Battle For Earth: Coalescence

Duvak’s attack on our ship had left us devastated with little hope
of escaping. Would we once again escape the clutched of the Qharr or would
we face a gruesome and terrible fate as we fought to stay alive?

Author’s Note: A very big thanks to Zapper, Beyogi, Loki & Maggie Finson for providing valued input and assistance editing this story. Another big thank you to all those who participated in the following blogs Requesting help with a name for a race of aliens… and Questions about a human hair bracelet of all things. Although all participants in the former thread were very helpful (well, really both threads), I feel I need to thank Rasufelle and Elizabeth Jean both for their suggestions as those two inspired the final name for the Phyrr Lesch the most.

Chapter One

Kaya was dead. The same thought repeated itself over and over in my mind. I had witnessed the death of my parents and countless friends over my short twenty-eight years, but Kaya’s was different. My parents’ demise had a vague and distant memory and life under the gray skins had taught me to expect loss, but this was too much. The mother of my child had been killed right in front of my eyes by the very same bastard who had killed my parents.

I screamed, producing a howl of pure primal fury that sounded inhuman even to my ears and pounced. I slammed my knife into his chest and yanked it free with a speed and strength that no other human could match then I stabbed again and again filling his torso with stab wound after stab wound. The ferocity of my attacks was such that Duvak could do nothing to counter me. In a few short moments I had him pinned against the ground. His wounds were starting to heal–no doubt the work of his symbiote–and I knew that the small blade would not be enough to kill my former master. At least not in the way I’d been using it.

I brought the blade away, gritted my teeth and readied myself to plunge it into his throat, but before I could Duvak wrapped his massive paw around my hand and forced it away. He pushed back into me, the knife clattered to the ground and I was thrown away with near-bone-shattering force. He didn’t give me a chance to recover before rolling on top of me and started pummeling me with blows.

I kicked out at Duvak with both legs and was able to gain just enough room to escape his grasp and jump back to my feet. I lunged at him, but before I could even blink he slammed his hand into my throat and pinned me against the ground. Duvak may have rallied, but his counter attacks were only serving to make me angrier and even more determined to end his life.

I swung at him with my one free arm hitting him in the side of the head. He grunted and stumbled backward bringing a hand up to steady himself. I slid back down onto my ass, snatching up the knife then pounced on him slamming it into his chest as hard as I could. He jerked back and the blade slid free from his chest. I stabbed him again, this time with enough force that the guard and part of the handle were plunged into his chest. I twisted it and pushed it farther in until it was firmly embedded then I planted a fist in his jaw and watched as he spun away. He collapsed to the ground in front of me.

I fell to my knees in front of him, pressing my arm into his throat as I gritted my teeth and glared down at him. “Die you bastard!”

Duvak coughed spraying my face with blood. I narrowed my eyes and brought my free fist up. I slammed it into his face as hard as I could then brought it back for another strike and another. I just kept hitting him and on the fifth strike, I heard his skull crack. On the tenth blood, pieces of bones and brain matter splattered all over me. Even as my fist smashed through his face, completely obliterating the bone underneath, I just couldn’t stop.

“DIE!” I screamed pummeling what was left of his face with blow after blow and even after I had beaten it to a bloody pulp I continued pounding at his head.

Something touched my shoulder and I looked up to find Lily frowning down at me. “Alexana,” she said biting back tears as she shook her head. “He’s dead.”

I gasped and looked down at what was left of Duvak’s head, shuddered and rose to my feet wiping the blood clean as best I could. My whole body shaking and when I turned to look around, I found all eyes on me. The fighting had momentarily ceased and for a moment I simply stood there staring at my hands and trying to fight down the urge to vomit.

I’d had my revenge, Duvak was dead. So why then did I feel so empty? I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry, but I had just enough sense left to realize what a bad idea that would be. I locked my eyes on the opposite side of the field where the gray skins were watching me, and as if obeying some unspoken cue they opened fire.

Most of the blasts were phase bolts and they weren’t directed at me, but four of the hunters had some large and cumbersome-looking weapons which were trained on me and Lily. I’d never seen their like, but as soon as I saw them I knew that they were responsible for the stabs of pain I’d felt while battling Duvak. Which meant they were some sort of projectile weapon and capable of doing both me and Lily harm.

At this point, I wasn’t in the best state of mind as obvious by the way I’d pounded Duvak’s skull to mush and my own safety and well-being didn’t even come near to topping my list of priorities. I charged down the corridor screaming at the top of my lungs and slammed into the nearest of the hunters before she could open fire. I killed her, then rounded on the next, but before I could attack a barrage of bullets blasted into me.

I grunted, gritted my teeth against the pain then pounded my fist into the nearest of my attackers. After three strikes he was down and I lifted up his body just enough to provide cover as the other two gunners opened fire. My skin started to itch and tingle and I could feel something pop out as Khala healed the wounds. It happened a half a dozen more times and each of those instances that a bullet was pushed out, my enhanced ears could hear the sound of the bullets’ splashing into the muddy ground.

I rushed forward, with the corpse raised in front of me and slammed it into the nearest of the hunters. The third gray skin collapsed to the ground against the brunt of my attack and I spun around ready to pound on the final gunner. He put two bullets into me–one in my shoulder and another struck just a few inches away from my heart–before I was on top of him. I clenched my hands around his weapon, and forced it out of his grip.

He actually got in a few punches before I was able to subdue him. He struggled, but snapping his neck put an end to that. I heard a low growl from behind and swirled around to watch the third gunner spring toward me. I jumped aside then jammed my elbow into his back forcing him into the same cluster of boulders that Duvak had corned me inside of. From there I made short work of him, by grabbing him by the back of his head and slamming him into one of the rocks.

There were only three hunters left after I had taken care of the gunners, and I didn’t even have to raise my hand. Lily took out two of them and Farris finished off final one with a rapid succession of shots. I closed my eyes and fell to my knees, letting out a long drawn-out sigh. “Th-that takes care of th-those bastards, but what about the rest of them. The ones on the destroyer?”

“The way I see it we have two options,” Rayland replied. “Simply put we can either run or fight.”

“Fight? How the fuck are we supposed to do that? We don’t have any damn weapons on that tub!” Farris yelled his voice taking on a frantic edge.

I opened my eyes and found my sister hovering over me. She pursed her lips and eyed Farris then turned back to regard me with wide-eyes. “Couldn’t we board their ship and disable it, or something?”

“Yes, it’s either that, or we run. Like Rayland said.” I nodded fighting back tears as I folded my arms across my chest. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m sick of running. I’ll go into the ship, the rest of you stay here.”

“What!?” Lily and Becca protested in unison each taking a step forward.

“Lil, besides me, you’re the only person here who has even the remotest chance of being able to fly this thing. It’s better if I go alone anyone else would just slow me down.” The words made perfect logical sense, but in truth I didn’t want anyone else to come along because I was afraid that they’d get themselves killed. At least, if I went the only person who could be harmed would be me.

“Fine,” Lily said clenching her fists at her side as she glared at me.

My sister bit her lip and stepped back. “Just don’t die on us, okay?”

“I don’t intend to.” I whispered stepping toward the exit hatch. “Just make sure the ship’s ready. I’ll be back, shortly.”

Chapter Two

I have to admit, a part of me really got a kick from the look the guards gave me when I let the corpse I’d propped up in the airlock viewport collapsed at their feet. I quickly dispatched the first, but the second gave me a little more grief. He head-butted me, just hard enough to disorient me, then took off running.

I caught up to the wry bastard and slammed into his legs. We both went sprawling to the ground, but not before a loud screeching howl echoed through the corridor. I slammed my fist into the side of his head and untangled myself from his inert form as Khala’s form materialized in the corridor. “Well, that didn’t long.”

“What?

She folded her arms across her chest and pointed up at the ceiling. “The alarm.”

“Yeah, speaking of which. Now would be a very good time to tell me where to go!”

“I don’t know the ship’s exact layout, but your best bet is to find the engine room which should be in the back of the ship. From there you can do a lot of damage and, fortunately for us, they’re not as well guarded as the control room or the weapon room. You better hurry, it won’t take them long to find you.”

I nodded and took off running down the corridor, moving at speeds that even a member of the Edant K’teth would be hard pressed to match. My advanced reflexes and eyesight allowed me to turn corners without slowing down, but when I found the corridor packed with gray-skinned guards I was forced to come to a stop.

I slammed into the foremost sending him, and the duo behind him sprawling to the ground with bone-shattering force. The six remaining guards pounced on me much faster than I had anticipated, but not so quickly that I wasn’t able to counter. I blocked the first guard’s attack with my right hand then pounded my fist into the chest of the next attacker. His head snapped back and he collapsed to the ground.

A hand grabbed me from behind and I coughed as something sharp burst through my rib cage. I gasped and glanced down to see a long blade protruding from my chest. I elbowed my attacker and I fell to my knees as he slid the blade free. Blood dripped from my mouth, I grunted, and gritted my teeth as wound began to heal, but not before I felt it slide its way into my back again.

‘That blade came dangerously close to hitting your heart. You need to neutralize that weapon before one of these sons of diseased dre’ks manages to kill you.’

“One of these days, Khala, you and I are going to have a long talk about stating the obvious.”

I reached back and yanked the blade free then sprang to my feet. I gritted my teeth, clutched the weapon in my hands and spun around, slicing the bastard that had stabbed me clear in half.

“A sword, really?” I glanced at the hilt in my hand then dropped the blade. It was more than a little cumbersome in my little hands and I doubted I could keep a good enough grip around the massive hilt to make for a practical weapon. So, I dropped it. I heard screams from the other side of the corridor and I swirled around to face the remaining guards.

I un-holstered my pistols opening fire before any of the bastards had any hope of reacting and screamed out at the top of my lungs. I had responded to my rage and grief by acting on my most primitive impulses to attack with my bare hands. The pistols had remained all but forgotten until that moment, but I made up for their lack of use with a vengeance spewing out phase fire as I spun around in a half-circle.

I took three guards out with my initial barrage and another two, moments later, with a couple more well-aimed shots. That left two guards, one was creeping around behind me with a sword clenched in his hands and the second, whose repeated attempts to blast me with a phase rifle were growing beyond tiresome, stood opposite me on the other side of the corridor.

“First those damned projectile weapons and now swords.” I shook my head as the blade-wielding Qharr came barreling down toward me his weapon cutting through the air with a fluidity and grace that was impressive.

‘They look like ceremonial blades,’ Khala offered up an explanation. ‘Likely ones that have been in their families for generations. They’re not often used in battle, but most are centuries old and have been used to spill blood in the past. I never quite understood why so many warriors bothered keeping them at all, even if the silly things were mounted on a wall or bulkhead, it just seems like such a waste of space. In a way it’s almost refreshing seeing them being used.’

“Oh, yeah, refreshing is definitely the word I was thinking of.”

I ducked out of the way as the pair opened fire, but he managed to slice me across the cheek. The cut was nothing Khala couldn’t handle and sure enough I could feel the telltale signs of her healing ability begin to do its work. The second guard picked that moment to drop his pistol and come charging at me. I slammed a fist into his chest and knocked him aside before returning my attention to the first just in time to see him thrust his blade out toward me. I tried to twist out of the way, but it didn’t happen quickly enough. The tip pierced my temple and went clean through my eye-socket.

He yanked the blade free, and I collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from the now empty socket as I cupped my hand over it. I gritted my teeth and called out to Khala, but was forced to duck out of the way as the blade came crashing down again. This time I only just barely managed to avoid getting hit, and felt a sob escape my lips as I rolled away. If it hadn’t been for Khala I’m sure I would have been a goner.

Even if the injuries wouldn’t have killed me, she dulled the pain just enough for me to keep fighting.. I dove down to the ground and snatched my pistols up then leapt onto my feet, slamming into the nearest of the two guards, before spinning around and opening fire on the one armed with the sword.

The first survived my attack and rammed into me from behind pinning me face-forward against the wall. He was pretty big and unusually strong even for a Qharr, but still not strong enough for me. I broke his grip around my wrists then elbowed him as hard as I could.

He staggered back and I before he could recover I planted an open palm into his chest and sent him careening into the opposite bulkhead. I pulled my gun back out and sent a volley of bolts sizzling into his chest. He didn’t last very long against this new attack and he was dead before his body hit the ground.

I turned away and took a few steps forward, then reached up to touch where the bullet had entered my head. The wound was already starting to heal; I just wish the same could be said for my eye. My hand traced the edges of the socket, which was still empty, and shuddered just before I dropped my hands to my side.

“Please, tell me you can heal that.” I glanced back at Khala whose image was standing in the corridor behind me.

“I can, but you’ve already been injured quite severely. I haven’t yet finished repairing your internal organs a task which is taking a considerable amount of energy. Re-growing an eye is much more difficult than healing wounds. I’ll need to feed on something a little more substantial than the paltry bits of energy I gain from phase blasts.”

“Just keep me fit enough to fight,” I replied before taking off the corridor. Whatever physical harm had been done to me, it didn’t seem to impair my ability to move around, but I had the feeling that had more to do with Khala than anything else. Had I been in a better state of mind I might have been more concerned about my injuries, which sounded quite severe, but at the moment all I cared about was disabling the destroyer and getting my people away safely.

I took off down the corridor and heard the odd snapping sound which indicated footsteps clanging against the organic-resin floor in the corridor behind me. I felt a stabbing pain in my lower back and stop just long enough to pull a long dagger free. I cursed, but didn’t stop to meet whoever had thrown the weapon. Since there weren’t any joined Qharr in their numbers, there was no way they could keep up with me and I quickly outpaced them before they could attack again.

Several times, I heard feet beating against the floor behind me and two times I found myself confronted by a group of guards blocking my access. Fortunately, I was able to disable or kill them and continue on my way before the pursuing guards were able to catch up.

Finally, I came to a stop in front of the engine room, but the entrance was guarded by ten Qharr guards all of which were armed with weapons of the long and sharp variety. Fortunately, I was able to spy them from around a corner and they hadn’t yet taken notice of me. I didn’t see any other entrance, which meant I would need to fight my way in.

‘How are you doing for energy?’ I asked Khala a sudden thought occurring to me.

‘Battling those Qharr and healing your wounds has taken a great deal of my reserves. I’ve drained what I can from your pistols, but can’t risk taking any more. I wouldn’t want to leave us defenseless. If you’re planning anything drastic you may wish to try a more low-profile approach,’ she replied.

‘What about the gravity thing? If you could get me up on the ceiling, I think I could sneak up on them. I would only need a few seconds.’

‘It would be possible, but… difficult. Keep it brief.’

I nodded, then bit my lip and leapt onto the nearest wall and from there I was able to bound up the side of the wall onto the ceiling. It was an oddly surreal experience looking ‘up’ at the floor, but I didn’t let it distract me from my goal. Up until that moment, most of the fighting I’d been doing had been in narrow corridors and hallways which wasn’t exactly the most practical place to try out my abilities. Crawling around on the ceiling was a new experience and I made a mental note to remind myself to practice a few things out. I certainly wouldn’t want to find out the limits of my abilities the hard way.

I flattened myself against the ceiling, crawling toward the cluster of gray skins guarding the door. Apparently, the Qharr didn’t take as take as much pain to sand down their ceilings as they did their floors and walls. Several times my breasts scraped against a piece of hardened resin which was jutting out from the surface at an odd angle. It was rather painful, but I bit my lip and continued on. Any noise I made would reveal my presence to the guards below.

I got into position, then drew my pistols and jumped down into the center of the unsuspecting group. I was able to bring my foot down atop the head of one of the guards, knocking him flat to the ground and rendering the bastard unconscious. I opened fire, the moment my feet touched ground, taking out four guards before any of them were able to counter.

One of the guards drew his pistol opening fire as he caught sight of me. Fortunately, it was of the phase variety and only served to give me a slight tingle of pleasure. I jumped up; kicking him in the chest then blasted it full of holes with my phase gun. Another guard attacked me, but this time I felt a flash of red-hot pain as something sliced through the skin of my breast.

I confronted the one who’d sliced me up and sent him toppling into another of his cohorts before moving on to my next victim, a slender lean-muscled female who by coincidence was also missing an eye. She charged me, perhaps hoping to catch me by surprise, but I anticipated her attack and dodged it then kicked her in the back of her legs and sent her toppling into the pair who I had knocked over before. All three collapsed into a tangled heap and I turned to face the final guard who had one of the projectile weapons trained on me.

I jumped out of the way, just as she opened fire and instead of hitting me her shots thudded into the wall. Before she could shoot off another round, I jumped on her slamming my fist into the side of her neck. She screamed, and spun around trying to dislodge me, but I had a good grip and her efforts proved to be futile. I did a somersault flipping above her so that I landed facing her back then drew my guns and opened fire.

The final three guards were still pretty dazed from my prior attacks and I was able to finish them off with a few quick shots. With a weary sigh, I re-holstered my weapon, and made my way into the engine room.

As I had expected, the chamber was pretty large, and like any room constructed by the Qharr the wall were covered in that familiar resin. Many medium-sized and all of the larger ships had two separate engine rooms, one which housed the FTL drive and a second which housed the antigrav engines. Because, both types of engines worked on entirely different principles they didn’t have any inter-working parts and thus were kept in separate compartments.

The easiest way to disable the ship was to cut the reactor coolant line, the problem was that there was a lot of it and I needed to make a gash big enough to drain it quickly, but slow enough to allow me enough time to escape. I found the coolant tank, which was impossible to miss considering it took up almost half the room and followed it until I found the external fuel line. I made an incision which I hoped was big enough, then spun around and found my way into the corridor.

There were about a dozen gray-skins waiting for me, but I didn’t stop to fight instead I put on the speed and leapt over the entire group leaving them behind to choke on my dust. They fired after me, but by that time I’d already put a good distance between us and their attempts were proven futile.

Before long I found my way to airlock, and in moments I was on the other side safely outside the ship. Khala must have been doing something to keep me moving because the moment I stepped inside our ship and the hatch sealed behind me I collapsed to my knees, at Becca’s feet, feeling suddenly drained of energy.

I slid my legs out and leaned against the door, then looked about realizing for the first time that the others looked almost as bad as I felt. It was hard to tell from all the mud, but it looked like they’d picked up more than a few scrapes and bruises since I’d left them.

Rebecca gasped bringing her hand up to cover her mouth and quickly knelt down beside me. “Dear lord, what did they do to you?”

I shuddered and covered my empty eye-socket feeling self conscious under the scrutiny of first my sister then the others. “It’s not as bad as it looks, Khala’s working on it, just get us out of here fast. If I was successful that ship could blow any time and I’d really like to get the hell out of here before that happens.

I stared at my sister and let out a long sigh of relief. “So it looks like you guys had a bit of a party while I was gone.”

“You could say that.” Rayland grinned, hovering over my sister’s shoulder. “We certainly had more fun than the gray-skins who attacked us.”

“Perhaps I should have a look at you. Your wounds look to be most severe,” the doctor said picking my sister up and setting her down a few feet away. “Excuse Vakrexid you were in the way.”

“I told you, I’m fine! I yelled reaching out to push the doctor away, but I was so weak that he didn’t even budge an inch. I could only guess why Khala might have taken away my abilities, but I had a feeling it had to do with my injuries. She’d been bolstering my strength and I think now that I was safe she’d stopped.

“Maybe, I’m in worse shape than I thought,” I admitted dropping my hand away from my face and surrendered myself to the doctor’s roving fingers.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Khala said, her voice sounded flat, lacking all of its usual emotion and personality. I don’t know if it was the strain of healing me or if she was just tired, but it was a little unnerving. ‘I’ll keep it short. You’re in bad shape, a lot worse than I originally put on. I drained the rest of the power from your pistols… which helped a bit. Just try not to move and as soon can get me more to feed on. I need to focus on healing you so you may not hear from me until you’re in better shape.’

“It is most difficult to say without any of Vakrexid’s equipment, but I believe your symbiote will be able to heal you sufficiently given enough time.”

“Just what I wanted to hear. ” I closed my eyes–make that eye–and groaned. A moment later, I felt the doctor scoop me up in my arms and I opened my remaining peeper just in time to watch Rayland take off toward the control room. I had lost a lot of blood and I was having a lot of trouble concentrating on what he said, but I’m pretty certain it was something along the lines of ‘she’s safe. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The doctor, by contrast, set a much slower pace, no doubt; because of my injuries and I was never so thankful. He took me down the corridor and was about to veer into the doorway of the crew quarters when everything suddenly lurched sideways. The doctor must have lost his grip because the next thing I knew I felt a bright flash of pain as I was slammed quite forcefully into the bulkheads. I felt the darkness creep into the edges of my vision and I thought I might lose consciousness altogether. Somehow I managed to hang on. Once things had settled a bit, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I heard Becca calling my name.

“Lexa, are you alright?”

“Just once, I’d let to get a ship, that had working inertial negators,” I grunted barely managing to pull myself up into a sitting position. “Guess that means… we’re making our escape”

“Indeed,” the doctor said climbing to his feet and shaking himself off like some wild animal. “That is a most likely assumption.”

“Let’s get you, into the bridge and strapped into one of the harnesses,” Becca put her hand on my shoulder. “I think it’s a good bet this ride is going to get even bumpier.”

“Yeah,” Farris groaned from far off. “It’s not a bad idea for the rest of us to do the same.”

“Most assuredly,” the doctor agreed wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Let us be quick. It is likely that Lily shall be forced to make many evasive maneuvers to evade the Qharr ship.”

No one put up any argument and with Farris’s help the doctor got me safely strapped into one of the seats on the bridge. Lily issued a brief greeting and stopped what she was doing just long enough to show concern over my well-being, but she was soon forced to return her attention to the controls. At first the destroyer stayed right on our tails, but soon they started to lose altitude and we all let out a collective sigh of relief. Explosions rippled across the hull, and the ship went plummeting down to the earth below before bursting into a brilliant ball of flames. We lingered only moments before Lily’s fingers scrolled across the control surface and sent the ship hurtling into the night sky.

Chapter Three

“Kaya!” I screamed sitting bolt upright and looked around the dark room. It took it a couple moments for it to register where I was and a few more to realize that I had been dreaming.

Kaya’s death had been real enough, but it still hadn’t quite sunk in. I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, but when I did my dreams were plagued by visions of her death. I kept second guessing myself wondering if there hadn’t been some way in which I could have saved her.

Hot tears stung my cheek as images of her lifeless corpse flooded through my mind. A void had formed within my soul and I could think of no way to fill it. Never again would I hear her laugh, cry or even curse. Hell, I think I would even miss that manic fire of hers that had gotten us into so much trouble.

