CHAPTER 1: Not in Kansas Anymore
"Ow." Dylan Engstrom opened his eyes and found himself on a hard metal surface. "What … the hell?"
The last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, and preparing to join his buddies for a few hours of mayhem in Grand Theft Auto Online. At some point after that, everything had simply … faded out.
I'm dreaming. That's gotta be it.
He rolled over, stood, and fought off a wave of dizziness. He staggered, rubbed his hands over his face, took a few breaths, and waited for his vision to clear. When it did, he took a slow look around and realized he was in a chamber the size of a gymnasium, with metal walls, ceiling, and floor. No windows. Several doors at the far end. And filled with … aliens? Or something.
Sure, why the hell not? Since this is a dream, I might as well just roll with it.
One a few feet to his left looked like a bipedal, wingless dragon, easily ten feet tall, with muscular arms and powerful thighs and small but noticeable breasts under a tunic that appeared to be made from the skin of an animal. She glanced around quickly, confusion and fear in her reptilian eyes, and he guessed she had also awakened moments ago.
Huh. Doesn't make sense for reptiles to have boobs. But then, I guess an alien wouldn't have an exact correlation to life forms on Earth. He chuckled. More likely it's teenage hormones causing me to dream about tits. I can barely stop thinking about 'em when I'm awake.
Past the dragon was what appeared to be an orc, of all things. Also female, dressed in leather and furs, like a barbarian, sporting huge muscles but somehow managing to still look feminine. Her burgundy hair was tied into a long ponytail with a few locks hanging past either side of her face. Her dark green skin looked kind of leathery, and her face … well, she certainly wouldn't have won any beauty contests even without the two big, parallel scars running from her forehead down and across her right cheek.
Still, there was something about her -- the angles of her cheeks and her wide jaw and chin -- that exuded an air of great strength. But then, he gazed into her yellow eyes as she glanced around. She appeared to be in her forties, but there was far more mileage in those eyes than on her face. They were the eyes of someone who had all but given up on life.
He looked away reluctantly. She may have been as ugly as hell, but goddamn, what a body. He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and decided to check out some of the other life forms. His eyes passed over a large number of creatures he couldn't quite get his brain around -- translucent things walking on tentacles, something that resembled a millipede the size of a horse, an eight-foot-tall cross between a pig and an ogre -- and locked on to another female.
He almost laughed at that. Mind always in the gutter, even now.
This one was around six feet tall and might be described as somewhere between chubby and burly. Her eyes glowed white in contrast to her obsidian skin, but aside from that, her face was mostly human. And quite lovely, in fact. A pair of horns curved up from under her wild mane of silver hair, like a ram. She wore a dark blue cloak with a hood hanging over her back, and from what he was able to glimpse, she didn't appear to be wearing anything under it. Each hand had two big fingers and a thumb, just like the orc and the dragon-woman, and her digitigrade legs ended in large hooves.
Not bad at all. He guessed her age to be close to his, or maybe a few years older, and the extra weight was perfectly proportioned.
Huh. Usually, my dreams aren't this detailed. But there's no way this can be real. I'm probably slumped over my desk and drooling on my keyboard. He shrugged to himself again. I just hope I remember all this when I wake up.
His eyes opened a little wider as a realization hit him and he drew in a quick breath.
Shit, I hope I wasn't looking at porn when I fell asleep. If Mom or Dad barges into my room like they always do, I'm hosed.
The alien girl caught him staring at her and smiled, but it was shaky and faded fast.
Well, I can't do anything about it until I wake up. Might as well just see where this goes.
He smiled back before she turned away, and continued examining the people around him. Over to the right was a trio of bipedal creatures that looked like a cross between horses and cows wearing some sort of tribal attire.
Huh. More aliens that kinda-sorta resemble terrestrial animals. How would that even happen?
Past them was a quartet of thirty-foot-long snake people with four arms, wearing only skirts made of glowing multicolored beads roughly where the naughty bits on a human would be.
Dylan's eyes, once again, automatically locked onto the lone female in the group. Her skin was dark brown with a red and black diamond pattern running down her back. Her hands, like the orc and the chunky hooved girl and the rest, had three digits, only hers ended in claws. The top of her head swept back into a curving, three-pointed crest. Her bare chest sported two pairs of breasts. Her face was close enough to human, though covered with scales, and she was actually kind of cute.
Hah. I can't dream about a human with four tits, of course. It's got to be some weird creature. And why would an alien based on a snake have any at all? He realized he was staring and turned away. Again, though, she's an alien, so I guess there's no reason she can't be a mix of mammal and snake. What the hell, you can't go wrong with four of 'em.
He grinned and glanced around again, trying to find other humans. If any were in this chamber, they weren't close enough for him to pick out of the crowd. But his gaze did pass across something that was close enough, at least in size and shape.
The robot stood with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wall behind him, about ten feet away. She had apparently been designed to look like an athletic woman, with a face of flexible metal carrying a friendly -- albeit bewildered -- expression and softly glowing red optics. Her gunmetal body was covered by a pair of cargo pants, boots, a T-shirt, and a long black coat.
Interesting. He wondered if she was anatomically correct.
Before he could check out anyone else, something nudged his shoulder. He turned and found a nine-foot humanoid wearing copper armor and a helmet with an opaque visor. It grasped his shoulder, pointed at one of the doors at the far end of the chamber, and pushed him toward it. He stumbled, regained his balance, and hurried ahead of the whatever-it-was.
In the corner of his eye, another hulking armored figure shoved the orc woman in the same direction. She snarled half-heartedly but headed for the door. She ended up walking alongside Dylan.
"I don't suppose you have any idea how we ended up here or what's going on?" He doubted she would even understand him.
"Nope. I was hoping someone around here could tell me that." Her accent was an odd mixture of Russian and Scottish.
"You speak English. You've met humans before?"
"A fair number of them, yes." She smiled at him, but it was tinged with sadness. "You remind me of one of them, a little. Someone I knew long ago."
"Ah. Decent guy, I hope."
"The best." Her smile grew ever so slightly, and so did the sorrow. "I miss him a great deal."
Dylan wondered what had happened but assumed it was a sensitive matter and didn't pry.
When they reached the door, she sighed and motioned at her clothes. "The one time I put on this old outfit instead of what I usually wear, which includes several guns, and look where I end up. Though I suppose any weapons would've been taken away before I woke up."
The nine-foot goons shoved both of them through the door and onto a large platform. He stumbled and the orc reached out to catch him before he fell. He regained his balance and found himself inches away from her face for a moment, gazing into her eyes, until she looked away and steadied herself. Her face turned a slightly darker green.
Huh. The goon's hand had felt solid enough. And the woman's breath briefly on his lips had been just as real as the three times in his life that he'd gotten this close to a girl. Dylan caught himself blushing and looked away.
He glanced around and noted the others who'd been separated from the main group -- the snake-girl, the three horse-cow people, the burly obsidian girl, the giant bipedal dragon, the robot chick, and about a dozen others. Two of them were human.
Finally! He grinned, but before he could greet them, something else caught his attention.
The goons who'd herded them onto the platform remained behind as the door closed, separating them from Dylan and the others. A bright light washed over everything and his whole body tingled.
