Earthborn 3 Sneak Peek

[Here’s a very rough, completely unedited sneak peek at the first chapter from the final installment of the Earthborn Series. Enjoy!]

CHAPTER ONE

Adelaide

I pulled away, in more ways than one: from Ayezh, from my father, and from Brock. That last one hurt the most. Like the universe itself, the space between Brock and me continued to expand. I knew the reason behind my standoffish behavior; the real mystery was why Brock had become so silent and stiff around me.

I could’ve used my empathic ability to figure out why, but that would be an invasion of his privacy. A cheat of the worst kind. People were supposed to share their feelings, not have them psychically ripped from them.

Of course, neither of us fell into the one hundred percent human category. Maybe the rules didn’t apply.

Regardless, he’d asked me not to dig around in his feelings. Honoring his wishes was harder than resisting Mrs. Finch’s chocolate cake, and my best friend’s mom won awards for her baking. I was tempted to call Daxon on my newly acquired comm-unit. Spilling my guts to him would be easy, mostly because I didn’t care what he thought of me. He was a good enough ally for me to trust him, but not a close friend that I worried about scaring him off with my ugly side. I could dump all my unpleasant thoughts on him and probably feel a thousand times better.

But that would be wrong, because it would hurt Brock if he ever found out. His jealousy toward Daxon wasn’t showing any signs of cooling and lying about communicating with the Ayezhni who continued to flirt with me—if only to rile up Brock—wouldn’t help one bit. Besides, I was a terrible liar and didn’t want to become good enough at deception to be able to keep secrets from Brock.

While I couldn’t figure out Brock’s problem, my piss-poor attitude, the reason I shrank away from him, was easy to diagnose. I killed people, quite a few of them in fact, during the siege on my grandfather’s home, and to say I felt conflicted about my actions would be the world’s biggest understatement.

If someone had asked me a couple of months ago whether I was capable of murder, I’d say the only thing I’d ever murder was a double cheeseburger and some fries at Fat Andy’s. I loved biology class but refused to dissect a frog. My mom was terrified of spiders and wanted to squish them. I made it my job to capture and release them outdoors. My stubborn streak and smart mouth were infamous back home. Words had always been my weapons of choice.

Until the attack.

Thinking about that day raised the hairs on my arms. Gave me chills that rocked my body no matter how hard I tried to warm up. Sleep was a thing of the past, because every time I closed my eyes, I relived the deaths of every nameless, random man I killed. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, telling myself everything I did was justified. Those men came to my grandfather Ivyn’s home to annihilate us, to commit treason. My Ayezhni family had been in danger. The fate of the planet had been in the balance. Everything I did was necessary for our survival. Those assurances didn’t make the guilt go away, though.

Worst all were the dreams of Markys, the alien who tried to kidnap me back on Earth and took my father in order to have him executed on Ayezh. In my sleep, I heard our Ayezhni tormentor’s bones snap. Watched his face contort in pain. Listened to his screams. Except in my dreams, I went through with my original plan. Instead of leaving him to the authorities, I killed him, pulverized his bones and crushed his organs until his body was nothing but jelly.

Rather than satisfying me, the image turned my stomach. My newly discovered talent for violence unnerved me. I’d convinced myself that I was nothing like my Ayezhni relations. I wasn’t cold, brutal, and selfish. My humanity meant I could be a warm, giving person, not motivated by by self-interest or pride. I was evolved.

Unfortunately for me, evolution had taken place, only not in the way I expected. I could sugarcoat the changes. Make excuses. Heat of the battle. Extraordinary circumstances. Fighting for my life and the lives of most everyone I held dear.

Those reasons didn’t explain why I enjoyed hurting Markys. They didn’t excuse how brutally I defended my loved ones. My guilt didn’t magically disappear because I knew that faced with the same situation, I wouldn’t change a thing other than instead of sparing Markys, I’d kill him.

Oops. Snapped his neck.

