MONSTER GIRL

chapters 1 - 3

Read on for the first three chapters of MONSTER GIRL, book 3 of the Stargazer series…

chapter 1 | Charmed

It didn’t matter that they weren’t on Earth. Strange was strange, and Evelyn had grown accustomed to seeing strange things in her few short months on Orsus.
        There was the fish she had speared, glittering deep blue on its back with a belly as orange as coals fanned by a stiff breeze. Its fins and tail hung off its body like fancy ball gowns draped over beautiful women that Evelyn had seen in pictures, and it was so pretty she felt bad about killing it. The size of the fish was a little unnerving, as big around and as long as her leg, but it had tasted good, so she quickly got over her mental reservations about being a hunter.
        Then there was the wolverine she and Joseph had seen near their camp, where the mountain lake met the ridge that went forever up into the gray skies of Orsus. It wasn’t really a wolverine, Evelyn knew, but that was the best way to describe it. Not only was it the size of a bear cub and just as hairy, but its black face melded quickly into a bulbous body covered in long crimson hair.
        She and Joseph had seen it slinking around a few days after they had arrived. As the nights had grown colder, their sightings of it grew more frequent. It also seemed to be getting bolder with each passing day. The first time they saw it, it scampered off into the woods, and they hardly saw more than a brief flash of red as it disappeared into the darkness of the forest. After that, they had caught it sniffing around their campfire and eating the leftover fish they hadn’t thrown far enough into the lake. Apparently, it had dragged the carcass back to the shore and had eaten what was left of it, leaving the remains to stink up the beach. The irony that such a pretty fish could smell so bad wasn’t lost on Evelyn and gave them both a laugh.
        As the days passed, they started to notice more of the strange hairy beasts, but other than the fact that they seemed to be less reclusive—and appeared to have teeth as long as her fingers—Evelyn wasn’t too worried, as they always ran off at even the slightest sound.
        And then there was the snake, as startling as the fish was beautiful and the wolverine was intriguing. Evelyn was still disgusted by the snake she had seen in the fields—the one that had tried to attack one of the gardeners. If there was ever an image Evelyn hoped she could forget, it was of that slithering rat-headed, horn-backed monster. Not only was it twice as long as she was tall, but given the footage from the agribot’s memory systems, it slithered faster than almost any living thing, she imagined, could run. If it hadn’t been for the agribot pounding its head into oblivion, the colonist would have surely been made a meal by that snake. Just the thought of it gave Evelyn daytime nightmares in moments when she was all alone under the dark canopy of the forest.
        Even with all the wildlife wonders of Orsus Evelyn had seen, nothing compared to the vision Joseph had noticed that morning, breaking over the ridge just to the west of their camp. At first, both of them thought it was merely the pink light of the rising sun casting a shimmer through the oxygen-heavy atmosphere. That is, until they remembered the sun rose over the opposite ridge.
        They stared at the rose-colored fog as it sparkled in the morning light, rising ever higher—thousands of feet into the air by Evelyn’s estimate—swirling like bubbles in a flute of champagne. It was beautiful, Evelyn thought, and the nervousness she felt in watching it grow closer was only tempered by the fact that she couldn’t take her eyes off the hypnotic dance of the fog as it slowly floated closer.
        “Let’s get a closer look.”
        Evelyn glanced over her shoulder at the sound of Joseph’s voice. He had brushed the hair out of his eyes and was gesturing for her to follow. At his suggestion, she felt torn; she wanted to get closer to the fog, she didn’t want to stop looking at it, and she wanted to hide all at once. Reluctantly, she peeled her eyes away and marched after him.
        Evelyn hiked her shawl over her shoulders. The chill in the early autumn morning was enough that she could see her breath and probably would until the sun warmed things up by at least ten degrees. She knew it was going to be cooler on the path too, and she rubbed her bare arms under the shawl to brush away the cold.
        “I don’t think this is a good idea, Joseph.” The words reluctantly slipped through her lips, barely loud enough for her to hear them. It was almost as if the sensible voice of reason was being strangled by the impulsive voice of curiosity so that only a whisper of deterrent was cast in their path to see the sparkling wonder ahead.
        “What are you so worried about, Evie?”
        “Oh, I don’t know … being consumed by a giant pink fire, for one thing.”
        “How do you know it’s a fire, anyway? Maybe it’s just dust.”
        “Dust? It looks like a nuclear glitter bomb exploded on top of that mountain.”