Oh, this can't be good.
The light faded and he blinked a few times. His vision cleared and he looked around.
His mouth fell open.
He no longer stood in a room. He and the others were still on a platform, but now it was surrounded by an enormous metal structure made up of sets of stairs, ramps, platforms, and partial walls seemingly placed at random. If he had to give the architecture style a name, it would be … scaffold-chic.
"What the hell is this?" One of the other humans whimpered. "What's going on?"
"Sorcery," a woman's voice came from behind Dylan, barely above a whisper. He turned to find the obsidian-skinned girl glancing around with wide, terrified eyes and trembling.
"No." The orc shook her head. "I've seen enough to know there's no such thing. This is technology, but nothing I'm familiar with."
In the corner of his eye, the snake girl slithered past, put her upper hands on a nearby wall, pulled herself up and leaned over the edge.
"Look at this." Her voice was slightly raspy.
Uh-oh. Dylan walked slowly to the wall, jumped to grasp the top, and pulled himself up.
One of the other humans found a lower wall, leaned over, and drew in a slow breath. "Oh, hell." Her face turned pale.
Dylan glanced at her, frowned, and peered over the edge.
We're in the sky. He couldn't see the ground from here. Below the structure, there was nothing but a sea of red and orange clouds. And off to the right, he could make out two distinct suns, one larger -- closer -- than the other.
Then he realized the metal under his palms felt quite real for something in a dream. In fact, everything around him was as vivid and detailed as everyday life. His dreams were never even remotely like this, at least not the bits he could remember.
What if this is real?
"Oh, fuck me," he muttered.
"Now?" the snake girl said. "Or can it wait?"
"What?" He turned and caught a glimpse of her smirking at him before lowering herself back to the ground. He shook his head and dropped back to the floor.
"This is not a good tactical position," the orc said, flicking her eyes over the structure. "We're out in the open. We should move to an area that's less exposed to …"
Movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. Hers, too. She snapped her head around to scowl in the same direction before he finished turning. More of the armored, helmeted, blank-visored guys appeared from behind several walls on the far side of the structure. She swept her steely gaze over them and backed up a step. "Find cover."
Dylan squinted, trying to get a clear look at the things the copper-armored goons were carrying.
"They have rifles," the orc said. "Get behind something."
A thin, yellow bolt of energy lanced out from the business end of one of the weapons and crossed the distance between the two groups in an instant.
Behind Dylan, a woman screamed. His pulse jumped and he cried out as he spun around. The human woman staggered backward, bumped into the wall, and collapsed. Her eyes stared straight ahead without seeing anything. Smoke rose from a hole that had been burned through her chest.
"Sarah!" The man rushed to her and fell to his knees. He stared disbelievingly at her, grasped her shoulders, and shook her. "Get up! Come on, baby, please get up!"
A hand grabbed Dylan's arm and he spun around to find the orc woman dragging him away.
"Get to cover!" She shoved him ahead of her just as another beam appeared for a split-second and drilled through the back of the other human's head.
A silvery thing about the size and shape of a hockey puck landed behind Dylan and bounced past him before coming to a stop.
"Grenade!" The orc pushed him again, drew in a deep breath, and yelled, "Run!"
The explosion flung bodies into the air and sent others tumbling across the ground -- more than Grishnag had time to count. She shoved the young human ahead of her and ran until both of them reached a wall. She ducked behind it, grasped his shoulder, and held him down. She turned to see if anyone else had survived the blast and found four bodies bleeding all over the metal surface and another -- one of the equine-bovine people -- teetering over the edge of the platform.
"Jesus Christ," the human moaned, hunching over and tucking his head under his arms. "This can't be happening!"
The snake-woman zipped over to the horse-man just as he rolled over the edge. She dived at him and missed his left ankle by a centimeter. She stared in shock as he plummeted out of sight.
One of the armored attackers appeared, crept up behind her, and aimed its rifle at the back of her head.
Grishnag glanced at the human and said, "Stay here." Remaining in a crouch, she moved one step forward -- and suddenly the robot blurred out from behind one of the other walls and tackled the larger humanoid from behind. Her momentum carried both of them into the wall and slammed the enemy into it with bone-crushing force. She drove her foot into its left knee, folding its leg the wrong way, and clamped her arms around its head as it fell. One quick twist snapped its neck, and she snatched the huge rifle out of the air before the body hit the ground.
The robot opened fire on the armored figures. Grishnag risked a quick peek around the corner just in time to see one of them catch a shot clean through the visor and out the back of the helmet. The others ran for whatever cover they could find.
Nice! Grishnag waited until all of them had ducked behind something, and then she glanced at the robot and said, "Cover me!" She sprinted over to the fallen humanoid while the robot continued firing.
In the corner of her eye, one of them swung its rifle around toward her as she picked up the dead one's weapon. She leaped and rolled, and the shot drilled through the space she'd already vacated. She came up in a crouch and put five shots through her opponent's chest. It slumped over and she lunged forward to grab its rifle, and then she ran back to the human.
He was where she'd left him, curled into a fetal position and rocking back and forth.
Okay, giving him the gun wouldn't be a good idea. She glanced around, found the snake girl, and tossed the gun to her. "Do you know how to use that?"
"I can figure it out." She pointed the rifle away from everyone and pulled the trigger, firing a blast into the floor. She squeaked and twitched, pulled herself together, and rose above the wall to fire at their attackers.
Grishnag took a quick look around for more survivors and found only a horse-woman, the burly woman, and the giant humanoid dragon.
"What is happening to us?" The obsidian-skinned female whimpered, huddled against the wall behind the human. "Why is this happening?"
Grishnag noticed the girl's mouth movements didn't match the words she spoke. Something is translating her speech. What the hell is going on?
"We can worry about that later if we survive the next few minutes." Grishnag popped out from behind cover long enough to shoot another of their attackers.
An enemy shot punched through the wall and searing heat on her right cheek made her lunge to her left.
"I want to wake up," the human moaned. "Why can't I wake up?"
"This isn't a dream." Grishnag gunned down another one. Before she could duck back under cover, a movement caught her eye. She turned and found another grenade spinning through the air toward her. She sucked in a breath to shout a warning to everyone else, but suddenly a beam struck the disc-shaped device in midair. It vanished in a flash and an expanding cloud of shrapnel. Grishnag glanced to the left and found the robot shifting her aim from the blown grenade to another pair of attackers.
Grishnag sighed and looked up at the platforms above them. "We'll be better off if we can get to higher ground. We need to …"
Behind the dragon, another of the armored men stepped into the open and lobbed a grenade. It arched over everyone's head and came down straight toward her. The human looked up, spotted it, and his face turned white.
Grishnag rose to her feet as the grenade reached her, caught it in her right hand, and hurled it straight back to the enemy humanoid. It threw itself to the right but wasn't fast enough. Grishnag turned away from the sudden flash and winced at the sharp bang, but laughed when she saw the body flopping off the edge of the platform.
She only had a moment to celebrate, though. Another humanoid hopped over the top of the wall they'd been using as cover and dropped down in front of the dragon. It raised its rifle, but the dragon swatted it aside, braced her hand on the side of his head, and shoved it into the wall with enough force to leave a dent. The gun fell from its suddenly limp hand.
