Three Towers Inn. The Abyri-style pub’s name was as generic as they came, but Maya didn’t mind. There was something comforting about its lazy stereotyping. You know what to expect from this place, it seemed to suggest, and that familiarity was precious when settling into a new town. Especially when one has something to hide… which Maya did. Being constantly on guard was stressful, so any occasion to under-analyze was welcome.

She opened the door, stepped inside, and sighed deeply. The muggy air inside, lined with the smell of wood paneling, filled her lungs as the buzz of idle conversation washed over her, interspersed with the lull of some folk-pop on the phonograph. Welp, time to start it all over again, she thought as she briefly scanned the place – phony-vintage décor all around, furnishing that leaned more toward cozy than chic, and a remarkably diverse-looking crowd, a lot of it non-human. Since there’s nobody I know who can show me the ropes around here, this looks like as good a place as any to start from scratch.

She slowly walked toward the bar, eyeing a couple ladies who seemed more or less promising. No rush, she thought. Better take it slow, not blow it on my first day here. She rapped the counter thrice for luck – once for the Father, once for the Mother, once for the Elder – and hailed the bartender. “Beer,” she called out.

“New in the area?” the Halachian bartender, a hulking figure with a slanting forehead and large teeth, asked as he brought her drink.

“Yeah, just moved in.” Maya took a sip. “Aaah. Good stuff.”

The bartender smiled. “Huxtaber. Not many people know it, but if you ask me, nothing beats it.”

“You know how to make a girl happy.” She raised the glass in a toast and took a swig.

“You looking to make friends? ‘Cause you’ve got a candidate,” he said, pointing with his chin.

Maya sighed. Here come the creeps, she thought, and slowly turned around to see who he was indicating. To her glad surprise, it was a young, light-skinned woman, leaned against the wall by the pool table, who was intently eyeing her with a smirk.

Am I really this lucky? Maya thought. It was just a random bar, not the local scene; she expected a lot of fruitless nights before she found someone like her. Well, she wasn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth. She smiled at the girl for a second and turned back toward the bar, with trained discretion.

“Hello there,” the lady said a short while later, sitting beside Maya. Her playful tone indicated she really was in the right track. “Love seeing a new face around here.”

Maya smirked. “Yeah, I’m new in town. Fresh off the portal today, in fact. Say, you having anything?”

“Same as yours sounds good.” She kept her intense eyes fixed on Maya’s. “So, where are you from?”

“One of these for her,” Maya said to the bartender. “Oh, and Abyron. Lived there my whole life, in fact.”

“Wow, really? This place must look so corny for you! I actually feel bad for you, seeing your culture butchered like this.”

Maya laughed. “Nah, it’s fine. I like it, really. Abyri pubs are the same all around the galaxy, y’know? So even the phoniness feels really familiar.”

The girl picked up her beer. “I see. And I guess we’re pretty used to phoniness in our daily lives, huh?” She stared deeply into Maya as she took a swig.

“You know it, girl. Can’t put the mask down.” She held the other woman’s gaze for a while, drinking in the moment. “Oh. I’m Maya.”

“Anji.” They exchanged two brief kisses in the cheek. “My pleasure.”

“Why, hello there, Anji.” She laid her head on her hand, elbow on the counter. “Gotta say, I’m really glad to have found you. Thought it’d take me forever to run across someone like us in here.”

Anji laughed. “Yeah, I know what that’s like. Took me a couple months to find the local scene when I rolled into town, myself. Can you imagine, all that time alone?”

“Wow, months? And I thought Abyron was hard… Aren’t there a lot of us here?”

“There are, but you know how it is. It’s not like we advertise ourselves. It’s a big city, and without anyone to introduce you, takes a while to find the others.”

Maya held Anji’s hand, smiling. “Seems I was really lucky to find you, then.”

Anji smiled back. “You were. And yeah, I decided to take a chance. Maybe it’s because of how it was for me, but when I saw you giving off signs, I thought I wouldn’t wait around for confirmation.”

“Really glad you did, girl. Sticking your neck out like that, coming on to someone you’re not sure is up for it. Thanks… really.”

“So…” Anji took another pull of her beer. “You ready to meet the rest?”

“Really?” Maya was fine with just enjoying Anji… but, on the other hand, she could really use the feeling of community right then. “You’re introducing me to the local scene? I’ve heard it’s wild!”

