Portal Woes was a lot of fun to write. The fact that it’s a sequel meant it had its own unique little challenges–including a timeline that had me pulling out my hair on a few occasions–but I’m having a blast expanding The Guardians universe.
Here’s the first chapter. Hope you enjoy!
AN acrid tang of laser bolt fire lingered in the air circulating through Sonela’s Westside Range as twenty-one year-old Lilia Strong lowered her pistol. The smell did not bother her as much as it had just a few weeks earlier; she was getting better at blocking unpleasant memories. She scanned the area in front of her for any more potential targets before performing a tactical reload, efficiently switching out her spent energy magazine for a fresh one.
Reaching around to the back of her waist, she pushed the magazine through an invisible membrane about ten centimeters from her skin, with the squishy consistency of gelatin.
The magazine disappeared, safely stowed in her Interdimensional Storage Field—otherwise known as an ISF. She then slid her pistol into that same gelatinous field outside her right hip, returning it to the holster positioned there, and tapped a panel on the frame separating her from the shooter in the next booth.
A holodisplay of her two targets materialized in the air before her. Lilia counted the laser bolt holes in each, noting which shots had been dead-on and which ones hadn’t. Not bad, she thought with a small nod. As far as stopping bad guys went, she’d done all right.
Lilia knew she could do better.
After all, she had a responsibility now, not only to herself, but also to her fellow Sta’Gloan citizens.
Six weeks earlier, she and her twin brother had joined the Nanotech Coalition Defense Corp to become Guardians: a group of civilians throughout the Coalition’s worlds equipped with cutting-edge nanotechnology to be defenders and protectors in emergency situations where outside police or military help was impossible.
They had undergone an infusion process to transfer billions of nanites into their bodies, enabling them to materialize armor and communicate with other Guardians. Her ISF was a byproduct of that infusion, an electromagnetic field surrounding her body that held an amount equal to her body weight in weapons and gear. No one else could see it or access it; no mechanical scanner registered its existence.
“What did you do there?” A large hand reached past her to stab a finger at two holes just grazing her first target’s right hip. A retired Sonela police officer, Roy Atherson was both the commanding range officer and one of the instructors Lilia and her four older brothers had known since their grandfather’s head of security, Will Graves, introduced them years before. As long as they were safe, he did not mind the unorthodox gear tactics Lilia and her brothers—who were all Guardians—occasionally used.
“Pushed it.” Lilia shook her head. She heard Atherson loud and clear; her protective ear gear filtered out harmful sound levels.
Atherson gave her a knowing look. Gray-haired with a craggy face, he was her height, though his broad shoulders dwarfed hers in size. “Don’t be in such a hurry to get a look at where your shots went. Otherwise, looking good, kid.” He motioned to the holodisplay. “Your shots are still better with a carbine, but that’s to be expected.”
Lilia nodded gravely. If she had to pick a weapon to take into a fight—and she had, just a few short weeks ago—she’d take the laser carbine over her pistol any day. Better sights, better control, and more firepower. “I’m working on it.”
“I can see that.” Atherson’s brown eyes twinkled. “Won’t be long at all until you’re outshooting those brothers of yours.”
“That’s the plan.” Lilia gave the ranger master a small, but genuine smile and tipped her head toward the booth. “I’m done for today.” She cleared her targets’ shot history and stepped out into the open corridor running the length of the wall.
Atherson studied her for a few seconds. He had said nothing in the four weeks since she, her twin, Kevin, and their older brother Lon returned to Sta’Gloa, but she knew he had heard about her being shot on Coral Island nearly a year ago. Even if the news of that massacre hadn’t made much of a splash outside of Glo’Stea, he was Graves’s friend, and her two oldest brothers still regularly frequented Westside Range.
“Shooting targets,” he said quietly, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “even as lifelike as these are, isn’t the same as shooting human beings.”
Lilia swallowed. “No, it’s not.” Her violet eyes grew distant for a second before she forced her mind away from those thoughts and gave him a wry smile. “For one thing, targets don’t shoot back.”
Atherson chuckled. “That they don’t.” His expression sobered quickly. “Be careful out there, kid. Things are getting uglier by the day.”
Sonela was expecting another eighteen centimeters of snow before nightfall, but Lilia knew he didn’t mean the weather. She nodded. “I will.”
As she turned to leave, Atherson called out, “Tell your brothers I expect to see them back in here to catch up!”
