The Nasty At Bellua, A Free Short Story…

A space pseudo-pulp story where a trio of astronauts discover an alien artifact that brings out the beast within…

“What are we looking at, Nichols?”

The voice echoed in Kareem’s comms; all communications, be it between astronauts or from the Bellua, were echoing, staticky things. Modern technology was a joke on a planet like this; suddenly they all sounded like retro-radio shows, the kind that Kareem listened to as a kid. Digital shows made to sound like something from a far-gone era.

Those old shows had nothing on planet G9-3X. G9 wasn’t a callback to the 20th century. It was a callback to the age of dinosaurs. Flora as big as Kareem’s arm was the average, and while they hadn’t seen much fauna, Kareem hadn’t even wanted to fuck with the herbivores they had encountered. Strange, many-legged and brightly furred, or even the eerie gas whose color defied description (Javier insisted it didn’t count as a creature, but Kareem wasn’t so sure, not with the intelligent way it moved, not after the thing stared back at him as he recorded its movements)

And still, Kareem Nichols was at a loss. “Hell if I know, Ruiz. You wanna lick it and find out? Maybe grill it?”

They weren’t in danger anymore, and maybe they wanted to force out the shakes that came with narrowly escaping an attack. Maybe they were delirious with disbelief. The three astronauts chuckled in spite of their unease. Even Cash, the crew member they were teasing, had a laugh. “Hey, now,” he pointed out, his drawl rising alongside his mortification. “I never ate the damn thing. It was a suggestion. One which, I might add, was vetoed by the group at large.”

“Wonder why,” Javier replied dryly. As in most moments, Javier’s sense of humor only lasted a few beats before he was distracted by the job at hand. “Already did a spot scan, and referenced this with all the other images we’ve gotten from this planet.”

“Findings?” Kareem already knew, before asking, what they would be. He didn’t need a scan; there’s no way he’d forget about this.

“There’s nothing on this planet that’s even a distant cousin to this nasty.”

Nasty was right. At first, the corpse of the creature resembled an over-stretched canine, with a mouth full of enough teeth for the tooth fairy to retire. Its fur was unlike any fur Kareem had ever seen — the blackest of blacks, darker than shadows, with a silver tone that didn’t shimmer in the light, but instead seemed to shift along the fur, like ink dropped into water. The whole body was a vicious mockery of a creature Kareem should have recognized, should have understood. Just looking at its head — the white orbs that were its eyes (black, until the last bit of life left the creature), its slack-jawed mouth slick with saliva and blood — made Kareem’s arm twitch in pain.

The creature had attacked them while they were collecting nectar samples from some of the flowering buds (”Does it count as nectar if it smells like the underside of a bull’s balls,” Cash had asked, after which they’d called him BB for about a day, in honor of his particular level of expertise). During the attack it had moved too fast to get a good glimpse of it and had nearly taken down all three men.

They were all different levels of hurt. Cash had gotten knocked around, cracking his helmet. Javier took a slash across the chest, most of which had been absorbed by his suit. Kareem had gotten bit in the arm before he’d been able to shoot the creature down.

They were alive due to luck and timing more than anything else. The atmosphere of G9 didn’t require them to be suited up, but they’d done it to avoid unnecessary contact with unknown debris. That fact meant their suits took most of the damage from the attack. They’d already applied medical foam to anywhere that was exposed and would just have to hope they weren’t infected with some kind of space venom.

So far none of them had dropped dead, so Kareem was counting his blessings. His squad, small as it was, was going home.

“All right, all right.” Kareem cleared his throat. “I already requested a return ‘port. We’re done here until we’re healed up. If they want someone on the ground, they can send out their back-up team.”

That wasn’t likely; Kareem’s team had been on the ground for nearing a week now, and the higher ups weren’t about to just send another team out. It was more likely, he guessed, that they’d wait until at least one of Kareem’s squad was given the green light by Medical, then tack them onto the back-up team. Make sure someone with familiarity was with the ground team at all times.

