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Excerpt for Rescuing Prince Charming by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Alien Contact for Runaway Moms

by


Edward Hoornaert
http://eahoornaert.com/



When Audra Verhailey’s abusive lover tries to take custody of her baby, she flees where even he can’t follow: the aliens’ forbidden cities underneath Kwadra Island. But can the safety she wants for her daughter survive a search party, violent alien criminals—and the love of an emotionally damaged Kwadran?

Tal Pelletier’s life has degenerated into drinking, fighting, and physical labor, but he used to be a brilliant technician. When Audra asks his help sneaking into Kwadra’s abandoned cities, it represents a second chance, because she and her baby remind him of the wife and child he lost. But can he protect them from the killers—and the demons inside him?





Copyright September, 2018 by Edward Hoornaert


All rights reserved


This novel is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places and incidents are either

the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Editing and cover design by Danielle Fine: http://www.daniellefine.com/


ISBN: 9780463135143




Dedication


My grandsons were a huge inspiration as I wrote this book, so who else could I possibly dedicate it to? This one’s for Logan and Wesley.








Chapter One


Time: Five years from now

Place: A forest on a duplicate of Vancouver Island that doesn’t exist on this planet…yet


“I don’t care how helpful you’re being,” Audra Verhailey panted with as much defiant dignity as she could muster. “I’m not going to have sex with you.”

Her lanky, dark-skinned guide—an honest-to-God alien from another world, though he looked like someone she might meet on an Indian Reservation—slowed his pace. He glanced back with a sad, faraway expression, as though remembering a healthier forest on a distant planet. Then he resumed climbing the steep hillside.

Fuming, she followed. If he got too far ahead, she’d have to shout, and that might wake Roxie, the best baby on this Earth. The least he could do was stop to listen to her.

He hadn’t spoken during the forty minute climb through a dense yet sickly evergreen forest with so many dead needles it was sometimes like slogging through loose sand. She’d been meaning to state her terms for at least thirty-nine of those minutes, ever since they’d started up this mountain. But exertion and his fierce silence had robbed her of words.

For the first ten minutes, Audra had felt nothing but love for her baby, gratitude for his help, and relief that she’d escaped despite everything.

For the next ten, love still dominated, but she wished he’d say something so she knew he just meant to help.

By the time the third ten came around, the mountainside’s isolation and his stubborn silence had started scaring her. She’d tried jokes and humorous comments about the mountainside, but he’d answered with brooding grunts, if at all.

Now her anxiety was approaching panic.

“I’m doing the right thing,” she whispered to herself as she tromped over fallen branches that cracked underfoot like gunshots from a pursuing posse. “The right thing, the right thing.”

Even Mom, a level-headed high school principal, had begged her to get Roxie away from the baby’s dad. I know, Mom said as she thrust a roll of bills into her purse, that Tom controls your money. And everything else, including makeup, clothes, friendships, thoughts. So take this and run away. Hide.

But no matter where I go, he’ll find me!

If you can just keep away from him for a month or two

Mom was right, as usual. After a while, Tom would act as though he didn’t care that she’d left. He hated losing—but not as much as he hated people thinking he was a loser. For him, everything was about appearances.

So Audra knew she was doing the right thing…but being right didn’t mean her escape would end well.

So far, it couldn’t have gone worse. Tom’s paranoia made him hard to get away from, so she’d had to creep away in the middle of the night. Then her wallet, containing her driver’s license, credit card, and nine-hundred-eighteen dollars, was stolen on the ferry from Astoria to Kwadra Island, leaving her without friends, money, or even identification in an alien land. Anguish clung to her skin like filth that would never wash off.

Roxie was worth it all, of course, but Audra’s nerves were shot. Instead of being able to relax as she approached the ultimate in safety, she had to endure Mr. Tall Dark and Intimidating’s brooding silence. She couldn’t take his company much longer without screaming or lashing out or…or something.

She’d met him this morning when he climbed out of a construction company pickup truck. She was kneeling with a map spread out on dirt that would one day be a paved street or sidewalk. Maybe a house. She was thinking they might have to build whatever-it-was around her dead body, because she was at the end of her hope, quivering with misery and fear for her baby’s welfare.

But then came an unexpected ray of not-despair. Baby Roxie had smiled up at the big, tough construction worker and dropped the plastic keys Audra had given her to play with. He picked them up, knelt down, and let Roxie grab his finger. When she tried to stuff his hand in her mouth, he let her. His smile was heavy with yearning, wistfulness…and pain.

That smile, that smile…

For no better reason than a stranger’s mournful smile, Audra had leaped to a rash decision she now regretted. She’d asked if he could read the foreign words on the hand-drawn, bootleg map Mom had bought. Maybe even give directions to her destination?

No, he’d said, he wouldn’t give directions. She’d just get lost. Instead, he volunteered to guide her.

Everybody, or at least every woman, knew that a guy who abandoned work to help a stranger was suspicious. Or maybe, she hoped, just sick of the job. She knew that feeling.

He got back in his truck and drove them along a dirt road that climbed a mountain valley for nearly an hour. Audra hadn’t seen another vehicle for the last half of the drive. Then he hiked up this wilderness mountain with her. He even carried her backpack, heavy with food, diapers, toys, a single change of clothes for herself, six flashlights, and one-hundred-ninety-two triple-A batteries.

And now, as Audra hurried to catch up to him, she was chilled by how utterly vulnerable she was. No one would hear her screams, if she had to scream. There were no kindly neighbors to run to, if she had to run.

Mom might call this guide the greatest gentleman alive, but although Audra admired her mother’s optimism, she couldn’t share it. He was a guy, and she knew the kind of guys runaways attracted.

As a teen, she’d run away from home twice—which her foster mother, now her adoptive mother, had totally not deserved—so she knew all about girls who disappeared off the face of the Earth. Ten summers ago, she’d shared a tent with a street friend from Montana. They were vegging out at Pioneer Courthouse Square when Evangeline met a guy who seemed nice. She had wiggled her fingers at Audra in a see-you-soon wave as she left with him.

