Short Story: Chameleon

The pale glow of moonlight threw streaks of white across a puddle of warm, crimson blood. It formed a wet trail along hardwood flooring, slivered between strands of dry floor that shined of freshly-dried lacquer. The trail grew toward the wretch at its source as he drug himself forward. Light steps tamped a rhythm behind him, their gait paced to miss the blood entirely. The effeminate figure’s thin legs stepped forward with an almost reptilian sway toward the soon-to-be corpse.

A hand grabbed the old wretch by the shoulder, began to morph as it turned him over. The five-fingered hand turned to a four-clawed, reptilian fore-foot. The face of the sultry woman above it transformed to the swept-back, armor-plated features so common to her Chameleon race. The old man’s face was whiter than his hair, a difficult task even for a man of nearly two-hundred. The reptilian assassin leaned in with a sniff. Its head turned curiously to allow its panoramic sight to engulf the old man’s dying breaths.

He shook with a death rattle that jostled him in the lizard’s grip. His last thoughts centered on the knowledge that there’d be no corpse left to discover. Indeed, even after his body was wholly consumed, what little bits of his blood formed the trail would be lapped up. Any particulate remnants therein would be bleached away by the creature’s volatile saliva. There would be no evidence he was attacked, killed, or even– due to the wretch’s appetites– that anyone had been in the apartment.

That was what made them such efficient assassins, allowed them to charge the most exorbitant prices on the black market. They were nigh-on undetectable, impossible to suss out or catch even if spotted. Like humans, and a half-dozen other species, they’d evolved from Earth, aided by biochemical toxins dispersed into its atmosphere during the First Contact War. The virulent, gene-altering poisons were meant to distract Humanity during the war, bring chaos to Earth in order to weaken its hold on Mars and Sol’s colonies. It did that and so much more.

But none of that mattered now. Not to the old man. He felt his knurled innards rend, harden, then numb as the creature’s paralytic took effect. The Chameleons– MeLons– had won the evolutionary arms race. Their adaptations blew Canines and Felines out of the water, their minds even more cunning than the Corvian Crows and Raptors that now ruled most scientific institutions.

What had once been simple, color-changing camouflage to hide among their habitats for became the ability to shape-shift. They could copy, then hide among, any creature’s species as spies, refugees, or any other purpose they saw fit. While most MeLons had used the ability to blend, make themselves more humanoid, others used it for profit. It was mostly rumors, but the old man knew them to be true. He’d hired more than a few to do his dirty work over the years.

The assassin knelt over the wretch as the life faded from his eyes. His last breath left his lungs with a rattle. She inhaled the fresh stench of death pervading the room from the human’s lacerated torso– the ambrosia of a fresh kill ready to be savored piece-by-piece. Before she could begin though, she reached for his neck, jerked a pendant off it. It rose in the scaled palm of her hand, its faceted ruby twinkling in the light.

That was it; what her client had paid so handsomely for. In addition to his murder, and the stipulation that she clean up her mess, he added one other caveat. She slipped the jewel into a pocket of now ill-fitting clothing, leaned down to begin her meal. What her client wanted the data-jewel for, she couldn’t say. Nor was she certain of why the corpse needed to become a corpse, but she wasn’t paid to think or question, only to do the job, and do it well.

The balance of the galaxy had pivoted wildly. The powers were out of control. The Human Federation’s expansion was too rapid, their colonies too far apart and too numerous to be properly supported or defended. The HAA was no different, kowtowing to the Federation’s demands as if its plaything. Their subversive, inner-elements were gaining ground, the shift felt everywhere.

The assassin understood the chaos more than most, had suffered her share during the genetic alterations. Everyone’s life-span increased near tenfold over normal, her own included. Where humans had only minor birth anomalies of psycho and telekinetic power– her entire species had been changed.

Most MeLons that had survived the transformation had died off to poverty, in-fighting, or racist agendas. At that, most deaths were largely due to their own egos or carelessness. Like her, they saw their place in the galaxy as above others, but not one steeped in shadow. Most MeLons now lacked the subtle finesse and patience that had once been their biggest asset as lower-beings.

