Astrid Elcroix made an unpleasant face at her reflection in the dark black liquid inside her teacup. Above her, the murky aquamarine sky, unusually haze-free, absorbed her light blonde hair and made her look almost ethereal in the coffee cup. Her doll-like features—upturned nose, heart-shaped lips, and wide blue eyes framed by lengthy and well-mascaraed lashes—appeared angelic framed by the dark liquid reflection of the heavens.
Her reflection was lovely.
But the coffee—ugh.
She scrunched up her nose and settled back into her chair, setting the cup delicately on the saucer in the hopes that Alia wouldn’t notice. She didn’t want to appear snobbish to her good, dear friend.
Well, good friend. She and Alia had their ups and downs, and Astrid thought they probably both knew the score: they were friends because there weren’t many other girls their own age in FreeQuad Four to be friends with.
Alia was holding her own coffee cup over her crossed legs and chattering away with Lea Polt, her navy skirt riding up outlandishly high and her left leg swinging flirtatiously. Astrid knew Alia was attempting to attract the attention of the ‘Wolf’ sitting with Alia’s father on the terrace below them, in the south wing of the enormous mansion that sprawled the Yukon Annex coastline.
Shameless, as always, Astrid thought.
Though, to be fair, Alia did seem to have tempered her outlandish advances toward Wolfian men. Last summer, she had sunbathed naked not only on warm, but frigid days. Astrid had been mortified to lie next to her in her own modest swimsuit, with Alia’s full, pert breasts bouncing around, pointed at the sky, and her shamelessly shaved snatch out in the open for anyone to see.
Alia’s eyes darted to the side when Astrid set down her cup, and Astrid looked away to avoid the awkward situation. As shameless as Alia was, and as jealous as Astrid could be of her, she didn’t like to press her friend’s buttons. Alia was notoriously thin-skinned about even the slightest criticism of her hospitality.
The moment seemed like it might pass. “But that isn’t true!” Lea exclaimed, clapping her hands over her mouth.
Alia set her coffee cup down with a light crunch. “It is.” She quickly directed herself at Astrid. “Astrid, darling, whatever is the matter? You don’t like the coffee?”
Astrid sighed inwardly and considered her options. She didn’t want to drink it… she could claim to have a cold….
Lea surprised them both by setting her own cup down. “Alia, sweetie, I didn’t want to say anything but this drink is absolutely horrible. I can’t believe it’s a delicacy, frankly. So… bitter.”
Alia was looking at Astrid, who seized the opportunity. “It’s probably an acquired taste,” she said softly.
She herself had acquired the taste, some time ago, because her family was one of the few that could afford to cultivate the illicit bean on an expansive territory Outside (and bribe the appropriate officials to have it imported, discreetly, to their home).
But this was terrible coffee, probably burnt and sold on the black market and left to grow stale in a shipyard until it could be smuggled in.
Astrid held her breath to see if the incident would blow over. She didn’t feel like dealing with one of Alia’s many temper tantrums. Not today, a day that was reserved for her. It was Astrid’s twentieth birthday, and she was having a party that no one would soon forget.
Unless Alia decided to defect, with all of her loyalist friends, because Astrid didn’t like her coffee. It had been known to happen.
Astrid was saved from the outcome of this showdown, however, because the delegation on the terrace at that moment began to rise from their seats, and Alia’s attention was sucked away by the tall, muscular Wolf rising to his full height.
Catching her father’s eye, Alia waved and blew a kiss.
Astrid looked at Lea, who smiled.
Lea found Alia’s behavior shameless as well, but amusing. Lea herself was no model of decorum. There were rumors that she was secretly consorting with a group of Wolfs, for the sheer thrill of it, because she was ineligible for intergalactic travel due to a medical condition but liked her… thrills.
“Oh, I do hope they haven’t forgotten to bring him over here and introduce him,” Alia said under her breath, still smiling and waving and talking without moving her mouth.
Lea pursed her lips. Then she let out a chortle and covered her mouth. “Alia, stop it,” she said.
The Wolf turned in their direction.
Like most Wolfians, his skin was a golden brown, his hair a chestnut mane, and his features aligned in terrifying perfection, a display of almost cartoonish manliness: square jaw, straight and almost rectangular nose, generous lips that rarely smiled. Above these features, his deep-set eyes simmered from a distance. Wolfian eyes were all different colors, but much like people from the ancient lands of Quadrant Two (where the modern-day Great Salt Desert had consumed all life), there were many shades of sea green and blue as unique as any work of art.
This one has eyes of the sea-green variety, and because of the peculiar quality of their eyes to reflect like a cat’s, the color could be seen across the terraces.
A hush came over the three friends.
Astrid stirred and turned back to her coffee.
In her peripheral vision, she could see the men leaving the terrace.
“What are you going to do if he introduces you?” Lea whispered.
