OFF PLANET Sneak Peek!
A chorus of shouts rippled through the room, sending a zing of energy up my spine. The warehouse’s old wooden floors creaked as the class launched into a jump kick. Not even the mats I’d scrounged from around Albuquerque could mask the noise of the battered floorboards.
The massive room was good enough for me to hold my martial arts classes in and not much else. I’d created a little makeshift locker room in the back with a floral curtain and a few cubbies where the students could stash their stuff. A few industrial lights hung down from the ceiling. They weren’t very bright, but they also didn’t cost much to keep turned on, which was essential since I was on a budget.
I’d shoved a small, battered desk I’d found abandoned in an alley into the corner so I could keep up with my flight training here if I needed to, and some outdated vidscreens hung on the wall. I didn’t watch much on them, but I liked to check the news and a selection of social channels—both legit and off-the-grid resistance sites—before leaving. It was dangerous out there, especially for halfers like me, but I was a girl who knew how to survive.
Except for the study area and the lockers, the warehouse was just one massive open space that looked like it could fall down on our heads at any second, but thankfully, it was sturdier than it appeared. My students didn’t care about aesthetics. The tiny fee they paid was barely enough to keep the lights on. My students came here to learn how to fight, and that was the only thing that mattered.
We finished the warm-up, and the students bowed. I took in the twenty-three people standing in front of me, their spines stiff. Most wore some type of active gear, but a few were in pajamas. I didn’t require white karate gis and I didn’t hand out colored belts. None of that was important in here. My only goal was to make sure these Earthers survived the walk home every day.
“Good job, everyone.”
My students relaxed their stances. This class was my beginner level. Most were only four years younger than me—fifteenish, give or take—but they seemed like babies to me. Probably because none of them lived under constant mortal fear like I did. I was pretty sure that kind of danger had aged me faster than most, but rampant crime—especially personal assaults—were at an all-time high on Earth. If these people wanted to make it through the next decade of their lives unscathed, they had to toughen up.
“We’re sparring tonight.” That got me a few smiles. Most looked a little nervous, but no one looked particularly freaked out. “This is going to be fun. I promise.” I gave them a grin, hoping to put them at ease. “It’s important to try what we’ve learned on an opponent because…?”
The room was quiet as my students looked at each other.
“Because SpaceTech doesn’t care about us. They won’t protect you. Ever. So, when shit goes down, you need to be able to protect yourself, and more than that, you need to be able to help those who can’t protect themselves. Roan!” I yelled for my best friend to join us, and he waddled out from behind the curtain where he’d been putting on thick, neck-to-toe padding.
“You all need to feel okay about beating the crap out of someone, so Roan’s going to be our punching bag.” Roan somehow managed to wrap an arm around me even with the constraining pads, and I nudged him softly. “Don’t be afraid to rip into this guy.”
“Hey,” Roan’s light green eyes filled with laughter, and he tugged on my long braid. “Don’t listen to Maité. I have plans tonight. Don’t want to mess up my face.”
“That’s why you’re going to put on the mask I gave you,” I said.
“You didn’t tell me Yvette was in this class,” Roan murmured in my ear. “Been trying to get a date with her sister for years. Think she’ll put in a good word for me?”
“Roan.” The word was a warning, but he looked at me with wide, innocent eyes. I elbowed him in the stomach—this time harder—and he let out an oof.
Roan wasn’t the least bit intimidating. At three inches shorter than me and a little too energetic to be anything but adorable, he was more like a speedy teddy bear than anything else. He could keep up with me and made me laugh constantly. Which is why he’d been my best friend for nearly a decade, but his timing needed work.
“If anything happens to them because you were goofing off when—”
“Come on, Maité. I’ll do my job here. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make this fun.”
“This is too important to mess up,” I whispered. The truth sat like a ball of molten lava in my stomach. Life was dangerous out there for all kids. They had to be able to defend themselves.
“All right. Who wants to go—Motherfuckingshit.” A sharp burn ran through my finger, and I couldn’t stop the curse from flying out as I shook my hand.
A couple of shocked gasps came from my students.
“Sorry. I…” I glanced at Roan, not sure how to fix this.
Roan looped his arm with mine. “One second. Gotta talk strategy with my girl before we start.” Roan dragged me toward the makeshift locker room.
