Authors: Aubrie Dionne
A New Dawn, Book 3
ATCHING REQUEST DENIED.
Eri stared at the response on her computer screen as reality prickled the hairs on her arms and then sunk like a bomb in her stomach.
LEA IACTA EST.
The die has been cast.
She thought of all the ways to express disappointment in the languages of Old Earth:
in German, and
in French. Such useless knowledge. Her linguist mind teemed with words, making her the most archaic and impractical colonist on the
Not only was her job obsolete, but now she’d never have a computer-designated match.
An oscillating holopicture of her parents’ faces drew her attention. She refused to blame them for her predicament. As an illegal DNA crossing resulting from an unrecognized pairing, she knew the computer would never consider her DNA acceptable for lifemate pairing, especially at her ripe age of twenty-five. Her profile had too many question marks, plus a few propensities for disease.
She should have known from the start. She shouldn’t have persevered, pressing the Matchmaker for a decision she couldn’t make because of the rules. How could the Matchmaker argue with a system that had worked successfully for hundreds of years? Eri’s determination raised her own hopes only to crash them down in the end each time she sent a request.
Well, this was the last time, wasn’t it?
She clicked off the screen. All of the men her age were taken, and the age discrepancy between her and the graduating class was scandalous. She wiped her eyes.
If I can’t work within the system, then there must be some way to beat it by hacking into the matching program or changing my genetic report.
Would the Matchmaker catch it? How embarrassing would that be? What would the punishment be?
Her computer alarm beeped.
Aquaria’s pairing ceremony.
She scrambled through her desk, overturning broken light sticks and soybean wafer wrappers to find something to tame her hair. Using the black computer screen as a mirror, she clipped her frizzy strawberry curls with tiny plastic clips. How could she let so many hours slip away?
Daydreaming about having her own pairing, that’s how. She shot up from her desk and pulled her arms through the ceremonial blazer of her uniform. The
’s coat of arms badge decorated her left breast pocket. Pressing the portal panel, she watched the particles dissolve like her dreams.
The corridors lay as empty and silent as a barren world. The Guide dictated that all colonists must attend each pairing ceremony.
Eri shook her head. She had lamented her own lack of pairing to the point of disobedience. Her boots clunked on the chrome as she rushed through the clear glass corridor connecting her small bubble of offices to the belly of the ship. Stars sparkled like pinpricks all around her. One point in particular glittered like a giant diamond, outshining all the others. The sparkle wasn’t a star.
Despite her tardiness, she stopped halfway down the walkway to trace Haven’s circumference with her finger on the glass. Yesterday, it was the size of her fingernail, but now it glowed beyond her entire fingerprint.
Soon we’ll all leave this ship behind.
A wave of melancholy tinged with hope washed over her. Maybe the computer would reassign her a more meaningful job. With plenty of resources, and couples allowed to have as many children as they wanted, maybe Commander Grier would deem the pairing system obsolete. Maybe.
Eri wanted to stay and fantasize, but she’d already wasted enough time. Would her sister notice if she rushed in ten minutes late with puffy skin around her eyes? Probably. Aquaria noted every new freckle on her arm, as if skin cancer were a problem when they had no sun.
It will be a problem soon enough on Haven, though.
She tore herself away from her future and entered the main corridor connecting to the ceremonial viewing deck.
Rows of uniformed colonists sat on either side of the aisle. Aquaria stood at the podium, holding hands with Litus Muller, her perfectly chosen lifemate. She reminded Eri of the ancient beauties in her translation texts. A lacy ceremonial gown that Eri would never get to wear flowed to the last steps of the stage. Aquaria’s long black hair shone dark as deep space and her skin glowed in the simulated candlelight. While Aquaria inherited their mom’s loveliness, Eri had her dad’s Irish heritage, and with that, his wayward radish-colored hair and blushing, freckled skin. If it wasn’t for the infamy of the scandal, no one would know they were half sisters.
She spotted a vacant seat in the last row and tiptoed over as Aquaria and Litus recited their vows. Eri switched the sound off the locator embedded in her arm. The thought of pressing a button by accident, causing a shrieking alarm to go off, made her always check twice.
“I pledge my loyalty to you and the Guide…” Aquaria kept her gaze on the podium, as if straining to remember her lines.
“I’ll uphold all customs…” Litus’s voice rang out, strong and certain.
Eri blocked their words and focused on the pair. Aquaria’s mysterious blue eyes contrasted with Litus’s perfect curls of blond hair. They were two opposites, like a moon and a sun, and yet they complemented each other.