Rather than sleep, I paced the length of the star-vessel. I was familiar with all the nooks and crannies, every room and deck of the ship. While Tryg and Brock had their heads together, coming up with strategies for dealing with the Ayezhni on Earth or looking over a control panel to pore over the vessel’s many, impressive features, I slipped off to explore and hide. Every day—or, what we measured as days since there was no sun to mark time—I walked until I was nearly dead on my feet, and then I staggered to my quarters so I could pass out, unable to fend of sleep anymore.

Only to wake up yet again covered in sweat. Frankly, I didn’t know why I bothered, when I could only rest a couple of hours before the nightmares crept in. When sleep escaped me, I dragged my blanket to a room with a large window and gazed into space. I didn’t see a thing. Didn’t enjoy the stars. The landscape blurred together as I stared sightlessly at the vista. My thoughts took up all my attention. Too bad really. How many people had the chance to see the universe up close and personal? And yet, I wasted it.

As I pulled the blanket tighter around me, trying to fight off the chills and banish my demons, the door opened. Tryg stood there, a frown on his face and a compu-tab in his hand.

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he asked. “Don’t let space travel mess with your circadian rhythm.”

Tryg had taken to giving me worried frowns and tracking my movements whenever we were in the same room. He obviously realized something as up, but couldn’t figure it out and held his tongue, which gave me plenty of peace and quiet when I wanted to mope. My mom never would’ve let me disappear all the time like I was doing. She’d force me to sit down and spill my guts. That woman was more tenacious than a barnacle.

In contrast, my cousin either ignored the quiet yet obvious tension around him. Nothing slipped past Tryg and his abilities, but he preferred to bide his time. Assess the situation and make a plan. Then there was the fact that being a warrior himself, he wouldn’t expect me to be torn up about hurting and killing people in battle. He probably thought Brock and I had an argument, but would get over it and things would go back to normal after our teen drama had passed.

Right.

“Not tired,” I lied, turning back to the view.

Tryg sat next to me, joining my lonely vigil at the giant observation window in what I guessed would be considered the lounge. We traveled in style for the return trip since my father, Abram, sent us off in a brand-new Ayezhni star-vessel. Only the best for his little half-human spawn. Tryg’s constant fawning over the amenities and features drove me crazy, but at least his infatuation with our ship kept him from overanalyzing why Brock and I didn’t talk much or why I disappeared most of the time.

“Your emotions are all over the place.” Tryg tugged one of my curls.

“I didn’t ask for the psychoanalysis, Freud.” I pushed him with my telekinesis. Nothing rough, only a gentle reminder not to mess with me when I was cranky.

“How about some advice then?” he asked.

I shrugged, too proud to admit I needed help.

“If you won’t talk to me or your father or even Brock, use that comm-unit to contact someone you’re willing to share your feelings with . . . for all our sakes.”

“Sorry my trauma is messing with your day,” I groused.

“Adelia, your moping isn’t simply messing with my day, as you say. It’s ruining it, because I’m not only contending with your emotions but Brock’s as well. It’s exhausting and I need my rest. Don’t make me find the tranquilizers.”

About to reply “funny, cousin,” I stopped when I saw the look in his eyes. Shadows gave them a bruised look. Lines creased his forehead. He looked as though he wasn’t sleeping either.

“Call Daxon,” he said.

“You know I can’t.”

Brock’s jealousy had become legendary. Even before we left Ayezh, he walked around with a chip on his shoulder and I couldn’t decide whether to feel sorry for him or hit him upside the head for being so stupid about Daxon. Every time I brought up the cocky Ayezhni, Brock grumbled and cursed. I used to think his reaction was all in good fun until I realized he really meant it.

“Any man who dictates who you can and can’t be friends with isn’t worthy of you.” Tryg’s raised eyebrow made me feel judged and found lacking. He’d make a great parent, what with the guilt trip skills he displayed.

“Brock never said I couldn’t be friends with Daxon.” My shoulders slumped. “Everything’s just . . . complicated and awkward when it comes to Dax. He flirts and makes comments. I mean, if some hot girl did the same with Brock, I’d want her head on a pike.”

“In all seriousness, Adelia, if Brock can’t handle those flirtatious comments with an eye roll and a middle finger for Daxon, there’s something wrong. Call your friend.” He patted me on the knee and left the room.

