Sample Sunday – Mindbender

Did you ever wish you had a superpower?

When I was a kid, ESP was my superpower of choice, mostly so I would get the answer right when the teacher called on me in class. But as I got older and started to like boys, I saw telepathy in a different light. What if someone could read my thoughts?

That threw a goose into the ducklings. Did I hate telepaths or did I want to be one of them? Instant conflict. And conflict, as you know, is the basis of any good story.

The story became a world.

A terrifying world in which telepathic people were kept in concentration camps. Citizens were given tax allowances for turning in their neighbors. And a Gestapo-like psychic police force was given free rein to hunt down the filthy mindbenders.

But stories are populated with people.

Enter Taralyn, a streetwise eighteen-year-old with enough savvy to keep under the psychic radar. She has taken a homeless ten-year-old girl under her wing. Her unofficial adopted daughter. But the little girl is captured and mind-wiped, leaving her trapped in a nightmare world. With a psychic prowess that surprises even her, Taralyn steals her from Camp. Now they’re both on the run.

That’s only the beginning of the story.

Mindbender – The Telepath Wars is science fiction for young adults and older. It explores cruelty, prejudice, and intolerance. But it also questions what it is to be a mother. Do you have to give birth to bond with a child?

It is available in print at Amazon. If you prefer eBooks, you can find it at your favorite online bookstore. And it is soon to be an audiobook, which is my favorite way to read.

Here’s an excerpt:

mindbender-cover

MINDBENDER – THE TELEPATH WARS

by Roxanne Smolen

CHAPTER ONE

Taralyn Stone leaned against the wall in the darkened hallway. As with a hovering camera, her sixth sense saw the layout of the clinic, saw the elderly guard asleep at his desk. It had been easy to scan his mind, easy to extract the location of the shipment. Now she needed to get the drugs and get out before someone discovered her.

She swept ahead telepathically, scanning the shadows as she walked. A left turn. Another to the right. She was taking too long. Voices echoed in the corridor. Taralyn froze. Opening a door, she hurried into a room.

Footsteps passed. She waited, scarcely breathing. When no one entered, she relaxed her shoulders and glanced about. A cabinet stood against the wall. It held a standard keypad lock. Taralyn sighed in relief. She had imagined retinal scanners or voice-code recognition. Keypads were easy to bypass.

Closing her eyes, she peered into the mechanism. She saw which keys had been pressed often, which had been ignored. Delving deeper, she felt the combination surface—like playing guess the cards when she was young. After a moment, she punched in the seven-digit code, and the lock opened.

Taralyn moistened her lips. “Be there. Please be there.”

If her information was wrong, she didn’t know what she’d do. Desperation goaded her down this path, but luck led her to the clinic. She’d heard about the hijacked shipment of Mask via a storefront newscast. Through a series of psychic scans, she traced it here.

Switching on a small light inside the cabinet, Taralyn searched the vials and bottles. Her haste left the neat rows in disarray. On a lower shelf, she found what she needed. She pulled out the tray.

The room lit, startling her.

A man said, “If you’re looking for Parazine, we don’t keep it in stock.”

Taralyn stood, tray in hand, thoughts whirling faster than her body. She saw the man point a gun. For a moment, she considered planting a false image in his mind, making him think he saw a nurse or a cat. But the tray tipped, spilling the vials over its edge.

The medicine for Gloriana.

“No,” Taralyn cried as she juggled the tray. She dropped to her knees and chased the scattering bottles.

The man said, “Don’t move. I’m calling the police.”

“But you can’t. They’ll find me.”

He frowned. Taralyn sat on the floor and covered her face. Her hands trembled, betraying her panic, and she balled them into her eyes. They would find her. They would take her away.

Gloriana would be alone.

Stooping, he picked up one of the vials. “Mask? Why would you want—” He looked at Taralyn. “You’re a telepath?”

Without intending to, Taralyn scanned him. Images and emotions burst over her. He was a doctor, he was afraid—and he knew how to handle a linac gun.

Their eyes met. Taralyn sensed that she should trust him. But she didn’t want to take that chance. She’d already risked too much.

“Please,” she said, “I need the Mask. I need to keep them from tracking me.”

“Who?”

She swallowed. “Enforcers.”

He looked at her hard as if expecting her to recant. As if she should apologize for evoking the name of the dreaded psychic police force. He put the gun away. “Come with me.”

Taralyn blinked, confused. The doctor held the door open. With her head bowed, she got to her feet. As she did so, she picked up a handful of Mask vials and slipped them into her pocket. They walked down an adjoining corridor. A cluttered counter lined the wall, and file cabinets interspersed the examination rooms. Ahead, a yellow light fell from an open door. He motioned her toward it.

Taralyn felt an upsurge of doubt. She backed away. “I’m not a thief.”

“You’re a thief, all right. Just not a good one.” He motioned again.

She entered a cramped, windowless office lit by a flickering desk lamp. Cracks decorated the walls, and the ceiling showed water stains.

“Have a seat,” he said.

Choosing one of the mismatched chairs, she perched on its edge.

He tapped the desk with the vial. “Why would you steal telepathic suppressants? You know, of course, that the Association considers them a controlled substance.”

“It’s as illegal for you to steal them as it is for me.”

“If that’s your game, you have more to lose. Mask is illegal because the public doesn’t want people like you to hide their true nature. Now, answer my question. Or would you rather speak to an enforcer?”

Taralyn blanched. She thought of telling him about Gloriana. Ten-year-old Gloriana was Taralyn’s adopted daughter. Not legally, but the love was just as strong. The girl was empathic. Empathy was a rare form of telepathy that made Gloriana’s usual good mood infectious.

That good mood was gone. Now, Gloriana lay on a newspaper mattress alternately thrashing and unresponsive. Taralyn couldn’t take her to a doctor because doctors were the ones who did it to her. They broke her mind trying to understand what made her different.

She didn’t want to tell him that, so instead, Taralyn said, “I only want to use the drug until I can get to safety.”

“I see. Then you won’t mind if I give you your first dose?”

Taralyn fought to keep from shying away. She’d planned to give the suppressants to Gloriana, hoping to calm her telepathic abilities. Never had she expected to take the drug herself. The man’s eyes were bright. Testing me, she thought. Leaning across the desk, she offered her forearm.

He pounced as if to trap her. Breaking the tip of the vial, he injected the Mask. “You won’t feel the full effect for thirty minutes.”

Rubbing the sting away, she glared at the doctor.

“So, where are you from?” he asked.

“You expect to have a conversation now?”

“Are you married, single?” He spread his hands. “Do you have family here in LA?”

The question brought a jab of pain. She thought of her estranged parents and of Mirabeth, her older sister abducted by the Association. She had no idea where any of them were.

He moved to the door. “I trust you won’t be offended if I step outside a moment.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Don’t try to leave.” He walked out.

Taralyn hid her face in her hands. Foreboding trickled down her neck like ghostly fingers. She’d thought it would be easy—she’d grab the drug and get out. She hadn’t considered someone might catch her.

A flurry of angry whispers escalated outside. The door had closed but not latched. Taralyn moved nearer and peered out. Hushed voices came from the hall.

“What are you doing?” someone said. “You don’t know her.”

“We have no choice,” said the doctor. “The others will be here soon. We have to get her out.”

“She could be a spy, Ken. One of those psychic implants. She could expose us.”

“What do you want me to do, kill her?” A pause, then, “Look, if it will make you feel better, you can run a DNA scan on the needle. That will at least get her civicard number. But you’d better hurry because I’m placing the call.”

He moved away, speaking rapidly. Taralyn could not hear his words. She tried to reach with her mind but found it difficult to focus. An odd sensation. All her life, she’d relied upon her extrasensory talent and her wits. Soon her innate senses would be gone.

She still had her wits.

Placing her hand in her pocket so the stolen vials would not clink, she turned back to the room. Diplomas and awards staggered across the back wall, all of them in the name of Dr. Avon Emory. On the desk, she found a picture of a man standing with two boys—a fishing trip. They looked Middle Eastern.

Taralyn thought of the doctor detaining her. Green eyes. Freckled skin. Not Middle Eastern. He must hope to protect his identity by placing her in someone else’s office. She wished she’d gotten more information before the Mask kicked in.

She explored the burst of images she’d received when she first scanned him—flashes of carnage. He’d served as a doctor in the Three Moons War. Why had he been thinking of that?

She delved deeper into the instant of thought, peeling away layers to reveal a vague face. A friend he had made in the Service. Someone he was trying to protect. Xander Landsman.

Sighing, Taralyn sank onto the chair. Why had she allowed herself to be shot with Mask? She didn’t know anything about Ken the doctor other than he was involved in something illegal. Yet, her first inclination had been to trust.

He planned to run a DNA scan through Central for her name, hoping to find a police record. He would be disappointed. The last entry in her file would be three years ago as a runaway at age fifteen—if her mother had bothered to report it.

“Comfortable?” the doctor asked as he entered the room.

Taralyn stared at the ceiling. “It hasn’t been thirty minutes yet.”

“I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“Of course. Settle something for me. Why would a small clinic in a ghetto keep a supply of a controlled substance?”

“Mask wasn’t always used to suppress telepathic abilities. It was originally an effective anti-depressant.”

“But you don’t use it to treat depression.” She looked at him, daring his denial.

He sat on the edge of the desk. “I hope you understand why it was necessary to inject you. There are places, people at risk.”

“And I can’t be trusted.”

“Your integrity is not the issue.”

“No. It’s how I’m perceived.”

He appeared relieved, pleased that she understood. But she didn’t. She never did.

“I have friends, acquaintances,” he said. “Some of them telepaths like you. We would like to help. If you’ll let us.”

Taralyn swallowed a laugh. No one had ever wanted to help her. She looked at him, at his bright green eyes and short wavy hair. “This isn’t your office.”

He shook his head.

“But you’re a doctor here.”

“I think it best we don’t get to know each other.”

She did laugh then, knowing that his search for police records came up empty. “If I wanted your life story, I’d only have to scan you, Ken.”

He hesitated just long enough to be noticeable. “That would be impolite.”

Of course, she thought. The refrain of the normal. Be like us or be cast out.

“I’ve arranged to have you smuggled from Earth,” he said. “It won’t be an easy journey. You’ll go to a place of sanctuary where you’ll be given a new civicard and the chance for a better life.”

Taralyn bolted upright. Hope. Why did he offer her hope? Had he looked into her dreams? Had he read the torment in her face? Don’t believe him, a tiny voice warned. He’s manipulating you. He’s afraid of you. Yet, Gloriana deserved more than a crate in a warehouse. They both deserved more. “What do you want in return?”

“Your silence.”

His answer surprised her. With more bravado than she felt, she said, “Tell me. Why would a doctor carry a gun in his own clinic?”

He gnawed his lip, probably wondering if she would know if he lied. “I’m afraid. Mostly at night. I volunteer my time, but I don’t live here. I’ve never gotten used to how unstructured the ghetto feels. No boundaries.”

“You have your police.”

“I call them three times a week. They never come.”

The truth. Taralyn nodded. “You have my silence. What’s your plan?”

He stood. “You’ll have to hurry. Go to the city spaceport. Shipping Bay 9.”

“Who should I ask for?”

“No names. Someone will contact you.”

He ushered her out the office and down the hall. Taralyn felt rushed and uneasy. She looked in vain for the owner of the other voice, the one who had warned against her. They were involved in a covert operation. An Underground Railroad, Taralyn realized, transporting truant telepaths off Earth. An image rose through her muddled senses. A place of sanctuary. Outpost Io.

“Why do you do this?” she asked. She’d meant it as a general question—why would any of you, the normal population, want to help a group of people that you persecute and fear—but the doctor took the question personally.

“There was this kid in my neighborhood. I didn’t know him well. One day the Association came to his door. The kid was terrified, his parents anguished. They didn’t want him to go. He went, erased as if he’d never been. I remember thinking no one should have that much power.”

They reached the delivery entrance. An overhead light came on as the doctor unlocked the door and peered outside. Then he looked at her, and for an incredible moment, Taralyn thought he was about to offer her his hand. Imagine, a normal person touching a telepath. But he caught himself. His eyes hardened.

In that instant, Taralyn knew he told the truth about his distrust of the Association. He did want to rid Earth of its suppression. But even stronger was his distrust of her and her kind. He wanted nothing less than to ship every telepath off his world.

Old memories came rushing back—the fear in her mother’s eyes, her father’s disgust. Hot shame rose to her cheeks. She turned to leave.

“One more thing,” the doctor said. “There’s a story on the streets. A rumor actually. About two weeks ago, a ten-year-old girl escaped from an internment center. Have you heard anything?”

Taralyn froze. Gloriana. How did they know of her? What did they want? “No one escapes the Association.”

“Well, this one did. We’ve been looking for her since.”

“Why?” She faced him. “To interrogate her? If there is such a girl, don’t you think she’s been through enough?”

He raised his hands. “Our sources say the enforcers kept her in a secured wing. We’d just like to find out what the Association wanted with her.”

“What they’ve always wanted. To protect the population from us filthy mindbenders.”

“It may have started that way, but there’s something more now.”

“Like what?”

The doctor paused. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

CHAPTER TWO

Taralyn stepped into the cold night air. The clinic’s door latched shut behind her. Reaching into her pocket, she brought out the vials of Mask. Five. Only five. Taralyn winced with disappointment.

Her heels clicked as she followed the deserted streets. She watched the shadows. Trash blew like tumbleweeds along the sidewalks. Light glowed behind barred windows. She saw evidence of weapons fire—crumbled brick, melted glass.

Courtesy of the new linear accelerator guns, she thought.

Rumor held that linac guns were the product of Malocchian technology. She’d heard that Malocchians were benevolent travelers who stumbled upon Earth from another solar system. Taralyn had never seen a Malocchian. She didn’t believe they existed. Besides, if they were so benevolent, why would they give people guns?

She passed beneath a lamp that looked elongated and slanted. The Mask skewed her perceptions. In the back of her mind, she heard a strange hum—or possibly the absence of a hum, the dearth of background thoughts to which she’d become accustomed.

This is what it is like to be normal. So alone. So separate. No wonder they hate us.

Climbing to a public transit station, she boarded the roofless people mover. Even open to the air, the seat stank of urine and garbage. Only a few riders shared her section of the conveyor—a tired-looking woman in a threadbare coat and a pair of lovers who whispered and laughed as if oblivious to the world around them.

Taralyn slouched in the molded chair and looked up at the stars. What was the doctor’s connection to Outpost Io? Io was a mining co-op. It played a central part when the colonized moons of Jupiter tried to secede from Earth. The discovery of wormhole technology put a quick end to the uprising. Now it seemed the outpost harbored an Underground Railroad.

Who was Xander Landsman? How was he involved?

She rode the mover to the end where the seats cleaned themselves by tipping and traveling upside-down on the return trip. Stepping off the belt, she skirted the pools of light in the open station. No sense in advertising her presence. The doctor had complained of the rough neighborhood surrounding the clinic. Obviously, he had never visited this part of town.

Stealing into darkness, Taralyn accelerated to a brisk walk. She felt handicapped and exposed, unable to range ahead with her senses. This was the cusp of gangland territories. She knew of their patrols. It was because of those armed squads, rather than in spite of them, that she chose this place.

After she’d stolen Gloriana from the Association’s internment center, Taralyn was afraid to return to the apartment she rented. She knew the Association would be waiting. They’d want Gloriana back. So she moved into an abandoned, burnt-out warehouse where the current residents suffered their presence.

It was to this warehouse that she ran now, bursting through the door with the relief of reaching home. The air reeked of charred wood and plastic. Soot darkened the shadows. A hole in the ceiling opened the three floors above. Silhouetted against the sky, the pockmarked man peered down. After a moment, he disappeared.

She crossed to where she’d left Gloriana. The girl lay motionless except for shallow, erratic breaths. She wasn’t asleep. She was vegetating. Taralyn could hardly get her to eat anymore.

“I’m here, Glori.” She stroked the matted hair.

“She had a bad dream,” a man said.

Taralyn glanced toward the voice. It was Big Mike, their self-appointed guardian. The sheen of his dark face gleamed in the scant light. He sat upon a metal work table, one of the few furnishings that would support his bulk.

Dreams. He had no idea of the nightmare world that trapped the girl. But then, neither did she.

Taking out a vial, Taralyn injected the telepathic suppressant into Gloriana’s forearm. She hoped the drug would act as a psychic painkiller. A desperate ploy, but she didn’t know what else to do.

The newsprint mattress smudged the small face, but the skin beneath the grime was unblemished. Registered telepaths bore a branded T upon their cheekbone. Taralyn rescued her before the mark was bestowed. Before they sent her to Camp.

Tears filled Taralyn’s eyes. She couldn’t imagine life without Gloriana. They met two years ago and had become inseparable. Taralyn felt it was her purpose to keep the little girl safe.

Taralyn had been Gloriana’s age when the Association took her sister, Mirabeth. Suddenly, no one was there to protect her. She shuddered, remembering her terror and loneliness as she tried to hide her own psychic talents.

She couldn’t let that happen to Gloriana, wouldn’t leave her to fend for herself. It had been stupid to risk exposure, stupid to try to steal the Mask. But if she hadn’t, she would not have learned about the Underground Railroad.

Would she go through with it? Would she allow herself to be smuggled from Earth?

Her mind balked. No. It was too dangerous. She wouldn’t go to the spaceport. She didn’t know those people, didn’t know their intentions.

A tiny voice drowned her doubts. Somewhere there was a place where people like her could live in safety. Somewhere there was a haven. Outpost Io.

They had few possessions—a hairbrush, a blanket, a pair of chipped teacups. She bundled everything together and set them on the table beside Big Mike.

“I want you to have these,” she said.

“Leaving?”

“Yes. Tonight.”

“Best take your things, then. Don’t know but you might need them.”

She pictured herself carrying a knapsack in one arm, trying to support Gloriana with the other. She shook her head. “You could use a blanket, and you can sell the cups. It’s scant payment for all you’ve done these past two weeks.”

The large man picked up the bundle and looked away. Taralyn roused Gloriana. She obeyed complacently, gazing downward, unseeing.

“Where you headed?” asked Big Mike.

“Sanctuary. At least I hope.”

“Be careful of the dark places,” he said.

CHAPTER THREE

Taralyn stood on a scrub-laced hill gazing at Shipping Bay 9. The structure sprouted like a mushroom beneath a halo of lights. A low hum filled the air with an electric tingle. In the distance, departing flights streaked away like sparks.

Holding Gloriana’s hand, she shuffled down the sharp slope. Dust rose in a cloud. Gloriana sneezed, the first sound she’d made. Taralyn hugged her shoulders.

They’d had no trouble getting to LA Space Port. Gloriana walked stiffly, complacently—what Taralyn termed her auto-walk. The girl could walk for miles without showing signs of fatigue.

