Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wednesday Briefs: Denied Chapter Nine


This week's flash is inspired by the prompt: Since when did anyone are about me? (slight tweak to make it fit the storyline)


The door chimed, and I reluctantly uncurled from my ball on the bed and went to find out who was there. I hesitated, my hand hovering over the panel, before I finally let it settle on the cool screen. It warmed briefly, then the door slid open.

“Hello, Kohen.” Aparoe stood outside the door with a bag in one hand.

“Hello.” I retreated, but they didn’t follow me. I stared at the black bag.

“Can I come in?”

I darted a look up at their face, then tilted my face to one side and shrugged.

“The captain did tell you these are your quarters, and you control who comes in, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” They stepped inside, and the door slid shut. “I brought you some things.”

“Why?” I didn’t want to get back on the bed with Aparoe in my room, so I sat down in one of the chairs at the small table. I pulled up my legs, tucking my body into a tight ball with my arms wrapped around my knees.

“Because I want to make sure you’re getting what you need nutritionally. You underwent a serious surgery recently. Your body is still recovering, and I can only imagine what you’re feeling and thinking after so many years as a captive of the Brox Consortium.”

I rested my chin on one of my knees. “Brox Con-consor….”

“Consortium. Those scum running the lab we rescued you from.”

“Aliens.”

Aparoe paused in taking the packages out of their bag. “They employ aliens, yes. But it’s run by a company that has far more reaching goals. Galactic politics, power behind the power thing, and they’re willing to use brutal, horrific means to accomplish their plans. Including torturing different species to find out what makes them tick.”

“Hmm.” I didn’t really get what she meant. “What is that?”

The bag was full of purple powder. “This is a supplement. I would like you to add it to the juice I’m going to program into your machine. One every morning, and one at night.”

“The patches will help calm any agitation your nerves might experience. We’re unsure of what effect the suit will have had on your body. You had several storms of electrical activity after the surgery to remove it. Should it happen again, you can place one of these patches on the base of your neck. It will help.”

“Storms?”

“Tingling, burning, muscle and skin crawling sensations. Most likely, an event would be brought on by stress. Your body’s nervous system goes into hyper drive, essentially. There’s also an anti-emetic, which will help with nausea.”

Was that what had happened? While we were eating? I felt a little better, thinking maybe the freak out by my body wasn’t just because I was broken in my head. And I knew I was.

More than anything, I wanted Aparoe gone. I wanted to be alone. I knew I shouldn’t, that I should want to be around people, but it was too much.

“Kohen? Can you read this?” Aparoe held up a digital sheet.

“Yes. Biz… Bizard… I don’t know that word. Then it says, um… take with juice t-twice a day.” I pleated a fold of my pants between my fingers, rubbing it nervously. “Didn’t read much before.”

“That’s good enough. You just need to be able to follow the directions. Place this portable vid over the medicine and it will give you the directions. If you’re unable to read it for any reason, this button here”—they pointed to a set of wavy lines—“will read it aloud for you.”

“Okay.”

Aparoe gathered up their bag. “Please let me know if you need anything. I will be checking on you once a day for the near future.”

“Why?”

“We’ve only been able to decode the basic information in your file from when you were first… well, from early on. Only you know what you’ve been through, but we know that they were tinkering with human DNA as well as mental and emotional experiments. We want to help you.”

I frowned. “Why?” Remembering my life before I’d been sold was hard, but I hadn’t forgotten everything. No one did anything without expecting something in return.

“It’s our mission.”

Like that told me anything. “Mission?”

Aparoe nodded. “We— wait, hold on. Yes.” They tapped behind their ear. “Sorry, Kohen. I’ve been summoned to deal with an idiot who didn’t realize mass doesn’t change just because you’re in zero gravity.”

They left me with more questions than answers, and the visit alone had exhausted me. I got up and rechecked the seal on the door, then crawled back into bed. The pillow was soft, like a fluffy cloud in an old storybook, and the blanket was heavy and smooth.

