Never go looking for trouble. It’ll find you.
– Mahdan 1st Class Maya Qaitra’s mother
I hereby declare this inquiry open. This is the first testimony from the ship’s Mahdan. For the record, please state your full name and rank.
Maya Qaitra. Mahdan, 1st class.
All present will keep in mind this is an inquiry, not a trial. Weapons were discharged on alien soil, against standard first contact peace protocols. We will now determine all events leading up to that action.
Do we really have to do this, commander? You were there for the tail end of it.
And only for the end of it. We got involved in a civil war, Qaitra. Regardless of how it turned out, we have procedures, and I’ve got to make a report about the fool thing. So just hurry up and tell the story so you can go home.
I don’t have a home, ma’am. Earth blew up three hundred years ago, and I just got assigned to this ship a few years back. Do you think I’ll have a home someday?
Don’t be obtuse.
No you’re not. Don’t lie either. We’re on the record.
So, tell me about the day you first met the aliens. Start at the beginning.
Well, I woke up in my harness….
Our transport rattled me around in my zero-g harness as we attempted to dock with the E-Tee space station. We might have standard-sized Terran docking gear, but that means nothing these days. Terran made goods are a scarce resource in low demand. If we hadn’t been Terrans ourselves—of various flavors—you can bet we’d use something else.
Now, think about this for a minute. I was floating in zero-g, sleeping untethered by gravity. I’d chosen a light harness for my sleepbox, enough to keep me from flying off into the lurking bulkheads. After a few hours of bumping around when the ship went one way and inertia took me another, I wasn’t going to notice one more bump against the harness.
But when we docked with that station I got more than a gentle nudge. Not because of the pilot, don’t get me wrong. No, the problem came from the way I’d managed twist my safety belt so hard it tried to choke me. Sadly, I’d managed to turn myself around like this more than once before.
I transformed into my leonine form immediately, hands squaring into paws and arm muscles lengthening. My breasts flattened against my rib cage, my throat curved into a C. I poised claws over the harness belt closest to my face. Except… I was already in deep with the Quartermaster. Last time I’d cut myself out, he’d vowed finality. Actually, it went like this:
Me (Mahdan 1st Class Maya Qaitra): (sheepishly) Um.
Quartermaster: (not happy) What’ve you done now, slitty?
—Note: I let him get away with calling me slitty because he was justifiably mad. But I still narrowed my unmistakable, slitted cat eyes at the slur.—
Me: You know how two weeks ago, shiptime, I got all tangled up in my sleeping harness and used my claws to get out?
Quartermaster: (exceedingly not happy) You did it again, didn’t you? This makes number five. Y’know, our last Mahdan didn’t cause problems like that.
—Note: Their last Mahdan was the most boring old lady ever. She’d been in the service long enough to make S-class, but that was pure seniority. If she’d found ten viable worlds to seed in her entire life, I’d eat my zero-g harness. The one I’m still stuck in, and that would be really irreparable.—
Me: I’m really sorry.
Quartermaster: Fine. I’ll send my kids up with a new one, but this is the absolute last time!
Much as I’d prefer to avoid trouble with the Quartermaster, this harness was a fluffin’ Gordian Knot, and good old Alexander created a precedent for that. And I, like Alexander, had better things to do. Like get breakfast before we finished docking.
A few quick slashes through the fraying mesh weave—hey! I keep these babies sharp—and I was free at last. I could talk to the Quartermaster after our rest stop. Hopefully he’d be too hung over to remember that he’d sworn to leave me in permanent free fall if I ever destroyed his precious resources again. Trouble successfully deferred.
I shifted back out of my leonine form before I got to the doorway of my sleeping cell. Transforming in zero-g is the best. No gravity to pull your spine out of alignment when you go from four legs to two. Nope, you can just articulate through the vertebrae, like a comfortable stretch. Hominid, I splayed my fingers all the way out and fisted them again. Fingers take some getting used to after you’ve been leonine.
Sure, I could’ve stayed in my fingerless form a while longer. I spent so much time in it those days, that it felt more normal than my hominid form. Plus, a tail and a feline center of balance do help a lady maneuver through zero-g hallways… but they also lead to one’s tail being pulled by prankster shipmates. There is nothing funny about pulling a cat’s tail. Nothing.
“White stars and black space!” I caroled to my fellows on third watch when I entered the restaurant. They used to call it the mess, but when I first got assigned to this ship, I couldn’t resist. You can’t call a place a mess and then not make one! Food flying everywhere, tables overturned, chefs with storage bins on their heads. My company commander learned right quick about calling things by proper names.
“Green grass and cool water,” Simpson replied. At least someone had learned that planets were more my thing than ships and stations. Simpson was an apprentice pilot, and everyone knows pilots are crazy. Crazy enough to befriend the only creepy shapeshifter on the ship.
I grabbed a cereal sphere and filled it with kibble. Trust me, the dry cat food is the most edible thing at the restaurant. Sometimes my shipmates try to steal it, and the cook’s been known to mash it up for side dishes. I’m just the only one who doesn’t have to sneak it.
