Sample Sunday – Resort Debauch

My novel, Resort Debauch, is about a naïve, self-centered, tantrum-prone teenager who is also one of the richest people in the galaxy. I placed her on a world owned by the Resort Debauch, a playground for bored rich folk, where the planet’s original inhabitants are debased and made to live in squalor. I stripped away her riches, her power, even her beautiful hip-length hair and watched her grow from a spoiled child to the leader of a rebellion.

Resort Debauch turned out to be more than a coming-of-age romance. The story spanned a decade, and it took three books to tell it properly. Now, for the first time, all three books are in one, so you can settle back and immerse yourself in this decadent world. Here’s an excerpt to get you started.

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Resort Debauch by Roxanne Smolen

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Anneliese stepped out of the Rimer’s Cope, her husband’s ship, and into the blinding brilliance of a rifle blast. Metal screamed as the shot careened off the vessel. Cade pressed back to shield her. Anneliese peered around him, torn between fright and fascination.

Footsteps echoed through the spaceport. A native-born man ran into view. His tattered robe twisted behind him. He glanced about, chest heaving.

He must be a criminal. Who else would run from the authorities? With a shudder, Anneliese hid her face in Cade’s soft shirt. She didn’t want to be on this dangerous, decadent world. Head swimming, she turned her gaze away.

And caught sight of another face in the darkness. She squinted to make out the hidden man. His dark robes blended with the sooty nose of a shuttle. In the shadows, his eyes shone like liquid gold, and as he lifted them to meet hers, the hood of his garment fell back to expose a face sharp with angles and planes.

A cry died in her throat. She tugged Cade’s sleeve, but he shrugged her grasp away. The man stared through her as if haunted by loss. Then a shriek echoed through the spaceport, and he backed away from sight.

Anneliese looked again at the criminal. He lay screaming on the floor as a ring of uniformed guards closed around him. They struck him with the butts of their rifles.

Someone barked a guttural command. With echoing boot steps, a huge man strode down the aisle between the docked ships. His robes billowed from the force of his gait. He knocked aside the guards and snatched up the prisoner as if he were a child.

The criminal cried out in his alien tongue. His bright eyes bulged. Then the giant drew a knife from his voluminous robes and opened the man’s throat.

Blood spurted like a dark fountain. The man dropped with a wet plop. Anneliese gasped, unable to look away.

With a growl, the giant stomped off. The guards murmured. One nudged the man with his foot.

Cade shouted, “You there. Explain this outrage. I’ll not have my bride placed in jeopardy.”

A guard bowed. “My apologies, gentle sir.”

“Your feeble regrets are worthless. Who’s in charge here?”

Anneliese stepped from her husband’s side. She stared at the pooling blood. It couldn’t be real. How could this man be dying before her?

How could she have watched?

A knot of revulsion rose up her throat. She wanted to run, to dive back into the Rimer’s Cope and fly far away from this horrid place.

Cade brushed back her mane of silver, hip-length hair. “I’m sorry, Lisa. Please don’t allow this spectacle to affect our honeymoon.”

Anneliese looked up and forced herself to smile. She knotted her fingers in his shirt. Cade draped his arm across her shoulders. The gesture made her feel enclosed—her head barely reached his chest. He drew her past the motionless body, the glaring guards, down dark rows of docked ships. Anneliese focused upon a pair of doors. She stumbled as if her feet were numb. In the back of her mind, she kept hearing the man strike the pavement.

A slap of cool air sharpened her senses. Cade pulled her into a large room. Stark light fell from the ceiling. Stunted trees grew in stone pots. Communication cubicles lined the far wall, and several security guards loitered about the booths.

A tinny voice drew her attention. “Good afternoon, gentle sir and miss. Welcome to the Resort Debauch.”

Anneliese peered at a customs officer sitting behind a desk.

He had the dark amber skin of a native-born, and his golden owl like eyes gleamed. His smile showed crooked, brown teeth. “May I have your traveling permits, please?” He used a translation device—his words didn’t match his lips.

Cade handed him a pair of triangular chits, which the man snapped into a computer console. The workstation flashed with the rapidly changing screen.

The man blinked. “Anneliese Thielman? Any relation to Mortar Thielman?”

“Her father,” Cade told him.

“Is that so?” He leaned back to appraise her.

Anneliese swallowed several times before finding her voice. “The man outside. What was his crime?”

The officer spread his hands. “Sabotage. Thievery. Who can say? Locals are not allowed in port.” He removed the chits from the console, recorded their codes on a docking pass, then handed the pass to Cade.

Anneliese pressed forward. “But they killed him.”

“The punishment for any infraction is death. But do not be concerned, young miss. Our laws do not apply to patrons. May you both enjoy your visit.” He dismissed her with his discolored smile.

Cade guided her through the security door and down a long hallway. Violet sani-light shone from every direction as if meaning to bake them.

Anneliese felt ill. “His blood was like ink.”

“You certainly aren’t your father’s daughter.”

“He would never abide such a display.”

“Oh, no. Of course not.” Cade rolled his eyes.

She stamped her foot. “My father is a gentle and sensitive man.”

“If he’s so wonderful, why did you run away?”

“To be with you,” she murmured.

“Out of the frying pan.” He laughed then hugged her shoulders. “Don’t be so serious.”

She nodded and tried to smile, but the criminal’s terrified face dominated her thoughts. Suddenly, she remembered the second man, the one hiding in the shadows. She wondered if he’d been a criminal as well.

They reached the end of the hall. Cade ran the docking pass along an optical character reader. The heavy door clicked and slid to the side.

Laughter burst out. Wide-eyed and hesitant, Anneliese stepped into the hotel. People milled about as if the lobby were a galactic meeting place. Some wore flowing caftans. Others were dressed in less than Anneliese wore to bed at night.

“Astounding,” she whispered.

Cade smiled. “Didn’t I say you’d love it here? I’m going to register. Why don’t you look around?”

“No!” She tucked her fingers under his arm. “I’d rather stay with you.”

They navigated a maze of couches and tables. Sunlight fell from large leaded windows. Potted plants drooped with fragrant blooms.

