First Awakenings - S.E. Smith - ebook

Lieutenant Commander Ashton “Ash” Haze has always embraced two things in his life: adventure and women, but when he awakens on an alien planet, there’s no time for anything other than survival – or so he thinks. Kella Ta’Qui is a Turbinta – a guild that discards their genetic identities in favor of what they train to become: assassins. Her first mission is to find and kill whatever was inside the unusual capsule that landed on Tesla Terra, but predator becomes prey when she is wounded by her target. Dazed and confused, she stumbles into a group who plan to sell her to the highest bidder – until a rescuer appears. Can an easy-going Navy pilot and an alien assassin work together to reach the location of one of the other capsules on the cutthroat Turbintan planet, or will Ash find himself served up to the Legion for the highest number of credits? The war has begun with the first awakening of the resistance – and Ash is right in the middle of it. Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of adventure and intrigue. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid landscapes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 198 (6x9) pages, 65,377 words

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First Awakenings

Project Gliese 581g Book 2

S.E. Smith





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27


Sample of Survivor Skills

Additional Books and Information

About the Author


I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Christel, Sally, Jolanda, Lisa, Laurelle, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Science Fiction Romance

First Awakenings: Project Gliese Book 2

Copyright © 2017 by S.E. Smith

First E-Book\print Published March 2017

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, or organizations are strictly coincidental and not intended by the author.

Summary: A Navy Commander on an exploratory mission into space wakes on an alien world and must accept help from the assassin sent to kill the survivors of the Gliese 581 while being thrust into an intergalactic Civil War.

ISBN (paperback) 978-1-942562-73-3

ISBN (eBook) 978-1-942562-74-0

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Science Fiction Romance – Fiction. 2. Space Opera – Fiction. 3. Action/Adventure – Fiction. 4. Suspense – Fiction. 5. Romance – Fiction.}


Lieutenant Commander Ashton “Ash” Haze has always embraced two things in his life: adventure and women, but when he awakens on an alien planet, there’s no time for anything other than survival – or so he thinks.

Kella Ta’Qui is a Turbinta – a guild that discards their genetic identities in favor of what they train to become: assassins. Her first mission is to find and kill whatever was inside the unusual capsule that landed on Tesla Terra, but predator becomes prey when she is wounded by her target. Dazed and confused, she stumbles into a group who plan to sell her to the highest bidder – until a rescuer appears.

Can an easy-going Navy pilot and an alien assassin work together to reach the location of one of the other capsules on the cutthroat Turbintan planet, or will Ash find himself served up to the Legion for the highest number of credits? Whatever happens, the war has begun with the first awakening of the resistance – and Ash is right in the middle of it.


“Warning… Oxygen level is currently at two percent,” a soft, feminine voice announced.

“Speak to me, baby,” Ash said in a sexy murmur, his eyes closed and his mind preoccupied with an amazing dream. He was hearing his current lady love’s voice while they were entwined on a beach in Hawaii.

“Commander Haze, oxygen levels are critically low. External environmental readings show atmospheric conditions suitable for human life. I hope they are, otherwise you are toast. Please prepare for capsule opening in one minute… fifty-nine seconds… fifty-eight seconds… fifty-seven seconds….”

Ashton Haze’s eyes popped open. His breathing sped up, loud in the claustrophobic space. He struggled to control it. A cold, clammy sweat coated his dark mocha skin and his left temple ached. Of course a damn good dream like that would turn into a nightmare like this. Almost worse than the words ‘I do’ and ‘I’m pregnant’! …Well… yeah, not quite as bad as that.

The continuing countdown had him frantically searching both his foggy brain and the pod for some way to halt the capsule from opening. He was dead either way, because unless he had miraculously returned to Earth, there was no way the sarcastic nerd from MIT, Erin Wise’s, calculations could be right. He knew everyone had to die sometime, it was just being ejected into space was not the way he would have chosen to go.

