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.
There is an interesting story behind the beginning. The first line came about from a prompt in a writing challenge. Amazing what can grow from an opening line of text, “the attack was over in seconds.” Hmmm… 14,000 words later…
In the middle of the challenge, we were given a twist. There could be no physical violence. Since this grew into something bigger than I planned, I didn’t meet the deadline, but I stuck with the first two challenges, at least at first. Physical violence will become part of my story. It doesn’t matter, though, because I’ve already received tons of satisfaction in writing about Raelyn and Harley, and all the friends they encounter along the way.
Toxic Friends Can be a Good Thing
Raelyn’s parents, both university professors, both geneticists, disappear, first one then the other, by the time she is sixteen. No bodies are found, and the police never pursue an investigation, despite Raelyn’s conviction and testimony that humans who are much more than human are involved. To avoid her parents’ fate while she does her own investigating, she takes to the streets, the best place to hide in plain sight. But her efforts are hindered by panic attacks when she keeps stumbling across the entities as they make their strange transformations. When she befriends an unusually perceptive canine who insists on being her therapy dog, Raelyn starts getting her answers. But they’re answers to questions she didn’t even know she had, and her understanding of the world around her changes forever.
The attack was over in seconds. A full thirty seconds to be exact, where I struggled to stay conscious as my heart nearly beat out of my chest, but it was less than half the time of the last one… Thanks to Harley.
My furry companion was getting better at leading me away from the freaky spectacles only we seemed to witness before I became incapacitated by the panic that inevitably followed.
Harley’s warm nose pressed against my neck as I gulped the familiar combination of fresh sea air and city streets into my constricted lungs, and my grip on the battered watch relaxed even as the threat of panic lingered along with the gray spots dancing in my eyes. The thought of passing out and leaving my best friend alone could trigger an attack as much as coming upon an entity in yet another alley doing its bizarre thing.
I stuffed the old Timex I scored in a dumpster dive back in my hidden pocket, two shirts below my top one. It helped to time these events, reassuring me that Harley had a very real effect on halting the worst of it.
My jaw tightened with determination. I needed to be strong for him. He was for me. A natural therapy dog. His value had no limit, unless you were one of those people secure in the knowledge you had a roof over your head and food was plentiful. That person would scrunch their face in disgust, wave a hand in front of their nose, then give him a wide berth. I often got the same reaction, so I knew how it felt.
This tired old thought reminded me we were overdue for a bath at the shelter on Ocean Street. Every couple of weeks they would kindly let me bathe Harley with the hose on the back stoop before I got my own hot shower. It wasn’t our fault the streets made us beyond filthy before our next spa day, or that I had to dress again in soiled clothes, though I did try to time it with a trip to the laundry mat when I accumulated enough scrounged coins. Refreshed from our respective baths, we would get our bowl of hot soup and sliced bread and dine in the tiny garden of the shelter house with the hummingbirds who visited the old honeysuckle vines and a lone hollyhock. But we were a week out for our next visit.
My stomach growled. We were overdue for a meal, too.
Letting my mind wander over these mundane things succeeded in distracting me, and my breathing calmed. I was backed against a brick wall on a side street where Harley had brought me, always knowing the exact distance from a sighting I needed to be to get a grip. Keeping my fingers buried in the ruff of his neck, I slid the rest of the way to the cement walkway to think rationally about the scene we just fled.
An entity that resembled a man changed shape after drawing ribbons of crackling energy around him. The new creature flew off so fast, I could almost believe it was a dream. But telling myself that never worked. I’d witnessed the transformation too many times. They didn’t always fly, either. Sometimes they were four-legged, and huge.
I shivered again. Harley burrowed closer, and my arm went around his middle without conscious thought. He nudged me, and his offer of comfort penetrated my awareness, and I hugged him. Even with the grime, he smelled like love to me.
