BOOK ONE: ANGEL UNCHAINED
Music blasted through the old 21st-century car speakers, thumping against my chest as we diverged through the streets.
I pasted on a smile and hoped it didn't come out as a grimace while the extra-terrestrial student driver beside me whizzed down the road.
Please don't crash, please.
My boss made a killing taking credits from aliens wanting to learn how to drive old-timey human cars while visiting Earth. Me? I mostly got migraines and near heart attacks. Too bad I was only a human and not a Tronx with three hearts.
"Turn left at the light," I said, hoping to get this training session done quickly.
Suburban homes and scattered trees dotted both sides of the road. Which would be more enjoyable if we weren't blaring music and skating too close to the speed limit.
"What?" the Nebobite teen shouted over the song. His second set of ears twitched while the fur on his hands stood up like a scared cat. He had white tuffs of fur that ran down his back and across his shoulders and stuck out through his spacesuit. His pin-prick pupils set in bright yellow flicked to me and a smile showed off his double fangs.
I flipped off the radio for the third time and tightened my seatbelt. "Left at the light."
The Nebobite jerked the wheel, not even looking in the rearview mirror, cars honked, and brakes squealed behind us. The scent of burning rubber filled my nostrils. I made the sign of the cross over myself with jerky movements.
The intersection light ahead of us switched to red, but he wasn't slowing down.
"It's red!" I shrieked, bracing myself. My foot stomped on the invisible brake pad. Damn, Mr. Simmons for not paying extra for dual controls in this vehicle, or at least an extra brake for the instructor - me.
Then again, I had this job because Simmons didn't like robots or automated cars. Both were trying to take over his business and he feared losing money if the nostalgia of old Earth waned. Tons of aliens even made replica homes and lived in swaths of villages, like Volt City with its imported trees and cut roads. Shops dotted the outside of town with brick houses twisted through the inner core. Cloned flowers lined the artificial grass because not everything had been saved with Earth's destruction during the great wars. Bethel was as close as scientists had found to mimicking Earth despite its two moons and purple-colored oceans. Tourists pushed the economy here including living as a human for a week rentals and learning to drive a car.
"Left is okay on red, right?" Izon asked in a mocking tone like he was testing me and not the other way around.
"No, no, no." I hung onto the door as the vehicle slung wide, one of the back tires bumping into the curb. Two Bjoms walking their knee-high lizards jumped backward. Their shrill cries as they waved their fists at us pierced the air and I covered my ears.
Once we were far enough away from the Bjoms, I lowered my hands from my ears. The Nebobite teen straightened the wheel and we blasted down the road.
"Watch your speed," I managed to croak out, but with him humming loudly like he couldn't care less, I had no idea if he heard me or not.
Pedestrians jumped back onto the sidewalk instead of using the crosswalk. My stomach lurched into my throat. I'd had bad student drivers before, but Izon was setting a new bar.
"I'm good at driving, huh, Ms. Clemmons?" He smacked his chewing gum, staring over at me.
"Eyes on the road." All six of them, I wanted to add, but being rude to the clients never worked out for me. Once I had enough money, I could be my own boss, and wouldn't have to bend my ideals for a paycheck.
"You know, you're pretty for an old lady." He waggled his eyebrows. "Too bad you're not teaching flying spaceships, like the X90."
Old lady? I huffed. I was twenty-six. But I guess to this sixteen-year-old, I might as well be eighty. Wasn't his fault. I remembered being that young and thinking that thirty-year-olds were ancient.
"You got nice legs and bigger boobs than my kin - "
"If you talk about any part of my anatomy again, I'm going to forbid you from taking this test ever again, Izon." Aliens were trouble and I'd known too many friends who were left high and dry by one or two-night flings. F*cking a human was considered a rite of passage, something to brag about, but these same ones refused to marry or our kind.
I straightened, clicking the pen on to mark X's on his driving, though he had already failed by my standards before the come-on. What was it with my love life? The only men interested in me were either married or too young, like my student here. I had to have a neon sign over my head that said: Any unavailable men, here I am. Just once, I wanted to meet a guy close to my age who was available. Besides, love wasn't real. It was a made-up notion by sentimental humans because if it did exist, I'd have stumbled at least to the edge of the abyss long ago.
I glanced up at the road and a ball darted in front of us. A little boy raced after it, not even looking.
My heart slammed into my throat.
There's no time to warn him.
I reached over, yanking hard on the steering wheel. No way could I reach the brake pedal from my seat. Izon yelled, fighting me, but I held on. The car slid sideways, throwing us into a tailspin.
"Brakes, brakes!" I screamed, swerving again.
Izon jammed his foot on the brake. We jerked back, the tires screeching, but we were going too fast. The car skidded right, then left. But we weren't stopping. Oh god! Why weren't we stopping? At this speed, we rushed toward a streetlight.
Had we missed the kid? Oh, God, oh please, oh please let us have missed him.
The streetlight rushed closer and I knew we weren't going to stop in time. I had to relax or the wreck would make my injuries worse. But my arms and legs had locked up. My breathing was high and stuck in my chest as we veered sideways.
The car smashed into the pole on my side. Metal crunched and my window shattered. Glass sprinkled across me.
The airbag punched me in the face and chest. I smacked my head against the side of the door, pain whipped through my skull.
A rippled effect warped through the car and my body was flung back and forward against the airbag.
Sharp pain exploded all over my body, then everything went dark.