The betwixt book one, p.10
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       The Betwixt Book One, p.10

          
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  Chapter 10

  I held onto my gun like it was the only real thing in a vortex of illusion. “What the hell is that?”

  The bottom of the massive rock chamber was strewn with all sorts of equipment, from tall standing lights to digging equipment. It was all in disarray – as if a hurricane had been through. The lack of cleanliness wasn’t what had me itching to pull my trigger.

  In the center of the room was a mound. It was surrounded by the dugout ruins of some kind of building – its dark-gray stone stark against the mottled brown of the cave. At the center of the mound was obviously an alien device. It was a large metal ring that sat hovering about a meter from the ground. I could see the faintly glowing symbols etched around the device even from here.

  It wasn’t the odd artifact that had me forcibly remembering to breathe. It was the thing inside it.

  There was a creature – tall, devoid of light, and horrible – suspended in the ring. It looked – no, felt – like a Twixt. I had that familiar prickle in the pit of my stomach, that shiver of cold that spread across my back.

  The creature was ghastly. Where a Twixt was a shadow between you and reality, this thing was a gouge. It wasn’t completely black but had flesh the color of gray, rotted meat with the occasional fleck of blue-red vein. It was distended – stretched and pulled out of shape like someone had tugged at a human body until the skin had almost torn. It also had a visible form where the Twixt didn’t. I could make out the muscle groups, the tendons – its sinewy strength. It had eyes – sunken, terrifying balls of white.

  I wouldn’t let go of my gun, not for a million teddy bears and the ability to transport Commander Cole directly here to protect me.

  The thing was trapped, I could see that, but it was still moving. It wasn’t thrashing about like a caged animal. It cocked its head and shifted it from side-to-side, watching silently.

  There were people in the room; I could see them in my peripheral vision, though I couldn’t tear my eyes from the creature long enough to look their way fully. It was such a horribly mesmerizing sight. I felt completely transfixed.

  The thing looked my way, the taut skin over its mouth twitching in a violent spasm. Its colorless eyes locked on mine.

  I couldn’t describe the way it made me feel – like spiders exploding all over me, like being drowned in a waterless ocean.

  “Mini.” Od grabbed my arm, trying to lower my gun. “It is contained.”

  I snapped out of it but not without a full-body shudder as if someone had dumped ice-cold water over my head after I’d been in a sauna. “Wh-what?”

  “It is contained.” Od looked back at the thing below us. “For now.”

  I was a good girl; I took my finger off the trigger. But there was no way I was going to stow my gun. That thing was beastly.

  Now Od had broken me from my spell, I could see that the thing was contained and that the people down in the chamber below weren’t running for their lives.

  In fact, the majority of them were looking our way. Two of them were even marching up to us, their footfall shaking up through the metal walkway like mini explosions.

  “Put that gun away,” the woman at the lead snapped. “Now.”

  So much for a polite welcome. I was right – showing up on dig sites uninvited was considered a bother.

  “I said now!” The woman had a voice on her, and it picked up and carried through the room like the blare of a siren.

  It took me another second to realize she was talking to me. I looked over at Crag’tal, who didn’t stow his gun, and decided the most I was going to do was lower mine. Even if the woman sounded like she was about to brutally slay us for disobeying her no-guns policy around the freaking terrifying monster.

  She came into full view at the bottom of the stairs that led up to our small ledge, and she looked mad. She had long, black hair that was streaked with gray. Her face had a vaguely familiar, serious nature to it, and she wore an old-school set of pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a brown leather vest.

  I found myself staring at the single-sided frown she offered us as she neared, heavy boots pounding along the metal. “I said put those guns away. Who the hell are you to come onto my dig site, anyway? I’ve already paid my government fee—”

  “I do apologize, madam.” Od put up a hand and proceeded to bow.

  “Is that a Kroplin?” His expression softened.

  Od nodded, his helmet bobbing around. “I am indeed a Kroplin. You are quite skilled to recognize me through this suit—”

  “Why are you even wearing that?” the woman cut in. She reminded me of someone else who never let people finish their sentences. “We have oxygen filters down here.”

