Tania leaned over toward the cradle that held her newborn baby and smiled. What a beautiful little girl. If only her father were alive to see her. The labor had been bad, very bad, but seeing the tiny child's big blue eyes sparkle for the first time was worth every second of it. The little girl would grow up well and have the best home possible, she would make sure of that.
Tania sank back onto the pillows and sighed, her sanity returning. How could she make sure of that? She couldn't even decide on her own daughter's name. How would she ever make sure she had a good future?
She allowed a tear to slide down her face as she thought of the child's father. He had been a good man. Kind, caring, and always patient with Tania's indecisions. He had openly told her of his previous marriage, where his wife had left, he said, and taken a part of him with her. But still, he had been wonderful. The perfect man.
Then, that fateful evening.
He had just gone for a walk. He had promised her that he would be back to check on her and the child within her. He had sworn it to her. And he hadn't meant to lie, not really. She knew he hadn't. But, it still hurt.
He had gone out, expecting to come right back. She had believed he would because he always did. He had only been gone two minutes, enough to walk down the apartment stairs and get almost to the end of the block. Tania had heard a sound then, and she had known. She didn't know how, but she had known that it had to do with him.
As quickly as she had dared, she raced out the door and spotted him, down the street. A car drove off. She knelt by his side, seven months pregnant with his daughter. She had seen them then, the strange marks on his chest. The only thing close to what she could describe was a laser burn. Several of them, straight to his heart. He had been going into cardiac arrest when she arrived.
“Tania,” he had said to her, gasping for breath, “you take care of this child. Take care of her. Don't let anyone take her away. You know she's mine, don't let anyone take her. Do that for me, okay?” He had smiled as best as he could through the pain and put a hand to her cheek, wiping away the tears. The last action he had accomplished.
She still didn't know what had happened. She still didn't know what had killed him. Or why. She just knew he was dead. And, somehow, that mattered more than usual.
She snapped back to reality and pushed the tears off her face. A glow shimmered around the room. A glow that hadn't been there before.
The baby giggled.
Tania panicked a little. What could be making that light? She sat straight up in the bed and leaned over the cradle, to check on her child.
The baby had its arms extended, as if she had stretched and never thought to pull her limbs back in. She stared at her right hand, the hand closest to her mother. It was there that the brightness came from. A silvery-white light emanating from the child's clenched fist.
Tania reached toward it, scared for her child's life, but the light seemed to have some sort of depth. It shot off toward her and pushed her hand away. Not roughly. In fact, rather gently. She clasped that hand with the other and watched as the light nearly engulfed her baby. Slowly, serenely, it faded to a glimmer in the baby's fist and finally died out altogether.
Tania, still shaking, reached for her baby's hand and felt something metallic and cool. She pulled her hand back and stared. It couldn't be. Not her baby. This had been told to her through legends and tall tales. It couldn't be real. Could it?
She looked closer and saw what she didn't want to see. There, the child grasped a necklace, the chain long and silvery-white, the charm protruding from the baby's clenched fist. The charm was straight and smooth on one side, the other sides a tangle of indents and raised areas. It had no sharp edges or corners. She had heard the smooth sides were so the child holding it wouldn't be hurt. The charm itself created a perfect half of a unique shape. It was impossible to tell what it would become, when it was joined with its other half, which made the charm all the more alluring and mysterious.
Tania held back a sob. Her daughter, a Half-Shape Child. A Special.
“Oh, my darling,” she said through the tears welling up in her eyes. “I thought you were a thing of fairy tales.” She leaned closer and whispered, barely audibly, “But I promised your father I wouldn't let you be taken, and I intend to keep that promise.”
Only, she didn't know if she could.
And, suddenly, Tania knew what she would name her daughter. She picked the baby up, the child's hand still clutching the half-shape necklace. She cradled the baby close to her and gently ran a finger down her cheek.
“Your name is Terra.” She allowed herself to cry quietly. “Every time you hear your name, you will be reminded of the earth on which you were born. Terra. Get it?” She laughed through her tears. “Like terra firma. Like the earth. You will be called Terra Fallon. And the only way anyone will ever take you away from me, is over my dead body.”
She planted a kiss on the baby's forehead just as Terra fell asleep.
• • •
In a room in the heart of the hospital, a monitor played the recording of the entire scene again. In front of it sat a lowly technician, but behind him stood the most powerful woman on the planet.
The woman's dark hair was piled high atop her head, her lips painted in the darkest red; so red that it was nearly black. Her eyes lacked compassion. Her collar came to her chin and held a broach of a diamond shape. A perfectly symmetrical diamond shape.
“I just thought you ought to see this,” the technician said, trembling in fear.
She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. Her mouth created a thin line of distaste. “When was she born?”
The technician hit a few buttons and typed in a password. “A few hours ago. Is she a Special? Is that what that light is?”
The woman gave a long blink, her version of a nod in the affirmative. She raised an eyebrow as the video came to the part that couldn't be heard. “Can you tell me what the mother is saying?”
He hit a few more buttons and shook his head. “No. The audio recorders didn't pick up her voice and she's turned away from the cameras. No lip reading available.”
“Hmm. Thank you for alerting us, Lucas.” The woman turned toward the elevator door and stopped beside the two military men who were guarding it.
“What are our orders, ma'am?” one of them asked.
She replied with a question of her own. “How long ago was the last Special born?”
“Just over five years.”
“And what of the protocol? Is he under our thumb, Kelvin?” She pushed the up button on the elevator.
“No, ma'am,” the man replied hastily, but warily. “The Anti-plan operatives got him first.”
“Interesting. And unacceptable.” She stepped into the waiting elevator. “Initiate the five-year protocol for this child and wipe the memory.” She pressed the button for the floor she wanted. “And, Kelvin, I am not just talking about the computer.”
Kelvin nodded and waited until the elevator doors closed before he pulled a small, gun-like object from his belt. He advanced on Lucas.
“What are you doing?” Lucas asked. “What's going on?”
