This story is a part of a blog-hop anthology all taking place within the WFGC Hotel. You can find more stories in this anthology here.
Phil walked through the airlock into a lobby straight out of late twentieth-century Earth: white marble floor dotted with diamonds of gold-veined black, a ten-meter ceiling arched over crystal chandeliers, and colorful rugs that smelled like actual sheep’s wool. The impression of antiquity was so strong, it took a moment to spot the telltale distortion around the WFGC Hotel sign and the discreet interfaces in the deep-brown multispecies seating.
After a decade as a Guardian, entering a place designed by humans felt strange. A quick mental command adjusted the clings on his legs to local gravity. He still crossed the lobby too quickly, but many humans had minor mods beyond the standard neural-network implant. Nothing to alarm anyone.
Human noses couldn’t smell the truth. Human ears couldn’t hear his heart racing. His network profile didn’t show what hid in his cells. His cycle was ticking down, and he needed to get hidden and safe.
The white-haired human receptionist peered up at him with large brown eyes, and he felt the ping on his profile a moment before her public persona flicked from “permanent contract” to “widowed.” She set her knitting aside and smiled broadly just as his nanobots detected the frequency coming off the needles.
Getting hit on by a septuagenarian with military-grade tactical knitting needles was just what today needed.
He pulled himself together and set his duffel on the polished marble in front of her desk. Something inside the bag let out a cheerful, high-pitched squeak. The receptionist’s eyes flicked down, and one white eyebrow arched. Phil kept his face straight, barely. “Phil Whitman. I have a reservation—and my condolences on your loss.”
“Oh, he passed years ago.” She waved a hand, utterly unfazed that he’d caught her. “Philip’s a nice name.”
“Just Phil, thanks.”
“Hmm.” Her eyes moved to the side, and she blinked twice, scrolling. “Welcome, Phil. You have the deluxe monarch suite on the Garden Floor, room 531.” She peered up through her eyelashes. “It’s our second-largest bed. Plenty of space.”
“Sadly, I’m too tired to do anything fun with it.” He found a wink for her despite the sweat inching down his spine. He needed to get behind locked doors—alone.
“Oh, fine.” She laughed. “I’ve coded the door to your profile. Would you like a physical key?”
She passed him a small fob with a clip at one end, and he escaped.
Upstairs, he set up the surveillance-distorter before he opened the duffel. The room smelled odd, and it wasn’t just the real plants growing outside in a tempting tangle of unfamiliar scents. He traced the faintly aquatic smell to a distortion field set to blend with the blue damask wallpaper in the suite living room. Under the field was a round hole covered by steel petals designed to slide over each other, opening like a mechanical iris around a pupil. Further investigation revealed more apertures: three total in the living room, three in the bedroom, and one in the bathroom. Frowning, he toggled the hotel information upload. Ads expanded across his vision: antique barbershop, spa services, entertainment guide . . . he found the note under the menu.
Automated hospitality provided for unoccupied rooms.
They used room-service bots. So much for the anti-modern aesthetic. He eyed the nearest portal. Large enough to be a potential problem, but not as dangerous as a hotel employee opening the door carelessly. The scent must be an organic lubricant. At least it didn’t punch him in the nose like the chemical crud the Guardians used on their ships.
He placed an order for automated hospitality as he upended the duffel over the enormous bed. A colorful avalanche spilled over the white comforter.
It wasn’t like dogs could see this absurd rainbow. Some blues, some yellows, white and gray—that was it. The rest was human nonsense.
He shook his head and stripped, rolling his clothes and stowing them on the dresser. The translucent clings were wrapped around his legs like thick spiderwebs. At his command, they dropped to the floor, flattening and springing up in new shapes. One became a staircase up to the tall mattress. The other rolled into the bathroom to do the same for the toilet.
Naked, he took two wobbling steps and sank onto the mattress. He rooted through the jingling, squeaking mess at the foot of the bed until he found a rhinestone-studded strip of pink fabric embroidered with the word FLUFFY. A gift from his sister, who found this entire situation hilarious. He clipped the hotel key to a glittering loop.
At least one member of his family still joked with him. Anything was better than the look on his mother’s face. Than his father’s silence.
The pink atrocity barely fit around his ankle now, but a strand of the same material in his clings would animate it at the command of the nanobots in his blood. Thankfully they still transmitted his orders, even when his mental processes changed completely. Things could be worse.
Things were bad enough already.
He had one last critical task. Using his nanobots, he reprogrammed the hotel key and locked the door for twelve hours, disabling everything except the emergency override on the key fob. He didn’t want that door opening for anything short of the room catching on fire.
His breath was shorter now and his skin itched, but he should be safe enough. He curled up on the soft white bedspread and let his eyes close.
Therese peered through the receptors on Kiki’s arm, balancing the dinner tray in the curve of one tentacle with the ease of long practice. Room 531 was a one-bedroom suite. The living room and bathroom were empty of life forms. But the bedroom had a small, very active heat source on the bed, about the size of a very large rat.
WFGC Hotel didn’t have rats; the walls were already occupied by one large and inquisitive squid. If Kiki found another creature in her passageways, she’d either eat it or abduct it to play with, and Therese would get an unlovely surprise on her next piloting shift. The last one had been florescent cricket-slugs escaped from a guest’s luggage. The bright-blue color should have made them easy to round up.
She accessed the reservation. “Huh.” One human male and one dog under 20 kilograms. Regina usually warned her when someone checked in with a pet. The day receptionist had a knack for predicting which ones would get fussy when Kiki entered a room.
The squid’s arms bunched in the passageway. Kiki was curious. Something about the little dog had piqued her interest.
Down at her workstation, Therese sighed. At least this dog was tiny. If the pet freaked out—or if Kiki got acquisitive—she’d just keep Kiki’s limbs up out of reach. She dilated two iris portals and sent in the dinner tray.
A blur shot out of the bedroom and skidded to a stop on the carpet, barking and hopping up on furry hind legs. Therese yanked Kiki’s limbs higher just in time. The dog had some speed in those tiny legs. Kiki blended instinctively with the white ceiling, papillae in her skin expanding to mimic the texture of the paint. The dog stopped barking and stared up, tufted ears flicking forward. His head tilted to one side and then the other. Then he bolted out of the room.
Maybe he’d lost interest once Kiki camouflaged herself?
Another blur and the dog was back. He dropped something oblong and rubbery on the floor and looked at the ceiling again, mouth open and tongue hanging out. His feathery tail waved back and forth. When Kiki didn’t move, he barked once—and then he pinged Kiki.
Therese caught her breath. This tiny dog had nanobots. He had somehow recognized Kiki did as well, and he was using the hotel’s network to invite Kiki to play.
Who injected nanobots in a pet dog?
One of Kiki’s arms unfurled from the ceiling. She wanted to play. Therese held her back.
The dog tilted his head again. He ran from the room and returned with another small object—a toy. Then another. Then a fourth, which he squeezed in his mouth until the toy squeaked several times. The dog dropped this last offering and backed away, stretching out his front legs and wagging his tail until his entire hindquarters wobbled.
Something was wrapped around the dog’s back legs. Therese squinted her own eyes, one of those useless gestures she’d never gotten over. The optical neurons in Kiki’s limbs didn’t have enough sensitivity to pick out fine visual details. Her arms and tentacles had their own peripheral nervous systems that let them mimic colors and textures with astonishing accuracy, but Kiki’s brain—and Therese’s, through their linked nanobots—saw only basic shapes, light, and dark. Which may have been for the best. Kiki had thirty-six limbs, and Therese had enough trouble keeping track of them as it was.
