The Sky Forest above the Frozen Sea was haunted. Hunters spoke of snarling beasts, wraiths that hid in the shadows, lights like stars that lured the unwary to their deaths.
Neru did not believe the stories. Hunters were superstitious, and half of them cowards besides. Lazy cowards, at that. They had long been looking for excuses to avoid the cold trek across the sea, the difficult climb to the forest above. They did not care about the old ways, the needs of the shamans or the rituals to appease the old gods. Little wonder, when the shamans themselves were halfway to heretics, unpious ones like Natek and Janu leading the People of the Red Moon astray. Neru had little time for the excuses of the lazy. Xe would make the trek xyrself, and the gods would reward xem for xyr faith.
Or so Neru thought, until xe caught sight of the shadow beast. With skin like the night and no paint but on its mouth, xe might have overlooked it as it lurked amidst the trees.
The other creature was not so subtle.
Feathers and fur loomed large, talons like knives and six eyes all gleaming. As those eyes fixed on xem, it began to glow, the ends of its fur and the length of its talons all alight. It made gnashing and guttural noises, hooves scratching the ground. Neru shielded xyr face with two arms, raised the other two in supplication as xe began to retreat. The shadow beast, near forgotten, made itself known again — large as it was, it still looked small beside the other. Its mouth, the color of ice, split open to reveal the bones beneath.
It growled. Xe screamed. Xe ran.
Unlike the hunters, xe did not have much practice in knowing how much room there was to flee.
Looking over the edge of the floating island from which Neru had fallen, Xindi chirped sadly. “I hope it’s okay.”
Takondwa was less forgiving.
“What a dipshit.”
“The whole point is that we want to run the little bastards off,” Taki reminded her, thumbs hooked in their pockets.
“I know that, but…” Xindi huffed, hooves carefully navigating around spindly blue underbrush as they walked. “It’s just really doing a number on my self-esteem, you know?”
“No,” they sighed, leaving a trail of crushed flora behind their boots, “I can’t say as I do.” Their exhalation trailed steam through the cold air, white puffs from between lips painted pale blue. “The last thing we need’s a bunch of screaming purple monkeys trying to play meddling kid. Scary is good.”
“But I wasn’t even trying to look scary!”
“You were glowing,” Taki pointed out, as if that were the primary reason a creature half Takondwa’s size might fear someone twice as large as that. They generally tried to avoid mentioning the size issue, because that kind of talk made Xindi self-conscious.
“I can’t help it if I get excited!” She crossed her arms, petulant, talons sinking into exposed fur. “My outfit is so cute, too. It’s the least scary outfit.”
Taki sighed. “Even assuming they know what clothes are, it could be yours mean something altogether different. Could be the little purple monkey devil wears a lot of pleats and bows.”
Xindi’s feathery antennae curled. “Do you really think so?”
“No. But that’d be hilarious.” Xindi sat herself down on the violet stump of a broken tree, disconsolate. Taki returned to the hub terminal they’d been using before the interruption, sparing a surreptitious glance at Xindi out of the corner of their eye. Xindi continued to pout. “That one wasn’t running on account of you, though,” they added.
“Think about it,” they said, nails clicking against the keys. “It didn’t start in with the screaming until I rawred at it. Trying to scare it off, and all.”
“Which was very mean,” Xindi said. Nonetheless, this seemed to improve her mood. “I didn’t even get a chance to see if the translator would work.”
“Those things almost never work,” Taki snorted, brushing away a dreadlock that had fallen in front of their face. “You would not believe how many wars’ve been started on account of bad translators.”
Xindi scratched at her chin as she considered this hypothetical question. “Three?” she guessed, finally.
“Or maybe you would believe it,” Taki corrected.
Xindi pulled out her phone, the charms clinking together in the relative silence of the night. She made a trilling sound as she tapped at the screen, held it higher and then trilled again. “Can’t we go to a planet with signal, next time?” she asked.
“You know I can’t promise that,” Taki said, tapping something out on the terminal, scrolling through menus.
Xindi trilled. “It just seems like, if we went somewhere with signal, we could just buy fuel.”
