Excerpt for The Culling Cycle by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The

Culling

Cycle

By

Kim Iverson




Dedication


To the two biggest influences in my life and my two favorite people: this book is dedicated to my editor who has become more like my big sister to me, Jeanie Creech. And the man who was the inspiration for Cato, Paul Burrow. Huge thank you for his help on this cover too.


I am truly grateful for life having brought you two into my life and for having had the chance to know such incredible human beings. I love you both more than words can ever say.



Other Titles By Kim Iverson


Always Consequences

Anora


Dark Moon Dynasty Universe

Dark Illusions Series

Dark Illusions: The Beginning

Dark Illusions: The Next Chapter

Dark Illusions: The Final Chapter

Enchanting The Moon Series

Don’t Go Far

Witness to the Moon

Claiming the Enchantress

Dynasty Of Moirae Series

Blood By Night

Law of the Beast

Birth of a Princess

Eternal Souls series

Fury of a Queen

Discovery of an Enchantress

War of the Lycaens


The Guardian of Life Series

Hope of the Future

Daughter of the Red Planet

Ancient Scars

Under Empty Stars


The Alchemist Series

Cessation

Mitosis


Novelettes


Immortal Separation


Short Stories


Trust Your Instincts

At Night They Come

The Boy with the Lighter

Story of Her Career


Compilations


Into The Midst




The Culling Cycle is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, stories, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 2018 Kim Iverson


Published by Kimberly Sue Iverson

Edited by Creech Enterprises

Cover design by Kim Iverson

Images from Pixabay



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the publisher at the website below.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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 return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


http://kimberlysueiverson.com


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Summary: Life will always find a way to bring those together who are meant to be.


Table of Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Twenty-Four

Twenty-Five

Twenty-Six

Twenty-Seven

Twenty-Eight

Twenty-Nine

Thirty

Thirty-One

About the Story

About Kim Iverson

Other Titles




One



It’s appearance didn’t bother her.

Living in a single-floored ranch house for years, things just randomly appeared. A random sock happened to say hello from under the bed when on the search for another item.

Opening a drawer revealed the battery that’d been missing for ages. A thingmajig popped up on the desk or a pokieproddie under the foot on the one day shoes weren’t there for protection.

That was the thing with houses. Random objects appeared and weren’t thought too much about. More so when it appeared on the terra cotta tiled kitchen counter and the metallic grey black outer body reflected the counter beneath. Even more so when it happened to look far too similar to the cordless phone it lay near.

So Gia Gordon (GG to some) couldn’t be blamed for walking into her kitchen intent on making herself a cup of coffee and not noticing the object dead center on the counter to her right. She moved past the counter and went straight into the kitchen to the large farm style double porcelain sink. The object’s placement as though she’d dropped it there earlier on her cleaning walk, which is what she was doing on that happy day. But she decided to take an afternoon break to get coffee.

Once at the sink, Gia grabbed her cup from the dish rack in the left sink where she’d left it drying from the morning. She then retraced her steps to the left of the doorway—when she entered the kitchen it was on the left, that was—to the fridge and opened the right door to get the bottle of hazelnut creamer she liked to flavor oatmeal with.

“I need the sugar right now,” she justified to herself as she removed the bottle. Elbowing the door shut, a flash of the counter and the new object swept past her vision, but her brain was on one thing alone and didn’t yet process anything amiss. Coffee was more important so her thought trail was tied to that alone. Nothing would cut that string of thought. Not when it came to her coffee she so desperately needed to get the brain functioning once more.

Normally, Gia would’ve drank the coffee black. More so since the creamer was strictly for her oatmeal in the morning. Sugar in hot coffee? No thanks. “Sugar belongs in cold,” Gia would tell you.

But today she felt she could use the sugar. One random rare day in a random weird week of strangeness, including strange dreams. Dreams of people—or things—in her home, causing her to wake, only to never find anything there. “I need a dog,” she decided just that very same morning. Protection. A large one that even the very sight of it would deter potential home invaders and no good evildoers.

“Just in case,” those dreams weren’t dreams. But then again they hadn’t seemed like people so she wasn’t too sure a dog would do much good. Still, “better safe than sorry.”

Gia hummed a private little tune to herself as she spun clockwise about, maneuvering her hips in a private dance to shimmy twist twirl around the counter with ease. Once more missing the new object which more than likely would have liked to wave a large flag at this point to get her attention. After all, most would’ve noticed the new object by now, surely.

It wasn’t that she was ditzy or unintelligent by any means. In fact, many considered her intelligence level fairly up there. It was simply that she was scatterbrained when she focused on her passion. Gia was working on a new illustration for a piece of artwork in her mind. Drawing out the curves, figuring out where to place the colors, and molding an image out of thin air, into her invisible canvas.

