This 1,650-word story is a journal entry in Book One, Ursus Borealis, in The Starlight Chronicles series. I found it rather fun to write a story within a story. It nestles in a chapter featuring Kuliana Hada, a character that appears throughout the series, who is an Anurashin Captain of the Guard. Cynthia is her ancestress.
Cynthia’s story is incorporated into an actual historical account about the White Ship that sailed in 1120 as described. Its sinking changed history.
An End at Barfleur
I am Cynthia, a marked maiden, a human born with a destiny entwined with a race from another world. I was trained to fight alongside my mate Aldric and his pack with the guidance of my magus Zigan Meshara of the Order of Hala against three rebellious princes who were banished from the planet Anurash.
This sounds impossible, I know. But you will just have to take my word. That is, if you are from the human realms and this makes its way to you as I hope.
My life started on a farm in the county of Anjou. Then it changed forever when I met a bear from Normandy.
After immersing myself in the astonishing world of my mate and the kingdoms of the shifters, learning there was life beyond this Earth, and before reaching the heavens, took only a few extra pints to swallow it down. That, and meeting Zigan. It turns out Zigan and I are old souls and have done this dance before.
How my soul was chosen for this repeated Earth-bound destiny is a mystery, but my magus spent much time over wine in our chateau sharing what he knew of our history, or rather the history of the prophecy of the marked maidens.
As for Zigan, up till we met, he had spent his life training with the Order, which included studying the records in the extensive archives and all forms of alchemy, in addition to being honed into a warrior. Even more astonishing, he could transform into a stunning feline I learned was called a tiger.
For eight years I experienced what it was to be part of the Pack, to be soulmates with its alpha, to be one piece of a wondrous whole, and we were successful in our purpose, keeping the machinations of the princes from the human population, and mitigating the damages.
This is the part at the end of our story and writing it down is agony because it chronicles the event that halted our purpose violently, tore me from those I loved, and marked the beginning of my slow and lonely death. Still, it must be told.
It takes place starting mid-morning of the 25th day of the month of November in the year 1120. We arrived at Barfleur near the coast of Normandy, after confirming the location of the current scheme of Aviel Enair, the oldest and most formidable of the three sibling princes. We lacked the details, but we knew his scheme would involve the sailing vessel known as the White Ship, renowned for its speed and beauty, and now carrying the only legitimate heir to King Henry I across to England.
Frustration gripped me, and I wrapped my arm around myself, trying to catch my breath after having run the length of the docks. I called out to my mate behind me, “It is just as we feared, Aldric. The ship has almost reached the Quilleboeuf!”
There were three hundred souls sailing away as I spoke, other nobles as well as the heir, and the loss would be catastrophic to the burgeoning English monarchy. When we learned the king’s seventeen-year-old son, William Adelin, desired to sail on this elegant vessel while his father sailed ahead of him, and that Aviel had set his sights on it, we considered the hazards the Anurashin prince might exploit.
The ship had a good reputation and so did its captain, Thomas FitzStephen, whose father had taken the prince’s grandfather, William the Conqueror, across the same sea. The only evident risk was sailing past Gatteville, where hidden rocks like the Quilleboeuf lay waiting for careless sailors. But FitzStephen was surely used to navigating such hazards.
I breathed in the salty air to sharpen my mind while I considered our options. The raucous calls of seagulls ebbed overhead as they congregated, fought, then flew off with morsels of fish as their prize. Despite the size and piercing eyes of the warrior next to me, we stood unnoticed among the throng of bodies rushing towards their duties on the bustling docks.
“You must call Zigan, my love,” Aldric said, drawing me to his side and offering his warmth as I shivered from the urgency of our task and the breeze cooling the sweat of my exertion. Though we were French, our purpose as part of this prophetic trio was to protect the balance of power fated for this world. When the princes interfered, it fared badly for the indigenous populations, according to Zigan’s archives.
That meant we trained to take risks, and we discovered this scheme by becoming captives of the princes while each enjoyed inflicting painful retribution on us for our past successes. But Aviel allowed his brothers’ torment to go only so far, which we’d learned to count on, though we didn’t understand it, and our plan included an escape.
It went perfectly, until we ran into a trap and had to leave our pack behind to fight, which also delayed our arrival, and a worry was taking hold in me that the last eight years of joy and strife might culminate on these docks. Still, I pushed on.
After placing the insides of my wrists together, my tiger appeared, first as an image on my skin, then as a man stepping out of a gray mist, calmly taking us in with fathomless dark eyes. His markings glowed bright gold against his bronzed arms, and his silky black hair waved in the breeze.
“We need to get aboard that ship, Zigan.” I pointed to the sails disappearing north along the coast to Gatteville. “Can you haze us there?”
“I can, but I may not have enough energy to get you back.”
Aldric said, “Let me go with him. If the ship were to sink and Zigan cannot return us both…” He let that thought trail off as he looked at me in that fierce way that melted my heart.
The powerful love I had for this man, this larger-than-life Norman-born warrior who shared the spirit of a mighty brown bear, still overwhelmed me after all these years. We had not taken one moment of our time for granted, knowing the dangers inherent in my destiny.
Clutching his hand, I said, “But I must be the one on that ship, Aldric. We have no idea what is planned, and we need my instincts as a marked maiden.”
“You will be noticed. I can blend in and discern the situation. We must go now, as they approach the rocks.”
I stood on my toes and brought his face to mine, peering into his brown eyes to see his bear gleaming at me, a magnificent beast he could transform into at will. Our lips came together for a precious moment before I stepped back.
Zigan gripped my mate, nodded to me reassuringly, then they disappeared. I took shelter and waited. In less than thirty minutes they were back.
