“Ishtar?” I said. I rubbed sleep-grit from my eyes.
She leaned over my bed, her skin bioluminescent, like blacklight tattoos at a rave. “Come on, get up, we don’t have much time until Gishkim’s guards come back from their rounds. They’ll smell my scent in your room and know something is up.”
I slipped out of bed and fixed the sagging shoulder of my gown. “Um, alright. Does this have something to do with earlier?”
Ishtar caressed the bark whorl on the wall. The tree opened and she poked her head out to take a furtive glance around. “I’ll explain everything in the records room. It’s a dead zone this time of night.” She motioned for me to follow.
I crept outside after Ishtar and the door sealed shut. The atmosphere of the green planet below the glass floor was flashing with what looked like lightning. Something chirped in the foliage like cicadas, and mist was a mirror in the air. I swiped my hand through it and left ghostly trails in the white.
Ishtar took my hand in hers, careful not to spear me with her claws, and led me onward. “Be as quiet as you can,” she said.
We turned down a narrow hallway draped with green vines that hung from the ceiling like rope. It was a constant nuisance to sweep the vines out of my face. The floor was as spongy as damp, beetle-chewed bark. It smelled sweet, like cedar wood. The hallway was door-less, and I could barely see past the vegetation. Ishtar glowed blue, her head-frill standing on end. Finally, we reached a waterfall at the end of the hall with muddy banks and a warm pool from which heat rose in waves.
“Can you swim?” Ishtar said.
“Good.” Ishtar slipped into the shoulder-deep pool and swam under the waterfall to whatever lay beyond. I hesitated at the lip of the pool, my toes squelching mud.
I dipped a foot in and was surprised by how much like a hot tub it was. Maybe I could just stay here and get a good soak. All I needed was a margarita.
The thought of relaxation was fleeting. Curiosity itched at my brain – I wanted to know what lay beyond. I sunk into the water and swam under, my back scraping against a cavernous ceiling.
I was submerged for all of ten seconds: there was a muddy slide at the end of the rocky channel. I slipped down it and landed in a wet pile at the bottom of a room that looked like a brochure for the tropics. The floor was sandy, and at the edges of the circular vastness were waves lapping at the ground. Palm tree-like pillars supported the ceiling, and a large glass window encapsulated the room. Ishtar stood by a huge flower that bloomed dark as a merlot stain. She caressed one of the petals, and a hovering screen bloomed from the flower’s center.
“This is where we keep our information on humanity,” Ishtar said.
I ran a hand through my pink pixie cut and squeezed moisture from it. My gown quickly dried, as if it was water-resistant, and the heat of the room evaporated the liquid from my skin.
I walked over to Ishtar. She touched a pulsing button on the screen in the shape of an Anunnaki handprint. It glowed white-hot and the window fencing the room grew fuzzy, settling into a full body scan of Enki with what appeared to be vital stats monitoring his anatomy. Two organs pumped on the screen like hearts – one in his abdomen and one in his head – as his body rotated on a loop. A red mass was under the skin of his head and neck-frills, concentrated at the crown of his skull.
“Enki is approaching his final molt,” Ishtar said. “He needs to mix his genetic material with a human in order to sexually mature. Only then will he be able to grow into his final form and absorb our collected knowledge on mankind. He will become a vessel for humanity’s transformation.”
“I knew this was a bad SyFy movie.”
Ishtar manipulated the screen, zooming in on Enki’s head. “Once he exchanges DNA with a human, he will be able to broadcast genetic information into your species’ bodies. It will be like your biogauge, but on a massive scale, with Enki holding the master switch on humanity’s gene expression. He’ll be able to manipulate humans’ phenotypic plasticity so that they can, for example, withstand interstellar travel, or understand the Milky Way’s languages.”
I reeled. “Like mind control? That sounds way more sinister than Cyrus – er, Enki – is capable of.”