Kiki expressed to Therese her longing for the squeaking toy and her displeasure at being denied.
A grumpy mega squid was a mischievous mega squid, and a cross-dimensional hotel provided plenty of opportunities for trouble. Therese didn’t know why the little dog had nanobots, but he didn’t seem aggressive. Frankly, something that small couldn’t do much damage to a squid whose arms stretched twenty-five stories. Therese was more worried about the reverse.
At least Kiki was too shy to stay if larger creatures entered the room—like the dog’s absent owner. Guests sometimes reacted poorly to unexpected mega squid arms.
“Gently,” she told Kiki.
Soft? the squid asked. She’d learned many words over the years, but she repeated only a few back to Therese. “Soft” was a favorite.
“Soft. Move gently, like carrying flowers. Deliver the food first.”
The squid obediently set the dinner tray on the table. Then her tentacle darted out and grabbed the small squeaking toy, squeezing it over and over. The little dog barked excitedly and nudged a ball toward Kiki’s tentacle. Kiki’s arm came down and curled around it. Therese encouraged Kiki to toss the ball over the dog’s head—gently. The dog caught it midair, jumping almost to the three-meter ceiling.
Which meant Kiki hadn’t been safe up there. Therese peered at the material wrapped around the dog’s hind legs with respect. Good thing this little pet was friendly. Shaking her head, she turned her attention to the dinner orders for the next three rooms, keeping one eye on the odd pairing in the garden suite.
“531? The suite over there?” Regina gestured toward a bay laurel with her spoon. On either side of their bench, large rosemary and lavender bushes grew under the artificial sunlight of the garden.
“Yep. Kiki wouldn’t leave until I called her down to fold laundry.”
“Ah, the irresistible lure of warm towels.”
Therese shrugged and took another bite of pear. “They’re soft.”
The day receptionist glanced at her out of the side of her eye. “You know what isn’t soft at all? The body on the guest in 531. One hundred percent tall, lean muscle.”
Oh no. Here it came.
“And he was sweet, even though he came in so tired. Poor thing.” Regina set down her empty soup bowl and picked up her knitting. “Nice smile, big hands, dark-brown hair in a crew cut—”
“I don’t do military.”
“You don’t do anyone.”
“Not your business, Madam Nosy.” Sometimes Therese thought Regina had gotten her advanced implant just to dig into people’s lives.
An unfair thought, especially given how kind she’d been. The day receptionist airily waved away certain parts of her past, but not even the ultra-rich got tech like theirs for fun. Nanos and advanced implants were common in only a few places. Military, tech sector, diplomats, certain other professions . . . and then there were cases like Therese.
“Tsk. I worry,” Regina said. “Even Kiki finds playmates. Don’t tell me you’re not lonely.”
“If Kiki found that kind of playmate, we’d be up to our eyeballs in squidlings. I don’t care if we sit in trans-dimensional space, even the hotel has limits.”
“Hmph.” Regina’s needles clicked quietly as she finished another row of her emerald cowl.
“Besides, I doubt he’ll be interested in a woman covered in squid hickeys.” Therese held out her forearms. Today’s clusters of bright-red circles overlapped with fading purples and greens marching down her skin. Kiki didn’t have serrated suckers like some squid species, but she still left marks.
“You never know. Some people like freckles. Others like holographic tattoos. Maybe Mr. Lickable Abs—”
Therese snorted. “What, did he check in shirtless?”
“Some things are obvious. But if you never give anyone a chance—” Regina paused as the bay laurel rustled. Her hands shifted on the needles, and Therese felt the ambient energy fields change as her friend automatically primed her weapons.
A familiar small dog burst from beneath the shrub and trotted right up to the bench where they sat.
Now Therese could see the little guy in full color. The dark fur on his head and back was deep chocolate. The light fur on his belly was a pale cream. The toy bone he placed in front of her shoes was purple, and the sparkling collar around his neck was pink with fuchsia plastic gems. His round black eyes stared up at her as he placed his head on the path, his hindquarters stuck up in the air, the long brown fur on his tail waving like a fringed flag.
The purple toy hummed, and the glowing words “self-sterilizing” appeared on the side and vanished. Fancy. Someone spent a heap of credits on the pet he abandoned in his hotel room for hours.
“What an adorable chihuahua!” The tips of Regina’s knitting needles lost their telltale sheen.
Therese frowned. “I thought chihuahuas had shorter fur?”
“There’s a long-haired breed and a short-haired breed. Look, he’s a tri-color—see the blond on his snout and forepaws, and those little patches in his ears? Gorgeous.” Regina leaned forward over her knitting. “Aren’t you just the prettiest little man? Yes, you . . . are . . .”
The day receptionist was blinking at the chihuahua—probably scanning something through her implant. The chihuahua sneezed and kept his eyes on Therese. Translucent white filaments wove through the dark fur on his back legs and up around his hindquarters, and she finally recognized them: high-end mobility-assisting devices called clings. She’d never seen a set this small. They required a neural implant or some other internal electronic translator, which might explain the nanobots. Someone took very good care of this dog.
Speaking of which, if the chihuahua was out of room 531, the human guest was probably nearby, and Therese was sitting next to the worst matchmaker in WFGC Hotel. She snatched up the remains of her lunch. “I should get back to—”
“Oh, I forgot!” Regina swept her knitting into her knapsack and stood. “I have a call with my grand-niece.”
“Regina, don’t you dare!”
The day receptionist was already bustling away. “So sorry, must run, cross-dimensional time differences wait for no one. Good luck with 531!”
“This is what I get for befriending a 76-year-old supergranny whose kids live on the other side of the galaxy,” she told the chihuahua. He barked and nudged the purple bone toward her with his nose. She sighed and flung the toy down the cobblestone path. He took off after it with a happy yip.
No humanoid male guests, muscled or otherwise, emerged from the greenery as she stacked Regina’s soup bowl with her own dishes and threw the bone again for the chihuahua. She pulled her sleeves down. Interacting with guests wasn’t her job, but 531 was just across the garden.
The chihuahua set the bone at her feet as she stood. She noticed a word embroidered on the collar: Fluffy. Accurate, if unoriginal. The absent guest lost a few points in her mind.
“All right, Fluffy. Let’s find your person, shall we?”
After depositing the dishes at the garden café, she reached the door to 531 with Fluffy the chihuahua trotting beside her, purple bone in his mouth and tail held high. Nobody responded when she knocked. She queried security through the network.
“Oh.” Julia was . . . overenthusiastic sometimes. But she could find a stray piece of information in seconds. “Hey. Can you access door records for 531? I have a loose dog here, and I’m trying to track down the owner.”
“Is the dog aggressive? I can dispatch the Megs.”
“No, but he’ll play fetch until your arm falls off.”
“Hmm.” Julia paused. “Son of a snotball!”
“Seriously. He reprogrammed the door, and the room sensors are borked. I’ll have to physically walk over there to fix it. That ingrown nose goblin. I’m too busy for this crap. Putrid, slime-sucking—”
“It’s okay,” Therese cut in. “I’ll leave a note.”
“Mmhmm. Thanks!” That would teach her to speak to Julia right after lunch.
She coded a message to contact Reception and attached it to the door. Regina or the night receptionist could deal with Mr. MIA whenever he decided to show up again. “Guess you’re hanging out with me for a bit, Fluffy.”
The chihuahua tilted his head, fringed ears flopping to the side. He spat the bone out onto the carpet, and it did its humming-sterilizing routine.
“Right. Good thing you and Kiki get along.”
