-by Pauline West
It was dark and so cold he could feel his breath freeze in front of his face. But he smelled blood. Lots of it. I should never have left my ship, he thought.
He edged soundlessly down the foreign hall, his gun drawn and ready. Out here in deep space, you hardly ever saw another ship. Especially not an old cruiser like this one…
He hadn’t been able to bring himself to just fly past it, when something was so clearly wrong. The vessel was old and well-cared for, but falling apart just the same. You’d have to be brave to take your family out into the fringes in an old bucket like this. Brave or crazy, maybe both. His father had been like that. And their family’s ship had been a lot like this one…
Ahead of him, something in the darkness scuttled. He aimed reflexively. “Who’s there?”
The voice belonged to a woman. Surprised, he almost lowered his gun. But it could be a trick. “I’m a searcher,” he said. “I stopped because… no one stops out here. I wondered if you might be having problems. Thought I’d offer you some help.” There’s enough blood in the air here to choke a Krystac, he thought.
“The ship isn’t mine,” she said. Her voice was strained. “I just pushed through to this place. But things went wrong.” She shuffled closer.
“Get back or I’ll shoot! Stay where you are. I’m going to light a torch.”
“No lights,” she hissed.
It was a singular sound, and even after all these years as a bounty hunter, it was enough to make Theo’s blood freeze. “You’re a Phyrnosian,” he said. His voice was dead. He lit the flare, throwing light across the small room. In an instant he took in the frozen blood strung like dark tinsel across the fixtures, furniture, walls: and the slim, feminine Phyrnosian as she tried to slink backwards, toward the door.
“On the floor,” he said, icily. “Where I can see you. Or I’ll shoot first and ask questions later.”
She lowered herself, arranging her tail behind her prettily. Her eyes glinted. “I always liked that saying.”
“Yes… you humans have such interesting ways of… putting things. My people have no poetry, as you must know.”
“Shut up. What happened to the people who lived here?”
She dipped her long chin ashamedly. Although Theo had always found the Phyrnosian race unattractive, he had to admit this one was peculiarly beautiful. She was lightly built, with delicate horns and an expressive face.
He stepped closer and shoved the gun in her face. “Speak up,” he said, gritting his teeth, “I can’t hear you.”
She covered her face with long-fingered claws. Whatever her story was, she had spent enough time around humans to learn their gestures well. “I just—I just wanted to watch them! I didn’t know he was following me.” She looked up at him desperately. “Since I was a hatchling I’ve been fascinated by your kind. Your ability to feel, and your beautiful history. As a species, you’re really quite wonderful, you know. And I’m a bit of a historian… but when I pushed through, Raptor followed me. He wanted to see where I was going, and when he realized I’d simply run off to live with humans instead, he went insane. I didn’t know he was even here… I hid for a few days, just watching them. The way they talked, and lived together. They were a lovely family, very sweet. Very brave. And then Raptor came out of hiding… when he knew I was watching. And he massacred them. All of them.”
“That’s quite a story.”
“I didn’t know your kind could cry.”
She shrugged, not bothering to wipe her tears. “I know you don’t believe me. You think these are crocodile tears.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She gave him a bleary smile. “Thousands of years ago crocodile tears were what your people called false tears of grief. In your dark ages, they thought crocodiles would weep to lure their prey in.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know any of these words you’re saying. Crocodiles… Stop trying to change the subject. You’re as bad as a woman.”
“I am a woman! In a manner of speaking.”
“How do I know you didn’t kill them yourself?”
“Why would I do that?” she said. “Look—may I stand?”
It was a moment before he nodded. Although she was probably stronger, he could see she wasn’t armed. Indeed, she was practically naked—she wore just a slim white sheath with a split to accommodate her long tail, and nothing at all to cover her long, shapely legs. But what need did a giant reptile have for clothes, anyway?
“When I saw him go mad and begin to rip open all these people, I went after him myself. And I killed him. I will show you.”
Theo gestured for her to lead him. He held the torch high, and kept his gun trained on her back, following her through the dark corridors of the abandoned ship. Everywhere there were sticky footprints, blood glittering darkly from the walls. Slumped forms in the corners… but mostly what he noticed were the books.
Books piled haphazardly on top of equipment, piled in stacks along the floor. Books were a great treasure in the galaxy, and despite what this ship lacked in terms of niceties, it held enough books to make an enterprising wanderer a fortune. He longed to touch one of them, to smell it—wondered if he would ever understand the story within, although he’d never had the luxury of learning to read.
