Karos had to give the humans credit – they were persistent. From his vantage point on the top floor of the joint Pyrosian-Romaki embassy, he had a clear view of the bedraggled group of protestors gathered outside the gate. Their signs were sagging in the driving rain, and the winter wind was colder than a snow dragon in a snit, but they kept coming back. Day after day, they stood outside and chanted their hate-filled slogans.
They were swaddled in so many layers of clothing they were barely recognizable, but he could name each and every one of them. They were the faces of the Humanity First movement, the ones too angry or too stupid to hide their identities. They weren’t the real threat, though. The danger came from the ones whose names they still didn’t know, the ones who had taken over after their leader, Justin Kines, had been captured months ago. He and his lieutenants were in custody, but they refused to cooperate, or even speak to anyone since their arrests.
Justin had been convicted of orchestrating the bombing at BC Place stadium more than a year ago that had killed dozens of Pyrosians and put a strain on the newly-forged bonds between the humans and the rest of the Inter-Planetary Council.
The Council had previously agreed to allow humanity probationary status, but some of their members were concerned that humans, as a species, were too young and volatile to be allowed access to the collective knowledge and technology they were being given. Blowing up a sports stadium hadn’t done anything to quell those concerns. The daily protests weren’t helping, either. While most of humanity had welcomed the Pyrosian and Romaki, there were still those who let their fear of change consume them. The fear and doubt on both sides were a continuous source of concern for everyone involved.
Karos had witnessed this same cycle of fear and distrust on his planet when the rulers and the temples had gone to war over the future of the Romaki people. After a year of fighting, the worst was over. The power-mad priests were defeated, the ruling families had prevailed, and the healing had started. Not for him, though. As a member of the Royal Guard, he’d been in the thick of the fighting. He’d done his duty, defending the king of the Fire Dragon Clan and reclaiming the future for all Romaki, but the victory had come at a cost. His soul was soaked in the blood of too many beings whose only mistake was giving into their fear.
He had tried to move on, but his homeland was haunted, and so was he. When he heard about the embassies on Earth, he’d volunteered immediately. It was what he needed –a fresh start, and a clear mission: protect the embassy, and show the humans there’s nothing to fear. He could do that.
The door behind him opened. “I thought I’d find you up here. Do all dragons like to brood from the heights, or is it just you?” Jet asked in English. It was standard practice to speak the local language during work hours, even though the humans employed at the embassy had been given cognitive enhancements that allowed them to speak both Romaki and Pyrosian.
Karos pointed to the protesters. “I’m not brooding. I’m watching.”
“Pretty sure you were doing both.” The dark-haired Pyrosian diplomat joined him outside, though he was careful to stay beneath the overhang that sheltered them from the wind and rain.
Karos snorted and glanced over at Jet. “If I were brooding, you’d know it. I’d be on the roof, glowering down at that lot in my dragon-form.”
Jet grinned. “If you ever decide to do that, let me know. I want to be there when they look up.”
“It won’t be any time soon. Too damned cold and wet. Does it ever stop raining in this city?”
“According to the locals, not for two more seasons. If you’re going to spend so much time up here, you should probably invest in some wet-weather gear.”
“No need.” Karos idly flicked out the fingers of his right hand and muttered a brief incantation. There was a shimmer as the magic took form, and the patter of raindrops changed to a low, sizzling hiss as the water hit the barrier he’d summoned and evaporated.
“If you ever find a female who can put up with you, you’ll be able to do something similar. While our magic comes from different sources, there are similarities. I’ve been teaching Keth and his mate new ways to manipulate his flames.”
Jet nodded. “Keth mentioned you’d shown them a few things. He’s hopeful that Radek can start teaching the mated Pyrosians back home the same skills. It will be a few generations before our military is back to their former strength. Until then, any advantage is welcome.”
Karos chuckled. “I see you’re in full diplomat mode. No reaction at all to my jibe about females.”
“I have my life exactly the way I want it. I have an entire planet to explore, a job that I actually enjoy, and the better part of a galaxy between myself and my parents.” Jet grinned as he said the last part.
“There is no distance great enough to stop a parent from trying to interfere in their children’s lives if they want to.”
Jet snorted. “So I’ve learned. Still, it’s an improvement. Since I’m on Earth, my mother thinks I have a better chance of finding my mate than if I were waiting for her back on Pyros.”
“The amount you socialize with the humans, she’s got a point. You talk with them all day, and almost every night you head off to dine and dance with them. If your mate is in this city, she must be a recluse.”
Jet clapped him on his shoulder. “As a diplomat, being social is part of my job. I’m improving human-alien relations.”
