All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Odette C Bell
Cover art stock photos: Blonde woman in black blazer © alexannabuts, Clouds atmosphere from space © 1xpert Licensed from Depositphotos.
[She came here to keep the peace, but first she’ll have to break it….
**]When three aliens crash land on Earth, they must integrate to survive.
One of them can’t. A member of an ancient and astoundingly powerful race, she wasn’t born to sit still. She was born to protect.
On Earth, she can’t. So she waits, alone and without purpose, until her commander dies is a brutal and sudden crash. After years of inactivity, she is once more drawn into the hunt
Irreverent, action-packed, and fast-paced, Xen is sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Axira and Zero.
All three of them sat in the front seat of the pickup truck, staring up at the night sky above.
There were 10 trucks and cars parked in the meadow that night. While everybody else was outside, leaning on their bumpers, hands on their door frames, chatting excitedly as they listened to the radio, these three would not leave their vehicle.
One man, middle-aged, slightly balding hair rimming his round shiny skull, sat in the driver’s seat, staring with thin-lipped concentration at the dashboard. By the driver’s-side door was a tall, broad shouldered fellow in overalls and a checked shirt. With a mop of thick, black hair, he intermittently glanced at the driver and then up at the night sky above.
Pressed between them, with her hands on her lap, was a woman. In a thick woolen skirt and a light blue cardigan, she stared at her hands.
They listened to the radio. But they were not listening to the same station that the other cars parked in that meadow were tuned in to.
“Any signal yet?” the man in the overalls asked, his voice low and husky.
The driver shook his head, never shifting his gaze from the dashboard.
“Oh my God, can you hear that? That’s got to be aliens,” a woman outside said in an excited voice, her distinct Southern American accent making her words twang. She was standing near a car, waving to a young man, an excited but nervous look on her face. It was an expression that was shared by almost every individual there that night.
They’d come to this small field out in the rolling pastures behind the town for a special broadcast. The topic? Aliens.
Ever since the end of World War II, humanity’s fascination with the heavens had turned into mania. Unidentified flying objects were reported every other day, whole magazines and digests were filled with fantastic stories about abductions and sightings, and UFO had entered the common vernacular.
Any light in the sky was cause for nervous hope.
“The broadcast is about to begin, Gerry.” The woman outside the car waved again at the young man. “Stop playing with your cigarettes, and get over here.”
“I’m not playing with my cigarettes, Sue, I’m trying to get this telescope to sit right. Do you want to quit ordering me around?”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re tuned into the right station, come over here and check,” the woman insisted.
Every car or truck in that meadow had their headlights on, and beams of illumination darted out at all angles, lighting up slices of people’s faces as they moved in and out amongst the vehicles, leaned down to fiddle with their car stereos, or stared up in wonder at the night sky above.
It was an unusually starry night. Though it was autumn and a chill had caught the air, the conditions did not account for the startlingly clear visibility.
But it was a fact lost on nearly everyone there. Everyone save for the three individuals in the pickup truck.
“Captain,” the man in the overalls turned back to the driver, “we are running out of time.”
“I told you, you can’t call me Captain. Not here. I am John, you are Adam, and she is Jenny.”
The woman in the cardigan, Jenny, finally looked up. There was a poignant, almost palpable sense of sorrow plastered over her face.
“Adam is correct: unless we can narrow in on the right signal, our opportunity will be lost. My estimation is that we have approximately two more minutes. By that time the fold will close. There will be no further contact.” Jenny turned to face John. But anyone could tell that her attention was elsewhere. Quickly her eyes darted towards the windscreen and out into the night.
They all knew what was at stake.
If they couldn’t find the correct signal, if they couldn’t get a message off, they would be stuck.
“Look at them all out there,” Adam said, his characteristically deep voice resonating in his powerful chest, “they’re looking up for the aliens, when we are sitting right here.”
John let out a low, warning growl.
Adam seemed to understand it.
“It is ironic,” Jenny added after a moment, “but characteristic of this race.”
“Characteristic or not,” John grabbed the steering wheel and tapped his hands on it heavily, “we don’t get that signal off and…” he trailed off.
She understood. So did Adam. It was a conclusion no one in that vehicle could escape.
Unless they got off their message they would be trapped on Earth, with no possible hope for escape.
As Jenny waited, her body tense, her shoulders locked under the light touch of her cotton blue sweater, she thought.
Everyone else in that field was tuning in to a broadcast about extra-terrestrials. She and her fellow crewmates were tuning out, trying to get a message to the beyond.
It would not work. The three of them under their assumed names of John, Adam, and Jenny, would be stuck. Earth’s newest inhabitants. Three aliens huddled in a pickup truck, staring at a field full of humans imagining the above and beyond.
As the window closed, and it became clear they would not send their message, silence descended upon them. Heavy, laden, and bitter.
Jenny returned her attention to her hands. Her human hands.
They did not look like her own, and she knew instinctively it would take years, if not centuries to become accustomed to this new body. It had been built for her to hide the alien within. Without it there would have been no way she could blend in with the humans of Earth.
As they sat in silence, she felt her fingers curl into tight fists. “What do we do now?”
She knew the answer. Yet still she asked.
“We hide. We blend in. This is our new home. We are now humans,” John said, eventually tearing his gaze from the dashboard. His narrow dark eyes rippled with unmistakable sorrow.
Hide. Blend in. Those were their only options. There would be no rescue, there would be no escape.
Just life on Earth as a human being.
It had been over 60 years since that night in the field. If I closed my eyes, I could conjure up that memory perfectly. I could still smell the damp scent of the wet grass. I could still hear the hum and crackle of the radio. And I could still remember, in exact detail, the expressions of John and Adam.
I had done as ordered. I’d assumed a life as a human. I’d blended in. I had endeavored to always keep the secret of my existence and my arrival on Earth. And I had not given it up yet.
Blinking my eyes open slowly, I pushed myself forward, standing from my chair. A blanket fell from my knees and tumbled to my feet. I stepped over it lightly. If I’d felt like it, or circumstances had dictated, I could have leaped over it, curled into a somersault, thrown myself at the wall, run up it, and flipped backwards. I could have turned around, and with a single, easy blow, shattered the chair. I could have obliterated it as easily as a human child slapping a hand into a puddle.
Though it had been 60 years, I had not aged.
