The Crown and the Crud — first page

She was as beautiful as ever; clad in swaths of royal blue and glittering with gold trim, from the ornate slippers gracing her delicate feet, to the tiara’s circlet tucked among her soft, dark curls.

“Lady Orcosa,” Carey murmured obligingly. Bow, he reminded himself, his waist tucking with the appropriate ritual of respect… even as his jaw tightened on a crudload of far less appropriate disrespect.

“Your Highness.” Elrianne Orcosa’s slender frame dipped in a similarly forced curtsey, her eyes glued viciously to the toes of Carey’s polished boots.

Arm. Carey proffered the obedient appendage as he pivoted to face the banquet hall’s doors. He locked his gaze on the ornate woodwork before them as the light touch of his lady’s fingertips drifted over his forearm, with all the poisonous delicacy of an allergic viper. Gloved fingertips, of course.

“How fares my beautiful bride?” Carey murmured sidelong at her, surreptitiously observing her for a reaction. It would be a shame to lose ground, this late in the game. Especially when every step of ground gained made for irresistible entertainment.

But Elrianne was good at this game; her touch did not even stiffen against his arm, her gloved fangs light on his sleeve. “I am well, my lord,” she purred back through her teeth. Of course she was good at this; she’d had over five years of bridehood to perfect her technique.

Five years his bride, and none of them his wife. Wifehood would require the removal of the gloves. For starters.

 

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Failsafe Prologue

I really suck at saving the world.

It was my job, see — my one job. Infiltrate the super secret research base underneath the top clearance military base, where humanity is (probably) poised to discover interstellar travel secrets… and mess stuff up. Set your research back a few steps, hopefully a few years or decades. Even a few months would give my race, the Desai, a chance to get a foot in Earth’s door, before all the other races could beat us to it.

But the good ol’ US military found me first. They were just doing their job, pointing a couple dozen assault rifles in my terrified teenage face…

Let me back up.

The Desai, we’re Earth’s neighbors, galactically speaking. We were technically the first to discover you guys, your biosignatures, at least. Boy, does Earth have plenty of them, too. The discovery’s ripples must have circled Homeworld’s sensational news postings for months, while our whole planet drooled over the data, watching your world ooze signs of life into cold space for our starstruck speculation. So much water. Enough water to support dozens of our worlds. Your world makes good use of it, with so many layers and layers of ecosystems, all intermingled and mostly balanced. But you could tweak things a bit — drop a species here or there — and have loads of water to spare. Water that the rest of the galaxy could make a lot better use of. Trust me.

So we drooled. But we also told the Galactic Security Force about you, like we were supposed to. There was a faction that didn’t want to, but word leaked. Planets are leaky like that. And the GSF set about monitoring Earth, and waiting. They’re good at waiting. Then again, it’s policy — no interaction with dark worlds, not until they’re spacefaring. And then, when the moment finally comes to meet up with them, it’s always a special delegation packed with all the best feet our galaxy can put forward. To make sure we don’t offend our new friends from day one, and vice versa.

But… but… All that water. And Earth is a dark world, sure, but you turned out to be so close to seeing the light. Just a hop, skip and jump away from spaceworthy, with various nerdy corners of your globe twiddling with all the right research. Give you another decade — or the right kind of nudge…

Too bad that sort of dark world interfering is illegal. Way illegal. Like, hello-galactic-high-court illegal.

So we have to do it quiet-like.

My world set about planning our interference. Planets are leaky, but small parts of planets can handle secrecy, about most things. So a group of us started spying on you, finding out how we could best plant the Desai in all the right places on your world, and do our waiting from the front of the line. Because we wanted to be your best friends, your first best friends.

That’s when we discovered the Jesque had beaten us to it. Yep, they were already crawling all over your world, in the form of tweaked humans, “exomans” you might call them. These exos looked every inch like real humans, except for the adjusted brain bit. The bit where they know they’re Jesque, and they’re on a mission. To be your first best friends. Instead of us.

We were livid. (If you’ve never seen a livid Desai, it’s quite a show — just imagine a whole spy headquarters learning about the Jesque infiltration at once…) We wanted to run right to the GSF, to parade the Jesque infraction in front of them and watch the gavel of galactic justice fall. But… then we’d have to explain how we discovered them… how we were about to do the very same thing…

So we came up with Plan B.

Me.

I was supposed to be a normal little kid, with a Desai exo brain, slipped into one of those high school tours they sent to the Lewis B. Pennyworthy Lab. The top part of the Penny Lab, at least — the part where high school kids are allowed to tour. I was supposed to slip myself the rest of the way into the Penny Lab, find the top secret, few-steps-from-spacefaring research corners, and bump you guys back a few more steps. If I could slow up the research, maybe my Desai friends could figure out how to get rid of the Jesque exos before you go spacey.

