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Charged - Book One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHARGED

Book One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By L.M.MOORE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition

Charged

Copyright © 2013 by L.M.Moore

All rights reserved

Sketch Artist for the Cover is

Craig Chapman

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, events, organizations, etc; are only used fictitiously. All dialogue, incidents and characters are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

 

DEDICATIONS

I dedicate this to my mother. Her support, in all of my endeavors, has been unlimited throughout my life. Okay, okay, not all of them, but most of them. To the one person who has read virtually every word I’ve ever written. I love you. Thank you for everything.

 

 

Table of Contents

[+ CHAPTER 1+],CHAPTER 2

[+ CHAPTER 3+],CHAPTER 4

[+ CHAPTER 5+],CHAPTER 6

[+ CHAPTER 7+],CHAPTER 8

[+ CHAPTER 9+],CHAPTER 10

[+ CHAPTER 11+],CHAPTER 12

[+ CHAPTER 13+],CHAPTER 14

[+ CHAPTER 15+],CHAPTER 16

[+ CHAPTER 17+],CHAPTER 18

[+ CHAPTER 19+],CHAPTER 20

[+ CHAPTER 21+],CHAPTER 22

[+ CHAPTER 23+],CHAPTER 24

[+ CHAPTER 25+],CHAPTER 26

[+ CHAPTER 27+],CHAPTER 28

[+ CHAPTER 29+],CHAPTER 30

[+ CHAPTER 31+],CHAPTER 32

[+ CHAPTER 33+],CHAPTER 34

[+ CHAPTER 35+],CHAPTER 36

[+ CHAPTER 37+],CHAPTER 38

[+ CHAPTER 39+],CHAPTER 40

[+ CHAPTER 41+],CHAPTER 42

[+ CHAPTER 44+],CHAPTER 45

[+ CHAPTER 46+],CHAPTER 47

[+ CHAPTER 48+],CHAPTER 49

 

[] CHAPTER 1

 

WHEN SHE STEPPED ASIDE, I could see his naked body laid out behind her. I didn’t need to see his face to know it was him. It’s hard to forget a man almost completely covered in tats. It was Richie. What was left of his black hair was matted against his head and he was much thinner than the last time I saw him. And this moment only reinforced the fact that he hadn’t changed his ways.

In the room with me was a woman I wasn’t expecting. The older, larger woman stood before me exuding confidence even though I towered over her by more than a foot. Where the hell was Chris? The woman then straightened her back and crossed her arms; a clear sign she didn’t like me. And I didn’t know if I was going to like her.

A combination of chemicals and cleaning agents lingered in the air, odors I was all too familiar with. The white tile floor had been recently cleaned with bleach and everything else was thoroughly sterilized. I became acutely aware of the echo of my footsteps and the lack of any background noises. The eerie silence made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.

I followed her to the back of the room towards Richie and that’s when it hit me. I didn’t even need to look at him to know some organ was exposed. I was only a few feet closer and the smell of rotting meat saturated the air. It’s a smell you don’t forget. The acrid and slightly sweet odor penetrated my senses, making my stomach churn. I could tell by the smell alone that he’d been decomposing in a warm environment for at least a half a day before he was brought here.

We stopped at the back of the room where she turned on an overhead lamp. The bright light needlessly exaggerated his mutilated skull. I had to look away for a second. He was lying on his back on a metal shelf extending from one of the refrigerated storage units. The entire left wall was lined in these stainless steel units, an upgrade since the last time I was here.

I tried not to look at him too long, attempting to hide the nagging shiver under my skin. Something sank inside of me. Sadness started to creep in as forgotten childhood memories came back to me.

I suddenly remembered the day I’d met Richie. Not because it was pleasant but because it was the first time any kid stood up for me. And it wasn’t really a fight. It was more like me taking an ice ball the size of man’s fist to the side of my face. I went down pretty fast, spilling out onto the cold snow, not really knowing what had struck me. And I could hear the kids laughing from the street. But it was only a moment before Richie was peering over me, trying to help me up, cursing at the other kids. That was a distant thirty years ago and the woman’s voice jerked me back to reality.

“Mr. Kagen, Chris asked me to help you out,” she said, extending her hand.

I’d mistakenly inhaled deeply. The stench and taste of decay filled my lungs and mouth. I quickly exhaled and tried to stifle a gag with my coat sleeve as the woman stared at me.

Shannon didn’t give me her name. She didn’t need to. It was neatly typed on the plastic badge clipped along with her photo on the front pocket of her lab coat. If I didn’t know who she was, then that was my problem.

SHANNON MILLER

MEDICAL EXAMINER

I was expecting to meet Chris, not Shannon. Now it was doubtful I’d get all the information I needed. I nodded my head politely and shook her hand.

“Just Lewis, is fine,” I said.             

“You wanted to see the body of a ‘Richard Stakes’?” she said, paging through some papers attached to a clipboard. Her stiff posture and stern gaze suggested that she had more important things to do and was annoyed by my presence. She had one of those naturally unhappy faces where the lips tilted down at the corners.

Unfortunately, I needed Shannon. Once you hand in your badge, that’s it; you can’t just walk into to a morgue to look at a homicide victim. That was one more thing I didn’t want to think about. Handing over your badge and weapon was a death sentence for most cops. It wasn’t the only badge I was ever issued. But it was the gold one that said detective on it.

“Nothing is finalized yet, but I’m leaning toward a direct cerebral laceration as the cause of death. Someone literally tore this guy’s head open,” she said.

“Weapon?” I didn’t know if she was going to disclose this information. Usually, you didn’t get any specifics beyond who discovered the body, who called it in and where the body was going. I was counting on the favor I asked of Chris, the coroner I worked with for the last twelve years when I was a detective.

“At this point, your guess is as good as mine. No fragments in the wound, nothing significant under the fingernails, no fibers and no postmortem bruising on the body… nothing,” she answered.

It had been a few years since I’d seen a dead body, but I couldn’t recall any of them looking like this. Bodies flashed in my mind: suicides, drug overdoses, elderly that had no kin to look in on them and had been dead for months. Not pretty.

Of course, there were the shooters. How many people shot this year? Twenty-one maybe, but it was only March and none of them matched this picture. I gazed at Richie’s corpse until I could hear that faint droning noise in my head from whenever I stared at something too long. And it never got any easier for me. I never became desensitized. Throughout my career I kept thinking that it was a flaw, a hindrance.

“Any ideas?”

“In my twenty-five years in this field, I’ve seen a lot, but nothing like this. The cut was made from the nape of the neck to the top of the skull… approximately a four-inch depth at the nape and a two-inch depth at the top, as if he was hanging upside down when he was attacked,” she said, tracing the wound with her left hand.

She hesitated, like she was contemplating what she would say next. I was afraid that maybe she felt like she’d told me too much. I needed more information. There was a long moment of silence, but then she continued.              

“The initial blow cut through both the parietal and occipital bones.”

I noticed the content of his skull was almost nothing. Whoever killed Richie had almost hollowed it out. I shook my head a little. I needed to focus, not take another mental snapshot of something else I didn’t want to remember.

“Where was he found?”

“In an alley off of Third Street,” she said.

“Was the body moved?”

“No.”

“Is it possible the attacker was hanging upside down?”

“I don’t think so, it’s too precise. It’s deliberate and not in a sloppy way. This was one swipe with an unbelievable amount of force behind it.” Then she quickly turned her back to me and pushed the metal shelf with Richie’s body back into the refrigerated cabinet, closing the door.

I understood her expression. I’d seen it many times. This was heinous and she was afraid. When she turned back around, her body was more rigid, a protective stance. She would divulge nothing else to me at this point. It was more information than I anticipated and I was grateful. But Shannon was nothing like Chris. Chris was completely clinical about every homicide victim.

I shook her hand gently and gave it a slight squeeze before letting go. And that’s when I noticed the pain. It was always a mild ache but now it was escalating into a pulsating sharp pain. I didn’t want to take the pain killers because it was hard to focus so I knew it was coming. It was inevitable and I wanted to leave before she realized I was disabled.

“Richie was a friend of mine a long time ago. I really appreciate your help.” I looked into her gray eyes to somehow convey to her that I would do all I could.

I headed out the door, my limp was now obvious. I was sure she saw it on my way out. But I was relieved to escape the lifelessness of the morgue and I kept thinking about the report she paged through. It wasn’t the official police report, but it could’ve shown me things that I couldn’t see and I knew I wasn’t going to get it. Thanks to Chris’ unexpected absence, I didn’t obtain all the information I needed.

“We expect the tox screening back in the next couple days,” she said, calling out into the hall. “And tell everyone else to give me more notice. I have things to do here.”

Now, I had to turn around and go back in there. I headed back through the doors, trying to look like I wasn’t that curious.

“Everyone else?” I said.

She looked up from her papers and said, “I wasn’t perturbed by the sister and the girlfriend, but the FBI. I need more time to sterilize my area.”

Why would the FBI be interested in Richie? He was nobody and if he did have a girlfriend, I didn’t think he picked the type that would stick around to identify his body. Richie preferred to be a loner. I nodded my head like I understood her complaints. That was her polite way of saying that the FBI was involved and there was a girlfriend I needed to find.

I walked back out towards the elevator, trying not to limp. And once I made it around the corner I could see it was being serviced. A maintenance man had a ladder blocking the entrance. I should have taken the pain killers or at least brought them with me.

Memories of Richie started to push forward from the corners of my mind. We did have brief encounters through the years, usually him trying to hit me up for cash or information, which I never relinquished. I had many regrets about distancing myself from him, but he was unstable in more than one way.  

The image of his disfigured skull made me cringe. And it stayed with me, gnawing into my brain, cementing itself there along with all the others.

Then I looked at the door to the stairs.

“How much longer?” I said, to the maintenance man.

“Half hour maybe.”

I let out a long sigh and pulled open the stairwell door. I leaned on the rail as my bad knee shot out even more pain step by step. It was only one flight but the muscles in my knee pulled cruelly when I reached the last few steps. I grew frustrated because my body could no longer perform the simple task of climbing stairs. All because I couldn’t shoot a sixteen- year-old kid.

Then the door flew open and a blond nurse paused as she looked at me. It was obvious I was in pain. I took a few slow deep breaths as I paused.

“Sir, do you need some help?”

Just what I needed. A witness to pity me.

“No, thank you.”

She started down the stairs but then she turned back around.

“Have you been discharged? I can get a wheelchair,” she said.

“I wasn’t admitted.”

Slowly she proceeded down but I could feel her eyes on me. I waited for the pain to subside before I took the last two steps and limped out to the main entrance.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

LEAVING THE MORGUE, I stepped out into the perpetual overcast of Seattle. There was a light drizzle which paused only occasionally throughout the year. You were lucky if you got fifty-eight sunny days out of every three hundred and sixty-five, but today the overcast seemed appropriate. But the rain always made my knee worse. I had to sit down on a bench for fifteen minutes before I tried to walk again.

I could’ve taken my truck, but parking in Seattle, to say the least, was a problem. So I took the light rail — a fancy name for an elevated bus — into downtown, a block from Pike’s Market. Marie, Richie’s sister, had given me the address over the phone earlier, but I didn’t need it. I knew the area. Plus, I spent the last twenty years trying to avoid Richie, so of course I knew where he lived. Marie called his landlord and asked him to leave a key under the mat.

When I got there, I limped up the outside steps that wrapped around the small laundromat to his apartment. Immediately, I noticed the front door had been pushed off the top hinge and forced open. Quickly, I unsnapped my holster and pulled out my .357 Magnum. Almost instantly I wished I brought the .22. The 686 Smith and Wesson had a lot of kick back and would be difficult to handle with my bad knee.

I slowly slid through the half-open door and searched the apartment. I honed in on every creak in the floor, every puff of the furnace and anything else I could hear: a window opening, a footstep, a breath. I checked the small hallway and two closets, turning on every light, checking behind every door. I was alone.

I wiped my sweaty brow on my coat sleeve and snapped my gun back in its holster. I knew all too well the kind of person that busts through a victim’s door only a few days after his death — not the good kind. Not the kind that would hesitate a second before firing. It was the kind that was insanely desperate, completely crazy, or really stupid, none of which I wanted to encounter.

Suddenly, I was brought back by the view of the dismantled room. The place was demolished. Over half of the drop ceiling tiles had been torn down exposing the ductwork and wood framing. The dresser and kitchen cabinet drawers were dumped out on the floor. The wood paneling on the right wall had been pried off and left leaning against an old blue sofa. There were pillows torn open, papers scattered across the floor and the small mattress in the living room had been sliced open down the center. Someone was looking for what Richie had and I would’ve bet a million bucks it wasn’t his in the first place.

I found a blue Ethernet cord protruding from the living room wall, but the laptop it had been attached too had been confiscated or stolen. The laptop probably didn’t belong to Richie either. This was disturbing. Someone besides the cops had been here.

I didn’t call the cops. By the looks of the place, he didn’t have much to steal.

Aside from the mess, the studio above the laundromat smelled nice enough. The smell of fabric softener lingered throughout the tiny living space. But it was sad to think that Richie lived like this, on a dirty old mattress on the floor. We had such good times together as kids. I started to remember a lot of things, but I immediately pushed the memories back into the recesses of my mind. I didn’t want to remember everything. I didn’t want to remember her.

After thirty minutes of rummaging through papers and past-due bills, I was getting frustrated. I headed into the tiny back room he apparently used for storage. In the dim light, I could see brown boxes ripped open and a pile of dirty clothes in front of them. I tossed a few half-empty boxes to one side and then I saw it.

There was a brand new patch in the wall. The tiny storage room was drywalled, unlike the living room and kitchen. The paint was even matched to the exact color. I knew that Richie was a whiz with construction and since the cops had found nothing — well, nothing that was leaked by reporters — I figured I’d knock a hole in the wall and see what I’d find.

I turned on the ceiling light, which made it even more noticeable. He must have been in a hurry, because I could see a crack in the center of the patch, which meant the mud had been put on recently and too thick. The patch had sucked up a lot of the paint; it needed more than the few coats he’d put on. But the crack wasn’t large enough to catch your eye unless you were looking for it, maybe a quarter of an inch wide. Not really something you would notice unless you had done some construction yourself. Plus, patching any holes in this dilapidated apartment seemed odd in itself.

I pushed my hand into the wall and some of the mud was still soft. It had been patched in the last couple of days. I didn’t question my actions until my hand was already in the wall. Then I paused, thinking this was a bad idea and I recalled everything I knew about Richie.

He wasn’t that bad. He just made bad choices. And he wasn’t a killer. He was just incapable of coping. I couldn’t blame him for that. With that thought, I continued to push my hand into the wall and I pulled out a small, crumpled blue sheet a little larger than a pillowcase, like a toddler’s bed sheet. I started to unravel it. I figured it was a wad of cash or stolen wallets or drugs. Then something rolled out of the sheet, making a light thud on the stiff carpet. It was a little metal box. Nothing I recognized.

Great. I just loved it when things wrapped in sheets rolled out of them, rubbing off any viable prints. I let out a sigh as I examined it. It was about three inches long, two inches wide and maybe a half-inch thick. I picked it up and it was lighter than I expected, not solid. I looked for a screen or a way to open it, but there was nothing.

I sat on the couch with the little silver box in my hand and a hideous image of Richie’s skull flashed in my mind. I shook my head slightly, trying to focus on the box.

What did you get yourself into?

The difference between shooters and slashers was about ten levels of crazy. Slashers were desperate, isolated, removed from reality, delusional. Or worse, real sickos, the ones that enjoyed it, smiled at it and were aroused by it, even when the victim was small, young and helpless. The kind that tortured their victims and all you could do was try to find that link, that one lead so they couldn’t do it again. I didn’t miss that, not at all and yet here I was.

It was disappointing that I didn’t see how his body was laying in the alley. I had no way of knowing if it was strategically placed or just discarded which would’ve given me a hint of what I was dealing with.

I thought of Richie again. What I didn’t understand was if Richie’s death was over this little box; why not just beat Richie senseless for the location of it? Why kill him before you got it back? I knew Richie, or at least I did back in the day and even though he had more guts than anyone I knew, he would rat on someone in a heartbeat if his life depended on it. He would’ve given up the box. So why didn’t he get that opportunity?

The box didn’t look important to me, but you didn’t conceal it in a wall if it wasn’t important. And someone wanted it bad enough to tear the paneling off the walls and slice Richie’s head open as if it were going to be inside of it.

CHAPTER 3

 

WHEN I GOT OFF THE LIGHT RAIL, it was brisk and nearing dusk, but thankfully not raining, which always made my injury worse. I slid into the cold leather seat of my truck and headed home. I was only a couple of streets from my place when I stopped off to grab some beers and I noticed the pain in my knee had escalated and I was limping more than I was this morning.

Home was one of three apartments above Valentino’s restaurant. Apartments on top of businesses were pretty common in Seattle, since all the land was built up. It seemed to me that if someone wanted to build something new, then something else would have to be torn down first. At least I didn’t have to worry about my place, Valentino’s was very popular.

The living space was simple — four rooms, with a large living room partly filled with old books. I divided half of the living room into a simple office with an antique desk and chair. On the opposite side were an oversized leather sectional and a large flat-screen.

Plus, now that I had Zero, it might be difficult trying to find a new place. Zero was my trembling, pathetic, severely over-caffeinated, seven-pound Chihuahua. He was definitely not my first choice in K-9 protection. Some hundred and twenty-year-old woman on the third floor died, leaving Zero creeping around my place. The neighbor left out an occasional bowl of food for him, as did I. Then, about a month ago, the neighbor moved out, leaving Zero abandoned.

So, that night, Zero was at the glass door on the lower level greeting me when I got home. His ears were folded back against his head, his eyes bulging, staring into my soul as I opened the door. The fur under his eyes was stained with tears and he couldn’t have looked any more pathetic unless he started limping. Then he followed me to my door, waiting for me to invite him in, looking half-starved. An expression that, I later noticed, never changed. So I did. 

As I entered my domain, Zero greeted me. He responded by trembling, as he always did and I triple-bolted the door. Sluggishly, I moved over to the freezer and grabbed a bag of peas to ice my knee with. I sat on the couch with a beer, the peas and the little box I found in Richie’s apartment. There were no designs on it. It didn’t seem to weigh more than a few ounces. I shook it lightly and nothing rattled.

I thought about Richie again, considering his lifestyle. I was relieved at never having to lock him up during my career and at the same time disappointed that our reunion was what it was. I wondered who he stole the box from. I felt so limited with the box in my hand. There were no forensic scientists at my disposal like when I was a detective. Most of my private detective work now consisted of, “I think my wife is cheating on me,” “I think my husband is cheating on me,” “I think my son is doing drugs.”

After I surfed through forty-something channels, I came across the news.

“A forty-two-year-old man was found brutally murdered in the streets of downtown Seattle. There are currently no suspects and the Seattle police are asking that if anyone has witnessed anything to please come forward.”

The Asian reporter stood in front of the taped-off crime scene. It was an alley next to a Chinese restaurant that I knew. That was it; approximately five seconds of coverage. I guess he didn’t compare to the six people gunned down two days ago at the café four streets away.

I thought of Richie. He was a good kid back then, like an older brother. We spent a lot of time together just hanging out. We walked to school together and he’d help me with my homework when mom was working late. I let my mind drift into the past thinking of all the good old days. Then I remember that one day, that awful day. It was so crisp in my mind I could actually still hear it in my head.

Richie was by my side when we found her body. She was lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. And someone was screaming. I tried to shake the image out of my head. I didn’t want to remember. It wouldn’t change anything for Richie if I thought about it. All I could do for him was find who murdered him. Quickly, I shoved the memory back down. No, not today. I’m not thinking about it today. That was thirty years ago.

I continued to search three hundred more channels of absolutely nothing interesting when someone knocked on the front door. Slowly, I limped to the door. A woman’s voice called from beyond it.

“Kegger, you home?”

I’d recognize that sultry voice anywhere. It was Lolita, the hooker who worked the corner two streets down. I ran my fingers through my messy brown hair, trying to tame it, grateful it was still there at forty.

“Oh, Kegger, I’ve had the worst night,” she said, as I opened the door. She let herself in and grabbed my beer, finishing it.

Lolita wore a black plastic skirt that was about five inches long and tightly hugged her toned thighs. She looked trashy: bright red lipstick, fishnet stockings and fake eyelashes an inch too long stretching out from a set of dark brown eyes that you could just dive into.

Yet Lolita was different. She could separate her work from her life, something I’d attempted to do for almost two decades unsuccessfully. She referred to it as a “dirty job,” but she wasn’t bitter and hardened by it, which I thought was strange.

Over a glass of wine, she once told me how some of the older guys just wanted to talk or be next to her. I understood that need for companionship, having spent what seemed like the better years of my life completely immersed in my work, thinking I could somehow change the world.

“There’s something attractive about a man that always carries his gun on him,” she said with a seductive glance, sliding her hands over my chest. She was always invading my space. It was a little game she liked to play with me. I think it was called, “how many places could she caress me before I let her seduce me.” So far, I was winning this game.

Oh, I wanted Lolita, I wanted her bad, but she belonged to everyone and no one. I enjoyed her company, our conversations, the frozen peas she’d put in my freezer believing I would cook them someday. And I admit I liked the tiny skirts, but she would never let her job go and I knew that. So I never touched her. I was her safe zone; I was her friend. And since my knee got blown out, I realized she was my friend, too.

She and Aaron would check on me daily until I could get around with the cane. It got annoying after a while, but that first month was hell and not a single guy on the force even called. I figured out some time afterward it was just as painful for my old co-workers as it was for me.

CHAPTER 4

 

THE NEXT MORNING, when I rolled out of bed around nine, Lolita was gone from the couch and the box was still under my mattress. After three cups of coffee and a shower, I decided to go to Aaron’s shop.

Aaron owned an electronics repair shop around the corner, filled with everything imaginable for an electrician’s hard-on. He was my small crew of chemists and scientists. I admit he’s brilliant, but he’s strange. The little room in the back of his shop was filled with books like “Unsolvable Mathematical Equations” and “Fun with Algorithms,” or something like that. He graduated from high school two years early and had a PhD from Harvard. Yet he says his two favorite things in the whole world are a really cold beer in the morning and a really hot shower. Or was it a really hot shower in the morning and a really cold beer? I couldn’t remember. But I did know that he loved puzzles.

This wasn’t what made him strange. What made him strange was that last week his hair was blue and this week it was bright orange. His tongue is pierced, along with his eyebrow and a few other body parts that I don’t wish to discuss. He also has enough tattoos that if my mother were alive, she’d be praying for him. Plus, I have an easy twelve years on him and to this day I still don’t know why we get along. Younger brother I always wanted? Not exactly.

When I got to Aaron’s place, he closed the shop and we went and got a booth at Barney’s Pub.

I placed the box in front of him, “What do you make of this?

“What is it?”

“Don’t know,” I replied.

He flipped the box over, examining every side silently. He was intrigued. I could see the gears in his head turning, or maybe all the hair dye was affecting his facial expressions.

“Working again?”

“Side job,” I said. Meaning I wasn’t being paid for my services.

“Thought you were retired?”

“Not retired, disabled,” I said, dryly. I couldn’t blame him for asking. I hadn’t done a lot of P.I. work in the last four months.

“How’s the knee?” he said, probably noticing I’d been using my cane almost every day now. I myself wondered if all the surgeries were even helping. I saw progress at first, then after a few months, it seemed to decline. I’d pretty much lost hope that I would ever be back to work.

“Three more surgeries,” I lied, unconvincingly. The lack of circulation in the leg was evident, at least to me.

“If they won’t pay for it—”

I cut him off. “In the line of duty, it’s all covered,” wondering who was watching out for whom.

I’d known Aaron for six years. I dropped off my laptop at his shop, thinking he was just the clerk at the time. I made it real clear the notes that I couldn’t access were sensitive. I showed him my badge and he nodded his head and had it fixed in twenty minutes. I should have used our own IT department, but they were backlogged by weeks.

When he fixed it, he also read all my notes, interjecting all his analytical ideas as to who murdered the woman right onto my own hard drive without my permission. He even created his own folder on my desktop, labeled “Whodunnit.” His theories were, however, subsequently correct and I’ve basically been picking his brain ever since.

After I consumed a Reuben sandwich and a couple more cups of coffee, I left the box with him.

CHAPTER 5

 

LATER THAT EVENING, I decided to investigate the alley off of Third Street. I took the light rail to downtown and quickly found the alley where Richie was killed. It was everything I wasn’t hoping for. The crime scene was still taped off, but the rain pretty much washed everything away.

The alley was deep, forty feet back, completely vacant of any light. It was a dead end, with two-story walls on all three sides encasing it. I saw a dumpster and one door to the Chinese restaurant on the left, which I’m sure was bolted from the inside. It was horrific. I could envision Richie running down this alley and being trapped. It was narrow and he wasn’t going to get out of it unless he grew wings. I wondered if he gave up and just stood there.

And why did he even go down this alley? He lived in downtown for the last twenty years and I knew Richie; he would’ve known every nook and cranny of it. He must have been running for his life, disoriented maybe, or high. The thought made me cringe.

I rubbed my forehead and looked at all the angles of the other buildings. There were no bank cameras and the back of the alley was barely visible from where I was standing. Plus, everything in downtown shut down early in this area. I managed to speak to the restaurant owner for a few seconds while he was closing up. His son discovered Richie’s body, but he wasn’t there and the owner currently didn’t know where he was. I would have to come back to talk to him. So I headed back to my apartment.

A couple of hours had passed when my cell rang. It was Aaron.

“Hey,” I answered.

“Man, you gotta see this!”

I was back at his shop in fifteen minutes and I brought Zero for the walk. I’m a tall man, but with the dog next to me, my ego felt about five inches tall. I was acutely aware of his miniature size when we walked.

“Is that the new guard dog?” he said, opening the door.

I’d done it again, somehow found another animal to save.

“Yes, and if you make him angry he turns into a two-hundred-pound Rottweiler.”

He let a laugh escape him, shaking his head and locked the door behind us as we headed toward the back of the shop.

“First of all, where’d you get this?” he said.

“Off a dead guy.”

He looked up at me for a moment, ripping his attention away from the box. It was just another piece of the puzzle for him. There was no way I was going to tell him it was evidence to a current homicide case that I shouldn’t have in my possession.

The box was opened into two parts on the table, as if it had a seam that I hadn’t noticed before and it was filled with wires. We sat down in front of it at an antique table covered with books and a chessboard with brass pieces. He turned on a desk lamp and pointed into the right half.

“Now that it’s open… I can tell you what it’s not,” he said.

I waited, noticing the excitement in his face.

“It’s not: a phone, mp3 player, GPS, portable scanner, or a weapon.”

That didn’t leave much.

“You want to hear something strange?”

“What?”

“There’s no battery in it. No charging port.”

“So?”

“It’s glowing.” He hit the lights next to the back door and it was glowing, although it was dim, or at least the wires were.

Aaron was smiling now, like we had something amazing in our possession, a foreign technology of some kind. It didn’t make any sense. He turned the lights back on after a few seconds.

“You see this space?” he said, pointing to a hollow socket in the box. “It seems to be missing something. My guess would be a transmitter, some kind of locating device. Possibly a GPS chip.” He then flipped it over and pointed to several quarter-inch slots that I also couldn’t see in Richie’s dim apartment.

“See these? There are thirteen slots designed to accept plugs of some sort. I think it’s a key.”

“To what?”

He then pointed to the inside of the box to the tiny print set in the center, which read “Station 13.” Under “Station 13” was a series of numbers, which didn’t seem to make much sense. Well, it wasn’t foreign.

“So what’s Station 13?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.

“It could be anything. A missile base, a database, the Pentagon’s basement for all I know. Who was the dead guy?”

“He was nobody important,” I said, not wanting to reveal the gash in Richie’s head or my past relationship with him. “That’s it?”

“No, I wouldn’t say, ‘that’s it.’” He smiled at me, seeming pleased with his own genius, which was a common expression for him. “There is no voltage running through this thing. There’s no electrical current at all.”

I shook my head, letting him know I wasn’t following him.

“It’s glowing. Glowing. Let me put it to you this way. There is a warning label on every cell phone sold; my DMM can read the electrical current in a human body, but this? Nothing. I can’t even get a static charge off of it. I’ve seen a lot of things, but nothing like this. It’s not metal. Looks like metal, feels like metal, but it’s not. I put a torch to this thing for five minutes and it didn’t even get warm. And you’re gonna’ have to explain to me how this box is glowing without some kind of power, ‘cuz I can’t explain it.”

Now this intrigued me. This seemed to be a recurring theme; first the morgue and now this box. Nothing like this.

“Well, I doubt it opens the Pentagon’s basement,” I said, laughing a little at his imagination.

“The good news,” he continued, “is that I checked everything I could and I believe it’s still working. The bad news is that, if the owner knows it’s missing, he’s probably already replaced it or moved whatever this box unlocks.”

He put the box back together and held it out to me, reluctant to let it go. I knew he was more than interested in something like this. I wanted to let him hold on to it, but I couldn’t. I was certain that it got Richie killed.

“Thanks.” I grabbed the box and turned to leave.

“Daddy, Daddy, wait for me,” Aaron said in a girly voice, holding up the Chihuahua and bouncing him in the air.

I grabbed Zero, who was still trembling and I gave Aaron a look.

“Hey, let me know if you find out anything else about the dead guy,” he said.

He knew I wasn’t telling him everything. He always knew when someone wasn’t telling him something. But for some reason, he never pried for more information with me. I nodded my head and left.

Zero and I walked along the pavement, him seeming uneasy in every step and my injury reminding me of my own limitations in every step.

CHAPTER 6

 

WHEN WE GOT BACK TO MY APARTMENT, we headed upstairs. As we reached the last step Zero started growling, which he almost never did. He stopped dead in his tracks and I looked down the hallway for anything unusual. The door to my apartment was busted open. I unsnapped my Magnum from its holster, lifted Zero up into my left arm and slowly walked into the apartment. Quickly, I searched all the rooms. It was empty.

Whoever broke in could’ve turned the place upside down. If they had, I couldn’t tell that much. My piles of books were now just smaller piles in different places. The bedroom floor was still covered with clothes, but I wouldn’t have left all the dishes broken on the kitchen floor and I really wouldn’t have left the fridge open. The beer would get warm.

After I bolted the door, I gave Zero some baloney and told him, “good dog.” The bolts were now the only parts still working. I set Zero and the baloney on my desk so he wouldn’t get glass in his paws.

I wasn’t really that surprised to see the apartment had been ransacked. If you throw enough people in jail, eventually one of them is going to come back after they are released and show you, in one way or another, that they’re pissed. I was kind of shocked it hadn’t happened more. But the flat-screen wasn’t gone and my watch was still on the table. As much as I would’ve liked to believe it was someone from the past, it wasn’t. Someone was looking for the box. I sat down at my desk and thought about who could’ve possibly known I had the box, besides Aaron.

It only took me a second to realize I’d made a mistake. Someone besides the cops had already searched Richie’s earlier this week and no one would’ve known I found anything if I’d patched the hole in the wall. I was getting rusty.

I didn’t bother calling the cops; it would just be more paper work for them and nothing of value was taken as far as I could tell. I had all my guns on me. Plus, I could already hear the comments regarding my very small dog. Not worth it. I could’ve scooped up the multitude of shards of glass and had Aaron inspect them for prints, but my gut told me it would be useless.

Then the cell in my pocket vibrated. I pulled it out and the screen showed Marie’s number.

“Hello.”

“Lewis, its Marie. You find anything?”

It was obvious Marie knew more than she was letting on. There’s a huge difference, I thought, between the questions, “you find anything?” and “you find anything out?” She should have asked the latter.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Oh.”

“How about you? The cops have any leads?”

“No, nothing. You used to be a cop; don’t you keep in touch with the old buddies?”

I was slightly irritated by the ‘used to be part.’ Like cops ever stop being cops. “Not recently,” I said, knowing this was a lie. I hadn’t seen any of my old buddies in years. “What was Richie last into?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Lewis. We hadn’t spoken for a long time. But if you find anything, anything at all, please call me. I gotta go. Talk to you later.”

She hung up quickly, like someone was rushing her to get off the phone. Red flag number two. She wasn’t going to answer any of my questions. A part of me wondered if it was her who had vandalized my place. It was too much of a coincidence that she would call right afterwards. Plus, if she hadn’t kept in contact with Richie, why did she go looking for him in the first place? And why did she sound scared? Scared for me, or for herself? Either way, it was doubtful her apartment looked like mine.

I thought about all of this for too long. I came to the conclusion that I had to search Richie’s one more time. I proceeded to clean up the glass on the kitchen floor and would head back to Richie’s tomorrow.

CHAPTER 7             

 

WHEN I RETURNED TO RICHIE’S, I was a little more cautious. I parked a couple blocks down from the laundromat. Since the cane was a dead giveaway to someone looking for me, I left it in the truck and tried not to limp. I also brought in a basket of old clothes and proceeded to put them through a cycle.

The laundromat itself was dirty, not any place I’d actually wash anything. Two women were also there, washing clothes. When everything felt right, I headed outside, lit a smoke and slowly walked to the stairs around the outside of the building that led to Richie’s flat. As I reached the top of the stairs, I noticed I wasn’t alone and I quickly stubbed out my smoke.

Standing in the center of Richie’s dinky living space was a beautiful woman, bending over the coffee table rifling through a stack of papers. The girlfriend? This made me pause as I peered through the door, which was only slightly open. After a moment, I noticed she was model-like, but not in a frail, bony way. Her face was perfectly symmetrical. There wasn’t a single line on it. But, at this point, she was a suspect. And now I was certain she wasn’t Richie’s girlfriend.

I unsnapped my gun from its holster and tried to determine whether she was alone or not. I knocked the revolver on the door lightly and she turned around startled, dropping the few papers in her hand. I kept the gun on her as I stepped into the small room, motioning her to be silent and checked the bathroom and storage room to make sure we were alone. There was no way she was a new detective; she couldn’t have been more than twenty years old.

“Mr. Kagen, I assure you I am the only one here,” she said, with what sounded like a sincere tone.

“And you are?”

“Kye,” she said, holding out her hand. Her body language was all business. And there was nothing in her voice or her stance that said she was twenty.

Of course, she gave me no last name. Even though she appeared to be unarmed, I didn’t shake her hand. I approached her slowly, hoping the bad knee wouldn’t give, only to realize she must have been five-ten and with those heels, over six feet tall. Even so, I got six inches from her face and looked her right in the eyes. I knew she wasn’t a cop. I knew all the cops in this city, or at least I used to.

“Kye, I don’t suppose you have a badge that would allow you to enter a crime scene?” Technically, it wasn’t the crime scene, but I knew if she was a new officer, she would’ve disclosed it the minute we met and she wouldn’t be alone. Plus, the door was already busted open the night prior, so she wasn’t exactly breaking any laws at this point.

She seemed a little too calm now. Why wasn’t she scared? There was something off in her composure, but it wasn’t fear. It was something I couldn’t pinpoint, hidden under a blank expression. Something about the way her shoulders slumped for a moment. The moment faded and she straightened herself quickly, letting a small frown roll across her lips.

“Mr. Kagen, the device you have is very important to us and we’re willing to pay for it.”

She knew I had the box. I had to shove aside the fact that she was gorgeous and basically a kid. Her acquiescing stance could’ve been deliberate. Her long, straight, brown hair glistened under the dim light and her green eyes were mesmerizing like they were almost too green.

Ignoring her statement, I patted her down and stepped back, putting the revolver back in its holster. In the dim light, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she different. It was as if she were too beautiful, too perfect.

“Now, Kye, what is it that I have?”

“A box. A little silver metal box. And whatever you do, don’t give it to Marie Stakes; it doesn’t belong to her.”

Her voice was confident. There was nothing playful or childish in it. I wanted to correct her, telling her that the box wasn’t metal, but I didn’t. Looked like metal, felt like metal, but it wasn’t metal. Aaron made that clear.

“So this box belongs to you?” I said this with sarcasm, to let her know I didn’t believe a word she was saying. Apparently, there were groups of people who wanted the box now. Or was Kye the one who broke into my place?

“It belongs to me and others,” she said, pausing slightly, “I realize that me being here looks suspicious, but I needed to know if he had any—”

She instantly stopped talking, becoming conscious that she was about to say too much. Unfortunately, I could’ve filled in the rest with about twenty different options.

“We will contact you in twenty-four hours.” She gracefully maneuvered around me in the tiny apartment and hastily walked down the stairs.

What was Kye doing here alone? I could’ve stopped her, handcuffed her and called the cops. I could’ve, but I didn’t. My gut was telling me she wasn’t the problem. I shouldn’t have pulled my gun on her, but with my place being wrecked and Richie being dead, I didn’t feel I had a choice. I looked around for a few minutes, but decided it wasn’t safe to stick around too long, so I snapped my holster and left with my now very wet clothes.

There was no point in patching the wall now; plenty of people knew I took the box. If there was anything else at Richie’s, I’m sure it was gone. I wanted to follow Kye the minute she left, but my injury made that impossible and I was pretty sure she knew it. She wasn’t really Richie’s girlfriend, but the woman claiming to be. This, I was positive of.

CHAPTER 8

 

WHEN I GOT BACK, I searched the apartment and looked for Zero. He was still there and it appeared that there hadn’t been any unwanted visitors. I had to ice the knee for a couple hours because of the weight I’d put on it. It felt like a small knife was stuck in it and I still needed three more surgeries to get full movement back.

After I’d thrown the clothes in the dryer, I fed Zero as I thought over my day. This was the busiest day I had in months, although it was starting to look more like a giant jigsaw puzzle in which I was missing more than a few pieces.

I thought about Kye. It was a bad idea for her to be at Richie’s alone and unarmed. What was she thinking? And what else was she looking for in Richie’s apartment if she knew I already had the box? Had I missed something? I closed my eyes and scanned the women’s faces that I saw in the laundromat, but none of them looked like the type she would be working with. Plus, there was something off about Kye that I just couldn’t place. The way she moved, possibly.

After a few hours of contemplating, I shoved the box inside of a half-eaten Chinese takeout box in the fridge, believing a little cold wouldn’t bother it. I also put a chair up under the front doorknob for extra security, in case someone wanted to visit me in the middle of the night. Finally, I put the revolver under the spare pillow next to mine — like I always did. I grabbed Zero, cradling him in my left arm and decided to tell Aaron everything in the morning.

CHAPTER 9             

 

I DRAGGED MYSELF OUT OF BED AROUND SEVEN. I barely slept at all. It was just stupid that I stayed here. But no one had invaded the flat. All was safe, all was secure. The box was still in the fridge. After a half a pot of coffee and a shower, I grabbed the box and headed to Aaron’s shop, knowing he was open at seven every morning.

When I got there, he locked up and we headed to Barney’s and I told him about my night.

He listened attentively about my place being wrecked and meeting Kye. When I was finished, he sat back, taking in all the information and asked the waitress for another coffee.

In order to figure out what the hell was going on, I knew I had to tell Aaron the whole truth. I needed his help. So I gave him the short version about Richie.

“The victim was Richard Stakes. His sister asked me to look into his murder. Richie and I… we were friends when we were kids. Went to the same school, lived next door to each other. It’s the way he was killed that bothers me. Someone basically sliced his head open and tore out his brains and was smart enough not to leave any evidence. Richie wasn’t anyone important, a pot smoker who couldn’t see the difference between right and wrong on a petty-theft level.”

Aaron raised his eyebrows for a second and let out a long sigh.

“Do you think this is related to you somehow?” he said.

“I can’t see any connection. I hadn’t spoken to Richie in twenty years, except for a few chance encounters.”

“Do you believe Kye? That the box belongs to her?”

“I don’t know, but she’s definitely hiding something.”

“And Marie?”

“She’s blatantly lying. I don’t think she even cares that Richie’s dead.”

Aaron paused and rubbed his forehead for a minute.

“Okay. We need to find out what it opens.”

I was hoping he would say that. I slid the box across the table over to him.

