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Their Human Captive: A Dark Sci-Fi Alien Romance by Maria Monroe – Sample

Chapter One

Willow

My right knee scrapes against the old concrete as I hoist myself up to peer out of the glassless window of the decrepit factory building. The Enforcement left hours ago, but with a target on my back I can’t be too careful.

Outside, everything looks normal.

Grandma, who isn’t really anyone’s grandmother as far as I know, pushes her shopping cart along the broken street, the same back-and-forth path she treads for hours every day. The clattering and screeching of the rusty wheels can be annoying if I focus on it, but mostly it’s just part of the soundtrack of life around here.

She glances in my direction, her usually cloudy eyes suddenly clear, and winks. There’s a chance it’s not intentional, but I think she’s signaling me the all-clear. Around here, we have each other’s backs.

A group of kids, their clothing so worn it’s almost invisible, throw rocks at tin cans in some game they’ve invented and play constantly.

Over in the community garden of the Villages, people with heads covered in bandanas and random cloths for protection against the relentless sun work their allotted time, the price paid for sharing in the crops when they’re ready. But with no rain in weeks, it’s doubtful the harvest will be decent, which means traveling farther and wider to find food this fall.

Glancing around constantly, I step out into the open, sweat beading up on my forehead almost immediately. It’s noon, mid-summer, and the hottest season I remember in my twenty-four years on Earth. My worn, thin T-shirt sticks to my ribs with sweat, and I pull it away from my skin with my fingers, trying to find relief, even for a brief moment.

I dart across the street from the factory to the Comic Shop where I live—or lived before going into hiding. Bear’s probably out working, most likely on outhouse duty, which is undoubtedly the worst job, especially on a sweltering day like this. But Martha’s sick and will be home.

Dirty, torn burlap curtains hang, unmoving in the still and hot air, covering the long-gone windows of the store. Next to the Comic Shop is an ancient laundromat, where the Bastille family lives, a young couple not much older than I am with two babies. On the other side a group of five middle-aged women live in a long-abandoned Chooch Vision ophthalmologist office. At the end of the strip is a communal home in what used to be a restaurant. Inside, makeshift apartments have been created using shelving and curtains. Outside, the Connie’s Corner sign is faded from sun and age. Rumor has it the restaurant shut down on the day of the final bomb, when the original owners disappeared hours before the city was decimated by civil war.

“Martha?” I push the tattered cloth functioning as a door aside and step into the stifling, stagnant shop. In the dimness, I can just make her out, lying on a bed in the corner, one arm trailing off the side like a dying vine.

“Willow.” Martha’s voice is weak, barely audible.

“It’s hot in here. I’ll open these.” I pull the burlap curtains to the side, securing them on the nails I hammered in years ago for this exact purpose. With no breeze outside, there isn’t an immediate effect, but it makes me feel useful to do even this small thing.

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” argues Martha, but there’s no conviction in her tone.

“Do you have water?” I eye the chipped mug next to her bed, only about an inch of liquid left. “I’ll get you some.” I reach for the cup, but Martha raises her frail hand.

“Wait. Later. Sit.” She gestures to the wooden chair near the bed.

I pull it closer and sit, leaning over so Martha won’t have to strain herself to speak too loudly.

“The Enforcement. Are they gone?” Martha’s deep blue eyes reveal fear. They look even more blue offset by her tan skin, still dark even though she’s been indoors and bedridden for at least two weeks.

I nod. “Everything’s fine, Martha. There’s nothing to worry about.”

But she shakes her head. “Please, Willow. I may be sick, but I’m not stupid.”

“I’m sorry.” Despite the terrible circumstances, I can’t help smiling to see some of Martha’s usual spark. Maybe she’s getting better after all? Maybe the medicine worked, before the Enforcement took it away? “But I don’t want you to worry. I want you to focus on getting well. I’m okay. I can take care of myself.”

I can take care of myself.” A gentle smile graces her face as she repeats my words. “That’s what you said when we first took you in. Do you remember?” Martha struggles to sit up, refusing my offers of help, and finally settling in with her back against the wall. “You were two. Maybe three, but small? Hard to say. Just running around with a pack of children. But all the other kids went home at night. We didn’t know where you’d come from, but Bear and I knew we couldn’t leave you all alone. Sure, you got scraps of food during the day. But you needed to belong to someone.”

I smile, barely able to remember a time before Martha and Bear. And she’s right that even now, I hate to ask for or accept anyone’s help. If I can’t do something myself, I’ll keep trying until I can. Depending on others isn’t the best way to be prepared for anything.

Martha continues. “You said exactly that. I can take care of myself. But then you ate two servings of the stew we made and fell asleep right in the middle of our bed. And that was that.”

“You’re my family.”

