#WIPWednsday Tease

CurrentlyWorkingOnLQ

Gold spilled over the tables skirting the gleaming marble floor of the immaculate ballroom. Mirrors reflected each other like tangible echos on either side, giving the illusion of endless space, glimmering light and people. The very room was designed to be a criminal’s best friend and an operative’s worst nightmare. There were at least two skilled pickpockets working the crowd, but humans behaving badly were not Aviana’s concern.

Their gracious hostess, Madame Fervaunte, was the biggest con of them all, at any rate. But with her help, the gala had been set up to lure a far more dangerous threat to the Parisian elite. A Succubus who’d been picking off the wealthiest and most entangled, which made the task of covering up the crimes a strain, even for the GSI.

Hence, Aviana and Stephan’s assignment. Her partner had been in France for months, living his backstory, carefully laying the delicate gossamer layers, until no one saw him for anyone other than Lord André Beauchene, a young aristocratic from Nice. Avi was playing his French-American girlfriend, Claire Dubois, on holiday from university. In reality, she’d been on another assignment in Moscow.

The plan was simple: confirm the target was on site, then spring a trap they couldn’t possibly resist. Easy, in theory. They just had to keep the night flowing in their favor. Seated across from their clever and witty hostess, both Avi and Stephan were attuned to everything happening around them. It helped that they were able to use their own supernatural senses to remain alert, rather than relying on their eyes. That’s how Aviana caught her first whiff of mud. A bitter, damp and almost decaying aroma that couldn’t be disguised with an entire vat of Chanel. She honed in on the smell, following it over the room’s occupants, then silently alerted Stephan to a beautiful brunette laughing and flirting with a minor viscount in the far corner of the dance floor. It was time. The faster they put their plan into motion, the faster they could stop the viscount’s naivety from becoming fatal.

“Madame,” Stephan politely interrupted their hostess, as he began rising from his chair.

The woman gasped and abruptly looked past him, her entire face lighting up with pleasant surprise. Aviana completely lost the Succubus’s scent, at that precise moment. Her senses taken hostage by the familiar, heady fragrances of morning dew on grass, fertile earth and windswept mountains. She nearly forgot herself and closed her eyes, as it overpowered everything else, flowing right into her like a jet stream. Purposeful. Driven. Demanding.

The room fell into a murmur of awe, people captured by whoever filled the entrance and Aviana didn’t even have to look to know. The only reason she did, was to not give herself away. Then her gaze was trapped by the reddish-brown irises of the one she thought she’d escaped. It was surreal to see him standing there, looking a thousand times deadlier in a damn skirt than he had in jeans and a t-shirt. His red, black and white tartan was complimented by the short, formal jacket of black with its big silver buttons. The decorative, fur lined sporran hanging from his hips boasted a large, snarling wolf head in more silver. It was arrogantly intimidating. A symbol of pride for his people that, like the living wolves beside him, the human guests couldn’t possibly see as anything more than eccentric, yet Avi found it ridiculously sexy.

“Caden McCuine MacSweyn,” the usher announced without a single waver, despite the giant wolf that brushed against his leg. “High Chief of Skye Clan Revan, Laird of Uig.”

No! Stunned, Avi didn’t dare share a glance with Stephan, but she had to wonder if he’d just connected the same dots. If that really was the Caden McCuine–Alpha of the UK packs–then their entire operation was in shambles. Because, if their target found viscounts tasty, she certainly wasn’t going to pass up on a king!

#WIP Untitled (The Úlfrinn series)
©A.C. Melody

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Show Me Your Worst

ShowMeYourWorst

Getting comfortable with discomfort is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a writer, and it’s a work in progress. When I first started writing, I never left my comfort zone for any reason. Which meant, no matter how hard I tried to make my characters as epic as the ones I was reading, it wasn’t happening. I was able to get uncomfortable for my antagonists, because I didn’t have to spend any more time with them than that and I certainly didn’t need them to be likable. A completely different issue for main characters, and it took me awhile to realize that my cozy corner was their biggest enemy. Sometimes, I’m a slow learner. But eventually, I had to face the fact that I was the one robbing my protagonists of the greatness they deserved.

