The betwixt book one, p.6
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       The Betwixt Book One, p.6

          
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  Chapter 6

  The door opened with a quick, mechanical swish. I was moving well before the GAMs issued in. My head was twisted their way while I ran to Od, grabbed him up under one arm, and threw myself into a roll behind one of the pulsating cores. If I had watched someone do this from afar, I would have been amazed at their agility and timing. Except I wasn’t watching this; I was doing it. In a flouncy skirt, no less.

  I stopped short of the core and tucked my back against it until Od and I were pressed so close to the faintly hot tech-glass that I felt like a burger under the grill.

  I saw flashes of light from the door – red and blue lasers slicing around the room in quick flicks. They were attached to the ends of guns, I reasoned, guns that were likely headed this way.

  So this was the Contamination Unit come to clean up Main Engineering of undesired entities. Problem was, I fit that category now. I had stowed aboard their ship and disabled their internal security sensors. That jettisoned me way past the entity category and straight to enemy.

  I had to keep out of sight, play this carefully, and not get shot.

  I listened.

  The GAMs didn’t speak. Either they didn’t have much to say, or they’d switched to silent coms. Which meant I wasn’t going to pick up any helpful hints like “Shoot the thing in the blue skirt,” or “Let’s go and check behind that core over there, in case someone has left us a present.”

  I took a deep, silent breath. Strangely enough, the heat of the core behind me was reassuring. That was the thing about space – life could only survive where there was heat. It was always good to know you weren’t dead yet.

  I slowly released Od from my grip – my ears so focused on the soft, barely perceptible sounds of the GAMs entering the room that the guy could have thrown on a Hawaiian shirt and played the banjo, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

  A flicker of fear, of overwhelming unease, threatened to overcome me as I waited. I managed to bite it down. I had something in me, I told myself over and over again – that other side, that alien side. She knew what to do; it was in my blood. That’s what Od had said. Part of me was meant for this, made for it. I just had to get out of her way.

  My hearing was starting to go into overdrive. I could pick up the creak of the GAMs’ armor as they shifted along, even pick up the twist in the fabric of their gloves as their fingers tightened over their triggers.

  They were moving closer – across the room to the cores.

  I slipped my hands underneath my skirt and pulled out my pistols as slowly and silently as I could manage. Every ruffle of my skirt, every creak of my muscles, felt like a 1000-decibel alarm advertising my position better than a massive neon arrow.

  I had my guns in my hands, my fingers stretching back and forth in front of the triggers before I secured them into the loops.

  I had time for a desperate, closed-eyed prayer. Then I waited.

  There were several moments of silence before I heard a click that might as well have been the loudest explosion in the history of the universe.

  “Move to open coms,” someone said loud and clear. “There’s too much interference coming off that core.”

  I bit my lip and shook my head. It was him. I wanted to slap myself in the head. It was Commander Jason Cole. Weren’t there any other GAMs on this rotten ship that could have led this detail?

  This was going to make things complicated.

  “Start scanning for entities,” Jason whispered. To his credit, his voice was hardly traveling through the room, but for some reason I could pick it up like he had his hand to my ear and was shouting through my skull. “Keep formation.”

  I sucked my lips in and squeezed them so hard it felt like they were grinding under a ton of rock. They could scan for entities, but they wouldn’t pick up the Twixt. They may, however, manage to detect the halfy and the Kroplin hiding behind a reactor core a couple of meters to their left.

  It didn’t matter; they didn’t get that far.

  There was a rumble from behind me – which twisted around and up into a high-pitched spin. It sounded like something about to blow.

  “Cut the core. Cut the core,” he shouted, voice more desperate than I’d ever heard.

  I stood up, leaning into the core behind me, one foot up, both hands raised by my head, pistols at the ready.

  I didn’t know why, but for some reason I didn’t think it was about to blow.

  “It’s not the core – it’s… what the hell is that?” a GAM screamed.

  That was my cue.

  With one arm, I flattened Od into the tech-glass, forcing him down to the ground to keep him well and truly out of the way. With the other arm, I tracked around the core.

  I could feel it. I could definitely feel it.