Fluffy cheerfully accompanied her back across the garden, into the employees-only corridor, and down the service lift. But just before the T-intersection that led to the kitchen on one side and admin on the other, he dashed in front of her and halted, growling quietly, tiny legs braced apart, teeth bared, chocolate fur ruffled over his neck.
“Fluffy?” She found herself whispering to match his growl.
He looked over his shoulder, and she felt a contact through the network. The little dog was sending her an alarm message. She had no clue how to translate it. “What—”
Fluffy sneezed soundlessly, dropping his bone, and darted behind her. Before she could dodge, he bit her cargo pants and tugged.
She fumbled for the basic queries she’d first used with Kiki and sent a questioning feeling at the dog. He ignored her and kept trying to tug her back toward the lift.
Therese opened her mouth and heard a beep-click. The door to the auxiliary storage room opened. A humanoid man wearing subtly expensive clothes—moth-silk navy shirt and woven carbon trousers, boots of supple scaled hide, and black gemstones glimmering on the clip for his long blond hair—stepped into the doorway and stopped. His manicured fingers held a sleek electronic tool. He jerked it up in front of him like a weapon.
Fluffy zoomed back around her and burst into loud barking. Uncoded canine alarm pings began bouncing through the network.
She heard footsteps running from the kitchen. Julia poked her blonde head out from her den a few doors down, rolling up the sleeves of her coveralls. “What the flying monkeys?”
“Yo, this is staff-only!” one of the prep cooks called out over the barking.
“We can’t have dogs in a food prep area.”
This was getting out of control. “Shh, Fluffy!” Therese said.
The chihuahua ignored her.
She didn’t want to get bit. Nor did she want to move toward the unknown man blocking the storage room door. But more staff were crowding into the hall, and nobody wanted to pass the tiny dog barking his head off.
She inched closer and grabbed for the pink collar. Fluffy danced away, but he subsided into growling.
“Hey.” The stranger lowered the mystery tool and broke into a friendly smile. “Easy, big guy. Can anyone tell me how to find the Nebula Lounge? I’ve gotten turned around, and the map is giving me an error message.”
As she watched, he hunched his shoulders and shifted his weight, slowly becoming less threatening. Kiki did the same when she wanted to make friends—or when she was hiding something. Therese narrowed her eyes. His profile didn’t respond to her request for public information. Which could be a network error.
“That’s ’cause the map’s for guests. This isn’t a guest area. That’s why the doors say ‘Staff Only’ in giant electronic letters,” Julia drawled out.
Therese winced. Julia didn’t handle guests for a reason. But Therese already had a dog to wrangle; she didn’t want to add a wayward guest with a suspiciously nonresponsive profile.
“I mean no trouble. I simply got lost.” He held up his hands again, palms out. The tool had vanished into a pocket.
“Right.” Julia rolled her eyes, but the guest was looking at Therese. His gaze snared on her neck—Kiki had probably marked her all the way up to her cheek. It happened.
His eyes turned assessing.
That clinched it. Therese was not interested in getting ogled by some random man who’d wandered into the heart of the hotel.
Luckily, their bubbly accountant trotted up the hall. “Hi, hi, what’s all this now? Sir, you can’t be back here, this is a private space.”
“I was looking for the Nebula Lounge.”
Julia coughed loudly. The accountant glanced at her and upped the cheer in his voice. “I’d be happy to escort you! Right this way.”
Therese made another grab for the chihuahua’s collar and snagged it. Fluffy gave her an extremely offended look as she towed him to the side of the hall to let the accountant and the guest walk past and board the lift.
“Now that was a bag of radioactive weevils in a human suit.” Julia nodded to the chihuahua and stomped over to the storage room, muttering as she checked the door and went inside.
For once, Therese agreed.
He’d woken up in some strange places. His squad mates used to call it “pulling a Phil.” But waking next to an enormous cephalopod, naked, a tiny blue blanket around his waist, his head pillowed on—yep, that was a small gray dog bed—and one giant tentacle wrapped around his ankle . . . this had to take the cake.
He rolled and came face-to-eye with a huge pale-green iris and a U-shaped pupil bigger than his head. Below that began a two-meter-long beak. The smooth, pearlescent floor dropped off into a tank of some sort—he could hear water lapping against the sides, and he smelled brine. The squid made a soft clicking noise, and the tentacle around his ankle shifted, suckers releasing his skin with popping sounds and reattaching. Now that was an odd sensation. But he didn’t seem in imminent danger of being eaten.
His neck itched. He rubbed it and a strip of extremely pink fabric came off in his hand. The hotel key still hung from one loop. The key he’d reprogrammed to ensure he stayed locked in his room unless the building caught fire.
He glared at the collar and sat up.
The same pearlescent material coated the walls and ceiling, but a light was mounted on the ceiling, and a sturdy closed door stood a few meters beyond his head. The passageway curved away past his feet. Around the curve, fabric rustled, and he heard furniture move. He froze.
“No, you’ve both already eaten. Just because he’s awake doesn’t mean he’s hungry. We should see if his owner’s back—”
A woman rounded the curve and jumped backward with a shriek. Limbs shot out from the squid and caught her before she could fall into the tank.
“Who the—what the—”
Tentacles coiled in his peripheral vision. Phil ducked and clutched the teeny blanket over his midsection, surreptitiously scanning her profile. Human, WFGC Hotel employee, no associations, all other info restricted—unless he forced the issue and hacked her.
At least he was probably still in the hotel.
“Down,” the woman commanded. The tentacles set her on the floor. She lunged back around the corner and returned pointing a cheap utility laser cutter.
Phil prayed the blanket would stay in place and slowly raised his hands, the collar still hooked around his fingers. “Sorry. I know this looks bad. But . . .”
For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what to say next.
He couldn’t explain how he’d wound up naked inside this seashell-passageway. He was unarmed. Worse, his legs were bare, and the clings tucked under his thighs were tiny. Chihuahua-sized. His regular clings were out of his nanobots’ sensing radius.
Under her loose-fitting shirt and cargo pants, her body was trim but not muscular. Her thumb was hooked through the laser cutter’s handle, vulnerable to being broken. She was a civilian. The cutter’s range was probably less than a meter, which would put her in arm’s reach. He could overpower her if she came close enough to use it.
But there was also the giant squid to factor in. Judging by the marks on her bare arms and the way the squid obeyed her commands, they were pals. And he still had a suckered limb wrapped around his ankle.
“Who are you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I . . . honestly, I’d like to know the answer to that too.”
Black eyebrows lowered over furious brown eyes framed by long, curly dark hair. She was not impressed.
Just his luck that his other self decided to befriend the prettiest woman he’d seen in ages—and ensure Phil would never have a chance with her.
Her gaze traveled to the pink collar. “What did you do with Fluffy?”
Phil took a deep breath. “Look. I’m very sorry I startled you. If we’re going to have a conversation, would you mind if I found some clothing first?”
Her eyes narrowed. A tentacle stretched out behind her. He heard a drawer opening and closing. The tentacle returned, skirting her body, and passed him a plush white bathrobe with “WFGC Hotel” embroidered on the front pocket.
“Thank you.” He slid it around his body and felt better, right up until the tentacle started petting his hair. “Um.”
“Kiki,” the woman said.
The tentacle withdrew into the tank, and the one wrapped around his ankle detached itself with a series of pops, leaving behind red circles just like the ones on the woman’s warm-amber skin. They stood out more on his pale legs.
He cleared his throat and eyed the nearest wall, a meter and a half away. “About that.”
Okay then. He fished the useless baby clings out from under himself, tucked them and the collar in one pocket, made sure the robe was knotted, and carefully folded his legs under his body. Then he pushed off as hard as he could with his arms. He’d practiced this move for emergencies, and it got him to his feet without visible wobbling.