Taralyn, however, was drained. Doubt twisted her stomach. As a telepath, it was her nature to be paranoid. Even as a child, she was always alert, always poised to bolt. She didn’t trust easily, certainly not a stranger. “What am I doing here?” she whispered.

Gnawing her lip, she approached a cargo elevator. The door opened, and she ushered Gloriana inside.

“Don’t be afraid,” she told her. “Think of this as an adventure.”

The girl stared ahead in silence.

The elevator rose then opened onto an immense open-air platform. Monorail lines laced the edge. Squads of workers off-loaded the freight cars while others reloaded the cargo into outbound shuttles. Which of these people should she approach?

“Can I help you?” A man rushed toward them from across the compound. He had sharp, beady eyes and a communications tracer clipped to his pocket. More than likely a superintendent.

She smiled. “Yes. I’m meeting someone.”

“We don’t give guided tours.” The roar of a monorail cut off his words. He took her arm roughly and escorted her to an area between the hangars. “As I was saying, you’ve no business here.”

“I was invited.” She snatched her arm from his grasp.

His pocket beeped, and he spoke into the tracer. “Go.”

“Offline again,” a voice shouted.

“Damn.” He stamped his foot, then wagged a finger in her face. “Don’t move. Stay right here.” He hurried away.

Shielding Gloriana from the wind, Taralyn looked toward the gathering dawn. She watched a cargo shuttle touch down upon a landing pad. Across the yard, she saw the superintendent wave his arms and berate a man twice his size.

She wasn’t going to stand there waiting for him to toss her out. Moving along the back of the hangars, she followed a narrow path. Weighted-down newspapers and lunch boxes marked the places where workers took their breaks. Despite the brightness, the platform held impenetrable shadows.

One of the shadows spoke. “I was told you would be alone.”

She jumped and stifled a yelp. “Your information was wrong.”

Someone moved closer. This was their contact. This man could help them.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “There is only room for one.”

Taralyn froze as his words swept over her. Only one? Had they been offered hope only to have it dashed away because there was only room for one? “Well, what do you expect me to do? Leave her behind?”

“What’s wrong with her, anyhow?”

Taralyn swallowed a knot of frustration. “Look, I swear she’ll be no trouble. She’s helpless.”

He paused, then chuckled. “I think you’re both a bit helpless. I like that in a telepath. Stay here. And this time, do as you’re told.”

With a swish of a cloak, the man brushed past her. She peered around the side of the hangar and watched. He strode to the superintendent, spoke to him, then disappeared behind a shuttle.

The superintendent turned to stare at her.

Taralyn shied from his gaze, hating herself even as she retreated. “This adventure is out of control.” She was at their mercy, having to do their bidding, having to say please. Helpless, he’d called her. Well, she didn’t need his help. She could find a way out of the city on her own.

Then Gloriana sniffled and snapped her back to reality.

She cupped her hands about her little girl’s small face. “Don’t worry. I trust him.”

The cloaked man emerged behind her. “Time to go.”

Taralyn walked with him across the deck. “The superintendent appeared in awe of you.”

“Should be. I’m a pilot.”

“What did you tell him about me?”

He laughed. “I told him you were my girlfriend, and that we were taking your addled sister for a shuttle ride.”

“Sister?”

“You look too young to have a daughter her age.”

“Won’t they wonder about us when we don’t return?”

“Shift change. By the time I get back, everyone here will be gone.” He opened the port hatch of a cargo shuttle. “After you… darling.”

She bit her lower lip. With a protective hand atop Gloriana’s head, she climbed into a cramped cockpit. Cold air hissed from a vent in the ceiling. Lights winked upon the walls. The control panel ran with colorful displays, and graphics reflected in the forward view shield.

“Sit to the right.” He climbed behind the pilot’s console. “And be sure to get that harness over both of you.”

Taralyn crawled to the empty co-pilot’s chair. She sat on one hip and wedged Gloriana next to her before tightening the restraining harness about their shoulders. The girl’s emaciated body felt like bones.

“Ever been in space?” he asked.

“No.” Her voice sounded weaker than she would have liked.

“You eat recently?”

She shook her head.

He grinned. “Good.”

She watched him touch a series of glide points upon the panel. A vague rumble sounded behind them.

“Computer, I need clearance for flight path one-oh-five-seven.”

“Specified path has been logged and cleared.”

“Initiating.” He pulled back on the thrust bar and eased the shuttle off the platform.

Taralyn gripped the safety harness as she stared out the view shield. The platform lights fell behind them. In the darkness, LASP glittered like mounds of multicolored jewels.

“Entering window,” the pilot said. “Three-second burn. Three. Two. One.”

The shuttle angled upward and shot into the morning sky. Bands of sunlight layered the clouds in pink and blue and gold.

“Encountering turbulence,” the computer said.

“Buffers on full.”

Her head bounced against the headrest. They were leaving Earth. She felt a mix of dread and elation.

As if breaking through a barrier, the shuttle burst from the hazy sky into a crisp, bright star field.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“Yes. That’s how it always starts.” He chuckled. “I’ve adjusted the oxygen content in the cabin. If you start feeling queasy, take a few deep breaths.”

Taralyn braced herself for weightlessness, determined not to feel ill. She wanted to shake Gloriana into sensibility, wanted to laugh with glee for the wonder of space.

The pilot’s fingers danced upon the control panel. “Approaching orbit. Computer, confirm velocity incidental.”

“Tangential readout at three-point-five-six-four kilometers per second.”

“Adjusting yaw to minus ninety degrees.”

“Orbit is stable.”

Her head swam with vertigo, and she took a slow breath. Streaks appeared among the stars. Other spacecraft.

Taralyn cleared her throat. “May I ask where we’re going?”

“The Princess of Mars. If you’ve ever wanted to see a luxury liner, now’s your chance. Of course, accommodations might not be what you’d expect.”

“Mars?” She frowned. “But I thought—”

“Careful. The Association has people who can wrench those thoughts right out of your head.”

“That’s hardly likely. No telepath would betray their own.”

“You’d be surprised.”

She recalled the doctor’s comment about the Association becoming something more. Was this what he meant? Were they recruiting telepaths to assist them in rounding up fugitives?

A ship came into view—two rings crisscrossing an egg-shaped propulsion unit. It shone bright red against the star-speckled backdrop. As they approached, she saw it was garishly painted. Spotlights glanced off its hull.

“Reference object sighted,” said the pilot. “Computer, cancel all orbital velocity.”

Her eyes widened as the cruise ship loomed. She cringed against the seat.

“Applying braking thrusters… now. Radial velocity at six… five… four… cutting thrust.”

The Princess of Mars filled the view screen. Taralyn fought a moment of disorientation. The rings of the ship spun one way while the egg turned the other. Her stomach lurched.

“Setting yaw to plus one-eighty. Computer, increase pitch.”

Slowly, the shuttle rotated until the cruise ship could no longer be seen. She swallowed the sickness in her throat. Were they going to dock backward?

“Pitch at plus ninety degrees,” the computer said.

“Counter outbound velocity.”

“Radial velocity at three hundred meters toward. Two hundred. One hundred.”

“Cancel all fine thrust.”

Again, the cruise ship dominated the view. They descended into it, lowering past receding doors into a shaft. Beams of light crosscut the walls. Stark shadows filled the cockpit.

“Vertical velocity at ten meters per second,” said the computer.

“Secure landing struts.”

“Secured.”

“As soon as we’re down, I want you to unhook the harness and get onto the floor,” he said in an undertone. “There’s not much room. Do the best you can.”

“All right.” She flinched as the shuttle settled.

“Now.”

She fumbled with the latch and slid to the floor, pulling Gloriana beside her. A tight fit, but they would manage.

He caressed the control panel. “Cutting all engines. Computer, open the bay doors.”

A puff of hot air circled the cabin. Rocket fuel and grease.

The pilot climbed toward the hatch. “Keep your head down.”

Then he left.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Mindbender – The Telepath Wars. If you would like to read more, you can find it at Amazon or wherever eBooks are found. Happy reading!

Sample Sunday – Alien Seas

Who will forgive you when you can’t forgive yourself?

The Colonial Scouts are a group of explorers who seek out habitable planets for the Colonial Expansion Board. They travel through space via programmable wormholes.

alien-seas-kindle

Natica is drowning in siblings. She hoped that if she became a Scout, she would rise above her brothers and sisters and shine. But when a man dies because of her mistake, she can’t forgive herself. She leaves the elite program and returns home a failure.

Her homecoming is even worse than she imagined, however. Her twin brother is missing, so she sets off to find him. Natica comes from a water world. Her search for her brother takes her on a high-speed boat chase through a floating city. She is kidnapped by pirates and attacked by a sea serpent. And her brother seems nowhere to be found.

Alien Seas is the third book of my Colonial Scouts series, fast-paced science fiction for teens and pre-teens. Buy it at Amazon in print or eBook. Soon to be an audiobook.

Here’s an excerpt:

Alien Seas by Roxanne Smolen

CHAPTER 1

PLANET 3459-3 SR7

Clear magenta skies. Bright white sun. Palm trees rustling in a breeze. A tropical paradise thought Natica Galos. At least, it would be if not for the ground-rending quakes and rivers of molten rock.

She motioned at the steaming fissure that cut across her path. “Looks like another dead end.”

Her partner, Davrileo Mas, consulted his sonic resonator. “We’ll have to split up. See if the fault narrows. If it does, we can use our jet packs to get to the other side.”

“Great. I’ve always wanted to fly above flowing lava with a combustible device upon my back.”

He turned toward her. His facemask reflected the orange-tinged steam rising from the rift, hiding his ever-present scowl. As he often said, he didn’t much care for her brand of sarcasm, and she didn’t care that he didn’t care. But he was the team leader of this excursion, so she shrugged and followed the fissure’s edge.

“Keep your com open,” Davrileo called after her.

She waved to show she understood. She didn’t like Davrileo Mas, and the prospect of spending a three-day mission with him frayed her nerves.

They’d arrived on the planet the previous night, traveling via an Impellic ring, a programmable wormhole. Interstellar probes reported a wealth of minerals on this world. As Colonial Scouts, Natica and Davrileo were dispatched to determine whether colonists could survive the planet’s violent upheavals.

Already Natica had endured showers of acid rain and blizzards of volcanic ash. She marveled that such an environment could spawn a rain forest—but no one needed to convince her of a planet’s will to live. A previous assignment took her to a fungus world that rose against her team in the form of indestructible mold monsters. The memory still brought a shudder.

With a grimace, she forced the image away. Think happy thoughts. Fungus World is behind you. Time to move on.

She kept to the edge of the lava flow as closely as she dared. Heat seeped through her skinsuit, and a vague sulfurous smell sifted through the filters of her mask. She heard a screech and looked up at a large bird circling overhead. It looked like a pterodactyl.

Wouldn’t surprise her.

Bushes with large purple flowers leaned over the bank. Their wilted petals and blackened leaves confirmed her guess that the fissure was a recent addition to the landscape. As she jogged past, clouds of yellow butterflies rose then resettled among the branches. Natica walked backward to watch them.

Within her mask, she heard erratic panting. Davrileo was breathing into the open com. Perhaps his path took an uphill turn. She smiled and pictured a tortuous track up a sheer cliff. With obstacles.

A low-pitched rumble broke into her thoughts. She frowned and looked around. With a sudden lurch, a quake hurled her to her knees. Trees snapped and toppled. Behind her, the purple bushes she’d passed slid over the crumbling bank.

Natica yelped and scrambled to her feet. She’d go over next if she didn’t move. But the ground heaved again, and her boots skidded. She sprawled back, her head hitting with a thud.

A tree fell into the rift. Lava splashed. A creature rose from the molten rock. It stood over five meters tall. Sheeting magma exposed a body of soot and stone. Rocks bulged from its torso like muscles. Natica gasped, and it turned.

At first, its face was a mere lump of rock. Then features emerged.

It was the face of the man she’d helped climb a barrier of logs—an injured man who slipped from her grasp and slid into a burning pit.

The man on Fungus World.

“But you can’t be.” Panic edged up her throat. “You’re dead. I saw you die.”

The magma creature stepped onto the bank. Flaming footprints dotted the grass. The quake ended—yet the ground trembled with its steps.

Natica skittered back. She had to get to her feet. She had to run. But she could only stare at the burning face.

He wanted retribution. It was her fault he died. She killed him. She let him go.

Hands fell upon her, and she fought them, batting them away before realizing Davrileo Mas knelt beside her. His voice echoed through the com. She couldn’t understand his words.

The magma creature advanced, looming over them. Davrileo aimed his stat-gun. The beam struck the thing mid-chest. It paused, dripping fire. He shot again.

It exploded. Chunks of rock flew through the air. The creature’s face landed before Natica. Its mouth gaped. Fire consumed its eyes.

Natica screamed. It felt as if the sound were tearing her inside out. Vaguely, she was aware of a wrenching sensation, of moving very fast, and then falling forward onto the Chamber floor.

Someone yelled, “Get her mask off.”

She felt her body turn, felt her facemask pop. Cold air bit her skin.

“Natica! Stop screaming!”

But her mind still held the burning face before her. She couldn’t let go.

“Get her to the infirmary.”

* * *

Impani stared at Natica across the cafeteria table. “You’re overworked?”

Natica sighed. “That’s what the doctor called it. Stress and fatigue due to the job.”

Impani sipped a hot cup of chai and cocked her head. Natica looked awful—dark circles, trembling hands. “But that was your first assignment in over a week. How can you be overworked?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m losing my mind.” She rubbed her eyes then lowered her voice. “I swear that lava monster had a face.”

“Davrileo says it was made of silicon, not lava.”

“Whatever.”

“He’s telling everyone it was no threat and that the reason he had to ring back early was you.”

“It’s the injured man I let die on Fungus World. He’s in all my dreams. I can’t sleep anymore. I think I see him everywhere. Glimpses from the corner of my eye.”

“Stop it.” Impani leaned forward. “This isn’t you. You’ve always been the stable one.”

“But I—”

“It’s been ages since we left the fungus planet. You can’t keep blaming yourself for something you didn’t mean to happen. If you keep this up, it could jeopardize your job.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You never watched anyone die because of you.”

Impani swallowed her answer. Once, she watched a hundred people die in an abandoned shopping mall. Members of a street gang she infiltrated. She led authorities to them not realizing they planned to wipe out everyone with flamethrowers. How long did it take her to accept that mistake?

“I have to go.” Natica gathered her uneaten breakfast onto a tray. “I’m meeting Anselmi. We ring out in an hour.”

“Another mission? What about being overworked?”

“I insisted. Have to prove myself. You know.”

Impani nodded. “At least, this time, you’ll be with a friend. Anselmi will watch out for you.”

Natica offered a fleeting smile, picked up the tray, and left.

Impani slouched in her chair. Her thoughts returned to the shopping mall massacre, dragging up images so real she felt she were living it all again. She saw people running, shadows in smoke, and the pounding flash of gunfire. She heard screams, children crying. Smelled the horrible reek of fuel.

It was known in the media as The Slaughter of the Headsmen Gang. She didn’t dwell on it so much anymore, pushed it to the back of her mind. But she never forgave herself. She always thought she should be punished somehow.

If she were to go home, there would be retribution. The surviving gang members knew what she had done, and although legally she was cleared of any wrongdoing, she was certain they would kill her.

She picked up her cup. It was cold. She pushed it away in disgust, then gazed across the busy cafeteria.

From several tables away, a boy stared at her. Impani lifted her chin and stared back. She was used to male attention, often used it to her advantage. However, this boy’s stare was more appraising than most. He looked younger than her—fifteen or maybe just turned sixteen. He was bald, as were all Scouts.

She hadn’t seen him before. Must be a new recruit. She should walk over and introduce herself—that usually embarrassed them enough to keep their stares to themselves. Yet, there was something odd about this boy.

Something about his eyes.

CHAPTER 2

PLANET 330-10 GEN

Natica stood on an icy bluff overlooking the frozen tundra. Windblown snow traveled the night like fog. She shivered, although the cold could not reach through her skinsuit. “Who would want to live in a place like this?”

Beside her, Anselmi’s pale, almost-human face beamed. “Just like home.”

She considered his reply. Anselmi had been her friend for over a year, yet how much did she know about him? He was humanoid—two arms, two legs, one head, but his eyes were solid black, his skin bluish-gray. She had no idea how old he was or what Veht, his home planet, was like. “You come from a frozen world?”

“The Colonial Expansion Board was looking for fresh water sources even in those times. They sent Scouts to my planet expecting to find oceans of barren ice. Instead, they were greeted by a thriving culture.” He chuckled.

“Well, this place is about as different as it could be from my home. Just once, I’d like to be sent to an ocean world.”

“Such worlds are rare. Your wish is fruitless.” He walked away, boots crushing the packed snow.

Natica felt a surge of anger she knew was due to lack of sleep. She dampened her ire, afraid Anselmi’s telepathic bent might pick up her emotions. Friend or not, he was team leader and would detail all aspects of their mission. She couldn’t afford another bad report.

They followed the ridge. Anselmi held his sonic resonator before him, searching for pitfalls or energy readings. Natica carried the tri-view glasses, which not only magnified the landscape but also kept a visual record of what the Scouts saw. As there wasn’t much to see on this world, she kept the glasses hooked to her belt.

Skidding down a slick hill, they approached a snowfield. The region reflected the moon so brightly, Natica’s mask darkened in response. A snow devil swirled her way, pelting her with sparkling dust. Could this be her home if an ice age hit?

Anselmi’s head jerked. “Did you see that?”

“What?”

“I thought I saw…” He looked puzzled. “Nothing.”

“Mirage. Too much white.”

He nodded, looking thoughtful.

They trudged across the vast expanse leaving footprints in the unbroken snow. The only sounds were the crunch of boots and the rattle of equipment belts. Moonlight disguised the distance, making the plain appear endless. If only she could return to the bluffs and rest.

A flicker of movement caught her eye. There came a muffled plop. Natica glanced about but saw nothing. Don’t mention it. He’ll want to investigate. Anselmi looked at her as if he heard her thoughts.

It was unfair that he could read her mind but she couldn’t read his. She felt disadvantaged. A sort of telepathy among siblings was common on her world, yet she never held such a bond with her brother, Eury. She often wondered why.

“You are distracted,” Anselmi said. “That’s not like you.”

“I was thinking.” She paused. “Maybe we should go back to the cliffs and look for a cave.”

“To rest?”

Her cheeks heated. “I’d hate to be caught out here in a storm.”

He consulted his resonator. “There are no atmospheric disturbances within range.”

“What a shame,” she muttered.

Anselmi smiled. “How tame you must find this frozen world. Too often our missions are labeled adventures.”

“It’s not that, it’s—”

“Look around us. See how the starlight glistens. Beauty in silence.”

Anger flared again. She wasn’t about to traipse around this wasteland while he reminisced. “People need more than beauty to live. This planet can’t support life.”