Martha nods. “And we always will be. But you’re in danger. You should never have stolen that medicine. If you get caught by the Enforcement…”

“You were dying!” I stand, the chair practically falling down behind me. “I had to get it for you.”

“There are protocols to follow…”

“If we’d waited and gone through the proper channels, you’d be dead, Martha. And you know it. What good is a system if they make you wait literally weeks to get treated?”

“But if they catch you…”

“They won’t catch me!” I sit back down. “And if they do, they’ll send me to Industria. It’s not a big deal.” I shrug, trying to pretend I don’t feel a coldness through my body at the thought.

Martha speaks softly. “Do you know the percentage of people who actually come back from Industria?”

“Less than half. I know. But I’m strong. I’d make it.” Industria Labor Camp is where the Enforcement sends people who break the law, where prisoners are worked so hard under such harsh conditions they often die.

“You said before that Jonah had an idea to keep you safe.” Martha crosses her frail arms over her chest and stares hard at me, then puts up a hand to stop me before I can speak. “And I know it might mean you going away for a while.”

“No way. I’m not leaving you. Or Bear. And our community depends on me! I’m responsible for hunting more wild animals than anyone.” I’ve told her the bare outline of the plan but no details. It’s too risky. And impossible. I’ve already decided that, as far as bad ideas go, it’s probably the worst ever.

“But you’ll be no good to us if you’re away at Industria, where chances are you’ll die. Please just talk to him again, Willow.” Desperation shines in Martha’s eyes.

“Fine. I’ll talk to him. One more time. And then you’ll drop it. OK?”

“Yes.” But she suddenly won’t meet my gaze.

I swallow my frustration and reach out to push a strand of long white hair behind Martha’s ear. “I’ll go see Jonah today. Promise. But there aren’t that many options, other than being on the run like I am.”

“He’s resourceful. He can help.”

I nod. “Let me get you some more water before I leave. Is there anything else you need?” I pick up her mug, so old I can’t make out the faded cartoon on it.

“The only thing I need is to know you’re safe and out of danger from the Enforcement.”

I roll my eyes and grin. “You’re relentless, you know that?”

“It’s my best quality.” Martha smiles back. “And I believe I’ve passed it on to you.”

Outside feels at least ten degrees cooler than it did inside the stifling hot Comic Shop, and I wish I had time to erect some sort of shelter from the sun with a bed underneath, so I can bring Martha outdoors for a bit. But I need to stay out of view. There’s barely time to stop at the well, where, hand over hand, I pull the bucket up from the depths of the earth, brimming with cold water, the smell of minerals and earth wafting up.

After filling my hip flask and Martha’s mug, I head back to the shop. Martha’s slow and regular breathing lets me know she’s asleep. Carefully, trying not to make any noise, I set the mug down and tiptoe out, taking one last look at Martha before I leave. I can’t shake the strange and terrifying feeling that it might be the last time I see her.

Oak Brook Mall, which we call Oak, is where I live with Martha and Bear and about forty other families. Before the upheavals and war, it used to be an actual mall, which I’ve been told is where people shopped and ate, when there was electricity and working automobiles and toilets that flushed. Today, living in the shops right next door to one another provides safety—being spread out would make it too easy for invading groups to steal or do worse. The surrounding houses are mostly too decrepit for living anyway; the boring architecture of the industrial-looking shops, though most likely unattractive back in their heyday, has lent itself well to withstanding decades of neglect.

I know of at least six other similar communities within a twenty-mile radius. For years, until my recent trouble with the Enforcement, I’ve been one of Oak’s scouts and dignitaries, a term used somewhat ironically. Dignitaries is what they call the people whose jobs it is to keep up relations and communications between the Villages. Regularly I travel from town to town, meeting with people, bringing any surplus supplies we have to share, which lately has been more and more rare, and keeping up on news in other areas.

So getting to Jonah’s not a big deal. He lives in Glendale, the next closest to ours. Getting in unseen, though, presents a bigger hurdle. I’ve always gotten along well with everyone in the Villages, but I also know how eager the Enforcement is to find me. There’s probably a huge price on my head, rewards even loyal friends might not be able to pass up. A sack of rice or some smoked meat is worth an astronomical amount when people are almost literally starving, and I’m certain more than a handful of people would give me up in an instant. Their guilt or regret about it wouldn’t save me.

I trust Jonah, though. And once I’m in sight of Glendale, I keep low, darting from behind a tree to the back of a dumpster. From a crumbling shed to the shelter of a giant billboard, fallen from high years ago and faded and rotting on the ground. And, finally, I make my way quickly and silently to the back door of an ancient Starbucks coffee shop.

Unlike my home in the Comic Shop, Jonah’s has an actual door, and I know the secret knock to get in. Unless he’s changed it recently. One slow knock. Two quick. One slow. Three quick.

