It's always weird writing new characters. I wrote this one a while ago, back in the summer or fall, I think, as practice for my next book. The cast is full of interesting beings, and I wanted to get to know them a little. I didn't like it at the time, but now?
Well, I actually like it enough to share, so that says something.
This is sort of the origin story for the two human characters. I did have to do a little research, but I probably got some things wrong - I have no idea if those giant telescopes have security guards like this, nor why only the guards would be there at night. (All the scientist-types who work at the telescope are off celebrating some major discovery; let's go with that.) But it suits what I need for the story.
The book itself picks up about a year later, and a lot changes in a year.
Hope y'all enjoy it; looking forward to seeing what everyone thinks. I'm planning to start writing the book next month.
Next entry: Darkness Called, and I Hung Up.
“I just feel like I’m missing something, and – and is that thing stealing the telescope?”
Kris blinked at her fellow security guard. “What?” She up straight in her chair, and spun around to face the bank of security monitors. Phoenix, the tall black guy she’d been working with for a few years and who’d up until a second ago been on another rant lamenting his career path or lack thereof, was staring at the monitors with a frown on his face, his head tilted to one side.
She looked to the screens and felt her mouth fall open. “What the hell,” Kris breathed. “That’s . . . kind of impossible.”
The security camera outside was set to get a long-distance shot of the massive telescope where they worked security, in case someone tried to vandalize it or something like that. What was happening now might kind of count as vandalism, but Kris knew there was no way their procedure book covered that.
Something hovered next to the telescope’s enormous lens. It looked like some kind of spaceship shaped like two giant cargo cylinders stacked on top of each other, with enormous thrusters jutting out of one end and a glass dome that might be a cockpit on the other. Beams of yellow light flared out of the side of the thing, winding around the lens like the limbs of some glowing sea creature.
And as far as she could tell, the lens was actually coming off.
Kris squinted at the monitor, flicked it with her fingertips just in case. The image didn’t change. “Do we even have a procedure for this?” she asked. “We’ve got that list of stuff that might happen, but I know aliens stealing the telescope’s not on it.”
Phoenix grabbed their emergency phone and held it to his ear, hit a red button on the phone’s base. A moment later, he frowned. “Middle of the night, of course there’s nobody there – yeah, we’ve got a problem here,” he said into the phone, his voice somehow steady despite the alien spaceship on the screen.
Kris was used to Phoenix being almost supernaturally calm, but how he could keep that up right now, she had no idea.
“There’s some sort of machine out there, and it’s trying to steal the telescope’s lens,” Phoenix said. His thick brows drew together as he scowled. “No, I’m not drunk. Do I sound drunk?” He looked at Kris and rolled his eyes. “Check your video feed, you should have one that shows the telescope.”
Kris tapped a button under another security screen, bringing up a different camera, and ran a hand over her dark hair. There was only one other camera on the telescope, and that wouldn’t give as good of a view, but it should show . . . there. She could only see the lower half of the giant lens in the other view, but the same yellow light was there, and the bottom of the alien ship showed at the top of the screen.
So either this was a prank by someone who was really thorough, or there was actually a spaceship out there. “Son of a bitch,” Kris breathed, and felt her insides sink. Was this actually happening? She pinched herself, which changed nothing, then jumped as Phoenix’s voice suddenly rose.
“It’s not a joke, I told you--” Phoenix said, then paused, his mouth half-open. He stood there for a second or two, then hung up the phone and dropped his arm to his side. He looked at Kris, his expression hard. “Dumbass on the other end thinks we’re messing with him. Like it’s CGI or something.”
Kris pointed at the monitors. “Yeah, no, not when we’re getting the same thing on both feeds,” she said. She glanced at Phoenix, and knew she must be making a weird face by the look he gave her. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Phoenix nodded once, and the thin braids in his hair bobbed against the back of his neck. “Something weird’s going on, we go check it out. Even if it’s aliens, we’re still on security.”
