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Alien campsite, near Lake Skinner

April 16, 2013

3:06 AM

 

*Incoming Slipspace Message - Level 5 Encryption*

 

Origin

- SS Tower #12-87

- GSA Serial # 36135247854370350748

- Sender: Brill Secambre

 

Destination

- SS Tower #94-27B

- GSA Serial # 84454211298582402603

- Receiver: Jaruka Teal

 

Jaruka, it's Brill. Still on mission but… good news. Customs cleared the ship and it's arriving sometime today, I think. Or tomorrow. Maps and clocks are haywire today. I've attached the landing coordinates. No doubt Denverbay sent the same to the government; they will inspect the ship and its passenger. Just… please, for the gods, don't insult the pilot. Promise me.

 

*End Message*

 

*****

 

I read that in a half-asleep daze and immediately felt wide awake.

I packed my things into the howler cycle and rushed down the dark roads and highway without caring about other drivers like a pagine on sugar extract. There was no traffic on the highway. Free-roaming was encouraged.

The coordinates were at March Air Reserve Base, housing part of the air force and military personnel. I visited it a few times before, mostly to check in with the federal agents. Waste of time really. These days, its use was dubbed down due to its numbers shrinking from terran discharges, bearing fewer aircraft and pilots than before. The base's gates were closed, but that didn't stop my ride's hydraulic suspension to jump the twenty-foot fence. Sure woke up the guard in the booth. I skidded as I landed and sped toward the airstrip.

Alarms blared within seconds. Building lights lit up. My howler cycle's fusion engine wasn't enough to drown out to alarm.

The landing was set at the largest aircraft hangar on the eastern end of the base.

The coordinates were at one of the largest aircraft hangars on the northeastern end of the base. I dodged under several parked aircraft then skid to a halt in front of the hangar. My compass dinged I was at the right spot. Couldn't guarantee the ship would fit inside.

Lights came on across the base and the alarm did not settle. As I took off my helmet, several military vehicles from all sides were converging on me.

"Croging idiots."

I got off and unclasped my plasma revolver from my hip holster, clicking the charger on. I had no need for my plasma rifle as it was attached to the howler cycle or the sheathed katana over my back. Just the gun. If there was a fight, I'll be damned it will be over stupidity, and not by me.

The humvees were several yards from me before all their brakes slammed down to a stop on the concrete. Their high beams made me squint. I counted eight humvees, sixteen lights. I heard gears shift and they backed away for a few yards before stopping.

I smiled and yelled. "That's right, you better watch yourselves!"

I heard one person get out of one to my right, then the rest of the soldiers filed out with loaded rifles. The first one kept walking toward me. Even with the lights, I could recognize the uniform, buttoned and almost tucked, badges on his left chest, and the rank symbols on both arms. His hair was matted on the left side of his head.

"Stand down, men!" He commanded. "Are you trying to intimidate us, Jaruka!?" He yelled over the alarms and engines.

"Like I want to," I answered. "W-What was your name again?"

"General Higgs, but…"

"Check with your superiors before you or your lapdogs get trigger happy. My ship will be landing right here soon, right at my foot. So if you have any inkling idea to move me from this spot, I dare you, human. No, I double dare you!"

Turning away from the general, I holstered my pistol and pressed a button on the howler cycle's left-side carrier, then sidestepped back. A few rifles rattled around me. Locks clicked and flaps opened from the carrier, then the box unfolded into a sturdy lounge chair, stopping a foot from the general's legs as he blinked from the act. An umbrella lifted itself from another compartment and opened wide to cover the entire lounge chair with a UV solar charging canvas. I've used it when on scout missions, or some erroneous ventures you don't want to know about. Trust me.

"A beach chair? You've got to be joking," Higgs said, eyes blinking. "This is an active airfield. You can't just park yourself here and expect us to comply."

"Don't care. Now be a good dog and butt out!" I flopped onto the chair. My flask from my pants pocket was already in my hand. "Unless you're gambling to defy my government and the twenty-some Spires over us with your wife and son, go right ahead. I'm staying."