His knees still screamed.
He kept the pain from his face and reminded himself that he was an unknown naked human man who’d invaded a civilian human woman’s space. She was perfectly within her rights to be pissed and distrustful. It wasn’t her fault that his joints below the hip had been destroyed during that hellish battle against the Gammaniacs, or that the custom devices that let him move as well as anyone—better, even—weren’t available. She’d done nothing wrong.
He was also much taller than her. He watched her realize that she only came to his shoulder and press her lips together. Intimidating her wasn’t going to help his cause. He slouched.
She shook her head, that mass of black curls falling over one shoulder before she tossed it back. “Don’t bother with the harmless-body-language thing. Your friend already tried it, and I’m not buying.”
“The one you had a loud conversation with in the service hall.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t . . .” He hadn’t talked to anyone except the receptionist who checked him in. “I don’t know who you mean.”
“It involved a lot of barking.”
His pulse was suddenly pounding in his ears. “Oh.”
“You don’t remember, do you?”
She knew. All his words tripped on the way out from his brain, and he just stared at her.
She shook her head again. “All right, if that’s how you want to play it. Let’s go.”
“Wait, that’s not—I don’t mean to—go where?” He shut his mouth.
Real smooth, Whitman.
“531. That is your room, isn’t it? And you can fix whatever you did to the door while you’re there.”
So she’d discovered that. Okay. He wasn’t under arrest and on his way to some basement hotel dungeon. They had a gigantic squid who lived inside a seashell; he wasn’t making assumptions about what else they might have.
His location wasn’t on the hotel map from the info upload. He wondered how far he was from his room. Whatever the answer, this was going to hurt. He hoped she didn’t mind walking slowly.
She gestured with the laser cutter. He turned toward the door, trying not to tense at the weapon pointed at his back. “I locked it so I didn’t get out,” he said quietly.
She didn’t respond.
Walking was always the same. The first steps felt like grains of sand had worked their way into his knees, his ankles, even the tiny joints in his toes. Crossing a room was uncomfortable. The longer he walked, the worse it got. Those imaginary grains of sand rubbed and rubbed, digging into cartilage pieces that already looked like old, meteor-pocked asteroids.
By the end of the first hallway, it felt like those sand grains had heated up until they glowed.
By the time he stood in a utility lift next to her, small, red-hot daggers stabbed him to the rhythm of his pulse. He took long, careful breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth. Silently, so he didn’t antagonize her more.
The lift opened to another long, cream-wallpapered hallway punctuated by white doors. He made himself move.
“Are you . . .”
He looked over his shoulder.
“You’re not okay, are you.” She still watched him, but the laser cutter hung at her side, pointed at the floor. Progress, though it was hard to care when he was in this much pain.
He unclenched his jaw and shellacked a polite tone on his voice. “Would you mind telling me how much farther? Walking is kinda rough for me.”
“Shit. The clings. I’m sorry, I should have realized.” The hardness dropped right off her face, and those pretty brown eyes widened.
“Not your fault.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You came around a corner to see an unknown naked man in your space. Treating me as a threat was the right call. I’m sorry I imposed on you.” He meant that. He also wondered if, now that she was less hostile, he could get away with leaning against the wall.
No, that was a trap. If he leaned on something, getting vertical and moving again would be harder.
She came to some sort of a decision. “Through here.”
Then she moved around him, close enough that he could have grabbed that laser cutter off her belt. He didn’t. She opened the second door on the left and held it for him. He walked out slowly into a short entryway. Green palm fronds nodded in bright light a few meters ahead.
“There are benches just down the path. If you don’t mind resting there, I can get something to lift you. Or I can bring your mobility-assisting devices from your room if you tell me how to get in your door. Will sitting be okay?”
Sitting would be great. Lying flat on his back with cold pads and full-strength painkillers would be better, but he’d take what he could get. “Yes. Thank you. The door should unlock now—I set it for twelve hours.”
“Why risk a hotel? You have a private ship docked outside. Why not just park somewhere remote?”
So she’d gone through his guest information. Smart of her. He hadn’t even felt her access his profile.
A pair of wooden benches sat at right angles to each other on the far side of a hibiscus bush. Six meters. “First time, I did exactly that. Woke up on a fast collision course with a pulsar. My other side enjoys making friends with things that can kill him, like large celestial objects.”
“I guess, with the nanobots, you can’t exactly disable his access.”
He shot her a sharp look. How did she know about those?
She stopped at the nearer bench, gesturing. “Will this work?”
She watched as he grabbed the armrest like the life raft it was. “Do you need—”
“Got it. Thanks.” He couldn’t help hissing as he lowered himself down and straightened his legs.
She winced. “I really am sorry.”
She took the hint and left. He closed his eyes and swore, quietly and comprehensively.
It took a moment before he realized two important things. First, she’d need the door key he’d reprogrammed, which was in his pocket. Second, his clings were currently shaped like staircases and attached to the bed and the toilet, respectively.
He debated trying to find and communicate with her through the hotel network. But she’d radiated competence. Either she’d return for the key or she’d find that lifting device she’d mentioned. Could be fun to be carted around in one of those bins for collecting laundry. But no, they had service bots. No maids pushing laundry hampers in this fancy outfit.
He didn’t even know her name.
Not that it mattered. He rubbed the swollen tissue around his knees, grimacing.
He’d served in the Guardians for ten years and six months. He was out now, but some things, a soldier never lost. He jerked around, ignoring the pain as he yanked his legs beneath him, and jammed his hand in his pocket for a weapon just as a familiar form stepped out from behind a hedge and paused, noticing him.
The other man nodded at him, fussy long blond hair in a tail hanging over one shoulder. “Whitman.”
The bathrobe’s pocket contained two rolled-up miniature clings and one dog collar, but Ritter didn’t know that. Phil slowly removed his empty hand and set it on his thigh, just like he would if he wanted quick access to a laser pistol. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”
Ritter’s sharp black eyes scanned him, and Phil felt a nudge at his profile. He smiled. Nothing to see there, no matter how good Ritter’s code library was.
Ritter’s fingers twitched. Phil noted bulges in several black trouser pockets. His nanobots registered frequencies from multiple devices, including a radiant knife and a high-end scrambler. Not the kind of tools you brought on vacation. If you wanted to bypass electronic locks and alarm systems, on the other hand . . .
“You look comfortable,” Ritter said.
“Enjoying a day off. You should try the spa. Relax a bit.”
Ritter snorted and came closer, eyes dipping to Phil’s bare legs. “What’d they do, balance your cosmic energy with antique suction cups?”
Right, his ankle was marked up. If only that was all Ritter could see. If the trader guessed how limited Phil’s mobility was, he might decide to take care of a loose end.
This was not how Phil had wanted to encounter the scum who’d sold them out to the “experimental trade” group on that last mission.
The trade had been in mutated humans the merchants kept in cages. Humans were valuable because of their nice, flexible genetic code. Their bodies adapted well to all kinds of circumstances, like being fused to semi-sentient tree ships or having fifteen robotic arms grafted on them without painkillers.
His unit specialized in stopping that. Ritter was one of several merchants who’d quietly sold tips to the Guardians for years. Phil had long suspected him of selling to all sides, but he’d never been able to prove it. He still couldn’t, but only one outsider had possessed the details and the right contacts.
Collins was dead because of that mission. Larkspear was in a vat, slowly regrowing soft tissue on half his body. Ling had stopped talking, abandoned her contract, and vanished into the black between stars.