I glided to join Simpson and resisted the urge to toss kibble at him. After all, the restaurant wasn’t a mess anymore. Before I could convince myself that swatting my breakfast made me a benevolent Mahdan—one who shared her breakfast with those unfortunates forced to eat scrambled protein and cardboard carbohydrates—Commander Asti’s voice came over the PA.
“All right, everybody. We’re safely docked and I want you all to take some off-ship rest. We’ll be here for a week. Work out among yerselves who’s gonna stay with the ship to watch our cargo.” Crackling silence. “Except Mahdan Qaitra. You go out and meet people, figure out where we’re goin’ next. I don’t wanna hear from you till it’s time to bounce.” Momentary pause. “Well? What’re you waitin’ for? Hop to it!” Muttered, but clearly heard: “Disgraces to the service.”
Simpson grinned at me. “Off you stalk then. Scat, little kitten.”
I transformed, professionally quick, and flicked a blond paw at his breakfast. His grin broadened as he pulled it out of my reach, and I retaliated with a hiss and a leap—careful to keep my claws sheathed and my rotation slow—that flipped the pair of us over and over through the air in mock-wrestle.
As we rolled toward the door, I positioned myself to sail out of the restaurant, saucy tail shake in my wake. Third watch laughed behind me, amusement flowing more freely now that I was gone.
So my shipmates were all on shore leave—as some of the Navy wannabes would call it, not that there’s any water in space—but not me. You heard the commander. I was here to work. It was time to sniff out all the biologically compatible E-Tees so we could send a First Contact/Exploratory team to their planet. A team which would be us of course. Where else would we find Terran sort-of diplomats in this section of the universe? In any section of the universe?
See, after Earth got exploded, the docs engineered Baastet’s Children—such a pompous name they gave us, too—to sniff out biological compatibility. Each Mahdan played Geiger Counter for a team, making sure our species could continue to survive. Procreative roulette was a luxury for other species, not for Terrans anymore.
I planned to start with one of the station bars. No patrons there would mind if I approached their tables, chatted them up, and maybe sniffed them a bit. I’d have preferred to go down to one of the planets this station served, but I’d have a more diverse species pool up here. I went planetside less often than I’d like, but there were perks. Who passes up a chance to have a nip on the company dollar?
But like mama always said, I never have to go looking for trouble. Trouble finds me. Case in point: Before I made it to the likely bar I’d noted in the station directory, a kitten came dashing down the empty hallway, straight for me. I know what you’re thinking, “Awww, how cute! A kitten! With its cute little blond paws and tiny little ears!” Insert vapid cooing here.
Now, usually I’d agree. I like kittens. Someday, I might even find a place to settle down and have my own. But this moment was not someday. I’d seen what happened to kittens on stations before:
When I was six and a cub myself, some of my littermates and I took a field trip to a local station. It was supposed to be educational. Y’know, feel the difference in synthetic air and the lightness of the gravity, etcetera. The month before we’d visited a jungle planet to jump into exceedingly tall trees and understand humidity.
So there we were, a class of children curiously poking about—I remember ripping up some of the carpeting to tap my fingers against the metal floor beneath—when one of my classmates freaks out. To this day, I have no idea why, but that was the point of the field trips, to make sure we were comfortable with any environment. It could’ve been the recycled air, or being so far away from home, or a case of the flu that suddenly came on, but whatever the reason, she shifted.
Now, remember, she was only five or six, so she couldn’t become a huge, fearsome lion. One second she was a little girl in a school uniform, and the next second her space was occupied by a black cub, no bigger than a small housecat. One of the other girls in our class threw a sparkly ball a short ways down the hallway—we all carried toys—and the cub ran after it, and straight into four drunken men.
This was a heavily Terran-populated station—at least 30%—so a drunkard recognized the cat for one of Baastet’s Children, rather than an actual animal. “Baastard freak!” he screeched. “You should be put down like the rest of your slutty kind!”
Then he stepped on her so hard that her neck broke. None of us cried out. The chaperones made sure of that. Probably saved our lives.
Right, where was I? So there’s this kitten dashing down the hallway toward me. No way was I going to leave it to fend for itself. Not even if it turned out to be an actual feline, rather than one of my far-flung kin. She’d just have to come along, and I’d tell the commander she was my pet or my apprentice or something. If I never found her family, our ship could use a second shapeshifter, a Mahdan-in-training.
As she closed in and moved to pass me, I scooped her up. No tag. Definitely one of Baastet’s Children, then. Even if she did smell a little odd. And what was one of us doing all on her lonesome way out here? We were farther out from the old, exploded homestead than any ship had ever been. Or so I’d thought.
Not important now. “Hush, little one,” I whispered and transformed a hand so that she could understand I was like her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you. We’ll find your parents soon.”
The muddy sound of multiple shoes thudding along and the singing of completely unintelligible songs meant that some drunken idiots were coming my way. And as we know, drunken idiots are often dangerous idiots, stationside. Fluffing fluff! I prepared to shift. I’d made a promise, and no kittens were getting killed on my watch.
I cuddled the kitten against my chest and schooled my breathing. We’d ride it out. No reason for those boys to give us a second glance. Nope. They could just pass us by. Still, I tensed my shoulders and loosened the mental muscles that held my body hominid. I waited in readiness, holding a slightly squirming kitten, hoping absolutely nothing was going to happen.
Things never turn out like you hope.