I was a plant, of the non-veggie variety, and I was watching the worst possible thing happen while I was on the job. The world was coming apart around me, and the very thing I had been sent to monitor was two rooms away.
But there were walls collapsing and ceilings buckling and floors caving in between me and my target, and to be honest, I didn’t really have a contingency plan for Armageddon. Just never figured it’d happen, let alone while I was on the job.
The earth was shaking so hard that this building, this locked-down triple-reinforced modern fortress, was leveling itself from the pressure of the motion. Chunks of metal sheeting and broken steel struts were toppling on every side, and even as good as I was, I’d already been pummeled by glancing blows half a dozen times in the last ninety seconds, since the end of the world began.
I smelled blood strongly, potently, and realized it was leaking from my own nostrils. My body was trembling with adrenaline, the fur on my tail embarrassingly poofy with instinctive fear. I saw some of the soldiers and guards, of which I was pretending to be one, racing desperately for any exit. One clever mink was swarming up a rope ladder to the attic space, which would lead to the roof where nothing short of a helicopter could fall on her head.
I didn’t stop to think about how much I valued my life against the value of a probably-dead-in-the-water mission; I just kept moving. Run run run dodge a toppling beam run twist out of the way of a crumpled ceiling panel run run leap over a growing gap between hallway and threshold run. More running. More running. I was pretty sure these endless hallways should not be quite this long and wondered if the room my target was in had already been buried in sharp-edged rubble. Surely I hadn’t passed it in the chaos.
But the door – I could see it now, gleaming red like a bloody knife – was still standing. And as I got closer, the bone-grinding rumble of the shattering earth sounded strangely distant and muted, like my ears were about to pop from an altitude shift.
I chanced a glance behind me and realized I’d been ascending. I wasn’t sure how high, but things were definitely rolling back, falling away from me; I was in less danger from debris now, but my muscles were burning in protest of the sudden steepness. The building kept distorting as I climbed, and soon I was using my hands as much as my feet in scrabbling towards that tantalizing target: the red door.
By the time I made my last scramble and wrapped my clawed fingers around the door’s lever, I was panting heavily and couldn’t hear anything beyond my own blurry heartbeat. I was nearly dangling from that lever, so tilted had the building become, and I quickly slipped my security badge out of my vest’s inside pocket and swiped it against the card reader next to the door. It beeped green, and the door unlocked, but it was an inward-opening door, so nothing moved.
I had approximately five seconds before my green-light entrance would go back to red, and any second swipe would trigger a warning– I wasn’t really sure if the building electronics were functional with this level of destruction, nor did I know if anyone was paying a damn bit of attention to them, but I couldn’t risk any more disadvantages. I clawed wildly with my feet until my padded toes caught on shearing floor panels, giving me just enough traction to push upwards and open the heavy door far enough to get my free hand between it and the threshold. The flooring buckled beneath my weight as I threw the door open and scrabbled desperately to maintain my grip as the building lurched again.
The walls of the hallway made an eerie cracking noise, like a giant spine being broken into its constituent vertebrae, and I looked down to see the rest of the building fall away like used rocket pieces. We were hundreds of feet in the air and steadily climbing, and the parts of the building that had been connected by impenetrable metal to this single room were plummeting to earth like jagged meteorites. I thought of the mink who’d tried to get to the roof and how we both assumed that would be the safest place to be.
The wind ripped at me, coiled around my dangling legs and tried to slide me around, pull me away from the doorway. I bared my teeth at it and, with waning strength, pulled myself up and into the room, then swung the door shut. It clicked as it electronically locked, mysteriously functional, and I surveyed the open space of the huge, round room.
Men and women in uniforms and lab coats stared at me, some perplexed, some simply startled. I sank into a crouch and tried to catch my breath as the only military personnel with a captain’s badge walked over to me. “That was a feat,” she said, standing clipped and steady with her hands behind her back and her thick tail artfully curled behind her heels. I envied her her cougar composure as my body shook and my own tail refused to smooth down. “Are you injured?”
“Not badly, ma’am,” I replied as smartly as I could between shuddering breaths. The room was still rising, and even inside the protective barrier that I guessed was keeping its exterior from disintegrating beneath the stress of such movement, my hearing was deadened and flat. I resisted the urge to paw at my ears; I knew it wouldn’t help.