        Joseph laughed, pulling himself over the boulder inconveniently blocking their path.         In the few weeks they had been at their camp, Evelyn and Joseph had followed the natural trail into the trees and up the ever-steepening slope many times. There were several places further up where it was steep enough that they had to use their hands to scramble over the granite boulders or had to lock their feet into the base of the trees for toeholds, but the boulder they were scaling was only the first of many other minor deterrents on an otherwise gently sloped path.
        Joseph knelt at the top of the boulder and offered Evelyn his hand, which she gratefully took. A second later, he hoisted her to the top.
        “Glitter bomb?” he said, laughing again and glancing over his shoulder through the trees at the plume. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic about it?”
        Evelyn laughed, reluctant to let Joseph’s hand go but doing so anyway to brush her hands off on her pants. “I can think of a dozen ways for this to go wrong, and I’m not even trying very hard.”
        “That’s what I love about you, Evie …” He laughed again, signaling for her to follow him with a nod of his head. “You’re always thinking.”
        “Not sure it does either of us any good when neither of us are listening,” she mumbled, following a few feet back.
        “You never saw any fireworks back on Earth, did you?”
        Well, my body was grown in a tube on a space station. And then I was born, and a month later, when I had the chance to go down to the surface, I spent a grand total of twenty minutes there … Of course, there was the guided rocket the military fired at us as we left the planet … the one that detonated fifty feet behind our shuttle … Does that count as fireworks? No, probably not … so there it is … another thing I have only read about but not actually experienced.
        “No. Just seen them in pictures. You?”
        “Yeah. When I was about six, I guess. I was hanging around with some older guys, and one of them found a box of fireworks in the cellar of this old warehouse. I’m not sure how long they had been there, or why they were there, but he took the box and was showing them off.
        “So, we waited for it to get dark, and we climbed up on top of the storage building, and we started lighting the fireworks.”
        Evelyn smiled, knowing something was about to happen. Joseph rarely had a story that didn’t end with someone getting into trouble. She shook her head. “So, what did you blow up, Joseph?”
        “Now, wait a minute. What makes you think we blew anything up?”
        “Because I’ve known you for seven years, and I know how your stories go.”
        Joseph laughed, holding a tree branch out of the way so Evelyn could pass and then letting it swish back over the path behind her. “Well, for your information, we didn’t blow up anything, so you don’t know everything, no matter how smart you think you are.”
        “Okay, fine … finish your story,” she said, rolling her eyes.
        Joseph pushed past her as they started up the steeper part of the slope, the loose rock slowing both them and the pace of his story as they cautiously moved up the rocky grade.
        “So, there we were, on the roof, lighting off fireworks. Most of them did nothing. I guess they were too old. Some of them just sputtered and popped. It was pretty disappointing, really. This whole box of fireworks, and all we were doing was setting fire to the paper and watching it burn in all different colors.
        “But there was this one tube. I think it said Screaming Eagle on the side of it. I don’t remember for sure, but I feel like it was almost as tall as I was. We propped it up against the edge of the metal roofing, lit it, and ran because we were sure we were going to die if it exploded.
        “Nothing happened for the longest time, but then it started screaming, just like the name said it would. I had to put my hands over my ears it was so loud, and it seemed to scream forever. Then it stopped. We thought it was done, so we all stood up from our hiding spots just in time to see the flaming ball shoot out of the top of it. I don’t know how high it went, but it was really high, and then it exploded.”
        Joseph hauled himself up over another rock and pulled Evelyn up behind him. The high mountain lake they had found on an earlier visit was just a few steps from them, filled with frigid cold but crystal clear water, and the lake itself wasn’t so big that Joseph couldn’t throw a rock across to the other side. Because of the steep slope leading to it, and the lack of trees along one edge, the lake looked like it was suspended in the clouds.
        Both of them stopped, catching their breath, and then wandered close to the water. With no trees in the way, the shimmering plume of rose-colored sparks ascended over their heads, cresting like a tidal wave as it reached thousands of feet above.
        Evelyn was unable to form anything even resembling a coherent thought, and obviously, Joseph was having the same trouble, because they both stood silent and motionless, awestruck by the beauty before them.
        Moments passed, and then Evelyn remembered the story Joseph was telling.
        “Did it look like that?”
        “What?”
        “The firework. When it exploded. Did it look like that?”
        Joseph continued to stare at the plume. “Not even close.”
        Evelyn shook her head, unsure what the point of Joseph’s story was but laughing to herself all the same.
        “But the roof of the storage building did.”
        Evelyn laughed again and finally peeled her eyes away from the plume. She felt the fluttering in her chest as she stared at her green-eyed boy, who was still mesmerized by the same cloud.
