“Warning. Weapons fire detected. Entering stealth mode.”
The ship’s lights dimmed, and Sabriyya’s hands tightened on the joystick, ready to use the nearby gas giant as a gravity sling if necessary. “Identify weapons signature,” she instructed, silently praying it wasn’t someone hostile to the Alliance.
“Identifying…” A few tense seconds passed, and the xenologist inhaled sharply as blue and purple lasers flashed in the distance.
“Two weapon signatures identified,” the computer finally announced. “One AnXilaxis Predator-class vessel, and one Alivani vessel of unknown class.”
“What, did the Alivani call them ‘primitive barbarians’ again?” Sabriyya muttered. The flashes were growing closer now, and her jaw tightened as she noticed a pattern.
It’s hard to tell from here, but I think the AnXilaxis ship is chasing the Alivani.
It would make sense. The Alivani may have had a snobbish reputation, but the only part of other species they were known for attacking was their pride. The AnXilaxis, on the other hand…
“Computer, can the AnXilaxis detect us through the cloak?”
“Unlikely,” the ship’s voice reassured her. And then, as if sensing her gnawing conscience, “Nonetheless, approaching the conflict is ill-advised. This vessel is not equipped for conflict with a Predator-class ship, and neither participant in this conflict is a member of the Alliance.”
It was true, but that didn’t stop her face from tightening as a plume of flame burst from the Alivani ship, whose weapons were no longer firing. The beleaguered vessel banked sharply, racing toward a large, forested moon, and Sabriyya quickly scanned the satellite, whispering silent thanks when she saw that the atmosphere was breathable.
If the Alivani landed and fled their ship, they’d probably survive. The AnXilaxis’ attacks were ruthless, not pointless; they wanted the ship and its cargo, and whatever the crew could carry was probably not worth the chase and the risk of a fight with the huge feline J’Rashikai the Alivani kept as pets.
A burst of blue weapons fire cut her thoughts short, and Sabriyya’s eyes widened as the Predator listed, trailing smoke and flames. A desperate ultramarine barrage ravaged the pirates ship’s underbelly, and the xenologist sighed with relief as the AnXilaxis ship tumbled toward the planet, its engines destroyed.
I know I shouldn’t celebrate people’s deaths, but their deaths mean the rest of us get to live.
No time to dwell on that. Sabriyya raced after the Alivani ship, watching it slide moonward in a barely-controlled descent. “Don’t crash, don’t crash,” she muttered, then flinched as the alabaster vessel slammed into the ground and skidded to a halt.
“Okay, new request,” she muttered as she typed a message into the long-range comms and beamed it and her coordinates toward the Alivani homeworld. “Don’t be dead.”
On the upside, the crash had destroyed the ship’s starboard weapons, so Sabriyya could land on that side without fear of being shot over a misunderstanding.
On the downside, their comms were equally dead, so the only way to convey her intentions was to climb into a hull breach, find the first intact door, and knock.
An angry male voice exploded through her mind, telepathically shouting in clipped, haughty tones. “Leave immediately, barbarian, or I’ll have my J’Rashikai rip your foul hide from your body!”
Remember your training. Don’t take ANYTHING an Alivanin says personally. Good thing they can’t read my thoughts. “I’m not AnXilaxis,” she called back. “I’m Sabriyya Ahsan, a human from the Interworld Alliance. I saw you crash, and I’m here to help.”
“I see.” To her surprise, the Alivanin’s suddenly formal tone sounded flustered, almost contrite. “I apologize for my misinterpretation. Your assistance would be welcome, as I am trapped by debris. But please keep your helmet on, as your kind is known to carry disease.”
That was rude, but he isn’t wrong. “It’s standard Alliance protocol to keep the spacesuit on when dealing with non-immunized species,” she assured him, then braced her hands on the door. “I’m coming in now; please tell your J’Rashikai not to shred me.”
“They are not in this room, and will not attack unless you threaten me.”