Javier glanced over at Kareem’s arm. “That looks like it hurts.”

Understatements were as classic Javier as his lack of humor. “Don’t you worry about me. It’ll heal just fine.”

The three men went through hell to be allowed back onto the Bellua. First the examinations on the return ‘port, followed by even more extensive examinations and sterilizations when they docked. Technically it was procedure; Kareem and the others had been given the rundown of exactly what would happen in case of possible contamination when they’d been in training. Kareem had even offered up a few additional security suggestions, because they could never be too careful. It wasn’t even their injuries that annoyed Kareem — the medical foam plus the work done on the return ‘port would guarantee they’d live another day, barring any infections so foreign as to have never been seen before.

No, it just all seemed particularly… foolish to do with the corpse so nearby.

They’d been instructed — as Kareem expected — to bring the creature with them to the Bellua for study. The ‘port team dropped down with all the necessary material to seal the creature off from the rest of their environment — a vacuum-sealed body bag inside of a pseudo-plastic clear coffin would keep pretty much anything from getting out or in. Still, Kareem was staring at the thing while they poked and prodded him and his people, and that felt off in a way he couldn’t explain.

The fur still shifted tones under all that plastic. Kareem couldn’t tear his eyes away. Couldn’t help but feel he was being stared back at.

“This is a terrible idea.”

They’d arrived at the Bellua, finally getting clearance to walk off the ‘port, but the three astronauts were standing to the side as the ‘port team carried the corpse towards one of many research laboratories. The team passed Kareem and he shuddered. Maybe it was pain or adrenaline rather than real foreboding, but he’d been selected to lead this team because of his instincts.

Javier glanced over at him, eyebrow raised. “Come again, Nichols?”

Kareem shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.” They weren’t on the ground anymore, and Kareem’s instincts didn’t hold a candle to the word from on high once they were on the Bellua.

Cash slapped Kareem’s back. Kareem cursed and winced; Cash might not have noticed. “Come on, sir, you’re not just the tiniest bit excited? I mean, come on, that nasty’s a whole new can of worms for them scientists to dig into.”

“Delicious,” Javier interjected.

“I mean it!” Cash countered, rubbing his hands together. “Discoveries like that? That’s what keeps that funding coming from back home, right? Keeps our asses out in space. That’s gotta be something to celebrate, right?”

Javier shook his head and shared a look with Kareem. “Whatever you say, Cash. I’ll celebrate when I don’t have medical foam keeping my guts in place.”

“Aw, stop exaggerating, Ruiz.”

“Yeah. Exaggerating. That’s what I do.”

Bellua was Latin for “beast” or “monster,” and the research vessel had been named because of its sheer size. Most of the vessel’s real estate was taken up by segmented research laboratories, built to both quarantine and study all manner of planetary flora and critter. Because of that, the ship’s design was intentionally bloated, making it capable of accommodating whatever the ship might come across.

This was not its maiden voyage; the Bellua, and its team, were on their third planetary mission. Each of the previous trips had been approximately two years in length, and the exploration of G9 was nearing
the end of that cycle.

The Bellua was large enough that it had to be built in space, but in spite of that, it only boasted a crew of a few dozen living people. It was easy to find a stretch of ship hallway where the only ‘life’ to be found was robotic or where a crew member could sit for hours without being interrupted except by overhead announcements. This was especially true when there was a new or exciting research project underway.

For something like this creature — the Nasty to squad and non-scientists, Lupus truncatis to the scientists — everyone was clustered into one particular area of the ship. Even the custodial and administrative support staff were fascinated by the new find. They wanted to be close enough to hear new developments before an official briefing was held.

For the squad, though, this meant the medical bay examining their wounds was a little too close to the ‘crowds.’

Javier grimaced. “Just me, or is everyone too damn loud today?”

It wasn’t just him. “A little bit,” Kareem agreed. “But give them another 24 hours. Unless they find out the thing was carrying a litter, they’ll die down soon enough.” At least, that was Kareem’s hope. They were giving him a monster of a headache with their chatter. They weren’t loud exactly; it was more that there were too many of them. Too many different, distinct sounds, as if he could pick each crew member out individually.