        “The firework exploded, and we were all so focused on what was happening overhead we completely missed the fact that the tube had caught fire, and it had set fire to the roof.” Joseph turned to her, the blank look on his face quickly turning to a grin, no doubt feeding off the look of amusement on hers. “Yeah, we barely got off the roof before the whole thing caught fire. It shot sparks fifty feet into the air.”
        “That’s more than fifty feet, Joseph,” Evelyn said, pointing up but not looking.
        “Well, I didn’t say it looked exactly like that,” he added with a shrug of his shoulders, and then before Evelyn could fully cock her eyebrow, he leaned in quickly and pecked her on the lips.
        Evelyn felt her ears warm against the still cool midmorning air, knowing the unwanted blood flow to her cheeks was giving off its own rose-colored plume. Joseph’s grin grew wider.
        “You’re just full of stories.”
        “Well, I had to tell you something. You were so worried. You would have missed it,” he added, holding his hands up in the air.
        Just then, Evelyn noticed that some of the glittering sparks were beginning to descend around them, only they were much larger than she had originally thought. Each was about the size and shape of a poppy petal and appeared to be so papery thin they seemed almost too light to fall out of the air.
        Like shimmering pink ashes, they floated, and Evelyn realized she was holding her breath, the uncertainty of what was happening setting her nerves on end. Joseph held out his hand like a kid waiting for the first snowflake of winter to land in his palm, and for a second, Evelyn thought about grabbing his hand and running, tumbling down the hillside if necessary to get away.
        But then the petal landed on his palm, and like a snowflake, it melted and vanished in a second. Joseph smiled and looked from his palm to her, just as another pink flake brushed her cheek and melted away.
        For a few more moments, they stood and looked at one another, and Evelyn couldn’t help but wait for something bad to happen. But nothing did, and as Evelyn felt the tension lessen in her chest, they laughed together and twirled with outstretched arms as the plume of petals floated in the air around them.

chapter 2 | Lone

For the flurry of petals, Evelyn was surprised by how few seemed to collect on the ground around her. Those that touched her melted, and that had immediately given her the impression that whatever the petals were, they were similar to snow. But as they stood on the ridge overlooking the lake with a view of the mountain ridges beyond, she realized that nearly all of the petals were swept back up into the air when they got within a few feet of the ground.
        Evelyn knelt, her curiosity getting the better of her, and watched as one petal gently floated down, slowed, puffed slightly as if it were taking a breath, and then with what she swore was a spark within it—like a flicker in a lantern—it quickly rose, disappearing from sight within seconds.
        Evelyn had never seen anything so beautiful, but just as quickly as the plume came, it passed. In less than thirty minutes, they watched the tail of the plume billow past, the wave of petals blanketing the valley below them and rolling effortlessly over the mountains and ridges in the distance, spanning miles in every direction.
        “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,” Joseph said, breaking her trance.
        Evelyn only then realized she hadn’t had anything to eat either, and the gnawing in her belly quickly brought her into the moment. A split second later, she remembered that they had very few protein bars left on the shuttle, and as if in revolt against having to digest more bizarre alien food, her stomach growled.
        “Me too,” Evelyn said half-heartedly. As they approached the edge of the ledge and started down the rocky slope, she was quickly relieved to find that, just as above, the petals hadn’t landed on the slope or the path below to make their way even more treacherous.
        “Well, you’re the smart one … What do you suppose that was?”
        Evelyn slid down the last few feet of the boulder, feeling the smack of the granite against her tailbone as she landed.
        “I don’t have any idea,” she said, wincing. She rubbed her backside, grateful Joseph hadn’t seen her graceless landing. “I thought it was snow at first, but then, the way it floated back up, it almost seemed alive.”
        “Alive? You mean like a bug or something?”
        “Yeah, maybe … I don’t know.”
        “Well, if it was, it wasn’t like any bugs I’ve ever seen.”
        “Yeah, me neither, and that’s what I’m afraid of,” Evelyn muttered, a feeling of dread brushing past her like the shadow from a cloud moving to block the sun. She shook her head.
        “What’d you say?”
        “Nothing. I’m just thinking too much again.” Evelyn paced quickly down the trail. It was always faster going down, and she was relieved they were making good time getting back to the camp and to their shuttle. But something about being out in the open after such a strange event worried her, and she couldn’t help feeling like they were being watched. A shudder flitted up her back. She told herself it was the chill seeping through her shawl, but deep down she knew better.
        In the trees again, this time modestly brighter by having the light of the midday sun filtering through the leaves, a greenish light cast around them.
        Rounding the final boulder leading to camp, Joseph stopped, and Evelyn thumped into his back, catching herself only by grabbing his shirt collar.