“I’ll give it a shot,” he said. “Oh, and I wouldn’t mind meeting this Kye,” he said, smiling.

“She’s taken,” I said.

“Yeah, right! I’m sure she was really charmed by the Elmer Keith revolver you shoved in her chest!”             

“What, this?” I said, pulling my jacket back a little, showing him my holster with the .357 Magnum in it. “This talks to women.”

“Besides ‘freeze, turn around and put your hands up,’ what exactly does it say? I’m curious,” he said, smiling again.

“Well, it says, ‘I’m here to protect you, assuming you don’t make any sudden movements.’”

“Charming.” Aaron was shaking his head and laughing under his breath now.

CHAPTER 10

 

WHEN I GOT BACK TO THE APARTMENT, there was a man knocking on my front door as I entered the hallway. I was caught off guard and he saw me immediately.

“Mr. Kagen?”

Actually, I noticed he was just a kid, couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

“I have a delivery for you,” he said, holding out a box that looked like it contained flowers.

After a very long hesitation, which made even the delivery boy uncomfortable, I took the box, signed his sheet and watched him leave. I unbolted the door and laid the box on the kitchen counter. I made my quick search to make sure the place was empty and found Zero hiding in the shower stall, trembling.

“Some guard dog you are.”

The apartment was empty. I went back and bolted the front door and snapped my gun back in its holster. I figured if someone wanted to blow me up, I’d be dead by now. Plus, Kye said she’d be contacting me. I walked over and opened the box. It was a dozen of long-stem roses with a card that read, Tonight. Rusty’s at 8. It was a woman’s handwriting. Kye probably wrote it herself. I thought it was a little old-school, but it was just too easy to listen in on a cell phone.

While I thought about Kye, I picked up and held Zero for a while just to see if for once he would stop trembling. He didn’t. His bulging little eyes were fixed on the box, so I walked toward it with him cradled in my arm and he started growling. This made me a little uneasy. I grabbed the note, flicked on the gas fireplace and tossed the note in. I didn’t need anyone knowing where I was going, should my place be vandalized again.

I rubbed the dog’s head for a while, trying to come up with a plan. I could watch the restaurant till Kye showed, but she might not show if she didn’t see me. Plus, I had no intentions of actually bringing the box. I needed to find out if it really belonged to her. Rusty’s was always a crowded place, so I decided I would just show up like a normal customer, except I would be packing both the revolver and my pistol.

CHAPTER 11

 

IT WAS APPROACHING SEVEN-THIRTY and I’d already showered, shaved and dressed. I picked out a black sweater and blue jeans with my brown leather coat to conceal the shoulder holster. I had the pistol in my ankle holster and took more than a couple ibuprofens for the pain in my knee.

I knew Rusty’s. I’d been there a couple of times during my career, back when you could smoke in the place. Everything was nonsmoking now in Seattle. It was a small, yuppie café about a fifteen-minute drive from my place. You couldn’t miss it. The sign was bigger than the place itself and the coffee was good.

On the way there, I thought about Kye. I knew I wouldn’t be taking her to Aaron’s and giving her the box. I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t. To make matters worse, this was theft and tampering with evidence. Even if I handed the box over to the Seattle police, there would still be charges against me. And now, Aaron was involved.

Why had my feelings for a childhood friend allowed me to slip beyond all of my ethics? I tried to convince myself that it would turn out okay and my sentence would be reduced to a misdemeanor with no jail time. I knew I was the only one who cared about what happened to Richie. I attempted to push all this out of my head and continue with my plan.

When I got to Rusty’s, I left the cane in the truck. I went in and ordered a strong black coffee. I knew once Kye opened the door, half of the men in the place not already with a woman would take a look at her. She was stunning.

After forty-five minutes, I started to worry. She didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be late for anything, especially if it meant getting the box.

I looked around the room and realized I was so busy thinking about Kye that I didn’t notice the two men at a corner table were out of place. They weren’t talking, they weren’t drinking their coffee and they were staring at me.

They looked huge and they were wearing suits that didn’t quite fit their muscles. I should’ve brought Aaron with me. His orange hair would’ve been a good distraction for my getaway. But I didn’t need him getting hurt. I looked around, but I didn’t see Kye anywhere, so I finished my coffee and left.

In the corner of my eye, I could see the men at the table also getting up. I started to head toward the truck, but there were two more men in suits standing right by it. They saw me walk across the street and now I had four guys trying to apprehend me. I wasn’t sweating just yet. I’d brought both guns with me. I hurried down the street, limping so fast that I almost knocked a woman down.

“Hey Kegger, small world.” It was Lolita.

“I have four guys following me and I need to lose ‘em.”

She knew the back streets better than I did. She caught a glimpse of them headed in our direction and she quickly led me down a busy block, into a by-the-hour hotel and headed to the back door. As soon as we were outside, she pointed to another door across the alley.

“That will take you to 2nd Street.”

“Thanks, baby,” I said, heading toward it and she then took another door that entered into the back of a pizza joint I was familiar with. That’s what I liked most about Lolita; she never asked me any questions.

After walking through the kitchen of a small Chinese restaurant and then through the main dining area, I was out on 2nd Street and on the light rail in two minutes, headed towards Aaron’s shop. But now, I was worried about Aaron.

CHAPTER 12

 

I WAS SWEATING and my adrenaline was still surging when I made it to Aaron’s. The thought that something could happen to him just made me want to kick myself. When I reached his shop, I was relieved to see he was okay and hadn’t had any visitors.

He immediately knew something was wrong by the expression on my face. He let me in through the back door of the shop into a large room where he fixed computers and I noticed the security system was on.

“You okay, man? You look like hell!” he said, studying me. I was sure my face was red because I was in a lot of pain and I wiped my forehead with my sleeve.

“Yeah, I went to meet Kye, but she never showed. Then I had four guys following me. I wasn’t sure I was gonna lose ‘em. And my knee is killing me.” I rubbed it and felt how swollen it was.

Aaron bolted the door and peered through the window as he shut off all the front lights of the store. He was closed for business. I sat down at one of metal stools facing a workbench and he went to the fridge in the back of the room and got two beers and some aspirin. I downed the aspirin with one of the beers.

“You should be using your cane more, or you’re going to undo everything the surgeries have fixed.”

He was right. I have a cane and I wished I’d brought it into the café. If I had, I wouldn’t be in pain right now, or at least, not horrible pain. Why didn’t I bring my cane? Oh, that’s right. Kye was beautiful, one more reason why men do stupid things.

“You got anything stronger?”

He opened one of the many drawers under the counter next to the fridge, took out a little bottle and handed me a small white pill.

“It’s not oxycontin, but it’s stronger than aspirin.”

I swallowed it without asking or caring. The pain shot out of my kneecap and stretched along my thigh into my hip. I took a long deep breath as I removed my leather jacket and pointed to the six camera screens that he had for his security system.

“Anything weird today?” I said.

“Nothing.”

“They’ve been following me, so sooner or later, they are going to show up here,” I said.

This statement neither startled him nor interested him, but I wish it had. He was just a kid and I regretted dragging him into this. I should’ve handed the box over as evidence. I should’ve used my cane tonight and I should’ve patched that hole in the wall. And a part of me wished I could show Aaron what they did to Richie and maybe then he would see the seriousness of the situation.

“So who do you think they work for?”

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling they are the same guys responsible for Richie’s death.”

“You don’t think Kye sent them?”

“I can’t be sure, but why offer me money for something she just planned on taking? If she and those guys were working together, I don’t think she would’ve been at Richie’s place alone, unarmed. I’m leaning towards Marie. And I’m starting to think that Kye might be in trouble.”

Finally, the pain started to subside a little.

“You’re always telling me what a genius you are,” I said, taking the beer he’d gotten for himself, opening it and downing half of the can, “tell me you got something.”

“I do not tell you I’m a genius… that is your postulation of me. And, yes, I do have something,” he said, smiling.

He opened a cabinet door under one of the workbenches and it had a small safe in it, behind a false wall. This was something I’d never noticed before. He opened the safe and took out the box. Somehow, this made me feel better that the box was more secure here than at my place. He placed the box in front of us on the table. Then he flipped it open at the hidden seams that I could still barely see and under Station 13, were the miscellaneous numbers again.

363259149

112437387

“Well, we both think it’s a key, but to what? I checked bank vaults, Pentagon security systems, bond deposit boxes, custom vaults for the rich, even Fort Knox’ security system. I couldn’t find anything that needed a key like this. Even bank vaults with the best security are dual-combination with heat sensors and motion sensors. The Pentagon has program-based security badges, keypunch combinations on certain sections and a lot of manpower. But Knox is different; up to seven people, each having one password known only to them, which have to be entered at the same time to open the vault. So this single little box? It’s not logical. Too vulnerable. And I found nothing that accepts a 13-slot plug. So we know two things. We know what it doesn’t open and we know its custom.”

“What about missile warheads?”

“Most of them are designed to accept a code and have a turnkey activation. But, thirteen slots? I could go on for days about the significance of the number 13. There are 13 lunar cycles in every solar year. In history, we have the sum of 13 recurring endlessly. There’s the 12 disciples plus one messiah; there were 12 Knights of the Round Table plus one king. Then there’s the 20 days in the Aztec calendar that are numbered only 1 through 13. There’s the superstitious ‘Friday the 13th,’ stemming from 1307 when King Philip the Fourth started the eradication of the Knights Templar. But I couldn’t find anything that I could relate to this box.”

He paused and got up to grab a beer from the fridge and smiled.

“What?”

“Well, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. It looks electrical, but it’s not. There are 13 slots on it, but all receptacles work one way — there’s a hot, a neutral and a ground. So I’m supposed to assume that it accepts six hot, six neutrals and one ground. It’s redundant for something so small.”

“Then why are you smiling?”

“I think I figured out the numbers.”

Now he had my attention.

“I checked everything. At first, I thought it was a cipher for a technical algorithm.”

I shook my head to let him know I wasn’t following him.

“It’s basically a code that would reveal a set of instructions. This wasn’t the case, but look at what’s not there in the numbers. There’s no symbols, no negatives, no positives, no letters, just random numbers. So it’s not a cipher. I even checked call numbers at the Library of Congress. Then I thought to myself, if I had something of great value and I lost it, how would I get it returned to me?”

“I’d say put your address on it or your cell number, but that doesn’t look like either,” I said.

Aaron smiled like I was on the right track.

“I think they are longitude and latitude. Now, granted there are no decimals. There are no negative signs and no way for me to know which set of numbers is longitude and which is latitude. I plugged the numbers in, switching up north and south and east and west several times. I ended up in an ocean or a sea. Then, I tried switching up the degrees. I tried 3 and 36 for the first set of numbers; we know it’s not going to be 363 because a full rotation of the earth stops at 360 degrees. Then I changed the degrees on the second number from 11 to 112. Assuming they are in order, the only thing that made sense was this.”

He opened a laptop and entered in a web address and turned the computer toward me. It was a GPS site. The numbers, once entered, were coordinates to some place in the Grand Canyon as far as I could tell.

“Wanna go on a trip?” Aaron said.

“This doesn’t make sense. If it’s a key, what’s it going to open in the Grand Canyon?” I said.             

“I don’t know. But I think it’s interesting that it’s located in a place that will never be altered or developed by man. And this is a restricted flight zone for some reason. Plus, you should read some of the history behind this place about the pueblo people and their ancestors.”

“I’ve been to Hopi Point. There’s nothing there.”

“Yep, you stood on the edge of a cliff and looked down at it in awe. Have you been in it?”

“No.”

“The coordinates are not Hopi Point. They are the north rim of the canyon, west of the Kaibab Trail. Not the most visited place in the world.”

I was familiar with the Grand Canyon and if we weren’t on the trail, it meant we were taking mules and hiking. It was majestic, but impossible for me to hike with my bad knee.

“I can’t hike with this knee,” I said.

“No, man. We’ll take my plane.”

“You have a plane?” I was dumbfounded and he was serious. “How come you didn’t tell me you have a plane?”

“You didn’t ask and I know you hate flying.”

“You fly planes?”

“No, I have an on-call pilot.”

“Is there anything else I forgot to ask about?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to answer.

“No, not really.”

I’m sure my expression said it all, but I decided to ask more about it later.

I looked back at the y-shaped crevice on the satellite picture and hit the zoom. It was surrounded by rocks and it was deep… possibly thousands of feet deep.

“You have a pilot that can land a plane in this terrain?” I said.

“It’s a small plane and he could set it down on the tip of a glacier if he had to.”

He laughed and I guess it made sense that he owned a plane. He clearly had money. He’d offered to pay for my knee surgery more than once. I didn’t know how he obtained the money, but at this point, I didn’t care. Once, a couple years back, he mentioned something about a business venture that had done well. It must have done very well.

Then I thought about the plane. The thought of flying made me a little more than uneasy. I didn’t like heights, but there was a part of me that had to ride it out. I had to know what the box opened.

CHAPTER 13

 

AS AARON WAS MAKING PLANS for us to leave, I was headed back to my place. Even though I knew it was stupid and dangerous, I had to know if Kye had left another message and I couldn’t leave Zero there. 

I could’ve just called Frankie, the owner of Valentino’s and asked him to look over Zero and the apartment, but there was a part of me that said Kye would be there.

It was almost midnight when I got there and as I limped up the stairs to the second floor, I could already see my door had been busted open again. This time, all three bolts were torn through the trim and drywall. To make everything worse, I just then remembered I took something at Aaron’s. I felt slow and a little groggy. I pulled out the pistol from my ankle holster and flicked the safety off.

Even with the painkiller Aaron gave me, my heart started pounding. The apartment looked worse than last time. Everything was pulled out of the kitchen cabinets and thrown on the floor. There weren’t a whole lot of broken dishes, due to the fact that I didn’t have much left to break. My papers were pushed off my desk onto the floor and both lamps were broken. The living room was dimly lit, but both the kitchen light and the bedroom light were still on.

I slowly crept in and heard someone talking in my bedroom. I wasn’t alone. Fortunately, they hadn’t heard me come up the stairs. I tried to remember where all the creaks were in the wood flooring and I didn’t see Zero anywhere.

They weren’t expecting me and when I got a clear view, I recognized both of them as the same two guys I saw in the café. It was unlikely I would return after the events that had occurred earlier. Or, rather I should say, it would be really dumb of me to return here.

I took two silent steps into my apartment and I could see one of the guys was actually halfway under my bed. The other was standing over him with his back to me, laughing at him.

“Come here, you stupid mutt!” I heard one of them say.

Now I was pissed. Zero was a tiny dog, but he was my tiny dog. I could hear him whimpering under the bed and I gritted my teeth. Four more silent steps and I was right behind the guy that was laughing.

I put the pistol to the back of his head and whispered, “don’t say a word.”

He was silent and still. I checked under his arms and removed a .44 I found in his left shoulder-holster. I then checked the rest of his body for more guns in a record half a second. Silently, I placed his gun on my dresser. Using his own cuffs, I had his hands behind him and cuffed before his partner realized that there was a third pair of occupied shoes in the room.

His partner’s gun was lying on the floor next to the nightstand, but I rushed over to it and kicked it into the living room before his hand reached it. This sent another shot of pain through my knee which I tried to conceal.

“I’ve already got your buddy cuffed, so come out slow!”

The man under the bed slowed his movements.

“I wanna’ see your hands now!”

The man moved his hands out where I could see them and cautiously scooted out from under the bed.

“Get up!”

The man slowly stood, keeping his hands in the air. He had to be six-foot-five. He was at least a half-foot taller than the guy I cuffed and neither of them was scrawny. When he saw my face, his expression relaxed, but I didn’t know why. He reached for something behind his back and I panicked.

“Keep ‘em where I can see ‘em!” I said, aiming my pistol at him.

“You’re not gonna’ shoot us, Lewis,” he said, straightening his suit. “Why don’t you check my buddy’s wallet?”

I stepped behind the man I cuffed, so the other couldn’t see my arm moving to the dresser drawer and without looking, I took out my own cuffs.

“Get back-to-back,” I said, but neither of them moved. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I felt justified. So I smacked the butt of my pistol on the cuffed man’s head. Not as hard as I could, but hard enough to make him fall to his knees.

“How ‘bout now?” I said, to his buddy.

The cuffed guy slowly stood up and his buddy turned his back to him. I swung around the guy I hit on the head and inter-looped the cuffs so they were pinned together. I patted the other one down and grabbed both of their wallets. When I opened the wallet, there it was. The badges looked real enough; I’d seen many of them in my career.

FBI.

My stomach dropped to my feet and my heart was now in my throat. Even the slightly grogginess I felt was now completely gone. I just committed assault against not one, but two federal agents. I tried to hide the shock and up until this point, my door was busted open and it looked like they were gonna kill my dog and then me. The same two guys that had chased me — a disabled cop — without identifying themselves as the FBI. My place was trashed, so my assumptions were completely accurate and my actions acceptable, up until now. Except for that part about stealing evidence from Richie’s place and hitting the one agent over the head.

“You don’t want to do this, Lewis,” the tall one said.

Assuming the place was bugged, I only had seconds to get out. I called for Zero, who would’ve normally jumped into my arms, but now came slowly limping out from under the bed. My heart sank at the sight of him. Agents always did whatever they wanted. I looked quickly in their pockets for a warrant and found nothing.

“I don’t see a warrant here,” I said, letting them know I knew procedure.

“The door was busted open when we got here.”

“Sure it was,” I said, my voice full of cynicism.

“That box doesn’t belong to you and you’re going to jail for interfering with a federal investigation! And you can tack assault on to that now!” one of them said.

It was an intimidation tactic. Neither of them had FBI vests on and neither of them immediately disclosed they were with the FBI. They weren’t on an official investigation. I knew the box didn’t belong to them and nothing they said was going to distract me. They came here for one reason: leverage. Even if all they could find was my dog. I grabbed all the extra rounds for both guns from under the sink and, with my broken dog and my broken knee, I headed to Lolita’s place. And all I could think about was how screwed I was.

When I reached Lolita’s, I went to the third floor, grateful her building had elevators and knocked on the door, hoping she was home. When she opened the door, she was wearing a white see-through teddy, like she was expecting a customer.

“Kegger,” she said, surprised to see me.

The teddy was distracting. She didn’t even try to hide it, just letting the door swing all the way open. For a second, I’d forgotten why I was there and then the dog in my arm reminded me.

“You never come to my place.”

This wasn’t true. I just hadn’t been to her place since my knee was blown out. I’d been here plenty of times before that.

“Lolita, I need a favor.” I watched her expression change as she became aware I wasn’t visiting.

“I need you to watch Zero for a couple of days and I need you to stay away from my place. There are a few people hanging around that don’t really like me right now.”

“Keg, you know I can’t have dogs here.”

“It’s just this one time and besides, for some reason he doesn’t bark.” I put him down on the floor to limp and look as pathetic as possible and it worked.

“Awww, poor puppy,” she said.

“He also needs a vet. I’ll pay you back.”

Trying not to notice how nice she smelled and how good she looked in the lace teddy, I kissed her cheek and left muttering a few heartfelt thank-yous.

CHAPTER 14

 

WHEN I GOT TO AARON’S, he was excited and relieved when he saw me.

“Everything’s ready. We’re taking off in two hours,” he said, as he let me in the back door of the shop. I sat myself down on a stool as he bolted the door. Two hours seemed too long. Surely they would show up here.

Aaron was a good man and I couldn’t take him down with me in what I thought was a single stupid act or two.

“I don’t think it’s such a good idea that you join me, Aaron.”

“Don’t give me the little-brother lecture, ‘cuz I’m pretty sure you need me more than I need you.”

I didn’t feel like arguing, but I had to tell him the truth. I agreed privately to myself that I needed his help, but I couldn’t make him an accessory.

“There were two guys waiting for me at my place.”

His attention then turned into an expression I hadn’t seen before. I think it was somewhere between genuine concern and fear. I could only imagine what was passing through his mind.

“I’m pretty sure I just committed a felony.”

“Expand on that,” he said calmly.

“Assault with a deadly weapon against a federal agent.”

“Over Kye?”

“No, over my dog. Kye wasn’t there.”

This didn’t make him laugh. His expression didn’t change at all.

“And the dog is?”

“Safe.”

“And the federal agent?”

“Left handcuffed to his partner with both of their guns removed and thrown on my dresser. I hit one over the head with the butt of my twenty-two, which was loaded, but that was before I knew he was an agent. Oh and the box is evidence, I should have turned over to the police, the minute I found it, second-degree felony, maybe a misdemeanor.”

“That it?” he said.

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Well, I thought it was serious. You said, ‘assault’ and I realize this affects your moral compass, but I do have two felonies and I think you are overreacting.”

My expression now transformed into a frown instead of panic. This wasn’t what I expected to hear. I took in the information and he raised his eyebrows and shoulders at me. Mentally, I started making a list of things I needed to ask him. I shook my head, thinking it was a misunderstanding, or maybe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or I was hoping that. I was pretty sure, if he had a felony, he wasn’t in prison long. He was too young.

“I asked you if there was anything else-”

“You weren’t specific,” he said.

And that was that. My best friend was a convicted felon and I was a good cop turned bad over a Chihuahua, a childhood friend and a stupid box. At first, I did everything by the book. And now, I was leaving federal agents handcuffed to each other and running like a thief all because of the evidence I’d removed from Richie’s place. I started questioned everything I’d done in the last 24 hours.

I noticed there was something was different about Aaron. I expected more alarm or panic from him, but his face was stoic, as if he was beyond the situation. He pulled out a very old bottle of gin from the safe and poured two full glasses for us and made a call.

“Jared, change the flight plan,” he said, “we need to leave as soon as possible. Tell Ian to pick us up now.”

I’d never heard Aaron use these names before and now I was happy to have the gin. I wasn’t about to ask him questions because right now, he was my way out. And I couldn’t believe I was actually going to run from the FBI.

“We’ll be in the air soon,” he said.

The pain in my knee was reaching into my thigh again and I was sure my expression said everything that I didn’t. So I picked up the glass, clinked it against his and downed it. Then I poured myself another regretting everything I’d done in the last twenty-four hours.

In less than twenty minutes an Escalade pulled in front of the shop. It was Ian. Ian looked military: lots of muscle, really short haircut and an expressionless face. He greeted Aaron as “Mr. Stanisky,” and I soon found out that Jared was the pilot. We boarded the plane and although I was relieved to now be headed to Arizona, I ran everything over in my head. What made me keep the box? Why didn’t I turn it over to evidence? It had to be because of the way Richie was killed. As the plane ascended, I decided to leave the worry behind me, along with the guilt and the unequivocal certainty that I would be in jail upon our return.

CHAPTER 15

 

WHEN WE GOT TO ARIZONA, we first flew around the west rim of the canyon. The rock formations were amazing. Goliath. For an hour, we watched the terrain. I’d seen the canyon when I was in my twenties and had always wanted to see it again. It was breathtaking. The huge fissure with is beautiful terrace walls was just profound. Layers upon layers of ancient rock exposed over millions of years and the Colorado River running through it. The view and the gin almost made me forget why I was even it the plane.

Aaron started to talk to me through the headphones we had on. The engine was so loud that, without them, you couldn’t hear a thing.

“You know the Pueblo tribes in this area say their ancestors lived here. They were cliff dwellers. They believed they came from an old world into a new world through a sacred place that is located in the canyon. They had a legend that when a blue star fell, that it marked the purification of the Earth and only their people and the animals would be saved. It’s said that they held the balance of the world in the way that they lived.”

“What happened to the old world?” I said.

“It was covered in ice and they were forced to leave. But the skeleton man who led them from the third world to the fourth world told them to watch for their lost white brothers,” he was smiling now.

“What’s so amazing about that?”

“It was about 1200 A.D.”

Okay, I guess that was interesting, considering the white man hadn’t discovered America yet.

“You should start a tour,” I said, now smiling.

“You know what else? They were the first Pueblo people to bind their infant’s heads with wood to shape them into cones.”

Now he was creeping me out. As if the tiny plane wasn’t enough. And now that I was creeped out, I started to worry. I had a good idea of the not-so-friendly terrain we were headed for and I suddenly became aware of how badly I’d planned this. I brought no food, no water and was hoping that Aaron thought of these things.

I looked around the small plane and noticed two large duffel bags. This made me feel a little better. The plane itself wasn’t one of those four-seater Mooneys that you could feel every little bump in and not the kind you could describe as a puddle-jumper, but it was small enough.

We were doing around 160 miles an hour and I was starting to get that feeling of being too closed in. Aaron, of course, was enjoying himself immensely.

“Where exactly are we headed?”

“Southwest of the north rim, about thirty miles from Phantom Ranch,” he answered.

After a few more minutes, Aaron motioned to me that we were right over the spot and the airplane descended enough to fly below the radar. He then grabbed one of the duffel bags and pulled it into the cockpit.

Looking out the window, I noticed three tiny white dots deep in the middle of the y-crevice in the canyon below us.

“What do you make of that?” I said.

The pilot said something and Aaron said, “government satellite dishes.”

“Kind of strange, don’t you think? I wonder what kind of reception they are getting, surrounded by rock thousands of feet high?”

It was strange. The whole canyon was a national park, not to be developed. I continued to look at the white dots and it occurred to me that we weren’t landing and that there was no place to land.

Right when Aaron saw my expression, he knew I knew. He then proceeded to pull out a pair of goggles and helmets out of the large duffel bags and one parachute. Just one. I knew we were flying under the radar almost at sea level, but when I looked down to the six thousand feet into the canyon below us, I thought I would pass out.

“We’re going to do a tandem jump. That’s why you only see one chute, but it’s rated for two people.”

“Are you out of your mind?” I said, frantically. He had kept this from me the whole time, knowing I would never agree to jump out of a perfectly good plane. I was really hoping he had a backup plan.

“Look down there. Do you see a runway? Besides, I’m not hiking ten miles to get to the coordinates,” he said, smiling again.

He was excited and I was going to be sick. I now remembered he liked to skydive. He said it was exhilarating and that everyone should do it at least once. My hands were sweating. My heart was racing and I couldn’t control my expression or my fear.

“I’m not doing this. I can’t do this!”

“Two minutes, you guys,” Jared said, into our headphones. The plane descended some more and then leveled out.

“It’s illegal to skydive into the Grand Canyon!” I said, knowing this to be true.

“You’ve already got the FBI after you and for me it’s an opportunity of a lifetime!” Aaron said, yelling over the sound of the engine.

He was laughing at my panic. He started putting the parachute on himself and then proceeded to gear me up with a harness.

“Relax, I’ve got a D license.”

This meant nothing to me and the D sounded bad.

“I’ve jumped over 500 times. It’s easy,” he said.

That was all I got, something about D license and no additional instructions. My legs felt like rubber and my stomach started to turn sour. I was terrified of heights and anything else that was going to put my body into a free-fall. Just being in the plane was bad enough.

After Aaron attached me to him via the harness and a series of metal hooks, he motioned for me to grab onto a rail mounted on the outside of the plane while he slid the side-panel door open. This, I was not going to do. The plane filled with an enormous gust of air. I was certain I was going to die. Aaron then violently shoved us out the door. He knew I wouldn’t jump.

We were forced forward for a few seconds due to the speed of the plane we’d just exited. Then, we were gaining speed. I couldn’t speak and I thought I would lose consciousness. I wasn’t certain if I’d soiled myself. I wasn’t certain if we were going too fast. It seemed like we were doing over a hundred miles an hour. It was surreal, not really like falling at all. More like flying. There was nothing surging pass us, like in a car; there was just air. But I was certain, in the near future, if I lived, that I would throw Aaron from a fast-moving vehicle while I said, “it’s easy!”

After what seemed like a lifetime, Aaron deployed the chute and we jerked up and then started to slow and it was quiet, very quiet, while we floated downward. We slowed significantly; the difference was astonishing to me. For a second, I didn’t think we would decelerate at all. My heart started to calm down as we approached the ground. And the gratitude I felt for the ground was overwhelming.

CHAPTER 16

 

WHEN WE HIT THE GROUND, I landed right on my bad knee, sending an unbearable wave of pain through my entire body. Aaron had us separated and the chute detached in a matter of seconds. I rolled around in agony grabbing my knee. Then I cursed for about two minutes under my breath, digging my hands into the desert sand. My head was reeling from the jump and I was grunting through my teeth.

“Haven’t you heard of a jeep, you idiot!”

I stared up at Aaron, enraged. I almost felt like I’d been taken hostage. And he looked back at me completely confused.

“I don’t think a jeep would’ve gotten down here and a mule would have taken forever.”

I was getting sick of his logical responses. I tried to concentrate on my breathing as the pain ran up into my hip and down into my foot. “You’re a freak! Do you even have parents or did you climb out of a puddle of adrenaline?”

The expression on Aaron’s face changed; he was concerned now. What probably should have been a pretty good landing for my first time skydiving had turned me inside out because of my injury. I was so scared when he pushed me out of the plane that I forgot I even had a bad knee. I should’ve done everything I could to avoid landing on it.

I looked at Aaron for a second, still trying to calm my breathing. He looked like a man instead of a kid with bright orange hair. The pain slowly started to subside and I knew that, in his mind, there was no other way to get me here. This was the most logical choice given our limited time. I tried to let go of my anger, because he was right. I would’ve never jumped.

When I could start speaking again, I continued to curse at him for two more minutes and a number of the obscenities didn’t make sense and made him laugh. Friend or not, I was still going to throw him from a fast-moving vehicle in the future, which he would probably find exhilarating. If I could’ve gotten up and beat the living crap out of him, I think I would’ve.

“This wasn’t exactly what I’d pictured,” he said, removing the black harness from my body. As if he had calculated the whole event in his head and just now realized he forgot to include the fact that I’m injured into the equation. He then rolled up the parachute into a large ball. “You wouldn’t have gone along with the plan, Lew, if I told you the plan.”

This was true. I didn’t care. I was still pissed.

“Approach me with logic! Explain to me that there was no other way,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Then you wouldn’t have enjoyed the view. And you would’ve been uncomfortable the whole flight. Am I wrong?”

I attempted to stand, trying to control my mouth and manage the pain in my knee.

“Help me get up!” I barked at him. I didn’t want to discuss this anymore. He was right and I was ticked off.

He helped me up and I hopped on one leg toward the satellite dishes.

“So, now what?”

“Wait!” he said, motioning me to stop. “Doesn’t it seem a little strange that this is completely unprotected, no fence or anything.”

“Doesn’t it seem stranger that there are three satellite dishes in a national park?” This wasn’t a question.

He raised his eyebrows again and nodded his head in agreement with me. After a few more minutes, I was able to put a little pressure on my bad leg, which meant I could limp, but barely.

“Give me your jacket,” he said, reaching out his arm.

I took off my jacket and threw it at him with a little too much force. He caught it and gave me an unhappy expression then he threw it at the satellite dish from about ten feet away.

Nothing happened.

“Well, I guess this is it, man,” he said, smiling. Aaron then walked about thirty feet back, then started running towards the first satellite dish and body-slammed it. Yes, he actually body-slammed it. He was a freak. My best friend was completely insane.

Nothing happened. Well, actually he fell to the ground grabbing his chest, but nothing interesting happened.

“It’s not rigged or anything, man.”

“I can see that, genius!” I shook my head and limped towards him and then around the satellite dishes, looking for something unusual.

“Are these the exact coordinates?”

“Exactly. I checked them twice. If it makes you feel more secure, there’s a GPS in the bag. Check it yourself.”

I was not interested in doing this. I knew they were right.

“This is it, Lew! You don’t just set three satellite dishes in the middle of the Grand Canyon like this.”

He stood up, looking at me, “besides, do you know how much one of these things costs?

I shrugged my shoulders, not caring about the cost.

“Give me the box. It’s in the bag.”

I hopped over, took the box out of the duffel bag and handed it to him.

He set it on the ground in the middle between the first and second dish. This didn’t amuse me.

“This was your plan! To jump out of a plane, body-slam the base of a satellite dish and reenact ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’!” I was more frustrated with myself than Aaron now.

“Did you even have a plan?” he rebutted.

“Please tell me you thought of a way out of here that doesn’t consist of me rock climbing?”

“Relax. I covered everything. We have to walk west five miles to where Jared can pick us up, but he can’t be here until ten tomorrow.”

“Walk. Walk!” I said one more time, frowning. It was clear to me that he was completely crazy and if I could catch him, I was going to hurt him.

“Ten a.m. tomorrow! Let’s pretend I can walk five miles, which I can’t! Do you realize what lives in these canyons?”

“Yes, yes, all full of protein, bossman.”

He was smiling again. I was getting tired of the smiling. I wanted to rip that smile off his face and shove it up his…. I stopped this thought. I needed him to get out of this place. I could hurt him after we were back on the plane. Walk. I felt a little delirious at the thought. I should have been more honest about the knee.

Then I saw something.

I limped all the way around the center satellite dish and I saw handlebars mounted on the side, leading all the way up to the top of the base of the center dish.

Aaron picked up the box, walked over to the dish and cautiously touched the bars. He started to climb up the bars and I followed, taking twice as long as him. As we got to the top, there was a large circular opening positioned next to the center of the dish. I pulled myself through the hole, trying not to bang my knee and I could see a large circle in the center of the dish.

It didn’t look like a satellite dish; it looked more like a giant solar panel. I expected what looked like glass under our feet to start cracking, but it didn’t.

Aaron was inspecting the center of the dish and started blowing sand out of a small divot in the center of the circle. As he did so, it revealed 13 metallic prongs.

“You ready?” he said, about to place the small box in the slot.

“Wait!”

Aaron paused and waited for me to get closer. The indentation in the center of the dish was the exact same size as the box. For a moment, I contemplated whether it was a good idea to use the key at all. What would the consequences be?

“What if it does blow up Mars?”

Aaron shook his head. “I’m pretty sure it would be shaped like a large rocket, not a satellite dish, if that were the case.”

“Funny. No, I mean what if it sends a message that in turn makes something devastating happen?”

“Mars isn’t that interesting anyway and I don’t think this is actually a satellite dish. I think it’s just made to look like one.” Then, without any more thought, he placed the key into the 13 prongs.

We waited, looking at the box, looking around at the walls of the dish and then back at each other, and nothing happened.

“Maybe it’s broke,” I said, not having a different explanation.

“It’s not broke, I checked it.”

“How exactly do you check glowing wires?” I said, in a sarcastic tone.

Aaron grabbed the box and wiggled it. He then turned it ninety degrees to the right and the box came to life. Tiny violet beams shot out of the sides for about two seconds and then faded to nothing. The circle that surrounded the box started to lift from one side and we had to quickly jump off of it, which sent another jolt of pain through my knee.

“Yes!” Aaron said, going around to the other side to look into the hole. It was a lid to a hollow cylinder about seven feet wide and eleven feet deep, with steel handle mounts running down one side. Beyond that, it was empty, completely empty. There were no buttons, no additional sockets for the strange box, no keyholes, nothing. We just stood there staring into it.

Now I was impressed. Not only did the box work, but Aaron found what it unlocked.

Aaron smiled pleased with himself again. He then shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyes brows and motioned for me to hop in the tube.

“No way man. You go right ahead. I’ll be waiting for you when the government drags your ass back up here because you just found the presidents bomb shelter,” I said, laughing.

Aaron then grabbed our bags, threw them inside and climbed down and looked up me with sheer excitement glistening in eyes. Like a kid on Christmas day. And he knew damn well I wasn’t going to let him go down there alone. But it took a few moments for me to reconsider. Hesitantly and with considerable pain in my knee, I lowered myself into the tube.

When we were both inside, we stood there for a moment, waiting for the hatch to close, but it didn’t. The cylinder didn’t move.

Aaron then smiled as if he’d just realized something and motioned me with one finger to wait as he climbed back up and out of the tube. This made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want this thing to start moving without him in it. After a short moment, he climbed back into the cylinder, he showed me the box and the lid started to close.

“Do you think we’ll regret this?”

“It’s possible,” he said.

When the lid was shut all the way, it was completely black. I could hear a series of locks closing at the top of the tube we were in. Then it was silent and the ceiling and the floor lit up with a cascading, soft, blue stream of light, which was just enough for us to see.

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” I muttered, looking at him.

“It’s almost what I imagined.”

I frowned at him a little and I started to wonder what he had imagined. I was alarmed, but even more so when the tube started to drop at an incredible speed. The force was so great that we started to lift off of the floor slightly and we both grabbed the steel bars on the side of the tube.

“How fast do you think we’re going?” I said, over the humming noise.

“I don’t know, pretty fast!”

I had this overwhelming feeling that when this thing stopped, it was going to open up into a room filled with very angry military people. Then a fear swept across my mind that we would get stuck in the tube. I didn’t see any seams or anything that looked like a door that would suggest it opened at all. I wondered how long it had been since the tube had been used. And as much as I wanted to believe there would be a way back up, I didn’t know if there would be. I wondered if Aaron had considered this possibility.

After the second longest minute of my life, the cylinder started to slow and came to a halt. Our feet lowered to the ground and I held onto the rails to make sure I landed on my good leg this time. The ceiling lights dimmed a little as we listened to the door unlocking.

CHAPTER 17

 

THERE WERE TWO DOORS, about thirty-six inches wide that slid back making the cylinder turn into a half-circle. I had a few ideas of what we were about to walk into, but I wasn’t expecting this.

This was beautiful. This was Eden.

We stood in the cylinder just looking at an abundant amount of plant life, trees and flowers. It was what Earth must have looked like before we covered it in concrete and condos. We took a few steps out into what looked like a garden and although beautiful, it was obvious the trees weren’t really trees and the flowers weren’t really flowers. The dim blue lights had deceived us and my stomach soured.

Aaron picked up the bags and he stepped out further into the dimly-lit garden. I hesitated; I stood there for a moment, closed my eyes, opened them again, but nothing changed. After another moment, I slowly limped out. It was possible that the tube could send me straight back up and Aaron would be alone. When I was completely out of the tube, the doors closed and I could hear it ascending to the top of the canyon. And I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t any place to plug the key in from this side.

We started moving forward on what looked like a cobblestone path. With every step we took, the floor would radiate under our feet. It lit up with the same blue light as in the elevator. At first it was dim, then it grew brighter, then it would die out after a second or two until the next step was taken. The black stones didn’t feel like stones, more like a hard rubber.

I motioned for Aaron to be silent as I waited for military people to make themselves known, for the bright overhead lights to be turned on and for us to be put in cuffs, but this didn’t happen. I heard no footsteps, no alarms, nothing. Even if this was a military experiment, splicing plant life for weapons or cures, something wasn’t right. Where were the scientists? Where was the security? There were no pipes overhead, no ventilation ducts or heating ducts. I pulled out my .357 Magnum and handed my pistol to Aaron. “Safety’s off,” I said. He grabbed it and we continued.

Facing us to the left of the path was a flower the size of my head, or what looked like a flower. It was slightly transparent and opening and closing like it was breathing. To our right was what I can best describe as glowing white vines that were also moving a little more actively than what made me comfortable.

“Do you hear that?” I whispered.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s my point. No insects, no birds.”

Aaron pointed up and to my surprise; we were not in a cave but a metal dome. The ceiling radiated the soft, blue light like the black stones in the path.

Then the red dirt on my right side started to move. No, it wasn’t the dirt moving; something was moving under it. My curiosity was immediately replaced with panic and I pointed my revolver at the moving dirt. Aaron quickly shook his head in a no gesture at me.

A yellow glowing bug with a red glowing head crawled out of the dirt. It sent a shiver down my spine and I unconsciously took a step back. I was almost positive that it stopped to look at me for a moment as it tilted its head up. It was the size of my shoe, with long spiny legs and a glowing gelatinous body that bounced a little as it crossed my path. If it had inched toward me at all, I would’ve shot it.

Aaron and I watched as it simply crossed our path over the black stones and crawled back into the red dirt on the other side. We said nothing. Though, I was positive that what was going through my mind was not what was going through his. I was thinking that the government was splicing more than plants. And Aaron….he had a large smile spreading across his face.

