The Betwixt Book One

The Betwixt Book One


Chapter 1

“You have such a boring life, Mini. Honestly, don’t you ever look out the window and wish you were out there in the thick of the galaxy, rather than stuck in here with space bums and GAMs?”

I spread my mouth wide in the nervous smile I was used to giving Claudia – all teeth, no lips. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s okay here, I guess.” I gestured at the packed diner before us. Humans and aliens shoveling down their food with differing degrees of coordination; it wasn’t paradise, but it would make for a manageable hell.

Claudia, with her perfect human features, groaned. Her brown eyes flickered, her mouth pulled tight, and her thick brown ponytail fell limp over a shoulder. “You are so boring for a halfy.”

Ah yes, a halfy.

I ignored Claudia and moved around her to a waiting customer. He was a big guy – a bull Crag if I wasn’t mistaken. He towered over the two Galactic Army soldiers (GAMs for short) who sat to the side of him. He sure looked hungry.

Crags were a big race, all tough lizard skin, muscle, and bone. They found their trade as mercenaries, security, or general brawn. There weren’t too many creatures who would be happy to take on a charging Crag, gun or not. They had a reputation for being to the point, gruff, and sloppy. Most of the other girls wouldn’t serve them, but I didn’t mind so much. I’d serve anyone who was hungry.

Working in Marty’s Space Diner wasn’t heaven – but it paid the bills and was safer than working planet-side on the colonies.

“Meat.” The Crag’s massive, brick-like hands pounded on the bar.

“Okay,” I nodded, “A kilo?”

The Crag hit the bar twice, and the plastic rippled like he was flicking water in a puddle. The GAM by his side was quick enough to grab his drink before it spilled.

I took that to be an order of 2 kilos and thumbed it into my order pad.

Yep, that was my job. I took orders, cleaned up after patrons, and smiled. Something a cheap robot could do, but Marty always liked the human touch. He said it added authenticity to have real people serving customers. Marty was all about making things authentic. He kept real bottles of liquor behind the bar (well, the bottles were real, the liquid substances in them could only be classed as industrial solvents), and always had a chef’s special (which was the same every single day, making it the chef’s regular). He’d gotten real fixtures, too. He’d ripped up old flight chairs from decommissioned fighters and freight ships and even had old control panels with plate plastic over them for tables. He only got the place cleaned once a year. His philosophy was that frequent fumigating killed “De bugs, but dirt and grit added to the atmosphere.”

All this made for a dirty, smelly, old diner. Still, the customers liked it.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

I spun. Only one type of person bothered with manners in a space diner. Sure enough, I came face-to-face with a GAM, and by the looks of it, a ranking officer.

“How can I help you, sir?” I smiled as I took out my order pad. Marty always told us a smile sells a dinner in a diner.

This GAM was wearing standard black fatigues with the sleeves rolled up until under his holo-insignia of the Galactic Army. He looked youngish but tired. He had jet-black hair cropped to a neat, regulation half centimeter. His hair was made all the blacker by his dark uniform. He blinked with hazel eyes and closed his lips to make a half-smile that lifted one cheek.

“Oh wow,” Claudia whispered from behind me as she pinched hold of my apron ties, “Oh no, I have this one. Go on a break, Mini. I’ve got this one covered.” Claudia pushed past me, head tilting to the side. “Can I take your order, officer?”

The guy frowned with confusion, looked at me then back at Claudia. He shrugged, looking more tired by the minute. In my opinion, he needed a nice spiced Tika tea and maybe a bowl of hot pot – that would put the color back in his cheeks.

No one was interested in my opinion – I was a halfy working in a diner. I backed off, untied my apron, and headed for the doors that separated the bar from the rest of the room.

I didn’t need a break. Still, I could always—

Something grabbed my ponytail and pulled me backward. I let out a shriek, not loud enough to carry through the packed diner, more like the sound a tiny mouse might make if you stood on its tail.

“Oh, ahh,” I protested as whatever it was still had a hold of my hair. “Could you please—”

“Wh-ite,” something hissed.

I tried to wriggle free but to no avail. “Could you umm, could you please not grab my hair? Um, excuse me—”

“Let her go.”

The pressure pulling me down released, and I popped back up like a balloon in a lake. I patted my hair straight, trying to massage the pain out of my scalp.

“Are you okay?”

I turned to see my ranking officer with a hand flat on a short alien’s shoulder. My officer no longer looked tired – his face was pressed into a stern but alert look.

“Ah, yes. I—”

The alien, a species I had never seen before, looked at me with what could only be classed as human-like surprise. His blood-red face twisted into—

He lunged at me with one long hiss.

“What the—” My ranking officer pushed forward and grabbed the alien around the middle, pulling him back before his outstretched hands grabbed the hem of my skirt. “Remain still,” he snapped, getting down on one knee to maintain a better hold of the red guy.

I put a hand up to my mouth and blinked, too stunned and far too polite to say anything. Claudia would have taken the opportunity to sock the tiny alien, but Marty always told us manners get “Ya tips while attitude gets you bruised.” Though all tips went to Marty, I always maintained a pleasant persona around patrons.

“Wh-ite,” the alien hissed again.

I patted my hair. It was the only white thing about me. It wasn’t just white – it was pure white. It was right up there alongside full sunshine hitting snow, the clean fur of an Arctic Fox, or the light of a white dwarf star. It was one of the first things people looked at, and the first clue I wasn’t entirely human. I looked almost like a human; I was normal height, normal build, and I had honey brown skin. The hair and my supernova-blue eyes would always give it away. So they’d call me halfy: half human and half something different.

None of that mattered right now. The only thing I cared about was the angry, red thing trying to steal my hair. That, and we were making a scene. The alien was hissing like a broken valve, and my gallant officer was grunting trying to hold him in place. GAMs were moving over to us, space bums gathering around for a better view.

“Sir, what’s going on?” A trio of huge, armor-clad GAMs walked up behind the ranking officer, one leaning down to wrap an arm around the alien’s middle.

“I have no idea.” My officer straightened up, pulling down tightly on his top and staring straight at me. “Do you mind telling us, ma’am—”

The alien wriggled free. It ducked down under the GAM’s arm, did the cutest of roles, then sprang at me with the agility of an Elurian monkey cat.

This time I shrieked. No more of the prissy, extra-nice girl; I saw this flash of red shooting toward my face with no time to duck. It collected me right in the middle of the chest and sent us both slamming back onto a table. The world tipped as the table pitched backward, sending me sliding to the ground, wailing like a broken klaxon.

I lay there, my legs splayed over the side of the table, my skirt disheveled. Heaven knows what view I was offering my ranking officer. That didn’t matter. The alien was sitting on my chest, staring at my face with his bobble-head cocked to the side. He was about two-foot-tall, wore a brown robe tied around the middle like a Franciscan monk, and had mottled blood-red skin.

My ranking officer vaulted over the table, tackled the alien, and slammed him to the ground with a grunt like a charging Crag. The other GAMs made their quick way over and soon had, what one would hope, a better hold of the escapee.

I watched them blankly, my brain overloaded. I realized my skirt was still up around my middle, my legs practically in stirrups as they rested on the table. I scrambled up as my officer leaned down to offer me a hand.

I flattened my skirt from every angle and concentrated hard on not meeting my officer’s gaze.

“Are you alright?” he asked, voice less of a snapped command than it had been before. “You should go to the Med Bay, you took a tumble.”

“Oh, I don’t think—” I began, stumbling to tell all and sundry I was okay, that this was nothing, and that nobody should be bothered by me. I didn’t get that far – Claudia swept up behind me and put an arm around my shoulders.

“Oh my god, officer, you’re a hero!” she proclaimed loudly.

I waited for my officer to flick his gaze to Claudia, maybe smile, maybe even chuckle at such welcome praise. He didn’t even look her way, just kept his gaze on me like the rest of the world was blocked out by blinkers. “Do you know this Kroplin?”

“What’s a Kroplin?” I caught a hold of the end of my long ponytail and stroked it compulsively.

He pointed at the red alien.

“I, well, no. I’ve never seen anything like him before. I mean, that is, what I mean to say is, I’ve seen aliens before,” I chuckled nervously, “Of course I have – I work in a space diner. I—”

“You haven’t seen him before,” he cut in, saving me from drowning in my own babble. He turned to his men. “Call security.”

I watched as he massaged his forehead with the palm of his hand, that hint of weariness still scrunching his eyes. “This was meant to be shore leave,” he mumbled under his breath.

The crowd was dispersing around us, thankfully. Even Claudia moved off, apparently realizing my officer was far too tired and busy to pay her any attention. Soon it was just us in the center of the room: the Kroplin, my officer, the other GAMs, and me.

My officer was busy barking more orders at his men, compulsively checking they had a firm grip on the alien. I wondered if I could leave. They didn’t need me now, did they? I would only get in the way if I stood here like a chunk of space debris.

I moved off, patting at my skirt to ensure it sat straight and neat. I could feed Hipop, my pet, or perhaps have a quick lie down.

“What are you doing?”

I turned to face my officer, a nervous smile stretching my lips to a thin line.

“You are going to the Med Bay,” he supplied, answering his own question.

“Oh, I don’t need too, I fe—”

“You’re going to the Med Bay. Name?”

My eyebrows squeezed together in confusion.

“What’s your name?” he repeated, voice slower, lips collecting around each word.

“Mini.”

“Mini?”

“Yes.”

“Last name?”

This guy wasn’t big on conversing in whole sentences. He was to the point like a sniper rifle at twenty paces. “I don’t have a last name. I mean, I might have, but I don’t know it—” I babbled again, but cut myself short by sucking in a gulp of air.

He looked at me, and it was clear he thought I was the oddest thing this side of the Milky Way. “Sorry, what? Do you have a last name or not?”

“No, I don’t have a last name, sir.”

“Well, I’m Commander Jason Cole. You’re going to the Med Bay now, Mini. Someone from Station Security will meet you there.”

“Oh, I…” I protested, but it was ever so half-hearted. I didn’t need to go to the Med Bay. The alien had been a surprise, sure, but I wasn’t hurt. The more I looked at the guy sandwiched between a trio of GAMs, the more it felt like he’d never intended to hurt me. He… it was hard to put a finger on it. “I don’t need to go—”

“N-o-w.” His tone wasn’t angry, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.

“O-okay, Mr Cole. I – I mean, Commander Cole.” I turned on my heel before this scene could continue to bleed more embarrassment.

I resisted the urge to pick up the overturned table and straighten it before I went as I was sure Commander Cole wouldn’t approve. I jogged for the door, not turning back once.

I would head up to my quarters.

I walked quickly to the lifts that connected the shopping district, where Marty’s was, to the living quarters. The sooner I was out of the public eye, the better. I reached down to key in the Accommodation Deck, but another hand got there first.

“The Med Bay isn’t on the Accommodation Deck, Mini.”

I jumped and gave another pathetic yelp. I couldn’t help it – when I was startled or scared, I would always cry out like a three-year-old in a sea of clown masks.

“It didn’t take a genius to realize you don’t follow orders,” he said as he keyed in the code that would take us to the Services Deck.

Now, hold on. I wasn’t some GAM under his command. I had nothing to do with this man. Why should I be expected to follow his orders?

I said none of this. I looked at my shoes and moved over in the lift to let him in.

I was aware he was looking at me from the side as the lift set off with its characteristic shudder. This station was old but so large that risking one’s life with the lifts was the only way to travel.

No matter how hard I tried to pay attention to the rattle and shake of the metal grating under my feet, I couldn’t block out his stare.

He sighed and rubbed his forehead again.

I slid my gaze to the side, glancing his way. He pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezed shut. He looked fatigued, frustrated, and irritated all at once. He needed a cup of steaming hot Tika tea and a good lie down, perhaps even a plate of biscuits. Instead, he was taking me to the Med Bay.

The poor guy was obviously under a lot of stress, and here I was adding to his burdens.

“Look,” I turned to him, not fully – just enough so it was polite, but not enough that I faced him front on in this tiny lift. “I will go to the Med Bay, I promise. Thank you for saving me back there, and I’m sure if you go back to the diner they will give you a nice Tika tea on the house.” That was a lie – Marty didn’t believe in the concept of “It’s on the house.” To Marty, we were in space, and there were neither houses nor free meals in space. It would come out of my pay.

He blinked his eyes open and crossed his arms. He shook his head.

I turned quickly, aware of how much of a clumsy fool I’d been.

The seconds ticked by as we waited for the lift to make its shuddering way to the Services Deck. You could almost hear it clunk around us like a great grandfather clock timing the awkwardness and embarrassment.

I should have enjoyed the silence while it lasted. As the doors opened to the massive Service Deck, the questions began.

“Why don’t you have a last name?” The Commander powered on ahead of me, pushing through the crowds like he was a searing hot iron through snow.

“I… it’s complicated,” I mumbled as I barely managed to keep up. The Med Bay was all the way on the other side of the Services Deck. I was hardly an emergency, and I’m sure the Commander could see that – he was playing things by the book. Yet it would still take minutes to reach it in this thick crowd. Several ships must have come in at once – there were people, GAMs, mercenaries, space bums, and all sorts milling around before us.

“Short answer.”

There was that charming brevity again. He didn’t sound curt or rude, just excessively short of time. The problem was, there wasn’t a short answer. For a girl who worked at a space diner, I had an unnecessarily complex life. “I’m a Floater.” I paused, waiting for him to add something, gasp, or acknowledge the statement at all. Most people would at least raise an eyebrow when they found out about my unconventional early life.

Not this guy. He kept marching, obviously waiting for me to illuminate while keeping it short, of course.

A Floater was an unattractive term used to describe orphans found in space with no traceable records. Perhaps a GAM ship would come across a wreck pirates had scavenged only to find they’d missed a bouncing bub when they’d slaughtered or kidnapped the crew. Or maybe a colony ship would go nuclear, and the infant would be the only person they’d managed to get to the life pod. So until these children were found, they would literally float around in space – Floaters.

Once found, they were usually adopted. The children of conflict and general misfortune were one thing, but babies found floating, unattended in the vastness of space, were another. Something about it always pulled at the heart’s strings. They were lucky to be alive, so fortune saw to it they were adopted quickly.

I was a different case. Far stranger.

I hadn’t been on an embattled cruiser or found alive in some half-wrecked hull. I was almost literally dropped on the doorstep of the GAM Headquarters: Station One. I was found in a single person cruiser, in stasis, with the navigation set to drift their way. It was the single laziest case of abandonment ever. My parents or guardians hadn’t even bothered to nip into the closest planet and deposit me at a hospital or with some appropriate childcare facility. No, they had set a cruiser to drift and sent me on my way.

Perhaps my parents had hoped some kindly old admiral, with an emotional connection to any soul unfortunate enough to be lost in space, would adopt me and set me up in a life of fortune. It hadn’t happened that way. I was sent straight to a planet-side orphanage on Earth. Unlike the other Floaters, I was never adopted. Few parents, especially humans, were happy taking in an unidentified halfy. Humans, or pure-breed aliens, people could manage – but halfy babies were always a gamble. Who knew how the DNA would combine, what results it would have? Human DNA could combine with surprisingly few alien races, and most results were never pretty. So halfies were treated with general disdain – they were too strange, too in-between.

I’d grown up in an orphanage. The old Matriarch there, Mother Mirabella, had become my surrogate mother.

The short of it was, I had no last name, only the nickname the GAMs who’d found me had given me: Mini. Now, how was I going to give the Commander the quick version of that?

I chewed my lip, hoping the Commander would move on. It wasn’t a fair line of questioning, anyway. Why should I tell him about my irrelevant past when he wasn’t going to tell me about his? How would he react if I asked why he was so tired, or how he’d gotten that scar along his jawline, or even why, for a GAM commander, he appeared to have a tattoo on his upper right arm?

“You weren’t adopted?” He didn’t give up. “Didn’t the government assign you a last name?”

The government assigned people identity codes; they rarely scrolled through the pages of the galactic phone book to pick out a surname for unfortunate orphans. “Ah, no.”

“Why are you on this space station?”

I pressed my lips against my teeth and smiled wanly. “I just am, I guess.” It was a poor answer, but it was the only one I could give. I hadn’t chosen to come to this huge chunk of rusting debris out in the middle of nowhere colony-space. I had drifted here. At least out in the further reaches of the galaxy people didn’t care too much if you were a halfie Floater – as long as you served them their mind-destroying alcohol. That, and I’d always been drawn to the Rim – to the outer reaches of known space. I didn’t have the guts to go adventuring – I was a self-confessed, easily scared, clumsy, pathetic scaredy-pants. Working on one of the outer space stations as a waitress was all I could manage. Still, the pull was always there.

This time he slowed and turned his head toward me. “You get attacked by one of the calmest, most spiritual races known; you don’t have a last name or a traceable lineage; and you move out to the reaches of colony space for no reason. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”

I laughed, feeling nervous and foolish about how silly that must sound. I realized he wasn’t smiling. He didn’t actually believe I was on the run or something: a spy, a hunted mercenary, an escaped convict? “I – no, no, no. That sounds bad. I came to this station because there didn’t seem to be any other place to go. I mean, I’m a Floater and a half-breed, and well, it was hard to find work in the Galactic Center, so I came out here because I thought maybe people would be more accepting.” I took a sharp breath. “Not to say I ever faced that much prejudice over being a mixed breed. I mean, I’m not saying most humans are racist or anything, not at all. It was just easier, and I thought—”

“Okay, you can stop talking.” He put up a hand like he was stopping hover traffic. “Your record wasn’t flagged, anyway.”

I was flustered and nearly out of breath. “I – sorry? You what? You’ve already had a chance to look at my identity file?”

“I had it uploaded to my com-piece.” He tapped his ear. “There was only one registered Mini on this space station.”

I swallowed carefully, the kind of move where your tongue feels like it’s been puffed full of air and the only thing that can save you is a last-ditch gulp.

Perhaps this was how all GAM commanders worked. I’d never had more to do with them than taking their orders. Quick, efficient, and lethal. Did this guy ever smile?

Claudia was right – he was dashing. Though she wouldn’t phrase it that way. Yet he was so tired at the same time – he looked like the weight of the galaxy was on his shoulders and it was squashing him flat.

“There’s nothing on your file to suggest this attack was anything other than unprovoked.”

“Of course, why would it be anything else? This is space station in colony-sp—”

We had reached the Med Bay doors, and he paused as the doors swished open before us. “These are strange times.” His tone wasn’t ominous, wasn’t even the least bit deep and dramatic. He looked around – eyes flicking from side-to-side as he spoke – and that was more telling than a foreboding clap of thunder. He looked right at me and offered that same half-smile that pushed up one cheek. “Here you are.”

I have a personal philosophy – one I’ve always lived by: it’s what’s between what people say that matters. I realized why the Commander was so tired – that wasn’t a throwaway comment. These were strange times for him.

I took another moment to realize he was leaving. “You aren’t going to escort me in? Aren’t you worried I’ll leave by the back exit, or collapse from my injuries right here at the door?” Had he honestly marched me all the way across the Service Deck to ditch me at the door?

“You aren’t injured, Mini. Security regulation states you still must undergo a medical scan to record details for legal and insurance purposes, especially when it involves an off-duty GAM officer. The sooner after an incident occurs, the better. I wasn’t about to trust Station Security to remember. The sooner the details are fully recorded, the sooner I can notify my superiors and go back to work.”

Oh. Oh, of course. This had nothing to do with me. I hadn’t thought of that – the GAM were notorious for their strict rules and bureaucracy. I often heard the soldiers complaining about it over their Knuckle Dragger cocktails. The Commander had broken up a fight while off duty – lord knows the number of forms he’d have to fill before he could resume post again. It was a wonder the GAM could function with the amount of paperwork that preceded and followed their every move. Maybe that was the weight on the Commander’s shoulders, a weight I had added to.

I was feeling foolish indeed.

I returned his smile in a half-hearted way, arms straight and hands clasped before me like a misbehaving child.

It was this, of all things, that made the other side of Commander Jason Cole’s mouth smile. The lines disappeared from under his eyes as his cheeks lifted up. “You can relax. I’m not going to arrest you.”

I unclasped my hands and, not sure of what else to do with them, clasped them behind my back. “Thank you so much for helping me, sir.” I spun on my heel and straight into the door which had apparently closed during our conversation. I spluttered, even mumbled, “Sorry,” to the door, but made it through.

I caught a glimpse of the Commander shaking his head as he turned to walk away. That was the usual impression I gave people.

I was clumsy, awkward, chronically unsure of myself, and easily frightened. At least I always tried to be polite and kind. Marty said good manners were one of the rarest things in the universe. He’d tell me, “No one’s got ‘em, kid, especially not me. You, Mini, you got manners. Don’t underestimate how much that scares the hell out of people, especially the rough ones.”

I didn’t think the Commander had been too frightened of my well placed “Sorry’s” and “Thank you’s,” but at least he’d smiled. For someone living in strange times, a smile couldn’t hurt.

Chapter 2

I never liked going to the Med Bay. It was always an uncomfortable ordeal that would see me smiling blankly at some fresh-faced doctor who was fascinated by my genetic phenotype. “White hair,” they’d say, “I’ve never seen anything code for a trait that white.” They’d prod around in my DNA, sucking their teeth and waggling their eyebrows. “Amazing! Your morphology is almost completely human, but the hair and eyes are different – how did that happen?”

Through the entire time I’d always be sitting on the corner of the bed, dead-eyed, trying not to encourage them. Most of the time my halfy status only ever saw me mild disdain or indifference, but to doctors and geneticists I was a curiosity worthy of closer examination.

“Your eyes are so intriguing,” this doctor said. “They don’t match anything I’ve ever seen before.”

I sat there patiently as I watched the counter on the medical scanner tick down to complete. With a ping, it finished its task, and I threw myself off the bed.

“Oh, are you sure you couldn’t hang around, Miss ahh,” the Doctor flicked his eyes to the scanner to read my name, “Mini?”

Now, that was fascinating. For someone who supposedly held such an interest in me, how was it that he couldn’t even remember my name? I shook my head politely. “I’m sorry. I have to get back to work. Perhaps another time.” With that, I left quickly.

I didn’t go back to work. My shift had been almost up when the red guy had attacked. Plus, I had to go back to my quarters and feed Hipop. So the rest of the day and night (which is a relative notion in a space station) I spent with my monkey cat watching galactic TV, and maybe more than once thinking about a certain handsome but curt commander.

The next day saw me back at work, apron tied tightly and neatly around my skirt. I wasn’t about to have a repeat of yesterday, thank you.

Things were busy. The place was packed with GAMs, cargo crews, and general space riff-raff sitting or standing in every available space. There was a buzz in the air the likes of which I hadn’t heard since a GAM cruiser had gone nuclear at the edge of the system several months ago. They were talking, all of them, between slinging down their alcohol and shoveling in their food.

At first, stupidly, I thought it might have had something to do with my altercation yesterday. It isn’t every day a waitress gets attacked by a tiny monk-alien. But, no, it would take more than a table-tipping fight to electrify this room.

It didn’t take long to piece it together. I would hear snatches of conversation as I whirled around taking orders and handing out steaming plates of things that pushed the definition of food.

“Came in yesterday,” one GAM said between fork-fulls, arms on the bar as he talked to a freight captain. “Dead as dead can be.”

“Ghosts,” a Crag rumbled to a bounty hunter. “Would never happen on a Crag ship.”

“Station engineers won’t even look at it. They’re getting the GAMs to go in. Good luck to them.”

“They found her out in the middle of nowhere, towed her in. Said they haven’t seen anything like this since...”

As soon as I would pick up on a conversation, I’d be called to another waiting patron. As the day wound on, I found the Commander’s words reverberating in my head: “These are strange times.” Well, these were certainly strange times today – I was frantic trying to keep up with the customers and trying to pick up what on Earth had happened at the same time.

I tried to ask Claudia at one point, but she was too busy chatting to a group of GAMs, and the other girls were darting in and out of the crowd like moths to the light.

I was getting steadily more frustrated yet equally excited by the whole thing.

“Order of Ankorian Sea Bass, down the line.”

I grabbed the dish from the kitchen shuttle and secured it on the flat of my forearm, narrowly missing one of the girls as she scuttled to get drinks from the bar.

The dish stank of rotting fish that had been left out on a muggy day in a solution of butter and sugar. I tried not to breathe in the fumes as I hefted it to the bar. “Your order, sir.”

A Crag grabbed it and started ripping chunks off the putrefying flesh before he had even pulled it toward him. I noticed, through a barely concealed grimace, that it was the same guy I served yesterday. It was unusual for types like him – mercenaries, bounty hunters, gunrunners – to hang around too long on this space station. It was a stopover, a chance to refuel and re-equip. It wasn’t a holiday destination.

I stared at him a moment too long, and he slowly raised his huge head, lizard-green skin creaking with the effort. “What?” His voice dripped with menace.

I stopped myself from yelping and quickly turned to the human who had sat down beside him, more than thankful for the legitimate distraction.

It was a GAM, and he smiled with only half of his mouth. “Morning, Mini.”

I blinked so quickly I must have looked like a startled cartoon character. “Oh, Jason – I mean Commander. I- ah....” It was like I had momentarily forgotten my job. I had to wrack my memory for what to say next. “Umm—”

“Chef’s special,” he jumped right to it in usual Commander Cole style.

I nodded unsteadily. I must have looked like a broken robot. “Coming right up,” I managed.

I went to turn.

“So, did you actually stay around for the medical scans yesterday?”

I hesitated before I turned back. I didn’t have the time to chat, not on this strange day. “Yes.”

“Really?” He sat with one arm leaning on the bar, the other tugging at his uniform top.

“I’ve never liked doctors.”

“Don’t get shot, then.”

I couldn’t tell if it was a joke. His face didn’t give anything away, and his tone was as flat as the bench he leaned on.

“It was a joke,” he revealed. There was that tone again, except this time the half-smile was back. Why he didn’t smile with both cheeks was a mystery. It was such an in-between move – like things only amused him by halves.

“I knew that. I think.” I bit my lower lip. I was feeling increasingly awkward. Half of me wanted Claudia to swan in and take over, but the other half would have preferred a hull breach than be called away right now.

The conversation began to die out. Cole gave the Crag a glancing look then returned his eyes to some stain on his hand.

I thought desperately of something to say; I would look like such a pill if I walked away now. “Oh,” I said too quickly as I chanced upon something. The Commander, with all his distracting finesse, had made me completely forget my morning’s obsession. “Do you know what’s going on around here?”

His eyes narrowed in a moment of confused amusement. “We’re having an awkward conversation, and the guy to my right is eating rotting sea gunk.”

I put a hand up to my mouth, one finger pressed against my lips – it was something I did when flustered. “No, no. I meant at the station. I’ve been at work all morning, and I keep on hearing all these strange conversations—”

“Ghost ship,” the Commander cut in. He wasn’t one to let me babble when he already knew the answer.

“Ghost ship?”

“It’s a term for a ship that’s found drifting without a crew—”

I knew what a ghost ship was, but I wasn’t about to interrupt him when he was forming sentences of longer than four words.

“It floated in at 0800 this morning. Distress signal hadn’t been activated, life support was functioning, scans didn’t show anything wrong with the engine core. She was in order.”

“Well,” I caught a hold of my ponytail and twisted it, surprised to see Cole’s eyes flick to it before flicking away, “Couldn’t the crew have escaped in the life pods? Perhaps they—”

“Escape pods are still on the ship. She was a cargo ship, and the computer records show she made her last contact at 0730 this morning. Only half an hour before she was found, abandoned, drifting in space.”

My hands stopped twisting my hair. “Maybe it was pirates, maybe they faked the contact—”

“Where was their ship, where did they escape to? Long-range scans have confirmed that ship was alone out there, no vessels within range, except for the one that found her,” the Commander interrupted again.

“Well, perhaps someone remotely accessed their com-link, made it look like they were on board when they were systems away?”

Commander Cole’s half-smile was firmly tugging at one side of his jaw. It wasn’t clear whether he found my suggestions amusing, ridiculous, or cute. “Now why would someone bother doing that? She was a freighter, cargo was space junk being taken to the recycling depot at Central. Worthless.”

I parted my lips, waiting for another objection to come to mind, but nothing came. The Commander’s half-smile was starting to get me more and more flustered. “Well, what does everyone think it is? Pirates, a malfunction, a—”

“Twixts,” the Crag rumbled from beside the Commander, and I jumped at his unexpected boom.

The Commander gave a brief laugh. “Twixts? Doesn’t sound like something a Crag warrior would suggest.”

“Crew’s gone. No way off that ship. Not pirates, not mercs, not anything. Twixts.”

Commander Cole shook his head, but I was curious to note that his face had become stiffer, his lips barely moving.

“What’s a Twicks?” I was starting to show my alarming lack of knowledge in front of the Commander again. For a girl who worked in a space diner, my knowledge of the galaxy was barely enough to get by. Blame it on not having parents or growing up in isolation – but I didn’t follow half of the conversations that would flow through this diner.

“Twixts,” the Commander corrected. “And they’re nothing, just a fairytale designed—”

The Crag snorted, and it sounded like an elephant sneezing. “We call them the Death Shadows. Can’t see them until it’s too late.”

Listening to a Crag talk about anything at all was usually dramatic, but the menace this one put behind his words sent a palpable shiver across my back. It felt like the frozen depths of space collecting down my spine. “Shadows?” I repeated, voice an appropriate whisper.

“Worse than shadows. Can see shadows. These are between things, in the gaps between.”

A part of me knew I shouldn’t be so accepting of the Crag’s show, but the rest of me was shaking behind my tightly tied apron. Perhaps the Commander could see because he leaned in closer.

“Ignore him; it’s a myth. It’s some story space bums and recruits throw around to scare themselves on long voyages. Only thing you have to worry about in this galaxy are pirates, scum, and rogues. Which is enough.”

I was stuck on something. I honestly felt like the world had solidified either side of me and was funneling me forward with no option to turn back. “They exist between things?”

“Can’t see ‘em, can’t fight ‘em,” the Crag bit into the last bit of rotting flesh from his meal, and the juices splashed onto his stained vest, “Then you’re dead.”

“But, but where did the bodies go?”

I was aware of the Commander as he gave a frustrated sigh. He obviously thought I was an idiot for heading further down this rabbit hole.

“Back in-between,” the Crag answered.

“No, because that doesn’t make any sense,” the Commander interrupted. “In-between isn’t anywhere. It’s not a location in space; it’s a relative comparison between points. Twixts don’t exist.”

Apparently, we had hit a nerve. The Commander’s voice dropped and wavered toward the end. Was he sick of trying to convince me these mysterious monsters didn’t exist, had he had enough of telling the recruits to stop spreading horror stories, or was there something more to this?

I wasn’t going to get a chance to find out.

“Another,” the Crag growled, spinning his plate in my direction. I managed to catch it before it toppled off my end of the bench, but the slop his sea bass was drowning in splashed all over my chest.

“Ehhh.” I looked at the green and yellow gunk as it dripped and pooled down my front. How attractive.

I could see Commander Cole recede back at the smell.

Eh, why did stuff like this always have to happen to me? Just when I was having the most interesting conversation I’d had all week, I get covered in the rotted remains of an alien fish.

It didn’t matter anyway, because as soon as I’d properly secured the plate, the Commander leaned back, a hand at his ear. He had a mumbled conversation then stood up as quickly as a spring snapping back into place. “Sorry,” he said as he turned, “Cancel my order.”

There he left me, covered in slops.

The rest of the shift went slowly, somehow. I was still rushed off my feet, but somehow it dragged on. I had a moment to change uniforms, but I still smelled the stench of buttery, sugary death.

I was itching to get out and have a walk around the station. I never usually did it – just walked the distance to the lift then back to my quarters. There wasn’t much to see once you’d seen it all before. Things were different today; they were quicker, edgier, stranger.

The mood in the diner – the one of palpable, pressured excitement – it was out in the rest of the station too. I found myself walking down one of the numerous corridors that offered a view of the docking station where they dragged in ships for repair. Was it out there? I wondered to myself as I rested my elbows on a hand railing and stared out a porthole. Was that ghost ship in the docking station right now, the GAMs going through it because no other sane being would go anywhere near her? Was that why the Commander had been called off? Had there been an incident, had his superiors told him to go over the ship and leave no cargo box unturned?

In-between. They exist in-between things. The Commander was right – that didn’t make any sense. Things either exist or they don’t; there’s nothing that exists in the middle.

I made my slow way back to my quarters, mostly in a daydream, mind twisting and whirling over the day’s happenings. Maybe I was spending an undue amount of time recounting my conversation with the Commander. Maybe I shouldn’t let the strange vibe of the station bother me.

I opened my door with a mega sigh. I was tiring myself out with all these what ifs. I needed to sit down and veg out – play with Hipop and download the latest episode of Galaxy Chef.

My room was how I always left it – in a state of half-clean, half-mess. Certain parts were pristine – my bed made with symmetrical precision, the vintage cloth covering my table straight and perfect. Then there was the couch, which was knee-deep in crumbs and had various data pads strewn across it. My assortment of pot plants was sending their shoots and leaves out everywhere, threatening to take over the walls like my quarters were a tropical jungle planet.

“Hipop,” I called as I kicked off my shoes, careful not to send them into the beautiful, huge saffron flower of one of my more exotic plants. “Hey, monkey, monkey, where are you?”

Silence. I braced myself for the critter to jump at me from one of the vines that was clumped across the roof (it really was a jungle in here). He so did like to climb.

“Helllllloooo,” I called.

“Hello.”

I whirled, heart as frozen as a drop of water on the tail of a comet.

It was him. That two-foot tall, blood-red alien monk who’d been ever so keen on grabbing my hair yesterday. Now he was in my quarters.

“What are you doing here?” I put a flat hand on my chest, my fingers squeezed together until the joints felt like popping.

The guy didn’t lunge at me, thankfully, just cocked his head to the side and stared.

My body was braced for attack, palms sweaty, mouth as dry as the desert by day.

I took another shuddering breath. “Look, this is my room. You have no right to be here. Please leave.”

If it understood me, it didn’t give me any indication. It just kept staring.

“I’m going to call security,” I said bravely. I would march across the room to my com-panel, I told myself firmly, and I would call security. I didn’t need to be afraid of this, I didn’t need to be—

“Hello, Mini.” The thing’s voice was quiet but clipped and polite.

It was unsettling. It had the calm tones of a dearly beloved grandparent, not that I’d ever had one of those, but I could imagine.

“I am sorry for the rude interruption. I fear I have taken you by surprise.”

I blinked, hand releasing from my chest and floating toward my mouth. This was bizarre. Not only was he not throwing himself at me and hissing, but he was conversing in the most articulate, refined of manners. “I—”

The alien put up a hand, which had previously been clasped firmly behind his back, his baggy brown robe obscuring it from view. “I have to apologize about yesterday. I was,” his pinprick black eyes widened with obvious excitement, “Unduly surprised. I didn’t expect to find you. Not here, not after we’d searched so long.”

My surprise at his good conversation skills quickly dwindled, and I started eying off the com-link again. “Sorry?” I said as I shifted one subtle step toward it.

“You, I, well... we have searched the galaxy so long, only to find you now, on the cusp of the great quickening.”

“Ah, the what?” I had that com-link in sight, and I sidled step-by-step toward it.

“There’s no need to be afraid, Mini.”

Oh, I didn’t know about that. Yesterday this monk had launched himself at me with no provocation, desperate to get a hold of my ice-white hair. Now he was trying to convince me with clear oration that this was absolutely fine. I was an innocent in this galaxy, I knew that, but I wasn’t this dumb.

“I knew your mother.”

I stopped dead. Why would he even say that?

“Well, I knew of her. Who of my race does not?”

“I don’t have a mother.” My defenses were starting to rise, making my back tingle with cold. The mere mention of her had shifted this situation.

I walked for the com-link.

The alien got there first. He was like a blur, quicker than he’d been yesterday. He tucked into a roll and sprang up between me and the electronic pad on the wall.

“You can’t be too hasty in dismissing me, child. There’s so much I have to tell, and there’s so little time.”

“Get out of my room now—”

“There’s one on the station, on that ship that came in. The fools, they are fools for bringing that ship to a populated station.”

“What are you talking about?” I tried to duck and weave around him, but he kept up with my moves like a cat chasing a sick mouse.

“A Shadow. It came on the ship, killed the crew. Now it’s here. We have to hurry; we haven’t the time. Those foolish soldiers will board it soon, let the Shadow loose.”

“A shadow?” I didn’t want to listen, just wanted to get to the com-link, call security, and get that thing the hell out of here. But that word – Shadow – it struck a chord, a low and reverberating one.

“Death Bringer, Old One, Invisibles, Not There’s – races have many names for them. We always called them Twixts.”

“Twixts?”

“They are what lie between – far more dangerous than what lies beneath.”

“I don’t believe you. If something like that existed, why wouldn’t anyone have seen it? Why wouldn’t the station’s sensors have picked it up on that ship?”

“Few can see them, precious few.” He kept his hands clasped behind him as he spoke, his head tilted up, expression calm.

“Well, sounds convenient—”

“You are one of them, child.”

“Sorry?”

“You can see between, like your mother.”

I felt exasperated. The fear had balled up in my middle, morphed to frustration, and it was choking me from the inside. I felt like screaming. “What are you talking about?”

“If you have not heard, you must listen. We have to stop if before it comes aboard. The station, it has no security against this threat, nothing. Those soldiers of the Galactic Army, they will be the first to fall. It is your duty, your legacy.”

“My duty to do what?”

“To stop the middle from reaching either end. You stop the in-between from coming out. It is within your power, your heritage to fight the Twixts, to prevent the collapse of this galax—”

I began to laugh, harshly and erratically, but the humor was there. It was my destiny to save the galaxy? I was the least capable person to have the weight of universal salvation thrust upon my shoulders. I was supposed to be a klutzy diner waitress turned superhero? What was this guy on?

“This is no laughing matter, child. There are lives in danger, we must—”

“I’m a waitress,” I said each word slowly, “Not a hero. If you’re looking for someone to save the galaxy, go and look for a GAM.”

He became quiet, gaze drifting slowly to the ground. He took a large breath, chest puffing out. “Well, I hadn’t wanted it to come to this, but you leave me no choice.”

He reached into the folds of his brown robe and drew something out. It was a long oblong tube with a seal in the middle.

“I’m calling security.” I dodged past him and made it to the wall panel.

There was a click behind me, and somehow, somehow it filled the room – the tiny noises echoed until they boomed.

Every single part of me buzzed. It was as if I had passed right through an electrical storm in space, unprotected by the hull of a ship – at the mercy of the wash of power. Yet at the same time, I felt the unease pin me to the ground, sinking through my middle like the 1000 ton docking cable of a cruiser.

I could see it before I turned, if that made any sense.

I turned.

It wasn’t black, not like obsidian or the furthest reaches of cold space. It was the color of a shadow you see out of the corner of your eye. It wasn’t color at all; it was light turned away from itself.

I wasn’t breathing, wasn’t moving, and neither was it.

“You see now, you feel it?” Somehow the alien had made it to my side.

I felt it alright, like a shard of ice sunk deep into my belly. I had never felt anything like this before.

It was less of shape, less of a solid – more like an impression in space. A terrible outline of something.

“It can’t attack you; I have it trapped.” The alien held out the tube in his hands. “You had to feel it to know what you are up against. This is a weak one, very weak. It is at the end of the in-between. Those at the center are stronger.”

I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, and to be honest, his voice hardly bridged the ringing in my ears. As long as that thing was in front of me, I didn’t have a hope of moving a muscle. Yet, from within me, somewhere, I had a desire to—

“Stop it from coming any nearer. That’s what you want, that’s what half your body is telling you. Listen to it – listen to the part that isn’t human.”

Images flashed in my head, maybe memories, maybe the stuff of dreams. Two hands on a door holding it firm against the outside, a palm outstretched, a cruiser slamming on its brakes, a storm beating restlessly against a wall.

Stopping. All of them were images of stopping.

I... I knew I wasn’t thinking clearly. I felt half at the edge of sleep, half at the edge of mania.

The thing – the Shadow, the Twixt – it shifted forward. It didn’t spread out, screaming like a thousand trapped souls, nor did it tighten its form, ready to pounce. I knew what it wanted to do.

“Turn it off,” I heard my voice as if it were far away on some distant crackly com-link. “Turn it off now.”

“It can’t hurt you, it is trapped—”

“No.” I breathed, my voice still distant, still somehow not mine. “It’s calling.”

The creature tipped what could only be described as its head toward the ceiling – shadows of tight, rope-like muscles twisting in its neck.

“Turn it off!” I shrieked.

The alien did something, and there was a click.

Then the creature faded, faded with a snap back into the tube.

I fell to my knees, exhausted from no fight at all.

The red alien, eyes almost popping with fear, stowed the tube back into his robe, placing a hand over the folds of fabric as if to trap it in place. “It... it shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

I looked at him, my head tipped slightly to one side as if I were some limp doll that had been left out in the wind and rain. “Why did you do that? What was th...” I let my voice trail off. I couldn’t ask the question again. That was a Twixt. A shadow that had come alive if ever I had seen one.

I felt cold and damp, but strangely, I couldn’t shiver. “There’s one on the station?” I whispered.

The alien nodded silently.

“Is it coming here?” I pushed to my feet, the fear surging through me like the shock wave from a supernova hitting its orbiting planets.

Everything was going topsy-turvy, impossible and unbelievable. I stood in the middle of my quarters, talking to an alien who’d showed me a shadow trapped in a box. My mind and body were surging with jumbled energy, tinged with nauseating fear.

I was a waitress from a diner, I tried to assure myself as I squeezed my hands open and closed. This couldn’t be happening to me.

“Yes,” the alien’s voice croaked, “I’m afraid it is. Unless....”

“Unless?”

“We get there first.”

“And do what? Call security; call the GAMs?”

“Pray.”

Chapter 3

This wasn’t a plan. This wasn’t a plan, I reminded myself for the 1000th time as I ran down the corridor toward the docking bay. I was following the equivalent of a well-spoken strawberry in a robe to my certain death at the hands of something that wasn’t there.

I’d never done anything like this before. I had nothing to draw on from my years of experience: no adventures, no skills, no training. I hadn’t gone through the school of hard knocks, hadn’t roughed it as a GAM recruit, hadn’t even been to the Rim of known space. I was a waitress!

That didn’t matter. The alien was convinced I was the only thing standing between this station and horrible destruction at the hands of a Twixt. But I wasn’t standing; I was shaking like ticker tape attached to the engine vents of a sonic cruiser. I still didn’t even know the monk’s name.

I didn’t know my way around this part of the station, either – I never had any call to come down here. This was the domain of grease-faced engineers, smugglers, and legless crew who were too drunk to make it back to their complimentary quarters on the station.

It was darker and narrower, felt far more like I was in a tin can with nothing but a couple of feet of metal protecting me from the ravages of space. There wasn’t the controlled lighting, the pleasant temperature, even the neat fixtures that the rest of the station enjoyed. It was stark, cold, and reminded me of some remote moonscape prison where you’d keep the galaxy’s hardest criminals.

There wasn’t anyone around – it was as dead as a ghost ship sailing alone in the uncharted space between galaxies. Maybe I was used to the crowds of the personnel decks, but shouldn’t there be at least someone down here? The only sounds I could hear were the uneven patter of my feet against the metal walkway and the harsh percussion of my breath.

I trusted that the monk knew where he was going. I didn’t fancy the idea of running around stupidly for a half-hour, only to take a brief rest against some cold metal wall and be grabbed from behind by the shadow of death. Even if we did manage to find the ghost ship in time, then what? If the alien was right, and the GAM were about to board her, wouldn’t they object to letting the waitress and monk tag along for fun? Wouldn’t they boot us off this deck faster than a meteor slicing through the atmosphere?

The monk seemed to know what he was doing, and he continued along a walkway, trotted over to a section of the wall, and pulled off a panel. He disappeared along a service duct.

I made a face. Did I want to go crawling through a dirty service tunnel in my uniform? I was still wearing it – my blue flouncy skirt and white blouse with the holo-pin of “Marty’s Space Diner” blinking excitedly. Was that the outfit someone wore to save the galaxy from Twixts? It still smelt mildly of rotten fish.

The moment passed quickly. What was I thinking? Standing around wasting time on costume questions. Would I be any better off if I had thick, jet-black GAM armor, or at least a pair of slacks? No. This was still an impossible mission, so the fishy uniform would do.

I got down on my hands and knees and followed the monk into the duct. I tugged down on the back of my skirt compulsively though there wasn’t a soul behind me. “Where are we going?” I asked as he set off at an easy jog, me at a painful crawl.

“We are not going through the front door but via an alternative route.”

I frowned. Yes, I could tell this wasn’t the usual way they got into docked ships. More detail would have been nice. Like “We’re going to pop out in Main Engineering, so be careful not to stick your head in a fusion reactor.” Or “We’ll likely jump right into the cargo bay, so don’t be surprised when the Twixts cover you in perpetual darkness.”

I didn’t say anything, just concentrated on crawling. My bare knees were starting to smart, and I’d already cut one of my palms on a rough patch of metal grating. I was bloody and bruised even before the fight had begun – this wasn’t a good sign.

As the service duct wound on, I started to concentrate on what was ahead. I felt like I was spiraling down into a bottomless pit. I was going to die, wasn’t I? This wasn’t going to end any other way. I was heading onto a ghost ship to fight something that shouldn’t even exist and was the stuff of galactic nightmares.

“Looks like a ghost ship to me, sir,” a voice said from beneath me.

I jumped, as best as you can on all fours, and hit my head on the top of the duct above.

“What was that?”

My heart entered hyper speed from the shock of those unexpected, disembodied voices.