“Please remain calm as we wipe your memory of this child. You will feel a slight tingling sensation, and then you will remember nothing. You will wake from a nice nap without the realization of what you've seen today.” Kelvin turned to his partner. “Wipe the video from the hard drive while I take care of this.”
His partner headed toward the computer.
Kelvin pointed the instrument at Lucas' head and pulled the trigger.
• • •
The little boy put his hand on a wall and cocked his head. “Is this a spaceship?”
The man steering it smiled and flipped a switch. He stood to his feet. “Yeah. It is. How did you know?”
The boy shrugged. “My daddy told me stories about spaceships. They sounded a lot like this.” He fingered a wire hanging from the ceiling to the floor. “What's your name?”
The captain squatted behind the boy. “My name is John McAllen. You can call me John or captain, whichever you like.”
“I'll call you Captain,” the boy said. “Is this your spaceship?”
John nodded. “Absolutely. Isn't she a beauty?”
“It's a she?” The boy let go of the wire and turned toward the console, probably looking out the front windows to the stars. “Do you have adventures?”
John had to smile. The boy would be okay, if he could make it through this. “I have a lot of adventures.”
Quite honestly, John barely knew who this boy was. He only knew that he had been watching the boy for his entire short life. All under orders from an organization known as the Anti-plan.
“Where's my daddy?”
John lost his smile for a moment and ducked his head. He slowly turned the child to look at him. “What's your name?”
The boy stood straighter. “I'm Collin Foster.”
“Well, Collin,” John said, smiling at the boy's pride in his name, “You ask a question that has a very difficult answer.”
Collin cocked his head, his five-year-old eyes holding more knowledge of the situation than anyone would have thought possible. “You mean the question about my daddy.”
John nodded again, slower and more thoughtfully. “That's the one.”
“Why is it hard?” The boy's eyes turned glassy as tears welled up in them.
John stood up and ruffled the little boy's hair. “Come be my co-pilot for a minute. I'll explain.”
Collin raced to the co-pilot's seat and spun it to face the console. His wonderstruck gaze looked out among the many stars. His mouth involuntarily opened into a large “O”.
“Collin,” John turned the seat so that the boy faced him, “do you remember what your mother told you when I showed up at your house?”
Collin nodded his head enthusiastically.
“What did she say?”
Collin took a deep breath and furrowed his brow. He crossed his small arms across his chest. “She said to trust you. That you were a good guy.”
“What else?” John prodded.
“She said to be brave like daddy. She said daddy was holding off the bad guys, but he wouldn't be able to do that for long. So she said I had to come with you and be brave like daddy.”
John smiled wryly, “Yeah. She said to be brave like your daddy.”
“So my daddy is fighting bad guys?” Collin asked. “Will I see him again? Ever?”
John patted Collin on the shoulder. “I don't know. I hope you do. I bet we'll get the report when we get to where we're going.”
“Where are we going?” Collin tilted his head to the side questioningly.
John took his place at the wheel. “I'm taking you on your very first space adventure,” he answered. “We are headed to the Andromeda galaxy, outside the Milky Way. It's like a whole new world.”
“When will we get there?” Collin asked. “Who lives there? How will we live there? Did you know the earth is the only planet that makes its own oxygen? Oxygen is the air we breathe. What will we breathe if we're not on earth?”
John laughed at the boy's incessant inquiries. “So many questions! Let's take them one at a time, shall we?”
Collin nodded. “Okay.”
“We will get there in a few hours.”
“That quick? But it's so far away!”
John tapped the console. “Specially equipped to move really fast.”
Collin nodded again, seeming to understand.
“As for who lives there and how,” John continued, “There are a lot of people and... kinds of people that live there. We'll live there like we would on earth.”
“What will we breathe?” Collin asked again. “Will we die?”
“No, no, no, no, no.” John couldn't help but laugh. This kid was smarter than he looked. “There's an oxygen bubble around the planet we're going to. We'll breathe just like we did on earth.”
“That is so cool!” Collin threw his little hands in the air.
It was then that John noticed the chain hanging out of the little boy's zipped jacket pocket. Everything began to click into place.
“Collin?” He interrupted the boy's celebration. “What's that in your pocket?”
Collin looked down quizzically and unzipped his pocket. He pulled on the long chain of the necklace and held it up. He shrugged.
“I don't know what it is, really. I got it when I was really little. I like it though. I don't want to give it to anyone.”
John nodded at him. “I know. I don't want you to. But I understand better now. I know where we're headed as soon as we get to Antare.”
“Antare?” Collin tried out the name for the first time.
“The oxygen-bubble planet in the Andromeda galaxy. You'll like it, believe me. There's a wonderful group of people there who will take care of you.”
Collin nodded, but John could tell he was no longer listening. He had turned to stare at the passing stars once again.
The Anti-plan would take care of Collin once they got him to Antare. They should have told him about the boy, though. He should have known that this kid was a Half-Shape Child. A Special. John shook his head in disbelief.
• • •
Tania pushed the hair off her sleeping child's forehead and smiled. Terra would turn five tomorrow, and she was all red hair, freckles, and blue eyes. Such a sweet child. The necklace that had materialized at her birth never left her neck. Terra seemed connected to it to such a degree that she wouldn't take it off for any coaxing.
“Off to dreamland, then.” Tania tucked the covers up to the little girl's chin and leaned down to kiss her forehead.
“Mommy, can you please tell me about my daddy again?” Terra requested. “Tell me about how brave and strong he was.”
Tania gave a weak sigh. Even after five years, the story was a difficult one. “Must you ask for that story every night?”
Terra nodded. “Every night. I never want to forget him. I have dreams about how brave he was. It's almost my birthday. Please?”
Tania chuckled. “All right. Just once more.” She laid down next to her daughter and cuddled close. “Oh, where to begin? Your father was brave and strong and had a heart of gold. He made people happy just by walking into a room. He didn't want to leave you, darling, but he couldn't help it. You know that, hmm?” She licked at a tear that had fallen by her mouth.
