Battle For Earth: Downfall

Upon rescuing my sister, aided in our escape by a mysterious stranger,
the final pieces of the puzzle fall together and we
learn the intended purpose of the biometric key, but will it be
enough to rescue Earth from the clutches of the Qharr?

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

Wind whipped all around me as I plummeted to the Earth and I gritted my teeth against the forces of the gusts. The explosion came less than thirty seconds later and I howled in pain as fiery hot bursts erupted slamming into my back. There came an amazing flood of energy as Khala consumed the power and the pain in my back suddenly faded away when she used the same energy to heal my injury. Unfortunately, Khala could do nothing for the tattered remnants of my clothes which had been burned up and all the remaining pieces, save for my panties, which were hanging onto me by a thread, flew away from my body caught up by the wind. The phase pistol I’d taken from the Corrector, having a lot more weight to it, was not blown away and I was able to snatch it out of the air before it flew out of my reach.

The wind against my bare skin, particularly on my breasts, felt strange, but I told myself that it didn’t matter and pulled the trigger on the phase pistol. I fired off nearly a dozen shots before I caught sight of the outline of the rescue ship. The flashes from my weapon appeared to have drawn their attention just as I had hoped it would. I continued to pull the trigger, until finally the rescue craft swooped down under me. The ship flew up toward me and there came a loud hiss as it approached. A hatch popped open folding away and grew wider until finally it was about as big around as I was tall.

The ship flew up toward me and suddenly my feet made contact with the upper-side of the hull. Khala cushioned me against nearly the entire force of the impact, but when I tried to take a step, the ship lurched forward and I went tumbling down face first into the hull. The rescue ship went careening sideways and I could feel myself slide away. Whatever her reasons, I doubted Lily would send the ship lurching sideways unless she absolutely had too. Like if say, the ship was being fired on. I felt around frantically trying to find something to grip hold of, and found purchase by clenching my hand around a piece of exposed piping. It soon righted itself and not willing to risk falling over again, I crept slowly across the surface of the hull before finally finding my way to the open entry hatch. I crept over the edge then fell inside head first. “We got her!” Kaya’s familiar voice called then I heard a snap-hiss from above as the door closed itself.

“Dear lord!” Kaya breathe kneeling down next to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “You’re freaking insane you know that?”

I nodded and bit my lip before slowly climbing up onto my knees pressing them into my naked breasts as I craned my neck to look up at her. “You have no idea. You think you could get me some clothes?”

“How’d that happen?”

I shrugged. “I was a little too close when the patrol ship exploded and my clothes were burnt up. Lucky for me, I had Khala to absorb all that energy, anyone else would have been toasted to a crisp.”

“Hold on, I’ll be back, but in the meantime there’s someone waiting on the other side of the airlock who’d like to see you,” she muttered before releasing the door. There was a snap-hiss as the air-lock was re-pressurized then she shuffled out the door and was immediately replaced by my sister. Becca fell to her knees beside me and threw her arms around me her eyes and cheeks red from crying. “I thought I’d lost you, again.”

I put my hands on her shoulders, and gently pushed her away feeling my cheeks burn as I did so. A few days worth of showers in the women’s shower room at Het’ma had done little to lessen my discomfort with my female body and being naked, particularly around my sister just made me feel all the more uncomfortable. I pursed my lips and looked my sister in the eyes, “I’ll tell you what I told Jaysun, I don’t plan on dying any time soon. I’m pretty damned hard to kill so don’t worry. A lot of stuff that’ll kill a regular person won’t even faze me.”

She smiled, wiped away her tears then slowly nodded then looked at me with her eyebrows furrowed, “Who’s Jaysun?”

“She’s the one that’s been piloting the ship, she’s bonded with a K’teth symbiote like me,” I muttered shaking my head.

“You mean that Lily girl? The one with blue hair and those weird pink eyes?” she asked staring at me blankly.

I wondered briefly who Lily was, but soon realized she must mean Jaysen. Apparently, in my absence she’d chosen a female moniker and I had to admit that I could definitely imagine Jaysun going by the name Lily. “Yeah, I think that’s her,” I grinned up at my sister. “I should have guessed she’d do away with her male name as quick as she could.”

“You mean she’s a guy?” my sister blinked.

“Used to be… well physically at least. Like me, she got changed by her symbiote, but she actually wanted it. I just got stuck being female because– well maybe that’s something we probably ought to talk about later,” I replied shaking my head and shuddering just a bit at the thought of how I’d been largely responsible for Jaysen… Lily’s transformation.

“Alright,” Kaya said absent appearing in the doorway. “Apparently Jaysun…” she winced then corrected herself. “Lily, didn’t do any laundry while we were gone and none of your clothes were clean… so I went through the stash we brought back from the supply cache and I think I was able to find some things that will fit you reasonably well.”

I nodded and was about to reach for the clothes, but Becca beat me to it. “Thanks, Kaya,” my sister smiled. “It’s getting a little crowded in here I’ll help Jeff get dressed and we’ll meet you back in the control room.”

Kaya hesitated, bit her lip shrugged and then disappeared from the doorway. My sister watched her leave then closed the door behind her and turned back to me with a thoughtfully expression. “This would go a lot easier if you stood up.”

“I am full capable of dressing myself, you know,” I glanced up at her and imagined that my cheeks must have turned an even deeper shade of red. Becca, I’m sure, knew this, but my sister had always done everything she could to look after her younger ‘brother’. She hadn’t seen me in over ten years, but it seemed she was more than ready to resume her old role.

She put her hands on her hip and gave me that look that all women seemed to have perfected (though I had yet to do so). I actually found myself wondering how they did it and if it was something that was built in or if it had to be learned. The way some men wilted under such a gaze, made me think it might not be a bad idea to try an imitate it. At the very least, it could prove useful. I raised an eyebrow and tried my best to imitate my sister’s stare, but this only produced a giggle from Becca. Clearly, I had some more work to do before I was able to perfect my own ‘glare’.

I looked into my sisters eyes for a brief moment I caught a glimmer of my sister, the confident self-assured Becca, like she had been before I’d been taken away by Duvak. The old Becca faded away, and the tired worn down Becca returned. “I’m sorry,” she said holding the clothes out to me. “Here.”

I thanked her then gritting my teeth, and stood up dressing myself under her watchful eyes. “God,” she muttered finally. “I can hardly belief you’re really Jellfree in there. You’re absolutely gorgeous!”

I shook my head. “Don’t remind me… Becca. Can you call me Lexa? It just doesn’t feel right going by my old name anymore.”

“Oh,” she muttered reached up to cover her mouth. “I guess I just figured you went by Lexa in the compound to hide your identity. It’s short for Alexana, Mom’s middle name, isn’t it?”

I nodded after having pulled the shirt down over my head and thus finished dressing myself, “Yeah, I sort of figured I could honor her that way.”

She bit her lip, and seemed a bit at a loss for words then she slowly nodded, “We have a lot to catch up on don’t we? But that can wait… I think you’re friends are probably pretty eager to see you.”

I nodded and put my hand on her shoulder then guided her to the door. “Come on then we’ll go to them together and I can give you a proper introduction.”

Chapter Two

“So…” I trailed off with my arm around Becca’s shoulder as we stepped into the bridge together.

“Speak of the devil, and she appears before you,” Rayland grinned at me as he shared a sidelong glance with Farris.

“God! Don’t do anything like that again!” Jaysun, or rather Lily, glared at me glancing at me from her seat at the console. Most of her body was obscured by the Qharr-sized chair she was sitting in so I had no idea whether she’d completed her transformation or not.

“Trust me,” I replied folding my arms across my chest and smirked back at her. “I won’t if I can help it.”

Farris scratched his head and stared at me with a confused expression. “I’m still not sure what happened.”

“It was a stroke of brilliance is what it was!” Lily answered throwing her hands up into the air. “She used the anti-matter explosion from the patrol ship’s reactor to destabilize the destroyer’s engines and kept it from being able to pursue us.”

“What she said,” I agreed pointing at Lily then I bit my lip and frowned. “Actually it was Khala’s idea.”

Lily grinned. “Too bad no one figured out how to do that during the invasion. A few well-placed anti-matter bombs could have really leveled the playing field.”

“Actually, that particular design flaw is unique to J’narr class destroyers and then only with the earlier models. Just a few of which remained in service, even during the days of the invasion of Earth,” Khala appeared standing beside Farris.

Lily nodded and bit her lip, then jumped a bit when a new voice spoke, “Mother, I am glad to see you are well.” The voice belonged to a statuesque woman who bore a striking resemblance to Khala, even sharing the blue hair and magenta eyes, but she was shorter and had a more toned psyche. Since, no one save Lily and myself seemed to be able to see her it wasn’t very hard for me to guess that she was Lily’s K’teth.

“So, what now?” My sister asked glancing about the room with wide eyes.

“Well,” Kaya shrugged then winced and gripped at the phase wound on her shoulder. “I’m gonna go see the doctor, but after that we should have him look Rayland and your sister over… You know just in case.

I shuddered and gently squeezed my sister’s shoulders reassuringly. It sent cold chills down my spine just thinking that the Qharr might have done the same thing to my sister that they’d done to Strave, but I knew Kaya was just being cautious. Still, even if Becca’s mind hadn’t been bent, and I really wanted to believe it hadn’t, there was no saying Rayland hadn’t been brain-washed. I’d been suspicious of him from the beginning and really didn’t trust his motives even if it turned out he was acting of his own free will.

Lily tapped her fingers against the control panel then leapt out from her seat. “I set a general course in a northward direction. The Qharr pretty much wiped out the population of Old Canada, there isn’t much anyone living up there other than wild men and vagrants. The lack of Qharr colonies makes it a pretty good place to hide. Plus, there’s a lot of forested regions up there so I think we should be able to find a good place to hide.”

I studied Lily as she stared across the room at me, she’d lost a great deal of height, I could tell that much right off the bat. It was difficult to tell from the other side of the bridge, but I guessed I must be close to thirty centimeters taller than her. She didn’t have much in the way of a figure, in fact, it was more boyish than anything, but I got the impression her changes weren’t quite finished. There were a pair of small breasts, which were comparable in size to those you might see on a girl in the early stages of puberty sticking out proudly from her chest from under her shirt, and there was a slight curve to her hips that was just barely noticeable.

“Good thinking,” Kaya replied jarring me out of my examination of Lily. “The resistance used to keep a few bases up in that region. From what I heard there was almost no worry of discovery because the Qharr patrol ships almost never passed by.”

I blinked. “Why didn’t you put more bases up there then?”

“Well, we needed to keep most of our bases within close vicinity of the slave compounds and cities since we didn’t exactly have much in the way of transportation.”

“Ah,” I nodded in understanding. “So… where’s the doctor? I sort of figured he’d be up here.”

“He’s got some project going on in what passes for an infirmary here. I tried to ask him what it was all about, but he mumbled something about unlocking the secrets of the gods and wouldn’t say anything more. Whatever he’s up to it’s been keeping him occupied. The only time he leaves that little lab is to ‘intake some sustenance’ as he put it and to check in on me, but other than that I barely ever see him. He’s even been sleeping in there… well if that thing he does can be considered sleeping,” Lily replied with a shrug and a very slight shudder.

I nodded then gripped one of my hands on Kaya’s uninjured shoulder. “Let’s get you to the doctor. I don’t like the look of that phase wound.”

Kaya nodded and gritted her teeth. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”

“I’ll go with her,” Farris volunteered then turned to glance at both Becca and Rayland. “Maybe you two should come too,” he added licking his lips and running a hand through his hair.

“A bona fide human doctor?” Rayland smirked folding his arms across his chest.

“Well, he’s not exactly human,” Lily pursed her lips, “but he is a doctor.”

“Well now, this really ought to be interesting,” Rayland mused then motioning his hand at Farris. “Lead the way.”

“I probably ought to stay here,” Lily said throwing a thumb over her shoulder and shared a shy smile with me. “You know in case any more Qharr ships show up.”

“Good idea, we’ll talk more later.” I said, smiling back and then turned away and started toward the door.

“Lexa wait!” Lily called after me. I swirled around and watched as she darted across the control room toward me. “I’m glad you made it back.”

I smiled at her and was about to reply when she stood up on the tips of her toes then grabbed my shirt collar, drew my head in and locked her lips around mine in a kiss. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about doing that since you left.”

I blushed then grabbed her hands and squeezed them. “I-I thought about you too. In fact, I had some pretty interesting dreams about you.”

“Oh yeah?” she trembled biting her lips as she stared fixedly at my breasts. “I, uh, hope they were pleasant.”

“Very,” I replied, forcing down a sudden urge to act out those dreams.

“Well, you’ll have to tell me all about them,” she flashed me a coy smile then took a few steps back. “O-once things have settled down a bit.”

“Oh,” she added thoughtfully glancing at the door. “I didn’t want to say anything around him just yet since I’m not really sure about it, but I think I might know who that Rayland guy is.”

I choked and stared at her with wide eyes. “You do?”

She nodded, “He’s a nester.”

“A what?”

“A nester… they’re humans who holed themselves up in hidden shelters during the invasion and managed to keep themselves from getting captured by the gray-skins. They’re pretty secretive and they almost never leave their nests, but when they do there’s usually a pretty good reason.”

Well, that would seemed to explain why he’d had such a hard time integrating into life at the compound. We’d only been there a few days, but I’d heard talk of him angering one of the guards. I hadn’t really given it much thought until that moment, but it would seem to support Lily’s suspicions.

“I don’t get it…” I shook my head. “If you’re right and he’s one of these nesters. Why come to the compound? The more I think of it the more it seems like it was us he was looking for, but that doesn’t really explain how or why. He did say he knew about the biometric key which might have something to do with it, but that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”

“He knows about the key?” she seemed surprised. “The resistance and the nesters do share common roots so I guess it’s possible that some of their leaders might know about it. They’d have to know quite a lot if they knew to send him to Het’ma to find you guys.”

“Yeah,” I agreed stroking my chin as I mulled it over.

Assuming Rayland really was a nester who had come to the compound looking for us then that must mean the nesters were monitoring Qharr communications and knew about the destruction of the resistance. Otherwise why send someone to come find us? They must have reasoned if there were any survivors we’d want to find my sister so that we could unlock whatever damned secrets the key must have to reveal. If they knew enough about the key to know that my sister could activate it then it stood to reason they knew more. I just wish I knew for sure that Rayland could be trusted.

“Lily?” I asked suddenly a thought suddenly occurring to me. “How exactly is it that you were able to tell that Rayland was a nester?”

“I grew up in a nester shelter,” she said glancing at the floor before looking me in the eyes. “Everything about him just screams ranger. They’re the guys responsible for keeping the nesters safe. I can’t really explain it, but I’m almost positive he’s one. It’s just something about the way he holds himself that tells me he’s had military training.”

“Along with hunting for food and gathering whatever supplies the people might need, rangers serve as the protectors of the community. If the nesters were looking for us I think it’s a good bet they’d send a ranger.” she added after catching my blank look.

I stared up at her with wide eyes then glanced back at the door where my sister was waiting. As much as I wanted to press Lily for details I knew that for the time being it would have to wait. “We’ll talk later and maybe you can tell me all about growing up as a nester, but for now I think the others are probably wondering where I am.”

“And,” I added glancing back at her with a pensive frown, “as for Rayland let’s see what the doctor says before we confront him.”

She nodded then slowly withdrew to take her over-sized seat at the navigation console, “Believe me, I’ve wanted to tell you about the nests for a long time now. It’s just complicated. I’ll call you guys up once I think we’ve reached a safe distance then we can decide on a place to hide and once we can get some privacy I’ll tell you everything.”

