Keira Fairchild is running for her life, and she won’t make it far without someone watching her back.
Her powers helped her elude a slave trader, Holcomb, who planned to sell her to the highest bidder, and the deadly Paragon Academy. But now Keira needs some allies and some answers. Who is the imprisoned alien being who keeps contacting her in her dreams? Keira is aided by a group of teens—James, Lumen, and Paul—with powers like her own, and all of them are ready for a fight. The small group must rescue the captive alien and escape Dr. Albion, who seeks to steal their abilities and eliminate them. Survival will mean a desperate struggle, and none of them can succeed on their own.
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Pairings: FF, MM
Heat Level: 2
Romantic Content: 3
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Polyamorous
Protagonist 1 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 2 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 3 Age: Under 18
Tropes: Badass Hero, Coming of Age, Everyone is Queer, First Time, Friends to Lovers
Word Count: 70,000
Setting: Oakland, CA
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
Stop! Keira tried to scream through the rubber gag, but no sound came out.
The three doctors surrounded her, each wearing a plastic facemask and a contamination suit. They reminded her of industrial robots.
Keira was strapped to a cold examination table, her wrists and ankles in metal restraints. She turned her head from side to side, trying to get a glimpse of the operating room, but the blinding pool of surgical light cast such a small circumference. The rest of the room receded into total darkness. The first doctor stepped toward the table, a silver scalpel steadied in his right hand. She could see the other doctors watching, unmoving, at the edge of the swallowing blackness. Another person stepped from behind them.READ MORE
Someone is filming me. Now he’s coming closer. I see my reflection in his shiny lens—but something’s wrong. It’s not my face; it’s an alien’s face—those huge dark eyes—that looks back at me. Who am I? Where am I?
Then the sharp blade entered Keira’s arm above the elbow joint. A searing pain shot up her exposed bicep….
Keira Fairchild woke up in a blistering sweat, bewildered, her breathing labored, almost gasping. She turned, wiping her damp forehead, and looked out the dirt-streaked window at the green and red lights of the oil barges drifting slowly into San Pedro Harbor on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She looked at the clock, 3:15 a.m.
She opened the window a crack to let in the early-morning air. It was cool and calming. The metallic sounds of the distant buoy bells rang out from across the waters.
She wiped off her upper lip with the back of her hand and tried to forget the nightmare.
That’s the third time this week. The same dream: I’m on the table and they’re cutting me open with that knife. It’s like I’m there, like it’s really happening to me! But it’s not me; I’m an alien in the dream. What does it mean? Totally weird!
Keira rolled over and turned on her lamp. From her bedside table, she picked up a smooth stone box with two golden suns etched on top. It fit neatly into the palm of her hand. She traced the outline of the blazing suns with her fingertip. Each was inlaid in real gold and had six flame points radiating outward. The stone box belonged to her birth mother; that’s what the social workers told her. But none of them said if her mother, or her father for that matter, was alive or dead. Keira had entered the foster care system as a small child. Ever since she could remember, she’d carried the box everywhere with her. It comforted her and promised a connection to her real family, but it was as much a mystery. When Keira shook it, something inside rattled. But to this day, she hadn’t figured out what it was; she still couldn’t get the box to open. There were no seams or visible hinges, not even a keyhole. All she could get out of the stone box was the tantalizing sound. A sound she knew held the secret to her past and hopefully her parents.
Someday I’ll figure out how to open this damn thing up. I’m going to find out who my real parents are, too, and then I’ll go find them. Someday.
Keira put the box back down on the table and picked up her hairbrush. The natural fibers felt good against her scalp as it separated her shiny auburn strands and soothed her. After a few passes of the brush, she placed it back on the table, turned off the light, and went back to her fitful sleep.
“Get up, lazy bones,” Mary, Keira’s 65-year-old foster mother, prodded her from her fetal curl beneath the checkered quilt. “You’ve got to eat something before you go to school. I don’t want to hear that you’re not hungry again.”
“Alright, I’m up. Jesus,” Keira hissed back before turning over and pulling the warm bedding up over her head.
“And don’t take our Lord’s name in vain.”
“I wish, just once, you could manage a simple ‘Good morning,’” she said from beneath the quilt.
