“Did you hear me, Rae?”
I heard my boss just fine, but I knew my rights. And I planned to exercise my right to remain silent. Especially when the orders sucked the big red one. Pulling into the spot near the convenience store, I killed the engine of my work car. Air brakes blasted through the truck stop. Mothers hustled little ones across the parking lot, aiming for the restrooms inside. Bored Millennials consulted their phones as they filled up.
“Rae?” Tobias Werner growled through the speakers. He was contrary like that. Take his name, normal people pronounced the ‘w’, but Tobias pronounced it Verner. He liked to be different or difficult as the case may be.
Whereas I craved normalcy with every cell in my body. Even before some ancient alien tech invaded those cells and gave me some really boring abilities, like changing my appearance. Seriously, I could have done that with a bottle of hair dye, contacts, and a little plastic surgery. I hooked my finger around the door handle.
My mouth hung open. He better not say my full name. Only my mother and two dads could use it, and they had to be completely pissed off at the time. God knew they’d been stoned when they conceived and named me. Two references to marijuana on one birth certificate were a little much to bear.
“Tobias—” The word raked my throat.
I smacked the steering wheel. The dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree at Santa’s house. Apps galore. I didn’t know what half of them did and didn’t have access to the other half. Not much help there. Especially when my bosses still squinted at the mention of my name. “You are such a douche.”
Silence, thick and oppressive, rolled out of the speakers and clogged the compact’s interior. The plush leather seats nearly split with the weight of it. Impossible, right? Except, the car was full of alien tech, too. Unlike the Cee-Bees infecting me, the car’s technology was mostly of human origin, except those humans were born on other planets, in other galaxies.
That’s right, ET is a human.
SciFi fans would freak out if they knew. I didn’t believe it at first. Then one killed me, and well, death has a way of convincing even someone as stubborn as I.
Silence drilled my ear drums. Tobias usually grunted when I called him a douche, especially once he learned the definition. Karma may be a bitch on Earth, but for extraterrestrial humans she’s a friggin’ velociraptor having a bad hair day.
I winced, thinking about the price he’d make me pay. Groveling and sniveling might help. “Tobias, I—”
“Nice to know you’re thinking of me between your legs, obecht.”
I blinked. Holy crap. If he hadn’t just called me that annoying endearment in alien-speak, I’d think he was flirting with me. But this was Colonel Tobias Werner, United Earth Defense, my overseer. And I was a lowly human who processed and placed aliens assigned to Earth. Yep, I’m a docent, watching over those in the extraterrestrial witness protection program.
And speaking of aliens, I had one under my watch working in the convenience store before me.
“Gotta go.” I jerked on the door handle.
The locks clamped down, trapping me inside.
“Oh, you are such a jerk!” I yanked twice more. No joy. Blowing hot air out my nose, I slammed against the back rest.
“You are on vacation, not working.”
“I know that.” I stuck my tongue out at him. I can be juvenile when I’m treated like a child. I can also be an adult when the situation called for it. Thankfully that didn’t happen too often.
The screen built into the center of the dash flickered to life. Tobias’s lantern jaw and military buzz cut came into focus. His green eyes twinkled under blond eyebrows. “Just because you can’t see me, doesn’t mean I can’t see you.”
I clamped my lips together. Dang, our resident geek had mentioned something like that amongst all the blah, blah, blah explanations. “Stalker.”
Tobias shrugged. “Perks of the job. You’re too important to lose.”
Snorting, I wrapped my hands around the steering wheel. “Right. That’s why I’m on administrative leave.”
“You’re on vacation.” The corner of his mouth tilted up. “You’re going home for Thanksgiving like millions of Americans.”
A BMW screeched to a halt in the spot next to mine. A woman in a black power suit and red pumps leapt out and slammed the door. Gym-toned arms gestured obscenely to her passenger loosening his blue tie. Nothing like the tenth level of Hell reserved for family reunions during the holidays.
“Not because I want to.” I loved my mother and two dads, really. Especially when they’re in Northern Arizona and I’m a hundred miles away in Phoenix. “I saved the world by prevented the US government from discovering aliens among us. Singlehandedly prevented them from making a deal with the bad humans and enslaving us all. And what do I get? Banished to the boonies.”
Or the unincorporated parts of Sedona, Arizona. Same difference.
“Surely, that ranks a cruise to the Bahamas or a week in Maui.” I wasn’t picky.
“You’re safer there.” Tobias cocked an eyebrow. Just one. The showoff. “We haven’t rounded up all the traitors within UED. Hell, we haven’t even discovered the extent of the corruption. Every time one traitor is debriefed, we uncover two more working for the APres Guarda.”
