Battle For Earth

1
Battle For Earth: Prologue
2
Battle For Earth: Resistance
3
Battle For Earth: Infiltration
4
Battle For Earth: Downfall
5
Battle For Earth: The General (an interlude)
6
Battle For Earth: Coalescence
7
Battle For Earth: Liberation
8
Battle For Earth: Epilogue

Battle For Earth: Prologue

I was only four years old when the Qharr invaded our world. They rained death and destruction upon the Earth and when the smoke finally cleared those of us who survived lived to see ourselves fall under their rule.

Author’s Note: This was originally posted as a serial in various-sized chunks on the usual sites.

Although, it’s a bit ‘spoil-rific’ I feel I need to warn people that I do kill off a lot of characters throughout this series. I make no apologies as I believe in staying true to the story even if it means putting my characters through hell.

Thanks to the following people for pre-reading the story and helping with grammatical edits: Beyogi, Maggie Finson, Loki and Zapper.

 

Prologue

I remember when the Qharr invaded the Earth though I was only four years old when it happened. The United Earth Defense Fleet had been battling them in the skies above for days and I watched from the safety of our family home in wide-eyed fascination. It wasn’t until I grew older that I finally understood what those bright flashes of light in the night sky had been. Death. Humans ships exchanging fire with the Qharr invaders. The battle was an exercise in futility, everyone knew it except me. I was too young to understand what it all meant.

The Qharr were coming and no one that remained was safe not even my then four year old self.

“Jellfree!” my mother, Muriel Briggs, called my name as she appeared in the doorway of my room.

“Come on, honey. It’s time to go!” she called urgently.

I tried to protest, to ask my mother why, but she merely smiled sadly as tears cascaded down her face. She gently reached over to where I was sitting on my bed and picked me up. I started to cry. I didn’t want to go! I didn’t understand why we had to leave. My cries fell on deaf ears as she rushed me out of the house. My father soon joined us accompanied by my older sister, Rebecca . Mother rushed me into the family aerocar, a battered old Ford Vision, and my sister joined me in the back seat. My father, Lloyd, drove and took us out onto the nearest lane speeding into traffic with a velocity that reflected my own terror.

I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew enough to sense that something had my parents and older sibling scared. Neither my sister or I spoke; instead we clung to one another with wide eyes. Our parents offered up reassurances from the front seat, but it was abundantly clear that they didn’t believe a word they said. They told us we were going somewhere safe, somewhere where the Qharr couldn’t find us. Over the last few weeks I’d heard my family talk of the Qharr, but I didn’t really understand the threat they posed. They kept speaking of invasion, but I didn’t know what that word meant.

My father let out a long string of curses and the car went veering off to the side of the road. I peeked out the window and noted that traffic was so packed it had come to a standstill. The car stalled and floated down to the ground. Becca and I exchanged glances and with faces glued to the window we watched in amazement as all the surrounding vehicles did the same. My parents started to argue, they’d been doing a lot of that during those last few days. One of them mentioned an EMP and while I’d heard that word a lot. I didn’t know the exact meaning. I did know it was some sort of weapon the Qharr had been using against us. Our parents seemed to come to a decision as they both undid their restraints and urged my sister and me to do the same.

Once we were out of the car we started walking. We traveled by foot for what seemed to be an eternity to my child’s mind. I started to cry, my feet were throbbing and I didn’t want to walk any longer. Mother attempted to sooth me, but it was too no avail. Instead of stopping, my father picked me up and put me up on his shoulders. This had always been one of my favorite modes of transportation and my father knew it. I quickly settled down and we resumed our journey through the city streets.

There wasn’t a soul out in the open, and it almost seemed as if the entire city was out stuck in traffic. It was an eerie experience walking through the empty streets and even to this day I remember it quite vividly. Once or twice we caught sight of vague outline of a person lurking in the shadows or group of people moving in the distance, but none of them came close enough to us for me to see them very clearly.

Our long walk came to a very abrupt end after rounding a corner. A large, almost insect like black monstrosity rested in the middle of the street blocking traffic going in every direction. I had no idea what the horrendous thing was, but I later became much more familiar with the god awful things. It was a Qharr J’narr class destroyer, but that was nothing compared to the horrible gray-skinned creatures that littered the street around it.

It was my first glimpse of our conquerors but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. We just stood there for a moment in complete shock, and then my father handed me off to my mother and reached into his jacket producing a phase pistol. We started running in the opposite direction as one of the Qharr called something out and two of them broke into a run behind us. My father shot his weapon haphazardly behind him as we ran, but the shots never landed home and our Qharr pursuers got closer and closer until they were right on our heels .

The shorter of the two grabbed my father’s arm as he reached back to fire and tore the gun out of his hand. My father spun around to punch at the Qharr with his other hand, but the alien caught his fist with the casual ease of a trained fighter.

We all stopped to watch in horror as the Qharr grabbed my father by the throat and lifted him from the ground.

“Muriel dammit, don’t just stand there! Run !”

We started running again, but I peered over my mother’s shoulder and watched as the Qharr snapped my father’s neck and cast his body aside with casual disdain. I screamed out in terror and I felt my mother’s tears splatter against my neck as I bounced in her arms. She didn’t utter a word, but her weeping was indication enough that she knew my father’s fate. His demise only distracted them for a few short moments before they were right back after us. It didn’t take them long to catch up to us and I think my mother finally realized that fleeing wasn’t doing us any good because she stopped just as they were nearly on top of us.

She calmly set me down then she stepped in front of my sister and me facing the Qharr with both fists planted on her hips and head held high in defiance. “I won’t let you harm my children!” she screamed.

The very same Qharr who had killed my father stepped forward and regarded my mother with a trio of unblinking pale yellow eyes then abruptly he raised his hand and struck her in the throat. Mother gasped for breath and clutched at her neck, but soon collapsed dead to the ground. Becca tugged at my arm screaming at me to run, but I fell to my knees and wrapped my small hands around my mother’s corpse.

“Mommy!”

I’d never known death before, but instinctively my child’s mind knew that my mother was gone. I felt a massive hand lift me up, and I clenched my eyes shut and waited for the Qharr to do to me what he had done to my mother and father, but my death never came. My eyes flew back open and watched as the other alien lifted my sister into his arms. The two aliens carried us off and we began our new lives as slaves…

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Battle For Earth: Resistance

I had been a slave to the Qharr nearly my entire life, but one fateful day
everything changed. I joined up with a group of rebels, and through a twist of fate,
no one could have ever foreseen, I became the woman I am today…

Author’s Note: This was originally posted as a serial in various-sized chunks on the usual sites.

Although, it’s a bit ‘spoil-rific’ I feel I need to warn people that I do kill off a lot of characters throughout this series. I make no apologies as I believe in staying true to the story even if it means putting my characters through hell.

Thanks to the following people for pre-reading the story and helping with grammatical edits: Beyogi, Maggie Finson, Loki and Zapper.

Chapter One

Rich violet blood splattered my face as I stepped out into the practice yard. I brought a hand up to wipe it off and just barely managed to duck out of the way as the body of a Qharr soldier flew over my head. For a brief moment he simply lay there on the ground, but then he jumped back to his feet and rushed his opponent with his g’th stick whirling in a furious blur of motion. Corrector Duvak Nakyrr blocked the young soldier’s blow and swept his own weapon in a wide arc which his opponent nearly didn’t block in time.

The young soldier knocked the Corrector’s g’th stick out of his hands and sent it flying through the air. The soldier swirled his stick around aiming at the Duvak’s left side. He easily dodged the blow then brought his right foot around in a round house kick that smashed into the other fighter’s chest with an audible thud. The soldier fell backward and landed on his back, giving the Corrector just enough time to retrieve his weapon. The other Qharr was soon back on his feet and the two were once more locked in hand-to-hand combat.

The Corrector was quite short for a member of his race, but despite being both smaller and much older than his opponent he cut through each attack with ease. The two of them battled back and forth for another ten minutes and Duvak managed to knock the young soldier off his feet three more times before finally felling him for the fifth and final time. Duvak coughed and threw his g’th stick off to the side with an almost disdainful flick of his wrists. In the five years that I’d served within the compound I’d only been invited out to the practice yard a few dozen times and even then I doubted I’d seen Duvak duel more than half a dozen times. Never once had I seen him go up against an opponent who even came close to matching him in skill. I might have wondered why he bothered if I didn’t understand the bastards’ mentality. As commander of the facility it was his personal responsibility to make sure that his men received proper training which apparently meant kicking their asses on a routine basis.

I stood silently off to the side and waited for my master to take notice of me. To the Qharr I was just an honorless and lowly human slave and speaking to Duvak without permission was a good way to get myself beaten or, on a bad day, killed. I hated them with every fiber of my being, but if I let myself show that hatred I’d be dead in seconds. I’d seen what our masters did to humans who disobeyed them and I didn’t want that to happen to me. So I played the part of the obedient slave, and did the very best I could to survive. Which had worked out pretty well for me, I was only twenty-eight and had one of the most important jobs a human slave could ever be tasked with.

“Ah, Master Cook Briggs,” Corrector Duvak said his three eyes locked on me halfway across the compound.

I felt rush of hatred and anger as the Corrector studied me. Here standing before me was the one responsible for my enslavement, the same soldier who had carried my sister and I off more than twenty-four years ago, after murdering my parents. As the one who had captured me I’d been given into his care to serve him until the day that I died. For many years lived as his slave, and I had all but given up hope of ever being free, but then I met Kaya and she reawakened my passion and hatred for those grays-skinned bastards. I still served my oppressor as I had for nearly my entire life, but I only did so because I saw no other choice. If the Qharr ever realized that I felt the way I did they’d kill me without a moment’s hesitation.

“Corrector, I am honored to once again be allowed to bask in your presence,” I said, with a bow of my head and fake subservient smile.

I didn’t say a word as Duvak came over to me and placed his massive six-fingered hand on my right shoulder in a Qharr gesture of greeting. I brought my left hand up and lightly gripped it around his second and third digits then withdrew it sliding my open palm across my chest as was expected. Duvak nodded–a human gesture he had picked up from all his years working with our kind–then drew his hand away and coughed loudly.

As I mentioned before the Corrector was actually quite short for a Qharr standing at just a little over 1.9 meters tall, but to a human slave he cut an imposing figure nonetheless. Like all of his kind his skin was a glossy dark gray and had a segmented almost insect-like quality to it. As any Qharr soldier my master had a tattoo extending from his left shoulder in the shape of circle overlapped by the Qharr symbol for unity. There were two arrays of tattoos branching out from the symbol. One extending downward, displaying his exploits in battle with a long array of Qharr characters and the other extending toward his right shoulder showing his rank. He had a thick mop of black hair that ran just past his shoulders. Like humans, our masters stood on two legs, and while their proportions were similar to ours there was no mistaking them for one of us.

“An important day approaches, young Jellfree,” Duvak said, staring at me with all three of his eyes. His lip-less fang-lined mouth seemed to be a frowning, but I knew it was just the natural set of his features.

“If you say it, it is so, great one,” I said injecting the expected amount of reverence into my voice.

“It is so, human, in three days Overseer Jahal Tkyr will arrive to visit the compound,” he intoned pacing back and forth in front of me.

And I understood why the Corrector had summoned me. The Overseer was a high ranking Qharr official and it was customary to greet the arrival of such an official with a feast. As the compound’s head cook I would be expected to prepare a meal appropriate to the occasion.

“I understand, great one, I will prepare a meal that shall bring the Overseer’s praises heaping down upon you.”

Duvak coughed and brushed at my chest with the back of his two middle fingers in an expression of amusement. “Good. I am told that the Overseer is quite fond of canine meat. I have placed a large order of it and it shall arrive on the morrow see that it is prepared in jum’kar juices.”

“Yes, great one.”

The Corrector did not respond instead he stared at me his head titling from side to side as if he were trying to size me up. He coughed again then turned away. “Leave, slave.”

I swallowed hard and quickly scurried out of the practice yard. I don’t know why, but I got the impression that Duvak was worried about something. I’d spent a lifetime around the Qharr and I understood them as well as any human could. Duvak had displayed behavior that was odd even by his people’s standards. Something had him on edge and that didn’t bode well for anyone least of all a slave like me.

“Jellfree!” Kaya Brzezinski said spinning around with a large wooden mixing spoon in hand.

A small bit of sauce from the spoon splattered my face in almost exact place where I’d been hit with Qharr blood just a little time before. Kaya was one of the cooks who worked under me, and was one of the most attractive women I’d ever known. Like me, her life was one long sad tale, and I’d heard enough variations on the same story that I could recite hers by heart. About six months ago I found her waiting in my room after we’d both worked a long shift in the kitchen and the two of us had been together ever since.

She bit her lip and stared up at me apprehensively, “What did the Corrector want?”

I wiped the sauce off my face then I reached over to yank the spoon out of her hand and pulled her close. “The Overseer is coming.”

“How long?” she grimaced and reached at empty air as she made several futile attempts to snatch the spoon back out of my roving hand.

“Three days,” I said, spinning the spoon around, and then tossed it from hand to hand before holding it out for her to take.

She yanked it from my outstretched hand and shook it in front of my face. “Three days?! And how, the fucking hell, are we expected to prepare a welcome feast on such short notice!? It would be nice if our Masters would have given us a little more warning!”

“Kaya! You shouldn’t talk like that! What if one of the guards heard you!?”

I loved Kaya dearly, but there were times that I feared she’d get us both killed. She was impulsive and she nearly always spoke her mind. Honestly, I had no idea how she’d survived so long as a slave. Few Qharr were as tolerant as Duvak and even the Corrector had his limits. He’d proven on more than one occasion that he could be every bit as cruel and ruthless as any other member of his race.

Kaya looked like she wanted to scream, but instead she swallowed hard and slowly nodded. “You’re right, Jellfree.”

I kissed her lightly on the forehead then whispered in her ear. “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

Kaya’s sleeping form was sprawled on the bed-pad beside me and I stared down at her in amazement that such a beautiful woman would want anything to do with me. She deserved better, not just from me, but from life. She would never know anything but the life of a slave, yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was meant for so much more. Before I’d met her I had pretty much given hope of ever being free, but her free spirit had started to rub off on me and I’d begun to let myself hope again.

It seemed ridiculous, I know. What was there to hope for, really? The Qharr had slaughtered billions of our kind and there were more of them living on earth than humans . Our masters seemed perfectly content for humans to exist as a slave race and I doubted that they’d ever let our species die out, but there had to be more to live for than just serving Duvak! It hadn’t been too long ago that man had roamed the stars. Perhaps someday we’d transverse the cosmos again.

Kaya had a passion for life that I’d never seen in another slave, it was why I loved her so much, but it was also why I feared for her. It was relatively easy to hide things from the Qharr. They showed their emotions with complex body gestures and few of them cared to learn human facial expressions well enough to understand what they meant. Even so, they weren’t stupid, and Kaya wasn’t very good at hiding her emotions. There would come a day when her defiant attitude would come back to bite her in the ass, and I would probably be caught in the crossfire. Even so, I wouldn’t trade my time with her for all the world.

“Good morning,” Kaya muttered softly her eyes fluttered open as she let out a loud yawn.

“Morning.”

We’d spent dozens of nights together, but each night was as precious to me as the last.

“We probably ought to get down to the kitchen,” Kaya said suddenly sitting up and letting out a long sigh.

Duvak was considered quite lenient for a Qharr Corrector, but if either of us were late for our duties we would be severely punished, particularly if we were late on such an important day. I let out a sigh of my own and lumbered out of bed. We both dressed and shared a brief kiss before separating to make our way to the showers.

“Jeck, is the spotted g’tck dripping?” I called out over my shoulder.

He let out a loud yelp and I winced as a loud high-pitched wail filled the kitchen. “Not yet!”

I hated preparing g’tck of any sort, but spotted g’tck were particularly troublesome as they were harder than hell to kill. And I didn’t particularly like that in order to properly prepare g’tck you had to boil one alive. It was a cruel way to kill the creatures, but if you killed them any other way they’d release their stench pouches and make their meat all but inedible. Well really, only the Qharr could eat the stuff, it was toxic to humans. When a g’tck started to leak it meant the poor thing was dead and its stench pouch was properly boiled out.

I turned my back and went back to whisking the large vat of murr cream and did my best to block out the foul smell. I wasn’t particularly fond of Qharr cuisine, but according to Duvak I had a talent for preparing their food that few humans shared. Most human cooks tried to make the food more palatable to human tongues, I just cooked it the way I knew the Qharr would like it. I boiled the cream until it turned a sickly bluish-brown then switched the burner off and moved to check on the next dish which happened to be dog meat marinated in jum’kar juices.

I spent the better part of the morning dashing around the kitchen, and trying to get everything ready for the Overseer’s visit. By the time it was all prepared to my satisfaction I was both mentally and physically exhausted, but my day was far from over. After a second trip to the showers, I got dressed and made my way to the meeting hall where Duvak along with a select group of slaves and Qharr would await the coming of the Overseer

Chapter Two

“Kaya,” I whispered between gritted teeth and tugged at her arm. “Who is this guy? What happened to Jeck?”

He certainly looked harmless enough, standing there holding a tray of food peering off into the distance with a look of disinterest. He was short, shorter even than most women, and my first impression was that he was only a teenager, but on closer inspection I realized he must have been at least in his mid twenties. He had dark circles under his eyes, a goatee growing from out his chin like a little bush, and despite his appearance his presence set me on edge.

Kaya bit her lip as cast her eyes down to the floor. “He… uh got into an accident and broke his leg. I had to find someone to replace him at the last moment.”

I didn’t like it, I loved Kaya, but I knew when I was being lied to. I didn’t doubt Jeck had broken his leg, but I knew Kaya well enough to realize she was probably the one responsible for breaking it in the first place. The two had never really gotten along and if Jeck had provoked her she may have let her temper get the better of her. It wouldn’t have been the first time that she’d attacked him.

I sighed and shook my head. “Just makes sure this new guy knows what’s expected,” I said releasing my grip on her shoulder.

She smiled nervously and nodded. “Oh, he knows.”

I got the distinct impression that Kaya was keeping something from me, but I had no time to find out what it was. I doubt even had I known, I could have prevented what followed.

“He better, if he doesn’t he could get us all killed!”

When the Qharr had conquered Earth they’d re-purposed many human structures to suit their needs. The research compound in which we all worked was one such building, but standing there in the meeting hall I never would have guessed that the place had been built by my kind. Most of the compound clearly showed signs of human style architecture, but the meeting hall had been completely rebuilt to give it that distinctive organic look that the Qharr favored. The walls had no corners giving the room an almost egg-shape, and were coated with the sort of black hardened resin that our gray-skinned masters used in nearly all their constructions. Then there was the smell, it wasn’t one I could easily describe. Whenever I stepped inside the meeting hall my nostrils begin to tingle and I got whiff of something faintly spicy that reminded me of gilish grinds.

The doors to the chamber flew open and a quartet of barely-clothed female slaves appeared in the doorway, swaying into the room as if they were moving to some unheard melody. The slaves glided to a halt in the center of the chamber and spun around on the balls of their feet to face the doorway. In marched a tall Qharr woman who was trailed by a pair of guards who were each a good foot shorter than their charge. Gray-skin females tended to be taller than their male counterparts, but their bodies weren’t nearly as bulky and like human women they were on average physically weaker than their male counterparts. The alien woman that stepped into the room looked to be an exception to the rule. She was nearly eight feet tall and her stone-gray body was ripped with muscle.

Her blue hair marked her as a member of the Edant K’teth, an order of elite soldiers whose exploits were legendary among the Qharr. I’d never seen one before that day, but I’d heard the guards within the compound speak of them. Whenever the topic came up they spoke of the Edant K’teth in hushed tones filled with awe and reverence. I didn’t put much credence to any of the stories, but many claimed that members of the order had special powers that enabled them to do amazing feats some of which were said to defy the laws of physics.

“Duvak!” she bellowed with a deep guttural and almost masculine voice, that was typical of a gray skin woman.

The Corrector appeared from the opposite set of doors and walked quietly through the meeting hall before stopping in front of the newcomer. He tapped on his left elbow three times, then brought his right hand and placed an open palm against the flat of his neck. “Valk Bysk, Baend!”

The Qharr woman brushed at Duvak’s chest in amusement and let out several terse coughs. “Now there really is no reason to be so formal, Duvak. We have known each other far too long for that!”

“As you wish Jahal,” Duvak said with a loud cough of his own.

I looked over at Kaya and noted an all too familiar half-crazed look on her face that sent cold chills down my spine. The last time I’d seen that expression on her face she managed to enrage Duvak and nearly got us both killed. As if to affirm my fears, the whole chamber went dark, and everything went to hell.

Bright flashes of light pierced the darkness as a loud angry roar escaped from the throat of one of the Qharr guards. I dove to the ground when I realized what was happening. Someone had decided to fight against the gray skins and I’d been caught in the middle of it. I started crawling toward the door, but I’d only made it a few feet when I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was just enough light from the passing phase blasts that I was able to make out Kaya’s shadowy form kneeling next to me.

“Going somewhere, Jellfree?” she whispered staring down at me with that all too familiar manic look on her face. She was holding something in her hands and I had to do a double take when I realized that it was a phase pistol.

All the pieces fell into place as I let in a sharp intake of breath. “You’re a rebel!?”

She nodded and held the weapon out to me. “The way I figure it, Jellfree, you’re either with us or against us.”

It was insane! Kaya a rebel? There hadn’t been a resistance group large enough to post a serious threat to the Qharr in almost ten years! And yet… even with Kaya holding a gun in front of me I still loved her. It sounds nuts I know, but love had made men do some pretty crazy things before. Defy my masters? Just a few hours ago the very thought of it would have been inconceivable to me. Don’t get me wrong, I hated the Qharr, but defying them was a pretty sure way to get yourself killed.

“Jellfree!” she yelled dropping the pistol as she spun around and extracting a second and much smaller weapon from her shirt sleeve and began firing into the darkness.

I reached out to grab the gun, not to use it. Not really. I didn’t know what I planned to do with the damned thing. The lights flicked back on and Kaya dove to the ground just as a bolt of energy fizzled past where her head had been. I felt my jaw drop as I looked around at all the corpses scattered throughout the room most of them were Qharr, but there were quite a few humans among them. A group of about ten rebels stood in a circle surrounding Duvak and the Overseer, the only surviving gray-skins, and they all had phase pistols trained on their opponents.

“So, this is how it’s going to be, Jellfree?” Duvak called from across the room.

I clenched my hands around the pistol and let out a long string of curses under my breath. A lump formed in my throat and I fought down the urge to scream. There wasn’t any going back, Duvak thought I was with the rebels and once the Corrector made up his mind nothing would convince him to change it. Even if he were killed there would be an investigation once the Qharr Ascendancy caught wind of Kaya’s little rebellion. So that was it, I really only had two choices as shitty as they happened to be. I could either join the rebels or wait around for the Qharr to come and kill me.

“Yeah, it’s how it fucking is. I’m done being your spineless slave!” I spat glaring at Duvak.

Damn, that felt good. All my life I’d been holding myself back, keeping myself from saying anything that would get me killed and now to finally be able to speak my mind… It was liberating!

“I-I think it’s time we get out of here, isn’t it?” A soft, yet masculine voice said from my side. It belonged to Jeck’s replacement, Jaysen.

“Not without our dear friend Jahal here,” Kaya said with grim smile as she raised her pistol.

The Overseer let out a long booming cough then she leapt high up into the air. Kaya cursed raising her pistol and traced the path of the Qharr female’s ascent, but didn’t shoot. The other rebels didn’t show the same restraint and opened fire pelleting her path with phase bursts. “Stop firing! We need her alive, dammit!”

