“We have to go now.”
“She knows that. For pity’s sake, give her a moment.”
Tistan Duel ignored the arguing voices of her two companions. All that was in her blurred vision was the sight of her newborn daughter. Compared to the small miracle she cuddled in her arms, the rest of world fell away into a quiet oblivion.
Her daughter was asleep and perfectly content, her tiny chest rising and falling in peaceful rhythm. How a blanket so small could contain something so pure was lost on Tistan. How a being so helpless and fragile had the power to brighten her day or fill her heart with hope for the future was a mystery.
A war was being waged deep inside Tistan. On one side, what she knew she must do. On the opposite side, motherly instinct begging her to abandon all reason.
If not for a simple truth, her decision would remain deadlocked. But the truth was glaring her in the face: her daughter would have no place amongst her mother’s people. She would be looked on as a half-breed. What kind of life would she have? It was only Tistan’s inability to say goodbye that made her still embrace the bundle in her arms.
“I’ll always be watching over you,” Tistan whispered. She nuzzled the baby’s tiny nose with her own. “I love you with everything I am, my star.”
The warrior spirit living in Tistan was humbled and then broken in that moment. What dozens of enemies and battles failed to achieve was accomplished by the most unsuspecting of infants. Hot tears fell down Tistan cheeks and onto chubby feet below.
Further words were unnecessary. If they were, Tistan didn’t have them. Tistan understood it was time. She pulled the soft, pink blanket over the exposed feet of her daughter.
A hollow feeling, as if her insides were being carved out, consumed Tistan. She placed her daughter in the crib. Leaning over the railing, she kissed the baby on the brow one last time.
Tistan’s lips left the soft forehead of her daughter. The baby released a contented sigh from her tiny lungs, followed by the tiniest fart that ever existed.
No one had to tell Tistan; she would never be able to love another being like this again. Perhaps she would be capable of love one day, but not like this. Never like this.
“The sleeping potion we gave her mate will wear off soon,” Drown’s harsh voice came once again. “Our window of opportunity is closing.”
“Tistan.” Slain placed a gentle hand onto her shoulder. “We must be going soon. Take comfort that you are doing the best thing for your daughter. She’ll grow up in a world she understands, with a father who loves her.”
Tistan turned from the crib, abandoning not only her newborn daughter, but also the very best part of her. “Let’s go.”
Without another word, the spies exited the home and disappeared into the night.
Fifteen Years Later
I need to talk to you. I’ll meet you tonight, where you gaze at the stars.
That was it. Emma stared at her phone, half confused there wasn’t more to the message, half in shock anyone had texted her at all. Mrs. Debbie Drawls, the English teacher, carried on, oblivious to any snoozing student or side conversations taking place in the classroom.
Emma swallowed hard. She could list on one hand the number of names in her phone and one of them was her own. What was more concerning was the number the text message had been sent from. A “0” was the only clue to the identity of her mystery person.
How did this person know where she looked up at the stars? Not even her father knew how many times she stole to the top of their roof, wrapped in a blanket to enjoy the wonder the stars brought.
Sweat dampened Emma’s palms as she texted the number back. The phone was inconspicuously placed in her lap below her desk, barely visible if she titled her head down at just the right angle.
Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.
There. That should be the end of that, right? Emma took a deep breath, surprised by how a single text could pull her into such a state of panic. Emma licked dry lips. She took a deep breath, readjusting her attention on Mrs. Drawls. She moved to place her phone back into her pocket. Before she could, it vibrated again.
I know this is confusing, Emma. Trust me, I’m a friend.
A gasp escaped her lips, bringing all eyes in the room zeroing in on her. Emma felt heat rise to her face. What she wouldn’t give to sink into her seat, or better yet, become invisible altogether. So far this year, she had managed just that. But not now.
“What was that Miss… Miss…” Mrs. Drawls hesitated while she searched her databanks for Emma’s last name.
How much of an outcast did you have to be for your own teacher not to remember your name?
“J-Jackson.” Emma cleared her throat. “It … it’s Emma Jackson.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Drawls shrugged off the topic as if she’d remembered her name all along. “Miss Jackson, did you have something you wanted to share with the rest of us?”
