It's a very odd world we live
in, isn't it? They call me plenty of names. Mutt. Mudling. Natural. Three nouns. Three offenses.
Without any prompting, she was awake. Her eyes opened, with no lingering sense of exhaustion or fatigue. Slowly, her eyes drifted over to look at the blue digits glowing on a milk-crate nightstand. 06:11. Right on time. She stretched under the fleece blanket, her throat letting out a tight, strangled groan before she brushed the bedding aside, putting her feet on the floor. She stretched again, placing the heel of her hands on the ceiling and feeling her toe claws dig into the rugged utility carpet.
Not bad. Five hours of rest. A Human would be exhausted, but she felt revived and healthy. The apartment around her was completely dark, with no windows to speak of, lit only by the two alarm clocks, one blue, one red. But that in itself was enough for her to see. Her eyes glanced around, her nickel-sized pupils absorbing every ray of energy they could. She saw the world through a monochrome lens, gray and ghostly, a shadow of the image lasting a fleeting second when she moved her focus. She could see brighter grays where warmth radiated, from her arms, her roommate's face, a computer power pack. Only in such a complete absence of light could she see infrared, but it was another edge given to her race.
She slid into the bathroom, hearing her roommate mutter and stir. Even her keen ears couldn't quite catch what the slurred grumble was saying, only sensing "tomboy" somewhere in there. She nudged the door shut, finding the dim nightlight. The dull light flooded her eyes, forcing her to glance away while her sluggish irises contracted to fit the new condition. Even this warm glow as more than enough to work by.
Her morning routine progressed without a hitch. Before she touched the shower, she went through a more rigorous stretch, and then toppled onto her hands. A military regimen of simple exercises worked her body into a slight sweat, perfect for the water to wash away.
Kaitlyn spent a few minutes taming her waist-length hair, a mane she hadn't dare cut back in many years. The occasional clip she could tend to herself, since the platinum wave fell past her posterior, but no one but her seemed to know how to work around her ears. But being so long, she had to spend a lot of time with a very sturdy brush to make sure she hacked out all the knots before harnessing it into a loose ponytail.
Meg slept through the whole thing, despite being against the wall. Armageddon could sound and she would never wake up until she was ready to. Kaitlyn smirked to herself as she dressed, grabbing an olive utility vest with all her pens, wallet, and a dozen other little gadgets, on her way out with a green apple. No need to hang around and give her a reason to wake up.
She climbed out of the great metal can they said was a home. The top of eight decks resembled the old cities, with open roads and buildings growing from the plate like trees. The seven substructure decks were an interwoven enclosure, spiraling around the Cluster Core where the lifts and utility spine were. She looked up, seeing another layer of flat disks dotted above this one.
The fresh outside air had a distinct cut to it. Even with short sleeves, she was comfortable in the September chill. She inhaled the rich, damp scent rising from the forest below, approaching the cluster edge. Land value spiked here, and the buildings were beautiful again, mostly glass, silver and white making a bright façade to hide the shadow inside. She leaned against the yellow rail next to a sign, knowing without reading that it said "Caution: Do not Climb on Rail– 750m Drop." Seven hundred and fifty meters below, past the fringy projections of the Type B cluster, she saw the woods. And when she tilted her head level, she could see the silver sprawl, the Rise stretching endlessly over preserved nature, casting moving shadows as the sun chased around the sky. Past the disks and their glimmering strobes and lights, she could see the sky getting steadily brighter toward the east. Sunrise approaching.
She heard a sound on the wind and her ears cocked to track it. When they subconsciously picked the right angle, the noise sharpened suddenly. A warm buzz floating on a cutting scream. Moments later, the flitter wheeled into view, two main impellers glittering next to its helicopter body. It stopped in a seemingly random spot and climbed straight, heading above the Type A disk and finding a new course to follow.
She walked on, watching her hands in her pockets, backpack bobbing gently on her back. Her black-tipped ears moved ceaselessly, hunting for every noise from the hum of a transformer to the distant clank of a trash conveyor. She came through the cluster center, seeing a man in dark blue attending to the police kiosk, which stuck out from the rest of the machinery with its bright blue light. As she walked past, the officer finished his work and turned away, tucking a printout into his coat.
"G'morning, Officer Radley."
He fell into step with her, even though he had to take a step and a half to keep up with the tall woman.
"Same old thing," she answered with a cheery smile. "Classes are just getting rolling again."
"Second semester, eh? Funny how time flies."
"It does, doesn't it. How's Johnny?"
"Arm's busted in three spots."
She grimaced sympathetically. "That'll take a few weeks."
"Two. He's a tough guy, like his dad. The docs fused the breaks right up and the splint comes off the Wednesday after next. And he'll be right back on the razorboard course before ya can blink."
"Well good," she chuckled. "It's one of those things you hafta pick back up, or he'll never get on a board again."
"Too true." They walked silently for a minute, nearing one of the crossing bridges heading up to the Type A's. They passed another police kiosk, and after a moment, as if suddenly remembering a duty, he turned on his heel and went back to it. She hesitated, looking out to the east. A moment later, the sun broke past one of the Type B's, striking her harshly in the face. She reached into her breast pocket, donning a pair of molded sunglasses that took the edge off the light. He checked whatever he had to and came back.
"Intel just in. Looks like we can be expecting another skinning in Newport sixteen. Do me a favor and keep out of there."
Kaitlyn shrugged, her tail swishing against her jeans. "I've got no reason to go near there. It won't be a problem."
He stopped again, looking at the ground as if listening to something. He nodded and patted her on the shoulder.
"You're a good kid. Take care of yourself."
"Always," he rolled his eyes and started to walk away. "Have a good day."
"Same to you."
She took her time winding toward her destination. There was no hurry, and the lab wouldn't even be open until eight, so she had a little under an hour to chop. She walked, listening to her boots scrape against the ground. A mental map of the bad areas of town lay in her head, giving her a clear path toward the university. She dipped down, taking a curving bridge into the fourth deck of another Type B canister. She vanished into the neon and shadow, her sunglasses paling just slightly without the assaulting sun. Holographic advertisements crawled on many a spare surface. As she approached the cluster core, she entered a band of redirected sunlight. A disk running around the spine fed collected light from the roof down here, giving the illusion of an outside pavilion. A delivery truck whined by, its electric engine propelling it patiently down the narrow street.
After crossing to the next cluster, she boarded one of the lift cans, allowing herself to be imprisoned in clear glass as it pushed her upward. She leaned against the wall, watching the reflection of her tail playing around the backs of her legs. The lift burst into the upper pavilion, a structure of white and glass, sparkling and beautiful. The outside was lined with shops, the steel gates slammed shut for the night. She walked around the concourse to the north side, arriving back in the sunlight.
