Gabe Lupinsky whistled as he kicked off his snow-covered dress shoes and hung his coat and suit jacket on empty hooks in his parents' mudroom.
He'd done it. He'd actually done it. Maybe things were finally looking up.
"Gabe, is that you?" Glynna called.
"Yeah." He entered the big country kitchen to find his younger sister hopping barefoot across the cold tile floor.
She wasn't wearing her prosthetic. Again.
"I know, I know. Don't say it." She hugged him, probably as much to stave off his nagging as to say hello. "So? The announcement was today, right? Did you hear?" Eyeing him, she bounced up and down in his arms. "You know. Hurry up and tell me. Cruelty to handicapped people. My foot is freezing."
"Handicapped, my ass," he muttered. "Why don't you wear some damn slippers? And some clothes, while you're at it?" Releasing her, he followed her into the carpeted living room. It was snowing outside, a classic March squall, yet Glynna wore shorts that barely peeked out from under the hem of her oversized Minnesota Vikings T-shirt. The void where her lower left leg should be-had never been-was evident.
"Problems with the new prosthetic?" he asked. "You know there's a break-in period. If you don't wear it, it just extends the process."
She shot him a look. "I think I know that."
Gabe let the snippy response slide. He'd lost count of how many prosthetics Glynna had broken in and outgrown over her lifetime. Though his sister was an adult-barely-watching her deal with the inevitable bruises and pressure sores still made his heart ache as much now as it had when she was a little girl.
"I'll put it back on after we talk with Mom and Dad." Glynna sat down and pulled a fuzzy purple slipper on her foot, leaving the sweatpants lying over the arm of the big L-shaped leather couch.
Sisters were a mystery he knew he'd never solve. "Have you heard from Gideon and Gwen?" He and his siblings all got together once a week to talk to their parents, who were one month into a half-year trip of the Asian subcontinent, gathering material for their next travel book.
"Gideon caught a case and won't be here. Gwen's on her way. You are not going to make me wait until she gets here."
He couldn't hide the grin for long. "Yeah, I got it."
"Ha, I knew it! I knew it! Congratulations!" She launched herself off the couch and hugged him again, pogoing up and down with excitement. "Director of Physical Sciences at Sebastiani Labs. Do you get a bigger office? Underground parking? A big-ass raise?"
He smiled, shaking his head. "Remember that the position's temporary, just while Alka's on sabbatical." Yeah, the position was temporary, but he'd beaten out Alka's own daughter for the job. Satisfaction warmed him like a crackling fire.
"Well, gawd knows you're bossy enough to actually be the boss." She hopped back to the kitchen they'd just left. "Let's break out the bubbly!"
As he followed, Gabe reached under his glasses to rub his tired eyes. He'd racked up too many late nights and too much screen time preparing for the grueling series of interviews, and it wasn't like he'd get a break from the pace. That was the gig, and he wanted it more than he'd wanted anything in a long, long time.
He'd wanted it, he'd worked for it, and he'd gotten it. Yes, things were finally looking up.
Glynna pulled a bottle from the fridge, hopped to the sink, and popped a cork. When the sparkling wine frothed up over the bottle's lip, she quickly slurped. "No use wasting good Prosecco."
As she poured two flutes, he covertly glanced around the room. His parents had been comfortable leaving Glynna, who still lived at home, holding down the fort while they were gone, but he and Gideon had privately decided to... keep an eye on things, just in case. So far, neither he nor Gideon had heard about loud parties or rowdy gatherings-none loud enough to cause the neighbors to complain, at any rate. The kitchen was spotlessly clean, probably because the pile of empty pizza boxes he'd seen stacked in the mudroom rivaled the Leaning Tower of Pisa for height.
He walked over to the refrigerator and opened it, raising a brow but not commenting on the magnet near the handle that read, "Why buy the pig if you just want some sausage?" A pint of half-and-half, lots of condiments, some Leann Chin takeout, cold pizza... and not much else. There wasn't a piece of fruit or a vegetable in sight. "When did you last grocery shop?"
