Chapter 31: Planet of Women

Kasai clomped up the steps to the bridge. Everyone else, with the exception of Amaryllis and Ryogin, was already there.

“Getting ready to drop out of hyperspace,” Tannin announced.

Kasai strapped herself into her chair on the bridge.

Tannin’s hand hovered over a lever on the control console. “In three… two… one…”

He pulled the lever, and a dizzying rainbow of colors swirled to life on the main display screen at the front of the bridge. Or it could be a window. Before they’d fixed the ship, Kasai had been able to look through it into the ship, yet it could block out the view and display just about anything else as well.

The colors faded away, and a small green marble zipped in to fill the window. Kasai groaned at her own metaphor. Just about every book she’d ever read described planets that way. Well, that or as a jewel. Yet the metaphor worked. Wispy pink-tinged white clouds drifted across the surface of the green planet.

“Hey.” Cerina leaned forward. “Is it just me, or is that big purple land mass shaped kinda like a reclining cat.”

Kasai blinked. It was.

“Well, I’m seeing it too.” Tannin leaned back in the pilot’s chair. “So either it does, or we’re both crazy.”

Cerina stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m not ruling that out. I mean, come on. It’s a planet full of cat people, with a cat-shaped continent? It’s just too cliché.”

Tannin leaned around the chair and shot Cerina a thumbs up. “Mushrooms!”

Kasai put a hand to her mouth and stifled a giggle. Tannin was great at diffusing stressful or weird situations.

“Communicating with Arrivals, nyan!” Chibi-chan popped up on the main display and his tail wagged back and forth. “I’ll take over from here, nyan!”

“They should be expecting us.” Aiden poked a control at the bridge console she was seated at. “I let the Union of Free Allied Planets know we were coming. The Nekotians should know we’re coming. Also, the Kagoshi should be sending a small detachment to assist in hunting the Natas as well.”

“Thanks.” Onin nodded. “Well, after we land, let’s get suited up and meet everyone.”

Five minutes later Kasai joined everyone else at the airlock. After that first time suiting up, she’d kept her suit in her room, instead of in her locker in the wide-open, non-privacy partitioned cargo bay.

Onin lifted his hand toward the door switch. “Everyone ready?”

“One moment.” Aiden pulled a pair of dark tinted glasses from her pocket and put them on.

Tannin leaned back toward her. “What’s with the shades?”

“You’ll see.”

Onin shrugged and slapped the door control.

The door slid open, and a ramp lowered from the ship down the landing pad. The pad was in the middle of a wide field of purple grass. The sky was light green overhead, with only a few wispy pink clouds in the sky. A few round orange bushes dotted the field, which had at least a dozen other landing pads scattered throughout it. A black and white checkered path wound through the grass to one of the strangest buildings Kasai had ever seen. The building was constructed of different wings, each made in a different geometric shape. Dark red triangles, bronze spheres, yellow parallelograms. Kasai blinked. The colors were making her eyes water. A door in the building opened, and a mother-of-pearl hovercar zipped out toward them.

Tannin’s jaw dropped. “It’s a Nekotian ship!”

Kasai looked back and forth from the ship to the hovercar. That did make a lot of sense.

Cerina groaned and rubbed her eyes. “Hey Aiden, do you have any more of those glasses?”

“They sell them in the spaceport’s gift shop.” Aiden grinned. “They’re one of the most popular items for off-world tourists, and the Nekotians can’t figure out why.”

Kasai settled her wings to her back and stepped closer to Onin as the hovercar approached. It was an open-air model, and four Nekotians were seated inside. The hovercar stopped a few yards away, and the Nekotians hopped out. All of them were female, and all of them were at least a half-head shorter than Cerina. They wore identical eye-melting uniforms. Short-sleeved jackets that were open at the front. They were white with various geometric shapes in just about every neon color imaginable haphazardly scattered all over. Over the left breast pocket there was a neon orange cartoon cat that was vaguely reminiscent of Chibi-chan. Under the jacket, each of them wore a forest green wrap that showed both the navel, and an ample amount of cleavage. They wore a mini-skirt that matched the jacket with matching canvas sneakers.

