I sprint up the dusty slope to a sandstone ledge, my chest bursting with anticipation. A smile overtakes me because half of that anticipation belongs to Idris.
Ahead, a cliffside rises fifty feet. The narrow ledge is blocked part way along by a granite boulder resting against the cliff’s vertical face.
Behind the boulder is a cave.
I know this because I rolled that ginormous rock to one side and discovered the hidden chamber.
Idris catches up and laces his fingers into mine. “Great location, Cadi.” His head shifts, side to side, as he takes in the towering pines that crowd the forest around us.
“A hand, please, Idris,” Mr. Scrim calls up the incline behind us. He guides a floating metallic travel case. The device levitates, but it doesn’t do so well on steep slopes.
Idris backtracks and grabs the handle on top to steady the case as Mr. Scrim pushes from behind.
Mr. Scrim’s my social worker. Over the years, he’s settled me into and rescued me from countless foster homes—until I found the perfect parents. He also comes from a planet called Daïzani. Yeah, and so do Idris and I. But more importantly, he’s a Livran carer, someone trained in the nurturing of Livran children. And ar’n bala trees.
More commonly known as a crystal tree, the ar’n bala produces the symbiotic crystals that all Livran receive at birth.
Mr. Scrim scans the rock wall and nods. “Looks good.” He’s currently in human form, boasting a mass of curly black hair and impeccable taste in charcoal gray Canali suits. Mind you, even in his scaly green Livran shape, he rocks in business attire.
He adjusts the sleek leather backpack on his shoulders. “Okay, Cadi, you’re up.”
With a quick nod, I hold out my hands, palms forward and eyes focused on that SUV-sized rock. Then I reach out with my mind and push.
The stone moves. Loose dirt tumbles down the slope as the granite boulder rolls sideways, revealing an opening wide enough for us to pass.
Idris flashes me a smile, his dark eyes twinkling.
The first time I used telekinesis in his presence, I threw him across a parking lot, after which, I passed out from exhaustion. Since then, I’ve learned to throttle my energy.
Mr. Scrim pockets his thick-frame glasses—which I suspect he wears solely for the look—and draws the shiny floating case through the gap.
Idris gestures me after the man and follows.
We gather in the cave center, which is about the size of an average living room. The echoey drip, drip, drip of water into a stone hollow reminds me of a leaky showerhead from a past life, but I can’t remember from which foster home.
The cave smells musty and its details are hard to make out. I squint through the shadows toward Mr. Scrim. “Should we shift now?”
Coolness flushes over my scalp, slides down my throat and into my chest. My extremities tingle as pale skin and dull blonde hair transform into well-defined cheekbones and delicate green scales. I breathe in deeply, feeling a momentary rush, as my chest expands, drawing in oxygen more efficiently than human lungs.
Infrared vision enhances my view of Mr. Scrim and Idris as they shape shift, bodies shimmering like quicksilver, into their Livran forms. My eyes stick to Idris, whose short black curls and tawny skin have been replaced by smooth cranial ridges and short preocular horns.
Cream and sea-green scales, caught by the light slanting through the cave entrance, form chevron patterns that angle up his throat, and golden rings circle the inky depths of his larger-than-human pupils.
He is definitely my kind of eye candy, and the thought of reaching out to touch his silken skin makes my toes curl.
Mr. Scrim clears his throat.
I jump, realizing I’m practically drooling over my boyfriend.
A hairless eyebrow twitches on Idris’s face and his lips stretch into a smile.
I blink. “What?”
I can’t hide my feelings because Idris can sense them through our twin crystals, but that doesn’t stop me trying.
“Your hormone levels just spiked,” Mr. Scrim comments dryly.
Ugh. I put on a disinterested shrug. “So what?”
The carer chuckles. “Mating season.”
If my cheeks weren’t green, they’d be glowing hot pink. I like to think I’m chill when it comes to sex talk, but I’m discovering that’s not so much the case when the talk is fixed on me.
Idris rubs a ridge on his head. “Um, does that mean we need to be careful?” He says it like he’s talking about crossing the street.
I seriously want to disappear under a rock.
We’re a bonded pair, meaning, by Livran standards, a couple. But I’m seventeen and have lived by human standards most of my life. I need to maintain some kind of dignity. It’s not like we haven’t had sex over the past several months, which Idris has just made abundantly clear.
The carer crosses his arms. “That depends on what form you take during intercourse.”
Blah! Blah! Blah! Could we, maybe, go back to talking about caves and crystal trees?
Idris shifts a hand to his hip, taking on this relaxed, yet attentive pose. “Meaning?”
The carer smiles. “Pregnancy can only occur when you’re both in Livran form.”
I pretend to cover my ears.