The captain surveyed me with cool eyes, her pupils thin in the room’s bright lighting. “Very good,” she said after just a hair’s hesitation, then turned away and returned to the center of the room. I took the time to study the others in the room: four scientists, one of whom looked to be cradling a broken arm in a makeshift sling, plus the captain and three soldier-guards like myself, uniformed and silent and hiding their discomfort very well. All four military units carried a holstered sidearm on one hip and a sheathed “gut ’em” knife on the other hip. The scientists looked unarmed, but likely had a taser-like defense weapon somewhere inside those white coats. No one working on a project this crucial and fragile would go totally unarmed.
Reluctantly, I let my eyes fall upon the one other person in the room: the alien, the mythological creature, the fabled hero of ages past. It was the entire reason the building had been built, the locus of my country’s intel efforts, and my current raison d’etre. It was hairless and naked and lacking any tail or claws or hooves; it had a squashed-flat face and only cauliflower-patterned cartilage for ears. It was hideous and helpless, and it held so much promise that someone – I didn’t want to know who – had set off bombs in order to get it– or to kill it. The end of the world had come with the crash-landing of a spaceship that our primitive ancestors had drawn inside their caves and tombs– not because of the aliens, but because of our own reactions to their arrival and very existence.
The alien dangled from a specially-built containment unit, spread-eagled mid-air, wide straps strategically placed to support its torso and prevent it from ripping its limbs out of their sockets in any escape attempt. Its bare skin, a smooth earth-colored hue, was rippled with darkening bruises and fresh red lines of blood. It did not look at anyone.
I was still feeding upon my own adrenaline, and so I escaped the existential questions that threatened my focus. Every single proto-culture of the world had depictions of these skinny bipeds and their spacecraft; various religions said they were gods or messengers thereof, various philosophies contemplated them as aliens or psychological archetypes, and older mythologies placed them as heroes or demons. Not everyone thought they were real, let alone that they would show up one day, and now that they had, everyone had a different idea on what to do about it.
I met the eyes of one of the soldiers and tried to look questioning; he shook his head just slightly, a warning to keep quiet, which I would have to abide. I had a gun and a knife, same as them, but four on one odds wouldn’t be a pleasant exercise, and I was already worn out by having to scale a dismantling building.
Besides, if I started a fight, I might kill someone who knew where we were going… or why we had left… or, you know, how to fly a rocket-powered room.
I waited. I partook of a little bit of rations that had been stored in the room, apparently in case of just such an emergency escape. I didn’t talk to the soldiers or the scientists, and they didn’t talk to me or each other. With the captain’s permission, I cat-napped now and again. There was no watch to take and nothing for me to do but wait, but I still didn’t feel like sleeping for more than twenty minutes at a time. The other soldiers seemed to share my preferences and followed my example with short dozes.
I woke from my third nap with a knife cold and sharp against my throat and the captain’s bewhiskered face pressed close to mine. Behind her, one to each side, two of the soldiers had trained their guns on my head.
The captain drew breath to speak, then her eyes narrowed and flicked down. My knife’s tip was pressed against her ribs; in my other hand, my gun was out, cocked, and aimed past her hips at the imprisoned alien.
I gave her a terse smile. Agents like me knew how to draw and aim weaponry in their sleep… especially when awakened by a hostile. Kinetic memory served me well.
“I see,” she said. “Who do you work for?”
“That depends on who’s been annihilated by the nukes,” I responded. “Haven’t had a status update since the world ended.”
“Cheeky,” the captain observed. “I don’t suppose you’d trade us your loyalty in exchange for your life?”
I flicked one ear backwards dismissively. “You and I and the alien would die together, captain. It’s not just my life that you have to trade.”
She searched my face thoughtfully, unhurried, unworried. “Do you belong to one of the groups that wants to see it destroyed?” she asked.
“No,” I said truthfully. “If I did, I would have done an assassination run already, or pulled a suicide shot off by now.”
The captain inclined her head in the slightest of nods. “Then killing it would be as unappealing to you as it would be to us.”
