Something woke Toyus from a deep sleep. He lay still for a few seconds in the hut he shared with his father and Sentinel Sol. He could hear the patter of rain outside the open windows and the breathing of his companions.
Then movement in the stillness of the hut made him stiffen.
He felt the heat of a body nearby and wondered at this. Then he could smell wet pelt.
The fire must have gone out. Or been put out, he thought grimly.
He closed his eyes and listened to the movement. It was lightfooted, but Toyus could hear the drag of cloth along the earthen floor.
His heart clamored in his chest. He forced himself to relax as the movement drew closer.
He opened his eyes and realized he could see, albeit in monochrome. Everything appeared a gritty gray.
Someone stepped high over him and he twisted up and wrapped his legs around the intruder. Twisting to the left, he brought the intruder down with a solid thud.
He heard a hiss.
The intruder fought savagely, cutting Toyus a couple of times before Toyus incapacitated him.
“What’s that?” Moyen demanded, sitting up.
“We have an intruder,” Toyus said. “Please light the firepit.”
Sol and Moyen threw wood and dried grasses into the pit and started a fire.
The Sha’jeen trundeled up in Toyus’s bedclothes was young, with a silver-gray down and bright blue eyes. The ears, tipped black, were flat on his head. He was panting.
Sol strode to where Toyus held their prisoner and knelt.
Moyen remained standing by the firepit.
“oun Nilja,” Sol murmured. “Why do you come in sneaking through our hut?”
“Relax,” Toyus told their prisoner.
Sol sighed. “Let him up.”
Toyus moved to one side, kneeling next to the prone Sha’jeen..
oun Nilja scrambled to sit and pulled away from the bedclothes. He stared at Toyus.
“You–” He licked his lips. “You are Sha’jeen?”
Toyus looked at Sol. “Am I, Sentinel?”
Sol shrugged then turned to oun Nilja. “He is changing because of a virus/bacterium that your people introduced to the environment.”
oun Nilja’s tail was frantically slapping the earthen floor. oun Nilja hissed at it before he turned back to Toyus.
“You…you look Sha’jeen….almost,” he said. He held a hand out towards Toyus. “Is this the will of the God?”
Toyus reached out and took his hand. “I don’t know. It is what it is.”
Toyus felt the Sha’jeen’s soft pelt before he let go the hand.
“Why have you come to our hut?” Moyen asked.
“I come to warn you,” oun Nilja said. “The people are unsure of your presence here. Some talk of expelling you; others of killing you all. You must leave.”
Toyus stood and began to pace. “Where am I supposed to go?”
“This is a continent, Toyus,” Sol said. “You can live on the other side of the mountains.”
“I come with you,” oun Nilja stated firmly.
“But why would you leave your people?” Moyen asked.
oun Nilja’s gaze did not leave Toyus. “I come with you.”
Sol rose. “It’s a good thing neither Derik or Kaster have left. Let’s go, all of us. I would feel better if we were in the shuttle.
They left the hut with their pallets and bedclothes bundled under their arms. The rain fell steadily. Most of the huts were dark.
The ground beneath their feet was full of puddles and mud. The air was cool and pleasant.
They made it to the shuttle and Moyen, Sol and oun Nilja hurried up the ramp.
Toyus was going to climb up the ramp into the shuttle when something struck him on the upper left of his back. He turned.
There were three aun Deuili standing in a semicircle a few feet from the shuttle.
“Human,” one spat. “You leave and don’t return.”
Another took a step forward. “You are wrong, human. You smell like Sha’jeen, yet are not. Anathema!”
He growled and took step forward.
“That’s enough,” Sol shouted. “We are leaving. Let us go.”
Toyus set the bedclothes on the ramp and turned back to the three. He felt something hot and sweet rush through his stomach and up his chest.
“Toyus,” Sol warned.
“This is my world,” Toyus spat. “You are invaders and outsiders.”
One of the aun Deuili hiss and spat and took thre steps forward.
With a yowl he lunged himself at the aun Deuil who had stepped forward and collided with him, knocking him into a large puddle on the ground. They rolled around the mud and water, hissing and growling.
Toyus snapped at the aun Deuil’s throat, but the Sha’jeen managed to slip his forearm over Toyus’s throat and pushed him off. The aun Deuil scrambled to his feet, followed closely by Toyus.
Toyus felt the build up of frustration and grief of the past months and attacked again. He managed to put his hands on the aun Deuil’s arms and tried to knock him to the ground. The aun Deuil pushed back with equal strength until they were locked in place.
In the next moment, Toyus heard and felt a loud shirr and a ball of light exploded against a nearby puddle, evaporating the muddy water.
Toyus and the aun Deuil turned as one to Sol, who stilll stood on the ramp, his right fist, the fist that was artificial, pointing towards them. Lights flicked along the knuckles and smoke rose every time a drop of rain hit them.
“That’s enough,” Sol shouted. “Come into the shuttle, Toyus.”
Toyus eyed the aun Deuil and spat at his feet.
He went up the ramp backwards, favoring his left leg.
