Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
T yrants   want   Toni   to   pilot   off   the   books.   The   government wants    a    mole.    Spying    isn’t    her    business    but    her    unique position   may   make   a   difference   in   the   galaxy.   She   rushes   to bring   together   men   of   peace   and   shut   down   those   with   other goals.   Amid   the   intrigue,   she   must   determine   if   the   man she’s    falling    in    love    with    is    one    of    the    empire    builders willing   to   eliminate   her   if   she   becomes   a   liability,   or   merely a   pawn   himself.   Is   his   brother   altruistic,   or   just   another   self- serving entrepreneur?
Urban Fantasy
Chapter One ~ A    cackle   of   laugher   to   her   right   piqued   at   her   attempt   to   relax.   After   a   quarter century   in   space,   Toni   was   a   certifiable   Spacer.   Her   ears,   used   to   the   slight   buzz   of   a ship’s   electronics   in   the   otherwise   soundless   vacuum   of   space,   strained   to   adjust   to the   roar   of   the   planet.   Her   skin   vibrated   with   it.   The   far   off   sounds   of   the   city throbbed like out-of-sync anti-gravity drives. Toni   leaned   back   against   the   bench   ignoring   the   discomfort   of   its   less-than- perfect     ergonomics,     trying     to     ignore     the     shouts     from     the     approaching longshoremen. Eyes   closed,   head   tilted   back   to   catch   all   the   warmth   of   the   sun   on   her   face,   the glow    that    made    its    way    through    her    eyelids    was    invigorating.    She    couldn’t remember   when   she   last   visited   Earth.   Been   too   long.   Good   to   be   back,   good   to   feel a   familiar   sun.   Good   to   steal   away   a   few   moments   for   herself,   to   not   think,   to   sit   in neutral. She   didn’t   make   enough   opportunities   to   do   that.   She   had   spent   her   life   tucked inside the center of ships, where there was nothing else to do but think. The   slight   breeze   carried   with   it   the   acrid   smell   from   a   spill,   of   mechanical loaders, dust that a ship’s bio system would eliminate, and the scent of the city. Uia   stood   ten   meters   away   supervising   the   unload,   but   was   more   involved   in watching   the   movement   up   and   down   the   pier.   He   was   entertained   by   what   he called, “the vigor of movement humans were capable of.” Uia   neared   his   sleep   cycle.   He   displayed   the   mellowness   that   preceded   it.   Seven human-days   of   wakefulness,   he   was   ready   to   curl   up   to   hibernate—though   he   got very indignant when Toni called it that. Inches    from    Toni,    Molly    lay    quietly    on    her    padded    hover,    but    alert    to    the hubbub.   Her   nose   nodded   acknowledgment   of   all   the   smells   that   teased   her   canine senses. Her floppy ears waved comically as she cast for every scent. The   ancient   Labrador   had   little   sight   or   hearing   left,   but   basked   in   the   banquet of   aromas.   Toni   fidgeted   to   get   comfortable   and   sighed,   which   drew   a   short   whine from Molly, as though to ask, “Is everything okay?” The old dog struggled to sit up and snuggle against Toni’s leg, laying her head in Toni’s   lap   with   that   adoring   look   only   dogs   can   offer.   Toni   hugged   the   old   girl,   her face   against   the   nearly   solid-white   muzzle,   and   drew   in   the   bouquet   of   the   dog’s shampoo. The   longshore   crew   coming   off-shift   neared.   Tired   and   prepared   to   blow   off some    steam,    they    made    a    raunchy    racket,    higher    in    decibels    than    Toni    was prepared   to   deal   with.   She   tried   to   block   out   the   noise.   She   closed   her   eyes,   tilted her   face   away   from   them,   but   the   awful   banter   stopped   immediately   in   front   of them. Ignore them, Tegaris. “So you’re the one who travels with the two filthy mutts.” It   rang   in   her   ears—vibrated   as   though   they   were   in   a   cavern.   Two   filthy   mutts. Two filthy mutts.  That was followed by more ethnic remarks. Fine.    They    resented    that    she    employed    a    Kreueigian.    Was    it    necessary    to provoke Uia into a fight? Idiots. Fucking morons. Just   because   human   males   were   driven   to   protect   their   females,   Kreueigian females   had   never   needed   protecting.   