The first Nekotian was shorter than the others, and had green hair done up in a high pony-tail. The second had orange, black, and white calico hair to her shoulders. Half of her bangs were white, and the other half was orange and held back to the side of her head with a butterfly clip. Kasai leaned out to get a better look at her. Was the color pattern natural? The shorter fur on her ears and tail was also in splotches of white, black, and reddish-orange. On further inspection, her hair was cut in layers to highlight the calico pattern. It was really cute.

The third Nekotian in the welcome party had blue hair in a pixie cut, and the fourth bright red hair in a side-pony with bangs arcing over her right eye.

The red-head stepped forward, smiled, and waved. “Hi! Like, welcome to Nekotia!”

Kasai smiled. Her bright eyes and easy smile certainly made her seem friendly. And the high, sing-song tone in her voice reminded Kasai of a stereo-typical high-school cheerleader.

The other three Nekotian women stepped forward and kissed each of their visitors on the right cheek. The one with blue hair smiled, leaned in toward Kasai, and brushed her lips and cheek against Kasai’s right cheek. She stepped back, and smiled. “Like, I totally love your wings! They’re totes cute!”

“Thanks.” Kasai blinked. That was an unusual speech pattern. She looked over at Onin. He shrugged back at her.

Something hissed. Kasai looked down the line. Amaryllis stood in front of Ryogin, ears flat back to her head. She was glaring daggers at the calico-haired Nekotian, and the fur on her tail was poofed out. Ryogin gripped Amaryllis’ shoulders, holding her back. The calico-haired Nekotian’s ears drooped, and she took a step backward.

The red-haired Nekotian walked briskly over and placed a hand on the calico-haired one’s shoulder.

“Excuse me.” The redhead bowed to Amaryllis. “Like, have you just recently become mates?”

“Yes.” Ryogin pulled Amaryllis back and into a hug. “Sorry, she’s not normally this possessive.”

“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t know!” The calico-haired Nekotian ducked behind the redhead.

“Ah.” The redhead bowed again. “It’s normal to be a little over-possessive just after a mating ceremony. I apologize. The mistake is ours.” She frowned over her shoulder at the calico-haired Nekotian. “We should have skipped the standard greeting.”

“Standard greeting?” Amaryllis’s ears lifted, and her posture relaxed a little.

The redhead’s tail twitched. “I apologize again. I assumed you would have a passing familiarity with Nekotian customs, since you have one of our race among you, as well as two Matari.”

“Oh.” Amaryllis blinked and smoothed down her tail fur. “I’m only half-Nekotian. I’ve never actually met another Nekotian before.”

“Oh!” The redhead’s ears perked up. “This is an extra special day, then!” She shook her head. “Sorry. We should totes start with introductions. My name is Xironi, and this is Rala, Purona, and Nisha.” She pointed to the green, calico, and blue haired Nekotians in order.

Onin stepped forward. “I’m Onin.” He pointed to Kasai, then to the others as he introduced them. “Kasai, Onin, Saija, Cerina, Aiden, Amaryllis, and Ryogin. We’re from Gesara.”

“Yeah!” Xironi nodded. “The Kagoshi totally informed the leader of our kinset that you were coming. We’re to escort you to his home to meet him and discuss the threat from the Natas.”

Xironi blinked and cocked an ear. “Would you like to visit the spaceport gift shop first? You’re totes not required to, but most off-worlders seem to greatly enjoy it.”

“Yes, please!” Cerina squinted her eyes and headed for the hovercar.

“Sweet!” Xironi turned and headed to the hovercar, her tail held high behind her.

The inside of the spaceport was even worse than the outside. The color scheme and jarring shapes were the same, but the interior added more flashing neon lighting than Kasai had ever seen in one place. Synthesized music with a rapid beat played softly in the background. Kasai ended up getting a pair of sunglasses as well. She breathed a sigh of relief as she put them on. They had to have some sort of electronic component to them, as the glasses not only muted the bright glaring colors, but suppressed the flashing of the lights as well.

