Phantoms (excerpt-chapter 1, part 1)

Great moons of Iros! That couldn’t be real.

Nare double-checked the readings at the bottom of the holographic sphere representing Earth, which displayed over the only active round console of three on the ship’s command deck. She almost wished Daris had left well enough alone and never run the scan.

Next to her, his black-gloved hands froze over the controls. In stark contrast to the black Shirukan uniform, his face drained of color.

“Coulter?” Anita’s voice came from near the arched front console section beneath the forward viewport. She had been gazing upon the orbital view of the Earth outside the hexagonal sections over their heads.

“What’s that?” Anita turned her tall, lean figure in the rumpled gray suit with the black outdoor jacket over it. Disheveled blonde hair stuck at odd angles on her head after their ordeal with the real Shirukan, the Shirat Empire’s special soldiers, who had controlled that vessel until Coulter finally overtook them. Blue eyes narrowed with a look of cautious suspicion.

Next to Nare, Coulter’s throat flashed with a swallow and his dark wings disappeared behind him, tucked close to his back. “Starfire radiation.”

In a wary voice, Anita said, “Tell me they’re Keepers.”

“Unknown. I was looking for the possibility of more Shirukan.”

All right. Nare could forgive him for that. With nineteen other Keepers on Earth, knowing how many of the murderous Shirukan were on the planet would be useful. But this was beyond useful.

Anita stepped towards them, the lines of her middle-aged face deepening in concern. “How many?”

Daris touched a few keys. Inari symbols circled the image and stabilized. His eyes met Nare’s. “Hundreds.”

Crystal fire! Nare wouldn’t believe it if she hadn’t seen him enter the parameters of the scan. “Inari?” she asked. Maybe a stupid question, but she couldn’t believe over four hundred Inari would make Earth home. Maybe the scanners had been affected when he purposely damaged the other console to trick the Shirukan. Unlikely, but possible.

Brown eyes met hers, and he hesitated a moment before answering, “Inconclusive.”

“Inconclusive? What does that mean?” What else could they be? She had a bad feeling about this and that look on his face unsettled her. He was confident in those readings.

“Take us down,” Anita said, “and give me a contact with General Dalton in Wyoming. He needs to know we’re coming.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“No.” The humans wouldn’t know what to do, and Nare couldn’t let them imprison her own kind, although she couldn’t fathom how so many could be there without her knowing.

Coulter turned, those alluring eyes reflecting Nare’s own questions.

They were in a Shirukan vessel orbiting Earth and she was a Crystal Keeper. After the last few days of trying and failing to save a young Keeper from being fully assimilated by the Starfire, learning that Heffin’s Gate had been destroyed, and now seeing hundreds of points of Starfire radiation on Earth, Nare didn’t feel like submitting to questioning by the humans.

“No,” she said more confidently. “We need Saffir. If these are Keepers, she’ll know.” She gazed through the glowing sphere at Anita, determined not to let the woman gain control when she had finally reclaimed it. “Crystal Keeper Saffir sent me and the others to escape persecution by the Shirukan seven Earth years ago. We’ve had no contact with any others. If she sent others, she can tell us. If not…she might be able to help.”

“This is a matter of the United Sta—”

“No, Agent Cross. This is a matter of the Starfire, our Starfire, us—” Nare pointed from her to Daris and back, excluding the human woman. “The Inari.” Daris might have been Shirukan once and faked being in that position again to save them from Tarolis and his crew, but he would never stop being Inari. One couldn’t change their species.

No one else could have blended with the Starfire like Soriel…could they?

Without asking the entities of her shard, she could only guess, and since those entities didn’t chime in with answers, she hoped that meant no.

With his hands still at the console around the holographic projection, Daris looked from her to Anita.

The woman’s jaw shifted and she crossed her arms, a glint of irritation reflecting in her eyes from the light of the hologram. “I suppose I don’t have a choice. Coulter?”

Brown wings shifted at his back and he dropped his eyes to the controls before him.

The poor guy. Anita should just get off his case. He had come to Earth to escape service to the Shirukan, the deadly meistal soldiers of the Shirat Empire, Inari with Starfire in them but no Starburst marks to use the power as Keepers could. Now, the humans he had spent his time serving demanded his loyalty to them as the Shirukan had. He needed to think for himself.

————

Coming fall-winter 2013! Watch for more on this blog.

(note: these excerpts are not final drafts and may be subject to further editing before the book is officially released.)

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