“Everyone, stay in your seats!” Shella’s sharp yet shaky voice drew Ansley’s attention to the other side of the dining hall. Shella was one of four dorm counselors here at Still Water Farm. “Director Ratan has an announcement to make.”
Tension banded Ansley’s stomach, obliterating her appetite, which hadn’t been that strong in the first place. Breakfast at Still Water Farm was usually an orderly, task-oriented event. The residents went through the line where they received a tray of calorie-dense items. They sat at large round tables and consumed the food as quickly as possible. After drinking lots of water, they headed off to perform the tasks assigned to them for the day. The entire process took less than twenty minutes. The residents were only allowed to linger and socialize during dinner, so sitting here waiting felt unnatural.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Eden asked. She sat beside Ansley and was the closest thing to a sister that Ansley had ever known. They’d been assigned to the same dormitory when they arrived on Black Bear Island, a small private island located near Sitka, Alaska. They’d lived here for the past fourteen years and had become inseparable.
“I can’t stop thinking about Jodi.” Ansley kept her voice down, not wanting to share her concerns with the other ten women at their table. “Why won’t the founders let anyone see her? They won’t even tell her dorm mates what’s happening to her.”
During dinner three nights ago, Jodi had a convulsive seizure, and no one had seen her since. Her condition was mysterious and concerning. However, Ansley didn’t think Jodi’s recovery justified the odd behavior of the founders. They’d been huddled in the corner of the dining room when Ansley and Eden had entered. They whispered urgently and made vague motions toward the forest and the sky. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
“Maybe Jodi’s condition has improved and Director Ratan wants everyone to stop worrying.” Eden was an optimist. She could find a glimmer of light in even the darkest situation.
It would be nice if that’s all Ratan wanted, but Ansley knew too many of the founders’ secrets to remain hopeful. The founders had reluctantly taken her into their confidence eight months ago when Mistress Neeva had been seriously injured. The roof on one of the dormitories had collapsed, trapping Mistress Neeva beneath the rubble. She’d been lucky to escape with her life, but she was left with multiple broken bones and a badly sprained back. Someone needed to take on Mistress Neeva’s duties until she was fully recovered and all of the other administrators had responsibilities of their own. Ansley had no idea why the founders had chosen her, but her unique perspective warned that this announcement was bigger than Jodi. It involved everyone.
Director Ratan strode to the front of the dining room a few minutes later. The other five founders lined up nearby. Director Ratan was the oldest and most intimidating of the founders, and the stress of his position was starting to show on his face. His skin looked weathered and his gray hair was nearly gone on top. He raised his hand palm out, signaling everyone to settle down.
“I have a lot to explain and it is going to be hard for you to understand, but you must believe that every word is true.” He paused, looking more uncertain than Ansley had ever seen him. “You are not orphans as we told you. You are fugitives from a distant star system. We brought you here to protect you from some very evil people. The specific reasons are complicated, so I will not get into them. What matters right now is that a hunting party from the Citadel has found us. At least we hope to God that the hunters are from the Citadel and not Torret or Pyron.”
Ansley knew that the Citadel was a training center for people with extraordinary abilities. Torret and Pyron were planets, but the other residents didn’t know any of that. Director Ratan was not doing a very good job of explaining things.
“The hunter ship has not yet contacted us, but they will likely be here within the hour,” Ratan blurted.
“Hunter ship?” someone called out. “What does that mean?”
“Why would anyone hunt us?” another said to their tablemates.
“We do not have enough time to arrange an evacuation,” Ratan told the room at large. “That leaves us two choices, surrender or fight.” He sounded and looked completely defeated. “We failed you completely. I am so very sorry.”
The room exploded with urgent questions and overlapping conversations. Mistress Neeva, the only founder Ansley trusted implicitly, moved to Ratan’s side and shouted over the den until everyone quieted down again. “The hunter ship will send down soldiers. We have weapons and this house is shielded, but our chances of success are slim. That is why we are leaving this choice up to you. Do we surrender or attempt to fight them off?”