The majority of her brain was focused there, other parts on her cleaning she still had to do, and the rest on performing that very basic task of keeping her from harm while she was oblivious to all around her. Keeping Gia alive in other words, while she was in her own private little world.

Gia followed the counter to her right, past the island and cupboards to her left, to the coffee pot not a few feet from the object. Her free hand waving along a current of air only she knew about, sketching, feeling, seeing something in her mind’s eye that had yet to be created, but soon would be. No doubt beautiful once done. That was the point when it could no longer remain in the brain and she was forced to get it down on paper.

She couldn’t be blamed for not noticing the object on the counter then either, really. It wasn’t much larger than her hand. Not even that large. Behind it and against the wall on that same corner of the counter was her cordless phone, similar in color. It was actually so fairly similar in overall appearance that her brain may have just felt it was the cordless phone. In her distracted state her brain most likely thought: just the phone not on the charger, no reason to take that in.

Gia grabbed the pot of coffee and filled her cup, still sketching, still humming, still completely distracted from most of life around her. She kept the pot on that side of the counter in case she had guests and they used the dining room. Not that she had many. When one was frequently lost in their heads, it made social life a bit difficult.

Don’t bother to ask her about her dating life. She’d huff and tell you she sought a love that even the gods were envious of. Gia sought a place to unpack her heart for this lifetime and all the rest. To know it was safe to. Someone who’d do the same. She’d yet to find that fantasy within her, which felt like home. Who allowed her to truly be naked and vulnerable, who did the same with her, and who made her feel safe.

Instead she’d found only those seeking to keep her at a distance, not really wanting to know her soul, her thoughts, or who valued her presence. They’d taken her for granted and she was a soul who could not be taken for granted. After a while, because of her constant distraction, they faded away when in reality she simply wanted someone to talk to day in and day out, discuss the thoughts in her brain, which she often pondered. Discuss the thoughts they pondered, and to know them just as deeply.

She reserved herself now for the man who saw her. Who truly saw her and craved her the way she would see him. It would take just a look. Recently she’d determined as such. Just a look and the connection would form, unbreakable, formidable, and forever. She craved the beast who never allowed her to get too far away as so many had. It wasn’t people she craved or popularity.

It was connection.

On those rare occasions she had someone over, she found it was far easier to make a cup of coffee for guests in the living room or the dining room—even the back porch, when the pot was fairly central in its location. And it kept everything for the pot, the cups, varying teas, coffees, and cocoa, out of the way as well, in its private little nook. She loved to dote on her guests, and anyone else in her life, so she kept quite a selection of items near the pot for their choosing for that purpose.

Gia filled her cup, replaced the pot. Her attention caught something out of the corner of her eye, making her go, “Huh?”

She focused on the object that grabbed her attention, scrunching her nose. Weird. Where’d that come from? Gia reached up, and grabbed the lock of dark brown hair that swung into her face. Rolling her eyes at her own goofy self for not noticing it earlier, she removed the fleck of lint her hair must’ve made friends with when she was crawling under her bed earlier. Then with a puff of breath, sent it flying away from the coffee she’d just poured.

Holding her hair up to remove the dust was the exact position her face needed to find itself in to notice something strangely new and oddly beautiful, directly in her line of sight. She dropped her hair and really took it in. The object had finally been noticed. At this point more than likely caused said object to breathe a sigh of relief and jump for joy, thought it had yet to be turned on by one such Gia Gordon (GG to some).


Gia’s entire world paused and realigned itself.




Two



“Now where’d that come from?” she said aloud. It was just a few inches long, very smooth in appearance, almost like a large kidney bean. Only a futuristic silvery black kidney bean. And one that most definitely didn’t appear edible.

“Weird,” she murmured, oblivious of the fact that she was talking to herself.

Gia picked it up, forgetting all about the coffee she poured. Even the artwork she’d been visualizing was now forgotten with a little cloud of poof in her brain. Turning the object over on itself, she checked the kitchen as if that would answer all the unasked questions she didn’t even know she had. Which, of course, yielded no answers as to what the object was, or where it came from. Nothing was revealed but a landscaped backyard that she’d worked on for over a year, with porch and small fruit trees here and there.

She couldn’t recall having seen the object before, what it may be for, or what it was.

With another check around the Tuscan Italian cozy kitchen she’d designed herself, she shook her head. It must’ve been something she picked up from some random location in the small ranch home she’d lived in nearly all her life. Her plan was probably to put it somewhere and had laid it down, only to forget about it.

Wouldn’t be the first time.

After her parents died, she moved back in the house and redesigned in creams, neutrals, spikes of green from live plants, and basically used the kitchen as her main theme. She even went so far as to paint various scenes along walls in the home to make it appear larger, give it her own flair, and show off her love of Italy’s countryside. Well, her own interpretation of it. No books, just images she’d thought up.

Along the dining room wall she painted an outdoor seating area to reflect a café. In the living room when she came in the front door, she now had a view of French double doors which opened in their painted state to take her to a concrete columned patio, and beyond that rolling hills of an Italian countryside. Which also carried along the hallways and escorted her down the squishy cream carpet, carrying her newfound object.

She wasn’t sure why she went cozy Italian cottage scenes inside and out, but for now Gia embraced what made the home feel lively. Those happened to be images she’d been seeing in her head all her life.

Down the hall and past the first full bath on her right, Gia carried her new object past a guest bedroom on her left. Then she continued on past the second door to her right—a small closet, so fancy—and turned her back to her full size bedroom with new bathroom. And finally past the other closet at the end of the hall and to her immediate right, she turned into her art studio, which was the final door on the right of the hallway.

It was once her parent’s room, but she’d converted, flipped, and switcherooed things about. She hadn’t liked the idea of using their bedroom as her own. Plus, there was a set of doors in the room which led out back and an extra closet. Even on stormy days when the rain battered the backyard, thunder rolled and the cold wind blew her things about, Gia enjoyed having the back doors open to enjoy the light and air. She didn’t fear storms. The wind and current in the atmosphere called to her. In a way she didn’t understand, she felt attuned to the Earth, but never really connected with it.

Gia hummed along as she moved into the room. No particular tune really, just her own little world of music. But as she entered the room, intent on putting the object in the closet to her right—along with some other knick knacks—she stopped just inside the doorway and the tune died in her throat.

The kidney bean shimmered. She didn’t even know how to describe it. It was as if a wave passed through the outer skin. As though it had an outer skin. But the wave was more like a ripple in the atmosphere. The way the road appeared to be shimmering from far off in the distance when the heat was great. It was a layer above the kidney bean and yet it was the kidney bean.

“Weirder and weirder,” she mumbled not really thinking twice about it. She was fairly tired. Not as if she wasn’t also open-minded. It still hadn’t really fazed her. Too many movies in her lifetime maybe, or a sense of familiarity that seemed to conjure up as if seeing this object come to life was exactly what should be happening.

Until she noticed the sliver. Really the only way to describe it. It was a tiny piece, maybe only a few millimeters wide and twice as long. As she took another step toward the closet, the small sliver from the completely smooth kidney bean weirdness slid off and fell directly onto the skin along the underside of her forearm. It wasn’t near a vein thank goodness, but it almost seemed to know exactly where to fall . . . and embed itself in her flesh.

But that was when the weirdness got even weirder. It wasn’t a smooth rectangle after all. It was an arrow. A metallic purple, tiny arrow which held the appearance of a microchip or computer motherboard with all the tiny circuitry along the flat part.

So when the chip fell off, it embedded itself halfway into her flesh, without her feeling a thing. She only noticed because of that weird shimmer which caused her to look down. The circuitry came to life along that sliver thingy. Flashing currents zipped through the vein-like elements.

Unless it was activating. But that was an odd thought to have. Still, it happened after she held it.

“That’s not good,” she mumbled to herself as she reached over to pluck the chip from her flesh with her fingernails. Which is when it sunk beneath her skin. It didn’t even give her time. Her forehead scrunched.

Except to notice it. It paused . . . until I saw it.

Which is the thought that finally made her heart skip a beat and caused anxiety to make itself at home in her chest, tightening her muscles, making it difficult to take a deep breath. What was it? What was that thing that just went into her flesh?!

As if in answer, the bean in her hand did that wavy thing once again, and suddenly more than she bargained for came to Gia Gordon, changing her entire existence. Her skin tingled to life along with it. The hair on her scalp prickled.

The flesh over the activation module—her purple sliver—brightened to reveal its presence just beneath her flesh. It sparked to life as the transmitters connected to the synapses in her brain; they communicated, and her personalized beacon—her kidney bean—came to life.

The kidney bean brightened to a dark grey with warm golden symbols, codes, lines of information, smaller than the human naked eye could see. At first they were within the bean as continuous lines of data and answers to all questions she hadn’t yet formed were answered. The lines flowed up and out of the beacon, circling Gia as they spun faster and faster, giving her everything she needed—mostly—for what was to come, but mostly working with her and her alone, under a control she didn’t realize she held.

Under control she didn’t know she possessed, under control she somehow learned from what little information the activation module was programmed to give. Her mind was spinning and she felt a migraine building with the familiar dizziness, nausea, and pressure in the frontal lobe of her brain.

In the span of one minute in which it all took place, Gia snapped her eyes shut to tune it all out and get her bearings.

What her little sliver told her—as it was programmed to do—was that it was also a tracker and should she try to remove it on her own, it would explode and she would die. Uh, fun? But that she was part of a very select group of humans—mostly female—set to receive the implant, which was altering her DNA, advancing it as she stood there. The group would start with quite a large number of humans and slowly that number would dwindle as the trials went on.

First, the implant had to go in by choice. Second, the human host had to survive the implant and activation. Most didn’t. Third, the connection to the brain. Again, most didn’t survive even that phase.

Funny part was there was no knowledge about the signs and symbols. No little information kit on what happened just now with the kidney bean. Or how to control what all just happened. Absolutely none of that was mentioned. Just the basics so she didn’t flip out and start clawing at the thing in her arm, which apparently some tried and resulted in boom.

Lovely.

It mentioned there would be a group of Narrisoari coming from the planet Nori . . . she’d just stick with “individuals” for now, who’d appear shortly and assist further, answer questions. Help her out in any way they could. Eventually she would be taken to the main city of Darlayna where the main trials would commence.

From the information Gia gathered, the majority of them weren’t there necessarily for her protection, but to ensure she came. Period. Oh sure, if she needed it they’d protect, but it didn’t seem she entirely had a choice as to whether to go or not.

They’d been doing this for millennia. Ever since the world began. It was the only way to populate their existence because when existence began, the males and females weren’t “compatible” in many ways. To which they didn’t produce offspring which survived the planet, or birth itself.

In ancient cultures it was believed to be an honor and this was celebrated. Then as time went on, people let the information go by the wayside and people forgot about it, but “alien abductions” were still a thing on Gia’s planet, Earth.

Everything had changed. It wasn’t celebrated, but feared. To the Narrisoari, it was vital to their existence. To their planet, which survived because of these “abductions.” Advanced life forms and planet worked in harmony to co-exist and survive. One needed the other. Being that too many different forms of life came together on the planet, few could produce children together, which was life for the planet as well.

To the Narrisoari, they didn’t think twice about doing it. It was an advancement of the human race, and the others. They’d been doing it since time began with no real repercussions, so why wouldn’t they continue? It wasn’t just females they always took. Occasionally some males were taken too.

There seemed something else about a man making his choice of the finals or something. A major player of some sort, sort of King-ish in a way. A man that the planet had chosen. A God. A protector who sought the nurturer, his female counterpart, a Goddess to lead with him. Leader of their planet or kind, but that was when the pain really set in and Gia had to lay off the bean of information.

There was another interesting piece of information she gathered from her little sliver. That was the ability to use her own brain and her new gifts it was activating within her, to create things. Apparently there were parts of the human brain untapped. These were the parts a select few of the finalists were able to have activated and would put them ahead of the game. If said female—a gift rare females possessed—figured out how to do so.

A small part of her deep within smugly thought, how hard would it be for an artist to create something out of nothing?

The moment a colder than normal hand slid her kidney bean from her palm, causing her heart to skip yet another beat, and Gia to say, “Hey!” was the same moment Gia thought, so where is my escort?

A woman with incredibly beautiful silver eyes was holding Gia’s kidney bean in her grip The bean was solid black and none too happier than Gia at having been snatched. Gia had zero idea why she felt the thing had any feelings but oddly she did. It was after all, solid black, and it hadn’t been before.

“Tell me what you know,” silver eyes demanded in a strong tone more masculine than feminine. Her hair was black with silver tips and styled in a pixie cut, total contrast to Gia’s near waist length waves she half-hazardly had in a pony tail. The woman—more alien than human—stared Gia down for an answer.

Her skin was pale like Gia’s, maybe slightly more so, but there was a faint lining to the skin as though reptilian scale-like. But they weren’t scales. Gia wanted to stare to figure out what she was seeing, but knew better. This woman reeked of many hand-to-hand battles, even the scar along her neck, and that wasn’t Gia. Probably wouldn’t be too keen on Gia calling her an alien either.

In Gia’s search they never used that term. It was a human term made long ago for them because it was easier for the human brain to process than just understanding planetary travelers were common in their world, the way continental travelers were in Gia’s. In Gia’s world, anyone from outside the country was technically an alien, but she deemed it near derogatory to say it to these folks.

Gia sensed a male presence behind her, another in the hall, and one more piddling in her bedroom, which made her uncomfortable to the extreme. Without knowing who to trust—despite the chip information telling her these guys—she was overly cautious. What her kidney bean and she discussed would stay between them. She had a strong hunch that wasn’t something most accomplished. It was beyond rare and she felt protective toward the item and information she was shown. Especially over that total stranger of a male leader she had zero reason to be protective over.

She also didn’t play around with the woman, Penelope, because around her waist was a weapon belt. It was beneath her dark blue leather coat, but plain as day. There were other things but Gia knew the weapons. Wasn’t sure how she knew Penelope’s name, or what was weapon on that belt, but she kept that to herself too. It was as though she was seeing the woman extend her hand, and offer the name.

Gia told her only what the sliver offered. “And you’re Narrisoari from Nori. Eventually I’m to be taken to Darlayna for the main trials, but that’s if I make it past the first one. The one which will determine if I can handle the next.”

The woman extended a hand. “Penelope.”




Three



Without showing the surprise Gia felt, Gia politely shook her hand. “Gia Gordon.”

Which cracked the emotionless template of Penelope’s face and made her smile. Her eyes brightened. “I know.” But she was amused that Gia felt the need to introduce herself when they were clearly there for her, not someone else.

Gia dropped Penelope’s hand with a smirk. She pointed at her. “Right. You do.” Her dreams hit her, as if they were the answer to all, and that was a huge reason Penelope knew her well. “So those weren’t dreams,” she murmured to herself as she had a bad habit of doing. Talking to herself that was.

“Sorry?” Penelope asked in a clipped harsh tone, drawing all amusement from the room.

Gia shook her head. “Nothing,” then, “I’ve had dreams the past few nights of people in my house.”

The intense pressure of the man’s focus from behind her made Gia take him in. He was staring hard at her until she did. Then quickly took in Penelope, and after, Gia’s backyard. Not before Gia caught the ice blue eyes harden beneath furrowed brow. Seemed annoyed for whatever reason. His height alone was intimidating enough, but those eyes with white hair? Chilly was a great word to describe how he made her feel.

Penelope seemed oddly curious. “Exactly how many times have you had that dream?”

Uh oh. Gia wished she’d kept her mouth shut. Unintentionally her cheeks warmed. Always happened when someone focused so intently on her.

Another man peeked around the door who seemed too familiar. He was much shorter and squatter than the one behind her. Appeared to have come from the Neanderthal age with his fair skin and red hair. Even the protruding brow. Gia blinked and refocused on Penelope. Also fidgeted because Penelope was still so heavily focused on her.

“Uh,” she knew better than to lie at that time, “three I think.”

“Past three nights?” Penelope checked behind her, making mister Neanderthal man duck back.

Gia, “mhm’d,” in answer.

“You’ve been awake the past three nights,” Penelope stated with zero emotion.

Gia felt like she was in the principal’s office. “No. Not awake.”

“Just dreaming,” Penelope pointed out critically, “but aware.”

Gia dropped her guard enough to say, “You’re freaking me out.” The atmosphere was also getting tighter and tighter. Or it was just her chest.

Like a balloon, the tense situation popped with Penelope’s hoarse chuckle. Gia released the breath she held, “Sorry,” Penelope said and explained, “It’s just surprising to me.”

Gia took a deep breath in and slowly released it back out, watching as Penelope pocketed the kidney bean in her coat. Kind of annoyed Gia. She suppressed the biting remark, “give back what’s mine,” that cropped up. It was her own little friend and she felt oddly protective. More so, that it should stay with her. It needed to be part of her.

She paused. Another odd thought. Part of me? Why would I think such a thing?

“Why?” Gia asked to ease the tension, then added, “isn’t that thing mine and part of this transmitter doohickey?” she tapped the skin on the bottom of her forearm. As in, she didn’t care. She just wanted it back sooner rather than later if it was necessary for the functioning of her skin doodad.

Penelope shrugged and said, “You’re the first who’s been aware. We check over the potential applicant if you will. See what the surroundings are like. When is the best time to—” she pulled the bean and threw it up and down in the air, which aggravated Gia, “—leave this to find.”

Noticing the aggravation that Gia clearly didn’t hide well enough, Penelope caught the bean in the next landing and held it. She squeezed it harder than necessary, making her already pale skin, go white along the knuckles.

“Were you able to turn this on?”

Gia’s attention moved from her bean to Penelope’s face. Any time she wanted to stop squeezing it. The area where the chip was in Gia’s arm began to get colder. As the best actress in Hollywood that she wasn’t, Gia gave an award-winning lie of interest, “You can? What’s it do?”

Penelope stared her down. Gia acted oblivious and checked on mister Neanderthal who once more looked into the room. And who gathered Penelope’s focus.

“Knock it off, Garn! Out front.” And that wasn’t a casual request. In her frustration that was all too clear.

Garn, as his name apparently was, eyed the bean, Gia; then with a grunt, went toward the living room. The front door never opened and shut so obviously he knew—unlike Gia—that the order Penelope gave didn’t mean leave the house. It meant head into the living room.

