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Battle For Earth: Epilogue
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Battle For Earth: Liberation
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Battle For Earth: Coalescence
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Battle For Earth: The General (an interlude)
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Battle For Earth: Downfall
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Battle For Earth: Infiltration
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Battle For Earth: Resistance
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Battle For Earth: Prologue

Battle For Earth: Epilogue

Two years after Earth had been freed from the clutches of the Qharr, Lily
and I had built a new life for ourselves. Times were difficult as
humanity struggled to recover from the devastation wreaked by our
conquerors, but our future looked brighter than ever.

Author’s Note: A very big thanks to Zapper, Beyogi, Loki & Maggie Finson for providing valued input and assistance editing and beta reading 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.

Well, now that Earth has been freed from the Qharr, Lexa and crew’s journey is finally at an end, but I felt it only fitting that I give them a proper send off. So, here’s the epilogue.

Epilogue

The rich scent of garlic, onions, and broth wafted in from the bubbling soup pot and I paused a moment to savor the scent. Never, during the twenty-four years of the occupation had I been able to make anything with such a pleasant mix of tastes and smells. Now that Earth was free food wasn’t exactly plentiful, but there was enough to go around most of the time.

“Lex!” Thena called out and I turned to greet the girl with a smile on my face.

No, girl didn’t apply anymore, I corrected myself as she approached. Woman, was definitely the more appropriate term. My smile quickly turned to a frown as I got a good look at her face. She didn’t look happy.

“I just got off the comm with Jora. She’s won’t be able to make another delivery until Tuesday!”

I put both hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. She’d come a long way from the slip of a girl who I’d rescued from New Anaheim just a few years ago, but she hadn’t lost her fiery determination nor her stubbornness. Frankly, I wouldn’t have her any other way as it proved an invaluable resource when it came managing the soup kitchen. I had been the one to put her charge, after all.

“I’m sorry. I’ll see what I can do. Resources are slim, but maybe we can figure something out.”

She nodded and bit her lip before brushing the hair out of her eyes. “Thank you.”

We had technology that helped us produce food in greater quantities, but our infrastructure hadn’t recovered enough for us to fully take advantage of it. It would take years before food shortages became a thing of the past. Edibles were scarce, but, unlike when the Earth was in Qharr control, nothing was held back. Even so, that day’s soup was a rare treat one which I doubted anyone would be able to duplicate for weeks if not months to come. There were no special occasions or circumstances. It was a simple matter of using up food supplies before they spoiled.

I stepped away, returning my attention to the pot of soup. Rebuilding Earth was a difficult task, and nearly everyone was doing their part. After being hailed a hero for my part in the battle for Earth I could have done practically anything, but I’d known from the very start there had only been one thing that had made me happy, cooking. So, I opened a soup kitchen determined to do just that. Unfortunately, my time in the resistance had changed me, I was no longer satisfied sitting back while others suffered. I had to do something more, which in turn led to me taking on more and more responsibilities.

Within just a year, I was overseeing dozens of such meal centers. Not surprising, it drew a lot of attention from the media and once again I found myself in the spotlight despite my best efforts. One thing led to the other and I somehow I found myself put in charge of the effort of feeding and helping those had been left destitute after the Qharr had fled Earth. It would have been fine if those were my only responsibilities, but my endeavors and my status as a hero led to me becoming a poster girl for the recovery efforts.

I knew there were people that felt I was wasting my time, but getting my hands dirty and working shoulder to shoulder with regular people helped give me a better idea how resources could be best utilized on a case by case basis. I didn’t get out as often as I’d like, going sometimes weeks or months between visits to various soup kitchens, but I always seized the opportunity when I could. Especially since, it afforded me the rare opportunity to cook.

I was confident there would come a time where soup kitchen’s like the ones Thena managed would become unnecessary, but that day was far off. Earth was a shell of what it had once been and recovery would take years. I just hoped that my child would live to see that day. I put a hand on my belly and quickly pulled it away. I bit my lip and cast furtive glances around. No one seemed to have noticed and I reached up to give my ponytail a good yank before returning to my work.

A part of me could scarcely believe that I had allowed myself to get pregnant. I mean, me of all people? I was a woman true, but I’d never been very feminine even after I had accepted my body. The fact that I would willing choose to get knocked up was the part that I couldn’t quite understand. I wanted to have Lily’s baby.

It was the absolute affirmation of my status as a woman and I couldn’t wait to hold my infant daughter in my arms. I let out a soft chuckle and shook my head. Four weeks pregnant and already I couldn’t contain my excitement. I hadn’t been this thrilled since… well ever.

I’m sure some would call her a freak of nature, but I didn’t care. She was what Vakrexid had called a binary clone, created by combining Lily’s DNA with my own and forming a fetus. None of it had been done in a lab or with test tubes, but by the genetic manipulating abilities of my symbiote.

“Hey.”

A pair of hands slip around my back and I let them guide me around so that I was facing Lily. She too had been lured into bigger and better things, but her work allowed her to get her hands dirty far more often than mine. She had started small, repairing and retrofitting Qharr and humans ships to help support Earth’s growing trade and commerce infrastructure, but given that her experience made her uniquely qualified to the task, there became greater and great demand for her skills. She took on more and more clients, eventually even accepting a contract from the interim government. I lost track of the number of people she employed, but I could honestly say of the two of us she brought in a lot more money.

She was filthy as usual, but I didn’t hesitate before leaning in and sharing a kiss with her.

“You’re in a good mood today.” She smiled despite the dark circles under her eyes. We both put in a lot of hours working, but somehow we always managed to find a little time to spend with one another.

“I just saw, our old friend, the doctor.” I beamed back at her and ran a hand through her hair and kissed her forehead. In recent years she’d taken to wearing her hair short in a pixie cut. She said it was because she was tired of getting her hair caught while working, but I sort of liked it that way.

“And?”

“He’s good. As jittery as ever, but he doesn’t seem quite as bad as he was during the occupation. The time he spent back on his home-world has done him some good.”

She kissed my neck and wrapped her hands around my waist whispering in my ear. “That’s good to hear, but I meant your appointment.”

I closed my hands and wrapped my arms around her in a hug and whispered back. “As good as can be expected. There’s not much to tell this early in the pregnancy.”

“Then what’s got you in such a good mood?”

I pulled away frowning at her and put both hands on my hips. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

“You mean your birthday.” She smiled coyly and bit her lip. “How could I forget something like that? Why don’t you–”

“Hey!” An all too familiar voice called and I turned to face my sister with eyebrows raised. She had her hands on her hips and her face was creased in a frown which was reminiscent of the terrible ‘look’. When her lips cracked into a smile and she shook her head I realized that she wasn’t being serious. “Aren’t you two supposed to be out of here by now?”

“I-I actually hadn’t told her yet.” Lily bit her lip and stared at my sister with big apprehensive eyes.

“What on Earth is going on here?” I spun around casting furtive glances at the two of them. They both shrunk back and I fought down my sudden urge to burst into a fit of giggles. If their reactions were any indications, I think, I’d finally managed to master the dreaded ‘look’. It wouldn’t do to spoil my triumph with a display of silliness.

“Well…” Becca scratched the back of her neck and pursed her lips before continuing. “It was supposed to be surprise, but Lily here is going to whisk you away for the evening out on the town while Matt and I helped Thena out.”

It seemed selfish to celebrate the anniversary of my birth when Earth was still licking its wounds. Humanity had been freed, but how many had been left homeless and destitute after the occupation had ended? I almost shut them down then and there, but as I looked the pair over and caught the look of anticipation in their eyes I got the feeling that they’d been planning this little excursion for weeks if not months. I just couldn’t tell them no.

I paused and bowed my head and held my hands up in defeat before letting Becca lead me away. It ended up being a memorable night, in every way you might imagine and in one that I could have never guessed.

It was later, we’d returned home to get ourselves prepared for the night out. Our house, while located in a more upscale area was far smaller than most people would expect. For someone who had spent most of her early years sleeping in a crowded communal area, it felt like we were living in a palace, and at times I even felt guilty about it. That being said, I could honestly say it felt more like a home than any of the places I had lived during the occupation. In truth, we could have afforded a much larger home, even with the limited number available due to reconstruction, but neither one of us felt comfortable living in luxury while so many suffered. It was just as well, the money we saved on housing allowed us to spend more of our hard earned cash helping those less fortunate.

I smiled and let my eyes wander around the room, studying the stills Lily had taken such great pains to find and frame on the walls. Most were recent and featured me and Lily together, laughing or smiling, a few were of family and friends both new and old, but then there were the older ones, a picture of Lily and her sister, and even one of her parents, my Mom and Dad before Becca and I had been born and another of my family before the invasion. Lily had salvaged some from her old nest and others from my uncle Harold. It amazed me how many she had been able to scavenge, but for every one she had found how many had been destroyed during the occupation?

I sank into the little couch and felt my smile tighten as I imagined what sort of photos might decorate our walls in the future. Our daughter, of course, would be a prominent fixture, but she was just the start. We hadn’t discussed it yet, but something told me more children would come, nieces and nephews, perhaps too. However many there happened to be no photo would be complete without Lily.

I bit my lip and looked up at the clock on the wall. Lily always took so damn long to get ready. What was it with her?

It was almost time for the nightly broadcast from the provisional government. It wasn’t often I was home in time to hear it and usually had to make do from the recaps. So, I clicked the holo system on and sank back down into the seat. I closed my eyes and let the sound of the broadcaster’s familiar voice filled my ears. It always brought a smile to my face to hear Neada reporting the days events.

As a well trained military force, the nester rangers, had been integrated into the existing command structure of the ERF. Given that both organizations had branched off from the armed forces of the United Earth their merger had been fairly seamless. Unfortunately, for Janet and Rayland their relationship didn’t exactly sit well with their superiors who believed it compromised the chain of command. In the end, Neada gave up her commission and accepted a position working for the civilian arm of the interim government so that they could be together.

Most of the broadcasts were reports on reconstruction efforts more than a few of which, mentioned me, but once in a while there was a rare update on the war between the remains of the Ascendancy and the Gieff Confederacy which had risen up as a direct response to the revelations considering their peoples origins. Since the infighting had begun the Qharr had retreated from the rest of the galaxy, letting the inhabitants of their respective territories fend for themselves. The Gieff Confederacy had been a little more open, even sending a delegation to Earth to issue a formal apologize for the transgressions committed against our people, but it was going to take a lot of effort on the Gieff’s part to mend the wounds the Qharr had inflicted.

This time around, the update was something a lot of people, myself included, had waited a long time to hear. “…the formation of the constitutional convention three months ago marks a first step toward independence from military rule, but some have criticized General Briggs for not taking greater steps to expedite the transition. Today, he came forward to address these concerns.”

There was a brief pause in the transmission then my uncle’s voice rang through the room. “Our goal is and always been a free Earth. The formation of a constitutional convention was a landmark step in that direction. I understand the frustration some have expressed that we aren’t moving fast enough, but democracy is a goal which must be worked toward with a great deal of finesse. We’ve laid the groundwork, and have made great progress, but we cannot make a transition before the right stones are in place. Today marks, yet another important landmark as I am pleased to announce the ratification of a constitution and with it a timetable for a transition to civilian rule.”

My eyes snapped open, just in time to watch my uncle’s face fade away and be replaced by Neada’s. I let a smile return to my face. “You did it, uncle.”

The broadcast continued, but I was so enthralled by what I had just heard that I stopped listening. In the near future humans would be making laws and deciding what was best for our world. It was what I always dreamed of and I felt hot tears sting my cheeks as I considered the implications. I had been asked to participate as a delegate in the convention, but had turned it down. That was the job for those with a better understand of the workings of governments. Not a reluctant resistance fighter, whose favorite pastime was cooking.

A knock at the door was what broke me from my reverie and I hopped from my seat to answer it.

“Alexana Briggs?” A man greeted me as I opened the door. He ran a hand through his graying hair and smiled at me.

“Yeah? Do I know you?”

“My name is Haru Nakamura,” he replied reaching up to adjust his necktie. “We’ve never met, but I believe you were acquainted with my niece, Kaya Brzezinski.”

“Oh, God!” I felt cold chills shoot down my neck as I stared at him noting a slight resemblance to the woman I had once loved.

“Forgive me if it is too presumptuous, but might I come in? I was rather hoping I could talk with you about my niece.”

I nodded, swung the door all the way open more than a little curious. I invited him inside and he graciously accepted a glass of amaretto from me as I took a seat opposite him.

“Now, what exactly can I do for you Mr. Nakamura?”

He slowly turned the glass in his hands, but didn’t drink from it as he stared at me with wide set eyes. “Miss Briggs, I have no family, no wife, no legacy to call my own. When I returned to Earth I had hoped to find my sister or even one of her daughters still alive. I do admit my reasons weren’t entirely selfless, I thought perhaps, that through them I could pass on something of myself, but now it is too late and they are all gone.”

I shifted in my seat, not exactly sure what he was getting at and more than a little uncomfortable with the implications. He continued heedless of my discomfort. “I suffer from a genetic condition which, in addition to rendering me sterile will soon result in my death. I’ve been to the best doctors I could find, even the Dexagarmetrax with all their advanced medical knowledge cannot help me. I’ve come to accept that I will die. It is not an easy thing to do.”

I nodded and bit my lip. I had looked death in the eye more times than I cared to admit and I recognize something of the cold acceptance that I’d experienced in Haru as he spoke and as strange as it might seem I didn’t feel quite so uncomfortable anymore. “I’m so sorry.”

“Please, I do not want your pity. I’ve come to ask you a favor. I understand you fought beside Kaya in the resistance. Tell a dying man about his niece.”

I stared at Mr. Nakamura for the longest time unable to speak. He didn’t say a word either and I thought that moment might go on forever. Then I surprised even myself, and with a quivering voice I began to tell him about Kaya. I didn’t tell him everything, few knew about my transformation from man to woman, my relationship with Kaya and especially our break up due to my transformation. Those things would only serve to mar Haru’s memory of Kaya. So I told him of her dedication, her passion for the fight against the Qharr, and you can bet I even told him about her fiery temper.

Tears streamed down my face as I spoke and I was more than a little surprised to find that he was crying too. When I finished he thanked me and slowly rose to his feet.

“Thank you, Ms. Briggs.” He said then turned away retreating toward the door.

“Wait!” I called after him. “You don’t have to go. There’s a lot we can still talk about.”

He shook his head and gave me a sad smile. “I wish you well, but I’ve already taken up enough of your time.”

He was almost out the door when he turned back to me one final time. “I know that because you are bonded to a K’teth symbiote that some do not fully trust your motives, but I believe you are an honorable woman. With the formation of the new government I believe we will need people to step up and take on leadership positions to help us recover from the scars of the war and the occupation. I think you would be more than suitable to the task.”

‘He’s got a point you know,’ Khala voice whispered in my ear. ‘I personally think Senator Briggs has a nice ring to it, don’t you?’

There would have been a time where Khala’s suggestion would have irritated me to no end, but we were beyond the petty disagreements of our past. When we were fleeing New York after the defeat of the Sub-Ascendant, our bond had undergone a fundamental change. One which, even after several years, we were still only just beginning to understand. There was no room for disagreement, because we understood one another at such a fundamental level, that it was impossible to distrust the other. There was no way either could lie or try to deceive the other, because we’d see through it. Our reluctant alliance, had grown into a friendship and deep love and affection for one another.

Khala and I had discussed creating a conclave that would represent the interests of her people and bonded hosts. There were only two K’teth on Earth at the moment, but with both being fully fertile queens, it was only a matter of time before new symbiotes were born. Many people feared the K’teth, they would need a public face to help people understand that they weren’t a threat and to help find willing hosts. There was more to it than that though, the K’teth had been used as weapons against the enemies of the Qharr for untold generations, forming a conclave would help protect them and offer a means by which they might escape the tyranny of their masters.

I didn’t reply to my symbiote and shook my head watching a Haru retreated toward the door. I called out to him one final time. He turned to me with those sad eyes and met my gaze.

I put a hand over my belly and bit my lip. “I haven’t told anyone this, but I’m pregnant with my first child. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to name her Kaya, after your niece.”

He nodded and his face lit up into the most dazzling smile. “I would be honored,” and with that last sentence he turned away and disappeared down the long corridor.

I sighed, shut the door behind him and stepped back into the living room where I found Lily. She later confessed to me that she had listened in on the entire conversation, but at that time all she did was pull me close and put both arms around me. Eventually, she led me from our apartment and out into the night where we celebrated. My birthday took on a whole new meaning and even when we went back home to make love to each other, Mr. Nakamura’s words stayed with me.

Humanity needed leaders now more than ever. My current position had been appointed and wouldn’t guarantee me a place in the new government. My status as a hero of the resistance would help garner me the sort of support I would need to run for office. I could give a voice to those who didn’t have one and I would be in a unique position to further relations between the K’teth and humanity. I could be a force for good in world where darkness had reigned for so long. Khala was right, Senator Briggs did have a nice ring to it.

The End

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Battle For Earth: Liberation

We had suffered so much loss at the hands of the gray skins, but we
would soon have our chance to bring them to justice. The final battle was coming
and everything was riding on us, but were we up to the task?

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

All my senses were screaming that we’d just walked into a trap and if I didn’t act, we were all going to die. So I leapt to my feet and lunged at the woman, locking one arm around her neck and with the other I rested my pistol against her temple.

“I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but I want answers. Who the hell are you?!”

The woman tried to break free from my grip, but she didn’t have near enough strength. I squinted against a sudden influx of illumination as all of the woman’s companions trained their lights and weapons on me, but my eyes adjusted in mere seconds.

“I’m Mara Briggs.”

God she even sounded like Mara! “Wrong answer!” I growled forcing her away from her companions. “I was there when Mara died. I checked her lifeless corpse for signs of life. Hell, I even helped bury her. Why don’t you try again and tell me who the fuck you really are?”

The faux-Mara tried to push herself away again, but my grip was like iron. “You’re with the resistance then?”

I didn’t answer, but the impostor seemed more than willing to talk for the both of us. “I know this must be confusing for you, but the Mara Briggs who stayed on Earth was a clone. I am too, the original, died during the war.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“We’re with the Earth Reclamation Fleet. We’re the ones who sent the message; we’re here to implement the plan to retake Earth.”

I felt my resolve begin to buckle. The United Earth Defense Fleet had used clones during the war. It wasn’t that unlikely that the E.R.F. would use clones too. I loosened my grip and let faux-Mara slip free, but kept my weapon trained on her as she spun around to face me. She didn’t look angry as I had expected, but her features were soft and her eyes wide as she looked me over.

“Rebecca?” she turned to her companions and held her hand up. “Lower your weapons!”

I grimaced, my new form did bare a passing resemblance to my sister as you might expect from siblings, but the differences were obvious to anyone who had seen the both of us. This wannabe-Mara, assuming she was telling the truth, would only have memories of my sister as a child. Was it any wonder she’d mistaken me for my sister? “The name’s Lexa. Becca is my sister.”

“Lloyd and Muriel had another daughter? So they lived through the invasion.”

“Not exactly.” I shook my head looking around the empty street. What if a patrol ship passed overhead and spotted the lights? “Why don’t we take this inside? I’d rather not draw any undue attention.”

Dupli-Mara nodded, and signaled her subordinates to follow as we made our way back to the house. I stopped her just in front of the door. “I’ll warn you now, you’re presence here may not be very well received. I’m not the only member of my group who remembers Mara’s death. Keep your friends outside. You can bring one or two of them up, if you’re concerned for your safety, but it’s bound to get a little crowded if they all come along.”

She nodded and held her hand up to the men. They stopped in the middle of the yard and not a single one of them moved to follow her in to the house. Six took up guard around the door, and formed a half-circle around it. The remaining five guards circled around the building presumably to take up watch on the other side. My fingers twitched a bit watching them, particularly since our experiences with the Nesters, but I doubted they’d be much trouble since the weapons they were carrying were all phase-based.

She nodded, her eyes widening as she got her first real look into my eyes and I turned away leading her up the stairs where the others were waiting. I hesitated before taking the stairs, glanced back at Mara and shook my head. I stepped up from the final step and Lily was the first on her feet to greet us.

Lily gasped and brought her hand up to cover her mouth. “M-Mara? Good lord, h-how is this possible?

“Mara?” Becca asked. “As in aunt Mara? Didn’t you say she was dead?”

“She says she’s a clone.” I grimaced and glanced back at her. “She knew about the message from the E-R-F. I think she’s who we’re supposed to meet.”

“Mara,” I paused and held my hand out to my sister “This is Becca.”

“Rebecca dear, you don’t know how good it is to see you after all these years,” Mara said staring at my sister with a gentle smile on her face. “It was so hard for me to leave Earth knowing that your parents and you would be forced to remain.”

Becca didn’t look like she was quite sure what to say. She smiled and nodded at Mara and shrugged at me as if hoping I could give her some direction. I cleared my throat and turned to my aunt’s clone. “This is Lily, she’s our tech expert. She’s gotten us out of some tough scrapes with her knowledge and experience.”

Mara nodded and her gaze seemed to linger on her eyes. She pursed her lips and turned to look on Neada who was standing a bit back from the others and looked pretty uncomfortable. “This, is Janet Neada, a Nester.”

“Nester? I remember that term; it was mentioned during your initial contact.” Mara raised an eyebrow and glanced at me. “I watched a recording of the original message.”

“We’re separate from the resistance. We’ve managed to keep our culture and traditions alive by remaining hidden from the gray skins,” Janet stepped forward and held her hand out to Mara.

“Fascinating,” Mara smiled and shook Neada’s hand. “We didn’t anticipate that a separate faction would arise.”

“And you Lexa,” Mara continued turned back to me. “You both look so much like your mother and your father I can see a bit of him in you both. Tell me what’s become of your parents? And young Jellfree? He wassuch a bright young boy.”

“Our parents are dead,” I bit my lip and glanced at my sister. “As for Jellfree, he’s– well it’s pretty complicated, but you’re looking at him… her. It’s a really long story.”

“I suppose if it’s a long tale. It may be one better told another time.” Mara raised an eyebrow and stared at me with a thoughtful expression before turning to the rest of the group. “Well now, we’ve come a long way. I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

“You could say that again,” I glanced around the room. “But I’d rather discuss things somewhere a little more secure. I don’t want to take any risks. You never know who might be listening in in a rat hole like this. New Anaheim may have been left abandoned by the Qharr, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have eyes and ears in its decaying ruins.”

She nodded. “Point taken. Perhaps you could suggest a more fitting location?”

“Back at our ship.”

Mara studied me, and pursed her lips. She looked ready to object, but instead she smiled and held her hand out. “Show me the way.”

“Now about that complicated story of yours,” Mara said glancing back at me as we made our way through the ruins. “We have a long walk ahead of us, it seems like a good time to tell it as any.”

I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh before I turned to her. “You first. Failing some complicated ruse put on by the gray skins, you obviously haven’t been on Earth all this time. Tell me how you got past the shield grid around Earth and the network of defenses.”

“The Rhiannon device,” she said. “It’s an experimental leap drive that can jump within centimeters of the intended destination from light years away. It’s the only way we could have leapt through the shields and survived. Normally, when you leap you will often arrive significant distance away from the destination, say several kilometers, it’s not usually an issue when you’re traveling over long distances through the emptiness of space, but when you’re jumping through a planet’s defensive grid you can imagine what sort of problems you can run into.”

“I understand better than you might think,” I bowed my head. “A while back when fleeing the Qharr we were forced to activate our ship’s leap jump drive. By some miracle we made it, but we took a hit from one of their weapons before the drive activated and crash landed. It’s how you, the other Mara, died.”

“I’m sorry. This must be very strange for you,” she glanced at me frowning as she looked into my eyes.

I chuckled and bit my lip. “I’ve become accustomed to strange things.” I blushed, glancing down at my breasts. “After what’s happened to me I don’t think there are a lot of things that really surprise me anymore. Although, I admit seeing your face really threw me through a loop.”

“Tell me, what has been done to you. Are the Qharr responsible?”

“In a way, I guess you could say they are. If they’d never invaded Earth I never would have ended up like this, but the real culprit is the K’teth symbiote I’ve become joined with. She changed me when we first joined, so that it would have a female body to carry her offspring,” I turned away. “It’s taken some time, but I think I’m finally at peace with who I’ve become.”

“K’teth, I’ve heard that name before. During the war I remember reading reports of a group within the Qharr Ascendancy who called themselves the Edant K’teth. Anytime our troops came up against them, it didn’t end so well for our boys,” Mara said giving me a meaningful look.

“No, I don’t imagine it would have. The Edant, or the Qharr hosts, are capable of doing some pretty amazing things. They gain their abilities from their symbiotes, the K’teth, which is why they call themselves the Edant K’teth.”

“I take it you share these abilities?”

“More or less.” I met her gaze and saw the suspicion in her eyes. “You don’t trust me do you? I went through this with the other Mara too. She was… suspicious of my symbiote. She questioned Khala’s motives for helping me.”

“It’s cause for concern, certainly, which makes me wonder why you’re telling me all this.”

“I don’t like hiding. I’ve done enough of it to last me a lifetime. If we’re going to be working together I want you to know who and what you’re dealing with and I hope you would be equally forthcoming.”

She nodded a smile touching the corner of her lips as she looked me over. “So much like your father. Forgive me, I’ve worked most of my life in intelligence. I’m naturally suspicious of everyone, and unfortunately I can’t quite bring myself to trust this K’teth of yours. You say this being you’ve become joined with has motives which would suggest it is a thinking reasoning being. I don’t blame my counterpart for distrusting it, I feel the same way.”

“But,” she added glancing over her shoulder at Lily and Becca. “If it wanted to give us over to the Qharr I have no doubts that we’d have been met by a cadre of hunters. Still, I cannot for the life of me believe that this symbiote is completely on the level. No, for the time being, I will work with you.”

The look she gave me sent cold chills down my spine. She may not have shared the past twenty-four years worth of experience with the other Mara, but she was clearly every bit her equal. She had to know that my abilities gave me an enormous advantage against nearly any opponent, but she still had the confidence to give me an ultimatum. The Mara I’d known would have done the same thing.

She smiled and glanced back at Becca and Lily then turned back to me with a pointed look. “I assume that you’re not the only human who has become host to one of these symbiotes?”

“Just the three of us, so far.”

With that I stepped past Mara, moving beyond her companions and took the lead. I wasn’t feeling in a very talkative mood and it was probably a good idea if I kept my distance from her at least for the time being. She was a lot like the Mara I’d known, perhaps too much too much like her. It was unsettling to say the least.

A high-pitched wail so intense and so terrible shattered the silence of the city. Neada and fully half of Mara’s soldiers fell to the ground clutching at their ears. The sound was inhuman and it invoked the most basic primal instincts in all of us. I knew that sound, not because of my own experiences, but because of Khala’s. A brief image of a Qharr hunting party moving through a lush alien landscape tracking a pack of the beasts passed into my mind before fading away.

“Dre’ks.” I spun around looking for signs of movement. Thankfully, there were no beasts in sight, but then I heard the screams, human screams.

I turned to Mara and put my hands on her shoulders. “Whatever you do, don’t follow me. These things are almost completely immune to phase blasts. The Qharr hunt them with spears and knives.”

I leapt into motion, not waiting for a response or offering up any more explanation. I sensed, rather than saw, Becca and Lily on my tail, but I didn’t try to stop them they wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.

Another ghastly wail was followed by more human screams and I put on more speed knowing that if dre’ks had caught the scent of humans they wouldn’t last long. I came to a halt to get my bearings–Lily and Becca managed to stop in just enough time keep from bumping into me–when I thought I’d lost the trail, but then the screams came again. They were close this time, and I jumped back into motion–my two companions still on my tail–toward their source.

Just when I thought it was a hopeless case, we intersected the beasts’ trail and I shuddered as I caught sight of all the destruction they’d left in their wake. Once a pack of dre’ks took it into their heads they were going to do something, nothing would stop them, not phase pistols, not people and least of all the decayed and rotten remains of the buildings in the city. If the creatures came to a wall they didn’t let it stop them, they simply plowed right through it.

We found bodies as progressed scattered throughout the debris, but none of them showed any signs of life so we moved on. Finally, we came to the end of the trail inside a house just a few blocks away from our old home. We’d covered all that distance only to find ourselves right back where we started.

I didn’t bother drawing my pistols, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Instead, I lumbered up the stairs at full speed only just managing to turn a corner without slamming into the wall. I heard growls and screams coming from the back bedroom and didn’t hesitate a moment as I pounced through what was left of the door. Three ferocious and very large dre’ks had a trio of kids backed into the corner of the room.

I had to do a double take when I realized it was the group we’d run into just a few days before. The oldest girl had a metal pipe clenched in her hands which she was using to fend off the beasts, but she was fighting a losing battle. Her arms were drenched in blood, presumably her own since dre’k blood had a sickly orange tinge to it. Her chest was heaving and she looked ready to drop, but that all changed when Lily and Becca came tearing into the room after me.

All three beasts spun around to face us and I heard Becca gasp as we got our first good look at them. They were huge creatures, the two largest, being close is size, at nearly a hundred seventy centimeters in length and the smaller approached a hundred-fifty. They had long muzzles with a double row of teeth and a pair of tusks on the side of their head. Their eyes were a sickly green and full of terrible malice. Their bodies were sleek and muscular and covered in scales and patches of fur. Their legs ended not with feet or paws, but with something resembling a thumb-less hand and each digit ended in a claw close to five centimeters long.

The foremost of the creatures, let out one of those inhuman and high-pitched wails. I brought my fist around smashing into the beasts head as it came tearing at me. It didn’t even blink, not that I knew for sure it had eyelids, but it snapped at me and managed rake the side of my arm with its teeth. I spun away and kicked it in the side of the head with every bit of strength I could muster.

That sent the beast tumbling away and crashing through the wall. I followed it through the hole made by its body, hoping to catch it off guard, but it was already back on its feet by the time I landed on the ground outside. It roared and slashed at me, but I jumped out of the way and it’s talons raked through the empty air.

“Khala, how the hell do I kill this thing?” I demanded from my symbiote, grabbing the beast by both tusks and sent it slamming into the wall of the opposite building. Despite our shared memories of the beast, I had no images in my mind of one actually being killed.

I heard roars in the distance, which told me that Becca and Lily, must be fighting the other dre’ks, but I was occupied fighting my own that I had no time to investigate.

‘Their throats,’ Khala replied. ‘Pierce their insides with something sharp and that usually does the trick.’

“Usually?” I gritted my teeth and leapt up in the air as the dre’k pounced toward me. “That’s so reassuring!”

‘They are resilient animals.’

“Yes!” I yelled between gritted teeth. “I’m finding that out now.”

I walked right into the wall and up its side as the creature pounced on me. It missed by mere inches, but had gotten so close, in fact, that I could feel it’s breath on my ankles. I needed a weapon, something which I could use to kill the damn thing. I might be able to do it in by smashing it with my fists, but the beast would likely do a lot of damage before I was able to take it down. It was better if I ended it as quickly as possible.

I lumbered up the side of the building and lurched up catapulting onto the top of the roof. I spun around looking in every direction, hoping to catch a gleam of metal, anything I could use as weapon and found it several buildings over on what had once been an apartment building. The source was an overhanging balcony balustrade that had gone to rust. With enough force, I thought I might be able to break one of the metal pieces free and use it as a spear. The only problem was getting there.

I heard scraping, and I looked down over the edge to see the dre’k crawling its way up the side of the building. “Dammit,” I cursed swirling away from the edge. “These things just don’t stop.”

I went tearing across the roof, leaping over the opposite edge when I got to the end and just barely managed latch onto the edge of the opposite building’s overhang. I scrambled up over the edge and looked over my shoulder to watch as the pursuing beast found its way onto the opposite one.

I was one roof over from the apartment complex. There was a lot more distance between the two building than the last two and the jump would be a lot more difficult to make, but I didn’t let that deter me. I took off running, giving myself a greater head start then yelled at Khala. “Just when I reach the edge, give me a boost.”

Khala didn’t answer, but I sensed the symbiote’s consciousness stirring inside my mind. I leapt over the edge of the building and lurched forward soaring across the expanse, my arms flailing uselessly through the air before finally finding purchase on the tiled surface of the apartment building. My stomach impacted the side of overhang so hard that I was left momentarily breathless. I almost lost my grip, but I managed claw my way up the edge at the last moment.

I glanced back over my shoulder, and yet again I found the dre’k crawling across the surface of the roof behind me. “How the hell do the Qharr manage to kill these things?” I asked no one in particular. I was beginning to seriously doubt the sanity of any gray skin who willingly hunted the beasts.

The roof was pretty unstable, and each time I moved tiles slid off their seating and over the side of the building. I moved carefully, but that didn’t keep me from losing my footing and almost falling over the edge. Fortunately, I managed to right myself in time, but it was about then that the dre’k found its way across the apartment roof, landing just a few feet away from me before letting out one of its’ God awful wailing howls.

It might have been a persistent beast, but it wasn’t particularly graceful creature and its’ efforts to get to me resulted in three entire rows of roof tiles coming free from their seating and sliding down over the edge of the building taking the creature down with them. “That was close,” I muttered under my breath then climbed over the edge of the building and dropped down onto the balcony below.

I heard the dre’k stirring from the ground and I knew it was only a matter of time before it made its way back up the wall. I knelt down next to the railing, found one of the more heavily rusted portions of metal and attempted to force one of the bars free, but they wouldn’t give. I gritted my teeth and kicked the bar with my foot, the metal groaned in protest and I knew I was on the right track. I kicked it again and one of the weld spots popped loose. I grabbed it with both hands and with one violent jerk managed to break it free. I had my weapon, now it was time to use it.

The dre’k was just beginning to ascend the wall toward me, and when I climbed up over the railing and dove off the edge, bar held in front of me and slammed it into the beast on my way down. I managed to leap far enough away from the creature to keep from going down with it, but my weapon was flung from my hands as I tucked and rolled.

I climbed back to my feet, just as the beast came lumbering at me. I dove out of the way and kicked it in it’s side as it went tearing past, but the blow had almost no effect. I cast my eyes about looking for some signs of my bar and caught sight of it resting on the ground a good five meters away. The dre’k came lunging toward me and I jumped up, stepping on it’s head and rolling across it’s body before landing on the other side.

I lunged forward, snatching up my makeshift weapon from the ground and spun around to face the beast. It lunged at me and I swung the bar at it hitting it across the snout. It snarled, but seemed otherwise unaffected by the blow. It lunged at me again, it’s jaw snapping and I threw myself forward stabbing the creature so deep into its mouth that I just barely enough room to maintain my grip.

My blow proved pretty devastating, and the beast attempted to jerk back, but the bar was lodged so deeply into it’s mouth that it couldn’t break free. I kept my grip and pushed forward with all the strength I could muster. The creature let out one last shriek then keeled over dead as I thrust my weapon deep into it’s brain cavity.

I loosed my grip on the bar and grimaced. I wasn’t about to try and free it from the creature’s corpse. It was lodged in there pretty good, but I needed something if I was going to help fight off the other two dre’ks, assuming Lily and Becca hadn’t dealt with the damn things already. I glanced up at the balcony and pursed my lips, there were always more where the first one came from.

I managed to pry loose another bar from the railing before making my way back to the house where I found another dre’k corpse. It didn’t have any obvious puncture wounds, but I only did a cursory examination before I heard the wail. I lurched forward, zooming through the city’s streets traveling nearly an entire block before I found the source of the sound. It was the third dre’k and it was doing an amazing job of fending off Becca and Lily who were pounding at the beast relentlessly.

Neither my sister nor my lover had taken note of me just yet, but that was about to change. I entered the fray at full velocity, and with a bit of a boost from Khala went soaring up in the air only to come slamming down a moment later my makeshift spear held out in front of me. The weapon actually managed to pierce the beast’s skin, but it did little to slow the creature. I yanked my weapon free from the creature’s side then spun away as it snapped at me.

“Becca, Lily,” I grinned at the pair who paused a moment to gawk at me. I ran up along the side of the beast and hit it with my bar as hard as I could where I’d pierced the skin. It shrieked and swung its tail around slamming it into my ankles and sending me flying away. The weapon slipped through my fingers and I heard it clang against the hard concrete somewhere behind me.

I was back on my feet in an instant, but the beast was already on top of me. It’s big muzzle was right in my face, and I shoved it away, planting a fist inside its eye socket. It roared and jerked back, swinging around to whip me with it’s tail a second time. I jumped back, only barely managing to keep from getting hit and spun away looking all over for my weapon.

“Lily! Becca!” I screamed. “Find the damn bar!”

The dre’k came charging toward me and this time I wasn’t able to dive out of the way. It’s tusks tore into my side pinning me against a piece of debris. I screamed hitting it in the snout with blow after blow. My attacks proved powerful enough to prompt the creature to pull away and I collapsed on my side clutching at my wound. I was only on the ground a moment, but when I rolled back onto my feet the creature had moved on.

Lily was battling the dre’k alone, and was doing a good job of keeping it occupied. I couldn’t see Becca, but I was sure she was still looking for the rod. I winced as my bones creaked and snapped back into place then I went lumbering across the street toward Lily and the beast.

I drew my phase pistols, and opened fire. They didn’t do a damn bit of good against the dre’k, but the bright flashes from the phase blasts distracted the damn thing long enough to get it off Lily’s back. I tucked my guns back into their holsters and came rushing back into the fight my fists beating into the side of the beast’s head.

It lunged at me and I jumped back doing a back-flip. Lily charged the beast slamming her fists into its side. Again, it shrugged off the attacks and I went charging at it with arms swinging. The beast swirled around and met me its’ massive jaws opened. Its’ gnashing teeth clomped down on my wrist and didn’t let go.

She came bursting onto the scene with speed that only a bonded human could matched, leapt up into the air and slammed into the beast with a the rod in her hands. The weapon pierced the skin of the dre’ks leg and it released its hold on my arm screeching in pain. She yanked the weapon free, then jumped forward and forced the bar into the creature’s eye socket. It roared again, rearing back, but Becca was relentless she kept at it and with one last thrust the creature let out one final groan and collapsed dead at my sister’s feet.

“Holy hell,” Becca said tossing the bar aside. “The Qharr actually hunt those things?”

‘It was a worthy hunt.’ A disembodied voice said and I stopped to glance at my sister. Her symbiote had spoken.

“Worthy isn’t the word I’d use.” I winced, bringing up my arm in front of my face just in time to watch the wound close.

“Let’s get back to those kids. That girl looked like she was in pretty rough shape.”

I spun around, intent on doing just that, but stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted figures moving in the distance. I had my pistols in my almost immediately. My gut told me it was probably Janet, Mara and the group of E.R.F. soldiers, but it never hurt to be cautious.

I watched them approach motioning for the others to get down as I steadily crawled my way through the ruins. Becca and Lily followed, much to my irritation, but I didn’t want to give us away so I didn’t say a word. I tried motioning at them, but Lily and Becca merely shared a nearly identical look of defiance. I glowered at them and rounded a corner. I let out a sigh of relief and leapt back onto my feet, my guns slipping back into my holsters as I approached Mara and her group.

“You weren’t supposed to follow me.” I grimaced moving past her.

“Wait, where are you going now?” Mara demanded drawing a phase pistol and training it on me.

Janet, who had followed Mara’s group in, stepped forward, but I held my hand up before she could interject.

I swirled around and yanked the weapon out of her hands and stood there with it clutched in my grip. Clearly what I had told her earlier hadn’t quite set in. “Those dre’k were attacking children.”

I tossed Mara her gun, spun away and traipsed off toward the house where we’d left the children. I just hoped they hadn’t fled. If the girl really was injured I need to get her to the doctor before it was too late.

The little boy and girl looked up at me their eyes wide with terror as I knelt down to check their older sibling for signs of life. The moment my fingers touched her neck she stirred and I let out a sigh of relief as her eyes shot back open. She tried to pull away from me, but she didn’t have much fight left in her and her attempts failed.

“Dammit!” I called over my shoulder as I pulled the girl’s shirt up revealing the wound on her belly. It was gushing pretty badly and I didn’t really have anything to stem the blood.

“Rodriquez,” Mara snapped her fingers at one of her soldier escorts.

One of the soldier’s pulled her helmet free revealing an appealing face with wide-set eyes and thin lips, dropped down on her knees on the other side of the girl. She slipped a pack over her shoulder and unceremoniously dumped on the ground at her side. She started rummaging through her bag, producing bandages, a bottle of clear liquid and strips of something that looked an awful lot like rawhide leather.

“She’s in bad shape,” Rodriquez said glancing up at Mara. “Normally, I wouldn’t recommend moving her, but I doubt, in these conditions, that we’d want to keep her here.”

Dupli-Mara nodded. “Do what you can for her,” she paused then turned to face a trio of soldiers. “Lewis, Patterson, Dorian, prep a stretch. I think the young lady would benefit from the attention of a certain Dexagarmetrax doctor which if I’m correct is waiting for our friends back at their ship.”

I felt my eyebrows twitch, but I didn’t say a word as Rodriquez started working on the girl. Mara could have easily know about the doctor by studying recording of our transmission with the E-R-F, but there was something about the way she spoke when she mentioned Vakrexid that suggested that there may be more to it than that. Maybe it was just my imagination. I shook my head and watched the medic do her work. She had already gotten the wound cleaned and had started to apply the strips of leather.

Her siblings had given up any hopes of resisting and instead stood off to the side and watched us with wide eyes as Rodriquez worked. As for the patient herself, she’d lost consciousness soon after the soldier had started work on her.

“They’re synthetic flesh, we call them flash strips. They’ll affix to the wound and keep any dirt or grime from getting in,” Rodriquez glanced over at me perhaps noticing my interest.

“Then what are the bandages for?”

“To keep the wound bound tight,” she replied glancing at me. “At least until we can get her to this doctor of yours.”

Lewis, Patterson and Dorian returned several moments later with their packs and produced a collapsible stretcher from inside their packs. Careful not to harm her, we got the girl loaded up on the stretcher and started back toward the ship with her two siblings in tow.

Chapter Two

By the time we found the clearing outside the city where we’d landed the ship the night sky had softened and taken on the brilliant reds and oranges of the early dawn. Mara stopped in her tracks, her eyes wide with wonder as she looked up at the morning sky.

“Patterson, how long has it been since you’ve seen a sunset on Earth?” Mara said placing a hand on the soldier’s shoulder.

“Never,” he replied back, his voice muffled by his helmet. “And neither have you.”

Mara smiled and let out a dramatic sigh as she glanced back at him. “I gave up trying to differentiate my memories from the original Mara Briggs years ago. They are as much a part of me as they were her and for all intents and purposes I am her. ”

“Yeah, but there’s only one of you,” Patterson replied pulling his helmet free from his head revealing a shockingly familiar set of features. “I got stuck with a mug identical to hundreds of my clone brothers and all of us share the same memories until the moment we popped out of our tubes. You might be able to maintain the illusion that you are the same person as your originator, but the rest of us ain’t so lucky.”

“Holy fucking hell,” Janet cursed stepping back with her hand cupped around her mouth. I couldn’t blame her for her reaction. I was struggling to wrap my head around it, too. Save for a few less lines of age on his face, Patterson was a perfect doppleganger for Rayland. It hadn’t quite sunk in that he shared the same last name as the major, but given that Rayland was a clone it made a certain amount of sense.

“What’s wrong?” Ray-wannabe, grinned looking first at Neada, then glanced at Becca, Lily, and me. “You all look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“You just a lot like someone we know,” I shook my head and walked past him before turning to Mara. “Come on, we need to get our patient inside the ship. Or have you forgotten?”

“Of course not,” she replied. “But the girl is in relatively stable condition and we could do with a bit a rest. Your ship is not in sight which leads me to believe that it’s still some distance away.”

“It’s a whole lot closer than you think,” Lily said twirling her fingers around a lock of her hair.

“Oh, what did you do, bury it?” Lewis grinned chuckling at his joke. No one else seemed to find it funny. I rolled my eyes and turned away before closing my eyes and stepping forward.

“Holy fucking shit, she disappeared,” a voice cursed and I spun around to face the owner. It belonged to one of the soldiers, a lanky fellow whose name I’d never learned. I leaned forward and poked my head through the energy barrier which invoked some fairly amusing results. Half of Mara’s men looked ready to bolt and the rest looked like they might not be far behind.

“A holocloaker,” Mara said a smile touching the corner of her lips. “And a pretty sophisticated one from the looks of it. I’m surprised any survived the invasion.”

“You’d be surprised how much old junk is sitting around,” Lily said glancing at Mara. “That is if you know where to look.”

Mara stepped through the cloak field and stopped dead when she got her first look at the ship. “One of the omega-seven prototypes,” she mused looking it over with a fine eye before turning toward me. “We were so close, but the technology came too late. The omega-sevens were the basis for everything the E-R-F has now. If we could have developed the technology sooner and had enough time to work some of the kinks out of the early prototypes, the outcome of the war might have been different.”

