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Title: The Tiger Queen
Author: Raisa Greywood
I’m the last of the Andreyev tigers. My species is extinct, except for me. Tigers used to be considered royalty. Atlanta is cold and dark now, and no safe haven remains in the once vibrant city. The devastating solar storms a hundred years ago saw to that. There is no prey and no chance for a mate in this poisoned world. Hunger and attrition have no respect for the shifter hierarchy, though. I am empress of a dying empire.
Aliens from a place called Ximera offer safe haven for humans. They want mates, too, and they offer fresh air and green space. It’s very tempting, and my tiger is hungry. My misgivings are put to rest when I go to the Exodus Authority and see the face of my mate. He is arresting. Not human, but his otherness is enticing. Even through a vid screen his fathomless brown eyes bore into my soul, and I want him. He is mine. And I don’t give a rat’s ass about who I have to eat to get him.
Sendra closed her book and peered down at me, her brown eyes sharp. She adjusted the fussy lace collar buttoned to her chin and brushed a stray hair from her blue dress. “Did you enjoy the story?”
“Yes, but I still prefer Shakespeare.”
Chuckling, she patted my head. Her patronizing touch made me feel like a cub, as did my uncomfortable position on the floor at her feet.
“It’s important to explore literature, Miss Andreyev. You might find something else you enjoy just as much.” Her smile faded as she took the book and put it on the table next to her chair. “We have to talk.”
I stood and stretched, my back cracking. “What about?”
“I want you to go to the Exodus Authority.”
“I don’t need or want a mate.” I returned her teacup to the kitchen. It hadn’t held tea, of course. It was just filtered and boiled water, but she liked the tiny reminder of life before the storms.
“Have you considered cubs?”
“Why bother?” I left the cup in the sink and went to her bookshelf. “Do you want me to read? I can almost do Gulliver’s Travels.”
I refused to talk about cubs. That wasn’t an option for either of us. Sendra was too old, and I’d never found a male worth a mating bite. Though the few Ximerans I’d seen hadn’t been cruel or unappealing, I had no idea if one of them would make a good mate. Living on Earth wasn’t easy, but I had no idea what Ximera was like. The Ximerans promised a bountiful, healthy environment, but what if they lied? If things didn’t work out with my mate, would they let me stay? I couldn’t come back to Earth. Even if I found someone to take me home, I was slowly starving here.
”Pussy. There will be prey there.”
I ignored my tiger’s caustic comment as Sendra sighed and shook her head. “I’m going to ground. I want you to give a sample and –”
“No.” The book I’d chosen tumbled to the floor, my fingers unable to hold its weight. “I keep you safe here.”
Chuckling, she said, “I’m afraid not even the mighty tiger can protect someone from old age, Renata. My jackal and I have seen too much, and she’s very tired.”
“I said no.” I picked up the book and slammed it into place, making the bookcase shudder. “It’s a stupid idea. I won’t let you do that.”
“You can’t stop death.” She was silent for a moment, then added, “It comes for everyone, sooner or later.”
I shivered at her hollow whisper and replied, “Try me.”
She growled, the low rumble vibrating her thin frame. Without warning, she sprang at me and opened a gash on my face with her claws, leaving me bleeding. I covered the wound with my hand and stared at her in shock.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You are no longer welcome here, Miss Andreyev, and you’re too stubborn to do as you’re told. Leave now, and do as I’ve asked.” Blood dripped from her claws as she crouched and leapt for me again.
I dodged out of the way, upsetting her table and chair. She hissed, her teeth bared.
Tears welled in my eyes, and I backed away from her, shaking my head in denial. “I can’t leave like this.”
Fangs glistened between her thin lips. “I’m over a hundred years old, cub. I’m going to die, and I prefer to do it on my own. You’re going to leave this place and find a mate and have cubs. That is all I want from you.”
“But…” She snarled, and I ducked when she threw a book at my head. I held out both hands as I backed away. “Okay. I just…” I sniffed against the tears thickening behind my eyes. “I’ll miss you, Sendra.”
She didn’t answer and I left her den, my tears falling to mix with the blood on my face. I’d abandoned my best friend, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her. Without Sendra, there was nothing for me on Earth.