I had the appearance of a human, but that was it. I was not one. My true identity was as a Peacekeeper. A member of a rare and ancient race capable of withstanding extreme conditions, and built for brutal if elegant combat.
Leaning down to grab up the blanket, I placed it on the chair behind me and walked out into the kitchen. Sun was streaming in through the windows, and though I barely glanced its way, it still warmed up my cheeks and arms.
It was a pleasant sensation. One I had trained myself to enjoy over the past 60 years. It had been hard, egregiously hard at first, but I had settled in.
I’d trained myself to accept a life of eating, work, and sleep. Of biscuits, TV, coffee, and blankets.
I had adjusted.
‘I have adjusted,’ I said out loud, reinforcing that fact.
In the 60 years I’d been on Earth, I’d never had a single incident. No fights, no run-ins with the law, and to my knowledge, no one but my two other crewmates knew of my existence. Peacekeepers were known to follow through with their orders, no matter how hard they were, and no matter how long the mission lasted.
Walking into the kitchen, I glanced at the reflective, ever clean surface of my stove.
I saw myself. Saw my aged face, the wrinkles, the gray hair. I couldn’t identify with any of it, but I knew academically that it was me.
I didn’t feel any corresponding deterioration in my physical abilities or mental acuity to match the old woman I saw in the surface of my stove.
Because there was no deterioration. My appearance had been artificially aged to help me better fit in. The wrinkles were only skin deep.
Pressing my fingers into my cheek and feeling the folds of skin push against my nails, I glanced towards the clock.
I had a routine. Though I was technically classed as a pensioner, every day I took myself to work. In the morning I would prepare food and eat it. Then I would go for a walk around the block and into the park. I would spend approximately half an hour sitting on a bench, staring out at the trees and roses, and then I would walk back to my house. At about 11:30 I would head to the store to buy bread, biscuits, and tea; unimaginative but usual fare for somebody my age. I would head home around midday, and then I would spend the next several hours on the Internet. I would not look at knitting sites, and neither would I peruse local news to find out when the closest bingo hall was having their next get-together.
Instead I would gather information on everything that was going wrong with Earth. Once a Peacekeeper, always a Peacekeeper.
I had been born into a life of service. The creed of my race was a simple one. Protect. All who require protection – protect them. Shepherd life wherever you find it so that it can grow in security and safety.
I was no longer a Peacekeeper, but despite the fact I’d changed my appearance, I could not alter what was within.
I did nothing that would draw attention to myself. Yet I possessed technical skills far in excess of an ordinary human being, and understood technology that would not be developed on Earth for hundreds of years.
Using my abilities, I collected information. Gathering together any news of any disputes I could find. From the most petty disturbances, to the largest of wars. From political assassinations, to evidence of corruption in far-flung countries. I logged every single detail. I squirreled the facts away in my mind. If I could not go out there and clean them up, if I could not go out there and keep the peace, then the least I could do was keep myself informed.
A storm was starting up outside, intermittent thunder rattling the windows as a sharp wind whistled under the gap beneath the door.
I rested back in my chair and closed my eyes.
Christ it was cold. And Christ this wasn’t fair. It was summer, right? So what was with all the goddamn lightning and torrential rain?
I huddled further into my collar as I got out of my car.
My partner snorted at me. “You should stop being such a good guy.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“No other cop on the beat insists on checking up on all the geriatrics on the street.”
“Aren’t we meant to serve and protect?” I asked as I jabbed a thumb at my badge. “Well this is me serving and protecting.”
Jackson snorted. “Whatever.”
“Jackson, some day you’re going to be old, and you’re going to want to know there are people out there looking out for you.” I slammed the door and walked away from the car.
Jackson snickered at me, but I ignored him.
I had a routine. And it worked. Policing wasn’t just about stopping crimes as they happened – it was about preventing them from happening in the first place. You did that by having a presence. By getting out there and showing your uniform and your face.
I walked up to the front porch, tsking at the state of the lawn. Smoothing a smile onto my face, I jumped up the front step and knocked gingerly on the door.
A few seconds later, she answered.
“Jenny,” I said with a wide smile. “How you goin’ this week?”
Jenny nodded her head. I had no idea how old she was – maybe mid-seventies – but she held herself like a statue. An imperial one.
“Thank you for your weekly round, Officer Rodriguez. I am satisfied to report that I have witnessed no crimes in the past seven days.”
I stifled a grin. Jenny had the weirdest turn of phrase. It had taken me a while to get used to her. “Well that’s great, ma’am. Is there anything you need?”
“No,” she said blankly.
“Alright then.” I grabbed the hat from my head and ran my thumbs around the brim. “You know to call any time you need to.”
She nodded her head again. It was such a stiff, clipped move, it looked as if she’d practiced it her whole life. You could have mistaken her for a recruit or a seasoned soldier. Well, apart from the fact she was a 70-year-old lady.
“I commend your work, Officer. Good luck in your continued efforts of protection.” With that, she closed the door.
I let out a subdued stuttering laugh, then ended with a cough as I turned away.
Jenny was a weird one. Most of the other elderly home owners in this part of town tried to invite me in for tea and biscuits. Jenny would just bow like a general and send me on my way.
I kept laughing to myself as I walked back to the car. Just at the end of the path, I passed someone.
I paused, and so did the guy.
An old man, probably the same age as Jenny, the guy was still built like a shed. With massive broad shoulders and a 6’5 frame, he looked like an aged wrestler.
I frowned at him, and he frowned at me.
“Officer,” he snapped, “why are you here? Is there something wrong?”
“No, sir. Just doing my weekly rounds.”
The man appeared satisfied, and brushed past me without another word.
I stood at the front gate, one hand on the chipped metal as I turned to stare back at him.
He walked up to the door and opened it without knocking.
I strained my neck.
He closed the door loudly.
“What the hell?” I said under my breath.
“Hey, Miguel, get your ass in here. We’ve got a call.”
I hesitated just long enough to hear quiet, calm voices, then I turned away.
I turned to see Adam walk into my house. Truth be told, I’d heard him approach earlier. Like me, he wasn’t human. Unlike me, his body was studded with devices. Devices that gave out specific energy readings that I could easily detect.
So I was prepared for his presence as he shoved his way into my house. I stood in front of the door, head tilted to one side as I glanced down his form. “What are you doing here?” I asked blankly.