“We are not giving up without a fight!” someone shouted.
“We can’t fight off trained soldiers,” one of her tablemates countered just as vehemently.
“What do you think we should do?” Eden called out. “Is resisting them a dangerous waste of time?”
Mistress Neeva cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “It is not in my nature to surrender, but I do not think anyone should be forced to fight. If you want to fight, move to that side of the room.” She motioned to Ansley’s right, over by the massive fireplace.
About half of the residents stood up and moved to the area she’d indicated.
“The rest go with Mistress Jayne. She will explain what you need to do once the hunters arrive.”
Ansley and Eden both rose and looked at each other. They had not immediately joined the fighters, but this was their home, the only one either of them remembered.
“I want to fight,” Eden decided, though her gray-green eyes reflected her fear.
They joined the fighters as Mistress Jayne led the other young women out of the dining room.
“Stay here,” Mistress Neeva said firmly. “We need to retrieve the weapons.”
“Block all the doors and create a circular barricade in the middle of the room,” Director Ratan advised. “That way you can shoot at the soldiers while protecting each other’s backs.”
Tension gripped Ansley’s belly and her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Why had Ratan said, “You can shoot at the soldiers,” and not “We can shoot at the soldiers”? According to her research, they had fled their home world to avoid becoming weapons. This felt wrong. Everything about it felt wrong.
The fighters sprang into action, turning tables onto their sides and shoving furniture in front of the doors.
Eden and Ansley overturned a table, then slid it toward the center of the room. As they worked, Eden narrowed her gaze and looked at Ansley. “You knew about all of this, didn’t you?” With gold-streaked brown hair confined in a tight French braid, Eden’s angular features were starkly expressive. “How long have you known?”
“Neeva told me when I was picked to be her replacement.” A soft gasp drew Ansley’s attention to her left.
Kendra, one of their dorm mates, must have heard what Eden said because she was staring at them nearly in tears. “He claimed that we’re aliens. Do you believe him?”
“An alien is simply someone who was not born on Earth. We’re Altorians from the planet Altor. Or most of us are anyway.”
They turned over another table and the three women slid it toward the center of the room. “Then the other names he listed are planets?” Eden asked, clearly unconvinced.
“There are four inhabitable planets in our star system, Altor, Torret, Pyron, and Houkdi, but almost all of us are from Altor.”
“Start at the beginning,” Eden suggested as they all grabbed chairs and carried them toward the nearest doorway. “Why did the founders come to Earth?”
One glance around told Ansley that most of the women didn’t believe what Ratan had told them. Or at the very least, they didn’t know what to believe. That would change quickly when the hunters arrived. “We’re part of a group of people who were genetically engineered to manipulate magic.”
A sharp, humorless laugh drew Ansley’s attention to Jessie, a particularly outspoken resident. “We’re not just aliens. We’re magical aliens?”
Ansley sighed. The last thing she needed was a heckler. There was a ton she needed to explain and Jessie would just slow her down. She placed her chair on the barricade and headed across the room for more.
Kendra touched her on the arm and asked in a soft, unsteady tone, “If what you’re saying is true, why can’t any of us do magic?”
Reaching the center barricade, she helped place the final table before she offered more information. “I didn’t take their word for it. I’ve seen videos and I’ve read detailed reports proving that all of this is real.” Work paused as everyone listened to Ansley’s explanation. “The ability to manipulate magic was broken into three separate gifts. This keeps any one person from becoming too powerful. All three gifts are required for magic to flow. That’s why none of us can do anything magical right now. When the three parts combine, it’s called a power triad.”
“What are the three parts?” Jessie wanted to know.
“A source, a conduit, and a controller,” Ansley provided. “Sources and controllers are always male, and conduits are female.”
“So, we’re conduits?” Kendra’s brows drew together as she fit the pieces together.
“Yes,” Ansley confirmed. “Except we’re not just regular conduits. We’re second-level conduits. That means we’re new and improved to be even more powerful than our predecessors. The last time a group of conduits like us was produced, a long and bloody war resulted.”
