As the world came into its own, having recovered from another depression, great leaps forward occurred in science whose consequences where unexpected. The world plague of AIDS had finally been cured, at least for those who had escaped it so far. The vaccine saved millions from the epidemic, but the virus had other notions. It ravaged the population with its next mutation, but this time the consequences were not mangled cells that demolished the immune system. This time the virus changed to activate the DNA. Those portions of the DNA that all people carry which have the power to create all other living organisms were randomly activated creating in their wake a new terror for the people.
The new group was called Changers, and they were immune to the vaccines. They had wings, manes, and tails that came and went at the will of the infected. The Changers quickly frightened the general population and the ruling governments into a kind of apocalypse. There was warfare over infections, intentional or perceived. Invasions came in all forms and soon the greater arms were being shot over the oceans, one superpower at another, leaving the infrastructure in shambles and the ruling powers devastated beyond recovery.
It was not until the world as it had been known before had crumbled, that the Changers realized their one weakness. They could not reproduce. The virus created enough changes in the DNA that the fail-safes inherent in the human system stopped most pregnancies and created mass infertility among the Changing population. They gathered together in even grater numbers looking for a cure for their problem, only to find there was no solution.
A small part of the population was still able to have children. There was a quirk that their bodies did not pick up, or a defective protein that allowed for the abnormalities. These women soon were elevated in respect among the Changers. They were revered and held above all others. Any Changer or woman who could bear Changers what given anything and everything she wanted. She had her choice of mates, homes, and most everything else. The hope was that her children would be the solution to the problem. But after years of watching, it appeared that it was not to be. Even among the children of the Changers, the same ratios held true. Only a few would be able to bare children, and most changed would come from infecting the general --, or non-changing, population.
So citadels were built for the Changers to keep them safe from the outsiders and protect those who had to learn to live with their disease. The citadels grew with each passing year and a ruling class emerged. Driven by the heightened animal instincts in the group, an Alpha emerged in each citadel. He was the strongest, smartest, or wileiest of the Changers. He often was replaced, and had to always be on his guard. Very few of the Alphas had families, but they oversaw the Captains who specialized in the care of the community. Every now and again a rogue would work their way into a citadel and decimate the population with the latest drug to “Cure” their “illness.” Needless to say those medical helpers did not enjoy a significant lifespan when they were discovered. And so the Changers became wary of the outside world and their societies became more guarded.
People who were infected with the Change-virus were often left to rampage through the general -- population for weeks before the local citadel would come to bring them in and train them to control their new instincts, or put them down. Sometimes the local police took the matter into their own hands and just deal with a predator. That was not the preferred method, considering the Changers were unpredictably strong, smart, and often armed with surprising extras. So any possibly infected were often quarantined in the worst of circumstances, and others were sent away into the wilds. Scientists continued to work on solving the Changer’s problems, and the world continued to try to function; limping along without proper support and often failing.
Astraea took a deep breath before reaching up to knock on the heavy doors. She was sure they knew she was there. There was no way she would have gotten this close to the city without being watched, but for some reason, she hoped a good omen, they had left her alone.
A deep voice boomed from the other side of the thick wood slats, “What do you want?”
She swallowed again, “I need to join you.”
The voice chuckled, and not in a friendly manner. “We are not in the habit of taking on foreigners.”
Astraea put her head against the door. “Please. We need your protection.”
“Only Shifters are allowed in.” The voice replied firmly.
“Then allow my son in.”
There was a pause, “Where is this son?”
Astraea pulled back the top of the pack she was wearing to reveal the little infant it was hiding. Someone must be able to see her, but from where, she was not sure. “Here, with me.”
The quiet continued.
She began to worry, maybe she would have to come up with another option. This had been her best hope.
But just before she was going to turn and begin the grueling walk away from the city, a clang and scrape sounded and the door creaked open the tiniest bit. A dark haired man looked out, with a deep frown.
“This is your child?” He asked more softly than the first, but only comparatively, he was still a long way from friendly.
“And you have seen him change?”
She nodded again.
“And his father?”
Astraea swallowed, looking down and away, “Not in the picture.”
This seemed to bother the man all the more, “Come in, we have a few things to talk over and I would like to be called when he does change so that I can verify.”
Astraea nodded, relieved that they were at least letting them stay for a time. It would be good to rest somewhere safe, and these days, very little was safe.
As she passed through the doors, Astraea noted their thickness, no less than a foot, and marveled at the strength it would take to hang them. The fittings inside were heavy steel, which was not hard to come by, but someone here had to have worked it into its current shape. Which also boasted of how well stocked the citadel was. She fervently hoped that she and Adamsalom were able to stay. This would be the best place for him, and maybe she could find something helpful to do.
