by Kemono Michi (毛萌乃享)
It felt hot enough to fuse hydrogen on the sidewalks in Delta Dome, even under the fern-leafed pokpok and fat banyan trees that shaded Park Avenue. Given a choice on the ballot between rolling blackouts or a change in climate control policy, the precinct had lately voted to sacrifice several degrees of cool. Like the rest of the populace, Natsuo missed the cool, but he was adjusting. He drank more water, wore skimpier clothes, saved his errands for evening or morning, before the twin suns began to blaze in earnest through the ultraglass of the dome.
It was still early as Natsuo shuffled home from the art supply store, flipping among channels on his earpods as he went. He bypassed a snatch of headline news–Experimental Bio-Weapons Escape From Development Facility: Public Urged To Blah Blah Blah–in favor of beatific twenty-first century music. His new sketchbook was tucked under his arm. He had half a mind to break it in straightaway, and was keeping an eye out on the street for anything of interest, any surprise.
As he neared the gates to Equanimity Park his steps began to slow. Whenever he passed the park, his course tended to skew toward the gelateria stationed in it. Being a student on a student’s budget, he had trouble affording much beyond rent and occasional pornography, but ice cream in any form fell into the latter category. In any case it was a civic duty to support local business against intersystem conglomerates. He checked the time on his wristcom: still a.m. The stand might not even be open. He dithered, but the dithering was perfunctory.
Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.
It was after all very hot. The music of a bygone planet jangled sweetly in his ears. He turned into the park at a revived and irrepressible pace.
In better weather he might have gone for chocolate, or stracciatella, or tiramisu, but as he stood wilting in front of Giardino’s, in line behind a veiled Ulganuk and two preteen girls, the fruit flavors looked mercifully cool. He left clutching a fluted translucent cup heaped with lemon. Taking a path that wound through the dripping limbs of banyan trees, he scooped spoonfuls with his miniature spoon and squeezed his eyes shut.
He had muted his earpods, the better to focus on the taste of dissipating bliss. I should’ve gotten a large, he thought, why didn’t I? Regret distracted him. He was aware only faintly of a rustling in the boughs above him, and then a noise from behind, a sudden thwump, as if a heavy roll of carpet had fallen out of the tree. At the fringes of his vision something green and narrow undulated. Startled, Natsuo spun.
There was a monster crouching on the path.
He almost dropped his gelato and his sketchbook. Immediately he was mortified. Who really screamed “gyaa,” anyway? Not even grade-D vid heroines whose maidenly virtue was threatened by the oozing and lascivious Org of Glorg, whereas the thing in front of him was not the Org of Glorg, most likely. At the very least it was not oozing. As a dome-dweller Natsuo was used the regular sight of xenos, fabs, hybrids, all kinds of customs. He’d been raised to show good manners toward them, but he had never seen one like this before. He stared at it dumbly. It lifted its head and stared back with slitted yellow eyes.
The head was tigerlike, with purple stripes interrupting the underlying green. The curve of its mouth suggested a perpetual smile, the glint of the eyes a daunting sentience. Two long, thick whiskers extended from the ruff around its jowls, whiplike, more than a meter each in length. The jaws could have bitten off Natsuo’s arm in one snap. On the underside of the arched neck fur gave way smoothly to scales, and then scales to fur again. A crest along the spine was webbed, red-orange, iridescent. Four sculpted legs ended in massive claws. Haunches rippled. The barred tail tapered, studded with bumps that grew into a battery of wicked spines, like spikes on a barbaric cudgel.
On the whole the creature was big enough to overturn several gelato stands. Natsuo was not an expert, but the physiognomy looked more deliberate than alien. If it was a custom, it was beautifully made. He realized that he was gawking.
“S-sorry,” he managed. “Excuse me.”
The growl made the air between them quiver. Goosepimples bloomed on Natsuo’s forearms. A trill went down his spine. He gulped a breath, only to realize that instead of baked concrete and pokpok seeds and circulated air, he was inhaling the creature’s smell. The scent fell somewhere, incongruously, between fresh laundry and the fur of a childhood teddy bear, long lost and nearly forgotten. It was compelling. Natsuo’s head drained like a sieve.
Vague instincts of self-preservation stirred in him. On feeble legs he inched away from the creature, still apologizing, and wobbled toward the park exit. He became aware that he was being followed, not because of any noise–despite its size, the creature made none–but by its shadow engulfing his own on the sidewalk. He halted again. When he turned around the fantastic head loomed at him. He braced himself to address it.