Idris clearly wants to hear more. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
“Like, in Livran form during what parts of, you know, um… intercourse?” he asks.
I cross my arms and turn away. Like that’s going to stop me listening. Because, let’s face it, I want to know too.
Scrim coughs quietly, like he’s calling the class to attention. “From ejaculation to fertilization.” Jeez, his baritone voice is so calm and clinical, he could be a biology teacher describing the process of cell division. “Which could take anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on where in the reproductive cycle the female,” —meaning me— “happens to be.”
Turning back, I say with no little sarcasm, “How lovely.” I plant my eyes on the dirt floor and wonder how long this reproductive cycle lasts, but don’t ask because this conversation is cringe-worthy.
Mr. Scrim digs through his backpack and pulls out several shrink-wrapped packages. “Any further questions?” he asks, without looking up.
“That’ll do, thanks.” Idris winks at me, meaningfully.
Warmth blooms inside my chest, along with intense desire.
Or wait? Is that his desire I’m feeling?
I shake away the heat and shift my eyes to Mr. Scrim as he slices a utility knife through plastic, allowing a dusty cloud to billow across the cave floor.
Idris steps closer to the carer and squats, granting me a few seconds to regain my composure. “So what’s that?” he inquires.
“Wood ash for carbon.” The carer empties the bag and opens another. “And this, pink salt from the Himalayas.” He distributes the granules in a ring close to the cave wall. He grabs a third bag from the pack. “This contains trace elements. Iron, chromium, vanadium, titanium and others that will feed the crystals and provide them with their variegated color.” He dumps what looks like metal filings in an arc across the floor.
“Fascinating,” Idris says, straightening up.
I pinch back a smile because he’s anything but fascinated. Growing things is as interesting to Idris as a crack in the sidewalk. Unless, of course, ejaculation is involved.
Mr. Scrim stows the spent bags and zips up his pack. “Now for the exciting part.” He releases the locks on the sides of the levitating travel case. A soft hum rises from the curve-edged box.
“B-flat,” Idris murmurs, thanks to his perfect pitch.
Before I can roll my eyes, the hover-container splits open like a Kinder Surprise, revealing a glowing pinkish mound that looks nothing like I imagined a crystal tree cutting would.
Scrim leans over the box.
Idris stiffens, keeping his distance. “What happened?”
The carer frowns and bends closer. “What do you mean?”
I sidle up to Idris, eyeing the box with concern.
“To the crystal cutting,” Idris asks. “Did it melt? Get too hot or too much water or something?”
Mr. Scrim glances up, his foot-long horns pointing straight at us. “It’s fine.”
Curiosity gets the better of me. “Seriously?”
The carer reaches for the strawberry-colored mass. The moment his fingers make contact, tentacles sprout from the lump and engulf the carer’s hand like an ooze monster from some low-budget horror film.
A scream stops midway in my throat because the carer doesn’t seem the least bit fazed. He lifts the gelatinous blob, which pulses like a beating heart.
Then the creature—if that’s what it is—takes a leap, straight for his chest and casts out tentacle arms like starfish points until they extend around Scrim’s neck and circle his torso.
Idris gasps and hauls me toward the cave opening. “I’m ready to get the hell out of here.” His words echo around the hollow space.
Mr. Scrim chuckles. “The ar’n bala cutting feels the same way about that storage container.”
Idris’s smooth scaly hand tightens around mine, his entire body tense. “You sure that thing’s not gonna suck your guts out?”
The carer strides to the cave edge. “Yes. It’s attracted to my crystal.” The one embedded in his chest, which explains why the cutting’s central mass is positioned directly over his breastbone.
“And it’s made a connection,” he adds.
Idris and I have embedded crystals too. I brush my fingers across the spot where my crystal implanted itself six months ago. Our symbiotic stones are twins, like those given to every bonded pair.
The crystal cutting loosens its hold on the carer and leaps the distance from him to the cave wall where it splats like a popped gum bubble.
Mr. Scrim’s hands drop onto his hips. “Perfect.”
“Are you serious?” Idris throws me a sideways glance.
The carer nods.
I bite back my grin. “Um, when Valdar said crystal tree cutting, I figured it would be made of crystals.”
The carer stands back as if to admire a work of art, rather than a gummy mess. “The ar’n bala produces crystals similar to the way a tree on Earth bears fruit.”
The splatter inflates until it looks like something between Silly String and ladies’ shaving gel. In a word, nasty.
“Looks like we’re off to a good start.” Scrim closes the floating case, then glances at me. “You’ll need to come back and check the cutting twice a day.”
“Me?” The thought of entering this cave alone, with that pink thing residing here, doesn’t infuse me with enthusiasm. I turn to Idris. “You’ll come too. Right?” The words pop out of my mouth like a desperate plea.
