Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 1: Immutable 2 covers

Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 1: Immutable by Karen Wiesner

When mankind realized Earth would become uninhabitable, Humans built space habitations. Their first allies arrived in 2073 and shared their technology to power ships through space corridors that fold space and time. Only 58 years into their struggle for survival, an enemy emerges. In the wake of this threat an organic menace is only beginning to be recognized, ensuring the annihilation of every living thing if, together, they can’t find a way to stop it.

 

Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 1: Immutable 2 covers
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Spacefaring liveship, the Aero, is on a routine mission to the far-flung regions of the galaxy when they receive a distress call from their oldest space habitation outside the Sol System. The structure has been brutally attacked, inhabitants kidnapped or outright killed. The crew aboard the Aero including Astoria Bertoletti, librarian and planet cataloger, and Raze Salen, mankind’s emissary, search for clues to explain the unprecedented tragedy. After several more, similar distress calls from other habitations, the savage pieces of the mystery begin to emerge–and point to the culpability of humanity’s short-sightedness and desperation when they first began seeking out alternate spaces in the galaxy to call home. In the midst of the imminent threat of war, Raze and Tori present the immutable evidence of wrongdoing both intentional and inadvertent to their government as well as to their strongest and weakest allies who may have no choice but to desert them in yet another hour of dire need.Next Book in this Series

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GENRE: Science Fiction (Romantic)     ISBN: 978-1-925574-66-1     ASIN: B0848T95W4     Word Count: 111, 293

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Reviews

5 stars!5 Stars! “IMMUTABLE, Book 1: Arrow of Time Chronicles by Karen Wiesner is one of the most unique, creative, and captivating stories I have read in a long time. I can’t wait for Book 2. The galactic world she has created is so multilayered that I can easily visualize it as series or movie. The plot has ongoing surprising twists and turns that keep you guessing as reader and startling you with new possibilities. At the heartbeat are the themes and characters struggling with good and evil, love and rejection, broken dreams and hope. Ends, new beginnings, and the unfathomable unknown cloaked in extreme danger. Get ready to leave the earth we know behind and travel into a future expanse beyond our imagination.”

~Marcy Weydemuller, writing teacher and author http://www.marcyweydemuller.com

“Karen Wiesner has created an absolutely fascinating future with believable characters, interesting technology and a stunning plot. I can’t even begin to imagine how much time it took to do all the research, build the world and flesh out these amazing characters. The author must have some kind of superbrain, but I’ve been suspecting that for quite a while.”More Reviews

~Author Christine Spindler http://www.christinespindler.com/


Prologue

Halon

 

The Sinshe-Shojani dreadnought class battleship, Paladin, left the space corridor with two other massive warships in its wake. Instantly, the ships cloaked. As far as its captain, Rida Halon, knew, the corridor was unknown to all but them. The technology the Vreah culture had imparted to them about how to detect and stabilize likely wormholes for faster-than-light travel and communication had given them the means to create interstellar shortcuts of their own. Nevertheless, Halon remained wary with the shortcuts. At faster-than-light speeds, even given that the corridors allowed for undistorted space-time, cloaking was impossible once inside. Should any other ships be present, they would be detected at once.

More the worse for them, Halon stood straighter at the thought that hinted at a perpetual unspoken challenge. Paladin was the pride of the fleet, holding a combination of FuRod purebloods, their seed-mothers propagating the next generation, along with hundreds of Seph-controlled herd soldiers.

“Approach arrival?” he asked.

His second-in-command stood near him before the bridge viewscreen and spoke without turning his head or relaxing his at-attention stance. Halon had never seen Carron at ease, while on duty or off. His distrust of him had grown over the time they’d served together, prompted by the unspoken knowledge that his Second was actively searching for an opening, any weakness at all to exploit, in order to usurp him. Halon was determined to never give him that edge.

Half a tide cycle, and he would look upon his home planet, the home of all Sinshe-Shojani, the rightful owners. FuRod were strong, the chosen of Ruro, those who lived by the Code that dictated that only the powerful, the pure, survived and ruled. He’d been a mere boy the last time he’d looked upon the place of his birth, when the planet had still been subjected to Hiiwa filth–the weak-willed females and males not destined for paradise or honor.

Halon had been raised by his grandmother until he was ten. He’d never known his real mother because all children were raised communally. But Halon’s grandmother had gone out of her way to take Halon under her wing. Knowing she had only a few short revolutions with him, she’d taught him things that were forbidden by the Prophet’s Code–something that would soon become his whole life when he was called to warrior training with his father. The first brutal act once he’d been ripped from Mare Arie’s safe world had irrevocably set the tone for what was to come: His ears were ritualistically mutilated to resemble those of revered, sunji carnivores.

Mare Arie called what would happen to me “the proselytizing”, and she’d warned that none resisted the breaking and remolding. I boasted that I alone would stand strong, that I would never break, never become a monster that preyed on the weak and rose to stand beside the Great and Terrible Ruro. Mare Arie believed I was different, believed I could do what no other had or could.