“Mommy, what was daddy's name?”
Tania felt it then. The same feeling she had felt the night that Terra's father had died. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Tania sat straight up and felt a greater confidence than she had felt in her entire life.
“Terra, get in that cabinet,” she pointed toward an free-standing wardrobe against the far wall.
“Why, mommy?” Terra asked, sitting up. “Is something wrong?”
Tania stood and walked to the bedroom door. “I don't know yet. Just get in that cabinet and don't come out until I come get you. Do you understand?”
Terra nodded, her curly red hair flopping, then raced to the cabinet and shut the door tightly behind her.
Tania took a deep breath, opened the bedroom door, and stepped into the apartment's living room. She shut the bedroom door firmly behind her and sprang for the kitchen cabinets.
It had to be here somewhere. She had seen her husband with it before. Cleaning it, taking care of it. The only weapon within her grasp. She found it in the back of the rarely-used spice cabinet. It wasn't like a normal gun. Nothing to cock it with, only a trigger. White instead of black.
Who cares? Tania asked herself. If it shot straight, that was all that mattered. She took one last deep breath before she faced whatever danger lurked outside.
The front door caved in and the living area swarmed with men in military apparel. Each one held an automatic machine rifle.
Tania set her jaw and stepped out of the kitchen, holding the gun with both hands. She stopped just outside the kitchen door. “What do you want?” she asked, trying very hard to keep her composure.
A woman with dark hair and a high-collared blouse stepped into the apartment. A perfect diamond-shaped brooch glimmered at her throat. She stopped in the middle of the men and raised an eyebrow at Tania. “Must we really go through this? It is so tedious. You know what we want.”
“No. I don't.” Tania didn't even sound convincing to her own ears.
“The child, Tania. Give us the child and we will leave you alone... and alive.”
“That's not going to happen. She's my daughter. I promised him she wouldn't be taken. Besides, she's... she's not here.” Tania hoped against hope that the lie would work. She couldn't bear to lose the only thing she had left.
The woman gave a sinister smile. “Him?”
Tania gulped. “My deceased husband.”
“Well, that explains a lot. Including your gun there. Hand it over. Kelvin, go find the girl.”
One of the men stepped forward.
“No!” Tania screamed at him. She aimed and pulled the trigger. A laser shot across the room and sliced the fabric and the flesh on one of his arms.
He yelped and slapped a hand to his bleeding appendage.
Tania felt her eyes get wide. A laser gun. Why had her husband had a laser gun? Why had she shot that soldier?
“She's become a mother bear,” the woman cooed. “Her promise has turned her into this. Only one thing will make her give the child to us.” She paused and reached into a pocket.
She pulled out a tiny gun and shot. Tania fell to the floor, a laser burning near her heart.
“Death,” the woman pocketed the gun and motioned for the soldiers to put their weapons down.
Tania gasped for breath. Now she knew what had killed him. Who had killed him. The only question left was why? Why was he dead? Why did they want her baby?
The woman walked toward Tania and knelt by her side. “Find the child,” she ordered her men.
“Wh-who... are... you?” Tania managed to gasp.
The woman took Tania's laser gun and tossed it away, then looked back at her and leaned closer so she could talk quietly. “Who am I?” she asked. “I am the whisper that haunts you in your nightmares. I am the lone figure that waits in the shadows to pounce on my prey. I am the last woman in the world you want to cross.” She leaned even closer, until her mouth was right next to Tania's ear. “Chances are, your child will never remember you existed.”
Tania cried once again. Her gasps turned into sobs, choking sobs, as the life drained from her body.
A scream from the bedroom shattered the silence and the woman stood to her feet.
Tania spent her last breath pleading for her child, with one single word, “Terra.”
The screaming from the bedroom didn't stop as the woman followed the sound. A tiny child's screams, coming from a tiny child's body. Fear made the girl strong, and it took three men to hold her back.
“Ma'am?” Kelvin asked. “Did you bring the instrument?”
The woman pulled what looked like a compact from her pocket, opened it, and turned a dial a few times. With a lift of her head, she pointed the mirror at the child. A halogen light shone from it and the child's actions went from screaming to crying, and finally ended with a sort of serene trance.
“What is that thing?” Kelvin nodded to the device in her hand.
The woman handed it to him, the light still pointed at the child. “It doesn't matter. Keep it trained on her and you'll be fine. Let's get a move on, we have a transport to catch.”
She walked back through the living room and motioned all the men toward the door. “Send the coordinates,” she instructed the man nearest her. She glanced at Tania's body. “Burn the apartment. No one must know that the child is still alive. He'll know at the right time, and that is all that matters.”
“And the neighbors?” Kelvin inquired. “They will have heard the screaming.”
She turned to look at him as he escorted the girl out of her bedroom. “Mass protocol brain wipe. No one heard or saw anything.”
Kelvin nodded and the woman took the compact from him. “Get it over with. The child will need an escort once we arrive at the other end. Move quickly.”
Kelvin walked behind the woman and the child as they made their way into an open courtyard between the apartment buildings, keeping his eyes peeled for any disturbance.
Soon, the smell of smoke filled the air and the fire began its purge of the apartment. Flames broke through the windows and fire sirens could be heard in the distance. Their response time was admirable.
“Did you send the coordinates?” the woman asked Kelvin as his men joined them in the open air.
“Bob did,” he replied. “The transport will be here any second now.” He glanced at the little girl swathed in the halogen light. “Will that thing work during transport?”
The woman glanced at him disdainfully. “As long as it is trained on her it will work.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Kelvin lowered his gun to his side and took his stance.
Another of the military personnel came and took his stance on the other side of the woman. “Ready in three, two, one...”
A bright light engulfed the entire open area and the next moment, everyone was in a different place. A long hallway, to be exact, white and sterile-smelling.