The cluster was a mushroom, with a Type A disk capping an urban stem. As she walked out, she found herself in a slice of past-age life. The buildings sprouted from the ground independent of the Rise and its design, like structures built on solid earth. She walked through wide streets meant for vehicles instead of foot traffic, sticking to the side. As she branched out from the core, she entered a residential district. Houses sat picturesque on fine lawns with cultured trees sprouting from the contained landscape. They were stunted, since there was only so far the taproots could burrow before meeting steel, but they were still trees.
These houses were magnificent. The design varied from area to area. Some were very modern, with more glass than anything else. Others were made with a more Victorian idea, of real wood. They had to cost a fortune, since that wood had to be harvested, shipped, and pass through the EPA tariffs keeping wood from becoming a major building material. Whoever lived in these things had far too much money for their own good.
The police kiosks with their blue lights became far and few between. The sign of a low-crime neighborhood. And most people could call the precinct from their home. There weren't too many wanderers around here. Except her, of course. Sometimes she worried people here would take offense to her running around their neighborhood. There were some that did, and she had learned to avoid them. The less trouble she had to deal with, the better.
On her way through the marvelous streets, she came across life. At half past seven in the morning, there weren't many other souls stirring, getting that extra bit of rest between their late night and their nine o'clock jobs. Humans. They slept so much. But here was one who had motivated himself to get out of bed so early in the morning and venture into the cool air. She saw him from behind at first, checking his snail-mail in a white box at the edge of the street. But as she looked, she thought the white hair and bald crown seemed something familiar. She slowed her brisk pace a little, coming up beside him just as he picked up his leather briefcase. He glanced to the side, seeing her. For a hesitant moment, his brown eyes appeared to study her, working for a recognition he knew he had. At last, his face brightened.
"Good morning, Kaitlyn. Nice to see you won't be one of the ones missing my early seminar on a Friday."
"Never, Professor Burgess," she answered with a bright smile.
"On your way to the university, I presume?"
"Eventually. There isn't much use sticking around my apartment with my roommate asleep until all hours. I'd hate to wake her up, so instead I take a walk."
"That's quite nice of you." He began to walk with her, heading farther north to their ultimate destination. "I remember my roommate was, well, a bastard on all counts. I never passed up an opportunity to make his life more inconvenient."
She gave him a weird look, her tail sweeping in slow waves behind her. After a moment of thinking, she supposed that his seminars were certainly overt and passionate enough for that to make sense. But still. A vengeful professor? Weren't they supposed to be all passive and wise? A slow smile spread on her face.
"It's nice to see that someone's still nice to people these days. Feels like everyone's just cutting everyone else's throats with the slander and the lawsuits and it's just nuts."
Kaitlyn shrugged. "There are certain people out there that it would be good to impress, only I don't know who they are, so I'll just try to impress everyone. Besides, I find the world comes much more willingly to you if you're determined and merciful."
"You're a dying breed, I'm afraid. Not Felisan, I mean…"
She nodded. "I know what you meant."
He chuckled. "Sort of hard for your kin to die off. What with the insane rate you reproduce at. That's why Humans are so scared of you. A few Felisan families move in, then all of a sudden you've got thirty growing Felisan kids running around. Kids that need futures. Least that's my theory."
"It makes sense to me."
They walked quietly for a few minutes before he thought of something to say. "So do you always come this way in the morning?"
"Usually. Maybe not at the same time, and I do tend to wander a lot."
"I could use the company if you wanted to commit to a routine," he smiled. "You seem like a very quick-witted kid, and in spite of being a bit shy, I think you've got a lot of good ideas in that head of yours. Disproving the blonde theory, for sure."
She blushed, turning her face away in guise of watching a passing flitter.
It was a long stroll to the university, but it was made easier by the talk.
"So I'm curious. How is it being Felisan here?"
"Mmm, can't complain."
"Really? I thought it would be a whole lot rougher. What with immigration's bad joke around your neck."
She smirked, running her fingers across the plastic weave collar snapped around her neck, her Halfbreed ID tag dangling at her throat. Bad joke for sure. They took advantage of the law, pressed the Halfbreeds into being even more like pets. She wasn't allowed in public without it, and they said it worked against her if she ever went into a restricted area. She hated every second of its cling, but there was nothing she could do against the law.
"It's good to see that my kind isn't giving you too much trouble." A few seconds of silence passed. "Are you working?"
"Yes. I'm a waitress at one of the taverns in Kingsbridge."
"So no trouble finding a job, eh?"
"Well it took more than my share of looking, but once I found it, I haven't had any real complications."
"And I assume you're living in student housing."
"In New Auburn. It's… not very pretty, but it's safe and it's a place to stay."
He nodded knowingly. "But I'm happy to see a Halfbreed able to make herself a place up here, especially you. Though I imagine you're clever enough to beat a freakishly large chunk of the system."
She chuckled nervously. "Yeah… you could say that."
The computer lab seemed to have been a warehouse in a past life, with sturdy but cheap walls and floors put in to separate the two-story chamber into two floors. Clusters of desks were arranged almost sporadically around the room, each with three or four one-piece computers set on them. The bottom floor was virtually unoccupied so early in the morning, all except two other early birds and the pair of disaffected students placed in charge of the lab. One was working at her computer terminal, while the other had the printer separated into several components, muttering almost under his breath about the less than satisfactory quality of the contraption.
Kaitlyn took something out of her bag, a yellow mailing package with bubble lining for padded protection. From it, she pulled out a black device about the size of a large bar of chocolate, one short end lined with gold contacts, the other with a collection of dark lights. When she slipped it into the drive cradle, the green light flashed on and the amber one started to flicker as the computer read the drive. As soon as it seemed ready, she reached around the side, found the power toggle, and with a deft stroke, reset the computer.
The advent of mobile drives were nice. In high school, she'd had a networked folder that only worked so long as the server was behaving, or if the terminal and the server were on speaking terms, which often they weren't. But here, with a short restart, the computer loaded from her files and not its base information technologies package. The pretty silvers and blues of the operating system were replaced by a different dynamic altogether, decorated with dark grays and oranges that strained her eyes less. Her fingers danced over the numeral pad, keying in her system code to let herself in– 131517.
Smiling to herself, she inserted her earphones, looking at the illusion of the screen. It was a flat panel, but the strange effects made it appear to have depth, protruding back into the screen itself. The windows that popped out of the icons seemed to hover above the backdrop pit of her desktop. She tapped on a few icons, calling their parent programs into existence. She leaned back, staring into the digital world.
