March Air Reserve Base, California
April 16, 2013
I had doubts. They turned out wrong. The three new aliens came out… polite. Normal even, personality-wise. It’s hard to get past that after living with one for four months.
Domoja was friendly, but man, trying to look past the bat-like body was hard. Shaotzi was a surprise. Jaruka never mentioned his family, not even his own species since we’ve known him. Other times he and other visitors were tight-lipped about it. And Amber? How can I swallow that pill?
I glanced through the office window shades. Jaruka was screaming and yelling his mouth off at his sister with an ice pack to his left side where Amber hind-kicked him, their translators turned off. Yet Shaotzi stood straight and unphased by his rants. Amber and Domoja were still speaking with customs and immigration agents.
“So much for peace,” I said and closed the blinds.
"Denverbay wants us to watch them too?" Katie asked. “We can barely handle Jaruka ourselves. I mean, he could’ve talked to us first than you.”
Mathews shook his head. “He has to go through our channel. That’s our agreement,” he said.
“We didn’t expect the centaur to come,” I added.
“And us with his sister.”
Katie scoffed to the side. "Some surprise welcoming," she said and sat on the hangar office's couch.
We asked for the office just to talk amongst ourselves with Mathews and my godfather, Deryl. Jaruka’s yelling was getting annoying.
“And the CIA can’t contain them still?” I asked them.
"Still hands-off, Scott," Deryl said.
“Every single law is being sidelined,” Mathews said, laced with frustration. “Standards. And yet immigration is being treated like fast food joints. We’re practically handing them green cards at this point.”
Victor Mathews has been tracking and stalking Jaruka ever since we came back home. Any chance to arrest him was a disaster, not since he overstepped his position and nearly got Langley scorched by a Titan Spire. Every day, he was itching to handcuff him and throw him in a prison cell, without trial. I could see it with the blood vessel on his forehead when he’s around.
“What did the President say?” Katie asked.
Mathews exhaled and looked away with a sour frown.
“Keeping the negotiations stable,” Deryl said for him. “Winchester is sopping up to his requests without considering the consequences. She is doing everything she can to earn his favor.”
“As usual,” I said. “So really, did you know Shaotzi was coming? And never told us earlier?”
Mathews leaned on the wall by the door. “He gave me strict orders not to mention her. It was just Domoja and Amber coming. From your story, I guess he had the roster split between him and Brill.”
“I think so too,” Katie said. “He was agitated in the call yesterday.” She then leaned forward in her seat, holding the tip of her tail. “How long will they be here?”
Mathews took out a notebook from his left jacket pocket. “The bat-one, Domoja, he’ll be between here and his magic organization investigating the terran issue. Every private and public sector racing for a cure would pay to hear what he finds. From what I heard, Domoja is an expert in this sort of thing.”
"We're getting the same idea," I said, thinking back to how he observed Katie and me for the first time.
“And what about Amber?” Deryl asked. “What’s her deal with all this?”
Mathews shook his head and said one thing. "She's the ship's mechanic."
I blinked. “That’s it?”
He nodded. “Wish we had any sort of record on her, but from what I’m told, she is a ship mechanic from Nova Company HQ, and she was really adamant on coming. She is given permanent residency for God’s sake.”
“We’ve met one like her on the Endeavour,” Katie said. “Way different than her. Wringheart, I remember. Heard they are super smart with technology.”
“How smart?” Deryl asked.
“I don’t know.”
“And what about Shaotzi? What’s her background?” I said. “I mean, this is huge. That asshole has family and a stark opposite of him. Certainly, Denverbay mentioned something about her.”
Mathews got uncomfortable and adjusted his footing. “Nothing.”
“You can’t be serious,” Deryl said.
“I’m telling you all straight. The councilman told me her name, her affiliation, and nothing else,” Mathews explained.
Deryl raised his finger. “Must be something deep with their kind. I can’t tell from what they’re saying, but Jaruka seems furious she’s here.”
Which I’m asking the both of you to find out for me,” Mathews asked me and Katie. “I’ve got my hands full with other matters right now and can’t provide any more resources. We need to know all three of their stories if we can trust them.“
I turned back to the window and pulled a few blinds down. Jaruka was still yelling at Shaotzi.
“Long enough before he scares them away,” I said.
“For Goddess sake, how long, sis!?”
“I told you. I’m here until I see fit you can handle yourself,” she said the fourth time.
“A day? A few days? A week? When I start burying my feet into the soil? Whatever how long, I smell Denverbay all over you. He hired you for something. Did he!?”
