had already begun to form in Emma’s mind.
“You’re going to go, aren’t you?” Lisha pleaded, tears freely falling from her eyes. “Please, help her.”
“I’ll go.” Emma freed herself from Lisha’s grip. “But first, what did you see? What has her?”
“A monster.” Terror washed over Lisha’s eyes as she was forced to remember the incident. “A monster has her.”
“I’m going.” Emma was already walking away from the group at the base of the rock wall.
By now, Daylon was more than halfway up and would be lowering the rope for the rest of the company soon. Triv had been revived and was in good hands.
A group of Layga, Jeba, Alexon, and Jaymore were following Emma into the jungle, protesting.
“You shouldn’t go alone,” Alexon warned with a heavy breath. “You heard what Lisha said was out there.”
“You all need to get up that wall and to the finish.” Emma stopped to look at each of her friends in the eye. “You didn’t protest when Daylon was the best choice to go up the rock wall. I’m the best choice to go get Dana. If there’s something out there, it can’t hurt me. And I’ll be strong enough to overpower it.”
Emma’s four friends looked to one another, helpless.
“I’m not going to the rally point without you.” Layga placed her hands on her hips with a look of defiance Emma had never seen in the Ree. “I’ll stay here and climb the wall with the rest of the group, but if you’re not back in an hour, I’m not going to the rally point. I’m—we’re coming to find you.”
“We?” Jeba raised an eyebrow in Layga’s direction.
Layga turned a gaze on Jeba that would melt stone.
“Yes, Em.” Jeba cleared her throat. “We’ll come find you.”
“Me, too.” Alexon stepped forward. “I’m sure Daylon and the others will wait, as well.”
“We’ll all come for you,” Jaymore agreed. “If you’re not back in one hour, we’ll find you. Turn your holo band’s tracking feature on. We’ll use that to pinpoint your exact location.”
Emma looked down at her holo band to obey.
“It’s under ‘maps,’ then ‘position,’ then ‘share tracking,’” Jaymore instructed as he watched Emma scroll through the holo band’s features.
“There,” Emma said, doing her best to push down her fear, not trusting herself to stay with her friends any longer. If she remained with them, she would crack and tell them the truth: that she was terrified, and that them showing so much worry meant everything to her; that she had never dreamed of having friends like them, that she didn’t know if she ever would again. Instead of any of this, Emma said, “I’ll see … I’ll see you on the other side, don’t … don’t worry.”
“You’d better.” Layga opened her arms and scooped Emma up into a big bear hug. “Be safe.”
Emma hugged her Ree friend back. She knew everyone must be watching by now, but she didn’t care. If this was the price of having friends, then Emma would gladly pay it.
When Layga finally released her, Jaymore and Alexon awkwardly stood by, unsure of the appropriate goodbye.
“If you’re waiting for a embrace from me, Em.” Jeba crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ll be waiting for a long time. But hurry back. If you don’t, I’m afraid the giant will assault me in a similar fashion.”
“I’ll see you in less than an hour.” Emma turned to go, poking at her as she went was the idea she was lying to all of her friends who genuinely cared for her well-being.
Emma pushed the guilt of her human heritage out of her mind. She had bigger, scarier things to worry about now. The heat in the Stardox jungle was just as brutal as the day before, and Emma had to weave her way through the dense undergrowth as she followed Lisha’s specific instructions.
In all honesty, finding Triv and Lisha’s path wasn’t difficult. The two must have bulldozed their way through the jungle.
Fear at every sound, every animal call or every insect chirp ate at Emma. True, she should be able to channel her spirit to protect her physically like she had done with the charging Turlock but that was only once. Would she be able to do it again? What about her mental state? Could the monster have some kind of psychic hold on her? Triv was so overwhelmed by what she’d seen, she’d fainted while Lisha could only give a brief description of the monster: “It has eyes like I’ve never seen before, and a huge, green body that blends in with the jungle.”
The second part was more disturbing than anything else. If it could blend into the jungle, then it could be anywhere.
It was impossible to tell if the feeling of being watched came from her own overactive imagination or if she was, in fact, being stalked by a camouflaged predator.
To her left, a tree bursting with orange leaves shook as if it had been brushed by something large.
Emma’s heart pounded harder than she could ever remember. She stood still for a moment, trying to see anything out of the ordinary. The problem was, in an alien jungle, everything looked out of the ordinary.
Whatever had caused the tree to sway was either gone or camouflaged so preciously to its surroundings, she couldn’t pick it out.
All there was left, was to move forward. Emma concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, but ever since the tree had moved for no apparent reason, a growing feeling of being watched ate at her.
Emma’s skin crawled. It felt like someone or something had noticed her presence, and despite the incredible heat, a chill ran down her spine.
Easy Emma, she coached herself as she continued to follow the obvious path made by Triv and Lisha. Whatever it is can’t hurt you. You’re stronger than you have ever been before. You can do this.
The internal pep talk continued until a break in the dense jungle foliage met her impatient feet. A muddy section broke the monotony of the forest, and her boots squished into the muck, sinking an inch into the brown goo. To Emma’s right, the mud rose into a wall. To her left was a steep drop into a hole.
Emma made her way over to the hole. She lifted one slow leg at a time, deliberately taking her time to traverse the sticky mud floor. She peered down into the pit that ended a good ten feet below.
Dana was there, filthy, face streaked with tears. She opened her mouth to say something, but before words could come out, a harsh ticking, like a playing card in the spokes of a slow-moving bicycle, came from somewhere in the jungle.
“Hurry.” Dana stood waist-deep in a mire of mud. “It’s coming back.”
“I know you were the reason he was fired. Your prejudice against androids shouldn’t be the reason he loses his job. I need to know you’re going to get Instructor Andy his position back.” Emma looked around the perimeter of the clearing as she spoke to Dana. Still no sign of whatever was making the ticking, but it was growing louder. “And put in a word with your father for Daylon’s family.”
“Are you crazy? You’re making demands? It’s going to kill us!” Dana made it to the wall of her pit closest to Emma, reaching out for her hand. “What’re you talking about? I’m covered in sweat and my own pee down here. Lift me out!”
“You heard me.” Emma reached her own hand into the pit just too short for Dana to grab. “Andy’s a great teacher. He doesn’t deserve to lose his job just because he’s an android. Daylon’s father works for your father. If you have enough pull with your dad to get someone fired who doesn’t even work in his company, maybe you can help out Daylon’s dad somehow, too.”
“Fine, fine.” Dana’s eyes flashed with anger, then melted to fear as the clicking came again, so close this time, it sounded as if it were already on top of them. “I’ll tell my father to reinstate the android and see what I can do for Daylon’s family.”
“Good.” Emma clicked a button on her holo watch to stop the recording. “In case you have second thoughts on our agreement, everyone will know you pissed yourself and how much of an android hater you are.”
Emma lay down on the muddy ground, stomach first. With effort, she strained to reach down as far as she could.
Dana couldn’t quite jump from her suction in the mud, but she managed a short hop, bringing their hands together. Emma lifted Dana from the pit easier than she would have anticipated. It was amazing what a month of training and exercises could do for one’s physic.
Dana came up and over the edge of the pit in a shower of slick, wet mud. Both girls struggled to regain their feet.
Only now did Emma realize the clicking had stopped.
“Oh no.” Dana turned to look at Emma, except she wasn’t looking exactly at her. Her orange eyes were focused over Emma’s right shoulder.
“It’s right behind me, isn’t it?” Emma felt strangely calm even as the ground shuddered beneath her feet.
Dana didn’t have words. All the girl could do was nod as she slowly began to backpedal toward the jungle.
The warrior spirit raged inside Emma, so fierce, she could feel an intense urge building in her chest to fight whatever it was behind her.
Slowly, Emma turned in the mud to examine the monster. In the space of a breath, she understood why all three girls were so terrified. The creature looked like a giant insect. A dozen ink-black eyes stared at her from over a mouth edged in by two wicked-looking pincers. Six long legs lifted its bloated green body from the floor.
From its mouth came a streaming supply of drool, the mystery as to why this section of the jungle was made up of mud was solved in an instant.
For a moment, the creature merely examined Emma. It shifted ever so slightly, causing the hot sun to catch its body in a different light. Immediately, the color of its body transitioned from green to mud brown.
“Easy, easy there… insect thing. Nice, massive, impossible bug creature.” The fact the insect hadn’t immediately charged Emma gave her hope. She took a tentative step back, never losing sight of the monster. “I’m just going to go now and leave you to your drooling.”
Emma took another step backwards. The act clearly upset the insect. In a second, it closed the gap between them, issuing a massive, bellowing series of clicks. Its head moved closer, now inches from Emma. Drool flew through the air like soapsuds at a cheap carwash, only in this instance, the insect’s drool was the soap and Emma was the car.
Emma cringed as hot, gooey excrement covered her face and body. Emma coughed, raising a hand to wipe the insect juice from her face.
“Fine, then!” Emma yelled, still wondering why she wasn’t more afraid of the monster in front of her. “We’ll do it the hard way.”
Instinct took over for Emma as she moved forward. She threw her weight behind her blow like Drown had taught her. The will to succeed was as bright as a new star inside her as her fist connected with the left side of the bug’s face.
Emma heard something snap as her blow landed. The insect staggered, wounded and clearly surprised by the power in something so small. A few seconds passed where the bug battled consciousness, trying to make unsteady legs feel stable again.
Anger added strength to Emma’s cause. She was not only hot and covered in drool-laced mud, she now also wore a head-to-toe bodysuit of the insect’s drool.
“Well, come on, then.” Emma breathed heavy, her chest rising and falling with the anticipation of a fight. “Come on.”
The bug charged without warning. One moment it was struggling to stand, and the next it sprung into action, jumping to bite Emma’s face.