As we continued into the dome, I noticed most of the plants were several feet tall. There were some with flowers, some without. Some of them looked like large cornstalks. Their stems were glowing orange and faded to white at the tops of the plants. There were red grapelike clusters on the tips of them running down about three feet on the sides of each stalk. They looked like fist-sized grapes.

Slowly, they leaned toward us, but there wasn’t a breeze. It was unsettling even more than the bug because the stalks were massive. Their stems were thicker than my thighs and some of them reached twelve feet into the air. I started thinking about what military scientists could do to plants. Just then, hundreds of the stalks started bending farther and farther in synch, like they were alive. I tightened my sweaty palm on the butt of my gun. If these things started lashing at us, I was going to blow them to pieces.

They bowed towards us and then pulled back. Then, they started moving just a little quicker. After only a few more steps they were bending over again and again, just barely touching the ground, like they were dancing. One of them bent all the way over, brushing against the side of my leg and then bounced back bending in the opposite direction. If I could’ve jumped away from it without unbearable pain, I would have. Their movements were like a ballet as they swayed back and forth. It was alarming and mesmerizing at the same time. The light they gave off seemed to disperse into the air around them as they moved. More and more of them started brushing against us as we moved deeper into the dome and I was certain that, at any moment, the military were going to show up really pissed off.

Then, the cornstalk plants started moving faster, touching the tops of our heads, sliding across our faces. Now I was kind of hoping someone would show up and arrest us. It was startling, but they weren’t violent. I swatted at several that touched my face and neck. It was like a cat purring against your leg when you walked in the door — a very tall, annoying cat. After a few more feet, we cleared the small section of plants and entered a different section with much smaller plants.

As we moved further into the clearing, I saw the most beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen in my life. It ran from the bottom of the dome to the top, an easy thirty feet. It came from a large pool in the floor that seemed to be lined in crystals and it sounded like a waterfall in slow motion. From what I could tell, there were two layers. There was a gold fluorescent waterfall running slowly like lava from the floor to the ceiling. And my basic understanding of physics said this shouldn’t be possible. On top of that layer was an orange sparkling layer moving slightly faster in the opposite direction. They were flowing against each other, simultaneously moving in and out of a large crevice located at the top of the dome.

Every drop that hit the glowing pond at the bottom changed into a crystalline snowflake that floated out into the air and dissipated as it touched the strange plants.

We kept moving, but Aaron slowed so I could keep up with him, now that my limp was severe.

Everything was spectacular. One flower that we were approaching caught my attention. It was about three feet tall and had bright neon pink and white petals with a thick, black stem. Every few seconds, a petal would fall to the red dirt, sprout tiny white legs and then crawl back to the base of the plant. Then it would dig itself into the ground where the flower was planted and then a new petal would reappear.

 

CHAPTER 18

 

“GENTLMEN, WELCOME TO STATION THIRTEEN,” a man said, startling us as he walked slowly toward us from what appeared to be the end of the brick-like path. Every step he took made the path come to life with the dim blue light beneath his feet.

“We always design our gates to open directly into two sections of gardens. We find it to be an appealing entrance,” he said.

Aaron and I immediately noticed that all the plant life became still, even the cornstalks in the previous dome.

The man’s deep voice echoed against the walls of the large dome. But something was wrong with this dome and everything in it. I knew it and felt it in my bones. The revolver was still hanging in my hand on my right side.

As the man got closer, it was evident that he was not a man at all. We stood there speechless and frozen.

I suddenly thought that this must be what Zero felt like. My heart started pounding against my ribs as this thing was got closer to us. The creature looked like a bad mutation of a human on steroids. It stopped about ten feet in front of us and we looked up at him. It was an easy nine feet tall, with no hair and you could see right through its skin into all the veins and glowing arteries — circular, moving arteries. Its enormous glowing eyes looked like gold slits, running four inches diagonally. Its head was misshapen and too large for its body. It had two legs and two arms with hands that could’ve probably crushed my skull with little effort. Yes, it was in a suit, the male version of a suit, but at over nine feet tall, it was like putting a suit on a dinosaur.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, it spoke again in perfect English.

“I don’t mean to be startling. All of our coverts are topside and we don’t have your species to greet you at the moment,” it said.

Oh, God… did it just say “species?” Without thinking, I pointed the gun at it. I was really hoping it was just an experiment gone wrong. I could feel the sweat between my hand and the metal as I squeezed the handle.

“My name is Danel,” it continued. “I’m the facilitator at this station. I had the next two sections cleared, so you didn’t have to see twenty of us at once. I understand you find us quite shocking.”

It seemed unaffected by my movements or the gun. I could see Aaron shaking his head at me in my peripheral vision, but I wasn’t lowering the gun or taking my eyes off of the thing standing in front of me.

Twenty more. My heart raced and my mouth became unbearably dry and I couldn’t swallow. I could feel myself trying to move outside of consciousness. My mind started swimming and my vision blurred. I shook my head, blinking my eyes, forcing them to focus.

“Jesus,” was all that came out of my mouth.

“You’re a little earlier than expected,” it said, as it stared at Aaron.

This was too much, way too much. This was a bad dream of the worst kind.

Aaron started breathing again and gained a little composure.

“You were expecting us?” Aaron said, clearing his throat.

“Yes, of course. We are always notified any time there’s a flight in this direction. We’re all relieved that no one else got to you first,” it said, now smiling a smile that looked completely frightening and absolutely unnatural.

I felt my heart sink to my feet and my stomach fly up to my throat and I was trembling. What followed this polite exchange of words was a very bad moment of awkward silence. We just stood there, staring at its glowing yellow eyes. It had no ears, no nose that I could recognize. His hands looked like large spiders; there were six or seven fingers on each one and what I thought was an extra thumb. The pause was long, like a last stand right before both parties started to open fire.

I took a slow, deep breathe. We were here, this thing was talking to us and I was not going to lose it. I tried not to think of the horrible things that could happen and just focus on the present. Aaron almost seemed to relax as my anxiety soared. Was this what he was expecting? I continued to stare up at it; we both did. Its skin was a semi-translucent gray. Its teeth looked almost metallic. It had a thumb on both sides of its hand. Then it spoke again.

“First, let’s talk business… only because I have to. The box you have is a device that sets off a series of locks and basically starts a countdown for departure.”

The key word here was departure. I then realized that the whole room was humming softly. I could hear what sounded like large metal doors shifting and locking into place beyond the room we were in.

“How many light years away do you want to be before you hand me the box?”

The humming sound increased and I could now feel a small vibration coming up through my shoes. I believed it, but I was frozen, petrified.

“Light years…” Aaron mumbled in amazement. There was fascination in his face as he stared at the creature.

“Aaron, you won’t find this amusing when twelve other ships, much larger than this one, embedded in your glaciers and mountains, blow twenty percent of the Earth’s crust off when we leave. The device makes sure we all leave together,” it said.

The pleasantries were now over. It was walking towards us with long swift strides. It was going to take the box and possibly my arm with it. I didn’t want to shoot it; it was unarmed. But if it touched me, I was going too.

Aaron quickly grabbed the box out of my hand and tossed it at the creature, which caught it with ease. It then turned around and left. Aaron and I just stood there. We exchanged a glance, but said nothing. After what seemed like forever, the vibrations stopped. Then the humming stopped altogether and we could hear the metal doors opening beyond the garden. A loud thud sounded with each door and grew fainter and fainter. I counted thirteen possible doors.

“Put the gun away,” Aaron said. I looked at him in disbelief that he was so calm. No one could be calm in this situation. I lowered my arm, because there was nothing to aim at for the moment, but I didn’t put the Magnum back in the holster. I was going to chastise Aaron for his foolish idea that we were okay, but a series of doors banged again somewhere in the distance. Then the creature reappeared, moving slower and more gracefully towards the center of the large dome, stopping ten feet from us.

“Thank you. Please follow me. You look tired and we have living quarters here for your size,” it said.

The creature walked a few feet and then stopped. No, we weren’t moving. We weren’t following anyone or anything.

“I don’t know how to make you feel more comfortable.”

I still wasn’t moving. My feet had grown roots and I wasn’t about to dig them up. I looked at Aaron and he shrugged his shoulders at me and walked toward the creature.

“Damn,” I said, forcing my feet and legs to move. It wasn’t like I could leave Aaron alone.

I followed Aaron, finding it impossible not to limp, never taking my eyes off of the creature. He walked ahead of us slowly. I gripped my gun tightly and nothing was going to take it out of my hand.

First, we passed through a smaller garden with several fountains. The walls were all encased in what appeared to be a dark, shiny metal with overhead lighting. The low blue light was identical to the light in the elevator and in the first large garden. We followed him down three long hallways before he finally stopped. He opened a door and led us into a room that reminded me of a three-room hotel suite that I once stayed in.

“Lighting for humans,” he said, as he covered his eyes.

But there wasn’t an actual light that turned on. It was more like the entire ceiling emitted a bright yellow light. Seeing him more clearly just made all of the muscles in my body contract and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through me.

Behind the skin of his face and hands I could see the spiral veins moving slowly. The circular things were moving in various directions. It was almost as if its skin was only a thick plastic mold holding a jelly-like being into a humanoid form. If it weren’t for the eyes that were clearly attached to the skin, I would have believed this to be true.

“You can get some rest here. It has everything you need for the night,” it said, closing its eyes for a moment. “A covert will get you in the morning. If you need anything, just press the ‘call’ option on this screen and someone will come to your suite and get you what you need,” he finished, pointing to the wall next to the door.

I could’ve blown it away. I could’ve simply put the revolver right up to its head and pulled the trigger, even though I wasn’t sure if my gun would injure it. The only thing stopping me… was that I couldn’t kill something that wasn’t trying to kill me.

Then the creature started to slouch, as if the light in the room was affecting him.

“This is a liquid anesthetic,” it said, retrieving a small glass bottle out of its suit pocket. It wasn’t that the bottle was small; it’s just that its hands were enormous and would’ve miniaturized anything they touched. Its five fingers and two thumbs gripped the bottle lightly.

“Apply it to your knee with a towel,” it said, handing me the bottle with the clear liquid in it, “and it will keep the pain away until Jessica can fix it in the morning.”

Not really caring who or what Jessica was, with a trembling hand I reached for the bottle. As I grabbed the base of it, trying not to touch the creature, I noticed five of its fingers had one more joint than the human hand. It then turned and left the room. And the feeling of being miniaturized, dwarfed and insignificant lingered.

After he left, Aaron and I just stood there for a moment. Slowly, I limped over to a chair next to a table and started to wonder if I was actually here, or if I was in some mental hospital and it was just my brain creating some delusional world from some traumatic injury.

Aaron paced a little in front of me, “denial, fear, acceptance… where you at?”

“Denial.”

CHAPTER 19

 

THIS WASN’T HAPPENING. This couldn’t be happening. I placed the gun on the table next to me and wiped my sweaty palm on my jeans.

“I knew it,” Aaron said, confidently.

“You knew what?” My tone indicated I wasn’t fully present. All I could see in my head was that thing, that monstrous thing with giant hands. There was no way that was an experiment and I almost couldn’t say the word in my head. Its slit-like eyes resembled every sci-fi book cover I read as a kid. Just say it! I thought. I closed my eyes for a moment. Alien. My breathing was shallow and I started to feel nauseous.

“I knew it was something else, something unusual and I knew it was here. See, I had a theory about the box. How does something glow without power? Well, it has to be alive. That was the only logical explanation.”

Of course, he did not share this theory with me until now.

“I hate to bust your balls, Aaron, but we’re dead men.”

He totally ignored my comment and he actually looked excited.

“This is too good to be true!” he said, snatching the bottle from my hand and now I was disturbed by his excitement. This wasn’t the Aaron I knew. Aaron was analytical. He wasn’t processing the situation. It was almost like he was basking in it. I let a scowl slide over my face. But then I realized this was what he was expecting. This was what he was hoping to find.

“Are you kidding me!” I said, rubbing my forehead. “There are only a few reasons why they would even be here! And they are hiding underground from us. I don’t think they’re friendly, or they wouldn’t be hiding from us! Why don’t they make themselves known to the human race? They are sitting down here, watching us, waiting for the right time. And in case you had forgotten, Richie still has his head sliced open. Who do you think did that?” I was shocked at Aaron, glaring at him as he paced back and forth.

“You’re a cop. It’s in your nature to be suspicious of everything and go ahead and do that, but it’s not changing how I feel about it.”

Now he was just pissing me off, but I was in too much pain to argue. I needed him to be rational now, methodical. I wasn’t anticipating this. I had no plan and it just made it worse that Aaron was oblivious to our capture. I would have to be on guard for the both of us for now. What was I thinking bringing a kid down here with me? But it only took a second for me to remember — he dragged me down here.

“Lew, think of it this way. Everything we saw in that garden, if you want to call it a garden, is bioluminescent.”

I shook my head lightly while closing my eyes, thinking I could just shake the image of the creature right out of my head. To Aaron, this meant I didn’t understand and he continued.

“It’s cold light. Everything in that garden creates its own light. Just like the wires in the box, like the eyes of that creature we just saw. Most of the species we have on Earth that are like this are aquatic and live so deep in the ocean that they had to create their own light via millions of years of evolution. Like jellyfish, squids, certain clams, krill… but on land, there’s fireflies, mushrooms, fungi and that’s about it. Nothing like what we just saw, nothing like a whole garden of bioluminescent plant life. Don’t have tunnel vision right now; open your mind. Imagine the possibilities of new chemicals, new elements and a non-carbon-based entity. There are ninety-eight chemical elements that occur naturally on Earth; the rest are synthetic. So the only thing that’s going to make that list expand is us bashing them together in a particle accelerator praying they stick or finding extraterrestrial life.”

Okay, now I wasn’t following him. I partially heard what Aaron was saying, but I couldn’t think beyond our own confinement. Even if this thing didn’t kill us, it wasn’t going to let us leave. So apparently we were trapped and Aaron couldn’t be happier. And I knew that nothing I said would change his mind. I was exhausted and finally looked at Aaron.

“You’re enjoying this a little too much.”

“It’s a mere difference of stress management. Why don’t you use this? You look like you’re in a lot of pain,” he said, handing me the glass bottle.

“Are you nuts? God only knows what that is!”

He grabbed the bottle and a towel from the tiny bathroom, poured some of the liquid on it and then applied it to his wrist.

“You are a moron,” I said, truly believing his hand would shrivel up and fall off.

“If they wanted us dead, we would be,” he said.

“I’m not so worried about a quick death. I think I’m more worried about mind control, probing and just basically being dissected.”

“That’s not logical. If they wanted to dissect us, they probably already did that thousands of years ago. The ancient Pueblo people that lived in this canyon said they saw monstrous spirits with glowing eyes that came up from out of nowhere in the canyon.”

I was trying to listen to him, but the pain in my knee shuddered through my body and I let out a low groan as I rubbed my forehead.

“Just use this,” he said, handing me the towel after he poured more of the liquid on it. “I hurt my wrist when we hit the ground, trying not to land on you and now it doesn’t hurt at all.”

All of my instincts said not to use it, but my leg felt like it was partially blown off for the second time. They could’ve taken the box from us any time if they really wanted. Something told me that they, or it was trying to be civilized. So anything was possible at this juncture and I wouldn’t let my fear control my actions.

I rolled up my left pant leg and put the towel on my swollen, purple knee. The knee looked bad, like something had shifted out of place under the muscles.

“Damn! Why didn’t you say something earlier? That looks pretty bad.”

“I did, but you were too excited about blowing up Mars,” I grunted back at him.

It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the pain had completely stopped. This was unbelievable. All of my contracted muscles started to relax and I could feel my blood pressure slowly dropping.

As I sat back, I started to take in my surroundings. The room just looked wrong. It was a sad attempt really. The steel walls and floors just didn’t blend with the furniture. It felt like we were inside a tin can. The back wall was curved and there was a blue beam of light that ran down it slowly from top to bottom. It almost looked electrified and I could only guess at its purpose.

But the small kitchen area did have a full-size fridge and Aaron grabbed some ice cubes from the freezer section and put a handful of cubes in a kitchen towel hanging from the sink. After wetting it down a little, he handed it to me. Carefully, I propped up my leg on the chair across from me and balanced the towel on it.

“You will let Jessica treat you in the morning!”

For a moment, he almost seemed enraged at my actions. This was a crazy thought. There was no way I was going to let some alien mess with my knee, but what were my choices really? I could always go back to Seattle and deal with the FBI and some felony charges. Nope, not a lot of choices. I was too drained to argue about it. He seemed too relaxed a little and that look of amazement reappeared on his face.

“Did you see the way the light in this room affected him?”

“Yeah, do you think this room is bugged?”

“Most definitely,” he said.

Aaron then checked the door. “It’s locked.”

“Of course, it’s locked. Like they’re just going to let you roam around the place, take a few pictures, upload them on YouTube.” My sarcasm was evident to him now. He checked his phone and I could tell he was not getting any signal down here and then he checked mine; same thing. This didn’t seem to alarm him.

“Lew, you didn’t really think we were the only ones in the universe did you? Out of all the galaxies, star systems, it’s really just us? This is a chance of a lifetime,” he said, looking at me like he expected more of me.

That last time he said this, he shoved me out of a plane. So calmly, I responded, “then why does it feel like it’s the last opportunity of my lifetime?”

“Like most, you fear the unknown,” he responded.

“And what happens when we find out that humans are their food?” I put this question out there because it was a possibility.

“Some of the bioluminescent creatures we have on Earth don’t eat meat.”

It was kind of eerie the way he used the word, “some,” instead of most.

CHAPTER 20

 

“GOOD MORNING, MR. KEGAN,” said a soft, young voice.

In less than half a second, I shifted from a semi-unconscious state to a fully alert physical state. My body was in full motion as I aimed the revolver at the woman sitting at the little table in the tiny kitchen area. I was in one of the queen beds in the suite, but I didn’t remember climbing into one. The clarity of my mind rushed slightly behind my own movements. Nothing was a dream; it was all real, including the thing that we gave the box to. We’d fallen asleep. I don’t know how, but we did. I blamed the small glass bottle that the creature had given us; there had to be something in it.

Before my eyes could focus, I recognized her voice. It was Kye. Something inside of me told me to put the revolver down. And even though it was against my untrusting nature, I listened to it. I lowered my gun and put it back in my shoulder holster, which I was still wearing. Slowly, I limped toward the coffee she’d brought in on a tray. I wasn’t expecting Kye to be here, not down here with these things.

“Not a morning person?”

“So this is who you work for?” I said, ignoring her previous question. “Why didn’t you meet me at the café?”

“I ran into Marie Stakes and some of her guy friends. Sorry. I thought if they caught up to me, they had already caught up to you, but I’m glad to see that wasn’t the case. Thank you for returning the box and I’m sorry about Danel. He’s not exactly fond of humans.”

I sat there rubbing my eyes for a moment, then I sat down next to her at the little table.

“You know, you didn’t have to skydive out here. We have other means of transportation,” she said, smiling.

I closed my eyes and then opened them again, trying to clear my vision, but there was nothing wrong with my vision; something was wrong with Kye.

Without thinking, I grabbed her hand off the small table, put it in mine and looked at her skin. She wasn’t alarmed by my actions and just let her thin hand sit in mine. Her skin was also slightly transparent and grayish and her eyes were glowing gold like the creature I saw last night. Besides those things, she appeared human. I let a sigh escape me and the disappointment was obvious.

“Did they do this to you?”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know the answer. I became angry at the thought of something so beautiful being tested on, like a guinea pig. I stroked the back of her hand once with my thumb.

“No, no one did this to me. I was born this way.”

“You’re one of them,” I said, knowing that she had some kind of makeup on and probably contacts when we first met in Richie’s place.

“I’m one of their children,” she answered.

“And I thought you were one of us.”

“Genetically, we have a lot of similarities. I just look a little different. Do I look so different?” she said, trying to reassure me.

“Honey, I can see right through your skin.”

“Well, there’s not much I can do about that,” she said, pulling her hand away from mine.

“How’s the knee?”

I realized I’d approached the subject in the wrong way. I still thought she was beautiful; why didn’t I just tell her that? This initial thought of mine startled me. I frowned at myself. She wasn’t even human. Immediately, I threw my wall back up. I didn’t even know what they intended to do with us. But she seemed sad and it pulled at me. I wanted to help her. She looked at me for a while and I could see tenderness in her eyes.

“Starting to hurt again. And you didn’t have to drug us.” I was slightly angered by the deception.

“That bottle was meant just for you. Aaron wasn’t in any pain. Well, none that he couldn’t tolerate. Get a shower and I’ll be back in twenty minutes to take you to Jessica.”

“Jessica…she’s your physician?” I said.

“She’s better than any doctor you’ve ever seen.”

“That means she’s not human, doesn’t it?”

Without answering, which meant “yes,” she got up to leave.

I hung my head, slightly shaking it. Somehow things were more real when she was present. Why did it make me feel more comfortable that she was here? And she didn’t look like she was one of their children, not at all. I could only imagine what they did to her. Maybe she couldn’t remember. I tried to reassure myself that everything would be okay.

Aaron was still sleeping in the bed next to mine. After a moment, I tried to wake him, but he was really out and I couldn’t wake him up. This concerned me a little, but he had all the normal signs of life. I bolted the suite door from the inside and hobbled to the shower. The pain in my knee was slowly creeping in again and I was hoping the heat would soothe the pain.

The shower took me a few minutes to figure out. When I walked into the small bathroom, there was just a toilet and nothing else. To the right side of the room was an empty square section. I assumed it was the shower stall but there wasn’t a faucet just multiple holes in the ceiling. There was a basket of toiletries and three black buttons on the wall. I pushed the first one and some kind of fan turned on but I couldn’t see it, I only heard it. Then I pushed the next button. The floor next to the toilet lowered about four inches and the lined seams pulled back making the floor look grated. The last button activated the holes in the ceiling and water streamed out of them. I put my hand in the water because there was no way to adjust the temperature, but it felt perfectly warm. It didn’t occur to me that there weren’t any towels until I was done showering. When I hit the button to turn off the water, the water stopped and huge gusts of warm air blew in from the holes in the ceiling and the grate below me. It blow dried my entire body in one minute flat.

 

CHAPTER 21

 

IN TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES, I was showered and Kye was waiting. The shower was barely tolerable, what with trying to balance on one leg and not let the pain swim completely over me. Whatever was in that bottle that we used last night made me feel like I’d downed a fifth of tequila on an empty stomach and the anesthetic qualities were wearing off.

I tried to wake Aaron again after my shower, but he still wouldn’t wake up, which was starting to really concern me now. He was breathing and had all the appearances of having a deep REM sleep, but wouldn’t wake up.

“Wake him up,” I said.

“I can’t. It will wear off when it wears off.”

“I used a lot more of that anesthetic than he did. Why isn’t he awake yet?”

“The more pain you’re in, the faster it wears off. Just you were supposed to use it. He was supposed be the guarding buddy all night, but apparently he’s willing to try anything.”

“You have no idea.”

She was right about Aaron but, I didn’t like this at all and she knew it. I didn’t want to leave Aaron alone, but then I remembered this was exciting for him. Yes, he would’ve left me alone, given the opportunity to look around the place and I needed to have this knee looked at. The pain was affecting my thinking now, so I decided to leave my extra gun right where Aaron had left it and go with Kye.

“He’ll be fine, Mr. Kagen.” Everything in her posture and expression reassured me.

“Just call me Lewis.”

“Lewis. Come on, Jessica is waiting. You can lean on me if you have to. Why didn’t you bring your cane?”

I frowned a little. Of course she knew of my cane. I swallowed my pride and leaned on her. She smelled wonderful, like flowers and pears or something and I found myself probably leaning a little too close to her. I looked into her eyes and she looked back at me. For a brief second, she smiled and looked down quickly. I didn’t respond to her question. I was going to, but the pain in my knee was now escalating. She opened the door and with my arm wrapped around her neck, we left the room as I let out a low agony-filled moan.

“We don’t have to go far, just to the end of this corridor. Remember, Jessica is harmless. Matter of fact, this is a research facility. We have no weapons here at all,” she said, trying to make me feel better that I was about to let an alien mess with my knee.

This did actually make me feel a little better. They really had no weapons? I thought about the revolver in my shoulder holster, fully loaded, under my left arm. I knew Kye could feel it, but she seem unaffected by its presence.

I wanted to ask her so many things. Was this research facility once a military experiment gone wrong? Did the military know about them at all? It seemed unlikely they were anything but alien, except for Kye’s appearance. But the pain in my knee seemed to wrap itself around me like a veil, keeping me from focusing.

After only a few steps, my knee felt dislocated and I ended up leaning on Kye more than I intended. I figured the knee couldn’t get much worse, so why not let them just look at it. Half of this thought was just me trying to reassure myself that everything would be fine and the other half was just sheer uncontrollable pain. I closed my eyes several times because of the pain. It started to make the muscles in my back contract with every heartbeat.

Kye paused once or twice to let me manage the pain in my knee. She could only take on so much of my weight and this made her seem harmless to me.

“What kind of research do you do here?” I muttered.

“Oh, a little of everything… most of the facility is used for the children.”

For a moment I wondered if they taught human children.

“Human children?”

“No, they are strictly forbidden here and in all stations we have.”

“So, this is a school?” I said, wondering why human children would be forbidden.

“Part of it is, yes.”

I had many other questions, but was in too much pain to continue speaking. I found myself breathing heavy as the knee shot knife-like pains into my hip and pelvis.

“And Lewis, we’re vegetarians,” she said, smiling.

Of course they had listened to our entire conversation. I could hear her laughing a little under her breath and suddenly I felt embarrassed.

When we reached the medical center, it was surprisingly sterile. There was a creature similar to Danel waiting in the back of the room. She was smaller than Danel, about eight, eight-and–a-half feet tall and her eyes were red — glowing red slits. They looked like alien eyes, like all the pictures that were drawn by people we thought to be crazy, except for the thinning line that pulled from the center of her face to the top of her head. From a distance, this small glowing line could barely be seen. I found myself staring at them too long. I checked her hands and she had the same extra fingers as Danel and extra joints in each one. Her fingers at the knuckles bent the wrong way before the remaining joints curved forward.

The thought of them touching me made me shiver and I thought about what else would be different under the robe she wore. Both Kye and Jessica noticed my expression. With the surmounting pain, I couldn’t seem to hide anything I was thinking or feeling.

The medical room had the same dim blue lights as the garden and it was difficult to see. It was like walking around outside right at dusk. I could see, just not perfectly. The walls and floor looked like they were metal, but something told me they weren’t. They looked like the same material as the box, which Aaron said was not metal at all.

“Mr. Kagen, I’m so happy you’ve agreed to let us help,” the creature said to me.

“This is Jessica; she does medical research here,” Kye said.

Normally, I would’ve held out my hand to shake hers, but I couldn’t. The extra fingers she had, the purple and pink swirling things under her skin and her pulsing red eyes prevented me from doing so. She seemed unaffected by my staring, as if she’d experienced it many times before. I didn’t think I was the first human she’d ever seen.

Yet Jessica was more approachable than Danel. I couldn’t really say why she was more approachable. It’s possible that she was less frightening because she wasn’t over nine feet tall. Was he really that tall? Or was I just that scared? At this point, my body was reeling in agony. I couldn’t tell if I was nauseous due to pain or because I was actually going to do this.

“Would you like an anesthetic?”

“No and you will tell me everything you’re going to do before you do it. Nothing is cutting into me! You want to put a brace on it, fine. Take an x-ray, fine.” Jessica was unaffected by my loud voice and this made me worry.

Kye motioned for me to get up onto a very thick glass table that produced a soft pink light around the edges. With her help, I got on the table with a couple pain-filled grunts and she gently pushed my shoulders back to lie down as Jessica pressed a few symbols on a screen next to her. Then a robotic arm seemed to scan my knee. It emitted a red beam every few seconds. I could now feel the anesthetic had worn off completely and the agony began. It was definitely dislocated. My muscles started to contract even more in my back and neck and I found myself crossing my arms over my chest. I was breathing through gritted teeth.

I tried to focus on where I was and pull myself out of my pain. “So what exactly is this thing going to do?” I said, now wondering if I’d completely lost my mind. I closed my eyes, trying to calm myself. I wasn’t a guinea pig. I wasn’t going to wake up with five heads. They were just trying to help me.

“This is very similar to the microcurrents you already use on injured athletes. This is just more advanced. First, I’m going to single out the frequencies of the healthy cells in your body — specifically, the ones in your bone, then muscle, then skin — which will only take a second. Then, I’m going to tell your damaged tissue to mimic those frequencies, thus halting your natural healing process and then speeding it up. So we are not synthesizing the cells; we are merely telling your body, by manipulating your own electrical pulses, to reproduce undamaged cells at a faster rate.”

“So you’re saying you’re not going to add anything alien to my body?”

“Exactly. Your bodies are so much easier to manipulate. You won’t feel a thing.”

There was a green gas floating around my knee as Jessica kept clicking on the computer screen. I looked over at Jessica’s red eyes and she sensed my fear, or maybe she read my mind.

“Slow your heart rate please. The light you see around the knee is just the remnants of a frequency that I’m manipulating.”

I looked at Kye and she smiled at me for a moment, but didn’t speak. She put her right hand on my shoulder and mouthed the words, “it’s okay.”

“How long before it gets better?” I said, grunting through the pain.

“About two minutes.”

Two minutes. I couldn’t believe this either. But then the pain started to subside and I could feel my knee changing, the muscle changing and I looked at Kye in disbelief. She smiled back at me — a big, beautiful smile.             

“So, then what?” I said.

“For the most part, you will be healed. Oh, and it would be helpful if you could learn how to land when skydiving.”

CHAPTER 22

 

SHE WASN’T LYING. My knee felt like it had never been injured. Even the large, unsightly scars from the last two surgeries disappeared. It was the first time in years I hadn’t limped. The pain was gone completely and I was exhausted from it. I felt like I could sleep for a decade. At first, I limped out of habit and then I slowly put my weight on the leg. I took one step and then another and I felt no pain, not even a mild soreness.

I was amazed, elated and more suspicious. I thought about how many people in the world needed this technology. Why didn’t they share it? Maybe they were sharing it? Maybe they were sharing it with just a particular group, those that they deemed qualified or deserving. I didn’t know and I wasn’t about to ask. For now, I would be grateful. I would ask later. But I knew something didn’t add up. Just from my career, I could think of five police officers that needed this kind of help, disabled like myself… or like my former self.

After Jessica was done, she said it was a permanent fix. I believed her, but it didn’t explain why she was helping me. Maybe it was because Kye asked her to. Or maybe it was because they didn’t need a disabled human wandering around their station. Or maybe they just wanted to be able to say that all prisoners were kept alive and healthy in the end.

My expression said it all and I didn’t care if it did. Not another word was exchanged between us. I know there should have been a thank you or some gratitude expressed from me, but I kept thinking of all the people that really needed this care. After a few minutes, Kye and I headed to a conference room and said nothing as we walked down another long hall in the opposite direction of the medical lab.

Kye glanced at me as if ashamed. She knew exactly what I was thinking. She gave me a concerned look, as if to say, “it’s okay and this is the way it has to be for us,” meaning they must remain out of sight for as long as possible. I was guessing, but something in my gut said I was pretty close in my assumptions. I could only imagine the chaos that would occur if everyone knew they were here.

Aaron was in the conference room waiting for us. He looked half awake and was sipping on a large mug of coffee as we entered. I was relieved to see he was fine.

“You got a personal tour, man?” he said, as I entered.

“Something like that.”

Immediately, his eyes were drawn directly to my knee that didn’t fail me as I walked across the room. His face grew into a slight smile, as if to say, “I told you so.”

The room had two different sizes of chairs in it. It was becoming obvious that they had humans here. I slid one of the smaller chairs down by Aaron and sat next to him. I then rolled up my left pant leg and showed him my knee.

“Oh my God!”

“No, it wasn’t God.”

“With the way you were walking, I figured they had done something, but I didn’t think it would…” he trailed off inspecting my knee closer.

“Yep,” was all I said. Then I watched as his face turned from amazement to concern. We were on the same page now. If they had this technology, why were people suffering? I raised my brows to see if he would reply to my unspoken question, but he didn’t. He just remained still with a look of concern on his face, sipping his coffee, contemplating.

I glanced around the room, trying to take everything in. It wasn’t really like a conference room. It was more like the countdown room at NASA. Or, at least, what I envisioned one would be like. The back wall was a giant glass screen showing what appeared to be a map of solar systems or galaxies, none of which resembled ours. The blue lights were very dim and were starting to make my eyes ache from strain. No other yellow lights seemed to be placed in any other rooms besides the suite we had slept in.

“We are waiting for Danel?”

“Yes,” Aaron said. “He’s the one who woke me up this morning. It was quite shocking, actually. I didn’t react as appropriately as I hoped. At first, I still thought I was dreaming.”

He was now staring at Kye. I found it amusing that Aaron had suddenly become self-conscious of how he acted and I realized that he’d never seen Kye.

“Aaron, this is Kye.”

He nodded his head and looked at me puzzled.

“You forgot to mention she wasn’t human when you described her at the bar,” he said, immediately noticing her skin and eyes.

“I didn’t know then.”

“Gee, how do you miss that?” he said, now blatantly making fun of me.

I thought she was still beautiful. I didn’t care. She was stunning, just now in a more intergalactic way. Then I stared at her directly for too long; if she could’ve blushed, I think she would have. Kye said nothing. She only smiled, a simple human-like smile and shook her head at us boys.

I gave Aaron an annoyed frown and was a little embarrassed by his bluntness. I was going to say something apologetic, but Danel walked in.

His presence was overwhelming, as if he’d grown overnight. I was still not used to the way he looked. He hadn’t changed or mutated from the last time I saw him. I just couldn’t get over the fact that he was nine feet tall. He no longer seemed gelatinous. There was a defined skeletal structure of some kind beneath the grey tissue. I wondered for a moment about how he saw things and whether or not he could see colors at all.

I almost shivered getting a closer look at him. His mouth was lipless, just a straight line in the middle of his face and he didn’t appear to have a nose, just two small holes below his eyes. Not pretty, not at all.

“Gentlemen, thank you for the device,” Danel said, as he sat down at the head of the table.

“Why didn’t you just take it days ago?” I said.

“We could have. We also could’ve sent a current through the dishes topside with enough amps that would’ve fried your brains in ten seconds. But just like you, we have rules and laws that govern us.”

I looked at Aaron for his response. He raised his brows for a second, which told me he believed him.

“I also believe that many amps would make the box inoperable. And it only takes 100 amps to stop the human heart, but it’s interesting that you take it to the extent to fry the human brain.” Aaron said.

Aaron’s sarcasm was evident, but only to me.

Danel didn’t respond. He brought out a metal briefcase and opened it.

It was full of money.

“We had an agreement,” Danel said.

“I agreed to nothing.”

“So those dishes are not really functional, are they?” Aaron said.

“Actually, they function in many ways. We have ways of converting your solar energy more efficiently than you.”

It was just more crap that didn’t add up. They didn’t share their healing technology and they apparently also didn’t share other technologies that would help save our planet. Maybe they were just waiting for us to die out so they could have the planet for themselves. I didn’t care for the money. I cared about why they didn’t help us and why they were here in the first place.

“So Danel, how does a box with such importance get into the hands of a guy like Richie Stakes?” I said.

“We were transporting it to a safer location. In transit, one of our coverts was attacked and it accidentally got passed off to Richie,” Kye said.

“So you killed Richie.” I said.

“No. Of course not.”

“Why didn’t you just kill us last night?” I said.

“Rules, Mr. Kagen. We don’t pull out a gun every time we have a disagreement. That’s what humans do,” Danel said.

“So Richie didn’t know what the box was? He’s never been here?”

“No. If he’d made it here, he would still be alive. The box was gone for two weeks before we located it and when we found Richie, he was dead.”

I didn’t know if I believed him.

“We’re happy to tell you everything,” Danel said

“Why?”

“Let’s just say we know more about you than you do. We’ve been watching one of you for years and we’ve done our research on you, Mr. Kagen, as well. All in all, you have no psychological hiccups on file and we could use more coverts like you.”

I didn’t hear this as a compliment, though it may have been. It just seemed like a way for him to keep me under his thumb, which was not going to happen.

“So why not just make another box?”

“In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not from here and neither is the device. Some of its parts are unavailable.”

His patronizing tone was starting to irritate me.

“So enlighten us,” I said, in an insolent way.

“I’m sure I can answer a lot of questions,” Danel said, pouring Aaron more coffee.

“How come the device started a count down when I plugged it in from the outside?” Aaron said.

“It doesn’t matter where it’s activated. We tried to open the hatch when you arrived, but you plugged it in before we could. It’s a safety mechanism, to start departure from any receiving unit,” Danel answered.

This meant there was more than one station.

“Just visiting?” Aaron said, taking a sip of the coffee. And, as usual, he spoke like a sixty-seven-year-old professor was stuck in a twenty-seven-year-old body.

“No.”

CHAPTER 23

 

“WE ARRIVED HERE about five thousand years ago. Your technology hadn’t evolved to the state it is now… neither had you. Only twenty thousand of us escaped the storms.” He paused slightly and his gold eyes pulsed for a second.

“Back on our planet, there were billions of us.”

He touched two squares in the corner of the table and a square lid silently slid open in the center. A hologram beamed out from the center of the table and two circles appeared, one white and orange and one brown. I leaned back instinctively due to the size of it. The image, which was better than any 3-D movie I’d ever seen, stretched across the entire table. Surrounding the two larger circles were fifteen smaller blue circles that radiated a soft blue light.

He then placed two of his long fingers into the hologram itself for a moment and the two circles started rotating around each other, stuck in each other’s gravitational pull. The fifteen smaller circles were about one-tenth their size and rotated around them in a funnel-like motion. Every second rotation the smaller circles at the top would exchange positions with the circles at the bottom. They would slide up, rotate slowing then slide back down to their original positions. It reminded me of a tornado as they moved closer to the planets at the bottom and then farther away at the top.

“This was Tanjenna, our home and also the name of this ship. It’s very similar to the binary stars close to your solar system: two planets with identical species and geological makeup. We knew the storm would hit Tanjenna about twenty-eight years in advance. So we built ships that would hopefully take us to another inhabitable planet. Most of the station’s space was for food storage, so out of billions, only a few thousand escaped.”

“The storm?” I said.

“The storm was a sun near our planet that had gone supernova. Not like your sun, which will become a red giant. This sun was much larger than yours and the shockwaves alone were enough to crush our entire solar system. If it weren’t for our technology, we would be extinct.”

The planets didn’t look identical to me. The white circle was very detailed, with white sections marking the land and orange and yellow sections marked what I thought to be oceans. It was surrounded by a pink gas-like vapor, which I assumed was their atmosphere. But the other planet looked like desert rock, with little to no water at all.

“When we got here, the atmosphere was somewhat similar to our own, bearable over time. And the inhabitants were frail, small, limited mentally and physically… and yet vicious enough for wars, genocide, cannibalism, suicide and of course the slow, inevitable destruction of the Earth.”

“Disappointed?”

“To say the least, Mr. Kagen. I’ve had the opportunity to watch your kind for thousands of years.”

It wasn’t disgust in his voice. It actually sounded like sadness. I noticed Aaron’s excitement slowly fade as we watched this thing in front of us sink into its chair, its sighs full of defeat. I made no excuses for my ancestors. I felt no instinctive urge to defend my race. Everything he said was true enough. And my perception of him was altered by the unmistakable earnestness in his voice.             

“Over time we helped you evolve, taught you a language to replace your crude drawings that you can’t even decipher now. Gave you tools to heal your wounded using only what was provided in your own elementary surroundings.”

“And what about the technology you have now?” It was apparent that I thought it should be shared.

“It became clear a long time ago that we shouldn’t participate anymore with humans.”

I couldn’t contain myself to call out a lie when I saw it, “really?” I said, looking at Kye. “Kye appears to be more human than alien and I’d say about twenty years old. So exactly how long have you not been participating?”

Kye swallowed and her eyes wouldn’t meet mine from across the table. Danel closed the box in the center of the table by tapping the hologram once. He sat upright and looked me directly in the eyes in a possessive way.