As most writers can attest, the ease in which we’re able to explore the emotional and psychological range of a protagonist, really depends on the character. There are the vibrant personality types that can be completely fleshed out within minutes – and, then there are the characters who aren’t nearly as forthcoming. When we decide to draw our character’s flaws to the surface and pick at them, it starts getting a little uncomfortable, because we love them and we want our readers to love them, too. But a hero or heroine who is flawless is both unrealistic and flat. Not epic. Imagine how forgettable Frodo Baggins would’ve been, if he’d never struggled with and overcame the temptation of the ring’s power.

Show me your worst. I want to see how deep the pit in your soul goes. Or do I?

It’s one thing to tell a writer: “You have to leave your comfort zone to write well.” Quite another for that writer to decide just how far to plunge into the dark unknown. Again, I think this depends a lot on the character. By my guesstimation, there are 3 basic degrees of Bad Guy/Girl protagonists.

1) The circumstantial bad: They’re bad due to horrible circumstances, tragedy, childhood trauma, etc. but really good at heart and easily redeemable.

2) The lost soul bad: They’ve spiraled so far into the darkness of revenge, tragedy, addiction, bad luck, etc. they’re barely hanging onto the edge of no return and it’s going to take more than just a quick genuflection and three Hail Mary’s to pull them out of it.

3) The unapologetic bad: They have fully embraced their dark side and have no qualms using it to their every advantage, yet there’s still a spark of good in them that allows them to love and be loved. They’re not on a quest for redemption, but to find that last missing piece that would make them feel whole.

The thing I try to consider when I’m working with option 1 or 2, is just how much work I can feasibly put into it. The deeper your character’s flaws, the steeper the climb to redemption, and to show one side in great detail without the other getting equal attention is the fastest way to disappoint readers. Sometimes, it’s a natural trajectory and I’m just following the character’s lead and then realize – Oh, snap! Now I have to dig them out of this mess. Ugh! Not just out of the mess, but within the confines of a word-count limit.

This is why I write a lot of series, that’s the naked truth of it. Word count caps and I, we’re not friends. You can laugh, but 100,000 words is rarely enough for this writer. With a series, I can let my characters get into all the messes they want and then dig them out little by little over a few books.

When it comes to option 3, there’s both an easier flow to it and more of a challenge. First, you have to convince (and frequently remind) yourself that your character has no boundaries except the ones you’re placing on them via yourself. The other side of that is figuring out where to draw the lines for your audience’s sake. Knowing your character is 100% okay with being bad frees up moral restrictions and can be extremely fun to take beyond your comfort zone – If you don’t get carried away! It’s not a good idea to make them so outrageously bad that they lack any and all qualities your readers would want to root for – especially, in a typical romance genre.

Last year, I started exploring the realm of Dark Erotica where the rules are completely different and pushing boundaries is not only expected, the lack of it will stir up the wrath of the villagers. I went beyond some of my comfort zones with the Avarice trilogy, but not to the point where I was squirming and sweating in my seat…much. A lot of Dark Erotica fans probably wouldn’t even label those books as such, but since it has triggers in religion, demonology and R.A.C.K. (Risk Awareness Consensual Kink) – which is the sadistic side of BDSM – I wanted to make sure my readers were more targeted and expectant (accepting?) of those kind of situations.

Compared to some of the Dark Erotica novels I’ve read, it’s quite tame. Definitely in the mild end of the spectrum. That just means I should push myself farther away from my comfort zones for the rest of the series. More truthfully, I want to. I want the challenge of it, to see just how far I can go while still writing read-worthy material with characters my readers want to see win in the end. Though, Dark Erotica doesn’t demand a HEA, it is my personal preference.

