aka The Frazzled Mom
Ever since Sky Captain Lemise Holdif was a boy, he’s been faced with the End of Days. For decades an unknown enemy has been systematically wiping out life in the galaxy, starting with the most advanced societies. Now Arcadia, a world built from the trash of an entire galaxy, is the only planet left capable of distant space travel, and the next target. Lemise is desperate to save his home world, but his plans are interrupted when an alien visitor transports onto his ship.
Lead Specialist Paelae Madison is the last of her kind. The only survivor of the First Attack, and bent on revenge for the destruction of her people. In desperation, she teleports onto an Arcadian ship and offers aid in the coming war. Arcadia sees her as a hero, but Lemise is weary to trust a stranger who’s survived over five hundred previous battles.
Together the two fight to defeat an enemy far more advanced, and far more cunning than Arcadia has ever known. But extinction lurks around every corner, and The Enemy isn’t the only one threatening to destroy the world.
Officers stumbled over each other in preparation for the day ahead. As soon as the first rays of purple sunshine peaked over the city, a line had started to form for the bathrooms, and Paelae was thrust back into the world of the living with a jolt. Sweat covered her face, and her breathing was too rapid.
Despite the cramped space, the other women gave her a reasonable berth, some eying her while checking their weapons.
Had she screamed in her sleep? The nights had grown increasingly rare when she didn’t have a nightmare.
“Hey.” Paelae sat up and tugged the clothes out of her trunk. She ran a hand over the purple and black jumpsuit provided for her; it felt wrong, wearing the colors of another people. It was the first time anyone offered her a uniform. She preferred the Imladian one; it was familiar.
“Hey.” This time she looked up, noticing that the one-word sentence had been directed to her.
A woman stood at the end of her bed, arms crossed and legs apart as if at ease. “Name’s Benni. I’m your guard.”
Of course, the woman from the ship.
Benni was a head shorter than Paelae and bore the markings of a low rank.
“I’m Paelae,” she said and stood to greet Benni with a hard stare. “I’m your…” She searched for an appropriate word.
“Ally,” Benni finished for her. “Sky cap’s waiting outside for you.”
Paelae took the cue and began her attempt to navigate out of the barracks, jumping over beds and weaving around people until she reached the metal door. Outside, the world was tainted purple as the sun filtered through Arcadia’s atmospheric shielding, a product of too many chemical bombs. What had once been a rushed patch job to keep air on the planet had since evolved into a last line of defense worthy of acknowledgment. It was one of few things Arcadians boasted about among the planets—when the planets still existed.
Captain Lemise stood just outside the barrack doors, looking across the miles of asphalt designated for intergalactic travel. Bordering the west side of the airfield and encroaching fast upon the north, were piles of rejected technology and broken spaceships tossed out by hundreds of different races.
That’s how Arcadia had started, as a junkyard, but then lost voyagers found a home on it, attracting others—from those shunned by their own people to travelers broken down with no funds to continue on their journey. Eventually, it became a home for those who had nowhere else to go, and scavenging became more than an act of survival; it became a trade.
Most of the north and east were surrounded by low-class, brick apartment buildings, meant for the soldiers and their families.
“You’re not in uniform.” Lemise deduced upon seeing her. “If you want on my Chasers, you wear my uniform.”
Paelae shrugged. “Bathroom line was too long to change.”
Lemise began to walk away. “Then wake up earlier.”
Paelae walked close behind with Benni in tow as the sky captain began to explain. “Miss Demitri is our chief innovation and engineering specialist; with a screwdriver and a handful of computer chips, she could change a toaster into an engine. You will work beside her under close supervision. I want a particle shield by the end of the week.”
She almost laughed. Particle shields were difficult with the right materials, but with makeshift metals and roundabout wiring, he would be lucky if it turned on in three weeks.
“In exchange, you will work beside me in the evenings,” he continued.
Lemise didn’t expand any further on her evening expectations, but Paelae suspected they would be dull at best until Lemise began to trust her better.
“Unless there are complications. Then I will jettison you out of an airlock in EWAN territory. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. Centuries of military training had drilled the habit into her.
He led them to a jeep, and another soldier drove them east to a warehouse that stood ten stories tall. Behind it, a mesh, wire gate separated civilian from soldiers. Paelae watched as a group of young boys tossed a ball back and forth to each other, running down a deserted street to throw it in a trash can.
They used to play a similar game on the cityship as trainees. It was one of the few bits and pieces they had smuggled from the Earthen culture, played in secret when the officers had left.
