Welcome to Spirit of Empire!

Last of the Chosen, Spirit of Empire Book One

Chapter One: Falling Stars


A meteor streaked through the darkening Nevada sky from right to left, snatching Mike’s focus from the road. His mind, sluggishly holding to alertness by a thread, perked up at this unexpected delight. A heartbeat later, he was treated to a rare phenomenon, two more meteors streaking behind the first. Then his tired mind sharpened, his brow creasing in disbelief. He could have sworn the three streaks turned down and to the left just before winking out. But that was not possible. Meteors don’t turn, they simply melt into nothingness.

Mike focused again on his driving, but moments later a bright beam of light reached silently across the heavens to touch something high up in the sky. That something winked brighter than a star. The beam of light instantly changed to a green color and pulsed rapidly. The winking target lit the night, seemed to turn sharply, but could not shake off the pulsing green tether attached to itself.

Mike’s weariness vanished in a wash of excitement. He stood on the brakes, then had to concentrate on controlling a minor slide as his speed dropped off. By the time he could spare a glance, the target of those pulses was a roiling fireball falling from the sky. A clap, like distant thunder, rolled over the car as he slid to a stop in the middle of the road. A grin lit his face as he hopped out of the restored Mustang convertible for a better look. Somebody was playing with new weapons. Had he just seen a successful test?

Area 51, Dreamland, our top secret research and development facility for military aircraft and weapons, reputedly called the vast area of desert to the south its home. Were they testing some kind of new weapon tonight? Right here, out in the open where anyone could see? It didn’t make sense, but something had surely blown up. That something was still streaming flames and molten metal as it continued its long fall toward the ground.

Light reached across the sky again, much closer to the ground this time and much closer to Mike as well. Another star flared into existence but responded with a rapid series of pulsed green beams of its own. It abruptly angled away, breaking the tether of light attempting to hold it, and disappeared. More flashes soon lit the sky, alternating between the two craft and creating tiny halos around each. Mike frowned. This didn’t look like a test, it looked like a fight. The fighting, if that’s what it was, steadily moved closer to him as he stood beside his car. 

One of the craft staggered. Mike sucked in a breath when it abruptly swooped toward the ground, flattening its fall at the last moment to hit the road a couple of miles away at high speed. The craft caromed off the pavement back into the air, struggling to stay aloft but failing. When it hit again, pavement peeled up like a ribbon, curling up and over the craft. It emerged from the debris, airborne once more but barely above the ground. There was no doubt in Mike’s mind that the craft was in trouble and had chosen the highway as its emergency landing site. When it hit the road again, the craft slid along the highway, shoveling its way through a hail of pavement, dirt, debris, and sparks. He was directly in its path.

He cursed and took a few running steps toward the desert, then turned back, his mind on the important blueprints in the car. He couldn’t leave them under any circumstances. He reached across to the passenger seat and hefted the strap of an old duffel bag to his shoulder. With another glance at the mountain of dirt coming his way, he ran for his life, awkwardly adjusting the bag until it thumped across his back. Dodging the worst of the scrub and cacti as best he could in the failing light, his only focus was to put distance between himself and the road. The ground was soft, the whole area the remains of an ancient dry lake bed, and the going was hard. He stumbled and fell, a cloud of dust engulfing him, but with a fearful look over his shoulder he was up in an instant, sprinting for all he was worth, the heavy bag now held to his chest. He ran up and over a low outcropping of rock, then found himself running on air, his arms and legs flailing for balance. He fell several feet and hit hard, the wind knocked out of him.

Dirt, rocks, asphalt, and an incredible cacophony of sound hammered Mike as he lay stunned. He kept his head down and didn’t see the Mustang disappear, engulfed without pity by the monstrous craft as it slid to a stop.