Higgs got frustrated and threw his arms up, and I wondered if he was thinking about beating me up. Everybody gets those thoughts. But he couldn't do squat. Higgs turned back to his Humvee saying, "Get me a phone!"

Soon the airbase's alarms shut off. The ring of soldiers and vehicles didn't leave still, but they did reduce the number of lights on me. I watched Higgs as he talked on the phone, confirming from his superiors and messages from the CIA the coordinates were legit. He regarded me, then was driven away.

Sometimes it's nice to have high protection. I smiled and opened the flask. One quick sip of the acrid-smelling Mavarian gin was several other sips left of my reserve.

The next thing I remembered was being jabbed awake in the shoulder.

I jerked and fell off the lounge chair, coughing up mucus. My forehead and right shoulder hit the ground. I shuffled myself to my knees and opened my eyes to the morning light. "Croging hell. 'Da crog poked me!?"

I felt for my plasma pistol but it was missing from the holster. I blinked and rubbed my eyes to get used to the light, then looked around me. On the other side of the lounge chair, Scott and Katie watched me with annoyance but didn't seem to react to my outburst. Scott held my plasma pistol. Katie had her arms folded.

"Slept well?" Katie asked.

Rolling my eyes I said, "Go home you two. This is off-worlder business."

Scott looked around nonchalantly. The number of Humvees went from eight to five. Some of the remaining soldiers laugh at my expense. Three of them had a table set up with food and equipment. A sixth vehicle, the winery's company van, was parked behind a Humvee.

"Some business meeting," Scott joked.

I stood up on my digitigrade legs, my knees cracking. "I'm not maiming anybody. This…" A thought came to me. "Wait. Did the ship come? Did the comm case receive the message?"

The hangar was wide open but it was void of any craft. Airport personnel was inside setting up tables on one end. Everywhere else were more non-military humans, probably government. I could pick out the familiar black suits planted in strategic locations around the hangar and the Humvees.

"Haven't heard a thing," Scott said.

"What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

I shook my head. I checked my flask, still in my vest pocket. I shoot it and was bone dry. "Damn."

"Look, it's great the ship is coming, or maybe not, but not cool to just partially shut down a military airbase just to wait for it to arrive.

"They might shoot it down or confiscate it from me," I defended. "I'm here to make sure."

"They're not gonna take it away."

"You never know."

Scott groaned and shook his head. He still held my plasma pistol at the barrel.

I spotted Higgs at the hangar, talking to two familiar humans. One I didn't mind having around and is a friend of Scott's, chatting away with Higgs like an old friend, the other I wished he was stationed in a desert with a target on his back. That guy was staring dead at me.

I gave him a slight nod. He didn't react.

"Who invited them?" I asked.

"They got the message too, I think. They have to be here," Katie said. "Can't believe you slept through all this."

"I don't like it. And where's dum dum and wise beak?"

Katie sighed. "Keeji and Arana. God, remember their names. They're back home with the family."

"And why are you two here?"

"Because we're the ones Denverbay trust, so it's a good reason if whoever is coming, we have an understanding who are we dealing with here," Scott said, then raised my pistol. "Oh and no weapons. Victor's orders."

I beamed back to my howler cycle. My rifle was missing. I then realized my katana was missing from my back. I then glanced at Scott, my eyes twitching.

"Relax. They're in the van tucked away safe. God, just relax." Scott walked off, with Katie following.

Terrific.

The two people I spotted came not long after.

Deryl Porter, the talker to the general, was a U.S. Marshal, a government-level agent of law enforcement, and Scott's godfather. Deryl was a family man, with little signs of wear for two lives. He can still hold himself at a gunfight from what I heard, a former U.S. Marine. He had long dark brown hair but styled that even the wind couldn't mess it up. The years haven't taken a toll on his stature, still has some muscle under his blue suit and white shirt. He knew my boundaries very well and respected them. Not as a stickler as Scott, but I liked him. For a human.