Eri shifted as they recited their final vows. The congregation applauded, a roar of sound changing the solemn atmosphere of the room. People stood from their seats as if Commander Grier’d had them glued there all day. Ushers carried platters of food from a dwindling biodome harvest. The sweet scent of fresh fruit filled the room. Eri slipped through the spaces in between groups to grab an apple and congratulate Aquaria before the receiving line grew too long.
“Eri! There you are! I kept looking for you in the crowd.”
Aquaria threw her arms around her and squeezed. “I’m sorry, Aquaria, I came in late and had to sit in the back.”
“What’s wrong?” Her sister’s eyes shone so bright, Eri saw her disheveled appearance reflected in them.
“Nothing. I wanted to congratulate you.”
“Nonsense.” Aquaria waved away the ceremony like she was shaking off a chore. “Something happened. Are you sick?”
“No. You should be with Litus. I’ll tell you about it later.” Shining the apple with her finger, Eri suppressed a wave of guilt. Her sister shouldn’t spend her reception worrying.
Aquaria took her hand in a viselike grip, her lacy sleeve tickling Eri’s arm. “I’m not going anywhere.” Aquaria tugged her away from the crowd, and they ducked behind the podium. “Not until you tell me what’s got you so upset.”
The scent of artificial lilac tickled Eri’s nose as they stood over the vent. She struggled to keep her composure. She was the older sister by two years, after all. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she met her sister’s penetrating gaze.
“The Matchmaker turned down my pairing request again.”
Aquaria’s mouth fell open. “That’s not nothing. That’s everything you’ve been working for. And to have to come to my ceremony afterward…Eri, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m worrying you on what should be the happiest day of your life.”
“Litus is important, yes, but so are you. My relationship with him doesn’t diminish what we have, and it never will.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “And you deserve to have a lifemate just like everyone else, especially if you want one. I don’t care what the computers say.”
Eri stepped back, shooting a look across the room to make sure no one was eavesdropping. She’d never heard her sister talk blasphemy against the Guide.
The locator on her arm vibrated, and she checked the sender, relieved to have something else to look at other than her sister’s overly compassionate face.
A single message scrolled across the miniscreen.
REPORT TO THE MAIN CONTROL DECK IMMEDIATELY.
Eri almost choked when she saw the sender.
Aquaria grabbed her arm. “What is it?”
Eri began to shake, and her knees weakened. “It’s a message from Commander Grier. She wants me to report to her. Now.”
Because I showed up late?
Impossible. How could the commander oversee every operation on the ship and keep track of each colonist at all times? Commander Grier had never acknowledged her in any way, not even a stray flick from her computerized eyes.
She’s just a brain connected to the mainframe. Maybe she has nothing better to do.
Aquaria blinked in surprise. “Well, you’d better go now, you lucky star. It’s not every generation someone of our status gets to meet the commander.”
Wouldn’t Aquaria rather enjoy her pairing ceremony than meet the commander?
Eri shook the thought off and gave her a quick hug. “You’re right.”
The corridors to the main control deck stretched before Eri like a forbidden land. No one passed beyond the row of guards without sufficient clearance. People worshipped the commander like some demigod because she was the last of the Earth generation. She couldn’t have all her devoted followers kneeling at the main control deck’s portal.
Eri would much rather sneak back to her office and read ancient Greek plays. But in a ship surrounded by deep space, she had nowhere to hide. No one disobeyed the commander.
A guard three heads taller than her scanned her locator and allowed her through with a narrowing of his eyes. Eri returned his stare as she passed. After the denied matching request, having someone question her importance churned her stomach.
The portal to the main control deck fell away like a million swirling stars, and she stepped onto a viewing platform that spanned the entire length of the front hull. Galaxies stretched out in smears of cosmic dust, and nebulas swirled in bright reds and blues. Haven 6 glittered at the center, like a diamond stuck on a painter’s easel.
A giant screen lowered in front of her. The pixels flashed to life, and the commander’s sharp features and bright green gaze studied her.
Eri wasn’t fooled. The image was only a recreation of who Ursula Grier used to be. In reality, the commander’s brain floated in pink embryonic liquid in a locked glass tank behind the screen.
She bowed before the pixels. “Eridani Smith at your service, Commander.”
“Excellent.” The commander’s eyes moved from Eri’s scuffed space boots to the clips in her raging hair. Did her cheek twitch, or did the pixels just flash?