The noise died away, replaced by an ominous stillness. Mike rose to his knees, coughing and spitting salty dirt from his mouth, the smell of the lake bed filling his nose and mouth. Then he froze. A muffled clank followed by a thunk sounded through the dust from the direction of the crash. Not the sound of a crashed plane settling into its final resting-place, this sound spoke of doors or hatches unsealing in a hurry. He scrabbled on hands and knees to the top of the rocks and peered over. A huge disc-shaped craft had come to rest at an angle, its front end buried in dirt. His eyes were immediately drawn to a rectangle of light showing dimly through the dust beneath the back end of the craft. Short, thin, man-like creatures with large, bald heads appeared in the light one by one, dropping to the ground with hand-held weapons before them and spreading out to disappear into the murk.

Mike slid back down the rocks to the ground, his eyes staring but not seeing. The image of bald heads with huge eyes imprinted itself in his brain forever. These creatures were not from Earth, nor was their ship. They resembled artist’s conceptions of the Roswell aliens, but these aliens were very, very alive, and they were armed. Was he their friend, or was he their enemy?

In his own mind, he was neither. He was just Mike Carver, architect and engineer. His eyes went to the duffel bag with the drawings, the final drawings that had been his whole world until just a few minutes ago. The rest of his design team was already in Reno assembling the model of the new high rise hotel and casino complex, a massive project that his small company had won in competition against much larger competitors. Tomorrow was contract signing day and the beginning of the second phase, the construction.

His gaze still on the bag, his lips pursed and his eyes narrowed. No, it wasn’t going to happen now, not tomorrow . . . but it was going to happen even if it meant he had to walk the rest of the way on foot. He just had to get away from here, then he’d figure out the rest.

An explosion ripped the night, a bright beam of light reaching up from the crashed ship to impact against another craft with a tremendous crack. Mike’s breathing stopped. Were his eyes fooling him or was that a UFO up there? The halo of light outlining the ship dissipated quickly, and the ship disappeared into the dark. A series of rapid pulses hurled up from the crashed ship toward the UFO and lit it again. It staggered, then returned fire with one powerful blast. The blast striking so close by literally stunned and blinded Mike. When his vision returned, flames belched from a gaping hole in the side of the crashed ship.

More figures jumped from the burning wreck and spread out into the desert, though not in Mike’s direction. Then, to his dismay, the UFO returned. The ground behind him, his intended escape route, lit up as the immense disc drifted silently overhead, coming to a stop when its forward edge neared the crashed ship. Thirty feet above his head, the burnished skin of the ship completely hid the stars. A ramp dropped to the ground some fifty meters away from him, light pouring from the opening to light up a large area beneath the ship. That area included Mike’s hiding place. He froze, knowing that any movement from him would draw unwanted attention. Several big cats leaped down the ramp and disappeared into the brush. He chanced movement and peeked around the rock to discover aliens from the crashed ship working their way toward the UFO.

He was right between both groups.

Energy bolts from hand-held weapons split the night in both directions. Mike hugged the ground with his eyes shut, willing himself to melt into the dirt, his mind furiously seeking and discarding ideas. He had to get away. He mentally chose a direction away from both ships and opened his eyes, his muscles tensed to spring, but instead he froze with a scream dying in his throat. Orange, feral eyes attached to a vicious snout filled his vision from inches away, a creature from hell. Mike sucked in a breath, then wished he hadn’t – the smell of the creature’s breath nearly caused him to gag. The eyes blinked. Vertical, diamond-shaped pupils disappeared, then reappeared, staring into his eyes. The eyes blinked once again, lips rose to display jagged fangs, then the creature reached forward with a paw, caressing Mike’s neck and head. He sensed incredible power within the beast as it pressed his head firmly into the dirt. Then the touch was gone. Mike looked up, but the creature had melted into the surroundings without a sound.


* * * * *


As if awaking from a dream, he rediscovered the night air bursting with weapons fire. He’d been touched by an alien. It had communicated a simple message that he clearly understood.


He numbly surveyed his surroundings and rose to a crouch, then flung himself back to the ground as the rock beside him exploded in a blast from . . . somewhere. That woke him up. This was bad, real bad, and no one was going to get him out of this mess but himself.

