Dragonskin

All I can remember are flashes. My head, my head feels different, it's hard to concentrate. But I can move. I need to get to a safe place. Blood . . . why can I smell blood? I think, I think I can taste it in my mouth. If I were feeling right I might retch, but the taste isn't so unwelcome.

I did not ask for this when I signed on. It was those military men. They brought this disaster on us.

Sheela opened her eyes. The room was tiny, it was one of the spacious cargo storage rooms, yet the space felt like a small closet. She climbed to her feet. The whole ship lurched and creaked. Her head slammed into the ceiling, leaving a dent in the metal paneling. It did not hurt. She put her hand to her head.

S-scales? Thick, rough scales, on my head, on my . . . my hands . . .

Red scales glistened all over her arms, the palms of her hands were leathery, and long black claws reached out from each finger.

What am I?

She felt her body. Scales, thick and tough, red everywhere except for the smoother underside—a faded yellow along her front and the inside of her arms and legs. It felt firm like pure muscle. Thick leathery wings laid on her back and long horns behind her head, and in front of her face extended a long snout that ended sharp and curved like a beak. She retained no mammalian features, and no sexual organs to speak of.

Two hearts pumped inside of her, a large one up high and a small one down low. The emotion of bewilderment and intrigue was different, but not changed. Perhaps different hormones are delivering those emotions.

I must have died. I must have been reincarnated. But if that was the case, why can I remember my previous life? Why am I full grown? No, I couldn't have been . . .

She could smell everything on the ship, it was like death. And she could hear everything on the ship; even though the cargo bay doors were shut and the droning of the life support systems and artificial gravity were all-encompassing, she could hear the faint buzz of the computers two rooms away in navigation. And she could see everything; even her natural enhanced eyesight could not compare to what she could see now, like she'd been staring through a pane of smoked glass her whole life and now pulled it away.

Why am I not afraid?

Sheela's hands searched her body and felt nothing out of place. She took a step forward, and she felt the muscles of her legs twist about like they were being pulled out of joint, but at the same time, it felt right. She placed her hand on the mechanism of the three-ton bay door, and tugged on it gently. The door came off its bolts with the sound echoing thought the hull of the ship.

She tossed it aside, and it made a dent in the floor. The titanium bolts it previously sat on were torn apart like cheap twine.

Bodies littered the the hallway—a dozen or so and pieces of others. Blood painted the walls like abstract art. Red warning lights lit the corridor every other second, hiding the colors with each pass. The ship shuddered again.

She lifted her claws to her snout and sniffed them. Blood.

It made her hungry. She slid her tongue nearly a foot out of her mouth and licked what blood was left off. The taste drove her senses wild, it was almost as if . . .

No. What was she thinking? She was not a murderer. And yet, not the slightest bit of remorse entered her mind. She understood still that she should feel remorse, guilt, fear, and yet none of these emotions surfaced.

If I've . . . if I've become a preta . . . but I have not been jealous, or greedy, what joke have the forces of the universe been playing with me!

But she looked nothing like a preta. All those stories described them as near-mummified humans, not magnificent beasts. And the taste of blood was not like that of suffering, it was something else entirely.

No . . . perhaps the Asura. If that's even possible. I don't know if any of this is possible. Yet I can still remember my life.

The ship shook and creaked, and the bodies tumbled.

The intercom clicked on. "Emergency. The Vajrayana is in a decaying orbit. All escape vessels have launched. Contact with atmosphere in approximately fifteen minutes. Please reinstate engines and autopilot will correct."

No. I couldn't have died. I'm still on the ship.

Maybe not everyone was dead. If she could find the captain, maybe an engineer, they might still be alive, they could help.

She turned over a body to make sure it was not that of the captain, but the face she did not recognize at all. And she turned over another, and did not recognize his face either.

These were not their uniforms. None of these people were on the crew, how could that be?

Now I remember . . . there was an explosion. They froze the computers and boarded.

Pirates? No, the Republic. Sheela gasped when the memories suddenly returned.

She turned and looked at the doors down the hallway, and saw the one with the number 17 painted over it. Besides the door she broke apart moments ago, this was the only door that remained open.

"Guard this with your life," the main in uniform said. Sheela had no intention of doing so, they weren't being paid enough. Just drop the cargo off at the rendezvous over Europa and it will be an easy paycheck. There's no way the Republic will attack a neutral cargo vessel, unless, of course, someone found out about the shipment. And waylaid them over Mars.