“I need to know the extent of your dedication to our mission on Haven 6.”
Eri swallowed hard. Was the commander questioning her because of one tardiness in all her history?
Stick to the truth, and your voice will come out strong.
“I’m looking forward to landing more than anything.”
The commander’s eyes narrowed. Eri resisted the urge to squirm, feeling like an insignificant fly.
Can she see my intentions to hack into the matching system? My continual cursing of my archaic job?
The image of the commander’s face grew so large, her eyes took up the whole screen. “Would you do anything to ensure the survival of the mission?” Her voice boomed, echoing over the glass sight panel.
The commander’s gaze simmered, searing Eri’s mind, and Eri straightened up, standing as tall as a five foot two woman could. She thought of Aquaria, her parents, even Litus. “Of course.”
The commander’s face returned to its normal size. “Good. I have a mission for you.”
Eri dropped her jaw, and then snapped it back up. Did Ursula Grier want to learn French?
“I know this comes as a shock. Sit down before you pass out. Let me explain.”
The commander flicked her gaze to a row of stools against the sight panel. Not wanting to seem insubordinate, Eri nodded and climbed onto the nearest one, pushing off a film of dust.
Not many guests for the commander.
Eri’s short legs dangled, and she tensed her muscles to hold them in place. Now was not the time to look childish.
The commander’s image fizzled for a second, then blinked back on. “We reach Haven 6 in a week. As you know, scouts sent out hundreds of years before we left Earth reported it uninhabited by humanoids or any other intelligent species.”
“Last night we reestablished contact with the scout droid sent to Haven 6 hundreds of years ago. Using its interface, we rebooted the satellite orbiting the planet. The satellite picked up images that would suggest the initial scout readings were wrong.”
The commander’s lips set in a grim line of disapproval before her face disappeared. Blurred images of a forest with brown thatched roofs poking out from the canopy filled the screen.
Eri leaned forward, eyes wide. Intelligent life? Not one scout ship had ever picked up even a sliver of proof they weren’t alone in the universe. Since the space pirates severed all communication among the colony ships, there was no way to tell what any other colony ship had encountered. The commander’s image reappeared before Eri could get a better look at the alien settlement. “Which leads me to alter my plans. I’ve appointed you part of an advance mission before colonization. A research ground crew.”
Eri steeled her knees so she wouldn’t collapse off the stool into a puddle of mush on the floor. “Why me?”
“You’re our only linguist, Ms. Smith. You must decipher the alien language and root yourself into their society. Only then can you estimate their abilities and any imminent threat to us.”
Did the commander choose her because she was expendable, or truly because of her linguist skills? She shot down the first thought and continued to listen.
Maybe for once I’ll be important.
“We’re not going to land on a planet that may endanger the lives of the people on this mission. You, along with a small team, are to befriend whatever creatures reside on Haven 6.”
Eri’s heart almost burst with pride. “You want me to represent the
Grier’s lips tightened like she was mildly annoyed. “This is precisely why all colony ships have at least one linguist—in case they encounter extraterrestrial life.”
“Of course. I-I knew that.” Eri stuttered over her words. “It’s just—I’m so shocked. I’m honored and humbled you’ve chosen—”
Grier interrupted her. “Report all of your observations to me directly. I need to know their intelligence level, their advancements, and any weaponry these aliens possess.”
Eri saluted. “Yes sir, Commander.”
The mention of weapons did raise a red flag, but Eri squashed the concern down. The commander was just protecting all of them, making sure no one from the ship would get hurt. Besides, this was the first time she’d been assigned a task that would make a difference, and she wanted to prove herself and make the commander proud at the same time.
By the time I’m done, they’ll be begging to promote me. Then, I’ll have my choice of a lifemate…gorgeous eyes, chestnut hair…someone to talk to, grow old with…
The commander’s rigid voice startled Eri out of her daydream. “Report to the briefing at seventeen hundred in Bay 6. Don’t repeat this to anyone without code nine clearance. Project reference: Delta Slip.”
Eri bowed, her curls falling on either side of her face. She snapped up and turned on her heel, thinking of all the language syntax refreshing she had to do.
The breeze raised every hair on Striver’s arms as he crouched behind a fern cluster, downwind of a bathing swamp boar. The smell of wet hair and mold assaulted his nostrils. The beast stank when it was alive, but roasted on a spit, the smoked meat tantalized his taste buds. He ran his tongue along the tips of the feathers on his arrow for a slight spin when launched.
