I pushed the back door open and plunged onto the patio. Five quick steps carried me across the stamped concrete slab, then I was running. Sprinting for all I was worth. Through the rows of yellow tomato vines and withered bean poles. Past the husks of corn stalks. Speeding over dead leaves on the red sandy path. Brown grass fuzzed the edges of the white rocks separating the garden beds, hemming me in.
My blue bugs kicked into overdrive. Heat washed over my body, warming my muscles. I was in full flight mode. Running not from the fact that my parents had just pimped me out. No, it was worse than that. The fact they felt the need to hook me up with some randy college kid had resurrected my doubts.
I wasn’t smart enough to find a man on my own. I wasn’t lovable. I sucked at life.
Even my accounting job had laid me off.
Now, as a docent for aliens recently arrived on Earth, I’d been sent on administrative leave.
Failure at the first had nearly thrown me on the bread line. Being riffed from the second would net me a tombstone with RIP etched on it.
My legs ate up the distance to the orchard beyond the backyard, to open spaces and freedom. A cat glanced up from her bed of sunlight near the gate. Like raised arms, the two adobe wings of the house protected the garden from the blowing autumnal winds. I swung wide, then zoomed around the corner. A gust snapped at the plastic covering the half-circle shaped greenhouses.
I veered toward the back, secluded entrance. Let my folks think I’d disappeared into the orchards. Dad would know where to find me if I was really needed. His workshop had always been my haven. And no matter how many places we’d moved to, he’d always insisted on a workshop.
Slowing, I approached the back door. Not even winded. The CeeBees could work magic when they wanted.
Too bad they rarely wanted to help me when I asked. Apparently, summoning a man-eating dragon was outside their programming.
A laugh surfed on the breeze. A man’s laugh. One of the perspective mates my parents lined up.
But not Viktor’s. Perhaps, the uber-minion had taken the hint and left. I doubted I’d be that lucky, or that he’d be so accommodating. I jerked open the plastic and plank-framed door and slipped inside. Warm humid air clung to my skin as I stepped inside.
Pickets of cannabis plants interspersed seedlings. Water burbled in the tubes connecting the bins. On the right wall, repurposed soda bottles with stopcocks added nutrients to the hydroponics system. My nose wrinkled at the skunky odor and I caught the scent of citrus and earth metal undertones. Dad grew his special crop for Pops.
Angling left, I passed a wheelbarrow full of cannabis mulch. On a low table, bits of marijuana clung to the weed grinders placed between dispensers of plastic baggies. Buds remained on the older plants. Out of habit, I touched one. Light and soft, but not sticky enough to harvest.
I brushed my fingers on my jeans and headed for the shed halfway down the fifty-foot length. Sheathed in plastic, a legal permit hung on the wooden door. Dad had gone all legit with his growing. Pops must be proud and worried, least he miss out on the top quality weed. Four padlocks secured the slide action bolts. Someone had welded the tops of nails to the hinges so the pins couldn’t be popped.
I smiled. Dad always kept his best blends under lock and key. And, according to Pops, he always made the best blends. Pops was a connoisseur of the wacky weed.
Sidling left, I reached under the apron of the workbench, searching for the key. My blue bugs perked up and cast a net of tingles over me. Guess the spam dots longed for a little solitude, too. Cobwebs clung to my fingers. An insect husk crunched. Where was the key?
A man’s silhouette shifted across the plastic. “Rae?”
Fudge bunnies. Viktor had found me. The jerk. No way would Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino honor my asshole-free space in the workshop. Nor could I lock the shed from the inside.
“I can hear you breathe, obecht.”
Hear this, uber-minion. I flipped him off. Not as satisfying as a shovel to his face. Instead I opted for plan B—escape. The blue bugs silenced my footfalls as I raced for the door. A quick slap of the palm and it popped open, then shushed shut.
Taking the path to the orchard, I started with a lope. Cold air combed through my hair and pierced my clothes. My skin prickled.
“Rae!” Viktor’s shout chased me into the bare peach trees.
I was so not ready to throat punch him. I pumped my arms faster and moved my legs in time. Bobbing and weaving, I avoided a whipping by the branches. Birds twittered as I kicked a few fetid fruits on the ground. Leaves swirled in my wake. I veered right to the open gate in the barbed wire fence, then burst free of the orchard. The temperature dropped as the oaks, red-barked manzanitas, and cypress closed around me.