As they approached the front desk, the clerk smiled. She wore only a silver loincloth. “Welcome to the Resort Debauch, where all your fantasies are real. May I see your docking pass, please?” She stretched out her hand, and her breast jiggled.

Heat rushed to Anneliese’s face. She averted her eyes.

“We’ve been expecting you,” the clerk told them. “Your suites are ready. Do you have luggage at your ship, anything you would like to bring along?”

“My satchel,” Anneliese cried. “I forgot it.”

Cade lifted her hand and kissed her fingertips. “Darling, I’ve told you. Everything we need is here.”

“But I want my diary.”

His pale eyes hardened. “I said no.”

“But—”

“You’re my wife, now, not a sixteen-year-old brat.”

“We can retrieve it for you later if you change your mind,” the clerk said. “May I arrange a complimentary tour of our facilities?”

Cade slid the key chips from the desk. “We’ll take the shortened version. My wife is fragile and needs her rest.”

“Of course. Mr. Ahzgott will lead you to your rooms.”

A native man with a weathered face rounded the desk. He bowed then walked away, talking over his shoulder. “The Resort was founded two-hundred and twelve Standard years ago by Burke Noyade of the Gamma Coalition. He chose this planet because of its distance from normal trading routes and because of its unlimited volcanic energy.”

He led them across the vast lobby, past cliques of laughing, half-clad people. Anneliese tried to concentrate upon his recital, but her eyes kept flicking to the side.

They turned a corner and entered a room with a gushing waterfall. The air glittered with rising spray.

“How wonderful.” Anneliese hurried to the edge of the pool.

As she did, a naked man stepped from the cascading water. He ran his fingers through his streaming hair, oblivious to her. She covered her face with both hands.

“Yes.” Ahzgott sniffed. “We have several pools and hot tubs available, the most popular of which is on the second level. It is fashioned after a desert geyser on the Seretine flats.” He led them past the fall. In a low voice, he added, “Water is our planet’s most precious resource, and must be carefully reclaimed.”

Anneliese walked with her head down so her hair would hide her burning cheeks. She’d never before seen a naked man.

They entered a wide corridor.

“What’s in there?” She motioned toward a pair of ornate doors.

Ahzgott halted. “This is our main banquet hall. Similar halls are at the end of each wing. Banquets begin promptly at dusk and continue throughout the night.”

Anneliese stepped inside and glanced around. Swathes of gold velvet draped the walls and archaic lanterns hung from the ceiling. A semi-circular dais filled one wall. The center of the room held a long, stone table.

“A magnificent piece.” She ran her hand over its surface, admiring its shimmering grain. “Where are the chairs?”

Ahzgott motioned. “Housekeepers have been polishing the floor.”

Anneliese looked down. Her image reflected as if she stood on a black mirror. “I’ve never seen flooring like this.”

“It is made of blood.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“When the Resort first came to this planet, the local inhabitants pledged their fealty with blood. The architects poured it over the foundation. A symbolic gesture.”

Anneliese’s face drained. She stared as if mired in gore.

Cade laughed and swept her off her feet. “Excuse my wife. She’s a bit faint of spirit.”

Anneliese gulped the air. “Did you know?”

Still holding her, he swung about in a dance.

“You knew,” she cried. “And you let me walk—”

“No. Of course not.” He looked down at her, his pale eyes alight, and gave her the crooked smile that had so captured her heart. “But you’d best reconcile this in your mind, for here is where we dine tonight.”

He carried her to the corridor and set her down. Without a word, their guide continued to walk. Anneliese glanced at the silent room then hurried away.

The corridor ended at a featureless wall. A panel opened.

Ahzgott ushered them into a cubicle. “The lifts utilize a computer relay system, but they are operator controlled. The operator can be reached at any time.” He pressed a lone button on the wall.

“Destination?” a voice asked.

Ahzgott said, “Twenty-seven south.”

The cubicle rose straight up then turned to travel sideways. Anneliese smiled with the sensation. When the door opened, she stepped out into a sunny courtyard beneath a transparent dome. Flowers lined the walkway.

“Here we have the penthouse suites,” Ahzgott told them, “eight in all. Yours will be in that direction.”

“Thank you. We can find our way from here.” Cade tossed him a coin.

Ahzgott snatched it from the air. Head inclined, he stepped backward into the lift and departed.

Cade hugged Anneliese. “Well, what do you think? Is it everything I told you it would be?”

She sighed, reveling in his embrace, feeling protected and warm. “Paradise,” she told him then realized it was true.

Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the dome and painted iridescent auras about the blossoms. A couple strolled hand-in-hand along the colorful array, and a woman sat on a bench, reading an old-fashioned book.

Cade drew Anneliese across the courtyard and stopped before a door. He pressed the key chip into the lock.

Their honeymoon suite. Anneliese felt suddenly nervous and laughed to cover it. “No voice recognition? No handprints?”

“The people who frequent the Resort Debauch don’t appreciate having their prints recorded.” He kissed her cheek. “If you have any problems, I’ll be right across the hall.”

“Separate rooms?” she blurted.

Cade cupped her chin in his palm. “We have the rest of our lives to be together. I don’t want to rush you.”

“But, I thought—”

“Enough. Go inside and rest. I’ll buy a gown for you to wear to dinner.”

Anneliese searched his face. Tears welled in her eyes. Why did you bring me here? Why here, when we had the whole galaxy for our honeymoon?

Her husband urged her into the suite. The door clicked shut in her face. She wrapped her arms around an empty sensation in her chest and stepped back. The suite was large and sunny. The vaulted ceiling slanted into a window box that ran along the outer wall. A sunken pit dominated the great room with a theatre-style vid-screen opposite it.

Woodenly, she moved to the doorway of the master bedroom. The entire ceiling was transparent. Part of the penthouse dome. A blush touched the sky as the afternoon waned. She stared at a bed that could hold seven people. Heavy, engraved posts anchored its corners. The wall above held an antique oil painting of a nude woman depicted with wings.