The boar rose from the water, its hairy hide, over a meter long, prickling the surface. Striver lifted the arrow and cocked his bow.
Holy Refuge, this beast is huge.
Taking a deep breath, he calmed his nerves and sharpened his focus. The boar would feed the entire village for two days, but if it sensed him and charged, its sheer weight alone could crush him. Never mind the cloven hooves. Its snout wiggled, wrinkling up between its curved tusks as it sniffed the air.
No way it’ll sniff me out.
Striver had wrapped swamp weed around his biceps, streaked mud across his forehead and cheeks, and wore a velvety mire leaf on his back. He reeked so much like a swamp rat, he wouldn’t be surprised if one nested in his hair.
Just a little higher and he’d have a direct shot.
The beast sunk until only its black eyes crested the water and Striver cursed under his breath. What was it waiting for?
Leaves rustled across the bog. Striver spotted the boar’s quarry. A weasel worm poked its head from the shoreline, whiskers twitching. The swamp boar stilled.
No, no, no. Not now.
Maybe the weasel worm would squiggle back into the log?
Luck was not on Striver’s side. The small mammal slithered across the shoreline in his direction.
His father’s teachings came back to him.
Wait for opportunity to show itself. Don’t run from fear.
The swamp boar took off, water rippling as it swam across the bog and reemerged on Striver’s side, chasing after the weasel worm. Sludge dripped from its jaw and hefty flanks as it climbed ashore and gained momentum. Then its black eyes locked on his. He aimed and released the arrow faster than his heart could beat.
The beast charged as the arrow slipped through the air like a silent secret and plunged into its chest. Striver fell sideways as the boar roared in pain and slid across the ground, its massive body flattening all the vegetation in its path. Swillow wisps launched in flight, and the weasel worm darted into the undergrowth as if using Striver as a distraction had been its plan all along.
Upturned leaves drifted back to the forest floor. Striver waited until silence fell before emerging from the ferns. He approached the beast from behind, walking through the upturned brush without a sound. It stared into the trees, bleak and unresponsive. He watched the chest for movement, but the boar had released its last breath. Relieved and humbled, he tied the feet with a rope and dragged it away from the shore. He could not bear its weight on his own, so he’d have to ask the villagers to help. Using a few palm leaves, he hid the boar from other predators.
Noting his current coordinates, he slipped the disguise off his arms and circled the bog, using the sun poking through the canopy as a guide. He’d traveled far tracking the beast.
Almost to the border.
Striver paused, leaves rustling around him as a breeze cooled his tense muscles. It would only take a few more steps to reach the wall. The odds of any sign of Weaver were slim, but he’d promised his mother. He had to try. Turning back, he circled the bog and headed to the wall.
The stone fortification rose from the trees like an impenetrable wall surrounding his village’s territory in a semicircle from the mountains in the north to the sea in the south. The stone cast an ominous shadow in the forest. As he approached, the undergrowth tapered off, the darkness too absolute for much growth. Only the tallest trees rivaled the concrete. He touched the cool surface, feeling a mix of wonder and disgust at the only sign of technology in an otherwise natural world. Built by his ancestors, it was meant to segregate the law-abiding from those who wished to follow the pirate legacy.
Metal rungs led to the top, where knife-sharp shards of wood and flint protruded like the hairs on the boar’s back. Striver hung his bow around his chest and climbed, hoping the Guardians didn’t notice his detour. He reached the top and peered through the sharpened pricks. A façade of slick concrete fell to a moat so deep, the water churned black. The tail of a leecher swept up, slapping the surface, and disappeared. But Striver wasn’t interested in the moat waters. He looked beyond the dense trunks, tempted to call out his brother’s name.
“He won’t come.” The voice came from the sky. Striver turned as a ten-foot wingspan blocked the sun.
Phoenix. Had he been watching the entire time?
The Guardian spiraled down, landing on the branches of a nearby tree. He folded his winged arms, iridescent feathers settling behind him, and regarded Striver with pale, opaque eyes. His beaked mouth chirped once, a melancholy sound. “You must let him go.”
Ignoring him, Striver gritted his teeth and climbed down. “I’m never going to give up on him.”
“His life path is his own choice.” The words lilted like sweet birdsong, but to Striver they soured in his stomach.
“I know the rules.” Striver jumped the remaining meter to the ground. The Guardian flew from the treetop and joined him on the forest floor.
Striver resisted meeting his gaze. Phoenix’s controlled emotions frustrated him. Sometimes he wondered if the Guardians felt anything at all.