Phil had thought he’d gotten off easy with that one tiny bite from the head scientist’s lapdog. In some ways he had. He’d only lost his career and slowly watched his friends stop getting in touch.
If he were regrowing half his body mass, would his father still puff up his chest with pride instead of looking aside and clearing his throat? Would his mother still stop before touching his arm, that awful mix of solicitousness and caution, as if his freshly laundered shirt might be contagious?
Larkspear’s months-long agony wasn’t something Phil should wish for, damn it.
He was a mess. That wasn’t in any file Ritter could find, though. Phil smiled wider, baring his teeth.
Ritter took one step backward in his giborski-hide boots.
“The real question,” Phil said softly, “is why are you here, Ritter?”
Ritter narrowed his eyes and straightened, tossing his hair over his shoulder. “Business, of course.”
“And your business is secrets.”
His nanobots alerted him: his clings were in range. Shit. How had she detached them from the bed? He didn’t want her anywhere near Ritter. This situation did not need a potential hostage.
“Among other things. You’re not a Guardian anymore, so what do you care?”
“Interesting that you know that.”
“Please. I’d be a fool not to monitor who’s on the task force. I’ve heard these transitions can be difficult, so here’s a free tip. Without that medallion on your profile, you’re just another citizen. You list no associations, which means you have no authority. You don’t have the credits to buy from me. Unless you have something valuable to trade, I don’t care about you. That works in your favor. Stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours.”
With that, Ritter inclined his head and strolled back the way he’d come.
Phil bit his tongue, hard, and let him.
This was not the time. He could barely walk, he was unarmed, there were witnesses . . . and nothing Ritter had said was wrong.
If he killed Ritter, it would be considered murder. Even if he proved the merchant had double-crossed them, he still wouldn’t be the one authorized to take the scumbag down. The Guardians had patted Phil on the head and awarded him an honorable medical discharge, but the truth was that they no longer thought him fit to serve. Now he was just a human civilian.
In another few hours, he wouldn’t even be that.
Mulch crunched. He turned and watch her come around the hyacinth bush. The peach flowers perfectly complemented her lush dark hair and amber skin. His clings hung limp over her arm, rolled into narrow tubes. The answer to his question hit him upside the head. “You have nanobots!”
She paused and raised her eyebrows.
“Sorry, that’s, I mean—thank you for—damn it.”
She burst out laughing. He rubbed the back of his neck, face heating.
“Here.” She passed him the clings and a bottle of water she pulled from one large pocket.
“You’re a goddess and a paragon among hotel staff and squid-befrienders. Thank you.”
She laughed again, this rich, ringing sound. “You’re very kind, considering I marched you up here.”
He finished the bottle as the clings wound themselves around his legs. Everything still hurt, but he felt better. “Sorry for interrupting your workday.”
“You didn’t, actually. I’d just finished my shift. You did startle me.”
“Sorry for startling you, then.”
She nodded and leaned against the arm of the other bench. The bright overhead lights caught on her hair. No red highlights there; her curls were black brushed with dark coffee. Gorgeous.
“Sorry I was harsh with you. You’re a Guardian?”
So she’d been listening. “Former.” The word twisted in his mouth. He tried for a self-deprecating smile.
Her even gaze cut right through it. “How long have you been out?”
“Because of your legs?”
“That happened a long time ago. It was never a problem.” She just watched him, and he found himself adding the rest. “Guardians don’t have much use for a friendly part-time chihuahua.”
“Wouldn’t you be good at getting through small spaces, like ventilation tubes?”
She was smart. “Sure. My other self would crawl into the air ducts, jump out onto the target’s lap, and lick them to death. Very effective.”
“Ah.” She nodded, her expression serious. “But I’m a bit offended.”
He blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Kiki and I played fetch with Fluffy for hours, and no licking happened whatso—” She stopped, put a hand over her mouth, and cleared her throat, looking off into the greenery. “I just said that, didn’t I?”
He pressed his lips together to keep from grinning. “It must be catching.”
She slowly shook her head.
“That’s actually one of the problems. This time of the cycle, certain things could be contagious. So I’m glad no licking happened.” He paused and coughed. “There’s no good way to say that, is there?”
“So, did you serve?”
“Military?” She frowned. “No.”
“How’d you get nanos, then?”
Her face shuttered.
Shit. “Sorry, I shouldn’t—”
“Duranetics Solutions. On Cirrus 5.” Her voice was soft and furious. “Perhaps a Guardian would know of it.”
He sucked in a breath. Duranetics had invented the clings he wore. They’d made everything from medical devices to industrial tech. Then, five years ago, an undercover journalist revealed that Duranetics developed their tech through extensive, nonconsensual experimentation on captive sentient beings, including humans. Duranetics ceased existing, sold off and split into hundreds of subcompanies.
The Guardians had missed it. A massive citizen-trafficking operation running out of three space stations for nearly a century, and they’d failed to detect it and stop it. They’d failed her and many others.
“I have prototypes. Turns out even organic-coded nanos make you very good at speaking to systems, like the ones on security doors. I stowed away on four ships before I landed here, saw the pretty garden, and decided this was a good place to die.”
He rocked back. She stared down at him, leaning against the wooden bench arm, framed by a star-leafed maple and flowering bushes he couldn’t name, the artificial sun on her hair. Vividly alive.
“My nanobots are paired. They’re designed to bond two creatures of any species together. Duranetics stored the other half of my set in a steel robot the size of a soccer ball. I stole it. But without an organic body to fuel them, the paired nanos were in low-power mode. My nanobots weren’t designed to operate solo. They were slowly degrading and taking me with them. To live, I would’ve had to infect another person with prototype nanos and shackle us together permanently. I refused to inflict that on anyone.”
His chest hurt, imagining her wasting away, though he understood her choice. “What happened?”
Her lips quirked at the edges. “Turned out a mega squid had hatched from a guest’s luggage a few years before and hid in the hotel walls, scavenging food from leftovers and generally being a menace. Kiki craved metals to develop her nervous system. While I slept, she stole the robot from my room and ate it. She cracked the casing, the nanobots flooded her body, and we both got a big surprise.”
He huffed a laugh.
“That was eight years ago. Now we both work for the hotel.”
She’d escaped before the Duranetics scandal had broken open, almost died, and fought her way to a better life. “You look happy here.”
“I’m glad.” He wished he had his life half as figured out.
“You’re new to this, aren’t you?”
“Being altered. Was it a Guardian experiment?”
“No. Guardians don’t do that shit. It happened on a mission that went wrong.” He looked down at his hands. “Seven months since I was bitten. Six months since the first change while I was on leave in my parents’ homeship. And yeah. I don’t know what I’m doing.” His life had fractured into a series of months strung together. He’d managed some consulting gigs, but everything took backseat to the change. It had to.
She nodded. “There’s a certain horror that comes when you realize your body will never, ever be the same again. After I was safe, I spent three months almost throwing up. Nothing was wrong with my stomach or my food. The things in my head were just so big and so awful, I couldn’t hold anything else.”
He looked up and met her steady gaze. She got it. Something clamped tightly in the center of him loosened, and for a moment, he thought he might actually cry.
In front of a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who was a total stranger, and not impressed with him. He’d already humiliated himself in front of her enough today. He stuffed it back inside and cleared his throat. “Don’t let Ritter see you.”
She blinked and frowned. “Ritter?”
“Samuel Ritter, the merchant I was talking to. Human–semi-sentient nanobot dyads are class II on the black market, and a trained mega squid will put you at the top of that set. You and Kiki are extremely valuable. He’d sell your details in an instant.” Phil snapped his fingers.