Writing about things you would never do in real life is not the same as writing outside of your comfort zone. I would never go skydiving, because I’m terrified of open heights. But it wouldn’t stress me in the least to have one of my main characters do it. Actually, that would be kind of fun. One of the joys of both reading and writing is to have adventures, right? But, having your main character do something that makes you feel physically or emotionally drained when your through- that’s writing outside of your comfort zone!

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced so far, is having an ‘unapologetic bad’ protagonist show up for an established series that’s NOT labeled dark – and by his own admission, he is one sadistic f**k. When he first appeared, I was faced with the choice of either staying true to his character or true to the genre, because I can’t really do both without sacrificing something. This is still a WIP, but I’ve decided to stay true to my character, mainly because I know it can be done. I’ve seen Nora Roberts push this particular envelope more than once and while fame may be on her side, I’m still a big advocate for characters who are purely themselves and not diluted for genre’s sake. What’s your thoughts on that, as both a reader and a writer?

 I’d love to hear more of your take on this subject: How comfortable are you with discomfort? Do you try to challenge yourself with every new novel, or do you have to wait for the right character to come along? Show me your worst, writers! 🙂

#WIP Invasion

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image source: etsy.com

Can we talk for a moment, writer to writer?

Lookit, I can’t be the only one who’ll be happily plugging away at a highly anticipated novel (that’s code for it’s way overdue and readers are jumping ship by the hordes. *snort* You actually thought I had hordes of readers? Awww, that’s sweet) – and all the sudden a NEW book decides to just plop its big, bony ass right down on top of everything else with no intention of moving. A massive blob of scenes and backstory, brooding hunks, damsels in defiance, whips, chains and garden hoses (don’t ask), all reminding me that I have absolutely no willpower!

I’m not alone, right?

How do you deal with this kind of situation? Do you:

a). Ignore the new story until you’re done with the first one, because you’ve got discipline and the memory of an elephant?

b). Take the detour just long enough to frantically jot down everything you can for the new story, because your discipline’s flexible, but your memory’s a toss?

Or

c). Attempt the juggling routine, because you’re fairly sure the 100th time is the charm?

I made the mistake of thinking I could pull off a combination of options b & c….1 week later… Update: Scavenger (Dark Day Isle, Book 2) will be delayed, yet again. I’m sorry. Please refer to the part where I have no willpower.

How many #WIPs are you working on and what’s your favorite strategy for those invading new ideas?

#CampNaNoWriMo

CampNanoBanner

Yay! It’s Day 1 of Camp NaNoWriMo and I’m already plugging away at my official project for this month: Scavenger (Dark Day Isle, #2) Revision with a goal of 45,000 words by July 31st. Here’s the Most-Likely-To-Change synopsis:

scavenger-banner-1

It’s only day two of the week-long getaway on Dark Day Isle, and already Tessa is having doubts about her temporary Master’s real reason for bidding on her at the auction. After an intense confrontation, there’s no going back to the way things were before between them…yet, that might be for the best.

At a luncheon social, Tessa learns details about the resort she’d never expected and the information will ease more of her concerns, while piquing her curiosity higher. Together, Tessa, Gema and Kip only seem to deepen the mystery surrounding their anonymous host, rather than getting any closer to the answer.

One thing the unknown mastermind knows best, though, is how to throw a party and that’s further proven with the evening’s selected activity. Both Tessa and Master Felix’s competitive spirits come out to play during the kinky festivities, but they’re not the only ones hoping to scavenge a prize by the end of the night.

While I’ll be trying to meet my word count goals every day – I’m simultaneously working on the tail end of Shades Soirèe (Matron City Trilogy, #2) which is way overdue to my publisher and I think they’re assembling a task force as we speak to collect it! So, I won’t be around much this month – but there are a couple of events you won’t want to miss out on…

July 3-7: Avarice Unforgiving (Hell on Earth, #2) will be 100% FREE on Amazon

July 10-14: The #AwesomeAmazonAuthors #FollowFive are at it again! Beginning July 10th, one lucky winner will have the chance to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card in the second easiest giveaway on earth. All you have to do is follow us on Goodreads for your chance to win.