It was as if she stood at the height of a cliff, looking down at not a valley, but a whole universe. Or as much as could be had in this zone. With radio transmissions crippled between systems, many ships were chartered to carry updates back and forth in their computer cores, a digital cargo to be delivered to the redundant servers between the different systems. Off-world, the 'Net slowed to a crawl, resulting a few minutes' wait between her and a system on Mars or farther.
Terrestrially, however, her tendrils reached out faster than she could think. In one corner, a messaging program provided her with instantaneous access to anyone in range. Meg was up, and as usual complaining about her early-morning lecture-cast. According to her, woman's studies wasn't quite so easy with a militant feminist crusading around spewing about how men were unnecessary and problematic. Elsewhere on her screen, the news ticker was bumbling by, quoting recent events regarding the GigaNet lawsuit, colonial riots, silly problems that were so far from her.
Her fingers scampered over the flat keyboard, the heat-sensitive pads translating the dance into useable text. Her hacked lecture-cast program logged into the Math 216 broadcast, tapping into the rambling professor as he attempted to teach the students how to contort algebra and survive in a world where variables ruled over constants in perpetual tyranny, forcing them to serve to their ends. Usually, the students had to have the program in the foreground, blocking everything else, and tap an alert window every so often to prove that they were there and paying attention. Again, the gifts of a computer major saved her from the endless boredom of being taught what she already knew.
Though that was her own fault. Kaitlyn knew always in the back of her head that she should have taken the placement test and bypassed the entire learning tree. Instead, laziness had taken over last summer and she found herself staring at requirements she could have tested out of. It made her sniff at herself. Stupid.
Which left her merely waiting for the next homework assignment. In the meantime, she was working on some of the coding package for her new project in Robotics 208. She looked at the growing stack of instructions, all of it written in cryptic terms and variables, fondly remembering the only ten line gadgets she used to program into her graphing utility in high school. There were now so many lines that she had to divide it into sections for her comprehension, different subroutines for each function that built up like a child's construction blocks into something bigger.
She stretched over the back of her chair, groaning tightly as her feline body bent. For a moment after, she blinked sleepily at her computer, dazed by the sudden release of endorphins. She shook her head to clear it, sitting straight again. Math lecture ended and she pulled the homework from the university server. From her bag she extracted some scrap paper and a mechanical pencil, and set to work, the upbeat notes of modern jazz playing in her ears.
She was halfway through the assignment when she heard a strange beeping. She looked up, trying to figure out what the computer was in arms about. The news ticker had an orange line scrolling across it, catching her attention immediately. She'd never seen orange before.
She tapped it, opening up a breaking news story. After the file loaded onto local memory, a face came into view, flawless and beautiful, smiling for a brief moment before the anchor's simulated mood changed.
"Watergate station, a rally point and repair facility for the Enforcer Commission fleet. Last night, a courier probe arrived at Fort Steel Headquarters bearing information of an attack. The Third Fleet was brutally attacked, apparently with no provocation. Damage to the station is extreme, and the casualty count is still unclear. Two task forces were scrambled to the area, and now only a fraction of the fleet has been recovered in lifeboats.
"Survivor accounts claim that the attackers were nomad in nature, but the offending clan has not been determined. The Republic Prime Council convenes immediately this morning in an emergency session to discuss the outcome of this disaster. We expect to hear from the Peregrines on their end of this matter within the week.
"Prime Commission Rodrick O'Donnell wishes to make it known that there were over two million men and women aboard the Watergate facility and the Third Fleet. Current projections indicate that only about a thousand made it out in stable condition. Two Navy hospital ships have admitted over three hundred critically wounded patients. The remaining one-point-eight million souls are most likely dead, but the assaulting clan may have taken prisoners.
"Please stay tuned for developments."
Her black-tipped ears flicked. Nomad attacks? That didn't sound right. From what little Professor Burgess had educated her on the Peregrines, they weren't ones for such cold bloodshed. Not a two million-man massacre. But then, they were also mercenaries by nature. It was a possibility she could not rule out.
Sighing, she turned back to her homework. With luck, she'd have it done before her social science seminar.
Burgess stood at the head of the small classroom, facing roughly thirty or so students. The room had windows facing out across the campus green, situated on the either floor of the administration building, with metal desks, a strange device with a chair and desktop fastened into one being, strewn about the room almost haphazardly. They were barebones, nothing like the technological marvels she'd had in high school with their integrated electronics and such. These were little more than masonite slabs on which to write on. Some students brought their computers with them. She brought a notebook. Sometimes it was nice to feel the weathered pages in her fingers as she flipped through, looking at the physical accomplishment of study.
Burgess appeared almost on cue, five minutes before nine thirty, when the class officially began. He drew them out of the traditional rows into an inward facing semi-circle. So the students could see each other better, he reasoned. Seminars weren't much fun if people couldn't see one another and discuss what they were learning about.
Kaitlyn was happy with this class. It wasn't unruly or distrustful, unlike some courses she'd taken, ones that would have been a thrill if not for the overwhelming majority of students who thought her time better spent dealing with their half-ass excuses and lazy posteriors in her way. These ones seemed intrinsically motivated enough to learn from this vault of information standing there.
When he took to the head of the class, silence fell as it should, without a good minute of calming the useless chatterboxes. He smirked, twirling a thin remote between his fingers. On his command, the screen behind him, glowing faintly with photon-warping energy, illuminated, displaying six figures in scientifically neutral poses, a representation of all races, to scale, so the Galaxii stood miniscule next to a towering Equilli drone.
"We have been discussing how societies are never one-sided, and the conflict between the Empire and our own Republic is a much more tangled matter that isn't so easily broken down into right and wrong. Kali, would you mind recapping?"
"Sure," the bright Human girl sat up straighter, her glasses shimmering in the board's light. "The Empire, despite being very imperialistic and gobbling territory whether it's proper or not, has also been held back by covert operations by the Republic Navy for several hundred years."
"And that cause, Jon?"
On the other side of the classroom, a thin, well-groomed boy looked up from his notes. "The Navy wants to maintain military superiority in Known Space, and they know that if we keep all the good toys for ourselves, no one else can threaten us effectively."
"Good to see you all paying so much attention. However, we must move on. Social science wouldn't be very social if there weren't different groups of people running the factions that clash, would it? And people are most basically broken down into races. As we can see on the board, there are six. The Pureblood Human, reengineered to perfection, most notably identified by their flawless characteristics, blue eyes, and blond or red hair. The Stock Human is shorter, more rugged, and has a far darker complexion due to the multiple centuries of interracial breeding. When you all showed up for class, I noted in my log that of the thirty-two of you, twenty-one are Pureblood and ten are Stock Human. Terra has one of the higher quantities of Pure… yes, Kali?"