My child, it too was dead, and wasn’t sure how I could come to terms with its passing. Kaya pregnancy had still been in its early stages and at first the prospect of its birth had scared me, but that no longer was the case. My grief over the child’s demise was nearly as strong as that for Kaya.

To make matters worse I had begun my first period. My emotions were so raw and wild I couldn’t even begin to guess how much of it was because I was menstruating and how much was my grief. I just wanted to collapse into a heap and just let the grief and rage wash over me like a tempest storm, but I had other concerns. I couldn’t afford to let my feelings get the better of me.

I bit my lip and pulled the waistband of my pants open and slipped my hand inside. I sighed and pulled the disposable pad, the doctor had given me, free and reached under the bed to grab a replacement. According to the doctor, the only reason I hadn’t had a period up until that point was that I had been carrying the infant Dyssa in my womb. In some ways my body had reacted as if I’d actually been pregnant, but since I hadn’t experiences the usual symptoms like, breast growth, lactation and morning sickness. Thank God for that. Since, my womb was now K’teth-free I could menstruate with the best of them.

The bleeding was irritating, but Khala claimed she was suppressing some of the more unpleasant symptoms and while I wasn’t getting the full treatment, I couldn’t understand how any woman could put up with such horrible discomfort every month. It was one of the reasons I was considering taking Khala up on her offer to return me to my original form, but something kept stopping me.

We’d been on the run from the Qharr since we’d escaped the destroyer. We even had a few close calls, but had managed to evade them for the time being. Every time we thought we’d eluded them another of their damn ships would show up. Once I’d recovered from my injuries Lily and I started taking turns at the helm, trading places every four hours so that we could stay alert and fresh. We were starting to get a pretty good grip on the controls.

Rayland had made several attempts to convince me that we needed to take shelter with the nesters. Like Kaya, I wasn’t sure they could be trusted, but as much as I distrusted him I was growing more and more convinced that it was our only choice. I knew that I would have to make my decision soon, but there was one thing holding me back, our scheduled contact with the Earth Reclamation Fleet.

As long as we stayed in the air and kept moving, it would be a lot harder for the Qharr to peg our position when we made contact with the fleet. Rayland insisted that we would be able to safely communicate with them from his nest, but I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want to be responsible for repeating the tragedy of Safe Haven. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to wait much longer; we were due to make contact on that very day.

I rubbed my eyes; the new one just didn’t feel right. It kept tingling. Maybe it was just my imagination, but since Khala had re-grown it, everything seemed to have more of a bluish tint than it had before. I dropped my hands then climbed to my feet and made my way to the door which slid open as I approached. Becca and Farris were waiting for me in the corridor. My sister had been treating me with kid gloves since I’d been injured making my way into and back out of the inquisitor ship, and considering the severity of my wounds I’m not sure I could blame her, but even so it was starting to get on my nerves.

“Anything eventful happen?”

“Not really.” Farris frowned folding his arms across his chest as he glanced down the corridor in the direction of the bridge. “We gonna do this or not?”

“Matt.” My sister pursed her lips and placed her hand on his shoulder. “She just woke up give her a minute.”

“I’m fine!” I gritted my teeth and shuffled past the two of them then sighed and turned back to my Becca. “I’m as eager as Farris to get this done with.”

Becca didn’t put up any further resistance and the two followed me to the control center where Lily, the doctor and Rayland were waiting.

“Lily, are we ready?” I asked moving to her side and placing a hand on her shoulder.

She craned her neck to look up at me, and bit her lip.”Yeah, I’m not detecting any Qharr ships nearby, but that could change if they detect our transmission.”

“We’ll try to keep it brief then,” I said then turned back to my sister. “Becca, care to do the honor?”

Even after her initial activation, my sister was the only person still able to get the long-distance communications array up and running. Which meant that if we ever lost her we’d likely lose complete contact with the Earth Reclamation Fleet. I wasn’t about to let that happen, I’d sooner die than lose another person that I cared about. Kaya’s passing would be the last, at least within our group, if I had anything to do with it.

My sister initiated the array with the key and nothing happened. I spun around in my seat to eye my sister who looked about as confused as I was.

“Becca?”

“I-it’s not working. I don’t know why. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong.”

“Here let me… wait–” Lily said stopping short before furrowing her brows and toggling the controls. “I’m getting a message, text only. It looks like a bunch of random numbers intersected by hyphens apostrophes and spaces.”

Lily shook her head and eyed the display. “I think maybe they’re using some sort of code and… what’s this? I’m getting more. It says here that communications have been compromised and to avoid further attempts at communication… and this is weird… ‘to unravel the mystery seek the failure of Pyrpygym’.”

“Pyrpygym?” I rubbed my forehead, closed my eyes then turned to the doctor something suddenly occurring to me. “That doesn’t mean anything to you, does it doctor?”

“Indeed,” he replied bobbing his head up and down. “It is the name of Vakrexid’s father’s brother’s sixth foreparent. He was a mathematician.”

“Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t realize it was a name. I know how your people fe–”

“NO! Please, apologize not. Names of those who have passed into the final library may be uttered by anyone.”

“So, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ve contacted the doctor’s homeworld. Any idea what Pyrp–” Farris paused, closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. “–uh, whatever his name is, failure happens to be?”

“Yes, most assuredly, Pyrpygym was one of the most celebrated minds of the time, but few know that he was a strong proponent of switching over to an eight-based numerical system. After his failure to convince the Regents of Rumination to make the change, he was most offended. He retired and did not re-enter public life even to the day he died eighty of your years later.”

“Yeah, didn’t need the life story,” Farris grunted. “Think maybe the answers with this eight-based number system?”

“Most assuredly,” Vakrexid bobbed his head.

“It can’t be that simple, can it?” I paused then turned back to the screen. “Doctor why don’t you take a look? In the mean time, I think it’s time we get the hell out of here.”

“Vakrexied concurs,” he tooted leaning over the console next to Lily. I sighed then shook my head and turned to Rayland. “I need some coordinates, I think it’s finally time I take you up on your offer.”

“Sure,” he said his eyes widening a bit in apparent surprise.

After he stepped up beside me to input the coordinates, I sent the ship blasting off into the open sky and toward what I hoped was the relative safety of the Rayland’s nest.

“Canada, again?” Farris’s eyebrow twitched as he paced back and forth behind me.

“British Columbia this time,” Lily noted absently.

“Alberta, British Columbia, what difference does it make?!” Farris cursed. “It’s fucking Canada, there’s nothing there!”

“Simmer down Matt. Don’t you think you’re overreacting, a bit?” Becky messaged his back and rolled her eyes.

I grimaced then glared back at him over my shoulder. “There’s plenty of things in Canada, but what’s important is what’s not there. We’re going to hide from the Qharr remember. Seriously Farris, what’s got you on edge, anyway? And hell would you stop pacing, it’s bad enough flying this thing and listening to you bitch. Just stop it would you?”

“Okay, okay, I get your damn point. I hate that we always have to hide from the gray skins and I don’t trust these nesters either. How much longer is it, I’m getting tired of waiting.”

“Farris you want to drive this thing?” I gritted my teeth and cast my gaze back over my shoulder at him.

“You know I can’t.”

“Then shut the fuck up! Jesus!” I glanced at Lily who grinned from ear to ear. She seemed to find something humorous about our exchange. I rolled my eyes and stuck my tongue out at her then shook my head, and cleared my throat. “We’ll be coming up on Rayland’s coordinates here pretty quick. Sit tight and just be quiet, okay?”

“And there it is…” I blurted out a moment, calling up sensor readings. “Looks like there’s some ruins below, not picking up any human life signs.”

Rayland grinned and leaned over the console, getting a little too close for my tastes. “Did you really expect to?”

“No, not really,” I grimaced then shoved him away. “Get out of my face Rayland.”

His only response was to tighten his grin. I bit my lip and returned my focus to the sensor readings. “The mountain’s a little on the small side, but there’s a lot of forest so we could probably conceal the ship near the tree line like we did in Alberta.”

A little on the small side was an understatement, it was really more of a glorified hill than an actual mountain, but I wasn’t about to argue that point with Rayland.

“Put the ship down there,” Rayland said motioning at a portion of the view screen displaying a small clearing nestled inside a section of the forest that was just big enough to accommodate our ship. “That’s probably about the closest we can get.”

“Looks tight, may want to get strapped in guys. This is going to be a rough landing.”

Lily was one of the first to strap herself in, which seemed a bit odd considering her capacity to defy gravity, but then again she hadn’t had as much time to flex her muscles as I had. I guess she wasn’t as confident in Dyssa’s abilities as I was in Khala’s.

The others followed Lily’s example, but I opted to remain unrestrained, I found the straps a little too confining. The doctor was the last to buckle up; the straps were just a little too small for him and had to be adjusted to accommodate his lanky frame and even then they were pretty damn tight. I turned away and began the procedures for landing. Though I was getting a better hang of the human-styled controls I was still have a little trouble mastering them, even with the extensive flight experience Khala had passed on to me. Even after Lily repaired the damaged thruster.

The ship shuddered and groaned as I brought her down and I could feel my teeth chatter during one of the more violent quakes. Finally, it touched ground with a dull thud and I let out a sigh of relief as I turned to Rayland. “Well, I sure hope I don’t end up regretting this.”

“Trust me.” He gave me one of his insufferable grins then threw his thumb over his shoulder. “We going or not? I’m sure my people think I’m dead or worse. So you can understand that I’m pretty eager to get back.”

“Yeah, just let me initiate the deactivation process,” I muttered tapping the controls and watched until the panels all blinked off.

Rayland led us out the ship and into the surrounding forest where we began our long hike through the wilderness.

Chapter Four

“Rangers!” Rayland yelled at the top of his lungs. “Stand down!”

Our attackers lowered their weapons just as Lily and I were nearly on top of them. We glanced at each other then back at Rayland before taking several steps back.

“Major Patterson,” a woman said stepping out from among the circle of rangers. She was at least four or five centimeters taller than myself, had long brown hair done up in a ponytail, a pair of penetrating sea-green eyes and was moderately attractive, in a bulky muscle-bound sort of way. “We expect you back a lot sooner.”

“Yes, well Captain Neada sometimes things take an unexpected turn,” he replied grinned from ear to ear.

“Sorry, for jumping out at you like that Major, we weren’t sure if it was really you or not,” she grinned at him and swirled her hair around her finger. It was a gesture that seemed at odds with the tough-soldier impression that she gave off, but who was I to judge someone based on her appearance?

“Ah, hell, apology accepted Captain Neada, just try not to do it again. You scared the bejesus out of us. Say, I don’t suppose you brought along an extra holocloaker did you?” Rayland said glancing over at Kaya and then Lily with a grin and a wink.

“No, I’m afraid we just brought the one, sir,” Neada replied reaching up to yank on her pony tail.

“Damn, well there’s no help for it. If those gray-skins find the ship we came in they’ll be able to track it right to us. Callwell, Lourne take the cloaker and follower the trail back. You’ll find a ship parked about eight klicks down the path. It should be easy to spot, the damned thing is parked right along the treeline. Use the cloaker to hide it then head back to the nest, we’ll meet you there,” Rayland said glancing first a tall man with close-cropped blond hair and then a slender woman with shoulder-length brown hair.

“Yes sir,” the two replied in unison, retrieved a large metallic cylinder from the pack of another soldier, and disappeared in the direction our group had just come.

“There,” Rayland grinned back at us. “Told you we would take care of it.”

“Take care of it?” Farris folded his arms across his chest and glared at the other man. “What the hell have you taken care of exactly? And what in God’s name is a holocloaker?”

“A holocloaker takes images from the surrounding area and uses them to create a three dimensional illusion which blends in perfectly with the terrain and seamlessly hides anything within a square kilometer of the device,” Captain Neada replied frowning at Farris and studied him with a pair of cool eyes.

“We use them when we’re out hunting. They’re pretty handy for hiding our campsites or to provide cover when a Qharr patrol ship passes overhead,” Rayland added.

“Ah yes, Vakrexid remembers you humans using similar technologies before the Qharr invaded this world,” the doctor said letting out a high-pitched wail.

“May I speak freely sir?” Neada asked staring at the doctor with what could only be described as a look of uncertainty.

“Speak Neada.”

“Sir, are you sure about these… people? I haven’t ever seen anything like this creature here,” she said pointing at the doctor then turned to look at Lily. “These two… are you sure they’re entirely human? I get the heebie jeebies just looking into their eyes. ”

“Ah, hell,” Lily averted her eyes and seemed quite uncomfortable as she gripped my hand and stared at the other woman with wide eyes.

“Can’t really comment on how human they are, but I do know that if it hadn’t been for these people, Captain, I wouldn’t have made it out of the compound alive.

“Very well, sir,” she nodded took another uncertain look at Vakrexid, Lily and me then turned away.

“Now,” he said his frown stretching back into a smile. “I think it’s time for us to depart, don’t you? If you want to chat while we’re moving that’s fine, but the longer we’re out in the open the more likely the gray skins will find us and without that holocloaker we won’t be able to hide from them if they happen on us.

I pursed my lips, shrugged then held a hand out to Rayland, “Lead the way.”

“I’d hoped you’d say that,” he said just before he spun around and started back down the trail.

“This is most delightful!” the doctor exclaimed as the trail came to an end in front of a sheer rock face.

“Funny,” Farris said coming to a stop behind him. “I was just thinking the exact opposite.”

The doctor hunched over and bent down to study a small shrub and began to pick a number of small red berries from the plant. “BERRIES! If Vakrexid boiled these with the right edible lichen I can make a most delicious juice.”

Rayland chuckled then slowly walked over to put a hand on the alien’s shoulder. “Well doc, if you can wait just a bit longer I promise you that you can have all the berry juice you ever wanted.”

“Truly?” the doctor asked cocking his head back and forth. “Are we near this nest of yours, then?”

“Yep, as a matter of fact Lily and Lexa over there are standing right in front of the entrance,” he smirk stretching into a full blown grin as Lily and I shared a wide-eyed glance.

“Entrance?” Lily blinked. “All I see is a solid rock wall.”

“That’s exactly what you’re meant to see,” Neada replied slowly walking toward Lily and me before kneeling down on the ground beside us. She palmed a small rock alongside the wall and with the blink of an eye a control interface appeared just to my right. Neada climbed back to her feet tapping out a code that must have been at least ten digits long. In response the wall in front of me flashed and in its place an empty cave mouth appeared.

“Carder, Mackay wait here by the entrance until Callwell and Lourne show up. Everyone else, inside the cave,” Rayland said issuing his command with a firm but calm voice.

We all shuffled inside and Mackay, a tall-lanky woman with long red hair, and Carder a brown-haired man of medium build, took up guard on either side of the entrance. Neada was the last inside and upon entering she tapped her fingers against another panel and the opening vanished just as suddenly as it had first appeared.

“Shit, no lights,” Farris cursed from somewhere to my right.

“Just wait a minute. Don’t get your panties in a wad,” Neada replied a moment before the cavern was flooded with bright light.

I winced and reached up to shield my eyes, but then dropped my hand. My enhanced eyes were capable of adjusting the light much quicker than other humans. Lily being a bonded human had the same advantage, but she wasn’t the only one. Vakrexid seemed completely unfazed by the sudden salvo of illumination.

I happened to glance over and watched Farris as he traced his hands across what had been the cave mouth. “Shit, it’s seamless. How the hell’d you do it?”

“We use a modified class-three force shield emitter to generate the feel of solid rock and a holocloaker casts a seamless illusion on top of it,” Rayland replied glancing back at Farris with a single raised eyebrow. “Now if you all would join me on this platform we can take the lift down to the tunnels.”

“Uh… platform?” Lily asked with furrowed eyebrows as she glanced around the room. “I don’t see any platform.”

Rayland rolled his eyes and let out a long exaggerated sigh as he slowly shook his head. “Have you learned nothing yet? It’s disguised by a holocloaker. You see this indent in the ground here?” he asked kicking his foot against a depression in the cave floor. “It marks the center of the lift platform. Now, everyone gather around me. There’s more than enough room for all of us. Just make sure you keep close.”

We all shuffled onto the platform as Rayland guided us each into position, then with a satisfied nod he kicked the depression three times in a row, paused and kicked it twice more. The floor lurched downward beneath our feet. Becky and Farris both stumbled, apparently caught by surprise by the lift’s sudden movement. Our enhanced balance prevented Lily and I from stumbling or maybe it had more to do with our symbiote’s gravity defying abilities. Either way I really wasn’t sure. Rayland, Neada and the other rangers didn’t stumble, but that was probably because they’d known what to expect and had braced themselves.

The lift’s speed increased dramatically as we moved further and further down into the mountain until its velocity had reached such a point that Farris and Becky both looked as if they might lose their meals. I had a feeling that if it hadn’t been for Dyssa and Khala, Lily and I would probably be looking pretty green in the face too. Vakrexid head was bobbing from side to side, but I had no idea if that was because he was motion sick or if he was just being his normal twitchy self. The elevator came to a very abrupt stop and Rayland glanced back at us grinning from ear to ear, “Well boys and girls. This train ride has come to an end. Please watch your step as you exit the vehicle as there is a bit of a drop.”

I peeked out from within the lift and pursed my lips as I found myself looking down a long and dimly-lit corridor that had no end in sight. “How many people live here?”

“We’re on the larger side for a nest, but that being said there are only a few thousand of us living here,” Neada replied stepping off the platform to join Rayland.

“Come,” he said beckoning us forward. “I’m sure President Bueller will want to talk with you, but… I think given the circumstances, he’ll forgive me if I give you guys a few hours rest before you have your little chat.”

“Great,” I muttered with a shake of my head. “Can’t wait for that. Well, might as well as show us to our quarters. I’m probably not the only one who’d like to get some sleep.”

Vakrexid made a high pitched warble then put a hand above Rayland’s head and started to shake his fingers. “Vakrexid doesn’t need to retire, but I would very much like some of the promised berry juice and some edible lichen if there is any to be found.”

Rayland chuckled then reached up to place a hand on the doctor’s shoulder, an effort which looked pretty awkward considering the doctor’s extreme height. “Let me show you to your room, and I’ll see what I can do.”

The walls were too neatly cut to have been natural, but the tunnel was far too long to have been dug out by hand without a massive labor force. It was far more likely that it had been excavated with machinery, probably before the invasion. I didn’t spot any guards as we came in, but there were a number of holes set at even intervals within the walls which I assumed were gun slits. Anyone who found their way inside the tunnel without being invited was likely to find themselves fried to a crisp by phasefire before they could take any action to defend themselves.

Rayland took a sharp turn into what I initially mistook for just another portion of wall, shattering the perfect illusion of solidity. Neada and the other rangers followed Rayland, without losing stride, hell they didn’t even blink! The image didn’t seem to have been created by a holo cloak, but was an optical deception, which I suspected was created through a combination of carefully cut stone and the right lighting.

I only hesitated long enough for a brief study of the opening, then ushered the other resistance members–who were gawking at the illusion with wide eyes as if expecting it leap out at them–through the gap.

We walked another ninety or so meters then made another sharp turn into yet another illusory opening which, after another couple dozen meters, led into a massive cavern. To say that I was astounded, was like saying a pot of simmering water was at a full boil. I was completely and utterly flabbergasted, not because of the size of the massive cavern, but because of what I saw jutting out of the walls. There were buildings, well over a hundred of them, and they looked as if they had been carved from the very rock of the cavern itself. Whether or not the structures had been sculpted from an existing chamber or if the entire thing had been carved out by machinery was anyone’s guess, but the ceiling certainly looked natural.

The buildings by themselves were nothing to write home about, they were unadorned and featureless rectangles and each was nearly identical to the last. They were stacked, four atop each other, and side by side so that eight of the houses sat in a single cluster with a set of stairs on either side. It was hard to say looking from the outside–I had no idea how deep each of the buildings went into the wall–, but I had the feeling they were built more for optimum occupancy than comfort. Each separate unit had two small windows that I assumed were glassless, on the front facade and a single door on the side which exited directly onto the stairway.

More stairways led down into a large empty field, for lack of a better term, which I supposed must have been some sort of meeting area. Dozens of enormous support pillars, spaced at even intervals extended from the floor up to the ceiling on its eastern and western sides. Along northern and southern edges were two large buildings, much larger than the other structures, but of an identical style. I doubted either had been designed with the intent of habitation in mind, but there exterior gave no clues to what their purpose might be.

“This way,” Rayland said hardly giving us enough time to take in the view before he strode forward, taking us down a wide path, which from the looks of it, circled the entire chamber. The city was far from empty, but its denizens kept a wide birth of us, watching us from a distance with expressions that showed their curiosity and a fair bit of caution.

“I-I gotta know,” Becky said look around with wide eyes. “If we’re so deep underground why’s it so warm in here?”

I blinked, that hadn’t occurred to me at all and I’d spent several months in compound Vyl, a mining complex situated deep underground, when I’d been traveled around with Duvak. In addition to the cold, the conditions there were brutal to say the least and I shuddered a bit as images I’d long tried to suppress were forced into the forefront of my thoughts.

“Right.” Neada nodded glancing back at my sister. “This whole place is powered by geothermal energy which in addition to keeping the lights on it also helps keep it nice and toasty even during the coldest winter months.”

“How do you keep the Qharr from detecting any energy signatures? I mean you must have massive energy requirements,” Lily asked staring up at the ceiling with wide eyes.

“Not as much you might think,” Rayland said slowing so that he could walk in sync with Lily. “We use hybrid biolights which require very little power and last decades without need of replacements… and as far as the heating goes we funnel heat up from the geothermal vents directly into this chamber and a few adjoining ones… Well, after all the harmful gases are filtered out. Since the chamber is shielded all the Qharr will detect, if they happen to pass by which they do from time to time, is the natural geothermal activity from the mountain.”

“We live quite simply for the most part,” Neada added moving up beside Rayland. “We don’t use too much tech if we can help it. We have some more energy-intensive devices, like medical and communications equipment, but we only ever power them up when there’s a reason for it, which isn’t very often.”

“This way,” Rayland stopped in front of a set of stairs that led up into one of the clusters of buildings. Like everything else in the chamber they were carved from the stones of the chamber itself.

As we approached the dwellings, I was able to make out numbers and letters displayed on the side of each building. We stopped at one labeled ‘2F’ and Rayland turned back to us, his usual grin replaced with a light smirk. “You’re fortunate we had a place available, space is at a premium and we only vacate homes if they’re in need of major repairs. Fortunately, they just finished renovating this unit.”