“Good.” She pushed the door sideways, and to her relief, it slid instantly. She hastily stepped inside, then swept the room with her handheld scanner.
To her relief, the Alivanin was just a few feet away. An elegantly embossed wall panel had come loose, leaving him pinned beneath a floral-patterned slab of green, and she quickly stepped toward him. “Are you hurt?”
“I am lightly bruised, but largely unharmed. Nonetheless, please make haste; my shipmates may be in more immediate danger.”
“Right. Hurrying.” She grabbed the edge of the panel, yanked as hard as she could, and nearly fell over when its surprisingly light weight didn’t offer the expected resistance.
The instant he was free, the willowy alien bolted to his feet, his silver-trimmed black robes flying around his shimmering navy form as he sprinted down the corridor.
“Thank you,” his crisp voice rang in her head, while his eyes stayed fixed on the hall ahead. “Forgive my lack of proper formalities, but I must reach my shipmates before they succumb to their injuries.”
“Good priorities,” she agreed, racing after him. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“I have no reason to lie. Why do you repeat your inquiry?”
“Because that wall panel wasn’t that heavy,” she explained, catching up as he slowed down to pick his way across a pile of debris that she personally would’ve just bounded over.
He glared at her briefly, his black eyes glittering with specks of orange like angry opals. “My people,” he said, his formal tone edged with irritation, “are not built for brute force.”
Sabriyya nimbly traversed the patch of broken floor, and they resumed their headlong run. The seconds rushed relentlessly past like drops of blood from an injured friend, and she silently prayed that they wouldn’t be too late.
And yet, despite his desperate urgency, the alien slowed whenever rubble disrupted his path, picking his careful way across it. “Will that debris explode if we step on it too hard?” she finally asked, wondering if she’d been risking her life this whole time, and the Alivanin glanced at her.
“No,” he replied, his voice strained with a slight defensive edge as he tried to speed up and stumbled. “I simply lack the reflexes to rapidly navigate unstable ground.”
“Just you, or all of your people?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” he said tersely, glaring at her, and she held up her hands in a placating gesture.
“Sorry – we xenologists tend to be curious about that kind of thing.”
“I see.” His eyes returned to his task. “Your desire for knowledge is laudable, but the motives of those who seek it are not always benign.”
“Fair enough.” As soon as he stepped clear of the rubble, she bounded across it, only to stop short as he began to wrestle with a door.
“The kittens are in here,” he explained, and her tired body perked with curiosity.
“Kittens?” she echoed eagerly, hurrying to force the door open for him, then following him into the room and gasping with delight as a chorus of mews greeted them.
The Alivanin briefly knelt, his robes pooling on the floor, and five dappled brown kittens the size of tiger cubs huddled around him, wailing as if asking why their world had crashed.
Had they not been in such a hurry, Sabriyya could have spent hours cuddling, playing with, and studying these babies. But twenty seconds after their master knelt, the kittens became strangely calm, and he pushed himself to his feet.
“They are unharmed,” he reported, fishing a small container from his pocket and dumping its kibble-like contents onto the floor of what appeared to be a snug, soft-floored cave built into the wall. The kittens chased it eagerly, and he turned away. “But I cannot hear their parents yet. We must check the bridge.”
“Okay. Lead the way.”
He gave a crisp nod, and she closed the door behind them before asking as they ran, “Did you just use telepathy on them?”
“Of course. One could hardly expect a three-month-old beast to understand verbal communication, even if my people used it.”
“You say it like the older ones have a stronger grasp of language. How many words can they learn?”
“Quite possibly more than you.”
Before she could respond to the barb, the hall abruptly ended at a door with a charred hole in its center. To Sabriyya’s surprise, the Alivanin didn’t hesitate to climb through it, ignoring the sound of his robe tearing on the twisted metal.
As soon as he was clear, Sabriyya dove through the hole, somersaulting to her feet just in time to see her rescuee fall to his knees.