  It wasn’t so much a presence in my mind than ice-cold spikes slamming through my skin. The Twixt was here.

  I saw the group of GAMs – all six of them. They were by the open core, guns trained on the translucent tech-glass. I could feel the fear and confusion rippling off them like heat from a newborn star.

  They didn’t notice me, but in another moment, I noticed it. There was something in the core – something past the glass in the center of the black, electric storm. It was a shape like a screaming, gaping jaw.

  It was a Twixt. For some reason, the GAMs could see it too. Or maybe not, maybe what they could see was the hole in the energy as the Twixt fed on it.

  I didn’t have time to theorize, because that thing, it felt me, and it started to move. It flicked its head to the side like a curious owl then pushed itself right through the glass as if it were nothing more than a wisp of inconvenient fog.

  The GAMs still hadn’t turned; they were too transfixed by the shape in the glass that was now dissipating. They had no idea that the Twixt was barely a half meter from them, head twisting their way.

  It was horrible to watch – to feel the dread that the soldiers should be feeling at the monster in their midst. They had no chance to help themselves.

  I trained both guns toward it and pulled the triggers, face squeezing tight in anticipation.

  … Nothing happened. Well, nothing but the Twixt snapping its non-distinct head my way and letting out a horrifying scream that only I could hear.

  The breath clogged in my throat, my body freezing on the spot. The guns wouldn’t work. I….

  Before the thing launched itself across the room toward me, something happened. One of the GAMs backed off with a quick, sharp move and brought his gun up, shooting before I could even blink. He shot directly at the Twixt.

  It broke the chains that were holding me in place, and I shifted automatically to the cover of a core.

  “There’s something there,” Jason screamed. “Watch the energy trail.”

  He kept shooting, the sound of blasts ricocheting around the room. He was right, I noted as I peered around the corner of the core. The Twixt was leaving a black energy trail as it moved – residue from the core it had feasted upon moments before. But it was dissipating, and fast.

  I had to help, I had to get these guns going before—

  “Get out of its way,” Jason screamed. “Franks get out of the—”

  I heard a crunch as something was flung against a wall. That something was Franks, I thought as I desperately pawed at my guns, trying to get them to work.

  “Move, go for cover!” Jason screamed again.

  The GAMs’ fire was becoming more erratic, like the dying buzzes of a fly.

  I pulled the triggers, my fingers digging into them like a man scrambling at a ledge as he slipped off a cliff.

  The Twixt was ducking and weaving, avoiding most of the fire with ease. The GAMs were concentrating their barrages on the energy trail itself, mistaking it for the creature when the Twixt was before it.

  I didn’t know what to do – neither my human, nor alien side could magically make these guns work.

  “Where did it g-?” one GAM screamed, but his voice was cut off by another terrible crunch.

  I—

  I had to do something. Anything.

  I ran from behind the core. I was behind the GAMs, who were still facing the Twixt, though they had no idea where it was. I loosened my finger from the trigger of one of my pistols, and I threw it right at the Twixt’s head. It sailed through the air and collected the thing right on the top of its non-substantial skull – causing a spark of light in a room already saturated by blasts.

  The Twixt screamed, zeroing in on me, the waitress, in a room full of trained soldiers.

  It ran for me, pushing down on its haunches and flitting straight past the still confused GAMs.

  I’d been running toward it but changed direction faster than the Commander had changed his mind about me. I skidded to a halt, falling down onto one hand but pushing myself up immediately and into a dash for one of the corridors that led away from the engine cores.

  I made it into the corridor, skidding up against a wall but pushing on, always pushing on. If the Twixt was following me, it would stop decimating the GAMs. They could have a chance to regroup, to get the hell out of here and maybe come away from this thing still alive.

  I would a find a way.

  I tried to think as I ran, tried to think of any possible way to make my remaining gun work. Was there some kind of safety latch? Maybe there was a code or something you had to enter somewhere. Ah!! I didn’t know anything about guns! Why had I been so stupid?

  The burning frustration and guilt over not being able to do a damn thing while GAMs had been slammed against walls like curtains carelessly fluttering in the wind was making me seize up. I found myself squeezing the trigger, my hand trying to form the tightest of fists.

