by Rena Rocford
When a scientist joins alien detectives, she must stop a star slayer before he adds the sun to his collection of celestial corpses #PitProm
Dear Pit Prom Royal Advisors:
Getting a PhD in planetary science was supposed to get Chrissy King a spot in the next astronaut class, not a workaholic husband and a dead-end job babysitting analytical equipment. Add two kids conspiring to keep her up all night every night, and Chrissy wonders if Happily Ever After is a lie told to propagate the species. When Chrissy creates a new material with weapons applications, it raises red flags in an alien peacekeeping organization, the Knights of Mourning. An alien Knight is sent to investigate and stop production. As the Knight is getting Chrissy fired—in the name of galactic peace—someone murders the alien. Normally, Knights train for decades for the honor to serve, but with seconds to live, the dying alien recruits Chrissy in a last-ditch effort to catch the murderer.
Being an interstellar protector of the peace isn't all teleporters and ray guns. Antihuman sentiments run close to the surface, fueled by a fierce political campaign to keep humans out of the galactic community. If the murderer doesn’t get Chrissy first, a fellow Knight might accidently hit her with a subatomic particle beam. And the killer isn’t some run of the mill alien assassin: he targets stars, too. When Chrissy makes a quick trip to Earth to check on her family, the murderer follows her home, and the sun would make a perfect target. If Chrissy can’t stop him, the killer is going to add the sun to his collection of celestial corpses.
STARBREAK, an adult science fiction complete at 90,000 words, is a reimagining of the Arthurian legend set in space. STARBREAK is a standalone novel but is intended as the first in a trilogy. I write under the penname Rena Rocford. My debut YA Contemporary Fantasy ACNE, ASTHMA, AND OTHER SIGNS YOU MIGHT BE HALF DRAGON is published through Curiosity Quills, and a companion novel, PROM, MAGIC, AND OTHER MAN-MADE DISASTERS is coming out late fall 2017 with Curiosity Quills.
Thank you for your time.
First Ten Pages:
As a card carrying scientist, I knew things: gravity sucked, sound couldn’t travel in a vacuum, and chocolate always made me feel better. I slipped into the lab through a side door, and dropped my brownie on my desk. Sliding my purse under my chair like I’d been there for the last ten minutes, I swiveled my chair towards me. It squealed, and the other post docs cringed. Lab furniture was notoriously bad. Dr. Owen’s experimental petrology lab set no new precedents in the field of nonfunctional lab chairs despite being funded by a healthy federal grant.
As my derriere hit the cushion with a popped spring, Dr. Owen stormed through the doors on a wave of floral aftershave. The shine off his balding head matched the gleam in his eyes as he locked on me. Target acquired. “Where the hell have you been, Dr. King?”
“I was getting you some—”
“Coffee?” He shot me the I-have-you-now smirk, pulling his unkempt beard into a point. He knew I didn’t drink coffee.
“Walnut covered brownies.” I finished the sentence without any hesitation. I’d be out breakfast, but post docs didn’t really have job security. Time for bribes. I pulled the brownie out of the bag like a model on the home shopping network. He narrowed his eyes at me, his resolve slipping.
His aftershave intensified, and the stank face came back. “We need to talk. Outside.” He pointed to the door I’d come through. The other lab techs had the wide-eyed look of gazelles watching a lion eat one of their own. Oh Galileo, it’s The Talk.
The Albuquerque wind pulled at the door like a grasping monster, and I made a grab for the door as it swung away from the building. March in the desert was like living in a sandblaster set up in the freezer. I pretended not to mind the cold. Or the sand.
Tumbleweed rolled across the deserted parking lot, ready for a Main Street showdown in a western flick. Dr. Owen pushed his remaining hair away from his eyes as he shut the door. “What’s going on, Dr. King? Your work…” He shook his head, rounding his lips over his teeth.
I deflated and took a breath to ease the panic, knowing I was about to sound lame. The real plight of motherhood: no sleep for the first three years. Combined with the cultish devotion to science required for research jobs, and I’d been reading research papers to my daughters for bedtime stories for years. “Things have been really hectic with the girls. Katie is refusing to use the potty, so she peed in Jeff’s computer bag this morning, and I—”
“I didn’t ask you out here to talk about how you’re late every day. You’re jittery in the lab. You ruined a week’s worth of work when you dropped that assembly. You’ve been so steady before this. What’s going on?” His eyes narrowed to judgmental daggers. “Are you taking something you shouldn’t be?”
