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This one is for my brother, Shane Tolbert, who's often been my knight in shining armor.
Thank you to Shonna Hurt and Michelle Quine. I would be lost without you.
Erik Trinity had a system for buying drugs.
Always during the day. Fewer Alien Investigation and Removal agents prowling the streets.
Always in the open. Less chance of being pinned in.
And always in a crowd. Even A.I.R. avoided firing when innocents were around.
He knew this because he was an agent. Erik winced, hating himself. How he wished the drugs were part of an undercover assignment. But they weren't. What he did was illegal.
If anyone learned of his extracurricular activities, he would spend the rest of his life in prison. But he refused to stop. He couldn't stop.
Too many people relied on him.
Each transaction usually took less than two seconds. He walked one direction and the seller walked in the other. As they passed, they made their switch. Cash for Onadyn. Neither slowed, neither said a word. Just boom. Done.
Today had been no different. He already had several vials in his jacket pocket. His part wasn't over, though. Now it was time to pass them to their new owners.
After checking for a tail and finding nothing suspicious in the laughing throng of people milling about and shopping in New Chicago's pulsing town square, he hopped a bus to the Southern District, the poor side of town. Soon polished chrome-and-glass buildings gave way to crumbling, charred red brick that hadn't seen much repair since the Human-Alien War some seventy years ago.
The streets became less crowded, and the people who occupied them less...clean. Both humans and Outers resided here, but Erik mainly saw Outers slumped against dilapidated walls--white-haired Arcadians, six-armed Delenseans, catlike Terans--either too sick or too weak to move.
Judging by a few frozen expressions, some were probably already dead. Erik's hands clenched at his sides. What senseless deaths. Preventable and unnecessarily cruel. They so easily could have been saved.
Scowling, he exited at his stop. Warm sunlight instantly washed over him, attracted to the black jacket, T-shirt, and jeans he wore. Inconspicuous and forgettable clothing no matter who stood around him.
He performed another perimeter check. Still nothing suspicious. So close to being done, he thought, his relief so potent it overshadowed his disgust. He was always on edge until the last vial was out of his possession.
Get it done. Erik kicked into motion along the urine-scented sidewalk, hands in his pockets, head slightly down. He rounded a corner and heard a pain-filled moan. Don't stop. Don't look. Yet his gaze zeroed in on a young girl writhing in pain.
Keep moving, one part of him said. He'd seen hundreds of aliens die like this; he'd probably see a hundred more.
Help her, the other part screamed.
He had about an hour, tops, to get the Onadyn to its new owners and catch a ride home. Otherwise, his girlfriend would wake up alone and wonder where he was. And if Cara wondered, Cara would ask questions. She was an agent, too, so she knew how to suck every little scrap of information from him--information that would destroy him.
No, he didn't have time for this. He crouched down anyway.
"Where are your parents?" he gently asked the girl.
"Dead," she managed to rasp out. Her little body jerked, the muscles spasming erratically. Her eyelids squeezed together, cutting off his view of glassy violet eyes. She rolled into a ball.
Dirt smudged her from head to toe, and he could see lice jumping in her snow-white hair. She was Arcadian, probably no more than eight years old. Agony radiated from her. More than most adults could have handled. More than he could have handled.
"There's no one else to take care of you?" he asked, already sensing the answer.
Her mouth floundered open and closed, but no sound emerged. She was struggling to breathe, no longer able to draw a single molecule of air into her lungs. His stomach knotted as her skin colored blue.
He didn't have an ounce of Onadyn to spare, but he couldn't leave her like this. Without the drug, which allowed certain alien species to tolerate Earth's environment, she would die exactly as the people around her had died. And if that happened, her angel face would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Damn this and damn me. He looked left, then right. No one seemed to be paying them the slightest bit of attention, so he withdrew a clear vial from his pocket. He held it to her lips and poured at least a week's salary down her throat.
He would have to buy more. Which meant lying to Cara (again) and spending money he no longer had (again).
Was it worth it?
Almost instantly, the girl's color began to return, pale cream chasing away pallid blue. Her features smoothed and her body relaxed. A contented smile slowly curled the corners of her lips.
Erik sighed. Yeah, it was worth it. Knowing she would live--at least for a little while--he pushed to his feet and walked away. He didn't look back. For once he felt like the agent he was supposed to be, rather than the despicable agent he'd become.
A few months later...
Have you ever stumbled upon a secret you wished to God you'd never learned? A dark and dangerous secret? A secret people would kill to protect?
And, yeah, I almost died for it.
My name is Camille Robins. I'm eighteen and in my last month at New Chicago High, District Eight.
It all began on a balmy Friday evening when my friend Shanel Stacy borrowed her parents' car and picked me up...
"I can't believe we're doing this," I said, already breathless with anticipation and nerves. I slid into the passenger seat.
"Believe it, baby," Shanel said as she buckled into the driver's side. With a few clicks of the keyboard, she programmed the Ship's address into the car's console, and we eased out of my driveway and onto the street.