The woman smiled and lifted her chin. “At last,” she spoke mostly to herself, “we have the perfect plan to end the Specials.” She turned and handed the compact to Kelvin. “When you're done with it, make sure it gets back to me unharmed. Take the girl to her quarters. And I want all the records we have on her and the other Special from ten years ago.” She turned around and walked through what appeared to be a solid wall.
Collin, now ten years old, sat down on his favorite boulder and looked down at what appeared to be a hand-held video game. He flipped open the top and pushed a button on the side. A hologram appeared in the form of a woman in a white lab coat.
“Hello, and welcome to Lifeline Incorporated, your lifeline to your loved ones,” she said in a pre-programmed voice, “please state your name and authorization code to proceed.”
Collin pulled a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket, nearly dropping his half-shape necklace as he did. He quickly caught it and stuffed it back in.
“Um... I'm Collin Foster,” he checked the code written on the paper, “and my authorization code is 594402.”
The hologram disappeared for a moment and then switched to a woman in a business suit. She had been specially programmed to look like his mother, whom he hadn't seen in five years. “Good morning, Collin,” the hologram greeted him. “How may I direct your video message today?”
“I need to speak with Captain.”
The hologram was silent for a moment as it searched its database. “I am sorry, I do not have any listing of 'Captain'.”
“I mean John,” Collin corrected quickly, “I need to speak with John McAllen.”
“One moment, please.” The Lifeline Hologram squeaked and squealed, finding the connection through space. It finally locked on. “Collin Foster from Antare now connected to flight deck.” The woman disappeared and John's face took her place.
“Collin!” John said happily. “What's up, buddy?”
Collin sighed and let his shoulders sag. “They keep asking me all these questions!”
“Who? The Anti-plan operatives?” John looked concerned.
Collin nodded. “It's like they think I'll remember something from when I was five, and I don't. All I really remember is my mom and dad.”
“I thought they'd given up on trying to get you to identify personnel from The Offensive.”
Collin rolled his eyes and immediately wished he hadn't. He would probably get in trouble for that later. “I wish. After school every morning it's 'Collin, do you remember this'? 'Collin, do you recognize this person'? I am getting annoyed.”
“What can I do about it?” John smiled, anticipating Collin's next words.
“Make them stop.”
“Collin, how am I supposed to make them stop? I'm lightyears away.”
Collin tapped his foot against the rock. “Then come back and take me with you.”
“You know you're not old enough to go on rescue missions with me. You have to wait. Be patient. Your day will come. You'll get off Antare eventually.”
“I don't want eventually, I want now!” Collin yelled. He didn't want to lead a boring life. He had a wanderlust so intense that he couldn't put it into words. He didn't know why he needed to go. He just did.
John took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. “Collin, do you remember the day we got to Antare?”
Collin furrowed his brow, thinking hard about what had happened. They had arrived on the planet and had been greeted by four men who all looked pretty tough. The men had said they were from the Anti-plan and had told Collin they had a place for him to stay. He had been in that place ever since, under the care of a cyborg schoolmarm.
“Yeah, I remember,” he said.
John smiled and leaned toward the camera, enlarging his hologram. “Do you remember how relieved you were to be somewhere, anywhere, that people cared about you?”
Collin nodded again, replaying that day over and over in his head. “Yeah. I don't think I would have liked to be taken by The Offensive.”
“Remember that and I think you'll make it through.” John paused for a second and looked down toward the ground. “I got a message from your dad the other day.”
Collin perked up and a huge smile lit his face. “What did he say? Is he coming to see me?” He desperately hoped so, as he hadn't seen his father since that night five years ago. He always promised he would come, but he never did.
John's face fell a little, and Collin could tell he was trying to be positive in a difficult situation. As always.
“He's not coming, is he?” It didn't take a genius to figure that out.
“No, he isn't. Not right now,” John confirmed. “He said he loves you very much, but he's still being chased by The Offensive and he doesn't want to put you in danger.”
“That's what he always says,” Collin protested.
“That's because it's true. I've checked, Collin. He really is being pursued and I'm on his side. It would be a huge risk to your life if he came to Antare now.”
“I don't care. He's my dad and I miss him.”
John smiled back at him. “I know. I'll get him a Lifeline Hologram if I can. But I'm not promising anything.”
A beeping noise came from the other end of the line, and John glanced away from the screen. “All right. Is that all, buddy?”
Collin nodded, even though he wished he could talk to Captain for a while longer. “For now. Mala will be missing me. I should get back to my homework.”
“Okay. I have a mission to run, but I'll be back as soon as I can.”
“Looking forward to it,” Collin sounded less than enthused.
The hologram turned off, and Collin shut the lid on the device. Captain John McAllen was the closest thing to a father that he had. He went to him for advice on everything. Mala – his cyborg teacher – disapproved at times, but Collin didn't mind her scoldings. He did what he felt was right.
He took a deep breath and walked back into the one-story building he called home. He didn't bother to shut the door behind himself, because he knew it would shut on its own. That's how things worked on Antare. Fully automated.
A woman with black hair and metal covering half her face came around the corner from the kitchen. That was Mala. She had been in a bad accident when she was sixteen, and had been converted to a cyborg in order to save her life. She was only twenty-one now. She had been converted mere weeks before Collin had moved to Antare. He was her first pupil, her first test to see if the conversion had truly taken. If it had, Mala would be able to teach Collin anything he needed – no, wanted – to know, due to the vast network of information flowing through her brain.
“Collin, have you been out calling Captain McAllen again?” Mala had one metal leg and one human, so it made her limp precariously.
Collin nodded, not seeing any need to lie to her.
“What have I told you about calling him in the middle of your school day?” Her voice echoed in her chest, due to the metal implants holding her lungs together. Technically speaking, she could live without oxygen if the need arose.
“I needed to speak with him. You don't understand me, Mala. You're only half-human.”
Mala lowered her gaze momentarily. “I know. I cannot sympathize as much as a full-blooded human. It is the curse of my existence.”