“I mourn Weaver’s loss as well,” Phoenix said.
Striver pulled his bow over his head and secured his arrow bag closer to his shoulder. “He’s not your brother.”
“We are all brothers here.”
“Of course.” As if he’d forgotten. He knew very well the colony’s unity, taught by the Guardians, was their strength. He just didn’t want to hear it now.
Striver gestured toward the bog. “I felled a boar. Will you help me carry it back?”
“That’s why I came to get you.” Phoenix’s large eyes glistened in a patch of sunlight and, for a moment, he looked amused.
“Must you follow me everywhere I go?”
“The chosen leader of the people has to remain safe. You take risks, just like your father did. Besides, I was guarding the border. I only spotted you when the swillow wisps rose from the trees.”
Striver quieted with the mention of his father. They walked the remainder of the way in silence, listening to the calls of den micers and the pattering feet of weasel worms. The putrid bog air turned to the crisp smell of fresh leaves.
A horn wailed over the forest, and they paused, searching the shadows around them. Striver whispered, “Which direction did it come from?”
Phoenix craned his head. “South. By the
Clutching his bow, Striver darted through the undergrowth as Phoenix rose to the sky. The Guardian flew swiftly, but he’d be damned if he let the birdman beat him to the call. Jumping over a brook, he landed on the other side and his boots slid along the embankment. He regained his footing and sped forward, following others as they rushed along the border.
When he reached the southern portion of the wall, men perched along the ridge, firing arrows across the moat on the other side.
Weaver. I hope he’s all right.
Scrambling two at a time, Striver climbed the rungs. He reached the top just as Carven released an arrow. Lawless men and women braved the moat, carrying lengths of rope to storm the wall. They wore boots made from thick boar hide up to their waists to protect against the sharp teeth of the leechers.
“Damn pirates have come for the ship,” Carven growled, reaching behind him to pull another arrow from his bag.
Striver let an arrow fly as a warning and turned to Carven, wondering how a father of four could look so fierce. “They’ll never make it across. The water’s too deep.”
Carven shook his head, streaks of gray hair making him look older than his years. “They don’t have to.”
“But their arrows will never reach—”
One man waded into the waters and held up a black bow, made from bray wood and strung with swamp thickets. He raised it to the top of the ridge and let an arrow fly with a rope attached. The arrow hit Thrift, the potter from their village, and he fell backward off the wall until the rope pulled taut. Lawless hooted in triumph.
Striver’s heart sank.
I know that bow.
Weaver had equipped the army with Striver’s latest invention, the Death Stalker. They’d made them together for the last hunting season. He’d been so proud of his brother for helping him design it. Never did he think Weaver would use the great reach of the bows to scale the other side of the wall.
Never did he think his brother would side with the enemy.
As he gawked, Lawless flooded the wall with arrows, securing ropes. Three men dangled from the first rope, climbing closer to the top of the wall, hand over hand. A team of men on the banks covered them. Guardians flew above the mass, dropping nets to confuse and contain the horde. At a time like this, Striver wished their culture allowed them to act more aggressively.
“There’s too many; I can’t keep them all back.” Carven’s voice wavered.
“Hold your position. Focus on the banks.” Striver shouted the orders to the others on the fence and grabbed an arrow from his bag. The chaos around him muted as he focused on the rope. He saw every twine of fiber and the bulge of the three-part braid.
His arrow sailed across the moat and severed one of the braids. The men on the rope held on as their lifeline bounced but didn’t break.
An arrow whizzed by his cheek. A moment later he stood, aiming for the same spot. The men hung only a meter away from the unguarded part of the wall where Thrift had been stationed. Striver swore he could smell their unwashed clothes and fresh sweat.
Carven gritted his teeth as he ducked behind the wall. “They’re coming.”
“I got ’em.” Striver pulled the bow taut, feeling the familiar stretch of his arms. He released the tension and the arrow flew a millimeter lower than the first one, slicing the rope in two. The men writhed in the air as they fell to the moat. The leechers swarmed, and the water boiled with their wrath.
Blocking their screams, he turned to the other ropes and raised his bow. This time his arrow sliced two at once, each rope sending more men and women into the murky waters. Carven hollered in triumph by his side, but Striver felt no accomplishment in sending men to their deaths.
Carven shouted over the wall. “Take that, you Lawless pirates!”
Disheartened by their comrades’ plunge, and writhing in the nets the Guardians had dropped from the sky, the Lawless retreated to the water’s edge and into the safety of the dense forest, pursued by the Guardians above.