Anneliese fell onto the bed. With her face buried in a mound of fragrant, satiny sheets, she wept until she fell asleep.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Anneliese hesitated before the banquet hall. Laughter belched from the open door. She tugged at the bodice of her gown and wondered again what Cade could have been thinking to buy such a monstrosity. It was cut too low in front and slanted too high in the back. Tufts of filmy organza surrounded her hips like a cloud.

Cade placed his hand on her back to urge her forward, and Anneliese stepped onto the barbarous floor. What sort of people decorated with dried blood? She held her breath, certain she could detect a foul odor.

The room brimmed with color. All manner of costume, all caste of people filled the hall. They circled around like snapping dogs awaiting their supper.

Anneliese clung to her husband. She drew strength from his presence. He glanced at her, and her cheeks grew warm.

Over the din, a voice hailed them. A tall man moved their way, grinning and shoving people aside. “Cade. I heard you were back.”

“I couldn’t stay away.” Cade reached to shake with him. “I’d like you to meet Anneliese Thielman, my bride. We’re celebrating our new life.”

The man’s dark eyes ran over her. Anneliese resisted the urge to fold her arms over her dress.

“Mortar Thielman’s only daughter?” The man cocked his brow. “Quite a catch.”

Cade slapped his back. “I would love her anyway, even if she wasn’t insanely rich.”

Both men laughed. Anneliese clasped her hands, searching for something clever to say.

Then another voice called, “Cade! Will you be at the games tonight?”

“I might stand in,” her husband called back.

“Well, bring a voucher. I feel lucky.”

The man with the dark eyes shook his head. “That Prin. Always feeling lucky.”

“Fortunately for us, he isn’t.”

Anneliese smiled and glanced back and forth. She enjoyed games. She’d often played sticks-and-runners with her nanny as a child. Perhaps she knew of the game to which they referred. She was about to ask when the man lifted his mug.

“I’m empty,” he said. “Come with me, and I’ll buy you an ale.”

Cade shook his head. “Thanks, but I think we’ll find a seat before they’re all taken. I don’t want her to miss the excitement.”

“Catch you later then.”

Anneliese spoke up. “It was nice to have met you, Mister…” She realized Cade hadn’t introduced his friend.

The man smirked and disappeared in the crowd. Cade chuckled. He guided her past the semi-circular dais toward the massive table she’d seen before. With a bow, he held her chair.

Anneliese sat. She drew her fingers through her hair, allowing it to fall behind her.

“Mane of moonlight.” Her husband kissed her neck. “You drive me wild.”

She shrugged him away. “Why didn’t you want me to know the name of your friend?”

“Did it seem that way? How rude of me. Here, let me introduce you to someone.” Cade raised his voice. “Harmadeur! Join us!”

Anneliese smiled and looked around. Words of greeting died in her throat. The huge man she had seen at the spaceport strode toward them.

“Darling,” Cade said, “this is Harmadeur-Fezzan-Gendarme, the Security Master here at the Resort. Harmadeur, this is my wife.”

Anneliese could only stare. Harmadeur leaned toward her across the table. He had the same reflective eyes as the customs officer. The rest of his face hid behind a jutting, black beard.

He took her hand and pressed her fingers against his lips. “Young wife,” he murmured, “you are a beautiful woman. Perhaps you will consent to spend an hour with me. Cade is welcome to watch, of course.”

With a gasp, Anneliese drew back.

Cade laughed. “Lisa, it’s a joke. He’s only complimenting you.”

Harmadeur showed a row of stained teeth and sat opposite them at the table. Instantly, a trembling boy filled his water glass. Anneliese hid her hands in a fold of her gown and wiped the moist kiss from her fingers.

“Where is Ratchet these days?” Cade asked.

“Murdered in the night.” The man lit a cigarette the color of tar. “He was skimming.”

Anneliese closed her ears to their banter. The room roared, sound crashing and holding her separate as if she were an island amid an immense sea.

It’s good that Cade knows him. An officer of security would be a fine friend to have. But in her mind, she saw Harmadeur shaking the captured man like a doll, slicing his throat.

Suddenly, people converged upon the table. Every seat filled. Those without chairs sat upon the floor and lounged on cushions.

Did they realize they sat upon dried blood? Anneliese shuddered and drew her feet up the rungs of the chair.

A group of boys emerged. They struggled with oversized trays as they passed among the patrons.

“You must try our tea, little naifa,” Harmadeur told her as he removed their cups from a server’s tray. “It is brewed from a moss found only in this region.”

Anneliese stared at the muddy-looking liquid. Bits of material floated on top.

“Let it settle a moment,” Cade said, “and drink it slowly. It’s rather bracing. Keep you awake all night.”

Harmadeur laughed around his black cigarette, blowing great puffs of foul-smelling smoke. “Legends tell of feeding the tea to our armies. They would fight for days and never notice they were dead.”

Anneliese sipped from her steaming cup. The tea had a nutty-sweet flavor, surprisingly pleasant. She waited a moment but didn’t feel any of the effects.

“Very nice,” she proclaimed and took another sip.

Harmadeur watched her. Anneliese leaned toward her husband and slid her fingers over his arm. Cade flashed his crooked smile. Her heart soared. She would endure anything if only to see him smile.

The young servers returned, this time bearing black vats of soup. They ladled the thin liquid into bowls.

Anneliese turned toward the boy who attended her. “What kind of soup is this?”

The boy bowed his head and would not meet her eyes.

“Lisa, don’t confuse him. He’s a dimwitted local,” Cade said.

“But, I just—”

“Take the soup.”

Flames leaped to her cheeks. She accepted the bowl then glanced around to see if anyone had noticed the reprimand. Harmadeur continued to stare. She wanted to scream at him to stop. Avoiding his eyes, she wiped away a bit of soup that had dripped onto the tabletop.

Warmth emanated from the surface as if the table absorbed the lamplight. A dark grain swirled in deepening layers, patterns shifting like a brewing storm.

“Mr. Gendarme,” she said, “this table is exquisite. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Does it please you, little naifa? It is malpais, from the center of our world. This table is the largest piece known to exist.”