“If it’s your job, why do you insist on taking me with you? I’m in charge of security, not socializing.”
“Two reasons. One, because you need more fun in your life, my broody friend. And two – one of these days I might cross paths with some of them.” He inclined his head to the crowd below. “When that day comes, I’d prefer to have a magic-wielding dragon at my side.”
“I’ve seen you training with the guards. You can protect yourself well enough.” He’d been surprised to discover the Pyrosian nobleman had kept up his hand-to-hand skills since his stint in the military.
Jet shrugged a shoulder and grinned. “I might be a diplomat, but I’m also a realist. Words don’t always work, and unlike my mated brethren, I can’t summon fire with a snap of my fingers. Punching is the next best defence. Still, if it ever comes to a fight, I’d rather have you around. You are what the humans call a serious badass.”
He appreciated the compliment, but he’d learned quickly that it was best not to encourage Jet. About anything. Ever. “Save the flattery for the humans. They seem to appreciate it.”
Jet scrubbed a hand over his jaw. I’m not sure even my highest compliments are going to work on our next visitors.”
Karos nodded. He’d heard rumours about today’s guest. Hanna Dewan was a very determined female with extensive wealth and influence. She was also dedicated to a singular cause: rescuing unfortunate human females from their abusers. Sex slaves, war brides, victims of cultures who refused to value female life. She had saved countless females, and she was coming here to discuss a bold venture – rescuing more of these unfortunates and sending them to Pyros, where females were treasured because of their rarity.
“I don’t think flattery will work on a female who spends her life fighting for the rights of those who have none. The direct approach might be best.”
“Likely. I’ve already arranged for the princess and her friends to join the meeting remotely. Short of bringing Ms. Dewan to Pyros to see for herself, that’s the best I can do.”
“Would she be willing to make the journey?”
Jet chuckled. “Not everyone is as averse to long voyages as you. I should be leaving soon. I’m meeting Ms. Dewan and her party at the airport.”
“Do you need me to come along as security?” He didn’t enjoy these meetings the way Jet did, but protecting the embassy, it’s staff, and all visitors was his duty.
Jet shook his head. “I’d rather have you here, keeping an eye on them. I need to show Ms. Dewan that we can provide a safe, comfortable life to the females she is trying to protect. If those fearmongers start anything while she’s here, it might give her reason to doubt.”
“I’ll see to it they remain quiet.” If he had to, he’d transform and go for a short flight. That always seemed to subdue their protests for a while.
“If I’m staying here, who will go with you?”
“Kyle is driving, and I thought I’d take Vykor with me.”
Karos smiled. Vykor was a good choice. He had a calm, quiet manner the humans seemed to like, especially the females. The young dragon had been almost overwhelmed by all the attention he’s received since his arrival. Back on their homeplanet, Vykor was a pariah, but here? Here, he was a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one. “Good. He’s been hiding too much lately.”
“Says the male standing alone on a rooftop in the rain,” Jet drawled.
“I have been told I make some of the humans on staff nervous.”
“I think it’s the growling.”
Karos had to stop himself from doing exactly that as he glowered at Jet. “I don’t growl… much.”
Jet laughed and turned to go. “We’ll work on your social skills another time, my friend. I’ll see you later.”
After Jet left, Karos pulled a small, flexible tablet from his back pocket. He activated it with a touch, swiping through various live security feeds until he found the side gate used mainly for deliveries. It was quiet, and the alley running past it was empty. If there were any problems, he’d send word to Kyle to return using that gate instead of the main one. He set the tablet down on the railing so he could easily see the screen even while watching the protestors below.
He was responsible for the safety of every being within these walls. They trusted him to protect him, and it was his honour to do so.
I won’t fail them. He vowed to himself as he stood watch, his hands gripping the railing so tightly it dented. He hadn’t been there the day his friends had needed him. The day they’d died. He wouldn’t let that happen again.
Megan let the conversation flow around her as they made their way across the tarmac, huddled beneath the umbrellas their hosts had brought with them. They’d been met at the steps of Hanna’s private jet, both men – males, she corrected herself – dressed in dark, perfectly tailored suits. The males looked to be in their mid-thirties, but since neither of them was human, she couldn’t be sure. The dark-haired one was Jet Tindor, the Pyrosian ambassador. He’d introduced the young blond with him as Vykor of Romak, though she noticed he didn’t mention the male’s clan. Interesting. From what she’d read, clan affiliation was important to the Romaki.