  “Ah.” Od clicked something on his helmet, and soon the thing detached from his suit, and he pulled it off in a neat move, bowing again.

  The woman seemed a lot less confrontational now, and I could see her eyes light up as she looked at Od like a scientist cataloging the rare and wonderful.

  I hadn’t even noticed they weren’t wearing suits. Or, in the presence of that thing down there, I’d forgotten I’d been wearing my own.

  Crag’tal removed his Oxy Helmet and stowed it under one arm, gun still held in the other hand.

  That left me. I didn’t want to take mine off. It felt safe and comfortable in here – like I was viewing this alien world through a screen rather than in real life. Plus, it felt like it offered the barest hint of protection from that creature down there.

  The man who’d walked up with the woman looked young. I would bet from the floppy hair and dated clothes that he was definitely an archaeologist or some kind of scientist. He had a wide-eyed, super keen look about him – the kind of guy who would engage you in a conversation over space dust and keep it animated purely through his own enthusiasm.

  The woman cast a hard glance my way. “Take off your helmet and put that gun away.”

  I didn’t immediately respond. I found myself being pulled between two polar desires – I wanted to be polite and do precisely what the woman in charge was saying, but I also wanted to vault over this railing and shoot that thing down there until it disappeared for good.

  The human part of me won. I sighed heavily and tucked my gun under my arm, unbuckling my helmet with my free hand. I pulled the thing off my head and flicked my long white ponytail free, glad at least to smooth out the kinks in my hair.

  My hand rested halfway down my head as I became aware of the fact I was being stared at. I looked up to see both the woman and unkempt grad gaping my way, eyes bulging. I thought they would throw themselves my way like Od had the first time we’d met.

  “Is there something wrong?” I said quietly but quickly. I felt like I was in trouble, like flicking my hair free of my sweaty helmet had been the absolute worst thing a person could do in an underground dig site, short of murdering the crew and kicking down all their lights.

  “Is that real?” The woman didn’t speak, more gulped out her words like she was as shocked as her ashen face suggested.

  I thought she meant the gun. “Ah, yeah, it’s a gun. Though it was expensive.” I trailed off. They weren’t talking about my guns, were they?

  “Your hair, your eyes – par’kang!” the wavy-haired man looked like he’d won the Central Galactic Lottery. There was no need to swear – par’kang was one of those colony cusses that never made it out into real space. It was the equivalent of saying “Oh dang.” Mercenaries, bounty hunters, freighters, and GAMS never went in for the “Oh dangs,” preferring the more pictorially explicit swear words.

  I tried to cover my hair as best I could with one gloved hand.

  The woman tried to push past Od, but Crag’tal was there like a blast from a gun. She looked up at him like he was nothing more than a slight nuisance. “Get out of my way,” she snapped, not taking her eyes off me.

  Crag’tal didn’t acquiesce.

  “What are you doing here, anyway?” The woman gave up on forcing her way over to me. “This site isn’t open to the public. Especially the armed public.”

  Od stood up as tall as he could manage; I could see his back stretch out proudly. “We are here to offer you assistance, madam.”

  The woman laughed abruptly. “You’re here to volunteer on a dig – a Kroplin, a Crag and a…” she trailed off.

  “We are not here to volunteer for this dig site; though I am handy in small spaces and have an exquisite eye for detail—”

  “Why are you here?” This woman wasn’t about to wait for Od to finish his usual ramble. “How did you find out about this dig? It’s privately funded—”

  “Through the Rain Man, madam.”

  I watched the woman’s face completely shift from annoyed to neutral. She flicked her head toward the man with her. “Go and check on the stability of the diggers, Edward.”

  “Ah,” Edward looked thrown, “Okay.” He walked back down the metal gangway but not before giving me the kind of look you might save for the greatest work of beauty in the galaxy.

  It made my arms itch.