“Shit! I’ll take ‘I do’ or ‘I’m… preg…’ – aw hell, just give me a way to stop the top from opening, Erin,” Ash muttered, running his hands along the inside of the capsule. “Think, Haze!! Where in the hell is the control panel switch?”

“Oxygen level is currently at point five. This is Erin Wise from your MIT experiment team. It’s been a pleasure working with you on Project Gliese 581. Aloha, the top is about to open,” Erin’s voice cheerfully quipped.

“No! Cancel! Stop! Don’t pop the top,” Ash ordered, trying to think of a vocal command that would stop his impending death.

His hands shot up, abandoning his attempt to activate the control panel. His fingers splayed across the clear glass of the escape capsule as if attempting to hold it in place. All he could see beyond his hands was an inky blackness dotted with stars.

Ash drew in the last deep breath of air in the capsule. He desperately held onto the life-giving mixture inside his lungs. He wanted to prolong every nano-second of his life. The sound of the locks disengaging along the sides of the capsule echoed around him, sending an uncontrollable shudder through him as if the devil was running his bony fingers across a chalkboard. A second later, the top popped open and rose. Frigid air poured into the climate controlled capsule, wrapping its icy fingers around him. His eyes bulged as he fought the need to release the breath he was holding and draw in more.

Ash’s hands reached up and released the straps holding him down. If he was going to die, he would damn well enjoy the feeling of floating weightless in outer space while he did so. In all honesty, he was surprised that his blood had not already frozen in his veins and that his lungs had not ruptured.

Pulling up into a sitting position, Ash released his death grip on the edges of the capsule… then frowned. He wasn’t floating. It was freezing, but… he experienced worse while skiing in Colorado.

The overly loud sound of his breathing echoed around him. The stream of warm air he exhaled formed a long vapor trail in the cold air around him. Ash drew in a tentative breath, and was surprised at the clean, freshness of it. He shook his head in amazement.

“I’ll be damned! Thank you, MIT and NASA! Erin, my beautiful college nerd, you were right! I swear if you were here now, I’d kiss you,” Ash choked out on a laugh.

He blinked and took a long, assessing look around him. The capsule had landed in a desert about a mile or so from a mountain range. The landscape looked like part of Arizona or West Texas. A shiver ran through him when a stiff breeze swept across the capsule.

“How the hell did I get back to Earth? I didn’t think these things could last that long,” he muttered, twisting to gaze around the other side.

He raised a hand to touch the lump on his temple. It was still there and very tender. His fingers grazed the edge of a long, thin cut. There was no way he could have been unconscious for over a year. These things weren’t designed to function more than a few weeks, if that long. He lifted his gaze to the sky again, and froze. As he drew in a deep, shuddering breath, his stomach clenched in dismay. There were two moons.

“Aw shit, so much for Texas,” he muttered, running a trembling hand down his face.

An hour later, Ash folded the rest of the parachute into the capsule. It was too bulky and heavy for him to carry. He stripped everything else of use from the inside of the capsule.

“First aid kit, thermal blanket, extra coverall, emergency rations, water…,” Ash murmured as he did an inventory.

He carefully packed each item into his lightweight backpack, then pulled a large knife from its nylon sheath, unfolded it, and cut off a two-by-two meter section of the parachute. After refolding the knife, he slid it back into the sheath at his waist and wrapped the section of material around his head, covering his mouth and nose so only his eyes were visible. Almost immediately, he felt some relief from the biting cold.

Ash then grabbed the top of the capsule and pulled it shut. For several long minutes, he stood looking out over the desert. He turned in a slow circle, trying to get a bearing on his location. He was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he was on an alien planet.

“I feel like I need to be skipping along a yellow brick road singing ‘I’m off to see the wizard’,” he said with a grimace as he focused on the range of mountains in the distance. “I sure hope to hell the natives are friendly.”

Kella Ta’Qui slid her blade along the thick skin of the guard’s neck. She released the limp body and stepped back into the shadows, scanning the area to make sure there were no more surprises. The guard must have been patrolling the outer perimeter. He had been further than she expected from the tower and hidden from view among the rocks.

