Chapter 3

COOPER | Travis Residence, Hub City

Cooper Travis answered the door to find his friends and colleagues Pontiker Flynn and Mia Jani grinning up at him. They’d come to walk him to work. It was Hub City; only tourists walked alone. “You’re early.” Cooper said. He was still in his sweats from his morning run.

Pont bowed, spreading his tawny wings out to the side, an honored greeting in his culture. “Ready to get back to work?” he asked.

Cooper bowed back. God, was he ever.

Pont was the first Lyrendan Cooper had ever known. When they met, Cooper immediately knew they’d be good friends. At six-foot-three Cooper towered over the rendie by almost a foot, but Pont was stockier, and easily twice as strong. He had sandy brown feathers, shabby wings, and a ruddy complexion covered in tattoos.

His wife, Mia, a cyborg from Danubia Prime, was petite, with silky black hair, flawless brown skin, and one dark brown eye in contrast to the glowing light of her artificial one. Most cyborgs seemed lopsided, with the metal plating of their implant taking up half their face, but Mia was so beautiful, she made the shunt seem like jewelry. As the team’s sentinel, it was her job to scan the networks and warn them of any hazardous conditions whenever they traveled on Pont’s vessel, Malaak. She was good at her job.

“We were hoping for some Travis hospitality,” Mia said with a smile.

Cooper nodded, opened the door wider, and waved them inside.

Cooper’s dad was at the kitchen island mixing pancake batter. He greeted them both with a warm smile. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll whip up some more.” He cracked two more eggs in the bowl with one hand and sent the CNM hologram blasting the news over the counter into the corner and turned down the volume.

Mia helped herself to coffee and put the kettle on for Pont’s tea.

“Qaid’ru,” Pont said and pulled a stool out for his wife. He hopped up next to her and draped his mangy wings over the back of the chair. The dogs wagged their tails at them and nuzzled up against Mia’s legs.

“Gimme a minute, I’ll get ready,” Cooper said and left to shower and change.

When he came back, Everyone had heaping plates of his dad’s pancakes in front of them. His Mom and his sister, Sophie, were both sitting at the table, Sophie singing a Thomas silk song as if no one else was there. Cooper pulled the headphones off his sister’s head, and she stopped singing and smacked him on the arm.

“We have guests, Soph,” he said.

“Pont and Mia aren’t guests,” she said, but left the headphones on the table.

His dad sat down between Sophie and his mom. “Mia tells us you’re seeing someone?” he said.

“What gave her that idea?” Cooper glared at Mia and went to get coffee.

She cringed. “Sorry, Cooper, I didn’t know it was a secret… I’m sorry.”

“Cooper, there are valid reasons you’re not supposed to date anyone your first year out of rehab,” his mom said.

“It was yenya, Mom. I’m not marrying her,” he said and noticed Pont’s grimace as he bit into his pancakes. Cooper opened the spice drawer. If Pont insisted on walking him to Tower Five on his first day back, the least he could do was feed him a breakfast that he liked. He got the curry powder, cumin, and turmeric, and sprinkled them generously on Pont’s syrup. “Listen, she showed up one day a couple months ago…” He added a sprinkle of cayenne for good measure. “And she beat me.” And a pinch of salt. “Try it now.”

“Mm, qaid’ru, renka, much better. “

“Oh, that’s gross,” his sister said. Her left arm twitched, and she held it still with her other hand.

“Don’t try it till you cut it,” Pont said.

“Don’t knock it till you try it,” Cooper corrected.

“That makes no sense.”

Cooper shrugged.

“Wait. She beat you? At yenya?” Sophie gaped at him. “No. You let her win.” She tried to eat, but her hands were giving her trouble today.

“Not really, Soph, no,” Cooper said, putting the spices away.

“Good looking woman?” his dad said with a wink and cut his sister’s pancakes for her.

Cooper met his dad’s eye and nodded.

“And you didn’t get her name? Thought I raised you better than that.”

Cooper snorted. “She showed up one day, slaughtered me four times, left forty credits richer. Then she showed up the next day.”

“And the day after that, and the day after that,” Mia said with a smile.

“And the day after that, and the day after that.” Pont’s wings quivered in amusement.

“You both suck,” Cooper said, helping himself to pancakes.

“No. You suck. You lost four times!” Sophie said.

“Hm. She beat me way more than four times, Soph.”

“Loser,” his sister teased.

“I was distracted.”

“You were thinking with your dick!”

Cooper choked on his pancake, Mia almost spit out her coffee, and his dad fought back laughter.

“Sophie!” his mom said.

“What? It’s true,” Sophie said and opened her mouth like a baby bird waiting for more pancakes.

Pont shrugged and said, “She’s not wrong, renka.”

He hated to admit it, but Sophie and Pont had a valid point.

His Dad winked at him in solidarity as he shoveled another bite in his sister’s mouth. “You get an ID? You could have Mia trace her,” he suggested.

“Yeah, Mia can hunt her down, and you could be her stalker,” Sophie made a face.

Pont put on a newscaster’s voice, “Breaking news, Special Agent Cooper Travis arrested for using company resources to stalk woman—” Cooper reached across the counter to smack him, but he ducked out of the way laughing and picked up a pancake with his fingers.

“It was funnier when he did it,” Cooper said.