He scrabbled through the dirt to the edge of the rocks for a quick survey. To his left lay the crashed ship, seemingly dead now. His car lay somewhere out there in the dark beneath the hulk. In front of him and to the right, light streamed from the ramp near the center of the UFO. The ship itself was immense, some two hundred meters in diameter. Its bulk hid the night sky above him, its nearest edge a good 50 meters away.

He had no idea what the fighting was about, nor could he say who the bad guys were, though, surprisingly, he knew they were not the cats. The cat had told him to hide, but he would have preferred being offered a weapon. Here he was, caught right in the middle with no means of protecting himself. Nor did he see a way to hide. He couldn’t dig a hole, yet simply waiting for someone, or something, to come up and point a gun at him would not do either.

Another blast exploded against the rocks above him, forcing a decision. Grabbing his bag of plans, Mike turned until the light from the hovering UFO was off his left shoulder. He scrabbled straight ahead on hands and knees, dragging the heavy bag by its belt. He had not forgotten what he’d learned during his stint in the Army. He didn’t stop, just kept going through the dark for twenty or thirty feet, froze to listen and look, then went another twenty feet.

A new sound filled the night between the blasts from weapons, a high keening like the sound of cicadas. The sound struck him as something not of the desert, at least not the desert he knew, but he had bigger problems to worry about. The shooting became sporadic, possibly an indication of the number of contestants remaining, and Mike wondered which side was winning.

He stayed low as he continued crawling, lifting his head just high enough to survey the scene from time to time. Twilight had ended, the moon had not yet risen, and the desert sky beyond the edge of the ship was full dark now. The only light came from the ship and the occasional blast of a weapon. The crashed ship seemed deserted, and he gave serious thought to turning back in its direction since that’s where everyone else wasn’t, but the thought of encountering one of those hideous creatures in the dark revolted him. He wanted away from here, away from them, and away from the light. He turned his head to the left, studying the UFO and wondering why it didn’t turn out the lights.

Just then a man staggered down the ramp, a brightly colored cape billowing out behind, with his hands clamped over his ears and his body twisting in agony. Moments later a woman staggered down the ramp after him firing a blaster wildly, appearing unable to take aim. Two large cats sprang after the woman, knocking her to the ground at the foot of the ramp, but the man stayed on his feet. Twenty feet from Mike, between himself and the light, one of the bald-headed creatures rose silently from the desert. It pointed a weapon toward the UFO and took careful aim at the man.

Not pausing to think, just knowing the man was defenseless, Mike rose to a crouch, then sprinted toward the creature, tackling it from behind. It felt light as a feather and fragile, squeaking as it went down beneath him, its weapon flying from its hand. Holding on with a death grip as they hit, Mike felt bones give way within the creature’s chest, and he sensed life flow from its body.

No! Gasping with shame and revulsion, Mike jumped to his feet with both hands brushing at his clothes of their own accord, trying to rid himself of the feel of the creature lying at his feet.

Blast! The searing heat of a near miss brought him back to his senses. He dropped to the ground, his hands searching for the weapon dropped by the alien creature. Discarding dirt, rocks, and the sharp, bristly branches of plants in the dark, eventually his fingers brushed against something hard and unnatural. He hefted the weapon gingerly, searching in the light from the ship for a trigger. 

The weapon was about two feet long and felt like a toy in his hands. There was no trigger, but he did find two buttons on the grip. He pushed one, then the other, but nothing happened. Frustrated, he depressed both buttons at the same time. The weapon exploded a charge straight up, hitting the ship above him and ricocheting off. He cringed, but only for a moment. Yes! He had a weapon; he was no longer defenseless. 

The caped man lay on the ground ten feet from the ramp, not moving. The woman lay at the foot of the ramp behind the two cats who were firing at anything that moved. Mike retrieved his bag and circled the brightly lit area of the ramp, his belly never leaving the ground, until he was out of the brightest light. Why didn’t they turn out the lights, he wondered? He stopped moving when a shape rose up behind the woman and cats. A bald, white head, elliptical eyes dominating its features, stared out from behind the ramp of the UFO, aiming a weapon at the unprotected woman.