His smile broadened as he gazed beyond her. “Don’t be so certain.” He knelt in the snow.

Natica saw three plates of sculpted ice. “Artwork?”

“There are more.” He stepped into a field of crystalline disks.

She wouldn’t have noticed them if he hadn’t pointed them out. The disks ranged in size from a hand’s breadth to a full meter across. They looked carved from frosted glass.

“Someone’s been busy,” she said.

“However, you agree there is someone?” He held out the resonator, scanning the featureless horizon.

Natica walked among the plates. Their edges were smooth and slightly raised, forming a lip. They reminded her of the albino manta rays in the seas back home.

The thought struck like a slap. What was she doing? Was she so homesick she could think of nothing else? She was a Colonial Scout, not some rookie first time away from her mother’s skirt.

“This is stupid,” she cried. “No one will want to live here. Not even a water excavator. Not even a robot for a water excavator. And I don’t care who carved these stupid plates.”

She kicked the snow, and her toe caught a disk, sending it tumbling. It landed on edge and cracked. Natica hadn’t meant to break anything—still, she derived a vague sense of satisfaction as she looked down at the jagged pieces.

With the sound of a thousand angry hornets, the remaining disks rose from the ground. They hovered around Natica, whirring madly.

“Watch out,” Anselmi shouted.

Natica sidestepped as a smaller plate whizzed past her face. She flinched, her thoughts sluggish. Were the plates alive? She stared at the broken disk. What had she done?

Anselmi yanked her arm. “Run!”

Several disks cut off their escape. One dove toward Natica, and she swatted it. Wobbling, it turned and continued toward her. Anselmi snatched it from the air and threw it like a discus. At that, the whirring noise increased as if the plates were outraged. They attacked together.

For every disk Natica knocked away, four more took its place. They struck her shoulders, her back, her thighs, and she yelped with each blow. They flashed so quickly across her vision, she couldn’t track them, couldn’t dodge. She felt trapped in a whirlwind.

A large disk aimed at her head. Natica ducked. The plate hit Anselmi instead. He dropped to his knees, looking winded. It reared back and struck him again, roaring like a buzz saw. She grabbed it and threw it with all her strength. It collided with another plate. Both exploded, raining down in glittering specks.

A sudden wrenching sensation twisted her stomach, and she knew Anselmi had recalled the Impellic ring. She felt at once relieved and alarmed. How was she going to explain this fiasco? Two missions in a row had ended prematurely because of her.

She tensed against rushing vertigo—speeding through the universe while standing still. Then her momentum ended, and the Impellic Chamber materialized. Infinite images of herself watched from the mirrored walls.

Hopping down from the platform, she circled to the other side. “Anselmi, I’m sorry.”

She reached him just as he crumpled. With a gasp, she leaped forward and caught her teammate before he struck the floor.

“Help! I need help,” she shouted to an unseen technician.

She leaned Anselmi against the side of the platform. Two slice marks crossed his chest—the plate cut right through his skinsuit. She didn’t see any blood, but purple welts showed beneath the silvery material.

A terrible panic welled in her. This was her fault. He might die because of her.

The door opened, and a four-person medical unit rushed into the room. They wore bulky hazmat garb.

Natica grabbed the first one. “He’s hurt. You have to save him. The ice attacked and… and then he just fell.”

Elbowing Natica out of the way, the medic examined Anselmi.

“Erratic respiration,” he said. “Blood pressure is falling.”

“Get that oxygen over here,” said another.

“Will he be all right?” Natica cried. “Please. You can’t let him die.”

It was as if she hadn’t spoken. She watched with growing dread as the medics replaced Anselmi’s mask with an oxygen tube.

“Open wound in an alien environment. Better get him to quarantine.”

Natica bit back her tears.

* * *

Impani took Trace’s hand as she weaved between people and video machines. Laughter and the chimes of games rose in discordant music. She spotted Natica at a table in the corner. Her face looked puffy.

“There you are,” Impani said in a half-shout as she sat across from her at the mushroom-shaped table. “The game room is busy this evening.”

“Too busy,” Natica mumbled.

“A lot of missions must have ended.”

Trace gave them a bow. “Can I interest you ladies in beverages?”

Impani laughed. “Anything but that nutty vitamin drink you always get.”

“It’s good. You should try it.”

“I don’t drink anything that’s thick and brown.”

Chuckling, Trace walked away.

Impani placed her hand over Natica’s. “I just came from seeing Anselmi. He looks much better.”

Natica groaned. “He’s in isolation.”

“Just a precaution. They don’t want him catching a cold from one of his well-wishing friends.”

Natica nodded but wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Impani pursed her lips. “Those ice disks might have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for you. Imagine if an excavation company settled there. You exposed a real hazard.”

“Stop it.” A scowl creased her friend’s face. “That’s not what they’re saying.”

“Here you go.” Trace set tall glasses upon the table. “Two Peach Snowcaps for you girls and a Health Nut for me.”

“Mmm, peach.” Impani sipped the icy juice. Tart sweetness burst over her tongue.

Natica punched the snowcaps down with her straw as if they offended her.

Into the prolonged silence, Trace said, “Did you tell Natica about our little mishap?”

“Oh, yeah. It was the strangest thing.” Impani leaned forward. “We were in the Impellic Chamber waiting to be whisked off-world and one of the main computers exploded.”

“It what?” Natica’s eyes widened.

“Almost like it was sabotaged.” He shrugged. “We were standing there, and standing there, and Impani said does it seem a little smoky in here to you?”

Impani laughed. “It’s funny now, but if that ring had engaged, we would have been fried.”

“What could have caused it?” Natica asked.

“No idea.” He took a drink. “I heard Chamber Four will be closed for a while, though. Strange accident.”

“Really.” Natica shook her head.

Impani sipped her juice then muttered, “There he is again.”

Trace glanced around. “Who?”

“That kid with the strange eyes. I think he’s a new recruit. I swear he’s following me.”

“Following?” He set his glass down hard.

Natica said, “Why would someone follow you?”

Impani shrugged. She glanced at the boy then looked quickly away.

“Which one is he?” Trace pushed back from the table. “I’ll have a few words with the guy.”

Impani grabbed his arm. “Come on, forget it.”

“I don’t like stalkers.”

Impani tried to smile in a soothing manner, but she felt alarmed. She couldn’t explain it. There was something odd about the boy. Something ominous. “He’s just staring.”

“And you like that, don’t you?” Trace’s voice rose. “You always enjoy being stared at by other guys.”

“Don’t be silly. He’s a kid.”

“I’m not an idiot, you know.”

Impani hugged his arm. “You’re jealous. It’s kind of sweet.”

Trace wrenched from her grasp and stormed out of the room. Impani gaped in amazed confusion.

“Nice going,” Natica said. “You hurt his feelings.”

“You know Trace. He’ll get over it.”

“There was never anyone following you, was there?”

Impani stared at her. “You think I lied?”

“You’re unbelievable.”

Impani shook her head. What was happening here? “Let’s just relax and finish our drinks. You’ve had a hard day.”

“So now it’s me? Why is it always my fault?”

“Who said anything about fault?”

“Couldn’t be you. Little Miss Perfect.” Natica pushed her glass away. “I don’t know why he loves you, but he really does. And you treat him like everyone else. If he were my boyfriend—”

“Is that what this is about?” Impani shouted.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve always had a crush on Trace.”

“And you’ve always treated him like drel.”

“You’re jealous of our relationship.”

“Jealous? Of you?”

“Admit it. You wish you could be more like me.”

Natica stood and lowered her voice to a growl. “I would die if I was anything like you.”

Impani watched her rush away. Her face burned, and her thoughts seethed. How could Natica accuse her of lying to make Trace jealous? What did she think—that she’d make a better girlfriend? Impani gulped her juice, and then glanced about the room.

The odd boy still stared.

CHAPTER 3

Impani woke later than she intended. She lay for a moment, cocooned in the warm berth, grasping at tendrils of a dissipating dream. With a sigh, she switched off the adventure novel she’d been reading when she fell asleep. Turning onto her stomach, she crawled from the compartment and down the honeycombed wall.

The sleeping berths were tubes open on either end, making the wall accessible from fore or aft. Many beds were occupied, showing heads here and feet there, and she was careful not to wake her fellow Scouts as she left.

Beyond the girls’ quarters, the corridor was bright with daylight. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed the morning sun. Staff members and technicians bustled about on workday errands. A few waved or nodded to her as they passed.

Impani stepped into a nearby restroom. Her nose crinkled at the antiseptic smell. She splashed her face and scalp with cool water then disrobed and pulled a crisp tunic from the communal laundry closet.

As she dressed, she looked in the mirror. Behind her stood shower cubicles. They were rarely used. Scouts endured a caustic chemical cleansing after each mission. The chemicals removed the threat of contaminants along with all hair and a layer of skin. It made normal showers less inviting, even for Impani who grew up homeless and, at first, reveled in the luxury of water jets.

Refreshed, she rushed to the cafeteria. It was always busy. Day and night held little meaning when Scouts came in from missions at any hour. However, Impani found that people tended to choose the same seats out of habit. So when she reached her usual table, she was surprised Natica wasn’t there.

She looked about, hoping to spot her, a greeting perched on her lips. No Natica.

Was she still angry about last night?

Impani frowned. Maybe Natica had overslept, too. That wasn’t like her—but lately, so much about Natica wasn’t like the girl Impani considered her best friend. If she wasn’t sleeping, where would she be? Had she set off again on another assignment?

That made perfect sense. Natica must be anxious to tackle a new mission and prove she’s still part of the team. Mr. Arkenstone would know where she’d gone.

Impani left the cafeteria and headed toward the program director’s office. Arkenstone’s door was always open, so she never thought of him as her boss. In fact, on more than one occasion, he’d acted as confidant and mentor.

She stepped into a room dominated by a huge, holographic seascape. A boat sailed in the distance. Natica often made excuses to see the director just so she could visit the holo.

“Morning, Leila.” Impani approached a woman behind a desk. “Is Mr. Arkenstone available?”

A voice called from an adjacent room. “Come in, Impani.”

Leila smiled and returned to her computer screen. Impani entered the director’s office. Everything in it was massive—the chairs, the tables. A bank of windows behind the huge desk showed the spires of surrounding buildings.

Arkenstone glanced up. “If you’re here about Anselmi, I have to tell you I agree with the doctor. He must remain in quarantine. Even though he’s no longer in danger, the ailment he contracted might yet prove fatal to humans.”

“I know. They let me wave to him through the glass at the infirmary. It’s weird to see him turned purple like that.” She stepped nearer. “Actually, sir, I wanted to know if you sent Natica on another mission.”

His mouth made a silent oh, and he stood. With his arm about her shoulders, he guided her to a couch and sat beside her. “Natica’s gone home for her birthday.”

“What?”

“Apparently, the sixteenth birthday is cause for celebration on her world. She wanted to be with family.”

“But she didn’t tell me.” Impani frowned. “Didn’t say goodbye.”

“She’s burnt out. I’ve seen it before.” He looked into Impani’s eyes. “I fully expect Natica to quit the Colonial Scouts.”

Impani felt her stomach disappear and all her insides slide to her knees. “No. She can’t.”

“I’d hate to lose her. She’s one of the best.” He squeezed Impani’s arm. “I’m going to schedule a break for you. A needed rest. I hope you’ll take advantage of it.”

Impani wasn’t aware of leaving the office, didn’t remember walking away. She found herself several corridors down, standing against the wall, trembling, seething with outrage.

How could Natica let one tragedy paralyze her? And how could she leave without saying anything? Impani never even knew it was her birthday. Why would Natica keep that a secret? What kind of friend was she?

“Impani? Are you all right?”

She looked up at Davrileo Mas. You’re part of it. You gave Natica a bad report. But Davrileo wasn’t the problem. It was Natica. Her friend was making a terrible mistake.

Impani straightened her shoulders. “Have you seen Trace?”

“Sure. He’s still in bed. Grumping about something.”

“Where?”

“C Wing. But you can’t go down there. Boys only.”

“Watch me.”

She took off at a trot into the forbidden Boys Only zone, vaguely disappointed that it looked so much like the girls’ area. She was aware of startled looks, but no one tried to stop her.

She turned down C Wing and stepped beside the sign that labeled it a quiet zone. The sound-dampening floor cushioned her feet. She gazed up a wall honeycombed with twenty sleeping berths. A few reading lamps glowed from the compartments, but most were dark and silent. How would she find Trace?

Screwing up her courage, she shouted, “Trace.”

She heard an answering chorus of groans. Only one face showed. Trace was on an upper tier. He scrambled from his berth and hurried down the ladder.

“What are you doing?” he whispered.

“Natica’s gone. She quit the Scouts.”

Someone called sleepily, “Give us a break.”

“Yeah, take it outside,” another boy moaned.

Trace took Impani’s arm and led her from the sleeping berths. He sat with her on a bench beneath a window. “Start from the beginning.”

“Natica and I had a big fight last night, and I was looking for her so I could apologize.”

“You?” Trace smiled.

“But I couldn’t find her. So I checked with Mr. Arkenstone, and he said she’s gone home.”

“Just like that?”

“And do you know what else? He said it’s her birthday. Why didn’t she tell me? That’s not something to keep private.”

“Calm down. There must be more to the story. What were you fighting about?”

Impani looked away. “Girl stuff. You know.”

“And you think she was angry enough to leave the Scouts?”

“I don’t know. I keep running over the argument in my mind.”

“Well, I don’t think you could have said anything that would make her quit. She’s been off her game lately. Distracted. Overreacting.”

“Because of Fungus World.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“I swore I’d never tell anyone.” She looked at him. “But I don’t think she’d mind if I told you. It happened back when you ordered a moat dug around the colonists’ camp. You were going to create a ring of fire to keep the mold men away, remember? You sent us up the hill to cut logs and roll them down to you.”

“And the mold men attacked.”

“We had to retreat.” Impani frowned, dredging up the memory. “Natica and I ran carrying an injured man. The logs were deep, a solid wall, but we finally got him to the top. And we saw the fire around the camp had been set too soon and was burning out of control.”

He grimaced. “I remember.”

“What was I supposed to do? We had moss men behind us, fire ahead. We couldn’t just stay there. So I left the man with Natica and climbed over the edge. I figured that if I could reach the ground, she could drop him down to me. I never got that far. The fire weakened the pile, causing the logs to slide into the blaze. Natica lost her grip on the guy, and he just kind of rolled along with everything else and disappeared in the flames.”

“Oh, no.”

“It was an accident. No one was at fault. But Natica blames herself. She’s obsessed.”

“No wonder she freaked at that lava creature.”

“She has to snap out of it.”

Trace paused then met her eyes. “You should go to her.”

Impani blinked at him.

“I mean it. Take a leave of absence and go to Natica’s home world. You might not talk her out of quitting, but at least she’ll know you care.”

Impani sat forward. Why hadn’t she thought of that? She had more than enough credits in her expense account. And hadn’t Arkenstone said he was scheduling a break for her?

She smiled and cupped his cheek in her hand. “What would I do without you?”

He pulled her close, holding her, but didn’t answer.

Like what you’ve read so far? Alien Seas can be found at Amazon in print or eBook.

 

 

Sample Sunday – The Amazing Wolf Boy

What happens when a bumbling nerd becomes a werewolf and finds he has super powers? Listen here and find out!

wolfboy_acx

That’s right! The Amazing Wolf Boy is now an audiobook at Audible. You can get it free with Audible’s 30-day trial membership.

Here’s the story: Cody Forester plans to become a doctor. Instead, he becomes a werewolf. The first time Cody shows fang and fur, his parents ship him off to live with his black sheep uncle. His revised career choice is social hermit. As the new kid, he makes more enemies than friends. His high school teachers label him a troublemaker. The whole town hates him.

Except Brittany. She’s beautiful, with her eyes painted black and her lips dark purple. When Brittany discovers his secret, she tries to cure him using crystals, candles, and magic potions. Cody falls head-over-tails in love, but he can never tell her. Girls like her aren’t for him. He’s the amazing wolf boy. Astound your family and mystify your friends.

While Cody moons over Brittany, a murderous pack of lycanthropes howl into town. They want Cody to join them. When he refuses, they kidnap Brittany and threaten to kill her at moonrise. Cody must master his untried superpowers or the girl he loves dies. Can he defeat the pack and save both their lives?

The Amazing Wolf Boy has been described as cute, sweet, and funny, certainly not your average werewolf story. Give it a try on Audible.

Or if you prefer print or eBook, you can find it at Amazon. Here’s an excerpt.

 

THE AMAZING WOLF BOY

by Roxanne Smolen

CHAPTER ONE

I’ll never forget the night my life ended.

It was Christmas Eve, 2007, and I was in France with my parents at Maison Kammerzell, one of those fancy historic restaurants. The room glowed with plastic icicles. Ropes of apples and mistletoe hung from the ceiling. My tie felt like a noose and my suit coat a straitjacket.

We were dining on le Reveillon, a holiday feast of roast capon, which is a castrated chicken, and boudin blanc, which always tastes like vanilla pudding to me. My mother waved her hands as she described in detail the Christmas decorations at the Charity Ball she chaired. I love my mother, I really do, but give her a glass of wine and she can outtalk an auctioneer. My father listened with a rapt expression, letting her build up steam. I thought about my DS back in the hotel room. Out the window, beyond the reflection of red and gold holiday lights, I saw a full moon.

As if someone threw a switch inside my head, my senses came alive. The room rang with the clink of china and crystal. The string quartet, whose Christmas Carols had gone all but unheard in the hectic atmosphere, now played sharp and clear.

Scents rose from my table and mixed with those from surrounding tables. I put down my fork, staring at my plate. My nose told me that the poor, mutilated rooster I’d been eating was stuffed with rosemary. The bird reeked. I couldn’t believe I’d put that in my mouth. It made my skin crawl. For real. I could see the hair on the back of my hands stand up.

Hair on my hands? When did that happen?

Before I thought of a satisfactory explanation, agony gripped me. I clutched the sides of my head. It felt as if my skull cracked open as if someone pulled off my face. My teeth ached so bad I couldn’t close my lips. Drool dribbled down my chin. I covered my mouth with my hands and froze.

It didn’t feel like me. The nose was flat. The jaw protruded. I ran my tongue over my teeth. They were long and sharp. Like fangs. I leaped to my feet, almost knocking over my chair. While my mother prattled on about the ball, I rushed from the table.

My only thought was to hide. It might have made sense to yell for help, both my parents are doctors, but I didn’t want the other diners to see me. So I zigzagged through the tables with my napkin to my face, dodging curious stares. Panic churned the over-spiced food in my stomach.

I reached the lobby. A couple came in arm-in-arm through the door, and another couple greeted them. They laughed and shook hands, blocking the exit. A man stepped out of the men’s room, while two others went inside. Couldn’t hide there. Too busy. The smell of leather and fur radiated from the coatroom. When the distracted coat-check girl turned her back, I ducked inside.

