“I don’t think she’s the one we’re looking for,” Skavi said, her many feet silent against the soft carpet as she peered over at the silent inhabitant of the bed.

“Are you certain? They’re usually female…”

“I know, but this is the most normal teenage girl’s bedroom I’ve ever seen. I mean, I wouldn’t know, but there’s nothing weird on her laptop at all.”

“What about the phone? Have you checked that?”

“Not yet, I haven’t found it yet…Ah, here it is. Looks like the same story – pretty much normal.”

“How interesting. Try the boy’s room.”

“I’m on my way there now.” Skavi slipped out the window, replaced the screen, and scuttled up onto the roof. “Visual confirmation?”

“Yes, I can see you! Stop playing games and get down before someone else does, too.”

Skavi snickered as she climbed down the roof. “You never know. I could have been an imposter.”

“This is not the time, Skavi. Get in and check his room before someone wakes up.”

“All right, keep your mask on.” She swung down from the eave by one long leg, using a few others to quietly extract the screen from the boy’s window and slide the window itself slowly open. Leaving the screen itself on the roof, she swung down into the room and landed cat-like on the floor.

“Ah. Yep. This is the one.”

“How can you be sure?”

“He’s not here.”

There was silence from the phone for a moment. “A strong case, but not an absolute one. Check his technology.”

“Right.”

She crept towards the laptop on the desk, inserted her little thumb drive, and let it run its programs. As it worked, Skavi sat back on the bed, taking a moment to clean dirt from her secondary legs. And stopped.

“There’s something in here.”

“Get out of there. Now.”

“It’s not a person. I can’t see it, it’s outside the door, but it’s big, and it has more legs than I do.”

“Doesn’t matter. Get out of there.”

“But the drive –”

“Unplug it and go!”

She leapt from the bed, yanked the drive from the laptop, ignored its irritated beeps as she climbed onto the window frame. And a voice came from the other side of the door.

“A-a-a-a-a-lex?”

It was a harsh, high-pitched voice, that when combined with the scratching and rustling sounds gave a disturbing idea of the creature outside. Skavi squeaked and leapt from the window, landed fifteen feet later on her eight spider-like legs without pausing, and ran like that towards the woods behind the house. A shape stood there, shadowy and indistinguishable from the foliage unless you knew what you were looking for. A bird mask like a medieval plague doctor’s, a wide-brimmed hat, a tattered old coat that covered the tank on his back, a complicated gun connected to that tank by a series of hoses and wires. Ashek, the Exterminator.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes…Well, we know for sure it’s him now.”

“Did you have time to finish the scan?”

“No, but it was outside his door! It called his name!”

Ashek sighed. “Yes, you’re probably right. Did you see what it was?”

“No…Like I said, it had a lot of legs. It was tall, and it was clearly capable of audio communication.”

“A shame. It might not hurt to head back in, try and get a look at it.”

“Good idea –”

A light came on in the house.

Alex stumbled out of the woods, gasping and clutching the stitch in his side. He had no idea how he’d ended up there. The Takat would be expecting him. The Takat got twitchy if they expected you and you weren’t there. He had to get back to the house, try and port again. Maybe he wouldn’t be too late…

A light came on in the living room.

No, no, no, he thought, still gasping for breath. His face hurt where the thing had swiped at him. His clothes and skin were burned from the acid. There would be questions, questions he had neither the time nor the patience to deal with right now…

There was a scream. Another one. A gunshot.

Oh, please god – He forced himself to speed up, forced himself to stumble onto the porch and through the kitchen door to stand dripping on the mat. There was screaming from the living room – Mom, screaming Rachel’s name, and Papa’s. Alex gasped in vain hope of recovering a little stamina, and then lurched into the living room to see what had happened.

It was as expected. Papa had his shotgun, and was lining up another shot at the top of the stairs. Mom stood behind him, and as she saw him she turned to him and screamed “Alex! Where in the name of God have you been?”

“What are you shooting at? Is something here?”

“Is something here? Is something here? There’s some great horrid thing up on the landing!”