***

Brock

Addy was hiding again. I’d found all her favorite spots, but pretended as though I didn’t. The one place she hid most thoroughly was in her head. I couldn’t reach her there with a map and a flashlight. I walked around the star-vessel in a funk, like a punk ass bitch, as Jackson would say. If he were with us, he’d tear me a new one for acting like such an idiot, letting my low self-esteem get between my girl and me.

For the millionth time, I wished my best friend really was with us, even if that meant him chewing me out. He knew how to handle all the emotional stuff, the things I had no clue about. He’d help me smooth everything out with Addy, then piss off Tryg by messing with the star-vessel’s instrument panels. We’d spar in the training room. Try out every dish on the menu on that fancy gadget in the kitchen, the one that seemed to make food out of thin air. He’d play loud music. Addy would arch her eyebrow at his swearing. All would be right in the cosmos.

But he wasn’t with us, and I’d never felt so alone. Nothing in my experience compared to the hole I felt inside, not even when my mother died. Not even when I found out she’d been murdered and everyone I trusted had conspired against me. It seemed like my insides had been scooped out. My trip to Ayezh showed me exactly how little I mattered. How small I was. How little I had to offer Addy.

How I didn’t fit in. Not on the Ayezhni home planet. Not with my peers. Not with Addy.

I stared out the window in my sleeping quarters, watching as we flew through the stars. The universe was infinite and mysterious. Its vastness made me feel small and scared, two things I hadn’t been for a long time, at least not since I shot up in height and learned to handle a weapon. Without Addy by my side, I didn’t know how I’d deal with the emptiness.

Some days, I thought I would’ve been better off remaining the stiff, formal Ayezhni I’d always wanted to be. Didn’t some poet say it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? To borrow my best friend’s turn of phrase, what a crock of shit. I wished I’d never known how good love felt. I thought having a junkie mother and a deadbeat dad had rendered me immune to softer feelings. Then, Addy came along and destroyed that perception. Where did that leave me? Feeling like crap.

Most days, I holed up in the training room, learning every weapon in there and honing my skills. I told myself I had to stay in peak condition and be ready for when we landed, for when we confronted the Ayezhni at the Earth compound. My excuses made for a great cover story, but they didn’t eliminate the fact that while I was on the same star-vessel as Addy, she might as well be back on Ayezh. That was how far apart we were, and it tore me up inside because I knew it was all my doing.

Jackson would kick my ass if he could see me.

According to the schedule Tryg set—a totally made up one since time, at least the way we measured it on Earth, didn’t mean squat among the stars—I should go to bed. My problem was I didn’t feel like sleeping. My mind kept spinning in different directions, making me antsy, as if I were about to go ten rounds with Tryg in the ring. Maybe I should go hit the punching bag instead.

I headed to the training room, for something to do more than anything. Thanks to my Ayezhni half, my body was built for space travel. The non-stop working out hadn’t hurt either. Once I got to the gym, though, I didn’t feel like lifting weights or using the gleaming exercise machines. Admitting what I wanted made me feel needy and weak-willed, but I couldn’t ignore it.

I wanted Addy.

In theory, I had her. We were still official, as the girls back at the compound would say. Addy and I hadn’t broken up, but what a joke it was to consider us a couple. We’d barely spent a few hours completely alone in each other’s presence since leaving Ayezh, and even then, that time mostly consisted of meals and weapons training. The rest of the time, Tryg was there, a third wheel I couldn’t shake. I suspected Addy made sure he played chaperone, even if he did it unintentionally.

“Thought I’d find you here.” Tryg leaned against the doorway. His hair had grown out since I first met him. Nowhere near long enough to make him look like a typical cleric, but not his usual buzzed style. No one stopped him from cutting his hair off, so I wondered if there was something behind the new look. Was he going to return to the cleric corps?

“I’m a soldier. Training’s what we do.” I picked up a pair of weights. Might as well do something constructive. Despite the star-vessel’s gravity systems, space travel was murder on a person’s musculature.