Alia smiled, and dropped her hand once the men were out of sight. She squirmed to hike her skirt up a little and tugged on the drooping cowl neck blouse she was wearing. “Invite him for a swim,” she said, her mouth turned up in a seductive curl.
Astrid’s mouth fell open slightly.
She shook her head a little and looked out at the neatly combed, manmade beach. Alia’s family had imported sand from the South Deserts, a white sand that Astrid envied. It was nearly summer, and heat waves had warmed the Pacific waters to a tolerable temperature in the bay they had carved out for their property. The tide was far too strong in the actual water, and nothing could be done about that. It was out now, so the floor of the ocean and all of its dark bottom stretched out toward the retreated shoreline about half a kilometer out.
“I had better go,” she said, not wanting to linger for Alia’s shameless show of flirtation with the Wolfian. She stood up, smoothing her white dress, a summery and playful piece of clothing that clung to her pretty figure without being obscene and also fell to her knees and over her chest. She tucked her hair behind her ear, but the breeze off the water had picked up and it was a lost cause; strand after strand flew into the wind like banners of gold.
And then he was there.
She sensed the Wolf’s presence, as so many humans claimed to, in the form of an electric shiver traveling over her skin, almost like static gathered in a layer all along her back. As she turned toward him, the feeling traveled over her body. In spite of her reservations, and her great dislike for the Wolfians, she had to put her hand out on the chair to steady herself.
She hated that they had this effect on her.
“And these are the lovely ladies of Quadrant Four,” Alia’s father was saying.
Astrid attempted not to roll her eyes. He was even more shameless than Alia. He’d love nothing more than Wolfian citizens to come popping out of his daughter right now, securing an estate for him and all of his wealth on Wolf-1061. “My beautiful daughter Alia,” he said with flourish, as Alia curtsied. “And her friends Lea and Astrid,” he finished quickly. Seeing that Astrid was edging toward the bridge to the house, he smiled. “Oh, Astrid dear, are you leaving? Too bad.”
The Wolf was looking right at her. “How unfortunate,” he said. His sea-green eyes were flecked with a caramel brown, Astrid noted, and she tried very hard to tamp down the rising discomposure in her chest. Her skin was still tingling.
She looked at the Wolf, doing her best to compose herself, and she tilted her chin up in an act of defiance. All she was really defying, she realized, was herself; this Wolf appeared to be preoccupied with political or business dealings and was not on any kind of hunt (poor Alia, Astrid thought). “I, ahem, yes. Apologize. But I must… go. I have… things to do. Promptly,” she stammered.
“Yes!” Alia practically screamed. “You have to get your party ready!”
Astrid moved forward, but the Wolf did not move aside. As she stepped closer to him, she felt the whole front of her body electrified, the miasma of static shifting over her like a caress.
She could have sworn that she could feel the heat off his body—the famed elevated temperature of the Wolfian invaders.
Because that’s what they were, she reminded herself, fighting against the shifting feelings in her abdomen, as her insides flopped and twisted. Invaders.
She held a hand up and moved it quickly, the way one would swat at a fly. “I… excuse me, I have to… just…”
The Wolf remained as he was, his impenetrable face masked by the same expression they all seemed to wear, a kind of smug, self-satisfied face. She forced herself to meet his eyes and not to waver, though he was burning through her body right down to the core.
What would she do if he didn’t move?
But then, after just a second too long, the thick curves of hard muscle beneath his silk shirt shifted, and the hulking body moved to the right. Beneath the black shirt, his body moved like a panther. His eyes, staring at her in a similarly big-cat manner, never left her face.
“By all means.” He extended his arm toward the house. The suit shifted around his large biceps, and Astrid fought not to imagine what his muscled forearm looked like, or to look at his hands, which tended, in the case of Wolfs, to be large, veined, and wiry, inviting all sorts of comparisons that were simply…
She sighed. “I… thank you. Good day. Good day, all of you. Alia, I’ll… see you at my party.”
Alia had brought her hand to her mouth and let out a silvery laugh. “Of course,” she said, but her tone said, “As long as nothing better comes up.”
Astrid slid sideways to put as much distance as possible between her and the Wolf. The static cloud hanging over her skin traveled to her back, and thousands of points of electric excitement tickled her skin as she moved quickly out of his range. Along the backs of her knees, her thighs, and between her—
She closed her eyes and scurried into the house, her heels clicking on the cement much more loudly than she would have liked, her every step an unwanted call for attention.
She tossed her things into her red convertible car, a mock twenty-first-century vehicle that her father had ordered especially for her. It converted to manual drive, which was a hobby that Astrid had taken up at an early age. She was one of the few people in the Quadrant who could drive a car, or even knew that driving a car was possible.
She pressed on the BioKey, trying to calm her impatience so that she wouldn’t be locked out of manual drive for overexcitement.
