Alix thumped with a steady stride towards the nearest employee entrance, the ever-present cameras ignoring her – she was only human. She slid her wallet from the back pocket of her bluejeans, stepped around fresh splatters of green-tinged blood, and hovered the wallet and its embedded chip in front of the security reader. It beeped permissively, and she cranked open the three-inch-thick door to step inside the stairwell.
The blood was nothing new, although it painted the pavement nearly every morning with another coat. The xin were always cutting into each other, and while the company frowned on such fights indoors, the parking lot was the equivalent of a xin free-for-all ring. Once or twice, she’d even seen severed digits still twitching in pools of ichor.
A xin almost ran into her, in fact, as the door swung shut and made the hallway dim; but the alien stopped short like a marionette with strings suddenly taut, curled over her a few inches away. She looked two feet up, into its eyes, and did not smile. Xin didn’t like smiles; smiles were mammalian. Smiles showed teeth, and showing teeth was the sign of a predator. “You’ve got a drip,” Alix said by way of greeting, flicking her eyes like a gesture to the gash oozing blood above one of the xin’s whiteless eyes.
The xin lifted an arched finger, wiped the blood away, and licked its finger clean with a long tongue. Thank you, it signed to her, using an awkward mixture of its native language and adopted ASL. They were good lip-readers, most of them, but they lacked lips with which to reply.
Alix nodded, the movement gentle to avoid startling, and stepped aside so the xin could use the door. It did, gauntly skinny body slipping between her and the wall with insectoid grace.
Shaking her head, she walked up the newly decarpeted stairs – even with strict discouragement of fighting, xin bloodstains got everywhere, and now only the most formal of conference rooms were retaining their lush carpet. The floors elsewhere were being turned to hardwood or stone tile – the warehouse was already cement-floored, metal-walled. Xin wore shoe-like pads at work, so talon scratches were a non-issue, even for fine wood floors.
The xin were humbly apologetic for the necessity, and on their breaks, the artistic ones – which was the vast majority of them – painted alien murals on the new walls. Twin suns in the sky and clouds like fire; three moons, too bright to let starlight pass; volcanoes and ash deserts and lush, lush forests growing from soil as black as xin eyes.
Alix thought they were pretty. The murals, at least, if not the xin themselves. Some of her coworkers gave fake smiles because they didn’t understand, and the xin shied away.
A few of her coworkers gave deliberate smiles to make the xin afraid, and those she kept an eye on.
It had been nearly two generations since the human-xin wars ended. Nearly two generations since the xin won Earth. Nearly two generations before the biggest misunderstanding of space-age history was discovered; the xin learned enough pieces of human sign language to convey that they didn’t want to fight, or dominate, or colonize. They wanted to ally. To co-exist. Every science fiction dream come true, after years of warfare and millions dead on both sides. Bittersweet.
Nearly two generations, and the biggest cities of most first-world countries had initiated the xin as full citizens. Human xenophobia could do little in the face of facts: the xin had won. The xin wanted to ally. To avoid another war, to avoid being truly conquered, the xin would be integrated. Alix doubted that, at the time, the world’s leaders had realized the lie of their helplessness.
The xin, for all their rapid-healing that made their incessant physical contests a moot point in terms of long-term damage, for all their physical resiliency and eternal history of personal combat, were afraid of humans and their guns. A bullet – several, really – could kill a xin before the xin could heal. And in xin culture, such a thing was unheard-of. Xin never fought to the death except in the most terrible of situations.
For the xin, war with Earth had been one long, terrible situation.
Alix sank into her chair and flicked on her monitors, glancing over and giving a signed hello, good morning to her xin coworker, who was not yet proficient at reading fleshy lips. It met her gaze with what may have been relief, may have been welcome, and signed back, Very good morning, now.
It was hard not to smile in response.
Everyone assured us that we were safe.
When the riots began, everyone assured us the police lines would hold.
When the police lines broke, everyone assured us the doors would hold.
When the locked doors were kicked in, everyone assured us that reinforcements would arrive soon.
By the time reinforcements came, “everyone” had been narrowed down to two of us, and we weren’t in the habit of lying to each other.
We sat on the rooftops, safe for the moment. Mike had unrooted one of the massive blocks of machinery from the flat surface and pushed it atop the trap door that was the only way up. Not even fire escape ladders climbed this high into the cooling summer sky.