The human soldiers in the hangar walls watched our every move, but that didn’t give them the right to eavesdrop on family matters. Some wondered why I was screaming, and she wasn’t, or when I might hit her. Our translators were turned off for good measure.
Yelling as I was, the sharp pain pricks on my ribs, and the ice pack wasn't healing fast enough.
Shaotzi sighed and answered, “Fine. Maybe a month. Satisfied?”
“Wormshit!” I screamed. “Make it the next ten minutes and the next way station transport off the planet.”
“You do realize I’m seconds older than you?”
“Don’t bring age into this. I have experience with this planet and its people.”
“Well good job sharing that with the Archive.”
Our fight was not making her topple. I wanted to bound her tight, take her to the waystation with Amber in shackles, and leave them there until the next supply drop. She never looked back at me, just kept flipping through her immigration papers and cards.
Mathews brought two humans in for the immigration processing, while the local soldiers inspected the ship for anything: food, weapons, animals. There was no reason, the ship was inspected and verified before it came. Quarantine would last for an hour in the hangar with all three of them having immunization nanites flowing in their blood.
Domoja and Amber were still with the humans waiting for the official papers to be given. Shaotzi finished first, always proper and to the point.
Shaotzi’s picture-less green card took up most of her attention.
"Explain why they call it a green card," she said. "The lower-ranked humans are scared to answer me. Could it be how they label Halcunacs?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. Just don’t poke their brains out with questions.”
The human that helped Shaotzi with the documents was bombarded with questions. None of it made sense to her, or Shaotzi’s attitude was confusing her with me. Shaotzi is always like that. Always curious but stern in a polite manner.
She was asking questions about their religion and gods, but I refrained her from answering. Ever tried explaining the multiple human religions? What a headache.
I could hear Domoja having a casual conversation with the other human, a few soldiers, and General Higgs. It seemed everybody liked him, but I bet they were faking it.
Amber was almost done as the first human inspected her cargo packs on the table, still filled with trinkets and tools she always lugs with her. Still the optimist ship mechanic of Nova Company, still chirpy and transparent.
What drive me crazy was they all accepted the two as they were. I knew what they were capable of. Was it to keep a straight face if they were wired to the Titan Spires like me? I imagined so.
“Seriously, why are you here?” I asked my sister.
She looked away from her papers, almost reading the small book of the country’s Constitution. She still didn’t look at me. She kept staring off at my new ship. “That kick must’ve jostled some brain cells to repeat yourself.”
“Sis,” I pressed.
“Stop calling me that. It’s not casual. And I’m not repeating myself.”
“Then leave if it’s a waste of time.”
“Not my call.”
“Make the call now,” I said. “And what is this? Huh? Out with it. Any other reason to help me is to do something else. Spill it, Denverbay hired you.”
Shaotzi swallowed. It seemed my stance for the truth finally gave in. ”Brother, any idea how hard it was to get here?”
“People. The empire,” I answered
“Viro,” Shaotzi said.
She shook her head. “Jaruka, the empire is slowly closing trade and travel at frontier borders. They’ve already abandoned four sister worlds. There are rumors that all Halcunacs have to relinquish their Republic citizenship and contract to our system.”
“But will they ever leave me alone? Never.” I jabbed a thumb at the honor dread stump behind my head. “I never cared. And neither should you or Father.”
Shaotzi exhaled, then looked at me finally. “Brill told us everything. Everything,” she said, with more push on the last word. “How could you screw up at a time like this?”
I didn’t answer. I had to point in doing so.
“I risked leaving Viro to see you. I did everything to get to you. Why didn’t you call us?”
I clenched my jaw. I wished Brill didn’t reach out to my family, including my father. Brill cared for me as much as a father figure in Nova Company.
“Father didn’t have to be…”
“Father is worried sick, little brother,” she said. “You. Galivanting over un-vetted jobs is not you. And you know this. You should’ve called us.”
I admit it, I was in trouble. No jobs coming in or found, running on little capas. That went on for a few months on Creos until I met that backstabbing, two-foot stump Benali.
“I-I was desperate,” I said. “I had to stay floating.”
"Right, and still make Father feel sicker than from his own body," Shaotzi beamed.
I heard Domoja thanking the humans before coming over. Amber’s documents were finished and the human handed her the same docs as Shaotzi’s.