Aldric and I stepped towards each other as he gave his report. “Nearly everyone on board was drunk on wine and betting on a race to beat the king to England. The ship sailed fast, pushing its limits. Not more than ten minutes after we arrived, it hit the rocks and foundered.” I gasped in dismay, but he assured me the king’s son made it to a lifeboat.
Suddenly, warriors in the garb of another time appeared in a heavy mist that seemed to have blown in from the sea. They surrounded us. Zigan and Aldric drew their swords, and I followed with mine.
The sound of steel rang out, and we held our own against a dozen, until my sword was knocked from my hand. Strong arms grabbed me from behind. Aldric’s roar shook the planks beneath our feet. But the Anurashin warrior held me fast and kept me from my mate’s reach, letting the others leap in between us, forcing Aldric to slice his way to me.
The warrior said in my ear, “The prince has his sights on you, maiden. Did you not think he would find you?”
“He may have found me, but he’ll not have me!”
Springing my knife from my sleeve, I lunged back, shoving it between his ribs, and twisting it. The warrior grunted in pain, but his grip did not loosen. Aldric dodged blades, slammed his fist into faces, and rammed bodies, while I tried to pull free.
Zigan moved so fast arcs of blood hovered in the air where he last appeared. But when he hazed close and tried to grab me away, the warrior jerked us back and two others lunged for him. To my utter horror, they took his head.
My knees gave out as unbearable agony ripped through my heart, then my entire being, when his soul was wrenched brutally from mine. This couldn’t be real. Never had I imagined our bond could be so viciously severed, or that the warrior magus was anything but invincible.
A sickening realization plummeted like a stone in my belly. This was Aviel’s plan. Why he let us escape before. These moves had been orchestrated for this purpose. To kill my magus. To take me. To destroy the Pack de Normande.
What was left of my heart was crushed to pulp when Aldric stepped into a blade not bothering with the pain, to reach for me, desperate to save me as he felt the agony of my loss, and our loss to come.
The mist I dreaded grew thick, and I sensed I was breaking into tiny pieces. This couldn’t be happening.
I locked gazes with the bleak eyes of my mate who was coming to the same conclusions as I faded into bits, so close to him our fingers nearly touched.
My heart and soul poured into my words. “I will love you forever!”
The sound that followed was the mighty roar of a wounded bear.
Joey is one of the chillest people I know – And his photos blow me away…
I was thrilled to catch him on a break from climbing mountains to get this interview, so I could learn more about the artist side of the guy who’s marrying my niece next year. Here’s our conversation.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Which means your photographs already say so much about you, Joey. It also means that this is a great opportunity to learn more. Can you first share a bit about how you came to love photography and your background?
I grew up in Northern California in a family that loved to get outdoors. Whether it was fishing, camping, or just barbecuing, we spent a lot of our time outside with others. This instilled a love for nature and being able to share that space with the people in my life. Photography was something my grandfather was a natural at, but it came to me before I even knew he had a passion for it when he was a young adult. I didn’t really start to shoot consistently and develop my own style until I was a sophomore in college. From there it inspired me to pursue more remote places. Documenting and sharing my experiences with my friends and family then became my routine.
D – I for one appreciate that you share such amazing things with us through your lens, and how special is that to discover your grandfather enjoyed the same thing.
Obviously, you have a love for the adventurous life and the outdoors. But besides that, what inspired you to make it your preferred genre?
I realized that every time I’d reach the city limit, breathing in the fresh mountain air and finding a sense of solitude, I would feel a sense of good energy rush over me. Simply put, at this stage in my life, I got happier when I could escape the chaos within the city.
Engaging in the kind of epic art you do, it must be hard to focus on the business end of things. I know for me, I could hide away and write all day long. But it doesn’t pay the bills. What are the top three tips you can share to help creators balance their passion in art with other aspects of life?
Honestly, I’m still not very good at selling myself regarding my art. However, I have always worked hard with various jobs I’ve held to allow me to continue doing what makes me happy. I’d say it should be a big priority to take the time to reflect on why you do the things you do. Spend time creating the space to really think about the why. Once you can find a strong reason, it is easier to make the choices that set you up for success.
It has been a lot of fun watching you and Ana taking all those steps and finding your niche while you’re young.
The kind of photographs you take require being in the right place at the right time. What are your tips and preferred techniques for getting those great shots?
Do what others are not willing to do. It’s not my phrase, but it’s something I’ve seen ring true more times than not. More specifically, if you put yourself in good positions to get those perfect conditions by hiking through the night or waking up before the sun, you’ll be provided with more opportunities to get a great photo.
D – I love that you have a passion for film cameras. Can you tell us about your favorite equipment? How much do you haul around trying to get those shots? Does Leo help out? Sorry, but I had to get a mention in for your awesome German Shepherd, whom I’ve known since he was a pup.
I’ve always focused more on the action of taking the photos and not on the gear I use to get there. That being said I use a Leica M6 primarily for 35mm film and a Pentax 67 for 120mm film (medium format film). Leo doesn’t help much, it’s a surprise I don’t charge him rent at this point haha.
You’re originally from California, and explored the beauty of that state and the surrounding ones extensively with your camera. What compelled you to make your home in the Pacific Northwest? Are there other parts of the country… or the world you’d like to explore?
I needed a change from where I was living. My fiancé(Ana) and I were living in Sacramento California, but we were constantly traveling north to Oregon and Washington. We both decided it would be fun to simply pick up and move. Not a whole lot more thought went into it at that time. Just a spontaneous choice that left us very happy.
As far as other parts of the world, I’d love to see as much as I can in my life. Scotland and Ireland are higher on the list because of mine and Ana’s family history there.
