Book: Intercept



© 2017 Andi J. Feron

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact:

[email protected]

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-951802-00-4

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-951802-01-1


Chapter One

John-September 22, 2012

Chapter Two

Althea-October 21, 2012

Chapter Three

John-October 23, 2012

Chapter Four

Althea-October 24, 2012

Chapter Five

John-October 24, 2012

Chapter Six

Althea-October 24, 2012

Chapter Seven

Althea-January 13, 2013

Chapter Eight

Gabriel-January 17, 2013

Chapter Nine

John-January 18, 2013

Chapter Ten

Althea-May 14, 2013

Chapter Eleven

John-May 14, 2013

Chapter Twelve

Talon-May 25, 2013

Chapter Thirteen

Althea- May 30, 2013

Chapter Fourteen

Kais-October 3, 2013

Chapter Fifteen

John-October 5, 2013

Chapter Sixteen

Althea-October 10, 2013

Chapter Seventeen

Gabriel-March 20, 2014

Chapter Eighteen

Althea-April 22, 2014

Chapter Nineteen

Talon-August 24, 2014

Chapter Twenty

Talon-September 8, 2014

Chapter Twenty-One

Althea-October 15, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Two

Morgan-September 12, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Three

Seraphine-November 3, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Four

John-November 14, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Five

Althea-November 24, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Six

Seraphine-December 7, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Seraphine-December 15, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Eight

John-December 16, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Seraphine-January 15, 2015

Chapter Thirty

Talon-January 17, 2015

Chapter Thirty-One

John-January 18, 2015

Chapter One

John-September 22, 2012

Allie sniffed the air and scrunched her nose. “The air is on fire.”

“Probably a campfire.” I shrugged and went back to focusing on rock samples.

I wanted three more, but we were losing daylight quickly. We were at the edge of the forest and in front of us spanned a meadow; about a hundred meters across lay the start of another forest.

“No, it’s differ…” Allie stopped mid-sentence, and I glanced up to see her gaze focused on the sky above the meadow.

Bright lights streaked above us randomly, and I couldn’t make out the source. Red met green, causing collisions that created flames of yellows and oranges as though the sky was exploding in targeted locations. A red beam struck the trunk of a tree that sat at the edge of the other forest. Smoke bellowed, filling the air with the scent of ash and there appeared to be something resting at the base of the tree. The air was definitely on fire now.

“What the…” I zipped up my bag, considering a run back to campus.

“I think something might have crashed into that tree. We should take a closer look.” Allie moved away from the protection of the trees and into the open meadow.

“I’m going to be pretty pissed if a laser evaporates you.”

“Maybe then you’ll be forced to make other friends.” Allie paused as the laser hit the middle of the field, setting it into a massive blaze. It was far enough away we weren’t in immediate danger, but I didn’t want Allie any closer to it.

I rolled my eyes and pulled her back. “I have other friends.”

“Like who?”


Allie kept her eyes pinned on the field as the fire spread. “Your lab partner?”

“Yeah, we play pool now.”

Allie raised her phone in the sky, looking for a signal. “Can’t call the fire department. That sucks. At least the wind is blowing it away from us.” As if nature heard her, heavy rain began attacking the fire.

I ducked farther under a tree. “That is strangely lucky.”

The rain seemed to signal the end to the light show as well. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to tackle Allie to the ground. I was all for my best friend being herself, but not if being herself got her fried. We should have been running and taking cover, not watching our surroundings disintegrate. I would have done that immediately but leaving Allie wasn’t an option, and she wasn’t as quick to run as I was—she was more about pulverizing obstacles and thinking about the damage later. Nonetheless, I would always have her back, no matter how reckless she got. Allie joined me under the tree and shivered.

I took off my hoodie and placed it over her head. “Who said you should bring a jacket?”

Her teeth chattered. “The app said it’d be warm with clear skies.”

“We can see how well listening to an app over me worked out.”

She huddled up to me, and I wrapped my arms around her to keep her as warm as possible. We waited out the storm and Allie fell asleep with her head against my chest. Fifteen minutes later when the storm ended, I gently shook her awake. I pulled out flashlights from my bag and handed her one. Allie followed behind me, trusting in my ability to navigate us in the dark.

We were twenty minutes into hiking back, and I didn’t want to mention that we were actually lost. We should have found the trails by now, but we were so deep in the forest we weren’t having any luck.

“Your curiosity is going to get you killed one of these days,” I said.

“At least I’ll die doing what I love.”

“Being stupid?”

“Ha. Ha. No, living my life. Not all of us are content with movie night being a daily thing.”

“At least movie night won’t get my best friend killed.”

Allie laughed. “You never know. I could get electrocuted putting the DVD in.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, ’cause that’s so likely.”

“We’re lost, aren’t we?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Allie stopped walking and pointed her flashlight straight ahead. “You see something moving over there? I must be seeing things because I could have sworn I saw Seraphine.”

“I don’t see anyone. Why would she be all the way out here?”

“I don’t think she would be.”

Seraphine was a college friend Allie had recently made. She didn’t seem the type to go hiking alone in the woods.

“How could you even see her?”

“I saw movement and my flashlight caught what looked like red hair.”

I snickered. “She’s not the only person to have read hair.”

Allie shrugged and began walking again.

We wandered around for another hour before finally finding the path. I walked Allie back to her dorm, watching her safely disappear inside before heading to my building. I couldn’t stop thinking about the battle in the sky. Nothing we saw made any sense, and I needed to settle that in my mind. The extended hike left me exhausted, but I hopped on the computer anyway. No news reports even hinted at a strange event in the sky.

My roommate Lance walked in. “You’re up late, roomie.” He grabbed a beer from his mini fridge. He held one out for me. “Want one?”

“I’m good. Thanks though.”

He plopped on his bed and guzzled his beer. “What nerdy research you doing this time?”

“Something weird I saw on my hike tonight.”

“Weird how?”

“Light show, like there was a battle or something.”

“You should check out the astronomy club.”

His words made me pause, and for the first time, I felt Lance was right about something. I would check out the astronomy club after I got some sleep. I sent Allie a quick text, and she agreed that it was a good idea.


The morning we planned on going to the astronomy meeting arrived. It had been three days since the light show, and I was no closer to answers. My phone illuminated. Allie wanted to know if I was still going to the meeting and if I had thought more about it being the right move to understanding what we saw. I had no idea if it was the right move.

Allie was different than me when it came to decisiveness. She would usually devise a plan for something and see it through no matter the hurdle. Her stubbornness drove me crazy and made me love her all at the same time. She was beautiful, with chestnut hair and rare purple eyes.

She had been my best friend since we were three, when our mothers were intent on organizing play dates. We were always close, but within the last few years, I had fallen hard for her. I avoided any girl who pestered me for a date to coffee or the movies. Allie wasn’t the least bit aware that I wanted to be more than her best friend. I was too unsure to ever attempt a change in our status, and keeping her in some capacity was preferable to losing her.

Allie leaned against the tree in front of my dorm. “Did you have to dig a well to shower?”

I shrugged, and we began walking. Fall was settling in, and nature was painting the leaves a plethora of colors. Allie talked about several activities that we should be a part of. She always thought we should be involved in something, but I would have been happy with watching a movie. Allie, however, seemed to want to immerse herself in everything college life had to offer. Therefore, if being with Allie was my goal, campus activity was mandatory.

The astronomy club was more of a necessity. We needed an explanation for the weird light show that appeared to be a battlefield filling the sky. At first, I thought it was a mutated form of the Northern Lights until I realized the seemingly random beams formed patterns and hit concentrated targets. Internet searches still provided no answers for what we had seen. I always believed that amongst the stars, there was something more palatable than an empty vastness.

As we walked across campus, Allie told me about a homecoming party tonight and how it would be good to meet people. I saw no need to expand our circle. I had made a few friends on campus that I hung out with.

Allie’s brother Talon would occasionally join us, but I had a feeling that was more to keep an eye on her. He was insanely protective, and he really struggled with Allie starting college. The semester started six weeks earlier, and he had already been to campus three weekends to check on his sister. His paranoia stemmed from the death of their other brother and mother when Allie was five.

All four of them were in a car accident. Allie and Talon were the only survivors, and their survival left everyone baffled. The car looked like it had been torn to pieces by a giant cheese grater, yet somehow the two of them were found walking five miles from the crash scene in perfect condition. How they were found breathing was one of our town’s biggest mysteries.

Talon, being nine at the time, was more impacted than Allie. Their dad was devastated at the loss of his wife and oldest son. He turned an already present drinking habit into a more profuse one. The lack of stability that he provided from that point on was compensated for by Talon. Talon made sure that Allie was safe and never dealt with their drunk father.

Allie dreamed too big to be held back by an overprotective brother. She was going to help economic growth for women in small businesses throughout the world. She was going to build wells to improve water conditions in the remote villages of Africa. The world would feel the footsteps of Althea Cooper.

I signed up for the chemical engineering program. It was a job I could take anywhere, and I would be able to incorporate my love for mathematics and science into a lifelong career. Having a versatile degree would help me if I decided to go globetrotting with Allie.

“So you’re going, right? You have to!” As Allie spoke, I popped back to dreading tomorrow night’s party.

“Yes, I feel very inclined to stand against a wall while you live it up on the dance floor.”

“You know perfectly well I’d rather live it up with you if you would get your ass to the dance floor.”

“Sorry, I have a slight issue of magnetic feet. They seem to stick to other people’s in a very gravitational manner,” I said.

“You’re such a nerd. Exactly what we need to convince the astronomy club we are serious about entry.”

“You act like this club is some sort of elite force that requires a resume, ten references, and five years’ experience for admittance.”

“Actually just a blood sample and firstborn son.”

A large grey building stood before us, four stories with a planetarium and retractable roofing for optimal viewing. The university put a lot of expense into space education for not having an astronomy program.

The doors were exceptionally tall and heavy. I pulled one open and held it for Allie, who walked in without hesitation. A large mural of stars and planets painted the walls. A sign in front of the auditorium directed visitors to the third floor for astronomy club.

“Let’s hurry, we have two minutes until it starts. Next time dig that well faster,” Allie said.

She decided taking the stairs three flights up would be more productive than waiting for a notoriously sluggish campus elevator. We rounded the corner of the final flight and entered a darkened room with a dimly lit domed ceiling. A man sat with his back to us, viewing the movement of the stars on the dome.

“You here for astronomy club?” he asked without turning around. His voice was almost monotonous in nature.

“We are!” Allie stepped forward. “Do we sit and watch or…”

He interrupted, “Yes, Justin will bring snacks shortly.”

For the next half an hour, we watched the universe dance across the dome in silence. I found it peaceful enough that I began to drift off to sleep. The slight recline of the seats made it so I didn’t strain my neck and made sleeping easier than I would have anticipated. I woke up to the lights being turned up. The man and Allie walked toward a table filled with cookies, a cheese ball for dipping the accompanying crackers, and some sparkling water.

I joined them at the table. “So is it just you and the snack guy?”

“No, we have a couple members out sick. Professor Roberts is the faculty sponsor, and he is usually here but had to go out of town. More than a dozen members graduated last semester, dwindling our numbers down quite a bit,” the man said.

I glanced at my watch and realized I was going to be late to my chemistry lab. I excused myself and left Allie chatting with our new friend. I made it to lab five minutes late, the smell of burning bleach wafted across my nose. My lab partner Gabriel was already setting up our experiment. Gabriel pushed his thick black hair away from his face, and put his goggles on to protect his brown eyes. He browsed the contents of his textbook and added a powder to a blue liquid.

He placed the concoction on low heat, and I looked over the experiment, examining the contents already laid on the table. My phone vibrated. Allie wanted to be sure I was coming to the party because our new acquaintance was going to be there. Maybe I could ask around to see if anyone else saw the bizarre lights show. I hurriedly completed my part of the experiment and cleaned up our mess.


Inevitably the time for the party arrived. I wore black dress pants, a dark red collared shirt, and a black tie. I quickly realized I was overdressed, and awkwardly decided that I should keep to the wall. Dance music flowed from the DJ station and the dance lighting electrified the otherwise dimmed room.

Allie’s dancing was a sight that stopped anyone passing by her. Her movement was fluid as she shifted in perfect synchronization with whatever music floated past her ears. I would have looked like an elephant trying very hard not to step on hot lava.

I spotted our astronomy guy. Long before he reached Allie, my radar flew up and pinpointed his intended location. He approached her and began to dance. The smoothness of his moves seemed as though he was sliding against glass with perfect control. He twisted and moved in unimaginable positions in front of her. Allie stopped for a second and smiled slightly then began to dance with him, matching his moves with grace.

I was ready to leave, and watching Allie enjoy the presence of another guy magnified that. I wanted to punch myself for a good ten minutes for not being livelier with her. Why would the alluring Althea Cooper even notice me if we hadn’t grown up together as friends? She would never even know I existed if we hadn’t had a past.

I found out later that his name was Lucius. He was all Allie could talk about in the days that followed. He was well-formed in every aspect with his perfectly incised abs and arms. His platinum hair was neatly cut and sleek, almost blinding. His face could have easily seized a living in modeling. His perfection was mysteriously unattainable from any angle I could reach it from.

My own light brown hair, hazel eyes, and thin form were not even worth the nomination. Even my name—John—reeked of mediocrity. My heart had been puréed the day Allie told me he had asked her to dinner, and before I could recover, she was seeing him. I saw her less and retreated to my studies.

I only had myself to blame. I couldn’t expect Allie to choose me when everything about her was beyond expectation, and I couldn’t expect her to choose me when all I ever indicated was a desire for friendship.

Chapter Two

Althea-October 21, 2012

Campus life and all the social interactions it included filled me with energy. Parties, clubs, and classes comprised my agenda. John Trammel was my best friend, but he was content with only going to his classes and more low-key activities. Our divergence in interests was more problematic than it used to be. I desired to soak up as much of the college experience as I possibly could.

John seemed insistent on living college life in his dorm room or at the pool table. No amount of prodding him with the possibility of agoraphobia creeping into his lifestyle would persuade him to alter his mind. He would relent upon my insistence but would appear afflicted the entire interval.

I once took a psychology class during my junior year in high school. I learned the disparity plaguing John and I—he suffered as an introvert due to my lack of empathy as a continual extrovert. Yet there was never anyone else I would rather have by my side than John Trammel.

Despite this, lately I had been more focused on Lucius, who was a junior I met in the astronomy club. On our fifth date, Lucius took me back to the campus planetarium. We were high above campus life, four stories in the air, in the astronomy club building. The roof retreated into the walls, making the swirls of galaxies and far-off worlds visible in the night sky.

He had directed the telescope to Saturn, the particles of its rings were a magnificence that I had never experienced before. I envisioned the ice that made Saturn’s rings had found itself intertwined in Lucius’ frosty hair. They seemed one and the same.

The blue color of his eyes was the one thing that put me at the greatest of ease. His eyes stood out as his first noticeable feature due to the fact that the shade made it impossible to avoid them. They were blue like the Caribbean Sea.

This made us alike, as the bane of my existence was the deep purple eyes that I possessed since birth. I endlessly resented the questions regarding the legitimacy of my eyes. I was certain that Lucius probably felt the same.

He motioned for me to join him on the makeshift bed that he had created from pillows and blankets. We curled up to watch the constellations forge their nightly journey. The air was crisp, and the blankets added enough of a layer to fend off the chilly breeze. I laid next to Lucius and placed my head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around me, reaching my hip.

He leaned his face down toward mine. “Althea, kiss me.”

His words captivated me. I kissed him, and I had never felt a kiss so pleasurable in my life—not that I possessed much experience, as I had only been kissed twice before. My first was when I was twelve, and the other was on my way home from prom when I was fourteen. Lucius and I laid back, exhausted from the ferocity of our make out session. We both seemed content with that being the furthest it went. I fell asleep, feeling like his kisses were almost a sedative.

The next morning, Lucius grabbed a portable grill that he kept in a cupboard. He pulled bacon and eggs from a fridge and cooked them on the griddle. He poured two glasses of orange juice and handed one to me.

After we ate, Lucius brought the roof back across the building. We packed our stuff up, ready to leave for classes. I wasn’t exceptionally short at five foot six but Lucius’ five foot eleven form peered over me as I tiptoed up to give him one last kiss. The reminiscence of the pleasure carried me to my first class, Anthropology 101, the one class I shared with John.

“What is it?” John asked as I met him at our shared table.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re grinning. Almost goofy like.”

“I’m not allowed to be happy about anthropology?”

“People who died a long time ago? It would make sense you would even find them preferable to hang out with than me. But no, this is something more. Lucius?”


Our professor began going over the quiz from the last session. I wasn’t quite ready to share with John the proficiency of Lucius’ kissing. I needed to find Seraphine. I sent her a quick text to meet me at noon. John left class ten minutes early. He had never left class early before. I would catch him later to ensure he was fine. Part of me thought he was upset because our skylights mission had been scrubbed when I started dating Lucius. John seemed fixated on them being more, but I had quickly lost interest in the entire thing.

Seraphine was practical and would give me a clear idea of how fast I should pursue things with Lucius. John seemed more interested in protecting me from the damage a guy might do to me mentally and physically. Boyfriend conversation with him usually needed to be filled with words of caution.

I admired Seraphine extensively. She exuded confidence wherever she went. Her red hair made her easy to spot in a crowd, but it was her presence that demanded she be heard. We bumped into each other on our first day on campus. I had been caught up with my head in my class schedule and walked right into her.

Luckily she was gracious about the coffee that had splattered across her white overcoat. Instead of getting angry and demanding penance, she had offered me a firm handshake and invitation to better-contained drinks. We had only known each other for the few weeks since then, but I felt like we were old friends.

The campus café had become our spot to chat about the gossip of campus and was the chosen location for our meeting about Lucius. We sat in a booth in the corner where I felt we would have optimal privacy.

Seraphine sipped her tea. “I wouldn’t jump into anything serious. I mean, it’s your freshman year. You get to test boundaries and push limits, but don’t let him rush you into anything.”

“There’s something different about him. When we kiss, I feel it everywhere.”

“Those seniors are usually pretty good kissers. They have a lot of experience, which also makes it easier for them to manipulate you.” Seraphine sounded more serious than I had anticipated she would.

I tried to conceal the frown forming on my face by taking another gulp from my smoothie. “No, it’s more than that. I can’t explain it. I’ve never felt anything like this. It’s like I feel captivated with everything Lucius says to me.”

Seraphine frowned. “Only do what you enjoy, not what you feel obligated to. You are young, and it’s the exact time not to lock yourself into anything.”

“I think I will see how it goes. Right now I’m just enjoying the planetarium with him.”

“Yes, definitely sounds like you are.” A smile curled on her perfectly painted red lips. We deposited our drinks in the trash. She continued, “Let me know how things go. I don’t mind juicy details.”

She headed out the door and I walked to my next class which was Biology. The professor droned on about invertebrate life phases. I pulled out my phone and pretended to type lecture notes. I began to text John.

Stranger, your avoidance of my lifestyle must cease tonight while we check out the new club on Slater Avenue.

My phone lit up, but unexpectedly it was a call from Talon. I excused myself to the hall.

“Hey sis, I wanted to let you know I can’t come visit this weekend. I know it’s been a few weeks now, but I promise to make it back soon. Wanted to know if there’s anything new?”

“Nope, not really. I had a smoothie with a friend. You haven’t met her yet, but I’ll introduce you next time you are down.”

“Alright. If anything changes, you have my number. Love you, Allie.”

“Love you too.”

I avoided telling him about Lucius because I thought the news might make him cancel whatever was impeding his weekend visits. I began to wonder if I would ever be able to tell Talon about how my life really was. I would possibly be married for several years with a couple of kids before I told him I was in a serious relationship. Talon was an amazing brother, but he often treated me as though I were made of glass. I was tougher than he gave me credit for and his discouragement of me living the way I wanted seemed too much at times.

Any talk about college was something he avoided with me for a long time. Finally, he decided to give in to my pleading for a college road trip. After that trip, college was something he thought was a good idea for me. He took me up two weeks early and told me not to leave the college town without letting him know.

He started visiting every weekend and calling me a few times a week. The calls were always under five minutes and they sounded a bit off, like there was a distortion preventing clarity. If I wanted to give too many details, I would have to wait for our weekend visits. He’d been missing visits for the last few weeks, which I didn’t mind. It meant I could avoid the Lucius conversation with him a little longer.

The class ended, and John still hadn’t texted me back. I would have to track him down. I checked the gaming lounge where he had been intent on raising his pool game using geometric angles. He read the concept in a book for his physics class and decided it would be good to put into practice.

I asked Leona if she’d seen him. Leona had told me she liked John a lot. I tried to convince him to take her downtown, but he felt she wasn’t his type. I didn’t know what his type was. He casually dated throughout high school and had a short relationship with a girl named Mary Ellen, who was three grades ahead of us. Every time I tried to set him up on a date, he would immediately make up excuses.

“It’s just coffee, Trammel,” I would say to him.

“Yeah, but coffee leads to other things I’m not interested in.”

I would shake my head. “Yeah, like love and happiness.”

We had this conversation repeated several times, but it never seemed to persuade him. Now we were in college and not much had changed. Leona hadn’t seen John since a couple days ago. With a disappointed glance directed toward the red pool tabletop, she said that he appeared distracted and didn’t talk to her too much.

I would have to have a talk about Leona with John again. One date to at least give it a shot, and maybe he could get out of his shell a little bit. Part of me selfishly wanted to double date with John. What could be better than time with my best friend and my boyfriend? I was running out of places to locate John. I checked his dorm twice, and according to his roommate Lance he was out all day. I gave up and called it a night.

A couple days passed with no text from him, and I couldn’t find him anywhere. My best friend had vanished without a trace and that raised my anxiety. Forget texting, I would give him a call for the first time in months. Three rings and I began to believe he wouldn’t pick up. The sound of his voice brought relief.

“You okay, Allie?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing. Why would you ask me that?”

“You’re calling me. You never call me. Texting is kind of our thing,” John said.

“I think it’s the thing of our generation. Plus, you aren’t answering my texts, which has me worried. I haven’t been able to find you anywhere, and you left class so quickly the other day that I wondered what was up.”

“I’m at the molecular biology lab. You know those lights we saw? They hit that tree. I decided I should go find the tree and study the bark. I’m gathering the equipment I’ll need. After looking through the lab, I think I will bring the sample back here. Better microscopes than my portable one.”

“So you haven’t gone yet? Want some company?”

There was a pause before he said, “I figured you’d be off to some romantic encounter with pretty boy ice hair.”

“Umm… yeah, no, I wanted to talk to you. And what better way for some best friend bonding than trudging into the swampy woods again to find a random tree in a space containing thousands?”

“Alright, meet me at the science trails.”

We hung up and I walked to the trails. I spotted John walking up the path. “Should we leave bread crumbs?”

He shrugged. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Is something going on that I’m unaware of? Someone stomp on your airplane models?”

John turned away from me. “Let’s get going so we can get back before night. I have flashlights, but I’d prefer not to use them. That gives us a couple hours to find the tree.”

I crossed my arms. “I’m not going until you tell me what’s going on. I know you better than anyone, and something is up.”

“You don’t have to come. I can do this alone, as I have been doing with this entire investigation.”

“I didn’t know this investigation was obligatory. I figured out a long time ago it was the Northern Lights or government experimentation, then I went on with life.”

John started down the trail and, not willing to walk away from the argument, I followed him. We trudged for a good twenty minutes in silence. I was unsure of the trail John was hiking, but I followed every twist and turn. We were now immersed in the woods, surrounded by towering pine trees. They scaled twenty feet or more into the sky, and the ground was getting muddier.

I started to become aggravated with our journey and said, “Why don’t we head back? We’re never going to find this tree. You don’t even know how to find it again. We didn’t keep track of where we were, and it took us a couple hours to find the main road.”

“Go make out with your lover boy some more!” he snapped.

“Excuse me?! Why would you say that?!”

John stopped walking for a second, then kept going. “I saw you at the planetarium. I was stopping by to see if I could find out more about the astronomy club and I saw the roof was open. I went up to the top floor and saw you and Lucius tongue-locked under a blanket. Three weeks, Allie. You’ve known him for three weeks, and you’re willing to give it up.”

“What are you implying? You spied on me and think you have the right to call me easy?”

“I didn’t call you easy. I’m only saying, don’t you think you should know Lucius better before sleeping with him?”

“I don’t owe you an explanation. And we didn’t sleep together, only kissed. Whatever. Find the damn tree on your own. I’m going back.” I looked around and couldn’t locate a trail. We had been trudging so quickly that I was unsure of the way back. I pulled my phone from my backpack and opened my GPS app. No signal but out of pride, I chose the opposite direction as John and began walking.

“Allie, wait! Not that way!”

John’s warning arrived too late as I fell flat on my face into a swampy mess of mush. The slosh of slimy muck seemed to creep into every cranny of my body. Even my nostrils filled with mire, and I found it hard to push myself free. Brilliant, the end of Althea Cooper: death by mud. What a lame obituary I created for myself.

Arms pulled me out of the mud and a cloth rubbed across my face as John quickly freed my nose and mouth. Mud caked any exposed skin, and I envisioned the sort of dubious swamp monster I now resembled.

“Allie, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have gotten upset. You okay?”

I nodded and scanned the ground for my phone. John attempted to call it, but it went to voicemail despite its full battery. Finally, after feeling the ground, I discovered my phone thoroughly waterlogged, in a large mud puddle. I stood up and started walking. It took me a bit of redirecting, but I found the main trail that led back to campus.

Chapter Three

John-October 23, 2012

I was a complete idiot. I followed Allie back to her dorm, where she was met with intense stares and wide-eyed glances. The glazed wave of her dark brown hair was straightened and intertwined with small branches and mud. Had she been speaking to me, I would have cracked a joke about mud being good for the complexion. Allie slammed her door, and I sat waiting for her.

A few minutes later she stormed off to the shower room. Before disappearing, she shot me a look that I knew meant to give her space. I’d seen the look before but it was always directed at Talon. Unlike he seemed to, I understood the message more clearly than I wanted to. I couldn’t stand still. Allie and I didn’t fight.

The closest we had ever come was in the fourth grade when I told her I wanted to forgo the team science projects for the first year since first grade. I loved time with Allie, but I worked better alone. She had stayed annoyed with me for a couple of days until she realized she could do something much more interesting than prediction techniques of weather patterns.

Allie didn’t have a phone now, and part of me wondered if she’d get an entirely different number and never tell me. Her being mad at me sat in the pit of my stomach like a large boulder.

I extensively despised Lucius for taking Allie from me most of the time. My mind couldn’t handle what I’d seen: the two of them under the blanket kissing, and her laying on top of him. All of it simmered at the surface until it exploded at the first opportunity I had to ignite it in her face. I had known the explosion was coming, and that I was out of line.

I headed back to my dorm but slept poorly. My mind pestered me on a good day, but with Allie pissed, it wouldn’t let up for me to breathe. I wasn’t sure if I should go to anthropology class or instead let her have another day to cool down and hopefully forgive me. I tried her number and it was still dead. I decided to go play pool. Today was Leona’s day off, making it a good day to go.

Leona had asked me to coffee a couple times and would watch me play pool. I felt bad turning her down every time, but it would be pointless to pretend. Leona was nice, but she wasn’t Allie. An hour into pool, Gabriel joined me.

“So, everyone has heard about the creature from the Blue Lagoon.” Gabriel laughed a bit as he grabbed his cue.

“Nice. I’m sure Allie is loving that reference.”

“People are saying you were trailing behind her a bit disoriented. What was that about? In fact, what was all of it about?”

I told him everything, careful to avoid any mention of my feelings for Allie. Not only would analyzing my feelings not be manly enough, but I hoped I hid them well.

Gabriel assured me I’d failed. “Why not just tell her the real issue is you wished you were the one under the blanket with her?”

I glanced up from calculating the proper trajectory of my next move. “No, I mean she’s my best friend. We aren’t like…” I stuttered out my words, desperately trying to detract from the truth buried in his statement.

“I have known you, what, two to three months now? I knew the moment I saw you watch Allie unpack everything from her car that you were smitten. The only question I had was why you hadn’t nailed that yet.”

I cringed at his description. Nailed that, like Allie was simply another notch to be declared. I knocked the last of the stripes in, then the eight ball. My phone buzzed, and I nearly fell over myself to reach it. Gabriel smiled and shook his head, probably aware of my fumbling being in hopes of Allie being the sender. It was a phone call from Talon.

“John, any idea why Allie’s phone is going to voicemail?” he asked.

“Yeah, she dropped it in a mud puddle last night.”

“Oh, alright. I’ll send her a new one. Is she with you?”

“No, I haven’t seen her today.”

“You know of any way I could reach her? Who else is she normally with?”

“You could try Lucius.”

As the words were forming, they came out with regret. Allie probably hadn’t even told him about Lucius. Setting my relationship with Allie back even further was the theme of my week.


Talon seemed a little more upset than I would have expected even for him. Allie had other guy friends, why would he assume it something more? By his tone, he somehow must have known it was something more than friendship. Maybe he was taking his big brother delusions to a higher level.

“What does he look like?” Talon asked.

“Ummm… He has ice blond hair and blue eyes.”

Beep. Beep. Beep. The conversation abruptly ended. Talon wasn’t known for formal conversation skills. Now if Allie ever talked to me again, we could have our next argument over me telling her brother about her new boyfriend. I needed to find Allie and warn her of the impending altercation with her brother.

Gabriel, not understanding the magnitude of what I had done, told me I should chill a little bit and give her time. Allie could have time as soon as I let her know about the mess I created. She could be mad because I told but not because she was caught off guard. Allie would be finishing anthropology class, so I made my way across the building and into the social studies facility.

I peeked through the small glass window next to the door and saw her in her usual spot. Maybe she was over it. Class let out, and Allie chatted with one of our classmates. She walked toward the door, and I leaned my back against the wall. As she opened the door, I popped out, and she stepped back a little, then promptly turned around. Apparently, she was not over it yet.

“I need to talk to you,” I said. She kept walking. “I talked to Talon. I kind of mentioned Lucius.”

She stopped but didn’t turn around, a few heartbeats later she picked up her pace again.

“Come on Allie, I’m sorry.”

Allie halted and spun around to face me. “John, look. Back off. I’d prefer not to say something I’ll regret later, and if I have to look at you for ten more seconds that’s exactly what will happen.”

“Alright. I didn’t want Talon to surprise you. I’m sorry.”

She stormed down the hall and out the door of the building. This was a brilliant mess I made, but at least I had done my best to amend the Talon/Lucius situation. I went back to my dorm. Forget classes, numbers and words seemed irrelevant at the moment. I wished more than anything Allie would invite me to a party or some other meager event. I would take wall-hugging over her mad at me any day. A few hours passed with me sulking in my dorm room. Lance popped in to grab part of his football uniform.

“What you moping about Trammel?”

“Just relaxing tonight.”

“Okay, whatever. All I know is you have been sulking around here like a country song.” He fiddled through his drawers searching for something and continued, “It’s that girl isn’t it, the sexy as hell one? What’s her name? Alicia? Ashley?”

“Althea,” I said.

“Well, whatever her name is, I would tap that.”

I shook my head, annoyed at his statement.

“Isn’t she with that Lucius guy? The transfer student?”

I nodded. “Yes, she is.”

“So what’s the issue? You want to be with her instead, and she said no. Aren’t you close friends or something?”

I sent him a glare. “Is this an interrogation or something?”

“No, sorry, man, I thought maybe I could help. You should tell me all about it.”

“No one can help. Allie has no idea I have an interest in her. She thinks we’re great friends. Now I made her mad because she thinks I was spying on her and Lucius, and I told her over-paranoid brother about him.” I had no idea why I was venting to the jerk who said he’d like to tap Allie, but maybe I needed to say everything out loud.

“So either get off your butt and tell Allie how you feel or move on. What’s pouting going to do? So many other hotties to tap. I can get your obsession with her. That tight butt, nice breasts, and tiny waist curved just right. And those eyes. Man, those eyes.”

I took a deep breath. “Man! She’s not an object. She’s a person. The best friend I have. Don’t talk about her like that!”

“Okay, someone has his panties in a bunch. All I’m saying is there is plenty of other booty walking around campus to stay stuck on one you have no chance of a lay with.”

“You know, there’s more to life than sex.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, but what’s life without it? Why don’t you go talk to this Lucius guy and tell him to back off your girl?” I was struck with the odd way he said it. Maybe I should consider talking to Lucius right now.

Lance grabbed his cup. “Well, good luck, my man, off to hit some heads together.” With that farewell, he slipped out the door.

Lance wasn’t entirely off point. I should go talk to Lucius. I wouldn’t go to demand he surrender Allie. It wasn’t as though she was a piece of land we were both rivaling for. However, if I became buddies with him, maybe it would show Allie I was making an effort to smooth things over.

Lucius lived in dorm five. The dorm was a four-story red brick building that matched the other buildings here on campus. There were six dorms in total, and each housed around a thousand students. I didn’t even know if Lucius was in. He could be off taking advantage of Allie as I scoured his dorm.

As I wandered the halls, a guy walked past. I stopped him, “Hey, bro, could you help me out? I’m looking for Lucius. Not sure of a last name.”

He looked up from the phone he’d been furiously typing into. “Yeah, the third floor. Go left. Sixth door on your left. Three sixty-eight.”

“Awesome! Thanks man!”

He shrugged and went back to his phone. When I made it to Lucius’ dorm, I heard yelling inside, then what sounded like a loud thud.

Wait, was that Talon? No way! Great, look what I had done! Talon was going to beat the living shit out of Lucius, and I was to blame. I began knocking, and the yelling continued. I jiggled the doorknob to find it was locked.

“What are you doing?!” I jumped as I heard an irate Allie come up behind me.

“Umm, they are yelling and…” I stammered.

“Why are you here? Haven’t you done enough already? I told you to give me space, so you decide to come and talk to my boyfriend?”

“I know. I wanted to invite him to play pool, maybe become friends since I know he means so much to you.”

We heard a loud crash that altered Allie’s attention to the room and off of me. She tried the doorknob, and upon realizing it was locked, she beat the door loudly.

“Lucius, are you okay? Lucius! Open the door, it’s Althea.”

The door popped open, and Allie gasped, seeing Lucius and Talon standing side by side. Two deep black eyes were forming on Lucius’ face, and his nose was bleeding.

Allie glared at Talon. Her face growing redder by the second. “What is going on?! You can’t handle me liking a guy, so you come here to beat him up?!” Allie screamed.

The dorm room was in disarray. The desk was toppled over the mattress that was slid on the floor, and papers were strewn everywhere.

Talon studied the ground then slowly looked up at Allie. “It’s not like that.”

“Woah…” I turned around the see Gabriel standing there with his mouth open. Seraphine stood next to him.

Lucius told us to come in the room and shut the door.

“Seraphine?” Talon’s mouth hung partially open.

Allie glanced between them. “You know each other?”

An awkward silence ensued, and the bizarre feeling of upright neck hair left me uneasy. Many times since I have thought about that single moment. A frozen fraction of a second that altered our paths forever. I should have grabbed Allie’s hand and run, never looking back or second-guessing. But I didn’t because I had no idea that with the closing of that door, my existence would be shattered, and normalcy would become a foreign concept. I should have grabbed Allie’s hand. I should have run. But instead, I let the door close behind us.

Chapter Four

Althea-October 24, 2012

We were all crammed into the tiny dorm room, and I was fuming. All of the men in my life had gone bonkers in one short evening. Seraphine pushed the mattress back on the bed and sat down. Gabriel plopped down next to her. John stayed by the door, probably looking for an exit from the lashing I was about to dish out. Lucius had his back turned away from me and was rummaging through a duffle bag.

Talon leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. He looked angrier than I’d ever seen him. What was going on with him? My brother was protective but never violent. My instincts were correct to exclude him from knowing about Lucius, but John had to go and open his big mouth. He invaded my privacy and snitched to my brother about my boyfriend. John getting ready to talk to Lucius was the cherry on top.

Talon knew Seraphine, but how? We were from Maine, and Seraphine had told me she lived in California her whole life. Maybe they met on one of his weekends down. I felt terrible that Gabriel and Seraphine were mixed up in our drama. Seraphine had invited us all to go to the movies with her, and we were all meeting at Lucius’ dorm.

“Six, close proximity to my location on mark three,” Lucius spoke into a small round device.

I clenched my eyes shut as a blinding light filled my vision. I placed my right arm over my face for more protection. I perceived being punched in the gut before collapsing to the ground.

I awoke in some sort of bed. I stood up and looked around. We were no longer in the dorm room. I could feel the heated floor through my shoes. The scent of some type of cleaner overwhelmed my nostrils. We were in a large room containing dark gray plastic-looking walls with a matching ceiling. There were several computer consoles, a few chairs, and six thin beds that looked to pull down from the wall. Talon, Lucius, and Seraphine were already awake. John and Gabriel stumbled to their feet.

“What the… I just wanted to catch a movie,” Gabriel said.

John glanced around, and I could see the worry on his face. He moved next to me but didn’t touch me. I knew him well enough to know that he would become brave if someone tried to hurt me, and that worked both ways. I might be mad at him, but I would take down anything that came after him. Lucius went over to the console and started pushing buttons. Seraphine was in one of the chairs reading something.

Talon steadied me. “You good, Allie?”

“No! What the hell is going on?”

“There’s a lot that will be explained. For now, I need you to trust me.”

My eyes bore into him. “Why should I? You punched my boyfriend in the face, and now I don’t even know where we are.”

“Boyfriend?” He sent a scowl Lucius’ way. Then he continued talking to me, “Trust me. This is the last thing I wanted. I’ve tried so long to protect you from this, but the choice has been taken out of my hands.”

Lucius pressed buttons on a console. “We’re fully docked. Talon, take them to the prep room.”

Gabriel walked over to Lucius. “Hey, can you all return me back to the dorm? You can all have your party without me,”

“You must follow Talon. If you choose not to, you will be escorted by more forcible means.” Lucius lifted his shirt to reveal a gun holstered on his hip.

John moved even closer to me as he stared at Lucius’ gun. Talon seemed indifferent to the threat and waved for us to follow him. He led us through a large winding hallway. The walls and ceiling were the same grey. The floors were sleek, and I could picture the falling chaos that would ensue if wet floor signs were not placed after someone mopped them.

I began to wonder if we were actually being detained in some sort of futuristic dungeon. The entire enclosure was clean but dreary. Talon led Gabriel, John, and me down a few curves to a series of closely spaced doors spanning both sides.

The fourth door on the right gave him pause, and he pushed a button, causing the door to slide open. “Allie, this is for you.”

“Okay. I’m getting the slightest inclination that we have been kidnapped or arrested. Neither option is going to jive with me. I request to speak with my lawyer,” Gabriel said.

Seraphine was nowhere to be seen at this point. Everything I thought to be true about everyone was becoming unhinged. I looked up at Talon, my eyes full of disappointment and anger.

“Allie, I promise I’ve got this. You won’t be in the dark long. I’ve spent my whole life trying to ensure the best for you, and I’m not about to stop now. There should be an outfit in the bedroom. Change into it. See you soon,” he said.

Dullness seemed to be a favorite of the interior decorator. The couch was black, which set it off ever so slightly from the dark grey floors, ceilings, and walls. The table and chairs enjoyed the privilege of being brown. Stainless steel appliances adorned the kitchen, and I appeared to be in one of those show houses you would see if you wanted to buy a condo.

Everything was set perfectly and overly organized. The hall led to a bedroom and a bathroom. On the brown-covered bed were black pants and a folded purple shirt. They were smooth and dressy despite not having a collar. I changed quickly, ready to figure out why we were here.

I thought about how Seraphine could make this place come alive. She was a brilliant artist. She could paint like da Vinci, at least that was the opinion I had formed when I saw her work in the college art gallery. My thoughts of Seraphine were quickly changing, and I wondered if my whole life was a lie.

The room felt as warm as a sauna. At least the shirts were short sleeved, but I wished we were given shorts instead of the issued pants. I attempted to open the front door, but it wouldn’t budge.

I searched for a panel, running my fingers across the wall and hoping to engage a switch of any type. I scanned the room, looking for details I might have missed. There weren’t even any windows to gauge location.

A loud voice boomed from the intercom next to the kitchen, “All new recruits must report to corridor B5.” The voice in the wall repeated itself a few more times, and the front door opened.

“New recruits?” I mumbled.

The walls revealed blue arrows that blinked and pointed to the left for us to follow. Cautiously, I set out and was soon joined by John and Gabriel.

“This has to be a military facility. We’ve been recruited for special ops or something,” Gabriel said.

John bit his lip as he glanced around. “I’m more concerned with how we got here. We were in the dorm then suddenly we were in this weird, windowless building.”

“Seriously, man?! Yes, our arrival was odd although I’m thinking we were knocked unconscious, but we should be more concerned with where we are going. Nothing has resulted in our deaths yet, so we should be concerned with making sure things stay that way.”

“I would say we were being trafficked, but Talon wouldn’t traffic Allie. He wouldn’t so much as let her sneeze when we were growing up, let alone become a sex slave for some asshole millionaire.”

Gabriel didn’t give up. “He did say he’s been protecting Allie from this and now his hands were tied. That sounds like something related to negative intentions is about to take place. My money is on the military. They need young recruits for some suicide missions. We are negligible casualties.”

I almost scoffed at his idea until we rounded a curve and saw military uniforms and sniper rifles on the guards. We were ushered into a large elevator, full of teenagers and young adults who were all wearing the same type of outfit we were. The elevator descended for a couple minutes.

“This has to be a hundred floors. How big is this place?” Gabriel asked and was hushed by the guard.

We were pushed out of the elevator and into a large room. The ceiling towered several stories up, and we were surrounded by black steel walls and flooring. Six doors looked ahead, and we were directed to the middle one. Guards sorted us into organized lines of ten.

The other people wearing purple seemed passive, and perhaps they were aware of why they were here. One by one, people were pushed through the doorway. We made up the last of the line, with John leading the way. I was behind him. He grabbed my hand, giving it a quick squeeze before letting go. He smiled at me as they pushed him through. I felt that he was trying to calm my nerves. His small comfort was soothing.

A man shoved me through the doorway, and I found myself in the polar opposite of the last room. Shimmering white replaced all the black. The floor reminded me of the opal in my grandmother’s earrings as it reflected translucent colors. A purple light surrounded me for about twenty minutes.

The floor receded, and I dropped slowly to a room below. A woman with a lab coat looked at a screen, inputting data into a computer. A large glass window separated us. I looked around for the others but I was alone. The woman rushed out of the room, and when she returned, she brought a tall, older man with her.

He was what I would consider a stereotypical scientist, with a lab coat and wire frame glasses. The woman pointed to something on the screen, and he stared intently. I concentrated on their mouths. In high school, one of my friends was deaf. She taught me how to read lips, and I became decently skilled at it before I left for college.

The man stroked his beard. “Why was she put in purple with these numbers?”

“That’s what I can’t figure out, sir. I’ve run the program five times with the same results, and she’s off the charts. It looks like someone changed her assignment, but this shows the system is working. These final checks are to catch any errors.”

The man covered his mouth, making it hard to tell if he said anything further.

The woman continued, “If we put her in the cap…she will show at a record level. At…in theory.”

I missed a couple of words, but they were easy enough to guess. I grew even more cautious as I worried about whatever they were about to put me into. If Talon was the one who put me in a different group, then wherever I should be was probably somewhere I should avoid.

“Holding cell,” the man said.

Both disappeared from the room, and two soldiers entered my side of the glass. One grabbed me by the arm and yanked me down another long hallway through a couple of rooms until we reached what looked like a cell block. About fifteen cells lined both sides of the hall, with glass holding the enclosures rather than bars.

The guard put in a series of numbers on the panel, the glass lifted, and he pushed me in. A steel bench leaned against the wall with an inch thick orange cushion across it, and a pillow and blanket were placed at the end. A small toilet and sink were to the left. I started to demand my lawyer, but the guards laughed and closed the glass.

I tried to remove the toilet so I could slam it into the glass. I tried the sink and even the bed, but they were all welded tightly. I turned my attention to the sink handles, then I beat on the glass even with the realization that it was thick enough to be bulletproof.

I gave up and sat on the bed as the lights went dark. A loud voice through a ceiling intercom instructed me to sleep. I pulled the scratchy blanket over my face and laid facing the wall. Lumps comprised the pillow, and the cushion on the bed had been placed merely for show rather than comfort. Exhaustion consumed me, but sleep didn’t come, only tears.

Chapter Five

John-October 24, 2012

The last point I saw Allie was right before I was placed under ultraviolet lights. I was scanned in a lab, and now I was waiting in a holding cell. An intercom told me to get some sleep, but the firmness of steel is rough on the back. I needed to see Allie, even if we couldn’t touch or speak. I had to find a way to get out of here, but I needed to play it smart. I would learn the routine and formulate a plan.

I began to calculate the trajectories of pool balls in my mind. I discovered this to be a task that brought stress relief. I must have drifted off at some point. The sound of a small slot in the glass opening jarred me awake. Soggy scrambled eggs, some kind of slimy kale compilation, water, and a half piece of mushy bread made up the tray pushed into my cell. They couldn’t even splurge for an entire piece.

How appetizing? I thought with a roll of my eyes. I wasn’t hungry enough yet, and I didn’t trust the water. I was skeptical of the food as well, but tap water from an undisclosed location screamed Hepatitis A. Eventually, I would have to drink something, but for now, I would wait it out.

I yelled into the air, “I want answers, and I demand to see Althea Cooper or I starve!”

Guards arrived and removed my tray. As they were leaving, I ran to the glass, hitting it firmly with my fist. I yelled into the glass barrier, demanding that I be allowed to speak to the warden, supervisor, or title of whoever was in charge. The soldiers didn’t so much as flinch as they marched out of the room.

I started keeping track of time by the trays brought in and the days passing by how many times the lights went out. The intercom informed me on day three that if I didn’t drink, I would be hooked to an IV and eventually a feeding tube against my will. I replied to this with a greeting of my middle finger toward the intercom. Making them remove me seemed appealing and strengthened the will behind my hunger strike. On the fourth day, true to their word, I was dragged out by two guards.

“Take him to sickbay, and when Dr. Monroe clears him, take him to the camp,” a guard said.

“Yes, sir!” the soldiers responded in unison.

I was taken to what looked like an ER. Medical equipment sat around twenty beds with curtains that could be pulled around each space for privacy. Three people, wearing scrubs, sat behind a station in the middle of the room. They were typing into computers and watching several monitors.

Machines beeped loudly, and I failed to comprehend how half the patients were sleeping with all the noise. The smell of alcohol and bleach mixed in the air, bringing back memories of getting my appendix out when I was twelve. A guard strapped me to the bed.

A deep voice questioned the guards. “Is that necessary? I doubt that four days without food or water makes him much of a flight risk. Why you guys waited so long I don’t know. You’re lucky it’s not the morgue he had to be taken to.” He ordered the nurses to start an IV.

The IV was most likely sterile and Hepatitis free. I felt even better when I saw the nurse pull the needle out of a new package. I needed to regain my strength if I was going to find Allie and get out of here. The food strike, or at least refusal of water, probably hadn’t been the wisest idea, but my track record for good judgment was lacking as of late.

A tall black man approached and looked to be in his mid-forties. His white lab coat and stethoscope gave him away as the doctor. His graying hair was cut short to his head, and his beard was neatly trimmed.

He carried a clipboard and looked it over. “Hello, John, I’m Dr. Monroe. We’re going to take good care of you here, get you hydrated. I need you to do me a favor. I need you to drink on your own so we can get you out of here as soon as possible.”

“I need to get back to college, and I need Althea Cooper to go with me.”

“Right now, you need to focus on your health.”

“Why am I here?”

“Because you are refusing to eat and drink.” He continued scanning my chart and wrote something down.

“No, why have you brought us to this place? We were brought here against our will, have been separated and locked in solitary confinement. Requests for lawyers have gone ignored. I know my Miranda rights. I know what false imprisonment is. My uncle is a lawyer.”

Dr. Monroe looked up at me and turned his head slightly. “You weren’t recruited for the program?”

“What program? We were in Lucius’ dorm room then, bam, we were here and have been locked up ever since.”

“I’ll be right back.” Dr. Monroe left the room. At his return, he said, “I’m going to give you a sedative so you can sleep and give the fluids time to work. If you start eating and drinking for me, I’ll see what I can do about having some of those answers for you. We’ll talk in the morning.”

The nurse injected a pink fluid into my IV, and it wasn’t working. I was still wide awake. The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes, and the clock on the wall showed that hours had passed. Dr. Monroe brought me a protein shake. He unstrapped my arms and ignored the protests from the guards that were still posted in my room. I drank the shake since this doctor was the first kind person I’d met since we arrived. He also promised me answers, which is something everyone else ignored.

Later that day, I was taken to a bunk room with beds stacked two high with olive green blankets over the tops of them. The walls were bear with a beige color spread across them. I was pretty sure that our detainment violated human rights laws, but there was nothing that I could do about it at this point.

By the looks of it, I had been forcibly recruited into the military, as I was told to put on a uniform. The uniform, a mix of blue and gray and did not belong to any military branch that I recognized. By the time I showered and dressed, I found the bunkhouse full of about twenty other guys in the same type of uniform. I was assigned a bunk and told to wait for orders.

That first night in the mess hall, it became apparent that everyone else had signed up for this. I decided to use this to my advantage and pretended that I had chosen this as well. I figured that this was the best way to find out the details of what everyone was calling “the program”. I hoped that someone would know where Allie was.

Training began in the morning. There seemed to be no access to the outside. All of our running took place on an indoor track. We climbed ropes to build strength, pushed tires, and worked until I felt confident I would collapse. All of this seemed effortless to the others.

Our drill instructor, was named Baylor. We were only to address him as “Baylor, Sir.” He had to be pushing six foot seven. His muscles pushed tightly against his shirt, and I was sure that at the slightest movement his shirt would be shredded.

The days blended together. No one had heard of Allie or seen anyone with her description—the purple eyes would have most likely been remembered. The total training time was supposed to last twelve weeks, then everyone was talking about the big event at the end.

Capsulization was a big word for something that everyone was working for, some type of reward for completing this round of training. There was no shore leave, and no one seemed to want there to be. I was already seen as the weakest link among the guys. During the day, my lack of speed would earn us laps, my inability to swiftly climb and toss myself over a twenty-foot wall would leave us with pushups. I was mocked at night and even kicked and shoved, but I kept going. Finding Allie and getting us home safe drove me to push myself beyond when my sore muscles told me to quit.

Six weeks in they began weapons training. I had played paintball during the summer and even made it to state with my team one year. I applied the concept to this portion of training. It came as a complete shock to me that I excelled at weapons training. I hit nearly every target.

All the times my dad had complained about shelling out money to help me develop the useless skill of paintball mastery had been stomped on. I was also defeating the sims in record time. The shock seemed to be felt by the others too, and they began to lighten up on sending punishments my way. Baylor also seemed shocked by my talent increase.

“I had been convinced you were a sack of shit the minute I laid eyes on you, Trammel, but it seems your worthless worm of a self is redeemable when it comes to hand-eye coordination. I’ve unexpectedly decided you will lead an ops team in the final mission before capsulization. It’s a good old game of capture the flag. With one mistake, you can get your men killed.”

Capture the flag was always the final game for the paintball championships I participated in. This would be the final test to see if we were worthy enough for the gloriously sought after capsulization. We were divided into four teams with around twenty members each. The teams were divided by colors: red, yellow, blue, and green. Baylor assigned me the red team.