"Hold on." Grishnag hurried over and searched the pouches and compartments on the body's belt. She found three stubby cylinders she guessed were spare power cells for the guns and a rectangular box that might be a communication device or a control system. After finding nothing else on him, she nodded at the edge of the platform.
The dragon flashed a predatory grin and gave the body a casual toss, sending it plunging through the fiery clouds under the structure. She looked the gun over, glanced at Grishnag, and mimicked her pose, holding the rifle in one hand and propping it on her shoulder.
Grishnag found the rest of the survivors gathering behind her. The robot pointed ahead before popping off a few more shots.
"Clear the road. I'll cover our rear."
Grishnag took the lead and made her way to the nearest ramp. She rounded a corner -- and caught a split-second glimpse at the stock of a rifle before it rammed into the side of her head. When she regained her senses, she found the business end of the rifle inches from her face. She tried to ignore the pain lancing through her head and shifted her eyes from the rifle to the humanoid pointing it at her.
A brown blur came in from the right and plowed into the figure, knocking it off its feet and sending the rifle clattering across the floor. Grishnag pushed herself upright and found the snake-girl coiling her body around the enemy. The serpentoid rolled, twisted, and wrenched her body to the right, flinging the humanoid across the floor to the edge of the platform.
As it tumbled over the edge, it lashed out and clamped onto the end of her tail, dragging her along with it as it fell. All four arms flailed, her claws scraping across the metal, trying to find a handhold.
The human leaped after her and managed to grab her upper-left hand, but the combined weight of her and the goon dragged both of them closer to the edge.
The dragon clamped her talons around the human's right ankle, and that was enough to hold them in place.
The snake grunted and contorted her face, and from her movements, Grishnag guessed she was swinging her tail around, trying to dislodge the enemy.
"Pull her back up." Grishnag picked up her rifle and glancing around for more of their attackers. "One of us will be able to pick it off as soon as it reappears."
"Wait," the snake grunted. She took the human's other hand to hold herself steady, gave her tail another swing, then another, and Grishnag saw the enemy appear momentarily before gravity pulled it back down.
One more swing hurled it into full view -- and a rapid series of bolts from the robot's gun drilled through its head. It loosened its grip on the snake girl's tail. Grishnag and the dragon blasted it several more times before it dropped out of sight for the last time.
The human pulled her away from the edge. When she was no longer dangling above the clouds, she threw all four arms around him and just held him for a moment. He looked startled, but recovered after a few seconds and put his arms around her.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
"Uh … sure, any time."
"Let's keep moving." Grishnag rubbed the side of her head, winced at the pain, and made sure to keep checking in every direction as she resumed the lead. Everyone followed her up the ramp to the next platform, and then on past two more. The next ramp led to a long, narrow level with waist-high walls. She lowered herself to her left hand and her knees, holding the gun in her right hand, and crawled forward, keeping her body below the top of the wall.
The others followed, crawling along close behind her.
Once she reached the end, she found herself in a larger chamber. Fortunately, this one had a solid wall between them and the attackers' last known position. Everyone stood and rushed across to the door and the huge window at the far end. They paused to look out the window before moving on to the door.
"What is that?" the girl with the glowing eyes whispered.
"Looks like a city," the human muttered.
Grishnag nodded. In front of her sat several kilometers of metal buildings, domes, and spires colored in varying shades of gray with streaks and splotches of brown all over. She cocked her head. Is that rust?
"A … city?" The horse-cow woman shook her head in disbelief.
"Like a village, but larger." Grishnag pointed at the nearest structures. "Those buildings are basically … tents? Huts? I've never met any of your people before, so I don't know what you're familiar with." She shrugged. "People live in some of those, work in others. Theoretically, at least."
"Ah. I think I understand."
"Maybe there's someone here who will help us out." The human glanced around at the others.
"I doubt it," the dragon said. "Would they have brought us within reach of someone willing to help us?"
"I … I guess not." He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "So what do we do, now?"
"Most cities have vehicles in them. There's probably something there we can use." Grishnag patted his shoulder and smiled. "So, we keep going until we find a way out." She opened the door. "Let's move."
CHAPTER 2: Waking Up Dead
"So," the male said after they'd been traveling through the city streets for a while, "we've faced death together, but we don't even know each other's names."
The muscular green woman chuckled. "I'm Grishnag."
"Pleased to meet you, Dylan."
"And I'm Nishara." She slithered closer to him, smiled, put her upper hands on his shoulders, and touched her forehead briefly to his.
"Uh, hi." He smiled but clearly wasn't sure what else to say or do.
The tall reptile woman bowed, first to him, then to the rest. "Ayastal."
"I am Zilaka," the furry one with hooves, muzzle, and horns said.
"My name's Cora," the machine-woman said, turning to keep watch for more of the helmeted people.
"Syala," the thick one with glowing eyes and hooves murmured.
"Okay." Grishnag stopped at the next street corner and glanced around. "We haven't seen anyone else here. This part of the city appears empty." She sighed. "I hope the rest isn't empty as well."
"The buildings are rusting away." Cora stopped at a wall and looked it over, but was careful not to touch anything. "Looks like it hasn't been occupied in a long time."
"Probably just used for training exercises or something like that," Grishnag said. "Or whatever it is they're doing with us."
"I don't suppose any of you have seen a place like this before?" Dylan mumbled.
Everyone shook their heads.
"I've seen metal buildings before," Ayastal said, "but none like these. When I was a child, there was a settlement of 'sky-people' not far from where my tribe lived. Buildings made of metal, but the …" She took a moment to find the right word. "The shapes were different."
"You're familiar with other worlds, then?"
"No. My people are aware of those who came from the sky, but none of us have been there. Well, until now. When I was a child, I would often sneak away from home and spend most of the day simply watching their flying machines." Ayastal smiled. "I've always wanted to ride one of those machines into the sky."
"Well, you may get your chance yet," Grishnag said as they continued on their way. "If we can find our way out of here."
"Maybe if we investigate some of the buildings," Dylan said. "If there's a computer in one of 'em that's hooked up to the inter -- uh, a global network, if this planet has one, we might be able to find a map."
"I haven't detected any wireless networks." Cora shook her head. "I'm not picking up any power sources, either."
"Damn. We should keep moving, then." Grishnag sighed and walked on.
The rest followed her, glancing around every few seconds to be sure no one was pursuing them. Nishara wasn't sure how much time passed as they made their way across the empty city, everyone remaining silent as they took random turns every now and then, until she'd lost any sense of the direction from which they had come.
Not that there was anything back that way except death if the metal people were still pursuing them.
Finally, they emerged onto an enormous platform, easily bigger than her clan's largest encampment back home. And on it sat large metal structures of varying sizes and shapes. They looked different from the buildings they'd passed by earlier, resting on sets of large things that looked like feet, or in some cases, wheels.
"Flying machines?" Ayastal cocked her head and smiled slightly.
"Looks like it." Dylan turned to Grishnag and Cora. "Any of these look familiar?"
"Some are similar to technology I'm used to." Grishnag walked slowly past one, brushing her hand over the lettering on its side. "But not exactly. I don't recognize any of the insignia or the names."