I agreed, then hesitated a moment before planting a brief kiss on her lips then spun around and made my way to the doorway where my sister’s head was peeking out from the other side. She stared at me with wide-eyes then a slow smile crept onto her face as she watched me approach. I didn’t say a word as I stepped into the corridor and made my way toward the infirmary, but that didn’t stop Becca. “So you and Lily?”

I nodded. “It’s sort of a new development.”

“She’s cute,” my sister replied. “Not much of a figure on her, but you could do worse. Really though I gotta know, what’s wrong with her eyes? And that blue hair does she dye it or is that natural?”

I grinned and shook my head, “There’s nothing wrong with them. Lily’s like me, her hair and eyes are like that because the symbiote changed them.”

“You know,” Khala muttered from beside me. “With your mission into the compound being over I could change our hair and eyes back.”

Was it my imagination or did Khala sound eager? I shook my head and glanced off to my side. “Not just yet.” Strangely there was a part of me that missed them, but a big part of me liked looking like a regular human again even if I was still stuck as a female.

“Not just yet for what?” Becca asked staring at me blankly.

“I was just talking to Khala she wants to change my hair and eyes back to look like Lily’s.”

“I think very soon, you’re going to have to fill me in, but for now… I guess we probably ought to go see this doctor of yours,” she said reaching out to touch my cheek.

I nodded and reached up to catch her hand, “Once we’ve gotten somewhere a little safer I’ll tell you absolutely everything.”

“Come on follow me,” I added glancing down the hallway in the direction in which the others had disappeared. “It’s just a little way down the corridor. I’m sure the doctor will want to take a look at you. Just as a precautionary measure.”

She bit her lip. “Just promise me that you’ll stay with me.”

“I promise.” I smiled and without another word I led her down the corridor.

“Ah!” the doctor proclaimed, his arms flailing all about as my sister and I stepped into the infirmary. “Welcome welcome welcome! Vakrexid is most pleased to see you again Lexa and you, new female, you must be this sister I have heard about!”

Becca’s eyes looked about ready to pop out from her skull as she stared at the doctor. “Dear lord! What is it?!”

Vakrexid cocked his head back and forth with what passed for a perplexed look on his face, but didn’t say a word as my sister slowly backed away. It hadn’t even occur to me to warn her about the doctor because he’d always seemed so harmless to me that I didn’t actually think anyone would react to him that way. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but it was Farris that spoke up first.

“Don’t worry, the good doctor here isn’t anyone to worry about. He’s a Dexagarmetrax he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

The doctor blinked. “On the contrary Vakrexid would hurt a fly. I find them delicious.”

“Doc,” Farris palmed his face then ran his hand through his hair. “Couldn’t hurt a fly is an expression. I was trying to tell her that you wouldn’t hurt her.”

“I understand, Vakrexid apologizes your language sometimes confuses me,” he said then suddenly turned to Becca. “Vakrexid promises I will not cause you any avoidable pain. When Vakrexid became a doctor I took an oath to do no harm to any intelligent self-aware beings.”

Becca bit her lip, and I could see the hesitation on her face. “Avoidable pain?”

“Sometimes in order to help a patient Vakrexid must cause them pain,” he responded bobbing his head.

Rebecca nodded then took a few tentative steps forward and stared up at the doctor, “Well Vak–”

“NO!” the doctor yelled out cutting her short. “I am a doctor, call me that, but please never use Vakrexid’s name! To the Dexagarmetrax names are sacred and must be spoken only by the one who owns the name or else the merblek’s life partner.”

She bit her lip and for a moment I thought the doctor had further agitated her, but then she threw her head back and let out a long throaty laugh. I hadn’t heard that laugh in so long and I was beginning to think that I’d never hear it again. Whatever had happened to her since we’d been separated my sister had changed a lot. ‘But then again’, I thought looking down at my breasts and felt my cheeks burn ever so slightly, ‘so have I and in more ways than one.’

“Did Vakrexid say something amusing?”

“No,” my sister said with a chuckle trying her best to contain her mirth. “All the aliens I’ve only ever known were oppressors and to meet one who is a so obviously–” she trailed off as if thinking of a word to say, “–benign it just seems so strange.”

“How perplexing Vakrexid does not believe I shall ever understand your kind,” he muttered pinching his finger around the end of one of his facial tubes. “Fortunately, Vakrexid has no need to understand you to provide medical treatment.” He turned away and pressed his hand against a small portion of the wall. Instantly, a panel slid away and what I initially took to be some type of sled slid out from the remaining gap in the wall. Farris, Rayland and Kaya were all forced to move out of the way as it extended out from the wall.

When it finally settled in place I examined the protrusion realizing immediately that my original impression had been very wrong. The ‘sled’ was in fact some sort of platform which was about a foot tall. There was a snap-hiss as a number of tubes shot out from the base of the platform and with a loud clang embedded themselves into a number of indentations in the ceiling.

“Jay– Lily,” Vakrexid corrected himself. “Was most kind to disable the biometric sensors here within the infirmary. Vakrexid has yet to master all the implements, but among them the body scanner is one of the more simpler to use and Vakrexid is certain I will be able to interpret the results.”

“Doctor!” Kaya said suddenly cutting him short. “This is all very fascinating, but would you please take a look at my shoulder!? The damn wound is killing me!”

“Killing you? Vakrexid hardly thinks that would be possible!” he replied and then after catching a cold stare from Kaya continued. “Step up onto the platform and place your hands on the bars then I shall perform a scan.”

Kaya nodded, then climbed up onto the platform and reached out with her good hand to grip one of the bars. The bars were pretty far apart since they were designed to be used by a Qharr, but they were still spaced close enough that a human could reach them. Kaya gritted her teeth then reached out with her injured arm to grip the second. “Can’t you give me something for the pain, doctor?” she grunted.

“Not yet, and perhaps not at all,” he tooted. “The only painkillers that Vakrexid has that are powerful enough to be of any help are topical and I would not use them without first determining whether there is nerve damage.”

“Why?” I asked suddenly.

The doctor jiggled and let out a long mournful whistle. “The pain killers could do further damage to her nerves and she could lose her sense of touch in her arm. If she had done as Vakrexid had insisted this would not have happened at all! Vakrexid cannot understand why anyone with her condition would put oneself in such danger!”

“Condition?” Farris asked suddenly. “What condition?”

“You said you would tell them,” Vakrexid stared at Kaya with unblinking eyes. “Why did you lie?”

“Tell us what?!” Farris demanded rounding on the doctor.

Kaya sighed and closed her eyes. “I was going to tell you guys soon and I would have had to eventually. I guess, I don’t really have much choice now. I-I’m pregnant.”

The room turned suddenly silent and I looked about to gauge the other’s reactions. Becca and Rayland seemed a bit confused, but for the most part the news didn’t have the same impact that it did to Farris who looked as if he’d been hit in the face with a heavy skillet. “You put yourself in danger knowing that you were pregnant?! Are you insane?!”

Rayland smirked. “Don’t tell me, Farris here is the father?”

“Actually,” I bit my lip and gripped Kaya’s good shoulder, “I’m the father.”

Rayland coughed and stared at me in disbelief. “Excuse me, but correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t you a woman?”

I folded my arms across my chest and blushed, “Th-at wasn’t always the case. I used to be a man.”

“How the hell could someone like you manage to undergo a gender reassignment procedure? I mean don’t get me wrong, you’re quite lovely, but frankly you’re a slave. The Qharr don’t seem the types to really care about the well-being of their property. A procedure like that would require a ton of gene re-sequencing and cell manipulation. I kind of doubt that the resistance has the sort of resources to– ” Rayland asked staring at me with pursed lips and raised eyebrows.

I stopped him short and held my hand up. “It’s not what you think. This wasn’t done to me by the Qharr nor the resistance. It’s complicated, but let’s just say that it was not something I asked for.”

I half expected Khala to speak up and protest, but instead she remained silent.

“Vakrexid can confirm that she is indeed speaking the truth as xefurpigic as such a thing may seem,” the doctor responded absently before jamming his hand against a raised area of the wall.

The bars that had extended from the body scanner suddenly flared with light and Kaya gasped in surprise and closed her eyes against the sudden brightness. Then just as abruptly the illumination faded away and I assumed that the scan had been completed. She gasped then collapsed to her knees atop the scanner platform clutching at her injured shoulder.

“Doctor?” she asked looking up at Vakrexid. “Can you do something about this damn pain now?”

The doctor stared at her, then turned to the wall the control panel on the wall which was illuminated. “Vakrexid is afraid not! There is nerve damage as I feared. Vakrexid has a means of treatment, but I would prefer to render you unconscious before doing so as it will be quite painful. These Qharr implements are not designed to spare any pain for the patient.”

Kaya nodded, “Do whatever it take doc… just get it done and get it done fast. I don’t know how much longer I can take it!”

“Indeed,” he responded then looked about the room. “Leave, and Vakrexid will get started immediately.”

“You want us to leave?” I asked staring at him with my hands spread out in disbelief.

“Vakrexid does not remember how you would say it. Ah, yes! I do not wish to work with you standing atop my shoulders!” he proclaimed reaching up to dust off his shoulder almost as if he were expecting to find one of us perched atop them.

Becca giggled and shook her head. “I think you mean standing over your shoulder.”

“Yes, yes, that is it,” he replied with an absent wave of his hand. His attention was focused on the display and seemed to lose all awareness of us as he continued to work the controls.

I bit my lip before glancing down at Kaya and smiled at her sympathetically before turning back to Farris and the others. “I guess that’s our cue to leave.”

“Alright then, we’ll do this thing later then.” Farris muttered letting out a long sigh.

We all shuffled out of the room and I took the opportunity to excuse myself along with my sister so that the two of us could have some alone time. Farris and Rayland left and returned back to bridge. A part of me really wanted to go with them so that I could spend time with Lily, but for the time being my desire to speak with my sister was the most prevalent of my desires. My budding relationship with Lily was new and exciting, but I had only recently found my sister again after being separated from her for so very long.

I guided Becca to the crew quarters and we each took a seat opposite one another a top the first bed along the wall on the right side. Becca pursed her lips and looked about the room before locking gazes with me. “So, tell me everything!”

I did as she suggested and began to tell her my story starting out where we’d last departed. After Duvak was promoted to High Inquisitor he left Het’ma. Even then he’d been fond of my cooking so he took me along with him as his personal cook and servant, but since he only been allotted room for one personal servant on his ship he was forced to leave Becca behind. Frequently cooking for Duvak meant preparing meals inside the galley of his ship, but often times it also meant intruding on the cooks at whatever compound we happened to be staying at. While, Duvak’s position did require him to travel a lot, compound Het’ma was not a part of the area he was responsible. I never had the opportunity to see my sister during this period.

Finally, after nearly five years of traveling around with Duvak, he was promoted to Corrector and I was forced to make a new home at compound B’eld. For a while I continued my duties as Duvak’s personal cook, but then the compound’s then head cook fell ill and died. The new Corrector chose me as a replacement and a little under four and half years later I met Kaya.

I didn’t really go into much detail up that point because, let’s face it, the life of a slave isn’t very exciting, but when I got to the part where I was caught up in the firefight between, Kaya’s group, Duvak and the Overseer I started getting more specific. She had me stop several times to ask me questions or to comment on what had happened. She was particularly upset and very sympathetic when she learned the way in which Kaya had deceived and rejected me. When she learned about the way Khala had changed me she was furious, but I soon calmed her down and resumed our story. Finally, I got to the end and she stared at me with wide eyes obviously at a loss for words.

Finally she spoke. “Oh Jeff, I’m so sorry. I’m not really sure what to say you’ve through so much. I just can’t help but think if I’d been there it might have been easier for you and… I have to admit I really would have liked to see Aunt Mara again.”

I noted her slip up in calling me by my old nickname, but I let it slide as I reached up to touch her face. “I’ve missed you. For the longest time I’d given up hope of ever seeing you again, but here you are sitting across from me. Tell me about your life… tell me everything that happened after I left.”

She nodded and her lips started to tremble as she spoke. Her life hadn’t had the same excitement that mine had had in recent days, but in many ways it had been worse than what I’d gone through. Just a few short months after I left Jerem became an Enforcer. He made a pass at my sister, but Becca had no interest in him and flat out rejected him. After being rejected he left her alone and my sister assumed that nothing more would come of it. Years later she would learn just how wrong she’d been.

Another year passed and there came a rather large arrival of new slaves and among them was a man by the name of Coran Quinn. My sister was drawn to him almost immediately and within a short time she fell hopelessly in love with him. They were together nearly a year before they got married and a few months after that my sister discovered she was pregnant. Another three months passed, and Jerem became head Enforcer after his predecessor, a man by the name of Kel Patronas, died of a heart attack. From then on out, Becca’s life turned into a nightmare. His predecessor had been an even handed man whose sole interest had been keeping the peace and to spare as many human lives as possible. He had stayed Jerem’s hand and Becca believed that Kel had kept him off her back.

Unfortunately, upon the death of Kel, Jerem used his newfound power to begin harassing Becca and just a few weeks into his tenure as Head Enforcer Corrin died under mysterious circumstances. Becca always believed that he had died at Jerem’s hands, but there had never been anything she could do about it. With Jonas out of the way he became progressively worse and one day his attentions took an unexpected twist when he proposed to her. Of course, she said no, but that only served to make him angry. He went into a blind rage and beat her senseless. He injured her so badly that she slipped into a coma. When she eventually woke, she was under the care of a Qharr healer. My sister had survived the attack, but unfortunately the child she was carrying hadn’t faired so well and the damage had been so severe that she’d had a miscarriage.

It took her a full month to recover, and during that entire time Jerem had been an almost constant presence. He proposed marriage again, and this time, afraid for her life, my sister agreed to marry him. Once they tied the knot, things seemed to improve and in many ways Jerem seemed like an entirely different person, but it didn’t last and he gradually returned to his bullying ways. As the years passed he got worse and became corrupted completely by the pittance of power provided him by the Qharr masters.

Becca first found him in bed with another woman about five years ago, and he showed no remorse at having done so. Each time a new group of slaves arrived he would hand pick some of the more attractive women to work in the kitchen. He slept with every single one of them, whether they wanted to share a bed with him or not, and made sure my sister knew all about it each time. He was violent and cruel and often beat the subjects of his attention just so that Becca would be forced to see them suffer. His vile ways also extended outside of the bedroom. He often found an excuse to torment someone and if anyone ever said or did anything that could be construed as disobedience he would have them beat without a second thought.

“Oh, Becca,” I whispered upon hearing her finish. She was trembling and weeping openly as she I reached out to put my arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t respond and I felt her arms tighten around me as her weeping gradually turned to sobs. Tears stung my own cheeks and I soon became lost in Becca’s warm embrace as I attempted to comfort her.

Chapter Three

“Lexa, you two alright?” Farris’s voice asked.

My eyes snapped back open and I glanced over to the side where he was standing the doorway. “Yeah, fine.”

He nodded, but I could see the skepticism in his eyes as he spoke, “Right. Well, the doctor sent me to come find you. Looks like he’s done with Kaya. He’s looking Rayland over now, but he thinks he’ll be finished by the time you get there.”

“Great, just what I wanted to hear,” I replied while gently grabbed my sister by the shoulders and pulled myself away. “Tell him we’ll be up in a minute.”

“Rebecca,” I muttered as Farris turned to leave. “We have to go. Are you going to be alright?”