The rifles they gave us were the sweetest guns I’d ever seen. They looked like a futuristic sniper rifle with rounded edges and painted two shades of blue swirling in and out of each other. There was a scope on top with an artificial brain that would make my aim more accurate. These guns were different from the ones that we had been using as target practice; obviously, this was because those were real guns.

My fingers ran across the cool metal, and I guessed that there must be some type of system to show who was hit and where. We were assigned our base and were taken to a massive indoor course with real trees and foliage. Each team had its own small two-story fort with a colored flag on top.

I began assigning posts, “Jameson and Skip, you’re on defense. You guard the flag with your life.”

“Sir! Yes, sir,” they said in unison.

I broke the rest into recon teams. One man was in charge of each of the three groups that would get the flags.

I gave a glory speech, “We have poured ourselves into these twelve weeks of training and are now nearing the end. We will take down the enemy, capture their flags and declare ourselves the victors! In our victory we shall reap the reward of capsulization!!” Cheers erupted across the room. I was clueless as to what they were carrying on about, but it poured motivation into their hearts.

I took Tucker, Jake, Levi, Simp, and Gonzales with me. For the last few weeks, they were closest to me in the bunk room, so I knew them well. The other team would most likely be expecting us from the front or sides. The back of the blue team’s base ran against a narrow fence, and our backpacks wouldn’t fit on our backs with enough room to maneuver past it. We ran the perimeter until we could see the blue base to the right. We started toward the bottom using the brush for cover.

We made it ten feet farther, and I motioned everyone to their feet. My men followed me. Gonzales’ eerie scream broke the silence, and we watched him dropping on the floor in one swift movement. His eyes bulged, and a large pool of blood formed around his head. His forehead caved inward, and the edges of the wound were charred. Terrified, I glanced down at the weapons they had given us.

Survival mode kicked in, and I ushered the men I had left under the stairs. Rasp, the killer of Gonzales, cornered us. Tucker fired, striking him in the chest. Rasp collapsed on the ground, and Tucker blasted him in the head, killing him instantly. Nothing made any sense. Rasp was our friend, and we killed him over a game.

Tucker glared at me as if to say that he knew the screw up couldn’t handle leadership. I regained my composure. The stakes were raised, and I became more focused on getting my men out alive. I recalled a move that my paintball team had done the year we won state. I directed the men to put their backpacks down so we could squeeze along the fence line.

I grabbed my rope and anchored it to the roof. We began climbing up the side, careful to avoid the windows and keep our boots as quiet as possible. We would carry our assault from above. We scaled down and climbed into the open windows. We were behind the flag, and both guards were facing away. I blunted the guard on the right with my rifle and Levi did the same to the other. The first guard started to stir.

Tucker pointed his gun at the guard’s head. “Remain still, or your brain matter will make the wallpaper for your fort!”

I grabbed the flag and directed my men out the door.

“What about them?” Tucker pointed to our blue opponents on the ground.

“Grab their guns and let’s go,” I said.

“You kidding me, man?! Let’s end them.”

“You have your orders.”

“I should shoot you, and no one will know the better of it.” Tucker blunted the stirring opponent with his rifle then pointed his gun at me.

“What’s going on, Tuck?” Jake looked confused at Tucker’s betrayal.

“I think we’re starting a mutiny,” Tucker said.

I heard a click from Tucker’s rifle and knew all that was left was for him to fire. I wouldn’t be making it to the end to save Allie. Simp snuck up from behind and blunted Tucker onto the ground. Tucker’s rifle fired, but his sudden drop changed the trajectory, missing my head by at least a foot. A large hole burned into the wood wall of the fort.

Getting back to base proved easier. Much of the carnage was complete, and I tried to avoid glancing at the bodies strewn about. Anytime I accidentally spotted one I had to fight the urge to vomit. Violence always seemed senseless to me, except if I needed to protect Allie. I would fight with everything I had to keep her safe.

But this violence had no purpose. Training us to kill by forcing us to murder our comrades was abhorrent. We arrived back to find Skip dead and Jameson still guarding our flag. Our squad against the yellow team stumbled in with three members left and the yellow flag in hand. That left our green recon.

I was starting to assemble a search team when the alarm sounded. We were all lined up. The scores—as if this had been a high school football match—displayed across the board and revealed twenty casualties. Each of the teams’ stats flashed, and my team was declared the winner since we had captured the most flags and kept our own.

Baylor called the four leaders into his office. He had something to yell at each one of us for. He got to me last. “You a pansy ass or what, Trammel?!”

“Sir, no, sir!” I answered.

“You think you can survive the war by blunting everyone with your rifle? Tucker turned on you and you froze like a coward!” He rehashed every mistake I made then told us to get our miserable asses out of his sight. I returned to the bunk room and collapsed on my bed. The guns had been real. My adrenaline began to cool and exhaustion settled in.

This entire thing was a joke. All the others knew the stakes, but they had thrown me in unprepared. I found sleep nearly immediately but hardly got to enjoy it as Baylor demanded us on our feet. I jumped up, no longer hesitant. They had made an unexpected soldier out of me.

Baylor began a speech. “Tomorrow you will undergo the capsulization process. Your minds will never be the same. You will be moved to the category of whatever new skill you possess. Once grouped, you will be placed in smaller categories based on the strength of those new skills. You will rank zero to seven. If you gain a zero, you will most likely be put in group purple and sent home or given a desk job.

“You will then be assigned your stations. No station is too low in this war. We need you all to rid the universe of the vile Khalbytians. They are bringing an end to the Loctorians, and they will bring an end to humanity if allowed to fester in this galaxy.”

Baylor’s words were that of a ranting nutjob. I had to find Allie before these psychos did more damage. Fear ripped through me. What if Allie had been sent into a war game? What if she was already gone? She never really enjoyed paintball, and I couldn’t see her squashing an ant, let alone another human. Sleep no longer came easily. Whatever was going on tomorrow was not something I wanted to participate in. The others were feeling the opposite, and I could tell that excitement was spilling over; excitement after we killed our field mates.

Time slugged by on the large clock on the wall in front of my bunk. I finally dozed. Five a.m., we were awoken and directed to the mess hall. I couldn’t complain about the breakfast; it was the best since I arrived. Bacon, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, orange juice, and milk were all set out in buffet fashion. A woman in a red skirt and navy blue shirt stood on the balcony above the mess hall.

She began to speak, “I am Kayla Monroe. You have all passed through weeks of intense physical training. You have survived the final war game, and your victory will now be rewarded with the capsulization process!” Her claims were met with hollers of excitement from the crowd.

She continued, “Now feast. You will need your strength for the process, then you will be given quarters. In these quarters you will rest for the next three days. It is important you do so, as the changes for some of you will be intense. In four days, your abilities will be tested, and you will be scored. Congratulations, you are soldiers now!”

Whistling and cheering roared across the room. The energy dwindled, and we filed to get our breakfast. Little talking took place as we consumed as much as we could contain. At six, the intercom blared instructions for us to make our way to capsulization. I marched with my assigned unit and we left the training area for the first time in twelve weeks. We passed by sickbay. I caught a glimpse of red hair and almost jumped out of line. Seraphine was talking to the doctor.

Gabriel and Allie were nowhere in sight, but I was relieved to see at least one more of us still alive. She looked well, and I let the temptation to leave the line subside. I wouldn’t make it far, and we were going to get three days’ rest in our quarters. I could use that time to escape. Hopefully whatever this capsulization process was wouldn’t impede that.

We entered a large room where the ceiling rose a few hundred feet in the air. Some type of pipe system ran along the ceiling and covered all of the walls. There were large, clear capsules, and they reminded me of the capsules you use at the bank drive up. The capsules were around seven feet tall, and three black steps led to the entrance. The doors slid in, and the first soldiers entered a chamber.

There were ten capsules, and they separated us into lines. I was fifth in my row. The first soldiers came out, all looking the same. Each process took about fifteen minutes, and the tube filled with an orange fog that the soldier would disappear into until the process was finished.

My turn arrived. I was careful not to look too cautious. This was a euphoric event to everyone around me, and I needed to blend in. I stepped into the chamber. Blue lights blinked around me, and the orange fog rose from the mirrored floor.

A voice in the capsule speaker said, “Trammel, your heart rate is a little high. I know this is an exciting day but try and relax. Things take better if you are as calm as possible. Relax. Breathe. Five more minutes, Mr. Trammel. You’re doing great!”

The capsule seemed to be closing in on me. The fog prevented me from seeing the edges, and I felt panicked. My mind felt numb and heavy, and I didn’t know what was normal.

“Heart rate is a little fast. Almost done. Breathe in and out,” the voice continued to try and calm me.

I began to focus on Allie and how I needed to find her. I avoided thinking about anything bad that could have happened to her. Her face relaxed me, so I focused on that. I remembered us as kids in her tree house; anytime we were scared or sad we would meet each other there. It was our sanctuary.

“Good job, Trammel. We are done. Congratulations!” the voice praised my accomplishment of surviving fifteen minutes in an orange gas chamber.

The orange fog escaped through an exhaust at the top of the capsule, and the door opened. I tried not to exit too quickly and wasn’t sure that my body would let me run at this point. I grabbed my new set of uniforms and walked to my indicated quarters.

The quarters looked identical to the ones that Gabriel and I had first changed in at the beginning of this entire fiasco. Everything in the place was grey, brown, or black. The only thing exciting to look at in the room was the fern in a large blue pot located by the front door. I glanced at the attached card. My kidnappers were welcoming me to the prison I now lived in. A console on the wall had a sign above it that stated I should start there first.

I turned it on and Mrs. Monroe—the woman from the pep talk this morning—appeared. She was the voice in the capsule, too, and I briefly wondered if she was Dr. Monroe’s wife. I was still a little burned at him. He had promised answers but instead I was left with more questions. I felt cemented to the ground, but I stood there watching the video rather than becoming a jumbled heap on the floor.

“Welcome, soldier, to a new era in your life. You now must rest as often as possible for the next three days. Your dormant gene will slowly activate, and you may experience strange and unusual sights. Do not be alarmed, as these are your new ability activating. There are control panels on the side of each room. If you experience anything unsettling, you can use the control panel to contact a medic or counselor. They are on call at any hour. Feel free to utilize this option as much as needed. We are here to help you with this transition.”

The video ended and I decided that going to bed was the best option. My head spun, and my feet felt like lead. I stumbled into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed, not even making it under the covers before falling asleep.

Chapter Six

Althea-October 24, 2012

I woke up the next morning in the holding cell, disappointed. I had been hoping that yesterday was a weird dream, and I would wake up back on campus. Instead, the cold white cell walls were all that greeted me. Yesterday I had a boyfriend, a brother who worked an ordinary job, and I was in college. Today I was in prison without reason or understanding.

The guards left me breakfast through a small slot that opened in the door. Eggs, plain bread, some sort of green substance, and water. Not even close to the best breakfast, but I was starving and did my best to choke it all down. I accomplished the unpleasant task in its entirety except for the green mixture. The color and texture made my stomach roll.

As confused as I was by my brother’s actions, I needed to trust Talon to get me out of this because he never failed me. He took care of me and protected me for as far back as I could remember. I paced back and forth. The silence was starting to become a vortex that was slowly swallowing my sanity. Solitude had never been a welcoming thing for me. If John was in the same position as me, he was probably being revitalized by the stillness. Hours and minutes were undefinable.

I had no indication other than it must have been a few hours since breakfast when the lunch tray was delivered. Grilled cheese, a glass of water, and some broccoli. I passed on the broccoli but devoured the grilled cheese. As the butter met the melted cheese, it occurred to me that Talon had made this. There was something different about the way he always made them. I never learned his secret, but I’d never tasted any like it since. I saw my lunch as his way of letting me know that he was taking care of things. I would trust Talon and wait.

I recited every poem I ever learned in school and rehearsed my periodic table. This would prove useful when I made it to my next chemistry exam. Surely Talon wouldn’t allow this to go too far into my semester.

I thought about Lucius and I began to seethe. He must have been using me from the start. Those kisses were magical, though, but I was glad I didn’t sleep with him. Losing my virginity to a user jerk would have made all of this so much worse.

I heard talking in the hall. It was muffled significantly, but I stood up and peeked out. It was Talon, talking to one of the guards. He was too far away for me to read his lips, but his rapid body movements made me think he was angry. The guard walked to my enclosure. Talon followed close behind him as the glass moved upward, freeing me from confinement. I bolted for Talon.

He pulled me into a hug. “You alright? Did they hurt you?”

“I’m fine. Can we go home now? I need to find John, Seraphine, and Gabriel and get back to campus. I have an anthropology exam tomorrow.”

“It’s complicated, Allie. We can’t go home yet. I have a lot to explain. And I will in time but for now let’s get you somewhere more comfortable.”

I was so relieved to see Talon that I had missed that he was wearing a military uniform. “Since when did you join the army?”

“I’m not in the army. We’ll talk later.” Talon led me down the hall into an elevator. We went up four floors to a silver hallway.

“Where are the others?”

“I was trying to locate you. The important thing is I have you. You’re staying in my quarters. I have three rooms, so plenty of space for you.”

“You have to find the others!”

“I will. I promise.” He opened the second door.

These quarters were nicer and held more space. The walls were painted royal blue, which I knew was Talon’s favorite color. A picture of me as a little girl sat next to his recliner. Another photo of our family before the car crash hung to the entryway. A black and white cat greeted us at the door.

“You have a cat?” I reached down to pet him.

“Yeah, his name is Shakespeare.”

“You don’t like cats.”

“I like that one.”

Talon was full of more surprises with each passing second. He showed me the room I would be staying in. A queen size bed with a pink flowered comforter lay in the middle of the room. A turquoise French dresser was in front of the bed, and several paintings lined the walls. The walls were a deep purple. By the color scheme and furnishings, I began to wonder if Talon had been expecting me.

“There are some clothes for you in the dresser and a towel in the bathroom. Take a bath or shower if you want, then I’ll have dinner ready.”

A shower sounded like heaven. I took an extra-long time, and the water continued to stay inviting the entire length of my shower. I climbed into some cotton pajamas I found in the top drawer of the dresser.

I savored the aroma of roast beef and potatoes, which brought the security of home. I sat across from Talon around his small oak table, and he handed me one dish after the other. His roast beef melted in my mouth. The gravy added a deeper flavor that accented the potatoes. I relished each bite my ravenous stomach could contain.

When I finished my plate, I looked up at Talon. “Now, are you going to explain?”

Talon cleared the plates and motioned me to his living room. A red leather couch rounded the corner on the opposite wall of a mounted television. He sat down in his red leather recliner and directed me to sit on the couch.

“When I was fourteen, I was recruited into a program for young teens. I was sent for an interview with a man named Mr. Fausto. He said he had the means to give me a good paying job. We needed the money, so I agreed to the evaluation.” He paused.

I listened intently, wondering how Talon being involved in any of this since he was fourteen made any sense. He looked at me with his light blue eyes. He ran his fingers through his brown hair, pushing it back from his forehead. He looked away again, seemingly unsure if he should say more.

He continued, “The stuff from here on out may be hard for you to believe. I’m about to change everything you thought about Earth and the universe.”

“What are you, a space alien fighter?” I laughed, but Talon didn’t. “No way!” I shook my head.

Still not finding my words amusing, Talon went on, “Now it gets what you will think of as weird, paranormal of sorts. The program has these capsules which activates a dormant gene that 89.6% of humans have. This gene activates a part of the brain that is otherwise left untapped. Unlike many believe, humans use pretty much every area of their brain, but there is an inner portion discovered by Loctorians that holds things humans often ignore like intuition. They found it was mostly shut off.

“They used advanced gene editing to create a gene to turn it fully on and strengthen it. This gene does different things, and it is not understood how the gene chooses which ability, as no variations of the gene have been documented. There are seven categories a person has the potential to fall into. The gene seems to be only able to unlock one ability, and it is the ability you keep the rest of your life. The seven categories are called healers, trackers, projectors, empaths, manipulators, chameleons, and the heightened.”

“Abilities? You mean like superpowers?” I chuckled.

He continued, “The names are self-explanatory. Healers can repair biological matter, including themselves. Trackers can find anyone and anything, but it goes beyond that. Tracking is a separate sense that locates whatever is desired as easily and quickly as opening your eyes and seeing. Projectors can project images to other locations and make others see things that aren’t really there.

“Empaths can sense emotions and read thoughts. They can also make someone see things, but unlike projectors, it is by bringing people into their own minds. In other words, projectors use their mind to project images out and empaths use their enemy’s mind to bring images forward. Empaths can also tell people their thoughts. Manipulators can make people do things just by speaking it. Chameleons can make themselves and other things invisible. Then lastly, the heightened. Every sense they have is much more advanced. They can see, hear, taste, feel, and smell better than any other living thing.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You really believe all of this?”

“It’s the truth, but I know all of this is hard to believe. I tried so hard to keep you out of this. I put security measures in place, and I made a deal with an admiral high up so that you wouldn’t be recruited. He said he would help me keep you from being found. It’s normal to recruit siblings of officers who display higher level abilities. There are also seven tiers within each ability, one being low level and seven being off the charts high function of the ability. Tiers are highly genetic, which is why tier levels are similar in most families.”

I was still pondering if I should be worried Talon needed a psych eval but decided to play into what he was saying. “I assume you have had this gene activated. What are you? What’s your level?”

“I am a tier seven tracker. That’s why keeping you hidden was so important. Full siblings usually have different abilities but are within one to two tiers of each other. Even if you score level five, you are above eighty-five percent of those with abilities, and that makes you highly valuable.”

“Valuable for what?”


“The war on terrorism? The Middle East?”

Talon shook his head. “If only. Khalbytians. The war against Khalbytians.”

“Never heard of that country.”

Talon laughed slightly, relaxing some of the tension on his face. His face stiffened again. “The next part is going to be even harder for you to believe. We aren’t on Earth. The Khalbytians are an evil alien race. They have created a virus that is slowly wiping out the alien race we are fighting with. The Loctorians. They have been damaged by the virus on an RNA level.”

Talon went on to explain more about how the Loctorians were using humans to fight against Khalbytians. The Loctorians possessed abilities naturally, but as the virus spread, each passing generation lost more ability function. They began to see this process at a very early stage. The biggest weapon they had to fight the Khalbytians was slowly dissolving with each passing generation. They decided to set out to find a race that would be compatible to carry on the genetic capabilities but who were not susceptible to the virus.

They used a type of gene editing and distributed it in first world countries at medical facilities. The Loctorians recruited humans to their cause to help them distribute the therapy. It began to alter the human population. These changes started in 1938 and continued until most of the population had unknowingly taken the therapy.

Once the first generation was given the gene therapy, it was then passed onto future generations. There was an issue with synthetic gene alterations. The gene was present but dormant. The Loctorians put a great deal of effort into research and testing of activating dormant genes. When a process was discovered, they began recruiting humans to fight the war with the hopes that it would end the virus before it wiped out their entire race. I felt overwhelmed at the end of Talon’s explanation.

“So you’re saying human DNA has been altered for decades to fulfill alien agenda,” I said.

“Basically, yes.”

“Why do you fight? They have forcibly altered humanity and enslaved them. Is that it? Are you a slave?”

“No, I’m here by choice. We all are. We choose to fight the evil. The Loctorians are the last force ready to stop the Khalbytians. Eventually, the Khalbytians will wipe out the Loctorians and in doing that they will turn their attention to Earth. In reality, I fight for humanity. But even if that wasn’t true, it’s the right thing to do. The virus is horrific to watch. It slowly eats away at its victims.

“The skin is bleached, and it eventually dries the skin like dirt in the hot summer of a desert. Then it resembles leprosy as parts begin to fall off and crumble to dust. The process is slow and painful. The Khalbytians added a genetic component, so now all Loctorians are born with the virus. No amount of their own expertise in genetics has changed this, each generation is dying younger. Fighting is a necessity.”

“If the fight is so important, why keep me out of this?”

“Why would I want my baby sister to fight this violent, dangerous war?”

“I’m not a baby anymore. I should be able to help in some way.”

“You’re going back to college, and you’re going to go back to your normal life. I’ve fought too long to keep you out of this. You need to be on Earth, far from any talk of violent battles.”

“How can I go back to a normal life after finding out my brother is fighting galactic battles?”

Part of me was amused at the thought of this being a reality. If this was true, there was so much at stake, and it figured that Talon would think he could still make choices for me. This could all be argued about later when I confirmed my brother hadn’t lost his mind or was part of a delusional drug cult.

“Althea, you’re not getting involved! That’s final.”

“We can argue later. Right now, I need to find my friends and get them home. This seems like a family issue, and we should stop bringing them into it all.”

“I agree with you on one thing. Let’s find your friends and get all of you out of here. First I want you to get some rest in a real bed tonight. The Loctorians have gone to great lengths to make us comfortable. The bed will scan you to calculate how it should best fit you. You can also override and answer a series of questions if the bed guesses wrong.”

The doors to Talon’s quarters opened, and Seraphine walked in, dressed in a uniform that matched Talon’s. Her red hair was pulled back into a bun. I had almost forgotten that Talon had known Seraphine. She waltzed into his apartment like she lived there. She looked at me, and I could tell she was making a fair attempt at hiding her shock. She shot Talon a sterner look and quickly shut the door.

“Allie, I’d like you to meet my wife Seraphine,” Talon said.

It was a good thing I had set down the tea I’d been sipping the minute Seraphine walked in or else there might have been shattered glass spread across the smooth living room floor. I felt as if I was being held uncomfortably in place, like in the Graviton at a carnival. The spinning of my head seemed to emphasize the artificial ride effect that was being generated in my mind.

“Your wife?” This came out as a gasping mutter. Talon nodded and seemed unsure of the next words he should say. I decided to confront Seraphine. “You pretended to be my friend. I told you things, and it was all a setup? The entire time you were married to my brother?” My anger blasted words at Seraphine. The anger and hurt toward my brother were too deep to acknowledge.

“It’s a long story, Allie. But I was doing my job. Following orders,” Seraphine said.

I had so many questions, but I was too taken back and emotionally drained to pursue answers. I went back to my room and picked up the remote Talon had shown me. I allowed the bed to scan me. The bed began to change and mold around me with perfect precision. I was out in minutes.

I slept better than I had in months. Sleeping in the dorm room was much less welcoming than the bed I grew up in. This new bed seemed to move through the night to keep me in precise comfort and temperature. Getting out of bed would be difficult. I could meld into a contented state indefinitely.

The next morning, the smell of bacon brought that needed motivation. Talon made pancakes and hash browns to accompany the bacon. Orange juice and milk sat in pitchers next to large mason jars that would be used as cups. I’d missed his cooking, as he had grown amazingly good at it over the years.

It seemed that Talon was trying to apologize for having a secret wife. It would take more than that, but I was hungry, and the need to be stubborn on the issue could be pursued later. After breakfast, Talon left to try and arrange a flight out for me. I located a computer and hopped on. I found it locked up tight and had no idea what the password would be.

On the wall next to the computer hung a picture of Talon holding Seraphine sitting in a large black chair. They were looking at each other, smiling. There was another next to it. Talon and Seraphine were standing, and Talon’s arms were around Seraphine. By what they were wearing, I guessed it was their wedding picture. They looked happy.

I went to check out Talon’s room, but that was also a dead end as he had locked the door. I contemplated leaving. I didn’t want to wait for Talon to take me on that convoy, especially without John and Gabriel. While debating the best avenue to pursue, the front door opened. I slowly turned around, expecting it to be Talon but stumbled back when I saw it was Lucius and three other soldiers. I was furious at him for all the games and lies.

“Your brother didn’t hide you very well now, did he? He thought he convinced me you were well into the capsulization process, but I knew better than to take his word for it. I’ve become rather fond of you, and I want to promise we won’t hurt you. We’re only going to enhance you.” I used to swoon when I heard his voice, but now it sounded appallingly arrogant.

My eyes bore into him. “What did I ever see in you, Lucius?”

“You saw nothing in me. I’m a manipulator. Whatever I wanted, you did, that’s why I was sent. The Loctorian council felt you and your friends were too important to risk you refusing or your brother getting in the way. He’s valuable, too, that’s why he’s not receiving a court-martial for hiding you, but this won’t reflect positively on his service record.”

I doubted Talon would care. He would simply be angry that they had gotten to me despite all his effort. He said my friends were important, too. I was starting to realize that everything and everyone was being manipulated for what someone thought was our purpose. Lucius nodded toward me, and two of the soldiers moved forward. They grabbed my arms, pushing me out of the quarters and down the corridor.

I walked quickly but still felt as though they dragged me across the floor. We descended about thirty floors when we finally came to a stop. The room opened, and a large capsule stood in front. A woman with blonde hair and green eyes stood in front of a stretcher, and the men laid me down and strapped me in.

“Althea, I need you to remain completely calm. There can be no resistance in your mind, so I’m going to give you a bit of a tranquilizer to ensure this goes as smoothly as possible. We need your heart rate a bit slower.” The woman spoke with a calm that gave me goosebumps.

There was no time to protest as she injected a green substance into the vein on my right arm. I began to shake, and the room spun as everything became blurry. The guards wrapped me tightly in a warm blanket, and they moved the stretcher to a standing position as they wheeled me to the capsule. I saw an orange gas flood everything in my vision. I had no memory of what took place after that for several hours to follow.

I woke up disoriented back in Talon’s quarters. Confusion fogged through my thought process, making it unclear if Lucius and the capsule had been a dream. Numbness coursed through my body, almost as if all my limbs were about to fall asleep, but I caught them in time. I glanced at the clock; it was two hours after the planned shuttle launch should have taken place.

Talon must have let me sleep. I didn’t remember going to bed. This bed was so comfortable, and I didn’t know how they ever got people to leave their beds to be productive. The blankets seemed to regulate my temperature, and I felt neither cold nor hot while I remained under the covers. I heard a knock on my door.

“Come in,” I said.

Talon peeked in the door. “You sick?”

“No, I’m fine. Just love the bed.”

“They are great beds. It looks like you are stuck here another night. I wasn’t able to get a shuttle covertly. I would have been back sooner, but I had to make sure no one was on to you being here. Hopefully it wasn’t too boring. Guess maybe it was if a nap seemed appealing. You’ve never really been into those.” I ignored his words, and he tried some more, “You still mad, Al?”

“I’m angry, hurt, upset, sad, disappointed, and betrayed… Should I continue?”

“I can’t fix that this happened. I wish I could take all of it back but I can’t. I have this entire life that I built here. I couldn’t tell you, it had to stay separate.”

“If you were so against me being a part of this, why would they have chosen your wife to recruit me?”

“That was Lucius’ choice. I think he thought it would be funny.” Talon tensed at the mention of Seraphine. I could tell he was struggling more with the subject of her than he was letting on.

At this point, Talon no longer had my confidence. I was cautiously accepting of his answers only because it was hard to throw away the last thirteen years of him taking care of me.

“I’m still tired. I think I’m just going to call it a night.”

My words were my way of being nice, of not falling into sectors of extreme. I could scream and holler and be outraged, or I could walk out and surrender myself to this supposed silly war. Instead, I let the intense draining win. Sleep came too quickly for having already slept the day away.


“You hungry?” Talon stood in my doorway.

My brain beat against my skull, creating rhythmic waves of pain. I responded the best I could. “Surprisingly no. Maybe just a drink would be nice.”

“It’s morning. You got to get out of bed at some point.”

I pushed the perfection that entailed blankets and propped myself up on the side of the bed. I must have sat up too quickly because dizziness overwhelmed me. Talon left to the kitchen, and I was glad he missed my struggle for composure. I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the nightstand, then collapsed to my knees. I stood up but my gait wobbled as the floor seemed to consist of Jell-O.

“Pancakes work?” Talon hollered from the kitchen.

“Sure! That would be great!” I hollered back, not wanting Talon to check on me. He worried too much. I couldn’t imagine his blood pressure if something was actually wrong with me. I crawled to the door and shut it, then stretched my arm up to push the door lock. I sat against the door with my head in my hands until Talon knocked on it.

“You okay, Allie?”

“Yeah, just changing.”

“Breakfast is ready when you’re done.”

I had slept the night away as well. I imagined a hangover and my current state resembled each other. I pulled myself to standing using the doorknob and found myself much more steadied. It must have been a drop in blood pressure after sleeping so long. A little weird but not unheard of.

I strolled down the hall and to the table. My feet felt as though I was pushing through mud but nothing I couldn’t handle. Talon’s back was turned as he placed food on a plate for me.

I was grateful that he missed my slouch into the chair. The room spun around me, and I ate breakfast the best I could. Talon didn’t seem to notice. He wanted to know about my classes. After everything that had gone down, it seemed weird to talk about casual things.

I answered being careful to sound as normal as possible. Talon cleared the table, and I excused myself to a shower. I made it through my shower and put my clothes on. I went to brush my hair when my body began to shake uncontrollably and I hit the ground, knocking the caddy of hygiene products down to scatter throughout the bathroom.

I couldn’t seem to move intentionally, and reality was off. I thought my body was moving, but if so, I was not in control. I heard Talon yell my name but I couldn’t answer. He pounded on the door. He must have heard me drop. Everything went black again before I woke back up in the glorious bed. I must have been in some sort of weird dream loop. Maybe Talon would offer me food again. A monitor beeped and I watched the lines move across its screen.

“Althea? I’m Dr. Monroe. I’m a good friend of your brother’s, so you can call me Jasper. Are you able to understand what I’m saying?” A doctor wearing green scrubs stepped into my view.

“Yes.” I cleared my throat, trying to make it feel less scratchy.

“Good. Why don’t you rest tonight? I’ll be back in the morning.”

I nodded. I could see Talon leaned against the corner, and his hand covered his chin.

He followed Jasper to the door. “I’ll be back, sis. Right now get some sleep.”

I would give no arguments. My eyes were half closed, and I was out. I woke up with chills. I saw Talon and Jasper talking, but they sounded as though they were behind a TV screen.

“I should have stayed with her. They activated her and thought it would be some kind of joke for me to find out this way. Sometimes I feel like letting them all die off.” Talon’s face wore the same stress it always did when I was sick or hurt.

“She seems to be fighting the gene activation, probably because she went in unwilling, or could be because it was a second attempt.”

“She’ll be fine, though?”

“Most likely, yes. I’ve seen others react this way and most come through fine. This doesn’t mean the gene won’t activate, it simply means her body is having a harder time accepting the change. They call it gene therapy like some gentle massaging of your genetic code, but really it’s an assault on the brain at the molecular level. It’s surprising that things don’t go wrong more often. These were genes humans were never intended to have, let alone have activated.”

I drifted in and out of consciousness until my senses became crisp, and I felt great. In fact, better than I ever remembered feeling. Maybe I was one of those heightened people since everything seemed clearer. The droplets in my IV seemed to take on a multi-dimensional shape. I could see angles I somehow missed in the past. I sat up and pulled off all the sticky pads on my chest, sending the monitors shrieking. Talon and Jasper both ran into the room. Jasper smiled while Talon stared sternly.

“She’s on the other side of this. She’ll be fine.” Jasper shined a light in my eyes and I grimaced. “Now if your gene has truly been activated, your ability should come and go. At times it may overwhelm you. If it gets too much or you feel out of control, Talon knows where to contact me.” Jasper left the room.

I wondered if I was dreaming this entire thing, but that was impossible, everything was so clear. I could almost feel the shapes of sounds pulsing in my eardrums. The smoothness of the fabric ignited my fingers with the intensity of a new level of softness. I must be heightened, that had to be my ability. I told Talon what I thought.

“No, everyone feels that way at first. If you remain like that after three days and nothing else shows up, you should be able to declare yourself that.”

Talon brought me a grilled cheese. I had been fighting the gene activation for four days, and now I was ravenous. The cheese intertwined with my tongue and the collision with the butter ignited a euphoric reaction in my mouth. The crisp bread meeting my teeth gave the perfect crunchy texture. Talon made great grilled cheese, but these were even better than usual. I asked for more and finished off an additional three. Talon commented on how I must be making up for the four days I was under.

I was given another day to recover before Lucius arrived to take me. He floated in as if he’d won a prize. Part of me wondered if Talon would fight him, but it seemed that Talon had relented his resolve to keep me out of all of this. Talon simply glared. I followed Lucius and three other soldiers out the door. At this point, I was unsure if they were his bodyguards or simple buffoon minions. He always had three with him. I sarcastically wondered how he survived so vulnerable on Earth. Maybe he needed that many men to protect himself from Talon.

Lucius smirked. “Today you will begin your testing, and we will figure out exactly what gift you will bestow upon the Loctorian council.”

Evidently, my new ability entailed forced generosity to an alien race I had never met. This time we went four floors up, and the door opened to a large room with various consoles with chairs and black helmets dangling from the ceiling. There were about fifty chairs lined up in five rows to the right, and all but four were filled with soldiers.

One of Lucius’ lackeys motioned me to sit with the group. A woman came around a corner wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard with a blue pen attached. She pushed her glasses higher on her nose. Her black curly hair was pulled neatly into a bun.

“I am Mrs. Monroe. I am happy to see all of you have completed your capsulization process safely and are ready for the next phase. Some of you may already know what your ability is, and you will be given a chance to elaborate on it in a bit. I urge you to concentrate and do your best. These headsets will access your new abilities, and you will be placed in categories and tiers accordingly.”

The first row was directed to the consoles, and they were assisted on how to connect the helmets properly. They looked similar to black bike helmets. Once on peoples’ heads, the helmets lit up with blue lights that moved randomly across the top. Wires were placed on their chests. I watched as the recruits began to move sporadically as if trying to avoid an incoming threat.

Several more scientists arrived with their lab coats and clipboards. Each scientist was assigned to a soldier and wrote furiously what they were seeing on the monitors. After about twenty minutes, they were released from the headset, given a piece of paper and sent back to the elevator shaft.

The third row was finishing up when a girl called out, “Nooo!”

She had just been given her paper and was the first person I had seen to object. A glare from one of the scientists silenced her.

“Must be a failed activation. That’s got to be the worst, but we all know it can happen when we sign up. But you know that. Name is Kais Jacobson.” The man next to me introduced himself.

“Althea Cooper,” was all I got out before we were hushed by the guards.

We were in the back row and therefore waited the longest to try the consoles out. I put the headset on and jumped a little as an electrical buzz pulsed through my body. A soothing voice wafted through the headphones, reminding me that relaxation was a needed priority. Instructions were then given. There would be a series of doors, and I was to walk through whichever one glowed.

I began to walk on a path until I came to a cornfield. In the middle of the cornfield were seven doors, all blue except one in the middle was red. None of the doors glowed. My fingers ran across the bumpy smoothness of the corn. I looked up at the doors again.

“You need help?” I looked down, and a crow was talking to me. Its voice was like a small boy’s, not at all squawks like I would have guessed. I paused, wondering if the game was really a test. The issue would be to determine what I was being tested on.

Without knowing the end game, this would prove difficult, but that was probably the overall point. I glanced at the doors again and back at the crow. I scanned the field for additional clues. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t follow the instructions.

“I need to find the glowing door.” Now I was talking to a crow. Before I wrote myself off as a lunatic, I reminded myself this was like playing a video game.

“Sometimes you see not what you see.” The crow began gnawing on a kernel that it had found on the ground.

Riddles and games were all I could gather from any of this. I stepped to the red door, and my hand paused a little. It’s an illusion, I told myself as I reached for the gold handle. I heard sizzling and jumped back, realizing my hand had reacted from the intense heat that there was no indication of moments earlier.

Peeling skin from my hand rolled in layered piles, creating a large, red, blistering circle. Agony shot up my arm. I pulled my hand into my stomach and looked around. I shouldn’t have assumed the red door equaled the glowing door; just because it was different didn’t mean it was right. Perhaps I should find the crow again and ask for it to clarify its riddle. The pain began to dwindle until I looked down and saw that my hand had repaired itself. I heard a loud beeping, and the simulation ended. I waited for my piece of paper and was sent out the side door.

I opened the folded paper and saw: healer—fast healing time. I wasn’t a heightened after all. In the next room, I showed a soldier my paper, I was directed to the red door. My hand hesitated. I knew better than to touch the handle this time.

“That won’t hurt you. Proceed,” the soldier said.

I cautiously, with my hand shaking slightly, reached for the handle. I relaxed as soon as the metal felt cold against my palm. Inside the room, there were comfy seats arranged much like a theater. Chairs and beds were placed on a stage at the front of the auditorium. There were five others already seated. After waiting for about twenty minutes, another recruit came and joined us.

We were called to the stage and given frogs on trays. The frogs had significant cuts in their back legs. We were told to heal the wounds. I concentrated, hoping I could bring the poor frog some relief and was astounded that at my simple touch, the frog leaped from my tray with completely healed legs. A young, dark-haired girl sitting next to me also made her frog jump up.

A couple of scientists rushed in to collect the frogs. All except one were able to heal their frogs and he was asked to leave. I heard them tell him he was tier-one. He put his head down and walked out. As he left, Kais came in. They hurried a frog to him, and he was able to heal it quickly.

Next, they brought in some cats who we were told had been injected with a poison. The cats seemed listless. Mine flopped on the table, having what looked to be a seizure. I concentrated and my body began to heat up.

Fire seemed to flow from the inside of my core to the inside of the cat. I pushed the poison out of the cat’s bloodstream. My cat got up and walked off the table. The dark haired woman and Kais’ cats also leaped up. Two more did the same thing, but it took them longer. I heard a thud and turned to see a man collapse on the ground. His cat jumped up and walked off.

“Take him to Dr. Monroe and tell him he is a tier-three healer,” one of the scientists told a couple of soldiers.

The rest of the group was unable to heal their cats and were sent on their way as tier-twos. Next, they brought us dogs. We were told they were recently killed, and we were to try and bring them back. My mind latched onto the dog, and it was as though I could see through his nervous and circulatory systems.

I made my way to his heart and felt an electrical pulse escape from my hand. My dog jumped up and began licking my face. He seemed to know I was the one to help him. He was a golden retriever, and I was relieved that he was no longer dead. I envisioned keeping him and Talon being as annoyed as he was when I brought home strays as a child. He would always insist our Akita Achilles was enough.

Kais and the dark-haired girl were also able to bring their dogs back. The others either weren’t able to or passed out. The ones who weren’t able to heal the dogs were labeled threes while the ones who passed out were labeled fours. Only the three of us remained in the room. I recalled Talon had said anything five and above was considered valuable. They wheeled injured humans in front of us, and my mouth hung open. The sight appalled me, and I blinked tears away.

One man screamed loudly as his detached leg lay in front of him. Two more were missing arms but were passed out, most likely from either shock or blood loss. I was given the man with the missing leg. My hands shook as I forced myself to grab his leg. The smell of blood and flesh assaulted my nostrils.

Nausea turned my stomach, but I grappled with the strong desire to end this man’s agony. I pushed his leg into place, then placed my hand to seal his leg back on. Kais reattached his woman’s arm, and the girl was only able to do so partially, and she stumbled back, weakened. She was labeled tier-five and sent out a different door than the others had been.

Without being asked, I reached over and finished reattaching the arm that the girl was unable to finish. This was met with a stern reminder to keep to my own table. The next two men brought in were covered in dozens of stab wounds. They appeared delirious. I focused on the body as a whole, sending warmth, and as I moved up, each injury healed quickly. Kais did the same, and the men were able to walk out of the room.

For the final test, they brought covered bodies. A frosty chill radiated off of them as though they were wheeled out from a freezer. I began warming the core of the body placed in my control. I quickly moved on to spark the body back to life. I heard the man gasp as the last of the frozen haze escaped from his mouth. He stood up and looked around confused. He was wheeled out.

I could see Kais concentrating, but he seemed unable to get past the warming. The body he was working on remained lifeless. He was asked to leave out the same door as the dark-haired woman and was told he was a tier-six. I reached over and touched the man that Kais had been working on, and he sprung to life. I expected more admonishment but instead was met with stunned silence. The scientists ran over and began scanning me.

“How are you feeling? Any weakness, exhaustion, nausea?” one asked.

I shook my head. “No, I feel fine.”

They both glanced at each other and ran out of the room after instructing me to stay put. The woman with dark hair who spoke to the group earlier waltzed in armed with a clipboard. She appeared to carry herself more confidently than the others.

She shook my hand. “I’m Mrs. Monroe. You have shown immense promise and the soldiers you rescued thank you. You are quite exceptional. Your healing ability out of the gate is incredible. It usually takes even the highest healers years to build up even close to the skill you showed. We almost want to put you in a tier all by yourself. The first-tier eight. You will prove valuable to the Loctorian campaign. You were right in signing up for this, and you and your recruiter will be compensated generously.”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” I said.

“I know things can be a little overwhelming, but I promise you, we will expect no more than the terms outlined in your contract.”

“No, you don’t understand, all of this was forced on me. I was sedated for capsulization because they knew I was an unwilling participant.“

“Cold feet?”

“No, I was kidnapped and had forcible gene activation.”

Mrs. Monroe frowned and looked at her notes. “I’ll be right back.” She hurried from the room.

I sat in the theater, waiting. I noticed a couple more guards were placed by the door. Perhaps they were to keep me in upon the realization that I had been kidnapped. Now that my abilities surpassed expectation they probably would not be taking any chances on their prize fleeing. According to the clock on the wall, fifteen minutes had passed before Mrs. Monroe returned, the excitement on her face replaced with a somber grimace.

“Come with me, Ms. Cooper. I would like to show you to your new quarters. You’ve certainly earned them.” She tried to sound upbeat, but I could hear the tension in her voice.

“Are you still going to hold me prisoner? What about my friends?”

This time Mrs. Monroe kept walking without a single word as a response to my inquiries. I thought about asking about why I couldn’t return to Talon’s quarters, but decided that it was not smart in one way or the other. If she already knew all about Talon it wouldn’t matter, but if his part in this matter wasn’t fully discovered then I would do my best to keep it that way. The door opened to my new home. The dull gray walls needed some work.

“You may alter it however you like. Once you get settled, someone can show you the canteen where you can purchase decor and fix it the way you want.” Mrs. Monroe left.

I didn’t know what to do now. I was so tired, so perhaps sleep was in order. I climbed under the covers and felt the bed adjust in comfort and temperature. Sleep flowed quickly to me as the day slowly faded from my thoughts.

Chapter Seven

Althea-January 13, 2013

Eleven weeks went by since I was brought on base and the people running the base seemed to have forgotten about me. At first I resisted them at every turn, and I thought maybe that was why they no longer made any attempts. I would fight them until they let me see John and Gabriel.

I didn’t know how to function without John, and missing him was almost too much. I had never been apart from him for more than a couple weeks at a time since we were three. I was not allowed to leave my quarters, and my food was brought to me. There was a panel I could use to order whatever I wanted from the list.

I attempted to escape several times but the door appeared fortified. There were no windows to attempt escape elsewhere. I was granted limited computer access and did as much research as I could. I wasn’t even allowed to see Talon since tier assignments and felt frustrated that he seemed to have given up on me.

I thought I would go insane from the torture of solitude. I continually played movies on the television to hear people talking. Finally, one morning, I was awoken by a loud voice on an intercom placed directly above my head. The location of the speaker seemed to ensure that even the deepest sleeper would be thrown out of bed with a start.

“Soldier, please report to deck nine. You have been selected for a mission,” the intercom said.

They were sending me on a mission with no training. The intercom declared me a nameless soldier. A soldier with no combat skills or experience of any kind. I turned over, calculating the statistical probability that the intercom would let me stay put. Five minutes and the intercom blared the message again. I threw the covers over my head and wondered how long it would take for Lucius and his baboons to come barreling in to drag me to the fate of a careless mission.

By the fifth round of blaring, I determined I was not going to be allotted anymore sleep and sluggishly dragged my feet across the floor. I went out to the living room, and spotted a blinking compartment. It looked similar to the mailbox slots where you deposited packages inside the post office. The large metal compartment had a handle that I pulled forward to reveal a neatly folded uniform waiting for me. I closed the mailbox and chose to fix a bowl of cereal instead.

The intercom continued to blare in five-minute increments. I thought that it would be more interesting to make someone have to walk to my quarters. I wasn’t willing to help in the slightest. I still wondered about John and Gabriel. They had probably undergone the capsulization process, and that brought on a load of remorse. I felt like I mixed them up in my unknown family drama. Their lives were altered forever because I had to fall for a stupid college guy.

John and I hadn’t left things on the greatest note and I needed to fix that. My anger had long ago subsided. I wanted to hug him and get back to forcing him into awkward social situations. The initial desire to stay and fight with my brother was evaporating. The war wasn’t even affecting humans. If anything, the war was going to bring the attention of humans to these evil aliens. My door began to buzz loudly, and my focus went back to my empty cereal bowl. The door buzzed twice more before I heard it opening. Baboon number one was standing there.

“Ms. Cooper, your presence has been demanded on deck nine, if you would please accompany me.”

“Would I have the choice to say no?”

“No, you have been ordered. If you fail to comply you will be taken to the brig.”

Part of me was stubborn enough to stand him off until they inevitably dragged me off to another holding cell. Another part of me wanted to hug him from the excitement of finally seeing another person.

I put my bowl in the dishwasher as the soldier barked, “Now!”

I reluctantly complied and followed the soldier to deck nine, but I kept a little independence as my pink long-sleeved pajamas and slippers were what adorned me rather than the uniform. Mrs. Monroe had her back to me as I entered a large office. There were still no windows anywhere but a pot with pink tulips brightened the room in the left corner. A large desk sat in the middle of the room and against the far wall were four large bowl vases lined side by side. Mrs. Monroe was looking through a large, red leather book when my footsteps made her turn around.

“Ms. Coop…” She stopped talking and looked me over. “Didn’t you get the uniforms I sent over?”

“Yes, and I felt my PJs were more comfortable.”

If my response brought annoyance, she didn’t show it. “Very well, then you can change when we get there. If a uniform is not to your taste that will be fine, but I suggest something more durable for where we are going.”

Leaving the dull gray fortress seemed appealing. “Where is that?”

“A Loctorian orphanage on Tenor forty-four.”


“Yes, I’m guessing Captain Cooper filled you in on Loctorians?”

I nodded, unwilling to reveal anything further. Then it hit me that Mrs. Monroe had called him Captain; Talon was further in this thing than I thought. I tried to muster up images of Talon commanding a starship, but it all seemed too far-fetched for my imagination to handle. I followed Mrs. Monroe out of her office and into the elevator shaft. We arrived at an indoor landing strip and boarded a sleek silver craft that reminded me of a jumbo jet.

The ship appeared to be one large room with a side door toward the back. I couldn’t imagine the space left held much, probably just the bathroom. There were about ten chairs, two at each station for a total of five stations. Panels and lights blinked around the walls. In the very front were blank, white, plastic-looking walls. Mrs. Monroe directed me to a station that was the farthest from the front. I sat, and a seat belt automatically strapped around me and latched.

I breathed deeply to stave off a bit of panic from feeling stuck. I was lost in a cave when I was little and for two hours didn’t know if I would ever make it out. It was a story I never told Talon because he would have disapproved that I went into the cave and grounded me. I struggled a bit with being claustrophobic ever since. It was manageable but required me to focus on breathing.

“We’re ready.” With Mrs. Monroe’s words I saw the plastic walls start to retreat into the ceiling and the large docking bay door lay in front of us. It began to open and I gasped. Nothing but dark space with endless clouds of stars clustered before us.

I couldn’t see if there were other people in any of the other chairs since the backs of the chairs were too high and wide. Occasionally I would see a hand reach over to a control that was off to the side.

“You might as well relax. We’re in for a couple hours today. There are headphones in the pocket of the seats if you’d like to listen to music,” Mrs. Monroe said.

I turned on some classical music to relax my mind and fell asleep. The ship bumping around bolted me awake.

“We’re preparing for landing,” Mrs. Monroe announced.

We began to descend into a swirling red atmosphere. The ship shook fiercely, and part of me felt like we would be rattled to pieces. I braced myself on the armrest, preparing to be shattered inside the sleek spaceship. As we descended, the jolting diminished, and the red haze began to disperse.

A city made from the natural landscape stretched on all sides of us. Large yellow rock towers appeared to be complete with windows and doors, and dark brown dirt covered the flat ground for as far as I could see.

Crew members checked screens and selected buttons to finish the stop. Mrs. Monroe stood up and waved me to follow. As I rose, someone caught my attention from the right front of the ship. I pondered leaping across the ship to get a clear look at his face. Gabriel turned his head and our eyes met. He looked about as stunned to see me as I was to see him. We’d been sharing a ride for the last two hours and didn’t know it. I wanted to hug a familiar face and also tell him I was sorry for the galactic family drama he had been dragged into.

He mouthed my name and I nodded. Mrs. Monroe caught our interaction. She grabbed my arm to lead me to the exit. I stiffened from my personal space being invaded but followed her out of the craft. We were on some sort of landing strip with red golf carts waiting to drive us to the nearest rock structure.

I took a minute to breathe in the foreign planet. As a girl, I thought I might take vacations to the moon if they ever colonized it, but to actually be far from Earth on extraterrestrial soil seemed hallucinogenic. I climbed into a cart, and Gabriel climb into one ahead of mine. He glanced back then quickly turned around when he caught Mrs. Monroe’s glare. The carts drove us into a cave garage and inside were similar silver ships of various sizes. Strangely there were a few crafts that resembled small jets with barnacles attached to the side. We were greeted by the base admiral.

“Admiral Mason, good to see you, sir,” Mrs. Monroe greeted the man, and they shook hands firmly.

“We’ve prepared for your arrival and have set up some quarters for you in the east wing of the base.” I placed his accent and believed him to be from Jamaica.

“Understood, sir, we appreciate the hospitality.”

We were led to our quarters and I was told to take a shower, then put on the clothes that would be laid out in the front compartment by the door. I hurried into my room. It was a single room that seemed a slight upgrade from the cell I had been put in before. A full-size bed lay in the middle, and there was a shower, toilet, and sink. A compartment flashed on the wall, and I opened it to reveal another uniform.

Gabriel was wearing one which I felt was odd since he told me once that he was highly against conformity. Apparently they had gotten to him, but he kept some of his identity with his hair. The other soldiers all had buzzed heads while he kept his thick, black hair long. I took a quick shower and reluctantly put on the uniform. The boots felt heavy, and I wondered if we were going on a long hike.

Mrs. Monroe opened my door without knocking. “Good to see you’re ready to get started. We’re going to stop for a quick lunch in the mess hall and then we’ll be off for a hike to a village a few kilometers from here. Glad to see you have your boots on.”

I smirked at the irony. Golf carts transported us a couple hundred feet to the garage, but we were to hike a few kilometers to the village. I’d never been much into walking long distances. At summer camp I picked horseback riding over hiking. It would be a long afternoon.

As promised, we ate lunch before being directed outside. Our group consisted of about twenty soldiers, Mrs. Monroe, and Gabriel. The soldiers lined up without verbal order into perfect rows of ten. Mrs. Monroe directed Gabriel and me to the middle, and she led in front with the admiral from earlier. The pace of the hike was a bit much for me, but I kept up. Gabriel and I stayed silent until about a kilometer into the hike, then it was as if he could no longer remain reserved.

“Althea, it’s good to see you,” he said.

A soldier behind him gave him a jab. We were expected to keep formation in silence. I wouldn’t be separated from him again, at least not without a fight. My mind began to wander to the fact that Gabriel had probably undergone capsulization, and I wondered what his new ability was. Too bad it didn’t include a form of telepathy.

We hiked for a couple hours longer, and I felt my legs would give out any moment. As we climbed up the final hill, more stone buildings began to appear about a hundred yards ahead. Three figures in dark brown robes approached us. I couldn’t tell who wore them as the hoods were large enough that no face escaped from within the deep entrenchment of the robes. When a hand moved forward to shake the admiral and Mrs. Monroe’s hands, it looked elongated and boney.