        Neither said anything for a moment, and Evelyn realized Joseph was intently staring into the woods to their left. Just then, she heard the crack of wood under the feet of something coming through the brush.
        “What is it?” she asked.
        “You’re asking me?” No sooner had the words left his mouth than a wispy, thin animal resembling a greyhound ambled through the bushes. Its long legs lightly stepped through the leaves and native grasses. Two long horns, stacked one on top of the other, spiraled out of its crown. Its head tiredly bobbed on its long neck, and Evelyn wondered how it could even hold up its head.
        The hound stumbled, a low moan emanating from deep within it as it struggled to stand again. Evelyn relaxed her grip on Joseph’s collar and placed her palm on his back, trying to steady herself as she watched the little beast. The twinge in her chest turned into a simple sigh. She wanted to help it, but wasn’t sure how.
        The crashing of branches beyond the brush sent a jerk through both of them. Evelyn stumbled back, digging her fingernails into Joseph’s back to steady herself. Joseph winced and Evelyn winced in reply, but no sooner had her eyes readjusted to the hound than she wished she could look away.
        No fewer than three of the red wolverines were on top of the little hound in seconds, tearing into it, its yelps echoing through the trees and still audible over the grunts of its predators. Evelyn quickly put her hand to her mouth, shocked at the violence. Her stomach flipped.
        Joseph grabbed her hand and started pulling her down the path, obviously thinking faster than she was about the danger they were in.
        “Run, Evie!”
        Barely able to maintain her footing, Evelyn glanced again at the carnage and noticed that one of the wolverines was looking at her, blood covering its black muzzle and dripping from its mouth. She gasped, a fleeting thought of seeing it bolt after them making it hard for her to breathe.
        “Oh my God!” she spat, barely able to contain the fear welling within her.
        “Just move!” Joseph replied through his clenched jaw.
        Coming through the last of the trees, they sprinted toward the shuttle. Evelyn couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder, hopeful not to see anything in the trees. Lowering the ramp through her nanites, they bolted into the belly of the shuttle, turning at the top, gasping for breath, and looking out of the bay at the forest beyond.
        “Whoa,” Joseph said, as if to echo her own thoughts.
        In the woods, deep in the shadows, they saw more flashes of red fur. How many of them there were, she couldn’t count.
        “We could have been eaten,” she said, holding her hands to her mouth, the shaky feeling of the adrenaline wearing off washing over her.
        Joseph pulled her in close, wrapping his arms around her. She buried her face in his chest, a stillness washing over her slowly. She breathed.
        “That was … disgusting,” he said over the top of her head.
        Evelyn let out an unsure laugh, trying to get the grisly images out of her mind, knowing they would also be there forever. She felt a chill creep around her. “I’ve never seen anything like that … that poor thing.”
        Joseph pulled back to look her in the eyes, his brows raised and a concerned quirk to his lips. “You okay?”
        “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said quickly. “But we have to be more careful.”
        “Okay. From now on, we’ll wear full body armor and carry rifles whenever we leave the shuttle. I don’t think they make body armor in a bikini top, though, so you may have to go for a different look.”
        Evelyn followed his eyes and realized the reason she felt a chill was because her shirt had ripped up the side, almost up to her armpit. There was nothing covering her bare midsection, and she could only figure she had caught her shirt on a branch in their mad rush to get away from the wolverines.
        “Darn it, I liked this shirt,” she said, mostly to herself as she tried to pull the strips of fabric back together.
        “Me too,” Joseph added.
        Evelyn looked up to find Joseph’s eyes locked on her stomach. She whipped her blanket closed around her. “I think you’re more interested in what’s underneath.”
        Joseph shrugged his shoulders, his mouth stretching into a mischievous grin. “Well, you know what they say … It’s what’s inside that counts.”
        Evelyn shot him a pair of raised eyebrows and untangled her arm from her blanket. “I think they are referring to something else,” she said, punctuating her point by punching him in the arm.
        “Ow.” Joseph laughed, rubbing his shoulder in a mock gesture of pain.
        Evelyn smiled, stood on her tiptoes, and gave him a quick kiss. “You’ll live,” she added, giving him a lingering glance as she turned and walked toward the cockpit.
        She remembered her stomach, and it growled again. As she grabbed the box of meal replacement bars from the galley on the way, her heart sank as she realized that there were only a few sliding around in the bottom.
        Sitting in one of the captain’s chairs, she started sifting through the box.
        “Anything good left in there?” Joseph sat in the seat next to her and leaned over to peer inside the box, a quizzical look on his face.
        “Nope. Just the ones you hate.”
        “Banana Dream? That’s all that’s left?”