“What?” Mary asked, pausing in the doorway.
Keira heard the bedroom door close. She pulled the covers down and opened her pale blue eyes into the burning stream of sunlight coming through the opened blinds.
“God! That’s bright.”
Keira pulled her feet out of the warm bed, onto the soft carpet, and then into her green felt slippers. She yawned and sat upright and rubbed a limp hand against her eyelids and cheeks. Keira looked down at her closely bitten nails. They looked awful, the skin underneath them red and cracking. Keira bit her nails to stubs.
She opened her right hand up and studied her palm. Lines laced themselves together across the space and formed what looked like a small triangle within a larger one. She traced one side of the shape. This is my lifeline, I guess. Funny, there’s a gap in it, like one life ends and then another begins.
Keira got up and unplugged the charging X-Phone she kept hidden under her mattress. It was a pre-ACPA “burner” that didn’t run off of the government’s grid. Since the Affordable Cell Phone Act passed the senate last year, every US citizen now had a data-enabled cell phone, and free government Wi-Fi covered the whole country. Most people saw this as a money saving opportunity and thanked the government. Keira saw it for what is was, a tracking device to spy on people.
She pressed her finger on the screen, unlocking the phone. Her secret email account unfolded. She was safe from federal data harvesters. All her info streamed through a channel hidden inside the government’s own Wi-Fi traffic; it was beyond VPN, beyond encrypted. What’s better than hiding in plain sight? She’d gotten the illegal phone off a Copperhead last year in exchange for an eighth of synth-pot.
There was nothing new in her inbox except a message from the Insemenoid fan club about another concert date. I won’t be going to see them anyway. There aren’t enough credits for that. Keira closed the account with one swipe of her finger.
Just then the home screen flickered a little bit. A dark image appeared for a moment, a silhouette. The shape of a small person, like a child, wiggled in, blocking out the app icons. Keira stared down at the phone. As quickly as it had come on-screen, it squirmed off.
What the fuck? Is that some kind of malware? It’s not like I can take this phone in and get it cleaned! I hope it goes away. She tried to put it out of her mind. Maybe it’s a technical glitch. The phone must be getting ready to die. It keeps doing weird things lately. Keira shut off the device.
Her illegal phone was one of the many things she kept hidden from both her foster parents, Mary and Steve. As far as caregivers went, they were strict and misguided with their attention. In the few months Keira had been with them, both were more concerned about whether Keira was smoking synth-pot than if she were happy or not.
She’d been shuffled through the system mainly because of her faulty datachip. Hers never seemed to work properly. All Protective Care children had a government ID chip implanted in the back of their left wrists. It was easier for processing and placement. When she turned eighteen, it would be removed and she’d be issued the standard government adult ID wristband. The chip had been replaced four painful times already, but within a week or so, it would transform from active biosilicate into a static piece of plastic cartilage. Dead and useless. No one knew why.
Keira lifted her black robe from the chair back, slipped it on, and left her room for the hall bathroom. After she locked the bathroom door, she let the robe drop to the floor and she turned on the water in the teal shower. She pulled off her nightshirt and panties and hopped into the warm stream. As the water ran down her white back, Keira wondered when she would get her period again; her cycles were wildly irregular. She hadn’t had it for over three months and she certainly wasn’t pregnant.
Keira was still a virgin in spite of herself. Mary saw to that.
"I smelled cigarette smoke on your jacket yesterday. You know we don’t approve of that,” Mary said as Keira, dressed in tight black jeans and a black t-shirt, sauntered into the kitchen.
“I’m not smoking. If you even set one foot into the girl’s bathroom at school, you get covered in smoke,” Keira said as she placed her black leather shoulder bag on the kitchen table. “All the seniors are smokers.”
“Just as long as you don’t start. You’re fifteen; it’s really bad for you.”
Keira wouldn’t dignify Mary’s last statement with a response. Instead she grabbed the LA Times from the counter and glanced at the headlines.
“That huge earthquake in Indonesia looks terrible. Those poor people.”
“It’s God’s way, Keira.”
“But why would he do that?”
“He punishes the wicked and the unbelievers. That’s a country full of heathens.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s all part of his plan, Keira.”