"Huh," Dylan muttered, stopping to stare at the letters painted on one flying machine's side. "These are all in English. Hell of a coincidence."
"I'm seeing these in my native language." Grishnag moved on to the next ship. "I noticed during the battle that when some of you spoke, your mouth movements didn't match what you were saying, and the same is probably happening for all of you when I speak. Something has been translating us, and I assume the same thing is happening with the writing on these ships."
"Ah. I was wondering how we could understand each other." Nishara slid past Dylan and stopped to examine the ships beyond the one he stood beside. "I don't understand how it's done, though."
"Were you all unconscious when you were brought here?" Dylan glanced around at each of them. "Did you fall asleep back home and then wake up in that huge room where we met?"
Everyone else nodded or murmured an affirmative response. Dylan suddenly looked uneasy.
"I bet they implanted something in us. Hardware that interfaces with our brains and translates what we see and hear." He shivered. "And if that's what they did, then what else did they do to us while we were asleep?"
Syala shuddered and her lower lip quivered. Nishara slithered over to her and put her left arms around her.
Cora looked unsettled for a moment, and then she pulled herself together and marched across the platform. "We'll have to worry about that after we get out of here. We need to take one of these ships, assuming any of them are still functional. A shuttle wouldn't do us much good. Too short-range. We'll need a ship that has a hyperspace vortex generator in case there are no jumpgates nearby."
"But isn't the ability to understand other languages a benefit?" Syala patted Nishara's hand and walked alongside her. "Why would they give us an advantage if they simply want to kill us?"
"For the challenge," Grishnag said, her eyes opening wider at the realization. "They're hunting us for sport."
Dylan grimaced. "Why'd you have to put that idea in my head?"
"Sorry, but it just fits. They give us a way to communicate and work together when they could've just shot us dead. So, they're either hunting us, or this is a test. Evaluating specimens to decide which planet to invade, possibly."
"That's even worse."
"Yeah." Grishnag sighed and moved on to the next ship.
"Whatever the reason they brought us here," Ayastal said, "they paid a terrible price for it. I didn't take the time to make an exact count, but I believe we reduced them by at least half."
"Assuming they haven't brought in reinforcements." Cora walked over to a sleek, black ship that looked like a saucer that had been stretched out to twice its original length.
Zilaka crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "This is a nightmare. It has to be."
"That's what I thought at first." Dylan walked around the front of another ship, shook his head at the buckled strut that had once held it up, and moved on. "It's too detailed and too linear to be a dream. And it just feels too real."
"Even if it were a dream or hallucination," Cora said, "we can't afford to assume it's not real with those assholes trying to kill us."
"Yeah, guess we don't have much choice. We have to keep playing along, just in case." Dylan turned to look at another ship -- and one of those yellow beams came out of nowhere and pierced his chest. A startled look crossed his face, then was replaced by a grimace of pain as he collapsed.
Everyone stared in shock.
"Dylan?" Nishara whispered. Her hearts pounded.
Grishnag and Cora were the first to recover. They threw themselves behind the nearest ship and tried to find where the bolt had come from without exposing themselves to more.
Ayastal pulled Syala and Zilaka behind another ship. Syala stared at Dylan's body and burst into tears.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "He was just a kid."
"What the hell?" Cora aimed her weapon in the distance, but couldn't find a target. "I should've been able to detect them. Why couldn't I detect them?"
Nishara sucked in a deep breath and screamed, "Dylan!" She slid over to him, hoping he was only wounded as she rolled him over.
His eyes stared blankly into the sky and smoke curled up from the hole in his chest.
Still, she put her upper hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. "Dylan! You can't …"
"I'm sorry, Nishara," Grishnag said. "He's gone. Get under cover."
Nishara wiped the tears from her eyes and lifted her head to glare at the place from which the shot had come. She could make out movement among the metal structures in the distance.
Ayastal turned suddenly to face something behind everyone. More of those damned beams drilled into her chest. Her legs buckled and she slumped over on top of Syala.
Nishara turned to find a dozen more metal men charging them. She drew in another breath and let it out in a shriek that caused everyone around her to stop in their tracks for a moment, even the murdering bastards who had taken poor Dylan from them. She raised her weapon, surged forward, and pulled the trigger. The nearest of their enemies stumbled backward and fell, smoke pouring from all the holes she'd blasted through his torso.
A series of flashes came from the others' weapons and sudden, searing pains lanced through her chest as if white-hot knives were being plunged into her. Before she even understood what had happened, she found herself sprawled face down on the metal ground, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
"M … monsters," she whimpered before blackness engulfed her.
"What the --" Dylan flailed, gasped, and clutched his chest. Before he realized he was on a raised platform, he lost his balance, fell off, dropped several feet, and landed face down. Groaning, he pushed himself up slowly and looked around. "What the hell?"
More platforms filled the room, almost like metal beds.
No. More like autopsy tables. A shiver rippled through him.
All the tables were occupied by the alien women who'd surrounded him just before …
Just before I died. He glanced down at the front of his shirt, but couldn't find the hole that had been burned through him. The shirt hadn't been repaired -- it was exactly as it had been before that fatal shot.
Just to be sure, he lifted his shirt and slid his hand over his chest. There was no sign of a wound.
How am I alive? He leaned on the platform and tried to take deep breaths and slow his pounding heart. He looked around again and a chill rushed through him.
They're not breathing. He held his breath for a moment, trying not to let a sudden burst of tears out. The only familiar faces in this goddamn place, and they were all dead.
But he wasn't. Why?
Suddenly, Ayastal inhaled. She twitched and lurched upright, glanced around, and her eyes locked on to him.
"What …? How …?"
"I don't know." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Did you, uh … ?"
"Die? Yes." Ayastal shuddered. Even though her face wasn't human at all, Dylan could still read her confusion and fear in her wide eyes, twitchy movements, and rapid breathing. Maybe some things were universal. "I felt my heart stop! And yet …"
"Here we are. I know. I think …"
Nishara suddenly sucked in a deep breath and screamed. She convulsed and rolled off the platform.
Dylan let out a quick scream of his own and backed away from her, but pulled himself together and approached her slowly. "N … Nishara?"
She glanced around frantically, found him, and stared. "Dylan?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Yeah, I noticed that. So did Ayastal." He motioned at the dragon woman, and Nishara glanced over her shoulder. Ayastal nodded at her. Nishara stared, took a few breaths, looked as if she were about to say something, then she turned back to Dylan.
"As did I." Nishara stared down at herself and ran her hands slowly over her chest. "The wounds are gone."
"Mine, too." He lifted his shirt. "See?"
She slithered up to him, stared for a moment, then reached out hesitantly and touched his chest. Her skin was softer and warmer than he'd expected. She moved her hand slowly over his chest for several more seconds, looked up and met his gaze, and finally pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I don't know. Maybe whoever brought us here is able to heal wounds like these." Or maybe we're clones and the originals really are dead. He didn't mention that one to either of them, not just because he would've had to explain what clones were.
"But why?" Tears trickled from Nishara's eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Why are they doing this to us?"
"I wish I knew." He pulled the bottom edge of his shirt out to wipe away her tears. "I wish I knew how to even begin to find out."
