Beyond The Warmth Of Home
A story by Cesium, Edited by Infalle. © 2009
A low, dying scream slid down the halls.
It crawled through her ears like the scrabbling legs of a cockroach.
As if in fevered sleep she stumbled along the narrow steel corridors of the space port, fingers tracing along teeth of cold steel that jutted out from the maw of the hallway.
Fluorescent tubes bathed the red walls in their harsh glare.
Dried blood spilled over chipped insignia that had been carved into the steel, forgotten names of those space-faring giants whose corpses now sheltered her life.
If this iron hell could be called a shelter.
She paused in her fevered run, grabbing a loose cable for balance as the world swung beneath her feet.
It was starting again.
For a mere moment the blood on the walls was fresh; the cable in her hand a cut vein, rubbery and wet. She dropped it, tottering back over the putrefying flesh that covered the floor like vomit.
In some corner of her crazed mind she yearned for oblivion.
She choked back bile, her stomach uncaring whether it was part of this broken world or her shattered mind and watched in shaking silence as the flesh and blood dripped away until her world was washed back into it's original filth.
This was why she was exiled here. Her reassignment a bitter mercy, like a battlefield amputation.
Back to the wall she slid down and placed her forehead against her knees.
A broken wreck.
Honoured Associate, they called her. It was a sick joke.
But it was all just fears.
Ain cursed the morning.
Fluorescent tubes flickered into life, the harsh light glaring. She raised her arm to shield her eyes and rolled out of the old sheets that stunk of vodka and sweat.
Her cot grumbled its old complaint, a creaky sigh to greet another day.
She sat on the edge of the bed for a few seconds and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She spat, then steadied her breathing in an attempt to reduce the pounding in her skull.
It took five minutes, but in the end she managed to assemble her plan for the day in spite of the hangover.
Get up. Brush teeth. Man station. Get drunk until bedtime.
Same as every day.
She pushed herself onto her feet, swayed, then groped her way to the bathroom.
Until recently she used to go to ship's gym, but after suffering a violent episode there she really couldn't face it. Not with all the equipment there.
A few pounds more or less. Who cared?
She glanced down at her feet. She could see them, so that was okay, even if her black and electric blue fur patterning made her headache even worse.
Gritting her teeth, she steadied her nausea and turned on the water, letting it sputter over her brush. Toothpaste. She began to scrub her fangs. They were long and white and rather too large for her jackal skull, but then the Nalis hadn't been entirely conservative in her design.
In fact, her whole design simply said 'fuck you' to both evolution and caution.
As a result she had three livers, two hearts and a left arm that was only good for tearing out vital organs.
She also had some other problems.
It wasn't fun, living other people's nightmares.
So she lived in this little automated outpost in the middle of dead space.
At least here she only had to deal with her own.
She spat out the toothpaste, thankful that the cloying paste washed away some of the sickly taste of her mouth.
Wiping it, she pressed an old intercom button, the plastic rasping in its slot.
"Malice, status report,"
The A.I. took a while to respond. When it finally did it's voice dripped with a sort of deadpan cheerfulness. "Today we have jack shit, with a 95.8% chance of jack shit this afternoon. Looking at the five day forecast we have a steady trend of jack shit all throughout the Outpost 62 area. Back to you, Ain!"
"Asshole." she replied with a snort before silencing the intercom with her fist.
It was her job to look after Malice.
It was Malice's job to look after her and this little pocket of space, far in the outer-reaches of the Nalis's control.
He followed the latter with perverse glee, especially ever since he wrote Astroid Protocol 72-1. It authorized him to shoot down anything that was over five grams and contained nickel.
She went back to her room and, albeit briefly, considered changing out of her stained nightgown. Malice would tease her about the fall of standards but she really didn't care.
Honoured Associate they called her. That entitled her to the rights of a true Nalis, so she could wear as little clothing as they did, which was none at all.
Never mind that they were machines.
She stepped out of her small steel room and out into the small steel corridor of her small steel home.
Like a sardine can in space.