Keira knew she was entering dangerous territory. This was not a conversation she should be having with her foster mother. She’d learned early on to hide her real beliefs and to mimic the ones of her caretakers. Developing a “false self” was a survival skill, plain and simple. Maybe if she agreed with them, she wouldn’t be abandoned again. Maybe she could stay with this family, and they would learn to love and value her. Even if they were loving the part of her that was a complete lie. She’d take what she could get. Love was love.
“I know it’s his plan. It’s sad when so many people die at one time.”
“He moves in mysterious ways.”
Keira put down the newspaper, grabbed her purse, and headed out of the kitchen toward the front door. “See you after school,” Keira said.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?”
“But you’ve got to eat something. You’re too skinny, Keira.”
“I’ll eat at school,” Keira lied as she turned to leave. “Bye!”
“I worry that you’re going to become anorexic,” Mary said.
“I’m not hungry. See you later.”
As soon as Keira was down the block, out of Mary’s eyesight, she produced a red pack of Marlboros, shook one out, held it between her full lips, and lit it. Cigarettes are food, she thought to herself. She walked the rest of the way to San Pedro High School trailing smoke like a long gray scarf.
“Is this the way to the Vincent Thomas Bridge?” Holcomb asked, pointing out of the front window of his car.
Keira looked over at the white man in a BMW, cruising alongside her. Nice car, weird guy. The shiny coupe slowed down and pulled over to the curb. Keira was still surprised by all the male attention she’d been receiving in the last year. At fourteen she’d been just another teenager, but a year later when her breasts came, the guys were suddenly very interested.
“What?” Keira asked as she tilted her head and glanced at the stranger.
“Is the bridge up ahead? I’m lost.”
“You’re going the wrong way,” Keira said while dropping her cigarette on the sidewalk and crushing it beneath her heel. Keira quickened her pace.
“Do you know which way it is?”
“I’m late for school. Sorry,” Keira said and then turned right, past the chain link fence, and walked onto the busy campus. She could feel the stranger’s eyes on her still, burning two holes into her back.
Holcomb brought the car to a stop and parked. He watched Keira disappear into the colorful huddle of high schoolers. An alert beeped up at him from his phone.
Proximity alert: ID chip identified, Keira Fairchild.
“I know,” Holcomb said to the phone and deleted the message.
Target acquired, he typed into the message field and hit Send.
I hope I’ve found her before Paragon, he thought.
“Class, today we’ll be studying the details of the rodent digestive system. That means we’ll be vivissecting live rats. Those of you who’ve opted out of this assignment with your parents’ signatures can report to study hall right now,” Mr. Hines announced at the beginning of fourth period Life Science. “I don’t want any fussing. Any student without a parent’s signature must complete this assignment, or be dipped in a vat fluoroantimonic acid.”
“Dipped in what?” a nearby student asked.
“Fluoroantimonic acid; it’s a new superacid, thirty times stronger than sulfuric,” Mr. Hines continued.
The few conscientious objectors—a perky cheerleader, a young Sikh, a weedy nerd, and a Jehovah’s Witness—left in a small exodus. Keira perched on a hard stool at her lab table with her freckled, brunette partner, Lissa, her only friend at San Pedro High. Neither of her foster parents had ever asked if she had made any friends, and Keira wasn’t about to tell them, either.
On the solid plastic tabletop sat one large, empty Plexiglas jar and accompanying metal screw-top lid with a tiny hole in the middle, a tray of silver dissection knives, two pairs of thick leather gardening gloves, and a wax-lined dissection tray with skin-holding pins. There was also one huge, black rat in a tiny wire cage.
“I’ll be coming to each table with a cotton ball soaked in ether,” Mr. Hines said as he began to walk around the classroom. “Listen carefully, people. Put the cotton ball in the glass jar, put the rat inside the jar, and seal the jar with the metal lid. Let the rat stay in there for about three minutes. This should knock the rat completely unconscious. I want you to see the living digestive system functioning, not in an autopsied dead specimen. Don’t worry, the rat won’t feel a thing. It’s important you follow all these directions. Let me know if you need help.”
“OK, here goes!” Keira said to Lissa as she slipped on the leather gloves.
“Do you want me to open the cage?” Lissa asked.
“Yeah, sort of dump the rat onto my gloves and I’ll shove it in the jar.”