I curled onto my side and pulled the blanket up to my face, turning it and clutching a handful so I could rub my chin and cheeks on it. Since when did anyone care about what happened to me? My parents… not so much. The aliens? Definitely not. I couldn’t even think of any friends who might have really missed me—or missed me at all.

Drawing in a ragged breath, I tried to push those thoughts away. The past didn’t exist, and I had no idea what my future held. I would do what I’d done for years to get by; I’d live in the now. And the now meant I had a private place for my own with comfortable clothes and an awesome bed, and I could watch anything I wanted on the vid and order anything to eat and drink.

I sat up on the bed, wiping away the moisture on my cheeks. At home, there had been channels on the vid we couldn’t see….

Hopping out of bed, I bounced over to the dispenser. I didn’t even have to think about it. “Parl treats and warm cokala.” The sticky, chewy candies were impossible to chew, but when you bit through them, the goo on the inside oozed out and the two flavors combined in the best ever flavor. I liked the ones based on Old Earth fruits.

The cokala was thick and fizzy and better than anything I’d tasted before. “Oh yum!” I took my haul over to the bed. Time for some fun.
TBC

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Wednesday Briefs: Denied Chapter Eight



“Yes. It’s all yours. You control who comes in. All you have to do is place your hand on the sensor and it will open.”

I looked at the pad inside the door. “From inside?”

“Yes, Cohen. You are not a prisoner on my ship, you’re a guest. It is probably best that you don’t wander around alone, since I don’t want you to get lost, but you’re not trapped here. If you wish to go out, just hit this button which will page the bridge. Someone is on duty at all times and can provide you with assistance.”

I still couldn’t believe this was all for me. I wrapped my arms tightly around myself, bracing for the pain but needing the comfort. When it didn’t start burning after I dared so much physical contact, the jarring shift in reality struck me again. I still couldn’t believe it was gone. I shivered.

“If you’re cold, you can adjust the environmental controls here in your quarters to a warmer temperature. And there are clothes in the drawers in that wall there.” Captain still stood just inside the door, pointing things out. “Look around, change, and get some rest. The tablet on the bed controls the vid screen, and you have access to the entertainment and unclassified news on the system.”

“T-thank you.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Captain hovered just outside.

“Yes.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. What he wanted me to say.

“All right then. I’ll let you explore your room. Rest well, Cohen.” Captain stepped back and turned, and then the door slid shut. I took a breath. Then another one.

It was quiet in my room. I missed the tiny temple with the soothing sounds. I touched the bed, then the wall. The top drawer slid open when I pushed on it. Inside were clothes, soft shirts and pants. I grabbed one of each and put them on the bed.

I wasn’t where to put the dirty robe, but I kicked it in the corner. I stepped in front of the piece of sonic shower. I’d used on before. I lifted my arms and turned in a slow circle. Getting clean always felt like it should include something… more.

Sometimes I thought I remembered water pouring down over me. It hadn’t gotten me clean—the pollution in the atmosphere meant rain left dirty gray steaks on everything it touched—but it was warm and wet.

It had felt amazing. Of course, I’d had to take two sonic showers to get the gunk off.

I took a second shower, but I still didn’t feel anything and the experience was disappointing as always. At least I was clean and didn’t smell of my own sick. The clothes on the bed were soft, hanging in draping folds. I’d worn the skintight suit for so long, it was strange to feel my clothing move independent of my body.

But they were warm. I wrapped my arms around my chest and glanced around. I had no idea what to do, but the shower couldn’t help the taste in my mouth.

I fidgeted, eyeing the dispenser. I’d never had access to one“Um. Liquids.” The screen lit up with a list of options. I didn’t know what half of it was, but I found one I remembered from my childhood and selected that. A cup with hot tea, green steam rising gently, materialized on the shelf.

It smelled just as good as I remembered it. I picked up the cup and the memories of my childhood assaulted me. We didn’t have much, but whenever I was sick, my mom would spend out subsistence credits to get me a cup. It always made me feel better.

The sharp taste cut through the acid bile still coating my tongue, washing it away. I stumbled over to the bed, holding the cup between both hands. I sipped it, staring blankly at the wall. The warm trail of a tear surprised me. I’d suppressed what good memories I had, the anger and betrayal consuming me when I could battle through the numbness and pain to feel anything.