"You only counted thirty-one. Twenty-one and ten is…"
"Well, there is one other in this classroom, but I prefer not to draw attention to her quite yet."
All eyes swept over to Kaitlyn, sitting on one of the far peripheries. Her cheeks immediately reddened and she dropped her head, using some of her hair to shield her face from view.
"Wolfines," Burgess continued. "Mammoth half-canine, half-Human creatures of superior size and strength. They additionally have keener senses than a Human. The second attempt at hybridizing brought us Felisans, perhaps the greatest success of gene engineering. They look more Human than Wolfines, enjoying only the select traits of a cat such as retractable claws, trainable ears, feline night vision, faster reflexes, and a great sense of balance inspiring an innate enjoyment of heights. Most Felisans come from docile house cats or wild cats and thus are smaller, though I've noticed a defined correlation between those bred from pets and those bred from more wild ancestors. House-cat threads are less fierce, with a greater drive to please people and get attention than their Tigra counterparts. Tigras, bred from the big cats, are intensely independent and passionate, much more given to act on their beliefs than care what others would think about it."
Kaitlyn mulled that over for a moment. Did that fit her? Well, I did run from home because I thought that was the right thing to do, and I don't really like asking for help, I guess. If he says so…
"Galaxii are our super-sailors, adapted for zero-g, low oxygen environments, and able to go long periods of time with minimal amounts of food. Being physically tiny, they also fit very well onto starships. They don't require much in the way of supplies, and have a supposed genetic disposition to be number smart. I'm not entirely sure genetics can code such a thing, but that's what they tell me. The Equilli are a messed up sort, using a few horse genes here and a few bear genes there. The males are mentally incompetent, more or less just workhorses with opposable thumbs, and can be very easily controlled using a few primary motivators, namely food and sexual gratification. The females are a little smarter, but only just. They are more suited as laborers and miners, because according to their creators, they are too stupid to resist or demand better wages.
"Now. There's something I want you to notice. Kaitlyn?"
Her head popped up, pen pausing mid-line.
"Come here for a moment."
She slid out of her seat and walked to his side. He turned to the rest of the class. "Mike, what do you think of her race?"
The one lethargic student looked up from his semi-doze. "Felisans? I think they're a little like pests, really. They put out kids like a factory, and we gotta have a place to put them all."
Kaitlyn's lip twitched. Where was he going with this?
"What about Wolfines?"
"Well they're just big dogs, yeah?"
"What about my race?"
"Humans? Well there's more of us and we were here first, so they really should answer to us. We made them, anyway."
"Katie. What do you think of your race?"
"Mine?" her ears perked as the attention shifted to her. "Uhh… well, we're very nimble and quick on our feet. We're naturally nocturnal and have great balance so we do well at night and in high places other people can't, but most of us are pretty small and not really very strong."
"Mmm-hmm. And the Halfbreeds?"
"In general? I think we're sort of misunderstood. We're not really trying to take over anything. Beyond that, we have a general right to survive, so I don't think forcing us to be pets is really going to work," she shot a dangerous glare over at Mike. "We're Human too, y'know."
"And what about my race?"
"You're very balanced and good at just about everything. Humans also aren't as predisposed to violence as Halfbreeds are. Not as close to animal instinct, I guess."
"Disregarding all racial slurs and political views," he waved his hand in front of him, "I want you to notice the pronouns. With Mike, Halfbreeds are they and Humans are we. I did say 'my race' when asking my question, and indeed I did note that Stock Humans and Purebloods are different races, technically speaking. And I being Stock and you being Pure, Mike, would make us different races. Yet you consider us the same."
"Humans gotta stick togther."
"Precisely! Kinship, ladies and gentlemen. To Kaitlyn, her brother and sister Halfbreeds, even though a greater percentage of them are not Homo Felidae like herself, are part of a unified group. To stand against the Humans, they must band together. But Humans also stand together, even being of the same scientific species. This was not always so. In the twentieth century, there was a huge rift between Caucasian, African, Hispanic, and Asian race groups, despite being part of Homo sapiens. Today, a Human is a Human, Pureblood or Stock aside, if there is a greater enemy. Oh, you may be seated, Katie. Sorry about painting a target on you.
"You see, on worlds with only Humans, while the rift is smaller, there is tension between the different Pureblood races themselves. But once you place Felisans in the mix, even just a small band, they become the other side, the enemy. If tomorrow an alien civilization showed up bent on the destruction of the entire genus, Human and Halfbreed would cease to be a consideration, on the most part.
"I bring this to your attention because I believe this isn't the right way. In economics, Human CEOs would fire hard-working Halfbreed laborers rather than let several inefficient, lazy Human workers starve on the street. If the roles were reversed, the same would happen. But if an AI construct, which has no real sense of kinship, were placed in charge, it would eliminate the inefficient workers in a heartbeat. They aren't pulling to capacity, and paying their wages wastes the company money.
She saw Jon lift up his hand. Burgess noticed it, nodding to him.
"I noticed something a few weeks ago. If a Human gets mugged by another Human, people ignore it. If a Wolfine mugs a Human, a maybe two men will jump in and take a swing, but the wolf can handle 'em no problem. But if a Human mugs a Felisan, it seems like every Halfbreed in the sector shows up, male or female, from ages fifteen to sixty, ready to claw the attacker to ribbons."
"Not everyone shares Mike's sentiment," Burgess smiled. "Basic psychology. Most bystanders have a 'it'll never happen to me' complex. Halfbreed bystanders don't, because many of them may have experienced it already, and they know that the odds are they will sometime in their life. With that in mind, they would rather fight and know that when it's their turn to be the victim, someone else will be at their back to help. There's also less of them, so they feel a better sense of family when they do stumble across one another." He glanced at Kaitlyn. "Am I right?"
Kaitlyn fiddled with her pen, leaning back. Now I'm a guinea pig too. "I thought it was just me, but if I see someone in a bind, I'll go at it. Even if they're Human."
"That's because Humans have never done anything directly to harm you. Correct?"
"Well, yes and no. They make me wear this stupid collar and every step of my life is held back by some pro-Human legislation. But I don't feel any need for vengeance, either. But also…" she put the pen down before she became to distracted by it, "speaking of basic psychology. When I jump into a fight, I also know that I've got a better shot at coming out on top."
"Bullshit," Mike muttered.
"I've got sharp claws, I'm a big creature, and I'm also very fit and flexible, which means I can get my strong legs at head level without much effort."