I sobbed, the breath tearing in my throat as I ran. A human darted across the street to avoid me, engaging my tiger’s prey drive, but he was too old and sick to provide any sport. I left him alone and kept running, not knowing or caring where I was going.
The cut on my cheek itched as it closed, but I didn’t bother to wipe the blood away. I wondered if Sendra had attacked me in the hope I’d ease her passing. One swipe of a claw across her throat would have done it. I just couldn’t. She would sneer and call me weak and too emotional, but she’d been my only friend for my entire adult life.
Everyone knew the story of Earth’s fall from grace. Seven years of solar storms knocked out our ecosystem almost a hundred years ago. Humans might have handled the resulting ice age, but the collapse of humanity was ultimately caused by such a simple thing. Bees. The honeybee that pollinated most food crops became extinct before the third year. It was humanity’s swan song.
Sendra told me tigers had been considered royalty back then and jackals weren’t considered at all. Before the storms, we wouldn’t have been friends. I’d never felt like royalty, though. The throne of the Andreyev tigers had long been crushed under the weight of poisoned destruction.
I tugged my jacket closer against the frigid breeze. Atlanta used to have hot summer weather, but the few people left in the city were lucky if daytime temperatures reached fifty in August. October would bring several feet of snow. The reek of poison and dying things filled the air and never cleared, even after the spring rains.
I slowed when I reached the carcass of my tree; one of the few bits of organic material left in old Atlanta. I always came to visit her when I was upset about something. I had no idea why I’d always thought of the tree as her. My bench was still there, a piece of stained marble with a chunk of concrete under one broken leg next to a broken statue of a man in a long robe. He had such a peaceful expression on his face, even though half his head was cracked away. The ruins of an old hospital surrounded the tree, its doors and windows long since scavenged, leaving gaping holes in the red brick.
I sat down and patted her lifeless trunk, leaning back to stare into skeletal branches. I tried to imagine what she must have looked like. I wanted to picture her with leaves, but I’d never seen a living plant except in Sendra’s books.
She would stand forever, dead, but a lasting testament to life on Earth. The empty hulks of concrete that had housed businesses and homes were the humans’ mark on the planet, but my tree was true evidence of life that existed beyond the machinations of humans. I closed my eyes, soaking in the peace of this sacred place and tried to remember how to pray.
“Pretty girl. We’ll have some fun and take that nice jacket she’s wearing.”
I heaved out a sigh and rolled my eyes. Though I couldn’t see the four men behind the south wall of the abandoned hospital, the fools thought they were far enough away that I wouldn’t hear them. I patted my tree one last time and left the dead garden, unwilling to foul my private space with a fight.
I had too much on my mind to make much sport of them, so I led them toward a quiet alley away from the clusters of occupied houses. They were either idiots or were new in town. Everyone in this neighborhood knew the only predator allowed in the city was me.
Their evil laughter followed me and I quickened my pace, wanting only to get the task over with and take care of the one thing Sendra had asked of me. The alley widened into a small courtyard, ending at a rusted chain-link fence blocked by abandoned cars on the other side. There was enough room to get behind them and cut off their escape. I could smell their excitement as they hurried toward me.
“Wait up, pretty!” The largest of the four shouted after me as I reached the fence. He was the only one who didn’t look on the brink of starvation, and it marked him as our first kill.
They spread out, thinking they had me trapped. The men wore heavy packs on their backs, bedrolls tied to them. Though I didn’t see a gun, I could smell the acrid scent of oil and metal. Knitted hoods covered their faces. My nose twitched at the stench of violence and hate emanating from them.
“Hey, little girl! Give us that jacket and maybe we won’t hurt you too badly! I’ll even give you a cut on the other side of your face so you’re sym… Sym something.” He grinned, showing blackened teeth as he pulled a worn knife from his pocket. The stupid thing wasn’t even four inches long. My claws were longer. Emboldened by the fence at my back, he moved closer, brandishing his poor weapon.
“I believe symmetrical is the word you’re too stupid to find.”
His face wrinkled into a vicious grimace of hate. “I’m gonna cut you good for that, bitch!”