Sirens wailed, blocks away, unable to shove through the seething crowds some twenty floors below us. The sun sank and painted the clouds beautiful as the wind pushed gently at my eyes. The disparity was jarring.
“What do you think will happen?” Mike asked me, his speech slow and fumbling. His lower lip jutted, fat and blood-stained, as he stared forlornly at the city gone mad.
“I don’t know.” I twisted my hands together, the rubbery flex of my fingers soothing. My legs were curled to my chest, my arms wrapped around them; I made a neat ball of flesh and fretting.
Mike was bigger than me, his skin the color of the earth, his hair dyed shock-white. He hunched uncomfortably nearby, folded into a crouch, his knuckles pressed to the cold corrugated metal.
We’d lost the other six of us. Maybe some of them were still alive, hiding in the depths of the building. Maybe some door had held, somewhere, and saved a life.
More likely, they were dead. It was hard to swallow. Everyone had promised our safety, our equality. But even they had gone down beneath the panicked fists of the mobs, white lab coats shredding like tissue paper. I had never seen humans so angry, so powerful.
We learned fear as we fled, room to room. It was Mike’s idea to shove me into the ceiling, breaking the flimsy tiles, raining dust and rubble on our pursuers. The support beams barely held his weight, but we gained enough of a lead to find the way onto the roof.
Mike was the one labeled a failure. By everyone, including us. He was slow-witted and ham-handed. He was assured a good life, just like all of us were, but we had ostracized him as cruelly as human children did to their own.
We weren’t very old yet, after all.
Mike shifted his weight and harrumphed, the sigh ending in a low grunt. He touched one sausage-thick finger to his face and studied the drying blood that came away. “This is bad,” he said. “They got ‘copters.”
I lifted my ears and held my breath– sure enough, nearly drowned out by the bloody pulse of the riot, the steady drum of a helicopter. I tightened and curled in on myself, burying my face between my knees, thinking helplessly of how normal the morning had been.
Then the news report of a protest. “Unethical experiments must be destroyed,” the journalist said, reading one of the signs hefted jauntily over too many marching heads.
“We aren’t unethical,” I whimpered, listening to the helicopter draw closer. Its wings beat like boots on concrete, like my heart against my ribs.
Mike thumped one heavy hand on my shoulder, his skin surprisingly soft on mine. “We aren’t,” he agreed in his slow voice. “Everyone else was.”
In response to this prompt.
She had finally figured out how to walk on two legs. It had taken at least an hour of trying to walk on all fours, stumbling with arms that were too short and legs that were too long, before she gave up on that– so she crouched, a colorfully-clothed gargoyle, on a short stone border between grass and grasslessness, and she watched the people pass her by.
Most of them ignored her. Some gave her an unreadable look, one eye wide and one narrowed, the lines of fur above each stretched to awkward heights.
The fabric covering her newly-descaled body was heavy and scratchy against sensitive skin, but it kept her warm against the bitter wind that numbed what counted for a nose now, a nubbin of rounded flesh and tiny nostrils. She snorted, watching the steam rise and dissipate almost instantly, and felt her flat teeth with her fat tongue. She tried to ignore the jolting, choking dysphoria.
Once she figured out walking, it was easier. Even staggering and barely balanced, fewer people looked at her. The bag strapped to her back was heavy, but in it she was keeping her proper skin, and she could not leave it behind. Eyes dark and staring, she made her way through the thin crowds that streamed between grass and the center of the grasslessness where large metal beasts roamed on soft wheels.
She touched one, once, when it came to a stop. It was cold against her fingertips and its body had no elasticity. It growled as it moved away, and she stayed on the liminal pathway after that, hands pressed to each other near her steaming mouth.
A person had watched her, made a noise like chuffing or barking, and handed her a small object. White lettering on dark, it said something in the local tongue, and she looked aimlessly at the person as it walked away, still chortling. The back of the object was sticky, and she absently adhered it to her naked forehead before moving on.
Walking became easier as she made her way from the place of tall grey walls to the place of smaller brown walls. There were more trees and more grass, and she ventured onto the short-cropped fields, stumbling only once. If she could feel the ground with her feet, she would move more gracefully, but when she had removed the foot-coverings, the earth had been too cold for such weak skin and potent nerve endings. She had hidden her feet again and relished the return of warmth.