Collin hung his head, ashamed of his thoughtless comment. “I'm sorry, Mala. I didn't think of it like that.”
Mala nodded, her human emotions overpowering the cyborg metal and a tear running down her cheek. “I forgive you, Collin. I just don't understand why you insist on speaking only with him. I try to be a good listener.”
Collin ran forward and gave her a hug. “Please don't cry. You are a good listener. He's just the closest thing I have to a dad right now.”
“I understand.” She stood straighter and blinked away the tears. “Well, since you have returned, I suggest we commence with your schooling.”
Collin nodded and turned toward the small room they used for a classroom. He knew Mala would follow, once she composed herself. He sat himself at his desk and opened his most recent textbook.
Thanks to his ability to learn quickly, Collin had already finished his textbooks on Earth History, History of the Universe, and Space Survival 101. He had been told that these were not classes he would have needed to take had he grown up on earth, but they were necessary for a child from Antare.
Mala entered the room and took her seat at the desk which monitored Collin's progress. The tables were, in fact, digital. The surface was a touch-screen computer, fully equipped with all the courses and tests from the textbooks Collin needed to study.
“Are you ready for your test from chapter six?” Mala asked, placing her hand on the touch-screen.
Collin put his hand on his own screen. “I'm ready.”
One by one, questions scrolled across Collin's screen and he answered them by typing the correct answer. After he had completed all sixty-one questions, he clicked the “done” button.
Mala stared intently at her screen as the information and typed answers downloaded into her head. She paused for just about a second before saying, “Congratulations, Collin. You have scored a one hundred percent test on chapter six of your textbook.”
Collin smiled and placed his hands in his lap. “Can I go play now?”
Mala smiled back at him, her affection for her pupil showing in her eyes. “You may.”
Collin raced out the door again and toward the only park in the city. He was one happy kid. Happy to be done with school for the day. Happy to be alive. Happy to be free.
• • •
The man touched the welt on his temple – produced by a blow that had rendered him unconscious – and winced. That was definitely going to bruise, if it wasn't bruised already. He glanced above him and spotted the three soldiers that had infiltrated his ship. “Ah. Lovely.”
He pushed himself to a sitting position. He didn't recognize where he was. That was never a good sign. It probably meant that The Offensive had finally caught up to him.
It was then that he noticed the woman standing behind the men. Dark lipstick and a high collar, adorned with a perfectly symmetrical diamond brooch. Yep, this was the endgame. The Offensive had caught up with him. Well, he had run the best he could. Hopefully they would give him a proper and decent end. It was the most he could ask for.
“Who are you?” he asked the woman. His head still spun.
“I thought you would have known,” the woman answered. “My name is Madame Kowalsky, regimental leader of The Offensive. This is our headquarters.”
“Yeah. Figured that out,” he stretched his neck, still struggling to stay upright. “So, what's my end to be?”
Madame Kowalsky stepped forward, in front of the soldiers, and smirked. “I hadn't thought about it. This invisible segment of the International Space Station usually consumes my imaginings.”
The man shrugged. “I suppose so. Although something tells me I don't have much time left to appreciate it.” He rubbed a sore shoulder and stood to his feet. “So why don't you just get it over with?”
“In time, Jeremy, in time,” Madame Kowalsky cooed. “And, trust me, we have a very fitting end in store for you.”
“How do you know my name?” He was pretty sure he already knew, but it never hurt to ask.
“We have our sources, our files. Why don't you come with me for a moment.”
Jeremy nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. At least they were hospitable enough to give him a tour of the place before his demise. “Sure. Can't hurt to know who's about to kill you.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
The soldiers lifted their guns, obviously preparing for any resistance. They kept the barrels lowered, but Jeremy could tell that they were in combat mode.
He would resist, honestly he would, but he knew those things wouldn't kill him quickly. Plus, he was just a bit curious as to what death this Madame Kowalsky had planned for him. If he had to go out, he could at least go out in a unique way. That wasn't a very comforting thought. He sighed and followed the woman through a doorway.
“I think you will find our sterilizing system to be top of the line,” she explained. “We have a complete control room, through that door,” she pointed, “along with other doors leading to offices, sleeping quarters, and, of course, our security center.” She stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to face Jeremy. “I doubt you'll want to take time to see each and every one of those rooms. You seemed anxious to end all this and, quite frankly, I don't wish to have you around any longer than necessary. So, I shall show you the one room that matters.”
He didn't have much choice as the soldiers herded him down the hallway. They all stopped outside a sliding metal door, equipped with airlocks. The keypad wasn't really a keypad at all, just a round ball that required a DNA match to open the door.
Jeremy suddenly wondered what could possibly need that much security to hold it into the room. It had to be something horrible, didn't it?
Madame Kowalsky opened the airlocks and stood staring toward the opening portal, a sly smirk on her face.
Jeremy tried not to wince as he awaited his demise. The door seemed to take forever to slide open, and when it did he was more astonished than he had anticipated he would be.
On the floor in the middle of the room, with her eyes glued toward her bed, sat a red-headed little girl. She turned halfway around to look at them, and he noted her huge blue eyes.
“Terra, go to your bed,” Madame Kowalsky's tone was uncivil, vicious.
The little girl glared at her for a moment, then stood up and walked to her bed. She sat precariously on the edge, staring at Madame Kowalsky with intelligence beyond her years hidden behind her young eyes.
“But,” Jeremy stammered, “she's a child! Why do you have a child locked up so tightly? She can't be older than eight.”
Madame Kowalsky smiled. “She's not just a child. Her name is Terra. She is seven years old. In the two years she has been here she has attempted an escape fourteen times,” she gave him a shove into the room, “And she's the perfect weapon.”
The soldiers held him at gunpoint while the door closed, sealing him inside. He leaned his forehead against the cold metal door and caught his breath before he turned to look at Terra. She still sat on her bed, but now her eyes seemed to stare into nothingness, and she sat as still as a statue.
