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Zylar spotted the signal lights at the provided coordinates before he landed, flashing as they raced across the ground. His prospective mate must be eager.
He’d had doubts about signing up for the matching service, but he couldn’t resist the prospect of millions of potential partners across hundreds of compatibles species. Increasing pressure from the colony meant he needed a guardian for his nest sooner rather than later. It was humiliating enough that he’d been passed over repeatedly in the annual Choosing, but it would disappoint his progenitors if he failed yet again.
He wasn’t the first to search off-world for a mate, at least. In his colony alone, there was a fearsome Revak warrior mated to his uncle and a Kolani doomsayer who’d paired with one of his cousins. His people weren’t xenophobic, but he’d never pictured himself out-bonding. With a faint chirr, he studied the blurred image on the screen before him.
For the past half a turn, he had been communicating with Asvi, and while she had never sent him a clear representation of herself, they’d gotten along well enough. He didn’t need to find her species attractive. Most important, she was amenable to relocating to Barath before the next nesting cycle began. She should be waiting on the ground, even now. While he couldn’t say he’d given both his hearts to Asvi, he believed they could build a life together.
No point in hesitating further. The journey had been harrowing enough with a bad jump that dumped them in the middle of solar flares that could have scrambled his ship AI. Right now, Helix was quiet, running diagnostics after the near miss.
Zylar landed the shuttle with a flourish. The meeting point was dark. The strobing lights were gone. In fact, the whole area was more deserted than he would have expected, altogether different than Asvi had led him to expect. She’d said her whole clan would be waiting to meet him and bless their union. While Zylar wasn’t delighted at the prospect of celebrating with so many strangers, he understood that he needed to respect their customs before he could reasonably expect any clan to send their offspring away with him.
But this…it looked as if something had gone horribly wrong. From the scans, the chemical levels in the atmosphere would kill him if he breathed the air, and the ground was churned, as if from a great battle, and littered with refuse. The only thing missing was the bodies, almost like the damage had been so great they had been turned to dust.
His feelers prickled with the impulse to bolt. It would shame his progenitors if he died, not in worthy combat, but while picking up his prospective mate. Retreating without investigation would be a cowardly course as well, for he might be leaving Asvi to die in this desolate place. He hadn’t picked up any enemy ships in orbit around the planet. In fact, there was a mystifying dearth of traffic for a such a populous world.
Suiting up, he shored his courage and opened the shuttle doors. Technical readings scrolled on the inside of his smart helmet, reporting the chemical composition of the atmosphere that swept over him. The landscape was even worse up close, clods of crude black earth churned with blood-hued vegetation, detritus tumbling in the poison wind. Tall, foreboding flora ringed the open space, lending an ominous air to the dark and silent landing site. It was impossible for him to judge how long ago the battle had been fought, but according to his smart helmet, the field had been full of heat signatures less than one span ago. Recent—too recent. Asvi must have been caught in the attack.
But who? Who would dare strike at the heart of—
Helix, the ship AI, spoke, cutting into those dire thoughts. “Life signs detected. Report?”
“Go ahead,” he said.
“I have scanned and found survivors.”
A bright path glowed, illuminating his route, and when he activated magnification, he spotted two figures in the distance, moving slowly. Sensors revealed they were alone, but the invaders might return. It was possible they were the enemy, he supposed, but scans revealed no weapons and it seemed unlikely that two beings could have wreaked the destruction present here. He wasn’t geared for conflict, so he sprang forward, letting the suit augment his speed. Swiftly, he reached the two survivors, both of whom emitted incoherent sounds and scrambled away, as if he constituted a threat.
Trauma, he suspected.
The smaller being was covered in bristles and poufs, and it bounced on four appendages with a fifth one that whipped around as a sensory apparatus. It ran at him as the larger one retreated. That must be Asvi since she was still here, waiting for his ship, even in the wake of such senseless violence. That loyalty was commendable, but she looked nothing like the dreamy, blurred images she’d sent to the matching service. No chitin, no feelers, not even a couple of headtails. No wonder she didn’t want me to see her face. Frankly, this creature was hideous, but since he’d been rejected five times at the Choosing, he wouldn’t win any prizes either, even among his own people.
In the expedition suit, she couldn’t recognize him either, and he’d die if he took off his smart helmet. Zylar tried to calm her with words instead. “I’m here. You’re safe. I’m sorry I came too late to save your clan. Were there no other survivors?”
In response to that reassurance, she let out a terrifying noise that echoed in his aural cavity and caused dizzying pain. He shook his head, once, twice, trying to remember if her species had such a natural sonic weapon, but when the screeching continued, he briefly lost the ability to think. The smaller thing made sounds too, less awful, but sharp and imperative somehow. His translation algorithm couldn’t decipher what they were saying, but that couldn’t be right, as Asvi was Tiralan, and while they were a reclusive people, their language was fully intelligible by standard Coalition translation matrices. If she was crying out for him to save her, he ought to be able to understand every word.