  “I have an office of sorts.” The woman led us down the gangway and onto the rough stone floor of the chamber. She marched along the wall until she came to an alcove that had enough room for a bed and a desk. The only thing separating it from the view of the creature was a curtain made of ripped-up space tarp hung over a metal beam. The stuff rustled as she pushed past it.

  I cast one last glance at the monster before the material obscured it from view. It was staring at me. Wherever I went, its eyes followed. I could bet that its eyes were still trained my way, even behind this cheap curtain.

  “I’m sorry.” The woman leaned against a free section of wall, arms crossed. “I didn’t realize, I wouldn’t have made a scene otherwise.” She kept flicking her gaze my way.

  “It was not for you to know; we were unannounced.”

  “Why did he send you?” she asked, voice still quick but without the harsh snap from before.

  “He didn’t send us per se. I requested information from him, and he indicated—”

  “What do you want with this dig site? Why did you bring her here?” She nodded my way. “How the hell did you find her?”

  Now my whole body was itchy and hot. I didn’t like attention like this, not at all.

  “Fortune and providence—” Od began, opening his hands out like a prophet in mid-preach.

  “She can’t stay,” the woman snapped. “I’ve seen it watching her already. I don’t want to lose containment and…” she drifted off.

  “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” I found my voice, and when I did, it was quiet, but at least it was there.

  The woman looked vaguely amused, one peaked eyebrow shifting slightly. “You don’t know?”

  “No. I mean, I know why I’m here, but—”

  “Do you?” She was still leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

  I felt like a child playing that stupid Earth game Piggy in the Middle. Once again, no one was telling me anything. It was annoying the heck out of me, though not nearly as much as it should. Nearly all my attention was still trained behind me, feeling that thing in the room outside.

  “You’re running on instinct, kid – I can see that. Which is the best thing you can do right now. You can’t stay here, and I think you know why.”

  I didn’t even bother replying, just let my gaze drift over my shoulder to the curtain behind me. That thing – I knew my presence was having an effect on it. Like the sun heating up a chunk of ice to reveal the creature frozen within – I was thawing it from some long, dark slumber.

  “What is it?” I asked, voice no more than a hush.

  “That’s something we dug up.” She shifted her arms, letting them swing by her sides and tap the stone wall behind her. “And boy is it a find.”

  “Yes, but—” I began to interrupt. I wanted to get out of here, and pronto. It was obvious there were no weapons to be found, just something that looked like it needed a good seeing to by a weapon. I had a lot of questions to ask, but I would hold onto them until we reached somewhere safe. But there was one thing I had to know before I could go into that chamber again – what in the universe was that creature? It felt like a Twixt, but people could see it, and it looked like something out of a drug-fueled nightmare.

  “You want to know what it is – straight answer? You’re like my son; he always wants me to get to the point, just like his father. Basically, it’s what happens when Twixts stay in our dimension too long.”

  “So it’s a Twixt.” I managed to wrench my gaze away from the curtains.

  She let out another sharp laugh. “How much do you know, rookie? Yeah, it’s a Twixt, but it’s out of the In-Between. They stay in our dimension too long and time takes its toll – literally. It makes them visible to the ordinary eye,” she nodded my way, “But no less dangerous. And as you can see from the thing out there, they don’t become any less murderous. If that containment ring failed, we could say goodbye to our blood and bones quicker than a pound of meat through a grinder.”

  I grimaced.

  “That’s what we think happened in the last In-Between War – the Central races tried to protract the fight long enough that the Twixts turned into our friend out there. At least that way they could see them. It never worked – wave after wave of Twixt soon turned that plan to ash. Plus, that creature makes up for invisibility with power. It’s twice as large as a Twixt, as far as we can tell.” She looked at me, obviously waiting for confirmation. “It’s not as if we’ve ever seen one.”

  I chose to remain silent; I didn’t know how much I was supposed to be giving away. Od had told me not to trust anyone who hadn’t earned it – and I hardly knew this woman. She hadn’t saved me from space scum or retrieved my weapon from a GAM Cruiser. So far she’d just befuddled me with information and loads of questions.