“This is such bullshit,” Jessie muttered, then stormed across the room to help move the final few tables. About half of the crowd went with her.
“I’ve seen videos of the Citadel,” Ansley stressed, making eye contact with the ones still huddled around her. “I’ve seen power triads in action. What they can do—what we will be able to do—is staggering. The founders aren’t making this up.”
“You better hurry,” Eden urged. “I didn’t get the impression that they’d be gone long.”
Ansley nodded and tried harder to condense the information. The interested women quickly gathered the remaining chairs and used them to fill in the gaps around the overlapping tables. Ansley spoke louder, hoping everyone could hear. “The founders are old enough to remember the Controller Wars. Mistress Neeva and Director Ratan lost the rest of their family because of the conflict. The founders were determined to keep it from happening again. That’s why they brought us to Earth.”
Eden’s eyes narrowed as she shook her head. “Did they expect us to live on this island for the rest of our lives? Some of us have never even been to Sitka, and those who have were closely supervised.”
Kendra nodded enthusiastically. “Mistress Neeva loves to call this place a hobby farm, but it’s more like a convent, or a prison.”
One of the others picked up where Kendra left off. “They encourage us to watch TV and movies, even give us access to the internet. Why won’t they let us actually interact with the outside world?”
“The integration program was about to begin.” Neeva hadn’t explained the rest to Ansley. She’d figured it out on her own. Neeva had given Ansley access to the information that had allowed her to unravel the mystery, but all the secrecy was frustrating as hell. “We started complaining about persistent restlessness and strange, erotic dreams, so the integration program was put on hold.”
“We’re bored and sexually frustrated,” Kendra grumbled. “It can’t surprise anyone that we’re having erotic dreams.”
“Our abilities are suppressed with a chemical blocker. That blocker is losing its effectiveness.” Everything Ansley had told them so far was documented fact. What she was about to share now was utter supposition. Maybe it was better to keep her theories to herself. No, they were starving for understanding. If truth be told, so was she. “I think that’s what happened to Jodi. I think her power… flipped on and her body couldn’t handle it.”
A long, tense silence followed, and Ansley sighed. It looked like her impulse had been wrong. Everyone was stressed out enough. Besides, she had no proof that the seizure had anything to do with the suppressants starting to fail.
“Wouldn’t human doctors be able to help if we’re heading into a medical crisis?” Kendra asked, tears escaping the corners of her eyes.
“If humans learn what we really are, we’ll spend the rest of our lives as lab rats or worse,” Eden insisted. “Humans have never been tolerant of anyo—”
Flashes of golden light snapped Ansley’s attention to her left.
“Did you see that?” Eden pressed a hand to her throat as she often did when she was upset.
“There it goes again,” someone gasped.
Everyone rushed to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the craggy cliff on which the complex had been built. There was a narrow stretch of rocky beach below and the long wooden pier jutting out into the choppy waters of Sitka Sound. An object landed on the beach. It was visible and yet it was distorted, like a video image that wasn’t in focus.
“Are those the hunters?” Eden’s voice was tremulous with fear.
“There’s another one.”
A second, third, and fourth pod landed in quick succession surrounding the compound. Ansley was pretty sure they were two-person transport pods because she’d seen images of the crafts and she had a poncho that created the same distortion allowing her to all but disappear.
As if to confirm her hypothesis, the first pod opened and the occupants climbed out. They were dressed in sleek, dark gray armor that followed every contour of their bodies. The invaders were massive and muscular, unless the suits exaggerated the shape of the wearer. Their faces were concealed behind translucent visors and they both carried weapons unlike anything found on Earth.
“Oh, Gods. It’s true. They’re…” Kendra shook her head, unable to define what she was seeing. “We are aliens.” She looked at Ansley as the color faded from her face. “What should we do?”
“Grab anything you can use as a weapon and get inside the barricade,” she urged.
