Far on the edge of settled space, the colony world Mallachrom is mostly wilderness. Years ago, during an invasion by the alien Talroqi, many adults were killed while most of the children vanished, spirited away to safety by the sentient canines known as Shadows.
Those children came back from the wilderness changed, bound to the planet in ways they can’t, or won’t, explain. Called the Taken, they live on the edges of civilization. The new government on Mallachrom fears them enough to want to exterminate the Shadows and claim the Taken are dangerous–under the corrupt influence of Shadows.
The hive-minded insectoid Talroqi have been at war with Humans for generations. Memories of Mallachrom, the colony world where Rover captain Rhianni Day, was born and the boy who was her best friend, are a burden of guilt on her soul. Far from the battle lines, Mallachrom should have been safe…yet after the Rovers left the colony world, the aliens invaded.
Rhianni is ordered to return to Mallachrom and investigate what really happened in the Talroqi invasion, especially the strange stories about the children who survived–carried away to safety by the sentient canines called Shadows. Rhianni has only good memories of the Shadows. Even more important: Petroc Ash, her childhood friend, is a Taken.
Petroc leads the Taken. His responsibilities to the Taken and their secrets are too great to risk, even for Rhianni. Their childhood bond has grown even stronger, despite her long absence. Loving her will bind her to Mallachrom forever–and could kill her.
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GENRE: Science Fiction (strong romantic theme) ISBN: 978-1-922548-01-6 ASIN: B08VS9572F Word Count: 78, 504
Rhianni Day went to sleep with the planet Mallachrom staring at her from the screen in her cabin onboard the Rover ship, Star Sword.
For the last nineteen years, since the Talroqi invaded the planet of her birth, she had sworn she would never return. She didn’t want to see the devastation caused by the hive creatures, didn’t want to see the mass graves and the memorials erected after the Talroqi had finally been driven out. Her father, then-Rover Captain Joras Day, had left Mallachrom reluctantly upon the military’s insistence that the colony world was too far from the battle lines to ever be invaded.
They were wrong, and Rhianni’s father had carried a burden of guilt for nineteen years. Now he was dead, and Rhianni had come home to pay his debt–if possible.
So she wasn’t surprised when the dreams began almost before the image of Mallachrom, the rich colors of life dulled by the ship’s sensors, faded from behind her closed eyelids.
She stood on the bank of the river close to QSE, the remote outpost where she had been born, where she had lived until she was six years old. The river shallows foamed white with spring floods and echoed off the rock face on the opposite bank. She knew she was dreaming, knew she was in her six-year-old body, but she couldn’t pull out of the dream.
Petroc Ash, her very best friend in the whole world, held out his hand, blood dripping from the slice across his thumb. The woodsman knife clenched in his fist wavered. His black eyes were wide and solemn, framed in a tangle of black curls that hung nearly to his shoulders. He was ten, and took constant teasing because he preferred playing with a girl rather than with his own brother, Tam.
A crooning growl made her and Petroc turn to face a Shadow, the largest and most amiable carnivore on Mallachrom. Electric-blue eyes, bigger than their fists, gave off sparks in the early morning shadows. The canine head tipped slightly to the right as the Shadow, named Starfire by Rhianni’s mother, stepped up next to them. He nosed Petroc’s bloody thumb, then sniffed at Rhianni’s hand.
“Starfire wants to know what we’re doing,” she said, laughing.
“He wants to know what’s taking us so long.” Petroc nodded.
With paws as big as their heads, a powerful, wide chest, narrow hips, and a prehensile tail two-thirds the length of its body, the Shadow’s head reached the shoulders of a full-grown man when on all fours. With fur so deep black it looked blue, Shadows could vanish into the grasslands and forest even when all three moons of Mallachrom filled the night sky. Rhianni’s mother, Mandia Day, believed the Shadows were sentient. She had entrusted Rhianni to Starfire’s care from the day the girl had been born.
Dream-Rhianni held up her hand, sticking out her thumb. Petroc took a deep breath and took hold of her hand. He winced as he sliced into the tip of Rhianni’s thumb. She didn’t move, though her eyes narrowed into slits when the blood oozed out, bright red.
They pressed the bloody wounds together. Rhianni wrapped her free hand around their thumbs. Petroc put down the knife and wrapped his hand around hers.
“Forever and ever,” Rhianni said. “Best friends always.”
“No matter what, we’ll help each other.” Petroc nodded. “When I’m old enough, I’ll join the Rovers and fight for your Dad.”
“I’ll come home as soon as I can. And I’ll never, ever leave Mallachrom again.”
“Nobody and nothing’ll ever come between us again. Best friends for always.”