Then they were in the control room. There were more bodies here. One man, slumped across several dead children. Another had been thrown against the wall with such force that his body was still crumpled into the panels. A dead woman not far from him was curled around her gun, the red bands on her arms crusted with blood and tissue. Theo nudged one of her bands with his foot.
“She’s a Rush,” he said.
The Phyrnosian nodded. “They all were,” she said. She led him to a far corner of the room.
“Here,” she said, turning away. Slumped against the wall was the largest Phyrnosian he had ever seen. It was larger than three men together. Its enormous eyes were clouded, and the long tongue, thick as a man’s arm, hung down between teeth sharp and strong enough to open up the side of a small ship. Its claws were open, held back above its body, in utter surrender.
Shock was fixed on its face.
“I killed him,” she said, again. She turned around to look at the carnage. “So many children… ”
“So was it worth it? That all these people should die, so that you could have the chance to study them like rats?”
She looked at him silently, the subtle twists of her horns reflecting the light of his flare.
“I’m sorry.” He scratched his hair. “You… didn’t know. And this Raptor, he was your… husband?”
“We don’t have the same system. He was my intended, call it that. He was chosen for me before I was born. I’m sure he would have liked to choose another, after he learned my ways, but among such families as ours, that type of thing is simply not done. Do you understand?”
“I think I do."
“He was good to me, in his way. But I have never much wanted to be a Phyrnosian. I have always felt greater kinship with your kind. Of course, your people will not have me.” She spoke easily, without any pity for herself, and Theo felt a surge of feeling for her.
“You could be an ambassador,” he said.
“Yes, I suppose,” she said. She smiled at him then, and tried to brighten. “Well, what will you do with me?”
“Do you need a lift someplace?” he said.
“Perhaps to another station or… ”
“I won’t take you back to Phyrnos, if that’s what you’re asking. Haven’t exactly made myself popular with the management there.” He holstered his gun, and careful never to turn his back to her, began to flip through one of the books. It was illustrated with pictures of women with fish tails, and ships which had been designed to sail on water. Some kind of storybook. “Will you do something for me, Miss… ah…
“Greithing. Please, call me Isela.”
“Theodore Snopes,” he said, extending his hand. She took it. Her grasp was warmer than he expected. “Help me carry these books to my ship, Isela.”
They went back and forth together for hours, emptying the ship. She asked him no questions and worked beside him in silence. He liked that about her, too. It felt good to stretch his legs, and quickly he discovered the ship had been stuffed with a healthy cache of food and water besides the heavy cargo of books. All in all, it was turning out to be a very good day.
Until he noticed Isela staring fixedly at a large, glossy patch on the spine of one of the books. Blood. When she thought he wasn’t looking, she snaked her tongue out and lapped it up with interest.
He held the gun to her head. “Well, you had me fooled, Isela,” he said. “Here I was, starting to believe you were almost human. At least I got a little work out of you before killing you.”
“I told you, I’m a historian. I just want to learn … everything about you. About your people.” She dropped the book—it was licked clean—and came closer.
She stood there, waiting for him to shoot. But he didn’t. Slowly, he lowered his gun. “I don’t know what to believe,” he said. He sagged, suddenly exhausted. He’d worked years in space without a friend, sometimes went months without a conversation… it was a threadbare existence. He realised how badly he’d wanted to like Isela. But she was just another creepy Phyrnosian. He should have known better. They were a strange, unpredictable race.
“You’re afraid, Theo,” she said. “Afraid you’ll get hurt again.”
“What do you know about what I have been through?” he said.
“It’s all over your face. I don’t… understand it, but I can see it.” He threw a book at her, and she stepped aside neatly. She bobbed her head. “Listen, let me make us something to eat. We’re both hungry.” She read his thoughts. “You can watch me. Come on. Don’t be stubborn.”
From the boxes they’d lugged off the silent cruiser, Isela pulled cans of vegetables and shredded meat. She opened them deftly with her claws, and within minutes had a delicious stew bubbling on his stove. It smelled wonderful. Theo tried to peer into it without her noticing.
“Is it going to be spicy? Too much spice and I’ll cry like a baby.”
“Nothing a bounty hunter can’t handle,” she said, but she made a show of trying to fish out the extra spice with her claws. He laughed in spite of himself, and they both smiled. She turned around and crossed her arms, fixing him with her eyes.