The door to the interior corridor burst open and the founders returned, carrying three large metal cases. They set the cases down beside the barricade and flipped the top open. Director Ratan started handing out weapons, long, sleek weapons unlike anything Ansley had ever seen before. “The pulse rifles are self-targeting. Point them in the general direction of the enemy and the weapon will do the rest.”
Someone grabbed Ansley’s upper arm and she gasped. She spun around and found Mistress Neeva urging her away from the others. “It’s time.” She pressed a quilted pouch into Ansley’s hand as she said, “You know what to do.”
Ansley nodded. They had been over what was expected of her numerous times.
“Let me stress one last time how important this is.” Her intense expression matched the urgency in her tone.
“I understand,” Ansley assured her. “Keep them safe.” She nodded toward her friends, wishing she could stay and help protect them.
“You know I will.” Neeva pulled Ansley in for a quick hug. “Go!”
Ansley knew that Neeva would try to keep everyone safe. She was less sure Neeva would be able to keep them safe. Either way, there was nothing more Ansley could do here. She had a vitally important task awaiting her.
She rushed from the dining room and darted down the hall toward the kitchen. In the back of the massive walk-in pantry rested a large backpack. She stuffed the quilted pouch into the backpack and zipped it up. Then she picked up the backpack and headed outside. Quickly putting on the pack, she secured the hip strap so the load wouldn’t bounce or sway. Then she draped herself in the light-refracting poncho. She had more supplies stashed in a cave on the far side of the island. She would spend the night in the cave then stay on the move until late afternoon tomorrow. That’s when the weekly supply boat arrived. She would pay the pilot to take her with him when he returned to Sitka, and then Ansley Logan would disappear forever.
“Watch your step as you disembark and then follow the male with the bright blue hair,” Tandor instructed. About half of the conduits were now onboard the Madelle. The more volatile females had been teleported directly onto the ship. The rest were being shuttled over from the planet. Teleporting everyone would have been much faster, but each time they used the molecular teleportation engines, energy was pulled from the other systems, including the refraction shields. The ship was in low orbit, so they couldn’t risk becoming visible while human technology could detect them.
“What do you think, three more trips?” Jobek asked from the pilot’s seat of their small ship. Jobek sounded bored, but it was hard to tell with controllers. Stoic expressions and brooding silences were their default mode. Controllers were always large, but Jobek was bigger than most. He’d pulled his long dark hair away from his face and bound it at the nape of his neck. The severe style made his bold features look even more savage. He was relaxed now, or as relaxed as Jobek ever got, and his eyes still gleamed like polished obsidian.
The aftermath of any hunt was the least interesting part and this hunt had been more challenging than most. The fugitives they’d been contracted to find had been missing for two decades and no one was even certain if they were on Earth much less a specific location on the obscure blue planet where they could be found. The Madelle had been the first hunter ship to arrive, but they had been joined by eleven other teams in the months that followed. And every team was determined to locate the missing conduits as well as the criminals who had kidnapped them and transported them to Earth.
“It might take four more trips.” Tandor waited until the last female reached the other side of the airlock, then he closed the hatch. The women on the planet had attempted to fight off the hunters. He applauded their spirit, but they were clearly unfamiliar with their weapons and the stress of a battle had been more than most could process. By the time Tandor and Jobek rushed into the dining room, many of the females were sobbing hysterically, their pulse rifles forgotten entirely.
Tandor sank onto his customary seat and activated the holo-controls with a wide swipe of his forearm. He was also a trained pilot, but it felt natural to let Jobek take the lead. Tandor was not passive by any means. Sources just liked to analyze situations rather than rushing in.
His appearance held clues to his nature. The red streaks in his dark hair warned that there was more than one aspect to his personality. He could be strict and unyielding, but he could also be playful and affectionate. And the best barometer for his mood was his eyes. They generally appeared reddish brown, but strong emotions ignited an inner radiance that made his irises glow like fire.
Jobek pulled away from the Madelle and headed back to the planet so they could pick up their next set of conduits. They needed to complete the evacuation as quickly as possible and return to high orbit where the chances of discovery were minimized.
