Symbiont Wars Book VI
Chapter 5 – Predators
(Content Warning: Violence & Attempted Rape)
By the middle of the second day, one had covered about 200 kilometers. But at the moment, one was being very still. A puma blocked the trail—a large male with a torn ear. It stared at one. Then, turning, it sauntered into the scrub, pausing to cast a final glance back.
ShwydH had known how to produce smells that would convince most of the big cats of Earth to avoid him, but one had chosen not to try. The Riniana memories might not be able to reproduce one’s intended smell and an apex predator like the puma might decide its territory was being challenged.
One was reasonably certain one did not smell like prey to it anyway. It was good the cat had not been interested. One would have hated to advertise one’s presence by shooting the cat. It would have been nice if the crèche supply had contained silencers for the 1911s.
The ration packets were now gone, and one would need to eat soon. One had been moving west, roughly parallel with the highway to the south
A few hours later, the shadows were growing long. A slight breeze came from the west, bringing with it the furry scent of a herd of whitetail deer. One could hear them browsing on scrub just over the rise ahead.
Coming over the ridge, one used a boulder at the top of the rise to stay concealed. The opposite side was a drop off, and one was above the herd. The nearest deer, a young buck, was an easy jump away. Hungry, one’s hand drifted to the kukri. A short chopping stroke would pith the buck—a painless death. What one did not eat the coyotes would finish. One eased the rifle to the ground and tensed. A memory flooded his mind.
… Riniana’s dymba childhood friend.
One released the handle of the kukri. The creature wasn’t even sentient, but for some reason, the thought of killing it sent a shudder through one from neck to tail. One looked at them again as they browsed on the twigs and leaves of the mesquite. One retrieved the rifle and moved ahead. The herd bounded away with long graceful leaps.
The mesquite here at higher elevation had produced a small autumn crop that was ready to harvest. It wasn’t strong food, but it was nutrition and would fill one’s stomach. But if one wasn’t careful, the mesquite thorns would damage the only set of clothes one had.
The sunset blazed across the horizon, a fiery background for the jutting limestone crags of Guadalupe Peak to the south. One had paused to appreciatet he colors of the sky with both eyes from time to time while gathering mesquite pods. In an hour, one had about ten liters—not counting those that were lost to one’s own grazing while gathering. As the sun kissed the mountains, one sat and ate the pulp between the seeds and the shells, saving the seeds for grinding later but throwing the shells under the tree where they could nourish the roots and keep the ground a bit moister.
ShwydH would never have bothered doing that before coming under HumanaH’s influence.
One kept throwing the shells under the tree anyhow.
HumanaH had always treated ShwydH fairly. She hadn’t needed to—with the leverage of being one of only three persons who could keep him alive. But she had treated him like an equal… like a friend. In the NiiaH Empire, nobody made friends, so HumanaH was the only friend ShwydH had ever had.
Does that mean she’s my friend too?
HumanaH had given one life. Maybe she thought of one as another branch sister. It seemed unlikely though… too much to ask. Perhaps it was more of an experiment.
One felt a darker notion rising up.
Maybe it is a punishment, to inflict on me the memory of what happened to her. I will know it’s coming but be unable to stop it.
One squelched the idea. Even at her most unstable, HumanaH would not stoop to such a thing. One tossed a final handful of empty pods under the tree.
It would have been nice if HumanaH had been more forthcoming concerning her intentions in her brief letter, but perhaps she only wanted to free ShwydH after providing a new perspective. She might not have understood that she would end up making a new person altogether.
One lay down for a brief nap, using the pack for a pillow. When the moon came up, it would be easy enough to keep going. It was safer to walk at night, one could avoid the nocturnal wildlife with little trouble, and the chance of someone with a sniper rifle shooting one for one’s possessions was lower in the dark.
One woke to a distant smell of burning wood and sat up to scan upwind. A flicker, like firelight reflecting from boulders, wavered downslope to the east… perhaps a kilometer away. The wind had changed as one slept. It could be a campfire; the smoke might mask the smell of one or two humans. One stood, shouldered pack and gear, and set off toward the light. If someone’s buried campfire had reignited, it would need putting out.
As one closed the distance to the light, it became clear there was one human at the fire site… a male.
One steered towards a higher point of ground that offered a better vantage and—using the riflescope—was able to see him. The air had chilled to about five degrees centigrade. It was, by no means, cold enough to bother one, but the human, wearing only a hooded sweatshirt a stocking cap and jeans, didn’t even have a blanket. He crouched by the tiny fire, holding his trembling hands over it.
One studied his face. Though partly concealed by the hood and the cap beneath it, one could see it was a bit sallow and scarred from acne. He was young, thin and frowning, no doubt concerned about where his next meal was coming from.
The mesquite pods in one’s foraging bag rustled as one shifted weight.
Should I offer him some food? Trade?
Even thin and hungry the man held nourishment between his legs that would provide one with strength for much needed muscle building. Approached correctly, he would probably be glad to give it over too. ShwydH had watched HumanaH simply walk up to human males and exchange a few words after which they would follow her wherever she led them.
The trouble was, one didn’t have a clue how to produce the pheromones that would create that kind of reaction. ShwydH had learned to build mutualistic relationships with female humans during the last six years, but the males were different. Riniana’s memories had about 2,000 years of accumulating in one’s mind to go before she would even meet her first human.
One tilted back one’s head and looked at the moon and stars. Did one even want to adopt the nii diet restrictions?
One already knew eating sentients didn’t turn out well—at least in the long run. ShwydH had modeled the niiaH strategy enough to know it would never reach a stable equilibrium. It always failed. One’s lip twitched. That didn’t mean some didn’t get away with it on an individual basis though.
Perhaps it just came down to figuring out what one wanted to do. What kind of relationships did one want to have?
Based on ShwydH’s experience, living in a culture of ethical trust and cooperation was much better than being surrounded by ruthless predators.
On the other hand, there was a name for ethical sentients surrounded by ruthless predators….
As one considered approaching the human male and the fire, a realization that one might not be able to count on communicating effortlessly. Though ShwydH’s memories held the knowledge of an entire suite of human languages, one had not practiced speaking any of them, and Riniana had no muscle memories of using them. Well, the light-skinned male at the fire would probably make assumptions about a dark-skinned female with uncertain language skills. One could practice sub vocally for a few moments on the way to the fire.
One hid the rifle and pack between two boulders, paused for a moment to consider whether to keep one of the pistols in the holster under one’s skirt, but decided to leave both with the pack and rifle. No smell of gunpowder or gun oil touched the man’s person or possessions, so he wasn’t armed that way. The kukri in its sheath between one’s shoulder blades was enough. One moved toward the fire silently, using Riniana’s scout training, mixed with ShwydH’s experience from his time in the desert learning from HumanaH while defending the Sun Sea Farm.
Just outside the fire light, one paused, examining the man from close up. Since he was staring at the fire, he would be night blind. It would take him several seconds to see one after one spoke. He had not bathed for a long period. One’s nosed twitched at the assault from the odor’s proximity. Well, water was scarce, it was excusable.
One stepped forward. “Good evening. May I share your fire? I have food.”
The man leaped to his feet at the sound of one’s voice and pulled a large folding knife from his pocket. It took him a few seconds as he fumbled the deployment of the blade, and two seconds more to spot where one stood, unmoving in gray-brown clothing and face hidden by the shemagh.
The knife was a clunky karambit blade made to impress with its jagged extensions and size. Its loose pivot washers rattled when it locked. One snorted through the nose quietly. As an ally, this one would be more liability than an asset in a fight.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” one said. “I saw your fire and came to see.”
“Who are you? Where are you from? Why do you hide your face?” He spun to peer outside the fire. “Are you alone? Did your group send you in first to distract me?”
“I have no group.” One touched the shemagh. “This is the custom of my people.” That much was certainly true… on this planet anyway.
“Effing sand niggers,” the man muttered under his breath, clearly not meaning for one to hear.
Racial bias…. Not a desirable outlook for a companion.
One considered walking away. Still, there was the possibility of an exchange that would be beneficial for both before leaving.
One tapped the forage bag. “I found food earlier. Are you hungry?”
The knife lowered a fraction as his eyes moved to the forage bag. “What do you have?” He licked his chapped lips. “Water?”
One nodded, taking the canteen from the forage bag and opening it. “Toss me your cup or canteen, and I will pour you some.”
The man backed cautiously to his pack, reached inside and pulled out a soup can. He threw it towards her; the toss was low… intentionally low. One could hear the shift in his heartbeat. One stood, waiting for him to charge. The man stood tense, waiting for one to reach for the can.
One kicked it back to him instead. “Try again. No tricks this time.” Perhaps this small show of strength would discourage violence.
“It just slipped out of my hand,” the man said. A shade of whining colored his words.
“Perhaps it would help your aim if you put the knife away.”
He picked up the can again and tossed it to her, accurately this time, though he kept the knife in hand.
One caught the can, dumped water into it from the canteen then placed it on the ground and stepped back.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “What’s in the water?”