I’d forgotten my boast. Her unwavering belief…

Halon tensed at the memory he rarely allowed to enter his mind anymore. He was full-grown, middle-aged at over a hundred revolutions, no longer a foolish child influenced by his grandmother–a mere seed-mother with little more standing than any other lowborn Hiiwa…though he’d wondered quietly before he’d been taken at ten if she was the secret leader of the rebels. She’d never told him. Wisely. Because he’d been chosen, Sinshe and strong, poised to become the champion he was meant to be. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps, chosen his own destiny, taken up the mantle of Monarch. The Code didn’t permit disobedience in a pureblood any more than the drug Seph did in their high-dosed herd soldiers.

Halon’s jaw tightened as the image of his planet filled his mind’s eye. Shojan. From orbit, nothing could have been more breathtaking than his home, the colors and lights and bodies of water brilliant and bold, filled with life and luster even from the unfathomable distance. Whenever he’d been in orbit, he’d told himself he could see Phares glittering brighter than all else. Phares, City of Almighty Ruro’s Favor.

The burning moisture in his eyes felt familiar, as if he’d shed tears when he’d last looked upon the beauty.

Did I…weep…then?

Halon bristled inwardly, tightly controlled outside, even as the events of the past intruded involuntarily.

Destroyed. His father, Monarch Hilongko, had commanded Shojan’s destruction, according to the Code that had fractured the inhabitants since time immemorial. Sinshe warriors of the FuRod clan had made themselves rulers by right, being chosen by the Creator. They’d fought Hiiwa, who’d only wanted to co-exist peacefully. The Prophet had named them those destined for destruction. Hiiwa had tried numerous times to stop the war, but Sinshe forced them to defend themselves with their unwillingness to be anything but masters. Finally, the Hiiwa submitted to subjugation but the conflict began anew when they attempted to prevent Sinshe from leaving the planet and conquering space. Instead, the Sinshe had taken all 12 of the enormous warships.

In truth, they hadn’t expected to find other lifeforms, let alone so many of them–all spacefaring. Enemies had been made, lines drawn, until they’d met the Vreah, so unlike the other closed, wary societies they’d encountered. Halon’s father had seen a way to learn, to discover the means to conquer all other life in a wide galaxy, to become the dominant overlord, as they were meant to be.

Halon had obeyed his commands…not blindly, not without question. But the Code had been furthered nevertheless until the Vreah realized their true intention, quickly fractured relations, and Halon had been ordered back to Shojan to end the Hiiwa on the planet once and for all.

Halon had looked upon his planet one last time before he’d given the order to obliterate it with the weapons of mass destruction already in place on the surface as well as from the spaceships under his command in orbit.

I didn’t want to see what was left. I ordered our retreat and I refused to look upon the ruin and devastation I caused.

His eyes burned at the internal clash of the boy he’d been with the warrior he’d become.

Mare Arie…

He couldn’t decide whether he’d longed with bleeding heart to look upon his demolished home or unconsciously hoped to never return to it as his father had commanded him to before he’d died. The day had arrived regardless of his buried feelings about the inevitable homecoming.

The time elapsed with Halon holding himself in a stone stance beside his Second at the approach to the coordinates of Shojan. What he anticipated seeing escaped him at the sight of something quite different.

“What in the Mighty Ruro’s Name is that?” Carron muttered under his breath.

Looming near the far side of Shojan’s gargantuan moon was a structure that at once reminded him of a colossal spaceship as well as an orbital habitation larger than any he’d encountered before. Modules were stuck together as though at random, without thought to aesthetic or asymmetrical design. Rather, specific requirements seemed to dictate the shape and form of each antenna, mirror and rubble-mantled section of the spinning cylinder. Though Halon could see orbital shipyards in the asteroid belts in the distance, the habitat appeared fully self-sufficient.

Thoughts flung through his mind wildly, forcing him to take command of himself before he allowed his confusion to become obvious. That the nature of his ideas harbored a flare of hope was a betrayal of all that he was, everything the Code dictated.

She’s alive. Unfathomably, Mare Arie survived.

“Orders, Rida Halon?” Carron barked.

“Scan the structure,” Halon said through his teeth, soft but not lacking in control. Only long practice allowed him that strength. “Don’t alert potential inhabitants.”

While his Second implemented his command, he allowed his mind to return to the questions bombarding his consciousness. Had those left on the planet–potentially billions–survived the nuclear devastation he’d let loose upon it all those revolutions ago? How? There was simply no way they could have, considering the annihilation he’d overseen personally. But the memory of how he’d ordered a retreat whispered accusingly. He hadn’t wanted to confirm the outcome–the only possibility given the force of their attack.

Impossible… But if anyone could find a way to survive the aftermath, it was Mare Arie. To feel satisfaction that she prevented complete annihilation of the Hiiwa-Shojani is another betrayal of the Code.

As soon as he realized Carron was watching him closely, he rigidly shielded his reaction. He narrowed his gaze, directing his attention toward the viewscreen. He couldn’t act brashly. His father had trained him well. Hold. Investigate before acting. “Scan also the planet,” he commanded.

“For what, Monarch?”

Halon drew breath into his lungs, feeling like his insides were scalding. “Life,” he muttered in a clipped tone.

Turning on his heel, he strode toward the other side of the bridge. “I’ll be in my private chambers when you have something to report.” The words were tossed over his shoulder, not heated, not out of control. Yet he felt Carron was evaluating him rather than the situation when he heard the affirmation of his commands from his Second.