The letters on the half-and-half carton blurred, and he rubbed his eyes again, squinting into the dimness. "This lightbulb's burning out. I'll bring a new one next time I come over."
"Whatever. It looks fine to me."
The back door opened and closed. Gwen poked her head in from the mudroom, shrugging out of her long down coat. "Am I late?"
Glynna glanced at the clock. "Nope, but hurry up."
There was a muffled double-thump as Gwen's heavy winter boots hit the floor. A couple of seconds later, she entered the kitchen, dropping her bulging briefcase on the kitchen table. She eyed the open bottle and champagne flutes. "I hope we're celebrating?"
"Yes!" Glynna burst out before he could answer. "He got the job!"
"I knew it. Congratulations, Gabe." Her hug was more subdued than Glynna's was but no less heartfelt.
"Thanks, but remember, it's temporary. Alka will be back later in the fall."
He pulled his head back so she could read his lips. "Remember that it's temporary."
"Well, Elliott Sebastiani hasn't accomplished what he has by not recognizing and nurturing talent. You're on your way."
Gabe shrugged. No doubt Sebastiani Labs' CEO had signed off on Alka's decision since Gabe would report to him while she was gone. It was a fabulous opportunity, true, but now it was up to him to execute, to prove, day in and day out, that they'd made the right decision. His first opportunity to make a good impression would be tomorrow when he, Alka, and Mr. Sebastiani discussed how to restructure his current workload. Earlier today, when Alka had told him the job was his, she'd unknowingly eased his mind about his biggest concern: her daughter, Lorin. Thankfully, Lorin planned on spending the summer in northern Minnesota, working the archaeological site where, it was theorized, their ancestors had settled after being marooned on the planet eons ago. Yeah, he and Lorin would have to touch base occasionally, but she'd be out of sight, out of mind for most of her mother's absence.
"Here." Glynna handed them both a delicate flute. "It's time to call the 'rents."
They went to their parents' study, a comfortable room cluttered with papers, books, and souvenirs from their travels. Wolves dominated the decor-matted prints of wolves in the wild, figurines carved of wood, jade, and ivory, and candid family snapshots. Glynna sat at the computer and, with a few clicks and keystrokes, placed the call to their parents, who'd somehow managed to find reliable electricity and broadband in Nepal.
"Been burning the midnight oil already?" Gwen asked.
"You've been rubbing your eyes since I got here."
He jerked his hand out from under the thick lenses of his glasses. He blinked hard, but the damn shadows wouldn't clear. "Can we get some more light in here?"
Gwen looked at him strangely.
"There they are!" Glynna cried. "Hi, Mom and Dad!"
"Hello, my darlings!" His mother's voice sounded a little choppy, but being they were calling from the freaking Himalayas, who could complain?
"Gabe got the promotion!"
So much for his news. As Glynna chattered away, he winced, raising a hand to his stinging left eye. Was there any aspirin in the house? Because he could really-Ouch. He caught his breath as the sting became a stab. Something... snapped. "Shit." Doubling over, he slapped his hand over the hot, lancing pain.
"Gabe?" He heard his mother's worried voice.
He collapsed onto a nearby chair. Jesus. Someone was skewering his eye with a rusty blade.
"Gabe?" Gwen touched his wrist. "What is it?"
"Pain," he gritted out. "In my eye."
"Glynna, call the ambulance-"
"Call Dr. Mueller." Gabe rattled off his ophthalmologist's phone number.
"What's going on?" his mother demanded from half a world away.
Gingerly opening his eyes, Gabe peered at the screen and tried to shove down the panic. He could hear the worry in her voice, but he couldn't see her mouth.
The black sinkhole in his field of vision swallowed her lower face whole.
Lorin Schlessinger stumbled into her chilly cabin, tracking clods of mud across the rough plank floor, entirely focused on the precious cargo she carried, swaddled in a large piece of treated chamois.