They were nearing the island when a flash of light caught Tandor’s attention. Had it been a figment of his imagination triggered by his thoughts?
“I saw it too,” Jobek answered Tandor’s silent question. They had worked together for years and were instinctually in tune with what the other was thinking.
“I thought their ship had been destroyed years ago,” Tandor mused.
“Apparently, they held on to a shuttle.”
Tandor launched a comm-request using his brother’s private comm-code. The brothers co-owned the Madelle, but Neloff was the undisputed commander. Neloff accepted the comm so Tandor immediately explained. “We just saw a shuttle launch from the planet and it’s not one of ours. Do we have permission to pursue?”
“Affirmative,” Neloff said urgently. “The camp leaders are not onboard the Madelle. Go after that shuttle!”
Jobek headed in the direction from which they’d seen the flash.
Tandor scanned for a telltale energy surge or special distortion, but there was nothing.
“They’ve been on Earth for two decades,” Jobek reminded. “Early refraction shields were either good at protecting the ship or hiding it, but many could not do both.”
He was right. Tandor scattered tiny bursts of energy in the widest pattern possible. It took three tries, but a group of energy pebbles struck the other ship’s shields, revealing the location of the fleeing ship. Jobek shot toward them at top speed as Tandor targeted the rear of the other ship, hoping to hit their shield generators.
A sudden flash momentarily blinded him, then the other ship faded in and out of view as it spun in a slow circle. Tandor waited until he could see the ship clearly and then fired again.
“We are teleporting them onboard,” Neloff told Jobek and Tandor. “Wait for my mark and then destroy their ship. We can’t leave it hanging there in space and we are nearly ready to depart.”
Neloff gave the order a few minutes later and Tandor incinerated the shuttle.
“Good job,” Neloff praised. “Head back. We went ahead and teleported the rest of the females. That light show undoubtedly drew the wrong sort of attention. I think it’s wiser if we leave the area.”
“We’re on our way,” he assured his brother.
Jobek maneuvered their ship into a landing bay aboard the Madelle a few minutes later. They secured the ship and hurried to the cargo hold where the conduits had congregated until Commander Cylex arrived to take responsibility for them. They had yet to hear exactly when that would be, so Neloff was doing the best he could with their resentful passengers. Once the females were transferred to Cylex, their contract would be fulfilled and the second half of their fee would be released.
Tandor scanned open the door and cringed at the cacophony of sobbing, shouting, and overlapping conversations.
“This should be fun,” Jobek muttered as he entered the crowded room.
Tandor stepped inside and scanned the throng for any sign of his brother.
Neloff spotted them and moved over to where they stood. “We’re still missing one.”
“One of the leaders or one of the conduits?” Jobek asked, his dark eyes narrowing dangerously.
“We have all of the leaders, but there should be forty-six conduits and there are only forty-five.”
Tuning out the noise and the dizzying surges of emotion, Tandor carefully counted the young females. “My total is forty-five as well.”
Neloff was a commander used to the intensity of battle or covert missions, not passenger management. Like Tandor, strong emotions made Neloff’s eyes appear more red than brown and his emotions were boiling right now. “Everyone shut up!” His roar triggered a fresh wave of hysterical sobbing, but the frightened females quieted down. “As you are counted, sit down and remain silent.”
The old-fashioned method quickly confirmed Tandor’s total. There were only forty-five young females in the cargo hold, which meant one was missing. “The perimeter was established before we started the evacuation. How did one get away?”
Neloff shook his head, but the red fire gradually faded from his gaze. “I run the ship and manage the crew. You, brother dear, get to deal with this mess. Let me know what you find out.” The corners of his mouth twitched as he turned and made a hasty exit.
“Coward,” Jobek teased as Neloff passed him, then he moved up beside Tandor. There was no malice in the insult. Everyone onboard the Madelle was anxious to finish the mission and leave this barbaric planet behind. “Shall we question the females individually? One of them must know who is missing.” Tandor had known Jobek since childhood and they were seldom apart. They’d attended the same schools and applied to the Citadel together. They qualified in separate disciplines, but that worked to their advantage. It took a controller and a source to claim a conduit, and forming a power triad was their ultimate goal.