“Fools! You have no idea of what I’m capable of!” The Overseer’s voice boomed through the chamber just before she leapt back to the ground and landed with a loud thud that shook the whole chamber.

Someone screamed out in sudden pain and I turned to watch as Duvak slammed into the nearest of the rebels. I was tempted to raise my gun and fire, but I’d never used a phase pistol in my life and I knew I had almost no chance of hitting my former master. I didn’t dare fire for fear of hitting one of my new allies. Not that I was particularly overjoyed with them, but if I stood any chance of getting out of that predicament alive, I’d need their help.

Duvak leapt at another rebel even as gun fire whizzed all around him and the rest of the chamber. After finishing his second opponent, the Corrector’s eyes locked on mine and I fought down my panic as he came tearing across the chamber toward me.

Still grappling to fight down my terror I raised my gun and swallowed hard then fired. Duvak leapt out of the way and the phase bolt splashed harmlessly against the wall. Before I could fire another shot, he leapt in front of me. His gigantic hand wrapped around my throat and he lifted me from the ground. My mind flashed back to my father’s death and in a very strange way it seemed fitting that I should die the same way and by the very same hands.

I clutched at my throat and gasped for breath clawing at Duvak’s flesh as I fought to free myself from his iron grip, but my efforts were in vain. As my life slowly drained away my thoughts turned to my sister, Becca. Was she still alive? It had been almost ten years since I’d seen her and yet in that moment the pain of separation was as deep as it had been when they’d forced us apart. Anger swelled inside of me and as my consciousness began to fade away I remembered the phase pistol that by some miracle was still gripped in my hand. My strength had been almost completely drained away, but I fought against my weariness and managed to raise my hand and pull the trigger.

The resulting flash was so brilliant it temporarily blinded me, but it seemed to have done its job because I collapsed to my knees. Air flooded back into my lungs and once my vision cleared I was able to make out Duvak’s inert form beside me. I didn’t know enough about Qharr physiology to check for signs of life so with I tired sigh I climbed back onto my feet and staggered away and back into the fight.

While I’d been busy with Duvak the Overseer had killed four rebels and left another to die. She went from crawling across the ceiling to leaping all over the damn place. She moved fast and gravity appeared to have no hold on her as she scurried about the walls and ceiling, and worse still the phase fire of the panicked rebels seemed to have no effect on her. Shit, maybe the stories about the Edant K’teth were true after all…

“We need her alive!” Kaya screamed repeating her previous protests with growing futility.

Since the phase fire from the others didn’t seem to be doing much of anything I tucked the pistol into my waistband and spun around looking for something I could use for a weapon. If the Overseer couldn’t be killed with phase weapons maybe a low-tech solution was the answer or at least that’s what I told myself. I didn’t care about Kaya’s plans. I just wanted to get out of this mess in one piece. I found a splintered leg from one of the buffet tables on the floor a few feet away and snatch it from the ground as the screams of another rebel filled the chamber.

I spun around with makeshift spear in hand, adrenaline rushing through me, and caught sight of Overseer who was speeding across the chamber toward Kaya. My fatigued was all but forgotten as I let out a blood-curdling scream and went peeling across the chamber in a mad rush to intercept the gray-skin. The Overseer was nearly on top of her by the time I arrived and I did the only thing I could think to do, I slammed into Kaya and flung her out of the way. I held the table leg out in front of me, clenched my teeth and waited for the her to come barreling into me.

Chapter Three

The Overseer flew at me with terrifying speed, but just as she was almost on me she coughed, her nostrils flared and I knew that I’d caught her off guard. I think she must have scrambled backward, but she already had built up an incredible amount of forward momentum and she just slid across the floor and kept on coming. I thrust my weapon at her chest and closed my eyes as she went soaring into it. I tried to resist the sudden urge to fling myself aside, but it really didn’t matter, the overseer was on me too fast to do anything but stand there and take the full brunt of her attack. She hit me with so much force that I was thrown back into the wall then collapsed under the weight of her body.

I opened my eyes and groaned. Everything was dark, I couldn’t see a damned thing and my whole body was throbbing. My chest burst with sudden a nd brilliant pain, but it faded away so quickly that it left my wondering whether or not it had been real. Light flooded my vision and it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from me and I realized that’s exactly what had happened. I watched a group of rebel’s lift the Overseer and cast her dead body aside. Kaya’s face appeared seemingly as if from nowhere and I thought it must have been the most beautiful sight in the world.

“Holy Hanna!” I exclaimed latching onto Kaya’s hand and staring up at her panting heavily.

“Jellfree? Shit, are you okay?”

“I hurt like hell.”

I was no stranger to pain, having been beaten by Qharr guards on several occasions, for reasons real or imagined, but it had been a long time since I’d been so badly injured. My head was pounding and, there was this odd feeling in my chest as if thousands of tiny insects were crawling around under my skin . It wasn’t painful exactly, but it certainly wasn’t a pleasant sensation. It was almost strong enough to keep my mind off the pain… almost.

“What happened?” I asked.

Kaya smiled down at me, “You killed the Overseer and probably saved my life. I don’t know why, but phase fire didn’t do a thing against her. Well so much for taking her prisoner.”

“I did what?!”

“Do you think you can get up? It’s time for us to make an exit,” she said kissing my hand and smiling fondly.

I groaned and tried to push myself up, but howled in agony and fell back to the ground as my right arm and shoulder flared with sharp unbearable pain. I gritted my teeth and tucked my fractured appendage against my chest–which brought further flashes of pain–then climbed to my feet. My whole body was throbbing and there didn’t seem to be a single square inch that wasn’t hurting. It really was a wonder I hadn’t broken more bones. The Overseer had been moving at inhuman speeds and our collision should have resulted in much more severe injuries on my end.

I glanced over to my side where the Jahal’s body rested and saw that the table leg had been thrust cleanly through her chest and I shuddered at the sight of all the blood. I looked down at my chest and hands and shuddered anew, much of the Overseer’s blood was all over me. The table leg had made a much better weapon than I’d expected and I wondered if she had been moving any more slowly if my weapon would have been nearly as effective. Then there was the question of her resistance to phase pistols, it seemed so strange that she’d be able to shrug off energy weapon blasts, but not a simple broken-off piece of wood.

Amid all the chaos only one of the Overseer’s personal slaves survived the attack, she was in the corner curled up in a fetal position and no matter how much Kaya’s group of rebel’s tried to coax her she wouldn’t move.

“Damn crouchers,” one of the rebels growled stepping away from the woman in disgust. A croucher was a slang term for a human slave that eagerly served the Qharr because it was said they always waited in a crouched position, ready to serve. I didn’t blame him for using the term, there were few things I disliked more than a croucher. Of course, just a few days ago those same rebels would probably have labeled me one as well even though nothing would have been further from the truth.

Kaya turned to look in the direction of the hysterical slave and planted her hands on her hips. “Leave her, if we bring her along she’ll be a liability and the longer we stay the more likely we’re going to get caught.”

I grabbed Kaya’s shoulder with my left hand and spun her around, “Just where do you think we can go?! The compound is heavily guarded we can’t just waltz out of here!”

Kaya grinned, patted me on the cheek then turned away and started walking toward the set of doors that led out. “Relax Jellfree, we’ve got it covered. Come on, it’s time for us to get going.”

“SHIT!” Kaya yelled and jumped back, a moment later, as a bolt of phase energy splashed against the wall in the space she had just vacated.

I pressed my injured arm against my chest, raised the phase pistol in my other hand and with slow movements peaked around the corner. A half a dozen guards were blocking our path out and I mouthed a dozen of my more choice curses before turning back to Kaya.

“What do we do?” I mouthed the words not daring to utter them out load.

Kaya pecked me lightly on the lips then raised her phase pistol, dove around the corner firing blindly and yelling at the top of her lungs. Jaysen, stared at me with wide unblinking eyes, took in a deep breath, shrugged and dove after her. I watched in utter disbelief as every single one of the rebels went tearing with reckless disregard around the corner after her.

“They’re all nuts it’s the only explanation!” I muttered under my breath, hesitated for just a moment then threw my body into the foray and prepared myself for a fight only to find that the Qharr had already been taken care of.

After, several minutes of sneaking and fighting our ways through the corridors of the compound we found our way outside where the Qharr Jadarr-class craft loomed above us. I swallowed hard as I looked up at the cursed thing. Though a mere transport ship the vessel had the look of a carnivorous beast. At any moment I half expect the fearsome thing to jump out at me and swallow me whole. Like every other Qharr vessel the ship had a streamlined design that from a distance gave it the look of a gigantic insect. When you got closer you could make out the mechanical components that gave the ship away for what it truly was. This particular ship was the Overseer’s personal transport and it was more than large enough for a group our size, but that didn’t matter because we’d never be able to use it.

“You can’t be serious!” I rounded on Kaya who was staring up at the ship with a smirk on her face and though she’d never stated her intensions I knew that look on her face well enough to guess at them.

“Why not?” she replied folding her arms across her chest and staring at me between pursed lips.

“You want to steal the Overseer’s ship! Everyone knows that Qharr technology is keyed to their physiology. It won’t allow for a human or any other species to use it!”

“Jellfree, this isn’t our first rodeo…” she muttered with a shake of her head and ran a hand across my cheek before stepping onto the ship’s ramp.

I watched her walk up the ramp and shook my head in confusion. What on Earth was a rodeo? Jaysen, scrambled up the ramp after Kaya and pulled out a handheld device that looked like that had been dug out from the trash. He lifted up a panel beside the entry-hatch and inserted a wire, fiddling around with his little computing device just a moment before the hatch slid open.

Kaya turned back to me and grinned, “See there’s nothing to it!”

I followed the remaining rebels into the ship and I fought down my sudden anxiety as I stepped inside the hatch. I had this feeling like I was about to step into the belly of the beast, and as the hatch slid shut behind me that feeling only grew more intense. A door opposite the hatch we’d just entered slid open and I scurried out of the confined space and followed Kaya and the other rebels–who took off down the corridor–to large open cabin which I assumed to be the ship’s control room.

Jaysen scurried over to a nearby control panel. “Good, good… the ship’s in standby mode. The Overseer must have planned for a short visit,” he mumbled under his breath scratching at his goatee.

“How long before we can be underway?” Kaya said taking a seat at a station a few feet away from him.

“Oh, I don’t know about five minutes, maybe.” He glanced at Kaya, frowned, and turned his attention back to the console.

“Well, now that we have a few minutes maybe someone can explain to me what the hell is going on!” I screamed suddenly feeling all my frustration and anger come to a boiling point.

Kaya eyed me and sighed, “Oh, Jellfree… There’s so much that I need to tell you, but I guess I can at least get the ball rolling.”

I stared at Kaya and shook my head she’d always had a fondness for strange expressions, but two in one day was unusual even for her. ‘It’s really not important,’ I thought irritably.

“So why exactly did you rebels come to the compound? To kidnap the overseer?”

She grinned then pursed her lips, “You call us rebels and I guess the shoe fits, but we like to think of ourselves as freedom fighters. As for our goals… Our group operated out of the compound, but when we learned the Overseer was coming we couldn’t let the opportunity pass by. If we could capture her and learn her secrets… Well, the things she could have told us would have been an incredible boon to our cause.”

“And I killed her and screwed everything up,” I muttered lowering my head in shame.

Kaya smiled sympathetically, stood up and grasping either side of my head and gently pulling it down so she could look me in the eyes, “Oh, I wouldn’t say our mission was a complete failure.”

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but whatever chance I might have had was lost when Jaysen called out. “Ready!” My teeth started to chatter as the entire ship came alive and blasted into the night sky.

“Shit!” Jaysen cursed just a few minutes into our ride.

“What!?” I asked. “What is it?”

“Qharr patrol ships! They want to establish a communications link!”

“What do we do?!” someone called out, Brendon I think his name was.

Kaya turned to Jaysen, biting her lips as she gripped her hands on the consoles edge. “Any chance we can fight them off?”

“I might be able to get one or two shots off, but I can only get this thing working on auto-nav it won’t accept manual input, at least not from any of us. We won’t be able to dodge their attacks,” he said staring across at Kaya with wide eyes.

“I told you this was a bad idea!” I hissed.

“Not now Jellfree!” she responded before turning to Jaysen and saying, “Open the com line maybe we can bluff our way out of this.”

“Glark bytenk grek menall!” A gruff Qharr voice boomed over the ship’s comm system.

Kaya winced and closed her eyes then yelled back. “Tryvet venn benarr!”

“Benarr!? Golgak stemm! Beyar ghel beet amar!”

Kaya stared at me with wide-eyes as the comm line closed. “Shit! They didn’t buy it! They know about our attack on the compound!”

The ship rocked and I was thrown against a nearby panel and the strange crawling feeling on my chest exploded. The pain was excruciating I felt like I was being consumed by thousands of tiny insects. I struggled to gather air into my lungs and my whole body tingled and pulsed. A shadow seemed to fall on me as strange alien presence overwhelmed my senses.

“The inertial negator is offline!” Jaysen screamed.

I tried to brace myself to move in some way, but my body wouldn’t respond and I just flopped around on the floor. Another blast rocked the ship and I was thrown against the wall unable to brace myself against the impact. My ears were buzzing and the sound was growing more intense by the second until it was all that I could hear. Something was wrong, and I fought with every fiber of my being to stay awake as a pit of emptiness suddenly threatened to consume me.

‘Jellfree,’ a soft feminine voice whispered in my ear somehow cutting through the torrent of sound that had overwhelmed everything else.

I gasped and tried to respond, but no sound came from my throat.

‘Jellfree,’ the voice repeated. ‘Saved… they can be saved, but you must take the controls…’

Again I tried to say something, anything in order to respond to the strange voice, but my vocal cords failed me.

‘Jellfree! YOU MUST OR THEY DIE!” The voice yelled urgently seeming to rattle around inside my mind.

It didn’t make any sense! How could I, a human slave, operate a Qharr ship? It defied logic and yet the voice seemed to think I could do it. I don’t think I was entirely lucid because never once did I think to wonder who the voice belonged too or why it seemed to come from nowhere. What did it matter, anyway? We were all going to die!

“NO!” I screamed out in sudden defiance as control of my limbs suddenly returned to me.

Maybe it was futile, but I wasn’t going to lie down and die! I had to do something! I wasn’t going to give the Qharr the satisfaction! All my life I’d let them control everything I said and did! No longer!

I scrambled to my feet with renewed energy and lurched across the teetering control room and flung myself at a nearby control panel. The previous dark surface flared to life and I gripped at the side of the panel as the ship quaked again. I tried to decipher the Qharr characters that appeared on screen, but I had no idea what any of them meant. The Qharr went out of their way to keep their human slaves from learning their language and I’d only ever learned a few of the symbols.

“Give me the body!” the voice–which now seemed to have become a presence in the back of my mind–said.

A very large part of me wanted to resist, to tell the presence no, but I knew that if I did I’d die. Shit, what did I have to lose any way!? I closed my eyes and let my resistance to the entity fade away. Seeming to take on a mind of their own, my eyes snapped back open and I watched my unbroken hand fly across the console in a furious blur of motion. Abruptly, the ship stopped rocking and righted itself. My hand zoomed across the panel’s surface and the ship spun around in response, turning to face the quartet of patrol ships.

“Jellfree! What the hell… How are you doing that!” Kaya’s voice demanded, but the being didn’t answer and I seem to have lost the ability to do anything but watch.

Very few Qharr transports were a match for even one patrol ship, but this one was different. It was the Jahal Tkyr’s personal ship and besides having enhanced engines and maneuvering capability it was also armed to the teeth. I don’t know how I knew that. The knowledge was just there waiting in my head without any understanding on how it had gotten there. My right index-finger mashed down on a small button on the panel and the ship rocked slightly as a missile went flying toward the nearest patrol ship. The missile struck home and destroyed its target in a brilliant cloud of fire and debris.

“He’s destroyed one of the patrol ships, but there are still three more on our tail!” Jaysen called over his shoulder.

The entity continued to manipulate the controls and since the inertial negator was offline we felt every twist and turn with the full force of gravity’s pull. Several of the rebels had collapsed unable to bear the pressures of gravity acting on them, but Kaya and Jaysen at least seemed to be able to withstand it. My body stood erect as the being battled against the Qharr ship despite the overwhelming pressures of inertia acting against me.

The entity fired off the ship’s phase cannons and the lead ship’s side burst with explosions and went careening into the earth below. My hand danced across the control panel in amazing display of fluid grace then pounded down on the panel loosing another volley of missiles on one of the patrol ships. Like the previous one this projectile hit its mark and again the intended target burst into a cloud of flames and debris.

That left one last patrol ship and the thing in my head didn’t waste any time as it brought the ship around for another attack. It dodged a barrage of phase cannon fire from the smaller ship then again looped around coming along the enemy’s rear. Phase energy blasted out of the transport’s front cannons and the patrol ship darted and dove in increasingly futile attempts to dodge the transport’s weapon fire.

A blast from the phase cannon hit the underside of the patrol ship’s fuselage, and another hit it’s left wing. It put out a trail of smoke a sharp contrast to the clear blue sky and started to lose altitude. My fist pounded down on the control panel one final time and another missile shot out and slammed into the other vehicle blasting it into oblivion. A sense of relief flooded through me and I abruptly regained use of my limbs.

I turned and looked around at Kaya and the other rebels, well, those that had remained conscious during the battle. They all stared at me with wide-eyed disbelief and I shrugged and looked back at them unable to offer up an explanation. What the hell had happened? Some strange consciousness had awoken within me and despite that it saved us it scared the shit out of me. What if the being woke again and tried to take control permanently? It was a scary thought and I didn’t know if there was anything I could do if it did.

‘The transponder shut it off. If you do not… the masters they will hunt us,’ the voice in my head whispered.

I bowed my head feeling suddenly very tired and weak, “The ship… find transponder… shut it down or they’ll… find us.”

Each word was harder to get out than the last, and I collapsed to my knees when the final syllable left my lips. On some distant level, I remembered Kaya coming over to my side and screaming my name, but whatever else she said I didn’t comprehend. I had just enough strength left to look over my shoulder and see Jaysen scrambling out of the control room presumably to find the transponder and shut it down. Then everything came crashing down around me and I was lost to the dark.

Chapter Four

‘We must speak,’ the void itself said.

“Where am I?” I asked, my voice echoing through the emptiness.

The air a half a dozen feet in front of me seemed to ripple and where there had been nothing a woman appeared, but a woman like none I had ever seen. Her hair cascaded down her face in dark-blue colored ringlets, and her eyes were strange whirling disks which seemed to rotate endlessly. She was tall for a woman, standing at close to five-nine, and she had the look of a predator ready to spring. She was one of the most beautiful creatures I’d ever laid my eyes on, but there was an inhuman quality about her that almost made her seem repulsive.

“This place… it is in your mind, Jellfree.” She smiled and tilted her head at an odd angle.

“My mind?! So I’m not conscious? And what are you some sort of figment of my imagination?” I stroked my chin, somehow I didn’t doubt any of it.

“Wait I know you! You’re that voice… that thing in my head that piloted the transport ship!”
The woman eyed me with almost inquisitive expression and nodded. “Correct.”

“Damn… What the hell are you?”

“I am K’teth.” She didn’t blink or move a muscle as she studied me.

My jaw dropped and I stared at her with eyes wide. “K’teth as in… Edant K’teth?”

She shook her head, “I am K’teth. The Edant… they are the Qharr masters. You are not Qharr therefore we are not Edant K’teth. We are something… different.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I am K’teth. You are my host. We are joined.”

I swallowed hard and tried to wrap my head around what she was saying, “Your host… So you’re some sort of parasite?”

This seemed to offend her and she responded with a very loud and very angry “NO!” before settling back down.

“If not a parasite then what are you?”

“I am K’teth! We are joined! The words they are difficult… Your mind is strange.”

I bit my lip and stopped a moment to think about what she was saying, but try as I might she didn’t seem to be making a whole lot of sense. “You’re inside of me?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Then how are you not a parasite?”

“I AM NOT A PARASITE!” she howled in fury before once again calming back down. “We are joined. It is… beneficial for K’teth and host.”

“And how did you get inside of me?”

“You killed my host the one you know as Jahal Tkyr, the Overseer. There were none of the masters near… I cannot survive without a host so I was forced to attempt to bond with you.”

I shuddered “And can we be un-bonded?”

“Only if you wish to die.”

I gulped and stared at her with wide eyes. What exactly did that mean for me to be joined with this alien entity? The creatures were obviously aligned with the Qharr somehow… Did that mean that she would wish to continue her relationship with her masters? If so what did that mean for me?

“I must stop now… It is difficult for me to speak with you. Your body it resists me… I must fix it… then, then it will be easier,” she whispered and disappeared without any sort of flash or bang. The world faded out and the darkness was absolute.

Chapter Five

I woke, gasping for breath and struggling to bring air into my lungs. I felt strange… my whole body had this intense itching-crawling sensation and it seemed to be growing stronger by the second. My insides felt as if they were on fire and my bones felt almost as if they were vibrating. God, what was wrong with me?

I sprang up into a sitting position and found myself inside a nondescript room. The walls had probably been white at one point, but the paint had grayed with time and it was peeling from the wall. That in and of itself was highly unusual, the Qharr were meticulous in the care for the buildings they inhabited. If the paint was peeling they certainly would have seen to it that the room be repainted.

I heard a loud squeal just before a sudden weight pressed into my side. “Jellfree! You scared me!” Kaya’s voice pronounced.

She slowly drew away from my side and I turned my head to look her in the eyes. “Where am I?”

She shrugged, “One of many of our hideouts.”

“What happened?”

“You saved us! I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to pilot the ship and fight off the Qharr patrol ships,” she replied the beginnings of a thoughtful thrown forming on her face.

“I remember… what happened after…”

“You collapsed, Jaysen turned the transponder off and we got away,” she frowned. “Jellfree, what is it? There’s something wrong isn’t there?”

I wasn’t even sure how to answer. I remembered speaking with the K’teth. It seemed so vivid, so real to me at the time, but looking back I had my doubts. How else could I explain what had happened? I wanted so very badly to tell Kaya, but what would she think? Would she think me crazy? Or worse… What if she thought I was being influenced by the creature? It had saved us, true, but what if it had been looking out for its best interest? What if it intended to return to the Qharr at its next opportunity? If that happened would I be able to resist it? It had already taken control of my body once already.

“No, I’m fine,” I said, feeling ashamed with my lie.

I couldn’t bear the thought of Kaya’s scorn even after she’d let me walk into the firefight unaware. I stared at her for a moment… I loved her, but how much did I really know her? I understood why she might have kept the truth from me, but it stung. I’d laid my soul bare for her and she hadn’t done the same. I thought I knew her, but I’d been wrong.

“Kaya… How long have you been a reb…” I sighed. “A freedom fighter?”

She shook her head and refused to meet my gaze. “I’m sorry Jellfree… I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid if I did that you’d give me away.”

That hurt… after we’d shared a bed for so long she’d thought I’d turn her over to the gray skins. “Kaya…” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Jellfree there are things I’ve never told you. When I was twelve, I lived in a mining complex… the Corrector there–” she paused to shaker her head and wipe away a tear, “–he was one of the cruelest and most hateful Qharr I’ve ever known. Beatings were something you expected whether you’d done anything to warrant them or not. They barely gave us enough food to prolong our miserable existence. I lived there with my older sister… she was the only family I had. The camp’s cook took a fancy to me and in exchange for sneaking me and my sister extra servings of food I spent my nights with him.”

I wished I could say I was shocked by Kaya’s story, but I’d heard similar tales time and again. Many slaves who got into a position of power often used that position to take advantage of other slaves. Kaya selling her body for food wasn’t so unusual, but it was detestable nonetheless especially since she’d been so young and worse yet, her sister had gone along with it.