From the spaceport, Xironi led them out to the street where they boarded a chartreuse, dark red, and silver swirled hover bus. Kasai smiled as Onin sat beside her, then she leaned over to look out the window. Both sides of the street were lined with vendors, each with a flashing neon sign above the entrance. A wide variety of brightly-colored merchandise was on display. The hover bus sped along the street through the sprawling city. Towering skyscrapers, each shaped differently than the last rose up in the next area of the city, almost as brightly lit as the previous area.

Next was the residential area. Small houses in the same eye-melting color scheme as everything else on Nekotia dotted the landscape. Each had a small lawn covered in purple grass, and most had a few trees of varying colors. Small yellow and pink haired children played on the lawn in front of one of the houses. They noticed the bus, and ran to the edge of the lawn, tails and ears high, waving as the bus passed them. Kasai waved back. As much as the Nekotians seemed to have no concept of the phrase ‘coordinated colors’, they seemed a friendly lot.

The bus pulled to a stop in front of a structure that looked like a large tree was growing out of a pixelated video game version of a tennis shoe. Kasai blinked and followed the others off the bus. Purona, the calico-haired member of the greeting committee, let out a small eep and jumped behind Xironi when Amaryllis stepped off the bus.

“Sorry,” Amaryllis whispered. “I didn’t mean to hiss at you.”

“It’s totes okay.” Xironi waved her hand. “We, like, totally know you didn’t mean it. Let’s go meet the leader of our kinset.”

Xironi led the way into the strange structure. The first room inside the door looked like a reception room to Kasai. Two lines of magenta and dark blue striped chairs were arranged in front of a tall counter. Doors were on the wall to either side. A brown-haired Nekotian looked up from where she sat behind the counter when they entered.

“Hello!” Xironi ran over and kissed the brown-haired Nekotian on her right cheek. “I’ve, like, brought the Gesaran visitors to see Claal-Deka.”

The receptionist—or security guard, Kasai wasn’t sure which—smiled. “He’s totes ready for you in meeting room two.”

“Thanks!” Xironi waved again, and gestured to the door on the left side of the room. “Follow me, please.”

Purona rushed ahead to hold the door open for everyone. Onin followed Xironi, and Kasai and the others followed along behind him. They went a few yards down a dark green and neon orange polka-dotted hallway, and Xironi stopped in front of another door. Rala, the green-haired member of the welcome committee, sprinted up and held the door open.

This room had white walls, and beige carpeting. A long wooden table with plush dark blue chairs spaced around it filled the room. Directly across the table, a clean-shaven male Nekotian with light blue hair that fell to his shoulders was slumped over in his chair.

“Oh thank Ard this room’s not trying to murder my eyeballs,” Cerina muttered.

Tannin elbowed her.

“What, you were thinking it too,” Cerina whispered.

Kasai covered her mouth with her hand. Onin turned and glared at them.

Xironi waited a few seconds, then cleared her throat. Nothing happened. Xironi sighed, pulled a knife from her belt, and thumped the table with the handle.

“Wha?” The male Nekotian jumped in his chair and whipped his head around, scanning the room.

“Yo, Claal-Deka, the visitors from Gesara are like, totally here.” Xironi bowed and sheathed her knife. She turned to face Kasai and the others. “The leader of our kinset, Claal-Deka.”

Claal-Deka stood and Kasai tried not to stare. He was a tad on the short side for a Gesaran, but he was the tallest Nekotian Kasai had yet seen. He was also heavily muscled—he looked like he could bench-press a bus.

Claal-Deka flashed them a toothy grin and bowed to each of them. “Forgive my napping. Welcome to Nekotia.” He turned to Amaryllis. “I understand you’ve never been to the homeworld?”

“No.” Amaryllis stepped closer to Ryogin and wrapped her arm possessively around his. “I’m only half Nekotian. We don’t even know if my mother or father was captured, or if the Natas stole genetic material.”

Claal-Deka crossed his arms and growled low in his throat. “The Natas have harassed our people for the past hundred years. Recently they have become even more bold. Rest assured, we will work with you to end their threat.”

He sighed, and bent to write something on a piece of paper. He handed the paper to Xironi. “Take this to our kinset’s IBTC representative.”