Raising a hand in acknowledgment, Lilia strolled out of Westside Range and into the gloomy early morning. Heavy clouds, slate-gray with the threat of yet more snow, hung over Sta’Gloa’s capital city. Pulling a soft, black hat down over her ears, she flipped her long braid of dark brown hair over her shoulder and started down the heated sidewalk toward the nearest hoverbus stop.
She blew out a frosty breath. Only a few more weeks until spring. You can live through this, no matter how cold it is.
A sudden smile lit her face. Of course, I don’t have to stay cold. Her eyes narrowed slightly in concentration and charcoal gray droplets oozed out of her pores, coalescing over her skin. They instantly hardened into a hidden, protective layer of armor, rendering her immune to the sharp, cutting wind. Lilia jammed her hands into her pockets and materialized dark gray gloves.
Her smile widened. Gotta love stealth mode.
Her nano-armor did little, however, to protect her lungs from the bite of the freezing air she felt with every breath as she wove her way through a steady stream of pedestrians to the hoverbus stop. I almost miss Kyman’s sweltering heat, she thought wistfully. We thought we might boil alive, but at least we weren’t cold.
Kyman was a medcenter on the fringes of free Glo’Stea, the third world in the Sta’Gloan system. Lilia had transferred there after surviving Coral Island, while her brothers Kevin and Lon continued flying supplies to various Glo’Stean islands. Nearly a quarter of Glo’Stea was controlled by Galactic Union troops; clashes between them and Glo’Stean Resistance forces were both frequent and bloody.
Lilia would be in Kyman still, except that everything changed shortly after she and Kevin joined the NCDC.
Things weren’t supposed to have changed. That wasn’t the plan. Unfortunately, political maneuvers intended to silence their grandfather’s opposition to an alliance with the Galactic Union resulted in the newly-minted Guardians being thrown into a rescue mission on Lanx, the fourth world in their system. Lanx’s planetary shield had just been breached by the G.U.’s newest blockade commander, endangering a trio of scientists and their revolutionary machine—a wormhole-based transporter. Lilia, Kevin, and their team of fellow Guardians had succeeded in bringing the machine and two of the scientists back to Sta’Gloa, but they’d lost a teammate in the process.
Not to mention all of us nearly died at one point or another, Lilia thought, frowning. The hoverbus arrived and she climbed aboard, swiping a transit card into a panel by the door before dropping into a seat near the front. G.U. soldiers, known throughout the Coalition as Tarynians due to the origin of the Galactic Union, had shot at their entire team on several occasions. She herself had been shot twice over the course of that mission, though her nano-armor saved her life, and Kevin had almost been killed in the skimmer crash that claimed the life of their teammate.
Lilia swallowed. Memories of those catastrophic three days had mostly faded into a muted jumble in her mind, like foggy remnants of a frightening dream. A few sections, however, remained stark and vivid. Those were the memories that sent her stumbling to the kitchen for a cup of hot chocolate at three in the morning.
Sometimes Kevin joined her.
The hoverbus dropped her two blocks from home. Lilia marched down the sidewalk, trying to channel her thoughts in a different direction. Target practice always lifted her spirits, reminding her she was far from helpless, but some days took more of an effort than others.
She cast a longing look at the café occupying the ground floor of a four-story older building on the corner at the end of the block. Cheerful, welcoming light spilled from every window. Her best friend’s family owned Sal’s; she considered them her surrogate family.
No time to stop there now. The morning rush was in full swing. With a sigh, Lilia trudged onward, past the café and across the street. A few moments later, she stopped in front of Ferndale Apartments. Her grandfather owned this seven-story apartment building; they lived in one of the two penthouse apartments. The other housed his rotating security staff.
Being a Representative on the Triumvirate that governed the entire Sta’Gloan system had its drawbacks. Especially these days, with everyone in an uproar over the terrible turn things had taken. In addition to partially occupying Lanx, the Tarynians were holding a mining world and a mining station in an asteroid belt hostage as well.
Stepping into the lobby, Lilia nodded to the concierge on duty at the front desk and headed straight for the accelevator bank. She entered the express code that would whisk her up to the penthouse level and waited. Seconds later, she emerged into a wide beige hall and crossed a red-brown floor to the door on the right. She disarmed security—there was no guarantee Kevin or Lon were actually awake yet—and let herself into the penthouse’s foyer, closing the front door behind her.
After depositing her coat and hat in the foyer closet, she turned left into the kitchen and headed straight for the coffee machine. She poured herself a cup, stirred in a spoonful of sugar and some cream, and then carried her coffee through the kitchen to the dining room and around the corner into the living room. The light filtering through the gauzy silver and blue curtains framing the full-length windows along one wall was brighter than it had been.