“We’ll be right back,” I said, looking over my shoulder at the class. “Try doing bunkai number eight to stay warm. Yvette? You help lead.”
Yvette nodded, her chin lifting up as she stepped forward to take charge. “You got it.”
That gave us a second, and by the look on Roan’s face, I was about to get an earful.
“Jesus. You’re going to get us killed,” Roan whispered as soon as we were through the curtain. At least he wasn’t mad enough to start yelling. If anyone—even one of my students—found out I was a halfer, we’d both be as good as dead. “The implant still bothering you?”
“Bothering is too nice of a word.” I bit down on the tip of my finger for a second, feeling the microscopic chip beneath my skin. “It feels like a hot poker is stabbing my finger. The alerts from my contact lens were bad, but I turned them off. It’s been two weeks since it was implanted, and I’m still feeling the frequency shifts.”
Roan’s eyes widened. “How often?” His voice was threaded with worry.
“It feels like every other minute, but maybe more like every ten. I thought shutting down my email would help, but… I hate it.” I spat out the words. It was the truth. I hated every damned second that this piece of shit tech sat under my skin. “I have to get it removed or I’ll end up cutting it out or—”
“No. You can’t.” His tone made it clear he wasn’t kidding around. “Not after everything we went through to get it in the first place. The fake ID. The sketchy doctor. And I could get in so much trouble if they find out I was the one who took your blood sample. No fucking way, Maité.” He stepped closer to me, and I could almost feel the heat of Roan’s anger. “We’ve talked about this. You gotta start blending in better. Most people have their neural lace implanted straight onto their brain by now, and—”
“But I’m half alien.”
“Don’t say that word.” His tone was outraged, but for no good reason.
“It’s not a dirty word. It’s what I am. I’m half Aunare. And the alien side of me is stronger than the Earther side. My kind can’t have implanted tech. I’m too sensitive for it. This will kill me—or worse—drive me insane. There’s no way I’d survive lacing my brain, so don’t even start with that again.”
A neural lace hardwired all of a person’s apps, calls, games, and everything else they wanted straight into their cerebral cortex for maximum convenience. Earthers loved it, but if a simple finger implant and AR contact lens nearly drove me crazy with jolts of fire-hot pain, that kind of tech would kill me for sure.
“So what now?” Roan took a step back from me, shaking his head. “You get your dinky-assed implant taken out and then go back to using a wrist unit? And then what’s going to happen to you?”
“It worked before.” My words were mumbled. I knew I couldn’t go back to that. I’d stick out, and I already looked too Aunare as it was.
“It worked because we were kids. We all had wrist units back then. But in a few months, you’re going to be twenty. You can maybe pass for sixteen—maybe—but not once someone talks to you. You act and sound much older than you are. And I get it. But by sixteen most people already have the neural lace. You need this implant or you’re going to get caught. And we both know what happens then.”
He was right. I knew it, but I still wanted the implant gone. It’d been a couple of weeks, and the burning pain was getting worse. Maybe if I—
“No way. Stop it.” Roan cut off my thoughts. “I know that look. You’re about to argue with me, but you’re just stubborn, and you’re wrong. You’re just going to have to suck it up. SpaceTech will kill you if they find you. Your family and your friends. Anyone who spent any significant time with you. Which means me. You have to get your shit together and stop cussing every time that thing gets an alert. If they find out who you are, there will be war.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose, trying to find my Zen. “I know. I know. I’ll figure something out and—”
Someone tapped on my shoulder, and I spun. One of my newest students—Hillary—let out a gasp at my too quick movement.
Shit. Shit. Just fucking shit.
Aunare weren’t like Earthers. They were an elegant race built for speed and fighting. It’s why I taught the class. Fighting for me was like breathing. But I couldn’t show these kids who I was. What I was. I couldn’t move that fast or they’d know.
When I taught my classes, it was painfully hard not to give in. Not to let my body move like it could. And in that one second, I’d given myself away.
Hillary’s eyes were wide as she stared up at me. She’d had a close call a couple weeks ago and ended up in my class a little battered and bruised, but I saw the will to fight burning inside her. I wanted to make sure that next time, she’d fight and win.
“Are you—? Was that—?” She was too afraid to ask what I was.
Roan was right. I hadn’t lived this long to be stupid now, but the implant was distracting me. It was making me too on edge, and I couldn’t afford to forget my Earther façade for even a second.