She was never seen again.

Audra had liked a boy in her biology class with blond hair, and that guy’s hair was dark, which was the only reason she hadn’t flirted with Evangeline’s guy. But what if she had? What if she, rather than Evangeline, had gone off with him?

That day had haunted her nightmares for years, yet what had she done? Gone off with a dark-haired guy who seemed nice and who would make her disappear off the face of the Earth. She must be the most naïve idiot still breathing. At least for a while.

Roxie deserved a better mother.

Audra had told herself not to trust muscular, macho guys, but after puzzling over the handwritten map written in an alien language, with five dollars and eighteen cents in her pocket and half of yesterday’s banana in her belly, she’d gone and trusted him anyway.

“Did you hear me?” Her voice was shrill, tremulous, and loud enough that Roxie stirred but went back to sleep. “Not even a blowjob,” she finished in a fierce whisper.

As soon as she spoke, she realized she’d stumbled onto something. He was being so over-the-top helpful that he obviously wanted something from her. She had only her baby, her body, and five dollars eighteen cents; if he demanded payment, she’d give him the best blowjob ever. The money too, if he wanted it.

She had to stay alive and well for Roxie’s sake. Nothing was more important than that.

Instead of answering, the guy tormented her with an enigmatic smile as he climbed over a fallen tree trunk. Expecting his gaze to rake her body, she slouched. But he didn’t check her out. Didn’t even glance at her as she detoured around the log.

She was relieved, sure, but this guy was spooky with a capital S—which could also stand for Silent and Scary. His name was Al or Hal or something that rhymed with that, but his silence was a wall forbidding even simple questions. She didn’t understand him, and that bothered her. People—guys, at least—didn’t help runaways out of the goodness of their hearts. Though Kwadrans hailed from an alternate Earth, they were human, and human guys thought with their dicks no matter what planet they were born on.

Guys were dicks, no matter what planet they were born on.

“I just wanted to make that clear,” she said, determined to coax something out of him. When he didn’t answer, she stepped close enough to poke his shoulder with three stiff fingers. “No sex, understand?”

“Okay.”

Only one word, but it was progress. “So don’t try anything.”

“Okay.”

She stopped and planted her feet. “I warn you, I’ve taken self-defense classes.”

When a new possibility hit her, her tired legs wobbled so much she had to lean against a tree to keep from falling. “Did Tom pay you to lead me around in circles until he gets here?”

Blinking, her guide stopped. “Sorry, what did you say?” He took a deep breath and looked around as though he was returning from far away. “Going back is hard for me.”

Tearing Roxie from the security of a posh apartment wasn’t easy for her, either. Not knowing where her baby would sleep tonight was agony. He’d get no sympathy from her.

Well, not none. Less than his help deserved, though.

“Is a lawyer named Thomas J. Verhailey paying you to do this?”

“I wish he was. Wish somebody was.”

Fighting off a shiver of dread, Audra wrapped her hands around her elbows. As she feared, he wanted some kind of payment for his help.

“He your husband?”

“God, no.” That, at least, was one mistake she hadn’t made. “It’s complicated, okay? He’s sort of a cousin, but I’m a Verhailey only by adoption and… Oh, never mind. I have another question before you head back to la-la land.”

He cocked his head to one side. “La-la land?”

“Are you with the police?”

His bark of laughter reassured her—until he spoke. “Only when they lock me up.”

“I’m alone in the wilderness with a criminal?”

He leered at her, but if the overdone expression was a joke, it wasn’t funny. His face slid back to its usual granite impenetrability. “I’ve been jellyfish in public a few dozen times.”

She frowned. “Jellyfish?”

“That’s ‘drunk’ to you,” he said. “They also got me for creating public disturbances. Fighting. Pub brawls. That sort of thing.”

Around his mouth and eyes, he looked like someone who might’ve done worse, yet she wanted to believe him. She resumed plodding uphill while trying to make her thoughts plod as well, rather than skitter wildly. That was harder.

As a teenager, she’d survived for months on the streets of Portland by almost, but not quite, panicking—being hyperaware of possible threats, but not losing control. With each tired footstep, she tried to sink deeper into the survival instincts of her youth. It helped to remember the on-edge mood of the first day at a new foster home, when she didn’t know the rules or trust the people.

He brushed against a dead sapling, creating a shower of dead needles. Some of them stuck to his raven-black hair like brown dandruff.

“You in trouble?” he asked.

“Of course not,” she shot back. “I ran away from home at two a.m., fled the country, risked my baby’s life, and am following a jellyfish up a mountain to search for a hole in the ground that probably doesn’t even exist, all because it’s my idea of fun, fun, fun.”

He didn’t answer right away, just kept walking. He didn’t seem to mind that she was fleeing trouble. That was reassuring, but she couldn’t let it lull her.

“It exists,” he said. “Or did.”

“What do you mean, did?”

She counted the steps until he deigned to answer. Eight. Nine. Ten…

“You ran away with a baby in the middle of the night without knowing this stuff?”

“Go—” She paused to calm her voice. “Go to hell.”

“Yeah, I’m pointed that direction.” After several more steps, he chuckled. “It’s not enough to run away from your problems, you know. You have to have something to run to.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me, Mr. Wise Guy, do you follow your own advice?”

Another chuckle, tinged with bitterness. Then a sigh. “You know, maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.”

She scowled, trying to dispel any hopes he might have about her. Didn’t he realize that she had time for nothing and no one except her baby?

“Is the ventilation tunnel still open or not? Just tell me straight.”

He didn’t answer because they’d arrived at an overgrown gully, and fighting through the bushes required full attention. When he reached a fallen log that acted as a bridge to the far bank, he extended his hand to help her across. She ignored it, and then regretted her stubbornness, because crawling on hands and knees woke Roxie. Tiny fists stuttered erratically through the air as the girl fought against wakefulness; tiny fists that were as soft as a chick’s newly hatched feathers yet as steely as the fierce little will that yearned for love.