His wound, all bandaged up, was in agreement as well, it seemed. The combination of that pain and his head had him convinced the bite pulsed with every aggravating sound, like the pain was a drum rising and falling with the melody of the Bellua’s chaos.

The beat was hell whenever Cash offered up his opinion. “Don’t think they’re much worse than usual,” he opined. Javier’s annoyed snarl was, for once, shared by Kareem. Not fair, maybe, but Kareem was exhausted by everything on the ship right now; maybe he wasn’t capable of being fair at the moment. Maybe he was still a little bitter that Cash had gotten off G9 with nothing more than a bump on the head. “Not as bad as R7-90. Remember that?”

Kareem wasn’t up to going down memory lane — especially not to R7, on which they’d discovered a fungi whose spores created symptoms like the worst hangover any crew member had ever suffered. He reached out to his side, where his undershirt had been discarded during his examination, and yanked it on. He cursed under his breath; he was still in enough pain where he couldn’t even dress and undress without painful consequence.

“The hell is happening, Dr. Williams?”

Both Javier and Kareem’s heads shot up simultaneously. The voice was from the lab across from them where the Nasty was being kept, and it belonged to Doctor Stefans. Kareem went numb at the panic in her voice until he was nothing but the sensation from his bite wound. He didn’t even feel himself get up and move towards the voices,
now rising as they tried to stop whatever was occurring.

“I don’t know, Dr. Stefans. Was the seal punctured in any way?”

“No, nothing is showing up as punctured, there appears to be no outside chemical reaction—”

“—is this its method of decomposition?”

“Can we stop it?”

“Like I said, doctor, I don’t know.”

Kareem and Javier barely fit into the door frame of the laboratory. They must have pushed people out of the way — there were a couple members of security heading their way. That didn’t matter, though.

All that mattered was that the corpse of the Nasty was evaporating — no. Not evaporating. It had simply become a black gas in the sealed coffin, the rest of it fading fast.

Kareem woke to the sound of growling in the ventilation shaft.

He was jolted awake from dreams that he couldn’t quite grasp — threatening shadows blending with shade from prehistoric-sized leaves, aching joints as legs moved to stalk and hunt, the smells of a planet at once familiar and wholly different than he remembered to what he thought, at first, was rustling. There was scratching, nails against metal, a violent rumbling snarl, and all of it was from the grate above his head.

He thought.

Grabbing a nearby multi-tool, Kareem stood up on his bed — stupid, against procedure, he should have moved, alerted someone — feeling it creak with his weight underneath him. The growling was still there, even though the scrambling, the scratching had ceased. He went at the screws, letting them drop onto his bed. He yanked the vent grill down—

—for a flash there were eyes, white orbs staring back in the darkness, and Kareem fell backwards on his bed. “Fuck!”

And then there was nothing. No sound, no eyes. Had he imagined both? Had he been stuck in a half dream so severe he’d insisted on exploring in the waking world? He was absolutely awake now. His hand curled around the multi-tool, and he focused on the shape of it. That was most definitely real, whatever else hadn’t been.

The open vent brought the smell of the laboratories with it, that smell so utterly sanitized it defied a specific description. For a moment, Kareem swore the smell was stronger, but that wasn’t quite correct either — because it wasn’t as sterile as it should be. He recognized scents he wasn’t sure he’d ever smelled before — Dr. Williams, his brain filled in, the smell of the ship’s cleaning materials. Javier.

“Hell of a damn nightmare,” Kareem decided, shaking his head. He needed to get out of his room to the bathroom down the hall.

His feet, much like his reality, refused to listen to him. He walked — stumbled, really, his legs resisted movement as if they were offended by the way he moved — past the bathroom, down the empty hall. Kareem stopped once, hand braced against the wall. He took a breath and inhaled the scent and taste of sanitizers, of metal, of the fabric of his own clothes. He’d been in the jungle of G9 for too long; he’d never before been aware of how repulsive the smell of civilized living could be.