"In physical conflict," Burgess interrupted Mike before he could get his next comment out, "Halfbreeds are superior. Felisans are small and quick, or in a Tigra's case limber and strong, and also have ten knives permanently affixed to their fingertips. Wolfines are even bigger and can hit like a sledgehammer without half an effort. And I advise no one to ever piss off an Equilli. Next thing you know you'll have a car flying at your head. Being that they don't shatter every bone in your body with a backhand first. Statistically speaking, Felisans are twenty-six percent more combat effective unskilled and unarmed. Wolfines are seventeen, Equilli are twenty-four. Galaxii, because of their physical weakness, are twenty-nine percent less combat effective than Humans. Truth is, Felisans are not nice critters to get in a fist fight with, because they can swipe you pretty quick and they've got a good two centimeters of sharp ivory that can wound pretty bad. Katie? Your claws?"
She held out her hand, palm up, and squeezed her fingers in just the right way. From under her Human nails came five sharp, curved talons. Burgess, smiling bemusedly as always, took a tissue from his pocket and dragged it down into her index finger. She sliced it into two ragged tatters without even moving.
"This is why Humans are scared of Felisans. They're never truly unarmed. Wolfines have claws, but they aren't as sharp or wicked. Immigration had a hard time trying to get a mandate against their claws. However, it is medically impractical to declaw Felisans, because their hand structure is different and declawing them royally screws up the nerves in their fingertips, really destroying a lot of manual dexterity. The Supreme Court wouldn't have it. Forcing any individual to physically alter their body is against Republic Constitution. Some argued that any Human can technically walk into a bank and use their fists to get the same thing done. Kung Fu masters are weapons in themselves."
"But that requires training," Kali reminded him. "And any Felisan can just rake someone."
"Okay no," Kaitlyn shook her head. "You guys are completely overestimating my claws."
They all stared at her. Burgess' smile vanished for a moment. He nodded at her, stepping back. "You've got the floor, Katie."
Kaitlyn reached down, undoing the three straps on her boots and leaving her socks with them as she stepped out barefoot on the carpeted floor. "Gather 'round. You need to see this up close."
They all got out of their seats, all except a few skeptics, Mike included, who really didn't care. She curled her hands, forcing her claws out of their sleeves.
"Touch the body of the claw. Not the tip, the thick part."
They did, gently running their fingertips over the curved ivory.
"Blunt, see? Claws were evolved as grabbing tools." She curled her hands around an invisible victim, forming a cage with her claws. "So we can grab prey easy. And the way they're curved means that when a mouse or something struggles to escape, it just sinks the claws deeper. If they were sharp, then my claws would rip through the flesh and my prey, however mortally wounded, would be able to escape. Here."
She darted back to her desk and tore out a blank page, coming back. "Hold this."
Kali and Jon did the honors, holding the sheet taut in front of her. She snapped her index claw through it and pulled back, nearly knocking them off balance as she dragged the paper with her. The result left a curious tear in the page.
"Look. See the edges? They're all lacerated, ripped backward in the direction of pull. And you saw how it was pretty tough for me to do that. It's about the same as using…" she tried to think of something with the same qualities, the idea striking her after a moment. She pulled out her pen. "Using a pen. Watch."
She stabbed the tip into the paper and pulled back. It left the same sort of mark.
"See? They're not razor blades. Really only good for grabbing stuff. As another example," she dropped her weight a little, sinking her toe claws into the rug. "Try to push me over."
They gave her a good time at it, but with her weight stabilized and the claws riveting her to the spot, she wasn't going anywhere.
"And on top of that, this is only two centimeters. To do serious damage, you'd need more, to get through clothing, skin, then the fat and muscle layer underneath. And they're not sharp enough to slice tendons or anything like that. Felisans know this, so if they really felt like inflicting some damage, they'd use an actual knife."
"I've heard of Felisans filing their claws, though," Jon mentioned.
The thought made her shiver. "A possibility, but it's not very comfortable. A sharp claw slowly saws through its own sheath, so it hurts to extend and retract them. I would never do it."
"I love getting you into these debates," Burgess interrupted. "Getting your minds firing, challenging things. I most especially enjoy having Katie here, now that she can dash misconceptions like not having claws like knives. I myself didn't know they were mostly blunt matter. However, time draws short." He pulled something out of his bag, dumping a plastic baggie into his tweed cap. "Draw one."
They did. Kaitlyn looked at the folded bit of paper curiously, making out a few strokes of pen through the whiteness. With the brush of her thumb, she opened it. The immaculate writing spelled out "Peregrine Clans." Nomads? Strange that they would have come up earlier, and now were resurfacing. She had a young, mostly rumor-based knowledge, but she had a feeling that she was about to learn much, much more about how they worked.
Like why Peregrines would attack an Enforcer repair facility.
"There is one duplicate of each group, with one threesome to balance the numbers. You have until October fourteenth to pull together an oral presentation on the characteristics, views, and social significance of this faction. Find your partners, and I'll see you on Monday."
He packed himself up, and the students did the same, swapping their computers to standby and bagging their materials. Kaitlyn looked up as she zipped her backpack closed, seeing Jon looking down at her.
"Yep," she nodded, smiling gently.
"Stellar," he grinned. "Well that's convenient. Felisan researching a Halfbreed group."
"Well it'd be more coincidence if I was assigned the Brethren."
He chuckled. "That would be funny."
She got up and he walked with her out into the lobby, then followed her down the stairs.
"So do you know anything about them already?" he asked.
"Not a whole lot. They're mostly Halfbreed, nomadic (which is where their name comes from), and I think they fight for a living. I've got some mixed feelings as to whether they're saints or demons though."
"Probably depending on Human or Halfbreed perspective," he snickered. "Then again, Humans will badmouth any sort of Halfbreed organization just for the hell of it."
She nodded. "Did you hear about New Watergate?"
"No? I've never heard of New Watergate."
"Me neither until this morning. It's a repair and rearming facility somewhere in Middle Colonial Space. The newscast this morning said there'd been a massacre. Two million Enforcer personnel dead. Station is severely damaged, most of the Third Fleet was kicked into the next existence."
He gaped. "Whoa. That had to take a lot of firepower!"
"Would it?" she asked, her ears cocking.
"Well if the fleets take after Navy Armadas, they'd have several heavy cruisers and more than a handful of battleships. Whatever hit them had to be able to deal with the station defense grid, the rest of the fleet, and the heavies. Either that was a very well coordinated strike or the other army was just as gigantic."
"Well the Commissioner says he suspects Peregrine work."
They left the administration building and turned to the same direction.
"Peregrines? Hey now, our project just got a hundred times more interesting."