“What? No! I’m not on drugs. I took a test last week, you should know. I just haven’t been getting enough sleep. The girls have been keeping me—”
“Lack of sleep doesn’t explain how you dropped a ten thousand dollar assembly before we could run the experiment.”
Suddenly the world felt like it was made of eyes. On Base, it was; there were cameras everywhere. Some guard could watch this conversation from five or six different angles.
My face burned. Part of my job was to handle tiny, expensive things. I prepared the materials for experiments and built the assembly to subject the materials to interesting conditions. It’s how I got my Ph.D. and I was good at it—until a week ago. The assembly leapt out of my hands like someone flipping a lunch tray, but scientists didn’t talk about unexplained phenomenon like ghosts in the lab. And was it really ghosts, or had sleep deprivation finally overwhelmed me? I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I hadn’t slept well since my firstborn came into the world six years ago. And something had made the bonds of gravity give up for just a second. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any sort of scientific evidence. Sleep deprivation did cause hallucinations.
I groped for words. “It just… fell.”
His aftershave floated on the wind, fogging up my nose. Funny, he was sweating, and I was the one getting the talk. Though, I would have pegged him as an Aqua Velva sort of guy, not the kind to go for flowers. Maybe his wife picked it for him. Most scientists could barely dress themselves in clean clothes. I wore a steady diet of snarky t-shirts and Converse.
Dr. Owen chewed on his lips before blowing out his breath. “I think you might not be a good fit for my lab at this time.”
My stomach dropped, and my heart took up residence in my throat. “Are you kidding? What about last week? I made something new—something different! It doesn’t obey the normal laws of physics. You know how important that could be! That was my experiment.”
He nodded his head, sympathizing, and then shrugged. “An experiment you can’t reproduce.”
“Only because I don’t have the right equipment.”
“Because you broke it. Look, I know you’re probably disappointed, Dr. King. But sometimes these things just happen.”
“Over an assembly? You’re firing me over an assembly that never worked right to begin with? The substance we made could revolutionize everything we know about material science. Remember when they discovered superconductors? This could be that big. Just give me another two weeks. I’ll prove it to you. DOD would kill for this—they’d fund for this.”
His face wavered for a moment, his forehead wrinkling against his bald spot, but his damned cologne inundated the parking lot again. He set his jaw. “I’m sorry, Chrissy. I have your notes if we decide to pursue it, but it’s just not likely.” He rubbed his chin. “No, I think we’ll move in a different direction after we get the new assembly.”
“But all my work!”
He nodded. “I’m going to have a strategy meeting down the hall. I expect it’ll run long enough for you to pack your stuff. If you box your books, I’ll have them shipped.”
“That’s it then? Go sign up for unemployment?”
“You’re not technically an employee. You’re a contractor.” He shrugged.
My stomach folded in on itself. Of course not. Of course I wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. My foot itched to kick something, but only weeds and boulders decorated the landscape. The wind blew sand in my face, scouring away my skin. Dr. Owen ducked his head and slipped through the door, retreating like a coward and not giving me a chance to argue. The stucco wall caught on my jacket as I leaned back and pounded the heels of my fists.
Absolutely typical. I got fired on the same day Jeff canceled date night. His mother was even going to pick up the girls from daycare. Now I’d get a night at home alone to think about how I lost my crappy job. I could work on my resume over pizza and merlot. And I couldn’t even talk about my experiments because I’d thought up the whole thing while working in a government lab. I’d signed the papers granting them ownership of my thoughts while I worked, and the clearances to work there meant I couldn’t discuss the work there. They owned all of it. Stupid intellectual property agreement. The substance I made would revolutionize materials science, and they owned all of it. All the processes, all the research, all the techniques.
I took gulping breaths to gather my composure, but Dr. Owen’s aftershave lingered on the air. It wasn’t just any floral scent, it was lilies. Such odd cologne for a man to wear. All week the lab had smelled of it, so it must have been a recent switch. The wind whistled through the weeds, but the odor didn’t dissipate.
My brows pinched together. Technically, it was impossible for a scent to linger after the source had left, and the wind was blowing. It should have gone with the wind.
And ghosts didn’t exist let alone mess up lab equipment.