Mike had to choose. Should he escape, or should he help the cats and the woman who were pinned down? He had felt protected by the fearsome cat that had told him to hide, and he felt revulsion for the bald-headed creatures. He chose what felt right. He rose to one knee, took careful aim down the short barrel of the alien weapon, and pressed the buttons. A charge exploded from the weapon, narrowly missing the woman and cats to ricochet off the ramp. The baldhead changed its aim, loosing off a hurried round at Mike that went wide. Moving his aim slightly to the right, Mike pushed the buttons again. This time he was on target. The creature flew backward as the burst of energy exploded into its body.

Quicker than he could blink, Mike found himself staring into the muzzles of four weapons, one in each forepaw of the cats. His weapon fell to the ground and both arms rose as high as he could reach before he had even made a conscious decision to do so.

Blast! One of the cats went down. The other dropped to cover the woman and fired at a target behind Mike, all in the same motion. Mike scooped up his weapon and the bag of drawings and raced in a crouch toward the ramp, dodging to avoid blasts on the way. He dove to cover behind the ramp, rolling into the body of the alien he had shot. Using it as cover, he turned to the rear looking for others. Shots exploded from the dark, then two aliens rose to rush forward. Mike fired twice and didn’t miss. He had just an instant to note that the cicada sound ceased after his last shot before a hail of blaster charges rained against the front of the ramp, flooding him with heat and explosions.

The cat creature, using the body of his dead partner for cover, kept up a constant fire. Mike reached an arm around the entrance ramp, grasped an ankle and pulled, dragging the woman to safety by his side. She seemed dazed, turning to look at him with vacant eyes. The cat soon joined him and they took turns firing at anything that moved, but they were trapped. They needed to move into the safety of the ship, but there was no way to get around and up the ramp without fully exposing themselves. One look into the cat’s eyes convinced Mike that it, too, was aware of their predicament. They needed to eliminate the baldheads. They needed a diversion to draw them out of hiding.

Mike took a moment to study the cat. What was it about the creature that drew him? He should have been revolted by its very presence, by its obvious alienness, but he was not. About the size and coloring of a full-grown lion, its muzzle drew all his attention. Longer than a cat’s, more like a baboon’s, the muzzle was furless and fierce, the skin gathered in brightly colored ridges, red and black and gold predominating. The teeth, when exposed, were clearly made for ripping apart prey. The ears were definitely those of a cat, tufted with black hair on each pointed end. The cat wore no clothes, only an equipment harness holding various pouches crisscrossing its shoulders and chest. He sensed power within the cat, power screaming to be unleashed, but not in his direction. In spite of its fearsome appearance, this cat was not his enemy.

Mike motioned for the cat to go out to the side in a flanking action to draw out the enemy. Then, he looked at his hand as if it belonged to someone else. Was he nuts? What was he trying to do? Why was he even here? He didn’t want any part in this. He had never seriously believed the stories of UFO’s and alien abductions, though he hoped others existed out among the stars and would come some day in the future. But not now, not right this minute. He just wanted away from here. This wasn’t his fight.

The cat’s gaze met his squarely as it shook its head, indicating that Mike’s plan was not acceptable. It holstered a weapon and reached out a clawed fist to caress the head of the woman, scrunching up its lips in a smile to display wicked teeth. Mike got the message – it wasn’t leaving her side. He also discovered that the creature was no simple cat. Instead of paws, it had four hands with full length fingers and opposing thumbs, all tipped by sharp claws.

The cat shook the woman to get her attention, peering into her eyes until it found what it was looking for, then forced a weapon into her hand. She responded by angrily turning toward Mike, then shouldering him aside to squeeze between him and the ramp. The blaster in her hand fired, then fired again.

Mike turned toward the cat thinking hard, then met the cat’s fierce gaze again. He waved his blaster over his head in a circle, then pointed to his eyes and covered them. The cat took a quick look around the ramp, fired one shot, then another and returned to the silent game of charades. It thought for a moment, then pointed a long-nailed finger straight up, motioning up the ramp and into the ship.

Darn! The light switch must be inside the ship. Mike shrugged, knowing what had to come next. He looked away from the cat with a frown, wondering how his life could have changed so completely so suddenly, wondering also why he had chosen sides when he didn’t even know who the good guys were. When he turned back to the cat, the quivering, hellish muzzle swung to within inches of his own. They locked gazes again silently. This cat understood his dilemma.

Though Mike’s gaze was on the cat, his mind was elsewhere. His whole life had changed in the past fifteen minutes. His car lay beneath the crashed ship some one hundred meters away. He still had his drawings, but the prospects of those drawings reaching Reno appeared bleak at the moment. Nor was the significance of this First Contact lost on him. Building plans and cars mattered little to the potential ramifications of First Contact. But whose side should he be on, if anyone’s? He didn’t want to choose sides, but the sides had been chosen for him. The bald-headed aliens had shot at him. His choice had been cemented when he tackled and killed the creature that had shot the man. There was no going back now, but that didn’t mean he had made the right choice.

His eyes focused once again on the cat, and he knew instantly that this cat was what mattered. First Contact took precedence over his own personal plans, and for the moment, survival was the focus.

The cat waited for him to make up his mind with the patience all cats seemed to have. Mike pursed his lips, then locked gazes with the cat and nodded his head once. He would do his part, if only to survive.

The woman grasped a handful of fur at the throat of the cat. It instantly swung its muzzle toward her to give her its full, undivided attention. Mike gathered up another weapon from the dead alien he had shot, stuck both barrels around the ramp, and awkwardly pushed buttons, loosing shots at random and frequently checking to his rear. He didn’t see any movement anywhere. The woman had risen to her knees before the cat, both hands grasping the fur around its neck to hold its attention. Heated words were exchanged, the cat holding its own with full speech ability. Mike understood enough from the tone to know that the cat was not only being ordered, but that it was unhappy about those orders. It turned to face him, peering hard into his eyes, willing its thoughts to him.

Mike watched carefully as the cat motioned, its arm reaching toward the fallen man who was well beyond its reach. Shots exploded against the ramp and everyone huddled together. Mike hissed at the cat to get his attention, studied his weapons momentarily, then crouched beside the ramp and began firing both as quickly as the weapons would allow. The woman squirmed beneath him on her belly, adding her fire to his, and the cat took off. It reached the fallen man in one leap, wrapped a well-muscled arm around him, and skittered back, laying the man gently under the sloping ramp.

Mike stopped firing and sat up, wiping sweat from his brow as the woman examined the body. He took one look and knew the man was dead. A large chunk of his midsection was missing, and there was no sign of blood flowing from the wound. Clearly, his heart had stopped. Mike focused on the desert to his rear, wondering how many bald-headed aliens were left out there.

What next, he wondered? They were still pinned down, unable to get into the ship. The woman conferred with the cat again, exchanging more heated words, then turned her attention to Mike. For the first time he took a good look at her. Disheveled brown hair and a face streaked with dust and dried tears returned his gaze. Large, angry, doe-like brown eyes examined him from head to foot, taking in his long, lanky frame, straight black hair, and black eyes spaced wide apart on a permanently tanned face. What she couldn’t see was his Scottish heritage, a source of high energy and determination, tempered by a mixture of American Indian that gave him his calm, unflappable stamina, gifts he keenly protected.

When her examination was complete and she focused once again on his eyes, he sensed that, unlike the cat, she was not happy with what she saw. Their gazes held for a moment, then he returned his attention to the cat, dismissing her. She grasped both of his shoulders, forcing his attention back to her. Two sets of angry eyes stared at each other.

Without warning her eyes swelled. Mike felt himself swallowed by those eyes, then all coherent thought of any kind fled. He felt her mind delve into his inner being, sampling memories and feelings, shuffling through them as quickly as a professional dealer shuffled cards. His mind was reduced to primitive instincts, wanting only to escape. On that primitive level he panicked and tried to fight back, but there was nothing to grab on to. He tried to flee and managed to stand up, but she rose with him, keeping a lock on his mind. Unknown to him, shots impacted the other side of the ramp, and she grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling them both back from danger. They stood nose to nose, his whole being captive to her mind as she shuffled through his thoughts.