A voice rings out. Female and tough, like I’m bothering her. “What?”

“It’s Willow. I’m here for Jonah.”

Some whispering I can’t make out from behind the door, then the sound of bolts being unlocked. Finally, the door pushes out slowly as a face, freckled and angry, peers at me. “You alone?”

“I’m alone.”

“Come in.” She pushes the door open farther, quickly scanning the area behind me. “Hurry!”

“I’m in. Sorry.” I step to the side, allowing the scout to shut the door as quickly as possible.

It’s a girl, maybe about sixteen, bright orange hair cut short and choppy around her heavily freckled face. Her eyes, big and green, shine with a mixture of wariness and irritation as she makes quick work of bolting the door. There’s something about her that reminds me of myself: maybe it’s her don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s not one to sit around and sew clothing, a necessary and important job, but would rather be a lookout.

“He’s in there.” The girl gestures down the small hallway, and I make my way to the main section of the shop, where Jonah and his ‘family’ live. Like many other families, his consists of people he’s acquired throughout the years, not necessarily people genetically related to him.

“Willow!” Jonah’s robust and humor-tinged voice makes me grin before I even see him. He stands from behind the counter, like he’s going to take my coffee order, and then walks over, arms out, to embrace me in a warm hug. “Girl,” he mutters, stepping back and smiling down at me, “you need a bath.”

“It’s great to see you too.” I scowl at him, but it’s not long before a smile takes over. Jonah can always make me laugh.

“I guess it’s hard to find time to pamper yourself when you’re hiding from the law, huh?” His tone is light, but his eyes burn into mine, letting me know he’s aware of how serious the situation is.

“New lookout?” I nod toward the back door, where the redhead’s stationed.

“She’s quick. Quiet. Discerning.”

“She almost didn’t let me in.”

“She’s worried you’re going to bring trouble.” Jonah raises an eyebrow at me.

“I was very careful. You know I always am.” I feel a rush of irritation. Jonah’s my friend. He knows I’d never do anything to put him or his family in jeopardy.

“I know. Come. Sit.” He gestures at a stool next to the one he was at earlier.

I try not to laugh out loud at his outfit. While most people run around in whatever rags they can find, Jonah somehow always seems able to acquire, either by trade or smarts, fancy clothes. Today he has on a pair of pale pink shorts with tiny embroidered sailboats in blue thread and a short-sleeved and collared white dress shirt. His thick, muscled arms look even darker than normal in contrast.

“You’re not smirking at my outfit, now, are you?” Jonah’s teeth shine white, his deep brown face creasing as he smiles.

“Never, Jonah.” I wink and grin back.

“Besides, Michael likes the way I look.” Jonah raises an eyebrow, a haughty look, but softened by the gentleness in his eyes as he speaks his husband’s name.

“You guys are cute.” I hate the wistfulness in my voice. It kills me to admit it, but I’ve longed for a partner before. My work, always moving and traveling from town to town, hasn’t left me with much time to find someone special, though. Not to mention that I know almost everyone within a decent radius and, so far at least, nobody’s met my criteria. Not that I’m even sure what those criteria are. But men always seem put off or intimidated by me. Jonah’s said I’m too much of a challenge for boys, and I need a real man. But so far, I haven’t found one.

Jonah frowns, and I know it’s time for a real conversation. “Things are bad for you, Willow.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think you do. Look.” Jonah snaps open an ancient laptop computer and presses a key, bringing the device to life.

I’ve known for years that Jonah has electricity, thanks to some generators he’s procured in mystery deals, the details of which he mostly keeps private. Still, though, it always amazes me to see it. He’s the only person in all of the Villages, at least that I know of, who has any sort of power, let alone a connection to the internet. I’m not sure if the Enforcement knows about Jonah’s connections, and I’m fairly certain he has friends there, since there’s no other way he could get all the information he has. But I also trust him. And right now? I don’t have much choice.

He clicks a few more buttons, then turns the screen so it faces me. There’s my likeness, grainy but definitely me, crouched low, caught in a moment just before darting across the street. My face is wary, eyes big, dirt decorating my cheeks. My long blonde hair is pulled back with a leather strap, one I cut from some old worn material. At the bottom of the screen one word stands out in bold red letters: Wanted.

“What? I don’t… Why am I on the computer?”

“The Enforcement has your photo.”

“Well, if they were taking my photo, why didn’t they just capture me?”

Jonah shrugs. “Probably the Enforcement didn’t actually take the photo. Someone else did. Maybe a lookout or watch person or something. But they are after you, girl.” His eyes are suddenly sad. Tired. “You can’t stay here.”

“I won’t be here long. I didn’t mean to put you in danger.”

“No. I don’t mean right here right now. I mean in the Villages. Word is out. And you don’t know who you can trust. You need to get as far away as possible.”