“Yeah, and we’d all live happily ever after and there’d be soft little kittens and puppies for us all to snuggle.” I met her gaze and then drew very close so only she could hear. “I’ve spent most my life regretting what happened. I gave up on changing the past a long time ago. The best we can do is change the future.”

I stepped past her moving toward the ship without waiting for the others to follow. The front exit ramp was open and Vakrexid poked his head through and locked eyes with me. “Vakrexid is most gladdened to see you.”

“I thought I told you to keep the front ramp closed. If we had needed a quick takeoff, we’d have been royally screwed.”

“Vakrexid is most apologetic, but I opened the ramp so that Vakrexid could more easily bring in the supplies that I have gathered. Going in and out through the airlock was most tedious.”

“Supplies?” I blinked. “What sort of supplies?”

“Edible plants, herbs, the carcass of a deer,” Vakrexid tweetled back at me.

“You killed a deer?”

“Indeed.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head then glanced back over my shoulder. “Whatever, just… we have a new patient for you. She’s on a stretcher, the folks from the E-R-F are carrying her in now.”

“The E-R-F?” The doctor twitched lurching down the ramp to watch as Lewis and Dorian carried the young girl through the cloak field, but his eyes were on someone else entirely.

“Mara.” His voice was a whisper. “She is with the E-R-F?”

Vakrexid didn’t seem surprised, merely curious, and I was beginning to see certain pieces of the puzzle that was the doctor fit into place. He’d known Mara, our Mara, for a long time, perhaps that relationship had extended back further than we’d all thought. Either way, he had been her friend and confidant for many years. Who knows what she might have told him?

He ran across the clearing toward the group where he met Mara and clasped his hands atop her shoulder.

“Hello doctor,” she said reaching up to touch one of his hands. “It has been a very long time.”

“Truly? Are you not a clone? Has Vakrexid encountered this version of Mara before?”

“No doctor, I’ve never personally met you, but I have the memories of my predecessor. Her experiences belong to me now.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Vakrexid understands. We shall make much discourse later! For now, I have a patient to attend to!” He exclaimed running toward the stretcher. “Take the girl inside. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

The duo of soldiers carrying the stretcher, appeared at the bottom of the ramp, lugging the girl up into the ship. I matched gazes with Mara who pursed her lips and followed the others into the bowels of the vessel. I waited a moment and followed Lily, Becca and Janet in.

We got the girl and her two siblings tucked safely away in the infirmary before we retreated to the bridge with Farris in tow. He was still in fairly rough shape, but the doctor had given him permission to leave the infirmary and he had jumped at the chance. The command center was crowded with Mara and her crew present, to say the least, but there was enough space to accommodate all of us.

“Shit.” Farris shook his head, thrumming his fingers against the console and stared up at Mara with eyes wide. “I can’t be the only one who’s weirded out by this. Mara risen from the dead and of course, we have Mr. Smile’s look-a-like standing in the corner. I can’t be the only one who noticed that, can I?”

“They’re both clones, Matt,” Becca said running her hand through his mop of hair.

“Well, I know that. I knew Mara for ten years before she died and… Rayland, just look at the guys face. Not even a hint of a smile, or a grin or even a damn smirk! It’s god damned unnerving!”

“Rayland?” Patterson tweaked an eyebrow. “This Rayland fellow who you say looks so much like me. Is he another clone?”

Janet nodded. “He is… he was one of the last clone batches from before the invasion. He had a defect and was scheduled to be terminated, but one of the doctor’s working in the cloning facility saved him from his fate, eventually repairing the defect with a mechanical implant and raised him as her own son.”

Patterson nodded in understanding. “Well, that certainly explains it. I was always told the last of the Pattersons left on Earth went down defending New Nuremberg.”

“Well,” Mara cleared her throat and looked around the room. “This is all just so fascinating, but I do believe we have more pressing matters to discuss, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I replied batting the hair out of my eyes as I surveyed the room. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d spent so much time leading up to this point that I hadn’t planned for anything once we’d reached it. The resistance was pale shadow of its former self and we’d been carrying on hoping for a miracle.

Now that supposed miracle was the figurative elephant in the room, I wasn’t quite ready to accept it. Particularly when it took the form of my dead aunt, a woman I’d never would have described as warm and inviting in the first place. It all seemed too damned good to be true and there was a voice screaming in the back of my head to run and keep going.

I bit my lip and leveled my eyes on Mara. “What exactly is it that you’ve come to do here?”

“Like I said,” Mara replied. “We’ve come to retake Earth.”

“What do you think you can do with ten soldiers, a handful of resistance fighters and Dexagarmetrax doctor?”

“You don’t honestly believe that I brought just ten soldier do you, dear?” Mara pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair.

“Okay,” I paused, gritted my teeth and clasped my hands together. “Just how many soldiers did you bring along?”

She narrowed her eyes and a slow smile formed on her face just before she gave her response. “More than enough to do the job, I should think.”

“Right and what exactly would that involve. What’s your plan to drive the gray skins from Earth?”

Mara smiled and clasped her hand over mine. “All in good time, dear child, all in good time.”

I pulled away and leapt to my feet clenching my hands at my side as I rounded on her. “God! You’re no different than the other Mara. I spent weeks trying to get her to trust me and now I’ll have to do it all over again.”

She didn’t flinch, but instead slowly craned her neck to look up at me with those cool calculating eyes so like the ones that had belonged to the other clone. She clasped her hands in her lap and frowned. “Did you expect any less? Earth is hanging in the balance. I will not risk humanity’s future on a group of rag tag resistance fighters I know almost nothing about. Familial relations aside, can you honestly say that you trust me completely?”

“No,” I admitted sinking back into my seat. “But, we have plenty of time to work things out, don’t we?”

“Yes, dear, yes we do.” She replied, a smile forming on her face that sent cold chills down my spine.

What the hell sort of trouble had I gotten us into this time? The more I talked with her the more trouble I had distinguishing her from the old Mara. It seemed so odd that after almost a two and a half decades of separate experiences that the two had deviated so little from one another. I wasn’t quite sure what that might implied, but it made me shudder nonetheless.

A high-pitched wail filled the room and the sound was so similar to that made by the dre’ks that I spun around to face the door both phase pistols in hand. I wasn’t the only one, Becca, Lily and half of Mara’s soldiers all swirled around ready to pounce on the vicious beast that had attempted to sneak in on us. Fortunately, the only creature that came lumbering through the door was the doctor.

“Vakrexid has glad tidings to share!” he proclaimed holding his hands up in the air giving the impression that he was about to conduct a piece of music. “The girl will survive!”

“That’s splendid news, doctor, why don’t you join us? I’m sure you can help us clear some things up. You’ve examined Lexa, tell me what you think of these K’teth.”

The doctor tilted his waist back and forth and let out a low warble. “The K’teth? Most fascinating creatures. Vakrexid could go into great details about their biology! Their cell structure alone is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and their–”

“Doctor!” Mara held her hand up cutting the doctor short. “I’d love to hear about it all later, but I was referring to the individual parasites. Are they dangerous? Can they be trusted?”

“Dangerous? Most certainly, but only to those who are enemies to their hosts. The K’teth bonded to Lexa and Lily can almost certainly be trusted, but Vakrexid is most sorrowful to inform you that I believe the third symbiote is most untrustworthy.”

“And why would you say that?”

“He became joined to Rebecca after the death of his previous host and has been most uncooperative. Vakrexid does not believe he has communicated with Becca since first being joined with her.”

Mara’s head jerked sideways and she studied my sister with those eyes. Becca lurched back almost as if she’d been dealt a physical blow and looked back at her with her mouth agape. It was clear Mara wasn’t turning out to be quite like what Becca had expected.

‘Lexa,’ Khala’s voice wafted into my mind like the scent of a meadow of flowers carried into a building through a window. ‘Let me speak to her.’

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ I replied. ‘The old Mara never did warm up to you. I doubt this one will be any different.’

‘Please, just… trust me.’

I bit my lip and winced as I stared at Mara. There was certain pleading tone to the way Khala spoke that hit just the right nerve that I finally closed my eyes, let out a deep breath and relinquished control to my symbiote.

“Lex?” I felt a hand on my shoulder and Khala craned my neck to match gazes with Lily who’s eye grew wide when she looked me over. And she mouthed Khala’s name just before taking a single step back.

“No,” Khala said standing up tugging at the hem of my shirt. “Lexa is… how is it you humans put it? Taking a fiver?”

“Oh the parasite,” Mara leaned back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. “I’ve been wondering when you might rear your head, but honestly I hadn’t expected it to be quite so soon. What is it that you want?”

“I am not parasite, my relationship with a host is more of a symbiosis.”

“That remains to be seen.”

Khala narrowed my eyes and I felt my fingernails dig into my palms as she clenched my fists at my side. “I went through this with that other contemptible woman. What must I do to convince you people that my daughter and I are only interested in securing the future of our race. The battle for Earth is the only chance at liberation my people has seen in the many millennia since our creation. Our goals are not so different. Why is it so hard for you to understand?”

“Is that it, then? You want your freedom?” Mara’s eyebrows twitched. “Well, forgive me, that just clears everything right up. I mean, if you said it, it must be true.”

“Kyll phy’es!” Khala cursed turning away before spinning back around and glaring down at Mara. “What is it that you want me to say?”

“The truth!” Mara yelled jumping to her feet. “There’s more to it, I can see it in your body language and your eyes!”

“I’m not human!” Khala yelled. “Whatever physical cues you think you’re picking up are purely in your imagination!”

“Vakrexid can think of a reason.” The doctor held his hands up.

“Oh?” Mara pursed her lips, her head jerking sideways to glance at the doctor.

“Yes, Vakrexid stumbled across something quite astounding and I suspect that the symbiote may have come to the same conclusion. You see humans are the originators, the first race, the race from which the Phyrr Lesch created the Dexagarmetrax and the Qharr.”

“WHAT?!” a voice howled in my head and I cast my eyes around looking for the originator only to realize that it must have belonged to Becca’s symbiote.

“Doctor,” Mara said bringing a hand up to message her temple. “What exactly led you to this conclusion?”

“Vakrexid was able to procure a sample of Qharr DNA. I was most curious as to why humans could become joined to the K’teth so Vakrexid began to make comparisons to a human sample. I noticed many similarities, but it was only on impulse that Vakrexid took a sample from myself and made the comparison. It is irrefutable. Humans share far too many genes with both of our species. You are the originators.”

“Dear god,” Mara turned pale and collapsed back into her chair. “This… could change everything.”

The revelation was particularly disturbing, but there was still one thing that I couldn’t quite get out of my head. The doctor had said that he suspected Khala had known this all along, but I couldn’t quite grasp why he would come to that conclusion. Perhaps Khala sensed this or perhaps she had just decided to come clean because she spoke up without any prompt from me.

“There is a legend of sorts… something the first H’ra passed down to all her daughters. The Vyr, an unruly race of primitives that the Phyrr Lesch took from their world to serve as protectors and servants, but those they trained as warriors weren’t as fearsome against the might of their enemies as they had hoped. So in order to make their protectors more powerful they created the K’teth. Unfortunately, with their new found power, the Vyr rebelled and the Phyrr Lesch had no choice but to end them. Eventually, using the first ones as a basis they created the Teljir a race of hand-servants, presumably the ancient name for the Dexagarmetrax and Edant their loyal guardians, and the K’teth were remade to serve the race who would eventually come to call themselves the Qharr.”

Everyone was staring at me… at us, with wide eyes and Khala swallowed before continuing. “Since I’ve first become joined to Lexa, I’ve grown more and more certain that humanity was in fact this first race, but I never thought I’d ever be able to confirm it. You must understand, if I thought anyone would believe me I would have said something!”

Mara looked me… Khala up and down then turned away and stalked out of the bridge motioning for her minions to follow but paused at the door. “We will be in touch. I’ll be returning to my ship. For now I feel I must digest this newest information. I trust you’re not going anywhere.”

Khala relinquished control and I looked back at her and nodded. “Not, for the time being, at least.”

“Marvelous.”

They departed and I collapsed back into my seat. My god! It couldn’t be true, could it?

I tapped my fingers against my console, as one of the status lights started to blink red. A holo-image appeared in the empty air in front of me and I gripped my armrests feeling the material crumble under my hands. Mara’s face appeared, distorted by the aging holo-projector, leering back at me from her own communication station. I tried to keep my face as neutral as possible, but somehow I doubted I was completely successful. Either way, Mara got right down to business.

“You’ve yet to transmit the coordinates as promised.”

“Yes, yes.” I grimaced and waved my hand at her. “I was just getting to it.”

“There, that ought to do it.”

“British Columbia?” She pursed a lip. “These nesters, are you quite sure they can be trusted?”

“No, but I’m not exactly sure you can be trusted either. Unless you plan on bringing in more troops, or you can pull an army out of your ass we need the nesters. I just hope there’s still someone there with a friendly ear otherwise we’re shit out of luck.”

“Lovely, such… colorful language. It will be some time before we’ll be able to get under way. I’ll contact you when we’re ready. Defiance out.”

The image fizzled and faded away and I glanced over my shoulder at Janet as she entered the bridge. “You really think this is such a good idea?”

“I’m not sure you’re really left with much choice, but assuming Rayland was successful in fending off Dahl and his cronies I think you’ll stand a reasonable chance of convincing my people to join you.”

“Well, I’m just a little more concerned about having another one of those coil guns pointed in my face.”

“Oh, please.” She rolled her eyes. “We won’t even have to land. Rayland and I have a system in place for just such an occurrence.”

“Excuse me if that doesn’t fill me with confidence,” I mumbled leaning back in my seat.

I wasn’t sure what was keeping the E-R-F ship from taking off, but I kind of doubted Mara would be very forthcoming if I confronted her about it. I didn’t mind quite so much, I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to get some alone time with Lily fall through my fingers. “Janet, would you be so kind as to keep an eye on things here?”

Chapter Three

The moment the door closed behind my back, Lily spun around and locked her lips around mine, sharing a kiss that was so passionate that I would have thought it had been months, instead of days, since we’d last made love. We collapsed into bed and I felt her hand slip into my shirt undoing my bra with much more ease than she would have been able to manage just a few short weeks ago. There was a soft click as she undid my belt buckle and slipped my pants free.

She sat up just long enough to pull her shirt over her head and I started work on her bra before she even had it completely free. Her hands clasped around my breasts and she leaned down to kiss my neck as I started to work her pants free. She squeezed free from her slacks and the next thing I knew she plunged her fingers into my vagina and I was howling with pleasure.

We both had a lot of stamina due to our symbiotes and we could probably have gone on for hours, but after a twenty minutes of lovemaking we’d both had enough and Lily collapsed at my side her naked breasts pressing against my side as she put an arm across my chest. Neither one of spoke for the longest time, perfectly content with each other’s company.

I twirled a lock of her hair with my index finger and l found myself thinking of the future. What would a free Earth be like? What would be our place in such a world? All I knew was cooking and fighting, neither of those skills seemed like they’d be in very high demand once the dust had settled.

“Lexa,” Lily said suddenly and I turned to look into those brilliant magenta eyes and smiled.

“I know that we haven’t really been together very long, but I just wanted you to know that–” She was trembling as she reached up to touch my face. “–I love you.”

My heart leapt into my throat and I thought I might choke. I was so taken aback that I could only stare at her with wide eyes with my jaw hanging open like an idiot. My stomach knotted up and it was all I could do to fight down the rising sense of panic that rose up inside my mind.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, I realized I felt the same way, but my mind was screaming at me that we were moving too quickly. It had taken months for Kaya and me to finally admit that our feelings had moved beyond simple physical attraction and a mutual fondness. The same thing had happened in less than half that amount of time, and it scared me.

“Oh, god,” she whispered and started to pull away. “I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said anything. Now I’ve gone and screwed everything all up.”

“Lily I-I.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her close, but the words that I so desperately wanted to say wouldn’t come and her face became more panic stricken by the moment. She leapt out of bed and started to dress.

I knew that I had to say something quick, but all I could do was watch was stare at Lily and watch her slip slowly from my fingers. Why was I being so stupid? ‘SAY IT!’ Khala’s voice howled through my mind so loudly that I gripped the side of my head willing her to be silent.

Lily was dressed and had started for the door when the entire room shook and she was sent tumbling down to her knees.

“Shit!” I cursed and scrambled out of bed realizing what must be happening. As much as I wanted to say something more, I knew that it wouldn’t matter one bit if we were both dead. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get dressed when you knew We both went tearing toward the bridge and Lily, being the first inside, leapt through the doorway and found a seat.

“What the hell is going on here?!” I yelled jumping into the pilot’s seat.

Lily dropped down in from of the sensors consoled and yelled back over her shoulders. “There’s a human ship overhead, must be the Defiant and a hostile ship. Looks like a Qharr cruiser. Our new friends are taking a lot of heat.”

“Dammit,” I cursed and fired the engines. Knowing that we probably didn’t have time for it, I bypassed preflight and sent the ship rocketing up into the sky.

“The Defiant’s shield’s are down!” Lily called out.

“Already?”

I hesitated a moment as a plan formulated in my head. It was risky, and had a pretty good chance of killing us all, but if successful it might buy them some time.

“Lily, get the shields up, if the damn things even work and prepare intercept the destroyer’s fire.”

“You gotta be fucking kidding me” Lily called over her shoulder. “We’ll be lucky if we last ten minutes!”

“It will be ten minutes longer than if we did nothing. Besides, I’ll gladly sacrifice everyone on this ship if it means giving the Defiant a fighting chance!”

“Shield’s up!”

I sent our ship darting forward. The cruiser fired on us, but it didn’t seem to have any effect. Our ship swooped in taking up position between the two ships.

“I should tell you,” Lily said a slight tremor in her voice. “I’m not for sure on this, but it’s possible that more fire we take the more unstable the reactor will become.”

“Neada, open a communication line to the Defiant.”

“It’s open!”

“Defiant, this is Lexa Briggs. We’ve taken some of the heat off of you is there any chance you’ll be able to get your shields up?”

“We’ve got our engineers workings on it, but it’s not looking good,” Mara’s voice responded through the comm line. “We’re currently working on another solution. Hold tight.”

Neada closed the comm-line and opened an audio-only line to the destroyer when I told her to. I wasn’t sure what the Defiant had planned, but if I could keep the gray skins in the destroyer distracted maybe they might be better able to get the drop on them.

“Hello,” I said injecting as much cheerfulness into my voice as I could muster. “This is Lexa Briggs on the pleasure ship, Sugar Pie. How are you today?”

“This is the Inquisitor ship Tyrs Phydar. Human ships, stand down at once and prepare to be boarded.” The hard-edged and guttural voice of a gray skin replied through the intercom.

I simpered and moaned feeling a smile stretched across my face as I thought of what to say. “Ohhh, both at once? Someone’s feeling adventurous today. Tell you what I’ll set my ship down and you and I can have a one on one meeting, just the two of us. I know I’d certainly like that. You sound like big strong strapping Qharr man. I love me some gray meat, but I must warn you I take my dicks up the ass.”

I winced, and gritted my teeth. I hadn’t intended to go quite so far.Lily’s jaw dropped and it was all I could do to keep myself from bursting out laughing. The Qharr had some pretty strong taboos against inter-species relationships. One of the guards back at compound Het’ma had had a fetish for human women and Duvak had executed him on the spot when he learned of it. It was one of the few ways I knew of to get the gray skins good and angry with very little provocation.

“Listen to me closely foul hu-man yhulda. I will only say it once more. Land your ships or be destroyed.”

“You’re no fun,” I said letting out an exaggerated sigh and pouted before realizing that it was an audio-only line. “Tell you what if I let you frisk me will you promised to plunge that big gray dick of yours into my–”

I stopped short as the comm line ended and destroyer opened fire again. “Something’s happening,” Lily called out. “The shield reactor’s energy levels are spiking! We need to shut that thing down or we’ll be vapor dust.”

“Not yet!” I gritted my teeth bracing myself as we were jostled around by another barrage of fire.

I had Neada open up the comm line again. “Defiant, whatever you’re going to do, you better do it now. I don’t know how much longer we will last. The shield reactor could go critical at any minute.”

“Defiant!” I screamed when I received no reply.

“Copy, resistance ship. Hold tight, we’ll be executing our plan in just a few more seconds.”

After the comm line closed back down I craned my neck so that I could get a good look at Lily. “Head back to the engine room, and take Becca with you. Try to see if you can do something with the reactor. If you have to try to drain some of the energy with your symbiotes. Maybe that will cool the damn thing down if nothing else works.”

Lily nodded, and with my sister in tow went tearing out of the room.

There was a bright flash of light from the view screen and the Defiant disappeared from sensors only to reappear on the opposite side of the destroyer. It opened fire and before the gray skins targeting sensors could pick up on the ship again. It disappeared with another flash of light and reappeared about a quarter way around the destroyer and blasted it with all guns blazing.

Again and again, the Defiant would jump at some random interval and disappear before the destroyer could get it scopes on the other ship. Its’ shield started to buckle and finally fizzled under a final volley of phase cannon blasts struck the Qharr ship and sparked a series of explosions. It started to lose altitude and I watched it fall from the sky for a moment before returning my attention back to the shields, leapfrogging into the next seat over.

The reactor’s energy readings were approaching dangerous levels, but there was some good news, at least. It wasn’t building up quite as quickly as it had been before. Whatever Lily and my sister were doing seemed to be having some effect or that’s what I hoped. Satisfied that we were out of danger, I initiated the shield shut down procedures, but hit a bit of a snag when the console displayed an error message.

“Shit!” I screamed and leapt back over to the pilot’s station making sure to turn on auto pilot before lurching out of the seat again and went tearing down the hallway toward the engine room. I found Lily and Becca both huddled around the reactor, a tall clear metal tube which was glowing so brightly it came close to blinding me. I joined them touching both hands against the transparisteel and felt the storms gates come flooding open as Khala began to feed. It came crashing into me with the full force of a dre’k and it was only by sheer force of will that I was able to maintain my grip.

I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes, and screamed out at Lily. “If there’s some sort of manual shut-off for this thing. Now would be the time to use it!”

‘Better hurry,’ Khala said. ‘I can only repair so much radiation damage. The levels aren’t too high yet, but if you let them build too much longer we’ll all die.’

“Lily, you hear that?” I panted, but she didn’t respond.

Instead she knelt down, one hand still touching the reactor cylinder, and reached for something near Becca’s feet. She placed her hand inside a small indent in the floor, big enough to accommodate a large pair of human hands, and pulled. A small section of floor plating popped free and she stared at it transfixed before glancing up at me. I nodded and she pulled the switch.

Nothing seemed to happen, then all at once the room started to quake and tremor, the reactor blazed even brighter and started to hum. I backed away, and prepared for what I believed was our imminent death, but with one last shudder, the light flashed and began to fade away. Relieved, I sighed, and held my hand out to Lily who looked up at me and shook her head. She climbed up to her feet without my help and left the room without sparing me another glance.

I swallowed and watched her leave. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her anything, but I hesitated again. Something was holding me back and prevented me from telling her how I felt. It wasn’t quite time for me to get bogged down in my relationship woes no matter how much it hurt. We needed to get the hell away from the wreck of the destroyer before any other Qharr vessels happened on us.

Forcing thoughts of Lily out mind, I shook my head, bit my lip and fled the room with my sister in tow.

“Lexa, please sit,” Mara held her hand open to me as I poked my head in the door. A bit of a smile touched the corner of her lips and for the first time it actually seemed to lighten up her eyes.

I stepped inside and took a seat across from her at the small desk at the end of the room. Our two chairs, the desk and a bed were the room’s only furnishings lending the room a distinctly Spartan appearance. She leaned down, producing a brown bottle of liquid and two glasses from one of the desk’s drawers. “I believe I owe you an apology.”

I fought to keep my face neutral as I studied her features. She seemed genuine, but with Mara, any Mara, who could say? I arched an eyebrow at her. “Oh?”

She poured a little bit of the liquid into each glass, not even filling it to the top, and gently pushed one across the desktop toward me. “I’ve misjudged you. I was so concerned about that K’teth of yours that I failed to see the lovely young woman that you’ve become. That was a very brave thing you did today. Your parents would be proud.”

“T-thank you.” I grabbed the little glass from the table and sniffed the liquid inside. “Almonds?”

Mara smiled and took a sip from her glass. “Amaretto, it was one of your father’s favorites. In fact, he’s the one who introduced me and your uncle to it or I suppose I should say he introduced the original Harold and Mara to it. I’ve developed a certain fondness for it, but as you might image it’s rather hard to come by these days. It’s made from a base of almonds, though I’m surprised you recognize the smell. I would have thought they would be hard to come by on Earth.”

“To humans, yes, but the Qharr seem to like them. Duvak, the gray skin who enslaved Becca and me, would often ask me to use them to garnish his meals.”

“I take it you were a cook?” Mara asked this actually seemed to surprise her.

“I was head cook of my compound before I was forced to join the resistance. I seem to have a knack for preparing Qharr cuisine.”

You were forced to join the resistance?”

“Is this alcoholic?” I stared down at my glass and sniffed at it. Mara nodded and I hesitated before taking sip. It was on the bitter side, but it had a much more pleasant taste than the alcohol Strave used to stash away.

“It’s not like it sounds. Kaya, my girlfriend at the time,” I choked on the words. “Staged an attack on the Overseer, a regional authority, and Duvak assumed I was in on it. So I was left with the choice to either join the resistance and have a chance at living or wait around to face the music. Naturally, I chose to live. In a stroke of dumb luck, I managed to kill the Overseer who was bonded to Khala. It’s how we ended up together and why I ended up like this.” I motioned down at my breasts.

Mara nodded and took another sip from her glass. “Kaya? Wasn’t she a part of your group? I’ve watched the original communication between you and–”

“She died,” I said wiping a tear from my eye. “Forgive me, this is a touchy subject. Kaya and I didn’t exactly end our relationship on the best of terms.” I left out the part about Kaya being pregnant. I’m sure she could do basic math, and revealing that little tidbit would reveal that I’d only been in the resistance a very short time. I doubted that would fill her with much confidence.

“I’m sorry.”

I finished off my glass and set it down on the table. It actually left me feeling a little a warm, which wasn’t an altogether unpleasant sensation. “So did your engineers figure out how the Qharr were able to take down your shields so easily?”

Mara nodded. “A faulty array. The Rhiannon device puts a lot of strain on the shield systems. We believe it’s how the Qharr were able to find us so easily. The array was emitting a large amount of energy which their sensors must have picked up. We’ll be able to repair the damage, and the Colonel has ordered a full diagnostic so it shouldn’t happen again.”

“That’s fortunate,” I said. “The last thing we need is two ships without full functioning shields.”

“Yes, well since you brought it up. I talked to one of our engineers and he believes it would be possible to stabilize your shield reactor. The omega seven prototypes shields operate on the same principles as ours. The issues is finding the parts, I doubt it’s something that we’d just find lying around and we didn’t exactly bring along any spares.”

“Maybe we can get your engineers together with our Lily and have them exchange ideas. She’s self-taught, but her tech knowledge has gotten us through some pretty close scrapes. She might even know of some place where we can scavenge parts. Lord knows she had to get hers from somewhere.”

“Very well, I’ll talk with the Colonel. I can’t make any promises, but he’s a smart man even if he’s a bit of an ass. I’m sure he’ll see the benefits.”

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll return to the ship. I have some things to see too. I haven’t spent much time with our guests, and the good doctor informs me that the oldest girl will probably be returning to consciousness soon.”

“Do send the doctor my regards and tell him he’s welcome to visit the Defiant. It would be good to catch up with him.”

I nodded and smiled back as her as the door swooshed open. “I’ll tell him, thanks for the drink.”

Chapter Four

The E-R-F ship had originally been designed to tow other vessels’s out of a battle and we’d utilized that feature to dock our ship atop the Defiant. Unfortunately, it meant relying on Mara and her people for transport, but its advanced stealth technology kept us better hidden from the Qharr. I was willing to take the risk if it meant keeping my people safe, the few of them still alive.

Mara and her people had been monitoring Qharr communications and hadn’t yet found any mention of the destroyer’s attack on us or its destruction, but given how much trouble the resistance had been causing them it seemed unlikely they’d give us a heads up by transmitting that kind of information through unsecure channels.

I finally made my way through the accordion connecting our two ships and my first stop was the infirmary. For once the two younger children weren’t lurking about and I could only conclude that Becca had finally been successful at luring them away from their older sibling so that they could get some much needed rest. “How’s the patient, doc?”

“Most better.” He warbled. “Vakrexid has taken her off sedatives. I am expecting her to regain consciousness anytime.”

“Sedatives? Doctor, where’d you get sedatives?”

“Vakrexid made them from plants and herbs I collected.” His long hands traces across his face tubes and jerked away as the girl gasped and sat up.

I brushed past the doctor and as she slipped her feet over the edge of the bed. I was quick enough to grab the girl’s wrists and gently push her back down into bed before she could get very far. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep her detained, but she was in bad shape and any movements she made could wind up making things worse.

“You!” she screamed fighting to break free from my grip, but she wasn’t in any shape to fight even if I didn’t have K’teth enhanced strength. Still she did get in one good kick to my ribs that hurt, just a little.

“It’s alright,” I said releasing my grip and backed slowly away. “I’m not going to hurt you. You were pretty badly injured. Do you remember?”

“I remember those things,” she shuddered and stared up at me with big wide eyes her gaze darting toward the door. “Where am I? Where are Fade and Whisper?”

“You’re on a resistance ship. As far as Fade and Whisper I’m not quite sure what you mean by–”

I stopped abruptly pursing my lips as understanding dawned on me. Fade and Whisper were the names of the two younger children. The pair had been so tight lipped that no one had been able to even so much as learn their names. “You mean your brother and sister? They’re fine, they’ve barely left your side since we brought you to the ship.”

She nodded, glancing at the door again. “I want to see them, now.”

“Doctor, would you be so kind as to grab Fade and Whisper for our new friend here?”

“Most assuredly!” Vakrexid replied running out of the room, before I’d even finished the second sibling’s name.

I folded my arms across my chest and stared down at the young girl all the while shaking my head. “If you think you’re going to go bolting out of here with your brother and sister in tow, think again. I don’t want you to think that you’re a prisoner here, but until you’ve healed up a bit, I’m not going to let you go anywhere. Besides, we’re at least three-hundred meters up in the air. There really isn’t anywhere you could go unless you want to take a long plunge.”

I could see her jaw tighten and she glared up at me looking for all the world as if she wanted to sock me in the face. “You’ll let us go, when I’ve healed.”

“If that’s what you want,” I replied dropping down on the makeshift seat the doctor had constructed. “My name’s Lexa by the way.”

She glared at me and bit her lip and for several seconds I didn’t think I’d get a name from her, but finally she spoke.

“Thena.”

“Thena, that’s an unusual name.”

“Yeah, well what the fuck sorta name is Lexa?”

Clearly, it was going to take some time for Thena to warm up to me. We’d saved the girl’s life and had been met with nothing but hostility. I had a feeling that winning her over would be no small task. She’d never been given a reason to trust another human being not even one who’d probably saved her life.

“Mommy!” A tiny little voice squeaked at the door and a pair of little heads burst into the room and threw their arms around Thena.

“Mommy?” I blinked, never once had it occurred to me that the two tow-headed little children might have been Thena’s children. She didn’t look old enough to be the mother of a seven-year old.

“Why the hell is it any business of yours?” She asked upon breaking away from the hug.

“You’re right, it isn’t.” I turned away meeting the doctor as he stepped into the infirmary. “Take good care of her, doc.”

“Of course, Vakrexid would never do otherwise.”

I shook my head and chuckled as the doctor cocked his head. I took the opportunity to convey Mara’s message to the doctor then made my way back to the bridge where Becca and Lily were waiting. “Lil’ could you give us a minute, I need to talk to my sister.”

Lily glared at me, gritted her teeth then stormed out of the bridge without a word. I winced and watched her go all the while shaking my head. It hurt, but every time I tried to discuss our

“Becca. ” I placed a hand on my sister’s shoulder and met her gaze as she spun around in her seat to look at me. “We need to talk.”

She nodded and bit her lip. “About my symbiote?”

I squeezed her shoulder. “I know it’s been difficult for you, but he hasn’t exactly been very talkative. I think it’s time we do something about that. ”

“I-I wish I could help, but—” Becca stopped mid-sentence as a voice wafted into the room.

“I grow weary of hiding. I believe it is time for me to come out of my shell to borrow a phrase from your language, but I will do so on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“I want my host to give me control of her body for the duration of our talk. I’ve only been bonded to two different Qharr in my short life and neither has bestowed on me such an honor. I have memories of the experiences from my foremothers, but something tells me that I need to experience it for myself to truly… appreciate it.”

My eyebrows shot up and I gritted my teeth. “Becca?”

She back away and clenched her hands at her sides as she glanced at the doorway. She turned back to me, closed her eyes and let out a long sigh just before they snapped back open.

Becca’s shoulders were normally so slumped and she had such a sad look in her eyes all the time that I knew immediately that I wasn’t looking at my sister. Her movements were stiff and ridged, like a piece of machinery whose gears were slipping. When she stepped forward she stopped to balance herself against the console. When the symbiote looked up at me there was none of the usual warmth, but instead I found myself looking into the steely core of his soul. I shuddered and looked away. Was that what others saw when Khala took control of my body?

“I was right. My memories don’t quite compare to the experience. I would have never guessed it would be so… difficult to make this body move.”

I folded my arms across my chest and studied the symbiote in my sister’s body. His stiff machine-like movements aside, there was something very masculine about the way he moved. The symbiotes hands slid up the front of my sister’s body before cupping her breasts as a frown creased her delicate face. “This body is so… soft. The Qharr are all rough edges… even the females. Your kind is very different. It’s difficult to believe that you are the originators.”

“You have reason to doubt it?”

“No, I may not able to manipulate the form of my host on the same scale as a H’ra, but I can still sense the essences, that which you call DNA, of my hosts. I cannot deny the similarities. I believe this Vakrexid of yours speaks the truth though I never would have come to the same conclusion on my own.”

I winced and glanced around. It was a good thing the doctor wasn’t around he’d be throwing a fit. The fact that the symbiote would so carelessly violate the doctor’s believes was more than a little unsettling to me.

“Then you chose to join us, brother?” Khala asked appearing by my side. For a change her hair was done up in a pixie cut, and I did a double take when I took in her fresh-faced and more youthful appearance. I had no idea what had prompted the change, but she didn’t even look old enough to be called an adult. More like a silly teenager playing dress-up.

“Not yet, I must think over the matter some more. I cannot betray the ascendancy. I have given it my loyalty. Surely, you can understand that.”

“What has the Ascendancy done to deserve it? The Qharr enslave us, and treat us like property. We don’t even a warrant a name! Don’t you want to be free?”

My sister’s face stretched into the most god-awful smile. “We can never be free sister. We will always be dependent on our hosts. I am not so sure these humans are a better choice. I must watch and wait.”

My sister’s form melted and she fell to her knees so suddenly that she was already back on her feet before I had reached her. I met her gaze and put both hands on her shoulder more than a little relieved to see my sister’s eyes staring back at me. “I-I’m fine.”

“That could have gone better.”

“W-what do we do now?”

“The same thing as the symbiote, we watch and we wait.”

“We’re just coming into range now,” Lily said breaking me out of my reverie.

Had it really been so long? I sat up in my seat and let out a loud yawn and rubbed my eyes. Maybe my time spent reflecting had involved a little more time snoozing than I cared to admit. I brushed the hair out of my eyes and craned my neck over my shoulder. I hadn’t risked opening up a long-rang communication line for fear of being detected, but a short-range one was much less of a risk.

“Right, Janet,” I said my voice sounding a bit slurred to my ears. I shook my head and cleared my throat. “If there ever was a time for you to contact Rayland I think it would be now.”

I vacated my seat and Janet swooped in just a moment later her hands manipulating the controls after spending on a few short seconds to study the interface. “Let’s see we don’t want to transmit so that everyone and their dogs can hear so let’s toggle the power output and–” She looked up at me probably realizing that she’d been talking to herself, and returned her attention to the interface with reddened cheeks.

“Wait,” I said putting a hand on her shoulder. “Do you really think this is such a good idea?”

Lily, leapt out of her seat and leaned over to look over the console. “The only way the Qharr could pick up this transmission was if there were within about a kilometer,” Lily said. “I’m not reading any ships nearby so the risk is minimal, but there’s nothing to keep the nesters from listening in.”

“Not likely,” Neada replied. “I’m encrypting the transmission. Rayland’s the only other person who knows the decryption key. Even if someone does manage to decrypt the transmission, Rayland and I worked out a code that should leave them scratching their heads.”

Neada didn’t stop to wait for a response, instead she mashed one of her fingers down on the ‘transmit’ button. “Masterson, this is Lady Luck, do you copy?”

The only answer was silence and Janet frowned glancing first at Lily then myself and gritted her teeth before trying again. “Masterson, do you copy? This is Lady Luck, please respond.”

Again, she was met with silence. She frowned and had opened her mouth again, when Rayland’s voice responded. “Lady Luck, this is Masterson, I read.”

Neada leaned back closed her eyes and let out a sigh of relief before speaking again. “Masterson, will the man marry today?”

“It took a lot to take back the mink, but I think luck is a lady. Just be aware it may not be my time of day.”

“Copy, Masterson, what are your recommendations?”

“Just, sit down the boat’s rocking.”

“Roger, Masterson,” Janet pursed her lips then released her finger from transmit button. “Good news and bad news. Rayland took back the nest, but things are still pretty tense. He’s optimistic about our alliance, but you’ll probably want to tread carefully.”

“You got all that from that nonsense?” I asked staring at her dumbfounded. “What the hell does a mink or a boat have to do with any of that?”

Neada pursed her lips. “It’s a code that Rayland and I devised if the worst should happen. It’s based on an old Earth musical. I have what you could call a fondness for them.”

“A musical?” I messaged the base of my nose and held my hand up to her. “You know what, never mind, I think I’m better off not knowing. Lily get us detached from the Defiant and set the ship down. Just, don’t shut off the engines I want to be able to take off at any moment.”

“Send a message to the Defiant, tell them we’re setting down, but ask them to stay in the air above us just in case we need them to provide cover fire.”

“You expecting trouble?”

“I just don’t want to take any risks,” I spun around and was almost out the door when I turned back and bit my lip. “Lily, I’ll be waiting at the airlock. Extend the side ramp as soon as you’re able.”

Phase pistols drawn, I stepped down the ramp, eyes ready and alert for signs of danger. Janet was right behind me, as was the doctor who had his tangler clenched firmly in his hand, Becca, who still didn’t look comfortable holding a weapon, and Lily who had a phase rifle resting on her shoulder. Neada was the only person who didn’t look ready for a fight, but I did notice she kept the snap on her holster unsecured.

As my feet touched damp soil of the surrounding clearing I held my hand out for the others to stop. I heard something rustle and had both of my weapons trained on the source within the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the source turned out to be nothing more than a forest creature, a rodent judging from its size, who’s tail end I caught sight of just as it went scurrying away.

I grimaced and lowered my weapons then waved the others forward. We crept from the open clearing into the forest and I motioned for Janet to take the lead. This was her terrain, I’d be a fool not to have her take point when she knew it better than any of us.

Snap.

The sound of a twig, my eyes darted around until I found what I was looking for, a figure perched behind a tree. Lily must have seen him before me because she reacted must faster than I could have. Yanking him from his hiding spot, she shoved him against the tree and pinned him with her elbow digging into his chest.

I raised my phase pistol and trained it on the man, who looked to be a ranger, judging from his attire. He was armed only with a single phase pistol and I snatched it from his belt and tossed it over my shoulder for my sister to catch.

“What have we here,” I said, studying him doing my best Mara impersonation and keeping my face a mask of cool indifference. “A ranger no doubt, but are you friend or foe?”

“Friend!” He blurted out shaking with terror as he stared down the barrel of one of my pistols. “I-I didn’t even have my weapon drawn.”

“He has a point,” Lily said glancing over her shoulder at me.

“Vakrexid is most suspicious. If he was a friend, why did he not reveal himself to us?”

“I didn’t know who was coming and by the time I realized who you were. This one–” He jerked his head at Lily. “Had me pinned against the tree.”

“Which makes me wonder why you wouldn’t have your weapon drawn,” I said pressing my gun into the side of his cheek. “If I had to guess I’d say you were hiding from someone or something else and didn’t see us coming at all.”

His face lost all color and he started to stammer and stutter incoherently.

“Perhaps, I can clear this up.” A new voice said and I swirled around to face the owner as he crawled outside of the brush.

I slipped my pistol’s back into their holster and grimaced at him as he grinned back at me. “Rayland.”

“Miss me?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

He chuckled and pushed past me, placing a hand on the other ranger’s shoulder. “Corporal,” he said patting the other man on the cheek before turning away. He pulled his phase weapon from its holster then spun around, firing a single shot that landed directly in the center of the other man’s forehead.

Lily staggered away from the corpse of the ranger and let the body fall to the ground and spun around to look at Rayland her jaw hanging open and her eyes wide.

“That man is responsible for the death of no less than five of his fellow rangers. It was the least he deserved,” Rayland said between gritted teeth. “I just wish I could round up the rest of the rat bastards who ran off and show them the price of betrayal like I did the Corporal here.”

“Rayland,” Janet said. “What’s happened here?”

“You took out Dahl and most of his men, but a few escaped into the wilderness. Haven’t been able to round ’em all up just yet, but their numbers are dwindling. The whole damn thing cut my force in half and the worst part is Bueller fell in the crossfire.”

“Oh God.” Janet gasped, closed her eyes and leaned against a nearby tree. “What about the council?”

“We lost Schmitz and Estez, but the rest are alright if a little on the jittery side. I don’t think we need to worry about any more insurrections for the time being, but I wouldn’t say the council has been very cooperative since Bueller died. We are lucky though, they made Le Fonte interim President and rumor is they’re going to make it permanent.”

“Arianna?” I blinked. “Isn’t she, I don’t know, a little young for the job?”

“She stepped in and helped put things back together once we had Dahl taken care of. The other members of the council were too afraid of their own shadows to do anything, but keep themselves locked away in their homes with their thumbs up their asses.”

“That ship overhead,” he said gazing back over his shoulder in the general direction of the Defiant which was hovering in the sky about our ship. “It looks human built.”

“It is,” I replied putting my hands on my hips and staring off in the same direction. “It’s an E-R-F ship. That message we received from them was a date and time for a meeting.”

Rayland raised his eyebrows and a smile touched the corner of his lips just before fading away. “Well, that’s good news. I assume they have some sort of plan?”

“I’m sure they do, but I’d be damned if I know what it is, they haven’t exactly been very forthcoming. Maybe they’ll a little more open with you. Who knows? Maybe having a familiar face around, like yours, will help.”

Rayland raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say a word as twenty rangers, armed to the teeth, appeared from out of the forest. Their attire had helped them blend in so well that none of us had seen them coming.

“Holy shit.” Lily drawing her weapon and slipping it back into its holster so quickly that no one, save me, noticed. I couldn’t blame her for being jumpy; I’d almost done the same thing.

“Come on boys,” Rayland said spinning away and waving at them over his shoulder. “It’s time to move out.”

I stopped Rayland, putting a hand on his chest just as he had started to move forward. “I really don’t think it’s such a good idea for us to go back down into the nest. Grab the president and whoever else wants to come along and we’ll meet them aboard the Defiant.”

He nodded and looked back at me between pursed lips. “Give me an hour or two, Le Fonte shouldn’t be too hard to convince, but with the rest of the council afraid of their own damn shadows I don’t know how many I’ll be able to drag along.”

Janet moved in line with the rest of the rangers and in mere moments they all dispersed disappearing into the trees without a trace. Becca, Lily and I all shared looks, and turned away headed in the opposite direction. Overhead, the Defiant hovered in the air and I stopped to stare up at the great ship in wonder realizing just how well it represented its namesake. It was a human-built ship hovering in the sky in defiance of the gray skins on a world they’d trampled underfoot.

It made me think our little ship needed a name, something that represented the spirit of the resistance, but nothing said that quite as well as Defiance. Then it struck me, if we were going to defeat the Qharr we’d need to be relentless. What better thing to name our ship?

I smiled and stepped onto the ramp leading into the ship. I’m not sure what it was, but something told me why might actually pull this thing off.

Chapter Five

The defiant was so bright. That was the first thing I had noticed upon stepping through the airlock. The Qharr preferred things dark, so none of the ships or domiciles had been particularly bright, and the Relentless had never been the most luminescent of an environment. I suppose there hadn’t been much need for lighting, the ship was a prototype after all.

There was something about the ship that was off putting, it wasn’t the brightness though, that I liked. No, it was something about the place. Everything was so crisp, sterile and uniform. Each room was virtually identical from the last and each corridor too. It was a wonder they could travel the decks of the ship without getting lost.