“No … no, ma’am.” Emma wished for the hundredth time any kind of public speaking required of her wasn’t accompanied by shaky words. “I-I’m sorry.”
Snickering rolled through the class just above a whisper.
“You’re a good student.” Mrs. Drawls turned back to her famous rant that followed the final exam of the year. “Don’t ruin it on the last day of class.”
Out of her peripheral vision, Emma caught sight of Amber and Christina, the two girls who sat next to her who were now sharing a quiet laugh. The latest form of cyberbullying to wash over Triton High School was seeing who could snap a picture and create a cruel meme the fastest.
Amber was openly showing her latest meme—a picture of Emma taken only seconds ago while she spoke with Mrs. Drawls. The image was of her side profile, her uncharacteristically pointed ears peeking through long, blonde hair. The caption read, “Um … um, my ears are s-sorry, too.”
Emma took a deep, internal sigh. What was better: to be bullied at school, or not to have anyone take notice of you at all? For the longest time, Emma had prayed for the latter. Now that she had achieved anonymity, she wasn’t so sure. There were only two days left of freshman year and Emma hadn’t made a single friend. None who would last. At least there was always the janitor, Alan, who had a smile for everyone, or the obligatory lab partner who spoke only when spoken to.
The school bell rang, drowning out Mrs. Drawls. Students who seemed almost catatonic while school was in session now moved like lightning to pack up their books and head for the door.
“Remember”—Mrs. Drawls closed her own book—“even though you are done with my final, you still have one more day left of class. Study diligently and apply yourselves.”
Emma gathered her belongings and moved into the current of swarming students mobbing the school halls. Everyone was in a hurry to meet up with friends. Dozens of conversations erupted all around Emma, most on who planned to do what for the coming summer vacation.
As always, Emma walked by herself, catching bits and pieces of passing chatter.
“Did you hear Julie Anne’s parents have a timeshare on the river…”
“Donna and Shirley are coming, too. I wonder if their boyfriends will make it…”
Emma had a clear view of the front doors. She was a half-head taller than most girls her age, yet another reason she had been singled out at the beginning of the school year to be the brunt of jokes.
Before she knew it, Emma was outside. Hot California sun beamed down on her. Her sneakers carried her down the sidewalk to her home, undisturbed. She still couldn’t tell whether she enjoyed living three blocks from her high school or not. The short trip made for extra sleep in the morning but allowed for little excuse if she was ever tardy.
Her mind wandered back to the cryptic text messages she received while in class. If it was a mistake, how had the person known her name? Could that also be a coincidence, that they’d guessed her name? What were the odds of that?
For a brief moment, Emma thought about sending another text, but her father’s voice interrupted her train of thought.
“There she is. How was school today, Killer? Did you crack a few skulls?”
“Oh, yeah, Dad, that’s exactly what I did.”
“That’s my girl.” Mr. Jackson straddled a ladder near the front door, a power drill in one hand, a small camera in the other.
“Trying to catch your mystery man?” Emma stopped by the ladder, placing both hands on it to steady her father’s slight sway. “You know, it could be a woman. You should just invite her in. When’s the last time you went out on a date?”
The whirl of the drill brought a pause to the conversation.
“There.” Mr. Jackson looked down at his daughter with a mischievous grin. “How do you know I haven’t been sneaking off on dates? I’ll have you know, Miss Starling thinks I’m quite a catch.”
“Our eighty-year-old neighbor, Miss Starling?” Emma returned her father’s playful grin. “I think that’s just her cataracts talking, Dad.”
“I know.” Mr. Jackson climbed down the ladder and took a step back to admire his work. “If only she were fifty years younger.”
“Ewww, that’s so gross.” Emma shook her head, her previous grin twisting into a grimace. “Too far.”
Mr. Jackson shrugged. “Well, my dating life aside, if there is anyone creeping around here at night, we’ll catch them now. I installed a light on the other corner. It’ll go off if it detects motion.”
“Cameras, motion-detecting lights … what’s next, a home security system?”
“Don’t tempt me.” Mr. Jackson had that look on his face again, the one not exactly worried but intrigued.
“You thought you saw a shadow a few times.” Emma walked to the front door. “But that was all. It was probably nothing.”