“The authorities,” he said over the baby’s fussing, “don’t want crooks sneaking down there. The mountains on the western side of the island are honeycombed with towns and tunnels connecting them, so it’s nearly impossible to track down a crook. When someone cuts into a ventilation tunnel, a crew fixes the grates as soon as they can.”

Audra hugged Roxie and swayed from side to side. “How soon is that?”

He shrugged.

“Assuming I can slip through the grate…” She stopped to control the panic that nearly overwhelmed her calmness. What if she couldn’t? Her heart beat painfully at the thought of coming all this way, with no way back, and only making things worse for Roxie. “Assuming I get in, it sounds perfect.”

“You a crook, then?”

It was the quickest he’d ever responded to her. This time, though, she was the one who hesitated before answering. She crooned to Roxie and walked her fingers over her tummy. Roxie laughed.

He didn’t take the hint. “The flicks after you? Cops, I mean?”

She shook her head, hoping she wasn’t lying. Tom, the boyfriend who’d sired Roxie, had turned out to be a control freak, a narcissist, and an unfeeling sociopath. Unfortunately, the world saw him as a respectable lawyer with the county’s district attorney. If she dared leave him, he said, he’d find her no matter where in the country she went. Canada too. He had friends in police forces everywhere.

He loved to say that, and his chest puffed up a bit more with each word: he had friends.

She had none.

But surely not even he had friends among the aliens on Kwadra, the island that had appeared off the west coast from the future of an alternate Earth.

Tom had told her, in a voice like discussing Portland’s rain, that because she had no source of income and no place to live if she left him, he’d get her declared an unfit mother. He had snapped his fingers to show how easy it would be.

I’ll take Roxie and you’ll never see her again. Don’t even think about leaving me, Audra. You’re mine forever.

Pain stabbed her heart at the thought of being torn from Roxie’s side. Her vision grew watery, causing her to stumble. “I’m no criminal,” she whispered to her Kwadran guide. “Just…a mom. That’s all I want to be. A mom.”

Her footsteps slowed. He stopped and looked back at her. “The grate’s open. I guided an American—his brain was spinny-flipping, if you know what I mean—a couple weeks ago, and no government crews have been around since then.”

“You lied to me?”

He shrugged. “The authorities will fix this one eventually.”

After a few seconds, he resumed climbing uphill.

She didn’t follow. “This is far enough.” Audra yearned to rest her hands on her knees, but Roxie’s weight would pitch her flat onto her face. “Thanks for your help, but I can take it from here.”

“Okay.” He turned to face her.

He agreed fast, way too fast. Her legs trembled. This was it, then. The moment of payback. She almost gagged at the thought of blowing this stranger. She wouldn’t do it unless there was absolutely no other way to ensure Roxie’s safety.

Roxie, I love you.

He stepped to his right, craned his neck, and pointed. “It’s right up there.”

The words knocked the foundation out from her dread. Watching him from the corner of her eye, she peered uphill. She saw nothing but trees and moss-covered rocks, even when she moved near him.

Not too near.

She took slow, deep breaths and tried to rebuild the only successful defense she’d ever known: mistrust. “I see it,” she lied. “You can go back now. I’ll rest here a minute while you head down to your truck.”

He grinned again with those dark, unreadable eyes. “Dumb little cheechako. Blind, too.”

Unlike her, he wasn’t breathing hard, despite the backpack. He had a construction worker’s conditioning and a construction worker’s hair—a flat halo from the band of the hardhat he’d left in the truck. “Look again. This time, see what’s invisible.”

“Invisible. Right. You’re crazy, you know that?” Crazy was even scarier than criminal, if that were possible. Audra edged away from him.

But she tripped over a fallen branch and landed on her bottom. The soft forest floor was wet from a recent rain, so now the seat of her only jeans was soaked. Cold, too. Fir needles stuck to her hands.

Roxie, bless her precious little heart, laughed to encourage Mommy to do that again. She thrust one tiny fist into the air then stared at it in wonder as though realizing that holy moly, she had hands.

But Audra couldn’t give her darling the attention she deserved because the guy loomed over her like a storm cloud. From this angle, with wild evergreens for a backdrop and a raven croaking out a laugh, he was the nightmarish stereotype of a vengeful Indian. Or Native American. Or First Nations person. Whatever the polite term was this week.

If he attacked, she’d kick. Kick his kneecap and she could do real damage. She hadn’t been kidding about the self-defense classes.

But he stood well over six feet tall, his t-shirt showcased flat abs and sleekly muscled arms, and he moved with a cougar’s speed and grace. She was outclassed and she knew it.

Nonetheless, she braced for a kick. For Roxie’s sake.

Maybe he noticed her shifting, or maybe he used some mind-reading trick from another world. Whatever. He stepped back.

Cultus stupede cheechako,” he muttered in his native language.

To her ears, the words sounded harsh. Shanoog was based on Chinook, the old Indian trading language of the Northwest Coast, with generous borrowings from French and a little English. His Earth and hers had shared a history until around 1800, when their two realities diverged. Tribes, not Europeans, ruled the west coast of his twenty-third-century North America.

Four years ago, his people had used unimaginably advanced technology to ‘hop’ their entire kingdom—called Kwadra Island on his world, Vancouver Island on hers—to this Earth. Maps looked stupede now, with two large, identical islands.



The Kwadran let out a sigh before plopping to the damp ground beside her. She cringed away from him.

“Frightened, lost little cheechako. Look up there. Go ahead, look. What do you see?”

Clutching Roxie’s hand, she watched him, instead.

He shook his head and sighed again. He scooted a couple feet away without bothering to stand, an impressive feat with a heavy pack on his back. “Now will you look?”

She watched him for several more seconds, wishing she could read his eyes. Then she looked uphill.

No matter how she stared, though, she didn’t see an eight-foot oval ventilation shaft into the hillside. No illicit backdoor into a safe haven in the now-abandoned underworld where Kwadrans had holed up when the environment of their alternate Earth went bad.

“What do you see?” he asked.