I rolled my eyes. I hadn’t nibbled on that line when he first presented it. I wasn’t likely to bite now. “There’s no place on Earth better to hide than an UED safe house. That’s why the word safe is in the description.”
“I don’t want you here when the auditor arrives.” Tobias frowned. “The court requested further provenance of the intelligence you revealed. It needs to stand or fail on its own merits.”
“Without introducing the Earth-born human into the mix.” The four ET civilizations had one thing in common. Well, one if you discounted the fact that they all considered Earth and its inhabitants their personal property. Every alien human considered those born on Earth inferior. Guess my ancestors were still swimming in the gene pool when theirs hitched a ride off this rock.
“I managed to erase all records that you talked to your Cerebral Bots.”
Which was his way of saying he’d wiped drool off a crazy woman’s chin. Me being the crazy woman. “Hey, I will never again report the blue bugs interacting with me. Besides, I was dead at the time. I think that should get me some slack.”
“Or discredit everything.”
There was always another option. Life sometimes sucked like that. I tried the door handle again. “Thanks for beaming a big ray of sunshine into my life. Now, can I get out?”
I adjusted the rearview mirror.
A gust of wind streamed through the gas station. Paper cups and plastic wrappers skated along the blood red asphalt. A woman in yoga pants shivered in her hoodie. Gray clouds swept across the horizon and wrapped around the rusty stone buttes dotted with green shrubs.
No chance I could say I needed to fill up. The car ran on unicorn farts or other scientific mumbo jumbo. Nope, my escape required a little finesse. “I have to pee.”
Tobias’s green eyes narrowed. “You should have used the facilities a mile back.”
Whoa, he was a serious stalker.
“How did you—”
I glared at the purple cell standing in my cup holder, then flicked it. Traitor. Not only was it stuffed with alien technology, the thing was one icon away from world domination. Yet, it still didn’t know when to stop relaying information. I’d have the cell integrate a loyalty subroutine later. “I’m going to start calling you a dumb phone.”
An icon of a muffin popped up. A text. No doubt from my mother. My finger hovered over the message before I slid the cell into my pocket. I’d be there soon enough. “This gas station has cleaner bathrooms. Do you want me to pick up some nasty bug from a dirty toilet?”
“Your CeeBees won’t allow you to become infected.” He smirked.
The spam dots never ran out of ways to muck up my life. I jiggled the handle again and squirmed for good measure. “Release me. Now.”
Maybe a click of my teeth would convince him it was a true emergency.
“Go to another gas station. One without a WitSec participant.”
“I’ll pee my pants before I get there.” I wasn’t proud, especially if I got my way. Besides, I would use the facilities. My parents lived in a commune where rustic was chic. Outhouses lost their appeal a century ago.
“Then leave now and you’ll be there in five minutes.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. The man could be as immovable as a mountain.
“You leave me no choice.” I tugged out my cell phone. Hooking my fingers on the handle, I pressed the power button, indicating an emergency situation. “Unlock the doors, spam dots.”
Tobias swore. “Rae—”
“You owe the swear jar money. Six dollars.” The locks popped. I pulled on the handle and pushed against the door. It sprang open. “Ha!”
“You abuse that privilege again, and I’ll disable it.” Tobias’s image jumped from the car screen to my phone.
“Bite me.” Scrambling out of the vehicle, I tossed the phone on the warm seat. “I’m on vacation.”
I bumped the door closed with my hip and raced across the walk. Pine scented the crisp November air for a second before the stench of diesel overpowered it. The glass door opened as I approached.
Ms. Powersuit in scarlet heels slurped on a gallon-sized coffee as she clomped out.
I nodded to her and slipped inside before the door closed.
Travelers swarmed the aisles. College kids crowded the frosted beer cases. Snapping gum, two teens took selfies near the cardboard cutout from the latest superhero movies. Moms streamed toward the restrooms in the back, kids in tow. Dads stocked up on sodas, candy, and chips for the next leg of the journey.
Good idea. I grabbed a red plastic basket and headed for the salt and sugar aisle. Even without my blue parasites siphoning off my energy, I would be starving after two days of healthy eating.
And there was still the tofu turkey to look forward to at Thanksgiving.
I shuddered and emptied the Slim Jim carton into my basket. Nuts, jerky in all its dried meaty goodness, and trail mixes piled on top. Two boxes of Ding-Dongs for Dad came next, then chips of all varieties mushroomed out of the top. I patted the yellow Funyuns bag and headed toward the soda.