She nodded reaching up to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Better than I’ve been since Corrin died.”

“If you need more time…” I trailed off.

“No,” she muttered. “I’d just as soon get this over and done with.”

Her eyes were red and swollen from all her tears and I wondered if my own face might be a mirror of hers in that regard. I bit my lip and reached up to touch my face. “They’ll be able tell we’ve been crying, but I guess there’s no help for it.”

Becca blinked and reached up to touch her face, “Maybe they will with me, but you look fine. Well, once you wipe those tears off your face.”

“That’s probably Khala’s doing,” I replied reaching up to wipe the tears from my eyes with the palms of my hands then turn to my sister with an arched eyebrow. “You sure you don’t need some time before we go?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to make anyone wait. I’m ready to go now.”

I nodded and stood up from my bed and Becca followed suit. She reached out to grab my hand then glanced at me with an ever so slight smirk. “Ready whenever you are.”

We made our way up to the infirmary where everyone was waiting. Lily was absent, but that was to be expected since she was busy piloting the ship. Kaya, looking groggy and more than a little worse for the wear, glanced back at us as we entered the room. “Everything alright?”

“Fine,” I answered back the irony of her being concerned about my well-being after what she’d just been through not lost on me. “What about you?”

She gripped her shoulder, closed her eyes and let out a long drawn out groan. “I’ve been better, but I’ll live.”

“So, doctor,” Rayland said from the scanner platform. “Are we done?”

Vakrexid bobbed his head up and down as he studied the display.”Indeed, the scan is complete. Varkexid has found no evidence of any surgical, mechanical or chemical alterations to your mind.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Rayland grinned. “Although I can honestly say that never would have been a worry for me until now. Doesn’t sound much like the Qharr’s MO. It definitely doesn’t really fit into their code of honor.”

“Yeah,” I agreed folding my arms across my chest. “We’ve been over this before.”

“What I don’t get,” Farris said from behind me. “Is if they can subvert Strave so completely why don’t they do it to all the slaves? They could effectively end all resistance.”

“The means by which the Qharr subverted your co-patriot were extensive and would have required them to expend many resources. To use such means on a mass scale would not be economically feasible,” the doctor replied.

“Thank God for that,” Kaya grunted. “We can sit and speculate some other time. I think I’d be a lot more comfortable knowing whether or not Becca has been altered like Strave.”

My sister glared at Kaya, and gritted her teeth as she spoke.”I guess I could understand why someone like you would be worried about that.”

Kaya’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at the pure venom in Becca’s voice then she turned to me with a single eyebrow still raised. “What exactly did you tell her?”

“Nothing that wasn’t true,” I shrugged.

“Bitch,” Becca cursed under her breath her eyes never once having left Kaya.

Rayland watched the entire exchange then let out a soft chuckle as he moved away from the scanner platform. He grinned at Becca then held his hand out for her to step onto its raised surface. “It’s all yours.”

Becca glared at Kaya one final time then stepped up onto the platform, placed both her hands on the rods–almost perfectly mirroring the posture Rayland had assumed when he’d been on the platform–then closed her eyes, “I-I’m ready.”

Just as with previous scans the bars flared with bright light and Becca closed her eyes to guard against the luminescence. Once, the scan completed my sister stepped off the platform then turned to the doctor. “You didn’t find anything, did you?”

He tilted his head back and forth as he examined the display then, without warning, spun around wiggling his fingers in front of his face, “Your mind has not been tampered with and is most assuredly yours. Although, like most humans who live upon the feet of the Qharr you are most malnourished. Unfortunately, there is little Vakrexid can do about that at the moment.”

My sister looked up at the doctor with an amused grin then turned to me with a crooked eyebrow and mouthed the word “feet” no doubt in order to note the doctor’s misuse of such a common phrase. I returned her grin and shrugged before looking about the room. “Well, let’s head up to the bridge, shall we? I think it’s time we make some important decisions.”

“Jay– Lily,” Kaya said upon stepping into the control center. “God, that’s going to take some time to get used to. Have we reached an area where you’re comfortable setting down yet?”

Lily spun around in the seat. “Yeah, we’re pretty far up into Canada now somewhere in what used to be the Yukon Territory. I’ve been going pretty slow or we would have gotten here a lot more quickly. Plus, it’s easier to fool the Qharr satellites.”

“Good thinking,” Kaya nodded. “The doctor has looked Becca and Rayland over and it looks like neither one has been brain-washed. Try to find a good place to set the ship down. Hopefully, some place where it can’t be seen overhead, then we’ll decide what to do from there.”

“Actually,” Lily bit her lip as she looked up at Kaya. “I was thinking Rayland might know of a better place for us to hide.”

Rayland who had only just barely stepped on the bridge looked around with wide eyes then folded his arms across his chest, “Oh? What makes you think that?”

“I don’t know ranger why would I think that?” Lily folded her arms across her chest and gave him a pointed look.

“Ranger?” Kaya asked. “Did I miss something?”

Rayland threw his head back laughing. “Was it so obvious? Tell me what gave me away?”

“Am I only one that’s confused?” Farris blurted out.

“No, Vakrexid is most befuddled… Of course, I am constantly perplexed by you humans.”

Kaya ran a hand down the entire length of her hair as she glanced at the doctor. “I’m sure once Lily and Rayland shed some light on some things we won’t be so confused.”

Lily sighed and pinched her fingers around the crest of her nose, “Rayland is a nester ranger… He’s bearing and demeanor is very obviously that of a military man and… when I caught a peek of the skull and crossed arrows tattoo on his arm I knew I was right.”

“A nester?” Farris choked then spun around to stare at Rayland with wide eyes. “What on Earth do you want with us?”

Rayland leaned back against wall then lightly tapped the back of his head against it as he closed his eyes. “There are certain factions among our leadership who are sympathetic to the resistance… when they learned of its destruction I was sent to find any remaining members and offer them sanctuary.”

I pursed my lips and folded my arms across my chest. “That would go a long way to explain some things, but there’s gotta be more to it than that. You said yourself that you knew about the key.”

Rayland smirked and pushed himself away from the wall. “Of course there was more to it than that. Your resistance and the nester movement share common roots. The resistance was formed to combat the Qharr and the nesters hid themselves away to preserve our culture should Earth ever be free again.”

“In other words we fight and die and while you damn nesters sit on your plump asses and do nothing!” Kaya yelled between gritted teeth.

Rayland bowed his head and let out a soft laugh. “You really don’t know do you?”

“Know what?” I blinked.

“All this time you’ve been fighting and you don’t even know the truth of what it’s all about! Gotta love the irony!” Rayland fell to his knees laughing so hard that he started to tear up. His reaction seemed a bit extreme, but as unusual as his amusement was, it did seem to be genuine. “It’s why I was sent to come find you in the first place! We knew that the only remaining key, the one that originally belonged to Harold Briggs, was in the hands of the resistance. After we caught wind of the attack from the Qharr we were sure that you’d go looking for either Jellfree Briggs or his sister, Becca, seeing as they’re the only two people who could activate the key. Our leaders sent agents to both of their last know locations.”

“Of course, had we known what had become of Harold’s nephew we never would have bothered sending an agent after him or would it be more accurate to say her?” he asked glancing up at me with a crooked eyebrow.

“Her would be correct,” I cleared my throat feeling my cheeks burn as I met his gaze

“So I was right. I presume whatever did that to you,” he extended an outreached hand at my breasts. “Also made it impossible for you to activate the key. Hence, why you decided to go find sister dearest.”

I narrowed my eyes and planted my hands on my hips. “I would have gone after her eventually, key or no key.”

“No one was suggesting otherwise, but I think we’re getting a bit off track don’t you? I could explain the intended function of the key and have you doubting every word I said or you could whip the thing out, hand it to Becca here and you’d know the truth of it without mincing any words.”

“I’m not sure what good that would do, other than confirming that the key would work,” I responded.

“Oh hell! They didn’t even tell you that much? There’s a message embedded in the key that will play once it’s been activated.”

Kaya nodded then glance over at Vakrexid. “Doctor.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he responded as he reached inside his jacket, produced the key and held it out to my sister. “Take it, take it, take it!”

Becca bit her lip and slowly moved across the room until she was directly in front of the doctor. She looked down at the key with wide eyes, then reached out with tentative fingers and pulled it free from his outstretched hand. Its end began to glow and she let out a startled gasp, clenched her hand around the key and took a step back as the outline of a tall figure began to form a short distance away. The image fluttered and flashed before finally resolving itself into the figure of a very familiar looking man.

Becca’s eyes grew wide and she let out another gasp before whispering a single word. “D-daddy?”

“Rebecca, Jellfree,” the man pronounced bowing his head. “This is your uncle Harry and if you’re seeing this message then that means I’m probably dead. I don’t know which of you is viewing this and its possible both of you are. I don’t know if I took any part in your life after the invasion, but I like to think that I would have given the opportunity. In any case, that is immaterial to what I’m about to tell you. Listen well, once this message is played in its completeness it will be deleted from the key’s storage bank.”

The image of my uncle paused a moment before continuing, “Before the invasion we knew we were fighting a losing battle and that the Qharr were pressing their armies for Earth. The bastards came in droves and we knew that if our fleets were unable to fend them off that our world would either come under their domain or be eliminated. So, we developed a plan in the increasing likelihood that our enemy would succeed. When the Qharr invaded, a small portion of the defense fleet along with select sampling of the civilian population would escape and bide their time, building up a new force in the hopes of one day retaking Earth. They would wait twenty-five years, then return and give the gray-skins the fight of their lives.”

“Mara, I and a small group of others were to remain on Earth and form a resistance movement. We were to build our forces and fight the Qharr until it came time for the fleet’s return then a short time prior to the invasion we would make contact with the fleet and coordinate the plan. I knew that there was a good chance I wouldn’t survive, we all did, that’s why each of our keys are capable of holding three genetic signatures. Since I had no children of my own, I chose the both of you as my stand-ins should the worst happen.”

“Your goal now is to make contact with the remnants of the fleet and help them in whatever way you can to retake Earth. This key working in conjunction with a one of several communications arrays scattered across the North American continent will give you the means to do so. Be ready, the coordinates for each of the arrays will be listed once my message is completed.”

Kaya snapped her fingers and pointed at both Farris and Lily who both scrambled to comply to her wordless command.

“The key has limited memory for recording messages so I’m afraid that I must say goodbye.” Harold’s form flashed then faded away and was replaced by a list of coordinates.

“Tell me someone is getting those!” Kaya yelled swirling around in place and giving pointed looks to each of us.

“Got ’em,” Farris responded holding up a small piece of paper.

“Me too,” Lily added tapping her fingers against the console.

“Fuck,” Kaya let out a long sigh and gripped the side of her head. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but God, I can’t hardly believe it! Mara did say what the key unlocked was the secret to saving Earth, but I figured that it would be some sort of doomsday weapon. This, hell, it changes everything!”

“Yeah well, that really begs the question, what are we going to do about it?” Farris gaped at her with wide-eyes then shook his head and folded his arms across his chest.

“What else? We find one of these arrays and make contact,” I answered instead of Kaya. “We’re talking about liberating Earth. Can we really let this opportunity fall through our fingers?”

“No, obviously not,” Rayland agreed. “You can’t honestly believe that the fleet would forsee that the resistance might fall. I think if they can plan that far ahead, they’d plan for all eventualities. There’s no need to rush things. My people can give you shelter until things settle down a bit. Then a month or two later we’ll help you find one of the communications arrays and use the key.”

Lily frowned and folded her arms across her chest. “No, I think Lexa’s right. We need to make contact and use the key as soon as possible. The message said that the fleet would be returning after twenty-five years that means we have nine months to coordinate with them.”

“Fucking hell!” Farris blurted out then looked about self-consciously and eyed us each in turn. “I mean… Look we can run away with our tails between our legs or we can do something. This isn’t another one of our missions, this… this is different. We have a chance at doing something big here… something that has real meaning.”

Rayland snorted and turned away from us. “What can you do? Your numbers have become so diminished that you pose virtually no threat to the gray skins.”

Farris pounced on him and hit the bastard so suddenly that what happened didn’t even register until Rayland was down on the ground. “Just what the fuck is it you want? I find it hard to believe that you would come find us out of the goodness of your heart.”

Rayland staggered back to his feet hand massaging his jaw as he glared back at the other man. “All I’m saying is you should wait a little while. Trust my reasons or not you have to admit that it does make a certain amount of sense.”

Kaya bit her lip. “Try to find a clearing inside the forest to put the ship down. We can conceal it with brush if we have to. Shut down the engines and the computers so the Qharr won’t be able to detect us then we’ll hide until things settle down. As much as I’m tempted just to go zooming off to the array with guns blazing it would be disastrous if the gray skins ever caught us there.”

“There is another option,” Rayland grinned tapping the tips of his hand against the wall he was leaning against. “You could take refuge with my people. Our nest is well concealed and the Qharr would be hard pressed to find you.”

“Right and what’s to keep you from turning us over to the Qharr once we get there?” Farris demanded with both fists clenched at his side.

“Are all members of the resistance this thick headed? Do you really think I’d go to all that trouble just to turn around and sell you out to the Qharr? We may not have been fighting the Qharr all this time like you have, but make no mistake we hate them every bit as much as you do.”

“I very much doubt that,” Kaya glared at him. “You’ve never known what it was like to live under the yolk of the gray-skins. I’ve been beaten just for looking at one of the bastards the wrong way and there isn’t a single slave who hasn’t seen friends and family members murdered by those fucking assholes. Do you really think you’re hatred can even come close to the sort of abhorrence that we feel?!”

“No probably not,” he pursed his lips. “That doesn’t change the fact that we’ve been forced to hide from the Qharr like rodents. We may not have suffered as much grief by their hands, but this world belongs to us just as much as it does you and we would very much like to have it back.”

“You’ve hidden away all this time. How can we be sure that when the going gets tough you’ll stick around and keep up the fight?” Kaya asked putting her hands on her hips.

“I guess we’ll just have to take that on faith,” he replied glaring at Farris with a sidelong glance before rubbing his jaw one final time.

Farris snorted, “Faith? Give me a fucking break. I’m not going to accept anything this dip shit says on faith.”

“Neither am I,” Kaya replied glaring at Rayland as if daring him to challenge her. “He’s going to have to prove himself. Him and his people.”

Rayland beamed at Kaya, “Well then we might as well get ourselves under way. That is if you have no objections.”

Kaya rolled her eyes and shook her head, “Oh dear lord. Get this straight because I’m only going to say this one more time. I’m have no reason to trust your people and I’m not going to risk them betraying us.”

Rayland shook his head and let out a long soft chuckle before turning to Lily. “Hello beautiful, I’m a bit embarrassed really, but I can’t seem to remember your name. Would you mind repeating it? I promise to treasure it and keep it forever in my mind.”

“L-Lily,” she replied back turning away from the console to stare at him with wide eyes and red cheeks.

“A pretty name,” he grinned. “One that suits you quite well. Alright then, Lily I know the perfect hiding–”

“Thanks, but,” Kaya yelled cutting him short. “we’ll find our own hiding place!”

“Just trying to be helpful,” he beamed back at her.

“Oh god, would you just shut up already?” Kaya rolled her eyes. “God are all nesters this annoying?”

“Lily,” Farris cocked his eyebrows and eyed Kaya and Rayland with a frown. “I think you better find a place to land soon. If you don’t Kaya or myself are liable to kill Rayland…”

Chapter Four

It took Lily another hour to find a spot for us to land and another ten minutes to get the ship’s engines shut down. She’d been able to land in a spot near the Alberta Mountains nestling it in a small glade which was ringed with trees. We got to work gathering what we needed to conceal the ship.

