Etherno

Chapter 32: Hide and Seek

Kasai was up before everyone except for Saija, who she found in the kitchenette of their suite cooking toast.

“Hey.” Kasai waved to Saija and poured herself a glass of milk.

Saija looked over Kasai’s shoulder. “Do we even know what kind of animal that came from?”

“I dunno.” Kasai shrugged. “The jug has a cartoon of purple and white spotted animal that looks like a cow.”

“Close enough.” Saija took a bite of her toast. “Pour me a glass?”

“Sure.” Kasai stretched up to grab another glass from the cupboard. “You’re up early.”

“Yeah.” Saija sighed. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Kasai handed Saija the glass of milk. “Yeah?”

Saija took a small sip. “Not bad.” She pulled out a stool and sat. “I’ve been having nightmares for about as long as I can remember. They’re not as bad now as they used to be, but still.”

Kasai nodded. “Mm-hmm. I have bad dreams sometimes, too. Used to have one where I was playing, then everything was on fire. I don’t have them as often now, but yeah. Must be worse for you.”

Saija scooted her stool closer to Kasai. “For me, it used to be stuff that the Natas did when it still had control of me.” She shuddered. “Now it’s mostly memories of the implantation ceremony. It feels so real, like they’ve got me again, and I wake up in a cold sweat. Takes a while to convince myself it was just a bad dream.”

“That must be awful.” Kasai pulled Saija into a hug.

“Yeah.” Saija finished her toast and jumped up off her stool. “Hey, you wanna come for a run with me? It helps clear my head, and I’d rather not be alone.”

“Sure!” Kasai smiled and jumped up. It’d be great to get to know Saija better, and she could use the exercise. She paused halfway down the hallway. “We don’t know the city what well. Should we invite Purona too?”

“Sure.” Saija laughed. “That poor kid looked so scared yesterday when you asked if she could be our escort.”

Kasai grimaced. “Ouch, yeah. I didn’t mean to put her on the spot yesterday, but I felt so sorry for her when everyone glared at her when Amaryllis hissed at her.”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t even her fault.” Saija cocked her head to the side. “But it wasn’t exactly ours either, exactly. Why’d you stick up for her? I mean, she’s a cute kid and all, but I still would’ve just gone with the flow since we’re here to catch the Natas and we don’t want to aggravate the Nekotians.”

Kasai stopped, put a hand on Saija’s shoulder, and looked her in the eyes. “Because it was the right thing to do. Just like when we helped you when you were our enemy. Ard just doesn’t want us to fight evil, he wants us to love each other, too.”

Saija scrunched up her eyes and bit her lower lip. “That’s a confusing and religious answer.”

Kasai shrugged. “Raised by monks.”

Saija laughed and clapped Kasai on the shoulder. “Yeah, what’d I expect? Anyway, I’m gonna go get changed. You should do that too, then grab the kid and we’ll go for a run.”

“Sure.”

Kasai changed into a pair of capris and a green tank top. She went down the hall to Purona’s room and knocked on the door. Just when Kasai thought about knocking again, the door cracked open.

“Eh?” Purona blinked and looked up at Kasai.

Kasai stifled a giggle. Purona’s hair was sticking out all over. She wore a loose pink and white t-shirt with a cartoon cactus on the front, and sparkling purple shorts. Her ears drooped to the sides, and her eyes were half closed. Apparently she was just as much a morning person as Tannin was.

“Good morning.” Kasai waved. “Saija and I want to go out for a run. We’re not quite sure where to go and want to know if you’ll join us?”

Purona blinked a few times. “Super.” She yawned. “Give me a sec and I’ll be totes ready.”

Purona yawned again and shut the door. Kasai stretched while she was waiting. Her wings were always stiff in the morning. A few minutes later the door opened, and Purona stepped out. Her calico hair was up in a ponytail, and she wore an iridescent sports bra and matching shorts.

Kasai blinked. The outfit seemed to reflect every color of the rainbow, and seemed to shift color constantly. It might just be a trick of the lighting, but it also seemed to amplify the light.

“Hang on,” Kasai jerked her thumb back in the direction of her room. “I’ve gotta grab my—”

“Here ya go.” Saija slapped Kasai’s sunglasses into her hand. “Where’s the best place to go for a run around here, anyway?”