“You are on Terra Firma. It’s not part of the Republic, and it never will. Humans weaponized nuclear technology like children and river weeds. They have no grounded respect for their homeworld, Shaotzi, just think on that. They shoot first, ask about the meaning of life later, and blame it on everybody else. Oh, and here’s the dessert sprinkle: they hate foreigners, especially in this country.
Shaotzi looked around the humans in the hangar. “They seemed tamed.”
“There are dozens of Titan Spires in orbit aimed at their asses if they crog up.”
Shaotzi, my big sister, didn’t flinch or shrug after. “Like I said. Tamed. Best to know them on the good side than the bad, right?”
A sharp poke from my side made me yelp and turn. Domoja lowered his cane with his papers in a folder tucked under his wing. I held a finger up to hold it before we switched our translators on.
“You two,” he started. “Me and Amber making humans comfortable around us why you two bellowed was difficult. Even you, pupil. Have some respect for your older sibling.”
“Don’t take sides. Look, don’t mind me. I have everything I wanted. I got new food, kegs of brew I hope, new water filters, and the terran couple I trust. Shaotzi, I don’t need you here and especially the fluffbutt. Domoja is all I ne—”
Shaotzi‘s hand came at me fast. I couldn’t block it or duck away. She took a hold of one of my clumped skindreads and yanked it. A loud crack came and hot pain radiated from it, making me scream in the hangar.
I staggered away and looked, whimpering in pain. The clump of stacked endoskin bark ripped off to separate the three skindreads. The new flesh was pink and started to bleed sap to seal it from the open air.
I looked back as Shaotzi examined the chunk in her hand.
"Handled?" She asked. "You let your scavas grow wild. You need a shave and some sun, brother.”
“Bit me,” I hissed. The pain was already subsiding. “Crogging hate you doing that.”
The humans watched but never approached. A few cringed from the act, while the most enjoyed my suffering. I snatched the bark from her and tucked it in my pants pocket. It’ll have to be burned at camp later.
“And if you’re thinking father is not safe, I assure you. He’s on new medication and our close friends are with him until I return.”
“Ah, so that wretched disease is under control I assume?” Domoja asked.
“It’s slowing down.”
“Good, good. Really Jaruka, she’s doing all the hard work. Family is important, you know.”
“I get it.” I shook my head. “You forget why I can’t go back!”
Domoja’s ears flicked back. “And nobody does. Damn shame.”
There was one piece I needed to clarify above anything else. “Now hang on, forget about me, what about the crystal expert from D.E.M.? Denverbay promised.”
The professor stuffed his immigration papers inside his robe as he explained. “Customs agents caught him with buela pneumonia that even I didn’t know he had. Quite fatal for humans. I’ll have to make due on that part.”
“The Dolma species?! You've gotta be kidding!” They were the perfect people to examine the Wave Crystals. They could easily understand the crystal design, to find every embedded secret. I felt so pissed I thought the Goddess was against me.
“Denverbay couldn’t risk sending a replacement.”
“He has the power to replace them! We’re there others?”
“Oh, there was. First mentioning new magic and people salivated over the prospects, then when the Sol System was mentioned, ninety-nine percent backed out.”
“Now, shall we start heading to your residence, pupil?” Domoja tapped his cane twice and walked back to the ship. “You can fly the ship there. Nobody’s stopping you.”
A sudden eye twitch came. I had every intention to fly my new ship. I looked toward Amber as she gathered her papers and stuffed them in her packs. She noticed me and waved.
“You fly the ship there. I’ll meet you there,” I said and walked off.
“But I’m not a pilot!” Domoja said.
My temper was high when I got to my Howler Cycle. I told a soldier to open the hangar doors with some threatening banter. I didn't look back at them, just waited. I gritted my teeth and tried to take steady breaths.
“Yo, wait up, Jaruka,” Scott said behind me. “Where are you going?”
“Back to camp.”
“The ship will land there. I’m too pissed to fly it now. You and Katie meet us at the camp and then pick them up to drive them to your home.”
Scott got in front of me. “Oh no, out of the question. We don’t know who they really are.”
“They’re trustworthy. Have anybody else I know broke your trust?”
Scott was about to argue but I repeated myself.
“No,” he said.
“Then meet me there,” I said and revved my Howler Cycle’s fusion engine to life. “I need to vent.”
I put on my helmet, mounted my ride, and sped out of the hangar.
Human news travels fast.
The campsite squatters were awake and journalist’s vehicles lined the street. . Traffic was terrible. I couldn’t arrive at camp to beat the ship landing, and everyone watched it. Somehow the refraction shield added the ship and the passengers to the list. Did they do it remotely? Was it Amber’s doing?
