Laughter and excitement carry through the Northside Mall, more than I’ve heard in years. Eating take-out French fries, I watch shoppers stroll by, clutching troves of their purchases. Clara spears at her salad, going on about the job she’s lined up in Poughkeepsie.
“If I work hard, I could get a transfer to Manhattan in just a few years,” she says, eyes lit with anticipation. “Or maybe I could go to the Boston branch—I don’t really care, as long as it’s somewhere big!”
“Yeah,” I mumble, crumpling the grease-stained bag. “Sounds great.”
Clara’s smile evaporates. “Sorry. I’m going to miss you. And I won’t be that far—just a couple hours down the freeway. I’m going to come back to visit.”
“I know,” I reply, nodding. “And I’m happy for you, seriously. You’re getting out of Ontego, like you’ve always wanted.”
“It really doesn’t bother you that there’s nothing to do here?” she asks.
I shrug. “Yeah, but I’m used to it.”
She nods, her sober expression deepening. “He’d understand if you wanted to go.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
Clara might be right. Dad told me as much.
I’ll be fine, sweetheart, he said at graduation, admiring my diploma. You didn’t go to college just to hang around and work at the plant with me.
I love him for saying it, even if he didn’t mean it—not in his heart. He hugged me too tightly, like letting me go would hurt too much.
“I’m all he has right now,” I mumble, peering over at a small crowd that’s gathered on the other side of the food court. “You know, with Mom gone… what’s going on?”
Clara turns around to see. “Come on,” she says, throwing her finished salad dish in the nearby recycling bin.
We’re far from the only shoppers drawn to check out the commotion. As we get close we see some members of the crowd peeling off, allowing newcomers to approach. Clara threads her way through, dragging me in tow until we get to the front.
“Oh, wow,” she says when we arrive.
In the middle of the crowd stand three impossibly beautiful creatures. I know that’s the wrong word—they’re people, after all. But with their multicolored skin—two green and one purple—there’s no question who they are: aliens. Dominars. The ones who invaded Earth nearly two years ago. I’ve seen them only on television.
“What the hell are they doing in Ontego?” I ask, scowling at them. I can’t help staring; the two males and one female possess breathtaking beauty: perfect features, immaculate physiques, and regal dispositions.
“Passing through, I guess,” Clara says. “Why not meet a few Earthlings?”
I roll my eyes, but my friend keeps pressing forward until we’ve reached the front row. Soon we’re within just a few feet of the aliens, who chat with people around them, smiling and shaking hands.
“He’ll be here in person,” says an emerald-skinned male. He grins boyishly at the middle-aged woman he’s talking to. “No holograms—we’ve actually convinced him to hit the road and visit some small towns.”
“Who’s he talking about?” I whisper to Clara, but she shakes her head.
“Consul Forta,” the alien says, turning to me.
He heard? Damn, that’s creepy. I’ve heard the aliens can hear and see practically anything thanks to the nanites—machines planted throughout their bodies—but it’s weird to actually witness it.
“Hello, I’m Issel,” says the alien, holding out a hand for me to shake. When I don’t take it, he pulls back. “You should come by and hear his speech,” he says, his tone unchanged. A hologram appears in the air in front of us, giving me a start; it quickly sharpens into a map of downtown Ontego, with a star blinking on Center Street, in front of the library and across from the Saturn Diner. “That’s where we’ll be at eight tonight, once Forta’s done touring the new battery factory.”
“What’s he going to talk about?” asks Clara.
Issel’s grin grows. “The future. See you tonight, okay?”
The alien turns to meet with others, so I take Clara’s hand and practically yank her away. The crowd has grown even thicker, and people eagerly let us through to leave. As we get further from the center, the noise intensifies, as if it was being muffled around the aliens so we could hear them.
I guess that’s why half the damn world seems so thrilled, so welcoming of the Dominars. Their capabilities are truly astounding—maybe if they hadn’t forced it on us and changed our world without us asking, I could be more enthusiastic.
