Chapter Three - Neobatri I
The heat and humidity made her thick hairs stick to her skin. Even under the golden alfresco, the hot sunlight made the shadows too warm. She stared through the floor length oval windows to her house, she desperately wanted to go inside but was forced to wait for the business meeting to be over. Leaning back in the creamy white chair, she tried focusing on the lush gardens of the estate. The rubbery leaves from the high palm trees caressed the wide peachy flower petals of the bushes, emerald moss crawled up the gold-gilded marble statue of the emperor.
It wasn’t customary to have statues of the monarch in gardens of non-nobles, but this pristine property was a gift from the emperor to her loyal family after the former noble denizens were discretely removed. Horrible sounds rippled from her gut, she wasn’t certain if the humidity was starting to get to her or if the hunger came back for the eight time today. Her long emerald arms stretched to the woven fruit bowl on the crystal table, the bones clicked, her muscles and ligaments pulled an extra few inches as her fingers dove into the opening. Digging down to the cool bottom, she found a bundle of firm grapes, she sighed in delight as her arm snapped back to her body and her long tongue wrapped itself around the cold fruit.
“Thank you for meeting with me in such short notice,” a deep voice called as a door slid open.
“Not a problem. Now, I’ll take my rest for today,” her father’s voice replied.
Her head spun around to see two Zanashj men stepping out to the alfresco. Her father smiled when he noticed her in the chair, his arm extended to her as he looked to the other man. “I would like to introduce my daughter,”
She swallowed the last of her grapes and rushed over to their side. “I’m Neobatri,”
The man’s deep green, leathery face smiled as he extended his flat open palm to her. “Lovely to meet you, Neobatri. I’m Ismotaph. Your father has mentioned you many times,”
Her hand politely clapped against his as her cheeks ached from her grin.
The man’s eyes drifted to her father. “Is she the shapeshifting prodigy you’ve mentioned, Amehtut?”
Neobatri’s smile dropped but remained as high as possible for the stranger to see.
“That would be Neheret, sadly she’s out in the gardens,” Amehtut said as he pat Neobatri’s shoulder.
The man’s long braided beard flicked as he nodded. “Send my regards. The emperor will be pleased to see what you discovered.”
“Thank you, gods bless your journey,” he said.
“And yours.” The man smiled before stepping down the alfresco. His bare arms extended and twisted into green leathery wings, he leapt into the sky and soared over the gardens, before his form disappeared into the heavens.
“You were supposed to be watching Neheret, Neobatri,” her father said as he turned to her. His emerald squared face housed two piercing navy eyes. His thick blue-black hair was in a tight braid that wrapped across his wide shoulders and his black linen robes had gold edges at every hem. However, his chin had a braided beard was waxed to stay motionless, it had a gold pin at the base to symbolise a high standing. It was customary only for the emperor to wear their beard in such a way, otherwise it would cause a scandal in the court, but the pair were old friends.
She rolled her eyes to the garden. “If she doesn’t listen to you; she won’t to me,”
Amehtut pinched the bridge of his nose. “The spider-flies are everywhere this season and you two are too young to have immunities for their bite,”
“Would you like me to go looking for her while you rest, father?” Neobatri said as her back straightened.
He shook his head as he stepped through the doors. “The servants will attend to that. That large hybrid man with the long teeth, what’s his name-,”
“Gooje, father,” Neobatri said as she followed him the round golden hall.
He chuckled at his name. “Ah, yes. She’ll listen to him, even if he only knows a dozen words,”
“I never understood it myself, father,” Neobatri said as continued following close, careful not to step on his navy-black cloak. She looked up to squared green face, a slight smirk on corner of his lip. “How was the meeting?”
Amehtut turned to meet her, his glassy pink eyes looked like he hadn’t slept for weeks and eaten in hours. “Well, child. I’ll need to have the servants scrub off my dead flesh after that particularly awkward mission,”
Neobatri glanced at his thick calloused arms, the dead skin started to flay and peel, but his healthy natural emerald flesh lay underneath. Amehtut was a revered intelligence officer, his unmatched polymorphing prowess and ability to charm others into giving up deep secrets made him a force to be reckoned with. In the old empire, enemy armies would be quashed once the emperor sent Amehtut through their ranks and reveal their vulnerabilities. However, in the new age of off-worlders, Zanashj learned of other races harnessing powerful psionics which could see through whatever operative morphed into, quickly reducing their natural body-bending gifts to simple party tricks.