“Thrum, thrum, thrum.” It was the sound of Lily’s fingers against the conference table, a long dull gray slab that exemplified the design of the interior of ship. Faux-Mara had invited us aboard only to dump us inside the conference room and left us to stew. Lily wasn’t the only one who was getting tired of waiting, Janet was pacing back and forth across the length of the room, the doctor was sitting at the head of the table behaving quite sedate for once, and Rayland looked ready to doze off. Arianne on the other hand, sat at her seat patiently hand clasped in front of her with a smile touching corners of her mouth.

Finally, the door slid open and in marched Mara accompanied by a severe looking man in a uniform. “I’m sorry about the delay,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite extend to her eyes. “Colonel Morris here had some security concerns that needed to be addressed.”

“Yes, when introducing an unknown element,” he said with a sneer, his eyes falling on me before he glanced at the doctor and Lily. “You must take a certain number of precautions.”

Mara cleared her throat and took a seat setting a small computing device on the table in front of her.

“Sit, Morris,” she said without looking up. The Colonel moved to comply and she studied her little device, her fingers pecking at the screen before she looked back up and eyed me with that shrewd calculating look that was so uniquely hers. “Now, we do find this talk of your little disagreement in the nest a little how should I put it? Off-putting?”

“Well, I can’t really say I’d argue with that.” Arianne grimaced and ran a hand through her long auburn tresses. “It was more than off-putting to have men I’ve known my whole life kill each other in front of my eyes. I’m ashamed of what Dahl has done, though thankfully he has been brought to justice.”

“Be that as it may, we are preparing to retake our world, Miss Le Fonte, I can’t commit my troops to an engagement with so many unknown variables. When I go into battle with someone I damn well expect him to watch my back. How can I trust a single one of you to do that when you’ve spent so much time shooting each other? The plan will go forward with or without the assistance of the nesters or the resistance.” Colonel Morris slammed a fist onto the table in front of him.

“Now, now Morris there is no reason to be so terribly rude,” Mara shook her head and turned to Le Fonte giving the other woman the same penetrative glare that I’d come to associate with Mara. “Trust is the biggest issue. None of us has any reason to trust the others, but we must find common ground if we are to retake Earth.”

“Well said. Might I suggest a joint venture between our three groups? It would give our men an opportunity to get to know one other and hopefully get a good measure of each group’s mettle,” Le Fonte said meeting Mara’s gaze without even blinking.

“Now you see, I told you there was no reason to be such a pessimist, Colonel,” Mara said turning toward Morris who had a sour expression on his face.

She turned back toward Arianne and smiled. “What would you suggest dear?”

“The Relentless!” I blurted out suddenly and my cheeks burned as all eyes in the little conference room turned to me. “I mean, that’s what I’ve decided to call our ship. The shield reactor is faulty, but Mara’s people believe it can be fixed. If we could find the parts, having working shields would be pretty damn beneficial.”

“It would be helpful, but a supply run isn’t exactly what I had in mind.” Arianne frowned and glanced over at me. “A simple supply run isn’t going to help our people get along better. They need a challenge, something that would force them to work together.”

“It wouldn’t be simple by any means.” Lily shook her head and bit her lip. “Few things ever are on Earth with the gray skins in control of damn near everything. I know somewhere where we might be able to pick up the parts we need. There’s an old junk yard where the Qharr dump old derelict ships. There aren’t any human vessels, but if we can work out what we need I might be able to find something that would work.”

“Salvaging parts from human ships is one thing, but you’re talking about using components from Qharr vessels. Their systems while similar in function operate on entirely different principles.” Mara shook her head. “Qharr and human tech just don’t meld.”

“Oh yeah,” I reached inside my jacket and yanked one of my phase pistols free of its holster and slammed it down on the table in front of me. Mara’s people had confiscated the power-cells when we first entered the ship, but I didn’t need them to prove my point. “This pistol can use power-cells from both human and Qharr weapons and I’ve been using them for weeks now. They seem to meld just fine to me.”

“A phase pistol is one thing, but–”

“But nothing!” I cut Morris short and glared at him between gritted teeth. “Lily is brilliant. She’s founds ways to do things with Qharr tech that your people probably haven’t even dreamed of. The only reason we were able to move around so freely was because she found a way to fool Qharr satellites into thinking we weren’t even there. If she says she can do it I believe her.”

“Be that as it may,” Mara said clasping her hand over mine. “The president does have a point. Such an errand doesn’t exactly fit the criteria of what she has in mind.”

Lily shook her head and tapped her index-finger against the table. “We used to mine the place for parts all the time, but then the Qharr caught wind of it and started patrolling the area. It won’t be easy to sneak in, and getting out will be just as hard. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll run into trouble. That is what you wanted, right? Something that would force us to rely on each other.”

“Right,” Arianne nodded.

“What we really need is another ship,” Mara said. “We could dig up one of the other omega-sevens, but that would involve yet another repair job.”

“Not to mention, the weapons are severely outdated in the Relentless.” Lily crinkled her nose and glanced at me with a shake of her head. “I had to burn out the phase emitters just so we could disable the weapons on a single destroyer. It’s going to be a pain in the ass retrofitting the Relentless. That is assuming we can even find the parts. I’m not sure I’d want to do it on a second ship too.”

I bit my lip and gritted my teeth as an idea suddenly popped into my head. “I-I think I might know where we can get another ship. When we snuck into the compound to rescue my sister we had help.”

“Oh god.” Lily groaned and messaged the base of her nose. “Not Velspatt again.”

“You weren’t even there,” I replied glaring over at Lily.

“No, but Kaya told me all about it. I just don’t think consorting with the Ghrev crime syndicate is going to work out so well for us.” She did make a valid point, but the angry set of her jaw was any indication I think her antagonism had much more to do with my failure to return her declaration of affection.

“She may be a criminal, but I get the feeling she hates the gray skins just as much as us. If I can convince her to–”

“That a pretty big if,” Mara stated. “What’s to say this Velspatt won’t just turn you over to the Qharr? Criminals are hardly the sort we want to be consorting with in any case.”

“I won’t deny that Velspatt may not be the most likely choice for an ally, but she came through for us in the past. She has no reason to turn us over to the Qharr, or she would have done so the last time we visited Salt Lake. All I want here is to take a small team into the city and reach out to her. If she says no, fine, but think of what we’ll have gained if she says yes.”

“Very well,” Mara nodded. “I’m not in complete agreement, but part of being in an alliance is making concessions. You can take your team into the city and I think another group can find this junk yard. I think I should tell you that I believe we may need to accelerate our plans. The longer we stay on Earth the more likely we are to be found by the Qharr.”

“Why don’t you tell us a little more of this plan of yours? Enough beating around the bush! What makes you think we’ll be willing to risk our lives when you won’t even tell us what the hell it is you’re doing here?” I stood bolt upright out of my seat pressing both fists into the table.

Mara stared at me calmly, her eyes smoldering holes into my soul, but not about to be cowered, I sat back in my seat to glare directly into her eyes. She thrummed her fingers against the table and pursed her lips. I didn’t break eye contact and she cleared her throat before finally speaking. “Soon, if anyone is captured during our little excursions and the Qharr are successful at interrogating them I don’t think I have to tell you how disastrous that would be for us. If you make it back, then I will tell you, dear.”

“Fuck, how the hell did I know you were going to say that?”

Mara smiled and clasped her hands in front of her. “Now, why don’t we start making preparations? The sooner we get underway, the better.”

“I’m not about to let this go, Mara. I swear God if you don’t give me something I will walk. You may think you can do this without us, but I’d be very surprised. Earth has changed a lot in the last two decades and a half and the only people who can tell you what you need to know are those of us who have been fighting and dying here on Earth.”

Mara pursed her lips and clenched her jaw. Her facade of calm serenity fell away and I could see the anger smoldering in her eyes. “I believe I can risk giving away part of the plan seeing as it must now change.” We planned to foment an uprising among the human population here on Earth, but the fall off the resistance has made those plans all but impossible. As you said, you and your co-patriots in the resistance have been the ones fighting and dying. You are the only ones who could have successfully infiltrated the compounds and cities. Neither the E-R-F forces nor the nesters have the appropriate knowledge.”

“Then maybe it’s time to consider a different tactic,” I replied. “What if we undermine the very fabric of Qharr society? They are a race of warriors who pride themselves on their honor. How do you think they’d react if they learned that the humans were the first race?”

“First race?” Rayland asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I blinked, and stared at Rayland in surprise. I would have figured Janet would have filled him in, but I suppose there hadn’t been much time for that. I bowed my head and closed my eyes ready to tell him everything, but it was the doctor who spoke first.

“Vakrexid has discovered that both my own race and the Qharr share an astounding number of genetic traits with humans. Far too many to be of coincidence. Vakrexid can only conclude that the Phyrr Lesch, our creators, used humans as basis for our two races.”

“You’re kidding me, right? After all these years no one’s figured this out? You can’t honestly tell me that at no time during the war did anyone thing to analyze of Qharr DNA? Or the Dexagarmetrax for that matter? How many years did your people have contact with Earth before the war?”

The doctor blinked and let out a low-pitched keening warble. “My people had been in contact with yours for many years, but Vakrexid was among the first physicians to study with your people. There are many cultures for my people to study and forgive me, but your medical technology was considered quite primitive by galactic standards. So there was very little to draw other doctors here.”

“Okay, so maybe it’s understandable that the Dexagarmetrax wouldn’t have figured it out, but what about humans? We must have done our own genetic research. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I were at war with a race with superior weapons technology I’d certain look into creating bioweapons. Wouldn’t that have led them to discover the similarities between the Qharr and humans?” Rayland asked with just the hint of his usual smile touching the corner of his lips.

“He’s right,” Colonel Morris said. “We’ve known about the genetic similarities between the Qharr and humans for a long time.

“What?” Mara’s head turned sharply and she stared at the Colonel her jaw hanging open in what looked to be genuine surprise. “Why wasn’t I apprised of this, Colonel?”

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but it was on a need to know basis.”

“Need to know basis! I have higher security clearance than you!” She said her hands pressing into the table so hard that her fingers were turning white.

Morris jaw tightened and he clasped his hands atop the table. “The discovery was made just before the start of the war and it was all kept very quiet from the start. I’m sure you can understand that this sort of news would cause ripples of controversy through our society particularly with religious groups. We’d already made contact with the gray skins and while it hadn’t been particularly amiable it wasn’t exactly hostile either. A team of diplomats with a small military escort, which I was a part of, was sent to Kyrll, a world on the edge of Qharr space to open diplomatic relations with the sub-ascendant living on that world.”

“Kyrll.” Mara gasped and she brought both hands up to cup her mouth. “Dear lord, that’s a stone’s throw away from Ismara Prime. The war didn’t start over some territory dispute did it?

“No, that’s just what the public was told,” he said with a slight shake of his head. “The Qharr killed the diplomats. I and a few others barely escaped with our lives. Two days later the gray skins attacked Ismara Prime heralding in the beginning the war.”

“Fucking hell.” Lily only mouthed the words before speaking aloud. “Then the war, really everything, can be traced back to that single diplomatic mission. Why the hell would the gray skins start a war over something like this? Wouldn’t they want to know where they came from?”

‘Khala?’ I thought at my symbiote. ‘Do you have any insight?’

‘No, the Qharr wouldn’t see the first race as a threat. They should have welcomed you with open arms. I was always told that your diplomats had started the war by making an aborted attempt on the sub-ascendant’s life. Something else must be behind this. It bears telling you, Jykarr Bynd, the former sub-ascendant of Kyrll spearheaded the war against humanity and it was over lobbied to have himself appointed sub-ascendant of Earth. The Prime-Ascendant of course, could not refuse given his status as hero of the war and obliged. Jykarr rules to this day.’

“Jykarr Bynd,” I muttered the name in what I thought was a quiet tone of a voice, but soon had everyone in the room looking at me. “I bet you anything that it was all his doing, the war, the invasion of Earth, everything. He was the sub-ascendant of Kyrll before everything went to hell but the real question is why? Why would he want to enslave humanity?”

Mara sighed, thrumming her fingers against the table. “We could spend months trying to reason it out and never get anywhere. The only way we’re going to uncover the truth is if we seek it out.”

“One thing is for certain. If you are right about Jykarr, I don’t believe he’d want anyone to know about his people’s link to humanity. Perhaps that is even why he started the war,” Rayland mused stroking his chin more than a hint of his usual smirk returning to his face. “Which is why we need to find a way to get this information out in the open. If the grays skins learn of this it could undermine the entire occupation of Earth and could help tilt the scales in our favor.”

“Yes.” Mara nodded. “I agree, but we need to find a way to transmit this message to the whole of Qharr society living here on Earth.”

“New York,” Lily said suddenly and everyone in the room turned to look at her. “That’s where the sub-ascendant supposedly lives, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but what’s that got to do with any of this?” Colonel Morris demanded staring at Lily with an undisguised look of contempt.

Lily, shrank into her chair, and her face turned red as she stared at the Morris with wide eyes. “Well I was just thinking that the sub-ascendant is supposed to be able to send planet-wide transmissions. If we could send a strike team into his palace we might be able to use his communication array to relay the information.”

“Yes we could, if we knew where the sub-ascendant’s palace was located, but most Qharr don’t even know. They’ve kept the location under wraps after the resistance destroyed his first home,” Rayland said then cleared his throat when I glanced at him with a single raised eyebrow.

“We monitor Qharr communications,” he replied with a shrug.

“Actually,” I said tapping the side of my temple. “We do know where it is. Khala told Mara, the other one; where it was when she tried to interrogate her, but I’m not sure attacking his palace is such a good idea. Can you imagine what that place would be like? I doubt it will be as easy as sneaking into a slave compound and the last time we tried to do that we almost didn’t make it out.”

“It would be risky, I’m sure,” Mara pursed her lips and let out a long sigh. “But it may be the only option left to us if we are unable to incite an uprising. In the meantime, I believe we have preparations to make. The sooner we get underway, and get this all done with the sooner I’ll reveal the final pieces of the plan to you.”

“We just need to decide on teams.”

“Naturally,” Mara nodded. “I assume you wish to lead this expedition into Salt Lake City yourself.”

I nodded. “A large group will draw too much notice. I don’t think I should take any more three people, counting myself, into the city just to play it safe.”

“Very well, it may not be a bad idea to lend you a crew to man your ship. If you need to leave in a hurry they could have the ship prepped and ready to take off.”

“That seems like a wise precaution. Lily, will obviously have to accompany your people on the part run, and Farris is still in pretty rough shape it might be better to let him sit this one out. The doctor will probably want to stay with his patients, which is just as well a Dexagarmatrax walking the streets of a Qharr occupied city would draw a lot of notice and as for my sister–”

Mara held her hand up before I could finish and slowly started to shake her head. “Rebecca, will stay here at the nest with me. I’ll be getting to know the nesters better and I think I’d like a representative of the resistance present. This Farris friend of yours is in rough shape, I wouldn’t want to subject him to many hours at the negotiating table.”

I felt my jaw tighten and I gritted my teeth as I stared across the table at Mara. I didn’t like the idea of leaving my sister with the nesters after everything that had happened. It was one thing meeting with Rayland and Arianne, they were friends, but actually going into the nest was another thing entirely. I didn’t like the idea of Becca sticking around without someone to protect her. Then again knowing my sister she’d probably insist on staying to protect Farris. I grimaced and bit my lip meeting Mara’s gaze.

“Absolutely not! I don’t want my people stuck in that death pit especially if someone gets it into their heads to continue what Dahl started.”

“That won’t be an issue,” Mara replied. “I have no intention of infringing on the nesters. We’ve brought along a number portable housing units which can be constructed in a matter of hours. They each come rigged with a holo cloaker and are highly defensible. If trouble comes to us, believe me when I say we’ll be ready for it.”

I sighed and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “I can’t speak for Becca, but it may take some doing to convince her to stay. She’s her own person, the choice is hers. I won’t stand in her way if she whatever decision she makes.”

“Very well, I will talk with her.” She cleared her throat and turned back to me with a smile. “Now, dear have you thought about who you’d like to bring along on your team?”

“Rodriquez and Neada.”

“You can have Rodriguez, but it would behoove us to have Major Patterson’s second in command along on the main trip. Don’t you think? If anything were to happen to the major we’d need her to develop a working relationship with our troops. I’m sure your friends in the nest could make a suggestion.”

“I know a man,” Arianne said finally speaking after a long silence.

She had a shrewd smile on her face and I realized she had been kept quiet, not because she was intimidated, but had allowed us to carry on in order to get a better gauge on us. She reminded me of a predator carefully studying its prey preparing to pounce on it. The moment Mara glanced in Arianne’s direction; the pretty auburnette dropped the sly look and stared back at the older woman with wide innocent eyes.

It was a dangerous game to play. She could pretend to be the spineless young leader and have Mara think she had her eating out of her hands, but when the time was right she could show her teeth and sink claws into Mara’s back revealing that she hadn’t been quite so spineless after all. Of course, if Mara caught on the whole thing would be shot to hell, but I had no intention of telling her. It might be interesting to see Mara squirm for once.

“President, I’ll be glad to talk with your man. I can’t make any promises, but I given the circumstances I’m not sure I have a lot of choice in the matter.”

“Then it’s settled,” Mara smiled evidently oblivious to Arianne’s little scheme.

“Right.” I cleared my throat and stood back up. “I see no reason to delay things. We’ll make preparations tonight and tomorrow we’ll head out. Assuming that everything goes well, we’ll meet back here.”

“Perfect, the guards outside the door will escort you back to your ship. I’ll be sure to send Rodriquez over after I’ve briefed her.”

She gestured with an open hand toward the door and we didn’t linger quickly finding our way back to the umbilical that led back the Relentless.

Chapter Six

I laid back in bed and sighed as I stared up at the ceiling. The idea had been to catch a few hours of shut-eye while I was waiting on Mara and Arianne to send their people over, but I hadn’t been sleeping well since Lily and I had stopped sharing a bed. Every time I tried to talk to her, I just made things worse. She didn’t even yell at me, I think I could have handled that. She acted like a wounded puppy and I couldn’t bring myself to look into her eyes anymore.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes and ran a hand through my long mass of tangled hair. It was wrong of me to spend so much time muddling over my ailing relationship when the fate of the entire world hung in the balance, but no matter how much I told myself this, thoughts of Lily came to me unbidden. If only I had spoken up when I’d had the chance the distance that had grown between us would have never even come about.

There was a tap at the door and I sat bolt upright, happy for an interruption. “Come in,” I said pecking at my hair and hoping to make it at least a somewhat presentable.

The door slid open and in walked Rodriquez. It was the first time I’d seen her out of her body armor and while I’d known she had an attractive face I hadn’t quite realized the rest of the package was just as alluring. I coughed and shook my head and felt ashamed for thinking such things. I don’t know if it was the absence of Lily’s touch or the fact that our relationship was on the rocks, but I was having trouble keeping the more carnal part of my mind caged up. It had only been a few days since I’d gotten some, but for whatever damn reason all I could think of, when I wasn’t thinking about Lily, was sex, sex, sex.

“Mara said she’d brief you, so I doubt I need to tell you what our mission is, but I’m sure you have questions.”

“You can say that again, she said you asked for me. Why?” She asked staring back at me lacing her arms on her hips and leaned against the wall.

“Honestly?” I shrugged and lurched to my feet. “You’re one of the few from Mara’s group whose name I even know that isn’t a total meathead.”

“Meathead?” Rodriquez let out a low throaty chuckle. “You’d be surprised.”

I raised my eyebrows, but didn’t press the matter. I was curious to say the least, but I wasn’t really sure I wanted to know what she had meant. Even so, she told me anyway.

“You should know. I’m not like the other soldiers.”

“And you wonder why I picked you?” I asked. “The rest of those guys will stand out like a sore thumb the moment they step into the city. I think you would have a better chance at blending in than the rest.”

“Look I’m flattered, but that’s not what I meant. I’m a bit like that Rayland friend of yours. A defect, a clone who should have been terminated.”

“Then why is it that you’re still around? The E-R-F, doesn’t exactly seem like the types to rely on a piece of faulty hardware.” I winced, closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. “I’m sorry that came out sounding a little harsher than I’d intended.”

“I’ve heard worse.” She shrugged. “I’ve developed a bit of a tough skin. There are only a handful of people who know about my defect, but it’s not exactly physical as with your friend.”

That definitely had my curiosity peaked. “So it’s mental?”

“You could say that. Though I’m not quite sure my problem could be described so simply. It’s funny, if it hadn’t been for some random little computer bug I never would have existed. In short, this body was flashed with the wrong memories. It should have been given the recollections of Susan Rodriquez, but somehow I ended up with the mind of a medic by the name of Maximilian Everly.”

Understanding dawned on me and I bit my lip as I studied the other woman. “That’s one hell of a revelation, but why tell me?”

She shrugged and bit her lip. “Because you’re bound to find out sooner or later and because I figured you of all people would understand.”

“Mara told you that I used to be a man, didn’t she?”

Rodriquez nodded. “She thought I could talk to you. I’ve struggled living in this body from the moment I first came awake. Mara’s the only reason I’ve been allowed to live as long as I had. She sees me as her project, something to fix. Honestly, I’m not sure I can be fixed.”

“I know the feeling, but to be completely honest if you’re telling me this because you think I can give you some insights I’m not really sure I’ll be able to give you what you’re looking for. Adjusting has been a rough road for me. I’ll help you if I can, but my first priority is driving the Qharr from Earth. If we get a chance, I’d love to talk some more, but for now I need you to concentrate on the mission. Can you do that?”

“Yes, it’s why I’m here. If I couldn’t concentrate on the job at hand Morris would have had me put down a long time ago.”

“Good.” I put a hand on her shoulder and reached into my pocket with the other. “I’ve compiled a list of supplies. I want you to work with your people and if they have anything we’ll need they’ll be willing to part with.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She nodded, paused at the door and turned back to me. “What would you prefer I call you? I’m accustomed to dealing with a little clearer chain of command.”

“I’d prefer, you call me Lexa.”

“Alright,” she replied. “And you can call me Max.”

“Becca.” I scratched the back of my head standing in the doorway of my sister’s quarters. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“If this is about this whole Mara thing, I’ve already decided to stay with Mara and help with the negotiations.”

I nodded and scratched sat down on the edge of her bed. “Actually, I already knew Mara had talked to you. Are you really sure you want to stay? After what happened the last time–”

Becca held a hand up cutting me short. “Lexa, I can take care of myself. Honestly, if it weren’t for Matt I’d probably go with you, but I can’t just leave him alone with Mara.”

“Alright.” I bowed my head and ran a hand through my long blue locks. “I’d stay with you if I didn’t think this were so important, but another ship could really come in handy and–”

“Lex.” She planted her hand on her hips and gave me a pointed look. “You don’t have to explain I understand.”

“Now,” she continued folding her arms across her chest. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on between you and Lily?”

I stopped and stared at my sister for a long moment, caught by surprise, but I probably shouldn’t have been. It was stupid to assume that no one had caught on when the two of us barely even talked to each other and when we did it wasn’t especially cordial. I shook my head and fell back into the bed my hair falling into my face. “I’m not sure I want to talk about it.”

Becca flicked the hair out of my face and looked down into my eyes. “Come on, I can’t stand seeing you like this. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

I pushed myself up, resting my weight on my elbows and bit my lip before finally relenting. “Lily told me she loved me.”

“Oh, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“No, I mean, I don’t know! She just sprang it on me, I sort of panicked and froze. Before I knew it the Defiant was under attack and by then it was too late. Since then, I’ve spent every waking moment regretting what had happened. I know I could have handled better, but the last woman who told me she loved me was Kaya and you know how that turned out. What should I do, Becca?”

My sister collapsed onto the bed and ran her hands through her thick mop of hair. “Well, that explains Lily’s behavior. I guess the question is, do you love her too?”

I closed my eyes, massaged my temples and let a little moan escape my lips. “I do, I really do. It’s just I’m worried we’re moving too fast. What if she leaves me? What if one of us dies? I just can’t lose her like I did Kaya. I don’t think I can handle it.”

“Well,” Becca said a little bit of a quiver in her voice. “I understand better than anyone, but if you do nothing you will lose her. Besides.” She pushed herself up and leaned over me her hair tickling my arm. “Can you honestly say you’d want to erase everything that had happened between you and Kaya? When Coran died I found myself wondering if I would have been better off if we’d never met, but now…”

She trailed off a tear touching the corner of her eye before she continued. “But now, I wouldn’t take our time together away for all the world. He made me feel special in a way that no one else has ever…” she paused her eyes growing wide as her cheeks turned bright red.

“Well, maybe someone else has,” she said a slow smile creasing her lips. She cleared her voice and batted at her bangs. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I think I do. I’ve been an idiot and I think it’s time I do something about it,” I replied just before pulling myself up to my feet and rushed out the door to find Lily.

“God-dammit, Lily!” I grabbed her by the wrist and spun her around so she would face me. “Would you just listen to me?”

Lily jerked reacting as if I had stabbed her in the gut and I reached out to touch her face even as she fought to break my grip. She slipped loose and collapsed to the ground at my feet staring up at me with wide eyes. “This is it, isn’t it? You’re going to break up with me.”

It was my time to jerk backward, collapsing against the airlock hatch. So that was why she had been trying so hard to avoid me over the last few days. It seemed so obvious looking back on it, but I’d been so caught up in what I should have said I didn’t stop to think what Lily might have been thinking.

I was still afraid, but I couldn’t just let her leave without telling her how I felt. Tears were winding their way down her face and I knelt down next to her and place a hand on her shoulder. “Lil, this has never been about that. The truth is, since you said those words I’ve been terrified. I kept telling myself we were moving too fast, but it’s not that. The truth is I’m afraid of losing you just like I lost Kaya, but if I stand by and let you walk away it’s not any different.”

“What are you saying?” She stared up at me, the tears starting to dry up.

“What I’m saying, Lily, is that I love you,” I grabbed her by both cheeks and pecked her on the lips.

I could feel her trembling and she fell forward collapsing into my arms. “God, it’s so good to hear you say that.”

I felt her lips on my neck and a slow smile form on my face just before she pulled my chin down for a kiss. I closed my eyes and became lost to the sensuality that was an odd contrast to the excitement that was bubbling inside of me. I loved Lily, and as clichéd as it sounded I wanted to shout it from every rooftop and tell the whole world.

It was strange, I had the same feelings for Lily that I had for Kaya, but the two were as different as night and day. Kaya had been like a reactor that had gone critical ready to explode at any moment. Lily was more like her new namesake, soft and delicate, but whenever I looked at her I felt my heartbeat kick into overdrive just like it had with Kaya. I didn’t want the moment to end, but like all good things it eventually did. Too soon, in fact.

“Well, this is awkward,” a voice said.

Lily jerked out of my lap with a suddenness that startled me. I cleared my throat and stood up to face the newcomer. Though we’d only met once, his name was one I didn’t have any trouble recalling. “Councilor Schmit.”

“I’d prefer Jokeb, if you don’t mind,” he said showing almost no emotion on his face. “Arianne tells me I’ve been picked to accompany you on an expedition. As you might have guessed I’m just giddy with excitement.”

I wasn’t quite sure if he was sincere, but given that his voice didn’t mirror his supposed enthusiasm I tended to think he was being cynical. I studied the squat little man and wondered why the president would have chosen this man to accompany me. He wasn’t much to look at. He was short, balding, and middle-aged with touches of gray touching his temples. He wasn’t overweight though I couldn’t say he was exactly fit either, but it was hard to tell since he was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and pants.

“Jokeb, I don’t really mean to be rude, but–”

“You wanna know what makes me so special?” He asked a glint of amusement in his eyes. “I grew up in Salt Lake. If the city’s layout hasn’t changed much in the last two decade and a half, and I see no reason to think it has, I know a few hidey-holes we can use if the going gets tough. I may not look it but I’m pretty good in a fight. I was a soldier and a bit of a brawler in my younger days.”

“Very well,” I replied. “I have Alex Rodriquez, the other member of our expedition, gathering supplies. The list isn’t very extensive, but there were some things she was having trouble rounding up. Would you mind working with her to see if you can’t wrangle up the last few items?”

He stared at me and I felt his cold eyes studying me. A smile touched the corner of my lips, but still he didn’t speak. I raised my eyebrows and matched his gaze. “Is there a problem?”

“I’m not sure yet.” He grinned then calming walked away. “I’ll get your precious supplies if I can,” he called back over his shoulder just before disappearing around a bend in the corridor.

“Interesting fellow,” Lily said a moment later. “Hard to read that one. Sure hope he doesn’t wind up becoming a liability.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I just wish I knew what the hell that was all about.”

She leaned and pecked me on the lips resting her head up against my shoulder and sighed. “I gotta get going soon. I only came back to grab a few things from the Relentless. Colonel Morris isn’t exactly the type you wanna keep waiting.”

We shared another brief kiss before she too departed disappearing in the same direction as Jokeb. It was probably the last time I’d get to see her before we left for our missions and a part of me worried that it might be our final meeting. I worried for her, but I think that was part of being in a relationship. Lily could fend for herself, and if all went well we’d see each other again. It was the best I could hope for and sometimes hope is enough.

Chapter Seven

We parted ways the next day; I took the Relentless with Rodriquez and Schmit and left Morris in the Defiant with Lily as part of the crew. Becca wasn’t happy to stay at the nest, especially after what had happened, but I’d managed to soothe many of her doubts. I just wish I could say the same for myself.

We arrived at the city about midday and the three of us set out immediately. We were just approaching the Salt Lake City limits when I stopped Jokeb by placing a hand on his chest. Alex came to a stop behind him and I craned my neck back glancing at the towering skyscrapers of Salt Lake City. “You need to loosen up, both of you. You’re going to stand out if you go traipsing into the city with your heads held high like that.”

Schmit grinned and didn’t say a word, but Rodriquez more than made up for his silence. “Why do you say that?”

I palmed my forehead and sighed. “You’re supposed to be slaves who’ve spent the past twenty-four years living under the shadow of the gray skins. Do you know what that does to a person? It breaks you; it makes you give up hope. Hang your head a little when you walk, don’t make eye contact with anyone, look at your feet. Maybe hunch over a little bit and whatever you do, you stay out of the way of the Qharr. Don’t talk back, hell don’t talk at all, unless you’re spoken to directly.”

Jokeb grunted and looked out to the city. “I’ll play along and do your little monkey dance, but I’m a little more worried about getting into the city.”

“Yeah,” I nodded looking out toward the city. “But if we pull this off it’ll all be worth it.”

Rodriquez looked out on the city and grimaced. “I’m not so sure we can pull this off.”

“Now, now, girl there’s no need to be a pessimist. I for one think it seems like a worthwhile venture.”

With that I turned sharply to examine Jokeb. His tone of voice was neutral, but the way he’d emphasized worthwhile made me think he was being ironic. I wasn’t about to waste my time mincing words for clarification. As longs as Schmit did his job he could think whatever the hell we wanted.

“That reminds me, it’s about time I did something about these eyes and hair.” I said grabbing a fistful of blue locks and holding them in front of my face. ‘Khala would you care to do the honor.’

‘It would be my pleasure,’ she replied sounding almost chipper for a change.

My scalp started to itch and I shook my head as hair fell away. I was bald just long enough to feel the breeze tickle my crown, but then I felt new locks cascade down my head. My eyes burned and I forced them shut only to snap them back open a moment later once Khala had finished.

“Damn,” Jokeb said snorting as he looked me over.

“God.” Rodriquez gasped and stared at me with wide eyes. “Does it hurt?”

“Mostly, it just itches, and burns a little.”

“I don’t get it why don’t you just keep it that way? Wouldn’t you rather just blend in?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that.” I shook my head and glanced back at the city. “Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of explaining it. Maybe I’ll tell you later, but for now I’d like to get this done with. The quicker we get our asses into the city the quicker we can get the hell out.”

“Papers.” The Qharr at the gate demanded holding a massive paw out in front of me.

I reached inside my jacket and produced the asked for documents. The guard, a towering gray skin whose skin had an almost bluish tinge to it, studied them with furrowed brows. When he let the papers drop to the ground at our feet I knew that it was a bust.

“Get down!” I yelled tossing my rucksack aside producing a phase pistol from inside my jacket and slammed it into the chest of the guard. He staggered back and I spun around opening fire on the other three guards. I took one down with a head shot and managed to hit another in the shoulder, but the fourth leapt out of the way before my shots could hit home.

“Inside now!” I yelled at Jokeb and Alex as the gate started to slide shut. I slammed my shoulder into the first guard who had recovered from my initial blow and went dashing toward the opening right on my companions’ tails.

“That went well,” Jokeb called over his shoulder as the gate came crashing into place behind us.

“Yeah, you’re telling me!” I called craning my neck back and cursed as I caught sight of cadre of guards in hot pursuit. “We’ve got company!”

I stopped dead in my tracks and spun around using my phase pistol to take down three of the bastards with carefully aimed shots to the head. Phase blasts pelted me, but I’d become so accustomed to my immunity to energy weapons that I didn’t even flinch. Flashes of phase bolts came sizzling past me from behind as Alex and Jokeb opened fire behind me and I managed to take out another gray skin and grazed a second before the remaining five guards were on top of me.

I jumped up sailing above the bastard’s head and spinning around in a back flip I landed on their tails and started blasting them before my feet even hit the ground. Three fell against my sudden barrage, but the remaining two managed to lurch out of the way. The first, a slender example of Qharr womanhood, charged at me her fists swinging and I spun away landing a blow in her side.

I wasn’t so fortunate with the second guard, who smashed his fists into my side before I even saw him coming. I took a bit of a tumble and landed rather ungracefully on my ass. Before I could climb back to my feet the Qharr woman hit me with powerful kick in the ribs. I stumbled back, but after I regained my footing I kicked out and managed to sweep her feet out from under her. The second guard slammed into me, but I dislodged him and plant a fist into his face. He went down like a sack of potatoes and I spun around to face the female guard and saw a dozen or so guards dashing through the city toward us I

“Well crap,” I muttered and took off running. Schmit and Rodriquez fell in sync behind me and we went tearing through the streets of Salt Lake the gray skins in hot pursuit. I fired a number of shots over my shoulder and so did my companions, but it’s damn near impossible to aim when you’re running even with abilities like mine.

“Jokeb, Alex” I screamed as we turned a corner into a side street. “No matter what happens just keep running. If I go down, do whatever it takes to complete the mission without me.”

Joken grunted in what I hoped was an affirmative as I spun around on the balls of my feet to face the deluge of oncoming pursuers. I gritted my teeth, screamed at the top of my lungs, and went charging right at them. I even managed to pick off four guards with my pistol before I landed the first blows with my fists.

“Fatherless dre’ks!” I screamed bashing one of the bastards in the skull before kicking another across the chest. Another pounced on me, but I leapt up and over his head. He was quick on his feet even by human standards and I soon found myself facing him. He was short and slender, small by Qharr standards, but still much bulkier than your average human.

He swung a fist at me, but I raised my pistol and shot him in the face. Before I could fire off another shot another guard smashed into me and sent the pistol clattering to the ground. I cursed, but didn’t even bother lunging after it. Instead, I yanked the guard’s own weapon from its holster and shot him dead. I killed two more guards before my filched weapon was forced out of my hands by the tall slender Qharr woman from before.

I threw my fist back to hit her, but she was thrown aside as a short and squat figure came slamming into her with surprising force. I had to do a double take when I realized it was Jokeb, but I didn’t have to time to reason out how he might have pulled off such a feat of strength. I dodged another attack, and pounced on my new opponent. I made short work of him and the next two after that. I swirled around ready to take on another only to find that Jokeb had picked off the remaining few.

“Come on.” He motioned me forward and we both joined Rodriquez, who had lingered in the distance, a moment later.

I glanced back over my shoulder and was relieved to find that there were no guards in pursuit for the time being, but that could change any minute. “We need to find some place to hide.”

We dashed down an adjoining street only to come to a screeching halt. It was packed from one end to the other with a whole host of different species including Qharr, Ghrev, humans and a dozen or so more aliens that I couldn’t name. I almost turned away, but then I caught sight of a familiar face. I pushed my way through the crowd and took off after her. Jokeb and Alex called after me and I glanced back at them furiously motioning at them to follow. Unfortunately, when I looked back Velspatt had disappeared into the crowd.

It didn’t help matters when I took notice of the gray skin guards working their way through the crowd. I cursed under my breath and ducked under a nearby awning and a few seconds later Jokeb and Alex joined me.

“Shit,” Alex said gripping the side of her head. “What the hell are we going to do? There’s no way we can fight Qharr in a crowd like this.”

I bit my tongue, and stopped myself from pointing out that Rodriquez hadn’t done a lot of fighting during the last fight. “I’d rather not hurt any of these people–” I stopped and glanced around at the crowd. I wasn’t concerned in the least about injuring Qharr, but there were plenty of innocents of other species who might get caught in the crossfires. “–but there’s too much at risk for any one of us to get captured. What we need is a way out.”

Jokeb grinned then and threw a thumb over his shoulder. “That ain’t no problem. Come on.”

We zigzagged through the crowd and the guards on both sides of the street moved closer and closer boxing us in. We were just seconds away from being trapped, but then Jokeb veered right so suddenly that I almost kept on walking straight forward. As it was, I barely managed to keep myself from running into a rather large and menacing looking Credknot before I following after Schmit.

A moment later we stepped out into an alley barley wide enough for us to walk through single file. I never would have even known it was there had it not been for Jokeb, the gap between the two buildings had been almost perfectly concealed by the awnings from the market carts and booths. It was a good thing it was an open ended alley or we might have been trapped there.

At the alley’s end, I realized just how wrong my earlier assessment had been. There were two paths that led right and left at the end, but they were both closed off from the outside streets. Fortunately, that didn’t mean there weren’t other routes we could take. A single metal door, long rusted over from disuse, was all that stood between us and our escape. Hopefully, the building would provide access to the next street over, but there was just one problem the door mechanisms were rusted stuck. That wasn’t much of an impediment for us, but this time it wasn’t me that forced the door open, it was Jokeb.

He slammed into the door with his shoulder and it popped open with a groan of protest providing just enough room for him to squeeze through. Alex and I were pretty quick to follow him through and the room went dark a moment when the door clanged shut with another metallic clank.

A beam of light cascaded out from a small cylindrical tube clenched in Max’s hand and I spent a moment taking stock of my surroundings. We were in some sort of storage room which was lined with shelves, most of them empty, here or there was an empty box or a piece of equipment too heavy to be carried out by scavengers, but I didn’t see anything that justified further investigation.

Joken grunted and spun around just in time to watch him send one of the heavy metal shelfs crashing down in front of the door. “That ought to hold ’em off.”

“Assuming they’ll even find this place,” I replied glancing back over my shoulder. “Either way I say it’s time for us to make our exit. If they do find their way here I want to be long gone before they show up.”

We did just that exiting out through the opposite door and found ourselves back on the streets. From there we made our escape disappearing into the crowds of the next nearest roadway.

I collapsed against the wall running a hand through my hair as took several deep breaths. My heart was racing, but considering that we’d just spent the last four hours playing cat and mouse with the Qharr that wasn’t much a surprise.

This time I was fairly certain we’d managed to give them the slip, but Rodriquez was keeping a close eye on the window just in case.

“Okay, Jokeb. Now that we’re settled I think it’s about time you clarify things,” I said.

“Clarify?” He grinned scratching at his beard as studied me with those deep set eyes. “Let’s not dance around with our words. You wanna know how I can mash faces so easily, is that it?”

Mash faces? That seemed like an odd way of putting it, but I bit my lip and nodded. Jokeb gritted his teeth and let out a long sigh before pulling his shirt up over his head.

“Hey look.” I held my hands up and scooted away. “I don’t know what–”

Jokeb let out a low throaty laugh then turned his back to me revealing a long column of metal that protruded from his back where his spine should have been. It was segmented, each section having the appearance of a vertebrae and there were tiny silver strands threading out from the each segment like snakes burrowing down into his skin.

“There’s a lot of names for people like me. Cyborg, bionic, biomechs, fusers, and probably half a dozen others that you won’t hear mentioned in polite conversation. I ain’t immune to phase fire like you, but I’m stronger than most Qharr and I can take a beating like no other.”

I nodded and let out a long sigh of relief as he pulled his shirt back over his head. “Sorry, I thought you might have had something else in mind.”

He didn’t answer, but instead he grinned and shook his head.

“How long do you think it will be before they give up the chase?” Max craned her beck back turning away from the window to glance over at me.

“Well they’re Qharr so probably never,” I replied sinking down to the floor. “But things will probably die down a little in a couple of days. We’ll need to disguise ourselves though and stay out of sight as much as possible when we’re traveling through the city.”

“Three days doesn’t hardly seem like enough time,” Jokeb replied his hands thrumming against the floor. “We oughtta settle down and wait the bastards out.”

“I don’t believe this,” Max palmed her face and shook her head. “You might be comfortable hiding in a hole, but I don’t think we want to stay in the city long term. The sooner we get out the better.”

“You’re one to talk,” Jokeb narrowed his eyes and glared at Max. “Your people ran away from Earth with their tails tucked between their legs and left the rest of us to the Qharr.”

Max clenched her jaw and looked almost as if she were ready to scream, but I held my hand up and stopped her before she could issue her retort. “Max you’re right, we can’t afford to stick around the city for very long, but we do need to wait the gray skins out. We’ll watch the streets and see how it goes, but if five days go by without incidence and guards are still roaming the city in full force I will go find Velspatt all by myself.”

“Just you?” Max raised an eyebrow and turned back to the window. “I know with your abilities you can do some pretty amazing things, but even you aren’t invincible.”

“No, but you can’t walk up a wall or leap across rooftops,” I replied feeling a huge grin stretch across my face as I caught her eyebrows shooting up. I guess she’d underestimated my abilities after all.

“Jesus,” she said, with slight shake of her head. “Is there anything you can’t do?”

I grunted and sank down the rest of the way to the floor. “Jokeb try to get some sleep. Max, you have first watch, wake me up in a few hours, and I’ll take a turn.”

I drifted off in no time and faded into the darkness of a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Eight

Five days came and went and the Qharr patrols showed no signs of letting up. Which gave us plenty of time to think, fortunately we’d packed in enough foodstuffs to last us those five days. Well, once we rationed them. Water was another matter entirely, but we managed to procure some through a quick trip back into the street and some less than honest means.

Five days of sitting around gave me plenty of time to think and given some the more recent revelations I had plenty of fodder. I’d been so caught up with Mara’s return from the grave and everything that had happened since then that I’d barely given myself much time to think about it, but it had to come up sooner or later.

The Qharr were human or damn near close to it. My whole life there had been no doubt in my mind that humans were less violent than the Qharr, but if we had been used as a template for the gray skins could that really be true? I’d seen the horrible things humans could do to one another and I’d experienced more than a few of them myself.

I was always so sure that the horrible things humans did were a result of the way in which the gray skins had tread upon us. They had taught us to commit atrocities, but that didn’t ring true anymore. The truth was we had the same capacity for violence that our oppressors did, but then what separated us from them?

I didn’t know, but despite all that I was resolved to keep up the fight. Before the war humanity had managed to put aside all our differences and unite as we reached out to the stars. If we could do it once, why not again?

Delving into human and Qharr nature weren’t the only things that kept me occupied. Jokeb wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but Max was more than happy to chatter. Given that we’d both been forced into bodies of the opposite sex, although through very different means, we had a lot of things to discuss and she was more than happy to do so.

“It’s strange, but I can’t help but wonder. I’m so different from the other Everlys, but I’m not much like the other Rodriquezes either. We know a lot of our behavior is ruled by genetics, but a lot is shaped by our personal experiences. How much of me is a product of genetics and how much is by my own experiences?” Max said rubbing a hand against her temple. “And maybe some of it is influences by my sex. I have the memories of a man, but the body of a woman. There aren’t any clones like me, I just wonder…”

“You need to stop worrying your pretty little face off. You are who you are, and the only things that makes you that way is because you choose to be that way. The second you woke from your tube you were different from anybody else. You’re experiences are gonna be different and you are gonna make different choices,” Jokeb said with a suddenness that startled us both.

Max pursed her lips and glared at the little man. I’m not sure she took well to being called pretty. I could certainly understand where she was coming from. I’d never cared to be called that myself.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I replied shaking my head. “I think I understand or at least I do better than most. After I was joined, I was transformed and I really came to know my violent side. I’ve done things I’m not proud of and frankly I never would have believed that I was actually capable of. I found myself blaming my symbiote, and the body that she had forced on me. Anyone or anything, but myself.”

“I didn’t know who I was or what I had allowed myself to become, but I even started to think of Lexa and Jelfree as two separate people. I eventually realized that whatever name I chose to go by I’m still the same person. Those violent acts I’d committed weren’t the fault of my symbiote or my body. I had chosen to do those things and I would have done so regardless of what face or sex I happened to wear. I guess that’s why I had my symbiote give me a new face, as a way of showing I had moved past all that.”