Lissa picked up the wire cage and pulled the latch, sliding the front panel open. The rat sniffed around outside of the opening.
“Now drop it into my hands.”
The black rat slid into Keira’s waiting grip. She grabbed it firmly with her right hand. The rat reflexively turned and bit down on Keira’s index finger; its sharp teeth piercing through the leather glove. The pain rushed up her arm. But before she could react, a shower of white sparks began snapping in the air, cracking and popping loudly, all around the rat. It gave out one high-pitched shriek as its greasy body tensed up in agony and then went completely limp.
The whole room was suddenly silent. All eyes were on Keira. She let the dead rat fall to the table. It landed like a beanbag, as if the rat’s internal organs had been turned into sand. Keira pulled off her gloves and examined the fresh bite on her finger. The blood was already gathering in the wound.
“What happened?” Lissa gasped.
“I don’t know,” Keira said as she looked around the classroom.
“It must have been a discharge of static electricity from the air,” Mr. Hines said as he quickly approached the workstation. “You saw the electric sparks. It’s puzzling, though, because these work surfaces are supposed to be inert and free from static build-up. But that’s what killed the rat.” Mr. Hines turned to face the class, “Show’s over. Everyone back to work. I’m bringing the ether around now.”
“What should we do, Mr. Hines?”
“Keira, go to the storeroom and get another rat for you two,” he said. “They’re a few more on the shelf in the back. Then go see the school nurse about that finger. It doesn’t look too bad, though. I’ll put this rat in the dumpster.” Mr. Hines walked away with the departed test subject.
Keira looked at Lissa. They were both stunned. “That was too weird!” Keira said as she applied a paper towel to her finger, staunching the flow of blood.
“But it was cool!” Lissa said, excited by the strange event.
“How did it happen, though? It was so random!” Keira asked as she looked over at her lab partner.
“He said static electricity.”
“It was so bizarro. You can still smell it in the air.”
The two girls paused to breathe in the acrid scent of ozone. Keira’s head was spinning a little bit from the strange experience. It felt like she was floating, like her mind had been set adrift to an unknown location.
“But what should we do now?”
“You heard him, killer!” Lissa giggled. “Go get another victim!”
“That’s not funny, Lissa.”
“Sure, it is.”
Keira strolled to the metal door at the back of the classroom, the equipment storeroom. She opened it slowly and went in. The single light bulb cast harsh shadows in the dark, single-windowed room. Keira heard the rats scurrying around before she saw where they were. She approached the wire cages positioned in neat rows on the far wall. She dropped the bloody paper towel onto the floor. The rats, seven in all, stared helplessly up at her. She looked back at them. It was as if in that moment she was seeing a caged animal for the first time in her life. She suddenly felt the suffering of these creatures. It was too cruel.
I know how you feel, Little Rat, Keira thought as she approached the first cage. Passed around from place to place. And now this—your death- you have no control over.
Keira stood on her tiptoes and unlatched the narrow storeroom window and, with one hard shove, pushed it all the way open. One by one, she lifted and unlatched the first six cages and released the squirming rats into the sprawling juniper bushes on the ground outside.
Keira carried the last brown rat in its mesh cage into the lab, and walked over to the workstation to retrieve her books and purse.
“See you later at your place,” she said to Lissa, who nodded.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Lissa added.
Keira smiled and kept on going, strolling leisurely right out of the classroom and onto the campus below, not looking back even once.
Asmodeus had his orders from Dr. Albion. He bent his six-foot-five frame over the rusty green dumpster behind the Life Science classroom. He fished through the collected debris. The Paragon Institute had received an email earlier that something unusual had happened to a girl named Keira Fairchild at San Pedro High School.
He lifted the flattened cardboard boxes and soggy newspapers, pushing them aside and looking underneath. He hated getting his hands dirty; he was still adjusting to being flesh. Stinking mortal flesh. Asmodeus looked at his pale fingers and the backs of his hands; they were covered with thin black lines, like his pasty face and the rest of his body. Lines ran everywhere, intersecting and crisscrossing. They marked his skin like an incision diagram.
