Book Review – Terms of Enlistment

Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1)Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Terms of Enlistment by Marco Kloos depicts a future Earth of overpopulation, poverty, and violence. The story follows Andrew, a young man who hopes to escape his dismal existence by joining the military and leaving the planet.

I was in the mood for a nice book with lots of space battles. This wasn’t it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad book. But the first half takes place on terra firma. There’s a nice action scene at a riot in Detroit, however, it left some questions unanswered. The protagonist wondered why the opponent was so well-equipped, and I also wanted to know. How did starving ghetto dwellers get their hands on top-of-the-line military-grade weapons and ammunition? Why do they have skilled sharpshooters? Why did they spring a trap against the military at all? It seems the answers to these questions would be part of the plot, but since they went unanswered, the Detroit scene had little purpose in the book. Perhaps future books in the series address the issue.

Finally, he gets to go to space and fight the aliens. These are slow-witted giants who don’t wear clothes. They don’t even have shoes on their three-toed feet regardless of the terrain. They don’t have weapons–they throw rocks. I honestly thought that these were the livestock left behind by an intelligent race while terraforming the planets. They must be intelligent. They are spacefaring. Their ships are indestructible. They can terraform an entire planet in a matter of weeks. So, who are these lumbering dinosaurs that the military battles? Again, the questions go unanswered.

Terms of Enlistment is not a terrible book, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it. I did finish it, which is more than I can say about a lot of books.

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Book Review – Tiamat’s Wrath

Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse, #8)Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Tiamat’s Wrath, book eight of The Expanse series, the crew of the Rocinante are scattered across the galaxy, each on their own secret mission. Holden’s mission is to promote discord and dissension within the Laconian Empire. Amos wants to rescue the Cap and blow stuff up. Bobbie and Alex are playing havoc in their stolen Laconian warship, trying to destroy morale as well as military targets. And Naomi is working to have the rebellion infiltrate key positions within the empire itself. But Elvi is on a different type of mission–she is scouring the galaxy for clues as to what killed the protomolecule race before they kill the human race as well.

Tiamat’s Wrath has two main plotlines–the underground rebellion against a dictatorship and the incursion of murderous trans-dimensional monsters. The story is written in alternating viewpoints with no lack of action and suspense. I recommend Tiamat’s Wrath to science fiction fans as well as to fans of the television series, The Expanse, and I look forward to seeing it come alive on the show.

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Book Review – Caliban’s War

Caliban's War (The Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caliban’s War is excellent science fiction. It follows the crew of the Rocinante as they attempt to save a little girl from being turned into a protomolecule monster by a group of mad scientists. World-building is excellent, taking us from overcrowded Earth to the domed farms on Ganymede to volcanic Io. There are space battles and political intrigue.

The events in the television series, The Expanse, follow the book quite well. If you are a fan of The Expanse, you owe it to yourself to read Caliban’s War. It’s like watching the show with a little more depth.

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Book Review – Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a fan of The Expanse on television, so I picked up Leviathan Wakes to see how far the television series deviated from the book. I was pleased to find that the producers followed the original story quite well.

One thing the series got right was adding Chrisjen Avasarala’s viewpoint. The book is written with alternating viewpoints of Holden and Miller. All of Earth’s political machinations were given as conjecture by one character or another in long passages. I would have liked to have seen the intrigue take place in the book.

But, being a book, Leviathan Wakes was able to go into greater detail than the TV show was able to do. Backstories fleshed out the characters. I was interested to learn that the reason Belters talk with their hands is that you can’t see a shrug or a nod when the person is wearing a spacesuit.

The book shows why Leviathan Wakes was chosen as a television series in the first place. I recommend Leviathan Wakes to fans of the show as well as anyone who enjoys good science fiction.

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Book Review – The Children of Time

Children of TimeChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not Mary Jane Watson. I don’t like spiders. And if I’d realized The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky was about spiders, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late–I was sucked in by the story. The creative, inventive, totally engrossing story. About spiders. And who would have believed that by the end of the story, I would be rooting for the little buggers?

The Children of Time is excellent science fiction filled to the brim with space flight, technology, and alien culture. It makes a point I’ve been saying for years–spiders are aliens waiting to take over the world.

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My Top Ten Tweets for #writers

My Top Ten Tweets

Top Ten Tweets

 

I love to write, but with writing comes marketing, the bane of my existence. I began gathering tips about writing and marketing from various blogs for easier reference. One day I thought why not share? So here we go. Follow me on Twitter @roxannesmolen for more tips.

Seven ways writers can stay sane during the holidays http://bit.ly/2Blb2L8  Happy Holidays! #writers #indieauthors

16 Self-Care Tips for Worn-Out Writers http://bit.ly/2AO0Hqg  #writerslife

How To Improve Your Grammar (Writers’ Cheat Sheet) http://bit.ly/2Bmrpat  Take a look at this infographic. #writingtips

How to Create an Anti-Hero Like Homer Simpson – ProWritingAid http://bit.ly/2Boq0jZ  #writingtips

The Basics of Blogging – Your Blog’s Appearance http://bit.ly/2nQUswV  #writers #bloggers

Writers: Are You Ready To Sign With An Independent Publisher? Read This First #AmWriting http://bit.ly/2nHrdg5  #writerslife

How to Judge a Book by Its Cover http://bit.ly/2o3cKet  More guidelines than rules, but helpful if you’re creating your own book cover. #indieauthor #writerslife

A Look Back at 2017 Publishing Headlines: 5 Issues Raised for Authors | Jane Friedman http://bit.ly/2AYWyOm  #writerslife

Writing Believable Sci Fi Space Stories – Pitfalls to Avoid http://bit.ly/2CdAleQ  Don’t irk the nerds. #writingtips #SciFiFri

Eight Markets Seeking Speculative Fiction http://bit.ly/2B8MHaI  Find a home for your short story. #writerslife

 

A little self-promo: ‘Keepers of Magic: The Adventures of the Power Girls’ : #ReadIndie http://indiebookdiscovery.com/ibd/book/3392_keepers-of-magic-the-adventures-of-the-power-girls_by_roxanne-smolen#.WjQewMLkPII.twitter … A fun gift for the little girl in your life.

 

Happy Holidays, everyone. Keep on writing!

Book Review – Mostly Void, Partially Stars

Mostly Void, Partially Stars (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, #1)Mostly Void, Partially Stars by Joseph Fink

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to Night Vale is a darkly humorous podcast about the Twilight-Zonian happenings in the small desert town of Night Vale. Mostly Void, Partially Stars is the transcript of the first season of episodes. Why read a book when a podcast is meant to be heard? For one thing, each episode is prefaced by personal insights and commentary by the producers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. I loved getting a behind-the-scenes look. Also, by reading at my own pace, I was able to pick up nuances and references I missed while listening. I was able to page back at will and avail myself of the many inside jokes.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is a worthy addition to the weird-book nook of your bookshelf. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys conspiracy theories and tongue-in-cheek sci-fi.

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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.

RDeBook

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!