Besides,   Uia   was   so   laid   back,   he’d   probably lean    against    Kory    Mae’s     hull    and    document    this    example    of    humanity’s    poor behavior. Toni   dropped   her   head   deeper   into   Molly’s   shoulder   and   willed   them   to   go away. Times    were    hard.    The    ignorant    always    need    a    scapegoat.    Uia’s    people    had become    a    prime    target    for    meaningless    hatred.    The    media    played    it    up,    over- dramatizing   it   like   any   story   they   used   to   draw   marketing   share.   The   bigots   were quick   to   carry   on,   to   shout   about   how   Kreueigians   were   taking   all   the   best   jobs, even taking over the Transit Authority. It   didn’t   help   they   appeared   so   odd   with   their   short   fur,   forehead   to   toenails,   yet too familiar. Toni   groaned   over   the   failure   of   her   psychic   power   to   shoo   them   away.   She shook her head in disgust and frustration. The    intensity    and    harshness    of    the    words    escalated.    Uia    ignored    them,    or perhaps   they   even   amused   him,   it   was   hard   to   tell.   She   hadn’t   learned   how   to   read him. The   men’s   rage   peaked.   Molly   whined,   cringed   in   panic   against   Toni.   The   men mostly   faced   Uia.   The   main   instigator   was   a   tall,   skinny,   scraggy   ass.   Most   of   the insults   were   his.   The   others   followed   along,   and   laughed,   or   repeated   his   words. Scraggy barricaded himself in the center of the crew. What a surprise. But he was Toni’s target. It   was   too   damn   easy   to   underestimate   her.   Short   as   a   toad,   a   streak   of   gray across   one   temple,   but   her   hazings   at   the   Institute   taught   her   to   be   tough,   and   to learn how to protect herself. She had bloodied many a bully in her life. She   was   in   Scraggy’s   face   before   any   of   them   reacted.   The   man’s   protectors turned   out   not   to   be   very   efficient.   They   backed   away,   as   though   they   needed   more space   to   think.   Scraggy   swayed,   his   eyes   bulged.   Toni   had   to   reach   almost   straight up   to   slam   her   open   hand   against   his   throat,   her   fingers   digging   into   the   man’s esophagus. His    battle    was    already    lost    but    he    was    too    pathetically    stupid    to    know    it. Leaning   away   from   her   put   him   off   balance.   It   was   easy   for   Toni   to   kick   the   side   of his   leg   just   so—not   to   rip   tendons   or   meniscus,   but   to   take   him   down.   He   fell   hard. A   hissing-gasp   erupted   from   the   man’s   chest   as   his   body   struck   the   ground.   His head bounced off the concrete. The others stood there, mouths gaping. “Oh,   don’t   kill   another   one!”   Uia   shouted,   not   moving   a   muscle.   “Too   many witnesses. I disposed of the last one. Not going to do it this time.” Go figure. Her alien friend had a sense of humor. Even   with   her   remaining   rage,   Toni   struggled   not   to   laugh.   To   keep   from   it,   she thought   of   how   the   men   made   Molly   shake   in   fear.   That   was   good   enough   to   piss her off again. Scraggy’s   friends   turned   away   as   though   they   had   never   met   the   man   lying   on the    concourse.    They    didn’t    run,    but    they    used    meaningful    strides    to    put    some distance behind them. Uia   laughed.   Toni   couldn’t   keep   a   smile   off   her   face.   She   let   go   of   Scraggy   and lifted   her   knee   out   of   the   man’s   chest.   His   gasps   grew   higher   in   pitch.   He   hurried   to spit more slurs at her. Evidently the loser didn’t learn a lesson easily. He screeched a last, “Bitch,” through a badly bruised larynx. That did it. Toni    pummeled    her    fist    into    the    idiot’s    nose,    crushing    cartilage,    forever changing   his   face.   His   head   bounced   off   the   walk,   his   eyes   fluttered.   Blood   gushed. Arms   reaching   around   her   midsection   lifted   her   away.   She   didn’t   fight   it.   Without looking she knew it would be Uia. She   was   surprised   to   see   a   small   crowd   circled   around   them.   But   no   one   acted interested   in   intervening.   Most   scowled   and   shook   their   heads   in   disgust.   