The halls of Outpost 62 were not a thing to inspire confidence. Shackled together from the salvaged remains of destroyed spaceships, the Nalis went further and twisted the already scarred metal.
Dried blood and thruster burns spattered the walls, jagged and torn bulkheads thrust iron teeth into causeways.
Ain tread carefully along a narrow, winding passage, force of habit letting her lurch out of way of sharp edges almost automatically by now. Amid the ragged holes and dangling cords she shivered, her hand trailing to the back of her neck to smooth down the beginnings of a nervous tingle.
A low, aching creak started to slide throughout the space port; she could almost feel it skitter across her skin.
Her hand clenched reflexively, dirty nightgown and soft fur like a security blanket in her grip.
She breathed faster, the quick, light pant of a cornered rat as the creak built up to wavering keen.
The sound twisting itself into her own dying scream.
They were just fears.
She forced herself forward as quickly as she could make herself move. To hide. To escape.
A shred of paneling fell away with the low sucking of dead flesh. It clanged harshly against the floor, perversely punctuating her rising heartbeats.
Pulsing arteries grew like cracks from the hole it left, dark red and lurid as they spread like the net of a spider. Moving through the walls like maggots through flesh.
She was running now. Fevered. Unsure where she started. Unsure when she'd finally be put down.
They raced after her; lattice-works of bleeding chicken-wire. Guided towards her across the raw, rotting floor by nightmares acting as puppeteers for an abattoir.
Teeth lunged from the walls. Leaping like vipers and shining as white as a new sun.
Ain felt her shoulder split like a seething boil, saliva and pus spurting from her suppurating flesh. She spun and fell, the ground hitting her violently. The stench of bile overcame her.
She stared into the grinning dark. A sea of cutting damp washing over her, into her, invasive tendrils. Hot as pain. Cold as death. Draining the colour from her mind.
Her fingers slammed against the cold steel. Scrape. Broken claws leaving bloody tracks across the metal and reality slipped in through the closing door of insanity like a cat.
It felt like eternity, but Ain stirred. Her head came up from the cold steel floor, eyes meeting the flickering hallway that should be there. Her chipped fingers felt a crack in the wall and she lifted herself up and leaned against it with a groan.
The left side of her body throbbed in time with her pulsed with a multitude of cuts. The dark sheen on her left arm's claws suggesting that her own mad flailing as the cause.
Her breathing started to slow.
"That wasn't so bad," she muttered to herself and took a resolute step forwards, trusting her weight to her legs. They held. "That's a good girl," she crooned gently, "That's right. Just take another step..."
Emboldened, she started to walk.
Vodka. She needed a drink.
The thought sustained her as she forced herself to the control room.
A large set of blast doors barred her way and she slumped against them, her eyes tightly closed. Her fist slammed into the metal.
"Malice," she began, her voice cold, "Let me in."
She didn't have to wait, for once. The doors grinding open almost before she had finished, orange flecks spraying from the old mechanism. Rust stung her nostrils. Malice was always very well behaved after one of her fits; worried that she'd file a euthanasia request and have him saddled with some tightwad who didn't spend half their time sloshed.
Thank the stars for small blessings.
Vodka. She needed a drink.
She made her way over to the control chair and collapsed into it; snatching the clear plastic bottle from under the control desk she tore the neck free with her fangs in single-minded need. Thrusting the shredded channel down her throat she gulped greedily at the painful comfort. The heady burn warming her stomach.
After almost a minute the last dregs slipped easily down her throat and she slammed the empty husk onto the desk. She settled back, letting a heartfelt sigh slip from her lips as the tension left her knotted muscles. Ain sat, waiting, as her thoughts started to slow and dim, keeping the wolf at the door.
Whatever her perverse excuse for a gift was, it couldn't operate with her mind blurred on alcohol.
It was lucky that she had some synthesised for her any time she liked.
Her eyes lidded.
"Malice, I want... I want today to be as uninteresting as posshible," she said, her voice beginning to slur. "That means you don't bitch, and I don't ask questions."
After a long minute, he replied: "Even if it's important?"