It almost worked. My modified top-clearance fingerprints helped, got me all the way down there, right into the middle of it all —

And then it didn’t work. And then I had all those guns pointed at my head. And then…

I failsafed.

My head decided I was either about to die, or about to betray the Desai, and my failsafe mechanism kicked in. The one that the scientists put in my head, to make sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the Earthlings — or the GSF — who I was and who sent me. Don’t ask me how it works, I don’t care. Don’t ask the scientists how it works either, unless you want a lot of species-specific medical mumbo-jumbo that I couldn’t understand even back when my brain was screwed on right.

So I don’t really know what happened up there. All I know is, I blinked, and forgot everything. Not just where I was, or why I was down in the Lab… Everything. Like, who I was. My name. My mom’s name. My dog’s name. My school’s name. My planet’s name. For sure, I forgot the Desai, and the rest of the galaxy and all its politics. That was the purpose of it, after all. The rest of my memory — that part was just collateral damage. The failsafe left me walking around like any other self-conscious teenage Earth girl, trying to be normal, just like everyone else. With a head full of collateral damage.

Some are born normal. Others have normality thrust upon them.

And still others get it yanked away again. I’ve got the world’s worst case of normality whiplash. Now I almost wish I could go back to the days when all I cared about was whether or not Petrel was actually watching me from across the cafeteria.

But I’m not made for normal. I’ve still got a job to do, even if I’ve forgotten most of it, and they had to glue my memory shrapnel back together with a million nanite solder guns.

I’ve still got to save the world.

Fighting Blind sample

Here are the first few chapters of Fighting Blind!


 

 

Prologue

Such a pity human bodies need so much sleep.

Derreste tossed a practiced scowl at the stiff legs she had just disentangled from the hammock, and willed the blood’s traffic jam to decongest before she threw the rest of the body’s weight on them. She had been able to slow down the body’s deterioration significantly since she’d meshed with it, nearly forty of the human woman’s years ago, but the thing had still found its way to middle age despite her attempts to drag its feet through the decades. So few decades, and she already needed a replacement.

She felt the muscles of the face pull into a tighter scowl… then slacken with a resigned sigh… then brighten with hope again. It was a rehearsed routine—both physical and emotional—practiced enough that Derreste only ever let it waste a few seconds of her time. Time… something she had never thought to cherish, until she’d stepped into a body with a truncated timescale.

Derreste forced the tingling legs into motion, carrying her the few steps away from the hammock to the shirt that she had left on the floor. She stooped to retrieve it, and shrugged it over the body’s thin shoulders, slipping the neck hole past a wry grin at the humans’ sense of modesty. She herself would never bother with it; bare skin made for easier communication. But the unmeshed and unevolved humans didn’t share that appreciation quite so much, and the boy was supposed to report in today, with the human video technology that always grabbed at least the top of the shoulders…

The boy was coming along nicely. Derreste felt the grin tug further at the muscles of the face, as she pulled the arms up to weave a vine through the head’s thick forest of curly black hair, tugging it back into submission again. The boy would be ready soon, ready for the evolution that necessarily preceded meshing, to transform the human body into something slightly more habitable. He was almost old enough already; the body nearing its physical peak with the brain’s development plodding along more sluggishly toward independence. Old enough to fight, young enough not to ask too many questions about it. He would be ready soon… just in time for the recapture of the base and the station.

Derreste craned the stiff neck backwards to catch a glimpse of the cooler patches of sky between the relative warmth of the rainforest’s leafy canopy. The humans’ space station waited above, somewhere tucked between those leaves, oblivious to the surface’s simmering coup d’etat. Derreste had already waited out the decades; she could let the station nurse its oblivion just a little longer… Until the boy was ready, and meshed with Mahren, taking his place at her side to drag the station—and its teeming population of gloriously mesh-able human bodies—down within reach.

Derreste deflated with a patient sigh, allowing the neck a couple of extra twists to work the kinks out as she pulled her gaze and her thoughts back to reality. Stiff, middle-aged reality. That replacement couldn’t come soon enough… and it wouldn’t hurt if it were a young one, maybe the boy’s age, with strength and capability to match… maybe one that wouldn’t need quite so much sleep… Derreste allowed the lips a twist of a grin, reining the rest of her thoughts back from that familiar track, and headed for the Tree.

Her wolves had another plane to catch.