Instead of answering, one drank several swallows from the canteen, not taking eyes off the man.
“Perhaps I should just leave now.” One took another step back. “I wish you luck.”
“No. I’m sorry. It’s just that not everyone is safe. Trusting people can get you killed pretty quick these days.”
“These days, those days, all days,” one said, voice even.
The man closed the knife and put it in his pocket. Stepping closer to the can, he picked it up, sniffing it before drinking then draining it all.
“If I meant you harm, one said, putting the canteen back in the forage bag.”I could have hit you from behind by throwing a rock while you were staring at the fire.” Impatience was rising inside one. One reflected a moment on the source of the feeling. The ShwydH part of one’s mind was deeming this a waste of time. Without the leash of his dependence on HumanaH, ShwydH would have been tempted to just take what he needed and go. One wondered why it seemed important to follow this transaction to the end… to see who this person was. What his character was made of.
“What do you want from me?” said the man. “I don’t have anything to give you… unless,” he hooked his thumbs in his belt and pointed to his crotch with both forefingers. “Unless you are interested in this,” he said with a leer as he unsnapped his jeans and lowered the zipper, displaying his lack of undergarments.
For an instant, one envied the human ability to laugh that ShwydH had never truly acquired—in spite of Ayleaha’s insistence on tutoring him.
Then the man rushed.
One recalled the layout of the terrain behind one, concluding that no sharp rocks or obstacles indicated a need to dodge. One could receive the charge without worrying about that. One dropped the forage bag and brought hands inside the man’s arms. As their bodies collided, one plucked the karambit from the man’s hand and tossed it away while pulling him close with the other arm.
The tackle brought them both to the ground with a thump, but one didn’t struggle, simply keeping inside the man’s arms in case he decided to strike.
The man encircled one’s neck with his arm and pressed his forehead into the side of one’s face, a tactic to prevent a biting attack. With his other hand, he reached down and pulled up one’s skirt then slid his hand to one’s crotch.
One allowed him enough freedom of movement with his arm to do that much without being able to touch one’s tail.
He leered again. “What? Nothing on under there? Did you already get yourself ready for me, bitch?”
“I did not come here to get raped,” one answered, voice neutral.
“But is it rape if you really wanted it?”
“Is that actually your ethical stance? Would you stop if I told you to?”
“Not a chance,” he said, his fingers feeling for the opening at one’s mons. “Ah! you’re wet for me already. Maybe both of us will enjoy this.”
One had, in fact, released lubricating fluid to the life orifice upon detecting his intentions, but that had nothing whatsoever to do with any arousal. The fluid would decrease friction, protect one’s inner flesh and increase the man’s arousal. That, in turn, would create a greater discharge that would benefit one nutritionally.
The Tiana memories contained the relevant anatomical data. ShwydH had also consumed sperm, usually with finger filaments. He’d seldom deigned to be involved with the actual process of getting it, preferring the sperm bank he’d set up to avoid that part of the transaction. His normal diet had been more focused on fat and blood which he’d preferred to obtain from his female bodyguards.
The man inserted a finger inside one and moved it in and out. The smell of his arousal grew stronger, as his member stiffened against one’s leg. When he moved to thrust his member inside, one relaxed the orifice to allow the penetration and focused on mining Riniana’s muscle memories, now mature enough to be useful, for information on how to use the life orifice to increase his stimulation.
Though one cared not at all for his pleasure, since he thought he was committing rape. But one could gauge his reactions to learn what might please later partners. It would probably be useful.
There was no danger of being distracted with any hint of pleasure to one’s own body. The man’s sexual organ was nowhere near long enough to approach the pleasure node. Neither did his approach even hint at an interest in—or knowledge of—giving pleasure to a human female. The ShwydH memories held plenty of information from experience about that subject.
When he came with a gasp and a whimper scarcely a minute later, the result, from one’s perspective at least, was decidedly disappointing as far as the sustenance derived. Well, perhaps the man’s starvation diet coupled with dehydration didn’t help. One squeezed the life orifice muscle walls to milk out the last drops of semen.
“What the fuck?”
“Oh, was that painful?” one said, looking for information. It wouldn’t be good to hurt a future partner by accident.
“Not as painful as what I just gave you,” he sneered and raised his hand toward his head.
One clamped down on his arm to prevent the motion. It would have put his hand in a position to strike.
“Let me show you something,” he said. “I just want to take off my hat.”
One loosened the tension on his arm, allowing the man’s hand to reach his hat and tug the stocking cap away from his forehead where a crude tattoo spelled out the legend. Herpes II .
It was a jailhouse tattoo, done with black ink and a nail or a knife. It must have been painful. One doubted he had requested it. No, someone had done it to him because he’d failed to warn someone else of his infection before sex. One looked from forehead to facial expression. The man was gloating in anticipation of a reaction.
One tugged the folds of the shemagh aside, revealing the stripes across the nose and cheeks of one’s face. “What is your name, rapist?” one said calmly. “I would prefer to know your name before condemning you to death, but it will not stop me. You have demonstrated twice now that you are too toxic to let live.”
He stared at one’s face, his mouth open in a shocked gape as he attempted to push away. One locked legs around him and jerked him back, twisting his arms behind his back and wrapping his wrists with one’s tail, pinning them.
ShwydH had been familiar with the herpes II virus. It was one that could jump from human to niiaH, and he had actually contracted it once a century ago. It had taken him months to get it out of his system. But reviewing the internal reaction between one’s new body and the virus revealed an immunity to it already in place.
One considered and turned one’s attention back to the human. Technically, within the nii code, one was entitled to sustenance from an unprovoked attacker when hunger constituted a danger to survival. In addition, the attacker had proven himself opposed to nii ideals. Duty demanded his death. One wrenched the man’s head back and took the vein of his neck between one’s teeth and drank deep, but after seven long pulls, a thought stopped one short of draining all life out of him. Instead, one built a slow-acting toxin and forced it into his blood stream then closed the vein and pushed him away.
The man rolled away. “What are you?” he cried, holding his hand on his neck where one had bitten him.
One stood, collected the forage bag then turned back to the man. “For you, I am justice. I have given you a slow-acting toxin that will kill you about this time tomorrow. I tell you this so you can spend time considering your life choices and—if you can—make peace with whatever deity you might recognize. Though your attempt to infect me failed, your actions make you too toxic for me to leave you alive to prey on otherrs. You will not suffer, but you will be too weak to travel before you die. No antidote exists outside of me. I will leave you water so you will not suffer thirst during your final day.”
One turned and walked back the way one had come.
“What about food? I’m hungry,” the man rasped, rubbing his neck.
One stopped, picked up the tin can and filled it with water, but didn’t turn. “I think your soul might fare better without the distraction during your final hours.”
One placed the can on the ground then walked back into the night.
The dark folded around one, lonely but peaceful, as one followed the bones of the land, smelling out and hunting down the water that was life where it lay hidden in the folds and pockets among the stones.
My friends at Science Fiction World Changers (Facebook Page) asked me to do a blog post highlighting some great Dystopian fiction for their readers. And I said, “Yeah! I’d love to.”
So here it is:
Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth (RFA). Some good news on how to go about getting in on an easily digestible movie version of this one—filmed in 2007…. Amazon’s Prime video includes it free/included with a Membership to Prime.
RFA is one of Phillip K. Dick’s more philosophical and trippier novels. The movie hasn’t won the acclaim that Blade Runner or Man in the High Castle did—it didn’t even get a theater release until 2013—but what it DOES have that makes it uniquely compelling is the exploration of what the author believed mattered when resisting injustice and tyranny.
To paraphrase: It doesn’t matter so much if we are successful (in resisting tyranny or fighting injustice) as it does that we tried.
What I like about that view is it allows us to understand that we’ve succeeded by trying and that makes us more willing to keep on trying. The mindset nurtures the everyday heroes inside us. The way I see it, if more of us will shake off our hopelessness and try to make changes, it can’t help but cause tyrants more trouble. (You Go! Occupy Wallstreet. We are going to call you a win!)
Though—when written—the author no doubt had (then) current politicians in mind as those personifying the tendency to villainy of those who seek power. It is still as timeless as any work in the genre could be.
If you check out the film version, don’t miss Alanis Morrisette performing her song Professional Torturer a little after 31 minutes into the film.
The RFA story in novel format was also re-written as a 3-part series called VALIS, so you can also choose to explore it in that format. (The first in that series is Free with a Kindle Unlimited membership) You can find it here:
Keep on reading, it helps ideas grow.
Have you ever wondered why it is that some people rocket to the top of their fields while others seem to get stuck in the trenches for life?
I know that sounds like a blurb for one of those “How To” books that give you a series of steps to take so the author can get rich when you buy their books, but that’s not what I’m trying to accomplish here. What I want to do is give you, in this short post, a situational awareness that will change the way you look at the world. Yes, even if you never buy one of my books. For all I know, you don’t even like Dystopian Science Fiction.