The hope in his voice was just too much.
Ain cursed under her breath. "Just what the fuck did you find?"
A low rise and fall of static came through the speakers. Malice was sighing. "There was a patrol vessel."
Ain swore, but Malice hadn't even begun. "It was Stellar Federation. I tried to consult, but you were otherwise... engaged. I managed to destroy them before they could transmit, but there are survivors."
Ain remained quiet for a moment, before hurling the empty bottle across the room. "Fuck. FUCK!"
She buried her face in her hands and scrubbed furiously, bloodshot eyes squeezing tight shut. This would mean an evaluation, minimum. The Achera was probably already on its way. Of course all those poor terrified bastards would be on the station well within her ability to receive. Oh, gods, if the Nalis performed an inquisition on the station...
The mere notion of other people, more fears frightened her more then the nightmares.
She sat stock still for a long while, hunched over and trying hard not to cry. She grabbed another bottle and cradled it to herself before letting the raw spirits gush down her throat.
"The survivors can be retrieved in six days. The Achera is currently on assignment, probably two months minimum for return."
Yet another vodka bottle learned to fly.
Everything had gone wrong.
In fact, everything had categorically gone wrong. A textbook example of a first-encounter gone awry.
Captain Shir Minkfur felt uncomfortable, and it wasn't claustrophobia brought on by the cramped conditions of the escape pod.
This wasn't exactly pleasant, but normal. Shi had been trained for occasions such as this.
Her worry was more ephemeral. Ambiguous. An empathic, creeping malaise like a stormy night outside a bedroom window pane.
It made her want to curl up in a corner and cry; it was only getting worse.
She ran the last few days over in her mind. At least that was distracting.
It all began with that trail of debris. It could have been anything; rubble from a crashed ship, old relics or even a potential first contact.
Shi should have reported back to base, but she had been curious, and followed it like some silly cub stalking a grasshopper. Even now she had to admire the brilliance of it. The trail had led right to a desiccated old carrier, hanging broken and dead in space. It was a rather primitive model, even if it was alien. The missile racks and railguns she'd analysed wouldn't have worried her even if the ship were in mint condition.
It seemed there had been quite a battle. Shattered squadrons of tiny fighters had hung strewn like a nebulae of dead and twisted metal around the carrier, the gleam of a nearby sun creating a partially blinding spectacle of reflections.
Shi didn't pay attention to the tiny sensor anomalies in the wreck as she brought her ship in close in the hopes of identifying it. Old power cores, radiation from torn shielding; easy answers for all of it.
They took Occham's razor and used it to slit her throat.
Shi'd never forget the dull roar of nuclear fury tearing against her ship as the first of the fighters exploded in a rush of yellow fire. Staccato thuds as the old hulks opened fire for one last time.
It was too late to raise shields. Fuselage rent asunder under the onslaught.
It would never have worked if shi had kept her distance; raised hir shields; but they'd known that only the greedy or curious would come so far.
Neither would expect an ambush. At least not from the corpses that lured them.
Beautiful, in a sick sort of way.
Shi had run, fleeing down the halls as the Riviera died around hir, Shi'd have gone down with it, clung to the ship as it tore apart in an attempt to do something, anything, but hir heart was held by another, and so shi clung to life.
So shi sat in the small metal escape pod, hir navigator asleep against her shoulder. Hir first mate was staring at hir with an ocean's worth of concern.
"You can't blame yourself," he said simply.
"I don't! How many times do I have to tell you that, Jarah?" shi practically snarled back, shaking her head to dispel the visions of her destroyed ship. All her dead crew.
"It doesn't take an empath to see you are hurting, Shir."
Jarah was a good officer, Minkfur thought. Inventive and more level-headed than Rakshani reputation lead most to believe. It was a pity his cast-iron spine meant that shi butted heads with him more often then shi liked.
Shi didn't blame hirself, of course, but shi wasn't about to change hir tune just because he continued to believe otherwise.
Captains lived with their decisions.
Indecision was a pathetic excuse to attempt to live a blameless life.