“Or what? They’ll send me to Industria? For saving Martha’s life?” I practically spit the words, anger welling up inside me.

“Worse, honey.” His eyes are filled with sympathy. “Word is they want to make an example of you. They don’t want us Villagers rising up. Taking more than they say we deserve.”

“So, what are we talking?” I scratch nervously at my cheek, trying to fight back the fear growing in my belly. “A public hanging? Putting my head on a stake as a warning to all to follow the rules? What, Jonah?”

He’s supposed to laugh. I was trying to make a joke. But he doesn’t, and that terrifies me. He shakes his head. “I don’t know. But it’s not good. So that plan we discussed? I think it’s time.”

I scrunch my eyes shut as tight as possible, until colors swirl on the insides of my lids, reminding me of space, of a vast, vast solar system. One I might know a whole lot about sooner than later.

“And,” continues Jonah, “you need to leave tonight.”

“What?” My eyes fly open. “Tonight? I can’t. It’s too soon. I’m not ready, and I won’t have time to say bye to Martha and Bear or anyone else. And it’s just… it’s so much, Jonah!”

His huge hand lands on my shoulder, squeezing, comforting. “You have to go. You won’t be any good to your family dead, which is how you’re going to end up if you stay. There’s a ship leaving tonight. I have a friend who can smuggle you onto the base and get you into the one extra travel pod. And once you get to Luminar, they’ll keep you there until there’s been a fair investigation. The Luminarians won’t send you back until they’ve looked into your case on their own. There are no formal extradition agreements in place yet, so if you make a good case to the Luminar officials, you buy yourself time.”

“I can hide out here. Somewhere.” My voice is hopelessly quiet.

“But where? And alone? It’s almost impossible to make it as groups, as villages. Do you really want to live with a constant target on your back? Unable to visit your family? Or me?” Jonah gifts me with an exaggerated eye blink.

Despite myself, the ghost of a smile crosses my face.

“And you?” he continues. “Darling, I’ve never known anyone readier for adventure than you are. Think about it. You’ll be going to a different planet! How many people can say they’ve done that?”

“A few hundred?” I shrug.

“But nobody from the Villages. You’ll be the first.”

I sigh hard, breathing in and closing my eyes for a few seconds before opening them once more and meeting Jonah’s concerned gaze. “OK. I’ll go.” The words are difficult to say, but my lack of choices is overwhelming.

“Yes,” he murmurs. “You will go.”

I resist rolling my eyes at his smug certainty, which is actually endearing most of the time, but my nerves are shot right now.

He taps a few keys on his computer, studying the screen. “So. Everything’s worked out well. I hate to use the word perfect, but…” He shoots me a cocky grin. “I’ve managed to hack into the Luminarian transportation system to have you added to the roster. I’ve acquired all the necessary documentation for you to board the ship.”

“OK.” I swallow hard as he slides a plastic ID card across the table to me. My likeness smiles back at me as I gaze at the photo—the first picture of me I’ve ever seen, save the video Jonah just showed me. ‘Willow Sterling,’ it says. Then there’s a series of numbers, possibly an identification number. Then: ‘Cultural Ambassador to Luminar—The Villages, Earth.’

“Cultural Ambassador?” I frown at Jonah, looking for an explanation.

“Well, it’s no secret—if you have access to news, which nobody except me does here—that Earth and Luminar are working more earnestly to create alliances, especially around art and science, but also more recently societal concerns. And, although the Villages have obviously not been represented in these initiatives, I’d argue that it’s time. Wouldn’t you?” Jonah sits back, crossing one leg over the other and looking at me with a small smile on his face.

“I, uh, guess so.” When we’d discussed this plan previously, in very general terms, I hadn’t thought about the specifics. About the consequences. About what would happen when I actually got to Luminar. My sole focus was on getting off Earth. But now? I have no idea what any of this will mean or how it will play out. “OK, Jonah, but once I get there, it’s only a matter of time before I’m found out, right? I mean, at some point, someone’s going to realize that I’m not supposed to be there.”

He nods. “True. Yes. That may happen. But with my contacts, I’ve managed to manipulate the database that holds the information for Human Transfer, so as far as the Luminarians who receive you are concerned, you’re an official part of the ambassador program, tasked with studying the oh-so-successful culture of Luminar and bringing practical ideas back to the Villages. If, at some point, you’re found out, you’ll have established contacts who may help you, and with the lack of an extradition treaty between our two planets, they’ll be under no obligation to send you back, and probably won’t.”

“OK.” I take a deep breath. This is a lot to take in, but at this point, my mind has switched into auto-pilot, and I know I have to get through this.