Adam closed the door behind him and stood there looking at me for a few seconds. He had an odd expression. I had known Adam for countless years. He was not a man who was easily frightened, and yet I could see something flickering in his gaze.
“You have something to tell me? Something you’re scared to tell me,” I concluded.
He nodded. “After all these years, you haven’t lost any of your skills, have you?” There was a flicker of what looked like jealousy in his gaze.
I narrowed my eyes. “You know the answer to that. I don’t age.”
“Lucky for you.” He brought a hand up and twisted it to the side as he considered it intently. “The years haven’t been as kind to me. A few of my autonomic devices have failed, and Earth doesn’t have anywhere near the level of technology to repair them.”
“You came here to tell me this? You want me to do something? You want my help?”
He snorted. “You really haven’t changed, have you? Always looking for orders. But no, I’m not here to order you. I’m here to…” he trailed off.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
He looked at his hands for a few more morose seconds, then he tipped his head back and locked his gaze on me. Though I was tall, he still towered over me, and yet he was nowhere near my match in combat.
“… How have you been these past years? Have you decided what you’ll do when your current appearance becomes too decrepit?” He asked conversationally, clearly dodging my question.
“You know exactly how I’ve been these past few years. I know you use your position in the army to monitor my actions. If you are checking that I have not interfered in human history, I can confirm that I have not. I live a normal life,” I said, voice strained on the word normal. “I am fulfilling the mission Chandler gave me upon becoming stranded on Earth. I am fitting in,” I said, stressing the words with a terse tone. “And as for my appearance – when this body becomes too old, I will simply alter it and begin a new life. I have the requisite skills to ensure nobody will be able to track me.”
Adam snorted, then a far-off look grew in his gaze. “Nothing ever scares you, does it, Xen?”
I frowned. “Why would anything scare me?”
He shook his head.
“I suggest you stop dodging my question. You have not come here to check up on me. You have barely seen me in the past 30 years, ever since Chandler decided we should not be seen together.”
“He’s dead,” he said suddenly.
Though I had registered the words, I had not understood them. “So tell me why you’re here,” I began.
I opened my eyes wide and focused my senses – every single one of them. “… What?”
“Captain X’hanthol is dead,” Adam said in a low tone that could barely carry.
I stood there and stared at him.
I didn’t understand. X’hanthol could not be dead.
“I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. He’s dead. I’ve seen his body. Died in a car crash.”
“Impossible,” I said blankly.
“Jenny… Xen, he’s dead.” Adam dropped his gaze, locking it on the carpet between us.
“Why are you telling me this?” My voice rose with defensiveness. There were few things that could rile me. Injustice was one, and the other was a threat to my commander. All Peacekeepers were fearlessly loyal creatures. We maintained a strict chain of command. We respected our superiors, and we did everything to protect them.
“I know this is going to be hard for you to accept, but I’m telling the truth. Captain X’hanthol died yesterday.”
“In a car crash?” I said, voice falsely calm.
“He could not have died in a car crash,” I began.
“Xen, you can’t fight this. You can’t argue your way out of the truth. X’hanthol is dead – I saw him with my own eyes and touched his dead body with my own hands,” his voice rose high, pitching into a shout.
I stood there and stared at him. I opened my mouth. “It’s not possible.”
He brought up a stiff hand. “Please… just listen.” There was such a clear and obvious desperation shifting through his tone that I had no option but to do as he said.
He took a step back, locked two stiff fingers over his nose, closed his eyes, and breathed. As he did, I heard it – the damage to the devices in his body. He was right; he was aging. If we were not stuck on Earth in the past, the damage to his devices would be easily repairable. Here, it was a death sentence.
I blinked quickly.
“You knew this would happen sometime. We’re not like you, Xen, we won’t live forever.”
“I’m not immortal,” I said softly, “I can be killed.”
“Sure, but not by anything on Earth. You knew you were going to outlive us both.”
“But he could not have died in a car crash,” I said, incapable of keeping my voice even. In fact, I was surprised by just how much emotion tore through it. I was a Peacekeeper, I should be stronger than this, and yet, I had just lost my commander.
I had just lost my commander.
I took a jerky step away from Adam.
His eyes drew wide as he looked at me. “You knew this would happen eventually,” he said softly.
“Not like this, and not so soon.”
We stood there, both our gazes locked on the carpet.
Eventually he shifted back. He turned as if he was going to walk away.
“When is the funeral?” I asked directly. “Have you made… adequate precautions?”
He nodded. “No one will ever know John Chandler’s true alien identity. I’ve stripped all the genetic markers from his body. He’s… just a dead human now.”
My face twisted at the description. But I pushed past my bitter emotion. “I will come to the funeral.”
He shook his head. “No, you won’t. X’hanthol… Chandler, didn’t want us seen together, remember? He wanted us to cut ties. No more connections. No reason for people to become suspicious. Remember?”
Of course I remembered. I did not react though, I just held his gaze coldly.
“I know this will be hard for you, especially considering how loyal you Peacekeepers are. Just know that I’ll be looking after everything. Okay? I will see to every detail. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Apart from the fact one of the most capable men I know died in a car crash,” I said flatly. “How did it happen?”
“He aged, Xen. I know you don’t understand it, but for ordinary people, it takes away their abilities, saps away the person they used to be,” Adam said bitterly as he brought his hands up and stared at his knuckles.
“I realize he aged, but he is not human, and he would not have aged so far and so quickly that a mere car crash would kill him.”
“What do you want me to say? I know what I saw, I know what happened… and that’s all there is to say. I came to tell you in person, because I didn’t want you reading it in a letter.”
“You’re lying. You came to warn me,” I said as I looked at him impassively.
His jaw stiffened. I heard every bone and joint shifting into place. “Fine, you’re right. I came here to tell you in person, because I figured I owed that to you. But I also came to warn you. Xen, there will be no revenge here. You don’t need to investigate anything. There’s no injustice. He died, and it’s goddamn unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it, and there’s nothing we should do about it. I’ll look after his affairs and his family. All you have to do is…” his gaze cast around my simple house, “go back to your ordinary life.”
I hated the way he said ordinary.
I hated the way he implied there was nothing I could do.
I was a Peacekeeper. I possessed exceptional power, a secondary energetic body that could be used as a shield or a weapon, and a mind that would never age.
There was nothing I could not do. And yet for the past 60 years I had been cooped up like a caged animal.