Kris couldn’t help smiling as she looked at him. “You’re handling this way too easy, you know that?” She let out a nervous chuckle as Phoenix shrugged, then stood and pulled her phone out of her pocket. “But you’re right. We gotta record this.”
Phoenix took out his phone and swiped his thumb across the screen. “No reception in here, but the camera works. Let’s go.”
They both headed for the door, and Kris snickered as they headed out. When Phoenix looked back at her, she said, “I know we’re not supposed to leave the post unless there’s something we can’t just call in. Think this qualifies?”
“I called it in,” Phoenix said. “Not my fault they hung up on me.” He shook his head. “No damn surprise they didn’t listen, though, way things go here.”
“Not like we wanted this job,” Kris said as they headed through the telescope lab’s narrow hallways. It seemed weird to fall back into their usual complaints about their lives while on the way outside to film what might be a UFO or something even weirder, but it beat walking in silence. “I wanted to be an astronaut, you know that.”
Phoenix gave one of his rare, quiet chuckles. “See if the aliens want to take you with them,” he said. “Maybe you’ll get your chance.”
Kris laughed, though it was a little strained. “Bet you five bucks they’re some sort of robots who think we’re, like, inferior organic beings.”
She straightened her security uniform, just in case, then fixed her ponytail, glad she’d freshly shaved the sides of her head a few days ago. If they were going to play interplanetary ambassadors, better make sure they looked good. Assuming the aliens wouldn’t be offended by the color beige.
And how the hell was she even thinking about that when aliens were here trying to steal the telescope? Maybe that was just how her mind dealt with something this weird so she didn’t snap. Maybe she’d already snapped and didn’t know it yet. Hopefully not.
Phoenix pushed open the door at the hallway’s end, and the two of them hurried through the small entry hall. Yellow light shined in through the windows, blotting out the usual thousands of stars they could see this far from the city. Kris shaded her eyes against the unexpected brightness, and stared out the windows, her mouth falling open as she realized this was very real.
The metal underside of the ship showed through the windows, a long tube the color of battered steel. There was a shimmering in the air below it, like heat waves rising from pavement. Neither end of the ship was visible, and Kris realized how huge the thing must be.
“It’s real,” Phoenix whispered. He looked over his shoulder and down at Kris, eyes wide, then strode for the door. Kris hurried to keep up with him.
Some part of her mind told her this was completely insane, that whatever the hell was out there was way beyond her pay grade, and she and Phoenix really should just go back inside and let the people who were actually in charge figure out how to deal with something from outer space showing up at their job.
That part was completely overridden by the rest of her mind, which was on a constant loop of ‘Holy shit, there’s actual aliens here.’
Kris and Phoenix shoved through the front doors and hurried outside. There was a pressure in the air, a constant pushing back from the ship that stopped her and Phoenix as soon as they took two steps away from the building. A deep, low thrumming filled her ears, like a slow-motion heartbeat, pulsing in time with lights around the ship’s enormous thrusters. A faint, deep blue glow came from within those thrusters, and nothing more.
“Tell me you’re getting this!” Kris yelled, and fumbled with her own phone. She tapped on the camera and raised it, saw only a shaky picture, all blurred around the edges. Like every other picture of aliens.
“I’m getting something,” Phoenix said, his voice still steady. “Don’t know if anyone’s going to believe it.”
As they watched, the front end of the ship opened like a flower blooming, the lower cylinder’s sides peeling outward and wide, large enough to swallow a submarine. Or, Kris thought a moment later, to swallow the twelve-meter lens off the front of the enormous telescope that was the entire point of her security guard job.
“We’re so fired,” she said.
“I’m filming this,” Phoenix said. “It’s not our fault.”
Kris somehow turned away from the enormous ship and what it was doing with the yellow light and stared at Phoenix. “Seriously? You’re thinking about that now?”