Her brown eyes narrowed, and she straightened, pulling back from him. “You think I don’t know this? You think I haven’t been hunted?”
“I think you need to be careful.” He said it roughly, and her shoulders stiffened, just as he’d known they would. He didn’t stop. “A scrambler would get through the security on those doors behind us in a sliver of a second. Your network protections are years out of date, to the point where a concerted attack could knock the whole thing offline. You carry no backup communication devices on your person—I would sense them. And if someone tries to incapacitate you, that laser cutter won’t do jack. You’re in danger, and you need to do better.”
He didn’t want to see her face through the bars of a cage in the hull of some trader’s ship. And he wouldn’t. He wasn’t a Guardian anymore. If she was taken, he wouldn’t be the one rescuing her—if she was lucky enough to be rescued. She might simply go missing and never see freedom again.
And if he wanted her to accept his suggestions, he was going about this all wrong. He should stop and apologize, say something funny, make her laugh. Rebuild that terrifying connection.
The Guardians had kicked him out because he couldn’t protect anyone, not anymore. He sat on the bench in his borrowed bathrobe and glared at her.
Her expression iced. “Thank you, former Guardian, for so kindly instructing me on how to live my life.” She rose, spine straight. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. If you require anything further, please contact the front desk.”
Once she turned the bend on the garden path, he set his head in his hands. Then he forced his aching body off the bench.
In the living room of his suite, he followed the scent of sugar to the source of the “emergency” that had unlocked the door: a candle melted into the center of a slice of carrot cake. The chihuahua must have stood on the table with the collar directly over the flame. How his other self had figured it out—let alone procured the old-fashioned birthday cake—he had no idea. He shouldn’t be surprised at this point.
He put his shoulder to the large dresser and shoved it in front of the bedroom door. Finding furniture to block each round portal took doing. Half an hour later, he slumped down against the bedroom wall next to the open bathroom door, each and every egress blocked by something too heavy for a chihuahua to move.
Pain was exhausting. That wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t summon the will to get up off the carpet, but it was the one he’d admit to.
She didn’t talk about what had happened to her. It was behind her. She was safe here.
Yes, Duranetics had chased her when she escaped, but she’d lost them. They didn’t exist anymore, and if anyone found a record of her, they’d think she’d died when the prototype nanobots failed. She almost had, even after bonding to Kiki. It had been touch and go for that first year. She’d spent half her time in bed, sweating and shivering through the medicines that suppressed her immune system so she didn’t reject the nanobots and kill herself. Kiki had adapted more easily, but her mischievous friend had struggled too.
No good came from looking back on that time. It was done. She knew better.
He’d looked so sad and lost. Just like a damn puppy. She’d felt bad for hurting him, and she’d wanted to do something to help him. So she’d torn open her own scars. And look where it got her.
This was why she didn’t bother with the nonsense Regina tried to foist on her. Men, sex, relationships—they weren’t worth it.
Even if they did have lickable abs.
“Gah.” Therese threw herself onto her piloting station and slammed down her bag. Behind her, Kiki clicked her beak soothingly.
“No. Not sad. Angry.” She probably should ping Julia about extra security, even if the tip had come from an asshole.
But she’d lived like a fugitive for so long.
Therese closed her eyes and balled her fists. Her emotions were leaking through the nanobots into her friend. She forced herself to breathe, extending her fingers one at a time until her hands were flat, and then she rolled her shoulders and shook out her arms.
“Sorry, little sister.”
Kiki blew bubbles. Large sister.
It was their joke. Lame, but a touchstone. Therese unclenched her jaw and accepted Kiki’s extended arm, letting it wrap around her skin. She felt the link, her nanobots and Kiki’s syncing. Her awareness expanded to include another set of eyes, an entire range of scents, a sensitive beak, thirty boneless arms, and six tentacles. Only Kiki’s central body lived in the network of tanks at the bottom of the hotel; her limbs spread through the walls, stretching all the way up to the twenty-fifth floor. One day she’d grow enough to reach the penthouse.
Merged with Kiki’s senses, Therese felt vibrations from hundreds of feet. She heard someone cough on floor twelve, a toddler screaming on floor eight, a couple having grunting sex on floor twenty-six. She tasted the scents of deodorants and perfumes, an absurd number of which included sandalwood or bergamot. She opened the queue of requests in her own mind and sorted by priority and location, overriding the software to create better delivery routes.
Yes, she could just follow the software’s directives. Yes, the hotel didn’t need a mega squid delivering room service and folding sheets. Any intelligent creature with the correct limbs could do the job. Bots could do it. Many hotels used bots for this.
She might be a glorified automaton, but this was her job. Her life. She’d made something from the wreckage, clawed out a future and friends and a makeshift family in this hotel. It wasn’t glamorous or grand. It wasn’t important, like saving lives or taking down companies that preyed on people. But it was hers, damn it.
Sad Tese. Soft?
She felt a lumpy blanket being tucked around her human skin. One end was damp. If Therese opened her eyes, she’d probably see a ragged, stitched-together set of old comforters trailing on the floor all the way back to Kiki’s tank. The squid was draping her in her own favorite snuggle blanket.
“Soft. Thank you.”
A squid arm wrapped around her outside the blanket and gently squeezed.
Therese inhaled until she felt like her lungs would burst, then let it all out. At least she had Kiki.
And Kiki was hers to protect. Therese snapped off a quick request to Julia for a temporary lockdown of staff areas. That should be enough. The guest was probably just paranoid. Military types often were.
She sent squid arms into the kitchen for the first batch of food deliveries. Kiki lifted the first five covered trays and stilled.
The trays crashed down, some landing on the table, others on the floor. The kitchen staff swore and dove for them. Kiki jerked her arms back into the walls. All across the hotel, her limbs rushed toward a single room on floor five.
As the limbs crowded into the walls around the room, Therese tasted a sharp, penetrating scent and felt a thrumming, an insistent rhythm in a frequency so low, her human brain had trouble translating it.
Something was wrong. “Kiki, wait.”
The squid gave no indication of hearing her.
Therese sent a stronger command, a physical sensation of stopping.
The insistent rhythm pulsed through Kiki’s arms and tentacles. She ignored Therese’s command and activated the room portals on her own. Her limbs wouldn’t all fit through the three available holes, but she jammed in as many as she could. A wave of something powerful swept through her, spilling over into Therese and clouding her mind.
Therese shook her head, blinking her own eyes, and gathered confused impressions of the room from eight different limbs. A strong ammonia scent wafted from trays over four heated round objects—censers for incense. The walls were covered in stringy fabric that billowed, almost giving the impression of other cephalopod limbs in the room. And on the bed lay a . . . thing.
It looked like someone had chopped off the skinny, three-meter-long tail of a giant worm, draped it on a tarp over the mattress, and dusted everything with powdered seasoning. But the overwhelming emotions throbbing through Kiki weren’t quite hunger.
Not hunger for food, anyway.
Therese realized what the object had to be. “No, Kiki! Trap! Get out!”
There was no good reason for the tip of a male mega squid’s hectocotylus—the suckerless, detachable end of the limb that delivered a sperm sac to a female—to be lying on this bed.
She groped for control. Kiki brushed her off. Six arms and two tentacles lunged toward the bed. They touched the appendage lying there—which, disturbingly, was warm—and stuck.
The powder was some sort of glue.
Not good, not good. Therese sent an urgent ping to security.
The ping didn’t bounce back to her. She’d been so distracted by Kiki, she hadn’t noticed the silence around her mind.
The hotel network was down.
She directed Kiki to send another arm in through the bathroom.