“You have no idea.” She had a wicked look. “Hey, there’s a club where we can be ourselves.” She leaned in and whispered. “I mean, really be ourselves… or whoever we want. No masks… unless you want them, that is.”

“Wow… I mean, I’ve heard about places like that, but never thought I’d go to one!” She laughed. “You must be thinking it’s really backward where I’m coming from, and I’d say you’re about right…”

“I’m talking total freedom,” Anji whispered. “Let your imagination run wild, y’know?”

“I don’t know…” Maya’s smile betrayed her excitement. “I mean, I’d love to meet our local fellows, but I’ve never let myself just… go like that, y’know?”

“Come on… wouldn’t you like to just be yourself? I know it can be scary, but I promise you, once you’ve tried it, you’ll be glad you did.”

“Ah, what the hell!” She got her wallet out to pay for their beers. “You only live once, right?”

“That’s the spirit! Come on, let’s ditch this place.”

A couple minutes later, they were in a cab, rolling toward the harbor district. Maya didn’t quite catch the address – not that it would’ve done her a whole lot of good if she had, with how unfamiliar she was with the city. The recklessness of what she was doing made her heart race… and she liked it. Well, being in the back of a cab with a hot girl was appealing, too – but Maya realized the uncertainty, the whole danger of going to a seedy part of town in the middle of the night with someone she just knew, thrilled her as well.

Anji remained silent throughout the trip. She stole glances at Maya once in a while, a mischievous smile on her face, as if she could barely contain an exciting secret. Maya, for her part, would rather throw herself at Anji right then and there, the cab’s conductor be damned – however, feeling in uncertain footing, she thought it best to leave the initiative to the other girl. I’ve gotten this far, she pondered. Don’t have an opportunity like this every day… better not blow it by being too thirsty.

At last, after what seemed like an interminable ride, they arrived at a small alley tucked between warehouses, entirely too quiet at this hour of the night for comfort. “Don’t worry,” Anji said, apparently sensing Maya’s apprehension. “The area’s safer than it looks. We make sure of that.”

“O…kay.” Maya wasn’t sure if that last part made her feel more or less secure, but she was in too deep to start wondering now. “Lead the way, then!”

The pair left the cab and made their way to a discreet iron door at the edge of one of the warehouses. A large man, wearing a cheap suit and a grim face, stood beside it with crossed arms. As they approached, he followed them with a distrustful gaze, in silence.

“Hey there, Ashkon!” Anji said, with a chipper smile. “It’s me, Anji!”

The man’s face opened up. “Oh, hi, Anji! Looking good today, huh?”

“Thanks! I’ve found this lost sheep that I’m bringing back to our herd.” She tugged at Maya’s arm.

“Uh, hi there!” Maya waved. “I’m Maya.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Ashkon said. He produced a set of keys, unlocked the door with a loud clang, and opened it for them. “Please, come in.”

“I’ve never seen a nightclub this… discreet,” Maya said, as she followed her partner into a narrow corridor and down a couple flights of stairs.

“What can I say?” Anji shrugged. “It’s exclusive. Just us. Gotta make sure of that, right?”

“I suppose so…” This has better be really good, Maya thought.

At the bottom of the stairs, another burly man guarded a heavy door. “Anji”, the mysterious girl said. “And this is Maya. She’s one of us.”

The man nodded, and then unlocked and opened the door without saying a word. “Jambie’s quiet, but he’s really sweet,” Anji whispered.

Some light piano music wafted out of the door, together with a quiet, subdued buzz of conversation. As the pair stepped inside, Maya was struck by an astonishing scene, whose visual extravagance poorly matched the tinny sounds that preceded it.

A wild menagerie of creatures, vaguely humanoid in shape but highly varied in every other aspect, was scattered across the tables of a finely appointed dining hall. A purple-skinned, green-haired woman was talking to a large, upright-walking cat and a shifting blob of oozing orange flesh nearby. At a buffet counter to the side, a being with a serpent’s head and bright, multicolored feathers all over their body patiently waited for their turn, while what looked like a short, wide man made of moss-covered rock availed himself of hors d’oeuvres. A wild bout of laughter came from a table, where a hyena-headed woman wildly gesticulated, cocktail cup in hand, while telling some story to a group of friends, one of them consisting of a collection of simple, blocky shapes in primary colors. A young woman who appeared to be made of ice sat silently across a large man, whose bulbous, bulging flesh constantly changed colors and textures. And, interspersed among the crowd, there were several creatures with the same appearance – humanoids with metallic, shimmering skin, broad arms and legs ending in three thick digits each, and completely smooth, featureless heads that jutted out from their torsos at a forward angle.