Emma brought up her right arm just in time to shield her face from the grasping pincers. Her arm felt like it was caught in a serrated vice clamp. The force was crushing.
It only took a moment to realize that if she allowed the bug to bear down on her arm much longer, it might in fact pierce her skin. Her body was rising to the occasion as it did with the Turlock but for how long it would, was anyone’s guess. Where Emma wasn’t worried about her fighting spirit, she was concerned about what happened if she got too tired in a fight.
Right arm stuck in the creature’s pincers, Emma looked around for something to use to pry it out. It wasn’t a surprise there was no sign of Dana. The Halyna girl had made a run for it as soon as she saw the opportunity present itself.
There was nothing to use to pry her arm free. All around there was only mud. The creature bore down on her, and Emma lost her footing in the slippery landscape.
Air escaped her lungs. Forced onto her back, the pressure in her right arm grew.
For the first time, Emma thought about what would happen if she lost, if she died in the jungle of Stardox. Images of her father, of her home of Earth raced past her mind.
Not today. Emma gritted her teeth. She grabbed the insect’s right pincer with her left hand and twisted with every ounce of strength she could muster. I’m not dying here.
The pincer felt like a stone horn in her hand. Emma ignored the pincer’s texture, disregarded the pain and the incredible force she felt in her right arm.
All of her thoughts, her entire will, were bent on one goal: to rip that pincer off this bug’s stupid drooly face, and nothing was going to stop her.
The giant insect must have realized a second too late what was happening. One moment it was letting another mouthful of saliva cover Emma’s forearm, and the next it released its hold. It tried to backpedal but lost its grip in the mud.
With one giant roar, Emma ripped off the insect’s left pincer. Blue blood oozed from the gaping wound as the insect shook its head in agony.
“Are we done here?” Emma pushed down any empathy she felt for the insect, reminding herself it had tried to kill her moments before.
Whether the insect understood her or not, it was indeed done. It scrambled back into the jungle amidst a series of pain-filled ticks.
Emma ignored the throbbing in her right arm. Her eyes caught sight of the path Dana had made through the jungle. She was going back to the rest of the group, but she was going back, following her original plan, around the rock face.
The rules of the mission echoed through Emma’s mind: the first to bring their company to the designated extraction point would be the winner. There was no way she was going to lose this mission to a pee-stained Dana.
Adrenaline still fresh in her veins, Emma ran, following Dana’s path, fighting off fatigue. She crashed through the jungle brush as if it were another insect trying to bring her down in the muddy pit.
The heat of the day was beginning to subside. With every stride, more and more of the mud and drool either fell off or dried onto her skin.
A burning came to life in her lungs as Emma struggled on. PE had never been her favorite subject in school, and neither was it a favorite pastime at the Academy, but she found herself grateful for the conditioning now.
Emma’s arms pumped; her feet flew over the jungle path. The pain in her lungs was getting harder to ignore, with each breath coming shorter and shorter.
In front of her, the jungle ended. To her right was the sloping hill that led to the rock surface the others had had to climb over. To her left, the finish line.
Still half a mile away, Emma could see Dana’s back. The Halyna girl was content to walk the rest of the way, confident she was back in the safe zone and away from the insect’s pincers.
Yells from the rest of the recruits drifted to Emma’s ears. They had caught sight of her now. True to their word, they were camped out just before crossing the line to the extraction point.
Dana did a double take as she looked behind her. Her expression was priceless.
Emma was so focused on breathing at the moment, she couldn’t smile, but she took a snapshot of Dana’s face to save in her memory bank for later.
Not to be out–done, Dana picked up her pace to match Emma’s when Emma reached her along the path.
Neither girl said anything to one another, both focusing on the run ahead.
In the background, Emma could hear the cheers for her. The shouts were coming from just about every single one of the recruits near the finish line. It made her feel cared for, even loved, to hear their cries of encouragement.
But as much as her spirit soared, physically, her body wanted to fall over and assume the fetal position. Pain lanced up her right arm; the blisters on her feet had already burst, soaking them in puss and fluid. Emma could smell herself, still not quite as bad as Jeba, but bad enough for her to notice. Her stomach ached with lack of food. Her cracked lips sucked in air as fast as they could. Her lungs felt like they were on fire.
Through all of this, one thought more than any other pushed her forward: Dana was still right beside her. Her nemesis, usually pristine and primped, looked like a filthy, half-insane person.
Side by side, the mud-and saliva-covered recruits ran for the line. The last thing Emma remembered was seeing everyone step over the line, still cheering for her victory. Emma willed herself forward. Whether it was in her own mind, or she actually did get a burst of speed, Emma pulled forward. Steps ahead of Dana, Emma crossed the line.
Amongst the cheers of her friends, Emma fell flat on her face. Embarrassment was a distant memory as she lay on the hard, dirt-packed ground of the Stardox jungle.
One moment she was gasping for air; the next, a beep came from their holo bands and Emma was dry heaving on the floor of the Academy’s teleportation level.
Her friends still whooped and hollered around her, none louder than Layga and Jeba. Emma fought her way back to her knees, managing a smile at the crowd surrounding her.
“What happened to you?” Layga knelt beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder, then removing it again, pulling a slick string of saliva that connected her hand to Emma. “What is this?”
“It’s saliva from a mantis. A mantis that’s located in the restricted zone you were clearly instructed was off limits during the exercise.”
As if noise itself had become obsolete, the room’s celebration died. Emma joined everyone as they looked to see who was talking. Instructor Drown was standing next to Instructor Grimm and Dean Slain. Grimm and Slain had expressionless faces, while Drown looked as though he was fighting back a grin, something so uncharacteristic and disturbing on his part, Emma found herself missing his normal scowl.
“Em, Dana.” Dean Slain picked up the conversation. “I’d like to see you in my office, please.”
“She had to do it.” Layga moved forward from the rest of the group. “Dana had gone off course and was—”
“Enough out of you,” Instructor Drown said, resuming his normal seedy disposition. “The dean said he wanted to see Em and Dana, now let’s move.”
“We’ll all tell them what happened.” Jeba helped Emma to her feet. “You’re not getting in trouble because of this.”
Emma nodded, grateful for the encouragement. Slowly and painfully, both Emma and Dana followed the dean and the two instructors to the dean’s office.
“I’m not going to let you get us both expelled,” Dana growled under her breath. “Just keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking in there.”
The odor still coming from her uniform made Emma want to retch more than the teleportation experience from Stardox. Dana didn’t smell much better. The two girls stood side by side in front of Dean Slain’s desk.
Neither Instructor Grimm nor Instructor Drown had accompanied them inside the dean’s office. Emma was trying to figure out if this was a good sign or a bad sign, when the dean started talking.
“Not that either of you would even entertain the idea of lying to me, but you should know we have everything that happened in the designated safe zone on record.” Slain leaned forward in his chair, both elbows on his desk. “We will also do an interview of all the recruits to double check our facts.”
Emma didn’t bother to look over at Dana. She imagined the girl’s face was similar to her own—stoic and agreeable.
Slain didn’t seem like he was treating Emma any different from any recruit in the Academy. He stared them both down until they shifted on their feet or looked away uncomfortably.
Under the pressure of his gaze, Emma moved her eyes around the large office. She was feeling dirtier by the minute. The office was immaculate, besides the small puddle of dirt and still-wet mantis saliva that continued to drip off her uniform.
“Dana.” Slain leaned back in his chair, his posture firm, not relaxed. “Why did you decide to go off into the restricted zone? Not only did you blatantly disobey the parameters of the mission, but you also left most of your company behind.”
“I was doing what I thought best to complete the mission as quickly as possible.” Dana held both her hands behind her back. Her eyes looked straight ahead. “During a mission, a leader will sometimes have to improvise for the good of her or his company.”
“Oh?” Slain actually sounded intrigued. “You did it for your company, did you?”
“They were exhausted, sir. I did what I thought was best for the group at the time. I was mistaken.”
“I can assume the rest.” Slain waved a hand over his desk. A holo screen popped up with the footage of Triv and Lisha stumbling upon the rest of the group just as they were preparing to climb the rock face. “So you disobeyed orders doing what you deemed was appropriate, ran into a mantis, and almost got yourself killed.”
The room was still. Emma was biting the inside of her lip so hard she thought it might bleed. Dana’s meek, even submissive, demeanor was all a show for the real vindictive girl underneath. If Slain knew how she really acted, Emma wondered if this conversation might have been different.
“And you, Em.” Slain turned his orange eyes toward Emma. “You also deemed it your duty to make a decision that disobeyed the mission’s instructions? You ran off to save Dana, battled the mantis by your appearance, and returned to not only complete the mission but win.”
“That’s correct, sir.” Emma tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry. “When I heard Dana was in danger, I chose to disobey the mission’s rules.”
“Well, Dana, I think you understand why we have these rules.” Slain rose, looking at the girls in turn. “Stardox is still a very dangerous planet. Em, you might very well have saved Dana’s life. How you did it, I’m intrigued to know. Not many come face to face with a mantis and live to tell about it.”
Emma felt a beam of pride at the praise. She wasn’t sure how this was going to play out, but things were beginning to look up.
“However, you both broke rules.” Slain waved them to the rear of the room, dismissing them together. “Dana, I want a detailed, twenty-page report on why recruits are required to follow mission instructions to a ‘T.’ This project is to be on my desk by the end of the week. Em, you’re to eat a large dinner, shower, and go straight to bed, no questions asked.”
Both girls didn’t think they heard Slain correctly. His tone had never shifted from commanding to teasing while he doled out the punishments for each girl.
Emma chanced a sideways glance at Dana. The other Halyna girl was furious. Her hands clenched in and out of fists. The muscle by her jaw trembled under her orange skin.
“Go.” Slain settled back in his desk, his hand already scrolling through the holo menu. “Before I change my mind.”