“My sister and I, we hid the food and kept a small supply hidden inside our little corner of the women’s quarter, but then one day the Qharr guards did a search and found our stash. My sister claimed no knowledge of it and implicated me and the cook.”

I stared at her aghast. That sort of thing did happen sometimes, but my own bond with my older sister had been such that we would have died before ratting one another out. The fact that Kaya’s sister had betrayed and used her in such a way went against everything good and decent. Families had to stick together; if the Qharr managed to force our families apart then we had nothing but ourselves. Something I knew all too well having watched my parents murdered before my eyes and being separated from my sister for almost ten years.

“So… what happened?”

“I was beaten and they had me chained in the center of the camp. They left me there for over a week without food or water. I almost died, but I managed to make it through. The camp’s cook wasn’t so lucky he was executed and my sister managed to escape any punishment… I was nursed back to health by an older woman who was sympathetic, but my sister would never look me in the eyes or speak to me again. I grew angry and I came to hate her. So much so that a few months after I recovered I snuck over to her bed and slit her throat in the middle of the night.”

Tears were streaming down her face and I wrapped my arms around her doing my best to provide comfort. I couldn’t imagine hating my own sister so much that I would want to kill her, but I can’t say that if I’d experienced what she had I wouldn’t have done the same thing. Such acts of retribution weren’t uncommon among slaves, and the Qharr didn’t really care if a body turned up here or there. They only stepped in if things got really out of hand.

“I was betrayed by the only person I cared about… That’s why I feared to tell you, Jellfree, I was afraid you’d turn on me like my sister did. Even when it came time to plan the attack on Jahal I just couldn’t tell you. I’m sorry I should have trusted you. I put your life in jeopardy and I can never forgive myself for that. I love you Jellfree which makes what I’m about to tell you all the more difficult,” she said lowering her eyes in shame.

“The two of us getting together… it wasn’t my idea. One of our leaders, a woman by the name of Mara, suggested I get close to you. She said it was important. I still don’t know why,” she said sobbing hysterically.

A lump formed in my throat and let my arms fall away as her words settled in. She’d seduced me because she’d been told to, not because she had wanted to and she’d put me in danger by letting me walk into the middle of firefight without any warning. I felt betrayed and I started to shake with sudden rage. I had loved her and the whole thing had been a ruse! I wanted to grab hold of her and shake her until she started to scream. I’d never been so angry in all my life and I was terrified of what might happen if I gave into it, but try as I might to contain it, it raged within me like a tempest storm.

“Jellfree! You’ve got to believe me, I really do love you!”

“You… lied to me! You seduced me! You used me! Dammit Kaya I loved you! Hell, I think I still do! How the hell can I trust anything you say?!”

She nodded and wiped the tears from her face, “I don’t know. I’m so sorry Jellfree.”

“Got out of my sight! I can’t even look at you right now!” I yelled and turned away from her, the rage still stewing and bubbling inside of me.

I heard a sob escape her lips then she scurried out of the room and then I was alone…

It had only been a few moments since Kaya had left and I was staring down at my hands trying to keep them from shaking. They were numb… Dammit, what the hell was the K’teth doing to me!? Everything was falling to pieces at my feet! First, there had been the attack on the compound, that thing inside of me, Kaya, and finally my own body was betraying me. The creature said it needed to fix my body, but that could mean almost anything. I was terrified and a part of me longed for the comfort of Kaya’s embrace even after what had happened between us.

“Jellfree?” An unfamiliar voice asked from behind and I turned to look on the newcomer.

An elderly woman stood in the doorway. She had a calm almost dignified bearing and her eyes studied me like a Qharr scientist would examine an interesting specimen. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I got the distinct impression that despite her frail appearance, this woman was very dangerous. I eyed her cautiously as she approached.

“God… You look just like Harold did at that age…” she said reaching out to touch my face.

I flinched and jumped back and the woman let out a throaty laugh. “I’m not going to hurt you, Jellfree Briggs.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Mara. I’m one of the leaders of the resistance,” she said stopping a few feet away from me.

“You’re the one that told Kaya to seduce me!” I yelled stepping a few steps back and shaking my head in disgust.

Mara sighed and shook her head, “That girl… I merely suggested she get close to you. I never intended her to go quite that far, but I should have realized she would interpret it that way. For what it’s worth, she really does seem to care for you.”

“What do you want?!” I asked folding my arms across my chest as I continued to glare at her.

Mara laughed, “I wanted to see you. Why the last time I laid my eyes on you, you were an infant.”

“Look lady, I–” I started to say, but she suddenly interrupted me.

“You really have no idea who I am, do you?”

“And why should I?”

“Maybe your parents never told you about your Uncle Harold and me, but I’d always assumed that your sister would have at least,” she replied staring at me between pursed lips.

My heart skipped in my chest. My sister had told me about an uncle and the name Mara certainly sounded familiar, but it had been so long ago that I’d almost forgotten about it. “You’re Harold’s wife?”

“That’s right,” Mara gave me an approving smile.

I felt a lump form in my throat. So much had been taken away from me and now… maybe I could get something back. A link to my past someone who had known my parents. My sister had told me about them, but she had only been seven when they had been murdered by the Qharr. This woman had known them as an adult. Since Becca and I had been separated I’d lost hope of ever being with my family, but maybe I’d given up too soon. This woman certainly wasn’t of blood relation, but we had a common connection something that we both shared.

Yet… living the life of a slave had taught me one thing and that was to be cautious. This woman was a rebel, and I had no doubts she was dangerous. I’d have to be cautious so as not to let myself get burned, but even as I told myself that I realized that a part of me really wanted to trust her. I’d felt so very alone since I’d lost my sister…

“I’m glad to have finally found you Jellfree. I had hoped that we could get better acquainted, your uncle has been dead for many years and you and your sister are the closest thing I have to family,” she coming over to place a hand on my shoulder.

“I-I think I’d like that,” I said placing my hand atop hers.

“Okay, that’s a little weird.” It had taken me all that time to realize that my arm felt completely fine. Hadn’t I broken it back at the compound? If that was true why didn’t it hurt? The answer came to me quick enough… somehow that thing inside of me had healed it.

“Is something wrong?”

“I-I it’s–”

Before I could finish my sentence my scalp started to burn with sharp pain and I clutched at it and fell to my knees. White light blinded me and I thought I was going to pass out again, but then my vision cleared and I felt a hand on my shoulder. Something had changed… I knew it without anyone telling me, but it was a sort of vague indefinable feeling.

I just knew that my body had been altered me in some way. Perhaps, I spoke too soon; I could detect at least one thing that had changed. My already perfect vision had become more acute; I could see things in greater detail than should have been possible. Everything from the previously imperceptible cracks in the wall to the tiny little pores on Mara’s face. And did I mention the colors!? Everything seemed so much more vibrant and alive.

“Good God!” Mara gasped covering her mouth and taking several steps back.

“What is it?! What has that thing done to me!?” I yelled my hands shaking with rage.

I sank back down the ground and clutched at my head and tried to fight down panic. Just when I didn’t think it could get any worse my hair started falling out. It started with a small clump that tumbled down my face before slipping down the collar of my shirt. I reached up to touch my head only to find that regardless of what part of my head I touched my hair fell away.

“Get the doctor! Something’s wrong, hurry!” Mara called cracking the door open speaking to someone on the other side.

She closed the door then knelt down next to me planting a hand on my arm.

“Don’t worry Jellfree. You’re going to be fine,” she said and I was pleased to realize that the concern I heard in her voice sounded sincere.

“Hmmm… most intriguing,” the tall bulb-headed creature tooted absently scratching at one of the bright orange tubular protrusions that jutted out from the bottom of its green face. The creature was vaguely human in shape, but its frame was tall and elongated and gave it the appearance of something that might blow away in the wind. It had no mouth, ears or nose that I could see and I had no idea how it was speaking let alone breathing.

Mara had called the creature the doctor, but hadn’t given it a name nor had she indicated that it had a gender. It continued to examine me for several more minutes before looking back to Mara. “Vakrexid, needs to scan him with my equipment. This is most puzzling.”

Mara nodded, “Whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this, doctor.”

“Vakrexid has a notion, but if it proves true it will be most perplexing. I must be sure before Vakrexid makes this diagnosis,” the creature fluted.

Mara folded her arms across her chest and let out a long sigh. “Very well then doctor.”

“Jellfree, may Vakrexid call you Jellfree?” The creature said turning back to me.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

The creature let out a loud below, “Good, sometimes it is difficult for Vakrexid to know with you humans. Many have I met who do not use their full names and prefer to shorten them. Vakrexid finds this most befuddling, but I do try to be respectful of their wishes.”

“Look I really hope I’m not going to offend you by asking this, but I’ve got to know. What on Earth are you?”

“On Earth? Vakrexid is the same on Earth as I am on any other planet. Your question makes no sense.”

“It’s just an expression,” I said. “I just meant to ask you what species you are.”

“Ah, of course. Vakrexid believes I’ve heard some of you other humans use that expression. I have little memory for such things. Vakrexid is dexagarmetrax. We are a wandering people we go from world to world and learn from other species so that we may fulfill our sacred duties as commanded by our gods. Vakrexid specializes in medicine most choose to study different subjects.”

“Is there something I can call you… I mean I can’t keep calling you Doctor, can I?”

“Doctor… it is the only form of address that would be appropriate. Among my people one is always referred to by one’s profession. It’s sacrilege for anyone but Vakrexid or my life partner, should Vakrexid chose to take one, to speak my name,” it trilled.

“And what about your gender… Are you male or female?”

“Both, Vakrexid’s species is hermaphroditic, but please if you chose to refer to me by a pronoun let it be he. Vakrexid likes the way it sounds in your language, but let us stop this discourse as it is not currently pertinent. You are in need of medical care and I would prefer to examine you sooner rather than later in hopes of staving off death.”

“Death? You think this could kill me!?”

The doctor cocked his head, “Perhaps, Vakrexid doesn’t know what’s wrong. Death is a possibility, but so is life as is the chance that your skin will turn a deep kleferix and you’ll sprout flarks out of your ears. It is best to be cautious when dealing with that which is unknown. Can you walk without aid?”

I tried to stand up, but immediately fell back onto my ass. “No, I guess not.”

“Doctor, you get his right side, I’ll get the left I think the two of us should be able to move him to your lab without too much difficulty.” Mara placed her hands on her hips and staring down at me with pursed lips.

The doctor tooted something unintelligible then the two of them knelt down next to me on either side and lifted me up. Mara seemed pretty fit for a woman her age, but I could tell that the effort was straining her. The doctor on the other hand didn’t show any sign that he was having any difficulty whatsoever. They each grabbed a shoulder then the doctor flipped the door open and they carried me down the hall.

Midway down the long undecorated and dimly-lit corridor we passed Kaya. She didn’t say a word as our gazes locked, but tears were streaming down her face and I felt that bubbling rage rise up to the surface just before I turned away unwilling to look into those eyes any longer. A part of me wanted to reach out her, to tell her everything would be alright, but another part wanted to start yelling and cursing at her at the top of my lungs.

In any case Mara and the doctor had me inside the dark lab after a very short trip. They set me down atop a long narrow bed and the doctor moved away to flick the lights on. Unlike the corridor and the other room, the walls were stark white and looked as if they’d been painted sometime within the last few years. Below me the bed came thrumming to life and a strange white board, which had been previously indistinguishable from the wall, detached itself and hovered over the bed. Bright white light blinded me and I closed my eyes against the illumination.

“It shall only take a moment,” the doctors’ voice spoke as the bed began to thrum louder and louder.

Something inside of me stirred and I swore I could feel something ripple underneath my skin… ‘LIFE!’ the K’teth’s voice screamed within me and I clutched at the side of my skull as my screams joined those of the being lurking under the surface.

God it hurt! Never before in my life had I known such pain! My body was burning from the inside out and I thought that I would lose consciousness at any moment. Yet, the darkness never came and the pain kept on building until it reached a climax and I thought that every fiber of my being would be consumed. I writhed in agony and thought that if it didn’t stop soon that it just might prove to be too much.

Then I was beyond it, and there was only the pain, but then it was joined by something else. Power the like of which I’d never known. I could feel it waiting to be seized and I had only to reach out for it to be mine. So I did exactly that, or tried to, but it was the K’teth within me that reached out. I could feel the energy being pulled into me and while the pain wasn’t diminished somehow it became more bearable. It began to focus on different parts of my body starting in my face, but briefly extended to my scalp my shoulders and chest, but then it ceased and the light from the hovering platform disappeared.

‘Not enough!’ the K’teth’s voice screeched inside of my head.

My eyes snapped back open and I found that I didn’t feel nearly as weak as I had before coming into the lab. I glanced over to my side and felt my eyes grow wide as I looked on the doctor. The board which had been hovering over me was clutched in his arms and his chest was rising and falling almost as if he’d overexerted himself. I slowly sat up and felt hair fall into my face…

‘What the hell…’ I thought, as I reached out to touch it.

It must have been close to fifteen centimeter long, but that wasn’t the odd part… It had gone from my usual brown to blue! ‘Blue? Blue like those damned Edant K’teth,’ I thought my hands starting to shake. ‘What the hell are you doing to me!’ I yelled at it.

‘Damn you, answer me!’

‘More life! Need more life!’ the K’teth muttered its voice growing weak and distant.

I shook my head and sat up locking eyes with Mara. “Dear god!” She gasped and took a step back the moment we matched gazes.

“Vakrexid would not believe it, if a rolling claxid had come along and beat upon my trelp!” the doctor suddenly called out.

I turned my head back the other way and watched as the doctor gently placed the board down then turned to me. “Vakrexid knows what has happened to you.”

“Then whatever that thing was… it worked?”

“No!” he cried his hands flapping wildly. “It didn’t work at all, but it matters not! What happened to you, it showed Vakrexid what I needed to know!”

“And that is?”

“You have been joined with a K’teth!”

“I know…” I muttered quietly.

“You did? Then why did you not tell Vakrexid?”

“I-I was afraid about what you would do to me if you found out that I have this damn thing inside of me? Can I even trust myself? What if it takes control of me and forces me to…?” I trailed off unable to let myself utter the last few words.

“Ah, Vakrexid believes I understand. The K’teth are a symbiotic species. Previously, it was always believed that among intelligent beings only the Qharr were able to join with them, but apparently it is not so. I cannot say with certainty, there is little known about their nature, but it is believed that the K’teth are incapable of controlling a Qharr host. Most likely it would be the same if a human were to bond with one.”

I nodded, acting as if I was reassured by the doctor’s comment, but I didn’t feel even remotely better. I’d already had the K’teth take control of my body once before and if it could do it once there was a good chance it could do it again. What happened if it took over completely and I became a prisoner in my own body? There was, however, a small glimmer of hope. The K’teth had only gained control of me because I had let it do so, maybe it couldn’t control me unless I allowed it to. It was a flimsy hope I know, but if I let the rebels know that it was possible the creature could control me I didn’t like the prospect of what they might do to me.

“Doctor, how exactly is it that you came to realize Jellfree was infected by this… what did you call it a K’teth?” Mara asked.

“Vakrexid knew as soon as I activated the body scanner. Jellfree began to glow and consume the energy from it. It was fortunate for you Jellfree that Vakrexid was near. I was able to catch the upper unit once all its energy had been drained.”

“I-I glowed… a-and consumed energy?!”

The doctor bobbed his head, “That is how Vakrexid knew. That and the changes, only a K’teth has the ability to do such things.”

“My hair… and eyes…” I said remembering that Mara had said something about my eyes.

“And face…” Mara added.

“Oh, god! What did that thing do to me! I need a mirror!” I yelled reaching out to touch my face. It felt wrong, my nose was far too small, my lips were just a tad fuller and my skin felt as smooth as freshly boiled g’tck. As I traced my hands over my face I realized that all my stubble was gone and my eyes grew wide as the doctor flung a mirror in front of my face. What I saw in that mirror was enough to make me sick. The reflected image was the visage was that of a woman, but not just any woman; it was the face of an incredibly beautiful one. The eyes were the strangest part of the face, they were so inhuman. They looked like magenta-colored swirled disks which when paired with the blue hair and feminine face would definitely make me stand out in a crowd.

I shuddered and forced the mirror out of my face feeling tears start to form out of the corner of my eyes. The face I had seen in that mirror hadn’t looked anything like the form the K’teth had taken in my mind, but the hair and eyes were the same. I knew what the K’teth was doing to me, but I still didn’t understand why. What possible reason could it have for changing me into a woman? My new face was proof enough of its intentions, but that still didn’t provide any explanation.

‘Why?!’

Again, the K’teth didn’t answer, but I was coming to expect it.

“It is most distressing that the body scanner is no longer of use, but since Vakrexid has been left with no other choice I would still like to perform a physical examination. It would tell Vakrexid little in comparison to a full body scan, but I think it would be best so that Vakrexid may chron… No, that is not right. Ah, yes, document, that is the word. So that I may document your changes,” the doctor said suddenly.

I let out a long sigh trying to calm myself and looked up at the doctor, “I guess… Yeah, that would probably be a good idea.”

Vakrexid bobbed his head, “Strip down to your skin so that Vakrexid may examine your testicles!”

Mara snorted and shook her head then stalked out of the room the sound of laughter following her as the door closed behind her.

He cocked his head, “Did Vakrexid say something wrong?”

I snorted a bit myself then I looked over to the doctor, “Can we just get this over with?”

“Yes, yes, of course, but first you must remove your clothes.”

I sighed and started to unbutton my trousers, “Sure, doc… Whatever you say.”

The doctor’s examination while brief was definitely an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’d never met a human doctor, well, at least not that I could remember, since the Qharr had seen to it that anyone with advanced scientific knowledge be put to death. Because the gray-skinned assholes only allowed the most injured and sick to be treated by their healers I’d never actually had a doctor look me over. I shuddered, suppressing thoughts of Vakrexid’s long fingers running over my body like a dozen small tentacles. Hell, was it really necessary for me to turn my and head cough? What exactly was that supposed to tell him?

Once he finished up he let Mara back into the room and I could tell by the look on her face that she was trying to determine what to do with me. “I’m sorry Jellfree, but you can understand why I’m concerned. There’s no telling what influence this K’teth creature might have on you,” Mara said, her eyes boring holes into me.

I bowed my head and wiped away the tears from my face. “So what exactly do you intend to do, kill me?”

“Nothing quite so drastic. For the time being I’d like to keep an eye on you. You’ll be allowed full access to all the communal areas of the compound, but I’m afraid I’ll have to insist you be escorted by an armed guard at all times. Just until we’re sure that thing inside of you is not a threat,” she said placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder.

“Vakrexid agrees. It does not hurt to be cautious,” the doctor chimed running a hand up and down his center face tube.

I nodded and forced down my fear as I met Mara’s gaze. Her concerns echoed my own that the K’teth might try to gain control of me or at least influence my mind. If it came down to it, I would fight the K’teth with every fiber of my being, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough.

“And…what about these changes?” I reached up to touch my face or maybe it was best to say the face the K’teth had given me. It wasn’t mine, not exactly.

“They will continue,” the doctor tooted. “Vakrexid cannot say how long it will take, but if that face shows the truth of the K’teth’s intentions it will need to feed upon a very large amount of energy before it completes your transformation.”

“Feed?”

“Feed, what is the right word? The K’teth consume energy. To a point they can draw it from the host, but they cannot take much for fear of harming them. Feeding on the energy from the body scanner allowed it to transform your face. If it had more energy upon which to consume it could likely complete the changes,” the doctor said his big purple eyes blinking repeatedly.

“What about phase energy?” Mara asked stroking her chin thoughtfully.

“Yes, yes. It is why the Edant K’teth can withstand phase blasts. Energy is absorbed by the symbiote and some of it is passed back to the host. The host is given superior endurance, speed and strength as a result. It may be better to give the symbiote the energy it needs so as not to prolong your transformation,” the doctor replied.

I shuddered and looked to the doctor then to Mara and finally back to the doctor. “There isn’t any way to stop it from changing me, is there? I-I don’t want to live my life as a woman.”

“Vakrexid is afraid not, I am sorry, but even if Vakrexid were to operate and attempt to restore your facial features, there is nothing to keep the symbiote from returning it to the way it is now. The K’teth is bonded to you at the deepest most microscopic level; it is not just changing your genetic structure. That would not be unlike changing a blueprint after a building was built. No, it is changing you cell by cell. Moreover it is only because it has suppressed your immune system and is in fact acting in its place that your body has not rejected the new cells.”

“Oh, god! So… I can either sit back and let this damned thing change me, or shit… I don’t really have any choices, do I?” I whispered. There was one possibility I hadn’t really voiced, I could take my life before the changes completed. The idea of committing suicide had always been pretty unappealing to me. Despite living under the Qharr’s thumbs for so long, but the prospect of becoming a stranger in my own body coupled with the fear of the alien entity gaining control of my mind terrified me.

Mara eyed me thoughtfully. “This must be very taxing on you. Why don’t you get some rest? I’ve had a room prepared.”

I stared into her eyes and swallowed hard as she met my gaze. She may have phrased it as a question, but I got the feeling that she meant me to do exactly as she had asked. That woman might have looked frail, but she had a core of steel and I just knew she wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

I nodded. “That would probably be for the best.”

Mara stood up, moved across the doctor’s lab and swung the door open. “Felix.”

A tall lanky man who looked to be somewhere in his late thirties stepped into the room. He had a battered looking phase pistol holstered at his waist and he looked like someone who knew how to use it. His eyes scanned the room and when they landed on me, they widened slightly and he pursed his lips before his gaze settled on Mara.

“Felix, be a dear and show our friend Jellfree to the guest quarters I had prepared. He has free access to any of the public area of the compound, but do try to keep him from wandering into areas that might get him into trouble,” Mara said placing a hand on his shoulder and smiling fondly.

Felix nodded and muttered a “Yes, ma’am” before jabbing his thumb over his shoulder. “Coming?”

Felix led me down the hallway and up a flight of stairs before stopping at a featureless door. Never once did he speak to me, and I wasn’t feeling very sociable so that was just fine by me. He kept glancing at me and looking at my face, and I suppose if our situations were reversed I’d have done the same. I was a pretty odd sight and with the female face, and the male body, not to mention the magenta-colored eyes and blue hair. Really, it was a wonder he could stop gaping for even a minute. It was humiliating, but I held my head up high and pretended like it didn’t bother me. What the hell else was I supposed to do? I stepped inside the room and heard the door shut behind me. I was a prisoner plain and simple, Felix knew it and so did I.

The room really didn’t look all that different from the one I’d had back at the Qharr research compound. It was just little larger, and only had two pieces of furniture including a small chest of drawers and a bed, not a bed pad, but a real bed with a frame, foundation and mattress. I sat down on the edge of it and slipped my boots off then I just sort of melted into its soft surface. The last time I’d laid on a real bed my parents had still been alive and though I only vaguely remembered doing so the experience seemed very familiar. I savored the feeling of the fabric as I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh.

‘Are you there?’ I thought at the K’teth.

For a moment I was met with only silence and I was about to call out to the alien creature again when it finally answered back. ‘I am always here.’

‘Why are you doing this to me?!’ I demanded screaming out inside of my mind.

There was another pause, this one much shorter. ‘Because I must… I wish I could help you understand, but I know not the words. Your mind is still strange to me.’

‘Well that’s just swell and all, but I’d really like you to change me back now,’ I replied slamming a fist into the bed.

‘I cannot.’

‘Why?’

‘If I did so much would be lost.’

‘Dammit… Are you trying to piss me off? Do you want me to trust you or not?’

‘Your trust is not necessary.’