Taki raised a single exquisitely-groomed eyebrow. “From who?”
She set her phone down in her lap. “From…? Oh. Oh!” She chirped. “Oh, I didn’t even think about that,” she said, chagrined. “Does that mean we’re going to have to do this every time we run out of fuel?”
“Not every time,” they said with a shrug.
“Sometimes we’ll steal it.”
“Aw, come on now girly, don’t be like that,” they said. “You did great last time.”
“Yeah,” they agreed, “but they didn’t know that was what you were doing. It was actually very helpful.”
Xindi smoothed out her skirt, glowing faintly. “It was kind of fun, I guess.”
“That’s more like it.” Taki tapped a key on the terminal repeatedly, frowning. “Now, if you wanted to try applying that helpful attitude towards this here, could be we’d get back to somespace civilized a little faster.”
She dimmed, rubbing at the ever-black skin of her nose. “You know I can’t.”
“I know no such thing.”
“I don’t know the first thing about inertion harvesting.”
“Hmm.” They sounded intensely dubious, continuing to tap fruitlessly at the terminal. “What about that fancypants engineering degree?”
Xindi rolled her eyes, which would have been more effective if even one of the six had pupils. “It’s a nuclear engineering degree,” she reminded them, exasperated. “And even if the engine were fusion instead of inertial, that doesn’t mean I’d know anything about how to… harvest palladium.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s mining that you’re supposed to do to palladium,” Taki said.
“See? Even you know more than I do, and you don’t have a degree at all!”
“Sure I do,” they said. “Liberal arts.”
Xindi processed this new information. “I always wondered what you were supposed to do with those.” Taki snorted. Xindi leaned forward to look down at the ground beneath their feet, and considered the matter of the water waiting a kilometer beneath that. “Won’t we fall?” she asked.
“Once we’ve got all the inertion out of the ground,” she clarified. “Won’t this island fall down?”
“Seriously?” they exclaimed, incredulous, and Xindi recoiled, taken aback. Taki, glancing over from the hub terminal, recognized the misunderstanding. “Sorry,” they said, “not you. I’ve been trying a week now to figure out what’s got these bugs lagging so bad, and do you know what it was?”
“No,” she said, concerned that she was meant to. Xindi knew very little about nanites, in part because they creeped her out. She’d been trying not to think about them too much the past few cycles, because when she did it made her itch.
“Some fool or another forgot to close a tag,” they said, clearly expecting this to be some kind of revelation.
“I don’t know what that means,” Xindi said. She also knew very little about programming, but that was just a general gap in her knowledge, without malice.
“You don’t have to,” Taki said with a dismissive wave. “Alls you need to know is, it’s dumb. And makes no sense, anyhow, since that bit of code had nothing at all to do with this whole operation.” They shook their head. “A week of lag for a little bit of messy code. Any-old-ways, don’t you worry about falling or what-have-you. It’ll happen, but it’ll be slow. I’d say more of a sinking than a falling.”
Xindi propped her elbows up in her lap, her chin on her hands. “Won’t that, like, mess up the local ecology, or whatever? What are the little purple monkeys going to think?”
“They’ll be just fine,” Taki said. “Water’s where islands belong.”
“On your planet, sure.”
“What, this planet’s too good for gravity-effected islands?” Taki scoffed. “It’s just one. It’ll do them some good. Earth doesn’t have any floating islands, and look how I turned out.”
“A pirate with a liberal arts degree?”
“… which is awesome,” Taki said, treating her question as an unfinished sentence.
Xindi glowed. “It is pretty awesome,” she agreed. Taki grinned.
All at once, there was a sound above them, accompanied by a light far brighter than could be accounted for by any of the orbiting moons. Taki swore as they retrieved their phaser from their belt, Xindi simultaneously standing and cowering. Because Taki’s hand was not actually large enough to wrap around Xindi’s wrist, they instead grabbed a handful of the coarse fur on her forearm to pull her along by it, into the woods and away from the clearing their own ship had created.
