Kingsburgh, California, Conclave Headquarters
“Kaydence!” a familiar voice exclaimed as I entered the council chambers. I blinked and paused, regarding Reyna Feldstone. There was far more warmth in her voice than I had expected.
She didn’t seem to have aged a day since I’d last seen her, but it’d been almost a decade. She must have been close to a hundred years old, but looked like she’d just rounded forty. In an era where humanity had learned to slow its aging, Reyna’s youthful appearance was still remarkable. I would never consider Grey’s grandmother to be attractive, young or old, but there was something about the wide set of her features and the intensity of her eyes that made her striking in her own way.
I glanced about the chamber and was unsurprised to see the same council members were present as the previous session I’d attended, with the notable exception of my grandmother. There were, however, several different faces. A pale woman, who would be rather pretty if she didn’t look like she was trying her damndest to make her eyes pop out of their sockets, met my gaze and tilted her head, a gesture reminiscent of the Dexagarmetrax and stared at me with her too-wide eyes. I diverted my attention, unnerved by her stare, and glanced at General Arnoff, who nodded and smiled at me. I returned the gesture and moved on to the final inhabitant of the room, Nyvok Nakyrr.
“Miss Briggs,” the dome headed fellow with the wisps of hair above his ears rose wearing a smile that didn’t quite extend to his eyes. “We’re glad that you could join us. Please, be seated.”
I peered about, and took the nearest empty seat, which was right between Nyvok and Miss Wide-eyes. Nyvok gave me a curt nod, a human gesture, but his eyes didn’t seem to register me. His attention was focused on the woman sitting on the opposite side of me. When I met her gaze, she smiled, stretching her mouth into an almost unnaturally tight smile. “It is pleasing to once again meet your acquaintance.”
This raised my eyebrows since I didn’t know her from Adam. She had the blue hair and magenta eyes of a joined host, so perhaps she had undergone a physical transformation at the hand of her symbiote, but I never got the chance to ask.
The dome-headed man stood, clearing his throat, and scowled at me. He looked around, fingering his collar. “As interim chairperson, I will conduct this session. Brothers and sisters, I am pleased to welcome General Arnoff from the United Earth Alliance Fleet, Plenipotentiary Nyvok Nakyrr of the Gieff Confederacy and the former ambassador from Dexagarmetraxia, who as yet has not picked a new name for herself.”
He gestured to the wide-eyed woman and smiled. I peered at her just in time to see her throw back her head and belt out a single high-pitched squeal much like something the doctor might produce. Good lord, no wonder she reminded me so much of a Dexagarmetrax. She used to be one. I couldn’t speculate why or how she ended up with a human mug, but something told me it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.
‘Crae?’ I thought out loud, not realizing I was broadcasting my words for all to hear until everyone in the room, save Arnoff, turned to look at me. I blushed, focused all my will at the K’teth and tried again.
‘Crae, are you in there?’
‘Yes, Kayde, I’m here.’
That confirmed my suspicions, but before I could press Crae for anymore details, baldy started talking again.
“And finally, you’ve all met young Kaydence Briggs, Kaya’s granddaughter.” He said, followed by a long pause, before a solemn frown creased his lips.
“We have a rather full agenda for tonight,” he said at last after releasing a sigh, “but before we get started, begging our guests’ indulgence, there is one matter we must attend to. It is never an easy task to fill the position vacated by a deceased colleague, but it will be difficult to function without one of our numbers. It has fallen upon us to take up this sad duty.”
The whole thing felt a bit, like he was putting on a show, especially when Baldy kept glancing across the room at me with malicious glee in his eyes. Several times he eyed Reyna Feldstone and tilted his head in an almost imperceptible nod. Yeah, whatever he was up to, it couldn’t be good, and it didn’t seem to bode too well for me.
‘Khala, any clue what the hell Mr. Luscious Locks is up to?’ I thought at the symbiote, making extra sure I wasn’t broadcasting to the whole room.
‘If you mean the bald fellow, I wouldn’t know. I am a little out of the loop, remember? When I was last involved in the council politics, Kell Seymour wasn’t so far up the council totem, but he was quite opinionated. He seldom agreed with Lexa, which might tell us something. Then again, you may just want to ask Crae. She’ll have a better idea of his goals.’
