Good little girls and boys do their chores when asked, and save their allowance responsibly, so that when the Dragon Of The Mountain comes, they can pay their taxes and not be eaten.
"Guide," Mendez calls out again; there's been no response since the ship rang like a bell, since his ears popped and started to ache, since he was thrown against the bulkhead and knocked senseless.
The wall is cold, smooth metal. He makes his way along it to a door that doesn't open automatically. There is a control pad, but it makes no sound when he touches it.
"Is anyone there?" He listens. Again, there is no response. There is no low rumble from the engines, there is no muted hum from the power grid, there is no faint whine from the air system. "Anyone?"
Mendez resumes moving, passes another door that defies him, and another. He walks faster, the fingertips of his right hand dragging lightly against the wall.
His foot jams in mid-stride against something soft. He is off-balance: he tumbles forward, instinctively brings his arms and elbows up to protect his face and head. He is on the ground.
He sits up, reaches out for what tripped him; he finds a body. He feels for the face, to see if he can identify it, but recoils at wetness before he can recognize the shape. He wipes the blood off on his clothes, shuddering.
He hears a noise, a creaking sound. Someone is trying to open the door from the other side.
Whomever the body used to be, their pistol is still in its holster. He pulls it free, turns it on, releases the safety. He makes himself small against the bulkhead opposite the door. He will have to be very lucky.
The door creaks again, and then hisses. He hears the sound of gears moving against tracks. He readies himself.
It's a familiar voice; he lowers the gun. "I'm here."
"It's Pen. Have you seen… I mean, have you run into anyone else?"
"No. And my guide program isn't responding."
She comes close, helps him up. "The power's off. All I have is a pen light."
He can smell her, her distinctive soap. He also smells fear. "What happened?"
"I don't know." She pauses for a moment; he can hear her breathing. "We should try to get to the bridge. Are you hurt?"
"No, but… who's dead? Over there."
There is a pause. She exhales. "It's Reese. Something cut him up pretty bad."
"I don't know. I… we should get to the bridge. Hold on to my belt."
They move slowly through the ship. Pen stops and starts, moving quietly and then listening. They come to another door, and she begins to crank it open manually.
There is a crash, and he is knocked down. He slides across the deck and into the bulkhead. He hears ripping sounds, horrific sounds of desperate struggle, and then nothing. He lays silent, unmoving, listening.
Something is very close to him, something big and awful-smelling. He hears an odd clicking; he feels hot, wet breath against his face. "I can't see. I can't see you." Mendez reaches out to feel.
She sat astride a thick bough with her legs dangling in open air. "Come and get me!" She taunted the wolves circling below. "No? Then maybe I'll come down and eat you!"
Suddenly their ears perked, and just as suddenly they fled.
"I can't believe that worked."
"You shouldn't tease them like that. They remember the insult."
She turned to find the origin of the strange male voice, to find… well, dressed like that, he could only be a wizard. She replied, warily, "They're only animals."
"Animals have their dignity." He smiled. "In any case, they won't return. Come down."
The line was long, as it always was on a work day at that hour. They would be harried and overwhelmed by the sheer number of human workers. They would be more likely to make mistakes. Assuming they made mistakes; no one was sure.
"Step forward." The Vylid had a soft, raspy voice like a dry wind blowing through crumpled paper. The man three people in front of Marla moved hesitantly up to stand at the white line, between the pair of huge Grodon guards.
From behind her, a whisper. "I don't recognize you."
Marla, standing with arms crossed in front of her, said nothing.
The whisper came again. "Are you supposed to be here?"
Marla glanced over her shoulder: a middle-aged woman, too thin. "There's no talking in line."
The woman moved forward, staying just behind Marla. "Where are you from?"
"You're going to get us punished, we shouldn't be talking."
"They don't care, if you're quiet." The woman leaned in closer. "They'll scan you. They scan everyone. You know that, right?"
Marla ran her thumb over the three symbols on her forearm. The brand felt strange, foreign. "I'm where I'm supposed to be."
Marla would be next. One of the massive guards stepped heavily away from the table, came lumbering slowly down the line, came right past her.
The woman whispered again when the guard was out of earshot, "It's all right, you can tell them you got on the wrong bus, that you made a mistake."
Marla didn't hesitate; the die was cast now.
She handed her ID card to the remaining guard, who handed it to the seated Vylid. The willowy creature typed something into its computer, and then nodded to the guard. Marla offered her arm.
The Grodon held a scanner against her forearm where the three symbols were tattooed on a grafted piece of a dead woman's skin. The scanner beeped.
The raspy voice spoke to her. "Move through."