We were allowed another minute to recuperate before a shop owner pointed us out to a police cruiser. Long Beach had just cleaned up this block, and the merchants were diligent about keeping those of us without permanent residences moving along. They didn’t care where, so long as it wasn’t on their street.
Nathan stepped out of the black and white and opened his mouth, but my wave made him clamp it shut again. He was cool, and a rookie, already good at keeping track of the regulars on his beat, and he never judged us. He nodded then moved on to more important matters.
“Come on, fur face. It’s time to head to camp. We can stop for a bite on the way.”
He answered by standing and giving me a butt wag. Like me, he started life as a purebred, meaning he had clear origins, an Australian Shepherd to be exact, and got his tail docked for his misfortune. Apparently, he didn’t meet someone’s standards and lost his home despite his perfect temperament. My misfortune started when my father, a university professor, disappeared just after my sixth birthday, leaving my mother, his colleague, and a fellow geneticist, to raise me alone in Belmont Shores.
As we moved along my favorite side streets, I couldn’t help but examine certain people for signs. Recognizing the light that flashed deep in their eyes was a skill I developed over time. Also, they were fitter than normal humans, crackling with an energy that surely others must notice, though the evidence pointed to complete ignorance by the general population. It was hard to quantify the sum of their superior physical stature, but enough encounters convinced me of the differences between them and a typical Southern California fitness fanatic. It was their obvious strength as much as their otherness that made them so terrifying.
Still, these things didn’t explain my panic attacks. The obvious conclusion was terror. But the shapeshifters, as I’d come to think of them, didn’t know I observed them from the shadows, and they’d never come after me. The only other explanation I could come up with for plunging into panic when I witnessed a transformation was the significant role they played in the events surrounding the disappearance of my parents.
Three entities had been at our house the night my mother disappeared. Their arrival woke me up, something about the way the energy changed in the house. I hid on the landing and watched as my mother took them to her study. She acted like they were normal guests, other than the strange wordless greetings.
There was a heart-stopping moment when one of them raised his face my way and sniffed the air. I froze until he moved on. Then I slipped down the stairs to listen at the door.
Mom was the first to speak, only a slight note of distress detectable in her usually calm voice. “Why did you come here? What you need is at the lab.”
“We know, and we’re aware of its significance for us and how hard you’ve worked, Elaine, but its existence is too dangerous, for you, and your daughter. We came to check your house for bugs, and to warn you to bury the project. You have protocols in place to deep-six everything?”
“Yes. I’ll take care of it tonight. But I was prepared for this, Max. The man has the clout to close down the lab without notice. I want you to take this.” I detected the sounds of the safe opening.
Max said, “The alpha told us you were clever. But there cannot be any evidence linking you to the research. We’re grateful that you completed your husband’s work, but the man is not stupid. He suspects you’ve carried on. I swear that for our part, this will never see the light of day… in the human world.”
Max left his two companions at the house to cover every square inch of it like he promised, but not before they transformed right in the hall.
Mom clutched her heart, even as she smiled in fascination at the creatures now on four legs in front of her, and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
My own heart pounded so hard I was sure they would hear it. It was a strange thing to see my mother, the brilliant, logical scientist, accepting the unbelievable, when I was ready to run screaming.
After they were done searching the inside, they crept into the eaves to take up posts after leaving my mother at the door of her bedroom, though I was tucked back in my own bed by then and only knew they were there by straining my ears, barely detecting scraping sounds and a few bumps on the roof.
It was the last I saw of them, or her. Despite all the questions jamming my brain, I had fallen asleep huddled under my blankets, and when I woke the next morning, the house was empty, with no signs of what happened.
The authorities didn’t think highly of my theory that beings who were more than human were involved. In fact, after attempting to describe the entities, they were convinced I was nuts, and earmarked my case for an institution. It didn’t matter that I was two years ahead of my classmates and preparing for college at sixteen and could clearly articulate the events.