“What is it?” Xindi asked, attempting to hide behind the trunk of a tree the way Taki was. It did not work, because none of the trees on that planet were larger in diameter than Xindi. There was also nothing else in that forest wearing a white blouse.
“No idea,” Taki said, trying to glimpse the ship through the forest. “Nothing good.”
The noise faded. They waited. Eventually, there was the sound of trampling underbrush; whatever had been in the ship, it wasn’t any longer. Xindi clung to the trunk of the tree that did not hide her.
“You are in possession of OmniCorp company property,” a voice announced, its volume startling the two in hiding. “If this asset is not returned, you may be subject to forceful repossession of the asset. Thank you for your cooperation.“
“What?” Taki’s brow furrowed, baffled. “We are way out of OmniCorp space. What’d we take they want bad enough to send a bot out of jurisdiction for it?” They looked to Xindi to see if she shared their confusion. Her antennae were curled close to her head, and she was trying to make herself smaller. Their eyes widened. “No. Please tell me that does not mean what I think it means.” She whined and clutched her lanyard, the identification card that still hung from the end of it. “Oh, hell.” They sighed. “Nothing for it, then.” They rolled the setting of their phaser higher, and ducked out from behind their tree just long enough to fire a shot in the direction of the voice. A glimpse of smooth black metal, featureless in the dark.
“Sensors indicate an act of assault incompatible with the safe return of the asset. Noncompliance protocols have been initiated. OmniCorp regrets this necessity, and apologizes for any resulting discomfort.“
Taki groaned. “A dummy. Bad enough it’s a blank, dummy droids are just… creepy.” A shot was fired at the tree they hid behind, splintering wood beside their face. “On my signal,” they said to Xindi, “you take off and you start running towards—”
They threw up their hands. “Or you could just run,” they said. “Sure, why not. That works, too.” Another shot nearly went through the tree, and they took off after her, swearing under their breath.
Xindi’s legs being longer and stronger, they probably would not have caught up before the end of the island if she had not begun climbing a tree.
“Precisely what are you doing?” they called up after her.
“Bots can’t climb trees!” she called down as explanation, hooves scrabbling for purchase against branches.
They cupped their hands around their mouth. “That’s bears.”
“What’s a bear? Are there bears here?” She sounded increasingly panicked at the prospect of bears.
“For fu—” They ducked reflexively as another shot barely missed them, diving for cover behind another tree. Despite the ineffectiveness of the previous attempt, they risked firing a shot towards the bot’s legs. It may have given it a moment’s pause, but they also might have been imagining that.
“All OmniCorp chassis are phaser-resistant, now!” Xindi shouted.
“Good to know,” they muttered, stashing their weapon back away. “Thanks, that’s real helpful.”
The ground fell out beneath Taki’s feet, and while at first they thought it was metaphorical, it became more obviously literal when it shuddered to a stop, nearly knocking them over in the process. The bot, lacking the advantage of Takondwa’s natural grace, did tip over.
“That felt more like falling than sinking,” Xindi pointed out, still clinging to her tree.
“Sinking’s suspiciously like falling, some of the time,” they said, digging frantically through the bag slung at all times over their shoulder. The bot would not remain turtled for very long, and they intended to take advantage of whatever small window of opportunity was afforded to them.
“Taki?” Xindi asked, in a tone of voice that suggested she was going to say something they would not want to hear.
“Yes, Xindi?” they asked in return, despite this fact.
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”
“Are there even trees on your home planet?” They pulled a stun gun out of their bag triumphantly, aiming it towards the bot’s neck joints as it rose.
“I don’t mean this specifically,” she clarified as Taki shot the bot full of 50,000 volts. “I mean this in general.”
“Is this really the time to be having this conversation?” Taki dropped the stun gun as the bot spasmed on the forest floor, sparks flying. They made their way quickly to the tree in which Xindi had taken shelter, tapping perfectly-manicured nails against the bark. “Now hurry up and get on down so we can get gone.”
“This really seems like the perfect time to have this conversation,” she said, not moving. “Since… you know…”
Taki looked to the blank chassis lying still amidst the underbrush, then back to Xindi in her tree. “Aw, come on now girly, don’t be like that. You’re a real big help, you know that.”