Toni couldn’t   guess   if   it   was   because   of   her   and   Uia,   or   the   ease   with   which   one   of   their own   went   down.   To   a   woman—a   tiny,   petite   frog-fart   of   a   woman   at   that.   The onlookers were mostly made up of the crew that had been working Kory Mae . “The load’s complete,” Uia said to her softly, letting her go. As   if   that   was   his   cue,   the   crew   chief   stepped   forward   holding   out   a   computer. Toni   slid   her   thumb   across   its   bio   reader,   closing   the   contract.   The   chief   nodded, caught her eye before he turned away. She   retrieved   the   remote   for   Molly’s   hover   out   of   her   pocket.   “So   you   okay, Molly Molly?” The   dog   wagged   her   tail,   and   settled   into   the   hover.   Toni   set   the   remote   to follow-close and they walked toward the main terminal. “Isn’t it about time for you to hibernate?” Uia   looked   as   though   he   tried   to   smile.   His   nose   twitched.   “I’ve   told   you   I studied this hibernation your Earth animals do, and it isn’t what we do.” “Yeah,   yeah,   yeah.   I   remember   when   we   approached   that   undocumented   comet last   month.   Kory   Mae   had   more   alarms   going   off   at   130   decibels   than   I   knew   she had.” “I don’t remember that.” Toni   grinned.   “Exactly.   After   I   made   the   course   adjustment   and   went   to   tell   you all   was   well,   you   were   still   curled   up   in   a   ball   like   nothing   ever   happened.   You   call   it what you want. In our language, sleeping more than ten hours is hibernation.” “I’m just a heavy sleeper.” Toni snorted. “Yeeeaaah. Let’s go get something to eat.” “I could eat a bite,” Uia said. “I’ve   seen   you   eat    prior   to   a   sleep   cycle.   I   would   never   call   it   a   bite.   We’re   going downtown for some real food.” Chapter Two ~ “S top   here,”   she   told   their   driver.   Without   turning   she   said   to   Uia,   “Take   Molly with   you.   She’s   had   a   tough   night.   I’m   going   to   the   Master’s   office   and   arrange   a slip.” Not   that   she   had   to   go   in   person,   but   she   felt   a   need   to   get   away,   be   alone   for   a moment. She   gave   Molly   a   gentle   scratch   under   her   ear.   The   dog   pried   opened   one   blood- red   eye.   Toni   reached   across   to   the   far   door,   thumbed   it   open,   activated   the   hover, and    gave    it    a    gentle    push.    Uia    rushed    around    to    the    other    side    of    the    cab    to intercept   it.   Toni   tossed   him   the   remote.   He   practiced   a   frantic   juggling   act   to   get control of it. Settling   up   with   the   cabbie,   Toni   strode   away.   A   chain   entwining   her   chest yanked   at   her   to   return   to   Molly.   She   hated   to   leave   the   dog   behind.   She   felt   the Kreueigian’s   eyes   boring   holes   through   her   back.   Had   to   think   she   was   a   complete idiot. A little alcohol and her mouth flapped. What a time to share. She   wished   she   could   hurl.   Getting   rid   of   some   of   the   poisons   in   her   body   could only   help.   But   she   was   cursed   with   the   stomach   of   a   billy   goat.   The   glare   of   the   sun made   the   spike   through   her   head   hurt   more.   She   pushed   her   body   hard   without sleep   to   get   to   Earth   in   the   first   place.   Then   she   acted   the   fool   and   partied   like   a teenager through the night. Embarrassed   myself   in   front   of   my   engineer—an   alien   of   all   things.   What   was   I thinking?   Had   to   go   and   start   feeling   sorry   for   myself.   Just   emblazon   a   double-ess for stupid shit on my forehead. Done    with    her    task    at    the    harbor    masters    office,    Toni    continued    to    berate herself   on   the   walk   back   to   Kory   Mae .   Outside,   the   anti-gravity   reactor   of   a   heavy, long-haul    launch    on    a    pier    in    the    distance    tached    up.    The    roar    nudged    Toni’s nausea.   She   swallowed   down   the   taste   of   vomit.   She   wanted   to   pick   up   her   pace   and get   inside   the   quiet   of   her   beautiful   lady,   but   her   body   didn’t   want   to   cooperate. Her joints ached. Approaching   the   ship,   the   soft,   double   tweet   all-is-well   greeted   Toni,   and   the gangway slid out and the lift door opened. “Good morning, Kory Mae.” The ship’s persona answered with her soft, “Welcome aboard, Captain.” She    would    never    tire    of    that.    