 

Chapter 1

One more cursory glance at the control panel, and I’m free to wrap my fingers again through the grips on either side of the cockpit’s eject hatch above my head, and start hauling my body out of the seat. The panel’s readings are all normal, the same story they’ve been giving me for the last twenty minutes of the flight, through the first half of my exercise routine. We’ve got another twenty minutes yet before we’ll have to land, and I can get a couple more sets in, if I keep moving.

Cockpits don’t lend themselves easily to exercise routines. Cockpits don’t lend themselves to much of anything, really, save the obvious. But actually flying the plane isn’t an option, not today—Suhara will chew me out if I try, even if I just accidentally brush the controls. It’s our first surface mission in weeks, and Suhara’s got the remote helm. Her body is trapped back at the base, cocooned in one of the control tubes to keep her mind focused on the job of coaxing our tethered plane gently over the tops of the rainforest’s trees on the planet’s surface. My body is more free, I guess, to fly along over those trees, with my safety and stomach contents at Suhara’s mercy. I’m a sort of physical failsafe, eyes and ears—ha—inside the cockpit, in case anything goes wrong with Suhara’s remote control. At least, I’m in here for today, because she convinced me it’s her turn to fly.

But whatever—this Failsafe won’t waste a moment, not even the cockpit ones. Not when there’s a chance some of the other juniors might be doing their own cockpit pull-ups, in hopes of chewing into my lead in the fitness rankings. Lence posts the rankings every night, so as recently as last night my lead still held—far enough ahead of the other females, even nipping at the heels of some of the males. Male competition won’t matter, in the long run—the fitness rankings always keep the guys and girls separate—but I can’t help a bit of a devilish grin at the thought of out-lifting even a couple of the guys.

So I grip the eject hatch handles above my head with renewed enthusiasm, hauling my body upward out of the seat again. Cockpit pull-ups are hard to pull off; you have to bend your lower half just right to make sure you don’t hit any of the controls on the way up or down—

“Surface Control, this is KAT-56, over sector 21, I’ve got activity on the surface ahead, just east of our target.”

I let go of the handles as eagerly as I grabbed them, sliding back into my chair—and my failsafe duties—with an excited jolt, already bending forward to check the monitors in front of me. Suhara’s statement is right; the edge of the screen is twitching with activity. Movement on the surface, maybe a pack of wolves out hunting—

“KAT-56, we copy that, what is your target?”

I frown at the monitor; the blip on the corner of the screen is widening, blossoming into a swarm of smaller blips, probably a dozen or more. Maybe not a hunting pack, then… The keng wolves usually hunt only three or four to a pack, not nearly this many. I’m already fumbling to resecure the restraints I’d stripped off for my exercise routine, the restraints I shouldn’t have taken off in the first place—but seriously, nothing more exciting than cockpit pull-ups ever happens on maintenance missions anyway—

“Surface Control, we’re headed to sonic station 22-A, currently over sector 21. Looks like activity on the border between sectors 21 and 22, can you confirm?”

On the border… Suhara’s right. The pack is hugging the border, just east of the sonic station. I pull a grimace—the wolves’ presence is practically proof of the sonic station’s failure, the failure that our maintenance mission was supposed to forestall. So the sonic emitter is down, and we won’t be able to count on its help in chasing the wolves away, not for this trip, or any other future maintenance efforts. And this sector guards the small strip of cleared land that serves as one of our runways, along with a few bunkers of supplies and servicing gear—not a good sonic station to lose.

“Activity confirmed, KAT-56. Do not engage—repeat, do not engage at this time, stand by.”

I drag my eyes through an automatic roll. It took me most of combat training’s eight months to get pre-combat training’s “do not engage” litany to stop bludgeoning my brains. SurfCon—and BaseCon and StatCon, too, for that matter—tend a bit toward the over-cautious side. Ask questions first, shoot later… then ask a heap more questions all over again in the post-mission debriefing. Fight only if attacked. Try retreating first.

“Standing by, 56.”

I can’t help a grin at the unmistakable sound of Suhara’s rolling eyes. Suhara Salway would never step so out of line in front of her superiors, not with her father’s—and grandfather’s—reputations for exemplary service, but the cocoons and cockpits hide all sorts of mockery from superiors’ inspection. And I’ve got a bit of a backstage pass to Subordinate Suhara, having put up with a lot more of the side of my roommate and friend that the superiors will never see. I can feel her frustration—we’ve been part of Lieutenant Orwell’s combat training team for eight months already. We’re as eager as the rest of the team to see actual surface combat—as eager as the young lieutenant himself must be, after eight months of training juniors. One month left till graduation, and we’re all free.