This wasn’t quite a hallucination. Deep in his chest, he knew the smells had always been there; perhaps fever or some other symptom was making them more obvious than before.

No, the hallucination was the growling, which had returned. Which was following him down the hall. It stopped when he paused, it restarted when he moved forward. He should call Medical, make an emergency page. Had they missed a budding infection? Was some virus or fungi causing him to lose his mind?

Kareem didn’t seek help, but he ended up in front of the Nasty’s lab all the same.

The clear coffin was still the centerpiece of the room, although an even larger tube had been placed around it to ensure that nothing leaked out. The gas that remained was like looking into the Nasty’s fur — the blackness, swirled with silver. The gas had not lessened. If anything, the blackness was darker, thicker as it expanded.

Kareem could very easily imagine where its eyes were supposed to be.

He wasn’t alone; but he’d known that before coming into the lab. He’d smelled Javier — not that Javier stank, but he’d been able to recognize everything that made up Javier’s unique scent — from down the hall. No, he’d smelled Javier through the vents, further down the hall. Javier must have had a similar experience; he didn’t even turn to see Kareem, but greeted him with a short grunt. “Cash’s managed to sleep through
the night.”

As with many things that Javier said, it was about economy of words. The important piece wasn’t said. Cash was sleeping soundly; they were not.

Kareem hesitated before asking, “You heard it too.” He’d intended to ask, anyway. It came out a statement.

Javier nodded, although his eyes were still glued to the gas. One arm was around his torso as if cradling the claw marks across his stomach. His other arm was at his side, his fingers flexing again and again, as if he was trying to keep it in place but had to fight against his own muscles. “Fucking Nasty can’t keep waking me up.”

“You think…” Kareem hadn’t even dared adding that element to his hallucination. Infection, yes, definitely caused by a bite from a mysterious predator. That made sense. That was the only thing that made sense right now. Javier wasn’t the kind of man who used flowery language, who would talk metaphorically, as if the Nasty was actively causing the infection in the afterlife. He meant that the sound was coming from the Nasty. That it was waking them up in the middle of their sleep… “No way. Impossible.”

“Entirely possible.”

Kareem swallowed his urge to tell Javier that he was a madman. That went without saying at this point, didn’t it? They were both clearly not thinking properly. That was the only reason they were standing together right now. The problem, though, was not their imagined ghost. It was the fact that their ghost was shared.

Javier’s hand came up, touching the protective tube around the gas. The gas seemed to respond; silver blossomed near Javier’s hand, mimicking loosely the shape and size of it. Javier made a sound, maybe a laugh, maybe another grunt. Whatever it was, it was satisfied, as if he’d expected the gas to behave like this.

“We should get Dr. Williams…” Kareem offered weakly.

“Doc’s got nothing to do with this,” Javier stated simply. He pulled his hand away. Kareem couldn’t tell if Javier was struggling to keep his hand up or to yank it off the tube. Javier looked down at his hand, curling and uncurling his fingers as if he wasn’t sure they belonged to him. “You know what this is, right?”

Kareem didn’t answer, and it took every ounce of strength he had not to move in closer.

“It’s between us and the Nasty here,” Javier finished. “Everybody else? Doesn’t matter.”

There was no bite wound when Dr. Stefans unwrapped Kareem’s arm.

“Impossible!” was the word of the hour, was the word when she dragged Cash and Javier both back into Medical to examine them as well. It was the word most uttered when Kareem was put under every scan they could possibly perform, when they compared all of their new data to scans from only days before.

It was getting to the point where ‘impossible’ was meaningless to Kareem’s ears. A lot of their sounds were. There were garbled patches of sound that must have meant something but didn’t quite reach Kareem’s brain, repeated until the sounds coalesced into things with meanings.

Words. The ‘things’ he heard were words. What a stupid thing—word —to forget.

His mouth still knew what to say, fortunately enough.