Emma followed Dana out of the room, a grin she couldn’t help pulling at her lips. If she knew what the night would bring, she wouldn’t have been smiling.
Usually, Emma ate the Academy food with a bit of hesitancy. After all, everything was new to her. They weren’t exactly serving burgers and fries. But this night was different. Emma stuffed her face with all kinds of exotic textures and flavors.
The rest of the recruits had just eaten and left for showers when Emma entered the mess hall. Dana had opted not to share a meal with Emma and had retreated to her quarters.
Although the brooding Halyna hadn’t said a word to her as they left the dean’s office, Emma found Dana eyeing the holo band on her wrist.
Good, Emma had thought. Let her remember what I have on her so she follows through with her end of the bargain.
After Emma had forced down as much food and drink as her stomach could hold, she took a shower, and not just any shower. Peeling off the uniform from her body and entering the steaming embrace of the water felt heavenly. Emma took her time washing every part of her body twice.
“There you are,” Jeba said as soon as Emma walked into their room. “The large one was trying to convince me to go out and look for you. I knew you’d be fine.”
“Em?” Layga rose from her bed, ignoring Jeba. “I thought you might have gotten in trouble, or been moved or something.”
“I’m fine,” Emma lied. In reality, she couldn’t walk without a limp on her sore feet, her right arm still throbbed like someone had taken a baseball bat to it, and she was struggling to keep her eyes open.
“What you did, the way you led the company and saved Dana…” Layga shook her head, letting her wild brown hair shake behind her. “It was awesome!”
“Thanks.” Emma changed out of her towel into her Academy-approved pajamas of simple white bottoms and shirt. “I think I need to sleep for about the next one hundred years, though.”
“Likewise,” Jeba yawned from her bed. “Although you should know, there’s a certain Halyna boy who can’t wait to talk to you, if you know what I mean.”
The thought of Daylon made Emma smile as she threw herself on her bed. She placed her holo band on her nightstand right next to her as she did every night before closing her eyes.
“I mean, everyone wants to hear what happened with Dana and congratulate you, but Daylon, especially,” Jeba went on to explain. “He likes you. Like, more than a sister.”
“Yes, yes.” Emma threw a pillow at Jeba. “I know.”
“What did happen?” Layga asked from her bed. The Ree was sitting cross-legged, like a child waiting for a bedtime story. “Did you fight a mantis?”
Emma told them the story from the moment she left them to the time she reemerged behind Dana running for the finish line.
Somewhere at the end, as Layga and Jeba asked questions, Emma fell asleep.
Emma wasn’t sure how long she was out. Vague memories of the Shay visiting her dreams were just out of reach of her thoughts. What she did know was that when she felt the hand clamp over her mouth, she was wide-awake.
“Shhhh…,” Drown’s voice slipped through the darkness like a snake on a grassy field. “If you care for Jeba or Layga at all, you won’t make a sound. Nod if you understand.”
Emma was still trying to wade through the cobwebs of sleep. She managed to nod.
Drown removed his hand.
The light in the room was too dim to see his expression, but his voice was full of concern.
“What … what’s wrong?” Emma whispered, moving to a seated position. A horrible thought came to her. “Is it Tistan? Did something happen to her?”
“The Alliance has discovered you’re human. I don’t know how, but they’re here for you now.” Drown moved to the door and cracked it open a half-inch. “We have to get you to Slain’s office and to his teleporter. Once you’re on Earth, it will be much harder for them to get to you.”
Emma’s mind reeled. A hundred thoughts went through her brain, accompanied by the sound of Jeba’s heavy snoring.
Pants, shirt, and shoes were all pulled on in seconds. When Emma reached for her holo band, it wasn’t on her nightstand.
Panic was already knocking on the door, but when Emma couldn’t find her holo band, it broke in completely.
“She took it,” Emma whispered to herself as she went down on all fours searching around her nightstand. “I should have known she would take it.”
“What?” Drown was beside her. The door to her room was cracked just enough to let an adequate amount of illumination seep through. He wore no shoes, loose-fitting pants, and a sleeveless shirt that showed off his muscular arms.
“I recorded Dana admitting to being the one getting Instructor Andy fired.” Emma paused, feeling sick to her stomach as she realized all the implications of Dana going through her holo band. “She must have found the communication link with my father, maybe even the option to contact Tistan directly.”
“This changes nothing.” Drown motioned for her to follow him from the room. “We still need to get you out of here. Your mother is a smart woman. She can take care of herself.”
Emma took one last look at the sleeping forms of Layga and Jeba. Would they hate her for lying to them? Would they be able to tell that their friendship had really meant something to her? These questions and more were left unanswered as Emma ran to keep up with Drown.
The two stole through the dormitory hall. Everyone was still asleep. Emma had no concept of time, except by the light of the never-ending ceiling. Judging by its dull grey, it had to be somewhere in the very early hours of the morning.
“Do you still do that vomit thing when you teleport?” Drown asked as they reached the level’s twin teleporters.
“No—I mean, I’m fine over short distances. Long distances still mess me up.”
“Great. At least I don’t have to worry about being puked on while I commit treason.”
“I can go myself.” Despite her predicament, Emma felt anger rise in her heart. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
Drown ignored her anger. “No. You’re too much like your mother to do that. When we get to the dean’s level, the Alliance is sure to have—”
Drown’s words were cut off as the teleporter on their left shone with light. Before Emma could even register what was happening, Drown was in the teleporter where two Alliance guards had just appeared.
Drown placed a strike to the temple of the guard on the left so fast Emma didn’t even see his fist make contact. As if his motions were as fluid as water itself, he wrapped the second guard around the neck, turning him to face the inside of the teleporter. There was a brief struggle before the guard went slack in Drown’s arms.
“Did you—” Emma stood stunned. She had never seen anyone move so quickly. “Did you kill them?”
“No, but they’re not going to wake up happy.” Drown moved to the second teleporter, motioning for Emma to follow. “Whatever happens to me, you get to Slain’s office and into that teleporter to Earth.”
Emma felt a cold numbness wrap around her. Despite this, she nodded in compliance.
One moment, Emma and Drown were standing in the teleporter, facing her own dorm level; the next, they were standing in the same teleporter, but on an entirely different floor.
“I’m not sure. Frankly, I’m just as surprised as you are.” Slain’s voice drifted down the open hall. “That a human could gain access to the Academy is something quite disturbing.”
Drown put out an arm to keep Emma in the teleporter. He lifted a finger to his lips.
The act was unnecessary; Emma had no desire to see who Slain was talking with. All she wanted at that moment was to hear what the person or persons said in return.
“Dean,” a harsh female voice answered. “I’ve already dispatched soldiers to every level of the Academy, searching for the girl. You can be sure there will be an extensive investigation as to how this could have happened.”
“Well, I hope there is.” Slain didn’t miss a beat. “I would be more than happy to assist in the search, myself. If you and your men would follow me, we can start at the very uppermost level of the Academy and work our way down. If there is a human in here, we’ll find them.”
Emma waited with pent-up anticipation for the woman’s words. It was becoming harder and harder not to peek around the side of the teleporter to get a glimpse of the woman Slain was speaking with and the number of soldiers with her.
“That will be most helpful,” the woman agreed. “I’ll leave two of my soldiers stationed here, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
Emma could practically see Slain’s emotionless eyes as he played his part to perfection.
“Well, this way,” Slain began again. “We might as well search this level, since we are already here.”
Emma could hear footsteps die off in the distance. She looked to Drown for direction. As she did, she could hear the conversation of the two soldiers left to guard Slain’s office.
“Do you know what this is all about?” the first guard asked as he let out a thick fart that echoed down the hall. “Sorry about that.”
“My God man, do you need to change yourself? No, all I know is it’s something about receiving word from a recruit here that another recruit is half human.”
“Half human?” The guard started to laugh. “That’s a new one on me.”
“I don’t know. I just keep my head down, do what I’m told, and don’t ask questions.” The other soldier coughed. “Uh, I can taste it. You should really get that checked out.”
“Keeping your head down is a smart move,” the flatulent guard said, ignoring his partner’s recommendation. “A smart philosophy when you’re under the authority of Commander Kull. I think half the unit is terrified of the woman.”
The two soldiers continued on, but Emma’s attention was on Drown. He opened the menu on his own holo band, scrolling through the options.
“What are you doing?” Emma whispered so quietly she could barely hear her own words. “Why don’t you take them out like you did the other soldiers?”
“Because even I’m not that fast. I’d be seen by the time I got out of the teleporter, turned the corner, and rendered them unconscious.” Drown tapped a final button on his holo band before it disappeared. “Don’t worry, help’s on the way.”
“Who?” Emma asked, racking her brain for a person besides Slain that would be willing to help them here at the Academy.
“You’ll see.” Drown almost smiled again. “She said she knew your secret, and that she was willing to help. We’ll find out how serious her offer is.”
Much sooner than Emma would have thought, the teleporter next to theirs hummed to life. Emma felt the muscles in her body tense.
Instead of another pair of Alliance soldiers, the bent figure of Cherub, the head nurse, passed by their hiding spot. The old Bracka woman was dressed in fluffy, blue slippers and a matching robe. She winked at Emma and Drown as she passed.
At once, Emma remembered the cryptic conversation the old woman had had with her while she was recovering from her first encounter with a turlock. Even as the memories replayed in Emma’s mind, she heard Cherub shuffling down the hall in her slippered feet.
Emma peeked out of the hollow spot in the wall where the teleporter was located. In front of her the shambling figure of Cherub meandered down the hall as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
As soon as Cherub turned the corner leading to Slain’s office, there was a pause in the two soldiers’ conversation.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” one of the soldiers addressed her, trying to hide the surprise in his voice. “You can’t be here right now.”
“Oh? And why not, young soldier?” Cherub almost sang the words. It was soft and gentle, like the beginning of a child’s bedtime rhyme.