D. I’ve experienced that kind of spontaneous move myself, and often it’s the best kind. Still, I’ve never been to Washington State, and that’s another reason I enjoy your photos. But I will come for a visit and a tour one of these days haha.I sincerely hope you get to travel abroad with my niece someday… And though I’ve said it in person, congratulations on your upcoming marriage!
What has been your biggest highlight of the last year?
Attempting to climb Mt. Tahoma (Rainier) and learning a lot about the mental toughness it takes to document the experience while being fairly uncomfortable.
D – I love that. Can you share a little more about what you took away from the experience?
Yeah, it was one of those experiences that shows you how much you don’t know, the more you know haha. Basically being physically fit is only a small percentage of climbs like Rainier. The rest is about maintaining a positive outlook when setting up camp in the snow, the sun is going down, and your beginning to get weary of how cold you’ve gotten. Thankfully I have amazing friends with more experience and who were able to show me little tricks to make life smoother out there.
What are you most excited about in the next year?
I plan to race my first Ultra marathon this year, along with a few others soon after. I’ve developed a love for all forms of movement in the mountains. Running and climbing are simply amazing, and they’ve taken over my life haha.
D – It shows in your photographs. Wow! All the best in those endeavors.
Where do you want to be as a photographer in five years?
I’ve come to learn that I’m happy just having a camera around and not taking it too seriously. I decided not to worry whether or not I make a living with photography, but rather just to enjoy it for what it is. A passion.
D – I am truly happy that you get to follow your passion freely. Again, it shows in your work.
Do you offer your art commercially? If so, where can we find it?
I have a print shop where I occasionally add new photos too. I’d like to open a new selection this year and use the funds to donate for ALS research. My lifelong friend’s mother has bulbar ALS and has been showing immense strength in her fight against it. That shop will be available through my website at joeymaclennanphoto.com
D – That is another wonderful reason to follow Joey and watch for those photos. Where can we find you besides your website?
Instagram is basically my only other online presence. That is @joeymaclennan
Any parting advice to those who dream about pursuing a creative and/or an adventurous life?
Get outside, care about the environment, and don’t be afraid to fail in pursuit of things that make you feel alive.
D – Great advice! Thank so much for dropping by, Joey.
Thanks for talking with me!
Click on any photo to link to Joey’s website and don’t forget to follow him on Instagram for those inspiring posts!
Thick rivulets of blood moved down the wall like snakes slithering into Hell. Lucius thought going there himself would be better than mucking out this foul slaughter. Hiding his brother’s crimes from Prince Remus. Death by fire, their punishment if caught.
Linus, too far gone to understand the danger, had killed another valuable hunter. Lucius labored to obliterate the evidence while Linus crouched over an arm sucking out the blood and marrow like a human sucking meat from a crab leg.
Lucius had turned his brother. Watching him deteriorate was penance. Figuring out how to reverse it, his only purpose.
Lucius stared in frustration at the naked female, then grabbed newspaper from the alley trash to cover her. Copious blood soaked through, turning it to pulp. He added more paper. Didn’t help. Blood spouted like a fountain from her torn jugular. He yanked his brother, who’d pounced on her again, away from her neck.
“You couldn’t have gone one more block?”
Linus whipped towards him. Lucius stifled a gasp. The nerdy, giraffe-legged brother was there. Then his eyes turned soulless, reflecting the red pooling beneath their feet, and his stark hunger. Pain stabbed Lucius where his heart once beat.
Lucius cradled Linus’s head in his lap. Just his head… which Lucius had to remove. He stared at the rectangular hole holding his brother’s body, then forced his gaze away to take in the fateful surroundings.
The graveyard was damp. Dew glistened on the grass. Dripped from cypress trees and giant yews. None of it made this real. They’d been vampires for five decades, inseparable. But Linus’s self-control had deserted him. He broke too many council laws.
“You never believed you could be ended, brother. Didn’t you once think it would be me who would have to do the ending?”
A Whole Lot of Fun Chatting with Eric and just in time for Spooky Season!
Eric, your horror writing is thoroughly entertaining as well as inspirational for writers like me exploring the genre. How did you get started and who inspired you?
Well, I never thought I would be a horror writer, if I’m being honest! I got this idea for a man who is working a graveyard shift in a crummy gas station, and what would happen if he saw a chance to get out. That is where it all started, and it snowballed from there. I haven’t read a ton of horror, but I’ve seen nearly all the horror movies that have ever been made. I’ve also gone to the hardcore haunted houses, and do things like that, so I think I write from experiences of what makes me scared!
D.L. I love the idea of inspiration from haunted houses! And subjecting yourself to scary experiences to write about them. I must know. What’s the difference between hardcore haunted events and the average Halloween neighborhood fete?
Well, I would have to say your blood pressure for starters! There is something about walking down tight, poorly lit corridors and not knowing if the things around you are actors or props… it can be really terrifying! It is generally geared for an 18+ crowd, so things can get pretty tense!
I’m excited about my preordered copy of Haunt coming out September 30, another great anthology from Dragon Soul Press, and even better, one of your stories will be part of it. Can you give us a sneak peek and tell us about the indie press and what they do?
My short story is called, ‘Graveyard Shift’ and is told in the first person by a man named Alex. He is down on his luck and a stranger comes in to offer him the world. He unwittingly makes a deal and then things get a bit tricky for dear ol’ Alex. I also have 2 others, ‘Everglades’ and ‘As you Wish…’, being released by Dragon Soul Press in their upcoming Anthology ‘Beautiful Darkness: Volume 1’ this October! They have been AMAZING to work with. They are incredibly professional, and I am hoping I can work with them for a long time!
D. L. Congratulations, Eric! After your recommendation, I looked at all the anthologies Dragon Soul Press has in the works. So many great options for submission. Our readers can check them out here. You can also click on the photos of Eric’s books to link to the preorders on Amazon!