She    commanded    Galaxy-class    ships    in    the Merchant     Corps,     but     they     weren’t     her      ships.     One     benefit     of     no     family entanglements,   or   social   life—she’d   been   able   to   save   like   a   tight   bitch   to   acquire Kory Mae . As   she   entered   the   bridge,   the   sight   of   the   empty   co-pilot   chair   struck   her   like   a physical   force.   Five   years,   since   Rob   moved   on.   Rarely   did   it   hit   her   as   it   did   that moment.   It   would   be   nice   to   have   someone   in   the   empty   chair.   To   speak   to.   Listen to her. “Full dashboard please, Kory Mae.” The glare burned Toni’s eyes. Way, too damn much alcohol. “Seventy percent illumination, please.” She   pulled   up   interior   sensors.   Uia   was   in   his   berth.   Molly   in   their   suite.   Toni grimaced.   She   had   never   checked   on   the   location   of   a   crewman   before—and   she certainly never needed to check to see where Molly was. Molly was always with her. “Engage minimum anti-grav for me, please.” “Are we preparing to depart?” Kory Mae asked. “No, we’re just scooting over to another slip.” Kory   Mae   initiated   a   single   reactor.   It   made   a   hum   for   a   few   moments.   It   was   a satisfying   sound,   like   the   purr   of   a   kitten.   As   it   quieted,   Toni   looked   down   at   the grid    panel    despite    herself.    A    respectable    city    could    run    on    the    power    level displayed. “Raise    us    ten    meters    off    the    tarmac,    would    you    please,    Kory    Mae?”    Toni thumbed her computer to double check the berth designation. “By    Transit    Authority    Standards    a    ship    must    either    be    towed,    or    receive permission from the tower prior to repositioning,” the ship’s persona reminded. Toni   shut   her   eyes   for   a   moment.   Way   too   much   alcohol.   “Please   inform   the tower we’re relocating to berth P34-Lev629, Kory Mae.” Only    a    moment    passed,    and    Kory    Mae    confirmed    she    had    permission    to relocate.   Toni   plopped   into   the   captain’s   chair,   activated   the   helm   control,   and moved   Kory   Mae    away   from   the   pier.   A   wonder   the   master   hadn’t   screamed   about monopolizing a gate all night. Must have been dead last night. With   the   ship   locked   down   and   the   con   black   again,   Toni   went   to   her   stateroom. She   took   an   uncommonly   long   shower.   It   didn’t   do   anything   for   her   headache,   so she   reluctantly   fell   back   on   an   analgesic.   She   forced   herself   to   eat   at    a   protein   bar while    the    sonic    drier    removed    the    last    remnants    of    moisture    from    her    body. Without dressing, she grabbed a bottle of water and sat on the edge of her bed. “Lights at twenty percent please, Kory Mae.” Between   sips,   she   dangled   her   head   between   her   legs,   stretching   the   muscles   in her    neck,    shoulders    and    back.    The    tension    heightened    the    queasiness    in    her stomach.   Toni   sipped   at   the   water   to   fight   it.   Finally   she   lay   down   to   try   to   get   some sleep. She   mentally   traced   back   through   the   previous   evening.   She   had   never   bar hopped   before,   except   to   follow   fellow   cadets   three   decades   ago.   She   did   her   share of drinking, the gratuitous, mandatory drinking you do to be part of a crew. But,   she   had   never   done   that   kind   of   drinking   by   choice   before.   She   hoped never   to   do   it   again.   But,   she   enjoyed   herself.   Tremendously.   She   couldn’t   deny that. Go figure Kreueigians had personality, could be fun to be with. She   was   more   than   a   little   embarrassed   that   she   let   on   that   she   was   some   hip, on-the-town kind of person. If   only   the   night   out   had   been   with   a   human,   someone   she   could   crush   on   for   a few days. She shook her head. Wasn’t meant to be. Who wanted to be with a toad like me anyway? “And why, oh why, did I act the fool with the Wookie?” That wasn’t fair. You   bitch.   The   Kreueigian   didn’t   deserve   that.   