“When I can.” He doesn’t sound happy at the prospect.
Great. “Why does growing things always fall to the women in society?”
“Because it’s in their genes?” Idris ventures.
I elbow him.
“Livran carers can be either sex.” Mr. Scrim has a point. He’s our local—and only—expert on growing crystal trees, and he’s a guy.
My lips twist. “Well, I should tell Mama and Papa about the tree. It’s growing on their property, after all.” Which, it turns out, covers more than a hundred acres.
When Mama Jacobsen told me about her cabin in the Adirondack Mountains, I’d imagined a place like Uncle Tom’s or the Little House on the Prairie, with crisscrossed logs and sun-faded roof shingles. Not the six-bedroom extravaganza the cabin turned out to be, with its log-beamed barn and kidney-shaped swimming pool. The cabin’s fancy inside, too. Slate floors, wood paneling and a stuffed moose head over a fireplace big enough to spit-roast the rest of the unfortunate animal.
“Besides,” I add, “we might need their help protecting the tree.”
The carer rubs his scaly jaw as he looks at me. “Of course, you can tell them, but don’t bring them here until the tree has rooted. And it’s important you’re in Livran form when you enter the cave, too, Cadi.
“The ar’n bala collective has never seen a human. Once the tree takes root, it will be self-sustaining and less sensitive to alien species. At that point, you won’t need to visit as often. But until then, the cutting is extremely vulnerable.”
And it’s the only one we’ve got, because the wormhole connecting Earth to Daïzani has been closed, and there’s no way back to get another.
I swallow. “How long before it’ll be safe?”
“Hmm.” Mr. Scrim’s eyes turn thoughtful. “That’s hard to tell with Earth’s climate being more temperate than Daïzani’s.”
My forehead puckers. “Shouldn’t more temperate be a good thing?”
He cocks his head. “Not necessarily. Rooting takes about a month under normal conditions. Here it could take longer.”
Phew! Not years then, and we’re heading into summer. If it were midwinter, I’d have something to complain about. The trip from the cabin to the cave and back isn’t short.
“Which means, of course,” the carer adds, “that you’ll be responsible for protecting the cutting, in addition to monitoring its progress.”
I lift a hand to my chest. “As in protecting it from the Evatenon?” Meaning the aliens who followed us to Earth. Aliens who want to consume us.
Scrim’s face tightens. “Indeed. The Evatenon care only to dominate, but they need to neutralize their biggest threat first.”
Idris groans. “Their biggest threat being us, I assume?”
“Exactly.” The carer unzips the front pocket of his backpack. “They will assimilate as many Livran survivors as they can and kill the rest.”
By assimilate, he means they will suck the life essence out of and absorb the memories and abilities of their victims.
I bite at my lower lip. “And the crystal tree?”
Mr. Scrim looks up at me. “The ar’n bala will not serve them, so they would destroy it.”
Idris shakes his head. “I thought they wanted to make farm animals out of us, so they could make use of our shape-shifting abilities.”
The carer lets out a sad sigh. “According to the intelligence Valdar passed on to Cadi, no Evatenon females remain among the warriors stranded here.”
My lips press together hard. Right, the only female Evatenon who followed us to Earth assimilated my mother and was killed by Valdar, Idris’s dad.
“Which means,” Mr. Scrim continues, “they cannot reproduce. And if they can’t reproduce, they have no need for additional Livran to assimilate. In fact, by destroying the ar’n bala, they will ensure we cannot build a colony here either.”
I suck in a breath. “You mean we can’t have kids unless we have crystals?”
The carer’s eyes narrow. “There is nothing to stop us reproducing, but the Livran and ar’n bala crystals have had a symbiotic relationship for as long as we’ve had recorded history. We don’t know what life would be like without a symbiont. Our crystals help balance and bond us. Once the stones settle, they bind us to all Livran and to their own collective. They create a psychic web, a community, of which we’re all a part.”
My heart speeds up. “And you’re putting me in charge of this tree’s safety? Something our whole future depends upon?”
The carer stands. “I’m confident in your ability to care for it, Cadi.”
I twist my fingers together. “How easy would it be for the Evatenon to find the tree?”
For the first time, Mr. Scrim’s eyes glimmer with genuine concern. “Only one of them has that capability.” He glances at me. “The one who assimilated your father.”
I suddenly feel sick. “How easily could he find it?”
Mr. Scrim casts me a long look. “He’d have to come within a few miles to detect it.”
Idris slips an arm around my waist. “So we should be safe. I mean, what are the chances he’ll just happen to come that close?”
“Small,” the carer admits. He pulls a fancy brushed aluminum box with a liquid crystal display out of his backpack. “They have no knowledge of the cutting’s existence. As far as we know.”