  After several seconds, the gun began to whir. I almost dropped it in surprise, my steps faltering to the point where the Twixt behind me made a failed lunge for one of my arms.

  I pulled up in time, and I brought the gun up to stare at it, my finger still fixed around the trigger.

  A light was collecting in the barrel – with this blue glow filling up along the side of the grip. It reached the end, and a voice said from the gun itself, “You have now successfully loaded your Tech Industries firearm. Thank you for buying Tech Industries.”

  My jaw literally fell open, but I didn’t hang around to scratch my head in surprise. That was how you loaded it? Holding your finger on the trigger for several seconds? Why had no one bothered to tell me that?!

  I ducked to the side – twisting and jumping in a long dive roll that brought me underneath the Twixt’s belly as it lunged for me. I squeezed the trigger, and a blast shot out of the barrel with the most cherished bang I’d ever heard.

  It slammed into the Twixt, sending a spark of light shooting over me.

  It didn’t kill it, nowhere near. The Twixt, once again showing that the laws of physics were a guideline it didn’t much care to follow, shifted direction in midair and came right at me.

  I swung with the butt of the gun, too close to get off a round. The thing ducked and under my arm, getting its tail around my back and flicking into it. It felt like I was being whipped by a cable tied to a cruiser traveling at light speed.

  The force of it propelled me straight into the opposite wall. Before my body could impact with what would have been fatal force, I twisted until my legs hit it, flat feet first. I pushed and used the purchase to flip up and over the Twixt.

  Once again, if I hadn’t been in the midst of the battle for my life, and if I’d been an observer watching my antics – I would have been thrilled to see such an agile move. Mini, the waitress, had never done a somersault in her life, but now I had the moves of Hipop the monkey cat.

  I tracked backward, shooting round after round at the Twixt, each one hitting home with a snap of light.

  It was starting to slow down, the sparks becoming large, brighter, and lingering for longer along its pitch-black form.

  In one last-ditch effort, it twisted toward me, body seemingly flicking from side-to-side as if it were an old Earth metronome keeping beat. I couldn’t follow it in time for my shots to come true. When it was almost upon me, I dropped to the ground and kicked out with my leg.

  It tipped backward, and I fired one more round directly at it.

  The spark engulfed the thing, ending it all.

  ….

  The battle was over, but it took me a full twenty seconds before I dropped my gun and opened my mouth to breathe again.

  I sucked in each desperate but relieved breath like a fish thrown back into water before it had suffocated in the open air.

  I shook all over, no longer able to keep the human side of me from being overwhelmed.

  I wanted to close my eyes and cover my hands over my ears. It was all too much.

  I wasn’t going to get that chance. As I’d started to accept it was all over, the sound of people walking my way cut through my tremors.

  The GAMs, Jason – I had to get out of here. Od was right – this was not the time to see if the GAMs could trust me. It certainly wasn’t the time to reveal my double life to Jason – not after this morning.

  I stumbled off down the hallway. I could get back into the service duct and crawl to freedom. What about Od? I couldn’t go back for him with the GAMs still in the main room….

  He would make his own way out; he was Od. Even if he didn’t, there wasn’t much I could do for him now. Fighting Twixts I could manage, but I wasn’t about to engage Jason in a gunfight. I couldn’t shoot humans or aliens – I knew that for sure. Twixts were one thing, people were another.

  I hesitated. I couldn’t leave him behind, could I?

  That’s when the vent overhead opened, and Od popped his crimson head out. “This way!” he whispered excitedly. “It is time to leave this place.”

  I broke into a grin. It was tired and manic from the leftover adrenaline from my fight – but it was there.

  I stowed my gun in its holster and jumped for the vent opening, pulling myself up and fixing the vent in place just as the GAMs rounded the corner.

  Od took a moment to nod solemnly at me before he led the way back through the tunnels.

  In all my years of waitressing, I had never received a nod like that. I’d received mumbled thank you’s, sometimes tips, even the occasional genuine smile. No one had ever bowed their head at me; no one had ever been that appreciative of anything I had ever done.