“Maybe.” Mr. Jackson crossed his arms. “But you said you felt it, too. Like someone’s been watching us.”
Emma’s hand paused midway to the door, a snarky remark already on her lips, though the truth in what her father said had silenced her.
“Have you given any more thought on how you want to spend your summer?” The question Mr. Jackson asked was the beginning of an ongoing debate between father and daughter, one that still had no peaceful conclusion. “There’s plenty of hip camps, or you could always get a totally cool part-time job.”
“You’re butchering the dialect of my youth.” Emma looked up from her desk where she sat, studying for her finals. “I don’t know yet.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this”—Mr. Jackson walked into his daughter’s room and flopped, face-up, on her bed—“but you need to get out more. I can’t believe I’m saying this: maybe get into some trouble.”
“Wait, what?” Emma turned in her seat to give him her full attention. The image of her bearded, muscular father lying on her pink down comforter brought a smile to her lips. “You want me to get arrested?”
“Hey.” Her father sat bolt upright as if Emma’s words had sent a current of electricity through him. “I didn’t say get into trouble with the law. I’m just saying get out, make some friends, come home an hour later than curfew. Heck, who are we kidding, Em? At least stay out until curfew.”
“Oh boy, here we go.” Emma turned back to studying. “We’re about to embark on the whole ‘making friends is good for you’ talk, aren’t we?”
In a small, circular mirror she kept on her dresser, Emma could see her father get up from her bed and walk toward her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her head.
“I love you, kid, but if you don’t bring a friend or two home soon, I’m going to start having to make some for you.” Mr. Jackson caught her eye in the mirror with a sly smile. “And who knows how that will go? I might even get arrested for trying to befriend high school freshmen. Just tell me you’ll give some serious thought to a camp or a job this summer. It’ll be good for you, Em, trust me.”
“I’ll give it a shot.” Emma placed her right hand on top of her father’s. “Oh, and Dad, can you promise me one thing?”
It was clear the request had caught her father off guard. The silly grin disappeared from his lips and his eyes met his daughter’s, full of concern. “What is it, Em?”
“Can you let me do the cooking for tomorrow night’s dinner? My colon could really use a break from your famous Shepherd’s Surprise.”
“I would if ‘doing the cooking’ meant something other than calling for a pizza.” Mr. Jackson gave his daughter another kiss before walking to the door. “You’re lucky you’re cute, kid. You’d starve without me.”
“If I call for pizza, I am technically making dinner.”
“Debatable. Don’t stay up too late studying. You’re going to ace the tests anyway.” Mr. Jackson left the room.
“How do you know that?”
“Because you’re Emma Jackson,” her father said, his voice carrying down the hall behind him.
It was late before Emma closed her final book. Tired eyes focused on the impossible time glaring back at her from her phone: 11:15. Emma stood and stretched on tiptoes, extending her arms high overhead, and let out a deep sigh only hours of studying can bring.
Despite her body’s call for slumber, Emma walked toward her window. It was a clear, warm southern California night, one of those rare nights where the stars were bright despite the suburban city lights. Emma grabbed a light blanket from the foot of her bed for comfort rather than warmth.
She unlatched her second-story window, which provided her a bird’s-eye view over her neighborhood and into the secret lives of her neighbors. Emma’s mind wandered to memories of the neighbor across the street, Mr. Calhoon, a widower who sat with a bottle of whiskey and his wife’s picture almost every night.
Or there was Mrs. Buchterdon, a large woman who lived next to Mr. Calhoon and insisted on wearing the smallest workout outfits she could find while doing aerobics with the blinds open.
Emma felt a shudder race across her body that had nothing to do with the weather.
“Some things you just can’t unsee,” Emma said out loud as she stepped out onto the roof tiles.
Many people would be frightened to journey onto a roof after the sun went down. Footing was tricky; visibility, worse. Emma would be one of these people if she had not followed this exact routine for the last five years.
She was quiet so as to not wake her father, although Emma had a sneaking suspicion that he knew all along. It would be just like him to allow her time to herself and act surprised if and when she ever decided to tell him.
Emma could find her favorite spot on the roof if she were blindfolded. The dark grey shingles protecting the roof from the elements were a welcome sight. Emma reached her favorite spot, a perch just above her own window, where this section of the roof met the brick chimney.