“Because there’s a search going on right now,” the other guard yawned. “Please go back to your room.”
“Oh, but aren’t you so tired from manning your post?” Cherub sang.
Emma could feel her eyes begin to close while the feeling like a warm blanket on a cool night crept over her body. When was the last time she had slept? It seemed like ages ago. She needed to close her eyes, just for a moment. It would be okay, just for a moment…
Emma was shoved hard from behind. Drown looked down at her, shaking his head.
“I’m … I’m a bit tired,” one of the soldiers breathed after a long yawn. “Maybe just a little rest.”
“That’s right, young soldiers need their share of rest.” Cherub’s voice was barely audible now as she lulled the soldiers to sleep. “Sleep well now. Rest your eyes, and when you awake, there will be a surprise.”
Two pairs of snoring, along with heavy breathing, wafted around the corner and down the hall.
“Come on, let’s go.” Drown grabbed Emma’s hand. He set a steady trot down the deserted hall. “These soldiers are sleeping, but it’s only a matter of time before they wake or another patrol passes by.”
“How did she do that?” Emma allowed Drown to lead her by the hand, all thoughts of her disdain for him and his teaching methods gone. “Was that … will, as well?”
Emma and Drown rounded the corner. The soldiers lay sprawled on the floor, their pristine Alliance uniforms now wrinkling beneath their own weight. One of the soldiers had assumed the fetal position, while the other lay on his stomach, his hands under his head. Both seemed to be slumbering as quietly as newborn babes.
“Not will, my child.” Cherub smiled at Emma’s wide eyes as they passed. “There is a large universe out there full of wonders and impossible facts, if one is willing to look close enough.”
Emma wasn’t sure what to say. Drown let go of the grip on her hand. The two kept pace side by side past Cherub.
“Thank you.” Drown nodded as they passed the elderly woman.
Cherub turned her fluffy slippers away from the two. She hummed something that sounded so familiar to Emma, she was sure she had heard it before, although at the time she couldn’t quite place it. The tune itched at the corners of her memory, but no answer as to its origin came.
Drown punched a code into the keypad that parted the waterfall in front of Slain’s office. The water divided, allowing them entrance. As if it could sense once they passed through, it closed right behind them.
“You’ll need to change and take a pill to turn your skin back to its normal color.” Drown ran to Slain’s desk and produced the clothes Emma wore when she arrived at the Academy. He tossed them to her. “Hurry, now.”
“Are you going to turn around?” Emma caught the clothes in her hands. “I’m not going to get naked in front of you.”
“If this were any other circumstance, you’d be on the mat for talking to me like that.” Despite his words, Drown turned his back on her. “You didn’t have an issue when you had to change for your mission on Stardox.”
“Yeah, well…” Emma traded her Academy-approved nightwear for her converse, jeans, and black top. “Different times, my friend.”
To be honest, Emma was surprised she spoke to Drown the way she just did. Had she really changed that much in a month? Before, she wouldn’t dream of speaking to a teacher like she was now chatting to Drown.
“You can turn around.” Emma took one last look around the office. Everything was happening so quickly, she hadn’t taken a moment to think how much she would miss the Academy.
“No time for emotion.” Drown took her clothes from her and handed her a blue pill. “Time to go back to all whitish-tan and get you home.”
Emma accepted the pill. She dry swallowed it, hating the feeling it made as it passed down her throat.
“Where will I end up back on Earth?” Emma braced herself for the answer.
Instead of Drown answering, shouting from the other side of the room’s entrance filled the dean’s office. The words were too faint to be heard through the thick barrier. The waterfall entrance further muddled the shouts, but it was clear from the tone, whoever it was, was not happy.
“You’ll end up right in front of your home.” Drown ran to the far side of the office, ignoring the shouts outside, along with Emma’s open mouth. “Let me set the coordinates and you’ll be off.”
“You can’t teleport me right outside my house!” Emma looked behind her at the entrance to the room as a noise resembling someone pounding on water resonated inward. “What if someone sees me?”
“One crisis at a time.” Drown ran back to Slain’s large desk. He brought up the holo menu, swiping furiously at the pad. “First, let’s get you out of here.”
“But how will I know where to fight the Shay when they come?” Emma couldn’t deny the panic in her voice. “How will I—”
A flash of light and tingling sensation were the only answers to her questions, then Emma found herself heaving on her knees in her own front yard.
A quick look to her right told Emma what she had already sensed: Someone was watching.
Miss Starling gaped at Emma. Her acrylic nails, orange spray tan, and low-cut top told Emma her next door neighbor was outside again, waiting to try to corner her father.
Emma spat saliva from her mouth, looking down at her skin. The last remnants of her orange Halyna hue just fading. Sadness swept over Emma as she realized she would never be part of the Academy again.
“You just—you were—” Miss Starling’s wine glass dropped from her left hand. The glass bounced off the springy lawn, staining the blades of grass blood red. “You were … orange.”
Emma found it slightly amusing that, for once, she wasn’t the one stuttering. What was even more interesting to her was that she really didn’t care someone had seen her. When the fate of the world hung in the balance, things like your next door neighbor seeing you teleport and change skin color just didn’t hold the same weight.
“Emma! You’re home!”
The front door to their house was flung open. Emma’s father ran out and scooped her into his arms like she was still a little girl. He squeezed her like she was made of steel, which now wasn’t far from the truth. Her father’s familiar scent comforted her in a way she hadn’t realized she missed.
“How are you here?” Mr. Jackson either didn’t see or ignored the still-awed Miss Starling. “I thought you still had another month at camp?”
“Oh, yeah.” Emma searched for an answer that was somewhere close to the truth. The less she had to lie to her father, the better she felt. “I really missed you, and I’d already learned a ton while I was there. I felt like it was time for me to come home.”
“Well, I’m glad you did.” Mr. Jackson finally let go of his daughter. “Come on, you have to tell me all about it. Are you hungry?”
“I—uh—” Miss Starling finally found her voice again, but it seemed coherent words were now not within her reach. “I think I need to stop drinking.”
Still too excited to see his daughter to fully grasp the situation, Mr. Jackson just waved to his neighbor.
“Pizza?” Emma opened the door for her father, just for a moment enjoying being home. She allowed herself to forget about the repercussions of being discovered at the Academy and the impending Shay invasion.
“Pepperoni and jalapeños?” her father guessed, already reaching into his pocket for his cell phone. “As usual?”
“Oh, yeah. Um…” Emma swallowed back the bile from her most recent teleportation, memories of her first intergalactic traveling experience still fresh in her mind. “Maybe just cheese this time.”
There was no reason for her father to doubt anything she said. Lying had never been one of Emma’s shortcomings. For one more night, life had fallen back into a comfortable routine. Dinner with her father, followed by reading side by side in the den, then a movie before bed.
As much as she wanted to tell her father the truth, she knew for his own protection she had to lie. There was no way he would let her turn back the incoming Shay force.
Emma lay awake in her bed, already coming up with plans to continue her training on her own while her father was at work. She still had a month to prepare. Tistan would visit her in that time with details, Emma was sure of it.
The knock on her window was so faint, Emma almost didn’t hear it. The second time it came louder and more pronounced. Through the quiet of the night, the tapping sounded like someone hitting her window with small rocks.
Emma wasn’t sleeping. Her mind wouldn’t stop playing and replaying dozens of different scenarios. There were too many questions battling for her attention. When would she receive word from Tistan? What would her friends at the Academy think of her now that they knew the truth? Was she ready to take on the Shay?
The tapping came again, this time so pronounced, it was impossible to attribute the sound to her imagination.
Emma sat up in bed, squinting through the darkness. A robed figure hunched by her window.
Fear grabbed at Emma. Instinct took over. Adrenaline added strength to her movements. Emma jumped out of bed, ready to defend her home and her father.
Tistan Duel removed the deep-set hood from her head. Her pointed ears caught the moonlight, making it look like batman had come to visit Emma in the night.
Tistan motioned with an open hand for Emma to join her out on the roof, then walked out of sight.
Emma grabbed a blanket. She wrapped it around her shoulders. Like a hundred times before, she unlatched the window and stepped outside into the cool southern California night.
Although Emma couldn’t be sure of the time, the fact that most of her neighbors’ windows were dark hinted at a very early morning hour. The stars were still bright overhead. Briefly, Emma looked up, wondering exactly how far the Academy was from her home, thinking of the friends she’d left behind.
“You were careless.” Tistan’s voice carried on the breeze, harsh and grating. “You were lucky to get out of the Academy at all.”
“I wasn’t … I wasn’t careless.” Emma felt a rush of anger. “My holo band was stolen. What happened to Drown? Did he get caught?”
“Drown can take care of himself.” Tistan looked Emma up and down, searching for the words that came next. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry for ever thinking that sneaking you into the Academy was a good idea.” Tistan’s bright orange eyes narrowed. “But that is behind us now. I’m coming with news. The Shay have learned of new Arilion Knights being chosen across the universe. They’ve moved up their invasion plans. Emma, they’re coming tonight.”
Emma understood every word coming from Tistan’s mouth, but her brain was having a hard time processing the information.
“The Shay are coming now?” Emma felt a cold fog settle over her skin. The frigid sensation penetrated her body to the very core of her being. “But you said I had two months to prepare. I need more time.”
“There is no more time.” Tistan shook her head emphatically. “We need to follow my original plan. I’ve secured safe passage for you and your father to—”
“No.” Emma hugged the blanket around her shoulders. The edges rustled like the end of a cape. “This changes nothing. I can do this. I can turn back a scouting party. I stopped a charging turlock, I fought off a mantis. I can do this. I have to do this.”
“Emma.” Tistan’s voice was a near shout. “We’ve tried it your way. I’m trying to be reasonable, but this world is going to die. I’m not going to let you or your father die on it.”