Kiki responded sluggishly. Her limbs were moving slower.
The powder wasn’t just glue; it was a topical sedative. Worse, Therese could feel her own limbs deadening, even as her heart raced faster and faster.
“Kiki, break down . . . bathroom d . . .”
Her words slurred. Her tongue felt huge in her mouth, and she tasted something cold and bitter.
Through Kiki’s sagging limbs in the bedroom, Therese saw a humanoid figure step out from behind a sheet. He wore a reflective suit; she detected no heat from his body until he pulled off his head covering to reveal the long-haired guest who’d strayed into the service area and who’d spoken harshly to Phil Whitman. Samuel Ritter.
In one hand he held a small tube with a narrow end. The other held an open strip of mesh. He plunged the syringe into one of Kiki’s tentacles.
Burning flooded Therese’s veins. Behind her, Kiki screeched.
Ritter set down the syringe, lifted Kiki’s tentacle in his gloved hand, and wrapped the mesh around it. The metal strands cut into Kiki’s suckers and skin. He locked the mesh cuff in place and lifted two wires from one end. Then he sat next to the tentacle on the floor, pulled aside his tail of long hair, and plugged the wires into the back of his neck.
Foreign code traveled from the cuff through Kiki and into Therese.
She knew what this was. She’d seen it back at Duranetics. Ritter was trying to take control of their paired nanobots. If he succeeded, he’d make their bodies obey his commands.
Therese’s vision was graying, and her swollen tongue was sliding back into her throat. Kiki was keening through their connection, terror and pain lapping at her. But Therese wouldn’t be taken again. She wouldn’t. She fought back with every trick she had, even as her heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings taking flight.
Something slithered in the walls.
Fluffy raised his head, but no friend emerged through the small metal doors. He set his head down and whined.
His back legs ached. Licking them hadn’t helped. He could lie on the cold tile in the bathroom, but getting down from the bed would hurt. He stayed on the soft blanket and breathed shallowly, not looking at the toys he was too tired to attack properly.
A panicked shriek came through the mind-web. It smelled like Kiki. It cut off abruptly, and the movement in the walls stopped.
He mind-barked back, but the mind-web was silent. Mind-webs were never silent. It was like an entire den stopping breathing at once.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. He barked with his loud voice, painfully getting to his feet for more volume. The barks echoed off the walls, but nobody responded.
This was on him, then. He woofed softly. The netting rolled from his toys and wound around his legs.
Humans liked wooden boxes filled with other boxes. They called these arbitrary human names—cabinet, dresser, bureau, others. This room held several, and the largest one blocked the door to outside.
He’d need to be smart about this. Instead of leaping to the carpet, he made the series of small jumps down the staircase made of bigger netting, which hummed to the helpers in his blood just like his own small netting did. He sniffed around the base of the large wooden box. His own scent was on the painted wood. His human side had been sad and hurting, and he’d moved this box to protect tonight’s den, which still smelled of unknown humans. Fluffy understood, though these human impulses got in his way.
His human side was sad, hurting, and scared far too often for his own good.
Fluffy bit one of the small metal sticks on the side of the box and pulled. A smaller box rolled out on tiny wheels. Sometimes humans hid treats in these, but this small box was hollow. With a good tug and a wrench of his neck, it fell to the floor. He asked the netting for more strength, and it took the burden as he pulled the small box out of the way. He crawled inside the larger box because sometimes the wood was thin at the back. He scratched at it but made no mark—a well-made box.
He huffed a sigh and crawled back out.
At the sharp-smelling metal place, they’d given him boom-balls, metal things that made fire and holes. He had none here, sadly. His own toys were fun to bite but useless for making holes. He’d had to ask his friend Kiki for fire to help open the den door last time.
Kiki was a good friend. He barked again to let her know he was coming. Then he surveyed his options.
The large nettings were attached to the bed and the gushing water hole. He usually left these alone because they were difficult to ask for things. He had to think in different ways, and it hurt his head. But his small netting wasn’t big enough to push the large box at the base, and there wasn’t enough space to jump on top and tip it over.
Fluffy concentrated. The netting attached to the bed fell to the floor. He concentrated again; it became a ball that rolled until it hit the wall next to the large box. He concentrated one more time. The netting slid between the box and the door, crawled upward, and pushed.
Fluffy dashed backward as the large box fell on top of the small box with a crunching crash.
He hopped onto the fallen box, nosed the door handle, and sent opening feelings. The door opened. So did the outer den door. Then he stood in an empty tunnel many creatures had trod, scent trails heading both directions.
One of those trails was from an enemy. Fluffy growled quietly.
He’d explored the garden yesterday and located the current den of the enemy, among other things. It appeared the enemy had done the same—from the smell, shortly after Fluffy fell asleep and his human self returned from Kiki’s den.
The motion in the walls had been toward the enemy’s den.
If Fluffy was going to breach that den, he’d need to make a hole. He’d also need a bigger fang.
He sampled scents as he dashed down the enemy’s trail into the garden, soreness nipping his back joints. Then he took a detour.
The elder human female sat on the same long human seat, without Kiki’s den sister this time. She didn’t react when he showed himself on the path; she had that absent nose-furrow that meant she was mind-barking. Humans spent much time doing this. The mind-web was missing, but maybe she had other things to mind-bark with, like how he thought things to the netting.
He barked softly to announce his presence. She blinked but didn’t respond.
He had to hurry. She had mother-scents toward Kiki’s den sister; he hoped she’d forgive him for taking one of her light-fangs. He dashed under her legs and snatched the long metal tooth from her cloth sack, freeing it from its string-wrapping with two sharp tugs.
The elder made sharp questioning noises, ending with his human side’s name. Fluffy didn’t have time for human barking rituals. He woofed around the fang and sprinted away. She barked angrily and ran after him. The elder was quick but too large to take the paths he did. He ran between sharp-smelling bushes, and she fell behind.
The enemy’s door didn’t respond to Fluffy’s helpers. Not surprising. He backed up and turned, trying to aim the long fang he carried sideways in his mouth. The helpers mind-barked to the fang. Its tip glowed, and Fluffy squinted as it fired bright, burning light. He held still as the bottom corner of the door heated and smoked. The wood disintegrated in a small hole, and the fang darkened again.
He used the floor to reposition the fang, and the tip burned a stinking hole in the carpet. Then he charged through the hole in the door, fang held straight in front of him. The charred edges were still hot, and he held back a yelp as they singed his fur.
A blast of light nearly took off his tail. He dodged into the space between a lumpy cloth and the wall.
“What the—oh, you cannot be serious.” The enemy laughed, to the left and across the room.
Over the musty scent of the fabric, Fluffy smelled Kiki. Stale, unfamiliar chemical scents blew from high in the room corners, like urine but not. Sticky fake sap was in the center of the room, along with something like a male Kiki that was also slowly cooking. Kiki reeked of distress and pain. He’d glimpsed her limbs throughout the room, all lying still. Very wrong.
He’d have to be careful not to hit her with the burning light.
The lumpy fabric was moving, blown by a humming machine. The fang almost became caught on it. A deep beating rhythm vibrated the floor under Fluffy’s feet. Confusing. The next time the fabric gaped, he crawled out on his belly, whining in his mind as his hind legs ached.
He emerged behind another wooden box, this one with flat boards and no front or back. The top board held stinky plants and water in a glass bowl too deep to drink from. Between the boards, Fluffy saw the enemy’s legs folded on the carpet across the room. The enemy pointed his light-stick at the edge of the lumpy fabric, but his other hand was rubbing his forehead as his eyes blinked rapidly at nothing. He was mind-barking, and not happily. Fluffy braced his fang on a board and asked it to make light again.