“I get it, I get it, I’m Superman — we both are! Can I get a minute?” He was smiling, almost laughing as he gestured between himself and Javier. Javier had actually batted away one of the scientists — Kareem could read the tension across Javier’s shoulders and back, knew that if they kept prodding at the man, he’d attack, because that’s what one did when there were too many hands in one’s face — and Kareem wanted to defuse the situation before either of them snapped.

This was not the first time they’d been prodded, of course. The nature of their work in alien ecologies meant there had been a lot of that, simply to be sure that nothing had negatively affected them. Impressive regeneration aside (as if that were a thing Kareem could just tuck away on a shelf and pretend not to notice), this examination wasn’t much different than those on R7, or on K-23D, or even between Bellua missions. Examination and research was what this vessel did, and being one of the explorers meant it was sometimes Kareem and his squad under the magnifying glass.

His skin still crawled at every touch, and he still bit the inside of his lip to keep from biting off Dr. Williams’s arm. Kareem could see himself doing it, too — absurd as that was. His jaw throbbed and his mouth salivated, and he thought about how efficient it would be to get them off of him—

This kept happening too.

He swallowed the macabre fantasy as the doctors, for a moment, gave him space to breathe. He leaned forward on the medical bench, hands on his knees. It didn’t hurt to move his arm, but it also hadn’t hurt for at least two days now. He just hadn’t told anyone.

He imagined it was the same for Javier, whom he watched from across the room. Javier rolled his shoulders as if his body would change shape to fill the space the other doctors around him had occupied. His wounds were gone as well, of course, and Kareem figured Javier had known that for as long as Kareem had. Their eyes locked momentarily. Javier’s eyes flashed white in the same moment the room seemed brighter to Kareem, sharper. Both hallucinations faded only seconds later.

There were so many things Kareem and Javier weren’t sharing, and Kareem couldn’t quite explain why. Perhaps, he thought, it was because he was having a hard time describing them as odd, let alone alarming.

The third member of the squad wasn’t as fortunate as the other two. Cash’s bruising and scrapes were still healing- although most of them weren’t serious, they hadn’t faded entirely yet. “So what’s a man gotta do to get this miracle healing, huh?” Cash offered jokingly. Even with his still-present wounds, he’d gotten the better end of the deal by far. “What’s your secret? Devil’s deal? Flirtin’ with a witch? Radioactive spiders?”

“Mostly I absorb bad jokes,” Kareem commented dryly. “So keep ‘em coming.” Even a joke like that, so normal, was a struggle to get out. He wondered if he sounded as tired as he felt by it.

“We suspect that it has to do with the nature of your injuries, actually,” Dr. Stefans explained. She was reviewing earlier medical scans again and had little attention to spare for the three men. Her colleagues, having detached themselves
from the lab rats, were manning medical terminals or sealing blood samples for transfer to other labs. “Your wounds? Environmental in nature. Your fall, your collision with your surroundings. Sgt Nichols and Sgt Ruiz, on the other hand? Their wounds were suffered at the hands of our Lupus truncatis. Perhaps some transfer of fluid or other contact caused hyper-regeneration—”

“At least that Nasty was good for something, wasn’t it?” Cash didn’t comment on how creepy that really was; no one needed to. The battery of testing they’d all just gone through was enough conversation for a few generations. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and it’s a permanent thing for y’all.”

It was, Kareem knew suddenly. Everything that was happening was permanent, and he was unsure whether or not that was a good thing.

“Yeah, well, I’ll let you know when I get the next papercut.”

Dr. Stefans responded, distracted and missing the fact that it was a joke. “Please inform me immediately if anything like that occurs, Sgt.”

Kareem sighed heavily, throwing another look at Javier. Javier’s nose flared; Kareem narrowed his eyes in confusion. What did the man —

There it was. The smell of the Nasty, hovering in the air again. No one else reacted but them, and no one seemed to notice their reactions either. If it weren’t for Javier…

“We done, doc?” In spite of Javier’s tone, Dr. Stefans nodded and dismissed them. Javier didn’t say anything as he left the room.