Halon entered his state room. Only then did he give in to the weakness stealing through every fiber of his being.

No one had doubted the destruction of their planet. That Shojan would face a nuclear winter, the fallout and subsequent radiation, were all but assured. Once all life was obliterated, the Sinshe would return to the still uninhabitable planet, heal the mass destruction visited upon their beloved home, take back what had belonged to them in the first place, and rebuild–unopposed.

Halon had followed the Code, returned at the time his father had specified. He’d anticipated nothing more, nothing less than the best Sinshe-Shojani minds could predict about the state of their homeworld in 79 revolutions.

Survivors. Carron doubts there could be any, just as all displaced Sinshe-Shojani have in the revolutions that have passed since we pronounced judgment on the weak and unworthy. But…there is a way…

Arie could have intercepted the communication in which her son Hilongko, Supreme Monarch, ordered Halon to return to their homeworld and deal the final blow on the planet. Women and inferiors meant nothing to FuRod purebloods. They communicated freely without acknowledging their slaves working silently all around them. It was more than conceivable before the Sinshe-Shojani left the planet that Arie had overheard the rulers speak openly of the vast underground bunkers built deep beneath Phares, a city occupying more than a third of the interior of the planet. They’d spent centuries building and stockpiling those bunkers with every conceivable necessity to house and protect the warriors and a contingent of serving Hiiwa if the spaceships they designed couldn’t be made spaceworthy. If she’d been the rebel leader…

Arie must have overheard the destruct command from the Monarch, long knew of the stockpiled underground bunkers, gotten as many as she could on the planet into them before I gave the damning command to end all life on the planet.

There are survivors. I’m certain of it. But could those survivors have built an enormous space habitation like this one in orbit of Shojan in the revolutions since?

They had no way to leave the planet. We stole (no, took–took what was rightfully ours) all the spaceships. We abandoned those on the surface. When even that wasn’t enough to get them to kowtow to our authority, we nuked them from orbit.

Unless some other spacefaring culture rescued them…

A scent he would have given the last breath in his body to forget stole through his senses. Halon couldn’t recall that particular perfume without being reminded of exquisite velvet skin the color of pure gold he’d never wanted to stop caressing… Chemically-induced reactions? Surely they had to be. He’d always wondered, doubted the authenticity of the wearer’s feelings for him…but never his own for her.

Halon shook his head as if to disperse an actual scent that was discombobulating his mind. No. He wouldn’t revisit the rejection that had led to the break with the Vreah culture. He had no wish to recall the stupidity of youth. A pureblood male had more testosterone running through his body than a herd soldier pumped with Seph.

His thoughts were too loud, his faculties too sharp with a clarity he’d avoided because of the pain associated with disobedience.

Mare Arie warned me about the training I would receive as a Pureblood FuRod, the breaking and remolding, over and over until my submission was complete. She told me I would choose to submit before long, and voluntarily, anything to avoid the torment that rebellion brought.

I promised her I would stand for the truth. Not mere truth. Truth of a higher form. She told me if I would stand strong, I would have to look for Truth when it would be so much easier to accept the lies and errors on the surface. But if I searched hard enough, I would be rewarded because Truth would make itself known to me. But, even if I refused to seek Truth, eventually it would find me because Truth has a way of growing and gathering to itself such explosive power, when it burst free at last, it would shatter Lies beyond recognition. Truth must reign, and the pain of realizing I’d lived my entire life in service to Lies would be more terrible than any pain I’d suffered previously.

I asked her over and over, “Mare Arie, how will I know the Truth from Lies?” She always said the same thing: Lies would be easy to swallow, as easy as giving up and surrendering, but they would forever bring niggling doubt and uncertainty that couldn’t be destroyed by the breaking and remolding process. Truth would overwhelm–at once bringing to the knees and then lifting to stand–and cleansing. I would never doubt Truth once it revealed itself to me.

Halon realized he hadn’t prepared himself for this event adequately. He’d assumed his training would prevail, believed what was told to him, never seeing a cause to waver for fear of reprisal. But the thoughts in his head were so loud now, he couldn’t shut them out.

Desperately, he dropped into the machine, hooking himself up to it by rout, so he could feed on a steady stream of the pureblood Prophet’s legacy, passed down through countless generations: The rigid doctrine, the purity beliefs, ruthless tactics, the religion and goal of dominating the entire cosmos with Ruro guiding and welcoming each subsequent Monarch into His kingdom. That was the inheritance of the strong.

Purpose about who he was and what he had to do as the chosen of the Almighty flooded out the noise in his head until it was all he could hear again. This was the better way. Halon felt himself capitulating and, as result, the agony tearing his mind apart subsided.

Less than a quarter of a tide cycle later, Carron entered Halon’s private chamber to find him calm and in complete control once more. His Second moved to the center of the room, pulling up a hologrid that mapped a pulsing signal coming from the planet and reaching into the orbital habitation. “We discovered a distress call coming from the surface of the planet.”

“Origination?”

“You were correct, Monarch. I was wrong to doubt. There must have been survivors after our attack…” Carron stroked the outline of his lips. “…though we haven’t been able to deduce how–”

“The bunkers. The Hiiwa knew of them and fled into them.”