“Be quiet,” the monk whispered. “When you are startled, you make noise, and it travels through the bulkheads. We are above the docking doors of the station; those are GAMs below us. Soon we will reach a secondary airlock that attaches the station’s ventilation system to the ship – we will travel through this.”

I only just caught his words, and I hoped like hell the GAMs below didn’t catch anything. I didn’t want to be shot at like a rat in the rafters. “But,” I tried to make my voice as silent as rose petals falling on water, “What about the station’s sensors? Won’t they catch us?”

“I disabled them.”

He did what?! Oh no, this was great. Even if I did manage to get out of this alive – or more realistically, it turned out this alien had somehow made the whole thing up – I would be going straight to prison. Turning off the station’s internal sensors was like punching the Chief of Staff of the GAM right in the nose and spitting on a picture of his wife.

“This way.” The alien wasn’t about to give me any time to change my mind. And heck, I couldn’t change my mind now – I’d ruined my skirt crawling through these tunnels.

The rest of our trek was a blur. Perhaps my mind was starting to truly fathom its imminent doom because my body had begun to tingle like I’d jumped into a bath with a couple of live wires. My heart was racing, mind twirling, body jumping at the slightest shadow that drifted into my peripheral vision. I was frantic by the time we’d made it into the ghost ship, down another ventilation duct, and out into what looked like the engineering room.

Main power had obviously been switched off in this section as the lights were dim and running off secondary feeds. Which was the worst thing I could think of. Darkness was one thing – but darkness didn’t show up the shadows. Dim light, on the other hand, made shadows deep and in some places indistinguishable from the light.

It didn’t help that this engineering room would have been creepy even in the full light of day, packed with happy smiling nuns, teddy bears, cupcakes, and other things that generally posed little threat. It was old, and the style of panels and railings was of the jutting, painful corner kind. The ship’s core was a megalith that pulsed bone-shatteringly in the center of the room. The pallet was of browns and military grays. It felt like walking through some stark, unstable cave.

I wanted to ask “What now?” but my voice had apparently stayed on the station. I didn’t want to make a single noise – bringing a horde of Twixts or surprised GAMs my way.

“Now,” apparently the monk was a mind reader as well as a hair snatcher, “We engage in battle.”

“Sorry?” I found my voice. “I don’t have a weapon,” I hissed. “And I don’t know how to fight!”

“This is a less-than-ideal situation, yes, but we must push on.”

Push on? This wasn’t a minor setback, like forgetting to pack the forks for the picnic. This was going into a battle with the most feared monsters in the galaxy with nothing but a diner uniform!

I started to cast around for a stick, not that I would find a stick on a space ship, but I needed something that resembled a weapon. I didn’t fancy my chances of winning a fistfight with a shadow, not that I had any chance of winning, anyway.

There was a boom, and it translated up through the floor like an earthquake from below.

“What was that?”

“The airlock opening,” the monk said calmly.

“That was the airlock opening?” Oh lord, I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even stomach the background noises, let alone engage in the full score of space battle. Something else caught my ears; something far more subtle, something far more worthy of fear.

It was a hiss – not an intake or expiration of air – something else. It was coming from behind me.

I didn’t think. I wrapped an arm around the middle of the monk, hauled him forward and out of the engineering doors.

“What are you doing?” His voice bobbed with surprise as I hurtled down the corridor, more than thankful that the Main Engineering doors had closed behind us.

“It’s back there—” I huffed, my sudden burst of adrenaline fading. “That thing, it’s back there!”

So it had begun. I was off to a running start.

“We have to go back. We have to face it!”

“No!” I wailed. There wasn’t anything on this ship, this station, this entire galaxy, that would see me go back in that room.

The pricks of electricity had picked up all along my skin, and now it was more like the energy was discharging from me – flowing out as if I were a collection of storm clouds on a hot summer’s day.

I ducked through a door to my right, heading for it even before it had opened fully. I snagged my blouse on the corner, and it ripped cleanly. I didn’t care.

I dropped the monk when my arms gave way, and I fell against a table, huffing for breath.

We were in the mess hall, I realized. Which, in a way, was about as familiar ground as I could hope for on this ship.

“We have to go back!” the monk said, voice quick and excited.

“No, no, no, no – I don’t have a weapon!” I was shifting back from the door, watching it like it was literally the Gates of Hell.

I heard gunfire. In an instant, the monk dashed over to some com-panel, and the sounds of the firefight reverberated through the room as clear and sharp as if they were happening right here.

“What the hell is that?” someone screamed.

“Move back. Move back!”

I put a hand to my mouth. That was Jason. I recognized the voice, and I couldn’t be wrong.

“Get out of range. Move back—”

The sound of laser blasts cut in, desperate screams audible in the background.

No.

Oh no.

“You have to get out there – you must go. Only you can see the enemy. Those men are fighting blind – they will surely perish soon. They don’t have the eyes to look, and their sensors won’t help them – go, go!”

I went. I didn’t run straight toward the door – I detoured to the kitchen bar to the left. I still needed a weapon. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, which just so happened to be a cast-iron frying pan. Old school, but they were hardly going to have plasma rifles next to the vegetables – so it would have to do.

“I don’t know where they are,” I shrieked as I made for the door, frying pan in hand, tattered blouse slipping down my arm.

“Follow me.”

So I did. I followed the alien monk through the corridors of a ghost ship to fight the shadows that live in-between things, with naught but a frying pan.

As we wound through the halls, the sounds of battle increased until it felt like the whole ship shook with each blast. The screams that echoed down the corridor grew until they reverberated like a church bell by my ear.

There was an open doorway before us – its sides jammed open as an electrical fault in the panel gave off a sea of sparks. Smoke, shouts, and blasts waited for me within.

I gripped the handle of the frying pan like a devout pilgrim clutching their book of god.

Something came out between the sparks and smoke – a shape headed through the door.

I knew what it was well before it shrieked. It sounded like the distorted scream of metal fatigue. Though it filled my ears to bursting, I could tell that no one heard it but me.

The sounds of gunfire and shouts didn’t cease from the other room – they continued as wild as ever. They couldn’t see that the creature wasn’t there anymore.

It started to pull in on itself like the tide receding as it heralds a tsunami.

Then it charged at me. I threw myself to the side, hoping the thing’s momentum would carry it past me. It didn’t. It stopped dead in space as if the laws of physics didn’t apply to shadows.

It jerked toward me, and my hand, much quicker than my brain, brought the frying pan up in a swinging arc.

It struck home. Somehow, the iron managed to hit the amorphous dark, and a spark of light erupted from the impact.

This was all people would see, some part of me realized. A woman in a ripped waitress outfit swinging a pan around until it struck the invisible and sparked.

I didn’t even blink as I brought the pan around for another serving. This time the creature tipped backward, unfettered by balance, and snapped back into me with impossible speed. Its body felt like cryo fluid eating my skin, sucking out the heat. It covered and overwhelmed me like a thousand blankets pushed over my face.

I struck out with the pan, bringing it around in a backhand.

Another spark and the thing stumbled to the side.

“Finish it!” I heard the monk shout over the gunfire that still rang out.

How? Hit it to death with a frying pan? I may be able to startle it for a bit, but it wasn’t alive – how could I kill it?

Call it a vision, call it serendipity, call it the light of a long-lost memory buried somewhere in that other side of me. Light chases away dark, doesn’t it? Sparks – sparks are powerful, sudden sources of light.

If I hit it enough, could that work? Could the sparks it produced chase it away? It was clear the light snapping from the broken panel above the doorway didn’t bother it. Nor had the full light in my quarters harmed the Twixt the monk had shown me. That was because they weren’t between, were they? The light coming from the Twixt’s body, that was – those sparks came right out of the middle. Betwixt light.

The thing rushed for me again. This time I ducked to the side with a surprising elegance and ease I had never felt before. I twisted the frying pan around in my grip brought it into the full of the thing’s back. It let out a spark, brighter than before, enough to play along the metal of my pan like fire along a grate.

The Twixt dropped to the ground, and for the smallest nanosecond, I thought that was it. I even leaned forward – which was when it sprang straight up like a jack in a box.

It struck my chest with one of its arms, knocking the air from me and pitching me backward into a wall. I couldn’t even groan; I didn’t have the time, didn’t have the breath. It was still upon me.

Out of pain and surprise, I dropped the pan onto the ground, and it clanged like a bell toll.

This was it. This was it. It was all over. I was going to die here.

The human side of me was beside herself – so full of terror, so full with the idea of impending death that it ground to a halt. Which left that other side of me.

I slammed my arm forward, palm flat, until it struck the underside of the thing’s chin, forcing it backward. I dropped to the ground, rolled like the monk had, and collected the pan as I bounced to my feet.

I may not have been able to breathe, but that didn’t matter. I may not have been able to think, but that also didn’t matter. Some part of me could still feel and see, and that was all I needed.

With both hands on the handle, I brought the pan around, its surface vertical, and struck the Twixt’s head with all my might.

It sparked, boy did it spark. It was like burning magnesium, a sudden solar flare, or the light of a supernova.

The Twixt wobbled and started to pull in on itself in a quick implosion that left nothing but a sharp pop in my ears.

… It was over.

I wobbled, stumbling backward until my back reached the wall. I slid down it like water down a windowpane.

I was aware, vaguely aware, that the bangs of gunfire and screams of desperate men had stopped from the other room. The only sound to break my heavy breathing was the constant spark of the broken door panel.

I wanted to melt on the spot, every wisp of energy gone.

The monk, face alight, rushed toward me. “We have to leave,” he whispered, “Before they find us.”

I looked at him, dead as the shadow I’d slain. Before they find us?

He grabbed my arm and pulled me with surprising strength. I stumbled to my feet. I even let him pull me along the corridor.

I dropped the frying pan, just let it slip as my sweat-caked hands lost all strength.

“Now, now, now,” the little alien mumbled to himself as he escorted me along, “We’ve come too far to give up now. You’ve come so far. I saw that other half of you, saw the light in her eyes. I knew it was in you. I knew you were capable of it, with encouragement.”

Encouragement? A pat on the back was encouragement; making me face off a Twixt with a cooking utensil was attempted murder.

He took me back to the engine room and back through the ventilation shaft. It was all a blur, everything was, up until the point we made it through the doors to my own quarters and I let myself sink to the floor.

I was barely aware of Hipop bounding my way as I lay spread-eagled on the faintly cold carpet. He didn’t take any notice of the monk, hopped right up to my head, and started sniffing at my hair and licking my nose.

I didn’t have the heart or energy to push him off.

“What a wonderful creature,” the monk proclaimed, pressing his hands together like a devotee at prayer. “What name does it have?”

I let out a soft groan. It wasn’t at the spread of sharp pain in my chest and the general, suffocating weariness. It was at the bizarreness of it all. This alien, whose name I still didn’t know, had gotten me back to my quarters after the fight of the century only to comment on my pet. He should be ministering to my injuries or explaining what this was about – who I was, what had happened, what would happen next.

“Hipop,” I managed.

“Hipop, interesting.”

I tried to let out a laugh but made it only to a pained splutter. “Shouldn’t you be helping me? I need to go to a doctor or something.”

“I’m afraid you cannot. We cannot risk them finding out about you. Plus, I would wager that your injuries are not life threatening.”

Oh, oh, how comforting. “I want to go to a doctor.” I couldn’t believe I was saying those words, but it was the truth. I wanted painkillers and a long, long sleep.

“Yet you cannot. It is of vital importance that I do not lose you at this point. There is much I have left to teach you if you are, as your destiny dictates, to fight this war.”

He didn’t want to lose me, so he was stopping me for seeking medical attention while I was crumbling into a pile of practically dead. I was starting to wonder if this alien was mad. He’d been right about the Twixts, sure, but that didn’t mean he was a couple of cores short of a hyperdrive.

“It is a fine game we have to play.” He paced in front of me, hands clasped behind him. “A fine game, indeed. We must not draw the attention of the authorities too soon. They will not believe us, and they will hinder our task.”

By hinder, if he meant, “Put in prison for violating station security codes,” he was right.

“For many years, the bureaucracy of the Central Government has kept the truth of the Twixts buried. They have forgotten, intentionally, the great wars of the last millennium. They have stamped it out until nothing remains. Yet the old races remember. Those of us who were space faring at the time, who witnessed the horrors directly, we will never forget.” He stopped and stared up out of a porthole. “It was our duty to keep this truth alive until the time came where it would be the difference between life and death.”

Hipop settled down, curling up right by my head and watching the monk with sleepy interest. I watched him, too. Half of me wanted to laugh though it felt like I would shatter a rib. The other half? It was listening.

“So that is why we cannot risk bringing you to their attention – not yet. I trust their knees will jerk, and they will throw you away with the key.”

I couldn’t help but smile at his misuse of analogies.

“No, we must forge on alone for the time being, until we know for sure we can count on the support of others. It is a lonely life for a warrior who battles for those who know nothing of her sacrifices, but you have no other choice.”

“How can I do this?” I found my voice, but it crackled like a burst of static. “There was only one Twixt back there, and it almost killed me. How can I fight a war alone and unarmed? I…” I sighed through a groan, “Even left my frying pan behind.”

“Precisely. You cannot fight a war without a weapon. The great BeTwixt Wars were not fought with circles of iron with small handles—”

I chuckled painfully at that description.

“They were fought with the weapons of your people. The weapons of…” he trailed off, apparently lost in thought.

“That was long ago,” I was finally starting to catch my breath, “But this is now. How are we going to fight now?”

“Oh, the weapons still exist; they are indestructible.”

I started to push myself up, careful not to disturb Hipop. “Indestructible?”

“Practically.”

“So where are they?”

“Here and there, scattered throughout this great galaxy.”

“Scattered?” I kept my tone as dull as an overcast day. “Throughout the galaxy? How are we supposed to find them?”

“I know of one, but it may be impossible to obtain. It was your mother’s own staff. There are others, and we will find them, somehow. Until then, you will have to improvise. With more round bowls of iron, you will be able to overcome the Twixt.”

I felt like I was tipping backward under the weight of all this new information, that and I’d had the worst physical beating of my life. “I can’t fight the Twixt with frying pans.”

“It is not ideal, but—”

“No. None of this is ideal – none of this is real.” I flailed a hand at the monk, the pressure of the day catching up with me. I was emotional, tired, and injured, and now an alien monk was telling me to take on the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy with cooking utensils. This couldn’t be happening.

“Let us pray that we find you a weapon before we next see the Shadows.”

“Couldn’t I use a gun?” I asked desperately, arms hanging limply from my shoulders as I sat there like a dejected puppet.

“They make such terrible noises, and some of them are frightfully dangerous.”

“What? So I could use a gun?”

“Well, technically—”

“Why are we even having this conversation?”

“Guns will not be effective. They will startle, of course, and with repeated fire, they will destroy a Twixt. They are not of the caliber of your own people’s weapons. Perhaps one Twixt you could manage, but you will need a weapon of far greater power to take on an army.”

An army? An army?

I decided to push that impossible thought from my head for now. “How do I get a gun?”

“I suppose you buy one—”

“Where? If these things are supposed to be coming back, I want a gun, and I want one now!” a part of me was aware of how silly I sounded, how unlike myself. I couldn’t have imagined demanding a gun from a monk a week ago. My life had never necessitated anything other than a smile. Now I had to equip myself or be left holding the frying pan when the next Shadow came from between.

“I confess, I do not know. My people have always abhorred such things. They are inelegant, crude – the tools of the unenlightened.”

I took a slow, slow breath. I had to do this myself, didn’t I? I had to find a gun. Where to look?

There was only one place to get a gun without a license – gunrunners.

My life had officially gone to hell.

Chapter 4

I woke up the following morning with a pronounced ominous feeling. It took a moment for the previous day’s antics to flood back and drawn me completely. I had never wanted to get out of bed less than at that moment. So I did the only logical thing and pulled the covers over my head.

I didn’t have to work that afternoon, thankfully, though waitressing at a diner was the last thing on my mind right now. I had to find a gun, I reminded myself. A gun.

I became aware of the sharp distinction between my bed and the rest of the galaxy at that point, no matter how strange it sounded. I realized that at this moment the rest of the galaxy was everything outside of my mattress and blanket, and it was all screwed.

I heard the patter of feet that usually heralded Hipop jumping on my bed in his morning dance of: “You’re up! Oh well, you will be in a moment! Let me help by dancing all over your covers and licking your face.” I braced myself for the impact that didn’t come.

“Why is it that you have blankets over your inspiration orifices?”

I groaned at the voice and the questionable description of my mouth and nose. He was right, though – it was kind of hard to breathe under here, but the alternative was to die at the hands of the Twixts out there.

I didn’t answer, hoping he would give up and go away.

“You must rise from your slumber so that we can buy a gun. I do not know much about how the sale of personal weaponry works, but I imagine, like other economies, you are rewarded for being the first in line.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. This guy had perfect English but would say the strangest things. Did he honestly think the black-market weapons industry worked like the canteen line at school? You didn’t get the best guns for showing up first with clean hands and a neat uniform – you got what you paid for, either in blood or money.

“Child,” he called loudly, as if I were far away, “Child, you must rise—”

“Mini,” I threw back the covers and jumped out of bed too quickly, “My name is Mini. What the hell is yours while we’re on the topic?”

The monk, who was standing in the center of the room, hands primly patting at his robes, looked fresh-faced and calm. “Name?”

I rolled my eyes. “If I were to address you in a room of similar, small, red alien monks, what arrangement of sounds would I use to distinguish you from the rest?” I was surprised at my own sarcasm. Sarcasm was usually something I didn’t employ – only smiles and polite chitchat made it through the application process of my thoughts. But I was in a mood, if you could put it that way. I was in the kind of mood a girl gets after a rough night of hitting Twixts on the head with frying pans.

“Ah, we do not have names. For your ease, should you face the situation you described—”

I tried to block out the mental image of going into a room packed full of tiny crimson monks all wanting to grab my hair and shanghai me into saving the galaxy.

“You can call me Od.”

“Od? You know what, I think that kind of suits you. Od it is.”

He bowed demurely as if I’d given him a gold star for creativity.

“So, what now, Od? Do I clear all the Central Credits out of my bank account and buy the only gun I can afford, which will be a pea shooter considering my current funds, and a rusty pea shooter at that?”

“I am unfamiliar with a peashooter, but if you believe this will be an appropriate choice of weaponry to use against the Twixt, this is what we shall do.”

I let that one slide and headed off to grab a supplement bar from the cupboard. You couldn’t call them food – they provided the exact balance of nutrients you needed without the chocolate and cream. It would have to do. Sitting down for eggs and toast was not an option right now. I started chewing on the vaguely tasty mass while I ran a hand over my torso, searching out the bruises from last night.

I had healed remarkably well, I realized. It had something to do with the strange draft Od had given me before I’d conked out in bed. It had tasted like rocket fuel avec la grease, but it had obviously worked wonders.

“So,” I said between bites, “I don’t suppose you know where there are guns on this station?” I had a vague idea, but it was likely to be the kind of sketchy impression that would get me thrown into prison for asking the wrong kind of guy to “See his goods.”

He looked thoughtful, his crimson head tilting toward the ceiling. “In a GAM ship.”

I let my jaw drop open, mid-chew. Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yes, of course there would be guns on GAM ships; they were pretty big into those things. I wasn’t about to go up to the Commander, wink, and offer him a packet of cash for his rifle.

“Also, I believe Station Security hold firearms.”

This was getting me nowhere. If I wanted to get this done, I was going to have to do this myself. I’d have to go down to the lower decks, I figured as I patted my hands free of crumbs and concentrated on my last bite of vaguely vanilla-flavored sustenance. That was where the riffraff hung out – sometimes off railings held by their feet, from the stories I’d heard. You would hear things working as a waitress, and most of them ended up with some kind of bloody altercation between Crags and Mercenaries on the decks below.

Which is where I, the ditsy waitress, now had to go. I had to take all my money from the bank, put on my most intimidating outfit (which left the skirt with the cute embroidered bunny rabbits right out), and secure the proverbial daggers behind my eyes. I had to harden the hell up and go and buy a goddamn gun.

I grabbed my hair and pulled it in front of my eyes like curtains. I didn’t want to play this game anymore. No, scratch that. At no point had I ever indicated any wish to participate in this ridiculous situation. Shadow monsters, galactic peril, and black market forays would never have had me putting my hand up for seconds.

By the time I had decided what to wear and cuddled Hipop to death on the likely probability I would never see him again, it was already mid-morning. Od was starting to get anxious, twisting his hands like a tiny propeller spinning back and forth. “We don’t have the time to dally,” he said for literally the tenth time.

I ignored him as I walked two steps ahead. I didn’t want to be spotted with Od, not after he’d been dragged off to the brig for supposedly assaulting me the other day. What would the Commander think if he saw the two of us together? That I’d forgiven my attacker and had found the heart to converse about apocalyptic scenarios with the guy as we strolled the promenade? Yeah.

Commander Cole, what would he think in general? He didn’t believe in Twixts. In fact, he didn’t believe in Twixts with bells on, if that made any sense. He’d been unduly frustrated by the Crag’s insistence that the denizens of the in-between were behind the ghost ship. So how would he react if I were to walk up to him and casually assert that I’d been behind the frying-pan-rescue yesterday? Would he glare at me, act indifferent, laugh out loud, or shoot me on the spot? Or maybe a mixture of all four?

To be honest, I didn’t want to think about that right now. I was off to buy illegal weaponry from the lower decks – which was something the Commander would have a definite and easily predictable opinion on. He would throw me in prison because Commander Jason Cole played by the book.

I had a definite icky feeling in my stomach by the time Od and I had traveled the lift down to the right deck. It felt like someone had crammed me into an old-style cocktail mixer and shaken me until my insides had turned to jelly. I tried not to hold my stomach as we walked through the crowd. It was hard, for more reasons than one. Not only did I feel like death, but the deck looked even worse. It was in the same drab, mechanical style as the docking bay – all bare metal and scratched aged paint. There were packing crates dotting the large open space, with aliens of various sizes, descriptions, and levels of menacing sitting or leaning on them. Everyone seemed to be wearing the same colors – grays, dirt browns, and blacks. There wasn’t a baby blue to be seen.

I tried not to double up, compact my shoulders, and hide behind my hair like the frightened child I was. I had to stand tall, right? Walk proud with my shoulders jutting out like they had caps with wicked spikes on them. I had to flare my nostrils and blink in slow motion. Otherwise, I was dead meat. Or more likely, dead disintegrated particles by the look of some of the hardcore particle rifles some of the aliens carried.

Though I was trying hard to keep my cool, I was starting to sweat, my hands jittering in my pockets. What if I ran into a GAM? What if I ran into Cole?! It wasn’t impossible, was it? In fact, it was a darn certainty. This would be the kind of place the Commander came in his spare time to continue his life’s work of cleaning up the galaxy. He was probably in the lift right now preparing his sack to bag me with – ready to chalk me off as another chunk of litter scraped off the pavement.

I clutched my stomach tighter, trying my utmost not to look anyone in the eyes as we passed all shapes and sizes of galactic scum.

“Now, where to start?” Od said softly to himself, his voice as chirpy and unperturbed as ever. If he’d noticed we’d entered a den of illegality, he hadn’t shown it. He didn’t look frightened at the group of Crags who passed us by, holstered guns at their sides and rifles strapped to their backs. He smiled vaguely as I tried not to whimper when one ran into my arm.

“What color do you think you might like? I say, that positively homicidal looking Krip’tal over there has a nice white-looking long gun. Smart, though it might get scuffed easily.”

The Krip’tal in question, a tall race with a face that resembled a carnivorous plant, hissed at us, the flaps of his mouth blowing wide. I yelped and scurried along after Od.

“I don’t actually care what the color is,” I whispered because I was still uncomfortable discussing weaponry in public, even when the public appeared well versed in that topic.

“Oh. Ah, well that leaves shape I suppose. Would you prefer a long one or a short one? Are you sure color doesn’t matter?”

A long one, a short one, a colorful one – this wasn’t how you chose firearms! I was supposed to be fighting the Twixts for heaven’s sake, and the only assistance my supposed mentor could provide was the “Fashionista’s guide to accessorizing with your plasma particle rifle.”

“Human,” something boomed from behind me.

I didn’t instantly turn. There were other humans dotted around this dump.

“Human.” A huge hand settled on my shoulder and twisted me on the spot.

I stared straight up into the huge lizard-skin face of the Crag who’d first told me about the Twixts.

“Lost,” he rumbled in his monotone.

“You are?” I squeaked. “Well, if you take the elevators over there—”

“Human is lost, not Crag’tal.”

Most Crags had names that began with Crag. For some reason, they thought it would avoid confusion – as if anyone in their right mind would ever fail to pick a Crag out of a line up.

It took me a short while to realize what he meant. “Oh, I—”

“Human, take the elevator and go back to the deck above – this not a good deck for her.”

Now, I would never go gooey over a Crag – they didn’t engender warm feelings. But I realized this guy was actually looking out for me. In another time, another place, I would have smiled at that and offered him a Tika tea on the house.

“No, my good Crag’tal, we are not lost,” Od piped up from somewhere around the Crag’s ankles. “We are in search of weaponry.”

I could have shot him if I’d had the foresight to bring along a gun on a gun-buying mission. Od had the subtlety of a Crag. Did he have to announce our mission so blithely?

I flinched, waiting for Crag’tal to pick me up in his gigantic arms and carry me to the brig. The big guy looked down at me. “Joke.”

I couldn’t figure out if he was asking whether it was a joke or he thought it was funny – or both. “N… no. I, well, it’s hard to explain.” I blushed.

“I have a large amount of rare Eluvian Platonium ore,” Od reached under his robe, “And we plan to trade this, plus Mini’s live savings, for a gun. Or two, if we can afford it.”

My eyes widened like someone had pumped air into them. I had never even seen Eluvian Platonium ore – it was one of the rarest and most valuable substances in the galaxy. Never mind buying one gun with that – Od could afford to equip an army and retire on his own planet.

Crag’tal placed out a hand and covered Od’s tiny one. It was an oddly slow and gentle move for the titan. “Put back in robes – dangerous to show around here.”

Yes, yes it bloody was! I was surprised every thief in the place hadn’t jumped on us the moment Od had brought the glittering goods out. I was betting no one here would have ever seen a fortune like that, let alone been this close to it.

I peered around nervously and was horrified to see more than a few scraggly aliens peering our way.

“Oh, I suppose you are right.” Od stowed the goods quickly.

He’d made me withdraw all my life’s savings while he’d been carrying around more money than I could earn in 1000 lifetimes. This was impossible.

“Human and small one should go.”

I agreed with that, in principle. In practice, it would mean we would have to come back later.

“Not without a gun, I’m afraid.” Od pushed onto his toes and rolled back like an excited child doing calisthenics.

Crag’tal heaved his shoulders up and gave what I assumed was a sigh. “Small one is strange. Human is strange too. Dangerous – yet you want gun.”

“Could you,” I bit my lip. I was abundantly aware of the fact Od and I couldn’t do this on our own. “Well, could you possible help us…?” I trailed off weakly.

Crag’tal didn’t move or speak, just heaved his shoulders again. “Like human. Small one makes Crag’tal laugh. Crag’tal will help.”

I could have hugged the guy, or at least managed to wrap my arms around one of his mammoth legs and given it an appreciative squeeze.

As we moved off, I stuck to Crag’tal like a satellite to a moon. Or, which wasn’t a good analogy these days, his shadow.

Od would walk off on tangents occasionally, drawing the greedy eyes of those who fancied a palm-full of Eluvian Platonium ore. Crag’tal would always catch up to him and menace away the onlookers before escorting the lost, crimson lamb back into place.

Crag’tal took us down a short set of steps to another part of the deck I hadn’t seen. This area looked more like a depot – there were stalls set up with all sorts milling around them. Packing crates were stacked by the walls, some open, with Crags, humans, and various aliens going through their contents. A human pulled out a huge jet-black rifle and checked the scope, while at a different crate, a Crag pulled out a massive shoulder cannon and remarked on the color, which drew a smile from me.

Crag’tal walked to a quiet stall off to one side. It had a Hantari serving behind it – a creature that resembled a biped stick insect with the same huge reflective eyes. He wore an actual uniform, from what I could tell. It was a light shade of navy blue and appeared to have some kind of company logo on it. It was a holo-badge that blinked out the name of Tech Industries. I’d vaguely heard of them. They were one of the major weapons companies that supplied the GAM. But why would an official rep, like the Hantari, be down here amongst the space bums and mercenary scum?

Crag’tal went and answered my question. “Got legit licenses?” He nodded at the Hantari.

The Hantari didn’t answer, just grabbed something from his pocket and flicked it open. It was a data pad that showed an assortment of different holographic symbols.

Crag’tal nodded. “More expensive,” he turned to me, “But don’t go to jail.”

I nodded quickly as if I understood what he was saying. I mean, I understood parts of it – like it would cost more and I wouldn’t end up rotting on a moon prison somewhere. But how could you buy a gun license? Didn’t you have to… I don’t know, sit some kind of safety examination? Not that anyone down on this deck would pass, but wouldn’t they demand more than a couple of Central Credits before they gave you a lethal weapon?

I felt uncomfortable, itchy, and hot all over. I didn’t want to be here. At least Crag’tal and Od were with me, but the prospect of actually buying a gun – it was getting real for me.

“Who’s buying?” the Hantari asked, voice like a chimney full of mosquitoes.

Crag’tal nodded my way.

The Hantari didn’t laugh. He looked me over. “Money?”

“Enough,” Crag’tal growled.

The Hantari looked at me longer then shrugged. “Bio scans.” He nodded my way, appearing to want something.

I looked back, with a pained but thoroughly unhelpful expression.

“Give him your arm.” Crag’tal nudged me softly with his shoulder.

I acquiesced, though I couldn’t stop blinking while I offered my shaking arm, certain something painful was about to occur.

The Hantari, a notoriously quick race, jabbed a device into the skin below my elbow, which made me yelp in surprise. Both he and Crag’tal looked at me and did the equivalent of an alien roll-of-the-eyes.

The Hantari gave me my arm back, and I rubbed the injury concertedly.

“Now registered.” The Hantari stepped back and picked out a much bigger data pad from under the table. “Now pick.”

He slapped the pad on the table and turned on the holo-function, which sent a perfect revolving 3D picture of a gun above the table.

“What type?” The Hantari didn’t even bother to look at me; he looked straight at Crag’tal.

“Why do you need it, human?” Crag’tal bent down to me.

I sucked in my lips. As if I could tell them the truth. “I…” I cleared my throat, “Need something that will work against—”

“Non-corporeal, non-substantial entities from the in-between dimensions,” Od piped up, voice hearty, obviously happy to help.

Crag’tal’s ridged brow knotted together. “What, small one?”

“Alright, something with a thermal buffer, pictonian insulation, inbuilt particle accelerator, and preferably,” Od put up a red finger, “No blast filters.”

The Hantari had already begun flipping through the guns in his holo catalog – obviously capable of following Od’s complex description.

“Going to be bright,” Crag’tal said.

“Precisely.” Od slapped his hands together lightly.

I felt like an audience member with nothing at all to do with the show. I must have had the blankest look on my face.

“Expensive – 4000CC.” The Hantari brought up the picture of the gun. “Comes in duel pistol and rifle form. The rifle has secondary function—”

“We’ll take both kinds – and maybe two rifles,” Od jumped in.

The Hantari looked up and directly at Od. He obviously wanted to know if the monk was playing a game. “Have to be ordered in, don’t stock these – too expensive, too rare.”

“Well, how long will it take? We are,” Od looked at me, “Short for time, I’m afraid.”

“Tomorrow.” The Hantari was clicking his claws together quickly. He wanted to see the color of our Central Credits, I could tell. “Pay now.”

Crag’tal started to growl, and I stopped myself from jumping at the unexpected rumble. “Only if payment is registered.”

“Of course.” Now the Hantari straightened up, his claws drawing to a rest. Perhaps he thought we weren’t joking anymore.

“Splendid.” Od drew a hand into his robe, and soon the transaction was complete.

I didn’t know much about the physiology of the Hantari, but I could bet my still existent life savings that he was surprised when Od brought out the Eluvian Platonium ore. If his race had eyebrows, they would have jumped off and done a merry dance.

It was agreed that the guns would be delivered to my quarters tomorrow, and soon we left the lower decks, transaction complete.

Crag’tal followed us all the way up as our more than appreciated bodyguard. When he reached the promenade, he left with a grunt.

“Hold on,” I called after him, “Can’t I say thank you for all your help? I could buy you a meal? Sea bass?”

He slowed down. “Getting off this station,” he rumbled, “First the ghost ship, now the GAM cruiser – not safe.”

“Sorry?” I caught up with him, face plastered with confusion. “What GAM cruiser?”

“Big one. Crag’tal heard the rumors – trouble in the engine core.”

I shook my head quickly, not following at all. Why would engine trouble in a GAM cruiser cause a Crag, of all creatures, to leave the station? “I don’t understand. I’m sure their engineers will fix it – it would take more than that to make it go nuclear—”

“Not destroyed, not nuclear. Something in engine core. GAMs don’t believe it – Crag’tal does. They closed off whole deck – lost a GAM. Heard them talking in diner—”

Od leaned up on the tips of his alien toes. His face had that same stretched, almost manic surprise it had had the day we’d first met. “Unexplained engine fluctuations, disappearing crewman…” he trailed off, eyes big.

“Crag’tal knows. Crag’tal told you yesterday – Twixts. Got off the ghost ship, to cruiser.”

A chill spread across my back as if a man with icy fingers was tracing the line of my spine. “Twixts,” I croaked. “Got off the ghost ship?”

Oh no.

I put a hand up to my mouth, my eyes practically welded-open in horror. There had been two, there had been two Twixts on that ship! The one I’d felt in engineering and the one in the cargo bay. I had – I had left without finishing the job.

I felt like doubling over and collapsing into a ball right here in the center of the promenade. My brief victory at managing to secure weaponry had burnt away at this news. Crag’tal had said they’d lost a GAM. Someone had died… died because I hadn’t finished the job.

Tears started to well at the corners of my eyes.

Crag’tal looked at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, and I didn’t care. I was crying in the middle of the promenade because I had… I had….

“Non-corporeal, non-substantial entities from the in-between dimensions,” he said, actually speaking in a full sentence.

I managed to look at him, eyes full of tears now, his image reflected and distorted by my sorrow. He’d said word-for-word what Od had told the Hantari. That was the thing about Crags – they didn’t always speak in staccato, caveman English. They could form grammatically accurate sentences when they wanted to. Why they chose to speak the way they did, I didn’t know. It was obvious Crag’tal was trying to make a point.

“Crag’tal only knows of one creature – Twixts.”

I shivered.

“Crag’tal doesn’t want to know why you bought the guns. Your business. Crag’tal wishes you happy hunting.”

With that, he turned away and walked off through the crowd, his lumbering mass clearly visible towering over the heads of most of the other people and aliens.

Happy hunting….

I turned to Od, who was nodding at the retreating form of Crag’tal, expression appreciative. “There are few we can trust, Mini—”

Bur Crag’tal seems to be one of them, I finished off his sentence in my head.

“We must now go back to your quarters to plan.” Od turned and disappeared into the crowd like only a two-foot creature could.

I stood there, not bothering to wipe the tears from my eyes as they trickled down my cheeks.

When I looked up, the crowd had thinned, and a familiar face was staring at me from across the room. Commander Jason Cole. He appeared to be talking to a security detachment but was ignoring the person he spoke to and glancing over their shoulder at me. His brow was sunk with confusion, mouth pressed into a commiserating smile. It wasn’t one side of his mouth – it was both.

I smiled, beside myself. One of those sad smiles where your chin dimples in and only the tiniest corners of your lips rise.

My life was changing – distorting before my eyes into the strangest, most incomprehensible of shapes. I was changing, too – fighting Twixts, making friends with Crags, and buying expensive guns. But at least I could still remember how to smile.

Chapter 5

This was the worst, most anxious shift of my life. I couldn’t believe I’d actually bothered to show up for work. But I had; Od had insisted on it.

“We can’t go after the Twixt on the GAM cruiser yet,” he’d said over breakfast, which had been another sustenance bar. “Not until your guns arrive. But you must not be idle. Your position at Marty’s Space Diner, it is the perfect work for you this morning. You can listen carefully to the conversations around you – glean information on our foe from the GAMs and station crew.”

I could do that walking the decks – there was nothing special about the diner. Well, Marty always said that food made people talk. In a way, he was right. The diner would concentrate all sorts together, and soon enough they would always start chatting about the latest gossip while throwing down their Space Blasters and Eluvian Ales.

So I kept my ears out as I mindlessly entered orders.

“Closed down a deck? Are you serious? Why did they go and do that?” A station engineer asked a cargo crewman as he twisted his drink in his hand. “If it’s core trouble, they’ve got to get in there and stabilize her before she’s lost.”

“They can’t get in there.” The cargo crewman leaned forward, eyes darting from side-to-side in classic conspiratorial style. “Something’s in there – it has already killed.”

“Can’t get in?” The engineer was incredulous, but I could see his eyes widen with interest. “Don’t they know where the doors are?”

“They think it’s some kind of infestation, maybe Clouds – don’t know where they would have picked them up.”

Clouds, despite the friendly name, were a hive creature made up of billions of tiny, floating cells. They were infamous for infesting engine cores and feeding off the energy. If there were enough of them, they could destroy a ship. The cargo crewman was right – it couldn’t be Clouds. No GAM ship would be that careless. Clouds were a known entity – all incoming cargo was scanned for them.

I continued to pick up fragments of various conversations – some ridiculous, some harrowing, some too cryptic to understand.

“They’re going to send in a contamination unit – scan for entities,” a GAM said to his friend.

“They’re not going to find anything. Jenkins works on that deck – he said he saw that guy before he died, said he heard this noise that wasn’t there—”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I don’t know. Ask Jenkins.”

Noise that wasn’t there…. I knew what that meant, and it made me want to jump into the center of the sun just to feel warmth again.

After a while, things became too much, and I had to stand off to the side of the bar, one hand covering my face. This was my responsibility. It was up to me to fix this, and it was my fault that it had gotten this far. A man had died. A man had died….

“I would say go to a doctor,” a man said from the other side of the bar, “But you don’t like those.”

I pulled my hand away quickly to meet the gaze of Commander Cole. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Yes, it is.”

It always started to get awkward quickly when I talked to the Commander, and now was no exception.

He clamped a hand on his chin and let his gaze lock on the bench. He appeared to be considering something carefully. “I saw you yesterday,” he offered. “You alright?”

For some reason, those two words startled me into smiling. It was the way he’d said it.

He tilted his head to the side, awaiting my reply.

“Oh, of course. I had….” I cast around for an excuse. I wasn’t about to tell the Commander that I had indirectly killed a GAM by not destroying a Twixt when I’d had the chance. But I couldn’t think of anything to say – not a single thing.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he said quickly, looking off to his side at a passing Hantari.

There was that awkward pause again.

The thing is, I wanted to tell Jason. Okay, so I didn’t know the guy but he… well, I’d like to think he would be one of the few I could trust.

“So, have you worked on this station long?”

I bit my lip with my front teeth. “A couple of years – which is long enough, I guess.”

He conceded with a polite nod. “I guess it has its perks.”

Sure, if perks included recycled air and enough credits to stock your cupboards with second-hand military sustenance rations. “We get a lot of different races through.” I played with the ties of my apron, flicking them around and digging at the hem with my fingers. “Not like being a GAM. I imagine you see things.” I blushed at the sheer stupidity of my comments. He saw things? Of course, everyone who had vision saw phenomena that could be categorized as things.

“Oh,” he laughed. “You could say that.” His eyes met mine but dropped to my blouse, and I noted with a flush of heat that they didn’t immediately move.

When his eyes flicked away, he looked confused.

I couldn’t stop biting my lips now, and I was whipping my apron ties around so furiously that they were blurs.

I knew I should be capitalizing on the moment and asking the GAM Commander about the situation aboard his ship, but I couldn’t speak. If I opened my mouth now, it would be to unleash the dam of babble.

“Mini—” he cut off, obviously trying to form an uncomfortable question from the look of consternation crumpling his brow. “Do you—”

I hung on his every word.

“Mini,” another voice cut in from the side.

I turned to see the Hantari Tech Industry’s salesman from the lower decks. He was still in his navy-blue uniform, his holo badge blinking out for everyone to see. He was carrying two big metal cases, which he placed carefully on the bar. They had the Tech Industry’s logo all over them.

The Commander leaned back, eyes fixed on the boxes, one eyebrow raised. “Those aren’t what I think they are, are they?” he asked the Hantari. “New generation, Tech Power rifles with second function—”

“They are.” The Hantari nodded with the quickest flick of his insect head. “Offer to GAM at discount, if he’s interested.”

The Commander laughed, his face lighting up. “Oh, I can’t afford those.”

The Hantari turned back to me. He handed me a pad. “The Kroplin was not in your quarters – give your bio scan for confirmation of receipt.”

My face was burning with 100,000 degrees of white-hot heat. I couldn’t look at the Commander, but I could see his head tilt my way with surprise.

I did the scan and handed the pad back. The Hantari nodded, and to my complete horror, proceeded to open the boxes right there. “They have been DNA fixed. No one else can fire them,” he added, obviously remembering I was a complete idiot when it came to weaponry. “You have also received free Tech Industry holsters, because of your considerable purchase. Now you have seen the goods,” he quickly shut the cases, “You take. Return to my stall if you have trouble,” he looked at me and made a noise which I could tell was the mosquito version of a harsh laugh, “When human has trouble.”

“What’s going on here?” Cole’s voice was as a commander’s should be – cold, authoritative, and curt. He looked right at me, expression unreadable.

“This is a transaction.” The Hantari produced a pad from his pocket. “The GAM should know Tech Industries is a legitimate weapons dealer. Human has been scanned and licensed. This deal is complete and validated.” He showed the Commander the same holo-pad that had convinced Crag’tal.

Commander Cole was silent then nodded. The Hantari snapped around and walked off, long body swaying through the crowd like a sapling in the wind.

That left the Commander and me.

He let out a long breath. “Mind telling me why you have enough weaponry to take a freighter there?” His voice dropped down dangerously low and made me shiver.

“I, ah, they’re for someone else,” I said slowly.

“They’re DNA coded only to you. Single use guns.”

I was breathing so shallowly that I sounded like a dog panting as it was sent on a raft into the center of the sun. “Ah well….”

“He talked about a Kroplin. I’ve only seen one of those around lately – same one that assaulted you. You usually buy guns with your attackers?”

I felt like fainting. “Umm, you see I….”

His eyes were narrowed, and he was looking at me the way he’d regard the scum of the lower decks. “I guess I was wrong about you, Mini.”

I reached out and grabbed the cases off the bench, not wanting to draw any more attention. My limbs, my chest, my torso – they were all cold with dread and disappointment.

He stood up from his stool. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”

I stood there, the gun cases in hand, feeling worse than when the Twixt had covered me with darkness.

By the time I made it back to my quarters, I was… it was hard to explain. Numb was the only word that came close. It wasn’t numb in the conventional sense – I could still feel the dread and disappointment – but they were spread out like a suffocating blanket. I walked along, gun cases heavy at my side, on autopilot.

I nodded at Od when I entered my quarters and dropped the cases on my bed. Od bobbed around at my feet, excited to see what his fortune had bought us. I opened the cases, fingers slipping a couple of times like they were as cold as my insides felt.

I didn’t even hesitate before I reached down to pick one up. It was one of the pistols. It felt light, with enough weight to remind me that it wasn’t a toy. It was distractingly sleek – the light playing off its smooth, white, metallic finish.

I ran a finger along the barrel. Od was right, I thought to myself distractedly, there were few that I could trust. Cole had gone and demonstrated that perfectly. No matter how much I wanted it to be otherwise, his mind was made up about me. While Crag’tal hadn’t wanted to know what I was up to, Cole hadn’t given me the time of day. Gunrunner, mercenary, assassin for hire – I didn’t know what Cole thought I was, or why I would need such expensive firepower, but it was clear I’d changed in his estimation. I’d gone from the pathetic diner waitress to the armed suspect.

Perhaps Od could tell I was distracted, because he didn’t start spouting off about how “We had to board the GAM cruiser before the day was lost,” or how “This was only the first step in our sacred war against the Twixts.”

I put the gun back in the case, only to pull out my complimentary Tech Industry holsters. There were leg holsters for the pistols and a contraption that was supposed to sit over my back and hold both rifles crossed over each other in an X.

I took off my holo-pin and placed it on my bedside table. There was no point in waiting, some part of me realized; there was nothing to wait for anymore.

“We have the guns,” I said coldly as I sat on the edge of the bed and brought the pistol holsters up around each leg. I was still wearing my brimming blue uniform skirt – but did it matter? Not only did the holsters fit snug underneath, but the fold of the fabric would hide them from view. I didn’t fancy walking up to a GAM cruiser, guns at my hips like a common mercenary with the equivalent of “shoot me” tattooed across my brow.

“You wish to go now?” Od had apparently caught up, and for the first time, his voice was tentative, careful. “You do not wish to plan?”

What would planning achieve? I was still unskilled, untrained, and hopeless. Sure, I didn’t know how to use these guns, but where was I going to learn that, anyway? I could hardly start blasting away in my room, could I? No, there was only one place these guns were going to see action. “We don’t have time, do we?” I secured the holsters and stowed each of the guns away.

I patted my skirt over them. Thankfully, there were only the barest of bumps jutting out from my side.

“Time is short – you are right.”

I turned to look at the rifles. They would be too conspicuous; I couldn’t afford to take them with me today.

Today. I was saying today like there would be a tomorrow.

I walked to the door.

“How will we get aboard?” Od raced after me.