“Sorry. You startled me.” I’d found that if you explained a movement away as being scared or excited or some other extreme emotion, most Earthers dismissed it. They didn’t want to find an Aunare living on this planet, especially if it’s someone they’d been spending significant time with. Hillary had been here every night for three weeks. She didn’t want me to be Aunare.
“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and her shoulders relaxed. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“We only have twenty minutes left in class.” She swallowed. “I need the practice.” Her words were barely audible.
“Of course. I’m so sorry I got distracted. Apparently, I’m having a day.” I shoved through the curtain. “Okay, everyone. I promise to stay focused on your training for the rest of class.” My finger burned again, and I bit my tongue. I swallowed the coppery tang of blood in my mouth along with another curse that was begging to slip out.
This might not get any easier for me, but these kids? I could help them. Volunteering here three hours a day, six days a week took its toll on me. Especially since I also had my shifts at the diner. But if teaching them to survive was the only thing I did before SpaceTech caught me, then that was something I could be proud of.
“We’re going to work off of the bunkai we were just practicing while sparring with Roan. Each movement in the bunkai is something that can be used to fend off an attacker. Roan is covered in padding, so don’t be afraid to let loose,” I said as I settled back into teaching.
Everything was going to be fine. I could do this. I could stay hidden, teach my classes, and save my money. One day, I’d be light-years away from here and safe. Until then, I’d dream about making my escape from this godforsaken planet.
I sat at my desk in the dark and watched the news on the vidscreens. The students had all left hours ago, and Roan was now changing in the back. He’d stayed to spar with me, sans padding, after my classes. It was nice of him, especially since he knew I was going to kick his butt.
It’d been a good workout, but I was still on edge from my slip-up with Hillary. If I wanted to relax, then I needed to let my body really move. But I couldn’t do that, even with Roan. He could barely keep up with me at half-speed.
Now that everyone was gone, all I wanted to do was go home and hide. It was getting harder and harder to hold myself back. One of these days I was going to do something I couldn’t talk my way out of, and that one slip-up was going to be the death of me and everyone I loved.
I scanned the screens for any sign of trouble outside. I could always tell my mom I was sleeping here if there was a riot or the police were out searching for their latest target. She wouldn’t love it, but spending the night in this shithole of a warehouse was better than risking my life to get home.
Supposedly, it hadn’t always been this dangerous. Way before I was born, SpaceTech—the biggest corporate conglomerate—took over all of Earth’s governments. I didn’t know the specifics, but I hoped whoever thought that was a good idea was rotting in hell. It’d turned into an unmitigated disaster for everyone on Earth. As long as it didn’t hurt SpaceTech’s bottom line, they didn’t care what happened to us. They didn’t care that we lived in a world with too much violent crime, corruption, and poverty.
SpaceTech was good at one thing—expanding to grow a stronger power base. Their colonization and trade routes spread across the galaxy and they’d found dozens of other species to exploit along the way. In all their greed to find more profits and expand colonization across the galaxy, SpaceTech finally met a race that was stronger, smarter, and had better tech than them.
From all the stories, it had been nice between Earthers and the Aunare for nearly a decade, but a few weeks before my seventh birthday, SpaceTech assassinated all high-level Aunare officials living on Earth and then started hunting everyone else on any of their colonies with ties to the alien race. In less than two weeks, most Aunare or part-Aunare people living on a SpaceTech-controlled planet were murdered. Except the few of us that got away.
That was why I forced myself to watch the news multiple times a day. I couldn’t get caught. Especially since my mother and I were the only two high-level Aunare targets that managed to run before SpaceTech could murder us. There was a hefty reward for anyone who had information on our whereabouts. And if someone actually turned us in, their whole family would be set for life and then some.
If things could get worse, I wasn’t sure how.
The news tonight was normal. One image caught my eye. A massive SpaceTech warship was landing on Terra 10—one of the colony planets on the edge of SpaceTech’s official empire. A report of increased Aunare activity in the area sparked SpaceTech’s IAF—Interplanetary Armed Forces—to arrive in force, quickly securing the area.
If they said the Aunare were dangerous, and they needed more forces in the area, then it had to be true. Right?
Except it probably wasn’t true. I’d bet my day’s wages from the diner that the Aunare weren’t even close to that colony. SpaceTech wanted the humans to feel the alien threat all the time and used it to justify all the crap they did.