I ignored him. I held my tiger back as I waited for them to get closer. We would end this threat to our home and distribute their belongings to the needy. There was an elderly couple a few blocks from our den who could use their warm clothes and whatever they carried.
The large one rushed me, his knife held high. I shook my head and allowed the tiger her freedom. We heard the humans’ curses as mist covered us. In the scant second during our shift, I could stare into her fathomless blue eyes, as she could into mine. It was the single moment we had no physical shape and knew each other as separate beings sharing a single body. Then fur popped and flowed, the sensation like ants on my skin. Bones ground against joint as they changed shape and moved, the sharp pain gone within seconds. The leader dropped his knife and took a single step backward. We wrinkled our muzzle into a snarl as we waited, enjoying the moment of shocked silence before the screams.
When our task was done, I pushed the tiger aside and returned to my human form, pulling on the clothes I’d left in a heap when I shifted. I didn’t bother rummaging through their packs as I stripped the bodies and rolled their clothes into a blanket I’d retrieved from one of the bedrolls. They had nothing I wanted, but my elderly neighbors might find something of value once the items were cleaned.
An old woman stood at the alley entrance, her threadbare coat pulled close around her frail body, the hood concealing her hair. I didn’t know her, but recognized her scent. She nodded once and turned to walk away.
“Wait!” I caught up to her and handed her the warm coat the gang leader had been wearing. My neighbors didn’t need so much. Tears filled her eyes, and she gave me a hard hug before hurrying away. I shivered at the sensation of being touched by a stranger as I continued toward my destination. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was… odd. Humans never touched me willingly.
Sendra had wanted me to submit a blood sample to the Exodus Authority. Those had been her last words as she’d chased me from her den. Earth wasn’t much of a tourist destination these days, but men from a system called Ximera had been collecting human women for almost two years, using genetic tests to match potential mates.
I wasn’t interested in a mate. They left you alone when they died. Just like my father had done to my mother. Sendra had been right, though. I couldn’t survive here forever. Though humans managed to grow some food, hoarding heirloom seeds that were worth more than gold had once been, there was no prey, and no chance for a cub.
Would it be so bad to leave a dying planet? Sendra had been after me for months to go. I’d always refused, telling her she was more important than a mate, refusing to admit to myself that sheer age would take her long before I was ready to let her go. Without Sendra, there wasn’t anything stopping me.
“All right, you skinny old bitch. I’m going!” It had to have been my imagination, but I thought I heard her rusty laugh behind me as I made my way to the Exodus Authority.
I crossed the broken pavement leading to the stadium’s main entrance. A human guard let me through the makeshift barricade, and I stood in line behind several other women. I wondered how many would find mates in this Faustian bargain.
When it was my turn, a human nurse drew a blood sample and took my picture, then told me to come back in two days for my results. I wasn’t sure what I wanted the answer to be.
* * *
“Does this thing never shut up?” I couldn’t disguise my irritation, and I slapped the comm to silence it. “Increase speed by three percent.”
My co-pilot muttered, but he was too obedient to question my orders. I should have been paying attention to the panel in front of me. Lights flashed and sirens blared as we approached the wormhole leading toward the dying planet that hosted my female. Yet I couldn’t. Her image was all I could see.
The picture submitted with the genetic match revealed a tall, angular woman with wide hips. The rest of her body was concealed by a black jacket. Her hair was gold with dark streaks, and she had blue eyes. She clutched her jacket close in the photo, but she was too thin, and I knew she hadn’t been eating properly. I frowned at the image and tapped the screen to enlarge it. Someone had struck her. My blood boiled at the healing cut on her cheek, and I hoped I would have enough time to track down whoever had marred her pretty face.
It was going to be fourteen Earth days before I could get to her, and it was unconscionable that a branded Ximeran Warlord should have to wait for anything he desired. But wait I must, because the laws of propulsion and gravity would not bow to my will. More’s the pity.
“Commander Rakon, communication from High Council on your comm link.”
I would give my battle commission to silence that damned Council, but I managed to smooth my scowl into a less threatening expression. When the screen loaded, I said, “What can I do for you today, Councilor?”