Victor Mathews, the dead-eye one, was a CIA agent from Foreign Affairs. He had this craw against me ever since I landed in Temecula, wanting every chance to contain me from the general public. He lost that chance day three into my residence by slapping handcuffs on me and almost letting an active Titan Spire compost CIS headquarters. Unlink Deryl's lighter clothes, Victor still wore the typical government agent black suit. His light brown hair was shorter and wavy. He shaved his chin beard since I saw him last. He flashed his sidearm under his jacket, and I gave a little nod. Jackass.

"First injuring a fugitive, now disrupting airbase operations within two days?" Victor said. "Trying to set a record or something?"

"Humans have that sort of thing? I didn't know," I joked.

"You're violating over a dozen federal laws just being on the concrete."

I laughed and said, "I don't see any real commotion here. You on the other hand need to buy a better ego clincher."

"Listen here you…"

Deryl quickly got between us before Mathews came close to me. "Now hang on, Mathews," he said. "The last thing we need is a fistfight and composted bodies. This is just temporary until the ship moves to the camp. Right, Jaruka?"

I took a breath but nodded. "Yeah. Temporary."

Mathews glared at me. I knew I was right; the human government tried everything to change rules so they had control over me. They forget who's within the Republic's cosmic borders. Mathews walked off toward the hangar.

Deryl sighed. "Victor took a red-eye flight this morning. He's a bit edgy today."

"He's always edgy around me," I said.

"Sure wish they sent the exact time the ship will come. This could take all day."

It was agreeable.

For several more hours, we waited. I stayed where I was, drinking a gallon of water, eating snacks, and keeping the comm case open. I had it set to activate and pull Slipspace messages for twenty seconds every five minutes, plus a wide-band antenna to communicate securely with the waystation in orbit. I kept a watchful eye on the soldiers, terran couple, and agents as they waited. Every hour, I had to work on untangling my overgrown skindreads. They secrete more oil in the spring, making things sticky. I had a small incinerator to burn the dried flakes I carefully broke off.

A few soldiers left out of spite from the ones surrounding me, but the rest stayed for gossip, card games, and anything to occupy their minds. I had to watch them as they regarded Scott and Katie's presence, the only terrans I've seen on the base since arriving. The couple was reading Katie's spellbook in the van, still teaching Scott the basics, but not actively practicing. It could set off the wrong messages to the armed soldiers. Scott's mana heart was pumping mana again, so I've heard. There were three or four watching them every so often, their hands close to their guns. Being bad at my reporting job for the Archives and Denverbay is a given, but even I paid attention to how terrans were viewed and treated, especially the armed forces. Every military branch across the planet had been discharging pre-terrans, with or without a safety net. The fear of living, uncontrollable weapons, as what hard-hitting politicians said that they are a threat to national security and must be removed from all armed forces was strong, even though it also dwindles their manpower. At the same time, marketing for humans only to join. Think about it. If a new human recruit signs up, shows up as a pre-terran, and is then treated like a terrorist. For those remaining, still holding on to power, they stay hopeful a cure will stop it all, consistently living in limbo.

What a selfish cycle, huh?

Then the comm case's radio beeped. I beamed at it, holding my breath. One message from the waygate station manager. It spoke in my language with UT filters, without emotion.

"Waygate traveler incoming, Halcunac. Mercenary R-class ship in Slipspace from Quisal. Clearance code matches. Arrival time is within thirty-two minutes."

By the Goddess, it's happening.

"Galvanto! It's coming. It's finally coming!" I screamed and jumped. The humans got startled. Soon, the rest of the humans at the hangar got busy. Scott and Katie joined me.

At certain Slipspace entry points around Terra Firma's orbit, it takes ten minutes to travel between here and Creos. Thirty-two minutes meant the ship was coming from Nova Company headquarters, as I expected it would. The ship was held there for my mods to complete.

Higgs had the base ready by then. The hangar was wide open. The agents at the tables were on standby. My lounge chair was packed up and I moved the howler cycle closer to the hangar as with the rest of the military vehicles. Airport personnel, with strict instructions, were stationed to welcome the ship. My ship. All air traffic from Ontario to Santa Ana was diverted or grounded.

A few minutes after hearing it leave the gate, I kept my eyes peeled to the sky as the sunset to the west. I had to borrow a soldier's binoculars to see.