In front of him, a fifteen-foot-long feline lay panting on her side, her lungs straining against the large shard of shrapnel that was lodged between her ribs. Her upper torso was wrapped in a broken harness, and what appeared to be the ruins of a console loomed over her.
A few feet away, a second J’Rashika – male, judging by the ram-like horns – dangled in front of a console of his own. Sabriyya forced herself back into motion, her eyes darting to the ceiling as she approached the limp feline. Why would an Alivanin suspend his pets in front of consoles?
She began to scan his vital signs, noting the blood that seeped from his forehead, then flinched as the first J’Rashika yowled. She spun to see the Alivanin toss the shrapnel aside, then watched in fascination as the feline’s wound began to close, severed parts reconnecting until the potentially deadly injury was reduced to a thin, pale line.
Rapid regeneration? Or-
“Are his vital signs stable?”
The Alivanin’s telepathy interrupted her thoughts, and she hastily glanced at her scanner. “Yes, but he’s bleeding from his head, and I think he’s unconscious.”
The first J’Rashika labored to her feet, then followed her master as he quickly strode over and stared intently at the wound.
Within seconds, the bleeding stopped, and this time the injury disappeared without a trace. Telekinesis, Sabriyya realized with fascination. He may not have brute force, but I think he’s healing them on a cellular level!
The J’Rashika’s eyes blinked slowly open, then closed again as his healer rested his chin on his furry head and stroked the feline’s neck. The Alivanin’s free hand found the female’s forehead, and for a moment, the three of them stayed like that, the urgency of the last few minutes melting away.
“Is this everyone?” Sabriyya asked softly, hating to break the beautiful spell but needing to know.
“Yes,” her rescuee whispered in her mind. “Thank you. Without you, my team and my family might have died.”
He gave both J’Rashika one last tender squeeze, then straightened, looking at Sabriyya with eyes far softer than she’d ever seen on a member of his species. She smiled back, then glanced at the dangling feline. “Are they pilots?” she asked, and the Alivanin nodded.
“Virshanya is,” he replied, gesturing to the female. “Her mate, Shivano, controls the weapons.”
“Virshanya, Shivano, nice to meet you.” To her surprise, they both nodded, leaving her wondering if the gesture was as native to them as it was to her, or if they knew enough to mimick her species’ body language. “I’ll admit,” she added with a small, sheepish smile, “I hadn’t known you could fly.”
“Until recently, they could not,” the Alivanin explained. “Their lack of telekinesis and opposable thumbs pose an unfortunate obstacle to their technological and cultural development, despite their intelligence and superior reflexes. Fortunately, my people have chosen to elevate them for our mutual benefit.”
Sabriyya’s gaze returned to the console, widening slightly as it found what appeared to be a joystick with holes for inserting claws. Large buttons and levers dominated the controls, all of which were clearly designed to be manipulated with paws.
Her mind returned to the image of her rescuee picking his way through the rubble, and understanding dawned. The Alivani didn’t have the reflexes for combat, but their feline companions did.
A low rumble thrummed through Virshanya’s throat, and the Alivanin glanced down at her, then his face snapped up with embarrassed speed. “Apologies – I have once again fallen short of proper Alivani courtesy. My name is Valinil. And you are Sabriyya Ahsan, if memory serves.”
“It does. But you can call my Sabriyya.”
Valinil nodded again, and Sabriyya glanced around the bridge. “This… has certainly been a learning experience for me. I’ll admit, my people always assumed that the J’Rashika were just your bodyguards, and…”
“And our pets?”
Valinil’s knowing, chiding tone made her flinch in embarrassment, but she forced herself to nod. “Yeah.”
“We had observed your condescension toward the beast races. Your limited telepathic abilities cannot detect their mental transmissions, so you assume they are mere animals, and treat them as such.”
“To be fair, you do call them beasts – which, in human culture, usually means animals – and you never told us they could talk.”