She put her upper-left hand over his, held it to her cheek, raised her lower-left hand to his cheek, and stroked it softly. She gazed into his eyes for a moment, and then she leaned forward slowly and kissed him.
What the hell? Though it caught him by surprise, it was also quite nice, so he let it continue as long as Nishara wanted. When she finally pulled back from him, her face turned slightly darker, and she couldn't look him in the eye again.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"I'm not." He smiled.
Ayastal managed a chuckle, though she was still visibly unsettled. She stood and ran a hand over her chest as if still looking for her wounds, and finally glanced around at the other bodies.
"Since the rest of us are here, I think we can assume they were killed, as well, and will wake up soon."
"Yeah. Well, I hope they will." Dylan turned slowly, looking around at the others, but kept his left arm around Nishara. "I wonder which one of them died next."
"I wouldn't know." Ayastal's muzzle quirked slightly into what might've been an attempt at a smile. "I was unable to observe anything, being dead at the time, myself."
"Right. Heh." Dylan managed a shaky smile and waited silently to see if anyone else woke up.
The others woke one by one. Dylan, Nishara, and Ayastal took turns explaining what had happened -- or what they thought happened. Cora and Grishnag understood instantly, but Syala and Zilaka took a bit longer.
"We died," Syala whimpered. She remained on her platform, pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked slowly. "How can we be alive if we died?"
"Whoever's doing this to us," Grishnag said, "if they're able to abduct us and bring us who knows how many light-years to this place, then repairing fatal wounds might be child's play for them."
"So, this is what our lives will be from now on?" Tears trickled down Syala's cheeks again. "Dying, waking up here, and being killed again? Over and over, perhaps forever?"
"I don't know." Dylan walked over to her, and Nishara joined him. At the same time, they each put an arm around Syala. "But that means we might have a chance to get out of here. As long as we survive, there's hope. Right?"
Syala didn't answer. After staring at nothing in particular for more than a full minute, she put her arms around him and cried into his shirt. He glanced at Nishara, who smiled and nodded. He embraced Syala and rubbed her back slowly.
"And maybe not," Grishnag finally said. "Maybe they'll leave us alone for a while."
A door at the end of the room slid open and two of those damned nine-foot humanoids entered.
"Fuck," Grishnag snapped.
"Jinxed it," Cora muttered, and Grishnag sighed.
Everyone stood and faced them except Syala. She gripped the front of Dylan's shirt, twisting the fabric in her clenched fists as if terrified he was about to move away from her. He and Nishara remained by her side.
A third humanoid followed the first two, pushing a large cart. They stopped in front of Dylan and the females, and the two in front stepped aside. The third pointed into the cart.
Grishnag peeked into the cart. "Guns. They're arming us, this time?"
"Oh, shit," Dylan moaned. "What the hell are we gonna be facing?"
"Doesn't matter." Grishnag shook her head and backed away from the cart. "I'm not fighting for someone else's entertainment."
The humanoid pointed into the cart again. Grishnag growled.
"Fuck you. I'm not playing your games."
The one on the right turned its blank faceplate toward her and raised its left hand, pointing its palm at her.
She hunched over suddenly, clutched her head, and screamed. Everyone else gasped, and Syala clamped a hand over her mouth and began crying again.
Grishnag stumbled to the right, toppled over, curled up on the floor, and continued screaming.
"Stop it!" Dylan pried himself away from Syala and rushed over to Grishnag. The goon on the left pointed its palm at him. He ignored it, reached out to touch Grishnag's shoulder, but hesitated. He glared at the humanoid on the right and shouted, "Stop it! We'll do whatever you want, just stop!"
Both figures lowered their hands back to their sides. Grishnag suddenly went limp, still holding her head and weeping, but no longer screaming. She rolled onto her back, sobbed, and tried to pull herself together.
"Fucking monsters," Nishara practically hissed before slithering over to help Grishnag sit up.
Dylan clasped Grishnag's right hand in both of his and just held it while she took deep breaths and regained control of herself. Finally, she gazed into Dylan's eyes, reached out and caressed his cheek. Then her eyes widened and she pulled her hand back as if shocked by her own actions.
Okay, what is it with me and alien women, anyway? Have I turned into Captain Kirk or something?
"You gonna be okay?" Cora leaned over to touch Grishnag's shoulder.
Grishnag shuddered before answering. "Eventually." She pushed herself back to her feet and staggered over to the cart. "Fine. I'll go along with whatever insanity you've got planned." Glaring at the helmeted humanoid in front of her, she picked up one of the huge, long-barreled rifles. Then she snarled, "How do you know I won't kill you with it?"
The armored alien stared blankly at her. She held its "gaze" for a long moment and finally sighed and turned away. Her shoulders sagged ever so slightly.
Dylan sighed and picked up one of the guns. He thought it over for a few seconds and then turned to the humanoid on the right. "This is for hurting my friend."
He aimed his gun square at the bastard's chest and pulled the trigger.
Trembling, he sagged and stared at the gun. "Fuckin' hell!"
Grishnag patted his shoulder, smiled shakily, propped the gun on her shoulder, and strode out the door.
"I can't do this," Syala mumbled.
"You saw what will happen if you don't." Nishara hugged her and rubbed her back, then took her hand and led her to the cart.
"We'll be right there with you," Dylan said. "We'll all get through this together."
Zilaka nodded, patted Syala's back, and picked up one of the guns. Holding it uncertainly, she sighed and clopped past the guards.
Dylan smiled one more time at Syala, took a step past the humanoid who'd tortured Grishnag -- then he spun around and slammed the stock of his rifle into the bastard's visor. The impact knocked the alien off its feet and sprawled it on the floor.
Holy shit, that actually worked?
The other guards stepped toward him and pointed their hands at him. He propped the rifle on his shoulder and glared at them.
"What?" he snapped. When he made no further moves against them, they stepped back but kept their palms aimed at him. He realized suddenly how close he'd just come to being subjected to the same punishment that had been inflicted on Grishnag, but tried to cover up his fear by pushing past the guards and grumbling, "Get the fuck out of my way."
As he turned the corner to follow Grishnag, he caught a glimpse of Syala staring at him with an awestruck grin -- then picking up one of the guns and marching after him.
He caught up with Grishnag at the end of the corridor, which widened out and ended with what looked like a hangar door. The sounds of boots and hooves approaching from behind told him the rest of the women had armed themselves and joined him and Grishnag.
"I just realized something," Zilaka said, obviously struggling to keep her voice steady. "There were many others sent with us onto the first battlefield, but we're the only ones who woke up in that room back there."
"The others were killed almost immediately." A troubled look crossed Cora's face. "Maybe they were rejected."
All the confidence Dylan had just built up drained away as her meaning sank in over the next few seconds.
"Wonderful." Grishnag turned back to the door. "Well, let's get this over with."
CHAPTER 3: Wheels of Fire
"Huh. That's not what I expected." Dylan turned around slowly and took in their surroundings. He and the alien females stood in the middle of a street with a set of vehicles in front of them. Wheeled vehicles, but none of them familiar to him. Each was about the size of a four-door sedan but ranged from sleek lozenge shapes to something that looked like a cross between a sports car and a SWAT tank.