“This is somebody’s home? I don’t like the idea of–” Rebecca started to protest, but Neada cut her short.

“Our lifestyle requires certain sacrifices. Don’t give it more thought; there are many here who would gladly give up their homes for heroes from the resistance.”

“Alright, well…” Rayland clenched his hand around a strange knob protruding from the door, twisted it then swung the door open. “It isn’t much, but it’s all yours for as long as you stay with us.”

The interior of the house was just as spartan as the exterior. We stepped inside a small dimly-lit and unfurnished room. The walls, ceiling and floor were all made from the same dull and drab stone as the exterior, but at least it was warm. I’d stayed in much worse places, so I wasn’t about to complain.

Next, Rayland led us back into the rooms where we told us we’d be staying. There were four of them; each looked as if they could house five or six people if they all slept on the floor. Fortunately, the rooms were each furnished with a strange sort of double-decker bed. There was no doubt that Lily and I would share a room, which left a room for each of the remaining members of our crew. The rooms were small, but not so cramped that we didn’t have enough room to stretch our feet.

“Why don’t you get some rest?” Rayland suggested with a gentle smile which, for once, actually seemed sincere.

I agreed and in short order, Neada and Rayland departed leaving the rest of us to our own devices. A quick peek out the door, revealed a pair of centuries guarding the entrance to our new abode. I wasn’t even remotely surprised by this, and I couldn’t blame the nesters for being wary. I’d have done the same thing if the situation were reversed; still it set me on edge. How much did we really know about these people? Could we really trust them?

I retired to bed with Lily in tow, with those thoughts on my mind. I eventually drifted off to sleep entangled in her warm embrace all my thoughts and worries shedding away with the promise of uninterrupted sleep.

Chapter Five

I’m not quite sure what caused me to come awake, but when I reached up to rub the wariness from my eyes I realized that my cheeks were wet. I must have been crying in my sleep, but for the first time since Kaya’s passing I had no memory of my dreams.

Lily and I had opted to share the bottom bed since we had so few opportunities to spend time together since Duvak’s last attack. I didn’t have much room to move around, and I really didn’t want to wake her up. So I slipped my arms around her and kissed her on the forehead and closed my eyes.

I probably would have slipped back off to sleep, but then I heard Khala’s voice ring through my head and with a tired sigh I let my eyes slide back open.

‘What!?’ I thought at her gritting my teeth and glared at her illusory form, which was standing over the bed with arms folded across a non-existent chest.

“There’s something you should know.”

‘What’s so god-dammed important that it can’t wait a few hours?’

‘The symbiote who was joined with your former master is still alive.”

“Oh, god.” I sat bolt upright or tried too. I ended up hitting my head on the bottom of the top bed. I winced, laid back down and rubbed the sore spot then turned to Khala. “I take it he’s joined with someone?”

I heard Lily stir beside me, but Khala continued apparently headless that my lover was coming awake. “I assumed he had passed away with Duvak, but last night I detected his presence. I don’t believe he had completed the bonding process which would be why I hadn’t detected his presence until now. I didn’t believe it was possible, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.

“Do you know who he’s happened to join with?”

“No it could be anyone from our party. I wouldn’t even rule out the Dexagarmetrax,” she replied then her image vanished. ‘but if I puzzle it out you’ll be the first to know.’

Lily yawned, then leaned in and pecked me on the lips. “What was that about?”

I relayed what Khala had just told me and I watched her thoughtful expression turn to a frown. “That can’t be good.”

“Not much we can do about it until he shows himself. I don’t think he’ll be able to cause anyone harm. Probably the worst he can do is withhold his abilities from whoever he’s taken as a host.”

“Still, we should be careful if he ever finds a way back to the Qharr he’d be able to reveal the location of this nest and tell them about our contact with the ERF.”

“Hadn’t thought of that.” I shook my head. “Which is all the more reason we need to find out who he’s bonded with.”

“How?”

“Rayland, did say that his people had medical equipment, right? Maybe they can do a scan and see what turns up.”

“He might just try and feed like Khala did when she was first bonded with you.”

“Either way, we’ll know who our K’teth has taken on as a host. I’ll talk with Rayland about in the morning,” I grimaced and shook my head.

“You sure that’s wise? What if Ray’s the one who’s carrying the symbiote?”

I shrugged. “It’s not like the K’teth can do anything even if he knows we’re on to him.”

“Right,” she nodded then sunk down back into my arms. “Let’s try to get some more sleep. We have a big day ahead of us.”

I didn’t feel much like sleeping, but regardless when I laid my head down on my pillow and closed my eyes, the world fled before me and I drifted off.

“Is this the position, known as forking?” a voice asked from the conscious world.

I gasped and came awake with a start and Lily stirred beside me. “D-doctor?” I quickly pull the covers up, and over my bare breasts. “What are you doing?!”

“Vakrexid has come to wake you. Rayland has returned. He seeks you,” he tooted then knelt down next to the bed so that he could get a better look. “Is it forking? It looks most uncomfortable.”

“Forking?” Lily asked, shrinking under the covers as she stared at the doctor.

“I think the doctor’s getting his phrases mixed up again. We were spooning, doc, not forking. Forking involves more… penetration.”

“Ah, yes, yes, that seems correct. Please hurry, Major Patterson seems most impatient,” he said then spun around on his heels and was out the door before either Lily or I could say a word.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” Lily crawled out of bed and I let out a sigh of regret as she started to dress herself. Her hair was messy and she had dark circles under her eyes, but in that moment she’d never looked sexier too me. She glanced at me with eyebrows raised and while her expression looked sincere, her voice was dripping with sarcasm.

“We really don’t want to leave the good major waiting do we?”

I climbed out of bed, and then wrapped my arms around her waist, my breasts pressed up against her back. “No time for a quickie?”

She rolled her eyes then broke free. “As much as I’d love to take you up on that offer, I’m already dressed. What’s got into you anyway?”

I back away and shook my head. “I don’t know… it’s just the stress of the last few days I guess.”

“Tell you what.” She gave me a coy smile then spun around and pecked me on the lips. “Tonight, we can lock ourselves in here and ‘fork’ each other until we drop.”

I snorted and let out a soft chuckle then locked my lips around hers, and shared a long sensual kiss before breaking away. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

Lily seemed a lot more hesitant to pull away after that kiss, but in a display of remarkable restraint, she tossed me my shirt, turned away then said, “Get dressed, and I’ll meet you outside,” just before vacating the room.

“…and so priest says–” Rayland was grinned from ear to ear as I entered; chuckling at what was no doubt another of his distasteful jokes.

“Rayland, can we put a lid on the jokes, for now? Isn’t it about time we get down to business?”

He let out an exaggerated sigh then cleared his through. “Oh, alright that suits me, I guess. In any case Bueller’s pretty eager to meet with you.”

Becky, sniffed her arm pit then scrunched her nose up. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like a chance to freshen up before I meet with anyone.”

“You look positively lovely and as for the smell goes Bueller suffers from anosmia so he won’t catch a whiff of your… alluring scent.” He coughed, cupping his mouth in a vain attempt to hide his grin. “Besides he’s no stranger to a little dirt and grime, Bueller served in the war and was a ranger for some time after the occupation. You spend as much time in the trenches as he did, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how you become accustomed to the sort of conditions you and I are all too familiar with.”

“Just lead the way,” I messaged my temples and gritted my teeth. Something told me that it was going to be a long day.

“Jesus.”

I winced and glanced at Lily who melted behind a pair of rangers. She was so small that she was almost perfectly concealed behind their bulky forms. I gritted my teeth and held my head up high, not willing to let myself be intimidated by a few odd looks and comments from the on looking nesters who had come out in droves to watch us pass through their city.

Word of our arrival had clearly passed through the town’s rumor mill, but judging from the looks the people were giving us, especially Lily, the doctor and myself, they weren’t sure what to think. Several times I glanced sideways and watched someone take a step back, offer up a curse or gasp once they’d met my gaze. It had to be the eyes. I’d become accustomed to them, but they really were an odd sight.

It put me on edge and made me question the sanity of my decision to come to the nest. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be scrutinized for my appearance and I can’t say I liked the way it made me feel. Lily had even less experience dealing with it than I did, but if these nesters were going to work with us they’d just have to accept us for who and what we were. The doctor seemed completely oblivious, but whether or not it was because he’d grown accustomed to such treatment or that he really was heedless of the attention we were getting, was anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, our trip through the city was brief. I’d been expecting him to lead us down into the depths of the chamber where the two larger buildings were located, so I was a little bit surprised when Rayland led us up toward another cluster of houses. I’d been expecting an official meeting with whatever puffed up dignitaries the nesters could have mustered on such short notice, but clearly Rayland’s people had a more private get together in mind. Which was fine by me, I’d been force fed Qharr etiquette and formality all my life, the last thing I wanted was to have some stuffy meeting with a bunch of fat-assed politicians.

Rayland stopped at the entrance and turned back to us. “I’m sure the council will want to meet with you sooner or later, but this is just an informal gathering. Bueller isn’t anything like what you’re probably expect. I know how you feel about our people and like it or not I think a lot of those feelings are justified, but Bueller has been fighting for our nest to join the resistance for years. In fact, he’s the reason I was sent out to find you in the first place so try not to antagonize him, he’s your best chance at pulling this thing off, okay?”

“I’m not Kaya, Ray, I know how to hold my tongue,” I said, and bit my lip as I fought back tears. God, had I really just said that? “J-just let’s get this over with.”

Rayland nodded and I was never so thankful to see him turn his back. I’d gotten a good look into his eyes before he turned away and the sympathy and understanding I saw there was almost too much to bare. I shook my head and followed him through the door. Had I really just seen that? That look he’d given me was so unlike the Rayland I’d come to know that I was having trouble believing that I’d actually witnessed it.

We all followed him into the dwelling, which was almost identical to ours, inside and out, then a pair of rangers closed the door behind us presumably taking guard on the outside of the door. A few stills hung from the wall, and a beige sofa sat in the center of the room facing the door, but there weren’t any other furnishing or decorations. A tall man, with fair-hair that was fading to gray with charcoal gray eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, hobbled toward us leaning heavily on a well-worn wood cane.

“Ah, Major Patterson, you’re timing as always is impeccable,” he said with gentle, yet firm voice full of confidence and authority.

I could see why the nesters had chosen him as their leader, here was a man who displayed a level of confidence I hadn’t seen in another human being as long as I could remember. The Qharr didn’t like their slaves to have backbones, and of all the people I’d met Mara was probably the closest to Bueller in that respect. However, Mara had always conveyed an air of secrecy that made me feel as if she was manipulating me.

I was naturally suspicious of everyone, one of the hazards of growing up in conditions where you were more likely to be betrayed than receive the loyalty of your friends, but there was something about that man that made me want to throw caution to the wind and trust him. Don’t get me wrong, I was no sucker and wasn’t about let that happen. Trust had to be earned not given.

I stepped forward breezing past, Rayland and held my hand out. “I’m Lexa Briggs, I command what’s left of the resistance.”

Bueller’s grip was firm, but mine was firmer. I put just enough strength into the handshake so that I knew it had to be uncomfortable, probably even a little painful, but the nester leader only smiled and met my gaze. “It’s a pleasure.”

I released my grip and let him withdraw his hand, he chuckled, and flexed his hand. “Major Patterson appraised me of your… abilities, but I wasn’t expecting, quite so hands on of a demonstration.”

“Believe me, that was only a fraction of my strength, if I wanted to I could have broken every bone in your hand,” I said with smile, letting just a hint of malice enter my voice.

“I’m certainly glad you showed some restraint then.” He grinned, and cleared his throat. “I understand that you may feel a certain amount of antagonism toward the nesters, but I hope you’ll be able to put those feelings aside.”

I bit back the response that was on the tip of my tongue. “Let’s get down to business then. You need us and we need you, and right now neither of us has any reason to trust each other; that sound about right to you?”

“More or less.” Bueller looked uncomfortable, which suited me just fine. We’d have to work with him, but that didn’t mean I had to like him. Bueller was a man who was accustomed to being obeyed, and I wasn’t going to bend over backwards just to make him more comfortable no matter how much we needed his help.

There was a tense silence as Bueller studied me. His expression was hard to read, but I don’t think he was angry just frustrated. Finally, he broke the silence and I was never so glad. “I am sure you can understand, but I would like to have our doctors look at you. The major has assured me that these K’teth–” he paused as if trying the word on his tongue for the first time then continued “–of yours don’t pose a threat, but you can never be too cautious.”

“Actually,” I pursed my lips and brushed my hair out of my eyes. “I was going to suggest the same thing. There’s a chance an unfriendly symbiote has bonded with one of us and I’d like to know for sure.”

“From this inquisitor that was pursuing you… Durak was his name?”

“Duvak,” I corrected. Rayland had certain been thorough when reporting to his superior. “All I ask is that you allow our doctor to work with yours. He’s had more opportunity to study K’teth physiology than your guys so I’m sure you’ll benefit from his knowledge and expertise.”

“INDEED!” the doctor warbled throwing both hands up in the air and waving them around so fast that they were a blur.

Once he was calmed down I coughed and glanced back at him. “He is a bit ecentric, but–”

“Say no more,” Bueller cut my short. “I met a few Dexagarmetrax before the war and I know of his people’s peculiarities. I’m sure our doctors would be glad for his help. It’s been a long time since either of them had another physician around for a good brain picking.”

“Vakrexid does not believe that would be a very good idea at all. Brains are most sensitive, mine in particular, such an activity would more than likely result in Vakrexid’s death.” The doctor’s already wide-eyes grew even wider and as I stared at him I was reminded of a bird ready to take flight.

“Doctor,” Lily whispered place a hand on his arm, being too short to reach his shoulder. “It’s an expression, it means they would bounce ideas off you.”

Vakrexid seemed to relax, but then he shuddered. “How does one bounce an idea?”

Lily sighed and messaged her temple. “They’d want to get your opinion.”

“Ah, yes, of course, of course.”

“Standing from a security stand point. I don’t like the idea of having a hostile K’teth in our midst.” Rayland frowned then turned to me with raised eyebrows. “What sort of risk would there be, assuming you’re right?”

“Not a whole lot. As we’ve already established a K’teth may only gain control of its’ hosts body if it has been given permission. Other than that, about all he’ll be able to do is listen in on our conversations. He can communicate with other K’teth and joined hosts, but only at close range,” I replied. There was more I would have liked to say, but I didn’t think it would have been a good idea to say anything more in the presence of the symbiote. I had an inkling of how we might rid ourselves of him and I definitely didn’t want him knowing what I had in mind.

I didn’t like revealing anything to the nesters, but for the time being they had me over a barrel. Cooperation was a two way streak and like it or not I’d have to give if I ever wanted to take. “As far as potential hosts go, it could be anyone who was present during Duvak’s death… Well except Lily and me.”

“Since you’re already bonded to symbiotes.” Rayland looked like he’d just downed a whole vat of Jum’kar juice. “And as one of the people present it’s just as likely to be me as Matt or Rebecca.”

“Not to mention, the doctor,” Lily added. “If humans can be bond with K’teth there no reason to think a Dexagarmetrax can’t too.”

The moment those words left Lily’s lips, Vakrexid’s head turned sharply and he stared at her cocking his head from side to side. He didn’t say a word and for the first time since I had met him, I wondered if there was something he wasn’t tell us. What sort of secrets might the doctor be holding back?

“I must say I find this highly disconcerting,” Bueller said fingering his beard. “Major Patterson, I want you and your resistance friends to report to the infirmary immediately. We can continue this discussion later, once Miss Brigg’s suspicions are either proven or disproven. I’d like to know if one of those things is hiding in our midst.”

“Yes, sir,” he snapped a salute then spun around on the balls of his feet. “This way.”

I turned to follow Rayland, but stopped and let the others follow him through the door. There was something about the whole situation that just didn’t add up. Not necessarily the predicament with the nesters, but the K’teth. What was it about them that I was missing? The puzzle pieces were there in front of me, but I couldn’t find any matches. I needed to see bigger piece of the picture before I could put them all together.

I glance over my shoulder, at Bueller who met my gaze. I gave him a curt nod then swept out the door resolved to unravel the mystery of the K’teth before it was too late.

“Vakrexid can hardly contain his excitement.”

We were in the infirmary where the nester doctors had already begun their scans of Rayland. Unlike, the main chamber this cave looked natural, with the exception of the ceiling which had obviously been chipped away to help accommodate large pieces equipment. I couldn’t guess at the purpose of any of it, but it must have served a useful function at some point. The nearly circular cavern was large, but nowhere near the size of the main one. It had two dozen beds spaced at even intervals around its edges. The scan bed sat in the center of the room, and was surrounded by four quarter-circle-shaped counters which were positioned around it leaving plenty of room for people to move about.

The scan bed didn’t have a hovering upper unit like the one the doctor had used on me, but, instead, had a pair of arms which passed over Rayland’s feet and hovered over his body until they reached his head where they paused for briefest of moments before retracting back into the side of the bed. I couldn’t say whether the nester’s version of a scan bed was any more or less advanced than the one the doctor had used, but it was just as impressive in its’ own respect.

“I’m glad someone is enjoying themselves,” Farris grimaced as he watched Rayland sit up. “I don’t particularly like the idea that I might have one of those things inside of me.”

Becky shuddered and put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not the only one.”

“Vakrexid thinks it would be fascinating.”
‘It would be a learning experience for the symbiote, no doubt,’ Khala voice echoed inside my head. ‘I mean to be bonded with a Dexagarmatrax…. they’re certainly an interesting species.’

I ignored Khala and watched Rayland step down from the scan bed. “I’m not showing anything unusual. I believe you’re clean.”

“Vakrexid concurs,” the doctor said moving over to the small screen set into the scan bed where the pair of nester doctors were huddled. “He is not joined. Although… there is a strange celluar residue in–” Vakrexid’s body sudden stiffened and turned to stare at Rayland.

“It’s alright doctor, you can say it,” Rayland smiled and let out a soft chuckle. “It’s not exactly a secret in these parts.”

“What, what is it? What’s going on?” I stepped forward, clenching my fists at my side, as I prepared myself for trouble.

“He is a clone,” Vakrexid said. “This is most strange. Vakrexid did not believe the nesters had the resources necessary for such a process.”

“We don’t,” said one of the nester doctors, Yu, a slender woman of Chinese descent who looked like she may have once been quite beautiful, but whose looks had been ravaged by age. “During the war I worked with the United Earth fleet growing clones. I discovered a flaw in one of them before he his accelerated growth cycle had been completed and was scheduled to be terminated, but I managed to convince my superiors that if we could study him we might be able to prevent the flaw from appearing in any future batches. We had him on ice and when the Qharr seized earth… I couldn’t bring myself to leave him to die so I thawed him and brought him here with me to the nest.”

“Flaw, what sort of flaw?” I demanded.

“Nothing too alarming,” Rayland grinned. “I produce too much serotonin, it’s a neurotransmitter which contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being among other things, but overproduction has its downsides and if left untreated it would eventually kill me. Fortunately, Mom… Doctor Yu, was able to fit me with an implant that helps to keep my serotonin at much more manageable levels.”

“Well, that explains a few things,” I said with a shake of my head. No wonder the damn fool always had a smile on his face.

“That’s just cold,” Lily added with a shudder. “They wanted to kill you just because of he had his neotransmitters are all messed up?

“Neurotransmitter imbalance,” Yu corrected.

“That’s all very interesting and everything, but can we get this over with? I’d really like to know if I have one of those things in me,” Farris leapt over the counter and jumped on top of the scan bed.

“Doctor Carver, can you cover that? I’d like to spend some time with my son,” Yu nodded toward her colleague, a skeletal and tiny old man with almost no hair remaining but a few white tufts that stuck out above his ears like the froth from boiled jyll’kar broth.

“Son? How does that work if he’s a clone?” Becca asked.

“Rayland was the physical equivalent to a eight-year-old when we arrested his growth. Generally, a clone is flashed with his or her memories once they’ve neared the final stages of their development so when I brought him out of stasis he had no memories or any sort of education. He was a like an infant. I devoted myself to teaching him and in so doing I developed the same feelings and affection that any mother would have for her child.”

“You’re clear,” Doctor Carver croaked from beside the scan bed. “That is… if my new colleague here agrees.”

Vakrexid scrambled across the counters surrounding the scan bed so that could confer with Carver. “Indeed.”

“Becca you’re up.” Farris hopped down from the scan bed and threw his thumb over his shoulder.

My sister licked her lips, and gave me a nervous smile. “Wish me luck.”

I followed Becca over to the scan bed, leaving Lily alone with Rayland and his adopted mother. Farris had lingered near the scan bed and together we watched my sister climb up and position herself back down atop it.

“Please try to hold still,” Carver said just before activating the scanner.

As soon as his finger mashed down on the console I could feel the symbiote stir and I felt my heart sink when I realized what it was that I was feeling. Becca was the host. I’m sure the K’teth knew that he’d been had, but I really couldn’t say if that contributed to what he did next. Though, it was oddly surreal to be witness to an event that so closely mirrored one of my own past experiences.

Becca skin started to glow and the lights above started to flicker as the he began consuming energy.

“Crap,” I muttered realizing that besides the cosmetic differences the nester’s scan bed did differ from Vakrexid’s old one in one important way. It didn’t have its own fuel cell, it was tied directly into the nester’s main power source. Which meant Becca’s K’teth now had unfettered access to a massive supply of energy. I did the only thing I could think of, I grabbed my sister by the ankles, threw her over my shoulder and leapt out of the way.

My normally perfect balance was thrown off by the weight of my sister and I careened face down onto the floor on opposite the counter. Becca was thrown free of my shoulder and landed a few feet past me her feet pounding into the back of my head. I grunted, then rolled onto my back further away from my sister.

I shook my head and glanced up as Farris approached, but he sped past me and knelt down next to my sister.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I think so,” came my sister’s belated reply.

A moment later, Lily was down on her knees next to me and I heard her repeat Farris’s question.

“The only thing wounded is my pride,” I mumbled, then climbed to my feet glancing over at my sister. “This… could be a problem.”

Becca stood, somewhat shakily, with Farris’s assistance then turned to me tears biting the corners of her eyes. “Please, do something I don’t want this to change me like yours’ did to you.”

“That’s shouldn’t be a worry,” Khala said smiling smugly as she appeared by my side. “Males aren’t capable of manipulating their host’s cells on the same level as queens. The worst he’ll be able to do is make a few cosmetic changes.”