I feel the damp chill of the cave and shiver. “That’s good then, isn’t it?”
Mr. Scrim nods as he grabs a metal probe dangling from the device and sticks it into the cave’s dirt floor. “This is a standard weather station for monitoring temperature and humidity. However, I’ve modified it to collect soil pH, and for your convenience, created a phone app, so you can check the levels regularly. You’ll have to rely on Bluetooth, which means coming back to the cave, but you won’t have to open the entrance every time.”
Not having to move that huge boulder at each visit is a definite plus. Especially when you never know who might come rambling through these parts.
“In a few weeks, you’ll need to add some acid to mimic the fogs that rise off Daïzani. This is necessary for crystal-bearing, which only happens during the mist season on our homeworld.”
Idris chuckles. “Sounds like we need a meteorology course, Cadi.”
Scrim flashes a smile. “That I can provide, with your help, Idris.”
“Okay, what do I have to do?”
The carer stretches out his hands. “Receive my memories using your mind transference ability.”
I sense Idris’s hesitation. He’s been putting off using his ability to receive the memories Valdar gave to me, like he’s afraid or something.
“Okay, fine,” he says, but he doesn’t sound it, and I pick up his nervousness. He lets go of me and approaches Scrim. “How do I know which memories to take?”
“That’s entirely up to me,” the carer replies. “You can’t take another’s memories. You can only receive those voluntarily given.”
Idris nods, the tightness in his shoulders loosening. He grips Mr. Scrim’s fingers. “Now what?”
“Relax. Open your mind to me, your willingness to receive, and let the memories in.”
The cave goes silent while the crystal in my chest gently vibrates, picking up Idris’s discomfort, then surprise, and finally, relief. The memory transfer must be working.
Idris lets out an explosive breath and drops Mr. Scrim’s hands. “Wow! That was cool. The weather in Daïzani can be pretty dramatic.”
The Livran carer smiles. “It can, indeed. Now, pass the memories I gave you on to Cadi.”
Anxiety churns in Idris’s chest once more as he turns to me.
“I don’t bite,” I murmur.
He smirks and grabs my hands. “Ready?”
I lift my chin. “Sure.” Receiving Valdar’s memories had seemed effortless, which I guess it was. He did all the work. And now it’s up to Idris to do the same.
I’m almost surprised when images of an otherworldly landscape slide into my mind. Heavy mists lower, the sky darkens and auroras fill the sky. I gasp at the beauty.
A moment later, torrential rain pounds the ground, creating shallow lakes and rivers across the dry land. Then a tangerine-colored sun breaks free of the sage-green clouds. The bone-biting chill turns to tropical heat, the air heavy and humid, and flying insects the size of birds swarm overhead.
The memories shift to a cave with a fully grown crystal tree. Stringy burgundy branches hang from a rocky ceiling. At their tips, clusters of crystalline blossoms catch the sunlight streaming through a cavern entrance.
Images fade into a pale yellow fog and Idris releases my fingers.
I blink a few times to clear the buzz in my head. “That was amazing.” I sniff back the tears gathering. “Daïzani’s so beautiful.”
I look into Idris’s eyes. They reflect a similar sadness. We’ll never get to see its awesome landscapes. None of us will.
I sniff again and turn to Mr. Scrim. “You’ll guide me through this, right?” I’ve some basic insight now, but nowhere near enough to manage a young tree on my own.
“Certainly.” The carer hooks his backpack over his shoulders and tugs the floating case toward the cave entrance. “I’d stick around if I could, but I’ve ten bonded pairs to recouple and bring back here.”
Idris grabs the second handle on the storage case. “That shouldn’t take so long, should it?”
Scrim casts his eyes to the ceiling. “That depends on what kind of trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. First on the list is Rowan. Reno, Nevada. Fire and Ice, I like to call her.” His smile is affectionate. “She has the ability to instantly heat or cool any object. Unfortunately, she’s still learning to control it. I need to work with her on that. Once I’ve picked her up, we’ll take a road trip to Los Angeles to find her bond mate. He’s dropped off the radar.”
Idris hesitates. “You mean he’s disappeared?”
“He ran away from foster care about six months ago and is playing hooky. But don’t worry, we’ll find him once we get down there.”
“How?” I ask, following them.
“Through Rowan’s crystal. Just as you and Idris can sense each other’s crystal from a long distance. With some effort, I could find him myself, but to detect another Livran—other than your mate—you have to be close by.”
The carer pats my shoulder. “Once I’ve collected them, I’ll come right back. But don’t worry, I have complete faith in your ability to take care of the crystal cutting, Cadi.”
Exiting the cave, we shift back to human form.
I glance at Mr. Scrim and force a smile, wishing I had as much faith in my ability as he does.