She had no reason to play his game. Also no reason not to. “Okay, okay. I see an overgrown granite cliff. A bunch of trees, half of them dying—your forest isn’t adapting well to this Earth. Some bright red berries. A bunch of bushes. And a guy I don’t trust.”

His eyes twinkled. She was hard-pressed not to smile.

“Notice anything about the bushes?” he asked.

“They’re, you know…bushes, okay?” Stroking the downy blond hair atop Roxie’s head, Audra looked again. “I have no idea what kind they are, if that’s what you’re after.”

He waited. Though this conversation was weird, it didn’t feel threatening, so she looked uphill again.

And after several seconds, she saw something.

Something invisible.

A hundred feet uphill, shrubs were bending to and fro as though in a stiff breeze—yet she felt no wind. Feeling like Lewis and Clark exploring the wilderness, she licked her forefinger and held it up in all directions. No breeze.

“It’s wind from the ventilation shaft’s fans!” She was inordinately pleased with herself, even though she didn’t care what this guy thought. Obviously.

The twinkle spread from his eyes to his whole face, revealing a different man underneath his impassive, unresponsive exterior. He was the opposite of Kwadra Island. Its buried cities were old and abandoned, but his buried features were young and full of life. For a second—maybe two—she was so startled by the change that she yearned to trust him.

“Your hiding spot awaits you, cheechako. Whoever’s chasing you, they’ll never find you underground.” He rose effortlessly then offered a hand to help her stand.

She looked at it. Girding herself against that alluring desire to trust, she tightened her brow and lips, ready to refuse.

But she was pointing uphill, with Roxie on her chest. She couldn’t get up on her own without undignified flopping and grunting and disturbing the baby, who’d want to eat, and no way was she breastfeeding in front of this guy. After heaving a melodramatic sigh, she took his hand.

It was, she thought in surprise, a nice hand. Large, strong, and callused from honest hard work, though his long fingers seemed delicate enough for more than mere hammering. He pulled both her and Roxie upright with ease. Still holding his hand, she ended up nearer than she liked. He was almost a foot taller than her five-foot-five. Up close, he looked, sounded, and even smelled nothing like Tom.

Her Native American space alien from the future released her hand. She didn’t have to tug or scream or even ask. He just let go.

Audra discovered she didn’t mind this man’s closeness nearly as much as she’d expected.




Chapter Two


The nearer Audra got to the mouth of the ventilation tunnel, the stronger the breeze grew, until it was a brisk wind. A grate of finger-thick metal covered the opening, but someone had cut through it. They must have been really determined. Eighteen cuts—no, twenty—would’ve taken time.

She couldn’t stare into the tunnel for long, because the wind dried her eyes. She turned away and blinked at the forest.

“Scared?” her Kwadran guide asked.

Hell, yeah; she wasn’t an idiot. But she refused to voice her fear, even though this endless blackness, like an anteroom to the underworld, terrified her. She pressed her mouth against Roxie’s head. She smelled of clean baby, the best smell in the world.

Audra glanced at the dark-haired guy, who seemed nice and had nice hands and was helping her vanish off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again. He was too helpful to be real—which meant he wasn’t. But neither was he a rapist or murderer, unless he attacked her soon.

It was humbling, humiliating even, to realize she was recreating a trauma from her youth: Evangeline’s disappearance. He probably thought of himself as a selfless hero and wouldn’t like being cast in the role of The Villain.

Was she dumb enough to think that if traipsing off with a stranger turned out all right this time, all the traumas of her youth would be overcome? That she’d magically transform into a normal, middle class mother without quirks, as Tom called them?

Not quite that dumb, no. But was she going to do this anyway?

“You deserve a smarter mother,” she whispered to Roxie, who leaned her head way back and gave that special Mommy-only smile. So strong was her daughter’s magic that Audra’s tone was jaunty. “Know anyone down there named Evangeline?”

He didn’t answer, but she could picture him tilting his head and narrowing his eyes in an unspoken question.

Standing to one side of the tunnel’s mouth, out of its wind, she had him put down the pack. She pulled out three of her six flashlights: one for each pocket and another for her hand. She debated grabbing a few of her one-hundred-ninety-two spare batteries, but three flashlights should be enough until she reached…

Reached what?

Free food, it was said. A town with rent-free houses open for the taking. An alien way of life to learn. No neighbors. No Tom to harass her or steal her daughter.

It was perfect. Terrifying and dark, but perfect.

Stroking her daughter’s silky hair, she took a deep breath and straightened her spine. “What’s your name? I can’t go around thinking of you as some guy.”

He grunted. “Didn’t think you were listening. It’s Tal. Tal Pelletier.”

“No wonder I didn’t remember it.” Her brave posture dissipated in a sigh. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to imply there’s anything wrong with your name, it’s just…”

What the hell was she doing, standing around chatting? Just say goodbye and go. She glanced at the tunnel then blinked to moisten her eyes. “Is Tal short for something?”

“Talopas. It means ‘prairie wolf’ in Shanoog.”

“Great, just great. That’s me all over, isn’t it? Walking through the wilderness with a self-proclaimed wolf.” She gave a self-mocking laugh. “Nice knowing you, Wolfman.” She reached for the rucksack sitting on the forest floor at his feet.

But he snatched it away.

“Huh?” She reached for the sack. He moved it behind his back. “What the hell are you doing? That’s mine. There’s nothing in there worth stealing!”

He tilted his head farther to one side than before, but didn’t say anything.

She couldn’t quite wrap her arms protectively around her chest—Roxie was in the way—but she came as close as she could under the circumstances. Wind from the tunnel blew strands of her fake-blond hair with brown roots tickling across her eyes. Something made a sound off to the right. A falling pine cone, maybe, although the stench of a foul-breathed grizzly bear flitted across her imagination. She cringed.

“There are no grizzly bears on Kwadra,” she said without looking at him. “Right?”

He still didn’t say anything.

She turned her head just enough to glance at him. He was shaking his head as though pitying a petulant child.