“Got it, sir!” Xironi saluted him, waved to Kasai and the others, and sprinted out of the room.

Claal-Deka looked around. “Which of you leads your group?”

Onin raised his hand. “Well, we’re basically equals, but they’ve elected me leader, I guess.”

Claal-Deka crossed to the other side of the table and clapped Onin on the shoulder. “Be confident, youngling. If your friends have confidence in you, be proud to be their leader.” He looked around at everyone and took a breath. “I’ve requested a full meeting of both the Council of Kinsets, and the IBTC. The Kagoshi and Matari have told us the tales of horror of the new hosts that the Natas have found. We must stand together to end their reign of terror over our worlds. It will take time, however, to gather the Council. In the meantime, Xironi and the other warriors of our kinset will search out the Natas that are rumored to be on our world and inform you immediately when they are found. Please, until that time, enjoy our hospitality. I shall have Rala escort you. If you have need of anything, please ask her.”

Kasai looked over her shoulder. Purona stared at the floor and leaned up against the wall, away from the others. Kasai’s heart thumped in her chest. She knew what it felt like to screw up and be ostracized.

“Excuse me?” Kasai took a step forward.

“Yes?” Claal-Deka put a hand on his hip and gave her another toothy grin.

He looked like he’d just stepped out of some anime fashion magazine or something. Kasai grinned.

“Would it be possible for Purona to be our guide?” Kasai gestured behind her.

Purona’s head shot up and her tail stood straight out. “Me?”

“Yes, please!” Amaryllis stepped to Kasai’s side. “I lost control and over-reacted, and I’d like a chance to apologize for that.”

“Hmm.” Claal-Deka frowned and drummed his fingers on his head while staring at Purona.

Purona clutched her hands to her chest and her eyes darted around in an effort not to stare back at anyone. Kasai winced. She hated to be the center of that much attention, too.

Claal-Deka sighed. “Very well, if you wish.” He turned to Purona. “Be sure to do your best. Don’t be too proud to ask for help if you need it.”

“Yes, sir!” Purona saluted him.

“If you could show them to their hotel—” He stopped mid-sentence, frowned, then snapped his fingers and turned to face Amaryllis. “Ah, yes. I almost forgot. Family is important to us Nekotians. It is a crime against our people by those vile Natas that you were deprived of the chance to know yours. With your permission, I’d like to try to find which family line you belong to. We keep extensive genetic records. With your being a hybrid, we may not find anything, but I would like the chance to at least try.”

Amaryllis looked over to Ryogin. Neither of them said anything, but they stared at each other for a while, noses, eyes, and, in Amaryllis’ case, ears all subtlety twitching. Kasai suspected they might be able to communicate telepathically with each other. It would explain Amaryllis talking to her staff constantly.

“I’ll think about it.” Amaryllis bowed to Claal-Deka. “I always wondered who my parents were, and it would be nice to have answers to at least part of that mystery. Yet, on the other hand, I do know who my family is.” She squeezed Ryogin in a hug with one arm, and gestured to the rest of the group with the other. “These are all my family now.”

Claal-Deka smiled. “Excellent. Please let me know of your decision. I won’t keep you from your room any longer. If you’ll excuse me, I have another meeting.”

He bowed to them, then left the room.


Purona gulped. She was now alone in the meeting room with the aliens. Well, that they were aliens didn’t bother her, in fact, she was totally super excited to get to talk to them. It’s just that she had a job to do. A job that she hadn’t known she would have until just a few seconds ago. Rala had made all the arrangements, knew the itinerary, had studied what they knew of the aliens’ culture. Purona had just had her maturity party last week. She’d just started the job two days ago. It was simple, they’d told her. Ride along, look pretty, greet the guests, go home.

But no, on her first out-of-the-office assignment she’d nearly caused an interstellar incident, and now had to guide the aliens around for their entire visit. Not that she minded, it was super exciting, but also terrifying. What if she screwed up again?

Don’t freak, Purona. It’s no big deal, just be nice. Aaaaghh! Who am I kidding? I’m totally freaking!

“Purona?” The nice, cute girl with the wings turned to face her.