Cade nodded. “Their artisans carve the stone into trinkets. It was their only source of commerce before the Resort arrived. Malpais has value, but the quality has diminished.”

Harmadeur leaned forward, his gold eyes shining. “If you were mine, I would build you a house of malpais. You would be the richest woman in the galaxy.”

Anneliese met his gaze squarely. I am the richest woman.

“Try the soup.” Cade picked up his bowl.

She realized there were no utensils.

A roar escaped the crowd. Two men ran into the room. They wore only flowing trousers. Goaded by the revelers, they pranced about the table, parading a dead animal on a litter.

“The animal is a stegort,” Cade murmured near her ear. “It tunnels in the hills. Quite ferocious, I understand.”

Anneliese saw blue muscle and strings of yellow fat. “They can’t expect us to eat that! It hasn’t been cooked!”

Harmadeur threw back his head and laughed. She glared at him.

“They cure the meat with spices then leave it in the sun,” Cade said. “The heat out there would cook anything.”

The two men lowered the litter onto the dais before the table. With curved blades, they carved thin strips of meat from snout to rump. Brown liquid oozed from the slices.

Anneliese gulped her cooling tea to wash back nausea. A glint of amusement played in the huge man’s eyes.

With a bang, she slammed down her cup. “I saw you kill a man in the spaceport today. You seemed to enjoy it.”

“It is my job to protect the patrons. I enjoy my work.”

“The other guards carry rifles. Why don’t you?”

Harmadeur dropped his cigarette into his water glass and got to his feet. “Sluice rifles are, shall I say, too impersonal. Your questions are quite direct, little naifa. I would enjoy discussing this further, but as you have reminded me, I have duties to attend. May you both enjoy your meals.”

He bowed then strode away, robes billowing behind him. Anneliese took a shuddering breath, torn between relief and fear of repercussion. She glanced at Cade, but he merely drank his tea.

After a moment, she asked, “Why does he call me that?”

“Naifa? The nearest translation would be pet.” Her husband leaned close and stroked her hair. “I believe you’ve made an impression.”

Before she could respond, the room swarmed with server boys, each brandishing a different food. They offered the strips of uncooked meat wrapped around the tines of forks.

“Try some.” Cade took a bite. His lips glistened with grease.

Anneliese quailed. She chose a few vegetables she recognized. Her head buzzed, and her tongue felt numb. She requested more tea, and a server filled her cup immediately.

The lanterns dimmed. Three women appeared upon the dais. Long strands of silver hung from bands about their necks. Catcalls and a smattering of applause rounded the room. Anneliese clapped with them, glancing around.

The women raised their arms, their faces blank as if in a trance. Slowly, they began to sway.

“The dance is called moiru,” Cade whispered. “It is a test of endurance and timing.”

“But there’s no music.”

He shook his head. “Listen.”

The women cupped their hands as if beseeching an angry god. Shifting their weight, they set their costumes in motion.

Anneliese reached for her tea. Her ears rang. Her head pulsed as if with the tolling of a crystal bell. “Their dresses. They’re wearing the music.”

The dancers swayed, rolling their hips. Their costumes poured over them like liquid metal. Lifting and sweeping, the long strands parted, allowing glimpses of naked flesh.

Anneliese gasped. She looked to either side of the table. The diners watched avidly. Noise diminished as if they held their breaths.

The ringing streamers switched the air, shimmering in the faint light, and the performers teased them higher with their movements, exposing the length of their thighs, the roundness of their buttocks.

Anneliese slid her fingers along her throat. Her heart pounded erratically. She watched the undulating woman nearest her, watched as her thrusting movements set her costume ablaze. The dancer’s amber skin glistened with sweat. Rivulets streamed down the muscles of her stomach.

Anneliese’s head swam. The air vibrated with the ching-ching of music. Heat rose in waves, heavy with the odor of musk.

The women danced faster. Their costumes thrashed and flailed. Sparks flew as the strands whipped their lithe forms. One woman cried out, sending the crowd into frenzied jeers and laughter. Behind Anneliese, the watchers stood from their cushions. They crowded her and pressed against her back.

Then the woman in front began to spin. Streamers stood straight out from her body. The crowd shouted, counting the seconds.

Anneliese echoed their chant. Her body pounded with the rhythm of the dance. With sidelong glances, she watched the men at the table, their wide hands drumming, their fervor unrestrained.

The woman staggered. A shrill whistle rose from the onlookers.

Cade said, “It takes skill and concentration to dance the moiru.”

The pirouetting dancer slowed. The streamers shed their momentum until they draped her body. Once again, the women swayed with their arms outstretched. A roar of applause filled the room.

“Enjoy the dance?” Cade asked.

Anneliese clasped her hands together. “Oh, yes. I feel exhilarated.”

“I think that’s the tea.” Her husband smiled.

Anneliese leaned against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her. She could stay that way forever.

A woman’s voice interrupted their embrace. Anneliese looked up to see the dancer who had been spinning.

“Master Cade,” the woman said, still breathing hard from the dance. “I did not know you would be here.” She spoke stilted Standard. Wet hair plastered her forehead, and a scar creased her cheek.

“You know I couldn’t miss your performance,” Cade said. “Lisa, I would like you to meet Farin. Farin, this is my wife.”

The dancer’s shoulders stiffened. Her eyes narrowed.

Anneliese smiled. “I’m happy to meet you, Farin. Your dance was thrilling. And such a lovely costume.” She ran her fingers along the silver strands then drew back with a gasp. “They’re like razors.”

Cade laughed. “Skill and concentration. And a little blood.”

Sound crashed over Anneliese’s head. She stared at Farin. Self-mutilation? Passed off as a dance? “Do they pay you?”

Again, Cade laughed, slapping the table. “Spoken like the daughter of a shipping czar.”

Farin’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Gentle fantasies to you both.” She hurried away.

Cade got to his feet. “Enough excitement. I’d best get you to your room.”

“But it’s early.” Anneliese took her husband’s arm. “I wanted to see the reproduction of a geyser Mr. Ahzgott told us about.”

“I don’t think you’re ready for that.”

