[First Part: The Birth Of A Pirate]
The heavy wooden door of the captain’s private quarters slid open a few inches, and a grey-skinned face showed itself in the gap. “Captain Masya. We’ll arrive in twenty minutes. The merchantship is still hovering, and no other ships are in sight.”
Masya turned, long legs folded beneath her and half-hidden by a worn quilt, talon-like feet dangling thick toes off the edge of the stuffed mattress. She grinned past long fangs. “Good. Come get me when we enter atmosphere and can breathe on deck. Everyone ready?”
“Aye, Captain.” Lasna flashed an identical smile from a startlingly similar face, features also lean and angular but muzzle whiter with age. “The skies are still clear of other ships. This will be an easy raid, just like any other.” The other rarra slid the door closed with a thump of wood against wood, and the seal was tight enough that her receding footsteps could not be heard.
Falar watched the exchange in silence, most of his nude body swathed in the same quilt that warmed Masya’s legs, his paw-like hands folded behind his head. Masya met his gaze, green eyes ever-startling in their hue, and softened her smile. “Better get dressed, my mage,” she murmured, reaching a short-fingered hand to touch his knee. She traced circles up his thigh with padded fingertips, small claws blunt enough to tickle and not scratch, and he squirmed.
“You too, Captain,” he replied, a grin creasing his muzzle as he wriggled out from under the blanket. The air in the cabin was cool, the local sun’s warmth not yet penetrating the sturdy hull of the Fanged Flower as it swept through the sun system of Do’agnun. The fine hairs covering his tawny-golden skin prickled and stiffened in the chill.
“I could walk over there naked and not get bled,” Masya boasted with a low chuckle, voice smooth and deep. Her voice and her eyes, so unusual for her people, made her stand out nearly as much as her pirating methods. She stretched her arms out and twisted her torso side to side, pretending to ignore Falar as he rummaged for clothing, his back turned.
“Only because of me and Lasna,” Falar retorted. They both knew he was lying, but it was a good game to play, acting as though Masya wasn’t fearfully competent alone, without her lover and her second-in-command. Though rarra were a species born of a magic-rich world, Masya only used bladed weapons in combat; Falar, on the other hand, was a master of air magic, and Lasna was an exceptionally-skilled water mage. Together, the three of them were a force to be feared on the battlefield.
But they never entered battles if they could help it – that’s what made Masya so unique among pirate captains. She had a full crew and a strong ship, and she only picked targets that she could surely overpower. Most of their raids resulted in immediate surrender, no casualties, and plenty of anonymous loot. The crew of the Fanged Flower had remarkably low death rates and an equally low turn-over of members, and since it always chose minor targets, the law did not know the ship’s or its captain’s names.
Falar buckled his leggings around his waist and buttoned the outer seams along each leg. Masya found his undershirt hiding beneath her knees and tossed it at him, laughing liquidly when he stopped it mid-air and kept it hovering until he finished his buttons. Then, he plucked the soft fabric out of his magical grasp and slid his arms through the open holes. “Smooth,” Masya grinned. “I think you’re getting better with your subtlety.”
“I’d better be, with you around,” Falar grinned back. He shrugged into his leather vest and buttoned it across his chest, dressed unimpressively for battle. An air mage’s best asset was discretion, since they made such good targets for the enemy, and he didn’t look like anything more than a deck-swabbing apprentice. It would keep people from realizing how dangerous he could be long enough for him to incapacitate them if necessary.
Masya, on the other hand, wore a full set of leather armor over fine silks and cotton, looking every inch the deadly captain. Atop her clothes, she wore a weapons harness that held half a dozen weapons; few would mess with a rarra whose skin was heavily scarred with experience, whose blade-like horn had lost its tip and been worn to bluntness. Even her long ears were notched with too many close calls.
Falar sat on the edge of the mattress and watched as she dressed, lean muscles flexing like whitewater rivers beneath her silvery skin. He had spent the last three years in her service as a secondary air mage – secondary only because of his unwillingness to kill with his magic, not because of his skill. He had spent nearly as long courting her, offering up his body to her curious hands, waiting and desperately hoping for the day that she returned his love as well as his lust.