Clara looks at me expectantly once we’re clear. “We’re going, right?”
“Yes! I know how you feel about the aliens, Melody, but I like them and they’re going to be here! How freaking cool is that? Aliens, in person!”
“You just saw three of them,” I point out. “And you’ll see them all the time in New York or Boston or wherever.”
Clara nods. “True, but… come on. They’re so hot! And Forta… he’s gorgeous in that intense, smoldering way, don’t you think?”
“He’s okay,” I mumble, though there’s no fooling Clara. We’ve been friends since high school—she knows I go for that sort of thing. Consul Forta hits the nail on the head—or at least, he would, if he weren’t running North America like a dictator. I could easily get past the oddness of his rose-colored skin, enjoying his bearlike, muscular build. Imagining being held in his powerful arms gives me goosebumps, and he must have an absolutely huge… well, I’m not going there. And I’m not letting Clara have the satisfaction of being right.
“I’ll come with you,” I say, “but only because it’s one of your last nights in town.”
She winks. “How thoughtful.”
“No, absolutely not,” says Dad when I get home for dinner.
“I don’t want to go,” I insist. “It’s for Clara!”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to see that alien.”
Does he not understand that I’m only trying to be there for my friend? I don’t get it.
“Even if I were to boo him?” I ask, smiling. “I could call him an asshole, maybe throw some eggs.”
Dad chuckles, his skin creasing around his eyes the way it does when he smiles. “You read my mind, huh? No, I don’t want you going there, not even to heckle him.”
I wish he’d just say why not, other than the fact he doesn’t like the Dominars. “Is this about your job again? If you’d just take the training class you’d be back to your old salary.”
From the way he glares at me, I may as well have suggested he join the circus to be a trapeze performer. For thirty years, he helped build carburetors—that’s all the plant did, and it’s all he’s known. Unfortunately, the Dominars have ordered that new cars no longer run on gas, so there’s no need for carburetors, and my dad lost his job. There’s a new one waiting for him at the new battery factory, if only he’d just get retrained.
“I’m doing just fine, thanks,” he grumbles.
A timer on the kitchen stove beeps, so he gets up from the table to turn off the heat. He stays silent as he tastes the sauce of his pesto linguine, my favorite. He doesn’t make it quite as good as Mom used to, but each time he tweaks the recipe a little, trying to get it right.
There’s nothing wrong with working the deli counter at Price Slicer, but he’d be doing better at the factory. I don’t have to tell him, though. He’s heard it all before.
“I’m not taking charity from alien invaders,” he says at last, serving the pasta.
“I know,” I reply, not really wanting to rehash the argument. What’s the point in trying to convince him it’s not exactly charity if it’s so he can work like he used to? I could try a different tack—that taking the job would allow him to work with his old friends from the plant, and restore some semblance of his social life—but he won’t listen.
“Dad, I’m sorry you feel this way, but I’m twenty-two and I can decide for myself. This is one of the last nights Clara and I will have before she moves, and she wants to go.”
He nods with a sigh. “Please reconsider. You can tell Clara I forbid it, if that helps.”
“I will,” I say, tasting the linguine. The sauce is creamy and delicious. “But she really wants to go.”
“Sure. How is it?”
“Really good,” I reply, smiling.
“Did I get it right?”
“It’s really close,” I admit, not wanting to lie. I can still taste the way Mom made it, and it’s not quite the same. “You’ll get it next time.”
“Yeah,” he says, staring past me into the distance. “Next time.”
Clara notes Dad’s objection but doesn’t change her mind. By the time we reach the library, there’s already an enormous crowd gathered in wait. This time we don’t even try to budge our way through the audience to the front—it’s too tightly packed. A pair of projection screens have been hung from the library’s roof—I guess Issel wasn’t lying when he promised there’d be no holograms.
“Do you think he’s ever going to change his mind?” Clara asks, shivering slightly at the cool autumn breeze.