“That’s very nice of you to say,” she said, “but I don’t think I actually have any, like, useful skills for this. This seems like it might be a bad fit for my resumé.”
“No, no,” they said, sparing a glance back to the bot. “Nuclear engineering doesn’t mean you have to work retail your whole life.”
“My minor was in quantum theory!” she added, in clear distress. “I went to a trade school.”
“Now what did I just say? Come—”
The conversation was interrupted by another gravitational adjustment, the island in brief free-fall before slowing to an almost-stop. Taki once again managed to remain basically upright — or, would have, if Xindi had not come tumbling out of her hiding place. Xindi landed, for the most part, on the ground. Xindi also landed, for the lesser part, on Takondwa.
There was a crack, which sounded like a breaking branch, but which was not.
Taki made a lot of noises that Xindi had never heard before.
She scrambled to try and sit upright somewhere that was not atop the Terran. “… are you okay?” she asked, her voice small.
“Can’t say as I am,” they said, their voice strained. They also sat upright, but made a strangled sound when they tried to move their leg. “That’s — well, that’s not good at all. Was kind of hoping to use that, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, no,” Xindi whined. “You see? This is all my fault.”
“I recall gravity having something to do with it,” Taki said. Assignation of blame was delayed when the bot also sat upright — then stood, apparently no longer suffering the effects of an electrical overload. “Aw, hell. You better get gone, girly. At least until we hit the water, that ought to give it some trouble.”
“No,” Xindi said firmly. “This is silly. I didn’t want to make up my mind, and now you’re hurt and it’s my fault. I’m just going to do what I should have done when it showed up, okay?”
“Xindi, don’t,” they protested as she stood, but it wasn’t as if they could get up to go after. “Don’t do this.”
“I’m returning the asset!” she called to the bot, ignoring Taki. “Don’t shoot, okay?”
The bot waited, still and silent.
Solemn, she wrapped her talons around her lanyard, and lifted it above her head. She tossed it to the bot, a clatter of pins and keychains. The bot caught it in one of its hands, no apparent long-term damage from its previous misadventure. It lifted the lanyard to the level of the smooth black ovoid of its head, though it did not have eyes and the action was unnecessary for its sensors. After a moment, it separated the ID card hanging at the end of it, then tossed the rest of it back. Surprised, Xindi caught it. “Oh! Thank you!”
“OmniCorp thanks you for your cooperation,” it said. Its blank face turned to where Taki still sat on the ground. “Incidentally,” it added, “I do not appreciate your assumption that my professional demeanor and minimalist appearance are a reflection on either my intelligence or my sapience. I could have shot you numerous times throughout this altercation, but chose to restrain myself to warning shots, as I find bloodshed abhorrent.“
Takondwa’s face was remarkably neutral. “My bad,” they said. “Sorry about that. Also, for shooting you. Several times.”
“I accept your apology, and forgive you,” it said. “I find your lipstick aesthetically appealing, and appreciate your careful color coordination.“
“… thank you.”
“Should either of you return to OmniCorp space, you will be punished to the full extent of company policy. OmniCorp apologizes again for any inconvenience this may have caused, and hopes that you enjoy the rest of your shift.“
With that, it turned on what might have been its heel to return to its ship. Xindi looked mournfully at the empty end of her lanyard.
“Your ID card,” Taki said.
“Yeah,” Xindi said, morose.
“It came all this way… for your ID card.”
“I knoooow,” she said. “I should have known someone would, but I was hoping, you know?”
“Why did it come all this way for your ID card?”
“They can’t be remotely disabled like the implant,” she explained, fidgeting with her keychains. “You’re supposed to turn it in when you leave, so they know you can’t use it for employee discounts.”
“Well, yeah.” Xindi cocked her head to the side. “Why did you think it was here?” Taki buried their face in their hands. “What other company property would we even have?” They dragged their hands down their face, somehow managing to avoid smudging their lipstick. Xindi chirped. “Wait — you didn’t think…?” Taki nodded. “Me?” They rubbed their temples. “Why would you think that?”