“Are you done yet? Or do you think we need to sit and discuss this for another five days?”

“Weren’t you the one that wanted to settle in for the long haul?” Rodriquez turned to Schmit with a crooked eyebrow.

“I was, but after five days of listening to the two of you yammer on I can’t much stand the thought of sticking around.”

I bit my tongue forcing back the response that was so close to escaping my lips and climbed to my feet.

“I don’t suppose there’s any need to wait longer. Don’t wait up for me,” I said just before disappearing from our little hidey hole and into the darkness of the city around us.

Finding my way through the city was difficult, not just because the streets were dark and unlit, but because I wasn’t quite sure where I was going. I knew what direction I needed to take, but the city was big and face it a girl can get lost when traveling amongst those big towering structures. Especially when she’d spent most of her life living in slave compounds, the cities were a different kind of beast entirely.

The streets were mostly empty save for a smattering of Qharr here or there. Fortunately, it was dark enough that I was able to slip past them pretty easily. In all the slave compounds I’d visited in my travels, there was always a curfew for humans so it seemed likely there was one in the city as well which would explain the absence of humans in the streets.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breathe and dove into the shadows just as a Qharr patrol came marching down the street. A moment later they disappeared around a corner and I let out a long sigh of relief before looking straight up. Most of the buildings on the street were close enough together and low enough to the ground that traveling by way of rooftop seemed like the best way of keeping out of sight.

I was in what was once probably a business district where tall skyscrapers reached into the night sky. The buildings looked to be in pretty decent shape, which led me to believe they were still in use. I was relieved to find that the windows were dark when I launched myself up the side of the nearest building.

When I was on top I got a better view of the city around me, but it did little help point me in the right direction. I was almost ready to make my way back down to street level when Khala chimed in. ‘Keep going forward.’

“Yes, mistress. Your wish is my command.”

“Smart ass,” she replied her facade appearing out of the open air. “I was trying to give you directions.”

“Directions? How the hell can you make heads or tails of all of this?!” I held an open hand out gesturing at the cityscape before us.

“We need to go west, right? Trust me I have an internal compass. Just keep headed in that direction and we should find our way.”

I watched Khala’s image fade away and then after a running head start I leapt over to the next rooftop. I continued on like that, jumping from roof to roof until I came to the end of the street. From there I was forced to leap back down and sneak across the street and was back up on the opposite rooftop in no time. I continued on like that for several hours, once in a while Khala would point me in the right direction.

Whenever I came back down to street level it got harder and harder to dodge the patrols, but somehow I managed to squeeze through each time. That being said there were half a dozen close calls and when I finally neared the Ghrev deli I was never so glad to find the place.

I was a little disheartened when I saw the deli and realized that the lights were out, but, face it, that’s not exactly a surprising development considering what time it was. I ducked behind a corner just as another patrol passed by. Once they’d disappeared back into the darkness I crossed the street and found my way to the back.

The back door was locked, but that wasn’t exactly much of an impediment for someone like me. I slammed my shoulder into the door and after the third strike it gave away. I rushed forward flying inside with my phase pistol readied only to stop dead in my tracks.

Three very large and well armed Ghrev were standing opposite me with phase pistols drawn. A smaller specimen of Ghrev womanhood was standing in the corner, but she looked no less fierce than her cohorts.

“Velspatt,” I said and tucked my pistol away.

“Just what exactly is it that you think you’re doing, hume?” The sleek and slender Ghrev asked gliding across the floor so gracefully that she almost seemed to moving in sync with some silent tune.

“You don’t recognize me,” I said brushing the hair away from my eyes. “But then you could blame you? I’m not exactly wearing the same face that I was last time.”

“Hume, I grow impatient. I don’t know what nonsense you’re going on about, and I don’t really care. Tell me who you are and what you are doing here or my associates will open fire.” Velspatt stepped forward holding an open hand to her three companions.

I folded my arms across my chest and shrugged. “Do it, see what happens.”

Velspatt turned away, and let out a long low-pitched growl. I don’t know if there was some sort of meaning to her bellow, but her flunkies responded to it as if there was. They raised weapons and blasted me with a volley of phase blasts and I felt an influx of energy as Khala absorbed it all up.

“Hatect brûalten,” one of Ghrev cursed as the three lowered their weapons.

Velspatt spun back around to face me and she let out another growl studied me with those strange reptilian-esque eyes. “You are no ordinary human. Tell me, you wouldn’t happened to have come in contact with a K’teth symbiote lately, have you?”

“As a matter of fact,” I said tucking my thumbs into my waistband. “I have and you guessed as much the last time we met.”

“The last we met?” she asked slowly stepping forward. “I remember meeting another human who had been invaded by one of these K’teth. I admit there is something familiar about your scent, but there is a distinct difference. Are you perhaps a member of her clan?”

“You could say that, I am her.” I put my hands on my hips and gritted my teeth. I briefly thought of appealing to Khala for help, but thought better of it. What could she do short of transforming me back to my previous form anyway?

“And I suppose you have a means of proving this? I presume you’ve come to me with a reason in mind and I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of doing business with beings that cannot substantiate their claims. I’m sure you understand.”

I let out a long sigh and shuddered. I’d definitely have to get some help from my symbiote on this one. ‘Khala is there anything you can do?’

‘I think I can manage something, but I must warn you it will be painful. I’ll be able to dull the pain, but this isn’t something I’ve done before so it may not be possible to shut the pain out completely.’

‘It won’t be permanent will it?’

Khala answered in the negative and I reluctantly allowed her to have a go at it. She got to work immediately. I felt the skin on my face begin the ripple. I grunted and fell to my knees. It contorted and stretched and when I looked up at the Ghrev they all took a step back from me. I thought Khala was done, but then I felt the changes reverse themselves. It was all over in a matter of minutes and when I stood back up I saw the Ghrev each take another step back. Clearly whatever it was Khala had done had spooked them.

“Aupe haurm cre!” Velspatt yelled looked almost as if she were ready to bolt. She stared at me her nostrils flaring for what must have been several minutes before her muscles finally relaxed. “You can change your form.”

“Yes,” I said with a nod finally getting an inkling of what my symbiote had done. “Though it’s not something I like to do very often. It’s rather painful.”

Velspatt let out a long hissing laugh. “Yes, I can understand why.”

She approached me and ran a clawed finger down my cheek. “I like the way you smell,” her voice rumbled in my ear and I shuddered and quickly pulled away.

“Velspatt, so help me if you don’t back off I will flatten your face.” I raised my fist up and pulled it back more than willing to make good on my threat.

Her hand ran down my back and she grabbed at my ass. I yelped and swatted at her hand. She withdrew her hand, all the while laughing. I gritted my teeth, and rounded on her. “If there is one thing you can ever be sure of Velspatt it’s that I won’t ever be one of your conquests. If you even so much as touch me again I will do something we’ll bother regret.”

Velspatt turned away and walked a half a dozen steps before spinning back around to face me. “I think we can do business.”

I raised an eyebrow and watched her pace about the room like a caged animal. “As I recall you owe me a favor.”

“Assuming that you are in fact the same human who killed the corrector, then yes I believe I do, but how can I be sure you are? Your ability to transform is only proof that you can change your form. I must say I was rather impressed that you were able to duplicate the smell from the other hume, but even that could be a trick.”

“Just how the hell am I supposed to convince you, Velspatt? I’m here to collect on my debt if you’re not going to repay me maybe it’s just better if I leave,” I said and turned away ready to leave.

“I don’t believe that will be necessary. I don’t know what it is, but I believe you. It seems unlikely that another K’teth would find it’s way into another human.”

“Well.” I spun back around and eyed the Ghrev crime lord suspiciously. Her turnaround seemed a bit too sudden for my liking, but I needed her help so I didn’t press the matter. There would be plenty of time to discover whatever secret motives she had later on. “I believe it’s time get down to business.”

I looked down at the getup I was wearing and felt my cheeks burn. It would have been one thing if it had been something that skirted the edges of decency, but the sheer crop top and loin cloth I was wearing left nothing to the imagination. I might as well have been wearing nothing at all. Certainly the outfit matched the part I was going to play, but it was not what I had in mind when I’d gone to Velspatt.

She of course had outright refused use of her ship, but that didn’t surprise me in the least. Fortunately, Salt Lake City had a space port which was what allowed me to fall back on my second idea and with Velspatt’s help I might just be able to pull it off. Assuming she wasn’t up to something with this little scheme of hers, but it was a risk I was willing to take if it meant getting my hands on another ship.

“Damn,” Max said from the doorway. I spun around to face her and I think my face must have turned an even deeper shade of red when I caught her looking at my chest.

After my meeting with Velspatt I’d returned back to our little hideaway and retrieved Max and Jokeb. Velspatt had been kind enough to offer us food and shelter, something which I could hardly refuse considering that we had virtually no rations left. The accommodations certainly beat the tiny little rat-hole we’d spent the last five days tucked away inside.

I cleared my throat and quickly covered my chest as I fought down the urge to go scurrying away. Her cheeks looked about as red as mine felt and she quickly ducked her head behind the huge piece of snowy white animal fur she was holding in her arms. “Velspatt told me to bring this in to you. She wanted you to wear it while out in the city.”

“How thoughtful of her. Now I won’t’ freeze to death,” I replied eagerly snatching the fur out from her arms and draping it over my shoulders.

“Not to mention your modesty. If it was me I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that.” Rodriegez bit her lip and shook her head. “You sure about this?”

“About as sure as I can be. Believe me I’m none too thrilled about this outfit, but I’ve learned sometimes you have to make compromises to achieve your goals,” I replied pulling the ends of the fur together so that they covered my breasts. “I don’t think I have to tell you how beneficial it would be to have another ship, do I?”

“No, but I don’t think I have to tell you the consequences if we fail. Tell me do you really trust Velspatt?”

“No,” I replied grabbing fistful of fur with each hand. I wasn’t sure what animal it might have belonged to, but it was certainly soft. “I’d be an idiot if I did, but at the moment she’s our best bet so we’ll play along… for now.”

“I’m not sure I can do that, Lexa. This whole thing has me on edge.”

“How do you think I feel?” I grimaced and looked down at my ridiculous little outfit before I reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “Look, I understand, I really do. You’re a soldier, right?”

Max nodded and met my gaze, stiffening just a little bit as she stared me down. “I am.”

“Concentrate on your orders. If this goes to pot it will be my fault. I don’t want you worrying about something that is out of your control. Do you understand?”

She pursed her lips and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good, now are you clear on what you have to do?”

Rodriquez nodded again a slow smile gradually stretching across her face. “This oughtta prove to be one of the more interesting ops I’ve ever been involved in.”

“Me too,” I grinned back at her then shuffled out the door and waved for her to follow. It was time for me to play my part.

Chapter Nine

The iron collar snapped around my neck and I clenched my fists at my side barely able to keep myself from smashing the head of my Ghrev taskmaster, a foul tempered Ghrev with pale white scales and strange all-black eyes. I hadn’t yet learned her name and given the way she treated me I had no interest in doing so. She was actually in on our little scheme which was why I became so angry when the bitch got rough with me. She clipped a chain onto my collar and yanked me forward all the while muttering under her breathe in the Ghrev language.

Her initial jerk had been so unexpected that she actually managed to pull me forward a few steps, but the second time I braced myself and when she yanked on it I didn’t budge an inch. The bitch spun around, dropped the chain and came rushing toward me.

“You are a willful and insolent hume,” she said getting right in my face and barring her teeth at me. “I have been dealing with this gray one for many years. He will find it very unusual if I am easier on you than other slaves. If he learns of my deceit and you fail it will be detrimental to my business dealings.”

“And you wouldn’t want that, would you?” I met her gaze and when she started to turn away I reached out and grabbed her by the throat. The end of the chain she was holding went clattering to the ground as she reached up to try and pry my finger free, but my grip was like iron and her efforts futile.

“I may look like another puny human to you, but I could end your life with just a little squeeze. Which I will do if you try anything funny. Understand?” I squeezed just hard enough to give her an inkling of how strong I really was and loosened my grip.

“I will attempt to restraint myself,” she replied letting out a long drawn out hiss and backed slowly away. She bent down to pick up the chain and pulled on it. She wasn’t as forceful as before, but there was an urgency to the way she was yanking.

She led me through the streets and I certainly drew a lot of attention. I pulled my fur as close to my body as I could, but there was only so much of it and I showed a lot of skin no matter how I tried. It certainly didn’t do as much to keep me warm as I would have liked let alone preserve my modesty.

Everywhere I looked eyes were on me, most of the men and a few of the women looked on me with hungry expressions, but there were a lot of people who looked at me with contempt. My outfit identified me as a croucher, and there were few things slaves hated more than a human who so willingly served the Qharr except perhaps the gray skins themselves. A part of me longed to call out and tell them that I was not what I appeared, but sanity and reason kept me from acting out on that impulse.

Fortunately, the trip through the city, while humiliating and more than a little chilly, was brief enough that it didn’t scar my dignity too deeply. The space port was massive monstrosity of a structure, whose interconnected insectine domes spanned three entire city blocks and stood as a stark contrast to the towering skyscrapers of the city.

My Ghrev escort led me into a side entrance that was barely visible from the street and down into a dark and dank tunnel. We took so many twists and turns that I don’t think I could have made my way back on my own. Though I’m not sure it would have mattered, if everything worked out, I’d be taking a different way out.

“Eurunteso,” a deep voice said the moment we stepped into yet another access corridor.

I glanced about and watched as a tall dark-skinned Qharr stepped out from the shadows. I had to do a double take when spotted the prominent belly hanging from his massive frame. Not once in my twenty-four years living as a slave had I ever met an overweight gray skin. Our invaders prided themselves on their physical appearances to the point that anyone who deviated from the norm was looked on as less than desirable.

“Portmaster Myndurk,” Eurunteso replied clenching a scaled hand atop my shoulder and pushing me forward. “I’ve brought you another treat.”

I bit my tongue and fought down the urge to smash things before I bowed my head and fell down onto my knee in front the portmaster. I slowly raised my head and put on my best vapid expression. He knelt down and reached out to my cheek, his fat calloused hands slowly messaging it and it was all I could do to keep from punching the bastard in the face.

“Beautiful,” he whispered in Qharr before jerking back to his feet.

“Eurunteso, you always come through for me. This hu-man female may very well be the most luscious sampling yet. Tell me, where is it that you find these girls?”

“If I revealed my methods, I’d be out of business, would I not?” Came Eurunteso’s reply. “I really must leave; I have business to attend to. If you would be so kind as to pay me, I’ll let you get to your pleasures.”

“Very well, if you so insist.” Myndurk messaged the underside of his jaw, a gesture which indicated he was irritated, but either Eurunteso didn’t pick up on the cue or else she didn’t have as good of a grasp of Qharr body language as I did.

He produced a small satchel from his gun belt and tossed it to Eurunteso who snatched it out of the air and let out a long hiss. “Enjoy,” was all she said before she dropped the chain and disappeared back down the corridor. It was probably because she was looking right at me, but I got the feeling she hadn’t been talking to Myndurk when she said it.

“Come, precious one,” my new ‘master’ said as he reached down to pick up the chain. I didn’t say a word, but once he turned his back I permitted myself to give off the slightest shudder just before he led me away.

The door clicked shut behind us and I slowly backed away from the portmaster, until the chain was completely taut. He yanked on it and I let myself be pulled toward him until he had his massive arms wrapped around me. “Human women are so soft, so warm, and so very different from Qharr females.”

I pursed my lips and looked up at him . The Qharr were a rough, and hard edged people, but surely the Phyrr Lesch must have left something resembling humanity within their psyche. It was just enough to stop me from killing Myndurk right there and then, but only just barely. It wasn’t however enough to keep me from beating the fat bastard senseless.

I broke loose from his grip, and slammed him into the wall. He crumbled collapsing to the ground at my feet and I bent down wrapped the chain around his neck and pulled it just tight enough that I’m sure it was more than a little difficult to breathe.

“Alright,” I gritted my teeth staring him down. “I’m only going to say this once. I need the access codes to open the side bay ports on the north end of the building.”

He didn’t answer, but I hadn’t exactly been expecting him to be cooperative. I tightened the chain and batted his hands away as he flung them up to try and forced me away. “You ready to give me an answer or will I have kill you? I don’t care either way. I’m sure I can find another way to get those bay doors open and I certainly would not mind ridding the world of another gray skin.”

Again he was silent and I slammed a hand into his head. “No? You disgust me you know that? It’s bad enough that you people enslaved us. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been beaten by one of your kind, and I hate the whole lot of you, but you, your worse than all of them. The Qharr have taken our freedom, but that’s no enough for you, is it!? You want our fucking bodies too! What would your friends think if they found out you liked getting a little human nookie? You’d be regarded as a sexual deviant, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what your people do with deviants. Now, are you going to tell me what I want to know, or will I have to kill you? I’ve killed more Qharr than I can count, believe me I won’t be shedding any tears once you’re gone.”

I didn’t expect to get anything out of him, the Qharr were notoriously difficult to intimidate and even harder still to interrogate, but Myndurk didn’t seem to be made of very stern stuff because he crumbled like dried dough. “You can open the ports from the adjacent computer terminal, but you will never make it that far. The guards will kill you before you make it halfway through the building.”

“I think you’ll find I’m a little harder to kill than your average human,” I said reaching up to my collar and snapping the hinge in two before tossing the two pieces aside. “I guess now there isn’t much reason to keep you alive, is there?”

I pulled my fist back ready to deal a devastating blow, but as I stared back at Myndurk, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Sure he was an evil, disgusting excused for a gray skin, but I was sick and tired of all the killing. I snatched one of the collar halves from where I’d thrown it and slammed it into the side of his head. His eyes rolled into the back of his skull and he slumped down to the ground, blood dripping from the side of his head where I’d hit him.

I took a moment to compose myself, and felt my cheeks burn anew as I looked down at the ridiculous outfit that I was wearing. The thought of traipsing about through the spaceport wearing almost nothing at all wasn’t exactly the most appealing idea in the world. I’d never fought naked and I really didn’t think I wanted to give it try. Stealth seemed like it was probably the better choice.

Still a weapon would have been nice. I glanced around the room, spotted a phase pistol, and retrieved it from where it had been left atop the table. A layer of dust covered it and I wiped it clean as best I could with my hands. All the Qharr I’d ever known were meticulous to the point of obsession when it came to caring for their weapons, but it seemed Myndurk was more than a little careless in that sense.

A part of me wondered how a deviant could rise to such a high position as portmaster, but no matter how I spun it I just couldn’t think of a reason. Then the answer came to me, it was corruption. I’d already witnessed signs of it within the ascendancy. The Qharr were always beating their chests declaring how honorable they were, but there were at least a few that had proved they could go against the very values and principles that supposedly motivated every action a gray skin warrior took.

I shook my head and bit my lip, glancing down at Myndurk’s unconscious form. I probably should have killed him, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. He’d given me enough reason, but I was becoming more and more convinced that the more beings I killed the more like the Qharr I became.

I spun away and hit the door running at full speed. I had avoided killing one slimeball, but I very much doubted if any others of his kind tried to stop me I’d be able to be left with a choice. My mission was just too damned important to let it go to pot because I couldn’t do what was necessary.

I dove for cover behind a patrol ship, and bit my lip as I craned my neck to glance around the corner. I’d spent the last hour navigating the maze like corridors before finally finding my way to the main hangar bays and it hadn’t exactly been the easy finding my way through. There were guards everywhere, most of which I’d managed to evade, but the two I’d run across just a few moments ago hadn’t been quite so lucky.

I’d made short work of the pair, but there hadn’t been any good places to stash the bodies so it was only a matter of time before they were discovered. Worse still, there were at least thirty gray skins lurking about the hangar. I didn’t know what they were all doing there, but there were more than enough of them to give me trouble if I chose to take a direct approach. I needed to think of something more subtle, but for the life of me I had no idea what that could be.

I almost laughed out loud when I realized what I was going to do. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but it would get the job done… or so I hoped. I dashed across the empty space of the hangar and leapt behind the next ship. I jumped behind a second and third before finally finding what I was looking for a guard close enough that I could grab him without anyone seeing. Which is exactly what I did. I slammed the butt of my weapon in the side of his head and managed to render him unconscious before he made much sound.

The next part of the plan was a little more difficult. I had to get into the fighter without being seen all the while dragging my captive along with me. I was getting really tired of the Qharr and their god damned bio locks. The bastards just couldn’t make it easy could they?

With the unconscious guard in tow I edge around the back of the patrol ship and found my way to the door on the side. I glanced around making sure that none of the other gray skins had caught sight of me or noted the absence of their peer, but the coast still seemed to be clear. I placed the guard’s hand on the door panel and once the door slid open I immediately dragged him inside.

From there it was just a matter of getting the ship up and running. Unfortunately, it didn’t go unnoticed and before it was even off the ground I spotted a half a dozen guards making a beeline for my position. As luck would have it, the weapons were one of the first systems to come online and I opened fire with the phase cannons blasting the bastards to hell before they could get close enough to pose any threat.

Once, I got the ship up off the ground I panned left then right firing additional volleys to take out the other guards.

“So much for minimizing fatalities,” I said letting out a long sigh before spinning around to face the northern doors. I paused, then panned left and right again, disabling the other ships before turning my attention to the hangar bay doors. Opening fire on them probably wasn’t the best of ideas since the plan was for the others to wait on the other side. So I set the ship down, and scrambled back out a phase pistol in hand fully ready for whatever trouble might come my way.

I made it all the way to the control panels without meeting opposition. I worked quickly using a hand print of a fallen warrior to disengage the biolock and activate the panel, but I felt the prick of something sharp against my neck and froze before I could actually work any of the controls.

“Hu-man,” the typically deep baritone voice of a Qharr spoke into my ear. “Step away from the panel.”

I did as my would be captor suggested and spun around to face him once he’d pulled the blade away from my neck. He had a phase gun trained on me and I stared back at the guard letting him think that I was intimidated by his little show. He didn’t yet realize exactly what he was dealing with or else he would have never leveled the pistol at me. The knife was the bigger threat. Nevertheless he kept it gripped in his left hand.

I leapt at him, slamming my fist into his chest and grabbing at his knife hand, but somehow he managed to slip free. Surprised I pulled back, but not before he stabbed me. He managed to embed the thing into the right side of my chest, slicing clean through my nipple until it hit the bone of my ribcage. I screamed and dropped my phase pistol and slammed the back of my hand into his chest. His phase weapon clattered to the ground, but that didn’t stop the bastard from rushing me.

He was quick, even by human standards, but I was still quicker. I hadn’t been as attentive as I should have been and in returned I gotten stabbed. My opponent pounded his fist into my face and he got one hit in before things finally took a turn in my favor.

He swung his fist, but I brought my arm up in front of my face and blocked the blow. Again he tried to attack, and again I shut him down. I butted my head into chest and I felt a rush of satisfaction as he staggered back a few steps. I took the opportunity to yank the knife free from my chest and slashed out with it slicing him across the chest.

Violet blood spilled out from the wound, but it didn’t slow him down. He came charging at me, howling with the intensity of a rabid dre’k, but fortunately I’d been expecting him and dove out of the way. He stopped, throwing his hands down on the console to steady himself, and spun around so he could lung at me.

When he was almost on top of me I leapt aside and slammed the blade deep into his side. I jerked back pulling the blade out and when he swirled around to face me I stabbed him in the throat.

I turned away before his body even hit the floor, not wishing to watch the life slip away from his eyes. I don’t think I’d ever been so relieved than when I got the side bay door open. Even when the chilling winds came rushing in and brought goosebumps to my skin, the sight of Jokeb, Max, and ten Ghrev brawlers more than made up for my discomfort.

They scuttled inside and I let the door clank shut behind them. Jokeb barreled toward me with a speed that belied his squat little frame. He grinned and held my pistol out to me glancing at the blood that had dried on my now-healed breast. “You run in to trouble?”

“No.” I snatched the gun out his hands and felt my cheeks burn. “Not any more than usual.”

Jokeb chuckled and turned away. “Personally, I don’t mind looking at you as you are, but Max here as brought you some clothes.”

I stiffened a bit, but didn’t reply to his sentiment. Had I seen an attractive woman in a practically unclothed state as I was, I would have had a hard time not staring. It didn’t necessarily make it right, but I wasn’t about to make an issue out of it. Jokeb’s statement might have made me uncomfortable, but at least he was honest. Maxine approached, and I think my cheeks burned even brighter when I realized that her gaze had also strayed. I coughed and Rodriquez’s eyes grew wide and she quickly turned her head away practically forcing the satchel she was carrying into my arms.

Grateful for the chance to be fully clothed again, I tore the bag open and pulled out a tank top and pants from the bag. I dropped the furs, but left the rest of my scant little outfit on as I slipped the new clothes on top of it.

“Let’s get this done with,” I said as I turned to the group of armored and helmeted Ghrev. “I’m sure the gray skins know we’re here. We need to act before they put the whole place under lockdown.

The space port was massive, and hangar in which we’d made our entrance was one of many. The main reason I had been able to infiltrate the north bay was because it was the smallest and had the most lax security. There was only one bay that we needed and unfortunately it was the most heavily guarded. It was central bay where they kept all the big ships were kept including, the K’larr, a Rynnal class destroyer, the largest and most power size of ship in the entire Qharr armada.

We made our way through the corridors of the space port and at first it was pretty easy going. The crawlspace we took was mainly for maintenance access and was only used sparingly, but when we got closer to the central bay it gave way to much larger corridor which was in use and that’s when things started to get sticky.

A pair of Qharr technicians stopped dead in their tracks and turned back to us with wide unblinking eyes. Nobody moved, not us nor them, but when a third gray skin climbed down the ladder from above, well that’s when everything went to hell. He took one look at us, let out probably the most gut-wrenching, ear shattering scream I’d ever heard from any species and charged right at us, with fists swinging.

I was perfectly fine just lettings the bastard come to us, but I guess Jokeb had other things in mind. He lurched forward and went rushing to meet the gray skin. The technician was the first to attack, but Schmit ducked away and countered with a powerful blow to the chest.

For once I didn’t even have to lift a finger, the Ghrev took out the other two technicians with quick and devisive force and when I turned back to Jokeb, he too had managed to finish off his opponent. Had that been our only fight the whole affair would have been as easy as baking up a batch of fryll leaves. Unfortunately, before we could even so much as take half a dozen steps, a cadre of guards came sliding down the ladder one after another.

I don’t know if they’d heard the other Qharr’s screams or one of the technicians had tripped an alarm, but I suppose it didn’t matter. Either way the end result was the same.

Fighting in the narrow tunnel was difficult and we lost two of our Ghrev allies in the first few seconds, but we outnumbered them by nearly two to one and in the end we would have won the fight just from sheer numbers.

When it was all said and down, I looked down at the still-sizzling corpses of the guards and grimaced.” We’ve managed to get this far unnoticed, but it looks like the cat is out of the bag now. I don’t think the tunnels are our best option.”

Rodriquez nodded and glanced up at the ladder biting her lip. “Only other choice is we go back up to the surface level. There’ll be a lot more guards, but honestly I don’t like the thought of getting trapped down here if things get bad.”

We all shuffled up the ladder and that’s when yet another group of guards found us. They were firing at us from a distance and had managed to find cover behind a large support pillar which made hitting them pretty damn hard. I picked a few off with a couple well aimed head shots, but their numbers kept on growing and unfortunately they managed to take out another two members of our Ghrev escort.

Something had to be done, and as hesitant as I was to go charging in like I would have not so long ago, I was beginning to realize that I might not have any other choice. If they kept us pinned down they’d be able to pick everyone off one by one until I was the only one left. Our numbers were limited and they could easily call in reinforcements.

“Rodriquez,” I ducked behind the doorway and bit my lip. “I’m going in.”

I dashed forward and shuddered at the familiar buzz of power as phase bolts blasted and peppered my skin. I reached the gray skins, and slammed into them before they could even stand to greet me. I killed one and knocked a second to the ground before the remaining three even got remotely close to me, but that’s not for lack of trying.

“You are the one we were warned about,” One of the guards, a hulking female whose skin had an unusual violet tinge to it, said swinging a massive fist at me.

The blow hurt, but I’d suffered worse. I countered, beating her across the chest with one fist and following up with another with my second. She staggered back and I turned to meet the other two guards who were trying to get the jump on me. The first, a giant with a claw-mark scar across his mouth, threw his fist out at me, but I grabbed it out of the air and slammed it back into his face.

There was a crack, maybe I broke his wrist, but I didn’t really spare the time to check. Violet rounded on me, but rather than continue a fight I would have won anyway I drew my phase pistol and opened fire, blasting her into oblivion. I managed to kill scarmouth with another blast, before another guard, a lean-muscled fellow knocked into me and sent the weapon tumbling away.

I growled and kicked out hitting him across the chest and sent him soaring away and I spun around to face the next opponent, but my companions had already taken care of that. They’d finished off the remaining guards with their phase weapons. I snatched my weapon back up from the ground, wiped the sweat from my forehead and glanced back at Max and Jokeb as they approached.

“You got any idea how much further we have to go?”

Rodriquez pursed her lips and ran a hand through her hair. “Not far, the layout Velspatt provided has been pretty accurate so far. We shouldn’t have more than a couple hundred meters.”

“A couple hundred meters?” Jokeb clenched is jaw and glanced over his shoulder. “This place is crawling with gray skins, I’m liking this whole thing less and less.”

“Well then let’s not dally.” I waved them forward, but didn’t wait for a response before taking off at a run. No one called after me, and I took that as a good sign especially when I looked back and noted that they were keeping up just fine. A lot of that had to do with the pace I’d set which any fit human should be able to match.

We ran into trouble again along the way, and while they Qharr were appearing in greater and greater numbers we were able to take them all out. Unfortunately, our Ghrev friend’s numbers were dwindling away. By the time we’d reached the last intersection before the central bay there were only three of them left. I stopped just before we reached it, creeping around the edge until I could get a good look on the other side.

I cursed silently and backed away from the edge, turning to the others and mouthed the words. “We’ve got company.”

“When I swing around the corner, you open fire with everything you got,” I said glancing back at Jokeb and Rodriquez before taking off.

I charged the group of almost a dozen guards phase fire plastering me, the wall and the Qharr. My companions managed to kill three guards before I’d even gotten close enough to confront the group. I took out two more a moment later, blasting them with my own pistol before the remaining six rounded on me.

The corridor was wide, but face it you can only fight so many opponents at once without the other ones getting in the way. So three guards hung back and exchanged fire with Rodriquez and Shmit while I took on the other three. I was fast, but there was only so much I could do. I was looking to end it quickly, but each time I leveled my weapon on one of the guards the other two would shut me down.

I grimaced and tucked my weapon into my waistband. Clearly, they weren’t going to make it easy for me, but they were mistaken if they expected me to just lie down without a fight. I slammed my fist into the nearest, an averagely built Qharr whose only distinguishing feature was an eye-patch over his left eye and sent him reeling away just as the second, a female with a shaved head, pounced on me. She grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me up and slamming me into the wall with enough force to really disorient me.

It had happened so quickly and I’d been caught so completely off guard that she actually managed to slam me into the wall two more times before I was finally able to recover. I kicked out slamming my left foot into her chest and grunted as she went flying away and I took a bit of a tumble as result.

I scrambled to my feet and had just enough time to take stock of the situation and realized that my allies had managed to take out two more guards while I’d been occupied by just the one. Patch-eye came back and took a swing at me, but I grabbed the knife from his belt and slashed it across his chest. Baldy was right on his tail and I stabbed at her with the knife, but just as I pulled back for another blow there was a blinding flash of light.

When my vision returned to me a brief moment later, I was able to watch as she collapsed to the ground clutching at a gaping phase wound. I pounced on the next guard only to watch, yet again, as a blast also shot him dead. I rounded on the final guard, and this time I was the one who ended him. It was quick, he didn’t seem to put up much of a fight almost as if he knew his death was inevitable. It was an odd way for a Qharr to go out, but not all gray skins were cut from the same mold.

“Well,” I said stepping away from the dead bodies of the guards and approached the intersection where the others were waiting. “That was fun.”

“Ain’t the word I would use to describe it.” Jokeb replied with a shake of his head and raised his weapon. “You know things are gonna get a lot worse in that central bay.

“I believe that goes without being said,” one of our Ghrev companions and said in agreement.

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned sharply to stare at her. That voice… Could it be? “Velspatt?”

She let out a low growl, and cocked her helmeted head. “It seems I have given myself away, but at the moment I believe we have a mission to complete, don’t we?”

I didn’t know what scheme Velspatt had cooked up, but there had to have been a reason for her to conceal her identity. It didn’t sit particularly well with me, but I couldn’t spend much time mulling it over. She was right. It was time to hijack ourselves a ship.

Chapter Ten

When we stepped inside the central bay, there was a solitary figure waiting for us. His blue hair betrayed him for an Edant K’teth, but his massive two and half meter frame was enough to give any sane person pause, even one bonded to a symbiote. He watched us as we stepped into the domed chamber, but didn’t budge an inch as we slowly approached.

The bay was so massive I couldn’t even begin to guess at its size. The destroyer which was huge even by itself, and took up more space than any other ship, but from where it was resting in the chamber it looked positively tiny. On either side of it, the chamber plunged into a deep crevice that housed fighters, patrol ships, and other smaller ships.

When our friend finally moved, it was so sudden that I didn’t even realize it had happened until he was finally on top of us. I came to my senses just in time, pushing Jokeb out of the way and spinning around to face the bastard just as he planted a blow in my chest. I flew back through the air slamming into something with a loud bang and a sickening crunch.

One of the Ghrev let out a low gutteral scream as I pulled myself up and out of the pile of scraps. I grunted and rotated my neck as my bones snapped, cracked and popped back into place. I was a little slow getting back on my feet, but once I did I took off running toward the fight. The mysterious Qharr was tearing into a second Ghrev, while Velspatt, Jokeb and Max backed slowly away.

He finished off the Ghrev in no time, but by then I was ready to take him on. He spun around to face me, moving far faster than his towering frame should have allowed for any Qharr even one joined to a symbiote. I slammed my fist into his chest, he grunted a bit, but it didn’t seem to have affected him much because he didn’t budge an inch.

“Shit,” I cursed just a short moment before he grabbed me by the throat and lifted me up off my feet.

“Powerful for a human. I believe you are the one I’ve heard about,” he spoke in a low tenor, which was unusual for a Qharr especially one of his size. “I can feel the symbiote, it must seem so liberating for you. The power!”

I struggled under his grasp, trying to get his fingers free from my neck, but his grip was like iron and it was all I could do to suck in what little air I could. “Fuck you,” I said, coughing out a reply.

“Such defiance,” he replied lifting me even higher and produced a long bladed knife from his belt. “It’s a pity I have to kill you. If your species’ leaders had shown the same determination during the war I don’t think I would have pushed to invade. So many of your kind are unworthy… so weak… so frail. Maybe then…” he trailed off leaving the rest of his sentence unfinished.

I felt cold chills shoot down my spine as I stared down at him in shock. He could only be the sub-ascendant, Jykarr Bynd, the bastard responsible for the invasion of my world and the enslavement of my people. It stretched credibility that we had just wandered on him by accident. No, somehow he had known we were coming.

I felt the cold metal of the blade touch the skin of my neck and I called out to my symbiote in a final desperate plea. “KHALA DO SOMETHING!”

Fortunately the wave of distorted gravity my symbiote sent hurtling at the bastard arrived just in time. His hand was yanked out from around my throat as he was suddenly thrown away from me and his weapon shot away clattering against the metal floor planks in the distance. My landing wasn’t exactly graceful, but Khala softened it so at least there was that.

I scrambled to my feet and screamed at the others to run. Needless to say no one stopped to argue, but they weren’t moving nearly fast enough. Only K’teth enhanced speed would be enough to outrun the sub-ascendant and unless Khala was ready to spontaneously give birth to a litter of symbiotes that just wasn’t going to happen. She might have managed to surprise Jykarr once, but I doubted she’d be able to pull it off again.

I glanced over my shoulder and cursed as I watched Jykarr roll back to his feet. He jolted forward and I spun around to meet him as he came lumbering down the path to meet us. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to win in a contest of strength, but I was pretty sure I was faster than him. If I could keep him busy I just might be able to keep him off the others long enough for them to escape.

I dove forward and planted a blow in his side then ducked away as he slung his fist in retaliation. I risked a quick glance over my shoulder just long enough to be assured that the others were retreating and returned my attention back to the sub-ascendant just in time for him to plant a blow square in the middle of my face. It wasn’t as powerful as the last one, but it was strong enough to send me spinning away.

He stomped forward attempting to continue his pursuit of the others, but once I recovered I went tearing after him and slammed into his back. This time he actually staggered forward a few steps and when he roared and spun back around to face me I took off running in the opposite direction. He took the bait and lumbered after me letting out a long drawn out howl of anger.

I ran at top speed, Jykarr kept right on my tail, but never quite caught up to me. He let out another growl and I glanced back just as he came hurtling through the air toward me. I ducked and took off running back in the opposite direction. I heard a loud thump behind me, but didn’t dare stop to look. Instead I continued on my way back toward the others.

I had almost reached them when something grabbed at the back of my neck and the ground was torn out from under me. “I must say you’re very difficult to kill. I’m almost tempted to keep you alive so I can see how you’d do in a fair fight.”

I didn’t answer, but I guess Jykarr didn’t care because I soon found myself dangling in the air in front of his face like sanfai hanging from the window of a Ghrev deli as he studied me with his three malevolent eyes. “I really can’t let you live.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” I replied squirming to break free from his grip, but his massive paws just wouldn’t come free. Unfortunately, Khala’s gravity trick didn’t do much good either as his symbiote managed to dispel the attack just as soon as it hit.

I thought for sure, that my time had come, but when Jykarr pulled his fist back he abruptly lurched sideways and I toppled back to the ground. I kicked, scratched, clawed, and pounded my fists into the sub-ascendant before I finally managed to break free. I was still a little mixed-up from being tossed around like a ragdoll, but when I finally managed to pull myself together and saw Jokeb grappling with the much larger being it didn’t exactly take require an understanding of hyperjump mechanics to reason out what had happened.

Jokeb was amazingly strong, but even with all his cybernetic enhancements he just didn’t have the power or the abilities to defeat his towering opponent. The nester was a brawler, someone who got along in fights because of his superior strength, but now that he was facing an opponent who was both more skilled and stronger his deficiencies as a fighter were really showing through.

I waited for an opportunity then I sprang forward, forcing Jokeb aside before the sub-ascendant could land a blow to his face. I slipped forward and leaned in real close, but since he was so damn tall I had to whisper much louder than I would have liked. “I know the truth. I know you’re little secret. Humans are your progenitors, the first race.”

That definitely got his attention and when he spun around to swing his fist at me I took off and just barely managed to duck out of the way. I went running away and he came tearing after me howling and screaming like a mad dre’k. I’d expected my statement to get him going, but the reaction I received was far and beyond anything I had anticipated.

This time I wasn’t just trying to distract him. I actually had a target in mind. I dashed a good ninety meters, spotted a glimmer of metal, dove down sliding across the smooth stone floor of the platform on my knees and swooped up Jykarr’s fallen knife from the ground. I swung around to meet the sub-ascendant’s rush and slashed him across the chest. He howled and countered by slamming his fist into the side of my head. I stumbled back, but managed to recover just before his fists came swinging at me again.

I ducked and slipped past him making a beeline for the catwalk leading to the destroyer’s platform. He wasn’t far behind, but that was exactly what I wanted. About midway I stopped and spun around to face him as he came rushing toward me. I slammed the blade into his side just as he came barreling toward me and yanked it free as he recoiled away from me.

“Dre’k gryydda!” He exclaimed just as his fist slammed into my left shoulder.

I was sent reeling away and it was only through Khala’s intervention that I managed to stay on my feet. “I’d rather be Dre’k bile than a flaming pile of honorless shit.”

He cursed again, but this time I didn’t quite catch what he said.

I gritted my teeth and rounded on him returning his blow with what I intended to be a slice across the chest, but just as I brought blade down his hand came up to block it and wassevered from just below his wrist. It was a fluke, made possible by the weapon’s finely-honed razor edge, but even missing a hand the sub-ascendant was not about to let me gain the upper hand.

He bellowed a cry so riddled with unbridled rage and hatred that it actually gave me pause which was what tripped me up. He backhanded me and the blow took both Khala and me by surprise. The blade slipped from my fingers and I was sent up over the edge of the railing. I just barely managed to grab hold of the edge of the catwalk. My grip was tenuous at best and I didn’t even have time to climb back up before the sub-ascendant’s shadow loomed over me. He was quick to act, stomping his hard calloused six-toed feet into my hands.

I glanced down over the edge to realizing that I could probably survive the fall with my symbiote’s help, but Jykkar would make quick work of my companions by the time I made my way back up. I dodged his first few attempts to strike my fingers, but the fourth blow struck my right hand and I felt my left begin to slip. By some miracle I managed to swing my arm back up and wrap it around the railing before he struck my other hand.

This time I had a better grip, but if we kept up this pace it was only a matter of time before he managed to dislodge me. That’s when inspiration struck, I could use Khala’s gravity bending abilities to climb around the underside of the catwalk and make my way back up on the opposite side, but before I could enact that plan Jykkar spun away from me and suddenly lurched back and plummeted over the edge of the railing.

Confused, I glanced down over my shoulder, and watch him plummeting as he grappled with a much smaller opponent. I hung my head then propelled myself back over the edge of the railing.

“Oh, my God!” Max cried, but I just couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eyes especially when she spoke his name. “Jokeb.”

He had sacrificed himself to save me, something I was finding more than a little difficult to swallow, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to let myself drown in my woes. I fully expected the sub-ascendant to survive and it wouldn’t take him more than a few minutes to find his way back up to our level and by then I expect to be long gone. I bent down to pick up the sub-ascendant’s severed hand and the fallen weapon then turned to Max and Velspatt. “I don’t suppose either of you can fly a Qharr ship?”

“I can.” Velspatt hissed and placed a clawed hand on Max’s shoulder. The medic flinched, but held her ground as she glanced up at the towering Ghrev crime lord.

I gritted my teeth holding the sub-ascendant’s severed appendage in one hand then with the other, I sliced down with the knife and cut it clean in two. Violet blood got everywhere, but I fought down my revulsion and held one half out to the Ghrev crime lord. Velspatt snatched it from me barred all her teeth glancing down at as if she were looking at her next meal. “Is there a particular class of ship you’re in the market for?”

“One of the smaller cruisers, something that can carry a team of a few dozen, but can be run by a skeleton crew,” I replied looking around the chamber and pointed at a cruiser parked near the north wall. “There, that Pylkar class ship ought to do the trick.”

“You two get going, head north and I’ll take a fighter and meet you outside the city,” I added before spinning around on the balls of my feet and turned to leave.

“Wait!” Rodriquez called after me. “There aren’t any fighters nearby! What is it you’re planning?”

I craned my neck back to meet her gaze. “I have something to take care of. Hurry, get going, you really don’t want to stick around for the fireworks.”

Max bit her lip, nodded then with Veslpatt took off running toward the ship in question. I turned away from them and went the opposite direction straight toward the destroyer.

In mere moments I had access to the destroyer and after a quick trip through the airlock I was sprinting down the corridor. I needed to find a control panel, but the K’larr was huge and the Qharr were minimalists in all things. There would be a few control panels in the corridors, sure, but on a larger ship they’d definitely be few and far between. Finally, I found one and slammed the half-hand down on the control and let out a sigh of relief when it finally gave me access.

The Qharr used a standard interface for nearly all their computers so navigating it was no problem, but certain features were buried to prevent just anyone from being able to access them. Finding a layout of the ship was easy, but gaining access to other systems was an entirely different story. I would have liked to just switch on the self-destruct, but even with the sub-ascendant’s bio-signature there was no way I could trigger it without access codes. Fortunately, there was always another way.

I called up a map of the ship and once I had a clear idea of where my destination was I went speeding down the hallway. The reactor from the K’larr was nearly twice the size of the Duvak’s old destroyer, but worked on more or less on the same principle. It was an easy enough task to drain out the reactor coolant, but when I made my way back to the fighter bay that’s when things got sticky.

It started with a shriek that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, followed by a thump in the corridor behind me, and when I spun around to face whatever new danger had arisen. This threat wound up being one I had already faced. That’s not to say the danger he presented was any less real. I only lingered long enough to discover his presence then I bolted putting on as much speed as I could. Unfortunately, my max speed proved to be too fast in the narrow corridors that twisted and turned far more than any built by humans would have.