“I thought you weren’t a soldier anymore.” Tryg pinned me with his wintry stare. Those light blue eyes looked like laser beams with his dark coloring. More likely, his cleric training gave him the ability to disarm others with a simple glare. Either way, I couldn’t meet his gaze and cast my eyes downward in deference to a more powerful being.

Humiliation burned in my gut like a taco smothered in hot sauce.

What more could be taken from me? Before meeting Addy, I knew who and what I was. I had a mission. Everything had been straightforward and simple: find the Earthborn and escort them to the compound. Rinse and repeat. I ate. Trained. Joked around with Jackson. Completed my missions. Knew my place in the world.

Then, a slip of a girl brought that world crashing down around me.

“Can’t fight what I am,” I replied.

Tryg nodded and picked up a lumen-saber, a sword using laser technology and powered by stored solar energy to produce a flame-like blade. I’d never seen one before, not even in the compound weapons storage. Clerics carried swords of various sizes and widths, much like those found on Earth, but while the religious order used their blades with deadly efficiency, the tradition of carrying one was almost symbolic. Most everyone used stunners, either small handheld ones, or larger, shoulder-mounted ones capable of taking down smaller star-vessels. The lumen-saber looked like a mash-up of old world Earth and alien tech: a thick, gilded, heavily decorated pommel and grip from which flowed a deadly, wide laser-beam resembling a flame.

The first time he took the saber out to show me, Tryg explained the older, wealthier families favored them. Everyone else considered lumen-sabers to be old-fashioned and quaint. Too bulky to be wielded by anyone but the most highly trained assassins and too odd to be valued by anyone but collectors. Compared to the lightweight efficiency of a stunner, they were an illogical choice for the staid, bottom-line-driven Ayezhni. It was a wonder the weapon had ever been invented.

But whatever the cleric swords and old-fashioned sabers lacked in streamlined death and destruction, they made up for in style. When we trained with them, I felt like a space pirate. Like a warrior of old. Tryg lit the lumen-saber and twirled it nonchalantly, going through a familiar warm-up we used almost daily.

Facing the floor-to-ceiling mirror and studying his movements and form as he transitioned to a defensive routine, he said quietly, “I fight what I am every day.”

“Maybe I’m tired of fighting.”

Tryg went still. “Perhaps you should think about changing your line of work then. Soldiers tend to get into quite a few scuffles.”

“So do clerics,” I countered.

He extinguished the nano-saber. “True, but I choose to focus those instincts where they need to be rather than fight my fellow Ayezhni.”

I grunted. “And here I thought you’d just given up like a coward.”

Like me.

I don’t know why I baited him. Sheer stupidity, perhaps. No one poked a bear that didn’t live to regret it. And no one provoked a cleric and walked away with all their limbs.

To my surprise, he said, “I’m sure many would agree with you.”

“How zen of you, Tryg.”

He finally turned to face me, and I realized he wasn’t calm at all. His face was a mask of fury: reddened cheeks, sneer, and iced-over stare.

“I’ll give you a pass to insult me only this once. You’re spoiling for a good argument, maybe even a brawl, but I don’t feel like indulging whiny children right now. Fix your shit with Adelia before we get to Earth, or I’ll dump the pair of you in the middle of the wilderness in Alaska.”

He tossed the lumen-saber aside and stormed from the room. He had to be pissed off if he treated the weapon with such disregard. Like me, he considered the tools of our trade to be practically holy objects. We maintained them with a near-maniacal focus.

I put away the weights and placed the saber in the cabinet. If I weren’t scared to death that Tryg would kill me in my sleep since I’d been so disrespectful, I’d laugh about him sounding exactly like Jackson. Fix my shit, indeed.

***

Adelaide

Our trip was coming to an end. Given that, Tryg called us into the main lounge to talk about what we’d do as soon as we returned to Earth. Not unexpectedly, we were having a bit of a disagreement over our first steps.

Who was I kidding? We couldn’t even agree where to land.

“We land in Colorado,” Brock insisted. “That’s where the compound is.”