Another thing that was clearer now was that my instincts for self-preservation prompted me to skew my testimony enough to leave out the parts that might incriminate my mother. Those instincts also warned me the institution they had in mind for me was not meant for mentally ill teenagers, and to disappear when my caseworker tried to fob me off on a stranger claiming she was my legal guardian. I knew who my parents’ lawyer was, and it wasn’t the cold-looking woman who showed up for me.
Since no other family existed, and my trust fund didn’t kick in until I reached eighteen, I opted for the streets; the best place to keep a low profile, convinced I might follow the fate of my parents, though I had no idea what that fate was. It was up to me to learn more about these entities and how they were connected to my parents if I were going to reclaim my life.
For now, I used my time on the streets to learn about them, even as I continued to be frustrated by the weakness that kept me from getting close enough for solid answers.
I had no doubt I’d be worse off without the empathic canine looking after me and having him to care for. I didn’t think of Harley as my dog because it didn’t feel right claiming ownership. He was free to move on, if that was his choice, but he hadn’t left my side since the day I opened my eyes to find his unusual ones staring at me.
Besides being the perfect warning system, Harley made me better at survival since I did it for two. I got clever at living in my chosen environment, picking the best places to sleep, learning which to avoid, and which had the best handouts.
We stopped at one of those now. I pushed the buzzer for two half notes. In seconds, the heavy door opened a crack, and Ezra squinted his bulbous eye through it to peer at me. The scent of savory foods sizzling on a smoky grill wafted through the crack.
“Why, Miss Raelyn, and Harley.” The door opened wider, expanding the view to include his broad smile, dark face, and short black hair sprinkled with white. He thrust a grease-stained bag out the door. “I saved this for you. Somehow, I knew you’d be by today. You look tuckered out.”
I couldn’t help my smile. “This will go a long way towards fixing that, and I can’t thank you enough.” He waited expectantly.
Digging through my layered shirts to another pocket, I pulled out a silvery coin. “I made a trade for this buffalo head nickel. It’s in amazing condition.”
“Hmmm. 1920. That’s my earliest yet. Thanks. But you best be careful doing those trades, you hear?” Even as he cautioned me, his eyes gleamed as they peered at the coin.
“Always, Ez. Give Tina my best.”
He nodded, and the bulbous eye full of sympathy stayed pinned on me through the gap as it narrowed, then closed with a quiet thwack. If Ezra had a say, he would invite us in to eat, but that was against regulations, though he broke them once during a torrential downpour.
Harley impressed me as always with his impeccable manners when he refrained from sniffing at the sack swinging next to his nose. He would only have to suffer for two blocks before we reached our favorite beachside bench in the park. But we were delayed a little longer when I spied familiar mismatched boots sticking out from the other side of a trash can. Harley whined and went to nudge his friend.
“Aw, Hector,” I murmured, as I knelt by a man who was probably only thirty-five, but looked twice that age, and reached for his pulse. It was faint. I patted his face and shook him gently by the shoulder. The sour smell of sickness pushed at my nostrils, but I’d learned how to breathe past these things.
“Come on, Hector. Let’s get you to the clinic.” There was no response, but I kept at it until his eyes slitted open, fluttered, then closed again.
I reached in our bag for one of the four generous meatballs covered in savory red sauce and wafted it in front of his nose. His eyes opened a little wider, and my name came out in a croak between cracked lips.
“There you are,” I said as I smiled. When they weren’t red rimmed, his brown eyes were beautiful. “Would you like a meatball? Let’s get some water in you, too. I think you’re dehydrated. Doc Warden might like to take a look at you. What do you say? We need to get you back in full form at the barrel for story time.”
Hector fought in Afghanistan. His stories were tragic but fascinating, and he knew exactly how to insert a profound lesson into each one. It was ironic that the lessons he passed on were the very ones preventing him from coping with life after he came home… Well, the lessons, and the mortar damage to his body that got him addicted to pain pills.
Another set of battered footwear appeared on the sidewalk, and I looked up. “Hi Annie.” Her warm eyes belied the sour prune-face that never changed expression.