“Shit,” Becca breathed taking a few steps back and turned her head to stare at the exact spot where Khala was standing. “Where’d she come from?”

“Who?” Farris asked, but no one bothered to answer him.

“I can feel him,” Khala muttered stepping toward my sister and drew close enough to place a hand on my sister’s shoulder. “Looks like our friend has finally decided to finish the bonding process, but the question is will he come out and play?”

She scowled when her question failed to draw a response and she gritted her teeth and glared daggers at Becca. “Like it or not, brother, you’re stuck with us. If you want to hide inside your host that’s your business, but you must realize that as far as the masters and many of our brothers and sisters are concerned you have been irrevocably contaminated by this human you’ve joined with. In their eyes it would have been better if you had allowed yourself to die along with your former host.”

Again, he didn’t answer, and Khala howled in impotent fury before disappearing with a flash and a bang. Becca looked around the chamber and started to shake her head. “No, I don’t want this thing inside of me. Get it out! SOMEONE JUST GET IT OUT!”

I wrapped my arm around her and she just melted into my arms. “Becca I’m sorry, if there was a way the doctor would have found one by now. I think you’re stuck with that symbiote for the long run.”

If their cells weren’t completely joined then it seemed reasonable that there was a better chance of symbiote and host being separated. I’d had this faint hope that we’d be able to rid ourselves of him by doing so, but Khala’s pronouncement that our new friend had completed the bonding process had shot that prospect to bits. Now Becca was stuck, just like Lily and me and there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it.

Chapter Six

I leapt up the side of the chamber walls, zooming across the surface of the rock in great leaps that seemed to defy the laws of gravity. I jumped into the center of the ceiling. I crouched and looked down at all the rangers and my fellow resistance members then pushed against the surface under my feet and went plummeting back down toward the ground. I did a back flip just before hitting the surface and landed on my feet.

“Damn,” I said with a shake of my head as I looked about the small chamber.

Raylen’s men had been taken off guard by my trip up the side of the wall, but it had only been enough to keep them off me for a few seconds. The others would be no help as they were all busy. Even Lily, who was finally getting a real chance to flex her muscles, was having trouble keeping them at bay. God there were so damn many of them! I waited the rangers out and when the first of them came tearing across the chamber floor I ducked as he swung the butt of his rifle at me and I slammed my fist into his stomach as hard as I could.

He went flying back and toppled into three of friends. His body armor had absorbed most of the impact, but my attack was powerful enough to leave him dazed for several seconds. His companions, on the other hand, were back up on their feet in an instant. Say what you would about the rangers, but they were a damned tough lot. Lily and I had them beat by a landslide, but still it was pretty impressive. Their armor was of a type created during the war and had been designed specifically to fight the Qharr. It was capable of absorbing a lot of kinetic energy, but there was only so much it could do against K’tetch-enhanced strength. Which was why he had been thrown away from me instead of shrugging it off as he had with some of my less-powerful attacks.

The other three rangers came speeding toward me and I braced myself for their attacks. The second and third raised their rifles as clubs and I let the blows come as I held out my open palm which impacted the first’s shoulder, and sent him spinning away. He collapsed to his knees and I hit him across the chest with a round house kick. He went down and stayed down, and I turned to take on his two friends who had been joined by the ranger who’d gone soaring a moment before.

I ducked when one of the rangers, a lanky woman who had a shock of short red hair done up in a pixie cut, and spun around diving at another who I only realized was Neada after I’d gotten a good look into her eyes. Of course, that didn’t stop me from sending her tumbling down on her ass, but I did feel bad about it. Pretty soon she was down for the count and I jumped up to my feet dealing a blow against fire-hair’s chest before she wilted under the force of my attacks.

Then it was just me and the last ranger. He looked fresh-faced and I doubted he was old enough to have reached twenty five years. Which meant I probably only had four or five years on him, but there was some quality about him that I couldn’t quite name made him seem much younger. He pounced at me, and I grabbed him by the arm and sent him hurtling away from me. He bounced back and was ready to pounce on me when Rayland suddenly called a halt to the fighting.

My opponent let out a deep breath and smiled at me. “That’s pretty damn impressive. The Major told us what you were capable of, but I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

“I have to admit sometimes even I’m surprised by the things I can do.” I shrugged brushing my hair out of my eyes. I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from saying any more. No one among the nesters knew about the K’teth save Bueller and Rayland and it had been decided that it would be best if the general nester populous was kept in the dark. Even the rangers weren’t in the know, but that hadn’t stopped them from speculating about Lily and my appearance or our abilities. At the moment the presiding theory was that we were victims of genetic experimentation at the hands of Qharr scientists.

“Name’s Jake by the way,” the ranger said scratching the back of his head.

“Lexa.”

“Yeah, um, so listen. You wanna grab a drink or something. My cousin makes this…well it’s pretty terrible moonshine to be honest, but it’s about the best you can get arou–”

“She’s spoken for.” Lily appeared and put her arm around me adopting an almost comically possessive posture.

“Oh, oh, well, sorry, that was… unexpected. Well, it was a pleasure,” he said then quickly fled his cheeks burning bright red.

Lily pulled away then frowned watching him disappear. “That was awkward. You know I caught one the ranger’s sneaking glances at my ass when he thought I didn’t notice. It was… weird.”

“I know the feeling,” I muttered, pulling her close and kissed her.

I admit that I had an ulterior motive for doing this. I had this hope that if the rangers saw us displaying our affection, that it might help stave off any would be admirers. While Lily had been a little slower to develop a figure, she’d grown into it quite nicely and I could hardly keep my eyes off her whenever she was around. Still neither one of us had much experience with this sort of thing. I had received more than enough attention for my own liking, but only two men had been very forward in their interest, one of whom I’d slept with then found out he was a traitor and the other had was a dirty philander who was married to my sister and tried to rape me. I didn’t exactly have a very good track record when it came to turning men down. Well, the more reasonable ones anyway…

I guess our little smooch wasn’t enough for Lily because once we broke apart she pulled me in close again kissing me with a lot more tongue than I was accustomed to. When we finally did break, I was left feeling breathless and I wanted nothing more at that moment to make dirty passionate love to her. Unfortunately, we had an audience. I had a feeling that such a public act would have the exact opposite effect that I wanted.

“Well, I just got word from our Dexagarmetrax friend,” Rayland approached glancing back at Jake, grinning from ear to ear. “Seems he’s cracked that code the ERF sent us.”

Us? I grimaced and folded my arms across my chest. Where did he get off acting like he was part of the group? I still wasn’t convinced he could be trusted, but I needed to play ball. So I gritted my teeth and dropped my hands. “Best news I’ve heard all week. He still in the infirmary?”

“No, Mom finally managed to herd him out. He’s back at your place.”

I nodded. “Right, well… Lily and I will head back and talk with him. I’m sure the rest of the crew could use something to eat, that was a pretty good workout.”

“Right, I’ll have Neada show them into the mess… I can escort you to back to the house and have something brought over for us to eat.”

I almost said something, but then bit my tongue. I didn’t want Rayland to tag along with us at all, but I doubted he’d take no for answer. If I were in Bueller’s shoes I would never let a potential security risk like me or Lily walk around in my home unwatched. Besides if I let the nester’s keep guard there was no way they’d be able to point their fingers at me if anything went awry.

“That’d be good.”

“Vakrexid, apologizes. It should not have taken me so long, but it was much more complicated than Vakrexid had originally assumed. You see, in early life Pyrpygym had a rare language processing disorder, similar to one that occurs in your species known as dyslexia, which caused him to write characters in reverse order. Because our scientists learned how to cure this disorder when he was still very young, it is not a fact that is well known. Which is why Vakrexid had not thought of it!”

“That’s why none of it made any sense then it was backwards?” Lily asked.

“No, Vakrexid reversed the order of the numbers, then applied the formula then reversed the results. Vakrexid tried several different permutations and this is the only one that turned up coherent results.”

“So then what is it?” Rayland asked. “What do all those numbers mean?”

“They are coordinates, followed by a date and a time,” Vakrexid replied.

“And how do we know that they’re correct? I mean it’s not like they really gave us a set of directions,” Lily asked frowning as she stared at the doctor.

“How do we even know we can trust this message? If the Earth Reclamation Fleet was compromised the Qharr could have sent this message to bait us,” Rayland glanced at the doctor an uncharacteristic frown marring his face. “Where exactly are these coordinates?”

Vakrexid produced a small tablet computer and held it out to Rayland. “New Anaheim.”

“A-and the date?” I asked.

“August thirtieth at 22:13.” Vakrexid replied tooting absently as thrummed his fingers against the table.

“Whoever sent that message did their homework. New Anaheim is my place of birth and as for the date and time that’s my birthday. I was born on August thirtieth, in twenty-two thirteen. They must want us to meet them, but can we risk it? Those dates were a matter of public record before the invasion.”

“Vakrexid believes this information is genuine,” the doctor said. “With the exception of Mara no human would have the necessary knowledge. Since she is dead only one of my kind, in particular a clan-mate, could have been able to encrypt the message in such a way that Vakrexid would know how to decrypt it. The Qharr do not have any form of contact with my people. It is most unlikely that they would be able to compose such a message when only a handful of my people, all of them my relatives, could do so.”

“I don’t care what you say I still don’t like it.” Rayland shook his head.

“Maybe there’s another way,” I said. “If we showed up early we could set up an ambush. We could spring any traps before they were set.”

“I’ll discuss it with Bueller. In the mean time I think it’s best if we kept this between the four of us. There’s no telling what would happen if this sort of information got out… especially if it got into the hands of your symbiote friend. I have difficulty just believe this Khala and Dyssa can be trusted. The fact that your symbiotes don’t get along with your sister’s introduces an unstable element.”

I didn’t like keeping things from my sister, but I understood Rayland’s logic and as much as I hated to admit it I agreed that it was better to be cautious. An uncomfortable silence followed and it wasn’t broken until the nester cooks arrived with our meal that it was broken.

Chapter Seven

To say that I was nervous was an understatement, but at least it kept my mind off my conflicted self-reflection. We were waiting outside the council chambers and never before this point had the weight of leadership weighed me down than that moment. I didn’t have any idea what to say, but that was only part of it. I wasn’t just representing myself; I was representing the entire resistance, the few of us that were left.

The building, like every other nester structure that I had entered was a blocky and unattractive affair that had very obviously been built to serve a purpose and not provide eye candy. I wrapped my arm around Lily’s shoulders and pulled her close. She smiled and set her head on my shoulder.

Lily and I shared a seat, Becca and Farris sat on a bench opposite us, getting far too cozy with each other for my tastes, and the doctor had remained standing at his own insistence with closed eyes and remained almost unnaturally still.

“You’re going to do fine,” she whispered in my ear just before the massive set of unadorned double doors creaked open.

Rayland poked his head through.”They’re ready for you.”

I nodded, then took Lily’s hand and stepped through the door, Farris and Becca remained sitting, they had not been invited to this meeting. Becca, because of her symbiote and Farris because Rayland had advised Bueller of their relationship. The doctor trailed, opening his eyes and lurching into the chamber with a suddenness that was starling. Rayland closed the door behind us and I gritted my teeth and fought down the sudden urge to make a break for it.

After traveling through a short hallway we entered directly into a small circular chamber, which had a raised platform, ringed with seats, and was just high enough to force us to crane our necks in order to look upon those seated above. There were nine of them counting Bueller, but the platform was large enough to have supported at least double that many.

“My friends,” Bueller pronounced using his cane to prop himself up so that he could overlook the entire room. “You all know why we have gathered. Friends from the resistance have come to us seeking shelter and now they need our help.”

“Our help?” A tall willowy man, with small flat nose, glanced down at us, with cold eyes. “It seems to me that we’ve already given them enough of that.”

“Representative Dahl,” Bueller chided pounding his cane against the floor producing a loud resounding thud. “You will have time to speak when I open the floor for discussion.”

“Of course, president.” Dahl gave a smile that was all teeth and reminded me of a predator ready to pounce and bowed his head.

Bueller cleared his throat then continued. “Many of us are not acquainted so I believe it would behoove me to give you an opportunity to familiarize you one with another. He started by naming each member of the resistance and then held his hand out to each representative offering up an introduction. He started with Lancaster Dahl, the disagreeable fellow from before, who had a thin jaw and permanent scowl on his face, next was Jokeb Schmit a short man who wore a calculating expression that was hard to read, then came Jacklyn Estevez an aging woman who might once have been considered beautiful decades ago, Jeremiah Krane a man who couldn’t have been much older than myself, Arianne Le Fonte a strikingly attractive woman with flowing auburn hair, Rena Kinkaid who had an easy smile and a friendly demeanor, Della Everly a severe-looking woman with studied our group with keen eyes, and finally Minka Dubcek an eccentric looking woman who had her hair done up in a bun and was fur sweater that was so old and worn that clumps of hair looked to have fallen off.

After the introductions Bueller looked about the room. “Today, we take an important step forward. It was been more than twenty-four years since our world was taken from us. Rather than fight against the invaders we have chosen to cower in our caves and let others fight and die in our place. This was an act born of fear and desperation, but we can no longer afford to stand idly by. They come to us with renewed hope and a new purpose. They have made contact with a remnant of the UED Fleet calling itself the Earth Reclamation Fleet and hope to collaborate with them to formulate a plan to retake our world. The floor is now open for discussion.”

“You speak pretty words, President Bueller, but let’s not sidestep what must be everyone’s biggest concern. These resistance fighters you’ve allowed within our midst, must be commended for their bravery in fighting the gray-skins, but surely you cannot be so blind as to trust when at least three of their number have allowed themselves to infested by these K’teth creatures,” said Jokeb who glared at Lily and me with undisguised contempt.

“Infested. I may very much coming to loath that word,” Khala said appearing beside me.

‘I’m not too fond of it myself, but look at it this way,’ I thought as I glanced at her with a shrug. ‘At least he didn’t call you a parasite.’

“Look.” I stepped forward, meeting Jokeb’s gaze. “You have every reason to be suspicious. To be honest, if I were in your position I’d feel the same way, but we’ll need to put our suspicions and doubts aside if we’re going to work together,” I shuddered spinning around so that I could get a good look at all the representatives.

“Believe me, my symbiote has done things to me that are beyond disturbing, but she’s had several opportunities to betray me… to betray the resistance and she has never once done so. I sincerely believe that she wants to be free from the Qharr just like you and me. Lily and I have powers and strength far beyond an ordinary human don’t let that go to waste. I want to fight those bastards, they’ve killed… far too many of the people I care about.”

Kaya’s name had been on the tip of my tongue, but I every time I uttered it I found it was all I could do from breaking down which was about the last thing I could afford to do at that moment. She was always on my mind, and it was hard enough just thinking about her, but at least when I did I could keep my feelings from showing on my face. I may have looked calm on the surface, but inside I was a mess. It wasn’t just because of Kaya, but everything else too.

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Jokeb replied narrowing his eyes and I shook my head to clear my thoughts as his squirrelly little eyes studied me. “At least as far as the human host is concerned. The problem is how can we know which one of you is actually speaking?”

“This is annoying,” Dyssa said her imaginary form leaning against that of her mother’s. “How can we ever hope to convince your people of our intentions when we are continually met with suspicion?”

‘Can you really, blame them?’ Lily asked. For a moment I actually thought she was speaking aloud until I saw her face and realized her lips were not moving. ‘It’s not like you’ve given them a reason to trust you.’

“The question is… will we ever be able to do enough to convince them?” Khala asked.

‘Either way we have an agreement. Unless you plan on going back on your word,’ I said folding my arms across my chest as I stared at her with raised eyebrows.

“Never!” Khala and Dyssa both yelled in unison.

“Let’s say for a moment that these, symbiotes, can in fact be trusted. What of the third one? How can we be sure it won’t betray us?” Lancaster said leaning over the edge of the platform so that he could look me directly in the eyes.

“I will not see our people led into ruination because of these parasites!” A new voice yelled and both Lily and I jumped as we turned to look upon the speaker, Jacklyn Estevez.

“Well so much for them not calling us parasites,” Khala said with pursed lips just before vanishing. Dyssa glanced at the spot her mother’s image had just vacated and let out a long sigh before, she too, disappeared.

While Lily and I had been conversing with our symbiotes the chatter among the assembly members had continued. I silently cursed myself for allowing myself to be distracted then opened my mouth to speak, but to my surprise the doctor spoke first.

“Vakrexid, can vouch for them. I have been able to determine with nearly complete certainty that the symbiotes cannot consciously influence their hosts. Any human, or Qharr, joined with a K’teth would remain completely independent from the entities. They can only gain control if the host allows it and most certainly only for a very short time.”

“Forgive us, if we do not take the word of an alien at face value,” the Jeremiah Krane said folding his arms across his chest.

Jacklyn, clenched her jaw then turned to stare at the doctor a slow smile forming on her face as I caught glint of amusement from her eyes. “Please pardon my young… friend Jeremiah, he is too young to remember the universe as it was before the invasion. So excuse me as I explain to my fellow representative. This alien, as you put it is a member of a race of people known as the Dexagarmetrax. They are a species of scholars, they value truth above all else. For them lying is a reprehensible crime tantamount to murder.”

Jokeb grimaced and scowled at the elderly woman. “That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be some sort of deviant.”

“Doubtful,” Arianne said her long auburn tresses draping over the edge of platform as she leaned over to get a better look at us. The top two buttons of her blouse were undone and I got an amazing view of her cleavage. That is, until Lily caught me looking and elbowed me in the stomach.

“There are very few criminals among the Dexagarmetrax. Let’s just assume that this doctor is speaking the truth it still does not mean he is infallible. He could have made a mistake or been led to a false conclusion. Still, I am inclined to believe him,” Arianne continued apparently heedless of my wandering eyes.

“How exactly is it that you know this?” Jokeb frowned glancing at the much younger councilor in surprise. “You weren’t even a twinkle in your parent’s eyes when theQharr invaded.”

“You may behave as if I’m just another pretty face, Jokeb, but unlike you I know how to read,” she said with cool disdain as she twirled her bangs around her index finger.

“How Representative Le Fonte knows this is immaterial, since she happens to be correct,” Jacklyn said with a slight tremor to her voice.

“Our own doctors have examined our friends in the resistance,” Bueller said tapping his cane against the floor to silence the room. “They’re reports are far from conclusive, but they’re results would seem to agree with the Dexagarmetrax’s conclusions.”

“Would seem to?” Jacklyn asked. “You took one hell of a risk bringing these rebels here, president. They could very well bring the Qharr down on us. I will not risk the security of this facility for sake of these people. We’ve already lost one nest to the gray-skins, I will not allow us to repeat the mistakes of Safe Haven.”

Lily stepped forward and looking up at row of the councilors as if seeing them for the first time. “What do any of you know of the mistakes of Safe Haven? None of you were there to watch as the ones you cared about were butchered by those bastards!” She was shaking with rage and I placed a hand on her shoulder as she let out a deep breath then continued speaking.

“The leaders of Safe Haven would have found a big bottomless whole to drop us down and wash their hands of us. They wouldn’t have taken us in like you did. They were paranoid and afraid of their own shadows. The reason Safe Heaven fell is because they… we were too damned arrogant for their own damn good. You can’t stay hidden from the Qharr forever, sooner or later they will find you and when they do, I hope you’re ready. Safe Haven wasn’t and looked what happened.”

“Ah, yes, our alleged survivor. You give a compelling argument, but much of what you said could be applied to your resistance, could it not? You come to us, a few survivors of an organization, that because of its arrogance was all but obliterated and you dare to preach to us?” Representative Jokeb glowered down at her. “If we move against the Qharr I fear that we will be doomed to repeat your mistakes. The gray-skins are like a force of nature there is no fighting them.”

“You can’t really be serious?!” I yelled glared up at the ratty little bastard in disbelief. “There may not be much left of the resistance, but the E-R-F represents our only chance at ever being liberated from the gray-skins, isn’t that worth taking a risk?”

“Hear, hear,” Bueller tapped his cane against the floor. “Before they came to us the Alexana Briggs and her band–” he paused then held his hands out to me. “–received one last message from the fleet. It took them some time to decode it, but it contains coordinates, a date and a time. I believe it would be in our best interest to at least investigate.”

Della Everly cleared her throat then pursed her lips and stood up. “I’ve heard enough. I thank our friends from the resistance for joining us today, but whatever decision this council comes to I believe should be done so without their presence. Alexana and her compatriots have done an admiral job making their case, but due to the sensitivity of the topic I believe a more private meeting would be appropriate.”

“I concur,” Lancaster Dahl said.

“As do I.” Jacklyn said leaning back in her chair.

“Very well.” Bueller glowered at the three representatives, but nodded and pounded his cane against the floor. “We will reconvene on the morrow privately. It was my hope that we could come to this decision as partners with our friends from the resistance, but clearly that is not to be the case here. I suppose then there is no reason for us to linger, meeting adjourned.”

The doctor went tearing out of the room without a word running at so great a pace I actually worried he would topple over, but he kept his balance, at least, until he disappeared from the room.

“Well,” Lily grimaced snatching my hand out of the open air. “That could have gone a lot better, but at least they didn’t do anything too drastic.”

I shrugged looking around the chamber and watched the council members depart. “Let’s just hope something good comes of it.”

“I’m sure it will.” She smiled and tightened her grip on my hands and led me out the room. She had that suggestive smile on her face that I’d learned could only mean one thing. Not that I was complaining, I was always up for a little fun in the bedroom.

Chapter Eight

Who was I, really? It was a question that had pounded its way through my head over and over since Kaya’s death. Was I this wild Lexa a beautiful, untamed warrior-woman with superhuman strength, or was I Jellfree, unassuming cook and reluctant rebel. Those two identities were at odds and I couldn’t come to grips them. After my transformation, I’d had very little time to reconcile my changes.

Events had happened so quickly that I’d been forced to set aside my insecurities and misgivings and fight for my life. Even after rescuing my sister, I’d been so caught up with our reunion and my budding relationship with Lily that my gender identity had taken a backseat to those things. Given that we were settled in the relative security of the nest I had a lot more time to really think things through, but I was no closer to understanding any of it.

It all boiled down to one question. Just a short time ago the answer would have been so simple, but I’d begun to build a new identity. Did I want to be a woman for the rest of my life? Khala had offered to return me to my former form, but I knew that I would be forced to change back to my feminine self sooner or later. Was it worth switching back and forth whenever it came time for Khala to mix her genetic code with a male’s and pop out another offspring? Did I even want to be a man anymore?