Chandler had always reinforced that we could not get involved with Earth’s history. And yet both he and Adam had joined this sovereign nation’s army. I had not been allowed to. I understood why – it was harder for me to hide who I truly was, both in terms of my capability and my physical body.
More than that, however, Chandler would never have allowed me to join another command structure. Peacekeepers followed their orders, and their commanders had to be carefully vetted before they were chosen. Some worked ceaselessly their entire lives before they were given the privilege of commanding a Peacekeeper.
If I had joined an Earth army, I would have been subsumed under their command structure, and my rigid tradition would have forced me to accept my orders and carry them out despite the consequences.
Still, knowing that did not ease the guilt. Every day I saw the atrocities being carried out on this planet, and I longed to intervene. Alone, I could do it. One war at a time. One conflict after another. I could bring peace.
But I was not allowed to.
He stared at me, expression grim, gaze calculating. “Just don’t do anything, Xen. You’re retired now. Keep it that way. Chandler wanted it like that. You were active for eons. You brought peace countless times. You’ve done your duty. Now it’s time to let others sacrifice themselves.”
“I am not retired. I have not earned this.”
“You are, and you have. Live how Chandler would have wanted you to. Keep your head down and keep out of history’s way.” With that, he nodded once, a strange look in his eye.
Then he turned and walked out. Leaving me alone in silence.
I would not stay away from his funeral. Despite Adam’s warning, I deserved to see my commander lowered into the ground.
The rain pounded down. It sounded like heavy artillery fire as it droned against the slate roof behind me.
I stood out in the open, not caring as a deluge of water shot off the drain behind and drenched me.
It poured down my face, turning into rivulets as it chased along my neck and down my collar.
I stared across at the funeral in the distance.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend. Nobody there would know me. I hadn’t been a part of John’s life for the past 40 years.
Unlike me, he’d had a family. Not a biological one, no kids, but he’d adopted and he’d married.
He’d integrated. Just like he’d commanded me to.
Now he was dead.
I could hear the proceedings from over here, even considering the thunderous rain and the mumbled subdued voices of the priest and John’s family.
I leaned my back against the wall behind me, crossing my arms as I stared at the coffin in the distance.
It was about to be lowered into the ground.
My race didn’t feel emotions strongly. Or at least, they usually didn’t. Some things, like injustice or useless worthless death got us to feel. It would be like swallowing fire.
In the pit of my stomach, I felt that fire. It burnt every cell as it climbed high into my throat.
I would get the person who’d done this to him. I didn’t buy Adam’s assertion that it had been an accident.
I’d known Captain X’hanthol.
He wouldn’t have died in a car accident.
I continued to stand there, even as the funeral finished and people disbursed.
At one point I saw Adam. He was talking to a young woman.
The woman saw me – an old lady standing there soaked in the rain – and moved to walk my way.
Adam locked a hand on the woman’s arm, securing it in place. Then Adam locked his gaze on me.
That gaze told me I shouldn’t be here.
I turned and walked away.
I let each drop of rain pound into my face as I turned to stare at the roiling clouds. They reminded me of the wild, treacherous weather of the Hantar System.
Before I’d become stranded on Earth, my ship had been headed there. On a peacekeeping mission.
The only mission I had never successfully completed.
No, I corrected quickly. There was another mission I had failed. To keep my crew safe.
I was certain – despite Adam’s protestations – that John had not died in a car crash.
And I wasn’t going to drop this.
I was going to find out what had happened.
A blast of wind caught my saturated hair, whipping it over my shoulder and slapping it against my heavy jacket.
Without thinking, I took the jacket off, and dumped it by the side of the road. Happy to be free from its encumbering weight, I shifted my shoulders lightly and turned to look back at the graveyard.
I narrowed my eyes, focusing with inhuman speed and accuracy until I saw John’s gravestone.
I had been inactive for 60 years.
Today that would end.
I turned and walked over my coat in a long legged, easy gait that hinted at my true power and agility.
As I walked away, I brought a hand up and ran it through my gray hair.
It was time to show Earth what I could really do.
My father was dead and buried.
He’d once promised me he’d never die. He’d lied.
Now it was up to me to sort out the mess he’d left behind.
I stood there in the rain, locking a hand on my half open mouth.
Adam was beside me. One of my father’s closest friends, I remembered him from childhood. A massive stalwart man who looked like a brick wall walking, he clapped a large hand on my back. “Your father was always proud of you. You know that right?”
The rain drenched me through. I was freezing. And yet I made no effort to wipe the rivulets of water from my face.
That’s when I saw her. The old woman in the distance. She was staring at me.
Figuring she’d been a mourner who’d come to pay her respects, I moved to walk towards her.
Adam snaked a hand out and locked it on my arm. He was well over 70 now, but his fingers locked on my elbow with all the strength of a body builder. “Leave her.”
“What? Who is she?”
“Never mind. Just someone your father knew.”
“Shouldn’t I go talk to her? Thank her for paying her respects?”
Adam’s expression stiffened. I’d never seen him look so steely. Which was saying something. He was a full Major in the army. He’d even helped train me. I knew from experience how tough he could be. And yet the expression he shot me now… Christ, I’d never seen him look so hard. “Leave her,” he commanded.
“Who is she?” I asked, surprised at his reaction.
“It doesn’t matter.” Adam turned back to look at the woman briefly. He didn’t look happy.
Then he got a phone call. The sharp sound of the call tone split the air, and made me jump.
Answering it quickly, he shifted away from me, leaving me alone to consider the woman.
I stared at her as she walked away.
I’d just buried my father, and the grief was crippling me, yet my eyes tracked to follow her as she disappeared behind the side of that building.
She was an old lady, or at least she looked like one. Her skin was wrinkled, her cropped hair gray.
But she moved like… ah, I don’t know. There was definitely something about her though.
So I followed her.
I don’t know why, maybe as a distraction. I didn’t want to turn around and face the rest of my family. There was too much to deal with.
My father had left a mess.
Sodden shoes picking through the water clogged grass, I followed that old woman as she walked swiftly through the grounds. Though she was sopping wet, she didn’t look cold. She held her head high, the wind whipping her wet hair over her shoulder.
When she reached the road, she did something strange. She took off her jacket, in an unmistakably defiant move. She dumped it on the ground, then she shifted her head around to stare back at the graveyard.
