As three Zaran soldier-class emerged from the hole in the ship, I blinked, attempting to feel my arms and legs again.
“Dude! Xil! Why didn’t you tell me about the ray guns?! They weren’t packing those last time!” I thought to Xil.
There was no response.
“Xil?” I probed, a hint of worry entering my mind as the Zaran were bearing down on my immobile form far too quickly for comfort.
“Busy. Trying to repair… damage…” He seemed distracted, but he was at least responding now. Whew. He had me worried there for a sec. I felt like I should make some sort of Han-Solo-to-Chewbacca quip right about now, but none came to mind. Damn! Those blasts really had rattled me! I couldn’t remember the last time I couldn’t think of a pop culture quip off the top of my head!
“Um, Xil? Might want to hurry. Those Zaran guys are starting to aim their rifle-looking-things again. And I’m thinking that’s a bad thing…”
He didn’t respond. I attempted to wriggle my fingers and toes… and, um, claw. But I couldn’t feel them. Okay, so this was bad. Xil was busy, and I couldn’t move my arms or legs. My mind wandered to what life would be like confined to a wheelchair. It wouldn’t be so bad, cruising around town on two wheels…
Except that I wouldn’t be cruising because—oh yeah—I was about to fucking die!
“Look, Xil. I don’t mean to trouble you, but we’re both about to bite the big one here!”
Okay. Now I was officially worried.
Okay, what could I do…
Well, I could still fly. Maybe.
The barrels of the Zaran guns now aiming at my face, I closed my eyes, attempting to calm my racing heart and concentrate. I felt the force of gravity and rotated it to push up from under me again. Xil would be proud, I mused momentarily, though knowing that I should be concentrating on my imminent death instead. Or, well, avoiding it anyway.
I shot up from the tree stump into the sky just as it exploded in energy blasts. Good thing. Those woulda probably stung a bit.
Unable to control my limbs, I decided to use the only thing I could to attack the Zaran soldiers—my torso! I turned the forces in my mind to power myself back down toward the alien soldiers. Arms flailing uselessly at my sides, legs hanging limply beneath me, I issued a war cry as I accelerated downward. At breakneck speed, I slammed into the three creatures chest-first, like a ragdoll thrown by a baseball pitcher, sending their bodies and weapons flying.
There was only one problem: I had no way to stop myself! I faceplanted where the alien soldiers had just been, crashing into the forest floor in an explosion of pine needles, ferns, and dirt. To make matters worse, my mouth had been open as I issued my wild scream, so my cheeks filled with soil. It was nasty. Like worse than lima beans nasty. Yeah. I know, right?
Jags of pain from my new, rather nice pair of breasts splintered into me as well. Stupid Zaran exoskeletons! Why couldn’t I be up against nice, soft, squishy aliens? Even better—ones without cool Amity-piercing guns!
Not a second later, I felt tingles of sensation return to my limbs. Even to my damned claw! Moving my hand and claw to push my body up from the cratered ground, I spit out a mouthful of rocky soil.
“Thanks, Xil! All systems go?” I wanted to quip about his timing, which had been just after our alien opponents had fired at us, but thought better of it. It would just force another apology, and, besides, I first needed to make sure that the Zarans were truly out of commission.
“Your nervous system has been repaired, and you should now have control over your extremities.”
“Sweet! You’re a lifesaver, Xil! Or at least a limbsaver…” I grinned at the thought. Probably no one but me would think that was funny, but I was amused, at least. Xil never thought anything was funny anyway…
“That is an accurate assessment.”
I rose shakily to my feet and glanced around. The Zarans were still down, but they were moving, squirming helplessly on the ground. I realized with a mirthful laugh that they were having difficulty rising. Their curved shells were killer for protection, but when it came to mobility, their armored design clearly left something to be desired. Taking advantage of their difficulty and knowing I couldn’t risk leaving them functional to be able to flank me on my way into their ship, I gave each of their heads a few stomps until I heard their exoskeleton skulls crunch under my stiletto-heeled boots. I know… ew, right? But Lino’s life was at stake here!
Eying their weapons covetously, I reached down for one.