“That would presume they were aware of the coming nuclear strike,” Carron said, flabbergasted, doubting his superior’s implications once more.

Halon’s gaze was steady and strong. “Even the inferior left behind are survivors. They are Shojani, though a lesser version. That must be who yet lives despite the odds. And they rebuilt in the time since, found a way to send out this distress call. The question is: Was it received, and, if so, by whom? Did the survivors leave the planet with those who rescued them? Did the aliens set up this habitation? Or did the Hiiwa-Shojani?”

“This habitation is not of Shojani design, though some of it has been built using materials from nearby asteroids and our moon. And this structure isn’t the only one. It was placed in stable orbit, one of the only two stable positions, and there is another habitation, similar, but just as alien in the second stable position. Whatever these habitations are, whoever built them, they didn’t originate from the planet. They’re alien.”

“What purpose do the habitations serve? Military? Science or research?”

Two distinctive lines drawn from forehead to nose gave Carron a perpetual look of wariness, but Halon recognized the ruthlessness behind the reserved expression. His Second wouldn’t approve of passivity to this clear threat. “They can defend themselves. They’re fully armed. But not a match for Paladin. Our scans show advanced technology and science inside the habitations. As to the alien’s purpose here, it’s unclear what their intentions are. We’ve downloaded their database and our tactical teams have been studying them behind our cloak. They don’t believe the aliens are innately hostile.”

Perhaps not, Halon noted, but they were prepared just in case. His father would call that the markings of a formidable enemy–albeit one who willingly allowed vulnerability. They weren’t on the defense because they didn’t expect to be attacked.  “Did these aliens receive the distress call from the surface of the planet?”

Carron’s cool eyes met his and held for a long moment before he nodded. “Yes. And they’re actively blocking it. The blocks were clever, no doubt untraceable by all but our own vastly superior detection systems.”

Halon frowned at the implication. These squatters in their habitations had deliberately ignored the distress calls they’d received from the surface of the planet they were wantonly orbiting? The gall drew Halon’s ire like thick, black lines on a pristine white page. “Who are these encroachers?”

“They call themselves Humans. They come from a planet named Earth, southeast of the massive central star, far from Shojan. We’ve never been to that region of space. They must know of the space corridors to have ventured so far out of their own solar system.”

Halon nodded. “Undoubtedly.”

The Vreah, ever eager to enlighten new cultures in the joys of space travel and trade, had disclosed all locations.

“This is Sinshe-Shojani territory. We won’t be conquered. These aliens will serve us.”

“Your orders, Monarch?” Carron’s barely contained excitement tempered Halon’s anger, as it usually did.

“The Project needs them on Neth-beo. Awaken the herd soldiers properly. Once they’re sufficiently motivated to obey, send them out in cloaked shuttles. Dock with both of these habitations. The herd soldiers are to take captive all beings they encounter. If they meet resistance, destroy the rebels. Do it quickly and quietly. We don’t want the aliens to alert their home planet to our visit until we’re long gone.” Halon studied the hologrid. “As for the orbital habitations, don’t destroy either of them, if it can be helped. We may yet find some use for them.”

“Should we station FuRod warriors to stay behind and take charge of the stations once the herd has rounded up the inhabitants?”

Halon felt his father’s caution working in him, allowing him to think through the situation tactically before responding. “No. These Humans are presumably numerous and will come in force if we leave a contingency behind. We’re not ready for outright war. First, we must secure Shojan. I refuse to be deprived of what rightfully belongs to us. We’ll deal with the Humans another time, but in the unlikely event they don’t pose a threat, we can use the habitations until Shojan is cleansed.”

“And what of the planet survivors, Captain Halon?”

The pulse in the hologrid held his attention. “Shut down the distress beacon if you can.”

“We attempted that immediately. It’s originating from a protected valley on the planet’s surface. We can’t disable it remotely.”

Halon knew every sector of his planet and the underground city. He suspected he knew exactly where this protected valley was that kept the communication tower sending the distress call safe. That particular section was near a bunker entrance. And the bunkers had been built to be impenetrable, capable of being opened only from the inside once occupied. The Sinshe-Shojani wouldn’t get inside them by force without another nuclear war. Even then, the shelters had survived the first destruction visited upon them; they’d likely last another as well.

“Then leave the distress beacon for now. The survivors aren’t going anywhere. We’ll deal with them later, after we’ve delivered our new herd workers to the Project. In the meantime, find out everything you can about these aliens. And, if there are any other Human habitations like these occupying our sector of space, we need to locate them and shut them down without delay.”

Carron saluted, and Halon dismissed him so his Second could get the extraction underway. The blinking on the hologrid rendering near Phares’ underground was relentless. His gaze wouldn’t be drawn away from the red pulse.

Mare Arie was old when I was taken from her for my training and the Rite. She couldn’t have survived this long, could she? But Shojani females are resilient, especially those who were seeded and served FuRod purebloods, as she did for so long. Something tells me she not only survived, but she was strong enough to keep those who remained in the bunkers alive all these years.

That certainty led to another. In order to send out the distress call in the first place, they would likely have had to leave the bunkers for short stretches, venturing out into lethal radiation and a hostile nuclear winter left behind from the missile detonations. They must have left the shelters. It’s the only way they could repair the communication towers that remained intact so they could remotely access the satellites in orbit of the planet. The Sinshe-Shojani stockpiled what they would have needed to do that in a relatively safe way years before the nuclear war.