“Well, thanks for deciding to care now. Where was all of this when you decided to leave us? Growing up, I could have used a mom.” The itching sensation of tears began to irritate Emma’s eyes. “Do you know what it’s like to grow up without a mother? Do you know about all the times I would see little girls with their moms and wonder what I had done for you to leave me? Do you know how many times I would imagine what you were like? Do you know…”
Emma’s voice trailed off. Tears streaked down her cheeks, but she refused to wipe them away. Resolve and the will to do whatever it took to keep her father and her world safe raged in her chest.
“There’s already an investigation going on at the Academy.” Tistan’s head was down. She didn’t even try to make eye contact with her daughter, but Emma could guess there were also tears in her eyes. “I can’t stay to help you.”
“I never asked for your help.” Emma took a deep breath. “I just need the time and coordinates of where the Shay ship will land. I’m going to turn back the scouting party and save Earth.”
“They must have an idea Earth has some kind of guardian.” Tistan finally looked up. Her stern features, the sharp edges in her face had vanished. Tears pooled in her own eyes, but she refused to let them spill down her cheeks. “The Shay have a ship landing in an hour. Whatever they are planning, be careful, Emma. The Shay are as deceptive as they are dangerous.”
“An hour.” Emma repeated. Her stomach twisted into a knot. “But, where? Where are they going to land?”
Tistan hesitated. Both of the warriors knew as soon as Tistan revealed this last detail, it would set into motion Emma’s conflict with the Shay.
“If you do care for me at all, you have to let me do this.” Emma sensed Tistan’s hesitancy. “This is my fight.”
Tistan didn’t say a word. Instead, she produced a holo band from her pocket and entered in a set of numbers, then handed the band to Emma.
When Emma reached for the band, Tistan didn’t let go. Instead, she held her daughter’s eye for a moment longer.
Emma almost couldn’t look at the woman. Gone were the pools in her eyes, what had replaced them made Emma shudder—a resolve and a will Emma had never witnessed, as if she were somehow transferring some of her own willpower to Emma just by holding her gaze.
“When you meet the Shay on the field of battle, show them no mercy.” Tistan released the holo band, tapping the one that rested on her own wrist. “Because they will show you none in return.”
Tistan was gone. In a soft shimmering of light, Emma was alone on the roof. Emma slipped the holo band onto her wrist, pushing everything from her mind besides what she knew had to be done.
Emma walked back to her window, catching motion from the corner of her eye. Miss Starling was out in her front yard, staring up with an open mouth. Her hair was disheveled as if she’d just woken from bed, and her silk robe did nothing to stem the cool of the night.
Emma looked down and waved.
Miss Starling ran inside her home as if the devil himself had issued a greeting.
“If I make it through the night,” Emma whispered to herself as she climbed back through the window, “I should make a donation to that lady’s psychiatrist bill.”
Emma stood in the doorway to her father’s room. A twinge of regret reverberated through her soul as the snores reminded her of Jeba.
Everything about his room spoke to the man he was. It was simple and plain, with a brown, framed bed and a thick, barn door covering his closet. There was a mirror in the corner of the room, and a nightstand holding a pile of books and a lamp. That was it.
Emma quietly slipped into his room and took a seat next to him on his bed. She understood the chance she was taking. If she woke him, things were too far along to try to explain. But she had to see him one more time. For all she knew, it might be her last.
Emma’s converse didn’t make a sound on the hardwood flooring. Her jeans and black hoodie didn’t give her away. She looked down at her father, the man who had taught her how to be the woman she was today. He had kicked off the top blanket some time in his tossing and turning. Emma lifted it back and tucked him in.
He was the man who was, and would always be, her hero. The first call she would make if she was in trouble, the last person to leave her side if she needed help. But tonight, the tables had been turned. Tonight, she would fight for him. It didn’t matter if he knew it or not.
“I love you, Dad,” Emma whispered. She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “It’s my turn to protect you now.”
Emma stood up giving him one last smile, she reached for the holo band on her wrist, preparing to vomit up her pizza at least one more time.
Besides the saliva that filled her mouth with nausea, the first thing Emma tasted was the salt on the air. Emma ignored her churning stomach, instead focusing on the scene where her battle with the Shay would take place.
It was a long, deserted stretch of beach. To her right and left were piers far off in the distance. Behind her was a highway, and on the opposite side, a row of either businesses or houses. They were too far away to make out any exact details. The waves crashed gently on the shore.
If, from their conversation, Tistan was correct in assuming the Shay would be arriving an hour, then Emma still had a few minutes left. She walked up the beach, choosing to give her opponent the lower ground. They would have to charge up to her. It was a small advantage, but at the moment, Emma was willing to take any edge she was given.
Fear kept interrupting her battle plans. Every time she banished the feeling to the deep recesses of her consciousness, it somehow managed to squirm its way back up. Emma stood with her back to the highway, looking down the beach at the waves.
Death wasn’t something she thought about a lot, but it was something she had to seriously consider now.
You’re going to do this, she told herself. You’ve already done the impossible. You just have to do it one more time. Their weapons can’t hurt you. You’re stronger than any of them.
Emma clenched her right hand. The spot on her forearm where the mantis had bore down was still sore. As much as she would like to think she was completely invulnerable, there was a limit to her power.
Motion came from her left, ripping Emma from her train of thought—a brief shimmering of light, then three figures, two standing and one on all fours. Emma braced herself for the attack.
“You look a lot different as a human,” Layga’s voice reached her over the waves, “but I like it. It looks good on you.”
The creature on all fours sprinted to Emma, tackling her in a fury of licks and nuzzles. Emma laughed despite the hour. She wrestled with the saberling in the sand.
“How—” Emma lifted the saberling and ran to her friends, embracing them both. “How are you here?”
“Easy, human.” Jeba removed herself from the hug, lifting a package Emma hadn’t seen her carrying. “You’re going to wrinkle your uniform. If we’re going to die together, then we should at least do it in a uniform.”
“No one’s going to die.” Layga threw Jeba a dirty look. “Stop saying that.”
“Somebody answer my question.” Emma accepted the clothes, noticing her two friends were also dressed in their black and purple trimmed uniforms from the Academy. “How did you get permission to come here?”
“Permission is a strong word to use for what we did, human.” Jeba grinned so wide, even in the dull light it was easy to see. “Hurry and change, though. I don’t think we have much time.”
“Okay, I will but start from the beginning.” As much as Emma was relieved to see her friends, the danger they were putting themselves in by standing alongside her had to be addressed. “You two—three—shouldn’t be here. The Shay—”
“Emma, we know what we’re getting ourselves into.” Layga knelt down to control the saberling long enough for Emma to change. “When we woke up, the Academy was buzzing with the news, how Dana had discovered you were part human and your escape. At the same time, there were reports coming in of a Shay scouting ship approaching Earth.”
Emma’s mind raced to catch up with the details as she dressed in front of her friends. Apparently taking off clothes and redressing in front of others was now a common occurrence.
The cold prickled her skin, sending goosebumps racing up and down her spine. The other thing that struck her was how comfortable she was becoming with her body.
“Everyone wanted to come to help you,” Layga continued. “I mean, everyone besides the obvious trio.”
“There was a coup to make it to the teleportation level at the Academy.” Jeba stared out into the dark, crashing waves. “Many lost their lives to get us here.”
“What?” Emma zipped up her jacket with a start. “Who died? What are you talking about?”
“No one died.” Layga released the saberling, allowing him to resume his stance next to Emma. “Jeba, stop being so morbid. You’ve been talking about death for hours now.”
“It just feels like someone is going to die tonight.” Jeba shrugged, lifting a hand to Layga. “Do not judge me, giant.”
“What Jeba was saying,” Layga shook her head, turning to Emma, “was that it was a group effort to get us here. The Academy is swarming with Alliance guards. Daylon and the others really wanted to come, but they were causing distractions and creating diversions so we could get here.”
The thought of Daylon and the other first-year recruits willing to help her even though she had lied to them about being human, warmed her heart. If she was being honest with herself, it was mostly the thought of Daylon.
“How are you not angry with me?” Emma looked from Jeba to Layga. “I lied to you.”
“You had to, to have any chance of saving your planet,” Layga said with a shrug. “Besides, you’re our friend.”
“Trust me, I do not take you lying to me lightly,” Jeba said. Even in the poor light, Emma could make out a scowl on the Bracka’s face. “However, I do hear that Earth has unicorn Frappuccinos. Take me to sample one of these wonders, and all will be forgiven.”
“How did you know we have unicorn Frappuccinos here?” Emma asked, not even trying to hide her smile. “You—”
A distant rumble like thunder cut off her next words. What looked like a falling star was shooting toward them in the dark, clear sky.
“We should have brought weapons,” Jeba said under her breath.
The craft landed so quickly there was no time to strategize or even exchange looks of wonder. One second it was a light streaking toward them, and then in the space of a few heartbeats, it was a black alien craft landing on the beach where the water met the sand.
“Layga, you’re more resilient than most first year recruits,” Emma said, not trusting her eyes to stray from the craft that made a noise like a hundred birds flapping their wings at once. “Jeba, every time we spar I’m barely able to best you. Use that to your advantage when the fighting starts.”
“Got it.” Layga moved to stand beside Emma and the saberling. “We’re with you.”
“Whether we live or die this night, and if I had to bet we are all going to die,” Jeba moved to her other side, “I’m glad to have known you.”
“Stop with the death thing already,” Layga said with a sigh.
“Thank you both for coming.” Emma found herself suddenly overcome with emotion. “I’ve always wanted friends like you.”
The alien craft touched down half in the water and half in the sand. The engines ramped down, leaving the massive black ship beached like a silent whale.
It was the size of a large house, with three protruding sections that reminded Emma of a triangle or a pyramid. The three points protruding from the craft came forward like talons from some massive creature’s paw.
