The music echoed through the night. Brilliant spotlights shone on the stage in the center of the amphitheater, and humans sat in chairs or stood on the edges of the crowd all over, listening. On the stage, the group played their music, tempestuous and violent, and the woman in the black leather bodysuit sang.

Mother of mine
I don't want to be possessed by you
I want to be free
I want you to let me be me
Not you
Lisa leave me alone
Leave me alone
Leave me to be
Someone my own
Leave me alone, leave me alone!
I'll go insane if you can't leave me alone!

Mommie dearest
You're crushing me under your smothering wings...

Sitting at the top of the amphitheater, her eyes unusually attuned to distance, a person not native to this world let herself be caught in a storm of the music. Rare that she had time for this; rare enough to have time to listen to music at home, rarer still to find time in her schedule to go to concerts on Earth... But she had fulfilled her obligations to her mask-self, to her god and to her world. There had to be some time left for her true-self.

Mother of mine
I can't be what what you want me to be
Instead of trying
To force me to fit, why don't you me free...

The singer, Ramona Jenner of the Kitten Children, was very beautiful and very talented. But what drew the alien more than anything was the words of the song. They were not in her native tongue, but the sentiments they expressed could have been her own. She closed her eyes and remembered another life...

Spectran songhouses were usually filled with the smoke of a dozen different addictive and smokable drugs, and the flickering, multicolored lights shifted eerily in the haze like the spirits of the woods, Alina' worst fear. She didn't care. She had been coming here once a sixday for close to a season now, with backtapes she'd made on equipment she'd borrowed from former members of her gang, and singing. She stood on the Floor, the raised area in the center of the songhouse, waited for the musical accompaniment on the backtape to reach her cue, and sang.

Lerika mesh, ashka sha

Price of freedom, death of love

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me?

Omachar'e hakaki haya

I demand all of your rights

Omachar'e hai'zha jadeka

I demand to be a man

Jat fi'haik asa

And yet be a woman


Could you love me

Ha-l-e d'injir


Eka jadasa?

My androgyny?

Tonar'ga proba saïd

A hole does not a weakness make

Tonar'ga ambakaba taïd

A sausage doesn't give you strength

Ji'dambi jeratar ha-l-ashkar la?

You keep your courage in your dick?

Eka-l-ashkar jeraj e datondat

I keep my courage somewhere else

Saa, jadyoch e mer

Sure, I act like a guy

Alhar re asa'ba

But I'm a woman deep inside

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa la?

Could you love a woman like me?

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me?

D'injir emir'ga

Knowing I'm

Taida e taidek hayoch

As strong as you

Sematen ha isha kon pasai la?

Do you want a lover or a slave?

Haik e trasaiba, yon hagal e pasaiba

I'm a middle-class girl, I'm no slave

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me?

She was smiling, moving feet and fingers in time to the beat of the music. She had tried to be a boy for so long, and now, perversely, when she'd come to realize the full extent of her changing powers and developed the capacity to actually be male, Alina wanted to be a woman. No longer did she want to go into the army-- that was what Madi wanted for her. Alina wanted to be a star.

Ah, chatifaned eyan madi alba

Uh-huh, my mother wears combat boots

Sematen ha midor'zha alak tan?

Do you want to see her medals?

Saa, sera mejadet're

Sure I act really butch

Mer hai jadeba semat'zha e

But it's a man that I want

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa la?

Could you love a woman like me?

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me?

D'injir omat'zha e haka kig

Knowing I demand your rights

D'injir hai'zha e spectoral do

Knowing I'm a person too

Ri'tafir ha haka tamandi la?

Must you pick your opposite?

Emir'ga dinadat'zha

Doesn't anyone think

Hai'zha taïd shadi las la?

Strength is sexy?

Shi'azhekan ha eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me?

Shi'azhekan jea eyoch asa la?

Could you love a woman like me, love?

Shi'azhekan jea eyoch asa?

Could you love a woman like me, love?