The humans heard I was coming and let me in as usual. Amber was out first, lying on the dry grass, yelling at the dropship’s state. It wasn’t home, and I treated it as such. Amber saw it as an engineering masterpiece, defaced by scavengers. She was running around the ship on all fours and sixes checking every inch of my temporary home. She always takes technology seriously, it’s in Vyroken blood. At least the dropship was still locked.
Shaotzi and Domoja regarded it with distaste.
I took my helmet off and said, “It served its purpose.”
“For a Creos bum,” Domoja said. “You expect us to sleep in there tonight.”
“Scott and Katie are coming to pick you all up. For now, I just want to be alone tonight.”
Shatozi said nothing. I then noticed Scott and Katie driving up and entering the shield.
“Now get going,” I said and started walking up the ship’s ramp. I found the control panel to start closing the ramp. The terran couple was out speaking to them but I didn't care to listen.
The airlock closed.
And then, there was silence. I finally breathed out, relaxing a little. I set my head against the closed ramp.
The only sound came from the fusion engine, still powering down. I took a couple breaths. I could smell the new ship smell I heard so much about, something humans could compare to as lemon. I opened my eyes and turned around.
The workshop was clean. All brushed stainless steel. The shelves and locked cabinets were dent-free. The center was occupied by metal locked crates earing symbols of the D.E.M., four of them. Must be the testing equipment, I wondered. There were non-crate items to the right, my assumption was their luggage. Amber still lugs that ugly dark red duffle bag, embellished with ship grease and oil.
My eyes fell on a brand-new glass-blowing furnace in the middle for the right wall. I checked a few cabinets. Ammunition was forbidden, but there were pieces and ingredients to rebuilding my plasma bullet arsenal. No barrels of stable plasma, though, I had to improvise eventually. And new tools. No pawned or salvaged tools in view.
Back on the Lunar Spear, there was a single staircase in the middle of the workshop that folded against the roof and airlock. The newer models now have a recessed staircase on the port side with airlock doors on both ends. Each one is designed well to withstand the vacuum of space and weapon fire. Each step was brushed with non-slip tape.
Up the stairs and through the second airlock, my new living quarters were clean. The bed was made with dark brown sheets. The bedframe had six drawers built-in with magnetic latches. A recessed desk on the starboard side, bare of materials and objects, soon to be filled with my journals I recovered. The floor was steel on top of a dense beige carpet. I took my boots off and dug my toes into the carpet. I moaned from the little massage.
To the right of the bed was the bathroom door. I went through to check the bathroom. Clean. Sink, shower/tub big enough for Kantra’s ego, toilet--all the necessities. All white and bare of color. The tub was one of the upgrades. Past the bathroom door was the lead door leading to the fusion engine room. Some call it a hazard to be washing up while an advanced energy source was separated by four inches of solid lead but try building a mercenary ship to fit everybody’s needs.
It works for me.
I left the bathroom and to the new lounge, separated by a sliding door.
This new model has a rounder space but the placement was just the same as the old ship. The galley to my left with the basic appliances, the two closet pantries, the sitting area to my right, a half-moon booth, and a table. In front of the galley had a small table and two seats bolted into the hull. I wanted it to be more custom, so I asked for lighter wood countertops and wall accents.
On the other side of the lounge was an airlock door to the new bridge. I made a note to soak in that next.
I checked the pantries, and to my blessing, they were stocked with non-human food.
“Thank you,” I sighed and closed it.
Then I stopped and stared at something I didn't catch earlier on the counter next to the sink.
A framed photograph, propped on top of a stack of hand-written letters and video chips from people with Nova I assumed. I swallowed.
Palaron Beach. It was one of the many “breaks” for Nova Company. The yellow sand was bright that day. The photo had me in the middle, wearing bathing shorts and sandals to bear the heat of the day. And I wasn’t alone. Brill Secambre held an umbrella to shield himself from the light, wearing loose pants and a shirt to stay cool. My sports nemesis shadowwalker jerk Kantra, the time when we were on good behavior until the Howler Cycle Quarter-Finals races begin. Shaotzi was in a bodysuit and shades with a hand on my right shoulder, smirking like me. Amber, lying on the sand facing the camera, but munching on the local purple fruit. A Donus gunslinger I knew before was with us but never remembered his name. He got traded out to the Royal Navy months later.
All of them, even me, were happy… on my birthday.
“What a party.”