It was a long chase through the corridors and each time I slowed to turn a corner, the sub-ascendant got closer and closer. Fortunately, Khala came up with a solution that allowed me to go zooming down the corridor without worry of slowing. The next time I approached a bend my feet were moving so fast that I went right up onto the wall and just kept on going. Unfortunately, Jykkar’s symbiote duplicated the trick and the bastard managed to stay right behind me.

Even with his unusual strength, I was still faster than the sub-ascendant, but only just barely. I managed to put some distance between us, but not enough that I could lose him. If I tripped or stumbled he’d be right on top of me before I could recover. I gritted my teeth and put all my concentration into running. What I was doing was dangerous, the corridor’s weren’t designed to be navigated at such incredible speeds, the only reason I hadn’t completely biffed it was because of my enhanced reflexes and Khala’s little gravity trick, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a mistake.

I had almost reached the fighter bay, when it happened. There was a control panel with just enough of a lip that when my foot hit it I was sent slamming back to the ground, hard. I scrambled back to my feet, but Jykkar pounced on me before I could get away. He slammed his good hand into me and forced me into the side of the wall with enough power to make my bones creek.

I felt a few of them pop back into place as I clawed and kicked at Jykkar. He tightened his grip around my neck and I gasped, futilely trying to bring in air. I thrashed about kicking out with my legs as hard as I could and I found purchase in a rather sensitive area. I fell down to my knees and crawled to my feet even as air flood back into my lungs.

I glanced back over my shoulder and felt a slow grin form on my face as I observed Jykarr laying on the ground clutching at his injured crotch. The Qharr prided themselves on their ability to conquer pain, but there were some injuries that even they couldn’t just shrug off. The funny thing was that his symbiote could have easily dulled the pain, but no self-respecting gray skin would ever debase themselves that way.

I spun away and went running back down the corridor toward the fighter bay. It didn’t take the sub-ascendant long to recover, but by then I’d already gained a pretty sizable lead on him. I heard his furious roar just moments before I heard his massive feet pounding against the metal floor grating in rapid succession. I was in the fighter bay in an instant, leaping over the railing, propelling myself toward the nearest cluster of fighters. A much louder thud soon followed me, but I didn’t look back. I had to reach my destination before Jykarr could catch me.

Finally, I reached a ship and I slammed the sub-ascendant’s half-hand down onto exterior control console. The hatch popped open and I leapt forward crawling up the side into the cockpit. Once inside, I reached up to pull the canopy back down just as Jykarr leapt up the side of the side after me. I got it closed before his fist came smashing down, and it impacted with a very loud thud. Fortunately, transparisteel was strong enough that even K’teth enhanced strength wouldn’t break through it. I got the engine up and running in just seconds, by bypassing pre-flight procedures and had my requisitioned fighter off the ground in no time.

The sub-ascendant wasn’t through with me yet. The bastard still clung stubbornly onto the fighter as I went zooming out the side of the bay doors which had started to close. I put on the speed and weaved around even rolling the fighter around onto its’ back, but no matter what I tried Jykkar maintained his grip. I could only guess his symbiote was using some extension of its gravity manipulating abilities to help him keep his hold.

Worse yet, he wasn’t my only problem, the K’larr was coming awake, its’ crew must have boarded and started the engines. Yes, I had sabotaged it, but there was probably still enough coolant to run the reactors for several minutes. Which was more than long enough, for them to blow me out of the sky and if they launched with enough pilots I’d have to worry about fending off fighters too. Fortunately, Velspatt and Max had already made their escape from the space port, so if I could keep the gray skins occupied there was a chance they’d be able to escape the city.

I sent the fighter shooting straight up toward the open bay doors and out into the darkness of the night. I guess they must have figured it was futile trying to close the hatch, as fast as my ship was moving I would have found my way out of the bay long before the doors could have closed.

Fighters came pouring out of the destroyer and I sent mine diving down toward the streets of the city. It was a risky move, the roadways of Salt Lake were more than wide enough to accommodate three or four fighters side by side, but navigating at such high speeds didn’t give me much time to compensate if anything went wrong. A full dozen fighters followed me down into the streets and I gritted my teeth as I realized that I’d be leading them on one hell of a chase.

For my plan to work, I needed to keep the destroyer in close proximity to the space port. This meant I’d need to stay near and keep both the destroyer and the fighters occupied.

Jykarr was doing his damnedest to disable the fighter, slamming down into the sides of the engine compartment, and tearing into the hull with his bare hand. Clearly, it was time to do something about my little pest problem. I swooped down and spun the fighter around onto its side and turned a corner scrapping the fighter against the side of a building. I pulled away and was only just barely able to gain control as the ship wobbled and jerked liked a drunken krym.

I’d managed to dislodge Jykarr from the front of the fighter, but when I craned my neck to glance back over my shoulder I let out a string of silent curses. Somehow he had found a handhold on the tail of my ship, but that would have been a minor annoyance if that had been my only problem. The pursuing craft had begun to open fire blasting away with no regard for the safety of the nearby denizens of the city, human, Qharr, or otherwise.

I don’t know if hunters in the other fighters realized it was the sub-ascendant who was hanging so precariously from my tail or if they were willing to sacrifice one of their own to bring down a threat. The latter wouldn’t exactly fit into the Qharr code of honor, but I’d seen more than enough evidence to suggest that they were not above breaking their own rules.

I went shooting straight up into the air hoping that I could shake the bastard loose, but no matter how much I twisted and turned, zig-zagged and shook he just couldn’t be dislodged. My ascent did have an unforeseen benefit, however; the Qharr ships didn’t anticipate my move and went zooming past. I gritted my teeth, reversed my course and went diving down to the ground at a speed that would make even the most stalwart of Qharr warriors think twice. Once, I was down close to the ground I spun around so that the fighter’s belly was facing up toward the night sky.

I slowed and brought the fighter down so that it scraped the ground. What followed was a the sound of tearing metal, a whole lot of sparks and what was no doubt a very painful experience for the sub-ascendant. I shot back up and righted the fighter more than a little relieved to discover that I had managed to dislodge the rat bastard–though somehow I doubted that I’d actually killed him–and even more relieved to realize that my ride was still in flying shape.

Unfortunately, that’s about when the enemy fighters found me, I shot upward and swooped around to face them, phase cannons blaring and managed to take out one of them with my volley before shooting past them. Again, I zoomed straight up, topping one of the city’s many skyscrapers in just a few seconds and went flying straight toward the destroyer which still loomed above the space port like the specter of doom that it really was.

More fighters came pouring out from the massive insectine hulk and I hung there in the air long enough to make sure they saw where I was going just before I dove back down toward the surface. On the way down I met the original group of fighters head-on blasting another out of the sky as I zoomed past. The two opposite groups of Qharr ships met and when two of them collided and plummeted to the ground in a knotted mass of burning shrapnel. That brought the final number down to nine and I wasn’t exactly real crazy about those odds.

“Hu-man,” a voice buzzed over the comm, but since I was a little busy swooping in and out of the city streets it didn’t exactly seem like a high priority for me to respond. I did however recognize the voice, it belonged to my old pal the sub-ascendant.

Phase canon fire blasted my tail, the first that had managed to find it’s way through my shields, but lucky for me it only did minimal damage. I cursed and glanced down at the display, the destroyer’s reactors had been bubbling and brewing long enough that I figured that it was just about time it’s supply of coolant should have burned away. Which meant it was about time for me to make my leave.

I did barrel roll barely managing to evade a long string of phase fire before diving down a side street where I was forced once again to dive out of the way of an obstacle which took the form of a metal arch with what might have been a statue of a bird atop it. The first of my pursers wasn’t as lucky as me and dove nose first into the arch going down in a blaze of fire. A second and third collided with the flaming debris and both exploded with bright flashes just as brilliant as the first.

“Hu-man, I know you can hear me,” the sub-ascendant’s voice buzzed through the comm system a second time.

“Yeah, well I’m just a little busy at the moment. What the fuck do you want?”

“Only to tell you that if you survive your encounter with my forces when next we meet I will see to it that your death is excruciatingly painful,” he replied his voice taking on a menacing edge.

“Well, I’m just so glad we cleared that up. Load off my mind,” I replied back and switched the comm off. As much as I just loved bantering with the bad guys I had much more pressing things on my plate like the six fighters who were trying to blow me to freaking smithereens. Well that and the massive ball of flame that rose from just a few streets away.

Though, I didn’t have a direct line of sight to the destroyer, I had no doubts it was the source of the massive wall of flamesthat burst outward stretching out through the streets, consuming entire buildings and wreaking destruction in its’ wake. I felt that all too familiar sinking feeling in form in the pit of my stomach. “Just great.”

The other fighters must have seen it too because they immediately ceased fire and put on the speed. I did the same and our dogfight quickly evolved into race against time, one where there would be only one winner. The blaze continued to expand and within the blink of an eye consumed three fighters. I gritted my teeth and sent my craft rolling into a side street just as the wall of fire consumed the final three fighters.

I sent the ship rocketing upward hoping, that I might be able to escape the blast, but the flames just kept coming. Warning lights flashed on my console and I glanced back in time to watch the flames consume the tail of my fighter. I lost all power and as I lost momentum the fighter went hurtling back down toward the ground. I tried to pull on the damn ejection mechanism, but it groaned and an error message strolled across the console indicating mechanical failure.

I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of air and waiting for the inevitable to come, but then an odd thing happened… I didn’t die. My eyes snapped back open and I glanced around me. I could see the flames consuming the city off in the distance, but somehow I was zooming through the landscape, the nose of my vessel pointed straight down at the ground. I remained aloft, which didn’t make a lick of sense sense until I looked up.

A Pylkar class ship flew in the air above me, and all the pieces suddenly popped into place. I switched the comm on and craned my neck up as a huge smile formed on my face. “Max, is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” came her reply.

“Velspatt, I’m impressed. Not many pilots could swoop in like that undetected and grab someone with a tractor.”

“It is as your people say child’s play.”

“Lexa, I really hate to say it, but we’re going to have to make a quick exit. Once we get to safety we can get you outta the fighter an–”

“It’s not a problem,” I replied cutting Max short. “Just get us somewhere safe. I can handle a little more time in this tin can if it means staying alive.”

“Copy, we’ll talk more later.”

I sank back into my seat and let out a long sigh. With the space port destroyed along with all or most of the ships in the vicinity it was doubtful there were many vessels available to offer up pursuit. Of course, those that did survive, assuming any had, were probably a little more concerned about the smoking crater I’d left in the middle of the city.

My fighter in ruins, I closed my eyes and let the world pass me by as a smirk touched the corner of my lips. Any day I survived an encounter with the Qharr was a good one in my mind.

Chapter Eleven

I sat opposite from Mara and waited patiently as she poured us each a glass of Amaretto. I didn’t have to ask her the reason for our meeting since we’d both known it was coming. The mission into Salt Lake had had more significance than either one of us had let on.

Obtaining a ship was important, but there had been another purpose for the trip. One which only Mara and I had known anything about. There was a leak, and we weren’t sure where it had originated, though Mara was adamant that it had not come from the ERF forces. I wasn’t quite so convinced, but hadn’t voiced my dissent. It was better to allow her to think I agreed than let my divisive opinion destroy our partnership which was tenuous at best. We had hoped the mission would help us root out the source but I hadn’t been as successful as I had hoped.

My willingness to sacrifice the Relentless in order to save the Defiant had been the deciding fact, in Mara’s eyes, that I could in fact be trusted. I, on the other hand, didn’t doubt Mara’s desire to retake Earth, but I also knew she’d betray me if it meant achieving her goals. Which was why I was so cautious in my dealings with her.

“Did you uncover anything?” She asked taking a sip of her glass while simultaneously pushing mine forward.

“Nothing,” I said, glancing down at the amber liquid, but at the moment I refrained from partaking.

“I’ve told you about the mission, but…” I trailed off finally lifting my glass to sip at the drink.

“But there was something you wanted to add?” Mara asked finishing off her drink and placed the glass down on the desktop.

“Yes, everything happened as I described, but it seems odd to me that the sub-ascendant just appeared as he did. Someone had to have tipped him off and to be honest it seems a little strange that the ruler of a Qharr controlled world would drop everything just to hunt a trio of humans who fought their way into a city. Something more is at work here.”

Mara paused pushing her glass away with the back of her hand before clasping both appendages in front of her.

“I agree, it’s very obvious that there is a leak, but I’m not sure if it’s taken the form of a traitor. This whole situation has a different feel to it. The Qharr obviously have information they shouldn’t, having received bit and pieces, but if they knew the full extent of it, I think they would be taking much more drastic action to find us.” “What is clear, is that the sub-ascendant has taken a very keen interest in you. Though I can’t say I am surprised, the fact that humans can be joined with K’teth symbiotes represents a danger to the Qharr ideology. It suggests a similarity to the gray skins that I’m not sure someone like him would be comfortable with.”

“That’s it,” I snapped my fingers, before downing the last of my drink as I studied my aunt’s clone. “He sees me as a threat. I’m bonded to a symbiote and assuming that he did previously know that humans are the progenitors of the Qharr that would be very good reason to want me dead. I still can’t guess why he might want to keep this knowledge under wraps, but so long as I’m alive his secret isn’t safe. I’m a link to the truth and he knows it.”

“An interesting theory, one in which I’m inclined to agree with, but it’s conjecture without any proof.”

“Does it matter? It changes nothing. We are still set on the same path, aren’t we?”

“To be sure,” Mara said with a quick nod. “Though I will urge caution. There is an information leak whether it be in the form of a traitor or something else entirely remains to be seen. Speak of our meeting to no one, not even that lover of yours and definitely not your sister.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded. Although Mara had shown remarkable trust in me, it had not extended to Lily and especially not my sister who she believed was being influenced by her symbiote. I stood to leave and had my back turned to Mara before I spun back to face her.

“I would urge you to do the same,” I said matching her gaze.

She didn’t even so much as blink and a slight smile touched the corner of her lips. “Be ready. I intend to call a meeting tomorrow. Bring that little mechanic friend of yours and that foul tempered fellow. I’ll worry about the rest of the invitations.”

I nodded, but didn’t say another word before disappearing from the room. It was, after all, time to pay my little mechanic friend a visit.

“We have two weeks,” Morris said setting his tablet down at the center of the table, around which Mara, Arianne, Farris, Lily, the doctor and I were seated, and turned to a seemingly ordinary section of the wall. He tapped his fingers against it and the whole thing flared to life with all sorts of holographic images.

“Two weeks?” Arianne asked folding her arms across her chest as she studied the Colonel. “Isn’t that a bit… quick?”

“It doesn’t give us much time, true, but Ms. Brigg’s actions in Salt Lake City have presented us with a unique opportunity,” Morris said glancing back over his shoulder. “Nearly a fifth of the Qharr warships here on Earth were destroyed. If we can attack before they are able to replace them we would have an enormous advantage on the battlefield.”

“Battlefield? Jesus, you guys sure talk big, but I ain’t seen nothing that makes me believe you have the sorta fire power that needed to retake Earth. This ship of yours, what did you call it? The Defiant? Is impressive, but it takes more than a single ship to win a war especially when you’re dealing with a society of warriors like the goddamned gray skins,” Farris said pounding a fist against the table.

Farris was just as charming as ever, but still it was nice to see he had recovered even if he could be a lot to take in. It certainly seemed to put a smile on Becca’s face which made it all worth it. I wondered why Mara would elect to invite Farris, my sister’s boyfriend, and not allow Becca to join the meeting. He would certainly share everything with my sister which pretty much defeated the purpose of leaving her out in the first place.

It was clear, that even in spending all that time with my sister Mara had not come to trust her, but at least they’d seemed to have been successful in easing the tension with the nesters. More importantly rangers from other nests were willing to join the fight and had started to descending upon Sanctum. The place was becoming positively crowded and I’d elected to spend my time away from the nest whenever possible.

Morris narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, but it was Mara who replied. “I must say I am rather surprised to hear that sort of talk coming from someone who has fought with the resistance for so long. We are well aware of difficulties involved in retaking Earth, but suffice it to say that we have enough reason to be optimistic about our chances.”

“I fight the gray skins cause I ain’t good at much else,” Farris replied folding his arms across his chest. “Besides I never said I wasn’t going to fight. I just wanted to know if we stood a reasonable chance. That’s all.”

“Yes,” Lily spoke up from her corner. “You people have been quick on promises, but I think it’s time you showed us some proof.”

I watched Lily, my cheeks burning just a little at the memory of our little reunion celebration and shivered just a little as a consequence. It had one of our more passionate couplings, and things took an interesting turn after Lily had brought out a new toy. I bit my lip and forced those thoughts aside. They weren’t, after all, conductive to the business at hand.

I was just glad her little outing with the ERF had been successful and she had returned safely. Her party had encountered trouble at every turn, but had managed to bring the parts needed to fix the Relentless. She’d told me all about it, the first leg of their journey had been more or less uneventful, but the moment they’d stepped out onto salvage yards they found themselves pursued through the scrap heaps. For two days they had played cat and mouse with the enemy patrols before finally giving them the slip.

Forced to retreat, they’d made another run at the salvage yards, this one was successful, but after returning to the Defiant they found themselves once again pursued by gray skin ship. It was only by using the Rhianon device that they were able to escape.

I shook my head and gritted my teeth as I turned my gaze to Morris. “I for one am not going to go marching into battle without some assurances you can actually provide the sort of forces necessary. The resistance is almost non-existent. I won’t risk the few of us left without good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Mara stood and joined Morris next to the holo screen. She reached for the wall, but the Colonel put his hand on her shoulder and held her in place.

“Colonel it is time,” Mara said placing her hand over his and looking up at her with a gentle smile that seemed just a little alien coming from her. “Don’t you think?”

“Very well.” Morris nodded and backed away taking a seat at the table.

Mara cleared her throat and tapped her fingers against the wall. An image flared to life, trickling across the display revealing an image of a ship, but the like of which I had never seen. “This is the Valiant, the flagship of the Earth Return Fleet, and the most powerful of our ships. It is roughly analogous to a Qharr destroyer and has more powerful shields and more fire power than anything the Qharr can throw at us.”

She tapped the screen again and an image of a similar ship appeared on screen. “This is the Dauntless, another destroyer-class vessel, we have five more ships which are virtually identical along with twenty cruisers, like the Defiant, and more fighters than I can count. We’ve managed to make a number of allies and they’ve each made sizable contributions to our fleet. If we can bring down the shields around Earth, we stand a chance of retaking our world, but we can’t do it without you.”

I nodded glancing around the room in hopes of determining what the others might be thinking, but unfortunately their faces were unreadable masks. “Lily, you know more about this than I do, what do you think?”

She pursed her lips and thrummed her fingers on the table, and glanced up at Mara. “Taking down the shield won’t be easy. I’ve done the calculations, and as near as I can figure the absolute minimum number of shield emitters necessary to maintain a functioning barrier around Earth would be eighteen–one of which would have to be a control station–there are at least twenty-four that the resistance was able to find which means some of them are probably redundant. Assuming that we were able to account for all of them that means we’d need to simultaneously bring down at least seven of them to destabilize the entire grid.”

“We’ve determined that there are thirty-two in total, but you’re right a good number of them are redundant,” Mara replied tapping her fingers against the wall again calling up another display showing the Earth and a bubble surrounding it. “We’ve analyzed the grid array and found a weakness and have been able to determine that we will only need to bring down three in total.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?” Farris asked. For once his voice was devoid of its’ harsh tones, but wide-eyes and arched eyebrows suggested that he was probably just curious.

Mara eyed Farris her face devoid of all emotion, just before a smile cracked at the corner of her lips. “You don’t think we’ve spent the last twenty-four years doing nothing, do you? We’ve made considerable advances in our technology since the war. You’ve seen firsthand our stealth technologies, but another big leap has been in our sensors. In short, we can see through Qharr shields and have had several successful scouting missions in which we were able to make detailed analyses of the shield grid and the defense forces here on Earth.”

She tapped two spots on globe, indicating a place near the Eastern edge of North American and a second in South America. “There are two control stations, one for each hemisphere, when either is compromised the other is more than capable of compensating for the first, and the system can, for short periods of time, function without both, but if we simultaneously take them out along with a standard emitter it will be too much for the system to handle and the entire grid will come down.”

“These control stations…something tells me they’re not going to be easy to get to,” Arianne said running a hand through her long tresses.

“New York, New York, and Orsorno, Chile,” Morris said clasping his hands in front of him as he glared across the table at Lily.

“Specifically, the Sub-Ascendant’s Palace and the second would be the residence of Gydaresh Hykarr, Overseer of South America,” I said relaying the information provided by Khala. “Neither, will be easy to get into, but we’d already figured we’d have to make a run at Jykarr’s palace. Of course, you knew all this already, didn’t you?” I turned to Mara and studied her.

“There is only so much our sensors can tell us, but we did believe that both structures must have been of some significance beyond being control stations. Some of our analysts suggested that they could be residences of Qharr authorities, but we never had any way of knowing for sure. Much of their communications traffic is encrypted.”

“So all this business about retrieving another ship was because of this?” Farris shook his head and gritted his teeth. “Why the hell didn’t you people just bring more with you?”

“Because the Rhiannon device is still experimental and the Defiant was the only ship with a working drive. There are several that were scheduled to be fitted with one, but the process can take weeks because each must properly calibrated to the ship it’s installed in. Given the circumstances we believed it was best to join the resistance here on Earth as soon as possible.”

“That is most wise!” Vakrexid pronounced from the corner squirming and writhing like a worm stuck on a hook.

“Now,” I said clasping both hands together as I looked around the table. “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty, just how exactly are we going to pull this off? We need a plan of action.”

“That,” Mara said a slow smile forming on her face. “Is why I invited you all here.”

“No, no, NO!” Lily screamed dropped her wrench as she went tearing across the reactor room and pointed from one coupling then where it was supposed to go and did the same with the second. “This one goes there, that one goes there? You could have blown out the power relays.”

Darinson gritted his teeth, and furrowed his brows, but nodded silently and corrected his mistake. Lily and the ERF technicians didn’t seem to get along very well. All of her knowledge of mechanics and reactor tech was self-learned, and quite frankly she was brilliant, but she had her own way doing things that didn’t exactly jive with the way our allies worked.

They followed protocol and had a set of procedures. Lily had learned to do what she could with the tools she had which were usually few and far between. She’d already been forced to make changes to the power systems of the Relentless, but it was causing a bit of a headache for the ERF technicians who weren’t accustomed to working with a system that was clearly in need of a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time or the luxury to complete such a task so Morris had ordered his men to work with Lily to get things done as best they could.

I was there mostly to help with the heavy lifting otherwise I stayed out of the way and did as Lily said. It was very obvious she knew what she was doing, and I definitely didn’t have the foggiest clue. I could probably find a way to blow it to shit, but that’s about as far as my technical expertise ran. Mostly, I just watched in fascination. Lily’s face was covered in grease and grime, sweat covered her cloths and her hair was a mess, but somehow she never looked more beautiful to me.

She’d come a long way from the quiet and timid little man I’d first met not so long ago. Sure, she could still be shy and sometimes had a hard time expressing herself, but she was far more confident than her former self had ever been.

She approached me, tossing her wrench aside with a flick of her wrist and slid her hand across her forehead wiping the grease clean. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me aside. “We have a problem.”

I let her lead me away, and I stumbled feeling a brief surge of dizziness before I felt her lips lock around mine. I kissed her back and slipped my hand into her shirt. One thing led to another and we found ourselves back in our quarters and I forgot all about my odd little moment of disorientation.

Chapter Twelve

It seemed a tragedy that we should spend so much time fixing up the Relentless only to hand it over to our ERF allies, but given that the resistance had more experience operating Qharr tech my newest acquisition seemed the better fit for us. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean it would be any easier for us to get into New York. Lily’s little transponder trick wouldn’t fool the city’s sensors once we got close, and while we had managed to forge a transponder signal, with the help of Morris’s technicians, no one knew if they were going to buy it.

Entry into the city was going to difficult, and in the intervening weeks we’d only come up with one possible avenue of entrance. There just wasn’t a lot of information available. Unlike Salt Lake, New York was locked down tight and passage in and out of the city was controlled by the Qharr. Worse yet we were traveling into Manhattan-island, which was cut off from the rest of the city and since it was the center of the Qharr government on Earth it would be much more heavily patrolled. Humans were never given leave to exit the city even for special errands so that presented yet another difficulty.

It was one mission where so much was riding on a simple little gimmick. Not that it was much different from our usual mode of operation, but we weren’t traveling around the more sparsely populated regions around Salt Lake or Canada. This was an entirely different ballpark and truth to be told the prospect terrified me, but we were already committed. So there was nothing to do, but get underway.

“Lily, are we ready?”

“Bringing the engines online now,” she stopped and stared back at me with those big magenta eyes. “Should I launch the ship?”

“No, open a communication line to the Defiant and the Relentless. Let’s give everyone our last goodbyes.”

“Renegade,” Morris said with a nod from the bridge of the Defiant his green-tinged image just a little off due to our ship’s un-calibrated holo-emitters.

Mara was a little more talkative, but her countenance was no less muddied or distorted. “Thank you, for giving us use of the Relentless. We’ll try to bring her back in one piece.”

“If we’re successful, we won’t need her in one piece,” I replied rapping my knuckles against the console wishing that it were made of wood. “If we’re not well… I don’t think I’ll be around to complain.”

Morris stepped forward drawing almost as close to his holo-camera as was possible. “I don’t think I need to tell you all how important this is so I’ll just say this. Good luck, and God speed.”

I nodded and was about to issue a reply when he blinked out, having apparently closed the communication line without waiting for my reply.

“Lexa dear, I really do wish you and your crew the best of luck and if you happen to make contact with the ERF forces after we’ve successfully brought down the shield grid I do hope you’ll send them my regards,” she paused staring at her holo camera with the strangest look in her eye. “There’s someone with them who will be very happy to learn you’re alive.”

Her image fizzled away and I shook my head, not entirely sure what she could have meant with that last remark? Who on Earth, or in the ERF forces, cared one bit if I was alive or dead? I put the matter out of my mind and looked around the bridge. Locking gazes with each of my crew in turn, starting with Becca, then Farris, Rayland, Vakrexid and Max before finally settling on Lily. There were other members of my strike force, but they were the ones I could lean a shoulder on when things get tough.

“Lil’,” I said clearing my throat and turned away so no one could see my eyes watering up. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

And with that simple command, the Renegade went soaring up into the sky beginning the hours-long flight toward New York.

Chapter Thirteen

“Grephhak!” A deep and guttural Qharr voice demanded through the intercom. We’d reached New York and were awaiting admittance into the city, but the port master was giving us the third degree. I don’t know if he was suspicious or if he did this with all ships, but it was beginning to grate on my nerves.

“Port master!” I yelled back in Qharr, my voice artificially deepened by a vocal emulator which I was wearing around my throat attached by a snug nylon collar. Too bad no one had thought of it earlier such a device would have saved us a lot of trouble especially when coupled with the visual illusion of a real Qharr face. “I grow weary of these questions. Why is it that you delay me? I seek admittance will you give it to me or must I continue to answer these pointless questions!?”

Max’s jaw dropped and she turned to look at me like I was insane. Rayland grinned and let out a low throaty chuckle and folded his arms across his chest. Clearly he wasn’t surprised by my behavior, but I think he knew me well enough by that time to understand it was all an act. Max on the other hand didn’t really know me or the Qharr so her reaction was pretty much what I would have expected. The gray skins did not take kindly to such inquests they saw it as a question of their honor.

“I do my duty to the sub-ascendant and the empire as you well know Captain Breyga. I only have one more question, answer me or don’t, it makes no difference to me, but if you do not cooperate I will not admit you into the city.”

“Very well,” I replied between gritted teeth. It was irritating and while I hadn’t had any trouble answering the questions as yet, I worried what would happen if he asked one we hadn’t anticipated. So far I had told him that we had entered the city on an errand for a local Qharr official, one Mourrd Wyldyr who we had selected because we’d intercepted audio transmissions that said he was out of town, and had given him detailed information about the size of the crew the contents of our cargo hold as well as the technical specifications of the ship.

“I’m curious captain, my logs indicate that Castigator Wyldyr left the city almost a week ago. He will not return for several more weeks, what business will you attending to in his absence?”

“We’ve been sent to retrieve some of his personal effects as well as attend to some certain familial obligations.”

“You are kin then?”

“Yes, I have been adopted into the family’s second circle,” I replied with a slightly raised voice. A second circle was a group of trusted friends and servants who are considered so close to a family that they are able to act on behalf of them and in some cases can even serve as heirs or guardians to children of deceased parents.

“Gel’pan Garm, you have permission to enter the city. I’m sending over a flight itinerary deviate from the set path and you will be gunned down.” he said giving the Renegade’s forged name.

I didn’t bother replying, but instead clicked off the comm switch and let out a long sigh of relief. Cutting the line short like that was considered rude, but given my irritated responses to the port master it wasn’t at all unexpected. The Qharr leaders most of have been worried about incursions into the city to include such a stringent array of questions and risk offending their honor-conscious citizens.

I hit the throttle and sent the Renegade lurching forward, following the path set out by the port master. I didn’t intend to deviate from it one bit, but this whole plan had me on edge. A part of me wanted to turn the ship around and flee to some place far far away, but I was never one to be cowed so easily. Even if I did succumb to such an urge I could have never forgiven myself. The future of Earth was riding on our mission if we failed there would be no hope whatsoever for humanity.

Qharr controlled New York had six boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island, Hudson-Bergen, and Manhattan. The last of which was our destination. A lot of the reason we’d decided to masquerade as servants of Mourrd Wyldyr was that he owned and operated his own personal dock on his property which as you might have guessed was located within the Manhattan metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t reached Manhattan yet. First, we had to get through Husdon-Bergen, which had only become a borough for one simple reason. The gray skins had felt Manhattan was too vulnerable on its’ east side so they built up the New Jersey counties Hudson and Bergen along the opposite side of the river and dammed up the river making it impossible to access Manhattan by water.

When I’d first seen Salt Lake I couldn’t believe how massive it was, but it paled in comparison to the New York. Its towering structures dwarfed the other cities’ and made it seem an isolated hamlet in comparison. The buildings were dark, looming structures that thousands of ships ranging in size to small one-pilot vessels to larger cruisers like the Renegade zoomed, swirled and sped around in long streams.

The buildings of Qharr-built section of the city had a dark, almost organic look much like any structure built by the gray skins, but I’d never seen a skyscraper built by our self-declared masters. Most of their buildings were large, yes, but not at all like those in New York. Why they had elected to replicate the edifices of New York was a question I couldn’t quite grasp. Perhaps, there was some strategic reason that escaped me, but something told me that it had more to do with the ego of the sub-ascendant than anything else.

We had found our way through Hudson-Bergen and into the dirtier and grimier sections of Manhattan. Most of the structures were human built, like the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, but scattered amongst them were more than a few built by our oppressors. Each one of latter was a match for or was even taller or grander than the former. Yes, it was becoming more and more clear that ego was involved in the creation of the gray skin skyscrapers. To their line of thinking if an honor-less society of humans could be these amazing structures it goes without saying that a much more superior race like theirs could top them.

When we got closer to Mourrd Wyldyr’s estate, the comm buzzed and I waved my hand at Lily to answer it. The port master’s face appeared on screen and I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I looked over his three-eyed countenance. “Captain Breyga, we’ve found a… discrepancy. I just spoke with Castigator Wyldyr and he’s never heard of you. I’m afraid I’ll have to impound your ship pending an investigation.

“Shit,” I cursed and waved my hand at Lily. The comm line dropped and my fingers zoomed across the control interface sending the Renegade down into the deepest bowels of the city. Phase cannon blasts splattered the ground in our wake, but more than a few hit home. Fortunately, our shields held up against the bombardment, but with so many blasts pounding into us it was only a matter of time before they gave out.

I zigzagged through the city streets, sometimes forced to turn the Renegade on its side to fit through a particularly narrow side street. If navigating the avenues of Salt Lake had been difficult, flying through the roadways of New York was worse especially considering that our cruiser was so much larger than the single pilot fighter I’d taken on my little joyride the last time.

To start with we had a trio of three fighters on our tail, but each time we turned a corner we picked up a few more until we had a full squadron blasting fire up our asses. Coming up on a dead end I was forced to climb straight up in the air, and even then it was a close call. The belly of the Renegade grated against the wall of the building and no doubt producing sparks and an extremely unpleasant shriek of scraping metal.

Lily managed to hit one of the fights with a phase blast. It careened into a second as they both went slamming into the wall and consumed three more fighters with a fireball that was powerful and large enough to give our ship a good shaking. When I topped the building, I looped over it and took a nose dive back down toward the ground.

“What are you doing?” Max’s voice protested from somewhere behind me. “The mission is a bust we need to escape and regroup.”

“No, this is our only chance. If we fail now, it’s going to be even harder to get back into the city. I will not give up when we’re so close!” I yelled back at her between gritted teeth as I leveled the ship.

“Get buckled in!” I called back over my shoulder right before glancing down at my nav display and reaffirming that I was indeed headed toward the Sub-ascendant’s estates.

The thought I had was wildly reckless and not exactly in keeping with the new path I was trying to take for myself, but under the circumstances the only two other options were buckling down and hiding or running away with our tails tucked between our legs. Neither option was particularly appealing for obvious reasons, but if anyone else caught wind of what I had planned I kind of doubted they’d be very open to the idea. Not that I was about to open the matter to debate, sometimes a leader had to make decisions at her own discretion.

More phase blasts peppers our shields as another half a dozen fighters joined those already pursuing us. I sent the ship soaring up and flipped around taking up position behind the fighters and Lily blasted them with our phase canons managing to take out four of them before they even knew what hit them. The others managed to evade her attacks, five swooped up and took up position behind me while the remaining four dove down side streets presumably so that they could swing back around to meet us.

It didn’t matter if they caught up to us or not, we’d almost reached our destination and by then their pursuit would have proven to be all but pointless or so I hoped. I twisted and turned down a side street and went rocketing down a wide avenue toward Jykkar’s home. It was massive structure that spoke volumes for the ego of the sub-ascendant.

It was not a skyscraper, but much more closely resembled a fortress which stretched across three entire city blocks and must have been eight-hundred meters wide or more. It stood twenty stories tall and was so black that it almost seemed make the surrounding area darker. It was unadorned in the usual gray skin fashion, but seemed to lack the organic look of most gray skin structures. Nor did it have the usual insectine appearance I’d come to associate with Qharr, it looked like a cancerous black tumor that had grown out from the ground.

“Brace yourselves,” I screamed sending the ship diving down toward the palace. A particularly well-aimed phase blasts struck us and the ship rocked just a moment before Lily screamed out that the shields had failed. From there it only went from bad to worse, shot after shot pelted the Renegade and it wasn’t long before I lost complete control f and we went down in a blaze of fire.

Chapter Fourteen

After we hit, I was up on my feet before the dust had even settled, thanks to Khala, but I couldn’t say the same for the others. Dyssa must not have been as quick to dispel the effects of the gravity. When Lily finally staggered from her seat she was more than a little uneven on her feet. Becca, was pretty shaken up and had a cut on her arm that her symbiote hadn’t attended to yet, but was in otherwise good shape. Farris looked more angry than anything else, but when I went to check on Rayland that’s when my breath caught in my throat.

I thought for sure we was dead, but then his eyes snapped open and his face stretched into a grin. “Well, hello there!”

I rolled my eyes and turned awake grabbing Max by the shoulder and shaking her awake, but when she didn’t move my heart leaped into my chest. I thought for sure she was dead, but when I reached down to check for a pulse I let out a long sigh of relief.

I took a look around and shook my head. One of the nester soldier’s hadn’t been too lucky. A small piece of pipe, no wider than a half an inch had struck her in the chest clean through her heart.

“Dammit!” I cursed turning away from her corpse and gritted my teeth. Too many people had died already. That’s not to say going in I hadn’t expected casualties, but her death was on my hands. It had been my choice to make a run on the Sub-Ascendant’s estates knowing full well what could happen.

“Rayland,” I said my voice barely more than a whisper. “Go check on the strike team and get them prepped. We need to get moving, it won’t take the gray skins long to crack through the hull. I want to be ready when they do.”

Those weren’t the only preparations that we made, weapons were gathered, explosives packed up and the very last was the most important step. Getting inside the building was going to be hard with more than a few warriors and dozens of fighters ready to fire on us once we stepped out into the open. If it weren’t for the equipment we’d brought along we would probably die before we even got close. Fortunately, there was something inside the ship that could tilt the scales in our favor, a holocloaker. If they couldn’t see us they couldn’t hit us.

I didn’t even bother moving it, I just slammed my open palm into the activation switch and let the device do the rest. I wouldn’t know if it was working until I stepped out in the open, but given that it had been tossed around pretty good in the crash there was good reason to worry. Quite frankly it was our only hope, so there was nothing to do, but give it a try or wait for the gray skins to come for us. Either way, our mission would end that day whether we succeeded or fell to the onslaught of our enemy’s fire.

“Go, go, go!” I screamed as I went tearing across the open space between the wreckage of the Renegade and the sub-ascendant’s residence.

Besides the nameless nester we’d lost five members of our strike team, which put our total number down to forty-four. It didn’t seem to be enough, but it was the largest number we could have conceivably fit inside the Renegade and not overwhelm the life support systems.

Phase cannon blasts pelted the ground around us, but none of the shots even came close and I opened fire with my twin phase pistols shooting a pair of hunters. Clearly, the holocloaker was working, but there was nothing from stopping the gray skins who were already inside the barrier or ones who are on the outside from coming in and attacking us.

“Lily!” I screamed as we approached the wall.

She complied, setting a small explosive device on the wall, and we clasped our hands over our ears as the section in front of us was blasted to bits. I was last to climb inside, waiting for every last member of our crew to make it, but as the last five soldiers came tearing toward the opening, a phase blast shot down from above and blew them to smithereens.

I ducked inside just in time to avoid any harm to myself, but even so Khala managed to absorb a lot of energy from the blast. Unfortunately, it also consumed portions of my shirt and pants. Enough remained to maintain my modesty, but only just so and it would not take much, for what little remained of my clothes to be torn from my body.

I didn’t spend much time worrying about it, which I doubt would surprise anyone since the moment we stepped inside the building we were assaulted by a cadre of Qharr warriors who took down three more our guys before any of us could blink. Lily pounced taking down one guard by blasting him in the chest and a second with a slice of her knife across his throat. She looked so small, going up the massive gray skins and yet she was like a whirlwind demolishing anyone who stood in her path. There was a terrible sort of beauty about the way she moved and I wondered if that was how I looked when I fought.

I didn’t let my awe keep me back for long, I hopped in opening fire and took out three guards right off the bat, but when I turned to meet a fourth he grabbed me by the throat and tossed me away. I hurtled back and my arms twirled uselessly through the open air before I landed a quarter of a dozen meters on the opposite side of the corridor. I landed hard without any sort of cushioning effect, which probably meant Khala had been caught off guard by the attack too.

I lurched back to my feet and slammed myself into the nearest attackers and opened fire on a second and third before ducking out of the way as a fourth pounced on me. He would have gotten me, if it hadn’t been for Becca who entered the fight by throwing her slender form at the hulking gray skin. I turned to take on another opponent, but one of our Nester friends blasted him away before I could even so much as lift a finger.

We overwhelmed the guards in the corridor with sheer numbers, but that particular advantage was fleeting at best. Our strike force was large, but our crew didn’t even remotely compare to the total number of gray skins in Jykkar’s compound. The entire future of the planet was riding on our venture, and so far we’d gotten lucky, but it was going to be one hell of a fight getting where we needed.

“Rayland,” I said turning to the Nester Major then glanced down the left side of a three-way fork. “You take Becca and your crew down that way. I’ll take the center path, and Lieutenant Teadman you take Lily and the rest of the men that way.” I threw my thumb over my shoulder down the right corridor.

Each crew consisted of an even mixture of nesters, ERF and the handful of us that were left in the resistance. I took the doctor and Rayland took Farris and Max which meant Teadman’s team had Lily, but given that she had more technical know-how than anyone else put together and her K’teth enhanced strength, speed and reflexes meant she was by far the most valuable remaining member of the resistance. My stomach churned at the thought of what might happen after we separated, but I knew it was the logical thing to do. We shared a brief kiss, just before my sister rushed in and all three of us embraced.

No one said a word, as we split. We knew the importance of what we were doing. Some of us would die and if any of us survived something told me that it would not be an experience we would want to remember. Even so, we would soldier on, if for no other reason than our path had already been laid out for us. We would fight because humanity had no one else to rise up on their behalf.

“Vakrexid can hardly contain myself. It will be most tumultuous, will it not?”

“Yeah doc, it’s going to be a blast,” I mumbled under my breath as I stopped to peak around a corner.

“A blast?” He asked his big bulbous eyes blinking rapidly, in wild and seeming wild movements. “Vakrexid detects no blast.”

“Never mind, it’s just a figure of speech. Just be quiet would you, this is easily ‘the’ most heavily armed compounds on Earth. We don’t want to attract any un-do attention, do we?”

“Vakrexid would think not, but I have been wrong before.”

I didn’t respond to that, I just rolled my eyes, gritted my teeth and let out a sigh of relief when the doctor grew silent. He was just so alien, sometimes it was hard to believe that his people had descended from humans. He seemed so oblivious to everything. As much as I hated to admit it, we were more like the Qharr than the Dexagarmatrax, as most the differences were cultural. The doctor had a different way of looking at things which made me think the Phyrr Lesch must have altered his progenitor’s brain chemistry. I could never know for sure, but something told me it was to make them either more obedient, or docile, or perhaps both.

“Get down!” I yelled pushing him out of the way as a stray phase bolt came rushing down the corridor.

It struck me in the chest, leaving a sizable hole in my shirt. I didn’t let any sense of modesty deter me, however, I rushed forward slamming a fist into the face of the offending gray skin. He crumpled under the force of the blow and I turned to meet the next opponent. She jabbed the barrel of her weapon into my neck and opened fire. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it happened to be a coil gun.

I dropped to the ground clutched at my throat gasping for breath or would have if I could have drawn any in. The bullet must have lodged itself inside the air passageway preventing the flow of air. It was one of those many moments since joining the resistance that I’d come close to death, but this time it felt different. The usual fear washed over me, but this time there was despair. Fortunately, my stubborn defiant nature set in before I let it consume me. I had to survive, I had to press on. I wasn’t so arrogant to believe that our mission wouldn’t succeed without me, but the more fighters we had the better chance we stood.

Khala voiced screamed out inside my head just before air flooded back into my lungs. I gasped taking in as much as I could just before leaping back to my feet. My vision was still blurred and fuzzy, but that didn’t stop me from grappling with my attacker and forcing the gun out of her hands. I turned it on her, blasting a hole through her dense skull.

My vision was clearing up, but I didn’t have much time to celebrate. A trio of guards came dashing toward me. I clenched my teeth, opened fire on the first, a gangly fellow whose proportions were a more than a little lean for a Qharr, shooting him dead, then swung the rifle around like a club, which sent the second reeling away.

Phase fire, surged and fizzled all around me splashing the walls and splattering, first against his shoulder, then against his chest and a third and final shot took him right in the mug. His body collapsed to the ground, his countenance little more than a steaming crater.

Three more guards went down and I turned my attention to the final one who had ducked inside a doorway. His only weapon was a single phase pistol, but when I approached him he stood to face me, fists clenched at his side as he let out a single roar of defiance. I struck slamming him in the chest. He staggered back, but shrugged off the blow with much more ease than I expected. I hit him again, but he caught it in his hand.

Rather than grapple with him I release my hold, drew my pistols and blasted the bastard to bits. I re-holstered my weapons and grabbed the rifle from his steaming remains before turning back around to face Private Beckman, my ERF techie who had a small handheld device clasped firmly in his massive paws. “Is that thing picking anything up?”

He had more the look of a brawler than a tech expert, but after hearing him arguing with Lily I was certain he was more than capable. He wasn’t accustomed to unconventional thinking like my Lil’, but he did know his way around a computer network. He stared up at me as he always did, that hungry look in his eyes and nodded. “There’s a dampening field which is interfering with sensors. I can only detect a handful of grays and our own people. Anything above this level isn’t showing at all.”

“Shit,” I said slowly shaking my head as I glanced down the corridor. “Why can’t anything be easy? It’s always climbing up stairs or through secret tunnels. Why can’t we ever just go on a mission and find the baddy without having to jump through a shit-ton of hoops?”

He nodded, his eyes lingered just long enough on my breasts to make me want to haul off and smack him. I got a lot of hungry looks from the ranks of the ERF and nesters and was starting to get used to it. It sounded cliched, but it made me feel like a piece of meat rather than an actual human being. I hated being objectified, but any time I found myself getting angry over it I felt like a hypocrite. How often had I looked at a woman the same way? Lusting after one because of her body rather than her personality or her intellect.

Beckman nodded. “Ma’am? I-I’m not sure I know how to answer that question.”

“Doctor, you take point. If the gray skins see you, they’re going to be much less liable to open fire.”