The human jerked out of the way, hissing angrily. The metal threads between him and one of Kiki’s tentacles pulled loose, and he grabbed at them as he sent light back at Fluffy. The wooden box shattered, but Fluffy was already clear, darting behind the bed where Kiki’s limbs met the cooking thing.
More angry barking from the same place. Didn’t the enemy know to move and keep quiet, so he didn’t give himself away?
Fluffy crawled on his belly under the bed, painfully, holding the fang awkwardly in front of him. He was drooling from the side of his mouth, and his neck hurt. Burning light cut a hole through the plastic covering on the far side of the bed, but it missed him by two body-lengths.
He pushed his nose out from under the plastic on the far side of the bed. The enemy had stood on his hind legs, but he was looking away. Fluffy wriggled under one of Kiki’s arms and almost yelped as her helpers keened in his head. Then he got to his feet and made light.
The enemy fell. Fluffy smelled burning and blood. He ran over to check.
The enemy no longer had a snout, and his heart no longer beat.
Fluffy dropped the fang and leaned his face against Kiki’s tentacle. Her helpers yipped distress, pain, bitter poison, a heart beating too fast, a sister’s life flickering. Fluffy shrank back and sneezed to clear the bitter scent from his nose.
He stared at the mesh, tilting his head back and forth. Kiki had warned him it stung when touched. A human thing. They liked making complicated devices that hurt the mind.
He didn’t know how to undo what the enemy had done. He couldn’t bark for help on the mind-web. He didn’t have time to find the elder again.
Fluffy sighed and lay on the carpet. His other self was sleeping. Waking him too soon would be bad for both of them; Fluffy would have to make himself small and squeeze out of the way. But Kiki’s sister was dying. Fluffy reached for his human side with mental jaws and nipped hard.
Surrounded by tentacles? Check.
Gazing at the bleeding hole that used to be the face of—Ritter? What on—who held wires attached to a mesh electronic slave cuff wrapped around a squid arm. Shit!
Phil got his arms under himself and scanned for other threats. Suckered limbs ran from three different portals and tangled into a lump around a freckled beige wormlike appendage that had been lopped off on one end, all of which was covered in powdery orange goo. He hoped that extra limb hadn’t belonged to Kiki. Blue-green sheets of knotted fabric billowed on the walls, blown by fans that also circulated the pungent smell of piss from incense at each corner of the bedroom. Behind one sheet were signatures from a tangle of electronics and weapons—probably Ritter’s luggage. A small hole smoldered in the bottom of the nearest door; the other door was closed. Fragments of a demolished nightstand lay against one wall. Below Phil coiled the mini clings. Next to him lay one of the receptionist’s knitting needles, the tip still hot from laser discharge.
Pressure bit into the back of his head. He heard growling.
The chihuahua was still present. Phil recoiled—and felt that internal pressure again. Like something shaking him by the back of the neck and pointing him at the slave cuff.
Okay, okay, he got it. He pulled himself across the carpet with his arms and queried the net for cuff’s specs.
The net didn’t respond. Not good.
She had mentioned Kiki had nanobots. His nanos weren’t great at organic communication, but he put a hand on the tentacle.
Pain, sluggishness, terror. A bitter taste. More he couldn’t interpret.
He jerked his hand back and shook it. “Sorry, Kiki—”
An empty syringe lay on the carpet.
He forced his aching legs to work, crawled to the clutch of electronic signatures, and yanked up the fabric. Bingo: a sleek black suitcase, not even locked. He sorted the frequencies from his bots and found a smaller case. It opened to more syringes, tablets, powders, gels—the works. Labeled, thankfully.
He found the injected compound, a tranquilizer designed to breach membranes. A larger container contained traces of the orange compound on the bed, a glue and a paralytic agent. They were dosed for mega organisms. But depending on how the woman’s and the squid’s nanobots were linked . . .
He dove for the wires. Ritter had probably connected through a topical jack somewhere on his spinal column, but Phil’s nanobots let him communicate as soon as the wires touched his skin. The link was open, slave protocols still running. Two sets of vitals showed—and the humanoid one was on the edge of a heart attack. Adrenaline flooded him.
The room wavered sickeningly. Phil’s jaw tried to elongate, and his joints crawled, attempting to change orientations. No, no, he didn’t have time for this. He gagged and felt the chihuahua trying to compact himself, giving Phil room.
Phil scanned the drugs, selected one, loaded an injector, and applied it. Then he threw his focus into the cuff, initiating counter-programming to cancel the malicious code. His legs trembled, his skin shivered, scents exploded across his awareness and vanished, but he reversed every single operation and began the algorithms to disengage. The woman’s heartbeat slowed, almost in the clear zone, almost . . .
The door behind him blew into pieces. He looked over his shoulder as color drained from his eyesight. The receptionist stood in shooter position in the doorway, tactical needle pointed toward him.
“Medic,” he forced out. “Seashell room. Possible heart attack. Help her.”
The chihuahua shoved him aside. He fell, fur bursting through his skin.
He pushed the key fob back over the reception desk. “Returned to its original programming.”
“Thank you. I do hope you enjoyed your stay.” The white-haired receptionist looked him up and down, and she smirked. “Is there . . . anything else we can do for you?”
“I’m glad to see your spouse recovered.” Her profile was back to “permanent contract.”
The old lady laughed and began another row on her knitting.
“I should be heading out, though.”
“Oh? But there’s someone waiting to speak to you.”
He turned, hands suddenly clammy. She sat on one of the deep-brown couches, curly black hair braided over her shoulder, a colorful skirt tucked around her legs. Her warm skin was slightly pale, and she leaned back into the couch—but that was it. He would never have guessed she’d been in cardiac arrest yesterday. Clear brown eyes watched him cross the lobby.
“I’m sorry I was an ass.” The words just tumbled out.
She paused. “You were an ass. Thank you for apologizing. And for saving me and Kiki.”
“I’m glad I could.” The tightness around his ribs loosened. When he thought about what almost happened . . . but it was over. And she was already up and moving. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired but okay. Kiki keeps stealing more blankets to give me.”
“That explains why I woke up under five comforters.”
“How are you?”
“Decent.” He filled his lungs with air that smelled of the garden upstairs. “I have some things to figure out, though.”
A highly opinionated security tech had delivered a cache of records from Ritter’s belongings, already unlocked. By the time Phil received it, the hotel had submitted its official report, performed the required autopsy, and incinerated the corpse. They’d thanked him for his assistance repelling a guest attack on hotel employees, and comped him the room.
A few days ago, he would never have considered simply giving the cache to the Guardians to handle. He still hadn’t decided. But once the chihuahua slept again, he’d begun to think.
As Ritter had pointed out, Phil was a civilian. If the hotel’s investigation had been overenthusiastic, it wasn’t his problem. As a civilian, he got to decide what was important to him. How he wanted to spend his time. Who he wanted to spend it with.
“You do. But Fluffy makes a good playmate for Kiki. And . . .” She bit her lip and looked down, playing with her skirt. “I wouldn’t mind seeing you again. If you need a place next month.”
“I’d like that.” The smile felt like it came from all the way inside his chest.
“Good. Because I don’t think Kiki is willing to part with that blue squeaking ball. You may not get the purple bone back either.”
“I can work around that.” He’d have to ask his sister where she’d found them so he could bring more.
“I’m Therese, by the way. I think we skipped that.”
“We did. It’s nice to meet you, Therese.”
She smiled. “Thanks for staying at WFGC Hotel. Come back soon.”
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