He had seen the effects of long-term suggested personality hypnosis before, and that was what they were doing to this poor little thing. She wouldn't even realize what she was about to do until after she did it.
He stared at her with compassion in his eyes. “I am so sorry, little one. So sorry for what they're doing to you. Don't cry for me when it's over. You didn't know.”
A table appeared from the floor, a gun set precariously on top. Terra looked over at it and picked up the gun. She pointed it at him, her eyes still listless.
In a moment, it was over.
• • •
Terra woke from her trance and looked down at the gun in her hands. She screeched and quickly shoved it back onto the table. The table disappeared into the floor, taking the gun with it.
She looked around the room and saw no one. Not a single person. Which meant only one thing. She had done the bidding of The Offensive once again.
They were trying to train her to be a killer, but Terra – even at age seven – knew that it was wrong. Yet, here she was, a seven-year-old who had undoubtedly shot and killed someone. She glared above her at the bright lights flooding her bed.
“I hate you,” she whispered to them harshly.
They continued to shine down on her, emitting no heat but shining too much light. White light that infiltrated her mind and made her do things she didn't want to do. And she hated it with a passion.
Terra's quick little brain had already thought of multiple ways to escape, and all of them had ended in failure. She was losing hope. And, the worst part, she could barely remember her home on planet Earth anymore.
The memories were fading, even as she tried to keep remembering. What was left of her memories of her mother were mostly smells and a faint memory of curly, light brown hair. Every once in a while, she could remember a song her mother had sung to her at bedtime. Even those were fading now. For a seven-year-old, that was the most traumatic thing that could happen.
Terra momentarily wondered who it had been that she had shot. Probably the man from the doorway. He had seemed nice. He just had one of those faces.
She fingered the half-shape while she thought about what might have happened. She hoped she hadn't made it a slow death. Madame Kowalsky said that a slow death was the worst kind. That when it hurt longer, it also destroyed deeper.
The lights on the white walls dimmed, signaling the end of what Terra knew as day.
Terra pulled open her single drawer and retrieved a notebook and a pencil. One tally mark went down on the paper. She clutched the pad to her chest and drew her knees to it.
She looked around the prison that was keeping her alive. Sterile white walls with only one window. Outside that window, only stars to keep her company. Lonely, lonely stars.
Terra, in the depths of despair, curled into a ball on her bed and cried until she found solace in sleep.
Something woke Collin up and he rolled over to look out his window. It was morning, bright and cheery and beautiful. That wasn't what had woken him up, though. It had definitely been a sound, not a sight.
He heard it and nearly slapped his forehead in frustration. Of course that's what it was. He felt around his bedside table until he found the Lifeline Hologram. He opened the top and hit the receive button.
“Good morning, Collin!” John McAllen said loudly from the other end of the line.
Collin smiled and propped himself up on one arm. “Good morning, Captain!” his voice cracked a bit on the last word.
“You know what day it is, don't you?” Captain grinned.
Collin thought for a minute before it registered. “My thirteenth birthday?”
Captain nodded enthusiastically. “You got it. Happy birthday, Collin!”
Collin sat up in bed and beamed. “I'm thirteen. I made it to teenage years!” This was a huge milestone, for him. He had honestly thought he might die of boredom before he made it to thirteen.
“That's not all that happens today,” the captain insisted. “Where's your half-shape?”
Collin pushed aside the blankets and went rummaging through his drawers and pockets. He didn't exactly remember where he had last put it.
“I told you not to lose it,” Captain scolded.
“Yeah, well, Mala told me to wear it at all times, but that's not gonna happen. With all the people on the look-out for Specials in the universe, do you really think I would wear it? It's around here somewhere. And you're lucky I haven't thrown it in the dump.”
Captain laughed. “It's more important than you think.”
“Well, you're gonna have to prove that to me. Thirteen years and all it's ever done is sit there and look... well... pretty, I guess is the right word to describe it.”
“Admit it, you can't get rid of it because it's a part of your life. A part of you.”
Collin reached inside a pocket in one of his coats and pulled out the half-shape. “Found it!” He tossed it into the air and caught it again, then instantly released it. “It's cold! It–it's freezing. It felt like an ice cube.”
“That's what I was about to tell you. It's your thirteenth birthday, Collin. The half-shape activates for you today.”
“Mala has everything you'll need to know about the half-shape, stored in her memory. I can't stay on this line much longer, I'm about to head into a rescue. She'll explain all she can.”
“When are you coming back to see me?” Collin slid his feet into his boots and tried to lace them with one hand. It didn't exactly work.
“Hopefully later today. We'll see. And, no, you're not coming aboard the rescue ship yet. You're still too young.”
Collin smiled. Captain had a way of knowing what he was going to say and do before he said or did it. “Wasn't gonna ask,” he lied.
“Yes, you were,” Captain stated matter-of-factly.
Collin gave a half-smile and shrugged. “Yeah. I was.”
Captain saluted and laughed. “Have a great birthday.” The transmission cut off.
“I will,” Collin whispered to the blank screen.
He finished lacing his boots and ran his fingers through his shaggy hair instead of combing it. It was a bad habit, but he wanted to know what Mala knew. As much as he acted like he didn't like his half-shape, it had always intrigued him.
Why did Captain have to be so mysterious about things? Why couldn't he just tell it like it was? Things would be so much simpler if he would just do that one thing. Honesty was the best policy, wasn't it?
Collin raced into the kitchen and found Mala standing in front of their stove, making breakfast.
“Sit down, please,” she requested.
Collin sat down at the table and fingered the freezing half-shape he had put in his pocket. He was dying to know what this was all about, but he knew Mala couldn't be rushed. He had never been able to rush her. She had a will of steel. He laughed at his own pun.
“I see you're in a good mood today,” Mala turned to him with a smile and a plate stacked with pancakes. They were topped with frosting and sprinkles.
“What's that for?” Collin joked.