I’m going to take that question a step further…
Have you ever wondered why it is that our society rarely changes for the better and pollution, poverty, crime and strife overwhelms our environment? I mean, none of us wants those things, right? Why aren’t we improving in those areas?
Here is the short answer:
Most of the problems I’ve mentioned above—even the personal one I asked up front—are because parasitic symbionts enslave us.
Whoa, Chogan! I’m hitting the back button on my browser right now. I thought you were a little kooky, but WHAT?
Hang on, just give me a chance.
To answer the longer questions I’ve just raised with my short answer, I’ll have to draw on my training as an engineer in an almost unknown discipline called Systems Theory. I’ve talked about Systems Theory in other places on my blogs, so I’m not going there now. (It’s not about computer systems though.)
Feel free to read some of my other posts.
Let’s see how Google defines this peculiar word in my ‘parasitic symbionts’ statement…
/simbīänt/: A symbiont is one of two connected entities that exist in symbiosis with one another.
(Don’t you hate definitions that use the root word to define?)
/simbīˈōsəs,ˌsimbēˈōsəs/: interaction between two different organisms living in close … association, typically to the advantage of both. A mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups. Plural noun: symbioses
Wait, that sounds like a good thing.
Well, it could be, but some symbionts don’t give as much as they get. Some don’t give anything at all, and others even take until they destroy the other organism. These last symbionts are called parasites.
In the same way that physical symbionts interact with each other, relationships and other non-physical connections can be symbiotic.
Remember those people I mentioned who rocket to the top? Chances are they are parasites. Have you checked the balance of wealth lately? (Look up Requiem for the American Dream on YouTube)
Have you ever had a boss that took credit for an idea you had or something you did and they received a promotion for it, but they never gave you any credit?
Do you work for a company that demands 60 hours a week for 30-hour-a-week pay?
Have you ever voted for a politician who promised change and reform only to disappoint… again?
Have you ever been in a relationship that…. (Never mind, you get the idea, don’t you?)
All of these kinds of interactions in the world do more than add up, they multiply like bacteria in a petri dish.
Furthermore, when you take the source of all these parasitic interactions and stir it into society, something horrible happens. It sets up parasitic SYSTEMS. Groups of parasitic entities (corporations, companies, people, associations, clubs, political parties, lobbies AKA Political Action Groups, even charities) start to siphon off value and give back less or nothing. Though there may be no collusion, all of these can react as though they work in concert to keep the systems in place in order to preserve the parasitic relationships to those they siphon from… us.
Great, Chogan. So we are doomed. Besides, I think I already knew this. I just didn’t see what anyone could do about it.
Well, we have a choice. We can do nothing, or we can become part of the solution. Because, right now, we are part of the problem.
Wait! What? I don’t do any of that sh*t!
Sorry, we are all culpable through things we do and don’t do.
Speaking of sh*t… Take me for example. Every time I use a flush toilet, I contribute to a system that costs billions of dollars more to operate than the best alternative (composting) a system that pollutes the environment and wastes precious drinkable water… just because of inertia. (See source below)
Do you work for a Fortune 500 company that exploits employees and customers alike? I did. My efforts put millions of dollars into the pockets of wealthy parasites and helped them cheat their customers.
Many of the investments in my retirement portfolio (from when I worked for that soulless corporation) support parasitic companies and corporations instead of beneficial business models.
I’ve donated to charities I thought were a good thing only to find out that most of that money went to a wealthy CEO who lets very little trickle down to the people who work in the charity or the people it supposedly benefits.
Don’t even get me started on the politicians I’ve voted for in the past.
The point is this, people. There are alternatives if we work for them, but we have to work together. We also have to realize the parasites are constantly trying to push us apart so we don’t mess up their racket. They will try to drive wedges between us like: race, political party, nationality, religion…. the list is growing.
I am trying to change my choices and learn about alternatives. It’s what I talk about (between the lines) in my stories.
I invite you to join me. Now that you realize how we are all enslaved, take some steps to start to shake off your chains.
What can we do?
Everyone has to figure some things out for themselves. Take the steps you can.
Here are a few things I’m doing:
- Refusing to work for a parasitic corporation again
- Protest voting
- Working for cross-political-party cooperation
- Downsizing my life and carbon footprint
- Using Gray Water for gardening
- Looking for better ways to change how I invest retirement money
- Looking for opportunities to build alliances with others who are trying to lose their chains too
- Investing my time and talents to change the world
- Standing up to defend oppressed minorities and people groups
Welcome to the new situational awareness I promised you.
We can start with baby steps!
Source about sh*t here:
Chapter 3 – Identity
The act of staring at long, smoothly muscled legs tapering upward from deceptively delicate-seeming springheels and feet was accompanied by spikes of panic.
They were admirable legs, but where they joined, something was missing.
In the place where one might expect those organs, a mons pubis framed by hips forming a distinctive feminine curve remained despite all expectations.
A narrow, well-formed hand reached out and explored the small breasts that formed double arches above the ridged muscles of the abdomen.
The nipples were incredibly sensitive.
Darkness eclipsed the view as eyes closed tight.
Did the laws of geologic precedence that had served before fail as a logical anchor? Perhaps there were earlier memories that had now been excised. The notion brought on a dizziness that made the room swirl.
The memories of ShwydH’s birth had come before the memories of Riniana Tiana’s birth. The analogy of geologic precedence must logically guide, and a guide was needed before sanity failed.
But the control of this body had not come until the childhood memories of Riniana Tiana had been accessed. The knowledge of how to use this body was clearly tied up in those memories.
The awareness considered.
Memories had not been invaded. It was not what DuGwaedH had done to HumanaH. All the ShwydH memories were in place, so far as they went—ShwydH’s memories, poured into an empty brain. Then, after awareness was established, new memories had been added from Tiana’s childhood, and both were now housed in a nii branch body. HumanaH had told him enough for an idea of how the nii went about their longevity procedures—methods unlike the cannibalistic tactics of the niiaH who took over the bodies of their own offspring.
There was still the overwhelming question that needed an answer.
Who am I?
At least there was only one awareness.
That was a useful place to start.
Did one have an attachment to the ShwydH identity? Certainly more memories were collected there. The surprise, of failing to find a penis, attested to attachment to the identity. Perhaps the answer might lie in the memories.
One opened the eyes again and looked around.
In the dim chamber, the straight-lined shapes invited.
One might explore.
With caution, one put feet on the smooth rock, bracing on the elevated stone table. The smell of the rock suggested it might be limestone. Though the odor—filtered through different synapses—was odd. The Riniana Tiana memories, spanning only about seven years, held no formal study of geology, especially Earth geology.
After staggering, one quickly found balance and moved to the nearest object—it proved to be a shower stall. Though light was dim, one could make out writing, in HumanaH’s familiar style, that covered the glass door.
Clearly HumanaH thought one would be ShwydH, but one was not yet convinced.
… the water for the shower is plentiful and drinkable, but read the letter I left in the trunk before doing anything else.
An arrow drawn on the door pointed the way to another straight-lined shadow, lower and near the wall. One continued past the shower to the trunk and lifted its lid. The chamber filled with light. Somehow, a lighting system had activated. The entire chamber, a cave roughly spherical and twenty meters across, was now clearly visible.
An envelope labeled ‘Read First’ lay on top of the chest’s other contents. One took the envelope in hand and opened it easily. Riniana Tiana must have achieved very good small-motor dexterity at seven.
The letter was written on tough stone paper.
ShwydH, I am sure you have many questions, but I will only answer one at this time: I have not told anyone else about this.
For now, however, you have more immediate concerns. Your body needs sustenance right away, and you may be unable to sense how urgent the need may be. You need to follow these directions immediately.
At least 24 hours will have passed from when you first woke, and your body could soon have a dangerous reaction to its lack of fuel.
The shower is safe to drink from while you wash off the residue from the crèche. But, before eating anything, insert the gourd-shaped pod that hangs above the bench into the opening of your genitalia. The contents will be subsumed there automatically. After the contents drain in, move the pod deeper inside until it too is subsumed. Do this soon. Your life depends on it.
One put the letter down and looked back at the bench where the pod hung suspended from a lattice network above the body-sized opening at the lower end where one had rested.
The pod certainly seemed large to take inside oneself in the manner described.
One opened the shower door, stepped inside, and turned the handle. Needle-fine jets of water hammered one’s skin, making it tingle as the integument’s sensory net hydrated. A bar of soap in a wax paper wrapper rested in the soap dish. One opened the wrapper and tentatively soaped the female body. It felt as though one were taking liberties that made one want to ask pardon. One hardened one’s resolve and continued, even washing between the legs.
Besides, who could one ask? The childhood memories that had granted one the ability to move?
As water sluiced over skin into the dust-dry mouth and down the throat, one’s eyes strayed again to the spot above the bench where hung the enormous pod that one would have to deal with next.
Your life depends on it.
One turned off the water, opened the door and walked to the pod, leaving a trail of footprints puddling behind. Placing both hands beneath and on the pod, one pulled, testing the connection to the lattice. The gallon-sized pod popped free of the connection unexpectedly, settling in one’s grip and oozing a milky liquid from the narrower end.