“You’ll figure something out.” My voice was still cold. “Where were you today, by the way, when the guns were being delivered?”

I couldn’t see Od’s face as I marched off down the corridor outside my quarters – apparently, he was having trouble keeping up.

“I was talking to creatures, trying to find out information – reconnaissance for our journey. It is hard to know who to trust, but we—”

“Yes,” I cut in with finality, “It is hard to know who to trust.”

As we walked through the Service Decks, my back felt colder than an ice moon at night. I still walked. That other side of me, the side I was starting to realize wasn’t human – it was in control. It had taken over the controls when Commander Cole had crushed me under his regulation boots. She knew that the only thing that truly mattered was the Twixt. Everything else was peripheral, unimportant, inconsequential.

We would get aboard the cruiser, I figured, find our way onto the shutdown deck, and end this.

“We may have a chance to get aboard,” Od spoke softly at my side as we made our way to the docking deck. “If I can make it to an engineering console somewhere. I may be able to momentarily disable their security systems, allowing us to sneak aboard through—”

Momentarily disable their security systems? What was he going to do? Throw a spanner in their computer core? I didn’t pretend to understand how all this technical sabotage stuff worked, and I didn’t care. This was all going to end in tears, anyway.

“Do what you have to do,” I mumbled, finding it harder and harder to speak. I was drawing in on myself, like a flower that had been left to wilt and shrivel in the hot desert sun.

It was all so surreal, so impossible, so untrue. Yet it was happening.

I’d never even been on a GAM cruiser, let alone navigated my way around their snaking, maze-like decks. So when it came time to board, Od having done his magic with a station security panel he found unattended, I was starting to regret my foolish attitude. The numb calm that had seen me slap on my holsters and march down here was giving way to spiraling unease.

I still knew what I had to do, academically. Gone was the imperative, the certainty I’d felt in my stomach. Now I was plain old Mini the waitress again. Mini the waitress who’d stolen aboard an army vessel with a pair of high-powered pistols strapped to her thighs.

We were crawling along some kind of maintenance duct again – Od being particularly fond of those. I wasn’t about to complain; we had more chance crawling along a narrow tunnel than we did walking out in the ship’s corridors. We’d stick out like only a waitress heroine and her alien monk sidekick could do.

I found myself tugging at the back of my skirt again, and it almost brought a smile to my lips. I was glad to see that, despite the general upheaval in my life, I still knew how to be demure. A girl should never let her knickers show, even if she was having an emotional meltdown while en route to her certain death.

Od held some kind of small scanner in his hands as he walked along before me. He had warned me, before we’d loaded ourselves into the hatch, that I had to be “exquisitely silent,” which meant no “whimpers, screams, or yelps.” Apparently, this service duct was right over the ceiling of tactical control – whatever that was. Anyway, the point was, we didn’t want to make ourselves known in a ship that was on high alert from a mysterious entity trapped in its engineering deck. This would be a shoot first, don’t ask questions scenario for the GAMs.

So I concentrated on keeping my breath as silent as possible, which of course meant it sounded like the dying wheeze of a man shot through both lungs. Subtlety obviously wasn’t my thing.

Fortunately, the thin walls did come in handy. We were able to pick up snippets of conversation as we wended our illegal way through the cruiser’s service ducts.

“Contam unit is ready to go, sir.”

“Looking at quick entry – scan for entities, engage if needed.”

“We detected a malfunction in the internal security scanners. Looks like a faulty circuit. Seems routine – we’ll have the techs look into it after Main Engineering is cleared.” This particular snippet of conversation had me shiver like a sopping wet dog. I didn’t need Od to tell me that their detected malfunction was less of a faulty circuit, and more of a quick-handed monk.

Od seemed to always know where he was going, and soon we’d passed down several small ladders – heading further into the center of the ship. This ship was huge, I realized as the minutes ticked by. Once again, I was faced with that awful, slow lead up to battle. The cold preparedness I’d felt in my quarters had all but dwindled. I’d now had the time to think things over, and I was back to wanting to run to my bed and hide from the terrible Twixt, whimpering like a child whose ice cream had fallen in the sand.

After what felt like half an hour, Od put up a tiny crimson hand in the universal communication of stop. I was glad to sit up a bit, take the pressure off my chaffed and scratched hands. The respite didn’t last long.

“We are over a hatch that leads down to Main Engineering,” Od spoke freely. “We no longer have to be concerned that we will be overheard. However, we should now expect an altercation—”

“You mean it’s time to do what we came here to do,” I cut in, voice trembling but still strong enough to push out the words.

He nodded. “I hope you are prepared, Mini.”

“Well, I’m not, but I hope I get lucky instead.”

With that, we made our way down the hatch and onto the deck of Main Engineering.

The lights were dim in this section – they were as faint as the reflected light of a waning moon. Why that was, I couldn’t tell. Perhaps the GAMs had redirected the power to more essential systems, not wanting to waste energy lighting up a no-man’s-land. Or perhaps it was the Twixt itself – they didn’t like light. Perhaps its first contribution upon moving in had been to dim the lights to create the correct mood for soulless shadows.

There wasn’t much to note in the semi-darkness, but I could see that this deck was large. Od had tried to show me a blueprint on the security panel he’d hacked into. This section was meant to be circular in the middle with a huge open space that surrounded the massive engine cores that powered the ship. Around that section, like ripples from a pebble dropped in a clear pond, were corridors that connected up to various types of consoles and whatever else you needed to fly lumps of metal through space at several times the speed of light.

By the looks of it, we had dropped into one of those corridors. I tried for a brief moment to imagine where the Twixt would be hiding. Would he be squeezed into some recess somewhere, taking advantage of the natural shadow to cover his dark form? Or would he be hard at work at some door – trying to get through to the beings, the fresh life, he felt on the other side? Or would he be prowling the corridors like a rabid nightmare, mind fixated on pure violence, ready to destroy the first thing that walked his way?

The skin along my back was erupting in painful pricks, like I’d rolled around in a solution of iron shavings, crushed up glass, and acid. It was terrible moving silently along these corridors, just waiting. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs and charge the thing – get it over and done with. But I couldn’t find it.

Od was as quiet as deep space, barely keeping pace behind me. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely afraid – I couldn’t see his face in the dark. I couldn’t imagine the guy with a trickle of sweat on his brow. He didn’t seem the type to get frightened. Lucky him.

We made it through a series of interconnected corridors until we reached the massive open circle that housed the engine cores. The cores were six huge cylinders that reached from the floor to the ceiling with this eerie, pulsing blue light within their clear shells, like the trapped swirl of a massive electrical storm. Had I not been hunting the most vicious fiends in the galaxy, I might have stopped to appreciate their unusual beauty. There was something very space-like about them. They reminded me of a gas nebulae or a trapped, dying sun.

I would be the first to admit that I knew nothing about engineering, but I could tell that these cores were still on, though powered down. That made a kind of sense – they didn’t look like the kinds of things you could turn off.

Well, most of the cores still looked on, with their trapped, blue spirals of energy, but there was one toward the back that was blacker. Its tumbling clouds were grayish and looked slower, and I fancied I could even hear a soft whirring-down emanating from it.

I stared at that core, feeling something I didn’t understand.

That’s when the lights flicked back on to full, and the massive door at the end of the room opened.

Chapter 6

The door opened with a quick, mechanical swish. I was moving well before the GAMs issued in. My head was twisted their way while I ran to Od, grabbed him up under one arm, and threw myself into a roll behind one of the pulsating cores. If I had watched someone do this from afar, I would have been amazed at their agility and timing. Except I wasn’t watching this; I was doing it. In a flouncy skirt, no less.

I stopped short of the core and tucked my back against it until Od and I were pressed so close to the faintly hot tech-glass that I felt like a burger under the grill.

I saw flashes of light from the door – red and blue lasers slicing around the room in quick flicks. They were attached to the ends of guns, I reasoned, guns that were likely headed this way.

So this was the Contamination Unit come to clean up Main Engineering of undesired entities. Problem was, I fit that category now. I had stowed aboard their ship and disabled their internal security sensors. That jettisoned me way past the entity category and straight to enemy.

I had to keep out of sight, play this carefully, and not get shot.

I listened.

The GAMs didn’t speak. Either they didn’t have much to say, or they’d switched to silent coms. Which meant I wasn’t going to pick up any helpful hints like “Shoot the thing in the blue skirt,” or “Let’s go and check behind that core over there, in case someone has left us a present.”

I took a deep, silent breath. Strangely enough, the heat of the core behind me was reassuring. That was the thing about space – life could only survive where there was heat. It was always good to know you weren’t dead yet.

I slowly released Od from my grip – my ears so focused on the soft, barely perceptible sounds of the GAMs entering the room that the guy could have thrown on a Hawaiian shirt and played the banjo, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

A flicker of fear, of overwhelming unease, threatened to overcome me as I waited. I managed to bite it down. I had something in me, I told myself over and over again – that other side, that alien side. She knew what to do; it was in my blood. That’s what Od had said. Part of me was meant for this, made for it. I just had to get out of her way.

My hearing was starting to go into overdrive. I could pick up the creak of the GAMs’ armor as they shifted along, even pick up the twist in the fabric of their gloves as their fingers tightened over their triggers.

They were moving closer – across the room to the cores.

I slipped my hands underneath my skirt and pulled out my pistols as slowly and silently as I could manage. Every ruffle of my skirt, every creak of my muscles, felt like a 1000-decibel alarm advertising my position better than a massive neon arrow.

I had my guns in my hands, my fingers stretching back and forth in front of the triggers before I secured them into the loops.

I had time for a desperate, closed-eyed prayer. Then I waited.

There were several moments of silence before I heard a click that might as well have been the loudest explosion in the history of the universe.

“Move to open coms,” someone said loud and clear. “There’s too much interference coming off that core.”

I bit my lip and shook my head. It was him. I wanted to slap myself in the head. It was Commander Jason Cole. Weren’t there any other GAMs on this rotten ship that could have led this detail?

This was going to make things complicated.

“Start scanning for entities,” Jason whispered. To his credit, his voice was hardly traveling through the room, but for some reason I could pick it up like he had his hand to my ear and was shouting through my skull. “Keep formation.”

I sucked my lips in and squeezed them so hard it felt like they were grinding under a ton of rock. They could scan for entities, but they wouldn’t pick up the Twixt. They may, however, manage to detect the halfy and the Kroplin hiding behind a reactor core a couple of meters to their left.

It didn’t matter; they didn’t get that far.

There was a rumble from behind me – which twisted around and up into a high-pitched spin. It sounded like something about to blow.

“Cut the core. Cut the core,” he shouted, voice more desperate than I’d ever heard.

I stood up, leaning into the core behind me, one foot up, both hands raised by my head, pistols at the ready.

I didn’t know why, but for some reason I didn’t think it was about to blow.

“It’s not the core – it’s… what the hell is that?” a GAM screamed.

That was my cue.

With one arm, I flattened Od into the tech-glass, forcing him down to the ground to keep him well and truly out of the way. With the other arm, I tracked around the core.

I could feel it. I could definitely feel it.

It wasn’t so much a presence in my mind than ice-cold spikes slamming through my skin. The Twixt was here.

I saw the group of GAMs – all six of them. They were by the open core, guns trained on the translucent tech-glass. I could feel the fear and confusion rippling off them like heat from a newborn star.

They didn’t notice me, but in another moment, I noticed it. There was something in the core – something past the glass in the center of the black, electric storm. It was a shape like a screaming, gaping jaw.

It was a Twixt. For some reason, the GAMs could see it too. Or maybe not, maybe what they could see was the hole in the energy as the Twixt fed on it.

I didn’t have time to theorize, because that thing, it felt me, and it started to move. It flicked its head to the side like a curious owl then pushed itself right through the glass as if it were nothing more than a wisp of inconvenient fog.

The GAMs still hadn’t turned; they were too transfixed by the shape in the glass that was now dissipating. They had no idea that the Twixt was barely a half meter from them, head twisting their way.

It was horrible to watch – to feel the dread that the soldiers should be feeling at the monster in their midst. They had no chance to help themselves.

I trained both guns toward it and pulled the triggers, face squeezing tight in anticipation.

Nothing happened. Well, nothing but the Twixt snapping its non-distinct head my way and letting out a horrifying scream that only I could hear.

The breath clogged in my throat, my body freezing on the spot. The guns wouldn’t work. I….

Before the thing launched itself across the room toward me, something happened. One of the GAMs backed off with a quick, sharp move and brought his gun up, shooting before I could even blink. He shot directly at the Twixt.

It broke the chains that were holding me in place, and I shifted automatically to the cover of a core.

“There’s something there,” Jason screamed. “Watch the energy trail.”

He kept shooting, the sound of blasts ricocheting around the room. He was right, I noted as I peered around the corner of the core. The Twixt was leaving a black energy trail as it moved – residue from the core it had feasted upon moments before. But it was dissipating, and fast.

I had to help, I had to get these guns going before—

“Get out of its way,” Jason screamed. “Franks get out of the—”

I heard a crunch as something was flung against a wall. That something was Franks, I thought as I desperately pawed at my guns, trying to get them to work.

“Move, go for cover!” Jason screamed again.

The GAMs’ fire was becoming more erratic, like the dying buzzes of a fly.

I pulled the triggers, my fingers digging into them like a man scrambling at a ledge as he slipped off a cliff.

The Twixt was ducking and weaving, avoiding most of the fire with ease. The GAMs were concentrating their barrages on the energy trail itself, mistaking it for the creature when the Twixt was before it.

I didn’t know what to do – neither my human, nor alien side could magically make these guns work.

“Where did it g-?” one GAM screamed, but his voice was cut off by another terrible crunch.

I

I had to do something. Anything.

I ran from behind the core. I was behind the GAMs, who were still facing the Twixt, though they had no idea where it was. I loosened my finger from the trigger of one of my pistols, and I threw it right at the Twixt’s head. It sailed through the air and collected the thing right on the top of its non-substantial skull – causing a spark of light in a room already saturated by blasts.

The Twixt screamed, zeroing in on me, the waitress, in a room full of trained soldiers.

It ran for me, pushing down on its haunches and flitting straight past the still confused GAMs.

I’d been running toward it but changed direction faster than the Commander had changed his mind about me. I skidded to a halt, falling down onto one hand but pushing myself up immediately and into a dash for one of the corridors that led away from the engine cores.

I made it into the corridor, skidding up against a wall but pushing on, always pushing on. If the Twixt was following me, it would stop decimating the GAMs. They could have a chance to regroup, to get the hell out of here and maybe come away from this thing still alive.

I would a find a way.

I tried to think as I ran, tried to think of any possible way to make my remaining gun work. Was there some kind of safety latch? Maybe there was a code or something you had to enter somewhere. Ah!! I didn’t know anything about guns! Why had I been so stupid?

The burning frustration and guilt over not being able to do a damn thing while GAMs had been slammed against walls like curtains carelessly fluttering in the wind was making me seize up. I found myself squeezing the trigger, my hand trying to form the tightest of fists.

After several seconds, the gun began to whir. I almost dropped it in surprise, my steps faltering to the point where the Twixt behind me made a failed lunge for one of my arms.

I pulled up in time, and I brought the gun up to stare at it, my finger still fixed around the trigger.

A light was collecting in the barrel – with this blue glow filling up along the side of the grip. It reached the end, and a voice said from the gun itself, “You have now successfully loaded your Tech Industries firearm. Thank you for buying Tech Industries.”

My jaw literally fell open, but I didn’t hang around to scratch my head in surprise. That was how you loaded it? Holding your finger on the trigger for several seconds? Why had no one bothered to tell me that?!

I ducked to the side – twisting and jumping in a long dive roll that brought me underneath the Twixt’s belly as it lunged for me. I squeezed the trigger, and a blast shot out of the barrel with the most cherished bang I’d ever heard.

It slammed into the Twixt, sending a spark of light shooting over me.

It didn’t kill it, nowhere near. The Twixt, once again showing that the laws of physics were a guideline it didn’t much care to follow, shifted direction in midair and came right at me.

I swung with the butt of the gun, too close to get off a round. The thing ducked and under my arm, getting its tail around my back and flicking into it. It felt like I was being whipped by a cable tied to a cruiser traveling at light speed.

The force of it propelled me straight into the opposite wall. Before my body could impact with what would have been fatal force, I twisted until my legs hit it, flat feet first. I pushed and used the purchase to flip up and over the Twixt.

Once again, if I hadn’t been in the midst of the battle for my life, and if I’d been an observer watching my antics – I would have been thrilled to see such an agile move. Mini, the waitress, had never done a somersault in her life, but now I had the moves of Hipop the monkey cat.

I tracked backward, shooting round after round at the Twixt, each one hitting home with a snap of light.

It was starting to slow down, the sparks becoming large, brighter, and lingering for longer along its pitch-black form.

In one last-ditch effort, it twisted toward me, body seemingly flicking from side-to-side as if it were an old Earth metronome keeping beat. I couldn’t follow it in time for my shots to come true. When it was almost upon me, I dropped to the ground and kicked out with my leg.

It tipped backward, and I fired one more round directly at it.

The spark engulfed the thing, ending it all.

….

The battle was over, but it took me a full twenty seconds before I dropped my gun and opened my mouth to breathe again.

I sucked in each desperate but relieved breath like a fish thrown back into water before it had suffocated in the open air.

I shook all over, no longer able to keep the human side of me from being overwhelmed.

I wanted to close my eyes and cover my hands over my ears. It was all too much.

I wasn’t going to get that chance. As I’d started to accept it was all over, the sound of people walking my way cut through my tremors.

The GAMs, Jason – I had to get out of here. Od was right – this was not the time to see if the GAMs could trust me. It certainly wasn’t the time to reveal my double life to Jason – not after this morning.

I stumbled off down the hallway. I could get back into the service duct and crawl to freedom. What about Od? I couldn’t go back for him with the GAMs still in the main room….

He would make his own way out; he was Od. Even if he didn’t, there wasn’t much I could do for him now. Fighting Twixts I could manage, but I wasn’t about to engage Jason in a gunfight. I couldn’t shoot humans or aliens – I knew that for sure. Twixts were one thing, people were another.

I hesitated. I couldn’t leave him behind, could I?

That’s when the vent overhead opened, and Od popped his crimson head out. “This way!” he whispered excitedly. “It is time to leave this place.”

I broke into a grin. It was tired and manic from the leftover adrenaline from my fight – but it was there.

I stowed my gun in its holster and jumped for the vent opening, pulling myself up and fixing the vent in place just as the GAMs rounded the corner.

Od took a moment to nod solemnly at me before he led the way back through the tunnels.

In all my years of waitressing, I had never received a nod like that. I’d received mumbled thank you’s, sometimes tips, even the occasional genuine smile. No one had ever bowed their head at me; no one had ever been that appreciative of anything I had ever done.

I smiled as we crawled along. Perhaps I could do this? Perhaps I could do what Od was telling me I had to?

My newfound pride didn’t last. It didn’t take me long to remember my other gun. I had left it in the center of Main Engineering. The gun was a registered, single use, licensed firearm. I didn’t need to have the tech expertise of Od to realize that meant its user could be tracked.

I might as well have left a holophoto of myself holding a sign that read “Mini was here.”

By the time we made it back to my quarters, I was frantic.

“They have my gun!” I kept repeating to Od as I paced the room. “They’re going to get here any minute to drag me away. We have to get out!”

Thus far, Od had ignored me. “This is not ideal,” he piped up. “But it is not the end of the galaxy.” He chuckled lightly. “Though I suppose if you were to be put in prison and would be unable to fulfill your destiny in repelling the Twixt invasion, that would be the end of the galaxy.”

I didn’t join in with a laugh. “This is serious – they’ll be here any minute.”

“I do not think so. It will take them some time to track you down from that gun. My estimation is at least two hours to process the Identity request.”

“Two hours? How is this any better? How can you be so unaffected by this? The GAMs are going to be here by teatime to throw us in jail. We have to get out.”

“Calm yourself, Mini. I may be able to slow down the processing of their request—”

“What are you going to do? Sneak back on the ship and steal the gun from Commander Cole’s hands?”

“This would be unlikely to work. Nor is Commander Cole likely to be carrying your weapon.”

I threw my hands up and stared at the ceiling. “So?”

“So your suggestion that I should covertly enter the GAM Cruiser to retrieve your weapon from Commander Cole’s hands does not reflect a possible strategy. Unless of course we were to give the Commander your remaining pistol, ask him to hold it – and thus take up the opportunity to steal it from him.”

I looked around for something to throw at Od’s head. “You aren’t helping.”

“No, because I cannot solve this problem on my own.”

“Tell me what to do.”

“I do not believe you can, either. No, I think it is time to see if we can make, and trust, an ally.”

My frustration slowed, but I was still whirring with anger. “What? You said we couldn’t trust—”

“In an ideal galaxy, we would not have to. But an ideal galaxy would not have Twixts or income tax.”

“Get on with it,” I snapped. Od, for all his skills, was perhaps the only being in the universe who could annoy me this much.

“Crag’tal has helped us once. Why not see if he can do it again?” Od stood straight and placed his hands behind his back as if he were proudly showing off his wonderful idea.

I shifted my eyes to the side before rolling them. “Why would Crag’tal help us? How on Earth would we ask? Do you mind illegally entering a GAM Cruiser and stealing a gun from their evidence locker? You’re insane if you think—”

“Oh no, I do not think that is how we should phrase it. But I think it is definitely time to go and find him.”

I bit my lips, trying to use the pain to block out my overwhelming urge to kick Od. “This is stupid—”

“You have trusted me this far, and thus far you are still alive. I suggest you extrapolate from this that you can trust me further. Now, I believe Crag’tal would be eating about now?”

I sighed so heavily it sounded more like a dying groan. Crags had a strict biorhythm. They ate at a certain time of day, or they didn’t eat at all. It was another one of the oddities of the universe.

Despite my better judgment, I soon found myself heading through the doors of Marty’s Space Diner. I no longer cared if I was spotted with Od and practically stalked along by his side. I was suffering from a mix of anger and fear at the certainty that every GAM was about to train their pistols on me and light up the proverbial sky.

Sure enough, we found Crag’tal sitting alone at a table near a group of drinking GAMs. I felt like throwing up as we neared them – my human side didn’t want to go to prison.

Crag’tal looked up at us as we neared. He didn’t look unhappy – well, for a Crag.

“Human.” He ripped a chunk out of his meat and gobbled it down as sloppily as only a Crag could. “Small One.”

I took this to be the Crag equivalent of “Hello, please sit down.” I pulled up a chair and sat quickly. Which is something I would never have done before. Sitting down with a Crag uninvited would have been up there on my list of things not to do if you wanted to live until bedtime.

“I—” I began, my voice getting stuck like a bad audio file.

“We have a request of you, Crag’tal.” Od didn’t bother to sit, just walked straight up to Crag’tal’s massive elbow and reached a hand up to it.

I waited for Crag’tal to lean down and flick Od away like a human might squish an annoying bug.

He didn’t. He stopped eating.

“You have helped us once,” Od nodded, “But we need your help again. The galaxy is at risk – or it will be if you fail to assist us in this matter.”

I flinched. It sounded so corny. Okay, so it was real – but to a person who didn’t know that the Milky Way was slowly being overrun by its most ancient and powerful enemy, it sounded like a hologame tag line.

“There is a terrible creature that haunts this galaxy,” Od continued.

I realized with a full blink that the crimson monk planned on telling Crag’tal everything. I’d hoped he’d try to buy the Crag’s assistance – Eluvian Platonium ore would be fairly persuasive. But no, he was being upfront about our insane situation.

“Denizens of the middle, they have threatened our existence before. We have repelled them in the great wars of the in-between. But they are back, and—”

Crag’tal, to my surprise, didn’t look ready to laugh his massive head off. “Twixts,” he said, voice lower than an earthquake.

Od nodded. “Yes, yes. I knew your race was old enough to remember.”

“They’re on the station.” Crag’tal pushed his food away. “Some Crags don’t forget.”

“No. Nor do Kroplins.”

“Humans are fools.” Crag looked at me with his pinprick eyes, and I wasn’t sure if I qualified as a human in that gaze. “Young—”

“Yes, too young to remember.”

“On the station,” Crag’tal’s voice was getting steadily angrier, and I hoped it was passion at the stupidity of humans, rather than the growing need to hit someone. “Crag’tal can feel it. Crag’tal not stupid. Ghost ship, GAM Cruiser – next: station.”

Od nodded again, his hand still on Crag’tal’s elbow. It was the oddest, gentlest of moves. Like a rabbit sitting on a tiger’s head – it defied belief and yet compelled you at the same time.

Crag’tal turned and looked at me. I felt like I was being scanned by the most sophisticated computer in the system. I didn’t move a muscle.

“Different,” he nodded at me. “Not full human.”

I nodded my head, and it creaked with stiffness. It was hardly a secret that I wasn’t pure human.

“Crag’tal likes you. Not stupid.”

I smiled. I had never had a Crag as a friend before.

“Half not human,” Crag’tal continued, “Half old. Crag’tal knows, can feel. Old race, ancient race.”

Od nodded excitedly, almost jumping up and down with happiness. I looked at Crag’tal, my lips slightly parted. There was something in the way he’d said ancient.

“Long dead,” he added after a pause, “Long dead. All long dead.”

I shivered and stretched back in my chair. What? My people… they couldn’t all be dead, not if I was still here. I had to come from somewhere – my mother must have been alive when she gave birth to me. Motherless children of long-lost races don’t appear in a snap of your fingers.

“Some Crags remember.” The Crag’tal did something strange – he bowed. He almost touched his head right to the tabletop. “Crag’tal will help.”

I slowly turned my head and gazed down at Od. What had happened? Had I missed something?

“I knew you would agree. Your race has the memory and the foresight to realize what is coming.”

“What Crag’tal do?”

“We have a spot of trouble.”

“Crag’tal will shoot spot.”

I listened as Od filled Crag’tal in on the details, but my mind wasn’t all there. I was from a long dead race, if Crag’tal was to be believed. An ancient, ancient race.

That was a problem.

I don’t think I’d ever believed Od when he’d said this coming war would be mine alone to thwart. I had always thought there would be others out there like me. Whatever race I was – I always thought there would be more of them out there, more help to call on.

But how could there be more if they were all long dead? How, how in the name of the galaxy, was I here, if one-half of me shouldn’t exist at all?

No, he had to be wrong. There had to be others somewhere in this galaxy. There had to be….

Chapter 7

One hour and forty minutes after we talked with Crag’tal, I was sitting back in my quarters with my other pistol tucked safely away in its case. I couldn’t believe it was back and that I wasn’t going to be dragged off to jail yet.

Crag’tal had managed to retrieve it and was now talking with Od in the corner, casting glances at Hipop as he hid amongst my pot plants. It seemed my alien pet was wary of the whole thing, and I could sympathize. I had no idea how Crag’tal had managed to get the gun back, none whatsoever. And here’s the thing – they wouldn’t tell me. Neither Od nor Crag’tal felt the need to fill me in on the finer nuances of Crag’tal’s Pistol Saving Mission.

Why?

It wasn’t as if they were deliberately not telling me. They were just ignoring me, chatting over in the corner like they were the best of friends. I felt fed up with the whole situation. I was the chosen one, the destined warrior, and the only person who could save the galaxy. So why was I being given the cold shoulder?

I moped for a while before choosing to stare out my window at the vacuous expanse of space. All that dark and all those tiny stars – the blackness only served to make the twinkle of white and yellow more visible. It was making me feel small. The old adage that we are an insignificant speck compared to the rest the universe was playing in my mind. It had a further edge: if there were more of my kind out there, it would be like finding a speck of dust in the whole universe.

The task was impossible. Even if I couldn’t find more of my race, my destiny would be impossible. Od had repeated to me, the moment I’d gotten my pistol back, that it wasn’t a real weapon for the purpose of our mission. And he had added, with his hands so daintily clasped in front of him, that “We still have to find the lost weapons of your race – it is only with these that we can hope to repel the Twixts.” Now, how was I to find these lost weapons when I had no idea where they could be or what they looked like? How long did I have to complete this impossible task? Not long, if Od’s ominous rumblings to Crag’tal were to be believed.

It was this waiting with no direction or purpose that was getting to me, making me think of the question I should have asked yesterday. Honestly, what was the timeframe here? Would this war happen tomorrow, next month, in a year, by the end of my life? Would I be traveling the galaxy for the next fifty years, tracking down ancient weapons, fighting the occasional Twixt on some bone-dry planet in the middle of nowhere? Or would it take a week before I would have to face off the hordes of In-Betweens in the ultimate fight for the Milky Way?

There was too much to find out – too many gaps in my colander-like knowledge of the situation. I didn’t fancy that Od was going to fill me in any time soon.

One question began to shine through like the first twinkling star at dusk. Who was my mother, and why had she abandoned me to this strange, strange life? I knew that she was the alien half of me. Don’t ask me how, but I knew. The scientists hadn’t been able to figure it out – the peculiarities of human-cross-species DNA left the usual mitochondrial markers unreadable. Ever since I was a child, all those fantasies I’d entertained of my lost parents – it was always my mother who’d played the role of the white-haired, supernova-blue-eyed alien.

Who was she? Where was she now? I had never felt a greater need to know. I needed her now. She would know what to do.

I sighed heavily and flopped onto my bed, Hipop racing over to hide underneath my blanket. I scratched his head lazily.

Why couldn’t my life be normal?

My swirling existential thoughts were eventually interrupted by the uneven footfall of the very small and very tall approaching. I looked up to see Crag’tal towering over the diminutive Od – both of them staring straight at me.

“What?” I asked, half-snarky at Od and half polite to Crag’tal. I may have been in a rotten mood at them for not filling me in on how Crag’tal had managed to retrieve my gun, but I wasn’t about to show lip to one of the most warrior-like races in the Milky Way.

“It is time for us to, as you say, get the hell off this station.” Od’s voice was polite and careful, as always.

I looked down at him, my nose concertinaed in confusion. “Sorry?”

“No more station. We go,” Crag’tal added by way of explanation.

I blinked purposefully and waited for someone to tell me why.

“There is much for us to do, so much for us to complete. There are no more Twixts on this station – and there is no need to wait around for them to come to us.”

I blinked.

“We must find weapons, allies, and information.” Od gestured with his hands expansively as if to underscore how huge this task would be.

Crag’tal crossed his massive arms, the lizard-skin stretching like plastic film tugged between two hands. “None of that here.”

I stopped patting Hipop. I had caught up to what they meant. We were leaving the station for good. It was a strangely painful realization. I wouldn’t call this place home, per se, but it was still the most familiar place to me in all the galaxy. Now I was expected to leave with little chance of returning. I may have been screaming about getting the hell of this station hours before, but that had been in the heat of the moment. I hadn’t had time to appreciate the consequences.

I looked around the room, my room. There were my crazy pot plants. There was my photo of Matron Mirabella. There was my holopin from work sitting on the bedside table.

“We must have haste, I am afraid,” Od said. “Time is either our ally or enemy, depending on if we can keep up with her race.”

“Where are we going?” I held onto Hipop tighter until he squeaked in protest.

“It has been the point of discussion between Crag’tal and myself. It is a hard question – there are many options from which we can choose. It is unfortunate that a situation such as this—”

“Where are we going? Skip to the part where you tell me where.” Forgive me for being impatient, but this was the rest of my life we were talking about here. That, and I didn’t know these two. I was planning on going off with a Crag and Kroplin – both of whom I had just met – to somewhere in the galaxy. It would be the most ridiculous, most adventurous thing I had ever done – apart from fighting a Twixt with a frying pan, that was.

“There are a few races old enough to remember the Wars of the In-Between. I believe it is amongst those planets that we should start our search.”

A needle in a haystack, a speck in a galaxy – these were analogies that fit this strategy. “Being old enough to technically remember an ancient historical event doesn’t mean they have one of my people’s weapons in their cupboard. Isn’t there a better way to do this? Couldn’t we go to your own homeworld? Surely that would be the best place to start? You seem to know plenty about this.”

“Oh no, child.” The smile didn’t shift from Od’s face, but it did look different. “My homeworld was destroyed a long time ago. We are a race of drifters. The records and history we had on your people was lost with our planet. We are now a dispersed race. Though there are those of us who can and will help.” He bowed his head gently.

I was speechless. All this time I hadn’t even known Od was from a dying race. If it hadn’t looked too bizarre, I would have slapped myself right in the head for being such an idiot when it came to galactic history. I could bet the confident and in-control Commander Cole wouldn’t have made that mistake.

“I… I’m sorry—”

“There is nothing to be sorry for. That we still exist and that we may still prevent the destruction of this galaxy, that is all that matters.”

I was humbled into silence.

“There are other races out there as ancient as my own who still remember, and it is with their planets that we must begin. We do not have the luxury of time, either – we are limited to those that we can travel to quickly.”

I nodded.

“Crag,” Crag’tal said, voice so much deeper than Od’s that it was like listening to a bass guitar after a piccolo. “Close. We remember – good place to start.”

“Crag,” I repeated, trying not to look too shocked. “Your own homeworld?”

Crag’tal nodded. “Old ruins on one moon. Not many Crags go there. Only few Crags care – only few remember.”

I was sucking at the inside of my lip. They wanted to take me to the Crag homeworld? Crag’tal was one thing, but ordinarily Crags lived up to their reputation of being the premier warrior race of the galaxy. I’d seen Crags start and comprehensively finish fights over little more than someone glancing their way. They had a deserved reputation for being aggressive, rash, and not the kind of people you invited to tea with your elderly grandmother.

Or maybe that was a stereotype; Crag’tal didn’t fit any of those categories. He’d helped me twice now and was fast making friends with Od, someone whom he may previously have considered a light snack.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So we go to this moon—”

“Crag’e’thal,” Crag’tal corrected.

I decided against trying to repeat the name – I wouldn’t be able to get the guttural rumbles right and would sound like I was clearing my throat after inhaling a hand-full of flour. “Yes, we go there. Then what?”

“There are ruins, Crag’tal assures me.” Od was looking up and out of my window at the space beyond. “And it is amongst the ancient that we should search for the clues of the past.”

There he was, being dramatic and flowery again – but I didn’t mind so much now. “What kind of clues? I mean, are we looking for people – I mean Crags – who might know something? Or are we looking for ancient symbols carved on walls or… I don’t know.”

“Both of these things. But much more important to us are artifacts.”

“Artifacts?” I repeated.

“Objects of ancient origin that may or may not hold—”

“I know what an artifact is. How are they going to help? Are we going to go all the way to Crag just to poke around in the dust on some moon for a shard of pottery or a rusted-over spearhead?”

“No, such things would be of no use to us. We will concentrate on discovering artifacts of your people. While a shard of pottery may be of some interest to an archaeologist—”

“Hold on,” I interrupted, more than happy to cut Od off mid-ramble, “What are my people even called?” It had struck me that this entire time we’d been referring to my alien race and hadn’t once mentioned their name.

Od stared at the floor for a minute. “They do not have a name.”

That was a terrible answer. Every race had a name. You can’t say you are from “?” When you meet up with all the other aliens at the bar – you’ll never be able to invite them home for dinner. “How can they not have a name?”

“Ko – this is what my race called them. It roughly translates as The People,” Od said.

“Oldest,” Crag’tal added, “Crag call them Oldest.”

Oldest and The People? I’d stick with The People. Oldest would remind me too much of the fact I was supposed to be the only one left.

“Okay, The People. So… so when do we leave?”

“In an hour. Crag’tal has kindly found us transport on a Crag freighter. Though the accommodation may not be ideal, it is traveling a direct route.”

“You’re coming too?” I turned to Crag’tal, trying to keep the desperation from my face. I didn’t want to take a Crag freighter to the Crag homeworld without a Crag with us to prevent general Crag-induced bloodshed.

Crag’tal nodded, his big arms still crossed, looking about as menacing as skin and muscle wrapped around bone ever could. “Crag’tal see this through until end. Either Twixt end, galaxy end, or our end.”

I felt comforted, kind of. Adding the bit about seeing it through until we died was unnecessary. I couldn’t deny that my heart lifted at the prospect of Crag’tal joining our ranks. There was no other being I would have preferred looking out for me than the big guy. Well, now that the Commander had declared me public enemy number one, anyway.

I packed the items I couldn’t take with me away in station storage, tried to find someone to take good care of my plants (which the station’s botanist was more than happy to do considering their rarity), and said goodbye to the view from my window. Od told me to pack light – the galaxy was never kind to those with lots of luggage, he’d said cryptically. I agreed with him. But there was one thing I insisted on bringing. I couldn’t leave Hipop alone on this station, nor could I face the prospect of giving him away.

To my surprise, neither Od nor Crag’tal objected.

Od nodded and said, “Splendid idea; it is a marvelous creature.”

Plus, he could be useful, I thought to myself as I clipped his collar in place. He had a nose for danger and was capable of picking up noises way below the usual range. That, and he was super cuddly, and I had a feeling I was going to be short on cuddles on the Crag freighter.

Leaving the station was hard, but it became a whole lot easier when I spied a certain Commander halfway along the promenade. I’d told Crag’tal and Od that I wanted one more walk around on my own – to say goodbye to everything. I was walking along, saying a wistful goodbye to my favorite seat, my favorite store, even my favorite place to watch aliens walk on by. Then I looked up to see the Commander marching my way.

I looked around quickly, like a frightened rabbit with my ears primed to pick up the growl of the wolf, searching for an escape route.

He was too quick. I regretted in an instant leaving Crag’tal behind – I had a feeling he was becoming my de facto bodyguard, there to make sure I saved my strength for the Twixts. By the looks of it, I needed a bodyguard right about now.

The Commander wasn’t smiling. He had the expression most people had before they might squash a fly. “Mini,” my name was like a blast from a pulse cannon, “I was wondering if you could help me with my inquiries.”

I was so startled I couldn’t make a sound.

That didn’t bother him; he obviously wasn’t intending this to be a two-way conversation. “I need to see those guns of yours – the ones you claim you are keeping for someone else. I want to see your license, too.”

You could have shot me then and there – that would have made things damn easier for me. Death I could take – the Commander on the warpath was torturous.

I tried to move my mouth, but it was like someone had poured hot tar in it – my lips opened, but the only noise that came out was this unpleasant gulping.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes.” My voice had ten times the pitch of Od, and that was saying something.

“Where are they?” The Commander’s eyes were blazing like the center of the hottest, most ferocious star. I could feel my skin flush and prickle with dramatic heat as he bore down on me.

“I… I don’t have them with me right now,” I said. Which was kind of obvious, as I was standing in a standard set of pants and top without a pair of massive rifles strapped to my back.

“Take me to them.” A strange thing was happening with the Commander as he spoke. Though I could feel the anger lapping off him like a wild storm at the levy, it didn’t feel completely genuine. Or perhaps it wasn’t all directed at me. Sure, he may be shouting at me, but I got the impression I wasn’t the only person he wanted to be quarreling with right now.

“I….” I took as big a breath as I could manage. “Is this an official inquiry?” I couldn’t believe I’d actually said that to the Commander of all people. I’d stood up for myself. Perhaps fighting off the most deadly creature in all the galaxy was a confidence boost for a girl.

Now I could tell he was angry only at me. He ticked his head to the side quickly. “No,” he said, “This is not an official inquiry.”

I needed sun goggles for the look he was giving me – and a three-meter blast wall. I soldiered on. “I’m not under arrest, am I?”

Another quick tick of his head. “No, you are not under arrest. It would be…” the Commander paused for a long moment, “Good if you could help me with my inquiries.”

It would be good? For him maybe. It would see me in prison faster than you can say “Yes it was I who shut down your security system and boarded your ship.”

I took another steadying breath. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time. I’m leaving today.”

“When you return—”

“I’m not coming back.”

I fancied I saw a flicker of something other than rage in the Commander’s eyes. But whether it was disappointment at the fact I wouldn’t be able to help him with his inquiries or something else, I couldn’t tell.

“Where are you going?” Was his voice softer, or was he ramping it down so he could ramp it back up again later?

“I don’t know.”

“You’re a floater without any family – you’re not running off to join the circus, are you?”

Was that a joke? I chose not to laugh, just in case.

Something was happening with the Commander – and I could see it play out on his face like a hologame on screen. He was confused, frustrated, and didn’t know who to blame for his problems.

“Strange times,” he said quietly to himself, “But look.” He looked straight at me, and I felt something right in the pit of my stomach that made me want to smile and hide all at the same time. “If you’re in trouble, you don’t have to run.”

I put a reflexive hand up to my mouth, two fingers touching my lips. “Trouble?”

He’d said trouble like he didn’t want to throw me in prison. He’d said it like he wanted to help.

“Look,” he crossed his arms and sighed, the rest of his anger sinking back into the deep grooves in his brow where it usually resided, “Girls – sorry, women – don’t get attacked by Kroplins and buy some of the galaxy’s most sophisticated and expensive guns every other day. Don’t get me wrong – but I don’t think you can afford Tech Industry fire-power on your waitress salary.” He paused to shift his eyes to the side, obviously thinking. “I’ve read your file. You’re a floater – no family, no one to check if you go missing. You hold down an ordinary job, and you look about as innocent as they come—”

I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t livid with me anymore, that he actually appeared to care. I wanted to throw my arms around him and never let go.

“Mini,” he locked his eyes on me again, and each time he did, my stomach bucked harder than a cruiser braking at light speed, “You’re the prime target for gunrunners.”

… What? Had he said gunrunners? “I—”

“Look, you don’t have to say anything; I know how these types work. If you need help,” there was that look again, “All you have to do is ask.”

Silence was settling between us, and it was the most laden, pregnant quiet I’d ever heard. He was waiting for me to ask. Me, I was trying to hold back from asking. He sure as hell was going to change his tune if I told him that it wasn’t gunrunners, but Twixts.

“Mini—”

Someone loomed behind me, casting a dark shadow across Jason’s face. A hand reached down and rested heavily on my shoulder. I startled, a quiet yelp escaping my lips.

“Human bothering you?” Crag’tal asked me.

It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the Commander. By that time, the damage had been done. I glanced over to see the Commander’s eyes narrowed as he stared up at Crag’tal. I tried to see it from Jason’s point of view, and it didn’t look good. He suspected I was the victim of gunrunners, and a whopping great Crag, known for their lack of interest in keeping the peace, walks up and cuts our conversation short. To the Commander, that would look like Crag’tal was trying to stop me from spilling the beans.

The Commander straightened up, and to his credit, looked at Crag’tal like he could take him.

“No,” I said too loudly. “No, Crag’tal, everything is fine.”

“Mini.” The Commander looked deeply into my eyes, obviously pleading with me to say the magic words of “Help, I’m being abducted by gunrunners!”

I couldn’t. “I’m sorry, Commander, but I have to go.” I didn’t look into his eyes, just turned quickly.

I walked away with Crag’tal without once turning back.

Chapter 8

He didn’t come after me. I didn’t want him too, obviously. Yet I felt the fact that he hadn’t rushed up to me like you might feel the chill of the coldest winter’s night.

By the time we loaded everything aboard the Crag freighter, I felt sick to my stomach. It was all so real now. One look at the sparse, mechanical, rusted ship was enough to hammer home how lost I was going to be after this point. There wasn’t going to be any familiar space station out there – no nice warm bed to crawl back to, no bunny-printed covers to pull over my head.

This was space travel now, space travel with a couple of spoonfuls of Twixts stirred into the mix. Because, as Od had warned me, they could be anywhere now. On any ship we went on, any planet we visited, any fueling station we pulled into – the Twixts could be waiting for us. They wouldn’t wait passively, he assured me – they would pro-actively destroy what they encountered, as it was their way.

I was a near total nervous wreck by the time the Crag freighter pulled out of dock. This was it. My journey had begun. I still didn’t have any proper weapons or any real clues to follow – so the game was practically up before it had begun.

If it weren’t for Od sitting by my side in what couldn’t be properly referred to as our quarters (it was, in fact, a service closet off the main cargo bay – freighters weren’t usually kind to passengers who weren’t packed in cargo canisters), I would have blacked out from the fear. The guy was keeping me sane with his insanely annoying conversation style.

“I imagine we will have things to find on this moon,” he said, sitting neatly beside me, hands in his lap. “Things that could be of importance to us.”

Captain Obvious Od was striking again. Over ninety percent of what he said was rephrasing earlier statements. It drove me bonkers – and bonkers was good right now; it would stop me from chewing my fingernails off and shaking like a lost leaf in an air tunnel.

“How long will it take to get there?” I had asked this question before but so far hadn’t managed to get an actual answer from Od. He’d spin off onto tangents in his truly random way.

“I believe this freighter is not scheduled to have any stop-offs either in this system or the next. Without any unforeseen trouble, I would suggest an estimated time of arrival for approximately seven days, three hours, and fifteen minutes. Give or take a minute, here or there, for congestion in Crag space.”

Seven days, three hours, and fifteen minutes? I had forgotten how long and boring space travel was. That was the thing about space – it was big. Crag was only several systems away – practically next door when it came to the galaxy. Still, what was I going to do for all that time? Drive myself crazy worrying about what would happen next, most likely, that and spend far too much time going over my last moments with Jason – over and over and over again.

“I suggest you spend this time in reflection,” Od continued, hands still held so primly, “For your coming quest. Though I am by no means an expert in this, I feel at a time like this a warrior, such as yourself, should imagine the qualities that will help her to succeed—”

“You want me to pool together all my resources and make an action plan, right?” I cut in.

“Something like that—”

“Well, that’s simple – I don’t have any resources, and I don’t have a plan.”

“Well,” Od got up to pace the tiny, windowless room, “You have seven days, three hours, and fourteen minutes to come up with such things.”