A flash of blue hair shifted in my peripheral vision.
Sherbet. I’d nearly forgotten to check on my charge. Angling around a woman studying her phone more than the sunflower seed varieties, I headed toward Disa Fornak.
Robin’s-egg blue hair topped her round face. Her black and red uniform undulated with the rolls of her belly and flapped with the extra skin on her arms. Swishing the dingy mop across the tile floor, she cleaned up the mound of red slush. She looked like a frumpy middle-aged woman, not a scaly alien built like a fire hydrant and able to eviscerate a person with one swipe of her fins. Perfect.
I cleared my throat.
Humming off beat, she dunked the mop into the yellow bucket and swished it around.
Without looking up, Disa shifted the bucket to the side. “Mind your step.”
“Can you tell me if you carry soda? Grape soda?”
She sighed and looked up. Wrinkles of annoyance flattened into shock. “Rae?”
“In the flesh.” I smiled.
“Well, I’ll be.” Releasing the mop, she allowed the fiberglass handle to clunk against the laminate counter. “Sean. Sean, come finish this. I’m going on my break.”
“Sure thing, Missus F.” An acne-speckled teen chucked an empty straw box into the garbage then hustled over. He glanced at me and blushed bright red.
“Thank you, young man.” Crooking a finger, Disa gestured for me to follow her. Her skid-resistant shoes squeaked on the wet tiles as she headed toward the employee-only area. Black bubble cameras tracked me in the store.
Knowing Tobias, he’d hacked the store’s security system and watched. I kept my attention on Disa’s back.
The middle-aged woman scuttled around crates of beer waiting to be stocked and pushed open a steel door. Hinges creaked. A laminate work area formed a u-shape in the closet-sized space. Metal upper cabinets striped the wall opposite the door. A safe was tucked in the corner. The chipped white desk shone. Bleach overrode the scent of corn chips.
Disa lowered herself onto the new black rollie chair behind the desk.
Setting my basket of goodies on the floor, I relaxed into the scooped back of the blue plastic chair in front. “How’s the job treating you?”
“I’m manager now, which is far easier than being president of our homeowner’s association back in the Valley. Humans can be so stupid.” Disa lined the pen up with the pink note pad near the landline. “I’m surprised to see you. With that big dust up, I was told all UED contact with protectees would be suspended until further notice.”
I shifted in my seat. Busted. I’d forgotten what a stickler for rules Disa could be. “Well, I’m not here officially, just stopping in on my way to spend Thanksgiving with my parents.”
She turned her face away from the camera above the door and smoothed her human skin over her cheek. “I heard you were suspended for exposing some shenanigans among the elite. I come from a water planet, no one likes it when you make waves. Especially those high up on the food chain.”
Grux was a swamp world. One the bad human ETs had tricked the natives into giving up. I may hate all things SciFi, but I had to know some space stuff to place my protectees.
“The UED is sending someone to audit the data and verify its authenticity. I’m not under investigation.” That little factoid should be perfectly clear. So should something else. “Besides we knew each other before my…” I swallowed the word infected. “Before my recruitment by the blue bugs, so our relationship is grandfathered in.”
Yeah, I could sling codswollop with the best of them.
Disa grunted. “I do appreciate the private pool. There’s nothing like bathing au naturelle.”
Ew. I didn’t need the image of her scaly body bobbing on the water. Gruxians resembled bloated sea cucumbers, only less attractive. “I’m glad you like your new house. Given your love of water, I thought you’d prefer that to another condo.”
“And I did save your life.”
“Yes, you did. And Tobias’s, too.” I added for the benefit of the camera. If Disa hadn’t taken a shovel to the bad human kidnapping me, my boss would have been arrested by Phoenix PD. I owed her.
“Any more encounters with that APres Guarda scum?” She tugged open a drawer and removed a tube of lotion. “I keep a shovel out back.”
“Viktor has made himself pretty scarce.” Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino hadn’t even checked in on me after he left me strapped to a torture table in a building about to blow up. I was beginning to think he didn’t care.
“Viktor, huh?” Disa squirted a palm full of lotion then rubbed it on her skin. The cloying scent of roses swirled in the warm air streaming from the vents. “I thought the Fourth great human civilization numbered their minions, not named them.”
I shrugged. The APres Guarda did number their slaves, so Viktor must be something else. What he was exactly, I didn’t know. Especially since the blue bugs had no information on him.
The black landline rang, and the red button flickered to life.
Leaning forward, Disa frowned at the number displayed. “Looks like a UED number.”
Tobias. No doubt, checking on me. Turning to the camera, I scratched my eyebrow with my middle finger. “I’ll let you take that.”