Cade guided her through the throng of people. Many of the diners were leaving, many more still coming into the hall. Jostled and crushed, Anneliese held fast to the front of her gown.

They stepped into the lift and ascended to their penthouse suites. As the doors opened upon the courtyard, Anneliese sucked in her breath. Midnight lilies glittered in the garden, their lacy edges aglow. Stars filled the dome above, and a copper-streaked moon hung low in the sky.

Cade sat upon a stone bench. “The moon is called Sikar, the Hunter. His sister, the smaller moon, will be along in a moment.”

“How do you know so much about this world?”

He smiled. “The first time I came here, I took the complimentary tour. I had a good guide.”

Anneliese leaned into her husband’s embrace. She felt the pounding of his heart, the gentle rise and fall of his chest. “Cade,” she said, “how do women end up like that? About Farin, I mean.”

“It starts in the streets. A city surrounds the Resort. Locals call it Enceinte, the Enclosed. The people there will do anything.” He sat back and looked at her. “I want to take you there. I want you to see how they live.”

“Is Enceinte the only city?”

“There’s one other. It’s a distance away. Then there are the Llaird, warring tribes of underground dwellers. They take to storming the cities every once in a while, hence the walls about Enceinte.” He kissed her forehead then pulled her into his arms and nestled his face in her hair.

Her hair was what had attracted him. She would never be a dazzling woman—she was too petite, her figure too childlike. Only her hair, her mass of silver tresses, set her apart from the others.

Cade swept his lips across her bare shoulder. Anneliese closed her eyes and lifted her chin. She felt the rising throb of her heartbeat, felt his breath hot in her ear. Cade whispered her name. His hands explored the tufts of her gown then slid upward to cup her face. His fingers brushed her lips, caressing the cleft of her chin, the hollow of her neck. He kissed her.

Anneliese’s head swam. She opened her mouth to his seeking tongue. With more daring than she believed, she moved his hand to cup her breast.

He balked. “I think we should say goodnight.”

“But, Cade—”

Her husband laughed. “Come on, I want to get an early start tomorrow.” Taking her hand, he led her from the starry garden.

Anneliese felt as if, with each step, she was shrinking. What had happened? Had she done something wrong?

“I had clothes sent to your room. Be sure to wear the hat tomorrow. It’s hot out there.” He opened the door for her and turned away.

Anneliese called after him. “Cade, are you going to the games tonight, the ones your friends mentioned?”

“No.” He smiled his crooked smile. “Of course not.”

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Anneliese awoke with swollen eyes and a headache. She tossed her nightgown onto the floor and stepped into the hot tub in a corner of the lavatory. Swirling water rose to her chest. Pale yellow flowers surrounded the tub and filled the air with sweetness.

Their scent reminded her of home. Languid pools and crystal streams. Lilies clinging to the rocks. She’d been foolish to think she could be happy anywhere else. Of course, if one were to believe her father, everything she thought was foolish and trivial.

Did he miss her? She pushed the wish away. Father never noticed when she was there. Why would he care that she left?

A groan escaped as she sank lower in the coursing water. She gazed at the ceiling. The skylight showed the colors of early morning, and light danced in spectrums upon the walls.

Where did Cade call home? She knew so little about him. When this wretched honeymoon was over, would he whisk her off to his corner of the galaxy to settle down?

Cade seemed different last night. Such intensity in his moonlit eyes, in his roving hands. She ran wet fingers over her lips. He had never kissed her like that before. There was something primitive in his touch.

Was that the way the barbarians of this world treated their mates? Anneliese thought of the man she’d seen hiding in the spaceport, imagined him pulling her into his arms. Would he be gentle or would he take what he wanted?

Heat crept over her cheeks. She got to her feet. Water crested the tub and splashed the flowers. The air chilled her damp skin. She wrapped herself in a towel and sat at a vanity. A selection of hair brushes lined the edge. The Resort Debauch thought of everything.

She brushed her hair until it shone like a silver cape, then dressed in the red day suit Cade bought. The suit’s puffy sleeves and fitted bodice accented the flatness of her bosom. She looked like a child at a masquerade.

What am I doing here?

Then she heard a rap at her door, and her heart flew. She grabbed a wide-brimmed hat and hurried into the great room. The door opened before she could reach it.

Cade leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed, hair spilling over his forehead. Anneliese dropped her gaze as she remembered her wanton thoughts. What would he think of her?

“There you are,” he said. “You look rested.”

“Actually, I feel dreadful.” She laughed too loudly, still avoiding his eyes.

“You need a cup of coffee. We’ll get some in the marketplace.”

“There’s a market? But you said the local people had no commerce.”

“That was before the Resort Debauch.” Leaving the door open, Cade stepped into the room and urged her toward the window.

Anneliese looked out upon flat roofs and narrow, winding roads. A bicycle traced a forlorn path. “It’s so white.”

He laughed. “Everything is made of stone, their most abundant natural resource. Over there, you can see part of the wall I was telling you about.”

Anneliese looked unseeing where her husband pointed, hyper aware of his masculinity. She leaned into his warmth. A glow enveloped her.

“Are you ready to leave?” he asked.

She smiled and took his arm. They rode the elevator to the lobby. Although it was early, people filled the room, and she wondered if the time of day mattered at the Resort Debauch. Cade pressed his key chip against a door then escorted her into a brightly lit corridor. The violet lights caused her already aching head to throb, and she pulled her hat over her eyes.

“Stay close to me,” he said as they approached a huge door. “Enceinte is dangerous.”

Anneliese looked up. The door towered above her, forged of burnished metals and edged with hammered designs. The center bowed slightly as if rammed from outside. “If it’s so perilous, they should have guards.”

“This is the only entrance to the Resort from the city, and it’s under constant surveillance. If a local should get inside, they’d simply turn the lights up to roast.” He slid his docking pass along the optical reader. A dramatic clank sounded through the metal. He leaned to open the heavy door.

Anneliese gasped at a blast of heat. Sudden clamor made her cringe.

Cade shouted, “Get back, you dumb bastards! Nich! Nich!”