I flicked my ear again, the only way I could shrug without shifting my arms and potentially forcing her hand. “My own death is pretty unappealing as well, captain.”
“Yet you won’t offer your loyalty to avoid your death. Do I have to buy you out?” She scoffed at the thought, lips drawing up over her shining fangs. I did not think about those teeth sinking into the soft flesh of my throat; she’d have all of my dense, long-furred pelt to get through, and even though a cougar could overpower a manul like me, I was skilled enough to keep my jugular safe. I hoped.
“You could try,” I said, forcing my tone to sound almost cheerful. None of the weapons involved in this stand-off were wavering, though the scientists had moved out of the direct lines of fire and the third soldier was positioned to cover them. I wondered if the room was on auto-pilot; no one seemed to be standing at any sort of control station to steer our trajectory.
“Nah,” the captain said, soft and smooth, and she moved back, our knives parting from their respective targets; with the two guns still trained on me, and mine still on the alien, she stood, drew her gun, and fired into the alien’s bare, flat chest. It jerked, then hung still as blood leaked liberally down its torso.
My eyes were wide as the captain turned back to me. “You were saying?” she asked.
Well, I thought to myself, time to be badass.
I moved, and the soldiers fired; one missed, and the other grazed my hip as I pulled myself from a supine position into a crouch. I pulled my firearm from its holster, threw myself to the right to avoid a shot from the captain and one from the soldier guarding the scientists, and fired at the soldier closest to me. She fell with a red-bubbled gurgle, the bullet cleanly piercing her throat and then spinal column.
I maneuvered to keep the captain between myself and the scientists’ guard, but the second soldier also took cover behind her and fired at me around her body as she moved. The bullet sank into the meat of my shoulder, missing the bone; it hurt like hell, but it wouldn’t take me down. I traded knife for gun between my hands and raised the pistol in my left, aiming for the soldier as the captain dived aside.
It all happened in the space of a breath: my moving, my kill, my injury, and then the captain putting a bullet through the other soldier’s head. He dropped like a string-cut puppet, and I was startled just long enough for her to sink a shot into my thigh. My darting movement turned into a graceless roll along the curving wall, and I heard the last muted crack of the gun as I came to a stop, leaving an erratic red streak behind me. The third soldier, the one guarding the scientists, fell to the floor.
I had my sights on the captain just as she set hers on me, and we stayed there a second; I was breathing raggedly and bleeding more than I’d like, and I was still unable to figure out her motive in shooting her own men. She locked gazes with me, fearless, pupils dilated and heavy tail lashing behind her. “Doctors,” she said quietly in a voice of steel, “tend the alien’s wound.”
I knew better than to break eye contact, but I swiveled an ear and listened very hard; it didn’t help. In the sound-dulling room, I had not heard the alien keep breathing, and I couldn’t now look to see if that chest was rising and falling, but the scientists moved as commanded and, from the tones of their hushed voices, the alien was very much alive.
“Put your gun down, agent,” the captain commanded. I didn’t move. She smiled briefly, tightly. “Put your gun down. I don’t want to have to kill you. Your being here gave me the perfect opportunity to get rid of these idiots. We might not see eye to eye–” I didn’t point out that I was a good foot shorter than her. “–or work for the same people, but I believe we both have the alien’s safety as priority. Unlike these louts.” She gestured with her free hand to the bodies on the floor.
My thigh was still bleeding badly. Moving as steadily and carefully as I could, I sheathed my knife, switched my gun back to my right hand – ignoring, for the moment, the strain of my injured shoulder – and pressed my left hand to my bleeding leg. She hadn’t hit the bone or the femoral artery, but I was still going to need to bind it before blood loss sent me unconscious. I didn’t have a lot of time to negotiate. “You’re not with them?” I asked, flicking an ear towards the bustling scientists.
The captain smiled again, showing teeth. “I’m with the scientists,” she said. But she wasn’t with the other military personnel, and I knew that they were part and parcel of the small fortress we’d just left behind…
I narrowed my eyes. I wanted to break gaze, but that would signal my submission, and I wasn’t done holding my gun yet. “Whose payroll are you on?”