Sometimes, he felt like he had loved her from the day they had met, when she took refuge from the local law enforcement in his workhouse. Back when he worked the land as a farmer, a scorned profession that made no use of his magical training and talent. She had bewitched him then, using mind-magic that no rarra would deign to learn, and released him only when she asked him to choose his future.
He had chosen her. He had devoted himself to her, yearned for her, and only four months ago did she finally admit to enjoying him for more than his flesh. It took her an achingly long time to acknowledge that she wanted his company, his companionship, his presence. His love. And he could not imagine being happier, now that they were truly partners, now that he could share her heart and not just her bed.
Masya turned to him, resplendent in her red-dyed armor, every knife snug in its sheath. As though on cue, the door slid open again and Lasna’s sharp voice filtered through. “Air on deck, Captain. We’ve unsealed the ship. The boarding crew is ready and in place.”
“Perfect,” Masya said, her smile reserved for Falar as their eyes met. “Let’s go.”
Morning in the flatlands was warm and promised to blossom into a steamy day as the sun continued to rise. Falar was working the fields, tentatively fertile earth roiling beneath his bare talon-like feet as he scattered tiny seeds into a breeze of his own making. He was close enough to his workhouse to see his two guardbeasts dozing beneath the tall porch, already taking advantage of the shade. Close enough to see the only marked trail that led up the slight hill to the small building, the only capillary of Ryarna roadways that reached his little plot of land from the nearby town.
Close enough to see a two-wheeler and its brown-garbed rider nearly fly up that trail, half-hidden in a cloud of dust and coarse gravel, and slide-stop so neatly that the wheeler skidded under the porch and nearly killed the slower of the two guardbeasts. The rider was already across the wide porch and into the workhouse before the dust settled.
Falar froze, uncertain, his hold on the air around him lax. A stranger just rushed into his workhouse and he… should… do what? He was naked but for the harness that held his seed pouches, his hands and feet filthy with topsoil. Even the guardbeasts were confused, hissing and disconcerted. The younger hopped onto the porch and paced, but it made no move to push open the mesh door and enter the house.
Quietly, the sun-darkened rarra cinched his bag of seed shut and tucked its strap into his belt, then approached the workhouse, gathering more magic to him in case he were confronted with violence. As he crossed the seeded portion of the field, two other wheelers pulled up the trail and idled next to the workhouse, marked in the traditional colors of the Riders. One uniformed rarra was gesturing animatedly from the ground to the house, and the other was already dismounting.
“Hello there,” Falar called to the two lawkeepers. He kept his posture straight, refusing to let his discomfort at his immodesty be detected. He didn’t often receive visitors, and the temperature had been warm enough to warrant working naked; he tried not to regret it.
“There are the marks,” one of them said to the other, pointing to the skid lines that led beneath the porch, where the stranger’s two-wheeler was surprisingly well-hidden in the shadows. “So where is she?”
“What’s going on?” Falan asked, lifting his voice slightly to be heard over the hum of the two magic-powered vehicles. His thought processes still felt as slow as cold honey.
“Fugitive,” the second Rider said, flashing him a hard, half-sympathetic smile. “Suspected pirate. She was stealing food in town.” His voice gave away his sex, like the first speaker’s had given away hers, though Falar couldn’t see the either face past the sun-blocking riding goggles and fine chain-link veil protecting muzzles and throats.
The first Rider swung a long leg over the seat of her wheeler and dismounted, leaving the machine upright on its own power. “Look, she’s probably hiding in your house – do you mind if we look around?” She said nothing about the gathered haze of magic that he still kept close to his skin; either she didn’t notice, which was unlikely, or she didn’t begrudge him his wariness.
Falar couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse, nor was he sure he wanted a thief in his workhouse, so he splayed his long, tapering ears in a shrug and gestured towards the door. The two Riders entered, an invisible aura of ready-to-use magical energy surrounding the first, the second with his short-fingered hand on the hilt of a thin sword.
The door swung shut behind them, and Falar waited at the base of the porch steps, listening with his ears and his magic-sense to detect the first sign of a struggle. The older guardbeast sat next to him, huffing in the heat; he imagined it was still unnerved by its close call with the hard end of a well-crashed wheeler. The younger of the pair sat on the porch and stared down the door, thick tail thumping rhythmically against a post.
