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Flight of the Omega Preview

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The following is an excerpt of Flight of the Omega, a standalone mm omegaverse novella.

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I

It was late, the landscape almost pitch black, when Jack made his way home from the forest around Midlothian Ranch. It had been a long, trying day, starting with the fact that part of the fence had broken and the whole dang flock of birds had decided to go for broke and file out the hole before Jack could get to it. So he’d spent most of his day chasing a bunch of speedy avians all over, through hill and dell.

He was just grateful the lot of them couldn’t fly like most Earth birds, or he really would’ve been up the creek without a paddle.

Once he’d rounded up the miscreants—which had taken far too long—he’d had to patch that fence. Now that it was mended, he could rest easy knowing Mr. Crane’s prized flock of very rare, very expensive, very imported birdbrains weren’t going to run off anywhere in the night. They were all home to roost, fast asleep in the stables.

It simply wouldn’t do for Midlothian, the most famed Alerian ranch on Earth, to lose all its feathered residents. Mr. Crane counted on the birdbrains to earn him his millions. His birds had won all kinds of prestigious prizes, from Triple Crowns in racing to bird shows. And because his birds were so prestigious, they were in high demand as sires and dams for future generations of Alerian racers. The sport was growing in popularity and prestige, largely thanks to efforts by Mr. Crane and a few other ranchers. It was expensive, because the birds had to come all the way from the planet Alerian, which had first been visited maybe five or six decades before. Mr. Crane and his ilk were second-generation ranchers, if they were lucky; their parents had been pioneers, and their successors were now codifying and enlarging the sport—as well as their flocks and their pocketbooks, of course.

Jack didn’t know much about any of that; he just took care of the birds.

Oh, well, that wasn’t quite right—Jack knew enough. He knew the humans had showed up on Alerian some years back, and he knew that the natives, shapelocked birds, had put up a dang good fight for being a bunch of feathered critters who lacked thumbs and hands and guns and stuff like that. Hadn’t been a fair fight, if you asked him, but the humans had prevailed and the flocks of Alerian had been subdued. There was money to be made—ranching, mostly, for feathers and eggs and meat. Someone had gotten around to riding the feathered fiends, and now they were beasts of burden too. And, after that, someone started training them for racing. That was how the whole industry began.

As he meandered back across the dark, dewy yard, Jack paused to watch a crowned head bob past one of the fences further afield. He frowned, then watched the shadowy bird wander back and forth, as though it couldn’t decide which way it wanted to go.

Jack reached for the rope hanging from his belt loops. He’d thought he’d caught all the birdies, but apparently he’d missed one. Pretty clever bird, he figured, to have evaded him.

He stole across the lawn as quietly as he could. The bird didn’t seem to notice him, pacing back and forth instead. Jack frowned as he approached; he’d been pretty sure he’d rounded up all his feathery charges and, upon closer inspection, this one seemed too tall, too gangly to be one of his.

The bird finally took notice of him, but it was too late. The avian squawked loud enough to wake up the devil in hell, but Jack already had a lasso looped around the bird’s neck. It thrashed and flailed, flapping its wings and jumping up and down, kicking as Jack reeled it in and led it to the barnyard for inspection under the lights.

When he turned back, he frowned. A gorgeous blue bird peered back at him, blinking golden eyes. Like the rest of its brethren in the barn, it was a large bird, with a long, slender neck that towered above its body. Two long, muscular legs ended in two feet with three claw-tipped toes. With its crown lifted, the bird was probably two or three feet taller than he was; its jewel-toned wings spanned about six feet, its magnificent tail dragging on the ground. The Alerians reminded Jack of a cross between ostriches and peacocks.

“I ain’t never seen you around here before,” Jack said to the bird, who tilted its head. “You aren’t one of ours, that’s for sure.”

The bird trilled, as if it agreed with that assessment. It fluttered its wings impatiently.

“Well,” Jack said, “don’t suppose we can let you wander around, ya miscreant. To lockup you go.”