Asmodeus wished he didn’t have the US Government’s blood oath hanging over him. It was part of the conjuring. If only he could use his infernal powers to sort through all this rubbish, it would be easy. But a contract was a contract; it specified where and when he could use his dark gifts. It actually blocked his power from unwarranted use. That part was decided at his recent summoning by General Hesslop and Dr. Albion. Paragon knew how to control its newest employees, The Four Demons. Only after the contract was fulfilled would Asmodeus be released and receive his substantial reward.
He continued to search for the undeniable proof that this girl, Keira, was another of the missing Star Children they were looking for, one of the Twelve Heroes. Asmodeus adjusted his dark fedora; it covered his two short ivory horns.
Then he caught sight of the furry body of a rat. There it is. He removed the flaccid corpse, slipped it into a plastic evidence bag, and pinched its lifeless form. Sand, its insides feel like sand, Asmodeus thought as he slid it into his trench coat pocket. She can cause crystallization of living matter. Interesting. I wonder what else she can do? And what’s this? He paused and sniffed the air, picking up appetizing scent. Asmodeus smiled fiendishly. This girl is a virgin. That changes everything. I will have to ask for her as part of my price when I’m done. I can’t believe my luck. A human blood sacrifice will increase my power ten-fold.
“OK, Song Bird. Item is secured and in transit,” he breathed into the microphone on his shirt collar.
Something tapped Asmodeus’s shoulder. He turned to see a campus security officer standing directly in front of him. He’d been so carried away with the scent of a human virgin, he’d forgotten to check his surroundings. But no matter. Asmodeus could use whatever power he wished in this particular situation. That was part of the contract.
“What?” he asked, annoyed.
The guard stared at the strange person for a moment. He’d never seen someone with such bizarre tattoos, especially across the face. “This is a closed campus. I didn’t see you sign in at the office.”
“My daughter lost her purse this morning and I was looking to see if it got thrown in here by accident,” he said, indicating the filthy dumpster.
“Who is you daughter, sir?” the guard asked as he closely watched the movements of the stranger.
“And where is she now?”
“In class, of course,” Asmodeus said smoothly.
“I’ll need to scan your ID, sir.”
“Certainly, certainly,” Asmodeus replied, suddenly very cooperative as he extended the ID band on his left wrist toward the guard’s black scanner. He passed it beneath the red laser beam.
“No record,” the guard said. “Let me try again.”
Asmodeus held his wrist closer to the blinking scanner.
“Have you been x-rayed or passed through radiation that you know of?” the guard asked, puzzled.
“Weird. I’m not accessing your information. You better come with me to the front office. This scanner is acting up.”
This has gone too far, Asmodeus thought. He stared into the guard’s brown eyes. A psychic tremor started behind Asmodeus’s furrowed brow. The mental hooks came out. Little probing thoughts Asmodeus pushed invisibly, one by one, into the guard’s mind as if slipping fingers through the slats of a wooden fence. They attached themselves and fed freely on the guard’s brain impulses, sucking at his life energy. Asmodeus felt his own power surge with a heady rush. It was completely intoxicating. He was in total control.
“You don’t need to do that, Luis,” Asmodeus said, his eyes burning bright red. “You are going to forget that you saw me here. You will go back to your post and leave me alone.”
Without another word, Luis, who was suddenly so tired he nearly collapsed, turned and walked heavily back up campus. Asmodeus exited through the parking lot to deliver the crucial evidence, the tangy scent of a virgin female still in his nostrils.
“Rats are disease carriers!” Steve shouted at her as she sat on her unmade bed. “You can’t keep one in this house!”
“But he’s my responsibility. It’s part of a science project. I have to take care of him or I’ll fail,” Keira answered.
“I’m going to call the school. This is unbelievable. A disease-carrying rat in our home? No way!”
“Why don’t you believe me?” Keira glanced up at her foster father, a look of distrust and anger on her face.
“I’m not going to respond to that. You’ve been more trouble to us than what you’re worth these last couple of weeks.”
“Than what I’m worth?” Keira asked incredulously.
“The two grand per month Child Protective Services pays us,” her foster father said without any emotion.
“Is that all I am to you—a paycheck?” Keira asked, wide-eyed with disbelief at her seventy-year-old foster father.
Steve looked at his charge and said nothing.
“Go ahead and call the school,” she shouted. “See if I care.”