“There’s a park with some super nice trails a few blocks away.” Purona led the way to the elevator. “You’ll totes love it!”

Kasai scribbled a quick note to the others, and followed Saija and Purona to the elevator.

dragon

The street was less crowded today than it was last night. Still, Kasai still had to weave around a few other pedestrians. Most of them female. Come to think of it, she’d only seen a handful of Nekotian men. She was tempted to ask Purona, but it might be a taboo or sensitive subject. She glanced over at Purona, who was still yawning and rubbing her eyes. Maybe once they got to know each other better. Purona still seemed a tad shy around them, though it’d gotten better after they’d all sat around talking last night.

“Ooo, there’s the park!” Purona pointed ahead and to their right.

A giant neon sign arched over the entrance to the park. On the other side of the sign there was a small field covered in purple grass. Beyond the field a few trails led off into a forest of orange trees with green trunks.

“Come here often?” Saija asked as they entered the forest.

“Yeah.” Purona grinned at Saija. “I mostly sit at a desk all day, so it’s super nice to get out and run for a bit after work.”

Kasai stared at the forest as they jogged at a nice, leisurely pace. The colors were weird, but it still felt nice to get out and stretch. She rustled her wings and let the air flow over them. The air pressure was a little different here. It would probably be a smidge easier to fly here.

“Wait—” Kasai slowed down a little. “Is that a red rock with white spots?”

Purona glanced over her shoulder. “Yup. It’s to mark the halfway point of the trail.”

“Is that a natural color?”

“Yes.” Purona didn’t even slow down.

“Hah.” Saija pulled out her phone and snapped a picture. “Tannin will love this. Kinda looks like one of those mushrooms he’s always going on about.”

Kasai rolled her eyes. “Please don’t tell him.”

“Ah, it’s fun when he rants. Besides—” Saija jerked to a stop to avoid running into Purona, who had stopped in the middle of the trail and stared off into the forest.

“What is it?” Kasai put a hand on Purona’s shoulder and scanned the forest where Purona was looking.

“I thought I saw something moving.”

Saija shrugged. “Could be an animal.”

Purona shook her head. “No, it was bigger, and I thought it was person shaped.”

“I don’t see anything now.” Kasai frowned. “Since we’re past the half-way point, let’s just keep moving and keep an eye out.”

The other two nodded, and they resumed their jog. Kasai kept scanning the forest. Lots of weird trees, the occasional rock or shrub, but nothing moved. Wait. There, at the corner of her peripheral vision. Kasai continued to face forward, but looked over to the right. A shadow leapt from tree to tree, keeping pace with them.

Kasai pretended to trip. “Whoops.” She bent down as if to tie her shoelace.

“You okay?” Saija bent down next to her and whispered in Kasai’s ear. “You see it too?”

“Yeah. Shadowy figure off to our right, trying to stay out of sight.”

Saija sighed. “Great. Two of them then. There’s another on the left side of the trail. What’s the game plan, take them out, or wait and see what happens?”

Kasai glanced up. Purona was playing with her phone while she waited for Kasai to fix her shoe. The smart thing to do would be to portal straight back to the hotel and get everyone else. On the other hand, those shadows could be Natas, and this was the first lead they had.

“I don’t know.” Kasai sighed. “I’d say to wait and see if we could get any more information, but if they plan on nabbing us, Purona could get hurt.”

Saija grinned. “Jump ‘em it is, then.”

A purple portal swirled open under Saija, and she dropped out of sight. Kasai tensed her leg muscles and launched herself backwards and into the air.

dragon

Purona glanced up from her phone at the whoosh of air. Kasai and Saija were gone.

“Nyan?” Purona glanced around. “Guys? Like, where’d you go?”

Something white crashed straight through a tree off to the left of the path. Purona jumped.

This is supposed to be a safe park!

A moment later Kasai emerged from the forest carrying a struggling Nekotion woman. At the same time a purple portal opened in the air above and in front of Purona, and Saija dropped out of it, also holding a Nekotian woman.

“What the…” Purona’s voice trailed off.

Something wasn’t right here. Both of the women Kasai and Saija were holding onto had pale, almost gray skin, and white hair and eyes. And each of them had an open wound in their chest, just below the sternum.