That was par for the course now with Javier. Fewer and fewer words left his mouth in the past few days. Kareem didn’t blame him, nor did it make it difficult to communicate with the man. If anything, Kareem and Javier’s communication had been even smoother. Kareem felt as if he noticed everything nowadays, every muscle twitch or flicker of a gaze, and it was even easier with Javier. They were communicating in tandem, as if they were the only ones speaking an incredibly private language.

Secrets, Kareem supposed, could do that to you. Or whatever it was that had happened to them.

Either way, the growling had only gotten louder.

Javier collapsed first.

Cash and another crew member attempted to hold him up. He shoved them away, snarling that he was fine, but there was no way anyone would listen to him. Kareem smelled the spike of something in Javier’s scent, something he hadn’t smelled before…

It’s strange how the ability to smell fear felt almost natural as he stared at his squad member. Astounding how, staring into Javier’s eyes, watching them widen and seeing that strange flash in them again, was an unspoken conversation. “This was a terrible idea,” Kareem muttered under his breath. His voice was mechanical and foreign- how many hours had it been since he’d last spoken? Had it really been since he and Javier left the medical bay the day before?

“What’s that?” Cash asked, but he didn’t care that Kareem wasn’t going to respond. He was too busy trying to either pull Javier back to standing or get the man to stay on the ground. Neither way worked; Javier reacted violently to the touch at a speed Kareem could only barely follow.

Cash was thrown across the hall, as was the other crew member. “Don’t touch me!” Javier’s voice boomed, echoed, for a moment even drowning out the growling. His body crouched, his back hunched and curved: braced. His hands curled as if they were readied claws. Kareem could almost see where the claws were supposed to be.

The muscles in Javier’s arms and back seemed to shift and threaten to reform themselves. Kareem felt dizziness starting to set in and a gnawing in his gut. He meant to take a step towards Javier — calm him maybe, or get him to pull himself together damnit — but instead found himself leaning against the wall. Collapsing against it.

It would be so much easier if his legs didn’t work like this, if he gave in to the way they ached and…

Kareem didn’t know who triggered the alarm, but the sound itself was deafening. He roared in response to the pain it caused, covering his ears. It was futile, but the only comfort was that the growling rose to fill Kareem’s head instead.

He’d closed his eyes —a fact he didn’t realize until he opened them, and was staring back at a pair of white eyes. Something was happening — or, rather, the thing that had been happening since they’d killed the Nasty on G9 was coming to a head, and now everything was slipping out of Kareem’s control. Starting with his own body.

That, he told himself, was why he didn’t immediately make chase when Javier turned and darted down the hall. It wasn’t because Javier moved on all fours, the way Kareem so desperately wanted to. It wasn’t because he already knew where Javier was going, what Javier was doing… It wasn’t because he was unsure if Javier had any control over what he was doing.

He finally willed himself to move, and in spite of the pain, in spite of the way his body protested, he moved faster than he’d ever moved before.

By the time Kareem got to the lab, the crew that had gotten there first were knocked out on the ground.


Javier was already taking a chair to the Nasty’s protective tube. It cracked the surface but didn’t shatter, and Javier snarled in frustration.

“Javier, stop,” Kareem tried again, standing in the doorway. Words were a nightmare to get out through a mouth that no longer wanted to move and shape them. His mouth felt full, his teeth too crowded, too large, his tongue strangely shaped, the roof of his mouth stretching out of proportion. It felt impossible. “St-”

“It won’t shut up!” Javier screamed back, already searching for a new method of destruction, resorting to yanking the tube’s supports out of the floor — were they really that weak? That made even less sense than everything else, that Javier should be able to tear apart the device with nothing but his hands and desperation.

There was a hissing sound from the tube.

Kareem knew what Javier wanted, what he needed, and a part of him still needed to stop it. It was the part that could still supply the words he struggled to find, the part that wanted to tell the doctors about the way the sound of the Nasty stalked him through the halls, that knew all of this was too crazy to be real. That was the part that slammed into Javier and knocked him to the ground.