Startled, one clutched the container, in fear it might fall, then settled it on the bench and climbed up to sit straddling it.
Your life depends on it.
It would certainly not do to endanger the body simply because of squeamishness, but the body reminded the ShwydH memories of Ayleana—the hands, the legs and all other visible parts were nearly identical—a person ShwydH had become more attached to than he would have ever admitted to himself when alone with only his own thoughts.
But now we are one.
ShwydH had been devastated when Ayleana’s gathering memories had given her the knowledge of what it meant for ShwydH to be niiaH. It had severed their brief friendship and left him with her disgust.
One focused on breathing for a few seconds. Though there was only one awareness, clearly one could be of two minds.
Spreading legs, one moved the tip of the pod, relying on the memories of a young Riniana Tiana’s early bodily explorations to find the path. Three drops fell onto the folds at the forking junction during the process.
The liquid lubricated the surface area with tingling warmth, distracting the ShwydH mind from the sensation of the pod’s invasion and delighting the young Riniana Tiana mind with the pleasure of subsuming THERE as the tip, about the size of two fingers together, slid home and the drops of the nectar became a warming trickle inside.
One carefully brought one’s legs together, brought one’s tail up to steady the pod, and balanced it between the thighs. Warmth from sublimation spread out from the center. A quiet well-being permeated the body, seeping into one’s divided mind as sleep fell.
One woke to ten more years of new memories from the Riniana Tiana mind and the resulting mental tools. One now had time sense awareness, which indicated that a little more than a day had passed since she’d fallen asleep. The lights of the chamber—still burning—added to the daylight filtering down from the panel above. The pod was gone. One had the dreamy recollection of one’s body somehow pulling the pod within by gradual stages as it dissolved.
The Riniana Tiana mind’s latest memories had ended with her sexual maturation threshold. One pondered the differences between the nii and niiaH cultures’ and the ways they structured that pivotal event and how the feedback loops from the emphasis placed on the methods of each culture had influenced their societies and resulted in two diverging races.
The nii guided females through a controlled awakening using moderation and meditation during the sexual joining that brought forth a nii female’s first experience with orgasm and the cascade of physical development it engendered.
The niiaH encouraged a more martial approach…
Feasting, Fucking and Fighting.
One felt a certain dark amusement at the alliteration of the English words that came to one’s mind.
The nii had become a cooperating race of mutualistic symbionts while the niiaH had evolved into a warrior-caste predator juggernaut bent on conquest.
The war between them had been inevitable.
One rose from the stone platform and moved to explore the containers in the chamber. Scattered across the top of the chest opened the day before were packets of dried, nii-compatible food. HumanaH’s scent lingered on them, recognizable even through one’s unfamiliar senses. One unwrapped a packet, ate it then stacked the rest to the side. The lower layers held four sealed packages of sturdy clothes in styles ShwydH had not seen since the late 1930s. The clothes were custom-tailored for one’s body and included skirts that would conceal tail and lower legs where the springheels would give away alien origin. Custom-made boots lay beneath the clothes in another sealed box.
The next layer revealed old financial documents—likely useless except perhaps outside the boundaries of the United States where currency still functioned. The five kilograms of gold coins would still be valuable, though heavy.
At the very bottom, ammunition containers held box after box of .45 caliber ACP ammunition and two 1911 semi-automatic pistols. Along with the pistols were two gun maintenance kits.
One would need to make sure the weapons were ready to operate as soon as the remaining containers were inventoried. The guns and a maintenance kit went on top of the crate before one moved to the standing wardrobe. An inspection of the wooden closet revealed: five sealed outfits hanging from hangers, two Browning Automatic Rifles with 20-round magazines and .30-06 ammunition in boxes on the floor. A mirror hung on the back of the door. One examined the face and body that held one’s awareness.
A young female nii—much less-muscular than HumanaH—confronted one. The face, not yet sculpted to blend with human norms, swirled with the deep brown and red stripes almost identical to the post-adolescent one in the Tiana memories. This was a beautiful young adult, no longer adolescent. Hands touched the face.
Had one willed that to happen?
Was that a sense of satisfaction?
One might need to work on making it a little more human though… as soon as Riniana’s memories of her body controls woke.
Mentally, one shrugged, a learned gesture from time with humans. The reflection’s shoulders twitched.
The mind/body connection tightens, but unconscious movements can display vulnerabilities and must stay under control.
As one closed the mirrored door, an object fell from the ledge, and one caught it reflexively. It was a fine-tipped marker with HumanaH’s scent on it … no doubt she had used it to write the message on the shower door. One opened the marker and applied the tip to the shower door below the message. The tip released fluid readily. Not much time had passed since HumanaH had been here. The date marked on the door below the message was another message. She had been here not long ago. Since there was no reason to imagine she would lie about the date, one would still be almost current on events outside.
One turned back to the guns. Current events required well-maintained weapons.
Chapter 2 – Spliced
The event stream poured into a mind as yet unconscious: birth, growth, years passing in linear fashion, time filling with experiences and decisions that shaped an outline for character and personality.
An outside observer might reflect on the preponderance of darkness, neglect and cruelty of the events in the stream. But to what else could the mind compare it?
If it were already awake and able to compare.
Things were as they were. It was… expected.
The mind continued filling, but it was still unconscious. At times, minds did not awaken as they filled, and the past went unnoticed until the body received the enzymes that ended the torpor of the long hibernation.
Then, light or dark, it would bloom….
ShwydH woke to darkness.
Somewhere skin tickled as something… some things… peeled away like spots of slowly detaching tape that tugged as they disengaged. The sensation was startling. He had no notion of what was causing it, just that it was a skin-like sensation. The starting didn’t translate to a movement from his body—so far as he could tell.
He felt disconnected, almost as though he floated in warm water. No, not that… perhaps as though he was dreaming.
He tried to move, to open his eyes, but nothing changed.
Am I paralyzed?
He noticed—now that he thought about vision—perhaps a promise of light, a sensation, like a faint illumination on the outside of closed eyes.
Where could I be?
He considered the last thing he could remember. It had been time for his daily dose of antidote to the abiding poison. He had come to HumanaH, tilting his head to allow her easy access to his neck. His libido stirred, as always, at the smell of her… like tamarind, bergamot and cinnamon if he were to compare it to earthly scents. Her breath brushed his throat, like the promise of a kiss—then, unexpectedly, her arms wrapped around his body, as though to keep him from falling, followed by the soft popping sensation of her teeth over his vein.
What else can I feel?
He tried to sort through the sensations for what seemed a long time with no results. He could not even stir strong emotions in himself.
Am I dead?
He hoped not. If he weren’t preoccupied with his lack of control, it would a boring way to spend the afterlife, but perhaps there was a hell—as some humans thought. The situation had possibilities for hellishness, but it wasn’t as though he didn’t deserve to go there.
Yes, he’d changed his allegiance away from the galaxy-wasting niiaH to work for the philosophically ethical nii. But, on the scales of justice, he wouldn’t have expected three years of that to outweigh three centuries of genocidal murder—especially when his only other option had been to die from the poison that had become a constant leash on him.
Tiana, the nii who had finally captured him, had poisoned him with a non-eradicable substance that he could survive only with a daily antidote. An antidote that only she, or one of her branch sisters, could administer.
For three hundred years, he had survived in brutal niiaH society, learning a strategic ruthlessness that planned for contingencies on a longer timeline than those who surrounded him. But when he’d been shipwrecked on Earth at the beginning of the 19th century—at odds with his superior officer, DugwaedH—ShwydH had found himself slowly running out of options.
Stranded on a primitive world without access to the body-jumping technology available in the niiaH empire, ShwydH was sure to die in another six centuries unless he could get back to the empire. But, he was almost sure the nii had managed to eradicate the NiiaH Empire, and DugwaedH would kill him long before he could possibly get back to be certain.
So, ShwydH had compromised his own genetic material—irreversibly throwing away half of his remaining life expectancy—to keep DugwaedH from using the DNA to revive the body-jumping technology here on Earth. He’d made certain DuGwaedH would die here as well.
Now DuGwaedH was dead and burned, and ShwydH’s ruined DNA might have been the deciding factor in Tiana’s decision to allow him to live. He might be the last of his race alive…
If I AM alive.
After an unmeasurable time, he noticed sensations that felt like exhaustion. Then came dreams. First, he dreamed a growing awareness in a warm fluid environment like memories from the womb, but different than his own memories of that time … more secure, peaceful. Then pressure. Then light. Eyes open to see, not his own mother and the stark walls of his mother’s bedroom, but another female and somewhere else.
His conscious thoughts faded, but the images… sensations… memories continued longer and more lucid than any dream he’d ever had.
When he woke, the memories of a childhood not his own filled his mind. An open-eyed view of a polished stone chamber with soft light filtering down from above filled his senses.
In the memories, the child knew her name to be Riniana Tiana.
Which of the Tiana branches had done this to him?
