Written by Brennan Bard

CHAPTER 1

Reality is a funny thing.  What lies between what we know and what exists is a gulf too wide to cross.  Until it smacks us in the face.

Declan Martin woke to find himself in a transport ship hurtling toward the Earth at speeds not meant for man.  He glanced behind the pilot box: the short hallway leading to the exit looked tempting.  Most other men would have passed out in stained pools should they happen to find themselves in such a bizarre and ultimately frightening experience, but Declan was a seasoned captain.  In the face of certain death his calm demeanor may well have been mistaken for a man attempting suicide.

“Divert power to the reverse thrusters!”

The ship complied.  Then the ship slowed.  Declan relaxed for just a moment, began to believe he had avoided certain death.  Then the alarm blared, warning him the power levels in the reverse thrusters were too high.  An explosion rocketed the ship on the port side, launching it into a tailspin.

“Son of a…”  He never finished the sentence. The craft slammed into the earth. The violent impact jarred him to his bones; he felt his teeth vibrate until he thought they would simply fall out of his head.  His hair stood on end.  

Desperately, he clung to the armrests praying for the seat belt to hold; the heat from the explosion and the rising temperature of the metal of the chair burned his hands but he held on against hope.  A bandage wrapped around his waist split open and he felt a warm trickle of blood mingle with his sweat and drip down his side as a recent wound ruptured.

So I die, he thought as the twisted, hulking wreck of what had once been his most trusted companion carved through the dirt like Moses parting the Red Sea, careening toward the base of a looming mountain. The impact of metal on stone sent shock waves rippling through the land for miles. In the immediate aftermath, an eerie silence fell over the area of impact, enveloped in a giant mushroom cloud of dirt.  But Declan knew nothing.

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Steph Battina was supposed to be visiting her parents in Hot Springs, AR, but their friends surprised them with a couples’ cruise at the last minute that they simply couldn’t pass up. Daughter notwithstanding. Her plans fallen through, Steph took it as a sign to wander the Davis Mountains, a favorite vacation spot for her to explore and be alone in southern Texas. She picked her way carefully through the brush, pausing often to take in the sights, sounds smells. Off in the distance a bird sang though she couldn’t pinpoint its exact location.

The sun was high as this point (it must have been what, about noon?) and she shielded her eyes looking up at the clouds. A small black dot caught her attention and she turned fully to face it. Holy shit! A spaceship. It had been years since Steph had even thought about ships, let alone seen one. She watched transfixed as it hurtled from the sky, close enough now that she could see the smoke billowing behind it, the raging fire in clear view. As soon as it hit the ground, the shock waves blew her off her feet, launching her a foot through the air. She was up in an instant, sprinting to the spot, not even daring to believe someone could possibly survived such an impact.

The silver craft was sleek, a single-man drone she assumed based on its relatively small size.  The short wings were designed for peak maneuverability and retroactively fitted with additional thrusters; this was an engine built for speed. The viewing pane had shattered on impact and shards of glass littered the ground about the wreckage. The hot, bright sun of the West Texas desert glinted off the glass and into her eyes. Steph shielded her face with her hands and began to pick her way carefully around the ship, looking for a way to get to the pilot.

She found the door on the side of the ship nearest the outcrop of rocks at the base of the mountain, and saw the handle. It was circular, almost like a submarine hatch and she gripped it in both hands. She twisted, attempting to turn the handle and release the pressure hatch. It didn’t budge. She stepped back, her face a mask of concentration, ran a sleeve across her forehead dispelling the sweat, then wiped her sweaty hands on her pants and stepped toward the door again.  She gripped the handle firmly in both hands and stepped forward closer to the ship for better leverage. Struggling valiantly she turned the handle again, her muscles screaming with exertion, a small short grunt emanating from her lips as she forcefully tugged against the weight of the handle. It creaked and groaned but finally turned, releasing the lock and allowing the door to hiss outward as the pressure released. Steph peered through the doorway. A short hallway led around a corner.

“Hello?  Is anyone in there?” No answer came back. “I’m coming in!”

Cautiously, she inched through the door moving through the initial entry, and rounded the corner toward the pilot box. She reached a hand out, slowly, and eased the chair around so she could see the pilot. She gasped. Facing her was the most beautiful and most perfectly symmetrical face she had ever laid eyes on. Even with his eyes closed, the man in the ship was almost mesmerizing; she stared into his face, leaned in closer, stood there for several minutes….

She shook her head and brought herself back to reality. Having little medical experience, Steph brought two fingers up to his neck. Repositioned them several times. She felt nothing. She lifted his arm and felt around with her fingers near his wrist, finally locating his pulse. It was faint, but Steph could feel it. Anxiously, she slung her backpack off her shoulder and rummaged through: Chap Stick, Band-Aids (ironic), several bottles of water, gum and mints, and finally found her cell phone at the very bottom. It must have slid down. She pulled it out and dialed 911.

“I need an ambulance!  There’s been a crash!”