I couldn’t see her expression – she was too far away – but that didn’t matter. Her stance said everything. There was an electric determination to it, as if she’d just come to some critical decision.
I ducked back behind a tree, but before she even glanced my way, she turned and walked away.
Which left me alone. With no more distractions.
With a truly heavy heart, I turned.
There was a flash of lightning off to my left, as the sky opened up for another downpour.
Then a hand reached out from behind and locked on my shoulder. Before I could jolt, I saw Adam’s characteristic broad shadow.
I turned to see him shoot me a grim expression. “We still have to sort out your father’s affairs.”
I nodded and shifted to walk away, but my head turned in the direction the woman had left in.
My gaze locked on the jacket she’d dropped. I wanted to pull free from Adam’s grip and inspect it, but I knew he wouldn’t let me.
There was work to do. As the last Chandler, it was up to me to do it.
I made it home in the soaking rain. Then I stood for a full minute staring at my front door before I opened it. Cold white knuckles curled around the handle. I pushed it open.
I walked into the center of the lounge room and stood there, dripping onto the carpet.
I was not going to let this go.
Captain X’hanthol could not have just died in a car crash. I kept repeating that to myself, and I would keep repeating that to myself until I found out the truth.
He was my commander, and I owed it to him. For without him… I was alone.
I shook as I considered that fact.
A Peacekeeper without somebody to order her was nothing more than a beast.
I stood in the center of my lounge room, my front door still open and banging in the wind. I stood there as the day trailed into night.
Stock still, eyes locked on the wall, I thought.
I would have to plan what I was going to do next carefully. I could not compromise my cover. I could not reveal my true skills. I could not let anyone know who Chandler had really been.
Adam would try to stop me.
I would overcome him.
It was my right to know what had happened.
Though Chandler had told us to integrate, I felt as if Adam had integrated too well. He’d forgotten that under his exterior he was an officer in the Unitine. And as an officer, he had a duty, first to the galaxy, and second to his crew.
You never left somebody behind, and you never gave up on them.
Even when they were dead.
I sat at my desk, stiff hand locked on my face as I considered my computer screen.
She wasn’t going to let this go.
True, I hadn’t had much to do with Xen over the past 30 years, but I knew her.
She was a Peacekeeper, and they never left their crew behind, especially not their commanders.
But if she knew what was good for her, she would drop this, turn away, and live out the rest of her existence on Earth.
With a jerked move, I sat back, head banging against my seat. I brought my hands forward and locked my fingers together. My hands were sweaty. My pulse was quick.
I may have started off as an alien, but the more I lived on Earth, the more human I became. As the devices in my body broke down, I started to feel the infirmity of my age.
And I didn’t like it, because I had things to do….
I rested my white knuckles back on the desk, closed my eyes, and sat back.
“You have no choice,” I suddenly told myself out loud, listening to my voice as it rang through the empty room.
And it was true. I had no choice.
I couldn’t allow my plans to be interfered with.
Not now. Not ever.
Man, I hated my conscience. It never let me rest.
It was after my goddamn shift, and I was still going to check up on Jenny. Why? Because I hadn’t liked the look of that guy. The one who’d brushed past me without a sorry or a hello.
I pulled up outside her gate and shook my head. Not at the dilapidated state of the gate, but my ridiculous sense of justice.
Jenny was clearly fine. I was overreacting. That guy from before had been nothing. So why was I getting out of my car, opening her gate, and walking up to her front door?
I cursed under my breath as I saw the door was wide open.
There were no lights on inside.
I was off duty, and my gun was locked in the safety box in the back of my car. That didn’t stop me from walking slowly and carefully up the front porch. Heart pounding in my throat, I shifted towards the door, pressing two fingers on it as I pushed it further open. “Hello,” I called out, “is anyone there?”
“I am here,” Jenny said.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw her standing there in the middle of her lounge room.
“Are you okay?” I asked suddenly.
She was standing there in a puddle of water, her clothes drenched, her old gray hair sticking to her cheeks and neck.
And yet she still looked at me with that same regal if impassive gaze. “Yes, I am fine.”
I paused. “Ma’am, your door is wide open and you’re just standing in a puddle of water. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I went to a funeral today,” she pointed out.
I swallowed. Damn. I wasn’t a counselor. Wincing, I realized I couldn’t just walk away from this though. “How about I close your door for you, ma’am, and put your heating on?”
“I require no heat. The open door does not bother me. Does it bother you?” She asked directly.
Jenny seriously was a weird one. I dearly wanted to know what she’d done before she’d retired.
Now probably wasn’t the time to ask.
“Do you have anyone I can call for you?”
“I know no one worthy of contact anymore,” she said flatly.
“Right,” I said quietly to myself. “Look, I can’t just leave you here.”
“I assure you, Officer, I am fine.”
I winced again. I hated my conscience. “Are you sure there’s no one I can call for you? Maybe a family doctor?”
“I’m not sick.”
Sure, you’re just standing in a cold dark house with an open door while you drip a puddle onto the floor. You’re not sick at all, I thought to myself.
“Officer Rodriguez, I assure you I am fine. It is best that you leave before anybody sees you here.”
“… Sorry?” I stiffened.
“It is best that you leave before anybody sees you here,” she repeated.
“Ma’am, are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, you cannot help. But do not worry, I am more than capable of dealing with it myself.”
“Look, Jenny, I need you to tell me exactly what’s going on.”
She opened her mouth, then paused. I watched her head tick to the left, her eyes slicing towards the window.
And that would be when I heard it too – soft footfall.
My hand went to my side, but goddamnit, there was no gun.
I heard the person outside slowly shift around the house, practiced footfall giving out hardly a noise.
My heart beat in my ears, a cold wet feeling traveling through my chest as adrenaline pumped through my blood.
“Get back,” I whispered to her as I turned to the door, body seizing with tension, mind ready for action.
As sweat collected over my top lip, I faced the open front door. A light breeze kept pushing it back and forth on its hinges, the aged mechanism creaking like arthritic joints.
I couldn’t hear the soft footfall anymore.
“He’s coming through the window,” Jenny suddenly announced, volume normal as she made no attempt to hide her presence.
I had just enough time to jerk my head around.
Then a 6’5 brick of a man threw himself through the lounge room window.
I’d never seen anything like it.