But it wasn’t that part of Kareem that straddled the other man, snarling viciously as his fingers, like claws, curled up around the man’s shirt. It wasn’t that part of Kareem that fleetingly thought stop meant take down meant kill, like that was some kind of logical progression.

Javier — whose face reflected the changes Kareem felt in his own, whose skin and muscles shifted underneath Kareem as they thickened, stretched, threatened to split apart — only responded to the kill part. Rage and fear filled Kareem’s nose. Javier slammed his head up to hit Kareem in the nose before flipping them both. Kareem didn’t have time to be surprised at the sharpness across his face as Javier backhanded him. The feeling of claws cutting open his cheek, splitting the skin across his nose…it was expected. It was fine.

Because Kareem knew there was something else underneath, demanding to be let out. He growled, ignoring the black gas swirling, settling, around him and Javier. The feeling of heat across the surface of his body wasn’t caused by Javier’s body, nor was the growing, gnawing hunger that threatened to blot out what remained of Kareem’s brain.

The violence of the struggle was like the transformation itself — shockingly right, surprisingly freeing. It was hard to be frightened when he was aware he was winning, that he was going to kill this other creature that —

There was a shot of something over their heads. They jolted, still fighting, knocking against the perilously cracked tube and coffin.

It was the rest of the crew, a part of Kareem recognized.

He inhaled the black and silver gas that surrounded him in a deep, filling breath. His lungs grew with every breath, as did his claws. His fangs.

Another shot, narrowly missing both him and the other creature he fought.

More prey, the beast realized.

Kareem woke up on the other side of the ship.

The Bellua was being hailed. An emergency hail, the code being repeated over the comms identifying it as a rescue ‘port.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He was scrambling, trying to make himself into some semblance of a human. That was easier said than done; he was down to his last jumpsuit, now, and even that was showing signs of…

There was a hastily repaired slash of claw across the back — not his, but Javier’s, he recalled, from the last time the change cycle had come, from the last time they’d fought — wrapping around one of his shoulders. That had been difficult to stitch, having to force his fingers to work like human ones, to handle a needle, thread it, stitch. He’d done it stubbornly, although there was no one to dress for — to prove, maybe, that he could still handle the task of attaching the left leg of one suit to this one, after one leg had been torn away.

That he still had moments where he was human enough for it.

He didn’t know if Javier was awake — he didn’t know if the man was alive, even. He’d been alive before the last cycle had caused Kareem to black out, but so had the body Kareem was tripping over now (body was stretching it, for Kareem’s own sanity; what was left was meat on bones, a muddy, bloody puddle, and little else). For all Kareem knew, they’d finally fought to the death.

As he ran to Communications, his muscles ached, and he wanted to collapse down on all fours to ease the process, but he wasn’t in the right body for that. He made it anyway, his mad dash rewarded as he pressed the respond button.

Bellua do you read?” came the voice. “Bellua, do you-”

“Abort rescue efforts,” Kareem managed. It was a wonder that he remembered any words aside from obscenities. “I repeat, abort rescue efforts.”

Bellua, do you read?” came the voice again. Had he or Javier destroyed something vital to communications? He couldn’t recall — not as if that meant anything. He looked around the room as he punched the terminal, seeing the destruction they’d wrought. The vessel didn’t collapse on itself only due to the efforts of its robotic crew — there wasn’t much left with a pulse. There weren’t even that many robots left — but they could repair and rebuild each other if necessary.

“If anyone can hear,” the hail continued, “Bellua will be boarded for search and rescue. It’s going to be okay. Your hails have been ans-”

Kareem shut off the sound. He could only take a human voice for so long. It didn’t matter what they said, anyway; they’d arrive shortly. There was no way to explain to them that once they were on this ship, they couldn’t take Kareem off of it. Couldn’t take Javier either, if he was still alive.

He looked down at the floor, at the black and silver mist that swirled at his feet and felt a sudden chill.

It was easy enough to make sure no one left the Bellua alive. He’d just …wait out the change.