The city itself was unlike anything Dylan had seen on Earth, but it reminded him of any number of futuristic cityscapes in movies, video games, and TV shows. Lots of gleaming metal, concrete, glass, bridges, overpasses, and skyscrapers. In the distance, vehicles zipped around and equally sci-fi aircraft traced paths across the sky here and there.
I wonder if we're still on the same planet as the place we were killed a while ago? The sky was tinted red instead of the familiar blue and the air felt different -- thinner, with a sharp odor of overheated wiring filling his nose with every breath. If the assholes who abducted us can teleport us to other planets, what fucking chance do we have of ever escaping?
"I know how this works," Syala clopped over to one of the cars, her mouth hanging open and her glowing eyes opening wide. "I've never seen any of these before, never even imagined such things, but I know how to drive them."
"So do I." Ayastal leaned over the nearest car, placed her hand on its roof, and peered in through the windshield. "The knowledge just appeared in my mind. But I can't fit into any of these."
"How is this happening?" Syala drew in several ragged breaths and glanced around until her terrified gaze locked onto Dylan. "How do I suddenly know things I could never have even dreamed of before?"
"I don't know." He hurried over to her and held her hands. "Maybe we'll find out sooner or later, or maybe we'll never know. Right now, all that matters is that we get through this."
She took a few more breaths, pulled herself together, and nodded.
Cora walked over to them and rested a hand on each of their shoulders. "Whoever is doing this, we can't let them break us. Don't give them the satisfaction."
Syala nodded again, smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, and sucked in another long, slow breath to help calm herself.
"I also know what we must do," Zilaka muttered, turning to stare in shock at the others. "Just like the cars -- I didn't know a moment ago, and now I do."
"Same here." Dylan nodded slowly. "There's a package we have to pick up and take somewhere."
"And there will be someone trying to stop us." Nishara turned to gaze out over the city and shivered. "Someone trying to kill us."
"Again." Grishnag sighed. "No matter why our captors are doing this -- to test us, or just for their entertainment -- I don't want to submit to it."
"You know what'll happen if we don't." Dylan tried to give her a reassuring smile, but couldn't hold it for more than a second. "The longer we survive, the more time we have to figure out what's going on and how to stop it."
"True enough." A smile tugged at the corner of Grishnag's mouth. "Well, I guess we should get on with it."
Nishara cupped Dylan's face in her upper hands and held his hands with her lower ones.
"For luck." She leaned in and kissed him.
Uh … wow. He let the kiss continue until she pulled back, gazed into his eyes, and smiled. He stroked her cheek and she gave his hands and shoulders a gentle squeeze before turning to slither over to one of the cars.
Another hand brushed his arm. He turned to the left and found Syala leaning toward him. He met her halfway, thinking she wanted to say something to him without the others overhearing.
Instead, she slid her right hand behind his neck, pulled him closer, and kissed him.
Huh? His heart began to pound, but he went along with it. When Syala finally pulled back, she smiled and glanced away.
"For luck," she mumbled.
"Thanks." His face turned hot and he glanced around and caught Grishnag grinning and chuckling in the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and tugged on his shirt collar. "So. Uh. Anybody else want a good-luck kiss?"
After everyone flicked a few glances at each other, Cora shrugged and walked over to him.
"What the hell. I don't believe it'll tilt the odds in our favor, but I'm all for finding a moment of pleasure in this nightmare we're all in." She pressed her cool metal lips gently against his and the faint smell of mechanical lubricants and polish filled his nose. Neither the kiss nor the scent was at all unpleasant.
When they parted, the other females approached him. Before he could get his brain around what was happening, each of them kissed him. In the corner of his eye, he found several of them kissing each other.
Okay, this is getting weird. The only possibility he could think of was that maybe humans were the only species that had any sexual hangups, and it simply didn't occur to any of these females to think there was anything strange about this. Hah. Getting weird. Good one.
Finally, Grishnag was the only one who hadn't kissed him or any of the others. She shrugged and put her arms around him.
"I suppose I shouldn't buck the trend," she said softly, chuckling. Her breath brushed across his lips and his heartbeat revved up again. "It has been a while since I've done this, so maybe it's about time, anyway."
Their mouths met and he closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. It was a little odd, with those big fangs sticking up from her lower teeth, but no more so than any of the others.
When they parted, they gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, smiled, and then Grishnag walked off to choose a vehicle. She picked one of the sporty-SWAT tank-looking things, opened the door, and settled into the seat. Her eyes flicked over its control panel and she pushed a button. The engine started -- not the familiar sound of the car engines Dylan had heard all his life, but more of a throbbing hum.
The others chose their cars, except Ayastal. Grishnag glanced over at her, smiled, and pointed a thumb at the roof of her vehicle.
"This one looks sturdy enough for you to ride on top. You won't have any protection, but at least you'll be able to participate. I mean, if you want."
"Thank you. After seeing what they did to you when you refused to play their games, I'm probably better off not appearing to be uncooperative." Ayastal crouched on top of the car, braced her feet on the rear end, and found handholds on the roof.
Dylan picked another hotrod-tank, got in, and glanced around. All the controls were on the dashboard, including the brakes and accelerator. At least that meant Nishara could drive one despite having no legs. He glanced over at her in time to watch her try to enter one of the lozenge-shaped cars. She ducked in through the driver's side door, pulled back out, entered again, extracted herself again. She grumbled something, opened the back door, slid in and between the front seats, took her position awkwardly at the controls, and pulled the rest of her body in.
Syala closed the back door for her.
"Thank you." Nishara spent the next few moments trying to coil her body around the interior and find a comfortable position.
Dylan started his engine as Syala and Zilaka picked out their cars.
Grishnag's voice came from a speaker in the dashboard. "Okay. Let's do this."
"Almost there." Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard and noted the position of the waypoint. She returned her attention to the road ahead and slowed as they passed through a gate and entered an area filled with what appeared to be warehouses.
As they approached the waypoint, a dozen red blips appeared around it. Grishnag noted their positions on her mini-map and grumbled.
"Well, here we go." Dylan's voice quivered slightly.
Before Grishnag could offer any reassuring words, she eased around the corner of a large, rectangular building and found a dozen males and females of varying species spinning toward her and snapping their guns up.
"What the hell?" Dylan said. "I was expecting more of the goons we fought last time."
"So was I." Grishnag steered toward the nearest three and accelerated. "No matter. Just focus on getting through this."
"R-right." Dylan's vehicle surged forward, plowed into two of the "enemies," and sent them tumbling across the pavement.
"Nice." Grishnag flashed a feral grin. "Ayastal, you may want to …"
"Dismounting." The huge reptile woman leaped off the top of Grishnag's vehicle and slammed into a pair of humans who'd opened fire a split-second before. The impact flattened them and she made sure they stayed put with a solid punch to each of their faces. She rolled off them, crouched, and sprang over the head of a pig-ogre as he tried to target her. She hit the ground, rolled forward, and came to a halt with her legs braced under her, ready to launch at another enemy.
The pig-ogre whipped his rifle around and lined up a shot at her chest.