Excruciating pain wracked my body. Every muscle clenched and twisted. I felt as if my bones shrank and elongated at the same time. Sweat poured from my skin. I tore off my suit coat and unbuttoned my shirt, gasping as cool air hit my chest. Trapped in a sort of mental haze, I climbed behind the mink and sable wraps.

My father’s voice snapped me to wakefulness. “I’m looking for my son, Cody.”

It sounded like he was at the front desk. I could walk that far. Still sweating, I got to my feet.

All four feet.

I yelped, and the sound that burst from my throat was not human. I stared at sleek silver paws. As I stumbled forward, my pants slid from my hindquarters.

“Cody? Are you in here?” my father called.

Before I saw him, I smelled him—from his shampoo to his shoe polish to the residue of dinner that clung to his pores. He stood in the doorway of the coatroom, his face unreadable. Then he said, “For crying out loud.”

Not knowing what else to do, I barreled past my father into the restaurant lobby. My paws clattered on the smooth floor, and my hind legs skittered sideways. I saw wood paneling and spiral staircases. People stood everywhere. Someone screamed. The maître d’ shouted something I couldn’t understand.

Then I caught a puff of chilled, fresh air. I scraped and skidded toward the door, trying to spread my weight over four legs, and accidentally slammed my shoulder into a man’s hip. He fell, and the impact bounced me into a twenty-foot Christmas tree. One of my hind feet snagged a strand of holiday lights; the tree swayed and tinkled.

I bounded out the open door, leaping for freedom, and hitting the pavement on all fours. Lights flashed and dazzled my eyes. The sound of traffic roared. The stench of motor oil and hot rubber rose in swells. Pedestrians came from all directions. They trampled me and cussed, or jumped back like I was rabid. I scrambled to get out of the way.

I scented water and remembered passing a fountain on the way to the restaurant. I headed toward the smell at a trot, thinking it would be quieter there, and caught my reflection in a storefront window.

I was a dog. A large, silver dog with a short yellow tail. How could it be true? It had to be a dream.

Keep to the sidewalk. Try to look inconspicuous. Just a big fluffy pet wearing a necktie. My tongue lolled to the side. I closed my mouth but it dropped open again as if my teeth were too large to contain.

The fountain was not as deserted as I hoped. It was a meeting place for lovers. Some of the girls squealed and pointed. Several couples hurried away. Maybe they thought I had rabies. I stood there, not knowing where to go or what to do. I felt scared and confused.

But also intrigued. I smelled fear on the people who stared at me, tasted their mingled scents on the breeze. I wanted to chase them just to see how fast they’d run.

What was wrong with me?

The wail of sirens rose over the street noise. Weird sirens, not normal ones like in Massachusetts. I never missed home more than at that moment. If I could just wake up, I knew I would find myself in my own bed. That thought held me, and I must have spaced. A moment later, two cars screeched to the curb. Several uniformed men hopped out. One held a lasso on a stick. They walked in my direction.

“I need help,” I shouted. “Something’s wrong.”

Only, that’s not what came out. I frowned, replaying the rough sounds that burst from my throat. The men surrounded me, holding their arms from their sides like they were fences. I decided to try talking again. Maybe if I said something in Dog it would come out as English.

“Woof,” I barked. “Woof, woof, woof.”

The nearest guy tried to loop his lasso over my head. I dodged. He swung again, and I backed into one of the men. He wasn’t a very good fencepost—he went down beneath my weight.

I spun about, intending to speed away, but my hind legs ran faster than my front. I skittered around the fountain like I was running on ice. The bystanders scattered. The men spread out, cornering me. A growl rose in my chest; my teeth bared themselves. Without thinking, I jumped. No, I soared. Right over their heads. Came down running and didn’t stop.

I heard shouts and the thud of heavy footsteps, but after a while, the sounds faded. I didn’t slow down. My nose led me to a brick-paved alley, and I tore through it, trying to catch up with myself. It was like if I could run fast enough, far enough, I might leave the nightmare behind.

After a time, pain overcame my horror, and I limped to a halt. My overexerted muscles screamed, and my paws felt raw and stone bruised. I was still in the labyrinth of byways, enmeshed in the rich odors of garbage. I saw recessed doors and bicycles leaning against walls.

Townhomes. Everyone asleep. Visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

My holiday dinner curdled in my stomach. I was thirsty. Someone left out a dog bowl, and the water was almost irresistible. I refused it. I would not drink like an animal.

With an almost drunken stagger, I continued to walk. The alley was bright. I looked up at the brilliant, full moon.

Tears burned my eyes. I wanted to cry. But I was sixteen years old. I hadn’t cried since I was a kid. Besides, if I started, it might sound like I was howling, and I couldn’t handle that.

In a doorway, I curled into a ball and put my paws over my muzzle.

* * *

I awoke to a frigid dawn. I was human. I was also naked. All I wore was my necktie from the previous night.

My body convulsed with shivers as I stumbled down the alleyway. I had to get to my parents before I died of exposure. There was no traffic so early in the morning. The street lamps were still lit. I stood in the shadows, searching for a signpost, a landmark, anything familiar. I didn’t know Strasbourg well, although I’d visited before.

While I considered how to get from point A to point B, a squad car pulled up the alley behind me. Some early riser must have seen me streak past their window.

I raised my arms over my head and shouted, “I’m an American,” as the police officer stepped toward me.

His eyes were amused. At least, he didn’t draw his gun. “You look cold,” he said in a thick French accent. His gaze settled on my shriveled shrinky dink.

I dropped my hands, covering myself. “I was…I am…” I wanted to tell him I was mugged and my clothes were stolen, but I was shivering so hard, I couldn’t get the words out.

He opened his trunk and removed a long, heavy coat. Perhaps he didn’t feel it was cold enough to wear such a garment. He tossed it to me, and I put it on. The coat was as icy as the air. If anything, I felt colder. He ushered me to the car and opened the door. I balked. I didn’t want to go to jail.

“My parents are staying at the Sofitel,” I managed to say.

Oui. Your family contacted us regarding your disappearance and your mental aberration.” He pushed me inside with a practiced hand atop my head and slammed the door.

The car was so small I had to slouch to fit. The backseat smelled like vomit. There was no heat. The officer got in front and spoke French into his radio. I hugged my arms and puzzled over his previous words.

Mental aberration? Is that what happened? Had I only thought I was a dog? That would explain my father’s annoyed reaction when he saw me in the coatroom. The idea comforted me as if being crazy was better.

By the time we reached the police station, I felt warm within the coat. The officer helped me out of the vehicle and up the stairs. Noise burst to greet us as he opened the door. The station was crowded despite it being dawn on Christmas morning. I walked at his side past the front desk, garnering more than a few stares. He led me down a corridor decorated with a line of threadbare tinsel taped to the wall. The floor was gritty and cold. We stopped at an office with Captain Jean-Luc Boudreaux stenciled on the window. Inside, I saw my parents get to their feet. My mother’s eyes were puffy as if she’d been crying.

“Mom.” I wanted to go to her and hug her, but the look she shot me was not inviting.

My father handed me a fleecy jogging suit. I slipped on the pants, and then passed the coat to the officer. He accepted with a nod.

A bald man I assumed was Captain Boudreaux stood from the desk. “So we find the little boy and all is well, no?”

Wincing at the words little boy, I sat to tie my shoes. I felt invisible. No one spoke to me. My father signed a pack of paperwork. I imagined it like a receipt, like he was pulling a wayward puppy out of the pound. And just like that, we were free to go. Before I knew it, we were back at the hotel.

I wanted to talk about the night before, wanted to figure out what had happened, but I was still getting the silent treatment. My mother paced the room, avoiding my eyes. I stood at the door, wondering how to broach the subject.

At last, I said, “Am I crazy?”

“Don’t ever think that,” said my father.

“I must be.” I took a step into the room and held out my hands. My palms were raw from a night of running on all fours. “I thought I turned into a dog.”

“A wolf,” my mother snapped. “You turned into a wolf.”

Her tone was both disgusted and accusing, as if it were my fault, as if I’d been playing around. I was so taken aback it took a moment for her words to sink in.

“Wolf?” I remembered the full moon. “As in werewolf?”

But aren’t werewolves vicious monsters?

She stopped to face me, straightening her shoulders. “Your father and I have talked it over, and we feel it would be better for everybody if you went to live with your uncle in Florida.”

“What?” I stood there, dumbfounded. “I can’t live with him. I only met him once.”

“It’s for your own good.”

“But what about my life? What about school?”

“They have schools in Loxahatchee,” she shouted.

Loxahatchee. As if there were such a place.

Tears filled my eyes for the second time in as many days. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you’d send me away.” I expected them to take me to a doctor, or even a psychiatrist. But this?

“We already have your ticket,” my father said. “We’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at the airport and take you to Bob’s house.”

Uncle Bob. The black sheep. The only thing I knew about him was that he sometimes hit my mother up for money.

“You aren’t coming?” I said, sounding like the little boy the captain had branded me.

My parents turned away.

So there you have it. My life was over. Not literally, of course. But as I stared out the window of the jumbo jet at the spreading void of Everglades below, I knew nothing was going like I planned.

CHAPTER TWO

I stood on my uncle’s porch, suitcase in hand, and pounded the door. No response. I felt like an idiot. Guess I wasn’t expected. Or maybe this wasn’t the right place.

My car and driver were gone. There were no other houses in sight. What looked like solid jungle bordered the yard. I walked along a wooden rail and peered through a curtainless window. The shadows inside were still.

With a groan, I sank onto a porch swing that hung by rusted chains. I was tired, and I hadn’t eaten since the capon the previous night. The jogging suit made me sweat in the Florida heat.

Miserable, I looked at an orange and purple sunset. It would be night soon. Would I change into a wolf again? I winced and pushed the thought from my brain. Where was my uncle, anyway? Probably at a party. It was hard to remember it was Christmas Day.

Maybe he hoped to avoid me. Maybe I wasn’t wanted.

Daunted by that thought, I walked around the side of the house. A window was open. Pale curtains fluttered like ghosts. I leaped for the frame and caught the sill, but couldn’t pull myself up. Grit stung my hands. I returned to the porch, stomped to the door, and knocked until it rattled. In desperation, I tried the knob. It was unlocked.

“Hello?” I stepped inside.

The house smelled like a dog. I wondered if my uncle had a pet. One look around the dim interior and I realized why he hadn’t locked the door. There was nothing to steal.

A battered recliner sat in the middle of the living room. Beside it was a metal TV table with a twelve-inch television on top. Probably black and white. I longed for the forty-two-inch plasma in my room at home.

On top of the TV, a large jawbone gripped a stack of newspapers. Like a freaking paperweight. I wondered to what animal it had belonged. Maybe an alligator. My shoulders sagged. I dropped my suitcase, closed the door, fumbled for a light switch and found one that turned on a chandelier in an empty dining room. Only two of the bulbs lit.

A note was stuck to the television screen. It was addressed to me.

Cody, I couldn’t wait any longer for you to arrive. I have somewhere to be tonight. I know you understand. Your room is to the right. Make yourself at home. We’ll talk in the morning. Glad to have you here, boy. — Uncle Bob

Relieved, I picked up my suitcase and went to my room. I hesitated at the door. There was a wrought iron bed. No sheets. No pillows. No blinds on the windows. I sat on the mattress. My mom said she would ship my things when she got back from vacation. I hoped she wouldn’t, hoped she would reconsider my banishment.

Besides, where would I keep anything?

With a sigh, I peeled off my soggy sweatshirt and put on a tee with Recycle America printed on the front. The closet had no hangers, so I hung the sweatshirt on the bedpost to dry and set off for the kitchen. It was easy to find—I just followed the draft. The window above the sink was open. Beyond it, the sky darkened. My stomach did a somersault, and I wasn’t sure I could eat.

I needn’t have worried. The cupboard held a couple of mugs and a large jar of instant coffee. There was a white Formica table in the corner. It had four chairs, two of them tucked against the wall. There were coffee-ring stains on top along with a chromed, old-style toaster. Maybe there was bread. I searched the cupboard again, and then turned to the refrigerator. It held three beers and a bottle of ketchup.

“Cripes!” I slammed the refrigerator and stormed into my room. I decided to call my mom, had the cell phone in my hand. I didn’t know whether I would beg her to take me back or tell her off for sending me to Podunk land.

A sudden sharpening of my senses stopped me. I froze. I heard crickets and birds, smelled dust and the rich damp earth. Muscles squirmed beneath my skin. It was happening again. Oh, God, I couldn’t stand it. Frantic, I yanked open the bedroom window, climbed outside, and sprinted for the line of palm trees. My legs felt like they shattered with each step. I dove for cover, and then writhed in agony. I thought it would never end.

Then it did. I looked at my silver paws, and then placed them over my eyes. I needed help. But there was no one. There was nothing I could do.

A breeze ruffled my fur. I smelled flowers, stagnant water, and rabbit spoor. I heard insects in the brush and opossums in the trees. A bird let out a screech that made me feel I was in Africa.

The wind invited me to run with it. I refused. I didn’t want to wake up naked and lost again. Drenched in sweat, I stood and stepped out of my shoes. My bulky jogging pants slipped off my narrow hindquarters. Then I realized I still wore my T-shirt. I tried to grab it with my teeth but only succeeded in spinning. I tried again and spun the other way.

A snarl twisted my muzzle. This was ridiculous. I threw myself onto my back, then wriggled and kicked, my hind legs digging my chest. The shirt would not come off.

I sat defeated in my Recycle America tee. The amazing wolf boy. No wonder no one wanted me.

The tears started. I couldn’t stop them. I cried like I hadn’t a friend in the world. It sounded like I bayed at the moon.

* * *

I awoke in the bushes, covered in dew. The sky was a soft gray. Birds sang in the trees.

My eyes burned, and I rubbed them as I looked toward the silent house. A blue pickup truck with an extended cab sat in the gravel driveway. I wondered if it belonged to my uncle. I had heard that my mother sent Bob money to buy a truck. I’d assumed it was a tricked-out show vehicle. This one looked like it was accustomed to hard work.

I dressed in a hurry, and then crossed the yard and climbed through my bedroom window. Noise came from the kitchen. My stomach fell. I was almost as apprehensive about seeing my uncle as I was about turning into a wolf.

I went to the kitchen. Uncle Bob stood at the sink making a cup of instant coffee with hot tap water. He had steel gray, over-the-collar hair and a thin build.

I cleared my throat. “Good morning.”

“Cody. Good to see you, boy.”

He held out his hand, and I shook it. His palms were heavily calloused. I wondered what he did for a living.

“Hey, you got tall,” he said with my mom’s smile.

I tried to smile back, but it felt like a grimace. Yeah, I got tall, seeing’s how the last time he saw me I was four years old.

“You have grass in your hair,” he said.

My hands jerked up, and I stammered, “Oh, I was, ah—”

“Want some coffee?”

“No, sir,” I said, and then blurted, “There’s nothing to eat.”

He slurped. “What, you didn’t eat last night?”

I frowned. Had he expected me to exist on airline food?

“I ate.” He patted his stomach. “Had me a nice rabbit dinner. Nothing better than fresh caught.”

“You like to hunt?”

“Sure. Don’t you?”

I’d never been hunting in my life. But I hoped to fit in, so I said, “I fish.” Although I hadn’t since I was ten.

“Fish?” He scrunched his face. “To each his own, I guess. Why don’t we go into town and get some breakfast.”

“Can I go like this?” I indicated my damp sweat pants and stretched out tee.

He shrugged. “This is South Florida. You can go in your skivvies if you want.”

We walked together into the gray morning. My nose twitched with flower-scented humidity.

“This will give me a chance to show you around.” Uncle Bob circled the cab of his truck.

I sat shotgun and buckled in. The first thing I noticed was the truck didn’t have a radio. The second was a baseball bat on the floor. I didn’t think it was there for sport. A knotted leather cord dangled from the rearview mirror. Feathers and animal fangs decorated its length.

“What’s that?” I motioned.

He winked. “Trophies.”

I nodded like it was normal to keep mementos of road kill. I saw why my parents considered him a black sheep.

We lurched along the rutted roads that led out of the neighborhood, and finally pulled onto asphalt where we picked up speed. Outside my window, the landscape turned alien. It wasn’t like I’d never been in Florida. I visited Miami Beach plenty of times—blue water, white sandy beaches, high-rises. This was nothing like that. One minute we’d be in a jungle so thick you couldn’t see past the trees. The next, we’d be in a flat expanse of scrub and sawgrass that stretched for miles.

As if he sensed my bewilderment, my uncle said, “This here’s the northernmost tip of the Everglades. We got our share of ’gators. They’re surprisingly fast on land so don’t antagonize them. We’re also getting a nasty population of Burmese pythons.”

“Snakes?” Was this a joke? “I thought they lived in the rainforest.”

“Well, people think they can dump any old thing.” His voice trailed.

“Like that urban myth,” I said. “Alligators in the sewers.”

“Except this ain’t no myth.” He grew quiet for a moment and then said, “It’s happening all over South Florida. People take things as pets and then tire of them. I heard they’re finding Japanese lionfish off shore. They’re that fish you usually see in home aquariums. If they don’t get them out of our waters, the buggers will ruin the reefs. They’re vicious predators.”

I added to the short list of things I knew about my uncle. He liked to hunt, he was an environmentalist, and he didn’t listen to music.

We passed a few crossroads. None had street signs.

Uncle Bob motioned toward one. “That way takes you to Belle Glade and the sugarcane fields. When they’re harvesting, it smells like burning syrup. If you go down that road, you’ll run into the back end of the safari park. It’s a four-mile preserve, sort of a drive-through zoo. All kinds of animals.”

“Do they ever get out?”

“I never heard of a lion getting loose, but you’ll see a runaway monkey from time to time. And their peacocks are everywhere. You probably heard them last night.”

I winced. I’d heard plenty of strange sounds last night, but I hadn’t been myself.

Bob pointed down another road. “That way leads to the Sunspot nudist camp.”

I sputtered. “As in no clothes?”

“They’re nice people. I don’t want you bothering them.”

I shook my head. “Never met a nudist before.”

“They’re like anybody else.” He grinned. “Only nekked.”

We stopped at a traffic light. There weren’t many other cars.

“This is Southern Boulevard,” Uncle Bob told me. “You’ll find most of what you need along here.”

I nodded and hoped I wouldn’t be around long enough to need anything. He was right, though. There were stores and chain restaurants I recognized. It was like a regular city, only in miniature.

We pulled into a parking lot for the Coffee Café. The pavement was cracked; foot-high grass sprouted through the fissures. There were only two other cars. One of them was a convertible with leather seats baking in the heat. The other had Sheriff stenciled on the side.

I hopped from the truck and circled around. If this was anything like home, cops usually knew the best places to eat. Uncle Bob seemed pensive as we approached the door.