Her eyes swept the crowd as she sang her personal anthem of love and power, and for a second she thought she saw her mother, standing in the back. No! How'd Madi find out I was-- But when she tracked back, she saw no one. I must be imagining things-- no way Madi could know I'm here. This was the capital, far from the provincial area she called home. Madi had connections, but not that many. Besides, those who knew Alina knew her as an androgynous, boyish figure whose chest was as flat as the Great Plains and who wore sunglasses and men's clothes all the time as her trademarks. Here, Alina had not altered her face a great deal, but she had given herself breasts and dressed as a woman. No one would assume she was the same person, since most didn't know she was shapechanger. She was safe.

She stepped off the floor as the people sprawled throughout the songhouse stomped their feet in appreciation. "Shi'azhek-han e ha-yot asa'ba, e, Alina!" one man yelled-- "I could love a woman like you, Alina!" Alina grinned, and yelled back the Spectran equivalent of "Put your money where your mouth is!" It was not a genuine offer, although if he'd had black hair Alina wouldn't have minded taking him up on it-- the spectoral made genuine offers more discreetly than that. If she'd wanted to, Alina herself could proposition one of the men here-- after that song, no one would be surprised if she took male prerogatives-- or she could wait around here for someone to proposition her. But she was only a mid-adolescent, 15 by what would be the years of Earth, and she'd only played sex with a few people before. She was inexperienced, and she didn't want the men at the songhouse to know it, not after her tough song.

The next singer stepped up to the Floor. He was obviously inexperienced, and his backtape wasn't very good. There were catcalls and angry shouts, and Alina decided not to stick around for it. She headed outside for a breath of fresh air-- the drugged smoke inside didn't react with her shapechanger metabolism the way it affected the spectoral, the ordinary natives of Spectra, but it was annoying.

A hand grabbed her wrist as she stepped outside the door, and dragged her into the alley outside the songhouse. Alina dropped into a fighting crouch at once. This was the city, and the poor of the city would kill you for food, if you let them. But they were usually starved and had no strength. Alina aimed her fist at her accoster's stomach. A strong hand blocked, and Alina was thrown against the wall of the alley. She kicked at the other's shin, but didn't connect-- her attacker dodged back.

It was nearing sunset, and the tall buildings of the city cut off nearly all the light, making the alley almost as dark as it would be come nightfall. In the dimness, all Alina could see was that her assailant was a woman, which should be good. Alina was slender, but her shapechanger muscles were designed differently from ordinary people's. She was a lot stronger than many men, let alone women. So she went for the woman, who somehow, impossibly, grabbed her and used the forward momentum of her charge to throw her against the wall. While Alina was dazed, a hard kick caught her under her ribs, and all the breath went out of her lungs. Then a hand tangled itself in her hair and yanked as another lifted her by her tunic front. If she'd had any breath, she would have screamed-- Alina's hair was alive, and the squeezing it was getting was like having her finger caught in a vise.

"What the hell did you think you were doing, Alina?" an all-too-familiar voice said angrily. "After I'd specifically forbidden you to come here!"

"M-madi?" The darkness of the alley and the swimming spots in front of her vision made it impossible still to make out the woman's features, but the voice was that of Larina Toraz-- fighter pilot, woman Army captain, and Alina's mother. "H-how..."

"It wasn't difficult. You forgot that Mala's father is the head of the Information Department, and that Keisrak is the capital. Naturally, he knows everything about this city-- including the fact that a girl named Alina had been making a name for herself in the songhouses."

Alina had her breath back now. "You said you wanted me to be famous..."

"Not like this!" Larina shook her savagely. Alina gasped in pain, but didn't dare fight back as long as her mother held her hair. "You were born for a purpose, Alina! I won't let you squander your future!"

"Okay, okay," Alina gasped. "I-- I understand. Could you let go of my hair?"

Larina released her. In the same instant, Alina pulled the hair in under the skin, making herself bald and no longer vulnerable, as she brought a knee up into her mother's crotch. From experience as both male and female, she knew that it would not hurt her mother as much as it would a man-- not enough to disable completely-- but it ought to stun with pain for several seconds. In those seconds, she slammed a punch across her mother's face, turned, and bolted.

