The Lorelei Signal

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Travelers

Written by Shaun Paulina / Artwork by Marcia Borell

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Stella had worked as a cocktail waitress for thirteen years, but the lights from the Draiqan ship rivaled anything she’d seen on the Vegas Strip. The saucer-shaped craft descended in silence over the nighttime Mojave Desert, flinging rainbow pulses like a psychedelic sparkler. Three hundred and ninety-four feet in diameter, photos didn’t do justice to the real thing. It jolted her with a sense of purpose. Of destiny. She was meant to be on that ship, flying free of her earthly troubles.

 

“Nice show,” murmured BlastYou’s Representative, Joe.

 

He shifted his cooler backpack to the ground and leaned in close, brushing her hip. She could taste the heavy cloud of his aftershave, feel his eyes on her chest. Grimacing, Stella stepped away and zipped up her pink jacket. Her gaze remained on the ship. Nothing would ruin this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

 

When the craft hovered a few feet off the ground, the lights dimmed but continued to pulsate. The hatch rose, spilling white light onto the sand. A ramp lowered. Stella took a small step forward.

 

Joe caught her arm. “Not yet, eager beaver.”

 

A practiced twist of her elbow, and Stella dislodged herself from his grasp. She glared, but Joe motioned to Cameraman Carl and switched on his celebrity smile.

 

As Joe spoke to viewers, Stella sidled closer to the other two ship-gawking Travelers—Tommy, the stocky twenty-something from Pittsburgh, and Charlene, a gray-haired Savannah resident bent over her cane.

 

An hour had passed since the three Travelers had been herded out of BlastYou’s black van and told to wait in the dark. Joe had made the elderly woman stand the entire time. Stella felt fine with arch supports in her sensible shoes—never have to wear heels again! But Charlene stood trembling in her wedge sandals with red silk flowers on top.

 

“Lean on me, if it helps,” Stella whispered in the woman’s ear as Joe spoke to the camera about the Draiqan ship in the background.

 

Charlene nestled against her. “God bless you, dear,” she said in her thick southern drawl. “You’re handier than a pocket on a shirt.”

 

Joe cleared his throat, catching their attention. He picked up his backpack, a bulging tan and gray cooler, and strapped it on. “Wait here.”

 

Carl filmed Joe jogging into the ship, and then panned over the three Travelers. “Just be yourselves,” Carl said.

 

Tommy cracked his neck left and right. “Wonder what Joe’s got in the cooler?”

 

Stella chuckled. “Maybe the aliens have a taste for Earth’s junk food?”

 

“They should try my home cooking.” Charlene released Stella’s arm, tottered forward and pivoted, cane wobbling. “Best pecan pie in my neck of the woods. I reckon best in the galaxy.”

 

“I’d love to try it,” Stella said.

 

“Look at the three of us.” Charlene sighed. “Lotta prayer got us here, and a little luck.”

 

“First time I’ve ever been dealt any,” Stella muttered.

 

“Hush your mouth.” Charlene scoffed. “With your pretty blonde hair and that figure? You’ll have your pick of beaus all over the universe.”

 

Stella angled away as the camera lens traveled over her. She smiled to be polite, but she didn’t want to think about dating. She’d lost interest a year ago.

 

Charlene looked at Tommy and pushed her gold-framed glasses farther up her nose. “No pretty girl on Earth missin’ you, young man?”

Tommy shrugged, dropping his gaze. “Once I get ‘stablished, I’ll bring friends up to my awesome new house. Everybody’s gonna love me for it.”

 

“Bring them up?” Stella lifted her head. “Fat chance your friends win the Program Lottery.”

 

“Humans are building these same ships,” he said.

 

“Oh?” Charlene limped closer to Tommy.

 

Carl switched off the red light and lowered his camera. “Okay, folks, that’s all the footage I need until Joe gets back.”

 

Tommy chuckled as he watched Carl meander into the shadows. “See? Cameraman knows the truth. It won’t be a secret for long. Soon, we won’t need taxied ‘round the universe by those green Draiqan guys. We’re goin’ up ourselves.”

 

“You know this, how?” Stella asked.

 

“Rumors.” Tommy grinned. “And when I asked Joe ‘bout it after final orientation, you shoulda seen the look on his face. He totally denied it, eyes buggin’ the whole time.”

 

“Well, if it’s true, that’s wonderful news, y’all,” Charlene said. “I didn’t want to leave my friends, but I don’t have time to wait. These Draiqans have access to a fountain of youth. They’re so young lookin’. So advanced. You betch yer biscuits, I’m grateful to be here.”

 

Stella nodded. Who wouldn’t be grateful for the Upworld Exchange Program? Charity for Earth, as they’d explained it fifteen years ago.

 

We’ve contracted with the human company BlastYou to exchange planet-saving technology for three Travelers per month who will serve as ambassadors to the greater intergalactic community. The one-way trips are sponsored by generous civilizations wishing for Earth to join us in the pursuit of knowledge, new aspiration and peace.

 

Stella hoped to find all those things when she blasted off Earth.

 

She reached for her purse, intending to snag a stick of gum, but her hand came away empty. Oh. Right.

 

BlastYou had declared a new rule for Travelers—certain personal items were disallowed onboard. The list included handbags, jewelry, belts, and even bottled drinks.

 

The silent ship, as it hung there with its lights pulsing, had a hypnotic effect. She breathed deep the fresh scent of creosote bushes. Tommy hummed. Crickets chirped. Surely it won’t be much long

 

Carl appeared from the shadows of a yucca plant and trained his camera on a figure in the light-filled hatch. Joe emerged from the ship smiling, without the cooler backpack but waving a flash drive.

 

“Updates on last month’s UK Travelers,” he said, “and Sweden’s previous trip through the solar system, soon to be available for all our paid subscribers’ enjoyment.” He hooked his thumb toward the craft. “Go on, you three. They’re waiting.”

 

Stella’s heart pounded. Tears of joy blurred her vision. This is it!

 

“Here we go!” Tommy sang and pumped his fist. He climbed halfway up the ramp, pitched forward, then back, arms wheeling. “Whoa, you ‘uns watch out! It’s slippy.”

 

“Guess aliens aren’t worried about lawsuits.” Stella clutched Charlene’s arm to assist her.

 

Tommy took Charlene’s other arm, and the three Travelers climbed the ramp and entered a frigid, white room.