Why didn't she escape? Sheela looked out the windows—yes, the terraformed Martian landscape was miles below, drawing closer—prime escape distance. She strode down the hallway, and found her feet carried her around the ship as soon as she thought of the destination. B-Wing—all escape pods launched. Main Deck—all escape pods launched. Engine Room—all escape pods launched. Were there any others?

"Tal-50?" Sheela asked, addressing the computer. Her voice was unlike her, but she expected it. Yet it was not deep and bellowing so much as it was . . . seething?

The computer beeped into the intercom. "System compromised. Backup systems at minimum. Subject unrecognized, please identify yourself."

"Sheela Santhanam, Chief Medical Officer."

"Bioscanners unavailable. Voice unrecognized. Please give confirmation code."

"Four-five-three-eight-two-dha-six," Sheela said. Odd, she could never remember that code when she needed it.

"Confirmed. How can I help you?"

"Are there any escape pods left, anywhere on the ship?"

"All escape pods have launched or malfunctioned."

Malfunctioned? That was right. When everyone fled, all the escape pods in her block filled up, so she rushed down the hall to B Wing, only to find that the last pod was unresponsive.

And then what did she do? B wing was near the first floor of the Cargo Deck, so she ran there to hide, and noticed that the door to bay 17 was wide open.

There was the large metal crate. The military men hooked it up to the ship's security systems, so it was unlocked with the door. If they were to drag this crate out of here, maybe she could hide in it and. She opened it up.

Inside, standing eight feet tall, was a red draconic alien being, with its chest flayed open and all its insides emptied out.

I thought my heart would stop. I almost assumed the government had found alien life.

But it did not look like it had been cut open for an autopsy. It looked like it was opened up naturally, like there was a hinge in its back and all the ribs—which reached the full length of the abdomen—stuck out like fingers ready to grab hold. The space inside was like a mucus-drenched pocket of skin, not like the cavity of an empty cadaver, and there were pockets to the side, two running down either leg near where there should have been bone, and two to its side, reaching up into the arms.

Footsteps. Sheela whirled. The soldiers were already here.

"Sir, there's someone still in here, and the package is opened." The soldier spoke into his radio in English, but Sheela knew enough of the language to understand. The men behind him raised their guns but the soldier held up his hand, waiting.

I didn't know what to do. I never know what to do in these situations. I'm a medic, not a soldier.

The soldier's hand came down, and the men opened fire. Bullets flew, striking Sheela everywhere about her body—he leg was shattered, her gut pierced, and the exit wounds left chunks of her backside over the beast behind her.

She fell to her knees, and coughed. Blood. She was going to die now.

A chain snapped behind her, and the alien beast fell forward, right on top of her. The space suddenly felt a lot tighter. It got wetter, and the fingered ribs closed shut, but she did nothing, her strength left her.

I might as well have been reborn an Asura.

Sheela traced her claws down the front of her chest. There was a seam down her front like a sine wave. Strands of her hair were caught in it.

Why this . . . suit? Maybe a biological creature would work on the same wavelength as a human, allowing not only better interaction than with a mechanical exoskeleton, but so many other benefits besides. It could be grown the same way organs were grown, with a slurry of raw material and extracellular matrix to tell the DNA how. And any ability that only a machine could grant could still be supplied, like a visor with an HUD or any number of long-range weapons.

And it saved her life. She was still alive inside . . . inside herself, somewhere just under the skin and muscle. She could still feel her heart beat, but everything she felt was through the suit instead.

The ship shuddered under her feet once again.

She should get to the cabin. Once she thought about it her legs already carried her there. It was bewildering how swiftly and effortlessly she traveled—it took more effort to concert herself.

She didn't know how to get the engines back online, or if it was possible. She flicked some switches around the dashboard but nothing responded or even gave an angry beep.

She carried herself around the ship, looking for another way off, and every time she passed by the cargo deck the smell of blood and human flesh grew stronger. She was still hungry. If she wore this suit any longer the hunger would drive her mad.

She wanted out. Her fingers searched for the seam that was on her chest, tried to pry it open, but she could not get her talons into it. Was she stuck inside? Was it permanent?

She wanted to scream but the emotion just wasn't with her. She thought in a big voice let me out.

I don't want out she thought in response, in the voice of the suit. You'll just die, you need to be the Asura now.

She gasped before the hormones could repress her shock. No, I don't want this suit telling me how to feel.

Why would the suit have a mind of its own? Of course—like firmware for a computer. She did not possess the instincts necessary to move in a body like this, so it had its own mind to help its wearer run it. She did not know how the neural interface worked, but it was something that would only come natural to a biological entity like this. The firmware of the suit was as much a part of her as her own mind. But on top of it, she could remember things that were not there before.