A rasping laughter came from Maya’s side. “C’mon, don’t just stand there gawking! Let’s mingle a bit.” She turned and saw the voice came from what looked like a rainbow-colored wolf person.

“W-what’s going on here?” Maya asked, nervous. “Who are you?”

“What? You don’t like it?” The wolf-person laughed again. “Oh, I see. That’s not how you met me. I’ll change back, if it makes you more comfortable.” The creature’s form shifted, its snout pulling back into its face, hair growing out on top of its head and being reabsorbed into the skin on the rest of the body, its size, proportions and color changing, until it settled in the form Maya had known as Anji. “I’ll still go back to that one tonight, though,” she said, wagging her finger. “Been meaning to try it out for a while.”

“Wha… aaaaahhhh!” Maya had so many questions at once that she couldn’t manage to formulate anything other than a primal scream.

“Lady?” One of the metallic-skinned creatures approached, gently touching Maya’s shoulder with its three knobby fingers. “Are you alright?” it said, with a voice like a coil being scraped across a lead pipe.

“Aaaah!” Maya recoiled from the creature. “NO! I am not alright!”

“Maya?” Anji said softly. “Calm down. It’s okay. We’re among friends here.”

“Get away from me!” Maya pushed her back. “Whatever you are, you all are not friends!”

“Is it because of all these true-forms in public? Hey, I know our conditioning runs deep, but you can relax now. Look, I’m going first.” She changed shape again, this time assuming the form of one of those metallic-skinned beings. “See?” it asked, with that strange metallic voice. “Why don’t you try it yourself?”

“Anji!” the other creature said sternly. “That’s not one of us. Why did you bring her here?”

“W-what are you people?” Maya asked.

“That can’t be right, I…” Anji paused for a moment, focusing intensely on Maya. “Shit, you’re right. Look at the mess in her head!”

“You’re in my head?!” Maya exclaimed.

“How the hell do you bring someone around without scanning them first?” the feathered snake yelled. Several creatures were approaching, forming a circle around Maya and Anji.

“I… I was so sure, it seemed so obvious…” Anji said, changing back into her familiar human form. Some of the beings closest to them shifted into large, intimidating forms. “What was all that business about ‘masks’ and ‘people like us’ you were going on about at the bar?”

Maya’s eyes welled up. “I… thought you were like me.”

“Like what?” Anji asked. “What is it you were trying to hide so carefully?”

Maya sobbed. “You know…” she strained out her words. “Homosexual.”

What?!” the creature that had approached them earlier exclaimed. “Why the hell would anyone need to hide that?

“Yeah, Maya, c’mon,” Anji said, a quizzical look on her face. “That doesn’t make any sense. You’re a lesbian, you go to a lesbian bar. Just look one up, there’s a bunch of them.”

“No…” Maya struggled among her tears. “You don’t know what it’s like back home… I couldn’t just announce that to anyone!”

“Tsk,” the hyena-headed woman clicked. “Those Union humans. So barbaric.”

“Wait…” Anji touched Maya’s arm, concerned. “You really went through all that trouble because you were afraid of the repercussions, if the wrong people found out you’re gay? Wow… that’s messed up.”

“Who gives a shit?” one of the creatures that had transformed into a large, hulking figure bellowed. “She’s not one of us, and she knows. You know what that means.” Other creatures started yelling in agreement.

“Wait, what?” Maya asked, suddenly snapped out of her anguish. “What does that mean?”

“Calm down, folks,” Anji pleaded. “She’s lost. She… was just trying to live out a lie. You all know damn well what that’s like, don’t you?”

“Of course we do,” the metallic creature said. “Still, she knows about our secret.”

“I won’t tell!” Maya blurted out. “I promise, I won’t! I wouldn’t even know what to tell in the first place!”

“Shh.” Anji hugged Maya. “Hush. Don’t worry.”

“I’m serious,” the strange being insisted. “You know how it is. I get that she’s like us on some level, but what difference does it make?”

“The difference,” Anji said, producing a knife from under her coat, “is that we make it painless.” She thrusted the weapon into Maya’s heart through her back, before the woman could realize what she meant.