major relationship: m/nb
mildly dubious consent, rape roleplay
homophobia, homophobic slurs
Myrdu has a life on Avla, family, a daughter, a job he enjoys.
But is any of it real? When Myrdu completes his latest xenolinguistics project, it's as if a switch flips in his brain. Memories pour out, lifetimes' worth of memories. Those of a shapeshifter, a spy, named Okka. Xe is a Mimica, one of the foes of the Avlan state.
Worse yet, the Mimica homeworld has fallen, and for Okka, neither world will be safe now.
Okka flees to Earth, hoping to buy xemself time, hoping against hope to find some way to save the Mimica homeworld. Okka does not expect to find humans that xe can call family, not in the way that Mimica can be to each other.
Okka does not expect Waverly Kemp.
The first thing that occurs to me with this book: Well, the smut! This was written with one particular sex scene as a centerpiece, and although I do like the plot, it's there to support the sexy bits, really. Or, it's a whole intertwined mess of a story about the nature of connection and identity and a lot of that is expressed through sex.
I also like the delight the characters take in technology and the intelligence and wit they have. There's a certain type of character I really relish writing dialogue for, and Waverly Kemp is a prime example.
major relationship: m/nb
mildly dubious consent, rape roleplay
homophobia, homophobic slurs
Myrdu was deep in the flow of data analysis, right on the breathless cusp of an insight that would change the landscape of Avla’s interplanetary knowledge, when his broodmate popped into his work room for an unannounced visit.
More than forty years, even as Avlans measured, and Atur’s timing was just as impeccable as when they were boys. No one but Atur could make that sound coming down his hallway, boots treading heavy and unfailingly steady.
“What do you want?” Myrdu asked impatiently, turning away from his screen.
“I came to ask you to rejoin the ranks of the Avlan military,” Atur answered.
“Of course you did.” When Myrdu was halfway to cracking open all the secrets of Mimica communications streams. He barely kept from rolling his eyes. “And what makes you think it will appeal to me any more today than it did last time?”
“I merely hope,” said Atur. “And I can offer you a higher position. Better pay.”
“No,” said Myrdu.
“You know the fleet needs you,” said Atur. “Please.”
Myrdu gave him a flat look. “Perhaps,” he said, “but do I need it?”
“I know you, Myrdu. You won’t be happy until you have a project you can devote your talents to.”
“I have a project.” Myrdu gestured to the screen in front of him, on which the progress of his latest decoding effort was displayed.
“I mean a real one,” said Atur.
“Something that suits your talents,” Atur corrected himself. “Not just a challenge, but something important. You should be winnowing out hidden viruses, saving the Avlan fleet’s computers from the Cewri’s underhanded attacks.”
It was difficult to say no to an older broodmate, Myrdu mused, especially one who had always been able to beat you up. Doubly so if the man in question had grown up to be a skilled diplomat, and triply so if he was elected chairman of a coalition that spanned dozens of worlds, including your own.
But Myrdu was damn well going to try.
“And who determines importance?” he asked. “You, as always?”
“I believe you should see the truth of this too,” Atur said. “You’re so smart, Myrdu. Smarter than me, in most ways. When will you accept that this is a dead end?” His eyebrows furrowed, and he shifted his weight with his impatience. “We know what Mimica do.”
“You mean we know what they’ve done in the past,” Myrdu corrected.
“Yes. Fine. What they’ve done in the past. They don’t think like us, Myrdu. They aren’t like us.”
“Is that so terrible?” His own daughter was unlike anyone else on Avla. Always would be, no matter how hard she might try.
Mimica, though, weren’t even humanoid. Atur could be right. Maybe.
“The Mimica could be great allies,” Myrdu persisted, “if we could trust them. And if not, if this research points the other way… well, then, ‘know your enemy’ is just as important with them as with the Cewri, or any race in the Imperium.” Atur knew full well how much of Myrdu’s value as a force against the expansion of the Imperium lay in his ability to collect new knowledge about them and their member species. Why not use the same tool to gain insight about the Mimica?
“You could waste your whole life trying to make sense of those signals. They’re most likely meaningless, if I am to believe my advisors.”
Myrdu snorted. “I know the markers of organized, lingual communication when I see them, Atur. There is something here to make sense of. I’m right on the edge of finding it.”
Atur pondered this for a long moment. “When you’re done, I want you back at my side.” His voice softened. “The Cewri’s attacks are unrelenting. My xenotechnical experts do their best, but none of them are you.”
Myrdu had forgotten to account for how Atur’s eyes could be huge, liquid gray pools.
Myrdu sighed. “When I’m done,” he agreed, “I’ll think about it.”