“No…!” Alex ducked around Papa, ignored his parent’s shouting as he ran up the stairs. He could hear Rachel screaming, now, see her backed up against the door, and he could see the thing as well. It was part of the Takat, of course – a big thing, like a cross between a praying mantis and a potter wasp, staggering about in the dark with one wing shot off. They’ve sent one after me…!

“Hey! Hey! Listen to me!”

“Alex.”

“Go! Get off home! You’ve caused enough damage already!”

“But you must come,” it croaked. “It is your time.”

“No, it’s not, because you’ve been stupid and sent you down here. I’ll come later.”

“Later is insufficient. Precision is required.”

Alex sighed. “Seven days from now, at my usual time. That work?”

“You have disrupted the whole, Alex. This must not happen again.”

“If you don’t leave, it will happen again, because I won’t be able to come back.”

“You put others higher than the Takat, Alex. It is forgiven this time, because you are human. But never again.”

“Yes. Never again. Now please, go.

The Takat nodded as best it could, curled in on itself, and vanished with a pop.

“He’s talking to it.”

“Really? Can you make out words?”

“No…” Skavi was pressed against the skylight, staring down at the events below her. The boy was gesturing, and the creature stood and watched him, ichor dripping from the stump of its wing. “It’s hard to hear, but I don’t think he’s speaking English.”

“Interesting. Is it responding?”

“Yes. It waits for him to finish, and then it answers him. Hold up – it’s gone!”

“Where?”

“It just vanished. This thing can astrogate.”

“Are you certain?”

“Unless it can do some other kind of teleportation. Not impossible, but still. He’s relieved, he’s turning back towards the stairs.”

“The boy?”

“Yeah.”

“Describe the creature for me again.”

“Big – five feet at the shoulder, but the hunch of its neck hits at about nine or so. I’d estimate about two hundred pounds. Arthropoid in outline – as a matter of fact, very similar to arthropods. Four arms, eight legs, four wings. Long, mantis-style neck, with a joint halfway up that the thing holds at a ninety-degree angle, and a little boomerang-shaped head at the end.”

“That’s what I thought. Thank you. What’s the boy doing now?”

“He’s gone downstairs, but I can hear loud talking.”

“Do you think it’s safe to risk going inside?”

“No. They’ll be on alert for stuff moving.”

“All right. Outside a window, then. But be quiet.”

“I always am.” She put the phone into her pocket, scuttled across the roof, and dropped down beside the golden picture window. If she put her ear to it, she could just make out the words being said.

“Yes, Mom. It’s called a Takat. Well, it’s technically part of the Takat, but it’s easier to think of it as a Takat…”

“And you can talk to it?”

“Yes…Not well, mind. They prefer to communicate through pheromones, but I convinced them to talk to me with sound –”

“Never mind that! What is it doing in my house?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know how it knows where I live, much less how it got in. I knew they could port, but not that precisely, and not without leaving a body behind…”

“Wait – port?”

There was a quieter voice that Skavi couldn’t hear, and then the mother spoke again.

“What do you mean?”

The voice spoke louder. It sounded like the father. “This ‘porting’ thing, son…do you disappear and then reappear somewhere else? Like…on another planet?”

There was silence for a second. “Yes, Papa. How did you…?”

“I can do it, too. I haven’t done it in years…and I had no idea that it was hereditary…”

Skavi didn’t wait to hear more. She ducked into a bush, pulled out the phone. “Ashek?”

“Yes? What have you learned?”

“The creature’s called a Takat, but never mind that now. Ashek, there’s two of them!”

“Two of the Takat?”

“Two astrogaters! The father’s one, too!”

“Two males in one family? Are you sure?”

“He outright said it! He said, ‘I can do it, too!’ Ashek, we can kill two stones with one bird!”

“Patience, Skavi. We’ll do it tonight. But we need to let the house get settled down again first. Too much can go wrong if we just charge in while they’re still awake and active.”

“Right. Later tonight, then. But still…!”

“Come back to me, Skavi. Let us remain organized.”

“Coming.” She stood on her spider’s legs and went.

It was hours before Alex got away. Papa, of all people, able to port! Mom hadn’t wanted to let him back outside, but Papa had known what he needed to do and convinced her to let him. So now, here he was, beating his way through the woods, searching for the little rock overhang where he ported from…

There was something ahead of him.