“My dad? I don’t know. Maybe when I start working…”
Clara nods. “Yeah.”
I feel bad enough being here, I don’t even want to say out loud that I’ll be taking a job at the factory. Though during college I majored in communications, I always assumed I’d work here in Ontego so I could stay close to home, and that meant the plant. That hasn’t changed—I’m just going to make batteries instead of carburetors. Dad’s not going to like it, but he’s going to have to deal with it. Earning a lower salary than his daughter will hurt, I’ve no doubt, but what else am I supposed to do? I’ve got pride, too.
I’m still wondering how I’m going to break that news when the streetlights around us dim, and a spotlight illuminates the stage. I look around, trying to see the Dominar ship that must be close by, but I can’t find any. Instead, I notice what appears to be a series of shooting stars headed for us.
“They like to make an entrance, huh?” asks Clara.
Before long the cameras start to track the aliens, zooming in so we can see them clearly on the monitors. Five aliens slow their flight as they descend: the three from the mall area, plus two more. I don’t recognize one, but the last is Consul Forta, as advertised.
Applause rises into a roar as the aliens land on the stage, their thrusters slowing them comfortably. Their boosters barely make any noise or heat, in yet another show of their extraordinary technological dominance. People might like the spectacle, but I can’t help seeing it as a show of superiority.
“Greetings, Ontego!” shouts Issel. “Thank you all for coming out. We’re glad to see you! Some of you may know me. I’m Intendant Issel, the regional administrator for Upstate New York and New England. Tonight I’d like to share with you news about some great projects coming here soon that will further spur the area’s economic growth and help the global effort for sustainable development. I’ll try to keep it brief so that our guest of honor, Consul Forta, can speak.”
My eyes glaze over in less than a minute, and I tune everything out until I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“So who’s hotter?” Clara whispers to me. “Issel or Forta?”
“I don’t know,” I reply truthfully. They’re both incredible specimens of masculinity, from their sculpted physiques to their confident demeanors. Forta probably has the edge, but it’s close.
“I’d stay in this town if I thought I could get Issel to bend me over his knee and spank me,” Clara says.
“Holy shit, you did not just say that out loud!” I whisper, blushing. I check around us to see if anyone’s looking, but thankfully their attention is on the aliens.
Clara giggles. “I don’t care who knows it. Issel could do to me literally anything. He’s too gorgeous.”
I’m about to remind my friend of the rumor about the Dominars’ unusual sexual proclivities, but I don’t get the chance. As I stare at Forta, a shot blasts from somewhere close, and the alien crumples to the ground.
If any other shots follow the first, it’s impossible to hear them over the screams. Chaos breaks out as everyone tries to scatter at once, knocking each other over to flee. Maybe I should try to escape, but instead I turn to where I thought I heard the shot. The report of the gun sounded eerily familiar, and a chunk of ice sinks into my stomach.
Standing on the roof of the Saturn Diner across the street, a man aims a rifle.
I’m too far away to make out his face, but I recognize the shock of white hair on his head, the red and black flannel shirt.
“Everyone stop!” comes a shout that cuts through the din.
Wheeling around, I gasp—so does everyone else, it seems. Forta stands up, a coppery glint shining from his gray tunic. He swipes at it, dislodging the flattened bullet, then leaps into the sky. We watch, spinning around in unison, as the alien lands atop the diner, grabs the shooter, and rips the rifle from his hands.
Needing to know for sure if the man is who I think, I rush toward the diner on instinct; I have no idea what exactly I’m going to do. “Dad!” I scream, watching helplessly as Forta lifts him into the air by the collar of his shirt.
The alien looks to me, sneers, then jumps into the air, towing Dad with him. Forta lets go of Dad upon landing, and I don’t hesitate to grab him in a hug.
“What did you do?” I ask, blinking away tears. “What did you do?”
“They have to pay,” he says, pointing at Forta. His hand shakes, and wet droplets work their way down his cheeks as well. “They’ve cost us, Melody. It’s too much.”