“I’ll take it from here, Raelyn. Looks like your offerings did the trick. Howya doin, Heck?”
By now, Hector was sitting up straighter as the meatball disappeared, then the water. Harley licked his whiskered cheek and got patted for his efforts, and I sighed. We might get our friend through another week.
“Thanks, Annie,” I said as I stood. “He always does better when you go with him.”
Back on track to our bench, we soon had the rest of the sandwich split in half and proceeded to savor every bite while we people-watched; the best part, observing how carefully the watched avoided watching back.
I was used to these anti-reactions from my fellow humans who could never see past my ragged clothes to the person underneath. They preferred instead to pretend I was part of the beach scenery, the less appealing part.
Sometimes they couldn’t resist Harley and threw him a scrap of whatever they had. I was good with that. Sometimes, they ruined even that kindness when they looked at me accusingly, believing my companion was neglected.
A slightly used paper towel rested on top of the garbage in the can by the bench, and I plucked it off and wiped my hands. People were so wasteful.
After tossing it back on the heap, I said, “I didn’t sense the man who changed today was dangerous. Did you, Harley?” He chuffed, then went back to licking red sauce off his front paws.
I rifled in my messenger bag that was perpetually slung over my shoulder, full of precious things like books and a journal. I pulled the journal out along with a pencil and got busy capturing the images from the latest encounter. The sketches did their job even if I wasn’t anything like a skilled artist, and I had amassed a collection of strange images between the thick white pages, starting with the night my mother went missing.
The man today was fine looking, like they all seemed to be. I thought the winged creature might be a barn owl, and it was quite beautiful. Other than changing and flying away, there was no evidence of anything nefarious, which by now I could comfortably admit was the more typical of these supernatural demonstrations.
Harley looked over my shoulder as I flipped through the images, and I could swear he noted the elements with me. Only a few depicted an entity using its otherness to commit a crime. I’d witnessed far more violence on the streets from my own kind.
Gooseflesh traveled up my arms. Just thinking the words “my own kind” freaked me out with all the implications.
Next to each drawing, I detailed the encounter, noting my reactions, where and when it occurred, what creature emerged, and anything else of interest. A pattern was forming, and a glimmer of hope fluttered in my belly. Could I possibly be outgrowing my annoying attacks and be ready for an up-close encounter?
Maybe it wasn’t them I feared, only what they represented. Who was I to think whatever they were didn’t belong here? But what was it my mother gave to the one called Max? What did they have to do with my missing parents?
It was time to engage.
Harley nudged my elbow, and I turned to find him staring at me.
“What are you thinking, my friend?” His one brown eye and one blue one looked knowing, and he cocked his head.
Then his hind foot reached around to go to town on his neck, and I shook myself. “Don’t you start getting strange. You’re my rock. Remember?”
I gave him a good scratching to finish the job. Then we set out down the beach to the encampment under the pier, where we had a slim chance to grab our favorite spot and roll out our beds.
My eye cracked open, prompted by the beams of sunlight lasering through the palm fronds and slicing their way across the glittering sand towards the low tide. There was a dull ache in my back from resting all night against the rough trunk, and my legs desperately needed stretching after Harley used them for a pillow.
It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but it made me feel safer. All the good spots had been taken by the time we got to the pier yesterday, but this huge palm tree was a satisfactory second. Fortunately, the nighttime weather was mild like it often was in September, and my layers and Harley had kept me snug.
Scratching him behind the ears, I whispered in the quiet, “No one appreciates the dawn of a new day as much as the homeless, do they, my friend.” He sat on his haunches and grinned with his tongue lolling, then gazed around at our beach mates.
Our last encounter with an entity was two weeks ago, and Harley and I enjoyed the break. Still, there were a few times I thought we might have crossed paths with two of them, fleeting glimpses of amazing-looking Asian men, not much older than me. A shiver ran up my spine. My instincts told me they might be observing us, and I wondered if they could be the close encounter I was waiting for.