Purona backed up a few steps. “Wha—what happened?”

“These—” Saija thrust her prisoner forward “—are the people who’ve been following us.”

Purona pointed to their wounds. “Did you have to hurt them?”

The prisoner Kasai was holding elbowed her in the gut. “Ooff. They were this way when we found them. And they haven’t said anything.”

“Not a word,” Saija said. “Just started punching us as soon as we got close to them. Do you recognize them?”

“No, I—” Something rustled in the forest. Purona leaned out to look past Saija.

Four more women rushed out of the forest. They too had white hair and blank, white eyes, and the same wound on their chests. Purona blinked and rubbed her eyes. They were still there.

Kasai’s phone beeped. She pulled it out and answered.

“Uh, guys?” Purona pointed over their shoulders at the horde rushing toward them.

“Oh sh—” Saija’s phone beeped. She ignored it. “Kasai, let’s go.”

“Yes, please!” Purona turned to run.

Saija grabbed her arm. “Taking a shortcut, come on.”

Saija held her hand out and a purple disc that looked like a hole in space swirled out. It was soon as big as a person.

Purona pointed to it. “Is that your ability, or did they do that?”

“It’s me. Get in, quick before the others get here!” Saija shoved Purona toward the hole.

Purona stumbled, caught herself, and jumped. Everything went dark, and it felt as though she was being stretched out. The sensation lasted half a second, then she landed inside the living area of the penthouse suite at the Imperial hotel.

What was that? Purona blinked and looked around. Yup, she was really there. The other Gesarans were all gathered around in a semi-circle. A second later Kasai and Saija stumbled through the portal and it snapped shut.

dragon

Aiden startled herself awake and jumped out of bed. “Wait, I’m still in the hotel room, not the—“

Aiden frowned. It must have been a bad dream. Where was it she had thought she’d been? She couldn’t remember now. Aiden sighed in frustration, then paused.

“I wonder if the dream is from the host?”

No reaction. No new memories or flicker of personality. Well, there was either something left of the host’s personality, or there wasn’t, and so far none of Aiden’s meditating has done anything.

She looked over at the clock. Seven in the morning. Aiden took a quick shower, dressed, and then headed to the kitchenette to see if there was anything to eat.

Onin was perched on a stool at the counter. He was reading something on his phone, and absently eating something that smelled of cinnamon out of a bowl.

Aiden looked around for a moment before settling on an oblong purple fruit with red stripes and a yellow stem. She sniffed it. It smelled sweet. She took a small bite. Tangy, sweet, and a hint of something Aiden couldn’t identify but added to the flavor.

Aiden looked around while she ate her fruit. “Where is everyone?”

“Kasai, Saija, and Purona are out for a run. Tannin’s still out cold. Amaryllis and Ryogin haven’t come out of their room yet.” Onin answered without looking up from his phone.

Aiden snorted and took another bite of her fruit. She’d only known the Gesarans—wait, the other Gesarans, she was one now, too—for a few days, but Tannin hadn’t ever been up before noon. She was pretty sure this species reproduced sexually, so…

Aiden felt her face heat, and changed the topic to distract herself. “Purona seems like a good kid, huh?”

Onin looked up from his phone. “Yeah. Kasai seems to have taken a shine to her. And Amaryllis either likes her too, or feels bad for scaring her.”

“Probably both.” Aiden frowned. “Can I ask a dumb question?”

“Sure.”

“Are Gesarans usually so open?”

“Hmm?” Onin scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Well—” Aiden picked at her fruit. “Everyone last night was sharing about themselves, and you all seem to want to spend time together. And Nekotians are known for being quite social with family. It’s just different for me. All my past hosts have been Kagoshi. They work together, but they don’t really socialize.”

“That must be dull.” Onin frowned. “It’d probably kill Tannin to visit them.”

“They’re not dull, more like…” A word popped into Aiden’s mind. “They’re more like extreme introverts. Any interaction with others is given thought, and they need to relax by being alone, or at least not interacting with others for a while.”

Aiden finished the rest of her fruit in silence. She should think about interacting more with the others. She’d been silent throughout the conversation last night mostly out of habit. If this species was social like the Nekotians, she should interact with them more. It might be good for whatever was left of the host personality, and it should help her work better with the group, too.