“I’m guessing you haven’t eaten for awhile.” The man continued as they walked through a maze and out into the evening dimness of an open courtyard.
“Alright, I will get you dinner and see what kind of accommodations we can offer you. Things are a little full here these days, so I can’t promise much, but it will be a safe place to sleep until we can ascertain what to do with you in the long run.” He looked back at her as she walked taking in all her grand surroundings. On all sides tall gray walls rose keeping out all unwelcome guests. There were no flowers or plants of any kind in the courtyard, but all the walls were immaculately maintained. As they proceeded they came to a row of no less than ten arches, with a catwalk over the top. Many Changers looked down from above at her, but most seemed to be mature men. Astraea wondered if there were many women and if that was why she was allowed to enter.
Once they passed under the arches, another courtyard opened up which was nothing like the first. It was filled with stalls and canopies, people of all ages, shapes, and colors walked about talking freely. Planters filled all sides, covering many of the walls with splashes of color. Astraea brightened looking at the happiness of the people and daring to imagine her son running with the other little boys on the cobbled ground. Maybe this was a better choice than she had hoped. As they walked on past a large fountain with many lions holding it up, they came to a single story building.
The man motioned her in under the speculative eyes of others. He walked her down a cold hall way and opened one of the doors to a room covered in papers with walls plastered in drawings. A small twitchy man sat behind a desk and rose quickly as soon as his door swung open.
“Oh! Draco. How can I help you?” he simpered out.
Draco sighed, “We have a bit of a situation, and I figured you were the one to give it to.”
The man looked Astraea over with a critical eye, blinking quickly.
“This woman is not a Changer as I am sure your nose has told you.”
The twitchy man nodded.
“But she has a baby that is.” He sighed, perching his rump on a pile of books.
The office owner looked for a moment as if he were going to say something, but decided better of it, “And you got the baby where?”
Astraea sighed. “He is my son.”
The little man blinked, and began chewing on his nail and looking at one of his maps, muttering as he did. The longer he looked at it the more flustered he became.
“I have nothing!” He finally cried in despair. “If we had the addition finished, I would have plenty of room, but it is no more than drawn. It will be weeks before I am ready to move people into even the first rooms!”
“Settle down, --. The suppliers are still gone for at least another day. We can put her and the baby into any of their rooms for the night and then figure out who has an extra room in the morning.”
--looked at him as he worried his lip with his top teeth, “I suppose there is little harm in that. I would say we should put her in a room with a bath so that the baby stays as clean as possible. The only one with those kind of amenities is Challence’s.”
The first guide coughed, as if startled by the suggestion. “Are you sure that is a good idea?”
The little man shrugged, “Best we can come up with tonight. Besides, like you said we can change things tomorrow and I will tell his Excellency why it was needed.”
“Your head not mine,” he muttered. “Alright, get that in motion. I need to get her fed and find out a little more, but then I will make sure she finds here way there. If you will take care of everything else.”
-- nodded. “I will.”
They left, Astraea following again the large man. Adamsalom began to fuss. Astraea stopped, pulling the pack off and beginning to take him out.
“What?” -- demanded, turning to see that his charge was not hot on his heels as he exected.
“The baby wants out.” She replied in as soft a voice as she could manage.
He huffed and waited while she got him disentangled and snuggled into a blanket in her arms.
“He’s small.” --noted.
Astraea nodded,.“Yes, they start that way.”
“How old is he?”
She smiled down at his little red face. “Two weeks.”
The man blinked a few times. “And you have been walking with him this time?”
Astraea nodded. “I couldn’t stay where I was. Alone with a baby is just not safe. I had hoped to get here before he came, but…”
The man nodded. “And how soon after he was born did he change?”
Astraea shrugged. “I knew he could before he was born. That’s why I decided to try for here. I worked with medical equipment. I borrowed an ultrasound machine and when I looked at him, he was a small cat. While I was watching he shifted back to a baby.” She shrugged looking away, “Once he was here, I think he shifted about twice a day for the first few days and then settled into this skin. Now he does it more rarely, but it happens.”
--blinked. He had no experience with Changer babies, or any babies for that matter. “Come on, let’s get you fed.”
They walked back out into the courtyard, past the fountain, to another building. This one smelled amazing, and Astraea’s mouth began to water. There were tables everywhere in this corner of the courtyard and once under the permanent roof, pots and dishes seemed to fill every nook and cranny.
“Berba!” He yelled.