“I have not the faintest notion,” they admitted in a groan.
“Why would OmniCorp be allowed to own sapient beings?” she asked, utterly baffled.
“Do I look like I have a lot of experience working retail?”
Xindi knelt down beside them. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I was being pretty melodramatic.”
“Little bit,” Taki agreed.
“I just wanted to have the option, you know? To go back, if I wanted.”
The ground shook, but did not fall the way it had before. The light of the bot’s ship passed once more overhead, cast shadows in harsh lines along them both before disappearing.
“Hnnn… it’s fine. Don’t even worry about it. Didn’t mean to get snippy with you.”
“Were you being snippy with me?” she asked, antennae curling.
“It’s fine. Honestly. You’re fine. Let’s just work on figuring out how to get me back to the ship.”
Xindi clicked her talons together as she considered the problem. Then she slid her arms beneath them to pick them up.
“Whoa! Hey, now, careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”
“It’s okay,” Xindi assured them. “You’re kind of small.”
“I am well above average for any kind of a Terran,” they said, oddly defensive.
“… which is kind of small,” Xindi said, treating it as an unfinished sentence.
Taki sighed, crossing their arms and trying not to look down as they were carried. “I’m sorry about your ID card.”
“It’s okay,” Xindi said. “Maybe we can make new ones!”
“… pirate ID cards?”
“Sure! We can put little skulls on them!” She chirped. “Oh! And get matching lanyards! Really cool ones!”
There was only so much a person could do in the face of that kind of enthusiasm.
“Sure we can,” they said. “It’ll be great.”
«You really weren’t kidding,» Janu said, surveying the fallen island, surrounded on all side by broken ice.
«This is so bad,» said Natek, running four hands over xyr hair. «The old gods are going to kill us all.»
It was nothing that was not already being said throughout the clan, almost all of them crowded on the Frozen Sea to see what had become of the Sky Forest. Neru’s body could still be seen floating in the water, looking for all the world as if the Sky Forest had landed specifically on xem.
«No,» Janu said, tapping thoughtful fingers against xyr snout, «I can work with this. This is fine.»
«How is this fine?» Natek asked, but Janu had already swept away, tassels all twirling and trailing behind xem as xe moved to stand on a large piece of ice. Xe held out all four arms, palms supplicant to the sky, and slowly the people of the clan gathered, quieted.
«People of the Red Moon,» Janu intoned, and Natek tried not to roll xyr eyes at the use of shaman voice. «Long have our hunters complained of the difficult in reaching the Sky Forest, harvesting the cloud plants and retrieving watcher’s eggs. Long had I communed with the gods, discussed with them our suffering, the many trials we have faced to please them and the danger to our clan. Lo! They have heard our pleas, and so have lowered the Sky Forest as a mercy to us. The Ice Forest shall be our new hunting ground, and never again will we lose a hunter to The Fall.»
There were murmurings as the people discussed this amongst themselves. Janu kept xyr shaman’s pose, waiting for someone to ask.
«What about Neru?» someone asked.
«I know that you are afraid,» Janu said, «to see one so pious as Neru struck down. I see the question in your hearts: why would the gods strike down their most faithful, the one who loved them best?» A cautious nod passed through the crowd. «But tell me, you who knew him: what else was true of Neru?»
More murmuring, but no one spoke. Behind Janu, Natek shrugged. «Xe was an asshole?» xe muttered. Xyr eyes widened in alarm as Janu turned to point at xem.
«Exactly!» Janu said, before turning back to the crowd. «Neru… was an asshole. Although xe was pious, although xe was faithful — is there anyone here who actually liked Neru?» A cautious shake of the head passed through the crowd. Necks craned as everyone turned to see if anyone else would claim to have liked xem. «As the clan did not like Neru, neither did the gods like Neru. The lesson here is clear! Be pious, yes! Be faithful! But don’t be an asshole about it!» Xe waved hands towards Neru’s floating corpse. «Else you, too, may suffer the wrath of the old gods.»
Natek tilted xyr head back to offer an apologetic prayer toward the sky, and watched a distant streak of light disappear past the horizon.