The door to Ryogin and Amaryllis’ room flew open.

Amaryllis twirled out into the living area. “Good morning, everyone! Isn’t it a lovely day?”

She paused mid-spin. “Wait. Where is everyone?”

Onin pointed to the door. “Out for a ru—”

Before he could finish his sentence, a portal swirled open. Kasai, Saija, Purona, and two other Nekotions that looked like they’d lost a fight with a dead whale stumbled out.

Onin jumped up and ran over to Kasai. “What happened?”

Aiden blinked. “Um, there’s not going to be an inter-planatary incident, is there?”

“They attacked us in the park!” Purona’s ears stood straight up, and her tail was bushed out. “I called Rala, my boss, but she didn’t answer. What do we do?”

Doors banged open and Cerina, Ryogin, and even Tannin ran out into the living room.

“First, we should get these girls to a doctor.” Onin pointed to the wounds on their chests. “Then we can figure out what to do.”

“Okay.” Purona took a deep breath and smoothed down her tail with her hands. “Um, like, there’s a super good hospital at the spaceport where I work.”

“On it.” Saija swung her hand and a purple portal swirled open.

Aiden nodded. “That’s a good option. That’s a military facility. Since all of us off-worlders are involved, the Nekotian kinsets will want to keep this as under control as they can until we figure out what’s going on.”

Purona gulped and stepped through the portal, the others right behind her.

dragon

Ailah looked up from the row of herbs she was weeding at the sound of the garden gate swinging open. A scantily clad woman with black hair and no ears strode into their garden like she owned it.

Wait, no ears. Is this one of those Gesarans that was on the news?

Ailah’s mother rose from where she sat at the other end of the garden. Ailah’s younger sister Silah clung to her skirt. “Can I help you?”

The stranger cocked her head to the side and grinned. “Yeah, I’m recruiting for a little project.”

Ailah shivered. Something about the stranger’s grin was unsettling.

Ailah’s mother dusted her hands off on her skirt. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to—”

The stranger stabbed her hand forward into Ailah’s mother’s chest.

Ailah froze in terror. This can’t be happening!

The stranger cackled. The color drained from Ailah’s mother’s hair and skin.

Silah beat her tiny hands against the stranger’s legs. “Weave Mommy awown!”

The stranger snarled and back-handed Silah. The child went flying, rolled across rows of plants, and lay still.

Ailah gasped and jerked to her feet.

The stranger whirled to face her. “Ah, there’s another one, too.” She frowned. “A tad too young for my current needs, but you’ll do nicely for something the others are working on.”

She snapped her fingers. “Come here.”

Ailah spun and ran away. There wasn’t anything she could do. Maybe she could go get help. Ailah tripped over something, spun through blackness, and landed on her butt a foot or so in front of the stranger.

Ailah blinked. How’d I get here?

“Tsk, no running now.” The stranger tapped Ailah on the head, and the world went dark.

dragon

Kasai stepped out of the portal. The Nekotian woman she was holding still struggled and tried to punch and scratch her. Saija was also struggling with her prisoner.

“Ugh. Enough of this.” Kasai let go of the woman, and grabbed her entire body telekinetically.

“Here.” Amaryllis touched Saija on the shoulder. “I’ve got her.”

Saija’s prisoner jerked and was still, then floated along behind Amaryllis. Amaryllis turned her head and winked at Kasai.

Ryogin cleared his throat. “You guys go on ahead. I’m going to head back to check on the ship.”

Amaryllis frowned. “Aww.”

Ryogin kissed the top of her head. “If the Natas are loose, we need to make sure the ship is secure, and you know I have a few projects I want to check on.”

“Fine.” Amaryllis’ ears drooped. “If we’re going to be fighting Natas, I’d rather you be safe in the ship, anyway.”

Ryogin pulled her in for a kiss, then jogged off in the direction of the landing pad.

If only Onin would… Kasai sighed and followed the others.

Purona led them down an alley between buildings, and through an unlabeled side door. The door led to a small white room with a tie-dye colored reception desk. Purona walked up and rubbed cheeks with the woman behind the desk, and briefly explained why they were there. The women led them to a small exam room, informed them a doctor would be with them shortly, and locked them in.