Then fiery numbness lanced into her back, and she collapsed, unable to run, unable to believe what had happened. Madi had shot her. She had actually shot her own daughter. Alina had only been shot with a stunner once before in her life, but it was not a sensation one forgot. Larina dragged her to her feet, and methodically hit her, as hard as Alina had struck, three times. "You will not hit your mother," Larina said, her voice dark with fury. "You are an ungrateful little brat. I've given you everything, and yet you disobey me, hit me, and try to run away. Well, it's going to change, Alina."

Madi carried her to the aircar-- it was parked further down in the alley-- and threw her unceremoniously onto the far back seat. Alina was numb, paralyzed- she was having a hard enough time breathing, never mind talking, and so all the things she wanted to say went unsaid. Things like, I have a right to live my own life! and, I don't want to go into the army! But she couldn't say them, and by the time she got her voice back she realized it would fall on deaf ears anyway.

The only thing she could do was run away. She was a shapechanger; if she decided to hide herself well, not even her half-sister's father, Andris Andelo who knew everything that went on on Spectra, would be able to find her. Young middle-class women all over Spectra were trying to be singerstars; she could blend in with no trouble. She would miss Telkiné- her best friend, and second-in-command of the kids' gang she used to run-- but he'd understand why she had to do it. He didn't want to go into the army any more than she did- he'd never even really liked running in the gang, although he'd done it well. She wished she could take him with her, but he was male, healthy, and not scientifically inclined. Except for those who went into the sciences and the physically disabled, all male Spectrans went into the army between the ages of 18 and 20. Telkiné couldn't escape. Alina could.

That was what she would do. Run away, and establish a new identity. That decided, Alina looked out the window, down at the ground they were flying over, and shivered. Beneath the aircar was the forest, thick and terrifying. Not much scared Alina, but the spirits were an exception; immaterial predators of pure energy, they fed on people's life force, and they seemed to prefer Alina's life energy to anyone else's. It was expensive to drive them off, so most of the forest was unpopulated, despite Spectra's overpopulation problem, and the large tracts that had been cleared belonged to the middle classes, like Alina's family, or served as oligarchs' country estates. Most of the rest of the forest was left unexplored, even by ordinary spectoral, who had some hope of surviving a spirit attack. Alina, who probably had no hope at all, avoided the deep forest like the plague.

Then Alina realized that the car was setting down in a clearing. It was a tiny clearing, not big enough to contain someone's home, and Alina was acutely curious. Why would they be in such a clearing? "Hey, Madi, what're we landing here for?"

"You'll find out." There was tightly controlled rage in Larina's voice, intimidating Alina into keeping her mouth shut. Sometimes Madi scared the shit out of her.

They landed, and Madi pressed the button to open the top of the car. "Get out."

Alina obeyed, knowing better than to push her luck at a time like this. She stood in the clearing, giving an involuntarily glance to the thick forest a hundred walkspans behind her. But it was still daylight, and the spirits didn't like light. She was safe enough here. So she turned back to her mother, hoping that her expression of penitence would win points.

"It's time you learned what you were born for," Larina said coldly. "I did not go to all the trouble of seducing a shapechanger and conceiving you so that you could run off and be a singerstar like half the brainless girls on this planet. What do you think I had you for?"

"So I could join the army under the pretense of being male, make a name for myself, and then provide protection and influence for Mala to join, and then the two of us can open up the army to women's advancement," Alina recited, trying to sound like she meant it. So Larina was bitter over being passed over for promotion, while pilots far stupider and less skilled than she advanced over her head. So what? Did that give her the right to dictate Alina's life? Or Mala's, for that matter-- although Mala was a good little girl and would never think to question Madi's plans for her life. That, and Mala was even more of a knee-jerk Women's Advocate than Larina was.

"And you can't do that by running off and becoming a musician," Larina purred at her, dangerously. Her voice grew sharp again. "Go into the woods and get me some athat."

Alina stared. "Madi, it's almost sunset." Larina knew the spirits had a taste for her daughter's life force; could she possibly have forgotten?

"Did I ask you for a weather report? Obey me. Go now, and quickly."