“Yes, let’s put ourselves right back in the path of danger.” Tryg folded his arms and stared imperiously at Brock.

He glowered at my cousin. “We have to take down the Council. Free the Earthborn.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I have the Crown Princess of Ayezh to protect. She and I go into hiding. You may continue your crusade. Alone.” Tryg flicked his hand at Brock in a dismissive gesture.

Not to be outdone, I said, “No way. I’m going straight back to my mother. I left. Again! Not only that, but I left the freaking planet, and the person I told to take care of her abandoned his duty.” I glared at Brock. “She’s probably losing her mind right now and you two want to have a pissing match. So, just swing by North Carolina and drop me off, then you can go back to comparing whose is bigger.”

“Whose what?” Brock asked, his forehead wrinkling in confusion.

I rolled my eyes. “Lord save me from clueless aliens. Ask Jackson when you see him, sometime after you leave me with my mother!”

Tryg sighed and rubbed his forehead. Brock sat back in his chair and stared at me.

“What?” I demanded.

“You can’t go back,” my cousin replied.

“I’d like to see you try to stop me.”

“Addy, it isn’t safe,” Brock whispered, shaking his head and looking at me like I was the star of some sad puppy video.

“Yeah, kind of learned that already. Nothing is safe. No one can be trusted. I’m in danger. Got the message loud and clear. If someone’s coming for me, I damn well plan to be by my mom’s side.”

The words I don’t say—can’t say, or I’ll start crying—echo in my head: I already lost my father. He chose a planet full of strangers over me. I was a fool to care about him, an even bigger fool for risking my life to save his. In the end, I still wasn’t enough. I came up short every time. Abram told me he was staying behind to protect me and all the other Earthborn, to help his wayward people, but no one and nothing could convince me he truly cared. His Ayezhni family might need him, but so did his family on Earth. It seemed a little too easy for him to walk away. That infamous cold-hearted Ayezhni nature allowed him to leave his Earth family behind in favor of ruling a planet filled with people who probably didn’t like him in the first place.

I trotted off to Ayezh, planned his rescue, executed it, and defended his ancestral home from attack by his political enemies. He kept me around long enough to see him installed as the new Ayezhni leader, and then shipped me off-planet. He got everything a man like him dreamed of: power, position, and the ability to make his enemies wish they’d never been born. His lucky day. Meanwhile, I had to deal with a knot in my stomach that grew by the hour, knowing I’d have to face my mother, the woman who expected me to bring back Abram, the love of her life. I had to swallow the pain of knowing my own father didn’t give a damn about my mother or me, and I’d have to somehow explain it all to her.

But my mother—no matter how flaky she was—loved me. More importantly, she needed me. I couldn’t abandon her like Abram did. Damn him for coming back at all. She lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw him, forgiving him for faking his death and leaving us all alone for so long. It would’ve been better if he’d stayed dead to us.

“Addy, I told Jackson to hide your mother. If you want to find her, we have to go back to the compound. That’s where Jackson will be. Trust me.” Brock reached out to touch my shoulder, but stopped.

“Enough!” Tryg yelled, slashing his hand through the air. “I’m the pilot. I’m the adult. I outrank both of you in every way—”

“Um, alien princess sitting right here. I outrank almost an entire planet. And I say we’re going to my mother first.” I folded my arms and stared them down.

“I’d like to see you land this vessel on your own,” Tryg scoffed.

He had me there. I had no idea how to pilot a star-vessel even if I somehow managed to wrestle control of it. I could pout all the way to Earth, but I’d never get my way. We were landing wherever the hell Tryg wanted.

The unfairness of my situation burned like acid in my belly, but I couldn’t do anything about it, so I glared at the floor.

“We’re going to land the vessel somewhere remote. Secure. Then, we’ll lay low until we know it’s safe enough to contact the others. We have no idea what we’re walking into,” Tryg explained.

Brock nudged me, trying to catch my attention, but I ignored him.

“Fine. I’m going to my room.” I stomped away without a backward glance.