I raced up the crimson bluff, leaping over a pile of sheep dung at the top. Wooly bodies stood out against the tall Ponderosa pines and red sandstone buttes. Something shook the low-lying shrubs on my right.
No way would I let Viktor catch me.
I pumped faster. My blue bugs poured on the power. I could almost hear the ticking of the bionic soundtrack as I ran. No one could catch me. I veered off the trail and zoomed past the crumbling ruins of Sinagua Indians tucked into a sheer cliff.
Water trickled in the rocky streambed ahead. I could leap it. I knew I could. Digging deep, I leapt from the bank. Nothing but air for me. I was an athlete, sheer poetry in motion. My toe clipped a boulder near the other side and I pitched forward. My ballet turned into a swan dive.
Raising my hands, I planned to stop myself before I ended with a face plant. My palms hit, dug into the pebbly bank. The impact collided with my momentum. My body spasmed, sloshing my brain in my skull. There was no way this was going to end well.
Murphy’s Law fulfilled its promise; my arms collapsed. My face hit the rocks along with the rest of me. No point in checking to see if I had a witness. Only the sheep were around and I doubted they would blaaab, especially if I mentioned how much I like veal chops.
My muscles twitched like a zapped flounder before I rolled onto my side. Warm sunshine bathed me. I would crash soon. The CeeBees used a lot of power to whisk me away from my thoughts. Too bad, they hadn’t scrubbed my brain of the lingering doubts.
What if the auditor found something that made me unsuitable as a WitSec docent?
What if he recommended the UED get rid of me the way Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to get rid of Sarah Connor in The Terminator? I so didn’t want to end up with a red-eyed, silver robot trying to kill me. The clever quips would slay me. My eyes fluttered closed and I rolled onto my back. Rocks really weren’t as uncomfortable as I thought they’d be.
Entering second project phase.
“Huh?” I forced my eyelids up. Had I been found? That didn’t sound like Viktor? Maybe it was the boy-toy my parents had hired. My eyes grew heavy, tried to shut. Gritting my teeth, I forced them open.
Overhead, an eagle soared on an air current. At least, it wasn’t a vulture.
The bushes shook nearby.
“Who’s there?” My voice was as thin as rent silk.
Shutting down subject for initialization.
“Well, damn.” The spam dots were up to something again. And I wasn’t going to pay my swear jar a cent. My eyes sealed tight. Sunlight turned them pink. My muscles relaxed and warmth poured through me. I twitched. Move. Run. Hide.
But the CeeBees kept me horizontal, not vertical.
They’d bogarted my free will.
Something cool and smooth brushed my arm. Darkness trimmed my vision, stuck to my thoughts like chilled marmalade.
Sentinel is active. Shutting down subject in three….two…one.
What was sentinel? Why were the spam dots talking to me again? I stumbled into oblivion and rented space.
I awoke to the sound of crickets. A chill pebbled my skin and rocks bore holes in my back. My stomach gnawed at my spine and I forced my eyes open. Dusk brushed the canyon walls and spilled a rainbow of yellows, purples, oranges, and reds across the sky.
Well, crap. I’d been out for quite a while. Reaching into my pocket, I pinched my phone and pulled it free. Dead. The blue bugs had no doubt siphoned off the energy to keep me moving.
And in the process had stranded me without a junk-food delivery man.
My muscles cramped. I needed food and fast. Spinning back through my memories, I approximated my location. A dirt road snaked along the other side of the ridge. If I could make it there, I’d starve to death before some off-roader ran me down. Which meant, I had to head back to the hacienda and hope I didn’t get distracted by mirages of soda, chips, and beef jerky.
I planted my hands on the rocks and levered up.
The world dipped and twirled in a mad dismount before sticking its landing.
Nausea burned the back of my throat. “If that’s what you mean by second phase, let’s shuffle on to phase three.”
The spam dots could be real pains in the butt when it suited them. I worked my hands out a little wider then braced myself for the great rising.
My fingers brushed plastic.
Frowning, I turned my head. A rock propped up an unopened bag of peanuts. By my hip, a Slim Jim sprouted from the ground as if I’d landed in a dried meat patch. A can of soda rested near my right knee.
Holy crap on a cracker! Could this be real? I flicked the bag of peanuts. They seemed real. I snatched them up before the mirage disappeared and tore open the pouch. Salt and nutty goodness wafted from the interior. Was Dad’s Ganja weed strong enough to cause hallucinations?