We would camp near the village for the night. Tents would be set up along the southern border of the town. The soldiers got to work setting up the camp as Mrs. Monroe told Gabriel and me to follow her.

We walked into town and down to the third building on the right. The buildings were made of the same dull yellow rock from the city. They towered high above us, but there were only windows far enough up to indicate a second story. The three robed figures left us at the entrance of one of the buildings. We followed Mrs. Monroe inside and I held in my gasp as best I could, releasing only a slight wisp of air from my mouth.

There stood three humanoid creatures. Extremely pale, almost to the point of illumination, their faces looked to be crumbling in certain spots. They had no ears. Their eyes were only slightly bigger than a typical humans, with a small nose and mouth. They were utterly bald with smooth heads. They wore burgundy robes that covered the rest of their bodies.

The three Loctorians led us down a hall to a large open room. There were smaller versions of the humanoid creatures, and I inferred them to be Loctorian children. Their faces were soft and even cute, but they had the same deterioration as the adults. The three adults left us alone in the room with the children.

Mrs. Monroe explained, “These children are orphans. Almost a hundred percent have lost parents to the virus and suffer themselves. Recently the virus has picked up speed, and we are unsure if the new generation of Loctorian children will reach adulthood. We are at a grave turning point in the war, and this is the urgency at which we have brought you both here. You need to see the devastation in the worst possible way. This is why we need both of you on the front lines. You may have been brought here against your will, but I would say fate superseded on your behalf.”

“Can’t I just heal them all?” I asked.

“You could perhaps patch them up, but the virus is now written into their RNA. Unless you develop the ability to rewrite that, your healing would only be temporary. It may ease their physical failings only to have them disintegrate again not long after you left. You would be chasing your own tail of sorts.”

All the children were wearing deep blue pajama-type outfits. There were about thirty of them in the room submerged in various activities. A few sat at a table putting together a project that resembled a fancy 3D puzzle. I saw one child sitting, facing the far wall. I walked over to him, moving slowly so as not to startle him. I was curious about what he was doing. As I drew closer, I saw he was using his finger to draw imaginary pictures on the carpet.

I was taken aback by his hands. They seemed to be dissolving as the seconds passed, as though they were made of packed sand that delicately flaked with the simplest of movements. I noticed six fingers on the hands of the other Loctorians, but he had only four on his left and three on his right. He glanced up at me with his piercing blue eyes then he went back to his invisible artwork.

“Hello! My name is Althea.”

“Zalseph,” he kept his gaze pinned to the carpet.

“Nice to meet you, Zalseph. May I ask what you are drawing?”

“My mother and father and sister and me all eating porge pull. Talking about our day and how much we love each other.”

“How lovely?” I smiled at the sweet thoughts of his drawing.

“It’s how things used to be. When we were all together. Before I came here.”

“Where is your family now?”

“The disease took them. None of them are left, so I was brought here until the disease takes me as well.”

My breathing paused at his words. I could feel the edging of tears about to escape from my tear ducts. I knew this was an orphanage. I knew there was a virus killing this entire species, but I still had not pieced together that his whole family was gone. I withheld my tears, not wishing to impart my sadness into this child. He held enough sorrow to bring an adult down.

“I’ll be right back.” I got up and approached Mrs. Monroe. “Can’t we get real art supplies here so their creativity can be brought out more than temporary carpet movement?”

“Yes, we have some pen and paper we can spare back at camp. I’ll send word to have them sent.”

Within twenty minutes, the supplies arrived. Notebook paper and three black pens. I walked over to Zalseph and crouched down to his level.

“Would you like to draw with me? With real paper and pen?” I asked. Zalseph nodded, and I pointed to a table. We walked to a small orange table and sat across from each other. I gave him a few sheets of paper and one of the pens. “Let’s draw more happy thoughts, like your family dinner.”

I had never been an artist, that was Seraphine’s department, but I drew John and me as stick figures in my treehouse. Many memories were made inside that tree house over so many years. I was put to shame when I saw Zalseph’s drawing. His sketch was unbelievably realistic. He drew his parents and sister smiling in front of one of the rock buildings.

“That’s beautiful, Zalseph,” I said.

I was genuinely impressed at the beauty and depth he gave his drawing, and he had done so with only three fingers to clutch the pen. Zalseph and I drew for most of the afternoon, then he taught me a couple of games I’d never heard of before. Dinner was called, and I followed Zalseph to a larger table in what appeared to be a dining hall. He asked me to sit with him. Gabriel and Mrs. Monroe walked to the other side of the room and sat down at a table about six seats down from ours.

We were given a green stew that I wasn’t sure I would be fond of. Zalseph gobbled it down as though it was cake on his birthday. I thought it best if I didn’t offend our hostesses and took a bite. The soup tasted similar to a pea soup recipe that my mother used to make. She died when I was five, but somehow the taste brought the memory of cold January mornings forward in my mind.

After dinner, the children were put to bed still wearing their velvety clothes. Mrs. Monroe led Gabriel and me back to camp, and we were assigned a tent together with three other soldiers. The tents had grey cots with two heavy blankets and a pillow each. I climbed onto mine, and Gabriel chose the one closest to me. He casually passed me a note as if we were school children trying not to be caught by the teacher.

The note read: Meet me outside behind the large tree about five minutes after I leave.

Gabriel waited until he was sure the soldiers were asleep before he slipped out the back. Two other soldiers were on guard, but they were guarding away from the village where a likely attack would occur should there be one. I waited for what I deduced was five minutes then went out to join him.

I went behind the tree, but visibility was low as a gray fog had crept in when we arrived back at camp. The mist remained firmly around the village, but no one seemed to flinch at its arrival. The large tree consisted of red pine needles that drooped, similar to a weeping willow. I looked for Gabriel but didn’t see him.

“Gabriel?” I whispered, afraid that even the slightest sound would get us caught.

“Over here.” I could hear him but still couldn’t locate him.

Grass moved as if footprints were being made by the wind. Two feet materialized in front of me. Gabriel suddenly stood there, and I was having trouble figuring out what had happened

“You’re looking at a level-six chameleon. I can change with the environment. Lower levels can simply blend in while stationary.”

“What can a higher level do?”

“I’m not completely sure, but I think it has to do with making more than yourself invisible, like other people and things. What about you? I’m sure you’re here because you underwent activation as well?”

“I’m a healer. I healed a bunch of animals and people, as well as brought two dead men back to life. They didn’t know what tier to give me. But activation, huh? You make us sound like androids.”

“Kind of feel like one now. I was having trouble coming onboard my team, so I’m on this mission to gain sympathy for the aliens we’re supposed to be fighting for. Seems to be working for you with that little alien boy.”

I nodded. “Zalseph? Yeah, I suppose I’m growing attached to him. I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about all of this.”

“Why are you sorry? They kidnapped all of us and forced us to gain superpowers. Sounds cool when I put it that way.”

“My brother and my former boyfriend brought us here. I feel bad for inviting you to the movies that night.”

Gabriel grinned. “Yes, socializing with you did come with a hefty price tag.”

“Have you seen John?”

“No, haven’t seen him since they broke us all up. What’s your plan after we get back to base? Should we plot a giant escape doomed for failure, or do you think we should fight for the space lepers?” Gabriel laughed.

I smiled at Gabriel’s bluntness. “I don’t know, as you said, escape seems doomed for failure. I mean, have you taken a course in spacecraft flight? Haven’t you wanted more for your life? This could be it.”

“I mean, on some level, doesn’t everyone? That’s why children play superheroes and royalty. Everyone wants to believe there is more than ordinary, at least for them. Something that makes your life more meaningful than everyone else’s.”

I nodded, knowing all too well what he described. There was this pull I felt when Talon first told me about the war. I wondered if maybe my calling was different than fighting battles and healing soldiers. Perhaps I should be working to cure the virus. Maybe my healing abilities would someday break the barrier of RNA manipulation, and I could heal this race of dying aliens.

Talon had said the virus was hindering most of these aliens from having super abilities. Maybe, if I could cure the virus, these aliens would regain abilities like the ones they gave to humans. The Loctorians could fight their own war and win. At this moment I would settle for saving Zalseph. I’d known him hours and he had already crept into my heart. Gabriel and I inched back to base and climbed into our cots.

The plan was to stay at the camp outside of the village for the next seven days. On the second day, I brought some string that Mrs. Monroe had to do crafts with. I showed Zalseph and the other kids how to make friendship bracelets. Using his artistic instinct, Zalseph learned quickly how to design his bracelet. He handed me a pink and purple bracelet and told me that it was mine since I was his friend. I gave him the blue and green one I made. He happily placed it on his wrist.

By day four, I decided that Zalseph should come back with me. He had no family, and surely I could provide something better for him than an orphanage could. I could work with Jasper on a cure, and having him close would help ensure he benefitted. I would be determined to bring a cure to his body, then I could bring the treatment back to all his friends. Mrs. Monroe was talking to one of the orphanage workers when I decided to approach her.

I waited for a break in their conversation before speaking. “I was wondering what the process for adoption looks like for this orphanage?”

“No one adopts these children. It is more of a hospice where they remain as comfortable as possible until they pass,” Mrs. Monroe said.

“I want to change that. I would like to adopt Zalseph and bring him back with us. I have plenty of room in my quarters, and I could see that he is cared for.”

“That’s not possible. Taking him from this environment would prove not in his best interest. Thrusting a Loctorian child into a human world would be too traumatic, especially a child with such a grave illness.”

“I want to figure out how to cure his illness. I’m sure it would be an adjustment, but he had a family, he understands the concept, and love is a universal language. I’m even willing to take a second child if companionship is part of the issue.”

“These aren’t puppies you are adopting from a shelter. They are sentient beings.” Mrs. Monroe shook her head.

I felt a bit flustered that my loving intentions were being misconstrued as a flippant sentimental gesture. “I didn’t mean to imply he was a rescue dog. I would make him a son. You want me to use abilities that were forced upon me to fight in your war. You expect me to trust you enough, but you will not allow me to find a way to help the Loctorians in a way that is meaningful to me.”

Mrs. Monroe pursed her lips. She looked as if she might send a glare my way but kept her composed demeanor. “That’s the first thing you will have to learn. We make decisions for humans and Loctorians as a whole, and sometimes that means the needs of an individual are overlooked. You cannot take Zalseph back with us.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I question who is the good in this war. You can kill me, you can lock me up, and you can punish me. But you can’t force me to fight your war. You leave children to die alone without families. You can’t save them all, but you could save one or two and help develop a cure for them.”

Mrs. Monroe took a deep breath. “All we have done for decades is try to find a cure. You are arrogant to believe you can outsmart the greatest minds of doctors and scientists. A simple college freshman with nothing going for her until she was privileged enough to undergo capsulization and become something different, more than herself. You should be thanking us instead of making demands.”

This conversation escalated much further than I intended, but my disappointment was more significant than I anticipated. I struggled with visions of saving Zalseph and his friends from the fate of slowly turning to dust. I left back to camp to sulk in my failure. I sat on the edge of my cot with my feet moving the brown dirt around into multiple spiral formations.

I wanted to go back to Earth at this point. Part of me did anyway. I was acting much like a small child who hadn’t gotten her way. The rest of me knew that even though I’d been forced to become a healer, that’s what I was and I couldn’t deny that to those who needed it. Either way, I needed to find John because going back without him was not an option. Gabriel entered the tent.

He reached under his cot and pulled out his supply bag. “What’s up? You missing home?”

“No, I had the silly idea of adopting Zalseph and curing him. Mrs. Monroe shot me down.”

Gabriel’s smile teetered, threatening to escalate into laughter, but he held back. “Of course you would go and fall for the orphans so much you’d want to change your life even more and become their mother.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“John told me how you always used to help hurt animals. And then that time you tried to free all the dogs out of the kill shelter and your brother had to pick you up at the sheriff’s station.”

“Yes, not my proudest moment. I do compassion on overkill regularly.”

I said the last part with sarcasm but I knew John would say it was the truth. He seemed to see me in the type of light that the bad things were washed out. The bad was there, but he couldn’t see them because the light he saw me with was falsely too bright.

“I better get back or else they’ll come looking for me. Good luck with your philanthropist endeavors.” He gave me a little wave as he left the tent.

I skipped dinner and headed to bed early. I would spend as much time as I could with Zalseph over the next few days and then I would vow to find that cure and bring it back to him. I couldn’t take my mind off having to leave him. I began to drift off when a loud boom jarred me awake. Soldiers jumped up and grabbed their tactical bags. They ran out of the tent. Gabriel was on his feet at this point. I looked at him, wondering if he knew what was happening.

“I do believe we are experiencing our first Khalbytian attack,” he said.

Another loud boom and the ground shook. That one seemed closer.

“The village is under attack. Tactical stations!” I heard Mrs. Monroe bellowing orders through the tent walls.

“Zalseph! I have to get to him.” I flew out of the tent and began running for the village.

“Hold on, they’ll see you.” Gabriel grabbed my hand, and my body began to dissolve. Gabriel was blending both of us, even though he had said that he had to be a higher level for that. We ran for the village. I had the brief thought I could be getting Gabriel killed, but I also knew he was aware of the risk of running toward explosions. The village was a hundred yards away, but it felt farther.

Time moved slowly around me as I rushed to find Zalseph. Smoke rose from the village. We ran to the end of town, and my heart sank. The orphanage had been hit but was still partially standing. I needed to find Zalseph and get him to safety. I launched straight for the rubble, hoping he made his way to the corner that was still standing.

Another explosion threw me forward, causing Gabriel to lose his grip on my hand, which made me fully visible again. I didn’t stop to reconnect. I kept running. I climbed to the top of the rubble pile and down to the other side, calling for Zalseph. I gasped as I saw the Loctorian children laying in the rubble, not moving.

“Zalseph!” I screamed his name over and over.

I dug through several large stones. I screamed. Protruding from the rubble, I saw his tiny three-fingered hand, the green and blue bracelet still attached to his wrist. I began to dig faster. I would free him and heal him. I reached for his hand and began to start the healing process. The heat generated from my body into his. I tried to dig while simultaneously healing his tiny body. I heard a high pitch squeal go over my head and a thud in the rubble. I looked up to see a dark green and brown creature collapse onto the rocks of the once standing orphanage.

Mrs. Monroe yelled, “Grab her!”

Two soldiers moved forward, and one picked me up. I screamed and kicked him. I socked him in the jaw and bit his arm.

“I need to heal him, please!” I shrieked

I felt a small prick on my neck, then everything turned black.

Chapter Eight

Gabriel-January 17, 2013

We were headed back to base, and Althea was still unconscious from whatever tranquilizer the soldier had used to subdue her. The one-room ship had beds that pulled down and they laid her on one of them. There were blankets tucked to the side on a shelf, and I covered all but her face with one before anyone could say anything.

I thought it was creepy having everyone look at her while she slept. They were lucky that I hadn’t informed her if she could heal, she could kill with the same precision. It was a simple reversal, but then again, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Althea seemed more intent on saving everyone than killing.

John was my friend, and I would take care of his girl until we could find him again. I could see what he saw in her; there was a unique beauty to her. Her eyes drew you in and kept you mesmerized with the deep purple. I suspected that they were contacts until John insisted they were very much her natural color and not to bring it up because she was sensitive about it. She had a good spirit, albeit a little foolhardy.

She hadn’t even thought about us being blown to bits by running straight into the attack. I wasn’t about to let her run in without cover. She definitely stood more of a chance with my camouflage. I wagered that I’d be able to hide her too and fortunately it worked. I think that put me at a higher power tier because I failed that part of the test when I was assigned my level.

In high school, I ran a paranormal and current events blog. I maintained around five hundred followers. I took a break when I left for college, but I would have plenty of material if I started it back up now. The blog made me paranoid. Everything from government conspiracies to violent poltergeist encounters were always at the forefront of my mind. Even with all of my paranormal digging, aliens and superpowers never seemed plausible.

Hopefully, Althea would sleep the rest of the ride home. I wished she wasn’t waking to the reality that her little friend was very much still dead and that there was no way to get back to him to even attempt to bring him back. I wondered who the evil in this war really was. Perhaps both sides had washed themselves in the depravity of a war fought for too long. The reasons it began were most likely buried long ago.

I thought about my grandma back in Pueblo, Colorado. She raised me since I was dropped off by my mother at two. I had never known who my father was, and my mom was too into drugs to notice she had a kid. I was lucky that she cleaned herself up long enough for me to be born drug-free. I worried what my grandma was thinking about me not calling her for so long. She was the main reason I wanted to get back to Earth. I needed to make sure she was taken care of, otherwise I could get lost in this space travel game.

I was debating exposing this entire war to Earth. The journalist in me couldn’t help but think of the magnitude of such a story. They might kill me, but I pretty much would have broken the biggest news story in history.

When we arrived back on base, a soldier picked up Allie and carried her out of the docking bay. I decided to head to my quarters. I made myself a sandwich from the things I had picked up from the galley. A warehouse on base stored all of the food.

I couldn’t help but wonder where the fresh fruits and dairy arrived from. Anyone was allowed to go and take whatever they wanted, and there never seemed to be a shortage. I devoured my sandwich. I guzzled water and sat back on my black leather couch. I decided to see if I could find John. I went over to a console and played around.

I learned the base was called Saturn base due to its close proximity to said planet. I opened up the search for people on base and was granted restricted access, I could do a basic search. John Trammel was listed, much to my surprise, and he was two levels down from me. It seemed almost unsettling that it had been that easy to find him. I tried to see if I could find Allie’s quarters, but hers were not listed. I shrugged it off, doubting very much that they would have eliminated her. I decided to see if talking to John would prove as easy as finding him in the database.

I slipped into chameleon mode and strolled to the elevator. I found the floor that John was supposed to be on. I rang John’s doorbell four times and was about to give up when the door opened, and John stood before me. He looked like a mess. Bags were under his eyes, and his previously clean-shaven look had been replaced with dark stubble.

He wore a dark blue bathrobe and black sweatpants. He looked down each side of the hall. Before he shut his door, I slipped inside and made myself visible, causing him to stumble back and nearly trip on the large fern he had growing behind his couch.

“Gabriel?” he exclaimed with a hoarse voice.

“You look rather wonderful.”

“How did you just appear here?”

“I was at your door. That’s my ability, I can blend in anywhere, making myself invisible. I’m guessing you have an ability now, too?”

“I went through that capsule thing, and they sent me here to rest about three days ago but about a day in it was like everyone was yelling their feelings in my head. Anyone who comes within twenty feet of my quarters, I can hear how they feel and sometimes their thoughts. I can’t sleep a bit. They are all too loud.”

“Aw, you’re an empath.”

“A what?”

“An empath. You can tell people’s emotions. Didn’t they explain and test your level?”

“No, they put me through a sort of boot camp, then through the capsule, and finally here to rest.”

“Hmmm… I haven’t heard of them doing that. You may be set for a different purpose.”

“I need to find Allie,” he said.

“I’ve seen her. She’s okay. Mostly.”

“What does mostly mean? Is she being tortured endlessly with her new ability?”

“Not exactly. She is a healer. Pretty high-level, which makes her valuable.” I filled him in on the planet we went to and the orphanage. He stared at me, and I realized that he was unaware of the alien plight. They had kept him in the dark pretty well.

“You know where she is now? I need to find her and get us out of here.”

“Good luck with that. They have eyes everywhere, and we’re located pretty close to Saturn, so it’s quite a trek back.”

He squinted his eyes. “Saturn? What? You know what, never mind. How did you find me?”

“I looked into the directory, and they had you listed. I was surprised at the ease of the whole thing. My assumption now is either they want us talking, or they simply don’t care at this point because they know it doesn’t matter. We are stuck here under their control.”

“Let’s look up Allie then.”

“You can try. I did, and she’s not in the database.”

“What about Talon or Seraphine?”

“I didn’t try either of them.” I led John to the console on his wall.

He searched for Althea again but with no success. We didn’t know Seraphine’s last name, but we thought it might still work with only her first. Seraphine and Talon both showed up, but we both glanced at each other when we realized they had the same quarters. Also, Seraphine’s last name was no longer a mystery. She was a Cooper as well.

“I guess that’s our next stop. Should we go stealth mode? I can make you invisible too.”

John shook his head. “Let’s try walking normally. I’ve had enough with these abilities. I feel like my head is going to explode.” He pressed his hand to his forehead.

I was confused. When I thought I finally understood this facility and its personnel, I was thrown a curveball. The fact that John had been left in the dark about the war and his ability made little sense. They seemed to be conditioning him as a soldier more intensely than the other groups I’d observed.

We left John’s quarters and walked to find Talon and Seraphine’s. It was becoming obvious that Seraphine hadn’t been taken like John, Althea, and me. We rang the bell, and on the second try, it opened. Talon told us both to sit on his couch.

“I suppose you both have a lot of questions.” Talon started things off in a more open manner than I anticipated he would.

“Yeah, first let’s start with why you and Seraphine are listed as having the same quarters and last name,” John said.

Talon sighed. “She’s my wife.”

“Does Allie know?”

“Yes, she’s not too happy with either one of us. The truth is trying to explain how I had a wife that Allie could never meet seemed too complicated. Seraphine was sent on assignment to recruit Allie. I was unaware, and she couldn’t report what was going on to me. She was chosen because of her unique projection skills. Her skills along with Lucius being a manipulator were perfect for luring Allie to base.”

“You angry at your wife for bringing Allie into this?” I asked.

“No, we are trained to follow orders, and Seraphine was doing just that. Keeping Allie out of this war had been my personal agenda.”

The temperature in my brain seemed to be rising, and I jumped up and grabbed my head. Talon’s attention turned to John. He jumped up, looking ready to stop John if necessary.

“John, you need to calm down. Let go of the anger you are feeling. Your new ability is not under control, and your emotions can hurt other people if too strong.”

“Talon, how could you lie to Allie and then bring all of us into this?!” John was nearly yelling now.

“I understand why you are angry, but right now, I need you to relax. Look at Gabriel, your anger is physically hurting him.”

John’s attention turned to me, and my head begin to cool as if a release valve was opened and the rising steam could finally escape. I sat down and relaxed. I made a mental note not to ever tick John off.

Talon sat back down on the couch. “You have every right to be angry. But I’m telling you I did all I could never to have any of this happen. Most of this has been out of my control and done without my knowledge or approval. Even with that said, I take responsibility for my part in all of this. I failed both of you and Allie.”

“We can deal with hurt feelings later, right now we need to find Allie. You know where she is? We tried the database with no success.” I wasn’t trying to downplay the damage, but we had all the therapy my brain could take for the day.

“I don’t know what their plan is for her. They are keeping me in the dark because of everything I did to try to get her out of here and prevent capsulization. Now there is not much I can do. She’s a healer, and her level is one they’ve never seen before. There’s no way they’ll let their newfound weapon go. Ideally, they’d like to acclimate all three of you into this war. And right now they see that best done by keeping Allie for whatever agenda they have brewing.”

“I guess for now we sit tight. I need to talk to my grandma. Can you make that happen, Talon? I’m sure she has to be worried,” I said.

“You don’t have to worry about that. They always cover family. A manipulator will have convinced your grandma you were selected for a special college program and it was an opportunity you couldn’t pass up, but you had to leave suddenly and don’t know when you’ll return. Eventually, if they feel you can be trusted, they will allow conversations.”

This was it, complete and total control by a hierarchy, something that I used my blog to speak against. Our freedom was now at the mercy of an organization that expected us to expel every ounce of energy into a war that had not yet touched humanity. We could very well be at the dawn of the annihilation of mankind, but at this point, it looked much more like we were livestock to be utilized how this institution saw fit.

We had already been kidnapped and transformed without so much as informed consent. What level would they go to ensure we used these forced skills to their advantage in a war where the lines of evil seemed ominously skewed? While I did feel relief that my grandma wasn’t worried, I was disturbed that they used a manipulator to make her think that I was fine. Mind control left a bad taste in my mouth, even if it was meant to relieve her suffering. A lie wasn’t fair consolation.

“Why did they send John to boot camp and not Allie or me? If we are all meant to be soldiers, why is the training varied?”

“A lot has to do with what the Loctorians refer to as glimpses. They can see shadows of things to come. They control all that goes on by trying to predict the best shadow to follow,” Talon explained.

“You’d think if they were psychic they would have better fortune on their side, maybe in the form of a won war or lack of race genocide.”

“It’s not an exact science, but everyone receives the precise training the council sees fit. The big players anyway.”

The door opened, and there stood Seraphine wearing a military uniform. She froze, glancing at all of us. The brief thought of sticking my head in the freezer as a precaution crossed my mind when I saw the glare John returned Seraphine’s way. Seraphine sent Talon a stern look.

“Someone will be sleeping in the dog house, or moon lizard dome or whatever it is you guys keep up here.” I thought maybe cracking a lame joke would smooth the tension and cool emotions boy off a little before my head bore the brunt again. They all looked at me, and Seraphine rolled her eyes.

“The two of you need to get back to your quarters before the higher-ups come to get you,” Seraphine said.

I snickered. “As if the higher-ups don’t already know.”

John crossed his arms. “We’ll go where we want, and that will be wherever Allie is.”

Seraphine glared at John. “You’ll get to see Allie soon, but first you need to join the rest of the infantry. You don’t have a choice. You’re a soldier now. Act like one.”

John clenched his fists as Seraphine spoke, but he seemed better at controlling his emotions, or at least at not frying my brain. Seraphine seemed so fiery and in charge. It almost made her more attractive, if that was even possible. I pondered about how I came so close to a double date, then Talon, her husband, crossed my mind.

It would take me time to get used to that. I spent so much time trying to get her number and felt I’d scored when Allie asked us to go with her and Lucius to the movie. I should have known alien war would prevent me from finally scoring that date. The alien war seemed much more likely than a date with Seraphine anyway.

John surprisingly complied with Seraphine’s soldier demands and left. I decided to leave the lovebirds be to do some argumentative exercises with one another. I watched John make his way to the elevator while I decided to see what else this level had to offer. I found a directory to locate the closest galley. I don’t know what I expected, maybe space food or rations, but I definitely didn’t expect a cheeseburger and fries.

If nothing else, I had to give this base credit for trying to make this place homier. The gray walls could use work, but comfort was given priority, and the food brought the familiarity of Earth. I wondered if I could find a taco stand for dinner. That was something vital I should have asked Talon before leaving.

Halfway through my meal two soldiers sat down at my table. Efficiency was given priority over personal space as the other tables appeared almost full. The four empty chairs at mine drew appeal.

“You’re new here? Civilian?” The presumption was probably from me not wearing a uniform and was made by a woman with a soft face and blonde hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. Her deep brown eyes stared back at me awaiting a response.

“I guess you could say that. Been here a couple months or so,” I spoke between bites.

“Never seen you around.” The blonde squinted slightly as if suspicious.

“He’s probably been in training. You have to excuse Lila, she’s a bit nosy at times,” a man with short curly brown hair interrupted her. He continued, “I’m Kais. Nice to have you aboard.”

“I’m Gabriel. I’ve never made it to this area before. I’ve been trying to find my way around.”

“It’s actually pretty cool around here. About anything recreational from Earth and even elsewhere can be found on the promenade. The council wanted to be sure we were able to relax when not in battle.” Lila seemed content to give her life for a little entertainment being thrown in.

“I think it’s more or less a distraction, but who am I to complain when we get karaoke night.” Kais chuckled.

I nodded toward what was left of my dinner. “I have to say, I was surprised they have cheeseburgers in space.”

“That’s probably ’cause you think it’s actual beef.” Kais said it with a slight smile that grew bigger when he noticed my stunned reaction.

A siren began to sound, and Lila and Kais jumped up with about eighty percent of the room joining them. Trays and food were left strewn across the tables. I sat and watched the organized mayhem of soldiers running in various directions. Unwilling to deduce what the alarm was for, I took a bite of my cheeseburger. As unsettling as the thought of mystery meat sat in my gut, I was hungry.

Everyone seemed to have a Pavlov’s dogs reaction. Bell rang, and they jumped. Sending men into battle with automatic action perhaps took self-doubt out, but it couldn’t always work. Free thinking was more my forte. I placed my tray in the designated bin. I’d give the poor food service personnel one less tray to worry about, as they were probably in for a night at this point. From the look of things, this was perhaps the norm around here. I needed to get back to figuring out where Allie was stashed.

Chapter Nine

John-January 18, 2013

This power thing was not suiting me. My emotions could possibly explode the person next to me. You would think the gravity of this would have been more clearly laid out to me. Becoming catatonic with my emotions meant I had to keep the worry about Allie at bay. This base seemed immense. I could wander around hoping to bump into her, but that seemed counterproductive.

If she weren’t even listed in the directory, then they probably didn’t want anyone directed to her location. I began searching the database for any and all information on these abilities and these aliens. I was deep into the facets of each ability when my door opened and three soldiers barged in.

The tallest one in the middle got right to the point, “We have orders to take you to the council.”

I had no idea who the council was, but I assumed they were the ones running the place. This would be a good thing since I could demand that they release Allie, Gabriel, and me since we were here against our will. If they refused, maybe I could melt their brains with my unstable ability. I followed the soldiers to a cargo bay where we boarded a small craft. The craft looked as if a bus and jet had been squished into one vessel.

The three soldiers and I were the only ones on board, but it could clearly have fit a dozen more people. A seat belt latched around me, and the craft jolted forward and zoomed out of the base. The windows gave me a clear picture of space. A small blue moon or planet with swirling silver appeared in my view. I was having difficulty processing what I was seeing.

“Prepare to fold,” a soldier said.

The others braced their armrests, so I did the same. Folding must be a bit like turbulence, my mind guessed as I felt my soul fly out of my body. At least that’s the feeling this folding sent surging through me. I was taken back to being twelve on the Colossal Loop roller coaster at the amusement park. When you flew through the loop backward, it felt like your soul had to catch up to your body. Folding was similar but with a magnified intensity. Their lack of warning was at least a consistent thing with these people. Keeping me on edge between sanity and paranoia appeared to be a goal that had been assigned to my case.

The queasiness still swirled throughout my body when we arrived on a yellow rock planet. There were no variations of trees or plants, only vast rock formations. The soldiers led me to a brown metal door in the side of one of the rocks. We proceeded inside the rock structure. The inside walls were warmer than I’d anticipated, and I should have shed my coat inside the shuttle.

The soldiers led down a narrow corridor. We moved through in a line as the walls allowed for the movement of only one person at a time. I was slammed second with two of the soldiers pushing me forward through the rugged enclosure. After at least a half-mile trek into the interior of the cave, we made it to a large open room that was elaborately designed and not fitting of what I expected to find.

The floor shone a brilliant white marble and golden pillars launched high into the now towering cave walls. My surroundings looked like an elegant cathedral worthy of the art of Michelangelo. The room spanned beyond my sight, and we began walking farther in. We approached a large wooden table. Behind the table sat thirteen individuals. Their faces were covered with thick brown cloaks, and I was unable to make out any features.

The one in the middle raised his arm, and even his hands were covered entirely within the cloak. His robe was the only one that was dark blue. A soldier shoved me to a chair and demanded I sit. The soldier that had been doing all the barking of orders sat next to me. The other two stood at attention facing the exit. I wasn’t sure if they were still guarding me or making sure nothing interrupted our meeting.

“Are you thirsty or hungry? Can we get you any refreshment?” Blue Robe spoke. His voice was deep and a bit scratchy.

“I’m fine. Thank you,” I said.

“We have been anxious to meet you. I hope your ride was smooth and uneventful.”

“It was fine as well.”

Idle chit chat with an alien council was an experience that never crossed my mind as a possibility. The council seemed like the big corporations you see in the movies, and I was the little guy who was called to take on negotiations against a mini army of capitalism. Blue Robe slowly lifted his arm and gestured to his left.

“This is Nacric, and I am Killreth.” He gestured to his right and continued, “This is Meseri. He has been particularly anxious for your arrival. You see, much as yourself now, he possesses an ability of the mind. He can see glimpses into the future. It is more like trying to piece together tiny pieces of shattered glass, but he can sometimes make out significant shards that can be seen with only slight changes. Cracks rather than the large gaps that are in most of his future views.

“You are one of the clearer pieces. You are to become a glorious admiral for our galactic fleet. You will help to bring the fall of the Khalbytians and the terror of Dissipation and the woe it brings to our people.” His scratchy voice sounded as triumphant as I imagined was possible.

His words left me unmoved and I said, “Not sure how accurate his visions are normally, but I have no real intention of fighting for anyone other than myself and my friend Althea Cooper. I need you to release us and let us return to Earth, along with our friend Gabriel.”

There was a long pause. Then Killreth spoke, and his tone was more solemn, “You will fight. It will be your choice to do so. I know you find that hard to believe, but I ask that you allow Meseri to approach you and show you a glimpse of the path you wish to forsake for mediocrity.”

I was leery of this proposal, but I didn’t think they would give me what I wanted if I didn’t allow them to proceed, so I nodded. Meseri rose from the table and walked around to my side. His movement was fluid, almost as if he was floating rather than walking, a skill that I could only guess at since his entire being was encompassed within his brown robe.

A pale white hand emerged. I was taken aback; it looked like bone wrapped in white tissue paper. Meseri traced for my wrist and I dared not move, as I thought I might rip the skin on his frail appearance of a hand. His grasp was much firmer than I anticipated, and I almost thought that I was glued to him for as long as he willed.

I no longer stood in the room with the Loctorian council. I was instead walking with Gabriel, and we were in uniforms. The environment looked like a rainforest. Dark foliage and high-rising trees that were blue and red in color. Weird insects that looked like a beetle-spider hybrid flew through the air, their red wings and blue bodies blending in with the trees making them only viewable between the small gaps in the vegetation.

The air felt heavy, as if dampness was soaking into every pour of my skin, threatening cellular drowning. I turned and saw Allie behind me. For the first time since the capsulization, I couldn’t feel the emotions from anyone. This was a vision, the world Meseri wanted me to see. We came to a temple. It looked rather like a Mayan pyramid, but the edges were more rounded. We climbed the steps and walked into a damp chamber.

Another robed person stood in front of us and spoke, “Dissipation has been mutated. We believe it is now compatible with the human genome. If we cannot find a way to stop it, humanity will be wiped out in less than a year.”

“I thought Dissipation was slow and spanned decades to decay and lead to death?” I asked.

The robbed person responded, “Humans have a different immune system. It is easily intercepted, and this made it easy for Khalbytians to accelerate the virus. Also, humans have less of an advantage. You have grouped yourselves into one planet.”

“We haven’t exactly mastered space travel yet, having to borrow ships from the Loctorian council and all,” Gabriel offered an answer to our carelessness.

I was no longer in the temple. I was back in Maine, my home in front of me. I leapt to the front door of my blue two-story childhood home. The smell of death clung unbearably to the air. Piles of bodies filled the street. My hand hovered over the doorknob. I could feel an intensity that I would not like what I would find.

I opened the door and turned left from the entryway into the living room. The TV displayed a news broadcast. My dad’s arm hung limp off of the side of his blue recliner. I cautiously walked around to face him and reeled back.

His body was slumped down, dead and unrecognizable, his face unraveling into dust. I wanted to run from the house and not stop running until I found my way from this nightmare. I glanced at the television as apocalyptic messages of humanity’s demise displayed across the screen. Thoughts of my mother and eight-year-old brother flew into my mind.

I ran upstairs to find my mother consumed in her bed, the flesh on her body crumbling, revealing her skull through the decay of her face. I ran from the room to find Teddy, my brother. I nearly tripped on a lump on the floor. I took in a shaky breath as I pulled back the blue blanket covering the lump. Most of the tiny body was crumpled to dust, but I knew it was my brother by the stuffed puppy that was wrapped in the dissolving arm of the body.

I was back in the council, and Meseri released his grasp as I sat back, trying to filter through the images I knew would never find their way out of my mind.

“You see, you will fight, or I promise what you witnessed will come to pass. You will watch humanity die while knowing your role would have prevented that. You may be considering this a trick or illusion, but I vow to you, it will come to pass without your involvement. I ask you to accept training from the council and become the mighty admiral foreshadowed in Meseri’s visions.”

My eyes began to water and I blinked the tears away as I thought about my family dead. This could very well be a trick, but the end of humanity didn’t seem to be something worth gambling. The alternative was refusing and still being at the mercy of the council to return me to Allie. Maybe I could, at the very least, learn how to fight my way free.

“Alright, let’s see what you got,” I said, and I was led farther into the cave structure.

After a labyrinth of twists and turns, we arrived at a hallway with several doors lined next to each side. Each door appeared to be made of steel with large handles to open them. A nuke could directly hit the mountain above and we would not be destroyed. The council was encompassed in a fortress that would make NORAD jealous. The third door on the left was open, and I was directed inside.

“Get some rest. Someone will come to get you when they are ready for the next step.” With his short explanation, the head soldier and his buddies shut the door, leaving me to my surroundings.

There wasn’t much to these quarters. Yellow rock made the walls more colorful than the grey back on the home base. The floor was smooth and also left natural to the structure. There was a bed, chair, toilet, sink, shower, fridge, and a small pantry. Two large wooden doors opened to an array of matching uniforms and what I guessed were pajamas. It felt like an elite jail cell. I took a shower and went to bed.


“You are the reason for all this death!” a loud voice boomed as fields of the dead lay vastly before me. All ages and races spanned outward on the horizon. Surges of guilt and sorrow struck me like lightening. “Your complacency brought the demise of humanity,” the voice repeated my crime.

I began moving forward, floating above the mass genocide of the human race. My vision zoomed in on my parents, my brother, and Althea. They were all dead.

“Your complacency brought the demise of humanity!” The voice taunted me of the horrors stretching before me.

An alarm sounded, and I jolted awake. I sat, startled by my surroundings. It had been a dream or a purposed vision.

“Please proceed to the mess hall,” the intercom instructed.

I quickly changed into a uniform from the closet and opened my door. Two soldiers were outside waiting to escort me to breakfast. Fruit, pecans, and buttered toast were the main course for breakfast. I chose orange juice to drink and sat down at an empty table, but was soon joined by my big thugs who wouldn’t bother to leave my side this entire trip.

At least they gave me privacy to sleep, though having them posted outside my door was a little too close. How could I be trusted to become a great admiral if I had to have armed guards to keep me in my makeshift prison cell?

From that day on, my routine was set. They would wake me up sooner than my body felt I should start my day. I had a light breakfast, then they would send me to a library, where I was to read the section of the day. Philosophy, psychology, critical thinking, and battle strategies were a few of the topics I was sent to read for the morning. They put a neuron stimulator on my head, which helped me process information faster and better. The device was basically a black helmet with a blue light that ran across the top of it.

After lunch, it was physical training. Intense running for miles through the winding halls of the cave. I always expected there to be a sudden drop to a bottomless pit, as you hear described in some Earth caves, but so far the only danger seemed to be the endlessly steep paths. I flipped tires across a large hall and completed other various strength building exercises.

After dinner began weapons training. I was to become a skilled killing machine, and right before bed, they would squeeze in focus of my ability. I was learning to tune emotions out from others that my mind concluded were inconsequential. I was also taught to focus my ability the opposite way for destruction. My mind was deadlier than all of the weapons that they had been training me on. I learned how to enter someone’s mind and make it a playground. I didn’t like the violation that I was being taught to commit, and I hated the fact that I was expected to kill someone with the nightmares from their own mind.

They also taught me how to merge my mind with others to converse in a space between my mind and someone else’s. I could change the surroundings to a memory from either my head or the person I was merging with. Each time I practiced I grew stronger and could make the connection last longer.

I counted thirty rotations in my schedule, and I concluded that a month had passed since my arrival. I had become disciplined and precise in my movements and choices. I was not entirely sure who to trust, but worst case, I could use my new abilities to take out either side. After the thirty days, they switched up my schedule. I did battle simulations for most of the day. Every possible scenario and contingency were to be explored. I worked these simulations endlessly, only stopping for brief breaks to eat and a longer one at night to sleep. They needed my mind sharp.

That was, until the next phase. They began allowing me to have less sleep. They wanted to see how sleep deprivation would play a role in my decision making. It became harder to focus at first but, as I adjusted to less sleep, my instincts became more aligned with the needed choices. The neuron stimulator gave me years of experience in the span of months. At some point, I stopped counting the days, but it had to be around four months in when I was informed the council wanted to see me.

I was much different than when I had arrived. I felt like a soldier after boot camp, but now I was a deadly force. The council appeared as it did when I first arrived in their presence. They all sat across from me in brown robes, with Killreth in his blue.

Killreth again spoke for the group, “We feel you are ready for your first real battle, and we have assigned a small fleet to your command as well as an elite team for smaller missions. I realize you may not entirely be convinced of the urgency of this war, but we feel that will come once you are in battle. You will realize our cause is the one to fight for. “

“I want Althea and Gabriel on my team, or else I walk.”

Killreth paused for what seemed to be too drawn out, then said, “We will honor this request on one condition. Your affection for the girl must remain reserved for the next six months. After that time you may pursue your feelings toward her. Meseri sees this is as keeping her safe. For her protection and your establishment as a leader you must comply to this one demand. You must act as though she is any other under your command.”

“Why only six months?”

“At that time, the path will shift and you may return to your friendship or more without any threat to her or your leadership role.”

“Alright. I agree to those terms.”

Killreth’s words left me with an uneasy feeling. But since it meant that I would see Allie again, I let the nagging thoughts remain dormant. Not only that but I would never risk Allie. Six months would mean nothing if it meant she remained safe. For the first time in months, I was allowed to exit the cave structure, only to be ushered back into our return craft.

I wasn’t sure what the days ahead would bring, but at least I would have Allie back to figure things out with. I knew I was different. I could only wonder what Allie had been through in the last few months and how she would be changed. I was about to be launched into the middle of war and I had no idea what that would mean.

Chapter Ten

Althea-May 14, 2013

Four months had passed since I woke up in sickbay. At that time, I woke up screaming, my mind still placed at the scene of the mass destruction of an orphanage with innocent children destroyed by an army of evil. They called themselves the Khalbytians, and they killed orphans who could not fight back. Humans and Loctorians weren’t much better. Loctorians controlled the entire show and us humans had our own violent history. I could have healed all of the children, but they ripped me away, leaving Zalseph and his friends dead. I held too much unjustified guilt over the entire ordeal.

I inquired about John and Gabriel frequently but each time I would be met with multiple roadblocks. I tried to access the database on their whereabouts, but someone seemed bent on keeping me from knowing anything about them. I only hoped they were okay, and that I would find them eventually.

Talon would come and check on me from time to time, but our relationship now seemed strained. Neither of us mentioned Seraphine. I asked him to help me find John and Gabriel, but he seemed to think he needed to stay lowkey after all that had taken place with bringing the three of us to the base.

I threw myself into trying to find a cure for the Loctorian virus called Dissipation. In all reality, why did I even need to go back to Earth? I wanted to make an impact, but what bigger opportunity than curing millions of souls of a devastating illness? The people in charge of Saturn base insisted that I complete mandatory gym time and weapons training. As long as I kept those up, I was allowed to work in sickbay.

Jasper also gave me the chance to practice my abilities. At first it was small lab animals, but lately, he moved me up to patients in his sickbay. He told me to take things slowly, as healing was proven to drain the healer pretty significantly if overdone. I would sleep well at night, but nothing too exhausting.

I glanced at the clock and realized it was still four hours until my shift, but maybe I could get some healing done early. I ate some cereal and orange juice as I knew Jasper would tell me that I would need the energy to heal adequately. I left to sickbay and found Jasper working on a still patient. Several nurses were around him. As I walked in, Jasper glanced up.

“I was actually about to call you in. I have a patient I’m struggling to stabilize,” he spoke to me as he worked vigorously on the patient. “Head wound and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing medically we can do. You’re the last one I could think of.”

There seemed to be a shortage of healers. Healing was the rarest ability, and when it was found, most were low-grade. They would not be letting me go anytime soon, if ever. I walked over to the patient. A large, gaping wound was blasted across the majority of his forehead. It looked as though someone had taken a baseball-sized boulder and smashed it into the front of his head. The edges were charred, and I knew it had to be some sort of violent weapon, more destruction created by Khalbytians.

I placed my hand gently on his forehead as his monitor alarms sounded. I droned them out and began concentrating on molding burnt flesh to the softness of healthy skin. Brain matter began to rebuild as I moved outward, and cells of the skull began to take a less twisted shape. The blackened skin became pink and smooth. He looked as though he arrived at sickbay to get a good night’s rest. He began to move, and I removed my hand. The entire event was effortless for me.

Jasper scanned his patient and finally said, “Great job, Althea. We need you badly around here and on the battlefield. Why don’t you go take a break now? You had to have used a lot of energy, and the rest of the patients are stabilized.”

Jasper always seemed worried about me draining myself. He said he lost a healer that way in the past and, with us being in high demand, that was an unfavorable outcome. I felt perfectly fine, but that might have been because Jasper never allowed me to heal more than a few patients at a time. This morning’s patient had been my biggest heal since I brought those soldiers back at level determination.

I went back to my quarters and turned on a movie. I began to nod off. My door buzzed, and I jerked awake. The door buzzed again. Someone seemed anxious for me to open it. As my door slid back, I saw a soldier standing there. I had seen him on the planet mission but never learned his name or anything else about him. He reminded me of a younger Dr. Monroe.

“You have been called to a mission. I am here to escort you to the docking bay for boarding,” the soldier said.

“Give me a minute and I’ll put on my uniform.”

The soldier nodded, and I hurried back to my room to dress in expected mission attire. I didn’t know what to expect as we walked the long corridor to board our waiting craft. The last mission damaged me in a way that made recovery seem impossible. The ship doors slid open and I stepped into a craft very much like the last one I had ridden in for the orphan mission. There were six other soldiers on board. Two were sitting, typing away at computers in front of them. Another fiddled under a console to the left, buried shoulder deep in the bottom of the wall.

Two soldiers pushed buttons a touch screen. At the front stood a man with brown hair slightly past his ears. His uniform made me think he was the one in charge. There was something familiar about him. I fought the urge to run up and turn him around. He slowly turned around. I closed my eyes then looked again. It was John, but he looked so different. He looked older than the few months we were apart should have aged him. He had muscles and his face no longer had even a hint of boyhood.

“Althea,” he said as though we had seen each other yesterday.

“John!” I screamed his name.

I needed to wrap him in a hug. He gestured his hand to my chair. It was toward the front. He wanted me to sit. Was he genuinely not glad to see me? Many questions pulled at me as I sat in my chair. He spoke to a man to the right of him, and the familiarity of his voice made it difficult for me to hold back tears. I bit my lip, but my eyes watered anyway.

Many things were different, and it hadn’t even been a year. I heard the craft open again and turned to see Gabriel, Seraphine, and Talon walk in all wearing uniforms. They had gotten to us all.

As everyone settled in, John began to speak, “Captain John Trammel, commander of this vessel. We have been called to the Higher Cron region to aide some ground troops who are trying to secure a Khalbytian stronghold. They have been held up for close to three months and require back up to complete the final stretch of their mission. The council believes each of us holds unique abilities that will help this mission end in victory.”

“Sir, we have about an hour, then we are going to fold,” a soldier spoke while staring at his console.

“Very good. Let me know when we are closer so we can begin preparations.” John sounded confident, so un-John like.

“Yes, sir!”

I had heard of folding space to cover long distances quickly. I believed our ship generated tiny, precise black holes, but I didn’t fully understand the process. I was no physics expert, and my mind was a long way off from grasping the concept. I knew it meant we were going pretty far away from the base, and we needed to do so quickly. I also knew there were some risks; that’s why it was only done for great distances or urgency. We could fold incorrectly and end up fragments or in the wrong location.

Folding also took a lot of resources from the trip, so a miscalculation could leave us stranded. John sat in the captain’s chair, and I tried to come to terms with his new leadership role and how he was now a soldier. His lack of enthusiasm toward seeing me stung deeply. He remained silent the entire trip, and I said nothing in return. The fold went without any issues and was less jarring than I anticipated it would be.

We arrived at a swirling green planet that looked similar to Jupiter. John ordered the ship down through the green haze of the atmosphere. A deep fog surrounded our vessel, and I pictured it as a noxious gas that we were stupidly descending into. The green haze began to evaporate, and a strange Earth-like horizon spread in front of us. Green trees and brown dirt made me homesick for Earth.

We maneuvered through a couple trees and landed softly on the ground. My expectation of bio-suits was dismissed when a soldier opened the craft, exposing us to the environment. The briefing was enough to let me know that we were probably headed for intense battle, and I wondered what we were about to be launched into.

John began telling us we were to hike thirty kilometers to the main base at the forefront of this battle. I was in no way prepared for any of this. I should have put in more than the mandatory amount at the gym. John seemed so different and in shape. He was one of them, and it was obvious that he went through intense training. He’d always been pretty thin but now he was built, and he could probably take on just about anyone. I didn’t know if my best friend was in there anymore. He acted like I was any other subordinate.

We made it twenty kilometers before stopping and making camp. I talked more to the soldier who collected me at my quarters and learned his name was Deron. According to him, we needed to make the battlefront within three days. Our intense hours of marching would allow us an extra day. I thought that this would be good for renewed energy for fighting.

I settled in my tent, pulling out a Loctorian biology manual that I snuck in my backpack. It was unnecessary weight, but one that I found significant to my aspirations. I liked these tents because they came with built-in illumination and temperature control. I wasn’t sure how they were powered, but they were operated by voice command. I heard a swift thud on my tent. I hid my manual under my large blanket.

“Come in,” I said. I saw the flap open. “Gabriel!” I jumped out of my cot and wrapped him in a hug.

He sat back on the cot across from mine and started unpacking his bag. “I’ve been wondering where you have been since that orphan mission.”

“Me too. After I woke back up at base, you were nowhere to be found and no one seemed to know where you were. I was also looking for John, but no one would tell me much of anything. I have been working in sickbay, training my abilities to be more focused.” I relaxed back into my cot.

“We were unable to find you either, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. I was concerned about what they did with you after the planet. I’ve been training my ability too, as well as getting more in shape. I was surprised when they called me for the mission. I thought that I was base-bound indefinitely.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked.

“John. He’d been desperately looking for you. But one day I went to his quarters and it was cleaned out. That was about four months ago. The first I saw him again was when I boarded the ship this morning. Seeing him in command was strange. He was so bent on getting you back to Earth with him, and now he’s leading missions. Not sure what they did to him in those four months.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t seem the same. He hasn’t spoken a word to me.”

“Maybe after this mission is over, we can get time to talk to him.”

“Maybe.” I had my doubts. I pulled my manual back out and began where I left off.

“That’s a lofty thing to lug thirty kilometers.” Gabriel chuckled.

I glanced up and smiled, feeling relaxed with Gabriel present. I tried not to read too long, as I knew tomorrow would have ten kilometers within it.

I awoke to a knock on my tent, and it was Deron letting us know that morning had already arrived. We were to be packed and hiking in fifteen minutes. Deron was muscular like most of the soldiers. He was not someone who would lose many fist fights by the look of him. I learned that I was right on the mark with the resemblance I saw in him as Dr. Monroe was his dad. Unlike his father, he was bald and lacked a beard, and it suited him well.

I grabbed my book that had fallen to the side of my cot and put it in my pack. Most of the tent and supplies were placed in a large wooden wagon. Primitive but quiet was my guess. Three soldiers pulled the wagon.

The trees grew denser as we hiked. The potent scent of pine almost made me forget this was an alien world. We hiked the ten kilometers in one spurt and arrived at a large encampment of soldiers clambering about. There must have been around fifty tents. We were greeted by Admiral Calinger. John followed him into the large green tent in the center of the camp and ordered the rest of us to find our stations.

A soldier gave me a sandwich and some water. I devoured them as the hike had left me starved. The small breakfast I ate hadn’t held for long. We were told to rest as tomorrow we would take on Khalbytians and capture their main base on this planet. This stronghold would hopefully prove to be an efficient location to launch more damaging attacks.

My healing would prove a vital skill. The enemy would knock someone down, and I would, within minutes, return them to fully functioning. I was unsure if there were other healers present to share the workload. Information was extremely limited up to this point. I relaxed and read the rest of the day, conserving energy would be my best bet, according to Jasper. After a hearty meal, I went back to my tent and quickly drifted off. Thoughts of tomorrow’s battle pushed aside to allow ease of sleep.

Chapter Eleven

John-May 14, 2013

I tossed in my cot and pulled the blanket to my shoulders multiple times. Tomorrow I would lead my team into battle and hope we all came out unscathed. We did have some advantages. We had abilities, and we were handpicked by the council to create a super team. I discovered later that was why it had been so easy for them to agree to the team I wanted. The entire manipulation of lives was becoming more apparent with each new piece of information I gained. We were right where we needed to be, and the council played us as pawns.

Even so, there was too much at stake, and being stubborn about being manipulated wouldn’t stop the impending annihilation of humanity. For this reason, I continued on with the expectations of the council. I would fight their war not for them but for everyone I cared about.

I learned Allie had healing ability, but I didn’t know what all that entailed. I had missed her and still did, but I had to heed the words of the council. If I ignored them and something happened to her, I would never forgive myself. I didn’t want to hurt her but I wanted her alive more. I wanted to pull her to me and never let go again, but my training created a soldier. The training took over any desires that bellowed below the surface.

Morning flooded my eyes with bright sunlight way sooner than I was ready for. The tent flap opened, and Admiral Calinger let me know that things were ready. I valued the insight his experience provided.

We offered a thousand troops against a few hundred according to patrols that were sent ahead. I had my team with me, and we were to be a couple rows behind the front line. I focused my abilities and gave instructions to the mind of my team members. The soldiers were not surprised and acknowledged my instructions.

I told Gabriel his instructions were to go stealth and help take out the main generator which would jam the cooling system and heat their facilities. Khalbytian skin resembled greenish-brown tar and did not tolerate heat well. Then lastly I hit Allie with my telepathic orders. I felt her recoil in annoyance that this was the first I was talking to her and without warning.

I want you to stay out of the front lines. Your only job is to heal as we go. As many as you can. Avoid fighting unless necessary for survival. Be careful, Allie. I sent this into her mind.

Allie was silent back, and I could feel her anger toward me. There was so much more I wanted to tell her, but we had to get through this battle first. Battle met us sooner than I expected, and instinct took over. I focused on a Khalbytian and pulled him into his mind, allowing his fear to devour him. I spread confusion and terror through the opposing side.

Laser fire surrounded me. I cleared a path for Gabriel as he made it undetected with the other chameleons. My flesh tore as a Khalbytian scratched my face. He had removed the glove of his bio-suit as he was dying to inflict damage with his massive claws. His scaly hand melted smoothly since the environment was too warm for his skin. They were easy to kill on the ground, and if it weren’t for space battles and the detriment of the virus, they would have been wiped out long ago.

Allie glided through the field unlike anything I had ever seen. She reattached limbs to torsos. Burn wounds seared to charcoal smoothed into soft flesh. Deep wounds sealed closed with the touch of her hand and appeared to have never endured trauma.

As the cooling system jammed, I could hear roars. All Khalbytians, inside the facility, were melted into tarry puddles. Hundreds of Khalbytians began fleeing in ships. We fought for about thirty minutes. In the time it took to watch a sitcom, we had left massive destruction.

I would receive the final report when everything was tallied, but it seemed to be a clear victory. We gained a vital base to launch further attacks and, thanks to Allie, there were limited casualties for our side. There would be a unit assigned to get the new base operational. Humans could tolerate the planet temperature much easier than the Khalbytians could, which made it easier for us to set something more permanent up.

I poured water from my canteen on the stinging scratch on my cheek. A soft hand touched my face as the stinging subsided. I turned to see Allie standing next to me. She looked drained, as though she needed to hibernate for a long winter. The battle had been a workout for all of us.

The thrill of victory brought a cocky rapture. As I was bathing in my misplaced confidence, Allie stumbled. Talon was on it before I could move. Allie fell lifelessly as her brother kept her inches from hitting the rocky ground. He scooped her up, and she appeared almost childlike in his giant arms. He carried her as though she was a porcelain doll ready to shatter at the slightest movement.

“Medic!” Talon yelled.

My confidence diminished into sheer panic as there was no tone to her body at all. I had no idea if she could heal herself. I didn’t know if she was wounded or simply exhausted. My mind tried to soothe my hysteria. Talon brought her to the stretcher as the medics began scanning for wounds and vital signs.

The head medic yelled out orders as he moved, quickly checking for a pulse and scanning her. A couple of the medics pushed Talon back. I could see by his tight jaw he was not tolerating that well, but he didn’t interfere. I stood frozen, waiting to see if she had a pulse and still confused by her sudden collapse.

“Pulse weak but steady. No wounds present. Extreme fatigue. Ability exhaustion is my guess,” the head medic spoke to the rest of his team, and they nodded in agreement.

“She’s under my command. What does this mean? Will she be alright?” I tried to sound like a commander receiving report on his subordinate, but I was having trouble keeping my voice steady. I hadn’t even gotten to tell her how much I’d missed her.

“She overused her ability and will need to rest for a few days, but she should be fine,” the medic gave me the report as he finished recording Allie’s vitals.

I tried to keep my relief invisible as I watched them take her on the stretcher back to camp. Admiral Calinger thanked me for the support of my team and told me that we were ordered back to Saturn base. I was more than a little thrilled at the thought of us going back to Dr. Monroe. Having a doctor look her over would reassure me the medics were correct in their prognosis.

The need for stealth was diminished, which allowed Admiral Calinger to have a transport take us back to our ship and avoid the thirty-kilometer hike back. The team was pretty worn out so I was glad for the relief. Allie didn’t stir. I kept watching her chest rise and fall. Colin, one of my soldiers, walked over as I wrapped a blanket over Allie and strapped her into the medical bed.

Colin said, “She brought me back, you know. I had been wounded in the head, and she replaced my brain matter like it was clay she was shaping. I owe her. I’ll sit here and watch her as we head back if you are okay with that, sir.”

I nodded. Talon’s eyes were locked on Allie. He was a tough soldier and had seen many battles. He was chiseled perfectly and could have made a GQ magazine cover. His six-foot-five-inch frame towered him over most everyone, but he held a soft spot for his sister. He had wanted her safe for as long as I could recall. I knew that he would prefer to be next to her, but I needed his tracking skills at the helm to ensure that the fold back went as planned. Seraphine caught us both looking at Allie.

“She’ll be okay. She’s not going to end up like Helen.” Seraphine put her hand on Talon’s arm, and he grabbed her hand. Neither of them elaborated on who Helen was, but they both grew sad at the mentioning of her.

Talon pulled Seraphine to face him and kissed the top of her head. She moved in closer, and they wrapped their arms around each other. I had forgotten they were married and wondered how Allie was coping with that knowledge. Within hours we were back at Saturn base where a medical team met us as we gave status reports ahead of time. The protocol was to have medical waiting for any unconscious arrival. I would have a debriefing, but I first made sure Allie was settled in sickbay.

Dr. Monroe reported that she would be fine and would wake up in a few days. She needed to regenerate her energy. Healers absorbed energy differently than any other ability, and it acted more like a battery. When the battery was used up, it needed to be recharged. I left Allie to sleep. I would check on her again after the debriefing.

Chapter Twelve

Talon-May 25, 2013

A deep sleep left Allie trapped. Jasper was confident she would be fine and needed time to recharge. I checked on her in sickbay frequently, and John stopped by a lot too, hoping she was awake. This entire thing was new to him. The council put him through intense training and expected him to lead an elite team out of the gate. To me, he was still a boy, and this burden was unfair to him.

I felt awful that John had been brought into this at all. I never guessed that the council wanted him as well. The will of the council often didn’t make sense, but I was sure that if we could see pieces of the future we might do some unusual things as well.

He was a tier-seven empath. The odds that two level-sevens were best friends and brought in together were astronomical, about as strange as Lucius and Seraphine being brought in together. This made me wonder how far back the council had been arranging our lives. I went home and found Seraphine was in the kitchen making dinner. I took a deep breath, taking in the scent of freshly baked rolls and fried chicken.

“Smells amazing, babe.” I kissed her.

She went back to fixing mashed potatoes. “How’s Allie today?”

“Still sleeping. Four days now. Jasper says her vitals are stable and she could wake up any time, but it could also be awhile. She brought back eight people and healed around twenty more. I didn’t even know that was possible.”

“That’s amazing! No wonder she needs a nap.”

“They’re talking about making our team permanent. I’m not sure how I feel about Allie being out there fighting with me.”

“It sounds like we need her, and besides, then you can keep an eye on her,” Seraphine said.

“I guess that’s true. They’ve made John the leader of the team. Rumor has it that the council has planned the position for him since he was a young boy.”

“Doesn’t the council do that to everyone?”

“I’m beginning to think they do.”

I wasn’t sure how much of a distraction Allie on my team would be, but the council never seemed to care if there were relationships paired in a team. They put us where they wanted, no matter the outside factors. Hearing the stats during debriefing left me stunned. I now knew why the price tag on Allie was so high.

Lucius was most likely basking in his reward for recruiting her. Seraphine refused any compensation, and she had only helped him because of what Jerap had shown her. I couldn’t blame her; if things had been reversed, there was very little I wouldn’t have done to keep her safe.

Our team would have a mission in the morning—a treaty negotiation for a species with a unique problem. The species promised if we could fix their problem, they would sign an alliance with the Loctorians. They were lending us Kais in Allie’s absence. The young boy with mischievous ambition had grown into a man, and like Allie, he was a healer. He was a tier-six, which meant he could fix a few of us before wearing out.

We arrived on the planet, and it was the most unique planet I’d seen to date. There was a strange, thin layer on the outside and very few bodies of water. Those two factors caused the planet to look like the land was in a giant bubble. The layer almost worked as a shield. Various locations would soften at certain times, allowing ships to land and take off.

John briefed us on our mission, “We are negotiating an alliance with a species called Ogdoanians. Their capital has been overrun by a large populous of creatures called Tarniske. They have agreed to carry out the alliance if we can take care of their pest problems.”

“So we’re basically exterminators now,” Gabriel said.

John continued, “We are today. We need the alliance to take this sector out of Khalbytian control. The Ogdoanians have tried extermination, but the Tarniske are a hardy breed and have survived any attempt thrown at them. That’s where we come in. We are to use our abilities to exterminate as many as possible. The Loctorians have discovered a frequency that will attract the Tarniske to our location. From there, we do the rest.”

“What did these creatures do to warrant mass extinction?” Lila asked.

“They take children from their beds at night as a food source and spread disease. They wreak havoc on the grain factories and destroy livelihoods. We’re basically taking care of an out of control pest problem. They’ve already tried relocation attempts, but the Tarniske return stronger and in greater numbers. The council discussed moving them to a new planet, but it has been determined that any planet they would be sent to would be ravaged by their destructive ways,” John clarified.

We landed on the planet and were warmly welcomed by the Ogdoanians’ ambassador. Ogdoanians were around four to five feet tall with small yellow eyes. Their ears, noses, and mouths were a third of the size of a human’s. They had dark grey skin that had creases in it throughout. Their hands and fingers were long, and their arms were about half the length of a human’s. They had short legs that explained their stature because their body size was comparable to ours.

A mass dome had been created for us to lure the creatures from all over the capitol. We left one entrance in which the Tarniske would flow through, then I would go into tracker mode and make sure all were present. Once that was confirmed, we would be in for the rodent battle.

We played the frequency and transmitted it through the city, leading the alien pests in masses to our location. The ground shook and giant rat looking creatures poured in. I estimated them to be three feet long, with pointed pink noses and large ears. Their bodies were tan, and they had two hairless orange tails extending from behind them. Their large teeth protruded out the top front of their mouths.

Ten minutes in and the city was emptied of Tarniske. Deron latched the gate, and we set to work. I diced through the creatures; the high-pitched sound they transmitted made me want to cover my ears, but I kept slicing them apart. John and Seraphine willed them to destroy each other. Kais was touching them, and they would collapse dead by reversing his healing touch.

A new recruit was placed with us by the name of Colin. I didn’t know if he had an ability because he was using conventional weapons as his choice for destruction. My hacker buddy Morgan was on our team now as well. He was proving himself useful for more than technology as he was also a skilled fighter.

Gabriel had his own spin on hand-to-hand combat. He was camouflaged, and none of the Tarniske saw him coming. We were about halfway through when the space rats began climbing up the sides of the dome and dropping on us from above. As I cut through two at once, one leapt on my back and bit hard into my shoulder. I could tell from the sounds of my teammates that we were all being bit.

We kept fighting, ignoring the pain of teeth embedded in our skin. I knifed the one that was biting me and kept going. We cleared them out, and I tracked the dome to make sure we hadn’t missed any. I confirmed that the Tarniske were all dead. We had killed hundreds of the creatures and bore the lashes to prove it. Kais healed each one of us, and it was as though we were never in battle.

Once we exited the dome, the Ogdoanians set the Tarniske bodies on fire. John went to meet the ambassador and other officials to seal the deal. He returned after a couple hours to let us know that he’d been successful. We returned to Saturn base and found that securing the alliance earned us a week off.


When we got back to base, Allie was still sleeping. At least she was safe, was all I could think to not worry about her. Almost two weeks into her sleeping, I went to see her. Before I walked into the room, I heard John’s voice and hesitated. He was talking to her, even though she was still sound asleep.

“You missed an epic rat battle, but I think you’d probably be glad you slept through that one. I remember when that mouse ran across our feet in the barn, that one time, I didn’t think I was going to get you to come down from the loft. I thought I might have to move us both in there and figure out how to heat it in the winter.

“Allie, I’ve missed you. If you could wake up soon, that would be great. Dr. Monroe keeps insisting you will, but every day that passes, I wonder more and more. Without you, there’s really not much worth fighting for, so wake up so I can see the reason I’m now a soldier.”

He turned to leave, and I walked in as though I arrived at that moment.

“Hey, John, how’s it going?”

“I guess alright, for being catapulted into an alien war and having my best friend in a coma for two weeks.”

“She’ll wake up.”

“That’s what they say.” He turned and left.

I sat in the chair next to Allie’s bed and read my book aloud to her. Allie loved books, and I thought maybe it would jar her awake. After a little bit, I found myself nodding off to sleep.

Chapter Thirteen

Althea- May 30, 2013

My brain felt full of cement that had hardened into a perfect mold of my cranium. I let out a slight moan before opening my eyes. They seemed to have caught shards of the mind cement as well. The blurry images corrected into my usual vision, and I saw Talon asleep in a chair, seemingly to guard me. He held a book in his right hand, and it was loosening from his grasp, about to plop on the floor.

The thickness in my mind made it difficult to recall why I was in what appeared to be a hospital room. There was an IV stuck in my left arm and a rather uncomfortable catheter between my legs. A blood pressure cuff was wrapped around my right arm, and a thin tube stuck in my nose. There were wires stuck on my chest that led to monitors reading my heart rate and oxygen levels.

Images seeped like damp sand in a funnel. Aliens, healing touch, so much carnage restored. This had all been a dream. I was pretty sure that there was nothing realistic about what my mind was telling me I was a part of.

I ripped off the blood pressure cuff, trying to free myself one wire at a time. Talon jumped up as I worked the sticky patches off of my chest. My machines started beeping, and a nurse ran in. She saw that I was awake before pausing the alarms and leaving the room.

“How you holding up, kiddo?” Talon stood beside me.

I cleared my throat, but it came out tired and raspy. “Been better.”

“You did well. Healed many and brought back several. We barely lost anyone.”

I started to recall the battle as the memories pushed through the sludge in my mind. “People died?” I couldn’t comprehend his words.

“You couldn’t be everywhere, Allie. Casualties are expected, but we only lost five thanks to you. That is extremely low for a battle of that magnitude.”

I turned to look at the wall. Five lives lost was considered a victory, but to me it seemed horrendous.

“I’ll leave you to get some rest. But trust me, you did well. We’ll talk later.”

Talon left, and the nurse came back with Jasper.

He shined a light in my eyes and asked me a couple questions. “Ms. Cooper, I was beginning to worry about you, but I see that was premature. You’ve been sleeping for a couple weeks now.”

I gasped. “A couple weeks? From healing?”

“Yes, it would seem you did not pace yourself well and completely burned out your healing receptors. We still don’t fully understand the process, but the place where the energy originates from, that allows you to heal, is in a sensitive part of the brain and can easily short circuit if overused. It’s similar to a breaker given too much power. You overworked yours.”

“I didn’t have much choice. There was destruction everywhere. I turned, and so quickly, people were gone. Still, we lost five. I didn’t get to them.”

“You did more than I’ve ever seen before. We’ve sent healers into battle before. Some don’t return, but most can keep a few from going critical. There has only been one close to your level, but that was long ago. I know you don’t see it as a success, but you far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The council will hold tightly to you.”

“Tell the story of success to the families of those lost,” I mumbled.

“Loss is a part of war. The loss would have been much greater without you. Honor the memories of those willing to be lost rather than holding regret for not being able to save them.”

I listened to Jasper’s words, but I still felt incompetent. Jasper told me that I was good to head back to my quarters, but he would still like me to rest for the next week before taking on anything else. The nurse released me from the rest of my tubes and wires.

Jasper insisted a nurse wheel me back to my quarters. My legs were a little wobbly but the nurse helped me over to my couch before leaving. I began reading a copy of Lord of the Flies that I had found in the base bookstore a few weeks back.

I made it thirty pages in when my door buzzed. I ignored it and continued to read. The door buzzed again and I put the book down, annoyed. I pushed the button to open the door and saw John standing there fully uniformed.

“Can I help you, sir?” The question staggered weirdly out of my mouth.

“Can I come in?”

I nodded and closed the door behind him, offering him the chair across from my brown suede couch. He sat and glanced at the floor, then up at me. This felt too formal. So much had happened to us, and it made me sad. I wanted very much to get my best friend back.

“How are you?” John asked.

“I’m good. Took a nice nap, and now I’m onto reading and relaxing my mess of a self for a bit. Can I get you some tea?” I was acting like he was any company.

“No, I’m fine. Talon told me you were awake. I wanted to see how you were for myself. Allie, I’ve missed you.”

“I wouldn’t know. You barely said two words to me when you saw me last. And that mind thing you did without warning. You telepathic?”

“I’m a tier-seven empath. It translates into more than reading emotions. I have many mind tricks. It helps with giving individual commands.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me more? More than just giving me orders.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to get finished with the mission. I’m here now. I want you back again. We need you for the team.”

This was a commander wanting to be sure that he had a healer for his team, not a best friend checking to make sure that I’d recovered.

“I’ll be fine whenever you want to use me again,” I snapped harsher than I intended. I stood to open my door and show John out.

He got up and turned to face me. “I came to see how you were. I hope you’re okay.”

“I’m fine. I’ll see you at the next mission.”

“Wait. Gabriel and I are doing some bowling later with a couple other people. Thought maybe you could come. Nineteen hundred hours.”

“Perhaps.” With that, I shut the door and returned to my novel.

I made it three chapters when there was another knock at my door. I was never getting through this book. I opened the door to find Seraphine standing there. I resisted the urge to slam it in her face. I let her inside, and we sat across from each other silently awkward for a few minutes.

“Tea or coffee? I have some Moxie too, that took a bit of effort to ship in from Maine. You know what that is right? Seeing as you never grew up in California and lived in Maine.” I narrowed my eyes, waiting for her to take in what I was communicating.

“Yes, I tried Moxie a few times. I’m okay though.” She wasn’t taking the bait. “Allie, I wanted to say I’m sorry for everything that happened. I can excuse it away as orders or duty, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I lied to you, and let you tell me very personal things without you knowing the real reason I was there. I can’t fix what happened. All I can do is ask your forgiveness, and if you can’t right now I understand.”

I wanted to fight with her not forgive her. I was angry because everything that happened since was her and Lucius’ fault. Everything that hurt from Zalseph’s death was their fault. They were the reason that I felt any of it. My brother had lied to me too, but at least he did it to protect me from everything that was hurting me now.

I pursed my lips. “I’ve been thinking about all of it. I found out you’re a projector. The light show was you wasn’t it? I saw you in the woods that night.”

She nodded. “Lucius asked me to do it, so you would meet him at the astronomy club.”

“What was the point? Why didn’t he just manipulate me to go with him?”

“Lucius loves games. He and your brother have had a feud since they were kids and working on a team together. After all of it went down, I thought about the way Lucius handled your recruitment. I think Lucius wanted to make your brother mad. He knew how protective Talon is toward you. I believe he wanted to make Talon angry by making you his girlfriend. That’s why he took so long recruiting you. He was enjoying getting in an extra burn to Talon.”

I glanced away, forcing myself not to cry like I wanted to. “So, I’m just supposed to forget all of it just like that because you decided to come here and apologize.” A tear slipped out and I wanted to scream at it.

“No, I don’t expect you to forget any of it. All I have are words and time. In time I will show you that while I did what I did because I had to, how I treated you and felt was real. I want us to be sisters or at least friends. I’ve wanted that for a long time. I know it will take a long time to prove myself to you again. You take all the time you need to see you can trust me again. If you don’t ever then I accept those consequences. I really do care about you. I never pretended about that.”

More tears slipped out, and I couldn’t contain them any longer. Seraphine moved forward slightly in her seat as if she wanted to move closer to me, probably hug me. She abandoned whatever thought she was having as she scooted back in her chair.

I wiped my tears. “I really cared about you too, that’s why this hurts so bad. I thought you were my friend, but you were only doing this because as you said you had to. I’m not sure I trust you, and I’m not over what you did. But I’m willing to see how things go.”

“That’s fair. I hope to see you at game night. John mentioned he invited you.”

I shrugged and showed Seraphine out.


A few hours later I strolled to the rec center. When John invited me, I tried to ignore his invitation but was met with a compelling longing to see my friends. I spent months worrying about them so now I wanted to be around them despite my lingering disappointment with some of them at the moment.

Whoever designed the base had spent a reasonable amount of time focused on putting all things pertaining to human recreation into a large portion of the base. I thought that the idea was to give an escape from war and make soldiers more productive once the uniform was on.

I rounded the corner to the bowling alley and stopped in my tracks. Talon had his arms locked around Seraphine’s waist. John was taking his turn at bowling, knocking all but one pin down. Deron stood behind him, waiting to take his turn. This was the first time—other than the battle—that I’d seen Talon and Seraphine together since I found out they were married.

Talon released Seraphine so she could take her turn. Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasted on the overhead speakers, making me realize that my brother probably selected the music. His music choices were almost always stuck in the 1980s. Gabriel sat on a bench next to a blonde girl. He said something that I couldn’t quite make out, and she laughed. They looked cute together, and I wondered if a relationship was forming. I sat on the bench next to theirs. I saw Kais from the tier assignments.

He smiled. “Althea, right?”

I nodded and smiled back. “You remembered.”

“Yeah, of course. Couldn’t forget you.”

I smiled again, confused why he would say that.

Talon seemed, simply put, happy. It was a rarity that suited his entire demeanor. I could tell that he and Seraphine were the real deal. I shouldn’t be so angry anymore. Talon deserved more than responsibility and entirely selfless endeavors. He deserved the fire and beauty that was Seraphine. He deserved to sport goofy grins and intense gazes that he pushed her way. At that moment, I accepted that his secret life was what he felt he had to do to keep me safe.

Seraphine had become a good friend, but I let our friendship go when I discovered her deceit. Our conversation from earlier came to mind. She was right at this point all she could do was apologize and prove herself over time. It would take time for me to fully trust her again, but maybe I could work toward giving her a second chance. Almost as though she could delve into my thought process, Seraphine came and sat next to me.

“Peace offering?” She held out a pair of bowling shoes.

I paused for a minute, pondering our friendship. Maybe Seraphine really did care about me on some level. I nodded and accepted the shoes. I was surprised to find them the perfect size. I remembered the dresser and closet in Talon’s guest room were full of shoes and clothes that were also my size. The next few hours were spent in the realm of the ordinary. Eight friends bowling with thoughts of war shelved and replaced with scorecards and cheesy jokes.

After our second game, Talon turned off the main light and random colored lights zoomed around the room. Seraphine removed her bowling shoes and motioned for me to do the same.

I removed them quickly and she grabbed my hand as we both slid down the bowling lanes. She danced freely with me, evaporating all of the seriousness of the last few months. Gabriel and the girl he brought joined us. We slid, laughed, and danced with our socks frictionless against the smooth finish of the bowling lanes.

Unsurprisingly, John remained seated, watching. Becoming a military captain had yet to revert his introverted ways, and I was too annoyed with him to draw him out of his shell. Kais joined us and did some elaborate breakdancing. Deron accompanied him, and they entertained us with their fluid movements. The music slowed, and Kais offered to dance with me.

Seraphine stopped mid-dance, bearing a mischievous grin and directed Talon to the dance floor with her finger. Talon swung Seraphine around and danced in rhythm to the fast-paced music. His playfulness shocked me. Seraphine brought out an untapped portion of my brother. I was now fully content that they had found each other. Whether I was still angry at Seraphine or not I was glad my brother found someone who made him happy.

I was so caught up in their moment that I missed John slipping out. Back before all of this, I would have taken that as my cue to leave and go find him. Instead, I stayed and danced until we all agreed that bed had met the equation.


A week after waking up, Jasper asked me to stop by for a final checkup before clearing me for active duty. He said that everything checked out and he would notify command that I was ready whenever. I wasn’t sure at what point they no longer expected me to resist fighting this war, but a line had been drawn, and they must have assumed that I’d recognized my usefulness. The next day our team was assigned to recovering a rare substance on a planet heavily infiltrated by Khalbytians.

I learned more about our team and the skills we possessed. I was the healer, John the empath, Seraphine the projector, Talon the tracker, Gabriel the chameleon, Deron the heightened, and Lila the manipulator. Lila was the blonde that we had bowled with.

There were two additional soldiers on our team who I was told were not able to possess abilities. Their names were Colin Gonzales and Morgan Howard, and my guess was that brute force was their usefulness. Colin was Hispanic. His family was from Mexico, but he had grown up in the inner-city of Los Angeles. He wore a slight goatee and mustache and kept his hair short and spiked up.

Morgan spoke with an English accent. His hair was a brownish red color, and he had a deep brown to his eyes. Talon told me later that he and Morgan had been friends for a long time. Morgan was skilled with technology and was probably the best in the galaxy when it came to hacking.

Gabriel boarded the ship last, and Lila looked up from her console to smile and give him a little wave. Gabriel grinned back, and I could see blossoming chemistry. We sat down on a flat part of an otherwise rocky planet. The pointed rocks held a blue-green hue and there was orange foliage mixed in various spots at the bottom. The entire landscape looked like it was out of an over-colored children’s book. Before stepping out, we were briefed. We needed to descend five hundred feet down a steep path. We were to fill six canisters with the rare substance and then return to our ship.

We put on specialized suits that fit close to our bodies, not the bulky stiff getups that I assumed environmental suits would be. We could have been race car drivers, except the helmets seemed even smaller and lighter. We walked into a dark cave using night vision goggles that were built into our helmets. I anchored my rope on a solid rock and began descending into the dark pit below. We propelled deep into the darkness before finally hitting bottom.

I could hear grunting and knew Khalbytians were close. John told Seraphine to project a distraction. I knew she succeeded when we heard laser fire and panicked growls. Once everything fell silent Gabriel turned invisible and scouted ahead, assuring us that the coast was clear. We proceeded with weapons, still ready to make war at a moment’s notice.

“Wait!” Deron whispered, indicating that his senses picked up something that ours didn’t.

We all stopped but it was too late. I heard a loud thud and saw a large Khalbytian land on top of Morgan, ripping at his suit and tearing large shreds from across it. The Khalbytian jumped off and began clawing himself and oozing a ball of tarry substance which I guessed was the equivalent of Khalbytian blood. A mind trick courtesy of John. I ran to Morgan as he writhed in pain. I began sealing the large gashes across his chest and legs.

His bio-suit was exposed. Khalbytians could breathe in the same environment humans could, and I was told their world was safe enough for us to breathe in. This atmosphere, however, contained a gas that they were immune to, but that humans were not. Morgan could survive for a little while, but eventually he would suffocate. Gabriel came up behind me and pulled duct tape out of his pack.

“Fixes everything.” I couldn’t see his face through his helmet, but I was sure that he was getting a kick out of duct tape being Morgan’s salvation.

After taping the suit, he helped Morgan to his feet. We stepped around and over dead Khalbytians as we proceeded to the large cavern that held the substance we needed. The floor sloshed as our boots stepped through the tarry decay of Khalbytian insides. I was suddenly thankful the bio-suits filtered smells as well.

A self-illuminating liquid sat in a pool in the middle of the otherwise dark cavern. We quickly filled the canisters and ascended to the surface. We needed to get out of there before the next shift arrived to relieve the fallen Khalbytians. We returned to base without a hitch. After the teamwork we demonstrated, I could see why they chose all of us for essential missions. Maybe the war wouldn’t be as bad as that first battle.

Over the next couple of weeks, this appeared to be what would happen—simple missions that we were more than capable of completing, and they were nearly boring. I spent most nights at Talon and Seraphine’s. Seraphine and I were slowly making progress toward being friends again. I hadn’t seen much of John as he was busy training and completing other command duties. Things were still patchy with us.

One night after dinner, Talon told me that he and Seraphine were being sent to another base temporarily. Talon wasn’t able to divulge why they had to go to the other base due to the secrecy of their new mission. It would be for a few months, but they would be back to be on our team eventually. A week after they left base, I ran into Kais in the hall. He asked if I wanted to watch the monster movie marathon taking place in one of the theaters.

I liked Kais. His eyes were a lovely shade of green, and he kept his curly hair clean cut against his head. Overall, I found him immensely attractive. After a couple of movies, we decided to call it a night and cracked jokes about how bad the gore and graphics had been. Kais walked me to my quarters.

“I had fun. We should hang out more,” Kais said with the laid back smile I was learning was at the heart of his personality.

I agreed and went to bed. I hoped Kais really did want to hang out more. I only saw John on missions. He appeared to be avoiding me at all costs, and the loneliness growing inside of me was nearly unbearable. A couple days later Kais asked me to dinner.

The conversation flowed perfectly, and he told me that he came from a military family, so it had always been a given he would join the military. He had an advantage, as he’d grown up submerged in the Loctorian war and spent a lot of his childhood in space. He missed his mom and three sisters who were back on Earth. His dad died in a battle when Kais was fifteen.

We found ourselves compatible on many subjects. The biggest thing that we related on was our ability, and we both agreed that the draining was annoying. Kais quickly became the person I wanted to be around most. I didn’t know if part of me was trying to compensate for John not hanging with me, but I knew I liked Kais for himself alone. A couple of months later, he asked me to be his girlfriend, and I accepted.

We had been dating for three months when he put in for some leave for both of us, and we traveled to a moon with a sustainable atmosphere. There were moths with wing patterns that glowed green and yellow. They filled the skies and danced for us as Kais pulled me close to him. He kissed me, and I kissed him back. I leaned my head on his shoulder as we watched the moths flutter across the sky.

“You know, you’re still the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” Kais said.

“Still? I’m glad I’ve stayed just as beautiful the last few months.” I smiled, almost laughing.

“No, I mean since we were twelve. In your tree house. Got my first kiss and black eye that day. Completely worth it.”

I picked my head up. “That was you?”

“Yep, you think John would punch me again if he were here now?” A sheepish grin formed on his face.

I laughed. “Probably.”

Kais reached down and kissed me again. “Totally worth it,” he added.

When I was twelve Talon had brought his boss’ son over to our house for the afternoon. We played in the tree house with John and the boy had unexpectedly kissed me. It had never crossed my mind that the boy in the tree house had been Kais. John had been so furious at Kais’ audacity that he had punched Kais in the eye.

We spent the time getting to know each other on a deeper level, and I was beginning to fall hard for him. One morning when we woke up, Kais said that there was something he wanted to show me. We drove a rover about twenty miles and came to an abandoned Loctorian carnival. We rode a lift about thirty stories into the air. At the top was a slide system. There were gaps between translucent yellow slabs of the slide.

“You have to let go of all inhibition, put your arms by your side and allow the slide to drop you to the bottom,” Kais said.

“What about the gaps?”

“Back when this was an amusement park, there was a force field at the bottom to catch you if you missed a slab. That broke a long time ago. If you follow the instructions, you’ll hit at the right speed to fly over them.”

“And if you don’t?”

He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “Then be glad you’re a high-level healer.” With that, he flew down the slide. I let go of any fear and proceeded after him. Terror reached me but I pushed it away, letting go of my natural survival instincts. I was free. When I reached the bottom, Kais swooped me up and kissed me. I’d never felt so liberated in my life. We laid on the end of the slide, and I felt his heartbeat. I was smitten.

When we returned to the base, I decided that I really needed to tell Talon that Kais and I were together rather than letting him find out as Kais and I walked the halls hand in hand. However, Talon and Seraphine were still away on the other base, and I wanted to tell them in person. I was excited that they would be back soon as I missed them a great deal.

I would invite them to dinner the night they got back, then Kais and I could tell them together. Kais dropped me off at my quarters and gave me a long kiss. We both needed to check our mission logs. An hour later there was a beep at my door. I opened it and only found flowers.

I read the note that Kais left with the flowers. “This war has taken a large part of my soul and made it dark, but you brought enough light to make me realize there is duty, and there is the need to live. With you, I can live. -Kais.”

My heart fluttered, and I felt a bit silly. I blushed despite no one being present. I took the flowers and put them on my table. The doorbell rang again, and this time Kais stood there.

I pulled him inside. “Why didn’t you bring the flowers in yourself?”

“I needed to leave you time to contemplate what I wrote on the card. Even though we can heal, there is so much of a blood bath flooded around us constantly. It would be easy to slip into an all-consuming darkness. After my dad died, I slipped into a depression. It would be easy to go there again. In fact, before I saw you again at tier level assignments, I was close to slipping back down. Then I saw the girl who never left my mind for the last six years, and I knew I had something to look forward to—seeing you again. You made these months bearable. You’ve made them good.”

I looked into Kais’ eyes, and the way he looked at me made me believe every word he spoke to me. We kissed, and I felt hopeful for the future again.

Chapter Fourteen

Kais-October 3, 2013

Althea Cooper, the girl I thought about since I was twelve. I always thought she’d be so damn easy to fall in love with and here I was desperately in love with her. We returned from a moon a couple days earlier, and I wanted to take her to a ball. The dance floor of the ball would be surrounded by waterfalls.

There were species from all over the galaxy, and it was one of the most unique events that I had ever been to. I asked Allie if she wanted to go, and she became ecstatic. She had life in her on an entirely different level.

She contained a contagious energy, and no matter how difficult her day was, she could find something that made her happy about it. The thing that made her my addiction was the way that her eyes caught mine. With a single look, I became entranced by the spell that was every facet of her. I was obsessed with seeing her face light up from something I said or did. Her happiness gave me a new drive to pursue.

We flew into the planet the day of the ball. We went swimming in a lake. She splashed me with water, and I chased after her. When I finally caught her, I picked her up from behind and spun her around. When we stopped, she kissed me. We went back to our hotel room to get ready. I put on my tux and did my hair and was ready to go. Allie still had a long way to go, so I sat down and played a game on my computer.

“Do I look alright?” she asked, sounding unsure.

I glanced up and felt my heart skipping a beat at the mere sight of her. I held my breath as her alluring form made me forget that I needed to breathe. She wore a long blue dress that shimmered all the way through to the bottom. The dress gave way to a small amount of cleavage, and the thin sleeves extended to the edges of her shoulders. Her loose curls descended perfectly around her face. She was fantastically beautiful.

“Amazing. You look amazing.” I knew there was wonder in my voice, and Allie smiled.

We went to the entrance of the hotel where we caught a carriage pulled by three native animals whose heads resembled gazelles but each had three horns that twisted at various spots in spirals of blues and greens. Their bodies were multiple shades of yellow and orange. The carriage had a canopy on it which came in handy when we passed the waterfall entrance.

Music played and species of vast variants danced around us. A man who appeared to be made of glass with black eyes walked past us. I helped Allie down from the carriage, and her eyes were wide with astonishment as everything around her appeared to captivate her. She pulled me to the dance floor and we moved in perfect rhythm with one another.

We danced until our feet hurt. Bright red flowers floated by us, suspended in the air by some unknown force. We stopped dancing to watch three men who were inside giant bubbles doing amazing tricks. We were in a fantasyland, and I was pretty sure that we would both be content in existing here indefinitely. I pulled one of the red flowers from the air and wrapped it securely in her hair. She reached up on her toes and kissed me.

“I love you, Kais.”

“I love you too, Allie.”

It was getting late, and we were both tired. The carriage dropped us off at the hotel entrance. Allie took off her shoes and carried them in her hand.

“Sore feet?”

She nodded. “A little.”

I scooped her up and carried her back to our room. I laid her on the bed, and she pulled me down by my tie to meet her. I removed her dress, and she worked my clothes free. Her bare skin smelled like cherry blossoms, soft and sweet. We laid on our sides, facing each other as she gently kissed my lips. She moved herself closer to me, giving me every part of her.

I felt her silk skin all around me, forging our connection. This closeness was the only thing I ever needed to feel. To feel her like this, I would desert the war that I had wanted to fight in my entire life. She cracked away at the dead things inside of me until the abundant light inside of her revived them.

The two suns of the planet crept into our window, letting me know that we had slept until morning. There was something beautiful about waking up with our legs tangled together. I let Allie sleep a little longer. I soaked in her existence, longing for a forever where we could accomplish the simplicity of this morning every day for the rest of our lives. I waited until the last possible second was used up and we had to get back. I was forced to wake her. With reluctance, we left the enchantment behind and returned to Saturn base.

“What if we moved in together?” Allie asked me when we made it back to her quarters.

“Definitely! Let’s do that.” I grinned and pulled her into a playful kiss.

“When we get back from the next mission, let’s make that moving day.”

“Sounds perfect.” I couldn’t think of anything more perfect.

I swooped Allie downward, kissing her intensely. She smiled and almost laughed at my dramatic gesture.

“I’ll be back. I need to run a couple errands,” I said.

She gave me an alluring smile. “Okay, don’t take too long.”

I began walking to my quarters to put my bag inside before heading to the mess hall to meet Fayard for lunch. He was on base for the week, and I wanted to see him before leaving on my mission the next day. As I approached my door, I saw a man with white hair standing next to it.

“Can I help you?”

“Let me introduce myself. I’m Lucius.” He reached his hand out to shake mine.

I instantly put up defenses. I knew what he’d done to Allie, and I knew he was a manipulator.

I looked at his hand but didn’t oblige. “I’ve heard of you.”

“Can we go inside?”

“No. Whatever you want to say, say it here.”

“Very well. I’m on the mission you are going on tomorrow, and I heard your girlfriend is coming along as well. I have heard she has a reputation for being reckless.”

“Excuse me?” I liked this guy less by the minute.

“I’ve been told she runs into battle fearlessly.”

“She is a healer. We tend to do that.” I narrowed my eyes as I spoke, trying to gauge his motive.

“Aww yes, you both are. That’s right, but you know healing doesn’t come with immortality. If she isn’t a little careful, something terrible could happen to her.”

“What do you want?” I cut to the chase before my aggravation accelerated too far.

“Not much. I want Althea to come home safe.”

“I’m going too. Nothing will happen to her while I’m there.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say.” He gave a creepy grin.

A chill ran through me as he disappeared down the hall. That was the strangest conversation I’d had in a long time, if not ever. I dropped my bag in my quarters and went to see Fayard. He sat at a table in his admiral uniform. I was proud of him, he’d done well. When I was a kid, he used to let me hang out with him while he did things on one of the Earth bases. Now he was my best friend and the one whose advice carried the most weight.

“You look troubled, my friend. Not at all like the lovestruck man I’ve seen lately,” Fayard said.

“Still fully lovestruck but I had a weird conversation with Lucius before heading here. You know, the manipulator. He told me Allie tends to be fearless and she could get herself killed. It felt like a warning or a threat even.”

“Yes, Lucius Baraud. He always has an agenda. He’s not a fortune teller, only manipulates events to suit his purpose.”

“I’ve had this feeling of dread, like maybe I’m not coming home very soon. I want you to promise me if at some point I don’t make it back you’ll keep an eye on Allie for me. Make sure she’s okay after I’m gone.”

“Kais, my man, you are not going anywhere anytime soon. You love her, don’t you?”

“Very much. I’ve never felt this way before. I fall asleep and wake up thinking about her. I’d give anything to see the light she has in her eyes. She makes me feel alive.”

Fayard smiled. “Now have you told her brother you’re dating her?”

“Talon. No, haven’t done that yet. Allie wants to soon when he gets back from the base he’s been stationed on for the last few months.”

“That is what you really should be worried about.” There was laughter in his voice.

“I heard that’s why other men on base haven’t asked her out.”

“I could see that as being true. Talon has a reputation.”

“Fayard, promise me you’ll check on Allie for me if something happens. Take care of my girl if I can’t.”

“I don’t think this will be an issue, but if something is to happen, I will make sure to be there for Allie in any way I can.”

“Thank you, man.”

We gave each other a brief hug. I wanted to get back to Allie so we could have some time together before we headed out for our first joint mission. I knocked on her door and she opened it almost immediately.

“You know, you don’t have to knock anymore since we’re going to be living together,” she said.

“Okay, good to know.”

She yanked me inside and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening in bed watching a movie. When the movie ended, I kissed her and pulled her close to me. The warmth of her skin against mine made her irresistible and ignited a blissful pounding in my chest. She was the missing piece of my soul. A vital life-altering component that I thought was lost forever was found in Althea Cooper.

We fell asleep with our legs once again entangled. I held Allie tight against my chest, breathing in every molecule I could of her. When morning arrived, Allie rolled out of my arms and gave me a quick kiss. She put on my white t-shirt which swam on her tiny frame.

“Where are you going?” I groaned, willing her back to my embrace.

“Breakfast. We both need the energy.”

I got dressed, grabbing a different shirt that I had left in her dresser the week before. She was flipping pancakes, and I came up behind her and kissed her neck. I felt her ease into my arms.

“I love you, Althea, so incredibly much.”

She paused for a minute to kiss me, then said, “I love you, too, Kais.”

I set the table. “When we get back I want to talk to Talon about us.”

“Yeah, I haven’t told him or Seraphine yet because they’ve been gone on the other base. I want to tell them in person. This mission will be the first I’ve seen them since they left for the base months ago. When it’s over, I want to have dinner and tell them together.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

We ate breakfast, and I made Allie laugh a few times. I loved to watch the way her hair fell as she laughed and how she looked at me like I made her day. We put on our uniforms to leave for the docking bay.

The admirals decided that they needed two healers for this mission, not because we were expected to go to battle but because the planet suffered from an unusual sun toxicity that would come in random waves. There were times when the aliens on the planet needed to venture to the surface and a solar wave would catch them before they could gather the supplies that they surfaced for. They utilized specialized blankets that helped but didn’t adequately protect them, and those under the blankets would be injured but alive. If caught without a blanket, you would be charred to ash.

We were meant to help heal some of the injured in hopes that it would aid in the alliance the Loctorians wanted to forge. Allie and I were excited that we would get some extra time together between negotiations. When we got back, we would tell everyone about us. I was excited to see where our relationship would go.

Chapter Fifteen

John-October 5, 2013

I still held Allie at a distance, being careful to heed the council’s warning. Allie barely spoke to me as we loaded the ship for our next mission. I hoped one day she would forgive the distance I put between us. But even if she didn’t, her safety had to be my main priority. Seeing her dead in my nightmare stayed with me along with the genuine feelings that it induced. Allie took her seat at her designation, barely acknowledging my presence. I could feel that she was trying to contain her emotions, but I could feel her disappointment in me.

I took my spot in the captain’s chair. I’d gone from average American college student to captain of an elite team in a galactic war all in about a year’s time. I was told that a manipulator caused my family to believe things were fine but I was still unsure of the story they were sold. I felt confident that my mother was still hurt I’d missed Christmas, mind control or not.

We folded, and Talon got us within the perfect distance of the planet to make a proper landing. A scorched landscape spread across the view screen of my ship. Black dirt was all that could be seen for miles. We were to land the ship within a large docking bay below the surface. The sun had toxic waves that occurred due to some type of experiment gone wrong. We were restricted to the underground tunnels.

Once we were safely enclosed in the charred mountain, we exited and were greeted by an alien who called himself the Valdonrian ambassador. The Valdonrians were an unusual species. They had wings that were strapped behind their backs. They had dragonfly-like wings that could be straight out or flat against their backs. The wings were clear with random ribbons of blues and pinks.

With the toxic sun, they were no longer able to fly. They were humanoid, but their skin was made of broad scales throughout all of their body. Their faces carried two noses that looked like one human nose sliced in half. Their eyes were smaller than a human’s but similar in shape.

Our mission was to get them to agree to an alliance with the Loctorians. The Valdonrians refused any previous attempts to persuade them to any type of Loctorian agreement. We offered them a planet with lush forests and clean skies to fly again, and in return, they would allow us to mine their old planet. It contained an ore that, when broken down, created powerful weaponry and faster ships. The problem was that the Valdonrians, or more specifically their chancellor, did not want to leave. He maintained an extreme attachment to their damaged planet.

Another added bonus of the alliance would be that they could join the fight if they wanted. Having soldiers who could soar down onto enemies would prove useful. The fate of this needed alliance was now pressed onto my shoulders. We rounded a corner and headed down a ramp which took us deeper into the crust of the planet. As we neared the end of the ramp, I shook my head in disgust, at the sight of Lucius. I thought this guy was out of our lives.

“Well, I see this may prove more difficult with you as my assistants, but it’s not that I need any help either way,” Lucius spoke like a disgustingly arrogant snake.

I was a little disturbed by the fact that they sent a second manipulator. The idea seemed unethical, but then again, what good were manipulators if their abilities couldn’t be used to persuade reluctant or defiant people?

Negotiations began the next morning, and I pretended that Lucius and I were a team. The negotiations took place in a single room that had a shiny silver carpet and orange walls. There were twenty white chairs that surrounded an oval-shaped metallic table. Dozens of long, thin lights hung low enough from the ceiling that I almost had to duck. I sat down next to Lucius, and then Allie walked in.

Lucius’ gaze looked her over. I could sense his desire for her. He really liked her, or at least his attraction was real. I found that disturbing. She ignored us both and sat to our right a few seats down next to Kais. I noticed him look at her and smile. The look she shared back caught my attention.

I knew my best friend well enough to know the look she sent a guy that she liked. Her intense stare told me that she more than liked Kais. There were too many people in the room for me to automatically pick up on their emotions. I pushed back the temptation to concentrate on what they were feeling, knowing it was none of my business.

What did I expect? I thought back to the night at the bowling alley, specifically the fact that I left when Kais slow danced with her. It would have to be a subject for a different time as I needed to focus my mind off Allie and back to negotiations. The Valdonrians sat on the opposite side of the table, and by the end of the day, negotiations became tedious. We called it a night.

The same occurrence went on for the next three days, and it was frustrating that even with two manipulators in play we couldn’t seal the deal. There was a strict rule of the actual decision not being manipulated to prevent the treaty from being forfeited out of fraud. Lucius and Lila could use their manipulation skills to persuade particular viewpoints, but the rules made it a fine line. When an agreement was made a Loctorian would oversee the signing of the contract because Loctorians could tell when someone was manipulated into a decision. This prevented Lucius from breaking the rules.

We had grown used to the alarms. They would occur every time a solar wave would increase radiation. It gave everyone twenty minutes to make sure they were deep enough in the cave to be unaffected. If you came in contact with a wave, you would first become blind, then your skin would be scorched beyond recognition.

On the fifth day, as we were deep within a heated discussion, the alarm sounded. We were unfazed as we were highly protected at our location. Five minutes after the start of the alarm, a Valdonrian entered crying and screaming. She said something in her native tongue, and she was too far for our internal translators to pick it up. Several of the Valdonrians stood up.

The ambassador spoke, “It seems the chancellor’s son and several other children have gone missing. They were playing in a couple of the upper tunnels when last seen, and it is now feared they made their way to the surface. The clock leaves fifteen minutes to collect them. They are very aware of the danger, but children often don’t mind, and the waves are random. They may have thought they would have plenty of time.”

“Seraphine, can you project to the surface and do a sweep?” I asked. Seraphine’s eyes went vacant. “Talon, can you track them and give Seraphine direction?”

Talon stared at the cave wall as though he could glance through it. “There are several life signs on the planet surface about a quarter of a kilometer west,” Talon informed Seraphine.

“I see them. One of them has an injured leg, and they are trying to get him back. They’ll never make it at the rate they are going,” Seraphine said.

Allie jumped up and was out the door without a word. Kais jumped up behind her.

“Where are you going?” I demanded.

“Getting a transport and getting those kids in.” She grabbed a radiation blanket and walked to a rover.

“Allie, I’m going. You stay here,” Kais said.

“Kais. No,” she countered.

He moved to her and gently grabbed her hand. They shared a look, and he took the blanket.

“You’re not winning this one, Allie.” He jumped in what looked like an oversized golf cart.

“At least put on a bio-suit.” I glanced around and noticed the bio-suits had been moved to an unknown location. I tried to think of better solutions. Even if we made it to our ship which was on the other side of our enclosure, it would take too long to warm it up and get to Kais and the children.

“No time to track the suits down!” Kais sped away.

The ambassador informed the rest of the Valdonrians that we located the children and were sending help. At ten minutes until the wave, we were all on edge.

“I’m going after them,” Allie said.

I shook my head. “No, everyone is staying put. We can’t risk anyone else out there.”

“I’m the best choice. I’ll heal the leg and be able to heal anyone injured by the sun wave.”

“Not if you go blind, lose your way, and become ashes before your healing power can kick in. That’s an order, you’re not going. Besides, Kais is a healer.”

Allie was more aggravated than she outwardly revealed. The alarm sounded again indicating five minutes and Kais and the kids were still not in the safe zone. We had to lock the inner barrier and hope Kais could make it far enough in to be minimally injured and be healed by himself or Allie.

“He’s not going to make it!” I could hear the panicked tone Seraphine emitted.

“We have to close the outer gate!” the ambassador cried.

“No! Please give them more time!” Allie pleaded, and I could feel her fear intensify.

The ambassador waited for the last possible second, then ordered the gate closed. The Valdonrian who had interrupted the meeting screeched a horrific cry. The wave lasted ten minutes, and we all held our breath. When the wave faded, the gate was lifted, and Talon led us to a pocket in the side of one of the tunnels.

Kais lay on top of the radiation blanket which had been only large enough to cover the children. Allie let out a stuttered cry and her whole body shook as she saw Kais charred onto the blanket. She didn’t hesitate and ran to him. The children were crying inside as we carefully lifted the blanket. Lila and Gabriel led the children back to their parents.

Allie stood for a minute. I assumed that she was hoping Kais would heal himself, but when too much time had passed she seemed to be his only hope. Allie reached for what was left of Kais. She touched him gently, but his arm crumbled. Her hand reeled back, and she let out a shocked cry. The rest of him rapidly crumbled to ashes. Allie sat and sobbed for several minutes before Gabriel came and asked her to heal a some of the kids.

Allie stood up and walked to the inner rooms, healing everyone without a word. The Valdonrians were so grateful for our sacrifice that they immediately signed the treaty. We had sealed the deal. As commander of the mission, I went to Kais’ temporary quarters to make sure his things weren’t left behind on this planet. It would be my job to get his things to his family. I picked up a book to put in his bag, and a picture fell out. I bent down to pick it up and froze.

It was Kais holding Allie, and they were both laughing. Allie looked happier than I’d seen her in a long time. They were together. I felt a ping of guilt as it seemed very close to an invasion of privacy. I didn’t want to think that anyone would be worthy of Allie but me, but the truth was that I never was. The way Kais died showed that he was a man of honor. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see Lucius smiling disturbingly.

“That’s how you form alliances,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, send some kids out, tell them there’s some sintare spice that their mothers would love to make them treats with. Tell them you have magic sensors that say no waves will be coming all day, so they have plenty of time to collect it and surprise their mothers. Ensure there are two healers, one that loves the other and knows her well, knows she will go because she thinks she can heal the children. You make sure the idea is put in his head, and his love for her makes him do the rest.

“Then make sure there is only one radiation blanket, just big enough for the kids. Make sure all the bio-suits go missing. Make sure the tires are rigged to go out on the transport so he can’t quite make it back. Of course, he will cover the children. The sacrifice of our species saving theirs makes the alliance a shoo-in.” Lucius stood there, beaming.

I ran at him and slammed him against the cave wall. “You bastard! I’ll have you locked up for this.”

“Come on, John, play nice. I’m a manipulator. I speak the words, and you forget all of this. I wanted you to know I frown on your acceleration to leadership. And if you aren’t careful, Althea will pay the price. Neither of us want that, now do we?”

“What do you want?!”

“Give me credit for the alliance. I don’t care how, figure it out.”

“Why not just manipulate me to?”

“Because the council can tell when words were tranced by a manipulator.”

I clenched my fists. “And if I don’t?”

“Allie might get to join her boyfriend. It’s kind of a shame they have to be apart now.”

I gritted my teeth. “One day, Lucius, you’ll get what you deserve.”

“At least that’s one thing we can agree on, even if the outcome is different than you think.”

I released him, and he walked out of the room. Allie stayed silent all the way back to base. I could feel her emotions come in phases. When we made it back to base, Allie gave her statement then left without another word. What Allie needed right now was space, and I needed to provide a casualty report. I had to go against all I believed and make Lucius the hero of our new alliance.

Chapter Sixteen

Althea-October 10, 2013

I made my way to my quarters. I desperately tried to maintain my composure, and once inside the door, I slid against it. The table holding Kais’ flowers was directly in view. That was all it took for me to lose any resemblance of control and I sobbed until exhaustion consumed me. I fell asleep on the floor, paralyzed within my sorrow.

Admiral Fayard Mason, who was Kais’ best friend, stopped by. I’d first met him when we went to the orphanage planet, but it was only briefly. He went to a movie with Kais and me once. After the movie, the three of us went back to Kais’ quarters to talk.

My mind thought back to that night. I sat next to Kais, and his arms were wrapped tightly around my waist. We chatted for quite a while, and I had gotten tired. I leaned my head on Kais, and he kissed my head. Fayard stopped and smiled at us.

“You mind if I take a picture?” he had asked.

“Sure. Fair warning, my ugly mug might break the camera, but Allie’s beauty is probably enough to make it okay,” Kais joked, and I smiled up at him with a slight laugh.

Fayard snapped the picture, then he took another with us both looking at the camera. My mind was forced to return to the fact that Kais was dead and never coming back. Admiral Mason stood in front of me. He looked like he hadn’t slept. I let him in and we sat on the couch.

I wore my bathrobe and pajama pants. My hair looked disheveled, and I imagined there were deep bags under my eyes. Crying was my continual state now. Even as we sat in the living room my cheeks were streaked with tears. Fayard handed me two photos of Kais and me. Kais was supposed to get them printed for me. We had been extremely happy together.

“I’ve known Kais a long time. He’s not an easy shell to crack. He never lets people in.” Fayard talked about Kais in present tense, and I realized that he still hadn’t fully processed the loss of his friend. He continued, “When he was a boy, he was mischievous and caused a lot of trouble, as he was impulsive. When his father died, that all changed. He was serious all the time.

“Then, when you two got together, I saw him come alive again, as I knew him before his father’s death. You made him happy, and he loved you very much. He told me he had a weird feeling and he thought something might happen to him soon. I thought it was an odd statement from a healer. You guys are practically immortal.”

Immortal. Fayard was right in a sense; Kais shouldn’t have been there. He should have been on a different assignment where any damage done to him would have been healed. Nothing made sense. First Zalseph and now Kais. I didn’t want to think about who I would lose next. John, Talon, Seraphine, and Gabriel were the ones left whose losses felt unbearable. I wanted to give in and die. I couldn’t take this war anymore. I turned one of the pictures over, and on the back, it read: Althea, keep your light. -Kais.

Tears fell as I hugged Fayard and thanked him. He told me that he was here if I needed anything at all and left. It would put Kais’ sacrifice to shame if I gave up, so if nothing more I would continue because of him. Our base held a memorial service, and Fayard was the one to deliver Kais’ eulogy. The room was packed. They gave an opportunity for people to speak. I stayed in my chair, wishing to keep the intimacy we shared in my heart. Talon got up and spoke. He talked about how he knew Kais as a boy, and how he was a good kid who would be greatly missed.

Three weeks passed and I was finally starting to not wake up every morning crying. I told Talon that I was working on a project, so he wouldn’t wonder too much about my dinner absences. John benched me and simply told me that they were low-level missions, and not everyone was needed. I was too out of it to question his motives. Three months after Kais’ death, I started going on missions again and was on autopilot. I was getting better at focusing my ability and not burning myself out.

No one knew the depth of the loss I felt, so I kept it to myself. Three more months passed. Fayard checked on me every now and then, and it was nice to have him around to talk about Kais with. Six months after Kais’ death I was starting to find my normal again. I knew even in that normal that Kais would be forever carried with me no matter what the future brought my way. My first love would be held in the most vulnerable portion of my heart.

I missed John, but he still kept me at a distance. I wanted to run to him and fix our friendship, but I was emotionally drained and didn’t know how. I decided to take small steps and make casual conversation here and there. If I learned anything from Kais’ death, it was that in a moment anyone could be gone, even the seemingly invincible.

I threw myself into saving everyone that I could. John and I were finally on speaking terms. We weren’t as close as we were before all of this started, but we could hang out together during movie nights with other friends. There were times when I ached for my best friend and wanted so much to tell him all he didn’t know about the past year for me and then hear all his new as well.

One morning after we docked from a mission John stopped me before I left to my quarters.

“I was wondering if you wanted to go bowling tonight? I mean we don’t have to. We can do something else.” I wasn’t sure why he sounded so nervous.

“Sure. We can go bowling.”

“Alright. I have to go write up the mission report but I can meet you there in an hour?”

I nodded and he smiled. I went back to my quarters to shower and change. I glanced at the clock and realized it would be another thirty minutes before I needed to meet John. I grabbed my copy of Crime and Punishment and plopped on the couch. Three pages in I fell sound asleep. When I woke up four hours later, I had two messages on my com device. One was from John asking me if I was still coming. The second was from Seraphine asking me to dinner. I picked up my com device and told Seraphine dinner tonight would be fine.”

I messaged John. Sorry! I fell asleep.

He replied, It’s okay. We can meet up another time.

I was doing a terrible job at fixing our relationship. Grief was so exhausting and, while it was slowly lessening, falling asleep was something I found too easy. It was almost as if escaping consciousness made living doable. I would have to make sure John and I went bowling within the next week. I wanted to show him I didn’t stand him up intentionally.

Dinner time arrived, and I forced myself to get dressed. I accepted Seraphine’s invitation, realizing that I missed them and needed to move forward. I forced myself to push away the idea that it lessened the impact of Kais being gone. He was still very loved and valued by me. Me living my life would be what he wanted.

Before leaving for dinner, I opened up the box that I put everything from our relationship in. I looked at the pictures of us together and the flowers I had pressed, two from the bouquet and the floating flower he had placed in my hair at the ball. I kissed one of the pictures, wishing I could find myself inside of it. I put everything away, and the box went back under my bed. I knocked on their door and Seraphine answered. She gave me a hug and let me inside. The food smelled amazing. She fixed a roast and potatoes which were Talon’s favorite.

“Been too long, stranger,” Talon said as he set the table.

The dinner tasted as good as it smelled. The meat fell apart in my mouth, and the flavor flowed perfectly over my tongue.

“Talon told me you were working on a big project. How’s that going?” Seraphine asked.

“Pretty much finished with it.” I sipped my tea.

“Well, we’ve missed you at dinner and movie nights. I was thrilled when you accepted our invitation.”

“I’ve missed you two as well. The food is amazing as always.”

“Seraphine makes the best food. If it weren’t for keeping up in the gym for battles, I’d probably be pretty pudgy by now.” Talon laughed.

“Nah, you two have perfect genetics. I bet you could lay on the couch all day eating tubs of ice cream and stay perfect,” Seraphine said with a slight laugh.

I pushed my food around with my fork. “That’s a tempting state to put myself into.” The couch was where I spent the last few months since Kais passed, but food had been an afterthought. I forced myself to eat because I didn’t want anyone to know I was in turmoil.

Seraphine and Talon asked if I wanted to stay and watch a movie. I declined and used the excuse of being tired. I felt drained and wanted to get back to my quarters. I wondered when social interactions would be pleasant again.

“Hey, Allie!” Gabriel ran down the hall toward me.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Not much. You’re a girl, right?”

“Yeah, last time I checked.”

He grinned. “No, I mean I need girl advice.”

“I’ll give you my best.”

“You think I should make a big deal out of asking Lila to be my girlfriend or should I straight up ask her?”

“Most girls like flowers, but Lila really likes flowers. That might be a good place to start.”

“Actually, you’ve given me a great idea.” He ran off in the opposite direction.

I was pleased that Gabriel was finding happiness on base. Part of me blamed myself for him being here in the first place. His entire life was turned upside down because he wanted to go see a movie. He and Lila were the cutest couple, and it was nice to see it was working out. I went back to my quarters, lonely. I missed Kais, and I would for the rest of my life. I also missed John, and I hoped that relationship would be fixed soon.

Chapter Seventeen

Gabriel-March 20, 2014

I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t thought about it before because Lila loved plants. Before she was recruited, she studied botany at college. I set everything up for a grand surprise then sent Lila a message to meet me for dinner. I took her to Verne’s Cuisine, a candlelit Italian place on level forty-five. Lila arrived with her blonde hair curled, wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace.

“Wow, you look amazing!” I said.

“Thank you. The food here is great.”

“Yeah, Verne is a pretty good chef. He completed his training in France and Italy.”

We finished dinner, and then I told her, “I have a surprise for you, if you’re ready?”

“That sounds exciting.”

“I hope so anyway.”

We left the restaurant and went to level twenty-three. I led Lila down a long hallway and explained what we were doing there. “Back when I first got here, I was resistant to fighting, having been kidnapped and all. They put me to work cleaning out old rooms. There were several on this level, and they have remained empty. I talked to Admiral Parks, and she said I could make use of one.”

We made it to the room I picked and I pulled out the key. “Close your eyes.” Lila did what I asked. I guided her by the hand into the room. “Open your eyes.”

Lila gasped as she looked around. “You made me a hydroponics system!”

“I also have an account for you set up at the warehouse, so go there and pick out whatever plants you want to grow. Feel free to order any as well.”

Lila threw her arms around me. “Thank you, Gabriel!” Lila looked through all of the equipment I set up. “I’m impressed. You set up everything right.”

I was pretty proud of myself and thrilled that she loved it.

I grabbed her hand and led her to the table. “Lila, I want to show you this work table. I put the first of your seeds on it.”

Using seeds, I had spelled: Will you be my Girlfriend?

She looked up and smiled. “Absolutely!” She kissed me.


I was walking on air. Lila and I had a great date, and she was now officially my girlfriend. I had never felt so connected with someone. I could even ramble about my conspiracy theories, and she would always have something to add rather than merely putting up with it. After knowing aliens existed, I was sure that made my conspiracy theories seem more likely.

I was starting to adjust to life on base. I still missed my grandma from time to time. They finally allowed me to video chat with her on Sunday nights. I told her that maybe I would make it home at Christmas this year, which I saw her light up about. She told me that she joined a local senior center and made some new friends.

We had a mission briefing in the morning, so I gave up on the movie I started and chose my bed instead. My alarm beeped at four o’clock, leaving me groaning. This military junk wasn’t for me. I knew that long before I was kidnapped by the space militia, but maybe I would someday grow used to it.

For our newest mission, we would be gone a few days. We were going camping. We needed to hike up an enormous mountain with limited trails. We couldn’t land at the top due to limited space, as this portion of the planet was covered with thick plant life. The trick would be to find a spot open enough to land safely. Once at the top, we would arrive at a temple where someone would have information that we needed to get back to the council.

We would be out of our communications’ range, and the hope was that we would avoid Khalbytian conflict during that time. Either way, we were on our own. I boarded our craft that I lovingly dubbed “Tin Can.” The base of the ship was a dark silver cylinder with massive arms that extended forward. Blue lights wrapped around the sides, and the front looked like it was a fierce face.

I chatted with Lila most of the way to our newest destination. She told me about the planet we were traveling to. Being that Lila’s first love was botany, she was excited to see an indigenous plant that spoke. It was unclear if it possessed the intelligence to talk or if it just mimicked what it already heard similar to a mockingbird.

We exited the craft as Talon had successfully set down on the planet’s surface. The plant life was dense, and about any color you could imagine. We were given machetes to get through thicker areas. Lila didn’t like the idea of chopping down the natural forestry, but there was no other way to maneuver through certain spots, and we only cut through when there was no other way around. She seemed to be in heaven, intently looking at all of the different species of flowers, trees, and brush.

You could see the mountain ascend above us, but the plants were more like those in a rainforest than the mountains of the Rockies. Lila gave us a quick reminder to avoid touching anything, as many of the plants were poisonous, dangerous even through touch. She felt our uniforms would be adequate with the added protection of gloves. We hiked most of the trip upward, and I was suddenly glad for the mandatory miles we ran daily on the base obstacle course. A few months ago, I would have only made it about half an hour.

The air seemed thick, not as thin as you would expect with increasing altitude. Only a slight humidity hung in the air, unlike what you would think a rainforest-like atmosphere would hold. There were blue flowers that were throwing particles back and forth in a playful manner. It looked as though they were playing catch. They made for an interesting hike, and they extended several miles up the mountain.

Despite the lush flora, I didn’t see any insects and thought that perhaps the planet’s life was strictly vegetation. There were black vines that slithered up the sides of tall palm trees. The dark color made them feel ominous, like they might grab you and constrict you like a boa. I made sure to stay far enough away.

We found an open patch of flat ground that John notified everyone would be our camp for the night. Our tents were pretty easy to assemble, and our cots folded down to the size of a notebook. We were able to set up everything in a few swift movements. I put my pillow and blanket down and went to sit by the fire that Morgan started. Things were cooling off quite a bit, and the warmth of the fire brought the right amount of heat.

With Lila’s directing, we found some wood that burned nicely, and it gave off a sweet honey-like scent as it burned. We were eating rations when Deron pulled out a small stereo and played some songs that were preprogrammed. Talon pulled Seraphine close as they began to slow dance by the fire.

They made war romance look easy. Seraphine looked up at Talon and seemed lost in his eyes in a way any guy would be lucky. Lila looked at me and jerked her head toward what was our makeshift dance floor. I smiled back and shook my head, teasing her until she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the floor. She rested her head on my shoulder as we danced rhythmically, the fire making our faces glow.

The music picked up and a couple of the others joined us, dancing enthusiastically to the rapid beat. John sat on one of the chairs that Colin brought out, and I saw him watching Althea. I knew that every part of him was holding back from walking over and pulling her into a dance.

She mesmerized him, and she was too buried in a book to notice. I was going to have to work on making our fearless leader more aware of his happiness being something that he deserved. If he allowed the war to squash it, he would wake up an old man, alone, with only long-ago battles to proclaim for his life.

We danced even though we hiked all day and it released any tension that we were holding in. For a moment, we were just friends enjoying a moment on a far off planet. Life seemed normal despite the surroundings screaming alien world.

The next two days were a brutal hike almost straight up the side of the mountain. At times, ropes were the only tool that enabled the hike possible. We trekked through thick sludge, and we anchored ourselves to tree trunks so we didn’t slide or sink too deep. We were fortunate enough to find a stream to wash up in, and our scans showed that the water was safe.

We decided to camp by the stream for the night, and the understanding was that we should make the temple by noon the next morning. The rations were getting a little old, and I was looking forward to getting back to the mess hall on base in a few days, or better yet, to Lila’s cooking. Her southern style surely would have packed on fifty pounds if it wasn’t for the physical demands of my new mandatory career.

Sleep lost its way to my tent. I couldn’t get comfortable even though I should have been used to the firm cots by now. By morning I was still tired, and my muscles were sore from all of the hiking. I was not built for the wilderness.

Lila noticed my slothful demeanor. “You look like you took a tumble down a few of those mud hills.”

“I couldn’t sleep. Cots were extra uncomfortable for some reason.”

“That should make the day fun for you. At least we’re only hiking half a day.”

I sighed. “True.”

Once camp was picked up, we began the hike. I was grateful the hike wasn’t as slanted upward anymore. We had found a good trail and scans showed a clear path to the temple. A ripping sound emitted from the ground five seconds before we felt the rumble. A dark green stem with large orange flowers erupted in front of us.

The flower seized John with an enormous yellow tongue that it ejected from the midst of its petals. The mutated plant monster yanked him beneath the ground. I heard Allie scream as she ran to where the ground had swallowed him. She began digging at the smoothed over dirt. The rumble came again, and two of the flowers swallowed Deron and Morgan.

“Off the path!” Talon yelled, directing us to the brush to our left.

At the third rumble, something strong grabbed me around my waist. I perceived my chest being crushed and sharp pain in the back of my neck. I succumbed to the blackness before I could react.

Chapter Eighteen

Althea-April 22, 2014

I pounded the ground and dug in the hopes that my hands would cut through the compacted brown dirt. The soil was packed back down as though it was never disturbed. I screamed for John. Something grabbed me, and I thought that the plant monsters had gotten me as well. I was momentarily fine with being taken wherever John was.

I soon realized that it was Talon carrying me away from the smooth path that seemed to be the natural habitat of the flowered ground-swallowers. I was over his shoulder and could see his feet running through thick grass and plants. He finally put me down and I collapsed on the ground.

I screamed in my mind, hoping that John could somehow hear me telepathically. All that I received in response was silence. Talon took a tally—Seraphine, Lila, Colin, himself, and I were the survivors. We needed to figure out what to do at this point. Talon and Seraphine’s ranks assumed them in charge in place of John. Talon began scanning and decided that we were going to hike straight up to the temple.

The smooth path was too easy, and with all of our abilities, we should have seen it coming. Deron was heightened, and he’d never mentioned hearing anything abnormal. He was always good about keeping us informed when he knew something was coming. Talon directed us all to follow him.

I stayed planted. “We have to find the others first!” I practically screamed it at Talon. I couldn’t believe that Talon was going to carry the mission out when our friends had been swallowed into the ground.

“We have to get the information and, from there, figure out if it’s even feasible to do anything for them. I think you have to come to terms with the fact they are probably already gone.”

Talon made me more frustrated with every word he spoke. I shook my head. “No! I refuse to leave them in the ground. We have to find a way to get them. Lila, do you know anything about the plants?”

“No, they weren’t in any of the textbooks I studied, not even the ones specific to the planet. I find it odd that no one mentioned them before now.” Lila’s answer carried a desperate tone, and I knew she was probably trying not to panic about Gabriel.

“It’s possible everyone who has come across them never escaped to write about them for any textbook,” Seraphine said.

“Look, Allie, I can tell the temple is about a mile hike up and a few hundred feet over once we get to the top. Our best bet is to make it there and see if whoever we are meeting has information on what those things were and what we need to do about them.”

Talon’s words were pretty much an order. Talon would drag me to the top if I didn’t go by choice. He wouldn’t risk me being devoured by botanical monsters. He was right but moving toward the temple meant moving away from John, and if he was alive, he could have tightly borrowed time. I pushed my anxiety aside and reluctantly began the hike up the rest of the mountain and away from my best friend.

I should have spent more time with him between missions. I should have pushed against the distance he put between us. I should have learned that there was a fragile component that could rip John from me just as Kais had been six months ago. I found breathing difficult and realized that I was near a panic attack. I pushed myself forward, regardless of the deep pounding of my heart.

We made it to the temple, and my mind wasn’t focused. The temple looked very much like a copy of the Mayan pyramids. We found a steep staircase and made our way up. At the top was a narrow door and, as we entered, torches lit up a large chamber with several tables along the far wall. Our orders were to wait in the room. After about five minutes of waiting, we heard footsteps and four Loctorians walked out from a back room. They were wearing dark brown robes that covered their deteriorating state.

One of the Loctorians stepped forward. “We have a file for you.”

He handed Talon a box that contained a device with the secret information on it. It must be incredibly sensitive information if it couldn’t be transmitted, and there was a good chance we would never know what our friends had been consumed for. Talon told the Loctorians about our predicament and asked if anything could be done.

The same Loctorian who gave Talon the box spoke. “Torgitex plants. Your friends might still be alive, but it will take some work to get to them. We will allow you the use the tunnels underneath the temple. Follow the path carefully. Do not go anywhere that is not lit blue until you come to the red door. The door has been marked red because it is a warning not to enter the domain of the Torgitex.

“They do have one weakness; it is the frequency of the Priteti fairies. Their singing is appalling to the Torgitex. We have a fairy you may use, but we will only help on one condition. One of you must return to your ship with your information, so it is not at risk. We will allow one to take the Boltize down the mountain for quicker passage.”

Boltize were large buffalo-type creatures whose grey fur looked like tiny woven sticks. They could walk straight down a mountain and straight up again. They would make the trek back within an hour rather than days. I had a passing thought that it would have been nice to have had a couple Boltize for the journey up.

Talon handed Colin the box. “Colin, why don’t you and Allie head back.”

“No, Talon, I have to go. If they are injured, they’ll need me right away.” I would argue this one through.

“You have to keep yourself in control. You’ll be more of a hindrance than a help if you can’t do that.”

I decided not to take my brother’s words personally. I did think that he was exaggerating my demeanor, as part of him was being partial over keeping his little sister safe. In the end, Lila and Colin rode the Boltize back to the ship to protect the message. Talon, Seraphine, and I would see if we could rescue the others.

The Loctorians said that our friends could be in stasis until the Torgitex plants were hungry enough to devour them. I shuddered at the thought of the botanical digestion of my friends. Once we arrived in the lair, we would release the Priteti fairy who was then supposed to release a horrendous sound which would cause the Torgitex to be distracted and release whatever prey they stored in their jowls.

We would have limited time to get them out of there. The backup plan was to have Seraphine see if she could project something to alarm the plants if we needed extra time. She informed us that she had never tried her ability on a plant species and was unsure if she would have any effect.

The Loctorians sent us on our way with a box containing the fairy. The box kept her silent until released. We put on our night vision goggles as we descended deep into the tunnels. Talon began using his tracking skills to ensure that we were following the right path. He led us using an entirely different sense than vision.

We walked through the red door as instructed. The Torgitex appeared to be in a dormant state. They encircled the edges of the room, giving us the middle of the enclosure to move around. Talon pointed to the right at five swollen plants. We were only missing four friends, which meant that the fifth had to be something else.

Seraphine opened the box at Talon’s cue, and the fairy began singing in perfect pitch. Her voice beautiful and alluring, not at all the horror I pictured. The room had a natural yellow glow to it, and I took off my goggles to get a better look at the fairy. She looked like a butterfly, with sky blue wings and a sapphire body. She fluttered around the room, and the Torgitex began writhing around, unable to locate her. She was swift and agile as she zoomed about. The five against the wall squealed, releasing our friends and something unrecognizable.

The four of them laid still on the ground, and I feared that they were gone. I ran to see if I could heal them. The priteti fluttered rapidly about, still creating chaos for the Torgitex. The necks of my friends were severely swollen with holes the size of quarters. Gabriel was closest, so I began to heal his neck wound. It closed up nicely and he stirred.

“We have to get out of here!” Talon yelled, and I realized that the singing had stopped. One of the plants had located the fairy and swallowed her whole.

I gasped in horror at the demise of the unfortunate fairy before hurrying over to Deron and Morgan, healing their wounds simultaneously. Gabriel was sitting up at this point. Deron tried to get to his feet but was unsteady. Morgan had already recovered. Seraphine was in a trance, doing her best to project more priteti fairies into the room, which seemed to be successful as the Torgitex were flailing wildly around, tearing at each other.

I moved to John and healed his wound, and at that point, both Deron and Gabriel were on their feet. I could tell that Talon was tracking and he ran toward a passage to the left of us. Deron and Morgan filed after him. I put John’s arm around my shoulder, and Gabriel grabbed his other arm as we helped him hobble out of the lair.

Once we were clear, Seraphine backed slowly toward the exit then turned around and ran. A loud scream emitted across the cavern as the Torgitex mind trance broke and they realized that they had not only lost dinner but had also torn half their lair apart. The farther we got from the den, the more steadied Gabriel, Morgan, and Deron seemed.

John seemed pretty out of it. Talon unfolded his cot from his bag and turned it upside down, attaching a rope to the front legs. We put John on it. I put a blanket over him to help with his shaking. Talon pulled John on the cot, and we kept walking. Talon tracked our destination, making us confident that we would stay on the right path.

We were silent, not wanting to attract any unfriendly attention. The trip to the temple took days of hiking up the mountain, but we were going through the mountain, which would make the trip hours. The fact there was no mud or plant life to push through also helped.

We came to the end of the trail where a large rock wall loomed far up out of sight. Talon took his weapon out and told us to stand back. He blasted a large hole into the side, and bright sunlight made us all wince and cover our eyes. We walked for about an hour before I saw our ship about fifty feet in front of us. Colin and Lila were already there as the Boltize beast had carried them down the mountain at a rapid pace.

I turned my focus to John. Our scanners showed that his temperature was a hundred and four degrees. We placed cooling blankets on him. I tried to heal him but my powers were less effective with poison than with injury. I cured a cat of poison once, but cat systems were less complicated and who knew how different the toxins were from each other. He shook and spoke deliriously. He said my name a few times, and I reassured him that I was there.

Gabriel, Morgan, and Deron all said the last thing they remembered was a sting to the neck before waking up to us saving them. They were almost entirely back to themselves, but John was in bad shape. The thought of not being able to heal him and him slipping away terrified me. I’d missed him so much the last few months.

Many emotions were making their way around my mind, and I was confused as to what I was feeling. We hurried back to base and made it within the hour. The trip back was agonizing. I sat next to John’s bed and watched the monitors blink and change slightly. I felt him slowly grab my hand, but his eyes remained closed. The shuttle faded and we were back at home in Maine at our treehouse. I was startled when I heard John speak.

“We’re not really back. I brought you here because I’m having trouble talking in the real world.”

“We’re in your mind?” I asked.

“Sort of in both our minds. I’ve learned how to merge my mind with others’. I can feel your fear. I don’t want you to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Something’s wrong. I can’t heal you, and you’re super sick.”

“Jasper will figure it out when we get to base. I have to be fine. You owe me a bowling date. Flaking out on the last one and all.” He smiled.

“You stay on this side of the bright light, and I’ll give you a week’s worth of bowling dates.”

“Deal.” That was the last thing John said before the treehouse faded back into the ship.

I continued holding his hand. I must have dozed, and when I woke up, my head was leaned next to John’s shoulder. Talon shook me awake.

“Sorry to wake you, sis. We’re docked.”

Jasper and a couple nurses were waiting for us. Medics placed John on a stretcher and zoomed him to sickbay. A nurse directed me to a waiting room. After a short time, Jasper came out to talk to me.

“I believe you got to John in time. He’s doing worse than the others because I believe the Torgitex began the digestive process with him. The first real step is to inject a slow-acting poison into the bloodstream. The Loctorians have an antidote, but it’s a few hours out.”

“What good is being a healer if I can’t fix things like this? I fixed a poisoned cat but can’t do anything about this one.”

“Althea, what you can fix surpasses any expectation. Illness and poison are different matters than sudden cellular damage. This type of poison is much more complex than the poison given to the cats for healer tiering. Gabriel, Morgan, and Deron check out perfect thanks to you healing their wounds. If you hadn’t done that I’m sure I would have four dead patients right now.”

I was still frustrated. If John died, I wasn’t sure I could get past it. I was feeling things I didn’t know how to deal with. John had listed me as his proxy, which meant that he wanted me to make any medical decisions for him in the event that he couldn’t. Jasper let me into John’s room, and I sat beside him in a large recliner. There was a little knock, and I said it was okay to enter.

Gabriel walked in. “I wanted to say thank you for the healing and all. How’s John holding up?”

“Not so good but there is a cure coming, so he only has to pull through until then.”

“You alright?”

“Yes.” My tearful stutter made me realize that Gabriel would be able to see right through my lie. In truth, I was the worst I’d ever been.

“You love him, don’t you?”

“Of course. He’s my best friend. I’ve always loved him.”

“No, I mean you love him.” His emphasis made me realize that he meant more than familial love. I glanced at John and then back at Gabriel, unsure of what to say. Gabriel spoke again, “He loves you too, you know. More than just a best friend. Has forever.”

“What? You mean… No. Are you sure?” I stammered.

Gabriel smiled at my lack of composure. “Yeah, definitely. Get some rest, Althea. John will be fine. He’s too tough to be taken out by botanical digestive poison.”

I gave a slight smile at his description. After he left, I thought about this revelation. It couldn’t be true. John and I were friends. I thought back to how he acted when I started dating Lucius. He acted pretty jealous, and I shrugged it off as him missing our friendship. He was always resistant to me setting him up. This entire time, was it something other than what I perceived as shyness? He loved me? Really loved me?

I grew tired again and found it easier to doze in the recliner. I woke up to Jasper telling me that the antidote arrived. A nurse carried in the bag, and she attached it to his IV. Jasper told me to get some more sleep because it would take a bit to cycle through his system. We should know in a few hours if he would fully recover from the toxins.

I dreamt of the Torgitex lair, and my heart pounded as I saw the Torgitex throw John across the cavern and his body hit hard against the wall. He was dead. I screamed and ran to him but was pulled back, suspended in place by the Torgitex. A hand grabbed mine, and I snapped awake.

“Allie, everything okay?” This time I wasn’t in the limbo between our minds. I was in John’s room, and he was asking me with his voice.

“Yes, now that you’re awake, things are good.”

He pushed my hair gently from my face. “I think you were having a nightmare. I could feel your fear.”

“How am I going to hide my feelings from you now, Trammel?”

“You’re not. Now you will have to confront them.”

“That’s not fun. But I’m glad you’re awake.”

“Of course I am. You owe me a week of bowling. You know how I love bowling.”

I gave him a little smirk and shook my head. “I’m getting Jasper to check you out.” I stood up.

“I’m good. I could go bowling right now.”

“Let’s let Jasper determine that.” I called Jasper to the room.

Jasper wanted to keep John overnight but thought he was on the mend. Jasper ordered me to my quarters to rest. He said that he didn’t like how drained I looked. He mentioned it was from me healing, but I knew it was from almost losing John.

Jasper promised to call me if anything changed. He gave me sleeping pills and told me to take them once I got to bed. I reluctantly complied. I was knocked out pretty solid by the time I heard my door buzz. The clock revealed that I had slept all night and through the morning. I made my way to the door and was shocked to see John standing there.

He smiled. “Jasper set me free. Says I’m good as new. Want to walk me to lunch?”

I hesitated to try to settle my emotions at seeing him.

“Why are you nervous? It’s just coffee, right?” he asked.

I looked at him in surprise and smiled back. “Yeah, definitely. Let me get dressed. I’ll meet you in the mess hall in about 30 minutes.”

“Counting on it.”

I hurried and got dressed before quickly brushing my hair and even putting a little makeup on. I wore the long-sleeved pink top that I had found in one of the base stores. I liked the way it swirled different colors of pink. I finished the outfit with some jeans and my black flats. I wasn’t sure why I was putting in so much effort. I was just going to eat lunch with John, not go out on a fancy date. I thought back to my conversation with Gabriel.

I wondered if it was true that John loved me differently than I thought he did. Gabriel spent a lot of time with John, and if anyone would know, it would probably be him. I almost lost John; when you mixed that with not seeing him for months and our recent distance, I fathomed it could be my emotions were simply running high. One thing was for sure—I needed to keep my emotions in check or John would sense something I didn’t want him to. He would have the whole thing sorted before I could breathe.

I made my way to the mess hall. Before entering, I took a deep breath and put my emotions in check. John sat at a far table, reading from a tablet. I was overwhelmed with how happy I was to see him drink coffee. With that thought, he looked up, and I wondered how much of his awareness for my presence was from the feelings I was emitting. I was unsure of how easily he could read me. He smiled and I made my way to his table. We ordered food.

He leaned forward. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me too. I’m glad you’re up and around. You feel okay again?”

“Yeah, back to myself. Jasper wants me to take a couple weeks off, and at first I thought I would protest, but I thought it would give us plenty of time to catch up and do that bowling week.”

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?”

“Of course not. You made a promise.”

“Under duress,” I said with a little smile.

“Gotta get you out of your quarters somehow.” As he spoke, I realized it was almost comical that things had flipped in a way that he was trying to pull me out of seclusion.

“We were pretty out of our quarters on that mission.”

“But that was all business.” Now he was smiling, and we appeared to be flirting back and forth.

Our food arrived, and I was glad we could start eating before he said something about pleasure. Later, I obliged his bowling urges. The bowling alley was empty. Most people were busy on missions and those that weren’t were assigned base duties. My bowling game was terrible. I never played much on team nights, and John had been getting lots of practice lately. I looked like a big klutz next to his perfectly aligned rolls.

“You have to hold the ball a little differently.” He came behind me and adjusted my arms and stance.

I felt my heart beat a little faster and forced myself to regain control. I wondered if John felt my nervousness. That was quickly answered.

“Relax, it’s just a game.” He shot me another smile.

At least he thought my feelings stemmed from my lack of bowling aptitude. We finished the game and John was easily the winner.

“See, this is why I maintained an avoidance to bowling. I’m no good at it.”

“It’s about the fun, not the skill. Hey, I want to show you something,” John waved me to the exit of the bowling alley.

We replaced the borrowed bowling shoes with our normal ones, and I followed him out of the rec center. He shot straight for the elevator, and we got off on level thirty-three.

“Gabriel and I went exploring one day and found something I thought you would like,” he said.

The elevator opened up to an extensive library, and books rose far beyond my sight. I had never seen a library so elaborately put together. Hundreds of bookshelves were intricately carved with precise designs. The marble floor on a space base seemed over the top. Someone valued books far more than practicality.

“The books aren’t the only amazing part.” John walked behind one of the shelves, and the ceiling divided similar to the astronomy club back on our college campus. Stars lit up the library more. You could see Saturn toward the top of the dome; it resembled the size of the moon from Earth. The rings looked magnificent, even at that distance. In the center of the room were some recliners. I followed John over, and we sat down. We laid back in the recliners and watched stars zoom by. We contently sat there for an unspecified amount of time. John grabbed my hand, but neither of us spoke. I felt content enjoying the moment and not overanalyzing it.

“This is so much better than the mail order telescope I gave you when we were ten,” I said.

“I loved that telescope. Made the yearly meteor showers pretty decent.”

“I guess it was alright. But this is beyond anything I’ve ever imagined.”

He ran his thumb over the top of my hand. “Yeah, it’s pretty great.”

We sat there, soaking in the vastness of the universe that was now at our fingertips. We eventually got up, and John walked me home.

“Bowling tomorrow?”

I sighed. “I know you expect a week, but I think the calamity of my skill should give me an automatic out.”

“How about a movie night then?”

“Sure, sounds good.”

John paused a little longer than I thought he would. With a burst of bravery and neglectful thought, I reached up and kissed him. Our lips pressed together firmly, and we seemed to be lost in an explosive connection. My breathing sped up, and I had the split second choice to pull him inside or release his lips. A sudden surge of anxiety caused me to take the second option.

“Althea, I’m sorry. I think it was an in the moment thing.” He was attempting to explain the kiss that I initiated.

I nodded, and a slight smile curled on my lips. “See you tomorrow, Trammel.”

I slipped behind my door and pressed my back against it. What were we doing? I climbed into bed, but sleep lost its way to my consciousness. The wobble on the cliff that held John over the edge of death awakened something in me that I long refused to accept. I was terrified I would lose my best friend, and our interaction would once again be demoted to awkward comrades. To the same extent, I couldn’t shake the deep-seated desire to pull him into my bed and let go of the inhibitions of what ifs.

The next week we took things slowly and enjoyed each other’s company very similarly to old times. Years ago I would snuggle up to John as we watched a movie and I’d never thought twice about it. Now I wondered how much John had thought about it. We sat on the couch in my quarters. We laid sideways on the sofa and I laid directly in front of John, and he wrapped his arms around me.

We finished the movie and he kissed the back of my head as he breathed in the smell of my hair. We let the credits roll, and we both drifted comfortably to sleep. I woke up with John still holding me. I slipped out of his arms and made pancakes and eggs. When he woke up, we ate breakfast.

“You know reality is coming. Jasper has released me to work starting next Tuesday. Only about a week,” John spoke between bites.

“Think we’ll have a mission shortly after?”

“I’m sure something is already in the works.”

I picked at my pancakes and took a deep breath. “John, what’s going on with us? I mean, what are we? I know snuggling up to a movie was our Friday night tradition before college but last night seemed like something more. And we’ve kissed. What does it all mean?”

“I’m not completely sure. I know what I would like us to be. I’ve known for a really long time.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I was scared we would lose what we did have. We’ve always been good together, and I was afraid if I told you I wanted more I would lose you completely. I know all we’ve gone through has changed both of us. When I almost died, it showed me I’ve wasted too much time. These last few months without you haven’t been good, and if you’re willing, I’d like to see if we can become more. But if you want to stay only my best friend, I’ll take it.”

I smiled. “I think I’d like to see what we can become too. But I know for sure if it doesn’t work out to be more, I don’t want to lose my best friend again.”

“Me either.”

We agreed to take things slow and test the waters. We went on normal dates of dinner and movies. We occasionally kissed and held hands. Our relationship was new and old, the same and different and more than anything being with John was home. He had always been my home, but now I was allowing us to grow into something I wished I had tried for years ago.

The war—the annoying, excessive pounding in the back of my mind. We were back to doing missions shortly after our dinner conversation and within a month had ten under our belts, along with a couple of battles.

I was getting better at healing, and I was practicing with the heat my ability generated. I could melt things and was told by Jasper it could be used to destroy Khalbytians. I tried it with objects for a long time. As I grew better at controlling the heat, I could control the speed I melted an object, or I could stop the melting process at any point.

I avoided using it on another living thing until one battle I had no choice but to put what I had been practicing to use. A Khalbytian jumped at me and clawed my chest apart. I touched his arm and heat flowed through my arm and into the Khalbytian. He melted into a tarry mess at my feet.

I found it immensely appalling. I had never killed anything before, and I struggled to cope with my actions. I pushed the fact that I killed another creature out of my thoughts, unable to ponder on it further. I would rather restore life than take it, but in war, you sometimes don’t have a choice.

John and I tried to find time for each other, but they were slamming our schedule with mission after mission. We had been officially together for four months when we were finally given two weeks’ leave. This was our first time off since John had recovered from his plant ordeal.

With time to breathe from the carnage that had become our daily lives, John and I turned our eyes back to each other. We decided another movie night was in order and took our usual positions on the couch. I fell asleep halfway through the movie and woke up to John, carrying me to my bed. He tucked me in, but as he turned to go, I grabbed his hand. I sat up a little and pulled him to me, kissing him deeply.

I scooted over in the bed, and he climbed under the covers as we kissed. I removed his shirt and he his pants. Our moves were hurried as we fumbled to shed our clothes off. We kissed, barely stopping to breathe. I briefly wondered what was happening. We were about to go to a place that we most likely could never return to simple friendship.

His lips were electrifying. I’d never experienced such a melding of emotions and assumed that it was the effect of his empathic ability. I could feel his love for me, and it was far beyond what I had calculated it to be. We were completely intertwined, and with an intense igniting, we were one soul, mind, and body. He pulled me tightly against him, and sleep took us both.

From there on out there was no question about what we were. My worries that things would now be awkward were unfounded. My soulmate was someone I’d overlooked for years. It took John almost being gone forever for me to awaken to that fact. On the last night before our leave was over, we cooked dinner and went to bed.

John softly kissed my temple. “Marry me, Althea Cooper.”

I looked at him a bit stunned. “We’ve been dating maybe four months.”

“Come on, Allie. We’ve been together forever.”

I buried my face in his chest. What ensued was a tender, sweet moment of love declaration, a complete bond. I knew I had no other choice but to become John Trammel’s forever.

I laid my head back on his chest, feeling his heart beating, willing it to beat with mine forever. “Okay, I’ll marry you.”

The next day reality hit again, and we were off on another mission. The mission would be brief. We were playing courier through a heavily guarded Khalbytian system. Seraphine was at my door, wanting to see if we could walk together. John came up behind me, wrapping his arms around me. I turned around and gave him a quick kiss. He walked to his quarters.

Seraphine smiled. “I knew something was up. You two have been too googly-eyed during our bowling nights.”

I locked up my quarters and we began walking toward the docking bay. “Yeah, things are going well. Really well. He asked me to marry him.”

“That was quick.”

“Sort of, I guess. John and I have been like an old married couple since we were five, I just never saw the romance side of things. Now that we’re there I almost regret the years we wasted. In this war, there’s no written contract that tomorrow belongs to us. I’ve decided to live now.”

“I see your point. Talon and I had similar thoughts when we got married. We’ve had a great six years of marriage, and I wouldn’t want to refund any of it. You going to tell Talon?”

I gave her a grin. “I don’t know. Maybe I should make him wait four years to find out.”

She grinned back. “Fair trade, I suppose.”

Our mission went flawlessly to the point it was boring, but boring was good in war. My mind was focused on one thing, and that was getting back to base with John. He was focused entirely on the mission. He could always compartmentalize things and take himself away from distractions. I often envied that about him.

When we docked back at base, John asked if Talon and Seraphine could come to dinner. Seraphine shot me a knowing smile, but Talon simply accepted, blissfully unaware that he was about to learn his little sister was getting married.

John had suggested we make roast and potatoes, which were Talon’s favorite. John fumbled with plates, expelling his nervous energy as he set the table. He told me he felt weird to be appointed Talon’s commanding officer. Talon had been in this war much longer, and his experience was greater by far. Now John was going to tell Talon he wanted to marry me. Talon was overprotective of me all of my life, and I knew that was most likely driving John’s concern.

We ate dinner and Talon and John exchanged jokes back and forth. The mood seemed light, and dinner was satisfying. After good-natured conversation, John directed everyone to the couch. That was a John move, ensuring everyone knew we were about to have a formal discussion.

John, seemingly unable to take the suspense any longer, got straight to the point. “I want to marry your sister, Talon, and I would love your blessing.”

Talon stared blankly for a minute. He turned to me. “You two are together? You keep this under wraps because of what Seraphine and I did?”

“No, we never got around to it. We’ve had a ton of battles and missions lately to steal our focus. We’ve been enjoying being together, and we were sorting through what was going on. But you know it, Talon. John has always been the other half of me.” I kept my tone excited, hoping Talon would follow suit.

“That’s true. I rarely saw you without each other,” Talon said and turned to John. He looked him square in the eye before continuing. “I know you love her. I’ve always known since the moment she walked down the stairs to go to prom when you both were around fifteen. But if my baby sister becomes your wife, you better hold onto her heart as if it is the most precious treasure you’ve ever been given. If you can do that, then I’d be glad to make you my brother on an official level.” Talon was tough, but he sure could get mushy at times.

“Trust me, Talon, there will be nothing or nobody that will come close to the level in which I will love and cherish your sister.” John could get mushy back, and I stifled a laugh.

“Wait, you’ve known since we were fifteen?” I asked Talon, surprised. “Apparently everyone knew but me.”

Talon nodded.

“It’s okay, Allie, denseness runs in the family,” Seraphine said, looking at Talon.

Talon and I both scowled at Seraphine and said in unison, “Hey!”

John and Seraphine laughed and shared a glance. Seraphine and I excused ourselves to clean up dinner while Talon and John started into guy talk.

Seraphine loaded the dishwasher. “So, when is the date?”

“I’m not sure. I think we’re kind of toying with the idea of the entire thing.”

“Sounds serious.” There was the Seraphine sarcasm I loved.

“I mean, things are moving quickly. They feel like they were always supposed to be, but I need to catch my breath a little first.”

“I get that. You move at your speed. Enjoy your time with him, no matter status.”

John put in a request for me to move to his quarters. I thought there might be a fraternization clause, but with all the rules on base, the Loctorians seemed not to limit our interactions unless it interfered with one of their visions. Our request was granted, and I took the few things that weren’t base issued with me. Seraphine was right, we should take the time we needed.

One night after dinner, John wanted to show me something in the library. The library was dark, but a switch to rectify this issue seemed challenging to locate. John located it quickly, and I realized he’d been here a lot. The lights were painfully slow as we aimlessly stood in the darkness. The wait was far from regrettable as the lights traced across shelves of books vaster than the Library of Congress, miles of books stretched far beyond our gaze.

I could spend a million lifetimes reading, never quite holding all the contents of every page. John seemed to know when we walked to the right corridor, as he pulled a large black leather bound book from a tall shelf right in front of us. He opened it before I could gaze at the cover. There were dazzling pictures of a planet. The land was purple and red in most spots, and the oceans were coral colored. He turned a couple pages, and it revealed beaches of purple sand. The pictures were overwhelmingly beautiful.

“This is it, Allie. Let’s get married here,” John said.

“You know, it’s usually the woman that fusses over wedding details while the man just nods.”

“Well, we don’t follow stereotypes.”

I gave a small laugh. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Back in our new shared quarters, I snuggled into him and listened to his heartbeat. The rhythm rocked me to sleep, and I was content. All was right in my world. I didn’t care that mayhem was peeking over the horizon. I only cared how right it felt in John’s arms.

Chapter Nineteen

Talon-August 24, 2014

We were sent to search for some crystals that the council needed for new weaponry they were developing. The only place they could be found in was the rainforest of a distant planet called Mezhaltie. The foliage was thick, and after half our team had been swallowed by alien plants a few months ago, I was over exotic plant species.

This planet, however, had the joy of insects in abundance, which I hated more than alien plants. We hiked through the thick foliage, and Lila kept us informed on which plants to watch out for. She insisted that the flower swallower wasn’t on this planet, but she hadn’t been aware that they were on the last one either.

“They’re beautiful.” Seraphine watched a swirl of butterfly-like creatures fly around us. The insects carried a stack of three wings on each side and came in various colors. The trees were deep greens and blues.

I tracked the crystal, and we made it to the location in about an hour and a half. I scanned the area to make sure we wouldn’t be getting any surprise visits from Khalbytians. They were known to patrol this planet frequently, and we needed to keep our guard up. There was a thick, tan webbing blocking our path. It hung between two large trees and was so thick that you couldn’t see beyond it.

“Anyone hear that?” Deron asked.

“Seeing as you are heightened and are just now starting to hear whatever it is none of us can hear it,” Gabriel pointed out.

Deron pointed at the webbing material. “It’s buzzing right past whatever that stuff is.”

“That’s where the crystals are. And let me guess, a strange, horrible insect is waiting for us on the other side,” I said.

“Let me try to project and see.” Seraphine concentrated and a little while later returned to her body. “They are some type of black wasp. Large, probably the size of a golf ball each. I tried projecting a distraction, but I think they are entranced in the hive mentality and have no focus for my imagery.”

“Gabriel, can you go invisible to the other side?” John asked.

“Sure.” Gabriel vanished, and pretty soon we heard him yelling. He appeared back in front of us. He gasped for air. “Somehow they knew I was there.”

He shook as five quarter-sized welts were growing on his body, one on his face and two on each arm. Allie hurried over to him and healed each one.

John placed his hand on his chin. “Environmental suits?”

“Back at the ship,” Colin said.

Khalbytian fire struck plants around us. The Khalbytians were here to stop us from getting the crystals. I was too caught up in concern about the black wasps that I’d missed them getting close to us. We needed to grab the crystals and get back. I caught Allie out of the corner of my eye. She bolted beyond the barrier.

“Allie! What are you doing?” I yelled, shooting a Khalbytian and throwing my knife into another.

“Getting the crystals! Keep fighting,” she hollered back.

My sister was brave almost to the point of stupidity. She could heal but not if the wasps took her out too quickly.

John took down two Khalbytians. “Where’s Allie? Something is wrong!”

“No kidding. She’s being stung by hundreds of alien wasp things,” I said.

“She went after the crystals?” He grimaced, and I wasn’t even sure he was surprised.

“Yep, didn’t think twice about it.”

We finished off the second round, and I was debating going after her when she returned with her bag full of the crystal. She had welts all over her, but she accomplished the mission. She sat down on a log as she struggled to breathe. Each of the dozens of welts began to heal one by one.

I looked at her sternly. “That wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”

“It worked, didn’t it? Someone had to get the crystals and with more Khalbytians coming there was no time to go get environmental suits. Whoever went I would have to heal, so might as well have been me.”

By the time we made it to the ship, all of Allie’s welts had disappeared.

“Allie, you may feel like you are immortal, but you are not. Please remember that.” I gave her one last chiding before climbing into the ship.

“And you may feel like I can’t handle big things on my own, but I can. Please remember that.”

I took a deep breath to keep myself from saying anything I would regret later. She was going to be the death of me. We made it back to base with no further issues.


The next morning, I met Allie for her weekly fighting lesson. We were in the base gym, which was much more than a few treadmills and weights; exercise machines and weightlifting were only one portion of what the gym held. There were sparring areas with foam mats and protective gear. There was also a running track and a weapons range where target practice was done. Allie and I were in the sparring area, but we never used gear. I needed her to know how to fight without it.

We worked on this every week, and I was tough on her. I demanded perfection because I needed her as safe as possible. The Loctorians brought her into the fight, and I was going to make sure she survived it.

“Don’t drive with your fist. Use your elbow. Turn to the side more.” I moved her stance to a better form.

“Can’t I just melt my opponent?” She started into the same argument she used when she was growing tired during one of our sessions. I pushed her further each time. She would sometimes argue to quit, but she never did.

“You can’t rely on your ability alone to get you out of a situation. What happens if you find yourself surrounded by plating? Plating stops abilities, you’ll be defenseless.”

“Plating is so rare I bet it will be a non-issue.”

I dodged her swing that almost met my jaw. “Rare for now. We don’t know yet the extent it is throughout the galaxy. The fact it is rare is an assumption. Besides, you could also find yourself wanting only to disable or injure an opponent.”

“Can do that too by controlling how fast and high I heat someone up.”

Plating was a metal that had been discovered by Khalbytians in the last couple of months. The threat it posed was grave as it rendered all gene-activated abilities useless in humans. The enemy fleet only had five known plated ships but if a larger amount of the metal were discovered, our side could be in big trouble.

We sparred for twenty more minutes. My sister was tiny and lacked physical strength, but her determination and perseverance gave her a leg up. I taught her how to dodge her opponent, and we worked on her speed. She needed to touch an opponent to use her ability, which meant she had to survive her approach.