“Every female in this room knows who’s missing.” Tandor crossed his arms over his chest. Dealing with a group of half-hysterical conduits was well outside the area of expertise for every male on this ship. They were hunters. They chased down violent criminals and rescued kidnapped children. This mission had been unusual in every respect. Tandor had been shocked when his brother accepted the contract. “The question is which one is most likely to tell us the fastest.”
They paused to study the females for a moment. Jobek was a ruthless interrogator, but Tandor was not convinced that ruthlessness was what was needed right now. Cajoling and subtlety would be more effective. That was why they made such an effective team. Their contrasting personalities and divergent skill sets complemented each other. It was unlikely they would be granted the right to claim one of these females, but they would not hesitate if the opportunity arose.
“That one is protecting the others,” Jobek pointed out. “I have an idea.” Putting on his fiercest expression, he shoved his way through the crowd until he reached the small grouping in the corner.
As Jobek predicted, the brown-haired female had positioned herself in front of the other three. Her hostile gaze was a shade between gray and green.
“Move aside,” Jobek demanded.
“Why? What do you want?” She met his gaze without flinching, but Tandor could sense her fear.
“One of your companions is missing. That female is going to tell me her name and current location.” He pointed at the sobbing blonde the others were attempting to comfort.
“Please,” the blonde cried, pressing back into the corner. “Don’t let them take me.”
“Not going to happen,” the brave one said firmly. “If you can’t do your job without terrorizing women, then question me.”
“Tell me what I need to know and I will spare her,” Jobek offered. Then less harshly, he asked, “What is your name?”
“Eden. What’s yours?”
“Commander Jobek. Now tell me the name of the missing female and tell me where she’s hiding.”
Eden ignored him, asking instead, “What did you do with the founders?”
“Answer my questions and I might answer yours,” Jobek countered.
“‘Tell me the name of the missing female’ is a command, not a question,” Eden pointed out, subtle challenge rippling through her tone.
Jobek’s gaze narrowed, so Tandor intervened. Eden was much more afraid than she appeared. If Jobek punished her for her attitude, she would likely shut down rather than cooperate. “I am familiar with this sector of your planet. The temperature drops drastically once the planet’s rotation takes you beyond the star’s warmth. Do you want your friend to freeze to death?”
Eden stared back at him rebelliously for a moment, then her eyes took on a cunning gleam. “Her name is Ansley, but no one knows where she went. We’re as surprised by her behavior as you are. She’s probably hiding in one of the dormitories or a storage shed. She couldn’t have gone far.”
“You’ll never find her,” a brunette to their right sneered. “Ansley knows our island like the back of her hand and sleeping in the woods is nothing to her. She loves the wilderness.”
“Oh, my God, Jessie. Can you ever just keep your mouth shut?” Eden snapped. She shot the brunette a furious glare then turned her face away.
Even if Ansley was a skilled survivalist, she should not have been able to elude the transport scanners. It didn’t make sense. “Everyone over the age of twenty-five is locked in a different holding area,” Tandor told Eden, answering her earlier question. “No one has been harmed. Do as you’re told, and that fact will not change.”
“Where are you taking us?” Eden called out as they started to walk away.
Jobek glanced back at her and said, “Home. We’re taking you home.”
The females scrambled out of Jobek and Tandor’s way as they crossed the cargo bay.
At least the initial panic was calming down. Tandor had been bombarded with emotions when he walked into the room. The sensory deluge had been overwhelming so he’d shielded his empathic receptors. Now that the situation was settling, he eased back on the protection so he could scan at will.
“I’m not sure how her first name helps us, but the other information is interesting,” Jobek mused as they reached the corridor. “Will Neloff allow us to hunt down the stray?” The hopeful lift in Jobek’s tone was unmistakable.