Another image caught my eye. The Albuquerque spaceport. Large ships—some commercial, but most were SpaceTech issued—lined up, waiting to land as far as the eye could see. The ticker underneath said that there was going to be a gala for the groundbreaking of the spaceport’s expansion.
I shook my head at the screen. That meant that there were going to be SpaceTech officers showing up for it. I needed to be extra careful until they cleared out.
Slowly, all six channels—including my off-the-grid ones—changed to cover a new story happening on Earth. I flicked the button, linking all the vidscreens to show one large image: a half-Aunare guy, maybe a couple years younger than me, being dragged into an execution arena in Ohio.
Damn it. I looked away for a second but then made myself watch.
He was bleeding and dirty. Whoever had found him had beaten the crap out of him. SpaceTech liked to make a big spectacle of murdering any person with Aunare blood or ties left on Earth. There was a sizable reward for whoever turned in the enemy, and they got the added bonus of the best seat to watch the execution.
I whimpered and squeezed my eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the sound coming from the screens. The guy pleaded for his life, and the crowd yelled, calling him names that should never be uttered. Not ever.
It wouldn’t be long before a pack of rabid dogs would be let loose in there. When this kid started fighting for his life, he’d move with his inhuman speed. And, if he was from a strong Aunare bloodline, his skin would give off a golden glow like it was lit from within and tattoos would appear along his skin.
Once it was over, SpaceTech would come on the screen and tell Earthers here and across all the colonies how the Aunare were the problem. The Aunare were the reason Earthers’ lives sucked ass. The Aunare were why there was so much crime and poverty.
What a crock of shit.
“Hey,” Roan said as he gripped my shoulder. He’d changed into a pair of black pants and a bright blue button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a shiny pair of kicks I hadn’t seen before. He looked a little more dressed up than usual. “I’ve been calling your name.”
I shook my head and pointed to the screen.
“I saw the alert and hurried. How many times do I have to tell you not to put yourself through this?” Roan shut down the screens with a flick of his finger. “You okay?”
I nearly laughed at the absurdity of his question. “Is any of this okay? That kid will be dead soon and for what?”
“I know, but—”
“But nothing,” I snapped. “There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s done. That kid did nothing wrong except exist, and that’s how it is for all halfers. I have to hide or that’s happening to me. And if SpaceTech ever finds me, I’ll be wishing for the end that poor bastard is about to get right now. I haven’t even heard from my father since I was six, but that won’t matter to them when they make an example of me. Or worse. Use me to start the war they’ve wanted to fight for the last thirteen years.” The air was rushing in and out of my lungs in quick gasps, and I knew I had to calm down before I really lost it. Roan wasn’t the one I was upset with. This wasn’t his fault. I shouldn’t be yelling at him.
I wiped a hand down my face, giving myself a second to get it together. The mad started to fade, and bone-deep exhaustion took its place.
A searing pain ran through my finger, and that was it. I was done. My eyes burned, and I struggled to keep the tears from falling. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. It’s been a long day. I worked a twelve-hour shift at the diner before coming here to teach, and I need to get home and—” My voice broke and I cleared my throat, trying to cover it up.
He reached a hand down, and I took it, letting him pull me out of the chair. “I’ll walk with you,” he said.
I took in his outfit again and remembered. “It’s gamer night at Starlite, right? That’s where you’re heading?”
“Then go. Have fun and forget about me and my problems.”
“Come on, Maité. Don’t be like that. I’m not letting you walk home alone. Not tonight. Not when you’re upset.”
“I can take care of myself, and you have plans. Just because a halfer fifteen hundred miles away is being brutally ripped apart by savage, diseased dogs doesn’t mean I will be. At least hopefully not tonight.” I tried to laugh, but Roan just stared at me.
“I know you’re capable of handling everything on your own, but we both know it’s better if I go with you. No one will bug you if we’re together.”
He was right. A girl walking alone at night attracted too much attention. I didn’t want to mess up his evening, but if he was offering, I couldn’t afford to refuse him. “You’re right. I hate it, but you’re right. Will you please walk with me?” I asked as I zipped up my hoodie, put my backpack on, and tightened the straps.
“That’s why I offered.” He pulled me toward the door. “Come on. Let’s get you home. I know how you like that beauty rest.”
I gave him a small smile. “Sleep is very important. Critical even.”