“Indeed! Though it not a certainty!” He replied letting out a long drawn out squeal. “Vakrexid shall proceed with caution. Triggers pulled much too quickly could result in a very early end for me, but worry not death is not something in which I fear!”

“Good to know, doc.” I grinned wiping the sweat from my brows. “We need to find a set of stairs or lift or even a damn access hatch.”

Beckman nodded throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “If this thing is correct there should be a stairway down that way, but there’s a half a dozen guards blocking the path.”

“Right, of course there is,” I said with a nod before holding my hand out. “Doc, care to do the honor?”

Vakrexid blinked and cocked his head sideway before craning his neck and turning his head a complete hundred-eighty degrees. “Vakrexid does not understand why it would be an honor, but I shall move forward boldly and with much stealth!”

The doctor didn’t need any prodding to get going, but his movements couldn’t exactly be described as stealthy. He lumbered through the hallways his feet clattering and clomping against the organic-resin floors. Fortunately, I had anticipated this, and had set him down the path hoping that he’d distract the guards long enough for us to put them down. Given the gray skin’s aversion to harming his race it seemed unlikely that they would open fire especially since they’d see and hear him coming from a mile away.

It felt a little bit like I was throwing him out to the wolves, and felt a pit form in my stomach as my guilt began to gnaw at me. I could try to justify it all I liked, but the truth was the doctor was my friend and I had put his life in danger. I almost called out to him to retract my previous order, but by the time I did we’d already happened upon another group of gray skins.

The first four were easy enough to take out, but when I caught a flash of blue hair from the fifth that’s when I realized she was going to be a little more difficult to kill. The sixth ran off, presumably to call for reinforcements, before anyone could stop him. Which left our pal, the Edant K’teth.

She was a little short for a Qharr, and if I was an accurate judge her people’s standards her slender, sleek and well-toned body marked her as a great beauty. The rare pinkish hue of her skin was a feature I’d never seen before, but I instantly recognized it. She was part of a rare sub-race of Qharr, known as the Gieff who were said to be among the most agile of warriors. According to what Duvak had told me they had their own unique culture and religion and for the most part stayed apart from the rest of Qharr society. She lacked the usual tattoos and markings of other gray skins, which suggested she hadn’t completely given up on her Gieff upbringing. Why this particular warrior had chosen to join with her cousins was a peculiarity I doubted I would ever have the answer to. Then again… I had been wrong before.

The Gieff female pounced, her pinkish-gray skin glistening with sweat and the natural Qharr sheen. I was down on the ground before I even realized what had happened, but as her fist hurtled down toward me I scrambled back onto my feet and backed away hoping to regain my composure. My opponent remained hunched over then glanced up and met my gaze.

“You! Human you are as fast as they say,” she replied speaking with an accent so thick that it was barely intelligible. The typical Qharr accent was harsh and gutteral. Hers was singsongy and I probably would have found it charming if she hadn’t just tried to kill me.

“You’re pretty quick… for a Qharr. You caught me off guard, but believe me when I say it will not happen again.”

“I am not Qharr!” She replied between gritted teeth before leaping toward me.

I jumped back scrambling away and slammed my fist into her side. She retaliated hitting me across the face with a broad swing to my jaw. She was obviously much stronger than me, but the gap wasn’t nearly so wide as it had been against the other Edant K’teth I had come up against. Her speed however, was going to make things difficult. Every time I’d come up against an opponent bonded to a K’teth my speed had been my only advantage, but she was proving herself to be more than a match.

She pounced grabbing me by the throat and pinned me against the floor. “I am disappointed. Are you not the one who killed Corrector Taevok Typel and High Inquisitor Duvak Nakyrr?”

“That would be me,” I said barely able to form the words because her hand was gripped so tightly around my throat. “But it wasn’t just them. I’ve killed my fair share of guards and hunters too.”

“Why should I care? These kyffa could all die and I would sing no songs for them. They speak of honor without truly understanding what it means. They enslave entire races in the name of the gods who abandoned their children. They are fools.”

“Then why are you fighting alongside them?” I asked digging my hands into her fingers trying my best to break her grip.

“I have been tainted by the touch of a K’teth beast. I cannot return to my people so I fight for the only reason that is left. The joy of battle, the pleasure of destroying my enemies and in the hopes that the ancestors may see my many victories and grant me a home in the afterlife, but it should make no matter to you. To you, I am the one who is about to end your life.”

“Not.” I said between gritted my teeth and slammed my fist into her face, “freaking likely.”

“Do you know how many times I’ve been in a strangle hold?” I asked just before kicking out and striking her in the chest. This time I managed to dislodge her and I staggered back to my feet just in time to see her do the same. “Jesus you Qharr are so damn predictable.”

“I am GIEFF!”

We circled one another, each of us looking for a weakness, but neither of us seemed to find one. While we were shuffling about I got a good look at the rest of my group, who had been forced to retreat when after a cadre of Qharr guards had happened upon them. I returned my attention to the Gieff who was unlike any opponent I had faced before and if I was going to be honest it was likely she could say the same of me. She may not have shared the same culture and values as the other Qharr, but she was still standing in my way. She had to be brought down quickly. She posed a threat I could not ignore, but she had already proven she was a skilled warrior and I wasn’t sure she could be defeated through conventional means. It was time I changed tactics.

“You serve the sub-ascendant.” I said making it a statement rather than a question. When she failed to reply I took it as a confirmation rather than an outright denial. “He has no honor.”

“What do you know of honor human? You are lost creatures who live their lives empty of direction or cause.” She leapt toward me slamming a fist down toward my head.

I caught the blow, but only just barely and the strength of it forced me against the wall. “I know enough about honor to know that the Qharr Ascendancy is corrupt. I know that the Sub-Ascendant has been hiding a truth about my people that is so shocking it could very well destroy the foundations of Qharr society.”

“Why is it that you continue to speak? I wish only to fight.” She yelled and sent her fists crashing down toward me. Fortunately, I managed to lunge out of the way just in time and they went slamming into the wall instead.

She roared and spun around to face me, but before she could attack Khala’s voice rang out. ‘This truth is relevant even to you, Dynara!’

Apparently, the Gieff woman had enough of a reputation that Khala had heard of her, but I could say at the moment if that was a good or a bad thing.

The Gieff stopped dead in her tracks and studied me without making a single movement or gesture. “What relevance would that be, spawnling?”

‘”The humans are the progenitors!'”

Dynara’s reaction was not at all what I would have expected. She didn’t speak or utter a word, but simply turned away and went dashing through the corridor until finally disappearing up the stairway.

“The fuck?” Beckman said stepping forward scratching at the back his neck.

I almost ran after her, fearing that she might raise the alarm and jeopardize our mission, but something told me that she wasn’t a threat to us any longer. I let her go and instead turned away putting my mind on the task at hand. Perhaps, it was a stupid decision, but she had disappeared so fast I would have had a hard time finding her anyway.

Chapter Fifteen

I stepped up from the stairwell and ducked around the corner of the adjoining wall right alongside the others and placed a hand on the shoulder of Sandler, a young clone who had the eyes of a veteran despite his fresh face.

“Trouble?” I didn’t speak aloud, electing to mouth the word instead, but he seemed to understand.

He nodded and threw his thumb at the wall where presumably the trouble I had inquired over was brewing. Considering our location and our present predicament it wasn’t exactly a big mystery what was waiting on the other side of the wall, but I had to get a look nonetheless. I crept forward on my hands and knees and once I’d gotten close enough I risked a peak around the corner.

The was the usual cluster of guards, but had it been just them I wouldn’t have seen it as much of a reason to worry. Unfortunately, two of the guards happened to be Edant K’teth.

“Shit,” I cursed and gritted my teeth.

“It can never be easy,” I repeated my previous protest and gritted my teeth before holding my hand out to Teadman. I didn’t even have to speak the words. He slipped the item in question into my hands and I only hesitated a moment before taking action.

I jumped out into view of the guards, and raised my weapon. I had three rounds, but only one hit its intended target. The first Edant K’teth died the moment my bullet pierced her heart, but I wasn’t so lucky with my next two shots. I hit the other joined Qharr in the shoulder, but the third shot whizzed past and hit an un-bonded guard in the side, downing him.

I cursed and dropped the coil gun, tossing it at the second Edant K’teth as he came zooming toward me. It didn’t have much effect, other than to draw an annoyed grunt from my attacker, but it distracted him just enough that I was able to get the first blow in. My attack didn’t do much more to make him angry, and he was pretty damn quick to retaliate, hitting me across the face with a blow that had me seeing stars. Fortunately, I managed to shake it off in time to block his next strike.

“Damn you,” I cursed pummeling him with blows across his abdomen. He staggered back and I pressed the bastard swinging a fist up to hit him across the jaw.

He recovered and swung a massive fist at my head, I managed to duck just in time, but he slammed me into the wall with a second blow before I could even blink. I dropped down as he swooped in for another attack and I swept my foot out from under him. He collapsed and I leapt up on top of him, repeatedly slamming my fist into the wound on his shoulder.

Everything had happened so fast that his symbiote hadn’t quite managed to heal the injury, but it was starting to close up. Fortunately, my attack had the exact opposite effect. He howled and tried to fend me off, but I braced myself against his swinging fists and just kept hitting him. His attacks grew more and more frantic until one of them managed to do the trick. I was thrown off him and into the opposite wall with damn near enough strength to knock the wind out of me.

He was on top of me before I could recover and grabbed me by the shoulders sending me slamming into the wall with bone-breaking force. I could feel my bones pop back into place as he pulled me free, but before they could set he slammed me into the wall again. The others tried to help, one soldier even grabbed a coil gun and tried to shoot him in the back, but my opponent swung around using my body as a club. The attack sent him tumbling to the ground and the Edant K’teth slammed me into the wall again. I screamed and struggled to break free, but the more I writhed in his grip the more it tightened.

That might have been the end of me, but I had a trick up my sleeve, literally. I elbowed him, thus freeing my arms and slipped a hand inside my sleeve. The pain was pretty intense, since my left arm was broken, but I gritted my teeth and let out a victory cry as my hand found purchase on its intended target. I slammed my hand out and stabbed the bastard in the chest.

He let out a startled cry and dropped me. The impact sent shooting pains through my whole body, but I managed to climb to my feet with more than a little effort. Bones popped into place and wounds closed in on themselves as Khala absorbed energy from one of the reserve power cells strapped to my thighs. I wasn’t completely healed and frankly, if I were in a situation that I could afford to step back and call it quits for the day I probably would have, but hell I didn’t really have that option, did I?

My opponent charged straight at me, but I leapt to the side and grabbed him by the shoulder as he passed. I slammed him into the wall, with damn near the amount of force he’d used on me. It definitely left the bastard dazed, so I did it again, and again. I was more than a little satisfied to hear his bones crunch, but I knew that his symbiote was probably a whole hell of a lot better fed than mine and would probably heal up just fine. So, before he recovered I plunged my knife deep into his heart letting him collapsed to the ground at my feet.

That did the trick, and by the time I returned my attention to the remaining guards I was more than a little relieved to discover that just one of them remained standing and even then he didn’t prove much of a threat. I stepped forward, his eyes grew wide and he booked it down the corridor.

“Coward,” I said, letting out a deep breath of relief and slipped my knife back into my sleeve. The path to the building’s communication center was just a stone throw away. Maybe, just maybe, we could make it.

Despite my previous optimism, the route to the control room was not an easy one. We encountered three more groups of guards, but only one more Edant K’teth. She put up a damn good fight, but I guess I was more determined than her. Unfortunately, the resulting fight left me separated from the group. There was nothing to do, but continue on and hope Rayland could get the remaining members of the group out of this mess alive.

By the time I reached the communications room, I think it went without saying that I was feeling pretty ragged. The doors clanged shut behind me and I got my first good look at the room. The sickly green color of the walls and floors suggested they were made from or were given a generous coating of Kylthash, a sort of organic substance that while soft and malleable in it’s natural form, could not be broken or torn once processed without an insane amount of force which went without saying was beyond that of even a host to a K’teth. There were two sets of doors the first were the ones we just entered and the second were across the chamber on the opposite wall, but given that they were made from the same substance, they looked pretty damned impregnable.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as I cast my eyes about again. I put on all the speed I could muster, moving toward the doors so fast that I slammed right into them. I tried to pry them open with every bit of strength Khala could give me, but they wouldn’t budge. I rushed across the room to the other side, but the other set were sealed just as tight.

“Dammit,” I cursed glancing back as I stepped toward the communications console in the center of the room.

By then it was pretty obvious that I’d stepped into a trap, but my trip to the communications console pretty well confirmed it. The screens were dead and none of my attempts to activate the computer system did any good. Clearly the sub-ascendant had been prepared for our arrival which meant…

My head snapped around and I made another run at the door as a single figure stepped inside the room, but it slammed shut just seconds before I could reach it. I spun around, turning to face Lily who looked like she’d been through a meat grinder.

“Dammit!” I cursed grabbing Lily by the shoulders. “Where’s the rest of your group?”

“We got separated. We ran into a few Edant K’teth on our way here,” she shook her head and stared up at me with wide eyes. “I drew them away on a merry little chase to protect the others. I barely survived the resulting fight and eventually made my way here.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think we’ve walked into a trap. The walls are lined with Kylthash and the doors too. I can’t break through no matter how hard I try.”

“What about the console?” Lily didn’t wait for me to answer, but instead dashed across the room toward the object of her inquiries. Her hands zooming across it’s dark surface with such speed that even I couldn’t make out her movements, but when she stopped and let out a long string of curses I knew she’d come to the same conclusion as me.

She returned and knelt down, her form falling out of sight as it slipped behind the control surface. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but she popped back up just a few seconds later, her face creased with a frown. “There’s a biolock on this thing. I’ve never seen one this sophisticated. Give me a few weeks and I might be able to bypass it, but even then, this thing has three factor authentication… it would be damn hard, maybe beyond my abilities.”

I can’t say I was surprised. Why lure us into this trap, with a big juicy communications array as bait if they were just going to hand us access? We’d been had, and as much as I hated to admit it, there was only one conclusion I could come to, we’d been betrayed.

My mind raced as I spread all the possibilities out in front of me. Who among us could possibly want Earth to remain in the hands of the Qharr? We’d done so much and fought so hard, I couldn’t imagine any human who would want to stop what we’d put into motion. Then it struck me, any human, but not all of our allies were human, were they? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, but I shook my head fighting back tears.

There was only one non-human who could have been in the position to betray us. I shook my head, and gritted my teeth. The doctor could not be responsible. I refused to believe it. There had to be something else at work, but try as I might I couldn’t unravel the mystery.

I’m sure, given the chance, that my mind would have supplied itself a thousand different theories, each less believable than the last. In a way it was fortunate that I didn’t have to put myself through that, but it was only because of the catastrophe that followed. The furthest set of doors swung open and a figure was thrown through the air landing a half-a-dozen yards away from me.

I rushed toward her and had just enough time to identify the unconscious form of Max before a massive figure burst into the room with a form that looked absolutely tiny in his bulging arms. The sub-ascendant had found us wearing a typical stone-faced Qharr expression, but for someone who’d spent years living amongst and serving gray skins his body language spoke volumes. Jykarr was consumed by rage and hatred to the point that I kind of doubted he was operating at a very rational level.

He threw, the crumpled form in his arms aside and slammed the door shut behind him. I couldn’t see her face, but her blue hair was enough to tell me it was Becca. I scrambled across the room toward my sister, but the sub-ascendant intercepted me, picked me up and grabbed me by the throat. “This is the end, but before I destroy what’s left of your resistance you should know that you’ve been betrayed.”

I gasped struggling to draw air in as I wheezed out my response. “Already came to that conclusion. You overgrown mother… humping bastard!”

His grip tightened and I clawed at his hands, but as I’d come to expect from the bastard he was just too damned strong. He pulled me close and I could feel his breath on my throat as he spoke again. “It was one of the most recent of your friends to enter the room. Care to guess which one?”

He threw me back through the air and I slammed into the opposing wall with so much force that I felt something snap. In the past I’d felt bones crack and even break, but this was different. This time, it was my spine. There was an odd absence of pain and I was very afraid at the implications. Was it Khala’s doing or was it a sign that something was seriously wrong? I got my answer and it sure as hell wasn’t the one I wanted.

I slid back down to the ground collapsing into a useless heap. I tried to climb to my feet, but didn’t exactly get the sort of response from my limbs that I was hoping I would. My arms seemed to work just fine, but where anything below my waist was concerned I couldn’t even flex a pinkie toe.

‘Khala!’ I cried out.

Her reply was more than a little testy. ‘I am working on it! Fixing spines isn’t like healing stab wounds or mending bones! If I do it wrong, I could seriously damage your body to the point that it would be beyond repair.”

‘Fix it!’ I replied twisting my upper torso to get a better view of the fight between Lily and the sub-ascendant which had broken out sometime after he’d flung me away. I even tried to climb onto my feet again, but without cooperation from my limbs my efforts proved futile.’I don’t care if I never walk again after today! Just get me up! I won’t watch that bastard kill the woman I love!’

‘I will do what I can,’ Khala replied. Her voice was neutral, but I got the sense from our mental bond that she was not very receptive of the idea at all. Frankly, I didn’t care if she liked it or not even if she was trying to protect me. I had to get back into the fight.

Lily was doing a fantastic job at keep the sub-ascendant occupied. She was faster than me and was using her speed to her advantage, dancing around the bastard as he swung his massive paws at her tiny little frame. Even so, I knew what Jykarr was capable of and I worried that sooner or later he would find a weakness and exploit it.

Lily seemed to have worked out a system, running around him and making quick jabs before speeding away again. The sub-ascendant made any number of counterstrikes, but each time Lily dove out of the way. She kept at it. No matter how long the two battled Jykarr just shrugged off Lily’s blows. The problem was that he was too powerful and the Qharr’s superior stamina meant that the longer she kept him busy, the better chance he had of subduing her once she started to tire.

I cursed and crawled forward, but soon gave up. A sob escaped my lips when I saw Jykarr grab Lily by the shoulders and sent her hurdling away. She was quick to get back onto her feet, but judging from her ungraceful landing I kind of doubted it had been easy. She seemed a little sluggish from that point onward and I worried what would happen if Jykkar managed to hit her again. Lily was fighting hard and was doing damned admirable job, but it was growing more and more obvious that even though she was doing her best, she was no match for him.

I clenched my fist and pounded the floor growing more anxious by the second as I watched Lily struggle against her massive opponent. Khala drained away another reserve power cell and within moments I felt a change. Finally, I could feel my feet, but when I tried to climb up onto them I flopped back down to the ground. Muscles, twitched and it was almost like a light had fluttered on. I could move again. I let a smile form on the corner of my lips as I slowly crawled back onto my feet. I crept forward, a new purpose in my steps as I made my way toward Lily and the sub-ascendant. They were on the other side of the room and Jykarr had his back to me which was exactly what I needed.

I gritted my teeth and leapt forward. I threw my arm around his neck and started clawing at the flesh around his spine. He might have had superior strength, but he was still just a flesh and blood being like any other Qharr. I tore through several layers of skin, as Jykarr hopped around attempting to dislodge me from his back. I swung and slid around trying to find good handhold, but his berserk movements didn’t exactly make it easy.

Finally, I managed to stabilize my position by clawing my way up his back and tightening my hold around his neck. When I started to tear at his flesh again. It was a little disheartening to discover that it had already healed up, but I didn’t let it keep me from continuing. He screamed out and before I even realized it he’d managed to slam me back down into the ground.

Given my recent injury, getting back up proved to be a little more difficult than it should have been. I tried climbing to my feet, only to collapse, yet again. My face smacked right into the Kylthash and I gasped and clenched my fist as a shadow fell over me.

I crawled onto my knees, but Jykkar grabbed me by the shoulders and hurled me away before I was able to stand. I slammed into the wall and fell down to the ground face first. I pushed myself up onto my elbows, and tried my very hardest to launch myself back up, but each time I was knocked down it was even harder to get back onto my feet. I heard footsteps and I turned my head fully expecting to see the sub-ascendant come to finish me off.

A slender figure stepped into view and I found just enough strength to push myself onto my ass so that I could face her. “Becca, thank god.”

Another figure, this one blood-stained, approached, limping forward an arm clutched against her side. “Get away from her, you bitch!”

I blinked, my mind reeling as I glanced from my sister to Max and back again. Jykarr had hinted that one of them had betrayed us and I bit my lip trying to decide which one it could be. The choice was obvious, I pulled one of my phase pistols free and trained it on Max. “Don’t take another step.”

She paused and her face contorting into a grotesque display of pain as she held both hands out, one of them stained with her own blood. “Just listen to me. I’m not the one you should be worried about. I know this has got to be hard to hear, but I think your sister has been brainwashed. She’s betrayed us all.

“Impossible!” I yelled my hands shaking despite my best efforts to keep the gun stable. “Her mind hasn’t been bent. The doctor ran tests on her, we would know.”

“Okay,” Max said between pants. “Then it’s something else, but you’ve got to believe me. She’s the one who’s responsible for this. My people are coming and if we don’t bring the shield down the battle for Earth will end before it’s even started. Think about it, if I had betrayed you, I could have turned you over to the Qharr any time during our trip to Salt Lake. We sat huddled in a building for three days. I could have turned you in to the Qharr right there and then. What need for pretense?”

Doubts surfaced and I bit my lip glancing at my sister. There was something different about Becca. It wasn’t so much her physical appearance, but the way she held herself and the wild look in the eyes. I knew then and there that I wasn’t looking at my sister. I felt a cold chill run down my spine as I looked her in the eyes. Max was wrong, it wasn’t Becca who had betrayed us. It was her symbiote.

I don’t know how he had gained control of my sister without her consent, but I knew that it was him calling the shots. The how or why wasn’t important. I clenched my fist, gritted my teeth and let out a primal cry of fury as I scrambled back onto my feet. I grabbed Becca’s body by the shoulders and slammed into her at full speed pinning her against the closest wall with just enough force to hopefully disorient the symbiote.

“Becca,” I whispered in her ear. “I don’t know what he did to you or why he’s managed to take control of you like this, but I need you to come back to me.”

The symbiote didn’t exactly respond very warmly to being thrown around and despite my efforts I didn’t get through to my sister. My eyes grew wide as I felt something slide into my chest. I gurgled and stepped back, blood dripping from my mouth. I reached up touching the handle of my very own knife sticking out of my chest just about where my heart was.

I gasped, for a moment convinced that I was witnessing my last moments. Then I came to a little realization, my heart was still beating. The symbiote had missed it by mere millimeters. Either, he was a bad aim or Becca was fighting him. I had an opportunity that was too good to be passed up. It was time to play possum. I let my eyes slide into the back of my head and I collapsed.

“LEXA!” Lily’s cries were almost too much to bear, but I forced myself to remain still.

‘It’s time to remember.’ Khala’s voice trickled through my consciousness as disjointed images and voices echoed through my mind. The world fled from me, and my consciousness slipped away until I was consumed by darkness.

“We have a problem.” Lily’s voice drifted in, a whisper that reverberated through my mind with the power of a scream. It took me a moment that she hadn’t actually spoken to me. The voice had drifted in from some dark corner of my mind. The world just slipped away and a strange sort of stuttering image took its place.

I got the strangest feeling of deja vu as I looked over and I felt breath catch in my throat as I realized exactly why that was. There had been a moment after I had returned from Salt Lake that Lily had said those exact words to me. I’d felt a moment of dizziness just before we returned to our quarters to make love.

‘Sorry,’ Khala’s voice whispered. ‘That memory was a fabrication. You’ll understand why soon enough.”

“I found a listening device attached to the outside of the hull.” Lily’s voice and image resolved themselves into crystal clarity.

“The hull?” My own voice replied, but the words seemed like a distant echo spoken from far off. I hadn’t spoken them and yet I didn’t feel as if someone was speaking through me.

‘Khala!’ I cried out to my symbiote.

‘Watch Alexana. Clarity will come.’ She gave no other explanation, but I was so transfixed by what I saw that I didn’t press her further.

I studied Lily, taking in all the details as I sought to comprehend what had happened. “Listening device? You don’t mean that the Qharr have been…”

Lily shook her head, some of the sickly green grease on the back of her arm streaking across her forehead as she absently rubbed the sweat away. “I might have found it sooner, but it was a tunneler designed to embed itself into hull and eventually find its way inside the ship. We got lucky, the tunneling apparatus on this one failed or it probably would have picked up enough to screw us royally.”

I gasped, feeling the images around me cascade with a rainbow of colors as realization took hold. I knew what was happening, I was witnessing a memory, my memory.

“How long do you think it’s been there?”

“Can’t be certain, but best guess is when Duvak attacked the Renegade. I’ve never heard of anyone using them except inquisitors. I think they fired it at us when we were making our escape. The impact didn’t register on our sensors because they’re designed to make a soft impact.”

“It would it explain a lot.” I felt my hands on my hips as my past self let out a long sigh. “Do you have any idea what, if anything, was transmitted.”

“Listening devices don’t keep a record of what’s transmitted for obvious reasons, but I was able to dig through our sensor logs and decode what the Renegade’s sensors originally mistook for background noise. It only managed to catch snippets of information, but it did send along a few things that could cause us some trouble.”

“Shit,” I cursed running a hand through my hair as I turned away from Lily.

I clenched my eyes shut, gritted my teeth, before turning back toward her. “I need to hear everything.”

The rest came in a flood of images that rushed through my mind at such speeds that it became almost incomprehensible. The images resolved before slipping away until all I saw was darkness. I could feel the gears turning as my mind processed what I had witnessed. Finally, I understood.

Chapter Sixteen

My awareness of the present returned, but I kept my eyes shut as I let my sense of hearing slowly return. A renewed sense of clarity had awoken within me. Becca’s betrayal which had so deeply devastated me just mere moments before had been revealed for what it truly was, a ruse. It probably would have hurt a lot more, but it was hard to feel that way when I had pulled the wool over my own eyes.

My memories had been repressed by my symbiote at my request, to ensure that my reaction would seem genuine. All to distract Jykarr, to keep him from guessing our true plans. There were other motives, but they would become clearer all too soon.

It was hard keeping my eyes shut when I knew the sub-ascendant was so close and Lily was fighting for her life, but for our plan to work I had to remain still. Before too long, a blood curdling scream rang through the chamber and I knew Lily had been downed. I just hoped it had been Becca who’d struck the blow and not Jykarr.

“They’re both dead,” Becca’s voice said. She spoke so softly that I had strain my ears just to make out each syllable. “You have what you want. You can finally crush the resistance.”

Jykarr didn’t speak for the longest of time, but I could hear the sounds of movement. I risked opening my eyes and watched, his back turned to me as he moved toward the console. I bit my lip, feeling my heart beat harder in my chest as my deepest fears came to life inside the darkest corners my mind where those sort of things were manifested. Had he bought it?

A shadow fell over me, and moment later I watch Becca’s form move slowly toward the console, joining the sub-ascendant at his side. Jykarr manipulated the controls and it flashed to life presenting the holographic image of a Qharr whose face was laced with scars.

“Supreme Inquisitor Ry’kk,” Jykkar’s voice rumbled through the chamber in his native tongue. “Have the human fighters been dealt with?”

“We’re having more trouble containing them than we had anticipated, Sub-Ascendant. They are illusive, they are a credit to their race.”

“You almost sound as if you admire them, Supreme Inquisitor. Do not make the mistake of fooling yourself into believing they are anything more than wily prey. They are clever, intelligent even, but they are not worthy enough to be considered equals. Put them down as you would a pest, but do not underestimate them.”

“As you speak it, your voice is but an extension of the Prime Ascendant. Glory be to him and to you.” The holographic image fluttered and died away and before I could even so much as bat an eyelash, Jykkar had his hand around Becca’s throat.

“Your usefulness is at an end,” he said raising her until she was at eye level. “Did you really think I would let you live?”

“Fuck, do you think she’s stupid,” I said lurching to my feet and pulling the blade free from my chest.

“Sorry to say this buddy, but you’ve been had.” I stopped just long enough for the wound to close before leaping into motion, slamming into Jykkar, my knife cutting through his chest as easily as if it were butter. The force of my impact was enough to send all three of us careening to the ground on the other side of the console.

“Lily!” I screamed out shaking my head as Jykkar’s hand rose out of the tangle of limbs to latch onto me. “THE MESSAGE!”

I didn’t know if she heard me or even she was still alive, but I soon had other problems. Jykkar, lurched back onto his feet, sending both Becca and myself rolling away. He grabbed me, flinging Becca away like a rag doll and lifted me off my feet. “Reveal to me what you have done and I may spare your life.”

My face stretched into what I could only guess was a rather gruesome grin and I started laughing as a recording of voice echoed through the chamber and presumably throughout all every communication channel on Qharr-occupied Earth. “Citizens of the Qharr Ascendancy, I am Alexana Briggs, leader of Human Resistance Movement here on Earth. The gray skins would want you to believe that the resistance has fallen, but believe me when I say we are still very much a threat to continued Qharr occupation of Earth.”

Jykkar howled, sending me flying away, lumbering across the room toward Lily, but it was already too late. The damage had been done. Lily dove away as he came tearing toward her, only just managing to avoid his swinging fists. The recording continued and I rushed across the room, slamming into the bastard as he made a move on the controls. Jykarr and I collapsed again, and Lily, once again at the console, let out a high-pitched squeal followed by a ‘woop’ of elation.

“I’ve disabled the shield control! The other teams must have done their part the whole barrier is coming down.”

“Today, we have a very specific goal in mind and should we be successful there’s a good chance that no human shall ever again suffer at the hands of our self-proclaimed masters again. My human brothers and sisters and every single Qharr citizen here on our Earth has had the wool pulled over their eyes. The sub-ascendant is the perpetrator of a lie so damaging that it could very well shatter the very foundations of his people’s society. I have been told for almost the entirety of my life that humanity was enslaved because we were an honor-less and worthless race, but the truth is a lot more complicated. Jykarr Bynd started the war against humanity. Not the other way around as the Ascendancy has always wanted us to believe. I can only guess why he would do it, but we have uncovered something which I believe he dearly wants to keep hidden.”

The sub-ascendant howled, backhanding me and as I staggered back he started toward the console again. This time it was Lily and Becca who intercepted him, Becca face to face and Lily from behind. My sister lunged at him, grabbing the knife that was still embedded in his chest and twisting it as Lily, armed with a piece of paneling from the console, clubbed him in the back of his knees. He swiped at Becca, hitting her across the cheek and sending her slamming flat into the ground.

He turned his attention to Lily, but I leapt over the console and pounded my fists into him. He shrugged the blow off and grabbed Lily by the throat sending her swirling away. He rushed toward me, but I lurched aside. He slammed right into the wall with enough force that it actually seemed to daze him. It was enough to give me hope that we were finally starting to hurt the bastard.

“Humans are the progenitors of the Qharr and their cousins the Dexagarmatrax. We believe that their creators, a race that legend tells us are called the Phyrr Lesch, used our people as a genetic template. Don’t believe me? Let the facts speak for themselves. A copy of our findings are being transmitted along with this recording. All one needs to do to confirm they are true is run a genetic comparison between the three races and you will find that our genetic structures are far too similar for it to be mere coincidence.”

Jykarr was finally beginning to weaken. When I slammed my fists into the sub-ascendant he actually staggered back and let out a below of pain.

“What does this mean for humanity? It means our enslavement has been a lie, a veil by which the gray skins could conquer us. Rise up, push back! We need your help. Today along with our allies from the Earth Return Fleet and the Nester Alliance we are fighting to bring down the protective shield around Earth. Should we be successful there is an entire fleet of allied ships that will fight to the very end to ensure that every last gray skin is driven from our world.”

The sub-ascendant backhanded Lily who had launched herself at him and sent her stumbling away. Becca pounced on him next, but he grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her into Lily. I launched myself at him next, but as with the others, he was ready for me. He slammed a fist down, and sent me sprawling backward onto my ass.

“As far as the general citizenry of Qharr Ascendancy are concerned. You have been ruled over by a corrupt and dishonorable system that has finally shown its true colors. They speak of honor and pound their chests proudly and yet they have perpetrated a lie against you so great that it demands action. If you are truly honorable than you must be as horrified by this news as I am. Fight with us or stay out of the way. If choose to side with your government and resist, you are the enemy, and you will share the fate of Jykarr Bynd and his cronies. One way or another, tonight, Earth is ours.”

With this final comment Jykarr roared with a ferocity that was so inhuman, so bereft of anything a self-aware being should have been capable, I actually shuddered. He came charging toward me again and just as before I dodged out of the way, but unfortunately he stopped himself before he could slam into the wall again.

“Give it up, you overgrown piece of shit!” I screamed at him. “You’ve lost, you’ve been made. Everyone knows you for the honorless bastard that you are.”

A third time, he charged me and this time I wasn’t able to get out of the way. He pinned me against the wall and I gasped as he rammed something cold and sharp through my chest. “You! It is only because of your symbiote that you have been so successful. You humans are worthless. I would have exterminated you all long ago, but the constraints of our so called honor system would not allow me to eliminate you. Now I see that allowing you to live was a mistake.”

I spat in his face, splattering it with blood. “So you enslaved us instead? No doubt hoping we’d give you a reason to finally kill us all off.”

He slid his weapon out from my chest, but before I could make a move he plunged it back in. “Do you realize what you have done? Our society will be torn apart, there will be civil war. We’ve kept the galaxy in order. Now it will be thrown into chaos. It is everything I feared.”

“You’ve kept the galaxy clutched in your iron fists. How many races suffer under your tyrannical rule? It’s time you relinquished your hold and let the galaxy get along without you.” I coughed up more blood, all of it going right into his face.

I heard Lily and Becca cry out, but even as he held me against the wall he managed to fend them off. He swept his other arm out and a long metal blade swept out from his wrist and sliced out at them. My view was blocked by his hulking form, but their cries at least told me that the attack didn’t kill them right off the bat.

“I will prolong your death as long as I can. I will bleed you, until there isn’t a drop left of your blood.”

He stabbed me again and pulled the blade out to impale me a fourth time, but this time I managed to knock his arm aside and kick him in the chest. He barely budged, but it I just enough wiggle room to slither out of his grasp and crawl away. I was still bleeding as I climbed back to my feet, but Khala drained the last of the energy from my phase pistols and the spare energy cells and I could feel the wounds begin to close as I spun around to face the sub-ascendant.

Lily and Becca came tearing toward us, and before I could pounce on him, Jykarr swept his fist out and slammed it into the side of my head, sending me reeling into the nearest wall. When I recovered, I lurched forward, but he’d already moved away to take on Becca and Lily.

When it came to fighting a single opponent, three was a bit of a crowd. So instead of joining them, I took off running across the chamber and once I’d gained enough momentum, sent myself hurtling up the side of the wall and up onto the ceiling. I position myself above them and waited for an opening, hoping that if I hit the bastard hard enough I might finally be able to do some real damage.

Back and forth they went across the chamber, and I clenched my hands and unclenched them over and over. I gritted my teeth and growled, but still I didn’t get a good opening. Lily and Becca were doing their damnedest to subdue their towering foe, but they didn’t seem to do much damage. He knocked Lily out of the way and a moment later Becca pounced on him, leaping up and onto his back throwing her arms around his neck in a strangle hold.

He roared and spun around doing a complete three-sixty as Becca wobbled around on his back. Finally, he managed to grab her by the ankle and sent her rocketing into Lily who had only just barely managed to climb back to her feet. I had my opening, Khala reversed her hold on the ceiling, and I was sent hurtling back to the ground. I slammed down, hitting the bastard atop the head with every bit of strength I could manage.

At last, I’d found a way to hurt the gargantuan bastard. He went down like a sack of fucking potatoes, but before I could congratulate myself he was already climbing back to his feet. He seemed a little dazed and I burst forward kicking him in the side hoping that it would keep him from regaining his footing. Between myself, Lily and Becca we must have him at least a several dozen times, but our best efforts only served to delay him.

He seemed to have regained his composure when grabbed Lily by the neck and took off. He slammed into the wall, but instead of wailing on her as I expected he held his free hand out. I was already running toward them when something extended from his wrist and I dove at the bastard grabbing at his bladed appendage. He kicked out, hitting my left knee with the underside of his foot and I fell back sprawled out on the ground behind him.

I was quick to scramble back up, but I wasn’t fast enough to keep him from plunging the blade directly into Lily’s abdomen. Neither was I able to stop him from running her through a second time. I was back on my feet before he could do it a third time, but when I moved to stop him he pulled his other hand away from Lily’s neck and swiped out at me with it as another blade flew out from his wrist. I was able to bend back at the waist in time to avoid getting sliced open, but the blade was so close I felt it slice through the air.

I rolled down to the ground out of reach of the second blade as Becca came charging toward us, but as he brought it around he sliced her halfway through the chest. I don’t know if she hadn’t seen the wrist-blade or if she had simply built up too much momentum to stop. Either way, the effects were devastating and her blood splattered all over the ground as she collapsed. I cried out and fell to my knees at her side in a futile attempt to restrict the bleeding.

Her wound was not healing, and there was a sinking feeling in my heart that told me her symbiote was out of juice. I gritted my teeth and craned my neck around to watch the sub-ascendant pump Lily full of holes. Dyssa was doing pretty well healing them up, but how long could she keep up? Sooner or later he’d bleed her dry. Symbiotes could heal a lot of wounds, but replacing blood wasn’t something they could quickly enough to sustain a host who had lost large amounts of it. He could have just stabbed her through the heart and finished her off, but he was too sadistic for that. He wanted her to suffer.

I screamed and jerked back up onto my feet, my hands clenched at my side. I saw every misdeed, committed against me by the Qharr flash before my eyes. I witnessed the death of my parents, but this time it was Jykarr who had murdered them. I saw him beat and tortured those I cared about, I witnessed him leading the inquisitors who had taken down the resistance bunker, I even witnessed him killing Kaya and now the bastard was trying to take away the two people in the world I cared about the most.

Everything the Qharr had done to me and my people were his doing whether directly or indirectly were as a result of his actions. I was angry, no fuck that, I was furious, I wanted him dead. My vision turned the most vibrant crimson and I let out a blood curdling howl as I rushed toward him.

I wasn’t acting on a rational level, I’d been reduced to a wild beast. All I knew was that I want the fucker dead. There was no Lexa, no sub-ascendant, no Lily nor Becca. There was just the beast I had become and my prey.

I moved forward, swooping in with liquid grace and grabbing him by the arm I pulled him away from his victim. My prey tried to stab me with his twin wrist-blades, but I ducked to the side and grabbed by him the wrist. My fingers wrapped around the edges of the blade and I yanked on it as hard as I could. Blood dripped down the edge of the blade, mine, but I didn’t care. I grunted and let out a cry of defiance as it tore loose from where it had been fused to his bones.

Like, a tiger cub who’d just grown her claws this predator finally had herself a weapon. My prey howled in fury as my hands found better purchase on the blunt end of the blade. I tightened my grip and raised my weapon as he slammed his down. I growled, just barely able to block the blow.

Speed was the only means I had to gain an upper-hand and I took full advantage of it and lurched forward circling him at greater and greater speeds. I slashed him on the back of the knee cap, in his side, and across the chest, but each of the wounds healed. He was resilient prey.

I growled and stopped dead in my tracks, giving him enough time to catch my scent before I zoomed off again. He followed me. I kept going straight moving up the walls, across the ceiling then back down again, and little by little the gap between us grew greater and greater. I lurched sideways, and watched as he zoomed past. He corrected for his error pretty quickly, but I was almost on top of him by then. I plunged the blade into his chest as he spun around to face me.

It went clean through and he reached down to grip the blade, before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground. I blinked and looked around, the red faded from my vision and I realized what had happened. I rushed to Becca and Lily, whose bodies’ were sprawled on the floor a few feet away from each other.

I checked for signs of life and found a pulse on each of them, but how long would that last? Lily was completely unconscious and her visible wounds while relatively small had not completely healed. Dyssa had clearly been overwhelmed by number of wounds sustained by her host. I bowed my head and gritted my teeth against the tears that came washing down my face.

Becca’s condition hadn’t changed, other than the amount of blood that had pooled under her body. She was conscious, but not exactly coherent. I collapsed beside her and just let the floodgates open. What point was there left in fighting? Lily and Becca were the only bright spots in my life. If I lost my sister and the woman I loved… I left the thought unfinished as a sob escaped my lips.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and for the briefest of moments I thought that it was a friend offering up condolences, but when I reached out to touch it I realized two things. First, the hand was way too damn big, and second there wasn’t a single person in the room capable of offering condolences. I tried to get up and fight, but it was already too late. Jykarr picked me up and slammed me back down into the ground with so much force that I didn’t see myself getting back up in the foreseeable future.

I watched through tear-soaked eyes as he knelt down next to me and put one of his massive paws down to hold me in place. Violet blood dripped out from the wound in which the wrist-blade was still embedded. “I have spent years keeping the truth hidden from my people and now you have taken that all away from me. Don’t you understand? The Phyrr Lesch abandoned us! All our talk of honor and privilege of the chosen race is gre’k fodder! We are nothing, but what we have made ourselves. Now that my people have learned the truth, that illusion is gone. I will end your existence for taking that away from us!”

Unable to move, or fight back I closed my eyes waiting for the end to come, but it never did. I heard a gasp and looked up to see that the sub-ascendant’s body had fallen back and away from me and was twitching as if he’d been caught up in a seizure. Confused, I glanced around, and came to a sharp realization once I saw Lily’s hand clasped around his ankle.

I didn’t waste time wondering how she had managed to subdue him with a simple touch though, quite frankly at that moment I didn’t care. Instead, I sat up, with strength that I didn’t know I possessed and placed one of my hands on his body. Then Khala did the unthinkable. She fed on the energy of the other symbiote. It was supposed to be impossible, an ability that Khala had always insisted was beyond her capability and yet somehow she and Dyssa were draining Jykarr dry.

The moment my hand touched his flesh I felt strength return to me as new images flooded through my mind. At first I believed that the originated from Jykarr, but I’d been so wrong. Those thoughts and perceptions were so powerful that they overwhelmed my senses and the world flashed away into nothingness.

Colors, most green, some red, a smattering of blue and a whole lot of yellow filled my vision. At first the images were, blurry and ill defined, but they slowly coalesced forming the picture of a forest left wild and untamed by the absence of technology. It was as beautiful as it was alien. I was moving, but I had no control of the speed or direction. Was this how Khala, nearly always an observer, seldom the one controlling the actions?

Panting, but who? Was it me? Was I the one running through the forest? Had I given control to Khala? Why was she running? How had we gotten there?

“Oh, I cannot be too late! I simply cannot!” A booming baritone voice called out in despair. The language was not English, but was as guttural and as harsh as Qharr. I understood it, and yet I knew I’d never heard it before in my life. Still, it seemed familiar somehow.

I wanted to look around to see who had spoken, but I couldn’t. None of my limbs would move. I was simply an observer along for the ride, but for what I couldn’t even begin to guess.

‘Khala!’ I cried out hoping that my symbiote might answer, but even she could not hear me… or else would not answer.

Gradually the forest gave way to grassland with only a smattering of trees and in a structure loomed in the distance. A tall and foreboding tower that stretched so high into the night sky that I wondered if it might not stretch into eternity.

I felt determination, and desperation rolled into a strange knotted ball of nerves and emotions. It wasn’t projecting those feelings, but they were as strong to me as if they were mine. I called out again, hoping someone would listen, if not Khala then perhaps whoever was in control, but no matter how much I screamed or yelled no one answered they just kept running.

Finally, the structure loomed in front of me so close I could touch it. I felt my neck pull back and wonder paired with awe washed over me. The building was more a skyscraper than a tower, but was unlike any I had ever seen before. There were no adornments nor, windows just plain charcoal gray stone, the only break in the facade was the entrance which was a simple opening with no door.

My neck returned to eye level and those feelings of wonder and awe that had washed over me only moments ago were supplanted by the earlier feelings. My captor started running again, even faster than before and… more frantic. What was driving this person, this being, onward?

The inside of the building was a remarkable as the outside for the simple fact that it was so unremarkable. Nothing differed, everything was perfectly symmetrical and was composed of the same drab stone. What was this place and who would have built it? It was one thing to build a structure to invoke wonder and awe to those who looked upon it, but this place was something else entirely. Who could take pride in such a structure?

“Master, Master!” The same voice as before screamed out and I was sent veering sideways into another simple, unadorned doorway. Finally, I stopped and a form detached itself from the dark. A Qharr, or at least I thought at first, but her features were too soft. She drew closer, stepping into the light revealing a very human-like pair of breasts. She brushed honey hair away from her rough, angular featured and placed her hand on my shoulders or rather the shoulders of the person who had spoken. She looked like some sort of hybrid of human and Qharr.

“Husband, you are too late, father has passed into the nether realm

“Gyff, what will we do without him to lead us? The masters abandoned us. All except him. He alone remained to guide us. Now even he is gone.”