"Over there!" a human spoke, pointing west. I turned and there it was. A single white streak in the orange dusk sky.

The black dot kept falling until it slowed and flew toward us.

"How big is this ship again?" Scott asked as he looked.

"Ninety feet long, give or take," I said, still looking through the binoculars. "Alright, here comes the prize!"

The ship flew through a cloud, its wake breaking it in two. It slowed down with its wind flaps and four anti-gravity thrusters, so loud it came as a sonic boom. Its speed was too fast to land but it flew over us, and I had to raise my arms and scream loud with joy.

The long hull and underside cargo compartment in the rear pained with black radar-reflective paint, the four anti-gravity thrusters on rotating discs, the rear thruster over the large hatch: it was more beautiful than the broker described.

The wake hit us, jarring the humans into chaos, but I was still jumping and hollering in excitement. "Crog yeah! Come to me, baby!"

It made a wide upward barrel roll to lower its momentum then hover mid-air over where I once camped, then it descended to about twenty feet above the ground. The cockpit's windows were blackened, standard when traveling in space.

The personnel wearing orange and yellow vests waved glowing orange sticks at the ship, directing it toward the hangar. Whoever the pilot was or how it was receiving instructions, he maneuvered the ship inside with the rear hatch facing the tables.

"Look at that beauty," I said with a wide smile. "Man, the newer models look good. Goddess, it looks badass. Wonder it will outperform your country's fastest jets. Right Mathews?"

He said nothing but stared hard at the ship, studying it, as if he had no choice but to bring in the worst mistake of his life. No matter, he can't control this at all.

As the massive hangar doors closed, the ship extended four landing struts from the bottom. A soft touchdown on the smooth concrete, but it cracked a little from the ship's weight. The thrusters shut down in seconds and folded against the ship, something the older models like the Lunar Spear never did.

"Grace and the kids will flip if they see this," Deryl said, meaning his wife and twin daughters I never met.

"Remember, Teal," Mathews said. "This short quarantine and review are what we agreed on with Denverbay. But one mistake from them, there will be consequences. Understood?"

"Yeah, yeah. Keep threatening me with nonsense. Just keep your mouth shut. I'll do the talking."

We walked to the rear. I had to retrain myself from touching the hull if it was too hot from re-entry, or too cold from space. We faced it, with me in front, still smiling. Some humans were a bit nervous like they had never seen a spaceship in person before.

The rear hatch, as wide as the ship, unlatched and descended to the hangar floor in a loud, smooth hydraulic hiss.

Inside, amongst the pristine workshop and metal crates, a familiar Faldeg sorcerer stood in the middle. Nothing else mattered at that point.

"Professor!" I exclaimed with open arms.

Domoja Balcusten bellowed a laugh and tapped his cane twice. "Pupil," he said through his universal translator. "Oh, how the years haven't been kind to you!"

"Same for those sideburns!"

Domoja laughed with a wide smile. He outstretched his ten-food wingspan, making several armed humans flinch before he flew up and land a foot in front of me.

It has been years since I've seen him, not since the Goomash Raid ended. Always great to see a familiar face and a deep friend of mine.

"Pupil, I got them groomed for this trip," he said. "How you've been?"

"Horrible. Nova brew and ration packs aren't enough surviving here, this specie's entertainment is cheesy, and these idiots are itching to cage me up."

"Really?" Domoja glanced past me. "Looks like normal security wherever I go. And where's that young spunk traveler self. You need to open up more."

"How's the family?"

He folded his wings under his arms and sides. A three-clawed hand-wrapped over the metal head of his enchanted cane. "Not bad, kid. My oldest is in his molting stage and had three more daughters a year ago."

"Congratulations! Send my wishes to your wife." The Faldeg are short people, just about four feet tall, but their species can reproduce in large numbers. I counted in my head that he had about twelve in his litter, the older ones had to be adults by now.

"You mean your personal cook?" Domoja added.

We both laughed, and it was true. Veyla was a great cook.

I heard Mathews cough for attention. I glared back at him for ruining my moment.