And, if the rankings hold, Orwell’s team might just have itself another winner. It takes one to train one, after all.

I fold my lip in a practiced bite, holding all angles of that particular grin in check. Not even the inside of an empty cockpit can be trusted with the expression of that dream; I’ve buried it as far away as I can from the sort of jinxing—and certain humiliation—that might surface along with it. Station-wide highest rankings might be within my grasp, but I’ve got plenty of competition for the top, some of them friends… some of them close enough to share the cockpit with me, albeit virtually.

“Surface Control, KAT-56, we’ve got movement, looks like they’re heading south-southwest, vector 220, moving fast… 16, maybe 15 k.”

A glance at the monitor confirms Suhara’s warning. The pack is on the move, the cluster of blips shifting as one swarm away from the sector border, heading south by southwest… That sort of vector will put them right in our flight path.

“Looks like an interception trajectory, Surface Control, please confirm and advise.”

I can feel Suhara’s nervous energy twitching my own muscles; my fingers dance just above the controls. The cockpit’s human failsafe is only useful for landings, take-offs… and combat. My fingers are just waiting for SurfCon’s go-ahead, and I’ll be in the game—the fighting game, at least. Local takes fight, remote takes flight. We’ve practiced it so many times that the simulations have to be sick of it by now.

“KAT-56, we’ve got—” The radio’s response breaks off abruptly into silence. Charged silence… I can feel my pulse beat twice for every lengthened second, my head running through the calculations from the readings on the monitor… The pack is moving fast, the plane even faster—less than a minute till interception—

“KAT-56, get out of there, pull up and get out now.”

The plane is already tugging upward under Suhara’s immediate reaction, even before the words die on the flycom’s lips. The man is trained to talk into a radio all day, spooling out a measured response for each and every scenario, from weather to wolf attack. He’s not supposed to sound this scared.

I gulp a quick breath, my hands twitching away from the combat controls, closer to the flight systems. From the man’s tone, this is more than “do not engage,” this is “punch it out of there,” and the failsafe is probably more useful as flight control backup, in case Suhara’s ascent turns out too steep.

Oy. Too steep indeed… I can feel my stomach gritting its teeth against the change of direction, my head already swimming with sudden dizziness. And there goes my vision, crackling in warning… then flickering out, and flashing back again.

I fling one hand down to the controls to slow Suhara’s climb a bit, and fling the other hand to my visor. That black-out was the visor, not my accel-dizzy consciousness…

I squeeze a quickened breath past the sudden fear clawing at my throat. The visor. This is not the time for a visor failure… I can maybe bear the humiliation of passing out from the ascent, but I’d rather gouge out my useless eyes than crawl back to Torreson Base with a dead battery and a dead visor… But I was sure that I charged it last night; I don’t forget to charge it, not ever, not anymore…

The plane is pulling out of a sickening dip, Suhara’s attempt to recover from my instinctive intervention. I can’t help but wince—I’ll hear about that one later… But an angry Suhara I can handle, on my own two feet, rather than dragged limp from the cockpit.

And there my vision statics again, snapping in and out. This… this isn’t a dead battery, this is some other sort of failure, maybe a loose connection or something—

“Surface Control, I’m—” Suhara starts, breaking off for a split second as the plane jerks again back into line. “We’re having trouble, I’m… I’m losing connection somehow, Meia are you pulling manual?”

I scramble for the radio. “No, I’m not touching anything—” Blackness again; vision gone, then snapping back in a dizzying flash… Cockpit one moment, shifting dark the next… “I’m having trouble too—” My face scrunches with a quick cringe; I’ve only barely gotten my training peers to forget—or at least pretend to forget—my handicap, and I’m not eager to explain my vision’s quirks one by one over open radio to the puzzled flycom—

“KAT-56, get out of there now! You’re almost on top of them, you’re gonna need to pull out or start shooting; both, if you can handle it!”

The wolves… I’d almost forgotten them, but the flycom sounds scared again. The pack is just ahead, between the plane and the wide strip of cleared ground that buffers the small runway from the thick surrounding forest. The flycom’s right—we’re almost on top of the pack already. But if we’ve got SurfCon’s permission to start shooting…

I jerk my hands back to the combat controls—I’ll only have a few short seconds during the plane’s flyover, but our trajectory’s almost perfectly lined up, and I can hit them hard, just squeeze off enough rounds—

Another snap, another crackle…

And I’m totally blind.

 

Chapter 2

I’m not totally blind.

The cockpit’s blackness dances with the a few of the usual flickers, the ones that visit my unaided vision on a normal day… back home at base, or on the station… away from wolves and technical glitches and radio bedlam…

But the visor is out, dead, zapped or something, and without it I’m basically as good as blind.