He’s   a   good   person—that   is,   soul, or   something.   It   isn’t   his   fault   he   isn’t   human.   She   closed   her   eyes   against   the bigoted thought. Toni   tried   to   turn   her   brain   off   so   she   could   sleep.   She   challenged   herself   by saying over and over quietly, “My job is now to sleep.” An   hour   passed.   She   had   to   have   tossed   from   one   side   to   the   other   twenty   times. The   queasiness   wouldn’t   settle   no   matter   what   position   she   tried.   She   rose   and   took another   analgesic.   She   fell   back   on   her   bed,   drawing   a   groan   from   Molly.   Her   mind returned to the previous evening. She had enjoyed the Krueueigian’s company. Uia.   She   was   glad   a   good   nickname   had   come   up   last   night.   Chewie   would   work well.   She   grinned,   just   thinking   about   the   bouncer’s   ethnic   slur.   Wookie.   That   was too   funny.   How   could   Krueueigian   remember   the   alphabet   soup   that   was   their   real names?    His    first    name    contained    sixteen    letters.    His    last,    thirty-one.    They pronounced   every   letter?   God,   no   wonder   they   never   got   around   to   exploring   space by themselves. They were too busy using proper names. For   a   being   covered   in   Labrador   fur,   he   was   pleasant   enough   looking,   though she’d   never   thought   of   that   before.   He   was   just   there.   He   was   just,   always,   reliably completing   every   task   before   she   could   ask—a   constant   the   past   six   months.   He almost felt a part of the ship. Before last night. Just   as   she   talked   to   Kory   Mae,   she   talked   to   him   over   the   com,   where   he   was always   positioned   in   Engineering.   She   had   almost   come   to   think   of   him   as   one   of the ship’s systems. He   was   an   alien.   It   was   an   accident   he   was   a   member   of   her   crew.   He   happened to   be   in   the   Kreueigian   harbor   master’s   office   that   day   she   mentioned   she   was considering taking on an experienced engineer. He     wasn’t     experienced ,     he     said,     but     he     was     educated.     That     was     an understatement.   She   verified   his   degrees.   On   Earth   he   would   have   been   a   huge catch. And he was willing to intern . Toni   stroked   her   fingers   with   her   thumb,   thinking   about   how   his   arm   felt   when she   touched   him   that   morning.   Six   months,   and   she   had   never   had   reason   to   touch him   before.   His   arm—rather   the   fur   on   his   arm—felt   totally   different   than   she expected. It felt like warm butter—soft, smooth. Comfortable. Inviting. The short fur was everywhere. It was hard to get used to. Even   after   six   months.   Perhaps   if   he   dressed   as   humans   did,   he   wouldn’t   seem so—weird.   She   didn’t   think   she   had   ever   shaken   his   hand.   When   she   welcomed   him aboard,   she   believed   she   simply   nodded   to   him   and   handed   him   a   computer,   his ship’s bible. Again,   she   recited   her   mantra—”It’s   my   job   to   go   to   sleep.   My   job   is   to   sleep now.” ~ T oni   lurched   backward   with   a   screech,   throwing   her   arms   in   front   of   her.   She connected   with   a   fist   to   his   chin,   forearm   into   the   looming   chest.   The   motion,   as well   as   the   start,   pushed   her   backward.   She   lost   her   balance   and   fell   hard,   striking the   panel   on   her   right   sharply   with   her   knee.   In   slow   motion,   her   mind   registered the   thump   of   her   ass   connecting   with   the   deck,   the   ungodly   sound   that   caught   in her throat. She   blinked   at   the   pain   in   her   eye,   registering   that   Uia   had   landed   a   fist   there. Square on, as though it were on purpose. He leaned over holding his head where he struck the arched entry of the galley. The   reality   of   the   collision   clicked,   and   the   pain   sank   in.   Toni   pulled   her   legs   up and hugged them tightly, waiting for the initial pain in her knee to subside. Uia pulled his hand away from his head. It was dappled with blood. “Oh my god,” Toni gushed, forgetting for an instant her own pain. “I’m so sorry, Captain, I don’t know where my mind was. Are you all right?” Toni   stood   and   limped   to   the   counter.   Uia   followed   her,   holding   his   head.   