“Father, your regenerative abilities seem to have slowed,” Neobatri said as she looked to his skin.
“It happens with age! But don’t worry about your dear father, he still beats those wannabe body-benders in barracks,” he said slapping the peeling skin back onto his arm.
“I’ll call for the servants to bring you some food,” Neobatri said.
“Neo, please. I’ve been fending for myself for the last five centuries, I can get my own food. Besides, how are you doing with body-bending classes?” he said.
Neobatri lifted the sleeve from her hand, she strained her fingers and focused the new cells to grow. She could feel the fine bones in her fingers popping, but they didn’t hurt since she commanded pain-relief hormone to fill her fingers. Her nails lengthened into sharp hooks and her thumb twisted under her palm to mimic a talon.
Amehtut smiled as he took her hand into his. “Well done! It looks identical to a sun-hawks,”
“High-man,” a deep gruntled voice broke through the room. Neobatri turned to see Gooje’s massive form covering the entire entrance of the house. His barrel-like torso and muscled arms were covered in dirt and black hair over a reddish copper skin, but his thick skull was disproportional to the rest of his body. “Gooje’s name called,”
Amehtut’s tattooed brows shot up when he looked to the hulking servant. “Don’t come in with all that mud on you, stay right outside until you clean up. I need you to find my youngest, she should be outside somewhere,”
“Done.” Gooje spun around and stomped away from the doorframe, his footprints left a trail of earth along the marble alfresco floor.
“Ugh, the floor was just freshly polished. A waste just to get Neheret,” He said shaking his head.
Neheret. Neheret. Neheret. It was always about Neheret. Anytime was always a good time to talk about her, at least it was rarely positive. The rest of her father’s attention was spent on work, which Neobatri loved listening to over Zanashj bedtime stories. Unlike those other stories, her father’s missions were real.
“Who was that man that came to see you? I don’t recall him being your handler,” Neobatri said as she morphed her hand back to normal.
“Ah, I answer to many people above me. He is the right hand of the emperor, though I’m uncertain if that was his true face. It would be unwise for someone in that position to go around unshifted, as you can understand,” he said tapping his waxed beard.
“Have you learnt how to tell if someone is shifted or not?” Neobatri said.
“You have to create a new personality with a new face, child. Some are utterly believable, like in your father’s case, but others not so much. However, a potent psychic can see through no matter how well you made that new persona. Doesn’t matter even if you believe it or created false memories to trick them, a strong psychic can see through all of that,” he said.
“But you’ve tricked psychics many times. Some even trained you to overcome their scans,” she said.
“Ah, I said ‘potent psychics.’ Surface thoughts are easy to get away with, if you don’t stay around long enough for them to read you. That’s why I always refused missions that involved those creepy Arinu,” he said as his shoulders trembled.
“Have you ever met one?” Neobatri said, her stomach beginning to growl again for more food.
“Would I have shivered if I hadn’t? When the treaty was being discussed, those dimwits at court thought the emperor was weak for it, for the Zanashj have no equals, only subordinates – hah! A group of Arinu came to meet with us. But what was not known, the emperor had asked me to infiltrate them. He wanted me to learn anything I could about their technology, culture, the extent of their psionics, everything!” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“What did you learn from the off-worlders?” Neobatri said as she pulled up a chair to keep her stomach from interrupting.
“I had a psi-tuner implanted for telespeaking, I incapacitated one and borrowed his face for a while. We toured around the palace, spoke freely – even joked. It wasn’t until I boarded their silver shuttle, half-way through the ascend to the stars, I was greeted by the unconscious Arinu in their sleeping pods. The room turned unbearably cold as the group surrounded me, staring through me with those glowing eyes. Not a moment later, I was sucked through a portal. Those bastards ported me to the royal court’s chamber, high enough in the air for both of my arms to break when I hit the ground,”
Neobatri’s stomach growled followed by pain, but she was too enthralled to break away from the tale. “How long do you think they were on to you?”