It was hard to tell in this light, but it didn’t look like a stump of any kind, and it certainly wasn’t a wild animal. It looked…well, it looked like a child. A child with a backpack of some kind, just standing there, watching him.

“Hi, Alex,” it said.

Alex choked. He’d been up too late. He was imagining things. “What are you?”

“I’m Skavi. My master wants to speak to you.”

“How do you know who I am?”

“I listen. I know a lot of things, Alex. I know why you’re here. And I’ve dealt with it.”

Alex stared. “You’ve killed…”

“Your previous state, yeah. How often do you do this? He put up a fight.”

“I don’t…”

“Come with me. My master wants to see you.” She beckoned, but he was backing away.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but please…Thanks for killing…me, but please, just leave me alone…”

“But I can’t, Alex. Not until my master has spoken to you.” She stepped forward, out of the moonlight. And something else stepped into the clearing behind her.

It was tall, too tall. It had a beaked face, an enormous coat, a long, strange gun. And as it emerged, a dark, harsh voice said, “I’ve dealt with the other.”

“What? What other?” And then Alex realized. There was another light in the clearing, besides the pale light of the moon. It was a warm, orange light, and it flickered ever so faintly. He turned, dreading what he would see, and watched the light flicker on the low clouds above where the house should be.

Alex screamed, ran back away from the things in the clearing. Something flew past his face, too fast, too close, and behind him he heard a high mechanical shriek. He beat his way through the bushes, stumbled out into the yard, found exactly what he’d feared.

There was fire.

Fire emptied itself from the windows, beat at the doors until it could empty itself from them as well, ate at the walls until they came crashing to the ground. Fire silhouetted a single figure, keeling sobbing on the lawn. Mom, alone.

MOM!” Alex ran across the lawn, knelt down beside her. “What happened? What happened?”

“I don’t know…I don’t know…Ron was shouting something, talking to someone, and then there was a noise…And then the alarms went off…I don’t know…

But Alex knew. He stood, turned around. There they were, at the edge of the wood. The thing in the coat, and the girl, what he had thought a backpack unfolded into spider’s legs that held her onto the larger thing’s shoulders. “What are you?” Alex screamed at them, knowing they couldn’t hear over the flames. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because you are an astrogater,” the voice came floating back, quieter than he should have been able to hear.  “You practice ULDUT, and for this you must die.”

“Then why are you…” But Papa had said it, just hours ago. He could port, too. That was what the thing in the coat meant. They had come for him and Papa, and they had killed his family as well.

“I am sorry.” The thing in the coat raised the gun again.

And Alex turned, grabbed his mother, and ported.

“Curse of Pnakoth upon him…” Ashek stared at their bodies lying on the ground, and Skavi stared with him from her vantage point above his head. They had lost him. So close, and they had lost him. “Where could he have gone?” she asked, but even now she knew it was rhetorical.

“To Shathenai,” Ashek said quietly.

“How do you know that?”

But he didn’t respond, just turned and started walking towards their makeshift camp. “Call about the fire, and destroy the previous states. We must return to the Facility.”

“You are here early, Alex.”

“I’m sorry. There was an…incident.”

“Did it survive?”

“No, it didn’t. There was a fire. It would have been dead when I got there.”

“This behavior is not satisfactory, Alex. First you appear at the wrong time twice, then you allow a part of the Takat to burn.”

“I’m sorry! What more do you want?”

“This kind of behavior wastes resources, Alex. Lost resources must be reclaimed.”

“Please, reclaim them later! For now, she needs care.”

“This outsider?” The word it used could have translated into English just as well as ‘invader’, or even ‘animal’.

“Yes. She’s…we’re part of the same thing, like the Takat but different. Get her some food, of the kind I eat, and a mat or something to lie on.”

Mom had stopped crying, and though he couldn’t see her in the darkness, he could feel her hand on his shoulder. “Alex…what’s going on? What are they saying?”

“Shh. I’ll explain…later. For now, they’ll want me to work on things.”

“What things?”

“Resource processing, probably, or caring for their young.”

It took her a moment to respond, and when she did, she changed the subject. “How long have you been coming here, Alex?”