Neither Becca nor myself had any experience with such a thing, but the others knew just what to do. Even Rayland had a thing or two to say as we gathered random bits of brush and large branches from the surrounding forest. Between the two of us, Lily and I, were able to lift some very large pieces of brush which no one else could have handled and as a result we were able to get the ship covered much faster than would have normally been possible. When everything was finished I wasn’t completely convinced that our work would prove to be sufficient, but everyone insisted that from the air the ship would be indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. I was skeptical, but I didn’t press the matter as I figured they must know what they were doing.

“How long exactly do you expect us to stay here?” Farris rounded on Kaya just as we were finishing up. It may have been because his face was flushed or that he was winded, but he seemed pretty angry as he towered over her.

“As long as is necessary.” Kaya glared back at him with her arms folded across her chest. “I doubt it will be much longer than a few months.”

“A few months?” Becca asked with wide eyes staring at Kaya. “Here?”

Kaya rolled her eyes and shook her head. “That’s a worst case scenario. We’ll probably be out of here in a few weeks.”

“Well,” Lily sighed. “I guess that would be slightly more bearable.”

“Indeed,” the doctor agreed. “Vakrexid would like to suggest we prepare a Haagloeb! I am most hungered.”

“What’s a–” Farris stopped mid-sentence. “You know what forget it. Let’s just get something to eat.”

“Vakrexid concurs!” The doctor trilled then ran back toward the ship.

“Come on.” Kaya motioned us forward. “If we don’t stop him, he’s going to start cooking.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Rebecca asked staring at Kaya.

“No not at all.” Kaya grimaced turned around to stare at my sister with a hand on her hip. “If you enjoy the taste of blended up leeches, grubs, and worms boiled in pigs blood.”

Farris shuddered. “Mara sent me to go hunting for plants and herbs with him once. He made this green goop, lord knows what he put into that shit, but it smelled like hell.”

“Yeah, and who knows what he’ll concoct without anyone watching him. So if you don’t mind I think it’s time we go find him,” Kaya added then spun around disappearing back into the ship.

Chapter Five

“So the girl says ‘Wanna hear a joke about my pussy? Nevermind, you’ll never get it.'” Rayland grinned and chuckled as he looked around the small fire with an expectant smile on his face.

“Oh lord,” Kaya rolled her eyes. “Someone please kill me now.”

“Vakrexid does not find your humor amusing. Please cease your jesting at once or I shall be forced to jump up onto Vakrexid’s feet and squawk in a most unsettling manner,” the doctor tooted bobbing his head from side to side before dipping his face tubes down into his bowl to suck down the final remnants of his soup.

“You hear that Ray? Even the doctor thinks your jokes suck!” Farris chuckled shaking his head then taking a long sip from his water.

“Shit, you people wouldn’t know good humor if it had hit you in the face. Ah, well…”

Rebecca yawned then turned to me a thoughtful expression on her face. “You know Jeff that stuff you made tasted a lot like a soup Dad used to make when we were little, but that’s probably just the duck meat.”

“Really?” I replied stifling a yawn of my own. “C–”

“Wait,” Rayland said cutting me short then glanced at my sister. “I just gotta know. Why does your sister keep calling you Jeff? Wasn’t your name before your change Jellfree? Shouldn’t your nickname be Jell or Jelf or some shit like that?”

I shrugged and rubbed the back of my neck and realized that I had no idea. Becca had called me Jeff for as long as I remembered and it had never occurred to me to question it.

“It’s short for Jeffee,” Becca muttered from the other side of the fire. “When J-Lexa was born I had trouble pronouncing his… her name and it just stuck and eventually got shortened to Jeff.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Rayland said sporting his usual grin. “Well, now that that’s been cleared up I guess I’ll turn in, but I suppose under the circumstances that’s to be expected. It’s not every day you get to have so much fun moving big branches about like that.”

“Yeah.” Kaya let out a loud yawn as she stretched her arms out above her head. For a moment I felt a twinge of regret as I stared at her breasts. I blushed and turned away realizing that my eyes had lingered a little longer than they probably should have. I bit my lip then folded my arms across my chest. I’d come to accept that it was over between me and Kai, but I was still very much attracted to her. Hell, who wouldn’t be with a body like that?

I smiled and turned to Lily and snatched her hand from her side. She blushed and met my eyes and then turned to study Kaya with what I could only describe as a calculating expression. I didn’t know what had sparked this sudden behavior, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I squeezed Lily’s hand then led her back into the ship. When we were finally alone she turned to me with her arms across her chest.

“You’re still in love with Kaya aren’t you?”

Well, shit… Obviously, Lily had seen the way I’d been watching Kaya and put two and two together. I let in a sharp intake of breathe and exhaled. “I do still love her–” I admitted then held up my hand before Lily could say anything, “–but I don’t want to be with her… not anymore. She’s not even remotely attracted to women and I think too much has happened between us for things to go back to the way they were.”

“Besides.” I smiled and put my hand on her shoulder. “I have this thing for another girl. She’s cute, but can be pretty shy.”

Lily blushed and then took my hand in hers. “W-when I saw the way you looked at Kaya I was afraid that you–”

I cut her short shaking my head as I stared her in the eyes. “Look I love Kaya and I guess I probably always will, but lately the way I feel about her has changed. It’s more like how I feel about a close friend.”

‘Right,’ Khala’s voice rang through my head. ‘That’s why you couldn’t take your eyes away.’

“Shut up, Khala.” I gritted my teeth and shook my head.

“She does have a point,” Lily added.

“Okay,” I admitted and scratched the back of my head. “I’m still attracted to her.”

“Now, we’re getting down to it aren’t we?” Lily reached up with both hands to grab the collar of my shirt and pull me in for a kiss.

A second later I pulled away and stared at her completely baffled by her inexplicable reaction. “I, uh, I’m a little confused.”

She grinned then patted me on the cheek. “Oh Lexa. I just wanted to be sure you were really over Kaya. I don’t care if you’re attracted to her, hell I’m attracted to Kaya. Who isn’t? She’s damn freaking hot, but…” she bit her lip then kissed me on the lips again. “You’re even hotter.”

“Come on,” she grabbed my hand and batted her eyes at me. “Let’s find someplace a little more private so we can… Well, you know…”

“You sure? I mean, if you’re not ready I can wait.”

“I didn’t think any of this could every happen for me. I have a female body like I’ve always wanted, I’m dating probably the most beautiful woman in the world even if she can be a bit thickheaded sometimes, and I think I’m ready to take the next step with her.”

I bit my lip then let out a long sigh as I looked her over. “As much as I’d love to do this… I’m not really sure there’s anyplace on this ship where we’ll be able to get some real privacy.”

“You’re kidding right?” Lily asked and just moments after her question was echoed by both Khala and Lil’s symbiote.

“Just come on… I’ll show you.”

She led me into the center of the ship and the engine room. I hadn’t taken a foot inside since I’d absorbed all that energy from the core, and not much had changed. The panel I’d torn off the wall had been removed from its resting place on the floor and the tube covering the conduit had been closed.

Lily didn’t stop as she led me to the very rear of the room and into an adjoining area which until that moment I hadn’t even realized was there then stopped in front of a ladder whose runs were built into the wall.

“The engineer’s quarters are up there,” she explained looking up as she scratched the back of her head. I hadn’t even realized that the engineer had a separate living space from the rest of the crew, but I certainly understood why no one had claimed it yet. The rungs were pretty far apart and would have been difficult for most any human to climb. Since Rayland and Farris were sharing the captain’s quarters and the rest of us, minus the doctor, had been sleeping in the crew quarters this was our only chance at any privacy.

“Give me a boost, would you?” Lily glanced back at me with a nervous smile. I complied and with very little effort on my part I managed to give her a good enough boost to get her up to the top. She disappeared up the edge then a moment later she appeared at the top with hands extended. I took a few steps back and with a running start I jumped up and Lily caught me in her hands. With her assistance I climbed up into the room above and got my first real look. It really wasn’t much different from the other quarters save that it was smaller, but like the captain’s room it had a single Qharr-sized bed.

Every gray-skin I’d ever known had preferred a more spartan living space free of clutter and debris, but it appeared that the former engineer of our seized ship was an exception to this rule. Scattered around the floor were dozens of tools, spare engine parts, power cells and weapon parts. Affixed to the wall were dozens of diagrams and personal holo images of what I assume were members of the engineer’s immediate kin. Minus the pictures of gray skins and the Qharr-style bed, it really didn’t look much different from Lily’s room back at the bunker.

When I turned back to face her I was a little surprised to find that Lily seemed completely ignorant of our surroundings, instead her eyes were focused solely on me. Her hands traced across my chest and stopped over the top button of my blouse. I watched her undo each button with slow deliberate movements that only served to heighten my arousal. When she finally pulled my shirt free she started in on my pants. By then her eagerness had gotten so far away from her that she actually tore the strap on my bra.

Finally, once my trousers and panties were off and wrapped around my ankles I started in on her clothes. At first I tried to imitate the sexy little way she undid my buttons, but my efforts proved to be too clumsy so I opted for the quicker approach. In short order I had her completely unclothed and I stopped just long enough to take a good hard look at her naked body.

As far as I could tell she was all female, but if her small sized breasts and boyish hips were any indication I guessed she still wasn’t quite finished with her changes. Not that it really matters; I’d take Lily any way I could take her. I did notice one thing which I hadn’t before; she wore an anklet of braided blond hair around her left ankle. I’d seen a few of my fellow slaves adorn themselves with such jewelry before and they were usually made to honor the dead. I didn’t really spend much time mulling it over; however, because Lily was beckoning forward with a crooked finger.

“Come here silly,” she muttered standing up on her tip-toes to peck me on the lips then drew me down to the bed pad on the floor.

Our love making was a wild frenzied thing and by the time we were done we were both sweaty and exhausted. It was a bit awkward, at first, both because Lily was a virgin and I’d never been with a woman as a woman. I was so accustomed to sex being a penetrative act that I was a bit lost when I realized neither one of us had sexual organ capable of said act. I quickly got around this notable absence and by the time we were done we had a pretty good idea what worked for us and what didn’t. That didn’t mean there wasn’t room for experimentation, but we’d found a pretty good starting point. In short, there was a whole lot of kissing, fondling, licking, sucking and caressing followed up by some fingering and even a bit of straddling.

“Tell me about growing up in the nests,” I said tracing my hand across her navel about a good ten minutes after we had finished our lovemaking. What we had just done was such an intimate act that I found myself wanting to learn more about her past. She always spent so much time up in the clouds that she very rarely disclosed anything about herself.

She turned on her side to face me and reach out to touch my cheek. “I’m not even sure where to start. It’s so much different from the life you’ve lead in so many ways, but in other ways it wasn’t as different as you might think. Safe Haven, the nest I grew up in was very much its namesake at least in the regard that we were safe from the Qharr, but the life of a nester probably isn’t what you think it would be. Yes, they live a life free from the tyranny of the gray-skins, but very few nesters besides the rangers ever get to leave the isolation of the shelters.”

“You work almost from the day you take your first steps and if you’re ever rendered unable to work then you’re no longer allowed to remain a part of the community. They used to always tell people that those who couldn’t work or wished to leave were sent away, but the truth is that didn’t want to risk exposing the haven to the Qharr so those people were always dealt with in other ways,” she shuddered then granted me a pointed look which suggested that when she said ‘other ways’ things didn’t exactly turn out very good for the would be exiles.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she continued. “We were a tight nit community. I knew the name of every person in town and before everything went to shit there wasn’t any place I would have rather lived, but that was before I really understood that we were living a self-imposed prison sentence.”

She hugged her legs and frowned then fingered her anklet. “I knew since I was little that I was trans. Before the war they had ways of making it so that people like me, like us–” she corrected glancing at me. “–wouldn’t be forced to live life in the wrong body, but while the nesters did have access to some advanced medical technologies they didn’t have the resources to perform such a complicated procedure. So, I chose to live my life the best I could with the body that I had. It was hard, but with the support of my twin sister, Violet I managed to… God–” she stopped mid sentence to wipe tears from her eyes which had started to form she’d first mentioned her sisters name.

“Sorry,” she shook her head. “I don’t talk about Violet very much… It hurts just thinking about her, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t. The two of us were inseparable. She used to let me dress up in her clothes and sometimes I could almost forget that Jaysen even existed. When we were alone I could be Lillian without having to worry about anyone judging me. This…” she trailed off as her hands reached for her anklet. She undid the clasp then held it in front of her face. “It’s her hair… Dyssa, my symbiote, used the dna she found in the follicles to change me. In a strange way it’s almost like my sister was able to give me one last gift all these years after her death.”

I felt hot tears sting my cheeks and reached up to wipe them away. “How did she die?”

“The Qharr killed her along with everyone else I ever knew or cared about. It was about six years ago and I was only seventeen then. I never did find out how they found Safe Haven and they came on us before we could do anything about it. They started dropping bombs on from the sky in a destroyer and took out nearly half of the city with the initial bombardment. They sent troops in to finish off the rest. My sister and I were part of the group that survived to see the Hunters come. We ran but the bastards followed us through the city tunnels and when they finally caught up with us Violet took a phase bolt in the back.” Lily stopped to sob and I could tell that it took a great deal of effort just for her to continue. “She collapsed on top of me and I thought I was dead for sure, but I guess the gray skins must have thought they’d gotten me too because they passed us by without checking to see if I was still alive.”

“I’m not really sure how long I laid there pinned under my sister’s corpse too terrified to even move or open my eyes, but finally hunger forced me to crawl out. By then the Qharr had left and… I was alone. I tried search the ruins, but I couldn’t find a single living soul. I kind of lost it then. I didn’t know what to do so I just sort of wandered the place and I probably would have ended up dying of starvation if the resistance hadn’t rescued me. Pyramus was part of the crew that found me. I was wearing a dress at the time which is how he knew about me being trans.”

“Hold me.”

Her words came so suddenly and were spoken with such a soft whisper that if I hadn’t seen her lips move I might not have realized she was speaking. I inched across the bed and put my arms around her. She stiffened, but then she melted into my arms and began to weep into my shoulder. Neither of us spoke, and nothing else really seemed to matter as the minutes stretched into hours. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have because the night crept in on us nonetheless.

Chapter Six

I don’t know how long it was before the two of us finally woke up nor can I really say which of us came to first. I just remember coming awake and looking into those dazzling magenta eyes. They really were quite beautiful once you became accustomed to such a strange sight. After my own transformation the changes had been startling and every time that I looked in the mirror it had taken me a few seconds to realize that I was looking at my own reflection. Those bright eyes had certainly been one of the first things to stand out.

“You’re eyes,” Lily whispered and reached over to touch my face. “And hair.”

“Dammit,” I cursed and sat bolt upright. “Khala what the freaking hell did you do? Did you change my hair and eyes back?”

“More or less,” she said her illusionary form climbing up over the lip as if she’d come from the engine room.

“Hmm,” another voice pronounced in the distance then a moment later Dyssa appeared climbing up over the lip just like her mother had. “I like it.”

“Of course you do,” I glared at the two of them and folded my arms across my chest realizing as I did so that I was still naked. “Shit! You’re still not getting it after everything that’s happened, are you? It’s bad enough that you transformed me into a woman without my fucking permission. You could at least ask me before you change my hair and eyes, again. It’s my damn body or at least it was before this whole mess started!”