Adam began to fuss, catching a quick glance from the man. He stopped yelling and went off to find whomever he was calling. Astraea took a seat and began looking over her son. She changed his swaddling and began talking to him softly before her guide returned with a smiling round lady.
“This is Berba. She’ll get you fed. What do you want?” He demanded.
Astraea shrugged. “I am not picky. I haven’t eaten much in a long time.”
Berba grinned more broadly, “So you have brought me a thankful customer. I might even be happy with you for this.” She teased the larger man.
He grunted at her.
“I’ll be back with something to get that baby nice and fat.” She patted Astraea on the shoulder and turned back to her kitchen. She was gone for what seemed like moments and returned with a heaping plate of meat, bread, cheese, and fruit. Astraea looked at it like it were a dream, afraid to touch it and make it disappear.
“Go on, eat up. I’ll be right back with water for you to drink.”
She blinked at the woman.
“Well go on. Or will I have to feed you myself?”
No more coaxing was needed. She dug in, filling her mouth with as much as she could manage. Every bite was like heaven. It may not have been the best cooking that she had ever eaten, but her hungry stomach argued that it was manna from heaven.
“So tell me about this man?” He asked sitting down opposite her at the table.
Astraea swallowed her bite, but it stuck a little in her throat. “He was a Changer, but didn’t have any control over it.”
“I see a --.” He filled in.
“How did you…”
Astraea swallowed again, but not food. “I… It was not a good day. He cornered me…” The memories of that monstorous event came flooding back to her. The blood and bruises. She shuddered and shook her head, trying to plead with her questioner.
He frowned in response, so she tried again.
“He came into the lab, breaking things and growling. He had fangs and a mane…” She chocked on the words, tears beginning to run down her face.
“We’ll talk again later,” He sighed. “I have to go check on the guards.” He shoved back his seat, the corners of his mouth still turned down. He glanced back at Astraea one more time, shook his head and went back the way they had come.
“Can I help you by holding the baby while you eat?” Berba was back. She sat in the emptied seat with a grin.
Astraea looked down at her son, anxious to let him out of her arms for the first time. “If you sit right there.”
Berba smiled. “I was a grandma before all this craziness set in. I used to hold my grandbabies all the time.” She came over and picked him up with deft hands. “Oh sweet baby you need a bath.”
Astraea looked ashamed. “I did my best.”
“Oh no dear, I was not criticizing you.” She smiled softly. “No. He just smells like sour milk. That makes you a good jersey cow.”
“That is a good thing. He just has milk under his chin. In all those baby folds,” She crooned.
Astraea took a bite not taking her eyes off the other woman. But the food was amazing, and so much easier to eat with both hands free. She ate until her stomach hurt with over filling.
“Here, you take him and I will put together something for you to take with you for the middle of the night. You have to keep up your energy to be a good jersey.” She grinned taking the plate and cup from the table.
Astraea hugged her little boy tightly and he grunted in response. Soon Berba was back with a little pouch and a canteen. She sat down in the other chair. “I am going to slack off on doing that mess of dishes and sit with you until that mountain of a man comes back to get you to bed.”
Astraea smiled shyly.
“What did you used to do before your life got exciting?” She was so kind and gentle that Astraea wanted to talk about the good days and not think about the things that had happened since.
“I was working Just North in what used to be San Jose as a medical researcher…”
Berba cut her off, “Not on the Changer virus I hope.”
Astraea had to smile, “Not on the curing it project. I was working with a group trying to solve the fertility problem that comes with it.”
“I had gotten through a bit of it, but it was proving more challenging that had been first assumed. It is a basic human checks and balances system I was trying to bypass. And frankly most of us were stumped most of the time as to why it sometimes worked and why it sometimes didn’t.” Astraea shrugged.
Berba grinned. “Well anyone who is trying to help us get babies will be well loved among the women here. It is the greatest tragedy for most of the younger ones infected with the virus.”
“I can imagine.”
The grandma looked at the baby, “Did you always want to be a mother?”
Astraea smiled, “I did someday, but I had not gotten to the point of really thinking about it. I had my job and it took so much of my attention that I never really bothered with relationships that much let alone thinking about families and babies.”
“And then here you are.”
Astraea nodded at her little offspring. “And here I am. A mother. I haven’t a clue what to do half the time, but it’s good. I like it. I am tired and irritable, and he makes me laugh. He started smiling at me in his sleep and it melts my heart.”
“You’ll do a fine job,” Berba said, “I am sure of it.”
Challence had endured yet another grueling day. The sun was setting, but at least tonight he didn’t need to set up a fire and meal for those in his encampment. Tonight they had made it back home.