Suddenly, she was gone. She simply withdrew, freed him, let go of his mind. He flopped to the ground, pulling her with him. She lay on top of him, but he didn’t care. It was over. That’s all that mattered. It was over.

Gasping for breath, he flung her off and rose, the fighting forgotten, his hand held out before him to ward her off, wanting nothing but space, lots of space, between her and him. His mind was his own again but primitive instinct still prevailed. He needed to be away from this alien creature. Nothing else mattered.

A clawed hand grasped the front of his shirt and pulled him into an embrace, forcing him to the ground. The cat stood guard over him while he struggled with his horror.

A fierce growl brought him back to reality. The woman had returned to the base of the ramp, lying on her belly and firing her weapon as if nothing unusual had happened. The cat growled again, demanding his attention. Mike closed his eyes and shook as a chill raced through his body, but he forced himself to think. He was in the midst of a battle, he was pinned down, and he wanted to live. He had to set the horror aside, at least for a time, but he would never forgive or forget how she had violated him. First Contact was toast as far as he was concerned. He just wanted away from this witch woman. If getting away meant killing the bald-headed aliens first, then he would kill them. 

The cat reached a hand out to him. Three small spheres rested in the palm of that hand. It motioned throwing the spheres out into the desert, then shielding its eyes. More charades, but Mike got the message. He took a moment to check his weapons. What he was checking for he didn’t know, but it gave him the moment he needed to get his act together.

He lifted his eyes to the cat and nodded, lips still pursed in a thin line. One sphere was dropped just in front of the ramp, then the other two flew far into the night. He closed his eyes and felt the rough hand of the cat reaching out to supply added cover for his eyes. Moments later he dimly perceived a bright flash, as if a stun grenade had gone off. Once more the light flashed, even brighter, then Mike moved, sprinting toward the dark desert in a line perpendicular to the ramp. He was gratified to hear covering fire from the cat and the woman. It was a long run, some thirty or forty meters, and he was the only thing moving, the only target. Did the bald-headed alien’s eyes work the same as ours? Were they blinded, or was he an easy target?

He stopped and flattened himself to the ground, raising only his head. He was outside the brightest wash of light from the ship, giving him a much better view of the area holding the bald-heads. He waited, lifting his head slowly, knowing that the first creature to move would be at a disadvantage.

Nothing happened for a time, so he set one weapon on the ground and raised himself to one knee, keeping his head below the level of the brush. He raised the weapon into a rifle-like firing position, one eye looking along the top of the short barrel, his left elbow held tightly against his body to provide a rigid firing platform.

The cicada sound returned strongly, and he frowned. What were cicadas doing here in the desert at this time of year? Moments later he saw movement. The woman was thrashing on the ground beside the ramp having some kind of fit, fully exposed to the bald-heads. Three white, bald-headed figures, widely dispersed, rose as one thirty meters in front of the ramp, weapons preparing to fire.

The cat sprang from behind the ramp to cover the woman, its blaster taking out all three of the enemy quicker than Mike could blink. Mike rose up to help, but he was too late. He swiftly turned to his left and checked behind the ramp. The light was much dimmer there, but two white, bald heads showed clearly. They took aim, but Mike fired quickly and repeatedly, felling both of them. The cicada sound ceased abruptly as the last alien fell.

He raced toward the darker area behind the ramp to look for more, leaving the brighter area in front of the ramp to the cat.

He settled, then moved a few more meters away from the ramp and lowered himself back into a firing position, searching, but he sensed it was over. While he waited, he wondered if the ship would just close its ramp and lift off. That would be okay with him as long as the witch woman went with it.

He was taken completely by surprise when the cat appeared beside him, rising silently out of the dark. They looked at each other sensing kinship, then the cat turned its back on him and headed back to the ship. Mike stayed anchored in place with one knee on the ground, sensing the invitation but aware that the witch was back there. The cat stopped and turned to face him, then settled onto its haunches to wait.

Mike studied the creature, studied its alienness, and as he did so, he began to sense wonder. This creature was so very much more than just an animal. In every way it was a person, just as he was. It was clearly intelligent, it spoke, it used tools, and it flew spaceships. What places had it visited? What things had it seen? Other worlds, surely. Probably other star systems as well. He doubted if the cat was from Mars, and it certainly wasn’t from any of the other uninhabitable planets in our solar system, so it must have come from the stars.

Regardless of where it was from, he and the cat were kindred spirits now. They’d fought together, and in doing so they had become linked in some indefinable way. He liked the cat, and he liked the feeling.

His gaze lifted to study the ship above his head. The distant edge of its burnished disc disappeared in the darkness, so immense was the craft. A real space ship! In fact, it was probably a starship. True, the witch was part of it, yet his excitement blossomed. Would they let him inside, let him look around? He’d earned the privilege. They owed him, sort of; he’d helped save their butts. Did these aliens believe in gratitude?

Looking to the cat once again, he knew the cat wouldn’t let him down. He stood up and looked toward the lighted area surrounding the ramp. What awaited him there? He started walking toward it. The cat fell in beside him.

The cat stopped at the foot of the ramp and sat back on its haunches to stare up into the ship, waiting as only a cat can wait. Mike stopped beside him. The woman appeared at the top of the ramp and stopped, her steady gaze focused only on him.

A chill ran through his body. He must have telegraphed his feelings, for her lips compressed in determination as she started down the ramp, though faltering steps and deep circles of exhaustion around her eyes betrayed the effort needed. She held her head high, her focus just him.

Knowing what those eyes could do, he took a step backward, then another, his grip tightening on the blaster, uncertain. He stopped at a low growl from the cat, turning to it with a questioning look, but it simply returned his stare, the way all cats return stares. By the time he turned back to the woman, she had reached the bottom of the ramp.

What do you say to aliens when all the fighting has stopped, he wondered? As it turned out, he said nothing. With those large, brown eyes focused solely on his, she raised a gun to his face and shot him.



Chapter Two: Rider


Mike woke up lying on the floor of a padded cell. There was no other way to describe the room: four bare padded walls, padded ceiling and floor, no windows, no door.

He pulled himself into a sitting position, his mind focused first on himself. His body seemed to be okay, though his clothes were a disaster and his shoes and socks were missing. A days-old beard attested to the fact that he’d been here for a while, and a fierce hunger reinforced that conclusion. He probably smelled, but that was the least of his problems at the moment.

What did matter was that his life had changed. In the blink of an eye, everything he’d worked for was gone. His company, his plans, his car, his friends and relatives, everything that had ever mattered was lost to him. Mike couldn’t say why he knew, but he knew he was aboard the ship. He was a prisoner of aliens.

Aliens! He shook his head, blinking his eyes. Aliens? Both hands came involuntarily to his face to rub his eyes, and his knees drew up toward his chest. He rested his arms on his knees, deeply troubled. Had he gone mad?

His mind answered instantly. No! The fight in the desert had been real. The two ships were real. The bald-headed creatures, the cats, the witch woman, the blasters – all were real. One look at his ruined trousers was all the confirmation he needed. His mind was as sharp as it had ever been.

What now? He stood up and moved about the room, idly testing the walls and looking for a door, but his mind was elsewhere. The woman had shot him. Obviously she had used a weapon that did not cause harm. Was he now one of those UFO abductees? Were these aliens going to experiment on him, operate without anesthesia like in the stories he’d heard?

Had they already? He stopped, suddenly concerned about his body. He felt his head and neck carefully, then his torso and legs. There was no pain of any kind, no hint of an incision. Other than the hunger, he felt great.

Then he got to wondering. Maybe he wasn’t on a ship. Maybe the aliens had just left him lying there in the desert. It was very possible that he had been discovered by the U.S. military and was in some kind of quarantine area, maybe even Area 51. Could he get out? He searched every inch of the walls but refrained from pulling down the padding. It was too soon. Until proven otherwise, he would assume he was a guest.