Almost as if he’d waited for us, the sheriff came out of the diner. He had white hair and a mustache. “Morning, Robert. Who do we have here?”

“Hello, Brad,” my uncle said with no trace of a smile. “This is my nephew, Cody. He’ll be staying with me.”

“How do you do, sir?” I said.

He looked me up and down, ignoring my outstretched hand. “Well, young man. Let me know if you have any trouble settling in.”

“Thank you, sir.” I moved to step around him.

He blocked the door. “We like to think of Loxahatchee as the town that doesn’t ask too many questions. But that’s not to say anything goes. I like to keep things quiet, you know what I mean?”

“Yes, sir. I do,” I said.

“Excuse us, Brad,” my uncle said. “The boy here is mighty hungry.”

We stepped into the café. It smelled of coffee and pancake syrup. The room was dim compared to the bright morning.

I stood in the entryway and replayed the conversation with the sheriff. I had the impression Sheriff Brad didn’t much like my uncle—and by extension, me.

From across the room, a waitress called, “Bobby, nice to see you, hon. I have a table for you over here.”

We squeezed into the booth she indicated. It was by a window that overlooked the street. Stripes fell through the slats of the blinds, the light tinted pink by a transparent Santa Claus painted on the glass.

“How was your birthday? Good?” She poured my uncle a cup of coffee.

“Wonderful. My sister surprised me with the best gift ever.” He gave her a wide smile. “Anne, this is Cody. He’s staying with me. I want you to set him up with a tab, anything he wants, and I’ll tally up at the end of the month.”

They both looked at me as if I should gush with enthusiasm over my uncle’s generosity.

“Umm. I don’t really like coffee,” I managed to say.

Uncle Bob laughed. “Then get him chocolate milk. What kid doesn’t like chocolate milk?”

“One chocolate milk coming up,” Anne said over her shoulder as she hurried away.

They looked so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t care for milk either. I rarely ate breakfast at home, just grabbed a Dew on the way to school.

When Anne brought my food, however, I was ravenous. I had eggs, sausage, pancakes, and a bowl of white soupy stuff my uncle called grits. It all tasted great. I couldn’t get it in my mouth fast enough.

My uncle chuckled as he snagged a piece of my toast. “I guess I forgot what it’s like to be a growing boy.”

I nodded and polished off my milk.

“After winter break, we’ll take you over to Seminole Bluffs and get you signed up for high school,” he said. “It won’t be like those prep schools you’re used to, but it has a good reputation.”

I set down my fork, suddenly losing my appetite. My prep school, as he called it, was going to get me into Harvard. I planned to become a doctor like my parents. How would that happen now? How could I go to a normal high school, act like a normal kid?

I sensed his eyes upon me and scrambled to hide my emotions. “Do they have extracurricular activities? I was president of the Science Club at home.”

“Sports.” He shrugged. “Home of the Hawks.”

My shoulders deflated. I liked sports, but I’d never be mistaken for an athlete. Too thin. And in spite of my dad’s assurances that I would grow to be taller than him, I was average height. Still waiting for that growth spurt. Uncle Bob stared at me, so I cast about for something else to say. “Will a bus pick me up?”

“Don’t think it comes out my way, now that you mention it.” He rubbed his chin. “Do you have a driver’s license?”

“I have a learner’s permit,” I told him.

“Good.” He stretched and draped his arm over the back of the booth. “I saw something the other day you might like. Hope it’s still for sale.”

I looked at him, my stomach doing a little flip. Was he buying me a car?

“Finished?” He motioned at my empty plate. “Let’s go have a look.”

CHAPTER THREE

We left the café and drove along a side street lined with pink and aqua houses. Icicle lights hung from the garages. Deflated plastic snowmen lay puddled on the driveways. A flock of wild parakeets flitted from tree to tree like a green cloud.

Uncle Bob pulled the truck up to a house with a yard sale out front. Rows of folding tables filled the lawn. Grass grew around their legs and gave the impression that the tables were permanent fixtures. They were piled with everything from clothing to dishes.

A man came out of the garage with yet another box of stuff to add to the disorder. He wore cut-off jeans and a Dolphins football jersey. His dark hair hung in a long ponytail down his back. I thought he looked Native American.

Uncle Bob got out of the truck and slammed the door. The man glanced over, and his broad face broke into a smile. He hugged my uncle like a brother. They slapped each other’s backs.

“Open for business the day after Christmas?” Uncle Bob said. “Aren’t you cutting the holidays a bit short?”

He shrugged. “Ah, well, it’s not my religion.” Then he looked at me. His eyes narrowed.

“Cody, my nephew,” Uncle Bob told him. “He’s down from Massachusetts.”

“He has your aura.” The man nodded as he circled me. “Yes, indeed.”

Uncle Bob draped his arm across my shoulders and dropped his voice. “Cody, Howard here is a friend. Best friend you can have. If you ever get in trouble, anything at all, he’s the man to see.”

“Day or night.” Howard raised his hand in a solemn promise.

I nodded and wondered how friendly either of them would be if they knew my secret. “Thank you, sir.”

“Welcome.” He glanced about as if he just noticed his yard. “I’d like to chat, but I have more junk to display.”

“Need a hand?” asked my uncle.

“No, I’ve got it. Why don’t you two look around?” Howard returned to his garage.

As if that were his cue, Uncle Bob set off through the cramped rows. It wasn’t easy to keep up. I couldn’t imagine why we were there. Howard labeled his wares junk, and he couldn’t have been more right. He must have an army of kids to accumulate so many cast-offs.

My uncle cocked his head as he peered beneath the tables. At last, he said, “Here it is. This is what I was telling you about.” He pulled out a rickety bicycle.

I took a step back. “It’s a bike.”

“Yeah. You’ll need something to get around on.”

“But it’s a bike. I don’t need a driver’s license to ride a bike.”

“You need identification. I don’t want you to pedal around without ID.” He rolled the bicycle back and forth. Both tires were flat. “Hey, Howard. How much?”

“Twenty-five dollars,” Howard called back.

“No, no, no. How much for me?”

“Thirty.”

Uncle Bob sat on the bike. It gave an ominous creak. “I’ll give you ten.”

Howard raised a hand in acceptance and disappeared once more into the depths of his garage.

With a wink and a grin, Uncle Bob handed me the bike and slapped me on the shoulder. “What else does he have around here? Do you need anything?”

I could have laughed. What could I possibly need? Here I was in South Florida with a suitcase full of winter clothes. “Hangers. For the closet.”

Bob slung a thick, red blanket over his shoulder. It looked hand woven. He peered into a box. “Ah, bed sheets. How about these?” He pulled out a set of mustard-yellow sheets printed with Scooby Doo.

I made a face. No way would I sleep on something like that.

“Come on.” He laughed. “What kid doesn’t like cartoons?”

We ended up with quite a haul. Besides the bike and bedding, we picked up some bowls and plates for the kitchen and some extra towels for the bath. I found a decent pair of jeans and a few T-shirts.

Howard claimed we owed eighty-eight dollars, but Uncle Bob talked him down to twenty-seven. We packed everything into the back of the pickup and said good-bye.

As I climbed into the truck, I felt dazed. Everything happened so fast. It was like if I bought those few things, I was agreeing to stay. Only I couldn’t stay. I wanted to go home.

“Just one more stop.” My uncle smiled as he drove back toward Southern.

I bit my tongue. My frustration erupted in an overwhelming anger at Uncle Bob. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t fair. He was trying to be nice. My exile probably messed up his life as much as mine. The people I should be mad at were my parents—but every time I tried to be, I saw my mother’s puffy, red eyes. I couldn’t blame them. I couldn’t blame anyone.

Uncle Bob pulled into the lot of a Walgreens Pharmacy. Red and green bells hung from the streetlights, and silver tinsel decorated the window. He backed into a spot, parked across the line, and took up two spaces. It didn’t matter. No one else was around.

“Coming in?” he asked as he hopped down from his seat.

I shook my head. “I’ll stay and keep an eye on the bike.”

He thumped the car door as if soothing a rhinoceros. “Won’t be but a minute.” He hurried into the store.

I unlatched my seatbelt and slouched. Sweat trickled down my back. It was hot and humid. The morning haze burned off and left the sky a brilliant blue. I glanced at my watch. It was still set for France. Six o’clock. My parents would be getting ready for dinner. I took out my cell phone. The screen said it was twelve noon.

Without really planning to, I dialed my mom’s number. It rang four times. When it went to voicemail, I said, “Mom, this is Cody.” Then my voice failed. I hung up without another word.

Tears burned my eyes, but I blinked hard and nurtured my anger. I leaned out the window toward the lazy flow of passing traffic and listened to other people’s music. I wished I’d put some tunes on my phone, wished I had my mp3 player. When I packed for France, my parents told me I could bring either my iPod or my DS. I chose the DS. Now I rued the day. Total ruage.

Down the street, a Volkswagen Beetle pulled into a shopping center. I noticed it because Beetles weren’t common anymore and because it was painted lime green. The car parked and a girl got out. She wore black and white striped tights, a purple miniskirt, and a black tee cut to reveal her midriff. Her hair was short and angular. She was the most interesting thing I’d seen in this backwoods town. She went into Video Stop, a store where you bought and traded used videos.

My uncle wrenched open the driver’s side door. It startled me. He flipped his seat forward and piled some bags into the backseat. I glimpsed a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal and a jug of chocolate milk.

He climbed in and started the truck. “Anywhere you want to go while we’re out?”

“No, sir,” I said, my thoughts still on the girl.

“Then we’ll head home.” He beamed at me like it was a special treat.

We took a different route back. This time, we passed through orange groves. Fruit filled the trees. Their branches drooped. It smelled phenomenal, like perpetual breakfast. Then we reached a patch with the trees picked clean. They appeared diminished somehow.

Uncle Bob slowed to get around a pair of horses. “We’ve got some nice stables here. That’s how the Council hopes to lure more residents. Like it isn’t crowded enough.”

I looked in the side-view mirror at the girls riding the horses. They wore shorts and tank tops in spite of it being winter.

There were worse places to be exiled. But none of the girls were for me. I was the amazing wolf boy. Astound your family and mystify your friends. I wasn’t the kind of kid anyone would date. I thought about Video Stop girl.

Minutes later, we pulled onto the gravel drive of my uncle’s house. Trees rustled in the breeze. Birdsong filled the air.

“Do you own this place?” I asked.

“No. I rent. You know how it is. I don’t want to be bogged down if I have to move on.” He pulled the bags from the back. “Get the door for me, will you?”

I skipped up the steps and opened the front door. Unlocked again. Bob carried the bags into the kitchen and set them on the table. He’d gotten other things to eat—Spaghetti-Os, bread, peanut butter. He also bought a dozen coat hangers and a couple of twenty-six-inch bicycle inner tubes.

“You’re probably used to a live-in housekeeper to cook and clean for you,” he said as he put the food into the cupboard.

“No,” I said. “Mom handled everything.” I didn’t add that we had a cleaning service come in three times a week.

“We don’t have anyone on staff here, either.” He looked at me. “We don’t even have a dishwasher. So here’s the thing. You clean up after yourself or you don’t. Whatever. But the rule is, you don’t complain about it. The place gets to be a mess, you don’t complain. You want something, you either get it or you don’t complain. You need help, you ask or—”

“Don’t complain,” I said. “Got it.”

“Good.” He clapped me on the back. “Let’s go get the rest of your stuff.”

We went to the truck where he loaded me up with clothes, towels, and bedding. The blanket made my nose itch, and I wondered if its last owner had been a horse. I carried everything inside. But as I reached my room, I stopped.

Evidence. That’s what I held in my arms. Physical proof that I lived there. If anyone saw this, I would be lost. I sat on the edge of the bed, afraid to set the stuff down, and thought about running away. My dad always gave me my allowance via a debit card. I had enough in the account for a bus ticket home. I could live in the bathhouse. My parents would never know I was there.

Until my friends came calling.

I groaned and thought about my friends, all of them enjoying holiday break with families who didn’t want to send them away, all of them looking forward to nighttime without worrying about what kind of monster they might become. This was a nightmare. How could anyone turn into a wolf? It was impossible.

I sat up straight. Yes, it was impossible. This couldn’t be real. And if I was stuck in some sort of dream, all I could do was keep moving forward until I woke up. In the spirit of my new resolution, I made my bed with the Scooby sheets and placed the thick, red horse blanket on top. I stared at it and hoped no one would ever come into my room. Then I went outside to look for my uncle.

I found him in the backyard by a tool shed. The bike was upside down. Uncle Bob knelt beside it. He grunted as he tightened the chain. He’d repaired the tires. I also noticed his shed was better stocked than shop class when I was a kid. There were three cabinets on wheels, each drawer labeled, and racks of wrenches on the walls.

I crouched at his side. “How’s it going?”

“Almost done,” he said.

I tried to picture myself wheeling up and down Southern Boulevard. “Maybe we should have bought a bicycle lock.”

He smiled. “No one’s going to steal this beauty.”

I thought he was probably right.

He set the bike erect and bounced it a couple times. “Want to take it for a spin?”

“Maybe later,” I said. “It’s not really my thing.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a bike.

He turned away with a sigh. I recognized the sound—I’d stretched his patience. I wasn’t being the appreciative guest.

Keep moving forward, I told myself.

He wiped his hands on a shop cloth and put away his tools. Then he locked the shed with a heavy padlock. It figured he would lock his tools but not the house.

“I keep the key here.” He showed me a notch in the roof. “In case you need anything.”

“I don’t know much about tools,” I said. “But I’d like to learn.”

“I’d like to teach you.” His face eased into a smile. “Are you hungry? I make a mean grilled peanut butter sandwich.”

I nodded. “Sounds good.”

We ate our sandwiches in front of the television as we watched women’s volleyball. I didn’t know they televised that sport. Despite the spectacle of bounding booties, however, I couldn’t keep my mind on the game.

I worried about the coming dark. Would I change again? I thought werewolves only changed during the full moon, but last night was the day after. Would I change every night for the rest of my life?

I needed more information. If I had my computer, I could surf the Web. But, no, I was out here in the Everglades with nothing and no one. I would have to do research the old-fashioned way. Tomorrow, I would look for a library.

First things first. I couldn’t risk shape changing with my uncle around. I had to either find an excuse to leave the house or get him out of the way.

So it was a relief when, later that afternoon, Uncle Bob said, “I’m going out tonight. Would you like to come along?”

“Ah, no. Thanks,” I said.

“Come on. It will be great. I’ll show you a good place to fish.”

“No, really,” I said. “I think I’ll hang out here and relax.”

“Another time, then.”

And just like that, he was in the truck and down the driveway—and I was alone, sitting before his flickering black-and-white TV as I awaited the night.

Do you like what you’ve read so far? The Amazing Wolf Boy is available in print and ebook at Amazon, or you can get the three book box set everywhere else. And don’t forget, if you prefer audiobooks, it’s on Audible for your listening enjoyment.

Sample Sunday – Alien Worlds

Roxanne's Space

Alien Worlds is a fast-paced science fiction story about a girl lost in a wormhole. A fun read for your teen or pre-teen. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d had when I was thirteen.

And now it’s in audiobook at Audible. I chose an excellent narrator, Jennifer Fournier, who’s produced children’s books before. She has an emphatic style of reading, which I think is perfect for this age group.

If you would like to hear a sample, you can listen here.

If you prefer ebooks or print books, I hope you enjoy this excerpt.

AlienWorldsKindleCover (Small) Alien Worlds is available at Amazon!

Alien Worlds

Chapter 1

Impani leaned against the tree trunk. She wished she were invisible. A twig snapped, and she bit her lip hard.

Nearby, the beast gave a low growl.

Quaking with dread, she peered around the tree. She saw a bristly black snout and jagged…

View original post 3,978 more words

Sample Sunday – Alien Jungle

When the Jungle Fights Back

Alien Jungle takes place on a beautiful yet dangerous world where plant life grows impossibly fast. The book has the happiest ending I’ve ever written–but you be the judge. Buy it now at Amazon.

Here’s an excerpt:

Alien Jungle Kindle Cover

Alien Jungle is available at Amazon.

Alien Jungle

Chapter One

PLANET 327-01 DG TAURI B

Ice exploded like a shot, filling the air with crystalline shards. Trace Hanson dove behind an outcropping, drawing his stat-gun. The cavern was large and laced with passages, slicked over with ice glowing blue with trapped gas. Ledges rose in levels from the curved floor. Nothing moved. He leaned forward, searching.

A blast shattered the frozen ridge, stinging his face. He ran for a tunnel and pressed against the wall. Who? Where? The cavern was filled with places to hide. Think. Think.

Ice blew apart above his head.

Trace ran. The weight of his footsteps jolted his body as he thundered through the tight corridor. This was ridiculous. He was a Colonial Scout, trained in first contact situations. If someone was shooting at him, he needed to take control.

He’d arrived on this world the day before, dropped onto the middle of a glacier by an Impellic ring, a programmable wormhole. He had three days to prove the planet worthy of colonization—and he didn’t want to activate the ring prematurely.

A bang rang his ears. Slush struck his cheek. Trace ducked and fell, sliding down a slanted tunnel, arms and legs flailing, fighting for purchase. He came to rest against a blue-splotched embankment. He looked back. No movement. Get up. They might be following.

Who might be following?

Struggling to his feet, he crept along the new passage, wiping gloved hands over his dripping face. He pulled his mask down from atop his head and snapped it into place, keying the mike with his tongue.

“Davrileo, what’s your position?”

Only static. Trace winced. Why had he listened when Davrileo suggested they split up to search the caves? He was team leader—his partner’s safety was his responsibility. Leave it to him to screw up his first command.

“Davrileo! Come in!”

“Right here, boss,” said Davrileo Mas.

Trace sagged in relief. “Where are you? Are you all right?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Someone’s shooting. An energy weapon.”

A pause, then, “That doesn’t add. I’m seeing evidence of a primitive race—nothing to indicate high-level weaponry.”

Trace scowled. “I’m telling you, your primitives are armed.” He shook his head. “Look, just get back to the mouth of the cave. Keep your eyes open.”

“Roger, that.”

The com clicked off. Trace continued forward, eyes darting, cursing himself for his cowardice. As team leader, he was expected to be equal to any challenge. His job was to certify a planet safe. He’d wanted this mission to be perfect, wanted to impress his superiors, show them what he could do.

But most of all, he wanted to impress Impani. He groaned. Impani had already been named team leader three times. She embraced each new planet like a fascinating puzzle. Like he should be doing—instead of running away.

He slumped against the wall. His body ached, crawling with sweat, the skinsuit unable to compensate. Growing circles of fog marred his faceplate. He lifted his mask.

Cold. So cold. His nostrils crackled. Breath hung in a frosted cloud. Pulling off his gloves, he wiped his eyes and breathed the warmth of his fingers. He imagined steam rising from his overheated body.