***

Brock

As much as I wanted to chase after Addy, I had things to do. Number one on that list was convincing Tryg his plan was weak and unbecoming a true Ayezhni cleric. His sole focus was Addy—and rightly so—but we had a duty to clean up the mess at the compound. Addy understood that. Supported it. She wanted to help the other Earthborn.

At least, she did before.

I ignored the twinge of remorse about her mother, despite knowing Addy wouldn’t be half so worried if I’d managed to care for Greta the way I should’ve.

“Don’t even start with me, soldier.”

“Are you a cleric or not? Don’t you have a duty to fulfill?”

“That’s not the point. I have the Crown Princess of Ayezh in my care. She’s my duty.” Tryg eyed me. “I thought she was yours as well.”

I scrubbed a hand over my shorn hair. “She’s more than my duty and you know that, but you also know she wants to save the Earthborn. They might still be living in ignorance on the compound. And that’s not taking into account the ones that were collected. They’re even more vulnerable.”

Tryg snorted. “Collected by you.”

Guilt hit me in the gut. I’d been so sure of my place in society. My role and my duties were clear. I had a vision of how my life would go, until everything crumbled around me on Tryg’s Vermont farm, when I learned the truth about the people I’d trusted for so many years.

Instead of protecting the Earthborn—the half aliens born on Earth from one human parent and one Ayezhni—I was dragging them to their enslavement. The pureblood Ayezhni planned to use the Earthborn in a deal to ensure that the aliens on Earth could live there in peace, away from their brethren, while providing breeding stock to the Ayezhni back on the home planet.

“And that’s on me,” I said through gritted teeth. “But we have to make things right.”

Tryg shook his head. “I’m not going to risk Adelia’s life to help you assuage your guilt or remedy your complicity in a slave trade.”

I had to hand it to Tryg. He never sugarcoated the truth.

“Think on this, Brock. If anything were to happen to Abram, Adelia would be the next ruler of Ayezh. Not only that, but as next in line for the crown, her life will constantly be in danger, whether she’s on Ayezh or Earth. We Ayezhni are an ambitious lot. There will always be someone who thinks to improve their status by assassination. I’m not about to open her up to a dozen additional threats simply because she’s kindhearted enough to care about the other Earthborn. That’s not my concern. I’m her family, but more importantly, I’m her bodyguard and I’ll do whatever I must to keep her safe, even if that means putting her under house arrest.”

“She won’t like it. She’ll fight you.”

Tryg sneered. “She can try. Before we get to Earth, I suggest you decide where your true loyalties lie . . . with the people in Colorado or with her.”

I watched his retreat, my heart hammering in my chest. He was correct, of course. I had to choose. Duty or love? My mission or my heart? But if I chose Addy and turned my back on doing the right thing, would I become someone else—unrecognizable to either of us— and end up losing her anyway?

***

Tryg’s voice cut through the fog of sleep, blaring over the vessel-wide comm-unit.

“Prepare for landing. We’ll reach Earth’s atmosphere in one hour.”

Had the trip come to an end already? Since it was top-of-the-line, latest-and-greatest Ayezhni technology, I understood the star-vessel would take us to Earth in nearly half the time that our made-from-scraps vessel—courtesy of Tryg’s friend, Flick—ever could. Still, I had trouble believing our interplanetary voyage was at an end.

Having slept in an Ayezhni military uniform—black pants, boots, fitted black shirt—I strapped on a holster for my stunner and slipped my knives in the hidden compartments sewn into my pants and boots. Snagging a jacket from the peg next to my bed, I stomped to the kitchen to grab something to eat before joining Tryg at the con.

Each step down the corridor rang out on the metal walkway, sounding like the heartbeat of a giant robot. My thoughts swung like a pendulum with each clang: duty, love, duty, love. I hadn’t decided. Did that make me a jerk? Maybe, but to my way of thinking, I was right to hesitate.

Humans were fickle beings. One day, they loved something. The next, they were, to borrow a phrase I’d heard a thousand times from girls on the compound, “so over it.” If the Ayezhni had an advantage, it was their lack of overt, exuberant emotions. They operated on logic, not feelings. Every decision was an equation. Actions decided on reason and cost-benefit analysis. Relationships were based on rules and fostered to achieve personal and societal goals.