Khala didn’t answer and when she pursed her non-existent lips and shared a look with her daughter. I got the feeling that the pair were holding something back and I was about to confront them about it when Khala bit her lip and let out a long sigh.

“It is not something we typically discuss least of all with our hosts, but–” she paused giving off a slight shudder. “–given the circumstance I believe some illumination may be called for. When we were created it was feared that we might eventually rebel and our masters wanted to put in place certain measures in case that ever happened. One of the ways in which the Phyrr Lesch did this was to create a compulsion within the K’teth psyche.”

“Let me guess,” Lily said stretching her arms above her head before glancing at the two symbiotes. “The hair and eyes.”

“The hair is, yes. It makes it harder for us to hide within an unsuspecting host. It is something we can resist for short periods, but it is… unpleasant and painful. The compulsion was getting too hard for me to withstand. As far as the eyes, well, I think they look pretty.”

“Whatever,” I said closing my eyes and shaking my head. “Just… next time you make any changes talk to me about it. I don’t care if you have a built in compulsion or whatever the hell you want to call it. It’s my body and I have a right to know when you mess around with it.”

“Very well,” Khala said walking across the room to leer at Lily and I. “Since we are on the subject of changes, I thought perhaps you may wish to return to your original form.”

“I thought you needed a female body to reproduce.”

“I do,” Khala said, “but it will be a number of years before I’ll be able to birth another child and there’s no reason you can’t spend the intervening time in your ideal form.”

I was so surprised that I nearly choked. Not just because of her offer, but because of her final few words. I hadn’t really thought much about my change of sex for a while and I found myself confronted with a question I didn’t know the answer to. Was being female more desirable? There wasn’t anything wrong with being either male or female, but on a personal level I couldn’t decide which I would rather be. The more time I spent in my new form the more accustomed I became to it and in certain ways I was even starting to like it, but would I go back to being male? Would I even want to given the choice?

I glanced down at Lily and swallowed. I liked her, and hell I thought I might be falling for her, but Could I risk screwing our relationship up? If I took Khala up on her offer, what would become of us? Would she still be attracted to me? “I-I think I need some time to think about it.”

“–we’ve checked everywhere else on this ship!” a voice protested in the distance.

I blinked and glanced toward the overhang as a second voice, which sounded an awful lot like Becca spoke. “How are we supposed to get up there?”

I glanced at Lily, who shrugged and tossed me my bra and shirt.

“I think I can get up there. Give me a boost.” the first voice, which I was sure belonged to Kaya, demanded.

“Oh, hell,” I muttered under my breath then yelled “WAIT!” at the top of my lungs.

“Jeff?” Becca’s voice asked right about the same time that Kaya said, “Lexa”.

I finished fitting my bra then slipped my shirt over my head and dropped down to the ground at the edge of the overhang. “Ur, hi guys.” I blushed furiously. Even though I was wearing a shirt the feeling of the cold steel floor against my breasts was anything but comfortable and it was growing increasingly less so by the minute.

“Fuck, you scared the shit out of me.” Kaya glared up at me then took a deep breath and closed her eyes before looking back up at me. “So I was right you guys were up there, but why? What the fuck is up there anyway?”

I bit my lip and brushed the hair away from my face and noticed as I did that it had to be at least thirty centimeters long. I cursed Khala under my breath, but then stopped abruptly when I realized Kaya and Becca were still staring up at me. “Uh, the engineers quarters.”

Neither Becca nor Kaya commented on the changes to my hair, but it was pretty obvious they’d noticed them. Becca didn’t seem to be able to look away, but when she opened her mouth to speak Kaya beat her to it. “Is Lily up there too?”

“Um, yeah.” I bit my lip and averted my eyes. “We were, uh, looking for some privacy.”
“Oh,” Becca said looking up at me with wide eyes. “You two were… um… well, I mean good for you.”

“Oh for hell sakes,” Kaya said rolling her eyes at Becca before she looked back up at me. “Should have figured that was what you two were up to with the way you’ve been batting eyes at each other. Now, would you get the fuck down here? Our food supplies are getting really low and I want you two to help comb the forest for possible food sources.”

“Right, I’ll rouse Lily and we’ll be down soon,” I replied.

“Fuck, just hurry, would you? You really don’t want me coming up there, do you?” Kaya growled then rounded on my sister. “Come on Becca. We’ll wait for them in the hallway.”

Becca glanced back up at me, glared at Kaya as she stormed away, and then followed her out of the room. “Well someone’s in a mood,” I muttered then climbed back to my feet and glanced back just in time to find Lily yawning and stretching her arms up over her head.

“Kaya wants us to help look for supplies,” I said staring at her bare breasts intently. It could have just been me, but I swear they were just a little bigger than they’d been the previous night.

She nodded and produced another yawn then crawl across the floor to pick up my panties. She stared at them, then glanced at my bare legs, let out a long sigh and tossed it to me. “I know. I heard everything. She didn’t sound too happy.”

I snatched them out of the air then slipped them on then shook my head. “I’d prefer she didn’t see us naked. That would be… awkward. Probably ought to hurry before she makes good on her threat to come up here.”

“She probably would too,” Lily said then gave slight shudder as she glanced over her shoulder at me. “We better hurry.”

I nodded and quickly grabbed my pants dressing myself the rest of the way in just a few short minutes. Lily wasn’t very far behind and when the two of us were finished we leapt down over the edge back into engine room on our way to rendezvous with the others.

“Jesus Kaya, it’s not even bright out!” Farris protested rubbing at his eyes as he stumbled down the ship’s ramp.

“It’s bright enough,” she stated flatly then turned to look on the whole group which, upon Farris’s arrival, was finally complete. The sun had only just started to rise and, while it was still fairly dark it was growing brighter by the minute.

“We’re not up any earlier than we would be if we were back at the compound,” Rayland observed.

“Ah, hell.” Farris ran a hand through his stringy blond hair just before a loud yawn escaped his thing lips. “Well you got us here. What do you want anyway?”

“We need supplies. We’ve got enough to last us through the week, probably longer if we ration, but I’d rather avoid it if we can.” Kaya replied. “We’re going to split into small groups and search the forest for food.

“Lexa, Lily and Becca I want you three to search in that direction,” she paused to point her finger to the right then pointed left and glanced at Farris. You and the doctor go in that direction and Rayland and I will search in that area directly behind us. We’ll all meet back here in, let’s say two hours. Bring anything back you think might be edible or any other supplies we could use. We can go through it once we’re back and makes sure no one has picked anything harmful up.”

“I’m sure we can find a few things by foraging, but we’ll definitely need something a little hardier than some half-dead berries and edible leaves. We need to find some wild game or this is going to be a much shorter stay than you intended. I just wish I had my rifle from back home none of the weapons you guys have are suited for hunting,” Rayland said sporting a smile that somehow managed to convey a sense of annoyance.

“Well, there is a high powered phase rifle I found stashed away on the ship while you guys were raiding the compound. It’s pretty bulky, but it shoots a narrow beam which I think would work well for your purposes. I might be able to make less cumbersome if we trim down the stock and fit a firing mechanism from a smaller gun onto it,” Lily mussed messaging her chin and brought it away suddenly as if surprised by something she’d found there. A small smile touched the corner of her lips just before she mouthed the words ‘no goatee’.

“How long to make the modifications?” Kaya asked.

“A few hours possibly. I had a lot of free time when the doctor and I were alone on the ship so I’ve already bypassed the bio-lock along with a good number of the other weapons I found on the ship. It shouldn’t be too difficult to trim the stock down; I spotted a power saw in the supply closet that should work nicely. The big problem is going to be modifying the damn firing mechanism. Qharr weapons are modular and most of the time it’s pretty easy to swap out parts. Unfortunately, none of the pieces I have available are interchangeable with that monster. The trigger I’m thinking of fitting onto the gun will need some modification before I can get it to work.”

“Fine, you stay and work on that and hopefully once we’re back, Rayland’ll be able to take the thing and out and get us some damn meat.” Kaya grimaced then bit her lips as she stared at Becca and I. “Shit, well I guess neither one of you knows much about foraging for food. Lexa you go with the Doctor and Becca you go with Farris.”

Lily went back into the ship and the rest of us spread out into our assigned directions.

“Vakrexid is hoping to find some mushrooms! I am most fond of making broth from them particularly those of the more psychoactive variety!” The doctor shook then lumbered up a game path and out of sight.

I shook my head and grinned as I ran after him. I had no idea what psychoactive meant, but knowing the doctor I was sure I didn’t want to find out. I found him hunched near the ground examining a tall plant with long stocks and light purple flowers. “This is most fortunate,” Vakrexid tooted. “This appears to be Salsify! Hand Vakrexid the bag!”

I did as he suggested and watched as he pulled the entire plant, roots and all from the ground and slipped it into the bag. The doctor sprang to his feet like a frog leaping onto a lily pad and shambled off down the path. I followed after him and let out a wary sigh. It was going to be a long two hours that much was for sure…

The second night, a Qharr destroyer with inquisitorial markings passed overhead, and it had been a very tense moment as it zoomed across the sky above us. Fortunately, it did not pause and continued on its way. The next day the sky was filled with ships all of which passed us by without showing signs of having ever detected us. We craned our necks and watched as each of the vehicles passed and let out a collective sigh of relief when they departed. We had to replace dying foliage on the ship twice more before the seventh day, but we were confident that we had managed to escape the patrols unnoticed. The number of ships dwindled to the occasional transport and our priorities eventually shifted to more immediate concerns, like food.

Our first trip out proved to be of limited success, but fortunately the subsequent one was more successful. Lily had been able to modify the weapon, and although the damned thing was heavy and cumbersome, it did its job pretty well. We managed to bring in some small game over the course of the first week, but none of it would be enough to sustain us for more than a single meal. Fortunately, on the ninth night Rayland hit pay dirt, returning with the carcass of a large moose.

It was a heavy haul, one which required both Lily and me to pitch in. It was well within my abilities to lift the animal, but its weight wasn’t very evenly distributed. It was far too awkward of a load for me to lift unassisted. I certainly didn’t enjoy preparing the meat, but as head cook back at the compound I’d butchered, scalded, plucked, skinned, drained, boiled, bled and eviscerated my fair share of both alien and earth animals. Preparing the moose was made harder by the sheer size of the beast, but in many ways it far less gruesome than some of the usual fair.

Things settled into a sort of routine and the time seemed to slow to a crawl. The weather was a bit sporadic and switched from cold and wet to sunny and pleasant at the drop of a hat. Our days were spent out in the forest and we only returned for meals and to rest for the night. It was nice being able to roam about freely even if that freedom was just an illusion. We would never be truly free until our oppressors were banished from Earth.

Over the next few weeks, Lily gradually took on more curves until she finally hit a plateau and the changes ceased. She seemed happy with the final stages of her transformation, and I couldn’t complain either, but mainly I was just glad for her. Her body finally matched her mind and in so many ways she had been liberated. It showed. She was happier and more outgoing than she’d ever been since I met her and she stopped retreating into her own little world. It’s not that she still didn’t play with her toys, she was almost always fiddling with some little gadget, but she didn’t let it keep her from socializing as she once would have.

There was barely a moment that went by where I didn’t muddle over Khala’s offer. It was appealing on so many levels, but there was something holding me back. A part of me just wanted to change back so that I could be with Kaya again and be a father to my child, but I was afraid too much had happened between us. My feelings had changed, I still loved her, but it felt different. There was no trust, and I doubted there ever would be.

Even if I went through with it there was no telling whether she would accept me. How would she feel once I was forced to return to female form to allow Khala to reproduce? I don’t know if I could accept her rejection a second time.

Then there was Lily, what would she think? Our time together had been short, but I liked her. Frankly, she’d never given me a reason to distrust her and I wanted to see where things would go with her. Would she accept me as a man? Despite my very best attempts to reconcile so many of my conflicting emotions I could not come to any sort of decision.

In the end I kept silent and let myself stew over it. I wasn’t ready to voice my feelings… not yet. I needed to get a handle on my feelings before I came to a decision or voice any of my concerns to either Kaya or Becca. I wanted to make a decision with a cool head and at that moment my mind was anything, but cool.

On the twelfth night we had all gathered around a fire which Rayland had built in a small clearing within the forest. Kaya had been initially hesitant to allow this, but Rayland had shown us how to build it so that it would reduce smoke and disperse it so that it would be difficult to detect by say, a low-flying patrol ship. We hadn’t seen any in days, but it never hurt to be cautious. He dug a hole with secondary chimney which kept the smoke out of our faces as we prepared our meal.

Lily was sitting beside me and as always she was leaning against my shoulder. She loved to touch me and whenever we were around one another, which was nearly always, we were either holding hands or else she had her hands on me. I’d never been with anyone so handsy, but I really liked it. It made me feel close to her in ways that went beyond the physical which was a little strange if you thought about it.

“You know,” my sister said from across the fire a smile touching her lips. It was one of a handful of moments when I could see the old Becca shine through from within her shell. “I could spend the rest of my life here and be happy. I haven’t felt this at peace with myself since before you left, Lex.”

It had taken a while, but my sister was finally stopped slipping up and calling me by my old nickname. Farris was sitting next to her, and although he was being his usual stoic self, there was something about the way he kept looking at my sister that really made my blood boil. If Farris’s intentions were what I thought they were the two of us were going to have to have a little talk, the sooner the better.

“It is rather idyllic, isn’t it?” Rayland grinned leaning over the pot of stew and stirring it with the wooden spoon he’d carved from a fallen tree branch. “Of course, I’m rather partial to the wilderness of British Columbia.”

Kaya snorted and looked up from her phase pistol, which she was in the process of cleaning. “Idyllic? The damn weather here is enough to drive a person insane. It hasn’t even been two weeks and we’ve seen enough rain to last me a damn lifetime.”

Rayland chuckled and removed the spoon from the pot. “Which begs the question how much longer before we leave? Surely you don’t intend to stay the winter.”

Kaya pursed her lips and picked up the power-cell from her pile of pistol parts. “The doctor and I have been monitoring comm traffic. The search does seem to have lost its momentum so it shouldn’t be too much longer.”

Becca frowned and let out a long sigh. “I knew we’d have to leave eventually, but I’m not sure I’m ready. You guys are all used to fighting the gray skins, but I don’t think I have the nerves for it.”

“We need you, even if you don’t like it.” Kaya scowled staring daggers at my sister. “You’re the only one that can use the damn key.”

“I’ll do my best, it’s just I don’t know how to be brave like you guys,” she simpered fighting down a wave of tears.

“A lot of people think bravery is all about being fearless. The only people who are without fear are complete loons. Bravery is being so scared that you don’t want to do anything but crawl into a hole, but instead you grit your teeth and do what you know needs to be done,” Farris said placing a hand on my sister’s shoulder.

Becca blushed and smiled at him. “I-I’ll try.”

Though, I was suspicious of Farris, I was still floored when my sister pecked him on the lips. ‘Yes,’ I thought to myself. ‘Farris and I are going to have a little chat.’

‘How sweet,’ Khala chimed in, her voice taking on a very tender tone.

‘No one asked you,’ I thought back at her and scowled as Becca and Farris shared another kiss, this one lasting just a little longer than the first.

I’m not sure what I would have done had the doctor not chosen that moment to show up, but I doubt it would have been very pleasant for Farris. Lily and the others did seem surprised by the sudden show of affection, but I think I was the one who was disturbed by it.

Vakrexid plopped down next to the fire between me and Rayland and shuddered as he hovered over the cooking pot. “Vakrexid was not able to find any more berries.”