I glanced at Hexapledra and arched an eyebrow, repeating my question to her symbiote.
‘I’m not privy to the most recent council dealings as I was a bit… busy trying to save my new host the last few weeks, but if I had to guess, I’d say he’s trying to force a vote. Reyna has been on the short list to join the council for some time. If he can manipulate matters and keep other potentials away long enough, it would all but guarantee her a seat on the council. She doesn’t possess the same charmingly abrasive personality as Kell Seymour, but Reyna holds similar opinions. Not surprising considering they’re rumored to be longtime lovers.’
Eying Seymour with a forced smile, I swallowed hard. Given my uncle’s warning and considering she was the only non-council member present besides Arnoff, Nyvok, the former Ambassador and myself, her presence didn’t exactly give me the warm tinglies.
I was too young to make it onto the council, even if someone were to nominate me. While, yes, a council position belonged to both host and K’teth, and Khala was among the oldest and most respected symbiotes within the conclave, it didn’t negate the fact that I was so very inexperienced in council politics and, well, life in general.
“–in mind, it’s about time we offered Reyna a council seat.” Seymour spoke, and I returned all my attention to him. More than a little afraid I might miss some crucial detail if I kept chattering away with Crae and Khala.
A slender woman, Dharma Gregory who looked so frail that I wondered if she might snap in half if she were caught up in a strong gust of wind, rose to her feet, eyes searching the council chambers before speaking with a soft, yet steady voice. “I second.”
“And I third.” The woman with such prominent crow’s feet from the previous meeting lurched from her seat so fast it almost qualified as jumping.
“Thank you, Dharma, and to you, Ellia. Is there anyone here who would like to put a name out?”
I turned to Crae’s new host, a question occurring to me. ‘If I make a proposal to the council, would Seymour support me?’
‘Unlikely, he’s long criticized Kaya and the Briggs family for allowing the conclave to get too cozy with the government. He claims it has led to too much compromise with the rights of joined pairs.’ Her response was what I expected, but I only clenched my eyes shut and bowed my head.
“Shit,” I mouthed the word, imagining all my plans crumbling around me as Seymour continued.
“There are other candidates. Has it not been tradition to give the opportunity to all the interested parties?” A man rose. He spoke with the barest hint of a South Asian accent. It was unusual, but not unheard of.
When the Qharr occupied Earth, they relocated much of the human population. After the Earth Reclamation Force liberated our world a hundred and sixty years ago, and freed the human slaves, many of those people elected to return to their birthplaces, but some stayed. To this day, there remained isolated pockets of different cultural groups scattered in locations on entirely different continents from their ancestral homes. Some integrated with the cultures in those areas, but others remained separate, maintaining their culture and traditions.
“I sent invitations out to a number of perspective candidates, as suggested by several colleagues and none bothered to show as you can well see. We can put this off if you like, but I for one would like this body to be whole again.”
The man bowed, but didn’t return to his seat. Instead, he glanced over toward me. “In that case I nominate Kaydence Briggs.”
“W-what?” I gasped and leapt to my feet. “You can’t be serious!”
“Is this a joke, Bhupinder? Miss Briggs is a little young for such a position, don’t you think?”
“I am dead serious, Kell. She has the benefit of being bonded to Khala. It seems likely her symbiote’s many years of experience and wisdom will balance out her reckless tendencies.”
“I have no doubts about Khala’s qualifications, if it weren’t for her none of us would be here, but according to council bylaws a candidate must be a member of the conclave for at least ten years before they are eligible for consideration. We must abide by these guidelines as set apart by our founders, Khala among them, or they mean nothing. Now, let’s move things forward.”
Seymour looked around, his features pinched like someone who’d just swallowed something sour and I got the sense he was daring someone to challenge him. When nobody did, he nodded and let a smile creep onto his narrow face.
“Then we vote.”
I sighed and leaned into my chair as the council prepared.
‘Crae?’ I thought. ‘What happened to your host? How is she human?’
Crae appeared sitting cross-legged atop the table before me, an apologetic smile creasing her lips as several members of the council paused and regarded her with disapproving frowns. “You know the few attempted bondings with a Dexagarmetrax resulted in the symbiote’s death.”