 

The hatch slid closed behind them.

 

Ahead, a willowy form glided through a door. It was a young humanoid woman with skin the shade of Nevada green turquoise.

 

Stella had seen her, the Draiqan ship’s first mate, Beri, on a computer screen, but seeing her in person, with this blank foyer as her backdrop…. Amazing.

 

Her eyes shone black and striking in her narrow face, framed by a bright orange bob. A one-piece charcoal bodysuit clung to her lithe form. She wore silver flip-flops.

 

How is she not freezing? Stella hugged her pink jacket tighter.

 

“Welcome aboard, Travelers.” Beri’s voice sounded like two women gently speaking in unison.

 

“Jeez-o-man!” Tommy’s chest heaved. “You remind me of hotdogs and fresh cut grass.”

 

Stella couldn’t suppress her laugh.

 

Tommy laughed too, eyes on Beri. “I mean that as a compliment. I’m Tommy, by the way.”

 

The alien woman slanted her lips, exposing pointed teeth.

 

Dog’s teeth, minus the fangs. That had always been Stella’s impression from photos over the years.

 

“Have mercy!” Charlene straightened her glasses. “Look at them pretty choppers! Maybe I’ll regrow mine with your high-tech medicine. My name’s Charlene. Pleased to meet you, young lady.”

 

“We know your names, Travelers. You’ll be assigned one of the three crew members as your host.”

 

“Do I get you, Beri?” Tommy pressed his hands together. “Please say I getch you.”

 

That would leave Garuth or Oit as Stella’s host, but she cared little who they placed her with. All she wanted was to feel lift off. To know it was real and final.

 

Beri clapped her hands. “A slight recap before we begin. In a couple of days, we’ll reach the first planet on our tour. Your journey will be broadcast to Earth until we exit your solar system.”

 

Tommy gave a thumbs-up at the ceiling above him, then another to the opposite direction, though Stella saw no visible eye in the sky. “Hey guys, don’t know where the cameras are,” he said, “but yeah, it’s Beri! You ‘uns go ahead and be jealous! Woot!”

 

“Hey, y’all.” Charlene waved a lacy handkerchief as she spoke to the ceiling. “I’m talking to my senior ladies group. This is my new friend, Stella. We’re like two peas in a pod. Ain’t she gorgeous? So lucky to have her along on this adventure—she’s been taking care of me. Oh, I’ll miss you gals! Maybe mankind will finish that spacecraft soon, and y’all can visit my new stompin’ grounds. Don’t be shocked when I’m as young and pretty as Beri and Stella.” She chortled.

 

“Have you nobody to say goodbye to, Stella?” Beri asked, arms crossed. Stella could swear those deep green lips were smirking.

 

She let herself relax. Long ago, she’d stopped keeping up with the ship’s revolving first and second mates, so she didn’t know much about Beri. No harm in giving the other woman the benefit of the doubt.

 

Since Stella had nobody back home to say goodbye to, she wriggled her hand in the air. “Goodbye, Earth!”

 

Beri lifted her chin. “To ensure your successful journey, it’s imperative you obey the crew and stay in the video-recorded, designated areas.”

 

“Head and hands inside the ride at all times—got it,” Tommy said.

 

“Do you wish to hang up your outer garments?”

 

“No, thank you, young lady.” Charlene was retying the belt on her red coat. “It’s a bit chilly in here. Not that I’m complainin’.”

 

Tommy ran his fingers over his black and gold jacket. “Keepin’ mine on, too. For now.” He winked at Beri.

 

“Then please follow me.” The woman turned on her heel.

 

Tommy hurried to catch up and chatter beside her as they navigated a curved corridor. Stella did her best to aid Charlene with a hand supporting her arm.

 

“Boy, I could get lost in here, y’all,” Charlene said, panting.

 

Stella had studied diagrams with her friends in the Draiqan Fan Club when she was younger and felt like she could wander the whole ship with her eyes shut. “Coming up on the control room,” she whispered to Charlene.

 

“The control room,” Beri announced.

 

A floor-to-ceiling window spanned the semi-circular room. Beyond, a lustrous scene loomed—millions of stars dotted and banded in clusters amidst the glowing pink and blue clouds of the Milky Way.

 

“Wait a second…” Tommy touched the window. “Is this—?”

 

“We’ve been en route since the ship’s hatch closed.”

 

“Nuh-uh!” Tommy grinned. “Awesome!”

 

Stella locked eyes with Charlene. Wow.

 

“Didn’t feel a thing,” the elderly woman purred. “You aliens and your miracle inventions.”

 

“We won’t fly full speed until we’ve exited your solar system. At this time, we’re approaching the Martian orbit.”

 

“Can we see Mars?” Stella asked, searching through the window.

 

“It’s presently behind us, on the other side of the sun.”

 

Tommy hugged one of the seats in front of the control panel. “Can I sit in the ol’ command chair? Get me some respect from my home audience.”

 

Beri extended her hand. “Be my guest.”

 

“Still watching, guys?” Tommy bounced and swiveled in the seat. “Shields up. Prepare for warp speed n’at!”

 

“Be careful horsing around, young man!” Charlene scolded as she wobbled beside him. “Don’t knock us into a tailspin. Bless your heart! I need to reach those remedies.”

 

“The ship is locked on course,” Beri said, her tone flat. “Would either of you ladies like to try the co-pilot seat before we continue the tour?”

 

“Maybe later.” Stella resumed her grip on Charlene’s arm, supporting her. The woman’s legs were shaking. “But, uh, do you have something I can maneuver her around in? You have files on us, right? You know her condition.”

 

“Oh.” Beri frowned at Charlene. “How thoughtless of me. Please accept my apology.” She opened a closet and yanked out a floating fabric rectangle. A few shakes and it unfolded into a hovering black chair.

 

Stella helped Charlene settle into it.

 

“Ah, feels good to sit a spell.” Charlene sighed as she relaxed. “Bless you, dear, I’m plum tuckered out. Getting old ain’t for sissies. Hope that fountain of youth’s really out there.” She glanced up at Beri. “It is, right, young lady?”

 

“I assure you, your aging will soon end.” She tugged Charlene’s cane from her gnarled grip. “You won’t need this anymore.”

 

“Thank you!” Charlene took out the handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. “It’s true,” she mouthed to Stella.