Obscured by glare, he stepped outside. She followed. A group of native-born men surrounded them. Goggles shielded their eyes. They hopped from foot to foot, calling loudly in their gibbering tongue. Sweat streamed down their naked chests.

Anneliese wriggled her nose against the stench. She folded her arms, trying not to touch, to be touched. Behind the men, she saw a row of wicker carriages—jinrikishas drawn by bicycles—and her stomach sank with the thought of riding in such a primitive fashion.

The men danced and shouted. One shook a tambourine. Cade nodded at him then led Anneliese to his cart. She stared at the worn, mud encrusted wicker, and wiped her hands as if already soiled. Cade boosted her up. When he sat next to her, the entire contraption swayed.

The man chortled. With his tambourine atop his head, he mounted the bicycle and leaned upon the pedals. Slowly, the cart pulled away. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels. Anneliese balanced upon the open seat, hands in her lap. The carriage tilted, and she seized Cade’s arm for support. He grinned.

The street narrowed and curved as it wound deeper into the city. Anneliese stared at crowded dwellings hewn of rock. The windows and doors were mere holes in the walls, drawn over with fabric.

Women looked up as they passed. They carried blankets and baskets, or long poles with buckets at each end. As the carriage slowed to turn a corner, Anneliese watched several women roll up the sides of a tent. They raked the ground around a skeleton of poles.

“What are they doing?” she asked.

“There are no toilets in the city. Everyone uses communal tents. In the morning, the women clean them out.”

Anneliese’s eyes widened. She heard the chuckle hiding in her husband’s voice, awaiting her reaction, laughing at her expense. She sniffed. “Fortunately, I went before I left.”

Cade guffawed. The cart jostled and hissed over the gravel. Looking behind, Anneliese watched the women lower the sides of the tent, their chore finished.

A growing racket filled the street. Anneliese saw more men on bicycles, other hotel patrons wearing wide-brimmed hats. Between the buildings, she caught snatches of bright color.

“That’s the marketplace.” Cade motioned. “It’s open only a few hours each morning. No one ventures into the heat of the day.”

As the cart came to rest, Cade stepped to the street. He tossed a small coin to the bicyclist. The man turned the coin over in his hands. Then he put it into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Did you see what he did?” Anneliese cried.

“Where else is he going to carry it?” Cade lifted her from the cart.

She stared as the man sped away. “But, it’s a health hazard.”

“Actually, the biggest hazard is in letting the stomach become distended. Better than an invitation. Once, I saw two local men mug a cabber. One man held him while the other slit his gut, and all these coins came spilling out.”

“Stop it!” Anneliese spun toward him and stamped her foot. “Why do you torment me with such stories?”

“I wish you could see your face. Come on. Let’s get that coffee.” He crossed the street without her.

Anneliese pressed her fingers against her temples. She didn’t want to be there. Her head ached. Too much moss tea the night before. Perhaps some coffee would do her good.

She followed her husband down a path between the buildings. The scent of food and garbage carried on the breeze. Laughter mixed with music. Anneliese peered ahead, intrigued in spite of her misgivings. The path opened onto a Square. The market blazed with brightly robed vendors and stands with garish awnings. Noise rose in a strident cacophony.

Cade took her hand. “Stay close.”

Anneliese gazed around. A boy juggled handfuls of silver rings. A man danced with knives balanced on his fingertips. Most of the people wore goggles. Others used dark cowls to shade their eyes.

Vendors called to them as they passed, leaning from their booths and waving their wares. Metalwork. Jewelry. Cloth.

“Look,” Anneliese cried. “It’s malpais.”

The merchant yelped and beckoned. He climbed onto the counter as if to reel them in.

Anneliese picked up one of the many figurines. The stone’s rich color was nearly black, and the delicate grain shimmered. “It’s a lizard. I think.”

Cade turned the figure right-side up in her hand. It had six legs and a ridge along its back. In place of eyes, two holes were bored through the head.

“It’s called a teioid. A good representation, too.” He placed the figurine on the counter. “Dur scalar.”

The merchant shook his head and motioned toward the teioid. “Piska.”

Cade slammed down his hand and bellowed, “Dur.”

The man’s face fell. He snatched the stone pendant to his chest.

Anneliese gaped. She’d never seen Cade so enraged. Was he going to strike the man?

Then the vendor nodded. He threaded a leather thong through the lizard’s eyes. Cade took the necklace and lowered it over Anneliese’s head. The weight of the smooth pendant tugged at her neck.

She beamed at him. His anger had been a bargaining ploy. The danger hadn’t been real. Cade slapped two coins upon the merchant’s counter, and Anneliese walked off before she could see if the man ate them.

They came to a stand surrounded by tables. Cade held a chair, and Anneliese sat, her fingers wrapped around the stone teioid. She would always wear it, always cherish this unexpected gift. But she was unable to banish the look on her husband’s face, the threat in his voice as he’d bargained for the necklace.

After a moment, a woman bustled toward them, robe dragging on the rocks. She set a coffee pot and a loaf of bread on the table. Anneliese accepted a cup. The woman bowed, and her hood slipped to the side. Her golden eyes caught the light, shining like the coins she coveted.

Cade poured the coffee then broke the bread in half. Steam leached into the dry air.

Anneliese sipped the bitter brew then forced a smile. “This place is fascinating. It’s more a carnival than a marketplace.”

“Flavor to the atmosphere.”

“With all the trade that goes on here, it’s a wonder these people still live in poverty.”

Cade shrugged. “A good portion of their earnings goes to the Resort.”

“Taxes?”

“That would imply a benevolent government. No, the Resort is more lord than law here, and they expect their cut. This is a carefully maintained society.”

“They’re deliberately kept in squalor?” Realization washed over her. “The Resort uses the city as its tourist attraction then charges the populace for the privilege.”

“You look surprised. I’m sure your father knows the virtues of versatile profit.”

Anneliese frowned, trying to think of a retort, then jumped at an unexpected touch. An old woman crowded her elbow.

“Babesh!” The woman hopped about, brandishing a handful of pointed objects. Her fetid breath sprayed Anneliese’s face.

She snatched her sleeve from the clawing fingers. “What does she want?”