I really liked Lily, and I could see our relationship becoming a lasting one, but would she want to stay with me once I changed? I didn’t even know if she was attracted to men. I should have talked it over with her, but every time I tried to broach the subject the words escaped me.

I felt my cheeks burn as I looked myself over in the mirror. I was wearing a little-slip of a black dress that clung to my figure and left almost nothing to the imagination. I had no idea what sort of fabric it was stitched from, but it was so light and airy that it almost felt as if I were wearing nothing. If I hadn’t been for the bra, it would have been a lot harder remember that I wasn’t naked. It dug into my back and was a little on the uncomfortable side, but it did make my knockers look pretty amazing.

The dress hadn’t been my idea, far from it, but if I was going to be honest from myself I kind of liked the way it made me look. It was strange thinking that way. I just wished those feelings made me a little more certain about which path I was going to take, but instead they just heightened my confusion.

A party was being held in our honor that night. I personally didn’t see the point of it, but according to Rayland the nesters seldom had a chance to celebrate and it was important for the community to be officially introduced to us. I didn’t give a flying rat’s ass either way, but it was just another compromise I was making in the interest of appeasing the nesters.

“Damn,” came Becca’s voice from the doorway. “You look amazing. I wish I could look half as good.”

If my reflection was any indication I think my cheeks actually turned two or three deeper shades of red. “Thanks.” It was all I could think to say without revealing my deep seeded doubts. My feminine side certainly liked having its ego stroked, but my masculine side wanted no part of it. I felt like I was at war with myself, two halves male and female battling it out for dominance. I wanted so much tell someone, to ask for help, or guidance but I just couldn’t find the words.

I swallowed and looked my sister over. She was a wearing a little red number of a similar cut to my dress, except that it showed a lot less cleavage. “Don’t sell yourself short. You look great.”

There would have been a time that I would have been uncomfortable complimenting my sister’s looks, but my feminine side didn’t have a problem with it and my masculine side didn’t put up much of a fight. I wasn’t lying either, my sister really did look great. I was certainly the more well-endowed sibling, but that didn’t mean Becca was hard on the eyes. Far from it. Her symbiote had yet to change her hair or eyes, but if what Khala had told me was true it was only a matter of time before my sister was sporting blue tresses.

“Damn,” Lily pronounced poking her head through the door. “I’ve been so worried about the way I looked, but god with you two in the room no one’s gonna pay me any mind.”

Typical Lily, she didn’t realize how beautiful she had really become. She looked in the mirror and still saw her old male self looking back at her. Yes, she had smaller breasts and a more slender frame than either of us, but a lot of that had to do with her height. Her proportions were more than generous and she had a figure that any potential lover, whether they were male or female, would have trouble looking away from. Her little blue dress clung to her figure in all the right places and it took all my restraint to keep my hands off her.

“I just want this night to be over.” I grimaced placing a hand on my sister’s shoulder. “Your symbiote still being mister talkative?”

She nodded then bit her lip. “Hasn’t said a thing since he revealed himself.”

“Well, there’s that at least.” Despite Khala’s assurances that it wasn’t possible I still had this fear in the back of my mind that Becca’s symbiote might try to transform her as Khala had done to me.

“Well,” I grimaced glancing down at my breasts which looked like they were ready to bounce out of my dress. “Let’s get going. We don’t want this thing to start without us, do we?”

I’d never been to a party that I could remember, so I had nothing to compare the experience to, but I did know I didn’t particularly care for the experience, especially since I seemed to be the center of attention. I was the leader of our little group, and since I wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes everyone’s focus was on me.

The party was being held in the large, open area at the center of the nester chamber. Rayland led us to a small space at the center of the area which looked to have been cordoned off specifically for Bueller, the town council and our ragtag group. Bueller was standing, at a podium and he smiled and nodded at us as we entered the area.

The town council hadn’t yet informed us of their decision save to say that they’d decided to offer us asylum for the long term. Whether that meant bringing the fight to the gray-skins or just sitting around with their thumbs up their asses was another thing entirely.

“Ladies, and gentleman.” He spoke into a small narrow tube that stuck out from the podium. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to be responsible for amplifying his voice across the entire chamber. He paused long enough for the crowd to calm and quiet down then continued. “I’m sure it has already become public knowledge by now, but Sanctum has became home to a small group of heroic resistance fighters. They came to us a broken and weary lot betrayed by those they once believed to be friends and allies. We felt it was necessary to give them time to recover from their ordeals before official announcing their presence here.”

I bit my tongue, forcing down the sudden urge to correct Bueller. It wasn’t that anything he had said was a lie, it just sounded so… grandiose. Nothing I had done was the least bit heroic, it had all been for the sake of survival and the stubborn part of me that kept thinking there was still a reason to hope for a brighter future.

“Though they number only five they’ve done more to ensure our eventual liberation than any before them. Their leader, Alexana Briggs, and her sister Rebecca Anders were forced to watch as their parents were murdered by our conquerors and were only recently reunited after spending years apart. Their tech-expert, Lillian Freemark, is a survivor of nest Safe Haven, and as well as being particularly brilliant, has devoted herself to avenging her family and liberating the human race from the clutches of the Qharr. Matthew Farris, though only twenty seven is a seasoned veteran who has been fighting with the resistance for more than ten years and their final member, a Dexagarmetrax doctor, whose religion forbids me from giving voice to his name, has been trapped on Earth since the invasion and is an accomplished physician who has studied medicine on dozens of worlds.

Each of us reacted differently when our names were mentioned, I felt my body stiffen and managed a lopsided-grin and a curt nod. Becca bit her lip and started to tear up before she brought her hand up to cover her face. Lily managed a shy smile and waved at the crowd while Farris shrugged then followed Lily’s example. The doctor’s reaction was certain the most noteworthy. He did a little dance, jumping from side to side and waving his hands down below his waist before jerking forward and letting out a long warbling sound.

I hated that Bueller knew so much about our backstories. I’d been particularly tightlipped about our histories, but that hadn’t kept some of the others, especially the doctor, from blabbing every little detail they could think of.

“Please extended to them the warm thanks they deserve and enjoy the food and drinks.” Bueller finished then grabbed his cane from where it was leaning against the podium and hobbled away. I guess the president wasn’t one for long speech which was a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t been too keen on the prospect of listening to a long drawn out oration. He’d very obviously neglected to give a reason for Lily and my odd appearance, which would likely result in giving credence to the rumors. I was fine with that, the fewer people who realized I was host to an alien symbiote the better.

A fast up-beat tune started to play and I jumped attempting to detect a source. The lack of any visible musicians forced me to conclude that the music had been recorded at an earlier time and was being projected through speakers. I had vague memories of listening to music that was pre-recorded before the invasion, but the concept seemed so strange to me. Music could move a person to new heights, but just listening to a piece was nowhere near as fulfilling as being an active participant.

I’d never had much of a singing voice, but I’d been known to belt out a tune or two while working. It wasn’t at all uncommon for slaves to burst into song while performing their daily labors. It often made the work day go by much more quickly. The Qharr liked live entertainment, and it wasn’t that unusual for guards to join in on our songs. Still there was something about the way that the nesters moved in sync with the music. Dancing, I’d seen so little of it during my incarceration that it almost seemed unnatural.

I tried to reproduce their movements, but felt my cheeks burn when I realized a lot of people were staring. I glanced around, looking for some place where I might escape all that scrutiny, but then Lily grabbed bother my hands and pulled me close.

“No,” Lily said standing up on her tip toes to peck me on the lips. “Don’t stop… just relax, don’t exaggerate your movement so much. Let the music flow through you. Let it move you, let the beat guide you. Watch.”

She stepped in sync with the music, her feet swirling against the dance floor, each movement slow and sensual. She raised her arms above her head, putting her chest out and rocked back and forth. She danced around me her back pressing into my side, and she spun around and grinned up at me. “Try it out.”

I swallowed and looked around feeling very self-conscious. Lily was a lot more comfortable with her body than I was, and during foreplay she’d shown a mastery of feminine sensuality that few natural-born women could match. Dancing, seemed like a natural extension of this ability and I just didn’t think I had it in me. She’d always been a woman at heart, but I hadn’t taken my form by choice. Still, I just couldn’t say no to her so I bit my lip and stepped forward moving to the beat of the music.

“Better, but you’re still too tense. Just relax,” she whispered in my ear. I nodded, let out a deep breath then imagined it was just the two of us on the dance floor. I stopped trying to imitate the way other people had been dancing and just did what felt natural. A few times, Lily offered up encouragement or advice, but overall seem satisfied. I stopped thinking about what I was doing and just moved to the beat. The night stretched into a blissful eternity and I let the music take me away…

Chapter Nine

Five days, passed and we heard nothing from the council and it was all I could do to stay sane. It was funny, but in the short time since I’d joined the resistance I had become so accustomed to being on the run that I was getting antsy just staying in one place. The fact that I was so conflicted with myself only made matters worse. I didn’t want to think about it, but it was all I could do.

We’d all been asked to contribute to the nest in some way, and I had agreed. At the very least it gave us something to do, but unfortunately because of our experience Becca and I had both been drafted to work in the kitchen. It still loved to cook, it was second nature to me and I could do just about anything in a kitchen without putting much thought into. Which left my mind to wander, and wander it did.

The more I thought about it the more I realized, I didn’t actually dislike being female, but a part of me still wished to go back to being male. There was just something about this body that felt wrong, it wasn’t the breasts, the hips, or even the vagina. It was something else, something I couldn’t quite name, but always there on the tip of my tongue. I felt wrong, not because I was female, but for reasons I couldn’t easily define.

And… I felt guilty, for not telling Lily and for a lot of things, including Kaya’s death. I couldn’t help but feel responsible, and I hated that our relationship had ended the way it had. She had been carrying our child and–I stopped looking around at the other people in the kitchen, who were busy going about their tasks, then wiped a tear from my eye–I felt like I had abandoned Kaya. It didn’t particularly make sense, considering she was the one who hadn’t been attracted to me, but emotions were seldom logical.

At least life in the nest wasn’t too unpleasant; most of the people were friendly if somewhat distant. I did get a lot of odd looks and I’d had more than one would-be suitor knocking at my door. It was sort of flattering, but it was beginning to get old. Still, a few of them had been pretty good looking. If I hadn’t been in a relationship with Lily I might have let them take me out on a date.

I sighed, mostly I’d been doing grunt work, peeling potatoes, cutting vegetables, and washing dishes, but at least I was doing something even if it gave me far too much time to think. What I wouldn’t have done at that moment to smash or rip an opponent to shreds. That was something else I’d been thinking about a lot, violence. It came so easily to me, since I’d becomeLexa.

I hated to see people I cared about hurt, but the more primal aspect of my personality loved the violence and it scared the shit out of me. The question I kept asking myself was would it be any different if I had a chance to be Jellfree again? Was the violence something ingrained into my being and had only come out once I’d gotten a taste of it or was the answer more complicated? Maybe, it had nothing to do with my human aspect at all, but was a direct result of being joined with Khala. Somehow that didn’t seem likely. I didn’t know much about my people’s history, but I’d heard enough from older slaves to know that humans had been blowing the shit out of each other for centuries before the Qharr, and thus the K’teth, had arrived.

As much as I tried to reason it out, the answers only seemed to pile up and so I bore my troubles silently hoping for answers that never came.

There were always rangers nearby wherever we went in the nest. Rayland said it for my own safety, but we all knew the real reason even if we didn’t vocalize it. The nesters still didn’t trust us, but none of us had any reason to trust them. Having a shadow all the time was nothing new for me, but it didn’t mean I particularly liked it. At least, when we returned to the house they didn’t follow us inside, but that wasn’t all that surprising considering that Lily had found more than one listening device in our quarters. One way or another, they were keeping tabs on us.

There wasn’t a single place in the nest where we could hope to have a private conversation without being heard. Lily, Becca and I were the only ones who could communicate without tripping off any nester spy devices due to our symbiotes. Lily and I had to be careful what we said in front of Becca, but fortunately we did have the ability to communicate without being overheard by the other symbiote.

The nesters gave us free range of the main chambers and most the adjoining tunnels so long as we allowed the guards to follow us around, which meant it was almost impossible to find someplace where I could be alone. Most of the guards kept their distance so sometimes I could almost bring myself to believe that I was alone. Sometimes I liked being alone with my thoughts and I’d found a spot which seemed like the perfect place, a small cavern that overlooked a precipice so deep that I couldn’t see a bottom. It wasn’t the most spectacular site and it didn’t seem to get much if any traffic which was exactly what I was looking for.

The chamber looked to be natural, but a metal safety rail had been installed at the rock’s edge which suggested that at some point in the chamber’s history it had probably received more traffic than it had in recent times. I was standing over the edge looking down into the darkness, and wondered just how far those depths went. Sometimes I felt as if I’d fallen over a precipice and had never stopped falling.

I asked myself the usual questions, who was I? Lexa or Jellfree or was there any difference at all? I tried to sort out my feelings, but as usual I wound up feeling even more confused and angry. What right did I have moping about when the world was in tatters? My problems seemed so small, so why then did I have so much trouble overcoming them?

What was I doing anyway? I had too many things to worry about to let these feelings get in the way. I turned to leave and nearly stepped face first into a set of big voluptuous breasts. I blushed and back away and caught a flash of auburn hair before I got a good look at Arianne’s face. She smiled and studied me with a pair of cool eyes. She might have been younger than me, but there was just something about the woman that gave her the impression of being much older.

“Major Patterson, said you might be down here,” she said walking toward the railing then leaned over and glanced back at me.

“You were looking for me?” I blinked surprised that the nester woman would have any interest in hunting me down.

“I’ve been hoping to speak with you for a while now,” she smiled. “I just wish I didn’t have to come as the bearer of bad news.”

“Bad news? What do you mean?”

“The council has voted not to mount an expedition to New Anaheim,” she frowned then shrugged.

“So that’s it then? What exactly are we suppose to do, hang up our phase guns, and sit around in this fucking nest with our thumbs up our asses and wait for the gray-skins to come to us? Don’t you people realize what’s at stake here? It’s bigger than your petty squabblings.”

“I know,” she folded her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes. “I voted in favor of the expedition, but I’m only one person. The other council members wouldn’t see the truth if it hit them in the face. Bueller does, Krane does too, and I think with a little prodding I can get Jokeb to come around, but the rest are so afraid of the what ifs that they won’t even allow themselves to ever hope for a brighter future.”

“At least some of you do,” I sighed then glanced back into the hole. “What exactly is it we’re suppose to do now? This could be our only chance? My people will do this alone if we have to, but I think our odds would be much better if the nesters were to join us.”

“Ranger!” she called suddenly and my guard appeared from around the corner. “You’re excused.”

“Ma’am?”

“You heard me.” The ranger disappeared back down the corridor and she waited a moment before turning back to me.

“I’ve come to warn you, Lancaster Dahl is planning something. I don’t know what it is, but I know that scheming bastard too well to believe anything else. Mark my words, you and your people are in serious danger. He’s been holding secret meetings with just about anyone who’ll listen and he has enough rangers who follow him to wreak some serious chaos,” she sighed then bit her lip. “You need to leave, go to this meeting of yours, before Lancaster makes his move. With your abilities you shouldn’t have much trouble escaping the nest.”

“Why?” I asked as she turned to leave. “Why tell me any of this?”

“Call me naive, but I believe there is hope for our world. I don’t know what it is, but from the moment I first saw you I knew that if we are to be liberated you will be the key. I will not let that sniveling bastard do anything that will jeopardize the future of this world.”

“Th-than-thank you.” I was so flabbergasted that I could barely form a coherent word.

“I have to go now. Lancaster doesn’t know I’m on to him, but the ranger who was guarding you is in his pocket. I’m sure he’s gone to report to that little ratfink. The sooner you act the better. I don’t think he’ll wait much longer and if he realizes we’re on to him he may accelerate his plans.”

She disappeared down the tunnel leading out of the cavern I glanced around the room one final time then leapt into motion, revving up my speed to full throttle as I took off down the tunnel and back to the house before it was too late.

I slammed into the ranger guarding the door as I approached. He didn’t even see me coming, and he wilted under the force of the blow. I didn’t know if he was working for Lancaster or not, but there was no way for me to know for sure. Better to render him unconscious than to risk it.

I blasted into door with enough force to send it shooting off from its hinges. “We’re leaving!” I yelled rounding on my sister and Farris before I realized what they were doing. The fair-haired dope had his hand up my sister’s blouse and they were prodding and groping each other and looked to be well onto their way to rounding home plate.

“You bastard!” I yelled my vision turning red as I tore him off my sister and slammed him into the wall. I gripped my hand around his throat and pinned him against the wall. “What did I say, Farris? Do you remember what I told you?”

“Jeff!” my sister screamed and I felt her touch me. I whipped my hand out and was about to backhand her when the red cleared and I realized what I had nearly done.

I loosed Farris and he landed in a heap at my feet. “Don’t touch my sister again.”

“Lexa,” Becca shook her head and backed away from em. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I warned that bastard, what would happen,” I gritted my teeth then closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. “But, I will deal with him later. We need to get the hell out of here. Where are the others?”

Her jaw tightened and I caught a glimpse of the old Becca as she stared at me in defiance before she wilted away and the new worn and tired Becca returned. “Lily’s in your room, but I haven’t seen the doctor all day, he’s probably lurking in the infirmary. Look, Jeff, I-I’m an adult. I don’t need protecting, I’m going to be with whoever I want.”

I shook my head and looked into her eyes. “We’re not discussing this right now. We’re leaving, I don’t think the nest is safe for us anymore. I’ll explain later, just go grab Lily and start gathering anything you might think be useful, but pack light. I’ll go find the doctor, be ready when I’m back. We might have to fight our way out.”

She nodded, and looked like she wanted to say more, but I was back out the door before she could issue a response. I would have grabbed my phase pistols, but in the interest of satiating the nesters I’d given up the power cells. Not that I really needed them, they helped me kill things faster, sure, but I didn’t really need weapons to do that. I was a weapon.

I made my way to the infirmary, but came to a very abrupt halt when I found myself confronted with a half a dozen rangers all of them armed to the teeth. “Lexa, I’m really sorry, but you’ll have to come with us,” Corporal Jake said stepping forward. He had a coil gun, identical to the ones the inquisitors had used on us. We’d left them all back on the ship, clearly the nesters had collected them without our permission. “Dahl would like to speak with you.”

“Okay,” I said holding my hands up giving a show that I was intimidated by their show of force. It wasn’t too difficult of an act to pull on them considering one of them was carrying one of the few weapons capable of harming me. Jake nodded then waved his Qharr-sized rifle at me. “Get in front, I want to see your hands.”

“Why are you doing this, corporal?” I asked him as slowly moved toward the cluster of guards. “We’re not your enemies.”

“No, you’re not, but we can’t risk the security of this nest. We’ve built a nice life here, you should have been happy with our offer of sanctuary instead of bringing us into this fight of yours.”

“Our fight is your fight, can’t you see? So long as the gray-skins occupy this world we can never be free,” I said stopping in the midst of the rangers who had parted for me.

“We’ve got too much to lose.” He shook his head, then raised the muzzle of his rifle and trained it on my back. “Keep moving, get in front or I’ll open fire.”

“Open fire,” I raised an eyebrow. “You really think you can take me? The gray-skins tried using those things against me and I still kicked their asses.”

“J-just step forward!” He yelled his fingers twitching as he glowered back at me.

I recognized all the rangers in Jake’s group, some of them I’d practiced with, others had guarded me. I’d even had friendly exchanges with a few, so what I did next didn’t sit particularly well with me, but unfortunately they didn’t give me any choice. I pounced on Jake, but before I could take the gun from him three shots hit me in the chest. I howled in agony and yanked it out of Jake’s hands. I slammedit into the side of his head, dropping him, before rounding on the next pair.

Khala dulled the pain, but his attack weakened me enough that the other rangers got the drop on me. A saw a flash of metal out of corner of my eye just before brilliant white light filled my vision and stabbing-hot pain slammed into my ribcage. I fell to my knees, and as my vision cleared I saw a second knife come slicing down toward me. I fell down onto my back and caught the descending blade between my feet. My attacker, Corporal Evans, tried to yank the weapon free, but I still had the upper hand when it came to strength. I twisted my legs, he lost his grip and I let the blade fall to the ground before jumping back to my feet.

“That was a mistake.” I glowered at Evans then smashed an open palm into his face. He dropped and I had just enough time to yank the first knife from the side of my ribcage before the other rangers were on me. One of them had retrieved the coil gun, but I slammed into him, knocked it out of his hands and flung it as far away as I could.

They were all wearing body armor, and I knew better than to hit them below the shoulder as it would absorb too much of the impact. I took the first down, with a single blow to the head, and kicked him across the chest sending him toppling into two of his companions before rounding on the final ranger with an open-palmed blow to the face.

The remaining, rangers the three I’d sent toppling to the ground were struggling to climb to their feet, but I managed to take two of them out before they’d risen to waist-level, the third unfortunately, got the drop on me. He leapt onto me from behind, the barrel of his rifle digging into my throat. I elbowed him in the shoulder, forced the gun out of his hand and slammed it into the side of his cheek. Either I hadn’t hit him as hard as I intended or else he was made of tougher stuff than his compatriots, but I caught a flash of something white drop from his mouth. I could hear it hit the floor with a soft ‘ping’, and he stumbled back obviously disoriented from the blow. I hit him again, and this time his eyes rolled into the back of his head then toppled backward landing atop his friends.

I glanced around, it was getting late, but our confrontation was loud enough to have attracted some attention. I spotted several, sleepy-eyed nesters poking their heads out doors or glancing out windows. A few had even left their homes to watch me fight the rangers. I had this brief thought that I should defend my actions, but somehow I doubted it would do any good. The people had seen me take down a group of their protectors. These people were only just coming to know me, somehow I doubted they’d believe anything I had to say. I grimaced, shrugged at the gawking onlookers, and stopped just long enough to pick up one of the fallen weapons before I sped off toward the infirmary. If the corporal and his group had been looking for me, then it was a good bet that Lancaster had sent more of his pawns after the doctor.

“It is most fascinating, is it not?” The doctor’s voice wafted through the entrance just before I burst into the room.

Vakrexid was poised over a console and Doctor Yu was standing beside him apparently too absorbed too have given notice to me. “I-I can’t believe it. How could this go undiscovered after so many years?”