Toni grabbed a stack of napkins. “Sit down,” she commanded. “Your knee,” he said. “It’s bleeding.” Toni    looked    down.    Below    the    hem    of    her    robe,    a    nasty    bruise    was    already forming.   A   thin   line   of   blood   crossed   the   middle   of   it.   More   importantly,   her   robe tilted open. She lurched to cover the flash of white flesh. He   didn’t   seem   to   notice.   She   took   a   deep   breath,   and   turned   hot.   How   could   he not  notice? He isn’t blind. Uia   walked   over   to   the   counter,   got   a   plastic   bag,   and   filled   it   with   ice.   You    sit down,” he countered. She   wasn’t   used   to   taking   orders,   but   still   stinging   with   embarrassment,   sat.   She struggled   to   suppress   the   smile   that   tightened   her   lips.   Uia   knelt   and   dabbed   at   her gash   with   a   napkin.   He   gently   held   the   bag   of   ice   against   the   darkening   bruise, while Toni searched for the origin of his blood. Uia   looked   up   into   her   eyes.   She   paused   and   peered   back.   They   held   the   look   for a silent four-count. Heat rushed across her face again. Idiot. Klutz. They   exchanged   uncomfortable   grins.   She   retrieved   the   ice   from   him,   and   he took over pressing against the nick in his head. “You’re supposed to be asleep, not sneaking around,” she said. “I   couldn’t   sleep.   What   are   you   doing   on   my   deck?   You   haven’t   come   down   here in five months.” “Well,   then   I   guess   it   was   about   time.”   Toni   sucked   in   a   deep   breath.   Should   she apologize   for   being   such   a   dork   that   morning?   She   didn’t   like   to   apologize.   It   was   a confession   to   being   wrong.   She   didn’t   like   to   be   wrong.   Especially   hated   rubbing   it in. “Ya know— I really enjoyed last night.” “So did I.” “We’re   gonna   have   to   do   that   more   often.   Once   a   decade   at   least.”   She   winked. Did Kreueigians understand the gesture? “I agree.” “I   had   a   thought.   Kory   Mae.   Search   Earth   video   bank,   “Wookie,   genre:   Science Fiction, late twentieth, twenty-first century, original screen play, first entry.” “Confirmed,” came the calm voice of the ship’s persona. “We’re    gonna    need    some    popcorn.    Kory    Mae,    do    we    have    popcorn    in    the Galley?” “Aye, Captain. Starboard, shelf 4, bin 3.”   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Dystopian Fantasy SCI FI
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
L1060 Accord Chapter One ~ A    cackle   of   laugher   to   her   right   piqued   at her    attempt    to    relax.    After    a    quarter century   in   space,   Toni   was   a   certifiable Spacer.   Her   ears,   used   to   the   slight   buzz of    a    ship’s    electronics    in    the    otherwise soundless    vacuum    of    space,    strained    to adjust   to   the   roar   of   the   planet.   Her   skin vibrated   with   it.   The   far   off   sounds   of   the city   throbbed   like   out-of-sync   anti-gravity drives. Toni    leaned    back    against    the    bench ignoring   the   discomfort   of   its   less-than- perfect   ergonomics,   trying   to   ignore   the shouts          from          the          approaching longshoremen. Eyes   closed,   head   tilted   back   to   catch all   the   warmth   of   the   sun   on   her   face,   the glow     that     made     its     way     through     her eyelids    was    invigorating.    She    couldn’t remember    when    she    last    visited    Earth. Been   too   long.   Good   to   be   back,   good   to feel   a   familiar   sun.   Good   to   steal   away   a few   moments   for   herself,   to   not   think,   to sit in neutral. She   didn’t   make   enough   opportunities to   do   that.   She   had   spent   her   life   tucked inside    the    center    of    ships,    where    there was nothing else to do but think. The    slight    breeze    carried    with    it    the acrid    smell    from    a    spill,    of    mechanical loaders,    dust    that    a    ship’s    bio    system would eliminate, and the scent of the city. Uia   stood   ten   meters   away   supervising the    unload,    but    was    more    involved    in watching   the   movement   up   and   down   the pier.    He    was    entertained    by    what    he called,    “the    vigor    of    movement    humans were capable of.” Uia      neared      his      sleep      cycle.      