Despite her cyborg parts, there was one thing Mala had going for her on the human side. She had a wonderful sense of humor. Unfortunately, her cyborg parts usually overrode her human emotions. It was one of the side effects of the conversion process.
Mala gave him a rather surprised look. “It is an official Antare birthday cake, of course. I suggest you eat up.”
Collin picked up a fork and dug into the tall stack of pancakes. “Mala, these are perfect.”
“Thank you. I made them using my favorite recipe. Recipes are one of the few favorites I can have, being a cyborg.”
“Sorry to bring it up,” Collin murmured. He knew it was a touchy subject.
“It is fine. I understand you cannot monitor every word that leaves your mouth. It is only human of you.”
Collin shrugged, his mouth still full of pancake and frosting. “I guess so.”
“On a happier note,” Mala continued, “you have now reached your thirteenth birthday and completed all the classes necessary to qualify for an Antare graduate. You may now choose to learn about anything you desire.”
Collin smiled at her and put down his fork. “I want to learn about this,” he pulled the half-shape from his pocket. “It's freezing today. It's never done this before. Captain said it activated today. What does that mean?”
Mala sighed. “I should have known you would want to know that. And I have been downloading files on the Specials in order to help. Finish your breakfast and we will talk.”
Collin shoved the end of his pancakes in his mouth as quickly as he dared and pushed the plate away. “Now will you tell me?”
“There is much to tell.” Mala sat down next to him and placed her hands on the table. “We will start with the simple. The half-shape itself. Would you mind if I looked at it?”
Collin shrugged and placed the half-shape in Mala's hand. She didn't even seem to notice how cold it was.
She rolled it around for a moment before she smiled at Collin. “Oh, the intricate beauty of this device.” She sounded as if she were in awe of it.
“Device? I thought it was just a necklace.”
“It is so much more than that,” Mala confessed. “It contains so much more. It creates hope for so much more.”
“Well, spit it out!” Collin demanded. “What does it do?”
“So many things. Its main purpose is to be a tracking device of sorts, but only between two people. You see, somewhere out there, somewhere in the universe, is a girl. A very special girl. She has the other half of this shape, though I do not know if hers has activated yet or not. This girl, this special girl, is also a Half-Shape Child. She is your one true love. There is no need to discover who she is or where she is right now, but one day you will be ready. One day, you will desire to find her and this half-shape will help. You see, the closer you are in proximity to this girl, the warmer the half-shape will become. The farther away you are, the colder it will become.”
“Like a game,” Collin observed.
“A little bit, only so much more serious.”
“Does it have a secondary purpose?” Collin wouldn't have thought to ask that normally, but she had said it did many things. That spiked his interest.
“Yes,” Mala replied, “and that is where The Offensive comes in.”
“Yeah. I've heard you speaking with Captain about them. They're the ones who killed my dad last year, aren't they?”
Mala looked at him with eyes full of compassion and sympathy. “And they have discovered how to use the half-shape's secondary purpose to their advantage.”
“What is the secondary purpose?”
“I have been sworn to secrecy on all the details, but it absorbs energy from its owner. A specific kind of energy. I can't tell you any more about it. I swore I wouldn't.”
“Absorbs energy? Is that good?”
“I can't tell you anything else about it. I swore. You'll discover it eventually anyway. You're clever like that.”
Collin was confused. Why had she been sworn to secrecy? If he was the owner of a half-shape and one of the last living Specials, didn't he deserve to know everything? He sighed and tried to gather more information by changing the topic.
“Where do the half-shapes come from?”
“That is an easier question. No one really knows. A half-shape child is only born if half or all of the DNA that creates the child is from a half-shape adult. The necklace materializes at the child's birth and stays with them throughout their life. Nearly everything else about them is human.”
“And I'm one of them?” Collin said it more as a statement than a question, because he already knew the answer.
She smiled and gave a long nod in the affirmative. “Of course you are.”
“What can you tell me about The Offensive? What can you tell me about the people who killed my father?”
Mala cleared her throat and spoke almost as if she had memorized a speech. It was probably a direct download from an encyclopedia. “The Offensive is a community of people that believe the Half-Shape Children, or Specials, are a menace to society of all kinds. They believe an offensive approach, rather than a defensive one, is the better plan. Their primary goal is to destroy the race of Specials by manipulating the energies stored in the half-shapes. They will stop at nothing.”
“That's it?” Collin was disappointed. “That's all that people know about them? That's stupid. That's barely any information at all.” He was surprised at how angry he became at the lack of knowledge. He was usually so mellow.
“Well, I can only tell you what I have found or what is stored in my knowledge base. That's it.”
“Then I'll have to discover more as I get older, won't I?” His never-give-up attitude showed in his response to the situation.
“It's the only way. Did I explain everything clearly enough?”
Collin nodded, still slightly afraid of what this meant for his future. He didn't even know this girl who was supposed to be his one true love. Who cared, anyway? It was highly unlikely that they would ever find each other, even with the half-shapes. So who cared who she was, or where she was, or what she was doing? It didn't matter, not to him. He would grow up and do what he wanted, and he would never be obligated to find her. That was the end of it. He would never try to find her.
He quickly turned his thoughts to other things. To his birthday and his friends and the things he aspired to do. He would do them, all right. Because, as Mala had said, he was clever enough to do anything.
• • •
Terra woke up, trying not to stare into the white lights for any longer than need be, and instantly knew something was wrong.
She clutched at her half-shape and pulled her hand away quickly. Cold. It was cold. It had never been cold before. It usually held just a slightly cooler temperature than her body heat. Today it was very, very cold.
She rolled off her bed and rifled through the one drawer she was allowed in the room. She pulled out a pad of paper and counted tally marks. Pages and pages of them. One for each time the lights dimmed and brightened. One for the only day she knew. Each one representing a length of time spent living her own miserable existence.
Today was her twelfth birthday. Terra set the tablet down and stared out the window into the stars.
“Happy birthday, my lonely stars,” she whispered to the space outside.
“Happy birthday to you, Terra,” said a voice from the doorway.