I rocked forward and back, my harsh shuddering breaths growing louder. Loud beeping startled me, and I dropped my cup, which was thankfully empty. Was it the door? Would a verbal command work?

“Yes?”

The vid screen lit up, and a woman stared at me. She was dressed in a uniform, her hair flowing down to her shoulders with some sort of cloth holding it back from her wide face. Her eyebrows lowered and her forehead creased in a frown. “I apologize. I was attempting to reach the captain in his office.”

I looked around. “These are my quarters.”

This time her eyebrows went up. “Clearly. I apologize for disturbing you.” The screen went dark.

“That was weird.” I wiped my face with both hands, glad the interruption at least brought my tears to an end. I hadn’t been up very long, but exhaustion already dragged at me.

The vid screen was directly in front of the bed. I slid backward, enjoying the silky fabric, and then slid under the covers. They were heavy and warm, and I sighed.

“Vid on.” The screen lit up. “Entertainment.” I went from program to program to find something, eventually settling on a docu-drama from a colony set up on a planet with high volcanic activity. My eyes kept drifting closed, and not even the loud explosion of an erupting volcano was enough to keep them from finally falling shut for good.

I snuggled into the bed and sighed.


TBC
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Monday, December 4, 2017

The Solstice Prince by SJ Himes **Get This eBook Now!**

Today I'm so excited to share a short interview with SJ Himes with my readers to help celebrate the recent release of her story, The Solstice Prince! 



Interview


If you could give advice to yourself when you first started writing, what would it be?

  1. I would tell myself to avoid info dumps. Sometimes they are unavoidable, but I was guilty of info dumping in my earlier books. I didn’t know any better, and that is most definitely something I would tell my newbie author self. World building is something I love to do, and I have to remind myself to reveal things as the story progresses, instead of all at once.

The Solstice Prince is a departure from your usual contemporary setting. Did you find it easier or harder to write a fantasy-setting?

  1. At first it was very hard, harder than I was expecting. I am a huge fantasy reader, and surely I could pull it off, but it was difficult going at first. In fact, this book was supposed to come out last year, and it was just going to be a holiday short story around 15k words, but I had to set it aside when my lack of knowledge about the world I was building became detrimental to the process. I spent a lot of time researching between other books, and it wasn’t until after I finished Wolf of the Northern Star that I learned how to get past my block. I wrote the book solely from Jaime’s POV, who is a stranger in this new land, and who is a healing student, who had limited knowledge of the same things I was lacking. So as he learned, I learned. I waited until Jaime got to something in the story he should know, or something he was learning, and then I researched and learned about it with him as I wrote.

The Solstice Prince has been a project under wraps for a long time. What was the hardest part of getting to “The End”?

  1. Finding the overall tone of the book, and the heart of it. Was this a tale of hurt/comfort? A foundling with a purpose? What was my endgame for this world? It wasn’t until I got past my writing block in general, and then realizing I could make this world bigger, tying in more books I already had sketched out, creating a wider universe, that things flowed. The best way for me to write “The End,” is to add the words “...for now.” I excel at series, and having the world I was making live past the last page of The Solstice Prince took off the pressure. The Solstice Prince became what it is now; a simple story of falling in love, with the fantastical backdrop of a grand palace, and the handsome prince as the main love interest.  The next book in the series will not be focused on Jaime and Maxim, but I will come back to them to tie off the series in a few books. 

What would you say is the primary characteristic of your main character, Jaime Buchanan?

  1. Jaime is remarkably selfless. He is a healer, and his wish is to live a simple life, helping others. He just happens to fall in love with a prince, who is just as selfless and caring as he is, and the reawakening of jaime’s true personality through tender care. Jaime has PTSD (which I don’t name in the book, but I give him some symptoms that will hopefully make it apparent to readers) and he isn’t healed miraculously by falling in love. He simply finds the parts of himself that he withdrew from the world in order to survive. Imagine a flower that closes its petals against a storm, and then when the sun shines again afterward, it opens back up. Some damage, some scars, but still a flower. Jaime is a quiet, steady soul, who hates to see others in pain. 