"We can still hear you, Jaruka," he said. "He still needs to talk like us." The terrans and humans couldn't stop looking at Domoja like some monster from their movies.

"Oh, bit me, Mathews. Let me… yow!" A blunt punch to my upper left thigh hit me. I turned back and Domoja lowered his staff with a centered look.

"Now that's not how guests act. Show that humble spirit of yours, pupil." Domoja adjusted his UT. "Can you hear me now, human?" Mathews nodded. "Ah good. Sometimes I forget to set this collar right."

"It was working on the ship," said an annoyed voice, but this was familiar as well, and it made a couple skindreads of mine curl.

No.

I looked back at the ship, and there she was, with eyes as gold as mine, walking down the ramp.

"S-Shaotzi!?" I yelled.

Shaotzi looked the same the last time I saw her, years really. Still the same blue and orange headband binding back her smooth-shaven skindreads, and the same feathers and jewels pinned and wrapped to her honor dread, and that same clothes and shall she wore when traveling. I felt my stomach drop. All pretense that it was just Domoja coming shattered. Did Brill know she was coming?

She stopped a few feet from us, her eyes looking over me. Not an ounce of reverence. "Are you going to show love for me as to him?" She asked.

I glanced back at Domoja. He darted between us and caught my desperate plea for an explanation. "I'll leave you two to catch up."

"Professor, back me up here! Why is she here!?"

"Ask her, Jaruka. She is family you know." He then walked off. "So which one is the Dunne and Walsh fellows I heard about?"

Being by my sister felt like knives to my back. Any reason was thought of. Denverbay's ploy for annoying him when my ship will be ready? My father since I haven't spoken to him in a while? Or something I wasn't thinking about?

Turning back, Shaotzi was snipping the air. "You need a bath, little brother," She asked.

"I would if I was told you were coming."

"Brill didn't mention it? I wonder why."

"You told him to keep his mouth shut. Didn't you?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"So it was your idea to come?" I asked.

"Obviously. Seemed important. This option came up and I had to take the chance. Leaving Viro is getting harder each year without a government summons."

"You didn't have to." I paused. "How's the old man?"

She regarded my words as bad taste. "He's well. The new treatment is working."

"Good." At least he wasn't suffering. "But really. Go home. He needs you more than I."

"Alright thought ahead, I have trustworthy people taking care of him," she said. "You are what's important now. Just be grateful the three of us are here for you. You look like you need it." Shaotzi then started walking to Domoja talking with the terrans.

"I'm fine with Domoja. Call the station manager to teleport you off here."

She didn't answer as she walked off.

I groaned. "Oh yeah, how you doing, brother? Eating your veggies? Sorry Viro is still the same shit-hole as ever," I said to myself, then I thought of something. "Wait. What do you mean three!?"

"Great merciful Mother, did you sleep in an oil drum or something?"

My body locked up like stone. The voice… Oh, Goddess. Not her!

 


 

A bat. He was an alien bat. A four-foot-tall alien bat. Wow.

Even I wasn't ready for that, and I've seen a gamut of aliens on Brill's ship.

"You must be the couple Denverbay mentioned," he said. He started checking me and Katie out like a visitor at a zoo. "My, my, he wasn't lying about the looks. I got my work cut out for me."

He walked on two legs with exposed four-toed feet, each claw filed short. The wings were tucked tight against his arms and back, just as the wings of the fruit bats. Man, they were big earlier. They could easily wrap someone up. He wore clothes of a man with intellect, importance, and well versed in magic, a white shirt under a suit jacket adorned with symbols and pins I wouldn't have time to determine. Black and brown fur covered his body I figured but lighter colored fur on his arms, feet, and face. Geez, the face. Similar to a vampire bat's, with the hooked snout and fangs poking out as he smiled. His ears were big as a bat's, having several earrings that jangled each other as he moved. He wore gloves on his… hands, still holding a short black cane.

"Dr. Domoja Balcusten of the D.E.M.," he introduced himself with a head bow. The universal translator around his neck spoke English and silenced his true voice. Ever watched those dubbed Hong Kong kung-fu movies? It's that, only in real life, and it tripped me up. "Faldeg sorcerer of arcane and paramagic studies. My, what a privilege to meet you both on such short notice."