Or was this the real phase two the CeeBees initiated?
“I like hamburgers, too.” Nothing. Guess the blue bugs didn’t take orders. I poured some peanuts into my mouth. Two bites later, the food had dissolved without swallowing. The spam dots could be efficient like that. Or else they were starving. I dumped in more food, then reached for the Slim Jim.
That’s when I noticed it.
Food surrounded me like I was a Rae altar or Gulliver and the snacks were Lilliputians. I snabbled up the packages of nuts, jerky, and soda before they threw a rope over me and pinned me in place. I drained the nuts and stuffed the wrapper in my pocket. Liquid refreshment next. I popped the top and grinned at the sizzle and fizz. Cold metal pressed against my lips as I drank. Tilting my head back, I drained the can.
A twig snapped.
My head swiveled around.
Viktor lifted a branch of a Ponderosa pine out of his way. “You aren’t an easy person to find.”
The jerky nearly slipped from my fingers. The food hadn’t been an offering from the spam dots at all. Viktor had brought them. Viktor and his keychain had broken into my car to get out my suitcase and goodie stash. I tore off a bite of jerky. If I wasn’t so hungry, I’d rip him a new one. Instead, I settled for chewing and glaring. Maybe I’d get points for originality. “What do you want?’
“You’re mad. I get that.” A lock of black hair tumbled over his forehead and his blue eyes sparkled behind the ebony curtain. “You’ve read my file. You must know why I couldn’t help you out of the APres Guarda operations center.”
“I haven’t read your file.” Squinting at him, I crushed the can against my forehead. It hurt but I knew the gesture was intimidating. At least, to fourteen year olds. Too bad my audience was older by a decade or two.
“You haven’t?” Viktor’s eyebrows arched.
Good looking guys always thought it was about them. Well, I’d make him a spam dot billboard. “I have a job to learn. I can’t spend time reading up on my enemy.”
Besides the folder had been classified, and my clearance didn’t rank much above a turtle’s butt.
“I’m not your enemy, Rae.”
“Coulda fooled me.” I rolled my shoulders. Sure, he’d been all helpful when I’d first met him. But then he’d slashed my friend and stalked me using a cat, kidnapped me, and put my name on a scrambler bullet. My brain would have to be pear shaped for me to fall for his lines again.
“I should get points for killing Ulla before she tortured you.”
There was that. He’d stormed into the chamber of horrors and scrambled the evil woman into a big, bad human balloon. I could still feel the scrape of the knife against my instep. “Of course, you did stop to write a note before you swooped in.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I wrote that after I left you, made sure you were okay.”
That last bit sounded tacked on. I shoved the rest of the jerky into my mouth before I uttered something stupid.
“I did order someone to release you, didn’t I?” He stepped out of the tree line but stopped on the other side of the creek. Shadows swept over him.
Did he really think I couldn’t leap across and punch him in the jugular? My hand trembled. Well, I really wasn’t in the leaping and punching mood anyway. I poked the jerky wrapper into the can then opened the bag of chips. “But you didn’t tell me how long I had until the building exploded in a fireball of death.”
“I didn’t know.” He shrugged. “Everyone sets their own time.”
And lies about it. The voice of doom had counted down the minutes, but hadn’t mentioned that the bad guys cheated and lied, lopping off thirty seconds at the end.
Thirty seconds was an eternity before things went boom.
“You made it out. And you saved everyone inside.”
I crunched on a chip. Energy crackled across my skin. I was nearly better, almost ready to walk home. My vision shifted, dimmed for a moment. Then everything brightened as if it were high noon. Cool beans. My blue bugs actually had helped without me offering a small sacrifice. “How do you know I helped everyone escape?”
Had he watched from a distance? Would he have run in to save me if he didn’t think I’d make it? I shook the thought from my head. I should be immune to that kind of stupid by now.
“The com lines exploded with the news of it. Video clips played day and night for weeks.”
Goosebumps rippled across my arms. Somehow I think my fifteen minutes of fame played on the south side of Hell.
“They tripled the bounty on you. Nearly unheard of. Thank the Creator, Werner called in a flotilla of UED ships and none of the scum got through the Ort Cloud. It would have been a meteor shower like few on Earth have ever seen.”