Overwhelming admiration filled him at their tenacity. The Hiiwa-Shojani survived. For countless eons, they tried to circumvent war with talk of equality and peaceful co-existence. But they kowtowed when threatened. Rather than going to war, they accepted enslavement. But, when they pushed back, we obliterated them…or thought we had. The weak-willed unfathomably cheated inevitable death. There’s no question of that.

Even after his time in the indoctrination chair, Halon couldn’t tamp down on the sense of treacherous pride rising in him for the first family member he’d ever cared for.

The only real question is, does Arie still foolishly speak of peace between all Shojani, or does she at last realize revenge is the only option left to the remnant she’s saved?


Chapter One

Tori

 

 Astoria Bertoletti thought she’d learned her lesson with randy Vreah males. Previous experience had taught her three, unbreakable rules: 1) Never take them to your quarters unless you want to be seduced, 2) expect the wild flirtations to be relentless even in a so-called safe environment, 3) and (most importantly!) always watch their hands.

The Catalogus Lab where she worked classifying planets on the Aero, the first Human Ambassadorial spaceship of the corvette cruiser class, didn’t have so much as a chair, given that the machine took up most of the space…which made dodging Verrick’s attempts to catch her–and her near escapes–a little less obstructed. The virile male only chuckled at her efforts with energized motivation burning in his cerulean blue eyes.

If only he wasn’t so beautiful, she thought, panting mostly from a lack of rest the night before, the one previous to that and…

Exhausted, she eyed Verrick Vos over the cataloging machine. In her grief, she hadn’t slept much since her beloved cat Bepo had died a week ago.

Verrick’s velvet hands will turn me into pure mush if I let him catch me. I wish I could forget what his hands feel like on my skin, but I didn’t like how obsessed I was the first and only time he caught me, held me, caressed my jaw. For hours, it was all I thought about, and I was so glad later, when the memory faded, that I darted away on pure instinct within minutes of his capture.

The planet Verrick came from, Vree, had a natural aurora borealis phenomenon that dominated the atmosphere with dazzlingly gorgeous colors and phosphorescent lights. The inhabitants’ pride in their breathtaking homeworld had made its way into their fashions. Vreah males and females underwent a permanent beauty skin treatment when they were young in order to make their skin a distinctive color similar to the planet-wide natural phenomenon. Hair was also usually dyed to match and eye color treatments could change color on a whim. Verrick’s chosen color was blue.

Most men from Vree were incredibly tall. For a woman, Tori was considered tall at 5’11, but Verrick was 6’5 and his body could only be described as god-like. His well-honed stomach muscles were on display even in a professional setting, when he added a woven garment under a floor-length coat that served as a shirt, slimming pants, short boots, and the wide, decorative belt that was the height of Vreah fashion.

The most distinctive trait about the culture was their skin. There was no describing it fully, no scientific or medical explanation for how much like velvet the texture was. It even looked like living velvet. The urge to touch it was like a never-ending craving, especially once a person had actually come in contact with it, however briefly.

From the first, Tori hadn’t liked the sensation physical contact brought. She couldn’t even explain why she’d been so put-off, beyond that Verrick’s almost obscene attraction to her from the first time they met disturbed her.

She wasn’t the type of female who drew notice from admirers. She was too tall, too skinny, only made more so by the long, broomstick skirts and shapeless tops and sweaters she wore. With flaming red-orange, shoulder-length hair and bangs; ghostly white skin sprinkled liberally with freckles she’d hated most of her life; a small, square face and oversized glasses; a big mouth and upturned sea-green eyes, she was no beauty to call attention from anyone. Being shy and naïve without an ounce of self-confidence, her nose almost always stuck in a book, weren’t considered irresistible traits either. The bottom line was, she was too clumsy for true adoration from others. Instead, she probably extracted pity from everyone around her.

True, the Vreah as a culture loved anything new and mysterious and were ever eager to satisfy their intrigue. Open and free, extremely social, they were taught from an early age that rampant curiosity was the driving force in the universe; nothing in this regard should be stifled. Their friendliness and generosity had a way of enticing other cultures…but at the same time making them slightly uncomfortable because to be so open left vulnerabilities the Vreah didn’t seem to want to acknowledge. To be so eager for an exchange of information, relations and items could be unsettling. Yet without the Vreah’s intelligence, resources, knowledge and advances in technology, few other cultures would have become spacefaring.

“I didn’t expect to see you today, Verrick,” Tori murmured, her body jumpy from the anticipation of having to leap to one side or the other without warning.

“Didn’t you, my sweet? Whenever the Aero is in Vree space, I intend to be here, where you are, where I can see you.”

“Is that what Ambassadors do in Vreah culture?” He and his twin sister Vespera were diplomatic liaisons with other spacefaring cultures.

“Always.”

His accent was mildly similar to the British on Earth. Flowing, silky, elegant. She wanted to listen to it more than she should. The Vreah were too compelling by half. She almost groaned out loud at his impact on her in the room that suddenly felt as small as a tin can.

“And I haven’t come empty-handed. I bear gifts I hope you’re sufficiently wooed to accept this day.”