Biting back the urge to slap him, I scream, “Cost us what? Your job?”
He shakes his head. “Your mother might be here today if they’d invaded sooner. They’ve been watching us for centuries. They could have come here whenever they wanted. Now they want to fix things? Now they come?”
“You’re lucky we bothered,” grunts Forta. “Arrest them both.”
They take us in a shuttle to a nearby county prison; it’s the first time I’ve ridden in an alien craft, and hopefully the last. The craft flies so quickly, the entire trip lasts less than a minute, then the aliens separate my father and me. He gives me a nod before they take him away; I don’t say anything, too numbed to think.
A pair of alien guards stick me in a holding cell and tell me to give a shout if I need anything. I hope I had enough presence of mind to mumble my thanks, but I can’t even remember. They don’t cuff my hands or anything, but it is surreal to be stuck behind bars—it’s not something I ever imagined happening in my life. Shouldn’t I be unnerved? Shouldn’t I be screaming and kicking to be set free?
My mind races, trying to explore every last avenue of possibility. What are they going to do to Dad? Send him to prison, I suppose—but for how long? He’s going to lose his job, such as it is—I suppose that’s kind of ironic. Eventually I start wondering what’s going to happen to me—what will they do with the daughter of a consul’s would-be assassin? Charge me as an accessory, use me as leverage in some way? I should be scared, but right now I’m just too furious.
“Ms. Grant, sorry to keep you waiting,” says Intendant Issel when he arrives. “I need to ask you a few questions about what happened tonight.”
Questions? But I don’t know anything! What am I supposed to tell them?
“I have nothing to say.”
Issel nods. “You have certain rights, and you may exercise them if you wish, but there is an easier way.”
“What does that mean?” I snap, wishing these aliens would just drop all the formality and speak plainly.
“Nanites. We won’t force you to accept them, but if you’re innocent of any wrongdoing, a nanite scan of your brain will prove it beyond a doubt within seconds.”
They want to literally read my mind? “I don’t want your alien shit inside my head,” I blurt. As soon as the words are out, it occurs to me that denying the nanites could be seen as a sign of guilt—that they may assume I have something to hide, even though I don’t. Still, I meant what I said, and it’s not just obstinance: the idea of having alien technology digging through my brain makes me feel like insects are chewing my skin.
Issel sighs. “Did you have anything to do with the attack on Consul Forta?”
He nods. “I believe you, but without a nanite scan, I can’t know for sure. We would have to hold a trial, and then you would have to convince more than just me. You would risk incarceration. Is that a risk you really want to take?”
No, of course I don’t—but I keep my mouth shut.
“One nanite scan and you’ll be cleared, just like that,” Issel presses.
I understand why he wants me to reconsider—it would make his job a lot easier, for sure. He’s probably not too thrilled to have an assassination attempt occur on his watch. Good. Screw him. I didn’t do anything, and I’m not going to be intimidated into letting them infect my brain.
“Fine,” says Issel. “I will make arrangements for the trial.”
“No need,” says Forta as he enters the holding area. “Ms. Grant is free to go.”
Issel looks back and forth as if reading something, then nods. “All right.”
The door to my cell opens and the Dominars step out of the way.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“The shooter confessed,” Forta states. “He acted alone.”
“You mean my father.”
He nods. “Yes.”
“You believe him?”
“For your sake, he accepted the nanites.”
Shit. I would have never asked him to do that. It’s a relief to know I’m in the clear, but I’m still livid with Dad for doing all this in the first place.
“What’s going to happen to him?” I ask, trying to keep calm. It’s odd to be asking Dad’s would-be victim for such information, but Forta’s demonstrating an otherworldly calm.
“He’ll be sent to the prison planet Cetaski.”
Forta says it without mirth or condescension, but his words feel like a slap. I expected Dad to go to jail, but on another planet?