Amehtut shrugged. “Long enough to send a message. Received loud and clear, if you ask me. Since then, the court has become more intrigued by them, can you believe it! Now, I try to discourage any further infiltration with them. They’re nothing but trouble,” the twinkle in his eyes was replaced by fear, something she hadn’t seen in him before when talking about his work.
“Why is the royal court wanting to have any dealings with the Arinu if they’re so dangerous?” she said.
“Knowledge is power, child. That means more to our family and line of work than another profession. Our empire is fading and is ripe for conquest. With our new ‘neighbours’ revealing themselves and their untold psionic power, the Zanashj’s natural body-bending gifts are now little more than party tricks,” he said.
“Sounds like you admire them,” Neobatri said as she cradled her gut to keep the pain away.
“That’s what we have done for many species to become the best in the galaxy, Neo,” he said.
“If they were interested in conquest, why haven’t they already taken Uras?” she said.
“We don’t know why they haven’t taken homeworld, at least I don’t. What I do know: if the Zanashj had their psionics, we would have taken the galaxy and beyond. Some may say that’s probably for the best that we don’t,” he said as his finger tapped his beard, “not worth the headache,”
“Then knowledge is not power; it’s survival,” she said with a smile.
Amehtut returned the smile. He opened his mouth before a familiar stomping sound and annoyed sighs of a girl came through the entrance of the house. Neobatri’s head snapped around to see Gooje carrying a child over his shoulder, the skin of her legs were returning to their natural green from soft grey feathers slowly drifting to the ground. The large servant carefully slipped her to the floor and spun her shoulders around to Amehtut, her beak-like mouth was returning to a smooth pout above her v-shaped chin.
“My gods, Neheret, you morphed into a bird?” Amehtut strolled towards his youngest, but his voice was filled with awe rather than disapproval.
She shook her head, her long black locks dropped leaves and more feathers. “I couldn’t! My hair’s too heavy!”
“Better shifters could’ve done it with gold rings on their head,” Neobatri snarled as Neheret shot a dirty look to her sister.
“Spider-flies are everywhere this season, what did I tell you about them?” their father said with his arms crossing over his chest.
“They’re poisonous,” she said.
“They’ll kill you with a bite if you’re lucky,” Neobatri said as her stomach growled again.
“You’ll get your immunities once you hit tenth-year, which isn’t too far away. Gods, time runs, doesn’t it, maybe you’ll get them sooner with how quickly you’re growing,” Amehtut said as he glanced to the servant, “Gooje, how could you tell she was a bird from all the others out there?”
“She biggest one,” he grumbled.
Amehtut chuckled, but the laugh died in his eyes glancing around at the mess on the floor. Neobari watched Gooje’s lumpy chin tremble as he stared at her father. “I told you not to come in because of all the dirt, didn’t I?”
“Gooje clean.” As he hurried back to the alfresco, rummaging for cleaning equipment.
“You don’t need to scare him, father!” Neheret said as she stomped her bare feet.
“Be quiet, Neheret, this is your fault!” Neobatri jumped to her feet, the pain heightened, she could already feel her insides shrinking.
“Enough!” Amehtut called as his hands shot up, “Neheret, go to the cleaning quarters, I’ll take food and then rest,”
“I’ll bring food to you, fath-,” Neobatri’s words cut as her father’s hand sliced through them.
“Gods, get something for yourself before your mouth disappears.” He said before swooping out of the chamber and down the halls to the bedrooms.
Gooje stumbled around the alfresco holding a thin copper suction-broom, the noise drowned all the other sounds from the trees and animals outside. Neobatri stared at her little sister, her small fingers pulling away at the leftover feathers and dropping them towards the broom. Many believed Neobatri had cloned a younger version of herself because their resemblance, while both were handsome children, Neobatri despised being compared to her. She found herself hating everything Neheret loved, even being kind to house servants. It was irrational, she understood that, but looking at her was a constant reminder that Neobatri would always be outdone.
“Why are you still here? Go to the cleaner room!” Neobatri said. She wasn’t a bad child but looking at her sister made all that badness rise.
Neheret’s eyes narrowed. “Stay there and keep yelling, maybe your mouth will eventually shut.”