The bird squawked indignantly as Jack gave a mighty tug on the rope. The bird jerked along behind him, flapping its wings furiously. It tried to dig its feet into the soil.

“Now look here,” Jack said with a good deal of impatience. He was tired, after all. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

The bird cawed at him, eyeing him warily. It bobbed its head again.

“Up to you,” Jack said. “You can come along nicely, or I’ll drag you over there. One way or another, you’re going.”

The creature tossed its feathery head, as though it were insulted. That was followed by a renewed round of squawking and clacking and screeching, all while the bird flapped furiously.

Jack sighed. “Have it your way then,” he muttered, then gave another mighty yank on the rope.

A few minutes later, Jack was sweating and breathless, but he’d dragged the foul-tempered featherweight into the barn. The rest of the flock looked on curiously as Jack led the new bird to an isolated stall at the end of the row. The bird squawked and protested, pulling as hard as it could on the rope. He had to fight it to get it into the pen; it slammed its feet against the doorframe and flapped its wings and generally made a nuisance of itself, but finally, Jack managed to slam it into the pen and shut the door.

Just in time too, since the bird roared back and started pecking furiously at the wood where Jack’s hand had just been. It crowed in sheer rage, and Jack backed away slowly. He understood how the humans had nearly lost the war to a bunch of birdbrains on Alerian. Sounded ridiculous—until you met an Alerian who’d been crossed.

“Now,” he said, “you stay put like a good little birdie and tomorrow we’ll get the vet to come look at you, see if you belong to anyone ’round these here parts.” He didn’t imagine it would take long to find an owner; someone would be missing their pricey intergalactic import, surely.

The bird squawked at him again, like it was protesting. Jack tipped his Stetson. “Take care of our pretty blue friend here,” he told the rest of the flock. Then he sauntered out of the barn, listening to the bird scream bloody murder.

***

Jack frowned the second he woke; the morning crackled with some kind of madcap energy. He’d been working at Midlothian for a few years now and never had he felt anything like this. Normally, the aura of the ranch was calm and soothing, even when there was a big to-do going on downstairs, like the annual Rose Plate race and all its attendant events or the midwinter feast days. He knew the Rose Plate was just a couple of months away, but this seemed like too much, too soon. And it was different somehow.

He sauntered downstairs, pondering the blood-red sunrise. He didn’t like it, not one bit.

“Hey Burr,” he said when he came across the lead hand in the hallway.

Burr was an intimidating wall of a man, but Jack had never met anyone more gentle with the birds, excepting maybe himself. “Morning,” Burr said with a slight nod, his deep tenor rumbling pleasantly. Normally, it soothed Jack. Today, it felt wrong.

Jack glanced over his shoulder. “What’s going on? Everyone’s wound tighter than a cat on a hot tin roof—I can feel it.”

“Oh,” Burr said, his brows lifting and his brown eyes getting a bit wider. “Well. The boss’s boy is supposed to be here for a visit.”

“Uh-huh,” Jack said, crossing his arms. A frown marred his face. The last thing they needed was some spoiled, rich brat down on the farm while they tried to get ready for the Rose Plate. He’d just get in the way. “And what’s he doing here?”

“Well,” Burr drawled, “his daddy thinks he should be in the race.”

Jack huffed. Sure. Didn’t all rich folks think that way? That they were exceptionally talented or that their kids were something special at least. He doubted Mr. Crane had an ounce of talent anywhere in him, and the brat probably wasn’t anything special either.

A thought struck him. “That wouldn’t have anything to do with the strange stork that was running around the yard last night, would it?”

Burr started. “Strange stork?” he asked.

“Yeah. I thought we had a runner, so I roped the bird. But it isn’t one of ours.”

Burr’s eyes widened. “What’s it look like?”

Jack tilted his head. “Tall. Real tall. Pretty blue—cerulean, almost.”

The color drained straight out of Burr’s bronzed face. “Where’d you say you put him?”