Laying my hand on the furry head, I whispered, “Do you think Josey will be good for a cup of coffee this morning?” His butt wagged. He loved Josey.
Harley went on his rounds while I packed our meager belongings and cleaned up as best as I could. We had our bath at the shelter a day ago, and I was apt to be more social in the days that followed. So, we made our way to 1st Street and Josey’s Java Hut.
“Come around the back, Raelyn.” She only had to turn and take a couple steps to be outside. “Chuck, cover me a few. Okay?”
“You got it… Hey, Raelyn.”
“Hey, Chuck. Did you catch some radical waves this morning?”
“How could you tell?” He beamed blindingly white teeth at me, even as he deftly operated the shiny espresso machine
“There’s an extra glow to your tan.” I got the chuckle I was going for, then went to meet Josey.
My friend was a surfer bum turned successful barista, and tattooed or pierced in multiple interesting places, which she displayed liberally with her regular costume of short shorts and a low-cut tank. She had long black hair that waved around her face, pulled back loosely for business. In about a half hour, the line to her service window would wrap around Pine Avenue, and it wasn’t just for her coffee, though it was the best for five blocks.
To Josey, the world was a questionable place at best, and she masked her dark-eyed exotic beauty with perpetual indifference. It fascinated me that her blasé attitude seemed to attract her customers as much as her looks.
What smiles she had, she saved for Harley, and she gave him one as he pushed his head under her hand for scratches. “I’ve missed you two. I always have something for you this time of day. Why don’t you come by more often?”
“Riff raff like me could cause you trouble, Josey. You know how it is. We mix things up to draw less attention. But Harley and I dream about your breakfast burritos, and I drooled all the way here thinking about your coffee. Getting a few minutes to say hello is a bonus. Is everything good?”
“Possibly. I just opened a shop on Ocean.” I cocked my head, and she sighed. “I know. Josey’s needs a Josey. I plan to split my time between the two. It was your idea, remember? You sure you don’t want a job?”
“Again, too much attention, but if I could work, it’s exactly what I’d want to do.
“You would be good for business, kid. Someday I’m going to see the beauty hiding under those grimy sacks you call clothes.” She was one to talk, and I let her read that thought.
She gave me a rare grin, and said, “I hope you change your mind.”
Two entities caught my eye as they headed to the end of the line, and Josey noticed my hitched breath. “What is it? You look like you saw a ghost.”
I laughed. “Sort of. I thought I recognized someone. Well, the line is doing its thing and Chuck looks worried. I promise not to wait so long for another visit. Here’s something to hold you over until then.”
My eyes stayed fixed on the entities as they chatted together in line, looking like regular humans to anyone but me, while I reached in my pocket for a dozen classic soda can tabs. I turned back to Josey in time to catch her eyes lighting up. She loved all things vintage and used the tabs to make fairy light garlands for her patio.
“Thanks! Be safe and don’t be a stranger.” She knelt on her knee to cup her hands around Harley’s muzzle, then kissed him on the nose. “You keep your beautiful eyes on her, Harley Dog.”
After grabbing the coffee and burritos from Chuck, who thrust them at me before rushing back to the counter, we went as far as the bench on the other side of the line, miraculously free of customers.
No one seemed to mind me sticking around, so I sat and watched the two entities over my heavenly smelling coffee while I scarfed my spicy egg-filled tortilla. They were the youngest yet, and clearly related. They moved like jungle cats.
My jaw clenched as I made my decision to follow them, though I wasn’t anything like a jungle cat, and I wondered how Harley and I might suddenly turn stealthy. It was then I noticed Harley’s eyes on them as he chewed on the last of his burrito.
“You have no idea how many times a day I wish I could read your thoughts, fur face.”
He looked at me, then stood when they reached the counter and got their coffees. They headed down 1st Street, and my mouth dropped open when Harley motioned with his head for me to follow. Well, okay then.