My equipment must be malfunctioning.
She scrambled away and eventually spilled backward, clutching great clods of earth in her grabbers. With another horrific screech, she threw it at him, and he deduced that she had been driven beyond reason by the monstrous atrocities she’d witnessed. Still, it pained him to see his prospective mate responding to him with such visceral terror.
What happened here?
This wasn’t how he’d envisioned their first encounter, not that he’d spent a lot of time on those esoteric reflections. Mostly, he’d focused on preparing the nest and readying himself for this momentous commitment. The shuttle was full of gifts that her clan would never receive. He would grieve their loss with her later, after she stabilized. Zylar could not predict what medicine would make her better. Maybe healing would require art, music, or simply the solace of time. Whatever it took, he would help her surmount this tragedy.
“I’m detecting movement,” Helix said then.
“At current velocity, one quarter span or less. I recommend immediate evacuation, unless you desire to prove yourself in battle.”
While Zylar would fight for Asvi, he’d rather not do it against unknown enemies with no preparation whatsoever. He had her safety to consider, along with the other little survivor. Sometimes it was smarter and more tactically sound to retreat. If a retaliatory strike was necessary, he would return to Barath and convene a war council and introduce the possibility of martial action, once they determined who was responsible for the devastation here. There was no time to be delicate, and he regretted that, but they had to go. Now.
One final time, he tried to reason with her. “Calm down and come with me. It’s not safe here any longer. Do you understand?”
Maybe her gear had been broken in the attack? Because she showed no signs of comprehension, though her sounds quieted to a staccato erp that didn’t register as language. Chirring in frustration, Zylar reached for her as slowly as he dared, but she lashed out, and now, lights blazed on the horizon, twin unholy beams that presaged more violence.
“You’re running out of time,” Helix said.
Trilling a curse, he gave up on reason and fired two stun rounds. He’d save her life first and sort the rest out later. Both beings dropped at his feet, and they were small enough that he could transport them, one in each arm. Odd. He hadn’t realized the Tiralan were so delicate. The suit augmented his strength too, and the boosters jetted him to the shuttle as the lights closed in behind them.
Both his hearts pounded as he vaulted in through the open doors and set his two guests on the floor as gently as possible. “Helix, activate lockdown and prepare for departure.”
“What—” But he didn’t have time to question the AI as he settled into the pilot seat. He had to get them off the surface and back to his ship before the enemy targeted them.
Keeping calm, he cracked open his helmet and breathed in the sanitized shuttle air. So much better. With a few strokes of claws on the nav-screen, he sent the shuttle arcing into the sky, heading for low orbit as fast as possible. He braced for an attack, but his shuttle must have been too small for their sensors. Zylar let out a whistle in relief and sat back as the autopilot kicked in, allowing the shuttle to settle into its dock alongside the larger ship.
“We should talk,” Helix said.
“We need to slip this system first.” Ignoring the AI, he unlocked the series of interior doors that connected the shuttle to the ship and moved Asvi and her small friend to the quarters he’d decorated specially for her.
Though they were running unseen for now, that might change. He had to get to Barathi space as soon as possible. With that objective in mind, he put in the coordinates and strapped in for the jump. The AI was trying to say something as reality went liquid, all jumbled colors and sideways breathing. His stomach turned upside down, then they were through, far enough from the destruction to be safe.
“Good. We made it. Let’s get to the colony as—”
“We really need to talk, princess.” Helix had never sounded quite like that, scrambled and distorted, somehow.
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“I think…the solar flares we encountered en route…did something to me. I’m experiencing cascade failures on multiple levels and that includes my vocabulary.”
“What’re you trying to tell me? Say it plainly!”
If AIs could sound frightened, Helix did. “That is… We weren’t at Titan V, the Tiralani outpost. I can’t even find a name for those coordinates in my database.”
“You took me to the wrong planet?” Zylar roared, both hearts churning rage. “One that’s not even logged? That means—”
“Yes, princess. You kidnapped a couple of lower primates.”
Beryl woke with an aching head. Did I black out after drinking again? That was probably the worst of her habits. Some cop had caught her peeing in an alley outside a bar last month, but the judge let her off with a fine and a week of community service. Dizzily, she tried to assemble the broken pieces of memory.
I was at the reenactment…carried water all damn day and then what? She’d brought her dog along because she didn’t like leaving him home alone, and he loved frolicking in the sun, napping in the shade, and making new friends. She remembered the “knight” who fainted from running around the faux-battlefield in heavy armor and the ambulance they summoned to cart him to the hospital. That cut the battle short, and everyone cleared out in a hurry. Nothing like heatstroke to ruin medieval good times. She stayed to clean up, collect the trash the reenactors left behind. If she had finished, she would’ve been done making amends to society.