The last tweaks to the decoding algorithm were finally finished. Myrdu put it in place and hit the button that would begin processing the transmissions. Then he could sit back and wait for the results. Myrdu’s hand hovered between the two snacks in his bag. There were plain tiru seeds, but also a wrapped crispcake in case of emergencies. It was a comfort food he indulged in rarely, but today felt like the day. He just had to be extra careful not to drop any crumbs. The palace folas chased after sweet things with abandon, and if they started foraging in the lab, the disgusting things might start chewing on the wires.
Small, creeping things that got into places they shouldn’t and spread who knew what ailments were one of Myrdu’s least favorite things.
Myrdu couldn’t handle any more delays. Atur had been gone for a couple of hours, but the weight of his impatience still lingered in the air.
Myrdu let the sweet smell of the herb-infused crispcake chase it away.
This was a good day. All his research might finally be coming to fruition. Nothing else mattered. Myrdu looked forward to finally learning something about the mysterious and often vilified Mimica species.
The results began to blink on the display. Myrdu leaned in.
The numbers that came out of the filtering program were in distinct sequences, repeating in varied combinations. Myrdu’s brain lit up.
These were codes. These were intelligible codes. Myrdu held his breath, looking hard, trying to be sure. He’d never imagined that something so clear would come out of the results, not so soon. He had expected to find a pattern of thought, an unknown language that would take years to make meaning of. But he recognized these codes.
He knew them intimately.
He dropped his crispcake, fingers shaking.
These were Cewri codes. These were the communications between member species of Avla’s greatest enemy. No one but full members of the Imperium were privy to the meanings of these codes.
Myrdu had achieved unequivocal results. He had learned something for certain about the Mimica. No scientist could hope for more.
Myrdu knew the Cewri. He knew the Imperium they commanded. He’d been there beside Atur, running digital interference while Atur fought them with more tangible weapons.
Myrdu had nightmares about the brutality of the Imperium’s Scythe forces in battle. Their strange, unwieldy bodies, their huge, hooked claws. The way they killed without a second thought.
While Myrdu had had doubts about the Mimica, there was no question in his mind as to where the Cewri stood.
Their two most feared enemies had joined forces, pooled their strengths. The Cewri’s malevolent intent was driven outward by all the tools at their disposal, and now that included everything the Mimica could do. This discovery might well spell doom for Avla and every world under Avlan protection.
The full force of Myrdu’s exhaustion hit him at once. With shaking hands, he meticulously shut down his equipment and closed his lab for the night.
Stumbling out into the glowing greens and blues of the courtyard’s evening lights, Myrdu made his way further into the heart of the palace. This could not wait for the morning report. He had to tell Atur what he had learned.
Myrdu’s footsteps on the stone floors of the palace, in the silence of the evening, sounded loud and booming, like cannons. It was jarring, but he just needed to get there. Hand off the weight of his discovery to someone else.
After that, maybe Myrdu could have some manner of rest. The job was as good as done—his part of it, at least. They had their results. The nobles could decide what needed doing about it all.
The largest question had been answered.
But as soon as he thought that, there was the niggling sensation that he’d forgotten something. He hadn’t forgotten to turn off the light or sweep up the remains of his crispcake. No. Something… big. The more he tried to bring it forth, the bigger he realized it all was.
Thoughts, memories—years of them.
Hanni’s children, taking the form of puppies for the first time, tumbling over their siblings, wiggling and biting each other’s ears. A cascade of gemstones catching the light as they were poured out for substance practice. The ocean flooding up over him as he took the Mimica’s ancestral cephalopoid form.
How did he know all this? Who were these beings to him? Where were these memories from?
His steps slowed as he tried to get a hold of this influx of information, make sense of it. His curious mind needed to know what it had lost. Why. His reality was spinning apart, everything was coming loose, and he struggled to catch it all and pull it back together.
There was a lifetime, there. More than a lifetime. A world. A galaxy.
For a moment, then, he saw double in his mind’s eye. In xir mind’s eye. Myrdu, the Avlan citizen, the life he had lived for the last four decades of Avlan time. His daughter. His work. His loyalties.
And… someone else, who was him and not him, as an actor is not their role. Okka. The Mimica. An earlier life on a wildly different world, at once bizarre and intimately familiar.
This new self—this older, deeper self with a different language and body and name—was still Myrdu. Alien, but still him/her/xem. Okka remembered creating Myrdu, becoming Myrdu, stepping inside of him and sealing up the cracks. But now the walls were breaking down.
Xir mission here was over. The question xe had come here to ask had been answered, and xir memory blocks had fallen away. It was time to return.
It was jarring. Myrdu’s mothers and broodmates were part of a culture which fostered a distrust for anything or anyone not bipedal, not humanoid. A distrust of anything like what Okka now knew xemself to be.