Jarah shook his head imperceptibly as shi remained silent, calmly turning to look out through the cockpit while their captors towed them into uncertainty.
N'irs, their navigator, stirred on Minkfur's shoulder and nuzzled into the soft grey fur there – the source of the chakat's namesake. Hir head tilted until shi rested it against the little Caitan, feeling her anger ebb away.
Shi actually managed a smile.
N'irs was all blue eyes and brown hair which made it heard to believe that such disarming shyness could harbour a fierce heart.
Where Jarah was serene, the caitian was ruled by her emotions and had a tongue to match.
Minkfur's thoughts were promptly dashed by a soft impact that rocked the pod. A gentle sigh managed to struggle past the heavy exit hatch.
"It seems we have arrived," Jerah commented quietly. Minkfur chewed her lower lip. Situations such as these were never good for empaths: feeling all the fright only made her own worse.
The airlock slid open after a few moments of its own accord, the pod's subroutines obviously overridden by whatever they were forced to dock with.
The heavy metal doors hissed open. The air stirred as the stink of whatever lay beyond rushed in.
"Ye gods!" swore N'irs, waking up with jolt. The putrid air could have woken the dead and killed them again moments later.
"Where the hell are we?" Minkfur whispered, swallowing back bile. Nobody answered her.
"Well... we'd better go out..." shi added, trying to look calm and certain. She was still the Captain, after all.
She peeked out from around the airlock and saw hell.
There was no other word for it. Torn titanium jutted from scorched bulkheads, the ends melted down and hanging in beaded strings like the effluent of a bloody candle.
Rime smeared the ground, dried blood filling the cracks in the roughly hatched floor.
Jerah stepped forwards, his strong form blocking the exit hatch. Walling out the nightmare.
Bless the Rakshani. Some things just called for a warrior.
"I don't understand this," he stated. His voice remained calm as ever, but his hand strayed close to his sidearm. He was nervous, and that frightened Minkfur more then anything else.
"If there was someone here," he continued, frowning, "They would have cleaned the floors. Fixed the damage. If there aren't, then why? Why bring us here?"
"Automation?" N'irs piped up, practically cowering behind Minkfur's bulk. "I mean…" she paused to swallow nervously as Minkfur turned round to look at her, "What if the trap was automated? That would explain the lack of any life signs – just left it there to drag back anyone it catches."
"I hope not," Jerah muttered darkly, his ears flicking. "Dragged out here, stranded on some scrap-metal graveyard that barely has working life-support…" he glanced back, his eyes shadowed and grim. "We're too far out for patrols to find us. Even if the ship is still working I doubt there is a working replicator nor enough biomass to feed a rat on this hulk."
He looked back into the desecrated hallway and raised an eyebrow. "Unless we use corpses..."
"There's always each other," came a low chuckle that reverberated out of the dark.
Jerah pulled out his sidearm in a nervous blur, training alone keeping him from opening fire. His eyes were wide and staring, trying to pierce the darkness that hung cloying in the recesses of the fetid hallway.
"Who's out there?" he shouted, his voice echoing off the walls.
"No-one," the shadows answered. "Well, no-one of any consequence. I'm sorry, I'm being a horrible host,"
The voice sounded female, and honestly contrite, sounding out from the remnants of the onboard intercom.
"You know," the voice continued, "I forgot how good it feels to talk someone. To listen to something warm and bloody. Thank you." The bizarre apology ended with a sharp giggle.
Minkfur and N'irs exchanged looks. After a long moment, the chakat stood up and put a hand on Jerah's shoulder, pulling him to the side a little. She had earned her command by being able to use her empathic ability to stop disputes before they even arose. Time to earn her keep one more time. Clearing her throat she spoke:
"It's no trouble at all, really! Can you please tell me your name?"
Finally a sigh echoed down the hall. "It's Ain. Sorry, I'm being weird. Hell, caring about being weird is conversely weird in itself. See, you guys screwed things up for me. Okay? A lot of things. I just wanted to die out here. Alone. Now, however, this place is going to be a storm." She spoke with an odd accent, and with a shock, Minkfur realised it wasn't being translated. Why would unidentified aliens speak Terranglo? Did they have recon on the federation?