Roan opened the door, holding it for me. “I’m aware.” He might have heard it from me a time or two.
“Well, as long as you know.”
I set the lock for the warehouse and then quickly undid my braid. I bent my head down, letting my long hair fall to shield my face as we stepped into the crowded streets. Patrol bots zoomed overhead, scanning everyone. I’d yet to be picked up by facial rec, and I was doing everything I could to make sure it stayed that way. I tried to wear neutral colors that didn’t attract any attention. Since I hadn’t even broken a sweat tonight, I kept on my black active leggings and tank top. I pulled my hood up over my head.
Someone bumped into my shoulder as they pushed through the crush of people, and Roan tugged me closer to his side.
A ship flew low over the mishmash of buildings in Albuquerque’s warehouse district. The engines were so loud I had to cover my ears. I watched it disappear from view but kept looking up for a second. Smog and light pollution hid any inkling of the night overhead, but I still tried to make out the stars. Hoping to see something to wish on. Hoping that something would change. But hoping never did me any good.
A Tykson revved its engine down the street. The single-person, hovering motorcycle was on the wish list of every eighteen-year-old I knew, except me. I was saving every little bit I had to buy my own ship so that I could safely get off this planet. It was my only chance at not getting caught. Another solid five years, and I might be close to having enough.
The blast of air under the Tykson spat dirt along my leg as it zoomed past. “Asshole. SpaceTech isn’t even attempting to clean up the city anymore.”
Roan ignored me because I could go on forever once I started on the company. “Haden stopped by during your intermediate class.”
I winced. I’d seen my ex stop by, but thankfully, I hadn’t talked to him. “What’d he want?”
We separated for a second to let someone pass between us. The side streets were way too crowded tonight. It was making me antsy.
“Jorge has a new recruit for you to train.”
“What’s the recruit’s story?”
Jorge was the head of the ABQ Crew. He’d been the one that found my mom and me nine years ago when we first got to New Mexico. He set us up with a safe place to live and papers so we could finally stop running. I owed him everything.
In return, I trained his recruits for free so they could help patrol the streets. Someone had to make Albuquerque safe, and SpaceTech wasn’t doing shit. This city owed a lot to the Crew, even if SpaceTech viewed them as a vigilante gang.
“Guy a year older than us wants in. He’s got some medical training, so he’ll be an asset, but he has to learn how to handle himself in case shit ever goes bad.”
Anyone with medical training was welcome in the Crew. “I can do that. He’ll have to start in my beginner class, just like everyone else. No bitching about being in with kids.”
“That’s fine. He’s already agreed and won’t be complaining. He’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Frosty.” Teaching was the only thing I actually liked doing on Earth. It made me feel like I was making a difference.
Oh boy. Roan never hesitated to say anything unless he was about to piss me off. “What?”
“Haden wanted to talk to me about something more personal,” Roan said as he pulled me back to his side again.
That didn’t sound right. “More personal? With you? You’re not even friends with him.”
“He, uh… He wanted my opinion on how to get back together with you.” Roan blocked his face as if I’d hit him.
I rolled my eyes dramatically, and Roan stood straight again.
Haden was a bad decision that wasn’t going away. “No. He think she wants to get back together with me.”
Roan laughed. “How is him thinking he wants to be with you different than him actually wanting to be with you?”
“Because as soon as we’re together, he’ll start whining again. I’m not opening up. I’m not letting him in. Blah. Blah. Blah. He’s got this picture of what we’d be like in his mind, but when it’s not actually like that, all he does is complain. I couldn’t ever be myself around him.” And that had been the downfall of our relationship.
“Honestly, I’m starting to think I’m not built to be with anyone,” I said. “Haden was sweet, caring, has a good business. In his spare time, he cooks for the homeless with the Crew. In theory, he’s pretty perfect. Maybe even too perfect. But I don’t know. That night when… I just wasn’t feeling it. He touched my tattoo, and I ran. And then he kept calling and calling and calling. The more he called, the more I wanted him to leave me the hell alone. He doesn’t deserve that. He should have a girl who actually wants to answer his calls.”
“You’re so touchy about your tattoo. Vanessa did a good job on it.”
“I know it’s weird, but I don’t want anyone to see it, let alone touch it. It’s personal.”
Roan was quiet for a second, but I knew he didn’t understand. I wasn’t even sure I understood what my hang-up was.