Curious, she glanced at Vykor’s eyes. She knew that fire dragons had gold eyes, while snow dragons had silver ones. Vykor had one of each. She had no idea what that meant. There wasn’t enough information available yet, which was why they were here. They needed more information about the Pyrosians, their planet, their culture, and anything else they could learn.
Everything looked good on paper, but Hanna wanted to be certain before she committed to anything. That diligence was one of the many things Megan admired about her boss. Hanna was a rare breed, a woman of means who had devoted her life, and her wealth, to helping others. Guarding her wasn’t just Megan’s job, it gave her a chance to be part of something meaningful – the Haven Network.
She let herself fall a few steps behind as they approached the limo, sweeping the parking lot for potential threats. Hanna’s mission put her at odds with warmongers, mobsters, and sex traffickers all over the globe, and more than one of them had tried to have her killed. Megan’s job was to make sure that didn’t happen.
Once they were all seated inside the luxurious vehicle, Megan sat back and watched the interplay between the humans and aliens. Vykor and Jet sat on either side of her boss. Hanna and the Pyrosian were speaking intently, and she could tell by Hanna’s keen expression that she liked what she was hearing. Jet was animated but intent, and she got the sense he was truly listening to what Hanna had to say.
She turned her attention to the other member of her party. “How you doing, Lily?”
Hanna’s personal assistant offered her a weak smile, but her cheeks were pale, and there was a greenish tint to her skin that matched her green eyes. “I’m fine.”
“Trained investigator, remember, I know when you’re lying.” Megan reached into her pocket and pulled out a couple of ginger chew candies. “Here. These should help.”
Lily gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks. I was fine until we hit that patch of turbulence over the strait.”
“Yeah, I got queasy, too. It took a couple of those candies and a lot of deep breaths to get my stomach to behave.”
“I didn’t know the T-800 models could get airsick.” Lily unwrapped one of the chews and popped it into her mouth, her eyes glinting with laughter.
“Which is yet more proof that I am not a terminator model. I’m a flesh and blood human, just like you.”
Lily shifted the candy to her cheek. “Humans sleep. They also tend to fall down and bleed when someone shoots them.”
“If I’d gone down, we wouldn’t be here. It’s part of my contract–no bleeding until the danger passes.” Lily had been teasing her about being a cyborg since they’d been attacked on the way to a safehouse in Asia. Their attackers had been angry but disorganized, and Megan had managed to hold them off until help arrived. A bullet had grazed her arm, and another had ricocheted and got her in the calf. It hurt like hell, but neither injury had stopped her from doing her job. That was what she got paid for, and Hanna was a generous employer.
“And sleeping? When was the last time you got eight hours sleep?” Lily asked.
She shrugged and glanced past the younger woman to the rain-soaked world outside. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Until then, I have too much to do.”
Lily peeled another ginger candy and settled back into her seat, her attention moving back to the conversation between the Pyrosian and Hanna. Lily was as dedicated to her job as Megan was to hers. Lily was Hanna’s right hand, making things happen and ensuring their boss had everything she needed to get things done. They’d worked together for several years now, and Megan considered both Hanna and Lily family.
She kept one eye on the traffic that flowed past the windows as she reflected on how long it had been since she’d been home. Well, home wasn’t really Vancouver, but it was close enough to make her think of family. She hadn’t told her parents she was coming, in case there wasn’t enough time to squeeze in a visit to the lands of the Tsawwassen First Nation, where her family lived. She didn’t want to get their hopes up.
Hope. That’s what this trip was all about. The Pyrosian race was at risk of extinction. They had come to Earth in hopes of finding genetically compatible females to help rebuild their species, and discovered they were not only compatible, but that humans had interbred with Pyrosians before.
At first, they’d come in secret, but now, there was open trade with not only the Pyrosians but also other members of the Interplanetary Council. Humanity suddenly had access to technology and knowledge that would have taken centuries to acquire on their own. The world was a more hopeful place as the new information was slowly disseminated, bringing mankind into an age of enlightenment. At least, that was the goal. For now, there were still too many places shattered by war, where people were ruled by violence and fear. The Haven Network was a means of escape for the women and children trapped in those places, but once they escaped, they needed someplace to go. Somewhere safe. That’s where the Pyrosians came in.
Hanna hoped that the distant planet could become a place of refuge for these women and their children, even if they weren’t matched to a male as a potential mate. The rulers of Pyros were open to the idea, but working out the details would take time, and possibly a trip across the galaxy so they could see for themselves where the women would be living. When Megan had taken Hanna’s job offer, she’d known it would involve a great deal of travel, but she never dreamed it might involve leaving the planet.