“Not so surprising, Qharr tissue decays most quickly once it leaves the body, making genetic comparisons quite difficult. Qharr do not allow themselves to be taken prisoner, it is considered a grave dishonor. It was only because Vakrexid acted quickly to preserve this sample that it was still viable” he replied.

“Doctor,” I said stepped up behind the two. They both jumped and spun around to face me.

“Ah Lexa, your chest is most bloodied. What has occurred? Do you require medical attention?” the doctor inquired his hands jerking back and forth.

“No, doc. Khala’s taken care of me.”

“Of course, It is most good to see you. You will not believe what Vakrexid and Doctor Yu have–”

I held my hand up, stopping him short before he could go into one of his long-winded explanations. “Later doctor, the nest isn’t safe for us anymore. We’re leaving.”

“But you do not understand this is most momentous! This discovery could unravel the very fiber of the Qharr soc–”

“I don’t care, unless it’s something that can help up escape Dahl’s clutches. If it’s not relevant to our current situation I don’t want to hear it.”

“You have been injured!” Vakrexid said as his long delicate fingers pulled the bloody cloth away from the wound in my side.

“Like I said, Doctor, I’m fine, Khala is taking care of it. We need to get out of here, NOW!”

“I see, Doctor Yu, it has been most pleasant working with you, but it appears that Vakrexid must now depart,” he tooted and turned to me. “I am ready.”

I turned to leave, but then stopped and turned to Doctor Yu. “I know you don’t have any reason to trust me, but if you know of any alternate escape routes I’d really love to know them.

“You’re right I don’t,” she said folding her arms across her chest. “But I know Dahl and he’s sent people after you it probably doesn’t bode so well for Rayland. My son seems to think highly of you and that’s good enough for me. Find him, and he can get you out safely.”

I nodded then smiled at her. “Should have thought of that myself. Doctor,” I turned to Vakrexid. “Keep behind me, if things get sticky stay low to the ground in case any stray phase bolts or bullets come your way.”

“Oh, yes, most assuredly.”

We departed back through the tunnel and made our way back into the main nester chamber. The rangers I’d taken out earlier were still sprawled unconscious upon the floor. We stopped just long enough to collect the power cells from their rifles and we were on our way. We had a little trouble getting back to the house, but I made short work of those who stood in our way.

Chapter Ten

Lips, locked around mine, a tongue swirled inside my mouth, and I became lost to the slow sensuality of Lily’s kiss. I pulled away, reluctantly, then cleared my throat and looked her over. She blushed and glanced around the room. “I-I was worried.”

I smiled, and cupped her face in my hand before turning to my sister. “Are we ready?”

“Yeah,” she nodded and tossed me my phase pistols harness and all. I slipped it on and popped a pair of power-cells into the handles. I passed one to my sister, and the third and fourth to Lily and Farris. Besides my twin pistols, we only had three other weapons which meant we had just enough to power all our weapons. Not that we’d need it any time soon, it took weeks of prolonged use to drain your average power-cell. I’d have offered someone else my spare pistol if I thought they’d take it, but the truth was with my abilities I could make more use of them than the others.

“Watch your aim, and shoot to disable if you can help it. I don’t want any of you killing any rangers unless you’re left with no choice. They’re not our enemies whether they realize it or not,” I winced running my hand over my now mostly healed wound. “Be on the lookout, they filched at least one coil gun from our ship they probably have the other two. I had a pretty close call with Corporal Jake. I really don’t care to repeat the experience.”

“Well, I think I’ve had about enough of this place as I can stand. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready to get the hell out of here.” I gritted my teeth and spun around, slamming the door to our dwelling open and leapt through the door.

Farris was the first out the door after me, barring his phase pistol in front of him ready for whatever trouble might come our way. “Tell me, oh wise leader, just how the fuck are we supposed to find a way out of this place. If we go out the way we came in they’ll be able to pick us off one by one through those gun slits. If they got a coil gun they could probably take you and Lily out pretty easily.”

“You don’t think I haven’t thought of that? I get the feeling, those slits aren’t the only defenses. That whole tunnel is a perfect place to lay down traps and I don’t want to get caught in any them. We find Rayland, hopefully he can show us another way out. If not, well then, we’ll find our own way out.”

“You really think that grinning bastard will help us?”

“You got any better ideas?” I rounded on him and forced myself to look away when an image of him defiling my sister popped into my head. I shook my head and forced the image out of my mind. Survival was a little more important at the moment. “He’s our best hope of getting out of this place alive.”

“She’s right Matt, we don’t have any other options,” my sister said staring at me apprehensively. She looked like someone who was staring at a coiled snake, ready to strike and she was looking right at me. I’d seen that look in Becca’s eyes plenty of times, but not once had it been directed at me. It made me feel sick and I thought I might throw up, but then my stomach rallied and I shook my head. That look had shaken me to my very core, and I realized just how close I’d come to killing Farris. The worst part was that I deserved that look. I didn’t like Farris, I definitely didn’t like the budding relationship he had going with my sister, but killing him wasn’t the answer.

I would have to deal with it later as much as it pained me to put it off we didn’t have the luxury to stand around while I sorted out my feelings. We needed to get away, and then I would eat humble pie. I just hoped Becca could forgive me. I still didn’t have to like Farris, but I definitely needed to reassess the way I’d been treating him.

I charged down the corridor, screaming at the top of my lungs as the rangers’ fire came splashing into me. Each charge sent a trickle of power coursing through me and I shuddered as I plowed into the nearest guard. Lily was right there firing her single pistol, as my twin pair blazed brilliantly through the tunnel. We made short work of the pair, injuring them sufficiently that they wouldn’t be able to fight but it looked as if the nesters had a surprise in store for us as another pair of guards rounded the corner.

An arrow zoomed through the air and I dove out of the way. It appeared that rather than try and create an advanced projectile weapon like the Qharr, the nesters had elected for a more low-tech solution. Given that I managed to kill overseer with nothing more than a broken table leg it didn’t exactly seem that far-fetched that they could do me in with a bow and arrow. I dodged a volley of arrows and slammed my fist into the face of my chosen target, a tall ranger with a shaved head and a pair of brilliant blue eyes.

He was down for the count, and I moved onto the next, but Lily had already taken him down.

“Shit,” Farris cursed coming up behind us panting from overexertion. “You sure you know where you’re going? This is the sixth tunnel we’ve taken and we haven’t seen any signs of the detention area that ranger you interrogated mentioned.”

“This is the one, unless he lied to me. Either way, we’ll find out soon enough,” I replied and then without waiting for him to catch his breath I took off back down the corridor. Lily was only a step behind me, and together the two of us carved a path through the corridors ensuring that our companions had safe passage.

The tunnel’s end was almost in sight, we were so close that I could see the cave mouth less than a dozen meters away, but we came to a screeching stop when we found another pair of guards both with arrows nocked. I jumped out of the way as they released their bows, but Lily was just a second too slow. One of the arrows lodged itself into abdomen just below her waistline and she fell backward onto her back.

I screamed, and all I wanted was to crawl across the floor and fall cradle her in my arms, but I had just enough sense to duck and take cover instead. For a moment, one of the longest moment’s of my life, I thought she was dead, but I peaked around the corner just long enough to see chest rise and fall. There was a brief flash of pain and I clasped my hand around my ear realizing that one of the bastards must have nicked me. I leapt back onto my feet, pouncing on the pair of rangers and disabled them before they could fire off more shots.

I could hear the ‘ping’ of metal against the floor as the projectiles popped out from my wounds. I grunted and shivered as I felt the injuries begin to heal. I craned my neck back and watched Lily climb to her feet with the doctor’s help. “You alright?”

She nodded, and rubbed at the now mostly healed wound on her chest. “That was a lot closer to my heart than I’d care to admit.”

“I know the feeling.” I grimaced and shook my head as knelt down to grab a still-holstered phase pistol from one of our assailants. There was a brief surge of power as Khala absorbed the energy and I tossed the second to Lily whose symbiote quickly did the same.

Together, we stepped through the door and once on the other side, I was gratified to discover, that the ranger had not in fact been lying when he’d told me where Rayland was being held.

He and Neada were locked in opposing cells, and about a dozen other rangers were locked away in half as many. I didn’t bother looking for keys, I approached the door to Rayland’s cell and slammed my foot into the lock. It groaned, but held. It took three more successive blows to knock it open.

“Man am I glad to see you,” he said grinning from ear to ear.

“Well, we’re just lucky Dahl and his goons underestimated us.” I grimaced then spun around and watched as my sister unlocked Neada’s cell using a key she had no doubt procured from one of the fallen ranger guards.

“I don’t suppose you know another way out of the nest, do you?” I glanced back at Rayland. “I’d rather not use the front door.”

“Yes, there’s an alternate escape route we can take. Free the rest of my men and I can show you where it is.”

Rebecca had already begun to approach the other cells, and was in the process of releasing each of the captive rangers. I didn’t want to wait any longer than we had to so I started on the opposite side of the line of cells, and managed to mash open two cells before my sister finished opening the remaining four.

“Neada, I want you to go with Lexa and her group. Help them find a way out and do whatever you can to make sure they reach New Anaheim in time.” Rayland put his hand on her shoulder.

She shook her head. “Send someone else, I’m staying here with you and helping you take that bastard down.”

“No,” he shook his head. “You know the escape tunnels better than anyone. I need to stay and fight Dahl. That means I need someone to go with them that I can trust.”

“To hell with it,” she said yanking him forward then locked her lips around his in a long passionate kiss. “I don’t care who knows anymore. I don’t care if I lose my commission. I can’t bear the thought of losing you. I thought I lost you once already. Try to stay safe.”

Rayland looked around the room, the other rangers looked positively flabbergasted, but he merely grinned then returned her kiss. “I’ll stay safe, if you promise to do the same.”

She nodded, then turned to me, all hint of the emotions she’d displayed just moments ago replaced by the cold air of a professional soldier that normally surrounded her.

“Follow me.”

Neada stopped just long enough to snatch a pistol from one of the guards I’d downed. She led us back into the main chamber, but only briefly. We took another side tunnel which led up with a gradual incline. “The route to the surface is pretty roundabout and it will involve some climbing. We’ve laid out a lot of traps along the way, so make sure to follow my lead unless you like the prospect of a thousand foot drop.”

I didn’t bother mentioning that Lily and I could probably survive such a tumble, and Becca too if her symbiote decided to cooperate. I merely nodded and followed the ranger until she led us to an apparent dead end.

She knelt down, pinching a seemingly innocuous piece of rock jutting out from the wall. The cliff face in front of us disappeared replaced by an opening that was less than a meter and a half tall. She produced a light and flicked it on before turning back to me. “This tunnel is a little cramped, but we should all be able to fit in there. The engineers who dug out these tunnels were hoping that a shorter and narrower passage would make it difficult for any would-be Qharr pursuers to follow people through.”

“Makes sense,” I nodded. Even the most broad-shouldered humans couldn’t match the overall width of our masters. Hell, Duvak had been considered downright diminutive by his people’s standards and his shoulder width had been more than double mine even before I’d been transformed.

Farris grimaced and let out a bit of shudder. “I hate enclosed spaces.”

“Buckup cowboy,” Neada glanced back at him without a trace of humor or irony in her voice. “We’re going in.”

“Don’t worry, Matt,” my sister came up beside him eying me warily. “I’ll be right there with you the whole time.”

I turned away and was the first to follow Neada in, eager to break my sister’s gaze. The entryway was just a little wider than the rest of the tunnel and further we got in the narrower the passage was. The doctor seemed to be able to travel through the tunnel with surprising ease. Yes, he had a more slender frame than us humans, but he was also by far the tallest member of our group. He crawled on all fours, shuffling through like it was the most natural thing in the world.

There was a decided upward slope as we crawled our way through the tunnels and I could hear some of the others grunts and groans as the climb became more and more difficult. The climb was less physically taxing for me, but still it was a challenge to find the right handholds and stretch my arms out.

Neada didn’t have any trouble finding her way up and she set a pretty grueling pace as we made our ascent. I paused and glanced back over my shoulder to watch the others. The doctor was working his way up at a much slower pace, there were some places that his elongated form just didn’t fit, but somehow he managed to squeeze his way through each time he ran into a hard spot. I caught occasional flashes of Farris’s platinum hair, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of either my sister or Lily.

“Neada, why don’t we stop for a second and give everyone a chance to catch up.”

She looked back at me, and nodded without saying a word. I studied her face, then pursed my lips and chuckled as something occurred to me. “You know I don’t even know what your first name is.”

Her jaw stiffened and I saw a flash of anger in her eyes before her features suddenly softened. “It’s Janet.”

Something was bothering her, that much was obvious and it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Sorry? For what?” She snapped then gritted her teeth and let out a long sigh.

“You’d rather be back in the nest fighting with Rayland wouldn’t you?”

“Even if I did, orders are orders, it’s not my place to question them. I don’t really see how it concerns you.”

Clearly I’d hit a sore spot and I got the feeling that would be a bad idea to press any further. Instead, I cleared my throat and changed the subject. “This the only escape route? Seems like a pretty tough climb for people fleeing for their lives.”

“No, there are other ways out.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “But this one is known only to a few people Dahl and his lackeys are not among those people. It made sense to use a path they wouldn’t be guarding.

She leaned down, and craned her neck, and I did the same my eyes following her gaze. The doctor had made significant headway while Neada and I were talking and he was less than four meters behind me. “Everyone, doing alright?”

“Just, wonderful.” I heard Farris’s muffled reply. “Becca’s here too. Can’t see Lily, but Becca says she’s doing fine.”

Neada rolled her eyes, and looked away resuming her assent. “Come on, we need to hurry.”

I don’t know how many meters we traveled before we finally climbed up out of the tunnel, which by then was more vertical than horizontal, but we’d so spent so long in that damned hole that I was really coming to understand why Farris hated confined spaces so much. It was just good we’d had so many hand and foot holds or our ascent would have been much more unpleasant. There’d be too many close calls as it was. Lily and I had our symbiotes to heal whatever, cuts, scrapes and bruises we had developed as we climbed, but the others weren’t so lucky. Even Becca, despite being joined, had come up with raw and bleeding hands.

“This.” Farris panted collapsing face-forward to the ground just outside the exit. “Is the last freaking time you get me to climb through a damn tunnel.”

“We still have a ways to go,” Neada said casting her lights around the cave. “It’ll be a difficult hike, but there won’t be any climbing involved. We’ll take a ten minute break and then depart again.”

“Shit, ten minutes?!” Farris groaned then sat up. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

“Need I remind you, that we are on the run? It’s because of you people that we’re in this mess to begin with!” Neada rounded on Farris, her fists barred at her side ready to pounce on him.

“You’re blaming us?” I snarled getting so close that I could feel her breath on my cheeks. “You’re the ones that offered us shelter! What have you people been doing while good people died fighting the Qharr. I watched the gray-skins kill my parents and was forced to serve the bastard that murdered them. I lost my aunt, and the mother of my child. So don’t think you can lecture us about who’s to blame for this mess. If you had been out fighting with the resistance to begin with–”

“We’d have been killed off just like your people were.” She flexed her hands and backed away. “We’ve made mistakes, but… we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t cooperate. I know I haven’t exactly been the most pleasant traveling companion, but I’m willing to try if you are.”

I nodded then bit my lip and glanced down at Farris. “Give us an extra ten minutes we’ll be ready then.”

“Fine,” she nodded then turned away. “I’ll scout ahead.”

She departed and I glanced around locking eyes with Becca for a moment. She shuddered and turned away. I sighed then turned to Lily. “Stay with the others, I think I’ll join Ne–Janet.”

Lily nodded and I spun away, running after Neada in the hopes of catching her. It didn’t take me long to find her, she was making her way up a path that looked pretty treacherous. She didn’t see me, and was traveling eastward and I was facing north which gave me a good look at her face. She was crying. I’m sure she had left because she wanted to be alone, but I didn’t like the idea of our only guide falling and injuring herself because there was no one there.

“Hey Janet!” I called and she stopped, her head snapping to the side to meet my gaze. There were still tears on her cheeks and as if realizing for the first time that they were there she reached up to wipe them clean.

“Something wrong?”

“Fine,” she said then cleared her throat. “I just had something in my eyes.”

I nodded. “Mind if I join you. Two eyes are better than one after all.”

She glanced at me, and bit her lip. As suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch, her features hardened and her facade of cold detachment returned. “You said that the Qharr killed the mother of your child? I don’t mean to pry, but if that’s true you may be the most convincing crossdresser I’ve ever met. Most woman don’t look as good as you do.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at her a moment, completely dumbfounded. I’d just assumed that Rayland had told her about my past. She was his second in command and his lover, I didn’t expect him to have held anything back from her.

“I’m not a cross dresser. I didn’t always look like this. The rumors you’ve probably heard about the Qharr experimenting on Lily and I aren’t true. I’m a woman now, but I was born a man. Lily and I… and Becca are hosts to something called a K’teth symbiote, mine transformed me when we first became joined and I’ve been stuck this way ever since.” I left the part out about Lily’s transformation, in my eye she’d always been a woman even if her body hadn’t quite matched her self-image.

“That explains why Dahl is so eager to be rid of you.” She studied me, she didn’t look angry or disgusted as I had expected, just curious. “I assume that K’teth thing is the reason for your… abilities?”

I nodded. “I’m surprised most people don’t take it so well. My own aunt trapped me in an interrogation and, well you’ve seen how Dahl reacted.”

She shrugged. “Major Patterson trusts you.”

“Major Patterson? You’re in love with the man and you call him Major Patterson?”

“I’m a soldier, it’s not appropriate for me to call my commanding officer by his first name. Then again it’s not really appropriate for us to be dating, is it?”

“Why not? I mean if he makes you happy? If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that if you find someone you really care about, you should never let them slip through your fingers. Don’t worry about what other people think or who you offend, just be yourself.” I said stopping in my tracks as my own words reverberated through me. Those words hadn’t been intended for Neada at all. I’d just realized what had been bothering me for so long and I knew what choice I was going to make regarding Khala’s offer. I just wish I would have realized it sooner.

“It’s not something either of us planned it,” Neada continued not even realizing that I had stopped. “There’s been this sexual tension between us that we’ve been fighting for years, but then one day I don’t know what happened we were alone. We kissed and… well I’m sure you can guess the rest.” She blushed brushing her bangs out of her face. “We’ve been hiding our relationship for so long it’s become almost second nature. I didn’t want to live with the lies any more. I hate pretending when there’s no one I’d rather be with. Now one of us will probably have to step down. I’ve worked so long and so hard to get where I am… I never thought I’d sacrifice everything for the sake of a relationship.”

I ran to catch up and she glanced over at me wiping more tears from the corner of her eyes. “Look at me I’m a mess. All I can think about is whether or not I’ll see him again! I thought I lost him when he went to go find you. I-I don’t know if I can go through that again.”

I sighed and shook my head. I understood now why Neada had been so brusque with us. “When I changed. Kaya, my girlfriend at the time dumped me. She wasn’t attracted to woman and our relationship was a mess even before I’d changed. Then we found out she was pregnant. It hurt not being with her, I don’t really think I ever stopped loving her. Now she’s dead and so is my child. I’m probably going to spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I’d never been joined with this damn symbiote.”

For once Khala didn’t offer up any protests and I was glad for that.

“This is supposed to cheer me up?”

“If one of you die… at least you left it on good terms. At least you won’t have any regrets. I wish I could say the same for Kaya and me.” I paused then smiled. “Rayland is a good man. He could be pretty annoying sometimes, but his heart always seemed to be in the right place.”

She glanced back down the path and stopped in her tracks. “It’s been twenty minutes, hasn’t it? We should probably go back.”

I nodded and let her lead me back down the trail. We made our way back down the trail and she stopped me just outside the chamber where the others are waiting. “Lexa.”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

“Your welcome,” I smiled and together we returned to the chamber. It was strange, but I guess our talk must have done Neada some good from then on out it was like we were dealing with a completely different person. I was just glad whatever I had said was of some help. Neada had dropped a bombshell that day by revealing her relationship with Rayland and it wouldn’t be long at all before I dropped a bombshell of my own.

As we traveled I only grew more convinced I’d made the right decision. The problem was telling Lily… and my sister. Hopefully, once I ate humble pie Becca would be able to forgive me and Farris too. Things were going to change, to be certain, but I think it would be for the better. I hoped Lily understood, I didn’t want to lose her.

Our struggles were far from over, it took us more than an hour to finally make our way out of the caves and another thirty minutes once we got outside just to get back to the ship. It didn’t seem to have been disturbed when we found it, which was fairly difficult because the holocloaker was still concealing it. All we had to do was get inside and take off, but if there was one thing I’d learned since joining the resistance few things were ever as easy as they seemed.

Naturally, I was weary. Dahl’s rangers could have easily beat us to the ship and I full expected an ambush. We approached the ship and started up the ramp. I fully expected someone to jump out at us at any minute, but no one did. We found our way inside, and were almost to the control room when it happened. Corporal Jake appeared out of thin air almost like a specter rising up from the depths of the past.

“Shit,” I heard Farris curse.

I didn’t catch much of what Neada said, but I did hear the words “personal holo cloaker” escape her lips just before the Corporal acted. He had one of the coil guns, and he opened fire as soon the cloak lifted. I didn’t have time to react, I didn’t have time to do anything before the shots rang out. Then only darkness.

Chapter Eleven

There was nothing but the purest brightest light for as far as the eye could see. It didn’t hurt my eyes, but it seemed to be everywhere.

“Ooooh,” a familiar voice warbled and I spun around to find the doctor leaning over so that he was right in my face. “You’ve finally come to join us. We’re all dead and it’s all your fault.”

“W-what?”

“Oh, yes. The rangers they killed us all, it was most painful. You should have stopped them”

A pair of hands pushed Vakrexid aside and I caught a familiar flash of red as a tall bearded fellow stepped into view. It was Strave. “She killed me too. Didn’t even bat an eyelash. Never even wept for me. I thought the two of us had something, but I guess our night together didn’t mean much.”

Lily appeared beside him, wearing nothing but a bra and panties. “I thought she loved me, but I guess not. She was too wrapped up in her own worries to pay me any mind. I’ve found someone better.”

Lily stood on her toes and Strave leaned down and shared a kiss. “Hey I want some of that action!” A new voice protested forcing Lily out of the way and locking her lips around Strave’s in a kiss.

“Kaya!” I gasped. “b-but you hate Strave!”

“How could I say no to a big, sexy, brawny hunk of man meat like Strave? God! Just look at him!”