The Solstice Prince is Book 1 in the Realms of Love series. Where are you at with Book 2?

  1. I am about 21k into the second book, which is titled The River Prince. It is a new set of characters, but takes place in countries already introduced through Jaime in Book 1. Eistrea, Jaime’s home country, and The Hellebore Empire, the country where Jaime went to school. The series takes place across five different nations, with three different couples (so far.) Eistrea is a strict place with certains views, and The Hellebore Empire is a bit more like Pyrderi (the country Jaime ends up in in Book #1.) So, book #2 will focus on a new couple, as will Book #3, then with the last book, we’ll swing back to Jaime and Maxim from Book #1. Events in Book #2 will influence Book #3, which in turn will bring the series back to Book #4 and our original couple.

I hope that whets your appetite to read the story, if you haven't already. I really enjoyed it! Looking for a little more information?

About the Book


Rescued from slavers, healer novice Jaime Buchanan finds himself alone and free in Pyrderi, a kingdom of magic, mythical creatures, and a culture as open and kind as his homeland was cruel and close-minded.

Despite his rescue, Jaime is not left without scars, both mental and physical. Traumatized by his experience and hiding his gift, Jaime struggles to earn his place in the kitchens of Angharad Palace, the heart of Taliesin City. His former life as a student of the healing arts leaves him at a disadvantage in the kitchens, and his damaged state is becoming more apparent by the day.

One day, when necessity and fate intervene, Jaime meets someone unexpected—Prince Maxim, youngest son of the Pyrderian king, a sword master and a devastatingly kind man. Unaccustomed to powerful people with compassion and heart, Jaime flees. A cascade of events reveals Jaime’s hidden talents of healing, and he finds himself not in chains, but at the beginning of a new life.

This swift change of fortune opens Jaime up to new possibilities, including a smitten prince who cautiously courts Jaime, easing him away from his fears and reminding him that compassion and love can make him strong. The winter solstice is quickly approaching, and Prince Maxim shows Jaime the enjoyment and excitement to be found in a land that embraces the ice and cold, and the mysteries of all things magical. He learns to see the man under the royal mantle, and Maxim is more than even Jaime suspected.

The winter solstice is nigh when tragedy strikes, and Jaime learns that his past of grief and sorrow can be a pillar of strength for his solstice prince. If there is one thing that Jaime believes above all else, it is in the healing power of love.
*Available in Kindle Unlimited* 