“Soothsayer. Part of their religion. She wants to read your future. Nich! Nich!” Cade raised his hand as if to strike her.

“No,” Anneliese cried. “It’s all right. It might be fun.”

With a scowl, Cade settled back and drank his coffee. The soothsayer drew a child toward the table. The boy was eight or nine years old. His head was large and misshapen, and a string of drool hung from his lips. Anneliese looked away, face burning with awkwardness.

The woman sat upon the gravel and pulled the child beside her. Cupping her hands, she raised the objects then let them fall.

They were common stones, each carved into a geometric shape. As they fell, one of them pointed toward Anneliese. The woman placed it aside and dropped the stones again.

“Babesh,” she murmured.

Beside her, the boy snuffled. His oversized goggles made him look like an insect.

Anneliese shuddered with sudden panic, and she laughed to cover her distress. She motioned toward the growing line of shapes pointing her way. “And this will tell my future?”

Abruptly, the child picked up one of the stones and put it in his mouth. The old woman jabbered excitedly. Rummaging through her robes, she produced a pack of cards and laid them one by one beside the carved stones, finally finding the card that matched the missing stone in the boy’s mouth.

The woman fell silent. For a moment, Anneliese thought she might have fallen asleep. At last, the soothsayer threw back her cowl and lifted her gaze.

Her large, reflective eyes caught the light. She watched Anneliese for several moments. Then she climbed to her feet and placed the card upon the table.

“What’s this?” asked Anneliese.

The soothsayer said, “Your future.”

Anneliese gasped, astounded that the old woman spoke Standard.

“Enough, hag. Be on your way.” Cade tossed his payment.

The woman caught the coin. Then, with her eyes trained upon Anneliese, she opened her hand and allowed the coin to fall. Even in the surrounding din, Anneliese could hear it drop.

Anneliese blinked as if released from a spell. Her senses reeled. The old woman encased the child in her robes and hobbled away.

Cade picked up the fallen coin. “That’s the first time I saw one of them do that.”

Anneliese looked at the card. In its center, a woman with two faces held a sword overhead, one foot poised over a chasm.

“Jefe-Naik,” she read. “What does it mean?”

He held the card to the sunlight. “From this point, you may go in either direction.”

“I suppose that’s true of anyone.” Anneliese wrapped her hands around her cup. She felt chilled despite the heat.

“I’m sorry she upset you.”

“It wasn’t her, it was that… vacant child.”

“Yes. A certain amount of inbreeding goes on here. Luckily, the tourist trade provides enough new blood to prevent a total genetic breakdown.”

“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to have sex with these people.”

He stood. “If I remember correctly, I promised you a tour of the city.”

“Cade, no. I’m not well. The heat.”

“Please.” He held out his hand. “There are so many things I wish to show you.”

Anneliese looked into her husband’s pale eyes and felt her reluctance melt. “Of course.” But as he drew her away, she glanced over her shoulder at the card on the table.

 

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Resort Debauch. If you would like to read more, you can buy it for your Kindle at Amazon. And don’t forget, you can also get the trilogy and read to the story’s explosive end.

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Book Review – Rise of the Darkwitch

Rise of the DarkwitchRise of the Darkwitch by Ziv Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rise of the Darkwitch by Ziv Gray takes place on an alien world that is depicted so brilliantly I feel as if I’ve been there. People, religion, and politics are intertwined in a fascinating and believable society. The alien beings are mesmerizing from their neck scales to their tails yet retain a spark of human emotion that is relatable and endearing.

The story follows the personal journey of a sixteen-year-old girl from abused slave to feared godling. She has no idea what she’s capable of, and her burgeoning abilities surprise her as much as the reader.

I love this kind of underdog story. However, the ending prevents me from giving it full marks. I like books to have a satisfying, all-ends-tied-up conclusion even if they are part of a series. I expect there to be an overall series arc and beneath it individual book arcs. Rise of the Darkwitch doesn’t have that. It ends abruptly in the middle of a pivotal scene. I was left confused and rather annoyed.

But although the ending was not satisfying, the scenes leading to it were. I recommend Rise of the Darkwitch to science fiction fans who enjoy delving into alien cultures.

View all my reviews

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.

 

 

For Young SciFi Lovers

I have great news for young science fiction lovers. The first three Colonial Scouts books (Alien Worlds, Alien Jungle, and Alien Seas) are now in one eBook titled Alien Beginnings. You can get it at your favorite online bookstore.

alien-beginnings-ebook

Or if you prefer print books, as so many teens do, you can get the books separately at Amazon. And don’t think you have to read them in order. They’re good on their own.

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

Alien Worlds: Impani, a brilliant girl with a dark past, dreams of escaping the streets by becoming a Scout. Because she is homeless, she feels she must study twice as hard to get AlienWorldsKindleCover (Small)into the program. The day before her final exam, however, a transporter malfunction sends her jumping uncontrollably from planet to planet. Although the error could be corrected from inside the wormhole, the Board decides she is too young to understand that level of tech.

Will she prove them wrong? Or will she die on an alien world?

Alien Worlds is available in print and eBook at Amazon.

It’s also available, and this is really exciting, as an audiobook at Audible. Pretty cool.

You can listen to a sample here.

Alien Jungle: This one is my favorite. Trace, a new Scout, wants desperately to prove himself to both the Board and to his girlfriend (who is Impani, by the way.) But when he leads a rescue party to a failing colony, everything goes against him.Alien Jungle Kindle Cover

His estranged father turns out to be the leader of the settlement. The colonists think he is inept because he is a teenager. And his disgruntled teammates believe he was named team leader because of his dad. He can tell no one about his secret mission to save only fifteen of the seventy people.

Will he follow orders and leave the colonists to die? Or will he find a way to save them all?

Alien Jungle is available in print or eBook at Amazon.

The audiobook is in production now. I hope to have it out at Christmastime, 2016.

Alien Seas: Natica is drowning in siblings. She hopes that if she becomes a Scout, she will rise above her brothers and sisters and shine. But when a man dies because of her mistake, she leaves the program and returns home a failure.

alien-seas-kindle

Her homecoming is even worse than she imagined. Her twin brother is missing. Despite warnings from the authorities, she searches for him and embroils herself in a growing mystery with far-reaching consequences.