  I smiled as we crawled along. Perhaps I could do this? Perhaps I could do what Od was telling me I had to?

  My newfound pride didn’t last. It didn’t take me long to remember my other gun. I had left it in the center of Main Engineering. The gun was a registered, single use, licensed firearm. I didn’t need to have the tech expertise of Od to realize that meant its user could be tracked.

  I might as well have left a holophoto of myself holding a sign that read “Mini was here.”

  By the time we made it back to my quarters, I was frantic.

  “They have my gun!” I kept repeating to Od as I paced the room. “They’re going to get here any minute to drag me away. We have to get out!”

  Thus far, Od had ignored me. “This is not ideal,” he piped up. “But it is not the end of the galaxy.” He chuckled lightly. “Though I suppose if you were to be put in prison and would be unable to fulfill your destiny in repelling the Twixt invasion, that would be the end of the galaxy.”

  I didn’t join in with a laugh. “This is serious – they’ll be here any minute.”

  “I do not think so. It will take them some time to track you down from that gun. My estimation is at least two hours to process the Identity request.”

  “Two hours? How is this any better? How can you be so unaffected by this? The GAMs are going to be here by teatime to throw us in jail. We have to get out.”

  “Calm yourself, Mini. I may be able to slow down the processing of their request—”

  “What are you going to do? Sneak back on the ship and steal the gun from Commander Cole’s hands?”

  “This would be unlikely to work. Nor is Commander Cole likely to be carrying your weapon.”

  I threw my hands up and stared at the ceiling. “So?”

  “So your suggestion that I should covertly enter the GAM Cruiser to retrieve your weapon from Commander Cole’s hands does not reflect a possible strategy. Unless of course we were to give the Commander your remaining pistol, ask him to hold it – and thus take up the opportunity to steal it from him.”

  I looked around for something to throw at Od’s head. “You aren’t helping.”

  “No, because I cannot solve this problem on my own.”

  “Tell me what to do.”

  “I do not believe you can, either. No, I think it is time to see if we can make, and trust, an ally.”

  My frustration slowed, but I was still whirring with anger. “What? You said we couldn’t trust—”

  “In an ideal galaxy, we would not have to. But an ideal galaxy would not have Twixts or income tax.”

  “Get on with it,” I snapped. Od, for all his skills, was perhaps the only being in the universe who could annoy me this much.

  “Crag’tal has helped us once. Why not see if he can do it again?” Od stood straight and placed his hands behind his back as if he were proudly showing off his wonderful idea.

  I shifted my eyes to the side before rolling them. “Why would Crag’tal help us? How on Earth would we ask? Do you mind illegally entering a GAM Cruiser and stealing a gun from their evidence locker? You’re insane if you think—”

  “Oh no, I do not think that is how we should phrase it. But I think it is definitely time to go and find him.”

  I bit my lips, trying to use the pain to block out my overwhelming urge to kick Od. “This is stupid—”

  “You have trusted me this far, and thus far you are still alive. I suggest you extrapolate from this that you can trust me further. Now, I believe Crag’tal would be eating about now?”

  I sighed so heavily it sounded more like a dying groan. Crags had a strict biorhythm. They ate at a certain time of day, or they didn’t eat at all. It was another one of the oddities of the universe.

  Despite my better judgment, I soon found myself heading through the doors of Marty’s Space Diner. I no longer cared if I was spotted with Od and practically stalked along by his side. I was suffering from a mix of anger and fear at the certainty that every GAM was about to train their pistols on me and light up the proverbial sky.

  Sure enough, we found Crag’tal sitting alone at a table near a group of drinking GAMs. I felt like throwing up as we neared them – my human side didn’t want to go to prison.

  Crag’tal looked up at us as we neared. He didn’t look unhappy – well, for a Crag.

  “Human.” He ripped a chunk out of his meat and gobbled it down as sloppily as only a Crag could. “Small One.”

  I took this to be the Crag equivalent of “Hello, please sit down.” I pulled up a chair and sat quickly. Which is something I would never have done before. Sitting down with a Crag uninvited would have been up there on my list of things not to do if you wanted to live until bedtime.