Alina turned resentfully and sprinted for the forest. One of Madi's damned loyalty tests. She wanted Alina to prove that she would dance to Madi's tune like a good like girlie, like Mala did. Well, she'd do it, act out the little scenario Madi wanted-- and then, when Madi least expected it, she would disappear. And it would serve Madi right.

The forest at sunset was not a place Alina frequented. She had to slow down and maximize her night vision to find the athat plant in all the undergrowth. The shadows were huge, making her constantly startle when she saw them out of the corner of her eye, and there were tiny animal noises all over. Some might be big animal noises, but Alina didn't fear wild animals. She feared only the spirits.

Something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye, something milky and insubstantial. Alina spun, already feeling the goosebumps of fear, and then the icy chill brushed against her. A spirit, already. Hastily Alina moved away from it, into a better-lighted patch. There wouldn't be many of them in the twilight, but there would be some. She would just have to keep her wits about her and avoid them-- they were slow-moving, stupid creatures, and as long as she only encountered one or two she would be all right. Where was that damned athat?

The spirit pursued her, lazily drifting as if on the wind. They were hard to see when you looked directly at them-- a shimmer, a haze in the vision. Out of the corner of one's eye, they turned into milky white gossamer, like densely knitted spiderwebs. Aline shifted her eyes in her skull slightly, setting them farther apart and making them larger, to increase her peripheral vision. Here she was prey, and needed prey's eyes. Thorny vines stung her legs and arms-- she toughened her skin to the extent she could, but her abilities would not permit her to take a form outside the natural range available to spectoral. For a moment, she thought she saw athat, and bent to grasp it-- but it was selkin instead, and stung her hand with poison, immediately raising ugly welts on her hand.

Cursing, Alina backed away, her immune system working to be rid of the poison, and backed directly into icy cold. She jumped sideways, jerking away from the embrace of the spirit, and ran. As soon as she was far enough away, panting and gasping, she scanned the forest. Three more of the things were slowly converging on her.

Screw the athat. Proving her nonexistent loyalty to Madi was not worth her life. Alina dodged and wove, trying to escape the forest. Spirits evolved out of the ground right in front of her, brushing against her and sucking her life. Already she was dizzy and weakened from the repeated brushes with the creatures, but panic kept her going. A little thing like pain and weakness never stopped Alina from running for her life.

And then she burst out of the woods, into the darkened clearing, the Wolf Sun gone entirely behind the hills and only the dimmest light from the Blood Sun remaining.

The aircar was gone.

Alina sank to the ground, numb with horror. Madi had betrayed her, had left her here to die. It wasn't possible. Surely wanting to be a singer wasn't a crime worth dying for? Or maybe it had been because she hit Madi? No, this couldn't be, it was a test, Madi had moved the car. That was it. She was hiding behind that rock over there. Alina ran to the rock. "Madi?" she called, desperately. "Madi!"

The car was not there.

There was nowhere else it could be hidden in this clearing. Alina scanned the darkening sky-- no sign of it. She climbed up on the rock and extended herself to her full possible height, weakened muscles screaming as she demanded a shapechanger's full range from them, contracting her body thinner and extending it higher by a full head. Still no sign of the aircar. Madi had abandoned her.

And in the twilight the spirits were thickening, drifting out of the woods toward her.

She shrank back down to normal height, panic and rage washing over her in alternating waves. There was no hope. She couldn't fight the spirits. But she was damn well not going to go down without a fight. Instincts honed as the leader of a children's gang took over, and she dropped into a fighting stance, even though the creatures were insubstantial and all her strength and fighting skills would avail her nothing against them. The spirits drifted over to her rock, and up it, reaching to embrace her--

--and she leaped through them and down, running.

More spirits pursued. They were slow, but there were a lot of them, the clearing thick with them as the last of the Blood Sun's light disappeared behind the hill. Alina ran, weaving, dodging around the spirits. If she could just keep this up until morning, she could survive.

But they brushed against her, cold as death, drawing life away. And each time she grew weaker, her legs less swift, her brain slower to see a spirit up ahead and dodge it. Sometimes she charged right through them, not seeing them until she was on top of them already, and felt the cold to the deep of her bones as she flung her entire body through the spirit's sucking embrace. She kept having to stop, to get her breath, and each time they drew closer before she could move again. Her vision swam, and her body trembled uncontrollably with terror and weakness, as she whimpered into the dark.