They had startled each other when she stepped around the outcropping where he had taken refuge from the rain. She had recovered faster, kicking the laser rifle out of his hands, but he had countered with a stab to her side. The fight had been short but vicious.

Blood dripped from the wound in her side. Kella slid her fingers into the small pouch on the belt around her waist and pulled out a medicated patch. She pressed the cloth to her side. Heat flared against her skin, drawing a soft hiss from her. Activated by her blood, the chemical in the cloth cauterized the torn flesh and temporarily stopped the bleeding. She would have to wait until she returned to her ship to do a more permanent treatment.

She bent and stripped the uniform off the guard’s body. The uniform was too big, but by slipping it over her clothing it helped her look bulkier. She fastened her own belt under the one she had taken from the guard to keep the clothing in place. Next, she pulled the guard’s helmet off, slid it over her head, and adjusted the view inside. After checking to make sure her black hair was hidden inside the helmet, she picked up the laser rifle lying at her feet and checked to make sure it was charged and working properly.

Once she was satisfied the uniform would adequately conceal her identity, Kella activated the computer inside the helmet. A quick scan gave her the information she desired. She turned her attention to her next target. The guard was standing on the bridge several meters above her current position.

She used the crevices and large boulders in the rocky incline to conceal her presence. She turned her head in slow, measured movements. The sensors in the helmet scanned the area. She paused when she saw a series of red security beams crisscross the front entrance of the tower above. She would deal with them once she cleared the two guards standing on either side of the beams.

Kella climbed up the last stretch of rocks, using the bad weather and darkness to help conceal her presence in the otherwise open area. Sprinting, she crossed the uneven ground and used the bridge to conceal her from the guards above. She knelt and prepared for the next part of her mission. Slipping on a pair of magnetic hand grips from her belt, she adjusted them before she activated the power. She stood up and lifted her arms over her head. The magnetic fields reacted to the electrical charge in the grips and her body rose off the ground as her hands were pulled to the underside of the bridge.

Swinging from one hand to the other, Kella moved under the line of soldiers patrolling the bridge. She would never have made it unnoticed through all of them without the magnetic grips. In the end, she would only need to make it through the security grid near the entrance. At least, that was what she thought until she saw the large conduit where the electrical and water lines entered the tower. It would be a tight fit, but it would get her inside.

Her arms felt like lead by the time she reached the end of the bridge. Kella paused, staring up through the metal slats as a dozen soldiers walked in formation out of the tower. Once they passed, she took advantage of the noise from their boots stomping on the metal slats and the closing of the doors to release the magnetic grips and drop down onto one of the large pipes. She bent forward, barely catching herself when she slid on the damp, curved surface. Her gaze flickered to the side. The tower complex was positioned hundreds of kilometers above the rocky surface of the planet. If she fell, there would be nothing to stop her descent.

Kella pushed up, ignoring everything around her, then crossed the short stretch of pipe to the opening. She climbed inside and began crawling. Her gaze flickered to the different command functions inside the helmet. She narrowed in on the night vision mode, activated it before she switched to the schematic of the tower downloaded into the helmet.

Reaching the end of the crawl space, she slid down behind a cluster of storage barrels. Her eyes narrowed when she saw someone move in the shadows on the other side of the open area beyond the barrels. Her lips tightened before she forced her body to relax. The sound of an alarm alerted her to the fact that security had been informed of a breach.

Kella waited until a large group of soldiers ran by before stepping out. She adjusted the uniform and walked at a brisk pace to the lifts. Stepping inside, she turned, holding her weapon in front of her. The other assassin started across the open area, heading in the direction she had just vacated. Kella raised the weapon she was holding and fired, striking the man in the side just as the doors to the lift closed.

“Bridge,” she ordered.

The lift quickly ascended the long center support column. Kella checked the weapon before bracing it against her shoulder in preparation for the doors opening. She widened her stance when the lift slowed to a stop. The moment the doors opened, she began firing. Within seconds, the six people inside the bridge were no longer a threat.