A sharp hissing came from the ship as a loading ramp lowered from the middle of the craft.
Emma’s heart was racing so hard, she was having a hard time breathing. One thing she knew from her month of studying at the Academy was that you had to believe. Emma had to believe she could win, or the battle was already lost.
“We can do this.” Emma clenched her hands into fists, so hard they shook with effort. “We will do this. We’ll win. We’ll turn them back and somehow explain to the Academy what happened.”
Something in Layga’s voice made Emma turn to give her tall friend her full attention. The Ree was smiling down at her. “You haven’t stuttered all night.”
The thought made Emma smile, but her joy was short-lived. Heavy paws on metal drew her attention back to the landing craft.
The saberling growled deep in its chest. Hunched down on all fours, all of its attention was focused on what was descending from the ramp.
Massive figures, not quite as large as Layga but much more intimidating, appeared from somewhere deep within the craft. Huge, winged creatures, like the ones in Emma’s dream, walked forward. There were seven of them altogether.
The Shay were dressed in suits of dull grey battle armor. Dark green-and-black scales covered them from tail to the folded wings that sat behind their shoulders. Each one carried a blaster the size of a folding chair in the crook of their arms. Each one, besides their leader who held no weapons but a blue handle of some kind poked up over each of her shoulders.
The group of Shay stopped yards from the three Academy recruits. Somehow, the air was colder in their presence. Emma clenched her jaw, hoping they couldn’t sense fear, knowing her friends were outnumbered and outgunned.
“Radar shows our presence has been undetected by Earth’s forces, Countess.” One of the Shay flipped open a device on his wrist, clicking buttons with a long fingernail.
The way the Shay spoke sounded like a deep rasp. Each word was over-pronounced and forced past his sharp teeth. Emma found herself wondering if the Shay would be more or less intimidating in the light of day. The stars, moon, and distant city light reflected off their armor and shiny skin.
“Understood.” The voice came from their leader. It was smoother than the others, as if she’d had more practice speaking. She turned to Emma and her party. “I am Countess Rule of the Royal Shay Family. I understand you feel a need to protect this planet. Your need is unwarranted. Under Shay control, your planet will prosper. Step aside.”
“You—” Emma took a moment to steady herself. Her resolve was building. Inside, she could feel the heat she’d come to know as her will bathe her body. Somehow this time it was different. Will to fight and succeed raged inside of her like a blazing wildfire. “You already used the word ‘control,’ and that’s enough for me to ask you to turn back.”
“Lights,” Countess Rule said with a dismissive wave of her arm.
Immediately, bright white light from the inside of the craft lit up the beach. Emma blinked from the shock. Her pupils fought to compensate for the aggressive illumination.
“So, you’re the one my dreams have been touching.” The countess took a step forward, her large paw making a deep impression in the sand. “Emma, you don’t need to die here. I can show you another way, a way those at the Academy would hide from you. There is other power in the universe than just will. Save yourself and learn.”
“How were you in my dreams?” Emma hated herself for even allowing the conversation to go on this far, but she had to know. “What other power are you talking about?”
“You’re not only a hybrid but something more.” Countess Rule extended an open hand. “You are more powerful than you know. The Shay reaches out to those with potential, to teach them the ultimate power that fury, not will, can bring. Come with me. We will spare your friends, as well. I will not offer again.”
“And Earth?” Emma knew she should end the conversation now, but she had to find out for certain. Before any killing started, she had to be sure there was no other way. “What are you going to do to Earth and the people on it?”
“Earth will be a Shay planet.” Countess Rule lowered her hand. “The populace will be thinned as is necessary to our goal.”
“That’s all I needed to know.” Emma bent her knees, ready for the fighting to start. “I’m not going with you. Get back into your ship and get off my planet.”
“Your planet?” The countess laughed. “You’re not even an Arilion Knight. We’ll see how well you can protect your planet, child.”
The will to fight inside of Emma and not give in to the dictator in front of her consumed her.
You can turn them back, for your father, for your friends, for the planet you can make a difference, Emma coached herself in her own head. Her hands shook with passion as her fighting spirit reached an all time high. You can do this! You will do this!
Something purple flashed past her vision slipping onto her forearms as if they were old friends providing a warm handshake.
The countess swished her tail in an upward arc. The six soldiers behind her leveled their blasters, and the night lit up with blaster fire.
The first shot took Emma in the chest.
The blast felt lighter than a punch from Drown. By no means was it enjoyable, but after two steps of regaining her footing in the sand, Emma was still on her feet. All around her, her body glowed with a dark purple hue that covered her from toe to head like a second skin.
Emma noticed all of this in a matter of a second. As much as she would love to look at the glowing vambraces on her forearms or take a moment to wonder if this meant she was an actual Arilion Knight, her friends were taking fire. The Shay were advancing across the beach. Even now, they realized she wasn’t dead, and they trained their guns on Emma again.
Emma was done being target practice. She raced across the beach, arms in front of her, shielding her face from the weapons’ blasts. Two more blows struck her before she collided with the Shay warrior in her path. The pain they brought was nothing worse than what Emma had experienced in sparring. She’d have to thank Drown if she ever saw him again.
The protective purple shielding around her absorbed the blows. Her strength was increased as well. Emma grabbed the blaster from the Shay’s hands, ripping it into two pieces.
The Shay soldier struck out with its tail, but Emma was too fast. She caught the appendage in both hands, throwing it to the side. She delivered a right-left-right combination to the Shay’s head, bringing him to his knees.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Blasters added more illumination to the spotlight already pouring from the ship. Hissing zaps followed every pull of the Shay trigger. Emma saw Layga and Jeba holding their own, each grappling with a Shay soldier. Even the saberling was busy at work, playing tug of war with a Shay and his weapon.
The blow that hit Emma came from her right. It connected with her jaw with more force than any of the blaster bolts she had endured thus far. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. Bright spots danced across her vision as her skull erupted in pain.
“You stupid girl,” The countess roared, landing another punch to Emma’s head, opening up a cut just below her hairline. “Under my tutelage, you could have been something other than a corpse. What a waste, to die the same night you were chosen as the Arilion of Earth.”
The will to survive raged inside Emma. Blinking past the blood in her eyes, she blocked the next strike and landed a left uppercut to the countess’ jaw. Her long snout snapped back.
Hope was short-lived, as the blow failed to do anything but anger the countess even further. She reached behind her shoulder grabbing onto the handles of the weapons that poked up over her back. A moment later, she unsheathed a sword in her left hand and an axe in her right. It was obvious the weapons were some kind of magic or technology Emma didn’t understand. They both glowed with a dull blue light.
“I’m going to take off your head!” The countess charged, swinging her weapons in wide arcs.
Emma managed to dodge the first few swings, but her attention was so intent on the sharp weapons slicing inches from her, she missed a kick that sent her flying through the air.
Emma collided with Layga, who had lifted a Shay up over her head, and the three crumpled in a mass of wings and legs.
The Shay was the first to his feet. He leveled the blaster point-blank at Emma’s head before a rush of fur and claws tackled him to the sandy beach. The saberling sunk its teeth into the Shay’s leg, viciously jerking its head from side to side.
“Holy Human Halyna hybrid, Emma you’re an Arilion Knight,” Jeba joined the two girls. She was bleeding from her nose and her left hand. “I knew it! I knew you would be chosen as Earth’s Arilion.”
Emma fought her way back to her feet. Chancing a glance at her vambraces. They covered her from elbow to wrists etched with an ancient text Emma couldn’t read. Made of dark metal they felt solid and secure.
As if both sides had approved of an unspoken lull in the battle, the Shay and the members from the Academy stared one another down. Even the saberling had released his grip on his victim and had run to join the girls.
The Shay soldiers didn’t even seem fazed. All six of them, including the countess, were on their feet already. A sick smile spread over the countess’ nonexistent lips. “The Omega weapon—now.”
At once, the six Shay soldiers formed a half-circle, shooting their blue beams of energy from their blaster at one fixed point. Six streams met at a single nexus, building a blue ball of deadly energy.
“Get back!” Emma yelled to her friends, running forward.
Come on Em, she said to herself wishing she knew more about the Arilion Order and what they were able to do. You’re a freaking Arilion Knight you should be able to do something.
The six beams of crackling energy gathered for a moment in a massive ball, then shot forward. Emma extended her hands, channeling her will with every ounce of strength she could muster. At the same time a purple staff formed in her hands. Made from the vambraces she extended the weapon forward to meet the massive blast of enemy fire.
The beam hit her like a charging turlock. Emma grunted under the strain. She lowered her head, fighting to find traction in the sand, but no matter what she tried, she was being pushed backwards. Her hands felt like they were on fire as she maneuvered her fists wider on her staff to avoid being in the direct lane of the enemy blast.
She could feel Layga and Jeba grab her torso and shoulders, trying to stop her from sliding back. The saberling clawed at the sand, pressing the top of his head against Emma’s left leg, trying to steady her. The combined power from the blasters was too strong.
Jeba was right, Emma thought, as sweat poured into her eyes and her muscles screamed with fatigue. I’m going to have to lower this staff sooner or later, and this beam of baby blue light is going to kill us, Arilion or not.
As suddenly as the blue beam had begun, it ended. The ground shuddered with a violent impact. Sand kicked up in every direction.
Emma sank to her knees. Smoke came from the purple staff she still clutched in her hands. Exhaustion beat at her consciousness. Still, Emma had to figure out what was happening. The fight wasn’t over yet.
The Shay seemed just as confused as Emma. The dust began to settle, giving them a view of the battlefield. Emma’s heart caught in her chest when she saw the cause for the disturbance.
Tistan Duel stood on top of the broken body of one of the Shay soldiers. Her impact had folded the reptilian creature in on itself. Its tail twitched one last time, then went still.