 

Stella smiled and patted her shoulder.

 

Beri motioned toward the other side of the room, and Tommy followed her through a door. Stella and Charlene trailed them—Stella guiding Charlene’s floating chair—as they progressed into another corridor. A continuous window along its length showcased outer space.

 

I’ll never tire of that view.

 

Beri wrenched open a kitchen cabinet-sized door—a tilt-out hamper—and tossed the cane into it, slamming it shut again. A moment later, the curved brown stick tumbled past the window and disappeared, swallowed by the cold void.

 

Stella shivered.

 

“Well, no pussy-footin’ around, then!” Charlene flashed her bright smile.

 

Tommy whistled. “Are we going out with the rubbish if we jag around?” he said with a chuckle. “Guess I better behave.”

 

Beri pointed sharply down the corridor.

 

“Crew quarters,” Stella said under her breath.

 

“Crew quarters,” Beri declared to the group. “You’ll visit there soon. For now, we’ll descend to the cargo level where you’ll enjoy a lunch of your favorite Earth foods. When you’re finished, your assigned hosts will fetch you to complete your orientation.”

 

Beri led them down a ramp into a huge, dimly lit space.

 

 Stella had to admit she was unfamiliar with the cargo bay. Basic diagrams, yeah, but no detailed schematics were ever presented to the public. Shipments of classified materials was the official explanation.

 

They stopped at the bottom of the ramp, and Stella sniffed dusty tile, rotting plants, and…the faint odor of manure? The left side of the expansive room lay open, the floor gridded with a single layer of pallets. Each one held chest-high glass cylinders, pastel-colored clouds churning inside.

 

Tommy jerked his thumb. “I’m being nebby, but I just gotta ask. What’s all the cotton candy-looking stuff in the big jars?”

 

“Preserved fruits and vegetables,” Beri said. “We sell them to various planets. That area is off limits to Travelers. Your attention, here, please.” She cracked open the door on their right. “This is our perishables storage room. We’ve set it up for your lunch.”

 

“What happened to the big dining hall?” Tommy asked.

 

Beri tilted her head. “Under renovation.”

 

Tommy entered the door behind Beri, but Stella paused, squeezing Charlene’s chair. In the cargo area, past the pallets, a glass enclosure gleamed on the far wall in the shadows. The lower half was a solid panel of wainscotting. As Stella gazed at it, something bounced up behind the glass, only to fall out of sight again.

 

“What was that?” Stella murmured.

 

A powerful urge to investigate rushed through her. She tried to fight it. I’m not here to cause any trouble.

 

Charlene tutted. “Let’s go in with the youngsters. Don’t want our hosts gettin’—”

 

“Wait a second.” Stella sighed, having lost her battle with curiosity. She angled Charlene to face the cargo bay. “On the other side of the pallets. See the glass? Like huge windows?”

 

Charlene leaned forward. “I think so.”

 

“Pretty sure I saw something move in there.”

 

Charlene shook her head. “Sorry, dear, it’s dark and my eyesight’s not the best these days.”

 

A shadow popped up behind the glass and lingered. Its head, or what looked like a head, dipped and bobbed.

 

Heart pounding, Stella wheeled Charlene to the door and bent close to her steel gray hair. “If you see Beri coming, give me a wave,” she whispered. “I need to see what’s over there.”

 

“Why, dear? We ain’t supposed to—”

 

“Be right back.”

 

Stella darted across the floor, dodging pallets, the barnyard smell growing stronger as she approached the glass.

 

Animals that reminded her of llamas milled about inside a small pen. She counted ten of them. A few lay atop bedding, while the rest stood or trudged about the small pen, craning necks as long as her forearm. Shaggy, butter-yellow hair covered their bodies, except for their long ears, which were black, and their dark hooves—all six of them.

 

Cute!

 

The biggest one—slightly taller and plumper than the rest—bounded over and stood on its hind legs, four hooves to the glass.

 

“Hello, there,” Stella cooed.

 

Tongue waggling, the creature gave a muffled baa, like a lamb.

 

Stella pressed her hand on the glass, which felt acrylic and strong. “Aren’t you precious? Wish I could pet you.”

 

The animal shoved its black nose beneath Stella’s splayed fingertips. Then, with unnerving precision, it pointed a hoof to her right. Stella withdrew her hand. The animal jumped down and trotted in that direction, rose and pointed again. And seemed to meet her eyes.

 

“You’re trying to tell me something?” Stella followed the aim of its hoof until she faced a second translucent cell. Small and empty. On the wall beside it was a box of silver buttons. A row of tiny earpieces hung on a hook underneath. Stella reached for one. “This?” she asked, and glanced back at the creature.

 

Its golden eyes opened wide. The animal’s neck stretched as it bleated louder.

 

A cold hand clamped down on Stella’s shoulder.

 

“I told you to stay away from unauthorized areas!” Beri spun Stella around, her teeth bared like an angry dog’s.

 

“C-calm down,” Stella said and ducked from Beri’s reach. “No need to—”

 

“Why did you leave the group?”

 

Stella heaved a sigh. “Sorry, but I saw something over here, and I just had to…. What are they?”

 

“Lamkas. Livestock.” Beri turned up her nose and sniffed.

 

“They seem intelligent. That one—”

 

“Dumb beasts.” Beri flipped a switch, and light flooded the pen.

 

All the lamkas sprang to their hooves. Tongues out and stiffened over their flat teeth as they baa’d in unison. Stella thought their golden eyes held a pleading look.

 

“Can I pet one?”

 

Beri’s mouth dropped open. “Absolutely not! They’re dangerous.”

 

“Really? They don’t look it.”

 

The largest lamka threw itself against the partition in front of Beri, who reared back. Stella gasped.

 

Its top four hooves stomped and scraped on the clear barrier, as though the creature was trying to break through.

 

“You see?” Beri snapped, her black eyes huge. “I’ve seen footage where they tore apart a crew member. And spit acid on the pieces!”

 

“Oh.” The blond Draiqan who left the crew a few years ago? Stella gulped. “Why do you have lamkas onboard, then?”

 

“For auction on Miptune,” Beri said, whacking the switch off again. “Their furs and meat are prized. The beasts are lucky we’re not equipped to harvest them.”

 

Stella locked eyes with the lamka again and could’ve sworn tears spilled from beneath its long black lashes, wetting its snout.