Contest


Excerpt

At some prearranged signal, the crowd began to quiet, faces turned towards the canopy where the royals sat. Janis stood and moved to the rail, lifting a hand to the crowd. The people cheered, clapping and shouting the crown prince’s name. Prince Janis was popular with the people if he garnered that kind of reaction— this was not the forced greeting given to a leader that was feared or despised. Jaime still did not know who the king was of Pyrderi, but the future King was well-liked, perhaps even loved.
The people quieted and Janis shouted, his words echoing through the cloud air. “Greetings citizens of Taliesin City! On behalf of the royal family and my father, the king, I welcome you to the first official day of the Solstice Festival! Today is cold and the wind is sharp, so I’ll not waste any time! Would the priests please light the solstice fire, and let the festivities begin!”
The crowd roared in approval and there was a burst of smoke across the square. Two men and a woman dressed in gray robes were standing at the base of a large metal structure about the height of a tall man. The woman was cradling something in her hands that billowed out dark gray smoke and she tossed it into the weird structure. Bright orange flames promptly rose and the crowd cheered again. The royals clapped in approval and Jaime hurriedly copied their example, though he had little idea of what was going on.
Maxim leaned down and spoke in his ear. “The priestess is a Magi and she lit the torch with her magic. The torch represents how life endures even in the depths of winter. The winter solstice is in a few days with the festival ending with the grand ball at the palace. The winter festival here in Taliesin City draws in celebrants from around the country and even from some of the islands in the Straits.”
Jaime blushed when Maxim pulled back and gave him a swift wink and a charming grin. “Janis needs to stay and let the people see him for a while, but the twins are about to escape the cold and we have a tour to finish. The first day of the festival is just the opening ceremony since a lot of people are still arriving. Do you want to stay or would you like to finish the tour?”
“The tour sounds like fun, if you’re sure we won’t be missed.” Any time alone with Maxim was worth the icy chill.
“You two should escape while you can,” Janis said, having overheard Maxim. “I’ll be here until the cold gets too much, talking to courtiers and the like.” The crown prince stood over Jaime who blinked back up at him in surprise. For such a large man, he moved with surprising subtlety. Janis motioned to the lower levels of the stands, and the courtiers below were indeed standing and heading for the stairs that led to the royals’ box. “Unless you want to stay and get fawned over by the masses, Maxim?”
“I’ll save that for you, dear brother. Enjoy your day, and welcome home.” Maxim helped Jaime to his feet. Jaime was at a loss for how to respectfully say goodbye to the crown prince, but Maxim solved this by tugging him away with a casual wave to his brother and the twins, who hardly paid them any heed, tossing back small waves of their own before they went back to talking. Janis grinned at them both and tipped his head towards the stairs.
Maxim took hold of Jaime’s hand and took off for the stairs. They hurried downward until they came back to where the sleigh had dropped them off originally. There was a sleigh waiting for them pulled by the same strange creature Maxim called an oryx. Maxim helped Jaime up into the carriage and jumped in behind him. The driver snapped his whip, and the sleigh jerked into motion.
Their visit to the festival might have been quick, but Jaime didn’t mind. The way Maxim held his hand, tight and firm, like he never wanted to let go, filled Jaime with warmth and a slow burn under his skin, heating his cheeks in the chilly air. The prospect of spending the next few hours in Maxim’s company was incomparable to anything he’d experienced in his short life. Not better than the day he was freed from the slavers, but it was close.
Falling in love felt like learning how to live again.



About the Author
I'm a self-employed writer who stresses out about the silliest things, like whether or not I got my dog the best kind of snack and the fact my kindle battery tends to die when I'm at the best part in a book. I write mainly gay romance, erotica, and urban fantasy, with occasional forays into contemporary and paranormal. I love a book heavy on plot and character evolution, and throw in some magic, and that's perfection. My current series are: The Beacon Hill Sorcerer, Bred For Love (as Revella Hawthorne), The Wolfkin Saga, and the epic fantasy romance series Realms of Love. My last two novels in the Beacon Hill Sorcerer won 3rd Place in the Gay Fantasy category for the 2016 Rainbow Awards.
I live in New Orleans, where the personalities are big and loud and so are the bugs! New Orleans is rich in cultural history, and the flavor and music of the City is impossible to hide. Before that, I lived all over the United States: Tampa, Western Massachusetts, Indianapolis, and on and on.... I'm a nomad, and I've yet to find a place that calls to me strongly enough to become home. My faithful travel companions are my dog Micah, the numerous voices in my head who insist they all get put on paper, and the wind at my back.



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wednesday Briefs: Denied Chapter 7




Too much. Too much. All the eyes on me, the men standing over our table. That sneer reminded me of my dad, when he sold me to the aliens. I’d seen the credits change hands before he walked away and my life became nothing but torment. My stomach cramped and I leaned over, vomiting up the meal I’d just eaten.

I retched, unable to stop, as the bile burned my throat.

Captain jumped back.

I dropped from my chair and scuttled under the table, my stomach muscles still heaving even though nothing else was coming out. My eyes teared up, and I couldn’t hold them back yet again. Inexplicably, I yearned for my cell. I’d known what to expect there. It was safe.

There was no safety here, in this room surrounded by so many others.

“I’m sorry, Kohen. You were doing so well, but this was too much to expect of you.” Lakshou hovered outside the table, crouching down to talk to me. A blue glow began to surround him.

I shook my head and curled up tighter, turning away. “No.” I didn’t want him to do that thing. I’d let him calm me down once, and it lead to this. I clamped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut, blocking him out and the raised voices surrounding me. “No, no, no.” The word became a chant.