Twenty minutes later Steph heard sirens in the distance. The blue and red flashes tipped her off to the police accompaniment; she should have known but was still in shock and uneasy with the questions they might ask. She didn’t know this man, couldn’t explain in any satisfactory way how she had just happened to be in the same vicinity as the crashed ship. She also knew the law, knew she was supposed to report and not approach a crash site; her mind concocted a dozen lies each more unbelievable than the last, finally settling on the claim that she hadn’t gone near it.

Steeling her nerves, she moved down to the road.  A full team of cars was making its way up the road toward her. The flashing lights stung her eyes, made her dizzy and she felt herself swooning. She caught herself and turned to lead the emergency vehicles to the crash site, then stopped as she caught sight of a black Cadillac at the very end of the procession of cars, its windows tinted, impenetrable. It struck her as odd, seeing that there weren’t any official markings on the car. Before she could dwell on it, the teams were out of their vehicles ushering her to take them to the scene.

As expected, “But I don’t even know him.  I was just hiking here,” was not a response that got her out of either the cops’ or the paramedics’ questions as the sides squared off in a battle for who would get the first round of questions. The paramedics won the standoff on the gravity of the wounds, gave her a lift back to her car, and Steph followed them to the hospital.

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In a hazy dream state, a face he couldn’t quite make out drifted through Declan’s subconscious. A voice cried out in desperation to him but he couldn’t understand the words. His eyes popped open and he burst upright, wincing in pain, and fell back to the pillow; that’s when he felt the tubes buried in every part of his body. Every part of his body was on fire. A thousand tiny pinpricks assaulted his skin. What happened? He struggled to remember and came up with nothing. The face and voice slowly dissipated. He turned toward the mirror hanging on the wall to his right. There was a face in that mirror.

He reached up to touch it; it felt unfamiliar. Slowly, he pulled himself to a full sitting position, each movement a searing prod from a hot poker until it all became one long, dull ache. This was better at least. He could no longer distinguish individual pains so his movements were less hampered. Almost as an automatic reaction, he yanked the tubes and cords from his body. Then he heard voices just outside the door and quickly hid the tubes under his sheets to avoid being detected. He had no idea why. The door opened and a nurse walked in with a man just behind her.

“This is him.”  The nurse gestured toward Declan. The stranger said nothing for several minutes.

“What organization did you say you were with?”

The man turned to face her. “I didn’t.” He moved toward her slowly, deliberately.  She backed up, knocking her foot against the side of the doorway and stumbled a little before turning and moving off quickly toward the desk.  The man closed the door but still said nothing.  He just stared.

Declan stared back, taking stock.  He was tall but not much taller, barely topping six feet and more on the thin side than Declan’s bulkier frame.  His light blond hair was combed perfectly in place, almost like it wasn’t even real hair. His eyes were hidden behind an expensive pair of Oakleys. Sweat trickled down Declan’s forehead and stung his eyes.  The man still stood there, in his sunglasses and black suit with an oiled up pair of black shoes topping off the ensemble. Declan felt his pulse rising, an angry red mist growing across his eyes; but he attempted to broker a dialog.

“Who are you?”

The man just stared, but Declan noticed a small movement in his hands, a subtle turning from hanging at his side to moving toward his body.  On high alert from the beginning, when the man pulled the gun from the holster strapped to his shoulder, Declan was already moving.  He might have been slightly shorter than the man but his muscles were clearly defined and he outweighed him by at least 30 pounds.  Halfway out of bed by the time the gun was out of its holster, Declan threw his hand up knocking the gun to the ground.  Still moving, Declan lowered his shoulder and rammed it into the man in black’s stomach, doubling him over. He yanked the man up and punched him hard in the face, laying him low. The man crumpled to the ground, unmoving.

Declan, however, was still moving. He opened his hospital room door and dashed through it, noted the hallway beyond for a split second, then turned down the hall toward where he thought the entrance might be. The cries from the nurses and receptionists were already following him and he knew the chase would be swift. The open back of his gown blew out behind him as he sprinted through the building looking frantically for the exit. He found it, finally, along with another 3 suits.

Dumb luck was again his saving grace. The last hospital room before the reception desk was open and he could see the window. He sprinted through the door and dove through that window, slamming through the glass and falling into the bushes just below. The glass in his shoulder and the sharp branches of the bush below opened up old wounds and pains that had at one time subsided. He felt them all acutely now, mingling with the new ones. Still, he knew it was either pain or death. He pushed himself to his hands and knees in the bush, scrambled forward through the shrubbery and righted himself on the lawn of the hospital. He sprinted across that lawn, face straight ahead, not slowing to look back. Right out into the street. Right in front of a car. The driver slammed on the brakes and screeched to a stop right in front of him. He looked like a wild thing, but reached the door just before the driver managed to lock them, and jumped inside.

“What are you doing?!” the driver yelled at him.

“Drive!” he shouted, banging on the dashboard.

She shook her head angrily. She had just opened her mouth to speak when the first bullet cracked the windshield glass. Then she slammed down on the pedal and the car sped out the exit and turned down the street, leaving behind it only skid marks and the acrid smell of burning rubber.

Chapter 2

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