Starfire crooned softly. He stood, extended his long, pointed head, and nosed their joined hands. Big blue eyes glowed brighter. A long, silvery tongue licked their joined hands. She and Petroc yelped as blue sparks crackled over their bodies. They fell, separating to tumble across the sandy riverbank.
“Nova,” Petroc whispered and sat up. He extended his fist, thumb out, to Rhianni. “Look what Starfire did.”
Rhianni grinned and nodded and pressed her thumb against his again. Glowing white scars had replaced the blood.
Rhianni woke with a gasp, her thumb aching as if on fire. In the dim light of her cramped cabin, with Mallachrom still glowering at her from the screen, her scarred thumb glowed blue-white, and sparks seemed to dance along the tip for a moment until her eyes focused.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Petroc, wherever he was. “I know I promised, but… I can’t. I’ll help the Taken. I’ll figure out what really happened when the Talroqi invaded, but I’m not staying. I can’t.”
She curled up and counted her heartbeats, willing them to slow, willing herself back into sleep. She drugged herself with a dream that she kept hidden from everyone, even Nureen, who was as close to her as a sister.
He came to her on the misty edges of sleep, as he always came when she needed him. A shadowy figure, with long, thick, curly hair and big eyes of ebony and shadows, but had no other features visible. He opened his arms and she gave herself up to his hot, clutching embrace. His mouth was just as hot, scorching her, demanding, threatening to drain every drop of life from her, tugging on her soul as his hard, long-fingered hands held her tight against him with bruising force.
Her dream-lover had first come to her in adolescence, making her ache in places she hadn’t even known she had, until biology lessons answered some very puzzling questions. Rhianni looked for him at every port her father’s Rover squadron visited. She ran to him in her dreams as an antidote to the horrors of war and the aftermath. He was her shield, her anchor to resist the blandishments of handsome, randy young spaceport technicians and pilots and soldiers who only saw the sweet-faced medic with her ensign and then junior lieutenant stripes. Those who didn’t know she was a Day, niece to Rover General Choran Day and therefore sacrosanct. Her dream-lover protected her, and she knew she would never be satisfied with a mere mortal, might never find a lover and lifemate. Rhianni didn’t care when she curled up in her bunk, drifting on the edges of sleep, her dreaming body wrapped around her lover’s, and he took as passionately as he gave to her.
Yet tonight, hanging half a day’s journey away from Mallachrom in space, there was something different about her dream-lover. His hands trailed over her flesh and left blue sparks that bit into her skin before soaking into her blood and leaving flame and ash in their wake.
Rhianni woke empty and sweaty, and it seemed she could almost hear his voice for the first time. She touched her lips, and could have sworn they ached from real kisses. She thought she caught a whiff of some strange, new, frightening yet exciting odor in her cabin. It reminded her of the forests of Mallachrom, full of spice and green-growing things and a hint of musk. Her heart thudded faster, even as the phantom aroma faded.
She couldn’t sleep with the image of Mallachrom staring at her, so she got up, dressed and went to the observation dome. There, it was even worse–and yet somehow, with Mallachrom hanging over her, she was able to will herself into a doze where she could relive her dream and try to find some answers.
And maybe, tonight, she would see her dream-lover’s face and hear his voice, so that she would know him someday if she ever saw him in the flesh.
He had to be flesh.
Where are you? Rhianni cried out with all the strength of her soul. Help me find you!
Petroc woke with his heart pounding loudly enough to deafen him and everyone else in the secret forest settlement. Loudly enough for his enemies in the government to hear and track down the people who lived in freedom, away from the city with its laws made to imprison them. He strangled on the shout of mixed fury and terror, bound with a gnawing emptiness that was part flesh, part anchored in his soul. He blinked into the darkness of the cabin and curled up, scolding his body to behave. Sweat burned his eyes. The cabin stank of lust. He was grateful he slept alone. He hadn’t lost control of his body’s appetites like this since he was an adolescent and dreamed of Rhianni, wet and hot and hungry in his arms.
No alarm slit the night quiet. Breathing through his nose to muffle his gasping breaths, he listened. Something had awakened him. Something was wrong. What had he been dreaming?
Nothing broke the sleeping stillness but the songs of night cheepers and the whispering cry of the spring wind, branches rubbing and scratching against the log walls, the silken rustling of feathergrass and budding leaves.
Nothing beyond the ordinary.
The destruction and pestilence had only been in his dreams.
“Dreams,” he whispered.
He tried to remember. Had he dreamed of Rhianni? Only in his deepest dreams did he let himself hunger for her. He thought he had purged her from his waking thoughts, until now.
Had he dreamed of those days of terror, so he only wished he had dreamed of Rhianni, grown up and eager? He had survived by dreaming about her and all the innocent plans they made for adventure and glory when they were grown and could explore the entire planet.