“Huh?” Jack spun on his heels as Burr charged by him. “Out in lockup there—figured we’d have the vet down to—”

But Burr was gone, rounding the corner, his footsteps fading. A moment later, Jack listened to the doors squeal and slam shut again. “Huh,” he said, scratching at the back of his neck. “That was weird.”

Well, there wasn’t much use in dwelling on it, he thought. Maybe Burr had heard something about a missing bird. With that in mind, he continued to the mess hall.

The mess was a large, cafeteria-style room, and Duckie, the cook, ran the show. Predictably, Duckie was already hard at work, laying out a veritable feast for the hands before they went to the stables. Right then and there, they were loading buckets of oatmeal into the warmers.

“Morning,” Jack said as he approached, boots thumping on the red oak floorboards.

“Hey-o,” the stout cook said, saluting him as they spun around. Despite their name, Duckie was a hundred percent human—not a drop of bird blood in them. Not that most people would ask; in Jack’s experience, most folks were pretty sure the so-called angelics—hybrids—were just a rumor. “Almost got breakfast on.”

“Take your time,” Jack advised, then watched as they toddled back to the kitchen. When he was sure Duckie was gone, he peered over the warmers.

“Hey!” Duckie called, and Jack drew his hand away from one of the lids. “You stay outta the food, you hear?!”

“I wasn’t touching nothing!” Jack called back. He swiveled his head when the doors to the mess banged open and in stomped a tall, willowy boy, dressed in what looked like an expensive polo and equally pretentious slacks. A storm cloud of an expression marred his face. Burr trailed after him, wringing his hands.

“You,” the boy snarled, and Jack pointed to himself, blinking. He turned to face Burr and the newcomer more fully.

“What’s all this about?” he asked. “What do y’all want with me?”

The boy’s face contorted with whatever acidic syllables he wanted to spit, but Burr laid a hand on his shoulder. That got a look of sheer horror from the boy, whose golden eyes widened, flashing with indignation.

“This here is Mr. Crane’s boy,” Burr said in his low, rolling timbre. “Mr. Crane’s asked us to look after him real good.”

Jack quirked a brow. He folded his arms and leaned back against the table. He was mostly focused on Burr, but he didn’t miss the way the Crane boy watched him. Whatever he was feeling, whatever he was thinking, it softened his features, so much so he looked almost pretty, his skin taking on the faintest blue tint in the morning light cascading through the bank of windows at the east end of the hall.

“All right,” Jack said, unfolding.

“All right?” the Crane boy spat, anger making him sharp again. “No, not all right, you lout—”

Burr clenched his fist on the spitfire’s shoulder, eliciting a wince from the boy, who paused mid-rant. “This here is Jack,” Burr explained, like he was talking to a particularly dense three-year-old. “He takes care of the flock.”

The boy paled visibly. He turned his piercing gaze on Jack, a snarl curling his lips. “Really?” he asked. “You let that oaf—”

“Jack’s the best with the birds,” Burr said, his tone a warning not to trifle with him. “Regular Alerian whisperer.”

The Crane boy let his gaze bounce back to Jack, like he didn’t believe Burr or something.

“What’s the old man want him to do?” Jack asked, more to Burr than the boy, as he turned about and helped himself to the bacon, singing his fingers as he did so. He could basically hear Duckie scolding him in his head—serves ya right.

“Riding,” the boy said without hesitation, although he didn’t sound too enthused.

Jack turned back, looking the imperious brat up and down. Jockeys were usually small and light—not so tall—but he supposed the boy’d do all right at it. He met that golden gaze, noting how the kid didn’t look enthused either. He looked almost glum. “You got a name?” He almost tacked brat onto the end of it, because the kid was punching all his buttons with that smug smirk alone.

“Julius Peregrine.” He said the last bit with a haughty accent, and Jack snorted.

“JP for short,” Burr said, and Jack grinned as the brat snarled up at Burr.

“Well, JP,” he drawled, “be seeing ya around.”

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