To an outsider, Ayezhni were cold and calculating. Robotic. Yet, a person could find safety in that dispassionate, logical way of life. It insulated them from crushing disappointment and broken hearts. Although, I couldn’t argue with the negative effects. When reduced to an end-justifies-the-means approach, a person risked becoming cruel and inhumane. My own life bore the stain of that unfeeling brutality. Why had my mother been murdered? Because the Council deemed me necessary for their cause and she stood in their way. Her death wasn’t a crime of passion or even maniacal rage. No, her murder was a calculated military decision executed with indifferent efficiency, and then set up to look like suicide, a cover-up made believable because the Ayezhni had drilled into our heads how emotionally weak humans were.

As much as I blustered about not being a soldier and no longer wanting to be like the Ayezhni, I couldn’t make myself completely abandon my upbringing. That was why, instead of saying screw it and following Tryg and Addy, I was carefully considering the pros and cons of my choice between duty and love. In my world, having it all was an impossible dream. Better to be a calculating jerk than pin all my hopes on someone else. I’d given that trust before, and I’d been left broken.

If I put my faith in Addy and she abandoned me, what would be left?

I took one of the meal replacement bars from the kitchen pantry, not wanting to waste time with the food replicator, and made my way to the con. Tryg had been teaching me how to pilot the star-vessel. Take off was easy enough, and once the vessel had cleared the planet’s atmosphere, all I had to do was make sure the our coordinates were properly set and the vessel remained operational. For the most part, Ayezhni tech allowed us to sit back and relax.

Landing, though, would prove interesting. Not only did we have to manually pilot the vessel, but we had to make sure no one noticed a spaceship landing in the continental United States. Our star-vessel came equipped with the latest anti-detection and cloaking technology, but that didn’t make us completely invisible. The cloaking tech couldn’t erase our heat signature, only dampen it, and objects entering Earth’s atmosphere tended to get really hot, really fast. The tech rendered the vessel invisible to the naked eye, save for a slight rippling effect—like looking through warped glass. And while the cloaking tech blocked most of the sound, we definitely weren’t silent on entry.

Long story short, if anyone put together the list of anomalies around our landing, they might become curious enough to follow the heat and sound signatures to our landing spot. Therefore, our goal was to land in a remote area, cover our tracks, and then get our asses out of there as quickly as possible.

Tryg sat at the main control panel, checking the sensors and assessing the readings.

“Good. You’re here. Take a seat.”

I strapped into the co-pilot’s chair and began the pre-landing protocol, glad I remembered what to do so I wouldn’t have to ask for Tryg’s help like a wet-behind-the-ears youngling.

Tryg pressed the comm-system button. “Adelia, get your ass up here now!” He released the button, mumbling, “She better not still be in bed.”

Five minutes later, Addy burst through the door. “Calm down, Tryg. You said an hour.”

“Brock was here in ten minutes.”

“Well, give him a first-place ribbon and leave me the hell alone.” She rolled her eyes as she pulled straps over her shoulders.

I couldn’t help staring at her. With as much anger as she carried around during our final days on Ayezh, I expected her to reject their ways entirely. Surprisingly, she’d taken to wearing Ayezhni clothing and fixing her hair in elaborate braids and twists like the Crown Princess she was. For her return to Earth, she wore a pair of close-fitting pants in deep rose topped by a loose, gold tunic. The colors brought out the honey undertones of her skin.

Like magnets, my eyes were drawn to the tattoo on her hand, the one denoting her betrothal, and my gut clenched with jealousy and heartache even though the center—where her betrothed’s House crest would be—was empty. I turned away, hoping she was keeping her promise and wasn’t reading my emotions.

“Where are we landing?” she asked.

Tryg had been understandably quiet about his final plans with both of us, but especially Addy. She had an advanced comm-unit in her possession. If desperate enough, she could reach out and communicate with anyone she wanted, provided they had a comm-unit, even a basic one. Tryg worried that she’d give away his plans or that her communications would be intercepted. Addy didn’t like being kept in the dark, but Tryg had been firm.