Gentle creature, my ass, I thought.

“Hybrid.” I let the word hang in the air and waited for some kind of confirmation.

“More like a genetically altered clone of myself. She is a part of me.”

“Genetically altered with whose DNA?” Aaron said from across the table. “Did that person volunteer? Exactly how many genetically altered versions of your kind are wandering around?”

“Besides you, Aaron?”

This stung. Something I wasn’t expecting. Aaron’s expression was indifferent, unaffected by the statement entirely.

Danel reached over to the counter behind him without leaving his chair, grabbed a very large file and slid it over to Aaron across the table. The creature’s fluid movement and speed was unnerving. Aaron paged through it and seemed to recognize some of the photos it contained. He seemed impressed by its contents.

“Twenty percent of Earth’s population is a product of our research. And all of them volunteered. And Aaron’s great-great-grandfather was one of those volunteers.”

“To make us intellectually acceptable?” Aaron wasn’t really asking; he was just more confirming what was obvious.

“Is it that bad? Has it really been a disadvantage? Tell me the truth, because if you’re not happy, I’m sure we can find a way to turn you all back into drooling Neanderthals.”

“Five thousand years ago, we weren’t drooling Neanderthals,” Aaron said.

Oh, Aaron had hit a nerve. And it was safe to say that Danel didn’t like humans at all.

“We didn’t do anything that wasn’t asked of us, wasn’t begged for and what did we get in return? Hmm, well, when we first got here, there was a large tribe that thought they would live as long as we did if they just cut us open and ate our innards. We were more than happy to civilize you.”

Danel’s voice was nearing something close to a snarl, so I changed the subject.

“What about the agents in my apartment? Your guys?”

“No, those were not ‘our guys.’ We have tried not to associate with them since the Truman years. We have a few mindful watchers in place. We assume the agents are working with Marie Stakes, but there are a number of small sects still trying to find us within the government, so we can’t be sure. There are some people that believe that we’re more dangerous than helpful. There’s only a handful really, mostly military officials that don’t know that much about us and haven’t been able to find us.”

There was no hesitation in his answer — no nervous movements or altered breaths. But trying to read Danel was simply impossible. So far, the only human expressions he exhibited were a slight slump of his shoulders and a sigh here and there. And everything sounded just a little bit off to me.

“How can they not find you? There are three giant satellite dishes up there basically marking an ‘X’ on the spot?”

Danel seemed irritated now. “We don’t leave, Mr. Kagen. No one leaves the station, ever.”

I was growing more impatient with every lie that came out of its mouth.

“Really? Cuz I met Kye in Richie’s apartment.”

Danel let out a long sigh and although I couldn’t read his expression, if I had to guess, it would’ve said something like, “stupid humans.”

“Mr. Kagen, Kye can pass for human and her exit and entrance to the station is strategically planned on every occasion. I’d divulge more, but frankly, this information doesn’t concern you.”

Wow. That was a quick change that I was totally expecting. We just went from, “I’m happy to tell you everything,” to “frankly, this information doesn’t concern you.” So I changed the subject again.

“So how does Marie Stakes come into this?”

“She’s a pawn. She doesn’t even know what she’s gotten herself into. She actually manages an accounting firm in Vancouver. So when Richie got a hold of the box, she was pulled into the situation by the FBI.”

“What about Richie?”

Now there was a long disturbing moment of silence. There were no sighs now, which meant whatever he was going to say next, I wasn’t going to believe. Danel looked at Kye to respond for him and she did. This didn’t surprise me either.

“Richie was not our doing, we can assure you of that,” was all she said. I read nothing in her facial expression that said she was lying, but she could’ve been kept from the truth.

Danel then pushed the metal briefcase into the center of the table, “as we promised.”

“You’re just gonna let us leave?”

“Why not? It’s not like anyone would believe you. It’s not like you would be let back in.”

Danel wanted us to leave, but I wasn’t interested in leaving or the money. And what did I have to go back to? I couldn’t even return the evidence and I was no closer to solving Richie’s murder.

“I think we’ll stay,” I said.

“Then stay as long as you like.” Danel stood up, staring me down and after a few seconds of what I think was supposed to be intimidation, he left the room.

After a half a second, I realized I did plan to stay. And now I understood something. I was supposed to be grateful that they healed my knee. I was supposed be on their side, rooting for them because they helped us evolve, but I wasn’t. I had that sour feeling in my stomach and I looked up at Aaron, wondering where he stood in the matter. His expression was the same as mine, he wasn’t going anywhere.

CHAPTER 24

 

“LET’S TAKE YOU back to the suite for a day until I let everyone know you’ll be sticking around for a while. I’m sure Danel went to tell Ben,” Kye said.

“Who’s Ben?” Aaron said.

“He’s the oldest and a lot more patient than Danel.”

“How old is he?”

“Let’s just say he’s seen this ship fly,” she said, smiling.

This meant he was over five thousand years old. We headed back to the suite and Kye left to grab us some sandwiches from the main hall. The suite door, surprisingly, remained unlocked, but for some reason we didn’t leave the room. Still in shock, I think. Normally, I wouldn’t have hesitated to investigate new surroundings, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to find anything else just yet. I could only imagine what was creeping around the corridors or in the other medical labs. I tried to clear my mind of the images that appeared and I thought half of Danel’s story was full of crap. Basically, he insinuated that his species civilized us, so we wouldn’t slaughter them anymore.

When Kye returned with some freshly grilled Rueben’s on rye, I could tell she was happy we stayed.

“When I heard you were on your way, I made sure that we had something to eat down here that you liked.” She laid the tray on the small table in the kitchen area.

I hesitated, which made Aaron pause. We were both starving, but I wasn’t sure we should trust them. Yes, they had healed my knee, but I kept thinking we were in danger somehow and they had already drugged us once. Were they really just going to let us stick around? I looked at Kye and she pretty much read my mind.

“It’s just food, I promise.”

Aaron took the first bite and then another and another. After a few more minutes, nothing bad happened to Aaron, so I believed her and we proceeded to consume the food, muttering a couple of thank-yous.

“You don’t eat human food?” Aaron said, in between bites.

“I can eat it and I love most of it, but my body doesn’t absorb any nutrients from it.”

I noticed she was smiling more often now. She seemed relieved by our presence. I tried not to, but in my head, I kept comparing her to a human woman. She was in her twenties, early thirties at most, but seemed so much older than her body appeared. I found myself wondering if she was as old as Ben.

There were no immature expressions from her. Just a simple pleased look. There were no lines on her face or hands; I looked at my own hands, engraved in age beyond their years from smoking and drinking. My face had plenty of wrinkles and slightly dark circles around my eyes. I was attractive in my youth, but not like Kye. She was stunning, even with the slightly transparent skin and glowing gold eyes. She was unusually reserved and I could tell that if she wanted you to know something, she would just say it. I was fairly good at reading people’s expressions, but Kye wasn’t really people.

“Danel mentioned there were no coverts to meet us. Those are hybrids, too?” I said.

“No, they are humans. There are many that are willing to keep our secret and help us. Just between us, he didn’t want to bring any humans down here to greet you, so he waited for me to return. The humans do not stay for more than a few hours and almost all of them are only allowed to speak to me or Danel.” She waited patiently for additional questions as I finished my last bite.

She took off her black heels and sat down in the Queen Anne chair across the room. It was only a few feet from the table. She pulled her long legs under her in the chair, making her skirt ride up a little.

“Then how do you communicate with them?”

“The same way you do, satellites, Skype, cell phones.” Her wit was dry, but I got the point, as her full lips grew into a smile.

“Right, but we are pretty deep. How far below the crust are we?”

“About twenty stories. We have technology that can go through the crust, but I do go topside frequently to communicate with them and the others.”

“So you’re the only one like… like yourself down here?”

She nodded and the smile slowly faded. This explained the loneliness I saw in her.

“So you’re the only hybrid? Is that what they call you?”

“I’m a companion. And no, there were hundreds of us created. They were developed, taught and shipped to those who ordered them on the other stations.”

The word “companion” bothered me. This meant she was Danel’s companion.

I looked at Aaron who caught the same words I did: ordered, shipped.

“So you’re the only companion on this ship?”

“Well, yes. I’m the only companion left.” She looked down, hesitant of what she was about to say next. “The companions… did get a prolonged life, but not nearly as long as the elders. The elders live thousands of years and so do their children.” She seemed very careful in her words and was not looking me in the eye when she said them.

“So why create companions at all?”

She hesitated even longer than before, contemplating her answer and a grief swept over her face that I hadn’t seen before.

“The elders can’t reproduce like humans can. Maybe one in a handful of the females can have children at all and most can’t have more than one every few hundred years or so.”

“So why not call you children?” Aaron finally chimed in.

“We were called their children in the beginning, but from what I’ve been told, they found it illogical, considering how different we really were from them. We experience human emotions.”

“So does Danel. I’ve seen it,” Aaron said.

“No, I don’t mean like that. Humans experience them individually. The elders are all connected to each other emotionally. They can feel each other; their pains, sorrows, happiness, everything.”

Now this was interesting, like a hive soul.

“And you can’t feel them?”

“Very little. It’s small in comparison to what they can feel, but you would probably find it significant.”

“Can they feel humans?”

“Not at all, but they’ve learned how to read them really well,” and there was that smile again, brimming behind a serious face.

“Can you feel humans?”

A smile spread across her face. “No.”

“They must find us juvenile.” This was rhetorical, but she answered anyway.

“Pretty much,” she said, her smile growing even wider.

I liked her dry wit.

“And what do you think of humans?”

“I’m not an elder. I haven’t been alive for thousands of years. I don’t see you the same way.”

She looked at me for a long moment, long enough for me to see her desire to be human.

Aaron chimed in again. “So could the companions reproduce?”

“No, none of us could, no matter what they tried.”

“So they just stopped making your kind?” I said, knowing she heard the confusion in my voice. Because to me, it seemed like if the companions didn’t serve a purpose, then they’d just let them all die off. I couldn’t image a hybrid, I mean companion, wanting that.

“That’s correct. They went back to focusing on cloning themselves, with memories and everything. It was ten times easier to splice human DNA with theirs, but eventually they got it right. Or at least we think so. We’ve just started the cloning process and haven’t successfully completed one yet. But we are very close.”             

The cloning comment bothered me. What if that was what they were waiting for? And they are just now able to clone themselves. What if they had been silent all this time because they were perfecting this cloning until they were able to make hundreds of thousands of themselves, or millions? The idea bothered me. What would happen if they did emerge topside and had a couple million clones to disperse? I would discuss this with Aaron later and just ask the easy questions for now.

“So you are the last one made?” This was a really sad thought, that she watched all her brothers and sisters die.

“Actually, a law was put in place about two hundred years ago that companion production would cease forever.”

“You’re two hundred years old!” Aaron blurted this out; I wasn’t sure if he was amazed or laughing.

I knew she would be older, but I didn’t think she would be that old.

“No, Danel broke the law when he made me. He went against Ben’s wishes and put an order in for me and because of his rank, I was produced. It’s complicated. Danel’s wife died before they were able to clone themselves, so his grief governed his actions. Ben could feel his grief; all of them could. To say the least, it was disruptive to the others. So Ben let me live and now Ben loves me as Danel does. You see, everyone here is my brother, my sister, my mother, my father… do you understand?”

Her expression was almost pleading for us to accept her people. I nodded and so did Aaron.

This explained the sorrow behind her brief smiles. She was the last of her kind and also she was created at a time in which she was the only one.

Aaron and I were quiet for a while, trying to absorb everything she’d said. She leaned back in her chair, tilting her head to the left, crossing her arms. It was a protective position; she was almost curled up into a ball. She was staring at me — probably sizing me up, too. I found myself focusing on her full lips and thick, long eyelashes.

“So why isn’t Ben in charge instead of Danel, if he’s the oldest?” Aaron said. This was a question I hadn’t thought of, but had my attention.

“He’s what you would call ‘retired,’” she said, smiling again. She found us amusing and I think she was expecting harder questions.

She got up and poured herself a cup of black coffee out of the new pot Aaron just made. Thank God, they had coffee down here. She didn’t drink it, though, but instead sat down with it smelling it occasionally, appearing to enjoy the aroma.

“So they are just content to stay down here?”

“Yes. The Earth was given to you first. They are happy to have a place in it at all,” she said. “It’s already 7 p.m. Do you need me to get you something else to eat?”

I hadn’t realized the time passed so quickly.

“What time did we get up?”

“Around 1 p.m.”

“That would be great. I know you must have other things to do.”

“It’s been a long day for you, with the knee and all. You need to rest. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Do you want steaks or chicken?”

“Steaks,” Aaron said.

“Thank you… for everything,” I said to her, on her way out.

“We’ll have plenty of time to talk tomorrow. Be right back.”

My fears started to fade. Danel was still terrifying to look at, but I was somewhat reassured that they also had laws to abide by. And so far, only one was broken, when Danel demanded the production of Kye, like ordering a new car. Now I had a moment to talk to Aaron.

“Did you catch the clone info?”

“Yes. And I know what you’re going to say. But I don’t think cloning themselves in masses is their intent,” he whispered. He got up and turned the water on in the kitchenette sink and sat back down. We were probably still being recorded and I’d totally forgotten.

“What makes you think that?” I whispered back.

“If the light in here makes Danel cringe, it most likely affects the rest in the same way. I don’t think living topside is a possibility for them, even if they wanted to.”

“What if they could reside in a place like Seattle, with little to almost no direct sunlight?” I said.

“Based on the very low blue light settings they have now, I would say it would be very uncomfortable for them.”

“But is it possible?”

“It depends on a lot of factors. This is artificial light here,” he said, pointing up. “The UV rays of the sun could blind them entirely. They could’ve landed on the dark side of Earth when they got here, only to find out it rotated at a much faster rate than their planet and had to literally run from the sun. I don’t think you embed your ship hundreds of feet into the ground, in a place where it’s surrounded by thousand-foot-high canyon walls, if you’re not terrified of the sun.”

I understood what he was saying, but I still thought it was possible and he saw this in my expression.

“Lewis, we are talking about photons and spectrums here. The very dim blue light in this station has a very short wavelength and scatters easily. It’s probably why they’re somewhat translucent. And did you see how their suns moved in the hologram? None of them were ever in the same place until the planets had rotated each other fifteen times. I think our sun would cause them great damage over time. I also think that if they were ever topside communicating with us, that it was after sunset.”

I’d gave some thought to what he’d said and after a few minutes Kye was knocking on the door. Aaron was up in lightning speed, making it look like he was getting a glass of water when she let herself in. She brought back steaks, baked potatoes and what looked like grilled asparagus with lemon sauce. Aaron was drooling.

“You have a replicator back there?” Aaron said, shocked at the food.

Kye smiled really big. “No, but Collin’s been making me steaks for a while now. I should have said earlier that everyone but me is a vegetarian. I’ll be by around nine to wake you.” She left quickly and the door remained unlocked, but I found it amusing it had inside bolts. They were probably useless really.

Everything was on the table. There was butter, sour cream, steak sauce, even a few Cokes.

“Wow, I’m liking her,” Aaron said, sitting down. “We’re eating now, right? I’m still starving.”

“Definitely.”

I sat down at the tiny table after flicking on the kitchen light to see better and proceeded to consume everything she’d brought.

“I don’t think she’s your type, bro,” Aaron said, trying to lighten the situation a little, with a mouth half-full of steak.

“I know she’s not your type, Aaron.” I played along; the day had been too serious for us both.

“She’s half your age, dude.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure she’s twice my age.” He laughed at this comment and we continued to enjoy our dinner.

Aaron and I spoke very little after dinner. I washed the plates in the sink with the dish soap I found. The suite was definitely made for humans. I was washing dishes. Surely they had some kind of beam that would just evaporate the remaining food and bacteria. I had to laugh at it.

Afterwards, Aaron and I both seemed deep in thought, still unsure of our situation. Were we really safe down here with them? I wanted to believe they were vegetarians. I wanted to believe they had no weapons. But I couldn’t believe Danel and I felt a strange sadness for Kye.

Around eleven o’clock, Aaron was still jotting down questions for Kye. I made sure Aaron had a loaded gun under his spare pillow and rolled into the other queen bed across from his and put my .357 where I always did.

I had to admit things didn’t play out the way I expected them. The assumptions I’d made didn’t even slightly resemble what had actually occurred. I was more than glad to be wrong about most of it and I trusted the rest would be revealed in time. Currently, the circumstances were not volatile and there was a hint of compassion in Danel’s voice. Although there were more unanswered questions, I knew Kye wanted us here. An image of Kye lingered in my mind; the tight calves, the shiny dark brown hair, the slight smile and almond-shaped eyes. I drifted off with all of these things lingering in my mind.

CHAPTER 25

 

“GOOD MORNING! I have coffee and bagels and donuts! And we are meeting everyone today, so get up, you guys!”

The sound of her voice made me smile and I awoke in the same suite we were in yesterday. It was still not a dream, but this time I didn’t feel the need to pull my gun on her. I searched for any discomfort in my knee; there was none. This was real. All of it was real. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t dreading getting up. But Aaron was moving slower than molasses. I looked at Kye and she was riveting in a tight blue silk dress and matching heels. Her thick hair was set in large shiny curls and I gave her a dazzling smile and she smiled softly back at me.

She set down the tray on the little kitchen table for two and on her arm was a black duffel bag. She tossed it on the kitchen counter with a renewed sense of energy. It was full of toothbrushes, toothpaste, shavers, soap, everything down to dental floss and nose-hair trimmers, which I laughed at, ‘cause they were clearly meant for me. She laughed, too.

“Am I being too subtle?” she said, with a big smile.

“No, you’re being very clear,” I said, smiling back.

Everything was still so unreal. I looked at her for a long moment, taking in her translucent skin and gold glowing eyes. I wanted to reach out and touch her for a second, but I restrained myself. When I walked across the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee, everything sank in. My knee didn’t fail me, not once.

Kye seemed to glow today. Yes, her skin did have glowing swirly things under it, but her face just beamed with excitement. She reached into the hall beyond our door and brought in more duffel bags of new clothes: jeans and button-up shirts, socks and underwear. She had thought of everything.

After coffee and donuts, we showered, shaved and dressed and she inspected us. I felt significantly underdressed compared to her and her new modern outfit was distracting me. The dress, from the waist down, was slightly see-through in our lighting, which I’m sure was not noticeable at all in the dim blue light. When she noticed I was staring, I shifted my eyes down, slightly embarrassed.

“I kind of need a haircut,” I said, brushing at the thick curls at the back of my head with my hand.

“No, you’re fine,” she responded.

“Are there things, subjects we shouldn’t approach?” Aaron asked. His excitement emulated hers.

I shook my head at my tall, lanky friend and hoped he wouldn’t ask any questions today that were accusatory or embarrassing.

“Just be yourselves. They haven’t interacted with humans in years. They adore humans, in a simple way.”

Now I was a little nervous and a little disheartened.

“So they think we’re pets?”

“No, it’s not like that,” she said, shaking her head.

“Then what’s it like?” Aaron said directly.

“Well, humans are beautiful and frail to them… like children and there haven’t been a lot of children here, if you know what I mean.”

I wanted to trust Kye and I knew this would be different, but I wanted to stay and so did Aaron, so we would appease those we met for now.

I put the shoulder holster on and Kye looked disappointed.

“You won’t need that,” she said, staring at the loaded gun I placed in it. The excitement left her face and her smile straightened into a stiff line. It was like she was scolding me.

I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have my gun on me. I just couldn’t bring myself to take it off. I pulled a light jacket on over it to conceal it. I would’ve been out of my mind to go meet a tribe of aliens on day three without a weapon. After a few seconds, Aaron gave me the same look and I was starting to think I was the only sane person in the room.

Kye led us down several long corridors to what looked like a café.

“Okay, we’re at the main hall. This is where we eat. They are expecting you, so be kind.” That was all she said as she led us into the center of the room. I thought it was odd that she was telling us to be kind; they were nine feet tall or taller and I was thinking she should be more worried about us.

All at once, the creatures in the room rose to look at us. I counted fifteen of them and my heart drummed faster. Most were wearing white lab coats, though some were wearing casual human clothes. There were two wearing grey robes that hung to the floor and the fabric seemed worn and old. The dim blue lights had been turned way up for us and I could easily see all the way to the back of the room. I walked in farther and Aaron followed. It was intimidating and I could feel the tension in the air.

Some were taller than others, some were heavier, but all of them were over eight feet tall. I felt trivial and my hands started trembling. I was completely in awe at the size of them. Then the tallest of the group walked forward and held out its giant spider-like hand. Immediately, I felt a slight hitch in my breathing and my heart was pounding double-time. I had to look way up at it. For a second, I thought I was experiencing vertigo. The room swayed slightly as I peered at the colossal creature towering over me.

“I’m Ben. Nice to meet you,” it said.

Ben was taller and stockier than Danel. I put my hand in his, but he didn’t shake it. He closed all seven of his large fingers around it, dwarfing it considerably and turning what I thought was a large manly hand into an infant’s, then he closed his eyes.

I didn’t mean to, but I was staring at his thumbs; he had two of them, one on each side of his palm and five fingers between them. I’m sure he could sense I was nervous and if he didn’t, my sweaty palms definitely gave it away.

His eyes emitted a soft greenish-blue light with a hint of yellow around the edges; I couldn’t name the color exactly. I don’t think it existed on Earth. I waited for a moment. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and I was really hoping he was smiling as he parted back his lipless mouth into a straight horizontal line. And then he let go of my hand. I mustered up some courage and smiled back. I didn’t know if he could see who I was by a simple handshake, but I remembered he could feel the others. I wished we had more time to ask Kye additional questions before this meeting. A few seconds passed then he waved the others forward.

“This one is good,” he said to the rest and then held out his hand to Aaron, who put his hand in his. Then Aaron put his other hand on top of the creature’s hand. The creature looked up and smiled again.

“This one is a part of us.” There was a slight whispering among the group and then they started to walk towards us. I kept smiling and so did Aaron. I was really nervous now. I couldn’t tell if they were smiling or going to eat us. But I decided for Kye and Aaron I would give all in the room the benefit of the doubt, except for Danel.

I reached out my hand for any of them to grab and it was taken, again and again. At first it was just the smaller women who had touched my hand, but they still miniaturized it, wrapping all their disjointed fingers around it. It bothered me but I looked into their eyes with an honest soul. They seemed more than intrigued by us, almost excited. And Ben and Kye stood on the side, watching all of this.

One female had walked up to Aaron, asking if she could touch his hair. The only way I knew she was a female was by the sound of her voice. The males had very low voices, but the females were almost breathy and soft-spoken.

“Of course,” he said.

She put her spider-like hand toward the beginning of his hairline at his forehead and moved it back through his hair and told him he was beautiful. He didn’t flinch once. God, this kid was brave. And I thought the “beautiful” comment was funny because Aaron was too thin for his height, but he had a strong face. He graciously thanked her.

Several others did the same to him, but none of them did this to me. I guess I was too old to look like a child to them. However, I was greatly pleased at our reception. It was going much better than I’d anticipated. None of them seemed to be drooling for human flesh and even some of the females were hesitant to touch Aaron’s brightly-colored hair. I smiled at Kye and she smiled back and Ben took notice of the slight exchange between us. My gaze probably did wander towards Kye’s silk dress one too many times.

It was as if the only person who didn’t want us here was Danel. Of course, he was not present. One female who got very close to me asked if Aaron was my child and I smiled really big and said, “I wish he were, he’s very smart, but we’re just friends.” Kye overheard this and I felt a little embarrassed. Although, Aaron did look really young, he could’ve passed for a teenager.

There was a formal introduction of everyone after the initial greeting.

The others moved away from us and Kye introduced us.

“Lewis, Aaron, from left to right, this is Jessica, Alma, Ursa, Collin, Kayet, Lyra, Pavo, Loft, Aric, Lee, Cymry, Aeyan, Isaac, Boyd and Ben. I’m sorry that everyone couldn’t be present.”

“It’s a pleasure to be here,” Aaron said. He was mesmerized by them, as was I. Collin and Aeyan were not as gelatinous as Danel. They seemed more defined, slimmer and I could see the muscles under the fabrics they were wearing. They must have been younger. I wondered how strong they were.

We sat down for lunch with them. Kye sat next to me, Ben across from me and for the most part, things were quite pleasant. They ate their glowing vegetables and we had pasta and salads. We didn’t comment on their food but what they were eating didn’t seem appealing to me. Aaron and I were the only ones with silverware. Watching them pull apart their vegetables was unnerving, as they slowly mashed them down with glistening, metallic-looking teeth. Lyra made a small comment that human food was very pungent in odor to them. Ben glanced at her for a second and she made no other comments for the rest of the meal.

We had more questions for them than they did us. Aaron wanted to know how much they could lift, if they were carbon-based entities and what they thought of humans. I tried to ask nothing at all and found myself smiling, even laughing under my breath at some of Aaron’s questions. But clearly he couldn’t help himself. I swear I almost understood one of Ben’s expressions when Aaron kept asking question after question. And the expression was, “oh boy, this one’s young.” I had to smile at that, too.

Kye was almost laughing out loud when Aaron asked if they could breathe water or any type of fluids, but he didn’t seem to notice. All in all, everything was all right. Ben and Alma had a great sense of humor and Jessica seemed to be the youngest and just as excitable as Aaron. And I tried to mentally catalog their expressions in the hopes to read them better.

Not everyone was present, but after a while, it was clear that almost everyone at the table were the children of Ben and Alma, except for Cymry and Kye. I asked why others didn’t move from other ships to occupy this one. It seemed too big for just twenty of them, but that was never answered except for a vague response from Ben.

“Because this ship is taboo, kid,” he said, lightheartedly. “Too much history on this ship,” he finished with a light smile.

This intrigued me and I wanted to ask further about it, but not just yet. Slowly, my nervousness subsided. I’d judged them all too quickly and secretly I wanted my suspicions to leave me altogether, but they didn’t.

“So you can read human emotions?” I said to Ben, because he said, ‘this one is good,’ when he took my hand. I was curious because Kye said they couldn’t.

“Nope. I read your files,” he said.

“It gets pretty dull down here. Need to have a little fun sometimes,” Kye said, smiling.

CHAPTER 26

 

OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Kye and Ben gave us a full tour of the ship. It was much larger than I initially assumed and supplied everything they needed. There were combustion chambers for waste. Uneaten food went back into the red soil like a compost pile, but it didn’t smell like one. The gardens supplied enough food for their ship and two others. The waterfalls were self-replenishing, so they would never run out, although I didn’t understand how. And the spiny gelatinous creature that crossed my path when we first arrived was actually a pet that Kye tried to compare to a lizard. Honestly, I couldn’t see the similarities. There were other pets in the gardens that were less arachnid-looking, but none of which seemed like Zero.

The first thing they showed us was the exit, just in case we changed our minds, which I found amusing. It was the same elevator shaft we came in, but apparently no key was needed to get out. Then they showed us the gardens, which were beautiful in a mysterious way. The plants still brushed against Aaron and me when we went through them again. Kye explained that they were not greeting us, but they were drawn to the sweat on our bodies. So they were licking us. Kye and the others didn’t have sweat glands. Their bodies released any excess moisture by producing the chemical light under their skin.

Aaron was most interested in the medical labs and what they offered. He had many questions as to why they didn’t share their technology and the next day separated from me and Kye to meet with Jessica in one of the labs.

Danel did everything in his power to avoid us. When we started eating our meals in the main hall with everyone else, he started eating in his quarters and he tried to appear busy whenever I passed him in the corridors.

CHAPTER 27

 

ON THE SIXTH DAY of our stay, Ben buzzed in on the screen in the suite while Kye and I were having coffee.

“Lew, I can’t join you guys today. We’re having problems with one of the climate controls in garden dome six and Collin and I need to take care of it.”

“You want me to help?”

“No, that’s okay. Don’t worry we’ll have a job for you in no time.” He laughed and then the screen went blank.

“Oh, he will, too,” Kye said, laughing, grabbing my hand towards the door.

“Since Aaron is with Jessica all day, I want to show you something.”

I followed her down the main corridor all the way to the end. She punched in a code on the last door and it slid back into the wall. When we walked in, the dim blue lights came on automatically.

“Bright,” Kye said and the blue lights increased by a hundred percent.

We were surrounded by six large tubes, suspended in the air. They seemed to be floating, attached to nothing. I had to assume it was some kind of magnetic field suspending them. They were approximately three feet in diameter and ten feet long. Aaron would’ve loved this. It only took me a second to realize where we were. Kye studied me for a second, but said nothing.

“Clones.”

Kye only nodded.

I walked deeper into the room toward the back and there was another section beyond a glass wall. It was dark and almost endless; apparently, the ship was much larger than my initial assumptions. I was headed toward what looked like a dim gray cave, but in fact it was a dome twice the size of the garden we had initially entered. The ceiling height was the same, but the bottomless floor ran endlessly into an abyss.

“What is this?”

Kye smiled at my curiosity.

“Full lights on Cryo Unit One,” she ordered the ship’s computer.

I looked into the dome and it spanned out at least four hundred feet in front of me. I stared out at thousands of tubular containers, all vertically attached to the dome walls. There was a large orange sphere rotating suspended in midair in the center of the dome. There seemed to be hundreds of thousands of tubes and I thought they were all full of clones. It must have showed on my face, because Kye’s voice was suddenly reassuring.

“This is how they got here. It took some time, even for them. And already being thousands of years old, they couldn’t afford to waste it.”

I almost pressed my face against the glass, searching for anything in the tubes.

“They’re empty. They used most of them to transport the vegetation on their planet. Only twenty thousand were saved and there are less than half of that remaining.” The sadness in her voice pulled me out of my suspicious nature and I stepped back from the glass. I could see they were empty. The size of the dome was astounding. I wondered how close it was to the surface and how deep it was in the Earth. I was mystified at what was in front of me, at the thought of possible long-term space travel for humans.

“It’s amazing, even to me,” she said.

I’d underestimated their technology.

“The ones you see in this small room were cryo tubes originally, but have been converted for cloning. I tried to convince them to convert the other cryo units for some humans in case there was another catastrophic event and they are still discussing it.”

As I stared at the thousands of tubes, I contemplated if that were a possibility. Would they take us with them, if something did happen? Would they at least take the loyal ones, the humans that kept them hidden?

“How many are there?” I said.

“A lot more than were ever originally occupied.”

Relief spread across my face. Just six clones, not enough to start an army. I started looking into each one of the tubes around us, but I couldn’t match any of the bodies to anyone I met. Most of the bodies were significantly underdeveloped and grotesque. They were encased in a thick, clear liquid that was not from the waterfalls in the garden rooms. There were several tubes running in and out of their bodies and hooked up to a large cylindrical machine that was attached to the ceiling. I hadn’t seen one without clothes on and even though most of them appeared humanoid, the deep grooves that looked like gills in their chests and abdomens negated any of these thoughts. I was thankful not to see any extra arms or large tentacles protruding from their bodies.

“How long does it take for them to develop?”

“Almost a century.”

“And if they are developed before they are needed?”

“They are left in suspension.”

Then I recognized Danel’s clone. This irritated me and it showed on my face. I looked for a clone of Kye, but I knew I wouldn’t find one.

“This is the first generation of clones for them. Even Aerus was cloned, who is older than Ben. He died almost eighty years ago, but they were able to start a clone for him before he died of old age. When his clone is ready, he will not retain all of his memories, only the ones established throughout his first five thousand years. So when he wakes up, he won’t remember me.”

It didn’t seem fair to me that they had no intentions of cloning her. Then I remembered Danel broke the law when he made her. She kept Danel’s emotions in check; she was necessary, even if unwanted. This thought saddened me, but at the main hall when everyone was introduced, they treated her with kindness, with compassion. To me, she seemed loved by them, so why not clone her just once?

“Did you ask to be cloned?”

“The companion cloning was not a success, something about the mixtures of DNA and I don’t want to be cloned.” She seemed exhausted. Her shoulders slumped forward a little and I walked towards her.

“How old are you?”

“Ninety-seven.” This was not the number I had in my head and I was astonished she looked so young.

“How much time do you have left?” For a second, I thought the question was almost rude, but she answered without the slightest hint of irritation.

“A little more than you, I think.”

“Do you age?”

“No, this is how I looked when I was twenty-five and I haven’t looked different since then.”

“Why don’t you want to be cloned?” I was asking a lot of questions, but she seemed happy to have the company. Then the look faded in her eyes. She said nothing as she stared out into the middle of the room, lost for a second.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Lewis,” she hesitated, “what I do or do not tell you won’t change anything.”

“So you’re Danel’s companion?” I could hear the bitterness in my voice.

“More like a defiant daughter,” she said.

This made me smile. I couldn’t help it.

She took a deep breath and looked at me like she was going to tell me something, but instead she looked away.

I took a couple steps closer and put my hands on her arms. I wanted to do this since we arrived, in a way that didn’t resemble the first couple times I touched her. She didn’t object. Her skin was as soft as a twenty-year-old and I wondered what she thought about my own weathered hands against it. I slid my hands down to hers and squeezed gently.

She closed her eyes and squeezed my hands back. She sighed lightly and tilted her head down laying it on my shoulder. It was so nice being this close to her. Her hair smelled like jasmine and lilies. I put my head on her shoulder also, trying to make the moment last as long as I could. It seemed we stood there for a while, uninterrupted by anyone or anything.

In this moment, everything seemed to fade. For a second, I no longer cared about Seattle or the FBI. It wasn’t clear to me what I could do for her. All I knew was that she was bound to Danel and it weighed on her. Yet she was with me.

Her body seemed to relax as it pressed up against mine. I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her neck softly, just once. This appeared to wake her up and maybe startle her a little. I was being too forward. She pulled away from me, but not completely, still holding my hand and smiling. Her face actually flushed for a moment. I don’t think anyone had kissed her neck in a while — a long while, if I had to guess.

It had crossed my mind more than once that she may not be attracted to me, just lonely. And I was just fine with being friends like I was with Lolita. If I could have her in no other way, it was enough.

This was a lie. I knew this the second I thought it. For the life of me, I couldn’t ever remember being so drawn to a woman. It was like she was radiating pheromones. I found myself smiling at the thought, because it could be a possibility.

I wanted to pull her close to me and just kiss her again and again, but I refrained. Then she squeezed my hand softly and this made me think she wasn’t just lonely. I didn’t approach this subject; it was too soon. And was I really here for just her? Just to be with her? This was possible. I found her very attractive, but I knew I didn’t know her. I felt like I knew her, but I didn’t.

“I need a drink, Lewis,” she said, smiling.

“Is it after noon?” I said, grinning.

“I’m ninety-seven, Lew, I’m a big girl,” she said pulling me out of the room.

“No, you’re an old girl,” I said, playfully.

“Oh, you’re funny.”

She punched the code into the panel on the wall and the door slid shut. I could hear it locking as we walked back down the corridor.

“I have something for you,” she said, as we passed my quarters and walked ten more feet to another door, which I assumed, were her quarters. She was this close the whole time.

She let me in and closed the door behind us. And for a second, I let my mind drift into the possibilities of being with her… emotionally… physically.

“Full lights,” she said and the room lit up like it would have in my old apartment. It took a minute for my eyes to focus, but it was refreshing to see everything clearly. I immediately noticed that she was not affected by the light like the others.

Her suite was larger than mine and a lot neater, too. The back wall in the living room was lined with books from ceiling to floor. It was nice to know that we both loved books. There were biographies, novels, sci-fi and even some comics neatly organized on the shelving unit. There was also a wood-burning fireplace, which made me wonder how they vented it from down here and a large hologram of a waterfall above it. It looked very similar to the Snoqualmie Falls back in Washington. The hologram hummed with the sound of the falls hitting the water below.

“Here you go,” she said, handing me a beer.

A cold beer in my hand… I wasn’t sure if I was going to see that again.

“You have just made my day,” I said, opening it and taking a large gulp, smiling possibly a little too much.

“There’s more in the fridge.”

“And what will you be drinking?”

“We have our own version of beer,” she said, grabbing a chilled glass out of the freezer and pouring a bubbly blue substance in it. After two drinks, she slipped into something comfortable. Very comfy, actually: a pair of grey sweatpants that were a little too big, just barely hanging on her hips and a white ribbed tank top that was a little too small just to torture me. So, she was very relaxed and I was just slightly wrenched a little tighter by the bra she was no longer wearing.

She slowly slid into a Queen Anne chair that was identical to the one in my suite.

“Lewis, are you done being suspicious?” She was smiling, but I couldn’t tell if she was buzzed or not; her movements were too graceful.

“I’m not suspicious of you.”

I was now sitting on her sofa in front of the small fire I started in the fireplace. Next to it, there was a pile of wood and kindling, so I just couldn’t help myself. The sound of the wood popping and crackling behind the metal screen was soothing.

“I wasn’t talking about me.”

Yep, she was bold and honest.

“How exactly am I supposed to feel at home after five days?” I tried to smile a little when I said this. She wanted something; I could tell by the look on her face.

“What is it I can do for you?” I said.

“You can take the gun off. I have shown you almost every inch of this ship. Can you please take it off?” she said, smiling her playful little smile.

I didn’t know what to think. She said what she meant and meant what she said and I was almost beside myself. I forgot she wasn’t really twenty-five and I probably shouldn’t assume she acts like a twenty-five-year-old or thinks like one. Yes, I probably spent too much time with Lolita.

I didn’t want to part with my .357 Magnum, but I’d seen pretty much the whole ship and besides the cutlery in the main hall, I hadn’t seen one weapon. Well, not one that I could identify. And I didn’t need to wear it at her place, I knew that. She probably thought it was rude. Reluctantly, I stood up, pulled off the grey blazer and took the holster off. I placed both on her small kitchen table that adjoined the living area. It was off, but not too far.

“Better?”

“Yes. Anything I can do for you?”

“Yes, actually. Can you put on a real shirt?”

I felt manly in my request as she immediately got up and pulled over a grey sweatshirt covering the see-through nipple-baring tank top. And then I wanted to immediately kick myself for not requesting something else. She let out a slight laugh as if she knew what I was thinking. Oh boy, I was the only young and dumb thing in the room. I laughed at myself for a moment.

“That didn’t work out to my advantage,” I said, laughing a little.

“No, it didn’t.”

She was laughing at me, at how young I was and it was reassuring and actually made me feel young.

“Thank you, for the fire.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, still laughing at myself.

We spent the rest of the evening getting drunk and pretty much laughing our butts off. We discussed books, childhood and movies, though our stories were quite different. She had the same dry wit I did. After about three of her beers, she was relaxed and almost giddy. Around three in the morning, I stumbled back to my room and slipped into bed without waking Aaron.

CHAPTER 28

 

ON THE SEVENTH DAY, she entered my suite with coffee and bagels and a file in her arms. Aaron was already with Jessica discovering new things.

“Before I knew you, it was important that I read this,” she said, handing me a very thick file with my name on it. She placed everything on the counter and turned to face me.

“Does it really matter?” I said. I knew they had a file on me, just like the thick file that Danel had slid across the table to Aaron a week ago and secretly I was dreading it.

“Not to me, but you might want to know what’s in it. You know where to find me when you’re done. I’m curious if it’s correct.”

“And if it is?”             

“It doesn’t change anything for me.”

“Since you read mine, can I read yours?”

She smiled and her eyes grew bright. I don’t know if she was happy that I was interested or that she would be interesting.

“Yes, I do have a file, but I must say it doesn’t read like yours.”

I was certain it didn’t, but I was really hoping that certain things were not in my file.

She turned and left me with the file, possibly holding all the ghosts of my past. I didn’t read it immediately. I had some coffee and a bagel first, knowing this was inevitable.

I flicked the corner of the folder a few times, trying not to think of the past. When I did open the file, the very first page was an eight-by-eleven photo of… her. Even after thirty years, grief rolled inside of me, mingling with the injustice of losing her. The woman I’d loved the most, the woman I’d found viciously murdered on our kitchen floor at ten years old, my mother.