“Five years or so?”

“Oh, my God…” Her hand left his shoulder, and he heard her start sobbing again. He didn’t blame her. He wanted to sob himself. He had lost everything he had, back home…But he had upset the Takat, and he had to deal with that first. “What do you need me to do?”

“No tasks were planned for you, Alex.”

“You must have planned something for me earlier. And if you moved individuals onto that job, they must then have things they’re not doing.”

“You are unable to perform the tasks they were moved from. It is better for you to stay here, until resources can be balanced such that you may participate.”

“All right. Can I stay here, then?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Cool. Bring me the same stuff you’re bringing her. Please.” And Alex broke down and cried beside her.

“Report, Exterminator Ashek.”

Ashek collected his notes and stood, starting towards the front of the room. “Please, Exterminator, leave your pet on the table.”

“As you wish.” Ashek held out his arm, and Skavi scuttled down it, curling up in Ashek’s chair. She didn’t like these meetings. The other Exterminators creeped her out, and the Priest-Arcanist treated her like a dog. She wished they could be out there searching for that kid, instead of down here, a mile underground, trying to get permission for Ashek’s plan.

“Report: November 9, 2021, 2:36 AM. Two subjects were found at the residence, one of which was destroyed. Subject at large is male, around fifteen years of age, approximately five feet six inches in height, average weight, and has brown hair and brown eyes. He and his mother immediately astrogated when cornered. Mother was incapable of astrogating, but was carried by her son. Destroyed subject was also male, in his mid-forties, six feet one inch in height, slightly overweight, and had brown hair and brown eyes as well. A member of the Takat was spotted in the building earlier in the evening, and the younger subject was seen communicating with it.”

That had bothered Skavi for the past week. How did Ashek know about the Takat? He was talking about them like they were an established race that the Society had had contact with, but there were very few of those, and as far as she knew, the Takat wasn’t one of them. She had never heard of them, anyway. So who were they, and why wouldn’t Ashek tell her anything?

“Request use of ULDUT 19-4, due to her prior experience with the destination, to take me and appropriate equipment to Shathenai.”

What?

The Priest-Arcanist’s eyes glazed over. He looked disinterested, but Skavi knew he was communicating telepathically with the Nine, asking their advice. At last, after long minutes of only the hum of distant ventilation, he leaned forward again. “Your request is accepted. You have use of ULDUT 19-4 for forty-eight hours only, starting at midnight tonight. You are dismissed, Exterminator.”

Ashek nodded. He came back around the table, held out a hand for Skavi to scuttle up, exited the dark meeting room for the equally dark hallway. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“We are going to Shathenai.”

“How? What’s ULDUT 19-4? We don’t have astrogaters here, do we?”

“We have a few. The Nine let us keep them, for this purpose and others.”

“For that matter, how do you know he went to Shathenai at all?”

“Patience, Skavi. All will become clear.”

She nodded, sat down on the fuel tank for the sabregun. She would have to look up Shathenai before they left. To heck with Ashek and his ‘patience’. She’d find out for herself.

“Sweetie?”

“Yeah?” Alex put down the handful of food and turned around to shine the flashlight behind him. Mom was there, barely visible, but staring at the things on the floor around her. “What’s up?”

“You would not believe how much trouble it was to find you…Sweetie, what is going on? Are we dead? Is this Hell?”

“No…” Alex chuckled, got another handful of food from the bucked he carried under his arm. “No, this is the home of the Takat. The Takat being the bugs.”

“Yeah, I understood that much. What I didn’t understand is everything else. You’ve come here for five years…just to work?

“Yeah, that’s more or less the gist of it. Everyone here works. Don’t want to waste resources, you know?”

“No, I don’t know. Alex, I feel like I spent half my waking life nagging you to do your chores. And now I find out that when you told me you were hanging out with your friends, you were actually coming to some bizarre ant’s nest labor camp. Why?

Alex shrugged. “At first, it was the novelty. This was one of the first places I came to, once I figured out how to port, and it was bizarre, watching their civilization. But after a while, you feel like you have a duty to it, you know? I mean, they accepted that I wasn’t an outsider, and you have to pay them back for that. There’s a sense of purpose as well – I feel like I belong here, far more than I do anywhere on Earth.”