“You said we’re getting fired. I’d like to keep this job, not – oh, forget it,” he said, and lowered his phone. “No one’s going to believe us.”
The beams of yellow light pulled the lens into the front of the ship, and their glow silhouetted a figure standing at the open area’s edge. Whatever it was, it looked humanoid, but angular in a way that made Kris really damn sure it wasn’t human.
Not that she expected it to be, but still. If there were aliens here stealing stuff, at least they weren’t something all weirdly misshapen and horrific. She laughed at the absurdity of the thought.
Then, the figure turned, and a green light glowed in what Kris guessed was its head. It paused, then turned back.
“It saw us,” Kris said, her voice gone small. A new kind of fear swept over her as she realized for the first time that leaving the building might have been a really bad idea. “I – I think it saw us.”
The front of the ship closed, and the yellow light faded. The telescope looked strangely bare without the lens, just a black circle there at the end of the long body. Lights on the ship’s sides flickered quickly, and the ship began to descend.
“Get back inside,” Phoenix whispered, moving to stand in front of her.
“Hell no,” Kris said, fighting back the urge to do just that. “The thing’s landing. You – you think they’re gonna come out?”
Phoenix frowned at her. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Now get inside, I’ll cover you.”
“Cover me?” Kris asked, rolling her eyes at him. “With what, your taser?” Phoenix started to say something, but she cut him off. “And if they were going to shoot, they would have when that thing with the green face saw us!”
The ship settled on the ground with a thud and rumble, followed by the sound of settling metal. Kris gulped past the lump in her throat. Light glowed around a square on the ship’s side, and a door opened, two sides sliding into the ship’s wall.
Go figure, Kris thought. High-tech spaceships really did have doors like that. Star Trek had been right all along.
A figure stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the light within. It stood at least seven feet tall, made of some kind of gleaming grey metal that was all straight planes and angles, like a suit of armor made to stop weapons that hadn’t been invented yet. Glowing green lines ran down its limbs and across its chest, and a single line ran across the face about where its temples would be, with bends in it that made it look just vaguely enough like a eyes in a face.
The armored figure walked toward Kris and Phoenix, its steps even and natural. Whoever was wearing it was clearly used to it. It stopped a dozen steps away from the two of them. The green glow in the line on its face grew brighter.
Kris held up one hand and made the ‘live long and prosper’ sign. “Hi?”
“You didn’t shoot,” the figure said, its voice metallic but not monotone. “I appreciate that.”
“We don’t have anything to shoot with,” Phoenix said, his words slow and careful. “Not the ship, anyway. They give us tazers. But I don’t know if that could hurt you.”
“Probably not,” the figure said. “Most things can’t.” It paused. “You seem calm for what you’ve just seen. Most native earthers don’t know about anything beyond their own world.”
“Own world?” Kris asked, her thoughts spinning madly. This just kept getting better. What was this thing and what was it talking about and why was it just casually chatting with them and was there any chance she could get onto that ship and get the hell out of here?
“Earthers?” Phoenix asked at the same time. “You know other humans?”
The figure looked at Phoenix. “Yes,” it said. “I’ve worked with several of your kind before. Versatile, sturdy, though some not as talented as they believed.”
“Yeah, that’s, uh, humans,” Kris said, laughing a little and hoping the thing had a sense of humor or at least knew what one was. “So who are you? And what’s with the ship? And why are you stealing our telescope?”
The figure gestured over its shoulder at telescope. Its hand had four fingers and two thumbs, one on either side. “You own this?”
“No,” Phoenix said, shaking his head. “We’re security guards.” He looked up at the telescope’s empty end. “Maybe not anymore, once they see what happened on our watch.”
“Unavoidable,” the figure said. “Your world has many unsolved mysteries. Most I’ve heard of involve someone using magic here, which is rare. This will be another.” It paused. “I apologize for costing you both your jobs.”
“Whoa!” Kris held up both hands. “Wait. Back up. Magic? Magic’s real?”