But something happened… Oh shit. I can’t believe I forgot, even for a second.
Lights appeared in the sky, just like in the movies, and then she’d spotted a figure in a power suit, sort of like the armor the murderous alien wore in the Predator movies. Come to think of it, she was faintly surprised to find herself in one piece. She’d thought she was about to be gutted like a fish and maybe stuffed for display in some rare creatures museum.
Her whole body felt sluggish, heavy as wet sand. With effort, she cracked an eye open, conscious of persistent ringing in her ears. The lights were low and yellow, warm instead of the clinical brightness she’d feared. The fact that she didn’t find a team of gray dudes waiting to dissect her or maybe put scanners up her butt seemed like a lucky break. But maybe whatever the power armor had been hiding would be worse?
Oh God, what happened to Snaps?
With trembling noodle arms, she reached out, feeling around until she found the scruffy little mutt she’d adopted a few months ago. Her dog was still passed out on his side, little paws outstretched. Beryl struggled upright, head swirling, and she squeezed her eyes shut until the wavering subsided. There was a residual queasiness in her stomach to complement the buzzing in her ears. With quietly growing dread, she took stock of the space around her. She didn’t recognize any of the furnishings, but clearly, this was a living area, not a cage or a cell. About the only feature she could identify was the door.
Which opened as she was staring at it, and a creature from Hollywood’s best FX room strode through. The alien—oh God, an alien—stood over two meters, mottled green and brown, with light striping along the sides. Two arms, two legs, but that was where the similarity to humans stopped. It had arched and scaly feet like a bird, and three fingers tipped with ferocious claws. Spines grew out of the creature’s skull and ran down the back while side-set eyes looked faintly insectoid. No ears or nose, just slits in the face plate, and what looked like a maw or a beak. The alien had what she’d call a thorax more than a chest, and prickly things growing out of the…neck? While she stared, tissue puffed out, thickening its throat with transparent webbing. Somehow, she managed not to scream this time, though she did get the hiccups. Again.
“Hi,” she tried.
Beside her, Snaps stirred at the sound of her voice, scrabbling at the smooth and shiny floor with his paws, but he couldn’t shake off whatever the alien had zapped them with. The curly-haired pup whined a little, so she patted him like she had everything under control. The thought kept looping—I have totally been abducted by aliens. This is happening. I wonder if there are any cattle on board.
The alien articulated in response, snaps and clicks and churrs and whistles, but none of it sounded like words. That didn’t deter Beryl because she worked full-time at the Sunshine Angels Daycare Center in the two-year-old room, so she was used to talking to people who didn’t make sense.
“Am I a prisoner of war? Wait, did you guys invade earth? Or is this an isolated abduction? Don’t experiment on me. I’m so bad at science. Like, I couldn’t even get my mouse to run the maze in eighth grade. Shit, I’m babbling.”
The alien scrutinized her with those glimmering side-set eyes; they were like obsidian with no hint of iris, sclera, or pupil. Maybe those are protective lenses? Do aliens wear contacts? It ran a flashing-light tool over her body, head to toe, but she didn’t feel anything. No repeat of the prior zapping anyway.
That’s good. This is good.
“Also, I’d really like it if you didn’t put stuff in my butt. I mean, those are the stories anyway. Maybe real aliens aren’t into butt stuff. I can’t even tell if you have a butt, per se. So maybe that’s why—” And here I go again.
I’m going to hyperventilate.
At her alarmed noise, Snaps staggered to his feet, growled, then tipped over. The dog caught the alien’s attention, and Beryl came up on her knees, still dizzy but ready to fight to the death to protect her pup. The alien scanned Snaps too. Otherwise, their captor didn’t make a move, still studying them with those uncanny eyes. Keeping her movements slow and careful, she picked Snaps up and cuddled him against her chest. Bright-eyed, the dog licked her face and wagged his curly tail, slapping it cheerfully against her thigh.
“I have no idea why you took me,” she mumbled. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t have access to any launch codes.”
Just when she thought she’d scream because of that unnerving, unblinking regard, the alien finally moved. Fast, so incredibly fast, he was right on top of her in a blink, and before she could do more than yelp, she felt a sharp, painful pinch at the base of her skull. Her vision went fuzzy as the alien repeated the move on Snaps, who yipped in protest. Feebly, Beryl waved her arms, but her coordination still wasn’t what it should be. The ringing in her ears intensified to the point of pain, and she dropped into a self-protective squat, somehow managing to keep the whimpering dog in her arms.
“What the hell?” she muttered.
The alien made more noises, on and on, until—
Those sounds looped in her head, reverb, echo, and then she had the eerie sense she could understand the sounds. It didn’t come across like English exactly, more like a ghost whispering translations inside her confused brain. “Is this working? Can you understand me yet?” That was what the alien seemed to be saying, over and over.