Bracing herself with a deep breath, she turned toward him. “You weren’t going to steal my things.”

He continued shaking his head.

“But why not let me take my stuff and get out of your life?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do. No way do you look like a guy who’s confused or, or…” Or crazy.

“Know what I think?”

“No!”

He picked up the heavy rucksack with one hand and slung it onto his back, emphasizing how much better suited he was to this life. “I think you’re full of crap, lady. Crap and fear.”

He was right, of course, except that he’d missed the most important thing she was full of—determination to keep her baby out of Tom’s clutches.

Wolfman was full of determination, too: determination to help her. But why?

“Why?” she said aloud. “What’s your angle, mister?”

“Angle?” He shrugged his incomprehension…then reached toward her chest. She cringed back. Extending his index finger, he caressed Roxie’s cheek. The baby gurgled then laughed her hiccupping laugh. She grabbed his finger and pulled it toward her mouth.

“Oh,” Audra breathed. So his selflessness had nothing to do with her? That was reassuring.

Or was it a tiny bit insulting, instead?

“Well, then…” Frowning, she cradled Roxie’s head in her hands and leaned down to kiss the top of her daughter’s head. She should be grateful to him, should smile and say thank you. Should accept this token of God’s love with grace and good humor. There ought to be a folk saying about not looking a gift wolf in the mouth. “Let’s go, then.”

Unable to meet his eyes, she went to the opening of the ventilation tunnel. Wary of the jagged ends of the grate, she shielded Roxie with her hands as she stepped into the howling darkness.

When he followed, she let out a deep sigh. She hadn’t been sure he would. Her nerves were still too tight for her to give him a smile or the reassuring hug she craved, so she gave him a flashlight, instead.

* * * *

Except for the wind, the tunnel was easy walking. It was perfectly straight, the downward slant was gentle, and it was free of debris so Audra didn’t have to fear tripping.

But that wind!

After half an hour, she would’ve run back to civilization if she hadn’t known her guide would think her ridiculous. Fighting a constant headwind in the dark, worrying about Roxie, who was beyond fussy and well into cantankerous—all this, after an exhausting uphill hike, was too much.

She couldn’t hear Wolfman’s footsteps because of the wind, but every time she shined her flashlight back at him, he was plodding along and watching her. It was too dark to tell what he might be thinking.

The darkness and howling wind could drive a person crazy. “I like darkness,” she whispered close to Roxie’s ear to remind herself. “As a kid, Lights Out meant the latest foster home vanished, at least until my eyes got used to the dark, and only my imaginary happy family existed. That’s why I’m doing this, you know, so we stay a happy family. I know what I’m doing, so don’t you worry, okay?”

But was she making a good decision for Roxie? And if she was, wouldn’t it be the first time?

She would stay underground until Tom realized she meant business and conceded defeat. He wasn’t one of those people who fought against long odds; he preferred sure things. Then she would go home to her mother’s arms, grown up at last and worthy of the title MOTHER.

“We can go back,” her alien savior said in a chiding tone of voice that implied she should. His rough accent was as annoying as his words.

She tried to laugh, but it was more of a croak because the wind had dried out her mouth and eyes. She kept trudging along.

* * * *

With a start, Tal realized that his flashlight—her flashlight, merely on loan to him—was focused on her bum as it swayed. Womanly flesh flowed to the left. Flowed to the right.

Repeat. Again and again and, spirits help him, yet again.

The gentle movement was quietly spectacular, all the more so for being artless. Evergreen needles clung to her jeans from when she’d fallen. The cloth had dried in the wind and molded to her curves so tightly it could’ve been painted on. It was easy to imagine the bare flesh underneath. Hard not to, in truth.

But like the flashlight, the hypnotic sight was merely on loan to him. She didn’t belong to him, not even in the casual sense of the women he picked up in tourist bars. Most of them were American, too, although some were Canadian and one memorable pair of identical twins had been Honduran.

To him, the bar women were nothing more than a bittersweet release. To them, he was an exotic piece of scenery, a safe-sex stallion courtesy of twenty-third-century preventive medicine. A souvenir of a visit to the aliens’ island.

You’ll never guess who I did while on vacation. A real live alien! That was an acceptable exchange, a quid pro quo of barstool economics.

Audra, though, wasn’t party to such a transaction. She wouldn’t like him staring at her bottom. He’d been honest about why he was helping her—because of the baby—but his flashlight still focused on her feminine sway, and that had nothing to do with the wee one.

With a hand, he shaded his eyes against the wind…but he peeked between his fingers. Most women’s bums were a delight, but they didn’t send a sizzle of awareness shooting to his crotch. This woman, though…

Merde. He wasn’t doing this good deed for a quick splash of the orca’s tail. Mind you, he’d probably enjoy sex with her, but he’d be damned if he’d do it. Even if she offered.

The realization startled him. Why not? He was far from altruistic. He wasn’t even sure he was still a good person.

After moving his flashlight beam to the ground, he realized why not. Hers was a spiritual quest. He could learn from her.

Audra’s courage and determination transcended the everyday so much they were what his people used to call sacred graces. Her strength of purpose rose above her temperamental, pasty-skinned American shell.

A person had to help someone like her. Absolutely had to. Had to leap from the slime of self into the unfamiliar heights of selflessness, like a breaching orca leaping from the safety of the water into the hostile atmosphere.

His upbringing and culture told him that he owed Audra the gift of his help, and that one day, someone would repay the gift tenfold. That was the way of his people, a remnant of aboriginal potlatches—feasts at which people gave away lavish gifts with the understanding that when the recipient could afford to, the gifts would be repaid. Give so you would one day receive.

But Audra’s ass still swayed. It took a conscious effort to turn the flashlight’s beam to the side. The spirits rewarded his virtue with a sight almost as welcome as the ballet of feminine flesh.

A rest area.

He lunged through the wind to tap her on the shoulder. “Stop,” he said.

* * * *

Stop?

No damned way. Determined to keep going until she reached the underground city or died trying, Audra ignored him.