The ceiling shattered. Trace dodged into a narrow passage, running full out with arms over his head. Ice pelted his back as blasts rang behind. The tunnel twisted. His feet shot from beneath him, and he skidded on his backside into a large cavern. The gun clattered away.

Movement caught his eye. He looked over at a scrawny, hairless humanoid swaddled in strips of fur. It was the size of a child. Its mouth dropped open, showing blocky teeth.

Trace scuttled backward, boots slipping on the slick floor. He fumbled blindly for his gun, not willing to take his gaze from the alien. The ice felt hot against his bare palm. It felt wet, as if melting. Cracking and popping, the ground burst into slush beneath his hand.

Trace froze as if time had ended. Ice. Trapped gas. The ice exploded beneath his hand. Realization thudded against his stomach. The blasts started after he removed his mask. No one had shot at him. His body heat caused the gas in the ice to explode.

He stared at the alien, saw the beaded necklace about its neck, saw the emptiness in its hands. Then he saw Davrileo Mas step from a tunnel across the cavern, raising his gun.

“Wait!” Trace cried too late.

Davrileo’s shot illuminated the alien, encasing it in a bright aura, holding it upright. Its body was whisper thin. It fell in slow motion.

Time released him. Trace rushed toward the fallen alien. Scorch sizzled in its back. He turned the body over, searching for signs of life, not knowing where to look for a pulse.

“You told me they were shooting at you,” Davrileo said, his voice sharp with recrimination. “You said they were armed.”

Trace looked at him, words caught in a knot. It was a mistake. A terrible mistake. No one had shot at him. Then his thoughts settled on Impani’s mantra: we aren’t here to butcher the locals.

<<>> 

PLANET 1186-9 HH30

How could things go so wrong? Impani wondered, gazing over the turbulent lake. Driving rain pounded her body.

Her partner climbed beside her. “You can’t be serious.”

She looked at him, past his rain-streaked faceplate and into his large black eyes. Anselmi was humanoid—two arms, two legs, one head—but so pale he was silver, so thin he appeared brittle. People said that he and his kind were telepathic. Not many Scouts wanted to work with him. But Impani liked having a partner who knew her thoughts. Until now.

“You said it yourself. There is nothing here,” she shouted over the rain. “We have to cross the lake.”

“It’s too wide. Even your resonator can’t reach the other side.”

She looked back at the craggy, scabrous land. No animals. No plants. A paradox. I’m team leader, she thought, and I make the decisions—then wondered if he heard her.

“Impani, not every mission has to be spectacular.”

True. But she had gained a reputation as a risk-taker who always learned something extraordinary—and she found that she liked being a rogue.

“I’m going.” She switched on her jet pack. Its power rattled her teeth.

“Why?” shouted Anselmi. “Why is it so important?”

“Because there is air,” she shouted back. “An m-class oxygen atmosphere. There must be plant life somewhere. And I intend to find it.”

She lifted from the rough bank. Rain lashed as if to push her back to ground. With one hand on the control pad, she rose over the churning water. The land disappeared as if it had never been, obliterated by the sheeting storm.

Impani felt enveloped in gray fog. She felt that she could fly for days and not see anything. No visibility. No resonance scans. What was she doing?

She thought again about being a rogue. She knew not everyone admired her for it, even suspected that several of her peers avoided her. Reckless, they said. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need anyone’s approval.

But then Anselmi pulled alongside, hanging like a shadow. Immense relief flooded her.

The com clicked in her ear.

“Something is there,” Anselmi said.

Impani squinted through the rain. A jagged mass loomed ahead. Most likely it was rocks on the opposite shore. She smirked with vindication. Then the mass moved.

“Look out!” yelled Anselmi as a huge tentacle splashed down between them.

Impani reeled to one side, caught in its wake. She struggled for altitude, felt a sickening drop as the pack sputtered. Before her, a massive balloon-like body broke the surface of the lake—and part of her thought, this is new, we haven’t seen a giant squid monster before. It appeared transparent in the dark water. Tentacles waved around a beak-like mouth. Reaching for her.

Impani screamed. She mashed the controls of her jet pack, kicking her feet as if she would run away. With horrible slowness, a tentacle curled about her chest. Impani arched her back, clawing at the crushing pressure. Flashing stars encroached upon her vision.

A spear of light shot through the haze. The grip about her slackened. Impani wheezed and gulped the air. Anselmi fired his stat-gun again. Tentacles thrashed. For a dizzying moment, Impani was hoisted upward. Then the creature plunged her into the water as it dove beneath the surface.

Chapter 2

Trace stood at a window on the ninety-fifth floor of Colonial Bureau Central. He stared at the sparkling spires of surrounding buildings and the ribbon of yellow cabs gliding between them. In his mind, he saw the fur-clad alien encased in bright aura falling in slow motion to the cave floor.

He could blame Davrileo Mas or shrug the incident away as an unfortunate accident. But as team leader, the mission had been his responsibility, and he took full blame for it at the debriefing.

“Heard you had to ring home early,” someone said behind him.

Trace winced, recognizing the voice. It was Robert Wilde, the person he least wanted to deal with right then. Keeping his voice level, he said, “The planet was occupied. There was no reason to stay.”

“Still. Losing an ice world with all that potential water.” Wilde stepped to the window and gazed out. “Won’t look good on your record.”

“I explored the planet, found out what we needed to know,” Trace said. “The mission was a success.”

Wilde sniffed. “Your first and doubtless last mission as team leader.”

“At least, they gave me a chance. How many times have you been chosen?” Trace cut himself off. He hated rising to Wilde’s taunts, hated the constant competition between them. He wished they could work together.

For in truth, Robert Wilde was an excellent Scout. He had an uncanny intuition that made him quick to understand an alien environment. Trace felt that they might have been friends—if not for that one thing between them.

“She doesn’t love you, you know.” Wilde sneered. “She’s just using you to make me jealous.”

“Give it up,” Trace said.

But Wilde was already walking away. Trace frowned as he watched him. Wilde had no chance with Impani. Neither did he. For Impani would never truly love either of them. She was in love with the job.

The thought broke in a wave of helplessness. He pictured her before him—green eyes flashing with excitement as she described the planet she’d just seen, laughing as she recounted this daring escape or that grand discovery. She was so alive, so… brilliant. It was enough for him to bask in her light. And as he looked out at the bright blue day, he hoped that wherever she was, she and her partner were having better luck than he’d had.

<<>> 

PLANET 1186-9 HH30

Impani gazed upward as the squid-like creature dragged her into the lake. Murky water enveloped the light. The filters of her mask closed. She had only what air remained inside, only minutes to decide what to do. If she activated the Impellic ring while still in the squid’s stranglehold, the creature would transport with her back to Central. But if she waited too long, she would either suffocate or be squeezed to death.

Part of her quailed in panic, yet a larger part appraised the situation calmly, and she surprised herself by hoping she’d sealed her backpack. She carried a small holo of Trace and didn’t want it to get wet.

A streak of light jarred her thoughts. Anselmi had followed them down. She felt both relieved and irked. He fired his stat-gun. The energy rippled over the squid’s massive body to no lasting effect—but Impani felt awash with electric pinpricks. Her ears popped as the creature took her deeper.

Anselmi fired again, but the shot sputtered and the beam died. With odd clarity, Impani remembered that stat-guns were powered by static in the air. Underwater, they would hold only a residual charge.

“Go back!” she gasped into the open com.

Before her partner could respond, the creature struck out with its many limbs and swatted him. Anselmi flipped end-over-end then drifted into darkness.

“Anselmi!” Where was he? She pounded the tentacle about her chest.

The creature thrust ahead. Its hold upon her shifted. She squirmed to pull her gun from her belt. A violent jerk threatened to snap her spine. She clung to the weapon with both hands. Tentacles gyrated around her as the creature reeled her closer. Its beaked mouth opened and closed.

Impani fired. The shot hit inside the mouth. The body flashed and heaved. Energy waves radiated outward, encasing her. She thrashed in heated pain, nearly blacking out. Lights crowded the periphery of her vision. She was aware of movement in the dark, aware that she was running out of air. Tensing for recoil, she shot again.

Abruptly, the squid released her. With a single stroke, it darted away. Impani wheezed and clutched her chest. She turned to look for Anselmi—and the lights moved. For a moment, all thought paused, and she stared mesmerized at the beings around her.

Their faces were fish-like with the frowning expressions of largemouth bass. Dark fins ran down their backs. Their bodies tapered into scaly tailfins, but their front flippers elongated into arms and fingers. Each creature held a glowing spike of phosphorescent coral.

First a sea monster, now mermaids. She wished she could stay longer, wished she had explored the lakes in the first place. But she had only moments of breathable air left. She had to find Anselmi and ring home.

Kicking hard, she swam in the direction she had last seen her partner. The mer-people flanked her, keeping their distance. She clipped a flashlight to her wrist, although its light did little to dispel the murk.

“Anselmi,” she panted. “Anselmi, do you read?”

No answer. A sob crested her throat, and she fought it down. Which way did the current flow? How far would he drift?

Then she saw him, his body eerily green in the lamplight. Impani blinked rapidly, fighting a sudden lethargy. Her arms and legs felt numb, her chest crushed with lack of oxygen. She propelled forward then pulled her partner close and activated the Impellic ring.

Immediately, she sensed the ring spiral nearer, felt its tug within her stomach. The mer-people swam away as if losing interest. She followed them with her eyes and saw a glowing city upon the lake bottom. Shining domes clustered like bubbles, and silhouettes of mer-people swam through the light. Forests of seaweed waved in the current. The plant life she’d expected to find.

Then the ring enclosed her, pulling her from the watery world into the void of the wormhole. She closed her eyes against a sensation of extreme velocity, her body wrenched by vertigo, her numb arms wrapped, unfeeling, about Anselmi’s slight form.

Was he dead? Did he die trying to save her? She shouldn’t have tried to cross the lake. If only he hadn’t followed her into the water.

Light seared her senses and something hard struck her legs. She dropped to her knees amid a great splash of water. Immediately, a claxon sounded.

She heard a voice over the loud speaker. “Hazardous Materials crew to Impellic Chamber 110B.”

Impani clawed off her mask, wheezing and retching, nearly blinded by the mirrored room. She leaned over Anselmi. His mask was askew, the hinge broken. His face swam in lake water.

He wasn’t breathing.

Want to read more? Alien Jungle is available in print and eBook at Amazon. Get your copy today! Coming soon to Audible and iTunes.

Sample Sunday – Alien Worlds

Alien Worlds is a fast-paced science fiction story about a girl lost in a wormhole. A fun read for your teen or pre-teen. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d had when I was thirteen.

And now it’s in audiobook at Audible. I chose an excellent narrator, Jennifer Fournier, who’s produced children’s books before. She has an emphatic style of reading, which I think is perfect for this age group.

If you would like to hear a sample, you can listen here.

If you prefer ebooks or print books, I hope you enjoy this excerpt.

AlienWorldsKindleCover (Small)

Alien Worlds is available at Amazon!

Alien Worlds

Chapter 1

Impani leaned against the tree trunk. She wished she were invisible. A twig snapped, and she bit her lip hard.

Nearby, the beast gave a low growl.

Quaking with dread, she peered around the tree. She saw a bristly black snout and jagged brown tusks. The beast’s single eye turned slowly in its socket. It stared straight at her.

With a yelp, Impani took off. She raced through leaves of red and orange feeling as if she ran through fire. Her boots thumped and scarred the hard-packed clay. Her facemask jolted with each step.

She couldn’t keep this up. She was fast, but the beast had endurance—and he had it in for her. She shouldn’t have entered its lair. That was one of the first rules she learned as a cadet. But the cub was so cute.

Suddenly, her feet flew out from under her. She slid on her butt down a steep slope and landed in a mud puddle. A flock of winged geckos took flight.

The beast detoured around the shallow pool. Couldn’t bear to get its fur wet. Maybe she still had a chance.

Spurred by hope, Impani angled back to where she’d forded the stream, leaving her partner, Davrileo Mas, digging up his rocks. If she could reach water, the creature might lose interest. She bounded over gullies and fallen branches. The creature thrashed behind her. It growled as if to tell her it still had her in sight.

Impani stumbled over the uneven ground. Her breath hitched, and she clutched her side. Thorns reached for her, but her skinsuit slipped through as if she were made of glass. Ahead, she heard the babble of a stream. She forced her burning legs to move faster, arms pumping, teeth bared, and burst from the crimson trees into bright yellow sunlight.

Crashing over the rocky bank, she splashed into the stream. Moisture dotted her mask. She ran until the water was over her knees then risked a glance toward the shore.

The beast paced the bank. Its massive, inward-turned paws raked the rocks. A thick collar of fur stood straight out. Impani gnawed her lip. Go away. Go back to your baby. She sighed as the animal lowered its ruff and turned to leave.

An arc of blue-white energy streaked overhead, striking the beast as it lumbered away. With a roar, it reared onto two feet and spun toward the bank.

“No.” Impani looked around.

Davrileo pointed his stat-gun and fired again. The blast hit the beast mid-chest. The creature flew back then slammed the ground. Its heavy legs twitched and slashed the air. Impani saw the white of its exposed ribcage, the black, scorched flesh.

“No!” she yelled.

Davrileo shot again. The beast shuddered and fell silent. Impani looked at her partner. She wanted to throttle him, wanted to smash his grinning face.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted as she waded across the stream. “It had a cub. It was protecting its young.”

“It would have killed you,” Davrileo shouted back.

She moved as if to tear at her non-existent hair. “It was leaving.”

“A little gratitude might be nice,” he said. “What were you doing over there anyway? We’re supposed to be partners.”

“We’re explorers.” She looked at the red and black mass that was once a living creature and thought of the cub alone in its lair. “We aren’t here to butcher the locals.”

“Well, let’s get back to exploring those rocks. This world is a geological haven. I can’t wait to give my report.”

Disgust seeped into her anger. In a low voice, she said, “If you’ve cost me my chance—”

She stopped as a familiar tug grasped the pit of her stomach. Alarms wailed in the back of her mind.

They were being recalled. The training session was over.

She usually felt disappointed; she could never learn enough about these distant, alien worlds. But this time she wanted to leave the planet. She wanted to get back to the academy.

Looking up, she imagined a circle of swirling black energy, although she knew the Impellic ring was imperceptible. She had invented this image of it to calm her fears about traveling through space without a spaceship.

Darkness gathered. Tendrils reached down and pulled her from the world on which she stood. The rocky bank, the sound of water receded. The void enveloped her—deep and empty yet somehow giving the impression of extreme velocity.

Blinding light speared the black. Impani winced. She felt a cylinder materialize at her back, a platform beneath her feet. Her vision wavered then focused upon a mirrored room.

The Impellic Chamber.

Its many reflections showed Davrileo Mas on the other side of the cylinder. Impani removed her mask and slid off the hood of her skinsuit.

“Welcome home, cadets,” a voice said through a speaker. “Shower down and report to debriefing.”

<<>>

Impani rushed to Debrief. She found Davrileo and their supervisor, Ms. Kline, huddled together, speaking in quiet tones.

She felt a twist of apprehension. “Sorry I’m late, ma’am.”

“Sit down, Impani.” Ms. Kline smiled. “Davrileo was telling me about the mineral deposits the two of you found.”

Her eyes flicked to Davrileo’s face. “Actually, he located the deposits. He carried the resonator this trip out.”

“It appears that he also secured most of the samples.”

“I took samples, too.” Impani sat at the table. “I took specimens of trees and moss. And I got a tuft of animal fur.”

“I see.”

“A planet is more than a lump of minerals.”

“True,” Kline said. “But when the Board sends colonists to a planet, it’s for a specific reason. And often that reason is mining rights. As a Colonial Scout, it will be up to you to assess a world within given parameters.”

“But as cadets, we’re not given parameters. I wanted to bring back as much information as we could.”

“You certainly did that.” She scrolled down her slate. “You ranked higher than any other team we sent to that world. However, none of them resorted to killing an inhabitant. Tell me about the animal you discovered.”

Impani hesitated. “It was two meters tall. Bristly fur. Ran both upright and on all fours. It had one eye, and its head swiveled.”

“Extraordinary,” Kline said. “This is the first report we’ve had of a Cyclops creature. A shame it had to be destroyed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She glowered. Any points she’d made for finding the beast were now lost.

Davrileo cleared his throat and sat straighter. “My partner was in imminent danger.”

“And as partners, you work together, watch out for one another?” Kline looked back and forth at each of them. “I ask because of a discrepancy in sensor readings. Impani, you show an increase in body temperature, adrenalin—”

“I was running from the beast.”

“For twenty minutes?”

Impani pursed her lips. Had she strayed that deeply into the woods?

“Yet, Davrileo’s readings are peaceful.” Kline consulted the slate. “Almost as if the two of you were in separate places.”

“Impani wandered away,” Davrileo said.

“I wasn’t wandering. I was exploring.”

“Might have gotten us both killed.”

“That’s absurd,” Impani cried. “You shot that poor thing in the back.”

“He was coming at you,” Davrileo shouted. “If I hadn’t shown up—”

“Thank you, Davrileo,” Kline said quietly. “You are dismissed.”

Davrileo glared at Impani, pushed back his chair, and strode from the room.

Beneath the table, Impani clenched her fists. Heat radiated from her face. She concentrated on gathering her anger into a ball and squeezing it.

Kline said, “Impani, you’re at the top of your class. You aced all your studies, and you grasped Impellic theory and logic faster than any sixteen-year-old I ever met. But this is the second report of you leaving your partner.”

“I just think you can see more of a planet if you don’t keep your nose stuck to an instrument screen.”

“Scouting is a dangerous business. That’s why Scouts are dispatched in pairs. We’d send you in groups if we could, but Impellic Theory states a ring can transport only two. Otherwise, the ring may become unstable and—”

“I know.”

“The point is that you have to work with others. Haven’t you wondered why we split the equipment between you? It’s so you’ll work together.”

She groaned. “He shot that creature in the back.”

Kline sighed. “All right. You can go.”

“No, please. At least, take my specimens into consideration.”

“Get some rest, Impani. You’re on stage first thing tomorrow morning.”

Chapter 2

A hearth dominated the Main Floor Eatery. Spotlights shone upon its station in the center of the vast circular room. Flames shot toward the ceiling. Fingers of mist drew auras about the chefs who danced around the fire.

Impani skirted the perimeter. Her nose twitched at the mixed aromas of multiethnic food. She would have preferred to skip breakfast. The memory of being chewed out the night before still churned in her stomach. But she put on a smile and a better attitude and looked for her friend.

“Over here,” Natica whispered.

“Morning.” Impani slipped into the crescent-shaped booth. The sides curved overhead, blotting out the sound and sight of other diners. She lifted a glass from a puddle of condensation. “You ordered nectar? What’s the occasion?”

“Our almost graduation. And you’re late.”

“Sorry,” Impani said. “I bumped into Mr. Ambri-Cutt in the hall.”