“I saw him first!” Lily screamed grabbing Kaya by the hair and punching her in the face.

“Ladies, Ladies, there’s plenty of Strave to go around, but let’s not forget why we’re all here!” Strave’s eyes turned a deep and menacing red, his skin falling off in clumps as his body started to shrivel and sag. He thrust his arm out and pointed at me “She killed us.”

“Why couldn’t you just let me be happy? All I wanted to do was Fuck Matthew! What the hell is wrong with that?” Becca appeared, her skin was gray, and splotched with gangrene and her eyes were milky white. “Just look at me. Who would want to touch me, now?

“You don’t look so bad,” Strave grinned and wiggled his eyebrows.

“Back off, beardface, she’s mine!” Farris yelled appearing beside my sister yanking at her arm. Besides a few patches of white that stuck to his head in odd places, he was almost completely bald. His skin was the same gray as Becca’s and his whole ribcage was exposed and bleeding.

“NO!” A voice screamed and I spun around to find Khala standing there wearing a defiant posture. “This is NOT real, you must wake up. You must fight! You’ve been injured. I’m trying to heal you, but if you don’t fight this you will die!”

I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, the light had disappeared. I couldn’t see much of anything, but I could smell grass and feel the wind against my back. “Dammit, find the others! Kill them! Dahl wants them dead!” a voice echoed in the distance.

I was weak, my muscles refused to move despite repeated attempts, and I felt like I was being stabbed all over my body with fiery pincers. I tried to roll over, but even that was beyond me. “Khala” I whispered. “Do something.”

‘Trying.’ Her response was like a whisper on the wind and I wasn’t sure if I’d actually heard it or if it had been a figment of my imagination. My head was throbbing, and when I tried to lift it, the pulsating only intensified. I groaned and collapsed back to the ground.

I felt a small jolt of energy, burst from my under my jacket and coursing through my body. Khala, had absorbed the energy from energy cells in my guns. I grunted and groaned and rolled onto my back. I felt stronger, but not strong enough.

“Fuck!” a voice yelled nearby. “She’s still alive. What the hell will it take to kill these freaks.”

A coil gun, I could see it’s barrel a few inches from my face. I could feel the power emanating from his weapon and I jerked up and grasped my hand around it. It didn’t give me much more than the pistols, but it was just enough to get me back on my feet. I almost fell back down on my ass, but I gritted my teeth and tumbled forward, right into the ranger. He backhanded me and I stumbled backward, but I managed to yank his phase pistol free from the holster at his hip and opened fire shooting the bastard right in the face, needless to say he didn’t put up any more resistance.

I spun around, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I lurched, and opened fire killing two rangers with my initial volley. I narrowed my eyes, then let Khala drain the pistol empty, before lurching forward. Screw those fucking bastards I was through playing nice, they’d tried to kill me and my friends. I was through playing nice. I was still pretty wobbly on my feet, but with each powercell I drained it got a little easier to move. I dove to ground where one of the rangers I killed had fallen, and scooped up his pistol.

Something slammed into my shoulder, splattering blood all over my face. I rolled away, taking refuge behind a nearby tree and winced as the bullet popped out from my shoulder and the wound slowly started to close. I peaked around the corner and nearly got a face full of lead as the ranger opened fire. I cursed then swung around the other side of tree and fired wildly in the jackass’s general direction.

I heard him let out a particularly foul string of curses just before he opened fire and I was forced to duck back behind the tree. One of his friends tried to sneak up on me, but I caught a flash of metal out of the corner of my eyes and I planted my foot in his chest before he could get the drop on me. I snatched a second phase pistol from his waistband then leapt out from behind the tree, and blazed a path back toward the tree. I killed the ranger with the coil gun with my second shot than killed a second and third as I took off running toward the ramp.

I spotted Jake coming around the other side of the ship, and I had just enough time to dive to the ground as he raised a coil gun and opened fire. I squeezed the trigger on my appropriated pistols spewing out a half a dozen shots, but the corporal ducked behind the landing gear as they came zooming toward him.

I growled then dove for cover behind a small outcrop of rocks when he opened fire again. Every time I tried to come out from hiding the bastard would open fire again. It wouldn’t be long before he ran out of bullets, but I wasn’t sure I could afford to wait him out. The damned coil guns could hold a lot of ammunition and I wasn’t exactly in the best of shape. How many of his friends were lurking around a corner just waiting to slit my throat?

Khala drained the energy from one of the pistols and I tossed it over the rocks hoping that it would strike Jake, but unfortunately ducked back behind the damn landing gear, again. I dove out from my cover and Jake pelted my path with bullets. I was still too injured to get my full speed on, but at least I was fast enough to keep just ahead of his projectiles as they followed in my wake.

Finally, I turned around the ship and was out from his sights. I circled and came around the other side, but unfortunately when I got there Jake was gone. I spun around and found the little rat fink rounding the ship behind me. He didn’t waste any time, raised his rifle and opened fire the moment I was in sight.

I spun away and managed to avoid his initial shot, but the next one took me in the shoulder. A second slammed into my chest and a third got me in the belly, and I collapsed on my side whatever energies Khala had lent me to keep me going apparently depleted. I closed my eyes clutching at my wounds as life slowly drained away. I fully expected Jake to pull the trigger and end my life, but it never happened and I heard a blood curdling scream in its place

My eyes snapped back open and I propped myself up on my elbow. A figure was perched atop Jake’s inert form. She had a mess of short blue hair and if it hadn’t been for that I might have mistaken her for Lily. Slowly, the figure’s head rose and she looked me in the eyes. It was Becca. She looked so… primal like a force of a nature.

Our gazes locked and she simply stared at me, her eyes as wide as mine must have been. She looked surprised, I couldn’t have said for sure why, but it was several long minutes before she finally spoke.

“Lexa, I-I.” She paused, glancing over her shoulder before she turned back to me. “We thought you were dead.”

I collapsed back to the ground and let out a long sigh. “So did I.” I shuddered forcing visions of my… I wasn’t really sure what it had been. A dream? Some sort of vision? A hallucination?

“The others?”

“Fine… I-I think,” Becca replied. “They scrambled when you got hit. We’ve all been fighting off the rangers, but… it’s difficult keep track of everyone in these woods.”

“Help me up, we need to get inside the ship and get it ready for takeoff.

“You’re in no shape to be moving.” She craned her neck and she turned back to me.

“Someone’s coming,” she disappeared into the trees before I could offer up any protests.

A moment later they were on me. They weren’t much of a threat, just a pair of rangers, armed with a couple of pea shooters. I let them think they’d gotten the drop on me, then Becca rushed out of the trees slamming into them with bone-crushing force. I didn’t even have to sit up, which would have been a nice change if I hadn’t been bleeding all over the damn place.

“Hand me their phase guns, would you?” I grunted, pushing myself back up which was a much bigger effort than I let show on my face. Becca complied, tossing me their weapons, a pair of pistols and a rifle, one at a time and Khala promptly drained each of energy. I gasped and stretched my neck, bullets popping out and wounds beginning to heal. I shuddered, then climbed gingerly to my feet. I was far from a hundred percent, but at least I could move without assistance.

I popped the power cell from the only remaining appropriated pistol I had that still had a charge then popped it into one of the custom ones Lily had built for me. There was no using toting the things around if I couldn’t use them. I winced, and took a few ginger steps forward before stopping where Jake’s body was resting. I felt a pulse, and bit my lip and look back at my sister when I didn’t find one. It was bad enough that I had human blood one my hands, but now my sister did too.

Becca’s face looked just a little green, clearly she’d realized what the look I’d given her meant, but she held her stomach better than I expected. I snatched Jake’s pistol’s from his waist and tossed one of them to my sister who caught it out of the air with casual ease. I removed the cell from Jake’s other pistol and popped it into the slot on my second pistol. I snatched the coil gun from where it landed after Jake had taken his fall and tossed it to Becca too.

“We might want to hang onto a few of those. No telling when we might need to kill another Edant K’teth.”

Khala grumbled about my misuse of the term, but I ignored her and turned to my sister. “Come on, once I get the ship prepped you can go round up Lily and the others.”

I think it goes without saying that I made my way up the ramp with considerable trepidation, but this time we made it safely inside the ship without me taking a single bullet. We got through the airlock and for a moment I actually let myself hope that we wouldn’t run into any trouble inside the ship, but when the doors opened I knew I’d been dead wrong.

Becca lunged through the door and I covered her with phase fire, taking out one of the rangers, who had only managed to fire off a few half-hearted shots before my bolts struck home. Becca took out a second one further on down the corridor and I followed down the corridor after her as she leapt toward the control center.

The bridge was empty, and I plopped down at the controls initiating the pre-flight procedures. “Becca,” I winced and rubbed my hand over my not-quite healed wounds. “Would you look the ship over and make sure we don’t have any more uninvited guests?”

“What about you?” Becca hesitated at the door staring at me with those big magenta eyes.

“I can take care of myself.” I un-holstered one of my guns, held it up for her to see and set it down on the console. “Besides I’d rest easier if I knew there weren’t any hostiles on board.”

Becca nodded and disappeared from the doorway. I hated sending her out on the hunt, but the truth was I was in pretty bad shape. Khala was working to heal me, but our energy reserves were so diminished that it was taking ages.

Becca was back a moment later, and her face was a shade or two greener than it had been when she’d found out she’d killed Jake. “I found a pair of rangers in the engine room. T-they won’t be a problem any longer.”

“Here,” she added dropping a pair of power cells in my lap. “Those should help.”

I nodded and gritted my teeth as Khala stirred feeding on the energy within the cells. “The ship’s almost ready. Find the others, the sooner we get out of here the better.”

Becca looked like she wanted to protest, but she nodded and disappeared out the door leaving me on the bridge, alone.

“Shit,” I cursed, grabbed my pistol and spun around to face the intruders as the came barreling into the control room only to drop my hand when I saw that it was only the doctor and Neada.

I set my pistol back down on the console and shook my head. “You’re lucky I didn’t pull the trigger.”

Neada nodded and moved in beside me. “How soon can we get airborne?”

“A few minutes,” I ran a hand over my sore spots and glanced back at the doctor. “I don’t suppose either of you have any spare powercells, do you?

“Most assuredly, not!” The doctor trilled bouncing across the control room before landing beside me. “Do you wish for Vakrexid to take a look?”

“Not now, doc. You haven’t seen the others, have you?”

“Yeah, Rebecca and Lily went off to look for Farris. We got into a scrape with some of Dahl’s people and we lost track of him,” Janet sighed collapsing into the seat next to mine. “The ship ready?”

“Just about.” I grimaced my hands scrolled across the control surface, mashing my thumb against the indicator which would begin the final ignition sequence. “Do me a favor, the next time I decide to charge in somewhere without knowing what’s waiting for us tell me where to shove it.”

“What do you wish to be shove and where should you shove it?” the doctor asked his body bending around my back so that I was looking directly into his eyes albeit upside down. I’d always know the doctor was flexible, but until that moment I had never realized quite how flexible he actually was.

“Doc, do you mind?”

“What do you wish to know about my mind?” Vakrexid blinked.

“Just get out of my face!”

Vakrexid pulled away and turned to Janet. “Vakrexid is most perplexed.”

Neada stared at the doctor and shook her head a slow smile forming a moment before she craned her neck to look over her shoulder. “Someone’s coming.”

Neada un-holstered her pistol then rose to her feet and position herself at the edge of the door frame. Her muscles were tensed and she looked ready to pounce on whoever was about to come through. She relaxed considerably when Lily’s face appeared in the doorway.

“Doctor!” she yelled, waving at Vakrexid. “Farris is injured. We need you now!”

Vakrexid let out a high-pitched warbling screech and went lurching out of the room his fingers twitching at his sides like worms wiggling around on the ground.

“Take the second door on the left!” Lily called over her shoulder then stepped inside the bridge glancing at Neada who still had my pistol clenched in her hands before she trained her eyes on me. I blinked and before I even realized it, she was right on top of me her arms flung tightly around my neck. “Lex, I’m so glad you’re alright. I-I thought you were dead.”

I groaned and pushed her away, or rather I tried to, but I was still too weak. Fortunately, she seemed to realize she was hurting me and pulled away. “Why don’t you go be with your sister? She’s was pretty shaken up when we found Farris. I can take over from here.”

I nodded and pecked Lily on the lips before departing from the bridge. I found my way to the room where they dumped Farris and the moment I stuck my head in the door and saw my sister weeping in the corner as the doctor worked and I realized what an idiot I’d been. I’d mistaken my sister’s feelings for Farris as simple infatuation, but never once had it occurred to me that those feelings might have been genuine.

I crept into the room, careful not to disturb the doctor and wrapped my arms around Becca. She stiffened at my touch, but then melted into my arms like butter. After a few minutes the room started to quiver and quake, indicating the ship was taking off, but either Becca didn’t realize or didn’t care because she didn’t stir a bit. The world slowed to a standstill as her tears dripped onto my shoulder. She squeezed me, which was painful, but I didn’t say a word. What right did I have to complain? I’d caused her enough grief butting heads with Farris.

“Vakrexid has done all I can,” the doctor pronounced after just a few short minutes.

“W-will he live?” Becca asked pulling away from me.

“Vakrexid cannot say. He is most badly injured. He may pull through he may not. If I had access to Vakrecid’s equipment I believe Vakrexid could save him, but as it is only time will tell if he survives.”

She nodded and turned back to me collapsing into my chest. I grunted and cradle her in my arms. I’d been such a fool, and it was only after Farris was on death’s door that I finally realized the full extent of it. If he died I’d have to live with that guilt for the rest of my life. Becca, didn’t show any signs of moving so I held her close and comforted her the best I could. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes to hours, and still I held her in my arms…

“Touching down,” Lily said just a second before the whole ship shuddered which was followed by a loud metallic groan.

I nodded and looked over the decaying ruins of New Anaheim, my birthplace and former home. Of course, getting there had been no small task. The gray skins had tightened their patrols and we’d only just barely managed to slip through unnoticed. It was fortunate, Lily’s sensor trick still worked or we’d have been in a world of trouble.

It looked so different than my vague child recollections. The city had been so bright and alive, but now it looked dull and lifeless. Our scans had been able to determine that my appraisal was for the most part correct, only housing a few hundred human life signs. There were thousands of animals, but most were rodents. “Get the holocloaker up as soon as you can. I don’t want any passing patrol ships to be able to pick us up.”

It was Lily, Janet and me on the bridge, the doctor was back ensuring that our landing didn’t rattle Farris–whose condition was still quite tenuous–too much. Becca hadn’t left his side since he’d sustained his injuries and I doubted she would until his condition change either for the better or worse. Becca wasn’t very talkative since he had come so close to death, but the strain on our relationship caused by my aborted attempt on his life was no longer in evidence. Whether or not it was gone for good, was another question entirely.

“You got this?”

Lily nodded and I departed returning again to the doctor’s makeshift infirmary where Farris was being kept. “Any changes?”

“He is showing some small signs of improvement his skin has regained much color and his breathing is much less laborious,” the doctor said turning to me with wide eyes. “Vakrexid is more optimistic that he will recover.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said and turned to Becca who was kneeling next to the bed we’d made by tearing apart one of the crew bunks. “You doing alright?”

She nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes.

“Why don’t you go get something to eat and catch a few hours of sleep? I can look after him while you rest.”

She glanced back at me, concern mirrored in her eyes and I caught a flash of uncertainty in her eyes. Maybe she hadn’t been as quick to forget my feud with Farris as I thought.

“I promise, nothing will happen to him under my watch.” That seemed to reassure her and she nodded before disappearing from the room. I knelt down next to Farris’s bed and watched as the doctor departed.

“Farris.” I sighed and shook my head. “You might be a major pain in the ass, but you didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”

“That’s big of you to admit.” Farris’s eyes popped open and I jumped back startled by his sudden pronouncement.

“Farris, you’re awake!”

“Obviously.” His eyes cracked open and he looked up at me. “Thought you were dead.”

“Not, unless this is the afterlife.” I shuddered and glanced up at the ceiling. “In which case… I must have really done something to piss someone up there off.”

Farris chuckled then closed his eyes and winced before glancing over at me. “So, obviously you’re alive and I am… I guess. What about Becca? A-and the others?”

“Everyone’s fine. I just barely managed to convince Becca to go get something to eat. She hasn’t left your side since they brought you in. Why don’t I go grab her? I’m sure she’d love to talk to you.”

Farris nodded and I swept out of the room only to return a moment later with my sister in tow. Needless to say she was ecstatic to find that Farris had finally awakened. I didn’t speak, but merely watched from the doorway. I was starting to see what she saw in him. Sure, he could be an ass, but when he spoke with her it was like I was seeing a different side of him. He was kind and gentle, a far different person than the Farris I’d come to know and detest. He had changed, but I hadn’t really seen it until that moment and if he could change it was about time I did too.

Chapter Twelve

Farris continued to recover and by the night before my birthday he was able to sit up in his bed, though the doctor didn’t think he’d be able stand for another few days at least. Things between Becca and I had definitely taken a more positive turn, but we really hadn’t spent any time discussing what had occurred. She’d been so focused on Farris’s recovery that I hadn’t quite figured out how to broach the subject. That was about to change.

I’d asked Lily and Becca to meet me on the bridge after our morning meal and since I’d been so nervous I hadn’t had much of an appetite, I’d been the first to arrive.

“You sure about this?” Khala asked seated in the pilot’s seat her feet kicked up on top of the console.

“Yes.” I sighed and bit my lip. “Just be quiet for a moment would you? I need some time with my thoughts.”

“Fine, do try not to screw this up. I have a feeling this could really blow up in your face.” She stood up and reach up to touch my face and I was still more than a little skittish when it came to feeling the touch my symbiote’s illusionary form. She vanished and I turned back to glance at the door fully expecting them to arrive at any moment. They didn’t keep me waiting for too long, but I was jittery that it seemed like much longer. Lily appeared in the doorway first, but my sister was only a few steps behind.

“Lex,” Lily said dropping into the same seat Khala had vacated just a few moments before. “What’s this all about? What’s going on?”

“Everything alright?” Becca asked taking a seat a good five feet away from Lily.

“No.” I bit my lip and collapsed into a seat facing them. “I-it hasn’t been for a while.”

“Jeff, if you–”

I held up my hand cutting my sister off before she could continue. “Just let me talk, please. This is important.”

“Just before, Kaya died, Khala offered to return me to my male form at least on a temporary basis, but at some point I would have had to return to female form so she could reproduce. At first, I was so caught up in my budding relationship with you, Lily, and my sister’s return that I barely gave it a seconds thought. Then Kaya died and… I started thinking about it a lot more.”

“Oh, Lexa.” Lily started stood up and moved across the room and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Why didn’t you say something? Don’t you think I of all people would understand?”

I took her hand and returned to my feet looked her in the eyes. “I was afraid you’d reject me like Kaya did when I first changed.”

“Lex…” she bit her lip and kissed me on the lips. “I will support you no matter what choice you make. You gotta know that.”

“I know I’ve been a bit… unbalanced lately. Kaya’s passing hit me pretty hard, and I think I hit my lowest point when I tried to kill Farris.”

“You WHAT!?” Lily gasped backing away and staring at me with those big magenta eyes.

“I found him on top of my sister,” I said giving her a pointed look. “I’ve been so mixed up. I keep thinking of Jellfree and Lexa as if they… I was two separate people. I couldn’t decided which one of them I wanted to be, but then I realized that Jellfree is Lexa. They are one and the same. All this time I’ve blaming my darker impulses, all the violent things I did, on Lexa, but the truth is I’ve always had it in me to do those sort of things. I think everyone does, it just comes easier to some of us.”

“What are you trying to say?” Becca stood up shaking her head. “What’s this all about?”

“Why don’t I just show you?” I stepped back bit my lip. “Khala do it.”

It started almost immediately and fell down to my knees as the changes started. It didn’t hurt at quite the same level as it had the first time. Khala was dulling the pain quite a bit, but I still felt every little crack and pop reverberate through my slender frame. I put my hand out and watched as my skin and fingers morphed. My chest felt as if two boiling hot bowls of soup had been pressed against it and when I reached up to touch my breasts I could feel them remolding themselves to the contours of my new body. Finally, it was all done and I gasped and looked up. I was feeling a little off balance to say the least, but I managed to climb back to my feet and stared at the Becca and Lily.

“What do you think?”

“I-I’m confused.” Becca glanced at Lily. “You’re still a woman.”

“I don’t want to spend my life shifting between forms. If I took Khala up on her offer I’d have to shift back every time she wanted to reproduce. I can’t live a life where I can only be happy with my body some of the time. If I’m going to be Lexa then I want to do so wearing a face that’s undeniably mine not some weird mixture of my old self and an aunt I barely knew.”

Lily blinked and approached me. She looked me right in the eyes then slapped me. She hit hard, but I knew how strong she was and the blow could have been a lot more powerful. Still it hurt enough to bring a tear to the corner of my eye. “You stupid, stupid woman! Didn’t you think you could have at least warned us!” she yelled then grabbed me by the collar of the shirt and kissed me. “Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again!”

“Would someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” Becca demanded rounding on the two of us.

I bowed my head, bit my lip and grabbed my sister by her shoulder. “I haven’t felt quite right since Khala changed me. It’s taken a while for me to figure it out. At first a lot of it had to do with being the wrong gender, but it’s not just that. I don’t quite know how to say this, but I-I haven’t exactly felt like myself either. Now, I’m as close to being me as I can be.”

“I’m still not following.”

“Don’t you get it? When Khala transformed me, she remade my body by combining my DNA with Mara’s, but I realized I didn’t have to be stuck wearing that face any more. I had her recombine my old genes with yours.” I blushed and glanced down at my chest which was just big enough to make my blouse and bra feel tight and constrained. “Granted I think she may have idealized my appearance a bit, but I’m about as close as I can be to what would have looked like had I been born a girl.”

“Why is this so important to you? I mean I’m happy if you are, but what does it matter what face you wear. You’re still my b… sister.” Becca winced and took a step back.

“I don’t really understand it myself, but I feel like I can be me in this body. I feel like I’m making a fresh start. A new face, for a new Lexa.” I beamed and wiggled my eyebrows at her. “Of course, my bra may require a little alteration.This one’s a little on the uncomfortable side now.”

“This,” Lily stood up on her toes and frowned. “Will take some getting used to.”

“I take it that you’re okay with this?”

“No, I still think you should have warned me, and…” she paused and took both of my hands. “in the future I fully expect you to discuss any bombshells you might have before you pull a little stunt like this again, got it?”