The figure nodded once. “I’m using a translation spell right now. Did you think I spoke your language?”
Kris blinked. “Didn’t even think about it,” she said, feeling pretty damn stupid.
“Understandable,” the figure said. “Your universe is one of the least magical in the multiverse. My crew and I need this lens for a machine on a very magical world. We came here because no one here could keep us from taking it.”
Phoenix let his breath out slowly. “You’re serious. That’s how a ship that big could just float there next to the scope? Magic?”
“Yes,” the figure said. Kris expected it to sound patronizing, but it didn’t – the thing was talking to them like equals, not like primitives or children. Kind of nice, she thought. “Most beings can use one form of magic or another. You could, if your plane was not so limited.”
“I knew I was born on the wrong planet,” Kris said. “Is that how your armor works? It’s magical?”
“Wrong plane,” the figure said. “Your whole plane has little magic, regardless of planet. And I’m not wearing armor.”
Kris spun and pointed at Phoenix. “You owe me five bucks!”
Phoenix gave her an extremely doubtful look, one she’d seen a lot over the past few years. “I didn’t make that bet.” He looked back to the figure. “So you’re not some person in there? This is you?”
“Wargolem model CAL-KX, original serial 0314,” the figure – the wargolem, Kris figured – recited. “I earned sentience and chose my name eleven years ago Core time.” It paused. “My name is Captain.”
“Captain?” Phoenix asked. “That’s your name, or that’s your rank?”
“Yes,” Captain said.
Kris pointed at the enormous spaceship sitting in front of the telescope. “So you own the ship?” she asked. “You run it?”
“The Starwind is mine,” Captain said. The light in the line across its face went dim for a moment, then brightened again. “And I need new crew members.”
“Oh, hell yes!” Kris shouted, raising one hand. “Sign me up!”
“Wait, wait,” Phoenix said, and held out a hand to keep Kris from rushing forward. “Are you serious, Captain? You just met us and you want us to join you?”
“I’ve just drastically altered your view of your universe and beyond,” Captain said, its voice level and reasonable. “You’re handling it well. And I’ve worked with enough earthers to know you’re generally reliable.”
“I am so reliable,” Kris said, unable to keep herself from grinning at the sheer mad awesomeness of it all. This wasn’t just an alien, it was a captain of its own ship that traveled to different worlds and it was looking for crew. This was the weirdest night of her life, but it might be the best one too.
Captain looked to Phoenix. “Is she reliable?”
“We both are,” Phoenix said, but he sounded more than a little doubtful. “How do we know this isn’t a trick? That you’re not going to knock us out and lock us up as soon as we’re on board?”
“If I wanted that, I would have already.” Captain paused for a moment. “I understand your hesitation. I’ve asked one of the crew to come speak to you both. Hopefully she will help show that I’m also reliable.” It turned and pointed up at the ship’s cockpit. “That’s my pilot, Zin.”
Kris looked up, squinting a little at the distance. She saw what looked like some kind of small metallic chair, like a child’s car seat from the future, with something about the size of a football and completely covered in fur strapped into it. “Your pilot’s a furball?”
“That is Zin,” Captain said. “His species is small and vulnerable, but they make remarkable pilots. They’re often kidnapped and forced to fly. I’d ask him to come down, but he doesn’t handle strangers well.”
“So what happens if we come with you?” Phoenix asked as Kris tried not to stare at the thing up in the cockpit. Could he see her, she wondered, as she didn’t see any eyes. “Is this a long-term thing, or what?”
“We’re in the middle of a race that’s also a scavenger hunt,” Captain said. “We’re gathering items from across the planes, and we lost two crew members on our last stop. Sign on with me for the rest of the race, and you’ll receive pay, board, and all other necessities. When the race is over, you decide if you want to stay on.”
“Yeah, like I’d leave the awesome interplanar spaceship,” Kris said, hardly able to contain her excitement. “This is the greatest night of my life.”