Once, General Amir had caught them midgame when he came to get Paelae for sparring lessons. Anything Earthen was not to be spoken of or remembered in any way, but she had been rebellious as all teenagers were those days. Everyone had frozen in place. The terror coursing through their bodies made them forget to even salute. Trying to run would have been devastating.
Amir had walked between them, assessing the trainees. He had been furious, but his anger hadn’t been displayed in shouting or beating; it had filled the silence that spread between moments in time.
“Madison,” he addressed with a calm, collected demeanor, turning to look at her. “Why do we not register Earth as a planet in our systems?”
She didn’t reply.
“Madison!” This time the words were forceful, bringing her back from the past. Lemise and Benni had already departed from the vehicle and waited for her.
With a sigh, she shook the memory away, letting it dissipate into the morning air and jumped out of the jeep.
Lemise led them through an open garage door. Inside, the warehouse resembled a miniature junkyard. As Paelae looked closer, she could tell that the piles had been organized to some degree. One had wire, another had chips, and a third was weaponry.
“Demitri!” Lemise called. A clatter of metal followed, and the sky captain took that as a cue. They wove in and out of large piles and then climbed over smaller ones until the ground could be seen again. A giant square of cleared floor sat under an open roof, and near the opposite end, a young woman drew up schematics on a metalwork table.
“Demitri,” Lemise called again as they walked up to her.
Demitri glanced up through layers of grease stains and smudges of dirt. Bright red hair fell in a tangled mess past her shoulders, held back by a set of goggles. Deep, blue crescents were visible beneath her eyes, as if the woman had been bruised.
“Did you sleep here last night?” He didn’t address her as a soldier, nor did she wear a uniform. Instead, brown overalls adorned her skeletal frame, and a belt of odd tools kept it hanging up.
Demitri gave him a confused look. “No. I’ve only just arrived.”
“You were supposed to be in an hour ago,” Lemise said as the military eased back into his speech.
“I was delayed,” she said and threw her arms open. “It’s not like I don’t stay past midnight anyway. Every genius needs sleep. Is this the Imladian?”
Lemise pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “This is Madison.”
Demitri stepped around the table and snatched Paelae’s arm up, pushing back the black leather sleeve. After a moment, Demitri let out a whistle. “That’s a particle shield all right. I’ll need the big guns for those supplies.”
“One week,” Lemise said.
Demitri laughed before realizing he was serious. “Two weeks, sleep, free meals, and you throw in that glass plating I need to fix the Mirage.”
“One week, no sleep, free breakfast, and you fix the Mirage because it’s your job, not a bargaining chip.”
“Two weeks, no sleep, and lunches.”
“A week and a half, sleep, and no food.”
Demitri was about to throw in another bargain when a little girl ran out from behind a pile of piping. She held up a colored picture with evident pride, tugging on Demitri’s pants and grunting to get her attention.
“A week and a half, no sleep, and forget this happened,” Demitri said as she placed a hand on her daughter’s head. “The daycare was filled, and Pops is working cross-continent. I wouldn’t bring her unless it was my only option, I swear.”
Lemise knelt down to the girl’s level. “Hello, Demi.” He smiled.
Demi held up her picture of colorful stick figures, grunting as she pointed in stunted movements at each one.
“I see.” Lemise took her picture and gave it a further inspection. “It is a beautiful picture. Will you draw me one?”
Paelae watched in mild horror. Demi was broken. On the cityship, they considered it a mercy to chloroform such children at birth, if they made it that far without detection; and it shocked her that all those years she never thought twice about it. Never before had she encountered one on other planets, though she’d heard stories.
Lemise stood, turning back to Demitri. “Will she be okay around new faces?”
“Yeah, she’s better with it now.” Demitri cracked her knuckles in anticipation.
“A week and a half, no sleep, and lunches,” he offered.
They shook on it.
“I’ll leave you to it then,” Lemise said and left, disappearing behind piles of trash.
Demitri pulled a chair up for her daughter to continue drawing, and then lounged back in one of her own.
“You named her after yourself,” Paelae stated when the silence had extended beyond comfort.
“Of course I did. She’s a Devonian.” Demitri fiddled with the lenses on her goggles.
Paelae nodded, though she didn’t know what that meant. “Should we get started, then?”
Demitri tossed her a pencil. “Copy your arm, please.”
She looked at the writing instrument with amusement. Once, this had been the only way to transcribe thoughts, but it had been centuries since she used one. “I don’t know how to use this.”
That caught Demitri’s attention. “You don’t know how to use a pencil?”
“Not anymore, no.”
Demitri laughed. “Aliens, sometimes you get too advanced for your own good. Come here. I’ll do it.” Another pencil was pulled from the depths of her ponytail. “Please tell me you can at least use a welder.”