I enjoyed the stories on your blog so much. Where else can we find your work, and what are your works in progress and plans for them?
I keep all of my stories on my site (totally free) and then have the stories being released September 30 and October 30 with Dragon Soul Press. I have about a million projects in the works! There is my main WIP called ‘Into the Grey’ that is about a secret society of mages that protects near future England from demon invasion from a parallel world ruled by a dark king. I also have a horror novel in the works called Wetlands that is a coming-of-age story about a boy in a small town who befriends a swamp creature to stop the new company in town from polluting the local area. Think Stand by Me meets Swamp Thing.
D. L. Those sound amazing, and it’s clear how much you’re enjoying spinning the tales. Can’t wait to read them. You can find Eric’s stories here.
What are some of your favorite characters in your stories, and why?
I really feel for Alex in Graveyard Shift. I think he is like me in a lot of ways, so it is hard to not like him a little!
I also love my characters in my novels. Ronnie from Into the Grey is a total ham, and really fun to write. They all hold special homes in my heart. I guess my heart is more or less a hotel whose tenants feature in all of my stories. They are all a tiny part of me (even the bad ones) so it’s hard to choose any one over the others!
D. L. Thanks for that revelation, which I think a lot of writers can relate to. Do you have a character brooding in that hotel that has yet to find a story?
I do actually! He’s just checked in though, so I don’t know much about him other than that he is without magic in a magic filled world. He’s shunned to outside the magical dome that protects the city from harmful spores in the air and joins the other outcasts to plan a way back into the city. I’m looking forward to this one, as it’s been on the back burner for some time!
D. L. Okay. Now I am, too. You’ll have to keep me posted!
One of the things I love asking writers is how they organize their writing life in harmony with family and other work. Do you have any favorite stories or tips you like to offer burgeoning writers?
Oh boy. My biggest and most often piece of advice is really simple.
“Don’t give up. Don’t stop writing.”
A break is alright, and there are always going to be times when you simply can’t write, but more or less, that is my advice to others. It might feel hard, it might be total poo on the page, but don’t stop. Write short stories. if you need a break from your main project. They’re a lot less strain on the cranium than a 100,000+ word novel, I can tell you that for sure!
I like to write between 9 and 10:30 (later if I’m on a roll) every Tuesday and Thursday and then any other day I get the chance. I know! It seems like a minuscule amount of time, but I’ve managed to write about 200,000 words in the last year by doing this, so it works well! I don’t spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen either. When you only have 3-4 hours set aside for writing each week, you make them count!
D. L. Great advice. And that is so helpful to know how much can get done on a schedule like that. Thanks!
When I first discovered you, it was through a Twitter post you shared about one of Richie Billing’s classes. He’s the man behind the Fantasy Writer’s Tool Shed podcast. It’s amazing how that one post of yours introduced me to so many fellow writers on Richie’s Discord group, and you are a key facilitator. Now, of course, I have a much better understanding of the robust writing community on social media and all the generous writers and creators who share. How did you get involved with it, and why do you think online writing communities are beneficial?
Much the same as you, actually! I was looking for a fantasy writing podcast and came across Richie’s. I joined his community and then the rest is history! I really felt alone before the chat and joining the writing community. I appreciate everything my family does to help support me as a writer, but they don’t always have the patience to deal with my writing. I’m sure most writers can relate. The look in the eyes from family and friends when you ask, “but why did you like it?” Like a deer in the headlights with flashbacks of standing in front of the class to give book reports! So, it is really nice to have peers.
D. L. The headlights analogy is hilarious and so true! And just put things in perspective for me. I was giving my family work to do, not just seeking an opinion.
Along those same lines, are there writing/book communities available locally in Alberta, Canada? If not, do you think there should be, or is online involvement where it’s at these days?
There certainly is. We have a writer’s guild in Alberta even! It is the biggest in Canada from what I’ve seen.
That being said, I think that online is where it’s at. If not for online, I would be talking to my Captain America poster. Asking if he thinks I should make my chapters shorter or if the villain is villainy enough. He would tell me that my antagonist is no Red Skull. There’d be an argument…
Anyway, I’m happy for all my online writing buddies!
D. L. LOL! Now I’m going to be looking for that scene in one of your stories!
This is a great opportunity to talk about the Fantasy Sci Fi Writers Alliance. What a great idea you had and it’s growing fast. Tell us what it’s about and the benefits of joining.
WELL! I can’t take credit for the idea. Anna Moss (The Worthy out now) is the person who first talked about it with me. She had mentioned forming one and I was game. Then, when people were discussing how difficult social media is and the struggles of being an author on Richie’s chat, I pitched the idea, and it blew up.
The Fantasy & Sci-Fi Writers Alliance is a group (150 and going strong) of writers who help to support each other on social media to boost reach with readers and meet fellow writers. That may be an oversimplification, but that is more or less the bones of it! So, if you want to join and do Instagram Trains, Twitter Writer Lifts, Book Clubs and (soon) Writing Sprints then check out the form on my website and join us! The more the merrier.
D. L. Here’s the link! And… Our readers can meet Anna here next month!
Sometimes I find it hard to make time for sharing and promoting online when there are so many places available to participate. Do you have any tips for sorting through the noise and making your time count, so you don’t cut into writing time?
If I had the key for this. Boy, oh boy.
Finding balance is probably the hardest thing about writing. Not only do you have to write, but you need to market as well. A task that holds little to no guarantees. You can work at it for ages and get nowhere, and then do a small video and get a thousand views. A lot of the time there is no rhyme or reason to any of it, and the target seems to move constantly.