She shook her head slightly. “I’m not giving information that you also kept. Suffice it to say that I think it’s in our best interests to work together. The alien is alive and will continue to be so. You can either be taken as a prisoner when we land at our destination, or you can be taken as a tentative ally. You choose.”
“Where will we land?” I asked, trying to buy a little time. Almost a mistake, stalling like that – I was starting to feel a little dizzy. Blood soaked my hand and continued to push past my fingers, despite my best efforts to staunch the wound.
To my surprise, the captain looked down, breaking gaze without losing the dominant position – a hard thing to do between two cats. She eyed my leg. “I could just wait for you to pass out, then disarm and cuff you,” she said in a detached voice. Her gun never shifted from its aim at my heart.
“Could,” I admitted. “Where are we landing?”
She glanced at me, calculating, then smiled with her teeth again. “A moon base. Private sector, non-militarized.”
My jaw dropped, despite myself. “We’re taking this thing into space?!”
The captain laughed loudly. “Agent, don’t you realize we’re already almost there?”
Instantly, I clicked the safety on my pistol and dropped it, my heart quailing. I had no idea how the room was reinforced, or any idea how it was even flying, but the thought of risking a puncture to it – however low the odds were – was enough to disarm me. I might risk my life, but I’d prefer not to experience death by vacuum.
The captain nodded and lowered her gun, replacing it in her holster. “Good,” she said approvingly. “Doctor,” she said, switching her focus to one of the scientists who was doing more hovering than alien-tending, “please take care of the agent’s wounds.”
The scientist gave her an incredulous look, which raccoons are always so good at, but she flattened her ears at him and he scrambled over to me, hands full of first aid supplies. He removed the bullet and bound my leg, then wrapped up my shoulder. I watched over him as the captain joined the other scientists and made sure that her feint of a shot hadn’t done structural damage to the alien.
The raccoon awkwardly patted my good shoulder when he was done, gave a quick nod-bow, and scurried back to the others. The captain came my way and crouched, out of knife’s reach. “I need something to call you,” she said, searching my face. I could tell she was on the brink of asking me how I was, and I wished my dizziness did not show so readily. If I were in the company of my comrades, I would have swooned already.
“Agent Pallas will do,” I said with a wry grin. She laughed shortly.
“Unoriginal at best,” she remarked. “You may call me Agent Kindly.” I raised a furred brow at that, and she shook her head. “It’s a long story; you don’t want it,” she said with a slight smirk. “I don’t know anything about your people or your intentions in detail, but we’re about to land. Do I need to tie you up and hand you off as a prisoner?”
I appreciated her phrasing; I could say yes and admit that I was an intentional threat, or I could say yes to keep me from being in a situation that would force me to act because of whatever cultural or ethical codes I might live by. If I were part of a group that would kill or imprison or dishonor me for not driving myself dead with my efforts to carry out my mission, being taken as prisoner would be a kinder sentence.
A kinder sentence. I laughed under my breath and ignored her quizzical look. “I’d rather be in a position where I can help protect and preserve the alien from hostile forces,” I told her.
She returned a skeptical eye. “You’re wounded and disarmed,” she pointed out; she had slid my gun out of reach shortly after I dropped it. When I held her gaze and did not attempt to excuse or bluff through her statement, she shrugged. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll tell my superiors as much. What happens to you will be their decision, not mine.”
I nodded. When we landed, a smooth and unremarkable procedure, the raccoon scientist helped me to my feet. The red door to the room opened to allow in not military personnel, not doctors, not even political figures– but more aliens, dressed in uniforms and bearing badges and stripes of unknown meaning. I held very still and stared hard at them.
They said nothing as they took their kinsman back, holding it carefully, and only after they were gone did any of our species enter the room. A crocodile in civilian clothes glanced from the captain to me, gave me a studious once-over, then looked back to the captain. “Well done,” he said in a throaty voice. “Who’s this?”
“Someone who would be an ally,” she replied. “Agent Pallas.”
He snorted. “Unoriginal.” With another glance to me, he gave a nod. “Welcome to the moon, agent. You’ve just reached the only place in our space where we and the aliens have sat down to talk.”
I grinned, though weariness slowed the expression. “Glad to hear it,” I said. “My people were hoping all along that would happen.”