No one used a window, not unless they wanted to be minced.
This guy did. With a barely audible grunt, he rounded his shoulder right into the glass, his move so quick he landed on the carpet and rolled to his feet before I knew what was happening.
I didn’t have time to swear.
The guy thrust towards Jenny.
Panic pulsing through my chest and arcing into my arms and legs, I threw myself in front of her, one arm locking around the guy’s neck as I used my momentum to pull him around. “Run!” I screamed at Jenny, voice a clipped, choked mess as I struggled.
The guy was massive, dense knotty shoulder muscles giving way to a neck built like a tree trunk. With one enormous heave, he locked a hand on my wrist, twisted, and pulled me off him. Before he could use the momentum to pitch me into a throw, I threw myself into one willingly, using my own momentum to hit the floor, tug my arm free, and roll to my feet.
Jenny stood there. Watching. Her expression as impassive as if she were watching nothing more lively than mid-day TV.
With a grunt that tore through my throat and rattled my goddamn tonsils, I threw myself at the guy.
Huge. He was huge. He looked like he’d escaped from a growth hormone experiment. Or the army, more likely. Though I couldn’t be sure, it looked as if there was body armor under his loose-fitting brown T-shirt.
I grappled with the man, but he was far, far stronger than me. Brawny, built like he was more of a tank and less of a man, he wrapped two arms around my middle and pivoted on his hip, throwing me to the floor.
I landed with such a thump, the dressing table to my side jostled, all the trinkets along the top falling to the carpet around me.
I scrabbled forward, latching a hand onto the guy’s leg.
He went to kick my face, but I pushed his leg, forcing it to change direction. Then I swung around, and collected him on the back of the knees.
He buckled forward, but he didn’t fall. Felling this guy would be as hard as toppling a redwood.
With a grating groan that pierced the air, he shifted back, pushed to his knee, then lurched towards me.
I didn’t have time to stand. I didn’t even have time to raise my hands in defense.
He wrapped his hands around my neck.
Just as fear pumped through me with a lightning blast, I saw Jenny move behind the man.
She slammed something across the back of his skull.
With a thunk, he fell, eyes rolling into the back of his head.
With a grunt, I kicked him off me and staggered to my feet. I swore, the word cutting through the room like a shot.
Pressing two sweaty fingers into my top lip, I turned and cast my gaze over Jenny before I could assess my own injuries.
She stood there in the middle of the room, a heavy-looking statue in one hand, an impassive look on her face.
Without a word, she let the statue drop to the carpet with a thump, then she moved around me, got onto one knee, and gave the home invader a cursory glance.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” I stuttered, staggering on my feet.
“I am clearly uninjured, Officer – I had little to do with that altercation. I simply finished it.”
I forced a blink. Sure, she’d been the one to smash the guy across the back of the head, but to be fair, I tackled him first.
I kept that observation to myself.
She pushed to her feet. “He will be fine with sufficient medical assistance.”
“What are you, some kind of doctor or something?” I looked at her quickly.
“I have some medical training,” she said, dodging the question.
I shrugged. Then glanced at the guy who had almost killed me. He had to be some kind of special ops or something. Never in all my years had I faced somebody with so much training. Plus, he’d used the goddamn window when there’d been a perfectly good door.
I took a raggedy breath, pressing a sweaty hand into my ribs with a wince.
“They are not broken,” Jenny replied coolly.
“They sure feel broken.”
“They are bruised. You are fine, Officer.”
I turned on her, incapable of keeping my surprise and confusion in check. “Just who the hell are you, anyway? What kind of business are you into? Did you know that guy?” I gestured to the guy with my shoulder as I kept a hand firmly clutched around my ribs.
She glanced at him and shrugged. “I did not know him personally, but I can guess who sent him.”
“… This is screwed up,” I commented to myself before turning on her. “Jenny, you need to accompany me to the station and tell me exactly what’s going on here.” I looked at her directly, meaning everything I said.
No more games.
“I’m—” she stopped suddenly and looked at the guy.
He was getting to his feet.
I threw myself forward, but didn’t get there in time. The guy grabbed one of the numerous objects we’d knocked off the dresser in our fight, and threw it at my head.
Jenny caught it, snapping her hand out and snatching it right out of the air.
Lucky. If she hadn’t, it would have clocked me right on the head.
I had time to think that just as the guy turned foot and ran for the door.
I don’t know how he could still walk, let alone run, considering the blow Jenny had struck across the back of his skull.
I threw myself towards him, stumbling for the door, but by the time I reached it, he’d already ducked down the path.
I swore into the night.
Jenny walked onto her porch, crossed her arms, and narrowed her eyes. She did not shake, she did not cry. A very violent, very trained home invader had just tried to attack her, and she looked bored.
“Who the hell was that guy?” I asked as I pressed my hands onto my legs, angling my head out into the night to stare at his departing form.
“A warning,” Jenny said ominously.
“What?” I half turned to her. “What kind of trouble are you in, lady?”
She didn’t answer.
“Right, that’s it, you’d better come with me to the station. Now.”
“The police will be unable to help me. It is unwise for you to bring me in at this stage.”
“No more excuses,” I said directly, “we’re going to the station,” I ordered her.
She nodded. Strangely, she stopped arguing. Instead, she walked over to the coat rack by her door, grabbed a large woolen jacket, and pulled it over her shoulders. She reached into the pockets, pulled out leather gloves, put them on, clasped her hands in front of herself, then looked at me with a bored expression. “Then let’s go.”
I had to shake my head. Anyone would have. This old lady was weird. But I had a job to do.
Adam had acted quicker than I would have expected.
I’d thought he’d grown soft. I was wrong.
I turned back and glanced at my house one last time as I followed Officer Rodriguez down the path.
The fight was now on.
I turned back to note Rodriguez glancing at me. It was obvious from the look of concern flashing across his brow that he was worried about me.
I would have to alleviate his fear by leaving him as soon as possible. Though I understood and appreciated his duty as a police officer – to serve and to protect – there was nothing he could do here.
“My car is right here.” He opened the passenger door and shrugged me over.
His car was simple. At least 15 years old, judging by the model and license number, it was dented and warn out.
“Sorry about the mess.” He leaned in and swiped a hand down the seat, removing several empty trays of take away. “It’ll get us to the station in one piece though.”
He turned around, hooked an arm on the door and smiled.