I can still remember the grin on my dad’s face, the first thing I saw after he snapped the first prototype visor’s tiny battery into place, then connected the thing to the implant at the base of my skull. The visors were nothing new at that point—the base and station had been luxuriating in the coupled visor and implant technology for years, enjoying the immediacy of visual connection to communication and internet and computation via the old-fashioned transparent screens dangling from every brow. But mine was one of the first visors to add stereo cameras to all that, feeding visual information as well as communication into my implant, connecting my heretofore useless eyes to the rest of the world.

And with a simple switch, my world changed—the explosion of detail and color chasing away the darkness and flickers and shadows of my own eyes. That was over ten years ago now, just after my eighth birthday. I remember being thrilled with my new freedom; prancing around the station, challenging anyone and everyone to a fistfight, just to show off my new sight… Finally I’d been able to see, just like the rest of them.

Even better than the rest of them. The visor’s vision boost doesn’t erase my own vision’s weird flickers completely, it just layers on the stuff that the rest of everyone else can see. So the flickers stick around, and sometimes they help me out a bit, give me an edge over all the functional eyes around me. Like at night—I can see the flickers better at night. And somehow I can fly better than the others, at least when it’s my turn at remote. Maybe I’ve had a lot of practice turning off my own instincts, and letting the implant do the work. Everyone else had to learn to not fight their implant, before they could fight or fly or anything… Not me. I’ve always been tethered to the thing, like it’s some sort of high-tech seeing eye dog.

I don’t care what exactly makes it work; all I know is, it works. I’ve got the rankings to prove it.

Until it doesn’t work. Until suddenly I’m hurtling over the trees blind, with some sort of loose connection, about to get a whole lot looser…

“SurfCon, I’m… It’s all gone, I’m locked out! Flight’s gone, radar’s gone, I’m disconnected or something!” Suhara’s voice crashes through my cockpit. Scared, confused… the sort of scared and confused that turns my scared and confused into really, really scared and confused… Suhara’s losing remote?

“We copy, KAT-56, you’re going to have to go manual on this one, keep your nose up if you can, looks like you’re drifting. Cockpit, can you confirm?”

Drifting… cockpit, that’s me… I fumble for the radio again—at least the mic’s strapped to the side of my face—and try to squeeze the words past my spasming throat. “KAT-56 cockpit, confirm manual… but I’m blind, I lost my visor connection somehow, I can’t see anything.” I jerk my arm toward the controls, but pull back, afraid to touch anything. A flicker follows the motion, but not the sort of flicker that can show me where the elevators are… But I’ve trained in these cockpits for years, I’ve got to be able to find stuff and make it work, at least hold the plane steady till Suhara’s back again—

“Cockpit, say again? You’re going to have to pull manual, get out of there—”

“I can’t see anything,” I choke out, past the rising panic. “Visor’s out, I’m blind”—I shake my head in frustration—“not instrument blind, I’m really blind, like my eyes don’t work—”

The plane twitches violently sideways, throwing my left elbow into the controls. We just hit something. Of course we hit something; we weren’t all that high above the trees to start with, and we’re drifting…

SurfCon is yelling something, probably telling me I just hit a tree, telling me to pull up, running through all the desperate commands my brain is screaming in chorus… My brain is a lot less polite, but no less urgent…

A quick flash makes me gasp, and blink—another flash follows it; the cockpit is jumping back in and out of view, bright with dizzying sunlight all around me, spotted with the dark shapes of looming trees… I gulp and shake my head instinctively, as if the motion could bring the bright world back again—there. Another flash, longer this time, long enough to get my hand to the elevators and ailerons, banking left away from the closest tree—

“Wait I got something—” The plane jerks under Suhara’s sudden control, overcorrecting my move, skidding us even further out of the tree’s way, too close to the next one. We both pull back, but that’s too much too—and my vision’s gone again. Suhara echoes my frustrated growl; she must have lost remote at the same time…

But then I’m back again, just in time to skim the next tree. SurfCon is begging us to pull up—that’s a great idea; I yank on the elevators… But Suhara’s there too, pulling the same move, flattening me into the seat as the plane’s nose strains for the sky. Then the tail shakes with our slipstream… and we’re stalling.

Way too close to the ground.

It has to be some combination of instinct or training—instinct to back off the elevator and pitch the nose down again, training to punch the throttle until the plane slams forward, fighting to recover its lost lift. I know I’m not thinking anything through, not at this point; the thinking part of me is trying not to. Those trees are too close for thinking, thinking is only going to turn into panicking.