Am I Tiana or ShwydH?
The memories of ShwydH came first, ergo, he was ShwydH remembering Riniana Tiana’s childhood. Logic dictated it must be so, like the law of geologic precedence. Without that anchor, he would have been swept away, entranced by the life of a child truly loved and valued—not to mention one who had a will as vast and strong as a battleship’s armored hull.
That meant the awareness who was seeing the stone chamber was ShwydH—a ShwydH who could remember details from another life.
He noted that his view of the stone ceiling scanned left to right in response to his curiosity about the surroundings. A sensation of relief followed the realization that he could look around. He tried to move and found that was now possible, so he felt for the controls of his body.
Something was different.
ShwydH sat up and looked down.
This was not his body.
HumanaH’s eyes drifted along the horizon as she let the motorcycle slow. Clouds scudded across the moon, sending shadows racing over the desert. Near the ground, the wind was softer, though the gusts still had the strength to lift stinging sand as high as her bare thighs.
The sensation did not bother her. Compared to what the impacts had been like at 200 kilometers per hour a few moments ago, it was barely a tickle. Her body armor would have protected her skin, but she’d left that behind at the shelter, preferring to have freedom of movement. These days there were no police patrolling the land to object to her lack of clothing… or—more likely—to her tail.
She steered the motorcycle off the road and into the lee of a stand of trees. Then through a narrow ravine with an overhanging rock ledge above her. With a kick, she deployed the kickstand into the rocky ground and let the auto-shutdown kill the engine.
The throaty roar of the pipes fell silent.
In the sudden quiet, the engine and pipes of the custom-armored enduro Intruder ticked a soft retardando as they cooled. She dismounted and whipped her tail along her legs to brush away the sticking sand.
Since she had lost her old self and become HumanaH, physical discomfort—even pain—had become a welcome distraction from her daily mental torture. At times, it felt as though her mind had never left the cave where DuGwaedH had stolen years of her memories to implant his own.
Even now, after building walls around those dark, foreign intrusions, the walls themselves served as a reminder of what she had lost. And, the walls didn’t always hold the dark away.
So now, she found herself taking careless chances. She couldn’t let go of the hope of freedom from the horror behind the walls, and death might bring that freedom. Duty was all that kept her here … in spite of the pain … and the dreams.
ShwydH would have chided her for leaving her body armor; he often objected to the chances she took with her life. But then, his own life was linked to hers through the antidote she gave him daily.
He had motive.
Hers was tenuous.
Is that why you do this? You think to slip the leash of duty?
Again she wondered what had compelled her to offer to provide ShwydH the daily antidote for the captivating poison. Tiana had not asked it of her. Perhaps it was only the simple instinct that made a drowning sailor grasp a lifeline. Keeping ShwydH alive grounded her here when part of her wanted to slip through the veil into the dark.
The 4-day supply of antidote she had left behind for ShwydH would no doubt trouble him—now that she was beyond his slight influence on her behavior. He didn’t even know where she had gone.
Settling the pack between her shoulder blades, HumanaH walked away from the bike and into the wilderness. The crèche was only twenty kilometers from here, and she wouldn’t risk the sound of the bike leading anyone near it—or masking her own awareness of her surroundings—as she approached. After all, it would be more than her own life she was risking.
She triangulated her position and vector into the wilderness from the nearby peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains then slid through a boulder field, moving with the shadows through the sporadic moonlight. After a few minutes of walking, she stretched her legs into a stride that would take her to her destination in an easy forty minutes.
Running was good. Perhaps she would push the pace to increase the soothing pain of physical exertion. She analyzed the smells coming to her and detected nothing out of place, so she ran…
Her senses filled up as she moved, absorbing input from: her body’s exertion; the starry sky; the calls of coyotes and the constant navigation of obstacles… all the cacti, boulders, arroyos and poisonous creatures best left undisturbed. For a time, her world was too full of sensation for emotional pain to intrude, and she imagined old friends running beside her—their four legs to her two—until her mind turned back to her self-appointed mission.
Am I doing the right thing?
In her condition, how could she know? One human book she had read 60 years ago had used a word to describe what she was…
But so was ShwydH.
Two wrongs didn’t make a right, but two bent boards could be joined together to make a straight beam.
Did that analogy hold? It was hard to tell. She knew her own judgment was suspect, but somehow she couldn’t stop herself from reaching out for…
Redemption, whispered the voice inside… the tyrannical voice of hope.
In a short half-hour she was near the crèche entrance. She’d circled behind it first, making sure she could smell any threats, no matter what direction the wind came from.
She was the only sentient for kilometers.
After pausing to inspect the entrance from a distance and finding it undisturbed, she leapt across the ten-meter patch of sand to land at the hidden entrance.
Her fingers found the camouflaged touch-pad and tapped in the combination. Then, with a grunt of exertion, she pulled the 1,000-kilogram boulder away from the entrance. Another keypad allowed her through the armored steel door into the crèche.
This is it, the last one.
Tiana now had the locations and codes for all the other chambers in the crèche system HumanaH had built over the last 125 years, but this one HumanaH had kept to herself. The reason for that had remained unclear to her over the last three years. But then an idea had taken root in her.
And now she was here.
On the edge of a precipice.
HumanaH paused before the chrysalis. It was ripe, ready to come forth, only a month away from auto-awakening.
The latest mission Tiana had assigned ShwydH and HumanaH would take them away from here for months, perhaps years. Now was her only chance.
This morning, when HumanaH had awakened still rattling from her dream of the narrow, water-filled cave in Maryland and electric shocks coursing through the water into her body—her mind was clear on what to do.
Considering the investment tied up in this still empty branch—and the possible consequences if the gamble failed—HumanaH shuddered but then straightened her shoulders and strode to the crystal-loading chamber above the chrysalis.
The chamber opened when she stroked her hand over its covering. She removed the first pod from her bagua and used it to replace the one in the chamber.
When it was out, HumanaH turned the old pod in her hand. She’d placed it there in 1933, and it contained all her life’s memories up until that time. She recalled the person she’d been then, running with Edward across a country in the grip of the Great Depression—running from the niiaH’s hunters.
Now the so-called Great Depression seemed like a vacation.
She tucked away the old pod and spliced the new one into the matrix. Next, she teased out a new thread from the chamber and connected that to the matrix as well. She removed a second pod from her bagua—this one contained much more recorded memory—and set it to reload the crystal after the first pod had released its engrams into the brain’s synapses. Then, she set the pod to begin the wake-up cycle after the memories transmitted.
From her middle finger, she fed a single filament into the circuit to run a test, making certain the connections were strong. When both pods returned a positive feedback loop, she closed the chamber.
Moving to the chest against the wall next to the wardrobe, HumanaH opened the lid, removed an envelope and replaced it with another. She added more contents from her pack before closing the chest.
On her way to the shower stall, she took a sharp-tipped permanent marker from a pocket in the pack. She wrote on the door in large nii script and followed the message with the current human date and time. She signed it and left the marker on the ledge of the wardrobe door, but immediately changed her mind and first took it back to the shower to write a postscript.
After a final lingering look at the chrysalis, she left the crèche, locked the door and shoved the boulder back in place.
After erasing the scars of the boulder’s tracks through the sand, she turned and leapt to the nearby rocks. The sand before the opening would show no sign of her passage.
For a while, she paused to listen and let the smells of the surrounding environment drift to her. The sun was not yet up; the desert was cool and quiet. She would take another circuit around the crèche before returning to the bike.
Amelie and Darmien would enjoy the chance to stretch their legs. At least she still had the memories of them.
One by one, Kaitlin wiped down the covers of the books she’d been reading over the past two weeks and slipped them back into the plastic Kroger shopping bag. Last to go in was the big disappointment, Thick Face, Black Heart. Her mouth turned up at the corner as it went into the bag.
Cool title though.
Maybe it lost something in the translation, but it sure took a lot of pages to say, ‘You have to be ruthless and not care what others think to get what you want’.
Preachin’ to the choir on that, Reverend Chu.
It seemed most of the book was concerned with justifying that premise., and it wasn’t anything Nicolo Machievelli hadn’t said in The Prince, four hundred years before Thick Black Theory.
The blurb that connected the book to The Art of War had convinced Kaitlin to give it a chance. She’d read the entire book, just to see if there were any nuggets to help her with winning her own wars. The best she had found was, A knife has great utility, and, without it, life would be extremely inconvenient. Yet a knife is also a deadly weapon.
To her way of thinking, the deadly weapon part was what held the greatest utility. Kaitlin checked to make sure Blondie was clear in the higher right pocket of her cargo shorts.
Kaitlin was well-read enough in Psychology to know that Mr. Matthews—the school psychologist who’d tried every week of her ninth grade year to get her to talk about what was bothering her—would probably consider Blondie a crime trophy. But Kaitlin preferred thinking of her as a rescued pet. The other prisoners in her step-father’s high-dollar knife collection had gone to better homes but had also brought in needed currency to help fund Kaitlin’s escape.