Chapter 9

It took us exactly seven days, three hours, and six minutes to reach the Crag homeworld. From there, we took a chartered cruiser to our moon. The whole experience was unforgettable. Going from working in a diner on a tame space station to the Crag homeworld was about as big a jump as leaping across the Atlantic. I had been jostled so many times my arms were just massive bruises. Not to mention I hadn’t eaten anything in a week – I didn’t fancy rotting fish or steaks of meat as big as my own leg.

Life on the freighter had been torture – boring, claustrophobic torture. Od had spent long hours discussing god knows what with Crag’tal. I had stayed to my quarters, far too afraid to venture into the rest of the ship. I was starting to reaffirm my stereotype of Crags as rude, aggressive, and willing to pick a fight with anything technically classed as life. I’d been growled at so many times, I’d almost burst into tears.

The Crag homeworld didn’t have a nice, safe service cupboard to hide in, and our transit there was hellish. I felt so small when we landed at the main city’s planet dock. The looks, the shoves, the growls – I could see why Od and I were the only aliens to have bothered to come here.

My trip to the Crag moon hammered home how much of a galactic innocent I was. Seriously, I’d almost fallen apart visiting one alien homeworld (even if it had been the Crag homeworld), who the hell would pick me to save the galaxy? The Milky Way needed someone like Jason Cole to fend off the Twixts – someone who could hold their head up high no matter who they had to face off. Instead, everyone would have to rely on me – the girl who got a nosebleed by looking at a bull Crag soldier in full riot gear (he belonged more in a nightmare than in the food court of the planet dock).

In my more lucid moments, I wondered whether Od and Crag’tal had realized how thoroughly overcome I was by the whole thing. The constant wringing of my hands and quiet mumbles must have given it away. They didn’t accuse me of going crazy or even bother to tell me to calm down. No, Crag’tal stuck with us, fulfilling his bodyguard functions like a whole army rolled into one, and Od continued to be odd.

By the time we arrived on the moon, I was exhausted. I needed a holiday, and quickly if I was expected to see this thing through to the end. But I didn’t see a day off anywhere in my future. To top things off, I had to leave Hipop in dock until we returned from our adventure.

Crag’tal was right about one thing, I realized as we walked from the moon dock – hardly anyone visited this place. It had low atmosphere, and you had to wear class-one space suits outside buildings. But apart from that, it was perfectly pleasant. There was a basic level of plant life (not too much considering the low level of atmosphere) but enough that it wasn’t a bowl of brown dust like the Earth’s moon.

It was strange, but out here it felt like I could be anywhere in the galaxy – there was hardly a Crag in sight.

“We do not have the time to wait,” Od reminded us as soon as our feet reached dry dock. “We must leave for the outside at once.”

We’d been traveling continuously for the past twelve hours – and the guy wanted to get right to it like a sadistic boy scout. I wanted a shower and lie down somewhere I could pretend I wasn’t the only half-human in a system full of lizard warriors who wanted to squash me flat.

I didn’t have the breath to protest, and soon we were suited up and out the airlocks. Fortunately, the low-level atmosphere meant that a cheap standard space suit would suffice. Crag’tal didn’t even need that. He managed to get away with an Oxy Helmet and a dense coat – his people being far more suited to the ravages of a cold, low-atmosphere planet.

“Spent lot of time here,” Crag’tal admitted as we bounded from the airlock. “Used to it.”

The second my feet lifted in the low gravity of the moon, I gave the first smile I’d managed in days. There was nothing like low-gravity walking. It lifted the spirits, literally.

I was like a rookie GAM on her first spacewalk. For at least ten minutes, I jumped around, doing the longest of strides, giggling like a giddy school girl.

We didn’t have the time for low-gravity-walk shenanigans, apparently, and soon we were off. To where, I couldn’t tell, nor had I bothered to ask. I was starting to realize Od and Crag’tal weren’t here to be my tour guides – they were here to frustrate me and keep all important mission information from ever reaching my ears. It was like I was on the Mystery Bus Tour of Saving the Galaxy. Where we were going, when we’d get there – these were secrets. All I had to know was I’d be fighting the Twixt whenever they reared their ugly heads.

We were on the light side of the moon when we set off, though we wouldn’t be for long. “Moon spins fast – day, night, day, night. Be prepared.” Crag’tal pointed to the Personal Light Sources we all had in our Oxy Helmets. They were small but powerful lights that were mounted above our visors.

Walking on a Crag moon at night with nothing but a fancy torchlight? Now wouldn’t that be fun.

It was beautiful. The moon was craggy and pockmarked, with great mountains and hills rising on all sides. The rocks were dusted lightly with brown and yellow mosses and lichens (or whatever alien equivalent). You could see the Crag Homeworld on the horizon – a big, beautiful blue ball that glistened like a sapphire under direct light.

It was startling and such a change from the station. This was what exploring the galaxy felt like – this kick in the pit of my stomach as I stared at the strange world around me. I could almost get used to this – well, the exploring happy bit, not the looking for weapons to fight monsters from the in-between dimensions.

We walked for some time until the buildings of the dock were no longer visible – hidden amongst the crags and lips of jutting rock.

“Where are we going?” I asked, knowing I wouldn’t get a real answer. I was traveling with a Kroplin who only talked in flowery prose and a Crag who hardly talked at all. Neither of them could give me a straight answer. I would need someone like Commander Cole if I wanted a real travel plan – and even then, it would be brief and to the point.

We wouldn’t even be on this moon if Cole were here – we’d be… well, I don’t know. I was trying to imagine how he would deal with this situation if he knew the truth and actually believed it. If he knew for sure I was the last of The People and it was up to me to stop the Twixt from overrunning the galaxy – what would he do? Would he pile me aboard a cruiser and go skipping around the galaxy looking for ancient, lost weapons? Or would he take me straight to the great libraries of Central and start trawling through the archives for mention of The People. Or would he throw his hands up and tell me, “Game over – we can’t win this one?”

“There is a new dig site between the Crag’e’lath and Crag‘Beth peaks. My sources suggest it is a good place to start,” Od said, voice slightly crackled as it bounced around the earpieces of my helmet.

A new dig site, ha? Sounded vaguely interesting. “I don’t get it – we can’t walk in and start scouring the ground for ancient guns. How are we going to get in if people, or Crags or whatever, are there at the site?”

“The site is unguarded, as far as I know. Plus, it is not being run by the Crags; it is a human expedition.”

“Really? A bunch of humans actually wanted to co—” I cut myself short. I wanted to say that they must be mad for traveling all the way to this godforsaken system, but I didn’t want to insult Crag’tal into breaking my arm. “I mean, why would the Crag let another race dig up one of their moons? Don’t they have their own archaeologists?”

“No interest.” Crag’tal’s voice was like a mini explosion through my earpieces, which amplified the volume to an unholy level. “And humans pay.”

I held my helmet, trying to get to my ear to give it a good shake. Eek, that was loud. Maybe my com was slightly broken. “Even if they’re human, and especially if they’re paying, they aren’t going to let us walk in and steal their stuff.”

“We don’t intend to steal anything, just take what is rightfully yours.”

Od couldn’t see me through my helmet, but I was giving him a dead-eyed, supremely sarcastic look. “I don’t think they’ll see that distinction. I think we need a better plan than showing up and seeing what we can rightfully retrieve. Call me crazy, but—”

“I do not think you are insane, Mini, though perhaps emotionally challenged at times.”

Oh, ouch.

“Nor will we walk in. We will offer our services and see what they offer in return.” Od didn’t seem to get tired and bounded ahead with the determination of a combat robot.

“What they offer in return? A slap around the ears and a ticket back to the homeworld. But,” I squeezed in before Od could say something obvious, “At least that’s more of a plan than walking in.”

By the time we reached the dig sight, night had settled. Crag’tal had been right – it was night, day, night, day. It happened so fast that before I noticed the dwindling light, my PLS flicked on to cut through the darkness. It didn’t remain dark for long. As soon as we crested the hill that led into the valley where the dig site was, the dark no longer mattered. The whole place was illuminated with these massive stand-up lamps that must have had enough voltage to run a small cruiser.

“Whoa.” I rested one foot on the lip of rock beside me and looked down into the valley. So much light. It was like they were afraid of the dark.

A strange thing happened when Od saw it. I could see his helmet swivel to each of the tall lights right in a circle around the dig which was sunk deep into the ground. “Perhaps we will have a far more valuable service to offer than I thought.” He snapped his head back to face us.

Crag’tal reached behind him and grabbed one of my rifles, which he’d been carrying on his back.

I had no idea what was going on.

“I think we should hurry.” Od turned back to the dig.

“Why? Is there something wrong? I mean, they look like they’re wasting a fortune on lighting, but maybe they don’t like the dark on this moon.” It was weird hearing my own voice reverberate around my helmet, and it made it feel like I was talking to myself.

“I don’t think it’s the dark they are afraid of.”

Well, that was ominous.

I managed to keep up with Od and Crag’tal as they skidded all the way down the sharp face of the mountain and into the valley below. I kept thinking we’d start a rock slide or worse. Who knew what the humans at the site would think if they saw three figures scrambling toward them, guns at the ready, from one of the peaks above.

As I neared the dig site, the blinding lights sending the prettiest lens flare through my visor,

I realized there wasn’t anyone around. Not a single soul on the surface, the lights just trained on the round cut in the earth.

It was eerie. No, scratch that – it was scary.

I was on the dark side of an alien moon at an abandoned dig site with a gun-toting Crag – this was the stuff of holomovies.

“What’s going on?” I whispered. My voice could only be picked up by the mic in my helmet and wouldn’t disturb the perfect quiet of the outside world.

“I am not entirely sure,” Od said, investigating a patch of dirt with the toe of his tiny space-suited foot. “It seems this dig site has been abandoned and quickly.”

“Abandoned?” I squeaked. “That’s not good. Why would they do that?”

Crag’tal wasn’t offering any suggestions. He was holding onto my rifle though he technically couldn’t use it – but I imagined he intended to thwack the first thing he saw on the head. Which wasn’t a good sign. If the security-conscious Crag thought something was up, the sky was probably about to pull out a knife and stab us.

“Well, shouldn’t we go?” I didn’t want to sound like a coward, or, who was I kidding – I didn’t care if I sounded like a scaredy pants. Why should we hang around this abandoned base if there was nobody here? Were we going to build a campfire and tell ghost stories or something?

“Underground,” Crag’tal piped up, and his voice was much harsher than I remembered. It had a note of something I’d never heard in a Crag’s rumbling baritone – uncertainty.

“Yes,” Od walked over to some other patch of uninteresting earth and leaned down to get a closer look, “That is what I believe as well.”

I waited a moment, ready for them to elucidate on the descriptive underground. Did they mean there were people underground, that there was something interesting underground, or that maybe the reason this dig site was so well lit yet abandoned was that there was a monster underground. Patiently waiting to be filled in wasn’t going to get me anywhere with these two. “What’s underground?”

“The crew of this dig site.” Od stood back up again and walked, somewhat slower than his usual bound, toward the large opening in the earth before us. “I believe that at least some of them are underground.”

“Okay, is there anything else? I mean, what are we going to do?”

“Why, the only thing we can do—”

I winced; I knew what was coming next.

“We’re going to go find them.”

As we approached the circular cut in the craggy, moss-covered earth, I went through at least ten reasons why this was a bad idea. We didn’t know what was down there, or even if the crew of the dig had gone off for a drink somewhere and forgotten to turn the lights off. Perhaps there had been a problem, and they’d all flown out. Or perhaps something frightful from the center of a Crag moon had come upon them in the darkest of nights.

It was a perfectly round hole reinforced with metal all around the rim. All three of us walked up to the edge to stare down. The huge, powerful lights above were placed in such a way as to shine right down into the abyss. I could make out lights and struts at equal intervals going down the tunnel, and to one side, a ladder.

I hope they didn’t expect me to go down a ladder. Where were the safety forcefields, the elevators, or at the least, the hand railings? I was used to life on a space station where safety was so well controlled, I could hardly imagine the real dangers of space. Here I was facing off against one – and it led down.

I shifted my feet uncomfortably and watched as Crag’tal stowed his gun and turned to go down the ladder.

“So we’re going down?”

“Going down is the only way we will be able to go down there.” Od waited for Crag’tal to descend several rungs before he mounted the ladder.

“I don’t get it. Where are all the safety precautions – we could fall.”

“Falling will be the least of our worries. As for your observation that this dig site seems to lack rudimentary safety precautions – I have come across this before. There seems to be a predilection amongst some races, especially humans, to rough it. I am not sure what it means, but I believe the theory is thus: it is more joyous to experience space without a safety net. Indeed, on a dig such as this, one wonders whether they had the money to afford such things after they paid the Crag Government.”

Oh great. So I was either going into a dig set up by hardcore, safety-hating archaeologists, or poor academics who couldn’t even afford a scrap of metal for a railing. This was fantastic.

I dithered at the top of the ladder for at least another twenty seconds before mounting it to go down. Down we went, further and further. All the time my imagination ran wild with what we’d find at the bottom. Not that I’d ever been to an archaeological dig on an alien planet – but I could picture the equipment, the consoles, the bare, exposed rock, the monsters.

It took us five whole minutes to reach the bottom. The ladder led into a big circular room with a massive chunk of the ceiling hollowed out to make a big antechamber. There were massive, powerful lights down here as well, and their illumination bounced off the jagged walls and filled the space like water in a glass. The lights came from so many directions that there was hardly a shadow in sight.

There was some kind of tech console off to one side. I couldn’t tell whether it was on or what it might be used for, but at least it was comforting to have technology around.

I swallowed loudly as I stood on the spot where I’d dismounted the ladder, not ready to move around yet. I wondered if the others had picked up my gargantuan gulp – or whether they were too busy concentrating on the creepy abandoned dig site.

“I believe,” Od said, “We should look down this path.” He indicated a path to the left.

I hadn’t even noticed there were two ways leading out of this room. Great. I may not have had the tactical experience of a GAM, but I could tell having an unexplored path behind you was bad. It left you open, very open.

There was one other thing I noticed – Od’s voice had lost the chirp. Even he was whispering now.

Oh lord, why were we down this hole?

Crag’tal moved off down the route Od had chosen but not before handing me one of my rifles. He held onto the other one, posture as combat-perfect as a GAM statue.

Me, I gripped my rifle like it was a teddy bear you cuddle after a bad dream.

The path we took was to the left of the ladder. The ceiling was low and massive chunks of rock jutted out of it, making the walls about as smooth as an asteroid belt. The floor was uneven too, and I had to concentrate so I didn’t topple right over and crack my head before the fight began. There was going to be a fight of some sort, I could tell. That, or an extremely protracted chase scene.

I shifted my finger until it rested over the trigger.

There were blue lights dotted along the narrow, rocky corridor – sunk right into the ground, illuminating the path amongst the jagged brown and gray stones. They shone up into my face and bounced off the top of my visor and back into my eyes. Yet the walls themselves were dark, collecting deep shadows in the crevices and cracks.

We walked in silence, though my ears were beginning to pick up even the slightest creak of my space suit and amplify it until it sounded like a horn in an auditorium. I could hear Crag’tal’s breathing like the roar of wind in a canyon. Even Od sounded like an old Earth billy puffing on a fire.

We rounded a corner, and the path before us opened into a massive chamber. It was at least as big as the promenade on the station if not bigger. We entered above it, in view of a long, metal walkway that led down to the rock floor below.

This must be the real dig site because equipment and technology were spread all over the place. There were also people and—

I raised my gun.

Chapter 10

I held onto my gun like it was the only real thing in a vortex of illusion. “What the hell is that?”

The bottom of the massive rock chamber was strewn with all sorts of equipment, from tall standing lights to digging equipment. It was all in disarray – as if a hurricane had been through. The lack of cleanliness wasn’t what had me itching to pull my trigger.

In the center of the room was a mound. It was surrounded by the dugout ruins of some kind of building – its dark-gray stone stark against the mottled brown of the cave. At the center of the mound was obviously an alien device. It was a large metal ring that sat hovering about a meter from the ground. I could see the faintly glowing symbols etched around the device even from here.

It wasn’t the odd artifact that had me forcibly remembering to breathe. It was the thing inside it.

There was a creature – tall, devoid of light, and horrible – suspended in the ring. It looked – no, felt – like a Twixt. I had that familiar prickle in the pit of my stomach, that shiver of cold that spread across my back.

The creature was ghastly. Where a Twixt was a shadow between you and reality, this thing was a gouge. It wasn’t completely black but had flesh the color of gray, rotted meat with the occasional fleck of blue-red vein. It was distended – stretched and pulled out of shape like someone had tugged at a human body until the skin had almost torn. It also had a visible form where the Twixt didn’t. I could make out the muscle groups, the tendons – its sinewy strength. It had eyes – sunken, terrifying balls of white.

I wouldn’t let go of my gun, not for a million teddy bears and the ability to transport Commander Cole directly here to protect me.

The thing was trapped, I could see that, but it was still moving. It wasn’t thrashing about like a caged animal. It cocked its head and shifted it from side-to-side, watching silently.

There were people in the room; I could see them in my peripheral vision, though I couldn’t tear my eyes from the creature long enough to look their way fully. It was such a horribly mesmerizing sight. I felt completely transfixed.

The thing looked my way, the taut skin over its mouth twitching in a violent spasm. Its colorless eyes locked on mine.

I couldn’t describe the way it made me feel – like spiders exploding all over me, like being drowned in a waterless ocean.

“Mini.” Od grabbed my arm, trying to lower my gun. “It is contained.”

I snapped out of it but not without a full-body shudder as if someone had dumped ice-cold water over my head after I’d been in a sauna. “Wh-what?”

“It is contained.” Od looked back at the thing below us. “For now.”

I was a good girl; I took my finger off the trigger. But there was no way I was going to stow my gun. That thing was beastly.

Now Od had broken me from my spell, I could see that the thing was contained and that the people down in the chamber below weren’t running for their lives.

In fact, the majority of them were looking our way. Two of them were even marching up to us, their footfall shaking up through the metal walkway like mini explosions.

“Put that gun away,” the woman at the lead snapped. “Now.”

So much for a polite welcome. I was right – showing up on dig sites uninvited was considered a bother.

“I said now!” The woman had a voice on her, and it picked up and carried through the room like the blare of a siren.

It took me another second to realize she was talking to me. I looked over at Crag’tal, who didn’t stow his gun, and decided the most I was going to do was lower mine. Even if the woman sounded like she was about to brutally slay us for disobeying her no-guns policy around the freaking terrifying monster.

She came into full view at the bottom of the stairs that led up to our small ledge, and she looked mad. She had long, black hair that was streaked with gray. Her face had a vaguely familiar, serious nature to it, and she wore an old-school set of pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a brown leather vest.

I found myself staring at the single-sided frown she offered us as she neared, heavy boots pounding along the metal. “I said put those guns away. Who the hell are you to come onto my dig site, anyway? I’ve already paid my government fee—”

“I do apologize, madam.” Od put up a hand and proceeded to bow.

“Is that a Kroplin?” His expression softened.

Od nodded, his helmet bobbing around. “I am indeed a Kroplin. You are quite skilled to recognize me through this suit—”

“Why are you even wearing that?” the woman cut in. She reminded me of someone else who never let people finish their sentences. “We have oxygen filters down here.”

“Ah.” Od clicked something on his helmet, and soon the thing detached from his suit, and he pulled it off in a neat move, bowing again.

The woman seemed a lot less confrontational now, and I could see her eyes light up as she looked at Od like a scientist cataloging the rare and wonderful.

I hadn’t even noticed they weren’t wearing suits. Or, in the presence of that thing down there, I’d forgotten I’d been wearing my own.

Crag’tal removed his Oxy Helmet and stowed it under one arm, gun still held in the other hand.

That left me. I didn’t want to take mine off. It felt safe and comfortable in here – like I was viewing this alien world through a screen rather than in real life. Plus, it felt like it offered the barest hint of protection from that creature down there.

The man who’d walked up with the woman looked young. I would bet from the floppy hair and dated clothes that he was definitely an archaeologist or some kind of scientist. He had a wide-eyed, super keen look about him – the kind of guy who would engage you in a conversation over space dust and keep it animated purely through his own enthusiasm.

The woman cast a hard glance my way. “Take off your helmet and put that gun away.”

I didn’t immediately respond. I found myself being pulled between two polar desires – I wanted to be polite and do precisely what the woman in charge was saying, but I also wanted to vault over this railing and shoot that thing down there until it disappeared for good.

The human part of me won. I sighed heavily and tucked my gun under my arm, unbuckling my helmet with my free hand. I pulled the thing off my head and flicked my long white ponytail free, glad at least to smooth out the kinks in my hair.

My hand rested halfway down my head as I became aware of the fact I was being stared at. I looked up to see both the woman and unkempt grad gaping my way, eyes bulging. I thought they would throw themselves my way like Od had the first time we’d met.

“Is there something wrong?” I said quietly but quickly. I felt like I was in trouble, like flicking my hair free of my sweaty helmet had been the absolute worst thing a person could do in an underground dig site, short of murdering the crew and kicking down all their lights.

“Is that real?” The woman didn’t speak, more gulped out her words like she was as shocked as her ashen face suggested.

I thought she meant the gun. “Ah, yeah, it’s a gun. Though it was expensive.” I trailed off. They weren’t talking about my guns, were they?

“Your hair, your eyes – par’kang!” the wavy-haired man looked like he’d won the Central Galactic Lottery. There was no need to swear – par’kang was one of those colony cusses that never made it out into real space. It was the equivalent of saying “Oh dang.” Mercenaries, bounty hunters, freighters, and GAMS never went in for the “Oh dangs,” preferring the more pictorially explicit swear words.

I tried to cover my hair as best I could with one gloved hand.

The woman tried to push past Od, but Crag’tal was there like a blast from a gun. She looked up at him like he was nothing more than a slight nuisance. “Get out of my way,” she snapped, not taking her eyes off me.

Crag’tal didn’t acquiesce.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” The woman gave up on forcing her way over to me. “This site isn’t open to the public. Especially the armed public.”

Od stood up as tall as he could manage; I could see his back stretch out proudly. “We are here to offer you assistance, madam.”

The woman laughed abruptly. “You’re here to volunteer on a dig – a Kroplin, a Crag and a…” she trailed off.

“We are not here to volunteer for this dig site; though I am handy in small spaces and have an exquisite eye for detail—”

“Why are you here?” This woman wasn’t about to wait for Od to finish his usual ramble. “How did you find out about this dig? It’s privately funded—”

“Through the Rain Man, madam.”

I watched the woman’s face completely shift from annoyed to neutral. She flicked her head toward the man with her. “Go and check on the stability of the diggers, Edward.”

“Ah,” Edward looked thrown, “Okay.” He walked back down the metal gangway but not before giving me the kind of look you might save for the greatest work of beauty in the galaxy.

It made my arms itch.

“I have an office of sorts.” The woman led us down the gangway and onto the rough stone floor of the chamber. She marched along the wall until she came to an alcove that had enough room for a bed and a desk. The only thing separating it from the view of the creature was a curtain made of ripped-up space tarp hung over a metal beam. The stuff rustled as she pushed past it.

I cast one last glance at the monster before the material obscured it from view. It was staring at me. Wherever I went, its eyes followed. I could bet that its eyes were still trained my way, even behind this cheap curtain.

“I’m sorry.” The woman leaned against a free section of wall, arms crossed. “I didn’t realize, I wouldn’t have made a scene otherwise.” She kept flicking her gaze my way.

“It was not for you to know; we were unannounced.”

“Why did he send you?” she asked, voice still quick but without the harsh snap from before.

“He didn’t send us per se. I requested information from him, and he indicated—”

“What do you want with this dig site? Why did you bring her here?” She nodded my way. “How the hell did you find her?”

Now my whole body was itchy and hot. I didn’t like attention like this, not at all.

“Fortune and providence—” Od began, opening his hands out like a prophet in mid-preach.

“She can’t stay,” the woman snapped. “I’ve seen it watching her already. I don’t want to lose containment and…” she drifted off.

“Excuse me? What are you talking about?” I found my voice, and when I did, it was quiet, but at least it was there.

The woman looked vaguely amused, one peaked eyebrow shifting slightly. “You don’t know?”

“No. I mean, I know why I’m here, but—”

“Do you?” She was still leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

I felt like a child playing that stupid Earth game Piggy in the Middle. Once again, no one was telling me anything. It was annoying the heck out of me, though not nearly as much as it should. Nearly all my attention was still trained behind me, feeling that thing in the room outside.

“You’re running on instinct, kid – I can see that. Which is the best thing you can do right now. You can’t stay here, and I think you know why.”

I didn’t even bother replying, just let my gaze drift over my shoulder to the curtain behind me. That thing – I knew my presence was having an effect on it. Like the sun heating up a chunk of ice to reveal the creature frozen within – I was thawing it from some long, dark slumber.

“What is it?” I asked, voice no more than a hush.

“That’s something we dug up.” She shifted her arms, letting them swing by her sides and tap the stone wall behind her. “And boy is it a find.”

“Yes, but—” I began to interrupt. I wanted to get out of here, and pronto. It was obvious there were no weapons to be found, just something that looked like it needed a good seeing to by a weapon. I had a lot of questions to ask, but I would hold onto them until we reached somewhere safe. But there was one thing I had to know before I could go into that chamber again – what in the universe was that creature? It felt like a Twixt, but people could see it, and it looked like something out of a drug-fueled nightmare.

“You want to know what it is – straight answer? You’re like my son; he always wants me to get to the point, just like his father. Basically, it’s what happens when Twixts stay in our dimension too long.”

“So it’s a Twixt.” I managed to wrench my gaze away from the curtains.

She let out another sharp laugh. “How much do you know, rookie? Yeah, it’s a Twixt, but it’s out of the In-Between. They stay in our dimension too long and time takes its toll – literally. It makes them visible to the ordinary eye,” she nodded my way, “But no less dangerous. And as you can see from the thing out there, they don’t become any less murderous. If that containment ring failed, we could say goodbye to our blood and bones quicker than a pound of meat through a grinder.”

I grimaced.

“That’s what we think happened in the last In-Between War – the Central races tried to protract the fight long enough that the Twixts turned into our friend out there. At least that way they could see them. It never worked – wave after wave of Twixt soon turned that plan to ash. Plus, that creature makes up for invisibility with power. It’s twice as large as a Twixt, as far as we can tell.” She looked at me, obviously waiting for confirmation. “It’s not as if we’ve ever seen one.”

I chose to remain silent; I didn’t know how much I was supposed to be giving away. Od had told me not to trust anyone who hadn’t earned it – and I hardly knew this woman. She hadn’t saved me from space scum or retrieved my weapon from a GAM Cruiser. So far she’d just befuddled me with information and loads of questions.

“It might make for a big target,” she continued, obviously realizing I wasn’t about to fill her in on the direct dimensions, pardon the pun, of a Twixt. “It’s faster, meaner, and looks like something out of a hardcore holohorror. If it weren’t for your people, those things would be all over the galaxy now. I don’t think the Twixt would be good neighbors – all galactic races would be wiped out forever.”

“You’ve answered my question – so shouldn’t we get out of here now?” I almost sounded in control.

The woman shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think anything will happen soon – as long as you don’t stay too long. You’re like a shot of adrenaline to those guys – something in them remembers something in you.”

I swallowed but tried to make it as quiet as possible. “How do you know so much about everything? About the Twixts, about me?”

The woman had moved off to behind her desk and sat heavily in a cheap chair. The move disturbed the old-style 2D photo that sat next to her computer, and it fell off the table.

I reached down to pick it up, but the woman got there first, returning the photo right back to where it had been.

“This is what I do – I’m an archaeologist; I dig up the past, and some of the past ain’t pretty.”

“So who do you work for?” I was surprised to be getting actual answers from someone, even if they were still vague.

“Myself… and other interested parties.”

That meant the Rain Man, didn’t it?

“The work I do isn’t popular with Central. I get my money where I can, because not everyone believes the wild stuff I come up with,” she said with a bitter laugh. “Central think I’m a quack. Even my own family think I’m bonkers. That doesn’t matter – things like the Twixt in there are the only thing I care about. Central are too blind and dumb to remember the checkered past of this galaxy. If they want to stick their heads in the sand on this one, so be it – but I’m not going to sit by and watch them lie, watch them put the Milky Way at risk.”

Od nodded vehemently along with the woman’s words.

“What can you do?” I regretted my question the instant the woman’s eyes lit up, focusing on me like a sniper.

“Not everyone in the galaxy has forgotten.” She nodded toward Od and Crag. “There are plenty of races who were around for the last war. Some of them still care, have kept the belief and knowledge alive. There are underground movements, private collectors, information merchants – you name it. There’s always been a galactic-wide movement, however small, that has been preparing for the next invasion.”

Going from having no information to being bombarded with it was leaving me reeling. It was all too much at once. A galactic-wide movement preparing for the next invasion? Was that why Od and Crag’tal had become such fast friends? They’d met at the last Twixt Haters meeting? Or did they know the secret handshake or how to correctly pronounce the secret riddle? This was all so much more complex than I could have ever imagined. Things had gone from me being against the Twixt in a galaxy of unbelievers to a Milky Way full of an underground resistance.

I had to shake my head and keep going. Things were changing on me every day – the ground was shifting underneath my feet like I was standing on the tail of an ice comet. If I kept pushing forward, at least that would be going somewhere. I took a deep breath. “Okay. What do you mean an underground—”

“It’s not a resistance or anything; it’s not some kind of armed militia ready to come to the rescue when Central fall on their asses. It’s more of a community. We share information, artifacts if we’ve got them. We figured out a long time ago that beating the next invasion was going to depend on us getting our hands on whatever clues there were of the past. Your people aren’t going to be here to pull us out of this one.”

“Artifacts?” I chanced upon the word like a child finding a bush full of blackberries. Artifacts was precisely the word Od had used in describing our hunt for weapons. “What kind of—”

“You’re looking for a weapon,” the woman cut in again. “I don’t know if we’ve ever come across any – but I know people who might. The Kroplin was right to bring you here. Well, he would have been if we hadn’t dug up your arch nemesis.”

“I do apologize. If I had known, I—” Od began.

“Doesn’t matter. At least she knows what she’s up against.”

Things were moving faster than a particle in spin. I couldn’t keep up with the changes, and it was making me sick to try.

“You look overloaded, kid.” The woman nodded at me. “Sorry, but you have to find out about this stuff some time. I can’t believe you exist. I mean, we looked.”

I recoiled. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the natural thing to do. It felt like there was an ugly realization looming before me like a cobra from the tall grass. “What do you mean you looked?”

“You don’t know a lot, do you? Where did they find you?”

“As a server of food and beverages in a space station in the system of—” Od began.

“I was a waitress,” I cut in. I was usually ashamed of that fact. Now I wore it like a mantle of gold – because being a diner waitress was normal. I needed to remind myself that, despite where this conversation was going, I was normal.

“A waitress on a space station, huh? The last of The People, the only daughter of Her, working in a diner. Well, forgive us if we left out the cafeteria in our search. Yeah, we looked for you. We have Her last message; we knew she sent you. After the years had passed, almost everyone gave up. When the prodigal daughter didn’t arrive with fanfare and glitter, we thought you’d been lost to the ravages of space. But here you are—”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was much quicker than it usually was, far more like Commander Cole. I was comprehending what the woman was saying but understanding nothing. I had a mother, there was a message, people knew that I was coming – what did it all mean?

“You need to listen better. Time isn’t a luxury the Twixt are going to give you. This ain’t rocket science, ki—” The woman began but was stopped.

“Doctor Cole!” someone shouted from outside the room, their voice sounding like a sonic boom as it echoed in the massive chamber outside. “Urgent message from your son.”

Doctor Cole rolled her eyes and marched over to the curtain, pulling it to. She snapped the com-pad off her assistant, the man with the floppy hair, and walked back into the room, pulling the curtain closed behind her. “This better be good,” she mumbled.

The Doctor pressed some buttons on the pad before setting it on her desk. “I’d ask you to leave so I can have a little privacy, but I don’t want you,” she pointed at me, “Out there with that thing. So you’ll have to just put up with a mother-son fight.”

A floating hologram of a man’s head and torso appeared over the pad.

“Mo—” the figure said before stopping mid-syllable.

I’d used holocom technology before, and it was neat. The pad allowed a 360-degree view of wherever it rested on – essentially allowing the person who was making the message to have a full view of the room and who they were talking to.

“Mini? What are you doing there?” the hologram said. Well, Commander Jason Cole said. It was him. Of all the people in the whole galaxy, Jason Cole was this woman’s son.

My heart skipped enough beats to be classed as terminally malfunctioning.

“You know this woman?” Doctor Cole snapped at her son. “Figures, my disbelieving son is the one to find—”

“That doesn’t matter now, mom. Just listen, for once.” Jason was as quick and sharp as he always was, but I could hear the fear in his voice. The Commander wasn’t one to play at drama. “We’ve intercepted a call from the Crag system – that moon you’re on is about to be overrun by Tarian Mercs. You got to get out of there and now.”

“What?” Doctor Cole blustered. “Why would—”

“Listen to me for once in your goddamn life. The Crag Government have asked us to assist – this isn’t a joke, ma. You’ve got a half hour, if that, to get the hell off that moon. We don’t know what they want, but those Tarians aren’t going to leave a soul alive until they find it.”

Tarian Mercenaries were infamous. They were the types of devils bounty hunters and space pirates used to scare each other on dark nights. They were the most ruthless, dangerous, vicious things in the galaxy – short of the Twixts, that was. Unlike the Twixts, the Tarians made their mischief for the love of money and plied their trade wherever the Central Credits would flow. I’d never met one, and that was why I was still alive.

“Well, that’s a shame, Jason, because I’m not leaving.” Doctor Cole straightened her shoulders.

Jason hit the table wherever he was beaming his message from and swore under his breath. “This isn’t a joke – you need to get out of there! These Tarians are going—”

“I can’t,” Doctor Cole collected her hands carefully before her, “Because we don’t have any direct transport. It would take well over two hours to get everybody out.”

Jason was silent, his face expression twisting into a dead kind of surrender. “You better hole yourself up and prepare for a fight. I’m coming, but I can’t promise I’ll get there in time.”

Chapter 11

Tarian Mercs were coming to this underground dig site on this tiny moon in the Crag system. I couldn’t believe it. Last week, my life had revolved around serving customers at a space station and watching galactic cooking shows in my spare time – and now I was about to face a mercenary attack in an unprotected underground facility. This was the stuff of those bad holonovels you buy for a half credit at the media store.

“I have to go,” the hologram of Jason looked off to his left, “Just stay—”

The hologram cut out – buzzing at first and shifting around as if the image were made out of wobbly jelly. It left a hollow white noise in the air.

Nobody said anything. Which was good, as I could barely even handle the silence at this point, let alone everyone talking at once. Mercenaries? What did they want? Would they come here; did they know about this place? Or was there something else on this moon that was drawing their attention? Would they hit the space dock and be gone? What about Hipop? Would he be safe in storage?

Gah! I felt so small and incapable – like the innocent I was, facing off against my first real taste of the violent side of space. Holomovies and games were one thing – a fully armed, vicious hoard of Tarian Mercs was another.

Doctor Cole straightened up, tugging on her dusty brown vest like the Commander would tug on his uniform top. “I have to tell my people.”

“How do you intend to defend these facilities?” Od’s voice didn’t betray even a hint of fear, though he wasn’t standing nearly as straight and neat as he usually did.

“Defend?” I broke in, the nerves building in me like steam trapped in a pipe. “How do you know they’re even coming here?”

Doctor Cole’s expression was steadily growing more determined – the hard furrows on her brow deepening until they looked like trenches across her forehead. “There’s nothing else on this moon – nothing that would keep a band of Tarian Mercs entertained, anyway. They’re coming here – you can count on that.”

I didn’t want to count on that. I didn’t want to count on anything but Commander Cole getting here in time. “If you’re sure, why don’t we get out of here? This moon is so hilly – couldn’t we go and hide in some cave somewhere and wait this out?”

Crag’tal laughed, and it sounded like metal grating on metal. “Tarians have bio scanners, good trackers, too. Only chance is to defend until backup gets here. We’ll lose – but only chance.”

I didn’t want to be hearing this – everyone was telling me this was a no-win situation. “No – but what about the Crag Army? Won’t they intercept? Won’t the Crags at the space dock put up a good fight? You’re a warrior race, for heaven’s sake—”

“Tarians are fast, they have third generation Hyper Cruisers, they are a crack unit, and they are set up for snatch and grabs. The Crag Army isn’t going to bother with them when they know the GAMs are on their way. They’d know the Tarians are headed for us – and wouldn’t be about to waste valuable resources on trying to prevent an attack they aren’t equipped for. We’re on our own for now.” Crag’tal was being unusually expressive, which was hardly a good sign.

I looked at Crag’tal, waiting for him to cut in that the Crags wouldn’t be that cowardly, but he shrugged.

“Crag Government not what it used to be.” His voice was heavy with regret.

I imagined, for a race like his, it would be a hard blow to allow alien assassins to encroach on their territory. I would have pictured every Crag grabbing a weapon and converging on the Tarians like Crags to a fight. But they were just going to sit idly by – because this was politics, not war.

“So what do we do? We can’t stay in here, not with that thing.”

“It’s not a great situation,” Doctor Cole walked over and yanked her curtain open, “But we have to defend that thing – as crazy as that sounds – and stop it from falling into the hands of the Tarians. If they get their hands on it or it gets loose – there will be hell to pay.”

Doctor Cole marched off, calling her people to her like a mother hen escorting her chicks away from the circling shadow of the hawk. Crag’tal and Od walked over to join them, Crag’tal resting my rifle on his shoulder like a farmer rests his scythe – ready for the harvest.

I didn’t move, didn’t want to. Walking over to the pre-Tarian-attack confab over there would be accepting that such a thing was going to happen. I didn’t want to believe a word of it. It was too unreal. I wasn’t the kind of girl to find myself in such an outrageous situation – space mercenaries and underground archaeological sites were not things Normal Mini was used to.

I crossed my arms and hugged myself – squeezing my torso and crouching forward.

I raised my gaze to that thing. It was staring at me, white eyes unmoving.

I straightened up slowly, my arms dropping to my side. I faced it from across the room, and it felt like the space between us wasn’t there at all.

A part of me knew how this was going to end; the rest of me would have to wait and see for herself.

“Mini,” Od called from across the chamber, his voice echoing loudly.

I ignored him, hands reaching for the rifle attached to the back of my suit.

“Mini—”

Why wait? I could tell what would happen; I could feel it deep in my bones.

I could see the future playing out before me in perfect detail. The Tarians would attack, we would become entrenched, and as the GAM would arrive to save the day, the monster would break free. We’d all die. Caught unaware, we’d be taken from behind in a flash of gray flesh streaked with red. It was like keeping your worst enemy in a time-released cage behind your front line as you concentrated on the fight ahead. We may be intending to engage the Tarians, but the real enemy was right here in front of me. I wasn’t about to make a fatal mistake—

“Put the gun away, Mini.” Od appeared at my side. “We must concentrate—”

“I don’t think so. We can’t afford to let it escape.”

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Doctor Cole snapped from somewhere behind me. “We have it in containment for now—”

“Like hell.” I was annoyed, angry at their stupidity. I felt like the only person who knew what was going on – like the sole person smart enough to bring along a shotgun to a zombie attack when everyone else had packed tea and biscuits. They were all hoping for the best without planning for the most likely scenario. That thing would get out and kill us – the only option we could take was to act now.

I raised my gun, eyes locked right on my target. I could feel it in my mind like a scar – a painful reminder of some deep wound that hadn’t healed. This is how the Twixts operated, how they survived – they managed to make people forget what they were, what they could and would do. I wasn’t about to—

Od walked in front of my rifle. His expression was real. It wasn’t overly nice, pleasant, chirpy, or clear-water calm. It wasn’t cute, annoying, or enthusiastic. He was looking straight at me as if he’d known me for years – as if I knew who he was and he no longer had anything to hide. He didn’t say anything.

I lowered my weapon.

Neither of us spoke.

“We need it alive,” Doctor Cole said from behind me, voice relieved but still sharp. “We need it to help us understand what we’re up against—”

“I know what we’re up against, Doctor. I don’t need that example staring me down to figure out what a Twixt is.”

“We have to study it, find out if they have a weakness. The People are no longer with us – well, you’re the last. How are we supposed to win a war with one half-bre—”

“By not being idiots,” I snapped. My human side was well and truly buried. I knew what I had to do, and there was no way anyone was going to get in my way. The Twixts weren’t there to be studied. You could safely study grass and space dust if you felt like observing and recording natural phenomenon. Twixts weren’t an object of science – they were the stuff of nightmares. The only way to stop a nightmare was to confront the beast.

“There’s only one of you now,” she pleaded. “We have to find a way other than all-out war.”

“You said that’s how the galaxy failed last time – that they spent valuable time trying to figure these things out when they should have been fighting them. This is the wrong plan, Doctor – you have to trust me on this.” I looked right at her, authority coming from somewhere truly deep inside me.

Od was looking right at me with such intensity it almost pulled my gaze from the creature.

“You sound like my son – too willing to take the brute force option—”

I flicked my gaze to Od, back to the creature.

“If we don’t find out as much as we can, we will be fighting blind. Don’t be selfish, child. You may be the last of your kind, but there are more races in this galaxy than one – and it is up to us all to fight for our own freedom. You can’t be the guard of everyone.”

I kept flicking my gaze between Od and the creature – back and forth in a steady motion.

What would Jason do?

I rallied. I wasn’t going to lose control of this situation, not now. “You’re right, Doctor – I shouldn’t talk for everyone. Crag’tal, what do you think we should do? Leave the thing alive, so it can break out and take us from behind? Or should we shoot it now?”

It was odd listening to my voice sound like that – harsh and unforgiving. It was even odder to hear myself say those things. Was I suggesting we murder in cold blood? That sounded like something a hardened soldier would say, not Normal Mini the waitress.

I shook my head, clearing my thoughts.

Crag’tal moved his hands along his gun and shrugged his shoulders. “Now or later—”

“No,” the Doctor had her hands up, “We can’t do this.”

Kill it now while it rested quietly in the cage – what would be the problem with that? It was our natural enemy, the sworn nemesis of the whole galaxy. If the situation was reversed, and I found myself in the cage and the creature was free to face me – it would have attacked first chance, no questions asked. So why was it so wrong to do the same now?

It was them or us.

I put my finger back on the trigger.

“It doesn’t work that way, does it, Mini?” Od said so quietly no one else in the room would have picked it up. “You can’t be both at the same time – yet it tears you up when you allow one to overpower the other.”

I didn’t want to follow his words, but I still knew what they meant.

“You have to be both at once. Find a way.”

Both human and a member of The People at the same time? I was one person inside one head on top of one body. So why did I feel so torn?

A part of me won and lowered the gun. No, I lowered the gun.

A tense couple of seconds followed before I turned to face the others. I couldn’t describe the feelings churning through me; I had to ignore them for now. “So what do we do?” My voice was quiet and somehow full-bodied at the same time.

The Doctor looked at me, assessing whether she could trust me. “You guard that thing. I can’t believe I’m saying this – but there it is. I don’t want either you or the thing coming in contact with the Tarians. We can’t afford to lose either of you.”

I didn’t speak up at being lumped in a group with the psycho shadow killer here, but I didn’t appreciate it either.

“The Crag comes with me, and we shore up the top of the site as best we can – make a front line at the bottom of the ladder so we can pick off any Merc coming down. All those unable to fight are going to go deep into the other side of the dig where we keep the storage bay – hide in the safety pods we’ve got there. The rest of us are going to form a mid-line between the chamber and the ladder.” The Doctor looked at me.

“So that leaves me alone with the creature.” I didn’t bother looking back at it; I didn’t think I could survive another round of mind games with the Twixt.

“No, Od will stay with you.”

I nodded. Od and me against the Twixt – just like old times. “Do you even have any weapons? Crag’tal’s gun is coded to me – do you have anything to fight with?”

Doctor Cole took a breath. “No. A couple of sonic diggers and some light saws – no guns.”

I didn’t bother replying to that – I’d either laugh out loud or cry, and I didn’t need people thinking I was any more insane than they already did.

“I’m sure we can find someone to un-code your gun – we aren’t above license fraud at a time like this.”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

“No, but it will be.” The Doctor turned to her people. “You know what we have to do, so let’s do it.” I could see the same direct command in her I’d already seen in Jason. Both of them seemed to be built to guide and protect people. With a mother like that, it was no wonder Jason had turned out the way he had.

… He was coming, wasn’t he?

I took a deep breath and watched everyone pile up the metal gangway that led out of the chamber.

Jason would be here soon….

I felt the cold pull of fear return to my arms, making them stiff and heavy as if there were icebergs tied to my wrists. The cold didn’t overwhelm me; it made the situation sharper and made me feel more human.

You better get here fast, I thought bitterly, trying to send my thoughts across space in a desperate prayer. I’m pretty sure I need another ally on this one.

The next twenty minutes were agonizing. I could hear the others working through the corridors – my hearing returning to its super-charged state. I could feel the rumbles beneath my feet as they shifted equipment, turned on diggers, even screamed at each other to hurry. I couldn’t see them; I had to put up with my imagination to fill in the visual gaps. Their strained faces, sweat-stained brows, and dust-coated clothes.

Meanwhile, I stood stock-still behind the creature, behind it and the only exit out of here. I wanted to be able to see whatever would come down that gangway – and shoot the thing before they made it to the bottom.

Od stood right next to me as still and straight as a pillar. It was like we were both those stone statues you have at either side of important gates – guarding in figure and stature alone. Oh, except I had a perfectly working gun.