What I DO know for sure, is that doing all those things is a lot easier when you have a band…no, a group…wait. An alliance, to help you with it. That is more or less the core of starting the alliance. You can ask, ‘how the heck do I format this thing for kindle?’ or ‘is this thing on Insta legit?’ and not have to spend a hundred hours wondering/worrying/working on a solution.
D. L. Great advice. Thank you!
What has been your biggest highlight of the last year?
Getting Graveyard Shift published! That said, finishing my first draft for Into the Grey was pretty incredible as well.
Where do you want to be as a writer in five years?
Ideally? Hanging out with Neil Gaiman. More realistically though, I would like to be totally finished with Into the Grey, as well as have a dozen more short story publications under my belt. I would like to have an agent and to be finding a home for my work.
D. L. Great goals! And maybe we can get Richie to invite Mr. Gaiman to a chat on his podcast. Hmmm…
Any parting advice to those who dream about writing?
Don’t stop. Never stop writing. It may be ‘poo on the page’ to start, but one day you will make something amazing. I would also say that you should watch Neil Gaiman’s address to the University of the Arts from 2012, the Brandon Sanderson lectures on Youtube, and read On Writing by Stephen King. These things have helped shape me into the writer I am today.
D. L. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Eric. All the best in your endeavors!
Thanks again for having me! This has been such fun!
Click on photos for links to Eric’s anthology books on preorder, his short stories, and more about him on his website.
Visiting an old favorite by Dean Koontz. Twilight Eyes. Anyone else been a fan since the 80s? This is a signed illustrated edition I got for my hubby years ago. Nothing better than a horror story in a carnie setting. Might have to try my hand at it one day…
My all time favorite Koontz is Watchers. What’s yours?
It’s the future, and Earth is devastated by endless droughts. In an effort to reverse the destruction and restore balance to life on the planet, the Algore Corporation is formed by a pact between governments and launches a colonization program on three terrestrial planets in nearby star systems. The colonists on the planet Cendra are nearing the end of their first twenty-year settlement cycle, but they have a serious problem. Cendra has been invaded by a hostile race called the Paq’ill intent on using their resources and enslaving them. The beleaguered colonists who manage to evade the repeated raids are forced underground. A lone survivalist, a girl who’s half human, half Paq’ill, and should never have lived past birth because of it, comes across a warrior-trained colonist caught by the invaders and left to die in her desert hideout. Can the two unlikely allies convince the scattered humans to join forces and become the ones who conquer?
Warning. Assault scene, potential trigger.
72-hours earlier, Earth calendar Sunday morning
This was Marcus’s favorite part of the day on this small transport vessel, when his brothers were asleep, and he was allowed a six-hour watch at the helm. It only happened once in a 24-hour cycle, and he took advantage of the precious time to himself.
After four years of training and two years of space travel away from Earth, the star system they were aiming for was finally visible on the screen, meaning they had only days before reaching Cendra and the colony, and Marcus was antsy. He and his brothers had learned a lot during the flight and observed many amazing things, but he was ready for a change in routine.
His eyes moved over the instrument panels. Even though nothing exciting had happened during his watch in the last three months, his senses were attuned to potential alerts thanks to his intensive training. When they landed on the small half orange and half blue circle orbiting Onthar, Marcus wondered for the millionth time what it would be like to set foot on another planet.
Satisfied all was well, he reclined with his coffee and observed the stunning galaxy through the viewport. It wasn’t long before the blackness of space gave way to bright sun as he let his mind travel home, and he could feel the Wyoming breeze on his skin as it blew across the prairie grass blanketing the back forty of his family’s ranch.
The air was fragrant with the scent of wildflowers and the lake behind him as he perched atop his roan stallion, Comet. The jagged teeth of the Grand Tetons framed the horizon. Because it was a scene he’d conjured so many times since leaving Earth, he waited for another form to take shape in the distance and smiled when it drew rapidly nearer to reveal a buckskin horse and rider. Familiar pigtails flapped behind the blond head of his nine-year old sister, Melanie.
She always found him, no matter how many ways he snuck out of the barn. He was never annoyed though because after a brief time to himself, he liked it when she joined him on a ride. Her grin of triumph was infectious, and gleeful laughter floated to him as she reined in her spirited horse, Cassiopeia, and sidled close. The mare settled easily next to her equine brother, like always.
The horses touched noses in greeting as Melanie’s sweet high voice further disrupted the quiet morning. “You think you’re clever sneaking away on Comet, but you always come here, Marcus. You must not mind me finding you.”
He sighed. “At least I get some peace for the first twenty minutes.” He reached over and tugged hard on her braid and though she swatted his hand away, he knew she would be disappointed if he hadn’t given her his habitual hello.
She snorted, and said, “You should be glad then that I took time to check on the kittens.”
“Let’s find Dad and the boys,” he said as he laughed. “I think they’re working on the south fence today.”
As expected, his sister nudged Cassie’s flanks and was away before he finished speaking. He did the same to his horse, who might be calm but wasn’t named Comet for nothing.
They were soon neck and neck and continued that way until he edged past her just before they reached the ranch fencing and spotted three male backs hunched over shiny new barbed wire as they stretched it between posts. Three identical dark heads turned their way, and his brothers grinned while their father kept his face stoic.
Then John Mackenzie said, “Well, don’t just sit there, boy. Get down here and put your back into it.” Marcus never said no to a challenge and was glad he brought his leather gloves. He dismounted, handed the reins to his sister, and donned them.
His father turned to Melanie. “I hope you made yourself useful and brought us more water.”
Just like their mother, she refused to let his dour tone dampen her spirits, and she laughed and said, “Of course, father.” Marcus caught the answering sparkle in his father’s eye.