"Stars..." the voice continued, muttering the word like a curse. "Okay, here's the deal. I'm not your jailer. You don't need a jailer. As soon as you guys got grabbed, a quarantine order went out. There isn't an engine in the whole sector any more and all the radios on the base automatically slagged themselves. My job now is to make sure you don't blow this place up. Kill me. Or kill yourselves."
"Ourselves?" N'irs asked very quietly, peeking from around Minkfur's flank. "W-why would we do that?"
A derisive snort drifted back. "Shit if I know. Depression?" The naked lights in the hall flared and dimmed.
"Hell," Ain continued, giggling, "Look around yourself. Do you honestly need an excuse in this place?"
The lights came back with an odd crackle and she sighed again. "Stars, I've gotten weird out here. Come on, you're no safer in that pod than anywhere else. Besides, there's an exercise chamber out here. Some mess halls too. All sorts of crap down here really. I found a skull once. Oh! That reminds me. Computer core's off limits. Malice likes his brain. The last attendant died in there. Supposed to be an accident but I bet Malice killed his ass."
"He does that, killing. It's his job. That's why I brought it up, I think the skull belongs to the attendant." She paused for a moment, then continued, her voice thoughtful, "Or is it belonged? Does he still own his bones after he's dead?"
She cackled, a sound as empty and bitter as the rest of the station. "Hell. I'm going to go get drunk. Only way this place makes any goddamn sense. Rest of your crew should get here eventually. They're free to join me, with the drinking. I have enough vodka to keep you guys sane. Or nuts, whatever floats your boat. Don't break anything that's not broke already and don't go pissing around my room."
And with that quiet blanketed the scene.
The three Rivera crewmen shared a worried glance. What the hell was going on?
Minkfur ran hir tongue around the inside of hir mouth.
Three hours they had waited. Three hours for the other escape pods to dock. Three hours of checking communicators, listening down halls and trying to convince each other that they wouldn't have to go looking. Anything but venture out into the bowels of this ship.
Three hours wasted. Minkfur thought this as shi made hir way around a sharp outcrop of steel, the jagged edge reaching for hir with it's blood-dulled edge. Shi checked again for hir sidearm; an almost subconscious routine by now. The Ain girl had been right about this place. Depressingly so.
A gentle sound made itself heard and shi readied hir weapon, blinking in annoyance as the green backlit readout ruined hir night vision. Shi hesitated, then flicked off the read-outs. Hir GenDEW had a full charge and set to standard dispersal. Shi'd be fine as long as nobody shot back.
Shi continued to listen, making out what sounded like a soft muttering up ahead. The lights above continued to flicker sporadically as shi came to a blind corner, drawn by curiosity. Minkfur blinked, hir empathetic senses noting the roiling confusion and irritation and shi could hear the creature breathing. "H-hello?" shi asked hesitantly.
A thunderclap clove the still air in two. The corner of the hall exploded in a spray of sparks which caused hir to leap back. Shi screamed in pain as hir world exploded into white hot agony before everything slipped away into darkness. Shi found herself lying slipshod on the cold steel floor, hir right flank a riven mosaic of pain. Shi hardly dared look. It wouldn't move.
"Fuck. I could've killed you."
The chakat blinked back tears of pain and managed to make out a face, shadowed in the darkness. A jagged mess of bright blue sparks around a pair of eyes that shone crimson under the dying halogen lights. A jackal's face, it's teeth flashing bright as it continued to speak.
"Maybe I did."
A hand reached out and clutched hir shoulder. It pulled hir forwards and the eyes hooded as they inspected hir flank.
"No, this wasn't me. Damn, kitty, you backed right into sparky."
The hand left hir shoulder and prodded at hir flank, feeling the scorched flesh. Minkfur screamed.