“Well done, Striver.” Carven saluted him. “You’ve driven them back.”
Disgust overwhelmed him as he watched the leechers swim in and out of the pile of empty clothes floating along the surface. “If only they’d stay in their own lands and stop bothering us. No blood would be shed.”
Carven put a hand on his shoulder. “As long as we have the
, they’re going to keep coming.”
“I’m tempted to destroy it. As much as it is a reminder of where we came from, it holds too many secrets. If the Lawless got their hands on that technology…”
“They won’t. We’ll protect it like we always have.”
Striver sighed, the adrenaline rush wearing off. “I hope so.”
As the last few men disappeared into the forest, Striver spotted a head of chestnut hair a shade lighter than his own.
Was it him?
“Weaver!” He picked his way through the razor-sharp protrusions on the ledge.
Carven called after him, “Striver, wait! It’s too dangerous with Lawless still out there.”
The older man grasped his pants leg, but Striver pulled away, a razor edge slicing his pants cuff. “I have to see if it’s him.”
Just as he dangled over the fence, the man’s head of chestnut hair turned back. Green eyes bright as his own glimmered over a tightlipped scowl that sank Striver’s heart in swamp sludge. Weaver ducked under a moss-laden branch and disappeared.
Eri paced outside Aquaria’s new family cell, her redheaded halo reflecting in the dull chrome.
Should I disobey the commander and tell Aquaria about my mission?
She could trust her. Only her sister knew of her pairing requests, and she’d never spoken a word of it to anyone. But could Aquaria keep the information from Litus? Lifemates didn’t have secrets. Eri didn’t want to stand in the way of her sister and Litus. But she also didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye.
Eri buzzed and her sister’s heart-shaped face flashed on the hailing screen. Tears streaked her cheeks and she wiped red, blotted eyes. “Eri, I was hoping you’d stop by.”
Thoughts of her new mission fell away.
Her voice quivered, and Eri leaned toward the screen. “Aquaria? Are you okay?”
The screen flashed off and the particles of the portal dematerialized. Aquaria ducked out and checked both ends of the corridor before pulling her in. “Come and sit with me on the couch.”
The smell of brewing vegetable stew made Eri’s stomach gurgle. Passing by a wallscreen of daises bowing and lifting in a silent wind, Eri settled into the cyber-green plastic couch, wondering if the furniture had come with the apartment. Aquaria favored blue. “Is everything okay?”
Her sister sat beside her and took a deep breath. “Commander Grier assigned Litus to the exploratory team.”
“Oh.” Of course. It made perfect sense she’d cry for Litus. Eri put an arm around her shoulders.
Maybe today isn’t the best time to tell her of my assignment.
“That’s not all. He said you’re on the team, too.” Aquaria stared at her, as if daring her to deny it.
Eri frowned and watched the daisies. “I saw tree huts. The inhabitants are hardly anything to worry about. I’m just so excited Commander Grier asked me to be a part of the team.”
“It makes perfect sense. You’re an excellent linguist, the best that’s ever lived on this ship.”
“It’s a galactically spectacular opportunity to advance my career.”
Aquaria sniffed. “This is it—your chance to make a difference. Your destiny—everything you’ve been preparing for your entire life. You have to go out there and live it. I only wish it wasn’t so dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Eri hadn’t even thought of it that way. More like advantageous.
Aquaria took her hand. “She didn’t tell you about Delta Slip?”
Eri leaned forward, denial blocking any open thoughts. “Yes, she did. I’m supposed to gather information and root myself in the aliens’ culture. Befriend them.”
Aquaria’s features grew solemn. “I don’t think that’s all she means to do.”
“What are you saying?”
“Litus hasn’t told me everything—he can’t.” Aquaria’s gaze darted to a holopicture of their wedding on the far wall. “He shouldn’t have even mentioned the fact that Haven 6 was inhabited, but I pressed him. I mean, what’s a marriage if you can’t even tell your spouse what’s going on?”
Aquaria clenched her hand into a fist and jutted out her chin.
Eri wanted to help, but she wasn’t a marriage therapist. She needed to figure out what Aquaria was trying to tell her about the mission. “What
Aquaria took a deep breath like she was repressing feelings Eri shouldn’t know of. “From the cryptic answers he gave me, I got the impression that you’ll be collecting information to use against the inhabitants.”