Kasai shuffled back toward the wall and folded her wings more tightly to her back. The room was barely big enough to hold all ten of them. The back wall had a line of cabinets under and over a countertop, and a small sink in the counter. The wall to the left of the door had a one-person bed hanging from it, and various devices, screens, hoses, and other things Kasai couldn’t identify hung off the wall above the bed.

Cerina rattled the door. “Did she really have to lock us in here?”

“Security.” Onin leaned against the wall. “Put yourself in her shoes. If we were on Gesara, and a Nekotian group came in carrying two injured Gesarans, you’d be a tad suspicious, right?”

“I know I would be.” Saija said.

Kasai bit her lip. She’d also be a tad on edge if aliens showed up and stirred up a lot of trouble. On the other hand, it was the Natas’ fault. Kasai looked over at Purona. She didn’t seem too scared of any one individual here. She was hiding between Amaryllis and Kasai, and stared at the injured Nekotians. Kasai was about to ask Purona’s opinion on all this when there was a knock on the door, followed by it’s opening.

Xironi and another Nekotian woman entered the room and closed the door. The other woman closely resembled Xironi. Same red hair, green eyes, and a similar facial structure. They weren’t twins, but had to be related.

Xironi frowned and looked at Purona. “What’s the situation?”

The other woman started examining the injured Nekotians that had attacked Kasai and Saija.

Purona’s ears flattened to the back of her head. “Kasai and Saija wanted to go for a run, so I took them to Happy Little Trees Park. We went around the running trail, and at about the halfway point we each, like, got a funny feeling that something was following us. I’m not quite sure how, but the next thing I knew they went off the trail, then they were back and these other crazed girls were attacking us. They were all gross and stuff.” Purona shuddered.

“Alayis?” Xironi turned and called over her shoulders.

The other red-headed Nekotian that had entered with Xironi looked up from the patient she was examining.

“This is weird.” Alayis frowned. “Their blood and nutrient levels are low, there’s weird neural activity, and I can’t explain the eyes without further examination. They aren’t responding to any stimuli, except to attack whoever is closest to them.”

Xironi arched an eyebrow. “They look pretty docile right now.”

“Kasai and I are restraining them with telekinesis,” Amaryllis said.

Both of Xironi’s eyebrows shot up. “Telekinesis. That would explain why the Kagoshi thought you might be helpful against the Natas.” She frowned. “Speaking of the Natas, I may have more news on that front. We’ll deal with that once we get this sorted out.”

“Can you get one of them onto a diagnostic bed?” Alayis pointed to the injured Nekotian closest to her. “Let’s start with that one.”

Kasai jerked upright. She was restraining the indicated patient. She nudged the woman with her mind, and sent her floating over to hover over the only bed in the room.

“Okay.” Alayis pressed a few buttons on a control panel set into the wall and hovered her finger over another button. “Release her, please.”

“Um—” Kasai looked over at Onin, then back to Alayis. “If I do that, she’ll start attacking us again.”

“Don’t worry.” Alayis jerked her chin in the direction of the control panel. “The bed has restraints, and I’m ready to activate them.”

“Okay… now!” Kasai mentally let go of the woman she’d been restraining.

The woman started to thrash, and Alayis jabbed the button. There was a static snap, and the woman dropped to the bed and lay still. Alayis pressed a few more buttons, and lowered an arm with a black half-dome at the end of it over the patient’s head. A green laser blinked on and scanned back and forth over the woman’s forehead.

“This is weird.” Alayis frowned at the display. “Her muscles and nerves are getting signals to fire, but the motor cortex in the brain is all but dead. It’s like she’s being remote controlled or something, but I’m not detecting any signals.”

Kasai gasped and looked at Onin.

Tannin made a fist with his right hand and smacked it into his left palm. “Arjuketa!”

“Arjuketa?” Xironi looked around the room. “Who’s that?”

“A Natas.” Saija and Aiden spoke at the same time.

“One we fought recently before we came here.” Onin took a step toward Xironi. “She called herself ‘the Puppet Master of The Seven’, whatever that means.”

Xironi sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Then the other incidents are related. Claal-Deka would like to discuss them with you. Purona will take you to him.”