July 12th: Release Blitz for Little Queen (The Úlfrinn series, #2) hosted by Goddess Fish. The book actually released today and is already available for purchase on all your favorite retail sites, but the 12th will include a $25 Gift Card Giveaway for entries, excerpts, teasers and a $10 gift card to a random host.

Good Luck to all my fellow Campers, hope we all reach our project goals this month!

#TacoTuesday

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Image source: redwhiteandblueberries.com

By now most of you know this has nothing to do with food and everything to do with your WIPs or published books! If not, then check out the original post HERE for the purpose. No time like the present to join in – just leave a pingback in the comments below so we can check out your post!

Now for the fun parts…

Writer’s Menu

Onions: Not everyone cries when they cut onions: share an outside-influence type circumstance/object that caused a character to tear up – or – notably didn’t, when they should have.

The moment they stopped moving and the shadows spat them out into an unlit room, Zoe went back to struggling and cursing her abductor. Beyond his enticing scent and the warmth of his unyielding body was the fragrance of a floral sweetened breeze and the kind of heavy, humid heat that immediately brought the deep south to mind. Where they were and why it was dark, Zoe had no clue. She could see through large, mostly undressed windows that it was a moonless night, yet it had just been morning in New York a second ago.

“I’m sorry it had to be this way, little doe,” Hex said at last. “If you’d quiet down, I could explain–”

Fuming one last time, Zoe stopped fighting and screaming. She didn’t need him to explain what she already knew, but she wasn’t about to miss the chance to get free of his hold. After several moments, he slowly pulled his hand away from her mouth. She remained perfectly still, until he released her completely. The second he did, she whirled and doused him right in the eyes with the pepper spray.

He stood there with his lids closed and patiently waited for her to finish, when what he should have been doing, was screaming in searing, tearful agony while begging her for mercy!

Once the can was depleted, he lifted the hem of his t-shirt to wipe the chemical from his face. Zoe tried and failed to ignore the fact that he was finally solid. That the veil of shadows had retreated completely and despite the natural darkness, she was seeing him fully for the first time. Along with the delicious display of hard packed abs and mouthwatering chest he revealed by using his shirt like a towel.

Pepper spray dripped onto the bridge of his nose from his bangs, where the most inhumanly pale eyes of silver peeked out at her. Hex traced his finger over the droplet, then stuck it into his mouth and made a sour face.

“That’s disgusting,” he remarked. “What is its purpose?”

“AAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!” Zoe blew her cool, throwing the spent canister across the room.

~ #WIP Hexed (Hell on Earth, #4)

Reader’s Menu

Onions: Name a favorite book you read where a character was brought to tears by an outside influence (ex: poked in the eye, thick smoke, laughing too hard, etc.) -or- where a character was notably incapable of being brought to tears for any reason.

CoverBlackDogNightsThe first book that comes to mind is Black Dog Nights by Ren Monterrey (a pen name of Karen M. Bryson). This was the second story I’d read in her The Club series, the first being Sapphire Beautiful. “The Club” is an exclusive, highly secure and anonymous company that allows rich men to hire girlfriends, and they each have their personal reasons why they would even need this kind of service. The women are vetted carefully and usually have a desperate, last-resort purpose for even applying for this money-making opportunity. (This might go the other way, as well, but in the books I’ve read, it’s always been a rich man and poor woman).

As unrealistic as that sounds, Ren Monterrey never fails to make her male protagonists uniquely different from any other main male character out there on the market (mine, included! LOL). In Black Dog Nights, Jae Rothko is no exception–but it takes some reading to discover that. By all appearances, he’s just another cookie-cutter wealthy and successful man blessed with gorgeous looks and unparalleled skills in the bedroom that lean heavily toward dominant.

Then we learn that Jae’s issue is medical and incurable. That he’s incapable of expressing emotions of any kind. It’s not that he doesn’t feel them, he just lacks the chemical in his brain that triggers everyone else in the world to display their feelings. Which, tends to have all of his lovers accusing him of being an emotionally stunted Alpha-Hole who just wants to regard them as possessions without any heart. Awww…poor Jae. By the way, that wasn’t too much of a spoiler, so don’t let it stop you from reading, there’s plenty more to the story than that.