"H-Hello," Katie said. She was nervous, probably from Domoja's face that spooked her. I said hello too, trying my best to stay collective. Deryl, as anyone seeing the weirdest things since The Wave, tried to swallow what he was seeing.

Mathews showed no fear or resentment. He stated his name and rank with solid execution. The rest of the soldiers and government agents were on high alert. " We heard from Councilman Denverbay you're here to investigate this pandemic?" he asked. I shot him a look when he said that.

"In a way, but just… stable."

"Beg your pardon?" I asked.

Domoja kept observing Katie and me. "I'm sorry. Observing new magic is my job. My goodness. Two possibly stable GMTs. No offense to your species or your culture, but do you mind if I look closer? No touching really."

We exchanged glances. I mean, there were soldiers around, and the agent, and my godfather. "I suppose?" Katie said first before I objected.

Domoja walked around us while saying, "Yes, yes… Primate coccyx extension to armored tail. Defensive traits in the lower limbs. And the pointed ears to promote magic influence. Some changes. Denverbay said you can cast magic, right?"

Katie nodded and answered, to which Domoja's brow rose to make his ears jerk and the earrings clank each other.

"Fascinating. Too bad Jaruka hasn't sent more research or this job will be a lot easier."

"We heard," I said. "Jaruka is useless."

"Eh. Jaruka's mood ties with his work. You make him happy and his focus is up tenfold."

A second alien approached us like a silent cat. I saw her before but was too preoccupied with Domoja to understand who she was.

She had this overbearing presence, what we all did and say was to her judgment. Her clothing was the opposite of Jaruka's laid-back, fighter, pirate… whatever. She dressed for class, for comfort. Her legs were draped over with a skirt down to her ankles in muted brown and green cloth. Sandals protected the bottom of her feet besides Jaruka's heavy-duty combat boots. Her white shirt was tight to her outward chest with a green, brown and red shall over her shoulders. She wore a black hip pack on her right leg. Her green skin, well, looked greener, darker, rather than Jaruka's lighter color. Wonder if she was healthier than him?

Opposite of Jaruka, her skindreads were smooth, like when you strip a tree branch of the bark to expose the wood, sanded and glazed to shine when the white hangar lights hit it right. They were long past her shoulders, bound together with a blue and orange headband. Three unbound skindreads, each bound with twine, framed both sides of her stoic face.

The biggest difference was a longer and thicker skindread behind her down past her rear, smoother and wrapped in red twine. It stopped at a loop, decorated with gems and colored bands. The loop was not filled or I'd call it a dreamcatcher.

She noticed me staring as if I offended her. She pressed a button on her translater around her neck. The voice from her translator expelled confidence. "Shaotzi Arados, oldest twin sister of Jaruka. A pleasure to meet you all."

"So you're the sister Denverbay mentioned," Mathews said.

To be honest, Katie and me never heard of her. Like never.

"Wait a minute. Sister?" Katie asked with a similar shocked face as me.

"Victor Mathews, I presume. And Deryl Porter?" Shaotzi said to my godfather. He nodded. "Councilman Denverbay mentioned you. Seems keeping my little brother from trouble has been a hassle, I've heard."

"It's been… rather difficult," Deryl said.

Shaotzi nodded.

"Hold on, back up a bit," I said. "You're his sister?"

Shaotzi looked back with the same stare. "Is that a problem?"

"Problem? No. He never talked about his family."

Shaotzi hummed.

"So if he's here to examine the transformations," Mathews said, "why are you here if I may ask? Denverbay wasn't clear on that part."

Shaotzi cleared her throat. "I'm here for Jaruka's sake. From what Brill and Denverbay told me what happened, he needs help. If nobody could touch or teach him to be civil on a primitive planet, then I'll slap him to do so."

"And who's that in the ship?" Katie said looking over Domoja.

"Ah, good, was wondering if she showed her face," Deryl said.