Neobatri sneered, she wanted to win this, but the pain was beginning to make her sweat. She looked to the open space to the kitchens and dashed through the doors. The copper and golden appliances cluttered the entrance, only a few were plugged into the walls. There were no spare foods on the tables and countertops, dread leaked into her. Zanashj adapted very quickly, if they didn’t eat for an extended period, then their digestive system will transform to accommodate other forms of sustenance. Their stomach and intestines may disappear, even their mouths. Her family had the worst of the adaptive power, however, it made them the best shifters and natural infiltrators in the empire.
Her eyes locked on to the egg-shaped cool food storage. Its curved glass doors had an assortment of fruits, vegetables and slabs of meat on every shelf. She didn’t hesitate to skip over, but her foot caught the edge of a warm body, forcing her over. Neobatri’s face planted into the polished stone floor as pain shot through her nose and forehead, she spun around to see a woman jumping to her feet, her face twisted in shock and concern.
“Apologies, my lady!” her hands diving forward to help Neobatri up. She was an older Zanashj, but her keen shifting abilities gave the appearance of a female in her early adulthood. However, her plaited silver hair gave away her true age.
“Get off, I can do it!” Neobatri said as she slapped away the woman’s hands as she rose to her feet.
“As you wi-,” the servant said, but Neobatri spun around to the cold storage box and ripped open the glass lid. Her hands pushed aside various spiky and long fruits for her favourite grapes at the back. Her stomach groaned as she devoured the sweet bulbs.
“Are you injured, my lady?” the servant said.
When Neobatri’s senses returned to her, she turned to face her. She wasn’t yet accustomed to being called a ‘lady,’ but it could grow on her. “What were you doing down there, servant?”
“I was unpacking some of the leftover boxes by Amehtut’s wishes,” she said with a soft smile.
“Ah, you’re Henuttamon, yes? Do you cook as well?” Neobatri said as she popped more grapes in her mouth.
“I did for the last noble family. If it pleases my lady, call me Henutt. The previous family did,” she said. Most of the servants at the estate remained loyal to the house as opposed to the family, but her father insisted on transferring some of his servants from their previous residence, like Gooje. He enjoyed tormenting that beastly man.
“This doesn’t please me. Those lowly nobles betrayed the emperor, we won’t end up like them. Do you agree, Henuttamon?” Neobatri said.
A ripple of fear came over the servant’s face before she forced out a nod. “Of course, lady,”
Neobatri smiled as she swallowed the last of the grapes before striding past Henuttamon. “Have a supper ready and take it to my father’s quarters, immediately.”
Night rolled in carrying lovely cool breeze. The air was still warm, but the humidity had dropped with the sun and this side of Uras could enjoy the brief relief. Neobatri enjoyed this peace on her balcony, vines wrapped around the golden columns and through the open patio roof. Her arms extended to the heavens, she could feel her back crack and pop as the bones loosened. Her neck bent back enough for her ankles to feel the ends of her hair. With the largest yawn she could muster, she felt her jaw crack before she snapped forward.
The navy and violet skies twinkled with stars as her eyes scanned across the galactic belt, she could see distant moving ships and satellites crossing along the globe and wondering what it would be like to see Uras from that distance. Perhaps one day she will be one of the important few to leave, to tour the known cosmos and see all the worlds the empire has reached. Only skilled shifters, nobles and royalty could know such joys. She wondered if she could persuade her father to take her to the barracks instead of listening to another dull lecture of history from the learned servants.
Leaves clapped and branches creaked to the estate below stole her attention. Her eyeballs shifted to see the dark shapes of the grounds below, Gooje slapped away the insects as stepped over the bushes and flowers, but his feet were too big to not crush anything. She pitied him, born of a conquered warrior race and a Zanashj sympathizer. His homeworld, Neobatri forgot the name, was little more than a ruin now. Most of the continents was undersea and the little land left was run by savage cannibals. At least he had a home here, of sorts. He liked being out at night, seemed to be more natural for him.