It took twenty-three minutes for the sounds of battle to begin. I heard it first as a high-pitched whine filtering down from the surface. It sounded like an insect stuck in the metal mesh of a microphone – a high pitched, distorted buzz. I didn’t need Od to tell me those were the engines of a ship powering down. It was right over us, I realized, face cold. Hovering over the hole down into the dig site – enabling the mercs easy and quick access down the ladder.

Blast sounds made it into the chamber – ricocheting around weakly. That was my gun – that was the sound of Crag’tal desperately firing away at the intruders. Those other odd pitched sounds mingling over the top were the whir of a light saw and the shake of a sonic digger.

I started to sweat – like I’d run into monsoonal rain. It dripped off my brown and collected at the spot between my neck and the seal of my space suit.

Who was going to be first to reach those stairs up there? Would it be the Tarians? Would they break through the defenses quicker than a light saw through paper? Or would Commander Cole get here in time, repel the invasion, and descend the stairs with a half-smile on his lips?

I put a shaking hand up to my mouth and wiped away the sweat that sat between my top lip and nose, making my breath too hot to handle.

“This is not what you were meant for, child,” Od said in an odd voice. “You are needed elsewhere – out there in the galaxy, not down in this pit.” It was as if he was talking to himself, ticking off some mental list as he stared dead-eyed into the middle distance. “Your mother never intended to give you up for this.”

Give me up?

It was the only thing that could distract me from my fear, aside for the slim hope Commander Cole would get here in time. My mother – Her. “What? My mother—”

That’s when the sounds of battle changed. They became quieter as if a wall had descended between me and everywhere else and this chamber.

I could feel the symbols around the ring that held the Twixt as if they were burning into my skin. They scorched but faded, like hot coal thrown into ice-cold water.

The ring was failing – the containment around the monster was failing.

It was silent, not a crack, a bang, or a pop. The ring didn’t scream or screech like metal crashing into a wall. It silently descended to the ground, the symbols on its surface dying.

I grabbed Od under one arm and threw him toward the other side of the room – toward the stairs, toward escape.

The guy rolled as he hit the ground and gave me a look as he scrambled to his feet. I could see his face in still frame those wide, wide eyes.

The Twixt moved toward me before I had time to turn to face it. I could feel it behind me like a gun pressed to the back of my neck. I pushed into a dive roll, twisting so I changed direction as I rolled to my feet.

It screamed. I knew I would never hear another sound like it again. It cut through everything, every other terrible noise of battle filtering in from the other room – flattened them with its throaty blare. It sounded like a human scream distorted by a strangle. It bounced around the room, getting louder and louder until dust and chunks of small rock fell from the ceiling.

Its throat was extending from the effort of the scream – veins bulging across the stretched, gray skin.

I brought up my gun and shot right at it, but the Twixt ducked – descending onto its hind legs like a tiger ready to pounce.

It launched at me – filling my view as if I were barely a centimeter away from the sun. I twisted and strafed to the side, firing as I went.

None of the shots were hitting home – the thing was too quick. Doctor Cole had been right – this creature was different to a normal Twixt. It was faster, and, I noted with a truly sick feeling, it had no shadow. It was like it was here without being real at the same time – like a walking nightmare. I wondered, as I kept shooting but missing, whether I could hit it at all.

I had to flip to the side, using only one hand to push off the ground as the other still held fast to my gun.

How did my bullets keep missing? I was shooting straight at it.

I flipped again – this time a full backward somersault that dropped into a roll, taking me further from the creature – giving me more room to aim.

It was like a nightmare – like I was facing off against a terrible dream-creature who I couldn’t banish no matter what I tried.

“You need a real weapon,” Od screamed from behind me. “It’s too powerful.”

“Get out of here,” I screeched back, twisting to the side and using my gun to slam into the creature’s arm as it tried to grab me. The move, though it connected, didn’t appear to hurt the Twixt one bit.

I rolled to the side, managing to keep out of its reach.

It settled back on its haunches and screamed – I could see the underside of its stretched neck shake and shudder with the effort.

“What do I do?” I shrieked. “What do I do?”

As if from heaven, someone answered with a barrage of fire directed right at the Twixt. Plasma blast after blast ate right into the creature, forcing it backward but not doing any real damage.

I stared at the Twixt as it started to shore up against the barrage, using its shoulder to take the blasts while it pushed forward with its powerful legs, mouth opening and closing in scream after scream.

“Oh god.” I… I couldn’t…. Nothing was going to kill this – was it?

“Get out!”

I turned to see Crag’tal at the top of the stairs. He was shooting round after round at the Twixt, not stopping as he screamed at us. “Get out! Human, Kroplin – get out!”

I hesitated, watching the play of light against the huge Twixt’s skin. It watched me right back with those white eyes.

I turned and ran. I grabbed up Od and hit the stairs three at a time.

I could tell that Crag’tal’s barrages were having less and less of an effect. I could hear the Twixt’s scream getting louder and feel it driving toward me. When I hit the top of the stairs and rushed up to Crag’tal, he stopped shooting, instead flicking some button at the front of the rifle.

“What are you doing?” I screamed, wanting to grab the guy and run.

“Second function.” Crag’tal raised the gun at the roof as the Twixt reached the bottom of the gangway – its body faster than hyperspeed.

Crag’tal let go of the trigger, and a massive blue-white blast erupted from the rifle and slammed into the roof above us. Crag’tal turned, collecting Od and me in an arm and pushing us forward as the ceiling collapsed. Great chunks of rock rained down, blocking the entrance to the chamber and the Twixt beyond – but somehow, Crag’tal managed to shove us free.

Silence descended for a second before I could feel the Twixt on the other side of the rocks. It wasn’t dead, nowhere near.

This time, I grabbed Crag’tal’s arm. “We have to get out of here – now. It’s going to get through.”

We dashed along the corridor, my mind too frenzied to pick up the signs of battle strewn around me.

“Is everyone out?” I shouted at Crag’tal, not bothering to turn my head as I powered along the tunnel with Od still under one arm.

I didn’t need him to answer – I rounded the corner and slammed straight into a person, dropping Od to the side from shock.

The person in question, a GAM in big black armor, wrapped his arms around me, practically picking me up to stop me from falling backward.

“You’re safe now,” a voice said from behind the black helmet. It was synthesized – changed slightly into a more mechanical version of itself, but there was no denying who it was. Commander Jason Cole.

With his arms still around me, I would have paid anything to believe his words. Except I couldn’t. I wasn’t safe, none of us were.

Chapter 12

“No, we aren’t.” My voice came out as a rasp, my throat coated with the dust from the mini cave-in.

“It’s okay.” Jason had a hand up. “It’s okay—”

“Let her go,” Doctor Cole snapped as she half-jogged, half-ran over to me. “Where is it?” Her eyes were wide and unforgettably intense, “Did it—”

“Oh, it’s still alive.” I was still finding it hard to talk – even harder when I knew that talking wasn’t getting us away from here. “We have to get out of here – now.”

Jason was following our conversation like a hawk – his head ticking our way. “What the hell is going on? What are you talking about? Are there more Tarians—”

“No.” Doctor Cole’s voice was strained and way too fast. “Tell me it didn’t break containment—”

“What are you talking about?” Jason faced his mother – a huge black menace with both arms crossed. “You tell me now.”

Doctor Cole threw up her hands but didn’t turn away from her son. Her eyes were blazing, her skin slicked with mud-crusted sweat, but she didn’t fob him off – she could tell he was serious. “It’s nothing, Jason—”

“What is it? If my men are in danger, I need to know—”

“You wouldn’t even believe me, Jason,” Doctor Cole chuckled bitterly. “So why ask the question—”

“Tell me—” Jason began, hitting the release button on his helmet. It disappeared into the back of his armor with a fancy swish.

“Alright, enough,” I cut in. I couldn’t believe I was doing it – but we didn’t have time for a family spat right now.

I didn’t have a chance to explain. A low, mournful cry hit the air and might as well have made it burn – because it sucked the oxygen right out of me, my breath escaping like I’d been struck in the belly. It was accompanied by the sound of rocks – heavy rocks – crumbling or being thrown to the side.

I closed my eyes like you might in a nightmare – to check to see if the horror went away.

“What the—” Jason grabbed the gun locked against his back.

“Oh my god.” Doctor Cole’s voice was barely there.

I felt like time was slowing down, trickling around me like the last water of a dried-up stream. Jason’s face was frozen – alive with fear, determination, and shock all at once. I could see the flecks of dust from the ceiling flick by like single frames from a holomovie – some landing in his short black hair, some collecting on the wide shoulders of his armor.

I could see the others – the other GAMs and dig crew. All with their heads turned toward the sound, expressions a mix of pure fear and confusion.

I could feel it behind me. Its presence was like a great, cold cloud where my shadow should be – haunting my footsteps with unthinkable menace.

What was I going to do? How…. All these people? How was I going to save them?

Time sped up, back to where it should be – back to people shouting and receding in horror, trying to get away from the sound. Back to Jason lifting his gun and pointing it down the tunnel, face so compressed with concentration, it was hard to recognize him. Back to Doctor Cole staring with hollow eyes.

I took a breath. Od was at my arm. “What do we do? Collapse the tunnel; try to make it up the ladder? Concentrate fire—” he spluttered, uncharacteristic fear warping his voice like a recording bursting with static.

What would She do if she were here? My mother, my people – what would they do? How would they fight? How would they think?

Jason moved off down the tunnel in the direction of the scream as it resounded over and over again like a battle cry. He motioned for his men to join him with one flick of his black, armored hand.

“No,” I said through a breath. “No.” I tried to put a hand out to stop him, but it glanced off his smooth armor with no purchase.

“Get up the ladder – get all these people up the ladder. Unit Four, you’re with me.”

No! That thing would kill them all. We had to get out of here, had to find a way—

I felt like sinking onto my knees and waiting for it to end. My eyes were heavy, my head dropping toward my chest as if I were ready to fall asleep. I felt lethargic, overloaded with the realization that I couldn’t do anything. The other side of me, Her side, it didn’t seem to be anywhere in reach. After its defeat in the chamber, it had obviously fled to the dark recess of my mind where it had always resided.

“No!” Doctor Cole snapped, her reverie giving way. “Jason! Don’t go down there. We have to seal off this tunnel; it’s our only chance. Edward, find me a sonic drill.”

Commander Cole didn’t stop at her words, just kept heading toward the scream, gun at the ready.

Od looked up at me meaningfully. He didn’t say anything, but that was enough.

I couldn’t give up. This was my responsibility now. But how to fight a creature that can’t be defeated? I either needed a hell of a more powerful weapon or a method of defeating it without destroying it – of incapacitating it.

My mind whirred like a ship gunning its engines to take off. If we all got out then collapsed the whole dig site, would that be enough? Did we even have the time?

No, I needed something else. I needed something from my people – that would be the only way—

“Od,” I dropped to my knees right beside him, “I need that thing – that thing you use to keep the Twixt. I need it now!”

Od’s eyes lit up, his skin seeming to glow. “How will you—”

“Give it to me.”

He pulled it from the folds of his robe, and I snatched it from his hands before he had a chance to open them fully.

The answer was, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I knew two things – this was the technology of my people; I could feel it. It also held a Twixt I could fight. I didn’t know how the last one would help me, but I had a feeling it could.

I sped off down the corridor in the direction of the Commander and his Unit. A couple of other GAMs tried to stop me, but I twisted away from them without a second thought.

Wait for me, Jason. Don’t go and do anything stupid.

As I ran, I twisted the catch on the device. Having it in my hands, I could feel it as if it were an extension of my being – as if my senses extended to the machine. The prickles of energy along my skin began to flow in and around it.

I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I was running on instinct, and that was the single most unifying experience I’d had so far. I wasn’t torn between my two halves – I was operating between them.

I could see the Commander before me at the lead of a group of five GAMs. The tunnel was narrow but large enough for them to spread out in a V as they headed forward. As I pelted up behind them, Jason turned, and he shook his helmeted head.

“Get out of here.” He managed to scream over the top of the harsh cry of the Twixt.

I didn’t answer. I ducked and rolled out of the way of a GAM who tried to grab me. I launched into a long dive roll that brought me between the rest of the soldiers. Springing to my feet, I performed a full layout right over Jason’s head.

I landed a meter in front of him at the turn of the tunnel that would lead to the cave-in.

I heard the Commander swear, and I would have paid a million Central Credits to see his face. Not every day a diner waitress out-maneuvers a crack GAM unit.

I let go of the device in my hand, releasing it fully. I threw it onto the ground and watched as the Twixt appeared in the middle of this narrow, rocky tunnel.

It stood there silently. I watched it with the same tunnel vision I always had for the Twixts. It was like I was alone with it, standing face-to-face with nothing else that could come between us.

“Mini.” Jason caught my arm. “Mini – what are you doing?”

I turned toward him. The cry of the mutant Twixt became loud and clear as if it had made it through the wall rock. I heard one final stone shatter against the side of the tunnel, felt the almighty shudder beneath my feet, and saw the dust dislodge from above.

Jason, hand still on my arm, tried to shift me behind him, training his gun on the mouth of the tunnel.

He couldn’t see the Twixt standing right there – the black shadow I’d released. I could. I could make out the wild look in its amorphous eyes – the manic twist of its mouth. It knew – it could feel the creature. It stretched its neck up and let out a howl, unheard to all but me.

It sent a wave crashing over me, every hair on my body standing on end as if scorpions had been poured down the back of my space suit.

The cry of the mutant Twixt changed. It faltered, pitched up and down and leveled into a croaky scream. It was primal, so primal that it spoke directly to the human part of my brain, trying to freeze her in place with the most suffocating fear that had ever been felt.

But I wasn’t completely human, was I?

I reached for the gun on my back, twisting loose of Jason’s grip as it faltered at the sound of the mutant Twixt.

I could hear it powering toward us. It would reach the lip of the tunnel soon.

It came into view as I raised my gun and shot at the small device holding the real Twixt in place. A blast scorched right into it – popping and blistering the metal until it lay in a charred heap. I sunk two more rounds into it until the device erupted in a cloud of sparks – the same faint green symbols that had been on the ring holding the creature in place appearing then disappearing along the device’s broken remains.

The Twixt before me was no longer trapped. It was free.

The mutant Twixt – with its distended, disgusting, gray form stood – for one hellish moment at the mouth of the tunnel. It was facing us, head twisting to and fro as it looked at the GAMs. It was playing with them, waiting—

Jason shot first, raising his gun faster than even I could have and letting round after round sink into the creature with perfect aim. Every volley struck true in the center of the mutant Twixt’s chest, knocking it backward but not sending it to the ground in a heap of charred flesh.

Jason didn’t stop and began to walk forward, body crouched, gun still firing.

I wasn’t about to let him cross the path of the real Twixt. I ran in front of him, pushing him to the side with my shoulder as the Twixt leaped toward him.

“Trust me!” I shouted as I rolled again, falling free of the Twixt’s lunge.

The other GAMs held their fire, their Commander in line-of-sight between them and the monster.

I think I knew what to do. It probably wouldn’t work, but it was the only thing I could try.

I brought my gun around in an arc, slamming the butt into the side of the real Twixt, an explosion of light meeting the blow.

“What the hell?” Jason breathed from beside me as he managed to push to his feet. His face twisted from the creature to the sudden powerful spark of light that had seemingly come from nowhere.

Sure enough, the mutant Twixt screamed. This wasn’t an ominous cry heralding an attack; it was a tone of pain, the wavering pitch of confusion.

It was the light – the light was hurting it.

I had to get them closer.

I launched at the Twixt, twisting around in a kick until my foot collected it right in the center of the chest. I shoved into it with all my momentum and might.

A spark erupted as the Twixt fell backward right into the body of the mutant Twixt. This time, I could see the spark rip into the flesh of the mutant. It was as if the damage were transferring across from the Twixt.

It must have been a sight for the GAMs. They couldn’t see my Twixt. What would it look like to see me kick at something, connect to an invisible form, and send it crashing back into the giant monster Twixt at the end of the tunnel? The stuff of nightmares?

“Mini!” Jason sprang toward me, reaching out a hand to pull me out of the way.

“Shoot it. Shoot it – shoot it!” I screamed, bringing my gun up and letting volley after volley slam into the smaller Twixt.

Jason couldn’t see the smaller Twixt, but if he kept shooting where I was aiming, he would get it anyway. With each blast, more light leaked from it – eating into the mutant Twixt behind it like light destroying a shadow.

Jason brought up his gun and fired, strafing forward until he stood by my side.

The mutant Twixt was almost done – the sparks having sunk so far into its skin, I could see the reddish-gray flesh visible underneath.

It was the light that came from a Twixt that was destructive. Nothing else. The weapons didn’t harm them; they just caused them to let out the light. It was almost as if the form of a Twixt was a container, a wall between us and the light.

We fired at the same time, Jason and I, and that’s all it took. The mutant Twixt let out a terrible moan and crashed forward.

I waited for it to puff out of existence like an ordinary Twixt, but it didn’t. It wavered, the veins through its skin becoming extra visible and fat like—

Jason put a hand on my shoulder and twisted me out of its way as the mutant Twixt exploded in an enormous ball of light. The flash was blinding, so searing – like opening your eyes and staring at a thousand suns at once.

Jason covered me from the bulk of the explosion with his suit.

Nothing came from the creature – no chunks of rotting flesh, no splashes of brown-red blood. Just the light.

Soon, it was gone, leaving the gloom of the tunnel to return.

I stumbled forward, hands clutched over my face. Though Jason had acted quickly, the flash of light had been too powerful. All the GAMs would have had blast protection built into their helmets – light filters that would keep them safe from such blinding explosions.

My eyes felt on fire. They were full of the light, brimming with it, bursting with it. I clutched at my face, trying to paw away the pain.

I felt an arm move around my middle, straighten me to my feet.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Jason said.

His voice was there but so far away – behind the light somewhere.

He snapped commands to the rest of his men, and he moved me forward. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t even open my eyes. I had to trust he wouldn’t let me fall as he guided me forward.

“What happened? Jason! Jason!” Doctor Cole called. “Is it gone? Is it – what happened?”

I could make out her voice only if I concentrated hard as if it were several rooms away in a huge, huge house.

Someone tried to put a hand on my face, to pull away my hands. I twisted away, shuffling backward until I came up hard against someone’s armor.

“What the hell was that thing?” I heard Jason’s voice behind me, rumbling up through the armor I leaned against. “What the hell were you doing here?”

“Is she hurt?” Doctor Cole was close by, her voice the faintest bit louder through the fog of my mind.

Someone kept trying to pry my hands from my face, but I fought them off, twisting backward, trying to get away.

I couldn’t bear to face it – to face opening my eyes, to let in more light from out there. There was already too much light in here – in my eyes, trapped in my mind, held within me. I couldn’t let it out.

“We have to get her to the ship – that thing…” Jason trailed off. “There was some kind of light. She copped a full-face of it. She’ll need retina transplants—”

No. No, no, no. They weren’t going to make me open my eyes.

I struggled harder, trying desperately to break free while still clutching my face with all my might.

“Hey.” Jason wrapped his arms around me, trying to fix me in place. “Don’t struggle. We’ll get you to a doctor, even if you don’t like them.”

I pushed against him, planting my feet into the ground.

“Mini. Don’t struggle.”

This was my light now, and I wasn’t going to give it up.

“Don’t let her go,” Od spoke. Of all the voices in the room, I could hear his perfectly. It was almost like it was right here in my head with me. I wanted to swat at him to go away and leave me in peace with my light.

“What the hell is she doing?” Jason demanded, still holding onto me tightly. “What’s going on here, anyway? That thing – the light? And Mini fought like a freaking Crag warrior back there – what’s going on?”

“I will tell you everything, GAM Commander,” Od spoke, sounding as if he stood right in the center of my mind. “Do not let her go. She’s taken too much of it in – she faced the light and now doesn’t want to give it back.”

“What are you talking about?” Jason’s grip around me was like steel, but he was weakening the more I fought.

“Just don’t let her go. We have to get her eyes open – before it’s too late.” Od spoke from inside my mind again, clarion voice disturbing my peace like a scream by my ear on a silent night.

I thrashed about. I had to escape, had to get away, had to stop them from taking it back.

“What—” Jason began.

“Get them open!” Od’s voice was so loud, such a sharp, harsh cry, it made me want to pry him out with a knife.

Jason stopped asking questions.

“Trust him,” Doctor Cole said. “Trust me if you can. Do what the Kroplin says.”

Jason leaned into me, driving me down, stopping my threshing from having much of an effect. He brought one arm up and laced it through my arms – pulling them down from my face with the force of his armor-assisted strength.

I fought against it with all my might, but my strength wasn’t there – nothing was, just the light, twisting and spiraling around me.

My hands broke free from my face, but my eyes were still screwed tightly closed – like the bearings of a great spaceship holding the hull in place against the cold, airless vacuum of space. I couldn’t open my eyes to the outside; I would die, I knew that. No, worse than death – it would be worse than death.

I could feel Jason bring a hand up to my face.

No, no, no, no.

“Open them, child,” Od said. It was so loud; his voice was so loud. “Open them, human.”

Human. No, I wasn’t a human.

Jason touched his gloved fingers to my eyes, the pressure light but still gripping my skin. He was trying not to hurt me, trying so hard despite my efforts to push him off.

I bucked and heaved, trying with all my might to shove him off.

His fingers tried to pry apart my eyelids, gloves gripping onto the skin, hand anchored against my cheek.

“Mini,” he said, “Just let go – don’t fight it.”

Let go. Let go.

I lost the battle. He opened my eyes.

There wasn’t an explosion, no great spark of light, no pure flow of illumination erupting from my eyes. I didn’t feel it trickle down my face like some lost precious fluid.

I….

Jason was staring down at me, his helmet so dark above me.

I felt dazed, like I’d woken up from the longest, strangest dream. My head hurt – bursting with a pain that tried to eat through my temples.

I moaned – at least I think it was me. I was having trouble tracking things, understanding my environment – everything was such a blur.

“You can let her go,” Od said from somewhere. “It is done.”

“What’s done?” Jason released his hands from my face, standing back from me while still propping me up with his other arm. “What the hell was that?”

“Something ancient to this universe, something primal, something fundamental—”

“You aren’t answering my question.” Jason’s voice was so quick, so damning. “What was in her eyes?”

“A question for later—” Od began.

I’d found my voice, somewhere between the ache and confusion in my mind. I needed to know what had happened to me. “What was that?” I could feel myself swaying on my feet as if I was nothing more than a wisp of fog that was slowly, slowly solidifying back into some form. Jason held me so I couldn’t fall flat on my already aching ass.

“I think you have had the greatest lesson you could possibly receive on the origin on the Twixt.” Od’s statement was cryptic but struck at something in my heart like a knife snaking out from nowhere.

My thoughts were beginning to make sense again, normality returning like the tantalizing whiff of rain on the wind.

The origin of the Twixt. I had never thought about it, but everything has to begin somewhere. I hadn’t bothered to question where the Twixt had come from. They weren’t of this dimension – how could I even hope to fathom their origins?

Now the questions were lighting up within me, illuminating in flashes like candles lit in a dark room. Where did they come from, what were they, and had they always been Twixts?

My vision was blurry; I could hardly make out more than the Commander beside me. It was returning slowly, bringing with it the details of Jason’s suit – the matte finish of the metal, the shine along the seals, the curve of the shoulder.

He was facing me, head tilted down toward mine, helmet still on.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure if the question was directed at me or the room at large.

What do we do now?

I had to find out more; I had to answer the questions that were lodging themselves in my skin like bullets.

What were the Twixts? More importantly what was the light?

Chapter 13

Silence returned to the dig site. It was that kind of silence where you knew it was directed at you. People specifically weren’t talking to me. Of all those people, I noticed one more than anyone else – the good Commander.

Everything had obviously caught up to him – the monster, me, this general creepy dig site. He may routinely see a hell of a lot of bizarre in the big wide galaxy – but would this rock the boat?

“Are there any more of those things?” His helmet was still on, so I couldn’t see who he was asking. He turned to Doctor Cole, who was standing with her hands on her hips, staring off down the tunnel that led to the caved-in chamber.

“No.” She dusted a patch of dirt off the shoulder of her vest.

“Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

Seriously? That was it? They weren’t going to poke around this dig and discover the secrets of this ancient site? Presumably, none of the GAMs, not even the Commander, had ever seen anything like that creature before – so why throw away the opportunity to learn more?

“Get these people out of here,” Commander Cole spoke to the room at large. “The ship radioed in. Structural integrity of this chamber is fluctuating. Move.”

We did. It was an ordered affair – the GAMs escorting us up the ladder in single file, pulling us up at the top, and directing us toward the shuttle parked outside the circle of lights on the surface.

I looked up as I crested the ladder. There was the massive GAM cruiser above us – the air from its engine vents flattening my hair to my face, though the thing was several hundred meters up. The noise was amazing – pounding at the earth like 1000 drills all at once.

A GAM at the top of the ladder hooked an arm under mine and pulled me to my feet, motioning me toward the shuttle with a silent bowl of his arm.

Between the noise from the cruiser and the powerful light from the shuttle trained directly on the mine entrance – I felt less like I was on some alien moon and more like I was in one of the great shipyards of Central.

There were signs of battle. The deep black scorch marks that darkened every rock and patch of earth. Several of the standing lights that had once stood in a perfect circle around the mouth of the dig site lay on their side, either mangled into lumps of nearly unrecognizable metal or erupting into sparks – their light tubes leaking onto the scorched dirt.

It must have been one hell of a fight.

How had the GAM won? How had they even done it? How had they managed to get here in time? Had they been in the system? Or did they use the emergency hyperspace routes – the ones Central controlled that allowed for super-fast, emergency space travel?

It was becoming apparent to me as I looked around that I didn’t know much about space. I mean, underground digs on Crag moons with monsters made of light? Tarian Mercenaries attacking, GAMs streaking across space to save us? I didn’t have any experience with this, nothing to draw on whatsoever.

I had bigger questions to keep me breathing. And breathing was an issue – I’d left my helmet back in the chamber, and the air on this moon was thin. Not enough to kill me and pop me like a bubble in space, but enough to make me labor for each breath, my lungs hissing and puffing as they pumped and pumped.

They took me straight to the Med Bay. In fact, they took as all to the Med Bay, which was a huge facility far better stocked than the one on the station. This was a GAM Cruiser, and they obviously weren’t strangers to danger. The GAM didn’t just operate as a galactic security force – patrolling the borders, dealing with pirates, and keeping the peace on warring planets. They were also intended to be the first call in disaster response. They were equipped and trained to deal with situations like this. Well, maybe not like this.

All the dig team – even Crag’tal and Od – they were all being administered to, each with their own bed and medical scanner. There was this huge team of doctors and nurses walking amongst them, clicking their tongues and asking questions like “What the hell were you doing down there?”

Then there was me. I was off in a room at the back of the Med Bay with my own team of doctors. The CMO – Chief Medical Officer – was there. He was a big, burly man with a bustling mustache that looked more like a cat’s tail that had been strapped under his nose.

He was leaning over me, snapping orders to his staff as he peered ever so carefully at my eyes.

He didn’t say much, which wasn’t comforting. He wasn’t even rubbing his chin and proclaiming “Wow, what amazing eyes you have! I’ve never seen anything like them.” He was peering, unassisted by technology, right at my face then down at the data pad in his hands.

“Doesn’t make sense,” he grumbled.

“What doesn’t make sense?” I asked quietly, not wanting to draw his wrath when he was barely an inch from my nose.

He leaned back and cupped his chin in his hands. “So you can see?”

Well, that was a strange question. “Ah yeah, I can see.”

The Doctor walked away, typed something on some panel, and said something to one of his nurses. He stood at the other end of the room and held up three fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Was he doing really this? “Ah, three.” This was the future. We had more accurate medical tests than the old “how many fingers” to rely on.

The Doctor looked vaguely annoyed at this, like he would have preferred me to answer “18.”

“Is there… is there some kind of problem?” I was starting to sweat, breath coming harder. Had that light – that strange light from the Twixt – had it done something to my eyes? Was there a problem? Was I going to go blind or something?

The Doctor looked at his pad, sniffed, and shrugged his shoulders. “Yes and no.”

“Well, which is it? Is there a problem or isn’t there?”

“Pick one.”

“Ah—”

“You’ve got two sets of eyes there, as far as I can tell, and only one of them has the problem.”

What? What in the galaxy was this guy talking about? “That doesn’t make any sense – I don’t understand.”

“Hey, neither do I,” the CMO quipped back.

“Two sets of eyes?” someone said from behind us.

I turned to see the Commander leaning against the door, arms crossed. “She’s right, that doesn’t make any sense.”

The Commander was out of his heavy, black armor and in his standard black fatigues. I was starting to realize he didn’t have a large repertoire of colors in his wardrobe. I’d never even seen him in gray, let alone anything pastel.

The Doctor shrugged again, his huge shoulders stretching against his light brown uniform top. “You don’t see this kind of thing every other day, Commander. In fact, I’ve never seen it before. I mean, hell, I’ve never even seen anything remotely—”

“I’m starting to realize why you don’t like doctors, Mini; they get all vague around you. What are you talking about, Adams?”

“Her DNA is rewriting itself. It’s like some kind of retrovirus, except it isn’t a virus. As far as I can tell, sections of her own DNA are recombining on their own, essentially overwriting and changing extant code.” The Doctor had his hand up around his mouth as he stared off between us, deep in thought. “I’ve ticked off the possibilities here, Commander, and we aren’t dealing with a bioweapon, genetic engineering, even those fancy remote quantum-flux devices I hear Central are working on.”

“Prognosis?” The Commander didn’t uncross his arms or once look my way.

“I haven’t even gotten that far yet. I’m making this up as I go along—”

“Just what I want to hear from the CMO.” The Commander didn’t smile.

“You aren’t going to get anything clearer. Whatever that light was, it wasn’t light in the conventional sense. We aren’t even talking a spectrum shift. I’m not saying it was out of phase—”

“What are you saying?” the Commander cut in.

For once, I was finding his direct nature refreshing. I needed him around when I wanted answers from Od – Cole was like a conversation katana that would cut through the babble like a blade through cottage cheese.

“Beats me. The short of it is this – Mini over here was already a half-breed, and I don’t need to tell you alien DNA doesn’t combine well with humans. Unstable is the word I’d use to describe it; others may say it’s an accident waiting to happen. Background cosmic radiation, short time exposure to alpha or beta rays – hell, even too much sun can cause irreversible degradation in a half breed’s genetic structure. It’s not robust enough – doesn’t have the same—”

“Doctor,” the Commander uncrossed his arms and tapped a fist against the door frame behind him, “I don’t have time for science today. I’ve got Central breathing down my neck on this one. I’m going to need the short version around about now.”

“Got it, Commander. I don’t know what other species you are, kid.” The Doctor shrugged my way. “But your DNA isn’t the same as ours. In fact, it ain’t like any other alien race I’ve ever seen.”

I felt supremely uncomfortable as if I were standing naked in front of a panel of well-dressed judges ready to pick apart my history with a precision scanner and tell me what had always been wrong with me. “I’ve undergone genetic scans before. No one’s ever told me—”

“Wouldn’t have used tech like ours, wouldn’t have had the money. We have to give the Commander the short version here – and your DNA isn’t what’s interesting. Whatever light source you were exposed to on that planet – it’s a form of radiation I’ve never come across before. Now, for some reason, it only affected you – the soldiers in that room, as far as I can tell, were immune. I don’t know if it was their armor, but I can’t see that offering too much protection—”

“Are we going to have to be inoculated against radiation poisoning?” Cole interrupted, voice so quick it might as well have been a vocal whip.

“No, and here’s where it gets interesting. Ordinarily, radiation can cause damage to DNA, especially when the source is strong enough to penetrate the cell membrane. Whatever kind of radiation you encountered down there – that bright light you said came from inside that creature – Mini here copped an eyeful of it, literally. It has caused a massive genetic change in her eyes. That’s as far as it goes, for now.”

“Not following you, Adams.” Cole crossed his arms again, still not moving from the doorway.

The Commander was mirroring my own sentiment, because I wasn’t following a word, either. Radiation, cellular damage, DNA rewriting itself? I was a waitress, not a scientist. I needed the extremely simple version, preferably with a colorful diagram and the important words underlined.

Was there something seriously wrong with me?

“The damage to her genetic structure isn’t, well, damaging, as far as I can tell. These aren’t ordinary mutations. They’re adaptive, neat, fit in with the rest of her morphology without rocking the boat, as it were. It’s like,” Adams took a deep breath and stared at the data pad in his hands again, “Those comic books from old Earth. You know the ones where kids would fall into a vat of toxic waste or cop a face-full of gamma radiation but somehow develop powerful mutations, rather than dying like the rest of us would.”

He had completely lost me. Comic books? Vats of toxic waste? Was he a real doctor?

I looked over to the Commander, sure he would have an incredulous look on his face, his lips opening to form the words “Get on with it.” His eyebrows were knotted in concentration – as if he actually understood what was going on.

“The radiation should have killed her, or at least done some kind of irreparable damage – but it has facilitated adaptive mutations, instead. It’s like she has looked at the light of creation and walked away with a brand new set of eyes.”

I put a hand up to my face, fingers trembling slightly as I touched my eyes. Looked into the light of creation – what?

“I’m no physicist, Cole; I’m a doctor. I can only comment on what I’m seeing occur at a biological level. And right now every cell in Mini’s eyes might as well be dancing the cha cha – causing morphological changes faster than anything in any lab I’ve ever seen.”

“Is it dangerous?” Cole asked.

“No.”

“Can we stop it?” The Commander’s expression was completely neutral.

“No – not unless we remove her ey—”

“What?” I piped up, shuffling back on my bed.

“No one is going to remove your eyes, Mini. So that’s it, Adams? We’re dealing with a previously undiscovered form of radiation, one that causes specific but beneficial mutations?”

“I wouldn’t say that. It’s causing beneficial mutations in her,” he gestured at me with his data pad, “Because she’s got some strange alien DNA kicking around. I doubt it would have the same effect on you or me.”

“No one else in this crew is in any danger—” Cole began.

“Look, there’s no residual radiation, and I haven’t picked up any genetic abnormalities in anyone else from that site. We’re dealing with the strange, Commander, but not the deadly.”

Cole nodded once, and it was sharp and definite. “That’s all I need to know. Is she free to leave the Med Bay?”

Adams brushed down the sides of his mustache with one big hand. “Sure, but tell me if she drops dead.”

I squeaked.

“He’s joking.” Cole shook his head. “More used to dealing with rookies and marines. You’ve got the bedside manner of a Tarian Merc, Adams.”

“Except I don’t get paid half as much,” Adams managed through a laugh as he turned away.

I sat on the corner of the bed, not sure what to do next. I hadn’t understood enough of what the Doctor had been saying to know whether I was safe or not. To top it all off, I didn’t see what the problem was – I could see fine. Things looked the same as they had before. If my eyes were dancing the cha cha, wouldn’t I notice?

I sighed quietly. I wanted to go back to being a waitress at Marty’s Space Diner. My life was less of a life right now and more of a space opera.

“Come on,” the Commander motioned to me from the doorway, crossing his arms again, “We have to talk.”

My stomach sank quicker than a teacup tied to a 1000 ton rock pushed into the ocean. Oh dear.

I stood up and followed the Commander out of the Med Bay. He walked me through a wide corridor lined with other GAMs as they jogged about doing whatever it is they did when they weren’t fighting wars or drinking crappy space cocktails.

Eventually, we reached a room with a huge holounit in the middle. There were comfortable but still military-looking chairs set up all the way around the projector. It was obviously some kind of briefing room.

Od was sitting there, and Crag’tal and Doctor Cole too.

“This is where you all tell me what’s going on,” the Commander began.

I carefully took a seat closest to the door. I liked to think I had the option to run, though I wouldn’t be able to make it far.

“This is ridiculous, Jason,” Doctor Cole began, arms crossed just like her son’s had been moments before, “You can’t treat us like we’re—”

“I’ll tell you how I can treat you, Doctor Cole. I can treat you like a group of suspects wanted in connection with illegal genetic experiments and violation of the Central maxim not to create banned forms of life.” Jason didn’t bother to sit down; he stood directly next to the holounit, staring at us all in turn.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Doctor Cole blustered. “You know full well I didn’t create that thing. I found it—”

“Right.” Jason crossed his own arms. “If things like that were sitting around archaeological sites, waiting to be found – don’t you think we would have heard about it before?”

This time Doctor Cole snorted, and it was about as derisive as you could get. “Don’t you bring this up now, Jason. You know I’ve been finding things out about the Twixts my whole life—”

“The Twixts.” Jason took a deep breath and shook his head.

“Oh, you can’t be serious – you still don’t believe me?” Doctor Cole was sitting on the edge of her chair, body so tense it looked ready to snap up and bounce around the room like a spring under strain.

“I don’t know what to believe, because I still don’t know what happened down there.”

“Many things happened down there,” Od spread his arms wide. “Many.”

I winced and sucked in my lips. Now wasn’t the time for babbling Od to meet single-word-sentences Commander Cole. This would get ugly.

“Some things I would not have expected, some I didn’t even imagine possible,” Od continued.

Jason didn’t look amused. His lips weren’t frowning, but they were dead straight – as if he’d adjusted them with a level.

“I think that you are using the premise that you hold us here under suspicion of violating the Central law against banned genetic experiments as a ploy to pressure your mother into giving a more detailed version of events.” Od cupped his hands in his lap. “You do not believe that the creature you encountered on the Crag moon was the result of a sophisticated genetic experiment – you believe that your mother did find it. Though perhaps you do not go so far as to believe it is a Twixt, maybe a previously unidentified form of life. Perhaps from beyond the reaches of this galaxy—”

“Perhaps you should stop telling me what I believe, Kroplin.” Jason’s voice was careful but clearly dangerous.

“He’s right, Jason. I know you’re playing a game here. It doesn’t matter anymore – I’ll tell you everything. If you’ll listen. You just need to ask the right questions.”

“I have a waitress who can move faster than a battle mech, a Crag, a Kroplin, an unidentified creature that gives off unrecognized radiation, and my own mother right in the middle of it. What questions should I be asking? Does anybody want a cup of tea?”

I was about to answer that I would love a cup of tea, anything to hide behind, when I realized it was a joke question. I pressed my lips together and tried to become invisible.

“You’re like your father sometimes.” Doctor Cole shook her head.

Jason looked a strange mix of hurt and plain angered by that comment. “Start at the beginning and start now. I’m putting my ass on the line talking to you like this. My superiors want answers, and they wanted them yesterday. I thought if I talked to you all first it would be softer on you. If you don’t start cooperating, I will hand you over to someone else. No, they won’t be conducting this meeting in the briefing room.”

His non-specific threat hung in the air like the sword of Damocles – ready to strike us down should any of us grow any more comfortable or cocky.

“Several months ago, I received a message from the Rain Man,” Doctor Cole began with a sigh. “And before you ask, it’s a codename for—”

“I know who the Rain Man is, now keep going,” Cole said, voice less dangerous than before but still not something you would use to herd bunny rabbits.

“He said he had the location and funding for a site that was connected to The People—”

Jason took a massive breath and sighed, his chest looking like it would rip through his uniform. “The People – they’re a myth—”

“Jason, you’re asking me to tell you the truth, and this is what I’m doing. The Rain Man had the finances, the location, he even provided half of my team. He assured me it would be the find of a lifetime – and it was.”

“The find of a terminally short lifetime, maybe,” Jason added quietly. “Did he know what was down there? Did he give any indication—”

“No. He said his intel suggested it was an ancient site of The People – ruins or something. When we began our excavations, we realized something was up. We were receiving strange readings, way off the scale. By the time the main chamber was fully excavated…” Doctor Cole trailed off. “None of us could believe what we were looking at. I had at least five people leave the dig site that day – they couldn’t handle to look at that thing any longer.”

“Five people left? Can you confirm their identities? They may have been responsible for the Tarian Mercs—”

“I don’t know if they would have told on us, Jason, but I’ll give you their names. They weren’t my people – my people had the stomach to move on with the excavation. It wasn’t long after we had our discovery that those three turned up, uninvited.” She nodded in the direction of Crag’tal and Od.

Uninvited, that was one way to put it.

“What happened?” Commander Cole looked at me briefly, eyes meeting mine for the slightest moment before he dragged them away again to glare at his mother.

“Oh, it reacted to her.” Doctor Cole sat back, expression growing bitter. “Of all the beings in all the galaxy, she was the last thing I needed to come down that ladder.”

Jason’s eyes had practically disappeared under his crinkled eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

“Jason, you aren’t going to believe a word of it – but here it is, anyway. That thing was a Twixt, but not an ordinary one. My team and I are fairly confident in our hypothesis that that thing is what results from a Twixt that has been left in our dimension for too long. It becomes visible, distended—” Doctor Cole broke off before taking a large breath. “Now, I know you never believed the stories I told you as a child, but I also know you remember them. The only race capable of seeing and fighting the Twixts were The People. Your Mini over there is half-human, half-People.”

Jason looked at me, right at me. I couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t even hold his gaze. I felt like a bug under a microscope, waiting to find out whether the scientist would let me go or pin me to a board.

“The Twixt could smell it in her – knew the moment she walked in that chamber that she was a descendant of The People. It woke the damn thing up. Whatever containment had held it in check – I knew it wouldn’t last long with her around.”

“Pretend I believe you, Doctor Cole, and keep on going.” The Commander’s tone was completely unreadable.

I felt more nervous than I had in my whole life. What was going to happen after this conversation – what was Jason going to do?

“That’s when you rang, that’s when the Tarians came breathing down our necks. Don’t ask me what they were after – the Twixt or Mini – because I don’t know. It could have been either, or both.”

Me? The Tarian Mercs could have been after me? I hadn’t even considered that option before. Why would… how would they even know about me? What would they want?

“Now, as for their story,” Doctor Cole pointed my way. “You are going to have to ask them. I’ve told you everything, Jason. Who they are, where they came from, what they were after, why they showed up when they did, you’re going to need to ask her that.”

Commander Jason Cole turned to me. I could tell the questions were on his lips. Would I be able to answer them? Or would I crash and burn?

Chapter 14

This was the first time in my life I’d been in a situation like this. Never before had I been placed before the proverbial firing squad with one chance to justify my actions or die. That’s what this was – I could see the look in Jason’s eyes, the sheer intensity – this was a test for me.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I kept playing with them – touching my fingers together, running my thumbs along my wrists, flicking the tips of my nails.

Jason looked at me for another long moment. It might as well have been just the two of us in the room. His eyes were like a search beacon in a pitch-black night – plastering me against the wall with nowhere to run.

“This is where you tell me your story,” he prompted. “All of it,” he qualified with a growl, in case I was under any illusion that he wasn’t serious.

“I…” I took a breath as I spoke, and my voice piqued like a kazoo, “Well, I don’t know.”

“You start at the beginning,” he answered my question before I even had a chance to push it out. “You tell me where you came from, why you are here, and what you are.”

I flinched. No one should say what like that. Not unless they were looking at some kind of monstrosity or the unidentifiable scum you scrape of a spaceship that’s been through too many alien clouds.

“I…” my voice was so quiet, I could see him lean in to catch it, “You’ve already read my file.”

“What I know about you could hardly fill a half-page of a data pad. Your identity file was brief, to the point, didn’t contain any flags or red lights – no crimes or indiscretions. You were clean, so all I know about you is you’re a floater waitress who buys sophisticated weaponry and fights strange creatures with the agility of a battle mech. Forgive me if, under the current circumstances, I demand a bit more than that.”

I flinched, this time with the full-body jerk of someone who has had a bucket of space-cold water thrown over them as they slept. I couldn’t help it; Jason’s words were so frozen, so biting. In the Med Bay, on the planet – he’d been genuinely concerned about my welfare. Now he was ripping into me like a Crag attacking his steak at the dinner table.

He had two sides, I could see that now. One was the Commander, and one was Jason. I was clearly talking to the Commander now, and the Commander demanded to know everything. I wanted to believe that Jason was still under there somewhere – that this brave, tough act was more of a ploy at extracting information than how he really wanted to treat me. But I still couldn’t get past that look in his eyes. Commander Jason Cole wasn’t going to stop until he got what he wanted.

Okay. The beginning – he wanted to know everything from the beginning.

I took a breath so shallow it didn’t seem like any air reached my lungs at all. “I was found in an abandoned cruiser, Universal date 2573, Cycle 34. I don’t know much about the cruiser, what kind of ship it was, or where it came from. All I know is it was intercepted on a path to the GAM HQ – Station One – but you would know what headquarters are called,” I gave a small, pathetic laugh, “Because you’re in the Galactic Military and all—”

“Continue.” He kept his arms crossed as he leaned heavily on one hip.

“Oh, y-yeah. Well, as soon as they found me, they took me to Earth, set me up in an orphanage—”

“Why was your ship on an intercept course for Station One?” the Commander cut in, voice far louder than mine in this small room.

“I don’t know.”

“What did security scans of your ship reveal?” he fired another question at me.

“I… I never got any information. What Sister Mirabella told me—”

“Jason,” Doctor Cole interrupted, “Stop hounding her.” Doctor Cole was looking excited again – that same fire leaping up behind her eyes as it had the first time she’d met me. “You said your ship had been on an intercept for Station One?”

I nodded, happy to look at someone else other than the fuming Commander.

“Doctor Cole,” Jason’s voice was full to the brim with warning, “This is my interview—”

“That’s why we couldn’t find you.” Doctor Cole sat back in her chair, a half-smile fattening up one cheek. “God knows we looked on every planet we could – but you weren’t on a planet; you were in a goddamn space ship.”

“Doctor Cole—” Jason turned to his mother, arms uncrossing but forming far more menacing fists at his sides.

“That still doesn’t explain,” Doctor Cole continued, obviously ignoring her son, “Where you’ve been for the past thousands of years.”