Casual again—thank you Garn!—Penelope said, “You’ll get it later on. It’ll help you learn.”

Gia wanted to say, “he,” but again she kept mum. She was going to get herself into trouble if she didn’t behave. She wasn’t known for following rules for too long, but in this case she felt it better for her life.

Instead, she inquired curiously, “What does it do?”

Penelope huffed. “Quite a bit. Depends on you.” She paused to raise her delicate but no less than threatening eyebrow. “Rare, but I’ve heard of stories where they were more than mere information blocks—”

“Lies,” came a curt hard, cease-to-all-conversation-along-those-lines tone behind Gia. Penelope visibly shivered.

Gia instead, felt an intense obnoxious urge to say, “Who the hell asked you,” which she stifled. Because without knowledge of how, Penelope’s quiver, that tone, the sudden tightening of the atmosphere, and the ice look she’d remembered. It all compiled into knowledge that this man was far higher up the ranks than most got.

So why her? Why was he the one here with her?

Unless it was beautiful and tragically dumb luck, since he seemed fairly annoyed at having to be here. And a little uninterested as well. Maybe he was forced to do menial service as some sort of punishment for something he did.

Penelope deftly changed subjects, “we need to get you changed. And quickly.”

Gia looked down at her dirty tank and jeans. “Why?” she dragged out.

Penelope eyed her. “Because you can’t go looking like that. You look like you crawled out of a dust bin.”

Gia pursed her lips. “Fairly accurate description.” She brushed off ground in grime from her shirt. Slightly self-conscious of her dirtiness now. Then moved onto a bit of dirt she discovered near her bare elbow. “Still, why do I have to change? What’s important about where you’re taking me that I should?”

“Are you always so chatty?” Penelope asked.

Gia gave a half-hearted shrug. “Are you quiet when strangers come into your home and you need answers to things they aren’t telling you?”

Before she turned away, Gia could almost swear a hint of a smile appeared on Penelope’s face. Gia had a strong hunch the woman enjoyed her not-going-to-back-down-that-easy attitude. Since she’d been on her own for so long, Gia was used to it. Wasn’t as if she had people to lean on. All right, admittedly that was on her too. But after far too many times of finally gaining courage enough to ask for help, and not receiving it?

Taught one to be self-sufficient and not lean on others, or make the mistake of believing everyone was on one’s side. It was also a curse of too deeply having had her heart broken. She’d come to terms with settling for being alone. What she sought didn’t exist. A life-altering connection. A man near God-like. Okay, she had high standards from having had a good father. That elusive dream existed only in her dreams.

Literally.

So no, having had to stand up for herself alone far too long? Having these people in her home, she wasn’t liable to just sit calmly by and twiddle her thumbs. Not her. If they’d wanted calm and complacent, frankly they picked the wrong damn house. One didn’t have to yell and scream to be defiant.

“It’s important for you to be prepared for the trials, as well as look,” she eyed Gia in disapproval, “halfway decent and not as though you climbed from the trash. Your look reflects back to me. I’m your charge, I’m responsible for much of your upcoming actions, including clothes.”

“Seems strange.”

That time Gia did catch the smirk. “That is the strange part?”

Gia crossed her arms and gave her a noncommittal shrug. “Well, my mind seems to be accepting most of this with too much ease.”

Penelope nodded. “Comes with the activation and alteration of your DNA. If you weren’t receiving that, at this point you may be a puddle of skin on the floor.” She pointed at Gia’s tennis shoes.

Gia bobbed her head. “Sounds fun.” Not at all. That did not sound like fun. In any way shape or form. Flesh blob. Nope.

With too much ease and knowledge of where it was, Penelope went over to Gia’s closet—where Gia had intended to place her bean—and slid open the hanging door. She eyed Gia’s clothes with a frown. More than likely having seen it from their little romps through her home at night the past few days.

“So let me understand this . . . you’re helping me not to help me, but to help you?” Gia inquired.

Penelope ignored the question. “Come over here and remove those clothes. Again, quickly.”

Gia checked behind her, uninterested in stripping in front of mister icy, but the doors to her backyard were open and he’d silently slipped out. Didn’t even hear him leave. But then she was glad he did. The others were wandering around. Garn chatted with someone—mostly his side of the conversation sounded like grunts and monosyllabic noises—in the front room. Maybe he was a Neanderthal. Different times as well as planets? Possible. Unless he was extremely old. But then why wouldn’t he have learned to chit-chat?

Gia did as told, knowing fully that one way or another, Penelope would get her way. She honestly didn’t think too much about changing in front of the woman since she wasn’t that self-conscious of her body to begin with. But she was a little concerned with the leather pants and leather tank that was pulled out of the closet.