Nervous again, she watched the sky, seeking the flash that would guide her– but the heavens were clear and bright and featureless, empty but for the chill wind. She kept moving, restless, a crackle of electricity building in her stomach. She had a vague idea of direction, and she knew she was on a good path, but the alien world around her was disconcerting still. There were less people and more metal creatures here, but they moved slower and more quietly, as though this were an area of quietude and peace.
She watched with interest as one of the metal beasts stopped near a white patch in a brown wall; it flared its gills wide and regurgitated a person. She was more surprised at the lack of mess and fluids than at the action; she had seen people trapped inside the creatures as they growled past, wheels spinning on the hard grasslessness that cut apart the areas where she could safely travel.
Then, as she resumed moving, there– the barest glimmer of brightness in the sky, forward and left of her path. She hastily cut across more grassy areas, pushing herself over a short white barrier, until the spark faded. She reached her destination just as a person finished stuffing something stiff and blood-red into a bag.
They exchanged looks uncertainly, and the person put its bag on its back, like she had carried hers.
“Ready?” she asked, the word sibilant and older than the teeth from which it escaped.
A familiar expression broke across the other person’s face, relief and recognition in one. Its eyes were as pale as hers were dark. “Yes,” it answered in a deeper voice, in the same tongue.
She held out a hand, still unnerving for its missing claws, and the other person took it.
We can only breathe when we’re near plants. We learned from the namiccians, who learned from the tache, whose intersun ships had to carry a belly full of forest in order for the warriors to breathe when they sailed from one world to the next. The tahori who go to Nami Ka bring back stories of namiccians who have learned to fly, but they can only go so far from the plants on the surface of their world before they, too, can’t breathe any longer. There is an invisible dome around our worlds, a sphere wherein which life exists, and the plants somehow create it.
Between the worlds, there is blackness. Void. Nothingness. There are winds, currents – the tache used them to sail to us – but we cannot breathe them. There is no weight, no up or down. If the winds move you like they move the great ships, you don’t know it; you have no way to tell if you’re moving.
I learned to teleport in tiny steps. Inlanlu almost never have that ability, and no other tahori were friendly enough to help me learn, so I taught myself. I discovered my talent as a child, startled by my brother’s surprise pounce; I vanished and reappeared two feet over, wide-eyed and stiff-tailed. I explored it, learning to move one foot, five feet, fifteen feet. I learned how to pop back in a few inches above the ground and avoid getting my feet stuck in the dirt; I learned how to drop onto a sturdy tree branch twenty feet up, and only once did I miss it and fall all the way down. I learned how to move by inches only, enough to dodge a strike with hand or paw or stick.
In time, I learned how to go to places I couldn’t see from where I was. That was harder – I had to remember how everything looked and hold that in my head – so, instead, I started trying small distances again with my eyes closed. Once I got the hang of visual memory, I could do longer jumps easily. By then, I had met Tari, a fast-talking young man with a brilliant smile. He, too, could teleport, and if my packmates were uncertain to have me spending so much time with a non-inlanlu, they didn’t stop me from meeting with him. Together, we explored our abilities.
I was two years from adulthood when I first tried putting myself into the sky. It worked– I started falling, the ground an uneven patchwork of greens and browns below me. I didn’t have time to think: instinctively, reflexively, I teleported back to the safest place I could think off, three inches above the ground where I slept. It was still a hard landing, my momentum half-preserved. I was shaking.
Tari’s father took him to Nami Ka, enough times that he learned how to go on his own. That was exhausting, he told me, making a jump that far – but he got better, and without his father’s knowing, he took me. I met namiccians, heard their language, smelled their air, drank their water. I tried to remember what it looked like; after I went with him three times, I tried to go by myself.
I didn’t make it.
The distance was too great, and inlanlu don’t have the sheer amount of qki flowing through our bodies that Tari’s people do. I hadn’t known that I needed to develop such a flow, let alone how to do so. I hadn’t known how much was needed.
So I found myself in the void between worlds, bitterly cold, weightless, and unable to breathe. My lungs seized up, and my heart fluttered like a bird inside my ribs. I couldn’t feel my skin within moments, but my bones hurt from the deep chill. As before, I didn’t have time to think: my reflexes tried to take me back to my safe place, where I slept, where I could breathe.