Half an hour later, the lawkeepers emerged, empty-handed and disgruntled. “She must have kept running,” the one said to the other, who looked dour.
“Nothing?” Falar queried, a worried expression crossing his face.
“Nothing,” the second Rider said. “Sorry to disturb you. We didn’t leave a mess.” He offered a warmer smile than the other rarra had, and Falar nodded as they mounted their wheelers and rolled down the trail.
After they’d been gone for a few minutes, Falar looked at the wheeler under the porch, then at his workhouse. “You come with me,” he told the younger guardbeast. It rose, all bristly hairs and patches of armored skin, and entered the house first when he opened the door. He followed the shambling creature into the unlit hallway that led through the belly of the building. It was still dark and cool inside.
“Um, whoever you are – they’re gone. They didn’t see your wheeler. I–” Falar stopped talking when he felt the chilling touch of steel glide across his throat. The guardbeast turned several seconds too late, snarling, but it stopped its charge when Falar lifted a warning finger. His hands were shaking.
“Thanks for not squealing,” a smooth voice purred in his ear. He shivered. “Curious, though – why say nothing? I could kill you now. Didn’t you think of that before they went on their merry way?”
Falar tried to keep his voice from going shrill as sweat crept down his back. Even his mastery of air magic would not stop a knife from cutting through his flesh at such intimate range. “People who steal food normally need it. People who murder for money are a different story.” As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t have much money.” He wondered if he could rip the air from her lungs before she could put that blade into him and calculated that, at best, it would end with both of them dead.
The thief – pirate? – chuckled richly and removed her dagger from his throat, then stepped back with a click of clawed feet on the wooden floorboards. “Keen ear, that.” Falar slowly turned and looked up at the taller rarra.
Scars lined her fog-grey skin like creases in fabric, and a few discolored patches of fine hairs suggested old burn wounds near her neck and shoulders. The thin horn that arced upwards from her forehead was broken at the tip, an ugly disfigurement that bespoke a rough past. She was lean and muscular and nothing like the townsfolk and ranchwomen that he’d seen – especially considering the half-dozen weapons she wore on her person like he wore seed pouches. Her clothing was leather, a rare thing on Ryarna, tailored to fit her and designed to provide limited armor over vulnerable areas. There was a ship’s ID patch stitched on her vest, but he couldn’t make out the faded letters in the dim hallway.
“I’ll take my wheeler and go,” she said with a hint of a smile, meeting his wide eyes. “You keep your animals off me, and you can go back to your fields. Sound good?”
Falar considered her reasonable offer, not exactly eager to pit his magic against her steel and unwilling to risk his sturdy guardbeasts against what seemed to be an experienced intersun fighter. He surprised them both when he asked, “Are you really a pirate?”
Blood-red light. Fire-hot breath.
The vaguest of shapes – body, four legs, head, neck, tail. Deep in the chest and broad through the shoulders, thick in the limb, heavy in the jaw.
Blood and fire, interlacing like drumbeats, like heartbeats. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. A brand new heart contracting in an unfinished chest.
A spark. A glimpse of spirit. A nascent soul. Tha-thump.
Flesh knit heavy, bones knit solid. Tha-thump. Thick skin and thicker fur. Tha-thump. Sharp teeth and sharper claws. Tha-thump.
‘Average’ denied. Rebuke denied. Power demanded. Tha-thump.
Battle won. Far-seeing eyes, keen ears, sensitive nose. Tha-thump. Long whiskers and callused pawpads. Tha-thump.
Blood and fire, interlacing like sine and cosine, like firing synapses. Tha-thump. Alert, aware, analyzing. Tha-thump.
Cold, pale blue gaze unlidded. Tha-thump. First view of blinding light – a spinning orb – and a towering tree with bright leaves. Tha-thump.
Body coalescing like the first breath of the world, a shuddering inhale, a wave of physical sensation. Tha-thump.
Weight settling, pressing paws into the earth, gravity taking hold of a freshly-completed frame. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.
A silent voice older than time, a language deeper than intuition. “You are she.” Tha-thump.