Gia held up the tank as if it were poisoned. “Um, I don’t have leather items. So . . . where’d this come from?”

Penelope raised an eyebrow. “I may have altered some.”

“Why?”

“To go through the gate for the first time can be a little rough on clothes that come from this planet. They aren’t designed for interplanetary travel. This particular leather is tougher. Plus, we’ll be headed straight to round one of the culling.”

Well that sounded uninviting. “And what exactly is the first round about?”

Gia was given a cold smile. “Where you’re narrowed down further. Plan to remain naked?” Penelope eyed her carefully. “Could help your chances.”

That was a very not in any way shape or form answer. And with a heavy sigh, Gia chose to squeeze herself into the uncomfortably tight outfit. The top being more like a dang corset than anything else. She took a deep breath, wondering if there was any way for her little sliver doodad to help her out with a breathable outfit, versus a squeeze-her-to-death style.

In the same instant Gia believed it so and breathed out, the small half inch size of skin covering her sliver brightened to a white and the leather relaxed over her body, allowing her to breathe. Which is when her attention landed on Penelope and the all-too-knowing look on her face.

“Exactly what I thought,” Penelope said triumphantly. “You’re going to make it far.”




Four



“Which,” Gia pointed out, “is good for you.”

Penelope tipped her head. “It is. Keep that up.”

Gia fingered the bottom edge of the tank after she finished dressing, her cheeks bright pink from the effort. “Why do you sound as though you’re confident I’ll make it far. As though you’ve known it.” She tugged the elastic from her hair, then retied it into a ponytail, not pulling the ends fully through the last round.

Penelope stood up, readjusted the clothes Gia was wearing, then shut the closet door. “Because I’d hoped I’d chosen correctly. You making it far—”

“Benefits you, yeah, got that,” Gia cut in with a not so happy Penelope glaring at her.

Penelope continued with a far more clipped tone, “—earns this entire group points.” She pointed to Gia’s arm. “What you did there? Not many can do, even with instruction.” She tapped the tip of her long finger to her forehead, making her skin reflect the light from the outside and enhancing the slightly lighter than skin colored lines along her skin. “Requires connections from here,” she then tapped her forearm, “to here.”

Gia stared at the arm. “You have one?”

Penelope chuckled. “It does far more than just small adjustments to clothes. Had you practiced, you could’ve changed those clothes completely. Also why I gave you that outfit. We all have them.” She paused, then added, “The chips in our arms,” in case Gia didn’t get what she meant.

This time it was Gia’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “You gave me an outfit that I could change if I needed it. These weren’t my clothes at all. You brought them here.” She didn’t even bother to wonder why she hadn’t noticed. Where Penelope grabbed them? Gia didn’t typically look there—something Penelope probably noticed if she’d been watching her long enough, which Gia was convinced now they had been—and she barely noticed her little bean on the counter anyway. Of course she wouldn’t notice a new outfit in the past few days.

“I did,” and with that, Penelope grabbed the pair of buckled boots from the floor and handed them to Gia.

Gia eyed her bare feet. “I can change these too?”

“Can you?”

Gia mouthed, helpful, and then said aloud, “Thanks,” as she took the boots. She went to her bedroom—now vacant—to grab a pair of thick socks. No telling where she would be taken. May as well ensure she had good socks on.

Penelope came in carrying a leather coat that was similar to her own, but the same gray black as the pants, boots, and she realized . . . her bean. Gia raised her hands. “Where are you hiding all this?” But then knowing she wouldn’t receive an answer, she pointed to the bean hidden away in Penelope’s pocket. “Colors coordinate for a reason?”

Penelope looked at the clothes, then took the bean out, stared at it, made a huff sound in her throat, then replaced the bean in her pocket. “Hadn’t noticed. Guess so.”

Gia sat on the bed to get her socks on, then pulled the boots on one after the other. She got up and grabbed the coat from Penelope. They stared at one another for a second, then Gia pursed her lips, stared at the leather jacket, then thought of it being far better if it weren’t sitting above her waist, but lengthened to below her backside. And sure enough, the material shimmered, stretched, and lengthened.

Which only made her grin like an idiot.

And Penelope to cut it off with, “Don’t get too cocky. You do, you die.” She abruptly spun around, went over to the closet at the end of the hall, making Gia raise her eyebrows. Knew how to be a fun ruiner all right, didn’t she.

“And what do you want with that closet?” Gia questioned, stepping closer.

Penelope glanced at her as if she was an idiot. “How’d you think we came here?”

“Through . . . a closet?”

“Sure,” she muttered in response. Clearly Gia did something that annoyed her already, but she wasn’t sure what. Testing out the doohickey in her arm was wrong? She assumed that was what she was supposed to be doing, but who knew.