“Just tell me what it is you want!” I screamed growing so angry that I actually said the words out loud.

‘In time. Now… now I must rest.’

“Oh hell no! You’re not getting out of it that easily!”

The K’teth ignored me and I howled in frustration. ‘Answer me! This is my body! The Qharr may have taken everything else from me, but the one thing they could never rob me of was my body! They might have claimed to own me, but this body is mine, dammit!’

Again the symbiote was silent.

“God damn you! You fucking parasite! I’m talking to you, you damned ass-dripping piece of shit!” I yelled letting out several curses I would never have otherwise let myself utter.

No matter what I did or said to provoke the K’teth nothing seemed to work and I tried everything I could think of as I offered up insult after insult. Hell, I even threatened to do myself in and still the stupid thing wouldn’t answer. I sat back up in the bed–feeling my new longer hair fall into my face as I did so–and felt tears well up in my eyes. I was used to feeling helpless living as a slave, but this felt different. The symbiote threatened to take away the very essence of my being and I don’t think there was a thing I could do to stop it.

I wiped the tears from my face then I stared at my hand… What the hell was that thing doing to me? Why was I crying? I felt so wrong… I didn’t feel like myself my emotions were so much closer to the surface than I was used to.

“No,” I whispered clenching my hand into a fist. I wouldn’t let the K’teth have the satisfaction of seeing me succumb to my emotions so easily. I would be strong, more importantly I would be me! I wasn’t going to lose myself to the K’teth not if I could help it!

I sighed and laid back in the bed, I stared up at the tiled ceiling and absently ran my fingers through my hair. I didn’t even know what time it was, but I was tired… Living as a slave had taught me how to sleep even when I feared for my life, and while the threat the K’teth presented loomed over me I was able to drift off into the world of dream without too much trouble.

Chapter Six

I woke and knew immediately that something was wrong. I looked around groggily trying to remember where I was. The place looked familiar, but the memory was just out of my reach. I was in a dark room and as my hands felt around the surface upon which I was resting I realized I was lying on a real bed, not the thin pad that most slaves were forced to sleep on.

“What the hell?” I muttered and gasped when I heard my voice. That voice–a light soprano wasn’t even remotely close to my regular medium tenor! Then the memories of the previous day came flooding back to me.

I reached up to touch my face and traced my hands down my neck and chest. I sighed with relief when I found that, on the outside at least, nothing had changed. Whatever the K’teth had done to me while I slept the only change that I was able to find was my voice. I sat up and felt something fall across my face. Hair, I brought my hand up to brush it away and realized that one other thing had changed. My hair was longer, it had grown at least another seven and a half centimeters overnight. I shuddered and slipped off the bed and moved to the door. It was dark, but light was coming through the cracks in the door and it provided just enough illumination for me to see.

I pulled the door open and on the other side I found a figure seated on the floor fiddling with a small mechanical device about the size of my fist. He looked up and once I saw his face I realized that it was just Jaysen.

“Morning, sleepyhead.”

He grinned scratched at his chin, his eyes lingering on my face just before he returned to the device. He didn’t seem at all disturbed by my female face and he didn’t say a word as he continued to tinker with whatever the hell that thing was.

I watched him as he toyed with the device for a moment before speaking. “Jaysen what time is it?”

He stared up at me with wide eyes as if I’d startled him then he pursed his lips. “Oh, well if I had to guess I’d say about ten… probably.” he said then returned to his gadget.

“Ten?!” I asked in disbelief. As a slave I’d always been expected to wake at the same time, five in the morning. It was strange to think that I’d allowed myself to sleep so late.

Jaysen nodded absently, but didn’t give any other indication that he’d heard me. “Hey, look…” I started, but Jaysen cut me short.

“You’re probably hungry,” he said frowning up at me. “I doubt there’s any warm food, but I think we could probably scrounge up some cold bread and maybe some cheese or something if you like.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that’d be great.”

“Well, look who it is Farris,” the tall muscular man said as we stepped into the kitchen slapping the back of his hand against the chest of a shorter man with platinum blond hair that was so light it was nearly white.

“It’s the sissy and what’s this…” he said grabbing the underside of my chin with his left hand then pushed me away. “I think I’ll call you the freak.”

Farris grinned. “Quite a pair these two make, eh Pyramus? The sissy who wants to be a girl and the man with the face of a woman and… God! Look at those fucking eyes and that hair. I don’t know what Mara was thinking when she recruited ’em.”

“Why don’t the two of you just fuck off?!” Jaysen said shaking with impotent fury.

Pyramus snarled glaring down at the much smaller man. “That wasn’t very nice! Apologize! Now!”

Jaysen opened his mouth, but Pyramus pounced before the other man could so much as squeal. I wanted to intervene, but both bullies were larger than me and I doubted I’d be able to do anything but get myself hurt. Then the whole world came to a screeching halt and I stared at Pyramus as his fist hung motionless in the air.

“What the hell have you done?” I gasped looking around the room to find that Pyramus wasn’t the only to have been frozen in place.

‘I slowed down your perception of time,’ the symbiote answered back.

“Well, undo whatever it is you did. This is damned creepy!”

‘You can beat him,’ the K’teth whispered within my mind.

“What the hell do you care?”

‘I do not like bullies,’ the symbiote replied just before the world lurched into motion, but at a snail’s pace.

Pyramus’s fist moved as if it were passing through molasses and I only hesitated a second before making my move. I grabbed his arm and threw it aside then I slammed my open palm into his chest. The world erupted back into a full boil, returning to full speed and Pyramus went flying to the ground with far more force than I had anticipated. Hell, the blow had hit with more force than I thought I was capable. I looked down at my hand in disbelief and shuddered. It was that damned thing inside of me it had to be. Just like it had done for the Overseer, it had given my enhanced physical capabilities.

“Fuck!” Pyramus yelled between clenched teeth.

I walked over to where Farris was standing and grabbed him by the collar, “All we want is to get something to eat. Leave now and everything between us is square, but so help me if either of you try anything like that again I’ll beat your asses down,” I said glaring at him with all the false bravado I could muster.

Farris gulped and nodded. I released my hold on his collar and he promptly booked it out of the room. I glared down at Pyramus and he glared back up at me before shaking his head and stumbling back to his feet.

“Shit, I don’t know what the fuck you are, but just keep the hell away from me,” he spat and followed Farris out the door.

“Holy freaking hell! That was awesome! I don’t think I’ve seen anyone put Pyr in his place well except maybe Mara, but hell that woman could boil water with a look. Not that your way was less impressive. God I wish I could have gotten a rec of that! The look on his face!” Jaysen proclaimed with a huge grin on his face.

I wasn’t really sure what to say to that, and I didn’t have to because Jaysen spoke first, “It’s because of that thing in you isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said bowing my head and running a free hand through my hair. “How did you know about that?”

Jaysen scratched his chin, “Well, Mara told me. I guess it explains why you were able to pilot the Overseer’s ship. And god, it probably won’t be long ’til those two jackasses find out too.”

“And, what do you think about that… the K’teth I mean?”

“Well, to be honest I don’t know what to make of it, but what I do know is that you saved us from those patrol ships, which is something I’m not going to forget!” He shook his head and looked at me with a grateful smile.

I swallowed and bit my tongue. I wondered what Jaysen would say if he knew it had been the K’teth that had piloted the transport and fought off the patrol ships and not me.

“Is it… is it going to change you all the way?” he asked suddenly fidgeting with his hands and staring at me with a nervous smile.

I nodded, “Yeah, so I’ve been told.”

“Oh, well… um why don’t we get you something to eat?” he said with a smile that didn’t quite hide the flash of envy mingled with revulsion that passed across his face.

I felt my eyes grow wide and for a very brief moment I let myself believe what Pyramus had said about Jaysen wanting to be a girl. If it were true it might explain the look he’d just given me, but then again I had to consider the source. In the end I decided to let the matter pass and watched as Jaysen turned away and moved to the center of the room where a line of cupboards were mounted to the wall.

The room had the look of a kitchen, but it was much larger than any kitchen than I’d ever seen. There were rows of cupboards, metal counters lined with dozens of cooking implements some of which even I didn’t recognize along with half a dozen ovens, automatic dishwashers and sinks. The compound the rebels occupied was huge and clearly was intended to house several thousand people.

“Jaysen, what is this place?”

Jaysen who had opened up a cupboard and was looking inside turned back to me with a rueful smile, “Well, Mara’s the one that found this place. She said it was built many decades before the war with the Qharr back when the world was still divided and the threat of conflict between the nations was a constant threat. This place was built in case the worst should happen and the North American Union got obliterated. Once the United Republic of Earth was formed this and other places like it were abandoned and forgotten about.”

“And how did Mara know about it?”

“Beats me. You’d have to ask her,” Jaysen shrugged and returned to the cupboard.

“Here,” he said suddenly tossing a bread sack at me.

I grabbed it out of the air and set it down on the counter then caught the next as it came soaring through the air toward me. “How many people live here in the compound?”

Jaysen walked slowly across the room and set a container down on the counter next to the others. “Well we’re up to twenty-three, counting you.”

“It’s getting close to lunchtime,” I mumbled with a quiet whisper. I looked around the kitchen and smiled, “Well they didn’t call me master cook for nothing. Might as well put my skills to use.”

And so I did.

I always liked to cook, but was constantly frustrated at the lack of nutritional eats that I had to work with. The Qharr gave us food, but only to fill our stomachs. They didn’t care how long we lived or if we were living healthy. The only thing that mattered to them was that we continue to work and the food they gave us was enough, in their eyes, to do just that.

Most days the best I was able to make was soup broth and simple unleavened bread, and the sort of food the rebels had access to wasn’t really any better. God, I didn’t know what I was expecting. It wasn’t as if they could go find an empty field and start planting crops. The Qharr would never allow that sort of thing and the rebel farmers would be found out in short order.

So, I ate a little bit of the bread–which was a few days old and very dry–then I got to work cooking the meal. I was in the process of cutting up a few stunted carrots when I heard the door creak open and turned to look and see who it was. Kaya was standing in the doorway and she looked pretty surprised to see me. She stood there with her mouth hanging open and I half-expected her to turn her back and disappear back through the door, but she did just the opposite.

“Jellfree…” she stepped through the door and let it swing shut behind her.

“What do you want Kaya?!” I snapped feeling that familiar anger boil up to the surface.

“I-I didn’t expect to find you here. It was my turn to prepare lunch and I thought I’d get an early start,” she responded looking back and forth between me and Jaysen. “Mara told me what happened to you but, God, I don’t think I really believed it. Shit, Jellfree I’m so sorry. I can’t help thinking that it’s somehow my fault. If I had included you in our plans maybe… maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”

I glared at her and said nothing. Jaysen grimaced and scratched his head, “I’m sure Jellfree doesn’t blame you. It might have happened even if he’d known. Right, Jellfree?”

“Why don’t you mind your own damned business?! This is between me and Kaya!” I yelled rounding on him with knife in hand my anger exploding out of me suddenly and without warning.

Jaysen eyes grew wide and he shook his head, “You know what… I think I’m going to step outside for a minute. Obviously something has happened between the two of you and I really don’t want to get involved.”

“Yeah, I think that would be a good idea!” I growled at him as he fled the room.

“There’s no need to pick on Jaysen, Jellfree. I’m the one you’re mad at so take it out on me!” She yelled.

“Alright then I will! What the hell am I supposed to do Kaya?! I loved you and it was all a damned lie! You put my life in danger and now everything is going to hell! I trusted you and you took advantage of that trust Kaya and now… God, Kaya… what am I supposed to do now? I just don’t know anymore!”

Kaya moved across the room and took my head in her hands. I tried to protest, but when her lips unexpectedly locked around mine all my anger suddenly fled. When we broke for air I stared down at her flabbergasted as she started to weep.

“Oh hell, if you hated me before you’re really going to hate me now. Jellfree, I-I love you and before you started to change I would have fought with every cell in my body to try and convince you that I wanted to be with you, but now… Hell I can’t. I do love you, but… God this is so hard. I wish there was some other way, but that kiss it didn’t feel right. I’m not attracted to women, and I can’t fight to be with you knowing that you’re changing into one.”

I started at her and slowly started to shake my head, “So that’s it? It’s over between us?”

She nodded and pursed her lips. Tears were flowing freely down her face and I wanted nothing more to scream and yell at her, but she looked so vulnerable… so sad standing there that it was all I could do to keep myself from wrapping my arms around her and tell her everything would be alright then I came to my senses. I glared at her, “It’s not fair.”

“I know,” she whispered. “We can’t be lovers, but maybe we can stay friends. I want to help you through this, Jellfree. It’s the least I can do after everything I’ve put you through.”

“I don’t know,” I scowled. “It’s going to take time Kaya. I can’t just pretend like nothing happened!”

She nodded tears flowing freely as she spoke. “I will do whatever it takes.”

I shook my head then grabbed some supplies out of the cupboard and turned back to her. “Well, I could use some help with this meal.”

Kaya sat down across from me and smiled as she set her plate down. I tore off a piece of food and held it out with my fingers before slipping it in my mouth and savored the taste of the freshly baked bread. “So, I guess I’m a rebel now. What exactly am I supposed to do?”

Kaya held her spoon out in front of me and pursed her lips with a thoughtful frown. “Well, I’ve been discussing that with Mara. She wants us to take some time off and get you trained before we move on to the next mission.”

I shook my head and tapped my fingers against the table. “You mean she wants to wait to see if I can be trusted.”

“Of course, you can be trusted! After what you did I don’t know how anyone could not see that!” Jaysen protested from his seat at the table next to Kaya.

“Kaya’s not the only one who’s had a talk with my aunt. She’s afraid of that damned parasite inside of me. Hell I am too. I can’t blame her for not trusting me I’d probably react the same way in her shoes. Maybe it would be better if you just locked me up and threw away the keys. If that K’teth gains control of my body–” I shuddered. “–who knows what it might do.”

“Your aunt…?” Kaya asked staring at me with wide-eyed confusion.

“What, she didn’t tell you?” I asked looking from Kaya then to Jaysen and back to Kaya. They each shook their heads and I let out a long sigh. “Well she says she was married to my uncle Harold. I don’t really remember, but I think I believe her. It’s weird, until yesterday, I’d forgotten I even I had an Uncle Harold.”

“Well, that certainly explains some things,” she said waving her spoon around then dropped it into her soup. “Look Jellfree we’re not going to lock you up. We’re fighting for our freedom and we need everyone we can get.”

“And if this thing gains control of me?”

“Then… I’ll do whatever’s necessary,” she said narrowing her eyes and saw just a bit of that manic fire come to life inside of her again.

I shuddered and locked gazes with her. There was no doubt in my mind if she thought the K’teth had taken control of me she’d do whatever it took to stop it, even if it meant taking my life. I smiled… I couldn’t live being a prisoner in my own body and if I became a danger I wouldn’t want to go on living knowing what it might force me to do. I think if anyone could find a way to kill me it would be Kaya and in a strange sort of way I’d rather it be her than some stranger.

“Sustenance!” a voice called from the other side of the bunker’s massive cafeteria. All our eyes turned to watch as Vakrexid came sweeping across the floor and halted in front of the large pot of soup I’d placed on the table in the next row over. He grabbed a bowl from the nearby stack and scooped some soup out of the pot. He lurched back into motion and plopped down at the table beside me.

“Hello Doctor!” Jaysen beamed.

“Hello all. It is most agreeable to see you,” he tooted and promptly dunked all three of his tubes in the bowl of soup. There was a strange sucking sound and within just a few seconds the doctor’s bowl had been sucked completely dry. Well, other than a few chunks of meat and vegetables that wouldn’t fit up his tubes.

The doctor cocked his head and touched me lightly on the shoulder. “Vakrexid would like you to pay a visit to my lab. I have unpacked some equipment that should allow Vakrexid to run tests on you without use of the scanner. Those tests will not be as conclusive, but there is little else I could do. ”

I nodded. “Sure thing doc.”

“Also, Vakrexid would like to encourage you to continue your transformation. I have procured a powercell which would be most suitable for this task,” he said absently rubbing at his tubes.

“You can’t be serious!” I protested staring at the doctor with my mouth hanging wide open.

“The process, it will be most unpleasant, I believe it would be a much easier adjustment if we sped it along. Vakrexid would much rather it be done under my supervision. If you were inadvertently exposed to a power source and the K’teth began to consume its energy the process could leave you weakened and unable to find aid.”

I sighed and pursed my lips. “Damned K’teth, I… I thought I would have more time.”

“The choice is yours of course. Vakrexid was merely suggesting what I thought was the most prudent course of action,” the doctor said running a finger along the inside of his bowl.

“I-I’ll think about it,” I muttered and promptly crammed another piece of bread into my mouth.

“Very well,” Vakrexid tooted then he suddenly lurched out of his seat and scrambled away with his empty bowl in hand.

I shook my head. “Such an odd creature. How exactly did the doctor get caught up in the rebellion?”

Jaysen shrugged. “I tried to ask him once, but all the doctor would say was that he had nowhere else to go.”

Kaya pursed her lips, “Mara told me once that the Qharr despise the doctor’s people, but that for whatever reason they have some rule against doing them any harm. The gray skins won’t lift their fingers against the doctor, but neither will they help him leave Earth. Mara says she’s known him for years, but he’s only been with the resistance for about five.

“You mean to say he was alone on Earth for almost twenty years without anyone to help him?” I asked finishing off the last little bit of my bread.

Kaya shrugged and shook her head. “Mara said once that the doctor is a part of a much larger puzzle about the Qharr one which most of the pieces were missing. She wouldn’t say anything more.”

“Well, maybe we can find the pieces,” I said dipping my spoon in the soup.

Kaya nodded then downed a mouthful of food and didn’t say another word. All the pieces… Then it occurred to me, maybe I’d already found one of the missing pieces. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was missing something about the K’teth something that would explain so many mysteries about our self-proclaimed masters, but there was still too much I didn’t know. God, if only that damned thing would speak to me again, but nothing seemed to catch its attention.

I sighed and continued to eat my soup and resigned myself to hoping the answers would come with time.

Just as we finished eating the rest of Kaya’s band started to show up. I recognized a few of them from the compound, but other than first Jaysen then Felix, I had never learned their names. The rest of them were new faces and they studied me with thoughtful expressions as they passed our table. Pyramus and Farris made an appearance too, but neither would look me in the eyes and went out of their way to avoid me.

“My dear Kaya, you’re looking absolutely breathtaking today, just as you always do,” a tall bearded fellow with fiery-red hair seating himself next to Kaya with a roguish lopsided smile on his face as he threw his arm around her shoulder.

Kaya rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. “Strave, so help me if you don’t remove that hand I’ll break that damn thing off.”

“You’d really do that? You’d really break my arm?” he asked his eyes growing wide in mock disbelief.

Kaya face stretched into a wicked grin and twitched an eyebrow. “I wasn’t talking about your arm.”

Strave chuckled and quickly slid his hand away. “Kaya my beloved queen of ice someday I will win your heart, I just know it.”

“It will be a cold day in hell, Strave,” she glared at him.

Strave grinned and shook his head. “So… you must be Jellfree,” he said his eyes suddenly darting across the table to land on me. “Everybody’s been talking about you. You’ve got Pyramus and Farris all fired up which is a surefire way to make friends around here. The name is Straffen McMillan, but all my friends–” he said pausing and glanced at Kaya before continuing. “–call me Strave.”

I choked. “The Straffen McMillan! God, you’re a real person! I always figured you were the product of someone’s over-active imagination.”

Strave grinned and stroked his beard, then turned to me lowering his voice. “Some of my exploits may have been exaggerated. If I’d done half the things that people say I’ve done, the Qharr would have had me hunted down and killed me long ago.”

I shook my head in amazement… Straffen McMillan was something of a folk hero among the slaves of North America. There were dozens of tales about him freeing slaves, and fighting Qharr with his bare hands each more ridiculous and over the top than the last. When people spoke of Straffen McMillan it was always in hushed tones out of earshot of the Qharr. I’d always enjoyed hearing the tales, because they always depicted the Qharr as the blood thirsty tyrants they really were, but I’d always figured them to be fiction. Perhaps, there was some truth to them after all.

Kaya snorted. “I’d say. Strave is pretty good in fight, I’ll admit that much, but the only reason he’s still alive is because he has more luck than any person has any right to have and an ego twice as big.”

“Kaya,” Strave said in mock-surprise, “I do think that’s the closest you’ve ever come to giving me a compliment. There’s hope for us yet!”

“Why don’t you leave Kaya alone, Strave? I think it’s pretty obvious she despises you,” Jaysen said suddenly.

“Jaysen my good friend, what would be the fun in that?”

He paused and looked at me with the spark of curiosity in his eyes. “Is it true? What they’re saying? That you’ve been… inhabited by some sort of creature one which grants you superior strength?”

I coughed then looked around the room. “Well that didn’t take long to get out.”

“It’s also responsible for giving him that face and it’s probably going to give him a body to match. So if you’re interested in having one of those things put inside of you I’m all for it. Maybe if you had a pair of breasts of your own you’d even leave me alone, for a change,” Kaya said glaring at Strave.

He grinned and let out a soft chuckle. “Kaya, my love for you is eternal. I’d be willing to go lesbian for you!”

Kaya rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. “Come on, Jellfree. I think I’ve had about as much of Strave for the day as I can handle. Why don’t I introduce you to the rest of the group?”

I nodded and gave Strave a sideways look before following Kaya to the next table. “Hey, Bentley!” Kaya called and then began the round of introductions.

Besides Pyramus, Farris, Strave, Kaya and Jaysen there were five other rebels in the room I had yet to meet.

Bentley Laden, was the first to step forward and introduce himself. He scowled and shook my hand, eying me with a set of cold blue eyes, before smirking and stepping aside to. My first impression of Marta Galday was an interesting one. Outwardly she seemed open and friendly, but there was something about the way she kept glancing into my eyes that made me uneasy.

“Name’s Territh Roggin,” a wizened little fellow stepped forward and clasped his hands in mine. He looked frail, but the firmness of his handshake definitely seemed to belie that impression. He grinned, displaying what few teeth he had left, then stepped away without another word.

“Uh, hi? I-I’m Nate Leeson,” a gawky kid stepped forward rubbing at the back of his neck. He reached out to shake my hand, but yanked it back and wiped it on his shirt. “Sorry, I’m a little sweaty. Been working out.”

He smiled and put a hand on the shoulder of the final member of the crew. She jumped and looked up at the kid with wide eyes. “This here is my cousin Loon Melowitz. She can’t really talk though. Her old qharr master cut her tongue out.”

Loona nodded and opened her mouth to demonstrate. I averted my eyes, and cleared my throat before returning my attention to the group as a whole. “Nice to meet you all. I’m sure you’ve heard all about me already.”

There were a few polite exchanges, but then things took a decidedly uncomfortable turn when they started up the questions. Most of them were about the K’teth symbiote and for the most part I really didn’t have any answers. I gave it my best, and the questions certainly didn’t get any easier to respond to. My answers were met with a lot of skepticism and distrust, and looking back I don’t think I handled it all that well, but considering the way I had been received it wasn’t all that surprising.

“Fuck it! You guys really think I have the answers! I’m through with all your damn questions! All I know is I have this thing in me! I don’t know why it’s doing this to me or what it wants, but I do know it scares the shit out of me and I don’t need you people badgering me for answers that I don’t have!” I snapped then went tearing out of the dining hall.

I stopped just outside the doors leaning against the wall and taking deep breaths as I fought down the vast array of emotions that I suddenly found myself confronting. My body had been invaded by an alien being and I had no idea what it was doing to me and on top of that I had been caught up with a group of rebels nearly all of whom were worried that I was under the influence of the entity.

“Jellfree,” Kaya said from the doorway.