Shouldering the heavy door closed, she nudged the fabric aside to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. Nope. Still there. She carefully set the luminescent silver metal box, about the size of a fisherman's tackle box, on the wooden table next to her laptop. The box was unexpectedly light for its size, and accidentally hitting it with the stake she'd tried to hammer into the ground hadn't scratched its surface.
She was late for her meeting, but... damn, what a reason for tardiness. After years of backbreaking work-hell, generations of backbreaking work-had the unforgiving ground finally surrendered not just concrete evidence of their ancestors, but the Holy Grail of concrete evidence?
Noah Pritchard's command box. Knees suddenly wobbly, she lowered herself onto one of the table's straight-backed chairs and scrubbed her fists against her numb cheekbones. Breathe. In and out.
She gazed at the box, marveling at the serene, almost phosphorescent, glow. She wasn't aware of any local metal possessing such properties, but she was no metallurgist. Someone back at Sebastiani Labs would have to help identify the composition-once she let the thing out of her sight.
It was sheer dumb luck she'd found the box at all. She'd driven up to the Isabella dig ahead of the rest of the crew to wake the northern Minnesota archaeological site up from its long winter nap, hauling canned goods to the cookhouse, turning on the electricity and such. After evicting some squirrels from the outhouse, she'd gotten that indescribable itch between her shoulder blades-get up to the dig site-and hiked the third of a mile from base camp up to the swatch of unforgiving, iron-laced land where her parents had discovered the petroglyphs depicting their ancestors' violent arrival on the planet, confirming their oral histories.
Remnants of last night's late May snow still nestled in the shadowy northern lee of a few rocks and trees, but her experienced eye-and the mud on her boots-told her that the ground had thawed enough to start repairing the pit.
Her first sight of the protective tarp last year's dig crew had laid over the hole made her adrenaline jump. As she expected, the soil underneath the tarp was a muddy, rocky mess. Frost heaves had shoved most of their carefully placed stakes right out of the ground, but other than that, it looked like the site had wintered well. Once school was out and this year's crew arrived, the real work could begin, and the half-exposed hearth they'd uncovered in the southeast corner of the grid late last fall would once again get her personal attention. With a wistful look at the shallow hole, Lorin turned her back and made herself pick up her hammer. Repair first, explore later.
She had no idea how long she'd been pounding stakes when one of them simply shattered instead of slicing neatly into the ground. She picked up her trowel to dislodge what she was sure was a pesky piece of iron ore, but when the corner of the box emerged, glinting in the struggling sun, it was all she could do to remember her training, to not just claw the thing out of the muddy ground with her bare hands. Instead, she'd taken a deep, shaky breath, mentally and physically stepped back, and forced herself to place the measuring devices she carried in her backpack. She took pictures of the box in situ as she excavated, finally lifting it from its sleeping place and stumbling back to the cabin.
Lorin shivered, rubbing her dirty hands together for warmth. The sun had set, taking the temperature down with it. She switched on several lanterns, throwing light into every corner of the rustic cabin, and then set a match to the kindling and newspapers she'd laid in the cabin's potbellied stove earlier in the day. Before long, the kindling was crackling merrily, and she poured water into the battered blue iron basin to wash her hands and forearms.
She gazed at the box glowing on the table in its soft chamois nest, her eyes narrowing. She hadn't wiped it down yet. Where was the dirt, the mud?
She didn't have time to analyze that now, or to sweep up the mess she'd made on the floor. She was late. Moving quickly to the small table serving as the cabin's desk-cum-kitchen table, Lorin punched the power button on her laptop and swiped her now-clean fingertip across its biometric fingerprint pad. Sitting down, she looked to the ceiling, issued a quick but heartfelt plea to the tech gods, and engaged the Council's proprietary conferencing software. Here in the Minnesota north woods, comm links and cell coverage were spotty at best. Lorin glanced at her battered watch. Damn it. She should have tested the sat link before going up to the dig to repair stakes.