“That’s alright doc,” Rayland grinned. “The soup will be more than sufficient and as it so happens, your timing is impeccable it looks like our meal is ready.”

Rayland started dishing out the soup and we passed the bowls around the circle as they became available. Every time I looked at Farris and my sister huddled close to each other I couldn’t help but glower at them. The others must have picked up on my mood because we ate a quiet meal empty of discussion.

Kaya was the first to finish. She threw her bowl to the ground and rose to her feet. “I’ve come to a decision. We leave in three days.”

She stopped long enough to retrieve her dish then retreated down the trail back to the ship and the others didn’t take long to follow until Lily and I were the only ones left. We lingered only a few moments, before we too made our way back to the ship hand-in hand.

Even our love-making was not enough dispel the image of Farris and Becca kissing and once Lily had drifted off to sleep I remained awake with that awful image playing inside my head over and over again.

Chapter Seven

“Hey!” I called down the hallway as Farris disappeared down an adjoining section.

He stopped and leaned around the bend giving me time to catch up. I’d been watching him and my sister for the last few days. Although he’d been pretty well behaved around her, I was afraid he might revert to his bullying ways. I knew, I wasn’t exactly being reasonable, but I couldn’t help it! My sister had been through a lot and I didn’t want that bastard manhandling her.

“What up?” he asked. “You know Kaya wants us on the bridge, don’t you?”

“This will only take a minute,” I narrowed me eyes and forced my hand against his chest pinning him against the wall.

“I can’t help but notice that you are getting pretty cozy with my sister.” I scowled and gripped my free hand around his throat. I didn’t clamp down hard enough to choke him, but with my superior strength it wasn’t like he’d do anything if I did. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what I will do to you if you hurt Becca.”

“No,” he coughed his hands coming up in a futile effort to tear mine free from around his throat. “I think you’re making it pretty clear.”

“Good.” I released him and moved away then turned back just before I came to the door into the bridge. “If you hurt her, I will kill you.”

‘Was that really necessary?’ Khala asked as Farris stepped into the room behind me.

I didn’t answer, but instead elected to take the pilot’s seat and started prepping the engine for takeoff.

“Something wrong?” Kaya asked glancing at first me and then Farris who was rubbing at his neck and glowering at me.

“It’s fine!” Farris snapped.

Kaya shrugged and rolled her eyes then glanced back at me. “How long ’til the ship’s ready?”

“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes, I could do it in a lot less time if you don’t mind skipping power and engine checks,” I replied scrolling my hands across the control panel. It felt good being behind the figurative wheel of a ship again even if it was our little bucket of bolts.

“No, this thing’s been pretty reliable so far. Let’s not push it for the sake of convenience. We can wait,” Kaya replied then craned her neck and glanced back at the door. “Shit, where the hell is everybody? You’d think with a ship this fucking small it wouldn’t take them so long to get to the damn bridge.”

I chuckled and shook my head. Kaya’s mouth always seemed to get fouler whenever she was anxious. I was pretty nervous myself; our mission was easily the most important one we’d undertaken since I’d joined the resistance. I knew it was possible we might not encounter any gray skins on our little outing; my gut told me we weren’t going to be that lucky. For better or for worse, there wasn’t any turning back and I think everyone knew it.

“So this is rather momentous day, isn’t it?” Rayland stepped through the doorway then moved to the side allowing Becca to enter behind him.

The doctor appeared next and I had to do a double take when I realized he was wearing combat boots and a plain white shirt accompanied by camouflage pants and a matching jacket. I was so accustomed to him wearing the same outfit all the time that was a little strange seeing him wear something so different. I would have thought he’d look ridiculous wearing such a getup, but it actually had the opposite effect and served to make him seem much more imposing. The only weapon he carried was a tangler, a projectile weapon that shot a disabling web of non-lethal goop. It was more than likely the same one Lily had pointed out to more than a week ago and was just the sort of weapon I would expect the doctor to use. From what Lily had told me the cartridges it required were only good for three shots, but fortunately, it appeared Vakrexid had enough of them strapped to his bandoleer to last ten times that many firings.

Lily was the last to appear and she stepped inside the bridge holding a simple paper wrapped package. “Sorry, I was almost finished when Kaya called us up.”

She held the package out to me, with an expectant smile. “I-I was going to wait for your birthday, in a couple weeks, but I thought you might need it.”

I had vague memories of unwrapping presents from before the invasion, but the only gifts I’d ever received afterward had been from Becca and they’d always come unwrapped. Lily had obviously put a lot of thought into preparing it and I didn’t want to rush it. I slowly unwrapped the box and opened it to reveal a pair of phase pistols which were swaddled in cloth. I pulled one out and when I gripped it in my hand I was a little surprised to realize that it perfectly fit the contours of my hand.

They weren’t like any phase pistols I’d ever seen; for starters they gleamed and showed absolutely no signs of wear or tear. They resembled the human-made weapons I’d used, but they differed in one very noticeable way, on the side there was a slot for a Qharr made power-cell. I turned the weapon over and found in the usual place at the bottom of the handle a slot for a human-made one. The weapons were made from brushed steel and had the words ‘To Alexana with love’ etched across either barrel. The handles had been carved from polished wood and the grips were soft supple leather. “Lily, I don’t know what to say. These are beautiful how did you find the time to make them?”

“Well, I actually used components I already had for everything but the grips. I polished and brushed the metal to make it look new and as for the handle… I carved that myself, but Rayland and Dyssa had to help with the leather.”

“Dyssa?”

“She gave me the measurements for your hands. Apparently she was able to figure it out after you touched me. Don’t ask me how the last time she tried to explain it to me it gave me a headache. I actually kind of started working on them before we got together. I thought I might be able to get your attention if I made you something nice. I hid them on the Phoenix before the Qharr attacked the base and I was able to save them from the wreckage after we crashed.” She admitted glancing back down at the box and pulling free a well-used and a ratty looking double shoulder holster. “I wanted to make you something to carry them, but I didn’t have time. Fortunately, this thing was in Mara’s supply cache so at least you’ll have something to holster them in until I can make you a better one.”

“Thank you,” I muttered then shared a brief kiss with her before I heard Kaya clear her throat. I glanced at her remembering that before Lily entered I’d been working on the pre-flight procedures. Kaya seemed to be in an unusually foul mood so I elected not to push the matter and returned to prepping the ship.

“May I have a look?” Rayland asked leaning over the railing behind Lily and I.

“Knock yourself out,” I muttered absently tapping the control which would begin the process of starting the engines up. The diagnostics had all turned out fine and since most of the process was automated it didn’t require too much attention from me.

I turned back to Rayland and watched him turn one of the guns over and over in his hand. “Beautiful work Lily, you should be proud. The engraving is a nice touch,” he muttered handing the pistol out for her to take.

“Yeah, they look nice,” Becca agreed hovering over the railing making an obvious effort to seem interested. I knew my sister, and while I’m sure she could appreciate the meaning behind the gift, I very much doubted she’d ever be able to appreciate the guns themselves.

“Matt you should come look at these!” she added waving for him to come over. Farris stared across the control room and for a moment his eyes lingered on me. He didn’t look angry, just conflicted and a little bit put out.

“Come here,” My sister repeated and Farris finally complied reluctantly shuffling over to stand next to Becca. He placed his hand on my sister’s shoulder and glared at me defiantly as if daring me to say something.

He held his hand out and Lily slipped the gun into his open palm. For a moment he looked ready to chuck it at me, but then his face softened and started to turn it over in his hands with the same reverent and gentle touch that Rayland had given it.

“Very nice, Lily, you put a lot of thought into this. Lexa doesn’t know how lucky she is,” he said throwing me a meaningful look before wrapping his arm around Becca and pulling her close.

“Yeah, thanks again, Lily, you never know when I might need to shoot someone,” I smiled then snatching the pistol from his hands. I gritted my teeth and fought down the urge to act on my implied threat.

A brief moment later the ship came to life, the engines coming on with the usual loud whirring hum. I turned back to the console and pursed my lips. “Lily, could you take over?”

“Sure.” She beamed at me and slid her hands across the console, poising them to take control from me and promptly did so when I rose to grab the holster from its resting place. With Becca’s help I was able to get it adjusted and sized so that it fit reasonably well. The guns hung against my side just a few centimeters below my breasts. The unfamiliar weight wasn’t very comfortable, but I was sure I’d be able to grow accustomed to it. I used the buttons to snap the pistols in place. They weren’t exactly tight, but it was more than sufficient to keep them in place.

“Course set for the nearest communications array,” Lily said.

“Uh, Kaya,” Lily added when the other woman failed to respond.

Kaya still didn’t answer and instead she stormed out of the control room without saying a single word. I followed her out and once I caught up with her placed a hand on my former lover’s shoulder who jumped and spun around to face me. Her lips were trembling and a few tears had started to form the corner of her eyes.

“I-I’m sorry,” she bit her lip and wiped the tears from her eyes, “God, I’m a nervous wreck and this damn pregnancy isn’t helping! Lex, I-I need you to take command I don’t think I can be trusted to make any more important decisions.”

“Kai,” I said with a shake of my head completely taken aback. “I can’t lead, we need you. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

“No!” she protested gritting her teeth and jumping to her feet to look me in the eyes.

“Then someone else–”

“NO!” she screamed. “Who the fuck else could it be? Lily, who is just barely coming out of her shell? Or maybe, Farris? Can you honestly say you’d follow him into battle!? How about the doctor? He’d be great if you could get him to shut up about all the fucking things he likes to juice! Oh, and let’s not forget your sister who’s afraid of her own shadow and of course Mr. Smiles… because his upbeat attitude will just make everything better!”

“Well no, bu–”

“But nothing! It has to be you! You’re the only one who can keep a cool head and do what needs to be done!”

“Oh, Kaya–” I took a step forward and she shrunk away from me as if I were some disease ridden rat.

“Don’t touch me!” She screamed then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Please, I need you to do this. It has to be you.”

“Okay, Kai,” I conceded taking a step back and placing my hands on my hips. “Why don’t you go lay down for a little bit? We can call you back up when we’re almost there.”

“I-I think I will,” she glance toward the control center turned bright red then stormed away without matching gazes with me.

I hesitated then returned to the bridge and immediately came face to face with Farris.

“Jeez the fucking Louise! Any idea what’s up with her?” Farris said craning his neck to glance back at the door.

“Honestly? I’m not quite sure. She put me in command .” I shook my head and bit my lip. “I think, I should go talk to her.”

“No,” Becca said abruptly. “You stay here. You’re in charge now. I’ll go.”

To say I was surprised by my sister’s offer would be an understatement, but I nodded in agreement then collapsed into Kaya’s seat as she disappeared out the doorway. “Well then, Lily how long until we reach the array?”

“At current course and trajectory? Uh,” she paused squinting her eyes and leaned over the console. “About forty minutes.”

“Good,” I nodded. “Keep your eyes peeled on the sensor readings I have this inescapable feeling that there’s going to be trouble.”

“Lily, stay with the ship,” I said moments after we’d set down.

She pursed her lips and looked ready to protest, but she stayed her tongue. Someone would need to keep our ride ready in case we need a quick getaway and since I’d be needed to command the expedition she was the only other logical choice. The others could operate the ship with the biometric locks disabled, but none of them were nearly as skilled as pilots save perhaps Kaya, but since her breakdown I was hesitant to put her behind the controls.

I grabbed one of the handheld communicators Lily had rigged together then led the others to the exit where we were met by Becca and Kaya. I was more than a little relieved to see that my former lover had regained nearly all of her composure. “Guys, I’m sorry. I– It won’t happen again,” she bit her lip and blushed before a smirk touched her lips. “I’d like to still come along if you’ll still have me.”

“Of course, we–” I started to say, but was cut short by Kaya who folded her arms across her chest.

” I can’t be in charge. I don’t think I can be trusted to lead, but I’m still good for shooting shit up,” she added holding her phase pistol up as if to prove her point.

“Vakrexid does not believe there will be any need for violence.” The doctor absently patted his tangler, and then let out a high pitched squeal. “But one must always be prepared.”

“Well,” I muttered palming the button to extend the exit ramp. “Let’s get this done with, shall we?”

“This is exciting.” Rayland beamed as we descended the ramp.

I stopped once my feet had touched the ground, looked around and let out a long sigh. There really wasn’t anything noteworthy for as far as the eye could see, and I cursed under my breath as I realized that it wasn’t going to be as simple as I hoped.

“Dammit,” Farris cursed coming up beside me. “Why can’t anything ever be easy? Where the fuck is it?”

“Well, it’s not like they could have just left a big X on the ground for the gray skins to find, now could they?” Kaya rolled her eyes and shouldered past him moving toward the opposite end of the ship then came back around the other side a moment later. “Nothing that I can see on the other side.”

“All right,” I nodded. “Everyone fan out, we’ll meet back here in two hours if no one finds anything.”

We all spread out into different directions and began our search. The terrain wasn’t the hardest to transverse, since it was mostly just flat with a few hills here or there. I was able to see the others as they moved about and I grew more frustrated the longer our search lasted. Finally, the doctor’s distant voice called something out and I rushed toward him to see what all the fuss was about.

“Doc, what is it?” Farris panted arriving about the same time as me.

Vakrexid shook his head then pounded his open palm against the ground beside where he was sitting producing a loud metallic thump. “Vakrexid was walking then I stumbled and fell upon Vakrexid’s juxda-javib in a most obscene manner. This appears to be a hatch or perhaps a fluxla, I cannot decide.”

“That’s got to be it,” I knelt down next to the metal plate and started to sweep away the dirt and other debris off of it. It had been painted to match the terrain and unless someone looked really close it would have been very easy to overlook, particularly with the layer of dust and dirt that had settled over it. It took me several minutes just to uncover the latch, and when I pulled it free it took me far more of my strength to pull it open than I had anticipated.

There wasn’t a set of stairs or a ladder on the other side, like I had been expecting, instead there was some sort of control panel with a small indentation that looked like it would be the perfect fit for our biometric key. “Brilliant,” I whispered tracing my hands over the hole then turned back to Farris and the doctor. “Round up the others. This has got to be it.”

It took close to fifteen minutes for us to get everyone gathered around the hatch, but when I looked around at them all I hesitated. What if we activated the array and there was no one on the other end? Or what if they’d decided that Earth was a total loss? I shook my head and gritted me teeth, even if there was no response we needed to know, humanity’s salvation was at stake.

“Do it,” I looked back at Becca who had the biometric key gripped in her fist. With wide eyes and quivering hands she moved next to me, knelt down and, stuck the key inside the hole. There was a soft click from the panel which was followed by a second louder clicker and a mechanical whir. “A-a-analyzing biometric p-p-pattern,” the panel buzzed in a harsh artificial voice. “P-p-pattern accepted. Welcome Reb-b-becca Julliana Brigg-g-gs.”

The key popped out and Becca grabbed it out of the air before the panel slid away revealing a narrow tube with ladder rungs descending into darkness. Lights flickered on illuminating the interior which was no more than nine or ten feet deep. The doctor ducked his head inside and then looked up at me with those wide unblinking eyes. “There is a door, Vakrexid wonders what is on the other side.”

I glanced at my sister, who nodded, swallowed hard then descended the latter. “Lily,” I spoke into the communicator. “We’ve found an opening which we were able to open with the key. Becca’s gone down to investigate and assuming she can get the door inside the tube to open we’ll be following her in.”

“Got it,” she responded. “If you’re going underground we may lose radio contact.”

“Should have figured.” I bit my lip and then gritted my teeth. “Lil, if you detect any ships I want you to book it out of here. I don’t think I need to tell you it would be disastrous if the gray skins found this place.”