“Leave me alone Kai,” I yelled thumping my head against the wall. “I don’t want to be consoled, especially not by you. I just want to be left alone.”

“Fine.” She folded her arms and stepped away before disappeared back down the hallway.

I stood there with my head still resting against the wall and let loose the torrent of tears. God… I hated what was being done to me. I knew there was no way I could stand up to that freaking parasite. It was fused to me like two metals melted into an alloy. How could I resist that?

I heard footsteps again, but this time they were coming from the opposite direction. I wiped the tears from my eyes and turned to find Mara standing at my side with a single raised eyebrow. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “Jellfree, dear, what wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine.” It was an obvious lie, but I didn’t want anyone else prying into my business.

She frowned and folded her arms across my chest. “If everything is fine why you were crying?”

“I-I, just leave me alone!” I yelled then shouldered past her and fled back to my room.

Chapter Seven

“Ah, Jellfree, sit, sit, sit!” the doctor said patting at the scanner bed as Mara and I stepped into the lab. Jaysen, my guard for the day, peeked inside, frowned, pulled something out of his jacket then let the door close in his face.

Mara gave me an encouraging smile, but didn’t say a word as I plopped down where Vakrexid had indicated. I stared at the doctor apprehensively as he moved about the lab and caught a glint of metal as he grabbed something off the counter then spun back around to face me. “Before you humans perfected the body scanner, your forebears used another means to find illness and infirmity within their bodies,” the doctor said holding out a plastic tube from which protruded a long metal needle.

“Well doctor!” Mara smirked. “It looks like you’re finally going to get a chance to use one of those things.”

“What the hell is it?” I asked, staring at the wicked looking thing in complete confusion.

“It’s a syringe, they used to use them to draw blood,” Mara said suddenly the very barest hint of a smile touching the corner of her lips.

“Draw blood?” I asked then I realized what she meant and turned sharply to eye the doctor warily. “You’re going to stick that thing in me aren’t you?”

“That is the function of this particular instrument. Vakrexid has practiced using it in the event of equipment failure, it will only be slightly painful but the pain will be gone quickly.”

“Damn, try to make it quick, just looking at that thing gives me the creeps.”

“Why did Vakrexid’s not cogitate with my dlepebur!?” the doctor proclaimed slapping an open palm against his forehead. “Vakrexid needs a tourniquet and something for sanitation!”

The doctor scrambled across the room and pulled open a drawer, grabbed something out of it, then quickly returned to my side with a sort of flexible rubber tube, a bottle filled with clear liquid and a white cloth. “Vakrexid needs your arm,” he said looming over me.

I sighed and held it out. The doctor slid his hand up my wrist and pushed the sleeve of my shirt up my arm. He cleaned the crook of my elbow with the cloth and liquid then grabbed the rubber tube and tied it around my arm. He held the syringe over my arm then plunged it into the vein. I gritted my teeth and as I felt a very brief sharp sting and I swear I could feel the needle inside my arm as blood filled the inside of the tube. Then it was all over, the doctor released the rubber tube and pulled the damned thing out.

“Vakrexid shall have the computer analyze this sample,” the doctor tooted.

I grunted. “Well that was fun… let’s do it again sometime.”

Vakrexid cocked his head, “Truly?”

Mara laughed, “No doctor, remember our little discussion on sarcasm?”

“Yes.”

He blinked his eyes and stroked his hand around his center face tube, “Humans! Vakrexid is continuously perplexed by your kind! Why do you persist in saying things and meaning something else entirely?!”

“Doctor, even humans sometimes have trouble understanding why we behave the way we do.”

“How strange,” he tooted then suddenly turned his back and walked out of the room.

I really, really hate awkward silences, so as you might imagine I was pretty miserable after the doctor left and I found myself languishing within such a ticklish situation. Silence. Mara didn’t say a single word, and I couldn’t think of a damned thing to say. I opened my mouth, thinking that maybe I might say something, but soon thought better of it and snapped my jaw back shut. Thankfully, the doctor wasn’t gone long and burst back into the room lugging a large cylinder about a quarter of a meter around in both his arms.

He let out a high-pitched whistle and lifted the cylinder onto the counter opposite me. “That is most cumbersome.”

“Vakrexid has put the computer to the task of examining your blood. It is very old and it shall take some time before the results are given. I wonder, have you given any thought about what Vakrexid said earlier concerning the continuation of your changes?”

“Shit, you’re not going to give up on this are you?!”

I dropped my face to my hands and slowly shook my head.

“Maybe it would be for the best,” Mara said suddenly.

“Oh god! What the hell has gotten you two so eager to let this damned thing have its way with me?!” I demanded letting my hands fall away from my face as I glared at her.

“There is a certain logic to it. Without letting it near a source of energy how long will it take the K’teth to change you weeks? Months? The sooner you are transformed the sooner we know if it will be able to take control of your body. I think that if I found myself in your situation and that horrid thing was changing me into a man, I’d rather have it over and done with. That way I wouldn’t have that horrible weight hanging over my head for so long. At least then it would be over!”

“Yeah, well it’s not happening to you!” I yelled. “What if by feeding that thing we give it the opening it needs to gain control of me?!”

‘I can only gain control if you give it to me and only then for a limited time,’ the symbiote’s voice echoed suddenly within my mind.

‘Where the hell have you been?! I demanded immediately aware just how much more well-spoken the creature seemed.

‘I haven’t gone anywhere. I have been working to complete the joining process so that we may better communicate because of this our minds were temporarily… disconnected, but that will no longer be an issue,’ the K’teth replied in an almost matter of fact manner.

‘You seem so much more well-spoken now,’ I noted.

‘A result of our bond being complete. It is very difficult to communicate when the joining process has first begun. Fortunately, once our minds are tied communication is no longer a problem.’

“Great, we can communicate. Just what I always wanted a damned voice in the back of my head. Fuck, this still doesn’t mean I can trust you.’

‘Trust must be earned. At the moment, you have no reason to trust me or I you, but perhaps we can find some common ground. We both want the same thing, after all.’

‘And that is?’

‘Freedom from the Qharr!’

“Jellfree!” A voice called urgently as a hand latched onto my shoulder.

I blinked and found Mara standing there next to me, her eyes were wide with worry as she spoke, “Jellfree, dear, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the K’teth it was speaking to me,” I mumbled reaching up to touch her hand.

‘She… call me she I am female,’ it suddenly insisted.

“It spoke to you? What did it say!?” Mara demanded.

“Among other things it… she says she wants to be free from the Qharr,” I responded.

“She?!” the doctor exclaimed suddenly stepping between Mara and myself. “The symbiote, it is female?”

I nodded. “That is what it claims.”

“Fascinating!” Vakrexid said then suddenly backed away from Mara who was glaring at him. “Apologies!” the doctor tooted shuffling away, “please continue.”

“I don’t care what that thing says. I do not believe it can be trusted… Maybe accelerating your changes isn’t such a good idea.”

Mara glanced over her shoulder, frowning at the doctor.

“No…” I said surprising even myself with the sudden change of heart. “Shit… I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I don’t think I want to prolong this any longer than I have to. If she takes over me then I’d rather know sooner rather than later. Just don’t hesitate to pull the trigger if you think that thing is the one calling the shots.”

Mara nodded, “Very well, I would be loath to terminate your life, but should the worst happen I will not fail to do what is necessary.”

The doctor made some strange comment, but I wasn’t paying attention I was too focused on what I knew I had to do. My eyes locked on the large cylinder which the doctor had toted into the lab. I was pretty certain it was a powercell, but there was no way to be sure. Well, there was only one way to find out I could try touching it and see if the symbiote reacted. Before anyone could so much as mutter a word of objection I leaped across the room and slammed my hand into it. For a moment, I thought that nothing was going to happen, but then I heard the K’teth’s voice howl in my head and it began.

Just like before light filled my vision and my ears started to buzz and then the pain came. It burned through my body like a wildfire and I screamed out in agony. It started out in my scalp and I felt it burn as hair gushed from my head in a single great eruption of blue that went flowing down my back in a shower of wavy ringlets and got so long that it flowed down past my waist. I could feel my skin ripple and gritted my teeth as the flesh on my neck and inside of my throat begin to twist and change. For a very brief moment I couldn’t breathe, and I clutched at my throat gasping for breath, but then air flooded back into my lungs. The pain seemed to subside for a bit then suddenly flared back to life and I let out a loud high-pitched wail when the bones in my right shoulder started to crack and snap.

The transformation gradually trickled down my arm and every bone, every muscle sizzled with pain until it finally stopped at the end of my finger tips. I gasped as my vision cleared just a little bit and brought my hand up so I could look at it. My entire arm was smaller and the hand itself was too. Before my fingers had always been short and stubby, but now the transformed one was long and delicate and it was very much the hand of a woman. The area around my right nipple started to tickle and I grabbed at it as it began to swell. There was a very brief flash of pain, but as the right side of my chest gradually bulged outward, the pain was almost nonexistent. When the tingling started around my left nipple I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for the left side of my chest to start growing. Sure enough after another very brief burst of pain the left side began to grow too. In very short order I had two full-sized breasts sticking out from my chest.

The changes rippled across my body and continued to my left shoulder and down my other arm. It hurt like hell and I fell to my knees my hand still latched onto the powercell as the transformations cascaded down my body. After my left arm came my abdomen and as my insides twisted and turned I felt my stomach rebel. I turned my head and spewed a seemingly never-ending stream of vomit all over the place. Then the pain hit my waist which produced even more cracks and pops before the ripples moved down into my crotch and hips.

I gasped and reached a hand into my pants and felt my penis retract into my body. I shuddered and slid my hand out of my pants as the changes continued. After that my hips swelled out then my legs shrunk one at time until finally it was over.

My hand fell away from the powercell and I slipped it into my shirt and felt a pair of lumps–‘no’, I corrected myself ‘they’re breasts’–sticking out from my chest. Hot tears stung my face and I gritted my teeth as I muttered the words, “Oh god, how could I have been so damn stupid?”

“Jellfree?!” Mara’s voice asked and I felt her hand on my shoulder.

I shuddered, reaching up to touch her hand. Everything felt so very different, even her hand on my shoulder. Not because she had changed in any way, but because the size and shape of my entire body had been altered so drastically.

“Dear lord… Jellfree are you alright?”

I shuddered anew and put my hand on the ground to push myself up, but quickly snatched it back up when I felt it touch something wet. I brought it up so I could look at it and found it covered in a thick brown, almost black, sludge and holy hell did it stink. I looked around and found that a large pool of it had formed around my body. My now over-sized pants and boots were drenched in it. Well, that and my vomit. I was amazed that I hadn’t noticed it sooner, but I think the pain from my transformation and the shock of finding myself so suddenly in a female body had been what had kept it from becoming immediately apparent.

“Dead flesh left over from the transformation process.”

A new voice said suddenly and I looked up to find the K’teth’s female human form, standing over Mara and me, seemingly made flesh.

“What the hell?!” I said suddenly blinking up at her.

The K’teth looked down at me and smiled. “Don’t worry Jellfree, I haven’t gained physical form. The image you are seeing is an illusion that you and you alone can see. I thought that if we could interact this way it might be less disconcerting for you.”

“Well, how considerate of you!”

“Jellfree?” Mara cut in. “Who are you talking to?”

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “That damned K’teth… She’s not just talking in my head anymore… She’s chosen to appear as a full-blown spook.”

She folded her arms across her chest and looked at me with a thoughtful expression, “Interesting.” She glanced down at my feet and frowned.

“What is it?” she said reaching down to touch the black goop on the floor, sniffed at it then scrunched her lose in disgust.

“Vakrexid would surmise that it is discarded tissue from the transformation process. The K’teth likely expunged it through Jellfree’s pores or perhaps her anus,” the doctor tweeted walking through the illusory form of the K’teth and kneeling down next to me.

I groaned at the doctor’s use of ‘her’, but didn’t try to correct him. Vakrexid may be the first person to use a female pronoun, but I knew he would not be the last. I certainly looked like a “she,” and had the body to boot, but hell I certainly didn’t feel like one. I still felt like myself on the inside; I’d just been stuck into a pretty little wrapper.

“I… shit I’m a mess.”

“God,” I added looking at my long and delicate-looking fingers. “It’s done… I’m really a woman now.”

“Amazement!” the doctor proclaimed flailing his arms wildly before turning to examine Mara’s face. “It is most remarkable, but Vakrexid believes you bear a striking resemblance to Mara.”

I locked gazes with Mara and saw her eyes grow wide in astonishment then she abruptly blinked and shook her head, “God, you’re right. How is that possible?”

The K’teth’s image rolled its eyes, and she knelt down next to me between Mara and the doctor.

“I used her genetic code as a partial template when remaking your body, is it really that hard to deduce?”

“You used her as a template?! And what gives you the right?! Why the hell did you do this to me?!” I screamed my hands shaking with sudden rage.

“Jellfree,” Mara said reaching out to grab my shoulder.

“I did what I felt was necessary. You don’t know what it means fo r me to find a host among a species other than the Qharr. It could mean freedom for my kind!”

She reached out my face and I suddenly jerked back when I felt the touch of her hand as if it were real.

“And… making me female? That was just for shits and giggles?!”

“That is a discussion for another time once we’ve gotten a little better acquainted,” she grinned then abruptly vanished.

“Dammit!” I cursed.

“What did it say?” Mara asked finally joining the doctor and the K’teth on the floor beside me.

I relayed what the symbiote had said about using Mara as a genetic template and her successive refusal to explain herself. Mara’s eyes widened slightly upon hearing the news and I got the sense that she found it very distressing despite the lack of emotion displayed on her face. I caught a flash of concern in Mara’s eyes as she let out a long sigh.

“Come, Jellfree dear, let’s get you cleaned up then we’ll try to help you through this.”

I wobbled on my feet and gripped the sides of the cupboards as I struggled to gain balance. I tried to take a step forward, but my foot slid and I nearly went tumbling to the ground. Thankfully, Mara was there to catch me.

“Crap…” I gasped and fought down the sudden urge to run away screaming like a mad… woman. It would have ended disastrously anyway I couldn’t seem to keep my balance in this damned new body.

“I think it would be helpful if you removed those boots of yours. At the very least I think you could move a little easier.”

“Vakrexid will help!” the doctor suddenly proclaimed.

The boots were coated in that god awful goop left over from my transformation, but the doctor didn’t show any hesitation as he moved to unlace the boots and helped me slip them from my feet. It didn’t do much to improve my balance, but at least I wasn’t wearing those huge clodhoppers anymore. My pant legs were coated in it as well and the doctor looked up at me, but it was Mara that spoke. “I think you’re going to have to remove your pants or else you’ll track that muck all over the place.”

I swallowed hard looking down at my pants in dread. My newly expanded hips were all that was keeping them from falling to my ankles, but removing them would leave my crotch bare for both Mara and Vakrexid to see.

“Oh, hell,” I said reaching down to the waist on my pants with shaking hands.

I closed my eyes, unfastened the button then undid the zipper and pushed my pants down from around my hips. I opened my eyes and looked down to see a full formed –and for some reason hairless– vagina resting between my legs. I wanted to weep, but I forced back the tears and gritted my teeth. As much as I hated it I was going to have to live with that infernal body for the rest of my life and I was going to have to accept it.

“The goop soaked all the way through your clothes.” Mara said, craning her neck to look over at the doctor. “Doctor, I don’t suppose you have any rags laying about, do you?”

The doctor blinked. “Nothing suitable to this task, Vakrexid is afraid.”

Mara sighed looked from me then to the doctor and then over to the door. She walked across the room then slid the door open a crack and poked her head out the opening. “Jaysen, do be a dear and go retrieve a towel or two.”

“Yes, ma’am,” came Jaysen’s muffled reply through the door.

“Oh, and Jaysen,” Mara added suddenly. “Why don’t you find Kaya while you’re out and have her retrieve an extra set of her clothes for young Jellfree here?”

Mara slid the door shut and I looked down at my bare crotch my cheeks burning bright red with embarrassment as I realized I’d been standing around the whole time with my privates exposed. I quickly covered up by yanking down on my shirt and pulling the ends down over my new vagina.

“Why’d you ask him to go get Kaya? I’d prefer to keep away from her for the time being.”

“I can understand how you must feel, dear, but I need you two to get past your personal issues if you’re going to be working together. We have a planet to retake, and as much as I can sympathize with your predicament, I can’t have these sort of problems getting in the way of what must be done.”

“I’m so sorry to have inconvenienced you. I didn’t ask for any of this, all I want is just a little space. Is that too fucking much to ask for?” I glared at her and felt hot tears sting the corner of my eyes.

She smiled and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and I cleared my throat before clearing my throat. I bit my lip and quickly changed the subject. Quite frankly, Mara confused the hell out of me and I didn’t know how to respond to her.

“You really think you can do it? I mean the gray skins have such a stranglehold on Earth. Even if you somehow managed to form a large enough force to drive them off they can call in reinforcements and quickly retake the world.”

“We will retake Earth, it’s just a matter of time.”

Though she didn’t raise her voice, her conviction almost made me believe, almost. She smiled coyly and I got the sense that there was something she wasn’t tell me, but I never got a chance to ask her as it was about that time that the door swung open.

“Hey, Maya I got some towels and clothes like you asked,” Jaysen said stepping through the door followed closely by Kaya then his eyes darted to the corner of the room where I was standing. “Oh,” was all he said as he stared at my with his jaw hanging open.

“Jellfree?” Kaya gasped bringing her hand up to her mouth. “God! Is that you?”

“I-I’ll just set these down right here,” Jaysen muttered his face bright red as he practically threw them onto the counter and fled out the room.

“I probably should have told him to knock before entering,” Mara grinned before turning to frown at Kaya. “Help me towel the bo… girl off would you?”

“Vakrexid will never understand this human obsession with… what is it you call it? Oh, yes modesty,” the doctor muttered absently. “On my home-world it is considered completely natural for-one to walk about unclothed supposing it is warm enough.”

I glared at the doctor and held up my arms so that Kaya–who had just finished toweling me off–could pull the shirt over my head. The fabric running against my nipples felt odd, and I shuddered as it came free. The exam room was cold and I folded my arms across my naked chest, to help cover them both for warmth and modesty.

“Damn!” Kaya proclaimed as she stared fixedly at my breasts.

“What?!”

Kaya shook her head and sighed.”Well, it’s just that you’re bigger up top than me.”

“I don’t think any of the women in my family were ever that busty if that creature used me as a template it certainly took some liberties.”

“If you two are through staring at me chest, can I have a damned shirt please?” I growled feeling very self-conscious as they stared at me.

Mara snorted then grabbed a shirt from the nearby stack and tossed it into my arms.

I held the shirt in my hands and looked down at the two balls of flesh poking out from my chest. They were pretty big, I had to admit, but not so huge that they appeared freakish. In fact, if they weren’t sitting there on my chest I would have found them to be quite glorious, but they were there and that was a pretty big problem or at least I certainly thought so. Hell they weren’t really much bigger than Kaya’s, but God who would have thought I’d end up with bigger boobs than my ex?

I slipped the shirt on and grimaced as my hair caught in the back of my shirt. It was insanely long and had grown down to the back of my knees. The end of it had gotten a little dirty from the black goop on the floor, but Kaya had toweled it off which had dried it up a bit. I slid the hair out of my shirt and shuddered a bit as the damp end slid up my back. I held a big handful of it in front of my face and grimaced.

“I don’t know why that thing gave you such long hair… and really blue? What’s that all about?” Kaya said her nose all scrunched up and her lips pursed.

“The hair I can handle,” I muttered glaring at Kaya irritably as I cupped my breasts in my hands. “It’s these damn things that I’m a little more concerned about, them and the freaking slit between my legs.”

Kaya grimaced. “Yeah, well… I can’t really say I know what it’s like on the other side of the fence, but I don’t think I’d be exactly thrilled if my chest flattened and I suddenly grew a cock and balls. I can’t say I’d really miss the periods, and it might be nice to be a bit stronger.”

“You sound almost like you might like to be changed.”

She shook her head and sighed. “There are a lot of things in my life that might have turned out a little differently if I’d been a man, but honestly being a woman is part of who I am. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.” She rubbed the back of her neck and cleared her throat before blushing and glancing around the room as if she’d said something she thought was embarrassing. “Well… all I can say is welcome to team girl.”

“Yeah, thanks just what I always wanted,” I responded dryly. “Can I have those pants now?”

“Oh! Right!” she Kaya responded tossing a pair of slacks at me.

“Thanks,” I said gratefully as I quickly grabbed them out of the air and pulled then up my legs.

“You know…” Kaya said crinkling her nose. “I think you need a bath. You really stink…”

I grimaced then held my hand out to her, “Lead the way.”

“It seems like such a waste to get dressed only to have to get undressed again.” I grumbled staring across at Mara and Kaya who both had their arms folded across their chests in near identical disapproving poses.

“Well,” Kaya grinned. “You could have walked through the hallway naked. I’m sure the guys would have liked that.”

I crinkled my nose and looked around the shower room and let a long sigh. I knew I smelled absolutely horrible, but I wasn’t all that eager to get naked again. It was strange, I know, but when I had clothes on I could almost pretend like I hadn’t been changed. Once, I stripped down I knew that I’d be confronted with my new feminine body and I didn’t know if I could handle it. Logically, I knew that all the parts were the same whether I was nude or clothed, but having to see my bare breasts and those damned vaginal lips between my legs… Hell, it wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to.

I shuddered ever so slightly then I started to strip down to my birthday suit and walked toward the nearest shower stall. The room itself wasn’t much different than the one back at the compound. The walls and floors were covered with plain white tiles and maybe half a dozen shower stalls. That really was the only big difference, the stalls. The Qharr didn’t really understand the human sense of modesty so they built shower rooms for humans slaves without any separators or dividers. They did at least have separate shower rooms for men and women, but that was only because they had this weird superstition about bathing in the same water as the opposite sex.

I looked down at my naked breasts then back at Kaya and Mara then made my way for the nearest of the stalls and closed the door behind me. I pressed the indentation in the wall in front of me and gasped as hot water come cascading down the shower head above me.

“Here,” came Kaya’s muffled voice and I looked down to watch as a bar of soap slid across the floor into the small gap at the bottom of the stall. I retrieved it from the ground and started to soap up my body. I tried to ignore the strangeness of it all, but the unfamiliarity of my new form prevented that and it wound up being the most unforgettable shower of my life.

I ran the soap over every nook and cranny and when I got down to my crotch my hand hovered over my pussy and I pursed my lips. I looked down and scowled at the damned thing before tracing my fingers across its surface. God! Those damned lips didn’t belong between my legs and as my hand came away I leaned against the side of the stall weeping silently.

“No, no, NO!” I screamed gripping the side of my head. How could I live like this? The body the K’teth had forced upon me felt so foreign and above all just wrong.

“Jellfree?” Kaya’s voice called through the door. “Is everything alright?”

I blinked away my tears and shuddered. “No, not even remotely, but I’ll live.”

“Jellfree…” Kaya’s voice called again.

“Just… let me finish,” I snapped. “The sooner I get out of here the better.”

Kaya didn’t say another word and I sighed looked down at the pair of boobs on my chest and moved to soap off the rest of my body. When I reached the end of my toes I grimaced and reached for my hair. It was way too long and I held the soap in my hand in front of my face realizing just how inadequate the little bar of soap was to the task, but did the best I could with it. I ran the soap through the hair, particularly at the bottom where it gotten saturated with that goop.

“Hey, Jellfree,” Kaya said suddenly. “You need something for your hair?”

“Now, you ask,” I grumbled under my breath. Why did she have to ask after I was done washing my hair?

“What was that?” she asked.