“But you are an outsider.”

There was a squeal, and she jumped back. “Careful! Watch your step, you’ll hurt them!”

“…What is ‘them’?”

“Larvae. These ones are only a year old or so, they’re only pig-sized. They’re delicate.”

“‘Only’ pig-sized? How big do they get?”

“Well, they get to about the size of a car before they metamorphose –”

She retched slightly, looking down at the slimy white mound that lay next to her. “Metamorphose? Like a butterfly?”

“It’s more like the adults climb out of the larvae.” Alex tossed another handful. “And yeah, sorry about the chores. This place felt more…real, somehow.”

“I see…” She looked around again. “Did you know your papa could do it?”

“Do what? Port?”

“Yeah.”

“No, no idea. I thought it was like a superhero movie, that I was the only one who could do it.”

“Oh…” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I miss him so much…And Rachel, too…”

Alex said nothing, just turned silently back to the food, ignoring the pit opening inside.

“What are you doing?”

Skavi turned around in her chair. “I wanted to look up Shathenai. I figured we should know about where we’re going.”

“That information is supposed to be heavily classified. How did you access it?”

She held up his ID card, that she’d taken from his bedside table.

“Give me that! Skavi, this is not a game. This information is classified for a reason.”

“Stop treating me like a child!”

“You are a child!”

“I’m your assistant! How am I supposed to be useful to you if I don’t know anything about where we’re going?”

Ashek sighed. “Skavi…Just don’t get separated from me while we’re there, and you’ll be fine. This isn’t an ordinary job.”

“Fine.” She scuttled up out of the chair and climbed onto her usual perch on his shoulders. “But if we get killed by monsters or mind-controlled by some ancient ruin while we’re there, don’t blame me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

They left the data room, walked down hallway after hallway lit only by little pale lights. They descended in an elevator, emerged in another hallway, and continued through the dark maze until they reached a door marked ‘ULDUT Containment C’.

Ashek pushed it open, walked down the resulting door-lined corridor. Skavi recognized this as one of the Facility’s prison levels, but she had no knowledge of it beyond that. So she had no idea what to expect when Ashek stopped at the door marked ‘19-4’, slid his keycard through the lock, and pushed it open.

Inside was a little prison cell, with a pale light dangling from the roof and a bed in one corner. On the bed sat a thin young woman, her skin red and swollen under her grey smock. “Oh, hi,” she said, dully.

“Your name is Lisa, correct?” Ashek stood almost to the ceiling of the cell, and Skavi had to duck to avoid the light. “And you are capable of astrogating?”

“Yes, that’s right. What do you want?”

“I wish to journey to the planetoid called Shathenai.”

Lisa shrugged, winced in apparent pain. “Never heard of it. What’s it like?”

“It consists primarily of lightless tunnels, with breathable atmosphere and no inhabitants except titanic black insects.”

Lisa was staring, recognition and a hint of fear in her eyes. “You’re talking about the Darknest.”

“Precisely. Shathenai is the technical name for it. It is derived from the word for darkness in the old speech.”

“I can’t go back there! They warned me…and I’ve not been there in seven years! They’ll kill me if I go back there!”

Seven years. Skavi thought that date should mean something to her, but she couldn’t think what.

“You will be protected while you are there. Now please, come. Time is short.”

“Are you sure? But…” Lisa stood, her skinny legs wobbling under her weight. “All right, all right…But they’ll kill me, and they’ll kill you too. You don’t understand just how tenacious they are.”

Ashek smiled. “I think I do.”

“What’s her deal?” Skavi whispered, staring as she walked ahead of them down a hallway. “What happened to her skin?”

“She simply appeared one day, outside the Facility. After intensive interrogation, she revealed that she had come from a place she called the Darknest, and agreed to take an expedition party there. The expedition, while highly informative, had disastrous results, and only two members of the Society survived. After they returned, it was decided that it was too dangerous to allow astrogaters to be present for expeditions, so experiments were conducted on her and several others to try and make them capable of sending others without actually going themselves. The test failed, but the subjects were left with a condition called nervous hypersensitivity. Among other things, they developed telepathy, and their pain receptors began to activate after any form of contact.”