Woo? Gifts? Tori bit down to keep another groan from escaping. Verrick and his wooing and gifts. He showered both on her each time she saw him, and she’d learned her lesson in that regard, too.

Though the alcoholic beverage, Cyceol, he’d brought with him last time was beautiful to look upon in a flame-proof Vreah glass–a deep blue like his eyes and even more so when he lit it on fire–she’d discovered one sip was her undoing. I should have researched everything before I touched it! Cyceol means “flames of love” in their language and the alcohol simulates feelings of infatuation. Like I need that.

After that, Verrick set himself to learn everything he could about her and quickly discovered how much she loved food and was nearly always hungry. He’d come with a “picnic basket” of treats. She’d been so exhilarated about trying everything, she hadn’t stopped to consider the consequences until it was too late. She’d spent more than an hour in MedBay until her system had been cleansed of the too-rich, foreign concoctions.

On another occasion, he’d brought flowers, which had seemed harmless enough until she’d learned that flowers in their culture had very significant purposes. Not surprisingly, the aurora borealis phenomenon on Vree made their flowers nothing short of ethereal. They actually sparkled. The Har-mae was similar to a water lily with multiple layers of petals so beautiful and fragrant, it was no wonder it was a courting bloom. Maz-mae roses signified engagement or betrothal. Accepting one was like signing a contract. He’d attempted to give her them one time, luckily after she’d discovered their implications and so refused.

Since then she’d suspected both Verrick and Vespera were going through what the Vreah called a maturity cornerstone. Another perk of being Vreah was that they rarely looked their age. With all their technology and advances, they’d extended their average life-expectancy to 175 years.

Most Vreah pair-bonded late in life, just past middle-age (which was around age one hundred), since females began harvesting their eggs when they turned 20 and preserved them for the time of reproduction, just as the males sperm-banked. Though Verrick and Vespera looked Tori’s age of 32, she knew they were actually much older–closer to 95, which was the age most Vreah began actively searching for permanent mates to settle down and raise a family with.

“I’ve heard of an Earth holiday called Valentine’s Day. Is this particular day not the day this celebration of love and pair-bonding was observed in Human history?”

Tori stifled her intrigue that he’d discovered something that fascinated her. Though very few Earth holidays continued to be celebrated since the Great Catastrophe took place, she loved all the traditional “high days” and made a point of noting them year in and year out whether they were commemorated by anyone else or not.

Verrick raised one perfectly arched eyebrow toward the numerous packages he’d brought with him today. “If you’ll permit me, vlassa…”

While the language translation matrix the Vreah had developed and shared made actually learning new languages unnecessary, Tori had studied Vreah dictionaries. She knew what that endearment meant. “Heart”–the version of the word a male would say to a female he was courting.

“I have heard of your recent loss, Astoria, and I was torn asunder to learn of your dearest pet’s passing.”

Despite herself, Tori felt herself relenting out of uncontrollable curiosity as Verrick lifted the totes onto her worktable. She saw now that the boxes were similar to little cages with velvet coverings. She softened in expectation.

Tori had very few vices. She lived on Basic easier than almost everyone else she knew. All Humans were given the necessities of life without qualification: nutritious food, clean water, clothing, medication and medical care, living space, education, training, and a salary that was exactly the same for every Human being alive, whether a member of Parliament, the captain of a ship, or in charge of waste disposal. Everyone had a job and all positions were critical to the survival of the Human race. Salaries were electronic credits that could be spent on individual wants and needs beyond the basic necessities.

Per Parliament edict, Tori had inherited whatever her parents owned so she had no requirements that weren’t met beyond her desire for pets. She spent her credits on her menagerie of “babies”. While pets were generally discouraged unless they had a dual purpose (eggs that could be used for food as well as the eventuality that the pet would itself one day become dinner), Tori saw them as her family.

She’d had Bepo since she’d transferred off Nexus Habitat Beta, where all children were raised and educated, when she was 13. Bepo had been a friendly, hardy and strong feline, the only one board the Aero and, as a consequence, loved by all. Even Raze Salen, Tori’s best friend, who wasn’t much of a pet person, had loved Bepo and had usually walked the ship corridors each day with them when her cat needed exercise.

That Verrick knew of her barnyard of animals wasn’t a surprise. She’d foolishly invited him into her quarters last time they saw each other. He’d met Bepo; Miss Moppet, her Bantam Frizzled Golden Laced Polish Chicken; and Mr. Snubbs, a Netherland Dwarf rabbit that Raze jokingly called Mr. No-Neck.

Verrick’s brought me pets, Tori thought in abject interest and a little terror when he unveiled, then lifted the first animal out from a small crate with holes. The tiny creature that fit into Verrick’s hand had nearly microscopic, clawed feet like a chicken with bristly gray, dense fur; huge round, black eyes in the middle of its body that made it look utterly defenseless; a snubbed nose; and what appeared to be little more than an O for a mouth.

“It’s like a little Dot candy drop!” Tori cooed, unable to resist when Verrick handed her the animal that made a pipping noise and cuddled against her instantly as if cold. The spicy, chewy gumdrop had been one she’d seen in a book on the Nexus as a young child and had always wanted to try. This animal could have passed for one easily.