Someone up there is thinking, though. SurfCon is hollering something about the runway.

The runway. Last I saw it, the runway was just ahead, maybe south a bit off of our bearing—

It’s there. The trees are thinning through the cockpit windows, just ahead and to the right… The plane’s still fighting the turbulence and the trees, but we can make it… I’m about to yank the controls again, but I stop myself, remembering at the last minute Suhara’s overcorrection and its disastrous results… The plane eases right, headed for the lowest of the trees on the runway’s edge, just a little bit more and we’ll make it—

But then SurfCon’s instructions register with Suhara too, and she’s adding her little bit more to mine. I try to pull back, but we’re fighting each other again, and all I can do is punch it forward, through one last tree, one last sickening jerk and crunch as something scrapes our nose and underbelly… then we’re through.

And hurtling at an angle across the base of the runway, headed for the rest of the trees on the other side.

But we’re only at fifty feet, and falling fast—we should be able to land before the forest’s edge.

Land… oh dear.

My brain decides to amuse me with all of my training’s reminders, all of the steps I’ll need to pull off a safe and comfortable landing… Line up the runway. Slow down but don’t stall. Landing gear out. Okay, landing gear… if we still have it, let’s get it out there, as much out there as we can before it’s got to smash into the ground. The grinding noise the gear makes on its way out is not comforting, neither is the sudden torque pulling us sideways, hard right… That’s not good. A wheel mangled, or missing altogether—

Not good. Not good not good not good—

The ground finally rips at the fuselage, its rough embrace no gentler than the trees’ earlier caresses, dragging my twisted metal exoskeleton to a grinding stop, just short of the runway’s sidelines, beneath the silent, leafy spectators.

 

 

“MinuteSnatch” writing snatches

For me, novel writing leaves a lot of “in between” time, time that wants to be filled with writing of other sorts.

Cue my “MinuteSnatch” blog:  “Writing snatches, like YouTube videos: average 4:12 minutes, with occasional cats.” Samples are below.


The latest MinuteSnatch is a quick story about my two little boys, just for fun: “The Consequences Voice – 0:28“.


A few of the snatches are samples from my young-adult science fiction novel, Fugitive Star:The Fight – 3:45” (actual intro to the book) and “The Test -5:54“.


One is a short story, futuristic flash fiction: “The Escape – 2:02“.

 

Fugitive Star sample

Here’s the first chapter of Fugitive Star! 


 

Chapter 1

They were a good match. They hadn’t always been, but then, Aylin had never been eighteen before, and eighteen brought a certain level of confidence and agility that evened the match a little. At this point, Aylin Starr’s skills with the ring and blade would make her a good match for anyone.

Even the captain.

They were a good match, and so the match wore on. He pulled out all the tricks she knew he would, and one by one Aylin countered them. She had long ago decided that each of his tricks would only ever fool her once, and she had taken to practicing her blocks in secret before each fight, then surreptitiously watching the flickers of surprise across his face at each of his failures.

He stepped wide, then quickly back, and started to shift balance, feinting low and dodging high, just as he had tried three days ago… But she was there, and more than ready. Her counterattack caught him off guard, and she took another step of precious ground, her momentum carrying her into the latest of her memorized attacks…

It worked. His block was hasty, his defense was open… and with a final twist Aylin brought the captain’s ring and sword together to the ground.

Quietly.

She gave a silent yell of triumph to her empty bedroom.

She could see it now… His surprise would melt quickly into a grin of pride, as he realized he’d lost the tournament’s epic duel to his best student, who had finally surpassed his skill in the ancient art of arenhol fighting.

A quiet chirp turned her glance toward the bed; the handheld she’d tossed aside was warning her that it would shut down soon unless she favored it with some sort of interaction. Aylin grinned at it. The thing had a right to be sulky; it had taught her that last move she’d used to win so many imaginary fights recently. The arenhol simulation holo-program Arnham had written for her was perfect; the captain would never expect her to pull out moves he’d never taught before. For all she knew, he’d never even learned them before…

That thought rode a wave of adrenaline and brought an almost-squeal, silenced out of habit, but only barely. Not that she would have minded waking them up; today of all days they shouldn’t be sleeping. But no, she had to keep her secret for one more morning. The afternoon would come soon enough, and with it the “tournament” in honor of her birthday, where she’d been promised one last duel against the best and only swordsman she had ever crossed blades with.

Her father.

She had never allowed herself to say–or barely even think–those words together in one breath before. It was too dangerous, her father said; there were too many people who would want to kill her if they knew that she was Aylin Starr. But now, today, she was finally old enough to submit her application to join the Mardoc Defense Forces. Today at last, Captain Draekel Starr, the best starfighter pilot in the Galaxy, would officially be her father.