“And, Willow, with your sparkling personality, I have no doubt you’ll charm everyone around you, human or alien.” Jonah’s voice carries a hint of sarcasm, but just a hint; he means every word he just said, and his warm smile proves it. “Just be yourself,” he continues. “Albeit a slightly more demure version. And a much cleaner version.” He scans my attire. I’m in my usual ripped jeans and dirty sweatshirt, and, since being on the run, keeping clean has been even less of a concern than normal.

“So, what, Jonah? I should head to the closest boutique and purchase a new designer outfit?”

He laughs. “I’ve got you, Willow.” He calls out for his young female bouncer, and she’s abruptly there, like he summoned her out of thin air. “Onyx will show you where to wash up, and I’ve procured a selection of clothing for you. Go make yourself presentable.” He winks, and I follow Onyx into another room.

Bathed and dressed in newer and cleaner clothes than I’ve ever seen, I hug Jonah hard.

“I’ll miss you, Willow. You’re one of a kind.”

“I’ll miss you too, Jonah. And Michael. I might never see you again.” Tears well up in my eyes. Life in the Villages is far from perfect, but it’s all I’ve known. My family, my friends, everything and everyone I love is here. The knowledge that I might never see anyone or anything here again fills me with a fear so visceral I begin to shiver, even in the hot afternoon temperatures.

“Hey. Hey, girl. You’re going to do great.” Jonah snaps his laptop shut, then slides off his stool and takes my hand. His smile is warm. “Come on. We’ve got to get moving. I’ve arranged transport for you to the base.”

“So you knew I’d go before I even got here? I mean, you have everything figured out and arranged.”

Jonah chuckles. “You’re stubborn, but you’re not stupid. Yes. I knew you’d go.”

“Asshole,” I mumble.

Jonah laughs and squeezes my hand as he leads me to the front door.

White. Gleaming white. The closest I’ve ever seen to it is the hallways of the base station at the medical clinic where I broke in to steal Martha’s antibiotics, but that was designed to take care of lowly Villagers, and dinginess took over a long time ago.

Here, though, everything shines. I fight the urge to stop and stare at even the walls, but my guide has made it clear that time is of the essence.

“You’re late,” she said with a click of her tongue when I was dropped off, driven from Jonah’s in a large black vehicle. “These last-minute additions are such a burden. Come on, then.”

We walk, though sometimes it feels like jogging, through what seem like endless corridors. Sometimes she holds up her hand, as though something implanted inside it gives her access, and the doors swish open and then shut again with a sigh.

I’m fascinated by her. She’s not a Villager, like I am. She’s from The Grid, where they have electricity and running water and haircuts. Clean clothes. Regular meals. I haven’t met many Gridizens in my life, and I want to ask questions, but her perfunctory manner makes it clear I should keep my mouth shut.

Finally, we stop before a door like all the others, except it has the words Transport in perfect black letters. She opens the door and we enter.

The room is lit with a soft purplish glow, illuminating machines that flicker with their own code of lights, on and off, in some pattern I don’t understand. Perhaps there is no pattern at all. I know nothing about technology, and certainly nothing about technology as advanced as this. The only working computer I’ve seen in my life is Jonah’s.

Along the walls, egg-shaped pods stand, a bluish glow emanating from each one.

It takes me a second to realize what’s inside them, and when I do, I gasp. People! My eyes scan each pod—there are twenty in total—and in nineteen of them humans float, eyes closed, suspended in some sort of thick blue liquid.

“Is it… are they…?” I approach one to get a closer look, reaching up a hand to touch the cool glass with the tips of my fingers.

“Those are the travel pods. There’s one available. Last-minute cancellation. You’ll be in Pod Seventeen.” The escort’s words are quick, almost curt.

“But are they breathing? Does it hurt? Will I die?” Panic rises in my throat. Maybe taking my chances with the Enforcement would be safer than this!

“They’re not breathing. Respiration has been halted but the body is alive. It doesn’t hurt. Or nobody has reported that it does. Most likely you will not die. The problem of inadvertent deaths during transport has been reduced significantly over the past several flights.”

“Wow. That’s reassuring,” I mumble, as I watch the escort approach Pod 17 and push a button. With a hiss and a sigh, the pod’s door slides upward.

She presses a series on the pod’s keypad, obviously programming it to do something. I try hard not to think about what it will be like to be suspended in that fluid. Are those people sleeping? Dreaming? Thinking? Do they know where they are?

I have so many questions, but my escort’s tone lets me know I’m nothing more than an annoyance, so I bite my tongue.

“Take off your clothes.”

“What?” I turn my gaze back to her.

“You must enter the pod naked. Hurry. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Slowly, I pull my shirt up over my head. Unsure what to do with it, I hold it out to her.

“Put everything in there.” She points at the pod and a small metal door opens.