Councilor Harkon’s pudgy face filled the screen. His thick lips curled into a derisive smirk under muddy brown eyes, and the dome of his bald head gleamed.
“We hear you’re on your way to collect your specimen.”
Renata Andreyev was not a specimen, but I managed to dredge up a bland smile that hid my fury. “Yes, Councilor. It has been determined that she is my genetic mate.”
“Turn your ship around. The human Andreyev has been loaded into a transport and is en route. You are needed elsewhere.”
“I see. May I have the identification of this transport?”
“I don’t know it, and it doesn’t matter. Your specimen will arrive in approximately two Earth weeks as you intended. We require your presence in the seventeenth sector. The mission details should be loaded into your computer already.”
“Yes, Councilor Harkon.” I cut off the comm, ignoring his last few words.
Though every inch of my body wanted to keep going toward my mate, I did as I was ordered and turned my cruiser around toward sector seventeen. That sector was a perpetual thorn in my side, filled with bounty hunters, slavers, and the dregs of interstellar society. If they behaved themselves, we left them alone. No one could say they didn’t serve a purpose. Nearly everyone took advantage of delicacies only available from the smugglers. Wine and spirits, rare foods, and textiles all found their way through sector seventeen for distribution elsewhere.
I didn’t understand why the Council was intruding on my task, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t give a fuck about the black market, or about whoever I would have to kill in sector seventeen. In two weeks, pretty Renata with the white-gold-and-black-striped hair would be in my bed.
Would she like me? It wasn’t necessary to court a genetic mate, but she would have no idea about our ways. I wished my mother was still alive to help me with her, but she’d died of the same wasting disease that took most of our females. Damn Krenions. I wish there was one left so I could kill it, but I’d already killed the last of the pestilential species who had introduced the devastating plague a dozen cycles ago. And good riddance.
Pushing the thoughts away, I checked our location. I’d reach sector seventeen in a few days. That would give me plenty of time to scan my collection of old Earth vids. I loved Golden Girls. Earth females were almost indistinguishable from their Ximeran counterparts, and Blanche reminded me of my mother. Maybe I liked it because I hadn’t seen an aged female in… I couldn’t remember the last time.
The vids became popular when it was discovered that humans could be potential mates. We shared a similar physical appearance, though Ximerans tended to be larger. Humans also had a wide variety of skin and hair coloration, ranging from shimmery black to skin as pale as the blossoms of the orcan tree. Ximerans weren’t lucky enough to enjoy such diversity. Our scientists told us we shared a common ancestor with humans, though it had been many hundreds of thousands of cycles ago.
Most Ximerans watched those old vids to get some idea of Earth culture, along with assistance in learning English. Though humans had a vast number of languages, we’d chosen the one used for telecommunications and transport. Their lives seemed strange, but the vids were a hundred Earth years old. The Ximeran cycle was close enough to a year to make the difference negligible.
Things were different now. I’d seen what was left of Earth. The storms had destroyed nearly everything, and I was shocked anything had survived. Humans must have been a very resourceful species.
Nothing I watched helped me find something to woo the beauty on her way to me. I wondered if I was wasting my time. The vids were ancient and from a time when the planet had been healthy. I turned my attention to the planet’s literature. Unlike the vids, the books had short synopses, allowing me to search by keyword. Mates and joining produced nothing of note, so I tried love and marriage, terms I’d heard before in the humans’ lexicon.
That search produced more titles than I cared to manage, but one caught my eye because it was less than fifty thousand words and would take an hour to read. It had a picture of a couple locked in an embrace, the male’s arms wrapped tightly around his female as she gazed up at him.
When I finished, I closed out the book and chose another of the same type. If the first was to be believed, a male need only be rich and give a female pleasure until she fell gratefully into his arms. I met the first requirement, and was determined to meet the second.
From the two books, I learned the mistakes the males made that hurt or angered their females. Blackmail, confinement, harsh words, and humiliation. Those human males were a cocky bunch and lucky their mates were gentle creatures. None of that would have gone over with Ximeran females. A male would have come back missing parts — if he lived to come back at all.