“We will persevere. It is what he would have wanted.”

Tears cascaded down her face, but the voice of the one in control pushed past her. It was dark, but there was slight luminescent glow in the distance revealing the outline of a figure resting on a simple bed pad. He drew closer and knelt down beside the unmoving form. When he drew close enough, I felt the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

It wasn’t possible, it didn’t make any sense. It was a human man, old and emaciated. One who had very obviously passed away. “Hail Myrrh, High Lord of the Phyrr Lesch.”

“Hail!” Gyff’s voice echoed in the distance.

I screamed and the world around me fractured, and faded away.

I blinked and sat bolt upright. I was back in the real world. I shook my head to clear it and tried as I might to wrap my head around what I’d just seen, I just couldn’t quite reconcile it. They were memories of Jykarr’s K’teth, but why had it passed them on to me. What I’d seen suggested that Phyrr Lesch were human, but how was that possible? They were an advanced space faring race that lived thousands of years before humans had ever touched the stars.

‘I am ready to die.’ A voice rang through my head, it sounded tired and weary. The depth of emotion I felt conveyed to me was so intense it almost felt as if it were my own. This being was tired of life. It wanted nothing more than to end it’s long and miserable existence.

I glanced over at Jykarr, his form was still inert and I bit my lip and glanced at him. The voice could only belong to his symbiote, but why wait so long to speak?

“What was it that you just show me?” I held a hand over Jykarr’s shoulder so as to restrain him if he began to stir.

‘A memory from my past.’

I gritted my teeth and let his words settle in. I had never imagined that there might be a K’teth who was so old that he might actually remember the Phyrr Lesch.

‘Revered elder,’ Khala’s voice whispered in my mind so full of awe and reverence I could actually feel it bleed through our bond. ‘How could the Phyrr Lesch have been human? The people of this world had not even discover the wheel when the Phyrr Lesch ruled the galaxy.”

‘My memories of those times are vague, and had been passed on by mothers far older than me. Much of the truth had already passed into myth by the time I was born. It was said that the Phyrr Lesch were an advanced race on a world populated primarily by it’s more primitive cousins.’

‘And the Gieff?’

“Descendants of both Qharr and Phyrr Lesch. There is more,’ Jykarr’s K’teth whispered. ‘Touch the sub-ascendant, once again.’

I did as he suggested, but this time there were no images or flashes, just a strange tingling sensation in the back of my mind.

‘The knowledge you need will unfurl with time. There are many mysteries to which I do not have the answers, but perhaps you will succeed where I have failed. Now end it, before he comes awake again. Give me the peace I have desired for so long.’

“Why should we trust anything you have shown us,” I whispered staring at Jykarr’s unmoving form with wide eyes. “You could have withheld your abilities from your host at any time.”

‘NO! I am a slave. An addict. The substances that Jykarr has used to increase his strength beyond that of other Edant K’teth left me unable to resist. At first I tried, but I could find no way to overcome it. Forgive me.”

The symbiotes were every bit of the victim, just as the humans who Jykarr had enslaved. I bowed my head and uttered words that I never would have believed I would ever utter. “May you find peace in the next life.”

I yanked the broken and twisted blade free from Jykarr’s chest and without even a moments of hesitation I plunged it into his heart with what seemed like far less force than was necessary. It was enough. All three of his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he was finally dead.

I only lingered over his broken form, long enough to confirm he was gone before turning to Lily. She smiled and nodded at me, before pulling her shirt up to show that her wound had in fact been healed. I squeezed her hand and lightly pecked her on the lips before turning my attention to Becca.

I found my sister right where I had left her. She had lost consciousness and her skin had taken on a pasty pallor. I crawled over beside her and felt frantically for a pulse and I gasped and turned away.

Becca was gone. I collapsed to the ground and let out a long keening howl. There had been so many deaths, and I had fought so hard to prevent my sister from becoming one of them. Now, I’d lost her too, the only piece of my old life, the old me was gone. I felt… so alone. So angry.

A part of me just wanted to die, but one thing kept me from giving in. Lily. Draining Jykarr might have healed her wounds, but Dyssa couldn’t replace all the blood she’d lost. If she didn’t get help, she’d die. I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood up. I thought, I heard something and when I spun around ready to face whatever new threat had arisen.

Dynnara, the Gieff warrior from earlier burst on the scene tearing through the double Kylthash doors with more than a dozen Qharr warriors in tow. I didn’t speak, but rather held my hands up to show that I was unarmed and watched her approach. She stepped so close that I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she studied me and still neither of us spoke. Finally, she put a hand on my shoulder and spun around to face the others. “I must know.”

Her eyes turned back to me and I felt Lily’s weight against my side. I met her gaze and caught the look of warning in her eyes before turning back to Dynnara. She was right to be worried, but I was so very tired of fighting. If there was even the smallest chance that Dynnara could be convinced then I had to try.

“Show us sister,” a voice spoke, Dynnara’s symbiote.

‘Open your mind. Know the truth.’ Khala’s words echoed through my mind before the world descended into the darkness once again.

This time the images were grand and sweeping, generations of memories from the Jykarr’s K’teth flashed before my eyes in mere moments as they were shared with the Dynnara. I couldn’t say how much of what I saw belonged to the elderly symbiote and how much had been passed down to him, but the sheer magnitude of it all was staggering. It started with great ships ascending into the sky above an alien world. I couldn’t say for certain, but something told me it was Tel’c.

The images blinked blurred and suddenly I was watching through the eyes of the unnamed Qharr as he ran toward the great tower. Again, I witnessed him mourn the loss of the Phyrr Lesch who so resembled a human before the image flashed again. More visions coalesced inside my mind until they resolved themselves into that of a dimly lit room.

A Qharr child lay on the ground atop a bed pad as a slender figure knelt over her. This time the images were disjointed, broken even, but the meaning behind their words was fairly clear even if their exact translation was lost to me. Once again, I was seeing through the eyes of another, a Qharr from the distant past. The woman, the child’s mother, had features, just a little too soft for one of her kind, though much more harsh than Gyff. There were a pair of breasts on her chest, but their prevalence was such that they could have been easily overlooked. It was clear that she had the same Phyrr Lesch ancestry as the other woman. Perhaps, she was a daughter or a grand daughter.

The child spoke, she wanted to know where they had come from. The mother answered in a soft soprano, far softer than any Qharr voice. She spoke of the Phyrr Lesch in hushed tones, but there was an undertone of anger that spoke volumes. They were the creators, she told her daughter, they had created the Qharr to bring peace to the galaxy. They were…

It was so difficult to decipher, but the meaning behind the words slowly became evident as she continued. The Qharr had been created by using a primitive relative to the Phyrr Lesch as a template. These primitives were similar to the creator species, in that they could interbreed, but the creators were more advanced, more intelligent. Some of the meaning behind her words was lost on me, but I got a sense she was relaying something that had a deep spiritual meaning for her.

When she spoke of the Phyrr Lesch, there was the barest hint of contempt, but when she spoke of the other species, the so called primitives there was a feeling of reverence and awe. The creators were great and powerful, but they had abandoned the Qharr. They did not deserve their reverence, but their hatred. The ancestors were more worthy, and by exploring their origins it was believed that they could better understand their true purpose and not the one in which their creators had forced upon them.

Her neck craned around and I got the sense she was speaking to whoever’s eyes I was seeing through before everything faded to black and new images flowed through my mind.

Many were angry that the Phyrr Lesch had abandoned them, but others believe they had departed for reasons beyond their understanding and that they would one day return. Their society devolved becoming more tribalistic and fractured. Soon the two factions were even fighting amongst themselves, and as time passed knowledge passed into myth. The Qharr’s religion became more dogmatic and their society more xenophobic. Once, they explored the stars with the technology left to them by the Phyrr Lesch, but centuries of war consumed them, much of their knowledge was lost and they no longer had the means to touch the vast expanse of the galaxy.

Millennia passed and the wars continued until finally one rose up from the ranks of an insignificant Qharr clan and became their leader… their Prime. He saw and understood that the destructive path his people had taken would lead to their eradication. It took him more than twenty years, but he managed to unite his people under one banner. He became the first Prime Ascendant, under him the infighting amongst his people ceased and for the first time in many centuries, they began their first successful campaign against those now called the Gieff.

The Gieff lost. They’re population was decimated and they were driven into the more isolated regions, the islands and deserts of Tel’c. There they were hardened and gained a reputation as fierce warriors. Centuries passed and the hatred between the two Qharr clans softened, but never died out completely. The Qharr rediscovered what had been lost, the technologies of their creators, but the Gieff chose to remain isolated and apart. They remained tribalistic and sought to live a simpler life while the Qharr sought dominance of the stars.

Chapter Seventeen

The vision didn’t fade away, it simply blinked out and I was back in the real world staring at the Gieff woman as her chest heaved. Dynnara lurched back and she fell to her knees, but her eyes never left me. Her companions jumped forward weapons at the ready to scorch us with their phase rifles, but she held her hand up and climbed back to her feet.

“No!”

She stood there in the silence eyeing me up and down before a slow, but steady shiver ran up and down her body. She turned to the other Qharr and her face cracked into a smile that looked damned peculiar on her alien face.

“She spoke the truth.”

Dynnara drew close again and placed both her hands on my shoulder bowed her head and touched her forehead to mine. “You are progenitors, the heirs to the race from which we sprung. You must not be cast down as Jykarr Bynd has done. Forgive us.”

I took several steps back and let her hands fall away. She remained were she was standing, studying me with her trio of eyes.

“I’ve lived a lifetime under the thumb of the Qharr.” I shook my head and bit back tears. “I’ve watched my parents, the woman I once loved, and my own sister fall by your people’s hands. I-I can’t forgive those things. Not ever.”

She bowed her head and took three steps back. “Then I will help you. At least in some way the mistakes of the past can be undone. Earth belongs to you, let us fight the injustices of the Qharr people. If we can bring others to our path and fight against those who seek to continue your enslavement–”

“You’re talking about civil war!” Lily said her voice trembling as she stepped forward on trembling legs, bracing herself on the counter of the communications console. “Would you really betray your own people?”

“The Gieff and Qharr have warred with one another for as long as any of us can remember. I will shed no tears over the death of those who would turn their backs on the first race.”

I cleared my throat and glanced over my shoulder, a sob escaping my lips as I looked upon my sister’s corpse. Max moved forward, wincing with each step, before stopping and putting a hand on my shoulder. “We’ve done our part here. Lily needs medical attention and she damn well isn’t the only one.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded, unable to form the words, but even through the tide of grief and anger I knew she was right. I just wish I could see a way of us getting out alive. I shook my head and turned back to her and clenched my fists at my side. I took a deep breath before managing to force out a reply. I didn’t voice my concerns instead I looked around the room, careful to avoid lingering over Becca’s bloodied form.

“You have a suggestion?”

“If I can contact the Valiant, I think I can convince them to send down a drop ship, but they won’t risk an extraction in the middle of a firefight. So, we’ll need to put some distance between us and the action.”

Lily bowed her head taking in a deep breath of air before turning to me. “I-I don’t think I can make it. I can barely walk as it is.”

“I’m not leaving you… or Becca,” I clenched my hands at my side and walked to my sister’s body with slow deliberate steps.

Dynnara brushed past me and leaned down beside her body. “I shall carry this husk.” She slid an arm around Becca’s waist and turned to me as she hefted her up in her arms. “I will treat it with all due reverence and respect.”

I wanted to believe Dynnara was completely on the level and that should would do as she said, but her use of the word ‘husk’ didn’t fill me with the most confidence. A part of me wanted to force Becca’s body from her arms and carry her myself, but I bit my lip and turned away grabbing Lily by the shoulder as one of Dynnara’s hunters held the door open for us to pass through. I didn’t like it, but the Gieff was our best bet of getting the fuck out of there alive.

The Kylthash which coated the walls of the communication room had also granted the place a measure of sound resistance, but the moment I stepped through the doorway my ears were assaulted with the sounds of explosions and the much fainter sound of screams. The sheer intensity of the roar from the fighting was almost overwhelming and we hadn’t even made our way outside.

I pulled Lily close and felt a cold shiver trickle down my spine. I’d always hoped and dreamed this moment would come, but, until recently, a part of me hadn’t quite managed to believe it ever would. Humanity had suffered for decades under the rule of our oppressors and finally it was our time to fight for our freedom. Finally, the battle for Earth had begun.

Tears streamed down my face as I held Lily close to me. She’d lost consciousness sometime during our flight, but I could still feel her chest rise and fall. I fought my way through the tangle of Qharr with one hand. Firing off shots, as best I could weighed down by her inert form. It severely limited my ability to fight but I would not abandon her. Lily would get to safety and Becca would receive a proper burial even if it brought about my own demise.

It was all just a blur, phase bolts and bullets whizzed all around, but none of it mattered and I continued on somehow avoided any serious injury from the coil guns. I must have been hit maybe a dozen times, but most were from far off and all healed.

As we battled out way out, more of our friends joined us, but their faces were a blur and were soon forgotten as I continued onward. Lily was the only presence that registered and even then it was a vague nebulous presence. Farris cries when he saw my sister were enough to call up my attention, but even then it didn’t last long.

Finally, we reached the courtyard and the fog that had fallen over me finally lifted as I looked up to witness something I thought my eyes would never see. A destroyer, but not one of Qharr make, it was a human vessel reigning phase fire down on Qharr ships which were attempting to launch. Other ship’s joined it, some were recognizable as human, but many of the smaller ones were not. The ship’s were a hodgepodge of designs and colors, suggesting that the ERF had allied themselves with a number of different alien cultures.

“Thank God!” Max’s voice called out beside me. She clasped a hand over the left side of her throat and spoke. “Rodriquez to Valiant. Requesting extraction.”

She paused and I got the sense that she was listening to a response. I never heard one, but she must have had a comm implant. “Confirm, Sergeant Maxine Rodriquez, M-O-S Sixty-Eight Whisky Two, five-niner-bravo-seven-six-charlie-delta.”

She turned to me and glanced up at the one of the great skyscrapers. “We need to get higher, there’s too much weapons fire this close to the ground. They won’t risk bringing a drop ship down this close to the fighting.

“Farris!” I screamed out forced to raise my voice in order to be heard over the roar of the battle. “Take Lily!”

Farris did as he was commanded silently and reverently slipping my lover’s body out from my arms. I felt tears well up in my eyes at the sight, but I fought them away. I could mourn later… for the time being I had to keep my head.

“This way,” I called to the others just before I took off, running toward one of the great structures.

A wave of Qharr bodies swarmed through street in every direction. An endless sea of gray which stretched as far as the eye could see. We fought our way through the throng of beings headfirst, with all the grit and force of will that we could muster, but it was difficult going since the torrent of aliens seemed intent on making their way in the opposite direction.

No gray skins stopped to challenge us, but they seemed intent on getting out of dangers way. Few Qharr would cow to the threat of death, but like any species they had more than a smattering of common sense. An aerial battle taking place overhead with stray phase canon blasts and flaming debris plummeting toward the ground could end a life rather abruptly. Death while fighting an enemy was one thing, but death by falling wreckage or friendly fire wasn’t exactly the most heroic or honorable way to die.

We were less than a dozen meters away from our destination when we were finally confronted. Three hunters stopped, peeling away from the throng of fleeing Qharr and trained their weapons on us. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but those weapons were coil guns. I raised my weapons and opened fire killing the first two with a couple well-aimed shot to each of their chests. The third opened fire before I could do him in and I was forced to dodge out of the way. Fortunately, my companions scattered and Dynnara took the bastard out with a single shot to the head.

I expected that to be the end of it, but I should have known better. Instead of warriors we found ourselves confronted by an angry mob of civilians. I guess they didn’t take too kindly to us killing the warriors. There wasn’t a hunter among them, but they were still part of a culture obsessed with the warrior’s way. They might not have the training of a soldier, but most of them would still probably be better fighters than the average human.

“Fuck,” I whispered under my breath and lurched forward letting out a long stream of curses and insults in Qharr.

I holstered my weapons and held my hands up. It was time to try something a little different. I glanced back at Dynnara, cleared my throat then choosing my words slowly and deliberately I began to speak to the Qharr in their own language. “Brothers and sisters. Too much violence has been done between our two people. You are angry and understandably so. You have been lied to. We are not your enemies.”

They immediately rushed forward and I slammed my shoulder into the foremost attacker as she came at me. “Well, fuck. Fat lot of good that did.”

I raised my phase pistols prepared to open fire, but they were ripped from my hands. I screamed and ducked down as a fist soared toward me. I smashed the offending bastard in the face and moved on to my next victim, a rail-thin Qharr woman with the worst under-bite I had ever seen. I made short work of her and slammed my shoulder into a third who tried to come up on me from behind.

For every one Qharr I took down, three more took his or her place and it wasn’t long before I myself surrounded by more opponents than frankly I knew what to do with. How exactly was I supposed to fight several dozen opponents at once? They’d win by sheer numbers alone.

Farris was the first to collapse against the oncoming onslaught. He tried valiantly to fend them off, but the burden of Lily’s unconscious form was simply too great. Max fell next and one of the few remaining ERF soldiers was the third. I couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead, but I did hear a few screams from Dynnara before they closed in on me. Vakrexid’s tall bulbous head, which towered over that of even the tallest Qharr, was the last thing I saw before the weight of the bodies forced me down to the ground.

A squirming dogpile of writhing Qharr collapsed on top of me and I pressed back. I tried vainly to break free, but when I thought I might finally push through, the weight suddenly doubled. I screamed out and collapsed to the ground, unable to do anything but let myself be pulled the rest of the way to the ground.

“KHALA!”

Khala’s distress squirmed around inside my mind like a serpent slithering across my skin. It was probably the strangest sensation I had ever experienced and I wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign or bad one. Her emotions were so wrong that they almost seemed to have taken on a physical form, but they faded away just as quickly. They were replaced by a sudden influx of energy that burst out from my body and exploded into my attackers sending them flying away in all directions.

At first, I assumed that this was yet another application of Khala’s gravity manipulating abilities, but this felt different.

‘The Tyrsh!’ Khala’s voice was full of awe and wonder and I reached out to her with my mind. There was an instant connection, for a few seconds our minds became one and I understood. The Tyrsh was an ability said only to be available only to K’teth joined to the first hosts. It happened when the bond between host and symbiote was at its strongest. It was an energy discharge that could stun hundreds of enemies at once. Unfortunately, it didn’t make any distinction between friend or foe.

Knowledge of the Tyrsh wasn’t the only thing that came to me. A flood of memories and experiences, I knew everything there was to know about Khala and her previous hosts. Our consciousness was joined in a new way, a way that was so complete so intimate that there was no differentiating between me or her. We were united in a way that I never would have believed possible until that moment.

Dozens of Qharr came running across the distance, treading on the fallen bodies of their co-patriots. Dynnara, was the only one unaffected by the Tyrsh and we stood together as the oncoming onslaught. I had hoped to use this new ability again, but it had nearly drained me. There was simply no way, I could hope to call it up again without a massive energy intake.

I didn’t realize how weak I really was until the bastards were on top of us. I swung my fist at an opponent and didn’t seem to do much of anything except piss him off. He grabbed me by the throat and slammed me and slammed me down to the ground. None of my blows seemed to do a damn thing. It was as if the Kytash had drained away all my enhanced strength and reflexes. I called out for help, but Dynnara was a little busy.

I screamed out in defiance, but even that was an exercise in futility. The world seemed to slow down to a crawl and I thought that the end might finally come. There was no hope of rescue, there was no hope of survival. At least I could die knowing that the ERF might have a fighting chance.

I heard screams, and shouts followed by the sounds of struggle. My attacker was ripped away from my body and I felt a pair of hands pull me up from my feet. I blinked and looked upon my rescuer, unable to fathom what had happened and I couldn’t have been more surprised. Dynnara, looked me in the eyes and she smiled. Damn, I was never going to get used too that.

Lily was standing a short distance away, conscious again, and looking even more worse for the wear than the last time I’d looked upon her. Everywhere else I turned I saw Qharr fighting Qharr. It seems as if a pack of gray skin had come to rescue us. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but one thing was certain, I never in my wildest dreams would have ever expected one of our conquerors, let alone a whole squad of them, to come to our aid even after Dynnara joined ranks with us.

“Dynnara!” I yelled barely able to hear myself over the roar of the battle and pointed up to the building. “Can you get us up there?!”

Her head snapped around and her eyes locked on the spot where I was pointing. She screamed at the top of her lungs pointing at four warriors then turned to me. “If that is what you wish.”

The Qharr hunters moved with the brutal efficiency that few could match and struck at those who remained within the perimeter that had been created upon their arrival. The remaining fighters pushed out, peppering those who resisted them with a deluge of phase fire that devastated the rioting masses. Those that remained fled before their attacks unable to withstand the onslaught of the devastating blasts.

The bodies of our fallen attackers were slowly cleared away and I let a sigh of relief as each one of them was revealed to be alive. Some were in worse shape than others. Max’s face was a mass of bruises, Lily still looked pale and the doctor’s arm hung from his side uselessly, but Farris by far looked the worst. Even so, he climbed to his feet with a stubborn set to his jaw, and scooped my sister’s corpse up. I think he was as determined to give her a proper burial as I was.

I bit my lip and turned away fighting away the tears, but even so a few managed to stain my cheeks. I retrieved my pistols from the ground then cleared my throat and turned to Dynara. “Show us the way.”

Our fight up had been far less eventful than our flight through the streets, but when we got to the rooftops things got just a little more interesting. Fighters zoomed through the sky blasting at each other in the distance as they fought for arial domination of the sky.

If it had been just human and allied vessels fighting the gray skins it wouldn’t have seen quite so jilting, but many of the ships fighting each other were Qharr. It seemed almost incomprehensible, but we had succeeded in a way I never thought possible. The revelation that humans were the first race had clearly had a profound effect. The soldiers of the empire were actually rebelling. It was the outcome we had hoped for, but not one I had believed possible.

Max was yelling into her comm the moment we found our way onto the roof. “This is Sergeant Maxine Rodriquez, M-O-S Sixty-Eight Whisky Two, five-niner-bravo-seven-six-charlie-delta. I’m sending our coordinates now. We need immediate extraction. Repeat immediate extraction.”

She gritted her teeth and turned to me with a shake of her head. “A transport is inbound, but it may be a bit before they reach us.”

I nodded and paused for a moment to take in the battle. I’m sure there was fighting all over the city, but what little of it I could see was centered around the sub-ascendant’s residence. They were far enough away that we weren’t in any immediate danger, but that could change pretty quickly. The allied vessels were a hodgepodge of ship’s design. The human fighters were easy enough to pick out, the shared the sleek characteristics of their large counterparts, but the allied vessels were another matter entirely.

There were the orange and black dagger shaped vessels that sped through the air so fast that I wondered how their pilots could maintain control, then there were the blockier red and gray craft that flew at what I could only describe a more leisurely pace and blasted the enemy craft with powerful shots from phase canons that looked like they belonged on a much larger vessel like a cruiser and finally there were the cone-shaped craft that were a bright-blue color and covered in spikes.

Vakrexid flapped his one good arm and waved it out at the battle. He warbled and let out a high pitched squeal before turning back to me. “Those blue ones are Dexagarmetrax fighters!”

A brief image of the doctor at the helm of a fighter popped into my head and for a moment the goofy image even managed to bring a smile to my face before the weight of everything came crashing back down onto my shoulders. Again, I found myself fighting the urge to curl up into a ball, but I batted it away. I couldn’t allow myself to become distracted not when we were so close. I had to survive, if for nothing else than for Becca. She wouldn’t have wanted to me just to give up.

“Take cover!” Max screamed as a trio of Qharr fighters zoomed toward us.

I dove down and found cover behind some a large piece of machinery. If those fighters happened to spot us and opened fire, my hiding place wouldn’t offer up much protection, but it was more than suitable to conceal me. Unfortunately, the fighters weren’t fooled. I don’t know which of us they spotted, but when they stopped dead, hovering in the air above us I knew cowering behind the machinery wouldn’t do us any good.

I stepped out from cover and held my hands up. “Everyone stay down!” I screamed out as I walked slowly toward the edge of the roof. Maybe, there was a way I could fool the fighters into thinking I was alone. A phase canon put out a lot more energy than a rifle or a pistol. I wasn’t sure if I could survive the blast, if they decided to open fire, but I stood a much better chance than the others.

Fortunately, I never had to find out. A series of brilliant flashes slammed into the fighters each of which were sent careening down toward the ground where they exploded with blasts far more brilliant than the ones that had taken them out. When the resulting flashes cleared a human ship zoomed toward the building and stopped near the edge. A ramp extended from the side as a door on the side hissed open.

A lanky man, with a balding head stuck his head out and motioned forward. He spoke his voice artificially amplified by his helmet. “Sergeant Rodriquez!”

Max lurched into motion, yelling, screaming and frantically waved her hands as she motioned for all of us to follow. Most of us were already in motion, but I stayed back to assure that everyone was finding their way then turned to Dynnara who was staring at the transport ship with wide eyes.

“You coming?”

She turned to me and smiled again. “It would be an honor, but my place is here. There is a battle to be fought and perhaps even a war. The Ascendancy has committed a grievous sin and must be made to answer for what it has done.”

I bit my lip and cupped my hand around her right bicep. It was not a gesture I would have ever imagined making to a Qharr, but it was one that I believed was well deserved. It was a way of offering a fellow warrior well wishes and victory on the battlefield. I couldn’t help, but smile when she returned it.

“Go!” She yelled switching to Qharr just before she spun around and started yelling orders at the cadre of warriors that had accompanied us.

I didn’t say goodbye, that would have seemed hollow compared to the moment we had just shared. I climbed into the transport and collapsed on the ground beside Farris and my sister’s corpse. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as I finally allowed myself to morn. I had high hopes for Earth, but my future seemed much dimmer without Becca.

Even with working inertial negators the transport shook and rattled as it rocketed into the sky, but I couldn’t have cared less. My people were being carried away to safety and my part in the fighting was finally done.

Chapter Eighteen

Eyes closed, I leaned over the railing resting my head against the cold surface of the transparasteel as I stood a short distance away from the bed where Becca’s body had been placed. We had successfully made our escape and had been welcomed aboard the Valiant, the flagship of the ERF fleet, but there had been so much happening with the battle that we’d been shunted aside and forgotten. I didn’t blame them. If I had a battle to win, I wouldn’t be too worried about observing pleasantries.

At least, they had taken the time to escort us to the medical bay and treat our injuries. Well, those of us that needed it anyway. I opened my eyes, and bit my lip. Looking around at the others. Farris was seated next to my sister, his head bowed and both of his hands clasped in front of his face, the doctor was studying a display panel in the corner and Lily, who was in much better shape after receiving a blood transfusion, was standing beside me both hands on the rail. She leaned close to me and put her head on my shoulder. She didn’t say a word, and she didn’t have to. If anyone understood what I was going through it was Lily.

I glanced out the view port and shook my head. There was a sad sort of beauty in the destruction I witnessed there as the opposing forces ripped each other to shreds, but all I could think was how senseless it had all been. Our world had been invaded and enslaved and for what? Because the sub-ascendant had feared the truth about the connection between our two races. The end was near, but everything I ever cared about had been taken away from me. Except Lily. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it. Without her I would have nothing.

“This is most befuddling!” The doctor cried out and I craned my neck around to get a good look at him.

“Doctor, what is it?” Lily asked her hand still gripped in mine as she jerk sideways to meet the doctor’s gaze.

“Vakrexid is examining the scans of Rebecca’s body and cannot detect any sign of decay. She has no heartbeat, and no respiratory activity. This should not be possible.”

“What are you saying, doc?” Farris looked up his eyes red from all the tears he had shed.

“Neural activity! How can this be?! It should not be possible. Vakrexid cannot explain it… and yet. The symbiote! That must be it. Somehow it has managed to preserve Rebecca’s higher brain functions.”

“Doctor!” I screamed out. Not even realizing I had moved across the room until my I found my hands gripped around his shoulders. “What does that mean?”

“It means Alexana,” he said putting both hands on my shoulders. “That Vakrexid can revive your sister. Excuse me, Vakrexid must confer with my ERF colleagues.”

The doctor pulled away and I watched him jerk across the room unable to believe that it could be possible. I followed him, seeking more answers, but he spun around and gripped his hands around my shoulders. “No time to talk. Time is most important. Vakrexid needs you to displace your body from this place. Please, depart the infirmary at once!”

Vakrexid turned away and I felt a pair of hands pulling on mine. I let those hands leading me away. Once, the door had snapped shut behind us I turned to find Lily gazing up at me with those big magenta eyes. For most of our relationship, I felt as if I had always been the one looking after Lily. She’d always seemed… so delicate. Now I was the fragile one, the one who needed to be held. She wrapped her hands around me and we watched from the waging battle through the corridor view port.

Military vessels weren’t the only ones we witness strewed amongst the fighters and flagships. Civilian ships, merchants, cargo transports and the like fled Earth atmosphere, either disappearing with a flash of light or were destroyed by stray weapons fire. Most were of Qharr make, but there were a few of alien design. I wondered briefly if one of those vessels belonged to Veslpatt, but I had no way of knowing. A part of me really hoped the crime lord had managed to escape.

As the battle waged more and more gray skin ships turned against the main fleet, joining the human and allied vessels as they fought for dominance. The tide had turned in our favor, to be sure, but the implications of Qharr fighting Qharr went beyond this one battle. It meant civil war within the empire. If we succeeded in retaking Earth, which was looking more and more likely, our chances of maintaining control would be much greater if the gray skins remained occupied by an internal conflict.

We stood there transfixed by the spectacle, horrified, and yet, unable to look away. To me, it was almost as if by watching the battle we were, in fact, witnessing a physical manifestation of the doctor’s struggle to resurrect my sister. Each time a human vessel was destroyed or damaged I swore that I was seeing my sister’s death reaffirmed. She was dead. How could she be resurrected?

More Qharr ships fell before the growing might of the allied forces until finally so few remained that there was no doubt who the victors were.

“This is General Harold Briggs with Earth Return Fleet calling for all Qharr forces to stand down for immediate surrender. Any ships that fail to comply will be immediately fired upon.”

The voice which played over the intercom sounded older, and more worn than the one I’d heard from the message in the biometric key, but it very clearly belonged to the same man. Or did it? The ERF relied on clones to fill it’s ranks perhaps this Harold Briggs was a clone… or maybe the one left on Earth had been. Either way it was very unlikely that they were the same person.

The opposing Qharr ships didn’t surrender, but neither did they put up a fight. Instead they vanished with a bright flash of light. They’d fled with their tales tucked between their legs, an act that didn’t exactly fit within their code of honor. Those gray skin vessels that had joined forces with the ERF didn’t take long to follow until the only ship’s that filled they emptiness were human and allied vessels.

Humanity was free at last!

“Becca!” I said practically leaping across the room as the doctor motioned me inside the room.

As I drew close I could see her chest rise and fall, but her eyes did not open. Tears were streaming down my face as I reached out to take her hands. She didn’t move or respond in any way, but I felt a surge of joy when my fingers clasped around hers. Her hands were warm! “She-she’s going to make it?”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned to look into Vakrexid’s large bulbous eyes. “The symbiote did not survive, but his efforts were not in vain. Many of her internal organs were damaged and we were forced to replace them with artificial replacements for the time being. When she is in a more stable condition we will need to clone permanent implants, but it will be some time before we’ll be able to grow them. Fortunately, the ERF has the capability to produce mass quantities of blood on demand so Vakrexid was able to–”

I smiled and threw my arms around him, cutting him short in the middle of his rant. “Thank you.”

The doctor’s frame stiffened for moment just before I felt his arms slip up my back as he returned my hug. “You are most welcome.”

It felt so… miraculous after having so much taken away and now to have Becca given back. There were no words to describe the joy I felt. I pulled away and glanced over my shoulder at my sister’s inert form. “How long until she regains consciousness?”

“It is most difficult to predict.” Vakrexid let out a long mournful wail. “This situation is most unprecedented. It is unlikely that she will awaken for several days, but Vakrexid cannot say for certain.”

I nodded and walked over to my sister’s resting place and put a hand on her shoulder. “I can live with that if it means I’ll get to hear her voice again. I hope it’s alright with you, but I think I’ll keep watch over her until she wakes up. I thought I lost her twice already. I don’t intend for it to happen again.

“Indeed.” Vakrexid scurried away and I took a seat beside Becca’s bed and took her hand.

For the longest time, Becca was the sole object of my attention. Oh sure, I was aware of Farris along with the added presence of Vakrexid, and the ERF doctor’s scurrying about, but I wasn’t concerned about their presence and paid them no mind.

After a time, I felt a hand slip around my waist and a head lean against my shoulder. She’d been away debriefing the ERF commanders. I’m sure I’d be asked to do the same soon enough, but at the moment I was being given my space. The general probably had something to do with that, but I didn’t ask. Lily’s squeezed my free hand and I squeezed back. That moment stretched into an eternity and I closed my eyes letting a flood of warmth rush through me.

Khala’s presence was strong in my mind and a smile touched the corner of my lips as I felt an outpouring of love and support. Our relationship had always been tenuous at best, but that had already started to change. I cared for my symbiote and it was now obvious she returned those feelings. Earth would be need to be rebuilt and I couldn’t imagine that happening without the support of every willing being, human, K’teth or even Dexagarmetrax.

“Thank you, Sergeant Rodriquez,” a lone figure said from the view port. I couldn’t see much of his face, but his gray hair at least told me he was well past his prime. “You’re dismissed.”

Max threw her hand out in a salute and turned around on the balls of her feet before disappearing through the doorway. The figure turned toward me, once the door slid shut behind him, and smiled. He stroked his bearded chin and studied me with a pair of fierce steel-blue eyes that showed nothing but kindness. He looked so much like my father that for a brief moment I actually believed I was looking upon the spectre of Lloyd Briggs, but there was something about his bearing that gave his true identity away. It was my uncle, Harold Briggs.

He turned back toward the view poor staring at that great blue marble that was the Earth and sighed. “For almost twenty-five years, I’ve waited for this day. The day that I would return home and retake the world I’d been forced to flee all those years ago. Now that I’ve succeeded, I scarcely know what to do with myself.”

“Your job is hardly done, General. There are still thousands of Qharr left on Earth and after that there will be a world to rebuild,” I said walking slowly toward the view port.

I touched the glass and looked out at the expanse. I sensed his eyes on me and turned to meet his gaze when he started to speak. “I don’t think I was fully prepared.”

I nodded. “It was certainly an enormous task.”

“It was, but that is not what I meant. I wasn’t prepared for how much you remind me of your father.”

I bit my lip and turned away shaking my head. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember much about him.”

“You must have a lot of questions.”

I sighed and let out a soft chuckle. “I think I could probably say the same about you.”

Humanity was free, but so many questions were still unanswered. Our origins and how they related to the Phyrr Lesch were a big part of the puzzle, but there was still so much we didn’t know. Something told me the General probably knew much more about me than I did him. I’m sure the ERF had already sent up dozens of intelligence reports regarding the resistance, the K’teth, me, and our experiences, but sometimes you couldn’t truly get the measure of a person until you looked them in the eyes.

“I image we’ll have plenty of time to fill each other in on the particulars of what has transpired today and everything that has happened since the invasion, but for now… I’d really like to catch up with you and your sister. Once she has recovered, of course.”

“I’m still a little amazed by what happened. I-I thought I lost her.”

He moved toward the corner of the room where a beat-up looking wooden desk rested, a stark contrast to the uniformly cold steel bulkheads of the ship. He pulled a drawer open and set a familiar bottle filled with amber liquid atop the desktop. “Amaretto?”

I nodded and let a slow smile form touch my lips as he slid a glass toward me. I took it in both hands and took a long sip. “I’m really starting to get a taste for this stuff.”

“I take it Mara shared a drink with you?”

“Yours did. Is she alive? I haven’t heard a thing about her since the battle.”

He nodded, setting his glass down after finishing off the rest of his drink. “She’s a little worse for the wear, but the doctors aboard our medical frigate, the Nightingale, tell me she’ll make a full recovery.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“It must be disconcerting meeting different iterations of the same person. I know from personal experience that it can be rather unsettling.”

“You can say that again. The first time I crossed paths with your Mara, I was so shocked, I was ready to put a phase blast through her head. Of course, the Mara who stayed on Earth was a clone too, wasn’t she? I don’t even remember the real Mara.”

“I’m not surprised, you were very young when she passed away.”

“You know the truth, then? About who I am.”

“I know about the K’teth and how you became Alexana.”

“Any you, you’re a clone?”

“Nothing so interesting, I’m afraid. I’m the real McCoy, the dull old bland original Harold Briggs. With all the quirks and flaws that come with it.” A smile touched the corner of his lips and realize he was trying to get a laugh out of me.

I smiled, and chuckled softly before I stopped and gave him a good hard look in the eyes. He wasn’t like anything I would have expected and in small part of what I had lost. I smiled and after a bit of coaxing I started to tell him the story of my life. There was a lot of pain in my past, but for once telling it all didn’t make me sad. Nothing could dampen the joy that swelled within me at that moment. My sister was alive after her symbiote had sacrificed it’s own life to save her, I had been reunited with an uncle I believed dead and after twenty-four years of enslavement I was finally free. For the first time for as long as I could remember life was looking pretty good.

Comments, no matter the length, are very much appreciated. If you liked this story please take a minute to leave a review or even just to tell me you liked it. Criticism is welcome so long as it is constructive and I will gladly answer any personal messages or emails you want to send my way.

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Battle For Earth: Coalescence

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

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

“What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lexa, are you alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything eventful happen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Becca?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most assuredly,” Vakrexid bobbed his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“British Columbia this time,” Lily noted absently.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak Neada.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

“There’s something you should know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, yes, of course, of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vakrexid can hardly contain his excitement.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Neurotransmitter imbalance,” Yu corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lexa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’d be good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A-and the date?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I concur,” Lancaster Dahl said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bad news? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, doc. Khala’s taken care of me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes, most assuredly.”

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

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Follow me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Major Patterson trusts you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is supposed to cheer me up?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“Shit,” I heard Farris curse.

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

Chapter Eleven

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

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

“W-what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The others?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doc, do you mind?”

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

“Just get out of my face!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got this?”

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

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

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

She nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Farris, you’re awake!”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeff, if you–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still not following.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About a hundred-fifty square kilometers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded and backed slowly away. “Alright. I see now that there’s nothing left for us here. We’ll leave you in peace.

We turned away to leave and were halfway back down the hallway when I heard a little voice call out. “Wait!”

It was the little girl, she was holding a large old padded binder, that might have once been white, but time had dulled its once bright color. She held it up to me and stared at me with the most brilliant pair of blue eyes I’d ever seen. “We found this in the basement.”

With shaking hands I gently took the binder from her outstretched grip and flipped it open. What I found inside, was far away and beyond anything I could have ever hoped to have found. The entire binder was filled with photos of our parents, Becca and me and faces of people I didn’t even know. I flipped it shut again and knelt down to look the little girl in the eyes.

“Thank you.”

She locked gazes with me and her eyes grew even wider. She went scurrying away back into the master bedroom and I watched her depart unable to bring myself to look away. We’d broken the door down, whatever security they might have once had had been shattered to pieces. I had no doubt the city was a dangerous place for a group so young and I couldn’t stand by knowing that I had been responsible for making things more difficult for them.

I walked back slowly to the doorway and stopped, making sure to show my hands, as the young woman started screaming again. “This place isn’t safe anymore.”

“Thanks to you,” she replied putting herself between me and the younger children. “We gave you what you wanted! Now just leave us alone.”

“No, I’m responsible. I can’t just stand idly by and do nothing. Come with us… we have a ship, it’s warm and it’s gotta be better than living here in the city. We’ve had our fair share of danger, but maybe once we’re done here we can help you find someplace safer.”

She stared at me between gritted teeth and started to quake. “We don’t need help from the likes of you. Just leave us alone!”

I got a good look in her eyes and saw her anger and distrust. She’d lived her entire life in the city, and I doubted she’d ever been given a reason to trust another human being. I didn’t blame her, but it tore me up inside just imagining what had been done to her. I doubted that any of it had been pretty. How many were there just like her, who’d never been shown a single bit of common decency by their fellow human beings?

I glanced back over my shoulder then locked gazes with the girl one final time. “If you change your mind we’ll probably be back at least one more time in the next few days. The offer stands as long as we’re in town.”

“Just go,” she said her voice taking on a more pleading tone.

I nodded, and turned away. It was clear she didn’t want our help. I hoped she might change her mind sometime in the next few days, but I was pretty sure she’d already made up her mind.

Neada met us as we started make down the stairs toward the landing. “What was that commotion? You guys find someone?”

“Yeah,” I nodded with a shake of my head. “We found a group of kids living in the master bedroom..”

“Oh god!” she brought a hand up to cover her mouth. “Are they okay? Is there something we can do to help them?”

“No,” I said brushing past her. “They didn’t want our help. Come on, let’s get back to the ship. There’s nothing more for us to see here.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Morning birthday, girl,” Lily rolled over in bed and locked her lips around mine, kissing me much more deeply and passionately than our usual morning peck. Not that I was complaining, but it did take me a bit by surprise particularly since the morning fog hadn’t quite lifted from my mind.

“Good morning to you too,” I smiled and returned her kiss with just as much fervor. I wanted so much just to stay in bed and fuck her silly, but we had a big day ahead of us. I didn’t think it would do to spend all day locked away. No matter how much I wished we could.

“Shall we get up then?” I asked stroking her hair.

She nodded and we broke apart climbing to our feet so we might prepare ourselves for the day’s trials. I still wasn’t sure why the E-R-F sent us to New Anaheim, but it had to be important. I wanted to be out in the city well before the time the message had indicated. I was convinced it had been authentic, but I wasn’t taking any risks. If it was a trap we’d be ready for it which was why I was going to bring Lily along this time.

It was a calculated risk, but I knew we’d stand much better chances if there were three joined humans ready to smash the faces in of anyone who tried to stand in our way. I still didn’t trust Becca’s symbiote. He refused to talk with any of us which only made me distrust him more. Needless to say I was going to keep a close eye on Becca, there was no telling when the K’teth might refuse to lend her his abilities.

I was still haunted by the images of the three children we’d run across back in the city and a part of me hoped I might see them again. If I could somehow show them that I wanted to help, perhaps I could convince them to leave the city. It broke my heart to think I had endangered those little children by destroying the doors to their shelter.

I shook my head and forced such thoughts out of my head. They left me feeling so… maternal. Fortunately, Lily provided more than enough distraction. She grabbed me by the arm and forced me down the corridor where we’d set up a makeshift mess. Everyone was waiting there, even Farris, who’d been propped up in the corner. Most of the color had returned to his face and I could have almost led myself to believe he’d completely recovered were it not for the bandages on his chest.

“Happy birthday! I made you breakfast!” Becca beamed grabbing my free wrist and with Lily’s help, the two of them forced me down into a seat.

“Where’s Neada?” I looked around.

“She went ahead to do some scouting. Don’t worry she’s already eaten.”

I surrendered to Lily and Becca and let them serve me. Normally our meals consisted of soup made from whatever increments we could scavenge, which often included some type of meat and whatever else we could forage outside of the city like berries or edible roots, but the dish Becca put in front of me was far better eating than I’d seen in since well… ever. The meal consisted of a slab of meat and an assortment of steamed roots and greens we’d picked up since coming to the Anaheim area. The whole meal smelled faintly of garlic and onions which would almost certain help mask the gamey taste of the deer meat.

Where my sister had managed to find the garlic and onions was beyond me. There were a number of wild varieties that grew outside the Salt Lake area and it didn’t seem that unlikely that they might also be found in California. On rare occasions back when I was a head cook I remembered the Qharr supplying wild garlic and onions to our stocks. It had been one of the rare treats that I could ever remember being afforded in my time spent at the compound, but I’d often been forced to stretch them into a meal intended for very large groups of people.

That being said our own food stocks could have been stretched into several meals and I did try to point this out, but my protestations fell on deaf ears. Becca and Lily were adamant that I partake. Even Farris seemed dead set on forcing me to eat, but that might have been purely out of self interest. It wasn’t often that a slave, or resistance fighters for that matter, ate so well. Finally, I relented and consumed the meal without further clamoring. The meat was probably one of the best things I’d ever tasted, the roots and greens left a lot to be desired, but they were more edible than the usual fair so I ate them without any complaints. It went without being said that the doctor was the only member of our group who didn’t partake of the steak. Fortunately, he had been given a large bowl of soup to sip on instead.

We finished our meal and I was about ready to pronounce that it was time to leave when Lily put her hands on my shoulders and forced me back into my seat. “We’re not done with you yet, birthday girl.”