“Is there, uh. Can I help you with something?”
One of the creature’s long jowl-whiskers snaked forward. Natsuo jerked backward, but the whisker–it was prehensile–only curled wistfully toward his left hand, the one holding the gelato dish. The tip of the whisker brushed his wrist, then retracted and made weird swimming motions in the air.
Natsuo stared. Slowly he held up the dish. “You–you want gelato?”
Natsuo started to blink, and then to wheeze. His relief teetered on hysteria. Whatever the thing was, it was intelligent life. “This came from Giardino’s, back that way.” He pointed. “With the striped awning?”
The creature’s head swiveled like a mounted cannon, then swiveled back. Its whiskers gesticulated with feeling.
“I guess you don’t speak Standard, do you? Are you new in town? Do you have any money?” Natsuo paused. He was a senior this year; dispensing directions to visitors or new students, whatever they might look like, was a task within his range of experience. His brain grasped at familiarity like a drowning rat. “No offence, but you’re kind of impressive. You might surprise the girl at the stand. Or did you already try to buy some? She could be Godsquad, they’re really rude toward xenos sometimes–if you’re a xeno, sorry–”
The creature gazed at him soulfully. Its slitted eyes somehow affected the expression of a lost and pitiable dog. Natsuo was moved. He firmed his grip on the sweating gelato dish, whose contents by now resembled lemon soup.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll help you out, but in return you have to let me draw you.”
The exchange of favors went off without a hitch. The creature devoured its cup of nocciola with surprising daintiness, while Natsuo sketched wildly in black and white. He wished he had more time to draw–the contours of the thing were riveting–but the gelato ran out, and it was getting too hot in the park, even in the shade, for him to endure. He said thank you and waved goodbye and assumed that was the end of their acquaintance.
He hadn’t realized it would follow him home. He didn’t realize it had followed until he was already there, in the apartment, shucking off his sandals in the front hallway with a sigh at the air-conditioned cool. He was about to close the door behind him when a green whisker weasled through it.
Natsuo yelped. This time he did drop his sketchbook, which landed wrong on the floor, half-smashing the cover and the rough likenesses he had done in the park. Dismay inflamed him. He rounded on the whiskered muzzle jutting through the door.
“Excuse me, what are you doing here? Did I say you could follow me? I’ve got nothing else to feed you, if that’s what you’re thinking!”
The whiskers corkscrewed downward. They righted his fallen sketchbook, smoothed its bent cover, and offered it to him, helpfully. Natsuo snatched it away and screwed up his face.
“Oh, fine! Hurry up, you’re letting all the cold air out.”
Inside, the creature prowled the apartment’s living space, conducting what seemed to be a thorough survey of the territory. Natsuo was afraid at first that its spikes might catch on something, but the creature flattened them neatly. Its flail of a tail waved above the carpeted floor.
His roommates were mercifully absent. The reckoning would come when they got back. It wasn’t that they were prejudiced, much, but pets weren’t allowed in the complex, let alone unregistered fabs or undocumented xenos or whatever under the twin suns it was; they’d all get in trouble; had Natsuo gone crazy; the thing was huge and ugly besides. But it wasn’t ugly, thought Natsuo. In the face of imagined arguments he found himself becoming petulant, defensive and absurd. Not that he meant to keep the thing–he could barely support his own gelato habit, for one, and the creature clearly had its own agenda, for another. It was a temporary guest. He had an obligation to be hospitable.
“Look,” he said, “you can stay here for now, it’s too hot to go anywhere in the middle of the day, but tonight I’ll take you to the Welcome Center. They’ll be able to help you out, get you registered and things like that. They might have a translator who speaks growl-ese, for all I know.”
Mrrrr, said the creature, which had seated itself next to the couch. It might still be hungry, thought Natsuo, or thirsty. He was thirsty himself. He made placating motions with his hands.
“Stay there, don’t touch anything.”
He hurried to the kitchen. In the refrigeration unit he found water and tea and nutri-tea, and leftover pizza with DO NOT EAT scrawled ominously on the box. Natsuo decided that offering more food might set a bad precedent. He poured water into a salad bowl instead. When he brought the bowl to the living room, the creature drank like a civilized being, as it had eaten the gelato, raising the bowl to its mouth with both whiskers. They had to be tremendously strong. Natsuo suspected that he was gawking again, if not ogling. He could hardly help it when the creature dwarfed everything in the room except the couch. Averting his eyes, he drained a glass of cold tea and wiped his own lips. He hardly knew whether to make small talk, and if so what to say.