She’d stopped reading self-help and pop psych books lately. There had been a few helpful concepts she’d uncovered, but most of them seemed to have no understanding of what kept people chained in their minds.
The ones that did, she read twice.
Kaitlin put her things in her backpack, sliding the tablet and Bluetooth keyboard into the foil-lined layer where she kept the books she ‘checked out’ from the libraries she visited. Without the special section in her pack, she wouldn’t be able to get the books past the scanners at the door, and otherwise she’d never be able to read a paper book outside of library hours. Her other reading site, for when she had to find something obscure, was good old B&N with free access for all titles within their Wi-Fi range.
Since it was almost time for the library to open, she finished her coffee and left the McDonalds, tossing the cup in the trash as she exited. The library was a short trek across a parking lot, and she emptied the books from the plastic bag into the after-hours bin as she passed. As usual, she kept her hoodie pulled over her face and her unruly red hair when passing the security cameras.
Her ride out of town was leaving in an hour, so she stopped by the ATM, withdrew the $300 maximum from her account then caught the city bus to the stop closest to the address the people offering the ride had texted her.
She spotted another ATM and decided to stock up on cash since it was convenient, again, using the techniques she’d learned online to avoid being identified on camera. Though Kaitlin really didn’t need to hide anymore, since she was on her way back to Dallas to file for emancipated minor status, but she didn’t have a reason to stop using the habits that had kept her safe enough and off the grid for two years.
She wasn’t about to worry that her mother might contest it. Kaitlin was more than willing to drag Dan into court to show cause that the home environment was unsuitable. Kaitlin even had the name of a good lawyer in Dallas if it came to that. But it wouldn’t. She knew what motivated her mother, and that motivation would keep her from trying to rein Kaitlin back in.
Kaitlin sighed. The situation illustrated the point that your opponent’s fear was your own ally, and Kaitlin knew how strong her ally was. She had seen its power in her mother’s face for years.
Kaitlin pushed her long even stride to her fastest walk on the way to the modest ranch house in the suburbs outside of Atlanta where the church network had scored the rideshare to Dallas for her. It was an older couple heading out west to visit their grandkids during summer vacation.
Last week, Kaitlin had an extended phone chat with the woman, Beatrice Handy, a retired science teacher. No red flags came up during the talk, and Kaitlin’s story about traveling home from visiting friends went down without comment. Beatrice was more interested in talking about what Kaitlin’s interests were than her situation and family. When she’d learned Kaitlin was a writer who was actually paid for what she published, Beatrice vowed to go online and buy some of her books so they would have something else to chat about on the drive. “If she wanted to..,” Beatrice had said.
Kaitlin had warned Beatrice that her latest series was written for young adults, they weren’t kid’s books and included some rough-edged material and language. Beatrice had just chuckled. “I may be old, but I’m not made of glass. Honestly, Kaitlin, in every generation, young people think they invented sex, swearing and violence.”
When Kaitlin rang the doorbell, a tall, older man answered, looking down at her with eyes framed by white, bushy eyebrows only a few inches below the top of the doorway.
“Mr. Handy?” Kaitlin said.
“Good morning, and yes I am,” he said.
“I’m Kaitlin. I spoke with Beatrice on the phone last week about the rideshare.”
“Of course, of course. Come in,” he said. “I’m sorry, I was expecting someone older than you after reading your book. Beatrice said I had to and I’m glad I did.” He opened the door and stepped aside. “You certainly led your characters on a harrowing ride in that one.” He chuckled, turning to face down the hall. “Beatrice, our young author has arrived.”
“Well bring her in for breakfast, Bernard.” Footsteps sounded in the hall then a bustle of Beatrice came around the corner toward the door.
So that’s what ‘spry’ looks like.
Kaitlin made some mental notes. Most of her characters were younger. There weren’t many older people in her life to draw on for inspiration.
“Welcome, Kaitlin,” Bernice said, reaching out with both hands to clasp Kaitlin’s in a warm, firm welcome. “I made a batch of Welsh tea cakes, and they just came out of the oven. They can come along with us too for snacks on the way. How do you like your tea, dear?”
Kaitlin, sensed the right answer wasn’t ‘sweet and iced’—even though it seemed that was the only way anyone drank it where she’d grown up. She smiled. “In a cup with good company,” she said, using a phrase she usually applied to coffee.
“Oh, I can see you don’t save all your good words for your stories. Come in and sit down for a few minutes. Bernard has the bus all ready to go, but let’s sit down for a minute and we’ll see how my teacakes turned out. They should be cool enough to eat now.”
Kaitlin pulled her arms out of her backpack and set it by the door.
“I hope you aren’t allergic to eggs, wheat or currants?” Beatrice said.
“No ma’am,” said Kaitlin, taking a chance on the currants, which she didn’t remember ever eating. “It smells wonderful.”
She followed Beatrice into the dining room. The table was set with fine china and much more than just tea and cakes.
Beatrice bustled around the table.”Since we are traveling I thought we’d just have a continental breakfast and bring along all the leftovers,” she said. “Would you like some granola? I can’t drink dairy milk, but we have some they make from almonds now, if you care for any.” Kaitlin sensed the right thing to do was to let Bernice feed her. Though Kaitlin made sure to select plates and utensils that weren’t the first available and only ate what she’d seen them eat first. It didn’t stop her from enjoying the teacakes with the hot tea. She could see how someone might think tea was an acceptable alternative to coffee, provided you could have these incredible cakes at the same time.
As tea and cakes continued to disappear, and their conversation branched out, Kaitlin noted that Bernice was treating her with unusual deference. After thinking about it, she concluded that, her series of Young Adult novels—that paid for food and clothes while Kaitlin traveled under the radar—represented something besides a portable job in Bernice’s mind.
To Bernice, Kaitlin was a celebrity.
Kaitlin had been writing since she was thirteen. She wrote what she liked to read—gritty stories about teens struggling with their problems. Even after she’d abandoned hope of staying with her mother and chosen the life of a runaway instead of suffering Dan’s sexual advances and attempts to corner her, she would find a coffee house somewhere and pound out stories on her cheap Android tablet and Bluetooth keyboard.
That was how she’d met Brian.
Kaitlin had been on her way south, but had holed up in a little downtown coffee shop in a town in the middle of Virginia, trapped by an early snowstorm and cold snap. The group she was travelling with at the time, catching rides in boxcars, had decided to stay in a traveler community nearby. Kaitlin, unsure of her safety there, had decided to move on, but, she’d waited too long, and now she wasn’t sure which way to jump.
Traveling with cold or frozen water falling on your head sucked.
On her way back from the bathroom—in between cups of coffee—she’d noticed the book lying on the table where a guy was working at a laptop by himself. He’d been there all afternoon, attacking the keyboard.
She wasn’t sure why she stopped, but she’d just read that book the day before at the library where she’d been haunting the Young Adult section.
“Hey, I just read that book at the library yesterday,” she said. Maybe she’d grown too used to being around people from traveling in a group. Normally she wouldn’t have taken a chance on talking to a stranger, but she’d been watching him, off and on, for hours and hadn’t gotten a bad vibe from him.
He looked up and met her eyes. “Oh? Was it any good?”
Kaitlin pursed her lips and tapped her finger on her wrist. “I liked it that the author didn’t talk down to the reader, even though it was written for a younger audience,” Kaitlin said.
The man nodded. “Yeah, I hate it when they do that.”
Kaitlin spent a second sizing him up further. He didn’t dress in a business suit or business casual the way most of the weekday traffic did in this coffee house. Instead, he wore jeans, and a tie-died tee shirt peeked out from the collar of his black hoodie. She’d seen him here before too. He seemed too old to be a student at any of the nearby colleges
“Why is it on your table though?” she said. “It’s written for teens and you aren’t reading it. The binding hasn’t even been opened.”
The man grinned, white teeth splitting his sun-browned face. “Busted!” he said. “I’ll tell you why, but you have to promise to keep it quiet.”
She grinned in reply and nodded.
He pushed out a chair for her to sit down. “The evangelical college in town has a witnessing class as part of their curriculum,” he said. They send students around to coffee houses in the area to sell religion. They don’t usually believe me when I say I have enough already. Even though I pretty much believe what they do, it seems I still have to pass a quiz. I tried pointing out that their methods were alienating people rather than converting them, but that didn’t work either. It got to where it was keeping me from working. So now, when they ask if they can sit down, I change the subject from religion to books and sell them one of mine. They either buy or leave. I have no idea how many of them read the books, but I invite them to come back and discuss it when they’ve finished. A few actually did come back to talk, but only one had given up on trying to get me to come to their church.”
Kaitlin laughed then paused. “Wait a minute,” she said. “You mean you wrote that book?”
“Yeah, and I donated two copies to the library. My name is Brian, by the way.”
“That’s not the name on the cover.”
“I use a pen name. I promote my books, not my personal identity.”
Kaitlin pursed her lips. “My name is Kaitlin,” she said, surprising herself by using her real name instead of her street name.
It’s only a first name. It wouldn’t help anyone track her down, and this guy seemed okay.