She stepped out of the lift, turned her attention to the thick metal doors to her right, and pulled a small disk from her belt. She tossed it at the doors as she stepped to the side. The flashing light sped up before the small chemical pack exploded, coating the doors in a film that super-heated the metal. Kella stepped closer and fired once at the doors. That was all it took for them to explode inward.

Stepping through the smoke, she aimed her weapon at the two individuals inside. The caustic smoke had them coughing into their sleeves. Kella focused on the first male, her finger tightening on the trigger.

“Enough! Stand down, mission complete,” a loud voice ordered.

“Now, assassin,” the voice of her handler ordered.

Frustration and indecision poured through Kella. Her finger trembled on the trigger. With a curse, she lowered her weapon and stepped to the side.

“My mission was to eliminate them,” Kella stated.

“You have achieved your mission,” her handler stated.

Kella shook her head. “They are still alive,” she retorted.

“Yes, Kella, and they will remain that way. Your mission is a success. You are ready.”

Kella turned when she heard the voice of her mentor, Tallei. She reached up and removed her helmet. She knew her eyes were flashing with rage as she glared at the two men.

“They are still alive,” Kella stated in a slow, even tone.

Tallei stared at her. The single black pupil that returned her gaze showed no emotion. Kella barely saw the hand that moved. The two men behind Kella collapsed to the floor, two dark scorch marks marring the center of each man’s chest.

“Your mission is complete,” Tallei stated before lowering her laser pistol. “You have a new assignment waiting for you.”

“When do I leave?” Kella asked.

“Immediately,” Tallei replied. “You will be briefed on the mission after you have departed.”

Kella bowed her head. She started forward, pausing when her mentor didn’t step aside so she could pass. The tall, thin Turbinta pushed back the hood of her charcoal gray cloak to reveal her face. A maze of scars crossed the older woman’s pale green face. Tallei’s left pupil was white, while the right was as dark as a black hole except for the slight dot of red reflected from the overhead lights.

Kella’s smooth, forest green skin and clear, dark brown eyes were a sharp contrast. While she and her mentor were both Turbinta, the name did not refer to their species as much as it did to what they were – assassins. Kella did not know or care what species she was. She had long since accepted that it didn’t matter. She was taken as a child by Tallei to be mentored in the ways of the Turbinta, and that was who she was now.

“Do not fail this mission, Kella,” Tallei said.

Kella heard the warning. She knew that an assassin who could not complete a mission was of little use and a threat to the reputation of all Turbintas. If Kella failed, and survived, Tallei would come after her. Bowing her head in acknowledgement, Kella waited until Tallei stepped to the side.

She returned the way she came, ignoring the soldiers who had returned to their posts. This tower was used for the final training session of the assassins. The soldiers would be sent for reconditioning. Their failure to stop the assassination of the two members at the top of the tower was unacceptable. Each move Kella had made would be reviewed and analyzed. Then, additional measures would be taken to make it more difficult for future students in training.

It wouldn’t matter to Kella. A satisfied smile curved her lips. She succeeded where the others had failed. She lived. Her gaze moved to the body of the man she shot. She didn’t know him. He came from another tribe on Turbinta. If she had not killed him, he would have killed her. It was the way of their kind. They lived by the code of the mission: kill or be killed. There was only safety within your own tribe, and there was no guarantee even there that one might not be killed out of jealousy or fear.

She strode out of the tower, crossed the bridge, and began scaling the side of the cliff back to her ship. It took her almost two treacherous hours due to the pouring rain. The rocks were slippery and minor avalanches forced her to detour several times. After climbing down the last few meters, Kella staggered forward and activated the back platform of her ship. She stumbled up the platform into the cool, dry interior. Pressing her hand against the platform control button, she was thankful it closed all the way, especially since it had a history of sticking.

Only when she was safe did she lean against the door and release her tight hold on the pain piercing her body from the wound in her side. From the amount of blood dampening the outer uniform she not only ripped the wound open again, but it was deeper than she’d realized.