I stopped. My mind ground to a halt. Thousands of years?

I felt my mouth drop open, my lips parting without any conscious act of my own. “S-sorry?” I stumbled over the word. Thousands of years? What kind of game was the Doctor playing? Was she trying to annoy her son into blowing us all out an airlock?

“What the hell are you talking about—” Jason began, arms once again crossing, but this time with a stiff readiness that looked like he was trying to put a Crag into a headlock.

“Thousands of years.” Doctor Cole looked up defiantly at her son. “You may not choose to believe me, Jason, but that won’t stop me from speaking the truth. That’s when the last of Mini’s people died. That’s when she must have been born – the end of the last Twixt War.”

I caught a glance at Jason’s face. His expression was two parts pure frustration to one part exasperation. “I don’t need you making up stories, Doctor Cole. I imagine Mini can do that for herself.”

“Thousands of years?” I repeated, voice hollow as if I were mindlessly repeating some phrase I didn’t know the meaning of. “How—”

“Stasis, maybe,” Doctor Cole shrugged. “Cryo. The Technology would certainly have existed. It makes sense the more I think about it. Set you on a ship with enough evasive maneuvers built into its programming that it will avoid stars and any damn populated area of space – they could be certain you would arrive at the time you were needed. If they’d left you on a planet, who knows what wars could have ravaged it, what random spatial anomalies could have befallen it – space is still, dark, and safe, for the most part.”

I stared at Doctor Cole with the same expression of complete incomprehension that Jason had – except Jason’s looked far more dangerous than mine.

“Doctor Cole,” he tried again, “Stop—”

“No, Jason, I’m not going to stop. This is important, very important. She needs to know where she came from far more than you do.”

“Thousands of years.” My voice was more certain of itself. “Floating in space, alone, in cryo?”

“Yes.” The Doctor nodded her head sharply. “The perfect plan. A ship floating in some quiet, quiet cluster with a program built in telling it to avoid any signs of life, other ships, and anomalies. Floating as the millennia pass. Waiting until the right time came—”

Jason let out a massive sigh and cupped his brow in one large hand. “Goddamn it, mother, you can’t honestly be suggesting a ship could run that long – run cryo, run an evasive navigational program for that long. No ship would have the energy, the fuel – life support would burn out after the first 100 years. We’re talking thousands of years ago – you think they had effective scanner tech? You think they could develop an evasive navigational program sophisticated enough to keep a lone cruiser out of contact of everything for that long?”

“Jason, we aren’t talking about a race with our level of technology. You may not believe in The People, the Twixt, or anything else I’ve ever studied. Even you aren’t stupid enough to deny that there have been races in this galaxy, beyond this galaxy, that have demonstrated far more technological sophistication—”

“Okay, so you’re telling me an ancient, highly sophisticated ship took her,” he gestured to me over his shoulder, “To Station One. Station One didn’t bother to have a poke around the advanced alien tech? Didn’t bother to run tests on the kid that appeared on their doorstep—”

“I don’t know, Jason,” Doctor Cole snapped. “I can’t answer what tests your GAM may or may not have performed. You’re the one in the army – why don’t you go and ask?”

Things were degenerating into another mother-son battle, except this time with an edge. At least for me. They were tit-for-tatting over the possibility of me having been set adrift in space for thousands of years. This was stupid. “I think Ja- I mean, the Commander – is right on this one. I think if I’d been found on an alien ship that had been drifting in space for thousands of years, the GAM wouldn’t have let me go. I grew up normally. Well, as normally as any halfy floater, anyway. If I’d arrived on the literal doorstep of the GAM in an advanced, unknown vessel, I don’t think they would have ever let me go.”

“Perhaps you had assistance in escaping, child,” the Doctor said, voice much quieter.

“What does that mean?” Jason spat. “You need to stop spinning fairy tales, Doctor Cole. Here we deal with facts and probabilities, not the remotest fantasies that entertain your mind. If you want to believe Mini is some prophesied child who harkens from a mysterious long-lost race that abandoned her in space so she may one day return to fulfill some warped destiny – go ahead. I’m going to need more than your word on that—”

“I do not believe this conversation will yield promising results,” Od spoke, causing everyone to turn his way. “A demonstration of considerable effect – I believe that will be the only thing to convince the Commander.”

Jason cocked his head Od’s way. “What do you have in mind?” Jason cast his eyes in my direction.

My heart skipped several beats, my eyes widening at the prospect of having to give the Commander a demonstration.

“Unfortunately,” Od shook his head sorrowfully, “We have nothing at this point.”

Jason rolled his eyes, the weariness at their edges crinkling the skin and making him look much older than his years. “You’re wasting my time—”

“The answers you seek, and those that Mini herself requires, can only be found with the Rain Man.”

“The Rain Man?” I spoke before the Commander could. My sheer confusion at the conversation was starting to catch up with me. I was a ball of worry and frustration, and I couldn’t sit here any longer as people made the most fanciful claims about me. “Who is he?”

“He’s a librarian.” The Commander’s voice was softer and had lost the interrogator’s edge.

He was such an enigma – one moment kind, the next a harsh galactic commander. You ask him for his assistance, and he’d leap to your side – get in his way while he’s protecting the needy, and he’d likely shoot you on the spot.

I swallowed the smile that crept to my lips.

… Sorry, had he said librarian?

Jason could obviously see my disbelief because he put up a hand quickly. “We’re not talking about a regular librarian. The Rain Man travels the galaxy collecting information – all the literary, historical, cultural, and technological works of every race he comes across. Technically, it’s them, not him. They are a long-lived race who make it their life’s work to collect and store the information of the galaxy.”

“I’ve never even heard of them.”

“You work in a diner.” Jason’s voice was to the point. “Why would you have?”

He had a point there. Still, a race that traveled the galaxy collecting every book ever written? Why hadn’t we started there on our quest to find out more about The People, rather than heading to some random Crag moon? “I don’t get it, If this Rain Man, or Rain Men, or whatever – if they have all this information, why didn’t we go there first?”

Jason looked ready to laugh, his half-smile pumping up his cheek and giving him more color than he’d had all day. “You’re asking me this? I’m the one supposed to be asking you why you showed up on a private dig site on a Crag moon.”

I turned to Od.

“The Rain Man is hard to find.” Od sat forward and looked up at the plain ceiling above us. “Or at least the Rain Man we are after, anyway. Through certain channels and at certain times one can make remote contact with him. Never in person. The most I have ever received are data messages, encrypted files. The information we would seek may be in his collection, but how to find him?”

“Can’t you ask him? I mean, if he contacts you – if he told Doctor Cole about the dig site, if he seems to care about this situation enough to know something about it – can’t you ask him to help us?” Frustration twisted through my gut. I felt like I was constantly being pushed around in a circle, blindfolded with no control over where I was going and in what direction I would be thrust next.

“It is complicated,” Od began.

“This whole thing is complicated and getting more and more convoluted by the minute. I want straight answers. Why were you at that dig site, and what are you doing gallivanting across the galaxy?” Jason turned to me again, but this time he’d lost his harsh edge – I could still see the tired desperation behind his eyes, but most of the fight had gone out of him.

I felt weary, too. I needed to be alone to try to figure things out. “We were looking for weapons,” I said, voice even but distant. “I left the station because I fought a Twixt. Well, two Twixts. I didn’t believe it at first – when this tiny, red alien told me I was the descendant of some kind of… of something different. Some ancient race with the ability to see the Twixts, to fight them.” I shrugged. “I got his point when that ghost ship came to the station, and I saw that thing in the cargo bay.”

“That was you? Ripped white blouse.” The Commander let out a mirthless chuckle.

I looked away quickly. “That was me. Then again in your engineering bay.” My voice was cracking, but I didn’t care; I wanted to get everything out. I was sick of keeping secrets. It wasn’t getting me anywhere. The more I thought I was protecting, the more I realized I didn’t know.

The Commander was a dark shape in my peripheral vision as I stared at some scuff mark on the floor. What his expression was, what his body language entailed – I was too scared to look over to check.

“The Twixt was inside one of your cores – doing I don’t know what. You drew it out. I tried to fight it,” I smiled vaguely, still staring off into the distance, “Except I didn’t know how to make my gun work.”

“So you threw it, instead?”

“Yeah. After the fight, we managed to get the gun back.” I flinched as I spoke, but I had to keep going. I felt it was important for me to own up to everything right now. Even if the Commander wouldn’t believe me, it didn’t matter. I had to tell the truth and hope he wouldn’t pull his pistol from his holster and shoot me. Of all the people in this room, the Commander was the only person who hadn’t lied to me, hadn’t refused to share information with me.

“Yes, you did.” the Commander’s was much quieter now. “And I’d like to know how at some point.”

“We went off-station. They said we’d be going somewhere to look for artifacts or something. We ended up on that moon where you found us. I’m not sure what we were expecting to find, but that Twixt thing that was a surprise.”

I looked up.

He was looking my way.

“I don’t expect you to believe me,” I added quietly, “And I don’t have any evidence to back up what I’m saying. Od used to have a trapped Twixt in some kind of containment field, but that’s destroyed now.”

He nodded.

“If what Od says is right, and the Rain Man is the only one with real evidence, I guess you aren’t ever going to believe us if we can’t meet him. I don’t know what happens now,” I was careful with my words, saying them so slowly and clearly they sounded like a prayer, “But you need to know that Doctor Cole didn’t have anything to do with this. We turned up at her dig site, unannounced and uninvited. Crag’tal, he doesn’t have anything to do with this either – he tagged along for this bit of the mission. Even Od, well, he didn’t do anything wrong – I was the one who boarded those ships illegally.” I left out the bit about Od shutting down the security systems and showing me the way because the Commander didn’t need to know that. “So if anyone deserves to be punished over what happened – it’s me.” I put a hand to my chest and rested it there. I could feel my heart beating through my ribcage, shifting my fingers up and down.

The Commander didn’t say anything for a long, agonizing moment. “Let’s say I believe you. Let’s say I think, for one moment, that a diner waitress had the smarts to illegally board a GAM Cruiser, to obtain high-tech weaponry, to plot a course to a Crag moon. You honestly willing to fall on your sword – take the blame? Now, we aren’t at war, but disabling security systems on GAM ships still counts as treason. You know what the punishment for that is?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to tell you what the punishment is, or do you want to start telling the truth, instead?”

“I am telling you the truth. I don’t know what’s going on, and yeah, I’m still a crappy diner waitress – but I don’t lie. I’m not lying now. I’ve made some pretty stupid mistakes. I don’t have the smarts as you said; I’m a halfy floater. But there’s one thing that I do know,” I looked right at the Commander, concentrated on staring right into his eyes, “Those Twixts are real. You can’t see them; I can. Believe me, Commander, they are there.”

We stared at each other for perhaps an eternity until he pulled his gaze away.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he repeated, this time with far less finality and with a broken glance my way. “But I’m not above asking a few questions.”

I became still – that calm, unbelieving still you get after you realize a sudden movement from your side was not an attack but the innocent flutter of some leaf. Was the Commander… was he going to let me off?

“If both of you say the Rain Man has something to do with this,” the Commander sighed heartily, “Well, I can put in a request for an audience.”

Od practically popped at that. “You, you can do that? He will ignore – he will ignore you!”

Jason shifted his neck from side-to-side. “I’m a Commander in the GAM; I’d like to think I demand I bit more respect.”

Doctor Cole snorted. “It’s not going to work, Jason – the Rain Main doesn’t drop what he’s doing and race across the galaxy on the whim of some—”

“No, Doctor Cole, it works just like that. If the GAM wish to peruse leads in investigations into threatening situations – and I’m not taking a leap when I classify your friend on that moon as threatening – we have the authority to demand practically anything. You may not like it, but that’s how the galaxy works.”

Doctor Cole was silent, eventually giving a shrug and shifting back in her chair. “Whatever you say, Jason. If you can honestly line up a face-to-face meeting with the Rain Man – well, I might start sending you Christmas cards again.”

The Commander cast a confused glance his mother’s way then looked back at us. “If this Rain Man has all the answers, we’ll soon find out what they are.”

I sat up straight, letting my hands rest still by my side. “Are you serious? You can meet with him? Won’t it take weeks, months – or god knows how long to get to him? You can’t divert your whole ship. Where is his planet—”

The Commander put up a hand to stop my chatter. “The Rain Men live on ships; they aren’t planet based. They are a flotilla of massive libraries. We find the Rain Man you’re after, put in the official request – and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle. No, I won’t be diverting my whole ship. Depending on where he wants to meet, we will either rendezvous at a station, meet on a planet, or I will take a light cruiser to his vessel.”

Od jumped to his feet, his face as round and happy as a lollipop.

The Commander shifted back, eyes narrowing at the sudden movement. Surely, even he could see Od was popping with enthusiasm, not rippling with danger.

“You will honestly meet the Rain Man? You?”

The Commander looked my way quickly, and it was clear he was equal parts surprised and amused – wanting to know whether to take Od seriously. “Ah, yes.”

“You will take us with you? You will take us to meet the Rain Man? It will bring hope to this quest – he will have information, maybe even artifacts – he will know things I have no hope of finding elsewhere—”

I tried not to laugh at the exasperated look on the Commander’s face. It was like he was dealing with an excited child who wouldn’t stop recounting the fantastic day they’d had at the zoo.

It was funny how things could change so quickly. Five minutes ago, I was dead sure the Commander would throw me out an airlock for illegally boarding his cruiser – now I couldn’t stop smiling as he was overwhelmed by an enthusiastic, tiny alien.

Was he actually serious? Could he arrange a meeting with the Rain Man? What would the Rain Man have to say?

Just as I started to imagine an entire ship stuffed full of books with a strange, wonderful alien at its center – the mood changed.

“Not going to work,” Crag’tal spoke up for the first time. “What about Tarian Mercs?”

The Tarian Mercenaries – I’d forgotten all about them.

“Tarians don’t give up,” Crag’tal rumbled, his voice far deeper than even the Commander’s. “They keep trying until get what they want.”

The Commander uncrossed his arms, lifted his head slightly until the muscles of his neck were taut and visible, and looked at Crag’tal without any hint of a smile. “I don’t need a lesson in the psychology of a Tarian—”

“They haven’t got what they’re after – they don’t stop until they do,” Crag’tal repeated. “Not lesson – fact.”

The look on the Commander’s face was not nice. It suggested that maybe Jason didn’t like Crag’tal.

“Well,” I started speaking before I’d even opened my mouth properly, eager to distract the Commander from enraging the bull Crag. “Maybe they want you to believe that. I mean, if they were after the Twixt – that’s long gone. So wouldn’t they give up—”

“Don’t know what after – might not be gone. Could be you.” Crag’tal was even more to the point than the Commander.

I felt sick. “That’s silly,” I rallied. “I’ve never even met a Tarian…” I trailed off, realizing my line of reasoning was about as flawed as Jason’s desire to anger Crag’tal. Was I honestly suggesting that the Tarians couldn’t be after me because they’d never met me? As if they only carried out mercenary activities against family and friends? Or perhaps required a “Getting to know you” session before they sniped you from afar.

“This is a GAM Cruiser – even if the Tarians come back, we can take ‘em.”

Tarian Mercs, the Rain Man, the Commander, my mother, thousands of years alone in space – there was a lot for me to think about. There was no way I was going to get any sleep tonight.

What made it all worse was the fact I didn’t have a Hipop to cuddle up to. He’d been left behind on the planet. Though, thankfully, Crag’tal had arranged for him to be picked up and looked after. It meant I would be alone, facing whatever would come next with only the people in this room.

I looked at the back of the Commander’s head as he tried to settle Od down – the Kroplin was still dancing at the prospect of meeting the Rain Man. Could I trust Jason? Everything was in his hands now. He had the power to make or break this – to send me off to prison or set me on my way. It was all types of agonizing waiting to find out which one he’d choose.

Chapter 15

When I thought things were settling down, when I thought I’d have time to draw a few calming breaths and look back on this last crazy chapter in my life – something else happened. The Commander asked me to stay behind as he motioned everyone else out of the room. Apparently, he wanted to talk to me.

I sat still in my chair, my feet crossed and my hands clasped in my lap. I couldn’t imagine what else he wanted to talk about. Surely, this was the part where things would start happening – where we’d fly across the galaxy to meet the Rain Man and get some questions answered. No, he wanted to talk more. But what more was there possibly to talk about?

I watched Jason motion his mother out of the room. I paid careful attention to his face as he looked her way. When Doctor Cole had her back to her son, I could see Jason’s expression soften – see the stiff angle of his jaw shift down, see the crinkles around his eyes loosen. There it was again – the two faces of Commander Jason Cole. It was obvious that, underneath, he still loved his mother regardless of how apparent his frustration with her was.

He had a lot of levels, a rugged terrain to navigate – getting to know Jason was hardly a walk in the park.

“So,” he began before he’d even turned around, “I need to ask you one more question.”

I sucked my bottom lip in so quickly, it made a watery pop. One more question? Was this the bit where he would demand to know how I’d gotten that gun back or how I’d gotten onto his cruiser? Was this the bit where he told me that once this was all over, once the Rain Man had told him it was all a fantasy, that he’d be sending me straight to the brig?

“You don’t need to look like that,” he said as he leaned against the wall near the doors, arms crossed yet again. “I’m not going to execute you.”

I tried for a cute, off-the-cuff laugh, but it wouldn’t come out. Instead, I smiled, and showed about as much tooth as a monkey under attack.

“It’s just one question.” He moved off from the door and sat in a seat opposite me on the other side of the room.

“Oh, okay. What would you like to know?” I couldn’t shift my distressed monkey-smile. It was obviously my human side shining through – hearkening back to the days when a good show of the pearly whites and a couple of gums was the clearest indicator that someone thought they were about to get ripped apart.

Jason looked at me then looked away, laughing quietly. “It’s honestly just a question; I’m not going to throw you out of the airlock if you get it wrong. You can relax.”

Relax. Right.

“Can you trust them?” Jason’s expression changed, shifted back into the serious Commander.

“Who?” I clutched my hands tightly, but I already knew who he meant.

“Your traveling companions. The Crag, the Kroplin, even my mother – can you trust them?”

My team. My friends if that’s what they were. One of the first things Od had told me was to be careful of who I chose to trust. I guess that rule extended to the Kroplin too.

Could I trust them? They hadn’t given me any reason not to. Crag’tal had helped us when he could have walked away; Od had guided me when he could have sent me to assured peril; even the Doctor had chosen to let us stay at her dig site when she could have booted us out with a gang of angry post grads at her side.

He was looking at my eyes – doing that thing where you pay such close attention to the pupils that you must constantly shift between each. I watched his gaze dance to and fro and tried to think.

Could I trust them? Of… course I could trust them. They’d helped me out this far, right? The only reason I was alive was because of them.

“Mini, can you trust them?” Jason repeated. “How long have you known these people? Do you even know what you are doing with them?”

Several weeks – that’s all I’d known Od and Crag’tal for. As for the Doctor, barely a day. Did that matter? I may not be bosom buddies with them, but did I need to know everything about their personal histories to travel with them, to save the galaxy with them?

“Some part of you must realize this is…” the Commander paused as he searched for the right word, “Unusual. Kroplins aren’t adventurous; they’re a dispersed, spiritual, quiet race. Crags, well, they’re usually a barrel of guns, fight, and fury. Even my mother – she doesn’t rally around causes, not unless she can see a research grant at the end of them.”

I shrugged, but the move intended to show my casual reaction to his statement was sullied by several quick blinks. I didn’t want him to see that his words were affecting me – that I could possibly think for one moment that I couldn’t trust my friends.

“I’ve been in the GAM a long time. I’ve been across the galaxy, been to countless worlds, seen pretty much every race sophisticated enough to hurl a titanium can through space at light speed. I haven’t ever seen anything like this.”

I shrugged again, but it died halfway up my shoulders, leaving them hanging there, stiff and stuck like a computer frozen in mid-calculation. “That doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes…” I took a calming breath, “Sometimes we can’t see everything that’s there.”

He knew I was talking about the Twixts. He smiled wanly. “If you can’t see something, isn’t that the only indication we have that it isn’t there? Science, technology, this future – it was built on observation, careful empirical observation and experimentation. If you can’t observe it, if you can’t interact with it – it isn’t there. Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t a creature down on that moon, or there wasn’t some kind of anomaly in the engineering bay. Does it make any sense to think it’s some long-lost entity that resides between dimensions, that feeds off light, that is hell bent on destroying this galaxy—”

“No. Maybe it doesn’t make sense.” My voice was stronger, far stronger. Now I was talking about something I was sure about. Maybe I wasn’t one hundred percent certain I could trust everyone, but they’d have time to prove that to me. The Twixts – I didn’t need any more time, any more fights to know for certain they existed. I felt it, knew it, saw it with every part of me. The Commander could question me all day, but I wasn’t about to deny that. “That doesn’t matter. Not everything in this universe is supposed to make sense. Sometimes you have to believe that things will work out. You’re right, I’ve only just met these guys – but I still trust them.” My voice was as certain and firm as it was going to get, “Just as I know that the Twixts exist. And just as I trust in you.” I don’t know why I added the last bit – it just came out.

Jason looked surprised, confused, and something else. He sat back, crossed his arms again, and looked for all the world like he was gazing at some curious painting in a gallery. “You don’t know me – you hardly know anything about me.”

I shrugged; this time it was easy, casual, indifferent. “That’s okay. I hardly know anything about myself, too.”

“You’re a strange girl,” Jason said as he stood up, tugging firmly on his uniform top.

“These are strange times,” the words came to my mind before I could think them through. That was one of the first things he’d said to me, wasn’t it? These are strange times….

Jason smiled – both sides of his mouth, both cheeks, both eyes. “You remembered that? And, yes, these are strange times. I’ll have to just have to wait and see if they are as strange as you’d have me believe.”

He opened the door and started to leave.

“Hold on.” I jumped to my feet. “What happens now?”

“I work.” he didn’t bother to turn, just let his voice filter back into the room. “You wait.”

“For how long? I mean, is this going to take months, weeks, days, hours—”

“Short answer is I don’t know. Depends where this Rain Man is and how long it will take to convince him that my request is binding and serious.”

“So I wait? What do I do? There must be something—”

“I can give you limited access to the core computer, very limited. It’s not going to be anything like what the Rain Man has, but you might be able to find something.”

He was halfway out the door now.

“Jason – I mean Commander – one more thing.”

He half-turned.

“Why… why are you letting me go?”

“These are strange times.” With that, the doors closed behind the Commander, leaving me alone in the room.

Strange times…?

By the time I was set up in my quarters, things had quietened in my mind, at least a touch. The Commander had insisted on placing a guard outside my quarters. He’d also lumped me into a room with his mother. They couldn’t afford to waste space, the ensign who’d directed me to my room had said, nor guards.

I didn’t mind so much for the company, though every now and then Doctor Cole would get this far-away look in her eyes as she gazed at me. I would feel like some sample under the containment field – completely at the whim of the scientist peering my way.

“Jason can be such a fool sometimes,” Doctor Cole said as she shuffled a pile of data pads on the only desk in the small room, “But damn clever when he has to be – not that I’d ever say that to his face, of course. Meeting with the Rain Man – if he actually pulls it off, I’ll…” she trailed off as she became distracted by something on one of her data pads.

I didn’t reply; what was there to say? I didn’t want to be drawn into a fight between Doctor Cole and the Commander – I could guarantee such a situation would be more fatal than meeting the entire Twixt Army head on. The more I listened to Doctor Cole’s mumbles, the more I wondered. How had Jason grown up; why had he become a GAM; why didn’t he believe his mother?

“I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to achieve with…” the Doctor trailed off again, still plowing through her data pads, pulling them out and flicking through them with such sharp concentration.

I walked around the room, not that there was much to see. There were two simple beds, a desk, and a small, round window that looked out over one of the great port engine vents. I could see the slight discharge ripple behind us as we plowed through space at speeds once thought impossible. It was funny how things worked like that – how concepts confined to our wildest imaginings could one day become real.

Would the Twixts soon become as real to the galaxy as hyperspeed?

“How do you know Jason, anyway?” The Doctor’s voice was a lot stronger, a lot sharper – a lot less like a dreamy ramble.

“Oh,” I turned from the window, “We met on the space station I work… used to work at.”

“That’s it?” Doctor Cole was going to be relentless in her questions, just like her son.

“He saved me from an altercation. Made me go to the Med Bay – that’s the first time I met him.”

“Saving a damsel in distress,” the Doctor snorted, “Sounds like Jason. Though, who am I kidding? Saving anyone in distress sounds like Jason. The boy is incorrigible.”

I frowned. That sounded like a strange thing to say for someone who was obviously so smart. Was the Doctor about to admonish her son for being a hero? What kind of a mother wouldn’t want a son who swept around the galaxy saving people in need?

“You should have seen him when he was a boy – he’d get into all sorts of fights at school with the bullies. He’d see one of the alien children or one of the mixed breeds being picked on – and it would be fist cuffs at noon. I had to take him to the doctors so often, put derma gel on his cuts and bruises.” The Doctor had a wistful look on her face. “It’s no wonder he turned out the way he did – traipsing around the galaxy putting his nose into fights that don’t concern him.”

“You aren’t proud of him?” I crossed my arms, cupping my elbows in my hands, not wanting the move to seem too confrontational.

“Proud of him?” She looked up, about as shocked as someone who’d witnessed a purple elephant float past the view screen of their cruiser. “Of course I’m proud of him. Doesn’t mean he isn’t an idiot.”

“I don’t get it.” I let my arms swing gently by my sides, my fingers catching at the hem of the plain, functional clothes I’d borrowed off the Doctor.

“Contradictions make the galaxy spin, Mini, especially where children are concerned. I’m guessing you aren’t a mother.”

I shrugged.

“Though I guess you are more than old enough,” the Doctor chuckled, “Far too old to be listening to the rambling wisdom of someone like me.”

It took me a second to realize the Doctor was talking about her theory that I was, in fact, thousands of years old; a point that was going to take me a lot of convincing to believe.

“Having children is like giving birth to space-time anomalies. No matter where they go, what they do, how smart you held yourself to be before you had them – they will confuse you. They will do the impossible, make you wonder every moment of every day why they do what they do. I love Jason, of course I do, and I’m proud of him. That doesn’t mean I have to understand everything he does or agree with it. I find his actions inconceivable at times, illogical even – but a part of me still respects him. I can bang my head against the wall all I want, wailing about how hard he seems to make things, how he has this knack for complicating stuff and blowing things out of proportion. In the end, that’s the paradoxical love of a mother for her son.”

The Doctor’s face was so clearly alive; her mouth forming every word with passion, her eyes narrowed and blazing.

“He’s a lot like you,” I said off-hand, only realizing afterward that this might insult the Doctor. If she thought her son always made things hard for himself, always muddled things up – she wasn’t going to be pleased if I pointed right back at her and told her she did the same.

The Doctor shrugged. “I know, and his father too.”

“His father? Who was he?”

The Doctor swallowed and didn’t try to hide it. “Michael was a GAM, like Jason. Except, unlike Jason, he didn’t always know the difference between right and wrong. Hell, Michael knew but didn’t always do. I loved his passion, his enthusiasm, his rebellious streak – but his life was always going to catch up with him.”

“What do you mean?” I didn’t want to interrogate Doctor Cole, but I couldn’t let go of this opportunity, either. I was finding out more about the Commander in several minutes than I could hope to find out in a hundred conversations with the man himself. The more I heard, the more I realized I wanted to know about Jason. The Commander, the enigma.

“Michael twisted the law – changed the rules to suit himself, even added pretend ones to justify his more outlandish schemes. It came from a good place, I think. Or at least it did to begin with. You can’t go through the galaxy operating from your own liberal interpretations of the rules and expect to succeed – well, not if you’re a GAM. It works wonders for mercs, gun runners, pirates, riffraff – practically everyone else – just not GAMs.”

“He was—” I began.

“Corrupt,” Doctor Cole got there first. “Rotten as a chunk of that fish Crags like to eat so much. Bad to the bone. Michael would make money on the side, deal out justice as he saw fit. Like I said, I’m pretty sure it came from a good place to begin with. But it all caught up to him – as it was bound to do.” The Doctor sighed so heavily I actually saw her chest heave up and down under her plain, brown vest. “That may be why Jason is the way he is today. Overcompensating for a crooked past.”

Commander Jason Cole had a corrupt father? Wow. It was hard to believe yet made so much intuitive sense at the same time. Jason was by-the-book, almost to a fault – and what better reason to be that way than to avoid all the stigma of a rotten lineage? “But, but why did Jason join the GAM?”

Doctor Cole laughed briefly. “Oh, you couldn’t stop Jason from donning the Galactic badge, grabbing a gun, and going out to save the needy. It was in,” she chuckled again, “His blood. No, he wasn’t going to let his father ruin his dream. It wasn’t easy for Jason; it was never going to be easy. Michael was a Colonel – a high rank, the kind of lofty position where, when word gets out of corruption, it tends to stick. Jason had to prove himself from the moment he enlisted, and he hasn’t stopped proving himself since.”

“So where is his dad now – where’s Colonel Michael Cole?”

“Prison Alpha 12. Oh yeah, he’s still alive, still hanging over the family name like a laden cloud ready to drown us at any moment. It wasn’t easy for Jason growing up, and it wasn’t easy for me to continue my work, either.”

I watched in silence, a conciliatory smile on my lips.

“It wasn’t Jason’s mistake – it was my choice to bring Michael into my life. Jason is the one who has had to pay….” The Doctor became silent and rubbed a hand across her brow in a Commander Cole move. “That’s well, that’s why our relationship is as complicated as it is. I know, well I think Jason doesn’t blame me. It doesn’t help that my work is what it is. I know most of the galaxy thinks I’m crazy. My work is controversial, considered insane and a waste of credits and time.” The Doctor relaxed back into her chair, though slump might have been a more appropriate word – her shoulders collapsed in on themselves. “So Jason’s had to distance himself from his father and me. It was the only way he was going to be accepted amongst his peers.”

I wanted to rush over and give the Doctor a hug, though she didn’t seem to be the type to respond to random acts of tactile compassion. I could see the deep furrows in her brow, the drop to her chin – the emotion were held in check only by her iron-cast will. It was clear she loved her son, was proud of his decisions but blamed herself for his mistakes, for his hardships.

“Jason has to distance himself,” she repeated. “I understand why. That doesn’t mean… that doesn’t mean he has to be so stupid about it. Anyone else wouldn’t require such lengthy and exotic evidence to make them believe in the Twixts. Hell, he saw one twice if he was in the engineering core with you. I’m afraid that’s the way it’s going to be. Jason is going to distrust this whole thing until we find a way to shove the uncomfortable truth down his throat. If it were anyone else, this wouldn’t be so hard. Wrapped up in Jason’s psychology is the need to believe I’m wrong – the need to physically, emotionally and mentally distance himself from me. Otherwise, he wouldn’t survive in the GAM, and he lives only for them.”

I nodded in perfect silence. I didn’t want to add a word to that, didn’t want to state my opinion, didn’t want to try to make her expand on what she’d already said. The Doctor had poured out her soul to me, and I had no right to ask for more.

So that was why Jason was so hell bent on not believing me? In his mind, he was either a capable GAM commander, or he was the son of a corrupt Colonel and crackpot academic. His whole identity was wrapped up in this situation in ways I couldn’t begin to fathom.

“It’s going to take a lot to make Jason believe you or believe in you,” Doctor Cole held my gaze evenly, “But if you do manage to swing him around to your side – there will be no other ally like him. He’ll fight for you right up until the end, and knowing his tenacity, even further. It’s not going to be easy and, trust me, it’s going to be frustrating as hell watching him make up all sorts of reasons why the Twixt in front of him is anything but. I have a feeling you can do it.” The Doctor smiled. “You’ve already convinced him to seek out the Rain Man.”

“He chose to do that himself.”

“Voluntarily seek out a member of one of the most elusive races in the galaxy, divert his ship, explain to his superiors why he appears to be going on a wild goose chase – you honestly think these are things Jason would usually do? No way. Trust me on this – Jason did those things because deep down he believes in you. Or something like that.” She smiled again, and I realized she wasn’t directing it at me – this was far more personal. “Inch-by-inch, he’s putting his neck on the line for us, for you. That’s a start.”

“But, but I don’t want him to get in trouble—” I began.

“Not your problem. Your problem is bigger than me, than Jason – about as big as this whole galaxy. You have to concentrate on the Twixts – it’s why you’re here, why you’re now. Jason can look after himself.”

“He shouldn’t have to give up the GAM – he shouldn’t have to—”

“Inter-dimensional beings made of twisted light shouldn’t be planning to destroy our entire galaxy; I shouldn’t have married a corrupt know-it-all; Jason should lighten up. If you get bogged down in shouldn’t-have-been’s and should-be’s, you never get anything done.”

I didn’t open my mouth to protest, though the words were there. I didn’t want to bring people into this, didn’t want to unnecessarily complicate the lives of others.

“Now, I’m no expert on this, but I imagine saving the galaxy is supposed to get complicated. If you expect smooth sailing, you’re either going to be mortally sorry or turn crazy by the end. All you have to do is concentrate on our goal – to win, to repel the Twixts, to bring hope to the galaxy again. That’s the only way to make this twisted situation simple.”

After that, the Doctor went back to her work, distracting herself with her mound of data pads. I went back to staring out the window, albeit with a lot more to think about now.

So, Jason was as complicated as I’d always expected, maybe even more. There was a reason behind his concerted disbelief in the Twixts, and an understandable one. Things were bound to get more complicated from here on out.

Great, just great.

Chapter 16

It took over a week to locate and organize a rendezvous with the Rain Man. Then it took a little under half-minute for the Commander to well and truly dash all our hopes.

He’d called us into the meeting room to discuss something as our ship was drawing into a planet-dock in some system I’d never even heard of. Od was practically wriggling out of his skin, whirling around with the excitement of our impending meet with the elusive Rain Man. Even Crag’tal looked lighter, looked ready to stretch his feet on the planet below and intimidate anyone who got in our way.

But the Commander? The Commander had a different idea.

“When I meet with the Rain Man,” he said, “I’ll ask for clarification of this situation – see if he can provide me with enough, or any, information to corroborate your stories.”

“When you meet with the Rain Man?” Doctor Cole crossed her arms, like her son, and stared up at him. “When we meet the Rain Man, I think you mean.”

“I know what I mean. You will stay – you will all stay here. I may have given you enough benefit of the doubt to not throw you in the brig thus far – but do you think I’m about to let you go roaming around on the planet, free as a shooting comet?”

Doctor Cole rolled her eyes slowly enough that I could see the balls shift against the skin of her eyelids. “I should have known.”

“Yes, you should have. I’m going out on a limb even meeting the Rain Man. Do you think I’m going to jump all the way off the tree and let you loose? Do you think my superiors would be happy with that?”

“Jason, you’re so—” Doctor Cole began.

I didn’t want things to degenerate, again. “Okay, I guess that makes sense,” I said quickly, trying to show the Commander that at least one of us could cooperate. He was right – we were idiots for thinking he would let us come along.

I swallowed my disappointment and tried to give as genuine a smile as I could muster.

“Not you,” the Commander returned the smile in a half-half kind of way. “You’re coming along.”

I blinked hard, not about to hide my confusion. “You said—”

“That was them; this is you. Not my choice – the Rain Man would only agree to meet us if you were there.”

I scratched my wrist, trying to fidget away the awkwardness. “… Why?”

“You can ask him that yourself – right after I remind him that GAM orders don’t come with strings attached.” Jason sighed, but his smile crept a touch further up his lips.

“Why?” I realized I was about to shoot myself in the foot here, but something didn’t fit. “Why take me along now that you know he’s on this planet?”

In a quick flash, Jason’s smile was all there – both sides of his jaw, both cheeks, both eyes. It dwindled as fast as it had come. “I thought you wanted to go—”

“Of course I do, but—”

“You don’t think this makes sense? Well, I’ll tell you something – I didn’t want to make things hard for myself. Making this Rain Man agree to the meeting was practically impossible, and I didn’t want to call through to my superiors to get the higher ups to put the heavy on him. The top brass tends to avoid diplomatic incidents like my mother avoids making sense.”

Doctor Cole snorted but didn’t interrupt.

“When I slipped into the conversation that you were on board, the Rain Man became more helpful than a thousand battle mechs. He agreed to rendezvous on this planet, agreed to divert his whole ship and meet us here in planet-dock.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mean, how do you reply to that? “But—” I began.

“Nothing. There’s another reason to have you there. Rain Men are usually as quiet and dead as deep space. They’re notoriously hard to question. They retain data, hold and save books – but requesting any information from them is like squeezing gold out of standard moon rock.” Jason kept shifting his gaze to the door as he spoke, obviously eager to get this over with. “That is unless they’re excited.”

“Ah, yes.” Od nodded sagely. He looked calm and collected again – his dance of wonder at the possibility of meeting the Rain Man having given way to stoicism. “This is a good plan.”

“It is?” I asked, still confused but all the more aware that Jason wanted to get the hell out of here. Perhaps we didn’t have much time. Perhaps Jason had already stuck his head too far out in diverting his ship here in the first place. He looked so eager to get going, but I still didn’t understand. I wanted to understand everything before I met with the Rain Man. He was the only being in the galaxy who could tell me about my mother, about who I was…. And I didn’t want to be at a disadvantage when I spoke to him.

“When their race is excited,” Jason pushed up from his chair and stood for one short moment, looking directly at me before he moved toward the door, stride quick and strong. “They talk. The usual trouble is finding something that can make a being that has seen and read everything excited. We’re in luck today.” The Commander opened the door. “I’m going to have to ask the rest of you to return to your quarters. Mini, it’s time to go.” The Commander was speaking as he walked, his back turned to me, the door almost closing behind him.

I leaped to my feet, awkwardly fumbling into the chair behind me. “Hold on, but—”

“No buts,” he called back, “Just goes.”

I cast my glance back to Doctor Cole who still had her arms crossed but had an amused smile playing across her lips.

“Go on.” She nodded at me. “He needs you on this one.”

That was an odd thing to say. “You’re all so excited to meet him,” I turned my head to the door to check that the Commander hadn’t marched back in to drag me off. “I don’t want to go without you. I don’t even know what questions to ask; I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

“Ask all the questions you can,” Od had a glimmer of excitement left in his eyes, “Every single one you can think of. It is your best chance to find answers, though they may not yet make sense – you will be able to travel with them until they do.”

I blinked, trying to sort through Od’s mystical response. “What about the weapons? Will he know where they are—”

“You aren’t going to be asking him for weapons.” The Commander was back in the doorway, expression stony.

I sunk my teeth into my lip. I hadn’t even heard him approach.

“I will be asking the questions – you just have to stand there. Now, let’s move out.” This time the Commander stood next to the doorway, waiting for me exit.

I looked quickly at the others in the room, the beings I was beginning to realize were my only friends. I didn’t want to leave them behind – they all had talents I couldn’t hope to match. Crag’tal could intimidate the socks off a Tarian Merc; Od’s exuberance and mentor-like charms could turn even the ditziest waitress into a warrior; and Doctor Cole knew more about The People, and annoying the Commander, than most in the Galaxy.

What skills did I have? What methods could I hope to use to ensure the Rain Man told me everything I needed to know?

Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps, as the Commander had said, he would be the one asking all the questions. Would he ask the right ones? Or would I be barely a meter from the greatest source of knowledge in the galaxy, listening to the Commander huff and puff about a diner waitresses buying fancy guns and kicking fleshy freaks?

I was about to find out.

It wasn’t long until the Commander and I were standing in a decontamination unit in the planet-dock. He was out of his crisp black uniform and into his chunky armor instead. I was still in the clothes Doctor Cole had loaned me – plain black pants, a plain white shirt, and a plain brown vest. I’d plaited my ice-white hair in an effort to make the stuff less visible.

I stood up straight, with my hands clasped in front of me as the decontamination bots buzzed over us. It was standard procedure to go through them when you left or entered a planet-dock. We didn’t have them on the station, but that was because the entire thing was ducted and filtered through life support. Nasty space bugs, Clouds, unknown alien entities – space ships and space stations had onboard sensors and filtration systems to weed them out. Planets were different. All it would take is one unsuspecting Crag to bring in Tarian Flu, and it would decimate a planet-bound population. Decontamination was taken seriously, and there were pretty strict penalties for people who tried to avoid it. Not that Jason and I were about to avoid it – he was the Commander. He upheld rules; he didn’t avoid them.

Five minutes of awkward silence gave way to ten. It wasn’t until we completed the full fifteen-minute cleanse that the door in front of us pinged open, revealing the planet-dock beyond.

It was a sight. The Decontam Units led right out onto the huge metal ramps that wound down to the Customs Deck below. There were trails of aliens there – jostling in twisting lines as they were processed through the Custom’s Scanners. The scanners were huge metal rings that concurrently scanned and assessed anyone traveling through them – accessing their identity files, processing their visas, checking and rechecking with the GAM HQ to ascertain they weren’t a security threat.

I was surprised to see such technical security, but then again, I hadn’t been off the station for a while. Things were moving on in the Galaxy, and as Jason had said, these were strange times.

“Haven’t been planet-side for a while, huh?” Jason was looking at me side-on as we marched quickly down a ramp.

“Ah, no.” I smiled awkwardly as I spoke. I wasn’t one to be dishonest, but I didn’t want the Commander to know how much of a station homebody I was. Working in a space diner was one thing, but you got used to the kinds of aliens that came through there. Planetside was completely different. There were aliens I’d never seen before, technology and clothes that didn’t make it out to my small, isolated nook of the galaxy. Coming here was like being stuck inside a Central TV show – like I was smack bang on Central Earth in the hustle and bustle of the future.

“I don’t blame you – a lot of noise, a lot of tech, and a lot of crime. I’d take the quiet of space with a couple of pirate raiders thrown in any day.”

I smiled less awkwardly and took another long look at the cue below us. “That’s going to take ages to get through.”

“We’re not going through customs.”

I snapped my head around to look at him in full. That was possibly the most uncharacteristic thing the Commander could have said. He might as well have cackled that we were on this planet to kick puppies and upend babies’ lollipops into the sand – because skipping Customs wasn’t something a straight-and-true GAM officer would do.

“Relax – we aren’t doing anything illegal.” He had a secret, amused smile on his lips. “It’s just quicker this way.”

I frowned at him. “Everybody has to go through Customs. I may not travel planet-side often, but even I know that. It doesn’t matter if you are a GAM, some alien princess, or even the Central President himself – going through Customs is the law.”

“Thanks for the lesson,” he said sarcastically – though not bitingly. “I’ll have to remember that. For now, we’re going to go around customs to one of the other docking bays. The Rain Man’s ship is in dock A45 on the other side of the terminal.”

“Oh, so we aren’t going planet-side,” I said, face hot.

“Nope. Rain Men don’t ever leave their ships alone – not for love, money, or GAM inquiries. They’re bound to their books like the spines to the pages. Plus, how are we meant to go through customs without you having a visa?”

Yeah, so obviously I hadn’t thought that through. I avoided the Commander’s gaze and pretended to be interested in watching the sharp blue light of the Custom’s Scanners play against the scaly skin of some Crag.

“We’re going to the other end of the terminal,” the Commander clarified slowly, obviously realizing I had no real idea what was going on and was about as likely to deduce it as Od was of headbutting Crag’tal. “We had to go through Decontam because it was standard procedure – but we can skip customs. We’re going to take the elevator up to the A level docking bays then walk the corridor to A45.” The Commander was slow and patient as if he were giving orders to the dumbest newbie recruit. “When we get on the Rain Man’s ship, let me do the talking. They’re an odd race, and I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings.”

I pressed my lips together and let the Commanders speak. I didn’t appreciate him talking to me as if I was a child, but at least he was telling me what would happen next.

“We don’t have long, so this will have to be quick. The only reason I managed to organize this meeting was that our ship was diverted here, anyway. She’s being refueled and restocked right now, but I have to get back to Operational Command before my official mission begins. We’ve got two hours, tops. I know it’s not much – not with a Rain Man, anyway, but it’s all we’ve got.” The Commander answered my questions well before I’d thought to ask them.

I nodded, trying to keep up with him as he forged through the crowds on the Customs Deck, apparently leading us over to a bank of great tech-glass elevators at the other end of the room. I tried to dodge behind people as best as I could – ducking under a Crag’s arm as he gesticulated to some human, twisting around a Hantari as he glared at the Crag’s back, and apologizing my way between a human couple who looked more jet lagged than someone woken up from stasis after a fifty-year flight.

“Oh, ah, sorry – um, excuse me—” I let out a constant trail of polite utterances as the crowd thickened in front of me.

“Come on.” The Commander waved me forward. “Like I said, we don’t have much time.”

“Okay,” I spoke up, trying to make my voice carry as another surge of aliens pressed into me.

I’d lost sight of the Commander altogether by the time two massive bear-like aliens pushed past me, their long and flexible tails whipping behind them and catching my ankle as they went.

I stumbled forward, losing my balance. The Commander was in front of me in an instant, looping an arm up around my own as I fell roughly against his chest. The hard armor wasn’t inviting, but his eyes looked down at me with a tenderness that made me blush.

“You okay?” he asked.

I nodded. I was more than okay. Being this close to Jason was like facing up to a mega star – my skin felt as warm as a fresh brew of Tika tea. The rest of the crowd around us – the press of aliens, the incessant ring and blare of the overhead com unit – it all burnt away.

“We have to keep moving,” he might have said. “Stick with me; this crowd is thicker than I thought it would be.”

“O-oh,” I stammered as he set me straight on my feet. “Of course.”

