I leaned over the edge, looking into the pool and wondering how deep it was. To my bemusement, I spotted a dark shadow lurking beneath, a solitary air bubble rising up to disturb the calm surface.
Suddenly, a shape exploded out of the water. Before I could so much as cry out in surprise, I felt a stab in my leg, a little ball of orange fur biting through my uniform.I lurched away reflexively, slipping on the wet tiles, knocking over a fellow trainee like a bowling pin. As we picked ourselves up – the Krell bristling unhappily and snapping their jagged teeth together – the orange creature sat down to watch the chaos that it had created contentedly. It shook itself like a wet dog, spraying us with water. I nursed a bruised butt, glaring accusingly at the alien.
It was a she, that much was obvious enough, all sixteen inches of her. She was basically feline, with a coat of orange, stripy fur that was currently soaked with water. She wore no uniform, no swimsuit, only her damp coat preserving her modesty.
She had digitigrade legs like a dog or a cat, ending in paws,a pair of little ears flattening against her head as her pink nose twitched. Incredible – convergent evolution had created an alien species that almost perfectly resembled the felines of Earth.She looked up at me with a pair of amber eyes, her pupils narrowed to slits in the harsh light of the recreation center, and spoke.
“Mrow!” she announced as she flicked her long tail back and forth. She didn’t seem to speak English, but I could tell from the tone of her voice that I was being insulted.
I prepared a retort but thought better of it, merely rubbing my ass as I scowled at her. I had worked too hard to get here, I didn’t want to make a bad impression on my first day and put my position in jeopardy.
“Mrrp,” the alien continued. She raised a paw and began to lick it, starting to clean her face.
Vasiliev stepped forward, his tone stern now.
“Stand down, Raz. May I remind you that you’re here as a guest of the UNN?”
The alien ignored him, continuing to clean her whiskers as though she hadn’t even heard him. I was shocked by her insubordination.
“These are the Borealans,” Vasiliev continued, addressing the recruits. “They recently joined the Coalition. They’re not quite as well socialized as some of the other species, so be patient with them. Their planet is right on the frontier, and it’s going to be an invaluable asset. Now, if you’ll follow me this way, we can continue the tour and get everyone fed.”
After a few hours of trial and error, everyone seemed to have figured out how they wanted their XMR set up. Vasiliev walked up and down the range as he watched the recruits fire their weapons, the loud cracks of railguns and the electrical buzz of plasma ringing out.
“Every time that you empty a mag or a canister, I want to see you swap out the receiver,” he yelled over the din. “Make a habit of it, starting right now.”
I was having a lot of fun. The XMR was not too different from the weapons that I had trained with on Earth. It certainly seemed to be an evolution of those designs rather than something completely alien, even if it used a dramatically different means of firing.
I had tweaked mine for low recoil, and I was already enamored with my weapon, stopping just short of giving it a name. I had gone for a medium-length barrel with enough copper coils to ensure a good amount of stopping power, along with a two-times magnification sight, ergonomic grips, and a nice padded stock to help control the kick. I fired it in burst mode, hitting the paper targets dead-center with excellent grouping.
The Krell who occupied the booth beside me seemed to be enjoying himself too. His large frame was equipped with a drum magazine that must be able to hold a good two hundred slugs, his grip sticking out horizontally from its mounting point on the barrel. He had a heavy gun shield and a wicked bayonet, cutting the targets to shreds with bursts of fire that made the coils on his barrel glow red-hot. I couldn’t tell if he was grinning, or if that was just the way his teeth looked.
The Borealans were not doing so well. The modular design of the guns seemed to overwhelm them, and they lacked opposable thumbs with which to manipulate the parts. Based on their complaints, which were loud meows that could be understood by noone, I had to assume that they couldn’t even lift the weapons.
Raz complained especially loudly, voicing her disapproval and making sure that Vasiliev could hear her. She hadn’t even tried to build a rifle, she was just sitting on the table beside the disassembled weapon, batting the parts around with her fuzzy little paws.
I watched as she moved a reflex scope towards the edge of the table, her eyes fixed on it, each swipe moving it a little closer. The device fell to the floor, Raz’s ears pricking up as she leaned over to glance at it. One of her companions snuck up behind her, pouncing on her playfully, Raz turning to hiss at her. Their discipline was terrible – it was like they weren’t even trying. Just what kind of training did they undergo on their homeworld? One of them dropped down onto the floor and began to slink away, but an attending Marine caught her, lifting her up by the scruff of her neck and placing her back on the table where she glowered at him.
I might have given Raz some pointers, had she not made my life hell for the last few days. Instead, I enjoyed watching her flounder, struggling to suppress my smile. I felt a hand on my shoulder suddenly, looking back to see Vasiliev standing behind me.
“Excellent shooting, trainee. You’ve taken to the XMR platform like a duck to water. This is exactly what I had hoped to see. Raz!” he called, turning toward the alien. She swiveled her head in our direction, watching us with her vacant eyes. “Why don’t you take some pointers from Stanley here?”
I grinned at her, and she ignored us, raising one of her back legs into the air as she licked at her furry belly.
“Listen, Raz,” I began as I closed the door to our shared quarters. When I turned, I saw that she was lurking beneath one of the beds, only her reflective eyes visible in the shadow. “I never meant for things to go this far. I’m sorry that I stood on your tail, but you ambushed me from behind the door and bit my ankle, I had no idea you were even there.”