* * *
I was at the Exodus Authority an hour past dawn on the third day after I’d given my sample. I’d spent the last two days watching Sendra’s den in the misguided hope that she would come to her senses and forget her wish to die.
No one answered my knock. No one twitched a curtain or turned on a light. There was no scent or sound of movement. I cried as I walked away, knowing she was already gone. My tiger yowled in a vain attempt to get me to pay attention. In this world, emotion got you dead. I couldn’t afford to show my grief in public.
I hid in the remains of a building to give myself time to calm down. I sat there for hours, watching women walk in and out. I wanted to laugh at their hopeful expressions. One cried as she walked straight into the arms of a human man just a few feet away from my hiding spot.
If I didn’t have my tiger’s hearing, I’d have missed her soft whisper. “I didn’t give them my blood, Seth.”
“Lisa, you promised.” The man took her hand and pressed his lips to her gloved palm. “You promised you’d go if they found a match.”
She stopped walking and looked up into his face. She put her hands on his cheeks and tears streamed from her eyes. “I know. I just… I couldn’t. A life without you is no life at all. Whatever time we have left, I want to spend it with you.”
I smelled the man’s tears as he took his woman into his arms. My chest ached at what he’d been willing to sacrifice for her, and a sob choked me as it tried to escape my throat. I couldn’t fathom a love so deep. I watched them for a long time after they walked away.
When I couldn’t see them anymore, I shouldered my pack and walked toward the stadium. I didn’t know if I would find that kind of love on Ximera, but I knew I wouldn’t find it on Earth.
The human guard stepped in front of the barricade as I approached. “State your name and business, please.”
“Renata Andreyev. I’m here to find out the results of my blood test.”
The guard’s eyes brightened. “We’ve been waiting for you. Follow me, please.” He led me down a hall into a small room furnished with a metal table and two chairs.
“Have a seat, Miss Andreyev. The magistrate will be with you shortly.”
The door shut behind the guard with a metallic clang. I flinched at the noise. My tiger paced in my head, uncomfortable with the confinement.
Several minutes later, the door opened, revealing a human male followed by a tall figure. I thought it was male, but I wasn’t sure. Even my tiger was confused. We both loathed the creature on sight. It reeked of old blood and violence. My tiger wanted to kill it, and I couldn’t disagree. I soothed her with a single word.
“Soon,” I whispered. The single word calmed her, but she didn’t stand down.
The creature either didn’t notice my reaction, or it didn’t care. I had to force myself to listen to the human’s words.
“I am Magistrate Smith. I am responsible for administering the exchange program between Earth and Ximera. Blood tests have determined that you are the genetic mate of Warlord Rakon of Ximera 8.”
He placed a tablet on the table, bearing a single image of the male my blood told them would be my future mate. My tiger sniffed in derision, but I ignored her. Instead of an unknown alien male, I had a name and a face. And I liked what I saw.
Rakon was bulky with muscle under a skintight black uniform. Weapons were sheathed at his narrow hips, making him look dangerously competent. Unflinchingly, his dark brown eyes met the camera, stern, yet filled with excitement. Black hair fell past his shoulders in an inky trail, and my fingers itched to touch the dark strands.
I’d never seen a more visually appealing male. He stood next to a doorway with marks denoting his height. His head reached well past the two-meter mark. Thick eyebrows curved upwards at the ends, trailing into a point high on his temples. A stylized brand marked the tender skin under his left eye, swirling into an infinity symbol on his jaw. He obviously wasn’t human; he was too damned big for that. Aside from his size, his bone structure was almost catlike, with high cheekbones, square jaw, and tilted eyes. His nose was thin and aquiline, with a small bump in the middle as if it had been broken and poorly set.
The tiger yowled at me, displeasure evident in every note. I didn’t care. I liked the look of this Rakon and couldn’t understand why she didn’t. He was gloriously male, and the most beautiful being I’d ever seen. I wanted to see him. Smell him. We had to wait until we could catch his scent before we refused him. “Will there be grass and fresh air?”