  “It might make for a big target,” she continued, obviously realizing I wasn’t about to fill her in on the direct dimensions, pardon the pun, of a Twixt. “It’s faster, meaner, and looks like something out of a hardcore holohorror. If it weren’t for your people, those things would be all over the galaxy now. I don’t think the Twixt would be good neighbors – all galactic races would be wiped out forever.”

  “You’ve answered my question – so shouldn’t we get out of here now?” I almost sounded in control.

  The woman shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think anything will happen soon – as long as you don’t stay too long. You’re like a shot of adrenaline to those guys – something in them remembers something in you.”

  I swallowed but tried to make it as quiet as possible. “How do you know so much about everything? About the Twixts, about me?”

  The woman had moved off to behind her desk and sat heavily in a cheap chair. The move disturbed the old-style 2D photo that sat next to her computer, and it fell off the table.

  I reached down to pick it up, but the woman got there first, returning the photo right back to where it had been.

  “This is what I do – I’m an archaeologist; I dig up the past, and some of the past ain’t pretty.”

  “So who do you work for?” I was surprised to be getting actual answers from someone, even if they were still vague.

  “Myself… and other interested parties.”

  That meant the Rain Man, didn’t it?

  “The work I do isn’t popular with Central. I get my money where I can, because not everyone believes the wild stuff I come up with,” she said with a bitter laugh. “Central think I’m a quack. Even my own family think I’m bonkers. That doesn’t matter – things like the Twixt in there are the only thing I care about. Central are too blind and dumb to remember the checkered past of this galaxy. If they want to stick their heads in the sand on this one, so be it – but I’m not going to sit by and watch them lie, watch them put the Milky Way at risk.”

  Od nodded vehemently along with the woman’s words.

  “What can you do?” I regretted my question the instant the woman’s eyes lit up, focusing on me like a sniper.

  “Not everyone in the galaxy has forgotten.” She nodded toward Od and Crag. “There are plenty of races who were around for the last war. Some of them still care, have kept the belief and knowledge alive. There are underground movements, private collectors, information merchants – you name it. There’s always been a galactic-wide movement, however small, that has been preparing for the next invasion.”

  Going from having no information to being bombarded with it was leaving me reeling. It was all too much at once. A galactic-wide movement preparing for the next invasion? Was that why Od and Crag’tal had become such fast friends? They’d met at the last Twixt Haters meeting? Or did they know the secret handshake or how to correctly pronounce the secret riddle? This was all so much more complex than I could have ever imagined. Things had gone from me being against the Twixt in a galaxy of unbelievers to a Milky Way full of an underground resistance.

  I had to shake my head and keep going. Things were changing on me every day – the ground was shifting underneath my feet like I was standing on the tail of an ice comet. If I kept pushing forward, at least that would be going somewhere. I took a deep breath. “Okay. What do you mean an underground—”

  “It’s not a resistance or anything; it’s not some kind of armed militia ready to come to the rescue when Central fall on their asses. It’s more of a community. We share information, artifacts if we’ve got them. We figured out a long time ago that beating the next invasion was going to depend on us getting our hands on whatever clues there were of the past. Your people aren’t going to be here to pull us out of this one.”

  “Artifacts?” I chanced upon the word like a child finding a bush full of blackberries. Artifacts was precisely the word Od had used in describing our hunt for weapons. “What kind of—”

  “You’re looking for a weapon,” the woman cut in again. “I don’t know if we’ve ever come across any – but I know people who might. The Kroplin was right to bring you here. Well, he would have been if we hadn’t dug up your arch nemesis.”

  “I do apologize. If I had known, I—” Od began.

  “Doesn’t matter. At least she knows what she’s up against.”

  Things were moving faster than a particle in spin. I couldn’t keep up with the changes, and it was making me sick to try.

  “You look overloaded, kid.” The woman nodded at me. “Sorry, but you have to find out about this stuff some time. I can’t believe you exist. I mean, we looked.”