“Emma, are you all right?” Tistan’s orange eyes never left her enemies. Her cloak settled around her, giving her the appearance of a superhero. “Girls, answer me.”
“We’re … we’re okay.” Emma once again struggled to her feet. “You came … you came back.”
“Kill her!” the countess roared, shattering the moment. “Kill them all—now!”
Just like Drown, Tistan was so fast, Emma had trouble tracking her exact movements. Two things immediately stuck out to Emma as she watched Tistan go to work. First, her mother used the same kind of weapons as Countess Rule. The only difference being Tistan held two dull green swords in her hands.
Second, Tistan was not only strong and resilient, but she was also fast, and one heck of a fighter. Tistan flew from target to target in a blur of dull green light. Her blades found homes in between armor plates and in the heads of the helmetless Shay soldiers.
Tistan was already dispatching the fourth Shay soldier, when the remaining two opened fire on her. The countess stood by, screaming in anger.
“Come on.” Emma motioned to her bloody friends. “She can use our help. One last time, everything you’ve got!”
Layga nodded. Jeba grinned, unaware that she was now missing a tooth. The girls, along with the saberling, collided with the last two Shay soldiers, whose attention was on Tistan as she battled the other remaining soldier.
Emma hooked her arm underneath the slippery neck of the reptile, bringing him to the ground in a choke hold. Massive wings beat the air. His tail whipped back and forth. Strong arms sought to break her hold, but Emma was stronger than she had ever been before and she bent her will to the task.
The Shay’s wings were strong enough to take them both off the ground. The enemy soldier was fading, but not fast enough. They were already five feet off the beach, when the saberling caught the Shay’s tail in its maw. The combined weight of the three combatants, coupled with the lack of oxygen to the Shay’s brain, proved to be enough.
As soon as they crumpled to the ground, Emma released her hold. Jeba and Layga had also dispatched their target. It lay unconscious at their feet.
Sharp staccato sounds of something sizzling directed their gazes forward. Tistan was locked in combat with the countess. Green blades met blue as the two maneuvered around one another. The Shay countess unfurled her wings using her advantage of flight to swoop in and out of range with Tistan.
It didn’t matter, it really wasn’t much of a battle at all. Tistan fought with the ferocity of a mother lion protecting her cub. The countess was fast, but gave ground under Tistan’s onslaught every time they engaged.
Soon Tistan managed to find an opening in her opponent’s guard. One of her swords sank deep into the countess’ left shoulder. Tistan used the pommel of her other sword to hammer down on the countess’ face.
A scream of agony ripped from the Shay’s throat. She half-fell, half-landed on the beach next to her craft. Her weapons rolled out of her grasp.
“Why … ? Earth was not a planet under the Alliance’s control. You know what repercussions will come because of this?” The countess held a hand to her wounded shoulder to staunch the bleeding. Her eyes traveled over the remains of her six broken soldiers. “Why did you interfere?”
“Because I made a horrible decision sixteen years ago.” Tistan maneuvered her self between Emma and the Shay. “A decision I’ve regretted every day since then. Come what will, I’m never making a choice like that again.”
“This isn’t over.” The countess backpedaled onto her ship. Her eyes traveled from Tistan, to Emma and her friends. “I’ll be back.”
“We’ll be waiting,” Tistan said.
As soon as the countess retreated into her ship, the ramp door closed and the craft lifted off the ground. A moment later, it was gone.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” Emma felt numb, mostly because of the physical trauma she had endured, but also because emotion like she had never experienced was building inside of her. “What’s going to happen to you? You disobeyed the Alliance.”
“Come what may.” Tistan sheathed her weapons on two scabbards that hung on her waist. “You are my daughter, and I love you. I’m going to spend the rest of my life proving that to you. Also it seems like you’ve been chosen as the Earth’s Arilion Knight, Emma. I’m so proud of you.”
Tears, not only from Tistan’s words but also from the fact that she had survived the night, and was the chosen Arilion Knight of Earth, pooled in Emma’s eyes. She closed the space between her and Tistan, wrapping her in a hug. “I love you, too—Mom.”
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear that.” Tistan embraced her back.
Emma felt hot tears from her mother fall onto her own forehead.
Jeba coughed awkwardly into her hand.
Tistan broke off the embrace, wiping at her eyes. “The Alliance will teleport us back at any moment. You can be sure they’ve been monitoring the whole thing. It’s important that you girls let me do the talking.”
Emma nodded along with Jeba and Layga. One moment, they were standing on the beach; the next, there was a tingling sensation and a dull white light.
In the blink of an eye, the dark, sandy beach was exchanged for a brightly lit room with a raised podium in front of them. On the platform was a tall table, where three alien beings sat looking down at them. Only one Emma recognized: Slain. His face was in awe at the sight of the still glowing vambraces on her forearms.
Besides the three pairs of eyes looking down at them from the table, the only other people in the sparsely decorated room were a handful of Alliance guards who’s mouths were in shapes of large “O’s” as they looked at one another and back at Emma.
“I’m assuming you all understand why you are here.” asked the Bracka sitting between Slain and a Ree woman who wore a scowl on her face. It seemed as though she was the only one not struck to be in the presence of a Arilion. “Or would you like me to go over the many, many reasons?”
Emma shook her head, remembering what her mother had said about letting her do all the talking. She stole glances at Layga and Jeba, who looked as nervous as Emma had ever seen them. Even the saberling tilted his head down at the white floor as if he were ashamed of his actions.
“No explanation is needed, Director Trueart.” Tistan fell to one knee, also lowering her eyes. “But let it be known that the events of this night were ones brought on by myself many years ago. I am to blame for this. I am willing to accept my punishment, but please show mercy on the girls. The universe needs its Arilion Knights now more than ever.”
“Mercy?” The Ree woman on Director Trueart’s right had spat out the word. “No mercy will be given this night to a newly chosen Arilion or any other. Not only did you break the rules when you were a spy on Earth, but now you have put us on the brink of war with the Shay. What is more, Earth now knows of our existence. Did you think your conflict would go unnoticed? Already your fight with the Shay is being broadcast around Earth. If I had it my way, you all would be executed for your insolence.”
Emma recognized the woman’s voice. She was the Alliance Commander who had boarded the Academy when Emma was making her escape—Commander Kull.
“And what do you think we should do, Dean?” Director Trueart turned to Slain. “Your past with the accused aside, of course.”
“Of course.” Slain pursed his lips in thought. “A punishment does need to be exacted. But we should consider how valuable these women may be to the Alliance in the future. Emma needs to begin her training as the first Arilion Knight the Academy has ever produced.”
Director Trueart looked amused. His short, grey hair and long beard made him look like a grandfather, while his sparkling green eyes were those of a teenage boy’s.
Emma found herself liking the Bracka, despite the anxiety she felt in the pit of her stomach.
“Tistan Duel,” Director Trueart started, “you are hereby stripped from your rank and discharged from your position in the Alliance army. What else is to be done with you will have to wait until there is a full council meeting.”
Commander Kull smirked down at Tistan with hard eyes. Her glare turned to Emma and her friends as the director continued.
“As for you, saberling, there will be no more treats or rewards of any kind for a full week.”
The saberling slumped on all fours with a heavy sigh.
“Jeba Warbreath and Layga Sunkissed.” The director kept a straight face. “You girls have shown an undying amount of courage. You have stood with your friend and fellow recruit, willing to lay down your life alongside hers. Two days vacation from the barracks.”
“You can’t be serious!” Commander Kull slammed her massive fist onto the table with indignation. “I—”
Director Trueart raised a hand, silencing her.
Slain was doing his best not to smile.
“As for you, Emma Jackson of Earth,” the director continued, “you have put yourself in quite the predicament. You’ve shown that a species we’ve deemed inadequate is up to the task. You’ve managed to protect your planet with barely any preparation. Your consequence will be training at the Academy where you will learn what it truly means to be an Arilion Knight.”
Emma wasn’t sure she’d heard the director correctly. She looked around at her mother and her friends, trying to mouth words of thanks.
“Don’t thank me yet,” the director spoke with an edge in his voice that commanded everyone’s attention in the room. “As Earth’s first Arilion Knight, there are thousands of hours of work ahead of you. Your journey is just beginning.”
End Book One
Into the Breach (Gateway to the Galaxy Book 1) - Advanced Look
When Frank looked up at the Marines after finishing his call, there was nothing but malice in their eyes. For the exception of Raj and the woman who had recognized his Terminator-themed ringtone, everyone glared at him.
“Well, I guess I’m on board, then,” Frank said, ignoring their glares and walking over to the cases of armor. “Oohrah. Am I right?”
No one answered his question, but with a prompt from the CO, the rest of the group continued to gear up for the mission. The Terminator fan struggled with her boots, yet sidled up to Frank as he placed his own upper body armor piece on his chest.
“Hey, I’m Elly,” the woman said, slamming her heel into her boot and nearly toppling over. “You’ve become a fan favorite recently.”
Frank ignored the dark looks from the other Marines. He didn’t have to guess why they were glaring at him.
“Yeah, well, money talks.” Frank worked his hips into the lower body armor pieces before finding his boots. He shook his head. “They had my size ready and everything. They knew days ago I was coming on this mission.”
“Son of a nutcracker, Frank.” Raj had managed to place his body armor on and was now fiddling with his helmet. “Did you have to talk so loud about money? Now every Marine here is going to hate you.”
“I don’t hate you,” Elly said with a shrug. “I get it. Money makes the world go round.”
“Well, money isn’t everything,” Raj said, placing his helmet on backwards.
“Spoken like someone who maybe hasn’t had to worry about money his whole life.” Frank plucked the helmet off Raj’s head and turned it around. “I’m guessing you two haven’t had a lot of field experience.”
“What—” Elly paused to try to wriggle into her upper body armor. Each word came out with a long pause behind it as she grunted and squirmed. “—would—give—you—that—idea?”
The slender woman finally managed to get her head through the hole in the designated section of the armor. Her glasses were askew on her face and her dark bun had managed to make its way to the side of her head. Hurriedly, she wrapped her hair into place to cover her hearing aids.
“Here,” Frank said, motioning to the left side of the body armor, where two thick clasps opened the shell-like gear and offered a much easier means of dressing.
The slate grey armor was thin yet durable. It offered its wearers the best of both protection and mobility. All together, the armor unit only weighed fifty pounds, and that included the boots and the helmet.
“Oh, I … uh, I knew that.” Elly fixed her oversized, wire-and-black acetate glasses.
Frank noticed Elly spoke slowly, making sure to pronounce every word correctly.
“What do you two do, anyway?” Frank asked. He latched his own helmet to a magnetic holder on the left side of his belt. In a series of smooth motions, he equipped himself with a Punisher, Reckoner, and enough ammo to put down a tank. “I’m going to guess you’re not the heavy weapons or demolitions experts on this vacation.”
“You got that right,” Raj said, clipping his electromagnetic, gauss-powered handgun that looked like a marriage between a Desert Eagle and a Nerf Gun to the holder on his thigh. “I have my degrees in aerospace medicine and surgery. Elly is our cybersecurity technician and astrophysicist.”
“Aerospace? Astrophysicist?” Frank looked from Elly, who was struggling to get her helmet on with her skewed glasses and bun, then to Raj who had lifted a gauss-powered assault rifle and was waving the barrel in Frank’s direction while he checked out the safety. Frank lowered the end of the weapon to the ground. “What exactly is the mission?”
“Glad you could be bought into serving your country.” Major Lopez sidled up to the trio. Unlike the others, she had managed to gear up quickly. She had even donned her helmet, which sported a T-shaped glass view shaped like ancient Spartan helmets. “We’re headed out to the briefing before we depart. Let’s go.”
Frank ignored the jab. He had never been worried about what other people thought of him. Growing up, he had always been the kid with shoes too small for his feet, with the jacket bought at the local thrift shop. His parents loved him and had done the best they could, but money had never been plentiful in the Wolffe household.
“Let’s go.” Frank plucked the weapon out of Raj’s hands and placed it across his back, where it magnetically snapped into place. “Easy there, super soldier. Carry it like this and keep your hands free. It’s just an oversized M27 and doesn’t weigh much more. No need to treat it like anything other than a standard-issue weapon.”
“Oh, nice,” Raj said peeking up to look at the grip that sprouted up over his right shoulder. “Thanks, Frank. You probably can’t tell because I’m great at hiding it, but I’m more nervous than I can ever remember being.”
“Nawww.” Frank grinned at Raj. “You?”
“It’s true,” Raj said, missing Frank’s sarcastic tone. “What we’re about to do is … unprecedented.”
“And will someone tell me what that is?” Frank looked around.
“Here we go!” Colonel Breaker’s voice filled the room. “On me, let’s hit the briefing room and the staging ground. Time is sensitive so let's get going—Oohrah!?”
“Oohrah!” everyone in the room, besides Frank, answered. Even Elly and Raj lifted their voices to join the unit.
Frank found himself trotting behind the group of Marines, who moved with a collective cadence. Along with the colonel, major, Raj, and Elly, there were five muscular Marines who didn’t look like they were on their first mission. The one nearest him met Frank’s eyes with a slow glower. As he turned, Frank saw the familiar dimple scars from shrapnel.
Throughout his time in the Marines, and then as a weapons dealer, Frank had grown familiar with his fair share of hard-nosed soldiers. He could tell these men had been handpicked for the job they were about to embark on, whatever that was. Frank was still uncertain, but he was sure it was dangerous.
“Mr. Wolffe,” Colonel Breaker’s voice interrupted Frank from his train of thought. The colonel had intentionally slowed his gait and allowed his XO to take the lead. He strode side by side with Frank. “I understand you may not be in the position you want to be, but I have my men I need to think about on this mission. I need to know that you’re with us, because if you’re not…”
The colonel let his words trail off. Frank understood everything the man was not saying. He knew the colonel’s type. He was here to look after his unit at all costs. At the moment, Frank was a liability.
“I’m with you.” Frank turned his gaze from the long hallway they were traveling and focused on the colonel. “I know we’re doing this for different reasons, but trust me, I’m here to make sure the mission is a success and everyone makes it home whole.”
“Glad to hear it,” Colonel Breaker said, still not moving his stare from Frank. “I’ve fought and lost more than I care to remember. I’m ready to get in and get out, and get my people back safe. You’re one of my people now, too, Frank. You remember how this works. We have each other’s backs, no matter what the cost.”
Frank silently nodded with the colonel’s words.
The two men didn’t say more as the unit moved through the underground bunker. They passed multiple rooms, taking a right turn at a “T” intersection. The overhead lights bathed everything in unnaturally bright white light. Not that there was much to see; cement walls, floor, and ceiling, with steel doors leading into various rooms and chambers.
Just as they took another left turn and Frank was beginning to feel like a rat in a maze, Major Lopez stopped at a set of steel security doors. Two Marines stood sentry with standard-issue M16A4 assault rifles across their shoulders.
Major Lopez said something to them that Frank couldn’t hear from his location at the rear of the squad. Whatever she told them resonated, because they saluted and moved to the side. One of the soldiers hit an unseen panel on the side of the left door. The pair of double steel doors slid open without a sound.
The unit moved inside. Frank’s heart doubled in speed. He couldn’t see it yet, but he heard Elly, who was at the front of the pack, gasp.
“Son of a gun,” Raj said, standing right beside her. “I didn’t know—what … what is that?”
Frank finally made it through the doors with the colonel. The room they stood in now wasn’t a room at all, more of a kind of viewing ledge. The square chamber was longer than it was wide, with a glass wall looking down into another room.
On both sides of this viewing chamber stood automatic turrets armed with .50 caliber rounds, and another set of turrets equipped with small rockets. A Marine stood at attention next to each turret. Frank guessed that even though the turrets were automatic, the powers that be were not willing to risk they’d malfunction at the wrong time.
Frank took in the tiled floors, the viewing walls, and the turrets in one sweep. The turrets were state of the art and capable of carrying one heck of a wallop, but he was more interested in what the turrets were pointed at.
He joined the rest of the squad at a place near the glass. They were looking down, inhaling quickly and whispering to one another. Frank placed his right hand on the bulletproof glass shield as he looked below. No words came to mind to describe what he was seeing. For the first time in a very long time, Frank Wolffe was speechless.
If you are looking and you are liking you can read how this universe began in The Gateway to the Galaxy Series!
Yep, yep, I know what you’re thinking. No, JR Castle on this one? Don’t worry JR is alive and well. For the sake of sanity we decided I would tackle this section of the Gateway to the Galaxy story.
For those of you who don’t know, JR Castle is actually my wife. Oh yeah, you heard that right. She took a pen name instead of using her real name while writing books.
So I’ll be writing the New Arilion Knight series while we work on the main Gateway to the Galaxy series together.
The vision is to release a Gateway to the Galaxy series on alternating months with the New Arilion Knight series. So you’ll get a new section to the story every month. Frank and Marine Space Corps One are scheduled to have at least a ten book story arc and that’s on paper since our audiobook publisher (Podium Publishing) has that in writing.
Emma and the New Arilion Knights will at least have three books with the possibility of more if I hear from you that you’d like to follow her journey. It’s going to be so much fun seeing Emma and Frank interact with one another. I can’t wait for that.
As a writer I enjoy writing what I would actually like to read. I can’t wait to see these two characters meet and fight side by side.
On another note I’m working with the amazing Apryl Baker to bring you another series set in the Gateway to the Galaxy series set to release late this year. Apryl is an amazing author who’s hit the USA Today Bestseller list and has one of her series being made into a movie by Sony Pictures.
On the non book related front Jo’s two year old birthday is this weekend. Yeah, she’s already two. I literally have gray hairs growing in but that’s okay I think I’ll be able to pull off the look. She’s worth every grey hair I get.
The other day we were in her room and one of her toys that runs on batteries wasn’t working. I flipped it over and told her we needed to change out the batteries. I pointed to a tiny screw on the back and told her, “Daddy needs to get his tools so we can open the toy and get new batteries.”
I was confused when she looked at me like she understood every word I said. She nodded furiously before running out of the room saying, “Uh huh, uh huh, tools.”
I was laughing at her serious expression and determination on her chubby cheeks when she ran back into the room carrying a tiny toy tool set that was given to her as a present.
The tool set didn’t even have a toy screw driver but she put two and two together. She ran back into the room presenting me with the solution to our problem saying, “Tools, tools.”
And the crazy thing was, she wasn’t wrong.
Anyway, with your support and the awesome tribe I’ve found of readers who can’t get enough of Gateway to the Galaxy I’m able to share these moments with my daughter and for that I am forever grateful.
All right well that’s enough out of me. This is starting to get too mushy mushy. I need to go write an epic battle scene or have someone roar into the abyss.
It’s almost eleven PM here. Next on the writing agenda is my section of the book Apryl and I are working on together and then a special short story introducing a new villain. I mean the Lord of Chaos is gone for now so someone needs to give Frank a run for his money, right?
If you’ve been reading my author notes, you know I always end with the same invitation to connect. Without readers and friends like you, I’m a writer trying to support his family. With my pack, I’m able to do just that. I have two options for you to stay in the loop.
1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over a hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies and the occasional meme. Join The Pack here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1944447962437071/
2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to www.jonathan-yanez.com and join the ranks.
Not in a weird way but in a brotherly kind of “I got your back” way, I love you wolves. No matter what you’re facing in your day to day lives know that you’re not alone.
Until next time,