“Kohen. You’re safe.” Captain was on the other side of me, his voice dropped to a warm, low murmur from the snarl he’d used to address the other man. I darted a glance at him, my chest heaving. He held out a hand but didn’t try to touch me, just waited. I’d made the leap once and let him take me out of my cell. Could I risk it again?

“It’s okay. On your terms, when you’re ready. The room’s empty, so there’s no one here but us. You’re safe.”

The smell of my vomit was covering the food smells, but I didn’t want to be in the big room.

“Where?”

“Where what? Oh. You mean where will you go?”

I nodded.

“There is space next to my quarters available. I had some crew go in and make it comfortable for you. It’s small, but somehow I don’t think you’ll mind that.” He smiled, and I could actually hear it in his voice too. That decided me. I wanted to go with Captain, with his warm, spicy scent and his soft touch.

Easing out slowly, a few inches at a time, I scooted toward his hand. Captain backed up two steps and then held still, his hand open. I grabbed it and held it tight, and he pulled me to my feet. My eyes were level with his chin.

“Wow. I knew you were tall, but not that tall.”

I didn’t know if my height was unusual or not, since I hadn’t seen any adult humans since I was a kid. I’d had nothing to compare myself to as I shot up to my current height.

“Come on. Let’s get you to your room so you can clean up.”

“Bye, Kohen. I’m sorry this meal was not a success, but I hope to see you again soon. I would like to help you continue with your meditation, but I can come to your room if my temple makes you… uncomfortable.”

“Thank you, Lakshou,” I said over my shoulder.

Captain didn’t pull his hand out of mine, and he didn’t seem to care that I crowded close to him every time we passed a crew member. He kept up a quiet running commentary on the ship as we walked. “You’ve seen the crew quarters, temples, and medical deck. Officer’s quarters are one ring up. Each ring isn’t really a ring, seen from outside of course, but an outer corridor that follows along the curve of the ship. The center of the ship houses the more delicate areas like our life support mechanisms, the computer systems, as well as the engine.

“Maybe one day I’ll take you to see the forward engine. That’s the one that allows us to compress space and travel faster than light.”

“Okay.” I didn’t really care if he took me or not, and I was pretty sure he knew that. His voice gave me something to focus on, though, and that was the important part. I tried to block out everything going on around us, but the ship was a busy place, full of people and aliens.

By the time we got to the new quarters Captain promised me, I was shaking again and sweating inside the robe Lakshou had given me. It was spotted with small areas of sick around the hem. I gathered up the courage to ask, “Can I have some clothes? And get clean?”

“Of course. I asked for some generic stores to be sent to your quarters. Medical got your measurements while you were there, so they should fit. And this… room didn’t have any facilities, so we set up a temporary unit in one corner with a sanitary reclamation unit and installed a sonic shower bar on the wall.” He stopped and stood in front of a door. “Here it is. Please put your hand on the scanner for a DNA scan.”

The plate didn’t hurt me, just warmed against my palm. Air whooshed as the door slid open.

“After you,” Captain said.

I let go of his hand and stepped inside. The room was several times bigger than my cell, which was what I’d been expecting. There was a bed on a platform, the coverings the same fabric and color as Captain’s bed.

“Uh, you seemed to like mine, so I got you the same.”

“Thank you.” I curled my arms around my chest and turned slowly. A small table with two chairs and dispenser on the wall above a small shelf were on one wall. The sanitary unit and sonic shower were in the other corner.

It was amazing. “This is mine?”
TBC
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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wednesday Briefs: Denied Chapter 6



“Do you think you are ready?”

My stomach grumbled. “If nothing else, I have to eat.”

Lakshou smiled. “A very apt observation. And your energy is much calmer now. Just remember, no one in the crew wishes to hurt you. You are safe now, and no one will do anything to you without your permission.”

“I’ll try.” I took a breath and blew away the tension starting to build inside me. My shoulders dropped; I hadn’t even realized I’d started to curl in on myself again. “Okay. Ready.”

The door whooshed open, and I hesitated before following Lakshou out. The tiny temple proved to be a sanctuary I couldn’t ever remember having before. The air was cooler outside in the corridor. I pulled my hands inside the sleeves of the silky robe Lakshou had given me.