There hadn’t been much left to do on the fence work, so he and his sister got in a long ride that day. One of their best… and their last.
He finished his coffee as he lingered over the memory. That was the summer before the droughts followed one after the other across the planet until everything the Makenzie’s had built for two hundred and fifty years went to seed. He and his sister were forced to grow up fast, starting with the day they had to give up Comet and Cassiopeia.
Their father left them next when it became critical to find work. After the first year of updates, money, and promises to return home, he contacted them less and less, and the money eventually stopped coming. While the family struggled to keep things going, they, along with the rest of the world, learned about the formation of the Algore corporation by a pact between governments to pool resources in a belated attempt to restore the flailing planet.
Even more shocking to the world was Algore’s announcement that successful space travel had resulted in the discovery of three nearby star systems with potentially habitable planets, making terraforming and colonization its top priority. The governments all agreed that Earth needed to be depopulated before recovery was possible. The corporation found a way to achieve that and to generate critical resources at the same time.
Twenty years after the first team set out, the Mackenzie brothers gave up the search for their father, entered the Algore Planetary Annexation Academy, and focused on their future. Before they knew it, they were saying goodbye to their mother and sister and leaving their home planet with a plan to return in ten years, hopefully with enough money to recover their own lost homestead and find their family waiting for them.
The comm flashed. It was a message, but Marcus had to work to pull up the fractured bits on the screen. The only thing that was clear was the warning symbol across the header. Then a word started repeating. “Paq’ill.”
He was going to have to wake his brothers.
Present time, just before noon, Earth Calendar Thursday – The Planet Cendra
N’grell crouched in the shade of the two-story compactor as it paused to chomp on its sad contents like the knobby jaws of a Dwiredre beast that dwelled in the caves of the northern fjords.
She didn’t need her imagination to make that comparison. It was common knowledge that the shy, horned giants of the snow-covered north and this machine in the desert south shared the same diet of flesh and bones. Both beasts were equally efficient scavengers serving to rid the environment of waste. And these days, that meant consuming colonists left to rot by the invaders who murdered them.
It had been a quiet morning, other than the sounds from her slow-moving shelter, but now she listened in dismay to an approaching patrol craft, then watched as it landed a hundred yards away. Two Paq’ill raiders exited the compact flier, pulling with them three bound and barely clothed humans, bleeding out from the wounds that had subdued them.
The towering blue men paid no attention to the machine because they expected it to be there, but N’grell knew better than to move from its shadow, or their sharp reptilian eyes would snap right to her.
A scene unfolded that she was helpless to do anything about, one she’d witnessed too many times since choosing to live in the Paq’ill dumping grounds, a desert once pristine and beautiful that the humans ironically named Death Valley after a place on their home planet. The raiders hauled their unresisting captives away from the twirling rotary blades, then pushed them to their knees. Faint whimpers traveled to her hiding spot, otherwise it was clear the humans were past begging for their lives.
The two women knelt in the burning sand and watched in horror as their male companion was set upon first. One warrior mounted him, then the other, neither of them bothering to drop their britches. The Paq’ill uniforms were designed for a quick coupling because they engaged in it as often as they consumed food. The terror on the women’s faces was the hardest to witness because they knew they were next and that a slow death in the desert would follow.
The barbaric warriors had no issue with making noise even if their victims were silent in their hopelessness, and their bellows of triumph thundered across the desert as the human male collapsed motionless after their violent assault. Everything about the Paq’ills was huge, and they used their size viciously.
The colonists had discovered the hard way that it was territorial conquest driving them to abuse both sexes, but the Paq’ill were extremely virile creatures, and the acts the two carried out on the women were much more deliberate. One woman remained stoic. The other passed out halfway through.
When N’grell witnessed such things, she tried not to think about her own conception, what her mother must have suffered, and she understood fully why the colonists often took their own lives before being taken by the ruthless invaders. The medics had formulated a pill to make it easy. These three must be new arrivals, or they would have gone that route.
It wasn’t the first time N’grell wished she had training as a sharpshooter, and she promised herself the day would come to dare a trade for a blaster. She’d been close on her last visit to the hidden market under Mount Tandell, but she’d known it would take more than she had at the time because few colonists possessed the deadlier Paq’ill weapons and were reluctant to give them up.
If she ever got a hold of one, she would have no problem blasting the scaly beasts right between their cold silvery eyes, and there was one in particular N’grell would dearly love to laser full of holes. She clenched her jaw. Wishful thinking was useless.
The raiders ended their victims’ suffering with a blaster bolt through each heart, a mercy they inexplicably provided on occasion. Otherwise, they preferred to prolong it by leaving them in the desert. It didn’t take long for the damaged humans to die under the heat of Onthar without water.
There were a few instances when N’grell tried to offer help if she was close enough to get to them, more than willing to share food and water. But she only ended up scaring the incoherent victims with her appearance and prolonging their suffering with her lack of resources. The inevitable failure tore her up every time.
Once, one of the poor souls begged her to end his suffering. She’d agonized over it for twenty minutes after hydrating him, then gave into his plea for mercy. She’d learned he’d been a slave for years before they ended his life so callously, dumping him like a piece of garbage. His pain filled eyes, emptying of life while she held his hand, still tormented her.
It was guilt that roiled through N’grell’s insides this time at the relief from not having to worry about saving anyone today.
The raiders adjusted their uniforms, pumped the air with their weapons and called out to the desert in satisfaction and triumph a last time. Except for the hum of her motorized shelter, an eerie silence filled the desert after they were gone.
She honored the three lives by prolonging the silence, then put the tragedy from her mind and went about her business, doing her own scavenging like the machine that offered her its shadow.