“That old raffer. You should remind him that techs aren’t supposed to talk to cadets. We can’t afford any distractions.”

Impani chuckled. “He just wants to show off. He even let me into the control room once.”

“If you get caught, you’ll both be in deep drel.”

A clatter overrode Impani’s response. Two chefs collided. A breakfast platter flew. Several daem eggs rolled under a counter.

Her friend grinned. “I love the floorshow here. They’re so synchronized.”

Impani smiled. Of all the people she had met since her acceptance into the academy, she felt most at ease with Natica Galos. Relaxing against the cushion, she removed the string of emerald pearls she wore draped across her smooth scalp.

Natica picked them up. “These are new. Another secret admirer?”

“They’re from that boy who took me to the vids last week.”

“Are they real?”

“We can only assume. Whose turn is it to buy?”

“Yours. And I’m famished.” Natica tossed the pearls onto the seat then activated the menu. Pictographs hovered over the table. She ordered a boiled daem egg by punching the picture with her knuckle.

Impani studied the floating images. “I think I’ll have a sweet cake.” She made her selection, and the holographic menu vanished.

“So tell me,” Natica said. “How was the session yesterday?”

“It was wonderful. They sent us to a wooded world. The plant life was amazing—deep reds and ocher. Carotene based, not chlorophyll. We would have scored pretty well, except—”

“Here it comes.”

“I stopped to look at a cub in its lair. It was so little. Who would have thought its father would be so huge?”

“What did you do?”

“I ran. It chased me halfway across the continent, seemed just about to give up when Davrileo Mas came to my rescue. He butchered the beast on the spot.”

“And you think you’ll lose points for that?”

She shook her head. “He didn’t even try to ward it off.”

“Maybe he was afraid.” Natica shrugged. “I would have been.”

“But to kill it.”

“Pani, not every session needs to be spectacular. You’re sure to make the program.”

“In two days we’ll find out.” Impani sipped her nectar. She felt embarrassed and misunderstood. The mewling cub came to mind. Did it have a mother to care for it? “How did you do on the physics exam?”

“Passed everything but Impellic Theory. My downfall.”

“Everyone hates that subject.”

“I’ll never get it.”

“Sure you will.” Impani smiled. “Once I thought a single black hole would devour the universe. But in reality the hole isn’t expanding, it’s contracting. Along with space and light and time, it’s also sucking in itself. Then one day, poof, it disappears and all that’s left is an Impellic ring. And what you do is take, say, three of them…” She smeared the condensation from her drink and drew three concentric circles. “The big one powers the other two, and the middle one powers the last. Zips you through space just like stepping through a door.”

“If only you were the instructor. You have such a simple way of explaining things.” Natica toyed with the pearls. “Speaking of simple, I saw Robert Wilde yesterday. Obnoxious as ever.”

Impani hid behind her glass of nectar. “Really?”

“He got a three-day suspension for fighting.”

“He’s a bully. I don’t know why I ever—”

“He says you’re in love with him. Are you?”

“No.”

Impani set down the glass and looked away. She remembered the night she told Robert she didn’t want to see him anymore. He stood outside her room, his face dark and his hands clenched, making her too nervous to fall asleep. She wasn’t afraid of him, although she was wary of his quick temper. But lately, she caught glimpses of him in improbable places and wondered if he was stalking her.

A server approached, breaking her reverie. He set their meals before them and retreated without speaking. Privacy was the diner’s greatest asset.

Impani sliced the sweet cake into quarters. Dried fruit crumbled onto her plate. “It’s strange that in all the time we’ve been at the academy, we’ve never been partners.”

“Computer glitch.” Natica leaned forward and removed the top of her egg. She coaxed out a black tentacle with the flat of her spoon. “I wouldn’t mind being paired with the new guy.”

“Trace Hanson? Ugh. He’s a convict, a common criminal.”

“A good-looking common criminal. Aren’t you the least bit intrigued?”

Impani pictured him with his legs stretched out before him, slouched in the back of the room. He’d arrived at the academy three months ago and was promptly ostracized, the other cadets whispering. “I’ve been running from his kind all my life.”

“I wonder what his crime was.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Natica shrugged and ate her breakfast.

Impani pushed her own plate away. “I don’t know why they let people like him in the academy.”

“They almost have to, don’t they? I mean, with the drop in new recruits? Now is the best time to get into the program.”

“No, it’s tougher than ever,” Impani said. “One more incident of lost colonists and they’ll shut us down for good. The government needs reliable Scouts to get those people onto safe worlds.”

“That’s where you and I come in.”

Impani smiled. “Right.”

Arms crossed, she gazed across the restaurant. How different her life was here—so removed from the warlords and rats, the perpetual darkness of the streets.

No doubt, Trace Hanson came from the same environment. But while she fought to rise above her origins, he obviously carried his with him. Criminal. Convict. She couldn’t afford to be intrigued.

They finished their meals, left the Eatery, and stepped into the central tower. A thrill swept Impani as she entered the wide corridor. She would never grow accustomed to the sight.

Gilded archways adorned the ebony walls. Glass-bottomed lifts scaled the heights. Open terraces created a latticework of light bars that merged two hundred stories above. Impani gazed upward as she walked. She wished she could stay forever.

But her days at the academy were nearly over. Natica worried about not making the program, about returning as a failure to her family’s dockside fishery on the watery planet of Naiad. Impani had much more to lose. She expected to be executed if she returned home. That was the price she’d paid for freedom—the secret she kept even from Natica.

The tower was peaceful so early in the morning. The silence wouldn’t last. Soon the halls would swarm with other hopefuls, chattering and laughing, all vying for a chance to prove their worth. Despite the competition, there was camaraderie among the cadets she’d never known.

She would miss this place. Pass or fail, she would never see it again. Would she remember the academy as being the beginning or the end of her adventure?

With a stifled squeal, Natica caught her arm. She swung her around and pulled her to the side. “There he is.”

Impani blinked out of her reverie. She looked where Natica pointed.

Then she saw him. Trace Hanson.

He walked along the far side of the corridor, his gait slow, eyes downcast. He was tall. His shoulders were so wide they strained his tunic. Impani wondered suddenly what it would be like to be held close by those muscular arms.

“You should say hello,” Natica said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped, more alarmed at the turn her thoughts had taken than at her friend’s suggestion.

Her friend grinned and nudged her. “Go on. This is your last chance. In two days you may never see him again.”

Impani squirmed from her prodding fingers. “You’re the one who was intrigued.”

“All right,” she said. “I’ll go.”

“No!” Impani giggled and pulled her back.

Just then, her gaze met his.

Trace Hanson’s eyes were black and deep-set like a hawk. They made her feel he could see right through her, that he already knew her secrets, her faults.

Impani’s face grew hot. She turned her back. “Stop it.”

“What’s the matter?”

“He knows we’re talking about him.”

“So what? Like I said, this is probably the last time we’ll ever see him.”

She glanced over her shoulder. He turned down a hallway and was soon out of sight.

With a laugh, Natica linked arms with her and set them moving down the massive corridor. Their footsteps echoed. At last, they reached a huge oblong touch plate in the center of the hall. A holographic roster listed the members of the Colonial Expansion Board.

Natica pressed her palm against the plate’s dark surface. Letters appeared over her fingers.

REGISTER GALOS, NATICA H. REPORT TO MEDITATION ROOM 3B.

She smiled and moved aside. Impani took her place. The touch plate acknowledged her.

REGISTER IMPANI. REPORT TO MEDITATION ROOM 8A.

Impani stepped back. “It looks like we won’t be partners this time either. I really hoped we’d be together at least once.”

“It’s a conspiracy. Listen, I have to get going. I’m all the way on the other side.” Natica headed for an arched hallway. She called over her shoulder, “Be spectacular!”

“Good luck.”

As Impani watched her go, she felt suddenly alone. With a sigh, she entered the hallway leading to the even-numbered rooms. This hall differed from the main corridor. The ceiling was close. Stark lights crisscrossed the pale walls. Instead of polished black tile, the floor was gray and resilient. It muffled the sound of her step.

“Four A, Four B, Six A.” At last, she reached room 8A. A green light shone over the door. Impani glanced at meditation room 8B. The light blinked red. Access locked. Her partner was already inside.

She held her palm against the reader. The door slid open to reveal a small room. A couch sat along one wall and a table along another. A non-denominational altar stood in the corner. Light flickered from a panel in the ceiling.

Impani sat on the edge of the couch. She folded her arms, then crossed and uncrossed her legs. The silent altar admonished her. She had no prayers to give.

Be spectacular, Natica told her. She’d have to be spectacular if she were to make the program.

Who would her partner be? Hopefully someone who wasn’t afraid to take a chance. Vinod Mouallem would be good. Or Anselmi, the humanoid from the planet Veyt. Anyone but Davrileo. Or Robert Wilde.

Repulsed by the thought, she approached a small mirror and slid the strand of pearls from her brow. She hated that she had no hair. Miserable skinsuits. The techs wanted nothing between her flesh and their instruments. With a derisive sniff, she tugged her tunic over her head.

A line of equipment edged a shelf above the table. Carefully, she took down each piece. From a sealed pouch, she shook out her skinsuit. It was lightweight, finely ribbed with minute sensors and equalizers. She slid her fingers beneath a triple seam and laid it open. The texture was the same on either side. Gathering the suit in her hands, she pushed her foot inside. It molded immediately to the contours of her toes, the curve of her ankle. Slowly, she pulled it up her thigh, keeping the ribbing straight and the fabric even. The tightness eased as the suit adjusted.

She gathered the other leg. Leaning against the wall, she drew the fabric taut along her skin and smoothed it upward to her waist. Environmental gadgets weighted the sleeves, and she worked her hands into them carefully to position the readers over her forearms.

In front of the mirror, Impani rolled the hood over her naked scalp. She adjusted the insulator band at her forehead, tightened it beneath her chin, then ran her fingers down her body, making sure the triple closure was properly sealed. In her reflection, the seam appeared invisible.

“Done in record time.”

Hands on her hips, she turned from side to side. The silver skinsuit picked up the colors of the room as if she were camouflaged. It conformed to her so neatly she could count every rib. So flexible, she felt naked.

She uncoiled her utility belt.

“Hooks and clamps, metallic twine,” she whispered as she ran through her supplies. “The refit date on the stat-gun is current. Med-pac is full.”

Her gaze fell upon the sonic resonator. She would be in charge of taking scans this trip. Maybe that would give her control over whether she and her partner explored their alien surroundings or just sat looking at pretty rocks.

With a satisfied nod, Impani wrapped the belt about her waist. The latch wouldn’t close. Drel! She slammed the pin into the buckle and wiggled the clasp. After a few moments, the ready light gave a reassuring blink.

She tossed her clothes into the recycling chute. Fresh clothing would be waiting for her when she returned from the session. As someone who never owned a second set of clothes, that always amazed her. She coiled the strand of pearls and left it on the table where it wouldn’t get lost. Then she put on her gloves.

As she turned toward a blank wall, she took a deep breath. “This session will be my most spectacular.”

She wiped her hand against her hip then pressed her palm against the wall. A panel slid to expose the Impellic Chamber.

Impani’s stomach swooped. Tossing back a mane of phantom hair, she stepped inside.

Mirrors encased the room. They caused the light to bounce at odd angles. A silver cylinder upon a raised dais met its image in the ceiling. There were no computer monitors, no panels of flashing lights—all tech was in the control room. Technicians watched from behind the mirrors.

She crossed the room, sat on the platform, and dangled her legs over the edge. Her partner hadn’t left meditation. Leave it to her to show up too early. She swung her legs, feeling the weight of her boots, and saw a hundred images of herself move in sync.

The techs were watching. Would Mr. Ambri-Cutt be among them?

Suddenly self-conscious, she jumped down from the stage and circled the room. The reflective floor hindered her step as if she walked upon the surface of water. Probably the only place in the galaxy where a person didn’t have a shadow.

Behind her, the panel from meditation room 8B slid open. Finally. With a smile, Impani turned. The smile froze upon her face.

Her partner was Trace Hanson.

Like what you’ve read so far? Alien Worlds is available in print or eBook at Amazon. Kindle it today! And if you prefer audiobooks, you can find it at Audible!

Sample Sunday – Werewolf Apocalypse

Werewolf Apocalypse is the fourth book of The Amazing Werewolf series, the story of a teen werewolf growing up in South Florida. I hope you enjoy this excerpt.

apocalypse cover (Small) (2015_08_05 22_05_00 UTC)

ONE

 

June 27, 2008 Loxahatchee, Florida

 

I ran through the sawgrass, my sleek, silver paws eating the miles. Ayanna stayed on my flank. Perhaps she thought I planned to ditch her in unfamiliar territory. True, alpha werewolves tended to kill other alphas, but I wasn’t going to harm Ayanna.

I was her pack master. Even thinking the words made my stomach ache. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone. I didn’t want to boss anyone around. I couldn’t imagine why the pack would want to follow me anyway. I was just a sixteen-year-old kid. All I wanted was to listen to my tunes and spend time with my girlfriend, Brittany. I wished things could go back to the way they were.

But I was pack master. A kind of mental web connected me to the others: five werewolves, three witches, and two medicine men who could turn into bears. I felt their presence in the back of my mind. Always there.

And just like that, something twanged in my head, and I knew William was nearby. I pulled up short, bristling. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the Everglades. What was my apprentice medicine man up to? I turned in the direction of the link, Ayanna trotting at my side.

We came out of the trees into an area of scorched land. I recognized where we were. I remembered this place as a sea of sawgrass—until a brushfire destroyed it. Acres of sweeping yellow-tipped grass became clumps of misshapen charcoal. Ash made me sneeze. As I stepped, puffs of black dust rose around my feet. Ayanna hesitated. I nuzzled her to keep moving. My responsibility.

Ahead, I saw the charred remains of a fishing cabin. William’s campfire flickered. We crossed the basin of a dry pond, the mud scarred and cracked. William’s voice drifted on the breeze, some sort of incantation. Then the breeze intensified.

Crap. I knew what he was doing.

The unnatural wind rose to a whirlwind of soot. Ayanna huddled against my side in the screaming air.

William’s voice bellowed, “To me.”

The wind dropped, ash bouncing down. William stood with his arms raised. Three golden panthers stood outside his conjuring circle. They snarled. William’s eyes widened as they attacked.

With a maddened roar, I leaped onto the panthers. They were quick, but I was bigger. And I had Ayanna, the she-devil. She fell upon them, all fangs and claws. We pulled them off William and chased them away. Ayanna wanted to pursue, but I called her back.

William was bloodied. He staggered to his feet. As he did, I shifted into my human form. That used to be a painful, drawn-out process, but now I could transform with barely a grunt. I stormed toward him. I don’t think I ever felt so angry.

“What did you think you were doing?” I yelled. I’d seen him conjure before, but smaller animals—like bunnies.

William’s eyes flashed. “I had it under control.”

“They would have killed you. Are you an idiot?”

“I was summoning,” he shouted. “I’m trying to learn.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you should ask your dad for help instead of winging it alone out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Howard Shebala, William’s father, was a Navajo medicine man. I knew he wouldn’t approve of what William was doing.

“His talents lean in a different direction,” William said. “He has no interest in controlling nature.”

“Maybe you should listen to him. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

“And who are you all of a sudden, my second father?” he yelled. “Cody Forester, our great pack master. You think you can lord over me, tell me what to do?”

“I’m trying to help.” You’re my responsibility. I sighed and rubbed my face. “Look. Next time, wear your hide belt so you can transform into a bear if you get into trouble.”

He looked like he wanted to argue. Then he dropped his head. “Yeah.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “What do you say you go home now?”

“Perhaps you should go home as well. And put on some pants.”

My stomach sank with dawning realization. I was naked. I looked over at Ayanna. She gave me a doggy grin. Crap. Why did everything happen to me?

It hurts to become a werewolf. Your bones shift, your joints pop. A tail grows out of your spine. Because of that, I learned to transform quickly. Much faster, in fact, than any of the other werewolves I knew. It still hurt, but then it was over.

Without looking at Ayanna, I changed into my wolf form. I didn’t want her to know how embarrassed I was that she’d seen me naked—but she probably knew. The link again—the pack could sense my emotions. I shook myself from snout to rump, then glanced over my shoulder. William climbed onto his dirt bike. I heard the whine of its motor and smelled a gust of exhaust.

I trotted across the charred land into charred forest. The trees were black and broken. There were no raccoons, no armadillo. No wildlife at all. It struck me how far those panthers had to travel to answer William’s call. No wonder they were testy.

Even amid so much destruction, however, there were sprouts of green. Mother Nature was reclaiming what was hers.

Abruptly the forest became lush again, as if a line had been drawn. I nipped Ayanna’s ear and loped ahead. I would have loved to play tag, but it was getting late. I had to get her home.

By the time we reached our clothes, the sun was rising. All it meant to us was that we might be seen. Ayanna and I were both alphas. We could shift our forms even without a full moon. Ayanna’s father, Dick Richardson, crowed in delight at her abilities. In contrast, I think my uncle was a little leery of mine.

Ayanna stepped behind some bushes. She coughed and gagged as she shifted back into a girl. I quickly transformed and put on my pants. I’d hung my shirt on a branch as a sort of marker. I pulled it down and popped my head through. Ayanna stepped out of the bushes fully dressed as I was tying my shoes.

“That was exhilarating.” She grinned. “I never met a bloody cat like that.”

“Florida panthers,” I said. “Big ones, too. I don’t know what William was thinking, summoning them all by himself.”

“I think it’s brilliant he can do it at all.”

I nodded. It was kind of amazing. Maybe I should tell him that the next time I saw him. “Let’s go home. Your mother worries.”

“That stroppy cow. I’ll not have her squashing my fun.” But she followed me through the woods anyhow.

Her parent’s ranch wasn’t far away. It was only a ranch in the technical sense—there were no horses. They planned to renovate the vacant stable into a home for Uncle Bob, Rita, and me. I hoped they wouldn’t go through with it—I didn’t want to live within shouting distance of the Richardsons.

But as we stepped from the trees onto the wide expanse of yard, I saw a large dump truck pulled onto the grass and workers buzzing around the structure. My shoulders slumped.

Ayanna laced her fingers with mine. “It will be okay.”

We walked together past empty corrals and the fake baobab tree her father had made to mimic the ones at Animal Kingdom. Water danced in the waterfall my uncle and I built—but I couldn’t hear it over all the pounding coming from the stable.

Ayanna’s father stepped around the corner. Tall and dark, dressed in a bright African dashiki, Dick Richardson looked as out of place as his baobab tree. “Haloo,” he called to us. “Back from your midnight run?”

“You’re up early,” I said.

He rubbed his hands together. “First day of construction. I thought it best if I supervise.”

“I’m sure they appreciate that.” I winced at the noise. A worker came out the wide door carrying a load of wooden planks that he tossed into the dump truck. I shook my head. “I hate to see good wood go to waste.”