It was made in a laboratory using a genetic model that saw countless iterations and failures that were thrown away like garbage. It was not enough for these people to create new life, they wanted to be the new life. This life was subjugated, unable to have its own thoughts outside of its master.

It was still alive. It could see, hear, smell, but was unable to act upon any of it, as it was only as alive as the body inside it. They denied it a consciousness, instead sealing it up in a case. It was unable to form thoughts, but it had emotion. It had no real knowledge until Sheela was inside of it, and only now did it understand what these feelings were.

They gave me a sapient mind and left me unable to think.

The ship rattled again, and the warning pierced the air. "Contact with atmosphere in five minutes. Please reinstate engines and autopilot will correct."

Why did the bodies have to smell good—she was not a beast, didn't the scientists recognize that? What were they thinking? She was sure she'd already defiled herself when the suit killed all those on its own . . .

The suit doesn't even need me conscious to pilot it, it only needs to use my brain.

And the smell grew deeper into her mind. It was a need of the suit, but she was the suit. It was her instinct now. But looking at the spilled blood and torn bodies of the men on the floor, she was disgusted with herself.

Her breathing grew intense. Her extra lungs, larger and sculpted to fit around her inner cavity expanded and shrank in sync with those inside. She was frozen, clutching herself. She struggled to make sure the thoughts she made were not from these new instincts or hormones.

Not mere instincts, the suit desires a consciousness of its own.

That smell was overbearing. The hunger. She did not feel weakened because of it, but she needed some sustenance. But it was a weakness of the body, and she could overcome.

She retched like she needed to vomit. The seam down her front flexed. I can't leave. She said it out loud. "I can't le—I can't . . ." Her vocal cords felt weak, her eyes dimmed. She pushed against the selfish desires that were trying to overtake her, but the more she did, the harder the suit pushed and flexed. As though the mere rejection of instinct was death itself.

The ship shook again, and she fell to her knees, and her front split apart. She fell out of the cavity in a glob of mucus; veins and ducts from the suit that ran into her body retracted into the suit's cavity. Everything felt thick and dull, and the pain came back only moments later. The wounds on her leg and abdomen had clotted but they were too large to hold, and in moments she bled again.

She coughed. Blood came up. Why couldn't she see? Besides the mucus covering her eyes, she was too used to the eyes of the Asura, the senses, the smell, the lack of pain. She was free of the hunger, but she was going to die. And she was sure there was no medical help on the surface, there was no way she could find anything to help her on the medical deck in time.

She rolled onto her back, and looked up at the dragon with its flayed chest. Its jaw was hanging open and its eyes were blank, and the mucus lining of its inside was running down onto the floor and mixing with her blood.

The ship hit the atmosphere, and everything loose inside flew across the room at once, including Sheela, but the dragon stayed still. She smacked against the wall and the pain was so terrible she thought she would cry out but breathing became difficult.

The dragon stared at her. Its eyes were hers.

I should give up and die.

The room was growing hot. The heat shields would only last as long as the hull did, and they might hit the ground long before that. Perhaps the low gravity would save her, and she'd lay there and bleed to death after being battered around the cabin and roasted.

She felt pathetic.

The dragon stared. Its inside, as slimy and thick as it was, looked inviting. If she climbed in there again she may never have the will or even the ability to climb back out.

But she wasn't about to die like this.

She climbed toward the suit, and, slowly, on weak knees. Her body quaked, and she braced herself on its shoulder, and her blood spilled down its arm. She twist her body. It took all her strength just to lift her feet into the viscous mess, and she fell into the cavity.

I should knowingly become an Asura rather than suffer the chance of the universe.

The fingers closed around her, until she was entombed in the warm thick sludge. Her blood gave out, and it became dark. The suit relaxed around her, the veins and tubes extended to find her and give her life again.

Then she opened her eyes, and took a deep breath with all four lungs. She snaked her tongue out of her mouth and licked up the blood trickled on her arm. It took but a moment to satisfy herself, and it was wonderful to hear the crunch of bone and have the taste of meat fill her stomach.

The antigravity began to fail, and her feet became lighter. She walked to the airlock on the other side of the ship and snapped it open as easily as she would turn a key inside a lock. The whole door crumpled under the pressure and flew into the racing blue sky. It was hot, and the oxygen burned to thousands of degrees, but it only felt like a warm summer day. She licked around her muzzle one last time before the blood burned away. Her wings unfurled behind her and caught the wind as it raced by.

She jumped, and she soared.