There was a clatter just then from the corridor outside. Natsuo twitched, froze, turned to listen. Some other tenant arriving home–he could picture the fiasco if one of his roommates walked in at that moment, with no warning or preamble. He took the empty bowl and his glass back to the kitchen.
“My room,” he directed. “That way.”
It was only after both he and the creature had crammed into his bedroom that Natsuo began to see the disadvantages of his plan. The room had never seemed so small. In fairness, it had never had to accommodate anyone or anything so big before. He sidled and dodged protruding spines to set his sketchbook on the desk.
“Sorry, I know it’s cramped, but if the girls come home and find you–without being, um, introduced?–it’s not going to be pretty. They’re sweet, though, both of them, really–”
In close confines, the scent he had detected in the park began to percolate and thicken. It grew so intense that Natsuo looked around himself for the pile of freshly laundered sheets that wasn’t there. The urge to bury his face and luxuriate was overpowering. He supposed it had been thoughtless of him to close the door, stifling the ventilation, but now the creature stood between the door and him. It watched him with eyes gleaming, pupils slitted thin. Laundry-smell swirled around it like miasma. In spite of himself, Natsuo began to feel glad he had invited it in.
“So,” he said. “Do you mind if I do a few more sketches? Since we’re here.”
Whiskers swished, metronomical, like lions’ tails. Natsuo took this for consent and scooted to grab his sketchbook again.
“I wish you could tell me what you are. I’m such a doof at biology. If I show these drawings in class everybody’s going to want to know what the model was, and I’ll be all, ‘Sorry, no idea, we hooked up in the park,’ haha–”
He had turned his back on the creature as he strained to reach the desk. In the middle of leaning, his shirt caught on something–then his elbow, and then his foot. Losing his balance, he keeled with a flump onto the bed.
Confused, he struggled upright. His shirt was still snagged. It had been flimsy to begin with. He heard its seams split with a definitive rip.
Rolling sideways, he saw the two halves of his shirt dangling like dishrags from the creature’s claws. It flung them down with a gurgle of satisfaction. Its whiskers waggled saucily in front of Natsuo’s widening eyes.
“Wait a minute,” he blurted. His heartbeat grew erratic, hammering with belated fear. Wait a minute wait a minute wait a– “I didn’t mean–hooking up–like–”
When it reared up over him, feet planted on the mattress, Natsuo caught a glimpse of its burgeoning underside. The glimpse caused him to realize it was not really an it at all. He gibbered. His nerves shrilled at him to scramble, but the claws on either side of him kept him cowed and still.
“Don’t hurt me,” he wibbled. “Ohplease. Don’thurtme.”
It bent low. It uttered the softest purling croon. He would never have imagined that something so predatory could make a sound as soft as that. Its mouth opened, exposing teeth he would rather not have seen in close detail. With a whuffle of breath it licked his collarbone, gentle against his throat.
Because its head was distantly feline, he might have expected the tongue to be sandpapery, rough. It was nothing of the kind. It slid down his midriff in warm wet strokes, leaving no doubt of its direction. After long minutes of bracing himself, taut against terror, Natsuo whimpered and slumped back into the bed.
In the vicinity of his navel the licking stopped. The thing was waiting–just waiting, eating him up with its yellow eyes but otherwise not touching, like it wanted permission. Like he had a choice in the matter, after all. Dully Natsuo grasped that if he was going to bolt, or scream loud enough for the neighbors to hear, or say “please stop” in a small pathetic voice, now was his chance.
He covered his face with one spasming hand. He was not a virgin, but losing his virginity had been nothing compared to this. He was losing something else here, something more significant. Possibly his mind. Off-color jokes heard at parties echoed in his empty head. They say you haven’t really done it until you do it with a–
A what? he wanted to wail. A green-and-purple spikey thing? An Org of Glorg?
He swallowed a few times. After a spate of ragged breathing, he lowered his hand. He inhaled the stupefying scent, sucking in the pheremones or opiates or whatever mind-altering stuff was mingled in it. He would be hard pressed to scream and run from that smell. He supposed that was the general idea.
If nothing else he’d have a scandal to brag about when he was old and stodgy. Assuming he survived the next few hours, of course. This one time, at university, I did it with an Org of–
Reckless, he reached to touch its face.