Acid burned Eri’s stomach. “The commander said I was to befriend them…learn their language…”
“Think about it, Eri. What kind of information did she want from you?”
Here was the red flag Eri had blatantly ignored. “She did mention weapons, but I thought it was only to protect us.” Even as Eri defended the commander, doubts crept in. “Her mission is to look out for us. Not any other species. If they did present a threat…”
Aquaria nodded conspiratorially. “Commander Grier would make sure they wouldn’t get in the way. In the most thorough manner she could.”
Eri ran her hands through her curls. “Which puts me in quite the predicament.”
Aquaria shrugged, her intense gaze turning to the blowing daisies. “Maybe we’re worrying over nothing. You said you saw thatched trees huts. Maybe they’re not a threat at all. I don’t mean to belittle your mission. In fact, it’s probably the most important mission in all of this ship’s history. I’m just asking you to keep your eyes open.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I snuck a look at the mission’s supplies. They’re bringing gallium crystal void rays.”
Gallium crystal void rays hardly sounded diplomatic. Eri covered her face with her hands. “I don’t want to be a spy.”
Aquaria grabbed her hand, squeezing so hard, her fingernails dug into Eri’s skin. “Listen to me. You’re going to have to find out if these creatures are peaceful. If they are, you’re going to need to decide.”
“Whether or not to warn them.”
Eri froze. Blasphemy leaked from her sister’s mouth.
“I can’t go against the commander or the Guide.”
Aquaria nodded and looked away. “That’s a decision only you can make.” She spread her hand over the layout of her new family cell. “Look at me—I’m hardly one to speak. I follow the Guide to the letter, and what has it gotten me? A cyber-green couch and a wallscreen full of daisies.”
“And handsome Litus.”
Aquaria’s gaze roamed to a distant place Eri couldn’t see or understand. “How could I forget? I just wish I knew more about him. I want to know who he is inside, not the façade he puts on for everyone else.”
Eri’s mouth snapped shut. Maybe the façade
the real him. For Aquaria’s sake, she hoped not.
The wallscreen beeped and a smooth-toned voice sung out, “Fourteen hundred.”
Aquaria dabbed at her eyes, brushed off her pants legs like she had crumbs all over her, and stood up. “Litus will be home soon. Come, I’ll make you a cup of tea.” The change in her voice and her composure was a shock, like walking from the rainy biodome into the fluorescent halls.
Eri balked, unwilling to get up from the couch or leave their conversation. So many questions lingered.
As if on cue, the portal dematerialized and Litus stood in the doorway in his navy officer’s uniform. Aquaria walked over and gave him a peck on his cheek. “Welcome home, hon.”
He noticed Eri on the couch. “I didn’t know we had company.”
“Eri stopped by to see our new place.” Aquaria disappeared into the kitchen.
Eri stood up, plastic crinkling, hoping the cyber-green didn’t melt onto her white uniform. “I like the daises on the wallscreen.” She didn’t mention the couch.
Litus set his workbag down by the portal. “That was Aquaria’s idea, right, dear?”
Aquaria shouted back a response between gurgles of the food congealizer. “I thought it would brighten up the room.”
“Are you staying for dinner?” Litus turned to Eri, his face somber and unyielding. Eri wondered what thoughts swam behind his unwavering blue gaze. He seemed to size her up, calculating her inner feelings.
“No, I have a lot of work to do.” Not wanting to burn in his gaze any longer, she ducked her head into the kitchen. “Bye, Aquaria.”
“Good luck, Eri. Remember what we talked about.” Aquaria whipped her head around from the countertop preparation to give her a steady stare.
As Eri passed by Litus, a faint smile brightened his handsome face. “See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Was Litus coming by to learn Spanish?
“The first training session for Delta Slip.”
“Oh, yeah.” Aquaria’s new information had blindsided her so completely, she’d forgotten. “Of course.”
“Looking forward to it, I hope. It’s an honor to be chosen for the team.”
Eri traced the doorframe with her pointer finger, collecting dust on her fingernail.
An honor. Yeah, right.
The laser-training arena sat in a bay near the library. Eri had walked down the corridor countless times to research old texts and run her hands over real books from Old Earth. She’d never had a reason to stop for target practice in the arena. She almost passed the portal and waltzed directly into the library out of habit.
The conversation with Aquaria from yesterday still swam in her head. Did the commander plan on cohabitation or annihilation?