“I assume we’re leaving?”

Penelope only issued a hard stare.

Okay then, good talk.

Penelope reached into her other pocket to extract some sort of small black square. Then placed it against the door to Gia’s closet. Gia’s door dissolved into a frame and through that frame, came a darkening atmosphere. It was hard to see much because wherever they were supposed to go was much darker than where Gia lived. It was afternoon around Gia’s house, so fairly bright. And that dark seemed ominously dark.

She leaned to look through, but it looked like some sort of warehouse parking lot. With lots of military appearing vehicles. That was the oddest thing to see. She expected anything . . . but what appeared to be a military facility.

“After you,” Penelope waved her through. And that was when Gia’s stomach knotted up. She gulped. They were actually taking her from her home. To wherever that place was.

“Where is that?” she pointed to the open doorway.

“We don’t have much time. Go.” This time Penelope’s finger straightened out. There was no give to her tone. The men lined up in Gia’s hallway, ready to walk through the doorway behind the girls. And the looks in their eyes were very clear. Gia had no choice anymore. No more casual, they meant business.

Gia swallowed the giant lump in her throat. Her voice came out more strained than she wanted it to. “Hold on,” she whispered and stepped down the hall, but was stopped by mister icy eyes.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

Gia placed her palms up in fear. “Not running! I swear.” She pointed behind him and the others. “I’m also not leaving my home with my coffee pot on, and the back door wide open.” She tilted her head. “That you opened?”

“You have no concern for that anymore. Go.” Meaning he believed she’d never see this place again? Is that what he was telling her? Well screw him to hell. Just because they were taking her to this little contest thingie, didn’t mean there wasn’t a chance she wouldn’t come home.

Ever.

This time Gia held her ground. “No.” The muscle in his cheek twitched. Mister icy eyes stiffened and reached down then around to his back.

Penelope’s hand shot out and into the slim space between Gia and the man. “Padar,” she cut in harshly.

Which didn’t seem to help her case either. Padar, as his name apparently was, turned his unemotional look toward Penelope which made her hand jerk backward. In a softer tone, she said, “Let her lock up.” To Gia she made it clear, “Quickly. We’re gonna be late. And that will not be good. For any of us.”

“For her,” Padar pointed out.

Gia licked her lips. “Check.”

She edged around the giant towering wall of anger who wasn’t budging an inch, and who exchanged a look with Penelope that was clear they’d speak later on that disobedience. And by that, it meant she most likely would be the one spoken to with loads of rage.

Gia scurried through her house, locking doors, shutting curtains, and turning everything off. In record time, she even went so far as to drag as many of the electrical plugs from outlets as she could. Wasn’t too many, she didn’t leave things plugged in that she didn’t need to.

When she came home, she didn’t wish to come home to a pile of burnt rubble. That was the least she could do to ensure that much. She spun in a circle ticking off thoughts to herself of all to do. Then started the thoughts on who is going to get my mail? Make sure I’m not robbed?

Which quickly dissolved under the intense pressure from the people waiting in the hall. First thought first. Without much thought behind it, Gia took off down the hall, deftly sliding sideways past angry man Padar, and ran, stepped, tripped, tumbled through her own closet door, and into the darkening abyss beyond.

The very instant she went through, she felt a million teeth biting through her entire being, causing her breathing to catch. She heaved in air, slapped her palms to her knees, hunched over, and stifled the sudden spinning sensation that overwhelmed her. A tiny whimper of pain escaped her.

Penelope was by her side half a second later to guide her. “Breathe slowly in and out. Going through a gate is hard on newbies.”

“Now . . .” Gia puttered with a shudder, “she . . . tells . . . me.” She heaved in another great rush of air that played hide and go seek with her lungs. Her vision blurred in and out.

The others came through right after the two females. Padar reached into the nothingness where he stood to grab whatever that block thing was, then chucked it to Penelope. She caught it and pocketed it, patting Gia on the back in the same instant. To them this was normal. To Gia, it wasn’t. And the realization truly hit home.

Suddenly she thought of the famous movie quote about her not being at home anymore. This definitely isn’t Washington State. Cold we get in Winter, but I’ve never known any state that felt this cold.

The oddest part wasn’t that the environment felt cold, it was a feeling inside of her that said it was. Her breath didn’t plume, her nose didn’t brighten. She just knew it was chilly. And not any sort of normal chill, either. Whereas, the leather almost seemed to warm her. She heaved another breath in, feeling normalcy beginning to return enough to straighten. Which she did. Carefully, so as not to go into another spinning rush of a nightmare. She gave the leather a tug and rubbed it between her fingers.

Normal leather on the outside, anything but normal on the inside she gathered. Inside of the material that was.


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