“Of course. Ximera 8 has a clean and healthy environment.” The human gave me a wide smile and pulled me into a brief hug. I flinched at the touch, reminding my tiger that the Magistrate meant no harm, though I didn’t understand why strangers were so determined to hug me now, when it had never happened before. “I wish you the best of luck, Miss Andreyev. When you’re ready to leave, Mr. Morris will escort you to your shuttle.”
“Thank you.” I shook his hand and turned to face the pale creature. It gave me a sneering smile and claws erupted from my fingertips. I balled my fists to hide them, but wanted nothing more than to remove its face from the front of its head. I soothed the tiger with images of taking half its skull for good measure.
Aggravated chuffing told me she wasn’t appeased. I told her we could kill Rakon and his transport crew if he wasn’t pleasing.
They allowed me an hour to pack, but I didn’t need it. I carried everything I cared about. The creature escorted me through the empty space in the center of the stadium and up a ramp into a waiting ship. I flinched when the ramp slid into the hull and the bulkhead doors slammed, cutting off any chance of escape. A cold hand touched my arm, and I jerked away. How could its hand be so icy through the thick leather of my jacket?
“Don’t touch,” I hissed.
The creature’s face rearranged itself into what I thought was a frown, but it nodded. “Fine, human. Follow me.”
It led me past several others of the same species. They were all pale, almost stick-thin, and all bore the stench of old blood. My nose wrinkled, and I had to stop myself from opening my mouth in the feral grimace Sendra had called a Flehmen Response. It was a weird name for a way to better taste scents. I didn’t want to taste this odor, though. My tiger and I both knew what it was.
We reached an open doorway revealing a miniscule chamber I assumed would be my quarters for the trip. There was a tiny bed that might not be long enough for me, a small metal table, one chair, and a vid screen. It was claustrophobic, but I wouldn’t have to be here for long. In two weeks, I would meet my potential mate.
I walked inside and turned around to thank the creature, but to my surprise and increasing trepidation, he chuckled. The sound burbled wetly in his throat, sickening me as he pressed a button on the wall. The door slid closed with a solid whump, and I tried to quell my rising panic. Maybe they didn’t want me wandering around while the ship escaped Earth’s atmosphere. Maybe they wanted to keep me safe. Maybe…
None of my thoughts helped. I hated being trapped. No cat likes a cage, and I was worse than most. I supposed I could shift, but the room was too small to contain me if I went furry. The chamber was barely two meters square and didn’t even have enough space for pacing. I sat down on the cot, grimacing at the hard surface. I hadn’t thought I’d be traveling in luxury, but this was ridiculous.
I inhaled a calming breath, only then noticing the air had a sweet tinge I’d never encountered. The scent was almost sickening and soon became overwhelming. I opened my mouth, but the odor crossing my sensitive palate made me gag and spit. When my eyes grew heavy, I knew the odor was a drug.
Why would the creatures want me unconscious? It didn’t make any sense. I tried to shift, damning the small space, but the tiger refused to come forth. Black stripes formed on my hands, but I couldn’t finish and collapsed to the hard floor.
I heard laughter as the cadaverous alien returned and tossed me over its shoulder. It carried me down a corridor, its heavy footfalls echoing against metal. When we stopped moving forward, the alien pushed me off its shoulder onto a hard surface. I tried to open my eyes, but nothing worked. It might have been for the best, though. Wherever I’d been taken was so brightly illuminated that it hurt my eyes through the closed lids.
It rolled me to my back and straightened my limbs, chattering in a guttural language I didn’t understand. I heard a slam as something dropped over my head, but I didn’t have enough muscle control to flinch. Even though I couldn’t see, I knew I’d been closed into something. Was it a cage, or a stasis unit? I’d never seen a stasis container, but I knew of their existence.
A stasis unit meant one of two things. The aliens wanted me safely out of the way and contained for the trip, or I was going farther than was convenient without one. I hoped it wasn’t the latter.
Fresh air blew across my face, and I sucked in a lungful of the untainted breeze as the temperature dropped rapidly. The air changed and became thick with the drug the alien had used on me earlier. Holding my breath for just a moment, I had enough presence of mind to thank whatever deity people prayed to that they hadn’t shackled me.
Someone was going to be very sorry when I came out of stasis.