If it was the latter, the commander asked her to represent a civilization that would ultimately spell the natives’ doom. She was more than a delegate. She was a spy, a bringer of death. Shriveling inside, Eri wondered if she possessed such cool callousness. A thousand doubts clouded her mind. This mission struck a dissonant chord inside her. Even though it came directly from the commander, it wasn’t right.
Thatched tree huts were hardly the handiwork of a mechanically advanced society. Commander Grier was overreacting to the threat, and Eri was her pawn. But did she have a choice?
You’re going to have to decide…
Whether or not to warn them…
That’s only a decision you can make for yourself…
She had no idea her sister was a closet rebel. All those pretend games they had played as kids suddenly had new meaning. One question rose above the rest. How deep did Litus’s alliances lie? For once, Eri was glad she wasn’t paired with someone like him, because she wanted a partner who shared her dreams, someone who was able to open up and tell her how he felt.
A burly man passed by, flicking his ID badge to open the arena portal. Eri stepped into a jungle. She reached out and her hand passed through a thicket of vines, feeling thin air. Holograms. Designed to resemble the environment they headed into. A shiver ran up her spine.
She moved to the center of the arena where a group of men and women congregated. Some were lieutenants in training, others special ops, and a few were the commander’s highly trained bodyguards. All were built like they could wrestle a bull to the ground and eat its guts raw. She felt like a mouse cowering in their shadows.
A whisper hissed from the crowd of giants. “What’s she doing here?”
“She’s a linguist.” The other voice dripped with sarcasm.
Eri turned to identify the speaker. A man with a buzz cut and bristles on his chin looked down at her like she was some annoying cleaning droid. “Going to talk to the aliens, huh?” He held up his gallium crystal void ray with large ionic chambers on either side, a weapon almost as long as she was tall. “Here’s my medium of negotiation.”
Everyone chuckled. Eri must have paled because one woman with thick eyebrows taunted her. One small braid stuck out the top of her shaved head. “Don’t worry, we won’t let them hurt you.”
“Enough, Mars.” Litus’s voice resonated across the arena. He walked through a fern cluster to meet them. “We have a small team of ten and everyone’s here. Let’s get the show on the road.”
The crowd quieted. Litus’s leadership skills impressed her. She’d never seen him in action before. Wouldn’t Aquaria feel lucky with her pairing now?
Litus waved his arm in an arc. Thatched tree huts littered the canopy. The scout droid flew down from a branch, collecting samples from the jungle floor. “These are pictures shot from our satellite droid on Haven 6. Pictures taken before this happened.” He pointed to a section of the jungle. An arrow whizzed through the air and Eri ducked. The man behind her didn’t flinch as the shaft flew through his body and out the other side.
Embarrassment flooded her and her cheeks burned. Someone laughed, but Litus’s glare stifled any further derision. He raised an eyebrow at Eri. “Good instincts.”
Another arrow followed, and a portion of the wallscreen fizzled out and went blank.
Litus turned to the crowd. “The video input feed was disabled. That’s all the info we have.”
The man with the buzz cut stepped forward. “Arrows. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It does seem primitive, Tank. Still, you can never be too careful. That arrow knocked out our scout in one hit. That’s why the commander is sending us first. Our mission is to collect as much data on our new environment, and on those who inhabit it, as possible. Eridani Smith is our interpreter, and everyone, and I mean everyone—” Litus glared at Tank. “Must listen to her.”
Mars’s voice purred like a lioness. “Why the target practice, chief?”
Eri watched Litus’s reaction carefully.
Yes, why the humongous laser guns?
Litus shifted, bringing the gun down to his waist. “Like I said, we can never be too careful. We’re invading their planet, taking over their home. We don’t know how our visitation will be received. There’s a good possibility we’ll have the same welcome party as this unfortunate satellite droid.”
Eri raised her eyebrows, sizing him up. Did he just give away an element of the plan? Or was he being overly dramatic to warn them of what the creatures might think?
Litus held up his weapon. “Everyone’s laser is set for practice mode, which means you are shooting harmless light. But try to take this as seriously as possible. We wouldn’t want friendly fire once we landed, so let’s not shoot each other today.”
No matter what the mission was, Eri questioned having her own laser. Would a leader of state attend a meeting with a laser gun? No. Having a weapon might make her a target.
Rustling disturbed the leaves behind her and Eri whirled around. “What is it?”
“A target.” Litus stepped over to her and offered her a hand laser. “I’ve already input the code.”
She took the laser in both hands and the weight dragged her wrists down.
Litus stood aside as a gray figure darted in and out of the foliage. “Target anything that moves.”