“You watch that attitude, young lady,” Steve warned. With that, he glared at her one more time, shook his head, and left the bedroom.
Keira leaned over to look at the rat waiting in the cage on her bedside table. He stared up at her. He poked his pink nose between the wires and sniffed, his black whiskers pointing forward. She put her index finger near for him to smell it, but not close enough to be bitten.
“Don’t worry, little guy, if he kicks you out, I’m leaving too,” Keira said. “See over there in the back of the closet, that green bag? It’s my Emergency Exit bag. I’ve run away from foster homes so many times; I always keep it ready. It might be that time again. We’ll see. I think it’s time that I really try to find my birth parents anyway.”
Keira took her phone from her pocket. It had been heating up. Maybe that weird animated malware is making it overheat? She placed it next to the cage and looked down the hallway to see where Steve had gone. He wasn’t in the sunlit kitchen at the far end of the house. He’s probably talking to Mary. Oh, well. I was starting to get used to this place.
Keira walked over the closet and pulled the green bag out. I’m supposed to be going to Lissa’s tonight anyway. I’ll say I’m going to the library again, like I usually do. They always believe that one for some reason. I’ll leave from Lissa’s. Maybe I’ll go up north. Portland or Seattle both sound like fun.
While Keira carefully repacked the contents of her bag, a tiny shadow moved across her phone screen. It had a head, shoulders, arms with moving hands, and a trunk with legs and feet attached. The dark figure wiggled on the reflective surface. It twisted its limbs around the frame’s edge as if it were trying to pull itself out. And then it rose up from the phone in a puff of black mist. It shimmered and snaked across the table and headed straight toward the caged rodent. In one swift motion, the dark form engulfed the brown rat and then disappeared down into its fur. The rat trembled, its eyes dilating wildly, and then it rolled unconscious onto its right side. It remained motionless for a few moments. The rat’s heart slowed down and finally stopped. As quickly as death had come, life returned to the slack body. The rat’s heart fluttered awake. The reanimated animal stood up on all four feet. It squeaked and scurried quickly around the cage, trying out its legs for the first time. Keira turned to look.
“Was that you?” she asked gently. “Is something wrong?”
The rat continued to fuss in the cage. Steve returned to Keira’s room. He looked angry.
“Your science teacher, Mr. Hines, wants his rats back.”
“What do you mean?” Keira asked as she pulled the bag over next to her and tucked it behind her legs. She was ready for a fight.
Steve stared blankly at Keira. “This is the sort of behavior that will get you a one-way ticket to reform school,” he said and stepped closer to her.
“I don’t know what Mr. Hines is talking about.”
“Stop this, Keira. It’s time to admit your mistake and return the school’s property,” Steve said as he reached past Keira and tried to grab the cage.
“No! He’s mine. There’s been a mistake,” Keira shouted and stopped Steve by grabbing his right arm firmly at the wrist.
“Let go of me,” he growled at her.
“I won’t let you take him.”
“This is my house and my rules. The rat is going.” Steve tried to pull away from Keira’s grip.
“Keira, let go of me!” Steve shouted and pushed her with his free hand.
As Keira began to fall backward onto the bed, a shower of white sparks snapped around the hand she clenched tightly to Steve’s arm. There was brilliant flash and his shirtsleeve evaporated in a cloud of white smoke. Beneath her hand, Steve’s exposed arm swelled bloodred, and then, cell by cell, the soft flesh became solid marble. Keira released her grip. The unexpectedly heavy limb tore itself free from Steve’s shoulder joint, leaving a gaping hole. It dropped to the wooden floor and shattered. Steve’s eyes rolled back into his head and his legs gave out beneath him.
Keira screamed. Her foster dad flopped around in front of her like a fish out of water. Blood began to pool from his open shoulder socket. She grabbed her phone, charger, and her twin sun box, then jammed them into her pockets. Green bag under her right arm and rat cage beneath her left, she ran from her bedroom, through the empty living room, and into the small backyard.
Where’s Mary? she thought, quickly looking around. I’ve got to get out of here before someone sees me! She paused to open the gate next to the garage, looked around again, and then hurried down the block. She put her head down and sprinted all the way to Lissa’s condo half a mile away.COLLAPSE