I jumped from the abrupt cut from the silence. Amber’s upper half leaned on a cabinet door, not reacting from scaring me. “That day. That fruit. Just one and I was smashed all day. Must’ve been days to come back sober.” She laughed. “Still felt guilty missing out on the fun.”
I said nothing.
“That dropship. Oof. What a mess. I’ll have days to sort that baby out for space wor…”
“Why did you come?” I asked. I turned the photo phase down.
Her bushy orange-ringed tail didn’t wag.
“I came to help.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s more than that. I can see it. You still want to apologize.”
Amber sniffed. “Of course.”
“Amber, what you did was inexcusable.”
“I always explained, and you never listened.” She walked up to me. “Every call, every letter, every chance to talk to you, it has always been about that night. I just wanted to make peace. What you did was inexcusable.”
“You were hurt? What about me? Coming to this planet without warning is not right. Convincing Brill was not right. This place is not good for Vyroken, especially in your condition.”
“Seems that you stayed the same as ever,” she said. “Plus I haven’t had a vacation in a while so…”
I stepped up to her and laid my hand on her upper chest.
Amber yelped but didn’t swat my hand away. “Wow, that fast? Tell me, when was the last time you had a companion under the sheets?”
“Shut it,” I said. “This.”
I felt over her chest, above her breasts you pervs. Her fur was soft. The touch was comforting, but the scar under that fur took up my attention.
“Your artificial heart,” I said. “Is it shielded?”
“Is it shielded?” I pressed.
Amber pushed my hand away. “Of course, it's shielded. It’s always is.”
“I don’t feel it shielded.”
“That’s you exaggerating. Who’s the tech genius here?”
“But you don’t know shit about humans.”
Amber groaned. “I heard about terran magic. Supposedly it will not affect it.”
“It’s not the magic,” I said. “Their nuclear technology can create electromagnetic pulses when used as weapons. That heart can be susceptible, even with all the hardest cogs and wires sealed from the surge. Your heart will freeze and nobody will be blamed by yourself coming here.”
Amber's muzzle smiled and she said, "So you do care for me, after all these years."
“You ripped my heart out, and I don’t want yours to be as well,” I said.
It was hard enough to say that I want her alive because I wanted my sister and Academy professor to stay alive. They don't have the same protection as me, at least I believed it was the case.
The light in Amber's eyes went away. "And you're the same stuck-up Halcunac running from your past," she said. "I'm still staying."
“Tat tat tat, don’t make it such a big deal. I'm still shaken after what happened.”
I blinked. “Don’t give me that.”
“Here’s the thing. I was at HQ. Brill summoned me a week after you were rescued. I was shocked you had work problems. I could’ve had my parents offer you a spot at the shop, but hell, that’s just me thinking beyond our breakup. Wringheart and others told me to forget you as I sobbed, and you know how that goes.” I sneered. “Me and Brill talked for a long time. So, when the chance came, I upgraded my heart with Zendath crystal-tech. EMP resistant."
I didn’t argue.
“See? I did my homework.”
“You don’t know the species like I do.”
“Then I’ll start learning tonight,” Amber said. “However, the ship still needs some work. Still needs an A.I. to configure, I have to set up the guidance and navigation computer to this planet’s, and I swear I heard a loose bolt on the fourth landing strut."
“I can modify it myself,” I said.
Amber tapped a finger on my chest. “After what you did to that brand new dropship? Fat chance, buster. My name is on it too.”
I frowned. “Wait. What do you mean?”
Amber leaned over a little closer. "Joint registration," she said. "Councilman's orders. You, Brill, your sister, and me. Just to make sure this agreement you made is still fulfilled. Which means I can do whatever the cog-wallup I can do with it.”
I stepped back. “Whatever. It’s still my ship. I paid for it.”
“But you still need help.”
I folded my arms and stepped back one foot. “Still think it’s a bad idea.”
“But being on a new planet is a thrill onto itself.” She leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek
I looked away.
Amber regarded it and leaned back. “For what it’s worth, it’s good to see you again, J.”
Amber then scuddled back and left the ship.
So my new ship has four owners, including me. Either of us can do anything with it, even take it from me. Crog. What am I going to do? I thought.
I couldn't think of anything else as I wanted to see the rest of the ship until Domoja came up the stairs.
“I thought you were going with the couple,” I asked him.
“Not tonight, pupil,” he said. “Can’t leave you alone without doing a health check. Denverbay’s orders.
I groaned. “Domoja, please, I just want to be alone.”
“Not on my watch. Even PCPA criminals get health care.”