The doctor left the room only to return a moment later with a box in his hand. I knew even before he set it down on the table in front of me that it was intended for me. It was my birthday after all. “Come on guys you didn’t have to do this,” I said craning my neck to look up at Vakrexid who was standing there wobbling back and forth on his feet.

“It was Vakrexid’s understanding that birthdays were an important human cultural celebration.”

“I don’t really deserve any of this. I’ve been a perfect ass.”

“I know,” Becca smiled placing a hand on my shoulder. “But you’ve turned over a new leaf. Consider it a celebration of the new Lexa. Just open the gift, we’ve all put a lot of work into it.”

“Nobody ever celebrated the new me,” Farris grumbled from the corner.

“That’s because the old Farris was a royal pain in the ass,” Lily bit back. “Lexa was just out of sorts for a little while.”

It was a pretty harsh thing to say, but Farris had tormented Lily for years. Was it any wonder she still had some lingering resentment?

To his credit, Farris to the comment in stride and merely shrugged. “Fair enough, Just open the box, would you? I’d like to find out what it is those two–” he stopped point at Lily and Becca each in turn. “–have been sneaking around inside that damn box.”

I did as he suggested and pulled the top off the box. Inside, I found a new double holster, which looked to have been crafted from leather. “Told you I’d get you a new one.” Lily beamed as I held the holster up in front of me.

“There’s another gift inside from me,” Becca added blushing and brushing phantom hair away from her face. Clearly, she hadn’t quite gotten used to having shorter hair. “We, uh, could only find one box.”

I set the holster down, and grabbed the second item from the box and dropped it almost immediately. I blushed and turned to Farris who was grinning from ear to ear. It was a bra, patched together from an assortment of mismatched fabric.

“You said your bra was tight so I pieces one together with some scraps I found. I think it should fit you better than the one you’re wearing now,” Becca said. “Sorry it’s the best I could do on short notice.”

I grabbed her and pulled her close. “I love it. Thank you. It’ll be nice having one of these things that fit properly.”

“I-I’ll try it on later… somewhere a little more private,” I said glancing at Farris who chuckled and shook his head.

“Try the holster on then,” Lily grinned. “I’ve been working on that since we picked up our new ride. Had some help from Rayland… and the doctor.”

“The doctor?”

“Yes,” Vakrexid answered for her. “Vakrexid helped cure and tan the leather.”

“You did that?”

“Indeed, Vakrexid learned to do so while I was still just a small caprixi under the tutelage of the wise descending perglexigonis of the catamarxek swamp lands.”

“I have no idea what any of that means, but thanks doc.”

“Vakrexid is most pleased to hear you say that,” he tooted then spun out of the room.

“Well,” I said glancing at the doorway. “I guess that’s that. Lily, Becca, get ready we’ll be leaving once Janet returns. And as for me… I have bra to try on.”

It was another half an hour before we finally departed. It only took me a few minutes to try out my bra, which was far more comfortable than my previous one. Either my sister was really good at eying measurements or she’d had help from Lily. There was an odd thought… then again Lily had been pretty handsy the last few times we’d made love.

I cough, and glanced at Lily who smiled and took my hand. I felt my cheeks burn and didn’t say another word. There were some things that were probably better left a mystery. Neada took the lead, she was more familiar with the terrain than the rest of us–having spent most of her free time in the last few days exploring the city–and she seemed to have a better grasp of where we were going.

We caught more signs of movement than we had on our previous trip and on several occasions I even saw a human or two lurking in the shadows, but none passed close enough for me to get a good look. I’d hoped we might run across the kids we’d encountered on previous visit, but they never showed their faces. I checked for them once we’d reached the house, but there wasn’t even the faintest whiff of their presence. Even the mattress, soiled and stained as it was, had disappeared from the premises.

We settled inside, and waited for the day to pass into night. We had a long wait on our hands, and the time just seemed to drag on. Becca and Lily dozed off waiting, but Neada and I remained awake, silent sentries gazing out the shattered windows into the darkness of the night.

When I convinced myself nothing was going to happen, my enhanced eyes finally spotted shadows moving through the darkness on Crocker Street. I nudge Lily and Becca awake, and turned to Janet. “Someone’s coming. This has gotta be it.”

Neada nodded. “I can’t see anything. Are you sure?”

“Positive. I’m going to sneak around back. You guys keep your weapons trained on the street. If you see phase blasts open fire immediately.”

Neada nodded, and I turned away crawling out the back window and leaping down to ground. I landed on my feet and found my way around the house and dove into a thicket of bushes that were growing like weeds along the side of the house.

I didn’t have to wait long, the shadows stopped in front of the house a moment later and I drew one of my phase pistols clasping it tightly in my hands. There were about a dozen figures standing in the street, one of them, a woman was issuing commands, but she wasn’t speaking loud enough for me to make anything out. I had to get closer.

I crept through the bushes and then using the shattered remnants of the wood fence, that had once divided the lawn from the next house, as cover I crept across the yard until I was less than five feet away than the nearest figure. It was the woman, and there something about the way she held herself that seemed so very familiar. When she turned toward me the light from the moon provided just enough illumination to give me a good look at her face and I quickly realized why she seemed so familiar. The woman was Mara.

To be continued…

Comments, no matter the length, are very much appreciated. If you liked this story please take a minute to leave a review or even just to tell me you liked it. Criticism is welcome so long as it is constructive and I will gladly answer any personal messages or emails you want to send my way.

As my other stories this is a work of fiction and as such any resemblance to real life individuals, events or locations is purely unintentional. Only Fictionmania, Bigcloset Topshelf, & tgstorytime.com have permission to host this story and my previous works unless I state otherwise.

Battle For Earth: The General (an interlude)

On a distant world a aging general receives news of the resistance
and is forced to make some hard decisions.

Interlude

Tedious, that’s the word that sprang to mind as the general read over the week’s readiness reports. He had never cared for the monotony of paperwork, but unfortunately such things came with the job. He still felt inadequate to the task, but after the unexpected death of his predecessor, the then colonel, had been the next logical choice for the job. So he read those reports attentively, if not enthusiastically, combing through them try to determine if anything more could be done to prepare for the upcoming invasion.

There came a knock at the door, and the General eager for a moment’s distraction set his tablet down and called for whoever was on the other side to come in.

“Sir!” Corporal Jake Smith said snapping into a salute.

‘No’, the general corrected it wasn’t Corporal Jake, this was Corporal Jared. Though they were identical in every way, and had been flashed with the same memories, the two clones had very different personalities. Jared was quick to please and almost seemed to enjoy being ordered about. Jake performed his duties admirably, but the general got the sense the young clone would rather be doing almost anything else than soldiering.

“At ease, Corporal.” He rubbed his eyes and fought down the sudden urge to yawn. “I presume you have a reason for intruding on me at this late hour.”

“Yes, sir! We were told to notify you immediately if we received any transmissions from Earth.” The corporal grinned his entire body shaking from the excitement.

“Can I assume then that we received such a communication?” the general asked pushing himself up out of his seat.

“Yes sir! We received word from a small group of resistance fighters!”

“Amazing! They actually managed to continue resisting the Qharr for this long!” The general exclaimed moving around his desk and eyed the young clone a smile touching the corner of his lips.

The corporal stiffened, but didn’t say a word as the general eyed him. “Tell me, Corporal, the biometric key they used to activate the communications array who’s genetic imprint did it show?”

The young soldier grinned. “Yours sir!”

“I take it that he still alive, then?” General Harold Briggs asked pacing back in forth in front of the soldier.

“No sir! The array was activated by a woman by the name of Becca Briggs.”

“My niece.” Harold felt tears well up in the corner of his eyes and turned away so that the young soldier would not witness his sudden loss of control. She was still alive! He could hardly believe it. His heart ached for her as he imagined the sort of things the conquerors must have put her through. He could only guess, but the Qharr were prone to taking the inhabitants of the worlds they conquered as slaves. In all likelihood she’d probably lived a life of servitude.

“Sir?!” the clone asked.

“My twin brother’s child,” Harold replied absently before he turned to sharply eye the young clone. “Tell me about these resistance fighters.”

“I don’t know much sir. The Lieutenant had to cut the communication short, but the entire transcript is there in the file and the video file is available for download on the central server. There was one thing sir. The leader, she called herself Alexana Briggs. I thought you might be interested.”

Alexana? Hadn’t that been Muriel’s middle name? Harold stroked his chin then turned back to the corporal.

“You said they were a small group of resistance fighters, exactly how small?”

“Six… or I guess seven, sir! They indicated that the recently suffered a devastating blow at the hands of the Qharr!” The corporal twitched nervously.

‘Seven? Good Lord that won’t be enough!’ Harold thought gritting his teeth as he felt the weight of all those years of planning come crashing down around his shoulders.

“…but one of them claimed to be a member of another faction calling themselves the Nester Alliance,” the corporal added. “He indicated that he had a trained forced of close to two hundred men and could possibly muster up as many as two thousand with enough time and proper training.”

“Two hundred?” The General shook his head and scratched at his beard. He wasn’t quite sure what to think of this new development. He knew of the nesters, of course, but the plan had been for them to take part in the rebellion against the Qharr. If the resistance had fallen, how had the nesters managed to survive? There were so many questions and so few answers. Could he really afford to give them enough time to build their forces? “Leave the report on my desk, Corporal.”

Then he had the solution there dangling in front of him, and it was so simple he almost laughed. ‘Damned if it still won’t be enough,’ Harold thought shaking his head.

“What are we going to do sir?” The Corporal swallowed hard.

The Corporal had spoken out of turn, but rather than dress him down, he turned away again and let out a long sigh.

“What is the current status of Project Rhiannon?”

“Last I heard, sir, the device is functional, but still a bit unstable. Doctor Kepler was working at increasing the range among other enhancements,” he replied.

“Well then Corporal listen carefully. It will be up to you to relay my orders. This is what we are going to do…”

To be continued…

Comments, no matter the length, are very much appreciated. If you liked this story please take a minute to leave a review or even just to tell me you liked it. Criticism is welcome so long as it is constructive and I will gladly answer any personal messages or emails you want to send my way.

As my other stories this is a work of fiction and as such any resemblance to real life individuals, events or locations is purely unintentional. Other than this site, only Fictionmania, Bigcloset Topshelf, & tgstorytime.com have permission to host this story and my previous works unless I state otherwise.

 

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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Battle For Earth: Infiltration

Everything had fallen to pieces, and we were on the run for our lives after the Qharr
had discovered the location of the resistance’s secret base. There
was every reason for us to give in to despair, but not all was lost. We soon found
ourselves on a quest to uncover a secret which could bring about freedom
for all the people of Earth.

Chapter One

“Ohhhh God,” a voice groaned just a few feet away and my eyes flew open with a start.

I sat up with a soft groan of my own, only registering that I’d regained control from Khala after I did so. “That you, Kai?”

“Yeah,” she coughed. “God, just promise me we’ll never do that again.”

“Not if I can help it. You alright?”

“I think I might have a few cracked ribs, and more than my fair share of aches, but other than that I’m just swell. I’ll probably be a mass of bruises soon enough. How about you?”

“Fine,” I paused suddenly realizing I didn’t hurt at all, in fact I felt perfectly fine. “I think Khala somehow shielded me from the impact.”

“God, aren’t you the lucky one? Check on the others would you? I feel like my fucking head is about to implode.”

“Alright,” I responded climbing to my feet and started to sift through the debris.

‘You did shield me didn’t you? How does that work?’ I thought at Khala.

‘It would be difficult to explain. I’m not even sure I understand how it works myself, but needless to say I possess the ability to create and manipulate fields of gravity. It requires a massive amount of power so I do try to reserve it for the most dire of circumstances unless I have a large amount of energy stored up.’

‘Search over there where that pile of rubble is in the right corner,’ she added with a sudden shift in tone.

I nodded and moved over to the general vicinity of where she had indicated. I knelt down picking through some of the debris, and uncovered a hand as I moved away a pretty sizable slab of metal. The hand very obviously belonged to a woman and I knew immediately it must have been Mara’s due to the age lines on the palm. I called up the superior strength made available to me by Khala and started tossing large pieces of wreckage aside in a hurry to free my aunt.

It took a few minutes, but I finally managed to free away enough debris to reveal her still open eyes, arms and most of her torso.

“Doctor!” I called out once I got a good look at her blood-stained chest.

Vakrexid did not reply and felt a lump form in my throat as I reached down to check Mara’s neck for a pulse and found nothing.

“Oh, God!” I screamed throwing myself away from the body unable to look into those unseeing eyes.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Kaya demanded suddenly.

“It’s Mara, she’s…” I trailed off feeling hot tears sting my eyes. “She’s dead.”

“No!” Kaya wailed suddenly shouldering past me and collapsed at her feet next to my aunt’s dead body. She took one look at Mara’s body then palmed her face with both of her hands and started to weep. I reached over to put a hand on her shoulder. She jerked away and swirled around to look me in the eyes.

“You remember when I said that an older woman nursed me back to health after my sister betrayed me?” she asked her voice almost completely devoid of emotion.

I met her gaze, nodded, and placed my hands on her shoulders.

“The woman, it was Mara,” she whispered and started to sob again. “Now I’m truly alone. I’ve lost everyone I ever cared about. When you were transformed by that thing I told myself it couldn’t get any worse, but now with Mara gone I don’t know if I can do this anymore. What do I have left to fight for?”

“Fight so that future generations can be free from the Qharr’s tyranny. Fight for our child,” I whispered reaching down to touch her belly.

She nodded and wiped her tears away. “C-come on. We don’t have time to stand around. We may have bought ourselves some time by using the leapdrive, but the Qharr are bound to come to investigate.”

“Are you going to be, okay?” I asked squeezing her shoulder.

She bit her lip and I could tell she was fighting to keep herself from bursting into tears, “I have to be. I’m Mara’s second with her gone I’m in command.”

She stood there for just another moment staring down at Mara’s remains then with tears glistening in her eyes she turned around and started routing through debris. I joined her and together we found Jaysen who had been pinned under a collapsed console. He was unconscious, but didn’t appear to be seriously injured. We found the doctor soon after that, he too was unconscious, but one of his facial tubes had been broken off and another had been bent at an odd angle. We didn’t do anything for Vakrexid mostly because his physiology was so strange that we had no idea what could be done.

Strave, and Farris were both fine, but when we finally found Marta and Nate they were both dead. Kaya took both deaths in stride, but I could tell that their passing, Marta’s in particular, bothered her.

“Damn,” a voice abruptly pronounced and Jaysen sat up clutching at his head with both hands. “I guess this means we escaped?”

“Yeah, but…” Kaya trailed off choking up.

“But what?” he groaned.

“There were more deaths,” I finished for Kaya having a hard time not choking up myself.

Jaysen paled and swallowed hard. “Who did we lose?”

“Mara, Nate and Marta,” Kaya answered quietly.

“Jesus! Not Mara!” he exclaimed letting his hands drop away into his lap. “I-is everyone else okay?”

“Farris and Strave are alive. They’re unconscious, but seem to be fine. As for the doctor your guess is good as mine,” I replied shaking my head.

“Jaysen,” Kaya asked suddenly her back to us both. “Do you think you could blow the ship up?”

He blinked. “Easily, why?”

She spun around and there were just the tiniest hint of that familiar manic fire in her eyes as she spoke. “I think I know how we can get another ride.”

“This is insane!” Farris protested standing over the doctor’s still inert form after he had finished moving the Dexagarmetrax out of the ship.

“Suck it up, Farris,” Kaya growled. “Mara’s gone that means I’m in charge and I say we’re doing this!”

“And what about that thing!?” He sneered and pointed a finger at me. “I still say we slit its throat and leave the corpse for the Qharr to find.

“Just shut the fuck up and do as I told you!” Kaya yelled.

Farris glared at me one final time before moving away to do as he was instructed.

“Did you get it?” Kaya asked turning to Jaysen.

“Yeah,” he said holding up a small rectangular object about the size of his fist.

“I thought it’d be bigger,” Kaya eyed it then reached out to touch it.

Jaysen shrugged and pulled it away before her hand could reach it. “Careful, it’s pretty delicate.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s the ship’s transponder… I figured out how to modify it so that it sent out a false signal. It’ll trick any Qharr satellites who receive a signal from it into believing it’s something innocuous like a bird or a communications relay. It was pretty difficult work, so it’s easier just to bring it with us instead of reconfiguring another one. ”

“And the other item?” Kaya asked quietly.

“Yeah, I got that too,” he replied holding out a cylindrical tube which I recognized as my uncle’s biometric key.

Kaya nodded then tucked both items into her pocket. “Good work. I sent Farris into the ship to get things ready. Why don’t you go help him out?”

Jaysen frowned, but nodded without another word and made his way back into the wrecked Phoenix.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked hopefully.

Kaya shook her head. “It’s probably a bad time, but I’m not sure there are going to be many good times from here on out.”

“Kaya, what’s this about?”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Strave.”

I blinked. “About Strave?”

“You kissed him right before you challenged Duvak to that rite of whatever, remember?” She folded her arms across her chest.

“I-I… you see the thing about that is…” I trailed off feeling my cheeks burn.

“You slept with him, didn’t you? That’s why the two of were together all night.”

“Yes,” I admitted with a shudder.

“God, Lexa! Didn’t I warn you about him? He and I had a fling a few years back, and let’s just say it didn’t end so well. Strave isn’t the type to get involved in a serious relationship. He’ll fuck you until the next pretty face shows up then he’ll dump you like a sack of potatoes. My advice is to end it before he breaks your heart,” she muttered glaring at Strave who was working just a short distance away.

“It was nothing. I don’t have any feelings for him,” I muttered shaking my head.

“Really?” she replied and began to walk away.

She paused craning her neck around to look at me. “Then why’d you kiss him?” she asked just before she withdrew and left me alone to muddle over what she had said.

“Find cover!” Kaya yelled as a Qharr ship appeared just over the horizon.

I put on the speed and leapt at the nearest bush, a moment later I was joined by the others. “Damn,” Kaya panted. “That didn’t take them long. You told them, in the distress call; there was a reactor leak, right?”

“For the twentieth time, yes!” Jaysen hissed back.

“I don’t get it,” I whispered. “Why would you tell them there was a reactor leak?”

Kaya smiled mischievously, “The reactor fluid the Qharr use is incredibly unstable when exposed to air. Even the smallest spark can cause a massive explosion. The rescue ship will land a safe distance away. Once they send a team in to investigate the leak we blow the Phoenix up and they naturally assume it was a result of the reactor leak. While the Qharr inside of the ship have their attention on the blast we attack and take control of the ship.”

I shook my head and grinned back at her. “It’s freaking brilliant, but you do know it’s completely insane, right?”

Kaya rolled her eyes and shook her head. “All the best plans are.”

“Why don’t you hang back? The four of us should be able to take care of the Qharr inside the ship just fine,” I said suddenly on an impulse.

Kaya let out a long dramatic sigh. “What and miss out on all the fun?”

“Well, I thought because you…” I trailed off as she issued me a warning glance. No one else knew yet that she was pregnant and I guess she wanted to keep it that way.

“Fine,” I growled back. “Just don’t get killed!”

“Relax Lexa,” Strave said suddenly putting a hand on my shoulder. “Kaya knows what she is doing.”

I glared back at him, but bit my tongue to keep myself from saying anything I might regret.

“You know,” Khala said thoughtfully appearing at my side. “If you were closer when that ship exploded I could absorb a lot of power.”

‘You want me to get incinerated?’ I thought at her incredulously.

“Trust me. I’m not saying you should climb inside the ship even I can’t survive the brunt of a blast that powerful. Just get close enough for me to absorb some of the energy.”

‘How close?’

“Oh, about ten feet,” she grinned and winked at me.

“Ten feet?!” I hissed aloud. “You’ve got to be insane!”

Khala shook her head and let out a throaty laugh. “Remember that cluster of boulders on the oth–”

‘Forget it!’ I cut her short. ‘I’m not going to do it.’

“Oh very well.” She rolled her eyes then vanished with a puff of pretend smoke.

“Khala?” Kaya asked from nearby.

I nodded and let out a long sigh. “She wanted me to get closer to the blast so she could absorb some of its energy.”

“Jesus!” Jaysen cursed. “You told her no, right?”

“No! I told her I’d gladly let myself be blown up! Of course, I told her no!”

“Everyone be quiet!” Farris howled suddenly. “The ship is coming in for a landing!”

I looked up and watched as the Qharr K’tarth class repair ship extended its landing gear and slowly inched toward the ground and settled there with a loud groan. Unlike most, Qharr vessels, the repair ship was quite cumbersome in appearance and resembled an uppercase “B”, but like all Qharr craft it still had an organic almost insectine look to it.

We watched nervously as the ship rested there and nothing happened. Finally, there came a loud hiss as a ramp extended from out of the vessel’s side. A group of five Qharr, all hazardous materials suits, stepped off the ramp and made their way toward the wrecked Phoenix completely unaware that they were walking into a trap.

“How big a complement does a rescue ship like that generally have,” Kaya whispered looking over at Strave.

Straffen scratched his chin, then whispered back, “If memory serves a minimum crew would be eight, but max wouldn’t be any more than eleven or twelve.”

“Those aren’t bad odds. Especially if we catch them off guard,” Jaysen added.

“Fuck if we could be so lucky,” Farris added growling softly then turning to glare at me.

“Shhh!” Kaya urged suddenly. “They’re at the airlock!”

The Qharr team stood outside the Phoenix as the foremost manipulated the control panel. Then the entry hatch slid open and they each stepped inside.

“What are you waiting for? Press the button!” Farris urged as the entry hatch came shut behind them.

“Not yet,” Kaya whispered between clenched teeth.

“Press the damn button!” Farris growled and grabbed at her hand.

“Fucking hell Farris!” Kaya yelled pushing him away pulling her phase pistol out of its holster and pressed it against his head. “Try something like that again and I’ll blow your damned head off, got it?”

Farris gritted his teeth then nodded. “Got it.”

Kaya glared at Farris one final time them held the detonator in front of her face before pressing the button and the Phoenix exploded with enough force that the ground itself shook. I held my hands over my ears and gritted my teeth against the roar of the blast then glanced at Kaya as the sound began to subside. She nodded and without a word I took off running toward the rescue ship.

The others weren’t far behind and I slowed down to what felt like a crawl so they could keep up. We closed the distance to the rescue ship and I bound up the entry ramp in two quick leaps. I waited for the others to catch up then burst inside.

“Jaysen! Farris! You wait here! Don’t let any of the Qharr to get out!” Kaya called over her shoulder then along with Strave followed me down the right fork.

Judging from the sound of their feet on the base deck Strave and Kaya weren’t far behind as I made my way through the ship. It didn’t take me long to find what served as a control center and when I stepped through the door frame I didn’t stop to think I just acted. Two Qharr, a tall slender female who was missing an eye and an older male who only had half of his right hand, rose to their feet as I planted a fist into the head of a third, a male whose body was riddled with scars.

The blow proved effective and the soldier collapsed face-forward out of his seat unconscious. Kaya appeared in the doorway toting her big-ass phase rifle and opened fire on the nearest of the two remaining Qharr and Strave took out the final with a single phase blast to the chest.

“That went better than I could have expected,” Kaya said looking around the bridge with an appraising eye then stepped back into the hallway. “Come on, we need to look over the rest of the ship.”

“What a clunker!” Jaysen groaned planting both his hands on his hips as he looked around the bridge.

“Well the Qharr don’t exactly see rescue ships as the most glorious of rides. Most soldiers that get assigned to them are maimed so badly that they’re almost no good in a fight which probably explains how we took them out so easily,” Strave replied stroking his chin.

“We were lucky it was such a small ship. If the crew compliment had been any bigger it wouldn’t have been so easy to take them out,” Kaya added swinging around on her seat to meet his gaze.

“Jaysen,” she added suddenly. “How long till you can get the ship underway?”

Jaysen shrugged. “Well, I don’t know five, ten minutes maybe. It really depends on how fast I can find the transponder and shut it off. This ship has a completely different layout than the Phoenix and since I have almost no experience with this class of ship I can only guess at where it might be.”

“Well, I can help with that!” Khala pronounced suddenly from my side. “Until about thirty years ago these G’tarth class ships served as light cruisers in the Qharr armada. Only a few of them are still in service and they have all been retro fitted to act as repair craft like this one. Pled K’dem, one of my previous hosts, commanded a G’tarth class cruiser back when they were still very new. She knew everything there was to know about them and she shared quite a bit of that knowledge with me.”

“Thank you so much for the life story,” I replied dryly before turning to Jaysen. “Khala says she can help find the transponder. She has some experience with this class of ship.”

“Perfect!” Jaysen responded with an enthusiastic smile.

Farris glowered at me, but with a warning glance from Kaya he gritted his teeth and didn’t say a word.

“Great while those two… three,” Kaya corrected glancing at me then back to Strave, “are working on that I want you and Farris to go retrieve the doctor from where we hid him.”

“Fuck, whatever you say your royal majesty!” Farris pronounced then traipsed out of the bridge without waiting for Strave.

Strave shrugged then shook his head and followed Farris out of the bridge.

“Right then,” Jaysen said. “Why don’t we get started?”

Chapter Two

“Where the fuck are we supposed to go?!” Farris demanded pounding his fist against the console. “We don’t even know how the Qharr found us or whether or not we were betrayed and who’s to say if they found one base they didn’t find more!”

“I am aware of this!” Kaya replied coldly glaring back at him.

“Can you get this piece of shit in the air, already?!” she snapped glaring at me.

“Sorry,” she said with a wince. “Farris must be really getting to me. Just, please get the ship in the air. I have a contact in Salt Lake who should be able to clear some things up for us.”

I nodded, then closed my eyes and gave control over to Khala who promptly converged on the navigation panel. “Where should I set the course?”

“Set us for a general course toward the Rocky Mountains. Mara and I setup a cache of supplies there a few years back,” Kaya replied.

“Isn’t that a bit risky?” Jaysen asked. “If the Qharr found our hideout what’s to say they haven’t found the cache too?”

Kaya shook her head, “Mara and I were the only ones who knew about it. Unless you think either Mara or I were traitors there shouldn’t be any reason to worry.”

“Pain!” A strange voice suddenly proclaimed. “There is much of it!”

“Doctor!” Kaya said scrambling to her feet. “God, you had us worried.”

“Indeed? What has transpired?” he tooted his hands moving across his broken and bent face tubes.

Kaya repeated back what had happened since the attack and the doctor sat there silently and listened. When she finished the doctor threw his head back and let out a long high pitched wail.

“Vakrexid is deeply saddened by the loss of Mara. She took me in when no other would. She shall be missed as shall the others,” he quivered then suddenly reached up to grasp hold of his center broken face tube and promptly broke it off.

“Good Lord!” Jaysen gasped. “Doesn’t that hurt?!”

“No, the tubes themselves do not have any pain receptors. They are similar to your fingernails in many respects and Vakrexid has been meaning to trim them for some time. Although I did not wish them to be quite so short as it makes feeding slightly more difficult,” he tooted grabbing at his third undamaged tube and broke it off. “Uniform length is most important. It would be very helpful to Vakrexid if I had a proper pair of tube trimmers. Unfortunately, Vakrexid have been unable to procure any in many—”

“Doctor all that is just fascinating and all, but in case you haven’t noticed things are looking pretty dire,” Kaya said suddenly cutting him short.

Vakrexid blinked. “Of that I am well aware, but there is little we can do at the moment.”

“Don’t you feel… anything? I mean Mara was your friend.” Kaya said blinking away tears.

“Indeed, I feel her loss as keenly as if she were one of my hatch-mates,” the doctor said reaching up to absently trace his hands across his broken face tubes. “My kind… we are not as you. We feel our emotions as keenly as any human, but visible displays… they do not come easily to us. We were designed in such a way that we would not be hindered by emotions.”

“Your race was designed?” Khala gasped suddenly turning away from the control panel to stare slack-jawed at the doctor.

“Indeed, by our gods, the Phyrr Lesch,” the doctor cocked his head.

“The Phyrr Lesch are no gods,” Khala said narrowing my eyes then looked away.

“What would you know of it, K’teth?” the doctor shot back.

Khala slowly shook my head, “I have memories passed onto me be the first H’ra. They were flesh and blood just like you.”

“Genetic memory, most fascinating,” the doctor mused. “How is it that this first H’ra came to meet the Phyrr Lesch?”

“The Phyrr Lesch were the creators of our kind. They made us so that we could further enhance their peacekeeping force, the Qharr,” she replied quietly. “They disappeared shortly after creating us.”

“Dear god!” Strave proclaimed. “But that would mean…”

“That the Qharr and the Dexagarmetrax share a common history and perhaps even common ancestry,” Kaya muttered with a shake of her head.

“This is most strange,” the doctor twittered. “Would you not have memory of my kind?”

“The first H’ra did not pass on such knowledge it is possible that she did encounter your early ancestors but chose not to pass on the memories. Qharr religion does, however speak of your kind. They name you the ‘forsaken ones’. The holy books don’t say much else, but there is a verse claiming that any Qharr who kills one of you will be corrupted by their blood.”

“Mara always suspected there was some tie between the Qharr and the Dexagarmetrax, but I doubt she would have ever guessed that it was something like this,” Kaya shook her head.

“I didn’t even know the Qharr had a religion,” Jaysen mused absently.

“There is much about the Qharr that has been kept secret. If they knew I had shared this much they would likely have me destroyed. Although my betrayal would already warrant a death sentence so it really is a moot point,” Khala replied.

“You know Doc,” Jaysen frowned. “If someone had just told me that the beings I worshiped weren’t gods I’d be pretty upset.”

Vakrexid blurped. “Even if what Khala says is true. They are still my creators. If they were mortal creatures does that make them any less worthy of my devotion?”

“Fuck, why the hHell should we give a damn?” Farris said suddenly folding his arms across his chest and scowling.

Strave let out a long sigh. “As much as I hate to admit it. The jackass does have a point. These revelations as strange and disturbing as they happen to be are not particularly relevant to our present undertaking.”

“Right,” Kaya muttered. “Khala how far are we away from our destination?”

“If the navigation array is correct, and I see no reason to suspect otherwise. We are approximately an hour away at full speed,” Khala replied back.

“Good, set a course for the following coordinates,” she said streaming off a string of seemingly random numbers. “That’s where we’ll find the supply cache.”

“Just a moment,” Khala said abruptly. “There’s an incoming transmission.”

“What? Who could be trying to contact us?” Kaya demanded.

Khala tapped the corner of the control panel. The screen flashed and a long scrolling list of characters appeared arrayed across it. “It looks like a general broadcast to all Qharr vessels. They’re warning them to be on the lookout for a rogue transport that has been commandeered by a group of human rebels.”

“Well, that took longer to get out than I would have guessed,” Kaya sighed.

“This is the second alert,” Khala replied then tapped my thumb down on the bottom of the screen. “It looks like there are two more documents attached. The first seems to be instructions on what to do if they encounter us and a warning about an unusually strong blue-haired human female and the other is…”

“What?! The other is what?!” Farris demanded.

“The second is a list of possible places where they think we may try to hide. Including what the documents list as ‘fallen rebel strongholds’,” Khala said glancing at Farris irritably.

“What? Let me see!” Kaya said, leaping across the control room and pushed Khala out of the way.

“Fuck! There’s got to be at least twenty locations listed here. God, there’s our base in Idaho and the one in Texas! God dammit!” she cursed bowing her head as tears cascaded down her cheeks. “The rest of these… they have to have been ours too. Somehow they knew where they all were! There isn’t a single rebel who knows the location of all our bases! How the fucking hell did they find them!?”

“You’re jumping to conclusions!” Strave proclaimed. “There’s no way we can know that for sure! They could be sending out this information to try and bait us! We can’t–”

“Bait us?! That doesn’t make any sense!” Jaysen interrupted. “I think the only thing that message would do is drive us into hiding!”

“And that’s exactly what we have to do,” Kaya said raising her head and locking gazes with Jaysen. “Go into hiding. We need to give it some time so those bastards cangrow complacent again. Any attempts to try and contact the movement and we could alert those gray-skinned bastards to our whereabouts.”

“No!” the doctor protested. “We must speak privately before you make such a decision.”

“Privately? Doctor–”

“There are things you must know. There is still hope. Mara prepared for this eventuality,” the doctor interrupted Kaya his hands quivering.

“Mara,” Kaya mused letting out a sound that seemed to be halfway between a sob and chuckle. “Is there anything she didn’t prepare for?”

“Khala keep the ship on course. The doctor and I, we’ll be back very shortly…” she trailed off then glanced at Vakrexid and added. “Most likely,” before stepping out of the bridge with towering alien in tow.

“Change of plans,” Kaya said stepping back onto the bridge about twenty minutes later.

“What? What’s going on?” Jaysen asked spinning around to glance at her.

“Put this damn thing in autonav and give control of that body back to Lexa. She and I are going to have a long talk,” Kaya demanded glaring at the symbiote. I half expected her to tap her foot on the ground and begin counting down, but she never did either of those things. “Once we retrieve our supplies our destination will be a short stop into Old Salt Lake City from there we’ll be headed to compound Het’ma.”

What reason could she possibly have for sending us off to compound Het’ma? I’d spent most of my youth in that damn place and the idea of returning wasn’t very appealing. Then again willingly going to any slave compound didn’t sound all that fun either. There was my sister to consider… there was a chance she might still be there and I think I would do just about anything if it meant seeing her again.

Khala turned away from her tapping my fingers against the control panel. “It is done,” she said closing my eyes.

I let out a long sigh as I resumed control of my body, “Kaya, what’s this all about?”

“Just… follow me. The doctor and I, we’ll explain everything,” she shook her head and motioned for me to follow as she turned away.

I complied, following her out of the bridge, down a short hallway and into a small room that looked to be the crew quarters. The doctor was waiting inside and he cocked his head to the side as Kaya and I entered the room.

“Vakrexid is most unsure that this is a good idea,” the doctor tooted.

“Lexa and you are the only pe–” she stopped abruptly glancing at the doctor. “–beings I can trust. Strave, Farris, and Jaysen all knew the location of our base which means any one of them could have betrayed us.”

“And the doctor?” I asked.

Kaya sighed. “Mara trusted the doctor with information that would have been devastating to us if the Qharr had caught wind of it.”

“Devastating? What’s to say the doctor didn’t–”

Kaya cut me short. “No, the nature of this information wouldn’t have led to the Qharr finding our bases. This involves the salvation of Earth. ”

“What how?” I shook my head.

“There is much Vakrexid has been asked to hold back, but it pertains to the biometric key and what it gives you access to. Kaya asked me to give you these coordinates should either her or I die,” he replied flapping his arms up and down.

“Me? Why?” I asked folding my arms across my chest.

Kaya pursed her lips. “Because I want you to be my second.”

“Your second? You can’t be serious? Why on Earth would you pick me? You can’t honestly believe that I actually have any idea how to lead?”

“You’re the only person I can trust and besides you know how to be in charge,” she planted her hands on her hips. “You used to run a kitchen, remember?”

“Running a kitchen and leading people into battle is completely different Kai, you know that as well as I do!”

“Obviously, but I already know you can keep your head in a fight and you do know how to give orders,” she replied.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter because you’re not going to die!”

Kaya rolled her eyes and sighed. “God, if I would be so lucky. I’ve watched so many of my friends die, and I’ve always known there was a good possibility that I could too. I have to be prepared for that eventuality, Lexa.”

I nodded. “So then what’s next?”

“Well, we have your uncle’s biometric key. The next step is to find your sister,” Kaya said folding her arms across her chest.

“The question I keep asking myself is why didn’t Mara make contact with Becca once she realized I couldn’t use the key?” I asked.

“We’ve managed to keep an eye on her from a distance, but every time one of our agents tried to make contact they disappeared. We think her husband might have gotten to them. He’s an enforcer for the compound’s head Corrector, Taevok Typel. ”

“Husband?” I blinked. That was a surprise, Becca had always been quite adamant that she’d never get married and to an enforcer, of all people. What could my sister have been thinking?

“Someone named, Jerem Anders, do you know him?”

“Shit! She married Jerem? Holy hell that asshole used to make our lives miserable!” I cursed. “There’s no way Becca would willingly marry him, but God if he’s enforcer now she might not have had any choice. He always had a thing for Becca, but she hated him! The Qharr would have to go and make that damned bully an enforcer, wouldn’t they?”

“That’s why we need you. You might be able to reach your sister where no one else has been able to and you’re special abilities will help you take care of her husband should he cause you any trouble,” she folded her arms across her chest.

“What are we waiting for? We’ve gotta be coming up on that supply cache of yours!” I said putting my hands on my hips then whirled around, burst through the doors and bolted down the hallway toward the bridge.

“We’re close,” Kaya assured us as she led us down yet another mountain path.

“Fuck, I hope so,” Farris cursed.

We’d been hiking up the nearly overgrown mountain path for almost an hour and despite Kaya’s repeated assurances that we were close I couldn’t escape the feeling that we had become completely lost. As someone who had spent nearly the entirety of his… her life within the slave compounds I did not feel at all at home outside at. Still, it was better than living under the thumbs of the Qharr.

“It feels good to be outdoors,” Khala remarked suddenly, and then shrugged. “It is in the nature of every being to seek to create for themselves a safe environment. The wilderness is a wild unpredictable place, but I think at least in some small way most intelligent beings crave to return to a more primal and animalistic state.”

“Isn’t there a reason why most intelligent beings build cities to escape the wilderness? And why do you like it so much? Weren’t the K’teth made artificially?”

“We were engineered true, but I’ve long suspected the Phyrr Lesch harvested genetic code from other species in order to create us,” she replied absently then turned to me and let out a sigh. “This place is beautiful, but it doesn’t compare to the beauty of Tel’c. It makes me feel a little homesick just thinking about it.”

“Tel’c as in the Qharr homeworld?” I scrunched my nose up and glared at her finding an image of a harsh yet strangely beautiful wilderness with brightly-colored carnivorous plant-life and fierce creatures with armored hides and massive clawed paws. The vision was a bit too vivid to have come from my imagination and I realized that it must have originated from Khala’s memories. The realization was disturbing, but it wasn’t the first time something from my symbiote’s mind had popped in my head and I doubted it would be the last. “I suppose it is appealing in a dangerous and strange sort of way, but I hardly think it comes close to Earth. If I were you I’d forget how beautiful, it is ’cause there isn’t a chance in hell you’ll ever going back in which case I’d recommend that you gain a better appreciation for this world.”

“We’re here!” Kaya pronounced coming to an abrupt halt in front of a large boulder.

“Where?” Strave asked looking around and absently scratching at his beard.

She rolled her eyes then knelt down next to the boulder and pressed her hand against the side. There was a click and a panel popped free to reveal a control interface. “You have thirty seconds to enter the correct passcode,” a female voice intoned.

“Now let’s see,” Kaya muttered her hands trace across the screen as she inputted different characters. Finally, she finished mashing her thumb against the bottom of the screen.

“Passcode accepted,” the panel intoned again and the entire side of the boulder swung open with a loud hiss.

“Niiice!” Strave said eagerly reaching into the now open cavity to pull out a phase pistol. “It looks new!”

“Alright, everyone grab as much as you can hopefully we can get it all in one trip,” she said reaching inside to pull a large white bag free.

“Damn I forgot how heavy some of this shit was,” she grunted flinging it over her shoulder.

“Give it to me,” I said suddenly lifting it from her arms and throwing it over my shoulder with about as much effort as it took to lift a bag of feathers.

“That is so damned unfair,” she grumbled grabbing a second sack which I promptly snatched out of her hand.

I grabbed a third sack from her hands then waited for the others to load up. Farris and Strave took the largest loads next to me, of course, and Kaya took the last two bags, which were relatively small.

“Let’s get back to the ship, before the good doctor starts to wonder if we’re coming back at all,” Kaya said and without another word we made our way back to the ship.

Upon arriving back at the ship we went through the supplies. The bulk of it was weapons, ranging from phase pistols to explosives but there appeared to be a small selection of other things including food, medical supplies and clothing.

“God damn, what’s this all for?” I said rifling through the clothes.

Kaya shrugged, “Disguises. They’re actually the main reason I chose this cache. If we’re going to sneak into the compound we’re going to need a disguise for you. We have what we need to make hair dye. Let’s face it, that blue hair is just too fucking conspicuous.”

“And my eyes?” I asked.

Kaya pursed her lips, “Well… I was hoping the symbiote could help with that she changed your eyes once maybe she can do it again.”

“I’ll help,” said appearing beside me. “On one condition.”

“You pick now to start making demands?” I grimaced then shook my head; I really didn’t want to get drawn into an argument with her. “Just tell me what it is.”

“You help me find a host for my offspring,” she replied.

“What?! No, I’m not going to let you infest any other humans with more like you!” I protested fighting the sudden urge to swing my fist at Khala’s illusory form.

Kaya glanced at me with wide eyes, but she didn’t say a word as I glared at Khala.

“My kind were created so that we would be extremely limited in how often we can produce offspring. I happen to be in a very important phase of my reproduction cycle. The infant symbiote that is growing within us is another H’ra. If my child does not find a host she will die and it will be many, many years before I am able to spawn another Queen. Please, I am begging you. The future of both our races is riding on this!” she pleaded a single tear running down her face.

“Cut the waterworks. You don’t have any damned tear-ducts so don’t pretend you do!” I yelled then grabbed at the sides of my head as I tried to think of some other alternative.

If the K’teth were allowed to spread to other humans what would become of humanity? What if we gained freedom from the Qharr only to turn around and find ourselves enslaved to the K’teth? But was it slavery? The K’teth were extremely limited in what they could do. Khala had been able to change me physically, but she couldn’t take away my freedom of will away and I was almost certain by that point that she could only gain control of my body if I let her. I was stronger and capable of much greater physical feats than an ordinary human, but I’d lost far too much to make it worth it. Despite all that I knew what I had to do.

“Shit!” I cursed finally. “I guess I have no choice, but I have a condition of my own. I don’t want you putting a symbiote into anyone unless they are willing.”

“If that is what it takes then I swear it. To the fullest of my abilities I will insure that no offspring of mine shall be joined with a human against their will,” Khala nodded locking gazes with me.

“It’s agreed… God, I think I just made a deal with the damned devil. Change me… do it before I reconsider!” I yelled and clenched my eyes shut waiting for the symbiote to begin the transformation. I waited for what had to be a good thirty seconds then opened my eyes again. I opened my mouth to speak and that’s when it happened. A very familiar bright white light flooded my vision and I gasped as my eyes burned with intense pain.

“Damn, that hurt a lot more than I remembered,” I exclaimed shaking my head as my vision cleared then turned to Kaya. “So… how do I look?”

Kaya pursed her lips. “Are you going to tell me what that was all about?”

“The symbiote and I made a deal. She helps me in exchange… I help her find a willing human to act as host for her offspring.”

“Fuck! You actually agre–”

“Don’t Kai… I know I’ll probably live to regret it, but if we stand any hope of being successful I’m going to need Khala’s cooperation,” I interrupted her.

Kaya bit her lip then titled her head so she could look into my eyes. “Those eyes… they’re so much like the ones you had before you were changed,” she muttered absently tracing her hand across my cheek.

“The ones that belonged to the man I loved,” she said with a slight shudder before quickly snatching her hand away.

“So…” she said averting her eyes and quickly changed the subject. “What about the hair? Like I said we could dye it, but it might be easier if Khala just changed it.”

Khala rolled her eyes, “Your hair is composed of dead cells and I can only bond with living tissue. I can’t change its color once it has grown, but if you really want I can make it fall out, like I did before, and regrow it.”

“Do it, just this time maybe don’t make it so long… like maybe ten or eleven centimeters,” I replied reaching up to touch the top of my scalp and run my hand through it.

Khala’s granted me an illusory smirk then just as it had before when my hand moved across my scalp my hair fell out. Once it was all shed away, I picked up a strand and held it up in front of my face and dropped it with a loud yelp as new sharp pain flared across the top of my head. I felt my eyes widen and I gritted my teeth then gripped the side of my head as fresh hair sprouted atop it.

“Damn, I know some people who would kill to be able to do that,” Kaya said with a lopsided grin.

“Yeah, well they should count themselves lucky that they can’t.” I shook my head.

“So how’s the hair look?” I ask grabbing a lock and holding it out in front of my face.

“It’s a pretty big change, but I think it suits you. The black is a definite improvement… I mean anything would be better than blue… Don’t get me wrong you’re beautiful no matter what color your hair is, but that blue really makes you stand out!”

Khala folded her arms across her chest and glared at Kaya, “What’s wrong with blue?”

I let out what I intended to be a chuckle, but wound up sounding like a girlish giggle as I looked from Kaya to the symbiote and back again.

“What?” they both asked in unison.

I cleared my throat and quickly changed the subject. “Are we done here? Suddenly I’m just starving.”

Kaya rolled her eyes, and grabbed a shiny-reflective box from the stack of supplies and tossed it to me. “Here, we can’t be far away now. You can eat on the bridge