 

“Aw,” Stella muttered.

 

Beri jerked her head, eyes narrowed. “Go now, human. Join the others.”

 

Stella hurried between the silver pallets, eager to lose the feel of Beri’s withering gaze. As she neared the open door of the perishables room, the pungent smell of spicy food permeated the air.

 

Ah yes, the first meal onboard. The videos always showed Travelers enjoying the aliens’ skills at replication of local dishes.

 

She took a breath and entered.

 

The room was cramped and narrow, lined on one side with upright freezers and refrigerators, all of which had electronic locks and BlastYou magnets pasted on the front. In the far left corner, Charlene waved from her floating chair pulled up to a table. Tommy sat on the other side, wiping sauce off his lips.

 

“Hey, get some eats, Stella!” he called, and lifted the lid from the platter next to him, revealing chicken wings drenched in sauce. A frosty pitcher of amber liquid sat nearby. “Grab a beer!”

 

“I take it the beverage is satisfactory?” harped Beri’s voice from behind Stella.

 

Stella stiffened at the proximity of the alien woman, who must’ve followed closer on her heels than she’d realized. She fled to the empty chair beside Charlene.

 

“Hopin’ I’ll get something a little stronger later.” Tommy locked eyes on Beri as he raised his tall glass.

 

“You will.”

 

Smiling, he dipped a wing in white dressing and chomped it.

 

“And the meal?” Beri asked.

 

“Wowee, y’all.” Charlene danced her plastic spoon over the soup bowl. “Always heard you aliens loved well-seasoned food, but… Oh, I didn’t mean to complain! Don’t take it like that, young lady.”

 

Beri bowed over the table and inhaled. The slightest hint of a smile tilted her lips. With a nod, she turned and left the room.

 

Weirdo.

 

“She doesn’t say much, but you know, I kinda like it,” Tommy said. “And that orange hair. Dazzles my eyes.” He bit into another wing and sputtered. Fanning his lips, he grabbed his beverage.

 

Stella lifted a plastic forkful of corkscrew pasta. No spice there, but not a lick of sauce, either. She chewed. The texture was squishy, flavor bland. Someone got my favorite dish wrong. Well, she wasn’t that hungry, her nerves on edge from the encounter with Beri at the lamka pen. Not that she needed a last round of pasta. Many exotic meals lay ahead on alien worlds, and it wasn’t the last time she’d have pasta, according to Traveler updates.

 

“Cripe, these wings are gettin’ hotter by the second,” Tommy rasped. He chugged from the pitcher and belched. “S’cuse me, you ‘uns. Thinkin’ I could prolly use an antacid.”

 

Stella breathed from her mouth, trying to block the heat and sourness wafting from his side of the table. Her stomach churned. Twisting open the water by her plate, she took a long gulp. She choked on it and sputtered. Even the water tasted wrong, like a sweaty armpit bathed in it. “I don’t feel like eating,” she said, as she plunked the bottle down.

 

“Oh, you poor dears. I’m sure those aliens have good medicine on board. Or, try my gumbo. I was fixin’ to share it with y’all, anyway.” Charlene lowered her voice, “Beware, the shrimp is rubbery, and the rest is sour as lemons and hot as hellfire. But I’m positive it contains the aliens’ healing herbs and spices.”

 

“No, thank you,” Stella said. A few deep breaths later, she was grateful to feel her stomach settle.

 

Charlene dropped the spoon beside her bowl. “Heavens, I’m suddenly full as a tick.”

 

“Me too.” Tommy threw down his half-eaten wing. “I usually put away twenty of these. That sauce stuck to my ribs n’at.”

 

“Uh-huh, it’s like the gumbo marinated into my bones. But it’s energizing.” Charlene stretched her thin arms, red jacket rustling. “Oh, these aliens are wonderful, sharing their rejuvenatin’ secrets with us!”

 

Beri returned, padding over to one of the massive silver refrigerators.

 

“Good stuff, but I’ve eaten all I can fit.” Tommy rubbed his belly.

 

“I thought you’d be ready by now.” Beri punched numbers on the keypad and opened the fridge door. A cold mist drifted out. The inside was filled with bottles and jars and the tan and gray cooler backpack Joe had brought. Beri slung it onto the counter and removed an opaque shopping bag, which hung heavy in the middle.

 

“Don’t s’pose you got breath mints?” Tommy asked.

 

Beri zipped the cooler up, and, bag in hand, beckoned Tommy. “Come with me.”

 

An uneasy feeling ran through Stella, but she ignored it when Tommy leaped from his chair, all smiles.

 

“Awright! Goin’ up Beri’s place.” He gave a thumbs-up and left the table. In the doorway, he glanced back. “See ya ladies around.”

 

Charlene and Stella waved. “See you, Tommy.”

 

The door glided shut.

 

Stella scanned the walls and corners for the invisible cameras before she bent toward Charlene. “Does anything feel wrong to you?” she whispered.

 

Charlene repositioned her glasses. “Wrong? I don’t think so, dear. I’m happy as all get out. Surely you are, too. But…try to stay agreeable to their rules, dear.” Charlene smiled big. “Everything’s hunky dory.”

 

“I hope so.” Stella sat back. Her gaze landed on the cooler.

 

The room door rolled open again.

 

In strolled Oit, a Draiqan in a black jumpsuit with locks of pure white hair and bushy brows. His full, white mustache curled into handlebars.

 

“It’s Oit! I seen him in the brochure!” Charlene squeezed Stella’s hand and squealed. “Nicest shade of green. What a sight for sore eyes. And that mustache! Such a fine gentleman.”

 

“Greetings, Earthlings,” he boomed, like two men speaking together. He flashed a smile with yellowed canines. “But you’re not Earthlings anymore,” he went on. “You’re far more valuable now.”

 

Charlene sniffed his direction. “Oh, darlin’, you smell like sweet tea and roses!”

 

Stella couldn’t smell anything but the spicy fumes of the food still in the air.

 

“Ready to go…Charlene, is it?” he asked.

 

“Oh, they truly match us with the perfect host!” Charlene pushed off from the table and floated in her chair to him. “I’m ready. You’ll have to excuse my breath, though, darlin’. It’s a bit sour.”

 

“It’s delicious.”

 

Charlene giggled up at him, her wrinkly cheeks flushed.