He walked the familiar halls, dragging his fingers lovingly over the cold stone. He smelled the air, knowing many of the smells in it, also aware of how many more there were here than there had been before. He ignored many of the conversations around him, nodding as was needed to those who noticed who was walking down their corridors. All seemed well; or at least as well as could be expected without the Alpha having been around.
He had left the place in good hands, ones that could take over if their forays were not successful. But the citadel needed supplies and the Alpha had to go along sometimes to negotiate with other groups to get what was needed. He rubbed his forehead. It had been a long week, and hopefully there was enough medical supplies to fill their needs. But with the collapse of the infrastructure, what was left was not abundant and those who still knew how to make medicines were extremely valuable. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to be Changers, and Challence was not about to let anyone else inside, not with the overcrowding he already faced.
The Cat were working on the new expansion plans, which he assumed he would be approving in the morning. It would be good to have more breathing room. He took another deep breath; it was beginning to smell like home. This part of the city had been an old castle and the halls were dark. He did not mind it, and neither did many of the others who were often gone on forays. It also remained one of the least desirable districts for families, which kept down the overpopulation, which suited Challence just fine, he rather enjoyed his bachelor status and the silence it afforded him on nights like this.
At last, the long hall ended in his door. A thick Mahogany beast that held the Alpha crest and a fine view. He pushed it open to a surprise. There in his bed lay a woman and a small baby, who was humming in his sleep, almost purring. The woman held him protectively in her arms, tucked tightly in his covers. Challence blinked, looked at the door and back at the woman.
He turned to the sound of steps in his hall. Norfrat was hurrying his way, eyebrows pulled together, steps mincing to try and hurry along.
“My greatest apologies, your Excellency,” He muttered, rather more quiet than usual. “I tried to catch you before you left the main square, but as usual, you are far faster than I am.”
Challence waited for the purveyor to get to the point.
“I was going to tell you we have run out of space, and given the rarity of this woman, we decided it best to put her in your room.” The rat-faced man swallowed, looking over his glasses frantically.
Challence took a step back and closed the door without a sound, “What’s so special about her?” He sighed, not liking the idea of giving up his bed, which he had so anticipated sleeping in.
The Purveyor, Norfrat, nodded. “Yes, well, it seems that she gave birth to that baby and he is a Changer.”
Challence nodded, that was rare. Most Changers were created as adults and the survival rate was less than encouraging. But a woman who was able to have a child who could change made Challence pause. Most Changers could not have children at all. As Alpha, he saw the need to protect such a person.
“And her mate?”
Norfrat shook his head. “Even more interesting. It seems she was attacked by a Rogue. No idea why she was able to escape. She tried to tell us, but was broken down into such hysteria by that point that not a one of us understood.”
The Alpha gave up the hope of getting his bed back. “Alright, so where does that leave us?”
“I was hoping you would be willing to stay with Abram. You as Alpha have a right to evict her to get your own bed back, but…” He let it trail off significantly.
“You were hoping I was in a better mood than that.” Challence ran his hand through his hair. “Alright. I suppose I will give up my bed for this woman, tonight. After that, I expect you to find her a suitable place.”
Norfrat bobbed his ascent, but seemed all the more fidgety in response.
Challence knew if they had put her in his room there was nowhere else, but retaliating on the little man for taking his bed was not for him. The little man scurried off as Challence sighed, heading for his commander’s door.
He beat on it openly irritated. Abram opened it frowning. “What? Did I forget something?”
Challence shook his head. “No. I am taking your lounge tonight.”
Abram’s eyebrows shot up, “What did something eat your bed?”
Challence sighed. “No. I am letting someone borrow it for the night.”
Abram stepped back inviting the Alpha in with the sweep of his hand. There were a million questions to ask, but not of the Alpha and not after a trip like he had endured. Abram would have to wait until his friend was ready to talk. Pushing an Alpha was like teasing a croc, not something a person who enjoyed breathing ought to do.
More than that Abram had grown up in the same suburban neighborhood as Challence. They had been the only survivors in their families and as young teenagers had banded together as a primal pack. Challence was always the Alpha and had quickly taken over the role with others who they came across. Eventually they began building citadel. But to see him resigned to sleep on a couch meant this guest must be something more than a little special. Most people he would kick out without a second thought. Especially after weeks on the ground. Challence had never been one for camping, and it suited him no better now that he was a Changer.
Abram went to his wardrobe and tossed a few blankets at the Alpha. Even in the heat of summer, it was cold in the old castle.
“Good night Alpha.”
Challence grunted his agreement.