“Pleased to meet you, Kaitlin,” Brian said. “I’ve seen you here before. What are you working on?”
“Um,” Kaitlin said, summoning her courage. “I write stories.”
“Cool! What are you doing with them after you write them?”
Kaitlin shrugged. “I’m not sure. I guess I’m saving them for now.”
Brian nodded. “Do you mind if I read a few pages? There aren’t many writers in this town.”
Kaitlin bit her lip then nodded. She had a handful of burner emails; she could use one of those. “Can you write down your email?”
Brian pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to her.
The pen name was on the card along with some blurbs about his writing and his email.
Kaitlin walked back to her tablet, selected a short story she’d finished two days ago and fired it off to the email addy on the card with a note.
Let me know if you want to talk about it when you’re done.
Brian held up his thumb.
Kaitlin looked out the window, watching the snow plummeting from the darkening gray sky and piling up on the street. She frowned. Getting back to her tent in the woods by the river would be easy enough, but she’d leave tracks that would show until the snow covered them. She didn’t like leaving a trail for predators to follow. For six months, she’d been mostly on her own, but she was running low on cash and needed to get further south fast. No way was she going to hop the freights by herself. She used her browser to check the price of Amtrak tickets to Atlanta. She called the station to confirm the price, but she was nine dollars short unless she broke into her emergency cushion, and the train didn’t leave until 6 AM anyway. Her stomach sank a little.
Her tablet pinged. Brian had sent back an email.
Kaitlin picked up her tablet and keyboard and carried them with her. She sat, feeling oddly vulnerable.
“I liked this,” Brian said. “Do you stick to short stories, or do you have longer stuff too?”
“I didn’t think you had time to read my longer stuff.”
Brian grinned. “Maybe not today, but, judging by this, your writing could make you some money, if you had a good editor, a cover artist and a marketing strategy.”
“Nope. All I have is me,” said Kaitlin, frowning.
“Well, can you show me your portfolio of stories and describe them? We can go from there.”
“We may have to do that another time,” Kaitlin said. “I need to go before the snow gets too deep.”
Brian looked up and smiled as the entrance bell to the coffee shop tinkled. “Hang on just a second,” he said.
“Hey, Dad.” said someone behind her. Kaitlin turned to see a twentyish girl with snow sticking to her long eyelashes, melting on her wavy, blonde hair and dripping onto her black, knee-high Doc Martins.
“So, what is so important you dragged me out in this weather, and who is your friend?”
Brian pulled a chair back for the girl. “Kaitlin, this is my daughter Marlee. Marlee, this is Kaitlin, a potential client. She’s been riding with the travelers, but she’s decided to go out on her own and was about to head for warmer weather. I was hoping you could convince her to stick around.”
“What are you? A modern Sherlock Holmes?” said Kaitlin. .
“Pshaw! That was an easy one, not even elementary,” Brian said. “You don’t get rid of boxcar grime without some serious laundry and scrubbing, and with this weather, if you were planning on staying with the travelers, you’d be wherever they are camping now. Plus I heard you calling Amtrak ”
Brian turned to Marlee. “Kaitlin needs a place to stay, and you need a paying roommate. With her advance on her stories, Kaitlin can split your rent, and she’ll need your graphic arts skills when her work is ready to publish.”
Kaitlin studied Brian, eyes narrowed, then looked at Marlee.
“Umm, hi, Kaitlin,” Marlee said. “I’m a good roommate. The common area needs to stay clean and neat, but you can keep your room how you like it. It’s a basement apartment, but it’s dry and warm. No overnight guests allowed. It’s just too complicated. Your share would only be ninety-five dollars a month.”
Kaitlin rubbed her hands on her face. This was too weird. But it was snowing and cold, and a month’s rent was less than a trip to Atlanta. “You know, you are the ones taking a chance here,” she said. “You don’t know I’m not some psycho-klepto horror story.”
Brian snorted. “People say the eyes are the window to the soul, but eyes don’t compare to writing.” He pointed to his computer screen. No one writes a story like this unless they have the heart of a hero.”
That night—warm, clean and well fed—Kaitlin looked out the window of her new room and watched the snow piling up in drifts under the moonlight. Somehow—just then—it looked beautiful.
Chapter 1 — AMAZING
The bright blue sun of the dymba home world made the waves on the beach below glisten with cobalt splendor. Riniana Tiana drank in the glorious sight from where she stood on the escarpment of the plateau. She whirled, spinning and spinning, just to drink in the blues of the grasslands on one side and the wetter blues of the ocean on the other. Already it had been a perfect day, and now the evening would have sailing.
“The days are so long here, Rinia mother,” she said, pausing her whirling dance. “I’m so sleepy, but I wish I didn’t need to take a nap so I wouldn’t fall asleep on the sailboat. It seems a shame to waste this lovely day sleeping.”
Rinia mother swished her tail, cracking it in amusement. “From what I’ve heard, my daughter, the nights are not to be missed either. They say that at night, when the calm comes to the ocean, the stars are so bright when they reflect from the water you feel you are sailing through space.”
“May Darmien and Amelie come too? I bet dymba would like to sail. It’s too bad they don’t have opposable thumbs. But, acta vila! They can jump. They jump even higher than us, and I thought nii were the best jumpers ever.”
Riniana Tiana whirled again, soaking in the blues while the sun still shone. “Darmien and Amelie showed me and Telonia Tiana a jumping game. It was amazing! They both run at a cliff and jump at it so they bounce off together and go even higher. Then they link their front legs and turn so their back feet come together—WHILE THEY ARE IN THE AIR—and push off each other. Whoosh, they shoot away, spinning like tops. Then they land in the grass. It was fissionous! Telonia Tiana and I tried it, and we took a while to get it right, but we did. Still, we couldn’t go as high as they did, but we spun faster. Then Amelie and I tried it, and she pushed me SO FAR. It was like LAUNCHING! ESCAPE VELOCITYYYY!”
She stopped spinning for moment and turned to Rinia mother again. “Well?”
“I will ask the herd representative if that would be acceptable, my daughter, but they may not say yes. The herd is protective of their young and the ocean is an unknown environment for them. Also Darmien and Amelie might not be comfortable getting out in all that water with no grass nearby.”
“Pfhibbt!” Riniana Tiana snorted like a dymba. “I don’t think they would be afraid. Dymba are great swimmers. We played in the waves for ever so long yesterday. Can we take a nap here? The grass is soft, I’m ever so tired, and the breeze feels AMAZING.”
“I suppose that would be fine,” Rinia mother said. “I’m sleepy too. Rinia father and I had a productive discussion with the herd council, but it was also long. Dymba take their time deciding. Why don’t you pick a spot for us? I’ll wake us up when it’s time to go meet Rinia father and Telonia Tiana for sailing.”
“I like this place here,” Riniana Tiana said. “This rock blocks the wind just right, and I can watch the waves until I fall asleep.”
“Then here it will be,” Rinia mother said, linking tails with her daughter.
“Oh yes! Spin me and throw me far before we sleep. That will be perfect!”
“One time, but we move away from the cliff first. Even really good jumpers like you and Amelie might not enjoy landing after that much of a drop.”
The tail throw was AMAZING too, but so was being held from behind by Rinia mother and watching the cobalt waves dashing on the rocky beach. “Best day ever,” she breathed, wrapping her tail around Rinia mother’s leg and closing her eyes.
“Is it time yet?” she tried to say. Muffled voices, came from around her, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. It must be time for sailing soon though. It was ever so dark. She hoped the sky wasn’t so cloudy that they couldn’t see the stars because she wanted to feel like she was flying through space without a ship.
The sound of voices continued, but they were just making nonsense sounds. Something covered her eyes. Not only her eyes, but every bit of her, as if she were wrapped in a snug blanket. THAT was not a happy thing, and she didn’t think it was FUNNY! If Telonia Tiana had rolled her up in something, she had better run!
Riniana Tiana fought to get her hands to her face. The nonsense noises continued, but the stuff wrapping her was getting looser, wetter. At last, one of her hands broke through, and she reached up to tear the stuff away from her eyes. At least she could breathe through the stuff. She wasn’t sure she had been a few seconds ago. Someone was helping her, making reassuring sounds, but they weren’t speaking any language she knew. IT WAS SCARY! Maybe someone BAD had taken her away from Rinia mother, but Rinia mother was VERY strong. Riniana Tiana didn’t understand how that could happen on the dymba homeworld.
She could almost reach her face. With all her strength, she heaved, and her arm broke through to the elbow joint. With her fingers, she snagged the soggy material covering her face, ripping a chunk of the stuff away. Somehow, pieces had worked into her mouth, and she spat them out. As she pulled at the material, something else came free that had been stuck in her nose. At last, her lower face was clear.
“IF YOU DON’T LET ME GO, RINIA MOTHER WILL KILL YOU… TWICE, AND I WILL BE GLAD.”
The voices grew silent. There, she had scared them. Now they would let her go.