I fold the shirt quickly and put it inside the storage container built into the pod. I slip out of my shiny new sneakers that Jonah got for me and toss them in. Then I take off the rest of my clothes and put them on top of my sneakers.

I stand, naked, before the guide.

“Get in.” She gestures at the pod.

I step inside. It’s maybe seven feet tall in here, and a few feet in diameter. “What now?”

For the first time, she looks me directly in the eye. “This was all covered in the instructional vid any traveler is required to watch.”

Shit. Right. “I, uh, my trip was planned so last-minute that some of the requirements weren’t, um, covered,” I stammer.

“That makes no sense. How can anyone be asked to travel to another planet without the essential educational component?”

I shrug, trying to act casual, but fear courses through me. What if she decides to call someone in charge? What if I’m found out now, here? I take a deep breath.

“I had a very abbreviated training,” I respond, keeping my voice as steady and strong as possible. “I am more than prepared for my important mission to Luminar. They’re waiting for me there, so you’re right. Let’s get going.”

She stares at me for a few seconds, then nods. “Fine. Well. To review, I’m going to give you a pill that will dissolve on your tongue. It’s a sedative that will knock you out so you can breathe in the fluid without your body fighting it. You’ll feel the effects of it when the liquid’s about chest deep, and you’ll be in La-la-land before it’s at your chin. As soon as you take the pill, I’ll close the pod, and once it’s shut and locked, it doesn’t open up again until you land on Luminar. No second thoughts. No turning around. Understand?”

“Y-y-yes.” My voice shakes, dizziness threatening to overtake me.

“Deep breath. You’re going to be fine.” There’s a sudden kindness, or something close to it, in her eyes as she hands me a tiny white pill. With a deep breath, I sigh, then place the tablet on my tongue. It’s chalky and vaguely bitter as it begins to dissolve immediately.

“Safe travels,” she says, then presses a button, and the pod door slides down, a clicking sound indicating it’s locked in place.

This is it.

My heart pounds, the blue substance trickling in, slowly covering my toes, gaining speed until it’s almost up to my ankles. It’s not cold, exactly, and weirdly almost doesn’t feel wet. It’s thick, a liquid, but unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Despite my best efforts, it’s practically impossible not to freak out about the thought that it will, in a matter of minutes, be over my head. I focus on keeping my breathing steady and regular.

Breathe in, smell the flowers. Breathe out, blow out the candle. Over and over, I repeat the calming mantra Martha taught me as a child.

One last question. I have something to ask! I feel slow and detached from my body as I knock on the window to get the escort’s attention. She looks at me.

“How long is the trip?” I yell, or try to yell, since a strange heaviness is beginning to carry me away.

She mouths something I can’t understand. My hands, feeling like they weigh a thousand pounds, raise in a “What?” gesture.

She mouths it again, and this time I think I understand. But that can’t be right. Can it? Six weeks?

I want to ask again, just to be sure, but it’s become hard to think. Simultaneously my body feels heavy as cement but light as air, falling and floating, and the last thing I see is the escort in her white lab coat, watching the electronic readout on my pod.

My eyes fly open. I’m awake. Alert. Immediately I recognize the lab with the pods in it, understand that I’m still inside mine. But the blue fluid is gone, and my pod door is hissing upward.

I’m still on Earth. I must still be on Earth. Only a second has passed. There’s no way I could have traveled all the way to another solar system, no way six weeks could have passed.

A tall blue creature appears, standing before me, and the truth is evident. She’s obviously a woman, willowy and maybe six feet in height, but she’s definitely not human. Her skin is a light blue color with hints of silver and seems to shimmer as she moves. Her outfit, a long green gown, matches the color of her eyes almost exactly, and both glow.

It hits me that I’m looking at a creature unlike me, an alien, and I can barely speak.

“Um, hi?” I raise my hand in a lame wave, realizing it moves well, with no soreness or numbness, despite ostensibly being ‘asleep’ for so long.

The alien woman’s expression remains unchanged; anger and annoyance are pasted across her face.

Behind her, the other travelers from Earth are stepping out of their pods, where an alien at each pod hands them a plush-looking robe. Once each human slips it on, they dip their heads and hold up their right hands in some sort of greeting.

I hear them speak in a foreign language, which at first makes no sense, but in a second, and to my surprise, I realize I understand everything they’re saying.

“How?” I touch my head and gaze up into the alien woman’s unsmiling face.

“A chip. Implanted while you were in hyper-sleep. You should know that from the required training, but apparently someone wasn’t paying attention.” She scowls even deeper than before.

“I’m, um, sorry?” I don’t know exactly what to say to her or how to respond to her obvious annoyance with me.

The woman puts up her hand, her long, thin blue fingers halting my speech. “No. You need to understand that you were added to this flight very last minute, and I’ve had to adjust my entire schedule just for you.”