That was a long-term problem, though. Her immediate concern was the Humanity First activists. Despite the arrest of most of their leadership, they were still a threat. Some of them were protestors for hire, others were anarchists who would move on to the next cause, but there were still too many true believers, and those were the most dangerous of all. She’s been part of the RCMP’s protective services at one time, responsible for safeguarding diplomats and world leaders while they were on Canadian soil. During her time there, she’d learned all about the threats posed by terrorists, cartels, lone wolves, and the mentally unstable.
The Humanity First movement was very active in Vancouver, which wasn’t surprising given that this was the place the Pyrosians had made first contact. It was also the location of the aliens’ largest embassy and the site of the first attack. The bombing of B.C. Place stadium had been intended to drive the Pyrosians away, but instead, the aliens had only increased their attempts to educate and befriend humanity. Still, everyone associated with the aliens was a potential target. If anyone learned what Hanna was doing here, it would increase the threat level. As far as Megan was concerned, the longer they could keep Hanna’s presence here a secret, the better.
She sat up and did another casual scan of the traffic outside. The rain was heavier now, making it difficult to see much. They were heading away from the city center, which meant the traffic was slowly thinning as they made their way to the embassy.
The need for secrecy meant they had flown into a private airfield and were relying on the Pyrosians for transport and hospitality for the duration of their stay. Leaving security decisions to others wasn’t the way Megan preferred to do things, but it had been necessary this time. She still didn’t like it.
Hanna caught her eye and gave her a small smile, so subtle it wasn’t likely anyone even noticed. She flashed one of their hand signs to her at the same time, a quick lift and lower of her index finger that meant “all is well.”
Megan raised her hand to respond, but a shadow caught her attention, and she turned her head to see a massive dark shape hurtling toward them.
“Hold on!” Her shout was all the warning she managed before the other vehicle slammed into them, the impact sending the limo into a violent spin that threw them all against their seatbelts. Her ears were assaulted by shocked cries, the screech of tearing steel, and the squeal of tires as they careened across the rain-slicked pavement.
Her senses still spun even after the car came to a stop, and she had to swallow hard several times to quell her nausea. “Everyone okay?” she asked as soon as it was safe to open her mouth.
Everyone muttered a shaky affirmative. Score one for safety testing–they were all in one piece. She checked the windows but couldn’t see anything but the empty road. Where the hell was the other vehicle?
“Lily, call 911. Mr. Tindor, can you contact the embassy?”
The dark-haired alien nodded and pushed back his sleeve, revealing a communicator strapped to his wrist. “Immediately.”
“Thank you.” She undid her seatbelt. “I think we were rammed intentionally. I’m going outside to take a look. Everyone else stays here, and lock the door after I’m gone. Vykor, if anything happens, can you transform and get the others out of here?”
Before Vykor could answer, the partition between the passenger area and the front of the vehicle opened a few inches.
“Kyle, you okay up there?” Jet called to the driver.
Megan turned her head toward the partition and asked, “Did the other vehicle drive off?”
Instead of replying, the driver pushed something through the gap, and it fell to the seat beside her. The partition closed again. What the hell?
She blindly grabbed the object Kyle had dropped, her other hand already trying to unlock the door. It wouldn’t open. The thing in her hand started to hiss, a stream of something cold flowing over her fingers.
“Everyone, cover your mouth and nose. Try not to talk or breathe fast,” she ordered before covering her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. Even as she did it, she knew it wouldn’t be enough to stop the gas from affecting her.
Everyone frantically tried their doors as the gas continued to flow, filling the interior of the limo. Shit. Shit. Shit.
She spun in her seat, muttered a soft “sorry,” to Lily as her head landed in blonde’s lap, raised both legs to her chest and kicked at the window with her high-heeled shoes. If they lived through this, she was going to give Hanna hell for insisting she change into business attire before they left the jet.
The impact jarred her from toes to teeth, but the window didn’t budge. She pulled her legs back and kicked again, pouring every bit of strength she had into the blow. This time, the window starred a little around the impact point of one heel. Her head was swimming, and her legs were getting heavier by the second. Her third kick hardly made it to the glass at all, and she didn’t have the strength for another attempt.
Lily’s body went limp beneath her, and she looked up to see the blonde slumped against her seatbelt, eyes closed, jaw slack.
It took all the strength she had left to turn her head to check on Hanna. She was unconscious already, and both Vykor and Jet were fading fast. Reality hit, bitter and cruel. She’d failed. They were going to be taken, and she hadn’t stopped it. Neither had the aliens, and one of them was a damned dragon.
That’s the last time I trust the aliens.
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