He displayed   the   mellowness   that   preceded it.   Seven   human-days   of   wakefulness,   he was   ready   to   curl   up   to   hibernate—though he   got   very   indignant   when   Toni   called   it that. Inches   from   Toni,   Molly   lay   quietly   on her     padded     hover,     but     alert     to     the hubbub.            Her            nose            nodded acknowledgment    of    all    the    smells    that teased   her   canine   senses.   Her   floppy   ears waved    comically    as    she    cast    for    every scent. The   ancient   Labrador   had   little   sight or   hearing   left,   but   basked   in   the   banquet of       aromas.       Toni       fidgeted       to       get comfortable    and    sighed,    which    drew    a short   whine   from   Molly,   as   though   to   ask, “Is everything okay?” The    old    dog    struggled    to    sit    up    and snuggle    against    Toni’s    leg,    laying    her head   in   Toni’s   lap   with   that   adoring   look only   dogs   can   offer.   Toni   hugged   the   old girl,    her    face    against    the    nearly    solid- white   muzzle,   and   drew   in   the   bouquet   of the dog’s shampoo. The    longshore    crew    coming    off-shift neared.    Tired    and    prepared    to    blow    off some   steam,   they   made   a   raunchy   racket, higher      in      decibels      than      Toni      was prepared   to   deal   with.   She   tried   to   block out   the   noise.   She   closed   her   eyes,   tilted her   face   away   from   them,   but   the   awful banter    stopped    immediately    in    front    of them. Ignore them, Tegaris. “So   you’re   the   one   who   travels   with   the two filthy mutts.” It   rang   in   her   ears—vibrated   as   though they   were   in   a   cavern.   Two   filthy   mutts. Two   filthy   mutts.    That   was   followed   by more ethnic remarks. Fine.   They   resented   that   she   employed a   Kreueigian.   Was   it   necessary   to   provoke Uia into a fight? Idiots. Fucking morons. Just      because      human      males      were driven        to        protect        their        females, Kreueigian     females     had     never     needed protecting.   Besides,   Uia   was   so   laid   back, he’d    probably    lean    against    Kory    Mae’s   hull     and     document     this     example     of humanity’s poor behavior. Toni    dropped    her    head    deeper    into Molly’s   shoulder   and   willed   them   to   go away. Times   were   hard.   The   ignorant   always need     a     scapegoat.     Uia’s     people     had become    a    prime    target    for    meaningless hatred.    The    media    played    it    up,    over- dramatizing   it   like   any   story   they   used   to draw    marketing    share.    The    bigots    were quick    to    carry    on,    to    shout    about    how Kreueigians   were   taking   all   the   best   jobs, even taking over the Transit Authority. It    didn’t    help    they    appeared    so    odd with   their   short   fur,   forehead   to   toenails, yet too familiar. Toni    groaned    over    the    failure    of    her psychic    power    to    shoo    them    away.    She shook her head in disgust and frustration. The    intensity    and    harshness    of    the words    escalated.    Uia    ignored    them,    or perhaps    they    even    amused    him,    it    was hard   to   tell.   She   hadn’t   learned   how   to read him. The   men’s   rage   peaked.   Molly   whined, cringed   in   panic   against   Toni.   The   men mostly    faced    Uia.    The    main    instigator was   a   tall,   skinny,   scraggy   ass.   Most   of   the insults    were    his.    The    others    followed along,     and     laughed,     or     repeated     his words.   Scraggy   barricaded   himself   in   the center of the crew. What    a    surprise.    But    he    was    Toni’s target. It   was   too   damn   easy   to   underestimate her.    Short    as    a    toad,    a    streak    of    gray across   one   temple,   but   her   hazings   at   the Institute   taught   her   to   be   tough,   and   to learn    how    to    protect    herself.    She    had bloodied many a bully in her life. She   was   in   Scraggy’s   face   before   any   of them     reacted.     The     man’s     protectors turned   out   not   to   be   very   efficient.   They backed     away,     as     though     they     needed more   space   to   think.   Scraggy   swayed,   his eyes    bulged.    