 

He lifted an opaque shopping bag from the cooler and zipped the lid shut again. With his free hand, he guided Charlene’s chair toward the exit.

 

“Bye, dear,” she called back to Stella. “Next time you see me, I won’t have no more hitch in my giddyup.”

 

“Hope you enjoy yourself, Charlene.” Even as Stella said it, a sense of unease shuddered through her frame.

 

As soon as they left, her eyes flew to the cooler.

 

Something had felt off since she’d found the lamkas, and she didn’t care if Earth watched her snooping. BlastYou would likely work it into a ratings boost. Dashing from her seat, she reached for the backpack’s zipper.

 

“Hello,” came a familiar male voice. “Stella, isn’t it?”

 

She whirled to face the tall Draiqan male—the one she and her friends had fangirled over as teens. Back then, she’d stalked his social media, collected every article, cut his face off cereal boxes. Grass green skin. Black eyes. Dark hair that gleamed blue in the overhead light. Garuth looked pretty much the same as he did since the Program’s start.

 

Stella wasn’t the same starstruck girl—all she wanted from this crew was a ride to other worlds—but seeing her old crush in the flesh brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away even as her heart launched into a frolicky beat.

 

“N-nice to meet you,” she said.

 

“I apologize for making you wait.” His duplicate voices spoke in a casual tone. “Have you had time to eat enough?”

 

“Oh, I’m not hungry,” she stammered. “I’ll eat more later.”

 

 He strode up to her, backing her against the countertop as he looked her up and down.

 

“Excuse me,” she said. Wheezing from his spicy breath, she scrambled away. No, excuse you.

 

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

 

Don’t make a big deal. Think where you are—the opportunity!

 

“I... “ She offered him an awkward smile. “We have a thing about personal space.”

 

“Oh, that’s right.”

 

He still surveyed her from head to toe.

 

She’d heard the Draiqans were generally polite, if not always attuned to Travelers’ social norms and customs. But he was creeping her out. Despite his youthful appearance, his eyes gave a hard glint that hadn’t come through over the videos. Stella crossed her arms.

 

With a sigh, Garuth nodded, as if in acceptance of what he’d seen, then grabbed the backpack and caught her eyes.

 

Lemon and vanilla aromas enveloped Stella’s mind and senses.

 

Is that him? Damn, he smells amazing!

 

The scent intensified, then mutated, becoming less pleasant, more like chemicals—burnt and plasticky—yet irresistible. It tingled her nose, her skin.

 

All she could think was that Garuth looked mesmerizing.

 

She stepped closer to him.

 

“Seems you’ve eaten enough. Let’s go to my office in the crew quarters,” he said. “Now that I have you onboard, there’s a little business to take care of. Afterward, I’ll show you to your room. Sound good?”

 

“Yes, it does.” Too good to be true. I’m really here. With him!

 

They walked side by side, up the ramp, down the corridor, and beyond the control room. She couldn’t help but steal glances at him along the way, curious about his story. His real story.

 

Documentaries gushed about beautiful planets and all the wise aliens who lived in harmony together. Garuth and two crew members, occasionally changing, were often featured. The information given to the public seemed superficial at times. What was he really like?

 

Has he hooked up with other Travelers? Jealousy prickled her chest.

 

What’s going on with me?

 

Stella hadn’t felt like this five minutes ago. Now, her head swam. She rubbed it. Her senses spun in that pungent odor, and she just hoped Garuth would be willing to give her a chance.

 

“Here we are,” he said, sliding open a door.

 

She marched into the familiar space. BlastYou had often filmed him in his office.

 

Near the door stood his large desk and chair. A big, comfy-looking armchair sat across from it. She’d wanted to sit there. In the back of the room, a bookshelf displayed his collection of colorful, glowing stones.

 

Strange. She could’ve sworn the documentaries showed an arched doorway near the bookshelf, but the door behind her was the room’s only exit. She looked to Garuth, intending to ask about it, but the scorched plastic scent filled her nostrils.

 

Everything is fine.

 

“Make yourself comfortable in the chair,” he said, gesturing behind her.

 

Stella took a seat, hugging a decorative pillow to her chest. Just as soft as she’d imagined years ago.

 

“You know, I used to watch and read everything about you,” she said. “I still remember your favorite dessert—cheesecake. That’s my favorite, too. Oh, and you love cats. And walks on the beach.”

 

He shrugged. “I despise all those things.”

 

“You…?” She smoothed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Guess I’m remembering wrong.”

 

He set the cooler backpack on the edge of his desk.

 

“I have to confess, I’m curious about what you’ve got in there,” she said.

 

“Dessert.”

 

“Guessing that’s not cheesecake?” she asked with a chuckle.

 

“No.” His lips quirked. “I doubt you’d like my kind of dessert.”

 

“Oh yeah? Try me.”

 

Garuth shrugged. “Why not? No cameras on now.” He unzipped the biggest compartment and hauled out a white shopping bag. From that, he hefted a clear, gallon-sized bag, half full of bloody stuff.

 

“Ugh, what is that?”

 

“Organs. Offal.”

 

“That’s—that’s what Joe brought you?”

 

He unzipped the clear bag and fished around in the purple-brown mess until he retrieved a plump, fist-sized organ, glistening like wet velvet.

 

“Heart,” he said, squeezing it. Blood dripped into the bag. He tore into the organ with his jagged teeth. Chewed fast. Swallowed.

 

Stella covered her mouth.

 

He dropped the rest of the heart back in the bag, then licked his fingers and palm.

 

Okay, maybe she wouldn’t be kissing him anytime soon.

 

“This indulgence of ours isn’t known to most on Earth,” Garuth said. Pulling a towel from his desk, he wiped his hands. We’ve sampled every warm-blooded species.”

 

She slid her fingers to her ear, massaging. Her head felt funny, and she was certain she’d heard him wrong. “You didn’t say every…. Because that would include…”

 

The odor hit her again, and she coughed.

 

He’s so impressive! In every way.

 

“Tell me about yourself,” she said, then shut her mouth, cringing at her cliched words. He must’ve heard them all the time.

 

Garuth seated himself behind his desk as if he hadn’t heard her. He rapped on it, and a hologram of a rectangular screen popped up, shining on his handsome green face. Beneath his fingers, a holo keyboard appeared. “I want to go over your file.”

 

“Sure, whatever you want.”

