So many plot bunnies, so little time. This is just an intro to another story that I couldn't get out of my mind.

So PLEASE let me know... should I continue? Or should I stick with my first story?

Disclaimer: It's been established...I own nothing.


New Mecca, Helion Prime

Heat waves shimmered up from the pavement of the bustling Badjal marketplace, blistering the feet of the shoeless urchins who wandered there begging for change, bread, anything. The collective smell of unwashed bodies and heat-spoiled fruit permeated the air; and the wealthy women who had ventured into the square pulled their scarves up in a vain attempt to hide from the stench. Vendors hid behind the shades of their carts, only venturing into the sunlight to shoo away beggars and stray dogs. Store owners posted 'Please Keep Doors Closed' signs, hoping to keep only cool air cycling through their shops.

Two miles away the New Mecca Spaceport loomed over the city like great shining tyrant, all steel and glass.

Imam Abu al-Walid walked across the tarmac into the air-conditioned terminal, past the lavish shops selling souvenirs and travel necessities and into the men's lavatory. He gathered his embroidered robes around him and glanced around the stalls, ensuring he was indeed alone in the pristine restroom. Hurrying over to the sinks he turned on a faucet, removed his glasses, and splashed the cold water onto his face.

He strode over to the couch in the corner and collapsed onto it. He stared blankly at the opposite wall for a long while, then lowered his head into trembling hands and wept.

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No more than a mile from the poverty-stricken streets of Badjal, Audrey al-Walid sat in the window of her upstairs bedroom looking into the garden below where her little sister Ziza played in the grass with one of the maids. The little girl squealed in delight as the maid Fatima splashed her with water from the ornate fountain. The stench of the market didn't reach her here, only the smell of opium incense and the meal being prepared in the kitchen downstairs.

Her mother Lajjun called for her to wash for dinner, but she remained stationary staring out into the world beyond the safe confines of the Imam's gated estate. A sudden gust of wind from across the arid terrain swept the scent of the marketplace in the valley below into her room, rustling her crimson bed curtains and scattering the papers that sat on her computer desk. Instead of recoiling from the fetid odor from the streets below, Audrey leaned out of her window inhaling deeply, eyes closed, wistful smile playing about her lips.

"Miss Audrey," a voice called politely from outside her door, "Mrs. al-Walid asks me to inform you that dinner is almost ready; the Imam will be arriving shortly and the guests within the hour."

As she pulled back from the window, the expression of pleasant reflection on Audrey's face melted back into a look of placid indifference.

"Thank you Salam," she replied pulling the window closed, "I'll be down in five minutes."

She made her way into her private bathroom and closed the door behind her. Opening the medicine cabinet set retrieved a box of sandalwood and spice soap; she inhaled deeply almost shuddering as the heady aroma flooded her senses. She washed her face and hands before twisting her hair into an elegant bun.

As she shut the medicine cabinet her reflection caught her eye and she stared into the mirror tracing the contours of her face with soft fragrant hands, manicured nails painted a muted pink.

Seven years ago her hands had been scabbed; dirt streaked and cut up. Her nails had been chewed down to the quick, rimmed with grime and grit. Her hair had been hacked unevenly, face streaked with sweat and tears, pinched with hunger. But then again, seven years ago Ziza hadn't been her sister, Lajjun hadn't been her mother, she didn't live in a six bedroom estate with maids and a cook. Seven years ago she hadn't been Audrey al-Walid at all.

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Dinner went as it always did.

The unfailingly banal exchanges of 'oh, you must tell me where you bought that chaise in the sitting room' and 'isn't that proposed tariff ridiculous' and 'have you heard the Caliph's son has decided to join the Helion air force?'

Audrey sat across the table from Lajjun silently pushing her braised quail breast around the plate. Her private tickle war with Ziza, who sat next to her, had ended after the salad course and since then she'd detached herself from the event at the table. Now she amused herself by counting the stones set in Lajjun's brooch. They caught the light of the candles set around the table and reflected colorful prisms onto the ceiling.

Red, blue, orange…

A soft nudge under the table drew her from her thoughts. Looking around she caught Abu's warm smile, he nodded down the table. Someone had been talking to her.

Turning she saw the table's attention had suddenly been focused on her. She flushed slightly, squirming as prickling heat crept up her chest onto her face.

"I'm sorry," she apologized quietly, to whom she still wasn't sure.

"Of course darling," an elderly woman – Minister Rahirim – replied gently, "I was simply inquiring as to whether or not you had applied at the university yet. The Imam tells me that you are an excellent student, top of your class."

Audrey ducked her head, exhibiting the expected modesty and docility of a young upper class woman.

"Yes, ma'am," she replied, "I am to begin studies there in the fall."

The older woman fingered the folds of her chiffon stole and smiled genially, "Very good dear."

And then it was over. The adults returned their attention back to the vital conversation of furniture stores and travel destinations.

As the moon climbed high into the sky casting a dim blue glow in through the windows, the talk began to dwindle. One after another the guests excused themselves bestowing many praises and thanks to the hostess for the delicious meal.

