The human female, Narita, turned back to Jequith after the door slid shut. “I’m so sorry.”
“You did not have to turn away your friend, just because we are here.” Jequith said the words politeness demanded, but it was intensely grateful that there were no more humans crowding into this small space. One was more than enough. The scent of this one alone, heightened by adrenaline and endorphins, was so thick that Jequith could barely think. Its mother had been right — it had been a fool to leave their world, to come to such a strange, human-filled place. Over ninety-nine percent of this planet was human populated, and yet that wasn’t enough for them. They had to have it all.
Narita frowned. “Amara…wouldn’t have understood. Her family are traditionalists — they’re the same as the people who sent a missile into the Warren, who blew up your home. Terrorists!”
Jequith frowned. Even in the midst of its anger, its rage, with the smell of burning wood and flesh still etched in its memory, Jequith could not help but be fair. Its academic training kicked in, even now. “Not the same, surely. Not every traditionalist is anti-alien — and even among those humans who dislike and fear non-humans, most won’t turn to violence. Not unless they are pushed.” It was puzzling — bewildering, really. Jequith wondered, even now, in the midst of chaos, just who had been pushing these people. Humans and the other species had always had their differences, but things had blown up so fast. One day, humans were shoving Varisians and Denebians in the marketplace, dropping an insult here and there; the next day, missiles streaked through the sky. “Most people want only peace.” This place had been a haven of peace, not so long ago.
Narita shrugged. “Fair enough, but I still don’t think we need her in here. Not tonight. Whatever’s going on with Amara, she’ll just have to handle it herself.” Her eyes flicked back to the corner, where Jequith’s partners slept their unnatural sleep. “Are you surethere’s nothing else we can do for Shariq?”
Concern obvious on her face. Here was the evidence that not all humans were bad; Narita had taken them in, at great risk to herself.
And what did she know of Jequith, really? A friendly office floormate, someone to greet pleasantly on the way to or from department meetings. They weren’t even in the same department — recent funding cuts had squeezed nonhuman medicine into the same wing as human medicine. But they were both medical professionals, and they shared a similar love of the alien, the other. She specialized in avian diseases, and Jequith was completely fascinated by human sexuality and procreation. So Jequith had come here, to study and treat them, and now it paid the price.
It tried to reassure her. “Trust me. What there is for such as us to do, we have done.” They had bound its mate’s wound, made a nest where she could huddle with Harim, their male partner. “If Shariq is to heal, our mate will have to do the rest.” The human still frowned, and Jequith took a quick breath and made an effort to sound more reassuring. “I am reasonably certain that she will be fine.” It was telling the truth. The wound was serious, but not life-threatening, not now that they had help, and a quiet place for male and female to share the healing trance.
“And the baby?” Narita asked, frowning.
Well. That was the question.
Three years ago, Shariq had come to it. Jequith had long ago given up hope. It had known that taking this position was risky, that few of its people would be likely to come so far. Eiskiyarien, its home planet, lay seven Jumps away — for a traditional people, not given to overmuch risk, that was seven Jumps too many for most of them. Jequith had always known that it was strange, with its fascination for the foreign, the peculiar. Its parents had been united, the three of them, in warning Jequith away from this life-path. But Jequith had been stubborn. And then, after sixteen lonely years on this planet, it had become convinced that it would pay the price for its stubbornness. To die alone, unmated, childless. It loved its work, but it had always wanted a family too. It had just hoped, expected, to be lucky, for no good reason.
And then Shariq had sashayed into its office one day, frills flared, skin flushed a dark, rich purple. She’d trilled a wordless invitation, and Jequith had been utterly bewildered. It could not give the female what she so clearly needed. Who was she? What was she doing here? And then Harim had sidled in behind her, shyly. He was the one who spoke. “We’ve been looking for you,” he said. “We need you.”
It was not the human way, Jequith knew, to mate so suddenly. But sometimes, there was no need for courtship, no need even for speech. They were alone, the three of them, far from their people. She was in need, and they were both willing, eager. In Jequith’s sharp urgency, it barely remembered to shut the door. The threesome could have been disastrous, but as Shariq sang her mating song and they sank to the floor of Jequith’s cold, barren office — so different from a mating nest back home! — it felt oddly convinced that they would, in fact, be perfect together. Finally, after all its long wanderings, Jequith had found a home.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Jequith was jerked back to the present by a renewed pounding on the door. Across the room, Shariq shivered and Harim wrapped himself more tightly around her — Jequith could scent the changes in its mates, the birthing hormones still so high in its system that it felt almost as if it were inside their skins. This was what it was for, to defend against all dangers while male and female was immersed in their new creation. Three years it had watched over them, as Shariq — so slowly! — grew the new one within her.