“Do NOT do that, Amity!!!” It was the most urgent I’d ever heard Xilian sound. My hand recoiled instantly as if touching a hot burner on the stove.
“Why? Geez, Xil? Wouldn’t it make things easier if I could just blast these suckers from a distance?”
“Zaran weaponry is coded to Zaran genetic signatures. They can only be held by their owner.”
“But I have a Zaran hand… er, claw, right?”
“You do. But the weapon is keyed to his exact genome.”
“So you can’t do that?”
I sensed his exasperation.
“I can, Amity. However, it will take time. Every moment of delay reduces our chances of mission success by 1.03%. I believe that I have empowered you sufficiently for this mission without the need for Zaran weapons.”
I felt like snarking at him about my extremely recent near-death, quadriplegic experience at the hands of those weapons but decided against it. We needed to get to Lino. Anything that took more time was probably not worth it. Not if he thought I could handle whatever else was inside that ship…
I turned and jogged into the evaporated wall of the Zaran vessel, though I couldn’t help but glance down at my huge claw hand as I entered the corridor made of strange, plasticy fabric in the interior of the vessel.
“Can I have my hand back now? I mean, we’re in the ship, right? So I don’t need any more physical deformities?”
“Deformities? I’ll have you know that Zaran biology is in many ways far more advanced than human.”
“Yeah, but I like to do this!” I said, wiggling the fingers of my human hand to demonstrate. “Besides, the whole lobster hand thing might freak out Lino when he sees me! What if he thinks I’m one of them now or something?” It was a legitimate argument, I suppose, but truth be told, I just wanted my human-style hand back for my own vanity’s sake.
“Very well,” Xil replied with a mental sigh. A moment later, my hand reappeared.
“That’s so cool! You’re going to have to tell me how you do that some time.”
“It is far beyond your meager human capabilities.”
“Okay, so enough casting aspersions on fucking humanity already! Speciesist!” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew Xil would be upset. How many times could I piss off my alien hijacker before he popped, anyway? Probably best not to find out. “Sorry, bud!”
Silence. Oof! Maybe I’d really upset him this time! I was about to double down on my apology, when I saw… it!
It was like the other Zarans, except bigger. Way bigger. About ten feet tall. And it was a darker shade of red. It still looked like a massive, vertical ant with lobster claws… just, well, more massive.
“Okay, Xil. Spill! What the fuck is that?”
Did I mention that it was absolutely fucking ginormous!
“The creature is a Zaran royal queen,” Xil said in a panicky voice. Well, panicky for him. Which was still relatively calm, especially compared to how I usually sounded. But whatever.
“Dude! You just spoke in iambic pentameter. That was so cool!” Why I noticed that just then, I’m not sure. I guess I have an ear for poetry when I’m about to fight alien creatures five times my mass. Don’t ask.
“I was flustered.”
Huh? “Not really getting the connection there? You wax poetic when under pressure?”
“You might say that.”
“I just did!”
I hadn’t known it was possible to hear a mental eye roll until just then. But somehow Xilian pulled it off.
“I was not expecting the Zaran to have a royal presence on your planet,” he continued, ignoring my quip and speaking in a hushed tone.
“Wait! What?!” (I had to project the thoughts in an almost speaking way for Xilian to hear them. So, yeah. Repetitive. I know.)
“That Zaran. She is a queen of her species.”
“Yeah. Ant royalty. Got it. That bad?”
“That is bad.”
“Okay. How bad?”
“Like I’m completely screwed here, bad?”
“So what’s the plan, Stan?”
Silence. Fuck. Not this again!
“Xil! What’s the plan?! Kinda freaking here!”
“You do not stand a chance against this foe.”
“There you go with the iambic pentameter again. That bad, eh?” Queenie was moving toward me now, so I needed to get serious here.
She leapt forward and swung a clawed uppercut before I ever knew that she had moved. I felt my back crunch against the strangely unforgiving alien fabric of the ceiling, then dropped back toward the floor. As I fell, the massive queen swung a clawed hand, connecting with my stomach. I flew across the room, smashing into the far wall. Stars burst into my field of vision, but I was too busy retching from the power of the punch to my stomach to give that secondary concern much attention at the moment.