“No, don’t worry about it. I got it covered,” I replied back pursing my lips and staring at the soap before dropping it and shaking my head. Well, at least I was done. I flipped the stall door open and I stumbled out. My sense of balance was still a little off and I was pretty wobbly on my feet.

Kaya held a towel out for me and I let her wrap it around my shoulders as I approached. “Where’s Mara?” I asked looking around the room and shivered as Kaya started to rub me dry.

“She left… she said there were some things she had to take care of,” she shrugged with a slight frown.

Kaya’s hands reach down to my crotch and my eyes grew wide as I let out a high-pitched squeal, “Kaya! Good God woman! Could you be just a little more rough with that towel, please?”

Kaya’s cheeks turned red and she looked down to the floor. “Sorry.”

“Damn.” I muttered grabbing a fistful of my hair and holding it in front of my face. “Do you think you could lob some of this off? It’s driving me nuts!”

Kaya threw her head back and laughed, “Yeah, let’s get you dry then we can see what we can do with that hair of yours.”

“Would you stop moving!?” Kaya yelled grabbing hold of my chin.

“Well if you hadn’t clipped my skin I wouldn’t have jerked!” I yelled back touching the side of my neck gingerly. It wasn’t a serious injury, in fact I doubted that it would even scar, but god it hurt.

“Alright, let’s see,” she mumbled reaching up to pull my hand away. Then I heard her gasp and proclaim “Holy fucking shit!” as the pain in my neck suddenly faded away.

“What!? What is it?” I asked grabbing her shoulder.

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Your neck just healed itself!”

“Oh, yeah that,” I muttered. “I guess the symbiote can heal injuries. I had a broken arm from killing the Overseer and after I woke up here for the first time it was fine.”

‘You’re welcome,’ a voice whispered inside of my mind.

‘Go to hell,” I shot back. ‘I’d rather live a few months with a broken arm than be infested with you!’

“Damn,” Kaya cursed. “I could see that coming useful.”

I shuddered briefly cupping my breasts before looking up to Kaya. “Yeah, but I think the price is a little too steep.”

Kaya nodded then resumed cutting my hair. She was silent for several minutes then startled me by suddenly speaking, “It’s my fault.”

“W-what?!”

“If you hadn’t stepped in to save me, you never would have had that parasite jump inside of you,” she said wiping tears away from her eyes.

I bowed my head and let out a weary sigh. “Kai, don’t… It’s not your fault. It might have happened even if I hadn’t knocked you out of the way. It’s not good to second guess ourselves we could have all been killed. Besides, the K’teth is a thinking reasoning being, she’s responsible for her own actions just like you and me.”

“I-I’m sorry not just for that, but because of everything else. I feel horrible for the shit I’ve put you through. You probably won’t believe this, but I still love you. When I kissed you, after you started to change, it just felt so wrong. I… can’t be with someone I’m not attracted to. No matter how much I wish it could be different!’

I bowed my head and shed a few tears of my own before speaking. “Kai, I can’t forgive you… not yet. I can understand why you chose to keep the truth from me, but it doesn’t make it right.”

“I know.”

“It will be a while before I’ll be able to trust you again, but I don’t think we can go on avoiding each other. That’s probably why Mara left when she did because she knew it would force us to talk. I want this to end, if we can’t be lovers, maybe we can at least be friends.”

Kaya smiled wiping away the tears. “I’d like that, and… I’ll find some way to make up for what I’ve done, I swear it.”

I closed my eyes and nodded, “Now, do you think you can finish this haircut?”

“Yeah,” Kaya replied reaching up to grab a fistful of hair. “I still don’t get it… Why blue?”

‘It’s the mark of a host that has been joined with a K’teth,’ the symbiote said.

I ignored the K’teth and glanced at Kaya, but didn’t say a word as my ex-lover continued. “Still… It is sort of a pretty color and it doesn’t really subtract from your beauty… If anything it makes you look exotic especially with those eyes.”

“Oh, boy, I’m exotic, just what I wanted to hear.”

Kaya chuckled and clipped a few more hairs before stopping and proclaiming, “There I think that just about does it!”

I wiped all the excess hair away then climbed back onto my feet and carefully walked across to the north wall where a large mirror took up nearly the entire wall. I stopped, carefully studying the face I saw reflected back at me. The woman in the mirror was beautiful, a real knock out, and I could hardly believe that what I saw was actually my reflection. I ran my hand through my hair which now stopped just past my shoulders and watched in morbid fascination as the woman mirrored my movements.

“That… that isn’t me!” I screamed at the woman in the mirror and turned my back on her unable to stomach the very visual reminder of what had been done to me. Of course, it didn’t change anything I was still trapped in the wrong body and though I’d only had it for a very short time, I was becoming increasingly aware of just how strange it felt. Every time I so much as crooked a finger I could feel the difference.

“I’ll catch you later Kai,” I muttered under my breathe seething with rage. “I think, I’d like to be alone for a while.”

Chapter Eight

“Dammit!” I cursed throwing the blankets off of me and springing out of bed. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter what position I got in, my breasts and hips kept getting in the way. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair–briefly entertaining the idea of putting it into a ponytail– before moving across the room and swinging the door open.

A shadow appeared in the doorway and it took me a moment for my eyes to adjust enough for me to be able to tell what it was. “Felix?” I asked squinting into the light.

The figure nodded and stepped out of the way. “Yeah.”

“Look, I can’t sleep… I thought I might take a little walk. Is that alright?”

“Fine.”

I stared up at Felix thoughtfully realizing for the first time that he had to be a good twenty centimeters taller than me where before he’d only had about seven or eight centimeters on me. In my new form I was tall for a woman–about a meter and a three-quarters–and I was even taller than Kaya and Mara, but many men, except Jaysen of course, towered over me and it was something I guess I was going to have to get used too.

I took one last look at Felix then turned away and started walking down the hallway with no real destination in mind and Felix trailing a little way behind me. I don’t know how long I walked, but the whole time I just kept thinking about what had been done to me. I briefly considered that I might attempt to summon the K’teth and try to grill it for more information, but I wasn’t in the mood to confront her at the moment. So, I just wandered and pretended that Felix wasn’t following me. Eventually, I found my way to the kitchen and I took a good hard look at the doors before pushing my way through them.

There came a loud clatter and a figure with a shock of red hair swirled around to face me. “Oh, thought you were Pyr and Ferris the two of them have been looking to filch my stash for a while now, but as yet haven’t managed to find it,” Straffen grinned then he furrowed his brows and stared at me for a moment. “Jellfree?” he asked his eyes growing wide in disbelief.

“In the flesh,” I said pursing my lips and did my best not to wither under his gaze.

“Well… I think you need this more than me, but–” he said digging through the cupboard and setting a large bottle of amber liquid on the counter in front of me. “–the good news is there’s enough for us both to get good and drunk.”

“Drunk?” I blinked.

“Yeah, drunk… You know as in intoxicated, inebriated, under the influence, looped, smashed, tanked, loaded, bombed…” he trailed off grinning like the rouge that he was.

I put my hands on my hips and sighed. “I know what drunk is… I just… I’ve never…”

“Been drunk? Well, Jellfree, my good…” he trailed off looking at me thoughtfully, “…woman tonight that’s gonna change.”

“Uh… thanks but I—” I started to say, but stopped abruptly when Strave suddenly called out.

“Felix, my good man! Care for a drink?!”

Felix… Shit I’d completely forgotten about him. I looked over my shoulder and watched as Felix silently folded his arms across his chest and frowned at Strave disapprovingly.

“Ah Felix, my friend, chatty as ever I see!” Strave grinned before turning away and began to dig through the cupboard again. Finally, he poked his head out and slammed three glasses down on the cupboard just to his side. “Felix man, you sure you don’t want a drink?” Strave said pouring some of the amber liquid into the first glass.

Felix shook his head with a disapproving frown as he replied with a very firm, “No.”

“Your loss.” He shrugged and turned to look at me with a glass full of booze.

“Thanks, but I…”

“Trust me, you’ll thank me later. There ain’t no better way to drown yourself in your sorrows and believe me I think if I’d just been transformed into a woman, and a devastatingly beautiful one at that, if you don’t mind me saying, I’d drink myself stupid.”

I stared at the glass and hesitantly took it from his hands before bring it to my lips.

“God that tastes awful!”

I proclaimed after taking a very small sip. It tasted like… crap I didn’t know what it tasted like, but I do know that it burned going down.

“You drink this stuff… willingly?” I coughed holding the glass in front of my face and scowled at it.

Strave laughed. “Its damned god awful I’ll give you that, but it’s not really about taste now is it? The goal here is to get blind stinkin’ drunk.”

I jiggled the cup in my hand for a second, sighed, shrugged and then downed the rest of the glass. It didn’t taste any better going down the second time, but it didn’t seem to burn quite as badly. I shuddered, then held out the glass to Strave and coughed. “More, please.”

“That’s more like it!”

I don’t really remember much after the first couple drinks. I remember talking to Strave a little bit about the K’teth and my life before meeting up with the rebels, but the rest is all murky. After the final glass, I do remember having enough presence of mind to stagger back to my room and collapse into bed

 

Chapter Nine

“Jellfree!” a familiar voice called urgently drawing me out of the darkness.

“Kaya?”

I groaned and fought to open my eyes. My lids felt far too heavy and it took all my willpower to just to get them to open a tiny little sliver. A bright light filled my vision and I moaned before bringing up a hand to block it out.

“Jellfree,” Kaya’s voice repeated. “God, I’ve been trying to wake you for almost five minutes.”

I sat up slowly. “What time is it?”

“Almost ten thirty… Are you alright? You really don’t look so good.”

I palmed my face with both hands blocking out the light. “I feel like I got ran over by pack of dre’ks.”

“Are you gonna be alright?”

“God… if I’d known when Strave offered me that drink that I’d wind up feeling like this I never would have accepted,” I grumbled brushing my hair out of my face.

Kaya snorted. “Well that certainly explains it, you’re hungover. Although, I think you really could have displayed a little better judgment. Strave is only out to cause trouble. Spend any time around him and you’re bound to get burnt.”

I collapsed back onto the bed. “Come back later… Jellfree’s not home right now.”

Kaya let out a long sigh and I could practically hear her roll her eyes as I felt her arms on my shoulders. “Come on get up. You need to get hydrated and then you need to get into the shower. Trust me, it helps.”

I gritted my teeth then let Kaya help me up off the bed. “I think I’m going to puke,” I said and promptly did just that spewing bile all over the floor in front of me.

“Well fuck, there’s no way in hell I’m cleaning that up,” Kaya muttered just before guiding me out the room.

“Feeling better?” Kaya muttered taking a seat next to me.

I gripped the side of my head and nodded. “Just a little.”

“Isn’t that thing inside of you supposed to help along the healing process?”

I nodded taking another long sip from my glass.

“Then why did this hangover hit you so hard?”

“Well, I’d say it’s because alcohol effects me as much as it does you,” a voice pronounced suddenly from my side.

“Holy hell!” I proclaimed and swirled around to find the image of the K’teth staring at me with a sardonic smile on her illusory face.

“Oh, great you again,” I groaned clutching at my head and willed the pain to go away.

“What is it? It’s that thing again, isn’t it?” Kaya asked, clamping down on my arm with claws made of iron or at least that’s it felt like.

“Yes, it’s her. Now, would you let go of my shoulder, freaking crap Kaya!”

“Sorry,” Kaya muttered with an apologetic smile as she released her talons.

“Do me a favor… don’t ever drink again. The headache is just a killer!” the K’teth sighed reaching around my shoulder to trace her arm across my back.

“You have a head?” I blinked.

“No, my physical form is…” she trailed off looking thoughtful. “Well I’m pretty much shapeless. Before my kind first join with a host our bodies, for lack of a better word, are a milky-white formless goo that’s just thin enough to be malleable. Now as far as the headache goes, I feel whatever you feel.”

“Oh, well that’s just fascinating, really.” I replied dryly. “But can you shut up now and leave me alone!?”

“Jellfree, what is it say–” Kaya started but I cut her short.

“This is difficult enough without having to recap everything, Kai. Just be quiet and I’ll fill you in later,” I growled irritably.

“Okay,” Kaya muttered looking hurt.

“Jellfree…” the K’teth said thoughtfully. “You know that’s such a masculine name you should really think about changing it.”

“Is there a reason you’re here or have you just come to pester me?”

“Jellfree, Jellfree, Jellfree,” she muttered, absently stroking my face.

“Would you cut that out!” I yelled grabbing at her arm, and grumbled as my hand passed right through hers. “How the hell are you doing that anyway?! Why can you touch me, but I can’t touch you?!”

“I’m not touching you in the truest sense… I’m merely manipulating your senses to make it seem as if I am.” She smiled running a hand down my neck.

I scrambled off my seat and moved halfway across the room. “Stop it!”

The K’teth rolled her eyes held up her arms then tucked them under her pits. “Oh, very well. I’ll keep my hands to myself, I swear.”

“That’s better,” I said retaking my seat between the K’teth and Kaya. “Now, you’re going to answer some questions.”

“Oh, very well. I suppose I owe you that much, at least,” she replied back letting out a long sigh.

“For someone who claims to want freedom for her people, you sure have an odd way of showing it. If it were me I’d be as forthcoming as possible.”

She smiled, and her lips cracked into a smile before she replied. “Why is it so hard for you to understand? You’re human and until recently we were enemies. Would you be so quick to give me information if you were a voice in the back of my mind? Be that as it may I’m willing to give you some answers. Perhaps you should take advantage of the situation.”

I stared at her for a moment, and then slowly started to shake my head. “Do you have a name? We could be stuck together for a long time. I just can’t keep calling you ‘the K’teth’ can I?

She smiled and stroked her chin thoughtfully. “A name? I’ve never had one… My previous host, the Overseer, called me, g’tel the Qharr word for pet. I’ve been called many different things by my hosts, although most just called me K’teth. No member of my species has a name; at least none that I know of; the masters do not see a reason for us to have one.”

“Well, you better come up with one because I’m not going to call you g’tel and I’m certainly not going to keep calling you K’teth!”

She grinned then let her hand fall away from her chin and land in her lap. “Name myself? What a novel idea! The more time I spend with you Jellfree the more I like you. I think I’m really going to enjoy being joined with you. Now let’s see a name… Oh! I’ve got it. ‘Khala’ it’s an old word in one of the many ancient Qharr languages. It means freedom.”

“Alright, Khala now you’re going to tell me why you did this to me and this time I want a real answer! Don’t pussyfoot around! ”

“Should have figured you’d ask me that! You don’t understand… you could never understand what it means for my kind to find another race to which we can become joined. For over ten thousand years we have been the faithful servants of those you call the gray skins and what do we get in return for our service?! We are treated little better than trained beasts to do their bidding!” She yelled her eyes alight with rage as she spoke her anger seeming to build with each syllable, but it didn’t just show on her face. It swirled around her in whirling ribbons of fire and great bursts of illusory smoke.

“You think I don’t know what it’s like to be trampled under the feet of the Qharr!? They invaded this world, my home, and murdered billions of my people. When I was four years old I watched a hunter murder my parents right in front of my eyes and was forced to serve that same bastard as he rose through the ranks of the Ascendancy for over twenty-four years! Don’t tell me I wouldn’t understand!” I screamed that all too familiar rage bubbling inside of me.

“I suppose you do…” she admitted staring down at the floor and biting her lip. “If we worked together maybe we could–”

“Okay stop right there!” I interrupted. “I’m not buying the act. You expect me to trust you?! For all I know this is just some big show put on for my benefit! And you still haven’t explained why you did this!” I proclaimed grabbing at my breasts.

“I was getting to that… I didn’t want to just spring it on you without an explanation,” she said standing up and started to pace back and forth. “The truth is I’m no ordinary K’teth. I’m a H’ra, I guess you could call me a queen, I’m one of only a handful of my kind capable of reproduction and I need a female host along with her womb and ovaries in order to breed.”

My insides froze and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, “Oh God. Oh hell… you can’t I won’t let you! You’re not going to use my body for that!”

“Use your body for what?” Kaya interrupted suddenly and my eyes shot toward her having completely forgotten that she was there.

“To spawn more of those… things!” I howled.

“Oh god! How?! Why!?” Kara asked her eyes growing as big as saucers.

“Yes, why?!” I said rounding on Khala.

“The K’teth were engineered so that our ability to reproduce was contingent on whether we were joined with a host. Because of thast we have always been dependent on the Qharr, but now…”

“But now you have me,” I finished folding my arms across my chest and clutched at my gut feeling the bile rise in my throat. What the K’teth wanted to do with my body made me want to run away screaming, but there was no running from the K’teth. Anywhere I ran I’d be taking her with me.

“So you understand now why having a human host would be important to me. You’ve brought hope were before there was none,” she said grabbing me by the shoulder and stared into my eyes intently.

“Oh, I understand… I understand that I have absolutely no reason to trust you or to believe anything you said. You could just be telling this to try and gain my sympathy and if you are telling the truth I’m not going to let you use my body to create more freaking parasites!” I shuddered screaming at the top of my lungs.

Khala glared at me, before disappearing with a suddenly flash of light accompanied by a loud boom, like a thunderclap. ‘It is already too late. My daughter was already growing within Jahal for nearly three months when you killed her. I was able to save her by bringing her into your body’ the symbiote’s voice reverberated through my head howling with inhuman intensity.

“Oh god!” I yelled out loud and clenched the side of my head.

My hands shook and I looked over to where Kaya was still staring with her saucer-like wide eyes. God, she was so beautiful and I wanted so badly just to lose myself in her comforting embrace, but I couldn’t. Oh, I had no doubt she would comfort and hold me, but our relationship had been changed dramatically. When she held me it wouldn’t be as a lover, it would be as a friend. I couldn’t hold the tears back and longer and they come pouring out of my eyes as Kaya grabbed hold of me and held me in her arms.

“You must know that I find this revelation particularly disturbing,” Mara said thrumming her hand against the desk her lips pursed in a thoughtful expression.

It had been almost two hours since Khala had dropped her bombshell on me and since then I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t go away. It had been Kaya’s idea to tell Mara, and while I had resisted at first I was beginning to think that maybe it was for the best. If I was going to gain the rebel’s trust I had to be upfront and honest with them, but a part of me worried that they’d turn me out and leave me to fend for myself. I didn’t have anywhere else to go and I think Mara knew that. If I allowed the Qharr to recapture me I kind of doubted that they would take too kindly to a human joined with a K’teth.

“Yeah,” I muttered folding my arms across my chest. “You’re not the only one.”

“I can imagine.”

She pursed her lips then let out a long sigh. “Well, I appreciate you coming to me with this. It shows you’re willing to cooperate.”

“So what exactly do we do?” Kaya asked her hands clasped in her lap.

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea. This is an unprecedented situation… I suppose we’ll have to wait the creature out and see what happens when the infant K’teth fully matures,” Mara replied as she continued to tap her fingers against the surface of the desk.

“Since you are here, there is something I’d like for you to try.” Mara abruptly stood and slowly moved across the room.

“This belonged to your uncle Harold,” she said setting a small cylinder about as wide around as my index finger on the desk in front of me.

“What is it?” Kaya asked reaching out to touch it.

“The both of you are probably too young to remember, but before the invasion these were quite common. It’s called a biometric key, it’s keyed to the genetic code of the owner… in this case your uncle Harold. He and I both had one, but mine was destroyed during the invasion. Because we never had any children he had the key imprinted with both you and your sisters genetic patterns as a failsafe. There were a total of five keys, one each for both Harold and myself and three others for the other founders of the resistance,” she said picking it back up and twirled it around in her hand.

“Why didn’t he have his key imprinted with your genetic code?”

Mara smiled. “These keys are designed to hold a maximum of three patterns. My key was encoded with mine along with my sister and her son’s patterns. We felt it was better to imprint the keys with the maximum possible number of genetic patterns rather than have redundant ones. Unfortunately, since my key was destroyed and the other three are unaccounted for this is my last hope.”

“And my sister is the only one who can use it,” I added. “What does it open, if I might ask?”

Mara frowned and I felt her eyes on me as she studied me thoughtfully, “Something important to humanity’s survival.”

I bit my lip and fought down the urge to ask her for clarification. I knew she was holding back and I really wanted to know what the key opened, but I had the feeling that she was holding out because of Khala. If she didn’t want the K’teth to know it was probably best that that she didn’t even if it meant keeping me in the dark.

I grimaced then reached up to touch the key. As soon as my fingers wrapped around the small cylinder I could feel its energy pulsating from a tiny power supply encased within just begging for me or rather Khala to drain it all away. I fought against the sudden urge and flipped the cylinder around in my fingers before holding it out to Mara. “How can you tell if it works?”

Mara let out a long weary sigh and picked it out of my hand. “The end would have lit up if it recognized you, but I would venture a guess that there isn’t enough of your original genetic pattern for that to happen.”

“Shit, well… I hope it’s nothing too important,” I said staring up at her and cursed Khala silently.

“More than you could ever know,” Mara said with a very slight tremor. She bit her lip then turned to Kaya, “Kaya, I hope you don’t mind I’d like some alone time with Jellfree here. There are some things I think the two of us need to discuss.”

“Sure, I mean, why wouldn’t you? I bet you two have plenty to talk about.”

“I have something you may be interested in,” she said pulling open a nearby drawer once Kaya had left.

“I don’t have many possessions left over from before the invasion, but I did manage to squirrel away a few photographs among other things. This one in particular, I think would be of interest to you,” she added holding out a plain off-white envelope.

I took it and glanced up at her before carefully opening it and pulling out the photo within. As I examined it, I found myself looking upon the face of a vaguely familiar looking woman and a man who shared a striking resemblance to my former male self. I took a sharp intake of breathe and traced my hands across the image of my parents. I felt tears well up in my eyes then reverently slide the picture back into the envelope and gently set it down on the desk in front of me.

“Thank you,” I muttered, wiping the tears from my eyes.

Mara picked the envelope up then help it back out to me. “Take it. It’s yours.”

“Oh no!” I protested. “I couldn’t!”

“Jellfree,” Mara said looking at me flatly. “That photo has more meaning to you than it ever will to me. Please, I insist.”

“Thank you,” I said smiling gratefully then grabbed the photo off the desk and looked up at Mara thoughtfully. “What were they like, my parents, I mean. I don’t remember them that well and I was hoping that maybe you could tell me something about them.”

“Oh, child,” she whispered softly. “I wish you could have known them better. Your mother was one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever known. She was one of those people who could light up a room just by stepping inside. Your father, was a quiet man, but when he spoke it usually to say something important,” she paused a moment and a smile touch the corners of her mouth. “He had a way of unexpectedly saying the most insightful things at the most pertinent times.”

I swallowed hard trying to fight down the surge of emotions that threatened to overtake me. All my life I’d wanted to know more about my parents, but now that I had the opportunity I couldn’t think of anything to ask or say.

“Were they good people?” I finally managed to choke out.

Mara nodded. “They were wonderful people and they loved you and your sister with all their hearts.”

“Thank you,” I whispered. “And…Harold, your husband, what was he like?”

Mara frowned and smiled wistfully. “Harold was a colonel with the United Earth Defense Fleet and he was a good man. Stubborn, like your father, but that’s where the similarity ended. Never, have I met a set of twins who were so different yet they were as close as any two brothers could be. Harold was outspoken, the man had an opinion about everything,” her smile expanding into a grin. “Sometimes I thought he never closed his mouth. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. I miss him.”

“He died during the invasion?” I asked.

Mara shook her head. “He died about about ten years ago when the gray skins attacked the base he and his team were hiding in.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. One day soon they will pay for what they did to Harold, and your parents… and all the other people they murdered!”

“God, I hope so,” I muttered staring back at her.