“I’m tired,” he shouted over the wind. “This is a good place to rest.”

He was tired? A glow of triumph outshone the flashlight. She’d outlasted the big strong construction worker?

“Only if you say please,” she said in a sassy voice.

He didn’t. Instead, he grabbed her elbow in a powerful grip that reminded her he could do whatever he wanted, and right now he wanted to steer her into a cul-de-sac she hadn’t noticed. The narrow rectangle, eight feet deep, was perfect. Baffles directed away the worst of the wind. The floor was flat, and hard benches faced each other, long enough for her to lie on.

She flopped onto one bench. Moving like a stiff old man, Wolfman eased her rucksack off and collapsed onto the other. Her glow of triumph returned, though dimmed by the knowledge that he was stiff and sore because of her.

“What is this place?” she asked. “And how clean is the floor?”

He leaned his head back against the wall and spoke with his eyes closed. “Rest area for workers.” He opened one eye. “Why do you care about the floor?”

“Roxie is dying to get out of this harness.”

He wiped his hand on the floor and showed it to her.

“Why…” She had to coax saliva into her mouth before continuing. “Why is it so clean?”

“Cleaning bots. Robots, if you prefer. They were one of my specialties.” He kicked the base of his bench with a heel. It sounded hollow. “They come out at programmed times, perform a variety of cleaning tasks to perfection, then go back into their burrows and rest after a job well done. In their lowly way, they’re miraculous machines.”

She released a squirming baby from the confines of the harness, but hesitated before putting her down. “Will they come out while Roxie’s on the floor?”

“Not if I keep my foot by their hatch.” He planted his feet then shoved the rucksack in front of the entrance to the cul-de-sac.

“Thanks, but she doesn’t crawl yet.” She wished she could get at her supplies without asking him, but they were too far away, and standing up felt like cruel and inhuman punishment. “Can you reach the main flap? There’s water, but not much, so don’t you dare pig out on me.”

Pig out? I don’t know why the king insists we all learn English. You Americans don’t bother to speak it.”

As he tipped the canteen to his mouth, she reached out pleadingly. “Don’t take it all!”

After just a sip, he shook his head and handed her the canteen. “How long before you trust me?”

She gulped down a swallow then held some water in her mouth to savor the wetness. “Our fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

Her face flushed; she hoped he couldn’t see it in the dim light. “Not that I’m suggesting that we… What I mean is, well, I was a foster child, which explains why I take so long to trust people.”

“What is a foster child?”

“Oh, jeez. Pretend it explains everything, okay?” After a moment’s hesitation, she gave back the canteen. “You take the rest. I’ve had my share.”

He took a tiny sip, wiped the lip with his handkerchief, and replaced the lid with a flourish. “See? Trustworthy.”

“You must think I’m some sort of, I don’t know…”

“Foster child?”

“Exactly.” She meant to smile, but yawned, instead.

“On our forty-ninth anniversary, you can explain what it means.”

Still yawning, she held up a hand to forestall a response. Then Roxie bounced on her bottom and lifted her arms, asking to be picked up, so she never did get around to explaining. She held the girl up and swung her from side to side, making her smile with her whole body—even her toes, which curled.

Then she put Roxie on her lap while the baby watched her own hands in amazement. Audra yawned, three times in a row. Stopping had been a bad idea. She never wanted to walk again. Wolfman was studying her, so she stifled another yawn.

“You’re exhausted,” he said.

“No. Got to watch Roxie.”

“I’ll look after her.”

She stared at him stubbornly, her lips pressed tightly together.

“You stupede cheechako, go to sleep.”

His tone of voice made her jump. She curled her hands into fists, ready to resist…but he was right. She closed her eyes. One of them at least. With the other eye open a slit, she watched as he played gently with Roxie.

Just before her eyelid grew too heavy to keep open, she whispered, “Most people, I never do trust.”

She hadn’t meant for him to hear, but he did. He pursed his lips and shook his head. Shadows from the flashlight emphasized how broad and flat his nose was.

“It’s nothing personal,” she said with a yawn. “Do us both a favor and don’t take it as a challenge to your macho animal magnetism.”

He cocked his head as he did when he didn’t understand.

Good.

She stretched out on the bench. After a moment, she closed her eyes—then snapped them wide open again, on the off-chance he was planning to take advantage of her or Roxie. Eventually, though, her eyelids slipped closed and she slept.




Chapter Three


Audra didn’t sleep long. Roxie was practicing her sounds too lustily and the walls echoed too loudly. She lingered in an uncomfortable limbo between sleep and wakefulness. Half of her was a mother taking a reasonable, if desperate, chance to escape a family-scale Hitler. The other half was a thirteen-year-old waking up in foster home number eleven.

The new foster parents had been nice yesterday, but would they still be nice today? Would she infuriate them by breaking some unwritten house rule? And then there was the biggest dread: would she fail again? Was today the day they sent her back?

Most foster homes had been okay. More than okay, really; the foster parents tried hard. Number eleven, though…

After kicking the foster mother’s brother in the balls, she’d run into the street in pajamas with torn off buttons. Eleven was the worst number in all of numerical infinity.

The memory jerked her eyes wide and she sat up. She soothed the nightmare, as she always did, with thoughts of waking up safe and happy in foster home thirteen. From the first day, Madeleine Verhailey had loved her. Eventually adopted her.

Roxie was crying now, her hungry cry. Awkward, awkward. Wolfman sat facing her, his knees nearly touching hers. No way was she going to bare her breasts in front of him. Especially not so soon after thinking of dreadful eleven.

“Would you rather go out into the gale…?” She gestured with her head toward the tunnel. “Or sit here in the dark?”

Instead of answering, he cocked his head to one side.

“I need to feed Roxie.”

That got a reaction from his stoic face: he blinked. “Some Americans truly are as prudish as the stereotype.”

No one had called her prudish, ever. Under other circumstances, it would’ve been funny. She’d been the first girl in her class to give away her virginity—though since then, Mom’s middle class attitudes and regular church attendance had rubbed off on her. Maybe she was a bit prudish now.