She nodded. "I was hoping it would answer a few questions there, too."
They took another turn toward one of the low mechanic shops in the campus. She looked at him with the same curious look he gave her.
"So… where are you headed?" he asked the question first.
"Machine shop six for my robotics two-sixteen workshop."
"No way! That's where I'm going! I never noticed you were there."
She chuckled, tilting her head. "Ditto. Though you Humans are easy to miss. You just blend into one another so well."
"You'd think I'd have noticed someone with waist-length platinum hair, Human or not."
She blushed, beaming. "I love my hair, even if it is a pain to take care of."
"Is it…" he suddenly grimaced and looked ahead.
"Natural?" she guessed.
"Well, yeah… 'Scuse me while I put my foot in my mouth."
She laughed. "Don't go jumping off any bridges. I'm going to need you for my project. Yes, it is. Felisan genes. It takes a lot of work to keep in good condition."
"You're doing a good job, from what I can tell."
"Well thanks," she grinned.
The workshop was on the bottom floor of the bunker-like engine shop. She went down the metal stairs with him trotting at her heels, going down the double-story hallway before trooping into the warehouse-sized facility. The room was divided into several compartments, multiple work bays for the different teams to work at. Her companion split off here, going to his bay near the door. Hers was at the far end, near the tool racks and the closed service gate that led to the truck access behind. She slumped her bag onto the desk, filing through it for the package with her mobile drive. She slapped it into the computer, not bothering to reboot it. The lab computers were set up the way she wanted them: useable. She keyed her department code into the prompt, sighing.
With the crackle of plastic, she yanked the cover tarp off her creation. The half-built robot was sitting on jacks, bits and pieces scattered around. She picked up one of the parts, her tail swishing bemusedly behind her. She put it down on the workbench, popping onto her seat. She keyed up her CAD diagram, looking at it.
"Ya think ya can fix that?" someone snickered at her shoulder. "Delicate electronics?"
"Good morning, professor," she greeted, pulling her vest off. She looked up, seeing the small man standing there, cleaning his nails. "It's an expensive and rare part. It's useless now, so if I mess up, I'm not changing anything."
She began to toy with a set of micro-screwdrivers, pulling the tiny screws out of the aluminum casing. Soon, she had the blue crystal circuits exposed. Clearing her throat, she swiped a set of latex gloves and pulled them on. The shadows moved, and her instructor was leaning over her shoulder.
"Not as easy as copper. Crystal contacts are much more fragile."
She bit her lip, taking a long breath. There it was, not much more than a hairline fracture running across it.
"Katie, do ya really need this sum'bitch?"
"I need a locomotion controller."
"An articulated 'bot don't need a controller to run right."
"I'm not building a lame spider." She picked up a tube of plastic resin. "So… I've only read about this. You put the resin across the break at the blue pathways, not the white board."
"This is why usually people just buy new control boards."
"If I had eighty marks for a new one, I would, but I'm on a sort of tight budget, Professor."
He chuckled. "Well it's a learning experience now, ain't it? Yeah, resin on the blue breaks. Don't get any on the white board or you run the risk of crossing circuits." He looked down at the board. "It looks like the cracks missed the vital components. It should fine. If you're careful."
"I'll be good."
She heard his footsteps retreat at the same time a familiar slip-slap walked toward her. She glanced over her shoulder as the girl walked in, popping up onto her seat.
"You look focused."
"Shh," Kaitlyn murmured, painting the first bridge. She took another long breath and streaked another bit. Her hands started to shake, and she had to stop and collect herself for a moment. "Fine details, Erin. You build me a control program. I fix your hardware so it runs."
Erin snickered, kicking her orange flip-flops off and perching delicately on her stool. A programmer working on her math and logic requirement. Most of the people here were here for that reason, getting rid of a foolish requirement in an easy class. But it wasn't turning out so easy as many of them had hoped. Kaitlyn took a long breath, composing herself before she started to meld the channels again. After this, the mechanics were easy.
"All right all ya stumblin' weak-bodied excuses for mechanics. Ya know the drill. Eleven days. Either ya 'bot works or it don't. Get to work."
She finished the work and capped the tube, sighing. "I second that."
"Mmmm?" Erin looked over.
"It's either junk, or we've got ourselves a locomotion controller." She stacked the boards back into the body of the case, closed it, and gently set the shining screws into their places. "Now, with the painful electronics detail done, I can get back to the easy greasy stuff."
"Eh. Have fun."
She braided her hair and undid her shirt, replacing it with her vest, hair trapped down the back as she snapped the black plastic clasps in the front. She brought the controller back to the contraption and crouched, pushing her breath out of her nose.
"I'll make something out of you yet."
After the next two lecture-casts, she returned to home for her nap, getting her additional three hours slid in curled up, still dressed, on her neatly made bed. Again without prompting, she woke around five, fixed her hair, and set out for her job. Fortunately, she took the inbound train from the cluster core heading to Sacramento, watching the outbound cars unload like an overfilled sardine can a collage of people, lawyers, doctors, and business officials crammed side-by-side with factory workers and dockhands. She hung by the rail in the nearly empty robot tram, watching the world fly by as the train dangled from a rail under the road bridges. It went through the other clusters, weaving a crooked line toward the denser part of the Rise.
The walk wasn't long from the train station to her job. The tram halted in the lower levels of the Kingsbridge Regional Spaceport, letting her climb the stairs to the bustling floors above. The facility never slept, constantly receiving aircraft and shuttles from every destination. She walked along the concourse, edging between open air and glass enclosure, tracing the line between the commercial shuttles and the merchant pads. For a delicious change, the eyes that saw her didn't seem so accusing, so hateful and demanding. Halfbreed eyes– the sharp, scintillating, all-seeing gems of Felisans and the duller, fiery orbs of a Wolfine. They watched her go with a warm look, a smile if she glanced their way, and often a nod as she passed them.
Head high, she gazed around in wonder, naming the different ships in her head. Most of them were corvette and galleon class, solid, fast, dependable. Their crews sold many of their wares straight out of the holds, serving a double role as salesman/navigators and salesman/mechanics. A plethora of languages graced her ears, Republic Common, Imperial High-tongue, Irobese, some of the lost languages like German and Russian that floated with the distant colonies. She walked with a healthy sway, a half-smile held on her lips. Before taking the stairs to the second deck, she inhaled deeply, sampling the scent of ion exhaust, hot metal, and stowaway smells from thousands of places.
Leaving the merchant docks left her feeling oddly empty. It was a small enclave of limitless origins, as diverse and unknown as space itself. She told herself that one day, she'd manage to get up there, if only for a few hours. They probably needed robot engineers somewhere in the Interior Core, mining operations and automated factories in the distant worlds. She stopped on the bottom step, envisioning it. Perfect.