“Xil? Gonna need… some healing again…” I wanted to quip—or at least issue an obscenity or two—but the blood I was coughing up interrupted my train of thought. Yuck. Ickiness.
He didn’t answer. I hoped he was busy giving me tank armor skin or something—Lord knows I needed it—but in the meantime, I needed to figure out a way to deal with mega-bitch. She was a LOT stronger than the soldier Zaran. I could already tell that I wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to do much against her. No wonder Xil had been freaking out.
I took stock of my resources. I had Xil, but he would probably be busy for the foreseeable future fixing whichever parts of me her majesty decided to break. I was pretty strong, tough, and fast, but those weren’t going to do me a lot of good while my opponent was stronger, tougher, and faster. And I could fly! As far as I knew, she didn’t have that. Chalk one up in the Amity column of the scoresheet. One lonely little advantage. So how could that help me here?
I wasn’t completely sure how flying was going to help offensively, but it could maybe help me defensively. As the massive creature bore down on me again, I launched myself past her, slipping just beyond the reach of one of her claws as she swung it upward. My shapely form arced over her shoulder, then I dispersed the vectors of force evenly around me to allow me to float in the air a good twenty-five feet away from and behind my opponent.
As I marveled at my own inventiveness after figuring out the whole hovering thing without any “just rotate the direction of the force” instruction from Xil, Queenie whirled to face me and roared out a hideous shriek of frustration. Why did monsters always shriek in situations like this? Why couldn’t this one just say “touché” and give me a little credit for avoiding instant and likely very bloody massacre?
Probably ‘cause touché meant actually scoring a point or something along those lines, I decided, answering my own question. Barely managing to avoid a painful and disfiguring death wasn’t really the same thing as scoring.
Barely managing to avoid a painful and disfiguring death. Hearing myself think those words suddenly brought the stakes home. With a downward woosh of my roiling stomach, I suddenly realized that I was about to die. Like for real.
And not just kinda normal-level sucked. But, like, full-on bile-swallowing, stomach-dropping my-favorite-store-in-the-mall-just-shut-down-because-of-fucking-Amazon kind of suckage.
I considered running. I’m not too proud to admit it. I mean, when facing off with a monster nearly twice your height, flight starts to look a heck of a lot more appealing than fight. I still felt the radiating pain in my back and stomach from the two attacks the creature had struck me with in our first exchange. Okay, so maybe more “one-sided bloodbath” than “exchange” but whatever.
That’s when I saw Lino held immobile by some weird fabricy webbing in the corner. He stared at me, wide-eyed and helpless. I felt resolve fizz like adrenaline through my veins. Or maybe it actually was adrenaline. If it was, then ‘thanks, Xil! Owe you one, bud!’
Either way, I was determined again. Ready to face this—
That was the sound my arm made as I found myself spinning head over heels into the wall again. Geez, that queen bitch monster moved fast! Weren’t things that big supposed to be slow?! Fuck!
I attempted to use my gravity control powers to slow my speed, but by the time I had a mental grip on them, I was crashing into the wall with a sickening crunch and an explosion of white-hot pain.
“You cannot continue to take damage at this rate, Amity! I cannot heal your body quickly enough!” He was sounding urgent now. Like actually urgent. Xil. I know, right? It was vaguely alarming.
“Well, it’s not like I’m trying to get fucking pummeled here, Xil! Can’t you amp me up again or give me laser vision or something? I can’t even touch Queenie here! She too fast and too strong for me to even get close before I’m flying across the room and landing in a goddamn heap!”
Xil seemed to pause.
“There is one more thing I can do. I can gift my life force…” he said reluctantly.
“What does that mean?”
“I can fuse the energy of my consciousness into your cells, giving you a significant upgrade in strength and resilience.”
“Okay… sounds good. Let’s do that.” I wondered why he hadn’t fucking done that already! Then I thought about what he was saying. Well, not about what he was saying so much as how he was saying it. His reluctance. “Wait! What does that do to you exactly?”
“It is begun. I will… be lost…” he replied spacily, voice drifting, becoming more distant.
“Lost? WTF, Xil? Don’t do that then!”
“Already… done…” his voice was just a fading whisper this time.
