Victoria never had a problem getting to sleep. Not until now, the day before she left for portal training, to be isolated from everyone she knew. Each time she closed her eyes, they popped back open on their own and forced her to check the time. Again. Sleeping in was not an option. Yet, she wouldn’t even have the chance if she didn’t doze off. Instead, she’d likely crash when she was supposed to be listening to her instructor on how to make a successful trip through the space portal, and miss some key piece of information vital to her arriving at Thanh Academy intact.
Her com unit chimed, another distraction to keep her awake.
“Yes?” Who could want to talk with her in the middle of the night? It’s not as if she had many friends. Had the start time for training been pushed ahead?
“Hi, Vic, it’s Nash. You still up?”
She groaned. Not even her best friend was welcome at such an hour. “Unfortunately, yes. What do you want?”
“Just to talk. Before you leave, I mean. I wanted to say good-bye.”
If his voice hadn’t hitched at the end, she would have reminded him that they’d already said good-bye only a few hours before. She rolled over. “Doors open.”
Nash rushed inside, dressed in nothing but loose-fitting shorts, and paced at the foot of her bed. It wasn’t as if he’d had far to go. They both had small and sparsely furnished quarters, with nothing but a bed, closet, dresser, mirror, and com unit. Everything else—a lounge area, dining hall, study room, bathrooms, gym—they shared with the other students on the floor. Yet, even though they’d been the best of friends for the two years they’d attended Sangreal University, he’d never come into her room, never seen her in bed.
“I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but there’s something I had to say before you left.”
“C’mon, Nash, we’re still going to be able to chat through the hologram program. And it’s not as if you’ll never see me again.”
“It’s something I have to say directly to you.” He stopped pacing and sat on the side of her bed. “Something I’ve been wanting to say for the entire time I’ve known you.”
“What is it?” Did she have a funny smell? Or was he tired of her clumsiness, done with bandaging her up after she walked into a wall or placing a cold compress on her broken toes?
His cheeks flushed. “I—I love you.”
She sat up and hugged him, afraid they’d both be crying in a few minutes. “Aww, I love you, too. You’re my best friend. We’ve been through a lot together, and I’m going to miss you so much.”
“No.” Nash shook his head. “Not like that. I mean, I love you. As in, I want you to be my girlfriend, and hopefully, one day we’ll get married?”
All contents of Victoria’s stomach stirred. Maybe she had fallen asleep, became trapped in a crazy stress dream. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because you’re leaving, and I want to make sure I still have a chance with you when you return.” He stroked the side of her face, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re beautiful in every way, and I want you to be mine. I want to make love to you before you leave, have that to hold onto until you come back to me.”
Cupping the back of her neck, he leaned in as if about to kiss her.
She grabbed his wrist and shook her head. “Nash, wait.”
His eyes widened, and his face lost all color. “Shit. You don’t feel the same way. I should have known.” He stood and dug his toe into the floor. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Reaching for his hand, she ran the tips of her fingers along his. “I’m flattered. It’s just…. There’s something about me I’ve never told you.”
He turned to face her, his brows furrowed. “What? You’ve been having a secret fling?”
“No.” Victoria chuckled. Like that would ever happen. “You know I’ve been concentrating hard on my school work and haven’t had time for that type of relationship.”
He grimaced. “That’s why I’ve never said anything about it before.”
“Well….” Even after the worldwide acceptance of people like her, she still found it hard to tell anyone. “I’m a lesbian. I’m attracted to women, not men.”
“But you’ve never been with anyone. You told me that. How do you know?” He joined her on the bed again, brushing his palm across her shoulder. “Maybe I can change your mind. I can show you how good it can be.”
She smiled and shook her head. Didn’t work like that. “You can’t change my mind, Nash. It’s the way I am, not a decision I suddenly made.”
Slapping his hands on his lap, he sighed. “So, I have no chance at all. I’m going to have to give you up to a woman?”
“You don’t have to give me up.” She kneeled behind him and hugged him from the back. “You’ll always be my friend. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
He leaned against her. “I guess I should have known. That’s probably why we’ve been friends for so long without any weird sexual tension between us.”
Shoving him forward, she laughed. “Not until now. You just ruined it.”
In a heartbeat, he pulled her down onto the bed and lay behind her, his arm wrapped around her. “Can I at least spend these last few moments with you?”
She spun to face him and kissed his forehead. If only she could take him with her, have someone familiar to talk to on the other side of the universe. “I’m going to miss you, too.” A year, maybe longer, in space would be lonely without any friends. But Nash would be a communicator beep away, her refuge when homesickness threatened to swallow her up.
Surrounded by his warmth, she finally fell asleep.
The multi-colored mass swirled in front of Victoria, churning and spinning, ready to suck her in and spit her out in another galaxy. She’d already stepped through one portal to meet up with the other new students from the Milky Way, a greater variety of non-humanoid creatures than she’d ever imagined. And those were the few types of extraterrestrials allowed to attend Thanh Academy. Many others would eat all the undergraduates if permitted to visit the school.