She could see the look on Arnham’s face now, as he finally figured it out… Their four years of training together as Captain Starr’s students had ended too soon, when Arnham had left to join the Mardoc Defense Forces three years ago. A much younger Aylin had secretly hoped his application would get turned down, and he would have to come back for another year… But Draekel Starr was as good at training students as he was at everything else, and Arnham had been placed instantly, with excellent promotion potential.

Aylin had long ago given up on the idea of Arnham returning, but there were other ways to end up working with him again… And the captain said she was an even better pilot than Arnham was; she would pass the flight test in his K-16 starfighter with such high marks they wouldn’t even look at her application.

The application. She grabbed the handheld from the bed, and flipped through till she found it, reading it over again to make sure everything was correct. Her age, eighteen years, finally eligible to join Mardoc’s team of elite starfighter pilots. And her real name, Aylin Starr, across the top, waiting to be read–

A small noise roused her from her concentration, only because she had been waiting for it for hours. In a quick leap, she was off the bed and across the room to the door, opening it carefully to make sure she hadn’t imagined the sound…

But no, there was a light near the table. They were finally awake. She stowed the sword and ring hastily in her closet, and hurried down the stairs. This was going to be the best day ever.

Shaelia Starr looked up with a smile at the familiar ruckus on the stairs. The table in front of her was covered in enough books and papers to give Aylin a headache just looking at them, but her mother’s gray eyes were alive with excitement, and her long brown hair was tied back in an orderly cascade of waves that mocked the tangled mess on Aylin’s head.

You missed your Buuri lessons so much, you’re up early to get a little bit more studying in?” Shaelia asked with a glint in her eye.

Aylin pulled a well-practiced grimace. “No thank you!” She had happily learned Alak, the standard language of the worlds neighboring Mardoc in their sector, and even Elson, the sophisticated speech prevalent in the political sector of the Galaxy, but she had never made it through even the basics of the nearby sectors’ languages, Ta’nuran or Buuri. Her mother was fluent in both–she was even writing a book on some of their more rare dialects–but Aylin had never even met anyone besides her mother who could speak either. One did not need to know Buuri to fly a K-16… but that argument had worn grooves in both of their patiences.

She was happy to see her mother awake, but she was a little disappointed to see books instead of breakfast. “Can I get out some food?”

Shaelia laughed. “Food? Isn’t it a little early yet?”

Aylin sighed at the semi-darkness outside the kitchen window; she had thought it was getting light enough… “But I’m hungry already,” she protested.

Too much arenhol practice?” Shaelia asked, raising an incriminating eyebrow.

Aylin blinked. “How did you…?”

I’m your mother. It’s my job to know everything.”

Please don’t tell!” Aylin begged. “I’ve never had the chance to beat him until now!”

The front door opened, cutting Aylin off mid-plea. Her father’s dark head appeared first, tousled by the wind that was always whipping around the cabin and the woods, then Draekel knocked the dirt off his boots and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. His black eyes flicked their way, and a quick smile chased the shadows from his face. “Hey little ragka.” He turned to hang his gun on a well-worn hook near the door.

Aylin grinned back at the nickname. Hey captain. What’s going on?” Her brows furrowed with suspicion. “Why were you outside?” He’d better not be practicing too

Draekel threw his coat onto a nearby chair. “Call from Aliok.” After a second glance at the coat, he picked it up again and hung it next to the gun. “Took it outside so I wouldn’t wake you up.” He grinned at Shaelia, who rolled her eyes.

Aliok?” Aylin perked up. “We’re still going there for lunch, right?” A trip to Mardoc’s capitol never took very long in her father’s K-16, and didn’t even require exit and re-entry. She had a lunch to eat and an application to submit…

Draekel pursed his lips, and a few shadows returned. “The general says he has some sort of errand for me. So yes, we’ll head there as soon as possible this morning.”

This morning?” Shaelia asked. The question echoed with an unspoken “already.

Yep, this morning.” Draekel was already heading to the kitchen. “The sooner the work’s done, the sooner we can get to that tournament this afternoon.” He tossed Aylin a grin over his shoulder. “I hope you’ve been practicing!”

Again Aylin stifled the thrill of anticipation. “I’ll get my stuff ready!” The stairs flew by, two at a time, on the way back to her bedroom. The handheld with its application, the radio her father made her carry everywhere, the boots and jacket under the bed, her passcards and ID… She left the sword and ring in the closet with a wink, and flew back down the stairs.

Don’t forget breakfast,” her mother teased as Aylin threw lunch into a bag.

Lunch will be early,” Aylin retorted. “And Dad’s already outside, ready to go.”

Ready, is he?” Shaelia held up an identical lunch bag with a smile.

Aylin grinned and grabbed them both. “Thanks Mom! See you later!”

Her mother’s “happy birthday!” followed her out the door.

Draekel was indeed waiting. “Took you long enough,” he teased.

Aylin dangled the lunch bag in front of him. “Long enough to bring your lunch!”

Draekel turned to wave his familiar salute toward the kitchen window, walking backwards down the path. “I guess you can take your time, then.”

Aylin waved too, then turned to follow, falling in step beside him while the path was wide. “I brought my application,” she announced happily, finding it hard to think about anything else.

Don’t I have to sign something on it?” Draekel asked.

You have to write a one-page recommendation,” she reminded him.

Right. I’ll just use the one I sent with Arnham and change the name.”

Dad…” she started to protest, until his teasing grin stopped her. “As long as you put in my last name, I don’t care.”

The trail quickly became narrow again as they reached the edge of the cliffs, so Aylin had to walk behind him. The early sunlight was reflecting on the most distant waves of the sea, and the crisp air made everything feel clean and bright. It was a perfect day for a birthday.

The path led along the edge of the cliffs, past the jutting strip of land they had named Lometh’s Point after one of Mardoc’s larger moons, and toward the small hidden cave which housed Draekel Starr’s K-16 starfighter. Soon the path dipped suddenly and curved around a great boulder into the cliff-side, and they both navigated carefully down the stone-cut steps to the cave’s door.

Draekel was in the lead, and he stepped through the small entryway and flipped the lever to open the larger doors to the hangar. The sound of nearby lapping waves immediately filled the cavernous room, and the early morning light began to slip through the widening crack as the hangar door rose, curving obediently into the cave roof. The light spilled across the crouched shape of the captain’s K-16, poised in the center of the room as though longing for the freedom promised by the opening door.

Aylin could understand. She placed her hand on the ladder and began to climb into the ship, while her father walked around to the other side to run through the perimeter checklist, as he always did. But then his voice stopped her: “We won’t be leaving just yet,” he called from the other side.

Aylin paused in confusion, then jumped down again to join him. “Why not?”

Her father gave her an enigmatic look. “You’ll find out,” was all he said, then he stepped away from the ship toward the cave’s opposite wall. Aylin followed carefully, picking her way cautiously along the uneven floor, the stone grooved with the leftovers of explosive charges. Her father had blasted the cave into the cliff-side many years ago, destroying the cave’s natural roof and restoring it with a shielded imitation that sheltered his K-16 from both weather and unwelcome surveillance.

The water from the sea ventured a little ways into the cave near the side wall and collected in small pools as the waves lapped on the rocks at their feet. Across this natural pool Draekel carefully stepped, placing his feet on hidden stones and crevices that Aylin couldn’t see until she stooped to look. The steps carried them both to the far corner of the cave.

Where are we going?” Aylin wondered aloud.

You’ll see.” Draekel pulled a penlight from his jacket pocket and clicked it on. In the focused beam of light, Aylin saw the corner of the cave. There was an edge of rock jutting up from the cave floor to the ceiling. Her father stepped around it carefully, taking the light with him.

Uh, Dad–” Aylin started to say, for in the darkness she could see nothing, and the rocks she had seen were sharp.

He turned around, and his light again illuminated her way.

Thanks.”

Carefully, her eyes on her feet, Aylin made her way after him.

Okay… stop,” he said after they had gone a short ways. Aylin obeyed.

The light clicked off, and for a moment there was absolute darkness.

Um…”

There was another click, and a loud grating noise, and suddenly light flooded Aylin’s vision, growing from a crack to a foot and steadily more as another huge door slowly opened. She could see waves outside, bright with the sunlight, but her attention was caught and held by the rest of the new cave into which she found herself staring. For a brief moment, she thought that they had gotten turned around, and had come back into her father’s cave again.

Then she saw it.

Chapter 2

The new cave was full of K-16 starfighter…

321Science!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work for NASA?

Me too, so I did. And guess what? It involved a big whiteboard, a DSLR camera, a few quirky ideas and quirkier artists, and a lot of whiteboard markers… make that a LOT of whiteboard markers.**

The result? My very own invention, 321Science!

You can watch the YouTube videos that my team created by clicking on the logo below:

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And if you like narcissism prettied up in a cutesy 2-minute bio sketch about me, check out this one, made for the Women’s Stories initiative:

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** Many whiteboard markers died to bring you 321Science…