I approached her hiding spot and extended a hand, but Raz did not reciprocate. Instead, she bared her teeth with a hiss, backing away from my outstretched arm. Her long tail whipped back and forth as she watched me aloofly, until I eventually lowered it. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, assuming that she might not know the significance of a handshake.
“It’s a gesture of friendship,” I explained. “It’s called a handshake.”
“Oh, long Johnson,” she replied. “Oh long Johnson. Oh don piano. Why I eyes.”
I could barely understand her – was it some kind of alien challenge? I was beyond annoyed by that point, and I decided to confront her.
“Why are you being so unfriendly, Raz? Have I done something to offend you? From the moment that you saw me at the pool, you’ve been out for my blood.”
She burst out from beneath the bed with a screech that would have chilled a Banshee’s blood, launching herself at me like a furry torpedo. I felt her claws sink into my thigh, and she clung there as I thrashed around, trying to shake her off. For a creature that couldn’t have weighed more than ten pounds, she was remarkably violent.
I knocked a lamp off the bedside table with a loud crash as I tried to get away from her, backing across the room, but the yowling demon had a death grip. With every motion, her sharp little claws dug deeper, her teeth piercing my uniform as she bit me.
When I reached down to pull her off me, she swiped at my hand, drawing crimson blood. After a couple more tries, my hand was a patchwork of cuts, but I finally succeeded in throwing her off me. She landed on the deck a few feet away, standing side-on to me, puffing up the fur on her back and tail to make herself appear larger as she growled.
“What gives you the right to speak to me like that?” I demanded. “I earned my place here, just the same as you. We all did. We’re the same rank, undergoing the same training, which means that we’re all equals here whether you like it or not. I’m not going to let you insult me to my face, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Her flat brow furrowed, and her lips pulled back to expose her sharp teeth, the alien bristling.
She was seething, barely controlling the rage that was building inside her. I’d had no idea that her culture was so rigid and unforgiving, and it went some way to explaining why Raz behaved in the outrageous way that she did. Perhaps, like with lions in a pride, standing could only be maintained through dominance games. If she wasn’t constantly the loudest, most obnoxious, most confrontational member of her pack, then someone else might usurp her.
“Wait, wait!” I gasped as she prepared to pounce again. “What if I could fix this? What if I could show you how to build the best XMR that the station has ever seen? What if I could teach you how to shoot it better than anyone else in the platoon? I studied harder than anyone back at the academy, I can teach you how to pass any exam or test. You’d be showing up every other Borealan here. Then they’d have to respect you again, right? I can show you how to gain the respect of the humans and the Krell, too!”
Raz eyed me suspiciously, and I waited with bated breath, beads of cold sweat dripping down my face. After some consideration, she seemed to come to a decision, slinking across the room to slide back beneath her bed. I breathed in a sigh of relief, eyeing the patchwork of fresh scars on my hand.
My sleep was a troubled one, visions of stalking tigers and ravenous monsters haunting my dreams. Raz had crossed the line, her playful teasing had become serious threats, and the fresh scars on my hand stung as a reminder. When I awoke, Raz was stretching, her lean body and graceful movements drawing my eye once again. I watched her from the corner of my eye, pretending that I was still asleep.
She was lying on her bed, opening her mouth in a wide yawn as she extended her cat-like body. A sound like purring began to emanate from her, and she started to push her paws into the sheets, as though she was kneading a loaf of bread. It didn’t escape my attention that she was completely nude, her amber eyes watching me, half-lidded as if inviting me to approach. Could our relationship have changed so much from the previous night, when she had drawn blood in a blind rage? These Borealans were volatile, passionate creatures.
Damn it, I needed to keep my head on straight. This was exactly what she wanted. Although I would never admit it to Raz, I had never had a girlfriend. My childhood and adolescence had been spent on a farm in a rural area, with no neighbors for miles around. I had joined the Navy as soon as I had come of age, and my life since had been focused on the single-minded goal of becoming a Marine, leaving little room for relationships. The alien seemed to be able to smell it on me like a bad cologne…
I banished such thoughts from my mind, sliding out of bed and starting to get dressed. I glanced down at my hand, examining the red trails that Raz had left in my skin, tracing them with my fingers. They had closed up already, but they still burned, and they’d definitely leave a prominent mark. It was as though she had wanted to carve her name into me, like she wanted me to think of her whenever I felt a twinge or saw my reflection in the mirror. The medics could remove them, but what story would I tell them? That I had stuck my hand in a food processor?
The sound of the door to our room opening took me by surprise, and I turned to see Vasiliev standing there, poking his head through the gap.
“Sir,” I said, giving him a salute. “What’s wrong? Are aliens invading the station?”
“Morning, recruit,” he said as he glanced over at Raz. I turned my head to glower at her, but she hadn’t even reacted to the Sergeant’s presence. “So…there was kind of a fuck up at the docks. We were expecting to receive a shuttle carrying Borealans, which were described to us as feline aliens. It turns out that these are just cats.”
“What, like, normal cats?” I asked skeptically.
“Yup, they’re just cats,” Vasiliev replied with a shrug. “Needless to say, we all feel rather stupid now. I guess someone should have checked the ship’s manifest more carefully, but none of us had ever seen a Borealan before. If you think you can catch that one, there’s a pissed off old lady wandering around in the residential quarter with a carrier.”
“I guess I won’t be experiencing a whirlwind alien romance,” I sighed as I looked back at Raz. She was licking her own butt now.
“What?” Vasiliev asked, narrowing his eyes at me.
“N-nothing,” I replied hastily.