I picked up my basket of goodies as I stood.
Rising, Disa ran her hand over her stubby blue hair. “There is one thing….”
“With the shake-up in the UED and then the notifications that we’ll be in the wind, lots of witnesses are scared. Some are finding new burrows to call home.”
I clamped my lips together. I’d ignored the directive myself. I wanted my protectees to feel safe and help them assimilate into American culture. Obviously others didn’t have the same work ethic. Then again, I had a tiny problem with authority. “We’ll find them, sort them out, once this investigation is over. They won’t get into any trouble.”
“It’s not that.” Disa smoothed her shirt over her stomach rolls. “My friend said he planned to stay put, like me. But I haven’t heard from him in two days. He hasn’t been over to use the pool either.”
“I see.” I tossed my weight from foot to foot. The last thing I wanted was to play matchmaker for two scaly aliens.
“Do you think you could check on him? Unofficially official?” Disa licked her lips. “He lives two houses west of me, on the same side of the street.”
“Sure. I could get lost looking for your house and knock on his door.” Folks told me to get lost often, and being that I was visiting my folks, I might enjoy it. “What’s his name?”
“Thorun Smith.” Disa’s shoulders relaxed and a soft smile curled her lips.
I resisted an eye roll. Thorun Smith. What kind of name was that? Obviously made up by some docent who did a half-assed job and followed protocols to the letter when building a protectee’s backstory. “I’ll check on him tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Rae.” Disa ushered me out of the office, down the short hall, and to a register. “It is good to see you.”
She rang up my survival goodies then bagged them.
I gasped at the total. I’d been an accountant in a former life and that was a large number despite being gainfully employed. Holding my breath, I swiped my card. Would Tobias interfere with my card for disobeying him? The amount was approved and I grabbed my bags. “See you around.”
Disa nodded then waved to the next in line.
Exiting, I stashed my goodies in the trunk. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and I scanned the gas station.
A trucker exited his semi and tugged his jeans over his gut. A fresh-faced girl rolled out behind him and hitched her backpack on her thin shoulder. A man in shades filled the tank of his black SUV. A woman shouted through the window of her minivan to the kids in the back seats. A convertible pulled onto State Route 89. Nothing suspicious. Must be my electronic stalker.
The door to my car opened with a touch of my hand. Resting on my seat, my phone was dark. I shifted it to the cup holder and started the ignition. The display on the dash remained off. Was Tobias pouting or plotting revenge? Syncing my phone with the radio, I cranked up the vintage folk music and headed home.
After ten minutes of bumping down a rutted road, red dust forming a plume behind me, I turned into the drive of the commune. The cattle guard grated against my tires and a post threatened my side-view mirror.
Silk black-eyed Susans wreathed a sign that proclaimed all are welcome. Stunted evergreens shielded the fallow garden on the right from the wind. Picnic tables clustered in neat rows on the gravel under bare-branched birch and elms. An old-timer with a gray braid snaking down his back raked leaves into a beat-up wheelbarrow. Near the garden, a wizened woman turned the compost in the wooden bin. Two young men played basketball on the half court.
The commune had gained some young blood.
Coasting past the red barn, I turned right before reaching the bunkhouses, a holdover from when the commune used to be a working ranch. A young woman with dreadlocks breast fed her infant in the rocker by the door. Passing the orchard, yellow leaves waved from the fallow apple and peach trees. Gravel pelted the undercarriage as I rounded the corner.
The hacienda waited in bridal white and a red tiled roof. A cat dozed on the Saltillo tiles covering the porch while a pigeon roosted on the large vigas holding up the roof. The front door banged open.
Mom glided across the porch. Paint stained her blue smock and she held a red tipped brush in her hand. Pops shuffled out behind her. His untucked plaid shirt flapped around his skinny frame.
It had been a year since I’d seen them, yet they still looked the same. Maybe they slept in plasticware. A smile curled my lips as I coasted to a stop near the Bougainvillea then shut off the engine. The hood ticked as the warm metal cooled.
Climbing out, I scanned the rest of the area. Two half-circle greenhouses filled the space that used to belong to a pool and tennis court.
The door on one banged open.
Dad strode out, thick arms open for a bear hug.
I stepped toward him then skidded on gravel.
Dad wasn’t alone.
A man with eyes as blue as sapphires, bed tossled jet hair, and a smile full of sin walked beside him. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino paused for a moment then winked. “Obecht.”
My heart stopped in my chest. Blue bugs swarmed into battle mode. “Viktor Konstantine.”
The man who’d left me for dead.