Gooje’s stubby finger pointed to shaking bush, at first Neobatri thought he had found a listening device or a shifted spy, but the bush stood up to reveal a small girl in the dirt. The leaves and branches fell from her back as Neheret giggled, Gooje waved his arms and pointed back to the house. Neobatri smirked as she quickly pressed her back against a pillar, her skin rippled to mimic the gold surface as her body partially wrapped around it.
She waited like a predator for Neheret to finish her silent climb up the levels of the house to her balcony. Her small arms lifted her over the railing before she dashed back into her quarters. This was her chance. Neobatri peeled away from the pillar and leapt over to her sister’s balcony. She hid at the edge of the open door, gentle amber light made her eyes sting when she peeked inside. Her smirk grew wider when she noticed that Neheret’s hair had been cut along her jawline, an embarrassing style for high members of the empire. Their father would lock her away until she compelled the hairs to return to an appropriate length. Neheret slipped a bone comb through her locks, quickly trying to remove as much of the leaves and twigs still stuck in the strands. Neobatri couldn’t pass up on it.
She barged through the door. “This is embarrassing,”
Neheret jumped as she spun around, she weaponised the comb, making sure the pointy end was close to Neobatri. “Wha-,”
“What did you do to your hair? Father wouldn’t be too happy,” Neobatri said as her fists rested on her hips.
“Just leave me alone, Neo,” she said as she continued combing the leaves from her hair.
“It’s my job to take care of you, but you make it impossible,” she said as she strode to the cream sheets of the bed and planting her backside on the soft mattress.
“Oh, it’s concern for me, how loving,” Neheret said as she shook the last of the green fibres from her hair.
“Believe what you want, but you’ll always be my little sister. Now, that mother’s gone, who else will you look up to?” Neobatri said.
“You dare want to talk about mother?” Neheret said, her voice was quiet, yet harder.
“I want to talk about what you’re going to do so father doesn’t know about your little ‘outting,’” she said.
“And you look up to father so much, with the blackmail and spying,” Neheret said.
“She made her choice. What’s yours?” Neobatri purred.
Neheret sighed. “You’re exactly like father, but you do a bad job at it. You’re like glass, Neo,”
“Do you even know what that phrase means, sister?” she said crossing her arms over her chest.
“Transparent and brittle, easy to break with the right flick!” Before Neobarti’s eye could see the spinning comb flying, it struck her straight in the centre of her forehead.
Her hand shot up to her face, its impact was surprisingly painful, but another slap on the side of her head pushed her to the ground. Neobatri jump to her feet, she towered over Neheret before squeezing fist and sending it to her sister’s lips. Her teeth were coated in thin sheen of red blood, the wounds were quickly closing as Neheret jumped on Neobatri’s foot. She hardened her bones to prevent breaking, but her darkened flesh spread over the surface.
Neobatri clumsily stepped back on the balcony as her sister swung her arms and legs, trying to hit her. She caught one of her arms and pulled her whole body to the edge of the railing, but Neheret shrunk her arm through her grasp. Neobatri felt a sharp kick in her hamstrings, losing control over her legs as Neheret grabbed a clump of Neobatri’s hair and pulled her head over the gold and wooden railing.
“Tell father, I dare you!” Neheret said as she pushed her weight into Neobatri’s neck.
“Eh-ugh-evil little beast!” Neobatri croaked, in the corner of her eye, she saw Neheret’s hand morph into a sharp bone-like blade that angled on her hair.
“Tell him, then your hair goes while you sleep!” she hissed.
Neobatri shifted her torso, she was just ready to toss her sister over until a bright light flashed high up in the stars. She sensed Neheret’s head turn up and her grip loosen, this was her chance to toss her sister over the balcony. Her body tumbled over the railing, but her grip remained on Neobatri’s hair. Her upper body lurched forward as she slipped over the edge and in the air. She landed with a thud on the garden bed, she glanced over to Neheret, they met eyes, and both were relieved they weren’t injured or made a sound. They were only feet from their father’s bedroom window, fortunately, the lump of quilts hadn’t moved from the mattress.
“Let’s just forget tonight and climb up,” Neobatri whispered.