Tandor couldn’t blame him. Too often these days their missions required in-depth data dives and sector by sector scans. They were bounty hunters. Nothing was as thrilling as chasing down their prey. “There is only one way to find out.”
“I’ll go ready the ship,” Jobek said, clearly confident that Neloff would agree.
Tandor nodded and Jobek headed off in the opposite direction. Rather than waiting for the lift, Tandor took the stairs to level two and pressed his hand against the scanner controlling access to the command deck. Only those with appropriate clearance could trigger the door. Neloff motioned Tandor over to the central control station as soon as he came into view.
“Our escapee’s name is Ansley, and she is reported to have wilderness skills. It might be challenging to find her.”
“Why the hell isn’t she showing up on scanners?” Neloff grumbled. “We’ve been sweeping the entire island ever since the last group of females was streamed aboard.”
“I can’t answer that, but she’s still down there. There’s no doubt.”
Neloff nodded. He stared at the main display for a moment then looked at Tandor. “Cylex won’t be here until late tomorrow. That gives us a day and a half to find her. I’ll keep scanning, but are you and Jobek up for a physical hunt? I know it’s been a while since you used those skills, but you’re my best team by far.”
“We’re looking forward to it,” Tandor assured his brother with a wolfish grin.
Ansley moved to the back of the sea cave and slipped the large pack off with a groan. It felt wonderful to be free of the burden. Her shoulders were tense and her back ached. The island was only three miles across, but the terrain was treacherous. The sun had set by the time she reached the cave, which meant the mouth would soon be blocked by water. Unlike most of the caves on the island, this one didn’t fill completely during high tide. Being trapped inside was unnerving, but the water also protected her until morning. She could rest for a few hours, eat a hearty if less than appetizing meal of vacuum-sealed food, then set out again at dawn. The secret to eluding capture was to keep moving. Anyone who had ever been a fugitive knew that. Maybe if the founders had followed the simple rule, Still Water Farm wouldn’t be empty right now.
The silvery poncho, with its deep hood, would prevent the hunters from detecting her with sensors. They would have to spot her to catch her, which made her hopeful that she would be able to accomplish her task.
The temperature was rapidly dropping now that the sun had gone down. She didn’t dare start a fire. Not only was there inadequate ventilation, but light and smoke traveled surprising distances and would immediately give her away. Instead, she pulled the ultra-thin sleeping bag and a heat-retaining blanket out of the backpack. Like the poncho, everything in the pack was Altorian, which meant it was more technologically advanced than similar items found on Earth.
She doubled the sleeping bag over and sat on it. Her aching muscles needed the cushioning right now just as much as the warmth. After wrapping the other blanket around her shoulders, she dug through the pack and found a random meal pack. She didn’t care which flavor she ended up eating. They were all pretty awful. Apparently, field rations were nasty on any planet.
As she drew the zipper closed, securing the top compartment, she spotted the quilted pouch Neeva had given her. Guarding the device in that pouch was now her purpose in life.
According to Neeva, the device contained data crystals imprinted with detailed information on second-level conduits. The founders had decided that destroying the information outright endangered Ansley and the other residents. They were engineered beings, unique in all the known universe. What was happening to Jodi was a good example of why the data was still important.
On the other hand, it was imperative that the data not fall into the hands of anyone interested in creating more second-level conduits. So Ansley was supposed to disappear into humanity and wait until the crisis passed. The founders would send someone back to Earth to retrieve her, but it would likely take months or even years for the danger to resolve.
In the meantime, Ansley had been given American and Canadian IDs, cash, and the access information for a bank account with enough money for housing and food. She would need to find a job and a place to live, but the funds would give her time to determine her best situation. She had never lived on her own. Still, she was better prepared for the adventure than any of the other conduits. Most of her friends only just found out that they were aliens.
Relaxing back against the cave wall, Ansley opened the meal pack and poured in a small amount of water. The envelope grew warm as the exothermic reaction reconstituted the stew. She cradled the pouch between her hands and absorbed the heat into her cold fingers. She would put on her gloves after she ate, but damn, that felt good.