 

He scrolled and scanned through bright text in front of him. From her angle on the chair, black squiggles appeared to worm over his cheeks.

 

“Hmm,” he said, stroking his jaw. “I thought it was a clerical error, but I knew when I saw you in person.”

 

“Knew what?” She leaned forward. That you want me?

 

He gazed at her through the glowing screen. “This isn’t advertised to the human public, but the three Travelers fulfill three essential slots. BlastYou’s requirement to promote viewership. The one you occupy is usually awarded to someone a little younger.”

 

“I’m thirty-one. Why? Is there a—?” She sighed. Too old for him. When do I ever get lucky? “There’s been some mix-up,” she mumbled, gripping the pillow tighter. “You’re taking me back, aren’t you?”

 

“Oh, never. You’re fine. You look healthy. Seem stout.”

 

She hitched up her head, heart racing. “Then, what’s the problem?”

 

He frowned. “We’ve been encountering resistance from…certain elements on Earth.”

 

“Why would they resist?”

 

“They want to end the Program. Drive this ship away for good.”

 

“Oh no. And ruin a wonderful thing?”

 

“So far, we’ve neutralized all spies sent onboard under the guise of Lottery winners. They haven’t had the chance to cause any real damage. But it’s tricky to root them out.” Garuth examined her again through the screen. “Some haven’t even been aware they’d received programming to sabotage us. Kill us.”

 

“What? I can’t believe Earth would do this to you!” Stella wanted to run to him but forced herself to stay in the chair. “I’m so sorry, Garuth. Glad you’re okay.”

 

“The operatives tend to be planted in your Traveler slot.”

 

“Wait. You mean… Surely you don’t… I would never—”

 

“Relax. I only want to ask you some questions, Stella.”

 

 “Of course.” She scooted to the edge of her seat. “I want to help. Ask. Whatever you need to know.”

 

He clasped his hands on the desk. “Do you recall anything out of the ordinary when you were selected?”

 

Stella tried to think. “Just that it was a last-minute selection. But that’s not unheard of.”

 

“You were selected for the Program two days ago, but you dropped out of sight until this morning’s orientation.”

 

“I stayed in my apartment, catching up on sleep.”

 

“That’s hard to believe when your file says you were excited, and—” He traced his finger across the bright image as he read, “—bouncing around the club, telling everyone the fantastic news. You planned to celebrate.”

 

“That’s what I did. Alone. I curled up in my bed with books, wine and Italian takeout.”

 

“No purchases on your credit card. No phone usage.”

 

“You think I’d lie to you?” The idea made her chest ache.

 

“I have to make sense of discrepancies here.” Garuth typed something on the keyboard. “What reason were you given for your late selection?”

 

“Someone changed their mind.” She couldn’t fathom why anyone would pass on space travel with this guy.

 

“You were misinformed. The young woman originally chosen for your slot was found murdered.”

 

“What?” Stella whispered. Her mind snapped from its haze. “No—”

 

“We want all those spaces filled, so we triggered the backup system. Our Express Lottery.”

 

“The reason I’m here is because someone died…” Stella stared at her clenched fingers, showing white knuckles.

 

“Suspicious, isn’t it? You entered your name in the Express Lottery as well as the free General drawing. Why?”

 

“Because I had the money and I could be ready to go at a moment’s notice. No property to sell. Nobody I need closure with.” She blinked, looking up. “But that’s not so unusual, right?”

 

He lifted one dark brow. “Why did you want to participate in the Traveler Lottery?”

 

“Why does anyone?”

 

“We get humans wanting grand adventure, those who fear life on Earth is unsustainable. Some are like the old woman you traveled with. She had untreatable cancer and wanted access to advanced medicine on other worlds.”

 

“Cancer? Charlene? I didn’t know…”

 

“Others want to flee their past.”

 

“Then—then I guess that’s my reason. I want to move on. New scenery and people. New purpose.”

 

“I need more information than that.”

 

“I don’t—”

 

“Stella.”

 

Burnt chemical odor drifted into her face. She gasped a lungful of air.

 

“My—my parents split when I was a kid,” she began. “Never saw my father again. Mom died right after I graduated high school. A friend got me a waitress job at a club where I could support myself. I worked hard, great money, but the years rolled by, and…. Well, I guess the things I’d dreamed of got put on hold. I kept renewing my name in the Lottery, though.”

 

He typed fast, eyes on the holographic screen. “Was there anyone…special around?”

 

Ooh, he’s interested. She wished she didn’t have to tell him.

 

“Last year,” she said, “a longtime regular at the club asked me to marry him. Of course, a part of me knew better. But I felt like I knew him. Told myself it would work out. Before the wedding, he left me for a…for someone else. I’ve had my share of problems, but that was the final straw. I forked over my whole life savings to get my name in the Express drawing.”

 

“That’s it?”

 

She shrugged. “Yeah.”

 

He leaned back; arms crossed. “Why did you leave off your personal connections to BlastYou?”

 

“Connections?” She sat straight, stunned. “What connections?”

 

“You bypassed the drawing, personally recommended by a BlastYou employee.”

 

“No way. Has to be another clerical mistake. I don’t know anyone.”

 

“Charles Breck?”

 

“What?” Stella stiffened. “Chucky?”

 

Garuth nodded.

 

“You’re kidding me. I just saw him. Known him since high school. He tried to date me, but he was—well, let’s just say he was a massive jerk. He harassed me on social media, too. He works for BlastYou?”

 

Garuth nodded again.

 

“Damn!” Stella smacked her forehead in realization. “I should’ve known! He strutted into the club last Friday night, talking himself up, how he’d struck it big with some important, top-secret job. More money than he could spend, homes everywhere, travel…. He tried to talk me into joining him in his suite after my shift. I turned him down. Nicely, of course. He called me a bunch of names I’d rather not repeat.” She rubbed her arms through her pink jacket. “I’ll never understand how guys just flip the switch like that. Anyway, I signaled security. Chuck said he’d make me sorry I rejected him.”

 

“And then, you were chosen for the Program.”

 

“Yeah, but that was a good thing…” Uh-oh. Stella clasped her shaking hands together. She glanced up at Garuth who stared back, stone-faced. “My—my whole life I’ve dreamed of this. It wasn’t a secret. Why would he send me out here if it’s…a good thing?”

