"You are going to leave me here on Earth? Alone?" Cytolene gripped her phone tightly. She could not believe what her mother was saying.
“Do you have a better idea?” Neelie asked. The reception was so clear it was hard to believe she was sitting at the command centre of a spaceship orbiting Earth. Neelie always used the best technology.
“I'm sorry,” Cytolene repeated. “I was so sure, I checked everything.”
Neelie's voice softened. “Are you certain you can't farm humans?”
Cytolene wanted to lie, but couldn't quite manage it. “They are mammals which give birth to one live young at a time. Then it takes forever for them to grow old enough to eat. It wouldn't be cost effective.” The words were bile in her mouth.
“This was your idea. Do you have any idea how much this trip cost?” Neelie demanded. It was still a shock when she continued “I'm going home. You can stay here and salvage this mess.”
“That's not my name.” Even without seeing her, Cytolene knew Neelie had stiffened in outrage. She hated the childish name and refused to answer to it.
“Please. You can't leave me here on my own.” Cytolene hated to beg but the prospect of being left behind was unbearable.
“Are you telling me what I can do?” Years of unquestioned authority echoed in her mother's voice.
“No. Of course not. But -”
Neelie cut her off. “Then it's settled. You're the expert on humans. You'll find a way to make a profit from them.”
“I don't want to.” Cytolene took a breath to steady herself. “Take me home with you, please.”
“Do stop whining. Your first major mission has failed.” Neelie's voice was utterly inflexible.
In the background, Cytolene could hear the ship's crew preparing to break orbit. Without her. “You expect me to live here, with all the humans?”
“The way you look now, you'll fit in much better down there than you would back on Eris.”
Cytolene flinched at the memory of the surgery that had transformed her. Then anger came to her rescue. “Fine! If that's how you feel, I'll make sure you never have to see me again.” She snapped her phone closed, and grinned at the thought of her mother's reaction. No-one hung up on Neelie.
She put her phone down and stared around her. Earth. She was stranded on one of the most backward mudballs of the galaxy. With no way home.
She was sitting in a Starbucks in San Diego. Ten minutes ago, it had been quaint, even exotic. Now it was alien and hostile. Outside, the Pacific glinted blue in the sunlight. She shuddered. What sort of freakish planet had oceans full of poisonous salt water? She longed for the dry heat of Eris.
A human male at a nearby table was watching her. She bared her hated, human teeth at him, but he took that as an invitation and moved to join her.
He obviously liked pale hair with pink streaks and amethyst coloured eyes. Stupid human. She scowled at him and he backed off.
A toddler knocked a glass to the floor and went running for the door. His mother shrieked at him to stop, but he ignored her and raced on. As he barrelled past her, Cytolene reached out and caught the little brat.
She held him by his arms, despite his protests, until his anxious mother grabbed him.
The frazzled young woman kissed and spanked her child while babbling thanks to Cytolene.
She managed a smile. "Think nothing of it. I love babies." It was true. She did love babies, they were so succulent and tender and delicious.
Kissing or even touching an adult human gave her a shot of energy. Children were a special treat, fizzing with life. That little boy had been bursting with vitality. He should have been delicious, but right now, he tasted like chalk.
She wandered round San Diego in a daze, grappling with the notion that she was alone. She had never been on her own before. It was terrifying.
She had no idea how far she had walked when the terror began to clear, and anger took its place. She had done everything she had been asked and more. One minor misinterpretation of the data did not merit exile. How dare Neelie do this to her?
She was not going to stay here like a discarded eggshell. Earth, with all its water, was a popular stopping point on long journeys and humans were a delicacy that were always in demand.
Cytolene was going to hitch a lift on the first passing space ship. Somehow, she was going to get home.