Because sensors kept the car from hitting anyone or thing and because computers navigated the roads, we didn't have to steer or even keep our eyes on our surroundings. We could chat and consider all the things that might go wrong at the famous nightclub.
Get caught lying to our parents--a possibility. We'd told them we were staying the night with another friend of ours. A friend we'd invented. Get thrown out--another possibility. We weren't rich or fabulous like the usual patrons. Make fools of ourselves--the biggest possibility of all.
Neither one of us had style.
Shanel studied me, her intent gaze starting at my dark hair and stopping on my boots. Underneath, my toenails were painted blue to match my eyes. "Why do you look like you're one second away from barfing on the floorboards?"
"I'm not good at clandestine activities. You know that."
"This isn't clandestine. This is fun."
"Fun?" So not the word I would have used.
"Oh yeah." Shanel smiled slowly. "Fun." But a moment passed in silence and she lost her grin. Her expression became pensive. "I wish I was an Outer."
Outer. Aka alien. My face scrunched in confusion. "Why?"
"Think about it. Some of them can control humans with their minds. I could make boys fall in love with us; I could force people to notice us; we could become the most popular girls at school--no, the world--with only a thought."
Sounded good in theory, but...I have nothing against Outers, I just don't want to be one, no matter what their powers are. They lived and walked among us, but some people still hated them and treated them as less than, well, human. I've seen them teased and taunted unmercifully. I've seen them pushed and beaten.
I wanted to be noticed, but I wanted it to be for something good.
Besides, Outers didn't look like us. Some of them had horns. Horns! And not just on their heads. Some of them had blue skin and multiple arms (ick), some of them excreted a gooey green slime (gag). Some of them changed color with their moods (okay, that wasn't so bad).
"What if those mind-controlling powers you want so badly came with a price? Like green scales and fish breath?" I asked. Yeah, some of them had those, too. "Would you still want to be an Outer?"
I'd take that as a no. Shanel and I were "Invisibles," not seen or heard by our school's elite, but even our socially nonexistent lives were better than those of the Outers. "So, uh, do you think he'll be there?"
She didn't have to ask who he was. Erik Troy. Gorgeous, delectable, mouthwatering Erik Troy. A boy who rarely glanced in my direction, despite the fact that staring at him had become my favorite hobby.
"I told you," Shanel said. "I was standing at my locker and heard Silver tell him they'd meet at the club."
Silver and Erik were best friends and the hottest boys at our school. While Erik was human, Silver was an Outer. A Morevv, one of the most beautiful races I'd ever encountered. I admit it: I wouldn't mind looking like a Morevv, with creamy skin and angelic facial features.
Truly, Silver was the only fully accepted alien I knew.
Shanel wanted him; I wanted Erik (obviously). A perfect match-up for sure: best friends hooking up with best friends. If only the boys would cooperate.
"Think Ivy will be there?" Shanel asked with a bitter edge.
"Probably not." Silver had an on-again-off-again thing with popular Ivy Lynn, a human and someone I'd always wanted to be. The two were currently off.
Erik, too, was a free man. But he liked his girls older--or so I'd heard. Probably because he looked older than the average high school boy. He was bigger, stronger, more masculine.
"Do I look okay?" I asked, my nervousness increasing.
Shanel's green gaze swept over me and she grinned. "You're like a sexy beast ready to be unleashed."
I couldn't help but return her grin. She'd always had a flare for the dramatic. "Yeah, but do I look old?"
"Baby, you're practically geriatric. If I didn't know you, I'd swear you were nearing thirty!"
I nodded with satisfaction. The length of my long brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail to highlight the ten pounds of makeup I'd spackled on, and I wore a black syn-leather brassiere top with matching skirt. It was nice to be out of my conservative school uniform and in something sexy.
"What about me?" Shanel asked, skimming her palms over her curves.
I gave her a once-over. Moonlight seeped from the car windows and surrounded her in golden light. Her skin was pale and freckled, her eyes just a bit too large. She wore a tight pink dress that totally clashed with her mass of red curls, but somehow looked great on her. "Silver's going to be drooling over you."
Squealing, she clapped and held out her arm, wrist up. "Sweet. Now, smell me."
I sniffed and my nose wrinkled. "Uh, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you smell like dirt."
"Don't be sorry. That's wonderful news! I did a little recon and learned Morevvs adore earthy scents. I rubbed mud into all my pulse points just before I picked you up."
"Diabolical." I grinned.
The buildings outside were getting taller and closer together, so I knew we'd reach the club very soon. Another wave of nervousness hit me. "What if we can't get in?"
"Oh, will you stop worrying?" She ran her tongue over her lips. "You know the Ell Rollis my dad hired to work on our house? Well, I commanded him to meet us at the club. He'll get us in."
My eyes widened. Ell Rollises were a race of ugly...things that smelled like garbage. They were big, unnaturally strong, and once given an order they thought only of that order. Only when the task was completed did they relax. If Shanel had ordered him to get us inside the Ship, he'd get us inside by any means necessary.
Maybe Erik would ask me to dance.