“Astrid,” a voice said.
A chill went through her, and the BioKey promptly converted its face to a red bar, announcing, in a loud voice, that she was unfit to drive her vehicle and would be eligible for reassessment in twenty minutes.
The voice was unmistakably Wolfian—deep and vibrating, their voices had an otherworldly quality. There was also the matter of the accent that pervaded all of their perfected human languages. Apparently, it couldn’t be changed because of the shape of their mouths, which differed from the human shape by only micrometers, a seemingly small difference that translated to a frightening, low, rumbling sound, like a panther in the jungle.
Whatever that meant. Astrid had read an article about it once.
Then the static began on her left side. The afternoon sun disappeared behind the mass of the Wolfian, and Astrid reluctantly looked up to his face.
He extended his arm, and at the end of it there was indeed a very large, strong hand. Holding a navy sweater.
Absentmindedly, she placed her hand on the BioKey again.
Your heart rate is accelerated and your stress level is 7.2. These are unsuitable levels for manual drive. Please enter a destination in the program and I will drive you myself, her computer offered helpfully.
“Thank you,” Astrid said, looking down at the sweater and taking it from his hand. Her cheeks were hot, and she knew that she was blushing.
The Wolf simply inclined his head, in an almost courtly nod. Then he backed away, and returned to the house the way he had apparently come—from behind the car.
“Drive home,” Astrid said weakly.
Your intended travel route passes through yellow and gold travel areas. Vehicle restraints are required for all occupants.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she hissed. She activated the restraint system and leaned against the door of the car as it thanked her and rolled slowly away.
It was all she could do not to look in her rearview mirror, or turn around.
She sensed that the sea-green eyes of the Wolf would be looking right back at her.
The cliff-side roads that led to her family home had minimal magnetic barriers, which was what qualified the route as ‘yellow.’ Riding in the car, as opposed to driving, gave her motion sickness.
But as the distance between her and the Wolf grew, she started to feel much better.
If, indeed, she had felt bad to begin with.
She tried to occupy her mind with thoughts of her party—her Wolf-free, gala event. The less she thought about the increased presence of those awful aliens, the better.
It had been a point of contention between her and Alia for some time. Alia, though, was a different kind of girl, and she had no problem throwing herself at the richest and best-looking human men she could find. It shouldn’t have really been a surprise to anyone that she would embrace the Wolfs the same way.
The cool feeling shifted in Astrid’s belly again. You could see why, certainly; they were close enough to human to breed. They looked like humans, except for their weird eyes and their weird skin. Like humans, but bigger, and more muscular, and stronger.
And in the grand scheme of things, smarter. They were, after all, the ones who had crossed the universe to be here and not the other way around.
But Astrid would no sooner swoon for them than she would bite off her own fingers. They walked around like they owned the place, that smug expression on their faces, expecting every human woman to fall at their feet. It was well-known that they were sexist, horrible men with a backwards, primitive society that looked like the medieval ages. So, intergalactic travel geniuses they might be, but socially they were like apes.
“I mean, honestly,” Astrid said under her breath.
The things she had heard were simply barbaric.
She would prefer to live out her years in FreeQuad Four, on Earth, thank you very much. It might be mostly a desert, and there might be an impending shortage of food, but it wouldn’t affect Astrid, whose family owned mineral rights on three of Jupiter’s moons.
If she had to, she’d go to Mars.
A shudder of revulsion went through her, thinking of the stale red planet and the small biosphere with almost no amenities whatsoever, the drab winteriness of it all.
But if it were a choice between that and a Wolf?
She’d take Mars.
She had her pride.
“Miss Astrid,” Enna said, rushing toward the front entrance, clearly flummoxed by her early return. “I didn’t expect you until later.”
Astrid handed Enna her purse dismissively and waved her hand at her. “I know. I should have sent a message. Please, Enna, get the pool in order and I need a cold coffee, you would not believe what they served me at Alia’s.”
The servant rushed to do Astrid’s bidding.
Astrid stepped into the sunken living area and dropped onto one of the white couches. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She tried to focus on her upcoming party, on the elusive romances she had tried to foster but had ultimately been too shy to act upon.
But her mind wandered to the Wolf from Alia’s house. A shiver traveled through her—not a shiver of fear, not a shiver of fear or of revulsion, though she would have liked to think that it was.
There were rumors, she knew. Rumors about Wolf recruiters, here to identify suitable mates. And rumors of the all-too willing humans who gave themselves up for ‘acquisition,’ whose families received a recorded ‘contract,’ and of the women who were never, ever heard from again. Rumors that they were made into sexual slaves, trained exclusively to be submissive to their Wolf mates.
What would such training consist of? When Astrid wondered, something fluttered deep in her core.
She opened her eyes and stood up.
Enough of that. She had things to plan.