        “Unfortunately, yes.”
        The meal bars had been made on Vista from pure protein, fiber, and the basic nutrients essential for life. All the research showed a human could eat nothing but the bars for months if necessary, and apart from possibly dying of boredom, no other health risks were noted. But the bars had synthetic flavors added. Most were okay. Evelyn had no idea what real chocolate tasted like, or bananas for that matter. She thought the chocolate ones were pretty good, but the banana cream ones were another matter altogether. They smelled like banana but chewed and tasted like how she imagined it would be to eat a rubber glove.
        “Just hold your nose,” she added, flipping one of the metallic yellow packages to him.
        Joseph sighed, reclined in his seat, and propped his feet up on the console.
        Peeling back the flimsy wrapper on her Banana Dream bar, she bit into it and began the long, slow task of gnawing the pasty concoction into something she could swallow.
        “You know, apart from the fact that we might starve to death out here, I think we’re doing okay … on our own, I mean.”
        Evelyn grinned, swallowing hard to get the gummy substance down her throat. “You did catch that squirrel thing … I suppose we could eat that.”
        Joseph laughed. “I’m glad you have a sense of humor about this. That squirrel thing looked as bad on the inside as it did on the outside. I think I’d rather eat these,” he added, flipping the bar end over end into the air.
        “Yeah, me too, but unless we want to invade the space station to get more, I think we’re stuck with the squirrel.”
        Joseph grimaced and stared out the window.
        The way the shuttle was situated, they had a perfect view of the mountain lake by their camp, and Evelyn found herself spending more time in the cockpit with each passing day. It wasn’t just because she felt safer there inside the ship that no creature she had seen or studied on Orsus could penetrate. She knew it was also because she had always lived a life of confinement. When her mind was just artificially intelligent, she was confined to the servers that ran her thought programs. Then she had a body, but she was confined to Vista. In her whole short life, she had spent the overwhelming majority of those days surrounded by steel, carbon fiber, and synthetic glass walls. She loved the outdoors, but she also felt exposed in a way she couldn’t explain, except to say that it made her feel small.
        Evelyn looked at the lake and propped her feet up on the console with Joseph. “You’re thinking we need to go back to Earth, aren’t you?” she said more than asked, glancing at him sideways.
        Joseph waggled his head as if he was thinking about her question for the first time. Evelyn knew better, though. Joseph was street smart in a way she couldn’t really comprehend. Growing up on the streets had made him resourceful, and with their stores of food already low, she knew he had already given a lot of thought to what they should do next.
        “Well, we can’t go back to camp … Vandergaast might have us both executed,” he added, a note of mockery in his voice even though he was stating a fact.
        “Yeah.”
        “And we can’t really go back to Vista either, for the same reason.”
        “Yeah, sorry about that,” Evelyn said, feeling the bite of remorse in her gut again that Joseph had chosen exile with her over life with a community of other people.
        Joseph smiled. “I told you before, Evie, you don’t get to leave me behind anymore.”
        “Thanks,” she said, returning his smile. She took another bite of her banana bar, feeling her face flush as she realized she probably looked as much like a cow chewing its cud as a girl gnawing on a protein supplement. Sometimes she wondered what Joseph could possibly see in her that he would choose exile with her on a planet trillions of miles from Earth.
        “And winter’s coming too,” Joseph continued, speaking now probably as much for his own benefit as for hers. “We can try to catch more of those fish, but I have a feeling we’ll be sick of those before too long. So, yeah, I’m thinking we might want to go back to Earth, at least for a little while.”
        Evelyn didn’t want to worry Joseph, but she figured they were facing some tough odds for survival even if they went back.
        “You’re not worried about getting caught back on Earth?”
        “Well, you …” Joseph started, and then paused, glancing at Evelyn with a cocked eyebrow and a quirked lip, as if he was unsure he wanted to say what he was about to. “You took care of President Coleson and all those soldiers. And from what you said, he had lost a lot of control over the people anyway. Maybe it’s safer now,” he added, shrugging his shoulders.
        Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, and in the next second, her mind flitted past the worry that they didn’t have enough provisions on board to survive if they were stranded in transit, to the memory of the street tacos she had eaten with Tate in San Antonio. Her mouth immediately started to salivate at the thought of the salty, rich tacos, and she quickly brought the back of her hand to her mouth to keep from drooling down her chin.
        “I don’t know if it’s safer, but the food sure is better back on Earth.”
        Joseph laughed and tossed the bar, still wrapped in foil, onto the console.