“What if we want to come back here?” Phoenix asked. Kris stared at him, her mouth hanging open, but he ignored her.
“It’s rare that anyone comes to Earth,” Captain said. “If you decide not to stay on, I can drop you off at Core or another significant travel hub. But there are no guarantees you’ll find someone coming to this plane.”
Kris felt her excitement dwindle down into a solid lump in her stomach. If she got on that ship, odds were good she’d never come back. She looked at Phoenix, and when he met her gaze, she saw the same sort of debate in his eyes. She took a deep breath.
“Dead-end job, student loans, taxes, politicians, and no way to know if we’ve got any kind of halfway decent future,” she said all at once, then gestured to the ship. “Versus whatever the rest of the multiverse has in store for us.”
“Versus leaving our friends and families behind and probably never coming back,” Phoenix said, and for the first time in as long as she’d known him, Kris saw that he was worried. He was normally the type to stay strong and keep going no matter what happened, but this? This shook him.
Hell, Kris thought, now that she thought about it, it shook her too. She’d miss her friends, sure. And her mom would be devastated if she just disappeared. She hadn’t been the same since Kris’s dad died when she was ten.
But, she wondered, wouldn’t her mom want her to go for something she’d always wanted?
It wasn’t like she’d ever seriously thought this would happen. Maybe when she was a little kid watching sci-fi movies and reading comics, but not once she actually grew up. And it wasn’t like she could ask Captain to come back some other time. They were lucky, or just victims of amazing chance, that Captain had come here to take their telescope’s lens.
“This isn’t an easy thing,” Kris said, and swallowed hard.
Another shadow appeared in the ship’s open hatchway, and for a second, Kris thought there were other earthers in the crew. Then she looked again and realized how wrong she was.
The figure that emerged could have been a human woman, but only from the waist up. She looked a little younger than Kris, with pale skin and long black hair and bright blue eyes, clad in some sort of long shirt or tunic that was belted around her waist to make it seem more like a dress and a vest with a bunch of pockets. Pouches hung from her belt, shifting as she moved.
From the waist down, she was a giant snake – there was no other way to put it – easily thirty feet long, trailing back behind her to the ship’s door as she approached the rest of them. Kris stared as the woman slithered, unable to help herself. Something about the mix of human and definitely not human made her seem stranger than Captain.
“You called, Captain?” the snake-girl said, her voice calm and cheerful. She looked at Kris and Phoenix. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Kris managed, her voice small. Tonight was just full of surprises, wasn’t it.
“This is Sarai, she’s been with me for five years Core time,” Captain said, and looked at the snake-woman. “I’m considering them as new recruits. We’re short since the incident on Arkadan and we need at least five for our next destination.”
“What’s the next place?” Phoenix asked. Clearly, Kris thought, he was handling this whole thing better than she was.
“Oh, we’re going to Isakar,” Sarai said, her expression brightening. “It’s mostly water. There’s a local festival there, and we’re competing in one of the races.” She seemed eager to share what she knew, Kris thought, like learning all about where they were going was her thing.
“The race awards a rare gem,” Captain added. “It requires five sentient beings capable of a reasonable movement speed to enter. We will win the trophy or steal it.”
“I’m in,” Kris said all at once. She felt Phoenix’s sudden stare, and gestured at the ship while staring right back at him. “Don’t give me that look!”
“Just like that? What happened to it not being an easy thing?” Phoenix’s voice grew hard, and she saw the worry in his eyes. “I know you wanted to be an astronaut, but this – this means never coming back.”
Kris waved her hand at the ship again. “This is better than that! And I’ve known being an actual astronaut could get me killed since I was six years old!” She dropped her hand, and said, “This is everything I ever wanted from life and never thought I’d get.”
“You’re right, Captain,” Sarai said. “You’re good at finding the right people for this.”
Kris wasn’t sure how a creature with a solid metal face and almost no features could look smug, but somehow, Captain pulled it off.
