It’s the thrill that has addicted me so perfectly. The open field of possibilities at the beginning of each day, potential ripe and pungent, each choice dripping a different color of syrup like honeyed sweat. With every breath I take, I can change my world if I but pick the wildest option of those arrayed before me.
Each new face could be the evening’s entertainment. Each voice on the wind could be the one I hear tonight, gasping and groaning. Each body that shuffles past me in the press of foot traffic could be the one I pull to my chest as limbs gyrate and pulses quicken into a thunderstorm of hearts.
Ahh, the hunt, the hunt. I love it. I crave it.
Each morning, I go out among the people. I watch them. I brush their hands in passing. I smile or stare and see who smiles or stares back.
I like the aggressive ones, the ones who return my hard looks, the ones with fire in their eyes and a certain set to their jaws. They make my nights more fun. The ones who flirt back are softer, sweeter, and savoring them is like sinking my teeth into sun-ripened watermelon and letting the juice drip down my chin.
By evening, I’ve made my choice. I engage: a wink, a rough collision of shoulders, a casual conversation that lingers. I invite them to coffee, dinner, the bar, the park. We go, and as time wears on, I shrink the distance between our bodies until there’s no room left even for clothing. They never truly resist baring themselves to me.
By the moon-pale hours of early morning, I have a new experience pounding through my veins and a new body to dump somewhere inconspicuous. It’s a big city – hiding places are a dime a dozen. I know fifty holes within a mile’s walk at any given point, and after I’m done with my targets, they’re never too heavy to carry.
What I love best, though, is when they don’t die – when they pick up and stagger off, as wet with sex as they are with blood, too stubborn to fully succumb. Soon, they’ll become just like me, living for the thrill of potential, the infinite openness of each day’s choices.
Sometimes I meet them, my former victims, my new brothers and sisters. Our eyes meet and see right through the thin veneer of humanity stretched over our faces. Sometimes they smile; sometimes they stare. Sometimes they stay the night and try to kill me – I let them try, but I never let them win. We part the next morning, exhausted and gloriously sated, the taste of iron and sweat lingering on our lips.
I think those are the mornings I like best.
“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.
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.