“Now,” Mara said finally. “Enough about that. I think I’d like to hear a little about you, Jellfree. Tell me about yourself.”

I pursed my lips, closed my eyes then told her about my life being with the death of my parents and my enslavement to the gray skins. I took me a long time and when I was finally done, I felt almost as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d never really told anyone my story, save Kaya, and to do so now… in a way it felt pretty good to get it all off my chest. It wasn’t easy, I’d witnessed a lot of horrors and had suffered a great deal at the hands of Qharr and by the time I was done, I couldn’t keep myself from sobbing.

Suddenly, I felt Mara’s arms around me. “Oh Jellfree, I wish I could take some of your pain away,” she whispered then with a trembling voice she started to tell me her story.

During the war she served as an intelligence operative, and when it became obvious that humanity was going to lose, she and a small group of others, including my uncle, began to stockpile weapons and supplies. They searched through old historical records and found mention of places like the old shelter Mara had made a home, where they could hideaway and start their rebellion.

They continued to fight against overwhelming odds never giving up and never letting setback destroy hope. Then about ten years ago, they were betrayed and the gray-skins found many of their bases, including the one run by Harold. In just a few days the rebellion had suffered a terrible blow and only a handful of the original members remained, including Terreth Roggin, Mara, a woman by the name of Soula Marcone, and a fourth known as Alica Penrod.

It was only recently that they’d begun to recoup their losses and pose a threat to the Qharr again. They recruited from the slave populace often selecting members who were old enough to remember what earth was like before the invasion or else young men and woman who still hadn’t had their spirits broken by their masters.

The strike against the Overseer hadn’t been the first offensive after those gray-skinned bastards had decimated the rebel’s numbers, but it had been one of the most bold in some time. Time would only tell if taking down such a prominent official within the ascendancy would prove to be a boon or bane to the cause. I just hoped if things went sour I wouldn’t be around to find out just how bad they could really get.

Chapter Ten

For three days I sat around and did well… nothing. For more than twenty-four years I had worked every day of my life and then to suddenly have nothing to do with myself well it was a new feeling. I felt antsy, and I didn’t like it at all. I needed something, anything to do, but the rebels seemed content to let me sit around and twiddle my freaking thumbs. Kaya kept me company, but sometimes having her around hurt more than being alone.

Of course, being a woman was beyond strange and I every time I so much as moved one of my fingers I could feel the difference. Having breasts was the strangest part of it all; they bounced and jiggled along with being tender and sensitive in unusual ways. It was a little strange having wide hips, but not as odd as a freaking clit between my legs. You don’t truly appreciate something until it’s gone and believe me I was really missing having a cock and balls.

Things did finally pick up after the third day which is probably a good thing because I think if it had been much longer I’d probably have driven myself slightly mad…

“Hey,” a familiar soft-toned voice muttered.

My eyes snapped open and I let out a soft groan and blinked away the grogginess from my eyes. I sat up and found Jaysen standing just off to the side of the bed. He frowned and stared down at the floor as he fiddled with his fingers, “I-I didn’t think you’d be sleeping at this time of day.”

I shook my head and let my hair slide off my shoulders and down my back. “It’s not like there’s much else to do.”

“W-well um, actually Terreth stopped by and asked that we join him. He thought you might want to train and maybe learn to use your new abilities,” he mumbled.

“You mean Khala’s abilities, don’t you? The things I can do they’re all because of her. Do you really think it’s such a good idea if I learn how to use them?”I asked running a hand through my hair as I let out a long sigh.

“I-I don’t know, but what else are you going to do? Live your life holed up in this room and let the world pass you by? You have a life, live it or else that thing in you has won.”

I blinked and stared at Jaysen in surprise, the statement was downright startling coming from him. “You’re right. Maybe I can do some good with these abilities, but I wouldn’t ever find out if I sat around all the time moping about.”

I slid off the bed and stood up, but as I did so I caught a brief glimmer of envy flash across Jaysen’s eyes and I remembered what Farris had said about Jaysen being a sissy who wanted to be a girl. I had ignored the comment before because I had figured it to be a lie, but after seeing that look in Jaysen’s eyes for the second time I was beginning to think it there may have been some truth to it after all.

“Jaysen,” I pursed my lips. “When Farris said you wanted to be a girl. He was telling the truth, wasn’t he?”

His eyes mists up and he shuddered. “Yeah.”

It was strange just a short while ago I would have been incredibly uncomfortable with the notion, but having been transformed into a woman I could understand how he must feel. I’d only been living in the wrong body for a short while, but that time had been absolutely miserable. For Jaysen to have lived that way his entire life, it must have been pure torture.

“I’m sorry it must be hard for you to see me end up like this while you’re stuck in that body.”

“Yeah, you could say that, but it can’t be easy for you. I know what it’s like being trapped in a body that you don’t belong in. You can never forget your pain because the very skin you live in is a constant reminder of it. No one understands, they all treat you like some sort of freak even if they pretend to tolerate you there’s always that spark of doubt in their eyes,” he said then clamped his mouth shut as if suddenly realizing that he’d told a little more than he intended.

“God Jaysen I–” I said, but stopped short when I glanced over to the doorway and saw the doctor poking his head through the door.

“Is Vakrexid interrupting?” he tooted.

“No!” Jaysen said a bit too forcefully.

The doctor titled his head. “It is good I have come then. I heard that you were going to attend a training session. Vakrexid has wanted to document your physical abilities for some time.”

“Jellfree and I were about to leave. You want to join us?”

The doctor let out a trumpeting high pitched wail. “Vakrexid would be most pleased to do so.”

“Come on! Let’s go then!” Jaysen said and promptly traipsed out the door.

“He is most eager,” Vakrexid pronounced and promptly followed him out the door.

I shrugged, looked around the room then likewise followed suit.

“Come on, boy, put some meat in it would you? Surely, you can do better than that!” Terreth Roggin screamed at the top of his lungs as Jaysen, the doctor, and I stepped into the dining hall.

“I’m doing the best I can Roggin! Now would you just shut up?! Why don’t you give it a go and see how well you do?” Nate spat from the bench where he was lifting a long bar with several cylinders attached at the ends.

As Nate continued to lift the odd bar up and down I looked about taking in my surroundings. The room was about the same size as the cafeteria, and looked to be some sort of practice room. There was what I guessed were targets on one side of the room and more than a dozen sleek black devices that I could guess at their purpose. Either the rebels were planning on using them to torture me or much more likely they were training devices.

“Strange is it not?” the doctor asked suddenly. “He calls it a dumbbell. He uses it to accelerate the growth of muscle tissue.”

“Ha!” Terreth growled limping over to us. “That’s one way of puttin’ it.”

“So why don’t we see what that parasite in ya is capable of, hmmm?” he said turning away motioning for me to follow.

“I am not a parasite,” Khala insisted appearing in the space just a few feet in front of me. “Why is it you humans can’t understand that?”

I didn’t reply walking right through her and followed Terreth to the other side of the room just a couple dozen feet shy of the line of targets where a waist high table which was about two feet square waited. Arrayed across its surface were a half a dozen phase pistols, what may have been a human variation of a burn rod and odd looking cylinder which I guess was some sort of flash grenade.

“Target practice? Oh, fun!” Khala suddenly walking up to my side her eyes wide with excitement.

I scowled at her, but bit my tongue and moved over to the table and scooped up one of the phase pistols off of it.

“Got practice cartridges in them so don’t worry about accidentally shooting anyone,” Terreth said beaming at me and grinned toothily.

“Supposing I did … accidentally shoot someone. What exactly would happen?”

“Well the one that gets shot might feel a bit tingly for a bit, but not much else. Shoot ’em a dozen or so times, then they might lose consciousness, but they’ll wake up feeling none the worse for the wear, I can tell you that,” he mumbled scratching at his scraggly white beard.

“Practice pistols?!” Khala said folding her arms across her pretend chest. “Why not use real phase weapons? What the fun when you can’t blow anything up?”

I sighed and bit my lip, but didn’t dignify the K’teth with a response. It wouldn’t do to let Terreth and Nate, or anyone else for that matter, see me talking to empty air. They’d probably wind up think I was nuts, but even if they didn’t it probably wasn’t a good idea to draw attention to my odd relationship with Khala. People might get the idea that the symbiote was influencing me and I wasn’t sure they’d be wrong. Even so, I had to keep on appearances.

“Where’s Kaya?” I asked suddenly realizing she was absent. “I thought she’d be here”

“Probably with Mara. I’m sure the two of them will be down later,” Jaysen said.

“Well just don’t stand there!” Terreth yelled. “Come on, let’s get ya shooting at those targets.”

“Right,” I shook my head. Before Terreth could say another word I lifted the gun and took aim. I squeezed the trigger and watched as the bolt of light soared through the air hitting the nearest target right square at its center.

“Damn, nice shot,” Jaysen said his eyes wide open in surprise.

“Indeed most impressive,” the doctor tooted.

“A day’s ration says you can’t do that again,” Terreth added folding his arms across his chest.

I shook my head then raised the pistol again and fired off another shot. This time the bolt shot through the air, sizzled past the target and splattered harmlessly against the wall.

“Knew it was beginners luck,” Terreth laughed and shook his head then suddenly snapped it sideways and looked Jaysen dead in the eyes. “Coach the girl would you?”

Girl? Who did he think he was talking to? I opened my mouth to protest, but then clenched my jaw shut and shook my head. Any attempts to correct the old man would be an exercise in futility. I couldn’t help the way people saw me, but I really didn’t have to like it. Hell the prospect of being female and by extension being treated as if I were one for the rest of my life scared the shit out of me.

“Let’s have another crack at it.” I gritted my teeth then lifted the phase pistol, fired off another shot and again hit the target dead center. I glared at Terreth then handed him the weapon. “Looks like you owe me a day’s ration.”

“Damn, looks like yer right, girly!” He threw back his head and let out a long throaty laugh.

“You’re welcome,” Khala said suddenly from my side running the back of her phantom index finger across my cheek.

‘That was you wasn’t it? I should have known!’ I thought at her.

“Of course! You don’t honestly think you made those shots by yourself do you?” She said flatly stepping in front of me and folding her arms across her pretend chest.

‘No, I hadn’t really given it much thought at all!’ I scowled unleashing another round of shots, each one of which hit its mark.

“You don’t seem very appreciative,” Khala scowled.

“Oh, you think I should be appreciative? For doing this?!” I yelled grabbing at my chest “You made me over in your image! I don’t even feel like myself anymore! Thank you! Thank you very much! Thank you for destroying the relationship I had with the most beautiful girl in the world! Thanks for making my life a living hell!” I threw the phase pistol at her and screamed in impotent fury as it passed right through her phantom form.

“Well when you put it like that…” she trailed off letting out a long dramatic sigh. “Look if I’d known of any other way, I wouldn’t have changed you. Until now, I didn’t understand that your identity was so dependent upon your external appearance and whether or not you have a pair of mammary glands on your chest.”

“Hey, what’s the problem?” Terreth growled.

I blinked and looked about the room to find that everyone was looking at me. Even Nick had set his dumbbell aside and was staring at me with his jaw hanging open.

I scowled and gritted my teeth. “I’m fine. Just fine.”

“If you say so, girly,” he mumbled and hobbled away all the while shaking his head.

“Khala, just leave me the hell alone!” I hissed under my breath, snatched the phase pistol back up, raised it up and fired a long succession of shots every single one of which hit the target dead center. When I looked to see if Khala was still lurking about, I was glad to see that she had vanished.

After, target practice came what seemed more like tests and less like actual practice. By then more than a dozen rebels had shown up including Mara, Straffen, Farris, Pyramus and Kaya. As I moved across the room I felt their eyes on me and I had this insane urge to dig a hole in the floor and hide under the ceramic tiles. I felt so uncomfortable in my new body and I couldn’t ditch the feeling that they all thought I was a freak. Since I felt like one too it certainly didn’t help matters along.

“So,” I said meeting gazes with Terreth. “What do I do now?”

Terreth opened his mouth, then glanced over at Mara and clamped it shut again. Mara shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Since, Terreth seems to have lost the ability to make decisions while I’m around why don’t we test your capabilities, starting with strength, then speed and we’ll go from there?”

“So what, you want me to wrestle someone?” I asked.

Mara snorted. “Nothing like that, dear child. That’s what we have a weight set for.”

“I have got to see this,” Nate pronounced sliding off the weight bench and patted the seat with an open palm. “You’re up.”

I nodded and moved to the side of the bench where Nate had been lifting. I traced my hands across the bar, wrapped my fists around it, braced myself then heaved upward. Despite my best efforts the bar failed to so much as even budge and I groaned before loosening my grip and sinking to my knees. I flexed my hands and stared at them in confusion. I knew that the Overseer had had enhanced strength and I’d displayed it myself when I confronted Farris and Pyramus, but for whatever reason it was out of my grasp.

I gritted my teeth then climbed back to my feet before once gripping my hands around the barbell. What if my extra strength was only available if I somehow called upon it? I closed my eyes and reached deep within myself and called out to Khala in my mind, ‘It better work this time, dammit’! I felt it, a sudden rush of power as I lifted. The bar came free with considerable less effort than I expected and I stumbled backward a few steps as I attempted to regain my balance. Shit, either Nate was a lot weaker than he looked or I was a whole lot stronger than I could have ever imagined. I lifted it over my head held it there for a good ten seconds then set it back down on its stand.

I turned back to Mara, noted her wide-eyes, and cast my eyes around to look at the rest of the rebels. Everyone looked surprised, well except Pyramus and Farris who somehow seemed to be intimidated, and I blushed feeling very self-conscious.

“Most remarkable!” The doctor tooted enthusiastically. “If Vakrexid might ask, how much weight was that?”

“Ninety kilos,” Nate said shaking his head in disbelief. “Shit, she makes it look easy.”

“Damn, how strong is she?” Strave asked his mouth hanging open.

“Stronger than you Strave, that’s all you need to know,” Kaya said coming up beside him and patting him on the cheek in mock affection.

Strave frowned and ran his hand through the back of his hair. “Is it wrong that this is turning me on?”

“I swear that’s all you ever think about! God, I can’t believe any woman would let you touch her!” She exclaimed raising her voice and glared at him with her hands on her hips.

“You did not so long ago as I recall.” He grinned and stroked his beard as he let out a soft chuckle.

“Fuck! Don’t remind me! It was just that one time and believe me it will never happen again.” Kaya shuddered.

Mara glared at both of them. “Why don’t we get back on subject?” she asked then turned back to me. “Jellfree, did you feel any strain when you the lifted the barbell?”

“A little, but I think I could lift a lot more.”

“God, how strong are you?!” Nate proclaimed repeating Strave’s previous statement.

“Why don’t we find out?” Mara asked then turned to Nate. “Add another forty-five kilos, would you?”

“You’re the boss,” Nate mumbled as he moved to put two more cylinders–which he referred to as plates–on either end of the barbell.

After he stepped out of the way I moved in and lifted the barbell again. There was just a bit more strain, but still I was able to lift it quite easily. Again with Mara’s prompting Nate added another forty-five kilos to the bar, once more I lifted it but it wasn’t until he added the final two weights that I had trouble. I did manage to lift it from the bench, but quickly put it back down.

“That’s too much,” I panted heavily as I turned to Mara and wiped the sweat from my face.

Mara pursed her lips and shook her head, ‘Absolutely amazing. One would never guess by looking at such a beautiful young woman what sort of power lurked within those slender arms.”

“How is it even possible?” Nate asked staring at me with his mouth hanging open.

I shuddered and grabbed the back of my elbow with my right hand, “It’s Khala, the K’teth symbiote, inside of me. She has the ability to absorb energy and somehow when she passes it back to me by granting enhanced physical abilities.”

“Freak,” someone coughed and I whirled around to see that it was Pyramus. I glared at him, took a step forward, and nearly choked up with laughter when he quickly backed away.

“Just remember what I told you in the kitchen, Pyramus,” I said narrowing my eyes and glared at him.

He grimaced, but nodded and folded his arms across his chest. I scowled at him one final time then turned my back and let out a long sigh. Was that the sort of reception I could expect for the rest of my life? The other rebels hadn’t shown the same intolerance, but I had to wonder if they weren’t thinking what that jackass had just vocalized. I looked about the room, and stared into the eyes of each of the rebels. I saw outright hostility in Farris and Pyramus’s eyes, which was no surprise, but when I looked into the eyes of Terreth and Nate there was something else there. It wasn’t hatred or malice, but something which I’d long ago learned could lead to both, fear.

I shuddered and looked away, unable to bear meeting those gazes. Sometimes when I saw myself in the mirror and looked into those eerie eyes I wondered if I was even human anymore, but if not what was I? I’d seen firsthand what sort of things people did when they let fear and prejudice control them. I was afraid that I might draw people’s hatred for the symbiote I carried within me. What choice did I have? I’d spent most my life doing as the gray skins told me and now that I’d become involved with the rebels it didn’t seem as if anything had changed. I could either fight with them or die by the hands of the Qharr. What sort of choice was that?

“Jellfree,” Kaya whispered in my ear and I jumped not realizing she had gotten so close. “What’s wrong?”

“I-I am a freak,” I whispered back my eyes misting up.

“And so what if you are?” she whispered back. “It’s not the way you look or you physical capabilities that define you. It’s the choices you make. Chose to be the person you want to be. Don’t let the prejudices of others define you.”

I nodded then wiped away my tears before turning to Mara. “Let’s get on with this.”

“If I may interject,” the doctor said stepping forward suddenly. “There are many notable physical abilities that have been credited to the Edant K’teth. Vakrexid does not know if all the rumors are true, but some of them, at least, must be. I am sure that some of these abilities may take time for you to learn, but Vakrexid thinks some are more than likely innate such as speed strength and stamina. I also theorize that those abilities may grow more pronounced as the symbiote absorbed more energy. Please, Jellfree, if you could let us see you run. ”

I scratched at the back of my head, bit my lip and said. “Yeah, sure doc whatever you say,” before I took off running. At first I didn’t seem to be moving very fast at all, but then I urged myself to go faster and I did. I shot across the room in a matter of seconds, spun around doing a quick one-eighty and sped back to where the other rebels were waiting. I tried to stop, but I had picked up too much forward momentum and went slammed into Strave unable to put on the breaks.

I closed my eyes just as I went tearing into him and I could feel us slide across the floor and come to a sudden stop. I let my eyes fly back open and saw that we had hit the nearest wall. I grimaced and looked down at Strave who was grinning ear to ear. Suddenly, I was very aware that my breasts were pressed into his chest. I blushed and rolled off of him, but as I sat up I noticed something else.

I felt flushed, my heart was pounding inside my chest and my crotch was wet. I bit my lip and rose to my feet, blushing as I did so. I’d been aroused plenty of times as a man, but never as a woman and never had I felt it directed toward a man. Being turned on as a man had always been a more concentrated sensation, as a woman I thought my whole body might explode.

I closed my eyes and shuddered, taking deep breaths and fought against all the sensations sweeping across my body. God, it felt so good and yet… so wrong at the same time.

“Jellfree,” Kaya’s voice whispered. “What’s wrong? You’re kind of freaking us out.”

I opened my eyes and looked around the room, noting the odd looks I was getting from the other rebels. I shuddered again, and blushed self consciously and felt my arousal suddenly vanish.

“I-I’m fine,” I gasped running my hand through the back of my hair self-consciously. As I stood there gaping at Kaya, I felt the reality of what had just happened settle in. I was attracted to men, but not just men, Straffen specifically. A man, whose primary interest seemed to be in wooing Kaya, like some oversexed love-sick puppy. God, I felt sick! The thought of letting a man touch me was revolting, and yet…

“No,” I whispered and shook my head. I would remain celibate for the rest of my life before I let a man, especially that man, touch me in that way. I wasn’t a damned woman, despite the physical evidence to the contrary. I clenched my fists, and my teeth before turning back to Mara. “What’s next?”

“All this is quite impressive, but didn’t you say that the Overseer could climb up walls? Shouldn’t our friend, Jellfree, here be able to do the same?” Strave said folding his arms across his chest.

“I was beginning to wonder if anyone was going to figure that out,” Khala appeared suddenly leaning against Strave.

“No,” she added holding up her hand as I opened my mouth to respond. “There’s no need to ask. You possess all the same abilities that the Overseer did. It’s just some of them are a bit more energy intensive than others. The whole escaping from the Qharr thing, then transforming you into a woman well that takes a lot out of a girl, you know? Once I get back up to full power then you’ll get to see what the two of us are really capable of.”

“I can’t wait,” I replied dryly.

“You can’t wait for what?” Strave asked staring at me blankly.

I sighed then reached up to massage my temple. “Never mind. Look I think it will be a while before you see me jumping around and climbing up walls like the damned overseer did. The symbiote, she’s not at full strength yet and until she is I won’t crawling around like a damned spider. Got it?”

Strave’s face broke out into a grin. “Damn, well can’t blame a boy for asking, can you?”

I turned to Mara shaking my head and repeated myself. “What’s next?”

Training with the rebels had been an educational experience, and it had gone on for hours. They’d tested just about everything from my reflexes to how hard a punch I could throw. So when I finally got back to my room, I think it goes without saying that I was pretty freaking tired. The funny thing was when I set my head down on my pillow I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept thinking of landing on Strave and fighting down my sudden attraction toward him.

God, I was attracted to Strave? What was wrong with me? I sat up and cupped my face in my hands. I felt so… weird. My nipples were hard and my… ‘gulp’ vagina was wet. God, I was turned on! Turned on by the very thought of Strave, a man! I shuddered and tried to force those thoughts out of my head, but they wouldn’t go away.

Abruptly, I felt a pair of hands on my neck and I leapt of the bed yelping in surprise. Khala’s illusory form was knelt on the bed next to where I’d been sitting. “What the hell do you want?”

She smiled at me and perfectly mimicked a cat’s purr.”You’re feeling aroused. I thought I could help you with that.”

I blinked and slowly shook my head. “Why?”

She shrugged. “I feel what you feel. I can help relieve some of that sexual tension brewing within you. It’s to both of our advantage.”

“God! What the hell is wrong with you?! You actually think I want to feel this way? I’m a man goddamn you! I want nothing so much as to take Kaya in my arms and make love to her, but you screwed that up for me didn’t you!”

Khala’s face suddenly changed as her body, shifted and abruptly in her place was the splitting image of Kaya. Oh, she still had the blue hair and pink eyes, but in every other way she was identical to the woman I loved right down to the clothes she was wearing and her haircut.

“I can be her if you want,” she whispered then suddenly her face and body morphed to look like Strave. “Or I could be him.”

I took several steps back and shook my head. “God no! Not that! Just… Oh god!”

I took a deep breath then closed my eyes, and when I opened them again Khala had reverted back to her normal form. “I think it’s pretty obvious I still don’t understand humans. Look, this whole arousal thing is driving me slightly mad. I just want to help you so I can have some peace.”

“God this is all so fucked up,” I swallowed hard staring down at my erect nipples which were poking through my shirt.

I looked back at Khala who was looking back at me with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. “The offer still stands.”

I palmed my face with both hands then took a few tentative steps toward her. “Okay… let’s do this.” I swallowed hard and whispered the last few words once I was close.
Khala’s face stretched into a grin just before she kissed me. They may not have been real, but those phantom lips sure felt nice locked around mine. I unbuttoned my blouse unclasped my bra and let both fall to the floor before I collapsed onto the bed–slipping off my slacks and panties along with them as I did so–and let Khala have her way with me.

I came awake gradually and let out a long sigh as my eyes cracked open. I felt around the bed and found it empty. Never before that moment had I felt Kaya’s loss more keenly. Whenever the two of us made love I always woke up and found her laying there beside me. I felt so alone, so lost without her there to hold in my arms.