“Nyan?” Purona clapped a hand over her mouth. Flerk! That’s super NOT professional! “Uh, I mean, what can I do for you?”

Wing-girl—Her name’s Kasai, right?—turned to face her. “Sorry if we put you on the spot. You just looked so forlorn after… you know… and I wanted to make it up to you.”

Purona cocked an ear to the side. Whaa? You, make it up to me? It was totally my fault! She felt her face heat. And how had she missed THAT scent in the first place, anyway? “Um, I’ll do my best!” She looked around the room. “Um, would you like to see your hotel suite we’ve arranged for you?” Stupid, quit saying ‘um’!

Kasai smiled, and her eyes twinkled. She turned to Amaryllis and they both giggled. Giggling is good, right? But why are they giggling? I haven’t said anything weird, have I?

“We’d love to see the hotel.” The brown haired male—Onin, right? Can’t forget their names, I’d really be in trouble then!—glared at Kasai and Amaryllis, then turned to smile at Purona. “Relax, you’re doing fine. Our culture is different, we won’t hold anything inadvertent against you.”

Purona felt the tension drain out of her shoulders. He was so nice, and he smelled good—wait, she wasn’t going to make that mistake again. She took a cautious sniff. Kasai’s scent was all over him. They weren’t mates, but Kasai definitely had a claim on him.

Purona took half a step back. “The hotel is this way.”

She turned and rushed to the door. Were they following her? Purona swiveled her left ear around. Yup, lots of footsteps behind her. Good. She left the building and headed for the subway station. Should I be talking right now? What about? Am I walking too fast? How fast does a Gesaran walk anyway? She glanced over her shoulder. Probably faster than I do with those long legs. Gosh, they’re all so tall!

“The hotel is several blocks away, so we’ll take the subway.” Ahg, I sound like a robot!

“So are there are a lot of hotels in the city?”

Purona jumped at the voice by her ear. Kasai had come up to walk on her left side. Amaryllis stepped forward to match pace with her on her right.

Purona looked back and forth between them. “Yeah, there’s like, several. What with this being the capital city, we get a lot of visitors. The Imperial is the best, though. It’s super awesome! We’ve reserved the penthouse suite for you.”

At least, I think it was the penthouse suite, right? I know it was the Imperial…

They made it safely to the subway, and Purona leaned against the wall for a short nap. Keeping up with these Gesarans was fun but exhausting.

The bump of the subway stopping woke Purona. She yawned and stretched her hands over her head. A quick glance out the window at the station name confirmed this was the correct stop.

“We’re here!” Purona jumped up and led the way off the subway car and up the stairs to the street. “That’s the Imperial there.” She pointed to the towering hotel.

It was only a few blocks away, and it seemed to fill the sky. Purona shivered with pleasure and grinned. She’d wanted to visit the famous historical hotel for so long. She stared up in awe. One hundred floors, each lit in a different dazzling color. She glanced over her shoulder. The Gesarans were staring up at it as well.

Purona led the way into the hotel and stopped for a moment to admire the beauty of it all. Green marble floor tiles with neon orange lighting between the seams. Brightly colored statues of various famous individuals from Nekotia’s history lined each wall. Teal and dark yellow booths were set in between each statue for guests to relax and mingle. Purona sighed with contentment. It was everything the h-net site said it would be.

Wait, I’m here to do something…

Purona felt her eyes widen, and she slowly turned to face Kasai and others—that she was supposed to be checking in…

“Heh…” She waved. Someone kill me now…

Kasai smiled and waved back. Tannin helpfully pointed at the pinkwood reception desk.

Purona took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, marched up to the reception desk, and rubbed cheeks with the clerk in greeting.

“Hello. I’m Purona, and these are, like, the dignitaries from Gesara.”

The clerk stared right through her. Purona cocked her head to the side. I’m not forgetting something am I? I know this is the right hotel. It can’t be the wrong hotel!

The clerk sighed. “Reservations or identification?”

Purona jerked her head up. Stupid, stupid! Of course we’d need I.D.! I didn’t forget that, did I? She patted down her pockets and let out a sigh of relief as her hand closed around her phone and I.D. card. She smiled and thrust them at the clerk.