A cephalopoid. A plotter. A spy.
Xe was one of the enemy.
What would Atur think? What would he say, what would he do? The prospect was terrifying. But that terror was small in comparison to all xe felt.
The largest element was the sense of belonging that came with the memories of being Mimica. It was tangible and immense, like a warm blanket that both enfolded xem and stretched to the horizons. And it was within reach.
I want to go home. I want to go where I belong. I want to return to the Collective.
Okka felt for those connections, systems away but so close now. Those signals that Myrdu had studied, that reached across the sky, carried the Collective across the galaxy. They’d all be waiting for xem to rejoin.
So xe reached.
But there was something odd. Something not quite right. A chill down xir spine. Okka stopped xemself, coming up against the residual mistrust of the different, the other, that xir Avlan identity had in spades. Clinging to that mistrust to combat the pull to rejoin the others. Xe realized that there might be questions xe did not want the answers to.
Xe remembered how Myrdu had felt, mere minutes ago, when those codes had come into focus like a figure walking out of a thick fog. A figure that resolved itself into an enemy.
Mimica were a clear threat to everything Myrdu held dear. The Cewri codes in their transmissions had been clear. There might be danger, or lurking evil, where the new warm memories told xem was only love and safety.
A lifetime of xenophobia, patience, and scientific study let the Mimica who had been Myrdu cling to what Myrdu knew for a little while longer, just long enough to stop that headlong plunge into everything xe remembered loving.
The science had told Myrdu that the Mimica were the enemies of Avla.
Myrdu listened. Okka listened. Opened xemself to the sound/feel of the Collective without letting xir mind touch theirs.
Something was wrong. The warm vibrations of the Mimica Collective weren’t reaching out to greet xem; instead they were cold, still, and somehow vacant.
Silent. Silent like death. Silent as Creepers.
Xe wrenched xemself away, shut down xir ability to reach out across space as xe always had.
No! It couldn’t be. The personalities that were xir parents, xir siblings, Jerra, Hanni, their children, everyone in the Collective crushed to nothing in the stifling fist of the Imperium’s mind slavery… No, it couldn’t be. But if it were true, Okka could not reach out. Could not let xemself do what xe most urgently needed. To be home. To be connected. To be one.
Xe would be just as lost to the Creepers as the rest of xir family. Imprisoned, helpless.
Breath left xir currently humanoid lungs in a rush. The Collective was lost. Xe knew it now. That familiar thrumming of love, of life, at the back of xir mind was gone.
Xe realized xe was sitting on cold stone, and did not remember when xe had ceased to stand, but it didn’t matter now. Perhaps nothing did.
They were all gone.
Okka could not go home. Okka could never go home.
Xe had come here to find a definitive answer to one question. Was it possible to get the Avlan nobles to give the Mimica another chance as allies? Would the Avlans ever be persuaded to at least hear them out?
Xe had expected to work for many years more. To work until the answer became “yes.”
The Collective had made no plans for the answer to come out “no.”
The Avlans were at least sensible enough that if the answer came up “no,” there would be a reason. The Mimica hadn’t planned for this eventuality because this eventuality was unthinkable.
What Creepers did to thinking beings… Xe’d seen it before, in other species, the lifeless eyes, the stiff and mechanical motions. A thinking being made into merely a body, a puppet only moving with the pulling of its strings.
Okka felt as if xe’d been abruptly dropped into the worst of all possible nightmares.
Everything had shifted. Everything was cold and unfamiliar and strange. On this world, and on others.
Shaking in this suddenly-alien humanoid body, Okka sank to xir side on the stone floor, and wept.
On Earth, Waverly Kemp was dancing.
Not with anyone in particular, or for any particular reason, although he enjoyed excuses to do so. No, one of the most powerful men in the tech industry was wiggling his butt around in his boxers just because it was a beautiful morning, and he could.
No one else quite kept in step with him, after all.
Well, there was Toto. But Toto had been built for it: His aluminum chassis had four legs with a generous range of motion, and he could wiggle his behind with the best of them. And his brain…
Kemptech had been consulting with Boston Dynamics on advanced learning software for their robots, and Waverly found the project interesting enough to get deeply involved himself, rather than leaving the bulk of the work to his employees. Somewhere along the line, something magical had happened, and Toto had come alive.
Waverly had set out to build an assistant, and he’d wound up with a friend. Since he needed both desperately, he’d run with it.
He twitched a finger up in suggestion, and the next song that came across the speakers was a faster tempo, trumpet notes tumbling over each other in their haste, urging motion, urging dance.