As her own sharp eyes scouted the remains sprawled across her path, she indulged in the irony that these colonists would have argued when they were alive that she was worse than the machine that composted them because she scavenged their carcasses for valuables, picking through the bodies before the compactor scooped them into its maw. It was a philosophical argument she had with herself often, but it didn’t bother her much anymore. It was simply survival.
Her days were spent stuffing clothes, shoes, and chrono bands into her camo bag; pulling rings off fingers and even gold from teeth, though the precious metal was extremely rare. Sometimes she retrieved heirloom pieces, which she stored in the hopes of returning such items to the victims’ families. And it wasn’t just bodies she scavenged. The claw bucket under the patrol craft that brought the dead ones here, often picked up tools, weapons, or mechanical parts along with the victims. The Paq’ill never seemed to care what they gave up to the desert.
When she wasn’t busy collecting or hunting food, she was trading carefully selected treasures for supplies. Except for the gold. That she stashed in a secret place. She’d learned as a child that it might buy her transportation off the planet. She knew her chances were slim, but there was no future in this place, and she couldn’t see herself living in her compactor forever. So, she dreamed of the day her life might change. It didn’t have to be a change for the better. Any change would do.
She sighed. Today was not that day, and on that thought, she took a moderate swig from her water, tucked it under the folds of her cloth and tugged a heavy covering over her already covered face. She settled her protective goggles over the top of both, then stepped away from the shadows of the only shelter within miles.
She kept her ears open and eyes scanning the terrain for signs of life or more patrols as she picked her way through the desert graveyard. But Onthar was near its peak, which it maintained for a good portion of the day, and not even a fire rat made an appearance. The desert rodents knew better than to be out in this heat.
It was nerve-wracking each time she exposed herself and left the comforting noise of the whirring servos and the banging, grinding, and thumping, as it carried out its grisly task. It was moving shade and her own fortress after all.
Though its purpose was still a mystery as it traveled in an ever-widening circle over the desert floor, she was familiar with every inch of the six-and-a-half-meter square contraption, having equipped it to be her home, sheltering in it as it whirred methodically across the desert, even learning to fix it when it had mechanical issues.
From her experience, it seemed to operate completely on its own using the composted humans for fuel. But it wasn’t just humans it harvested. N’grell’s best guess was that they were only a byproduct as it hunted for minerals. Every so often it would leave a two-meter deposit behind. She never went back to learn if anyone retrieved the pile because there was too much on the path ahead requiring her attention, and what was behind them was in the past.
The giant machine had no communication equipment, and she suspected that if it quit, it would simply be left where it stopped, becoming derelict.
A shadow flitted across the rays of Onthar, followed by a high-pitched screech, and N’grell smiled. Even with her goggles she had to shade her face with her hand as she looked at the sky and reached out her other arm. A bird of prey forty centimeters tall landed with familiarity, shook its wings, tucked them in, then cocked its bronze-feathered head. A beautiful bronze eye several shades lighter than the feathers peered at her covered face.
After offering the bird water, she gave it her words. “Chadra. You always know when I need someone to talk to. Did you witness the latest atrocities from on high?” A deeper light flashed across the brilliant orb then the bird settled into stillness to peer at her, which meant he was telling her something.
He launched into the air and spiraled several times, his black tail feathers split into two lengths like swords trailing behind him. Each turn he made in the brilliant sky urged her to head towards the east.
After some time easing her way through the bones and rotting flesh, N’grell halted when she noticed Chadra circling over one spot. Sure enough, a flash of smooth shiny fabric caught her eye. Could that poor soul under the heap be sporting a colonial jacket? Most didn’t make it to the dumping grounds with many clothes, let alone top layers of sturdy warm material. It had to be the remains of another new arrival. Though she usually avoided the fresh ones, the jacket was too valuable to pass up.
She swallowed down the repugnance for what she was about to do and made a plea to her mother’s god. “Please forgive me.” The smell hit her despite her face covering. “Ugh.”
As she drew closer, it became apparent that two human males were piled together in that horrible fresh stage of decomposition. They must have been brought from the dark side and dumped here in the middle of the night. Grimacing at the charbug larvae already writhing around a deep hole in the back of the body on top, she held onto her determination and moved the stiff limbs to get a better look.
Those laser blasters were a bitch. For all the Paq’ill’s fearsome reputation, they really were cowards, shooting their victims in the back. The poor man had a death grip on the body underneath, but she managed to clear a path. She reached for the gleaming fabric. The jacket moved.
N’grell stifled a shriek as a hand grasped her wrist.
55 hours earlier, Earth calendar Monday evening – on board the colonial transport
Marcus pulled his dinner from the sim bank and took his seat across from his brothers. He refused to pick at the lump on his plate and instead pretended it was the juicy steak he’d selected for replication.
The crappy machine hadn’t gotten one request right since they left the San-Lin stopover, which was a year ago, no matter how many times he took it apart to fix it, but he wasn’t going to let it win. At least this time it was hot, and it smelled a little like beef. Mostly, it was nutrition.
He stared at it, braced himself, then dug in with gusto as Jack, the oldest of the three of them, and their commander, reported the latest while he picked through his own mysterious pile that loosely resembled spaghetti and meatballs. “We still haven’t received any communication from the surface. It’s more than a jammed signal, which would be alarming enough, but other indications are that no one is manning the communications tower. How long this has been going on is hard to determine.
“As you know, we passed our turnaround point at the last jump, so we need to stay on course. The two transports ahead of us have also gone silent, but they must have landed by now. We haven’t been able to decipher the entire beacon, but the word, Paq’ill, gave Mason enough to dig for information.”
The gooey lump turned gooier as it stuck in Marcus’s throat, so he swigged his simulated beer. It was too warm, but it helped, then he piped in. “So, what do we know?” Their grim faces didn’t bode well.
Mason said, “As you determined, Marcus, the looped communication is patchy and that’s because it was literally jerry-rigged to make it through a damaged communications tower. But I picked up enough, and what I learned isn’t good. In summary, they’re a race who thrive on raiding colonized worlds, taking advantage of the work already done, and refusing to live peaceably. Instead, they plunder the colonists’ resources and occupy themselves with hunting them for sport, then enslaving them, or worse.”
Marcus tipped back the rest of his beer, which forced the last bite of steak glop down his gullet, pushed back his plate, and said ruefully, “The only thing worse than being prey or slaves is death. Sounds like a delightful race. Do we know anything else about them, what they look like, their strengths, weaknesses?”
Jack said, “Other scant reports were pieced together by the computer and if the conclusions are accurate, only males make up the raiding parties that are launched from a space barge they call home, and they might be humanoid and seven feet tall, which should add up to make for an equally delightful welcome party. We will assume these hostile aliens will be waiting for us because it’s the only explanation for the old message and no new ones since.”
His blue eyes pinned Marcus with a look that always reminded him of their mother, the one she got when she couldn’t help thinking of him as her baby, no matter what age he reached, or that he had a younger sister. He was still her youngest boy.
Jack even sounded like her at her most stern when he added, “You still have your seventh level of combat to complete. We knew it wouldn’t happen before arriving, but you will practice with Reggie until we land, with only four-hour rest periods. We touch down on the dark side of Cendra on Wednesday, two hours before dawn.”
Marcus turned to Mason and sighed when he met the same concern in equally blue eyes, and he nodded to them both because it was no use telling them he was ready. He could never be ready enough for these two. It didn’t matter that Marcus was twenty-six. Jack was eight years older and would always be a surrogate father, which was as important to him as being their commander, and Mason, three years younger than Jack, was second in command. They were his superiors, but more importantly and forever, his big brothers.
Affection for them welled up, catching him off guard. He cleared his throat, then stood with his empty dishes. “I’m on my way to Reggie. You know I love training, and now I have an enemy to prepare for.”
Everything on their small ship needed to serve more than one purpose and Marcus headed to the cargo hold where Reggie and Mason’s research station coexisted with the supplies they were bringing, including medicines and weapons, though now Marcus worried the latter would get into the wrong hands. Of course, that was a risk they had prepared for, which is why the weapons were in a secret hold disguised as mundane supplies.
Mason walked with him, quietly at first, then he spoke. “I’ll add my two cents to Jack’s. Though you still have a level to complete before becoming a full-fledged warrior, you’re already an excellent fighter, Marcus, a natural, probably better than me, or Jack. Still, I have a bad feeling about what we’ll find when we land. Your skills are superb, but you lack experience.
“You’re also a good student, so I will only say this one time regarding what we might find at the end of this god-awful long journey. Do not act the hero. Let your training take over. If the three of us are threatened and you have an opportunity to get away, take it. Don’t look back. You can always return for us so long as you survive.”
Marcus’s shoulders stiffened with foreboding, but he shrugged it off and faced his brother. “There won’t be much point in surviving without you two.”
Mason laid his hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “Remember, Jack and I will be doing the same. We’ll find each other again. And if only one of us returns to Mom and Melanie, it will make all the difference.”
“Melanie would never forgive us if we didn’t all come home.”
He thought back to the last time he saw his sister. The only reason Melanie wasn’t with them on this ship was that none of them wanted to leave their mother completely alone. So, she’d given up the Academy and stuck with her plan to become a veterinarian.
Still, she hardly spoke to them for months before they embarked, and only showed up at the last minute to join Mom, who stood behind the rope, tears pooling in her eyes but never dropping. The two of them looked nearly identical in their stiff-lipped goodbyes, chins trembling.
Though Melanie never said a word, her green eyes told Marcus everything he needed to know as she watched her brothers board the transport. He nodded to her and mouthed their code words, “Strawberry Pond.” She nodded back, acknowledging their promise to each other. They would meet there in ten years.
Mason said, “I wouldn’t put it past her to come after us. Did you know she was entering the Academy when we left?”
Marcus came to a dead stop. “That explains a lot. Dammit, Mason. I should have known.”
“Well, she better not try such a hair-brained thing, considering the threat we might be facing. But threats like these are why the Academy has increased the military component. Our little sister will probably end up more badass than us. Now, I want to see Reggie’s CPU belching smoke when you’re through with him tonight.” He slapped Marcus upside the head and Marcus playfully fended him off, then left him to his research.
Marcus had no problem spending the night with the hollo warrior and his sword. It had been his calling since he was a kid, as natural to him as breathing, like Mason said.
He thought about the likelihood of meeting hostility when they landed and was grateful the corporation had stepped up the battle training. Reggie was top of the line in warfare simulation. Colonizing had basically become a thrill sport, and those who chose the lucrative occupation did so at significant risk. It was a risk the family had decided on, despite the devastation of being split up for so many years, because it was the only chance the Mackenzies, and their ranch, had to thrive once again.
He shook his head. If Melanie did follow them, that chance would be significantly slimmer. But there was nothing he could do about his sister’s choices out here, so he shrugged off his worries and punched in his battle sequence.
In addition to swords, he faced Reggie with a variety of knives and six different firearms. Then they went weaponless as they hammered each other with ju-jitsu moves. Reggie might be a hologram, but he could manifest solid objects that punished Marcus as much as Marcus punished his wispy warrior friend.
When they were finished and both still standing, though Marcus felt every bruise, he bowed respectfully to Reggie who bowed back. Marcus’s brow creased when Reggie gave him an odd sentient look no hologram should have, before winking out of existence.