The hotel clerk rolled her eyes and entered some information on the holo-screen set into the desk. Purona looked around the lobby while the clerk was entering their information. Several ladies in neon pink and navy blue business suits stood chatting in a group to her right. Next to them was an older male in a Nekotian uniform tapping away at his phone.

Off to her left—Purona gasped. There was a group of about ten males. Not a girl in sight among them. Purona felt herself go weak in the knees. She’d never seen that many males at once before. They looked to be only a few years older than her. She took a half step toward them.

“Here’s your room keys.” The clerk’s voice jerked Purona back to reality.

The clerk handed Purona’s phone and I.D. card back, and passed out proximity cards with each person’s picture on them. Even to Perona. She blinked.

I’m not supposed to have one, am I? As-if, I can’t afford this place!

Purona pulled out her phone, and scrolled through her messages. There. One from Rala that outlined her new duties. Yup. A room. Here. At the Imperial. All. Expenses. Paid. A huge grin that she couldn’t stop spread across Purona’s face. Sure, the rest of the message said, in no uncertain terms, that she was to do ANYTHING their off-world guests wanted, but they seemed nice and she wouldn’t pass this up for all the ‘nip in the world. First rate accommodations, and she got to meet aliens. Purona sighed and clutched her room key to her chest.

Room key. Right. Everyone probably wants to see their rooms.

“If you’ll follow me, please.” Purona turned and led the way to the elevator. It was a long ride up to the hundredth floor. Purona felt like she should say something, but didn’t have a clue as to what. Amaryllis was snuggled up to her mate. Onin and Kasai were staring at each other and pretending not to. Tannin and Saija were whispering to each other and giggling. Cerina leaned up against the far corner of the elevator, her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at the wall.

Purona flicked an ear. The others were fairly open, friendly, and up-front. Cerina looked cranky and grumped a lot, but she hadn’t actually said anything mean, and she did seem determined to stop the Natas. Then again, Purona had only known her for a few hours.

Maybe she’s just on the red wave? Do aliens even have that? Purona jerked upright. I can’t ask that! It’s probably personal for them too, I’d get fired for sure, possibly start a war! Purona fanned her face with her hand. Is it hot in here? Can’t this elevator go any faster?

Mercifully, the elevator came to a stop seconds later. Purona breathed a sigh of relief and jumped out as soon as the doors opened. And stopped in shock. The living area for the penthouse was larger than her entire apartment. Marble floors, fluted columns, three over-stuffed sofas, a fireplace, and the largest holo-viewer Purona had ever seen. And someone had even re-decorated the entire suite in earth tones. It looked rather bland, but the aliens seemed to enjoy the flat boring colors.

“Sweet, T.V.!” Tannin dove onto a sofa. “Ah, this is nice.”

“Mm-hmm.” Kasai ran her fingers down the column nearest her. “This is even better than our dorm rooms back at ABG. And I thought that was heaven compared to my room at the monastery.”

Cerina snorted. “At least it’s not the blinding day-glow color-scheme that the rest of this planet’s been drowned in.”

“I wonder if there’s a kitchen?” Saija traipsed down the hall to the right.

Purona took a step back. “Uh, I guess I’ll leave you now. My room’s right here next to the door if you need anything.”

“Nonsense.” Amaryllis reached out and linked arms with Purona. “Please stay and chat for a bit. I’d love to ask you more about Nekotia.”

Kasai smiled at her. “And I’m sure you have questions about us, too. We’d love to get to know you better.”

“M-me?” Purona put a hand to her chest. “I’m not anyone special.”

“Sure you are.” Onin took Kasai’s hand. “You’re our guide, hostess, whatever you want to call it. If I understand correctly, we’re going to be working with you for our stay here, right?”

Purona nodded. I think that’s my job now. I don’t know!

Amaryllis smiled. “Come sit with us for a bit and we’ll all get to know each other.”

Purona followed the others over to the sofa. She was awfully curious about the aliens—but she was also terrified that she’d say the wrong thing and get someone in trouble. But then, she was staying in the same suite anyway, and she had been told to do anything they asked. She swallowed and followed Amaryllis over to the couch.