The firmness of the chimney was a comfortable reminder she was safe despite her precarious position. Emma sat down, the blanket loosely over her shoulders. She let out a deep sigh as she stared out into the night sky.
From her childhood, Emma had had a fascination with stars and planets. As she grew older, the solar system on her bedroom ceiling and the pop-up books of the cosmos in her bookshelf were left behind, but the intrigue of the unknown was as strong as ever. Emma felt the social anxiety of school and the stress of exams melt as her eyes played over the many constellations she knew by heart. Even her father’s insistence she find friends, or something to do with her summer, paled in comparison to her view. Emma loved her father and knew he was only trying to help; still, her introverted disposition registered these topics of conversation as tension.
Emma was so wrapped up in the stars above, she failed to notice the figure next to her until it was too late.
“Don’t panic, or you’re going to fall off the roof,” spoke a woman’s voice strangely familiar to Emma, from somewhere to her left.
Despite the warning, Emma felt her body jolt. Fear raced down her spine as her heartbeat intensified. The fight-or-flight conundrum was realized and satisfied at once with an answer of flight.
Streetlights and illumination from the moon and stars provided just enough light to see a tall figure wrapped in shadows.
Emma rose on shaky legs, her back pressed so hard into the brick chimney, she thought she could feel sharp edges digging through her blanket and clothes and into her skin.
At once, the memories of the cryptic texts she received earlier that day flooded back. She should have taken them more seriously. How could she have forgotten them altogether?
“Who … who are you?” Emma managed to say over the sound of her own racing heart. “You were the one texting me today.”
“I did send you those messages.” The woman took a small, nonthreatening step forward. “As for who I am, showing you would be better, but you have to do your best not to scream. If not for your sake, then for your father’s.”
Emma got a better look at her visitor. The woman wasn’t wrapped in shadows; rather, it was a long, hooded cloak. The material was like nothing she had ever seen. It remained still, only adjusting when the woman moved forward. Its color was impossible to tell, but it seemed to change and blend in with the colors around it.
Something the woman had said bothered Emma, to the point she felt anger rise in her chest. “What do you mean, ‘for my father’s sake’?”
“Only that it would be difficult to explain my presence to him. I mean him no harm.”
“Well, who are you?” Emma repeated, her mind already racing to find an escape route. Would it be best to try to make it back into her room? A fall from her roof if she had to jump wouldn’t kill her, would it? “What do you want?”
The woman in front of her reached up and removed her hood.
Emma’s mouth dropped open despite herself. Her legs felt weak. Before she knew what was happening, she was sliding back down the chimney wall.
The woman in front of her wasn’t human at all. Light purple skin covered sharp human-like features. Pointed ears even more severe than Emma’s poked up through a mess of dark purple hair.
“My name is Tistan Duel. I am your mother. I’ve come to take you home.”
“You are … I am…” Emma put a hand to her stomach where a deep gurgle erupted. “What did my dad put in that shepherd’s pie?”
“Excuse me?” Tistan took another step forward.
“Nothing.” Emma swallowed hard before regaining her footing. The woman was taller than she’d first thought; six, maybe six-and-a-half feet tall. Dark eyes stared back at her with intrigue.
“I understand this must be a shock for you.” Tistan took a deep sigh, searching for words. “I will explain things to you later. Right now, we must return to—”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Emma’s voice came out higher-pitched than she would have liked. “Are you even human? Why would I believe that you’re my mother? I’m still asleep, aren’t I? This is some kind of mental breakdown or nightmare. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe I need to get out more.”
“I am not human. I am a Halyna from the planet Renia. Sixteen years ago, I was sent here along with two other infiltrators to assess Earth. I fell in love with your father. We were married despite my understanding it was forbidden. When the mission was over and I was called back, I made a decision to return, a decision I have regretted every single day since then.”
“Well, you just have an answer for everything, don’t you?” Emma felt the return of the anger she had experienced when she thought her father was being threatened. “My mother was human. She left just after I was born, without so much as a letter.”
Tistan Duel touched her own pointed ears, then pointed to Emma’s. “Yes, I did. And you are every part my daughter, from your features, to the warrior spirit that burns inside you now.”