"Madi, madi, save me, I'll do whatever you want, I'll be good, please, don't let me die here, please don't leave me, please, come back, please..."

And then she couldn't run anymore, every muscle leaden with exhaustion. Freezing cold gossamer descended over her. For a while she writhed, trying to crawl away, to escape the sensation of being drained. A shapechanger had reserves of energy to draw on that no ordinary spectoral could imagine. But those same reserves drew the creatures to her unerringly, as if she was a beacon of light in the dark clearing, and no matter how she writhed and struggled she couldn't escape. Gossamer death coiled around her, and bitterly, reluctantly, Alina slowly yielded to it. cold...

"Alina. Alina, can you hear me?" very, very cold...

Something touched her lips, something sweet. Sugar water was being dripped down her throat. She was so hungry, but too weak to move a muscle, to reach out to take food.

A needle pierced the side of her neck, and she felt a rush of returning warmth. "Don't move your head," Madi's voice said, so she didn't. She would do anything Madi said, anything at all to keep the spirits from coming back again.

"You will never disobey me again," Madi's voice said, slowly and firmly. "If you do, you will die. This is the proof. If you should think of disobeying me, you will remember the way you feel right now, the way you felt when the spirits had almost killed you. Do you understand?"

Since she couldn't move her head, Alina blinked to prove she understood.

"Now. You want to join the army. You have wanted it since you were a little girl. You want to fulfill Madi's dream, and make me proud of you. Don't you?"

Another blink.

"You want power. You will rise in the army and achieve as much power as you can. You will conquer worlds for the glory of Spectra, for power. With power you can protect yourself, so this never happens again. With power you can protect your family, because your family is the most important thing you have. Do you understand?"

Madi's words went on and on, repeating the things Alina had believed as a child, disbelieved as a teenager, and now believed again. In her state of weakness and suggestibility, Alina was a small child again, reaching out desperately to her mother, believing everything she said.


...A month later Mala had dug up the name Zoltar in books in her father's library, evidence that the mythical demon of Spectra had been a woman, who ruled Spectra with an iron fist and had a witch's purple eyes. Her own purple eyes were the one feature Alina possessed that she couldn't seem to change, evidence that her mother was ordinary spectoral, and therefore she herself was not a full shapechanger, after all. The name had delighted the new, harder Alina, the Alina who was dedicated to her mother's dream.

It had been years before she remembered the incident with the spirits, and her mother drumming the words into her in her suggestible state. And by that time, she was already Zoltar, and it was far too late.

When I was a child, you said I was stupid
You said that my music would never be useful
You despised what I loved, and you tried to break me--
But look at me now!
Am I not what you wanted?
Look at me now!
I'm your perfect daughter
So successful, respected
Beloved, worshipped--
Look at me now!

There was a major difference between Ramona Jenner and herself, the alien mused as Jenner belted out the lyrics to another song. Jenner had escaped the plans her mother had for her life. Alina Toraz-- known better to the galaxy as Zoltar-- had not.

And now that it was too late, now that she was tied by obligations to Mala and to her children and her niece, bound by the Luminous One, a far more frightening predator than the spirits of the forest had ever been, and shackled by the need to protect the world she now possessed by conquering others, at whatever cost to her life and her soul... now she remembered that once she had had other plans. Plans her mother had tortured her into giving up, forever.

She stood up, wrapping her cloak against the Terran night, though the only dangers this safe, soft world presented was the danger of getting chilled by the damp air. In that moment, she hated the singer, for having the freedom to live her own life. A few moments later she had stalked out of the amphitheater and was gone.


The Kitten Children are a rock band that I invented when I was about, oh, 14 or so, and at this point have as much of a life of their own as any of my creations. If you're interested, I can provide the full text of the songs in here. Future stories will explain what Ramona's relationship with her mother was, why Ramona wrote "Let's Put On Our Shakespearean Hats" for Jason (featured in the last "Naughty Issue") and why the Kitten Children's seventh album was entitled "Love Letters from Spectra." :-)