Mimicking the news was something his best friend, Aylen, used to do, made even more hilarious by the fact that he’d been married to the journalist, Brody Brock. Pont was trying, at least.

The cat jumped up on the counter, and Cooper picked her up and plopped her on the floor. “Guys, drop it, okay? She was passing through.” Growing up on a spaceport like The Hub, Cooper was used to transient friendships.

“Yeah, but she kicked your ass to Neptune,” Sophie said. “Jeez Cooper, I want to meet her.”

“Maybe she’s ugly,” Flynn shrugged, and the motion made his feathers rustle. “Is good, thank you,” he added with his mouth full.

Cooper met his friend’s eye and shook his head. “She’s prettier than Mia.”

“No one’s prettier than Mia,” Pont said.

“Good answer, honey,” Mia said and kissed him.

She was, though. She had dark hair that she always wore pulled up and loosely fastened with two pointed sticks, a few curls escaping down her long neck. She had flawless pale skin and the most striking green eyes he’d ever seen. And that first day, with the sun shining over the crest of the planet below and lighting her from behind through the sheer fabric of her dress… damn.. smokin’ hot. She’d approached; perfect posture and efficiency of motion that had pinged his radar and, in truth, he’d found exquisitely erotic.

She sat down across from him, and he was sure if he spoke he’d make an ass of himself, so he didn’t say a word.

She had him cornered in minutes with his queen against the wall. I see it in three, she’d said. Her voice had a throaty burr to it and a slight accent he couldn’t place. Sexy. Distracting. She’d beaten him in ten moves that time.

Again? They both said together, and she giggled.

He couldn’t stop thinking about her.

They’d played yenya every day for three weeks. Then nothing. But he’d heard her give out her number once. And so, after a couple of days, he pinged her with the opening move to a new game. The messages had continued at seventeen-hour intervals ever since, until a couple days ago, when they’d stopped again.

“Cooper’s in loooove,” Sophie teased.

“Soph. Drop it,” Cooper said.

Those games of yenya had stopped him from using more than once over the past few months. The seventeen-hour delay put her somewhere near the Gautalus system. He assumed she was in transit again. He hoped she was on her way back to The Hub.

Cooper met his mom’s gaze. “Those games have been my lifeline, Mom.”

His mom nodded in understanding.

“Hey, guys, watch,” Mia said and waved a hand, pulling the news hologram closer again and zooming in. A banner twirled around the logo announcing, “Up next… Live with Cecilly Craw, esper experts, Professor William Simkin and Dr. Danny Greene.” A commercial blared, and Mia turned it down.

“Bitch,” Mia mumbled.

“Daka,” Pont puffed his feathers.

“Language,” Mom said.

“Sorry, Leah, but that woman—” Mia pursed her lips.

“What woman?” Sophie asked.

“Dr. Greene. She’s an expert on esper behavior. We asked her to consult on the Sheridan case,” Mia said.

“She said no?” Cooper’s dad asked.

“Oh, she said, ‘no,’ alright. She said, ‘no’ six times,” Mia said.

“Could she have helped?” his mom asked.

Cooper clenched his jaw. “Maybe.” Maybe Aylen would still be alive.

“Turn it up, q’ishi,” Pont said when the show returned.

Cecilly Craw sat in front of an animated backdrop of Hub City. She introduced her guests, “Dr. William Simkin, broadcasting from Beckworth colony, and live in the studio, Dr. Danny Greene.” The camera focused on Greene, and Cooper felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He grunted.

“You okay, son? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Dad, that’s her.” He watched as Dr. Danny Greene brushed a dark curl from those striking green eyes of hers.

“Her who?” Sophie asked.

“Ta daka’s your mystery woman?” Pont puffed in anger.

Cooper nodded and moved to stand next to his friends.

Dr. Greene held a mug in both hands and sipped as Craw introduced her. She wasn’t in the Gautalus system. She was only three towers away right now. Cooper wanted to go put his hands around her throat, and throttle her. Then he wanted to kiss her and found out if what he felt was real… and not necessarily in that order.

The interview didn’t last long before Greene lost her temper and walked out.

“Damn, she’s got balls!” Sophie said.

“Sophie, language.”

“Did that answer your questions because it didn’t answer mine?” Mia said.

“Media wants sensation, not education, q’ishi.”

But Cooper barely heard them. She’d refused them six times. Six. She was as much to blame for Aylen’s death as he was. His heart beat like a drum. His vision was caving in. He knew he was in fight-flight and reacting now was a bad idea. He knew what he was feeling wasn’t rational… But she’d been his lifeline, and he felt betrayed… And Aylen was never coming back. He opened his GalNet.

Mia put her hand on his sleeve. “Cooper, don’t,” she said.

He hit record. “I know who you are, bitch—”

“Cooper!” his mom said.

He ignored her. “Yenya. Lunchtime. Don’t be late.” His fingers hovered in the air.

Everyone spoke at the same time.

Pont saying, “Don’t do it, renka.”

His dad’s warning… “Son, Pontiker’s right.”

His sister… “You’ll ruin it, Coop, you always do.”

His mom, whose advice he always sought… “If your friendship’s as important to your recovery as you say…”

They were all correct. He should wait till he cooled off. But Aylen had been like a brother to him. She could have saved him. She could have saved them both. He couldn’t see past that right now.

He hit send.