“Bah. It reeks of horses.”

“Maybe you can have them build a deck in the back. Rita would like that.”

Dick bowed. “As you wish, young sir.”

“Please don’t call me that,” I muttered, but he was already striding away into the stable.

Ayanna said, “Will you come in and break your fast? I’m sure Concepcion can fix us something.”

Concepcion was a great cook, and I was starving. But I didn’t want to watch the dreaded renovation. “I have to get home.” I led her to where I’d left my bicycle propped against the waterfall. “You did good today. Thanks for the help with those panthers.”

“My pleasure. Shall we go out again tonight then?”

I hid a grimace. I was responsible for her training, but I didn’t want to spend every night with her. “I’ll let you know.” I climbed on my bike.

As I pedaled across the grass, Dick called after me, “We shall have to get you a motorized bike. It is unseemly that our illustrious leader should pedal in such a manner.”

I raised a hand to let him know that I heard, and continued riding down their long private road.

When I got home, I was drenched in sweat—even seven o’clock in the morning was hot in South Florida. I dumped my bike in its appointed spot and skipped up the porch steps. My uncle and I rented a two-bedroom house that was set back from the street. It was similar to a shotgun house because the front door and the back door were in a straight line—you could shoot a shotgun through and not hit anything. I figured that was a Southern thing. We didn’t have houses like that in my old home in Massachusetts.

As usual, the door was unlocked. But I was surprised to find it was cool inside. Uncle Bob had turned on the air conditioner. I wondered if he would have done that if Rita hadn’t started living with us.

They were both still asleep, so I went into the kitchen and poured a tall glass of chocolate milk. Haff came around the corner, nails clicking on the tile. Haff was Brittany’s dog, but he was staying with us while he recovered from a beating from a nasty werewolf named Bodark. I patted his head, then filled his bowl. I sat at the table, drinking my milk and eating a red Pop-Tart.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Who could that be so early?” I asked Haff, who perked his ears and wagged his tail.

I walked to the front room and caught a whiff of a familiar scent a moment before I opened the door. “Dad?”

“Hello, son.” My father smiled sheepishly. “Your mother and I have separated.”

 

TWO

 

Brittany huffed out a breath. “Dad? My dad?”

“And your ma,” Lynette told her.

“But why would they come to dinner today? It’s Saturday.” She sighed. “Will Butt Crack be with them?”

“’Fraid not. He’s found himself a little playmate and he’s spending the afternoon on a real live fishing boat.”

Brittany sank onto the bench behind the kitchen table. It had been little more than a week since her mother and brother moved to West Palm Beach to live with her father. Brittany missed her little brother terribly and worried about him all the time. Who would have thought? He was always such a butt crack. “What are we going to eat?”

“I plan to have us some country ham and hushpuppies.”

She perked up. “Grandma’s hushpuppies?”

“The very same.”

“That ought to put Dad in a good mood.” Although she wasn’t certain he had a good mood. “I suppose I’ll have to tell them I quit my summer job.”

“That will be a problem. We can’t very well tell them we decided your time was better spent studying to be a witch.”

Brittany smiled, then fell silent at the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs.

Eileen came in, mussed and naked. “Good morning.”

Eileen was a nudist and a member of their witch’s coven. She was also Brittany’s best friend—but being friends and living together were two different things.

Without looking at her, Brittany said, “You’ll have to put on clothes today. My parents are coming for dinner.”

“Oh. Okay.” Eileen poured herself some orange juice.

Just then, Lynette’s cell phone rang.

“Who could that be so early?” Lynette said. “Hello? Blessed be. Myra? Here, let me put you on speaker.” She set the phone on the table. “It’s Myra.” Myra was Lynette’s ex-girlfriend and a member of Lynette’s old coven.

“Hi, Myra.” Brittany grinned. “How are you?”

“Hi, Myra. It’s Eileen. Remember me?”

“Of course, I remember,” Myra said. “It’s so good to hear everyone’s voices. All together.”

“This here’s the beginning of my new coven.” Lynette nodded at them.

“Oh.” Myra sounded surprised.

“I miss you,” Brittany said.

“We all do,” Lynette told her.

“Oh, Lynnie, I miss you, too. It’s so beautiful in the mountains this time of year. Remember how we used to hike? And the mornings would be all misty? And that time we found a field of wildflowers? And remember the deer?”

“How’s the candle shop?” Lynette asked.

“Fine. About as well as can be expected. Of course, without you here to keep us in line—”

“Glad to hear it.”

There was a pause, then Myra said, “So tell me, what’s happening with that werewolf problem you have down there?”

“All resolved,” Lynette said. “There are no more hostiles about.”

“Really?”

“Yes’m. Brittany’s beau really came through.” Lynette smiled at her. Brittany smiled back.

“Oh.” Myra sounded perplexed again.

Brittany laughed. “Don’t sound so surprised.”

“It’s not that, it’s just… There were rumors, but…” She sounded like she was starting to cry.

“Myra,” Lynette said, “what’s wrong?”

“Werewolves are in McCaysville,” Myra blurted.

Eileen gasped and covered her mouth.

Brittany’s eyes widened.

Lynette said, “But that’s why we moved the coven there. To get away from them.”

“I never thought they’d come this far up the mountain.” Myra sniffled. “The scuttlebutt is that the head werewolf, Bodark, is no longer making a move on Florida. He plans to go north into Tennessee.”

“And McCaysville is smack dab in the middle.”

“They’re here, bold as you please, hanging out on street corners, hassling our customers. I don’t know what to do.” Her voice rose to a squeak. “There are reports of people gone missing, and I just know it’s them taking thralls.”

“That’s horrible.” Brittany remembered her encounter with thralls—they were Night of the Living Dead-ish.

Lynette stiffened. She folded her arms.

Myra cried, “Please, Lynnie. Please come home. We need your help.”

“I can’t,” Lynette said. “I have responsibilities in Florida. But you can come here if you like. We’d love to have you.”

“Sure,” Brittany said. “You’ll be safer with us.”

“No.” Myra took a shuddering breath. “This is home. I can’t leave my sisters.”

“The offer stands if you change your mind,” Lynette told her. There was a lengthy pause. “Myra?”

“Lynnie, please,” she whispered. “I’m so afraid.”

“Talk to the others about everyone coming down.”

“All right.” Myra hung up the phone.

Lynette returned her cell to her pocket.

Into the silence, Brittany said, “I feel responsible. If we hadn’t booted Bodark out of Florida—”

“Don’t think that way,” Lynette said. “He must’ve been planning to go north all along, or he wouldn’t have gotten his men in place so quickly.”

Eileen said, “Maybe it was Plan B.”

“We couldn’t have let him stay here in any event,” said Lynette.

“But what do we do, now?” asked Brittany. “We can’t just leave Myra to—”

“She left me,” Lynette said. “I just hope she has the sense to come back.”

 

 

THREE

 

I gawked at my dad. “You’re back?”

He raised his eyebrows. “May I come in?”

“Oh, yeah.” I opened the door wider. “Come in.”

As he stepped into the house, Haff circled him, sniffing his shoes and smiling in welcome.

“You have a dog,” Dad said.

“That’s Haff,” I told him, not wanting to get into the particulars. “He seems to like you.”

Dad set a suitcase and a computer case inside the door then embraced me. “It’s good to see you.”

I relaxed into his warm arms in spite of myself. “What’s this about Mom?”

He pulled away, looking chagrined. “We’ve separated. Actually, things have been a bit rocky between us ever since you moved down here. I didn’t agree with the way she treated you.”

I groaned. Great. Something else I was responsible for.

A bedroom door clicked, and Uncle Bob strode down the hallway. He was dressed, but his gray hair stood up at all angles. He did a double take. “David. This is a surprise.”

They shook hands.

“Didn’t mean to barge in on you so early,” said my dad.

“Nonsense. Come into the living room. Have a seat.”

We stepped out of the doorway and into the house. As usual, Haff stretched out in front of the television.

My dad sat on the red couch. “The old place is looking like a home.”

I winced. He’d sent a bunch of furniture down after he lost the custody battle. Uncle Bob didn’t approve, although he never said so. I knew he liked to live light in case he had to get out fast.

“What brings you to sunny Florida?” my uncle asked.

“I was just telling Cody that Marie and I have separated.”

Uncle Bob blinked. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

The bedroom door opened again, and Rita came down the hall. “I thought I heard voices.”

“Oh.” My father stood. “I didn’t know anyone else was living here.”

“Yeah, this is Rita,” I said. “She’s great. And this is my father, Dr. Forester.”

“David.” He stretched out his hand.

She flashed him one of her dazzling smiles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, David. I was just going to make some coffee. Would you like a cup?”

“I would. Thank you.” He sat back down.

“So, where are you staying?” Uncle Bob asked.

“Nowhere, yet,” he said. “I don’t want your sister to track me down. I was hoping you could give me the name of a local bed and bath. Just until I get on my feet.”

Uncle Bob stroked his stubble. “I can ask around.”

“You can stay here,” I blurted. “Take my room. I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you out.”

From the kitchen, Rita called, “David, don’t be silly. We’d love to have you.”

Uncle Bob gave a strained smile. “Until you get back on your feet.”

Or until we have to go live in the horse barn.

“All right,” Dad said. “But I take the couch.”

“We wouldn’t hear of it,” Rita called.

“I insist.” He thumped the cushion. “Me and this couch go way back. I’ve spent many a night on it.”

That was news to me.

Rita brought in a tray with three cups of coffee and a refill of my chocolate milk. “So, which one are you, David? The heart specialist or the brain surgeon?”

“I’m the heart specialist.”

“You must have built up quite a practice. What are you going to do with it if you move down here?”

“I sold it to a colleague.”

She snuggled next to my uncle in his big old recliner. “That must have been a tidy sum.”

Oh-oh. I could see where this was heading. I shot Rita a disgruntled look then cleared my throat. “Ah, Dad, what happened to my support payments?”

“What do you mean?” He set down his coffee and looked around at us.

Uncle Bob said, “I haven’t received a cent.”

“That’s impossible. I know they’ve gone out.” He retrieved his computer case from beside the door.

We sat in silence as the laptop booted up. My cheeks heated. I shifted in my seat. I hated bringing up the subject of child support so soon after he arrived. Hated having to bring it up at all. But I knew Rita was about to say something. It was a sore spot with her. Then Uncle Bob might have gotten mad at her, and my dad might have gotten mad at everyone, and—

“Here.” He showed me the computer screen. “Right on time.”

I goggled at the numbers on his bank statement.

“Wait a minute,” he murmured. “It appears they’re being diverted.”

Uncle Bob gave a mocking laugh. “My wonderful sister.”

“I’m sorry, Bob. I had no idea.” He tapped the keyboard. “Yes, here they are. She set up a trust fund for Cody. Everything’s going in there. I suggest we just let that ride. Make a nice nest egg for you, right son?”

I frowned. Didn’t he understand? “We need the money now.”

“And you’ll get it. Bob, if you’ll give me your bank account number, I’ll set up the payments from my personal account.”

Rita leaped up. “I’ll get the checkbook.”

“And of course, I’ll pay you for the use of your couch.”

“David, no.” My uncle looked embarrassed. “Really. Just bring in a little food now and again.”

My father smiled. “That’s a deal.”

“Here you go.” Rita came around the corner and handed him the checkbook.

He leaned over the laptop. “First I’ll transfer the funds you are owed. It might take a couple days to settle.” His fingers tapped loudly in the falling silence.

“Um, Dad? While we’re on the subject of money, I had to buy a new phone a little while ago, and there was still cash on my debit card.”

“Of course.” He kept working on his computer. “We never stopped your allowance. You’ve accrued a nice balance.”

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t see the statements.”

He looked at me. “Then we should fix that. Do you still use the same email account? I’ll have them copy you in.”

I grinned. “That would be great.”

“I think I’ll make some pancakes. Is everybody hungry?” Rita bustled from the room.

Dad said, “Done and done. The full amount has been credited to your account and new payments will start on the first.”

Uncle Bob sighed and spread his hands. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“No thanks are necessary. I’m just sorry it took so long to straighten out. Marie can be…”

“Domineering?” my uncle offered. “Aggressive? Reactionary?”

“Sometimes I wonder if she has a bit of the wolf in her.”

“She’d tack it up to PMS.”

Both my father and my uncle laughed, but I was alarmed. I’d heard of people who weren’t full-fledged werewolves. They never transformed, just got achy and grouchy with the full moon. Did my mother wish she were a true werewolf? Was that why she hated me so much?

 

If you liked this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Buy it now at Amazon.

Sample Sunday – About Your Book’s Setting

Roxanne's Space

About Your Book’s Setting

Book Setting

The Silent Character

By Roxanne Smolen

The setting of your book should be treated as a character. Does your story take place during a hurricane? An avalanche? A drought? Are you in a city of glass skyscrapers or a seedy neighborhood? In the immortal words of Sir Alexander Dane, you’re just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?

I like to do character sketches. My main characters get a five page questionnaire to fill out. My minor characters get a five point brief: Physical Features, Personality, Likes/Dislikes, Family history, Beliefs.

Let’s revisit that seedy neighborhood to see how knowing your setting can enhance the ambiance of your story.

Physical Features

Seedy Street #1 — residential, cracked sidewalk, broken streetlamps, houses are older, mostly duplexes, built close to each other, close to the street, front yards are six-foot squares with a…

View original post 363 more words

Sample Sunday – About Your Book’s Setting

About Your Book’s Setting

Book Setting

The Silent Character

By Roxanne Smolen

 

The setting of your book should be treated as a character. Does your story take place during a hurricane? An avalanche? A drought? Are you in a city of glass skyscrapers or a seedy neighborhood? In the immortal words of Sir Alexander Dane, you’re just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?

I like to do character sketches. My main characters get a five page questionnaire to fill out. My minor characters get a five point brief: Physical Features, Personality, Likes/Dislikes, Family history, Beliefs.

Let’s revisit that seedy neighborhood to see how knowing your setting can enhance the ambiance of your story.

Physical Features

Seedy Street #1 — residential, cracked sidewalk, broken streetlamps, houses are older, mostly duplexes, built close to each other, close to the street, front yards are six-foot squares with a few weeds, barren of grass, most are enclosed by chain link fence, many have large dogs

Seedy Street #2 — residential, cracked sidewalk, broken streetlamps, houses are older, mostly duplexes, built close to each other, close to the street, front yards are six-foot squares, the grass is bright and well-tended, flowers bloom in window boxes and in pots on porches, small American flags wave amid the plants

Personality

Seedy Street #1 — litter blows in circles, houses look grimy, it’s July and no one has air conditioning so people hang out on porches looking sullen and tired, shirts stained with sweat beneath their arms, the whole street reeks of body odor and garbage like a cloud of stink, no one walks the streets

Seedy Street #2 — houses are old but clean, stoops are swept, it’s July and no one has air conditioning so people hang out on porches, shirts stained with sweat beneath their arms, cooking aromas from open windows and doors clash in unusual ways, the fire department has opened a hydrant and children shriek as they run through the gushing water, above them a rainbow shines in the spray

Likes/Dislikes

Seedy Street #1 — Likes the feeling of power it gets from keeping its residents in fear. Dislikes laws because it’s not sure they’re in its best interest. Dislikes strangers.

Seedy Street #2 — Likes the feeling of community, striving together, knowing help is just a door away. Dislikes violence. Dislikes strangers.

Family History

Seedy Street #1 — ethnic, clings to old customs and traditions because that’s all it has

Seedy Street #2 — ethnic, celebrates old customs and traditions but working to incorporate new ones

Beliefs

Seedy Street #1 — no one will help you but yourself

Seedy Street #2 — there is always hope

Now that you understand your setting a little better, you can people it with your characters and they will respond accordingly. They might even write the book themselves. All you have to do is sit back and observe.

There are more thoughts about book settings from other authors in the collection About Your Book’s Setting now available in print or ebook at Amazon.

Sample Sunday – About Your Character’s Name

About Your Character's Name

 

Your Immortal Characters

By Roxanne Smolen

 

The names of your characters should be chosen with care. Why? Because as soon as you pen them they live forever. Scarlett O’Hara. Hannibal Lecter. Harry Potter. The name of a character can be as recognizable as the title of the book they reside within.

To be memorable, names should stand out from other names in your book. Similar names such as Ariel and Aria, Steve and Steele, or Kylie and Kayla are easy to mix up. I know an author whose characters’ names all started with the letter M. It was funny, but after a while it became rather cumbersome. You don’t want your reader to stop reading in the middle of dialogue and say “Who’s this now?”

A good name can help characterize the character. Try to keep in mind how your characters interact. For instance, parents often use nicknames for their kids. By choosing a name that lends itself to a nickname, you can characterize two characters at once. If a parent uses the nickname, they can be seen as loving and warm, but if everyone uses the nickname except the parent, they will seem distant and cold.

You can name your Asian character Bobby if you are trying to make a point, but your readers will have a better picture of him if he has an Asian name. That also goes for regional names. Willa-Sue would feel right at home in the backwoods, but Catherine might stumble around a bit. Having trouble thinking of an ethnic name? Try this name generator.

Be sure your name is age appropriate. Some names weren’t used in certain eras. A character named Britney would not sound authentic in a book about the Roaring Twenties. Alternately, names like Goody or Fanny don’t fit a contemporary novel. You can search names by year at the Social Security site.

Another stumbling block is pronunciation. I know, I know. Our books are not meant to be read aloud. But if the reader can’t pronounce a name, even in their head, they won’t remember it. Many fantasy and science fiction writers make up names so as to appear other worldly. It’s easy to forget that the readers of their stories are on this world. Names like Zxxythyw are often skipped or skimmed, keeping the reader from becoming immersed in your story.

That’s not to say that you can’t get creative. A name like Bilbo Baggins is distinctive yet easy to pronounce. You want the name to flow not clash with your text. Try combining parts of popular names to create a new one, like Jennevan. Search for names in a baby name book or go to www.babynames.com. But don’t do what I did in one of my earlier books. In an attempt to make characters sound futuristic, I spelled their names backward. That’s how I got Aloca Coc.

Which brings up another point: Take care that your characters’ names don’t elicit an inadvertent snicker. You don’t want to write a romance with Rod Hardman as your main character. Or maybe you do. Who can forget the marvelous names of J.K. Rowling’s characters? Or Lemony Snicket’s? Even their minor characters had memorable names. Esme Squalor is a perfect example of fitting a name to a character’s personality.

That takes us back to Scarlett O’Hara, Hannibal Lecter, and Harry Potter. Each of these names defines their characters’ personalities at the beginnings of their books. Scarlett is feminine and blushing, Hannibal is strong and unstoppable, Harry is common and unassuming. Characters may change throughout the course of the story, but their core remains—and their names can exemplify those cores.

Your book will be immortal. So will your characters. Give them a name they can live with.

 

Excerpted from About Your Character’s Name. Available in the Kindle Store.