The car eased to a stop and a feminine computerized voice said, "Destination arrived."
Shanel uttered another squeal of delight and punched in the code for parking. A few seconds later, the car stopped. "This is going to be the greatest night of our lives!"
A girl could hope at least. We emerged and stood outside, gazing over at the club as a warm breeze slinked around us. Made of polished silver chrome, the Ship was shaped like a round, multilayered craft with hundreds of lights circling every other tier.
Even from this distance we could hear the gyrating music, a bump, bump, grind that demanded movement. A line stretched around the building and led all the way to the opening. I searched the masses for Erik, but I didn't see any sign of his (hot) body or (sexy) blond head. Was he already inside?
"You ready?" Shanel asked me.
Breathing deeply of perfumes, sweat, and eco-friendly exhaust, I gripped Shanel's hand. "Don't leave my side, okay?"
"Don't insult me. As if I'd leave you." She glanced toward the crowd and gasped happily. "Look. There's the Ell Rollis. Come on." She leapt into motion--leaving me behind.
With a sigh, I raced after her, high heels clicking against the pavement.
The closer we came to the club, the louder the music and voices became and the more realization set in. God, I could get in so much trouble for this. I usually obeyed my parents and followed their rules exactly. Only the thought of spending time with Erik had been able to lure me to the dark side.
Shanel ground to a stop in front of the male Ell Rollis who stood at the curb. When the Outer spotted her, he nodded in greeting. He had dry, yellow skin, no nose (that I could see), and sharp lizardlike teeth. I tried not to stare.
"I wait here just like you say," he told her, his voice heavily accented.
"Thank you, John. Now, here's what I want you to do next. Create a distraction so that Camille and I can get inside that building." She pointed to the double doors. "Then, run away and hide. Okay?"
John--what a weird name for such an inhuman creature--gave another nod and stomped in the direction Shanel had pointed, pushing through the thick crowd. We followed. A few people gasped, a few growled in anger. Most smiled nervously and moved out of the way, as if their greatest wish was to please the hulking beast.
Up front, John skidded to a stop. Two burly guards waited behind a glowing, blue laserband that stretched across the doors, preventing anyone from passing. In unison, the men crossed their hands over their massive chests.
"I will distract you now," John told them.
The two men looked at each other and laughed.
"You're ugly and you stink," one said. "Go away."
Without another word, John reached out and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him off the ground. Murmurs and gasps swept through the crowd. Scared, I backed up a step. I might have even run back to the car, but Shanel tugged me into a shadowy corner.
"Let him go, you alien scum." The guard still standing withdrew a pyre-gun from his waist and aimed it at John's chest.
Before he could fire, John knocked it against the wall and it shattered. All the while, he shook the guy he held, the man's legs nearly touching the laserband. If they did, his clothes and skin would be horribly singed.
"Turn off the laser, Turk," he commanded his friend. His features were pale--no, blue. And only getting bluer. "Turn. Off. Laser."
With a shaky hand, Turk punched in the code. Instantly the laser faded as if it had never been there.
John grinned and dropped the now-wheezing guard. "You good boys."
Shanel jerked me past the distracted pair, past the double doors, and into the building. Just like that, we were in. I glanced backward and watched as the crowd surged forward to get inside, as well. John headed in the opposite direction, sprinting away just as he'd been ordered.
Maybe my parents needed to employ an Ell Rollis. But they were expensive to keep, their appetites legendary, and more and more they were being picked up and locked away by the deadly and much-feared A.I.R. because too many humans commanded them to do bad things.
Who cares about that? You're in. In!
Shanel stopped, turned toward me, and wrapped me in a hug. "Can you believe it?" she shouted happily.
I grinned, all my worries melting away. The night, it seemed, had only just begun.
Shanel and I stopped at the edge of the foyer and gazed at a scene we'd only been able to dream about. Until now. Smoke billowed in every direction and rock music blasted from hidden amplifiers. Pink, blue, and yellow lights swirled from the center of the dance floor, illuminating the throng of writhing, dancing people.
The walls produced holographic images of kissing couples and I had to press my lips together to keep from staring in open-mouthed awe. And jealousy.
"Where should we go?" I asked Shanel, projecting my voice over the music.
"Want to try the second level?" She pointed upward. "We can look down and see if the guys are dancing."
I nodded. We maneuvered through people and smoke and pounded up the stairs. I almost screamed when the steps began to waver, swinging slowly from side to side. My fingers curled around the rail, keeping me steady.
Moving stairs wasn't a smart thing to have in a building that served alcohol. What if someone fell? I mean, really. Lawsuit. My dad was an attorney and that was just the sort of thing he lived for.
When we reached the second level, the music faded to a dull screech and I realized it was because glass panels circled the entire enclosure, not only blocking sound but preventing anyone from tumbling to their death.
"I've heard about stairs like that," Shanel told me with a wide grin. "When a person has had too much to drink, it's supposed to balance their equilibrium. This is so fan-freaking-tastic!" Laughing, she flounced to the bar.
I followed her and rested m