Emma’s mind was doing cartwheels. This couldn’t be possible, but what other options did she have? Could she—would she—open her mind to the unthinkable truth that this purple-skinned woman could be her mother?
“I’ve played this scenario through in my mind a million times or more.” Tistan shook her head. “None of them work out with your forgiving or believing me right away. Do believe this: that I have come to check on you and your father whenever I can, that I do care for you, Emma, and that I’m here now to protect you.”
“Protect me? Protect me from what?”
“An enemy known as the Shay has taken an interest in Earth. When they come, your planet will fall. Your military is not equipped to handle the invasion. I’ve secured safe transportation to my planet for you.
“Well, that’s just way too much for me to process right now.” Emma shook her head against the oncoming migraine, but the action only made the pain intensify. “Wait, what about my dad? You’re not taking him, too?”
“I can only take one of you at a time.” So far in the conversation, Tistan was nothing short of commanding and blunt. She faltered now, looking down as if suddenly there was something interesting on the roof tiles. “I’m still securing an exit strategy for him.”
“No way.” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not leaving my father or—I can’t believe I’m even saying this—my planet.”
Tistan Duel narrowed her eyes at Emma. She crossed her own arms in a similar fashion. “I’m the Captain of intelligence for the Alliance forces, Emma Jackson, a multi-planet coalition formed to combat the Shay. I am not used to my orders being denied or even second-guessed.”
“Well, that sucks for you.” Emma met Tistan’s stare head-on although she couldn’t stop her voice from trembling. “E-Earth’s not part of this alliance, and I’m not one of your minions. I’m not going with you, even if you are my mother.”
The two women stood staring at one another. Emma could tell Tistan was capable of overpowering her if she desired. Even though the cloak covered most of her body, it did not soften the hard lines of a muscular build. It did nothing to mask the intensity in her eyes.
“You are impossibly stubborn, Emma Jackson.” Tistan shook her head. “Forcing you to come with me will do neither one of us any good.”
Emma was revisiting the thought of throwing herself off the roof and hoping for the best, when another idea crossed her mind.
“I get Earth isn’t in this alliance of yours, but why don’t you come and defend us from the Shay?”
“Planets and their inhabitants must be able to defend themselves.” Tistan dismissed the question as if it were one she had already thought of and had to answer herself. “It must be humans who defend their own home.”
“I … I can do it,” Emma spoke, without actually thinking about the repercussions her words would bring.
“That would be unlikely, although I do admire your spirit. The Arilion Knights are the only ones powerful enough to turn the Shay.”
“I can learn,” Emma said a little too loudly.
Both women halted the conversation to listen for any sound from within the home signaling they had been heard. In the interim, Emma could hear the steady gallop of her own heartbeat. What was she doing? Volunteering to fight for Earth, when she couldn’t even make a single friend all year? Her body was made for unicorn frappuccinos and video games, not training to defend an entire planet.
The silence lengthened until Tistan spoke again.
“You are stubborn like your father.” Tistan held Emma’s eye until it passed from ordinary to uncomfortable. “However, there may be a way.”
Emma’s brain felt like a beehive of activity. There were so many emotions coming and going, and coming again, she couldn’t hold on to more than two or three at a time. Foremost among these were fear, anger, and confusion. At the moment, fear and anger were taking a backseat to confusion.
“If … if I believe this crazy story you’re weaving … I can’t even believe I’m saying this … that you’re an alien and my mother, I should be pretty pissed at you.” For the first time that night, Emma was allowing herself to believe Tistan Duel’s explanation of things. “Growing up without a mom has been hard. I’ve played this scenario out in my mind a thousand times, and none of them allowed for you being purple, but most of them end with me yelling at you, a few where I even say a curse word or two to show you I mean business.”
“I’m not here asking for forgiveness.” Tistan reclaimed her stoic, commanding voice once more. “But if you are willing to fight for your planet, I have a way this can be done. When the Shay attack, they will send a minor reconnaissance team. This team will be small enough for one well-trained warrior to turn. If the Shay deem Earth too costly to overtake, they will move on to another planet.”