Her target was another face in the commercial district, a cluster of localized capitalism with everything the visitors would possibly want. The upper deck was quite classy, the stores equipped with clothing, electronics, trinkets, food, just about everything that wasn't available for sale on the 'Net.
After months of being held up on their drifting metal coffins, the restless spacers came ashore for one of two things to unwind. One existed in the shadier deck below her feet. The other, she could help them with. Nestled between an arcade and one of the stairs heading up was a seemingly blank steel face, blue holograms shimmering across the top, forming letters seemingly through coincidence. They called it "The Hangar." The only pub in the spaceport that was respectable.
She walked in, flashing a smile to the two black Wolfines standing guard at the door. They knew her– no need to check her card for age. One of them uttered a mere "Evening, Katie," which she answered with a warm smile before going inside.
The tavern was dim and warm, music playing from a fully-outfitted sound system that confused her ears with a hundred vectors. She wove between the tables, looking around her at the almost-dreamlike world. Human and Halfbreed sat together, cards flashing on the table as they bet their accumulated pay in hopes of getting some shred of extra money. The outfits varied as much as the races, common clothing scattered with company uniforms, and the glimmer of the military as well, the charcoal uni-suits of the Navy and the green olive tunics of Enforcer agents.
Ducking into the breakroom, she stopped to recover the semi-formal outfit from her locker, depositing her button shirt and vest in exchange for a black collared shirt. It didn't entirely match her jeans, but it was the one bit of uniform that they had.
She rounded the glowing bar, patting a shorter girl on the shoulder as she slipped past. The bartender watching over the far section gave her a nod as she took his place and headed back to retire. She keyed herself into the ordering system, starting her payroll clock.
"Right on time," she smirked. "The normal?"
The gray, weathered dockhand gave her a smile, his crooked whiskers lifting a little. She swiped a few glass bottles off the shelves behind her and quickly mixed up a curious mix of orange juice, vanilla, and rum with her swift, practiced hands. He took it with a bow of relief.
"God do I rely on you to keep my blood flowing," he snorted, toasting the glass to her before taking the first gulp.
"Same ole' shit. Nine t' nine working a forklift until my hands bleed."
She drifted to a few other patrons taking up at the seats, falling into the steady, twirling rhythm on the slip-grip mats, grabbing alcohol, and sometimes more mundane liquids for combinations. The metal key hanging from her left wrist was easily snapped into her hand to wrench an aluminum cap off a bottle of draft. Time went along and she swiped bits of metal off the table, tips that accumulated from a few tenbits to several marks for her to take home. Most of the faces she saw were new ones, ones she knew she probably wouldn't see ever again. Yet there were several regulars, and after a year of serving drinks, she knew their stories.
The fifty-six year-old Wolfine pushed shipping crates around for twelve hours a day, and had for the last two decades, his family butchered by Skinners, his only pleasure being the two glasses she gave him each night. At one corner an old lady sat with a glass of brandy, waiting every night of the year for her husband to return from a ship Kaitlyn was sure had suffered a terrible fate. Two Human redheads, brothers as inseparable as a cat from its tail, always dropped in for beer after working on the merchant pad hydraulics.
As she was cruising with her rhythm, she saw a flash of the charcoal uniform as one of the Navy soldiers sat down. The woman snapped off a quick but polite order before turning back to one of her friends. Kaitlyn complied, digging a less potent bottle of Vanilla Frost from the cooler. She put it on the counter and snapped the top off.
"Here you…" she froze, blinking. The girl was Felisan, her blonde hair cut to her shoulders, black-tipped ears poking high in the air. They caught her attention immediately, an odd quirk in her genes that she only knew two people to have. The shoulder patches told her three tidbits: A First Lieutenant, Marine Aviator, 43rd Division. Her last name, sewn above her left breast pocket, was what caught her heart– "GREAR."
The pilot looked back. Eyes like her own, clear blue and flecked with bits of gold, widened as she recognized her server. She stood, one hand touching her chest for a second, as if checking her pulse, jaw slowly hanging wider.
"What are the odds? It's… it is you. After all these…" she trailed off and looked around her, seeing that a few of her comrades were watching. "Shit. I'll squeal and be even more excited later," she pouted, looking back. "When do you get off?"
"Works for me." She sat down, taking her drink with her tail held high. "Spirits of All, it's good to see you again."
Kaitlyn draped herself over the counter, her tail swishing happily behind her. "You have no idea. I'm not the one who could have not come back."
Avalon smirked. "Not for a while yet, babe. TRMC isn't about to start a new war, so I'm just on patrol duty for a while. My carrier, the TNS Waterloo, just put in for maintenance. Two of her main thrusters burned out and we had to shut down one of the reactor cores."
"What are they doing putting you on a piece of crap like that? You're better than that."
She shrugged, cheeks flushing. "I don't see a lot of it. The flight control suite is brand-spanking new."
"You always get the new pretty toys."
Avalon grinned, her bright smile warming Kaitlyn's heart almost to its limits. "You're doing okay, I see?"
"I can't complain. I've got a job and I go to classes." She lifted her head, suddenly remembering that she had other clients. "I can't stay to chat, though."
"Go," she waved her off cheerfully. "I'm not going anywhere."
Avalon was based for the moment in one of the local hotels, while the carrier underwent its repairs. Kaitlyn followed her after her shift, retiring to the small but cozy room with a great view over the shimmering spaceport lights.
The moment the door closed, they were locked together. Kaitlyn could have sworn she was the one to tackle Avalon, but her twin could have just as easy bowled her over. When she had recovered from her giggling fit, she realized that she was sprawled across her on the foot of her bed. She sighed, letting herself rest against the familiar body, warm and firm, yet strangely soft and comforting.
"You got muscle," she murmured.
"A drill sergeant does that to you."
Kaitlyn chuckled, rolling off her.
Avalon sighed, rubbing her face. "I would have so jumped you back there, but I've got a reputation to uphold. They say I'm up for promotion. Captain."
Kaitlyn shook her head, taking one of her hands. "Captain? You rise quick."
"You will too."
Kaitlyn looked at her uniform. The Navy and Marines weren't particularly ceremonial these days. Her clothing was little more than a modestly-fitting charcoal gray coverall, her unit, rank, and name all stitched into the fabric around the many pockets. The fabric was synthetic, rugged but smooth to the touch. As she stared, she could see herself in one, standing next to Avalon.
"You know. There's a pair of twins that come to the bar every night after work. Hydraulic techs, for the pads. I look at them and each time, I can see us. And I just," she hesitated, noticing that her voice was cracking slightly, "I just wonder why I didn't go with you."