Ishtar shrugged. “Not exactly mind control. But Enki is fully capable of changing humanity. In fact, he intends to. It’s the way we’ve dealt with primitive species for millenia.”
I knitted my brows together. “Hey, only some humans are primitive, mostly just my ratchet friends.”
Ishtar laughed like there were rocks in her throat. “I’m not saying I agree with the way my species operates. But it’s what we do to survive. We diversify our gene pool by exchanging DNA with other species, otherwise royalty would experience a decline in gene quality and our children would wither, prone to abnormalities and autosomal disorders. Anunnaki genes are frail because they are so malleable. We need constant outside inputs of genetic material to survive.”
I leaned against a palm tree-pillar, my mind spinning. “So your race is just being selfish, and even though Enki claims he’s helping us, his crowning process is really just about his survival?”
Ishtar pressed a button and the window screen shut down. “It’s an exchange. It’s beneficial for both sides, and it’s what Anunnaki do to flourish. That doesn’t mean I like it.”
I thought back to what Ishtar had said about Enki imprinting on me. “So basically, I’m screwed. Your brother is going to do god knows what to me to get my genetic information, and if I refuse, he’ll just find another hapless human to experiment on.”
Ishtar sighed. “Enki likes you. He wouldn’t have brought you abroad if he didn’t. He wants you to be the one to undergo wussuru with him.”
I stroked the bark of the palm tree, hesitant. “I pressed the launch button accidentally.”
Ishtar gave a slight, mirthless smile. “Why would he have allowed you into his spaceship in the first place if he didn’t want you to press it? That’s just an unnecessary risk, especially if he didn’t intend to take you to the mothership all along. Enki can deny it all he wants, but the fact is he healed you, forming a genetic bond that’s marked you as his own. That’s why Hashur outfitted you with a biogauge. So wussuru could occur between you and Enki.”
I felt blood drain from my face. “Oh god, this is like Earth Girls are Easy.”
Splotches of Ishtar’s skin flashed mauve. “Calm down. I can get you off this ship without anyone noticing.”
I stepped away from the palm tree, staring up at its fronds, unable to meet Ishtar’s eye. “But if I leave, Enki will just use another human as his guinea pig.”
Ishtar moved closer to me. “It won’t be that easy. He’s already imprinted on you. He needs you for his molting process to be complete.”
Amber liquid dripped from the leaves above onto my hair. “What happens if he doesn’t mix his genes with me or whatever?”
Ishtar paused, biting her lower lip.
“Well?” I said.
“It’s not important.”
I examined her black, black eye, trying to read emotion on her alien face. “It seems pretty important to me.”
Ishtar turned from me and broke a bit of the wine-dark flower off to smell. “Whatever Enki told you about Anunnaki creating intergalactic peace is a lie. Nibiru is in turmoil. My parents are ruthless. They have to be. If Enki were to rule with his head in the clouds, it would bring ruin to my people. I’m better suited for the throne. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the good of the galaxy, even though the necessary changes harm those we hold dearest.”
I instinctively curled my hands into fists. “Sacrifices? So you’re willing to let your brother get hurt, as long as you get to rule in his stead?”
“My brother’s death wouldn’t be in vain. It’s the only way.”
“Death?” I said. “No way! I won’t let him die, even if he hasn’t told me the truth.”
“Then I can’t help you.”
Ishtar stayed in the records room, pouring over the details of Enki’s physiology, and left me to find my own way back. I was in a state of shock. When I had threatened to tell Enki about her lust for the throne, Ishtar had just laughed, saying it was to be expected, as royalty competed for the crown, leading to assassinations and the ever-popular exiles. Assassinations, though illegal, succeeded if no one caught you, and exiles were only official if a sibling found damning evidence that another Anunnaki royal had broken intergalactic law on their way to the throne. Ishtar’s attempts at trying to convince me not to undergo wussuru weren’t even offenses in the eyes of the law.
I returned to my room within the tree just as the lights of the room turned back on, indicating it was morning. I settled into bed, determined to get some shuteye. I had my eyes closed for all of five minutes when something chirruped above me. I looked up to see a six-limbed thing that looked like a cross between a sugar glider and a lemur, with a bushy tail and beady eyes. Webbing extended between its legs, fanning out as it sailed down to the miniature creek that cut through my room. It dipped its head into the water and pulled out one of the ciliated fruits. With a wet crunch, it stuffed its face, and the fruit was gone.
“Aww,” I said, bending down to pet it. “How cute.”
The creature drew away, its cheeks near bursting with food. “Do not touch me! I am Ratatosk, and I have been assigned to you as your guardian for the duration of your trip. Really, do you have no manners? I am a skilled warrior. Gishkim didn’t tell me you were so rude.” Its speech was a high squeak, muffled by the fruit in its mouth.
“Uh, sorry little guy.”
Ratatosk ran its paw through its neck scruff as it swallowed. Jelly coated its lips. “I am asexual. I do not possess a gender. Really, it’s quite obvious. Humans really are primitive. The way you treat rodents, like pests. We are forces to be reckoned with, not creatures to feed peanuts or to lure away with cheese.”
I frowned. “Well, I’ve never trapped a mouse, so I don’t think I really deserve to be attacked. Did Enki send you?”
“Yes,” said Ratatosk. “Get dressed. Your clothes are in the walls.”
To demonstrate, Ratatosk scurried over to the tree trunk, scaled it halfway, and scratched at a knob in the bark. The knob expanded, revealing white clothes – a kind of silky, long-sleeved shirt, a bell-like skirt, boots, and undergarments. I changed out of my gown into the new outfit, thinking all I’d need was paint spatters on the fabric to be Cyrus’ clone.
Ratatosk led me to the heartwood hall where Enki was waiting, stirring a bowl of what looked like green worms. He speared one and brought it to his Joker-split mouth. Ratatosk scurried up the table and was soon perched on Enki’s shoulder. It licked the moisture off his skin, like a mother squirrel cleaning her young.
Enki scritched behind the creature’s ear. “Ratatosk, thank you.”
Ratatosk cleaned its muzzle with its paws. “You taste on edge, prince. Your skin proteins indicate that you are close to molting.”
Enki frowned. “Really? So soon?”
“This shouldn’t be a surprise.” Ratatosk looked pointedly at me. “If you weren’t so distracted on Earth, you would have come to the mothership for a checkup.”
“Don’t blame me,” I said. “I didn’t keep him chained to our apartment.” I sat down across from Enki, not sure how to broach the subject of Ishtar’s ill wishes and Enki’s true intentions.
Ratatosk continued licking Enki’s slime. He took no notice of it, as if it were a commonplace occurrence. I was reminded of ants suckling fluids from aphids. But ants drank the anal secretions of aphids, and, thank god, the squirrel-lemur was nowhere near Enki’s ass. Not that Enki really had a butt. His backside was smooth, crack-less, and blue. How the hell we were supposed to have kinky alien sex, or whatever wussuru was, I hadn’t a clue.
Enki’s ear-fins straightened as he leaned in closer, pushing his food to the side. “You look tired,” he said. “Was your room not to your liking?”
“It’s not that,” I said. A sheath class Anunnaki walked over and placed a bowl of green worms before me. The food smelled like dirt. I didn’t want to talk about wussuru with Enki, so I kept my mouth shut.
“Ziggi?” Enki said.
I poked a worm with my skewer. “Um, well, I guess the weirdness of everything is just wearing me down. Not that it’s not cool. It’s just a lot to take in.”
Enki’s skin lightened, his fins and frills retracted, and within moments he had transformed back into his human form. “Is this better?” he asked, smiling his lazy smile. “It’s no trouble for me to appear human if it’s familiar.”
“Um, yeah, I guess, but you’re, well…”
“What?” he asked. He stood up and reached across the table, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What’s troubling you?”
Enki jumped back like he’d been burned. Ratatosk fell from his shoulder. Enki whipped away from me, his junk bouncing. “Damn it!” He raced out of the room.
“Um, well then,” I said, trying a green worm.
“You upset my prince! For shame,” Ratatosk hissed.
“You really are annoying, aren’t you?”
Ratatosk’s chest puffed. “Well I never. Forget guarding you. You’re insufferable.” It thrashed its tail and scurried out of the room.
Laughter came from behind me. I turned, mid-bite into a worm, to see Gishkim and Hashur. I automatically swallowed the wriggling food, which caught in my throat, and I choked. The mutilated worm rocketed out of my mouth and landed at Hashur’s feet.
“I see Enki was being absent-minded again,” Hashur said, stepping around the worm.
“Maybe he’s just an exhibitionist,” Gishkim said. “That’s a thing humans do, right?”
“I hope he didn’t offend you,” said Hashur as she and Gishkim sat down across from me. A sheath class Anunnaki served them breakfast.
“He’s not the first dude I’ve seen naked,” I said. I successfully ate my second worm, making sure to sever its head first this time and kill it properly. It fell limp on my tongue. It tasted like earth, in a strangely pleasing way.
“Our monitors have been picking up some strange wormhole activity, Hashur,” said Gishkim. “I’m afraid of what that might mean.”
Hashur narrowed her eye. “Are our shields stable?”
“Nothing on this ship is stable. It’s an old clunker,” came a voice from behind us. I turned to see Ishtar. She smiled at me, as if in pity, but only for a moment. I looked away and focused on my worms.
“Ishtar. You’re up early,” said Gishkim.
“I had a lot on my mind,” said Ishtar. She sat down beside me, barely giving me breathing room. Her moist leg skimmed mine.
Something jolted the ship. Our bowls of worms spilled, and I fell to the floor.
“The hell?” I said, rubbing my now-bruised leg. I tried to stand, but it was like an earthquake had begun. The ship rumbled, and the heartwood hall’s vegetation began to writhe.
Gishkim cursed with a metaphor that really only made sense if you were the Swamp Thing. “We’re under attack. Quick, Ishtar, take Ziggi to the photosynthesis chamber.”
Ishtar scooped me up and raced out of the room on her doubled-back legs. She ran down a flurry of halls and stopped at a crystalline chamber filled with sheets that held grass-colored liquid. They were like the folds of a chloroplast, and they shuddered with each rumble of the ship. Ishtar deposited me on a raised surface at the center where a gel-like floor stuck to me, holding me in place.
“Gishkim doesn’t seem too worried,” I said, my casual tone belying my tension.
Ishtar glanced up at the translucent ceiling. Glimmering rays obscured the stars, supposedly the defensive shields. “He’s an experienced captain. We’ve dealt with outlaws before. Gishkim’s used to suppressing riots among the axonal Anunnaki class. He’s my father’s henchman.”
The mossy door unfurled. In stepped Enki, no longer naked, morphed back into his Anunnaki form.
“Ziggi, are you alright?” Enki said, his eye twitching.
Enki gave a weak smile. “These aliens are dangerous. Flesh traders. I came as fast as I could. Ishtar, thank you. For taking care of Ziggi.”
Ishtar blew air through her teeth. “Like they pose a threat. I’m more worried about your intentions for her.”
Enki rubbed his temple. “I don’t know what you’re saying.” The ship gave a violent shake.
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “You still haven’t told her about wussuru. You’re about to molt and there are no other humans for millions of miles.”
Enki’s temple throbbed. “Not her. I’ll find another way.”