I checked out the third alien. "Wait, she looks like one of those centaurs from the Endeavor. What was her name again? Wrighthood or something?"

Domoja shrugged. "That peppy one begged Brill to come I heard. She just couldn't shut up laughing while flying the ship."

"Who is she?"

Domoja regarded my words. "Really? Jaruka never talked about his life?"

Katie and I shrugged. Even Mathews and Deryl didn't know.

"That Vyroken up there was Jaruka's girlfriend a few years back. If there was any person with no purpose being here, she is one."

Katie and I yelled in unison. "Girlfriend!?"

 


 

There were many people I wanted to see again. I wanted to see Domoja. Nova Company (excluding Kantra). My sister is the "every other occasion" kind of need. But not her. Amber was on my "never see without a gun at arm's reach" list.

I wanted to scream, spit, leash out at her. I wanted to boot her off the planet, call Denverbay, and accuse her of trespassing restricted space, or locked up tight at Nova's shipyards. Despite wanting to react, I was stunned, unable to move. She was on Terra Firma, smiling, happy to see me.

Goddess, I wanted to punch that smile to the nearest star.

Amber, however, hadn't changed much. She used to have long braided red hair, but her hair was cut short and fluffed at the ends, with a rattail braid on the left of her canine face. The over-engineered goggles "looked" the same, by Vyrokens are voracious tinkerers and engineers. Her orange and red fur was groomed and cut short, and her white-furred chest and underbelly were clean of oil and grease the last I remember. Seeing me, with that crooked smile, wearing a tight tank top to restrain her large assets and the carrier pack over her lower half with pockets carrying Goddess knows what, she cleaned up just for me I suspected.

But she was on crogging Terra Firma…

"Come on, J," she said. "You know deep down you're excited to see another familiar face."

I kept silent, flexing my right fist.

She started walking down the ramp, each paw landed with precision. She knows I'll fight her. Cautious. Her red-ringed orange and red tail swished a little.

"A hello? A friendly wave? Maybe a compliment?" She wasn't getting any, and she rolled her eyes. "Brill predicted you'd be pissed. Figured you'd shoot me by now."

I heard the terrans exclaim behind me. Damn.

"J, be serious for once. Say something," Amber said.

I took a breath, rose my chin, and said, "Amber."

"Now we're talking. Come on, admit you're happy to see all of us."

"Fat. Chance. Why the crog are you here?"

"Is it obvious, J? Everybody in Nova knows what's up. Did you forget about me?"

I yelled with hangar carrying the echo. "Five years and you show your face, at me, on this planet? Ask yourself why you have a death wish!"

"Afraid by you or the locals?" She said while pointing out the humans.

"Both, idiot."

"Okay, J, tone down your jets. I'm aware. I can protect myself. I mean, you taught me, right."

My left foot slammed forward. "Don't you dare get smart with me, Amber?" I turned back to Domoja. "Did you know?"

Domoja were not all phased by my anger, and I had every right to be angry. The humans and couple were taking my pain in entertainment. Do they have anything else to fawn over beside me?

"Not my problem," Shatozi said.

"Stop being so—"

A massive force smashed into my back, sailing me over the ramp. Every scrap of air left my lungs, even with the personal shield device.

Now, this is a hostile planet. They don't like outsiders. They don't even like their neighboring countries, cities, or across the street. I always keep my personal shield device on me, keeping me safe from bullets and lasers. It's attached to my sternum over my skin. It also has this one flaw I can't fix. If the attack's force is greater than the shield, say a missile, the shield does nothing.

It's hard to explain physics and math, but to the dumb ones, the shield absorbs the force and turns my body into a rubber ball shot out of a cannon.

I blacked out, then found myself on top of two human soldiers, groaning from the pain in my back. The humans trying to get from under me made it worse.

Then I heard the couple, the agents, and the soldiers just… laugh.

Amber stopped and leaned over me with a wide, smug smile. "And now we're even," she said. "You kept my PSD. That means you still care about me." She patted my face a little, then walked to the terrans and agents. "Man, that felt good! Hello. Amber Diremoon, ship mechanic of Nova Company..."

Crog me.

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