“We’ve got a few minutes before it cooks. Fancy a game of Gok?”
He shrugged. “I’m not very good at it.”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Fine.” He tried not to let her see it, but he was excited. No one had invited him to play Gok in years. “Got a picture in your head?”
“All right … is it … um … warm-blooded?”
“Is it alive?”
“Not exactly,” she said, smiling. “No, it’s not. And it never was. There’s a freebie for you.”
“Is it … a gun?”
She laughed loudly. “No! You would think that … but it’s a-”
“You’re going too easy on me. It’s some kind of plaything, isn’t it?”
“It is. Yes.”
“Is it soft?”
“A child’s stuffed plaything,” he said, proudly.
She clapped happily. The sound of her claws ringing together made his blood cold, but he couldn’t keep from smiling. “Bravo, Theo, well done… but you haven’t quite got it yet.” “Oh yeah? Doesn’t matter, the stew’s finished.” He jumped down and pulled out bowls and spoons for them both. He dished the stew in so quickly she grinned.
“Kinda hungry, huh?”
He shrugged. “Living alone, you don’t always remember to eat regular. I realized when I smelled your stew that it’s been… a while. Lords. This is fabulous.”
She took her bowl and sipped at it tidily. “The toy I had in mind might be of interest to you, Theodore Snopes. It was a stuffed bear, made popular by a brave leader and explorer on Earth. His name was Theodore, too. They called it the Teddy bear. After that, people started to call him Teddy, too.”
He stopped eating and looked at her. “Now how 'bout that."
“Do you like that story, Teddy?” She smiled.
“I … I believe I do,” he said. “Tell me more about this Teddy leader.”
“There’s probably more in these books,” she said, sweeping her hand grandly around the room. Books were in huge stacks all around them. More books than any of them had ever seen. Whoever sold them would be rich, but Isela was too polite to mention that.
“You can read?” he asked, in awe.
“Of course. Listen—I—it’s important to me that you trust me. And I’ve thought of a way we can learn a great deal about each other. You can tie me up, restrain me however you like … but tonight, I’d like to feel you dream.”
“If you allow me to touch you while you sleep, I can read your dreams. My people live differently from yours, Teddy. But if you let me dream with you, I can feel things as you do. I can feel things the way a human would. I have always longed for this experience. And through our connection, you can read my soul as well. I believe you will trust what you find written there.”
“I—I can’t read, Isela,” Theo said, sincerely.
She laughed. “You will be able to read me.”
“You just need to touch me, you say? Well, come on then. You can bunk with me.” He pulled a length of silk vine down from a cabinet. Isela watched him silently. They left the kitchen, and he led her to the small pod where he slept. “Do you think you can fit?”
“I can manage.” Isela maneuvered onto the large mat and put out her wrists for Theo to tie. He wrapped them tightly with the length of silk vine, allowing his fingers to slip briefly along her skin. She sucked in her breath, watching him. He crawled in beside her, and they lay side by side. After a moment, Teddy reached up to flick off the light. They were both fully dressed, and Teddy still wore his gun. But he folded his hands across his chest.
“Why didn’t you want me to turn on the light, back there in that ship?”
“I thought it might be nice to have a conversation. Before you knew what I was.”
“This has been very nice, Teddy.”
He rolled over, and she curled her body gingerly around his. They both breathed tensely for a few minutes, and then quietly dropped off into sleep. Isela trailed after Theo into his dreams. She saw his past—saw him fight hard to save his family, even as one by one they succumbed to the virulence. She saw him take off on his own, and build a name for himself as one of the scrappiest bounty hunters in the galaxy—and one of the least reliable. He was known to have “moods”, she realized, and would disappear for months at a time. But he was a good man, a kind and lonely man, and for these brief hours she lived with him in his skin. She lived with him in his dreams, reacting beside him with the deepened compassion and curiosity of man. In his thoughts she fashioned herself as a human woman, the kind he found most beautiful. She had long, soft hair, and skin like his, and pale green eyes. He held her close.
“You’re a good woman, Isela,” he said.
Isela lifted her thoughts above his dreams; she projected her mind through his consciousness, feeling for the humans asleep in space around them. Floating on borrowed wings, adrift in borrowed time, their minds had collected together in the dream-space without their knowing. Isela moved between them, wishing she could stay.