Before Valinil could answer, Virshanya thrummed, and this time the Alivanin smiled. “Virshanya wishes to speak through me. My next words will not be my own.”
Sabriyya nodded, and her rescuee’s voice took on a purring, feminine tone. “It is true that we are beasts. And many of our instincts most likely remind you of the simpler creatures you keep as pets.
“But the word ‘beast’ is only an insult in the mouths of those who see it as a reason to look down on us, and the fact that duller creatures share our instincts and forms does not make us cats, any more than being primates makes you a chimpanzee.”
“That’s true,” Sabriyya admitted with a sheepish smile. “So… why did you never tell us you could talk?”
“The Alivani make most of our purchases for us, and we seldom interact with your kind outside of business transactions. If our Elder Council chooses to join your Alliance, we expect your government will aid us in spreading the truth about our abilities. Until then, our current arrangement is easier than explaining ourselves in every interaction.”
“That’s understandable. So, is being a pilot your main career, or do you do something else as well?”
“Valinil and I are developing machines to allow my people to speak to non-telepaths and move things with our minds, so we no longer depend on the Alivani for speech or the fine manipulation of tools. We both provide ideas, and he puts the parts together.”
“No longer dependent, huh? What kind of an impact would that have on your society?”
Virshanya’s head angled slightly. “An astute question. There are some who have voiced concern, for the Alivani’s part in our symbiosis has long depended on their superior dexterity. But there is no honor in abandoning an ancient alliance just because we’ve become stronger.
“For centuries, Valinil’s people have given mine safe, comfortable dens to raise our kittens in. They have helped to turn our best ideas into a once untouchable reality; without them, we might never have reached the stars. We will not deny them our protection and our hunting prowess, and we’ll always need each other.
“My people are warriors. We love the hunt. His people are artisans. They love the garden. Together, we fill the table. We keep them from being wounded in battle, and they heal us when we are hurt.
“No matter how our people grow, we will always be very different, so we will always have much to offer each other.”
“Wow…” The xenologist in Sabriyya was screaming like a child in a water park, and it was all she could do to keep her smile from widening enough to show her teeth. “I definitely learned a lot today. I appreciate you sharing all this with me. If it’s okay with you, I’d be more than happy to help tell the Alliance the truth about your people.”
“We would be grateful for your assistance in that matter, just as we are grateful for your rescue today.”
A nervous meow suddenly burst from Shivano, and a pointed glance from Valinil seemed to calm him, as if words had passed between them that Sabriyya couldn’t hear. Then the Alivanin looked at the human, and his voice was once again his own.
“You have done us a great service today, and I regret to impose further on your time. But our ship is inoperative, and-”
A sudden beeping made all four of them jump, and Sabriyya glanced at the HUD that had suddenly appeared on her helmet’s faceplate, then smiled triumphantly as she pressed a button on her wrist and accepted the call. “Alivani ship, this is Sabriyya Ahsan of the Alliance. I assume you got my distress call?”
“That is correct,” the feminine voice replied, telepathic words transforming into sound by some miracle of technology she hoped they’d someday share. “I am Telonn of the Rescue and Salvage Flight. Thank you for informing us of this barbaric attack. Is our crew alive?”
“Everyone survived,” she reported happily, watching as an alabaster gleam appeared in the sky.
“Thank you, Sabriyya Ahsan. Our vessel will land shortly. You are free to depart; we will contact you shortly to discuss compensation for any resources you spent on this rescue initiative.”
“You’re welcome. And thanks. No need for compensation – I was nearby, and I’m glad I could help. I would love to stay in contact, though…” She glanced at Valinil, and smiled. “I have a lot more to learn from the friends I just made, if they’re willing to teach me.”
“It is our honor to return your kindness,” Shivano purred through Valinil. “And I am glad to have your aid in sharing the truth about my people. I hope this will be the dawn of a greater understanding between our worlds.”
“It will be. I promise.”