“I apologize,” I say, even though what I want to do is be as rude to her as she’s being to me. “Yes, I was added last-minute. But my role here is important.” I try to summon self-confidence as I speak. It’s hard to get over the fact that I’m speaking fluently in a different language, one I never needed to learn. I want to stop and marvel at the sounds coming out of my mouth, but there’s too much going on.

The other humans and their Luminarian guides are smiling and laughing as they exit through a doorway, probably to get showered and dressed. Fed too, maybe. My own stomach grumbles. I want to ask her what to expect next, but I can’t risk making her angry again or drawing attention to the fact that I haven’t done the training on Earth that I was supposed to do.

“Here.” She practically shoves a white robe at me, just like the ones the other humans were given. I slip it on, marveling at the softness of the material. I’ve never felt anything like it.

Once I’ve put it on, she holds up her hand, and the door swishes open, revealing a silver hallway. “Let’s go then. This shuttle is docked to the EVTS, which is where we’re going now.” She gestures to the area beyond the door.

“The EVTS?”

“The Earth Visitor Transfer Station.” Her voice drips with annoyance. “Usually, our Earth visitors have been briefed on all this before they arrive.” Another pointed dig at me.

I bite my lip, fighting the urge to say something rude as I follow her.

“What’s your name?” I ask as we move down the hallway. Maybe being friendly will help?

“Mella. And for your information, I work for and report directly to Commanders Callax and Rex.”

“Oh. They are…?”

Mella makes a tsking sound. “Two of the most powerful leaders on Luminar. Which you would know if you’d gone through training before your trip. Commander Callax heads up Luminar’s Bureau of Intergalactic Relations, and Commander Rex is in charge of the Planetary Health Organization.”

God. Enough! I roll my eyes, glad Mella’s in front of me so she can’t see. Unless Luminarians have eyes at the back of their heads?

It occurs to me that I know very little about the Luminar population. Humans living in The Grid undoubtedly study them and probably even communicate with them. I’ve heard rumors about human children having pen pals on Luminar, a cool way for them to correspond directly with creatures from another planet. But in the Villages, we have next to nothing. We can barely find enough food to eat. We don’t have medications we need. So of course, we don’t have pen pals on another planet.

It’s common knowledge, though, that the aliens on Luminar are actually part human, that hundreds of years ago the creatures that existed on Luminar were having trouble with procreation and population growth. Knowing already of the existence of humans, and that breeding with them would probably enhance their own genetics, they took men, women, and children from Earth for the purposes of breeding into the elegant and beautiful creatures they are today.

But living in the Villages, I’ve had little to no access to television or computers, and almost no further knowledge about Luminar.

My stomach growls again, loud enough that Mella must have heard it, because she says, “We’ll stop briefly in your room for you to change and have some sustenance. Briefly.”

Once again, I bristle at her attitude, but I inhale deeply and stay as calm as I can. Within a few minutes, we’re at a doorway, and she waves her hand in front of it. The door seems to disintegrate, and we enter a room, sparsely appointed yet somehow elegant. A bed—a real bed!—is covered in what appears to be thick, warm, soft bedding. I’ve never had a bed like that, never been on one, even, and the thought that I’ll get to sleep there tonight makes me almost giddy with excitement. In fact, I want to try it out now. Sit on it. Lie down. Jump on it, even, but I resist the urge. Mella definitely would not approve.

There are a few other pieces of furniture that I don’t have time to investigate, because Mella’s back to her dictatorial practices. She points at one of the walls, and an opening appears to what apparently is a closet.

“Clothes,” she says, as if she’s talking to an idiot. “Put on the blue outfit.” She heads to a machine and waves her hand over it. “Sustenance,” she says, and there’s a tiny whirring sound as the machine produces a plate with what looks like a small cookie on it. She holds out the plate to me. “Eat.”

“What is it?”

“Sustenance.”

Duh. I’m about to ask what exactly she means by that, but she anticipates my questions.

“A small biscuit that contains a high level of calories and nutrients, geared for busy Luminarians—or humans—who are in a hurry or haven’t eaten in some time. Now eat it. We are running out of time.”

I do as I’m told, surprised that the biscuit has absolutely no flavor whatsoever, and once I put it in my mouth, it evaporates, as though it never existed at all. Then I get the outfit Mella instructed me to wear from the closet. It’s a set of silken blue pants and a wraparound shirt.

“We’ll have more clothing for you,” Mella says, “but since you arrived so last-minute, we obviously weren’t prepared.”

“Right. Sorry,” I mutter, taking off the robe, which I toss on the bed, and slipping on the clothes. I thought the robe was comfortable, but these clothes feel like they’re spun from material custom-made for my body, to feel perfect against my skin.