A long pink tongue awkward against heavy teeth. Vocal chords snarling into soundwaves. “I am.”
The spinning light, luminous enough to blind, met with unblinking eyes. “Then you are she. You are the perfect one. What do you call yourself, she who awoke before created?”
No hesitation. No uncertainty. “I shall be called Redwood, as mighty as the kûsani under which I was created, and as red as blood, heart, and fire.”
Scents whipped to shreds by the radiance’s rotation. “And what shall you call your people, O Redwood?”
Broad black nose beginning to distinguish smells despite the whirling winds. Snf snf. “They shall be called Korats, for the word pleases me.”
A long pause. Korats. ‘Kings’ in a tongue not Lavanian. “You are unprecedented. Lavana would bow before you, should you choose to take her. This you must know.”
Ears angling backwards, a tacit display of disapproval. “Lavana is my home. Not my slave; not my kingdom. I hold no dreams of tyranny in my heart.”
A longer pause, the self-contained blaze spinning within its own tornado. “…then you are she.”
Confidence. Surety. “She I am, and she I will always be. None shall take my life, nor conquer my people.” Tha-thump. “Give me my sisters’ shadows, that I may add them to mine.”
Disdain. Disagreement. “They are weak.”
A lowering of the voice from baritone to growling thunder. “They are no weaker than I, and you daren’t call Redwood weak.” Tha-thump.
Silence. Two bodiless shadows crept over the fields and bled into hers, making it as black as the void.
Pleased. “Take it. My sisters and I shall lead our people together.” Unprecedented, three Originals instead of one.
A sound like shattering crystal – the abyss-dark shadow vanished entirely. Below the ledge, below the kûsani, the first fifty Korats breathed their first lungful of wind together. Three distinct breeds: black, tan, … and red. “I shall be watching.” Tha-thump.
Body became permanent in every final detail as the light rose into the lavender sky like a phoenix ascending. Tha-thump. Redwood breathed deeply, flesh and fur and bone moving in sweet synchronicity. Tha-thump. Scents were easily read and sounds suddenly audible as the wind calmed. The retreat of brilliant luminance let color creep into vision, staining objects with vivid life. Natural sunlight and a planet-born breeze replaced the alien power of the intangible Creator as its light faded entirely from view.
The red mother smiled.
“I’m tired of holograms.” Jenny poked a finger into the illusory sky, and it rippled like water. “Can’t we go outside? Please?”
“The air is unsafe,” the AI replied in the same calm, sweet voice it always used. Its engineers had tried to make it sound compassionate and loving, but to Jenny, it only sounded like a poor replacement for her mother. “You may not leave the compound.”
Jenny sighed into her long hair, twisting and flopping onto the fake grass. The ‘ground’ was as soft as a mattress, and she bounced slightly. “Can I see someone today, at least?” she whined, folding her arms and pillowing her face on her jacket’s puffy sleeves. The hood nestled loosely against the back of her neck.
“Who would you like to visit? I will pass along your request.”
She rolled her eyes and chewed on her lower lip, thinking. “How about Sam?”
“Hold, please. Relaying request.”
Jenny huffed, kicking her booted toes against the ground. She couldn’t quite remember what real dirt felt like, but she was sure it didn’t bounce like that. If she kicked hard enough, her heel would rebound almost to the seat of her jeans.
“Request denied.” The AI tried to sound apologetic and failed. “I’m very sorry, Jennifer.”
“It’s Jenny,” she snapped, frowning. She wasn’t sure why Sam wouldn’t want to see her – maybe he had already used up his daily visitation with someone else. “Fine, um. How about Gina?”
“Hold, please. Relaying request.”
“God this is boring.” Jenny rolled onto her back, knees poking upwards as she planted her feet on the spongy ground. The sky had stopped rippling, and its fake sun had nearly set. She wouldn’t have much time before darkness was projected over her living quarters and she had to stay in her bed until she fell asleep.
“Request denied.” The same response, the same tone. “I’m very sorry, Je–”
“Why the denial, huh?” Jenny demanded. “Is it too late or something? There’s still like an hour left.” The AI didn’t respond, and Jenny muttered something decidedly unkind under her breath and sat up. “Fine. I want to get a book out.”