We pretty much sucked at this. Only five blocks and we lost them. I should speak for myself. It was my ineptitude that held us back. Harley would still be on their tail if it were up to him.
My shoulders sagged. “It was a good idea. If I’m going to engage with entities, it’s preferable they’re closer to my age. But these two seem to be on a mission. Have you ever seen anyone disappear so completely?” I could swear Harley let out a sigh.
They were in front of us one minute and gone the next, making me wonder if we’d been made. And now I was in a part of town that made me nervous as we were too close to my old neighborhood in Belmont Shores.
“You feel like a jaunt in the dog park? It’s been a while.” The mismatched eyes looked thoughtful, then he pointed us towards Park Avenue.
Initially, we moved at a good clip to get a comfortable distance from where I’d been born. Too many memories, and something telling me it wasn’t the best idea to be seen there. By whom, I couldn’t say.
Once we were clear, I relaxed, and we even stopped at the crab shack. Though we just had breakfast, I could still chow down on a crab salad. When you were homeless, sometimes you stored up, like a squirrel. But Jimmy was only good for hydration today, and he let me have a Coke and a bottle of water for Harley.
By the time we reached 5th Street, I was sure we were being followed.
Harley had the same idea because he pressed closer to me, urging me to move faster and aiming us for the trees past the lagoon.
If someone was after us, I wasn’t sure disappearing in the dog park at the top of the golf course was the best idea. But Harley seemed to disagree. When did he start making the decisions? Still, I let him take the lead, trusting his instincts.
We reached a thick stand of woods just as the punks following us let themselves be known. Shit. There were five of them. That was a bit overkill for a mugging, and they couldn’t be after me for other things lowlifes like them might be after. I was lower than they were. It must be my blood they wanted, and I couldn’t imagine why.
Fear for Harley became my dominant emotion, but it also made me determined. Reaching in the depths of my shirts, I retrieved my knife. Though I told myself often I was prepared to use it, I’d never harmed a soul, but I spent endless hours practicing my aim. I didn’t dwell on the fact it was one knife against five men.
Harley had a different plan, apparently deciding we should stay out of sight, and I followed him down an embankment to a ditch that tunneled under the golf cart track. Then we shimmied through to the other side and disappeared into another stand of trees.
But it was only minutes when a cold, flat voice called out, “How long do you plan to play hide-and-seek? We can keep at it all day. Can you? You might as well get it over with.”
“What do you want?”
“You know. We’ll make it quick. We’re just here to do a job.”
“It doesn’t matter. You won’t be around to care.”
“I bet you don’t even know.”
“That doesn’t matter, either.”
Harley kept us moving during our chat, but they were getting closer. They also split up and two came at us from one side, three from the other.
Just as expected, they had blades of their own. I tried to be grateful it wasn’t guns. The one closest eyed Harley, who was baring white canines in a growl. Nope. That wasn’t happening.
“You leave the dog out of this. If it’s me you want, come and get me.”
Obviously, a meth user, judging by his missing teeth, he turned a pathetic leer on me. “Like I said. We’ll make it quick. Then you won’t have to worry anymore about being a street loser.”
My heart gave a jolt when, utterly noiseless, one of the objects of my failed spy mission stepped into view. The other one appeared behind the gang. Elation and trepidation flooded me at once. This could go any number of ways.
The faces they turned on my stalkers gave me pause. I would not want to be on the receiving end of those steely eyes.
But the idiot who’d been goading me said, “What’s this? Looks like we’re in for more fun on this job.”
In a thick Japanese accent, the entity nearest me said, as if speaking to a normal acquaintance, “If you want to call it fun, we’ll be happy to make your day.”
Without looking my way, he said, “Take Harley and go, Raelyn.”
His familiarity with our names made me freeze, until he said in a tone that brooked no argument, though it was still calm. “Run.”
We ran, but only after the grinning gang of goons made the first bumbling moves… then everything was a blur as two sleek bodies moved through them like whirlwinds.