"Easy, Crispy! This is going to be hell enough without both of us leaking, so watch the claws,"
Minkfur felt a stout jerk to hir shoulder moaned again, attempting to deal with the agony coursing through hir. The creature let go.
"Dammit, you weigh a tonne. Hang on, I'll go get something."
She disappeared from view for a moment, returning and placing a clear plastic bottle before the chakat.
"Drink this. Might help the burn too, if you wanna pour it on. No way I'm standing around when you try, though."
The smell of alcohol rose powerfully to Minkfur's nose and shi sneezed, yelping as the action sent another ripple of hurt through hir.
"Ow." the creature muttered before walking off into the shadows. "I'll be back with the medkit."
Minkfur was alone. Shi listened to hir own breathing, the gentle rasping helping hir think. Clearly shi had backed into a naked power coupling.
That thing that helped hir, it sounded like a woman. It sounded like Ain.
Shi sniffed the bottle again and whimpered. For once shi regretted being a chakat. Any other species would have been able to drink themselves into oblivion. All that would would happen if shi tried would be dehydration, and shi had enough worries to care about for now. Instead shi turned around carefully and tried to get a look at the damage. shi succeeded after the third try, and almost threw up as nausea rattled hir system.
A large portion of hir fur had burned off, the skin beneath it black and crinkled like a drumstick left too long on the grill. Dark, shining cracks spiderwebbed across the charred flesh, blood oozing out like puss, dozens of rivulets turning hir fur a sickly brown. As shi stared, shi realized hir leg would not move. It lay limp, still warm against it's sister, but numb and lifeless as if it had been chopped off.
Tears wet hir cheeks. Shi had been an athlete, back in starfleet academy. That leg had carried hir to win a local championship or two, and through them, to Dawnstalker.
It seemed done carrying hir, now. The inside of a gaunt spaceship, waiting upon the medical aid of a drunk alien species, seemed to have been as far as it would go.
Minkfur growled. "Move," shi hissed, pouring hir willpower into the ruined leg as though that might somehow replace the nerves and muscle.
"Move goddammit!" Hir voice ebbed into a feral growl, hir whole body shaking with tension, anger and fear. Fear.
"Move. Move! Move, move, move, movemovemoveMOVE!" Shi screamed, and screamed, and screamed, hir throat going raw but hir voice continuing unabated. Shi tried to reach over and grab the leg, but a brush against hir burnt skin floored hir instantly.
Shi lay there, coughing. Raw shock hazing hir mind.
"Stars, you hurt yourself more?" Ain grumbled, stepping into the dim sphere of Minkfur's awareness.
"I guess you did. Here, hang on, this will make it better."
She set a heavy black case on the floor, little lines of yellow blocks emblazoned over the surface.
With a click, she flipped open the lid, and extracted a long black tube and depressed a small button on the side, a lime green spray jetting out. Minkfur sighed as hir flank instantly cooled. Some sort of local anasthetic. "Thank you." Shi whispered, hir throat too raw for more.
Ain seemed to hesitate, before patting hir on the shoulder. "It - it's really no problem. My fault anyway, I shouldn't have shot at you. Force of habit." She sighed, "I've gotten so jumpy..."
Minkfur could feel her pain. Now that shi was touching her, Ain's emotions came through clearly. Shame, loneliness, self loathing...
The last bothered Minkfur the most. There was something strange about the fear. It wasn't fresh and frantic, like the kind that spilled your popcorn during a slasher flick. This lingered like an old injury, lived with until it's slow gnawing was almost forgotten.
On impulse, Minkfur transmitted a sense of comfort through the contact.
Ain gasped suddenly - as if she'd been doused in cold water.
"Di-did you...?" She asked, her breath coming in deep rushes. Her mind alighted in a frantic cascade, buffeting Minkfur with confusion and disbelief, but also the beginnings of hope. "Can you... Please...?" Her voice died to a whisper at the end, but it felt like the loudest sound Minkfur'd ever heard.
Shi paused, but the desperation in Ain's eyes could not be denied. Shi smiled and thought of the night shi'd become denmates with Dawnstalker; sending hir elation; hir joy through the link.