  I recoiled. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the natural thing to do. It felt like there was an ugly realization looming before me like a cobra from the tall grass. “What do you mean you looked?”

  “You don’t know a lot, do you? Where did they find you?”

  “As a server of food and beverages in a space station in the system of—” Od began.

  “I was a waitress,” I cut in. I was usually ashamed of that fact. Now I wore it like a mantle of gold – because being a diner waitress was normal. I needed to remind myself that, despite where this conversation was going, I was normal.

  “A waitress on a space station, huh? The last of The People, the only daughter of Her, working in a diner. Well, forgive us if we left out the cafeteria in our search. Yeah, we looked for you. We have Her last message; we knew she sent you. After the years had passed, almost everyone gave up. When the prodigal daughter didn’t arrive with fanfare and glitter, we thought you’d been lost to the ravages of space. But here you are—”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was much quicker than it usually was, far more like Commander Cole. I was comprehending what the woman was saying but understanding nothing. I had a mother, there was a message, people knew that I was coming – what did it all mean?

  “You need to listen better. Time isn’t a luxury the Twixt are going to give you. This ain’t rocket science, ki—” The woman began but was stopped.

  “Doctor Cole!” someone shouted from outside the room, their voice sounding like a sonic boom as it echoed in the massive chamber outside. “Urgent message from your son.”

  Doctor Cole rolled her eyes and marched over to the curtain, pulling it to. She snapped the com-pad off her assistant, the man with the floppy hair, and walked back into the room, pulling the curtain closed behind her. “This better be good,” she mumbled.

  The Doctor pressed some buttons on the pad before setting it on her desk. “I’d ask you to leave so I can have a little privacy, but I don’t want you,” she pointed at me, “Out there with that thing. So you’ll have to just put up with a mother-son fight.”

  A floating hologram of a man’s head and torso appeared over the pad.

  “Mo—” the figure said before stopping mid-syllable.

  I’d used holocom technology before, and it was neat. The pad allowed a 360-degree view of wherever it rested on – essentially allowing the person who was making the message to have a full view of the room and who they were talking to.

  “Mini? What are you doing there?” the hologram said. Well, Commander Jason Cole said. It was him. Of all the people in the whole galaxy, Jason Cole was this woman’s son.

  My heart skipped enough beats to be classed as terminally malfunctioning.

  “You know this woman?” Doctor Cole snapped at her son. “Figures, my disbelieving son is the one to find—”

  “That doesn’t matter now, mom. Just listen, for once.” Jason was as quick and sharp as he always was, but I could hear the fear in his voice. The Commander wasn’t one to play at drama. “We’ve intercepted a call from the Crag system – that moon you’re on is about to be overrun by Tarian Mercs. You got to get out of there and now.”

  “What?” Doctor Cole blustered. “Why would—”

  “Listen to me for once in your goddamn life. The Crag Government have asked us to assist – this isn’t a joke, ma. You’ve got a half hour, if that, to get the hell off that moon. We don’t know what they want, but those Tarians aren’t going to leave a soul alive until they find it.”

  Tarian Mercenaries were infamous. They were the types of devils bounty hunters and space pirates used to scare each other on dark nights. They were the most ruthless, dangerous, vicious things in the galaxy – short of the Twixts, that was. Unlike the Twixts, the Tarians made their mischief for the love of money and plied their trade wherever the Central Credits would flow. I’d never met one, and that was why I was still alive.

  “Well, that’s a shame, Jason, because I’m not leaving.” Doctor Cole straightened her shoulders.

  Jason hit the table wherever he was beaming his message from and swore under his breath. “This isn’t a joke – you need to get out of there! These Tarians are going—”

  “I can’t,” Doctor Cole collected her hands carefully before her, “Because we don’t have any direct transport. It would take well over two hours to get everybody out.”

  Jason was silent, his face expression twisting into a dead kind of surrender. “You better hole yourself up and prepare for a fight. I’m coming, but I can’t promise I’ll get there in time.”

 
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