“It’s a mashal, a male,” Verrick told her, his eyes dancing at her obvious delight.

Tori stroked the soft head, in love with the mammal instantly. She wasn’t ready to relinquish the first creature when Verrick brought out the second he called a female gargen. The animal resembled the world’s smallest baby deer with a pink nose and tongue that stuck out perpetually. The brown eyes were so big and exotic, with immensely long and thick eyelashes, it would have been impossible to resist her. From the moment Verrick placed the animal in her hand, the gargen licked her as if loving her taste.

“And last but not least, a male iwa.”

The silvery, sparkling animal was so much like an Earth feline, Tori knew Verrick had hoped to seduce her with this one most of all. The only difference from an Earth cat was the shimmering fur that might have been visible even in a dark room and the rangy slimness that made Earth cats look fat in comparison. The iwa purred as soon as Tori set down the other two pets and cupped the furry head gently, looking into the exotic lavender eyes. Tears stung when the Iwa leaned forward and kissed her nose in such a loving way, Tori wasn’t sure how she was supposed to refuse a gift so tempting.

“He loves you,” Verrick murmured so softly, Tori could have fallen into a stupor as the Iwa slipped up to her shoulder, twining around her neck weightlessly to nestle against her pulse, purring louder, the rumbling as distinctive as a heartbeat.

Verrick’s own fingers touched Tori’s face, tracing her jawline and cheeks with velvet fingers that were beyond mesmerizing. She could almost hear her cousin Callista whispering in her ear, “Enjoy this. Why shouldn’t you have fun, take pleasure in every aspect of your life?”

In the other ear, her opposing angel Jana spoke fervently, “Don’t throw it all away for something not worthy. You and Raze are meant to be together, just like Silas and I are…no matter how dimwitted you both are in acting like being best friends can even begin to compare what you could and should be sharing.”

More than a decade older than her, Callista wanted to fall in love more than anything else in the world and have some pampering man dote on her. And a man like Verrick was what every woman could want and need. But he’s not for me. He’s not and never could be, just like Jana’s been telling me since Basic Education.

Silas and Jana had been Tori and Raze’s closest friends while they’d lived on the Nexus Habitat Beta as children undergoing basic education and then primary training. The modern version of marriage was to share quarters as opposed to the beautiful rite long ago abandoned in a time when the chief concern of all mankind was focused on rescuing their dying planet and its countless inhabitants still trapped there. Considered adults, Jana and Silas had moved in together as soon as they transferred to the Aero to begin their apprenticeships. Jana had been lecturing Tori to be the one to propose the same to Raze in the years since then. Jana couldn’t understand their reluctance to do anything that could change the strangely fragile relationship they both cherished.

Feeling a hint of panic flutter at the edges of her heart, Tori found herself pressing a certain button on her wrist communicator–standard issue for all Humans when they were old enough to use one. The unit allowed for retrieving, receiving, and sharing information, in-range and most patched-in distance communication, and also monitored vitals and pinpointed the location of the owner. The button Tori pushed was the one that sent Raze a “page” from her automatically, requesting contact ASAP. He would know it wasn’t an emergency because her fingertip readings on the button would broadcast her heightened-but-not-endangered vitals as well. Why did she feel like this was an emergency though?

She looked up and registered that Verrick’s eyes were all she could see, an endless sea of blue, and his full, beautiful lips that looked like velvet were close enough that the hint of panic became a full-fledged klaxon alarm inside her head.

In one strangely graceful movement, Tori placed the Iwa on the table near the cage and drew back to a safe distance. “Verrick, this is far too generous, and I can’t accept any of these animals. I’d have to have a steady supply of food for them if I accepted even one. I’m sure they can’t eat the same things my pets do. And what about exercise and litterboxes and health concerns?”

“All will be provided indefinitely, vlassa. Please accept at least one gift, I beg of you.”

Like a stubborn child, Tori shook her head wildly at him as he looked at the crying iwa on the table. The beguiling eyes were looking at her with such sorrow, she knew it was begging for more contact with her.

No. She couldn’t be tempted. She couldn’t. She took a step backward, then another, not surprised when she intended to turn around and instead almost ended up on her face on the matted floor of the lab. Also not surprisingly, Verrick had caught her with one arm and drawn her smoothly to the hard wall of his rippling chest. His mouth touched her ear, and she felt her eyes roll up into her head in ecstasy as his whispered words entered her veins like molasses, thick and rich and slow. Her senses felt all but lethargic, capable only of submission. So easy to give in…

No! 

“I have a headache coming on,” Tori screamed so loudly, they both should have been jolted apart by the rattling noise of her screech. Only they weren’t. Verrick hadn’t let her go an inch. She was still an uneasy captive in his powerful arms.

“I need to rest. I didn’t sleep last night,” she pleaded for mercy.

I’m not lying. It’s true. All true. What’s more, I’m a total crankhead (as Raze calls me with that irresistible, only partially concealed grin of his) when I’m tired and not fit to entertain company.

Verrick chuckled against her ear, sending shivers all through her body with the vibration. “I can cure that easily, my sweet.”

Tori pressed the button on her wrist comm over and over like it was a panic button.

Must resist…

“I’m sensitive to any medication–” she choked out.