“Well, you’re the girl Haden wants,” Roan said finally. “And that he showed up to talk to me? That takes balls.”
“I guess, but don’t you think it’s a sign that you’re my best friend and you’re not friends with him?”
“No. He’s in the Crew, just like us. Which means he’s already been vetted. And I’m not in the relationship. That’s just you and him. He really wants to try to see what’s between you two, and you say he’s perfect, so maybe it’s worth another shot?”
Enough with this already. “Don’t make me feel bad about it. I didn’t feel a connection with Haden, and I tried. That’s it. It’s over.”
“But did you try? Did you open up to him?” Roan raised his voice over the sounds of the people around us as we moved through a crowded intersection. “Did you tell him about your dad?”
“Are you crazy? No. Of course I didn’t tell him about my dad.” The only people who knew exactly who and what I was were my mother, Roan, and Jorge. Telling Haden was too big of a risk. One I couldn’t afford to take.
“Maybe you should’ve.”
I shrugged off his suggestion. “I just didn’t get that feeling. That click. And I knew I couldn’t tell him the truth.”
“But you told me barely five minutes after we met, and I’ve never said anything.”
I glanced at Roan for a second as we waited for the next crosswalk to light up. There were too many people around to really talk openly, but I knew what he meant.
Roan could’ve turned me in and become one of the richest people on Earth. The bounty on halfers was big enough to set a person up for life, but the bounty on me and my mom? It was astronomical. But Roan hadn’t turned me in. I’d be shocked if he told me he’d even considered it.
Roan stared at me pointedly, giving me his best see, it’s okay to open up expression. But he was wrong. For me, opening up meant death.
“You’re different. I trust you.” I wasn’t sure what was different about him, but it was a gut feeling. I’d learned the hard way to trust my gut, and it said that hanging out with Haden was okay—he was damned pretty to look at—but nothing more.
“You could always just date me,” he said way too loud, and I laughed. He gave me one of his big, infectious grins.
The light changed, and we started making our way closer to the intersection. Some girl pushed me into Roan as she wove past us. “Aww! Give him a chance. He’s cute!”
I gagged. “Nope. Not happening.” The idea of being with Roan wasn’t appealing at all. I didn’t have a sibling by blood, but Roan was more than my friend. He was my brother. He felt the same way, but we hung out so much everyone liked to think we were a couple. It’d turned into an inside joke with us.
Roan cupped his hands around his mouth. “Thanks for the support.” He climbed up the light pole to stand above the swarm of people moving across the intersection in all directions.
“Maybe you could meet me one night? I chill at Starlite every Thursday. It’s frosty,” he shouted.
The girl laughed and waved as she disappeared from sight.
Roan looked down at me. “I might have scored a date!”
His grin was infectious. “Dude. You’re living in dreamville. She didn’t even turn when she waved at you.”
“No way. I’m so in with her. Trust me.”
I laughed a real, gut-deep laugh for the first time in weeks.
He gasped, pretending to be hurt. “If I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d be offended right now.”
“That’s why I love you. Now will you get down from there before we get into trouble.” I waved at him to hurry up. He was attracting way too much attention.
“Don’t worry so much.” He hopped down. “I love you, too. I just wish you could be happy.”
“I’m as happy as I can be given my circumstances.” That had to be good enough.
He dragged me across the intersection as the light changed to yellow.
I jerked my hand from his. Roan knew I didn’t like to break any laws—even jaywalking—but it was already too late. We were the only people in the intersection now, and that was bad. I hurried across, dragging Roan behind me.
“Chill out. It’s still yellow,” he said as it turned to red.
“Freeze!” A booming voice came from behind us. “IDs. Now.”
We froze as ordered. The cop’s words echoed in my ears, and I closed my eyes. My ID would never pass an official inspection, but running now would be worse.
This so wasn’t happening. It was a bad dream. A nightmare.
I opened my eyes to find a SpaceTech police officer standing in front of us in his navy and gray uniform. He didn’t have any medals over his right pocket, so I knew he was a newbie, but that was almost worse. Newbies liked to find ways to prove themselves.
The traffic and commotion around us had slowed a little as lookie-loos all stared, wanting to see what the officer was going to do to us.
“What’s the problem, officer?” I asked in what I hoped would be a calm voice, but it came out way too high-pitched.
Roan grabbed my hand, and I wove my fingers with his.