I was horrified. Had Xil just sacrificed himself for me? That wasn’t fair! He didn’t get to be all selfless! He didn’t deserve to die! I didn’t want that, did I? Regardless of the consequences. I glanced toward Lino as I felt power rush through my body in a bittersweet symphony of ecstasy.
I didn’t want it. But I knew I needed it. For Lino.
Hopping up from my comfy place on the floor, I used my control over gravity to hurl myself directly into the face of the monster, arms outstretched in fists. I was about to find out how much I’d been upgraded one way or another.
Ripping through the air with far greater speed than before, I felt my fists connect with Queenie’s bony face. Finally, I’d been fast enough to get past her defenses and land a blow. She staggered backward as I continued past her, still ascending. Equilibrating gravity around my body, I slowed to a hover, spinning myself around in the air to see the effect of my attack. She stumbled backward, losing her balance after two steps, and came crashing to the floor with a room-shaking thud.
Seizing my opportunity, just as I had with the soldiers outside, I launched myself, feet first into her face.
Unlike her soldiers, however, she blocked my attack with her huge claws. I ricocheted back into the air. Turning in mid-air to reorient my head toward her, I flew, arms outstretched again. I connected with her claw, and its shell shattered under the force of my attack, dropping away and leaving her face partially exposed. Reorienting again in the air, I fired myself, feet first, like a missile into the exposed side of her head. This time, she didn’t block me, and I felt my heels dig into her obsidian compound eye with a satisfying crunch.
Her other pincer dropped to the ground instantly, her body no longer struggling, immediately still. I rose from her head into the air in a small rainbow arc to land nearby but far enough away that I could react should she make a sudden move. I eyed the massive corpse for any signs that it might still be alive.
There were, thankfully, none. After a moment, I let out a bated breath.
“Thanks, Xil! I owe you. Big time,” I thought, an aching in my heart as I thought of my symbiotic friend.
It felt strangely empty in my head now. It was difficult to describe, but there was just a void where Xil used to be. A hollowness in a part of my mind I had never previously known of, so its absence hadn’t ever bothered me before his presence.
But it bothered me now.
I felt tears well in my eyes, my lips trembling at the thought of Xilian’s sacrifice. For me. And for Lino.
As tears began to stream down my face, I ran over to him, quickly shredding the strange fabric that bound him with my immensely strong fingers. As he came free of the material, he threw his arms around me.
“Thank you! I don’t know who you are or how you did it, but… thank you!”
He didn’t know who I…
Oh yeah! I looked quite a bit different than I had before. Xil had never changed me back from sexy cosplay girl!
“Lino, it’s me! It’s Amity!”
“Amity!?” he intoned, clearly shocked. He pulled away to examine me with searching eyes.
“Yeah, you see I had this symbiote in me that made me look different because I had to get this delta radiation detector thing…” I trailed off, feeling emotion overwhelm me. Tears began to stream as a fist-sized lump formed in my throat. I felt joy at having rescued Lino. I felt shame at my need for Xilian’s sacrifice to help me defeat the Zaran queen. I felt the physical pain of my internal injuries, the relief that the fight was over, the emotional turmoil of both gain and loss.
Lino looked into my eyes, and his expression morphed from one of shock to one of warmth. He hugged me again. Harder this time. He must have recognized my eyes. My arms remained at my side, too overwhelmed to do anything but simply stand right now. I delighted in the pleasure of his body against mine even as I began to sob.
Placing his hand behind my head, he pressed my face toward him and down to rest on his shoulder, and I cried for several more long minutes. Finally, as I began to regain my composure, he gently wrapped an arm around me and began to guide us both toward the entrance to the ship.
As we walked by the corpse of the queen, I sniffed, wiping the tears from my cheeks.
“What was that thing?” Lino asked me.
“It was a royal pain in the ass,” I grinned under my probably puffy red eyes and glanced up at him.
His eyes glimmered in amusement. “Yep,” he said softly. “Definitely Amity…”
I elbowed him.
“Definitely!” came the pained, wheezing response. I guess I didn’t know my own strength. That’s the thought that made me realize. Xil wasn’t lost after all. He was still part of me. Only quieter.
I smiled, and we headed home.