Pressing one hand against her side and the other against the cold metal of the door, she pushed off and stumbled across the cargo bay. Her spacecraft was a small, converted freight hauler. She purchased it with the credits she earned working at the local bar Tallei owned, serving those brave enough to venture into the Turbinta region.

“Ah, assassin’s blood, how could I have been so stupid!” Kella hissed when she stumbled again.

She focused on her feet as they carried her down the short corridor to her bedroom. After stepping into her cabin, she unhooked both belts, peeled the guard’s uniform off and kicked it aside. It was a little more challenging to pull off her black, form-fitting top. Spots danced in her vision and she gritted her teeth to keep from passing out. After tugging it over her head, she tossed the blood-soaked shirt to the side.

A violent shiver ran through her. Kella knew it was a combination of shock and the frigid air inside the freighter. Her fingers trembled as she pulled the small medical kit off the shelf. She pressed the release and the case opened. Inside was everything she would need to take care of any minor injuries. She hoped this was minor enough. Visions of the scars marring Tallei swept through her mind as she reached for the injector. She inserted a small vial into the end, pressed it against her stomach, and pulled the trigger.

A shudder of relief flooded her when the pain began to subside. Bowing her head, she drew in long, deep breaths and waited. A rueful smile curved her lips when she thought of her mentor. Kella had not learned how to find that place inside herself yet where she could cut off the pain. She remembered Tallei telling her about the many times she had to repair her body without the help of medication, including the time when her eye was pierced by another assassin’s blade during a mission.

Kella discharged the vial, tossed the empty container onto the bed, then returned the injector to the kit. Next, she ripped off the patch she placed over the wound earlier. After tossing it aside as well, she picked up a small cauterizing wand from the medical kit, and held the ragged edges of skin together with one hand while she ran the wand over the wound with the other.

A small amount of smoke brought the smell of burning flesh to her nose. The combination of smoke and burnt skin made her gag. She would have looked away if she could, but she didn’t have that luxury. Instead, she held her breath for as long as she could while she sealed the skin.

Fine beads of sweat glistened on her brow despite the coolness of the air around her. Her upper body was coated with fine bumps and she had to lock her knees to keep from collapsing. It took several minutes to ensure that the wound was sealed and no longer bleeding. She covered it with a clean medical patch that contained both a painkiller and medicine to help her heal faster.

She focused on cleaning up the area, replacing the wand in the medical kit, throwing away the empty vial and old medical patch, and carefully replaced the kit back on the shelf. Once the area was restored to its tidy condition, she pulled off her boots and removed her bloodstained pants. She quickly dressed, pulling on a long, thick black sweater over the thin top that restrained her breasts, another pair of black, leather pants, and slipped her boots back on. She would toss the clothing into the cleaner unit on her way to the bridge.

“Tallei’s tit, she is going to be furious with me,” Kella muttered when she realized that almost four hours had passed since she’d left the tower.

As if reading her mind, the communicator on the side table pinged. Kella grabbed the bloodstained clothes in one hand and reached for the communicator with the other. A glance told her that the instructions for her mission were still waiting to be received. A second communication showed that Tallei was not impressed with her tardiness in responding to either of them.

Kella strode down the corridor, pausing only to place her clothing in the cleaner, before hurrying to the bridge. After sliding into the pilot’s chair, she began preparations for her departure. Within minutes, she had programmed her destination into the navigation system, strapped in, and was lifting off the large, flat surface near the bottom of the tower. Her hands tightened on the controls, steering the vessel through the narrow canyon before breaking free and increasing power to the main engines.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she broke through the storm and upper atmosphere. Once she was in orbit, she activated the message with her mission details. An image projected in front of her.

“Assassin, you have been assigned an urgent mission. A foreign capsule has landed on Tesla Terra. Your task is to locate the contents and deliver it directly to Lord Andronikos – preferably alive; but dead, if necessary.”

Kella studied the map of the planet. Tesla Terra was in the northwest quadrant. It would take her at least three days to get there. She would locate the capsule and scan it for information, then search the Spaceport on the other side of the mountains. Someone was bound to have some information.