Will she save her brother from himself? Or will he save her?

Alien Seas is available in print or eBook at Amazon.

The audiobook should be out early 2017.

 

 

So there you have it. The Colonial Scout Series. If you love science fiction adventures on distant planets, you’ll love these books!

Storytelling as a Narrative Medium

Storytelling is an oral tradition shared by every culture on Earth. It predates writing.

Street tellers would travel from village to village, thrilling their audiences and embellishing the story with each rendition. Their aim was to entertain, but also to educate, instill moral values, and preserve cultural customs.

I first became enamored with narrative storytelling at a local Renaissance Fair. The ragged performer gathered his audience to sit on hay bales placed in a circle around him. He then enthralled us with a magical story about heroes and dragons complete with exaggerated facial expressions and character voices. Afterward, he passed his hat for payment. Stories like his should never be free.

In this digital age, village storytellers are rare, but oral stories are not. Dramatic podcasts abound on the internet. My favorite is Welcome to Night Vale.

Audiobooks have gained popularity because you can listen to a book while completing other tasks. The majority of audiobook users listen in the car. That way, a long commute turns into an enjoyable ride. An interesting story becomes even more gripping with a good voice actor. I love Jim Dale’s performance in the Harry Potter books. He makes the characters come alive.

Enter audible.com, an Amazon company. Audible is the world’s largest producer of downloadable audiobooks. It’s easy to use. Just install the Audible App on your phone, MP3 player, tablet, or computer. You can then download and store any book purchased through audible.com.

My book, Alien Worlds, is now available on Audible. It is read by the esteemed voice actor Jennifer Fournier. Alien Worlds is a fast-paced science fiction adventure that takes you to eleven unique planets. It is safe for teens—no sex, no profanity—so you can listen without worry with the whole family in the car. Give it a try with Audible’s 30-day free trial. You have nothing to lose!

The face of a robot woman.

ALIEN WORLDS

Regular Price: $19.95

Free

With 30-Day Trial
Membership

Membership Details:

  • First book free with 30-day trial
  • $14.95/month thereafter for your choice of 1 new book each month
  • Cancel easily anytime
  • Exchange books you don’t like
  • All selected books are yours to keep, even if you cancel

 

Countdown Deals – Colonial Scouts

Kindle Countdown Deals are in progress for my Colonial Scouts books, Alien Worlds and Alien Jungle. If you haven’t read them yet, now’s your chance.

 

Alien Worlds: The Girl and the Wormhole

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

Impani, a brilliant girl with a dark past, dreams of escaping the streets by becoming a Scout. Because she is homeless, she feels she must study twice as hard to get into the program. The day before her final exam, however, a transporter malfunction sends her jumping uncontrollably from planet to planet. Although the error could be corrected from inside the wormhole, the Board decides she is too young to understand that level of tech.

Will she prove them wrong? Or will she die on an alien world?

Alien Jungle: When the Jungle Fights Back

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

Trace, a new Scout, wants desperately to prove himself to both the Board and to his girlfriend. But when he leads a rescue party to a failing colony, everything goes against him.

His estranged father turns out to be the leader of the settlement. The colonists think he is inept because he is a teenager. And his disgruntled teammates think he was named team leader because of his dad. He can tell no one about his secret mission to save only fifteen of the seventy people.

Will he follow orders, leaving the rest of the colonists to die? Or will he find a way to save them all?

A Little Background

Readers always ask where I get my characters. Are they part of me? No. Are they based on people I know? No. Here is a little background on my two main Colonial Scouts.

Impani was found in a shoe box beneath a bus stop bench. She’d been making a mewing sound, so the old woman who found her named her after a cat she’d once had. Although they lived on the streets, Impani never felt homeless. The streets were her home. The old woman looked out for her and taught her right from wrong. But she died when Impani was ten. Not long after that, Impani got trapped in a trash compactor while searching for food. She spent the night in the dark with insects skittering over her arms. When the workers came to compact the garbage, they heard her screams. She was remanded to a local orphanage. The institution was not for her; she hated the structure and the rules but was thrilled to finally learn how to read. She ran away two years later but continued to read all she could. That was how she learned of the Colonial Scouts. It became her dream.

Trace Hanson is the only child of a wealthy and influential landowner. His mother, a biologist, was lighthearted and loving and kept his brusque, domineering father in line. When Trace was fourteen, his mother contracted Maramus Disease, a rare, disfiguring cancer. While his father toured the galaxy on a fund-raising mission, Trace struggled to care for his mother. Watching her die was devastating. Worse, when his father returned home, he never mentioned her. Instead, he began hosting gala events designed to find Trace a suitable spouse. At sixteen, Trace left home and found a job as an off-loader for a galactic shipping firm. While on leave on a distant world, he stumbled across a man assaulting a girl in an alley and stepped in to save her. The man turned out to be a local politician who, trying to salvage his political career, claimed Trace had robbed him. The girl settled out of court and wouldn’t corroborate Trace’s story. Trace was sent to a penal colony. But when the courts found out he was underage, they pulled him out of the colony and sent him to the Colonial Scouts.

So you see, my characters aren’t like me at all.

I hope you’ll take advantage of this Countdown Deal for Alien Worlds and Alien Jungle. And keep watch for Alien Seas, coming soon.

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!

Science Fiction Giveaway!

Craving a summer getaway? Enter for a chance to win one of two advance copies of Alien Jungle and travel to another world.

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

Trace, a new Scout, wants desperately to prove himself to both the Board and to his girlfriend. But when he leads a rescue party to a failing colony, everything goes against him.

His estranged father turns out to be the leader of the settlement. The colonists think he is inept because he is a teenager. And his disgruntled teammates think he was named team leader because of his dad. He can tell no one about his secret mission to save only fifteen of the seventy people.

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Alien Jungle by Roxanne Smolen

Alien Jungle

by Roxanne Smolen

Giveaway ends May 11, 2016.

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