The Sha’jeen did not threaten any more.
Once inside, Sol retracted the ramp and then told Toyus to sit down.
“We’re leaving now,” he said. “Where is oun D’jir?”
oun Nilja shifted in his seat. “He has gone into labor.”
Sol sighed. “Well. We will return and see how the colony fares later in the year.”
“Everyone buckled up?” Derik called from the cockpit.
“Yes!” Sol replied and sat down across from Toyus and oun Nilja.
The shuttle shook itself, growling to the night. The lights in the seating area dimmed. Then the shuttle was gliding directly up. Once several feet into the air, it banked east and took off. Soon, the island was behind them.
The sun was rising directly ahead. The skies around the horizon were a soft pink and apricot.
The rain continued to fall, even though the skies ahead were fairly clear, except for a few ragged clouds. Toyus could see whitecaps on the surface of the ocean caused by the winds fueling the storm.
He sat back and closed his eyes.
“What happened, oun Nilja,” he heard Sol asked. “Why did your people turn on Toyus.”
“This thing,” the oun Shi’ehl replied. “This thing he has undergone…it comes from our past. It is how we evolved. The people worry that the same may happen to them. Thousands upon thousands died in our past as a result of the molting. They fear infection. Also, this will not only happen to aun Toyus. It will happen to others, too. The people don’t want to be polluted by outsiders. Sha’jeen are very insular.”
“Indeed,” Sol said wearily.
“But we are fighting for our survival,” oun Nilja murmured. “They will become more open once they are more numerous.”
“I hope so,” Sol replied. “Because they are going to share a continent with Toyus and all of those like him.”
Toyus turned to oun Nilja. “Why did you come with us, oun Shi’ehl?”
The Sha’jeen seemed to shrink. “I…I best come with you, aun Toyus.” He squirmed in his seat. “I was going to be paired with an aun Deuil not of my preference. I was supposed to have many kits for the colony. I am just attained adulthood.”
The way he looked at Toyus confounded and disturbed him at once.
Toyus opened his mouth again.
“Son,” Moyen said. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”
“I’ll be right back,” Toyus told oun Nilja.
They walked to the back of the cabin and sat down side by side.
“What is it, Eda?” Toyus asked.
“The oun Shi’ehl has a bit of a fixation on you, Toyus,” Moyen murmured. “Don’t look his way. Listen to me. These beings are unpredictable. I don’t want you injured and I don’t want him injured. Be kind to him, Toyus. Don’t be needlessly cruel.”
“Papa, this is not a young woman or man. We aren’t even the same species!.”
“That’s enough!” Moyen growled. “They are intelligent beings and you are no different now from them. You are becoming like them, Toyus.”
“Yes, sir,” Toyus replied. He felt his pelt rise on end with his shame.
He pushed the sleeve of his shirt back to reveal his golden down and black claws. His father had a point, but what was he going to do with a Sha’jeen who was possibly in heat?
“oun Nilja has not brought up the issue of mating,” Moyen continued conversationally. “He may opt to return to the colony or turn his attention to another of your gender. You simply don’t know how this will go.”
“Yes, sir,” Toyus replied.
“I find the species beautiful,” Moyen said quietly. “They have honor and integrity. They are graceful and deadly. I have a feeling when your changes are done with, you will resemble more their race than mine.”
Toyus looked away from his father.
“It’s like being in a nightmare,” he murmured.
“It’s how you perceive it,” Moyen replied. “If you perceive it as an opportunity, then that is what it shall be Otherwise…then it becomes a nightmare.”
“An opportunity for what?” Toyus demanded, glaring at him.
“To grow, to evolve,” Moyen said. “Did you have lover back home?”
Toyus blushed. “No.”
“Then you are free.”
“What about you and my siblings and the rest of the family. Am I not to see them again?”
Moyen smiled sadly. “You will create a new family, my son. I will linger with you until you get sick of me.”
Toyus placed his hand on his father’s on the seat arm. “I could never get sick of having you near me, Eda. I am honored that you have chosen to come with me.”
Moyen grinned. “That may change later, when you have a family of your own.”
“My children should know their grandfather.”
Moyen patted Toyus’s hand. “They will know me.”
Toyus turned away, rested his head against the headrest and closed his eyes.
He thought of oun Nilja. Could a mating between them even produce kits? He felt his face heat. And how did Sha’jeen mate, anyway?
No, he thought. I can’t take that step. It isn’t right. We’re different species. And, yet, he was molting into one of them, wasn’t he?
He would be a Sha’jeen or something else altogether.
His heart gave a painful lurch, and he went hot and cold at once. He found himself panting.
“What is it, son?” Moyen asked.
Toyus opened his eyes and looked at his father. “What if I become something else–something not human, not Sha’jeen?”
“We will tackle that problem when it presents itself,” his father replied.
“But the Sha’jeen must have smelled something in me to cause them to exile me from the colony.”
Moyen frowned. “You may have a point.” He rose. “I’ll have a few words with the oun Shi’ehl.”
Toyus watched him stride down the cabin aisle.