“I’m not just going to leave you guys here!” she protested.

“If they find this place then we’re all dead anyway. I want you to promise me, Lily.”

“Fine, but if I leave I’m coming back for you.”

I smiled as I imagined the anxious look Lily must have been wearing on her face. Had we not been separated be a good distance I would have wrapped my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek. I settled for a few reassuring words. “Don’t worry, Lil, it’s just a precaution. Assuming you’re forced to leave wait a safe amount of time and pick us up back here. Everything, will turn out all right I’m sure of it.”

“Okay,” she replied. “Just keep your radio on. If I can, warn you, I will. Assuming you can still receive signals.”

“Hey guys!” Becca called down from the tube. “I got the door open. Looks like there’s a whole structure down here. I can see a hallway, and even a few doors.”

“Lily, we’re going in,” I spoke into the radio one final time.

“Good luck.”

I was the first down the hatch, after my sister and when I came down she already had the door open. I stepped through and turned to watch as the others descended after me. The doctor was the last and he pulled the hatch closed behind him. It sealed shut with a snap hiss and a moment later the panel slid shut over it.

The door at the bottom of the ladder led into a stark gray corridor reminiscent of a ship’s passageway. There was enough illumination for us to find our way, but it was still dim enough to convey an atmosphere of gloom. I took the lead, following the hallway its entire length to a stark gray door which was would have been indistinguishable from the walls around if it hadn’t been for the very visible seams in the wall. There had been a number of similar openings scattered throughout the hall, but this had been the only one with a panel next to it.

Without being cued, Becca stepped forward and placed the key, which she’d kept safely tucked inside her jacket, into an indentation identical from the one on the hatch panel. The door slid open revealing another dark room which was quickly illuminated by a series of bright lights that blinked on in rapid succession.

“Shit, it looks like the control room of a ship,” Farris said stepping inside and looking around. “It’s even got a view port.”

“I think it is a ship,” Kaya said craning her neck around before turning to look me in the eyes.

“Why go to all the effort to bury a ship? Wouldn’t have been easier to just bury a small array?” I stepped inside and seated myself at the nearest console. The controls were simple, but in a sleek and elegant sort of way. The whole set up had a distinctly more modern design than most of the human tech I’d seen. “They must have built this thing just before the end of the war.”

“Anyone find a slot for the key?” I called over my shoulder, but before anyone could answer the view screen flickered and activated. While I’d been studying the panel in front of me Becca had found the slot for the key on another panel and stuck it inside.

“Welcome. Confirming identity of key holder. Confirmed Rebecca Julliana Briggs niece of Colonel Harold Anthony Briggs. Scanning for the presence of other life forms. Human and Dexgarmetrax occupants only. Confirmed. Determining mental state of keyholder.”

“W-what?” Becca stepped back from the panel, and before any could move in a mechanical arm extended from above and placed a small domed ‘cap’ on her head. After a moment both retracted and she jerked away and watched them disappear into the ceiling.

“Subject is not being coerced. Initiating communications array. Please stand by.”

The screen flickered and stuttered and displayed a message indicating that the array was attempting to open a subspace link. Finally, after what seemed ages the face of a pinch-faced man in his mid twenties appeared onscreen. He was wearing, a crisp navy-blue and uniform and he looked very surprised to see us.

“Good God!” Kaya gasped gawking at the man with wide eyes.

“This is Lieutenant Matthis Steinburg with the Earth Reclamation Fleet to whom am I speaking?”

I stepped forward until I was just in front of the screen and stared back at the image. “I am Alexana Briggs commander of the Human Resistance Movement. God, I gotta say you don’t know how good it is to see you.”

Matthis grinned and nodded. “Likewise, we were beginning to wonder if there was anyone still on Earth who knew that we were out here.”

“Well, we only recently became aware that a remnant of the original Earth defense fleet even existed. Our leaders knew, but since we’re likely all that’s left of the resistance, it fell on us to make contact.”

“You’re all that’s left of the resistance?” he asked obviously distressed by the news. “How many of you are there?”

“Six… seven if you want to count Rayland, but I don’t.”

“But you should,” Rayland stepped forward and settled beside me as he stared up at the view screen. “Lieutenant Matthis, my name is Major Rayland Patterson a ranger with the Nester Alliance, and while the resistance might have fallen, my people stand strong. We’ve hidden ourselves away in preparation of this day and we are ready to aid you in the task of retaking Earth.”

“And how many of these rangers do you have at your disposal, Major Patterson?” Matthis asked.

“Between all eleven nests we have close to two hundred men, but I can’t guarantee they’ll all agree to fight. It’s only a loose alliance, but I’m certain I can get at least five nests, on top of my own, to join with us. Given enough time, and proper training I may be able to muster a force several thousand strong, but that is wholly dependent upon how many nests I can convince we can successfully drive the Qharr from Earth.”

I glared at Rayland and bit my lip. Rayland’s offer of support was enticing, but could we really trust him to follow through? I’d brought him along so I could watch him, but I wasn’t sure that had been the best choice given the circumstances.

“Well, that sounds promising, but it takes a lot of time to train an army. In any case, there’s a lot we don’t know about the situation on Earth, if you could fill us in it would go a long way in helping us plan.”

I nodded, and with input from my symbiote began to tell him everything the two of us knew about the state of Earth. Starting with the fall of the resistance then moving onto other details like locations of Qharr bases, Earth defenses, and finishing with population estimates including human, Qharr and other aliens. When I finished Matthis frowned and stroked his chin. “I need to convey this information to the general immediately. I think, we’ll need to remain in frequent contact. Let’s plan for another comm-link in let’s say, three days.”

I agreed and was almost ready to close the comm-line when Kaya pushed past Rayland and I. “I-It’s possible some of us may have family off-world. My mother had a brother living on Shambhala before the war, I always wondered if he could still be alive.”

“Shambhala? The colony was destroyed after the invasion of Earth, but there were survivors. If you gave me your uncle’s name, I could look into it. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea to get all of your names. The chances are remote, but it’s always possible I might be able to track down some long lost relative.” It was difficult to tell through the view screen, but his eyes seemed focused on me.

Kaya complied listing first her Uncles names, then all of ours, but when she got to the doctor she hesitated. Fortunately, he stepped in to share his moniker.

“Lex… ship …ing …ease respo…” Lily’s voice pronounced from the hand communicator.

“Lily, could you repeat that? You’re not coming in very clearly.”

“Yeah,… here. I can… und…and you. There’s… ship. Don’t know…” she replied and suddenly cut off.

“Did she say something about a ship?” Farris asked.

“Problems?” Matthis said.

I bit my lip and nodded. “We have someone waiting in our ship; the signal isn’t coming through very clearly, though.”

“You should be able to pick the transmission up. You wouldn’t even need to close our comm-link since radio transmissions operate on a separate sub-system,” Matthis responded.

“Yeah, um, how exactly would we do that? I can operate just about any Qharr machine, but I know next to nothing about human-tech,” I scratched the back of my head.

Matthis directed me to the same console with the insert for Rebecca’s key then walked me through the steps to activate the radio radio. I didn’t have to tune it since, it scanned for incoming transmissions automatically. “…peat. There is a Qharr ship approaching.”

“Dammit all to hell!” I cursed resisting the urge to pound my fist into the console, with my strength I’d probably end up breaking the damn thing in half. “Lily, this is Lexa. How close is it?”

“It will be right on top of our position in about a minute. I’ve tried to bluff them, but they didn’t buy it. They even saw through the fake transponder signal I rigged for the ship. I think it’s pretty safe to assume they know who we are. There were three two begin with, but I managed to take out two of them. Shit, I–” she stopped short and we were confronted by the sound of static.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Kaya cursed beside me. “Anyone have any ideas?”

“This is a ship,” I said staring down at the control panel then spun around to stare at Matthis. “Isn’t it?”

“Well yes, but there’s no guarantee that’ll fly after being buried for so long and…” He winced fiddling with his collar and gritted his teeth. “It’s a prototype craft that was designed near the end of the war. It was hoped that the experimental shield emitters would prevent the Qharr from cutting through our defenses so easily. They did work, but the dedicated shield reactors were too unstable.”

“We just won’t turn the shields on.” I shrugged my eyes roving the control room searching for the controls. “This thing does have weapons doesn’t it?”

“Just phase emitters, I think.”

“Perfect,” I nodded pouncing on the foremost of the panels which I assumed must be the pilots station. “Explain how these systems work.”

“You don’t honestly believe you can pilot that thing do you? You didn’t even know how to use the radio!” Matthis protested throwing his hands up in the air.

“What other choice do I have, dammit! If the Qharr find us what do you think will happen to your plans of retaking Earth? Just tell me how the damn controls work, I’m a fair pilot and I learn quickly. All I need to do is get this thing high enough so I can blast a hole in that ship!”

‘Fair?! With the abilities I passed onto you try amazing!’ Khala protested, but I paid her no mind as I listened to Matthis’s instructions. The controls seemed straightforward enough and once you got passed the very obvious differences the basic mechanisms were the same.

“Lily, hold on, we’re coming,” I muttered under my breath.

“All right, here goes nothing.” I pressed my thumb down igniting the thrusters. The whole ship started to quake and groan in protest. The engines stuttered and I could tell that they were having trouble lifting the ship through the hard-packed soil. “Kai, I need you on weapons now!”

“Got it!” She called back as the ship suddenly lurched upward.

“Good luck,” Matthis said his image fading away replaced by the darkness of the view port.

“That could be a problem.” Becca said staring at the black view port with wide eyes. “The screen’s packed with dirt.”

“Maybe if I press… this button, I can at least get a view from the exterior cameras.” I toggled one of the switches and let out a sigh of relief when an image appeared via hologram in the empty air around me. The picture was a little muddled and there were several blinds spots which I guess were caused by clumps of dirt, but it was clear enough to give me a reasonably good view of the surrounding area.

I turned the ship in what I believed was Lily’s general direction and stifled a gasp as I took in the scene displayed in front of me. Our other ship had been blown to pieces and all that was left was a big heap of flaming resin and metal. A patrol ship was hovering in the air above the wreckage and opened fire taking us by surprise.

“God, Lily…” I sobbed fighting away tears as I did my best to avoid the blasts. I hadn’t really gotten a very good handle on the controls so it mostly just careened through the air like a crazed psailf.

“BASTARDS!” Kaya screamed slamming her fist against the weapons console then opened fire. The ship’s cannons stuttered spewing out clouds of molten dirt which splattered to the ground falling well short of the intended target. She pressed down on the trigger a second time, which seemed to do the trick the cannons stuttered as before, but this time a deluge of phase bolts erupted out slamming into the enemy ship.

The patrol vessel veered away, but not before taking several direct hits to its nose. Kaya screamed mashing down on the controls a final time, the patrol ship burst into flames before it plummeted to the ground erupting into a fiery inferno that was so strong it even shook our new ride which was hovering a good distance away.

My hands were shaking as I brought the ship down, it lurched and slammed into the ground with jarring force, but I managed to get it down safely. I didn’t even bother shutting the engine down before leaping out of my seat and out of the room. All I could think about was finding Lily, I knew there wasn’t much chance she was still alive, but I had to know either way. I heard footsteps in the hall behind me, but I didn’t look back.

“Lexa wait!” Becca called after me and I slowed just enough for her to catch up. “You might still need me to open the exit hatch.”

I nodded, and forced myself to go slow enough that my sister could keep up. It only took a few seconds to reach the ladder, but each of those moments were pure agony. Rebecca climbed up and inserted the key. I was right on her tail and I barely allowed her enough time to climb out the hatch before pushing past her.

The place was a mess, and there was wreckage at least twenty meters out in every direction. There were even a few brush fires which had been ignited by the burning debris. “Lily!” I screamed cupping my hands around my mouth.

There was no response, not that I was really expecting one, but I had to try. I jumped from atop the ship, leaping almost ten meters in a single bound, and barely skirted a small brush fire. I felt the heat from the flames, but I was so intent on finding Lily that I didn’t care. I was running toward the wreck without paying any mind to my surroundings which is why I didn’t notice the gray skin until he was almost on top of me.

I leapt sideways and barely avoided crashing into him. He was pretty quick on his feet particularly for an un-bonded Qharr, fortunately I happened to be a lot faster. I leapt up striking him with a powerful roundhouse kick that sent the bastard reeling under the force of my blow. Before he could recover I smashed my fist into the side of his head and the other into the side of his chest. He fell to the ground and when he tried to crawl back up I kicked him as hard as I could in the side of the head.

Before I could check for signs of life I felt a hand on my shoulder and I spun around to find myself facing another hunter. He slammed his massive paw into my throat and lifted me up from the ground. I gripped my hands around his fingers, there was a sick crunch from one of his hands and he dropped me like a sack of a potatoes. I fell to the ground rolling and was back on my feet in time to block the blows from his unbroken hand.

I pretty well had the upper hand, but when I heard Becca’s screams I decided that play time was over. I pulled my new pistols from their holster and opened fire. The beams made short work of him and before his body even hit the ground I took off in the direction of my sister’s voice. I didn’t have far to go and when I found her, an unusually rotund Qharr had one meaty hand clenched around her shoulder and the other held a pistol against her temple. “Put your weapons down, slave, or this one dies.”

I glowered at him, but did as he demanded slowly setting the pistols down on the ground at my feet. “Okay,” I said speaking with a calm and even voice. “Now set her free.”

“No, I know what you are human. You bonded humans are just as dangerous as the edant k’teth. If I let this one go, I’ll be dead before I can blink. Better to wait until the Inquisitors come,” he replied.

“Yeah,” a familiar voice said. “There’s just one problem with that. You really didn’t count on there being two of us.”

Becca screamed, as violet blood splatter all over and her captor fell face-forward to the ground dead. She managed to free herself and jump out of the way before the body could collapse on her and I let out a high-pitched squeal as I recognized the slender form of Lily standing over the body with Kaya’s phase rifle in her arms. I rushed forward, flinging my arms around her waist and lifting up off her feet as I locked my lips around hers in kiss. She melted into my arms and it was only when I grew short of breath that I reluctantly allowed myself to set her back down.

“How the hell did you survive that?” I threw my hands out at the wreckage.

“The Qharr came flying in with guns blazing and took out my engines right off the bat. It was pretty close, but I got into one of the escape pods before they blew the ship completely to hell.” She winced rubbing her left temple. “Got jostled around pretty good though. They really don’t design those things to be launched so close to the ground.”

“Scared the crap out of me when that ship rose up from the ground and…” she trailed off her eyes roving across the wreckage. “Blew the shit out of that patrol ship. I’m guessing that was you?”

I nodded.

“So, the array was in that ship, right?”

I nodded again, but Becca spoke up before either of us could say a thing. “How exactly did those hunters survive?”

“The two craft I took out launched escape pods. I don’t know about the third, I was still crawling out of my pod when that happened, but patrol craft are usually manned by at least three warriors so for all we know there could be more gray-skinned bastards crawling around.”

“I think it’s time we leave. That Qharr seemed pretty certain the Inquisitors were on their way. I don’t suppose you have any experience piloting human craft, do you? The controls are a little weird for my tastes.”

Becca and Lily both agreed and so we all retreated back into the ship. Unfortunately, Lily didn’t have any clue how to pilot it so I resumed my position at the helm. Takeoff was pretty rocky, but I did manage to get it back up in the air in one piece so there was that at least.

Chapter Eight

“Duvak,” I said under my breath glaring at the image of the destroyer in the view screen. I don’t know why, but I knew it was him.