Instead of plowing through the crowd, letting me fend for myself against every shape and size of alien life that were all surging toward the Custom’s Scanners, this time the Commander stuck by my side. With more than a quick glance my way, he led me through until we reached the tech-glass elevators on the other side of the room.

I felt comfortable and uncomfortable all at once. I was hyper aware of my body – where it was in space, what my hands were doing, where my clothes were sitting, how my hair was playing across my shoulder, how my eyes must look too wide and rounded, how my mouth wouldn’t sit straight. At the same time, I felt an excited warmth – the kind of pleasant tingle you get after you plunge your feet into a hot basin of gel-water after a long day at work.

When we made it to the elevators, I had almost resorted to pinning my lips straight with my hands – they weren’t behaving, just wobbling this way and that. Bah! I wanted to look normal.

For one electric moment, I thought the Commander and I would be alone in the elevator until the two Hantari walked in an almost plastered me against a wall.

In a way, I was glad of the distraction; I was becoming unstuck far too fast. I was like a girl who’d chanced upon her first crush – all light headed and flushed. Which was the wrong way to be right now. I wasn’t a girl crushing on a hot GAM – I was a half-breed alien whose rapidly unwinding destiny was bringing me at heads with the Galaxy’s greatest enemy. I didn’t have time for this, and neither did the Commander – whatever this was, of course.

Try as I might, I couldn’t stop looking at the Commander out of the corner of my eye – flashing a glance his way every time I was sure he was too busy glaring at the Hantaris. It always happened like this with me – I would go along in a hazy dream until I realized with absolute gut-clarity that I had fallen for someone.

I wasn’t a romantic at heart; I was a halfy – and I often fell for beings, human or alien, who wouldn’t want a shade of me. I didn’t have Claudia’s charm or confidence. I had impossible white hair and an almost human face.

None of that mattered right now. The second I’d brushed up against the Commander, I’d turned to mush. There hadn’t been anything between us at that moment – neither physical distance, nor my over active mind.

If there’s nothing betwixt, things are as close as they can get.

I put a flat hand on my stomach and tried not to let my imagination overcome me as the elevator hurtled upward. After the first couple of floors, the back of the elevator – which was completely clear tech-glass – gave a sudden view of the planet below. It was startling, breathtaking – or at least it would be if I’d had any breath to spare. Still, it was a sight to see.

The planet below was heading to dusk – the long orange light spreading over some massive city until it glinted off the tech-glass and metal – sparkling like a handful of Old Earth glitter. The buildings were tall and sleek – standing up like branchless trees, reaching so tall it looked like night between them. I could see the hover cars whizzing about them in their straight ordered lines of traffic. The sun glittered off everything – lit it up until my eyes couldn’t take it all in.

It was beautiful. The kind of view that made me want to adventure around the galaxy to see what it had to offer.

The elevator took a turn that directed us back into the middle of the terminal – back to a view of a standard metal elevator tube.

The Hantaris soon hopped off the elevator, almost hitting me in the face as one of them swung some long package around. The Commander put up a hand to stop it, and gave a grim, only nearly polite smile to the alien as he stepped out of the doors.

That left the two of us again. I uncontrollably took a gulp of air as if I were readying for some deep dive.

“Olin.” The Commander said, out of the blue.

“Sorry?” I squeaked.

“It’s the name of the city below and the planet.”

“Oh, it… it’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, it is.”

We descended into silence. This time a far sharper, far more acute silence than I’d ever shared with the Commander. He could tell, I realized with another gulp, he could tell I was standing barely a meter from him, crushing like a schoolgirl. How pathetic he must think I was, how naïve. The strong, handsome Commander and the awkward, accidental-hero waitress.

“Here we are.” The Commander stepped forward as the elevator drew to a halt, the doors snapping open silently.

I set my mouth into the only smile I could manage and followed him at a distance. Oh lordy lord – why did I have to be this ditsy?

“It should be a short walk to the right docking bay.” The Commander strode on ahead.

I felt as torn as I had when my non-human side had taken over me to fight the Twixt at the dig site. It was a different type of torn – it wasn’t active, aggressive, pulling at me like it was trying to draw and quarter me. It was calmer. My human mind felt like a whirl of pink and love hearts, while my other side sat back with a warm smile on her lips.

I was confused, that was all there was to it – just confused.

“Like I said before, let me do all the talking. I should warn you – Rain Men are… just be diplomatic, don’t stare at him, and don’t touch his books.” Jason kept striding on ahead.

Ah! I had to snap out of it. There was a job to do. So what if I wanted to scamper off to some quiet place and squeak and jump up and down like an excited chipmunk? I was being a silly, silly girl. People were relying on me – hell, the galaxy was relying on me. Now was not the time for anything, save a cool head and a collected disposition. I was about to meet the only being who had any real chance of helping me survive the Twixts, and yet I was still thinking about Jason.

I chewed so ferociously on my lips as we walked, it was a wonder I didn’t eat them right off. All too soon the Commander turned down a far smaller corridor and stopped in front of a big airlock that read “A45” in scratched optic-paint.

“Here we go.” He straightened up, brushing some non-existent dirt off his armor. “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” he added under his breath.

No, nor could I believe my own state of mind. In the middle of a mission to save the galaxy, I was falling head-over-heels for a GAM Commander for no better reason than I’d stumbled accidentally into his arms. It was so outrageously, so ridiculously, so impossibly foolish. This stuff didn’t happen outside of crappy holomovies and human romance fiction. In the real galaxy, feelings developed over time – mutual attraction, and so forth.

Oh, who was I kidding? I’d liked the Commander from the moment I’d met him; now I was just exquisitely aware of that fact. Why shouldn’t I be? I was moments from possibly finding out my true destiny – my mind was reeling, overwhelmed. It was looking for some strong arms to hold it in place, and apparently, I’d found them.

I tried to keep my eyes off him as we entered the airlock. I was about to meet the Rain Man….

“Ready?” The Commander walked through the airlock doors as they sunk back into the wall with a mechanical whirl.

He didn’t wait for my reply.

Chapter 17

So this was it, this was actually it. Everything over the last several weeks had been building to this point. I was about to find some answers to my impossible number of questions. The feeling of anticipation was building in me like a corked and shaken champagne bottle. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to run in through the airlock, find the Rain Man, and blurt my heart out in one continuous, adrenaline-rushed snap; or whether I wanted to take things slowly and ever so carefully, maybe even reach out to catch the Commander’s hand and face this together.

My nerves were making me skittish, making my gait uneven and uncoordinated as we walked through a massive corridor. The hall before me was wide enough to park a small cruiser in and sufficiently long that I couldn’t see what lay in store for me at the other end. I was glad the Commander was several steps ahead; I didn’t want him to see me lumbering about like I’d been drugged. He already had enough reason to find me less engaging and capable than a scoop of space dust.

The corridor, fortunately, had its distractions. It was lined with art. With actual framed paintings, photos, and holophotos. They were of the most vivid, intricate, alien landscapes I could imagine. A two-meter-long painting of a double moonscape over the water planet Isis almost had me draw to a halt to contemplate its amazing color. The blues and grays made me feel as if I were standing in front of an active, billowing cloud. There was a holophoto of the great ravines and canyons of Acaria – a bare, rocky planet famed for its over mining and deadly cliffs. I felt like I was falling into some dark chasm just by walking past.

There was even a photo of Earth in there – an actual 2D, Old Earth standard photo from some time way distant. It was in black and white and showed the sunrise over some pyramids in a desert somewhere. I’d never seen anything like it, and if it weren’t for the two humans standing in the foreground of the photo, I wouldn’t have been able to place its origin.

Even as I walked, and every piece of art seemed to engage my senses like a blast of rain-soaked air, I still felt the nerves coalesce and climb within me. They mounted faster as I saw the sheer extent of the Rain Man’s ability to collect. If he had photos from Old Earth, what information might he have on my people? Could I hope for the same? Might he have a picture, a book, an object – even a holomovie?

I felt the anticipation in my face most of all – in the fullness of my nostrils as I sucked in each breath, in the tingling heat of my cheeks, in the stretch of my eyes as they opened fully.

We came to the end of the corridor. It opened up before us into a great circular room with a massive, domed ceiling. Though the room was amazing – this great orb, with curved walls packed completely with books of all shapes and sizes, data files, and holodiscs – my eyes skipped straight to the ceiling. It was a star chart. Except it wasn’t at the same time. It wasn’t some lifeless 2D painting of the stellar map of the Milky Way. Nor was it some cheap rendering of a huge holoimage plastered across the entire dome above. No, it was alive. It shifted and moved, pulsed and throbbed like it was the belly of some great creature that was made out of the stars themselves.

I couldn’t describe it, couldn’t understand what it was or where it came from. It was engaging, enthralling – like standing outside in space, seeing all its wonder, all the stars, constellations, gaseous nebulas – all at once. The colors were sharp, vivid like I could taste them on my tongue, roll them around until their sweet tang left me wanting no other food ever again.

My head had dropped back, my eyes completely locked on the ceiling above. I couldn’t help it; this was amazing!

That’s when I felt the Commander’s flexible, armor-covered hand gently drop onto the back of my head and push tenderly until my face came back to the vertical.

He looked amused, I noted with a reflexive dimple of my chin. I must have looked like an idiot gawking up like that. Who knows, my jaw had probably dropped open, and I’d started drooling on the ground.

“It’s a 5th Generation Star Gazer. It’s a sped-up version of the galaxy – shows the evolution of stars and nebulas from collated telescopic images from various races, various points of the Milky Way.” He pointed up to a device visible under the heavy blanket of stars. “It’s expensive stuff but nothing that fancy. We use the same technology in our Cartography room. It was developed by the Hantari, and it’s pretty cool technology. It allows us to have real-time estimates of the—”

I looked sideways at him, the fact he’d lost me as obvious as a forty-foot sign painted in neon green. “Oh, that’s—”

His chin wavered, and for a second I thought he’d break into one of his unnatural half-smiles again. He chuckled and shrugged. “I guess you don’t actually care about that. It still looks amazing, right?”

“Right,” I confirmed emphatically.

“That being said, you might want to look sharp, because our host is in this room.” Jason returned his expression to neutral, clasped his hands before him, and stood up until he looked the perfect picture of a capable GAM Commander while all I could do was press my lips in and let the flush take to my face like a soldering laser to a hull breach. I’d been gawking at the ceiling in front of the Rain Man – one of the most mysterious and knowledgeable races in the Galaxy. That being said, where was he?

I carefully pivoted my neck, peered this way and that while trying to maintain a ramrod position. Honestly, where was this guy? I couldn’t see a massive, tentacled alien cataloging the books, or some tall, scant apparition wafting up amongst the stars. Was the Commander having me on?

I went to step forward, to turn, to get a better look around me, but the Commander had a hand on my arm quicker than I could blink. It was firm enough to lock me in place.

“Don’t move,” he hissed quickly. “You have to watch where you’re putting your feet.”

I looked at him in complete confusion and shock then glanced toward my feet once he pointed a black-clad finger down.

There was a bug. No, more like an ant. It was blue and looked slightly larger than your average ant, with an opalescent exoskeleton that caught the light in a pretty way. Granted, this ant appeared to be staring up at me, but he was still an ant.

I flicked my gaze back to the Commander who was still holding my arm a tad too tightly. “What—” I began.

“Rain Man,” he mouthed. Carefully, he let go of my arm, and, checking behind him with a sharp sweep of his head, stepped backward. “Thank you for agreeing to my request,” he said, voice booming.

That was the Rain Man? He was a blue ant?

I stared down at the tiny creature, waiting for it to puff out its small chest and squeak back a polite welcome. I had seen a couple of things working in the diner, but never itty-bitty ants that were meant to hold the wisdom of races.

I tried not to look rude, tried not to let my eyes bulge – but seriously, I was waiting for an ant to talk back.

Talk he didn’t. He scuttled off right between Jason’s feet, causing the Commander to stiffen and track the creature with quick flicks of his eyes. I didn’t blame him – we were going to have a hell of a time trying not to squash our host if he was going to charge our shoes like a raging bull.

I expected the ant to patter off to the center of the room, maybe climb up onto some piece of furniture so he could be assured that the clumsy humans didn’t sit on him. He kept moving – shot straight past everything until he dived into a bookshelf, squeezing right between the spines of some dust-free tomes.

I looked at the Commander, too polite to ask out loud what on Earth was going on but hoping he picked up my implicit question, anyway.

“Watch,” he mouthed. He straightened up even further, shifted his shoulders and hips until they were in perfect alignment.

So I watched. The ant popped back out and stood there for a bit. Then another ant popped out from behind a neat row of data pads on a different shelf. Then, on a shelf housing stacks of holodiscs, several more ants appeared.

Then there were thousands of them. From every single nook and cranny, between every single page and data pad – ants came scuttling down the shelves. It was a sea of tiny, pattering blue.

I fought the urge to leap back – my body prickling with a surge of fear at such an uncommon, freakish sight. The Commander wasn’t shifting; he wasn’t heading for his gun or running down the corridor as he screamed about the insanity of it all.

So I swallowed hard and stood my ground.

The ants started to mass in the center of the room until, to my continued disbelief, they started to climb each other. I’d never ever seen anything like this before. The ants were jumping up on top of each other, forming pillars, trunks until eventually they merged into one.

The Commander watched, his expression still neutral but his eyes darting to take in every detail. He didn’t look overwhelmed by it, didn’t look that bothered. Hell, he probably saw things like this every other day. It was only me that was finding this strange, finding this jaw-droopingly insane. I’d never seen shape-forming ants in the diner – I couldn’t even imagine how I would go about serving one a Star Duster cocktail.

The ants started to move as a coordinated whole, standing on top of each other until the shape they formed looked human. It was like a big, blue, spotty human who was staring back at me. They’d even formed the indents of eyes, the line of a mouth that opened like real lips, even two nostrils that flared like they were breathing in air.

“We only accepted to meet you because you brought us valuable data,” it said, if the noises that issued from its mouth could ever be referred to as words, that was. It was a sound made up of the tiny voices of each ant until they combined to one steady pitch.

Every single hair on my body stood more erect than a regimental soldier before the Central President herself.

“She is not data,” the Commander rebuked, voice harsh. “May I remind you that you were legally bound by Central law to accept my—”

“She is the last of her race, last of The People – she is data. Her story is data; her history is data; her future is data. We will collect it.”

Okay, so now I wanted to run. All my anticipation had flown out the airlock when the eight-foot-tall human ant-creature had started referring to me as a simple set of facts and figures. I tried to suck it in, to keep it together, but I found myself edging toward the Commander in the hope he could hide me from the creature’s gaze.

“I understand your culture finds no qualms in referring to living beings as data – just as I understand that you know our culture does. We do not refer to ourselves as objects, and neither should you when you address us.” The Commander crossed his arms and stared evenly at the blue ant-man.

The Rain Man didn’t have an expression – how could it? Perhaps each and every ant that made it up was staring back in mock horror, but the humanoid creation before me was as still and even as a cloudless sky.

“We understand your conditions and accept them for the terms of this meeting. We will exchange verbal information; we will not exchange data.”

The Commander didn’t roll his eyes, but I could tell he was close. “We have some questions to ask you.” Jason cleared his voice abruptly. “I have some questions regarding an official GAM inquiry.”

“You will go first; we will go second.” The Rain Man’s mouth actually moved as he spoke in perhaps the eeriest attempt at feigned speech since Old Earth ventriloquist dolls. “You will not ask – she will ask.”

The Commander blustered – his chest popped out that little bit more, his head ticking to the side. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me—”

“We heard. Her questions are more interesting; yours are dead and will bore us.”

The Commander put up a hand, ready to stop traffic or distract the Rain Man as he went for his gun. “That’s not how this is going to work. I need to—”

“Her needs are acuter. But we acknowledge your rules and your tenacity. You can ask one question.”

The Commander clicked his neck from side-to-side – either in a move of intimidation, or pure physical frustration at the blunt, impossible answers of the Rain Man.

“We will go into the Main Chamber,” the Rain Man continued without waiting for the Commander’s answer. “We will have privacy; we understand the GAM value a secret.”

The Commander slowly let out a breath. It was apparent that he had conceded.

The Rain Man turned to move, and it was horrifically fascinating to watch. Bits of him lagged behind as the rest of him stretched off in the direction they were all meant to be heading. Somehow, it maintained its form, lurching from side-to-side as it led the Commander out of the room. “You will have use of the Assistant Librarian,” the Rain Man called out as it headed off.

It took me a while to realize he was talking to me. “Wh—” I began. I didn’t like the sounds of an “Assistant Librarian.” The head librarian was already one of the freakiest things I’d ever seen; I sure couldn’t stomach being left alone in a room with his sidekick.

Before I could squeeze out the rest of my question, a simple hologram popped up in the center of the room. It was a line to begin with – a blue string of lights floating in the air. With a ping, it started to shift shape. “Analysis complete, primarily human life form identified – switching to Standard English and generic humanoid form.”

Sure enough, a fairly standard hologram of a human appeared in front of me.

It was an AI program, I realized with a relieved sigh. I’d dealt with these before – they were standard; we even had one on the station that operated as a tour guide.

“What is the human’s question?”

I relaxed, letting my stance soften, feeling the blood go back to my legs. “Ah, where am I?” I asked for no apparent reason. I mean, I knew where I was.

“You are on board the Registered Heavy Cruiser Raining, docked at—”

“Um, never mind,” I cut in before the thing could fill me in on our exact geo-location. Who knew how much time I had with this thing? And who knew how much information it could unlock for me?

I cast around for a question – a good question. “What… what information do you have on a race called The People?”

“We have 409,899 recorded references to the galactic race known as The People. Accessing files—”

“No, no! Ah, do you know what…. ah, do you know what….” I was choking. This was my big moment, and I was choking. I couldn’t think of a single question that wouldn’t end with this AI going off on some commentary of galactic proportions.

“Does the human require a suggested question?”

“Yes.” I leaped upon the suggestion like it was a rope thrown to me as I drowned in a storm. “Yes, the human does require this.”

“In referencing The People, I suggest the human begins with a succinct summary of their history, culture, origins, achievements—”

“Yes, yep – that sounds good.” I had to hurry things along; I couldn’t wait for this thing to take an hour to push out a single sentence.

“The People are one of the oldest sentient races in the known Universe. Their exact evolutionary beginnings are unknown, and due to the disappearance of all extant People, or any remainder of their genetic heritage – it is a secret unlikely to ever be answered. However, after undertaking a lengthy cross analysis of all available references to The People, their technology, and their fate across all galactic races – a vague history can be plotted.”

“Okay,” I said for the simple purpose of breaking up the thing’s block-like explanations. This wasn’t anything new – I knew all this already. Well, everything except the bit about there being no remainder of their genetic heritage. I was pretty sure there was a striking example of The People’s lineage standing right in this room – but I wasn’t about to put my hand up to the AI and tell it when it was wrong. “Continue.”

“It seems likely that The People possessed not only remarkable intelligence, enabling them to develop and adapt technology at speed, but sensory organs otherwise non-existent among the other races of the galaxy. With a peculiar adaptation to their ocular organ, The People had an overdeveloped ability to perceive light. Due to the sensory and analytical resources that their brains would use to process such an ability – it is estimated that light would have played a central position within their culture. As smell is paramount to an Earth species of dog; and sound, via vibration, is the primary sensory function of Earth snakes; the perception of light would have been the main adaptive advantage of The People.”

I blinked at the sudden and overwhelming gush of information. So, we had a strange ability to see light? I kind of already knew that, though not in so many words. Still, the hair along my arms was starting to stand on end as an uneasy feeling spread through my gut.

“It is upon this assumed fact that the history of The People has been estimated,” the AI continued. “As occurs within any race that achieves a certain level of technology, intelligence, and environmental dominance – the conquering of life’s challenges would have led to the introspective analysis of the meaning of existence. Such an analysis, based on The People’s peculiar evolutionary traits, may have resulted in their concluding that light is the spiritual source of existence.”

“The spiritual source of existence?” I parroted, almost in the same tone of voice the AI used. “What does that mean?”

“Creative source, the force behind reality, the underlying origin and structure of the universe, the point from where all things began, and the point to which all things return, the—”

“Okay, so but light?”

“Yes, based on our calculations, this is what we believe The People would have—”

“Never mind, continue.” It was like a torrent down my body now – this shifting, wavering, flowing awkwardness that set my stomach to stone. I felt… I… did I want to know this? Wait, of course I did. So why was I having such a strange, ominous feeling?

“While the above is conjecture, one thing is known for certain about The People – they sought enlightenment. With all their technological, scientific, and intellectual skills – The People set about achieving the final goal in adaptation to existence. Based on their fascination with light – it is through this medium they considered the ultimate.” The AI never paused for breath, of course, and could keep going until I was long dead.

I needed time to analyze what it was saying – to take it all in. They wanted enlightenment? Was this AI right? Was that the sole, driving force of my people? What about the Twixts? Weren’t The People, in a way, honor-bound to fight them – to keep the scourge at bay? Why hadn’t they been mentioned yet?

My unease started to grow until I virtually had to clutch my stomach to keep it all in.

“Does the human wish to continue this line of questioning?” The AI changed its tone, sounding worried for me. “I have detected an elevated pulse, increased respiration, and galvanic skin response indicating—”

“I’m okay,” I whispered, touched by the computer’s programmed compassion. A part of me wanted it to keep on talking. Yet the other part of me didn’t want to know another word.

“You wish for me to continue?”

“I want you to—” For a moment that stretched on to eternity and back, I didn’t know what I’d choose. I didn’t understand the well of feelings inside of me. I wanted more than anything to run away. I equally knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Everything I had done in the past several weeks had led to this point. Everything I had become, even everyone I’d met – everything counted on me sticking this through, on finding out what the Twixts were and how to fight them.

I steeled myself with several steady breaths.

“Perhaps,” the AI cut in before I could finish grounding myself to resume our talk, “The human would like to temporarily switch to an associated topic?”

“Umm, ahh, I—” I could hardly think straight, let alone give a straight answer to the AI. What was happening to me? Had the Rain Man pumped dumb gas into the chamber, or had I reverted to a pathetic, overly emotional child?

“There are approximately 306 associated topics that I believe would be of especial interest to you, human. If you request, I could choose a random topic or analyze which I believe to be of the most rel—”

“I don’t mind,” I said quickly, happy I could do more than stutter, “just pick one.” I meant it. It might give me time to think, to reassess, to calm myself. God knows I needed time to readjust. At least if I were listening to an “Associated topic of interest,” it would still constitute as doing research on my people and the Twixts.

“I have chosen a topic which I believe to be of especial interest to the human.”

I wasn’t even going to ask how the AI had done that, but it had better not be something along the lines of “Relaxation techniques for the easily frightened.”

“The Dark Rift is an anomaly in a distant system – a massive spatial disruption caused by an unknown source that makes space travel in that area completely impossible. Even long-range sensors cannot penetrate the rift. Some believe it is the distortion created between two massive stars – though this cannot account for the sheer peculiarity of the anomaly. It is considered a No Go Zone (NGZ) by the GAMs – who maintain a general alert status concerning the Dark Rift – warning all space travelers not to get within a parsec of the system’s boundary.”

Well, that had been distracting. Interesting too, but what it had to do with The People or the Twixts, I didn’t know. Perhaps the AI was going to plumb me with bizarre and kooky galactic facts until it believed I was calm enough to continue. There was going to be a finite amount of “System Alpha Banta contains an estimated 10 trillion tons of space dust, yadda, yadda, yadda” that I could take before becoming too bored to worry. Not that this Dark Rift place didn’t sound interesting. But the galaxy was packed with NGZs – strange anomalies, tricky places to navigate, supernovas – all sorts of spatial peculiarities. After a while, they didn’t become that interesting anymore. So why did the AI think this one was?

“It has a place in galactic myth – some believing that it is the source of advanced technology. The legend tells that if someone were capable of making it past the initial disruptive force of the rift, they would be able to claim enough advanced technology to completely overcome the space-faring races of the galaxy. Hantari traders have their own version of the legend – a far darker one. They hold that the Dark Rift is the vanguard of galactic destruction. Somewhat akin to the human myth of Damocles’ sword, the Dark Rift is the reminder of the cost of power. An ancient race said to have reached the highest pinnacle of evolution tore itself to pieces in the quest for the final step – enlightenment. The Dark Rift is what they left behind. According to the Hantari, these creatures still battle on within the anomaly. The rift’s size and disruptive pull can be used to indicate who is winning – and what the likely fate of the galaxy will be. All galactic races have some theory on the End Time – the destruction of our Universe – the Hantari believe it will come to hand inside the Dark Rift itself.”

“End Time?” I said, not capable of containing myself. It was such a final phrase. An ancient race fighting amongst itself smack bang in the middle of a massive spatial anomaly? An ancient race that happened to be searching for enlightenment, that happened to have advanced technology. It couldn’t be….

I don’t think my heart was beating anymore, just grounding to a halt in one final flutter. I managed to get my mouth open. “It’s not… it’s not the ancient race… is it supposed to be—”

“Yeah, The People.”

I jumped a mile and turned to see the Commander striding back into the room. He gave me a curious, worried look at my overreaction. “It’s a myth, though, just some silly tale.”

“So the Dark Rift isn’t there?” I said, voice barely above a whisper – far more like the hush of sand on glass.

“No.” He walked over to me and stood, watching the floating AI, arms crossed as usual. “It’s there, alright. It’s an NGZ, and for a damn good reason. You go within a parsec of that thing, and it will rip any ship to shreds. The rest of that story is about as likely as the universe being made out of chocolate cows.”

I couldn’t help but give a quick laugh at that, though my unease settled back as soon as the humor had left.

The AI was watching us both, shifting its head to follow whoever was talking, copying the actions of a real person. But it wasn’t a real person; it was an artificial intelligence belonging to some computer. It could mimic compassion, empathy, maybe even warmth. How about cunning, foresight, wisdom? Why had it chosen to tell me about the Dark Rift out of all the possible topics at its disposable? Was it possible that it could have something to do with The People, with the Twixts?

“The human is sufficiently calm and supported to continue our original discussion.” The AI fixed its gaze on mine again, though it turned briefly to the Commander when it said the word “Supported.”

I closed my eyes quickly, squished up my cheeks, and let the hot goo of embarrassment trickle over me. Great, another reason for the Commander to think I’m a pathetic idiot. But there wasn’t going to be much time to wallow in this feeling; whatever the AI was going to say next would break me.

“We ended our previous discussion on the note that The People had applied themselves to gaining enlightenment.”

The Commander was looking at the AI, eyebrows cocked, arms crossed, and body a general lump of disbelieving.

“An interesting correspondence occurs between The People’s term for enlightenment and the Standard English Human term that this report denotes. Both have the same function, the same context, and the same root words as their base – light. Reference to this word assumes the total end-state of a being’s spiritual evolution in both cultures. Such a coincidence has been used to suggest that enlightenment is a shared ending for all intelligent forms of life.”

“Shared ending for all life?” the Commander interrupted. “That’s a bit presumptuous. What kind of evidence do you have to back up such a wide sweeping—”

“I have both evidence at, and beyond, your comprehension.” The AI’s voice was neutral. “To go into them would be to digress from this current topic. The validity of my assertions on enlightenment can be assessed once our original discussion is complete.”

The Commander didn’t interrupt again but did look my way as he and rolled his eyes obviously.

“I will continue,” the AI said, once again toneless and to the point. “It is with the term enlightenment that we can truly elucidate the historical fall of The People. Within their race, there appears to be a schism between what successful enlightenment entails. Is it the process of capturing the light, encasing it, containing it within oneself, so that one is always in possession of it? Or is it the ability to enlighten – the capacity to spread light, to give it, to bring it to others?”

Now the unease spread through me like wildfire through the dry grass of summer. It was picking at my stomach, pulling apart the soft, tender flesh as if some great vulture had descended upon me from the heavens. I swallowed, careful not to let the Commander see my tight, white lips.

“Gaps in data unfortunately do not allow us to map how this schism played out or even what percentage of The People’s population believed in either view. However, if the analysis is widened to include the Twixts, a probable outcome can be assumed. Based on the sum of existing data on the Twixts – gathered from Kroplin, Crag, Hantari and archaeological sources – it is clear their origin is linked with the disappearance of The People in this galaxy. Extrapolating from the known nature of their spirituality and the fact that The People are the only known race capable of seeing the Twixts – it is highly probable that they share an origin.”

I slowly, carefully traced a strand of my fringe, tucking it behind an ear. The Commander was looking at me; I could feel his gaze like a hot breath on my cheek. I couldn’t look his way; the AI transfixed me. What was this thing saying? Shared origins? Did it mean we came from the same system, the same planet even?

“This report concludes that the Twixts are The People, or those who chose to gain enlightenment through a process of trapping light within. Based on the assumptions and extrapolations made, we can be forty-nine percent sure of this conclusion.”

I leaned back, except there was nothing behind me. So I stumbled, shifted on my feet, wavered until I found my balance again. That news had shaken me – like an earthquake to my core. “We’re Twixts?” I asked as softly as my breath would come. “Oh god, I’m one of them? My People? We created them?”

Jason uncrossed his arms and stood closer to me until I could make out the worried grooves on his forehead like they were dark chasms in the ground below my feet. “Or it’s a convenient story.”

I looked at him, tried to maintain his intense gaze, but I couldn’t, and I turned to the side. “How could you say that? I’ve learned that what I came from – that who I am… that we created the Twix—”

“That’s not who you are. You’re standing in front of me right now, and I don’t see any Twixts, I don’t see any People – I don’t see anything but you. You are what you make yourself – the decisions you take and the ones yet to come – not where you’ve come from. Trust me, because I’ve learned this the hard way – it doesn’t matter who your parents were, the choices they made – all that matters is what you choose to do now.”

I was hot, my skin itching and tight like I was buried under hot desert sand. I couldn’t take this news. I couldn’t take it. I hadn’t even found my People, hadn’t even obtained a weapon – only to discover that my cause was not as I’d assumed. That my trail wasn’t as blazing, as glorified, as black and white as I’d hoped.

I’d gone from being the innocent waitress thrust into some impossible but noble situation, to being the one entity alive who shared the heritage and responsibility of those who created the Twixts. That made me the most responsible person in the Milky Way – the only existing person for anyone to blame.

I tried to put a hand on my chest, tried to ground myself – but I was too flighty, too overcome.

“Hey.” Jason stepped in again, concern rumpling his brow.

I stepped back. I wanted to disappear.

“Hey, keep it together.” He grabbed both of my arms above the elbows. His grip wasn’t dangerous, just firm enough to stop my arms from flailing. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You can’t believe this thing. I still don’t think the Twixt exist—” he began.

He must have seen the flash of desperation in my eyes – how could he still not believe in the Twixts?

He swallowed, his jaw shifting down, lips opening to reveal clamped teeth. “It doesn’t matter. Even if they do exist, this isn’t enough to confirm that. This information is too sketchy, just too many assumptions. The AI said itself that this was half-conjecture – half-guesses.”

“It makes so much sense.” I could barely even hear my own voice.

He shook his head. “Sense? Are you telling me that some long-dead alien race created a creature that lives between dimensions because they couldn’t agree on what enlightenment meant? That doesn’t make sense – none of this does. So how can it make sense to let this affect you?”

“We know—” I began, my lips limp as I tried to push my words out, my body feeling like it would collapse under me.

“We don’t know anything, not for sure.”

“I disagree,” the Rain Man said from the door, deeming to join us. “It is clear from the numerous references to the Twixts throughout this galaxy, and the technology and information that The People themselves left behind, that both these creatures exist.”

I felt the gaze of the Rain Man, or the million creatures that made him up, like lasers slicing through my skin. I could tell every part of him was watching me, observing, collecting data, waiting to see what would happen next.

Maybe Jason could see that too, because he whirled toward the door, expression twisted with a darker rage than I’d ever seen before. “You set her up,” each word was slow and heavy and sounded like he squeezed it through a locked, clenched jaw. “You wanted her to ask the wrong questions, get the wrong answers – all so you’d come back into the room and see how she would react.”

“Yes,” the Rain Man answered flatly. “It fascinates us.”

The Commander was way past crossing his arms to show his displeasure. Both his hands were by his sides, arms straight and rigid. He was pumping his black, armor-covered fists one by one. “You know, to our culture, that’s profoundly insulting.”

“Yes. Though, the insult is worth the information we have gathered and will continue to gather.”

I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Commander’s hands as they stretched out and pulled back into tight, tight fists. It was the only distraction I had from the whirlpool of anxiety building within me. The news that my People were also the Twixts was smothering me, drowning me, all but killing me on the spot.

“You also know that manipulating a GAM investigation—”

“We didn’t manipulate it. We answered your question to our full knowledge. We confirmed your version of events, confirmed the existence of the creatures you call the Twixts. We even showed you their true origin – a fact few beings in this galaxy share. We gained from the experience as well – as all do in the exchange of information. We learned of the emotional reaction the last descendent of The People had upon hearing of her shared origins with the Twixts. This is invaluable—”

“This is a game. A disgusting game. Don’t think that because you hold diplomatic Central citizenship, that it gives you the right to play with people’s lives.”

“We have not broken any laws.” The Rain Man cocked its head to the side in a grotesque movement that looked more like the thing would fall off and hit the floor, exploding into a sea of ants. “You know this, but your reaction interests us. It is other than what we would have expected from someone of your apparent emotional control and someone of your rank also. Perhaps you have feelings for—”

“Perhaps I have common decency,” the Commander said, voice quicker and far harsher than a clap of thunder by your ear. “We’re leaving.” He turned to me and nodded toward the door.

“I do not believe that is wise. There is more that we can learn from one another.” The Rain Man, thankfully, returned its head to the vertical.

“There’s nothing more you can learn from us.” The Commander uncrossed his arms and turned to walk off.

“There is far more she needs to know, far more she must learn before she can do what it is that history tells us she must.”

I frowned at the Rain Man’s overly complex statement. I got the gist. He didn’t want us to go; he wanted to tell me more. What more could there possibly be? What would I learn next? That The People were also the origin of all sickness in the galaxy, of all disease, of all famine, poverty, and plague? They had already unleashed one unforgivable curse on the Milky Way, how could I hope they didn’t have more skeletons in the closet?

“Like I said,” the Commander didn’t turn back but didn’t keep marching off, either, “This game is over. Mini?” Jason turned to face me. “Mini, let’s go.”

I stood there, wavering, balance faltering. “What if it can tell me more? I can’t leave, not when the last thing I’ve found out is that my people are the Twixts!”

Jason steadied himself, took a breath, and marched my way. “Some information is not worth getting.”

The Rain Man hissed. I imagine to the Rain Main that was the greatest insult of all.

“Sometimes,” Jason drew to a halt beside me and placed a hand on the back of my shoulder, “You have to turn around and leave before you know all the facts.”

“You investigate things, collect information for the GAM. You wouldn’t walk away if this were some mission—”

“Yes, I would. Knowing when to leave is what separates an idiot from a success.”

His words struck me. I half-closed my eyes and nodded. “… Okay, let’s go.”

He curled his lips into a faint smile and turned to walk by my side, placing himself firmly between the Rain Man and me.

“You cannot leave,” the Rain Man said. “There is too much to learn.”

“We’re going,” the Commander said, tone twisting with anger.

“Not yet, not yet,” the Rain Man said. He was almost whistling, but I realized it wasn’t a whistle, just the high-pitched hysteria of a million ants all clamoring their displeasure at once.

I shifted closer to Jason as I walked, the sound of the Rain Man’s voice making me itch like hundreds of ants were crawling all over me at once, head to foot in a frantic frenzy.

“You must stay!” the Rain Man tried one final time before Jason and I had reached the door leading out into the corridor beyond.

Jason put a hand on my back and pushed me along faster.

“We hadn’t wanted to do this.” The Rain Man’s voice filtered in from the other room, all distorted and keening. “But you leave us no choice.”

Jason snapped his head around. “Did you threaten a GAM officer?” he called off down the hall, voice booming like a rocket blasting past my ear.

I felt trickles of fear snake across my skin. It was an empty threat, right? There wasn’t anything the Rain Man could do to us, right? I mean, Jason was here; he was a Commander; he still had his gun. How would the rain man attack, anyway?

I shivered on the spot as a horrible image filled my mind. Hundreds, thousands, millions of ants all running at us at once – covering the Commander and me, pulling us to the ground.

“Jason, let’s go.” I was aware I’d called the Commander by his first name, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to get out of here right now.

“You go ahead.” Jason nodded toward the corridor that led to the airlock. “I’ll have one more word with our host. It’s a crime to threaten a GAM officer.”

I pleaded with him, not with my words but with every movement of my eyes, my hands, my whole body.

“You’ll be alright,” he nodded, “Go.”

I didn’t care if I’d be alright; I didn’t want him to go back in there alone with that thing. Who knew what the Rain Man would subject the Commander to, all in the quest for more information?

I didn’t get a chance to throw out a hand and yank the Commander back; he turned and marched away before I even finished my thoughts.

I wavered on the spot, not sure of whether to follow him or follow his orders. So I didn’t move, just stood there staring at one of the paintings in the hall, trying so hard to figure out what I should—

There was a strange noise, loud enough to shake through the floor of the ship and up through my feet. It hadn’t come from the main room, that I could tell. I was sure it wasn’t possibly the rumble of Jason giving the Rain Man what for. No, it had come from outside the ship.

I looked up and along the corridor, up toward where the airlock stood at the other end of the hall.

The airlock was opening; I could see the cracks of artificial light streaming in from behind it. There were figures, or at least I thought I could make out shapes – but it was so far away.

Were those the Commander’s men, maybe? Had they come to check on his safety as a welcome cavalry to finish our battle and take us home again?

The figures walked down the hallway quickly.

It was when the first one raised all three of his guns in all three of his hands that I realized they weren’t GAM. Only Tarian Mercs have three arms – one to shoot you with, one to hold you, and one to punch.

The Tarian leveled his gun and fired.

Chapter 18

The Tarian’s blast came searing past my ear as it slammed into the wall beside me. The white-hot plasma bullet sunk into the center of the painting depicting the water planet of Isis. The canvas bubbled on impact, burning away as the blast radius spread, the engaging blue ocean disappearing to reveal a singed, pockmarked wall behind.

He hadn’t missed on purpose, even I knew that.

Four more Tarians entered in through the open airlock, three arms apiece toting twelve guns my way.

As the lead guy drew closer, I could make out the sneer on his squashed-nose face. It was remarkable how much Tarians looked like Earth pigs, except with the glassy, white eyes of one roasting on a spit. Oh, and the fact their huge noses looked like they had been smashed in with a brick.

He kept walking toward me, shoulders hunched forward, three arms held high, guns trained on me.

The skin of a Tarian is the color of a bloodstain you can’t get out of the carpet – it’s a pale red with strikes of far darker crimson flashing through it. The nostrils are ringed with a ghostly white, the two tusks protruding from their mouths fat enough that they press their lips in, stopping them from closing their mouths so a constant stream of saliva trickles past.

Then there was the third arm. They had two terminating from shoulder blades, like humans, but there was a third lower down their chest – protruding right from the center of their torso. It was like an arm that belonged solely to their stomachs, one for grabbing whatever food walked past and holding it still while the other arms did their work.

I was motionless. Not still but motionless. My heart didn’t appear to be beating; my breath had caught somewhere low down in my chest; and my limbs felt like the heavy, waterlogged wood you pull out of a storm drain during a deluge.

I had fought Twixts before, but something far more mundane by comparison had me quaking like a three-year-old. I was built to fight Twixts; it was in my blood in more ways than one. Plus, she would always take over when my inter-dimensional cousins would rear their insubstantial heads. Neither my human nor my People side had any experience fighting Tarian Mercs. I couldn’t hope for a sudden flash of determination or deep instinct from within to push me into a fighting frenzy. It wasn’t going to come because these weren’t Twix—

“Get down, Mini!” Jason’s voice boomed from behind. It was louder, stronger than I’d ever heard, and had the electronic quality of his helmet relay.

My legs followed his orders, in a way, and collapsed under me, taking me down faster than a samurai sword to the back of the ankles.

The Commander charged, helmet up, black GAM armor catching the light as his legs and arms pumped, plasma assault rifle at the ready. I could hear the sound of his mechanized armor as it assisted his running, the joints giving off an electric buzz as they pushed the Commander to speeds no ordinary human could achieve.

The lead Tarian got off the first shot, but Jason tank rolled to the side and kept running.

He was charging them like some wild animal willing to sacrifice their life to save the heard. It was foolhardy, idiotic – it was just never going to work. One man against five Tarian Mercs with one pathetic damsel in the way?

The Commander swung his assault rifle forward as he passed me and started firing. He’d obviously waited until I was behind him before he started blasting away, nervous I’d be caught in the crossfire.

“Get out of here, Mini! Get back to the Main Room,” he boomed again, his helmet carrying his voice above the clamor of plasma blasts.

The lead Tarian had dropped to his knees, allowing the other four to stand abreast behind him and ready their guns like a firing squad.

Jason was going to… Jason was going to—

I stumbled up, tilting into a run toward him.

“Mini, get down!”

I wasn’t going to lose him to some Tarian Merc, not in an attempt to save my pathetic life.

I ran after him, determined to get myself between him and the next shot the Tarians sent flying his way.

At this moment, I would have far preferred to be fighting the Twixts.

“Mini.” Jason made a lunge for me, trying to push me out of the way.

I ducked under his grab, getting in front of him. The Tarians were only ten meters away now; I could see the dead whites of their pupil-less eyes as clear as the lines on my own palm. I closed another meter, then another.

They weren’t going to fire on me. I knew that deep down. Even if they would, I was willing to take the consequences.

I drew to a halt and flung my hands up until my arms were wide, fingers spread like I was trying to palm a ball. “Stop! Stop!” I screamed, voice arcing up and down like a crack of electricity spitting through a live wire. “If you want me, you can have me. Don’t shoot!”

It was a gamble, but one I was at least fifty percent sure of. The Tarians had been at the dig site and now here – and they hadn’t killed me when they’d had the chance. Even I knew Tarian Mercs didn’t leave you alive unless they wanted something from you. I didn’t know what they wanted, but all I could hope for was that they wouldn’t shoot at Jason while I was standing in his way.

The lead Merc, the one who’d dropped to his knees, snorted out a laugh, his nostrils contracting and puffing out the air like a blowhole in some ocean cave. He didn’t say anything but didn’t shoot, either.

“Get out of the way, Mini!” Jason was still running, was right behind me, was going to leap to the side, was going to get past me, was going to get shot.

Oh god, there was no way out of this, was there? Even if I did manage to stop them from killing Jason right now, the second they had me, they would finish off the job.

Sure enough, Jason didn’t stop when he reached me. He pulled to the side, ran right past my outstretched arms.

I turned and leaped for him, just as the lead Merc raised his gun to fire. I slammed into Jason from the side, knocking into him with the blade of my shoulder. It wasn’t enough to do any damage or even register much of a knock through his thick GAM armor. It was enough to push him off balance. That’s when I dived forward and grabbed the pistol from his hip holster.

Before another word could be said, another shot could be fired, another breath could be swallowed – I took the gun up to my own head and pressed it against my temple.

This was the only way, right? This was the only way.

“What are you—” Jason began.

“Put your guns down,” I whirled on the Tarian Mercs, “Or I shoot myself, right now. You don’t get your target, and you leave empty handed – understand?”

The Tarians watched me, especially the lead. He spread his lips wide until the saliva collected over the bottom of his tusks and dribbled slowly down his chin. He made a noise, which was either a grunt or a sharp, sharp laugh.

“I will do it.” I pressed the gun closer to my temple until its muzzle was covered by my knotted and sweaty hair. “I will.”

The Tarian laughed harder now, and I could tell it was a laugh, because it shook his torso, his third arm wavering. “GAM gunsh are lockeshd,” he said, words slurred around his massive tusks.

He leveled his gun right at the Commander.

“STOP! STOP! STOP!” someone screamed.

I almost dropped the gun, almost collapsed to the ground, hands clamped over my ears to block out the sound. It was like the sound of a million mosquitoes all whining at once. It felt like my mind was going to explode just from the high-pitched intensity.

It sunk me to my knees, my eyes rolling back in my head, but I didn’t lose grip on my gun.

The Commander wasn’t affected by it, his fancy armor obviously blocking out the clamor. The Tarians receded, clutched at their ears, and yowled.

I could see the Rain Man marching toward us from the other end of the hall, his body moving quickly but in a far less coordinated fashion. It was seething, waves and ripples cascading across his blue, humanoid form. It was as if each and every part of him – every ant – was angry and was only just holding itself back. “We had an agreement,” the ants said, voice thankfully back to ordinary pitch.

Jason took the opportunity to take hold of the situation. With his free hand, he reached out toward me blindingly quickly and pulled the gun straight from my grip.

“There won’t be any need for that.” The Rain Man continued to march our way.

The Commander whirled around, his assault rifle still trained on the Tarians but his pistol now pointed straight at the Rain Man. “What’s going on here? You tell me now. How did these Tarians make it past your security? You’re supposed to have one of the most sophisticated—”

“I invited them.” The Rain Man kept walking toward us; now he was barely twenty meters away in this long, long corridor.

He invited them?

I couldn’t see the Commander’s face, but I could guess his expression. “You invited Tarian Mercenaries aboard your vessel, armed Tar—”

“You would not stay and share your information.” The Rain Man was closing the distance between us with every word. “I had no choice.”

“They arrived barely two minutes after we decided to leave; I’m betting they were already coming.” The Commander had his head trained on the Rain Man, though I could tell he was ready to fire on the Tarians should they move even an eyelid too quickly.

“It is true; we had made an agreement with the Tarians, one that was in both of our interests. I didn’t intend to exploit this advantage unless you chose not to cooperate.”