I stood there and stared at him blankly.
He cleared his throat, shook his head lightly, and then tried harder to smile. “Just hold on a sec, and I’ll get my gun from the safety locker in the trunk. We can’t run the risk of more company.”
I watched him walk around to the trunk of his car. He was light on his feet, demonstrated amply by the fact he’d been able to stall Adam’s soldier. And he had been no ordinary soldier. Riddled with devices to increase strength, agility, and speed, he was a super soldier by Earth standards.
Not by my standards. If Rodriguez hadn’t been there, I would have dealt with Adam’s warning on my own.
Why Adam had sent such a curt and to-the-point warning, however, was a curiosity. It was brash. He must have known such a soldier was no match for me. Even with the devices strewn through his body, that man was nothing but cannon fodder.
I had known Adam for over 70 years now, yet it suddenly struck me that I had hardly interacted with him for the past 50 years. The Adam I had once known as the loyal XO of Captain X’hanthol had clearly changed.
He lacked the diligence, courage, and foresight he’d once possessed.
Now he was crude and ignorant enough to send a warning right to my suburban door.
There was nothing more important than our secret. Chandler had stressed on every occasion that we could not let the humans find out who we were. So why was Adam now ignoring that?
More to the point, why had that soldier been outfitted with enhancement devices? Was it a logical extension of this current time period’s technology? Or had Adam helped create them with his superior knowledge?
“Ah, Jenny, you okay?”
I flicked my gaze over to Officer Rodriguez. He stood with an awkward look, eyebrows peaked, half a lip lifting into his crinkled cheek.
He’d hooked a holster over his shoulder, and his gun was now safely tucked inside.
“I am fine,” I finally managed as I smoothed an indifferent expression over my face.
“Sure you are. Okay, let’s get to the station.” He moved to walk around to the driver’s side after fixing me with a careful look.
I blinked back at him.
He opened the door and paused with one arm on the hood as he looked across at me. “Whatever’s happening, Jenny, we’ll be able to help you,” he promised.
“You will not. It is inadvisable to get involved,” I commented as I sat in the passenger’s seat, did up my seat belt, and closed the door.
Then I pressed my hands onto my knees, looked forward, and wondered who would have to die for Adam’s betrayal.
I would not kill, not unless it was absolutely necessary. Such was the decree of the Peacekeeprs. Adam, however, was not bound by that iron-clad tradition.
Officer Rodriguez started the car, checking carefully in his mirrors before pulling out into the street.
He drove proficiently.
And quietly. I could tell, however, that whenever it was safe, his gaze slid towards me, his brow crumpling with clear confusion.
For my part, I sat still, back pressed into the seat, hands locked on my knees, head directed forward.
My thoughts centered around one fact: why would Adam risk so much in sending that man to my house? I was of course simply assuming that Adam had sent him, but it was a logical conclusion. I required little more evidence. It coincided too neatly with Adam’s warning, and honestly, there was no one else on this planet who knew my secret. The man had been no simple home invader, so only Adam would have sent him after me.
Had Adam forgotten what I could do? Had he assumed that my real body had aged along with my appearance? Had he been under the false belief that his soldier could best me?
“So, Jenny, wanta tell me what’s going on here? You don’t have to say anything until we reach the station, but—”
“I have been betrayed by someone I assumed was a close comrade.”
“… O-kay. Ah, who, and why?”
“The details are irrelevant.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re not, Jenny. Look, I know you must be confused and scared, but you’ve got to trust that the police can help you.”
I turned and looked directly at him, the light from several street lights streaking across my face. “You cannot help me. No one can.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that. Whatever trouble you’re in, the police can help. You’ve just got to be honest.” He kept flicking his gaze towards me when it was safe, his brow creased with concern.
“You are a proficient officer, Rodriguez, however, believe me when I say you cannot assist in this.”
Rodriguez took a sharp breath through his teeth and thumbed the bridge of his nose before returning both hands to the wheels. “Just start from the beginning. Wait,” his eyes narrowed, “does this have something to do with that guy who visited you this morning?”
I didn’t respond.
Rodriguez turned around to look at me in full as he slowed down for a red light. “Jenny, who was that guy? Did he threaten you?”
“It is irrelevant.”
Officer Rodriguez stifled a frustrated groan. He was clearly a patient man – a necessary requirement in those tasked to protect others. “Jenny, you have an obligation to tell me. I’m not asking as a friend. You need to appreciate that whatever business you’re wrapped up in could affect others. No – scratch that – it will affect others. I have two bruised ribs because of this. That guy was… Christ, I don’t know, ex-military or something. You need to stop and think how this mess will spread. Trust me, I’ve been working this job long enough to know that problems like this can’t be contained. You might think only you’ll get hurt, but you’re wrong. There will be collateral. There always is. Do you want that?”
I did not face him. Instead I stared out of the windscreen at the traffic zipping by, at the people milling along the pavement, at the stars barely discernible through the thick cloud above.
“Jenny, I’m not asking you to share this; I’m ordering you to.”
I flinched at that word and finally turned to face him.
That word had a powerful effect on me and always would. Orders – and following them – were at the heart of all Peacekeeprs.
Still, this man did not have the right to order me.
And yet, he had a point. Adam was not a careful man. Not anymore. Something had made him sloppy, maybe even desperate.
Officer Rodriguez was right – there would be collateral.
“Tell me,” he said simply.
I opened my mouth. And that’s when I heard it.
The screech of tires from the lane to our left. 100 meters away, 50 now – someone speeding towards us.
I had underestimated Adam once more.
I jerked towards Rodriguez, grabbing the wheel and twisting it hard to the right.
“Hey!” he roared.
I held the wheel, and though he grabbed it and tried to elbow me off, he couldn’t.
A black SUV came screeching towards us, missing us by a centimeter as it plowed into the other lane.
“Jesus!” Rodriguez roared, head jerking to the side to follow the SUV.
I let go of the wheel, twisting my head around as I followed the car.
“What the hell was that?” Rodriguez slowed the car down, pulling towards the curb.
“No. Keep driving,” I commanded, voice resonating through the car.
“That car could have killed us. And if it keeps driving like that, it’s going to kill others.” He turned his head to the side as he slowed down, staring at the SUV.
The traffic around us was light, just a hatchback, two motorbikes, and a delivery van. The hatchback was busy honking at the SUV, a middle aged man hanging out of the window and swearing until he went pink in the face.