She was beautiful. She had thick, brown, wavy hair. She was almost six feet tall and a little too thin. She had an enormous heart, willing to help everyone and anyone she could. She honestly believed that everyone had something good inside of them. This was something that I knew wasn’t true. The few years that I did remember of our lives together, she’d spent helping out others that never appreciated it. She was generous to a fault.

I didn’t want to remember and I didn’t know why Kye had given me the file. I closed the cover quickly, trying not to think about my mother. But the memories came anyway and I felt a little nauseous as the past pushed forward, as if they had never faded after all this time.

The clarity was almost surreal; I could see the oak cabinets in the kitchen, the four-inch ceramic tiles on the floor and I remembered how they were white in the centers and darkened to a light tan towards the corners of each one. I could see that curvy swirl design in each and every corner as her blood spilled over them, spreading out, consuming their beauty.

When I found her, I was standing next to Richie, my best friend. I remembered screaming, pulling on her, yelling at her to wake up. Richie ran out of my house to his, next door. He left me there, alone. I pushed on her chest trying to make her breathe, but it only made blood flow from her mouth. I could recall the jeans and pink shirt she was wearing, covered in blood.

I took a deep breath pushing the memories back. I was hoping that, after all these years, they wouldn’t be so crisp. I opened the file again for a visual distraction, quickly turning her photo over. The file listed her date of birth, her marriage to my father, her divorce and her death. It also had his name, Isaac Dietz, the man who murdered her. He stole nothing; he was one of those crazies and my mother was just one of those people who left her doors unlocked. It was a senseless crime that could’ve been avoided if Isaac had the proper medication and treatment. He was a schizophrenic. Even though Isaac was really sick, they incarcerated him and he was murdered seventeen days later by some other crazy that probably also needed medication.

I closed the file again, trying not to miss her. I closed my eyes and thought that, if Danel had ever actually read this, he wouldn’t have said, ‘we could use more coverts like you.’ If he had read it at all, he would’ve known what made me what I was. And that I was the type of person that wouldn’t let Kye be tied to him forever. No, he didn’t read it.

I wished Kye hadn’t brought me the file. I rubbed out the water in my eyes with the back of my hand and tried to think about Kye. Maybe I was missing something that she was trying to tell me. I gave it some thought and all I could come up with was that she never had a mother. There was Alma, the only elder mother on the ship, but she was not Kye’s mother. I was too emotional to process anything at this point. I wanted to go to Kye, but I didn’t want to answer any questions, so I pulled the photo of my mother out of the file and I just sat staring at it. I touched her hair in the photo and slid my thumb across it and I could remember how smooth it felt in my hands as a small child.

It seemed like hours passed as I sat paging through the unimportant parts of the file. Every woman I ever dated and every criminal I locked up were present and accounted for. It was strange looking at my life on paper; there were patterns in my life that I only vaguely recognized before. In a nutshell, my file said I was married to my job, had commitment issues due to the loss of my mother. Not what I wanted Kye reading.

Did it say anything good about me? I thought about it from a different perspective for a moment. Yes, it did. It said I was hard-working… concerned for the wellbeing of humans and animals, I guess. Determined. Okay, it wasn’t all bad. But it was evident that, after my mother died, I really believed I was going to save every kid on the playground.

The file referenced Richie also. He had it harder than I did. As the years flew by, he just got caught up in one bad turn after another. Even when we were kids, he was just a little off mentally, not like the other kids in class. Not that I could diagnose anyone, but I thought he was unstable: super-happy one moment and extremely depressed the next. It was probably best that my grandmother eventually sold the house and we moved.

There was a light knock on the door and I quickly shook the memories out of my head, or tried to. It was the only wood door that I’d seen on the ship, supposed to make us humans more comfortable, I guess. I opened the door and it was Kye. She didn’t say anything. She was waiting for me to confirm or deny the contents of the file, I thought.

I handed her the file. “You can burn this. It’s accurate.” And it didn’t change anything except the fact that Kye knew what sculpted my life, my career and my desire to be alone. But somehow I was different when I was with her. I wondered why she hadn’t just brought it up, since she appeared curious. I would’ve been honest with her. It was probably the same reason Aaron didn’t bring it up. I must somehow radiate the fact that I don’t want to discuss it. I never did talk about my family, not to anyone. Why would I? Nobody wants to hear that you have no family left.

Her eyes were both sad and understanding at the same time. She grabbed the file and put it in a black duffel bag she’d brought with her and then she pushed her way into my small suite.

“Aaron is staying with Jessica tonight. How about we watch a movie?”

I wasn’t wholly present just yet, still thinking of the past. Before I could answer, she had a six-pack of beer on ice and a selection of movies on the screen. She coaxed me into my queen-size bed and before I knew it, we were laughing at a comedy she had selected. For the rest of the night, everything was fine. She was on her side and her back was lying against my chest and she was stroking my hands with her fingers. I held her in my arms and pushed my face into her hair, smelling her.

“Why did you give me that file?” Even I could hear the grief in my voice.

She turned around and faced me, eyes full of regret.

“I’m… I’m sorry. I just wanted to know if you were as alone as… as I am.”

More honesty. Something I could get used to. Yes, yes, I am, I thought. She turned back around and I pulled her close to me and there was a slight sting at the thought that she was really as alone as me. I didn’t answer her. The answer was obvious.

CHAPTER 29

 

WE’D SPENT THE NEXT three weeks like this. We shared our breakfasts, lunches and part of our evenings together discussing everything under the sun. I wanted to spend every waking moment with her. She was real, refreshing, funny, brilliant, mature and beautiful. Clearly, all that I was really missing in my life was an older woman. She was different around me; that sadness faded significantly until she came upon Danel. And I was somehow different too. On a couple of occasions I even found myself talking about my mother.

Sometimes I slept in her quarters, but rarely. She didn’t want to upset Danel any more than she had. She told me to just think of him as her overbearing, controlling boss. So I did and I made it very clear she should quit her job. This made her laugh, so whenever he ticked her off, I just kept saying, “there’s plenty of jobs out there, Kye.” It became our private little joke and it always got a smile from her.

Every third or fourth day, she had to work topside and was gone for about twenty-four hours, which gave me my alone-time. But I found myself thinking of her and wondering if she was thinking of me. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go with her. I only got a vague impression that if I did go with her, it created more risk of them being detected.

Aaron and Jessica were best friends now, as far as I could tell… maybe growing into something more. She was the youngest, so it made sense they got along better than he did with the elders. He even let her modify his pupils so he could see perfectly in their dim lights. She offered the same for me, but I declined.

On one of the days that Kye was working, Aaron and I let Jessica cleanse our bodies, ridding them of any ailments they might have. It took two hours, but I felt ten years younger when she was done. It seemed like a good idea, since Kye’s body was fifteen years younger than mine physically. I could breathe better. I could taste more. My back didn’t hurt in the mornings like it always had. It was astonishing.

Aaron and Jessica were having a ball, really. She made his hair and eyes glow blue and even fixed some of his teeth that he had neglected. I almost didn’t recognize him anymore, but he was happy, so I didn’t care. Jessica was alive and vibrant just like Aaron, willing to try anything. I could even picture her skydiving if Danel would allow it. And when we did spend time together, all he talked about was Jessica and all I talked about was Kye.

Aaron, through Kye, had made arrangements for someone to run the shop without him. And I’d moved everything out of my apartment and into storage, via Kye again. I planned on staying forever, we both did.

Ben and I played chess while Kye was working and he always won. Always. Eventually, he gave me a job cleaning out their version of a ventilation system, which didn’t actually vent anything. It was more like an atmosphere purifier for the station, which they preferred since humans were putting more and more toxins into Earth’s atmosphere. This job was not my first pick. He started me with all twenty stories of it. I found myself one day hanging from a harness five stories up in a shaft that was no wider than a closet, asking myself, “how did I get this job?” I had to laugh at the craziness of it, because I hated heights. Yet, I had to admit everything was less scary because Jessica could heal whatever I broke. Almost everything.

Ben started to remind me of my father, who died when I was young. He was funny and too old to be too serious, but a very good listener. I asked him if it would be okay for me and Kye to be really together. He raised his brows at me. I wasn’t sure if she had the human version of anatomy that I was hoping for. I’d spent the night in her quarters, but it was always to sleep. He laughed at me hard and then laughed some more and told me I could just ask her. Even though he made me wait a few minutes, he eventually disclosed that her genetic makeup was actually seventy-two percent human. He seemed interested when I talked about Kye. It was like he’d never seen her the way I saw her.

Everything was perfect for exactly two more months. Everything was fine until I was in L corridor when Kye had already gone topside for work 10 hours earlier. And I saw her leaving Danel’s quarters. It just didn’t seem right, because she was always gone for twenty-four hours or more. I quickly turned around and headed the other direction, saying nothing and I didn’t think she saw me at all. There was a part of me that didn’t want to know.

CHAPTER 30

 

THE NEXT MORNING, I thought about everything over a cup of coffee and decided I was just being ridiculous.

After I cleaned out ventilation sections 12 thru 10, I would just find Kye and talk to her and hopefully she would talk to me. If this was unsuccessful, I would find Danel and confront him.

When I was done working, I searched for Kye. After twenty minutes, I found her, Aaron and Danel in the same large conference room where we had originally discussed the box.

“Was I not invited?” I tried to ask in a comedic way, as I walked in.

“You were working when Kye got me,” Aaron said.

“Well, why the long faces?”

I noticed three files on the large table. They were labeled; Brian, Lolita and Marie. The look on Aaron’s face was disturbing. I think he was in shock.

“Wasn’t Brian taking care of your shop?”

“Yes, an old friend and now he’s dead,” Aaron said sadly.

I looked at Kye, but she looked upset as well.

“Lolita?”

Kye looked at me with sad eyes, which meant Marie was dead too. Kye shook her head and she got up quickly.

“We did manage to save this.” She pulled out a small kennel from behind her and placed it on the table opening the gate. I was shocked as Zero came running out and leapt into my arms.

“Z… oh, I missed you, buddy.”

I knew this was no time to be happy, but I loved that dog. He licked my face and Kye smiled that she had saved something that was obviously very precious to me.

I cradled Zero in my left arm, “thank you,” I said.

Danel let out an irritated sigh the minute he saw the dog.

“How did this happen?”

“They were all killed the same way Richie was,” Kye said.

Not like Richie. I slumped down into one of the oversized chairs and hung my head, closing my eyes. I wasn’t expecting this.

“It’s because of me — because I found the box and brought it to his shop and the killer probably followed me to Lolita’s and probably waited for me to return.”

“Lew, you didn’t even know what the box was,” Aaron said, trying to reassure me.

“We have to make some calls,” Danel said, as he got up to leave.

Danel didn’t get more than two steps out into the hall when Ben approached him.

“What?” Danel said, impatiently.

“They’re coming.”

“That’s not possible.”

“I know that, but they’re in flight in this direction now.”

Kye looked at me, then Aaron.

“Can we get them out of here?” she said.

“How long?” Danel asked Ben.

“An hour, maybe less.”

By Kye’s expression, this was not enough time.

Now I was concerned. Who was coming? Military? FBI?

“FBI?” I said.

“I wish it were; we have people there,” Danel mumbled, rubbing his eyes with his large hand.

I now thought about how Richie died. Instinctively, I felt for my revolver in the shoulder holster, which I wore today, but who were they?

“I thought you had coverts all over. FBI, military, cops?”

“We do,” Danel said.

“Then who’s coming?”

Ben’s and Danel’s eyes were locked. Even in the dim blue light, I could see their bodies stiffen, their muscles contracting with tension. This sent a wave of urgency through my body, so I stood up and took two steps closer to the hall. Aaron now stood up, following my lead. The silence was unbearable and images of Richie flashed through my mind: his mutilated skull, his lifeless body. And now more people were dead.

“Who’s coming?” I said again, now trying to control my anger. I wondered what could be worse than aliens. What could be worse than aliens doing genetic experiments with humans, splicing human DNA with alien DNA? What in this world would make even Danel speechless?

“Just show them,” Kye said.

“They nearly passed out when they saw me,” Danel said.

This made me feel worse. What did she mean, show them?

“We don’t have time, just show them.” Kye’s voice was now demanding.

This was bad. This sounded very bad.

“Contact station ten; they are the closest. Tell them to get here as soon as they can and call Rigdon with the FBI. Maybe he can get here faster,” I never saw Ben move so quickly — in an instant, he was gone.

Quickly, I put Zero back in the kennel.

“Gentlemen, follow me.”

CHAPTER 31

 

WE WERE SPRINTING down another long corridor that I’d only been in once. I remembered it; it was corridor G where the clones were. We were not moving as fast as I would’ve liked, but with Danel’s long strides, Aaron and I were almost running to keep up. After a hundred yards, we reached another medical lab that had a number of computers and more machines that I couldn’t identify. Collin was standing in the center of the room writing something on a clipboard in his hands. I was getting better at recognizing them.

When Collin looked up, I couldn’t read his expression, but if I had to guess, I would say he looked confused by our presence.

“Show them the creature.”

Collin nodded his head and his glowing eyes dimmed for just a second. Then he led us into another section of the lab through a very large metal door with a keypad lock. As we entered, the dim blue lights came on. It was a small room and all I saw was a dark mass in the center of it.

“Bright,” Collin said and the light increased significantly.

“Oh my God!” Fell out of my mouth and I walked back three feet, almost dropping the kennel. Zero whimpered and then started growling.

There it was, laid out in the center of the room. Sick terror filled my stomach. My throat thickened and I almost couldn’t breathe.

“It’s dead,” Kye said, trying to calm me.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. This was coming? This thing? I was frozen: my mouth agape, my eyes locked open. And it wasn’t just one coming; he said “they” were coming.

Danel was right; it was so much worse than his kind. The species on this station were at least humanoid. The dark shiny mass in the center of this room was not. My heart was hammering against my chest. Danel at least had hands I could shake, eyes and even some semblance of a nose and feet.

“Several of our coverts were attacked by this and they managed to kill it and bring it back,” Danel said.

I tried to compose myself and swallowed hard. My heart was still racing and I couldn’t unlock my eyes from this thing in front of us.

Aaron, being his usually too-calm, too-curious self, moved around me to get a better look at the creature in the center of the room.

“It can’t harm you,” Collin said to me.

“You mean it can’t harm us yet.”

Collin looked at Danel.

“They’ll be here in less than an hour,” he said.

Collin looked at me and now I could actually see a distinct nervousness in him, something about his eyes becoming wider around the centers.

“Do you really think they’ll show up in the middle of the day?” Collin said.

“They think we’re harmless and they do not care,” Danel answered.

Aaron reached toward the creature to touch it and its body reflected a perfect image of Aaron’s hand when he was about five inches away. As Aaron pulled his hand back, the reflection of his hand faded slowly and he stood back for a second.

“Camouflage,” he said.

“Yes. It reflects its surroundings dead or alive, but when they’re alive, the whole outer shell is like a mirror,” Collin said.

“Can it reflect images other than its surroundings?” Aaron said.

“Not that we’ve observed, but it could be possible.”

Its head, or what was left of it, was a tiny diamond shape. Its mouth hung open, full of hundreds of what looked like little metal hooks. No tongue. Its arms were almost as long as its body and hung down to the floor next to the table. Each arm slid down into massive hooked hands. It had two grooves running down its skull, which conjoined at what I thought was its chin. No ears, no eyes, no feet. It didn’t stand like us. Its feet also slimmed down into three large hooks. After a few seconds, I realized that the large pieces of rubber-like material lying on the floor were actually attached to its arms.

“It flies,” I said as the acid in my stomach was now burning the inside of my throat.

Camouflage and it flies. This can’t get any worse.

“Yes, it flies,” Danel said.

Aaron grabbed one of the three flaps attached to its arm, inspecting it. He pulled out one arm across the floor of the small room.

“That’s a fifteen-foot span,” he said, looking at me. There were no bone-like structures within the flaps or between them. It appeared that the flaps could be brought together or spread apart for maneuvering capabilities.

“We didn’t find any reproductive organs at all. So either they left their mates behind, or they are part of a hive colony, or it’s possible they form reproductive organs in time of need,” Collin said.

I could feel myself losing control. I staggered back another step, grabbing the doorjamb to steady myself.

Aaron inspected a few more parts of the creature, walked around it once and then paused, looking at Collin.

“It’s a killing machine,” he said.

Aaron looked at me and then back at the dead monster.

“Kye, you find Jessica and bring her to me now.” Aaron was serious and stern and furious.

“Wait!” I said, handing her the kennel.

“After you find her, can you put him in your quarters, please?”

Kye bolted out the door with Zero.

I turned back around and looked at the thing that killed Richie, Brian, Lolita and Marie. There was no mistaking that the perfect slash to the back of his head was made by the sharp hooks of this thing. This killed Richie and I couldn’t even possibly imagine what Richie was thinking when this thing approached him. My heart sank into a bitter, dark hole.

“You knew what murdered Richie and never said a word.” I said, glaring at Danel. I knew he was the only reason Kye hadn’t said anything, but he didn’t respond. Aaron and I just stood there looking at him and the distrust was evident.

“You ordered Kye not to say anything didn’t you?”

“I simply asked her not to mention it, until we knew how we were going to deal with the rest of them,” he said.

Aaron gave me a look that now was not the time and I let out a deep breath and shook my head.

“Is the surface under attack?”

“No, it’s just us. It’s complicated.”

“No one topside is aware of this?” I said.

“Just us.”

“How many are there?”

“Twenty-four.”

Okay, twenty-four was not thousands; it was not hundreds. Somehow, this was better, but I didn’t know how much better.

I needed to shake the creature’s image from my head, but I kept seeing that black hook swinging down and slicing through Richie.

“How do we get out of here? How do you move food to other stations?”

“Everything leaves from the entrance you came in,” Danel said.

Not the answer I wanted to hear. I looked at Aaron and he said nothing.

“I can give you something that will help you bleed slower, coagulate faster,” Collin said.

This was an eerie statement. I let a scowl spread across my face as I stared at him, “I might want to bleed fast.”

He looked down for a moment.

“You realize you’ve screwed all of us,” I said to Danel. “You should have told us about this from the start.”

“Yes, because you’re handling it so well,” Danel finally responded.

I walked right up to his chest and looked up at him. “You can’t handle what you don’t know about! We won’t be handling this at all!”

I was yelling now and I didn’t realize it at first, but Aaron had his hand on my shoulder and was pulling back on me. Reluctantly, I stepped back and Aaron slid in between Danel and me.

“Okay, so how do we kill it?”

Collin grabbed the dead creature and flipped it over with ease, showing us the back of its skull. A motion I found to be more than unnecessary. One of its wings became pinned under its body in the process.

“It was shot in the head three times, obliterating most of the skull, but there are still some of the contents left here,” he said, pointing to the right side of its head.

“This one seems to be full grown. He’s six feet, nine inches, but what’s really interesting is the brain. It has three separate cavities.”

“Do not tell me that if I shoot this thing in the head, it can still survive,” I said, not really wanting to know the answer.

“Exactly. You must penetrate all three cavities of the skull in order to stop full function. Close range should penetrate all three… but you would have to be very close.”

“What about a shot to the heart or lungs?”

“There were no organs that I could identify. The insides were filled with a black liquid substance. Its skeleton is the outer shell; there was nothing solid inside of it, at least not after it was dead. Just the brain was solid.”

“So how thick is its shell?” One more question I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask.

Aaron went to the back of the room, grabbed a screwdriver-like instrument from a silver metal tray and violently stabbed the dead creature in the chest. The tool sunk in about four inches. Collin didn’t protest and even seemed interested in Aaron’s actions. Aaron then proceeded to do the same to the skull of the creature. He first tilted its head to the left side, where there was no damage and swung down with great force. The tool only bounced off of it, leaving a small scratch.

“Precisely. As I was going to say, the skull has almost three times the strength as the rest of the body,” Collin said.

“Great,” I said, with a tone drier than the Mojave.

Aaron wiped the tool off on his pants and put it in his back pocket. Normally, Aaron almost never shut up, so his silence meant he was also scared.

“And the military doesn’t know?”

“They don’t show up on any radar or scans,” Collin answered.

“So if they look like mirrors, how do you know they’re coming?”

“We see differently than you and so do our scanners.”

I should have expected this answer. I wanted to leave the room. I never wanted to be this close to one of these things ever again. I could tell that Aaron shared my sentiment as I turned my back to the creature and we proceeded out into the hallway. Just then, Kye had appeared from around the corner and was headed toward us.

“Where is she?” Aaron said.

“I couldn’t find her. I have several others looking for her.”

Aaron seemed very concerned now, like he could predict what was going to happen. This station was huge. It could take hours for them to find everyone. Then I heard an announcement over some kind of P.A. system. It was Lyra, telling everyone to report in via the closest com immediately.

Kye put her hand on my shoulder and I realized that she wasn’t terrified. She wasn’t trembling and she was worried about me. I glanced at her quickly to study her expression and all it said was, I’m sorry. I noticed that Collin had followed us out into the hall and wanted to continue discussing what he discovered about the creature.

“You should see these things move. It’s amazing. It’s as if they’re double-jointed in every joint. Their wings in full span can rotate 360 degrees.” He was starting to sound just like Aaron.

“You do realize they are coming here to kill us, right?” I could help but put this fact in front of him.

He immediately stopped talking.

“Exactly how long have you been watching them?”

“Almost a month.”

“A month! You’ve been watching them for a month? Why didn’t you dispose of them?” Now I was pissed.

“We’re not killers, Mr. Kagen,” Collin continued. “We needed to know why they were here and if they were violent or not.”

“Jesus Christ, man! Violent! They have six-inch blades for hands! Did you plan on shaking it!” Collin was quiet now and I was silently enraged as we headed back to the conference room.

CHAPTER 32

 

WHEN WE GOT BACK to the conference room, everyone but Collin and I sat down. I started pacing and the image of the creature stayed with me. I could imagine it moving, the back-hooked legs flying forward, stabbing the ground and then the front-hooked wings launching it into the air.

Collin cleared his throat to get my attention as he continued.

“The three cavities in its head suggest many things. Could just be backup systems, but I think they have three separate functions. One does the processing, one does the communicating and the third… we’re still guessing at.”

“Why are they coming here?” I said.

Danel and Kye looked at each other.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Danel said.

“They’re coming here to take the ship. They are stranded here.”

“So just give them the ship! You said your planet was destroyed. What do you need it for?”

“It’s not that easy,” Danel said, “we give them the ship and they could come back here with three hundred ships of their own and destroy the Earth. To make things a little more difficult, remember that this ship is one part of a collective whole. If they launch one, they launch them all. This station and the other twelve would essentially blow twenty percent of the Earth’s crust off. Every ship is embedded in the Earth, in your glaciers, your mountains, canyons, national forests and reserves. The impact of our departure on your world would be a cataclysmic event. The device you had in your possession doesn’t just open doors. If activated, it gets all thirteen stations out of the Earth simultaneously in a matter of seconds. It was designed this way in case we didn’t have enough time to leave again. And the device can only be activated here at Station Thirteen.”

“So we brought it back here?”

“Yes, you did.” Danel was clearly now irritated with me. His eyes tightened into slits as he stared at me.

“And it’s still here?”

“We couldn’t risk losing it again. It’s still here.”

Aaron and I brought back the only thing that would give those creatures a way out. I closed my eyes and shook my head at my own stupidity. They were trying to get the box out of town and we brought it back. I looked at Aaron and his expression mimicked mine. We couldn’t give them the ship, even if it didn’t activate all of them at once, it couldn’t happen and we both knew it.

“It was supposed to be delivered to Station Ten, where it would’ve been well protected.” Danel now closed his eyes and sighed at the pathetic humans in front of him.

“How do they know about this ship?”

“Where are the other stations?” Aaron said before my question was answered.

“How do they know where this ship is?” We had more questions than we had time, so I blurted out the most important one.

“Shouldn’t we be leaving?”

“These things are very fast. The surrounding terrain wouldn’t allow us to keep up any speed that would outrun them. Even if we could and my people go up to the canyon, they will be rounded up by your government and our peaceful existence will be over and eventually the other station would be found. I can’t risk it. You and Aaron are welcome to try,” Danel said.

This was not what I wanted to hear. I wasn’t going to leave Kye and Aaron wasn’t going to leave Jessica.

“We’ve contacted Station Ten; they are the closest. Each ship has a distinct function. We are research and provide the main food supply and they are artillery. They are on their way and will be here in an hour and a half,” Danel said.

“Hour and a half? Those things will be here in forty minutes.”

“I know.” His acceptance of the situation was more than I could bear.

I remembered Kye telling me that they had no weapons here. Surely, they had something.

“You do have some kind of weapons on this station?” I now said, not wanting to hear anything but, “of course!”

Danel looked at Kye and Kye looked at the ground with an expression that said it all. No weapons.

“Well, that’s great.” Defeated, I slumped back into my chair, put my face in my hands and tried to recall how many rounds I brought with me.

“Maybe they can’t operate the ship,” Aaron said, trying to reassure me. There was a slight pause as Danel looked at Collin to answer the question. Apparently, Collin had been doing all the research on the creature.

“You know that third part of the creature’s brain that we’re not really sure about its exact function?” Collin said.

“Yes,” I grunted, with my face still in my hands.

“We think they can draw images from us.”             

Maybe this was a good thing? Surely only the eldest knew how to launch and fly this thing.

“How many on board, know how to fly this thing?”

Aaron raised his eyebrows at me. He knew what I was thinking. Maybe there were only a couple on board that would have this information. Then there would only a couple that we would really have to worry about revealing this information should they be attacked.

“Everyone is taught, in theory,” Kye said.

I looked at Aaron. “Get the other gun and all the ammo we have from the suite.” He nodded his head and started running down the hall.

I looked at Kye for a long time. We should have had more time. There was a long silence that seemed to hang in the air. Only a few minutes had passed when Aaron returned, breathing heavily, spilling our small supply of rounds and the extra gun on the table. It was a sad sight. It would never be enough, not for all of us. Aaron then started loading the extra clips for the pistol.

“Wait a second,” Aaron said, “I thought you said you could send an electrical current through the dishes… was that true?”

“Yes.”

“How many amps?”

“Around twenty thousand.”

“Well, if they have a brain, we can fry it,” Aaron said, smiling.

“And if that doesn’t kill them?” I said.

“Then they’ll dig,” Danel responded.

“How far under are we?”

“One hundred and fifty feet, give or take a yard.”

“How much more time does that give us?”

“Triple the speed for digging, about maybe a half-hour.”

So maybe we had enough time for Station Ten to reach us.

CHAPTER 33

 

WE WERE NOW HEADED to the communications center, where we could monitor every part of the ship. When we got there, it was filled with more than twenty screens much more advanced than anything I’d ever seen. Most were holographic.

We seated ourselves at an oval black table in the center of the room. There were six holographic screens in front of us. I was sitting across from Aaron and he was looking at an opposite mirror image of the screen.

“What’s the most secure room besides this one?” Danel asked Kye.

“The main hall doors have been repaired; they are our thickest interior doors. It can be completely sectioned off and only has one entrance,” Kye answered, as she pulled up various blueprint screens that hovered above the table’s surface.

When she said this, I realized she was not a research assistant — she was ops. She was a topside covert. She moved fast and apparently knew more about the ship than Danel.

“Collin, get the others together,” Danel ordered. “Don’t miss anyone. Get them all in the main hall, let them know what’s going on and don’t let them leave. Station Ten will get them out when they get here. Close the main door and destroy the control panel. Barricade the door if you can.”

“And find Jessica!” Aaron said.

Collin didn’t argue or question anything. He left quickly to complete his task.

I almost forgot that Danel was in charge of everything. I wondered about how the others would feel being left unarmed in the main hall. I thought it was a bad idea.

“Let me know when they’ve closed the doors,” he said to Kye.

Aaron continued pushing bullets into clips and I thought about giving the pistol to Danel or Kye. Aaron was now looking a little scary, like he was contemplating the thousand different ways to kill these things in hand-to-hand combat.

“Can you shoot that?”

“You have no idea.”

I put my elbows on the table and tried to think of anything else that could be done. I had the .357 in my holster and hollow points in my pocket. How many? Forty-five rounds, at best. I was hoping the hollow points would just blow the head off one of these suckers, but they were only really good with soft tissue.

Kye was still concentrating on the schematics in front of her.

“The doors are closed and secured,” she said.

“I think this is a bad idea. We should all stay together. The others are completely unarmed.”

Danel looked at Kye to answer for him again. She gave him an irritated look, but complied.

“The children are still learning how to control their emotions. I’m certain the creatures will come for this room first. It’s better if we don’t have everyone emotionally overwhelmed if we can avoid it.”

“Why this room?”

“They’ve killed a couple of our coverts already and if they can pull images from us, then they’ll want to get in this room…”

She slid back the huge table with ease, showing a square indentation in the center with thirteen plugs.

“…because this is the helm. You can start the ship from any location, but you can only control flight destinations from here.” She slid the table back and continued typing on the screen in front of her and then a visual of the main hall appeared on all the screens.

“Do you have audio?” Aaron said.

“Yes.”

Aaron nodded at Kye to connect him. “Jessica, are you there?”

“I’m here,” she stood up, waving at the camera.

“Baby, hide.”

She stopped moving her hands and moved to the back of the room, looking through cabinets and pulling out large containers, trying to find a space large enough for her.

“Everyone hold tight. We’ll do everything we can and Station Ten is on its way,” Aaron said into the mouthpiece. He then told Kye to hit mute and took a deep breath.

Danel tapped the screen in front of us. There were several more screens, which showed feed from the main hall. We could now see many glowing eyes. Not all were yellow or orange; some were green and some purplish-blue. They sat there waiting, not talking or moving, all huddled around one of the circular tables. All were present and most were dressed in white lab coats. Each was touching the hand of another, except for Jessica and all eyes were bright.

I could recognize most of them, even Lyra, who almost never spoke to me. Maybe they were praying or talking in other ways; I didn’t know. I could see Jessica trying to squeeze her large body into one of the pantries. She was so different from the rest.

Danel quickly glanced over the guns on the table. “Is that everything?”

“Yes,” Aaron said. We all knew it wasn’t enough.

“Remember to aim for the head.”

I was sitting next to Kye and put my hand on hers and squeezed slightly and she squeezed back, looking at me.

“Is there any way to turn up the lighting in here?” I said.

Kye hit a few buttons on the table in front of her and the soft blue light increased by eighty percent. She then looked at Danel, who had closed his eyes for a moment and then strained a little as he opened them.

“I don’t want them missing the target.” Her voice was soft but stern.

“I know,” he said.

Kye was so in control of her emotions and here I was, sweating like a pig. How many times had I been in the line of fire and kept a cool, calm head? Where was that now? I tried to compose myself. I looked at Aaron and he had a look on his face that clearly said he had been in some bad situations that I probably didn’t want to know about. He enjoyed the chaos, almost like he was getting high off it. My adrenaline was still in flight mode, but I knew when the time came, I would shoot straight without a single tremor. Hopefully.

As I stared at Aaron’s glowing eyes, I wondered if he could still see in the brighter light.

“Do the brighter lights affect your vision?”

“No,” he answered. “Jessica enhanced the muscles surrounding my pupils. It looks like I have no pupils in dim light because the muscles surrounding the iris are completely relaxed to allow maximum illumination and she put in a reflective patch to maximize the light. That muscle contracts in bright light and the patch flips to the unreflective side.”

Danel then tapped on three of the holographic screens hanging above the oval table, activating them by disrupting the screens’ lighting source. They went black for a half a second and then switched to a clear view of the inside of the satellite dishes. The video cams that were placed on the dishes were set high up on the edges of the panels, so you could see the whole inner dish, but not the outside and surrounding areas. So far, there were no signs of the black-winged creatures.

“Kye, max out the electrical load to the dishes up top and turn on all the mini cams in the bases of the dishes,” Danel instructed.

Kye worked with ease as Aaron and I watched. She tapped on the table and screens in front of her, manipulating the images.

“Done.”

Danel then touched the left bottom corner of each of the three holographic screens hanging over the table and they enlarged to three times their size. Each screen was a larger view of the inside of each satellite dish above.

“Do you see them?” Aaron said in a way that suggested that he saw something that the rest of us didn’t.

We all searched the monitors and saw nothing. Danel then touched the small blue square in each screen to reproduce the image on the screen that just Aaron was observing. Still, I saw nothing.

“The small shadows moving across the dish… they’re flying over it,” Aaron explained.

We inspected the screens again and we could see three dim shadows passing back and forth across the center satellite dish as if they were waiting for something. They might be reflective, but they still cast shadows.

They were here earlier than expected. My stomach lurched up into my throat, making it dry and my heart sank into my feet making my whole body feel like a brick.

“I think I can direct another electrical current to the doors of this room, but we won’t have auxiliary if I do. Lewis, when that happens, everyone will be able to see except you.”

I didn’t get the enhancement that Aaron did and now I regretted it.

Kye continued to manipulate the tabletop’s schematics, tapping it in various places. This meant they would need the guns and rounds when this happened. I looked at Aaron and he nodded as if he could read my mind.

“How many times can we surge the dishes?”

“Just once,” she said, “and it’s going to fry every wire up there when we do.”

Kye started working on the table, switching screens back and forth as the rest of us watched the cam feed. Five more shadows started flying across the south dish and two more shadows were hovering above the north dish.

Kye’s skin started radiating even more. The swirling veins under her skin started moving faster. I looked at Danel and he was also brighter and I remembered what Kye said. They were sweating. Only Aaron looked calm now.

Finally, a group of six landed on the north dish without camouflage. They wanted their presence known. Just watching these things move made me want to run. The black-winged creatures didn’t look fluid in movement. Their upper bodies bounced out of sync with their lower bodies, as if they weren’t completely connected. Their wings rotated a full three hundred and sixty degrees and their hooked claws embedded themselves into the dishes as they landed.

We simply didn’t have enough ammo for this many. Even if we got really close, it would just be Aaron and me shooting and Danel and Kye waiting. Not enough guns.

“How many?”

“Sixteen,” Aaron said.

Three more landed on the south dish. I couldn’t count fast enough to separate the shadows, apart from the ones that had landed.

“Nineteen,” Aaron called out, as if we were sharing the same thought.

“Done,” Kye said. “We can surge these doors as well, but I don’t know if it will be enough to kill them.”

Suddenly, one of the creatures drew its attention to the camera mounted on the base of the center satellite. It drew closer, as if it knew we were watching. Its eyeless face contorted with rage as it let out a scream and then with one hooked arm, it reached back and swung forward, crushing the camera.

I tore my eyes away from the screen and looked at my watch. Thirty minutes until Station Ten arrived.

We still had the rest of the cameras functioning and we watched silently as two of the creatures on the south dish flew over to the center dish. Danel looked at me and then back at the screen. For the first time, he looked nervous. His fingers were rubbing his lipless mouth and he kept closing his eyes as if he was talking to himself, or maybe he was trying to mask his emotions from the others.

His attention was suddenly drawn to one of the screens. One of the two creatures that landed in the center dish was reaching back and stabbing the door to the elevator shaft that Aaron and I had gone through.

“We don’t have a choice now. The electrical current won’t conduct through the different materials in the shaft. We have to open the circuit before they climb inside,” he said.

The creature holding the shaft door contracted its’ hooks directly back into its skin for a moment and I think I stopped breathing. The metal circular door fell to the base of the dish, just to the left of the opening and I shuddered at its power. After a moment, it started crawling inside.

“Kye, do it now!” Danel yelled.

“No! Wait!” Aaron said. “Three more are about to land!”

Kye hesitated.

“Do it now!” Danel said, standing up, now clearly afraid, clearly terrified.

“Two seconds!” Aaron’s voice sounded strained. Then we saw one slowly crawl into the tube and three more land in the center dish.

“Now!” Aaron said.             

I was with Aaron on this. It was better to kill three more than worry about one.

Kye activated the electrical charge and the creatures started screaming. They couldn’t escape and we listened to their screeches that were inhuman and ear-piercing. Their bodies jerked violently and the one that was almost in the tube still had one claw on the base of the dish. Then the cameras went out.

We sat staring silently at black screens, listening to muffled metallic screams from above that reached twenty stories down. I wondered if the others in the main hall could hear the screeching. Then it grew quiet. Silence filled the room.

“How many did we get?”

“Twelve.”

“Collin said twenty-four total, right?”

“Twenty-four, but two of them seemed injured when they crashed here,” Kye said.

“How many have you killed?” I said, looking at Danel.

“Just the one that killed Richie.”

“So, best-case scenario,” Aaron said, “nine are either going to try for the elevator shaft that is no longer electrified or they are all digging beside it right now and two injured ones waiting in the wings.”

There was twenty-five minutes until Station Ten arrived and hopefully half an hour before the remaining creatures could reach us. So there was approximately a five-minute leeway for error, which I was sure was enough time to kill most of us.

CHAPTER 34

 

WE COULD NOW HEAR the sound of metal scraping against itself from above. We sat waiting for death or rescue.

“Do we know where they are?” I said.

“We won’t have a visual until they breach the main garden room,” Danel answered, bringing up the screens to that area.

No one seemed to be thinking. They were just more or less reacting to the situation.

“There has to be something else we can do,” I whispered.

Kye shook her head. She had clearly done all she could do. She gave me a sad smile.

“The fountains,” Aaron muttered.             

Danel looked at him, hoping for an idea.

“Can we close off the second garden room?” he said.

“Yes.”

Kye brought up a blueprint on the main computer.

“This section has an emergency lockdown in case there is a hull breach when the ship is in flight.”

“Can you access it from here?”

“Yes, but it won’t hold them for more than a couple minutes.”

“How thick are the doors?”

“Ten inches, maybe less.”

“How fast do the doors come down?”

“Half a second.”

“The fountains… are they self-contained, or do they connect to the main source?”

“Main supply; one hundred and fifty thousand gallons that line the bottom of the ship that is continually recycled. Why?” Kye said.

“We can drown them. You have at least twelve fountains just in the main garden room. How much water can we pump through them and how fast?”

“It would take half an hour just to fill the room,” Danel said.

“We don’t even know if they can drown. We don’t know if they have lungs,” Kye said.

“They can drown,” Danel said.

“Blow the pumps,” Aaron said. “Blow the fountains right out of the floor.”

              “What about the waterfall in the second garden?” I asked.

              “It’s self-contained.” Danel said.

CHAPTER 35

 

“WE HAVE A VISUAL,” Kye said, looking at the screen. She quickly changed all of our screens to see what she was seeing.

All eleven of them were present and none looked injured. They were flying through the main garden room and their bodies became almost entirely invisible, as if the hunt was on. They glistened against the blue light, making their outer shells look like broken pieces of mirrors strung together by some undetectable source. They were moving so fast that the mirror shards were only slightly disrupted, so I could only make out half their forms. Had they not been moving, I don’t think I would’ve seen them at all.

I couldn’t imagine anything worse than this. These things came from Hell, from some unspeakable place. They flew right into the alien trees unaffected and uprooted them. Some crashed against the fountains, shattering them into tiny pieces. It was as if they knew that their bodies would be unaffected.

Four were scaling across the walls and it was more horrifying than I’d imaged. What I could make out from the shifting mirrored images looked impossible to physically do. Their oversized hooked arms flew out in front of them, stabbing the walls and their legs came out from underneath their bodies in between the arms on the inside. Their bodies looked bent in half with every leap, due to their arms being twice the length of the legs. And the distance obtained in this movement was unsurpassed by any human or animal I’d ever seen. Every jarred leap they took had two seconds of glide time from lift off to touch down: launch, glide, land and repeat.

Kye’s eyes started to water as we watched. Aaron was motionless. And Danel? Danel was completely composed, as if he were the one doing all the watching in the last month. Or maybe I simply couldn’t read his expression. I was hoping for the latter.

“I’ve never seen them move like this,” Kye said.

I know remembered that she saw everything differently than me.

Danel didn’t reassure her. He simply looked at the screen like he was watching something he’d seen a hundred times.