"You felt a different calling."
Kaitlyn slumped back, her head striking the wall harshly. She barely noticed Avalon sitting up, half reaching for her, concern etched into her face.
"Bullshit. That's what I told you."
"Well you don't lie," Avalon told her, sliding closer to wrap a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Hey, easy Katie. I'm not mad at you."
"It's not you. It's me," she rested her face in her hands, trying to make the stinging in her eyes go. "I know it's a mistake now. I should have signed up with you."
"How do you know this is the right way? Military service isn't exactly a joyride, sweetheart. It's glorified slavery. I get all sort of decorations for doing what I should, but I still have to get up by their clock. Trust me, that part bites. Felisans don't run on an eight-off, sixteen-on schedule. We do a five-ten-three-seven, two naps, two shifts up. But I gotta make it work. My body's sort of adjusted, but I'm still tired a lot. Gotta take these damned stimulants to keep me firing some days."
Kaitlyn grinned weakly, sighing. "You always did know how to make me feel better."
"It's the truth. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't stay with you. I just don't have the free time to keep contemplating it. I mean, hell, the job of an aerospace engineer wouldn't be that bad."
"Yeah. But what happened when we first came here? We were going to fly. That's why we ran. We wanted to fly and go up to the stars."
"We were eight. We had no fuckin' clue how the world worked. It's not like we've messed things up enough already. Mum and Dad were right. More right than we ever would have thought. They knew the Rise. We didn't. They weren't scared of their past. They were scared of the present. The stories they told, aren't they true?"
Kaitlyn flipped her knife out, looking at the silver gleam in the dull light. "They aren't stories for me. Memories."
Avalon winced. "Yeah. Maybe I did get off lucky. That sort of shit doesn't happen at the academy. Or if it does, the cadets show up with their asses so raw they can't sit down after the drill sergeants are done beating them bloody."
"On the bright side," another sigh, "I haven't killed anyone yet. Just flesh wounds. Enough to keep them from chasing me."
"They never got you, did they?"
"No. I was mugged once and they got away with sixteen marks." She snorted. "That was barely worth holding a knife to my chest. I could tell the guy was pissed. But what did he expect, robbing a Halfbreed. We're not made of money like Purebloods are."
"I hear that."
Silence sat beside them, and after the first few seconds, Kaitlyn shut her eyes and pulled the mirror of herself to her. She had tried not to think about Avalon, and now that she was back, back after three years of little more than letters, it felt like the hole in her side had been filled. Her other half was back.
"Can I sleep here tonight?"
"I was hoping you would."
Kaitlyn smiled, running her fingers across the patches on her sister's arm. "And can I have one of these?"
"The jumpsuits? I have six. I think I can 'forget' one."
"I always wanted to wear a uniform."
"The Navy needs robot engineers. You should sign on."
Silence brooded again. Kaitlyn could hear the steady thump of her sister's heart beside her own, the gentle whistle of her breathing. Her fingers worked into her short hair and scratched at her scalp. Avalon's muscles immediately unknotted and she slumped limply into her.
"So what's it like, in space?"
"It's cold and very quite. Usually I run Stallions from flight control, so I've got the whole carrier and crew right there with me, but when I was in training we flew the Hornets in-cockpit. It's…" she took a long, dreamy breath. "Remember when we used to lie on the mountains during the winter, feeling the snow biting at our backs and ears, our fingers and toes so numb we never thought we'd feel them again?"
Kaitlyn giggled fondly. "Ahh, those were the days."
"It was so quiet you could hear your own heart. And we could lay there and look up. No Rise there, so all you could see was mysterious, black, stark sky. Being up there, by yourself, strapped to eleven hundred kilograms of metal with eight hours to live if you couldn't find home again, it's like that, only much more lonely. Patrols are almost excruciating. It's just you and… well, nothing. You and your wingmate talk for a little to kill silence, but then there's nothing. We have music players to help us out, but if you turn it all off, all you can hear is the hum of the console fans and the gentle hiss of your oxygen valves. And that sky is everywhere. You put your hand against the canopy, knowing it's that stupid layer of glass between you and cold nothing. And there are more stars out there than you could ever dream existed. The atmosphere hides the dim ones. It's like there's more white than black, but none of them touch. And they aren't all white. You can tell some of 'em are yellow, and others are blue and red." Avalon's hand rubbed gently across Kaitlyn's belly, causing her to relax even deeper herself. "I'd sit there and sometimes imagine I was flying in a B-12 Banshee. It's a two-seater. I ran a few drills on them. I'd sit there in my pilot seat and see the shine of your helmet just beyond my panels. I could hear you breathing faintly in the intercom. It would just be silence. Like now."
Minutes passed, though neither noticed. Kaitlyn stirred, lying more comfortably on the bed.
"I missed you so much," Kaitlyn whispered. "Sometimes I'd wake up and think I could feel you there."
"I know. I've felt it too. At least tonight, it can be real."
"Yeah…" she said dreamily.
They lay for a few more moments before Kaitlyn finally got up and undressed. Avalon did the same, stretching out in her black shorts and sports bra, an exact mirror of her sister with shorter hair. Kaitlyn stretched out beside her, letting herself be pulled close as the blankets trapped their warmth.
When she closed her eyes, she could smell lamp oil and diesel fumes. The bed had three hard spots where the frame pressed through the weak mattress. Avalon's breath was warm and wet against the back of her neck, her skin softer and warmer than any blanket. She could feel a difference. Her collar tags against her wrist, Avalon's service tags pinned against her shoulder, the swell of her sister's breasts, all reminding her that she was grown up now, and the Anachronism was just a repurposed army truck a thousand kilometers away, somewhere in the forest. And her parents cried in the back as they went to sleep, looking at the cot the two twins had once curled up in like kittens huddling for warmth.
The sting in her eyes was this time relentless. She felt the salty dampness spread across the bridge of her nose and sideways down her face, soaking into the pillow. A moment later, Avalon took a shuddering breath, pulling her a little closer.
"I want to go home," she breathed.
Kaitlyn found her hands clasped at her belly and put one of her own into the knot. "Me too."
She bit her lip, choking back her tears. "We were so stupid."
Avalon managed to hold back all but a strangled whimper. Kaitlyn felt her pain reflected, the sadness of two people caught in her chest. It was worse than the first nights alone. Only this time, she didn't know why she was crying. She cried because Avalon cried, and Avalon cried because she did. There was no beating it.
After a while, the tears dried and it was quiet again. Kaitlyn felt herself fall into a thick, warm sea, drifting into sleep.