I frowned as the K’teth continued. “The Phyrr Lesch may have used your ancestors for a template to create the Dexagarmetrax, but they altered their biology to a much greater extent than the Qharr. Their immune systems resist the symbiosis process. I can only guess, but it may have been a deliberate attempt by our creators to prevent them from becoming joined to a symbiote. They wouldn’t want their hand servants to become a threat to them, now would they?”
‘Then how did you change her?’
“With some help from me, her body fought off the parasite that had infected it, perhaps through the same resistance the Dexagarmetrax has to my kind, but the process had left her weakened and on the cusp of death. That enabled me to overtake the ambassador’s immune system and start the bonding process. Still, there were certain incompatibilities that had to be resolved. The vision of loveliness you see before you was the result.”
Lovely was not a word I would use to describe her. The former Dexagarmetrax was pretty in her new human form, but her weird jerky movements and that wide shit-eating grin prevented me from finding her attractive.
Crae put a finger up to her lips, then glanced over her shoulder at Seymour before vanishing. Taking her cue, I let my attention settle back on council proceedings just as Seymour read out the results. I waited on bated breath as they tallied the numbers. No really. I mean, what would be more freaking exciting than learning the results of a vote that I already knew the outcome?
With no one to oppose her, Reyna’s admittance was all but assured. The whole thing felt calculated, like Seymour had been manipulating the whole thing. The worst part was there wasn’t jack shit I could do about it. I know they were just following protocol, but fuck, what a damn waste. Eight members voted for Reyna and the remaining three abstained.
I didn’t understand enough about conclave politics to ascertain whether that was unusual, but it suggested that I might have at least three potential allies. At the very least, they might be less inclined to support Kell Seymour or Reyna Feldstone if they attempted to bar me from involvement in the Endeavour investigation.
Seymour’s eyes scanned the room. “General, ambassadors, Ms. Briggs.”
His eyes lingered on me just a little longer than the others, but turned away as he continued. “Seeing as any potential chairperson has not been fully apprised of all variables of the Endeavour situation, we’ll abstain from selecting a permanent chairperson for the time being and get right to business. As with our previous meeting, we’ll be following formal protocols. If you wish to speak, press the button on the table before you and if it flashes, the floor is yours. General Arnoff, we’re readt for you now.”
Arnoff rose to his feet, a stern expression on his face that helped offset his bland continence. He nodded to me before speaking. “First, I’d like to apologize, especially to Miss Briggs, for the information leak within the Fleet. We’ve identified the person, and disciplinary action has been taken.”
He paused long enough to give me a pointed look, then continued. “Save for your newest member, you’ve all been appraised of the information concerning the Endeavour and the attacks from the mysterious creatures.”
Reyna blinked looking, up at the General with eyes so wide you might think someone had slapped her in the face. “W-what?”
“Sorry, for the interruption general, we’ll do better at following protocol from here on out. Reyna, interface with the conclave’s central database. I just added your credentials. The general has been good enough to upload all available information on the incidences involving those creatures and the Endeavour.” Seymour nodded to the newest council members before gesturing to Arnoff.
The General continued, showing no sign he was the least bit perturbed by the interruption.
“We’ve conducted a thorough search and forensic sweep, and gathered precious few clues. The Valiant’s encounter with the alien ship has provided a bit more intelligence, but not as much as we’d like. What we know is we’re dealing with an enemy with superior technology and who appear to be skilled at genetic manipulation. The creatures we’ve encountered so far have been mindless beasts, but if they are being controlled by the parasites as my science team has concluded, we may encounter alternate more cunning forms of these beasts along the way.”
“What about those the creatures infected?” I asked with the slightest tremor in my voice, only remembering to push the button after I’d spoken.
Arnoff bowed his head and then gazed at me with a smoldering fire burning in his eye. So intense was his gaze, that it seemed likely I would have taken a step back had I been standing. When he spoke, however, I realized the rage that burned inside of him was not directed at me, but at himself. “They’re still in stasis. What we’ve learned from bioscans and blood samples, both from yourself and the ambassador, shows promise, but my people tell me it might be years before we can purge the parasites from their systems. Thankfully, stasis seems to have halted further spread of the organism.”