“You may choose one book from the shelf,” the AI agreed placidly.
Jenny stood, brushed the fake grass from her jacket, and jogged to the other side of the small lawn. The illusion of distant mountains shimmered away, revealing the presumably-real bookshelf that stretched from ceiling to floor. Its contents changed every day, and Jenny hadn’t seen a book show up twice yet. She had learned to choose carefully and read quickly, since the AI would only allow her to keep a book out for a single day.
She scanned the titles, found one that looked immersive and interesting, and plucked it from the shelf. The hologram of horizon returned, only the very tips of the fake mountains still lit with fake sunlight.
Jenny sighed and turned away, book pressed to her chest. She twirled in a circle until the sunset-painted clouds were a blur of watery colors, then fell to the ground on her back. Her head hit the fake grass and bounced, barely a flicker of pain from the impact. She snorted and opened the book.
She was half a chapter in and already losing track of time when the sky went completely dark, leaving only the light from the book’s luminous pages. She had read another two paragraphs before she realized that the moon and stars had not appeared in the fake sky, and she slowly closed the book, a finger stuck between pages to hold her place.
There was no light. None. “Um. AI…?” Jenny asked, voice quavering. She’d never seen it this dark.
The AI didn’t respond. “Lights on,” Jenny said a little more firmly, the simple commands of her living quarters ingrained in her since childhood.
The lights didn’t respond, either. Jenny opened the book and slowly got to her feet. She walked to where the bookshelf had been, using the book’s glowing pages to navigate across the fake grass.
Rusted, corrugated metal greeted her horrified eyes, and freshly-cut wires glimmered in the low light, dangling loose halfway down a severed pipe.
“Everybody has ‘n animal.” He smiled, leaning back in his rocking chair and pulling his worn blanket around his knees. Something creaked when he moved – old wood or old bones, she couldn’t tell.
“Their animal shows isself in diff’rent ways. Maybe they’re ‘n artist or writer, an’ ‘at animal is their muse. Maybe they’re a scientist, an’ ‘at animal pulls ’em t’learn about living things. Maybe they’re ‘n occultist, an’ ‘at animal is their spirit guide or their animal totem. Maybe they’re a furry, an’ they think they chose ‘at animal t’express ’emselves. Maybe they’re s’ hollowed out by the world around them ‘at th’ animal is just a favorite, a passing name or image, an’ nothing more. Maybe they’re s’ worn thin an’ grey-eyed ‘at their animal died right along with their heart, years ‘go.
“Or, sometimes, ‘at animal isn’t separate from us. ‘At animal is us.” He lifted a wrinkled, spotty hand, tremors racing through his crooked fingers. His fingernails were yellow and cracked, but they were thick and heavy and unusually rounded.
“Our bodies start forgetting ‘at they have t’be human, ‘specially if we change a lot. My nails’re a dog’s claws now. Sometimes, my eyes don’t go back t’blue for days an’ days.” He smiled again, showing off worsening teeth. “We live a long time, us animal-people. And ‘ere’s never any telling when an animal-person will find ’emselves an’ figure it all out for th’ first time.
“We ain’t werewolves like in th’ movies.” The smile faded from his lined face. “We ain’t monsters, an’ we ain’t looking t’hurt nobody. We’re just animal-folk, living our lives as best we can. Some take it ‘pon ’emselves t’help others find their animals, howe’er their animals show ’emselves. Most of us, we just live quiet. It’s getting harder, what with th’ world changing ’round us, t’keep normal folks from finding out ’bout us. But we’re doing alright. Just a li’l underground people, like th’ old Christians or th’ new pagans, like th’ Irish back in th’ railroad days – just living our lives, not wanting trouble.” He peered at her with white-clouded eyes. “D’ya understand what I’m saying?”
She nodded with a little smile. “I do, sir.”
He chuckled raspily. “Don’t need t’call me sir. I ain’t a stranger t’ya.”
Her smile widened, showing teeth. “Alright. It’s just very wordy to call you Great-Great-Great-Grandfather all the time.”
His eyes crinkled as he chortled, slapping his knee. “Then just call me Great!”