After hand to hand, we moved on to weapons. She didn’t like using weapons and always said they weighed her down, but I made sure she could use one if it became necessary. She was excellent at dodging weapon fire, and that was one of her biggest advantages. I had a feeling her biggest opposition to weapons was what they were used for. She hated killing. I watched her on the battlefield. She was injured more than she needed to be because she tried to avoid hurting Khalbytians. She could heal, but healers weren’t immortal. Helen and Kais taught me that. I was beginning to have the opposite problem; I was numb to the violence. I didn’t find it enjoyable, but I no longer felt anything at all when I killed a Khalbytian.

Allie’s eyes drooped, and her breathing heavy. I had pushed her far beyond when she first said we should stop. I told her I would see her later at game night. I watched her leave and thought about how much the war changed her. It concerned me frequently that we could still have years before I could get her out of this fight and back into the life she deserved. I needed her to get to the other side of all of this before too much damage was done to her.

I went over to the weights and began my routine. After the gym, I went home. I soaked in the warmth of the water falling around me in the shower. I heard my com device ding and jumped out of the shower. I had been planning an afternoon of watching a football game with the guys. Instead of junk food and touchdowns, my day now required my uniform.

Seraphine was teaching her art class, and she had at least another hour when she made her way in to clean up quickly. Unexpected missions were always dreaded. We would be enjoying our lives then be snatched back into a place we didn’t want to be. I waited for Seraphine to finish getting ready before I left. We always tried to take whatever bit of time we could squeeze in to see each other. We held hands and walked to the docking bay.

John greeted us with an explanation, “Sorry, everyone, for ruining your Sunday. It seems the council has placed a priority-one mission in our charge. A radioactive dust storm is coming for one of the colonies, and we need to evacuate it as soon as possible. On top of that, there is a rumor the Khalbytians have had their eye on this colony as their next target. If we are attacked, it will obviously delay relocation.”

Human colonies were established by Loctorians with the idea of preserving humanity. The Loctorians had worried because humans were not space travelers, and that our species would be wiped out with one planetary disaster. They didn’t activate these humans, as they wanted them to be in their natural state. I wasn’t entirely sure about the reasoning other than maybe they didn’t want them to fight because they saw them as valuable for humanity’s preservation.

After John’s briefing, we folded to the location of our mission. The planet we arrived on was barren and only held grey dust. There was no variety, and a wild wind blew steadily. I couldn’t gather why the Loctorians would have chosen to subject colonists to this sand pit with so many other planets to choose from.

The villagers made their houses out of a plastic-like material that they created out of an unusual element that grew in various patches throughout the planet. All the buildings were domes and connected to each other through tunnels. Going outside was unnecessary, and I could see with the blandness of the landscape why staying indoors would be a preference. When we arrived, we discovered that the village had already been attacked by Khalbytians, but most of the villagers were able to hide in their underground system. We would have to check each enclosure to locate everyone.

This was my area. I could easily locate all of them efficiently, but the radiation storm was rapidly approaching, and I wouldn’t be able to get to all of them. We spread out, searching all the buildings thoroughly and explaining the urgency of us leaving. Radiation storms were rare, and most of the villagers had never seen one. For this reason, it would most likely require a great deal of effort to convince them that leaving was imperative. We set to work and finally got most of them to board our ship where they could safely wait out the storm.

“Is everyone in your village accounted for?” John asked.

“I believe so, but we have around a hundred and fifty, so I can’t be sure,” the colony leader said.

“I got it.” I began to track the village for life signs.

We had forgotten a small girl and boy whose parents somehow didn’t notice they were missing. I told John, and he sent Gabriel with me to retrieve them. They were located on the outer rim, and we needed to hurry. We only had twenty-five minutes before the storm arrived, and being radiated was not something I wanted myself or anyone to endure. We got there and found the children huddled in a corner.

“We gotta go. A storm is coming. Your family is on our ship,” I told them.

They both stared blankly at us. Gabriel bent down to their level and repeated what I told them. The children backed away. We didn’t have time for this. We were going to have to grab them and take them back.

“We have to take you to our ship. If you don’t come, we will have to carry you there,” I said.

They still stared at us. I moved to grab the boy, and he reeled back. The girl pulled out a revolver and pointed it toward us as though she was going to shoot us. The boy began signing something with his hands.

“You know what he’s saying?” I asked Gabriel.

“No, we need to call Allie.”

“Yeah, I suppose she’s better with children.”

“No, she knows sign language.”

“Allie knows sign language?” I was caught off guard by this information. How had I not known my sister knew a secondary language?

“Yes.” Gabriel grabbed the radio, explaining that we needed Allie to sign to the children.

John sounded irritated and said we needed to leave, but he agreed to send Allie. Allie came running in and slowed when she saw the children. She smiled at them even though the little girl seemed as if she might fire the weapon. Allie began signing, and both the children looked relieved. The boy signed back to her.

“They say their puppy is trapped in the tunnel, but their hatch is jammed and they aren’t leaving without him. Seems reasonable,” she translated.

I narrowed my eyes, not believing what she said. I wasn’t sure how any of that was reasonable. We were all about to be toasted, and now we were going to have to save a puppy. This was why John had sent a message ahead, that the colonists were to have all animals with them and ready. In fairness, the Khalbytian attack probably scrambled everything, but still, we didn’t have time for this.

I concentrated on the puppy and saw he was ten feet underneath the house. Allie told the children to move so we could access the hatch. I put my weapon on low and evaporated the hatch. Allie told them she would get the puppy and quickly climbed down and pulled out a fluffy ball of brown fur. Allie appeared to be in heaven as she held the puppy.

“See why they had to save him?” Allie smiled at me, and I shook my head. She said, “We all know you’re a big softy, and you wouldn’t have let him die either.”

Allie was right, but I gave her no confirmation. She explained to the kids that we had to hurry back to the ship and held her hand out for the weapon. The girl handed it to Allie, and we made it to the ship with ten minutes to spare.

Back on the ship, I asked Allie, “Since when do you know sign language?”

“Since high school. My friend who was deaf taught me. I can read lips, too.”

“And you never thought to mention this?”

“Never came up, I guess. I know American Sign Language anyway. The one the kids spoke was a little different, but close enough, I could gather what they said. In case you wanted more details on the topic.”

“How much more don’t I know about you?”

“I have a feeling there’s a lot more we don’t know about each other.”

I agreed with her more than I wanted to. Before she joined the war, I had two separate lives, one with her and one without. All that time I was away, she was living her life and gaining new experiences that I wasn’t a part of. One thing was for sure—she never ceased to surprise me, and today was no exception. She had grown into this amazing person, and I had missed a lot of that process.

We took the colonists to their new planet, and I was sure they had to be excited after the melancholic world they migrated from. This planet was full of lush green trees and grass. Most of the planet consisted of forest terrain, and the children would have endless ground to explore. The Loctorians already set up domed houses to give a sense of familiarity and make the transition easier.

We stayed a few hours to make sure the colonists were getting settled okay before returning to base. We lost a couple of days to the colony mission and decided to go ahead with game night the day after we got back.


“At least one thing I do know about you is you still suck at bowling,” I told Allie with a laugh as she guttered her third ball.

She smiled back. “Yep, I only come for the dancing.”

“Someone say dancing?” Deron chimed in. Dancing was his favorite part, too.

“Yeah, turn the music on already, Monroe.”

Deron went over to the computer in the wall and switched on Daft Punk’s “One More Time.” I watched Allie dance; there was so much life to her, and the universe needed that. I needed that. Seraphine came over and sat next to me.

“She’s going to be fine, Talon. You’ve taught her well.” Seraphine often knew my thoughts with a single look.

“I don’t doubt her, same as I don’t doubt you. I doubt all the other shitty things that exist.”

“At some point you have to just go with it. At this moment, what you need to see is your sister loving her life and not the battles that threaten her. None of us know the time we have, but if we obsess with the ending, we’ll miss the moments that are the reason we don’t want the ending to come too soon.”

“You are profoundly wise, my love.” I kissed Seraphine’s cheek.

Seraphine leaned back against me. “Not sure if it’s wisdom or just things I have to tell myself. We’re all going to grow grey and have those family reunions. Allie will be the fun aunt who still has everyone dancing when she’s ninety. You’ll yell at her that she’s going to break a hip. She’ll yell back to quit lecturing her because she’s a great grandma and old enough to make her own choices. We’ll be surrounded by grandchildren, and great nieces and nephews, and all of this will be a faded memory. Lives well lived is what we will know at the end.”

I laughed at Seraphine’s end of life description. “And you’ll be like fine wine and have aged beautifully. No doubt in my mind.”

“You have giant, unrealistic dreams, but that’s why I love you.” She laughed and kissed me.

“Save the make-out session for home and come dance!” Allie yelled at us, and Seraphine pulled me to the dance floor.

What Seraphine told me was right, these moments were why I was scared of the ending. I never wanted them to end. I would listen to my wife and breathe in the dancing, the family, and friends. This was how we would make it to the lives well-lived that Seraphine described. We would make it there by fighting to have moments exactly like this one.

Chapter Twenty

Talon-September 8, 2014

I had a message from Admiral Parks asking me to stop by her office in a couple hours. Usually John met with her to get mission briefings, and he would relay the information to the rest of us. Seraphine was still sleeping when I decided I should get myself going for the day. After quickly showering and shaving, I saw Seraphine was up and I told her about the message.

“Hopefully she doesn’t want you gone too long,” Seraphine munched on her cereal.

“I know, it’s been a while since we’ve had a separate mission.”

I put on my uniform and went to Admiral Parks’ office.

“Talon, great to see you,” Parks greeted me warmly. “How’s Seraphine?”

“She’s doing great.”

“Glad to hear it. I asked you here today because it seems I have found myself in a bit of a predicament with the Loctorian council and it has to do with a species you are familiar with—the Anierisians.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t recall that species. Could you refresh my memory?”

Admiral Parks handed me a tablet with info on the Aniersians. “They were the fog species, the ones who brought out fears until the victims died of dehydration.”

“Yeah, definitely remember them. Let me guess, the council can’t leave them alone?”

“Yes, they want an alliance formed with them because they think their skills would be useful. But I know the only way they let anyone go was for you to promise them we would leave them alone. You’re the only one I know of who can go in and not be affected by the fog.”

“They were pretty adamant we leave them alone, or they would kill the next group. I did have the thought we could use bio-suits, but I think that would make us more intimidating and might lead to a bigger attack.”

“I know, but my hands are pretty tied here and the Loctorians aren’t letting this one go. I was wondering if you would be willing to go talk to the Anierisians?”

I took a deep breath. “And go back on my word? That mission is a one-way trip, a suicide mission. Whoever goes on it is not coming back, and the council is wise enough to know that.”

“I don’t know of anyone else whose mind is resistant to mental abilities.”

“Is this an order?” I asked for confirmation.

“No, but the council wants to send Captain Trammel. He’s the best negotiator we have and he’s not even a manipulator.”

“What if I go speak to the council? Try and persuade them of the fault in their thinking?” I was grasping at straws. I didn’t know if anyone could persuade the council of anything, but I needed to try. If they sent John or anyone else on my team, I was sure that they wouldn’t be coming back.

“I’m open to this. Let me make some arrangements and, if it’s cleared with the council for you to speak to them, let’s plan on you leaving tomorrow morning,” Parks said.

I agreed and went home to talk to Seraphine. When I told her about them wanting to send someone back into the fog, I saw her eyes and the fear it brought.

“I don’t want you to go back, Talon,” She was nearly pleading with me.

“I might not have a choice. If I refuse, it sounds like John is up for the job. I’m not susceptible to the fog as he most likely is. If he goes, he’s not coming back. Plus, I have a trust built up with them.”

“Not if you go back. It’ll mean you broke your word and can’t be trusted.”

“Let’s just see how this meeting with the council goes. It’ll be interesting to finally meet the council that has been controlling our lives for years.”

Tonight was game night with the team, and I would bring it up to everyone as Admiral Parks told me to. She thought the council might even send my entire team. I didn’t want anyone near that fog, especially not my family.

I relayed the entire mission Seraphine, and I had been on a few years back. How we had gone on a mission to rescue two previous teams and check out a shielding chemical. The chemical had ended up being a natural gas emitted from the mouths of Anierisians. When a human breathed in the gas it caused hallucinations. Hallucinations that would bring out its victim’s worst fears.

The person would wander in the Anierisian fog until they died of dehydration. My brain worked differently than the other victims and I was able to figure out my hallucinations weren’t real. The Anierisians noticed and confronted me about it. After promising them humans would not return to their planet, they let my team and the missing ones leave.

After telling my current team the mission story, I filled them in on the current intentions of the council.

“Sounds similar to a siren without the beautiful singing voice,” Gabriel said.

Colin raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t sirens mermaids?”

“Not originally. They morphed into that over time as people mixed them up with mermaids. They were originally half woman and half bird according to Greek mythology.”

“Well, she was definitely more bird-like than fish-like,” I told him.

“So the issue is you promised them we would leave them alone so they would let your team go, and now the council wants to mess things up and get more teams killed,” John said.

“Pretty much. I’m going to talk to the council tomorrow to see if I can persuade them to back off their plan.”

“I’ll go with you. I think if they end up ordering our team to go, it’ll be good for me to have as many details as possible.”

“I’m not sure what to expect. All I’ve heard are rumors of the council. I don’t really know anyone who has actually met them.”

“Sure you do. John’s met them,” Allie said nonchalantly.

I looked at John in surprise and wondered why this was never brought up before.

John nodded. “Yeah, when they first recruited me. They wanted to convince me to fight and insisted I was destined to be an admiral in the war. They trained me for four months, helped me learn all the things I can do with my ability, and let me practice to make it better.”

John went on to tell me what occurred and what I should expect. He seemed unfazed by the fact he was one of only a few people to have actually seen the council. Even Admiral Parks told me she had never seen them and didn’t know anyone else who had either. All the orders were relayed through others. This made me wonder what their plan for John was, considering that he was important enough for them to want to convince and train directly.

Morning arrived and Admiral Parks informed me that the council would be expecting John and me. I found this a bit creepy because, when she called, I hadn’t relayed to her the fact John wanted to tag along.

“Be careful, Talon. I don’t like this one,” Seraphine said.

I pulled her into a long hug and kissed her forehead. Then I stepped back a little to look her in the eye. “Babe, I got this. I promise I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not worried about your ability, I’m worried about the council interfering. They may be able to glimpse the future, but their judgment is not a hundred percent.”

“I know, but you quit worrying. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”


I gave her another kiss and left to meet John at our shuttle. We arrived on the planet that the council was on and trekked back a couple kilometers through a very narrow cave tunnel until it finally opened into an elegant, grand room. The council sat at a long table facing us, and their bodies were wholly encompassed in their robes. Twelve wore brown robes with hoods, and the middle member wore dark blue. John told me his name was Killreth.

Killreth spoke for the group. “Talon Cooper and John Trammel, welcome. Can we offer you any refreshments before we get started?”

I glanced at John, already finding the interaction odd, but he shook his head and said, “No, I’m fine, but thank you.”

I followed suit and gave the same answer.

Killreth continued, “We have been told you want to dispute us sending more teams to negotiate with the Anierisians?”

“Yes, sir. When I went on that mission a few years ago, the only way I could get them to release my team was to promise we would leave them be.” I went on to refresh their memories on the details of the mission, and when I was done speaking, there was a significant pause.

“John, how do you feel about leading your team there?” Killreth asked.

“I trust Talon’s judgment and experience. I think it would prove detrimental to my team, and their loss would be significant for the war as a whole.”

“Your team always tasks a risk, but we see your points are valid. However, we see the Anierisians fighting alongside us with favorable outcomes. We also see that if they do not fight, they will face annihilation at the hands of Khalbytians. Talon, we would like you to go and talk to them. If you do this, we will accept whatever answer you gain from them and not send any more teams.”

Admiral Parks already told me this would be the most likely outcome, and I felt there was little choice but to accept. I would be the best bet either way since I could resist the influence of the fog. Creating believable hysteria seemed to be the Anierisians’ only true defense. The council asked John to remain behind, as they wanted to discuss some things with him.

Before I left, a Loctorian by the name of Meseri gave me a vision that I could share with the Anierisians of the Khalbytians wiping them out. I set the coordinates to return to the planet of nightmares and break a promise I made years ago. The more I thought about it, the more I found it fitting that I was the one to return. I could ask for a pardon and accept the consequences if one was not granted.

I landed close to where my team set down last time. I walked through a field of ankle-high blue grass. I trudged for a couple kilometers and was beginning to wonder if they even lived in the area anymore. Tracking them had never been easy, and since there was no fog out, I couldn’t track the chemical they emitted either. Shielding was their expertise. A white-winged woman with long black hair swooped down in front of me. Her normal looking teeth retracted and razor fangs filled her mouth.

She moved closer to me. “Talon Cooper the strange has returned, yet he said he would leave us be.”

“I know, but I didn’t have a choice. I’ve come with a warning and a request. I know you can delve into my brain and pull out my fears. Can you find the vision I was given about an hour ago?”

“You are full of tricks and we should slay you for your lies.”

Three more of the creatures swooped down surrounding me, snarling their lethal incisors my direction. I stayed planted as the first one opened her mouth wide with her sharp teeth hovering centimeters from my jugular. One swift bite and I would bleed out far away from any hope of rescue.

“I had every intention of keeping my word but I have been given no choice. If I didn’t break my word, not only would people I love get hurt, but your people will be annihilated also. If you search my mind, you will see this to be correct.”

Her jaw twitched as if in internal conflict between ripping apart my throat and paying my words heed. She opened her mouth, and a thick, silver fog glided from her mouth until it surrounded me. We stood in the middle of the vision Meseri sent to me. We watched as the Khalbytians brought down several Anierisian cities. The Khalbytians were wearing a special mask, and I assumed it must be keeping the fog from working on the Khalbytian minds.

After the vision concluded, the Anierisian spoke, “We have thoroughly scanned your mind, and we do not believe Talon Cooper to be full of deceit. We will go with you and speak to the council.”

The Anierisian who I spoke with both times followed me to my ship, and she brought the three others with her. They were the only ones I saw, and I wondered how many of them were actually left. They all looked incredibly similar. Two had black hair like the one who spoke to me, while the other had blonde hair.

The four of them boarded, and then there was a tap on the ship. I opened the door to see a smaller Anierisian standing there, one with blonde hair. She looked young, around the age of fifteen, if they even aged close to the same as humans did. We traveled back to the council planet.

The Anierisians were about a foot shorter than me, and they fit through the low set cave tunnel to the council easily. Luckily their wings folded nicely behind their backs, making the narrowness not as big of an issue as I thought it would be. Killreth introduced the council to the Anierisians.

“Maziellia,” the head Anierisian finally gave her name. She introduced the rest of her group and pointed to each one as she gave names. “My sisters—Callia, Elloesia, Lacharallia, and Nia. We are the leaders of the Anierisian people. We used to be a more trusting people, but now we only have the goal to live in peace and protect our people.”

The council met with the Anierisians for a few hours, and I remained present during the tedious interval. I had yet to see John since my arrival back and was surprised, as this type of meeting was his cup of tea.

The council and Maziellia came to an agreement. There was a significant battle coming up that the council felt would be a mutual benefit to the Anierisians. If the battle was successful, the Anierisians would not only be granted council protection, but they would be offered a planet well-within Loctorian space. The Khalbytians would not, in any way, be able to access the planet.

John and I were to bring the five sisters back with us and await further instructions for the battle. The sisters would be a sight on base, as their large wings would not go easily unnoticed. We went back to the shuttle and John joined us. He gawked at the Anierisians then averted his eyes when they caught him looking. Their faces were enchanting, making it difficult to avoid staring.

Back on base, John and I helped them get settled, and Allie thought we should be hospitable and invite them to dinner. They maintained a vegetarian diet so Lila and Allie put together a tray for them to try with various fruits and vegetables from all over the galaxy.

Seraphine kept her distance. She and I were the only ones present to have lived through Anierisian fog. The visions they showed Seraphine left her rattled and brought the abuse from her past to the surface. Seraphine’s strength was one of the greatest things I admired about her, but she shouldn’t have to reface the monsters she already defeated. She could have her distance.

Nia and Allie became instant friends. Allie showed Nia all things human culture on a computer. Nia told Allie about the Anierisian way of life, and Allie soaked up every bit of it. My sister spanned the divide between their worlds as if she was an anthropologist who had been studying their culture for decades. Allie invited Nia to the rec room to show her pool and bowling. They ended the night with Allie showing her our regular dance party routine.

Nia liked to dance and Allie showed her some human moves, and Nia returned the favor by showing Allie some Anierisian dancing. The other sisters seemed more reserved and proper. They sat in the chairs we offered them and watched all of us play the games and dance. I taught Maziellia and Elloesia how to play poker, and the others talked Lacharallia into bowling. Halfway through our third game, I glanced over to see Morgan deep in conversation with Callia, then about twenty minutes later they walked out of the rec room together.

The sisters stayed with us for about a month, and we were sure to host their meals and try to make them feel welcomed. Callia and Morgan were inseparable, and I could tell he was falling for her. This was unusual for him because he maintained a strict reputation as a playboy. It seemed, however, that the siren caught herself a human. Allie and Nia stayed up many nights talking and learning as much as they could about each other’s worlds. Allie would tell me later that they weren’t that much different. There were certain gaps they worked through, but overall, their friendship came easily to them.

Seraphine was a different story. She remained cordial but never warmed up to them. I presumed that to be because, for Seraphine, having dinner with the Anierisians was like a child having dinner with the monster under their bed, the monster that kept them up at night by plaguing their sleep with nightmares. Seraphine did her best to extend her welcome, but asking for anything more than formality from her was too much.

The battle was set for the last day of their month-long stay. The day before the battle, we decided to spend the day watching movies to show the sisters even more about our culture. Callia and Morgan sat next to each other, and it was clear by their closeness that something more was growing between them. I wasn’t sure how they were going to make that work and it probably wouldn’t last long past tomorrow’s battle.

After a good evening of enjoying the company of our new comrades, the battle arrived, and we brought a hundred troops against about a thousand Khalbytians. Our small army would be all that was needed once the Anierisians spread chaos to the Khalbytians. We were being equipped with specialized masks to protect us from the fog. They looked like traditional gas masks except that the eyepieces glowed green.

The battle was to take place on a planet with red skies and a black, rocky surface. The black rocks were jagged in certain areas, making it easier to injure an opponent with a shove. A thick, silver, vine-type plant pushed through the black rock randomly and stretched ten to twenty feet in the air. The scarlet skies often danced with flocks of tiny yellow birds.

Khalbytians spread across the black rock surface, and sounds of cackling spread among them as they mocked our miniature army. They had already proclaimed themselves the victors. The air was a chilly fifty degrees, meaning the Khalbytians didn’t think they needed bio-suits, which was exactly what we needed them to believe.

They began firing, and the Anierisians poured their fog over the heads of the enemy army. The hazy air generated mass chaos within our enemies and we moved in, annihilating the disoriented Khalbytians. They should have been more concerned with the fact that we were wearing masks than our size, I thought as I cut down enemy after enemy. Killing was effortless, as the Khalbytians were too stuck in their own minds to realize that we were the real threat.

The fog began to disappear, and the field lay covered with unmoving Khalbytians. We scoured the field to ensure that all were slayed, and we took care of any movement. Nia caught one moving and swooped down to attack. The Khalbytian sliced through Nia’s abdomen followed by her head. She let out a haunting, almost alluring scream and collapsed on the ground. I fired on her attacker, killing him.

Allie ran to Nia’s side and began the healing process. Halfway through Allie healing her head, a delirious Nia opened her mouth to reveal sharp pointed teeth. She grabbed Allie’s hand and bit down for about ten seconds then released, leaving a large gash of blood and tattered flesh. Allie blinked rapidly. I ran to pull Nia away from her as she bit Allie a second time right below the first bite.

“No, Talon! I’m fine. Let me finish.” Allie held her hand out to hold me back.

Nia bit her a third time on the leg, but Allie pushed through and finished healing her. The wounds sealed up, and Allie fell back flat on the ground. She had healed and brought back many, and I thought her healing energy was used up. With the fog faded, I removed Allie’s mask and looked closer.

Allie’s eyes were wide open. I removed my mask so I could assess her better. My heart pounded as I feared she was dead. I studied her closely and saw her rapid breathing. She appeared to be in shock. Nia jumped up, looked at Allie, and then at me. Nia’s eyes were wide and she backed away slowly, her body trembling.

“I didn’t mean to bite her. I’m sorry.” Nia cowered farther away from me.

Maziellia landed next to Nia. “Please do not harm my sister, she did not know what she was doing. We thank your sister for saving her.”

“What did she do to her?” I watched Allie for movement, but she laid completely still. Her eyes didn’t even blink.

“Nia released our defensive chemical into her bloodstream. When she was injured, her mind must have perceived your sister as a threat. This is our final safety mechanism. It causes a more intense reaction than breathing it in, and it lingers. She will recover as soon as it leaves her body, a few hours from now. She will be fine. Please don’t hurt us.”

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said, and they both looked relieved.

Allie struggled to heal most poisons, and her body seemed to be having trouble clearing this one on its own. I wasn’t thrilled that my sister would get to experience the horrors in her head for the next few hours. John came running out of the ship where he had been debriefing with a couple other admirals.

“Where’s Allie?” he demanded.

I knew he could sense what was probably terror coming from her. He saw her, and gasped in horror. I told him what happened, and he grabbed her hand. His eyes went vacant. He was likely telling her what was going on. He let go of her hand after a few minutes.

“She’s okay. Having some trippy dreams, but I explained to her what was happening. She only wanted to know if Nia was okay and that she finished the healing.”

Nia glanced at the ground. “Can you tell her I am sorry?”

“Let’s get her to the ship and then I’ll let her know.” He scooped Allie up and began walking toward the ship.

John held Allie’s hand to help her through the nightmares, and Jasper kept her in sickbay until the poison streamed through her system. Nia came to visit her in order to apologize and thank her.

“Honestly, I’m glad I was able to heal you first, and you are fine. Don’t worry about it. Nothing like the most realistic horror movie I’ve ever experienced to shake up my boredom levels.” Allie laughed, and Nia looked confused.

Allie hugged Nia and told her she would have to visit her on her planet. Jasper let Allie go home, and she seemed fully recovered, both physically and mentally. I wondered how much having John walk her through it helped.


Seraphine stayed quiet as we ate dinner in our quarters.

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I’ll be glad when the siren crew is gone. Your sister is something else. She hits her fears head on, and I have no idea how she does it. Mine sit in my gut and eat me up for weeks.”

“To be fair, she didn’t face her fog alone. John helped her know it wasn’t real. When I knew the fog wasn’t real, it diminished the terror significantly. What got me is that even as she was being bitten, she refused to let me stop Nia.” I told Seraphine the story of Allie being bitten by the dog she saved from the barbed wire fence. I told her that it was a reason I thought Allie wouldn’t do well in war.

“I think that’s because you saw her compassion for the dog as a weakness that would keep her from fighting. Instead, her compassion is a strength that helps her push through the painful and scary things around her.”

Seraphine was right. What I thought made Allie least equipped for war was actually one of her biggest advantages. We helped the sisters load the items that they had brought and acquired. All the sisters were aboard the ship except Callia. I was about to track her location when I saw Morgan and her walking up to the ship holding hands. He kissed her, and I went into the ship to give them privacy.

The next morning, John and I escorted the Anierisians to their new planet where they could build a life without fear. After getting to know them, I realized that they weren’t as terrifying as our first encounter had led me to believe. They simply wanted to survive. They used fear as a weapon to protect themselves from what they feared the most. They thanked us, and I knew we had gained permanent friends.

Chapter Twenty-One

Althea-October 15, 2014

A member of our team was worrying me. I wasn’t sure how much the others noticed Morgan’s absence at our game and movie nights. He was also quiet on missions and not his usual quick-witted self. I scanned my calendar and realized he had a birthday coming up.

The wheels in my head began turning, and I went to meet Seraphine for our weekly coffee date. The coffee shop on base was two levels above my quarters and opened about seven months ago. Black, metal chairs and tables were spread throughout the room and a glass case held scones, muffins, and other pastries. A soft jazz melody played overhead and the smell of warm cherry tarts caused me to glance at the counter where a fresh tray was being placed.

Seraphine was reading from a magazine, at a small table when I walked in. She always looked sophisticated. I admired her confidence and strived to be more like her. She was the sister I always dreamed of having and I was so glad my brother fell in love with her. I glanced over the chalkboard menu and ordered an iced caramel macchiato. Seraphine looked up and smiled as I approached her table and sat down across from her.

I decided to start in on what my mind was caught up in. “Have you noticed Morgan lately? He seems distant.”

“I think he misses Callia,” Seraphine offered.

“Nia’s sister?”

She sipped her green tea. “Yeah, Talon told me Morgan fell pretty hard for her during the month they were on base.”

“Well, he has a birthday coming up, and I thought perhaps we could throw him a party.”

“It’s not a bad idea, but I think that only time or Callia will cure the lovesickness.” A smile curled on her perfectly painted red lips.

“Hmm… you’re probably right.”

I must have glanced off for a little too long because Seraphine studied me carefully.

She laughed a little. “Uh oh, what are you devising now?”

“I was thinking maybe we should take him to see Callia or meet her somewhere. Surprise him for his birthday. I’ve been missing Nia anyway.”

“I don’t know. I think if he wanted to go see her, he could, and maybe we shouldn’t interfere. Either way, I would like to avoid the siren crew.”

“They aren’t going to fog you, Seraphine. They’re our friends now.”

“Maybe I’m a little phobic of them now.”

“Maybe you should come and get to know them better then,” I suggested.

“Some of us aren’t as fond of jumping straight into the things that scare us.” She gave me a wink.

“You’re the bravest person I know.”

“Funny, that’s what I think about you.”

I thought it was funny that she perceived me the way she did because to me she was the fearless one. I admired the great strength she pulled out anytime any of us needed it from her. Her practicality gave me wisdom on more than one occasion. I decided that it would probably be best if I simply invited Morgan along to visit Nia instead of putting effort into a big surprise that might upset them both.


Back in my quarters, I found John sipping his coffee and scrolling through war reports on his tablet. I said nothing but sat down and stared at him. He would get the hint soon enough.

He signed off on one and looked up at me. “Okay. What are dying to discuss with me?”

“You know how we’re off for the next week or so?”

“You are, at least. I need to get caught up on all these reports.”

Parks had recently put John in charge of signing off on all the war reports for Saturn base. He was to look for any inconsistencies and address any unresolved issues. I hated that she put even more on his plate, as it meant I had a lot less time with him.

“I want to go visit Nia for a week,” I said.

“Why don’t you wait until next month when I can take off and go with you? I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of you traveling that far alone. Lots of things can go wrong.”

“What if I took someone else with me?”

“Like who?”

“One of the guys. Like maybe Morgan.”

John put his coffee down and looked up at me with a suspicious look. “Allie, you can’t interfere with the relationships of others.”

I pretended I didn’t know what he was getting at. “What do you mean?”

“Morgan is perfectly capable of taking leave to see Callia if he wants. He must not want to.”

“He seems so sad all the time. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Of course I’ve noticed. I can literally feel the guy’s emotions. But I don’t bring up other people’s feelings,” he said. I narrowed my eyes to let him know I didn’t buy it. “Okay, unless they are my fiancé I don’t bring up their emotions.”

“Well, I miss Nia anyway. I’ll bring it up to Morgan, and if he says no, then we’ll leave it at that.”

John reluctantly relented his stance, and I was pretty sure he figured out I wasn’t going to be persuaded otherwise. The next day I called Morgan and asked him if he wouldn’t mind escorting me to see Nia. I played it off as John thinking I needed a bodyguard. Morgan eagerly agreed. I saw him light up like he hadn’t in a long time. I messaged Nia to let her know we were coming and she squealed an enthusiastic response that she couldn’t wait for my arrival.

Our shuttle landed, and I could see the white-pink Anierisian palace resting in front of us. The red rock mountain was a nice backdrop to the landscape. I could see Anierisians flying from the roof of one building to the next. The rest of the buildings were a bluish slate color, which made the shimmering palace pop even more.

Nia and Callia were waiting. I grinned when Callia and Morgan met each other’s gaze. I could see mutual happiness at the sight of each other. I told Morgan that Nia and I would be off on an adventure, and he could enjoy himself with whatever. Nia asked me to stay in her room which I was pretty sure was larger than my farmhouse. A large, white canopy bed was against the wall to the left of the entrance.

The floor was a smooth, grey stone and a large blue woven rug spanned a good portion of the floor. Nia and I climbed under her white fur blanket so we could talk comfortably. We stayed up talking long after Maziellia called curfew, and Nia brought up Morgan and Callia before I could say anything.

“Callia loves Morgan. Maziellia won’t allow any of us to mate with an off-worlder.”

“Shouldn’t Callia decide that for herself?” I asked.

“I wish she could. She loves him a great deal and has been sad since they parted. But they are from two very different worlds. I don’t see it lasting anyway.”

“They should be able to love who they want, and no one else’s opinion or agenda should matter. Unfortunately, I know for humans, we spend too much time judging and thinking we have a right to tell people how they should live their lives. We should be more concerned with how people treat each other than who they love.”

“I agree with you. But Maziellia, as our older sister and queen, feels our lives are hers to decide. My people are stuck in old ways. They do not like differences much.”

“Sounds like your people and my people need to learn that diversity brings strength,” I said.

“I wish my people believed as you do.”

“Well, in any case, I hope they enjoy this week together.”

“Me too. Callia is so much happier now than she has been since she parted ways with him.”

“Morgan is, too. He’s been moping around.”

“Moping? Like cleaning floors?” Nia asked me. I knew my translator made it difficult to distinguish similar words sometimes.

I shook my head. “No, that’s mopping. Moping means being depressed or very sad.”

The second night we visited Nia invited me to a ball. Some workers came and did my makeup. The dress Nia picked out for me was pink, and a long V dipped from the neckline. The sleeves were short, but there were bracelets that clasped above my elbow area and extended fabric on both sides. A dainty crown of golden leaves was placed on my head. I snapped selfies of Nia and me together. I loved her red and gold dress that left one of her shoulders bare. One of the workers—named Rorin—came in and fixed our hair.

When we got to the ball, I remembered the Anierisian dance moves that Nia showed me when she was on Saturn base. Nia and I danced together, and then an Anierisian asked if he could dance with Nia. She hesitated, then accepted his invitation. They danced for three songs and then Nia joined me by the wall.

“I think he likes you,” I told her with a smile.


“The one you just danced with.”

“Acacius. Yes, I believe he would like to be betrothed to me.”

“You don’t like him back?”

“I am unsure. Betrothal is very serious here. Once you say the vows, you are bound for life.”

“So it’s like marriage?”

“Marriage is only making the betrothal public.”

“I can see why you would want to be sure,” I said.

Nia glanced at Rorin, and I could tell there was more to the look.

“You like Rorin, don’t you?”

“Yes, but our relationship would never be allowed. I understand Callia much more than my other sisters.”

Morgan and Callia caught my eye as they walked in and danced together. Morgan didn’t glance away from Callia the entire time they were dancing. I wanted the universe to be a simpler place. A place where if two people loved each other, no one else had a say but them, and no circumstances would keep them apart.

Nia spent the next week showing me the grand city they had built. It was beautiful, with silver willow trees that had leaves that drooped down to the grey stone streets. Green lights wove up the outside of the buildings, reminding me of Christmas on Earth. The Anierisians could finally return to their glory days since they no longer feared the Khalbytians. They were in the middle of Loctorian space, and Khalbytians would never be able to get to them.

The week flew by, and Morgan and Callia once again parted ways with a kiss. I wondered if he and Callia would end up together in the end. I felt hopeful maybe one day they would be able to use their love to bridge the light years and differences between them.


The day after Morgan and I returned to Saturn base, Lila asked me to help her with some plants. I was going to meet her in her hydroponics room. Lila sold plant-based remedies around the base, and her concoctions helped many. She had a migraine cocktail that several people told me was exceptional.

One of the people it had helped was a passing ambassador. A friend of the ambassador recommended Lila. The treatment worked so well that he ordered a lofty amount, and now Lila was swamped to get it to him in a timely manner. I found myself unable to locate the hydroponics room.

I was there once before when Lila showed me what Gabriel had set up for her. The floor it was on was an abandoned level on base, and a lot of the lights flickered from neglect and gave the level a spooky feel. The numbers on the doors didn’t appear to have any rational order. I walked down a dimly lit corridor as goosebumps pricked my arms.

“Are you lost?” a voice behind me asked.

I jumped and whirled around to see a Loctorian wearing a green robe with his hood down. I had seen only a handful of Loctorians on base before, and they were usually passing through the main halls. I thought this level was empty of all but Lila’s plant room.

“Yes, getting lost isn’t a difficult thing for me to do. I’m trying to find my friend’s hydroponics room. Room 2348,” I said.

“Yes, that is down a different hallway, Althea.”

I took in a shaky breath. “How do you know who I am?”

“In other times you are quite famous.”

I narrowed my eyes at his strange sentence. “Other times?”

“Yes, I can move through time. The future is tricky as there are many versions. Even though I see many possibilities, it still sometimes turns out differently.”

“I’m sure the famous version of me will not be the one that turns out. There isn’t much to me.”

“There is a great deal to you. There are important tasks ahead that no one else can accomplish. This is because of what you have inside of you.”

“What tasks will I accomplish?”

“I cannot speak of it as it may change the entire thing, but I can tell you when it arrives, you will know it. I was thinking, however, you should delay planting plants.”

“Why is that?”

“You are needed elsewhere.”

I glanced down at my com device and noticed I had no reception. “How do you know?”

“I see many things, and this particular thing was why I was sent here today. I will help you find your way out. You will find your friend Lila on level ten. I would tell her to stay off this level for today.”

I followed the Loctorian down the long hallway until I saw the elevator. I went to level ten and was surprised to see Lila down the hall. I would have expected her at the docking bay, picking up her supplies. When I caught up to her, I told her about my strange Loctorian encounter.

“I think maybe we should listen to him. He knew where you were,” I said.

“I have to get this order out. I promised I would by the end of the week.”

“We can talk to the others. If we have more help, then a one-day delay shouldn’t hurt. I think it’s better than risking something terrible happening. We all know Loctorians can see future glimpses.”

“Yes, that’s true. Okay, let’s wait, but tomorrow I would like to start early if you are able.”

“Yes, that will work fine. Why don’t we go catch the new movie playing instead?

“Yeah, might as well.”

At the theater, we saw Admiral Parks and her ten-year-old son Nathan. It was strange seeing Parks out of uniform.

“Lila, Allie. How are the two of you today?” she greeted us.

“Doing great. Decided to…”

My words were interrupted when the theater began to be jarred apart. The theater fell into shambles, and I couldn’t make sense of what had occurred. A large piece of debris hit me in the head, another smashed my leg and it took a minute for me to regain my bearings as it healed. I scanned the room for Lila and saw her lying unconscious underneath a beam. The bone in my left leg was sticking out. I pushed it back in and hobbled to Lila as it healed.

Lila’s eyes bulged, and I didn’t even have to scan her to know she was dead. A large beam had collapsed across her abdomen, crushing her against the floor. It was too heavy to move off of her. I tried to push it anyway and felt it budge. I turned to see Terrance from the weapons division helping me. He had a large cut across his forehead, which I promptly healed.

With the beam off of Lila, I could see the large indentation in her body where the beam had struck. I put my hand on her stomach and it began to inflate like a balloon receiving air. I restored each damaged organ individually, reconstructed her spine, and sent a spark into her.

She gasped and looked around. “What happened?”

“Not sure.”

I heard Nathan screaming, “Help!”

I crawled over more beams and dislodged theater chairs. Glass pushed into my hands and knees as I crawled. I stood up and brushed it off, allowing it to heal instantaneously. Nathan stood over his mother, crying. Admiral Park’s head and neck were at an unnatural angle, hanging loosely to her side. Her right arm was bent in the opposite direction it should have been.

I placed myself in front of Nathan, trying to shield him from the fact that his mother was nearly decapitated. I pushed her head back into place and straightened her arm. I fixed her arms first so that she wouldn’t wake up in pain. I sealed the final gap in her neck, then brought her back. She let out a groan and tried to sit up.

“Nathan!” she screamed.

“Right here, mama!”

He ran to her, and when he went to hug her, I noticed his left arm dangled at his side. He wasn’t screaming, though he should have been. His mom caught the arm, too, and her gaze caused Nathan to look down. He began to wail as it only then occurred to him that he was injured. I put my hand gently on his elbow and repaired the shattered bones. He sniffled and thanked me as he hugged his mother. To my knowledge, there was no one else in the theater. All the exits were blocked, and our com devices had no signals.

Allie! John spoke to my mind.

Are you okay? I asked.

Yeah, I’m fine. I was more worried about you and Lila. Gabriel said you were working in Lila’s plant room. That deck was taken out by the asteroid. Wasn’t sure if even you would have survived the direct impact.

Asteroid? How did that even happen? I thought our shielding stopped those daily.

It does. Shielding malfunctioned.

Lila and I are in the movie theater with Admiral Parks, her son, and Terrence. Everyone is okay. Can you find out if the rest of our team is okay?

Yeah, I’ll check on them now. The only one I have with me is Gabriel. We were playing pool. The rec center is fine.

I filled in those with me. We tried to move the rubble with no success. We were trapped. John got back to me and let me know that the rest of the team was safe. I needed to get out so I could heal any injuries or casualties. Admiral Parks gave me some orders to give John to put the base into crisis mode.

We were given priority since my healing ability was needed, but even with that, we were still locked in for two hours, which bothered me because after the two-hour mark it was a toss-up if I could heal the dead.

“Thank you for healing my mom,” Nathan said.

“Sure. It’s what I do.”

“Someday I want to go through capsulization, and I hope I get a healing ability. I want to be a doctor, and I think it would come in handy.”

“You’re right, it definitely would. But even if you don’t, you could be a great doctor like Dr. Monroe.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty cool. He lets me follow him around sometimes.”

“I agree with my son, Allie. Your repair skills are appreciated. In all my time in the program, I have never met a healer at your level,” Admiral Parks said.

It occurred to me I didn’t know much about Parks. “I don’t think I ever heard how you entered the program.”

“I grew up in Mexico City and came to America when I was sixteen. I picked up English quickly, so when I graduated high school, I got a job as a translator in the army. I was recruited to the intelligence division where they were working on the language translators. I helped with the Spanish portion. Eventually, I was recruited into the war. I helped with Spanish-speaking recruits for a while until my job was replaced by the translator I worked on.”

“I have to say I’ve always been impressed with you becoming the first woman admiral to run a space base. I requested Saturn base because it was under your command,” Lila said.

“I am honored, Lila.”

We talked for another hour before we were finally rescued. I went straight to sickbay, where everything was in chaos. Patients were overflowed to waiting areas. Monitors blared, indicating that multiple patients were crashing. Screaming and crying flew at me from every direction. I would heal the living then head to the morgue. Jasper hollered for the crash cart, while giving CPR to a man whose arms were flopped to his side.

I walked over and Jasper noticed me. “Allie, am I glad to see you!”

I started with the worst of the patients and worked my way down. I struggled to keep my eyes open. To my disappointment there were some patients I was unable to save. I laid down on one of the medical beds to take a quick nap. I woke up to see John reading in the chair next to my bed. I was in a private room, and I felt the familiar restriction of multiple tubes and wires. I groaned.

“Morning, gorgeous. Sleep well?” John asked.

“A little too well, I think. How long?”

“Three days.”

The nurse came in and freed me from my tubes and wires. I went to the bathroom and changed. Jasper was waiting for me when I walked back into the room. I opened my mouth to talk.

“Yep, already have the nurse getting your discharge papers.”

I smiled. “Thank you.”

Jasper knew how anxious I was to leave sickbay each time I drained myself, and he was extremely accommodating. John and I went home, and I told him about the strange Loctorian I met.

“Seems he saved your life as well as Lila’s. I know you can heal, but Lila’s plant room was obliterated,” John said.

John turned on Jurassic Park and we laid down on the couch. He wrapped his arms around me, and we watched the movie.

Admiral Parks gave Lila a new, undamaged room. Our entire team came together to set up her new room and complete her order for the ambassador. I didn’t know anything about the Loctorian who talked to me, but I knew this was one of the first times I was grateful a Loctorian had altered my life and Lila’s.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Morgan-September 12, 2014

I loved women. Pretty much all women. I was as skilled at schmoozing as I was with a keyboard. I never lacked charisma, and my charm made the ladies swoon. I could go out and have no trouble finding someone to bring back to my quarters for a cozier experience.

Unlike most of my teammates who had bound themselves to one woman, I perceived life was too short not to enjoy the beauty of a multitude of female companionship. Talon told us about a group of aliens known as the Anierisians. He described them with the physical appearance of angels but with the tantalizingly dangerous demeanor of the legendary siren. I received a phone call from Allie telling me she thought we should have a game night that included the Anierisians.

I was never one to turn down the opportunity to be around beautiful women so I readily accepted her invite. When I arrived four of the sisters were actively engaging in poker, bowling, or dancing. The fifth sister sat by herself, watching, and I decided to find out why she was more withdrawn than the others.

“Morgan Howard.” I reached out my hand, and she stared at it in confusion. I felt a bit silly and quickly put my hand down.

“I am Callia.” She shot her hand out as I had and then put it down.

She had the most amazing golden hair I had ever seen, and it flowed to the middle of her thigh. She kept her white wings tucked behind her back and I wondered what they looked like unfolded. Her greenish-blue eyes seemed to sparkle when the light hit them. I noticed each one of the sisters wore a different colored dress and Callia’s chosen color was coral.

“Your base is wonderful, Morgan Howard. I have never been off my homeworld before. Maziellia has never let us leave because of the fear of outsiders. She did not wish us to be apart now, so she let us all come with her. I am very excited,” Callia said.

“There’s something you might want to see. Can I show you? It’s in another part of the base. Will your sisters mind if you go with me for a little while?”

“They will not mind.”

I led Callia to the observatory, a glass dome with a clear view of the stars around base. The dome was also equipped with computerized glass that could be switched on to reveal locations around the galaxy with intensely real imagery. Callia’s eyes wandered around the dome as she took in the sights. I went over to the computer and put in coordinates. The glass tiles flipped, displaying a different part of the galaxy with purple asteroids and glowing silver stardust. Planets of every size and color rotated around us. After she took in her surroundings, I would change the view every few minutes.

After an hour of her being caught up in my fancy slide show, I spoke, “Now you can say you’ve seen a lot of the galaxy.”

“There is so much more beauty than I ever imagined. How did we travel so many places so fast?”

“We’re still in the same place, but the observatory has screens that show detailed pictures of other parts of the galaxy.”

“There is a screen in the room provided to us here on base. It is small, but people talk inside of it. Althea Cooper told us it is part of something called a television.”

“Yes, that’s right. This is a similar trick but much bigger and more detailed,” I said.

“You have amazing things here. I am glad we are here, but I am worried about the battle. We train much of our lives how to fight, but I have never really fought.” I could hear her nervousness.

“I was nervous my first battle, too. But when it finally occurred, instinct took over and my training kicked in.”

We left the observatory and I gave Callia a tour of my favorite places around the base. We finished our tour at the shopping center on level one-eleven. She and I tried on several different hats, and I taught her what a selfie was as we snapped several. I bought her the sunhat that she loved, and we finished at the chocolate store. I purchased a variety of chocolates, and we sat down at one of the little tables outside of the shop.

“This is the most wonderous thing I have ever tasted!” Callia gushed, downing four pieces in a row.

It was getting late so I walked Callia back to her temporary quarters. On the way, she saw the poster for a monster movie that was playing in the theater.

“That is a scary looking monster. Do you fight him as well?”

“No, he’s made up. Entertainment. Like the small screen shows in your quarters, only they show it on a large screen. You want to meet me tomorrow and watch it?”

“Yes, I would like that very much, Morgan Howard.”

I found myself so anxious to meet Callia and see the movie with her that I barely slept. She met me for the morning show. The movie picked up pace, and Callia buried her face in my shoulder. She spent most of the rest of the movie in the same state. I didn’t mind. I was excited that we would have a month to share together.

We spent our time doing little things here and there. We would find each other whenever we could slip away from our duties and responsibilities. I wasn’t used to focusing on one woman for more than a couple days, but I couldn’t rid Callia from my thoughts at any point. Two weeks into Callia’s time on base, we were watching a show in my quarters. A woman began to cry.

“Morgan Howard, why is her face wet?” Callia asked me as the woman on screen cried profusely.

“She’s crying. Those are tears. Haven’t you ever cried?”

“No, Anierisians do not have water on their faces. This seems strange.”

“It’s the way humans express sadness. Sometimes when we are happy, but mostly when we are sad.”

“Humans are confusing.”

I agreed with her on that note. We continued watching as the characters kissed on the screen.

“I would very much like to do that, Morgan Howard,” she said.

Callia still called me by my first and last name. I tried to explain how humans only went by their first names most of the time, but the concept confused her, so I gave up and stopped correcting her.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Put my face to yours.”

“Oh, kiss?”

“Yes, I want to kiss you.”

I stared into her eyes, and I was trapped. Our lips met, and after that night, our bond grew intimate. When I was with her, I felt a sweetness in my chest, and it felt like the place I should always be.

The month passed by and I knew I would have to give her up even though every part of me wanted to convince her to steal a shuttle with me and abandon the war for a life together, which in part I knew was ridiculous for knowing each other only a month. The short timespan was why I didn’t even try to keep her with me.

I walked Callia to the docking bay as the day had arrived for her to return home. We were cursed by the distance of two vastly different worlds. Neither of us could bring ourselves to accomplish the irresponsibility of bridging the gap between our separation. I held her hand tightly, and I gazed at the sadness in her eyes that matched mine. I kissed her intently.

“I love you, Callia.” The first time I told her would most likely be the last.

“I love you, Morgan Howard.” Her wings drooped as she vanished behind the shuttle door. I watched as the ship she boarded zoomed off and felt my heart drop a good portion down my chest.


I kept up with missions and battles. When we got back, I would find myself turning down invitations to socialize. Even women no longer held the same appeal that they had only a month prior. I was lovesick, and I couldn’t afford myself the cure.

Out of desperate loneliness, I went to the bar with Deron. I wanted to become distracted with something other than the Anierisian I couldn’t have. I thought that perhaps returning to my old routine of finding a woman to fill the void would diminish the sadness held inside of me consistently.

“You know, the Fernandez sisters are looking pretty sexy tonight. I’ll take the younger one?” Deron seemed to be trying to get me out of the funk I was slouched within.

“Nah, not really my type.”

“Every woman is your type.”

“Not anymore.”

“Callia got you pretty good, man, didn’t she?”

I sighed. “I feel like I’m in love with her.”

“You were with her for a month. I think maybe she really is a siren and has you in a trance. Then again, a month is a long commitment for you.”

I took a sip of my beer. “I think maybe I’ve been missing the point this entire time. All my relationships have been meaningless flings where the women barely respect me and vice versa. With Callia it was something more. I enjoyed time with her, more than the physical. I enjoyed talking to her and just having her around. I wish I could have seen where we would have ended up. I’m tired of being shallow.”

Deron nodded. “Yeah, I get it. Sometimes I wish I had a real relationship, too, rather than women being merely a distraction from the war.”

“I think I’m at the point where I need to grow up. If nothing else, this entire thing with Callia has shown me that.”

I downed a couple more beers and hopped off the bar stool. Deron protested when I told him I would rather call it a night. On my way back to my quarters, my com device lit up, and I saw it was Allie calling me.

“Hey, Al. What’s up?” I answered.