Forget flying saucers and other UFOs. Human aliens disguised their craft as plain, ordinary meteors. I will never wish on a falling star again.
“I’ll bet.” I ate by rout no longer tasting the needed salt and oil.
“Now that three months have passed, and they’ve done a bit of damage control, the bounty on your head has been reduced to normal levels. Not enough to tempt anyone to this armpit of the galaxy.”
I fisted the bag, reducing the rest of the chips to crumbs. Why did that bit of good news sound like an insult? “Nothing special about a WitSec docent. Anyone can hack the UED’s computers.”
He elaborated on my fate should I be caught. “Once they have the codes, they’d harvest your CeeBees.”
And kill me in the process. Yep, getting the warm and fuzzies just thinking about it. I stuffed the can inside the empty chip bag, gathered up the rest of my junk-food goodness, and rose. “Nice to be wanted.”
“I want you.”
I nearly tripped over my feet. Don’t nominate yourself for a Darwin Award by nibbling on that line. Viktor leant a hand from a distance; Tobias had been there in the trenches. “You want my CeeBees.”
I needed to tattoo that on my arm. And maybe staple it to my forehead for good measure.
“I want you.” He insisted. His eyes heated with the promise of pleasures untold. “Alive and with your CeeBees still inside.”
That made two of us. Except one of us must be wearing flame-retardant pants because he wasn’t rolling on the ground to put out the fire.
“Yes, I do want to use your connection to the UED. But I need information, proof to clear my name. I don’t want to spend our time together being hunted.” He rocked back on his heels and waited for me to join him. “What can I do to convince you?”
“Leave.” Short, simple. I should win a prize. My footing was sure as I crossed the rocky streambed then headed for the forest.
He rolled his eyes then fell into step beside me. “I can’t leave. Just because the UED prevented new bounty hunters from arriving, doesn’t mean you’re safe. There are plenty around, and you are tempting.”
I rolled my eyes. Seriously, did he think he was going to scare me? “I’m safe here.”
I had no official links to the commune, not on any paper or computer record. The place belonged to Moonbeam Hartsucker. I doubted even my parents forwarded their mail here.
But Dad had a weed-growing permit.
Viktor snorted. “Your name is on the deed to this place. Your name is on the corporate documents and taxes for the Sunshine Ranch. Every bounty hunter will start with the local records to find you.”
I blinked. The forest quieted around us. There was no way my name was associated with the commune, and as for taxes… No, Viktor was making up stuff to scare me. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. Too bad it was working.
“Werner was an idiot for letting you come here. Unless, he plans to use you as bait for someone.”
I clamped my lips together. I had been used as bait before. My stomach growled. Right, feeding time for the CeeBees. I tore open the last pack of nuts with my teeth.
“What if we make a deal.” Viktor reached into his pocket. Not an easy feat as they were tighter than skin.
I’m not ashamed of looking. He was handsome and rocked a body worthy of a porn star. My stomach fluttered. Just a little. Enough to remind me of how dangerous he truly was. “Does this deal involve you leaving?”
“Eventually.” Silver glinted between his fingers. Raising his hand, he dangled a watch fob. It swung back and forth, back and forth. “How about I give you this as a sign of good faith?”
I choked on a peanut, coughed it up, then swallowed it again. This had to be some kind of joke. Inside that fob was enough alien tech to turn a kitten into Rambo. “Why would you do that?”
“To show you that I don’t mean you or your family any harm. And to prove that I’m here to watch over you until Werner recalls you to the safe house. Or…” He slanted her a glance. “Or I convince you to run away with me. I can get a shuttle. I can show you things you never imagined.”
My attention drifted a little lower than his belly button. I have a good imagination, but I bet he’d make good on that last promise. Not that I planned to take him up on it. At least, not all of it. I snatched the key fob from his hand. Stopping, I aimed one point of the triangular piece at him. “What’s to stop me from scrambling your atoms here and now?”
He shifted in front of me then leaned closer and whispered. “For one, it doesn’t have a scrambler.”
I sighed. Of course it doesn’t. I stuffed it into my back pocket.
“And for two,” Viktor stroked my jaw before his thumb swept over my bottom lip. “You like me.”
He dipped his head. Warm breath washed over me.
My eyes fluttered closed. This was wrong in so many ways, and yet…
A scream rent the night. Loud and high-pitched, like a woman’s dying gasp.