Terra sighed and turned to see Madame Kowalsky and two soldiers. She never came without her soldiers for backup. Coward.
“How is it happy?” Terra slammed the drawer closed and leaned on the table, crossing her arms in defiance. “Here I am, under your thumb as you try to make me some kind of perfect weapon.”
“When did you figure that one out?” Madame Kowalsky looked amused, despite the lack of a smile on her face.
“You know I've always been a very intelligent girl. It didn't take long.”
“Very good. I suppose you should know we are moving out today.”
“Moving out?” Terra asked. “Where are we going?”
Madame Kowalsky laughed. “A more permanent home for you.” She motioned around the room. “More bars.”
Terra looked around at the bare walls and uncomfortable cot. More bars. She shook her head. That could really only mean one thing. “A prison, then?” She pushed some red hair out of her face. “You're going to put me in a prison?”
“You aren't just any twelve-year-old. Besides, your necklace activated today. I suspect it changed temperatures.”
Terra stood up straighter. It never ceased to annoy her that Madame Kowalsky always seemed to know more about everything than she did. It wasn't fair. “About that word. Activated. What did it activate for?”
“For the boy who won't ever come to find you.” Madame Kowalsky motioned to her, commanding her to come forward.
Terra walked toward her obediently. “There's a boy? A boy, following me with a necklace? Oh, come on, what is it? A geospacial positioning tracker?”
“Yes, of sorts,” Madame Kowalsky confirmed. “But, as I said, he'll never come for you.”
“Why not?” Terra glanced at the soldiers and seriously considered what she could do to get away. She always created an escape plan in her head. Even if she knew it was futile.
“Oh, a lot of reasons, I presume. Mostly because he doesn't want to. It's his fault you're still stuck here. He could have found you by now, if he wanted to. But, then, who would want to come for a worthless girl like you?” Madame Kowalsky turned and started out the door, her attention switching from Terra to one of the soldiers. “Bring the girl and hurry it up.”
Terra glared at the guard but followed Madame Kowalsky nonetheless. It would seem that she didn't have a choice. That was becoming normal.
“So, where is this prison at?” Terra tried to keep up with Madame Kowalsky's brisk pace.
“It's the Intergalactic Space Penitentiary.”
“So, there are others imprisoned there as well?” Terra couldn't help herself, she was curious. The thought that she might not be the only wrongly imprisoned person in the universe brought hope into her dismal existence.
“Yes, but not of your kind. Many other kinds, but not yours. Don't worry, we'll see to it that no one bothers you.”
“Of course,” Terra mumbled. “Keeping the isolated girl isolated. Trying to make me more violent?”
Madame Kowalsky smirked. It was as close to a smile as Terra had ever seen from the woman. “Is it working?”
Terra rolled her eyes. Of course it was working. She had been born with the innate desire to be around people and they were depriving her of that. She was going to become someone who would escape at all costs, even at the cost of a life. And, she knew, that was exactly what they wanted.
“Of course not,” Terra lied. “Because your plans won't work. Not ever.”
“We shall see,” Madame Kowalsky chuckled. “Prepare for transport.”
Terra took her place against the wall. Behind Madame Kowalsky and between the two soldiers. She didn't even know their names. She had never thought to ask. Maybe it wasn't too late to make a few friends after all.
She sighed inwardly. She knew better. The soldiers probably wouldn't even talk to her if she asked them to. They were probably under direct orders from Madame Kowalsky. And that woman was the bane of Terra's existence.
A white light engulfed them, and they slowly materialized in a different point in space. The halls were wider there, and made of what appeared to be stone. The ceilings were high, but not quite as high as they had been in her room on the Space Station. One side of the hall was solid stone, the other side contained rooms, divided by thick stone and with the front of the rooms entirely barred. It was a prison, more of a prison than Terra had ever been in before, and it frightened her.
“What's this?” asked a greenish-hued man from a cell nearby. “A new arrival? What's one so small done that can be bad enough to get her put in this place?”
“Enough of your lip!” came a cry down the hallway. A man approached them, wearing black prison guard attire. He pointed to the soldiers and Madame Kowalsky. “Are you the escort for the new arrival?”
One of the soldiers nodded. Singular, short.
“All right, then. Who's the unlucky chap?” The guard seemed almost eager, much to Terra's chagrin.
Madame Kowalsky stepped aside and motioned to Terra. Terra didn't like the expressions she saw on anyone's face at that moment.
“What? A little girl is my new maximum security prisoner?” The guard was obviously in disbelief of the situation. Terra couldn't blame him. Deep inside, she knew the life she was leading had somewhere gone terribly awry.
“Oh, believe me, she is much more trouble than she looks,” Madame Kowalsky insisted.
“Where'd you say you're from again?” The man checked a screen on a small hand-held computer.
Madame Kowalsky's entire posture stiffened. “I'm one of your superiors. I work for and lead The Offensive and you, sir, are obligated to listen and obey every command I give.”
The man sucked in a sharp breath, evaluating her words. “Yes, ma'am. Follow me, then, if you will.”
The four mismatched travelers followed the man through many multiple halls, until Terra suspected they were about as far into the penitentiary as they could get. There, he opened an airlocked door and escorted them down a similar, but winding and lonely, hall. Toward the end of the hall, there was a decent-sized cell built into one side. It was empty, but seemed prepared for someone.
Terra held back tears and said a hateful hello to her new home.
The guard unlocked the cell door using a biometric keypad on the outside and escorted Terra in.
“Is that it, then? Are you just going to leave me here?” She turned to stare blankly at Madame Kowalsky.
The woman smirked again and approached the bars. “Absolutely not. We will be monitoring your every move. So don't try anything.”
Terra smirked back and shrugged. “No promises.”
With one final look back at Terra, the woman and the soldiers left. The guard stayed a moment to shake his head and examine her before he walked back down the long hallway.
Terra turned to the one window in the cell and said hello to her new batch of lonely star friends.