“As you might know, I’ve become good friends with Nia the Anierisian. I’ve been needing to visit her as I promised I would, but John seems to think navigating the galaxy alone could have undesirable results. He’s asked me to have someone come with me. I looked at your schedule, and it seems you are free. If you wouldn’t mind escorting me to the Anierisians’ new homeworld, I would be extremely appreciative.”

An excuse to see Callia was something I couldn’t pass on. I knew it might set back how I was feeling when I had to leave her again, but I thought it was worth the risk. I accepted, and Allie thanked me. She told me we would be leaving in the morning. I woke up a couple hours early, anxious to get to the Anierisian homeworld. I watched a movie to try and pass the time, then grabbed a quick breakfast.

I pulled the shuttle and loaded my stuff as I waited for Allie to arrive. I did all the pre-checks, and about five minutes after they were complete Allie walked up. We would be gone for a week, and I was happy that I would have more than a couple days with her. When we arrived, both Nia and Callia were waiting for us. Allie told me to go and enjoy the sights, and she would contact me if she needed anything.

Callia showed me around the new city they had constructed amazingly quick. The buildings were white and pink. Large archways gave a view of a forest of interlocking blue and green trees with a red, rocky mountain behind them. The temperature was perfect, and my jeans and grey shirt sufficed for comfort. Over the next week, Callia and I returned to our closeness as though we had never parted.

The day before we were set to leave, Callia and I took a hike to a giant chasm that rivaled the Grand Canyon for magnificence. Most of the dirt on the portion of the planet we were on was a vibrant red color, but the chasm was a dark blue that spiraled randomly with a shade of light green. We found a path that descended to the chasm floor and spent a while making it to the bottom. We were enjoying a peaceful morning of exploring several kilometers of the canyon. The dirt began to change into yellow sand, and as we walked, Callia told me about her parents, who had been killed by Khalbytians.

“Their deaths are what made our people most afraid. Before Khalbytians arrived, we loved anyone who would visit us. Khalbytians arrived, and everything changed. My mother and father greeted them as the leaders of our people. We did not know someone might have malicious motivations. My parents were immediately struck down without warning. Our people did not know how to fight. We had our natural fog, and using it was all that saved us.”

“I’m sorry that happened to your parents. That’s why I fight the Khalbytians. If they gain control of the galaxy, many more species will share your story, if not be completely annihilated.”

“You are brave, Morgan Howard. You are a great human.”

“I think I’m just doing what most other humans would do given the choice.”

“No, I think not most would be as brave.” She smiled at me.

We walked a little farther, and the ground began to deteriorate in front of us. A sinkhole opened up and we plummeted into a cavern. I could see the opening and figured Callia could fly to get help.

I turned to locate her and saw her motionless in the corner. I ran to her and she was unconscious. When the usual spots on her neck and wrist failed to produce a pulse, I felt panicked. I hoped it was only that I didn’t know how to check a pulse on an Anierisian. A large boulder pinned one of her wings. The concave wound on her head indicated the boulder had hit that as well.

After some searching, I located my pack and prayed my com device was usable. I felt relieved when it turned on, and I called Allie; I sent her our signal. I ran to sit next to Callia and held her hand.

“Hold on, Callia. Help is coming.”

I heard Allie’s voice after twenty minutes, “Callia! Morgan!”

“We’re here!” I yelled up to her.

Allie and Callia’s sisters all peered down at us, and I heard her sisters gasp. They swooped down, and Allie scaled down the side using a rope.

“Callia! She is not alive!” Maziellia cried.

“It’s okay, I can help her,” Allie said.

“How? I thought you could only fix injuries. How can you make the dead live again?”

“I can restore life as well as fix injuries. First, we need to get this rock off her wings.”

The six of us pushed the boulder and freed Callia’s wing. Allie began healing her and Callia sat up. Her sisters rushed around her in relief. Allie turned her attention to me. I hadn’t noticed the large gash on my arm, and as the adrenaline cooled off, my ribs began to sear in pain.

She healed all of the injuries I hadn’t noticed out of my concern for Callia. The sisters flew out of the opening and Allie and I scaled back up to the top. I rode in the transport Allie had brought, and the sisters flew back. I went to find Callia to make sure she was okay but was intercepted by Maziellia instead.

“I want you to tell Callia you do not love her and cannot be with her.” I was taken aback by the ambush and wasn’t sure how to approach this. Maziellia continued, “She cannot be with you. Your relationship will never work, and you will hurt her in the end. I have betrothed her to an Anierisian male. She has told me she will not marry him because she loves you and she wants to leave with you. You will ruin her life, as you almost did. If Althea Cooper were not sent, we would have had to put her with our parents in the enclosure.”

“I love Callia, too. I would take care of her and give her a good life.”

“Like you took care of her on your walk today. What if there had been no Althea Cooper? You must leave her be. Our people have laws and customs you cannot possibly understand. You will be a detriment to her. If you love her, you will leave her be and make her think it is your idea.”

Part of me knew Maziellia was right. It would be selfish to take Callia away from her people. It would make more sense for her to stay here and marry one of her own kind. She would eventually get over me. I told Maziellia I would break things off with Callia, but I wouldn’t tell her I didn’t love her. I needed her to know that I did.

Maziellia let me go so I could find Callia and tell her. I went to Callia’s room and knocked. When she saw it was me, she jumped at me and kissed me. She pulled me into her room, shutting the door and locking it. I started to try and tell her, but she shushed me and kept kissing me. We spent the night together, cherishing the final moments we had to be what we wanted to be. When morning came, we were wrapped in each other’s arms, and I woke up to Callia’s kiss.

I was brought back to the unpleasant task set before me when Callia said, “Morgan Howard, I want to go back with you. I want to leave my world behind and instead belong to yours.”

I wanted to agree and pull her entirely into everything that was part of me, but I couldn’t take her from her family. Staying with her when the war was still volatile wasn’t an option.

“Callia, I love you. I want you to know that, but we can’t be together. We both have to move on,” I said.

“No, if you love me, and I love you, we can be.”

“No, Callia. It’s not that easy. We have to move on without each other.”

“You don’t want to be with me?” Her eyes widened, and her lip quivered.

We were laying facing each other, and I pulled her close to me. “I do. But I can’t. We have to go our own ways.”

“I wish I could feel water from my eyes so I could show my sadness in a manner you understand.”

“I do understand. I feel all of it too, but this is for the best.”

“Please. I do not want to be parted from you,” she whispered into my chest.

I kissed the top of her head and drew her even closer. “Neither do I.” I pushed my lips to hers. “But we have to be. There is no other choice but to live our lives without each other.”

We laid there, unwilling to move for a couple of hours. When all the time we could possibly have was used up, I kissed her gently, before getting up. She walked me to my shuttle, and I kissed her for the last time, then climbed in to leave. I turned to look at her one final time. I felt I did the right thing, but I would miss her. She deserved a life I couldn’t give her with her family.

The thought that I was doing what was best for her gave me enough peace to move forward. After all, that was one of love’s greatest attributes, the ability to push away the thing you wanted most so the person you loved would have what they needed. As we exited the shuttle back on Saturn base, I called to Allie.

“Hey, Al. Thank you.”

“For what?”

I smiled at her and she smiled back. I knew the entire trip had been for me. I went back to my quarters to unpack. I would always love Callia, and that was why I had to leave her. My com device lit up, and Deron asked me if I was up for game night and I realized that I was. I knew Callia would now live a good life with her own people, and that was enough for me to bear her absence.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Seraphine-November 3, 2014

I tied my boots to complete my uniform and walked out to the kitchen where Talon was compiling breakfast. He always sent me off with elaborate breakfasts when I was going on missions away from him. We would be apart for a week this time, and Colin and Lila would be going with me. The mission was not complicated, and we were handing out gifts to an emperor of a planet that John had recently secured a Loctorian alliance with.

This was a simple formality, one John couldn’t complete himself due to planning for a separate treaty negotiation. Talon was staying behind to discuss battle strategies, and Jasper needed Allie’s help in sickbay due to a planetary disaster he was expecting mass casualties for. Gabriel, Morgan, and Deron all had various other assignments that left Colin, Lila, and me as the only team members available. They could have used other personnel, but Parks wanted to keep the assignment within our team.

Talon set the table. “Everything is about ready.”

He gave me the pancakes first, then a separate plate of bacon and eggs. He gave me the orange juice that he had squeezed for me. This was his way of telling me to come back safe, as that was what it was now a symbol for. I’d almost died of a brain parasite one time, and when I recovered, he squeezed me orange juice for the morning of my first return mission.

When I asked him about it, he said he wanted to make sure I had Vitamin C so I wouldn’t bring a deadly visitor back with me. I scoffed at the weakness Vitamin C would hold against a brain parasite. Since then it was sort of an inside joke between us and his way of acknowledging that he wanted his wife back each time he lent me to the war.

“A week seems a long time to be gone to present some presents. I wish there weren’t so many formalities with these aliens,” I vented.

“Yeah, John and I dealt with the same frustrations during alliance negotiations. Two weeks we were forced to waste, even though the deal was already pretty much made. We had to make sure we followed every custom correctly. There were two whole days of sitting, silently reflecting on what we accomplished. Hopefully, the fuel product they have will be worth the effort.”

“I hope it’s worth us being away from each other.”

“Nothing is worth that.”

His words made me smile, and I already missed him. After breakfast, he walked me to the docking bay and sent me off with a quick kiss. The planet was three hours away in hyperspace. I pulled out a deck of cards, and the three of us began playing poker. I stared at Colin, trying to determine if he was bluffing when a shuttle alarm shrieked.

Colin jumped up to check it out. “Something is wrong with navigation. We’re being pulled out of hyperspace. Still an hour from our destination. To get there or return home would take weeks without hyperspace, and folding isn’t possible with this shuttle model. We’re going to have to ask for a tow.” As we were jerked out of hyperspace, another alarm sounded. “Not good. We’re about to overheat. We need to set down.”

I jumped up to find the closest planet to land on. “Can we limp a bit? The fourth planet in this solar system is safe. If not the third is closer, but we would have to stay in the shuttle or wear bio-suits.”

Multiple alarms were sounding now.

“Our distress signal isn’t going through,” Lila cried.

Colin navigated us to the fourth planet, and our ship pushed through the hazy, orange atmosphere. A vibrant green grassland with patches of small yellow flowers appeared in our view.

“Brace yourselves. Landing is going to be pretty rough,” Colin warned.

We smacked into the ground and slid across the ground, tearing up the grass and flowers that passed under our craft. The craft bounced up a few more times, slamming down each time until it was stopped by a large rock formation. My head smacked against a console, knocking me unconscious.

I woke up and felt pain in nearly every spot on my body. I tried to stand up but it was difficult to move my left leg. My lower leg bone poked through right below my knee. My head felt as though a lobster was inside of it clawing it apart and there was a dull ache in my abdomen. I was unsure of the total extent of my injuries.

Lila hobbled over to me. “Good! You’re awake.”

She had a large gash on her head above her right eyebrow and a pretty nasty black ring was forming around her left eye. She also had a cloth wrapped around her right arm above the elbow.

“How’s Colin?”

I could tell by the look on her face the answer wasn’t good.

“He’s alive but still unconscious. He has a metal rod through his stomach. A piece of the ship broke off during our crash. We need to get him help soon.”

I forced myself up, and Lila ran to help me into a chair. I wanted to better assess Colin for myself. Sure enough, a metal rod as thick as a coffee cup impaled the middle of his abdomen. I heard him groan.

“Colin, don’t move!” I shouted.

He opened his eyes then glanced down and saw the rod through himself and began yelling and hyperventilating. His eyes were popping from his head and he began to shake.

“Colin, it’s okay. We’re going to fix this, but you have to stay calm,” Lila spoke soothingly to him and grabbed his hand.

“I’m going to die,” he murmured with a stuttered cry.

Lila moved closer to him and looked him in the eye. “No, Colin. We’ll get help and then Allie will heal you. You’ll be fine.”

“We have to try the distress signal again.” I moved over to a control panel, but everything was shot.

We were lightyears away, and no one expected us back for a week. I was unsure that the planet we were going to would report us missing, especially if doing so went against their strict customs and policies.

“I can’t find our hyperspace phones either. Everything is a jumbled mess,” Lila said.

I glanced around and realized she was right. We would be lucky to find anything. The inside of our shuttle had been torn to shreds. Most of the computer consoles were shattered, glass covered most of the floor, and it was difficult to define what most of the crushed objects had been. I wondered how any of us had even survived the crash. Lila released Colin’s hand to look for something.

He grabbed her arm. “Please stay with me. I don’t want to die alone.”

“Colin, you’re not going to die. None of us will. We’re going to get through this.”

“Please,” he pleaded, and Lila retook his hand.

“What do you need, Lila? I’ll find it,” I said.

“We need to find one of our bags so we can use the hyperspace phone and scanner to assess how bad each of us really are.”

Moving was excruciating, but I pushed through for my team. I found my bag crushed under some debris and my com device was of no use. The scanner looked like it might work. I scanned myself, and it notified me of my broken leg, arm gash, and several other injuries that the leg pain was keeping me unaware of. The one that worried me was the internal bleeding that the scanner urged me to pay attention to.

I tenderly lifted my shirt and saw a large bruise across my stomach. I wouldn’t tell the others. The focus needed to be on Colin. I scanned Lila, and she had a concussion and a list of five other injuries. Colin was a mess. The pole was all that was keeping him from bleeding out. The minute it was removed, he would die in about a minute. He also had brain swelling, and the pressure would need to be relieved soon. His right arm was broken as well as his left foot.

Moving edged me toward unconsciousness. I needed to quit looking through the debris for our bags, but at the same time I desperately needed to keep going. I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. I needed a break. Lila and Colin were talking, but I couldn’t focus on what they were saying.

When I opened my eyes again, I saw Lila cradling Colin’s head gently against her, singing “What A Wonderful World” to him. I never knew Lila could sing so beautifully. Colin looked less panicked as Lila soothed his anxiety with her singing. We needed to do something, or we would all die. Once Talon realized we were missing, he would find us, but in a week, based on our injuries and lack of usable rations, we would be long dead. I was pretty sure after that long, not even Allie could bring us back.

I was going to have to attempt to project myself millions of miles, a task I had never accomplished before. The farthest I ever had was when Talon and I were kids. At that time, I projected myself several miles to get help for us. I was much more skilled now but wasn’t sure it would be enough. I concentrated on Talon. I only needed him to see me. As soon as he saw me, he would know something was wrong and track me. My first couple of attempts failed, and I was so tired.

“Lila, thank you,” Colin said quietly, then he closed his eyes.

“Colin?” Lila called.

I scanned him and realized he was crashing. Adrenaline surged. I needed to get him help now. I concentrated with everything I had on Talon and felt my projection move forward. I was on Saturn base in one of the tactical rooms. John and Talon were at a table with several others, and they had their backs to me.

“Talon!” I yelled as loud as I could.

He whirled around along with John and the others.

“Seraphine? What are you doing here?” Talon asked.

I shook my head and was pulled back to the shuttle. I knew he would track me now. I couldn’t stay awake any longer.

“Seraphine!” I heard Lila frantically call me over and over, but I needed to sleep. I let go of any will keeping me awake.

I woke up to a soft touch on my stomach and no longer felt any pain. I opened my eyes and saw a concerned Allie above me.

Allie took a deep breath. “She’s back.”

Talon was at my side, and his face looked pale. I knew by his stern frown that I had given him a scare. His arms pulled me against him and I heard him let out a shaky breath.

“Colin and Lila?” I asked.

“They’re fine. For a minute, I wasn’t sure if you were going to be.” I didn’t know what Talon meant, but I could hear the strain in his voice.

“I was fine. Needed a nap is all.”

“You were dead for a couple of hours when we found you.” I could hear his voice shake, and he still hadn’t released me.

It was a toss-up for Allie when more than a couple hours passed after someone died. There were times she gave it all she had and was still unable to bring someone back. She wore herself to exhaustion and would usually have to be pulled away. As Jasper told her, sometimes not everyone could be saved.

Talon held my hand tightly and led me to the shuttle we would ride home in. Our assignment was given to someone else, as we needed to go back to base to be checked by Jasper. This was a protocol that was a bit silly since Allie was exceptionally good at her ability, but it was protocol nonetheless. In all honesty, I was glad I was out of the tedious gift-giving mission. As expected, Jasper said all three of us looked amazing and cleared us physically. Before he officially released us, he wanted us all to be evaluated by the base counselor to help us process the trauma.

Lila was pretty shaken. Colin and I had both died on her, and she hadn’t known I was able to project to Saturn base. She thought she would have to wait to die with her friends already dead around her. She’d experienced being centered in a real-life horror show. Gabriel ran into sickbay to find her, and she bolted for him. She collapsed in his arms and cried as though at Gabriel’s comfort she couldn’t hold anything back any longer.

After I spoke with the counselor, Talon grabbed my hand, and we walked home. We crawled into bed, and I relished my closeness to him instead of a lonely bed on the planet I should have been on.

“When I saw you in the tactical room, it didn’t connect at first you were a projection. I didn’t know you could project that far,” Talon said.

“I didn’t know I could either. All I knew was we needed help, and I had to try.”

“I’m so glad you did. When I tracked you, I didn’t want to believe what I saw. When we arrived at the shuttle, and our scanners confirmed you were dead, I nearly lost it. Allie struggled getting you back, but she refused to give up. I wanted her out of this war, but without her, I would have lost you today. That’s a terrifying thought.”

“Luckily it’s one you don’t have to dwell on because she is here and I am fine.”

Talon kissed my head and held me tighter. We fought the war, but all we really wanted was to live our lives together. I remembered I was the one that was supposed to outlive Talon if Allie was left out of the war. I realized if Allie were not brought in, John probably wouldn’t have been either. There would have been no alliance to give gifts for and no shuttle crash. This to me was enough evidence to show that the ill-fated timeline Jerap saw had in fact been altered.

The Loctorian glimpses probably changed many things, and most we would never know if they were for the better. In this case, my near death was a circumstance I would take a million times over in the stead of Talon’s permanent demise. I pushed thoughts of time shifts aside and allowed gratitude for my husband’s arms to comfort me to peaceful dreams.

Chapter Twenty-Four

John-November 14, 2014

I kissed Althea’s cheek as she lay sleeping, momentarily at peace with the chaos we were continually catapulted into. For this minute fragment in time, I was enveloped in the way her loose, chestnut curls cascaded down her cheeks, framing her face ever so perfectly. Even while she slept, her beauty was not lost on me. I let her sleep. I grabbed my bag and gave a short pause to take in a final glimpse of her.

After a long shuttle ride, Talon and I arrived on the planet of Grochani. The prime minister of the Grochani home world yelled angrily at the chancellor of the Bawtooki Province in Grochani. The Bawtookians broke off from the rest of Grochani decades ago, and now they argued a peace treaty signed twenty years ago gave them the right to more land for their growing populations.

The Loctorians agreed to oversee the negotiations, which meant they sent me. The Grochani people appeared human. Most of the men had long mustaches that they braided together at the end. They also had dark blue fingernails, which was the main feature that set them apart from humans.

“We can’t give up the south end. It is too vital to our people!” the prime minister leaned over the table to yell at the chancellor.

“We are willing to part with half of the west bend, but we must insist upon the south!” Stibolic countered.

I got up from my seat at the long wooden table and pointed to the map of their planet that hung on the silver walls. “You both have an interest in the south bend. Why doesn’t the province take the southern half and, prime minister, your people take the northern? The southern is closer to the province anyway. Then you split the west bend as well.”

I spent the next hour convincing them as to why it was a good plan before both agreed it was a good solution. They set to work writing up the treaty. Talon and I traveled back to our home on Saturn base.

“How do you do that?” Talon asked.

“Do what?”

“You slam dunk alliances as though you’re getting everyone to decide on pizza toppings.”

“That actually sounds good right now. What I wouldn’t give for an Earth pizza. But honestly, when you can read minds, it’s helpful. I figure out what both sides want and what their obstacles are.”

“I guess that’s why they’re making you admiral tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but it’s a little weird for me. I feel you deserve it more than me.” And I did. Talon had been in this fight a lot longer than me.

“Not a possibility for me. And honestly, I’m good with it. I’m not in this for recognition.”

“Yeah, recognition is pretty uncomfortable for me as well. Why is this not possible for you?”

Talon had said nothing about it before.

“It’s a long story, but basically I have a formal reprimand on my file. The way that it’s on my record prevents me from rising above the rank of captain. I reached my limit years ago.”

Talon didn’t elaborate, and I wouldn’t push it, but I was definitely curious about what he possibly could have done, especially for that large of a punishment. He was always responsible and following protocol to the letter. I thought about asking Allie about it, but Talon shut that avenue down.

“By the way, my sister doesn’t know, and I’d like to keep it that way. If we could keep that between us, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yeah, of course,” I agreed, a bit disappointed I couldn’t be nosier.

I went to the negotiation’s debriefing, and Admiral Parks gave me a statement on how much my successful negotiation would pay me. I saw the six-figure payment and didn’t even blink, as the Loctorians paid us well to sacrifice our souls. I was not looking forward to my promotion ceremony. I had risen quickly up the ranks but I felt it was not by my own aptitude. Psychic visions were leading my ascension, along with the pressure that I was meant to embody greatness.

When I didn’t find Allie in our quarters, I called her com device. When she didn’t answer, I left a message that I was back and needed to see her beautiful face. I went to the bar. I needed a drink after listening to intense arguing for two days. I was glad this had been a brief trip, as many times negotiations went on for weeks. Colin sat at the bar drinking, and I sat on the stool next to him.

“Stressful week?” I asked.

“More like a lonely one,” Colin said.

“There’s plenty of good catches on base.” I downed the whiskey shot the bartender sent me.

“Yeah, but what happens if you already know the one you want but she’s taken?”

“I guess you have to decide if you should tell her how you feel. Give her the chance to decide if she wants to stay taken or move on with you. It took me a really long time to tell Allie how I felt.”

He laughed. “Yeah, a decade, right?”

“Yeah, something like that. So unless you want to be like me, pining for a decade, either tell her how you feel or move on to someone else.”

“Back before you and Allie were together, why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you find someone else instead of waiting for so long?”

“Because to me, there would have never been anyone else. She was the one I loved, whether I ever got to be with her or not. The day she became mine, I became the luckiest man, and every second I spent wishing she was mine was worth it because it eventually led her to me. My only regret was that I shouldn’t have let my fear keep me from her for so long.”

Colin took another swig of his beer then left some money on the counter. “Thanks, John, that’s really helpful.”

“Sure. Good luck, man.”

My com device went off, and I looked to see Allie calling me.

“Hey, babe, what’s up?” I asked.

“I got your message and came home, but it’s empty here. I need you to come home and cuddle with me. I need warmth. I need all of you.”

I smiled at her exaggerated drama. I downed my last shot and bolted for my waiting fiancée. I barely got the door closed before she jumped on me, kissing me. She wore one of my white T-shirts. She pulled off my pants, and I thought I should hang them up since they were my uniform. Allie turned my face back to meet her lips, and I realized steaming them later was perfectly acceptable.

I carried her into the bedroom and plopped her on the bed. She sat up and wrapped her legs around my back and pulled me down on top of her. Our thoughts and emotions were breathing together as a single being.

What I told Colin earlier was right. I spent way too long worried that I would lose her. I had missed out on the intensity of feeling every part of her for a long time. She fell asleep on my chest, and I gently played with her hair. I kissed the top of her head, breathing deeply the sweet scent that flowed from it. This was all I wanted from life, all I could ever want and need was wrapped up in the energy that was my Althea.


The day of my promotion ceremony arrived and Admiral Parks called me into her office. I asked her if I could be promoted without the ceremony, which then caused her to drone on for twenty minutes about formalities and protocol. I took that as a no and went home to get ready. Allie was already in her black, strapless gown. It flowed nicely to her ankles, and she had her hair pinned up neatly in a braided bun. She was putting on the finishing touches of her makeup.

I kissed her neck. “At least something good has come from this promotion ceremony.”

“What’s that?” She grinned.

“I get to see you in this dress.”

She shook her head. “You better hold it together, Trammel. We have to get through all the pomp and circumstance.”

“Can we skip all of that and go right to the part where I unzip this?”

Still smiling, she dodged my arms. “Get ready, you silly man. You have to become an admiral and obtain all the prestige that affords you.”

“I think all it really affords me is more responsibility and less time with you.”

“Seriously, John, I’m proud of you. I know you don’t think you earned this, but dozens of successful alliances, missions, and battles say otherwise. Who would have thought my introverted best friend would have a natural knack for leadership? You amaze me every day, Trammel. Even if it means I have to share you more than I want to. Now go get ready. This night is yours whether you like it or not. “

She gave me an alluring smile, and I wanted to get lost in it, but I listened to my girl and got ready.

The ceremony went off without a hitch, and Allie insisted on throwing me a party afterward. She went to a great deal of effort, which made me feel obligated to stick around. She knew I hated parties, but she couldn’t help proclaiming how proud she was of me to anyone who would listen. I stayed for her and mingled with everyone.

The dancing started, and Gabriel and Lila took to the floor. They made me smile. Then Colin caught my attention. He was watching them too, and the look he was sending their way made me curious. I concentrated on feeling his emotions. I was struck with the realization that Lila was who Colin had been talking about. I had unknowingly encouraged Colin to move in on my best friend’s girl. A sinking feeling rose in my gut that I was responsible for propelling a looming mess forward.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Althea-November 24, 2014

A week had passed since John’s promotion and the higher-ups were keeping him as busy as the title implied. He was gone for the night as there was some kind of crisis that he needed to be involved in.

I put on my fleece pajamas and got ready to snuggle up with a book. I walked over to my cedar bookshelf and stared, trying to decide which one to pick. I pulled out a copy of The Color Purple. I shook my head and pushed it back on the shelf.

Our wall phone ringing interrupted my indecisiveness. I glanced at the phone suspiciously. Anyone who knew us messaged or called our com devices. The wall phone was for anyone who only knew how to contact us through the base directory.

“Is Admiral Trammel there?” the gruff voice on the other end asked.

“No, he’s gone for the night. Is there something I could help with? I’m his fiancé, Althea.”

“Oh hey, Althea. It’s me, Sal, from Van’s pub. Was needing to see if the admiral wanted to pick up someone who claims to be in his unit. I told him I was going to have him thrown in the brig, which I’m about to. He has created quite the ruckus. He asked me to call Admiral Trammel first. I was reluctant to bother him so late, but I thought he’d have a better idea of what should be done with his drunken subordinate.”

“Who is it?”

“Says his name is Gabriel Lasko.”

“I’ll be right there, Sal. Do me a favor and don’t have him thrown in the brig, please.”

“Oh, honey, I didn’t mean for you to come fetch him. He’s being quite belligerent at the moment.”

“I’ll be fine. Be there in less than ten minutes,” I said.

I quickly threw on my sweatpants and a blue T-shirt. What was going on with Gabriel? He never got drunk, and belligerent was never an adjective I would have chosen to describe him at any point. I tied my pink sneakers and scurried to the pub. I could hear Gabriel’s slurred speech yelling before I even walked through the entrance. He yelled at Sal, threatening to throw a chair at him. I quickly ran over and grabbed the chair he was holding and set it on the ground.

“What are you doing, Allie?” Gabriel asked.

“I’m here to take you home before you get thrown in the brig and get a reprimand on your record.”

“I don’t care! I never wanted to fight in this stupid war. I only wanted to stay on Earth. You know, our planet?” His words were nearly unrecognizable.

“Yep, I know what Earth is. Let’s go, Gabriel.” I tried to pull him with me, but he stumbled, knocking us both to the ground.

“Honey, I think he’s a little too drunk to be handled. I think we should call security,” Sal insisted.

“It’s alright, I got this. We’ll be fine.”

With effort, I got Gabriel to walk out of the pub with me. Once we were in the hall, we took the long walk to his quarters. He stumbled, and I tried to steady him as we walked.

“Allie, can you believe Lila would do that? I love her, you know,” he mumbled the issue bothering him but didn’t elaborate on specifics.

We got to his quarters finally, and I pulled out his keys from his pocket. I thought about making it to his bedroom, but Gabriel plopped on the couch and snored loudly. I grabbed a quilt from his backroom and covered him. I lifted his head and put a couch pillow under it.

I sat in the chair across from him and read a book on my phone for a couple of hours. I had nowhere else to be and I wanted to make sure he would be okay. I fell asleep.

“Allie? What are you doing here?” Gabriel stood over me.

I glanced at the clock and saw a few hours had passed. “You got drunk and pissed Sal off at Van’s Pub. I walked you home and didn’t want to leave you alone.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t even remember much past taking a few drinks.”

“You want to talk about what’s bothering you?” I left an open door if he wanted to vent.

“Lila and I broke up.”

My mouth hung open. “I’m sorry! That has to be tough. I know you really cared about her.”

“I still do. In fact, I’m pretty sure I love her.”

“Did she not feel the same way?”

He shrugged. “I guess not. I went to her hydroponics room. Spent a lot of time on that you know. Both times we fixed it up.”

“I remember. Lila was so excited. She showed Seraphine and me the amazing job you’d done for her.”

“Apparently it didn’t matter. I went there to surprise her with a plant I ordered. The plant was one she’d been wanting but was struggling to find. When I was able to locate it, I wanted to surprise her. The door was locked when I got there, and I thought that meant she wasn’t in.

“That was better and would give me time to set up the surprise. When I unlocked the door, I found her in the back, holding Colin. I asked her what was going on, and they both stared at me and wouldn’t answer. I dropped the plant and left. I wandered restlessly then ended up at the bar.”

“Wow, Gabriel! I’m so sorry.”

“Now I have to work with both of them, and I don’t know how. Maybe I should transfer.”

“Slow down. Don’t do anything drastic. Our team would not be the same without you. Maybe you should talk to Lila. There could be another explanation.”

“I don’t see how. It wasn’t a simple hug. They stayed there holding each other.” He sat back down on his couch.

“If you truly love her, then talk to her. Give her a chance to tell you what’s going on. Give yourself time to breathe a little, and talk to her in the morning.”

“Maybe you’re right. I’m really sorry that you got brought into this mess.”

“What are friends for if not to help you through your messes? Get some sleep. Things may look better in a few hours.”


I walked into my living room and went to put my keys on the hook. I saw John’s already there and realized his crisis must have concluded early. The thought made me happy. I was wanting to snuggle up to him. I grabbed my robe to put on and tiptoed to the bedroom. I went in quietly, trying not to wake John, who was sleeping in bed. I put my engagement ring in my jewelry box.

“Why are you sad?” he asked.

“Was helping a friend in a sad situation.” I figured Gabriel could share if he wanted to.

He chuckled. “And here I thought you were out partying at my absence.”

“I was enjoying the lively activity of almost reading before I left.”

“Come to bed so I can cheer you up.”

I crawled into bed, and he pulled me to face him, kissing my forehead.

“What happened to the crisis?” I pressed myself closer to him in an attempt to steal his warmth.

“Wasn’t as bad as they thought, but now we have to leave for battle in a few hours.”

“Ugh! Really? I wanted to spend the day in bed with you,” I whined.

“You’d get no arguments from me there.”

Our lips met, and that was really all I wanted for our day tomorrow, but the war had other plans as usual. I was able to catch a couple more hours of sleep before we had to leave. Reluctantly, I put my uniform on and John and I walked to the docking bay together. The others were already there.

Today’s battlefield wasn’t too far, which meant we didn’t have to fold. Hyperspace would be adequate. As almost always, we were fighting over a planet that held something both Khalbytians and Loctorians wanted. Blood would be shed today for some resource or outpost neither side could settle on. The battlefield would be fought on a field of dried yellow grass. The grass was around three feet tall and expanded a few miles to the base of a high mountain.

There were a couple hundred soldiers from various units lined up on the field. The Khalbytians peered over the horizon and didn’t even wait to get within weapons range. They began to rapid fire in our direction, and our soldiers advanced to meet them. We were immersed in the middle of total carnage. I was on the double duty of healing our side and killing the other. A comrade went down I brought them back into the fight.

A Khalbytian stood over Morgan, ripping him to shreds. I flew at the Khalbytian, melting him to a pile of ooze. Morgan writhed in pain. I quickly closed his wounds, and he jumped back up to continue the fight. I launched to help Colin, who was fighting off a team of three Khalbytians. I felt a sharp burning sensation in my abdomen and crumpled. Talon threw his long knife into the Khalbytian who fired on me. My wound closed, and I could breathe again.

“Good, sis?” Talon blasted two Khalbytians one right after the other, barely even glancing at them.

I nodded and went back to scour the field for the dead and injured. We wiped the field of our enemy and sent several limping away. I went through the field, making sure I didn’t miss anyone. A medic named Carl helped me move Khalbytians off of human bodies, making it easier for me to bring the soldiers back. I sat down on a large rock, dizzy and weak. I was growing increasingly stronger with each battle but was still pestered with annoying limits.

“Carl, I’m feeling pretty tired. Can you commence the search and call me if you find someone?” I found talking itself difficult, which indicated I was teetering on burn out.

He nodded and found a few more. I healed two with proton wounds and one with large slashes. Carl promised me we found everyone. I could barely stand to make it back to the ship. I told Carl to go ahead to his unit and I would be fine. I sat down on the ground, resting my head on my knees. I was tempted to make the grass a nice bed when Talon walked up.

“Someone burned herself out again, didn’t she?” He picked me up. I was relieved that I didn’t have to walk. He carried me to the ship and laid me on the medical bed. “Get some sleep. You did pretty well, kiddo.” Talon covered me with a blanket.

Before I could drift to sleep, I heard Gabriel yelling, “Help! Help her!”

I found a surge of energy as Gabriel carried a lifeless Lila in and laid her on a medical cot. I ran for her and gasped at the gruesomeness of her injuries. Her forehead caved inward and her abdomen charred. I began healing her large head wound, molding brain matter and replicating the cells at a rapid place. I moved on to her skull, building from healthy bone and restoring the damaged. I covered all of it over with fresh skin. She stirred a little and groaned in pain. I started on her abdominal injury.

“This is your fault!” Gabriel yelled at Colin.

“How is it my fault?” Colin demanded.

“You jumped out of the way, and that’s how she got hit!”

“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. I didn’t know she was behind me!” Colin shoved Gabriel, hitting me in the side and causing me to release my hand from healing Lila. I hadn’t made a good seal yet, and the wound reopened, causing Lila to gasp in pain. I jumped up.

“Both of you knock it off and give me space.” Adrenaline fueled my energy increase.

“See, now Allie can’t even heal Lila because you’re an asshat!” Gabriel shoved Colin again.

Colin punched Gabriel, and they were on the ground wrestling. John walked in from the battle, debriefing with the other admirals.

“What’s going on?” John demanded.

My jaw tightened. “If these two can quit being cavemen, I can get back to healing Lila.”

John grabbed Gabriel, and Talon grabbed Colin, keeping them separated. I turned my attention back to Lila and finished healing her. She sat up and saw the sight of Colin and Gabriel trying to tear at each other. John slammed Gabriel into a chair, and Talon did the same with Colin.

“Both of you better get it in control. Fighting aboard my ship! You’re lucky I don’t throw both of you in the brig for a day or two until I can sort out a better punishment for you,” John said.

My exhaustion returned, and everything appeared like I was seeing it through a tunnel. Everyone was caught up in the fight. Seraphine was the only one who noticed.

“You’re about to collapse, aren’t you?” She steadied me over to a bed.

I closed my eyes to sleep. I woke up alone in sickbay and groaned. How much life had I missed out on now? I took off the pulse-ox on my finger, causing my machines to alarm. Two nurses ran in and calmed when they saw I was awake. They left, and Jasper came in a few minutes later.

“Shoot it to me straight, Jasper. How long was I flaking out this time?”

“Ten days, but you broke a new record. No casualties, thanks to you. You’re getting stronger and taking less time to recover. Pretty impressive.”

“Having a medic help me scour the field helped. He did the grunt work.”

“That’s good to know. We’ll try to keep that in mind in the future. John will be glad you’re awake. He stops by every evening to read to you.”

I smiled at the thought. John knew I liked to read at least ten books a month and with all this draining I’d been lagging behind. Too bad I didn’t hear a word he read.

“You’re going to let me out now, right?” I asked Jasper.

“Yeah, let me give you a quick look over, and you can be on your way.”

He scanned me and did a vitals check. Everything looked good, and he cleared me to leave.

On my way out, I walked up to Jasper. “You know what John is up to today?”

“He’s gone for the afternoon at some sort of negotiation event. He told me he’d be back to see you tonight.”

“Very well. I’ll catch him at home. Thanks, Jasper.”

I went to find Gabriel. I needed to find out what happened with him and Lila while I was sleeping. I knocked on his quarters.

There was no answer at first, but finally, he opened the door. “Good to see you awake, Allie. Come in.”

“As you know, I have this built-in drainage system that is really annoying. Fill me in on what’s been going on.”

I looked around and saw the disheveled state of his apartment. He wore a white shirt and light blue flannel pants. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a good three days at least.

“Lila and I definitely broke up,” he said.

“Oh no! I’m sorry.”

“Turns out you were right. I should have talked to her. She met Colin in her hydroponics lab to give him a plant for the migraines he’d been having. She hugged him because his grandma died a couple days earlier and she was the only one who knew. She was already upset that I didn’t let her explain. Colin and I getting into an argument only made things worse.”

“That’s rough. Maybe she’ll come around. Can I help you in any way?”

He shook his head. “You already helped more than I could expect. Next time maybe I’ll listen to your advice.”

“Then listen to me now. Things will get better. Why don’t you go get a shower and go out tonight? I’m going to clean your quarters.”

Gabriel looked around. “Yeah, it’s fallen apart a bit. Really though, you woke up an hour ago, you should go rest. I promise I’ll have it shaped up by this evening.”

“I’ve been sleeping for ten days. I think a little work will do me good. Go get that shower.”

He finally agreed and I got to work on his place. I put the sink full of dishes in the dishwasher then washed what was left by hand. After the kitchen, I got started in the living room, then grabbed his hamper and put his laundry in the washer. I made his bed, and he came out of the bathroom.

“I made your bed so you can’t go back in it until tonight.” I shot him a smile.

“Thanks, Allie. You do good work.”

“Repay me by going out tonight. Promise?”

“Okay. I promise.”

I finished cleaning the rest of his quarters, and he helped. I glanced at my com device and saw I missed a call from John. John must have gotten back from negotiations already. I listened to the message.

“Hey babe, stopped by sickbay and Jasper said you woke up and went home. I’m home but you’re not here. Anxious to see you. Call me. Love you. Bye.”

I made my next stop our quarters, and I suddenly felt down. I was missing out on so much with John when I was drained. What kind of life would that be for him with me sleeping so long at a time? Maybe it would be better if he was with someone else. Was I selfish holding on to him when he could be with someone more available? This thought and similar ones flew through my head as I opened my front door. He was on the couch, and jumped up when I walked in. He closed the distance between us and wrapped me in a hug.

“Sweetheart, I missed you.” He pulled me close, and I hugged him back. He released me then looked me over. “What’s wrong?”

“Are you sure you want to spend your life with me?”

He frowned. “Of course I do. Why would you say that?”

I let go of him and sat on the couch.

He followed me over. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t think it’s fair to you. I spend so much time sleeping and recovering. I leave you alone. Wouldn’t you rather have someone who wasn’t that lame?”

“Yes, you’re so lame, bringing dozens back from the dead. The answer is no, I don’t want anyone else. I don’t care how long I have to wait to see you. You’re worth the wait every time.”

“You sure?”

“Babe, I’m absolutely sure.”

I kissed him. I knew to me it felt only a couple hours since I had seen him last, but I missed him too. Two days later, we were given another mission. I walked to the docking bay. Lila was loading her things when I arrived. We hadn’t really gotten the chance to talk since she and Gabriel broke up.

I put my bag in the compartment next to hers. “How’s it going, Lila?”

“Alright, I guess.”

“I heard about you and Gabriel. How are you holding up?” I gave her a side hug.

“Every time I think I’m fine with it, I see him and I realize I’m not. I miss him, but if he can’t trust me, what kind of relationship is that?”

“I think maybe he made a mistake in his reaction. As much as you need trust in a relationship, you need forgiveness as well. I think it’s a tough balance sometimes. All I know is if you love him and want to be with him, maybe you two should talk about it.”

Gabriel walked by us into the ship and didn’t say anything.

“He’s mighty fine, isn’t he?” She smiled, and I smiled back at her.

“I think you should talk to him. I think it will give you closure one way or the other.”

We left for the mission, and I hoped Lila and Gabriel could work things out. I knew they were happy together, but they needed to figure that out for themselves.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Seraphine-December 7, 2014

“Shakespeare!” I called his name and practically tore our quarters apart. The bowl of food I left him earlier that morning sat untouched. Where could he be?

“Seraphine?” I heard Talon call me cautiously.

I went out to find him in the living room, and he was looking over the disarray I created looking for our cat.

“Were we robbed?” he greeted me.

“Seriously, that’s what you think occurred?”

“Umm, yes. Or maybe an earthquake.” He smiled at me slightly.

“We’re in space.” I laughed.

“I don’t know what occurred, all I know is my wife has to have everything perfect, and this would never meet her approval. Something must have happened beyond her control.”

“Shakespeare is missing. I’ve looked everywhere.”

“I believe it.”

I shook my head at him. “Where could he have gone? He must have followed one of us out.”

“Anyone dying around the base?”

“What?” I squinted my eyes at him.

“That cat knows things.”

“You’re a goof. Anyway, I’m worried about him. I tried your com device twice. Track him, please.”

Talon concentrated. “That’s weird. I can’t seem to find him. He must be in the duct system; it interferes with abilities sometimes. Because of the gas they use for capsulization, it’s almost impossible to track through. They use it for training purposes sometimes when they are training new trackers how to get around tracking obstacles.”

“Oh, no! Talon!”

“Someone is bound to see him. I mean, cats don’t normally walk around the base. And I’ll keep trying to track him.”

“This place is like a skyscraper. There are lots of places for him to hide.”

“Let’s put the word out he’s missing, and I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

I started by calling our team members first, and they all said they would be on the lookout for him. Halfway through dinner, our doorbell rang. I got up to answer it and found Allie and John standing there.

“You guys want some dinner?” I asked.

“No, I made posters.” Allie showed me a picture of Shakespeare sitting nicely, looking at the camera.

“How did you get that good of a picture of him? He never sits still for me to take one.” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Shakespeare was usually a jerk when it came to snapping his photo.

“Allie has always had a way with animals. It’s an annoying kind of thing.” Talon continued eating his dinner.

“He’s probably out exploring and will return on his own. Had a cat growing up that would do that,” John said.

“But he’s never been out before except when we take him to the vet, and then he’s always transported in a kennel. What if he falls out an airlock or something?” I was worried that would be exactly what would happen to him.

“We’ll find him, Seraphine. Don’t worry.” Allie pulled me into a hug.

“Exactly, don’t worry. Now that my sister is on this, there will be no sleeping until he’s found.” Talon was joking about his sister’s enthusiasm for downtrodden animals.

Allie divided everyone up into groups of two. She recruited the rest of our team to help, and we covered the station with fliers and reported him missing in the base news. We went back to wait, and soon phone calls started pouring in of sightings. Since it was unlikely that some other cat was being spotted, we took them seriously.

A lady from ops said he came and said hello to her earlier in the day, brightening her day. We followed the leads all over the station, then one arrived that had me worried. A guy who worked in the armory said he saw Shakespeare climb into one of the piping ducts that they send capsulization gas through, which confirmed Talon’s theory as to why he was having trouble tracking him.

“I mean, it’s not like he has a gene to be activated and it’s going to make him a super cat,” Talon said.

I bit my lip. “I think we’re going to have to climb in and get him.”

“I’ll do it,” Allie declared.

“What?” John shook his head. “Bad idea. You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“I’m with John. You’re not climbing into the piping system after the cat. If he got himself in, he can get himself out,” Talon said.

Next thing we all knew we were at the base of the piping system waiting for Allie and me to climb inside. John, being an admiral, pulled some strings and got the system shut off until we were done. We decided we would go together in case we ran into some kind of trouble. With the fog system off, it was easier for Talon to track him. Talon used our com devices to guided us through various pipes. We saw Shakespeare a couple times dodging us through another pipe.

We chased him through several pipes and then he jumped out of the vent. The vent was too small for us to climb out of, and we had to crawl backwards through the piping. When we climbed back out where the guys were waiting, they looked at us and snickered. Allie had smudges on her face, and static electricity made her hair stand up. I guessed that I looked about the same. Talon opened his mouth, and I shot him a look. Both he and John burst into laughter.

“By the way, he’s headed for the pub.” Talon could clearly track him now, and we bolted for the elevator.

There he was, happily munching on a fish stick next to Sal.

“Shakespeare!” I ran up and grabbed him.

“Oh, he’s your cat? I enjoy when he stops by for a fish stick,” Sal said.

“You mean he’s done this before?”

“Yeah, a couple times a week.”

My mouth hung wide in disbelief. We took Shakespeare home, baffled. We still had no idea how he got out of our quarters. A week later, we were assigned a mission that meant we would be gone for a few days, and our usual cat sitter stopped by our quarters. I asked him to come while I was there so I could let him know about Shakespeare escaping somehow.

“Yeah, I know. He goes out your closet vent.” The cat sitter bent down to pet Shakespeare.

“What vent?” I looked at Talon, and he shrugged.

The sitter led us to our bedroom and moved a box on an upper shelf in our walk-in closet. Sure enough, in the corner behind a box was an open vent.

The sitter looked at both our stunned faces. “I thought you both knew and left it open so he could get exercise. He’s kind of a big deal on base.”

How had we not even known he did this, yet everyone on base seemed to know? We decided to leave the vent open for now. Shakespeare seemed to bring happiness that I only discovered as people saw the fliers and called us. Besides, Jerap would be happy to know that Shakespeare had the freedom he always wanted him to have.


For our latest mission, we were being sent to the edge of Khalbytian space. Some human colonies were being raided by Khalbytians. At the time, the humans were placed on the colonies, Khalbytian space was much farther away, and these seemed like ideal planets given their Earth-like compositions. As the Khalbytians moved closer and closer, it became clear that the colonies were in danger. It was unclear if the colonies were created with the choice of the residing humans, but the Loctorians often did what they thought was best.

In the colony we were being sent to, the men were being killed but the women were being taken. We were to try and put a stop to the raids as well as help the colonists relocate to a safer planet. Our new ship was big enough that the cargo hold could transfer about a hundred people at a time. There was one village in particular that was thought to be the next target. We decided to start with them.

We held a town meeting to explain what was taking place. The relocation was voluntary but highly recommended. The colony was established there for decades, and some families held deep roots there. During the meeting, it was discovered that some of the men from an already raided village had shown up to the meeting. They wanted to plead with us to save their wives and daughters.

“We can’t say no to that,” Allie said when the meeting was over.

“It’s not part of the mission.” John was strict about protocol.

“John is right. If we devote time to another endeavor, we might mess the rest of the mission up,” Talon agreed.

I could see both sides and thought we should compromise. “What if we left it up to the governor? He was the one who requested our assistance. If he doesn’t mind us taking time out for a side mission then maybe we should.”

John thought that was fair and the governor agreed that if we thought we could save them, then we should, but he asked that some of us stay behind. John decided Allie, Lila, and I should go and act as bait for the Khalbytians. John and Talon would be there to provide back up. Colin, Morgan, Deron, and Gabriel would stay and guard the village.

Lila, Allie, and I put on clothes from the village. Talon tracked the Khalbytians. The three of us women acted like we were out for a stroll, and they took the bait. Large, clawed hands grabbed us and took us back to their camp. They threw us in a cage with about fifteen other women. Most of them stared blankly, and many looked beaten. A large Khalbytian—with white scales instead of the usual greenish-brown—walked up to take a look at us. Our built-in translators helped us make out their gruff conversation.

“These three were foolish walking alone,” one of the other Khalbytians said.

The white one stared at us, and Allie caught his attention. “Her eyes, they look like the light mineral. I want her. She’s mine.” He kept his eyes fixated on Allie.

“Should we take her out now?” one of the guards asked.

“Yes, bring her to my chambers.” He walked toward the tents.

I knew very well that if he took Allie he would be in for a big surprise when she melted him. They pulled her out, and before they could shut the door again, I projected a bunch of humans running at them with weapons. Talon and John took the sudden rapid-fire as their cue to join the fight. The white Khalbytian came running out, and he marched straight for Allie, grabbing her arm. His eyes widened, and he released her, backing up.

He gave what appeared to be a Khalbytian smile before he pushed a button and disappeared. I assumed that he’d been beamed up to a waiting ship. We helped the women back to their village. Many bore brands. Branding was used as a symbol of Khalbytian ownership.

Allie healed the injuries she could, but many of their faces remained vacant. We helped transport them to a new planet, and all but a couple of families went with us. The others said they would take their chances. We dropped off the final load of colonists. I thought about those women, and I hoped they would be okay. We returned to our ship and had a couple more assignments before we could return to base.

The new ship we were given was becoming our second home, and I was glad Talon and I had our own quarters aboard it. They were a lot smaller than the quarters back on base, but they held everything we needed.

“I’m glad we saved those women. Your sister seems to tether us to doing what’s right. If she hadn’t spoken up, would we have even given a second thought about rescuing them?” I sat on the couch, drinking hot cocoa.

“I’m not sure. That was a big reason I fought so long to keep her out of the war. I felt she was too compassionate to survive war, but it turns out she keeps pushing compassion to meet the war.”

“We weren’t unlike her once,” I said

“How so?”

“All those years ago, before we fought battles, we let Dramto go without a second thought, even after he hurt you.”

“Yeah, I guess the war has jaded our consciences. Allie hasn’t gotten there yet.”

“I know you didn’t want her in, and I understand why, but she has been good for everyone.”

“I agree. I just don’t know if it’s been good for her. But what’s done is done. I’m glad they have her on my team so I can keep an eye on her at least.”

“I’m glad she’s close. It’s been nice having a sister,” I said.

“I have to say, I am happy you two get along so well.”

I put my hot cocoa down and snuggled up to Talon. We turned on a comedy and spent the rest of the night laughing. I was glad we could have breaks like this, but I worried about what Talon said about us being jaded. What moral compass did we follow during war?

War definitely complicated morality, but we needed to be careful not to use it as an excuse to do absolutely anything. We couldn’t let ourselves become consumed with evil in the name of winning. Allie seemed to gravitate toward the ideal of her ethics, remaining constant no matter what outside circumstances entailed. It appeared she knew what she could live with and what she couldn’t. I needed to figure that out for myself.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Seraphine-December 15, 2014

My com device going off woke me early. John called the team to discuss our next assignment. We were still aboard our ship the morning after the colony mission was completed. He asked us to be in the tactical room within an hour. Talon and I shared a shower and ate breakfast together. We made it to the tactical room ten minutes early and waited as the rest of the crew trickled in.

John briefed us, “This assignment is similar to the last one, as we are to protect more human colonies. We are not relocating them off their planet this time, but we are helping them travel to a mountain base with more security. Khalbytians attack regularly so we should expect to have to battle. There are three colonies. We will be dividing up to escort each of the colonies there to help with the time constraint. We will be docking on Pulsar base in about twenty minutes to pick up three extra soldiers to help us out.”

We resumed our regular stations and picked up two more men and a woman I didn’t recognize. We went to the next colony planet, which appeared on our view screen as a pink and white swirling globe. We touched down on the surface and the clouds above swirled in swift spiral patterns continually. The landscape was desert-like but a lovely shade of soft pink. A slight wind blew the pink dirt around gently.