Silence lay over the penthouse. Her grandfather and two oldest brothers had already left for the Four Towers, Sta’Gloa’s government seat in the heart of Sonela’s business district, and Lon and Kevin were apparently still asleep. Settling down in a corner of one deep blue couch, Lilia set her coffee cup on the end table at her elbow and reached into her ISF above the center of her left forearm for her reader. Powering on the slim device, she worked through her selection of Scripture for the day.
By the time Kevin and Lon rolled out of bed an hour later, Lilia had finished her daily devotional and was attempting to determine her next move.
Not for the first time since they returned to Sta’Gloa, she felt adrift and disconnected, like she didn’t quite fit into her own skin. Working in Kyman had given her purpose and a sense of belonging, but now? She stared at the windows opposite her. What am I supposed to do with myself now?
After a moment, she snapped her fingers and rose to her feet. Cookies. She nodded firmly. Cookies will help.
Her brothers wouldn’t mind. They love cookies.
Rolling her sleeves up to her elbows, Lilia made her way into the kitchen and seized an apron from a drawer. She put on music—something with a thrumming baseline and a fast, steady beat—and began pulling out ingredients to make chocolate pecan cookies. Focusing on baking would help her push worrisome thoughts of the future to the back of her mind.
I know I’m supposed to be back on Sta’Gloa; I’ll have just to trust that I’ll figure out why I’m back.
Lon wandered into the kitchen a little while later, just as Lilia was transferring the first batch of cookies from a baking sheet to a cooling rack. He shared the same lean build and angular features as the twins, but where they were dark-haired and violet-eyed, he had inherited sandy blond hair and green eyes. He was also slightly shorter than both Kevin and Michael, their oldest brother—which he did his best to ignore. Sniffing appreciatively, he leaned up against the counter by the doorway. “What’s for dinner?”
“Eh.” Lon wrinkled his freckled nose.
Seeing this, Lilia raised an eyebrow. “Do you have a better idea?” Her brother’s green eyes lit with an impish sparkle and she hastily pointed a spatula at him. “If you say ‘food’, I will hurt you.”
“Would I do that?” Lon clapped a hand over his heart, grinning.
“In a heartbeat.”
“Oh, well, in that case…” Lon thought for a moment, and then shrugged. “Don’t know. Food’s good.”
He was out the door before Lilia could lob something at his head—snagging a hot cookie as he disappeared.
Four hours later, Lilia was ready to climb the penthouse walls. She had exhausted every possible avenue of distraction; cookies were finished, the kitchen was clean, laundry done, and a pot of soup ready to be cooked for dinner. Now she was trying to catch up on the news and her vmail correspondence, but that horrible, itchy feeling of inactivity and uselessness continued to press down on her.
She stiffened as a fresh burst of noise carried down the hall from the game room.
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of your situation, Kev.”
“Oh, I think I do.”
“You really don’t.”
“Yes, I do. Take that!”
From her seat in the living room, sitting cross-legged in an armchair, Lilia rolled her eyes. They could at least have the decency to shut the door. She pressed fingers to her temples, staving off a headache. She didn’t know what game they were playing—and frankly at the moment she didn’t care—but they’d been at it for over two hours. Is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet?
Shutting her datapad off, she unfolded herself from the chair. I can’t stay here anymore. Padding through the living room out into the foyer, she poked her head into the kitchen. “Zoë, I’m going to Sal’s.”
Zoë, their humanoid housekeeping ‘bot, turned her head around without rotating the rest of her navy uniform-clad body. “Be careful, Lilia. The forecast is calling for more snow.” Her metallic silver face showed little expression beneath dark curls and a navy cap, but her photoreceptors glittered.
“I know. I won’t be long.” The ‘bot’s concern was nothing new; Lilia and her brothers were positive their grandmother had imprinted aspects of her own personality on Zoë and her sister ‘bot Chloe when she and their grandfather had them commissioned.
Sparing a glance for herself in a round mirror hanging in the foyer, Lilia grabbed her coat and hat from the closet, disarmed security on the front door, and let herself out into the hall. Marching over to the other penthouse apartment, she pressed the intercom panel by the door. “JP, I’m going down to Sal’s.”
“Fine and dandy. Stay out of trouble.”
She rolled her eyes. “Aren’t you confusing me with my brothers?”
JP Cobb just chuckled through the intercom.
Shaking her head, Lilia headed for the accelevator.
The Guardians: Portal Woes is available at: