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Brave

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 I.

Nyssa was not brave. 

Brave was fighting, instead of being afraid. Walking with confidence down the spaceport corridors, unflinching when a Centauri pirate glided by, or the swaggering, intoxicated crew of some visiting smuggler vessel. Brave was staring down the hissing scavenger bands who roamed the periphery rings robbing targets at blaster-point. 

Brave was entering in the Battle Games, and winning, and going on to join the Defense Crew, the fierce, terrifying goons who kept FarDeep Port from self-destruction.

Nyssa was not brave—as evidenced by the fact that instead of striding, she skulked along an outer ring corridor, covered head-to-toe in a polymer cloak—but for a chance to win the Games, she’d forced herself to be the next best thing: reckless. Brood-Father often said that the two were occasionally indistinguishable. He hadn’t realized how much Nyssa would take the advice to heart.

Her subdermal comm buzzed to life. “You’re crazy,” said Arach, who as one of the few juveniles on FarDeep who wasn’t Nyssa’s broodmate and thus did not share the genetic urge to keep her alive, had become something of a default ally to her schemes. “The Jump’s gonna kill you.”

“No skin off of your species proliferation instinct.”

She could basically hear Arach’s eight eyes rolling in unison. “You know, not everyone has the Avianis’ weird obsession with species proliferation. Some of us just care about our friends not dying because we like them.”

Nyssa blushed. For an eight-legged ball of cartilage whose parents had a galactic rap sheet the size of a small sun, Arach was weirdly warm and fuzzy.

“Whatever,” Nyssa muttered, hating as always the way her voice-box lacked the subtle, beautiful notes her brood-mates could generate. “Your species would have an obsession too, if you’d almost gone extinct.”

“Fair,” said Arach. “So what preservation instinct exactly is telling you to go hurl yourself out into outer space, right now?”

Nyssa growled and cut off the comm link.

Arach didn’t get it. The Jump was the only way to get Nyssa to the Games, and she’d gladly hurl herself into a spinning plasma recycler, if it meant she’d have a chance.

The Battle Games were Nyssa’s dream. In her hatchling days she’d sneak to the Under-Bar, hiding behind the plasma-blaster rack to watch reruns on the holoscreen. She made fake limbs from scrap metal and tied them around her waist, pretending to be Scarab Akko, the Arthropodian who held the most-opponents-defeated record; or she put on a helium mask and became Ozzik Sponge, who absorbed adversaries into her body-sphere and digested them. Nyssa worshipped these brave monsters. When she caught a glimpse on them on Defense Crew duty, she ached with wanting.

The comm buzzed under her right wrist again. “Quit hanging up on me!” Arach groaned. “I ran some simulations. Given your…self, your chances of surviving the jump are one in ninety-four. Why can’t—”

“Better than one in twenty-nine million,” said Nyssa. “You know me…lucky with small odds.”

One in twenty-nine million. The odds that Aviani geneticists had provided, when Avianis had traded Earth energy-tech in return for breeding stock to avert their extinction crisis.

Scientists had sworn that the resulting hybrids would be better. They’d have the Aviani phenotype and outward features—helium-dynamic bodies, the chroma-scales that shifted color to communicate, air- and heli-sacs that aided space habitation—and they’d incorporate the superior human traits of hearing, strong teeth, and high fertility. New and improved Avianis. Simulations had estimated a less than one-in-twenty-nine-million chance of the genetic sequences arranging themselves differently.

And here Nyssa was, one in twenty-nine million. The defective hybrid.

While her brood-mates all possessed the usual light bones, the ovoid bodies with flexible, multi-jointed limbs, and the capacity to communicate via chroma-scales, Nyssa was four frail limbs on a fat stick, with a ball on top. Her gait was awkward, and her molecular density just off enough for the heliox atmosphere to make her pant. Her pink-and-brown skin had neither feathers nor scales nor mimicry cells, only a thin layer of fuzz with no adaptation purpose.

Humans survived in their misshapen forms because they were a planet-bound species, but Avianis had fled their homeworld thousands of solar-cycles past. They roamed the galaxy, migrating between ships and stations filled with other spacefarers, so Nyssa had to waddle around in her mud-ball-suited bone cage while everyone around luxuriated in gelatinous spheres, tentacled nests and assorted vivid, squishy, perfect bodies. She hated it.

On a backwater outlaws-nest like FarDeep, strength, fitness, and skills kept you breathing. Courtesy of her human heritage, Nyssa lacked two of the three. But the Battle Games were open to everyone. If you won, it didn’t matter if you were a worm-infested Algaeian or a blind Chiropterus or a human-shaped Aviani.

The Gamess were Nyssa’s only chance to make a place for herself.

“You don’t even know if the rumors are true,” Arach objected via comm. “The Outskirts are a junkyard—I doubt anyone lives there, and if they do, no way they’re some fancy mysterious Games-trainer…”

“Could be.” Nyssa refused to doubt the rumors. For the first time in her life she had hope—hope that somehow, despite years of failing to defeat even a potted Shrubb in a fight, she’d become good enough for the Games. The mysterious warrior who lived in the Outskirts was her chance.

Nyssa would find her -- or die trying.

“I’m telling you, it’s made-up junk,” said Arach. “Go back to motor-training, or maybe the medics will get you some better implants…”

“Can’t battle with implants,” said Nyssa, who had considered all angles fifty times over. “Rules say skill and strength alone.” She muted Arach’s further protests, as she emerged on the last corridor of the Outer Ring. At the end lay a rusted metal hatch, with a small force-field window that showed a field of debris floating in the blackness outside.

The Outskirts. Remnants of old vessels and dilapidated pieces of equipment that FarDeep had discarded over the years, stretching in a sort of nightmare tail behind the spaceport. Trash-reclamators and scavengers sometimes wandered over, and the occasional juvenile looking for better entertainment than the Under-Bar, but for the most part, no one bothered with the vast expanse of junk.

“You can’t make the jump, Ny,” Arach pleaded one last time. “You got no air-sacs and your bones are too brittle. Look, if you can just—”

“I’ve already signed up for the Games.”

“—what?!”

Arach’s sharp intake of breath echoed down the empty corridor. There was a brief silence, during which Nyssa walked, slowly, to the hatch. Arach wouldn’t try to dissuade her, now—everyone knew that Games sign-ups were binding. You had to fight. Fights didn’t have to end in death, but given FarDeep’s high population of resentful nasties, more often than not they did.

Nyssa had nothing to lose.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Arach whispered.

“Just wish me luck,” said Nyssa, and she turned off the comm. Sighing from the bottom of her subpar respiratory apparatus, she stared out the hatch window.

The Jump, as FarDeepers called it, was the short distance between the port’s outer ring and the nearest dilapidated wreck in the Outskirts that had a breathable atmosphere. FarDeep provided no space-suits, so anyone venturing to the Outskirts had to hop among the atmosphere-controlled pieces of junk. An inconvenience, but rarely an impediment: most space-faring species possessed the ability to survive in the void for short periods.

Nyssa, however, did not.

She had discovered this on her third hatch-day, when she and her brood-mates had decided to take the Jump challenge, and Nyssa had very nearly frozen, burst or shattered to death (depending on which of her brood-mates one asked), before the others had dragged her back to FarDeep’s relative safety and the ministrations of a medic.

 Nyssa had made a few more attempts since, unsuccessfully. But she’d grown from a hatchling into a near-adult juvenile, now, and her systems were far more developed, plus she’d stolen enough fuel from Brood-Father for a propeller rocket to shorten the Jump.

She felt confident about her odds.

If there was a warrior in the Outskirts to train her, Nyssa would find them. She’d win the Battle Games, and join the Defense Crew. It was all she wanted in life, and she was tired of everyone and their egg-mother telling her she couldn’t.

Just watch me.

Superior-teeth grinding (one of the few advantages of her human half), Nyssa yanked the hatch lever, and launched herself into the void.

 

II.

 

The inferior-breathing-apparatus hurt. Burned. No airsacs. Inferior-vision fading. Very cold. So cold. Useless body-fuzz did not keep warm. Stolen-fuel propeller rockets button—push. Steer. Fingers gone. Where fingers? Human-phenotype came with good fingers. Big shadow in blackening vision. Outskirts. Vessel. Air. Must air.

Nyssa slammed against the metal bulkhead, hitting it with flailing arms. She couldn’t see a lever. No way to get inside. Help. No sound in space. Damned inferior-voicebox. She banged her body against the metal, desperate to get past. Air. Need air.

Her vision turned fully black, and she couldn’t feel the metal anymore.

 

III.

 

“What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Nyssa barely heard the voice past the odd, deafening clicking. It took a while to realize the clicking came from her chattering teeth. Huh. She didn’t know teeth did that.

She blinked, groaning as the motion hurt her eyeballs. Ow.

Her body was spasming, which explained why the world kept twisting sideways. Great. She dragged herself backwards, on burning hands. Something hit her arm. Ow! A dermal needle.

The noisy chattering subsided. Her jaw hurt.

She blinked again, squinting at the hazy contours. Had her human-vision always been this bad?

“Quit batting at me—I’m trying to defrost you. What kind of imbecile goes into the black without air-sacs or helium-deposits? You got any idea what damage you did? You’re lucky I carry a med-wand on me.”

Nyssa’s extremities still burned. When her vision cleared, she held up a hand in front of her face. Her usually brown fingers were a pretty shade of purple. Huh.

A wand vibrated over her leg, and a sharp pain followed by a dull ache heralded a mending bone. Nyssa blinked at the wand wielder. A red, beak-nosed face framed by thin, vestigial scale-feathers scowled back.

“…are you the legendary warrior?”

Two black eyes fixed her. “You’re delirious, chicklet.”

That sounded entirely possible. The charred metal walls around her wobbled, and her stomach turned at the smell of dust and old fuel and decomposing matter.

“Is this the Outskirts?” Nyssa gasped. “I made the Jump!”

“You smashed yourself against this old piece of junk, you mean. Congratulations.” The med-wand poked Nyssa’s hip. “If I hadn’t happened to be here, you’d be floating dead in space.”

The low voice hit those crooning notes that Nyssa’s ears were sharp enough to pick up but her voicebox failed to reproduce.

Huh.

“You’re Aviani,” said Nyssa.

“You got brain-damage? Half the folks around here are Aviani—we built FarDeep.”

“You look like old-gen Aviani,” Nyssa corrected. “Before the Regeneration.”

That was what Aviani leaders had called dipping into the Earth gene pool to fix their own. The Regeneration had happened seven generations previous, but some old-gens were still around. Still, the woman didn’t look that old. Her skin tone was vivid and the four airsacs on her round torso moved fluidly, no hitches.  

“I didn’t think the trainer would be Aviani,” Nyssa mused out loud. Aviani preferred the arts, or science, to combat skills. “You sure you’re the right person…?”  

“I’m sure I’m not,” retorted the woman, and the vestigial feathers on her short, muscular neck ruffled. “You banged your head hard. Lucky you mend quickly.”

“It’s my human half,” sighed Nyssa. “Good regen. Terrible everything-else. So you’re not the legendary warrior? What are you doing in the Outskirts, then?” She saw no guild markers; the woman wore a large reclamator pouch tied around her waist, but scars on her short, two-fingered arms, and the long staff strapped to her back made an odd picture.

“You ask a lot of questions,” said the woman. “See how you can move.” She put the med-wand back into the pouch. “Slowly. This thing doesn’t fix muscle damage.”

Nyssa scrambled to her feet. The dilapidated walls stayed mostly in place. Great.

“I need to find the warrior.”

The woman cocked her head questioningly, and Nyssa hesitated. Mentioning the Battle Games usually earner her pitying looks and mentions of species preservation. Aviani were so judgy.

Then again, what could the woman do—toss her back out into space?

“For the Battle Games,” Nyssa said. “I’ve signed up, and I need to learn to fight. Do you know where the warrior is? This is kind of urgent.”

The woman stared at her. Nyssa braced herself for the preservation lecture, but the silence stretched on, broken only by some dripping sounds from a lower deck, and the hiss of old atmosphere generators.

Then the woman snorted. Her snort turned into a shrieking cackle, something long and shrill and visceral that evoked in Nyssa a genetic memory of eras long past, when her people lived planet-side and dove, shrieking, through blue skies.

“Chicklet, you’re the funniest thing I’ve seen in fifty cycles.” The woman’s shriek ended in a coughing chuckle, and she slapped her hands together, chroma-scales flashing through a vivid spectrum of reds and blues. “I thought I was coming for scrap mercury, and here I find a comedy show. Trainer for the Battle Games...oh, what a song.”

“I’m serious!” Nyssa scowled, stepping away. Old bulkhead chunks and metal shavings creaked under her feet. The place really was a ruin. “I need to find the trainer! I know they’re here—if you won’t help, I’ll do it alone.”

She turned to stomp away on her too-long legs, but the sound of another irking chuckle followed her. The woman swayed side-to-side as she laughed, short legs stamping the floor, claws clicking on scrap metal. Her arms twitched up and down, like she was trying to take flight, and her beady eyes had nearly popped out of her orbits—

A loud clank pierced the air, and the floor jolted.

Nyssa stumbled into a nearby wall, and by the time she’d caught herself, the floor skipped again.

“Oh, flake-claws.”

The woman’s mirth vanished. She looked up, air-sacs swelling menacingly. Her scales turned deep, warning scarlet.  

“Strip-scavengers,” she said, and Nyssa froze.

Strip-scavengers were the monsters of spacefarer nightmares. Distantly related to Arthropodians, the diminutive hive-mind species roamed distant, sparse corners of the galaxy looking for ships to loot. Unlike pirates, they didn’t rob the ships: they chewed down the metal and excreted it to reinforce the hulls of their colony-ships, then they laid eggs in whatever organic matter they could find on the ship.

Usually, that organic matter was the crew. The still-alive crew.

Nyssa’s useless body-fuzz stood on ends, another pointless human mechanism. Like she needed pointy fuzz to tell her she was terrified.

Strip-scavengers didn’t usually attack large constructions like FarDeep, because ring-cannons and a large, well-armed defense force could repel them. But small ships, with less than a couple dozen crew, stood little chance.

Two Avianis on a derelict wreck stood no chance.

“Hurry,” hissed the woman in a cacophony of urgent notes. “This way—ah, flares and plagues, you can’t jump.”

“I’ll do it,” Nyssa swore. She’d rather die in the void, than eaten from the inside by strip-scavenger hatchlings. “Which way to the next jump?”

The woman indicated a corridor with a caved-in ceiling, and they ran over debris and dead cables while the sound of claws scraping at metal echoed around them.

“They’re chewing through the upper deck.” The woman swore. “Must’ve picked up our organic signatures.”

 “I thought strip-scavengers didn’t attack FarDeep!”

“They patrol the Outskirts. Plenty of stupid pilots come looking for free repair materials. Good deal, if they live through it…usually they don’t.”

Nyssa squeezed her eyes shut. Suddenly, the amount of derelict half-vessels in the Outskirts made a lot more, and more terrifying, sense.

The woman wiggled her way through a narrow space between two bent walls. “There’s the jump spot—oh, great OverBeings, you’re joking.”

They stopped by an ancient hatch door, whose force field window somehow, miraculously, still worked. That was where the miracles stopped, however.

A charred, bone-and-metal hull obstructed the view.

The strip-scavengers had stopped their ship right outside the jump-hatch.

 

IV.

 

Even if Nyssa had been able to survive brief void-exposure as other Avianis, few species could handle it long enough to Jump around obstacles. There was no way out. Except the way Nyssa had come, from FarDeep, and several dozen clawed, fanged monsters blocked that route.

The woman flapped her arms, the typical Aviani response to stress. Nyssa’s too-human heritage usually made her respond by clasping her too-many fingers into fists.

She touched the hatch-release lever. Her hand was shaking.

“We should go for it,” she whispered. “If—if we can’t jump around the ship…it’s still better than the alternative. Faster.”

The woman gave her a neutral look. There it was—the Aviani judgment.

“You got too much human in you, chicklet,” said the woman, as though that weren’t obvious. “Adrenalin—they got it in excess. It’s why you’re so eager to launch yourself into space, instead of thinking of another way out.” 

She reached to the bent ceiling and yanked down a mangled iron lid; above, a narrow, dark maw yawned.

“Travel tube,” said the woman. “We’ll get to the upper level. Climb,” she urged as Nyssa struggled to reach the edge of the tube. “Faster!” Cold scaled fingers dug into Nyssa’s thighs, and she felt herself pushed up; scrambling, she dragged herself through the tube to the derelict corridor above.

The woman jumped gracefully after her, landing on the broken floor with a quiet hiss as her airsacs swelled to buoy her.

“Come on.” She pushed Nyssa on, and they ran, past jagged metal and piles of trash, turning frantic corners and banging on the walls in search of another way out.

“There’s no hatch!” cried Nyssa. “We should’ve gone out—they’ll get us!"

“Fatalism doesn’t suit the young.” The woman was panting. “Look further.”

“We’ve been in a circle. Please—let’s go back to the hatch. We’ll try—”

But the woman said, “Too late,” in a somber tone, as the walls around them suddenly came alive with clicking noises.

The woman pulled Nyssa through a large arch, into a desolate open space with half the floor missing. It might’ve been a bar, once, or some other sort of crew hangout space. Now only barren walls remained, with some broken glow-crystals in the corners to give it a greenish, gloomy sheen.

A derelict metal grave.

The scuttling in the walls had grown so loud it was almost deafening.

“They’re coming,” whispered the woman, and she pulled Nyssa behind her, circling to watch the walls. Nyssa closed her eyes. Please, OverBeings.

But the OverBeings, as usual, did not respond.

The woman twitched, and Nyssa opened her eyes as the first strip-scavengers poured in through a hole in the far wall.

They came at a fast pace, but steady; clawed legs the size of Nyssa’s arm clicking against the floor. They looked vaguely Arachnidian, with six legs rather than eight and only four eyes atop their mucus-covered cartilage bodies. Each was less than a fifth of Nyssa’s size; but there were dozens of them, swarming in.

Nyssa growled, suddenly angry.

Well, I wanted a battle.

 With all her inferior strength, she yanked a long piece of metal from the debris, and she gripped it in both hands. Human digits worked great for gripping.

“We’ll go down fighting,” she told the woman—and, shouting, she launched herself into the wave of critters. As the first reached a clawed appendage to pinch her, she crushed it with the metal bar. She kicked at a second with her booted foot, and when third leapt from a wall, on instinct Nyssa swung the bar, catching the creature mid-air and sending it flying, so hard that it smashed against the opposite wall.

“Nice aim,” said the woman.

But the carnivorous critters kept coming. Nyssa swung and hit and stomped; but pinchers tore the flesh of her legs, and teeth scraped her arms, and she cried out, cursing the voicebox that refused to make the right Aviani noises—but she wouldn’t give up. She gripped the bar even as blood ran down her arms, and she hit, and she hit, and she hit…

And suddenly, she realized the critters had left her alone.

They were still there—through hazy, blood-obstructed eyes she saw them swarm in the middle of the room, and she heard their noises, the click of claws against metal and the smash of bone and flesh. But they weren’t hurting her.

She blinked and wiped the blood from her eyes—and she gasped.

A few steps ahead, a red flash cut through the critters, like a plasma blast through a wall of toothpicks. They went flying, left and right, with noises of pain, and though they swarmed as before, not one managed to make it past the red barrier and reach Nyssa.

Nyssa stared.

The woman’s staff had left the strap on her back and was now a whirling, deadly vortex in her hands. She moved it so fast it acted almost as a barrier; the critters smashed against it, and Nyssa couldn’t even see its shape except when the woman paused briefly to reverse and thrust it into some clacking foe that had come too close.

Nyssa had killed maybe half a dozen of the things, their broken bones surrounding her. But the woman felled ten times as many.

Yet they kept coming. Strip-scavengers always brought at least a hundred, if not more, to the fight. They threatened to overwhelm the woman, even though she moved so fast and her staff caught them so quickly.

Nyssa rose to unsteady feet and, lifting the metal bar slick with blood, jumped back into the fray.

“Get back,” snarled the woman.

“I’m helping.”

“Help by getting—back!” The staff caught two critters, but eight more took their place. The woman’s airsacs hissed, and she shoved Nyssa away with her torso, sending her sliding to the floor. More strip-scavengers swarmed her, sensing an opening, and as she repelled four with her staff and head-butted a fifth, two more launched down from the ceiling, claws posed to tear into her neck—

Watch out!” Nyssa cried.

—and two long, skeletal limbs of bone-and-muscle unfolded from the woman’s back, sheathed in a red translucent membrane like something from an ancient nightmare. With long, curled claws, they each caught one scavenger mid-air, and flung them outwards, into the wall.

She has vestigial wings.

Nyssa had never been more in awe.

The waves of clicking monsters broke against the Aviani woman, and suddenly, the noises stopped, and only a few scrapes of claw on metal lingered as the remaining scavengers crawled back out through the same holes in the bulkhead that they’d come through. The woman stabbed one last one with her staff, then slid against a wall.

“Well, this wasn’t how I planned to spend my day.”

Nyssa had no reply. For the first time in her life, she'd been stunned into silence.

 

V.

 

They picked their way through debris to the jump hatch below, stepping over old junk and fresh carcasses. The strip-scavenger ship was gone, and the hatch showed only the expanse of blackness, peppered by wreckage. In the distance another chunk of metal floated—a piece of an ancient discarded FarDeep ring.

A far Jump, but Nyssa was unworried.

“You’re the legendary warrior.” She’d said it several times, but each time the awe bloomed again in her oddly-angled chestbox. “The trainer of winners.”

“I’m neither of those things,” said the woman. “You should go back to FarDeep.”

“No.”

The woman shrugged. She wouldn’t insist, or try to force Nyssa away; Avianis believed in letting juveniles choose their own path, and didn’t repeat rejected advice. If juveniles wanted to jump headfirst from the nest, so to speak, the Aviani policy was to let them. Live and learn—or die, and let others learn from you.

Nyssa fully intended to abide by that code.

“I want you to train me for the Battle Games.”

“No.”

“I’ll pay you!”

The woman made an indignant, hoarse chirp. “Still no.”

“I—I helped you fight the strip-scavengers! You owe me—”

The woman snorted—then hissed painfully, as one of her airsacs collapsed. She reached into her pouch and pulled a roll of med-tape. “Make yourself useful,” she said, and held up her arms so Nyssa could wrap her airsac. “Good. Now—ready to Jump?”

Nyssa wasn’t, but side by side with the Aviani woman she felt she could’ve taken on anything.

“I’ll guide you to the other side. Give me those propeller rockets, we’ll make the journey quicker. Flakes and feathers, I can’t believe you’d jump with no heli-sacs…well, it is what it is, unless you want to live on this piece of junk. Open your mouth—not so wide. Good. On three.”

“What’s your name?” Nyssa asked, suddenly.

“Aix,” said the woman. And she yanked on the hatch-lever.

The hatch flung open, and Nyssa felt the icy pull of the void. To her credit, it took her slightly longer to black out, this time, and she broke no bones. As promised, Aix had made the journey quicker, and before Nyssa knew it, she was doubled over gasping on a different corroded metal floor.

“Only five more jumps to go.”

Nyssa groaned.

Only crazy people Jumped several times in a row. Even the most well-adapted spacefaring species had only limited Jumps in them, before their bodies needed a rest. Six pushed the upper limit. By a lot.

“Only two Jumps to go back,” Aix suggested.

“No.”

And they crossed the wreck of the ancient ring, emerging on the other side by a force-field-protected port hole, for the next Jump.

 

VI.

 

Nyssa wasn’t certain how long it took before her awkward limbs started working again, but eventually she found herself staring at a metal ceiling crisscrossed by green vines. Some few steps away Aix stood by a bent table, over several pots of steaming concoctions.

Nyssa sat up on the polymer-woven cot. “I’m ready to start training.”

“No.”

They exchanged that word a lot, Nyssa noted.

Unfortunately for Aix, the Aviani custom was that adults didn’t nag juveniles—however, the opposite did not hold true. Nyssa was free to cajole and whine and pester, which she proceeded to do while Aix puttered around the windowless plant-filled metal room that looked somewhere between a greenhouse and a nest.

“Why do you live out here?”

“I like it.”

Nyssa looked around. The room was large, but outside lay only broken things, bones and dust and pools of stagnant water, in a rust-eaten wreck that must’ve once been part of some space station.

“Don’t you miss people?” Avianis were social creatures. Even outcasts and fugitives sought out others; that was why they’d helped build FarDeep. They wanted community.

“No.” Aix finished wrapping a long strip of med-tape around her torso. “But there’s a port-full of them six Jumps away, if I get frisky.”

Nyssa shook her head. No Aviani should’ve been able to Jump so much.

She studied the woman, in the better light. Her body was muscular, and stouter than the average Aviani. She had smaller air-sacs, webbed fingers and longer claws, and of course, there were the vestigial wings.  

“You look different from other old-gens.” Most old-gens Nyssa knew looked just like the hybrids, save for slightly shorter limbs, more feathers and smaller eyes. But Aix’s eyes were large, and her brow higher than even the hybrids’. She looked…regal, almost. An odd thought, since Aviani had no monarchies.

 Aix snipped two leaves off a large potted shrub. “I’m a ground-nestling.”

“What? But ground-nestlings were our ancestors; they all left Avia when the planet was destroyed. How could you be…” Nyssa gaped, hands clutching the woven thermo-blanket. “Are you…immortal?”

Aix cackled. “Chicklet, you’re a funny song.”

She tossed the med-tape roll into a metal box in a corner, and stirred one of the steaming pots.

“Avia was mostly destroyed—when our ancestors decided to go into space, they left some folks behind. Old guard who didn’t want to leave—and those who couldn’t, I suppose. They scraped by for a while, after the rest of the Avianis had gone into space.”

Nyssa stared. “You mean—there are still Avianis planet-side?”

“No. Avia was a toxic pit; those left behind adapted to live underwater while the surface burned, but after a thousand cycles even the waters were uninhabitable. So when space-faring Avianis returned and offered a way out, everyone left alive took it.”  

Aix crushed the leaves in her two-fingered hands and applied them to a long scrape on her torso. Her lower lateral airsac hissed.

“But ground-nestlings had missed a couple thousand cycles’ worth of adaptations, so we look a little different.”

 Nyssa shook her head. “I had no idea we’d ever gone back to Avia, or that there was anyone left there…”

Aix shrugged. “With the fertility crisis, leaders grew desperate enough to try the homeworld. They hoped new Aviani genetic material would help jump-start proliferation again—but no luck. There were too few surviving ground-nestlings, and they’d developed a fair bit of xenophobia, so they weren’t thrilled about the breeding scheme. Ultimately everyone decided to quit trying and go their separate ways.”

Where?” Nyssa was baffled. “I’ve never seen another like you. How’d you end up at FarDeep—and where’d you learn to fight? No Aviani can do that…”

Aix rolled her eyes. “Evidently, some can.”

“You gotta teach me,” begged Nyssa. “No one in the galaxy could’ve taken on a strip-scavenger swarm, like that! You could win the Battle Games, you could lead the Defense Crew….!”

Aix nipped a different plant and added its flower to a steaming pot.

“I need to win the Battle Games,” said Nyssa.

“Good luck.”

“I’ve already entered.” Nyssa stood up, a little wobbly. “If I don’t learn to fight, they’ll kill me. Please—I’ll do anything. I know you’ve trained other winners—”

“You know wrong.” Aix sighed and poured a hot greenish liquid into a mug. “I can fight, yes—most ground-nestlings learn to at a young age—but we don’t pass it to others, and we certainly don’t do it for entertainment.”

“The Battle Games aren’t entertainment!”

Aix snorted. “They’re FarDeep’s main source of income.” She handed Nyssa the mug, beady eyes meeting hers. “I don’t dance for the Games, chicklet. What you saw with those strip-scavengers, that was fight-or-die. The ground-nestlings’ dance. The tune of Avia.” She scoffed, turning away. “It doesn’t play well on a holoscreen, believe me.”

Nyssa gripped the steaming mug, that smelled of mushed plants and fuel.

“This is fight or die, for me,” she said.

“You shouldn’t have entered the Games.”

“No—I mean my life. The weird human-shaped Aviani. Can’t breathe heliox, can’t Jump, can’t chroma-shift. No one has use for me. If I do nothing, I might as well be dead. I’m…” She ground her teeth, “My life is a toxic pit, okay? And I’m trying to evolve to live underwater. And you’re the only one who can help me.”

Aix snorted. “Pathos is a human trick. Doesn’t work on me.”

“Then teach me how to be like you! Teach me what the ground-nestlings know! Please. I’m going to the Games either way, but if you help, I can win.”

“And if not,” said Aix, “will you rush into the arena waving a metal bar and screaming?” She scoffed. “That human adrenalin. You let it drive you into fights, when the clever thing to do is run. You can’t win the Games on adrenalin and wishful thinking.”

“So teach me a better way.” Nyssa stepped closer, pushing a green vine out of her way. “I can’t run; this is my life. I just want to make a place for myself. A home. Please.”

Aix rolled her eyes.

She poured herself some green concoction into a different mug, and inhaled its steam.

“The dance is no easy lesson,” she warned, and Nyssa’s heart jumped. “You can’t just learn a few steps: if you start, you must see it through to end, or you’ll have learned nothing.”

“I only have a quarter-cycle to the Games—”

“It takes as long as it takes,” said Aix. “If you start, you’re in it to the end.”

Nyssa swallowed.

She’d have to learn quickly. There was no other choice.

Luckily, her human-half had a knack for learning new stuff.

“I’m in,” she said. “To the end.”

Aix let out a soft disgruntled chirp, and she turned away. “We start after supper.”

Nyssa's chest flooded with warmth.

She was in the game, at last. And for the first time in her life, she felt she could win.