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Iroth let go of her shoulders and tapped a spot on his wrist, speaking in a language she didn’t understand. The air in the middle of the clearing shimmered, and something that looked like a purple butterfly chrysalis appeared.

She gasped.

The spaceship was about the size of a city bus and rested with the pointed end slightly elevated above its bulbous base. One edge unfolded like a petal, forming a ramp to the ground, and she realized it didn’t look like a chrysalis so much as a rosebud.

He smiled, once again leaning on her shoulder. “Help me up the ramp.”

Her heart thudded hard against her breastbone. She was helping a real live alien.

Her sheltie, Bixby, sniffed the ramp, then trotted ahead. Maise stared in awe at the delicately veined floor and walls as they ascended the incline.

Inside the cramped space, a pedestal rose from the floor in the center in the same lavender-colored material as everything else. The entire interior seemed to glow with ambient light rather than from overhead fixtures. A row of four seats was molded into one wall. She touched the arm of one, rubbing the leathery texture. “Everything looks organic—made of leaves or something.”

“You’re correct.” He moved to a waist high console and ran his fingers over its bumpy surface. Multicolored lights appeared among the bumps, and a screen on one wall lit up to show the trees outside. “Most advanced technology has a biological component.”

No one was ever going to believe her when she told them about this. She had to take pictures. But when she searched her pockets for her phone, she remembered she’d left it charging by her bed. Crap.

The floor vibrated beneath her feet, as if he’d started the engine, and she knew it was time for her to go. Biting her lip, she put a hand on his arm. “Guess this is where we say goodbye.” She didn’t know why, but she felt sad thinking she’d never see him again. “If you ever visit Earth again, look me up, okay?”

He turned to her and pointed to the seats, his face an unreadable mask. “Please sit over there.”

A wave of doubt swept over her. She turned toward the door and discovered Bixby pacing the spot where the opening had been. Maise spun to face Iroth. “What’s going on? You need to let us off!”

His features remained calm, one hand resting on the bumpy console. “I’m sorry that I must do this. But if you don’t sit down, I’ll be forced to restrain you.”

She stuck her hand into her hoodie pocket and gripped her keys, as Lora had taught them in self-defense class. “Go ahead and try. You can barely stand up!” But even as she said it, she realized how stupid she’d been. He’d been faking his illness. This was the oldest serial killer trick in the book, and she’d fallen for it. The only thing that might’ve worked better was if he’d claimed to have a sick puppy on board. And escaping from an alien space ship was going to be a lot more difficult than escaping some creeper’s abduction van. “You tricked me.”

“Yes, and I deeply regret it. Now sit.”

She glanced at Bixby, who now lay against the wall, a soft whine coming from her throat as if begging to be let out. So much for canine protection. Maise hated the tears filming her vision. “But we rescued you. Why are you hurting us?”

“I will not hurt you. But if I leave you here, you’ll tell the authorities. Everyone must think I died along with the others.”

“I won’t tell, I swear.” She thought of the various messages she’d left for Lora, the vague hints that something weird was going on.

His eyes were like stone. “I’d like to believe that, but I know better.”

Her throat tightened with another suspicion. “Are you the assassin?”

He turned his attention to the console. “No, but it doesn’t matter. I was there.”

Gritting her teeth, she reached for bumps and lights, hitting as many as she could and praying the door would open.

“Stop.” He grabbed her wrist and grimaced, flashing pointed teeth.

She stumbled backward, heart stuttering in terror. Where had those come from?

Still holding her wrist, he advanced a step. “Sit.”

Her gaze went to her wrist, where his fingers once more ended in claws instead of fingernails. It had all been a disguise. A human-like façade to make her feel comfortable. Even his face had once more sprouted hair, though it was more like human stubble than the bushy sideburns he’d had the first time.

Trembling, she fell back into a seat. The cushioning enveloped her like a bean bag gone wrong, suctioning around her. She thrashed, but it refused to let her go. On the screen, she saw Lora appear in the clearing with Pepper tugging on a leash.

“Lora!” she screamed.

But it was too late. All she could do was watch as the ground fell away beneath them.

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