“Hey, anyone there?” he yelled.

>Hello, Man.<

Uh, oh. The voice was crystal clear, but the choice of words was not what he would expect from someone from Area 51. “Hi, yourself. Come in!” he responded guardedly, turning from one wall to the next, wondering if a door would open. This might not be a complete disaster, he decided as a small kernel of hope germinated. At least someone was listening, and whoever it was spoke English.

>Hello, Man,< the voice said again.

“Hello, yourself,” he said again, puzzled. Whoever it was didn’t sound too smart – he was repeating himself. “Who are you? Let me out of here.”

>I am Jake. I am here with you. I am part of you now. I am inside you.<

Mike laughed. “Sure you are. They gave me an implant while I was sleeping, huh?” To himself he added, “After she shot me, the witch!” Then his eyebrows lifted in alarm. Maybe they had given him an implant. Maybe they wouldn’t stop at anything. After all, they were aliens. But wait, would they know how to do surgery on a human? Wouldn’t they mess it up? He started feeling around his head and neck again.

>There has been no surgery, Man. And she is not a witch.<

“Huh! Easy for you to say. She didn’t shoot you. Right in the face, too.” Mike didn’t care if she was listening or not, he was mad. “After all I did for her, she never even gave me a chance. Is that the way you aliens thank people? Why don’t you just come on in here so we can talk face to face?”

>I have been in this room with you for several days. After we get over the hard part, this adjustment period, I think they will let us out. If you cooperate, the process will go faster.<

“Cooperate! You’ve got to be kidding! I save all your butts and this is the thanks I get? Shot in the face and locked up in a padded cell talking to a speaker? Whatever happened to diplomacy? Who are you anyway?”

>I am Jake.<  Mike detected a trace of exasperation in the voice this time. >I’m repeating myself. Will you calm down and let me explain? It’s not supposed to be this hard. Are all Earthmen as stubborn as you?<

“Stubborn!” Mike was mad, but he also knew that he was not in control of his life at the moment. He decided he’d better play their game. He sat down with his back against a wall, his bare feet straight out before him, arms folded across his chest. He could play the waiting game as well as anyone. Then, without warning he was struck by a troubling thought. Leaning forward, he said in a low, worried voice, “The lady that shot me – I called her a witch, but I didn’t say it out loud. I think I just thought it. Am I going crazy?”

>Not yet, but you might.< Mike heard a chuckle, then a feeling of chagrin came strongly into his mind. >Sorry, Man. This is not a time for humor. Please understand that I am real, that I am in this room with you, and that you have not undergone an operation for an implant. Do you know what symbiosis is?<

“I’ve heard the term, but why don’t you just tell me,” he said leaning back against the wall and hugging his knees to his chest.

>It describes a relationship in which two organisms exist in partnership, each gaining from its relationship with the other. You and I are now living in symbiosis. I am living inside you.<

Mike thought about what had been said and about what he knew of biology, then he panicked. Jumping to his feet, he yelled, “You mean I have a parasite living inside me?”

>No! I am not a parasite. The very idea sickens me. Parasites live on other organisms, taking what they need but not returning. There is no balance. Some parasites ultimately kill their hosts. I, on the other hand, will be helpful. You will discover many benefits to this relationship, I think all of them good. In essence, yes, I am an alien being, I am living inside you like a parasite might, but the relationship will be beneficial to you.<

Mike laughed uncertainly. “Sure. Sure you are. You’re inside me, and you’re alive. Ha, ha.” Then, a smirk lit up his face. He crossed his arms, demanding what he knew to be impossible. “Prove it!”

>I already have, but as you wish. Look down at your right foot, Man.<

Mike looked down. His foot looked normal enough, maybe a tinge darker than normal. He moved his left foot over to compare. Soon, though, no comparison was possible. Purplish ooze seeped out between his toes and spread across the floor. He picked up his foot and the ooze stayed attached, continuing to grow.

He fainted.