  “I—” I began, my voice getting stuck like a bad audio file.

  “We have a request of you, Crag’tal.” Od didn’t bother to sit, just walked straight up to Crag’tal’s massive elbow and reached a hand up to it.

  I waited for Crag’tal to lean down and flick Od away like a human might squish an annoying bug.

  He didn’t. He stopped eating.

  “You have helped us once,” Od nodded, “But we need your help again. The galaxy is at risk – or it will be if you fail to assist us in this matter.”

  I flinched. It sounded so corny. Okay, so it was real – but to a person who didn’t know that the Milky Way was slowly being overrun by its most ancient and powerful enemy, it sounded like a hologame tag line.

  “There is a terrible creature that haunts this galaxy,” Od continued.

  I realized with a full blink that the crimson monk planned on telling Crag’tal everything. I’d hoped he’d try to buy the Crag’s assistance – Eluvian Platonium ore would be fairly persuasive. But no, he was being upfront about our insane situation.

  “Denizens of the middle, they have threatened our existence before. We have repelled them in the great wars of the in-between. But they are back, and—”

  Crag’tal, to my surprise, didn’t look ready to laugh his massive head off. “Twixts,” he said, voice lower than an earthquake.

  Od nodded. “Yes, yes. I knew your race was old enough to remember.”

  “They’re on the station.” Crag’tal pushed his food away. “Some Crags don’t forget.”

  “No. Nor do Kroplins.”

  “Humans are fools.” Crag looked at me with his pinprick eyes, and I wasn’t sure if I qualified as a human in that gaze. “Young—”

  “Yes, too young to remember.”

  “On the station,” Crag’tal’s voice was getting steadily angrier, and I hoped it was passion at the stupidity of humans, rather than the growing need to hit someone. “Crag’tal can feel it. Crag’tal not stupid. Ghost ship, GAM Cruiser – next: station.”

  Od nodded again, his hand still on Crag’tal’s elbow. It was the oddest, gentlest of moves. Like a rabbit sitting on a tiger’s head – it defied belief and yet compelled you at the same time.

  Crag’tal turned and looked at me. I felt like I was being scanned by the most sophisticated computer in the system. I didn’t move a muscle.

  “Different,” he nodded at me. “Not full human.”

  I nodded my head, and it creaked with stiffness. It was hardly a secret that I wasn’t pure human.

  “Crag’tal likes you. Not stupid.”

  I smiled. I had never had a Crag as a friend before.

  “Half not human,” Crag’tal continued, “Half old. Crag’tal knows, can feel. Old race, ancient race.”

  Od nodded excitedly, almost jumping up and down with happiness. I looked at Crag’tal, my lips slightly parted. There was something in the way he’d said ancient.

  “Long dead,” he added after a pause, “Long dead. All long dead.”

  I shivered and stretched back in my chair. What? My people… they couldn’t all be dead, not if I was still here. I had to come from somewhere – my mother must have been alive when she gave birth to me. Motherless children of long-lost races don’t appear in a snap of your fingers.

  “Some Crags remember.” The Crag’tal did something strange – he bowed. He almost touched his head right to the tabletop. “Crag’tal will help.”

  I slowly turned my head and gazed down at Od. What had happened? Had I missed something?

  “I knew you would agree. Your race has the memory and the foresight to realize what is coming.”

  “What Crag’tal do?”

  “We have a spot of trouble.”

  “Crag’tal will shoot spot.”

  I listened as Od filled Crag’tal in on the details, but my mind wasn’t all there. I was from a long dead race, if Crag’tal was to be believed. An ancient, ancient race.

  That was a problem.

  I don’t think I’d ever believed Od when he’d said this coming war would be mine alone to thwart. I had always thought there would be others out there like me. Whatever race I was – I always thought there would be more of them out there, more help to call on.

  But how could there be more if they were all long dead? How, how in the name of the galaxy, was I here, if one-half of me shouldn’t exist at all?

  No, he had to be wrong. There had to be others somewhere in this galaxy. There had to be….

 
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