But if she'd done that, she wouldn't have found the box.
Apparently the gods were in a benevolent mood. Her screen snapped to life, multiple windows popping open, reflecting the Council meeting agenda, a chat room, and video feeds providing views of the speaker and the entire boardroom table. On-screen, she watched her holographic body shimmer into her assigned seat next to her mother.
Ugh, she had mud all over her face. She might as well step away to wipe it off, because Krispin Woolf had the floor, and he was pontificating about-ah, who the hell cared? The WerePack Alpha's opinions and perspectives, rarely reasonable to begin with, had veered more wildly out of synch with his fellow Council members ever since his daughter Andi had been assaulted the previous year.
It didn't help that the perpetrator, a deeply disturbed off-planet incubus named Stephen, had escaped and hadn't been recaptured yet.
"I'm sure that Dr. Tyson's qualifications are stellar, but he's... human."
Even three hundred miles north of the Sebastiani Labs Chanhassen boardroom, Lorin heard the slur in Krispin Woolf's voice. "No offense," Woolf added with a glance at the Council's sole human representatve, Security and Technology Second Jack Kirkland.
"None taken," Jack responded.
Lukas Sebastiani, the Security and Technology First, leaned into the table, his powerful incubus body coiled with tension.
Crap, what have I missed? The meeting had barely started, and Lukas already looked ready to blow.
"Krispin, we're evaluating candidates for the Humanity Chair. Hu-man-i-ty," he emphasized between gritted teeth. "Every single one of the candidates will be human. That's the point."
As Krispin once again repeated his objection to filling the Humanity seat, which had been empty since Carl Sagan's death, Lorin noticed Jack tap something on his mini. Probably urging Lukas to throttle back. The WerePack Alpha specialized in being a pain in everyone's ass-especially Lukas's. The tension between Lukas and Krispin had been escalating ever since Stephen had somehow escaped from their most secure holding cell.
It wasn't as if Lukas had personally allowed Stephen to escape. Lorin looked at Claudette and Scarlett Fontaine sitting side by side on the other side of the table. The sirens had been impacted by Stephen's crimes even more than the Woolfs had been. Stephen had killed Claudette's daughter and Scarlett's sister Annika on his rampage, but not only did the Fontaines not blame Lukas, Scarlett had become his bondmate.
On-screen, Lukas's nostrils flared at a particularly bigoted comment. Jack's face was rigid with distaste. Today, the two men seemed to share nothing in common except their oversized bodies. Lukas usually exuded a casual, rugged presence, but today his aura seemed dark and barely leashed. Jack, sitting next to him, was blond Armani elegance.
Beef and Cake. Lorin knew that despite their nicknames, first impressions could be deceptive. She and Jack were occasional sparring partners, and any human who could hold his own against a Valkyrie was no pushover. Lukas, despite his size, was an absolute marshmallow with those he loved, and if anything, his recent bonding had simply softened his center even more.
Elliott Sebastiani finally tapped on the boardroom table with the unusual palm-sized rock that had served as the Council president's gavel for as long as anyone could remember. "Order, please," he said impatiently. The tension between Lukas and Krispin was long running, ongoing, and never ending, but even if he privately agreed with his son, Elliott was a stickler for procedure. "Ten minutes for the WerePack Alpha."
If sticking to procedure put a time limit on Krispin Woolf's remarks, all the better.
As Krispin expounded upon the apparent gaps in Dr. Tyson's resume, Lorin watched the other Council members mentally push back from the boardroom table. Most of the Firsts had schooled their faces into expressions of polite neutrality, but the Seconds, several of them new to their positions, either weren't as successful at it or simply didn't care who saw their reaction. Sitting next to his father, WerePack Second Jacoby Woolf seemed frozen in place as he listened to his father's frighteningly rational-sounding, yet bigoted, assessment. Scarlett Fontaine focused on Lukas, worry chasing over her pale redhead features. Teenaged Incubus Second Antonia Sebastiani's expression simply said, "WTF, dude."