Ash stretched and stifled a groan at the stiffness in his joints and muscles from sleeping on the hard ground. He walked to the opening between the boulders that formed the entrance of the cave and peered out into the fading sunlight. It would be almost an hour before he could leave his shelter.

He gazed out over the barren landscape, waiting for the sun to go down over the horizon. The narrow collection of boulders in the middle of nowhere became his temporary sanctuary. The journey he started on two nights ago quickly turned into a fight for survival. Everything had been fine until the sun came up the morning after he arrived, and he had started to fry – literally.

He had once been in south Texas along the Rio Grande during the height of summer, and decided anyone crazy enough to try to cross over had to either be insane or part lizard. But that was nothing compared to what it was like here. Before he found this small rock outcropping, he had pulled on the second set of coveralls and placed the backpack on top of his head to help give him added shade. It had not helped much – his skin began to blister from the heat. By the time he had stumbled upon the cluster of boulders, he was in agony.

A small entrance where one boulder had fallen over onto the others revealed a tiny, hidden oasis. The dramatic temperature drop had been a blessing, but the discovery of a small pool of water bubbling up from the ground proved to be heaven. He had shed his clothes and bathed his scorched skin in the nearly icy water. He had been amazed when the blisters on the backs of his hands shrank the moment he plunged them into the shallow basin.

He spent the rest of the first day and all of the second day trying to plan a more efficient trek. He ventured out last night, but decided to stay put when he saw several faint lights heading in the direction he came the day before. Using the binoculars in the survival pack, he had switched on the night vision. Ash had counted at least five separate vehicles which looked like something out of a Sci-Fi movie heading in the direction of the emergency pod he abandoned. Several hours later, his fears were confirmed when he watched them load the capsule between the machines they were riding on.

It looked like nighttime travel was going to be his only option for more than one reason. Until he knew what in the hell he was dealing with and where he was, he would become a flea on a shaggy dog’s butt. He just needed to find the shaggy dog first.

“Tonight,” he murmured to himself.

Ash turned away from the entrance, and rechecked his inventory. He only had another two days’ worth of rations. Thanks to the spring, he had plenty of water at the moment. He hoped there would be more water sources once he reached the mountains.

He lifted a hand to touch the wound near his left eye. The cut was sealed, but it would take at least a week or more to heal completely. He would probably be sporting a new scar. An assessment of the rest of his body turned up a few more abrasions and an assortment of bruises. Still, considering that he was alive, he would take the scrapes, bumps, and bruises any day. It would just be another fantastic tale of woe to impress the ladies with, he thought before he sobered again.

“Not that I’ll ever see home again,” he murmured under his breath with a sigh.

He grabbed his clothing and pulled his uniform on, then the extra coveralls. Already he could feel the temperature outside starting to drop. He shook out the scrap of cloth he had cut from the parachute and tied it around his head the same way it had protected him before. After shouldering the pack, he waited the last few minutes until it was safe to go outside.

“Time to ditch this joint,” he muttered under his breath.

Ash focused on a bright star over the mountains. He would use it as a reference point. He pulled the straps on and fastened them across his broad chest, then took off at a steady jog. If there was one thing he could do, it was run – and run and run. He had always enjoyed it, appreciating the runner’s high that came when he was in the zone. He would need that skill if he was going to make it to the safety of the mountains by first light. If he did not find a place out of the brutal sun, the only zone he was going to be in was the dead zone.

A light breeze flowed behind him, giving him a tail wind. He drew in deep breaths through his nose and released them through his mouth. The head cover would help conceal any vapor. By the third mile, he could feel his body getting back into the groove of running. His mind wandered, taking in the region even as he kept his guiding star in sight.

Almost two hours later, Ash slowed to a walk as he approached a winding dirt road that he could see eventually led to the mountains. He drew in deep breaths, placed his hands on his hips, and turned in slow, steady circles to glance in all directions. It was almost like coming to a fork in the road – which way should he go? One way led to the shelter of the mountains. The other way led away, presumably to a settlement. The question was: which way might be a shorter and less arduous journey?

He needed to get to his intended destination – finding shelter before the sun rose. The problem was either direction could have inhabitants who may or may not welcome an alien visitor.

It was impossible to tell which way would be the better choice. Indecision tore at him before he realized that he did not have much of a choice. If he wanted protection from the sun, he would have to head in the direction of the mountains. More confident, he reverted to his original destination, this time following the road headed in that direction.

The night wore on and Ash continued alternating between jogging and walking at a fast pace. He took a ten minute break every hour and a half and drank just enough of his precious supply of water to keep the worst of his rapacious thirst at bay. The road curved around, running parallel to the mountains until it suddenly veered toward them.

Ash was shocked when he rounded a section of rock and discovered the entrance to a massive tunnel. The glimmer of lights at the far end held him paralyzed for a moment before his brain kicked in, and he realized he was about to have company.

His gaze swept over the area, searching for a place to hide. There was an overhang to the left of the entrance, and he sprinted toward it, climbing on the pile of debris left over from the construction of the tunnel. He pulled himself up and rolled to the side. His fingers groped for the clips holding the backpack on, and once he found and released them, he shrugged the pack off, pushing it to the side so he could lay flat. This would be his first chance to see what he was facing.

Sweat beaded on his brow as the seconds turned into minutes. The sounds grew louder before the first in what turned out to be a long caravan passed by him. Ash’s eyes grew wide and his left hand moved to the knife in the sheath at his waist.

If the two moons and strange transports hadn’t convinced him that he was nowhere near Earth, much less Texas, the large beasts carrying supplies were enough to make him realize he had traveled over the rainbow.

The animals moved in a long line. They were as tall as an elephant, but had the face of a Triceratops. Each of the horns, two horns above each eye and one centered just above its nose, had to be at least three meters long. The creatures were a dark red with a thick, leathery hide. They were each laden with heavy loads and moved along with slow, lumbering steps. Behind each beast was a sled that hovered above the surface of the ground with a native walking behind each sled.

There was also an alien positioned to the side and one in front of each animal. The aliens were humanoid, with two arms and two legs, and they walked upright. Their vehicles and sleds indicated that they were intelligent and had an advanced culture. They were covered from the top of their heads to their booted feet with loose clothing; their goggles shielded their eyes and helped to keep the cloth covering their faces and hair in place. Their bodies were tall and slender. Ash pulled his binoculars out of the case attached to his waist and focused the lenses on the aliens. Up close, he could see dark red skin peeking out from under their long sleeves as they moved.

He shifted his focus to their faces. He couldn’t see any details of their features other than some kind of nose under their coverings, a humanoid jaw and cheekbones, and two eyes. He zoomed in to peer at their goggles, but even with the light of two moons, he couldn’t glean much information about their eyes.

He’d need to find clothing that was similar to theirs and mimic the way they moved. The color of his skin would be a problem, but if he didn’t let anyone get too good a look at him, the clothing would conceal who he was. He could do Halloween dress up as well as the next person.

He continued to watch the line, mentally taking notes as each person passed by him. The line seemed to go on forever before it finally ended. It reminded him of some of the super long trains back home that used to go by his house when he was a kid. After the caravan moved off along the road, Ash hesitated for another few minutes, his gaze scanning the area for stragglers, and then he reached for his pack, secured it onto his back, and climbed down from the ledge.

From the side of the entrance, he peered into the darkness and listened for anyone else. Once he was confident he was alone, he stepped into the cave. Picking up his pace until he was jogging again, he headed to the exit, nearly two kilometers from the entrance. The last thing he wanted was to get trapped in the tunnel when another group came through. From the intense heat of the day, he imagined that the vast majority of travel was conducted at night. He would have to be twice as careful. If they were accustomed to traveling at night, they would be more adapted to seeing in the dark as well. Life just became a little more exciting.

He slowed when he reached the other end of the tunnel. Bright moonlight flooded the entrance. He pressed against the wall, blending into the shadows when he reached the opening. The road wound down, sloping into a desert valley on the other side. Lights glittered like stars along the valley floor.