“Wind or darkness, Wolfman. Choose.”

He switched off his flashlight.

Hers was already off. She fumbled to unbutton her blouse, trying to hurry, but Roxie was ‘helping.’ Although Audra got it unbuttoned, between the darkness, the squirming baby, and having only one hand free, she couldn’t manage the snap that opened the bra cup.

Seeing would help. If she held her flashlight close to the snap and turned it on for just a second…

She reached for the flashlight but knocked it to the floor.

“What was that?” he asked.

“My flashlight.”

Before she was ready, his light speared through the tarry air, shining directly on her nursing bra. The light blinded her, making her feel like a deer frozen in a car’s headlights. She yanked her blouse closed and turned away from him. Roxie howled with frustrated hunger.

Tal, being a wolf, leaned in for a closer look. “She okay?”

“Point the damned flashlight away. And don’t look at me.”

Ahha.” With the accent on the first syllable, ahha was the Shanoog word for yes; no was no—that one was easy—and merzy was thank you. That was the limit of her linguistic skills, except for a today’s Word of the Day: stupede.

He was nice, for a wolf; he turned his face toward the dark tunnel. Audra watched to make sure he stayed put then leaned her head against the wall to lose herself in the gentle joy of bonding with her little girl. His flashlight was still on, and though it cast heavy shadows, she nonetheless thrilled to the sight of Roxie’s mouth moving against her, sucking sustenance from her body.

Back in high school, her friends had speculated about the meaning of life. Now Audra knew, beyond any doubt: feeding a baby who was as much a part of you as if she were still in your womb.

After checking that Wolfman hadn’t moved, she shifted Roxie to the other breast. Perhaps because she sat a foot away from a stranger with a nice body, the baby’s lips were rousing a sexual buzz. That happened sometimes, but never as powerfully as now. She’d be glad when Roxie finished and her blouse was securely buttoned. She might button it up to her neck.

“How much farther to the cave?” she asked to fill the silence.

He pointed at the wall behind her. There were numbers engraved in it. “I’m guessing that means it’s three-point-thirteen kilometers to the first maintenance door.”

Thirteen—her lucky number. “And then we’re in the cave, or whatever you call your cities? Keep your head turned away.”

“It’s called a kwayviva, which translates as cave for living. This one houses my home town, Nuxalt.”

Excitement at being so close to her goal amplified the pleasure of Roxie’s sucking. Audra tamped it down with questions. “How’d you find enough caves to house your entire nation?”

“We didn’t find the caves. We made them.”

Actually, she knew that much; she’d asked only to distract them both. When the environment of their Earth, in an alternate reality, went bad, Kwadrans tunneled under their mountains in order to survive. When even that wasn’t enough, they used unimaginable twenty-third century technology to ‘hop’ their huge island from one thread of reality, one universe, to another. Vancouver Island was no longer the largest island off the west coast of the Americas. It was tied for largest.

She’d been a senior in high school when Kwadra arrived overnight. She remembered the exact moment she’d heard about it. Everyone did. Mom woke her up early and dragged her to the television. Audra hadn’t gone to school that day. No one had.

The world had been obsessed with the impossible, inexplicable alien humans. Her friends had decided to study science so they could understand them, or joined the army so they could fight them, which hadn’t proved necessary, so far. Audra, though, had been more interested in makeup and clothes and boys. Now she wished she’d paid more attention to Kwadra.

“Where’d you put all the rocks you dug out?” Unlike her first question, she was interested in this one. Being so close to a kwayviva made the topic important.

“We didn’t dig the caves, we melted them.”

“Like magma?”

“My database doesn’t have that word.”

“Database?” She made a cynical, dismissive sound, because calling his memory a database was pretentious. “Magma’s the stuff that comes out of volcanoes. Like lava.”

“It wasn’t like that. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know the process is related to the machines that enabled us to hop from one alternate reality to another. It’s a byproduct of research into what your people call M-theory.”

In addition to being suddenly talkative, he sounded more animated than before. Why did sciency stuff excite a construction worker?

“I’ve never heard of M-Theory,” she said.

“It’s an extension of quantum theory. Heard of that?”

“Sure.” Roxie let the nipple slip from her lips. The baby’s eyes were closed, but Audra didn’t put her in the baby harness right away. The girl sometimes wanted dessert.

Tal was looking at her as though he might want dessert, too. The realization sent a tingle to her nipples, but the tingle was closely followed by anxiety. Never in her life had she been so far from help.

“Keep your goddamned eyes off my body.” He’d done nothing to deserve such a snarl—he’d been staring at her face, not her chest—but snarling was a reflex she couldn’t stop. After a moment, she managed a conciliatory voice. “No, I’ve never heard of M-theory. Explain it to me in words of one syllable.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Impossible. It’s an attempt to develop a unified theory of the fundamental forces of nature, including the strong and weak forces that govern the subatomic world. The meltrock process has nothing to do with heat. I was just a technician—”

Ah. That was why he liked sciency stuff.

“—but, well…atoms are mostly empty space. Have your people discovered that yet?”

“Of course.” It sounded familiar, though she hoped he wouldn’t delve more deeply into her knowledge. She’d never been more than a so-so student, and the two years of classes she’d taken at Portland State had aimed at a degree in Social Work, not physics.

“Good. Melting a cave involves manipulating the forces that hold atoms together and shoving subatomic particles closer so the rocks take up less space. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course. You won’t find substances like the walls of a kwayviva anywhere outside of a dying star. The walls of this tunnel are meltrock, too. Feel how smooth they are.”

She’d been leaning against the wall until just a moment ago, but now she touched it gingerly. She wasn’t sure what she expected, but not glassy coolness.

“The walls are super strong,” he continued. “Nothing short of a major earthquake can crack them. Good to know, eh, since you’re going to live inside them?”

She answered with a non-committal grunt. Enclosed spaces didn’t bother her. Neither did darkness. Being surrounded by voodoo science, though, and betting her life it would continue to work—that bothered her.