“I have a safe-house in Virginia. We’ll land there, contact Jackson, and figure out our next steps,” he answered.

Tryg hit a series of buttons, engaging the vessel’s cloaking systems. From our point of view in the con, nothing changed. To anyone or anything monitoring the skies, we’d be a set of anomalies: slight heat from the re-entry, an understated hum from the star-vessel’s engine, a strange radar reading, and visually, a slight distortion. None of those should register high enough to warrant further investigation, though.

Contrary to what most humans thought, Earth technology hadn’t advanced to the point where scientists or the military could get a clear view of the skies. Anomalies popped up all the time and were usually dismissed. Someone might take a closer look, but then assume their equipment had a glitch. And that wasn’t even taking into account the sheer number of objects that entered Earth’s atmosphere. Granted, none of that was as big as our star-vessel, but none of those objects had cloaking tech.

“And my mother?”

“Yes, Adelia, we’ll check on her status. But no promises. If she’s safe, we should leave her alone so she stays that way.”

“Thank you,” Addy whispered.

For Addy’s sake, I was glad Tryg was willing to make sure Greta was all right. Addy worried over her mother, as if their roles were reversed.

I glanced over my shoulder. Addy’s bright green eyes stared back at me, unflinchingly confident yet heartbreakingly sad. The straps keeping me safe chafed and itched. I hated them because they kept me away from Addy.

“Eyes forward, soldier,” Tryg barked at me.

Following his instructions, I focused on the panel in front of me.

***

Adelaide

Landing in an alien spaceship sounded terrifying in theory, but being my second time around, I wasn’t worried. Tryg knew his way around a star-vessel. Any nerves I felt were from wondering how my mom was doing and how she’d rip into my hide for running off.

Part of me wished I’d spent more time learning how to pilot the vessel. If I’d taken a minute to do something other than hide away from the others, I’d have known what Tryg and Brock were doing. Instead, I had no clue and could only sit and watch. I’d helped Daxon during our landing on Ayezh, but I’d been so freaked out that I didn’t remember a thing. Plus, my father’s vessel outstripped Daxon’s in the technology department. Even I could tell the controls were completely different. So, I stared out the window at the play of colors: eye-watering yellow, flashes of orange-gold, and fiery reds.

While I didn’t know much about Ayezhni vessels, I did know that they had advanced technology which allowed them to swiftly enter a planet’s atmosphere and land while avoiding detection. That meant my light show was over almost as soon as it started.

“Should we brace ourselves?” Brock said.

I remembered the tale of his landing on Ayezh in Tryg’s piecemeal vessel.

My cousin laughed. “No. This vessel will land like a sleek cat. You’ll barely feel it.”

I snorted. “Stop fangirling over this hunk of metal.”

Tryg glanced at me. “You have no appreciation of the finer things in life.”

He twisted a dial and the giant window in front of us lightened like those eyeglasses that went from dark to clear. Sunlight beamed in and I gazed upon the greenest view I’d ever seen. A carpet of leafy treetops set in a valley.

“I wouldn’t list this spaceship under the finer things in life, Tryg,” I said, rolling my eyes even though he wasn’t looking.

He ignored my retort, expertly piloting the vessel to a clearing in the middle of some trees. Amazingly, there was a platform situated on the launchpad, with a walkway that was obviously meant for us to disembark from.

“You say this is your safe-house?” I asked.

“Indeed. One of my many homes away from home. I installed this landing station a few years ago, hoping I’d eventually get my hands on a vessel. I never figured to acquire such a nice one from my home planet, but life is full of surprises.”

“Too right,” I replied, using his pet phrase.

Tryg turned and winked at me. “Welcome home, princess.”

Well, not quite. Home was North Carolina and Mom and the gallery and sand between my toes. Not in the mood to argue, I nodded and lifted my lips in a feeble smile. Tryg was doing his best. To keep me safe. To respect my wishes. To honor the promises he made to my father.

Yet, I couldn’t help the twinge in my chest reminding me that while I was back on Earth, I wasn’t quite home.

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