The food smelled better than it tasted. Still, it was hot, and she was hungry. After washing down the instant meal with plenty of water, she pulled on her gloves. Moonlight spilled into the cave, shimmering across the water that was rapidly filling the entrance. High tide was at ten-thirty tonight, so she figured it had to be around nine forty-five. All things considered, the day had gone remarkably fast.
She watched the gently surging water and wondered what was happening to Eden and the other residents. Were they still on Earth or had the hunters loaded everyone onto a ship or ships and flown them back to the Citadel?
Loneliness and self-pity panged through Ansley. She knew her task was vital. Neeva had made sure Ansley understood. Still, she really wanted to see the Citadel in person. She wanted to interact with other conduits and learn how to—it was pointless to think about any of that now. She had vowed to safeguard the data and she intended to keep her promise.
Dr. Lorish wanted to ensure that nothing gave Ansley away while she was gone, so he’d injected her with a booster of the suppressant. Like most of the residents, Ansley had been having erotic dreams for weeks now. In fact, she was the first to be so concerned about the phenomenon that she’d mentioned it to Neeva.
Ansley thought about sex constantly and was seldom able to sleep unless she brought herself to climax. The thought made her smile. Masturbating in an open dormitory with eleven other women nearby was easier said than done. But her need for sex had become so demanding lately that she no longer cared if the others realized what she was doing.
She tucked her trash into one of many compartments on the backpack. She might be imagining a faraway star system, but she still loved this island. Dawn broke early this far north, so she spread out the sleeping bag and snuggled down inside its warmth. It felt odd to sleep fully dressed, but she couldn’t afford to take any chances.
Lying on her back with her hands tucked behind her head, Ansley stared up at the ceiling of the cave. Moonlight reflected off the water creating an ever-changing kaleidoscope of rippling shapes. She was physically exhausted, yet her mind whirred with thoughts and speculation. The men she’d seen in the videos appeared large compared to their females. Most had been muscular with rugged features and fierce eyes. What would it be like to have sex with someone so virile? What would it be like to have two lovers at the same time? Hell, what would it be like to have sex at all?
Information about sex was readily available on the island. Ansley wasn’t sure if the founders had arranged it that way or if technology simply made it impossible to regulate. Either way, her imagination had more than enough fuel, but her actual experience was minimal. She had more freedom than most because of the solo trips she made into Sitka. To augment the money the farm generated, they also sold arts and crafts in several local gift shops. One of Ansley’s inherited tasks was to deliver the handmade goods to a store owner every couple of weeks. From Sitka the store owner shipped the items to Skagway and Juno where she also owned gift shops.
While in town one afternoon, Ansley had stopped into a corner pub. The bartender’s name was Liam and he was an outrageous flirt. They talked and shared a plate of French fries. It was lighthearted and fun, so she had returned nearly every time she visited Sitka. A couple of weeks ago, Liam convinced her to sit in his car where they could enjoy some privacy. She wasn’t surprised when he kissed her. She’d suspected that their flirtation would eventually lead to sex, but kissing him felt wrong, unnatural. She wanted sex badly, just not with Liam.
Too many people knew her in Sitka. She would have to go somewhere else. She’d find a job and blend with humans. The founders had trained the residents well. They’d been taught to be ordinary, common, not to draw attention. Ansley would use her upbringing now. She would melt into the crowd, ensuring that she was utterly forgettable.
Tears escaped the corners of her eyes. She allowed the release, but ignored the wave of hopelessness threatening to overwhelm her. Living an unremarkable life as a human was what the founders had intended for all of the residents. The only problem was that now Ansley knew she was meant for so much more. She rolled onto her side and sobbed helplessly, squeezing her eyes shut.
Long moments later, she drew in a deep breath and forced herself to focus. Crying had been cathartic. She’d needed to release the emotions so they wouldn’t control her, but that was over now. She must stay sharp and alert. She must elude the hunters and escape the island. This mission was important. There would be no more self-pity, no more doubt until she knew her friends were safe and the data was protected.