“Yes, and very unpleasant it is too,” Lisa said, coming to a stop in the center of a large, circular room. “Now, please – as much as I’d love to stay here, I think we should get this over with as soon as possible.”

The room was carpeted in yellow, with a large red circle in the center and seven smaller circles arranged around it. Ashek stood in one of the smaller circles, staring down at the woman as she closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply. And then it happened.

Skavi had never astrogated before, and she preferred not to do it again. There was a sense of coming very quickly to a stop in an elevator, combined with complete blackness and silence, and lack of any sensation at all except touch. Then they came to a sudden stop, and though she couldn’t see still, she could hear sounds. Sounds of dripping, of scuttling, of rustling. Of whispers in the dark.

“Well…here we are,” Lisa said.

The Takat were moving. All of them, fast, in one direction. Alex stood, stared up at where he knew they must be scuttling along the ceiling. “What’s going on?” he asked, confused.

One of them stopped for a second. “There are hostile outsiders here. They must be destroyed before they are allowed to cause harm.”

“Where?” Alex knelt to shake his mother awake, before standing again to run after them. “What presences? How do you know they’re hostile?”

“These presences have been here before. One of them belongs to the Takat. One of them was once part of the Takat, and then renounced it. And the third has been proven to be actively aggressive.”

Where?” Alex was trying to push his way through the swarm of armored bodies. “Show me!”

Ashek had lit the light on the bottom of the sabregun, illuminating endless swarms of huge black insects. They lined the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Some of them carried complicated technology that might serve as weapons or scanners or something else entirely. Others were empty-handed, but their bigger bodies and long mandibles showed that they needed no weapons other than their own.

Ashek was shouting something. It wasn’t in English, but to Skavi’s confusion she found she could understand it perfectly. “Where is the one called Alex?”

“Alex is in the depths. Alex is loyal to the Takat. You are not loyal to the Takat, Lisa. You will be destroyed.”

“I’m sorry!” Lisa screamed, in the same buzzing, clicking language. “They locked me up! They put me in a cell, put an electrical cage around it! Please! I’ll come back, I’ll be good…” She started weeping hysterically, but the insects weren’t done. “You will be destroyed as well, Ashek. And you will return the hybrid.”

The what?

Ashek raised the sabregun. “Come and get her, then.”

Skavi didn’t know why. She had no intention of leaving Ashek, even to her death. But her long legs leaped from his shoulders almost of their own accord, and she fled into the dark as the Takat fell like immense wolves on those she had left behind.

“Alex! What’s happening?”

“I don’t know! They say there’s invaders, but I don’t know how that’s possible…”

They were running back and forth, behind the black abdomens that formed a wall between them and whatever was going on. There was screaming, and there were voices speaking in Takat, but Alex couldn’t hear them well enough to place them. And then, speeding through the darkness like a lost spider, came something else. Something sobbing.

“They’ve killed them! They’ve killed them! She said they would, but Ashek didn’t listen…”

It was the girl. The girl from that night when the house burned down, the girl with the spider legs. “You!” Alex snarled. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry about your family, but it had to be done! Please…they’ve killed them…”

And then, just like that night, the pale light of the flashlight was drowned by another, brighter, redder. A light that ate through the Takat, leaving them in piles of smoking exoskeleton, that threw globs of burning material onto the ground at their feet. The Takat scattered, and in there was the coated thing, his horrible gun spewing flames at the creatures that surrounded him, forcing them away from him and the half-eaten corpse that lay in front of him.

“Ashek!” the girl cried.

And then they descended again, a second wave, barely avoiding the people in their path, bearing complicated armor and energy shields that the flames sputtered against and died. They descended again, crushed their victim, pulled it to pieces, silenced its screams as they devoured it, its coat, its gun, what Alex could see now was a bird-like mask, the tank on its back and the fuel inside. They devoured it, and when they moved away there was nothing left but a dark stain on the floor.

Alex suppressed the urge to vomit. Mom was praying. The girl was screaming in anguish. And the Takat came about, raising their pronged heads, turning a thousand glittering eyes at them.