From the room behind the kitchen Fatima and Salam appeared and began clearing the dishes. Abu disappeared into his book-lined study; Lajjun vanished into her powder room to begin her nightly skin renewal regimen. The house was quiet save of the chirruping of crickets outside and the clinking of pots and pans in the kitchen. Audrey scooped the groggy toddler up from the couch and walked up the stairs into her nursery.

After dressing her in a soft gown , Audrey tucked the girl into her bed and walked back down the stairs and into the garden. It was a warm night; the city below was quiet save for the occasional wail of sirens, and the balmy night air cooled her slightly damp skin as she sat on a wicker lawn chair wiggling her bare toes in the springy moist grass.

She unpinned her tresses and shook them out around her shoulders wrinkling her nose as her scalp tingled at the sudden increase of blood flow. She flung her sheer green shoulder wrap over her face at stared up at the jade-tinged moon.

Summer nights had always been her favorite. When she was a little girl – before she was Miss Audrianne al-Walid – she was simply Jack. And summer nights had been the most enjoyable for kids like her.

Children who slept in the parks, in the alleys, on the rooftops of buildings in cities just like New Mecca. On summer nights there was no need to seek out dumpsters, doorways, and cars to provide some refuge from the driving rain or snow. A kid could meander into the heart of the closest square and find more comrades, more children of the street gathered around some impromptu trash bin bonfire, sharing hunks of bread, pieces of fruit, wedges of cheese and – when fortune smiled upon these rejected souls – bits of meat. If the local police arrived they would scatter, only to congregate on another block a few minutes later.

Companions in the spring and summer months were competitors come fall. Rivals, vying for the fullest dumpster, the largest square of cardboard box. The weak – or sometimes just the unlucky – ended up frozen in the gutter. They were not missed come the next summer, for there were always new faces to replace the old, they were interchangeable.

Surely no one noticed when she had faded into oblivion. No one had missed her as she wandered through the Interplanetary Spaceport of New Johannesburg, fingering the stolen credits in her pocket. No parents worried about her as she boarded the ill-fated long-range transport vessel Hunter-Gratzner. When the ship collided with whatever matter of space debris that sent it hurdling into the atmosphere of a cursed planet, she was just another scared passenger.

She was no one until the lights went out. And then, because of that cursed monthly flow, she was the marked woman, the intended meal of a thousand chittering winged beasts that stalked her through the dark. The man with the badge had tried to have her killed, gutted like a piece of bait. A sacrifice to whatever terrible god ruled the barren planet. No one cared whether she lived or died except for a grieving holy man, a pilot living on borrowed time…and a man with smoldering silver eyes. He knew her better than the rest, this murder lurking in the shadows; he wasn't really a man at all. But he had saved her when the razor toothed monsters clawed and chewed their way through the remaining survivors; when blue entrails rained from the heavens and the ground grew slippery with blood; when the sounds of their own screams were drowned out by the maddening chatters…

"Miss Audrey," a gentle voice questioned from besides her. She jolted in the chair, almost tipping it over.

Small hands landed on her shoulder and she turned her head. Fatima. Disorientation faded, and realization set in. She had fallen asleep in the garden, the meticulously pruned and snipped garden, inside of a walled complex far away from the trashcan bonfires and winged monsters.

"You must have fallen asleep ma'am." Six and a half years as Miss Audrey al-Walid and it never failed to unnerve her when a woman old enough to be her grandmother called her 'ma'am'.

Nodding she gathered up her scarf and made her way back into the house. Making her way past the dining room she noticed a muted light emanating from under the Imam's study door. He was a night-owl like herself, she decided to say goodnight; but as she approached the door the sound of an urgent hushed argument met her ears. She paused and then turned to leave when her name caught her attention. She hovered closer to the door placing her hands on the doorframe to support her weight.

"He is insistent, Lajjun," Abu whispered furiously.

"Hundreds of women would freely throw themselves at his feet. She's just a girl!"

"I know this…"

"She is younger than his children!"

"Lajjun, I know this…"

"It is unacceptable. Tell him no."

Audrey pressed he ear against the cool surface of the door, a cold stone of anxiety began to form in the pit of her stomach.

"You know as well as I, that it is not that simple. He is the Caliph, one does not simply refuse him."

"We are not an authoritarian state, Abu," she hissed vehemently, "there is the Counsel. Surely, they will never…"

"He owns the Counsel, Lajjun. Half of them are on his personal payroll and the rest fear him too much to oppose."

"She is just a child…" Lajjun broke off there, and through the heavy oak Audrey could swear she heard quiet sobs.

"Nothing is official yet," she heard him sigh and then push back his chair; "I will continue to deter him until I can figure out another plan."

At the sound of footsteps Audrey silently slipped from the hallway, up the stairs and into her room. She listened for the sounds of Abu and his wife retreating into their bedroom across the hall before getting undressed and slipping into bed.

The cool cotton sheets felt wonderful against her heated skin, but they brought her no comfort. She lay on her back watching the lights of city below flicker across her ceiling; she was safe here in her second story bedroom with a guard posted at the front gate. She told herself she was protected, but in the back of her mind she sensed a black presence, darker than the very depths of the planet she had survived all those years ago, closing in on the little circle of light she had come to know.