        “You aren’t going to eat it?” she asked, a note of surprise in her voice. It was already midafternoon, and as far as she could remember, Joseph still hadn’t eaten anything all day. In the two weeks they had been together at the lake, she figured they both had lost more muscle tissue than fat, as neither of them had any fat to lose. Living on the streets and in the orphanage, Joseph had learned to go for a while without eating, but he was still a seventeen-year-old boy, and not eating for a whole day really wasn’t an option.
        “Naw,” he said, standing. “You know, I’m just not feeling all that well.”
        Evelyn sat up on the edge of her seat, realizing a look of worry had washed over her face and feeling it pinch in her chest. “You’re sick?”
        Joseph shook his head and gave her a smile over his shoulder. “No, no, no,” he stammered, clearly trying to undo his earlier remark. “Just feeling a little tired, that’s all. I’m gonna go lie down for a while.” Joseph leaned down and gave her a kiss, a little spark of static stinging her lip, the warmth from his lips warming her.
        As he pulled back, Evelyn felt the quick twist in her gut telling her something was wrong, but she was momentarily unable to detect why.
        “That was hot,” she mumbled.
        “Thanks,” he said through a light laugh and an ever-widening grin.
        Then, in a split second, Evelyn realized what was bothering her.
        “No, I mean your lips … your skin … They’re hot.”
        “What?” Joseph said, a look of confusion washing over his face. He stood slowly, putting his palm to his forehead.
        Evelyn started to stand, watching the blood drain from his face, his skin turning a sickly pale white in the sunlight streaming through the cockpit window. “Joseph!” she screamed, feeling the fibers of his shirt slip through her fingers and watching helplessly as he collapsed with his eyes rolling back into his head.

chapter 3 | Unsettled

His scream woke her up, but it was Joseph’s elbow in her hip that sent Evelyn sprawling onto the floor. Evelyn remembered little of the few minutes after Joseph collapsed, mostly because she had soared through a fit of panic and tears, rushing to his side and trying in vain to wake him. After realizing he was still breathing, she spent ten minutes dragging him twenty feet to her quarters, spent that long again just trying to get him into bed, and then collapsed in the bed next to him out of sheer emotional and physical exhaustion.
        The hours since had been just as bad. Joseph couldn’t seem to lie still. He was either shivering from his fever, or shaking and moaning uncontrollably, and it wasn’t until well into the night that the worst of the shakes had passed. Evelyn hoped that the worst was behind them, but as she sat on the cold metal floor, staring through her own bleary eyes at the writhing figure of her green-eyed boy on the bed, she knew it hadn’t.
        A surge of alarm had her standing upright and wide awake in seconds. “Joseph!” she screamed, trying to wake him from what was undoubtedly a night terror of some sort. Throwing herself onto the bed, she tried to press his body into the mattress to limit his shaking, but it was no use. She was probably barely over one hundred pounds in her malnourished state, and Joseph outweighed her by at least half as much. Jerking his arm away in reflex, he smashed his forearm into the wall, recoiling into her and sending her flying back off the bed again.
        “Dammit,” she seethed, more pissed at herself for her actions than at him for his.
        Realizing she wasn’t going to outmuscle him, Evelyn darted around the corner to the medical closet. All the shuttles had been outfitted with a complete set of medical supplies to assist with anything, including minor surgeries. Evelyn had performed more medical procedures on the shuttle then she ever thought she would—once to drain the blood from Marcus’s lung after he had been shot escaping from Earth, and the other patching herself up after she had her final battle with Doctor Pretty and the soldiers who were invading Orsus. And even though she still had the collected works of humanity’s knowledge of anatomy and medicine tucked away in her gray matter, she was reluctant to use it on Joseph. It was one thing to know what to do, but it was quite another to actually do it. While Joseph flailed on the bed, seemingly intent on bludgeoning himself with the shuttle, she knew the time for being cautious had passed.
        Grabbing the hypospray gun from the medical closet, Evelyn ripped the package of sedative open. Jamming the cartridge into the gun as she bolted back around the corner to her quarters, she didn’t even bother to try to slow herself. She crashed into the bed, landed on top of Joseph, and pressed the nozzle into the back of his neck.
        She pulled the trigger, and other than a whimper, Joseph didn’t make another sound, instantly slumping into the mattress.
        Evelyn stood, staggered back, and dropped the gun on the floor. Brushing the sweat from her brow with her forearm and sitting on the edge of the small metal desk set against the wall of her quarters, she sighed, immediately feeling tears prick her eyes as she processed the previous ninety seconds of hell.
        She stared at Joseph, waiting for a moment. She didn’t know his weight, or her own for that matter, so she couldn’t know if she had used the proper dosage. Holding her breath waiting for him to take his, Evelyn counted the seconds, and then, barely perceptibly, she saw his chest expand.
        “Ha!” she exhaled, not knowing if she wanted to laugh or cry. She stared for another moment, watching him inhale and exhale. She realized she was gripping the edge of the desk hard enough that the corner cut into her palms, but she didn’t dare let go. The pain helped clear the fog from her brain, and she needed to think.
        Another moment passed, and Evelyn pushed herself away from the desk. She wandered into the hallway, her stomach growling as she walked past the kitchen.
        “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, looking down at her midsection and stopping in front of the open doorway. Being in a constant state of hunger, her stomach didn’t seem to have any qualms with alerting her to its needs, despite the inappropriateness of the timing.
        As if in defiant response to her thoughts, her stomach growled again, this time leaving a lingering hollowness behind to emphasize the point.
        “Fine,” she said, flipping her hands in the air and walking to the cooler. She knew they didn’t have much in there, but to satisfy her stomach, she opened the door anyway.
        As she expected, inside there was nothing but a steel plate covered with the graying meat of the squirrel Joseph had speared a few days before. Evelyn wasn’t worried about whether it had gone bad already—the oily sheen of the meat made it look like it was encased in plastic. Evelyn had seen pictures of aspic, and even though meat covered in jelly was a delight in some cultures, she didn’t find the thought very appetizing. The greasy squirrel had all the appearance of aspic but none of the cultural charm, and she found herself poking at the meat with a fork, wondering for a moment if it might come back to life. It didn’t, but the way it sprang back with just a little pressure from the tines made her queasy, and her stomach, perhaps also sensing the work it might have ahead in digesting such a thing, quickly quieted.
        “Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say,” Evelyn said, glancing at her stomach. Standing straight, she closed the cooler door in defeat. Reluctant to give up completely, though, Evelyn poured a mug of hot water from the wall dispenser, dropped in a sugar tablet, and let the hot cup warm her cold hands as she made her way to the front of the ship.
        The cockpit was dark, and even though she could have turned on all the lights through her nanites, she chose not to.
        Evelyn sat in her captain’s chair, curling her legs next to her and hugging her mug for warmth. She looked through the glass at the monochromatic purple of the landscape, only illuminated by the ghostly glow of the twin moons above, orbiting the planet.
        There was a moment on Earth when Evelyn had gazed at the moon from the surface. Though most people would be hard-pressed to name any feature, she knew the names of all the ridges and craters, valleys and mountains on the surface. Here, though, the features of the moons had no names, and neither did the stars above or the mountains on the other side of the nameless lake before her. Almost nothing had a name—or maybe it did, but the name just hadn’t been revealed to her, she reasoned. Even so, Evelyn sat in the dark, staring at the nearly dark beyond, sipped her water, and felt a pinch of longing in her chest for something—anything—familiar.
        Another sip and Evelyn felt her eyelids droop, and as the quiet of the night surrounded her, she realized there was a sound deep in the background she had all but ignored.
        Other than the fact that it had a higher pitch, Evelyn couldn’t place from where or what it was coming. She shook her head, trying to shake off the dregs of exhaustion. Leaning forward in her seat, looking out the window—but at nothing in particular—she strained to hear more clearly.
        The sound grew subtly in volume and pitch, and then she noticed the movement out the window. With the cloudless night, she could see well enough, and she stood as first one, then several of the two-horned animals she and Joseph had seen earlier wandered into their camp.
        Evelyn squinted to see better. She was tempted to turn on the spotlights, but knowing it was as likely to scare them off as anything else, she thought better of it. Setting her mug down on the console, she retrieved a pair of night-vision glasses from the utility closet at the rear of the cockpit and put them on as she returned to the window.
        Not only did the glasses brighten her view of the cabin, but they illuminated the outdoors as if it were midday, penetrating the shadows and revealing every rock and shrub. And sure enough, a small herd of the little hounds was making its way into their camp. Evelyn momentarily smiled at the sight but then noticed how wobbly they were, swaying as if they were intoxicated.
        Unsure whether the glasses were working properly, Evelyn flicked the frames with her fingernail and then looked again.
        The hounds were still stumbling into one another, and the sound she noticed before was most certainly coming from them. They were swirling their heads in the air as they wandered, calling a high-pitched moan as they went. The whole scene reminded Evelyn of a funeral procession, and even though they didn’t seem in a rush to get there, they were wending their way down to the water’s edge.
        Evelyn cocked her eyebrow and stood straighter, struggling to find a reason for the herd’s strange behavior, and then she noticed more movement out of the corner of her eye.
        It was a much larger animal—and one she didn’t recognize. In contrast to the pale beige of the hounds, this animal was black as a shadow, and even the night-vision glasses didn’t reveal it to have any more color than the blackness in a bottomless hole. If she was on Earth, Evelyn might have thought she was looking at a moose or a longhorn by its silhouette, but it seemed even taller, its spindly legs longer and its horns wider.
        The moose stumbled, crashed through a cluster of shrubs lining the edge of the lake, and landed face-first in the water. Evelyn expected it to pop up, but as the seconds passed, nothing happened. Whether it was drinking or dying, Evelyn couldn’t tell, but she found herself mumbling for the beast to get up.
        Evelyn looked back at the hounds, expecting them to have fled at the commotion of having a thousand-pound animal belly flop in the pool not twenty feet from them, but if they were bothered by it, they didn’t show it. The group continued to meander its way to the water, though Evelyn noticed that at least a couple had fallen in the dirt a little way back and hadn’t moved since.
        Over the wailing hounds, Evelyn heard her heart thumping blood into her ears with the steady cadence of an executioner’s drum march. She felt her chest constrict and then she saw more movement.
        Quickly readjusting her view, she first noticed the flash of blazing red fur bolt through the shrubs. “No,” she muttered as her mind revealed to her the grisly truth of what was about to happen in the middle of her camp.
        Without thinking, Evelyn switched on the outside lights and was immediately blinded by the sudden brightness. Wincing, she tore the glasses from her aching eyes and tried futilely to see. Even through the glass, she could hear the crashing of beasts outside. Hopeful for a moment she had scared away the predators or the prey, she winced again at the squeals and clatter of horns against horns.
        As her eyes adjusted, a wave of sadness washed over her as she saw what appeared to be at least five wolverines tearing into the small herd, and another two or three churning the water around the moose.
        Within seconds, it was all over. The moans of the hounds were silenced. Evelyn wasn’t sure what grotesque sound had replaced it, but she was grateful not to hear. The wolverines dragged their prey out of the water, away from the beach and into the shadows, and even with the lights of the shuttle casting a cool light on the beach, there wasn’t any sign left of the beasts.
        Evelyn fell back into her chair, still staring out the window. If she hadn’t seen it, she never would have known there was a massacre on the beach, and she wondered for a moment if it might have happened before. Shaking her head, she thought it could have, but figured she would have noticed something out there on the beach in the past couple weeks if it had doubled as a feeding ground.
        Evelyn turned off the searchlights and allowed the cabin and the lake beyond the window to grow dark, once again illuminated only by the moons. She sipped her sugar water, which had mostly grown cold. In the quiet tranquility of the moment, something started gnawing at her, and she found herself thumbing through her situation, trying to figure out what it was.
        Her first thought was that maybe she was bothered by not being bothered by what she had just witnessed. Two months before, she was sure she would have been made nauseous by it. But here she was, just sitting and enjoying the quiet. “That’s harsh,” she muttered, but even that bit of judgement seemed forced—out of place. This was the wild of an alien planet. Apparently, her human sensitivities didn’t hold much sway over her tear ducts on matters such as these.
        Shaking her head, she let the judgement fade, but she still felt an unsettling knot in her belly. It could have been the sugar, she figured, but then she thought about Joseph, lying on the bed and writhing in pain. She felt the knot tighten and she knew.
        It bothered her that Joseph had gotten sick, especially with how fast it had happened. She felt like she was being dragged underwater worrying over him. In the six years they had spent on Vista, there had hardly been a cold reported, because of the efficiency of the purification systems. And even though Evelyn figured Joseph’s immune system might have grown weak from not having to do much for years, she didn’t think that was the case. No, there was definitely something about the virus he had that was nasty, and the fact that she had to tranquilize him to help him rest made her restlessness grow.
        Evelyn sat forward on the edge of her seat, placing her mug back on the console, and then, as if an ethereal hand swept the images of the day together for her in a collage, she stopped. Two different types of animals—a moose-like creature and the little hounds. Joseph getting strangely sick. The animals bumbling their way to the water’s edge, clueless about the danger they were in. Joseph collapsing and becoming delirious.
        Evelyn’s breath grew short. She looked at her arm where one of the pink petals of the plume had melted on her skin, and then she glanced quickly down the hallway in the direction of her quarters, where Joseph lay sedated.
        Evelyn jerked her head back to look out the window and she knew. Somehow everything was related to the plume. It wasn’t just the hounds outside who were in danger, and as the realization hung in the air around her like a thick fog, she feared that the worst the virus had to offer was still to come.

MONSTER GIRL is coming November 27th. Pre-order your copy today.

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