Xironi clasped Alayis on the shoulder, then left the room.

“So…” Cerina looked around. “Do we just leave these guys here to terrorize the hospital or something?”

“I’d like to run some more tests.” Alayis pulled an air needle from her pocket and pressed it to the neck of the prisoner who Amaryllis still had restrained. “That should hold her. We’ll take care of them.”

“Uh, we shouldn’t keep Claal-Deka waiting.” Purona opened the door, opened her mouth, shut it, and held out a hand indicating the way out.

Kasai suppressed a chuckle. Purona’s becoming more at ease with us, but she’s still a tad shy and nervous.

Kasai let out a sigh of relief. This meeting was in the same room as their previous meeting with Claal-Deka. The uh, loud, colors of Nekotian design didn’t bother her as much as they did Cerina, but the insides of fancy Nekotian buildings was still enough to make Kasai’s eyes water.

Claal-Deka was already seated at the meeting table when Kasai and the others were ushered into the room. A Kagoshi sat next to him. Kasai took the opportunity to get a good look at him. She hadn’t really had the chance on the ship, what with the shooting and all.

The Kagoshi was around the same size as the average Nekotian, though it was hard to tell exactly when he was sitting down. He had violet skin. On this closer inspection, it wasn’t really skin, though. More like… bark? There were irregular lines and ridges, and the joints were well defined and visible. It might even be an exoskeleton.

“This is Kl’cha’i, of the Kagoshi.” Claal-Deka nodded to the purple alien.

Onin bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Kasai shrank back to stand him. She was glad he was here for this part. Kasai wasn’t fond of talking to new people, and this alien’s eyes bored into her as though she were the enemy.

“I’ve received a report from Xironi—” Claal-Deka waved a tablet in his left hand. “—about situations where sickly looking women have been attacking people in random locations around the city. Her report matches up with the data that Aylayis sent from the two your group has captured. If they are related to the Natas, I’d like you to look into it.”

Kl’cha’i made a buzzing noise. “The Union of Free Allied Planets hasn’t recognized this group. For all we know, Gesara could be the planet of origin for the Natas.”

“Hey!” Cerina stepped forward.

Onin motioned with his hand, and Tannin stepped forward and clapped a hand over her mouth. Saija leaned in and whispered something to her. Kasai wanted to say something as well, but that might make it worse. Cerina hadn’t liked her from the moment they’d first met. They’d been getting along better lately, but Kasai didn’t want to push things.

Claal-Deka cocked his head to the side and stared at Kl’cha’i with a bemused expression on his face. He sat that way for a few minutes before speaking.

“Really now.” Claal-Deka flicked his fingers in Onin’s direction. “You honestly think he’s a Natas?” Claal-Deka laughed. “I might not get out into the universe much, but I know that young man is no Natas.”

Kl’cha’i made a noise like wood grating on wood. “They are deceitful and vile. Another mammalian species crawls out of the scum pit of the universe, and oh, of course they’re our friends!”

Purona gasped.

Claal-Deka shot to his feet and leaned down over Kl’cha’i. “Are you challenging my right to rule my kinset?”

Kasai shivered. His friendly, nonchalant manner was gone, and his voice was like iron.

Kl’cha’i quivered in his seat. “No.”

“Good. That would be most unwise.” Claal-Deka returned to his seat, but still faced Kl’cha’i. “If you’re high enough among the Kagoshi to be sent here, you must know our customs. And if you know our customs, I will enforce them. This is my world, and the territory of my kinset. I will decide how to handle matters. You will observe, and report back to your superiors.”

Kl’cha’i nodded, and Claal-Deka spun his chair to face Onin. He took a quick breath, and was once again the laid-back, carefree person he’d been before.

“Sorry about that.” Claal-Deka took a moment to look each of them in the eyes. “Is Purona performing her duties to your satisfaction?”

Kasai blinked. That was a quick change of topic.

“Yes.” Onin looked around at the rest of them, and everyone nodded back. Even Cerina. “She’s doing great.”

“Excellent!” Claal-Deka clapped his hands together. “Purona, take them to the area of the last disturbance. Xironi will have had your supervisor send you the information by now.”

Purona gulped, saluted, and led the way out the door.

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