I wound my way through octahedron-shaped tables occupied by a variety of alien species and approached the only other human in the bar. “Fancy meeting you here, Flynn.”
As soon as his hazel eyes rested on me, I wished I’d dressed cuter than corporate casual. And taken more care with my hair and makeup. Damn him.
“Alyssa.” He quirked an eyebrow at me, then returned his gaze to the ice cubes in his eight-sided glass.
Ten years after our breakup—ten years since we’d seen or spoken to one another—and he still made me feel like a high school nerd with a crush on Mr. Popular. But we were thirteen million light years from Earth. I wasn’t that naïve girl anymore.
I dropped onto the bar stool next to his—harder than normal, I still wasn’t used to the gravity on PR493—and waved to the bartender, an eight-eyed, eight-armed, and probably eight-legged greenish reptilian.
“Let me buy you a drink,” I offered.
“Thought you’d never ask,” he said, and winked at me.
We sipped our spritzers as I waited for him to ask why I was here, what I’d been doing for the last ten years, or anything to acknowledge our shared history. When he didn’t, I finally broke down. “I’m supposed to be meeting someone here—”
“Yeah, me too.”
“—until he gets here, why don’t you tell me about your most memorable rescue?” While he had no idea what I’d been up to, the entire galaxy followed his adventures. Flynn Flybear: Search and Rescue was one of the highest rated streams anywhere. Let him think I didn’t follow his show.
He grunted, then shrugged. “That would be my most recent.”
I waited for him to begin, checking the door each time some species entered to see if it was my contact. He’d be easy enough to spot since there weren’t many humans that made the trip to PR493.
“Got an alert from a standard deep-space rescue beacon,” Flynn finally said. “Some sorta live cargo transport. Locked my tracker on it and headed in. Took me a little over three flight-days to reach it. By the time I got there, it was adrift. The remaining power had been diverted to life support, and that was almost failing.”
I took a sip of my drink and tried to act casually disinterested.
“Thing is,” he continued, “the life readings were off the charts, but my database couldn’t classify them. The closest matches were of Earth origin.”
“Really?” I’d meant to stay detached, but the xenobiologist in me was curious. “Which kind?”
“Giraffoidea and Leporidae.”
“Giraffes and rabbits?”
“That’s what I thought at first, too.” He finally glanced at me, and the poignant expression in his gaze made me swallow.
Except my drink took a turn for my windpipe, and I showered Flynn in saliva-laced spritzer. “Sorry!”
He laughed, and the tension dripped from his shoulders. “I see you haven’t changed, Alyssa.” He wiped my drink from his face.
“What were giraffes and rabbits doing in space?” I asked to distract him from my goof, then wished I hadn’t. Like someone had flipped a sensor, his expression closed off again. Serious Flynn returned.
“I hailed the crew.” His gaze returned to his half-finished cocktail. “Turned out the ship was some sort of mobile zoo. Apparently, the captain’s nephew smuggled a gene-splicer on board and decided to have some fun.”
“He didn’t.” Not only was species splicing dangerous, it was highly illegal. “What did you do?”
“We rescued them. The humans, the animals”—Flynn shuddered—“and the chimera.”
Images of long-necked bunnies with browns spots and giant hopping giraffes flickered through my mind’s eye. Still, chimeric species didn’t tend to live long, and those that did were usually sterile. “How many chimeras did you recover?”
“Only a handful.” Flynn flashed me a lopsided grin. “Originally.”
“What do you mean ‘originally’?”
He tossed back his drink and stood. “Ready?”
I checked the door again. Still no sign of any other human. “I can’t—”
Flynn cleared his throat. His quirked eyebrow and smug smile accused me of missing something obvious.
And the pieces fell into place: he hadn’t been surprised to see me; he didn’t ask what I’d been up to because he’d known. “You’re my contact. The one with the infestation?”
“Shall we?” He gestured to the door that had been holding so much of my attention.
Frustration and curiosity warred within me as I followed Flynn down a labyrinth of corridors to his ship, the Van Halen.
Flynn paused outside the airlock as if steeling himself. Muffled thumps rippled from the hull like his ship was filled with popping corn.
A frisson of dread curled in my belly as he raised his hand to wave the hatch open. “Wait!”
But it was too late. The door slid aside to reveal a drove of animals bouncing around like excited electrons. If electrons had antlers. With each jump, the creatures’ headgear tangled together. Jump, tangle. Jump, tangle. Jump. Jump. Jump.
It took longer than I cared to admit for my taxonomically-trained brained to make sense of the situation. The antlers were dark and bifurcated like a pronghorn’s—an antelope-like mammal closely related to giraffes. But the morphology, both of the creature and its ears, screamed jackrabbit. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Jackalopes?”
Flynn shook his head as if he didn’t quite believe it himself. “The captain’s nephew wanted to see if he could recreate a couple of mythical species.”
“What do you mean ‘a couple’?” Somewhere inside me, I already knew the answer. My brain had processed a smell of singed fur and grilled meat. The spout of flame that shot from an interior hallway somewhere deep inside the ship confirmed my fear.
“The kid also made a real, live dragon. Problem is, no matter how many jackalopes he chomps, there’s always plenty more. Those little critters breed faster than they can jump.”
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