“After your buddy here illegally climbed that light pole—which as you know is official SpaceTech property—you crossed the intersection on a yellow.”
“I’m sorry, officer. We didn’t notice it had turned yellow until we were already in the intersection. It won’t happen again,” I said a little too quickly.
The cop’s eyes narrowed as he spotted something behind me. “Halt! Right now!” He lunged past me.
Across the street, some kid took off running. People started yelling as the kid pushed into the crowd, holding a bag in his arms. The cop dashed across the street, a speeder missing him by a fraction of an inch.
Roan dragged me to the curb so that traffic could move again, but I could barely move. I stood there frozen as people walked around us on their merry way. Meanwhile, my world had been seconds away from ending.
I tried to calm down, but all I could hear was my heartbeat thundering in my ears as if it was urging me to run, run, run, yet my feet stayed firmly in place.
I swallowed, but I couldn’t speak. Not yet. I wasn’t even sure how to process the fear that still coursed through my veins. I felt Roan’s arms wrap around me and I crumpled against him, my forehead resting on his sternum.
Roan was quiet for a second, and a moment later, the sound of a pod stopping to hover in front of us made me jerk away from him.
I blinked a few times at the bright yellow, double-capacity pod. I almost didn’t believe it was there. “You called a cab?” They traveled on tracks above the human-driven vehicles and had a sharp fee as a result.
“I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night. My treat.”
As we sat down in the cab, that smelled way too much of body odor and cheap booze, I wondered how long I could actually keep hiding. My heart-shaped face made me look all too much like a female Aunare. I wasn’t as tall as their women—they were six feet at a minimum, and I was five feet, seven inches. But if the shape of my face didn’t give me away, the size of my eyes might. They were a little too big. Thankfully, I had my mother’s light brown eye color instead of the brighter shades of Aunare blues and greens. Still, if anyone looked too closely, they’d know I was a halfer.
Roan took out a small case from his pocket. He carefully opened the lid, pulled out the fingernail-size device inside, and flipped it on. Now we could safely talk. The tiny piece of tech would disrupt all video and sound recording that SpaceTech mandated for every public transportation vehicle by adding static to both feeds so that our faces were now blurred and anything we said would come out as unintelligible hissing.
“Are you okay?” Roan said, breaking the silence.
My breath shook as I released the air I’d been holding in. “That was too close.”
Roan pulled me into his chest, squeezing me tight. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have rushed through the light. And I really shouldn’t have climbed the light pole. My flirting almost got us killed, and I’m so fucking sorry. I just… That was so iced. Seriously, Maité. SpaceTech Police Force never does that. They never stop people on the street. They have bigger problems and they—”
“I know.” That wasn’t the point. That wasn’t why I was freaking out. “How much longer do you think I can keep hiding? Really. I mean, let’s be honest here. It’s only a matter of time before I do something wrong or someone notices. I can’t change what I am. I’m terrified that—”
Roan pulled away and grabbed my face. “You won’t get caught.”
“You don’t know that.”
There was every chance that sooner or later, someone would catch me. Every couple of months SpaceTech would remind the world who my mother and I were. My mother had altered her appearance some, and the aging they’d done on my toddler picture wasn’t totally accurate. It’s the only reason no one had turned us in yet. Someday someone would look at me, and they wouldn’t see Maité Martinez.
They’d see Amihanna di Aetes. Daughter of Rysden di Aetes, the head of the Aunare military and second to the Aunare King.
And when that happened, there would be no more running from my fate.
I’d never been happier to be home as I was that night. Roan had paid the exorbitant cab fare and then left on foot for Starlite as soon as I’d entered the apartment building. He’d asked me to join him, but the close call with the cop was almost more than I could handle. All I wanted to do was hide in my darkened room for the next day or ten. But as I approached the front door of our apartment, voices seeped into the cement-lined hallway.
For a second, I dismissed them, but Mom’s voice rose above a deeper one, and I stopped walking.
We rarely had anyone over at all and never at this hour. Something was going on, and it couldn’t be good.
I tiptoed the rest of the way, pressing my ear to the door.
“I tried to contact you. I really did.” Mom’s voice was muffled, but I could make out her words. “But how could I know if he’d come for Maité after all these years?”
It felt like something slithered around my chest and tightened. Someone had come for me. But who?
Between the next three heartbeats, a few scenarios ran through my mind.