“Don’t wait for all of them. Don’t wait too long!” Aaron’s voice was panicked now. He was just starting to worry and I could feel my body getting ready for fight mode. My mind started to move faster; my blood was rushing into my muscles.

It would only be a moment now before they reached the second garden room. Four of the ones in flight got there before the others, moving at incredible speed. It was only a matter of seconds for them to get halfway into the second garden room.

“Now, Kye!” Danel ordered.

With trembling hands, she hit two buttons on the touch screen in the table in front. And nothing happened.

“Now, Kye!” Danel yelled.

“I did!” Kye’s voice was now trembling.

“Oh, God!” slipped from my lips. The doors didn’t close.

Danel now pushed Kye out of the way and hit the keys himself and still nothing happened. Tension and sweat and breath filled the room. One of the creatures that was in flight landed in the doorway of the second garden and seemed to look around with its eyeless head. It was looking for us, trying to sense us. It would only be a moment before all of them were through both gardens and on their way.

“Damn!” Danel’s composure was completely gone.

“They haven’t been used in five thousand years,” Kye was trying to explain.

Danel hit two other keys and the floor shook as the door came down. It was faster than my own human eyes could see, slicing one creature in half just as four more creatures reached it. They stopped, looking at the remains of the creature that was crushed and began to claw at the doors. The creature severed by the door was still moving. Half its body was in the garden room and the other half was now dragging itself slowly in our direction.

Quickly, Kye blew the pumps by increasing the pressure in the storage tanks that lined the ship. The remaining fountains exploded into pieces almost simultaneously. The sound was deafening, like large booms from fireworks, one after the other separated by only fractions of a second. Some of the creatures were struck by a few large pieces of the fountains, but they were unaffected.

We watched as the first four stopped clawing the door and turned their heads towards the sound and debris that had hit them. During those three seconds, the rooms were already twenty-five percent full. At water level, they were not reflective at all. The orange and pink elements of the water didn’t blend together, but resembled oil and water: one being much lighter than the other, but you could still see through it.

The creatures slowly started to change in appearance. The parts of their bodies that touched the water were black and looked like hard shiny metal. We watched as half went back to the main entrance, only to see that both doors had come down. As they clawed their way back, I had to catch my breath, because the parts of them that were in the water were visible, but the parts of them that were out of the water were still invisible. I was watching half a creature claw back to the main doors.

There were eight completely locked in the second garden and three in the first garden which was also filling with water. The three creatures in the first garden started climbing back out the way they had come in. That would buy us time until Station Ten arrived. Backup would be here in a matter of minutes and I was no longer afraid. But I was really hoping that none of the guys from Station Ten were going to be in that tunnel when the creatures started climbing back out.

The water flowed like the main hull of a sub had been breached. It was completely full in eighteen seconds. They had lost their camouflage and their movements started to slow.

The four at the main door had started fighting each other and two others had already stopped moving completely and were floating in the center of the room. They must have been the injured ones. After just a few minutes, the four creatures at the door stopped moving and their wings quivered as they starting sinking. The two injured creatures started seeping black ooze. Three escaped, seven drowned and one was sliced in half.

“Yes!” Aaron said with excitement. I thought there was some relief all together in the room, but when we lost the cameras in the garden rooms, it seemed to diminish significantly.

Danel didn’t share our excitement. It wasn’t over until Station Ten arrived.

“The three that fled back to the elevator shaft will find a new place to dig,” Danel said, killing Aaron’s excitement.

Only a few minutes had passed and we needed a few more before Station Ten arrived.

“Are you sure those doors have an airtight seal?” Aaron said.

“Positive. Why?”

Aaron only looked down toward the door and all of our eyes followed. There was water coming through the bottom and a lot of it. Danel motioned for everyone to be quiet.

“It didn’t hold them,” Danel whispered.

“It may have taken most of them down,” I whispered back.

CHAPTER 36

 

OF ALL THE THINGS that could’ve appeared in my head, I was thinking of Hell. There were no childhood images. There were no thoughts of girlfriends, family or good liquor… just Hell. Not because I believed I was going there, but because I’d never believed. It was something that even in my nine-year-old Catholic childhood, I’d never accepted, never absorbed. Hell was not a fiery pit that swallowed evil. It was not Dante’s Inferno. It was not bad karma. It was not Satan or God’s wrath. It was this. What you could see. What you could feel. It was these things coming to physically tear us in half. All of this sent another nauseating feeling through my body.

We could hear the inhuman screeching in the halls growing louder as they closed in on us. And just when I thought they had reached the outside of the helm door, it grew quiet. I was praying they hadn’t changed direction to the main hall.

The first impact against the helm door was so intense we all jumped up out of our seats. They were right behind it. They hadn’t left. The walls and floor of the control room trembled at the sheer force, but the door held. The screeching wailed in the halls. I could hear more than one, more than three screeching at the same time. My entire body trembled.

There was another loud crash against the doors. It was louder and had more force than the last one, like there were two ramming it at the same time. The floor shook and the table and chairs slid an inch or two out of place. Kye let out a slight gasp and she quietly moved two steps to get behind the table farther away from the door with the device in her hand. We needed the door to hold, but we all knew it wasn’t going to.

Suddenly, the screeching stopped. For just a moment, I thought maybe, just maybe, Station Ten was here. The silence lingered behind the door, but there was no gunfire, just silence. I closed my eyes for second, hoping they were not strategizing a new plan. Then, there was a different sound: the unbearable scraping of metal claws against the helm door. The creatures weren’t interested in bashing through anymore. They were going to just tear it into pieces. The sound of their claws cutting through the metal left a high-pitched unbearable ringing in my ears.

It was only seconds before the eight-inch-thick door started to buckle in the center and metal started to separate as several six-inch hooks started to peel it back. We watched in complete terror and even Danel trembled. After a few more minutes, two had slashed a hole large enough to get their arms through. They started cutting the air in the room with their razor-hooked hands.

“Get back!” I yelled.

I ducked, quickly grabbing Kye’s hand and ran for the back of the room. The entire floor was now covered in the orange fluid from the gardens and I almost slipped twice. Aaron and Danel rushed to follow me.

We all watched as the creatures’ arms reached into the room. Their arms were larger and longer than my legs. It was like huge black cables were swinging around, alive with electricity. Then the arms pulled back out and several hooked claws grabbed the bottom of the hole and started to peel the metal door down.

I decided I wouldn’t wait to see if they had any organs. I lunged three feet towards the door for close range and shot one in the neck and one in the chest. I wanted a clear shot at one of their heads, but only their arms and chests were pushing through the opening. I leaped back to the other side of the room. When I turned back around to see the damage I’d done, I saw holes the size of my fist where I fired, but they didn’t stop. They continued to move at the same speed, completely unaffected. I just wasted two bullets.

When half of their bodies were through the doors, I shot one in the head. I took off half its skull and it still kept coming. The gun was slipping in my sweaty hands when I squeezed off another shot, demolishing the other half of its skull and it fell limp halfway through the door. The dead creature was then pulled from the opening and another started coming through. Danel leapt to the screen on the table to surge the doors, but just before he could, the power went out. All was black except for Danel’s and Kye’s glowing bodies as we listened to the metal doors being pulled apart.

The darkness was agonizing and the doors were not electrified. I wanted a fighting chance and I wasn’t going to get one. My eyes were not focusing. I looked all around for Aaron and found Danel’s eyes, which were glowing orange. I went toward the soft glow, shuffling quickly around the opposite side of the oval table, praying I wouldn’t trip over a chair.

“One minute for auxiliary,” he whispered.

I reloaded the gun with the hollow points in less than a second in the blackness, like I’d done a thousand times before and handed it to him. He took the gun with his oversized hand and hesitated. He hesitated long enough for me to wonder if he would shoot me first. As if things couldn’t get any worse. But he turned around and pushed me farther back in the room. I found Aaron and Kye at the end of the table as my eyes finally focused.

“They’re coming in!” Danel shouted, his voice shaking with fear.

Six more shots went off and he turned back, swinging his extra-long arm and putting the gun in my face.

“Reload it!”

I grabbed the gun, reloaded and heard Aaron empty an entire clip into the blackness. I returned the .357 back to Danel. I wasn’t sure if he would hesitate again. I brought the box back, so this was entirely my fault. And I had no choice other than to give the alien who hated me, a gun loaded with hollow points. Just as Danel turned around, the auxiliary power came on. There were two inside the room and two more coming through the door.

“Surge the doors!” Aaron yelled.

Kye was back at the computer in lightning speed and started tapping on the computer screen embedded in the oval table. Daniel handed me the gun. And I blew the head off of one of the creatures in the room.

“Shit!” Aaron yelled. His gun had jammed.

One of the creatures was on top of him in less than a half a second and just as Aaron got the chamber emptied, the creature rammed its razor hooked hand through his shoulder and lifted him off the ground. I put three bullets in the creature’s head and Aaron and the creature fell to the floor. There were more climbing through the opening when Kye opened the circuit to surge the doors. Their screeches filled the room. It felt like my eardrums had burst. I covered my ears, dropping to the ground overwhelmed with pain just when the auxiliary power cut out.

I forced myself to stand back up and one was hanging from the ceiling face-to-face with me. I could hear nothing; my ears made a strange muffled ringing sound as I stared directly into its eyeless face. And my hand was empty, somehow I dropped my gun. I could see its black silhouette outlined by Danel’s glowing eyes. Danel was close. I could see him scrambling on the floor looking for Aaron’s gun. Kye was right behind me, crouched down looking for mine. The creature dropped to the ground in front of me, looking down at me and swung its’ hooked enormous arms back to slice me in half. But it didn’t; it paused. I watched as its midsection split open and an enormous tongue-like flap with the consistency of black tar darted out of its body. The black tongue wrapped itself around my waist at a speed that was so quick I thought I was dreaming, but I felt it. I felt it crushing me and pulling me towards it like it was going to eat me.

I was yelling something, but I couldn’t hear anything but muffled sounds out of my own mouth. Frantically, I tried to pull the black tongue off of me as it started crushing me. It started pulling me closer and I knew I would be snapped in half before it pulled me all the way in. Its mid-sectioned mouth wasn’t big enough to swallow me whole. It was unaffected as I punched over and over at the tongue and I heard something snap inside my body. From my left side shot an excruciating pain. A rib had snapped. I saw something move from the right side and two shots went off. The creature fell to the floor and the black tongue loosened slightly.

“I gotcha, buddy,” Aaron gasped, dropping the gun and passing out.

Kye pulled the tongue from around my waist and put one more bullet in the creature’s head as I slumped to one side in pain, gasping for air. After a few moments, I tried to stand up, stumbling once and grabbed the table edge to steady myself. My hearing cleared a little and Danel was standing in front of me. He tapped a few squares on the oval table and auxiliary came back on.

The floor was covered with dead creatures. The air reeked of the burnt remains hanging in the door. I could taste the smell in my mouth. It was toxic, like boiling ammonia. The room was silent and motionless. I kept looking up, expecting another one to fall from the ceiling, but this didn’t happen. Surging the doors had worked. I started to count them on the floor to see how many were left. There were five on the floor, but there was no way of telling how many had survived the garden domes. At the moment, there were no more standing outside of the door.

I found the revolver on the floor next to Aaron, reloaded the empty chambers, but didn’t give it back to Danel. I crouched down next to Aaron, where he lay with the dead creature’s claw still in his shoulder. His pupils were dilated and he was motionless. He was in shock.

“Aaron, can you hear me?”

“Six left, at most,” he whispered back at me. I sat there looking at him. Somehow, I knew Danel hesitated. Somehow my gut said that Aaron noticed something was off with him. He stared at Danel and then his eyes closed, but he was still breathing. His shoulder looked dislocated and he had lost a lot of blood. I needed to find Jessica to heal him. Kye reached over and her hands glowed orange around his head and Aaron closed his eyes. I didn’t know what she was doing or how she was doing it, but there was no time to ask.

“I’ve stopped the pain and I’ll try and stop the bleeding,” she said, taking off her shirt and tying it tightly around his shoulder. I stood up, grabbing the gun that Aaron had and put in a new clip. Then I heard screaming. Not screeching; not an animal.

Danel had turned on the audio to the main hall. It was obvious that if they couldn’t get in, the creatures were going to draw us out. Danel ran for the opening in the doors, but he was too big to get through the gaping hole. It was long but too thin for his thick chest to squeeze through. Then he tried to open the doors with his bare hands, but it didn’t work. He ran over to the oval table and tapped a number of buttons, but nothing worked and the screaming continued. They were being slaughtered. His people were unarmed and being sliced into pieces. I looked at the screen for a moment; they were rushing at them, picking off the larger males first. And Danel turned to me. Nothing could be real anymore. But as much as I didn’t want this to be reality, all of this was happening and I would die knowing it.

“Please help them! Station Ten will be right behind you!” He pleaded with me. But I didn’t stop to listen. I handed him the pistol and I squeezed through the gash in the door cutting my leg in the calf. I tried to shake it off, but I felt blood running down into my shoe and my broken rib was sending pain down my entire left side.

CHAPTER 37

 

I RAN WITH A FORCE that I didn’t know I had inside of me. All I could see was Boyd and Ben and Jessica in my head. The main hall was at the other end of the station and it seemed to take forever to get there. The screams got louder and as I got closer my heart sank with their cries.

I was in a horrible position. I couldn’t even see the creatures. My panting now echoed in the hall and the pain in my side was throwing my balance off. I just kept running toward the main hall until I came to the large green doors with two large gashes in it. It was horrific. Ten inches of a metal-like material that was stronger than any on Earth had been pulled back like a tin can.

Quickly, I checked to make sure I had extra hollow points in my pocket. I should have done this before I left the control room. I peered through the gashes in the door. I saw no movement and no creatures inside. I crawled through the gash successfully, not cutting myself again and my eyes were immediately drawn to a glowing pink lab coat on the floor a few feet in front me. I glanced all around the large room. The tables were overturned and the oversized chairs thrown all over. There were smears of glowing fluids on the walls, floors and tables everywhere. A few steps closer to the glowing lab coat and I realized that it was Ben.

Oh God, not Ben.

He didn’t move. I wanted to check for a pulse, but then I realized that I wouldn’t know where to check. He was almost torn in half through the abdomen and his lab coat was saturated in pink and purple glowing fluids. The large cut in his neck and his lifeless eyes led me to believe that he was certainly dead. I knelt, grabbing his hand and thought of Kye. This was horrible. My hope sank as I stared at my dead friend.

Then something grabbed me. I turned my head to look, but I couldn’t move. It felt like something grabbed my head and neck but it wasn’t a hand. It wasn’t a claw. It wasn’t one of those monsters’ tongues. My shoulders grew intolerably tense. I wasn’t being moved or thrown by anything; I was just frozen. Frozen and vulnerable to anything that was still in the room. My hand was still clasped to Ben’s hand on the floor beside me. Panicked, I struggled with all my strength to move again, but it was useless. I took in my surroundings and tried to concentrate. I could still feel my body, feel my rapid breathing. I just couldn’t control it. I could hear my heart beating faster and feel the stiffness in my neck and shoulders.

Then I noticed that the pink and purple fluids on Ben’s body were moving, changing. They were slowly transforming into a vapor-like substance as they crawled closer towards my hand that was still touching his. A million fears and assumptions ran through my mind. I tried to yank my hand out of his hand, but nothing was effective. I was trapped, immobile. I stared at the glowing vapors as they slid over my hand and started to sink into my skin.

I could feel a cooling sensation sliding up my arm as my heart pounded faster and faster. I didn’t really know anything about this species.

Then Ben blinked and in a barely audible voice said, “I’m sorry,” as he released his last breath.

Somehow I knew he was the reason I was frozen. I could feel the vapors, or whatever they were, in my veins pulsing with the quick rhythm of my own heart. The gasses reached farther up into my shoulder and neck making me feel cold from the inside out. Suddenly, I could feel how old Ben was and he was a lot older than five thousand years; maybe seven, maybe ten. All I knew was that he was older than Danel, but I didn’t know how I knew this.

I needed to remain calm. I didn’t know if it was just passing through me or going to just take my body over. A part of me didn’t want to know. I wasn’t even sure if the other black creatures were all dead. I knew it had only been a few moments, but the immobility made it seem so much longer. I tried to think of Kye and Aaron and how they might need me right now. I tried to move again, but I was paralyzed. Then, everything changed.

CHAPTER 38

 

IT WAS LIKE I WASN’T IN MY BODY ANYMORE. I could no longer feel my body. I could no longer feel my heart pounding or feel myself breathing. My head was swimming with vague sounds and numerous voices. My mind surged with images and fragments of images at such a speed it was like traveling through time. I saw a multitude of alien faces: men, woman, Lyra, Collin, Danel, Alma, Boyd and so many more. I couldn’t keep them straight. The images were intertwined together, meshed together, overlapping one another. I saw a whole planet of aliens. Millions, all distressed, all terrified of something. And every one of them called me Ben. But that was his name. I didn’t want Ben to die, but he was dying and these seemed to be his memories. Thousands of years of memories flashed before my eyes. This was more than any human could absorb.

I knew this alien beside me. And now, I knew Danel had lied. He had lied about everything. In the conference room, he said they were two similar planets with similar species. This was a lie. I watched the black creatures attack and conquer Tanjenna. Two completely separate worlds with two different alien races. I saw wars, explosions and destruction well beyond anything that had ever happened on Earth. Two completely different creatures forced to live only a few hundred miles from each other. It was only a matter of time before they came and destroyed Ben’s world.

I saw battle after battle, only to watch Danel’s race dwindle and eventually surrender. The Tanjennians were enslaved. They were slaves to the very things that I’d led to the station. I saw them secretly building the ships underground, one by one, over many years. I saw a large group of aliens on their combined ships make a pledge to never speak of it again. It was the past and didn’t need to be remembered. It was over and gone. Aeyan, Collin, Jessica and so many others were born here on Earth. They didn’t know. The black-winged creatures didn’t want the ship. They wanted revenge for the detonation of the sun that had destroyed both planets. I tried to scan the images to see if Danel’s people were responsible for the wars, for the destruction of their sun, but I found nothing.

The memories came faster and faster and I could feel my brain accepting them. It was almost like it was opening up more space for more information as if new neuron pathways were being created. I started to feel parts of my body again and became aware that I was still in the main hall, but only for a moment. I felt an overwhelming wave of information rush through my mind. I saw solar systems passing through space and then fragments of history of Earth. It was every moment of Ben’s lifetime, everything he’d ever seen and experienced.

I couldn’t tell what was real anymore. I was fading in and out of reality. One second, I could see I was still in the main hall. I could see all the vapors moving around my face and my chest, but the next second, I’m in a great temple, speaking an archaic language to an Egyptian queen. Then, I heard a familiar voice. It was Kye.

“No, no! Danel, separate them!” Then there were footsteps running toward me in the main hall. I could feel hands on my hand, pulling me free from Ben. And everything went black. I could hear muffled sounds of gunfire in the back of the ship. It seemed so far away. It had to be Station Ten. Then a bright orange light seemed to penetrate my eyelids and I forced them to open.

“Lewis, can you hear me?” Kye hovered over my face and her hands were on my head, but I couldn’t respond.

I was fighting to stay conscious, struggling to stay in the present.

“I didn’t think Ben would do this. He knows it kills them. He knows their bodies can’t take it.” Danel now peered into my eyes. There was almost compassion in Danel’s voice.

“Maybe he only touched him for a second?” Kye said.

“He’d be responsive by now.”

I stared into Kye’s eyes. I wanted to touch her beautiful face, her full lips. And as if she was reading my mind, she stroked the side of my face with her fingers. Danel got up and started checking if anyone else was alive.

A fierce pain swept through my entire body and I closed my eyes and my mind fell into blackness.

CHAPTER 39

 

A DEEP AGONIZING PAIN WOKE ME. I tried to open my eyes but couldn’t. There was another moan and a stabbing pain in my bones and muscles. I could feel myself again. I could feel my body shudder with each new wave of pain as my body tried to stretch and push itself out to compensate for something that shouldn’t be there. I must be dying.

I could hear people talking around me. I could hear voices, but the pain was so intense I couldn’t understand their words. The images came again, forcing me to see, forcing me to remember memories that were not mine.

I saw their arrival as they landed on Earth. I saw the relief in their eyes to find a planet with an atmosphere similar to their own and their curiosity at their foreign surroundings. And then the blinding sun came up over the horizon. I saw Ben later discover us; the frail ones, he would call us. We were barbarians speaking a crude language and we were violent and dirty. Then, pictures of aliens swept through my mind. I knew their names. Alma was his life mate and she was pregnant with Aeyan. And others were beside me, I mean Ben, on our arrival. Darius was the oldest still alive, an ancient one. They watched humans for many years. They watched as we became more and more organized, civilized. Then, the aliens slowly emerged topside in the darkness and introduced themselves in a perfect tongue native to the humans.

Another wave of pain raced across my body. I could feel myself shudder under it and more images roared through my mind. As time passed, a large group of Tanjennians were captured and restrained and some were dissected. The group included Danel and Ben. They were tortured by the same humans that they trusted. Several humans rebelled and set them free and when they did, Danel and Ben killed every human in that village — even the children. I could feel Ben’s pain for the loss of his brothers, his son Makias, who had made the trip to Earth with him. I could feel his rage and his sorrow as he killed the humans.

Then, they stayed underground for years upon years. I tried to stop the images, to only think of Kye or Aaron, but they just kept coming, roaring through my mind. There were images of genetic experiments for reproductive purposes. I only saw a human every hundred years or so. There was a dark skinned man in tribal clothes and then there was a pale woman in white Roman robes exchanging information with them. Then I saw sickness plague the female aliens and I watched them die, one after another and then all experiments stopped for a while. 

I wanted all of this to stop. I needed it to stop before I completely lost my mind. I needed to close my mind’s eye. But nothing halted it, just more images and more voices from the past, from Ben’s past. It felt like it had been days, or even weeks, that had passed and I thought I would die from sheer insanity. I knew I could open my eyes, but I saw nothing beyond the images. I still couldn’t move and I felt each labored breath I drew in. Each one felt draining and each moment in between them seemed more uneven. After what seemed like an eternity, it finally stopped. The images just stopped altogether and finally there was darkness.

CHAPTER 40

 

WHEN I WOKE UP, I thought we were still under attack for a moment. There was a blinding light over me and I strained trying to hear Kye’s voice, Danel’s voice, anything familiar. I knew I was alive because of the pain radiating through my body. I tried to lift my hand over my eyes to shade them from the light, but I was so weak that I could only hold it up for a moment and a panic rose in me. Then I heard the soft murmur of Kye’s voice, then Aaron’s and there was the sound of footsteps drawing closer to me.

“Lewis, try to stay conscious,” Kye said, “I’ll dim the lights.”

Kye was here with me. Just this thought calmed me. Her voice was mesmerizing and my head swam with memories of her. Quickly, I realized that these were not my thoughts. I didn’t know Kye fifty years ago. I tried to push them aside and focus on her presence. When the lights dimmed, I could finally see my surroundings. Kye was on my right side, Aaron was on my left and Danel and Collin were at the foot of the bed. I could feel the warm blanket over me and I knew I was completely naked under it and I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I felt weak and it was hard to focus and my emotions were so intense I thought I would start screaming.

I looked at Danel and Collin at the foot of the bed and I felt something for both of them. I felt a fatherly love for Collin, almost a relief in seeing him again. And for Danel, I should have felt anger, but I didn’t. I felt concern for my brother. I understood their expressions perfectly, as if I’d looked into their eyes a million times.

Yet Aaron looked different from the others. Staring at me nervously, he was scared and concerned, not excited.

“I knew you’d be fine,” Kye whispered, leaning over me, her long hair brushing the side of my face as she stared into my eyes.

I pushed the emotions down and was now engulfed in the smell of her hair. There were light hints of lavender and lilac. She seemed very pleased, as if she knew something that I didn’t.

“How do you feel?” Aaron said, his eyes now growing wider, still not smiling.

“I don’t understand. Was I injured? I’m in a lot of pain.”

There was a slight pause from everyone.

“Oh, bro, you’ve been through a lot more than you know,” his face still lacking that sign of relief I was looking for.

Now I was getting worried.

“What do you remember?” Kye asked.

So many things ran through my head that all I could do was answer with questions.

“Did Station Ten arrive? How many did we lose in the main hall? Are we still on Earth? Is Ben dead? Why did you say they wanted the ship?” I pointed the last question to Danel.

I was starting to remember Ben’s memories and all the lies I was told by Danel. I noticed their expressions had changed. Not only did I succeed in confusing Kye and Aaron, but Collin too. And Danel only sighed.

Danel slowly moved toward the side of the bed where Kye was. He was no longer intimidating, even in my weakened state. There was a long pause. All eyes were on Danel now instead of me. He looked completely different to me. Not so alien, not so terrifying. The ever-so-slight slump of his shoulders I wouldn’t have noticed before. The small rise in his forehead as he closed his eyes was non-threatening. He didn’t look sad; he looked humbled. And I felt for him. He was my friend; my dearest, closest friend. I knew these were not my emotions, they were Ben’s, but I couldn’t stop myself from feeling them. Finally, he spoke.

“Yes, we are still on Earth. Station Ten arrived a little later than we hoped. Ben is dead; we lost ten in the main hall and the rest can be answered by your own memories in time.”

Everything he said was honest and I believed the memories would answer the rest, but they weren’t mine. My head started swimming again and I physically trembled. They were so real, for a brief second I wasn’t in the room anymore. I was escaping the humans with Danel, running as fast as I could, knowing he was running right beside me as I carried my dead son in my arms. I shook my head again and I was back in the room. Kye was there. Everyone was still there.

“Just rest for now. Collin will give you something for the pain.”

But I couldn’t relax. Aaron’s expression hid nothing and something was clearly wrong with me. Suddenly the pain overwhelmed me and shot through my bones as if they were broken. It was as if all of them were broken and all my muscles torn and I yelled through my gritted teeth and focused on Aaron.

“Do I want to know?” I grunted through the pain. I was too afraid to look at my body and find something crushed or missing.

“You’ll be okay” was what he said, but nothing in his face backed the statement. There was no underlying belief in his words. This only made not knowing even worse.

“You need to rest. You have… absorbed Ben.” Kye’s voice faded out as my body violently shuddered with more pain.

“I thought he was dead?” I managed to mutter.

“We have the ability to leave behind our knowledge and feelings. It will pass.”

“Collin is going to give you something now. We just needed to know that your neural pathways were still intact.”

Her voice faded out again as a new wave of memories and feelings flashed through my mind. I closed my eyes and tried to shake them out, making my mind a blank slate. After a few seconds, I could see again, but Collin was already injecting my IV with something. I knew it was a painkiller. I started to feel sleepy as the pain subsided. So I lifted my hand and stared at it, because somehow I knew it would answer my questions. My veins were glowing purple and my skin was translucent and then all went black.

CHAPTER 41

 

WHEN I WOKE AGAIN, I hoped and prayed it was all a dream. But you can’t convince yourself of that when an alien is looking you in the face.

Collin was there, smiling at me and the severe pain was gone. I noticed my feet were hanging off the bed by at least twenty inches. I pulled down the sheet over my abdomen and noticed all of my body was a translucent grey color. My veins had spun themselves into light-purple distorted circles, moving and glowing under my skin. I pressed on them and they faded for a second then slowly reappeared at the surface of my skin continuing to rotate. I wasn’t human anymore.

“Try to move slowly. It will take some getting used to.”

I said nothing as I slowly swung my legs over the bed and sat up. Every part of my body was sore and ached intensely with every movement. There were no memories from Ben. I tried to stand, but found it a little difficult, as my balance seemed off. When I got some control over my very sore muscles, I stood up and I was certain I would vomit. I felt sick and disoriented.

“We’ve never seen this before,” Collin said.

It was just him and me in the room. I felt a great desire to hug him, to tell him how proud I was of him. I quickly shoved this feeling down, knowing it was not my own. Ben was still with me.

Something was different besides the obvious. I was looking Collin in the eyes, instead of up at him. I looked down at my body and it seemed to still be human-like, just larger. I wondered if my eyes were alien now. I no longer had any IVs attached to me and was dressed only in a pair of large surgical scrubs. I noticed a mirror in the back of the room above a sink and walked towards it, feeling every throbbing muscle with every step. Collin watched my clumsy movements. I had to duck under two overhead lights and my head was very near the ceiling. When I got to the mirror, I realized I was larger and taller than Collin was and had to bend down a little to look at my face.

When I saw myself, I now understood the last expression I saw from Aaron. My eyes, thank god, hadn’t changed into glowing slits and it was like twenty years had been removed. There were no lines, no age spots and my eyes glowed blue, with no pupils to be found. I looked at my hands, but I hadn’t grown any extra digits like the others. My hair was now thicker and softer, glowing blue like my eyes — almost like very thin fiber optics —but it still felt like my hair. I looked at the rest of my body. My muscles seemed larger and my belly button was gone, but what about the rest of me? A new panic rushed through me as I stripped off my pants to make sure I still had all of my parts. With every moment came another twinge of pain in my muscles. With a huge rush of relief, I was still male and everything was accounted for, just larger. I would’ve smiled, but I became acutely aware that Collin was staring at me. I quickly put the scrub pants back on, almost falling over in the process and turned and faced Collin.

“Never seen what before?”

“No human has ever survived a merge with a dying elder before… no one,” Collin replied.

I contemplated his statement carefully, checking to see if all of Ben’s memories were still there. They were and it felt like an enormous amount of information, like my brain had become a database. I could access them, but they no longer raced over me. They were all muddled together, hundreds of scattered images and I couldn’t make sense of them. I would need to take time to review them again now that I wasn’t in great pain. It was a little easier than I thought it would be to just not think of Ben and all his stuff in my head.

“You’re not the first human to touch a dying elder. I’ve never observed it in my lifetime, but it has been documented diligently.”

“So why am I alive?”             

“We have no idea… but if I had to guess, there’s a mutation in your DNA that allows it. Somehow it’s adaptable, most likely in the chromosomes we consider junk. The ones we haven’t studied. What’s really amazing is that we’ve been combining our elements with humans for thousands of years, but you are, or were, completely human, so the fact that you could survive is astonishing.”

I didn’t share his excitement. I would rather have Ben still be alive.

“How long have I been out?”

“Three weeks. We have already drawn blood and begun testing on your DNA.”

Three weeks seemed like an eternity to me and I felt it in every muscle.

“Where is Kye?”

“Sleeping. It’s one-eighteen in the morning; she left here an hour ago. Are you in any pain?”

“Just really sore.” I was actually more than sore, the muscles in my legs felt torn, but I didn’t want to be in the medical lab for another night.

His eyes widened, amazed at me. I was a fluke. I stumbled twice trying to get back to the bed and Collin grabbed my arm to help me. And I felt Ben inside of me again, wanting to hug his son. It was a very intense urge and I wasn’t able to shove it down.

I stopped Collin by grabbing his shoulders and he turned toward me as if I was in pain.

“I’m so proud of you and I love you, all of you,” just fell out my mouth as I wrapped my arms around him. And Collin, to my shock, embraced me as if I was his father for a moment.

“Thank you,” he said, as he pulled away from me. “You will feel my father for a long time, possibly forever. If you can control his thoughts and feelings and decipher between which are yours and which are his, you will be fine. I was really hoping that all he was hadn’t been lost.”

I let go of him completely and let my arms fall to my side as I sat back on the bed, confused by my own actions.

“Is he alive inside of me?”

“It’s hard to explain. We feel differently than you, very intensely. Our emotions literally drive our actions, which is why it’s so important for us to base our thinking on logic, not delusions or denial. It’s collective; you may soon feel what we all are feeling. So be careful to keep your emotions rational. Humans have a tendency to live outside of reality. Ben’s emotions are inside of you, his memories. Could you feel me a second ago? What I was feeling?”

“A little, but I’m no father, Collin. I can’t be your father; I’m lacking in that department.”

“You spent your whole life protecting people; you’re a better choice as a recipient than you think.”

He was being so logical about all this and then he paused and looked down.

“Lewis, Ben’s clone cannot be completed without the essence you absorbed.”

This hadn’t occurred to me.

“Is there a way you can take him out of me?” I said, my face full of remorse, like I’d stolen something.

“At this time, I would say no. It’s mutated your own DNA; even if you died, I wouldn’t know how to retrieve it. But it doesn’t matter now. All the clones were destroyed when we were attacked.”

This was horrible news. Ben and Alma and so many more couldn’t be cloned. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that he was treating me like I was Ben. I didn’t think I’d be living up to his expectations any time soon. It was clear he wanted me to take Ben’s place, I could feel that much. I wondered how Danel would feel about it and I smiled at the irony of it. Now, I could free Kye from Danel, or maybe this would make things more complicated.

Quickly, I realized I didn’t exactly know what happened after I touched Ben in the main hall.

“Everyone who survived is fine?” My voice was dry and my throat was dry and I sounded like an old man. As I grabbed my throat, Collin filled a glass of liquid and handed it to me. It was not water; it was pink and glowing and I was reluctant to drink it. It smelled almost like orange juice or mango juice and before Collin could persuade me to drink it I’d gulped it all down.

“The ones we lost have been mourned for already and we were unable to merge with any of them. They all slipped away and no clones were prepared for them. They were all children like me.”

This basically meant he’d lost almost his entire family. I felt sick and didn’t know what to say.

“I’m sorry.”

This information struck me hard and I could feel his pain. Surely they had a heaven.

“You don’t have a heaven?” This was one of the many things I almost never discussed with anyone.

“Our heaven is combining ourselves with our loved ones forever. Cloning the elders is a new concept for us. We’ve never extracted an essence, but I believe it’s possible.”

“Merging.”

“As you like to call it, yes.”

“So there’s no euphoric heaven for you?”

“It’s a human concept. I do respect your beliefs, but it’s different when you have met the people that have written them.”

This was a conversation I never thought I would be having with Collin. It wasn’t that I was grounded in faith, but for some reason, I thought they were. I tried not to dwell on his response. Grief started to pull at me and I could tell that Collin noticed it, so I tried to think of something else. I tried to remember what happened in the main hall.

A powerful emotion swam over me and I could feel Collin more clearly. I could feel his sorrow for just a moment before he separated himself from it. It was his mate; she had died. She was only here for a short while from another ship; they had a distant relationship. I drew all of this from Ben’s memories and Collin’s emotions. I wanted to leave the room quickly. I didn’t need Collin feeling my pain or all the rage I had hidden in the recesses of my mind for every killer I hunted down when I was a detective. He seemed to acknowledge this as he looked down and walked across the room away from me.

“Your suite has been slightly altered for your size. The ceiling height was adequate, but we had to change the furniture and get you some clothes. Aaron has chosen his own private quarters, but I am happy that he is still with us.”

Aaron had stayed. Aaron was unharmed. This was a relief and I couldn’t blame Aaron for wanting his own room, at least not until he knew I was still me… if I was still me.

“Please tell me Jessica is okay?”

“She hid, like Aaron told her to and she’s alive.”

“Unharmed?”

“Yes.”

“Collin, I’m so sorry for your loss. I didn’t mean to touch Ben,” I said.

“It was obvious he meant to touch you, to bond with you. He couldn’t hold on much longer and I’m pretty sure he was hoping it wouldn’t kill you.”

There was a long moment of silence and I didn’t know what else to say. Collin was grief-stricken. He had lost a father and many siblings and I’d lost a good friend, possibly the only Tanjennian that accepted me.

“I think I’ll just go to my suite, if that’s okay,” I said.

“I can take you there to freshen up. Be careful what you eat; we don’t eat meat. Our bodies can’t process that type of protein.”

He then reached over to me and flashed a bright light in each of my eyes. Maybe I did still have pupils and just couldn’t see them. The bright light didn’t bother me and he immediately noticed this.

“If you feel up to it, I’d like to do some stress tests in the morning. And there are a number of people who wanted to be alerted when you woke. Kye and Aaron and a few others—”

“No,” I interrupted him, “I need some time to think.”

“I understand.”

“I know where it is; that’s where I’ll be.”

I didn’t want to feel his emotions anymore and I was eager to leave. I headed down the long corridor with bare feet and just scrub pants on, trying to get control over my awkward body.

After I entered the room, I searched for Aaron’s feelings. He was in the room next to me, dreaming of something that pleased him and I could sense Jessica was in his arms. I realized I could differentiate between his and the others emotions. Actually, I was surprised I could feel him at all, because the others couldn’t feel humans. I closed my eyes briefly and felt two aliens across the hall, one of which seemed suddenly alert. Maybe this searching was inappropriate.

I could feel confusion in the one I alerted and he suddenly brushed against me, as if he reached out and touched me. It was like thick air swept across my chest, air that was full of energy and emotions. He was definitely male and not upset by my probing. All of it felt very eerie. I tried to push up an emotional wall and was able to cut my tie with the room next to me. I could only guess that he didn’t get up and knock on my door because he didn’t know me or because of the hour. 

Then I searched for Kye’s feelings and found her, also sleeping about five rooms down in her same quarters. She was very troubled by something she was dreaming of. I wondered if I could wake her up just by calling to her and if everyone would hear me. I thought about trying to push my emotions towards her and brushing against her as the alien across the hall had just done to me. I tried to push out my feelings to her but only for a moment. Reluctantly, I shoved this thought aside and showered and tried to find something besides a suit to wear. I finally found a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt to put on and I became extremely aware of how hungry I was.

In the fridge, I found all kinds of vegetables that were not of human origin. Their smells enticed me and I tried a little of each of them. Some were sweet and some very pungent in odor. I consumed almost half the fridge before I felt full. I had no desire for meat, even though I thought about it and the alien food stayed down just fine. They must have been shipping them in, because I remember that we had destroyed the gardens when we were attacked.

Then I remembered Danel hesitating in the control room and pointing my gun in my face. For a moment, I wanted to track him down in the middle of the night and put a gun in his face. But I had to let it go; I was too exhausted and too sore to do anything like that right now. I could feel Ben’s compassion for Danel inside of me and I tried to let that go, too. Yes, Danel and I would discuss this soon, very soon. They would all know his betrayal of the human that tried to help.

But Collin warned me I would need to control my emotions, this anger I had for Danel. I tried to access Ben’s thoughts on Kye, but found nothing. I couldn’t access the information for some reason. I seemed to be almost locked out of some parts of Ben’s memories, or maybe it was just too scrambled still. This bothered me, but I let it lie for the night, I needed to rest my very sore muscles now that I had some food in me.

Then, the door to the suite opened. I wasn’t alarmed; I knew it was Kye. I’d woken her up just by reaching out for one second and I knew she was alone. I could sense this without looking. I raised my head on the pillow and she looked wonderful and I felt like I hadn’t seen her in decades. I felt like I spent the last three years of my life just dreaming of her. She was in some shorts and a tank top. She gave me a glowing smile and closed the door behind her and turned the lights off.

Slowly, she walked towards me and I could feel that she missed me, too.

“You’re awake.” She looked elated and relieved. And she didn’t mean “awake” like I was sleeping, but rather “awake” like I was alive. She tried to calm her excitement. I could feel every emotion she was experiencing. This was a relief. I wasn’t sure if she was only drawn to the human part of me.

“Are you in pain?”

“Just sore.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d wake up. Some days it sounded like your bones were breaking,” she said, her eyes lining with tears.

“I’m fine. Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Z has been with me this whole time, but you have to be careful. You can’t reach out to us like that when we’re sleeping. We are very sensitive. It felt like you were grabbing me and shaking me out of my sleep.”

Her voice was breathy and seductive. I almost didn’t hear her words because I was listening so intently to the tone of every syllable she spoke.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to stay awake. Sleep was creeping in on me, which didn’t make any sense. I already slept three weeks, or maybe I didn’t sleep at all. She crawled into the bed with me and curled up next to me putting her head on my shoulder and her arm around my chest. She smelled like jasmine. My beautiful Kye was with me. I hadn’t lost her. A peace filled me inside and even though I could still sense sadness around her, her emotions also revealed how relieved she was to see me.

“I’ve been watching you change. It seemed very painful,” she said.

“I don’t remember much.”