Kris turned to Captain. “I swear,” she said, “I can learn whatever you need me to. I’ll help fly that thing, I’ll figure out if places are safe, I’ll – I’ll haul cargo if I have to.” She took a deep breath as what she was about to say really hit her.
This was it, this was all her life changing at once, but she couldn’t say no. “Please. Take me with you.”
Captain nodded once. “Welcome to the Starwind, earther. What’s your name?”
“Kris,” she said, grinning wide to hide the shaking in her knees. “Kris Walker. And this is Phoenix Coulson.”
“I didn’t say I was going,” Phoenix said.
Kris spun and stepped closer to him, looked up at him. She had to lean back a little; Phoenix was about a foot taller than her. “This is the only chance we’re gonna get for this, Phoenix,” she said, trying not to sound like she was pleading but knowing it didn’t really work. “You tell me all the time you regret how things turned out.”
“Not all the time,” he said, though he didn’t sound like she really meant it.
“Okay, no, but do you want to regret this too? Do you want to regret leaving, or regret staying?” Kris shook her head. “That came out wrong. I mean, do you want to stay here, where you know how life’s probably going to go?”
She held a hand out to the ship again, and gestured at Captain and Sarai as well. “Or do you want to go learn magic and travel to different worlds and meet all kinds of new people and see things nobody here even knows exist?”
Phoenix looked past her, to the telescope and the astronomy building and the forest mountain it stood upon, and all the world beyond that. He closed his eyes for a moment, and Kris could tell, he was saying goodbye.
When he opened his eyes, he said, “I’m in.”
Kris let out a cheer, and turned to Captain, then saluted. “Captain! Awaiting orders, sir.”
“Ma’am,” Captain said. “I’m female.”
Kris winced. Way to screw that up right as she joined the crew. “I’m sorry, Captain. I, uh, didn’t know.”
“Most of my kind don’t take genders,” Captain said. “I’m used to that mistake. Don’t make it again. And welcome aboard.”
“Welcome to the crew,” Sarai said, her smile warm. She was kind of pretty, Kris thought, then fought to keep from making a weird face as she tried to comprehend how she’d just thought a half-snake woman was pretty.
Just go with it, she told herself. Life was about to get a whole lot weirder. She glanced over at Phoenix, saw him looking down at his phone, a frown set on his face. “Phoenix?” she asked. “You okay?”
“Just . . . saying goodbye to the world,” he said. He tapped the screen once more, then stuffed his phone into his pocket. “You should do that too. People are going to wonder what happened to us.”
“Not really,” she said, then laughed, unable to help herself. She jerked a thumb toward the security camera. “This is all on tape. They’ll see the ship leave, right? Maybe they’ll figure we were on it.”
“Magic doesn’t always play nice with electronics on worlds like this,” Sarai said. “There might not be much of a picture left when we take off.”
“Not our concern,” Captain said. She turned on one heel and started back toward the ship. “Everybody aboard. It’s three days to Isakar and we have to prep the new crew.”
Kris watched her for a moment, then looked to Sarai. “This is going to be really strange, isn’t it.”
Sarai smiled again, and Kris couldn’t help smiling back. “For you, yeah, it is.” She looked sheepish for a moment. “It was strange for me when I started with Captain too. But it’s been worth it.”
“Then let’s find out what happens,” Phoenix said, and strode toward the ship. That was like him, Kris thought – once he made up his mind, there was no changing it.
“One sec,” Kris said, and tapped her phone again, heading to her social media of choice. Her friends and her mom all read it, so they’d see what she had to say, and know she was gone.
Even if they never understood it.
Kris turned her back to the ship, held up her phone and snapped a picture, her smiling face with the Starwind behind her. She typed in one last message, then pocketed her phone and nodded to Sarai as they headed into the ship.
Abducted by aliens. Off to see the worlds. I’ll miss you all very much. Goodbye.