He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “At your pace, little one. No one is going to hurt you.”

“Okay.” I stepped out. The door slid shut nearly on my heels, and I jumped forward.

Lakshou led the way, explaining the ship layout as we moved. “Essentially, the ship is a long narrow capsule with short branches to each side. This is a mid-sized cruiser.”

For someone who’d been trapped in a single, tiny cell for years, it felt huge. There were places the corridor turned and I couldn’t see beyond the wall. Doors, some open and some shut. And people. There were many more around than I’d seen earlier before I ran into Lakshou.

“It is shift change and close to a meal time. There will be people around, but not too many since this early many people choose to eat something in their quarters. If you need to leave at any time, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

“Won’t you be able to tell?”

He hesitated. “Well. My abilities don’t always work that way in a crowd. I can sense the overall mood in a room, but it’s harder to be sure of individual emotions. That is one of the reasons I usually work one on one with supplicants.” Lakshou ducked his head as they entered the galley, his horns barely clearing the smaller doorway.

“Okay.”

What he considered not too many people was still overwhelming for me. I struggled to stay calm because it felt like everyone was watching us—me—as we walked into the room. I took a step sideways, hiding behind Lakshou’s bulk as he led the way to a dispenser on the wall. The room was filled with a feast of food scents, and my stomach snarled in hunger.

There were a lot of humans but there were also aliens mixed in here and there, all eating different things. It didn’t seem like there was any separation between them, except one big alien who was nearly colorless eating something bright red that was… wiggling. I even saw several aliens I’d never heard of. I could only hope they would all be as friendly and helpful as Lakshou.

“Would you like me to pick something for you to eat?”

Watching the scrolling choices on the dispenser screen, I nodded. There were too many choices; I wouldn’t even know where to start. “Thank you,” I whispered.

“Think nothing of it. Hmm. Something simple, I think. A soup?”

I wrinkled my nose at the thought of food in soft or liquid form. “Something crispy?”

“We can do that.” Lakshou scrolled the menu down and then pressed a selection. “Toasted bread. And the cooked animal protein that gets crispy.”

The urge to snatch the food that appeared below the dispenser was hard to resist, but I’d learned to control my physical actions over the years, if not my emotional reactions. I curled my fingers around the tray and waited for Lakshou to get his food. His plate had an electric blue cube that jiggled as we walked to a nearby table.

When we sat, Lakshou folded up his legs up and leaned back in the chair, lifting his face and closing his eyes. I watched him, unsure of what he was doing, and even more surprised when a blue light flashed around him but I didn’t feel anything. After a minute, he opened his eyes. “Oh. You didn’t have to wait for me. I was just taking a self-communion moment.”

“Okay.” I picked up the meat, something I hadn’t had in years, even before leaving Earth. The salty, smoky cube was crisp as I bit it in half, then dissolved into salty shreds on my tongue. I moaned, and grabbed another one, greedily shoving it in before I finished swallowing the first.

“Easy, easy. You can always have more later.”

The bread was coated with a sweet substance on one side, and I liked the dry crunch. I reveled in the taste and texture. There was a cup beside my plate. I sniffed it; it smelled like the one I’d had in medical. I looked up at Lakshou.

“I was given some instructions by the staff. Just a nutritionally-balanced mix designed to give your body what it needs.”

“And you’d know just what that is, wouldn’t you?” Some man stopped beside our table. He leaned in, getting closer than I wanted him to. “Who do you have here? A new disciple for your cozy little temple? I see he’s wearing one of your easy access robes.”

Lakshou’s horns began to glow, and I eyed him warily. The other human was acting aggressive, but I didn’t understand why.

“Kemit. You have been warned about your attitude toward my counseling before, especially in front of supplicants. How you wish to express your personal beliefs is your business, but you are not allowed to badger others about theirs. There is nothing wrong with my counseling others, and your hidebound, colonial sensibilities are the problem here. Don’t make me go to the captain again.”

“You don’t need to.”

Captain’s voice from behind me made me jump, and I spun in my chair.

TBC

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