Ain coughed like she'd been kicked. Slowly, a smile began to spread across her face, and she burst into a fit of laughter. The sound grew and grew, until she was roaring with mirth, and relief. Joyously, she grabbed Minkfur in a one armed hug, squeezing her like a lifeline.
"Easy, easy!" Minkfur wheezed through the grip. Ain was stronger than she looked! This close, Minkfur could smell an old mix of mould and alcohol clinging to her clothes. Oddly, it reminded hir of a nightgown, loose and light, and shi noticed the left sleeve was stitched shut. Had Ain lost an arm?
Ain loosened her grip a little. "Sorry, sorry, this just... it feels so good. I forget the last time I smiled." She nuzzled Minkfur's shoulder happily, even going so far as to nibble hir fur. "Here, I can't just leave you here. Come on, my room is nearby. It's clean, and you can lie down." Standing up, she slipped her hand under Minkfur's arm, helping hir stand.
With Ain's help, Minkfur managed to balance without hir ruined hind leg and loped beside Ain with an awkward see-saw gait.
"Thank you, if it weren't for you, I'd still be lying there."
Ain just grunted and Minkfur felt a small flash of guilt troubling her mind. Shi sent a little more joy across the link, and changed topics. "So, do you mind if I ask a little about you?"
Ain smiled softly in reply. "Sure, It's been a long time since I had someone to talk to." She shrugged, helping Minkfur navigate a particularly large shard of wall. "Not sure what we'll talk about though. My life hasn't been terribly special. I was born out in a tiny village, nothing special, just big enough for a shrine to the Wandering Stars. My mother found out she was barren after she married, so she decided to accept a child at the shrine in return for the chance to bear her husband's children too. So, the Stars gave her me." She sighed, and her pace slowed. "My life was pretty much the standard for those Sired by the Stars. A tolerable mix of ostracism and pity, the two cancelling each other out more or less. I lucked out that my... differences... were obvious, but not disgusting. If people find out you were Sired, but can't find anything obvious, they get all jumpy. Afraid you can shapeshift, or some other bizzare supernatural power." She snorted, chuckling softly to herself. "Not that I can blame them. There's this story about this one girl who could start fires with her eyes. You wouldn't have had the slightest clue she could, until you burst into flame. At least the Stars are fairly quick to... remove... those who abuse their 'gifts'."
Minkfur cut in at this point, hir confusion palpable. "Wait, you grew up in a village? And what are these, Wandering Stars?"
Ain shook her head. "Right, sorry, you don't know how things are in Nalis space. They're the guys I work for, who built this place. The Nalis... when they find a world, they have to exploit it. It's economics, they can't afford not to. So, when they find a planet that's inhabited, they set themselves up as gods or caretakers, whichever fits better. That way, they can get what they need, without completely destroying the natives or their culture. In addition to gaining access to raw material, the Nalis set up shrines, where the natives can bargain with them. Basically, they heal or compensate natives in return for the natives accepting to bear children with tampered genetics. Like me. That way, not only do the Nalis get to play around with new gene pools, they get to test their modifications in a social sandbox. That way they don't end up giving an entire generation something that turns them into sociopaths, like that fire-starting girl I mentioned. As to how I got here from my village... well..." Her eyes became hooded, and her good humor slipped considerably.
"Sometimes, things don't work out. Your differences make life too hard. So, the shrines offer another service. Those who are Sired by the Nalis, or the Wandering Stars -- take your pick, they're one and the same -- have the option of leaving their world, instead serving the Stars in their realm. It's a convenient solution, really. Society doesn't have to accommodate the misfits, and the Nalis get a free and willing workforce, usually with special talents they can put to good use. Usually. At the very least, they can find some place tolerable for you to work, and in so doing alleviate their debt in screwing you over. The Nalis..." She snorted derisively. "Say what you will, they take responsibility."
Minkfur stared at Ain in dumb shock. The whole thing sounded like that special kind of nonsense so crazy it had to be true. Moreover, shi could feel Ain had believed every bit of it. "Was it the arm?" Minkfur asked quietly.