A chill swept across my skin, sharpening my senses. Was anything different in the parking lot? Impossible things didn’t happen, and if there was a ghost in the lab, I wanted evidence. I took in the immediate area with extreme prejudice. Despite the wind, the bouquet of lilies intensified. I focused on the direction of the source.
I took a full, deep breath through my nose, and as I watched, a haze filled the air. Colors rippled through the fog, and the smell of lilies grew stronger. The mist wavered on the breeze, and my eyes tried to piece together the image despite the fact that a real mist would have been picked up and carried off by the wind. The fog hung in the air, impossibly still, and beyond reason, I reached for it. Instead of clouds, I touched something real and solid. I jerked my hand back, and the haze faded, resolving into the outline of a person, half smoke and all impossible.
Slitted pupils stared back, blinking as the rest of the smoke dissolved to reveal a woman. My eyes grew wider as I took in the details. A black suit similar to motorcycle leathers covered most of her body, leaving only her hands and face uncovered. The uncovered skin practically glowed blue. A tiara winked from the mane of blue-black tresses. Wind picked up her straight black hair and drifted it into her face. Her eyes shot to mine and the pupils contracted to a thin slit. In the span of a single breath she went from a smoky illusion to a solid alien standing in the parking lot.
My gut burned with a suddenly lightning of knowledge, and my mind churned over this person—alien!—standing in front of me. My legs took control of my body, and I jumped back. My head smashed into the wall. Relativity didn’t care if I’d just seen an alien―I still couldn’t occupy the same space and time as a wall. “Schist!”
Her eyes lit up like search lights. “You touched me on purpose!”
I rubbed my head, pulling every part of my body farther from her. Only the reality of being unable to phase through the wall kept me in the spot, trapped against a wall. “Uh, maybe?”
“You can see me!” With a surprisingly human gesture, her eyebrows drew together in confusion. “How can you see me?”
“You’re standing right in front of me!” I checked my head for blood. Nothing on my head except a goose egg. An alien.
Chill Chrissy, she hasn’t eaten you. Yet.
The alien shook her head. “But I’m veiled. You shouldn’t be able to see through the illusion.”
I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them again. Nope, it was an alien. There was an alien standing right in front of me. “Holy Krakatoa, you’re an alien.” I paused. “How are you speaking English―wait, what are you doing here?” My hand drifted from the bump on my head to the side of my face. “Sweet Mother of Science, First Contact is being captured on security cameras in the middle of an Air Force Base. Wait, you’re being recorded, won’t that be a problem?”
She cocked her hip to the side. “Hasn’t been all week.”
The whole week came back in vivid clarity, rushing through my mind. The smell of aftershave had permeated the whole lab, all week long. Every screw up had happened in a wash of lilies. “It was you.”
She looked at her feet. “I am sorry for the termination of your services. If it is any consolation, your boss was very reluctant to let you go.”
“You got me fired? Wait, you mind tricked my boss into firing me?” My brain raced to connect dots. I pointed at her. “It was you—you’re the ghost in the lab. You knocked the stage assembly out of my hands. You ruined my experiments!”
“You aren’t the only priority in the galaxy, but I had hoped to dissuade you through frustration.” She sighed. “We try not to interfere too directly if the planet isn’t in on the Quorum.”
I stood, riveted to her words. An alien.
An Alien who got me fired.
She frowned. “Your work is too good. What you made caused an investigation—me.” She pointed at herself. “Given sufficient time and effort you could very possibly reproduce some very dangerous things. I’m sorry, but it would be safer for everyone in the Galactic Quorum if you didn’t.”
My lungs caught as my guts froze. Adrenalin radiated through my body like spears of fire. Some bean counting alien decided my research was too good for humans? Wonder washed to rage in a heartbeat. “So you got me fired? Do you have any idea how you just ruined my life? I don’t have a job. No paycheck. I might not be able to make the mortgage next month, and you guys just made a decision?” My voice echoed off the walls through the empty parking lot.
“Your planet isn’t part of the Quorum,” she said, wrinkling her nose at me. “I don’t have to justify my actions to a Briton.”
“I’m not British.”
Her raven black hair bounced as she tossed it over her shoulder. “Round ears, bipedal, ignorant of the Galactic Quorum: you look British to me.” Her eyelids slid to thin slits of consideration. “What you call yourself is unimportant. Everyone from Britannia is a Briton.”