I finally managed to unstick my butt from the floor. I stood on shaking legs. “We’re sitting ducks here,” I said, letting a rumble pass below. “It’s not really a martial art, but I know tai chi.” I demonstrated a pose, extending one leg and moving my arms in wave-like motions. “I can distract the space pirates with my sick moves.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Enki. “Ishtar and I will defend you”
I practiced forming an energy ball. “I don’t need protection, thanks. I’ve been in enough scrapes to know how to take care of myself. And I was kidding about the tai chi.”
We stayed that way for god knew how long, me practicing tai chi to calm my nerves, Enki and Ishtar arguing over wussuru while ignoring me. The rumbling came at less frequent intervals, until there was dead silence in the photosynthesis chamber.
“The communication system is shot. What a junk of a ship,” Ishtar said, banging one of the green panels. “We should open the door. Take a look around. Gishkim’s probably fought off the invaders by now.”
“No, don’t. For once be cautious,” said Enki. “We should wait until the communication system is operating and we’re able to contact the rest of the crew.”
Ishtar ignored Enki and walked on taloned feet to the door, which was sealed shut with thick mats of what looked like Spanish moss. She ran her hand over the greenery and it swelled open.
The hall beyond was on fire, jungle steam swirling round the flames. The heat blasted us, wrenching sweat from my pores. Where there had been silence, there were high-pitched ululations, like alien war cries, interspersed with what could only be Anunnaki screams.
Ishtar drew back as if she had touched a brand. She tried to close the heavy moss, but the heat from beyond sucked the moisture from the vegetation, making it brown and curl up like dried seaweed. The stink of charred flesh pervaded the air.
“No,” Ishtar said. “My trip on this clunker wasn’t supposed to end in an inferno. Enki, protect Ziggi. I’ll get this filth off our ship.”
Before Ishtar could set out on her quest for vengeance, a blue laser of light focused on her chest. Her mouth formed an O of surprise as a pulse of brightness hit her. She blasted back through the room and landed on all fours.
“Shit,” she grunted.
In stormed a trio of aliens, red as poppies and covered in compound eyes. They reared up on their many pincers and stank like moldy fruit, gaping circles of mouths covered in needle-like teeth. They looked like centipedes from Hell. I covered my face at their stench. Translucent flesh and silvery blood clung to their bodies, evidence of Anunnaki slaughter.
“My god, they look like the reject children of Lovecraft,” I choked.
One of the mutant centipedes held what could best be described as a minimalist’s conception of a gun. It used its pincers to pull the trigger and blasted Ishtar with another laser pulse. She dodged it and opened her split mouth wide, unleashing a jet of foul-smelling slime at the gun-wielding centipede. The slime coated its eyes and it shrieked. Steam rose from the wounded centipede’s eye sockets, and it called out in a high-pitched language to its brethren. The centipede to its left took the gun from the wounded one and aimed a blast at me.
Enki blocked it. He was throttled backwards. We fell in a tangle of limbs.
Ishtar tackled the weapon-holding entomologist’s wet dream. She tore out the pincers that held its gun and bit into the centipede’s neck. Its gun fell to the floor, and with another chomp she had severed its head. It fell squirming to the floor, neon ooze spilling from its neck stump. The centipede whose eyes were wounded crawled around in circles, knocking into the green panels. One centipede was left intact and angry. It was the biggest of the three, and it scuttled towards Ishtar while she was distracted. Flashing its needle teeth, it suctioned Ishtar’s head with its mouth.
“Ishtar!” Enki said, picking himself off the sticky gel floor and rushing towards the centipede. He used his claws to shred the centipede down its center. It lost its grip on Ishtar, leaving behind a purple welt on her that exposed skull, and focused its attentions on Enki. The centipede and Enki wrestled. It took bites out of Enki’s shoulders while Enki sliced and diced it. Soon the monster and Enki were breathless, both stumbling over each other. Ishtar lay stunned on the floor, clutching her head wound and moaning.
I dove for the strange-looking gun and picked it up. The metal was soft in my hands. I squeezed shut one eye, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The laser pulse landed in the middle of the mutant centipede’s segmented body. It rolled like a rock off Enki, hit a green panel, and let out a high-pitched whine. Enki sucked in air, running his hands over the tears in his skin. His shoulder tentacles writhed, one torn half off.