Inevitably, patience ran thin for the new-gen “MeLons” due to lacking any memory of their former station. For a species that used to do little but remain still, lying in wait to hunt or blending subtly with their environments to hide, it was ironic to say the least. Still, the new age of MeLons were letting themselves go extinct, refusing to adapt to the reality thrust upon them. She was different though, and nothing would keep her from living this strange, new life to the fullest.

It was nearly a full-hour before she’d lapped up the last of the blood puddle, dried her saliva with a hand towel from her pocket. She took great care not to overflex the Lycra bodysuit requested by the old wretch and now pulled taught over her scaly body.

She rose to her feet, ambrosial blood still fresh in her mouth, then began a slow walk toward the apartment door. Each step saw her morph more into the black-haired, pale-skinned nubian she’d been when she’d first entered. She stepped out fully shape-shifted, rode the elevator down. On the ground floor she made for the doors, the data-jewel hidden between her thighs. With a crooked smile at the door man, she disappeared out into the metropolis– just one more creature in the billions, but perfectly suited to her profession.

Short Story: Ritual for the Bereaved

She had skin like an ebony goddess with a face painstakingly carved from stone by masters’ hands. Sweat gleamed off her as if she’d been coated in lacquer, fired in a kiln. Beads of water formed streams, forced downward by gravity to mix with sweat. Her wiry hair was wild; stray strands cascaded down her face, jutted out from her bun-ponytail, and framed her prominent cheek bones.

She began at an edge of the black-mats in the wooden room. In her hands, thinly-curved steel of two katanas readied in a down-angled point at the floor. Her head hung, chin against chest, as her mind sank entered a placid trance. Her muscled thighs parted just enough to give her legs their due gait. Then, with a breath, she sprinted forward a pair of steps.

Her feet and calves worked in a spring. The blades remained motionless as she flipped forward, landed. Steel rose in double, whipped through the air with audible swipes, made inward slices. She spun on a single foot, a ballerina in a fouetté turn. The blades followed, parted to swipe one high and one low. Her body compelled them to follow through.

With a backward flip-kick, her wrists rotated, whirled the blades around. She landed, jammed them backward to penetrate phantom foes. The swords pulled free from the phantoms, fused with a wide sweep that saw them righted in her hands. She saw the swipes catch the throats of five armed men around and in front of her. Had they been there, she would have been deathly right.

Her powerful legs made a deep lunge, right hand thrust a blade forward, inward. The toes of her left foot dragged forward as she straightened, put her fists knuckle-to-knuckle. The mirrored steel shined from the large’s rooms LEDs, reflected half and quarter views of its innards. The reflections became blurs; the blades dropped, began to spin, whirl, twirl, while her body made small pirouettes and leaps.

She did a final, backward stab, eyes shut, then pulled the blades forward, flattened her arms outward. Her wrists angled to keep the blades flush with the t-pose, extend the breadth of her reach. Together, steel and skin sank back to her sides. The swords returned to their down-angled point, her chin once more against her chest as it heaved from exertion.

A door opened behind her, a scent like smoldering wood coals wafted over. A smile crept across her mouth. She turned on-heel, eyes open and head leveled. Before her stood a tall, equally dark skinned man. The white and gray that peppered his beard matched aged-eyes wrinkled at the corners. A large scar ran down the right side of his face, through his eyebrow and a piece of his upper lip, and made his smile unique, peculiar.

“Jazmin,” he said gruffly as he crossed the room.

She met him half-way, “Dad.”

“Am I interrupting, sweetheart?” He asked respectfully.

She shook her head, led him toward a corner to sheath her swords. She patted a towel at her neck with one hand, used the other to ready a water-bottle to drink, “What’s the what?”

He smiled, her lingo ever foreign. Such was the way of generational gaps between fathers and daughters. He knew the meaning of this particular phrase, sensed she was all business today.

He responded in kind, “Your assignment just came down from the top.”

She gulped a squirt from the bottle, panted, “Since when’s Dahl been giving you my orders?”