There were blue, plant-like cylinders that grew in sets of five and had small spikes throughout. The cylinders varied in height and circumference, but most stood far above all of us. They caught Lila’s attention immediately, and she scanned them and typed something into her tablet. She finished off her assessment with a couple pictures. She had been documenting all the plant life we came across as she was writing a book on alien botany.

“Everyone, avoid the cacti. They seem to have hallucinogenic properties,” Lila said.

“That might make for a good time.” Colin smiled at her.

Lila laughed slightly and shook her head. A man walked up to greet us. He walked straight for John and shook his hand. His hair was brown and balding, and he appeared to be in his forties.

“I’m Matthew Rogers, colony leader. Glad to have all of you here. We are anxious to get to our mountain fortress. We have a group of colonists already there reinforcing everything. As you know, we are not soldiers. When we colonized here, the Khalbytians were not a threat. We are only simple farmers.”

John spoke, “We’re here to get all of you there safely. Our intel has told us a wave of Khalbytians is on its way and we need to get all of you there as soon as possible. To save time we are splitting our team up to lead the other two villages at the same time.”

“Are there more of you in the ship?” Matthew looked anxiously at the eleven of us.

“No, the council thought this would be enough. I assure you, we will get everyone there safely. This is Althea, Seraphine, and Deron. They will be leading your village to the mountain.”

“Women? You are leaving us with two women and one soldier.” Matthew’s voice was growing increasingly angry.

“I’m leaving you with three of my best soldiers.”

“Women aren’t soldiers. Especially these tiny ones. That one there, she’s what? Maybe a hundred pounds?” Matthew pointed at Allie, and I saw her smile a little.

I, on the other hand, lacked amusement at his words, and my attitude was closely linked to disgust. Allie was definitely a surprise for almost anyone. She lacked muscles of any kind and looked like she could easily be knocked over with a simple shove. She made up for it with her spirit, and anyone who underestimated her would find that regrettable.

“I promise you will not be disappointed with their skills. They have extensive training and experience, and will be able to protect your people adequately. Also, I was told you denied having us transport everyone on our ship. This would be more efficient and safer,” John said.

“No, I don’t trust your ship. One hit from the enemy, and we all explode.”

“Are you ready to accept the help that’s needed, or does my team need to pick up and leave?”

“We will accept your help even if it’s lacking in capability. Now that I know we will have to do more fighting than anticipated, I will need fifteen minutes to prep my men.”

“Okay, but realize we need to leave urgently. I will leave you with the soldiers who will be leading your village. The rest of us need to be on our way.” John kept it professional, but I recognized his subtle hints at annoyance.

“Hopefully, we will see you there. I make no promises that we will return your women to you. We will be too busy protecting ourselves to protect them. You don’t seem to care too greatly for them anyway. I’m not sure how you could expect a woman to be able to match the strength and intelligence of a man, or to be able to do anything at all for us. By the time they gather their wits, half of my village will be destroyed.” Matthew stormed off to talk to his village.

John divided the teams. Talon, Morgan Colin, and one of the soldiers we picked up would be the second team. John, Lila, Gabriel, and the other two soldiers would be taking the third village. The last village was quite larger and needed more assistance. I wasn’t sure how John determined who would be on what team but I figured he had his reasons. The others set off for their assignments, and we would meet them after the long trek to the mountain fortress.

Matthew’s village contained fifty-three people. He was pushing twenty minutes when his people finally showed up with all the items they could carry. There were fifteen children, and Allie suggested they move them to the middle for better protection. This was met with disapproval from Matthew, and I realized any instructions were going to have to come from Deron. Deron led the way, I was in the middle, and Allie was at the back. The back was most likely where Khalbytians would attack from. Even if Matthew knew this, he didn’t care because he wanted a man leading them to the mountain fort.

“Our colony women know their place. Obedient with no mind of their own. They mind their men and don’t strive for bigger things. They raise our children well and take care of us men. They would never think to fight as soldiers.” I was close enough to the front that I could hear Matthew talking to Deron.

“Wouldn’t you rather equip your women to protect themselves?” Deron asked.

“Why when our men can protect them?”

“If you can protect them, why do you need our team to escort your villages?”

I smiled and told myself to buy Deron a drink next time we were out. Something I valued about the men on our team was they never doubted Allie, Lila, or me. They especially never degraded our intelligence or skill. We had nothing to prove with any of them.

Diversity made us stronger. Instead of taking Deron’s words seriously, Matthew carried on with his ideals. “Women do not have the strength, intelligence, or aptitude to protect themselves. We were promised your team would have all of that, then they sent women as a good portion of your team.”

“Next time, you can feel free to protect yourselves and you won’t have to concern yourselves with the capabilities of our women who have proven themselves in battle, missions, and countless other endeavors in the Loctorian-Khalbytian war.”

“Soldiers must be scarce for the council to even let women into the fight.”

“I think maybe the council is a bit wiser than yourself,” Deron said.

“Maybe the council is all female. Would explain the poor decision making. You know back when I was…”

“Shhh!” Deron halted the group.

I knew to pay attention. Deron’s senses picked up on something, and I hushed the children next to me.

“I know you believe differently, but…”

“No, silence. Something is coming,” Deron whispered.

Deron ran swiftly to the back next to Allie and scanned behind us. Matthew followed him and huffed and puffed from his short-distance run. It was clear Matthew would need to be protected more than his women would.

Matthew looked Allie over closer and said, “This one doesn’t even have a weapon.”

Allie smiled. “Weighs me down.”

“Probably best. Wouldn’t want to die from your miscalculated shots.”

Pink dust swirled up and the dark forms of Khalbytians bounded toward us. I made it to the back and projected to get a better look.

“About forty of them,” I said.

They were approaching at a rapid speed. I convinced several Khalbytians to take themselves out, and Matthew looked stunned. Gunfire hit the group. Everyone began to scream, and some ran in panic. Khalbytians took that opportunity to pick the colonists off one by one.

“Stay together. Stay calm,” Allie instructed everyone before she launched straight at the Khalbytians, dodging gunfire and Khalbytian claws.

She melted each one she passed. Matthew’s jaw gasped open, stunned by her courage and skill. Deron was hand-to-hand and I was continuing to project delusions and chaos into the minds of the Khalbytians. The three of us took care of the onslaught before they reached most of the group. Allie walked over to the few colonists who were injured and healed them all.

“Well, your women were certainly full of surprises,” Matthew said.

Deron shook his head. “Maybe if you gave yours a chance, they would surprise you as well.”

We made it to the mountain fort, and Talon’s group was already there. We were getting the two groups settled when Allie’s com device went off.

“John?” Allie answered. There was a pause then she said, “Okay, be right there.” She hung up and turned to me. “Seems the village they got to has already been raided with mass casualties. John needs me to heal everyone.”

Talon and I decided to go with Allie in case there was trouble. Allie often struggled with directions, and Talon worried she would get lost even with her scanner. His ability was much more reliable than the scanner anyway. We made it to the village in fifteen minutes.

John greeted us, “We’ve laid out all the bodies to make it easier for you to heal, and we’ve triaged the injured so you can decide the best order to proceed.”

“You guys are spoiling me.” Allie smiled, which evaporated when she saw all of the bodies.

I was concerned that it would be too much for her, and I could tell by the look on her face that she was too. She would never say if it was and she would attempt to help everyone.

“I know it’s a lot. Do what you can, that’s all anyone expects,” John said.

“Let’s do the injured first. Bringing them back is more difficult. I don’t want to burn out before being able to help as many as I can.”

Crying and screaming flowed as the prominent sound as we approached the tent opening. The sight overwhelmed my heart. Children clung to their mothers sobbing while others were writhing in agony. There were so many. The Khalbytians had attacked the largest village before any of us could get there to help them.

An elderly man held a blood-soaked cloth over half his face, and his visible eye seemed unfocused. Khalbytian gashes were prominent on foreheads and abdomens. Merciless brutality ripped through all that had been within the vicinity of Khalbytian claws. A tear fell down my cheek, and I actively allowed myself to feel the horror so that scenes like this would never numb my humanity.

Allie began with the children. I wished I could help Allie, as there was an instant pull to end their suffering. She talked to each one, telling them they would soon feel better and not to be scared. She took the time to explain everything and made sure they were okay with her proceeding. Many hugged her when she was done. I projected stories for the waiting children to keep their minds off their surroundings. Allie healed everyone and returned to the mass grave.

Allie went one after the other, not stopping between each person. As she neared the last row, she seemed to be slowing, and I could tell she would need a long nap. There were three left when she stumbled back and sat on the ground. Her nose started bleeding, and an instant flashback to Helen dying made me want to stop her.

Talon’s thoughts matched mine. “I think you’ve done enough, Allie.”

“No, I need a break… is all,” her speech slurred.

John placed his hand on her shoulder. “I think Talon is right.”

“I’m fine, you two. Give me a minute,” she mumbled. Allie took a brief break and then healed the remaining three. “Everyone?” She rested her head on her knees.

“Yes, everyone is healed,” John said.

“I’m going to take a nap then.” Allie flopped onto her side.

I scanned her to make sure she was simply sleeping, then John radioed Colin to bring the transport cart to get her back to the ship. He carried her to the medical tent and covered her with a blanket. About an hour later, Colin arrived to take her to the ship.

The rest of us helped get the colonists settled, and Matthew thanked us. I wondered if he was humbled by the fact that a woman had saved so many of his people. I hoped he would treat the women in his colony better and even help them gain the skills to fight back against Khalbytian attacks. In this war, we needed everyone.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

John-December 16, 2014

I would be glad when the colonists were settled, and we could return to Saturn base. Dealing with the colony leader Matthew proved difficult. His lack of respect for the women on my team was something that hadn’t sat well with me.

My team worked on ship checks, making sure everything was ready for us to depart. I went to check on Allie who still slept from burn out. The scanner indicated she was doing well. I went back to navigation to get an estimate on departure. My com device went off.

“John, are you still on Fon-435?” Admiral Parks asked.

“Yes, ma’am. We are getting ready to depart.”

“What’s your team’s status?”

“Team is in good shape, and the mission was a success. One for sickbay. Althea Cooper with ability burn out, but stable.”

“If she’s doing well I have one more mission for you on the planet.”

I internally groaned. I would rather have my fiancée back in sickbay where the nurses could care for her properly and Jasper could monitor her. She was medically stable, and that meant I had to put my personal feelings aside and carry out my duty.

“She’s doing fine now. Just sleeping. Probably will be for a while,” I said.

“Our intel has told us Khalbytians are attempting to set up base a few hundred kilometers from the position of the mountain base. We need you to go and destroy their efforts. With Allie down, I know you won’t be able to heal injuries, but I think your team can manage.”

That was easy for her to say while safe on Saturn base, but it made sense to deal with it now rather than having the Khalbytians destroy the work of the mission we completed. I told everyone the plan, and I felt their disappointment. Everyone was looking forward to getting home. I wished we were able to use the ship to fire and destroy the new Khalbytian base in one swoop. The ship was poor at firing in low atmosphere, plus the power of the weaponry could cause unstable planetary events.

For this reason, we would have to go hand-to-hand again. Eventually I hoped the Loctorians would have the ship issues ironed out. Talon led us to the base, and we set down far enough away to go undetected. The entire base was surrounded by the strange, blue cacti that Lila had told us to avoid, but that would be nearly impossible.

“The plants. How poisonous are they?” I asked her.

“I don’t think they will cause serious damage, but they appear to have hallucinogenic properties. May drug us up for a bit and impair our function.”

“Okay, everyone, try to avoid the cactus plants the best you can,” I instructed my team.

Seraphine projected and let us know there were about a hundred inside. I told her to try and take out as many remotely as possible, and I would do the same. We got through a couple dozen before they realized the threat was really outside. We were now in battle. Things were going well until I saw a Khalbytian shove Talon right into a cactus plant. I knew that was going to happen to at least one of us. Colin was next, as he had his arm slammed into one.

We knocked through all the Khalbytians and Talon did a sweep. He seemed to be fine. Maybe you had to eat the cactus to experience any side effects. Talon informed us all was clear. I asked for an assessment of injuries. Colin, Deron, and Talon all had cactus injuries. Lila’s arm revealed a nasty weapon burn and Gabriel’s leg had been sliced into. Other than those things, we were no worse for wear.

We boarded the ship and I confirmed with Admiral Parks that we were now cleared to return to Saturn base. We would be dropping off the three extra members at Pulsar base and would go home from there. Colin started laughing hysterically, and Deron joined him. They were both super loud and didn’t stop. Apparently, we weren’t out of the woods with the cactus wounds yet. Talon still seemed fine.

“Colin and Deron, get to medical bay. You’re off duty until base,” I ordered.

“We’re fine.” Colin cackled.

“Yeah, we’re fine, just they look so funny.” Deron snorted and pointed at the consoles in front of him.

“Who looks funny?” I asked him.

“The squirrels! They are running all over the controls. How have we not crashed?” Deron howled with laughter.

“What do you mean squirrels? I think those jumping lights are pretty funny. They are all over people’s heads. Like bouncy balls.” Colin joined Deron with boisterous laughter.

“Come on, guys. You’ll have to watch your squirrels and lights back in medical bay.” Morgan led them both out.

“Talon? How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Great! Enjoying looking at both my wives at the moment.” His response caused me to look at him, and it took me a minute to realize what he’d said.

He stared at Seraphine with a ridiculous grin. “Look at them, they are beautiful.”

Seraphine snapped her head up at his words. “Talon, what other wife?”

“See, they also have the most beautiful voice. Here and there.” He pointed to the sides of Seraphine.

“Okay, big guy. Medical bay for you.” Seraphine pulled Talon from his chair.

“Will you guys be there?” He sounded half out of it.

“We’ll walk you there.”


Seraphine led Talon out, and Morgan returned to let us know Seraphine was going to watch the stoned posse. We landed on base, and medics were waiting for our injured, including Allie. Nurses hooked Allie up to her usual IV, tubes, and wires. After I was sure she was settled, I walked back to talk to Jasper to hear the report on my team. I heard yelling.

“Why do you put that woman-stealing asshole next to me?!” Colin yelled about Gabriel.

He was sitting in the triage area, and Gabriel was getting stitched up on an exam table nearby.

“I’m going to let that one go because you’re high.” Gabriel wasn’t able to resist saying something back.

“I’m going to punch you across the room!” Colin stood up and tried to punch Gabriel but missed by a good foot.

The nurse stitching Gabriel up yelled for security, and I came over and held Colin back, who then accurately punched me in the jaw. Security came and helped restrain him. We took him to a private room away from Gabriel. I knew Colin was impaired at the moment, but I also knew his emotions came from a real place.

I didn’t want to lose Colin or Gabriel on my team, but this needed to be resolved. This was the issue with forming relationships within military teams, but the Loctorians did what they wanted. I was sure this was partially because they didn’t understand human relationships as well as they thought. The rest of it was their manipulation of humanity over the obsession with their visions. Relationships not forming within our team seemed impossible anyway. We worked closely, faced death, and celebrated life together. We were a family, and that meant emotions ran high concerning each other.

“Jasper, what’s it looking like for the cactus plant being out of their system?” I asked.

“They should be good by tomorrow.”

I followed him in to check on Talon. Talon had his head in Seraphine’s lap, smiling at her.

“I love you. You’re beautiful.” Talon sounded dopey.

Seraphine half smiled, and half looked desperate. “Yep, love you too. Jasper, fix him please.”

“Unfortunately, it just needs to cycle through. Couple hours maybe.” Jasper grinned.

“How’s Allie?”

“Good. Settled in sickbay,” I replied.

Talon jumped up. “Where’s my sister? She’s the best. I really need to tell her that so she knows it. That she’s a good sister.”

“She knows it, Talon. We all know you love us,” Seraphine said, and he hugged her tightly, looking pleased about what she told him.

I left Seraphine to deal with Talon’s vigorous affection. I needed to go to a mission debriefing with Parks. I walked home to get a shower and already missed Allie. I tried to get some sleep, but the coldness of an empty bed sent me to sickbay. I read to Allie before sleeping in the chair next to her. I wanted the war to be over so I could have her with me every night.

During the day, I kept busy with war reports and the gym. I needed to keep up my physical aptitude.


On Saturday, I met Talon for our weekly sparring. The cactus had worn off about a day after we arrived back. Seraphine told him she needed a day at the spa. She loved him, but he had smothered her a bit. We sparred back and forth and ran the base obstacle course together. Talon always pushed me further than I otherwise would have extended myself. I thought I would ask his opinion on the Colin/Gabriel situation. I told him what happened in sickbay.

“I think we need it officially squashed or it’s going to continue to bite us on missions. They either need to cool it with each other or one is going to have to transfer.” Talon was in line with my thinking.

“Yeah, I agree, but I don’t like the idea of losing either one of them. I guess we’re going to have to talk it out.”

My com device went off.

“Hey, Jasper. Allie okay?”

“Yes, she’s awake, sort of,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“Everything is fine. Just come to sickbay when you can.”

“What is it?” Talon asked.

“I’m not sure.” I told him what Jasper said, and he decided to come with me.

She had only been asleep for four days, and with the amount of healing she had done, she should have been sleeping a lot longer. I wouldn’t complain by any means. Talon and I walked into Allie’s room, and she still looked asleep. As I got closer, she opened her eyes, but she still looked exhausted.

“I want to go home. Tell Jasper to let me go home.” Allie closed her eyes as though her eyelids were too heavy to keep open.

Jasper waved Talon and me out in the hall. “Allie is getting increasingly stronger. We know that healing is similar to a muscle in the sense that it can be made stronger the more it’s worked. Allie’s is growing stronger at a speed we haven’t seen. This means she can heal more and needs less recovery. This time I think she forced herself awake before her body was ready. Instead of being completely refreshed like normal, she can barely keep her eyes open.”

“Can she go home as she wants?” I asked.

“If you’re willing to keep an eye on her and make sure she stays hydrated, it shouldn’t be an issue.”

I agreed and went back in to talk to Allie again. I liked having her back, even if it wasn’t at full capacity. I wheeled her back in the wheelchair Jasper provided, then I carried her to our bed. She slept for the rest of the day. That night she snuggled close to me and we slept. She gave pieces of her life up for those she healed. We discussed her healing several times. She was fully cognizant of the fact that our lives together were put on hold each time she burned herself out, but saving all she could was the only option that she was fine with.

I missed her when she slept, but I would never wish away the time we had together. Having her in our bed while she recovered made things much easier. With her conscious but sleepy, I could make sure all her needs were met. Over the next three days, she regained her energy and was back to herself. I walked through the door to grab lunch and saw Allie was up and about, making sandwiches. The two plates on the table told me she was waiting for me.

“You don’t have to make me a sandwich,” I said.

“You don’t want one or you thinking I’m doing too much?”

“The latter.”

“Thought so. Already made it so what’s done is done, and you’ll have to live with it.” She sent me a smile.

I gave her a kiss and filled glasses with water. “You sure you’re up for game night tonight?”

“Of course.”

“Would you tell me otherwise?”

She grinned. “Maybe.”

She brought me my sandwich, and we ate lunch together

“You going to tell what your internal conflict is, or are you going to maintain a distracted conversation?” she asked.

“It’s Colin and Gabriel. When Colin was drugged by the cactus plant, he tried to punch Gabriel again. He said Gabriel stole Lila from him.”

“That’s the other way around.”

“I know, but the point is I don’t think either are over it. We need to settle it, or one of them will have to transfer. We can’t risk discord of any kind in our team. Slip-ups cost lives.”

“Maybe you should let them duke it out.”

I squinted my eyes. “Let them fight?”

“Yeah, they keep getting stopped. Maybe they need to settle the score. Winner takes Lila.”

“What?” I raised my eyebrows and saw her smile.

“I’m kidding about that last part.”

“Yeah, figured that out. I don’t know about condoning violence among the team.”

“If you are afraid they are going to fight on a mission, head it off in a controlled environment. Boxing tournament.”

“What if they kill each other?”

“I’ll bring them back.” She shrugged as if it was no big deal.

“I guess we’ll talk to them about it.”

“Okay, but let me talk to Lila first. I don’t want her to be hurt by it.” Allie went to coffee with Lila to discuss what we were thinking. She returned and told me Lila said to go ahead with it. She’d said she wanted the entire thing over so we could all at least go back to being friends again. She was put-off to the idea of being with either of them at the moment, but she didn’t want either of them to transfer.

I called both Gabriel and Colin to my office. They sat across from my desk, and the resentment and anger radiated off of both of them. Their faces were strictly professional soldiers awaiting the reason their commanding officer requested their presence.

I got right to the point. “How do you two feel about boxing?”

“It’s okay to watch if the opponents are good,” Colin said.

“Never watched.” Gabriel shrugged.

“I think the two of you need to have a match.” I sat back in my chair, waiting for their reactions.

They both looked at me as though they thought Jasper needed to run a brain scan on me.

Gabriel squinted his eyes. “You want us to box?”

“Yeah, I figure you do it here instead of on the battlefield. One way or the other, this feud you have is getting squashed permanently.”

“We squashed it,” Colin said.

“Yeah, water under the bridge.” Gabriel nodded in agreement with Colin.

“You two know I’m an empath, right?” They both nodded. I continued, “You both care about Lila. How do you think she feels about being in the middle of raging testosterone as though you are battling to own her?”

“Okay, fine. Let’s do this,” Colin said.

“You guys serious?” Gabriel looked back and forth between Colin and me.

The next thing we knew, we were in the gym with a large mat covering a good portion of the middle of it. We discussed getting official gear, but both decided against it. They stood in fighting stance and Colin threw the first punch. Both knew how to fight. Colin was stronger, but Gabriel was faster. They each got in a few punches before Gabriel punched Colin right in the nose and blood gushed.

“Really, you have to break my nose?!” Colin yelled.

“Not like Allie can’t fix it.” Gabriel glared back.

Before I could blink, they were wrestling with each other on the ground. Colin had Gabriel pinned.

“How do you think it’s okay to steal your friend’s girl? You know I love Lila,” Gabriel said

“I was going for it like John told me to.”

Our entire team looked at me, stunned.

“I didn’t know the woman was Lila!” I defended myself.

Lila walked to the edge of the mat. “You love me, Gabriel?”

Colin released Gabriel, and they both sat up with swollen faces.

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah, of course, I do.”

Lila smiled. “I love you, too.”

Gabriel looked up at her and smiled.

Lila walked over to the mat and kissed him. Colin got up and sat over in the bleachers, looking at the ground.

After the kiss ended, she walked over to Colin. “I’m sorry, Colin. I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want to lose you from our team.”

“No, I’m sorry. I should have realized you both were too important to me for me to ruin the amazing thing you two have always had. You’re one lucky man, Gabriel.” Colin walked toward the door.

Allie healed Colin’s face before he disappeared down the hall. Allie healed Gabriel, and he and Lila walked out holding hands. I had a feeling they were going to be alright now. I was worried about Colin, but I noticed Allie had disappeared too. She was probably doing what she couldn’t avoid, interfering in the lives of her friends. She always magically made it better to some degree. A couple hours later, she climbed into our bed next to me. I savored the scent of her freshly showered hair.

I put my arms around her. “How’s Colin?”

“A little heartbroken, but he’ll be okay. He’s not angry at Gabriel anymore. He’s madder at himself now.”

When our weekly game night rolled around, I was nervous to see how it would go. Gabriel and Colin interacted like they never had a feud. It was as though the fight and Lila’s choice settled it for both of them. A couple weeks later, when I saw them give each other a hug and pats on the back, I knew they were brothers again.

This would prove to be a good thing, as the next month was a whirlwind of battles and missions. Everyone seemed focused again. I did have a discussion with both Colin and Gabriel, and they confirmed what I had already figured out—that they were fine with each other now. The past would now be kept in the past. I hoped Colin would find the right person for him and that the loneliness I saw him reveal at the bar would disappear.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Seraphine-January 15, 2015

“Your sister asked me to be her matron of honor,” I said to Talon.

He sat long ways on the couch, buried deep in a book. The information I told him was met with silence.

“Talon! Are you listening?”

He glanced up from his book. “What?”

“Allie asked me to be her matron of honor today.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s good. John asked me to be his best man last week.”

“Did you say yes?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” He put his book down to give me his full attention.

“You have a reputation is all.”

“What kind of a reputation?”

“You think John is the only guy who has wanted to date your sister?”

“No, but he’s definitely the first. Those two were never apart growing up. I never stopped anyone from dating her.”

“That’s because everyone else was too scared of you to try.” I crawled onto the couch and leaned my back against his chest.

He wrapped his arms around me. “Just the same, I think she’s ended up with who she’s supposed to. Maybe my fear factor was a good thing.”

“You know it means we have to throw the bachelor and bachelorette parties?”

“Do we have to?” Talon sounded disgruntled at the pending chore.

“Yeah, it’s an expectation when we accepted our wedding positions.”

“I think I’ll secretly pass the duty onto Colin and Deron. Those two can pull off a party.”

I glanced at the clock and realized we needed to get a move on to game night. We had dinner reservations at Verne’s restaurant, followed by bowling. I quickly reminded Talon and hurried to put my makeup on. I wore a white shirt to help my red lipstick pop. Talon wore a collared, green shirt and jeans. We were the last ones to arrive, which I hated.

“Yay! We can order!” Deron exclaimed upon seeing our arrival.

“You could have ordered.” I sat in the chair Talon pulled out for me. I had long ago given into Talon’s hopelessly romantic ways.

“John said we couldn’t.” Deron seemed to sulk a little.

I looked at John and he shrugged. His need to control carried over from the battlefield and was leaking into our fun night. The waiter took our order then I heard a familiar voice radiating from the entrance.

“Seraphine and Talon Cooper! I was hoping I’d run into the two of you on this trip.”

I jumped up and ran for Petra Ambrosia, my old teammate. We hugged and I invited her to sit with us. I introduced her to everyone.

“Talon, you’re still divinely fine,” Petra said, looking Talon over.

I hadn’t missed her hitting on my husband at every turn. I narrowed my eyes at her. She spoke again, “What? You know your husband is hot, everyone at his table knows it. Isn’t that right, dear?” She turned to Allie.

Allie looked at Petra like she had no brain cells. “No, he’s my brother!”

“Oh, that explains it,” Petra replied, unfazed by Allie’s annoyance.

“What’s that?”

“Your family has favorable genetics.”

I agreed with Petra on that note. The Coopers were gifted in the appearance department. John, who had excused himself to the bathroom moments before Petra walked up, returned to his spot next to Allie.

“My, my who’s this sweet eye candy? I could cuddle right up with you. How would you like to venture back to my place after dinner?” Petra said to John.

Before he had time to answer Allie practically leapt across the table. “He’s mine! Back off!”

John looked amused at Allie’s outburst.

“Can’t he make that decision for himself?” Petra pressed.

“Can’t you shut up before I knock you on your ass!” Allie didn’t take her eyes off of Petra.

“I like you.” Petra smiled at Allie.

Allie sat back down and our food arrived about five minutes later. I brought up the bachelor and bachelorette parties.

“We can skip that,” John said.

“No way, man! We are totally throwing you one.” Deron gave him an elbow jab.

“I have the perfect place you men could go. There’s this planet in the Latm sector. An old friend of ours works at a club there. I’ll give you the info, Seraphine.” Petra didn’t expand on which friend she was indicating.

We finished up the food and then it was off to bowl. I invited Petra to go with us, and she was excited.

“I’ve missed the old game nights with you guys,” she said.

We split up into our usual teams. John and Deron were leading the pack. They won four out of five games.

“Dance party!” Deron yelled, turning up the music on the loudspeaker.

We all slipped off our shoes. Deron pulled Petra to the dance floor, and the two of them went to town matching each other’s movements. Colin, Gabriel, and Morgan started a breakdancing competition. As they were feeling proud of themselves, Allie flew out onto the lanes and blew them all out of the water. John stayed parked in his usual chair, captivated by Allie’s movements.

“Sometimes you have to be more than an observer.” I winked at him.

“Nah. The view is a little too good right now.” He didn’t take his eyes off of Allie.

I grabbed Talon’s hand and we glided down the lanes together. Lila pulled Gabriel away from the breakdancing competition so he would dance with her. We all let loose. Dancing was a tool we often used to enjoy each other and escape the dark reality that was our second life.

Petra met me the next day for lunch and gave me the info for the planet she thought the guys should take John for his bachelor party. I knew John would be fighting them the entire way, but the other guys on the team were insistent enough that he needed to enjoy this last excursion before jumping into marriage. I decided for Allie we would have a night out at a couple of the base clubs and end the night with a lingerie shower. Petra and I were eating brunch, discussing details for the event.

“You have to make her wear the cheesy bridal sash and everything,” Petra said.

“Do we even have a store that carries that here on base?” I took another sip of my tea and pulled out my com device to search the base directory.

“Yeah, that party store on level one-twelve.”

“Oh yeah, you’re probably right.”

After brunch, we headed to the base shopping center. We found quite a few trinkets that would work to embarrass Allie enough. When I got back to my quarters, I saw Talon in the bathroom packing for the guys’ trip.

“You really think this is a good idea to take several days off to gallivant around some foreign pleasure planet?” He was almost pouting about it.

“I trust you to behave, so I see no issue.”

“I’m more worried about the other guys, not John. We know he’s probably going to stay in the hotel reading and wishing he was back with my sister. But Morgan, Colin, and Deron? I’m going to have to keep them in check.”

“You should make sure they have a little less fun, and John has a little more then.”

“That’s going to prove a monumental task.”

“I have faith you can make it work. You need to relax and go with things. You don’t always have to be responsible for everyone. Try to make it your goal on this trip not to be responsible for all of them. That’s the opposite of the intent of this trip.” I wrapped my arms around him.

He turned around and kissed me. “I’ll try. I think I’m a little more with John. I’d rather stay here with my woman and explore her over an alien vacation world.”

“Well, why don’t you explore me now?” I pulled him to our bedroom and felt no resistance.

Chapter Thirty

Talon-January 17, 2015

I grabbed my bag and walked to the docking bay. As expected, John was there looking as reluctant as I was.

Allie held out her hand. “Fork it over.”

“I have to go over the war reports or I’ll have mountains to get through when I return,” John said.

“This trip is for you to relax and take your mind off the war. Not to surround yourself with it. There’s a reason they promoted you to admiral so quickly.”

“Because The Loctorian council has premonitions that I’m the right choice?”

“No, because you drown yourself in work. I’m putting Gabriel in charge of ensuring you relax and don’t work. Now hand over the device,” Allie demanded.

“Here I thought he was promoted because he’s really good at missions, battles, and things. Hmm… you learn something new every day.” Gabriel dished out sarcasm as he climbed into our vessel.

John opened up his bag and handed her a tablet.

Allie kept her hand extended. “Both of them.”

“Fine!” He pulled out another device and handed it to her.

Allie was the only one who could get John to listen. All she had to do was send him a look and he melted. We climbed into the craft.

Morgan started right in on John. “A little whipped there, huh?”

“Not quite. What she doesn’t know is I have another device in the bag I already loaded.”

Morgan laughed. “You’re such a rebel, John.”

We folded and went to the fourth sector, which was on the far edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We were told this quadrant was owned by a Loctorian named Scorch. Scorch was a nickname, and I didn’t know what his given name was. We landed the craft in the middle of a city. It was night on this planet, but the streets were lit up with neon signs and flashing buildings. It reminded me of the planet Seraphine and I were married on, the one that strived to copy the Las Vegas of Earth.

We checked into our hotel and were taken to the human side of the hotel. Different sections were designed for the needs of specific species. I wondered what some of the alien rooms looked like. I ordered a room by myself, unwilling to share with any of the guys. The room looked very much like an Earth hotel room. I rented a suite, which meant there was a living room with a white couch and two white chairs.

The bed had a white spread with a large TV in front of it. My bathroom contained a shower and a jacuzzi tub. All I could think was I wished Seraphine was here to enjoy it with me. I showered and put on khaki shorts and a royal blue collared shirt. I heard a knock on the door. On the other side of the door stood Colin, Gabriel, Deron, and Morgan.

“We can’t get our fearless leader to come out of his room,” Morgan said.

“Can’t say that I blame him.” I shrugged.

“I promised Allie I would make sure he had some fun,” Gabriel protested.

“I think he probably is, or as much as he possibly can away from her.” I knew what I stated was true. It was a miracle that we even got him to go to his own bachelor party. I knew the only reason he was here was to make Allie happy.

“Come on, Talon. You have to come out too. There will be lots of fun—gambling, shows, women.” Colin thought he was being persuasive.

“Yeah, that last one isn’t really appealing.” Seraphine was the only half-naked woman I cared to stare at.

“Seraphine will never know,” Deron said.

Gabriel shook his head. “I don’t think Seraphine knowing is his issue.”

Gabriel at least had some sense.

“I get the feeling all of you are not going to go away until I get John out of his room and I’m hungry, so let’s go. My friend Petra recommended the Star Lounge so let’s start there.” I relented and led the guys to John’s room.

We knocked on John’s door and, as expected, were met with protest. He held a device with war reports in his hand.

“I’ve got work to do.” He looked like he was about to close the door on us.

“You gotta eat at some point,” I said.

Colin snapped a picture. “Why don’t I send this to Allie right now?” He turned his phone around, showing a picture of John with the device that Allie had insisted he leave behind.

John glared at him. “Fine! I’ll go, but only for a couple hours.”

We took what seemed to be a cab to Star Lounge. The vehicle was a black three-wheeler. The sides were open, which was comfortable because the temperature was perfect.

“Tell me you two are going to at least drink?” Colin directed that at John and me.

“I might have a drink or two. Help me get through this night,” John said.

I shook my head. “I don’t drink.”

“Explains your tension,” Colin threw my way.

Gabriel, Morgan, and Deron hit the craps table while Colin hit up the burlesque show that was going on one room over. John and I sat down at the bar. John ordered some shots.

“Am I going to have to carry you home?” I asked him when he got to his fifth one.

“It takes a lot more than a few shots to get me drunk.”

“I didn’t even know you drank.”

“Once in a while. Usually if Morgan or Gabriel drag me out. Sometimes it helps to drown out the emotions of others in a closed-off space full of people. Don’t worry, Allie never drinks with me. She keeps that promise she made you all those years ago.”

Allie was grown up and she could have easily chosen to drink, but I liked the fact she kept her word after all these years.

“I thought you could filter out emotions pretty well by now?”

He downed another shot. “Yeah, for the most part, unless they are loud, like here everyone is way too happy. Their happiness is pretty loud, making it difficult to filter.”

John hated crowds even before his ability, but I could see why war reports seemed more appealing to him now. A new bartender arrived, and I raised my hand to order some food. He was putting his apron on. He turned around, and my mouth gaped open.


He walked over, and his face had a huge smile. “Talon Cooper!” He ran around the bar and threw his arms around me.

“Wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again.” Elliott patted my back.

“Same here.” I directed my hand John’s way. “Elliott, this is my soon to be brother-in-law, John.”

John and Elliott shook hands.

“Brother-in-law? You’re actually letting someone marry your sister?” Elliott teased.

“Only him. In fact, we’re here for his bachelor party.”

“Hey, let’s meet up in about an hour when I get off. Grab a bite?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I waited to order my food and realized Petra recommended this bar so I would run into Elliott. An hour later, Elliott put up his apron.

I hopped off my bar stool. “John, you alright if I head out?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

He sounded a little tipsy, which made me consider staying. My sister would kill me if something happened to him on this trip. Then again, he was a grown man, and I wanted to catch up with Elliott.

“Catch you tomorrow.”

John gave me a salute.

I saw Gabriel on my way out. “John’s headed to being drunk. Can you make sure he gets back to his room?”

“Yeah, on it.” Gabriel headed to the bar.

Elliott knew a good place that made Toanrian cuisine. Toanrians were a race who were only about two feet tall full-grown. They were covered in fur, and the color ranged from brownish-green to burnt orange. They had small faces with large eyes. They were good at anything to do with knives, including cooking. I trusted Elliott’s judgment. Not only was he heightened, but he knew food better than anyone I had ever met. We sat down and ordered our food.

“How did you end up here?” I asked.

“I finished my term and was told I could renew or go anywhere I wanted. I had been to this place before and decided to see if I could work at one of the many restaurants they have around here. I needed a break from war. It was getting to my sanity. Might eventually go back.”

“Yeah, I’m in pretty deep. They recruited my sister after she turned eighteen. She’s really good at her ability. They’ve never seen anyone like her. They won’t be letting her go. My term came up, and even if they had offered, I wouldn’t have taken it.”

“I’m sorry, man. I knew you worked so long keeping her out of this.”

“Yeah, it took me a long time to accept the entire thing, but now it’s nice having her close. How have you been holding up?” I wondered how he was coping this long after Helen’s passing.

“I’ve finally found some resemblance of function in my life. Took me a lot of time. At first, I saw Helen everywhere. Now it’s only once in a while when I least expect it. Sneaks out of nowhere and the emotions with it. Then I feel guilty that I haven’t thought about her lately. I’ve learned grief follows its path differently for everyone. There’s no right or wrong speed to grieve. It has to be at a personal pace.”

“I think Helen would be happy you’re moving forward.”

“I know she would. How’s Seraphine?”

“She’s great. As fierce and beautiful as ever.”

“I’ve thought about you guys a lot. You ever give her that baby she wanted?” He smirked.

“No, no kids for us yet. Maybe someday if this war ever slows.”

“Yeah, not the greatest universe to bring a kid into, I guess.”

Elliott and I ate our dinner and got caught up on each other’s lives. After a few hours, I went back to my room to sleep. I felt the sudden urge to track where all the guys were, but then Seraphine’s words of releasing responsibility came to mind. I quickly focused on where John was. When I saw him passed out in bed, I headed to mine to get some sleep which arrived quickly.

I heard a knock on my door and glanced at my clock. I rolled over, annoyed that I was being awakened early. When I opened the door, Colin, Morgan, Gabriel, and John were all standing there. John looked like he’d been smashed over the head and I thought he’d be sleeping his hangover off for the duration of the morning.

“Aren’t you all a little early?” I made sure to have my tone indicate my irritation.

“Deron is in jail,” John said.

Now I got it. John was in command mode. Nothing sobered him up faster than a crisis he could cease. I told the guys to come inside my room so I could get my shoes on and they could tell me what was going on. Colin explained Deron had been gambling and security felt he was cheating by using his ability to win. They believed it to be a serious enough infraction that he had been taken to Scorch himself. Deron was able to get word telepathically to John.

I concentrated on seeing where he was being held, and we grabbed a cab vehicle to the prison. The prison was a concrete fortress with no windows and three doors. It would most likely prove difficult if we had to break him out.

A guard stood behind the front desk. He was almost as tall as a Khalbytian. His orange, leathery skin looked like he’d dried himself out in a tanning booth for a couple of days. His face was proportional except for his pronounced cheeks and forehead. He had no hair, and his muscles looked like they could plow us all the way through the concrete walls around us. I didn’t know what species he was, but I was happy we were equipped with built-in translators.

“May I help you?” His voice was deep, but he was amazingly polite in his greeting.

“One of my men was brought here,” John said, taking charge. He was definitely in command mode.

“Name?” The guard moved his mouse around and prepared to type on his extra-large keyboard.

“Deron Monroe.”

The guard typed and clicked. “Yes, he was brought in a couple hours ago. He’s awaiting trial. Charged with using ability to steal from Scorch.”

“Can we pay his bail?” John asked as though we were on Earth.

“Bail?” The guard tightened his broad forehead.

“Money to get him out until trial.”

The guard laughed a deep belly laugh. “That is not an option. He is carrying the sentence of death.”

“Can we negotiate that?”

“No, Scorch decides. He does not allow outsiders in the courtroom.”

“If we could talk to him, maybe we could come to an agreement.” John now had his diplomat hat on.

“No one can talk to Scorch. He will decide before the evening. If Scorch believes your friend is guilty, he will be put to death a couple hours later. The execution you can watch.”

Leaving Deron to die wasn’t an option, but I wasn’t sure a blatant display of force was ideal either. We left the prison to formulate a plan.

“Obviously we go in guns blazing, take everyone down, and get Deron out,” Morgan, who was the closest to Deron, said.

“We’ll create a galactic incident.” John was more concerned with the potential aftermath of breaking protocol.

“Let’s go talk to my friend Elliott, see if maybe he knows how to get us in to see Scorch,” I suggested, and John agreed.

We found Elliott at the bar, and he led us to a side room where we could talk privately. We sat around a large table.

Elliott began to answer our questions. “Yeah, there’s only one way to see Scorch. You have to challenge him to a game of Limstica. No one ever does because you have to wager something he really wants and it’s usually something you don’t want to give up. Scorch is the best at the game and never loses. If you challenge him, he will not be able to resist. Your friend will be found guilty and executed. Scorch can’t admit his men wrongly arrested someone. Also, it keeps everyone in check. He will keep his word and give you your friend if you win, but I don’t see how you could possibly win. “

“Can you show us the game?” John asked.

“Sure.” Elliott grabbed a deck of cards off of a shelf and shuffled them. They had weird symbols on them. He showed us the symbol key and explained what each one meant. “You have to have a better hand, like poker, but the movements are more like chess.”

John smiled. He loved games that involved strategy and wits. He was going to eat this up.

Elliot continued, “The one who makes it to the end of the board game with the highest card gets to destroy the other person’s king card and is the winner of the game.”

John practiced with Elliott and beat him each time. John was a natural, but I was concerned he couldn’t beat Scorch, who seemed to own the game. We went back to the prison.

The guard greeted us with, “I told you—you cannot see your friend.”

“I challenge Scorch to a game of Limstica,” John said confidently.

The guard looked surprised. “That’s a foolish mistake, but if you are sure?”

“I am.”

We were led back to a large room with a table and were told to take a seat. We waited a good fifteen minutes before a Loctorian walked into the room. He lacked a robe and wore black pants and a grey shirt. He reminded me of how Jerap sometimes wore human clothes.

“I hear there is a fool who wants to challenge me to Limstica. We negotiate here, and then we go to a different room. The game room is plated so you can’t cheat like your friend did.” Scorch spoke with more inflection in his voice than any other Loctorian I had ever heard.

Plated walls and ceilings shut off abilities. Fortunately, it was a scarce element, so it was unable to hinder us a lot.

“Who is the challenger?” Scorch looked us over.

John raised his hand and stepped over.

Scorch grabbed his hand. “Aww yes, the thing you love the most. A woman. She is very beautiful. I will take her if I win.”

I started to step forward, and without turning around, John put his hand behind his back, indicating I stop. He knew me well.

“She’s not mine to give. We are not married, and she is not my slave,” John said.

“Hmmm… It is unproductive to waste energy on a female you do not own. But again, I believe waste is a prominent human trait. What do you have to offer me then?”

“I will take Deron’s place if I lose.” John took Scorch’s hand. They both stared off for a few seconds.

“Yes. Yes, that’s perfect. When I win, I get you. That will displease the council, and that pleases me.”

Great, we were going to have to use brute force. No way was I letting John stay behind. Not only would the council be angry their predetermined admiral was gone, but my sister would hate me for allowing it to happen. She’d be on her way back here to take on Scorch herself. She was fearless to the point she was reckless, especially when it came to something or someone she loved. There was nothing and nobody she loved more than John.

“If you win, you can have your friend back, but for yourself, I’ll throw in one of my thirty-seven daughters. You can have your pick from five.”

John shook his head. “That’s unnecessary.”

“Hmmm… I see. Foolish human. You know it’s wise to have more than one female. If one dies, you will be left alone. Instead, I will give you a favor. I think you will need that one day, specifically due to the fact you choose only one mate.”

Scorch spoke gibberish, but John agreed to the terms. John was told he could pick two of us to be witnesses to a fair game and Scorch would have two as well. John picked Gabriel and I. We followed Scorch to the plated room. I tried to track Seraphine, and it felt like a wall was put between us. I didn’t like the feeling. My ability long ago became an essential aspect of myself.

The game went on for about an hour. John was doing a pretty good job until Scorch took two of his big player cards. I was not liking the fact that I was going to have to take on all the leather guards, and this was going to be a lot of paperwork. I wasn’t as fond of paperwork as John was. As this flowed through my head, I heard Scorch yell.

“How?!” He looked as outraged as I imagined a Loctorian could. Facial expressions weren’t a trait they came by naturally. If they could make them, it was usually due to close interactions with humans. Granted, Scorch was probably one of the more animated Loctorians I had ever seen. He carried himself like a 1920s American gangster.

I glanced at the board and saw, somehow, John won. I gawked in disbelief, wondering if somehow I missed the point of the game.

“How did you do it?” Scorch demanded.

John leaned back proudly in his chair, locking his hands behind his head. “Why is it so hard to believe? Is it because no one ever beats you, or is it because you took cards out of play, making it only possible for you to win.”

Scorch looked stunned. “How did you know?”

“I’m an empath. While you were busy seeing why I was a good trade, I saw why you always win. You take both destructor cards out of play, and you have one up your sleeve. Fortunately for me, I was able to even the odds.” John pulled up his sleeves to reveal cards.

“You cheated!”

“Not any more than you.” John smiled slightly, not faltering in his stance.

“Very well. But I will not concede unless you do one last task.”

“That wasn’t the agreement.” John narrowed his eyes at Scorch.

“If you want your friend back, you will do what I say. I will honor my agreement, but I want something in compensation for your trickery. There are some underground tunnels, and at the end of these tunnels is a scarce rock. I want it, but everyone I have sent has been killed by the monster that guards it. If you do this, you are free to go with your friend, and I’ll throw in that favor.”

John asked for a minute to consult his team.

“We came here for booze, women, and a good time,” Colin protested.

“I think only some of us came here for that,” John said.

Gabriel laughed. “No, some of us came here for paperwork.”

Morgan pointed out we had little choice. We could create a galactic incident and take on all of Scorch’s thug army, or we could do what he asked and hope Scorch was a Loctorian of his word. His actions thus far made me doubtful. We all decided it would be a go and if Scorch still refused to release Deron, we’d go in full force.

Chapter Thirty-One

John-January 18, 2015

Scorch let us use a Jeep-type vehicle to go out to the underground tunnels. Talon drove since he knew where we were going. When we got there, I noticed a large hole in the ground.

“We have to drop down the tunnel,” Talon said.

He pulled rope from his bag and anchored it around a large rock. We propelled down one after the other. We put on our night vision goggles to illuminate the otherwise dark chasm. Talon led the way around several curves. I found that his ability was a lot more useful than I’d thought it would be when I was first told he could find things.

I mockingly thought our keys and cell phones would always be accounted for, and those lost socks would not be able to taunt us from unknown places. Rather than a dull ability, he proved to have one of the most powerful, and his tier-seven status made what he located precise.

I heard a wisp of air as Talon put his finger to his mouth, indicating we needed to maintain silence. We tiptoed by the creature. His eye opened, and he stretched his neck around to devour us. I couldn’t make out what he looked like in full, but he had snake-like eyes that shone brightly. His scales were thick and dark. We dodged his snapping, and I told the others to hold off on any weapons. I concentrated and forced his mind to open up.

I expected to quickly kill him, but he spoke, “What do you want?! You creep into my mind as though you were invited.”

“We need a rock.” I showed him through my memory the picture Scorch had shown me. “We need it to save our friend.”

“That is my rock. You can’t take it,” he roared.

“Can we make a deal?”

“What kind of deal?”

“I can tell what you want more than anything is your freedom.” I had forged deep into his mind.

“Yes, but there is no way out and my claws were removed, leaving me unable to dig myself free.”

“We will free you if you leave the rock behind for us.”

“If you free me, I will not stop you from having my rock.”

I released his mind and asked Talon if he could find a way out. He told us all to stand back and took his proton blaster out, putting it on full. He evaporated a large portion of the dirt ceiling above us. The creature, whose name I learned was Grosthon, thanked me in my mind and flew away with long, black wings. Seeing all of him now I could tell he looked similar to a dragon but with sharp, spiraled horns all the way down his back and two larger ones on his head.

“Talon, where’s the rock?” I asked. Talon pointed to a large pile of black mush. “That’s not…” I paused in disbelief.

“Poop? Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s inside that large one there.”

I glanced at the others. “Any volunteers?”

“You know what they say, a leader should never ask his followers to do anything he’s not willing to do himself.” Gabriel gave me a pat on the back.

I took a deep breath and put on a long-sleeved shirt and gloves from my bag. I dug through the largest pile, crap stuck to my sleeves as though it was glue. I pulled out the stone. I wasn’t sure I would get the smell out anytime soon. We scaled out of the tunnels and found a stream to wash the stone in. I left behind the shirt and gloves.

We walked back into the prison to give Scorch the rock. He wore a black tux with a red bowtie and had a large top hat on his head. The image was much more interesting than the bland robes typically adorned by Loctorians.

“Well, well. You return with the stone, but you have released my monster,” Scorch proclaimed his disappointment.

I narrowed my eyes. “Your monster? Why would your monster be guarding the stone you wanted? Couldn’t you have gotten it yourself by freeing him?”

“If I had really wanted the stone, yes. Really, I just enjoy sending men to their deaths on pointless endeavors. But I will keep my word. Your friend is yours.”

Scorch commanded his men to release Deron. Deron apologized and thanked us for saving him. Then Scorch told us to enjoy his city, and we could partake of whatever we wanted on him. We impressed him by being the only team to return from Grosthon’s den.

As we turned to leave Scorch stopped me, “John Trammel, you have a destiny to fulfill as a great admiral of fleets. I advise you to give yourself a few back-up females, or you will need to call upon the favor I now have waiting for you.”

His words made me uneasy, but I said, “I think I’ll take my chances on the one I got.”

“Very well, then may peace go with you.” He tipped his top hat with a bow.

We headed back to our hotel

“Whoa! What’s that smell.” Deron waved in front of his nose.

“That’s our buddy John.” Morgan laughed.

“It’s a long story, but let’s just say you should be glad you’re worth digging through shit for.” I shot Deron a serious look.

I took three showers and still felt I reeked. I made use of the base spa and thought that maybe now I was bearable. Despite protests from the guys, I finished my paperwork. We needed to get back to base in the morning. After all my work was complete, I felt more comfortable going out with the guys. Colin, Morgan, and Deron went to find some exotic dancers. I had ordered the gambling tables off limits as not to repeat our previous adventure.

Talon, Gabriel, and I sat at the bar. We already had the only women we cared to interact with. Talon said goodbye to his old friend Elliott. Elliott put his apron up, indicating he was off duty for the night. A woman with dark hair walked up, and Elliott kissed her. They walked away, holding hands, and I saw Talon smiling in their direction.

“You seem extra chipper, Talon,” Morgan said, having noticed Talon’s grin as well. He had joined us at the bar, saying the dancer didn’t hold much appeal for him.

“An old friend finally found peace. What’s better than that?” Talon watched Elliott and his girl disappear out the door.

The ride back to base felt like an eternity. I couldn’t wait to get my arms around Allie and feel her presence again. She balanced me and was the only thing that lured me from the responsibilities of war. Lila leapt for Gabriel and Seraphine pulled Talon close to her.

I went to the back of my ship and found Allie. The feeling that pushed itself deep in my chest each time I saw her was now magnified by the fact that she would soon be my wife. I kissed her intensely and slid my hand into the back pocket of her jeans.

“Now wasn’t that fun and relaxing? No paperwork, missions, or responsibilities for a few days.” Allie wrapped me in another hug.

“Yeah, it was perfect,” I said.

I saw Gabriel smirking at me and I shrugged my face.

As I held the woman I loved in my arms, I thought about how far we had come in almost three years. The young college students we were vanished long ago, and we had been transformed into soldiers. I didn’t know what the war, Loctorians, or driving force of fate held for all of us next. All I knew was with my team, my family, next to me, we would meet the next challenge, and we would defeat it. We would fight the war in the hopes that one day we could go home.

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