Neheret nodded. They quietly moved through the dirt and grass to the closest pillars. Just before her hands wrapped around the marble column case, amber lights poured from their father’s window, the sisters froze as they exchanged nervous glances as both of their bodies started blending with the soil. Neobatri prayed that he hadn’t heard them or sensed them from outside and wasn’t going to peek out his window. She heard his tired voice and another through a machine. There was a pause before hurried footsteps rushed across the room and out the door.
“What’s going on?” Neheret whispered.
Neobatri braved to take a glimpse inside the bedroom, it was empty. “Something’s wrong,”
“Neo, look,” Neheret whispered, her eyes were turned to the sky behind them.
Neobatri followed her stare to see dozens of ships and satellites circling around where the flash of light came from. In the corner of her eye, she could see her father’s form dart back into the room, her head stuck low to the ground until the lights went out. They waited for an eternity before the deep hum of a hover vehicle came to life from the main platform over their heads. The pale gold disk drifted over the garden, Neobatri saw blue lights on the flat bottom before it shot off to the horizon. She climbed to her feet and wiped the dirt from her chest and belly, Neheret jumped up and shook the mud off.
“What happened, Neo?” she said.
Neobatri glanced back to the window to the computer sitting in the corner of his room. “Do you want to have a look?”
Neheret’s eyes narrowed.
“I won’t say anything about it, otherwise we’re both in trouble,” Neobatri said.
“I don’t trust you,” her sister said.
Neobatri rolled her eyes. “I’m the only one who knows his passwords,”
Neheret shrugged and turned to the window, her hand slipped through the centre and stretched to the lock inside. A small click and the windows slid apart. Neheret skipped inside with Neobatri closely behind. She rushed over to the corner, the gold and bronze cube had several small black circles on the upper surface. Neobatri slid her finger across the edge and the circles lit up and moved to produce a holographic screen, red flashes overwhelmed the screen, but was quickly subdued when she punched in the password on the light board.
“What are you looking for?” Neheret said over her shoulder.
“For chatter about that flash in the sky on father’s servers,” Neobatri replied as her eyes skimmed for updates.
“Do you think it’s an off-worlder attack?” she whispered.
“I hope not,” Neobatri bit her lip. Zanashj officials flooded their messages on the board, coordinates to a dark part of space is where the flashes came from and an encrypted transmission came from a distant unknown planet.
“’Transmission received from Erra: Neavensoros homeworld,’ what does that mean, Neo?” Neheret said.
“It means they received a message from Erra, the Neavensoros homeworld,” she said.
Neheret sighed. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, and I can’t ask him when he gets back,” Neobatri said as the messages continued to jump.
“Won’t he know that someone was on his computer while he was gone?” she said.
Neobatri glanced to her sister. Neheret rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll take the fall before you betray me,”
“Cut my hair to make it look like you forced the password out of me,” Neobatri said.
Her sister sucked air through her teeth. “You owe me,” she grumbled.
The latest message popped on the screen, it was the transmission partially decoded and the still grey grainy image of a frightening being. Neobatri’s finger touched the image, a video clip played of the creature barely moved it’s bust except the mouth. Static noises were mostly heard, but deep broken echoes of barely formed words were spoken. At the bottom of the message, few words were translated to ‘synthetic’, ‘alive’, ‘Roctarous’ and ‘help.’
“What do you make of this?” She turned to see Neheret had become as pale as the room and her eyes wide with fear and awe to the screen. “You scared?”
Neheret closed her mouth and swallowed. “N-no,”
Neobatri scoffed. “Of all the people to be afraid of, these ‘Roctarous’ aren’t it,” her eyes narrowed at the eerie image of the face, “I hope,”
“Can we go now?” her sister said.
“Wait a moment, there’s more here,” Neobatri’s eyes skimmed to the latest update, her stomach turned when she saw the word ‘Arinu’ float across the screen. “’An Arinu seeker tried peeping into Zanashj space shortly afterwards but was blocked by our shields.’ Hmm, that’s somewhat worrying,”
“I’m going back to my room, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said as she stepped back.
Neobatri rolled her eyes. “Hold on, there’s mor-,”
“Do you wanna get your haircut or not?” Neheret said.
Neobatri sighed as she slid her finger along the edge of the cube, the hologram disappeared, and the computer dimmed. “We’ll do it in your room, it’s already a filthy mess.”