With both Ishtar and Enki too wounded to fight, it was down to me and the last bulky centipede, which was quickly regaining its footing. It left a trail of neon ooze as it approached. I fired off another shot, and it rolled back, only to scuttle forward again. I continued to shoot. The gun began to feel cold. I wondered if some kind of reaction that fueled it was petering out. Finally, I pulled the trigger to find it was out of juice. The centipede seemed to smirk, its eyes shuttering rapidly. It snaked forward, savoring its attack.
I lobbed the gun down its gaping mouth. It choked, the metal caught in its throat, and ran its pincers down its abdomen, trying to coax the weapon out of its gullet. I used the centipede’s momentary stillness to attack, dZigging my hands into the shallow wounds Enki had created.
I tore it apart with a berserk fury worthy of the Vikings, or at least the Viking metal bands in those music videos Spike liked, which was really my only basis of comparison. My opponent thrashed under my grip. The scent of rotting fruit grew stronger the further I dug into the choking centipede, until I reached deep within and felt something pulse between my hands. I tore out a two-chambered organ the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. The centipede fell lifeless to the floor.
I lobbed the organ to the floor, wiped sweat from my brow with a grimy hand, then glanced over at the last remaining centipede with acid-burned eyes It lay on its back, its pincers twitching. Enki and Ishtar were out cold, but their chests rose and fell in a semblance of breathing.
I couldn’t leave the photosynthesis chamber without knowing the situation beyond the door. I couldn’t leave it weaponless, leaping blind from the frying pan into the literal fire. But how could I know what was out there if I couldn’t even interrogate our attackers?
The eyeless centipede crooned like a demented harp. Its neon blood – was it blood? – was jarring to my sight. If only I could understand what it was saying.
I scooped up some of the neon gore and dribbled it into my biogauge. My vision flared, and a metallic taste sieged my throat. My surroundings sharpened, and the smell of rotting fruit made me gag.
The centipede’s whining crystallized into a language I could understand: “…Worm Mother, grant me safe passage into the dark matter. Rot Father, bless my seed and home; that they may live on as I fade…”
I spoke, and a high screech came from my throat: “You’re not dead yet, but I’ll make your death much more painful if you don’t answer my questions.” I nudged its side with my boot. Its pincers stilled.
The centipede spoke, voice weak: “I’m listening. If I answer your questions, will you end me quickly, like you did Ajirin?”
I knelt down beside it. “Yes. Is the rest of the ship destroyed?”
The centipede shuddered. “We sabotaged the heartwood hall. It’s as good as dead. You have an hour left of life support, maybe less. We’ve killed the captain and taken the crew hostage – the sheath class will fetch a good price, and the Ratatosk is a rare beauty. Her we’ll keep to dissect; the Anunnaki royals guard their pets so well they’re hard to come by.”
Gishkim dead? I felt like vomiting. “How do I get out of here alive?”
The centipede rasped its teeth together, as if laughing. “You don’t, unless you come with the Burrow, Rot Father and Worm Mother bless us. You are a pretty thing. I saw that before the Anunnaki burned my eyes. We will treat you well. We will sell you to someone who will treasure you. Please, enough questions.” Its long chest deflated. “Kill me.”
“No. I’m not going to end up on some alien’s table with probes shoved up my ass! Tell me how to save myself.”
The centipede didn’t respond.
I kicked it.
It finally replied: “Worm Mother dies so that Her children may live. Her brood crawl forth from Her ruined belly into the Burrow. My wife did the same for our spawn. A part of you must die to survive in space. The Burrow is not kind. But the Burrow knows worth when it sees it. You are like the finest of rot. You may bargain with us. We will treat you well if you are agreeable. You may yet save your friends. That is all I can tell you.”