“Keep in mind Danel can sense you, too, but I can teach you how to block him. It’s like putting up a wall.”

“Screw Danel,” I said, letting out a sigh of exhaustion. “Reach out to me, like I just did to you when I woke you.” I didn’t want to wait to feel her in that way. I wasn’t certain she could do what I was doing, but since she felt me, it seemed logical that she could do the same.

“No, not like that. Let’s try something else; it’s like a whisper,” she said.

Suddenly, a warm sensation ran over my entire body, as if it was humming and I could feel her presence inside of me. I reached back in way that was possibly inappropriate and she let out a light gasp which I knew had nothing to do with pain. So I stroked her hair and let her caress everything inside of me. I shoved aside any thoughts that were Ben’s, not caring who else could feel it and we fell asleep, entwined in each other emotionally.

CHAPTER 42

 

KYE WOKE ME around seven-thirty and the coffee was already made. The feeling of her was gone, so I closed my eyes and reached for her emotionally and it was like a wall was up. I was unable to find her, even though she was in the room with me. She let out a light laugh.

“Later,” she said, smiling.

“I don’t know if you can digest this,” she said, handing me the coffee as I sat up in the bed, “so be careful. It will cause a lot of pain if you ingest something that isn’t compatible with your body. Take small sips at first.”

She seemed in a hurry to get out of the room, but she still leaned over and kissed my lips lightly.

“Everything okay?” I said.

“Danel just woke up.”

This explained everything for me, but I was curious why I didn’t feel him. I didn’t want to reach out to him and I was assuming that their bond was closer than I wanted it to be. I wondered if she knew where he was at every moment and if he knew the same about her.

I knew Danel would pissed. He was always pissed off about something, but I couldn’t stop staring at Kye. With my new eyes, she was absolutely stunning. Her translucent silvery skin now had a blue hue to it, or rather I could see the blue and green hues in it now. I grabbed her gently and pulled her down on top of me and she acquiesced.

“Tell me now: do you want to be with him?”

“No.” There was no hesitation in her answer. Her answer was definite, but she was clearly not telling me something.

She gave me a smile, kissed my neck and left with no further explanation. I jumped out of the bed with a renewed energy, consumed two pounds of alien vegetables in the fridge and tried the strong black coffee. It smelt great and went down smoothly. Maybe I could consume both foods. I would have to look into this further. Suddenly, I could feel Danel. He was moving this way towards my suite and he wasn’t hiding his emotions.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” hesaid, coming right through the door.

I stood up just to intimidate him. I hovered over him at least six inches taller.

“Jealous?” I said, grinning ear to ear. He knew that Kye was with me all night. I wondered for a second if it kept him up and the thought pleased me even more.

He stood there looking up at me, shocked at my growth. Apparently, he wasn’t keeping an eye on me like Kye was. Nope, he wasn’t; he was hoping I would die. I could feel this. I could feel his utter disdain for me.

Politely, I motioned for him to sit down with me. To show him that even a Neanderthal, as he would say, could be civilized.

He sat down first, then I sat down, sipping my coffee. I could feel Ben’s emotions inside of me, more compassion for the very thing that considered killing me and then begged me to try and save his people. Emotionally, Danel was unstable. I couldn’t really blame him, could I? I was about to take his companion away, someone who had been there for him for the last ninety-seven years since his wife had died. I had no doubts he was attached to Kye and if he broke the rules to make her, he would break the rules to keep her, too.

“She doesn’t want to be with you. She’s not your captive anymore,” I said. Yes, I was calm, but my words were like knives. I could’ve chosen a nicer way to say this, but he had already put a gun in my face, so why bother?

“She was never meant to be a captive!” he snarled at me. It was obvious he was not used to people talking to him this way.

Meant to be. The confirmation that she was in some way a prisoner stung me and I let my anger slide across my face, hiding nothing, but I kept my voice calm.

“You considered killing me. Is it because I would take her away?”

“Check your own memories! Your people slaughtered mine!”

“Not my people. That was five thousand years ago.”

“Ben, I know you’re in there and why did you do this—”

“My name is Lewis!” I said, interrupting him. For a second, I thought he’d lost his mind, like Ben was just going to take over my body and start talking to him. Then I realized that I didn’t know if that was possible, so I tried to stay calm. At the very least, he was trying to overwhelm me with past memories and I wasn’t going to let him control the situation. Ben’s memories pressed forward in my head, along with his emotions. I could feel his compassion for this thing in front of me. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to comfort him, but I didn’t. I was almost disgusted at the thought. Successfully, I shoved it all aside.

I saw others crowding around the door that Danel had left open. Most of them were curious and wanted to see what was impossible, what had never happened before. They wanted to see me. I went over politely and motioned for them to give us a minute and closed the door softly. Even though I knew they felt everything we were feeling, or could if they wanted to. I tried to shut my emotions off for a moment. But before I could turn around, he was violently throwing me against the wall. He had me pinned. He was much stronger than I anticipated. He had his right arm jammed under my neck and his full weight behind it. I just looked down at him and smiled to toy with him and then I gave him a hard push across the room.

I didn’t use all my strength. Even though he had considered killing me in the control room when he had my gun pointed in my face. I still didn’t want to kill him. I wanted to hurt him, but not kill him.

“You think you can just come down here and take over!” he yelled, getting up off the floor.

“You think I asked for this? You could’ve warned me!”

Now my anger was consuming me and he was coming back for more. He grabbed me by the shoulder and threw me sideways onto the coffee table, which smashed into pieces. Unfortunately for him, he let me get back up. I charged at him, grabbing him by the waist and attempted to squeeze the life out of him while he swung repeatedly at my head, causing no real damage. I squeezed his sides tighter and tighter until he stopped swinging. I could feel the panic rising in him. He was strong, but old. Stamina had left him long ago. After a few moments, I let him drop to the ground and stood over him. He sat there, gasping for air like I’d crushed something.

“Are we done?” I said, calmness returned to my voice.

“She won’t be with you.”

“She doesn’t love you,” I said.

“You have no idea what you’re saying. She needs me.”

He let a grimace slide across his face and the confidence in his statement alarmed me a little. I thought about what he could possibly be holding over her. Maybe he could order her to be terminated, like Ben did the others. I didn’t know at this point, but I could sense affirmation in him. After he gained some composure he stood up glaring at me like this was my plan all along. And I did plan to take Kye away from him and he wasn’t going to change that.

“You lied to us. And don’t think for one moment that I didn’t see you hesitate in the control room. You kept Kye from telling Aaron and me about those things. And you really hoped that absorbing Ben would kill me. Gee, Danel, who should really be pissed, here?” I said glaring at him. “I can feel all of your feelings; don’t bother denying it.”

“You brought the device back,” he said.

“Inadvertently. Everything you did was on purpose.” And this was the sad truth.

After Aaron came rushing through the door, Danel got up and left, shaking his head. But it wasn’t defeat that filled Danel. I could feel everything about him and everything in the aliens beyond the door. But I felt something else from Danel: it was despair. Not just for himself, but for Kye and me. So I let him leave. Now I was more than confused.

“Wow,” Aaron said, looking up at me.

“I’m still me, Aaron.”

“By the looks of this place, I’d say yes, you are and you still have a temper, too.”

“I just want Kye and me to be together.”

“Well, good thing you took your time easing into the situation.”

“He attacked me, Aaron!”

He took a deep breath. As the others waited patiently outside the door, wondering what would happen next, I felt all of their confusion. Why was Danel so angry with me? Why would he attack me? Why had I changed when so many others had died? I tried to stay with Aaron in the moment, but their emotions were overwhelming.

“Lewis, they have lost half their people on this ship, including two elders. They may be a little out of sorts right now and you’re not making it any easier.”

“One of those creatures almost killed me. If only you knew what I knew. They didn’t come here to take their ship. That was a lie. They came here for revenge and the elders know why.”

Aaron looked shocked and frustrated. Suddenly, I felt foolish. I was acting like this was all about me. I didn’t even ask about Jessica. Quickly, I changed gears.

“How is Jessica?”

His expression changed and softened a little.

“She’s okay. But she lost two sisters, three brothers, her father. Lew, there’s only two elders left on this station. The others outside your door are from Station Ten. The only elders left from this ship are Danel and a female named Alma, who is dying.”

This struck me in a place so deep I almost fell over. Alma, my lifemate, my wife, the mother of my children. Ben was now present in a way I’d never felt him before. I grabbed the chair and almost collapsed into it.

“Where is she?”

CHAPTER 43

 

THE AGONY WAS UNBEARABLE. My heart was broken in a way I’d never felt before for a female who I’d never known. But in my mind I knew her better than anyone else in my life. All of Ben’s memories were rushing over me. Even though he hadn’t controlled my body so far, he was wreaking havoc on my emotions.

The others surrounding the door had backed up a few paces, as if I’d dragged them straight into my heart to feel all of my pain. Two actually left the hallway, walking swiftly in any direction away from me and my feelings. Kye was reaching out to me; I caused her alarm with my pain and she was drawing closer and closer to me in a rushed, panicked manner.

“Lew, you okay?” Aaron now looked alarmed and sat next to me as I put my face in my hands and tried to ignore Ben’s grief. I was unsuccessful again and tears began welling up in my eyes. I needed to get mad, I thought, to make this go away. I was unable to decipher which emotions were mine. I tried to sift through them and separate them, but nothing helped; the agony felt exactly like when I found Mother. My heart felt like it had been ripped from my chest and they weren’t even my memories. The grief was agonizing and I couldn’t move.

Then a violent pain shot across my forehead and focused behind my eyes, like my own brain was stabbing them from within. I stopped fighting the emotions, but it didn’t make the pain go away. I grabbed my head, grunting in pain and I could hear Aaron asking me what was wrong, but I couldn’t respond. All the muscles in my body contracted with pain, making it impossible to breathe anything but short, rapid breaths and I felt my body hunch over and fall to the ground.

Ben’s memories pushed forward and I could remember the agreement that he had made with Danel. Danel would absorb Ben’s essence if anything happened to him, or Ben would absorb Danel. It was the only way because Alma was sick, too sick to survive a merge. And I robbed Danel of this, of his duty.

Suddenly, something brushed up against my emotions aggressively, which shocked my whole body. It was Kye. The soft humming that was there last night was now like some invisible force lifting me off the ground and then dropping me. Then the pain stopped, but I could feel it starting to creep slowly back in. I tried to slow my breathing and curled into a ball on the floor, preparing for the next wave of pain that was growing more intense in my head.

Kye rushed up to me and put her hands on my temples and shushed me to be quiet. Slowly, a low orange glow radiated from her hands. I couldn’t see anything but the orange light inside of my head. When the knife-like pain finally dissipated, the glow left and Kye was staring me in the face.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, I think so.” My vision started clearing and I sat up gradually.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. There was this pain in my head, like both my eyes had been torn out. I was trying to control what I was feeling. I mean, what Ben was feeling.”

“You’re fighting it too much. Separation from elders’ emotions can’t be fast.”

“I thought I was the only one who survived?”

“You are… the only human, yes.”

“Then how do you know this?”

“It’s what happens every time they made a companion for the elders. I have felt exactly what you’re feeling.”

“I thought they couldn’t merge unless they were dying.”

“It’s different. With a companion, they merge with us mentally. It feels as if your mind is going to explode.”

“Then why do it, if they’re not dying?” I was totally confused now.

“So we love them. So we don’t reject them. So we are loyal.”

This was not the response I was expecting and I grew mad at Danel again.

“This was a long time ago, Lewis. Things have changed now and in the end, it was to their own demise. It cost them a lot more than you know. And maybe they can force our love for them, but they can’t control our love for others.”

I searched Ben’s memories. There were genetic experiments and large numbers of females dying that were somehow connected to their hybrids. Something had gone wrong, but I pushed them out of my mind quickly. I didn’t want the pain to return.

“Let’s go see Collin. He can give you something that will control the pain if it happens again.”

I got up and gave Aaron my normal nod that everything was fine, but then I was stuck in the moment of what had just happened. She had done the same thing to Aaron in the control room when he was attack by the one of creatures.

“Wait.” I said, grabbing her hands and looking into them for a moment.

“What was that? That thing you did to my head.”

“I stopped some of your synapses from firing in your brain. Thus, no pain.”

“Really?”

“I’m better with humans than my own kind and your brain is all human, still.” She stopped for a moment and was distracted by the busted table in the center of the room. “I knew you and Danel were going to argue, but this is ridiculous. You know I could feel you both the whole time. I think you really hurt him.”

I didn’t know how to answer her. Clearly, we were acting like children. I wanted to defend myself, but I didn’t. I followed her out the door, toward the lab.

“That synapse-halting thing you do. Why didn’t you do that with my knee when we first got here?”

“If you don’t recall, that first twenty-four hours were already pretty intense. I don’t think you would’ve let me,” she said, smiling a little.

She was right. At that time, I wouldn’t have.

“And when I was absorbing Ben?”

“You don’t remember?”

She paused for a second, looking me in the eyes,

“I came in every hour to stop them from firing.” She then made a sad smile, as if she’d hoped I remembered, but I didn’t. I tried to recall the same orange light, but nothing manifested. I had no memories of my change except for pain. I wanted to pull her to me, hold her, show her my gratitude… but I didn’t.

“It seemed to help. Just ask Aaron.”

She turned to leave and I quickly grabbed her hand.

“Thank you.”

CHAPTER 44

 

WE HEADED TOWARDS Med Lab 12 on the other side of the station and I was wondering why we weren’t headed to Med Lab 4; the lab I’d changed in. I could only assume that Collin was working on analyzing my chromosomes somewhere else on the ship. We headed down a long corridor and turned left and then another and another. We passed so many others, human coverts and Tanjennians, that I was starting to feel like I was in a mall and I was surprised at how many humans there were.

“I take it no one topside is aware of us yet?” I was concerned, especially with all the gunfire when Station Ten arrived.

“There are a few rumors floating around, but nothing concrete. No photos surfaced on the Web. Station Ten sent mostly humans, ex-military coverts we recruited. The others didn’t arrive until a few days later and we had to bring them in after dark. We got lucky, really. Station Ten informed all the coverts that there was to be no firing topside unless it was absolutely necessary, so not much was heard up there,” she said.

“Kye, I’m really sorry I couldn’t save them.”

She stopped in the middle of the corridor and others had to move around us. She almost seemed angry, but I could sense it wasn’t at me.

“Danel’s plan was a bad one. There should’ve been at least one armed person in the main hall. I wished I hadn’t listened to him. But it had nothing to do with you. I’m still shocked at how you ran to help my people. You have ten times the courage that he has. I remember that you told him it was a bad idea, but he didn’t listen and we lost a lot of precious lives because of it. My only regret is that I let you go alone, that I never warned you what happened when they died.”

The sadness in her voice pulled at me and I grabbed her tiny hand and caressed it for a second. She wasn’t going to let me blame myself, like I did with so many other things. I guess I was transparent to her and for some reason it was reassuring.

She started walking again, leading me through another long corridor and eventually stopped in front of two large metal doors.

“This is where Collin is studying the remains of the creatures, so don’t be alarmed; they’re all dead.”

Before I could even protest about being next to those things, dead or alive, she punched in the code and the giant doors slid back, revealing a brightly lit room. There were a number of humans and other Tanjennians, all in white lab coats, working in the large medical lab. All the creatures were laid out on large stainless steel examining tables, lined up in a row down the center of the room. My heart raced and I didn’t want to enter the room, but they were smaller now, somehow less terrifying. I would’ve been mortified if they had actually captured one and kept it alive.

Kye walked in and reluctantly I followed her to the back of the room where Collin was. She was explaining the pain I’d felt and my eyes locked on the creatures on the tables. I looked to see if any were moving, even the slightest twitch, but they weren’t. Some of them were literally blown into pieces. Not one of them had a complete skull and most were also missing a claw or an arm. I thought of the one that dropped down in front of me in the control room. I remembered how his body opened at the center and the black giant tar-like tongue that darted out and grabbed me. I grimaced and shuddered at the same time.

Collin handed Kye a bottle of glowing green liquid for my pain and sent us on our way. I shook Collin’s hand, said thank you and followed Kye out the door back into the corridor.

“You’re studying the creatures?” I said.

“Yes. We know nothing about them.”

“How do we know that was the last of them? That there aren’t more coming on another ship?”

She walked a little quicker.

“We don’t.”

CHAPTER 45

 

AFTER I DRANK the very strong painkiller Collin had given me, I woke up the next day, thinking about all that had transpired.

Something just wasn’t right. There were too many lies from Danel, too many looks of despair in Kye’s eyes. Why didn’t they just ask Danel about the creatures? He was held captive by them along with Ben and Alma. More secrets. Alarming scenarios started to breed in the back of my mind.

I got up and left the room. As I passed the others in the corridors, I sensed small parts of them. One seemed to shield himself from me, as if he was afraid. Another seemed concerned about me and met my gaze with compassion as I passed. His face was sad; for me, I think. He was Boyd. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he was Ben’s son. I searched my mind for information about Boyd. But I wasn’t sure what triggered the pain I felt yesterday and I didn’t want to relive it, so I tried just skimming the surface of Ben’s memories. Boyd was different from the rest. His compassion for others overwhelmed some of them. He was nothing like Aric, whose self-control was unsurpassed even by Ben himself.

I passed many and the urgency in my walk seemed to alarm all of them. There seemed to be more of them; a lot more. I recalled what Ben said the first time we met. “This ship is taboo, kid.” I guess all that changed when I survived. But I could tell I wasn’t what they were expecting. There were plenty of faces I didn’t recognize. I knew they were from Station Ten. They saved us and from what I could draw from them, they stayed behind to meet me. I caught a few of them looking at my hands, which hadn’t changed. There was one who seemed fixed on my hair, something that none of them had. I tried to slow my pace and guard my emotions and Ben’s emotions. Not one of them approached me and I didn’t think I was going to be approachable until I settled things with Danel.

Twenty minutes went by as I searched lab after lab. I didn’t even know what I was looking for until I heard a soft whisper in corridor G, which was supposed to be off-limits due to needed repairs. It was dark and empty and I tried to calm myself and lightly search out where the whisper came from. I focused, little by little and it reached out to me again, a light whisper at the end of the hall. It was Kye, but she wasn’t talking to me. I don’t think she knew I was here. Her voiced lulled me back into an utterly relaxed state.

Being as quiet as I could, I followed the almost-inaudible whispers into a dark medical lab. Staring deep into the room, I noticed the silhouettes of two figures behind a dimly-lit frosted glass wall in the back of the room. I focused again and could hear Kye’s whispers clearly now. My calmness left me and I grew irritated by the thought that she might be back here with Danel in some secretive discussion.

“Just a few more moments,” she said.

Then there was a gasp that was definitely pain-filled. That was all I needed. Five more quick steps and I was staring at Kye’s back. She heard me half a second later and turned around so quickly I thought she would fall over. She steadied herself and there was actually relief in her face when she saw me.

She stepped aside to let me see who she was talking to: it was Collin. He was noticeably in pain, lying back on a large examining table. He was gasping over and over again. His shirt was off and was draped over the end of the table. There were large black marks covering his chest that looked like bruises. Slowly, they started to fade and he said nothing, staring at me.

I wanted to know what was going on, but no one said anything. I pushed my emotions out to brush up against Collin, but I didn’t feel anything but pain, intense pain, so I withdrew. Ben’s compassion filled me at the sight of Collin. Quickly, I suppressed it and looked at Kye. I wanted to ask Collin if he was okay, but I knew he couldn’t speak. It seemed to take all his energy to block out the others, excluding me and Kye and just breathe. His breaths were shallow and focused. The purple gills running vertically from neck to stomach seemed to quiver slightly as he inhaled.

Kye leaned over him and turned on an IV drip filled with a pink fluid that was going into his hand. Then, he was out. The creases in his face relaxed and the purple marks on his chest completely faded. Kye seemed disappointed looking at him, shaking her head slightly.

“Is he sick? Why are you in this corridor?” I whispered to her, but she didn’t respond. She seemed stuck in the moment, looking at Collin intensely. So I got impatient and said something stupid.

“Are you trying to breed with him?”

Her expression clearly said no and I no longer felt threatened, just stupid. I tried to quickly correct myself.

“What I mean is… that I can’t stop thinking about you and worrying about the things you don’t say.”

This was honest, but not planned. It was a surefire way to push her away if she still didn’t want to tell me everything. I thought about all the conversations we had and none of them seemed to reveal what was really bothering her or what caused the sadness that seemed to envelop her. All I had was the vague understanding that she was somehow bound to Danel. I guess I believed it would fade now that I was more like her, more like her people and that I wouldn’t ever be leaving.

“I can’t breed, remember.” Her face was emotionless as the words left her lips, answering my original question. “But if I could, it wouldn’t be with Collin; he’s like a brother.” Her expression softened a little; as she sighed deeply, the blue and purple veins under her translucent skin moved inward, fading slightly. I could sense her grief. I slowly clasped her soft small hands into mine. She squeezed my hands and looked into my eyes, as if she desperately wanted to say something, something dreadful.

“What are you doing here with Collin?” My voice was full of compassion and love. Time seemed to crawl in that moment of silence as she contemplated what to say.

“I’m just trying to free myself, that’s all,” she said, tightening her squeeze on my hands.

“From me?”

“No… to you.” This confirmation of her feelings verbally did alleviate some of my doubts, but just augmented my own confusion of her connection with Danel.

“I don’t understand.” I pulled her closer and she melted against my chest and buried her face into it. She was already with me. And I was happy, but the statement itself just furthermore affirmed she was not wholly mine.

“It’s Danel. He won’t let you go, will he?”

She looked up and her eyes betrayed her. Her face was completely changed and I was getting mad.

“It’s not like that. It’s complicated.”

“Do you love him?” I knew she felt something for him; I could sense it in her and I almost regretted asking.

“Lew, he’s my father… my mentor, my—” She paused and then just stopped.

“Then, is it you? Can you let go of him?”

“I did many years ago. That’s not the issue.”

So it was Danel. I could feel my anger grow and she was acutely aware of what I was feeling.

“Lewis, we are connected, me and Danel,” she said, almost fearfully. She was trying to explain something to me. As if hurting Danel would in turn somehow hurt her. I didn’t want to hurt him. I just wanted him to leave us alone. I wanted him to leave her alone. But she said nothing to explain the secrecy of her meeting Collin here. She divulged nothing that would explain how she was bound to Danel. The only understanding I could muster was that she was trying to break that invisible hold that Danel had over her and somehow Collin could help her do this. I was guessing, but I felt pretty confident in my assumptions.

“He should have let me die a long time ago,” she whispered.

This statement utterly confused me. This made me angry with Danel and I wasn’t completely sure why. Yet I was certain that Danel was in control of what tied them together. To me, it looked like if Kye could’ve broken this link, she would’ve done it years ago. I couldn’t push her for more information; she would explain it to me in her own time. I held her tightly, knowing that she was trapped by him somehow.

Hybrid or not, she was not his property and I would do something about it. Something she certainly wouldn’t agree with and hopefully she would forgive me for. I would confront Danel and force him, one way or another, to release her to me. And now that I was changed and stronger than him, another confrontation sounded just fine.

I searched Ben’s memories for information about Danel and Kye, but it was jumbled together with memories of Romans and Egyptians in a tunnel-like view. I wouldn’t let Ben’s emotions for Danel cloud my thinking or my actions. I could sense Danel’s hatred for humans swimming over me, even now. I quickly shoved this out of my brain, my human brain that just wouldn’t show me the memories I needed to see.

I grew irritated by my limited human mind that wouldn’t allow me to know or remember what tied Kye to Danel. I wanted Kye; I wanted Kye forever. At this point, I had no choice. I would force him to let her go. I kissed her cheek gently and assured her I wouldn’t speak of this to anyone. I left the medical lab thinking of only one thing, which I masked from Kye: what I was going to do or have to do to Danel.

CHAPTER 46

 

IT HAD BEEN TWO DAYS since I’d seen Kye and, to say the least, I wasn’t happy. Not by her avoiding me, but by my own actions. Surely, she felt what I intended to do to Danel and she disapproved. She knew I would physically hurt him, if I had to. And no one was talking to me, not even Boyd. It was as if I’d already confronted Danel. It was like a private e-mail was sent out to exile me and I just wasn’t informed. Even Aaron was too busy with Jessica to notice I existed.

I found Boyd’s suite and tried to talk to him. I showed up with full humility and confusion, but he wouldn’t let me in. He brushed against me with his emotions, which were almost unbearable and I had to leave quickly. I felt sick with his presence; it was full of pain and love for Ben and Alma. It was like he was trying to warn me of something, but I literally bent over with nausea in front of his door. He seemed sad that I was now sensitive like the others.

I thought if I gave Kye some space that she would come to me, talk to me. Or that maybe I would discover something in Ben’s memories that I hadn’t seen before. But I didn’t and everything was still scrambled. I decided I would do what I wanted. I would search everywhere for Kye, even where they said was off-limits and if I couldn’t find her, I would threaten Danel. I would have a nice talk with him… no. There would be nothing nice about it.

I didn’t care if he was the oldest male now that Ben was gone. He wasn’t my boss and never would be. After one hundred and thirteen corridors and thirty labs, I headed straight for Danel’s suite. I paused for a long moment outside of his door, blocking everything I was feeling and thinking. I was getting better at this. I tried to access the panel to open the doors, but it was locked, so I pushed my entire weight against them and tore them from the walls themselves. I was shocked to see I was successful and I’d become conscious that I hadn’t tried to use all of my strength before.

I took two steps inside and he was standing in his living area with his shirt off. What I saw, I could’ve never imagined. He was quickly pulling his shirt on over one arm and my eyes were fixed on hers. Her gold eyes.

“Stop!” I yelled at him.

He stopped putting his shirt on and he sat back in the chair as if he was exhausted. And I saw her glowing, gold eyes. And I felt her sadness as she looked back at me. She was inside of him. The acid rose into my throat and my head was swimming. I closed my eyes for a second as fear welled up inside of me.

Her body was curled into his abdomen, making his chest and stomach swell. I kept staring at her, looking into her eyes and she turned her head away from me. I stood there horrified as her body shifted within his. Her legs were curled up under his skin and her head was embedded into his shoulder. I could see through his skin as she shifted around. 

It fell out of my mouth before I could stop it, “you’re a monster.”

He stood up quickly.

“Am I?” he said with disgust, “I have watched your species kill each other for centuries. Over religion, over race, over technology. I have witnessed genocide. So who’s the monster?”

“Release her,” I said. I wouldn’t be blamed for my ancestors. I wouldn’t be blamed for things I hadn’t done. I knew he was right, but it was not my doing. I spent my life protecting others, even those that didn’t deserve it. And yes, this was an enigma of proportions that I never could’ve imagined but she was still my Kye.

“I can’t. How do I put this? She can’t leave until she’s charged.”

Charged.

I felt a weakness in my knees as I stared at them. My stomach turned inside of me. Was this their bond? This wasn’t emotional; this was physical. Without knowing, I took a step back and my mouth was agape. It was dreadful how she was stuck inside of him. Despair ran over me and I knew she could’ve never told me about this, never. In order for Kye to live, her core had to be charged within him physically. Her maker; Danel. This was her shame. This was the secret. She would be bound to him forever. This is why they stopped making hybrids. Ben’s memories swam over me, confirming all of my fears.

I tried to calm myself as I stared into his body. She wouldn’t look at me, so I reached out emotionally to touch her in the softest way possible. I was blocked. By her or him, I couldn’t tell. My heart sank as I watched her inside of him. I wanted to rip her out of him. I wanted to stop this, but I didn’t know how. I just stood there. I tried to push out again, but this time with just love. Danel seemed to not notice and she turned towards me from within him and looked at me. I tried to push forward a thought that said, “I love you. We can deal with this.”

But how would we deal with this? I was helpless and tormented by the acute reality that she was truly trapped. I sank into a chair across from Danel and looked into his eyes. They had become foreign and distant, as if to say, you are not one of us.

“You hate us, don’t you?” I said.

“You sure you want to use the word ‘us’ still?” he said, smiling at my mutation, my unwanted change. I grew bitter at his statement.

“I’m still half-human and so is she.”

I watched as her eyes closed inside of him. I could feel her anguish; her heart was breaking, breaking for me.

“Actually, she’s more human than you, now.”

CHAPTER 47

 

COLLIN HAD COME RUNNING up to the broken door, panicked. I could feel him before he paused and looked in at the bent metal. Danel already had his shirt on. It was oversized and, although Kye was small compared to him, he still looked swollen in the chest.

Collin looked in on us as we both stood up.

“A misunderstanding,” Danel said, waving his hand at Collin to not ask about the door.

“It’s Alma,” Collin said. There was urgency in his voice. Danel moved towards the door and I followed.

“We’ll deal with this later,” he said, turning back to look at me for a second.

All of a sudden, I felt the others. There was concern; there was pain. Because we were arguing, we hadn’t felt what was going on at the end of the corridor. Alma was sick; she was dying. Ben’s memories pushed up from inside of me and I could feel my eyes starting to line with tears. I tried to push the feelings aside. What was happening with Kye was bad enough. I didn’t think I could handle anything else.

All three of us headed down the long hallway to a medical lab. All the way in back was a private room and two others were already there: Boyd and Aric. They didn’t acknowledge my presence.

Her breathing was shallow and labored. I immediately recognized her from Ben’s memories and my own. Ben’s thoughts recalled long conversations holding her in his arms, bonding with her emotionally. I tried again to push the feelings down, but the pain was fierce; my heart was breaking. Ben’s essence swam over me in full force and I felt like I would be knocked over. I couldn’t hold him back. I moved into the room silently and grabbed her hand into both of mine. Collin grabbed her other hand and caressed it. I was almost bent over in pain and the tears came and I didn’t care who saw. Boyd reached across and put a hand on my shoulder and I could feel his pain also. I could feel Danel thinking of his wife, who had passed many years ago.

Without realizing it, I found myself kissing the top of Alma’s hand softly. I quickly stopped myself and tried to shove Ben’s feelings away. I was only partly successful. Everyone seemed to let their guard down. Until now, I was completely unaware of everyone else crowded behind me. Alma was special, different. She and Ben had seven children. It was unheard of. She was the last mother on this ship and we were losing her.

Her breaths grew heavier and there was no glow from her at all. Her iridescent veins faded and her skin became grey as she released her last breath. A low hum sounded in the room from a machine in the corner and Collin walked over to shut it off. She was gone.

Danel moved quickly towards me and I didn’t care. I just wanted to hold Alma, but then his arms were on my shoulders pulling me away from her.

“Collin was chosen. You can’t touch her.” Danel was now angered again. I don’t know how I’d forgotten, but I had. Her essence would be stored in Collin until her new clone was ready. I moved away from the table and everyone was silent. Boyd and Aric were behind Collin, waiting. Would he be immobile like I was? Would he be in pain?

It had begun. Her essence began to rise out of her body. A luminous gas was slowly released from her and Collin held tightly onto her hand as it crept towards him. It was many colors, but mainly blues and reds, swimming in and out of each other, reaching toward his hand. He closed his eyes the minute it touched him. The gas moved faster now as it spread over his body and penetrated his skin. He didn’t act as if he was in any pain. I wanted to emotionally brush up against him, but it would’ve been inappropriate.

After all the gases had merged with him, he let go of her hand and started to drop to the floor. Boyd and Aric caught him and lifted him up onto the gurney next to their mother’s body. He was out, unconscious. Danel pulled at my shirt to suggest we should leave the room to let the children have some privacy. We walked out into the hall and I tried to compose myself. Danel seemed greatly affected and wanted to distance himself from the others, like he was disturbing them. Plus, he still had Kye inside of him. I didn’t know if the others knew, but with how swollen he looked, I didn’t think it was possible to hide.

Everything started to become clear. This was what Kye was doing with Collin, trying to merge with him, so she would no longer be tied to Danel. Kye was trying to charge her core with Collin. But it didn’t work. Collin had been in extreme pain because of it.

Alma’s lifeless grey skin lingered in my mind as I followed Danel back to his quarters. He seemed annoyed by my presence, but I wasn’t leaving until Kye withdrew herself from his body.

When he sat back down in his oversized chair, he looked exhausted. I said nothing. He actually looked physically ill and I saw the grey in his skin also. There were several places that I noticed had no glowing veins. There were dark grey patches in his neck, on his face and both hands, just like Alma. I saw what I’d never noticed before. Danel was dying. Why hadn’t I noticed this? How could I be so blind?

The circular glowing veins in his arms and neck appeared to be gone. Even his eyes were dimmed significantly. Ben’s memories told me Alma was over ten thousand years old, so why was Danel sick? He was half her age, half Ben’s age. I searched Ben’s memories and finally unlocked that part that I couldn’t see. It was the hybrids. That’s why Ben made it illegal to make them anymore. Even Alma had one that had died many years back. The hybrids literally sucked the life out of them. They would charge and it would drain their maker.

“She’s killing you,” I said.

He looked at me without shock. His expression merely said, now, you get it?

“But you knew this would happen and you made her anyway.”

“I see you are accessing all of Ben’s memories now.” He let out a deep breath and his eyes glazed over. I waited for him to speak; the seconds crawled by, but eventually he did.

“We didn’t know it would deplete us so fast and at first they just kept dying on us. It was devastating.”

There was sincerity in his voice that I’d never heard before. He was resigned to the fact that all was known to me.

“It’s a long story, Lewis, but in short, my wife wanted a daughter and she never got one. She was sick and passed many years ago. I found it unbearable without her, so I made Kye. And I still have no regrets, regardless of the outcome.”

His love for her radiated from him and his feelings slid over me like he wasn’t blocking me anymore. I searched Ben’s memories and found memories of Annalise, Danel’s wife. I found images of her and Danel, many of them, over and over. They were always together. I could hear her soft voice. I could see her gold eyes, the same color as Kye’s. When Annalise died, it was chaos; Ben was tormented by Danel’s pain. It affected everyone and Danel wouldn’t let her go, almost insane with remorse. I didn’t need to know anything else. I closed my eyes and tried to focus.

“So what happens when you die?” I said.

“The rest of the elders on this station are dead now. So when I go, there is no one for her to merge with. She will be unable to charge her core. Her core will be depleted within three days.”

“What about the clones?”

“Lewis, we are only able to clone elders and we have never actually restored an essence to a cloned elder. It has never been done and we don’t know how it will turn out. These are just theories. It’s just hope right now. Collin will be the first to try, with Alma and her clone won’t be ready for a century.”

“But it’s possible?”

“Anything is possible, if you ask Collin.”

All kinds of possibilities ran through my head. And a part of me was relieved to have the secrets out, no matter how sad they were.

“Why can’t the children merge with her?”

“We don’t know. Something about them being born here. We think the atmosphere of Earth genetically altered them.”

I felt panicked. There had to be options.

“What about the other ships? Surely they are more elders that would help.”

“None of them would even tolerate such a thought. Too many have died because of the hybrids. They are despised and it’s against our laws.”

“How much longer do you have?”

He shook his head a little and closed his eyes.

“I’m guessing but a hundred years, maybe.”

His physical appearance led me to believe otherwise, but it was a relief that we had some time. We had time to research, to plan some way to charge Kye. And we wouldn’t have to be secretive about it, not any more. I didn’t care if all the children knew. I would do whatever I could to save Kye.

“If we could find a way for her to charge with someone else, would your body heal?”

“Yes, but we exhausted all ideas hundreds of years ago.”

“How long will Collin be unconscious?”

“A few days, but he’ll be an emotional wreck when he comes to. I don’t think he knows what happened on our home planet at all. He will have many questions, just like you.”

“So you lied to all the children?”

I remembered Collin studying the black alien carcass like he had never seen such a thing. I remember Danel knowing that they could drown, as if he’d seen it happen.

“There was no reason to tell them we were enslaved by those things for thousands of years, that we were food to them. They herded us like cattle. We thought we’d killed them all when we blew up the suns; we just thought that more of us would escape. We thought we had more time than we really did. Let me rest now. Leave me.”

I didn’t want to leave Kye, so I didn’t move. He seemed irritated again.

“I will send her to you when she’s done. You must leave. I need to rest.”

Reluctantly, I left. I wanted to find Aaron and discuss everything. I wanted to find Jessica and see what could be done for Kye, but I was exhausted. I was emotionally wrung out from Danel, Alma and Ben’s feelings. I headed back to my room. I probed Ben’s memories again and Zero jumped into the bed like he was waiting for me. Zero was the only thing completely unaffected by my change, my mutation. I searched Ben’s memories again. I could see the women dying off one by one because they loved their hybrids, their children. I shook the thoughts quickly out of my head.

And somewhere in between a conscious and semiconscious state, things became clear. An epiphany struck me in the deepest parts of my mind, wrenching forward a truth that completely escaped me. I brought myself to full consciousness and opened my eyes to engross myself in the ideas that had become so concrete. My role was changing and my purpose was blurred, until now. 

CHAPTER 48

 

AS I ENTERED HER QUARTERS, she rushed up to me and wrapped her arms around me.

“I’m sorry-” she started, but I cut her off.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” I said, holding her close to me. “Are you fully…?” I didn’t know what to call it and I felt weird calling it anything at all.

“No, Danel became drained, so I couldn’t completely charge my core.”

I looked into her eyes and smiled. She seemed confused.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I lifted her chin and then looked into her eyes.

“How could I? It’s horrific. The look on your face when you saw me inside of Danel crushed me.”

“That whole situation wouldn’t have happened if you had just talked to me. You can’t imagine what I thought when I saw that. Kye, for just a second, I thought he ate you.”

A slight smirk escaped her lips at the silliness of my statement. The tension between us lifted for a moment and this was where I made her uncomfortable. I knew she wasn’t going to like my idea.

“I want to try something,” I said.

Her eyes widened and she knew what I wanted.

“No. I won’t do that to you.”

“I have Ben in me now. I’m the oldest now. Just try.”

“No, I can’t. Did you see Collin? That was just two hands and he collapsed.”

“I’m not taking no for an answer.” I was being firm now and I meant it. “There’s something different about my DNA. Collin said it himself. This will work. Didn’t you hear me when you were inside of Danel?”

“No, I can’t hear anything when I’m charging.”

She pulled away from me and tears streamed down her face. She quickly wiped them away and tried to compose herself.

“There is one Tanjennian that would have you believe you have no options, but I don’t think he honestly thought there were any.” I was talking about Danel. I doubt it ever occurred to him that I might be able to charge Kye.

She looked at me, shocked for a second and then her face changed.

“It would give Danel time to heal if you could alternate between the two of us until we found a way for you to regenerate a different way,” I said.

She thought about this and there was a different look in her eyes.

“I’m more worried about you. This could be very painful. You’ve been in enough pain,” she said.

“Just try.” I was begging now, pleading with her and she started crying again.

I took my shirt off and she seemed to be fighting with herself. I pulled her close to me and I felt her soften against me. I brushed my feelings up against her and I could feel she was considering it and it was terrifying to her, the thought of losing me.

“I will know if you’re in pain, so don’t bother lying.” Her voice was very low and there were still tears streaming down her face. I wiped them away softly, but she wouldn’t look into my eyes.

“You’ve seen what kind of pain I can handle. I doubt it will be anything like that.”

I knew that she loved me. She would much rather die than cause me pain. She was the last of her kind and I was the only one of mine. And the junk in my DNA is what made me survive and that junk would save her. I was counting on it. I could feel her despair and her hope. I reached into her emotionally with love and compassion. She didn’t block me and she let my emotions glide over her as she cried silently.

“If it’s too much, you’ll know,” I said, stroking her hair.

“And what if there’s nothing for me to connect to?”

“Then we’ll find a different way,” I said.

“Lewis, if I can merge with you physically, I can’t hear anything except your own heartbeat.”

“Then listen to that. Let it guide you.”

She pulled away from me and paced back and forth for what seemed like an eternity. Then, slowly, she undressed in front of me as if she’d done it a hundred times and I found myself smiling at her beauty. She pressed her warm body against me and I could feel her hands softening, becoming gel-like against my chest. Slowly, she pushed her right hand into me and I smiled at her. She studied my face, looking for any sign of pain, but there was none. Her eyes widened at the possibility that this wouldn’t hurt me at all. She pushed her left hand through my chest and still I felt nothing but pressure, no pain.