Ain blinked at hir. "That made me leave? I wish. No, it was the fact that I am sporadically forced to endure the fears of everyone around me, acted out in all out 5 sense immersion. I don't get just get to watch a man find a corpse in his child's bed, I get to hear the rustle of the sheets as he tries to wake her. I get to walk up and touch her myself if i want, feel her cold dead flesh." Her voice faded as she spoke, as though it too were descending into the dark halls of her mind. "One time, I licked a man watching himself die. I could taste the decay on the wound, smell the rot..." The worst part was that she didn't even flinch. This, this was the old fear Minkfur had sensed, and it waxed stronger by the minute.
Shi didn't know to this day why shi did what shi did next.
Maybe it was hir Chakat nature. Maybe it was just a hopelessness to help, mixed with an unwillingness to watch someone die inside. Ain yelped as Minkfur kissed her right on the lips.
They froze. Everything hung in the balance, then.
Ain kissed back.
Soon, Minkfur's errand of mercy was forgotten. Under the musty smell of her clothes, Ain's scent was spicy and exciting, and she had more skill with one hand than most had with two. Somehow, her touch drained the tension from Minkfur's shoulders as it pressed into the knotted muscle. For a moment, it flickered through Minkfur's mind that shi was being swept up in Ain's unexpected lust, but an instant later it felt too good to care. Shi pressed Ain against the wall, running hir tongue along the curve of her neck, shivering as the small jackal moaned. Shi struggled with Ain's clothes, eventually tearing them off as a frantic chain of licks and nips teased hir breasts, nipples warm, wet, and hard with excitement.
Hir patience burned away under the flames of passion, and shi dropped Ain to the floor, where hir shaft could reach her. A moment of startlement flashed from Ain, before burning desire consumed her.
"Yes, give it to me!" she growled below Minkfur, her panting gaze leaving no question to what she meant. Minkfur pressed forwards and cried out in ecstasy. Sensations and emotions spun out of control as shi felt herself swept up in the moment.
Nothing else mattered than the here and now. The smell of sex, the feeling of hot, sweaty fur pressing up against each other. They reached peak together, shaking as in the duality of their pleasure as the two different sensations of climax crashed back and forth through the emotional link like a tidal wave.
Minkfur fell to hir side as hir mind spun within the pink candy-floss clouds of post-orgasmic bliss.
They lay together, one heavy forepaw draped across Ain's shoulder. Protecting. Their troubles forgotten for the moment.
Finally, Ain stirred, then sighed and the chakat felt the shadows return.
"Thank you, that was..." She swallowed. "You must be really desperate, huh?" She chuckled blackly, a cynical half smile twisting her face.
"Don't say that." Minkfur said gently, reaching out to touch her leg. "You were amazing."
"Are you blind?" Ain whimpered incredulously. "Look at me." Her hand grabbed her belly, pinching the soft layer of fat. "I'm a flabby slob, with a freakish meatgrinder of an arm, or did you miss that?" She waved her left arm in the air, exposed without it's shirtsleeve. It wasn't the stump Minkfur had imagined, but a jagged, undulating mass of razor sharp claws, ending in a long, vicious spearhead. "It gets to you, you know that? Having an arm designed for killing. Every day I'm reminded, whenever I have to use one hand to do the job of two. Or whenever I have to use one arm to do the job of an executioner's axe."
"That isn't how I see you." Minkfur said simply. Before Ain could reply, shi gathered up the purest sense shi could of the woman before hir, and sent it to her. "That – is how I see you."
Shock froze Ain's mind, and she just stood there, staring. She remembered to breathe, then, and to dry her eyes. "Well, that's..." She stopped there, and Minkfur just barely caught her next whisper. "Thank you." She began to sniffle as she helped Minkfur up. "Come on, my room's – just over here."
The rest of the trip passed in silence, each contemplating the other, and themselves.
Chakat universe used with the permission of Bernard Doove.
The Nalis, NADA, and all characters herein are property of the author.
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