Three years of rising tension, as the pro-human sentiment rose, and so often it had wanted to take them away — but where could they go? Shariq could not endure a Jump with the little one within her, and there would be no point to taking a slow shuttle to one of the other planets in system, barren rocks that they were. So they were trapped on this planet until the child was born, trapped in its only major city, the single place where they could live and work in relative peace. Jequith, who had chosen to train as a scholar-medic, leaving it with no fighting skills at all, was left to twist in the wind, what little there was of it in this climate-controlled environment. Once, this planet had seemed a paradise to it, a haven for peaceful learning amidst some of the strangest peoples in the universe. A paradise — but now, it had become their prison.
And again, Bang! Jequith felt its vestigial outer teeth filling with poison; its body reacted, regardless of its will. Though what was the point? Now, when the child was lost to them. It could fight the woman outside the door, but even if she hated it and its people, what would be the point of fighting? There were too many humans on this planet. Even if its body were demanding that it rip the woman into bloody pieces, that it defend its mates against all comers, it would never be able to take all the humans down. There had to be another way through this war.
Bang! Jequith dug a clawed hand into its trembling thigh and snapped, “She cannot heal with these distractions; we must have quiet!” Bang! And then Shariq’s body rippled, and Jequith felt a frantic pulse rip through its own body, in mirror to hers, a wave of motion and heat from claws to spine to armored nose. The child, still moving after all!
The little one had been so still, for so long, after the explosion that ripped open a wall of their sleeping alcove and threw Shariq across the room with the force of the blast, hard, into the far wall. A wall-lamp pierced her side, sending blood streaming out to stain the wood floor. Harim plastered himself against her at once, so that his body might work to heal hers, merging in the way that only males and females could. And somehow, somehow Jequith managed to get them on a makeshift travois, cursing the weakness of its fore-limbs all the while. Averting its eyes from the ruin of the beautiful house they’d built together, an island of light and color in the dark streets of the Warren. Trying to ignore the breaking of its heart.
Jequith had dragged them out of the district, through the harried, frantic crowds, had brought them here, to Narita’s home. Suddenly, another sweet shiver raced through it, echoing Shariq’s. Jequith had assumed the child was dead, but now its throat clutched with unbearable hope. Bang!
“Open the door,” Jequith said, its voice shaking.
Narita shook her head, protested, “Why? Why would you risk it?”
Jequith had no answer for her — there was no reason to trust, not really. But it had been granted shelter tonight, and then joy, when all hope had fled. How could it leave someone out in the cold on a night like this? “Just open it. Let her speak, at least.”
Narita stood still for a long moment, as if she fought her own inner battle. And then, sighing, something loosened inside her. Her scent changed, a trickle of something sweet joining the dark scents of fear and grief. She laid her palm against the plate and the door hissed open; and the human female fell inside, one fist still raised to hammer against the door. Narita snapped, “Amara — what are you doing here?”
The woman had fallen against the door, but there was no lack of pride in her; she struggled back upright before answering, a bag clutched tightly to her chest. “I left him.”
“What’s that to me?” Narita asked. Her voice as cold as the ice that covered half of Eiskiyarien now, and her body barred the entrance, so that the woman, Amara, stood half in and half out, preventing the door from sliding shut.
“Please, kunju. Don’t.” It was in her voice, the desperation that her squared off shoulders denied. Amara took a quick, steadying breath. Then she said, her voice now controlled and carefully blank, despite the bleakness of her words — “I have nowhere else to go.”
Jequith grieved for her, for the pain it heard. It grieved for all of them. Before Narita could answer, Jequith spoke, its hearts thumping in steady unison. “It is your home. But for our part, we would have her stay.” If they were to forge a new path forward, perhaps this was part of the answer. That small creatures, desperate and despairing, should reach out to each other in the darkness of night.
Amara’s eyes widened, as she finally looked beyond her own troubles to the rest of the room. Shariq and Harim in the corner, dark blood staining their clothes. Jequith, frill raised sharp as a warrior’s, and in one clawed hand, a kitchen knife. What good the knife would do it, Jequith hadn’t known, but after the blast knocked it to the ground, after it struggled to its feet, it found the knife in its hand. Instinct had triumphed over civilization, and it would be so tempting, to trust instinct more.
But Jequith was determined that instinct would not rule it. It would guard, it would protect; that much, instinct would make sure of. But with the life of the child singing through it, with the birthing imminent and Shariq and Harim out of immediate danger, Jequith thought that it could afford to take a risk, could dare to be kind. To repay the chance that Narita had bought for them.
Narita hesitated a long moment, and then, finally, took a step backwards. “Come in, then. You’re letting in all the cold.”
And it was strangely true — Jequith could feel a blast of cold air whipping past. How odd — it was if they are home again on Eiskiyarien. Maybe the chill wind had come to greet the new one that even now was readying herself to be born. “Welcome,” Jequith whispered to the coming child. The human woman took a tentative step into the room, letting the door whoosh shut behind her. If she had thought that it was speaking to her, no harm done. On this night, they could all use shelter from the storm.
Excerpted from The Stars Change, Part I: These Days of Peace (Circlet Press, 2014).