I knew now that I absorbed all of Ben, every part of him. I pulled her body up against mine, inviting her inside me.

“This next part bothers even Danel, so just take a deep breath.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

She pushed me toward the bed and I sat down on it and I pulled her into me. I could feel her melt into my chest. It was astounding how she could change the mass of her body, becoming liquid as she pushed through my pores. I could feel some pressure as she pulled in her legs and pushed her head into my shoulder, but it didn’t hurt. It was only a few moments before she was completely inside of me. Then, there was a rush. I could feel her reaching into every muscle, every part of me.

I didn’t know where Ben’s core was inside of me, but I knew it was there.

“Find it,” I whispered, as she slowly reached up my neck into my brain.

I could still feel her emotions. She was eager, no longer sad. She was amazed at what my body could do. She was in awe that I was fine emotionally and physically.

Then, she reached deeper into my brain and something clicked and I felt different. I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t see anything. I felt drained. I tried to stay calm to see if she could charge, so I leaned back on the bed. I felt nothing from her for a while and I started to worry. It had been only minutes since my sight had left. Then I felt her; the pressure was barely tolerable, but what I felt as she reached into my brain sent an excruciating wave of pain through every part of my body. I didn’t move and tried to breathe through it. I drew in slow breaths and shuddered as I released them. She seemed to pause for a moment and the pain dulled a little.

“Don’t stop, keep going,” I whispered, knowing she couldn’t hear me.

She reached deeper into my body and the pain started again. It roared through every nerve, from deep within me to the tips of my fingers and I let out a low groan. A sudden fear swept across my mind that she would find nothing and this would kill me. My breaths were shorter now and my whole body was reeling with pain. I turned on my side, not knowing if I was hurting her physically or crushing her. I could feel she was rushed, that she was panicked and searching. She knew I was in pain and I tried to fight through the pain, but it was useless. My body quivered in agony with every breath. Somehow she was affecting my optic nerves and I still couldn’t see anything. I tried to move my fingers and curled them for moment.

I could feel a humming deep in my brain. Kye was doing something and she seemed to relax inside of me when suddenly there was stabbing pain in my head. Every muscle in my entire body clenched and I let out a guttural sound. The pain grew as I tried to breathe. But I knew I was being pushed outside of consciousness. I tried to hang on to the pain as I yelled hoping she could hear me. Then the room drifted away from me and I was out.

CHAPTER 49

 

WHEN I WOKE UP, I wasn’t in Kye’s suite anymore. My vision was very blurry and I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was a little panicked to see I was in one of the medical labs, hooked up to an IV and several monitors. I slid my hands down my chest, but she was gone. She had left my body. I could hear Danel’s voice, but he sounded different. I tried to sit up, but everything ached, every muscle, so I stilled myself, leaning back on the bed.

Then someone next to the bed grabbed my hand and even though my vision was blurred, I knew it was Kye. I could feel her soft delicate fingers in my hand.

“Did it work?” I whispered but there was no answer.

My vision started to clear a little and she looked so beautiful in her deep red suit. She was beaming with joy. She looked happier than I’d ever seen her. That sadness had disappeared completely. And everyone in the room was staring at me. I looked at my hand again, afraid for a second that I’d changed into something else, but I was still the same genetically-altered human.

Collin walked toward a monitor next to the bed, shaking his head at me.

“Lewis, exactly how many times are you going to put yourself in danger? Because we can designate a room just for you, if need be.” He was almost laughing at me. And I was shocked at the cheerful energy in the room. Something else had happened. What didn’t I know? Even Danel looked pretty damn pleased.

Collin was conscious and he seemed better than fine.

“How long have I been out?” I said.

“About a week this time. I’m starting to think you enjoy being unconscious.”

A week…this meant that Kye still had to charge with Danel and immediately disappointment filled me. She needed to be charged ever three days so if I was out for a week she had been charging with Danel and would have to continue to do so. This was not what I wanted to hear.

Then Danel smiled at me. I’m sure he was happy that I didn’t really succeed.

Aaron then came into the room with his glowing blue eyes, just smiling.

“Hey, bro, how you doing?”

“Sore, but I think I’m fine, unless there’s something that someone hasn’t told me.” I searched around the room, but no one’s expression changed. “What the hell is going on?”

Aaron smiled at Kye and she smiled back — a big smile — and her eyes lined with tears.

Aaron spoke again, “well, bro, you see, your DNA is doing some pretty amazing things. Let me ask you something. Do you think you can do that again?”

“You mean, charge Kye? Yes, of course. That’s the plan.”

“No, you won’t need to do that. I’m talking about charging another hybrid.”

Now, I was confused. There were no other hybrids.

I looked Kye in the eyes and she leaned against the side of the bed and pressed up against me and kissed me. She was so soft against me and I simply didn’t care that everyone in the room was staring at us. I wanted to tell her I was sorry that it didn’t work. That I still loved her even if she had to charge with Danel. And then I saw Danel in the corner of my eye and my attention was suddenly drawn toward him.

I was expecting him to be walking toward me with a scowl, but he wasn’t. He was different. He seemed younger, healthier; the dark grey areas had diminished. The glow had returned to the arteries in his neck and his eyes were brighter and he was smiling at me, of all people. My vision was still a little off but it actually looked like a real smile.

“What am I missing here?” I said.

“You charged me,” she said.

I nodded my head. Maybe it hadn’t hit them, that it wasn’t enough. At least not enough to break her bond with Danel which was all I could think about.

“No Lew, you charged her completely,” Aaron said.

“What?” He wasn’t making any sense.

Emotionally, I brushed up against her and there it was. I could feel her core inside of her. It was very powerful. I almost couldn’t believe it and I kept reaching deeper into her.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yes. She’s been through every test we could think of. It appears to be permanent,” Collin said.

Permanent. That was the only word that stuck.

“How?”

“It’s possible the mutation in your chromosomes altered Ben’s core. We don’t actually know at this point. It’s also possible that when Kye merged with you that you’re mutation was transferred to her. We have found some slight anomalies in her chromosomes. We’ll need to do some more tests on you,” Collin said, rubbing the back of his neck looking dumbfounded at me. “Nothing has been completely conclusive. But what it really means is that she’ll never need to be charged again.”

My head was just swimming with this new information. Tears started to stream down Kye’s beaming face and I reached out and wrapped her in my arms. Emotionally, I pushed out all the joy and love I felt for her.

“What makes you think it’s permanent?” I said.

Collin then looked at Danel and I released Kye as she quickly wiped her tears away.

“That is an assumption. But based on the data we have, she has the strongest core we’ve ever seen.”

“So, do you think you can charge another one?” Aaron said.

 

Charged – Book Two – The Drid

 

Is available now. Sample to follow.

 

Sample of Charged – Book Two – The Drid

CHAPTER 1

 

I’D BEEN CONSCIOUS approximately ten minutes when the atmosphere in the lab drastically changed. It wasn’t subtle; it was like the air thickened all around me. With stiff muscles, I pushed myself up into a sitting position on the medical bed.

Two minutes ago, everyone was smiling and elated because I was alive and Kye would never need to be charged again. But now, their expressions revealed something else. I scanned their faces but all of them were fixated on Danel. He looked the most uneasy. His gaze locked onto the floor and his spider-like fingers were sliding back and forth over his palms. I started to worry about what could’ve possibly happened in the seven days I was out cold. I licked my dry lips, dreading the words I would hear next.

“We were ordered to execute them…I want you to know that,” Danel said.

Even before my mind registered the statement, I knew it was an excuse wrapped in an apologetic tone. It was the way he said it that threw me off. Danel was the facilitator of this station. A being of confidence and bitterness, but the sentence sounded like it had fallen from the lips of a small boy rather than a nine-foot tall alien. I looked at Aaron but he was stoic, didn’t even blink. Crazy thoughts entered my mind as Danel finally locked eyes with me.

“What are you talking about?”

If Danel was doing the explaining, it wasn’t going to be good and only half of it was going to be the truth.

He approached the bed and let out a long sigh as if this moment was somehow inevitable. He seemed hesitant and all I wanted to know was; who was killed? The room grew quiet and I was growing even more concerned as the seconds ticked by.

“Two hundred years ago when Ben was in charge of the stations, he told us to terminate all of the companions. We were certain they were draining our cores beyond any point of regeneration. All of the stations were ordered to ship them here to have them demolecularized and they obeyed.”

I tried to digest what he was saying but it was like I was physically struck. All I heard was that they didn’t just stop making companions. They murdered them. I grabbed Kye’s hand and squeezed it lightly. I could feel my facial muscles tightening into a scowl as I tried not to glare at him. He looked away from me and continued.

“After…after they arrived, I watched one hundred and ninety-three willingly enter the chambers and I just couldn’t watch it anymore. Thousands of Tanjennians fled to other ships, heart broken or enraged. That’s why there were only twenty-two of us here when you found this station.”

He paused for a moment and stared off into the back of the room. His eyes dimmed and he seemed stuck in the past. I could sense pain from him, but only for a second. He took a deep breath and refocused his eyes on mine. 

His wide, sad eyes didn’t lessen the disgust I felt in the pit of my stomach. And the first day I’d met Ben flashed in my mind. I remembered him saying, “this ship is taboo, kid.” 

I didn’t think Ben could actually do such a thing. I searched his memories and disappointment started to well up inside of me. I could actually hear him in my head giving the order. It was his memory but it was so vivid it was as if I was there when he said it. And once again, it was like I gave the order. I could feel everything he felt when he said, “put them in the chamber.” Even though I heard it in my own thoughts, I just couldn’t believe it. The images faded but his feelings of despair lingered just a few more seconds. Ben’s memories would be with me forever and this was the first time it really worried me. Why would he do this? Why didn’t he tell me?

Danel stopped pacing and continued.

“Alma and I managed to save twenty-five companions and stored them on level thirty-eight in the deepest part of the cyro dome. We’ve been keeping this secret for two hundred years. Even Alma kept it a secret until she died and her memories were transferred to Collin.”

And there it was, he wanted something. That would be the only reason he was ever honest with me. Not for one second did I believe Ben wasn’t forced into this decision. I felt confused and almost betrayed by Ben. He never said a word about the companions needing to be charged. Maybe he was ashamed. I could almost hear the explanation; he would save his people whether they wanted to be saved or not. I just couldn’t believe it.

The relief I had because Kye never needed to be charged again had dissipated completely. I immediately pushed up my wall so no one could feel me. The thought of one hundred and ninety-three hybrids being molecularly reduced to nothing made me nauseous.

“Why didn’t you just freeze all of them?” Even I could hear the bitterness in my voice as I watched Collin shift uncomfortably in his chair.

I could sense grief from him, but it wasn’t his grief, it was Alma’s. I’d almost forgotten that Collin was now probably struggling to control her memories.

“We exhausted all possibilities of regenerating their cores, nothing worked unless we charged them ourselves. We tried everything and I mean everything. Ben wouldn’t put them in stasis because he felt that it would only prolong a false hope. He thought that over time some would demand to have their companions returned even if they knew it would kill them. So when the order was given, it was made clear that anyone who didn’t comply would also be terminated.”

I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t believe that Ben established this law even though I had the proof in my own mind. The Ben that I knew couldn’t do this; he was incapable of genocide. Or maybe I didn’t know him. Maybe he was different when he established the law. He must have seen the error of his ways. Somehow, he’d changed through the years or Kye wouldn’t have been produced.

I tried to recall how Ben expressed himself to Kye and I could remember how kind he was to her. I knew he loved her. I could feel it inside of me, but I could also feel a deep sadness. Ben knew she was killing Danel.

Then Ben’s memories pushed to the front of my mind. It was only a second. No, it was less than a second but it was gut-wrenching. I could see the companions entering the huge chamber and then it was on. They all felt it; the void. The companions were gone.

I didn’t know what my expression revealed but Danel started talking even faster in a defensive tone. It took me a few seconds to shake off Ben’s memories to listen. The images faded quickly.

“I was following orders, we all were. We are not proud of ourselves and what we did was self-serving and vicious. I am aware of this. But many voted against it. Try to understand the tragic situations that would have arose if we left them in cryo stasis. After enough time, the elders would retrieve their companions possibly by force. They then would have no other choice but to flee topside. You didn’t even exist the last time we had problems with the humans. It would’ve been sheer chaos for your kind and ours,” he said.

I had no response except a rigid frown and I looked around the room wondering if I’d misjudged the entire Tanjennian race or just Danel and Ben. I couldn’t imagine any Tanjennian doing anything by force other than Danel. And of course I had to notice that he said, “many voted against it,” not I voted against it.

“But he let you make Kye? Why didn’t you tell him about the others then?” I said.

He paused again and took a deep breath.

“When he found out about Kye, he almost had her terminated. I begged him not too. So, we agreed to keep her a secret. Everyone on this station agreed. Kye has never been to another station without the foundation, without the contacts. She always made contact as a human covert.”

I wondered why I hadn’t made this connection before. There were thousands of Tanjennians on Earth and only twenty-two on this huge station. And none ever visited until I survived merging with Ben.

Danel shifted his weight to his left side and he started to radiate more light under his skin. He was nervous.

“Only you possess the capabilities of giving us another chance. You could charge their cores; the ones we’ve hidden,” Danel said.

I knew it coming when he said they hidden twenty-five of them. That’s what he wanted. He wanted me to charge the rest. There was a hint of desperation in his voice. Danel then brushed up against me emotionally and I felt despair, guilt and pain. He wasn’t holding anything back today; he was more than desperate. And for once, I was actually more pissed at Ben, than Danel.

Yet, nothing could change the past. This was two hundred years ago and humans had done so much worse hadn’t they? I knew what he wanted, what they all wanted. I wasn’t going to judge them for something that happened two hundred years ago. At least, I was trying not to. If I was Tanjennian and my race was dwindling before my eyes, I would ask the same.

“And how does the rest of the station feel about this?” I said.

“Search their feelings, they are all on board but only because we told them how you charged Kye’s core completely. Of course, if you can’t charge another they would be put back into stasis,” he said.

I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself on the line for the others and everyone could see it on my face. I sensed a fleeting moment of sadness from Kye. I could only guess it was because she was hoping she would not be the only hybrid soon.

“And you’re certain that Kye is completely charged? I’ll never have to charge her again?” I said.

“Completely,” Danel said.

“We can make sure you’re not in any pain this time,” Collin said. He then lightly brushed me with his emotions and they were caring and honest.

I’d now been touched emotionally by more Tanjennians in ten minutes than I had in the last two months.

“You shouldn’t have merged with Kye alone. We can monitor you and make sure you’re vital signs are stable.”

This helped, but I didn’t think I could just keep charging others continuously. If it drained the Elders, eventually it would drain me too.

“And if anything goes wrong, Kye can actually pull them out of you. Her capabilities of manipulating her own mass is not limited to just herself. She can change the mass of other companions when she touches them,” Danel added.

His statement wasn’t reassuring. It was unnerving. I’m sure Aaron was fascinated but I still thought of Kye as human. I wondered how he could be so sure when Kye had never been around another hybrid companion. I looked at her and her expression only confirmed my thoughts. Her face was blank. There was no encouraging smile. She didn’t really know.

“What makes you think I can charge that many? Why are you so certain it wouldn’t kill me?”

“Remember when we discussed your DNA when you absorbed Ben?” Collin said.

I nodded my head.

“Well, we’ve been doing some research and you truly have some unique chromosomes, but they’re not all ours. So far we haven’t found the same in any other humans either but we have five thousand years of samples to test. We’ve only gone through a few hundred. This could be a common human mutation and your core has no signs of depletion from charging Kye.”

Yes, I was some kind of mutant. We’d already established this. It was confirmed by my very existence. But they were guessing, even I could see that. They didn’t really know. How could they? Just because I charged Kye, didn’t mean I could charge twenty-five more. I studied Kye for a moment. Her eyes were full of hope and longing. I squeezed her tiny hand and she squeezed back. She gave me a loving smile and she looked so alive, so beautiful. Her glowing eyes now had even more specks of gold around the edges of her irises. She was simply stunning and I drifted for a second as I gazed at her. How could they murder one hundred and ninety three companions like this one?

I didn’t hesitate to give Aaron a quick look that clearly said, I don’t know about this, and he slowly nodded. We would talk about it privately.

Danel smiled again a big metallic smile. “Just think about it, we have all the time in the world.”

A simple translation; it meant he had all the time in the world to change my mind if I said no. I thought he would be angry that Kye wasn’t bound to him anymore but he wasn’t. She would never have to charge with him again and he seemed just fine with it. Maybe he would let her go. I glanced over his neck and hands and he did appear to be healing. The glowing veins in his hands seemed brighter and the dark patches in his neck had completely disappeared. For a second, he almost looked grateful.

After Collin checked all the screens, everyone left the room but Kye. She sat on the edge of the bed just staring at me, smiling. She looked so stunning in the deep red suit and matching heels and I couldn’t sense any sadness from her at all.

“I wasn’t sure it would work,” I said.

“Neither was I.”

“You’re light seems different,” I said. I noticed the swirling illuminations under her skin were now yellows and pinks, before there were greenish blues.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had this kind of energy,” she said, stroking the back of my hand with her delicate fingers.

“Do I seem depleted to you in any way?” I had to ask and I knew she would be honest.

She reached out emotionally to me and closed her eyes. She was concentrating and pushing through me into my brain. Her emotions were open to me. She held nothing back and I felt love, joy, and relief. I became slightly aroused when she reached downward into my abdomen and she opened her eyes smiling and pulled her essence back. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Your core feels just like it did the first time I felt it after you merged with Ben. Do you feel any different?” She said.

“Slight headache, but other than that I feel fine.”

This was a lie. I wasn’t completely fine. Emotionally, I felt drained but I hid this from her.

She grabbed some clothes that were at the edge of the bed and put them next to me.

“Get dressed. We’ll get something to eat.” She then crossed the room and sat in a chair facing me.

I was completely naked under the sheet and I found it amusing that she wanted to watch me dress. Now, I was completely aroused. I pulled the sheet off me, got up, closed the door to the medical room and walked over to her. A gleeful little laugh escaped her. She pushed her essence through me again with longing and desire. I picked her up off the chair into my arms and kissed her hard on the mouth. She let out a sultry moan and I placed her on the bed.

“Lew, I can’t and won’t ask you to do it again; to charge another companion. It’s completely up to you.”

She said this like it was difficult to form the words, she was obviously thinking of something else. I brushed up against her again, reaching deep into her and she let out another moan. She was so small beneath me, so tiny. I tried not to put any of my weight on her.

“I just need some time to think about it,” I whispered into her ear as she gasped again. I hovered over her propping myself with one arm and undressing her with the other.

We didn’t make it to the main hall until two hours later.

After breakfast, I was left contemplating the one thing everyone wanted from me, if I could charge another one.

CHAPTER 2

 

STILL STUNNED FROM charging Kye’s core completely, I strolled back to my suite to check on Zero. Kye could sense that I wanted some time to myself to think and said she had other things to attend too. When I opened the door, the dog bolted toward me wagging his tail and I bent down and scooped him up. He was so tiny in my mutated hand. I could pet his entire back with just one thumb.

“I didn’t go anywhere. I’m here Z,” I said rubbing his head. I wasn’t in the suite for more than five minutes when I sensed Aaron approaching. I went to the door and opened it just as he was about to knock. He stepped back for a second thinking I was leaving but I just pulled the door open farther to let him in.

“You can link with me?” A curious smile appeared on his face, as he walked in.

I guess I never told him that I could sense humans.

“Actually, I felt you the night I woke up after I absorbed Ben.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“It’s hard to explain. It’s like there’s an emotional signature within everyone I know. It’s odd too because I linked with a stranger across the hall that same night and there was no signature because I didn’t know him. Then I felt you next door and I just knew it was you. With the stranger, I could feel what he was feeling. I think I actually startled him, but I only knew who he wasn’t. I think knowing who you’re linked too is made the first time you physically meet,” I said.

“Interesting. How you doing?”

“Honestly? When Kye merged with me, it was almost unbearable. For Kye..yes, I’d do it again. But everyone just assumes that I’m gonna revive all these hybrids. I was willing to risk my life for Kye, not for every hybrid they made. But at the same time, I do feel different,” I said, putting the dog down.

“How?”

“I can’t explain it,” I said.

“Do you feel sick?”

“No, not like that. I feel great.”

Aaron then smiled at me. Yes, I’d just showed concern because I felt physically better now than before I’d charged Kye. And it did actually sound ridiculous.

“That could be emotional relief,” he said.

“It’s not emotional. I mean, I am relieved but it’s something physical too.”

“We scanned your entire body a hundred times when you were unconscious. There’s no change. I studied each scan myself,” Aaron said.

I couldn’t pinpoint what was different but I knew in my gut something had changed. Aaron’s smile faded and he started rubbing his chin. The gears were turning.

“You know, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to charge them. It could kill you, there are no guarantees.”

I was expecting that spontaneous side of him to show but there was only concern. And the phrase, “it could kill you,” lingered. 

“I don’t think that I survived a merge with Ben, for nothing. I have to believe that there was a purpose for it even if I don’t like it.”

“You don’t think it was a fluke in your DNA, a mutation, do you?”

“No, I never have,” I said.

“Look, I understand that you spent most of your human life as a Seattle cop and that gave you a sense of purpose, but you are not a Tanjennian, you just look like one. And I know Ben’s memories can cloud this fact. You owe them nothing,” he said.

I couldn’t believe he was actually saying this. This kid, who dragged me to the desert and dragged me down here to this station was now telling me, “you owe them nothing.”

“You know that’s actually funny to hear it from you. I thought you’d be the first to agree with this. And I know you like your scientific explanations but I don’t need one,” I said.

“You see, that’s the problem. There is no explanation as of right now, so I can’t predict what can happen. I know you can feel Ben inside of you, but you’re not Ben. They have technologies and medical capabilities that they do not share with humans, things that would really help us. And I know that trying to save others makes you feel like you’re saving your mother but this won’t save her. It’s too late for that.”

That last sentence stung a little, but there was no denying it. I didn’t realize that he knew. Then it was clear he must have always known, that would explain why he never asked about her, because he already had the information.

“You always knew didn’t you?” 

“I knew the first day we met. You brought me that laptop and I wanted to throw it in a trashcan and light it on fire because I thought you were like the cops that locked me up. But before I did, I researched you and I found out you were nothing like them.”

“Lucky for me,” I said.

“Lucky for your computer,” he said smiling.

Since he already knew everything about me, I felt justified in asking him a few questions.

“Why were you in prison?”

I needed to know that he hadn’t done something truly terrible. And this fact had been etching at the back of my mind for the last three months. He was silent for a moment so I started making some coffee. He sighed like he didn’t want to have this discussion and sat down at the table. I couldn’t help but laugh under my breath at his bright red hair.

“Nice hair, you look like you’re on fire.”

“I do whatever Jessica likes and she likes it,” he said running his hands through it.

When the coffee was finished, I poured us both a cup and sat down. He just stared at the coffee. This was the first time he actually looked his age. And he looked like things were weighing on him. I’d forgotten for a moment how large his IQ was. He was just some twenty-year-old kid. At least, when he was silent, he was.

“Well?” I said.

“When I was sixteen, my photo was accidently put on the FBI’s most wanted list because my name was very similar to a terrorist’s alias. This was hilarious to my friends, but not to me. Being the computer geek I am, I hacked into the system and added one other teenager to the list, the son of the FBI Director. Just to let them know how it felt. It didn’t take them long to find me and they imprisoned me for ten months.”

This, I wasn’t expecting. I was hoping for larceny. Not that the system, I worked for, for twenty years had failed him.

“I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for and I’ve gotten all the apologies I need,” he said.

“One more question. Why only ten months? That’s a serious offense.”

“Oh, well, you dig deep enough and you find dirt on everyone and I found some on the Director and I blackmailed him.”

Okay, I really didn’t want to hear the word, blackmail. However, I had to admit that living topside and passing for human was over. It was completely over. I was also certain that the FBI were still looking for me. And I didn’t think Aaron would ever go topside again, something just told me that he wouldn’t. The human laws just didn’t apply down here. I guess it was time I started letting them go.

“You’re focusing on the wrong issue,” he said. “Think about what I said and ask yourself if you’re willing to risk everything. Yes, Kye might be upset if you decline but think about what you’re doing.”

After he finished half a cup of coffee, he turned to leave and I had to stop him.

“Why don’t you want me to charge another hybrid?”

He turned around, smiled and shook his head a little.

“I do want you to charge another hybrid and another and another, so they can figure out how to save their race. I just wasn’t sure if you knew why you wanted too and that you had options. I want their species to continue. I actually prefer to be around Tanjennians rather than humans. Don’t you?”

All the characteristics of a twenty-year-old kid were gone and he was starting to sound like Danel. Yet, with all of the sick souls I locked up back when I was a cop, I couldn’t disagree too much.

“Have you lost your faith in the human race?” I said.

“Nope, I never had any. But I believe over time they can improve with our help.”

He was talking as if he wasn’t a part of that race anymore and I wasn’t so sure if he was. He’d been born with Tanjennian genes and I wondered how much of that had really changed him. I mustered up a little smile as he left the suite. Then I started really questioning why I was considering risking my life for a race that refused to help humans.

It didn’t take me long to find the answer. They tried to help us more than once and we turned on them, we killed them. Yes, this was thousands of years ago, but if I put myself in their shoes, it would change me too.

CHAPTER 3

 

LATER THAT EVENING Kye came back and we grabbed the dog and headed to her suite where dinner was waiting. She said she didn’t want to eat in the noisy main hall. But I could tell she didn’t want me distracted. She wanted me to think about charging another companion.

Dinner was pleasant but quiet and I was positive we were both thinking about the same thing.

I knew I had plenty of time, possibly years. But I already knew my answer. It was simply who I was. It was my nature, every part of my being encompassed serving and protecting others. I could no more change this fact than I could change the color of the sky. I had the opportunity to possibly save a dying race. It would be selfish and cruel not to try. And this time, there may not be any pain at all.

We had just finished dinner and I saw no reason to keep it to myself.

“I’ve made up my mind…”

Kye was picking up dishes from the table but put them back down slowly. I sensed a tension building in her.

“That was quick, you don’t want more time?”

I heard a slight tremor in her soft voice.

“I want to try and charge another hybrid.”             

She dropped the fork in her hand back onto the table. I guess it wasn’t the answer she was expecting.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” She said.

“It’s not about want, but yes I want too. I just feel I have to. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t.”

She flew across the room and jumped into my arms. Her eyes filled with tears as she hugged me tightly. I tried not to hug her too hard and stroked the back of her head.

“We will keep you safe. I promise. And you can change your mind at any time.”

“I know,” I said. I placed her back on the ground and gently wiped the tears from her face.

Kye then went to the com screen next to the door as I started to clear the table. She punched in four suite numbers and four faces populated on the tiny screen. It was our small group and one other Tanjennian that I didn’t know. I could hear them greeting her.

“He said he’d try,” she said.

I heard Danel say, “excellent!”

Aaron said, “fantastic.”

And someone else said, “this is great news.”

Then Collin spoke, “Timing must be perfect on this. When does he want to start? It takes 24 hours to reanimate them.”

Kye looked at me for an answer. I walked over to the com and bent down so everyone could see me.

“The sooner, the better,” I said.

“Okay, we’ll go down tomorrow morning to start the process. Everyone wear something warm. Tonight I’ll prep the clone room,” Collin said.

Everyone agreed and switched off their screens. Kye was beaming with excitement and I felt like I’d given all of them a new hope. I knew I made the right choice. She hugged me again and proceeded to clean the table.

“Who was the other Tanjennian?” I said.

“Kuyen, he’s an Elder like Danel. He came here the minute Danel told him that you charged my core. I heard he had a companion too once. He’s older than Danel and runs station 10, artillery. I’ve never actually met him until he arrived here. Up until now this station has been pretty much vacant.”

“But you know of him?”

“Yes, he’s Rigden’s boss. And Kuyen, Danel and Ben, were at one time very close. It was Rigden who brought the coverts from station ten when the Drid came.”

Drid. How did I know this name? I searched Ben’s memories and found it. The Drid were those horrible black creatures that attacked us. I pushed the thought back quickly as an icy shiver ran over me.

“They called them the Drid back on their home planet.”

“Yes, Danel told me about it,” she said.

“Did he tell you everything?”

She was finished doing dishes and sat down in her favorite Queen Anne chair.

“You mean about how the Tanjennians were their food. How the Drid travel from planet to planet consuming everything. And how they blew up their suns attempting to kill billions of the Drid. Yes, he did. He told Aaron and Jessica too. Collin already knew. When he woke up from merging with Alma, he knew everything. And his memories weren’t jumbled like yours. He had many questions for Danel. But not all of the children know, so please there’s no need to tell them. The Drid are all dead.”

“I have no intentions on stirring up the past. I’m just shocked he told you,” I said.

“Even Danel, can do the right thing, sometimes.” Then a smile rolled across her face at what she’d just said.

She then started peeling off her red suit piece by piece and headed to the bedroom. Of course, I followed.

CHAPTER 4

 

WHEN WE WOKE the next morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t even know if the other hybrids were human looking like Kye. I had on a thick sweater and jacket and was already sweating, but not in a human way. Kye was wearing jeans and a long sweater that was wavy in the sleeves. She looked fantastic as always.

After a quick bite we headed to the clone lab and our little group was already there and waiting. Jessica, Aaron and Danel were all wrapped in coats and jackets. My eyes were then drawn to the other person in the room. I turned to the side and almost gasped when I saw him. It was Ben. The same height, same eyes, same curve of lip on the left side. He walked toward me and held out his hand and I thought I was hallucinating but I didn’t care. I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him tightly. I didn’t realize how much I missed him.

“I thought you were dead, are you a clone? It’s me. It’s Lewis. This is what happened when I absorbed you.”

He hugged me back and everyone in the room was staring at us. Kye put her hand over her mouth for a second. She seemed shocked at what I’d just done. She’d obviously forgotten to tell me something.

“It’s refreshing to see and feel the compassion you had for my brother. My name is Kuyen.”

He then let me go and my wall was immediately back up blocking my emotions. I was completely embarrassed. And I was baffled by my own feelings. I did miss Ben, even though he’d murdered almost all of the companions.

“They don’t look that similar, Kuyen is much younger than Ben,” Kye said.

She was right there was a difference, but it was slight. He didn’t radiate the same colors as Ben. His glowing circular veins were almost all white. Of course, I could only see them on his hands and neck because he was bundled up like the rest of us. But his face looked just like Ben’s and the eyes were the same too. But she failed to mention that they were brothers. I gave Aaron a, how the heck did you know, look and he only shrugged his shoulders at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s alright. I wish all of my introductions were that pleasant. Being the head of station ten, doesn’t make me a lot of friends. Some don’t believe weapons are necessary at all. Even after the Drid attacked your station,” he responded.

I stepped back a little still embarrassed and Kuyen let me link with him. He was not like Ben. He was strong emotionally. I felt no weakness inside of him or despair. He was very controlled. He could sense Ben inside of me and memories started to flash in my head.

Ben and Kuyen fought. They fought over the clones, the hybrids and weapons. It wasn’t really fighting. Tanjennians don’t do that. But from a Tanjennian perspective, it was like a bar fight. Kuyen was yelling, actually yelling and slamming his hand down on the table.

Quickly, the memories faded away and I realized that Kuyen wasn’t like the rest. And I wondered what flipped the switch in him emotionally. Besides Danel, he was the only Tanjennian that I heard yell. I knew it was just a memory but it was so real, it felt like he was yelling at me. I searched Ben’s memories a little more and I did find some good ones. Although, there was love, I sensed it was Kuyen that convinced his people to blow up the suns back on Tanjenna.

I pushed my wall back up and cut my emotional link with him trying to shake Ben’s memories from my mind. I was getting much faster at this. It only took a second this time. I nodded at him and he nodded back.

“So you appreciate firearms?”

“Yes, everyone has the right to protect themselves,” I said.

“You should visit station ten sometime. You could see the weaponry we have. I think you’d be impressed. We’ve designed our weapons so that only our race can make them operational, you must be able to link with the equipment.”

This was an interesting thought; linking with weapons.

“I would like that, thank you,” I said.

“How do you link to something that doesn’t have a living core?” Aaron said.

“Who said the weapons weren’t alive?”

Of course, Aaron’s face beamed with delight.

“I would like to discuss this more later, if that’s possible?” Aaron said.

“I’m sure I can make time. And maybe you can share with me why Lewis survived the merge with Ben. I’m very interested.”

“Well, so far it’s a mutation in his DNA that we have yet to replicate or find another example of.”

This was startling. They were trying to replicate my mutation and no one had mentioned anything to me about it. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but in the long run, it suggested they intended to merge with humans. I didn’t know if I liked this idea. I gave Aaron a slight frown and he raised his eyebrows and gave me the, what did you expect, look.

“Gentlemen, the pleasantries are over. Can we please descend to the companions?” Danel said, holding his hands out in an impatient way.

Danel was bearable now, but still kind of a jerk and we were all lighting up the room because we were sweating so much.

Collin hit a button and the clear wall separating the clone lab from the cryo dome slid down as frigid air released into the room. I followed Kye as she walked out onto the platform beyond the glass and I tried not to look down into the abyss.

I’d seen part of it once, the day when Kye showed me the clones for the Elders, but I’d never been in it. It was beyond cold. It was almost freezing. I could see my breath and Kye’s.

“How long has it been since you’ve been down here?” Kye asked Danel.

“Two hundred and thirteen years,” Danel said.

The lift we were on was only large enough to fit a few people so everyone crammed in pretty close and I was pushed back to the edge of the rail. Now, I felt sick. There was only one rail about three feet high and everything else was exposed. I gripped it so tightly that I thought I would rip it off.

The lift ran down the side of the dome wall and when I looked down, there was nothing but blackness. I knew we were hundreds of feet high. I felt vertigo kicking in and unfortunately so did everyone else, except Aaron. The rest gripped the rail at the same time and the fear of the falling rippled over us all. Quickly, I pushed my wall up and Danel and Collin straighten themselves.

“I didn’t know you suffered from acrophobia. How did you clean the ventilation system two months ago?” Collin said.

“Well, I kind of laughed myself through it, like in a crazy way, plus, I had a harness.”

I took a deep breath and Kye grabbed my arm. It was a real bummer that being genetically altered didn’t fix my fear of heights. As the lift started to move down, the side of the dome lit up at each section we passed and it seemed that we passed over twenty sections.

The lift just seemed archaic for such an advanced species. But what it lacked in appearance it more than made up for in speed. We were moving down at an incredible rate. It was so fast and smooth that I couldn’t tell we were even moving except for the blue lights that flashed on every time we passed another level. Every couple levels the lift would slow a little, then glide along horizontally before we started moving down again. And my heart was pounding until we were twenty feet from the bottom.

The dome was massive. When we reached the bottom, a relief swept over me that we were on the ground but it was clear that something wasn’t right.

We walked off the platform and headed down a dim row of units mounted on the walls. Only twelve of the units were lit. Collin activated the side panel next to them and the thirteen dark oval cryo units blinked on for two seconds and then blinked off. Instantly, my stomach turned. The lights were on just long enough for everyone to see the remains of thirteen dead companions.

Collin and Danel both exhibited subtle hints of distress. Collin tapped the screen again and all thirteen units lit up and this time they stayed lit.

They looked almost mummified. Bodies with skin sunken to the bones, hallowed sockets for eyes, mouths gaping open. Some of them still had hair on their heads. Danel and Collin’s emotions seemed to saturate the air with disappointment.

I wondered if the containers were opened, if their remains would just turn to dust when the oxygen hit them. They were lifeless, with their heads hanging to one side or the other. I looked at Kye and a hint of sadness slid across her face as Collin examined the units.

I couldn’t shake the image. Their white cryo suits were hanging off their skeletal bodies. The suits were fastened inside to the back of each cryo unit suspending their limp remains. 

“The units in this dome are on alternate circuits in case the ship was ever damaged in flight. These thirteen were on the same one,” he said, tapping on the screen. “Looks like one of the dishes topside malfunctioned.”

“You never checked on them?” I said.

“We couldn’t expose them. It was hard enough just to keep the emotions to ourselves,” Danel said.

Danel seemed irritated by my question as if the answer should’ve been obvious.

“But it was only Ben that you had to hide them from. Surely someone could’ve monitored them,” I said.

Danel then turned and looked at me shaking his head, “true Tanjennians do not need to be physically close in order to feel each other’s emotions.”

This was, of course, directed entirely at me, the untrue Tanjennian. I tried to ignore him then I felt Kuyen’s surprise and gratitude when he saw the last cryo unit at the end of the row was still functioning. It affected him greatly and the others seem to take notice also. He walked up to it and immediately masked his emotions. It had me thinking that maybe it was his companion. I caught no emotional hints from Danel who was studying Kuyen. I looked to Kye and she shrugged her shoulders.

The view of the other units disturbed me. They only live for 3 days without a charge. For three days, they waited for someone to come and get them and no one did. From what Kye told me, being unable to charge is agony. If a hybrid’s core isn’t charged it starts to consume them. It wasn’t just sore muscles and shortness of breath. It included blurred vision, incoherent thoughts, severe migraines and the inability to use their digestive systems. She’d experienced it when Danel was too weak to charge her on multiple occasions. She described it as having every ounce of liquid slowly being sucked out of her body.

“Computer, start the reanimation process for the functioning units on this level,” Collin said.

Each one started lifting off the ground, still attached to the side of the dome and slowly moved up toward what use to be the clone room. This happened again and again and we all stared at them as they rose as if ascending to the heavens.

“Twelve is better than none,” Kuyen said.

Everyone looked a little disappointed except for Kuyen he was reserved now. And I was worried, because they just activated all twelve and I only promised to try with one. Collin had sent all of the units up and I couldn’t tell if it was from eagerness or confidence. Or maybe he just didn’t want to come back down here, a sentiment I shared.

Not much else was said. We climbed back into the lift and everyone heard me sigh because I knew I would start to feel sick again once we reached around twenty feet in the air. Kye moved over to me and her hands were glowing.

“Let me interrupt it until we reach the top,” she said.

I’d almost forgotten she could stop my brain from firing all those messages, possibly even the ones that made me sick.

“Please do,” I said.

I saw nothing but the orange light all the way up and I felt no sickness or fear, but I still white knuckled the rail the whole way. Out of habit, I guess.

By the time we were at the clone lab it was filled with the functioning units and a robotic arm, a very alien looking arm was attaching them to tubes filled with an orange liquid as they hovered in the center of the room.

“How many will be revived at the same time?” I had to ask. I wasn’t going to spend all night guessing.

“I’ll make sure that they are revived in two week intervals that way we don’t put too much stress on your body. Putting them in stasis was the only way to stop their emotions, to truly keep them hidden,” Collin said.

I stared at all the units that surrounded us and wondered if I could really charge all of their cores. It seemed impossible. I rubbed my forehead realizing what I’d gotten myself into, but I didn’t entertain the consequences, I was well aware of them. I looked at Aaron wide eyed and he seemed to acknowledge my fears. I didn’t know if this would work. I would try but I couldn’t promise anything. And I was really hoping that they were right; that Kye could reach inside of my body and pull the hybrid out of me if anything went wrong.

 

 


Charged - Book One

When ex-cop Lewis Kegan learns his childhood friend has been viciously murdered, his sheer determination to hunt down the killer has him breaking all the rules. And the FBI is more interested in confiscating what Lewis has found rather than searching for the murderer. The only real piece of evidence doesn't lead Lewis where he thinks it will. Instead, it drags him into the depths of the earth where he discovers that mankind is not alone and hasn't been for centuries. CHARGED SERIES - Book Two - The Drid CHARGED SERIES - Book Three - Dekka

  • Author: L.M. Moore
  • Published: 2016-04-30 17:05:17
  • Words: 73701
Charged - Book One Charged - Book One