Dylan's tank-car shot into view. He turned sharply to the left and the car skidded. The rear end swung around and slammed into the pig-ogre like a bat knocking a baseball out of the park. He rocketed into the side of a parked cargo truck, crumpled to the ground, and came to a stop with his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
"Nice moves, kid," Grishnag said with an arched eyebrow.
"Thanks. I just now realized this reminds me of a game I played a lot back home. This was one of the moves I used on opposing players."
"This reminds you of a game?" Nishara steered her car around the back of a nearby warehouse and flinched as four enemies concentrated their fire on her.
"Yeah, a video game. It's a -- actually, never mind. I'll try to explain it later." Dylan whipped his car to the right and shoved his rifle through his open window. He pulled the trigger and perforated the human and three bovine males. They twitched and collapsed, fingers convulsing on their triggers and firing random shots until the life finished draining from them.
"Video games," Cora muttered. "I'm familiar with them. They're sort of like simulations."
"Yeah, kind of. You okay, Nishara?"
"For now." Nishara changed course again and accelerated. "I'm near the … whatever we're here to take. I'm going for it."
"I'll cover you," Dylan said.
"As will I," Syala added.
"Simulations. Hmm." Cora veered off to join the other three.
"What?" Grishnag caught up with them, glanced at the waypoint, and followed them toward a building that appeared to be an aircraft hangar.
"Just a suspicion I have. I don't want to distract everyone with it now."
"Sounds good." Dylan mowed down another opponent with his car and continued on to the hangar. "You can tell us after we finish this. Or the next time we wake up dead." He chuckled.
Hah. He has my kind of sense of humor. Grishnag grinned and parked in front of the hangar's massive open door. "Make a barricade with your vehicles while Nishara picks up the package."
Dylan backed his car up until his rear bumper nudged her front. The others followed suit, keeping their driver-side doors facing into the hangar. Everyone except Nishara jumped out and aimed their guns at the remaining enemies, using their vehicles as cover. Nishara extracted herself from her car and surged forward, slithering deeper into the building so fast she became a blur.
Dylan and Syala charged after her, flicking their wide eyes all around the interior, searching for more enemies.
Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard. Only three enemies remained … until ten more red blips appeared at the edge of the map and approached her team's position with alarming speed. Grishnag snarled. "More enemies incoming."
"That's what I was afraid of," Dylan grumbled. "It works the same way in that game I mentioned. No matter how many bad guys we take out, more keep teleporting in."
"It's hopeless," Syala whimpered.
"No, it's not." Grishnag drilled a beam through the forehead of each of the three approaching them. "It'll end when we complete our task."
"Yeah." Dylan tried to smile at Syala. "Maybe then we'll get to sit out the next round of fighting. Y'know, as a reward."
Grishnag glanced at her mini-map again. The new red blips were almost on top of her and the others. She frowned, realizing a hissing sound had been growing louder over the last few moments.
That's inside the hangar. But … She gasped and raised her gun to aim at the ceiling.
"They're above us!"
Thumps of multiple feet hitting the roof echoed through the cavernous room.
Cora spun and snapped her gun up toward the ceiling. "I see their heat signatures." She opened fire, burning dozens of holes through the metal. Several voices cried out, and then a guttural roar overwhelmed them. More thumps echoed from the ceiling, the sound of bodies rolling down the angled roof.
"I've got the pilots," Ayastal snarled before opening fire.
The hissing sound revved, sputtered, and turned into a rattling whine. A stubby aircraft with two huge, ducted fans spun into view, a dozen holes melted through the canopy and a mixture of red and yellow blood splattered all over the cockpit. The aircraft continued its spin, tipped to the left, and crashed into the ground. It continued sliding and shedding parts, finally rolled over and ground to a stop upside-down.
"Good work, Ayastal," Grishnag said.
A deafening, sharp bang of a grenade slammed into the side of the building, almost drowning out a truncated scream. Grishnag staggered, shook her head, and a cold sensation rose up in her chest. "Ayastal?"
Nishara, Dylan, and Syala stopped in their tracks. Nishara fumbled and nearly dropped the brick-shaped, crystalline object in her hands.
"Ayastal!" Grishnag rushed to the rear of her car, peeked around the doorway, and found her sprawled on the ground with her chest blasted open.
Past her, two more large vehicles rumbled toward the hangar.
Grishnag winced and turned away. She met the others' gazes and shook her head.
Syala sobbed and covered her mouth with her hand.
"She'll be okay," Dylan whispered, reaching out to rub her back.
"How do we know?"
"She'll probably wake up in the same room we found ourselves in after the first time we were killed."
"He's right." Grishnag took a deep breath and waved a hand around the inside of the hangar. "Take a quick look around. Maybe we can find something useful. Bigger guns, or armor."
"On it." Cora rushed over to the wall to inspect the shelves and crates.
Nishara handed the golden crystal brick to Dylan. "Take this. You seem to know what you're doing."
Grishnag glanced over her shoulder at the mini-map on her dashboard. A new waypoint had appeared at the northern edge.
"We have a new destination."
"Good." Dylan carried the faintly glowing crystal back to his car. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Oh, look what we have here." Cora had just opened one of the metal crates in a corner behind a shuttle and grinned at what she'd found. "Grenades, sticky bombs, and rocket launchers."
"I don't know what those are," Zilaka muttered, "but if they keep us alive, I'll be happy with them."
"They should definitely give us a chance." Cora passed the grenades and sticky bombs to the others, grabbed two rocket launchers, and handed one to Grishnag. "You seem to know how to use stuff like this more than the others. I think we'll have a better chance of holding the goons off while the others escape."
Dylan whipped his head around to stare at her and Grishnag.
"Don't worry." Cora strode toward the space between the door frame and Grishnag's car. "I'm planning on both of us catching up with you. Now, get moving."
Dylan sighed, nodded, and started his engine. Syala, Zilaka, and Nishara returned to their vehicles.
Cora peeked around the corner, found the two vehicles still fifty meters away but approaching rapidly, and nodded at Grishnag. Cora lined up a shot on the nearer van and fired. A fist-size rocket streaked toward her target. The second van veered off and accelerated, while three people bailed out of the first. Cora's rocket struck the front of the van, ripped it apart in a split-second, and the shrapnel shredded the three who'd tried to escape.
Grishnag stepped around Cora and took her own shot while Cora reloaded. The van swerved, but couldn't avoid the rocket. Shrapnel and body parts scattered in every direction. Grishnag smirked, turned toward her car, and stopped suddenly.
"Cora told you to take off."
Cora turned and found the others waiting with their engines running. "Yeah. What she said."
"We're not leaving you here." Syala aimed a stern stare at her, couldn't hold it, and faced forward again. "We finish this together."
Cora almost rolled her optics, canceled the action, and ran to her vehicle. "Fine. Let's all get the hell out of here before anyone else starts shooting at us."
"Dylan," Grishnag said as she climbed into her car, "we'll surround you and escort you to the next waypoint. Stay in the center."
"I'll do my best." He gripped the controls and waited.
"I'll take the lead. Cora, bring up the rear." Grishnag moved her car into position.
Four red, car-shaped icons appeared on Cora's mini-map, approaching rapidly from the rear. She leaned out the window, glanced around, and zoomed in on a distant motion.