Toni    had    to    reach    almost straight   up   to   slam   her   open   hand   against his    throat,    her    fingers    digging    into    the man’s esophagus. His   battle   was   already   lost   but   he   was too      pathetically      stupid      to      know      it. Leaning     away     from     her     put     him     off balance.   It   was   easy   for   Toni   to   kick   the side   of   his   leg   just   so—not   to   rip   tendons or   meniscus,   but   to   take   him   down.   He fell   hard.   A   hissing-gasp   erupted   from   the man’s     chest     as     his     body     struck     the ground.      His      head      bounced      off      the concrete.   The   others   stood   there,   mouths gaping. “Oh,     don’t     kill     another     one!”     Uia shouted,     not     moving     a     muscle.     “Too many    witnesses.    I    disposed    of    the    last one. Not going to do it this time.” Go   figure.   Her   alien   friend   had   a   sense of humor. Even    with    her    remaining    rage,    Toni struggled   not   to   laugh.   To   keep   from   it, she   thought   of   how   the   men   made   Molly shake   in   fear.   That   was   good   enough   to piss her off again. Scraggy’s     friends     turned     away     as though   they   had   never   met   the   man   lying on    the    concourse.    They    didn’t    run,    but they   used   meaningful   strides   to   put   some distance behind them. Uia     laughed.     Toni     couldn’t     keep     a smile   off   her   face.   She   let   go   of   Scraggy and   lifted   her   knee   out   of   the   man’s   chest. His     gasps     grew     higher     in     pitch.     He hurried     to     spit     more     slurs     at     her. Evidently   the   loser   didn’t   learn   a   lesson easily. He   screeched   a   last,   “Bitch,”   through   a badly bruised larynx. That did it. Toni   pummeled   her   fist   into   the   idiot’s nose,   crushing   cartilage,   forever   changing his   face.   His   head   bounced   off   the   walk, his    eyes    fluttered.    Blood    gushed.    Arms reaching   around   her   midsection   lifted   her away.   She   didn’t   fight   it.   Without   looking she knew it would be Uia. She   was   surprised   to   see   a   small   crowd circled    around    them.    But    no    one    acted interested    in    intervening.    Most    scowled and    shook    their    heads    in    disgust.    Toni couldn’t   guess   if   it   was   because   of   her   and Uia,   or   the   ease   with   which   one   of   their own    went    down.    To    a    woman—a    tiny, petite   frog-fart   of   a   woman   at   that.   The onlookers    were    mostly    made    up    of    the crew that had been working Kory Mae . “The   load’s   complete,”   Uia   said   to   her softly, letting her go. As   if   that   was   his   cue,   the   crew   chief stepped   forward   holding   out   a   computer. Toni   slid   her   thumb   across   its   bio   reader, closing    the    contract.    The    chief    nodded, caught her eye before he turned away. She    retrieved    the    remote    for    Molly’s hover    out    of    her    pocket.    “So    you    okay, Molly Molly?” The   dog   wagged   her   tail,   and   settled into    the    hover.    Toni    set    the    remote    to follow-close   and   they   walked   toward   the main terminal. “Isn’t      it      about      time      for      you      to hibernate?” Uia   looked   as   though   he   tried   to   smile. His   nose   twitched.   “I’ve   told   you   I   studied this   hibernation   your   Earth   animals   do, and it isn’t what we do.” “Yeah,   yeah,   yeah.   I   remember   when we      approached      that      undocumented comet    last    month.    Kory    Mae    had    more alarms    going    off    at    130    decibels    than    I knew she had.” “I don’t remember that.” Toni    grinned.    “Exactly.    After    I    made the    course    adjustment    and    went    to    tell you   all   was   well,   you   were   still   curled   up in   a   ball   like   nothing   ever   happened.   You call   it   what   you   want.   In   our   language, sleeping      more      than      ten      hours      is hibernation.” “I’m just a heavy sleeper.” Toni   snorted.   “Yeeeaaah.   Let’s   go   get something to eat.” “I could eat a bite,” Uia said. “I’ve    seen    you    eat     prior    to    a    sleep cycle.   I   would   never   call   it   a   bite.   We’re going downtown for some real food.” © R. Mac Wheeler 2017