She points at a pair of shoes near the bed; elegant yet, when I put my feet into them, comfortable, like clouds. Mella points to a vanity, and I assume she means for me to tend to my hair with the brush there, so I do, peering at my long blonde hair in the mirror.

“You’ll have to do,” she sniffs. “There’s no time for a shower or anything else.” She looks me up and down.

I’m surprised that the travel pod fluid didn’t leave me looking worse—there’s nothing sticky or filmy on my skin, at least not that I can see or feel—but I can’t wait to take a shower later all the same. I’ve never had a ‘real’ shower before. In the Villages, the best we had was a homemade model that released cold water from a bin on stilts when you pulled the stopper out. Bear had fashioned it so the water streamed through an ancient showerhead he found and retrofitted, but it never worked well.

“Come,” says Mella. “Commander Callax is waiting.”

Oh.

My.

Commander Tor Callax is the sexiest man—er, creature—I’ve ever seen. He has the same blue glowing skin that Mella has, but he’s even taller. Well over six feet, his body is lean but muscled, his skin a deep sapphire with an iridescent sheen.

He walks toward us from behind his foreboding desk, and my knees tremble. His mere presence as he approaches makes my heart beat faster.

His pants, a blue darker than his skin, are form fitted, clinging to every strong muscle in his legs and doing little to hide the huge bulge I’m trying hard not to stare at. Is it customary for Luminar men to walk around showing off everything they’ve got?

He’s wearing a white filmy shirt that vaguely reminds me of what fictional pirates wear, but it’s open in front, revealing a broad expanse of shimmery muscled skin. His face captivates me: sculpted cheekbones and a strong, angular jawline. Along his temples and on his neck, a delicate silvery pattern graces his skin, a subtle but intricate design reminiscent of constellations.

His rakish hair, a blue so dark it’s almost black, is tousled, but in a way that looks intentional. And his eyes. They’re a deep indigo, with silvery speckles, and an intensity that makes me think he can see directly inside my soul.

Holy hell.

“Commander.” Mella bows her head for a few seconds and raises her right hand in that same greeting I keep seeing. Out of the corner of her eye she looks at me, then prods me hard with her left hand.

Right. I should follow suit.

He performs the same greeting, though much quicker, and as soon as he’s standing upright, his eyes bore into mine. They’re cold and hard as steel, but I swear I see a hint—just a tiny glimpse—of a smile in them.

“Is this our last-minute guest?” His voice is deep and rich, the words sounding musical, entrancing in the native Luminarian tongue.

“Yes,” says Mella. “This is Willow Sterling. A cultural ambassador from Earth.” She says ‘cultural ambassador’ like she’s saying a curse word.

“Willow Sterling.” Commander Callax steps in front of me, his form looming tall over my much smaller one. “It’s a pleasure. I understand on Earth, shaking hands is the customary greeting?” He extends his hand, and I want to examine it. The size is immense; I swear he could put the entire thing around my neck if he so chose, which hopefully he won’t. His skin is silvery, almost glittery, and I resist staring as I reach out my own hand.

My hand completely disappears in his. I feel like a toy as he gently, but with just enough force to let me know he’s in charge, shakes my hand, then looks deeply into my eyes.

I’m frozen in place. His eyes pierce mine, and I can see immediately that the friendliness in his tone is completely belied by the distrust in his gaze. He’s smiling, but he doesn’t trust me, or even like me, at all. In fact, the look he’s casting at me has more than a hint of distaste in it.

As though reading my thoughts, the corner of his mouth turns up in the tiniest grin.

“Ni-nice to meet you,” I stammer, my cheeks burning.

“Are you certain?” he asks.

“Certain?” I’m not sure what he’s asking.

“Certain that it’s nice to meet me,” he says, his voice casual, almost teasing. “You know nothing about me. It might end up being nice to know me.” He shrugs. “Or I might be cruel, and you’ll regret ever coming here.” He’s smiling as he says it, his tone kind, but his eyes. There’s something in his eyes that challenges me, and I have to look away each time I try to meet his gaze.

He drops my hand and turns to Mella. “As you know, I don’t like last-minute changes to my schedule, and Willow is a last-minute change to my schedule. Please ensure she’s up to speed on the policies and procedures here and has watched all relevant training videos. I will see her later today.”

“Yes, Commander.” Mella puts up her hand and bows.

The commander turns once more to me. “Willow,” he says. “I expect you to do as Mella says until you have received further instructions from me.”

I’m immobilized by his gaze. His look alone seems to have the power to control me, and though I open my mouth to speak, no words come out. My heart pounds and, against my understanding or desire, wetness grows between my legs.

I can’t explain my body’s sudden response, but I’m glad to be whisked away by Mella. I need a temporary reprieve from the commander and his good looks and my apparent—and stupid—attraction to him.

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