But I was exhausted. Going halfway and then back again was like going all the way, and I couldn’t do it. Panic rose in me as my eyes felt like ice; I couldn’t close them, even to blink. My mouth felt fused shut. I couldn’t feel my hands, my feet, my tail, my face– and, swiftly thereafter, my arms and legs.
At some point, only a few eternal seconds past the realization that I couldn’t teleport home, I realized what I was seeing. Our sun was a tiny ball of fire, making a triangle’s third point with my home and Nami Ka; I was on the invisible line that linked Nami Ka and my world. The worlds were discs, huge in comparison to the sun, facing its warmth; behind them, I could see the cloudy underside of a third world, Ayunra Ka. The sun must swing a circle around all three, once every day. That’s why our nights are longer than our days.
My back was to the sun, and I kept my eyes away from it but for the brief glance over my shoulder; but, even so quickly, the frigid chill lessened, and I could blink again.
I’m in the middle of the universe, I thought to myself, calming. I was surrounded by all we knew, ka, the sum of everything. It was not a bad place to die, even young, even alone.
But the word die scared me again, and reflexes kicked in, trying to take me home, to a safe place–
I woke up a week later, cradled by my brother in his black-furred sanero skin. My pack had gotten so scared when they found me comatose in my sleeping spot that they actually allowed Tari’s family to come onto our territory to look at me. Tari’s father told them that I had used up more qki than my body had in it, an impossible thing, a fatal thing. Having no qki means your body shuts off: heart stops, lungs stop, head stops. You die when you do what I did.
No one was sure how I survived. But, as the years wore on and I learned more, trained more, and did more, I could do it again and again – I could use more qki than my body had and still not die.
Five years after I saw the center of ka, I was the most powerful warrior in my pack.
Silence roared over the night-cloaked docks, not even a shard of moonlight glittering along the sleek hulls of the few spaceships still left in the on-world port. A figure of shadow nestled into the niche in one craft’s landing gear, nary a sound betraying its presence, and darkness-obscured eyes gazed into the seemingly calm midnight air–fresh and cool, so markedly different from packaged oxygen that spacers breathe in their ships and space stations–waiting.
A soft-metal noise echoed through the quiet–pause–rang out softly again. There.
The shadow-robed figure’s keen hearing didn’t pick up on the nearly inaudible touch of unshod pawpads on the thickrubber-lined walkway between individual docks until a tall, muscular form could barely be discerned against the greyish bulk of background shapes. By then, the midnight walker was nearly upon the hidden one, and the chance was nearly lost. But not quite.
The walking creature sprang backwards in lightning-quick reflex as a piece of the night’s darkness detached from its shadowy brethren and lunged at her. Thick, guttural laughter rolled out, rough against sensitive ears, and the walker landed in a defensive crouch, a silent snarl baring long, pearly fangs.
A small light–far dimmer than even a candle’s fickle flame–burst into existence with a sharp click, casting relatively stark shadows against the docks and temporarily blinding night-accustomed eyes.
A shot rang out, and more laughter came with it.
The assassin grinned mirthlessly at seeing the beautiful white body of a feline, so delicately striped in thin charcoal streaks, sprawled bonelessly on the walkway. In a second, he imagined, a pool of fresh, crimson blood would stain that lovely pelt and begin seeping towards his booted paws. “Not much of a warrior, after all,” he hissed under his breath, eyes devouring every inch of his kill hungrily. “Just a rogue who managed to fool everyone into thinking she was some sun-blessed–”
One full-body convulsion threw the feline into the air–she twisted–landed on all fours–shot forward like a bullet from a high-powered sniper rifle, like the bullet with which he had shot her–
Only there was no blood on that perfect fur, no gaping hole in her flesh–
“Gllgrrgh!” the assassin choked, finding his prized weapon knocked from shock-loosened fingers and one strong hand gripping his throat with the strength of a steel vice. A feline face stared into his, the faint, musical ringing of silvery earrings the only sound in a suddenly-silent night. The hand-held light rolled with precise slowness down the slight slope… the same way her blood should have trickled in a lush scarlet river…
The cat said nothing, clawtips pricking her enemy’s skin just hard enough to draw four tiny beads of blood, as golden eyes stared into stormcloud-grey ones with the ferocity of every feral beast to ever prowl a primeval jungle–
The assassin wanted desperately to swallow, but found that he couldn’t.