The sudden motion startled it; its whiskers flared. Blood beaded on Natsuo’s fingertips before he could snatch them away. He stuffed them in his mouth and nursed them. What looked like a ruff of fur was really an arsenal of slim, flexible spines, now flared like arrows in a quiver. Natsuo glared.
“Is there anywhere you aren’t prickly?” he hissed.
Mrrhrrrl, confessed the creature. It sounded contrite. As Natsuo watched, the flared spines folded to lie sleek against its cheek. Hesitant, he reached again. It let him stroke it briefly, indulgent, before coiling a lazy whisker around his wrist.
With a growl that made his whole body prickle, it lowered its great bristling head.
It was not patient with human clothing. His shorts went the way of his shirt. The shape of its jaws and their teeth forbid it from taking him in its mouth, and Natsuo was grateful that it seemed to know better than to try. Instead it lapped at him, thorough and ravenous, slathering the full length of his shaft, until Natsuo was panting, fumbling with both hands to cradle its head, careless whether he bloodied his fingers or not. He could think of no endearments to babble other than fuck, or ohgod, or good monster. He felt the paws on either side of him kneading, puncturing the mattress every time they flexed.
Underneath his buttocks something was wriggling. He made no attempt to analyze what it was doing there, or what it might be wriggling toward. When the other whisker wrapped the root of his cock to squeeze, rippling, like a little constrictor around its prey, Natsuo shrieked. No sound came out. He bit down on his own tongue and bucked and shuddered, and was too limp in the grip of orgasm to fuss when the creature hiked his hips up from the bed.
He had fallen asleep, afterwards. He refused to think of it as “passing out” or “loss of consciousness due to excessive sex.” To all appearances his…partner…was asleep as well, sprawled across the available floorspace, head settled on a pillow Natsuo had–in his frenzy–rucked off the bed. Its striped flanks billowed gently with slow breathing. It did not snore. For a while Natsuo stared down at the heap of scales and fur and frills and spikes, allowing their implausible beauty, admitting his collusion in what had happened. He was unprepared to admit anything else.
He was thirsty, and needed to pee. He needed also to check for bite marks on his behind. He would take care of those things first. If his search for underpants disturbed the sleeper, it showed no sign of rousing. Moving blearily, in tiptoe staggers, he shut the door behind him and tottered into the hall.
In the common room his roommate Moe was slouched on the sofa, eating DO NOT EAT pizza, her eyes glued to the news. She sat splay-legged in her skirt and addressed him with her mouth full.
“Nacchan, did you see this? About these prototypes that got loose from BioZen? That’s like right down the street.”
He glanced at the screen, then stared. He continued to stare. Moe pointed with her pizza crust. “This guy’s one of the handlers. Trainers, whatever.” She squinted as she chewed. “Kinda looks like you.”
Natsuo hardly heard her. The man from BioZen looked harrowed, as if he had not slept for days. His lips were moving, though Natsuo could scarcely make out what he was saying. Extremely dangerous–not to be approached under any circumstances–intense search efforts underway–com our hotline to report any sightings–
“A minute ago they were saying how smart they are. They can’t talk, but at least one of them learned to read and write somehow. It left a note when it escaped, can you believe that?” Moe gargled laughter. “‘Dear John, tired of being a guinea pig, got to live my own life, buh-bye.'”
Natsuo stood uncertainly. “Is that what the note said?”
“Word for word,” said Moe. She looked at him and saw that he had believed her. “Were you asleep? You look like a zombie. Go back to bed.”
He made a noise of preoccupied assent. He got a glass of water from the kitchen, downed it in three gulps, and hobbled back to his room. During his absence the creature had not vanished: it had taken over his bed, its spines poking holes in the bedclothes in all directions. The glorious clean-laundry smell of it suffused the air. At Natsuo’s entrance it lifted its head and thrummed a purr.
Natsuo said nothing. His eyes were beginning to burn. His sketchbook was lying on the desk. He picked it up, flipped to a blank page, past the sketches he had done that morning, eons ago. He found a pen. In the big, clear letters of Standard he wrote three words and thrust the sketchbook out in front of him, facing the thing in his bed. Its yellow eyes widened, then narrowed.
Talk to me, it read.
They stared at each other. Natsuo did not look away. After a long pause one whisker extended toward him, quavering. Natsuo held out the pen and paper, waiting for them to be stolen from his hands.
* * *