I nodded and bit my lip, a sinking feeling forming in the pit of my stomach. Arnoff didn’t say it, but we knew of at least one cure, becoming bonded to a K’teth. Symbiotes weren’t a dime a dozen, and if Khala’s comments on combating the parasite within my body were any sign, there was no guarantee the symbiote would defeat the invading organism. I couldn’t say why the General said nothing further. Perhaps he knew it would open a can of worms. Symbiotes only became available when a new one was born or a host passed away. It would be months, perhaps even years, before that happened. If one did, was it fair to ask him or her to risk their life in the off chance they’d be able to combat such an invasive organism?
“Based on the information we’ve gathered, the attacks on the Valiant and Endeavour would seem to have been perpetrated by the same group or organization. Also worth noting, there is one item that connects both attacks, the box first found by the Endeavour’s crew, among them Sophia Briggs, and later recovered by her daughter, Kaydence Briggs.
Our scientists have determined it’s powered by a form of fusion, but beyond that, the exact specifics of how it operates is a matter of some debate. The device’s power core became unstable when activated on the Endeavour by Ms. Briggs. After reactivating the device, we were able to stabilize it. It appears to only become active once exposed to an oxygen atmosphere. When it does so, it emits what seems to be some sort of transponder signal. It is what enabled them to find the Valiant and the Centennial Hawk after Kaydence Briggs recovered the box.”
“In addition to this signal, the box seems to work as a kind of data storage device. We could not interface with it, but our scientists believe that it’s possible. We’re operating on limited information, but it seems logical to conclude that these aliens may be after whatever data may be stored on the device.”
“Last night, the UEA Security Council held a closed session and authorized me to organize a task force to deal with and investigate the threat posed by these unidentified attackers. As the Conclave had a direct hand in the original Endeavour expedition, I’ve convinced the Council of the need for your involvement. I’ve already forwarded a list of resources and personnel we require. Considering the device’s link to the Phyrr Lesch, we’re seeking any expertise and information the Conclave has to offer.”
He hesitated and glimpsed at me, the slightest smile touching the corner of his lips. “Furthermore as Miss Briggs was the one responsible for finding the Endeavour and her symbiote’s firsthand knowledge of the events leading up to its disappearance and given that Sofia Briggs was an expert on the Phyrr Lesch I have to believe that the symbiote must have gleamed much of that knowledge from her previous host. Between the two of them, their knowledge and expertise will be invaluable to our efforts.”
“I want to be very clear. This is not a conclusion I’ve come to lightly. Kell Seymour fears that both Khala and Ms. Briggs’ experiences, while of obvious value, would create a conflict of interest within the investigation. While I understand these concerns, the benefits of utilizing such expertise outweigh any risks and her inclusion is the one condition I have to the your involvement, which is why I would like her to serve as an intermediary between the Conclave and the fleet.” He cast a sidelong glance at the other man.
“In an unprecedented show of cooperation, both the Confederacy,” he paused holding an open palm to Nyvok and then nodded at the former Dexagarmetrax, “and the government of Dexagarmetraxia have both pledged ships to the task force in what will be the first joint venture between all three races.”
“It is shameful that it took an attack on one of your ships to bring our people together in a common cause.” Nyvok spoke after pressing his own button and rising to his feet. “I am eager to lend aid and put an end to this troubling threat, as are my superiors within the Gieff Confederacy. It is a small token, but one I hope that will help show that Qharr attitudes towards our human cousins have changed.”
“Thank you, ambassador,” Seymour said, taking the floor once again. “General, if that is everything, I believe we can proceed.”
The general nodded and stood, marching through the exit without another word. Nyvok watched the general leave, but did not depart as I expected.
“Now, there’s just a few matters left. First, I’d like to open the floor to Ambassador Nakyrr.”
Nyvok rose to his feet again and peered about the room. “Thank you Kell Seymour. Since the Gieff came into power, there has been a dramatic shift in the attitudes of my people. I would say that most of these have been positive, but our Gieff cousins have long distrusted the K’teth and their bias has begun to rub off on my people. For some time, I have attempted to create a cultural exchange between the Edant K’teth and your Conclave. I believe Kaya Briggs called it a passion project. So it is with great pleasure to announce to you that my government has agreed to allow this exchange.”
“We will begin a full dozen applicants, on both Tel’c and Earth, who, if accepted, shall spend a full year learning from their…. What is the word? Counterparts on the other world? Anyone familiar with the Edant K’teth known that it has long been an informal organization that has had little to tie its members together except for a name and a common… condition. That is changing.