 

She giggled nervously, and the synthetic burnt smell wafted over her face again.

 

Stella coughed and blinked. This time, the odor quickly softened. Another whiff burst into her nose, but weaker. It faded fast.

 

Garuth leaned on his desk, shoulders sagging. His face was pale, chalky green. “Stamina isn’t what it used to be,” he muttered, giving his black eyes a rub. He yanked open a drawer. Withdrawing a small black remote, he pointed it in Stella’s direction.

 

“Excuse me? Have you, uh, been doing something to me?” Stella forced a laugh as the remote gave three short, disgruntled beeps. “Feels like something’s wrong. I’d like to believe it’s just—”

 

 “I want a refreshment, and you need one too.” Garuth set the remote aside and opened another drawer, removing two glass tumblers and an opaque bottle. He poured until the glasses brimmed with bright red liquid, thick as tomato juice, then tramped over and handed one to her.

 

“What’s this?” Stella sniffed. Strawberries. Her mouth watered at the sweet fruity aroma.

 

“A Draiqan tonic. It helps humans relax.” He returned to his seat.

 

Instinct gripped her. She rested the heavy tumbler between her thighs. “No, thanks. Not thirsty.”

 

Garuth downed half his drink. “Lots of Travelers have first day jitters,” he said, wiping his lips. “I’d like for you to enjoy the drink.”

 

“I’d better not have alcohol.”

 

“It’s not alcohol.”

 

“Maybe I’ll try it later?”

 

“I’d prefer you consume it now, while it’s fresh. The taste tends to go off when exposed to air.”

 

Stella frowned, hoping to reinforce the hint. “I don’t know. It might get my allergies going.”

 

He tapped the hovering image in front of him. “No allergens listed.”

 

Groaning inwardly, Stella squeezed the glass. “Well, you never know with Draiqan concoctions.”

 

“I assure you, it’s safe.”

 

“I just don’t want it, okay?” she snapped.

 

Instant guilt jabbed her. He’s just trying to be nice.

 

He finished his drink in one gulp. “It’s medicinal. Soothing. Drink it, human.” His patience sounded taut, raising her hackles again.

 

Let it go, spaceman. She lifted the tumbler to set it aside. “I don’t want it.”

 

“Drink.”

 

“No!” Stella clunked the glass down on the end table, splashing red drops on the clear, acrylic-looking surface. She scooted to the edge of the chair, her eyes on the door behind Garuth. “I’d like to see Charlene and Tommy.”

 

“That’s impossible.”

 

Stella rose to her feet. “Why?”

 

“Sit, Stella!”

 

She jumped, startled by his loud, angry voice. “I answered your questions. I’m no spy. I’m just here for the Program—”

 

“There’s no such thing!” He pointed the remote at her again, and it whined two harsh tones. Garuth threw it down. “Your chemistry rejects the marinade—everything!”

 

“W-what did you say? No Program?”

 

“There’s just this ship and crew, and our trade route.”

 

As Garuth stood, Stella rotated the holo projection. She tapped the first file she saw. Tommy’s face popped up.

 

“Having the time of my life, you ‘uns!” His garrulous voice flowed from invisible speakers.

 

“Tommy?” she rasped.

 

He gave a thumbs-up in front of an alien landscape—bubblegum pink oceans bubbled, and flocks of purple bird-beasts flapped behind him. It was an update video from Planet Psi 6, like many she’d seen over the years.

 

“Hope Earth gets you—you—you—” Tommy’s voice ground into a robotic monotone before swelling higher, “—gets you ‘uns up here soon. I’ll be waiting for ya. Living the dream!”

 

 His face flickered into lines and dots, then froze in place.

 

“BlastYou puts the finishing touches on these for us.” Garuth shrugged, turning the screen back. “We supply the raw footage, even though playing nice in the cafeteria ia a nightmare.

 

Stella clutched her chest. How? I…so wrong…stupid.

 

Garuth grabbed something from the drawer and stood, filling a clear syringe from a bottle full of red liquid, like what was in her glass. “I wish you would’ve done this the easy way. But I guess you were programmed to fight it.”

 

The door was so far away, and he was obstructing her path. Stella scuttled behind her armchair. “What is that?”

 

Garuth flicked the side of the syringe. The bright red liquid spurted from the tip. “Until we reach your destination, you’ll sleep in your holding pen. Perhaps that will ease the sour flavor.”

 

“Holding pen?”

 

“Beside the lamkas.” He shot his black glare at her. “I’m told you’ve already made their acquaintance.”

 

Stella gripped the top of the chair, looking for another escape. “Why are you doing this?”

 

“Your kind is extremely popular on the Miptune auction block.” He eyed the syringe level. “Buyers travel from everywhere to bid. I supply one human per month and make a fortune.”

 

“Wait, only one? But what about…”

 

With his free hand, Garuth gave the cooler on the desk two small pats. “My business partners have less patience for livestock. Anyway, we’ll intensify the pressure on BlastYou. Soon, they’ll have to increase the number of Travelers.”

 

He closed in on her. She shrank back.

 

“I don’t want to injure you,” he said, his dog teeth bared as approached her chair. “It’s not a good look at the market.”

 

Stella took off for the door, but Garuth seized her arm. Twisting her elbow, she freed herself, but went toppling into the chair. The tumbler shook, spilling more red fluid. Stella lunged for it. With a cry, she threw the drink—glass included—in his face.

 

Garuth hissed, wiping his eyes. A jagged cut lay across his forehead, oozing sky blue blood. He let out a shrill squawk, like two cawing ravens.

 

Caw! Caw!

 

Praying the anatomy drawings were true, Stella kicked as hard as she could between his legs.

 

Caw! He collapsed.

 

Stella yelped and raced for the exit again, but Garuth hooked her ankle, sending her to the floor.

 

 The impact knocked the air from her lungs. She gasped, struggling, and rolled onto her side. Her eyes focused on the syringe that gyrated on the floor next to her.

 

Garuth crawled closer, red liquid dripping down his face.

 

Swiping up the syringe and, with a lack of hesitation that surprised even her, she stabbed it into his neck, pushing the plunger. Then she sprinted from the room.

 

Stella started down the passage, but a door slid aside. She flattened her back to the wall, hiding behind a protruding joint structure. Over her hammering heart came a humming double voice and footsteps.

 

She peeked.