“Let’s start with us.” Amaryllis settled down on the couch and leaned back into Ryogin’s shoulder. “As I said when we introduced everyone earlier, I’m half Nekotian, but I don’t know my parents. I’m not even sure if I had parents, really.”

Purona sat and listened with rapt attention as Amaryllis described her early life, being raised by the Natas, finding out what they really wanted her for, then Ryogin rescuing her, her studies at the university, and how she’d met the others. Kasai’s history was even more fascinating. She’d kinda just assumed that some Gesarans had wings, but Kasai was actually half dragon! Purona shuddered. She’d read the news reports of dragons fighting Nekotian ships out past the colonies. They were ferocious, powerful, and terrifying. Kasai seemed really nice though, and even a little shy. Onin, Tannin, and Cerina all had pretty normal stories about growing up and going to school. Too normal.

“Um, can I ask a question?” Purona looked around the group.

“Sure,” Onin said.

“Uh, I’ve, um—” Purona wrung her hands and looked at the floor. “—heard that Gesarans had special abilities. Is that true?”

“For the most part, yes.” Onin grinned at her. “Not all Gesarans have gifts, but a lot of us do, and that seems to be one reason why the Natas like us for hosts.”

“Yeah.” Tannin sat up on the couch that he’d been sprawled across. “We just fought off a bunch of them. That’s why we’re here on Nekotia. We’re tracking those vile things down so they don’t possess and torture anyone else.”

“So…” Purona looked around. “If you don’t mind my asking, like, what kind of gifts do you have?”

“They’re unique to each individual.” Onin held out his hand, palm up. “For example, I can generate balls of energy that I call servitors. They can do all sorts of stuff.”

Onin’s palm glowed, and a yellow-white ball of light grew out of it. It continued to grow until it was the size of Purona’s head, then detached and floated up to hover a few feet above their heads.

Purona stared at it. “That’s amazing!”

“Hey, snacks are on!” Saija’s voice echoed from the kitchen. She came around the corner carrying a plate that smelled tantalizingly of fish. “The whole kitchen is stocked. So, I made fish and crackers.”

Cerina raised an eyebrow. “That’s a weird combination. What are you, pregnant?”

Saija stuck her tongue out at her. “Fine, don’t have any.”

Everyone helped themselves. Purona reached a hesitant hand forward. No one said anything, so she nabbed a cracker. Each cracker had a small piece of baked fish, topped with a light tartar sauce.

“So, what about you?” Amaryllis popped a cracker in her mouth.

“Um, I’m from one of the more distant families in the Deka kinset.” Purona curled her tail more tightly around herself. “I have an older brother and sister, and a younger sister. I graduated secondary school a few months ago and just got a job answering phones and doing paperwork for the government spaceport.”

Ryogin leaned forward. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you? Amaryllis seemed to physically mature a little younger than most Gesarans. We’ve wondered if that was due to her Nekotian DNA.”

Purona sat up. “I’m nine. Some Nekotians don’t graduate until they turn ten but I worked really hard so I could get a job as soon as possible after having my maturity party.”

“What?” Cerina leaned forward. “You’re nine?” She stared at Purona’s chest, face, chest, then back again. “Life is so unfair!” She slumped over and thunked her head into the arm of the couch.

Purona blinked. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Nope.” Tannin patted Cerina on the shoulder. “Gesarans reach adulthood on their eighteenth birthday. Just ignore Cerina. She always acts weird.”

“What!” Cerina shot upright. “What do you mean I act weird, mushroom head?”

Purona giggled. Those two fought like her brother and sisters did. Purona traded stories with the Gesarans for a few more hours. Gesara sounded like an interesting, yet blandly-colored planet. Finally Purona couldn’t stop yawning and excused herself.

She changed out of her uniform into a nightshirt and shorts, and snuggled down into the queen-sized feather bed in her room. She closed her eyes and sighed. “So comfy.”

Not sure how I’m gonna go back to that cheap mattress at my apartment. She yawned and snuggled into the covers further. Today wasn’t so bad.

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