“Cut off the hybrid. Do not allow it to escape.”

The girl squeaked in terror, turned on her spider’s legs, and ran.

“Wait – what are you doing?” Alex cried, standing there as they ran towards him, past him. “Stop! You don’t know she’s dangerous…”

“She belongs to the Takat. The experiment was a success, but it was a waste of resources. Those resources must be regained.”

“But…”

Skavi ran, ran, ran, down passage after winding passage. Behind her, she could hear the Takat, moving on rustling legs and helicopter wings, constantly talking in that language she shouldn’t have been able to understand. She couldn’t see through the tears in her eyes – although it wasn’t as though she needed to see in here anyway. How could they have killed Ashek? Ashek, who had been there her entire life, who had raised her…

Seven years. That’s why that number seemed so important. Seven years was when she was born.

But she didn’t remember being born. She remembered growing, but not being born. It was as if she had simply appeared, one day, in a slightly smaller version of her current form. Where had she come from? What had happened?

She had taken a wrong turn. There were Takat ahead of her, but they were moving in a passage perpendicular to hers. Perhaps they would miss her. She folded herself into a hole in the wall, trying desperately to hold back her grief as the endless swarm washed past outside.

“Who is she, Alex? Do you know her?”

“Yes…she was there, the night of the fire.” Alex was running down the stone passage, the Takat ahead and his mother behind, the little flashlight doing very little to illuminate the endless darkness. “The guy the Takat killed was there, too. They were there together…”

Where had they gone? He had to know what was happening. There was something going on here, and they weren’t telling him what it was. The Takat didn’t keep secrets. As far as Alex knew, they didn’t understand the concept of secrets. So what was up?

“Hey!” A thin voice, from a side passage. He shown the light in, and there she was, tears streaming down her face. Alex knew he should feel angry at her – she had burned his house! She had killed his family! – but all he could see was a frightened child. “Please…help…”

“Hey…” His mother came up, holding her hand out as if to a stray dog. “Hey, come out. We’ll get you to safety. Right, Alex?”

He nodded. And as he nodded, he moved the light. And it caught something. Something huge and black and shiny.

“Alex.”

“Don’t kill her! We’ll get her out of here, you’ll be safe –”

“Is she with you, as this other one is?”

“…Yes. Yes, she is.”

“And she is also with those others?”

“Well, yes…”

“As anticipated. It was foolish to believe that you were part of the Takat. Your allegiance lies with this one, and with those that this one came with. You are an enemy of the Takat, outsider. You will be destroyed.”

“No…No!” Alex stood there, staring at them. Five years he’d been here. Five years he’d worked for them, believed them to be the most important things in the world. And after all that, they were ready to kill and eat him on a whim. “No, you don’t understand…”

“Alex.” His mother was speaking in his ear. “Alex, you have to go. You have to take us back to Earth. Now.”

Long, armored hands reached from the darkness. And Alex went.

The second time was no better than the first, but Skavi had bigger things to worry about this time. Ashek…She couldn’t believe it. She’d thought Ashek couldn’t be beaten. And yet he had been, quickly, easily, his abilities nothing against their numbers.

They had landed in a field. She didn’t know where, but it was somewhere cold. The boy Alex was speaking. “Go. Run. I’ll keep them busy as long as I can.”

His mother, now. “But they don’t know where we are, right?”

“That’s what I thought. But they can follow me, apparently. They’ll be here any second. They won’t waste more resources on chasing you than they’ll gain from catching you. But you have to go now, or it won’t matter.”

“Alex. No. Let me. I won’t let you sacrifice yourself –”

“Mom. Don’t be stupid. Keep the kid safe. Now – oh god, they’re here! Run! Run!

Hands scooped Skavi up. She watched, vaguely, as they ran away, and Alex ran in the opposite direction. There were Takat appearing, more and more, chasing them, chasing him, tearing him to pieces as they had poor Ashek. Poor Ashek…

Skavi didn’t know how long they ran, but eventually the black shapes stopped following them. And Skavi looked up at the woman’s face, wriggled out of her arms and onto her back, and curled up in the way she used to curl up on Ashek’s. And she cried.



Written by StalkerShrike
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