“I thought only the worst of the worst were sent there,” I say, trying not to flip out. “Violent dictators and terrorists.”
“Yes, when the Dominars first arrived we delayed using extra-planetary incarceration for common crimes. From now on, in my jurisdiction, murderers will be exiled to Cetaski. Supreme Consul Tamrys will not object.”
My eyes sting as tears threaten to drip. “How am I supposed to visit my father if he’s on another planet?”
Forta regards me carefully. I thought he was made of stone just seeing him on TV—in person, it’s even worse: his expression reveals nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling. I see no pity in his purple eyes, or tension in his dark brows. His deep, gruff voice never rises, and his thick, full lips remain free of any obvious smile or frown. He’s frustratingly inscrutable.
While most of the Dominars posses long, sharp features that make me think of royalty, Forta must come from a different stock: his look is more earthy, with a shadowy stubble covering his strong chin. Cords of muscle bulge from his thick, athletic neck, and extra short hair covers his scalp closer than a coat of paint. Though it’s an attractive look, I can’t see him without recalling how much Dad and I have disliked him throughout the past few years.
Or, at least, how much I’ve told myself I don’t like him.
“How long will his sentence be?” I ask, trying not to feel dizzy.
“So I’ll never see him again? No, that’s… Please don’t do this.”
Forta glares, just for a moment. Is he angry at me? Does he not comprehend what this will do to me and my father, or does he not care? Maybe I’m an idiot for thinking Forta could put himself in my place, especially considering my dad tried to kill him. Do these aliens even have parents? Supposedly they’re all thousands of years old, but they must come from a family of some kind. I doubt they’re grown in a lab, and they’re not gods.
“I’ll do anything,” I add.
“You could join your father on Cetaski, if you like,” Forta suggests.
That never would have occurred to me. Having to leave Earth would be devastating… but could I? What’s the furthest I would go to keep my family together? Is it what Dad would want? Does that even matter? He put me in this situation without asking—I’m entitled to make my own decision.
Living on a prison planet won’t be easy, but how could I be happy on Earth knowing my father is lightyears away, stranded on another world for life? I know the answer.
I open my mouth but can’t bring myself to speak for a second. My body shakes, and I have to curl my hands into fists to get control. I clear my throat, then say, “If that’s the only way, I’ll do it.”
“I wasn’t serious,” Forta replies. “You would really do that?”
I nod. “What choice is there?”
His lips rise for a second in the briefest smile I’ve ever seen. He looks me up and down, his eyes widening, and takes a step forward. “Something else.”
The way he’s examining me, I shouldn’t feel a surge of warmth between my legs—I don’t care how attractive he is. I’m not an idiot—I can tell what he’s after. He may be an ageless extraterrestrial being, but I guess he’s still a man.
“What would you want?” I ask, my voice hoarse. My heart pumps loud in my chest, and I have to stop myself from looking down at the bulge in his pants.
“Everything,” he replies, setting his hands on my shoulders. “For a year.”
“A week,” I shoot back, resisting on pure instinct. Except, I’m not resisting completely, am I? I’m negotiating.
He grunts a mild laugh. “A month. Be my pet for one month, and your father stays on Earth.”
Does Forta realize how ridiculous this sounds? He hasn’t said out loud what he expects of me, but I can guess. Is he asking me to do this because he wants me so badly he’d keep me for a year, or is his offer made out of spite? My dad would be apoplectic if he heard about this.
“He can never know,” I mumble, looking down at Forta’s massive hand on my arm.
“Fine. But I’ll warn you once, Ms. Grant: you will be expected to obey me. Whatever I demand, you will not argue, no matter how unpleasant.”
I can imagine he knows a thing or two about being unpleasant. His tone scares me, though it only intensifies the hot spasms in my core.
“Can I change my mind?” I ask.
“Yes, but the deal will be off.”
This is a bad idea. This is really bad!
But I have to.
I take a deep breath and look into the alien’s eyes. “It’s a deal.”