Emma swallowed hard. This wasn’t the first time her mouth had landed her in a corner. Already she was having second thoughts. What was she thinking? That she alone could stop an alien invasion?
“There is a place called The Academy where those seeking to defend their planets and the universe from threats such as the Shay learn to hone their skills, some even gaining the rank of Knighthood.” Tistan tilted her head skyward as if she could see past the visible stars into a much larger universe. “If you begin your training immediately, you should know enough in time to turn the invasion.”
“Okay w-well maybe I spoke too soon, there,” Emma said, trying to keep the stutter out of her voice. “I’m no warrior, I … I don’t even like talking to strangers. Even ordering fast food gives me anxiety.”
“You seemed fine up until now.” Tistan returned her gaze to her daughter. “Perhaps you are only remembering to be frightened and insecure because it is what you imagine you should feel.”
“Nope, nope, I’m pretty sure I’m actually feeling it.” Emma racked her brain for the many reasons she couldn’t go. Despite her efforts, she was surprised to find the possibility of traveling into space exciting. “I mean, I have my last day of finals tomorrow. My dad wants me to get a job or go to a summer camp. My schedule is actually pretty full, now that I think of it.”
“Your finals end tomorrow. I will come collect you here the day after tomorrow. Eight a.m.by your time. Your father wants you to join a camp for the summer? That is the perfect cover for your training.”
“You’re talking like you didn’t hear what I just said.” Emma shook her head furiously as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Emma felt sick to her stomach. “I can’t go. Even if I did, I’m not a fighter.”
“Of course you are, Emma.” Tistan slipped one slender hand from her cloak, revealing what looked like a thick, metal watch on her wrist. “You don’t know how great you are, because you’ve never been required to be. As my daughter, you hail from the most brutal warrior line on Renia. I’ll send you information tomorrow to a space camp your father will approve. Tomorrow night, don’t be late.”
“No … no that’s not the end of the conversation. I—”
Tistan swiped the pointer finger of her right hand over the watch on her left wrist. There was a brief moment where a soft light twinkled around her, and then she was gone.
Emma stood on the roof by herself, stunned by the course of the night, hating herself for what she had already decided had to be done.
“Space camp, huh?” Emma’s father poured himself a generous amount of coffee into a travel mug. “That’s wonderful, Em. This is what I’m talking about. Get out there, have some fun. Where is it?”
Emma sat at the kitchen table, shoveling her sugar-laced cereal into her mouth like an engineer shoveling coal into a train’s furnace while the conductor screamed for more speed.
“Oh, it’s not too far. I’ll send you all the information today so you can look it over. I’m running late for school.” Emma said a silent prayer that her years of being a good daughter would pay off now. She hated lying to her father, but wasn’t willing to put him in harm’s way. “If you think it’s okay that I go, I’ll have to leave tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow?” Mr. Jackson’s eyes lit up in surprise, and for the first time, suspicion lined his words. “Why do you have to leave tomorrow, Em? This is kind of sudden, isn’t it?”
“I know.” Emma took a steady breath, reciting the answer she so carefully planned. “I just discovered the program last night. Trust me, I was surprised myself that it existed. It’ll give me a chance to study the stars and galaxies. You know how much I love that stuff.”
Mr. Jackson shrugged on his own backpack. Despite being a history teacher at the local community college, he still preferred the backpack over a briefcase.
Emma knew he was taking the time to think over his daughter’s words. Mr. Jackson turned and held his daughter’s gaze.
More than anything, Emma hated having to stare into his eyes, knowing she had told a lie. It wasn’t a total lie, though. Tistan did appear last night, and she was surprised to find out what the alien had to say. She was going to study stars.
Mr. Jackson finally broke the silence. “Send me the info. If everything checks out, I don’t have a problem with you going. You’re a good kid, Em, better than I was. I want you to have a great summer.”
The words were like knives slicing through her soul. Emma broke her father’s gaze by getting up and taking her bowl to the sink. Her breakfast felt like a lump of guilt in her stomach.
“Thanks, Dad.” Emma turned on the sink to rinse off her bowl and spoon. “It means a lot.”
“You got it, Killer.” Mr. Jackson opened the front door. “Want a lift to school?”
“It’s three blocks.”
“I’m just trying to be polite.”