While in the space station, she had to take one last march into another gateway before landing on campus, ready to complete her fourth year of university studies with creatures from all over the galaxy. Since Earth—along with many other planets—couldn’t afford to build a portal all the way to the space academy, they used the station as a stopover. One-by-one, the individuals in front of her disappeared, on the platform one second, and gone the next. Their bodies seemed to stretch and bend before they vanished, like some sort of cartoon from Earth’s ancient past. The being in front of her jumped into the circular bulk, fading away much faster than those ahead of him.
Victoria treaded forward. She’d have loved to explore the space station before leaving again, chat with the astronauts who’d committed to live six years of their life there. But she had no time, the place not equipped to support more than five crew members for more than a couple hours.
With a final step, she entered the portal, the technology ripping her body into millions of particles. She cried out from the pressure, the pain more intense than with the first unit, stretching her body past its limits, her screams lost in the vastness of space. No one could hear her.
A vacuum pulled at her, dragging her across the galaxy a great deal faster than the speed of light, toward the technology that would piece her back together. The journey seemed to take forever, nothing to see beyond the blinding lights, no sound other than the suction from her destination.
Victoria slammed into a solid wall that vanished as fast as it had materialized. She fell to her knees, gasping for air. She’d arrived, hopefully at the right destination. There had been a few instances where nearby portals had grabbed a traveler, sucking them into an unintended target, but those instances were uncommon and the victims rarely heard from again.
Finally able to catch her breath, she glanced around, just to be sure she had arrived at the academy and not on a planet where the beings considered her lunch. By the time anyone had realized the mistake, she would be in the stomach of an alien creature, rolling around in its stomach acid.
Beings rushed to and fro around her, bustling to unknown destinations. Many appeared humanoid, with skin varying in color like a jumbo box of crayons. Others had tentacles and tails or antennae, with their bodies sectioned into three parts like an insect. Some bundled up in clothing thick enough to wear to the arctic, and even more wore nothing, exposing their sexual parts to those around them. Victoria blushed and glanced up.
Above her, a clear ceiling revealed a breathtaking view of the multitude of stars in the planet’s portion of the galaxy. Giant silver columns linked the ceiling to the floor. She stood, attempting to peer over everyone’s head to locate some sort of sign to tell her where she had to go.
“It’s about time you got to your feet.” A tinsa glared down at her with beady eyes, its heart-shaped head cocked to the side. Standing on two legs, the creature crossed both sets of arms across its chest. “I was beginning to think you Terrans had headed back down the evolutionary ladder.”
Victoria rolled her eyes. She’d just arrived and already been insulted by an alien who resembled a giant ant. Too bad she couldn’t squish it. “And you are?”
“Your guide.” The being made a clicking sound, its antennae bobbing in front of her face. “Your luggage has already been transported to your quarters. I am to show you around before taking you there.”
“Okay, then, let’s go.” While she’d expected a variety of different life forms at the academy, she’d hoped to connect with more humanoids, those she could relate to.
She rushed to keep up with her guide’s long stride, trying to take in the places he pointed out and facts he shared. At least, she assumed him to be male, with certain parts dangling between his legs. When she’d studied for the space exchange program, she’d focused on the humanoid creatures rather than the insectoids and reptilians. What had she gotten herself into?
“And this is the dining hall. The Terran food is limited, so you’re going to have to get used to eating more sophisticated cuisine.”
He didn’t slow down, so she spun around, walking backward to take in the mounds of food on the tables. Her stomach turned. Sophisticated? Hardly. Not when some of it still moved in its dish. In terms of nourishment, she’d had no idea what to expect. Her training hadn’t involved eating foreign foods, at least nothing from another planet. If only they’d let her bring snacks from Earth, something familiar.
She twisted back around to locate her guide, smacking right into another being. Victoria tried to steady herself, but couldn’t, falling right on top of the life form. What sounded like glass shattered on impact. Oh no, a leabu. Victoria rolled off as quickly as possible, stood up, and reached a hand out to help the woman back to her feet. Definitely female with perky, round breasts, only the nipples hidden behind her mostly see-through outer shell. The delicate external layer didn’t help much in terms of protection. But the sparkling silver adornments swirling across the covering sure made her stand out in the crowd. And in Victoria’s mind. Maybe even her fantasies.
The woman pursed her full, pink lips and swatted Victoria’s hand away with six-inch claws protruding from her fingers. “Stupid Terran. I don’t need help from you. Just watch where you’re going next time.” She sprang to her feet, her pointed ears fluttering as if in frustration.
“I’m really sorry. I’m new here and just trying to take everything in.” She wasn’t making a good first impression at all.
“New?” The leabu pulled at the glass tubes protruding from her back and curved them up above her head. “Good. That means I won’t have to see you again.”
Too stunned to move, Victoria stared at the leabu. Her personality sure didn’t match her sexy body.
As the woman marched off, Victoria spotted her guide and hurried after him. After the two encounters she’d had with the other life forms at the academy, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay. But there was no chance of her returning to Earth. Not for a full year.