I haven’t read all of Ren’s books and while I tend to find some things to nit-pick in each of those I have, they’re all truly good, HEA erotica stories that are definitely worth reading just to get a break from the same ol’, same ol’ when it comes to male leads!

Next week’s ingredient is…Tomato!

Tomato for the Writer: Embarrassment and/or ridicule often play a part in our character’s journey. What was one of your main character’s inescapable, red-faced moments?

Tomato for the Reader: Share a book you’ve read where you were so embarrassed for the main character by something they themselves did or where they were ridiculed so badly, it left a lasting scar impression on you.

 

#MusicMonday

Contagious

by Trapt

I was sick of restrictions, sick of the boundaries
About to close the door
Such a lack of conviction, no real connection
What should I settle for?
But you caught my attention, you built on the tension
You left me wanting more
Now I don’t know what to do with myself, do with myself
I don’t want nobody else

I let you in, I let you in, and you infected me
Can’t get enough of you
Can’t get enough of you
I breathed you in, I breathed you in, and now I’m in too deep
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Can’t get enough of you
(Can’t get enough of you)

You’re so contagious
Running through my veins
You’re so contagious
Hanging onto every word
You’re so contagious
And I can’t get away
You’re so contagious
And now I know for sure there is no cure

I saw your intentions, I gave you permission
Go ahead and start the war
I was out of addictions, by my own admission
Oh, I’ve been keeping score
But you made an exception, you taught me a lesson
Who cares where we’ve been before?
You would never leave me all by myself, all by myself
You don’t want nobody else

I let you in, I let you in, and you infected me
Can’t get enough of you
Can’t get enough of you
I breathed you in, I breathed you in, and now I’m in too deep
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Can’t get enough of you
(Can’t get enough of you)

You’re so contagious
Running through my veins
You’re so contagious
Hanging onto every word
You’re so contagious
And I can’t get away
You’re so contagious
And now I know for sure there is no cure

I am burning in your fire (there is no cure)
I have only one desire (there is no cure)
Now I don’t know what to do with myself, do with myself (I can not deny her) (there is no cure)
Now I don’t know what to do with myself, do with myself
I don’t want nobody else

I let you in, I let you in, and you infected me
Can’t get enough of you
Can’t get enough of you
I breathed you in, I breathed you in, and now I’m in too deep
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Don’t think I’m pulling through
Can’t get enough of you
(Can’t get enough of you)
Can’t get enough of you!

You’re so contagious
Running through my veins
you’re so contagious
Hanging onto every word
You’re so contagious
And I can’t get away
You’re so contagious
And now I know for sure there is no cure

You keep running, you keep running, you keep running through my veins [x4]
(You’re so contagious, there is no cure, you’re so contagious)

I do not own any rights to this song, lyrics or video. All rights remain with the artists and their respective agents. No copyright infringement intended.

Hmmm… have no idea why I’m thinking of songs with words like boundaries, restrictions and permission… Oh, right. Camp NaNo’s coming up & I’ll be working with Master Felix and his little fox again. 😉 😛 Enjoy!

Sensual Sentient ♥ Episode 4

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If There Be Giants

The instant their boots punched the rocky ground at the base of the cliff, Blake grinned with the thrill still rushing through all of them. “God, I love gravity!”

“That was exhilarating,” Ketha agreed. “I’ve never actually propelled before.”

“Less chatter, more science,” Sida commanded.

“And she claims I have a one-track mind,” Blake muttered, as he and Isiah started toward the mine ahead of them.

“You know, if you accidentally tazed him with a proton pistol, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Ketha offered, while she and Sida finished unharnessing themselves.

“All comm links are still open, Lieutenant,” Blake’s rough voice pointed out.

“Gotta love an observant man,” Ketha sighed, causing Sida to grin at her with new-found appreciation.

That grin only increased, when they finally caught up to the men and found Blake standing with his arms crossed over his chest and an unimpressed scowl on his face.

“Alright, heads up crew, there’s a chance we’ll be faced with a cave-in once we reach the end of the mine, and if it’s unstable–” Sida began.

“No sudden noises, got it,” Blake finished for her, dropping the pretense of being offended under the seriousness of that possibility.

Inside the mine, their lights revealed more of the same crude tools marks along the low ceiling and walls. The deeper they went, the sharper the edges of those marks became from lack of erosion. Sida paused when Blake crouched and ran his gloved fingers over the lower portion of the wall to their right.

“Look at this,” he glanced at her. “It’s the same powdery residue caused by short or single-burst propulsion thrusters.”

“Like from a remote cargo sleigh?” she asked, crouching beside him to investigate.

“Yeah, but it shouldn’t do this,” he said, holding his glove out to show her.

Sida ran her own gloved fingers over the residue. “There’s no bonding,” she replied in confusion, when the powder transferred to her gloves, as well.

Standing, Blake looked all around them. “Given the lack of elements, I’d say these were left within the last fourteen months, give or take, but not much longer than that. They’re way too fresh.”

“Just like the tools outside,” Sida agreed, yet what that meant she had no clue. It was apparent someone had beat them there and found something in the mine worth hauling out, but what? Starblood was her first fear, but that wouldn’t require a cargo sleigh. No planet produced that much in a single vein. “Let’s keep moving.”

Along the way, they found more areas of residue and then the pottery shards started. The closer they got to the bend in the shaft, the more evidence of their ancient miners. The baked clay remnants had most likely belonged to urns of oil for torches, refreshments for consumption by the miners, or both.

“Look what we have here,” Blake said quietly, when they finally reached the end.

“Wow,” Ketha whispered. “It looks like the inside of a temple.”

Pillars built on a much smaller scale than those in the city stood like support columns along the outer walls of the mine, except the very back where the cave-in had slid down to fill most of the chamber, crushing everything in its path.

“Well, that proves your theory, Lieutenant,” Blake nodded at Ketha. “Now, you want to hear mine?”

“Nope, I’ve already heard it up here,” Sida replied, pointing at her own temple. “That was no natural disaster, it was very deliberate.”

“Which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities from a slave uprising to a civil war,” Ketha accepted grimly. “Maybe some of the citizens disagreed with slavery, or maybe they were frightened by the slaves due to their massive size and wanted to block their only way in.”

Those were both really good theories, considering where the damage had been purposely rendered.

“Captain!” Isiah hissed over the comm link from somewhere among the rubble. “Over here.”

Sida rounded the left side of unnatural stalagmites and other jutting pieces of rock or debris. Squeezing through a narrow gap, she came upon Darling crouched in the only available space, so leaned over him to see what he was so interested in.

Aquacælestis Divinus,” he exhaled, his light shimmering off a half-dollar sized puddle of iridescent liquid deep in the crevice of the rubble.

“Starblood, Ensign,” she grinned excitedly, slapping him on the shoulder. “Learn it, like it, use it. Blake!”

“On it,” he replied. After Isiah set the probe to hover near the find, he and Sida moved out of Blake’s way and waited for the report. “It’s not a lot.”

“Superb scientific deduction, Commander,” Sida remarked dryly. “I saw that much with my own damn eyes. What I need to know is if we can use it?”

“With the right amount of additives we should be able to, Captain,” Blake returned just as dryly, before turning sincere. “At any rate, we have to try, don’t we?”

Yes. Yes, they did. “Alright, you two get it contained and see if there’s more without risking another cave-in,” she ordered. “I’ll call in the request. Minnows, you’re with me.”

Aboard the small shuttle located about two klicks east of the mine, in the only clear portion of the trench, Sida sent the request to her crew still manning their ship in orbit. Surprisingly, it only took thirty minutes to get a reply back, which was fast even under the best conditions.

“Must be my lucky day,” she muttered to herself.

“Captain, Fleet Admiral Dent is coming on Vidlink One,” Lieutenant Commander Winston rushed out, her expression filled with apology.

Jumping out of the chair, Sida brushed her clothes off, straightening them and her hair in record speed. She was standing at full attention, when the screen crackled on, revealing a large, robust older man with silver hair cut to perfection. The stars on his uniform were nearly blinding, they’d been polished so profusely.

“Admiral,” Sida saluted, wondering why the top dog of all top dogs was doing something as mundane as answering a contact request.

“Captain Marx,” Joaquin Dent, five-star Fleet Admiral of the entire Galactic Interstellar Navy of Earth and its Solar Systems, aka GINESS, greeted. “You sent a request. Report.”

She knew the FADM was a no-nonsense man and the lines carved into his aged face weren’t all wrinkles, so she didn’t hesitate. “Sir, while conducting our mission to locate and verify proof of the lost planet Molta Cremyss, we discovered the existence of what appears to be an ancient mine, where one of my ensigns has found Starblood. It is a very small amount, Sir. Permission to attempt a World Opening?”

“Molta Cremyss,” Dent repeated. “Have you verified this planet is truly one and the same?”

“We have not verified that at this time, Sir.”

“But you found a mine?”

“A single shaft, sir, partially caved-in,” she replied. “To look for more Starblood could cause further damage without proper precautionary re-stabilizing procedures put into place first, which my crew and I are ready to do should you prefer it, sir.”

He seemed to contemplate that for a moment, before responding. “Meddling with an unstable environment is an unnecessary risk without a guarantee, Captain. Permission for a World Opening granted. Keep me informed.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” she saluted again.

When the screen blinked out, revealing her starmap instead, Sida slowly relaxed her stance and hailed her ship.

“Winston, was my request for contact sent through the usual channels?” she asked.

“Yes, Captain, I’m so sorry, I had no idea the Admiral would respond, himself–”

“Relax, Winston, it’s okay,” Sida cut her off. “Do me a favor, though and check into all the latest news from Earth. Send the most current links to my personal unit.”

“Will do, Captain.”

“We’ll be attempting an Opening. Send the usual roundup and tell Barnes to bring me three extra grunts. If we’re successful, they’ll be going with me. Maintain current orbit and contact Barnes if necessary, but nothing changes until you hear otherwise.”

It took another two hours for the second shuttle to arrive with the rest of her field team and the soldiers. By then, Ketha had already shoved gear packs together for everyone, and they’d loaded them on cargo sleighs to take back to the mine. When she spotted Blake and Isiah suiting up just outside the entrance from half a klick away, she halted Barnes and his men.

“Stay here and wait for the all clear,” she ordered.

Once Sida and the rest of her team were suited up, she set her Xtreme World Opener to neutralize, while Blake loaded the newly formulated capsule of Starblood into his rifle and set it to Activate.

“Comm links on?” Sida checked. “Barnes, can you hear me?”

“You’re good to go, Captain,” he replied.

“Activate gravity and pressurization systems.”

A resounding grunt of discomfort echoed through the link, when everyone obeyed. In an oxygenated environment, despite how thin, it was as good as wearing a lead suit. The weighted pull toward the ground caused perspiration to break out over Sida’s skin with the effort to remain standing, yet it would’ve been just as impossible to get knocked over as it was to lift her boot from the ground.

“Okay, Commander,” she said. “Fire.”

Blake shot the capsule at the largest, flattest portion of the cliff wall and the Starblood splattered like a paintball. It started glowing almost instantly, reaching levels that had all of their face masks tinting black as night. Cheers went off through the link, their success evidenced by the brightness. When the light dimmed and diminished completely, they were faced with a far smaller Opening than they were used to, but one person at a time could fit through without their packs. Those would have to be tossed through one at a time, as well.

Red skies came into view, suggesting the likelihood of a volcanic planet, with the dark silhouettes of thick, tropical vegetation. It appeared to be night time, but not a single one of them put much stock on appearances alone in their line of work.

“Probe,” Sida ordered.

Isiah tossed it through the Opening and watched the screen on the remote in his hands, as the readouts started showing up.

“Quite a bit more sulfur in the air than usual, but otherwise oxygen levels are really good. Better than here, that’s for sure. No indication of pollutants normally found near modern cities, which opens a few variables. I’m picking up mildly elevated amounts of minerals in the moisture, which means the air might have a tangy flavor. Temperature is a lovely seventy degrees Fahrenheit with a seventy-five percent humidity level typical of tropical climates, and the wind is a calm two knots.”

“Mildly elevated amounts, or we’ll be dead from lead poisoning by morning?” Sida questioned.

“No worries, Captain. The air might have a slight coppery taste, but that’s all,” he answered.

“Alright, suits off. Barnes, move in.”

After they’d each rolled their suits up into their packs, the crew entered the Opening one-by-one, the next in line tossing their pack to the last person to climb through. Finally, it was just Sida, who’d tossed her pack to Blake. Turning, she addressed Barnes one last time.

“As soon as I’m through, activate the Curtain, put one man here and hold base at the shuttles.”

“Yes, sir,” he saluted.

Sida climbed through the odd Opening, having to bend low and pull her knee up high to manage it. The moment she was fully, and officially, on a completely different planet, she removed her NISS helmet and turned to watch the Curtain go up. Octagonal pockets of energy replaced their view of the debris littered trench. It would keep everything from microscopic bacteria, pollen and insects all the way up to the force of a boulder running downhill in an avalanche from getting through.

Sida tucked her helmet into her pack, then pulled the cap free from her back pocket. She unrolled it and tugged it down over her head just as the rest of her crew had already done. They all wore their Standard Exploration Uniforms with Advanced Automatic Ballistic Vests over their jackets and All Terrain Boots on their feet.

“Are we dealing with volcanic activity?” It was the first thing she wanted to know.

“The sulfur content would indicate as much, but that,” Isiah paused and gestured to the crimson sky with rolling dark clouds. “is not the reflection of molten lava flow. It encompasses the entire sky and it’s steady, rather than fluctuating. And those really are clouds, not ash.”

“A Red Dwarf system?” she pondered aloud. “It’s too warm.”

“I agree, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Red Dwarf present,” Blake interjected. “What does this remind you of, Captain?”

Sida turned to check out the small mountainside their Opening had appeared in and ran her hand over the uneven stone, frowning from the shallow, sharp-edged grooves. “It’s nearly the same as the crude tool marks from the mine. Do you think they came through and tried to start one on this side, as well?”

“Possibly,” he mused. “Maybe the natives took them by surprise.”

“Then, what? They enslaved them?” Sida shook her head in disagreement. “They would’ve just made the natives dig the mine for them afterward.”

“Yeah,” Blake sighed, before stilling and turning his light eyes on her slowly. “Sida, if this is the home of those giants…”

Startled, Sida opened her mouth, then closed it and narrowed her eyes at him. “Bad Jack! So bad!” she shot under her breath, before pivoting back to the rest of their crew. “Alright, kids, listen up. I want you three to get real comfy right here and guard this Opening. No fires. If this really is this planet’s night cycle, you obviously won’t need the heat and your rations can cook themselves.”

“Yes, sir,” the three grunts she’d stolen from Barnes saluted, then started setting up their camp right away.

“Crew, we need higher ground so we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with, but in the meantime, we treat this like any other exploration. Remember your training, keep your weapons on neutralize with reserves at max power, until we establish contact with this planet’s possible inhabitants and determine whether they’re hostile or not,” she continued. “Also, we’re in a tropical environment, which means higher risk for carnivorous and poisonous flora and fauna, so stay on your toes and keep a wary eye out for plants that looks suspiciously well fed.”

“The optimism of your speeches always gives me goosebumps, Captain,” Blake smirked, switching his rifle settings over and feigning a full body shudder.

“Cheap thrills, Commander,” she returned, following her own weapon instructions, before looking him over pointedly. “I’m a sucker for cheap thrills.”

© A.C. Melody

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