Ash gazed in awe at the city below him. He blinked, fascinated by the maze of buildings rising from the sands. Lights glittered like fireflies across the valley floor. His eyes widened when he saw spaceships of all different sizes lifting off and landing. He followed one with his eyes, his mouth gaping open in astonishment when it suddenly flashed upward through the atmosphere. Without thinking, he raised his right hand to pinch his left arm.

“I’ve fucking died and gone to utopia,” he murmured under his breath.

For the first time it really hit him that he was alive, on an alien world, and all alone. A wave of grief struck him at the thought of how much Josh, Sergi, Mei, and Julia would have loved to see this. This is what they had lived and breathed to discover. Another world – with intelligent life – to experience first-hand. The geeks back at NASA would be drooling all over their consoles if they could see what he was seeing.

“Shit, Josh, you don’t know what you are missing, man. I wish you were here to share it with me,” Ash whispered, returning his gaze to the city.

He shook his head in regret before he began making his way down the side of the mountain. In his mind, he ran through the things he would need to do first. He needed to find clothing, a weapon, and a place to hide before sunrise. If he was going to survive, he needed to learn a lot about this world and the people in it, and he would need to blend in – not an easy thing to do when you were a black man from another planet.

“They sure as hell didn’t have a simulator for this back on base. It’s a good thing I like playing video games. Those nerds never knew what they were creating, but they sure the hell weren’t too far off in their imaginations!” Ash muttered under his breath, jogging up to the edge of a farm of some type. He didn’t see anyone in the field.

He knelt behind a small boulder and assessed the buildings. There was a light tan structure that appeared to be a house. It reminded him of some of the adobes in Arizona and New Mexico. If people stayed inside during the day and went out at night, there was a chance it would be empty. Ash didn’t see any lights on inside. Maybe some aliens didn’t need light. Except if that were true, the city would have looked dark from the mountain, wouldn’t it? So they were either not here, or they were sleeping. The row of outbuildings might have something of use inside as well. His eyes caught sight of some clothing hanging from a rope tied to a suspended line.

Item one: check, he thought with satisfaction.

Rising up, he strolled over to the line as if minding his own business. The first rays of light were beginning to brighten the sky. If the alien farmers were like the ones back home, they would be early risers – or would that be opposite here? Rising with the sunset? As if on cue, a light shone through a window of the house. They weren’t night owls then.

Ash quickly gathered several articles of clothing from the line and kept walking toward one of the outbuildings. He tested the door of the first building before he noticed a control panel next to it. Disappointment filled him when it refused to open. This wasn’t a simple lock that he could pick, and a sliding door was impossible to kick in.

He moved to each one, discovering the same thing. Slipping behind the last building, he shrugged off the backpack and started to take off the emergency coveralls he wore over his uniform. He grimaced when the sleeve caught on a piece of sharp metal. Jerking it free, he ignored the soft sound of the material. Kicking the coveralls aside, he slipped the long robe over his uniform. Next, he replaced the scrap of parachute he had used as a head scarf with the long piece he had taken from the line. He wrapped it around his head and over his face like he had seen the men in the caravan wearing it, then he bent and stuffed the coveralls and parachute material into his backpack.

Now he needed to find a weapon. He had his knife, but he would like something a little more alien – or less alien, depending on one’s perspective. Something that wouldn’t stand out here, in any case. He rose to his feet, and pressed against the side of the building when he heard voices talking in a language he couldn’t understand. Glancing around the corner, he saw a woman walk out to gather the clothes off the line.

He was about to make a run for the house when the door next to him beeped. He jerked back, and waited. It took several seconds for him to realize that the doors must be on some type of timer and were set to unlock at a specific time.

“Sweet!” Ash muttered, grinning under his face-covering.

He swept his hand over the panel and the door slid open. This shed was the furthest from the house and the door was angled toward the open fields of dry rocks. He would have to work quickly if he wanted to escape unseen.