“Sending in mercenaries when your guests don’t cooperate is one hell of a way of showing your annoyance. What is going on here? What do you want?”

“We want to know what will happen next.” The Rain Man was letting his head cock to the side again as he walked.

I sucked in a breath and looked away. It was a horrible, deeply disquieting sight.

“To know what will happen next, we must cooperate with these Tarians.”

“What are you talking about? I’m losing my patience. Clarify your point now and stop where you are. One more move toward me, and that will qualify as a threat.”

The Rain Man ground to a halt, bits of him shifting forward before everything came to a stop. “It is unfortunate that we are not in possession of all the facts. There are other parties within this galaxy who have information regarding Mini’s story that is critical. We cannot choose who obtains what data; we can only align ourselves with those who hold that which is most important.”

“You sold us out to a bunch of Tarian Mercs, because they have information you want? We have our own term for that, Rain Man – treason.”

“We didn’t sell you out. Our cause always has and will always be the same. We are invested in Mini successfully completing her story; we are invested in finding out how she will do this. But the fact remains that we do not have all that can help her. There are other—”

“Alright, that’s it. I’ve heard enough. I’m going to tell you what you’re going to do – you are going to lift the com-blackout on this ship, allowing me to make a call to my cruiser. Then you’re going to accompany me for questioning, while your Tarian friends get comfortable in my brig.”

“We cannot do this.” The Rain Man’s mouth didn’t move this time. It was eerie, almost as if the ants that made him up were now too passionate, too involved to remember how to mimic a human. “We will not do this. You will stay here; she will stay here; the Tarians will stay here. The GAM will not come; they will not rescue you. You will either speak to me, or you will leave with the Tarians.”

“Like hell—” the Commander began.

One of the Tarians, the leader, began to laugh again. It sounded choked, so unnatural. “Washn’t the deal. You callshed us – she’sh oursh now.”

“Lift – the – coms-blackout.” The Commander’s words were slow, sharp, biting. He re-gripped his pistol, his armored hands grating around the butt of the gun, the only other noise in the room. “Now.”

“We will not do this; we have no choice. The Tarians came to us, their leader. He had information we didn’t have, information critical to Mini’s mission, critical to the survival of the galaxy, critical to the end of her story. We were forced to make a deal – so we did. You do not understand yet, but in time our choice will reflect our wisdom.”

“Making a deal with Tarian Mercenaries isn’t wise, Rain Man – it’s a crime.”

“If we could have found another way, if we’d had the opportunity to obtain their information in another manner – we would have done this. Such an opportunity didn’t exist, so we made a deal. Now you must go with the Tarians to complete the second half of her mission.”

“We aren’t going anywhere—”

“They will take you,” the Rain Man moved its lips again, but in a disjointed, slow fashion, “To meet her mother.”

I put a hand up to my mouth.

To meet my mother?

They… She was dead. She was dead, wasn’t she? She died a long time ago….

Frozen dread filled me.

My mother? They were going to take me to meet my mother?

“The only place they are going is to the brig. If you don’t stop playing games with her, I will shoot you. Enough baiting, enough manipulation – you can’t toy with humans to see how they will react.”

“I watch her reaction, but I play no game. She will meet her mother – she will go with the Tarians. It is the next logical step in her story.”

“GAM stucksh – can’t shootsh us all at oncesh. Give up – won’t eatsh you.” The Tarian leader was laughing again.

He was right – Jason couldn’t shoot all five Tarians and the Rain Man all at once. Plus, who knew what the Rain Man would do?

“That’s it. Mini, I need you to find the Control Room, to turn off the communications-dampening field. If you can’t do that, find another exit – get out of here and alert my ship.”

I nodded, heart pumping away in my ears. I didn’t want to leave the Commander, but I didn’t want this to continue, for him to get tired and make a mistake.

“Okay,” I said through a croaky rasp. I started to move toward the Rain Man, as slowly as I could, hands balls of white-knuckled sweat.

“The Control Room should be off the Main Room—”

“I cannot allow her to escape,” the Rain Man said, hollow eyes on me as I approached it. “You are resourceful, Commander, but you alone cannot get her to the next stage of her story—”

“Shut up. She’s going—”

“Nowhere.” A voice came over the ship’s com unit, filtering in from the ceiling above.

“Who are you?” The Commander’s voice couldn’t hide the stress and crackled with anger and frustration. He didn’t want to lose hold of the situation, but things were slipping from his control.

“I’m the leader of the Tarian Mercenary band.” The voice was clearly not Tarian; it sounded human. And though I couldn’t be sure, it had a strangely familiar ring to it.

The Commander remained quiet for a moment. “It won’t take long for my ship to detect you – if you’ve come in on a cruiser, you can guarantee they will get to you before you leave orbit.”

“A bit late in the game to be pulling out the cavalry card, isn’t it, Commander Jason Cole?” The voice was odd; it seemed to be straining itself to put on an overly formal tone, like it was trying to sound professional.

“I don’t need the cavalry; I’m the one with all the guns.” The Commander’s head dipped a bit, but his arms were still held out, guns at the ready.

“For now. If you want to live – if you want to come along for the ride – I’d drop them if I were you.”

“That isn’t going to happen—”

“The Rain Man wants you alive; it was part of his deal. He believes it will cause too much emotional stress to Mini if we dispose of you in the usual style. He thinks she’ll be less cooperative, less likely to help us out with one of her usual friendly smiles,” the voice added in a short, sharp chuckle.

My lips parted, eyes crinkling with confusion. How did the speaker know of my usual smile? Was it a lucky guess or…?

“You see, I want to keep Mini on-side. She’s going to be mighty helpful if only I can find a way to make her play ball. That’s where you’re going to come in, Commander Jason Cole. You’re going to be the sweet puppy I kick if Mini starts to get less than cooperative.”

I felt like someone had struck me with their full might right in the center of my stomach. I felt like coughing and wheezing, spluttering and gasping.

“You honestly think you’re going to make it off this planet with a citizen and a GAM officer? They’ll hunt you to the ends of the galaxy.” If the voice’s threat had affected the Commander, he didn’t show it. His tone was full of the same determination, the same pitch of barely contained rage.

“Let them try. We may not be a match for the GAM head on; you do spend an awful lot of money on your fancy armor. But we know how to run, how to keep quiet, how to stay undetected. You know that, Commander. Just as you know you have already lost this situation—”

“I have not lost this situation—”

“Yes you have, and the sooner you put down your guns, the sooner I don’t have to break your arms to get to them. Now play nice, or you’ll get it.” The voice changed pitches, becoming far deeper, far brusquer.

I knew that voice – I just couldn’t remember from where.

“Who are you?” I spoke up, croaking. “What do you want with us?”

“Mini, I’m glad you haven’t guessed yet – I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. What do I want with you? I’m the leader of a mercenary band; I want you to help me make money. Or, more specifically, find weapons.”

“What? What weapons? I don’t know where there are any weapons,” I said through a desperate laugh. I mean, it was ludicrous. If this man, whoever he was, wanted someone to collect firearms for him, he would’ve had more luck with Crag’tal – or any piece of scum he could scrape off a passing transport or backwater planet.

“No, you don’t. I know where they are – I need you to help me get there.” The voice had its fake, professional tone again.

“None of this is going to happen. You’re all talk, all threats,” the Commander still held his guns steady, “But no action. If things are in your favor – why haven’t you acted yet? You’re just some guy with a com-link – weapon-less and playing some idiotic, see-through game – trying to get me to drop my guns.”

“You have a point, Commander. I’m far more menacing in the flesh.” The voice cut out with an ominous buzz.

The airlock behind the Tarians began to open. The Commander twisted his head toward it but then back to the Rain Man – he was obviously having trouble deciding who was the greater threat.

I stared at the airlock as it disappeared into some slot in the ship’s hull. I wanted to know who that voice was, desperately, with every itching tingle running up and down my spine. I knew it – but I just couldn’t remember….

A figure appeared, but I couldn’t see it properly – there was too much light streaming in behind it. I could make out several other shapes behind it, though, make out their long, large guns.

They started to walk toward us. My breath slowed as I redirected every ounce of attention on the figure, trying to make out his features through the light.

“The GAM will be here any minute,” the Commander snapped. “When you opened that airlock, you gave me an opportunity to send a message. This is all going to be over soon. Surrender while you still can.”

“I used to be a GAM, Commander. An engineer, but I still know GAM reaction time. So you can’t lie to me. I’d estimate we have about five minutes to take your guns and bundle you both into our cruiser. As for the GAM attacking our ship before we have a chance to leave the planet – I know the protocols, and they’re clear about not getting into ship-to-ship fire-fights in planet-dock. Too much collateral damage.” The man stopped in from the airlock, his face still infuriatingly hidden by the light.

He was a GAM, an ex-GAM – but how did he know me? The Commander was the first galactic soldier I’d ever properly met. Who was this guy?

“Come on, Mini, aren’t you going to come over here and give me a hug?”

“Who are you?” I asked, voice wavering.

“You don’t remember me? Well, I did pay a lot to have this new fancy voice synth installed. Still, we’ve known each other for years, kid – I would have expected more from you. Especially since you have those fancy eyes of yours.”

I peered at him again, this time concentrating with all my might. There was an immense amount of light coming in from behind the man, far too much for it to have occurred naturally. Perhaps the Tarians had set off Dazzlers to give them the advantage on entry. Though these had no chance of working against the Commander’s light-filtering helmet, they were strong enough to play havoc with my vision.

But the man, whoever he was, was right. Dazzlers or not, I did have fancy eyes. I took a breath and tried to concentrate on blocking out the excess illumination.

It took a moment, but things began to dull as my eyes took in less and less of the light being blasted out by the Dazzlers behind the Tarians.

That’s when I could make out his round bald head, that half-beard he always had, and those stormy gray eyes. I could even see the nick of a scar above his left ear – the one he’d gotten into a bar fight with two Hantari.

“What? You?” I gasped.

“There you go, kid – that’s better, right? But I would have thought you’d have more to say to me – what with you leaving and not even handing in your resignation. I wasn’t too happy when you left, not telling me where you’d gone. So how’s about it, Mini?”

“Marty.”

Chapter 19

There was a standoff in the corridor. A silent, careful, still, standoff as I stared at my previous employer. Marty? I couldn’t believe it. All these years of service, listening to his wild stories and lessons, making sure to follow his orders, and keeping his bar clean. All that, only to find out this.

“What the—” I began.

“Don’t say hell now, Mini; I wouldn’t want to shock the politeness right out of you. That’s one of the great things you’ve got going for you, sweetie – you’re nice, genuine about it too. You were a good kid to have behind the bar—”

“You’re a mercenary,” I cut in, not about to stand by and listen to him recount the old days when the Commander and I were standing in the middle of a precarious situation. Jason still had his arms outstretched, guns pointed both at the Tarians and the Rain Man.

“No.” Marty put up one thick finger, the one with the massive nick out of the top – a scar he’d proudly received from punching a Hantari right on its armor plated chest. “I’m a mercenary leader. Hell, I leave the running around and shooting to the Tarians; they seem to like that kind of stuff. No, me, I organize things, find targets, keep my ear to the ground, and follow the Central Credits.”

“I trusted you—” I balled my hands up into fists. Not ordinary fists – not where I could feel my fingers dig into my palms or notice the pull of skin across my knuckles. No, these fists were too tight – all I could feel was the squeeze as the blood slowly left them.

“No, sweetie, you didn’t trust me. You knew me – and before now, I’d never given you a reason to find me a threat. Knowing somebody ain’t trusting somebody. Take that as a lesson from a mercenary leader—”

“Mini, who the hell is this guy?” Jason’s voice was strained, the electronic disturbance from his suit’s helmet making it crackle and spit.

“Now, now, Commander – don’t interrupt. This is a reunion for Mini and me—”

“Shut up. Drop your weapons, or I’ll shoot your friends.” The Commander tightened his grip on his assault rifle, which was still pointed in a straight, direct line at the Tarian Mercs in front of him. I could hear the almost inaudible hiss of his glove’s mechanics as the Commander’s fingers stretched back and forth across the trigger, the rest of the gun braced against his forearm.

“No, you won’t. Standard operating procedure, Commander, states that in a situation where tactical—”

“I know the SOP for this situation, but I’m going to default to shooting your ass instead.” Jason now turned fully to face Marty, tearing his gaze away from the Rain Man.

Marty laughed, and it was the same as I remembered. He began with a sharp chuckle that ended with a strange hiccup that shook his chest up and down like someone had slammed into his belly with the butt of a gun. “You got balls, kid, you do. If this were any other circumstance, I’d be getting you a free drink. But, damn, all I got on me is this.” Marty reached into his pocket.

Before my former employer could pull out whatever he had tucked away inside his standard navy-blue and white flight suit, the Commander had already fired.

In moments that flashed by with snippets – fragments of confused action – I watched Jason fire his rifle at the Mercs in front of him, plow my way, and slam me to the side until he had us both up against the wall.

Marty snatched the thing from his pocket and threw it our way with blinding speed.

Jason put a hand flat on my chest, letting one of his guns tumble to the ground and clatter by my feet. He pushed me backward with enough strength to send me tumbling and rolling behind him, like an apple dropped from a speeding street cruiser.

“Get—” he began, before the flash grenade went off.

There was a pulse of electricity, a keening, high-pitched screech that cut through my hearing and sent me limp to the ground.

The flash grenade overloaded my nervous system, sent a massive, momentary shock through my body that was more than enough to leave me paralyzed on the floor. I watched with open eyes, unable to close or blink them shut. The grenade had discharged right over the Commander, sending arcing blue electricity cascading through his suit. He clutched at it with his hands, as if he were trying to wipe it off, like the blue energy was some great hive of wasps that was attacking him limb by limb.

I could tell he was in pain. He let out the most strangled of cries before dropping to one knee.

“All the way down,” Marty spat, walking up to the Commander and placing a pulse pistol between Jason’s helmet and shoulders – right against his throat.

The Commander didn’t fall to the ground, but nor did he rise.

“Ha.” Marty had that false humor in his voice again, that light note of friendliness that I’d once admired about him. Except it was sickening now because I could see the real man behind it. “I would have thought my modified flash grenade would have done more than that to you, Commander. Hell, when I tested this on some unsuspecting space pirates, they had to be taken out in containers. Either your GAM armor is stronger than I remember, or you’ve got one hell of a point to prove.”

The Commander was silent, his armor lifting up and down as he sucked in each raking breath. I could hear him inhale and exhale, the mic on his helmet obviously having been damaged in the blast and crackling like a rasp over metal.

“Now, Mini.” Marty walked up to me – I could see his legs, but I was unable to move my eyes to track him further. His feet stopped an inch from my nose. “Sorry I had to do that to you, sweetie, but I don’t have a lot of time before the GAM come swanning in.” He turned away. “Well, would you look at that – I’ve never seen a Rain Man versus a flash grenade before.” Marty gave a harsh, cruel laugh. “I’d say the grenade wins – that’s one paralyzed pile of blue ants. Right – you take the girl – and I want four of you on the Commander. If he moves, so much as thinks about getting violent – shoot him.”

Three arms reached toward me, pulling me up off the ground.

I felt fear the likes of which I’d never experienced. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even blink. All I could do was see from my limited field of view, hear the breath of the Tarian against my ear, and feel the dead, uncontrollable paralysis of my body.

I wanted to scream; I couldn’t. I wanted to run; I couldn’t. I wanted to see the Commander; I couldn’t. All I could see was the third arm of the Tarian looped up around my middle, pinning me to its chest as it walked me out of the airlock.

The Mercs walked us along the corridor connecting the docked ships. There wasn’t another soul about, which was either a good or bad thing. I couldn’t bear the idea of coming across some kind alien family, only to have the Tarians shoot them on the spot. Then again, the fact there was no life along what should be a busy thoroughfare, was not a promising sign.

“Ship isn’t too far now,” Marty said from somewhere in front of me. “Then the real fun will begin.” He chuckled again with the same note of unrestrained cruelty. I was starting to wonder if it had always been there, and whether I’d turned a blind ear to it.

How could I not have seen this? How could I not have known what Marty truly was? A Tarian Mercenary leader? There must have been signs.

My limited field of view kept jumping up and down as the Tarian who carried me walked, boots heavy and gait long. I could see a wall, the sudden green flash of a pot plant, then the wall again. More light filtered in as the wall abruptly gave way to a massive bank of windows.

I could see bursts of the world below. The beauty of the almost set sun; the orange and deep purple of the clouds and the dark, star-pocked sky. I could even make out the buildings, the spires, the occasional glimpse of some rooftop cruiser bay with its red landing lights on full.

We turned, and there was the unmistakable hiss of an airlock opening.

“All aboard,” Marty droned. “Now, we’re going to have an interesting flight ahead of us, lots of things to see, places to go, and weapons to retrieve.”

My sense of smell was starting to return, or perhaps it had never been compromised in the first place. It didn’t matter; all I cared about was the surprising, overpowering stench of the Tarian who still had me clutched to his chest as we entered through the airlock. I could smell a heady whirl of dried blood, acrid sweat, and caked filth. I wanted to slam a hand over my nostrils to block it out, or rip my nose right from my face, rather than have to smell it again.

My sight began to go into overload. Though my field of view was still limited, my eyes still immobile, I started to see details more exquisite than ever before. I caught a flash of the ship’s corridor – I could see the finish of the gray paint splashed over the grainy metal surface. I could see a stain, some mark of grime between tiny bumps and imperfections on the wall’s surface. I could see it as if my face were pressed up against it, my eyes as close as they could be.

I caught a glimpse of other things – the ceiling, the lights, the other Tarians, their armor, the milky whites of their eyes. I was seeing it all at once, keeping it all in my mind – all that detail, all those vivid colors, all those clear, perfect images.

I felt like a computer scanner in meltdown – some visual software caught in an infinite loop of enhancing and zooming out.

My arms, my legs, my body – they started to twitch, to flick back and forth like I was a puppet being shaken in a wild storm.

The Tarian who held me swore. I could hear it so clearly, so accurately. It was as if he had shouted it to me in a music hall full of no other noise, acoustics set to amplify and intensify.

“Dump her on the ground.” Marty’s voice had a note of worry, but it was almost indiscernible. He sounded too powerful, cruel, and completely in control.

I hit the ground with a thump, which I heard like a train speeding through both of my ears. I felt the jolt through my limbs like a paper doll feels the drill of monsoon rains. I saw the ground before me with the close-up accuracy of a microscope.

“Sirsh,” one of the Tarians said, “Wantsh ush to shedate hersh? Hurts hershelf, not goodsh for misshion.”

“Damn it.” Marty walked over to me and leaned down, though he was too far out to be hindered by my thrashing limbs. “Maybe she’s had some kind of reaction to that modified grenade.”

“What the hell have you done to her?” the Commander said, voice still crackling as his mic injected it with bursts of static and white noise.

I couldn’t tell where he was, my overloaded senses shooting too much information at me at once. I could hear the exact brusque baritone of his voice, pick the exact pitch – but I couldn’t tell from which direction it came as it echoed back and forth in my mind.

I clutched at my ears, able to move my arms, though they still shook and jolted like I was being continually and powerfully electrocuted.

“She’s not human, you monster,” the Commander shouted again. “Who knows what kind of effect that grenade had on her physiology?”

“The Commander has a point, though it’s an annoying one – get me a sedative, now.”

I clutched at my eyes, at my ears, all over my face. I couldn’t block out the cacophony of sensations, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the feeling of every centimeter of my prickling skin.

Someone grabbed my arm, their fingers digging into my wrist and yanking me up. Something quick and sharp pierced the skin at the nape of my neck. There was a final surge of sensation, which gently subsided into a hollow, numb nothingness.

I flopped back onto the floor, only dimly, dimly aware of anything at all.

“That’s done the trick. I thought the dosage might be too high, but it looks like she’s still with us. Her alien side’s obviously getting more dominant; that was enough to take down ten humans. Oh well, we live, and we learn.”

Marty used to always say that.

My thoughts were slow, dull, not really there. I felt like I was on the edge of sleep – one long, prolonged prelude to a deep, dreamless sleep.

“The effects of the grenade should have subsided by now – I hope I haven’t fried her nervous system. It sure would be annoying to get this far only to have her—”

“What—” the Commander began.

“Commander,” Marty cut in, “Do you want to keep interrupting the leader of a Tarian Mercenary band while you’re about as vulnerable as a newborn Kroplin?”

“You’re never going to get away with this.” The Commander’s voice was gradually becoming normal, the static subsiding to a low-level hiss.

“No, and you’re never going to get the point. Oh, and someone get the Commander out of his armor before the stuff regenerates. I don’t want another firefight on my hands. Now excuse me, Mini, while I go and employ some evasive maneuvers to get us the hell off this planet before the GAM start breathing down our necks.”

He walked off, leaving me limp on the floor. I knew this was one of the most important, most dangerous moments of my life. I couldn’t hold onto that thought, couldn’t keep the feeling of gravity, the sense of peril.

I slipped off to sleep.

I awoke to find Marty leaning over me, his bald head glinting under the powerful blue lights embedded in the metal ceiling above. He had a smile on his face, the kind of false smile a used-cruiser salesman would use when he saw you walking across the ship-lot toward him.

“Rise and shine, sweetie. We’ve got a lot of talking to do.” Marty’s smile didn’t shift for a second.

I blinked at the lights, raising a hand over my eyes to block them out.

“Now, no sudden movements, kid. You’re still under the effects of the sedatives, and the grenade, of course. You so much as try to do a star jump, and you’ll give yourself an aneurysm. Not to mention should you try your hand at heroics, we will give the Commander an aneurysm.”

The Commander, Jason. I pulled myself up sharply, ignoring Marty’s words only to swoon back onto the bed as I lost all sense of balance, my head filling with thick fog.

“What did I tell you, kid? Take it slowly.”

Where was the Commander? Where had they taken him? What had they done to him? I tried to push myself up again, ignoring the nausea and pain, pushing through it until at last I sat up.

“You’ve got a lot stronger since the last time I saw you, Mini. I still remember when I had to take you to the Med Bay when Claudia accidentally tripped you up – sixteen skin-stitches later and sixty Central Credits poorer, and I thought you were about as tough as under-set jelly. Now look at you – dodging Tarian fire, pushing through the pain, oh, and fighting Twixts. I’m kind of proud of you.” Marty’s grin widened until I could see more of his white, white teeth in that thick, heavy jaw.

“Save it,” I managed through a deep breath. “Where is he?”

“Wow, you actually care about him, don’t you? About time you found a boy, Mini. I was starting to worry about you—”

“Where – is – he?” The words came out of my clenched jaw in bursts of mounting rage.

Marty, I had trusted him. I’d trusted him.

What an idiot I’d been. All these years and no inclining of his true nature. He’d been like a father to me.

I stared back at him, despite my nausea and raging headache, with as much concentrated anger as I could muster.

“Now, now – those aren’t kind eyes. Remember, I only hired you because you were nice. Well, that’s a lie. I only hired you because I knew who you were. You being nice sealed the deal—”

“Shut up. What do you want anyway? Where’s the Commander? What have you done with him?”

Marty stared at me, a private smile tugging at his mouth, his lips parting a millimeter to show the smallest section of his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth.

He was trying to provoke me, trying to intimidate me – I could tell that. Still, watching that vicious smile take to his face was like watching the Commander being cut down with plasma fire.

I tried to hide a shudder.

“Mini, he’s fine, at least for the time being. He’s all tied up in the brig right now but very much alive. In fact, he’ll be joining us in a minute. It’s time we have a nice chat.”

With his arm around mine, partly to stop me from falling and partly to fix me in place, Marty led me out of the med bay and back along the corridor to the bridge. As I stumbled along, my limbs still weak and uncoordinated, I tried to take in as much of the scene as I could. There were Tarians standing around, checking consoles, presumably flying the ship, or just leaning against the bulkheads cleaning their weapons. It looked like a setup, like someone had engineered the scene to make it as maximally intimidating as possible. Surely, there was a better place to scrape the blood off the magazine of your assault rifle than the center of the command deck? Why couldn’t they do that in their quarters, or the weapons range, or even the mess hall? Wouldn’t they get in someone’s way?

As I looked around, I started to realize that this ship couldn’t be that big. Maybe it was only one deck with a corridor and a handful of branching rooms? Weren’t these Tarian Mercenary bands supposed to be elite, fast groups ideal for snatch-and-grab scenarios? Would they have a GAM-sized cruiser at their disposal?

“Take it all in, Mini, because this is what all your hard work at the diner went into funding. Well, not all of it; this mercenary business has a habit of funding itself after a while. The diner is a good earner too – it’s a handy place to listen for rumors, find out hits, and generally mingle with space scum.”

I used up most of my strength to turn to him, to drop my lips open, my gaze dead and cold. “You think—” but I stopped, because a surge of energy pulsed through me.

They brought the Commander in, though dragged him was a better term.

“Jason!” I screamed, pulling away from Marty and rushing over to him. “Jason, Jason, Jason, are you okay?” I kept saying his name, over and over again – as if its mere repetition would bring the color back to his sallow skin.

He looked up at me. Though his body was limp, his face was in control. “You alright?”

I nodded so quick my neck gave a click, my head still swimming with the acute nausea of my fatigue. “I—”

“Hold in there—”

“Look, this is touching, but I’m on a schedule here.” Marty walked over to me, crossing his arms like the Commander would have done.

I reached out an arm to Jason. I wanted to take his jaw with my hand, to alleviate some of the pressure that was running through his strained neck.

Marty ducked down and grabbed my arm, pulling it back.

“Like I said, I don’t have the time. This way.” Marty pulled me to my feet and marched me across the room. He nodded at the Tarian in front of some console. “Pull up the file. Confirm status of the light cruiser too; I don’t want to make it all the way to the Dark Rift only to find out she’s out of fuel.”

“Yesh.” The Tarian drooled as his hands clunked across the console, his third hand taking the time to scratch some itch on his stomach.

“The Dark Rift?” I repeated, surprise obvious. “Wh- why are you taking this ship there? It will get pulled apart.”

“That’s where our weapons are. Yes, this ship would get pulled apart – that’s why we aren’t taking her. No, we’re taking your ship.”

“My ship?” I tried to pull free of his grip, his fingers starting to eat into my wrist like hot barbed wire. “I don’t have a ship.”

“Yes, you do.” He let me go, though threw my arm free was more accurate.

I found my balance, propping myself against a console, and rubbed at my wrist. I was free, except I wasn’t. Marty knew I was in no condition to fight. One quick step, and I’d fall back to the ground, a puddle of nauseated fatigue.

“It’s the ship you came in on, sweetie.” Marty turned to the console to key something in.

“I don’t… I don’t get it—” I began.

I heard Jason make a noise from behind me.

“He gets it, but you don’t. It’s the same light cruiser you were brought to Station One with, Mini, all those years ago.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it.” Marty looked cocky, uncontrollably proud of himself.

“How did you… how did the GAM give it up?”

“Oh, they didn’t, not technically. I had to steal it from Central Space Dock – but it was worth it.”

“You stole a ship from Central Space Dock?” the Commander asked, and despite everything, his voice was still as strong as ever.

Marty laughed. “Cool, ha? I can’t take all the credit – GAM wasn’t even protecting it. The security was lighter than one of my lemon meringue pies. You see, they didn’t know what they had – thought it was a piece of space junk they had to keep for the sake of records and paperwork. They had no idea—”

“What do you mean? Wouldn’t they have scanned that ship? Wouldn’t they have bothered to check it over once a child had arrived in it on their doorstep?” My words were quick, breathy.

“Oh, they did. Well, I did. You see, Mini, I was one of the technicians who first found you. In fact, it was me who first scanned that ship. It was me who popped you out of the stasis pod. Hell, it was me who called you Mini.”

I recoiled from him, feeling colder than absolute zero at the idea Marty had been so involved in my beginnings.

“You wiped the files,” Jason said, voice still too clear for a man who lay limp between his captors’ grips. He was obviously diverting all his strength to the only thing he had left. Not that he had even a chance of talking Marty down.

“No,” Marty clicked his fingers in Jason’s direction, “But good guess. I encrypted them. I couldn’t wipe them because they were too valuable. I sure as hell couldn’t copy them off; they were too large and would have taken too long. So I encrypted them, buried them in the ship’s computer banks, and left them there. I was the officer in charge, so when I said the computer was clean, people believed me. Still, GAM bureaucracy stated the ship had to be kept for the sake of records, so when I put in a tender for it – they denied me. They just towed her to Central Docks and let her rot. I wasn’t about to give up, not without a fight. It took me years to build up the money, the strength, the connections to spring that ship. It is all going to be worth it, come pay day.”

“You waited until you could steal it back?” Jason lifted his head to face Marty, the strain evident across the throbbing veins of his forehead. “What the hell was in those files that made you commit treason, made you turn on the GAM – made you steal from us?”

“Treason?” Marty looked thoughtful. “You know, I’d never thought of it that way. I’d always considered it an ordinary crime. Now you’ve pointed it out, I can see where you’re going. If I hadn’t encrypted what was in those data banks, well, let’s say that the GAM would have different priorities right now.”

“Wait, but what was on the ship’s computer? What was in those files you waited years for?” I asked.

Marty turned to me, stepping closer until I could see the light glinting off his gray eyes. “You really want to know, Mini?”

I wanted to recoil, but I held my ground. “Yes,” I said as firmly as my voice would allow.

“Alright, I’ll show you.”

Chapter 20

Marty keyed in the code. I watched every one of his thick fingers dance across that console, calling up some file from the ship’s computer banks.

There was hardly a sound to compete with the click, click, click of Marty’s fingers as they touched the keypad – oh, and the rumble of my heart as it shook my ribcage.

“Here we go,” Marty said, hands coming to a rest.

A blue, flickering hologram rose above the central control panel. It looked precisely like the AI on the Rain Man’s ship before it had taken shape. This one contorted for a bit, its blue pixels shifting in and out before it took stable form.

If there was a collective intake of breath, I didn’t hear it. If everyone else on the deck stared on in wide-eyed shock, I didn’t see it. I was too distracted by the hologram that hovered above the console.

“You have accessed my Virtual Memory. Please state your request,” the floating form said, voice lilting with a strange accent.

“What the hell is that thing?” the Commander demanded, unable to hide the note of amazement from his voice. “I’ve never seen an AI with that kind of visual programming before.”

Before Marty could answer, before he could cock his head back, before he could grin with those large, white teeth, and far before he could mouth the words “Her mother” – I already knew. I already knew.

The image floating before me, the hologram that was close enough to touch – it spoke to every part of me, every cell, every memory.

She, Her, Mother.

I was staring up at her, letting the light from the hologram play across my face as if I were standing under some great chandelier of flickering candles. My lips were softly parted, my eyes open as far as the stretched skin would allow. “Mother?”

The holographic creature turned my way, tipped its perfect head to the side, and regarded me. “Accessing Virtual Memory. Confirming the identity of Leana Hari’s offspring. Identity confirmed.”

I stared up. I didn’t understand what the AI was talking about. But I knew it was still her.

“Doesn’t she look amazing?” Marty asked from beside me.

I jumped, startled at the sudden intrusion. I’d almost forgotten he was there, almost forgotten where I was and the horrible situation I was in.

Amazing? No. She looked impossible. My mother – no, the hologram of my mother – was ordinary height for a human, with a humanoid body type. But that’s where the similarities ended. Every centimeter of her soft-looking skin glowed like torchlight through amber. The color was so rich, so warm, so inviting. Her eyes were the same as mine, though sharper, clearer – far more like the blast of a phase rifle as it collected a hot bullet in its muzzle. She had coccyx-length ice-white hair that floated around her like a silk veil in a breeze. These were not the startling things about her. It was the markings, the tattoos, the great grooves and impressions that ran all over her skin – these were things that made me stare.

They were so intricate, so complete, so beautiful. Her amber skin was marked, from head to foot, with dark, black groves that had strikes of white-hot blue emanating from them. One massive central line, that gave off more concentrated light than any other, ran from her bottom lip right down to her clavicle and along each arm until it ended right in the center of both her palms.

She parted her lips, her bottom lip all the more visible for that bright strike of light. “Yamana, daughter, what do request of my Virtual Memory?”

I didn’t answer, couldn’t get it into my head that I was supposed to be talking to my mother. I watched her lips move, watched the lines of light.

“We want to access the message stored in your data file – the one where you tell us where all those weapons are.” Marty crossed his arms and grinned.

The hologram of my mother turned to Marty but didn’t narrow her eyes, harrumph, or in any other way indicate that she understood what he’d said.

“Mother, mother I—”

“I am not your mother; I am a segment of her memory, a moment of her time. I look like her, yes; I sound like her; I move like her. But I am myself, and we are separate. I have one goal; she has many.”

I put a hand up to my face, jamming my fingers in the corners of my eyes to stop the tears from welling.

“I have one purpose,” she continued, “One goal. I am here to relay a message, to ensure that Leana Hari’s sacrifice leads to some good.”

Marty made a speed-up motion with his hands. “This is touching, but move on to the message.”

The hologram flicked her gaze to Marty. Though her eyes were expressionless, I fancied I caught them narrowing. “Do you request I playback your mother’s final message?”

She was asking me and me alone. I nodded, one single heartbeat pulsing through me like a roar.

“Very well.” There was an electronic beep, and the hologram came back to its original position, eyes directed straight ahead. She was motionless, nothing more than a 3D doll.

Then she moved.

“I come with a warning, a grave warning.” She stared out but at nobody in particular – her head swept slowly to each side as if she expected she was talking to a crowd. “Yet I come with a gift, one that is harder to give than one’s own life. On this ship is my only daughter, my only child. She is all I have, and yet I give her to you. I have sent her to the headquarters of your army, of the security force responsible for protecting all this galaxy. I have sent her to you because she offers you hope.”

I put a hand on my stomach and one on my mouth. They both shook like I was a hundred times older than my years.

“We are of The People, though my child is also human. If, by this time in your galaxy, you have forgotten our race, I will remind you. We were one of the founders, the first race in your Milky Way to attain space travel, to understand, to manipulate, and to control technologies of astounding power. Yet for all our graces and achievements, we are also responsible for one of the greatest enemies this galaxy will ever encounter. The Twixts, beings of insatiable hunger who feast on the light of living souls. This is our most unfortunate legacy.” She trailed off, her chest rising as she took in a deep breath. She closed her eyes and turned her head to the side.

I wanted to reach out and touch her, to feel her glowing skin against mine, to share the terrible burden that was weighing her down. Though I was already sharing that burden, wasn’t I? I already knew what it felt like to have the weight of the Twixts on my shoulders.

“From your time, from your galaxy – our people disappeared. Not long before the advent of your current central governing body, we took our final steps amongst you. The war between our people – the never-ending battle between the Enlighteners and the Twixts – it consumed us, warping the fabric of space around our planet, around our time, around our light. For we play with the origins of power, of creation, and of reality. In our quest for enlightenment, we came foul of the true understanding of the spirit – and instead of finding lasting truth, have found lasting war. Though we understand all that this universe has to offer, and true enlightenment is still in our grasp, our time will not be up until we can defeat, or have been defeated by the Twixts.”

I shook my head. Everlasting war, everlasting battle? This was our legacy? To fight forever and ever in some kind of warp in space?

“It is now our sacred duty to fight the Twixts, to stop them from escaping the Rift, from spilling into your universe and sucking the light from all who live. We keep them in check but cannot do so forever. We fear the time is rapidly approaching where we will lose this balance, where the Twixts will be free. That is why I have sent her, why I have to part with my only child. She is for you so you can do what we cannot. None of The People – the Enlighteners – none of us can pass through the Rift, not anymore. It has become too dense for our bodies to traverse. Unlike the Twixts, we are incapable of keeping the light within, and traveling through the Rift will rip it from our bodies. She is half-human; she is half other than we are. She can traverse freely through the barriers between our worlds. As can all creatures of your universe. With the correct technology, you can enter what you call the Dark Rift; you can protect your ships from the pull of the spatial anomaly.”

I wanted to look over at the Commander, to see his face as my mother told me everything. I didn’t want to see the shock in his eyes, maybe even the embarrassment at having not believed me. No, I wanted to share the moment with him, the only other being aboard this ship who might understand what this meant to me.

“It is now that I must make my request of you. I give you my daughter so that she may see the Twixts. As we lose containment of these creatures, as our fight begins to leave us – more and more Twixts will escape into your galaxy. She will be able to see them, to fight them, to help you to fight them. This is not my request. She is only one, and they are many. If we are to stop this war from spilling over into your space, we must have help. On board this ship, we have uploaded the schematics for weapons to be built, for navigational systems and shield modulations that will help you travel through the Rift. In the time it will take for my child to grow, you must build these devices, you must prepare for war. We understand that it is we who have created this problem, that it is from our race that the Twixts were born, but without your help to defeat them, they will destroy you. So help us, please. Use the schematics we have given you, build them before my child becomes an adult.”

“W-what weapons?” I stammered, the information so hot in my mind it felt like my ears were burning. This was an overload. My mother had sent me to the GAM so that I could protect them? So that I could grow up helping them to fight the Twixts? She’d sent them designs for weapons? None of this had happened! I’d become a waitress and failed in my intended duty while the threat of the Twixts had continued to grow.

My mother flicked her head to the side, her eyes blinking quickly. She appeared to return to her original VM state. “Do you have a request, child?”

“What the hell did you do with those designs?” the Commander snapped. His voice keened with a note I’d never heard – it sounded like surprise, like complete, bone-shaking shock. Did this mean he finally believed me?

“Relax, Commander, I don’t have my hands on the schematics for the most advanced weaponry in the galaxy. If I did, do you think I’d be bothering to go all the way to the Dark Rift to find a couple of guns? No, that part of the computer’s memory was damaged beyond repair. Imagine that, sending a ship halfway across the galaxy with your only child in tow, on some desperate mission to get Central to build you some weapons, only to have the data files corrupt en route. Hell, it’s enough to bring a tear to an old man’s eye.”

“You expect me to believe the data files corrupted, just like that? That ship would have had safeguards in place to protect against all data loss.” The Commander’s voice sounded strained, revealing his fatigue in every slurred syllable.

“The ship was hit by a meteorite storm. Hell, it had some fancy evasive programs on its nav computer, but nothing to cope with this. As far as I can tell, it was heading past some quiet cluster when, bam, some planet went critical. The resulting space debris impacted it, but didn’t destroy it – navigation, stasis, and the core VM were saved, but those schematics were not. Most of the computer got crunched when one of the rocks impacted the core. I’ll give the ship credit, though, it fixed itself – which is some fancy tech. But once lost, those files couldn’t be retrieved.”

“So there aren’t any weapons? No designs, nothing—” I began.

“Nope. But there’s a cache inside the Dark Rift. If you let your mother continue, she’ll tell you all about it.”

“We have no weapons to bring them? We have no means of reaching my People, no means of helping them?” My voice wavered.

“Technically, you could get to them with your ship, but I don’t plan on going that far.”

“She sent me… she sent me out here to help, and I can’t because of some random accident with an asteroid?!”

“Afraid so.” Marty cocked an eyebrow but didn’t say more.

“How can you… how can you be so calm about this? Didn’t you hear her, didn’t you listen to her message? She told us our galaxy will be destroyed unless we can build the weapons to help – unless we can bring our own army to their aid. Yet you’re just standing there. Don’t you realize there won’t be a galaxy if the Twixts are allowed to win?”

Marty looked uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t go that far. It’s an isolated problem at the moment; there’s hardly any Twixt activity. It’s spotty, not a real threat yet. No, I don’t think they’re losing as fast as they thought they would. I’d say we have twenty years, maybe thirty before we have ourselves an issue. Which is enough time for us to take a trip to the Dark Rift, pick up the weapons cache inside the door, and bring it out again. It’ll take a short number of years to reverse engineer those babies and land ourselves with the next generation of weapons. Then we can build that Twixt-fighting army.”

“And you’ll hold the patents on the designs,” the Commander chimed in, voice anything but cheery. “You don’t think Central is going to be suspicious of how you got them? How you happened to design weapons that could fight off… weapons effective against—”

He couldn’t say it – he still couldn’t say it. Despite what had happened to us, what we’d heard – the Commander still couldn’t admit that the Twixts were real. “The Twixts,” I said, voice hard and sharp.

“…The Twixts,” the Commander finally managed. “Central will take those designs, disregard your patents, and you will land in jail, where you belong.”

“Not so fast, Commander. Commerce doesn’t always work that way. I know the risks, and I know my way around them – I am a mercenary leader. Central will be at my feet, not the other way around.” Marty turned to me, face hot but still apparently calm. “So you see, Mini, your war will still be fought, just not the way your mother intended.”

I took one deep, rattling breath. “And if it doesn’t work? If you don’t have the time—”

“We will have the time. You’ll give it to us.”

“What?” I whirled on him, ignoring any last vestige of my fatigue as it burnt away in the rage and shock.

“You’ll fight those Twixts, Mini, and you’ll keep on fighting them. You see, they get stronger only if they feed. For every one you destroy before they feast, they get weaker.”

“I’m only one person – how can I fight off all—”

“I’m the leader of a big old mercenary band. You can see them; we can shoot them. It’ll work a charm.” Marty patted at his beard and grinned my way.

“You want me to work with you, to work with the Tarians, to lead them into battle—”

“I want you to do what you’re going to end up doing anyway. You can’t help but fight the Twixts, Mini, especially after you’ve heard what your mother has to tell you. So it won’t matter who helps you as long as you get the job done. It ain’t going to be with the GAMs; they aren’t going to believe you, kid. So that leaves us to watch your back, to help you save the galaxy and all.”

“While you make your fortune reverse engineering my people’s weapons. How noble, Marty.”

“Thanks, kid. Now, we’ve got to get back to the message; there’s a bit more your mother has to say. Computer, begin playing the recording again.”

The image of my mother reverted to the same central position. “There are more things you have to know,” she said, “More information you will require in order to help us fight this great war. Know this – this vessel is for my daughter. It will be activated by her alone. The navigational program set to return her through the Dark Rift can only be activated once she is on board. The schematics I have provided you with will be enough to modify your own ships to bring them through the traverse. But this vessel is for her to return home with when she feels the need. I know that her true battle will lie with you, with this galaxy, in protecting you from the Twixts until the time comes for all-out war. But I ask that you leave this ship so that she may return when she is still a child, so I may meet her and teach her of our ways.” The hologram sighed deeply. “For the time that she is with you, if you find the need for more weapons, if your ability to make them is hindered – we have provided a weapons cache within the borders of the Rift that you can utilize.”

Marty clicked his fingers and whistled. “There it is.”

I dropped to my knees. It was dramatic, pathetic, unreasonable – but I didn’t care. I leaned back against some console and stared up at the image of my mother. All those things I was meant to have done, that life I was meant to have led – and I’d done none of it. I wasn’t the person my mother had intended me to be, the strong warrior protecting the galaxy as I waited for the final battle. I was untrained, unloved, and undone. I could have had another life, worked for the GAM, known my purpose from the beginning, even met my mother, but I didn’t have a touch of it, not a touch.

“Hang in there,” the Commander said from across the room.

I didn’t want to hear those words right now.

“Why did you do this?” I croaked. “Why did you seal this data file? Why did you hide this from the GAM when I was sent to them? When she intended me for them?”

“Oh, don’t make an issue out of it. You think the GAM would have believed this message? Without those advanced weapons schematics, you think they would have had any evidence—”

“You don’t know that,” I snapped, pushing up. “You don’t know that!”

“Look how long it has taken for your boy over there to believe you. The GAM would have buried this. Trust me, I used to be one of them. So look at me like the good guy here, Mini, because that’s what I am. If I hadn’t sealed those data files, the GAM would have buried this ship and you in a pile of paperwork so high you would never have escaped. No, it was by making them think this ship was nothing, that you were nothing, that has you standing here today, free. Well, free-ish. I may have done this for partly personal gain, but it was better than not doing anything at all. I,” Marty put a hand up to his chest and passionately thumped his flight suit, “Am the reason this galaxy will defeat the Twixts – will rise up and destroy our enemy.” Marty’s eyes flared, his face capturing an emotion that should never be seen on a sane man’s face: a megalomaniac’s pride.

“You have no idea what the GAM would have done,” the Commander cut in, his breath growing shorter as time wound on. “They would have had to investigate something like this. I agree – they tend to bury things, catch things up in bureaucracy. But they aren’t mad. They would have looked into this.”

“What if your faith in them is wrong, ha?” Marty continued, the same crazed look in his eyes. “Well, I wasn’t willing to take that risk. Sorry, Commander, but it is me the galaxy will remember when they look to those who saved them from the Twixts. I’m not an angel; I’m a mercenary leader. But that only means I’ve got the balls to do what’s right.”

“No, you’re insane,” I said quietly, choosing to stare up at my mother rather than look at his face.

My thoughts were swimming again, a strange throbbing pain growing in my temples. The after effects of the grenade and my sedative were still messing with my system. The light was too bright. I wanted to turn away from it all and bury my face in my hands.

But that would never last. I wouldn’t be able to hide from this. I was now the unwilling partner of my ex-employer. He was right; I would have no choice but to help him if he was the only person willing to fight the Twixts. Because, like it or not, my greater duty lay with them.

Nothing had turned out as my mother had intended. Everything was messed up, different, screwed. I wasn’t a warrior; I was a waitress. The galaxy hadn’t prepared an army to fight the Twixts, and it was unwilling to believe they even existed. I wasn’t free to follow in her footsteps, to seek her out – I was stuck in the hands of a mercenary leader.

If the balance of war between The People and Twixts was such a delicate one, then I had just broken it.

I felt that shocking truth rumble through me, destroying the last vestiges of my hope.

We were going to lose this fight.

 

Want to keep reading? You can buy the conclusion of this series, The Betwixt Book Two, from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

 



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