I stared at her standing with her arms folded across chest, her nose scrunched up and her eyes squinting up at me and I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. Lily might have been a woman in her heart all her life, but she didn’t seem to have mastered ‘the look’ quite yet.

“Lexa,” she said her voice taking on a chiding tone. “This isn’t funny.”

“No, you’re right.” I coughed fighting down my fit of giggles and bit my lip. “I promise Lily, if I have any Earth-shattering balls to drop, I’ll run them by you first.”

“Okay,” she said standing up on the tips of her toes and kissed me.

“Definitely gonna take some getting used to,” she muttered a moment after pulling away. “But, it if it makes you happy I can live with it.”

“You wouldn’t believe how happy I am to hear you say that.” I kissed her back, but broke away when I caught a flash of movement in the doorway out of the corner of my eyes.

It was Janet and she had a phase pistol trained right on me. “Who the hell is this?”

I glanced back at Lily who averted her eyes and started twirling a lock of hair between her fingers. I looked Janet up and down and ran a hand through my hair. “I’m Lexa, remember what I told you about my symbiote and how she transformed me from man to woman? Well I had her change me again.”

“This true?” she glanced at Lily and Becca, who both nodded.

“Right, of course you did. Why the hell not?” She grimaced and holstered her weapon. “I was just coming to find you. I think it’s time for us to do some snooping around the city. If we really are supposed to meet someone here we ought to stake things out ahead of time.”

“It’s a big city.” I leaned over the console and bit my lip. “We can’t hope to explore every nook and cranny can we?”

“This city is your birth place, isn’t it? You believe this message was tailored to you, don’t you? Doesn’t it make sense that they’d choose a location that might have some meaning to you?”

“I was four years old when Earth was taken! The only memories I have before the invasion are vague. You can’t seriously expect me to remember details like that do you?”

“No, I guess not.” Neada shook her head thrumming her hand against the console.

“M-maybe, the message wasn’t meant for Lexa,” Becca spoke up suddenly. “She introduced herself as Lexa, the E-R-F doesn’t even know if Jellfree Briggs is alive. I think it was meant for me.”

All eyes turned to look on my sister and I shook my realizing how stupid it had been for me to assume the message was meant for me. Becca was the only sibling the ERF knew was alive for sure, if they’d send a message catered to anyone it would have been her. “She’s right.”

“Why pick your birthday then?” Lily asked. “If they wanted to send a message to Becca why not use her birthday.”

“Becca was born in June. Since mine was just around the corner it makes sense they’d pick that date over hers. Becca, can you remember any location in the city? Any place where the E-R-F might want us to go?”

Becca’s face turned pale and she looked back at me with wide eyes. “I wasn’t much older than you. I know we lived near a High School on Crocker Street, and our family had a favorite restaurant a few blocks away, Thurston’s I think the name was.”

“That’s a good starting point,” Janet said. “If I’d been the one to send that message I’d pick a familiar setting. Your old home seems like the most likely choice.”

“How do we find it? The city is huge, there were hundreds of thousands of people living here before the invasion, we could walk for miles before finding the street we need,” I said.

“Well,” Lily said dropping down a seat in the corner. “This tub is loaded with a quite a lot of navigation data. Let me just pull it up.”

The air above her console flashed and flickered and a holographic image appeared in the open space.

“Now let’s see,” Lily stared at the console.

“Star charts, no that’s not it, let’s. Ah, there it is, Earth maps. Topographical no, umm… Ah! Here it is street maps.” Her hands scrolls across the console surface and paused just before her thumb mashed down. The holographic display flickered again and changed to display a map of New Anaheim’s streets.

“Didn’t expect a freaking space ship to have street maps.” Neada said rubbing the back of her neck.

“No it makes sense, why bury this thing if they didn’t intend us to use it? They could have just left a communications array, but instead they buried an entire ship. Since the fight against the Qharr is taking place here on Earth. It seems only logical that they’d load the computer with maps of Earth, ” I said leaning over Lily so that I could get a better look at the image displayed. “How many kilometers of ground does the city cover?”

“About a hundred-fifty square kilometers.”

“Shit, how are we supposed to find Crocker Street in all of that? It’s like looking for a needle in a damn haystack,” Neada said.

“Hold on.” Lily paused biting her lower lip with her upper row of teeth. The screen flickered a third time and zoomed in on an area in the northeastern part of the city, and a particular portion of street started to flash red. “It’s right there.”

“This is doable, if we move the ship closer our walk won’t be nearly as long.”

“Perfect” Lily’s smile stretched across her whole face. “When do we leave?”

“We don’t. I want you to stay with the ship. If something happens to me. You’re the only one that can pilot this tub.”

Lily frowned and I could tell she was disappointed, but she nodded in understanding.

“Get the ship up and running. I want to get inside the city as soon as we can.”

Lily nodded again, and changed seats so that she could begin pre-flight procedures. Minutes later the ship took off, soaring toward the North Eastern portion of the city where my childhood home awaited.

It was Neada, Becca and me on that first trip out. Farris had been left behind for obvious reasons and the doctor had wanted to stay near his patient which was fine by me. He was loud and boisterous, he didn’t know how to keep quiet, and we didn’t want to be seen or heard. Lily hadn’t been too happy about staying behind, but I think she at least understood why I’d left her.

It was eerie moving through the deserted city. I’d remember the place as being so bright and clean, but the years since the invasion had not been kind to New Anaheim. It was dark, damp and decaying and was completely devoid of life or at least it seemed to be despite our scans had told us. If there were any humans still living in the ruins, they were keeping out of sight. The only animals I saw were birds, and vermin, nothing larger. I’d expected to encounter packs of wild dogs, perhaps some feral cats or worse yet a pack of wild dre’ks.

Much of the city was overgrown with plants, and here or there a human skeleton could be found amidst all the debris. A lot of buildings didn’t even look as if they were habitable, but whether that was due to decay or the Qharr’s attack on the city twenty-four years ago I couldn’t say. The streets were littered with overgrown brush and rubble which made things all the more difficult. It was hard for us to navigate without any street signs in evidence and the few we did find weren’t usually legible. Fortunately, we had the map, which Lily had loaded up on one of her little computing devices.

The only means we had of keeping track of where we were in relationship to the map was by counting the intersections as we passed them. The walk was long and strenuous and it was well past noon by the time we finally found Crocker Street. It took another half an hour to find the high school. I had vague memories of teenagers streaming in and out of the large building, but not much else. It was one of the more far-gone structures we’d come across. One of the exterior walls had collapsed in on itself, another was slanted at an odd angle and remaining two were all that kept the building from collapsing completely.

“Okay Becca,” I said turning to my sister. “You’re going to have to help us out here. Which way do we go? None of this looks familiar to me.”

She looked to the north and spun around to look the opposite way. “I can’t be sure, but I-I think it’s that way,” she said pointing southward toward a cluster of houses. “Our house was kind of a grayish light blue if that helps narrow it down a bit.”

“Yeah. The door was red and the next house over was green and I was friends with the boy that lived there. His name was Toby,” I said stopping mid-stride as an image of a young blond boy popped into my head. Until that moment, I’d forgotten about him and frowned when I realized that he was probably dead.

“South it is.” I shook my head, forcing the image of Toby’s face out of my mind as I turned to the others. “We’re getting close. Be ready we don’t know what will be waiting for us.”

We followed the street down a several blocks and I was starting to wonder if we’d gone the wrong direction when I saw it. Like all the buildings in the city it had given over to the decay and rot of nature, but it looked to be fairly structurally sound.

As we drew closer I reached out to touch the exterior wall, and I closed my eyes an image of a gray-blue building filling my mind before my eyes snapped open. The paint was faded to a chalk gray where once it had been a bright gray-blue, in places I could feel cracks in the wall, and chips where the paint was flaking away. When I got to the door I shook my head, its color was still so bright and crisp that it seemed so very out of place. I craned my neck up noting that all but one of the front windows had been broken in before I finally returned my focus to the door.

It didn’t seem likely, but a part of me hoped I might be able scavenge some lost belonging, or even a keepsake left by my parents. The photo of my parents that Mara had given me had been lost with the fall of the resistance and I would have liked to find a replacement. “Well,” I said pausing in front of the house. “There’s no reason to wait, is there? Let’s see what’s inside.”

I approached the door, and was more than a little surprised to find that it was locked tight. Then again, if what our scans had shown of the human population of the city were true, there’s weren’t very many people left in the city to raid the ruins. The place had once been home to hundreds of thousands, but so few of the remained.

I drew one of my pistols and blasted the door open leaping inside without waiting to see if the others followed. I lumbered up a set of stairs and down a hallway before coming to an abrupt stop in front of a doorway. My bedroom. The only time I could ever recall being in that room was just before my mother had herded me out of our home during the invasion. I must have spent many hours in that tiny little room, but I couldn’t remember them. I couldn’t remember any of it.

The room had been cleared out, there wasn’t a single piece of furniture or clothing left in the closet and I closed the door unwilling to look upon the emptiness of my former living space any longer. It only served to remind me of everything that I had lost.

“Nothing.” I sighed and turned to Becca who was had just entered the hallway behind me. “There’s nothing left. My room’s empty.”

She ducked inside a room a few doors down and turned to me, a frown on her face. “Mine too.”

I holstered my gun and turned glancing at Janet as she entered the hallway behind us. “Fan out, we need to look around. Tell me if you find anything that might be of significance.”

Janet nodded and turned away, disappearing around a corner. Becca and I started searching the other rooms and found the first one, a bathroom, empty. The final door was sealed shut, but I drew my phase pistol again and blasted it open like I had at the entrance. The door gave in as easily as the last and once the dust cleared I poked my head inside.

A young woman, who I doubted was much older than eighteen, backed away from the door and started screaming. A young boy maybe three or four years old and girl no more than seven cowered in the corner staring up at us with wide eyes.

“Dammit,” I cursed holstering my weapon as I looked around the room. No wonder the place had been sealed up tight, there were people living there. An old mattress, soiled and torn sat in the corner and I approached the young woman who backed even further away when she saw me moving toward her.

“Relax, I’m not going to hurt you,” I said trying to make my voice sound as even-toned and non-threatening as possible. I held my hands out and kept them far away from my weapons. “We didn’t know anyone was living here.”

“Who are you people?” The young woman stared back at me the light of defiance in her eyes an odd contrast to the fear and caution I saw on her face.

“We–” I paused motioning back at Becca. “–My sister and I, used to live here when we were little… Before the gray skins came. We were just hoping to find some of our old things.”

“We didn’t find anything here when we moved in, the whole place had been stripped. Please, just go away, we don’t want any trouble.”

I nodded and backed slowly away. “Alright. I see now that there’s nothing left for us here. We’ll leave you in peace.

We turned away to leave and were halfway back down the hallway when I heard a little voice call out. “Wait!”

It was the little girl, she was holding a large old padded binder, that might have once been white, but time had dulled its once bright color. She held it up to me and stared at me with the most brilliant pair of blue eyes I’d ever seen. “We found this in the basement.”

With shaking hands I gently took the binder from her outstretched grip and flipped it open. What I found inside, was far away and beyond anything I could have ever hoped to have found. The entire binder was filled with photos of our parents, Becca and me and faces of people I didn’t even know. I flipped it shut again and knelt down to look the little girl in the eyes.

“Thank you.”

She locked gazes with me and her eyes grew even wider. She went scurrying away back into the master bedroom and I watched her depart unable to bring myself to look away. We’d broken the door down, whatever security they might have once had had been shattered to pieces. I had no doubt the city was a dangerous place for a group so young and I couldn’t stand by knowing that I had been responsible for making things more difficult for them.

I walked back slowly to the doorway and stopped, making sure to show my hands, as the young woman started screaming again. “This place isn’t safe anymore.”

“Thanks to you,” she replied putting herself between me and the younger children. “We gave you what you wanted! Now just leave us alone.”

“No, I’m responsible. I can’t just stand idly by and do nothing. Come with us… we have a ship, it’s warm and it’s gotta be better than living here in the city. We’ve had our fair share of danger, but maybe once we’re done here we can help you find someplace safer.”

She stared at me between gritted teeth and started to quake. “We don’t need help from the likes of you. Just leave us alone!”

I got a good look in her eyes and saw her anger and distrust. She’d lived her entire life in the city, and I doubted she’d ever been given a reason to trust another human being. I didn’t blame her, but it tore me up inside just imagining what had been done to her. I doubted that any of it had been pretty. How many were there just like her, who’d never been shown a single bit of common decency by their fellow human beings?

I glanced back over my shoulder then locked gazes with the girl one final time. “If you change your mind we’ll probably be back at least one more time in the next few days. The offer stands as long as we’re in town.”

“Just go,” she said her voice taking on a more pleading tone.

I nodded, and turned away. It was clear she didn’t want our help. I hoped she might change her mind sometime in the next few days, but I was pretty sure she’d already made up her mind.

Neada met us as we started make down the stairs toward the landing. “What was that commotion? You guys find someone?”

“Yeah,” I nodded with a shake of my head. “We found a group of kids living in the master bedroom..”

“Oh god!” she brought a hand up to cover her mouth. “Are they okay? Is there something we can do to help them?”

“No,” I said brushing past her. “They didn’t want our help. Come on, let’s get back to the ship. There’s nothing more for us to see here.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Morning birthday, girl,” Lily rolled over in bed and locked her lips around mine, kissing me much more deeply and passionately than our usual morning peck. Not that I was complaining, but it did take me a bit by surprise particularly since the morning fog hadn’t quite lifted from my mind.

“Good morning to you too,” I smiled and returned her kiss with just as much fervor. I wanted so much just to stay in bed and fuck her silly, but we had a big day ahead of us. I didn’t think it would do to spend all day locked away. No matter how much I wished we could.

“Shall we get up then?” I asked stroking her hair.

She nodded and we broke apart climbing to our feet so we might prepare ourselves for the day’s trials. I still wasn’t sure why the E-R-F sent us to New Anaheim, but it had to be important. I wanted to be out in the city well before the time the message had indicated. I was convinced it had been authentic, but I wasn’t taking any risks. If it was a trap we’d be ready for it which was why I was going to bring Lily along this time.

It was a calculated risk, but I knew we’d stand much better chances if there were three joined humans ready to smash the faces in of anyone who tried to stand in our way. I still didn’t trust Becca’s symbiote. He refused to talk with any of us which only made me distrust him more. Needless to say I was going to keep a close eye on Becca, there was no telling when the K’teth might refuse to lend her his abilities.

I was still haunted by the images of the three children we’d run across back in the city and a part of me hoped I might see them again. If I could somehow show them that I wanted to help, perhaps I could convince them to leave the city. It broke my heart to think I had endangered those little children by destroying the doors to their shelter.

I shook my head and forced such thoughts out of my head. They left me feeling so… maternal. Fortunately, Lily provided more than enough distraction. She grabbed me by the arm and forced me down the corridor where we’d set up a makeshift mess. Everyone was waiting there, even Farris, who’d been propped up in the corner. Most of the color had returned to his face and I could have almost led myself to believe he’d completely recovered were it not for the bandages on his chest.

“Happy birthday! I made you breakfast!” Becca beamed grabbing my free wrist and with Lily’s help, the two of them forced me down into a seat.

“Where’s Neada?” I looked around.

“She went ahead to do some scouting. Don’t worry she’s already eaten.”

I surrendered to Lily and Becca and let them serve me. Normally our meals consisted of soup made from whatever increments we could scavenge, which often included some type of meat and whatever else we could forage outside of the city like berries or edible roots, but the dish Becca put in front of me was far better eating than I’d seen in since well… ever. The meal consisted of a slab of meat and an assortment of steamed roots and greens we’d picked up since coming to the Anaheim area. The whole meal smelled faintly of garlic and onions which would almost certain help mask the gamey taste of the deer meat.

Where my sister had managed to find the garlic and onions was beyond me. There were a number of wild varieties that grew outside the Salt Lake area and it didn’t seem that unlikely that they might also be found in California. On rare occasions back when I was a head cook I remembered the Qharr supplying wild garlic and onions to our stocks. It had been one of the rare treats that I could ever remember being afforded in my time spent at the compound, but I’d often been forced to stretch them into a meal intended for very large groups of people.

That being said our own food stocks could have been stretched into several meals and I did try to point this out, but my protestations fell on deaf ears. Becca and Lily were adamant that I partake. Even Farris seemed dead set on forcing me to eat, but that might have been purely out of self interest. It wasn’t often that a slave, or resistance fighters for that matter, ate so well. Finally, I relented and consumed the meal without further clamoring. The meat was probably one of the best things I’d ever tasted, the roots and greens left a lot to be desired, but they were more edible than the usual fair so I ate them without any complaints. It went without being said that the doctor was the only member of our group who didn’t partake of the steak. Fortunately, he had been given a large bowl of soup to sip on instead.

We finished our meal and I was about ready to pronounce that it was time to leave when Lily put her hands on my shoulders and forced me back into my seat. “We’re not done with you yet, birthday girl.”

The doctor left the room only to return a moment later with a box in his hand. I knew even before he set it down on the table in front of me that it was intended for me. It was my birthday after all. “Come on guys you didn’t have to do this,” I said craning my neck to look up at Vakrexid who was standing there wobbling back and forth on his feet.

“It was Vakrexid’s understanding that birthdays were an important human cultural celebration.”

“I don’t really deserve any of this. I’ve been a perfect ass.”

“I know,” Becca smiled placing a hand on my shoulder. “But you’ve turned over a new leaf. Consider it a celebration of the new Lexa. Just open the gift, we’ve all put a lot of work into it.”

“Nobody ever celebrated the new me,” Farris grumbled from the corner.

“That’s because the old Farris was a royal pain in the ass,” Lily bit back. “Lexa was just out of sorts for a little while.”

It was a pretty harsh thing to say, but Farris had tormented Lily for years. Was it any wonder she still had some lingering resentment?

To his credit, Farris to the comment in stride and merely shrugged. “Fair enough, Just open the box, would you? I’d like to find out what it is those two–” he stopped point at Lily and Becca each in turn. “–have been sneaking around inside that damn box.”

I did as he suggested and pulled the top off the box. Inside, I found a new double holster, which looked to have been crafted from leather. “Told you I’d get you a new one.” Lily beamed as I held the holster up in front of me.

“There’s another gift inside from me,” Becca added blushing and brushing phantom hair away from her face. Clearly, she hadn’t quite gotten used to having shorter hair. “We, uh, could only find one box.”

I set the holster down, and grabbed the second item from the box and dropped it almost immediately. I blushed and turned to Farris who was grinning from ear to ear. It was a bra, patched together from an assortment of mismatched fabric.

“You said your bra was tight so I pieces one together with some scraps I found. I think it should fit you better than the one you’re wearing now,” Becca said. “Sorry it’s the best I could do on short notice.”

I grabbed her and pulled her close. “I love it. Thank you. It’ll be nice having one of these things that fit properly.”

“I-I’ll try it on later… somewhere a little more private,” I said glancing at Farris who chuckled and shook his head.

“Try the holster on then,” Lily grinned. “I’ve been working on that since we picked up our new ride. Had some help from Rayland… and the doctor.”

“The doctor?”

“Yes,” Vakrexid answered for her. “Vakrexid helped cure and tan the leather.”

“You did that?”

“Indeed, Vakrexid learned to do so while I was still just a small caprixi under the tutelage of the wise descending perglexigonis of the catamarxek swamp lands.”

“I have no idea what any of that means, but thanks doc.”

“Vakrexid is most pleased to hear you say that,” he tooted then spun out of the room.

“Well,” I said glancing at the doorway. “I guess that’s that. Lily, Becca, get ready we’ll be leaving once Janet returns. And as for me… I have bra to try on.”

It was another half an hour before we finally departed. It only took me a few minutes to try out my bra, which was far more comfortable than my previous one. Either my sister was really good at eying measurements or she’d had help from Lily. There was an odd thought… then again Lily had been pretty handsy the last few times we’d made love.

I cough, and glanced at Lily who smiled and took my hand. I felt my cheeks burn and didn’t say another word. There were some things that were probably better left a mystery. Neada took the lead, she was more familiar with the terrain than the rest of us–having spent most of her free time in the last few days exploring the city–and she seemed to have a better grasp of where we were going.

We caught more signs of movement than we had on our previous trip and on several occasions I even saw a human or two lurking in the shadows, but none passed close enough for me to get a good look. I’d hoped we might run across the kids we’d encountered on previous visit, but they never showed their faces. I checked for them once we’d reached the house, but there wasn’t even the faintest whiff of their presence. Even the mattress, soiled and stained as it was, had disappeared from the premises.

We settled inside, and waited for the day to pass into night. We had a long wait on our hands, and the time just seemed to drag on. Becca and Lily dozed off waiting, but Neada and I remained awake, silent sentries gazing out the shattered windows into the darkness of the night.

When I convinced myself nothing was going to happen, my enhanced eyes finally spotted shadows moving through the darkness on Crocker Street. I nudge Lily and Becca awake, and turned to Janet. “Someone’s coming. This has gotta be it.”

Neada nodded. “I can’t see anything. Are you sure?”

“Positive. I’m going to sneak around back. You guys keep your weapons trained on the street. If you see phase blasts open fire immediately.”

Neada nodded, and I turned away crawling out the back window and leaping down to ground. I landed on my feet and found my way around the house and dove into a thicket of bushes that were growing like weeds along the side of the house.

I didn’t have to wait long, the shadows stopped in front of the house a moment later and I drew one of my phase pistols clasping it tightly in my hands. There were about a dozen figures standing in the street, one of them, a woman was issuing commands, but she wasn’t speaking loud enough for me to make anything out. I had to get closer.

I crept through the bushes and then using the shattered remnants of the wood fence, that had once divided the lawn from the next house, as cover I crept across the yard until I was less than five feet away than the nearest figure. It was the woman, and there something about the way she held herself that seemed so very familiar. When she turned toward me the light from the moon provided just enough illumination to give me a good look at her face and I quickly realized why she seemed so familiar. The woman was Mara.

To be continued…

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As my other stories this is a work of fiction and as such any resemblance to real life individuals, events or locations is purely unintentional. Only Fictionmania, Bigcloset Topshelf, & tgstorytime.com have permission to host this story and my previous works unless I state otherwise.

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Daniel A. Wolfe

Hi, I'm Daniel A. Wolfe, thanks for visiting the site and for read my stories. You can find more out about me by visiting the about me page. Please take a moment to comment, it really helps encourage me to continue writing.

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