Lorin opened a private message box.
[LSchlessinger]: Hi, Mom.
In the room view camera, Lorin saw her mother reach for her laptop. Her huge jade and bone bracelet clattered.
"Alka, do you mind?" Krispin Woolf shot her a dirty look.
Her mother removed the priceless bracelet and set it on the boardroom table with a polite smile. She then typed as noisily as she could.
[ASchlessinger]: Hello, dear. How was the drive up?
Lorin sighed. She was twenty-seven years old, and her mother still worried when she traveled by herself.
[LSchlessinger]: No ice on the roads, no freezing rain, no snow. No flat tires or blown radiator hoses. No marauding bears. No serial killers hiding in the bathroom at the rest stop.
[ASchlessinger]: No need to be nasty. How is the site?
[LSchlessinger]: Mud Bowl City. I... found something.
[ASchlessinger]: You started digging? Lorin. You know better.
[ASchlessinger]: You know how important preparation is...
[ASchlessinger]: You have to follow procedure, Lorin-
[LSchlessinger]: MOM. I found it WHILE I was repairing the grid.
Lorin watched her mother pause and purse her lips. She cursed under her breath and finally responded.
[ASchlessinger]: What's "it"?
Lorin glanced at the box gleaming on the table.
[LSchlessinger]: Let me open a private cam session...
Lorin activated the supplemental webcam, opened a stream to her mother, and tried not to squirm in her chair as she waited.
"Despite what the younger Mr. Sebastiani says, filling the Humanity seat places us at more risk, not less."
Lukas sat up. "Krispin, with today's technology and social media saturation, it's becoming more and more of a challenge to stay under humanity's radar. It's just a matter of time before our true origins are revealed," he said. "We need to start preparing the way for-"
"We all know your assessment of risk isn't exactly foolproof these days."
Hoo boy. Did Krispin Woolf have a death wish?
Her mother abruptly straightened in her seat. Leaning in closer to her laptop screen, she raised her hand and tried to touch. "Oh, my. Oh, my stars."
Krispin Woolf cut off his harangue. "Alka, perhaps you'd like to share whatever it is that you find so fascinating with the rest of us?"
"Certainly," her mother responded, her face full of pride. "Lorin?"
"One moment, please," she responded evenly, fingers shaking as she took control of the meeting's conferencing software, initiating the sequence that would change the webcam stream she'd been sharing with her mother from private to public so everyone at the meeting could see the box. A small smile crept up the corners of her mouth.
Suck it, Krispin.
As she waited for the software to engage, she fidgeted in the hard-backed kitchen chair. The greenish-silvery box glowed on the table like an otherworldly thing, and it was all she could do not to stroke it with her fingers. "Damn it, hurry up," she muttered. She was an arm's length away from announcing the find of the freaking millennia, and the damn technology was moving at a glacial pace.
After years of digging, after decades of begging for tidbits of a budget, the Schlessingers finally had something to show for it.
A chilly breeze whistled through a gap in the cabin's old pine logs. Lorin shivered again and pulled her head more deeply into the neckline of her flannel shirt. "One more moment," she repeated. "Software is coming up now." Lorin smoothed the folds of the chamois. Unable to resist, she ran her finger very lightly along the edge of the button positioned at the center of the box's latch. Smooth to the touch, slippery, like warm ice, looking as if it would open at a-
"Whoa." The webcam engaged, giving everyone a close-up view as the lid of the box rose as if lifted by an invisible hand.
"Lorin! No!" Her mother's horror was evident, even through the tinny laptop speakers.
Biohazard protocol. Lorin shoved back from the table, tipping the chair over with a clatter, and dove to the corner of the cabin farthest from the table.
Not that a dozen feet meant anything at all if opening the box had released some alien toxin into the air.