What had he dreamed?
No warning had come through the Merger. Petroc always knew when something disturbed the mental bonding that joined all the Taken into one mind and soul. There had been no alarms.
Silence meant nothing. Petroc much preferred noise. Quiet always hid danger.
Nineteen years ago, there had been no alarm when the Talroqi overran the colony. No satellites picked up the incoming ships. No planetary defenses shrieked into action. No shields slammed into place. No warning, no time for anyone but those already in government buildings to reach the underground bunkers to hide until help could come.
In the dark quiet of that long-ago night, Shadows appeared from the mists and spirited away every child they could find into the darkness and wilderness. Because of that, the children had been labeled the Taken.
Less than twenty minutes after a Shadow had dragged Petroc from his bed, the Talroqi struck. His parents had died that night. Most adults on Mallachrom–the ones who didn’t make it into the bunkers or escape from the planet’s surface in ships–died or became prisoners. It was over too quickly to be understood, even knowing what he knew, what he had learned in the Merger, what the survivors could guess.
Even with all he had learned as leader of the Taken, Petroc still didn’t understand everything. He preferred not knowing. It let him sleep at night. Sometimes the Merger gave hints of the Shadows’ plans, but he didn’t want to know the future and all the pain, death and sacrifice it entailed.
Petroc had been prepared by the Shadows, by hardship and prejudice, to be responsible and more alert than the colony’s authorities would ever appreciate. The children who slept in the cabins on the other side of the clearing depended on him–on all the adults who had been children then and survived.
If something felt wrong, he wasn’t going to stumble around in the dark asking questions and trying to be ‘logical’. Petroc had learned to listen to his gut during those dream-like years living under the protection of the Shadows.
His gut said something disturbed the Black Pit.
He pulled on pants and ran out the door, taking knife, slingshot and torchbeam. At least one-third of the colony’s Enforcers sympathized with the Taken. They would lose their jobs and be deported if the authorities learned they gave them weapons and satellite data, but no one would ever learn that from the Taken.
Barefoot, bare-chested, Petroc headed out to investigate. If the Black Pit had awakened, full body armor wouldn’t do him any good.
Tinno, the messenger on duty at the Rim skidded to a stop ten steps down the trail from Petroc. The skinny boy, just out of adolescence, gestured back toward the demarcation line where lush forest growth and rich soil gave way to desolate rock.
“What?” Petroc demanded as he hurried down the trail. The boy followed him back the way he had just come.
“Shaina was in the Merger, checking. She isn’t sure where it came from, but there’s a new energy.”
“New energy?” Petroc almost stopped as memory crashed through him.
He didn’t close his eyes as he doubled his pace, but for a moment he walked through his dream again.
Fire streaked across the landscape, as blue as a Shadow’s eyes. Eyes appeared from the darkness, feeding energy into the blue fire, just as every member of the Merger took energy from the Shadows and fed it to their core leaders. They fed it to the Inner Circle, and Petroc stood in the center of the circle. He held the blue fire in his hands.
In his dream, Petroc watched the energy leap from his body toward someone who did not exist until just before the lightning bolts of blue fire collided. Moss-green eyes stared into his and an unfamiliar voice called to him and filled him with hunger so intense, it shredded him, body and soul.
“All I can think is that…” Shaina shook her head and huddled closer to the fire in the underground shelter where the sentry team had spent the winter.
“What?” Petroc prompted, gentling his voice.
Shaina shared the Inner Circle with him and three others, serving as the focal point for the Merger’s energy. They speculated that when they were strong enough, understood enough, the Shadows would use them to scour the Black Pit from the face of the planet. At twenty-five, Shaina was the youngest of the Inner Circle’s members. She had been mute six years after the Rovers and the Fleet liberated Mallachrom from the horror of what she had seen before the Shadows rescued her. She wore a scarf wrapped around her head to hide her bare, burn-scarred scalp. Petroc saw the same scars in her eyes.
“It’s like we’ve been assembling a weapon all these years, with what we do in the Merger, what the Shadows teach us to do, and the telescopic sight and trigger have finally been delivered.” Shaina sipped at the pungent tea a teammate had made. “Like the Shadows and the Black Pit both want and need the parts. Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the impression I get. Like all we’ve been doing is preparing for them to arrive. Or maybe return. I get this feeling…someone else knows those vital parts are here, and they’ll fit their weapon, too.”
“The smart move,” Petroc said, hating the bitter taste in his mouth, “is to learn to do without, and destroy the parts so the other side can’t get it.”
Our watch will never end, she whispered, their minds opening to each other for a split second.
It happened sometimes, when the Merger reached a new level of energy or skill–or when something momentous happened. All their minds opened without consciously invoking the Merger.