I desperately wanted to know what had happened in our past that Earth was known as Britannia to this Galactic Quorum. I also wanted to slap her upside the head with a history lesson. But aliens! And there were enough of them that they had a quorum. Where did they meet? What did they talk about? Regulate? How did they travel? How had they avoided alerting us to their presence for all these years? I opened my mouth to ask, but she stopped my freight train of questions and stopped it with a simple hand in the air.
“As fascinating as it has been meeting a live Briton—especially one as well educated as you appear to be—this mission has taken too long, and I have real work to do.”
Anger at being dismissed traveled straight up my spine and through my lips. “What, need to go slash the tires of some cancer researcher next? Plan to wreck the 401K of a Nobel Peace Prize winner?”
She opened her mouth to say something, but a bolt of electricity shot through the air with an audible pop. The charge hit, zipping through me in a pulse, radiating through the point of contact.
I hissed, and the alien made an identical noise at the same time. She met my gaze, suddenly suspicious. The air shifted, and the smell of ozone rose off the pavement. A chill raced down my spine, and I craned my neck to scan the parking lot.
The alien’s head snapped around, seeking the source. There before us, a ball of lightning coalesced. The arcs of plasma thinned out into a ring, and in the center, something like a window stretched across reality. It ran with colors, like a spill of gasoline on a puddle of water. The lightning spread thinner, arcing to the ground. The area in the center of the lightning pulled thinner and popped.
The alien spun on her heels, holding out her hand as if to shield me from the disturbance. A man clad in a flight suit stepped through the lightning. His black clothes shimmered with electricity, as if the raw power arced across the surface. He wore a kind of mask, obscuring everything but his eyes.
She put her hand on my chest to direct me behind her, but I stared wide eyed. She stepped between us, blocking my view. “What are you doing? This is official Knight business.”
I peeked around her as something on her arm thrummed to life. The air in front of her shimmered. The man in black lifted a crossbow-like device at the alien in front of me. With a click, a bolt sprang from the crossbow, but only the top half of the bow released.
The air around us briefly zinged with an electrical charge, leaving the taste of ozone on my tongue. A thunk sounded from her side as an arrow stuck into her center mass.
She yelled, clutching her side, and bending at the waist. The attacker aimed his arbalest in our direction. Without thinking, I grabbed my phone, and threw it at the black clad figure.
The phone nailed the crossbow, knocking the shot off. The arrow whizzed wide, plastering into the wall with a dangerous thwack. The black figure grunted and checked his weapon. I grabbed a nearby rock and gauged my next throw.
The alien in front of me yelled something and the hairs on my arm rose. A glob of plasma shot at the attacker. As the plasma hit him, it splashed away in rivers of molten energy, spraying the ground and scorching the pavement. The attacker stumbled back and checked the surroundings.
My alien stood up, taking better aim, but before she could fire, the attacker backed into the lightning field. With a pop, the lightning collapsed. The whole world heaved towards the lightning, but the moment the ball collapsed on itself, reality sprang back to normal, throwing everything back like a wave on the ocean.
She pitched forward, and I scrambled to catch her. She dropped her gun as I eased her to the ground. Something red spilled onto the sidewalk. An arrow head poked through her leathers. Blood the color of red M&Ms leaked down her leather jacket. She held one hand to the arrow and with the other grabbed my shirt.
Blood. Like a puppet compelled by strings, I touched the blood at her side. Thick and slick, the red liquid slipped between my fingers. She gasped.
It had to be fake. This couldn’t be happening. Her blood smelled like solder and flux. My heart pounded in my ears. Real, the blood smelled real. How could that have been faked?
The part of my brain that took care of emergencies clicked on and shut off the civilized part of my brain that cared about things like how expensive my jeans were. I wrapped my fingers around the arrow. The arrow zinged in my hand when I touched it, like licking a nine volt battery—just like the material I made on Monday.
“Put pressure on it.” I quoted the first aid advice from a class I took with Jeff when I was pregnant with Emma. I should have stopped to put on gloves, but she didn’t have time for proper hygiene. The class ran through my mind in a flash of memory. She sucked air, and something in her chest burbled. Blood dribbled over my hand, and I tried to assess the damage. Bubbles frothed up around the arrow. The two rules of first aid: air goes in and out, and blood goes round and round. Any interruption of the two qualified as bad. She had both.
Aliens were real.
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