“Symbiana,” said a female voice speaking nii soft and clear. “Only hold still a moment and I will get the crèche to the end of its release sequence.”
“My name is Riniana Tiana, not Symbiana. Symbiana doesn’t even MEAN anything. You have the wrong sentient, now LET ME GO!”
“I can’t get you out until the crèche SHUTS DOWN. Now hold still or you might hurt yourself.”
Riniana Tiana stopped struggling for a moment, the voice sounded almost like Rinia mother’s. A crèche? But those were just experiments. Nobody had used one yet.
Was I dead?
“Now keep your eyes closed, so the reagent doesn’t get in them or it will sting.”
“Yes, healer,” Riniana Tiana said. “I apologize. I did not know what was happening.”
Another voice spoke, but, once again, the words meant nothing to her.
“What planet is your assistant from, healer? Could you …” She sniffed to detect the odor of the gender.
Testosterone, a male mammal.
“… ask him to speak a language I know?”
The healer said something in the strange language.
Liquid continued spraying; Riniana Tiana felt it through the stuff that wrapped her skin now. The stuff was turning from a fabric to a gel. The liquid the healer was soaking the material with now hit her skin directly.
“Is my family…?” Before she could finish the question, the fear of an answer pushed it back down.
Gentle fingers wiped at her face and a warm trickle of water poured over her head and down her body. The trickle changed to a stream and with it, the delicate scrubbing of a soft brush massaged her skin like the tongue of a shepherd cat. The sensation was soothing, and right now, she needed that…, and she needed Rinia mother.
“You can open your eyes now,” said the voice of the female nii healer.
Riniana Tiana lifted gummy eyelids and blinked.
“Keep your eyes open while I rinse them.” The healer’s voice was clear though her image was still blurry.
Salty water dripped into Riniana Tiana’s eyes, and she blinked to get the gummy stuff out of her eyelids. The healer stopped dripping the water in her eyes, and her face swam into clarity. The healer looked almost like Rinia mother, but her smell was different in a few markers.
“Are you one of my family?” Riniana Tiana said.
“I am. My name is Senana Tiana, I am a fleet naval captain and ambassador to one of the governing bodies of the planet Earth, and you and I are branch sisters.” With her chin, she pointed at the male humanoid. “This is Edward, a symbiont partner of another of our branch sisters. His species calls themselves yshoomahn. What is the last thing you remember before you woke?”
Riniana Tiana answered as she looked around the white-tiled room and at the pale-skinned yshoomahn standing by the healer. “I was on the dymba home-world where Rinia mother and Rinia father had been assigned as ambassadors to the dymba herd. Telonia Tiana and I met Darmien and Amelie and we played a jumping game. Then Rinia mother and I walked back to camp. We decided to take a nap before sailing in the evening when I would get to see stars reflecting in the water so it would be like sailing through space.”
“You were almost five cycles old then. It will be necessary to examine your brain where the memory crystal is stored so I can understand why that is all you remember. Do I have permission to do that?” she said, taking a step forward. But, she stopped when Riniana Tiana held up a hand.
“First, tell me where my family is. What happened? Why aren’t they here? What is a branch sister, anyway? You smell like family, but I’ve never heard of you.” Riniana Tiana pushed herself to a sitting position on the platform.
“I will explain. Riniana Tiana, your last memory of that day on the dymba home-world was long ago. Crèche technology was still in its early stages and had never been attempted yet. The memories you have now are from another of our branch sisters. An older branch sister builds your body from their own with advanced cloning techniques and nurtures that body in a crèche like the one you are sitting in now. They transfer their memories to the younger branch sister with a memory crystal. This we do to save centians of valuable memory experience. It is important to save the knowledge and skills because we have been at war with a deadly foe for over ten centians.”
“Are Rinia mother and Rinia father still alive? What about Telonia Tiana and everyone else I know?”
Senana Tiana’s scent changed to let a hint of troubled spirit leak through, but it recovered in a moment, leaving behind only a hint of worry. “I do not know, Riniana Tiana. It is possible. Our path has been severed from our people for over a centian. We came to this world to fight the enemy of the Nii Confederacy I mentioned. Rinia mother and Rinia father and the rest of our family may have branches still surviving, but I do not know. I hope someday we will find them alive and well, with the war at an end. Do I have permission to examine you now?”
Riniana Tiana thought, fighting to keep her feelings under control. What she had to do now was make the right decision. Rinia mother and Rinia father were not here to look after her, but she had what they had taught her. “You may examine me, but you must change nothing without asking me first. Do you acknowledge this stipulation?”
“I acknowledge; I will change nothing without your permission.”
“Proceed,” Riniana Tiana said, lying back on the platform.
Senana Tiana stepped forward and grasped Riniana Tiana’s head in a confident brain-scanning hold. The filaments from beneath the healer’s fingernails extended into Riniana Tiana’s nasal passages and higher, tickling as they went. Riniana Tiana held still with the control she’d been taught from her earliest cycles. Her thoughts still swirled, considering everything she’d heard, but she had shunted her emotions into a holding place. Would it hold until she had time to deal with them? Not knowing about her family was causing her stomach to jump despite the lockdown.
A few moments later, her branch sister’s filaments retracted from her brain and returned, once again.
“The connection is still solid,” said Senana Tiana. “But at your physical age, the synapses could not handle the amount of information stored there. That would not have been an issue if your body had gone through a longer period of maturation before we triggered the crèche to wake you. Your branch sister had to make modifications to the crystal for it to hold all her memories. Ten centians of memory was more than the original crystal was designed for. She had no way to test the interface. I can put you to sleep and adjust the neural network so the memories can download. It should not be too difficult.”
“Negation,” said Riniana Tiana. “Negation, negation, negation.”
“Would you deprive your people and their allies the value of her memories?”
Riniana Tiana sat up again. “Are we still at war on this planet, branch sister?”
Senana Tiana hesitated, folding her hands in front of her. “Not right now. The situation is unstable, but the enemy we pursued here has been neutralized.”
“Will these memories disappear from the crystal if I decide later to let you make the changes?”
“What will happen if the synapses are left alone?”
“You may experience more memories returning, at a slower rate, as your brain matures, though it would need to be in sleep cycle for it to happen. It will come a bit at a time.”
“But if you return all the memories now, I will not be me anymore. I will be the person who made the memory crystal. All that will be left of me are the few moments of memories from the things now happening.”
“But I,” she pointed to her head, then her heart, “will be gone.”
“Strange,” said Senana Tiana. “I don’t remember being such a philosopher when I was your age.”
“Well you didn’t go through what I just did either, did you? How would you have had the chance? Did anyone ever threaten to erase you when you were my age?” She pulled her lips back from her teeth, defiance.
“I respect and abide by your decision as a sentient being,” Senana Tiana said. Then, she turned to the yshoomahn, but hesitated, turning back to Riniana Tiana. “Edward does not speak nii, so I will need to speak to him in his language.”
Riniana Tiana jerked her chin forward to give consent.
Senana Tiana spoke to the yshoomahn Edward for some time. Edward’s odor faded into sadness and the exchange grew louder as water trickled from his eyes. With a deep groan, he turned and ran from the domed white-tiled room.
“What did he say?” said Riniana Tiana. “Why was he upset?”
“Because he misses the person who made the memory crystal very much.”
“And, what did he say?”
“That is not mine to tell you.”
“I will just learn to speak his language then I will know what he said.”
“Perhaps by then you will understand why he said what he did.” Senana Tiana’s dark eyes regarded her with calm resolve.
“Where did she go? The one who made the crystal. You spoke like she was still alive.”
Then water filled Senana Tiana’s eyes too, but she swiped it away. “She had her reasons. They are not mine to tell either.”
Riniana Tiana paused. It was clear something not happy had occurred. She would wait. Learning the reasons for not happy things was almost never rewarding.
“Come, sister,” Senana Tiana said, holding out her hand. “You must be hungry.”
“It is true,” Riniana Tiana said.
“Also, I remember loving music at your age almost as much as I do now. Would you like to see and hear the most wonderful musical instrument in the universe?”
“YES!” she shouted. “Is it as AMAZING as sailing on the ocean at night on the dymba home-world?”
“When that memory comes to you then you can judge for yourself,” Senana Tiana said then made a musical noise that breathed of joy. Her fragrance became even more amazing as her mood markers grew lighter.
“Oh! What was that you did? It made you happier. Was it a kind of song?”
“It is called laughing and is a thing humans do that I learned here on Earth.”
“Will you teach me?”
“Of course. If I can learn it, then so can you.”
“Oh, thank you.” She struggled to stand. Senana Tiana’s hand flew out to steady her on her wobbling legs. Her body was MUCH bigger now. She would have to teach it how to behave though.
“Is it like making water come to your eyes? Does that make you feel better too?”
“Sometimes, child. Sometimes is the answer to both questions. But you will see.”
“What is the musical instrument called? Will you teach me to play it?”
“It is called a PEEAHNO, and I will teach you.”
“It sounds AMAZING.”
She was not disappointed—at least about the piano—and that was enough for now.