The SUV came to a screeching stop, then it turned, occupying three lanes of oncoming traffic as it swung around to face us.
Rodriguez had already pulled his phone from his pocket. He stopped and stared at the car.
The SUV slammed on the accelerator and shot towards us.
I paid no attention. I fixed my gaze on the motorbikes.
Rodriguez swore, dropped his phone, and hit the accelerator before he could lock his hands on the wheel. Our car skidded, but he quickly regained control.
Just in time. The SUV shot towards us, every other car on the road screeching to a halt as it barely missed them.
“Hold on,” Rodriguez bellowed.
“Keep accelerating,” I replied in a neutral tone.
I watched the motorbikes. With their superior maneuverability, they darted up onto the pavement and flanked us on one side as the SUV shot towards us on the other.
This was no ordinary car chase. The vehicles were too quick, the drivers too competent.
“What the hell is happening?!” Rodriguez cried out, arms locked as his hands grabbed the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles could have broken the skin.
“Keep driving,” I advised.
“Someone’s going to get killed,” he screamed.
Perhaps. But it would not be us.
I waited. Waited until both motorbikes slammed towards us, darting in and out over the pavement and onto the road, the riders dressed in black, the street lights glinting off their helmets.
I waited until the SUV screeched towards us. I waited until it pulled alongside us.
I grabbed the steering wheel and pitched the car into a spin.
The motorbikes shot past us, one slamming into the SUV, the driver flipping right over the car.
“Jesus, Jenny, don’t do that!” Rodriguez tried to shove me off.
I let him.
He struggled to regain control of the car.
I grabbed the handbrake. I timed it perfectly, my body in tune with the car.
We screeched, turning in a circle, thick black tire marks tracking across the road.
I remained perfectly silent.
“Hit the accelerator,” I advised him as soon as the car came to a stop.
The SUV screeched to a stop, but not as quickly.
Now was our opportunity to escape.
Save, of course, for the remaining motorbike.
The driver knew how to ride, and rammed the bike around, jumping onto the pavement, both wheels spinning.
“What the hell is going on?” Rodriguez stammered as he stared at it.
“Foot, accelerator, now,” I said sharply.
He was not quick enough. The bike reached us. Then the driver jumped. He abandoned his bike, and threw himself onto the roof of our car. Despite his momentum, he controlled his fall and rolled down the hood.
He had a small device in his hands. I did not know what it did, and I wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
“He’s on the hood, Christ, he’s on the hood,” Rodriguez screamed in surprise.
Yes, but not for long. I had a split second before the man could use whatever device he held.
Officer Rodriguez was correct, and I could not allow collateral.
So I called upon it. My energetic limb.
My race were not purely physical. A part of our bodies was made up of a specialized energy, one we could call on in times of need. The energy, with but a thought, could be used to form objects. Weapons, shields, and anything in between.
These days when I wasn’t using it, my energetic limb sat as a belt around my middle under my shirt and cardigan, but always within reach.
Before the man on the hood could use his device, I acted, sending a surge of invisible energy blasting out from my EL.
The man, just like the soldier who’d invaded my home, was riddled with enhancement devices. I could smell them, taste them, hear them as they facilitated blood flow and filled his body with nano robots.
They were rudimentary, though, and unshielded. With one blast from my EL, I shut them off entirely.
Just as Miguel slammed on the brakes, the soldier rolled off the hood, body giving a powerful jerk as I shut down all the devices strewn within his muscle and tissue.
The car came to a stop. Miguel’s hands were locked around the wheel so tightly I could hear his joints creaking under the strain.
His face was slack with shock, eyes wide, heart pounding at 200 beats a minute.
Still, he was professional enough that he quickly pushed back his shock and turned around in his seat to eyeball the SUV. It did not come thundering towards us. Clearly the driver realized he would not win. Instead it turned around in a screech of tires, leaving great swathes of black rubber marks along the road. Then it sped away, several cabs swerving out of its path as they honked their horns, the drivers swearing.
Miguel, shaking from head to foot, got out of the car, immediately pulling the gun from his holster. Though his fingers were slicked with sweat, and his body still convulsed with fear, he held the gun steadily and professionally. Then he turned his attention to the comatose soldier who had fallen off our hood. He walked around to the man and poked him with his shoe. When the soldier didn’t shift, Miguel swore softly under his breath and got down on one knee to check the man’s vitals. When he was satisfied, he stood and stared at me. “What the hell is going on here? Don’t dodge the subject this time,” he warned, real tension filtering through his tone, “tell me. Tell me now.” He locked his terrified but still determined gaze on me and waited.
I swung my gaze from the tire marks that littered the road down to the soldier by our feet, then finally across to Rodriguez. “I am not entirely sure,” I admitted.
“Not good enough,” he spat back, “whoever the hell these guys are, they could have killed us and every other car on the road tonight. Tell me what’s going on, and you tell me now,” his tone dropped low.
“First, I believe it is wise to call for backup. And second,” I let my gaze drop down to the soldier once more, “secure this man before he can escape.”
Rodriguez held my gaze. Then he walked back to his car, grabbing his phone quickly, always keeping his gaze locked on the comatose soldier.
He called the station.
Then he returned his attention to me. No matter how angry he was, and no matter how forcefully he pried for the truth, I would not give it up.
For, in all honesty, I did not know it myself. One warning, I could understand, but why would Adam send another? In the middle of a busy street, too? There was nothing more important than keeping the true nature of our origin secret. So why was he risking it now?
As I thought that, I tilted my head back and stared at the stars above. No ordinary human would have been able to see them considering the thick clouds and light pollution, but I could.
After all, I was no ordinary human.
Thank you for reading Episode One.
Episode Two is currently available.
Did you like this book? There’s plenty more where that came from.
Sci-Fi Adventures by Odette C. Bell:
She came here to keep the peace, but first she’ll have to break it…. When three aliens crash land on Earth, they must integrate to survive. One of them can’t. A member of an ancient and astoundingly powerful race, she wasn’t born to sit still. She was born to protect. On Earth, she can’t. So she waits, alone and without purpose, until her commander dies is a brutal and sudden crash. After years of inactivity, she is once more drawn into the hunt…. Irreverent, action-packed, and fast-paced, Xen is sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Axira and Zero.