“The Lontreau engines that hopped us from our universe to yours manipulate the fundamental forces, primarily gravity, on a macro scale. But if you turn the engine around, so to speak, it alters the micro forces that hold atoms together, allowing us to squish molecules into new, super-strong configurations. Does that help?”

“No.”

“Well, think of the macro and micro effects of a Lontreau engine as the two ends of a telescope. From one end, things look huge. From the other, tiny. Another way to think of it is that the engines create thousands of tiny micro-universes in the rocks, with different physical laws affecting the strong force that holds atoms together.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Don’t worry. No one, not even King Tro, truly understands it.”

Audra mouth hung open. Tal might be a bullshit artist, but if so the emphasis was on artist. And if he wasn’t full of BS, he was really, really smart. Back in Portland, Tom had gotten drunk once—just once; control freaks like him hated losing control—and he d raved on and on about how lazy and dumb Native Americans were. She wished he could hear Wolfman talk.

Audra decided Roxie was finished nursing even if she wasn’t. She held the baby with one hand and buttoned her blouse with the other. Then she slipped Roxie back in the baby carrier and stood up. “Okay, let’s go.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?” She’d forgotten to button the top two buttons. Damn.

“I mean we’re staying here.” He muttered something else, but the fans drowned it out.

“What are you talking about? The kway-whatever is near, so let’s go. Now.”

“No.” Tal extended his arm toward her. “Not now.”

She dodged away from him and escaped out of the cul-de-sac and into the tunnel. He didn’t follow immediately; probably putting on the rucksack.

The tunnel was a tall oval flattened at the bottom; her second step hit the curve at the base of the wall. Off-balance, she stumbled, and Roxie’s eighteen pounds didn’t help. She fell, twisting frantically to avoid landing on the baby. She succeeded, but at the cost of being unable to break her own fall. Her shoulder thudded against the wall—the meltrock wall that violated every scientific principle her world knew—and knocked the wind from her lungs.

Roxie howled.

Tal rushed to her side. “Is the baby okay?”

Audra tried to breathe deeply enough to answer. Couldn’t. She rolled onto her back. That helped. She nodded.

One of Wolfman’s hands stroked the baby’s hair. The other cradled Audra’s head. “Talk to me.”

“I’m…fine.” She struggled to sit up. He helped her. His hand moved from her head to her back, almost but not quite embracing her.

“And Roxie?” Trying to slip the baby harness off her shoulders, he touched her. His face was near hers.

“She’s scared, that’s all.” His face was so close that Roxie wasn’t the only one. Audra shoved her arm against his chest to force him away. “I’ll do it, damn it.”

He reached toward her chest. She slapped his hand away. After pulling Roxie out of the harness, she hugged the whimpering baby until the cries quieted, glaring at him all the while. “We’re both fine. Just back off, okay?”

“Okay.” He pursed his lips and sighed. “I just…worried.”

Which was nice of him, but… “Yeah, well, worry from over there.” Hugging Roxie cheek to cheek, she rocked back and forth. “Before I fell, I was telling you that we need to hurry out of this tunnel and into the kway-whatever. Understand?”

He pursed his lips again and paused before answering. “We should wait until nightfall.”

“No!” Her shout echoed off the walls of the tunnel, a windswept no, no, no that sounded peevish and irrational. She took a deep breath. “Why?”

“My people have a saying: Nature abhors a vacuum. It means—”

“Yeah, yeah, we have it too, but what does it have to do with tunnel walls that are starting to feel too damned tight?”

He shone his flashlight on the walls as though checking them, which did nothing to reassure her. “An empty kwayviva is a vacuum. All those houses and facilities are just waiting for someone to move in, so some do. Hermits. Crooks escaping the law. People not right in the head.”

“Like me? Is that what you’re implying?”

He didn’t answer right away. “Does English have a word for someone who’s too suspicious?”

“Paranoid.” She stood straighter, tasting and then accepting the label as a perfectly valid mechanism for dealing with a malignant narcissist like Tom. “Yes, I’m paranoid.”

“It’s just rumors, nothing I know for certain, and there couldn’t be many people in Nuxalt. I shouldn’t have scared you. But it’d be wiser to wait until night.”

“I see. No, I don’t. Down here, night doesn’t mean anything.”

“You think we lived down here like cave men or bats?” His crooked grin was full of pride and condescension. “Of course day and night are meaningful. The cavern’s roof gets dark, the moon comes up. ” He flicked his flashlight over the walls, which were still there. “Since this bothers you, we’ll go into town now. There can’t be more than a few hundred strays, in a place that once housed fifty thousand people. Likely we won’t see a single soul. It’s just that there’s even less chance at night. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”

She wanted to believe that, wanted it real bad. Which, based on her experience, was ridiculous. Crazy, even.

She’d fit right in with the kwazies down in the kway-whatever.



Chapter Four


There they were: the gates to the underworld. To his past.

As Tal approached the double doors, he tried to swallow. Couldn’t. His mouth was too dry.

The doors were big enough to allow a Yeo truck to carry repair supplies into the ventilation tunnel. He hadn’t thought of those clunky but indestructible vehicles in years. The gigantic Yeo Corporation had never existed on this world.

He had never existed here, either; then one day he did, and his whole life up to then became nothing more than the unreal dream of a world that had never been.

Manon had never existed on this world. Nor little Theo, exactly Roxie’s age. But their nonexistent ghosts were here nonetheless, behind these doors. How could a guy come to grips with ghosts that never were?

And if his family had never existed, didn’t that mean he didn’t exist, either? That everything he thought he’d experienced since Kwadra hopped to this Earth was a delusion? Even this moment?

A shiver of apprehension turned his spine into water, but he was too proud to let the crazy white broad glimpse his existential fears. She needed his strength and his pitiful stock of wisdom. To her, he must be a symbol of an incomprehensible alien power, and that was as it should be. For her sake, he must try to embody that symbol, rather than being a mere flesh-and-blood man with fears and demons and needs.


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