“Lily, you think you and Becca can open a radio link to that destroyer?”

Lily nodded and a moment later the all-too-familiar visage of my former master appeared on screen. My breath caught in my throat and I thought my eyes might bulge out of my head when I realized that his hair was blue. At some point since our last meeting Duvak had been bonded with a K’teth symbiote. “This is High Inquisitor Duvak of the Ascendancy ship, Qellanas.”

“So nice to see you again, Duvak.” I smiled. “How are things in the Ascendancy? Kill any innocents lately?”

“You continue to test my patience, Jellfree.”

Well at least he had finally come to accept that it really was me. Though, I couldn’t say whether or not that was a good thing.

“Actually, it’s Lexa now,” I said trying my best to project an air of confidence. “In case you didn’t notice, I’ve got myself a sweet new ride.”

“I have noticed, hu-man, my sensors show some unusual readings emanating from the vessel,” he said with a loud cough fingering his throat with his two middle fingers. “What is it you want?”

“I just thought I’d drop you a line and tell you that I’m going to kill you. It seemed like the polite thing to do,” I said with a cheerful smile.

I wasn’t exactly acting in character, but that was the point. I knew Duvak and if I could get him riled up enough, he’d get angry and hopefully make a mistake. “Say do you remember when you kill my parents? I think I might just return the favor. Your mother does live here on Earth doesn’t she? I’d kill your Dad too, but your Mom was such a whore I’d have to kill close to fifty puhk just to find the right one.”

“Gend t’hal tokk!” Duvak screamed a moment before the display suddenly blinked off.

“What was the hell was that about? If I didn’t know better I’d swear you were trying to piss him off! Fuck are you stupid?!” Kaya cursed glaring at me.

“Duvak tends to makes mistakes when he’s angry,” I said calmly. “Besides the odds aren’t exactly in our favor to begin with. If pissing Duvak off gives us even slim chance at survival I’ll take it.”

“Shit, you’re insane, you know that?” Farris grimaced running a hand through his mop of platinum hair.

“I learned from the best. Kai, get ready to open fire.” I clamped my hands down on the controls slowing the ship’s movement to a crawl. As I expected the destroyer, wasn’t prepared for this move, and zoomed past, but not before Kaya managed to land a few shots. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any damage and it soon became obvious our weapons were too outdated to do any real damage.

“Lily, there isn’t anything you can do about boosting weapons strength, is there?!” I asked over my shoulder doing my best to avoid the destroyers’ phase fire, but it was getting harder by the minute and several shots had already grazed us.

“Not really sure, I-I don’t know anything about this ship.” she called back over her shoulders.

“On second thought,” she added a moment later. “Most human phase weapons work more or less the same way. I might be able to boost power output to the phase dischargers so that we could fire more powerful shots, but assuming I’m right and it does work we’ll probably burn them out after so many firings. After that we won’t have any weapons.”

“How many blasts?”

“Hard to say, best guess is as many as a dozen, but probably less than half that,” she called back.

“Do it, it’s our best chance. We’ll just have to make those shots count.”

I dodged another barrage of blasts, but several got through making the whole ship shake. Things were getting pretty dicey and it was getting harder and harder to avoid the other ship’s weapons fire. Sooner or later they were going to land a shot which would do real damage and I wouldn’t be able to keep us aloft.

“There! That should do it!” Lily called over her shoulder again.

“Alright, help Kaya find a target. I’m sure Dyssa or Khala will be able to suggest a good one.”

The ship shook as a barrage of phase canon blasts slammed into the stern and I gritted my teeth and fought the controls.

“We lost the bow starboard thruster!” Lily’s voice called out.

‘You people really do need to stop stating the obvious.’

I ignored Khala’s unwelcome commentary and I let out a series of curses as the ship rocked again and again.

I heard Dyssa speaking, no doubt making recommendations on where to target the destroyer, but since I was so busy evading the enemy fire her words didn’t really register. However, it _did_ register when Kaya opened fire, especially when her blasts passed through their shields. She got a full eight shots out before the phase cannons burnt out and the whole ship shook from the resulting explosion.

The comm line opened again and Duvak’s ugly mug appeared arrayed across the screen. “You may have managed to bring down my weapons, but my sensor readings show yours are down as well. Don’t think you’ve managed to get the better of us.” His image faded away after making the pronouncement and I sent my hands zooming across the control interface. The ship lurched forward, but missing one of its thrusters as it was, I could barely keep it aloft let alone maintain an escape route.

“I really don’t like the sound of that.” Becca shuddered and turned back to me with mouth gaping open just a moment later.

The ship rocked and I pounded a hand against the console as it suddenly lurched forward.

“What the hell was that?”

Lily offered up the explanation, but I certainly wasn’t happy to hear it. “They’ve got a tractor on us.”

“Fuck,” Farris cursed between gritted teeth. “We’re so screwed.”

“Yeah, it’s not going to be easy fending off a ship-full of gray skins particularly when one of them is Edant K’teth,” Kaya agreed.

“It could be worse,” Rayland said. “At least we were able to disable their weapons.”

“The fuck?” Farris rounded on him. “You really think that’s gonna do a damn bit of good, if they board the ship we’re all freaking screwed.”

“What if we use the leap drive? I mean it worked once before.” Kaya gritted her teeth and glanced at Farris with a sidelong glance.

“No, we almost didn’t survive it the last time and we really don’t know if we even have a drive with functioning coils. We can’t outrun them and unless someone has an anti-matter bomb up their sleeves, I doubt we can disable their shields. Well, not unless we blow the ship to smithereens. Besides we couldn’t even get the coils to spin if they were functional. Tractors have a way of interfering with them. They only have a partial lock. If we can force ourselves loose we can set down ship and confront them!” Lily said throwing her hands up in the air.

“That such a good idea? That destroyer probably has a crew of several hundred Qharr. Do you really think we withstand that many?”

Lily’s eyes sparkled as a sly grin stretched across her face. “We activate the shield, sit outside the ship, and pick the bastards off one by one. They won’t stand a chance. ”

“Didn’t that stiff say that the shields were unstable? Seems like a pretty stupid fucking idea to me. ”

“Shut up, Farris! ” Kaya, Lily and I all yelled at one.

Lily shook her head and bit her lip. “He’s right, but we really don’t have a lot of choices. Matthis said they were unstable, not non-operational, if we can use them for even a short time before they destabilize we should be able to make this work.”

“Do it.” I let out a long sigh and turned to the rest of the crew. “Get buckled in, this going to be a bumpy ride.”

I slammed my hands down on the controls and sent the ship, lurching sideways, but had no effect other than a whole lot of shaking and groaning. I tried again, twisting my fingers around in the opposite direction this time I could actually feel the ship lurch forward, but I didn’t quite manage break free. The third time, my hands twisted and contorted across the console making complex gestures that didn’t seem to do too much good, at first. Then we broke free, and I felt the ship begin to lurch toward the ground. I tried to correct it, but only just barely managed it in time to come to a rather abrupt and rocky landing.

I shook my head and pushed myself up from my seat. The others were still disoriented from the landing, but I couldn’t spare the time. Lily was on her feet a moment later and I placed my hands on her shoulders and locked gazes with her. “Get the shields up as soon as you can.”

The others started to stir and I looked around the room. “Meet me outside as soon as you are recovered. The sooner we get out there, the better chance we have at heading them off.”

“Lily! ” I called out over my shoulder. “How’s the shield doing?”

“It’s holding steady!” She called back after peaking down at the little handheld clenched in her hands. It wasn’t one of her usual devices, it was actually a piece of diagnostic equipment which we’d found inside the ship.

I clenched my fists and watched the empty field between the two ships in nervous anticipation. After our landing the destroyer had followed our example and set down a few dozen meters away. Whoever was behind the helm must have been pretty talented. Landing a ship that size was challenging to say the least, but it took a lot more skill to bring it down as close as they had. Destroyers weren’t exactly renowned for their maneuverability.

Pretty soon, a mass of gray bodies came pouring out from the destroyer. At first it was easy, we picked them off one by one, but as more Qharr came tearing across the divide between the ships it became apparent that there were too many warriors to take on.

Rain from dull gray clouds came crashing down against our shield with audible splashes. Phase fire slammed into our barrier from the opposing forces instantly vaporizing the beads of water trickling down the sides of the shield. I probably would have found the sight beautiful if the brights splotches of light weren’t bringing impending doom.

Even with my enhanced senses it was difficult to see, each splattering of light made it harder to see, and the rain definitely wasn’t helping at all. Lily and I managed to hit more than a few targets, but I got the sense that the others were just firing off shots blindly. Of the un-bonded members of our crew Vakrexid seemed to be the only one that was doing any good, aiming his tangler with pin-point precision, but he was only one being and since his weapon was non-lethal a few of his targets were freed by their co-patriots. I never would have guessed that the doctor would have so much success, but given that he was a member of a genetically engineered species, it wasn’t that surprising that we would possess superior reflexes and eye sight.

Finally, they got close enough that I could begin to make out individual faces. Duvak was leading the charge, and even though he was dwarfed by those who he was leading into battle his presence was the one that filled me with the most dread. Despite his diminutive stature, he was the perfect ideal of a Qharr, he was a skilled warrior who lived and breathed the ideals of his people and their code of honor. Worst of all, Duvak never gave up. When he put his mind on something he would pursue it at all cost and until recently I’d never seen him fail.

We killed dozens of hunters, peppering them with blasts, but there were dozens more to take their place. We were able to pick them off one by one and I was beginning to think that we might get out of the whole mess in one piece, but then everything went to shit.

“Fuck!” Lily cursed. “The reactor is getting hot. I have to bring the shields down.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded as Lily scurried back into the ship. I focused my efforts on killing as many warriors as I could before they came down. I only managed to take out a half a dozen before I was suddenly lambasted with a deluge of water.

“Take Cover!”

I didn’t look up or wait for further confirmation that the shields were indeed down. Instead, I leapt forward and slammed into the nearest Qharr sending my unsuspecting victim careening down to the ground. A second warrior met a similar fate, but when I spun around to face a third I realized that this time my opponent was Duvak.

I got the first blow in and immediately ducked when he attempted to counter. I dove in, swing my fists at his chest, but he blocked me and sent me spinning away. We circled each other exchanging blows, but neither one of us gained the upper hand. Finally, I faked left, but then spun around kicking him across the waist. The blow got in, but then so did his counter attack. I fell backward landing on my ass, but was back on my feet in a heartbeat.

Several times I felt something slam into my back, but I was so caught up fighting Duvak that I had no time to investigate. I gritted my teeth against the pain, each time it faded away and was accompanied by the soft metallic ping of something hitting the floor. I didn’t spend the time to investigate what it might have been, but it seemed pretty obvious the gray skins had a new weapon. Something, no doubt, specifically targeted towards bonded humans.

I heard screams from my friends, but for good or bad I was too occupied with Duvak to help them. Duvak was a skilled and cunning fighter and I knew the longer we fought the more likely he’d find a weakness and expose it. The sooner I ended it the better, but that was easier said than done and every time I went in to attack he either blocked me or else countered. I decided to try a different tactic. Instead of pressing the attack, I’d let him strike first then see if I could sneak in a blow and do real damage when he least expected it.

I didn’t have long to wait. He came lumbering in with fists swinging, and while I was able to block each of his attacks he kept me on my feet, I wasn’t able to counter. One of his attacks, a stinging blow against the side of my jaw, got in and I was sent careening into a nearby cluster of boulders. I shook my head and before I could duck out of the way another slammed into my shoulder. I grunted then staggered away just barely managing to block a third and a fourth blow. I regained some of my composure and countered with two successive blows to the head.

He seemed dazed and I seized the opportunity to follow up with another punch. This one he was able to block and I went on the defensive again as he rushed me delivering blow after blow. I blocked each one as best I could, but every one of his attacks seemed to be strategically placed and it was getting harder to block them.

His attacks forced me back into the cluster of boulders. They were tall and smooth and lacked any handhelds for me to grapple, and because Duvak had me cornered the only avenue of escape was up. Any ordinary human might not have been able to climb out, but with my abilities it was well within the realm of possibilities.

Unfortunately, Duvak was pummeling me with blows and I was having less and less success blocking them. Every time I tried to scale the rocks, my former master grabbed me by an ankle or a wrist and dragged me back down. I had as good as given up, but then I heard my sister’s voice call out.

“You bastard! Get away from my sister!” Becca’s screams were followed by a round of phase blasts which slammed into his back.

As I expected, they didn’t have any physical effect on Duvak, but they distracted him enough that I was able to break free. Duvak backhanded Becca and she went tumbling to the ground at his feet. I moved in jumping up and slamming my elbow into his chest, the blow was powerful enough that it sent him stumbling back a few steps and more importantly it diverted his attention from my sister who was still struggling to recover from his blow.

“I’m the one you want. Leave Becca the fucking hell alone,” I screamed jumping up and kicking him across the chest with both feet which proved to be a mistake. He grabbed me by the ankles, spinning me around and slammed me into the boulders with such force that I could actually feel pieces of the rock break away. Once my vision cleared, I found that Duvak had one of his hands clenched around my throat. “Now, it is time for you to finally die.”

I gasped for air clawing at his hand, as his it tightened around my throat. I kicked and pummeled his arms, but his grip was like iron and my efforts all proved futile. It was over, that bastard had won, and as hypoxia settled in I felt a grim sort of acceptance come over me. I didn’t know what the next life held, but I really hoped that I would at least get to see my parents again. I saw a bright light, but before I could reach out to it I was suddenly thrown to the ground and, after a period of near endless coughing, air flooded back into my lungs.

I shook my head and looked up to find Becca standing just to Duvak’s side. Our former master had a knife firmly embedded into his arm and it didn’t take a genius to realize that my sister had put it there. The High Inquisitor pulled the knife free then let it clatter to the ground. He pulled a phase pistol from the holster under his arm then trained it on Becca who flinched away from the weapon with wide eyes.

“You are nothing more than a hindrance slave. You were useless from the day I first captured you. It’s time your meaningless life comes to an end,” Duvak narrowed his eyes and squeezed the trigger.

I screamed out, and jumped to my feet, but it was Kaya, appearing from nowhere, who slammed into my sister and took her place as the beam blasted into her chest.

“Kaya!” I screamed and reached out to catch her as she fell.

When she landed in my arms she turned to meet my gaze. I will never forget the look I saw reflected in her eyes and I somehow knew she only had seconds left. She reached out to touch my face and I saw something reflected within her eyes that I thought I would never see again, love.

“Lexa… I’m sorry, for everything,” Kaya whispered reaching out to touch my face, just before the life drained from her eyes.

Unable to look into those once bright eyes, I glanced down at the phase wound which had consumed much of her chest. Thee damage was severe and the phase energy had cauterized much of the wound, but in a few places blood was seeping through. A few drops splattered against my arm and I gasped then dropped her lifeless corpse. I let out a blood-curdling scream as I stared back at Duvak and rage exploded out from me like molten rock from a volcano.

“You,” I said narrowing my eyes and gritted my teeth. He’d had a hand, with direct or not, in nearly every horrid thing that had ever happened to me. He had taken part in the invasion of Earth, murdered my parents, separated me from my sister and finally killed Kaya while trying to kill Becca. It was time he got his comeuppance, and I wanted to, no, I _needed_ to be the one to end his life.

“You fucking bastard!” I yelled snatching my sister’s knife from the ground and pounced on him. He didn’t know it yet, but he’d just signed his own death warrant.

To be continued…

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Daniel A. Wolfe

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