He laughed again, and she found her face heated from a blush at the sexy sound that brought to life needs she didn’t want to think about and wasn’t sure she could define even if she did.

Vreah are schooled in the art of seduction. Verrick will handle everything…

Help!

“Then a massage, vlassa. I can make every part of your body relax and let go of pain or discomfort. You’ll experience only pleasure, the kind you’ve only imagined. And you will sleep. Eventually.”

Only Raze gave her massages. Only Raze. And why wasn’t Raze responding to her urgent hails anyway? The heated thought of betrayal gave her the courage to push away from Verrick’s hold. She spun, awkwardly tipping to one side so he had to right her again, his smile absolutely endeared by her clumsiness even as his eyes were smoldering with nefarious intentions. Tori nursed a strong conviction he’d anticipated her response in getting away from him, and he’d looked forward to it as if it was part of the challenge he enjoyed.

“No, Verrick. No massage. No medicine. No iwa.”

He sighed dramatically, but it was clear he hadn’t taken her words as a final blockade to his pursuit. If anything, she suspected she’d only solidified his future manipulations. “As you wish, Astoria. But are you sure?”

He’d opened the cage door. The still-mewing, tiny feline-like creature turned to look back at her. Tori couldn’t resist the animal’s potent nose kiss. Just once more.

“Now you’ve done it, my sweet,” Verrick said in a teasing voice as the creature moved of its own accord into the cage. “You realize iwa are imprinting animals? It’s why I’ve avoided touching it myself, since that may be all it takes. They fall in love like all beings, and, if I’m not mistaken, this one has his heart set on you.”

Tori blinked at him, gasping in horror. “You’re joking, right? He’s not… I didn’t…hurt–”

He shook his head, making a throaty sound in his utterance that made her certain he was stretching the truth in a desperate attempt to entice her into his arms again. “Maybe it’s not irrevocable at this point, my sweet, but soon. Soon, the point of no return shall be reached.”

He’s trying to tell me he’s so in love with me, he’ll have to have me soon or die trying. But he’s not serious. He can’t be. He loves the game, the chase. He doesn’t love me. But…why choose me? There are so many more attractive and willing Human females on the Aero.

Verrick made his farewells as stylishly as he did everything, requesting to see her again the next day if the ship was still in orbit of Vree.

Feeling miserable, Tori waved regretfully to the animals Verrick had returned to their cages just as the two Intelligence & Security officers appeared to escort him back to his shuttle and a third stayed behind to do a thorough sweep of the Catalogus Lab.

While the Vreah had an open-door policy with the cultures they’d come in contact with, Humans had never been so easygoing. Policy was to be friendly and to provide every welcome and comfort to guests, but many places on board the Aero were off-limits to anyone not part of the crew. Verrick and his twin sister had never been happy about that, claiming their entire world and the habitats in orbit of it were completely without boundaries to all. While Tori doubted that was true–they were simply not shown areas they weren’t allowed into–she’d suspected from Verrick’s very first private visit to her that he’d been trying to “bug” the Aero for information they weren’t willing to give any other culture freely.

Tori returned to her living quarters across the hall from the lab, somehow crashing into the door frame on her way through the sufficiently wide opening and sending her glasses wildly askew as she did so.

Righting the frames with a moan of pain, she greeted her pets (none of them were nose-kissers) the way she always did when she came into her living quarters. Their clucking and squealing and bruxing were loud enough for her to realize she did have a migraine coming on and not one caused by her innate clumsiness. Lack of sleep, no doubt.

I had a headache the last time I saw Verrick, too. And, if I went back over my medical logs, I’d probably find I had a headache every time I was alone with him. What does that mean? Is it him? Something about his cologne? Or me? Am I too sensitive to overt seduction?

She closed her eyes, grateful for the quiet (or relative quiet) of her own familiar quarters–what Raze called her personal barnyard. Her newest pet, a teacup pig, was still a little skittish around her and had gone to hide as soon as she entered her living space.

With pink, bristly-haired skin, a black blaze of color on his nose, and a wrinkled, freckled butt that didn’t like the litterbox she was trying to get him used to, Itsy-Bitsy spent most of his time running away from her, squealing nervously and filling the air with the noxious gas that spewed loud and rank from beneath his adorable pigtail when he was apprehensive.

Tori glanced at her wrist comm to see a brief text message from Raze on it–he knew it was late but he would be back soon. The message said what he didn’t: The trade negotiations had no doubt concluded hours ago. But he was with Vespera now and didn’t want to be bothered unless it was an actual emergency.

Tori grimaced. Maybe he didn’t think being chased around the lab by Verrick was an emergency…especially since Vespera probably didn’t need to actually chase him in order to catch him. The female Vreah Ambassador was sexy, naturally alluring, and beautiful beyond imagination.

Somehow the thought made Tori even more depressed, and a heavy anvil seemed to settle inside her chest. Only when she tried to define why she felt so out-of-sorts did she become aware of her premonition that something bad was going to happen, and soon. She’d had these feelings many times before, and they didn’t often pan out, certainly not as anything resembling a crisis unless a stubbed toe, deflated cake, or a misfiled library folio could be considered true disasters. Nevertheless, she knew she wouldn’t relax or fall asleep until Raze was safely back on the Aero.

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