 

Beri, pushing a large, floating tub. The green woman opened the tilt-out door beneath the window and turned the tub over. Clattering echoed as heavy items fell into the hamper.

 

What is she…?

 

Outside the window, two skulls rushed by, then a tangle of bones, some still connected by cartilage. Tommy’s black and gold jacket whisked past, and Charlene’s glasses, red coat and sandals. All fed to the airlock and blackness of space.

 

Stella stifled a scream behind her fist.

 

Beri regarded her gray bodysuit, stained with bloody smears. Gripping the back of her neck, she peeled off the suit and let it fall to the floor. Another identical, pristine garment lay underneath. When she bent to pick up the old material, Stella charged from her hiding place and rammed into her.

 

 The alien walloped the floor and flipped onto her back, green face a twist of confusion.

 

Hands on hips, Stella roared, “What have you done?”

 

The alien grimaced. “Why aren’t you in your pen?” She sat up halfway, and her eyes flicked to Garuth’s office. “That old idiot couldn’t get you under control?”

 

Stella reared her leg back, intending to kick, but Beri dove for her other leg and caught it. Stella hobbled, trying to keep her balance. Leaning into the alien, she swung her free foot into Beri’s ribcage with a crunch.

 

Beri screeched and released her, then folded onto her side, writhing and moaning.

 

As Stella stood over her, her whole body tingled, like taking the alien down had come on an instinct—just like when she stuck the syringe into Garuth’s neck. The actions felt normal. Right.

 

With a shout, Stella kicked Beri in the head, then stomped until she lay still. After snatching her ankle, Stella dragged her toward the wall. At the open hamper door, she dug her fingers into the alien’s armpits and hoisted her up and in.

 

“What—what are you doing?” Beri came to and shrieked. She clawed at Stella’s arms, trying to pry herself out.

 

Stella fought the pain, teeth gritted.

 

“Oit! Garuth! Help!” Beri’s cries morphed into ear-piercing caws and chirps.

 

Stella slammed the hamper door shut. A flash of orange and green whisked past the window, and there was only blackness again.

 

Oit slid into the corridor, blood caking his white mustache and chin. His eyes went huge as they swept from Stella to the orange hairs caught in the seal of the hamper door. Squawking, he barreled toward her, his hands raised like claws.

 

She kicked the silver tub into him and tore down the passage.

 

Where?

 

In the distance, squawks rang behind her.

 

Stella bolted down the ramp to the cargo bay. At the bottom, she paused, checking to her right. The perishables room. And nowhere to hide.

 

Find a weapon! She scanned the rows of pallets, all the way to the back of the space. In the glass-like pen, the lamkas leaped.

 

A few stood on their hind legs, hooves stretched to the glass. Eyes on her. Mouths open, bleating.

 

Stella ran to them and pounded on the glass.

 

The largest lamka raised up, motioned with a hoof at its twitching ear and then to the wall on Stella’s right. It repeated the gesture.

 

She hurried past the empty pen—my pen. Beneath the box with the silver buttons, Stella plucked an earpiece from the hook and shoved it in her ear.

 

“Let us out!” came a throaty female voice.

 

The lamka.

 

“I’m Luff. We’re prisoners of the Draiqans.”

 

Stella inserted the piece all the way into her ear canal. “They killed my friends—they’re after me!”

 

Luff’s eyes widened as the Draiqan voices shrieked and cawed ever closer, pushing shrilly down the ramp.

 

“Open the pen,” Luff said. “The control panel. I’ve seen their code. I’ll guide you—”

 

Stella was already tapping the buttons. Her fingers flew over alien symbols. How do I know? Confused, she paused.

 

“Hurry!” Luff cried.

 

Stella glanced back.

 

Garuth and Oit stopped at the bottom of the ramp, saw her and broke into a run.

 

Gasping, Stella mashed the last buttons in the sequence. The pen flew open. The lamkas stampeded out.

 

Two crowded against her, holding her in place.

 

The other six weaved and galloped for the aliens. The Draiqans stopped, yelled, then turned and ran. Lamkas chased them up the ramp and out of sight.

 

It seemed liked forever passed as Stella quavered, screams and cackles sending chills down her back until the shrill caws died to nothing.

 

The eight lamkas trotted down the ramp and across the cargo bay, their pale, yellow coats grimy with blue Draiqan blood. Green limbs, slick with spittle, dangled from their jaws, like medals they wished for the others to admire.

 

The lamkas who’d penned her rushed forward to meet them. Stella fell to her knees, but two lamkas returned, dropped and huddled beside her, propping her arms up on their warm bodies. She buried her fingers deep in their thick hair and burst into tears.

 

A couple hours later, the remains had been pitched out the airlock, BlastYou’s cameras were shot out, and the cleanup was finished. The fresh scent of shower gel and shampoo clung to Stella’s skin and damp hair as she strode into the control room.

 

She sank into the command chair. Outer space sprawled before her through the giant window. Why me?

 

“Coordinates are set to Planet Tharg,” Luff said from the co-pilot’s seat. The lamka wiggled her black ears, adjusting the translator earpiece that clung there. “Home. We’ll arrive in two days. But are you sure you don’t want us to return you to Earth, Stella?”

 

“Positive.” Stella squeezed Luff’s shaggy foreleg. “I need to keep going.”

 

“I think you’ll enjoy Tharg.”

 

Stella closed her eyes and imagined warm pink sand, salty ocean air and cool lapping waves. “If the beaches are half as nice as you say, I’d love to lounge for a month and soak up the double suns’ rays.” Stella’s chuckle faded. “But I can’t rest. There’s a drive in me now. I don’t know who put it there.”

 

Luff leaned over, nestling her fuzzy head against Stella. “Perhaps it was always in you.”

 

Stella stroked her friend’s silky yellow hair and sighed. “Tell me everything you know about Planet Miptune and those slave auctions.”

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Shaun has been a writer since first grade, when she penned a Snoopy fan fiction complete with her own illustrations. Years later, she either got sucked through a portal or life simply got in the way, as her writing hobby fell by the wayside. Eventually, she rocketed back to Earth with renewed creativity and now enjoys writing Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal novels (and combinations of those). Her stories often skitter along with a touch of horror—after all, some of her characters are aliens, demons and mermaids. She dabbles in drabbles and short stories as well.

Visit Shaun online at: https://authorspaulina.wixsite.com/author

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