"Guys, we've got more --"
"I see them on my map," Syala said, almost whimpering. "Let's go!"
Cora grabbed her rocket launcher, climbed through her window, and perched her ass on the lower edge. She lined up a shot and squeezed the trigger. The rocket streaked away and she zoomed in to watch the impact.
One of the four vans exploded and the shockwave knocked two others off course.
What the hell was that? Cora pulled the last few seconds from her optics' buffer and replayed it in slow motion. Parts of the van flickered and broke into tiny cube shapes for a split second as it exploded, as did the air around the shockwave. She scowled and lined up another shot. Voxels. Damn, I was right.
"Dylan, what?" Her proximity sensors picked up a sudden movement to her left before he could respond. She snapped her head around in time to catch a glimpse of a rocket before it drilled into the side of her car.
The roar of the explosion overwhelmed her auditory sensors and the flash overloaded her optics for a few seconds. When her sight returned, the entire world was spinning around her -- until the pavement slammed into her back. She glanced around, found parts of her legs and other debris scattered all around her, and her internal sensors detected various lubricants and other fluids spraying out of what was left of her torso.
"Cora!" Dylan shrieked again.
"Keep going! I'll do what I can from here." She found her rifle several meters away and dragged herself toward it while running a diagnostic. Primary systems failing, main power cell breached and heading for a critical overload. Whatever I do, I have to do it soon.
"Go!" She clamped onto the rifle and tried to line up a shot on the approaching vans, but her targeting system was offline. "I'll see you all on the next go-around."
"Shit," Dylan moaned before accelerating away.
The others hesitated another few seconds but finally followed him.
The remaining three vans reached Cora.
Fuck it. She rolled onto her back, jammed her rifle's barrel against her exposed power cell, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the detonation tore her body apart too quickly for her sensors to detect any damage.
The blast was enormous -- far bigger than anything Nishara had ever experienced. It deafened her and shook her vehicle. Both hearts pounded as she glanced over her shoulder and found parts of Cora's body and two of the vans raining down. The remaining van swerved around the debris and continued its pursuit.
"No," Dylan groaned.
"Take it easy," Grishnag said, clearly straining to remain calm, herself. "She'll be okay. She's probably in that same room we woke up in before, with Ayastal."
"I hope so." Dylan took a deep breath. "Alright. Let's get this over with." He accelerated.
Six more blips appeared on Nishara's mini-map, directly ahead. "No …"
"Where are they coming from?" Syala's voice quivered.
"Stay focused," Grishnag said.
A beam from one of the van's occupants drilled Nishara's rear window, the passenger-side headrest, and the windshield. She flinched and her hearts beat even faster.
Must try something. Must do something before we're all killed again. She took several deep breaths. "I … I have an idea."
She twisted her tail into position, gripped her weapon, and slid through her window. She kept her lower-left hand on the controls, kept the accelerator pressed down with the tip of her tail, and held on to the roof with her upper-left hand. With her two right hands, she raised the gun awkwardly and tried to aim it at the approaching van.
A male that appeared to be Zilaka's species leaned out one of the van's windows with his own rifle.
Nishara clamped her mouth shut to prevent a horrified whimper from escaping and fired her weapon. Half of her shots struck the ground or pierced empty air, but the rest punched into the front of the van.
The male fired and a familiar searing pain lanced through Nishara's upper-right shoulder. The gun almost slipped from her hands, but she managed to keep her grip on it and continue shooting.
Finally, one of her beams drilled through the van's windshield and vaporized part of the driver's head. He flopped over and the van swerved off to the right and crashed into a stack of red metal barrels. Nishara shifted her aim to the barrels without understanding how she knew what was about to happen, and continued firing. Whatever was in the barrels ignited violently, and engulfed the van in flames.
Nishara sighed, faced forward, and grimaced at the pain spreading out from her wounded shoulder.
Grishnag veered off to a curving ramp leading to an overpass that wove among dozens of gleaming metal skyscrapers. The rest followed her. Wincing and trying not to cry out, Nishara steered her vehicle in the same direction.
Three more enemy vans appeared directly ahead, swerving through the oncoming traffic.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "Too many innocent people are in the way."
"There's nothing we can do about that," Dylan said with a sigh. "We'll just have to do the best we can to avoid hitting any of them."
A human leaned out of the lead van and began firing. Nishara groaned, shifted her grip on her weapon, and returned fire.
A beam pierced her upper-left arm and another hit her chest, just below her lower heart. She screamed and dropped her gun.
"Nishara!" Syala shrieked. "Oh, no!"
Another shot burned through Nishara's abdomen, and yet another drilled her upper heart. She flailed, screamed again, and her car began to turn sideways and skid.
"No!" Dylan bellowed.
Nishara caught a glimpse of a hail of enemy shots slamming through his windshield and multiple bursts of red blood filling the inside of his car, and suddenly she turned cold inside.
"No …" She coughed as everything around her began to fade away. "Dyl … Dylan …"
Her car struck the divider between lanes and rolled. The last thing Nishara saw was the road rushing up toward her, and the last things she felt were her body twisting and the car crushing her beneath it.
Title: Game Over
Genre: Science Fiction
Age range: adult
Word count: 80,000 words
Author: Fred T. Kerns
Why the book is a good fit: I tend to write the kinds of stories I wish I could find on bookshelves. As TMG has an eye toward innovation, my work would bring them something new and fresh to pass along to the world. TMG also works with a range of genres and my novels and stories are primarily science fiction but also include elements of action, humor, and an often hopeful vision of the future despite the villainous characters standing in the heroes' way.
The Hook: On this planet, "fun and games" is a matter of life and death.
Synopsis: Dylan Engstrom wakes up in a strange place and is thrown into a series of combat scenarios with a handful of aliens. Together, they must figure out what's going on and how to escape before they're all killed. And killed again. And again. And again ...
Target audience: Readers who enjoy action, adventure, humor, spaceships, aliens, and fun characters in a story that leans toward the harder end of the SF scale.
Bio: Sci-fi writer, semi-competent gamer (on a good day), and a huge geek. Born in a small town in Oregon, lived on the Oregon coast until 2013, then moved to Tucson, Arizona, and has lived there ever since.
Platform: My blog has links to most of the stuff I'm up to: https://fredtkerns.blogspot.com/
Education: High school diploma, followed by life in general
Experience: Started writing and submitting short stories at 17 and have never stopped writing since then. I've finished five novels and have another in-progress, and have written a number of shorter works and ongoing serialized stories.
Personality/writing style: Usually pretty mellow. Able to roll with the punches thanks to life being a very long stretch of bad luck. Able to face each setback by immediately going to work on possible solutions almost like a reflex. Writing style tends to be to-the-point with characters who are often a little off-kilter. I've been told that I'm particularly good at writing action scenes. I also like to research specific scientific concepts to attempt to get them right (for instance, hull breaches in my writing won't result in an endless rush of venting air) without bogging the story down with details regarding physics and whatnot.
Likes/hobbies: Writing, video games, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Have been a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and others. More recent like/influences include the Mass Effect series, Babylon 5, Star Trek Online, Red vs. Blue, gen:LOCK, among others.
Hometown: Tucson, AZ