This was when Waverly Kemp felt alive. He moved, and with every little twitch or waggle, his little world moved with him. Toto read his motions and followed along, bobbing his head/hand, shimmying across the floor. The rest of his computers were customized in the same kind of way but less complex, and they responded quickly and obediently to his touch to bring up the files he wanted, adjusting here, testing there.
Toto and Waverly were family. Neither of them could quite pull off being human, or adults, but they tried. They helped each other.
The music faded down in volume. Waverly looked at Toto. The bot gave a subtle little shrug/wiggle, which was code for ‘David is coming, and he doesn’t look happy’.
Waverly didn’t know what he’d do without Toto. Toto had saved Waverly’s life when David had broken up with him. The worst part had been that they’d still needed to work together. So much of what kept Kemptech up and running was David.
There was a chirp from the door as David walked in. Waverly braced himself.
David Miller was the same cutie he’d been when he and Waverly had first met, dark brown hair with that hint of bright copper shining in it, cheeks dusted with freckles and just overall geeky and lanky and amazing. The years and the familiarity hadn’t taken away any of it. Now that David knew how to dress himself to best advantage, it was even more devastating. It hit Waverly all over again every single time.
Even more so when David was annoyed. He was annoyed now. As with everything, it was clear on his face.
It always made Waverly want to heckle him, to see more of that lively emotion. But they’d established some ground rules, over the years, and that was absolutely out of bounds.
Remembering that fact killed the last of Waverly’s happy buzz from what should have been a really satisfying dance interlude. Waverly pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Ugh, I hate it when you bring that face in here, now that I’m not allowed to poke it.”
“If you’d act even vaguely professional, maybe you could avoid this face.”
Waverly turned wide, innocent eyes on his HR director. “I don’t recall doing anything particularly unprofessional recently, Davey. I mean that honestly. Cross my heart. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He really didn’t.
“Your interns?” David prompted.
“I recall them,” Waverly said.
“You fired all of them!”
“I also recall that,” he admitted.
“What the hell was the problem this time, Waverly?”
“All these interns are trying to be me. But badly. Nothing that’s original. Nothing that’s them. They’re of no use to me. Go out and find me someone trying to be themselves.”
David sighed. “All of them, though?”
“What about Chuck? He had ideas. Opinions. He wasn’t worried about ingratiating himself.”
“Chuck? Really? His go-to insults were… hideously uncreative.”
“You’re judging him by the creativity of his insults?”
“His default put-down was ‘fag’.”
David was quiet for a moment. “Okay, I’ll give you that one,” he conceded. “But Pete! Pete was perfectly polite. Clearly he didn’t want to be you.”
Waverly shook his head, looking at his computer. “Didn’t trust him. He was too polite. I couldn’t piss him off, and that pissed me off. Anyone that polite is hiding something.”
“Some people are just nice!” David exclaimed, exasperated. “I thought Pete was nice. Waverly. You cannot fire someone for being nice.”
Waverly rolled his eyes. “I didn’t fire him. I just… transferred him. Away from me.”
David stepped close to Waverly and tugged his chin until their gazes crossed. “At a certain point this stopped being about the interns and started being about you.”
Waverly pulled away and stomped across the room. “That’s ridiculous. I reserve the right to enjoy the company of the people I work with. I’m the boss. Is that too much for the boss to ask?”
“Listen to me,” David said more quietly, not trying to approach him. “Listen to what I’m saying. I’m trying to help you. This isn’t about what you need from your interns, professionally speaking. I don’t even think it’s about whether you like them or not. You’re perfectly capable of getting along with people when it suits you. I think this has gotten personal.”
Waverly was well and confused now. “What are you even talking about?”
David bit his lip, looking across the room at Waverly before speaking again. “Waverly… you’re trying to find another me. You’re trying to find someone who has that same dynamic with you that I had back in the beginning. Even if that’s something you can find? That’s not going to work any better than people trying to be you.”
That… might have been a little true. Waverly missed those days. He missed David. What they’d had, or what Waverly had thought they’d had. He wanted work to be like that again. “Why not?” he asked.
David took a breath, and his eyebrows went down. “Because sooner or later everyone realizes they deserve better than someone who treats people the way you do!”
“Then why are you still around?” Waverly spat. He turned away. He hated when things got like this. David was a friend. The best head of Human Resources Waverly could ever ask for. Waverly didn’t know what he’d do if he lost David the rest of the way.
“Waverly,” David said, low and concerned, “I know you. I care about you. You’re my friend. I know you’ve come to respect me professionally. But what we had to go through to get here? It was not a good scene. It hurt both of us a lot.” He sighed. “Sometimes you have to adapt to people instead of making people adapt to you.”
For once, Waverly was left without words. His emotions were too big to fit into such limited containers.
Okay, yes, but how?
How do I treat people? What do I do wrong?
How do I do better?
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