Inspired by the human example, that is your Conclave, it is my pleasure to announce the formation of the first Edant K’teth Consortium. I have convinced my superiors that their distrust of the K’teth would be better assuaged by adopting the human model of cooperation between host and symbiote. Public announcements will be made within the next few days by the Confederacy, the newly created Consortium and your Conclave. Thank you.”
Following the ambassador’s announcement, there was a whole slur of questions. I leaned back in my seat, folded my arms across my chest and shook my head, ready for the damned meeting to come to an end. I assumed that when the questions dwindled away and the Nyvokk was finally done answering them, that I’d get to leave. Boy, was I ever wrong.
“One other piece of business,” Kell Seymour said. Glancing at the ambassador as the Qharr sank back into his seat. After what felt like hours of incessant queries and explanations. I could say it was the first and only time I was glad to hear the asshole speak.
“As you all have, no doubt, gathered.” He peered at Hexapledra and smiled. “The former Dexagarmetrax ambassador was attacked by one of the parasitical creatures, set upon us by Kaydence Briggs, in the same attack that brought about the death of our former chairperson, Kaya Briggs. Crae, Kaya’s symbiote, survived by burrowing into the ambassador. I won’t bore you with all the details, but complications arose, Crae’s symbiotic abilities and the ambassador’s Dexagarmetrax physiology were their saving grace, but given to certain incompatibilities those same factors could have led to their downfall. Thankfully, for both their sakes, Crae found a workaround by granting the ambassador a human form.”
“Indeed!” The former ambassador emitted a screech, her face stretching into an ungodly grin.
Seymour rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw, but kept his voice neutral. “The former ambassador has, as a result, resigned from her position with the Dexagarmetrax government and has requested citizenship within the UEA so that she may experience, in her own words, ‘what it is to be human’.”
He paused and glanced at me with a creepy-ass gleam in his eyes, displaying a toothy grin before continuing. “We have already agreed that we should induct her into the Conclave, but there is one minor matter to resolve. Our friend is a stranger to humanity’s ways and our culture and has asked for someone to mentor her. She named one person in particular: Ms. Kaydence Briggs.”
The once Dexagarmetrax beamed at me and jerked her crown sideways just before our gazes could lock. I had no idea what was going through her skull. I found it odd that she would choose me, a person who’d spent most of her life resenting her heritage and grandmother by extension, and someone who had driven off the only person she could imagine herself having a deep and lasting relationship with. It was utterly baffling and so deeply ironic.
“I know it would be a heavy burden, for someone with such high expectations as the new liaison between the fleet and Conclave, but if Ms. Briggs would take the time out of her busy schedule, our new friend would be–”
Okay, that did it. I held my hand up and cut the jackass short. The little shit was trying to scare me off, but hell, Kaya Briggs raised me. If he thought he could pull that crap on me, well, two could play that kind of game. If I gave in or refused, he’d see it as a victory, but that wasn’t to say I couldn’t turn the situation to my advantage.
Fuck, who’d have thought I’d be playing politics like my grandmother? I swallowed hard and rose from my feet. When I slipped my hand over the indent in front of me, I cleared my throat and took the floor.
“Of course, I would be happy to help the former ambassador. She faces a tough road ahead. I, of all people, perhaps, understand better how difficult such a drastic change must be. There is no better way to understand the human condition than to live and work amongst other humans. Her knowledge and expertise would be a valued asset in our investigation. If she would consent to work alongside me?”
Kell scowled back at me, and I fought damn hard to keep my triumph from showing on my face. If I was going to get under his skin, I had to maintain my composure. It was damn hard, but I think I managed it if the look he gave me was any indication.
“Thank you, Ms. Briggs, and to you ambassador for your agreeing to assist the Conclave in these matters. We will not overlook your cooperative attitude in the future. We no longer require your presence here, so if you will excuse us, there are some matters the Senior Council needs to discuss which are of a sensitive nature.”
Though it was a bit of a turnaround, I don’t think there had been a time in my life when I wanted to stay in one place, but I doubted if I lurked about he’d let me listen in. I looked around the room one last time and departed with the ambassador in tow. Despite my disappointment, I had high hopes for the future. Arnoff had, in effect, given me a chance to get to the bottom of my loved ones’ death. I would not waste the opportunity.tran