“Since the assignment concerns an old acquaintance,” her father replied seriously.

Her neck stiffened, eyes widened to match his, “You can’t mean–”

He interrupted gravely, “I do.”

Their eyes met with a hardened narrowness. Somewhere beneath her confidence and determination, Jazmin’s core was shaken. To hear such words meant any hope for peace was gone.

She spoke with a stiff spine, “When do we leave?”

“Now. There’s a van waiting.”

A quarter of an hour passed before Jazmin pushed her way from the gym and into the night. The Zen garden beside and behind the gym gurgled with a hand-made waterfall at the edge of its Koi pond. Japanese Maples in cement and paver-stone planters cast her in sparse shadows beneath the palette of copious neon signs and incandescent poles lighting the streets. She followed the cobble stone path along the garden’s outer-wall, found her father waiting before the an open side of a black van.

She gave him a look as if yet unprepared. He sympathized, “You know, I can talk to Rachel. She and I are old friends. If she–”

“No,” Jazmin said definitively. “I trust her judgment. If she believes I can do this, then she knows I should.”

He gave a small nod. She tossed her duffle bag inside, gripped the vans roof with a hand to launch herself inside. He sighed, climbed in behind her.

It took almost two days to travel from Hong Kong to the remote region where they would find their mark. The Nepalese scenery of verdant, earthen hues and white-capped mountains would have been a jarring shift from Earth’s densest, rain-laced city were it not so gradual. Jazmin found herself enamored, but her joy was always quickly suppressed by the assignment at hand.

They reached the mark’s hideaway; a small temple on the precipice of a mountain where snow fell eternally in screaming winds. Her father led the way inside. Two pairs of blades readied, one after the other, and slipped through the temple’s double doors.

The woman was in her late forties, clearly honed from a life of agile aspirations and training. There was no incitement to violence– it was already clear in her eyes. Something said she expected the two assassins as more than a mark could. A clear spite was beneath the expectation: she’d been the one exiled, cast out for daring to challenge Dahl. In place of death, she was told to flee from beneath the sword at her throat and never return. The spark of hatred in her eyes then had since grown to a raging, animistic fire. Twenty years of planned revenge and festering rage still fueled it.

Her own blades were out. Jazmin and her father were ready. One of each of their blades blocked the woman’s. The free blades sank through her fleshy torso beside one another. Her eyes went wide. Blood trickled from a corner of her mouth. Jazmin and her father pulled back together. The woman shriveled to the floor. The thirsty, aged planks beneath her lapped up blood that spilled down her sides. She gasped on the floor, eyes distant and glazed.

“Jazmin,” she whispered.

The girl knelt beside her to listen carefully. Her dying breaths were on her, all of them knew it.

She wheezed a wet breath, “T-take my swords. T-they ar-are yours n-now.” Jazmin gave a singular nod with a blink. The woman raised a bloody hand to caress Jazmin’s cheek, “You’re so beautiful.” Eyes began to tear up. “I-I’m s-sorry I couldn’t be there to see you grow.”

Jazmin took her hand, “Shh. It’s okay. I understand.”

At that Jazmin was sincere, she understood the woman’s absence, the rationale for her exile, even the anger that had prompted the attack that led to it. More importantly, Jazmin understood why there was no epic fight; simply, it was easier for all if her death was quick, in defense of themselves.

She squeezed Jazmin’s hand, “N-never f-forget that I l-love you, sweetheart.”

Jazmin suppressed her own tears, “I love you too, mom.”

The life left her mother’s eyes and her body went limp. There was no one to blame; not her adulterous father whom caused the challenge to Dahl, nor herself that put the blade to her, not even the exile whom sought revenge, consigned herself to her fate by declaring all out war on the Order. She would have never hurt her family, but even Dahl knew she couldn’t allow anyone else to take the assignment, put down her would-be assassin.

Jazmin collected her mother’s blades and sheathes, slung them over her back, then lifted her for a pyre she and her father had already built. Absent or not, respect was due, and if there was anything the Order knew, it was the importance of rituals for the bereaved– no matter whom put the blade to the mark or why.