“Yep,” said Snaps.
Beryl nearly dropped the dog. “Wait, what? You can talk?!”
“You can talk?” Snaps repeated, like he was asking her the question.
Oh my God.
She stared up at their abductor. “What did you do to us?”
“Implanted some old technology. It’s occasionally still used to communicate with semi-intelligent beasts of burden.”
It occurred to Beryl to be offended by that description, but her current predicament probably didn’t allow for it. “How did you know it wouldn’t hurt us?” she asked.
“I took precautionary scans. I wasn’t sure it would work, but the results didn’t show that the effort would harm your primitive brains in any fashion.” The alien churred, a placeholder sound like um among humans. “I’m glad we got over the first hurdle. With your permission, I’ll give you a tour of the ship and explain the situation.”
“Go,” Snaps said. “Go, go, go.” He was bouncing at the door already.
That was pretty much how Beryl had imagined her dog would sound, if he could talk, but the reality was… She shook her head to clear it as the metal doors whooshed open, revealing a curved corridor that reminded her of a honeycomb. More yellow lighting, soft and intimate. This was too weird to be a dream.
“Before we proceed, I should introduce myself. I am Zylar from Kith B’alak, Colony Barath.”
“Uhm. I’m Beryl Bowman. Of Earth. United States. State of Missouri, city of St. Louis.”
“I am a dog,” Snaps said. “Dog, dog, dog.” He repeated the last word as he started chasing his tail, gleefully whirling. He slid on the smooth flooring and fell over, panting.
She followed the alien around the ship, feeling like this was an out-of-body experience. Really, she should be freaking out more, right? But she didn’t have the energy for panic. Too much strangeness, too fast, and now she was just…waiting. To find out why he’d taken her, if she’d be collected or eaten or—
“Don’t be frightened,” Zylar said gently. “I can smell it on your skin. I mean you no harm. Actually, it’s kind of a funny story…” And then he told her.
Beryl’s legs gave out, right in the central navigation room, and she flopped on the floor. Snaps danced over and crawled onto her lap to lick her cheeks. “This is fun,” he declared.
“Right. Fun. You…? Solar flares? And your AI was damaged? You thought I was your intended…and that you were rescuing me from certain doom? But as it turns out, I was someone else from the wrong planet, and—”
“I can’t take you back,” Zylar said. “I’m so sorry. Helix was damaged, and we don’t have the coordinates for your homeworld any longer. At this point, you have three options.”
Okay, this was a lot, all at once. “Isn’t there a way to…fix him? Recover the data he lost so you can take me back?”
“We can try.” The alien didn’t sound hopeful, however.
Sighing, Beryl tried to wrap her head around the situation and came up feeling blank and queasy, much like a night of heavy drinking. “What are my choices, then?”
“I can drop you off at the nearest station, and you can figure out what to do from there.” That first choice appeared in holo form, a shimmering space station made of light.
Where she wouldn’t know anyone. It was doubtful she could find work taking care of alien children. “Pass,” she said. “Next?”
“We’re in stable orbit above my home now. You can accompany me to Barath and take part in the next Choosing…” Zylar showed her the planet, a lovely orb swirling with warm colors, but she had no idea what the Choosing was, or why she should participate. For all she knew, it might involve gladiatorial combat.
Beryl prompted, “Or? There’s definitely an unspoken or.”
The alien took a step toward her and offered his clawed, three-digit…hand. “Against all expectations, you appear to be a reasonably intelligent being. I still require a nest guardian, and you may be well-suited for the role. Certainly, I’ve never seen anyone with such a fearsome aspect.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” she demanded.
“Did it not sound like one?” He seemed puzzled, if the whispering in her head could be believed.
“Not so much. What does this nest guardian thing entail?”
“We begin the mating dance. At the end of everything, if we prove compatible, we out-bond. Build a life together. Raise young.”
Beryl blinked. And couldn’t stop. She hiccupped again. Raise young? How would that work? “Are you…proposing to me?”
“Yes, Terrible One. You are the most hideous mate anyone ever brought back to Barath and so you will drive all predators away from our nest with ease.” He churred again, a soothing sound, actually.
“Thanks? But you need to work on the endearments.” She glanced at the dog, who cocked his head at her. “What do you think, boy?”
“Go,” said Snaps.
Well, it would be hard to go wrong following a dog’s advice, right? Briefly, she reflected on her life in St. Louis—shitty diapers, low pay, an overdue electric bill, credit card debt, and student loans. Dinky studio apartment and a car that constantly broke down, unsolicited dick pics and an ex named Stuart who ghosted with a text.
To think my mother said I’d never get married… She took Zylar’s hand.
“Fuck it,” Beryl said. “Out-bonding it is. Let’s see where this goes.”