Khala was a poor substitute. She didn’t even have a physical presence outside of my body. Her touch felt real enough, but it just hadn’t been the same. Still… the feel of her hands on my breasts… I shuddered thinking about how good it had felt. It had felt wrong in so many ways, not just because I was in the wrong body, but also because it was with the wrong lover. Somehow it felt almost as if I’d been cheating on Kaya. It sounds silly I know, but I’d been with Kaya for over six months and then to have our relationship end so abruptly it was heartrending.

Then there was Strave… I was attracted to him that much was certain, but the idea of being with a man was repulsive and Strave well he was pretty repulsive too. He was attractive, I would admit that much, but he was so full of himself and he had that thing going on with Kaya. What was that about anyway? I knew he was mocking her, but there had to be some reason for it.

I shook my head again, looked down at my naked chest and blushed at the thought of Khala’s pretend lips kissing my nipples. I slowly sat up, slid out of bed and swooped down to grab my discarded clothes from the floor. I quickly dressed, then grabbed a fresh set of clothes and made my way to the shower room with Jaysen trailing me as I made my way.

“My dear, you certainly look ravishing this morning, if you don’t mind me saying,” Strave pronounced looming over me.

I ran a hand through my still wet hair and felt my cheeks burn as I looked up at him. “Just… please don’t,” I muttered biting my lips and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“You heard her, Strave!” Jaysen said suddenly stepping between the two of us.

“Oh look, the lost puppy has found himself a new master,” Strave grinned and shook his head. “How are we doing today, Jaysen?”

“Bite me Strave!” Jaysen growled planting his fists on his hips and glaring up at the much taller man.

“Well, I’ll see you two around!” Strave pronounced letting out a soft chuckle as he disappeared down the corridor.

“Lost puppy?” I asked turning to meet Jaysen’s gaze. “What he mean by that?”

Jaysen stiffened as his face turned bright red, “It was nothing! It’s… it’s probably best not to think about it.”

I shrugged, and pursed my lips, but didn’t press the matter any further. Whatever that exchange had been about, Jaysen didn’t seem real keen on sharing and I certainly wasn’t going to push him. If he wanted to tell me what it had been about then he would do so in his own good time.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Jaysen said suddenly. “Mara wanted you to pay her a visit. She said something about… an interview… or something.”

“An interview? Are you sure that’s what she said?”

Jaysen shrugged, “I think so. I wasn’t really paying much attention. My mind was on…” he trailed off his eyes lingering on my chest before his cheeks again turned bright red and he looked away. “Other things!”

“Well, I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Come on, let’s go see what she wants,” I said motioning for him to follow as I started down the hallway.

“Jellfree, please sit,” Mara said with a hand extended to a small steel table with odd square hatches near its edges, as I stepped into the small dark room.

“Jaysen, if you could please step outside and lock the door behind you. I want to talk to Jellfree…” she added suddenly, glancing back at my tail who had followed me through the doorway. “Alone.”

He glanced from me to Mara and back again then nodded and stepped back outside latching the door shut behind him.

I sat down frowning up at Mara and swallowed hard as she stared at me between pursed lips. “Put your hands on the table over those squares.”

“Mara, what’s this about?” I shook my head.

She scowled and pulled an odd and large pistol from within her jacket and trained it on me, “This is a .44 Magnum, at one point it in our history was considered the most powerful handgun in the world. It fires bullets not phase energy and with the right ammunition it’s capable of blowing the head off an ordinary human. I think it’s capable of hurting even you so do as I say!”

I swallowed a second time and placed my hands on the squares as she had indicated. I probably could have taken her, but something told me if I wanted to gain her trust, and by association the other rebels, I needed to play along. The hatches suddenly snapped open and dozens of strange black tendrils shot out and secured themselves tightly around my wrists. I tried to struggle and even managed to break a few of the cords, but for every one that I broke three more locked themselves around my wrists. I tried to stand up, but then more strings shot out from the chair grabbing at my waist and legs, forcing me back down into a sitting position.

“I wouldn’t bother struggling; the table and chair were designed to adjust for the strength of the detainee. I doubt even you could break free and if you’re thinking about trying to drain the power source I’ve had it completely insulated and if you did manage to somehow get through it it’s designed to maintain its hold in case of sudden power loss. I’m sorry for this, dear child, but I must know if it’s really you holding the reins. I don’t trust that thing inside of you,” she said folding her arms across her chest.

‘Children’s games, but I guess for the time being I will play along,’ Khala said her voice full of mirth as it echoed through my head.

“God dammit Mara! Is all this necessary!?”

“Absolutely,” Mara said tucking the gun back into her waistband. “Jellfree, assuming it really is you, I’d like you to give over control to Khala. The symbiote and I have some things to discuss.”

“I’m not really sure that’s such a good idea…” I took a deep breath and shook my head. “Khala isn’t the least bit intimidated by all this.”

“It doesn’t matter. I need to know one way or the other. That thing has put me in a rather difficult position and I need to know if I can trust it.”

I bit my lip and slowly nodded, closed my eyes and gave control over to the K’teth. Instantly my eyes snapped back open and I felt surge of amusement from Khala as Mara gasped.

“What is it you want, human?” Khala snapped staring at Mara with my eyes unblinking.

Mara took a seat opposite from me, leaning back in her chair as she spoke. “What I want is information, starting with troop movements, then you can tell me all about the current number of Qharr and K’teth on Earth and whatever else you can give me.”

I felt my face stretch into a smile as throaty laugh resounded from my throat. “You are asking me to betray my own kind.”

Mara leaning in closely and narrowed her eyes, “Assuming this all isn’t some elaborate ruse you and I both know what will happen if the Qharr get their hands on you. From what I know of the gray-skins I doubt you’ll live to tell what happened.”

Khala pursed my lips and shook my head, “You are very correct, but I don’t really care how the masters might react. I care about the K’teth I would be betraying. We are very few in number; I am looking out for the survival of my race.”

“Is that why you possessed Jellfree?”

“That was a happy surprise. My host was dying and I leapt into Jellfree out of desperation. I did not truly believe I would be able to join with her.”

‘Her?!’ I protested. ‘Unless I’ve been seriously head-fucked I was a guy before you and I met.’

‘Semantics,’ she answered back. ‘You are female now even if you don’t wish to accept it.’

“I just don’t understand… Why after living so long would you suddenly decide to oppose your masters?” Mara leaned back and folding her arms across her chest.

“You cannot understand what it is like to be K’teth. We are dependent upon our host for our very survival. A symbiote can only remain outside of a host’s body for a few minutes without dying! How do you suppose I could have ever rebelled against my masters when I am dependent upon my bond with one just to live! You at least are capable of self-sufficiency!” she yelled glowering at Mara.

“That still doesn’t answer my question, not completely. Why… rebel? Why remained joined with a human when that human is embroiled in what must be to you a hopeless cause?”

Khala bowed my head and closed my eyes. “I have never known hope. The gray skins consider it to be for self-deluded fools, but then I joined with Jellfree I knew it for the first time. That is when I finally understood what a beautiful thing it is. Before I served the masters because I believed there was no other path I could take, but now I know better. Before the Qharr conquered Earth you humans had freedom of choice I think that is something worth fighting for.”

“Pretty words, but actions speak louder than the load of crap spewing out from your mouth. As of yet you haven’t given me any reason to trust you,” Mara responded.

My eyes snapped back open and Khala gritted my teeth leaning in as closely to the table as the tendrils would allow. “Trust this then human. I hate the masters with every molecule of my gelatinous body and I will die fighting before I submit myself to them! You humans have given me a chance not just at freedom, but at revenge and I intend to take it.”

Mara placed both her hands on the table and met Khala gaze with unblinking eyes. “That I believe, but it still doesn’t mean I can trust you.”

“No, but it means we have common ground,” Khala muttered quietly. “At the moment our goals follow the same trajectory. Surely, that must give you some reason to trust me.”

Mara shook her head. “Trust is something that must be earned and frankly after what you did to poor Jellfree I don’t see any reason that I should give you my trust.”

“What else would you have me do? I must reproduce! How else can my species gain freedom from the Qharr?! I could bond with a human female, but the very act of severing myself would kill the host! And I very much doubt that my child would survive. She nearly didn’t live through the transition into Jellfree’s body.”

“Isn’t there some way you could give Jellfree the external appearance of being male, but keep his internal organs female?”

“I can combine genes randomly and make a new form for the host, but to create a body such as the one you speak of… That would require a level of manipulation far beyond my abilities and I wouldn’t dare try. The results could be disastrous. ”

Mara glared at Khala, “What about those eyes? I’ve never seen a Qharr with a pair like that. How did you do that?”

“It is not something I just conjured up out of the outer-realms!” she spat. “It’s… I don’t really know where it came from. I just knew how to do it. Much of what I know about such things was passed down to me from my fore-mothers, but many of the older memories become muddled with time. Frankly, I think they look striking.”

Mara pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes, and rapped her fingers against the table’s surface, but didn’t say a thing as she stared across the table her eyes trained on me. Finally, she let out a long sigh. “Tell me what you know about the planetary defenses around Earth.”

My eyes narrowed to slivers and I could feel Khala’s frustration as she gritted my teeth, “Why do you wish to know? Do you really expect to overcome the Qharr here on your planet? Surely you cannot be so deluded. The masters outnumber your people more than two to one. Wouldn’t it be a better plan to escape and find a new home for your species?”

“I want to know and you want my trust. That should be reason enough!”

“P’reck gah klensk!” Khala cursed. “Very well if you wish to know, human, I will tell you. There are ten J’narr and twenty-one B’nurr class destroyers, three orbiting defense platforms all with full compliments of fighters, and a shield grid in place around the planet with redundant emitters scattered across your world. In addition, at any given time there are a large number of ships in for supplies or repairs and if the need arises a number of vessels can be called in from nearby systems.”

‘Holy hell… all that for Earth?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that overkill even by Qharr standards?’

‘Compound slaves live an isolated existence so it may come as a bit of a shock to you, but your world has become an important hub for commerce within the empire.’

Mara nodded seemingly unfazed by Khala’s revelation. “Now tell me. How many are there on Earth?”

The symbiote bit my lip and let out a low growl before continuing, “The number varies, but there are over four-hundred-million masters residing here on a permanent basis and as many as ten thousand additional masters at any given time.”

“And the number of humans?” Mara breathed leaning in to stare Khala in my eyes.

“They don’t include slave populations in census data, but… it’s been estimated that there are no more than two hundred million humans living on Earth,” she muttered with a shake of my head.

“Two-hundred million where once there had been billions.” Mara lowered head and shuddered. “Th-that coincides with the data we’ve collected.”

“Now,” she said suddenly standing up and planting her hands on the table in front of her. “Tell me everything.”

“Everything?” Khala asked.

“You were the host to the Overseer, you have to know some information that would be of use to the cause.”

“Jahal was a civilian leader, what exactly do you expect to learn?”

“Whatever you can tell me! Names of important leaders, locations of secret installations, or even the god-damned Sub-Ascendant’s home address! Just give me something!”

“Why didn’t you just say so?” Khala flashed Mara a toothy grin. “I can give you all that and more…”

“Well, I think that is all for now,” Mara said after what seemed an exhaustive round of questions and answers.

“That’s it? What no more questions? Perhaps you’d like to know about K’teth reproductive practices or maybe the qualities I typically look for in potential host? You have asked me nearly every other question imaginable.”

Mara returned Khala’s scowl then shook her head. “We’re done. Now you can continue to complain or I can let you free. The choice is yours.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Khala replied as I felt my face stretch into a grin. “I think I can free us,” she said, and then I felt a sudden spike of power as she began to feed of the energy from the table. In seconds it had been drained and I felt her strain against the restraints then put on a sudden burst of strength ripping my right arm free of the inhibiting tendrils. With my free hand she was able to quickly free the other one and then she moved on to my waist and legs.

Khala stood on my feet then with a casual flick of my wrist she tossed aside the handful of strands in her hand before turning back to Mara.

“Your little device is flawed. If you ever decide to lay a trap like that for me again I think you will find that I will not be so… cooperative!” She glared at Mara and then without another word spun around on the balls of my feet and stormed out the door.

Khala walked a little way down the hall and then without warning stopped in the middle of the hallway leaned against the wall. She let a long sigh and relinquished control back to me.

“I don’t get it,” I said glancing back on the door. “How’d you get loose?”

Khala appeared leaning against the wall opposite me adopting a posture that was an exact mirror of my own. “There was a tiny fracture in the casing around the power source.”

“I figured that much,” I responded. “But how’d you break the bonds?”

“The power I absorbed from the table gave your body just enough strength to break through the bonds.”

“And since there was no power in the table it couldn’t adjust for the increased strength,” I finished for her.

“Correct.”

I glanced both ways down the corridor then returned my gaze to Khala. “Well, I would imagine it would be very difficult to hold someone bonded to a K’teth prisoner.”

Khala nodded, but remained silent as her illusionary form stared back at me. Her image remained for just a few seconds before fading away. I shook my head then glanced down the corridor to see Jaysen approaching from a little further down hallway.

“Done with Mara?” he asked his eyes once again straying to look at my chest.

I felt my cheeks burn a bit, but otherwise chose to ignore his wandering eyes. I could hardly blame him; just a few weeks ago I probably would have done the same had I encountered a woman as attractive as myself. Now that I was wearing the shoes of such a beautiful girl I had a much better idea what it was like to have every man under the sun gawking at me. Still, it was weird getting that kind of attention. I was really going to have to talk to Kaya and find out how she dealt with it.

“So…” I trailed off. “It’s about lunch time… want to grab something to eat?”

“Sure, I’d love to,” he beamed up at me his head tilting upward to look me in the eyes.

Neither one of us said a word as we made our way down the corridor, but I did note that Jaysen seemed happier than usual. I wondered why that might be, but never got around to asking him since we had soon found ourselves in front of the doors to the dining hall.

Chapter Eleven

After more than two weeks with the rebels I still felt like an outsider. I didn’t belong, they knew it and so did I or so it seemed to me. I continued to train and get a grasp on my abilities. I hadn’t figured out how to crawl up walls and across ceilings like the overseer, but I was sure I was capable of doing such things. It was just a matter of learning how.

Living in a female body, was so strange, and there were times that I thought it might be easier just to end my misery. Was this life really worth living? I felt trapped, both in my female body and within the rebel’s compound. I feared what I had become, what I was still becoming and while Khala still hadn’t gained control of my body. I still feared that she might do so eventually. I didn’t know what to do with myself and that’s why I threw myself so completely into my training. What else was there for me to do?

I had just gotten back from another training session, this one with Terreth, Nate and Strave, when I found Kaya waiting in my room. “Oh, he–” I started to speak, but stopped dead when she looked up at me and I saw the tears running down her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked sitting down next to her on the bed.

“I’ve been waiting for you for the past hour trying to think of the best way to tell you, but nothing I think of seems appropriate.” She sobbed and I put my arm around her running it up and down her back trying to sooth her.

“Tell me what?” I whispered in her ear, fighting back the sudden urge to kiss her.

Kaya sobbed and buried her face in my chest before looking up at me and shuddering, “I’m pregnant.”

“You’re what?!” I asked suddenly jumping up off the bed. “It- it’s mine?”

Kaya nodded. “You’re the only person it could be!”

“H-how did you find out?” I breathed running my hands through my hair as I paced back and forth in front of her trying my best to fight down my sudden sense of panic.

“I’ve been feeling nauseous so I went to the doctor and after putting me under the scanner, he told me,” she sobbed as I paced back and forth in front of her. “Oh my god, Jellfree! What the hell are we going to do?”

I stopped pacing abruptly then turned my head to look Kaya in the eyes then plopped down next to her again and put my hands around her shoulders. “I wish I knew!”

I felt as if my heart had been through a shredder as I watched her weep. Even if Kaya no longer wanted to be with me I still loved her and wanted nothing more at that moment than to end her pain. Which is probably why I leaned in and kissed her. It was an impulsive act, something that I would have done when we were still together. Her lips felt so soft against my own and it felt as good as I remembered. For a moment Kaya seemed lost in the kiss, but then I felt her hands on my chest as she pushed herself away. She gasped and stumbled out of the bed swirling around to stare at me with wide eyes.

“No, no. I can’t Jellfree! I just can’t!” she gasped then fled out the door.

“Kaya wait!” I called after her, but she just kept going.

I jumped off the bed and followed her around the corner, but soon lost her as I rounded one of the bends where I thought I’d last seen her. I called her name, but if she heard me she didn’t answer. I wandered the hallways with Felix tailing me trying to find her, even looking in her room, but it all proved to be for nothing. Wherever Kaya had run off to she didn’t want to be found.

Giving up, I returned to my room, not even bothering to close the door before falling to my knees and weeping.

“Dammit!” I cursed slamming the door shut and slid to the ground my back against the cupboard.

After, I’d had a good cry in my room I was still on the verge of a break down and it was all I could do to keep myself from collapsing in a heap. I think it had finally set in, that it was over between Kaya and me. Oh, sure logically I knew it had been over since I’d first begun to change, but I hadn’t really accepted it. A part of me had been holding out hope that she would come around. I wanted to be with her with cell in my body, but she couldn’t even stand to kiss me and the whole thing was further complicated by the fact that she was carrying my unborn child. God, it was too cruel! I needed some way to escape the pain even if it was just for a little while.

And that’s how I ended up in the kitchen rifling through the cupboards in a futile effort to swipe some of Strave’s booze. My first experience with alcohol had been absolutely awful, but everything that had happened had proved to be too much and I needed an escape. I doubt it was the healthiest way of dealing with my pain, but it was quick. There seemed to be a one hole with my plan; however, there wasn’t any booze to be found… anywhere.

So, instead I lay there on the floor weeping and feeling sorry for myself. ‘Maybe, it would be better if I were to just end it,’ the thought popped into my head and I gripped the side of my head sobbing hysterically. Khala would die without a living host and there wouldn’t be any reason for the rebels to worry anymore. All my pain was caused by that damned parasite and if I went I was going to make damn sure I took her with me. Kaya… she might be sad at first, but I think she’d be a lot happier in the long run without me around. What was I but a sick reminder of the love we once shared?

The only question was how the hell was I going to do it? I could impale myself or possibly slit my wrists, but there was one problem with that method. If someone found my body before Khala had died she could leap into them and they’d become her new host then this whole mess would begin all over again. Maybe if I went somewhere where no one would think to look… With that thought in mind I grabbed a knife from the cupboard, tucked it into my pants and moved for the door and stopped as a tall red-haired figure appeared in the doorway.

“Well, hello there!” Strave beamed as I stood there with my jaw hanging open like an idiot.

I tried to push past him, but I felt his hand suddenly on my shoulder as I whirled around to face him. He looked around the kitchen his eyes seeming to linger on the still open cupboards before they returned to gaze into my own. “What exactly is it you were looking for Jellfree?” he asked releasing my shoulder. “Mara doesn’t look too kindly on people who steal food.”

“I wasn’t looking for food,” I glared up at him rubbing at my shoulder gingerly. “I wanted more booze!” I yelled fighting back the sudden onslaught of tears. “I just can’t take the pain anymore!” I cried and threw myself at Strave weeping into his shoulder.

Strave suddenly stiffened and I felt him grab either of my shoulders as he held me out at arm’s length. “I don’t imagine it would be easy, but…”

“No, it’s not easy! It’s hell!” I shrieked pushing his hands away and backed slowly away. “I love her! I’ve never felt this way about anyone before and she can’t even stand to let me touch her. All because of this damned body and that thing living inside of me. Every moment I’m awake is a constant reminder of what I’ve lost and then there’s these damned things on my chest along with all the other shit I’ve got to deal with. I know what you’re going to say so don’t. Don’t try to tell me everything is going to be alright. Don’t tell me that I’ll find a way to deal with it and you damned well better not tell me that I have a chance in hell of getting back together with Kaya. You and I both know that would be a lie!”

Strave swallowed and nodded then did something completely unexpected, he kissed me and instead of resisting I melted into his arms. For two weeks I’d been trying to fight my attraction to him and I couldn’t hold it at bay any longer. ‘About time,’ Khala’s voice whispered in the back of my mind as we broke away.

I took in a deep breath of air then I looked Strave up and down. With trembling arms I reached out to grab his collar and shuddered before returning his kiss. A part of me found the whole thing revolting, but I growing part of me just didn’t care. I wanted, no I needed, someone to hold me and make everything feel better and Strave happened to be the nearest alternative to Kaya. As I kissed him, I realized something else, being held wasn’t enough. I wanted more and so I took it.

Chapter Twelve

“God,” I groaned softly my eyes fluttering open as I reached to pull an unfamiliar weight off of my chest. An arm, there was an arm draped across my chest! As struggled to come fully awake the memories from the previous night came back to me in one sudden burst.

“Oh, hell!” I squealed throwing the arm off of me and scrambled away from Straffen’s naked form.

“What have I done?” I whispered my hands clenched around my naked breasts.

I’d had sex with man, but not just any man, Strave! So, why didn’t I feel disgusted with myself? I was shocked sure, but our lovemaking had felt good and… God! I didn’t even want to finish that thought! I was a man dammit! I shuddered and backed away even further retrieving my shirt from the kitchen floor as I did. ‘This is all your fault!’ I called out to Khala.

“Oh, this ought to be good,” Khala grumbled appearing seated on the counter beside me.

‘You gave me this body! You made me attracted to… that man!’ I seethed rounding on her.

“You’re friend is awake if you weren’t aware,” she said flatly folding her arms across her chest. “Besides, I may have given you that body and well… the attraction toward the male of your species, but I certainly didn’t intend for you to shack up with that one.”

“Jellfree,” Strave called groggily as I pulled my shirt over my head feeling suddenly very self conscious about standing around naked in the middle of the kitchen.

“Jellfree,” he repeated rolling over onto his side to look at me.

“That name,” I whispered coming to a sudden realization. “Don’t call me that!”

I was changing, but I hadn’t even realized it until that moment. Jellfree, had been someone who had dreamed of being free of the Qharr, but never acted on his desires. He stood by and watched those gray-skinned bastards do horrible things and thought only of preserving his own life. That person had died the moment I had decided to side with Kaya and the rebels against Duvak and the Overseer. I was a resistance fighter now and I was going to have to live as a woman for the rest of my life. I needed a new name, and that moment seemed as good as any to pick a new one.

I always thought that if I had a daughter I would give her the name Alexana, since that had been my mother’s middle name, but somehow I liked the idea of taking that name for myself. That way my name would be a constant reminder of the sacrifice my mother had made. She had died trying to defend my sister and me and it felt right that if I should take anyone’s name it would be hers.

“Call me Lexa,” I muttered giving him the shortened version of the name.

Strave blinked then grinned, “Damn, I must be a hell of a lover last night. I think I made a woman out of you… literally.”

Strave had almost seemed like a different person the previous night and I was sad to see that person go. It was all an act, I realized suddenly. Strave played the part of the sex-crazed rogue, but the real Straffen the one I’d gotten a glimpse of before we made love, he was the real Strave. I wished I knew of some way of bringing him out again, but it was as if a wall had been erected between the two of us.

I sighed then grabbed my underpants and slacks from the ground. God, what was I thinking?! This was Strave I was thinking about! God, I couldn’t believe I actually had sex with him! What the hell was wrong with me?

“What leaving so soon?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

I slid my panties on then pulled my pants up my legs, “You can lounge about naked if you like, but I don’t particularly like the idea of being caught with my pants down in the middle of the damned kitchen.”

“You didn’t seem to mind so much last night.”

I gritted my teeth and turned my back on him. God, how could he act like such a jackass after last night? I clenched my fists at my side then slowly walked toward the exit. What game was he playing at? Stopping me from taking my life, having sex, then acting like… his usual self. He couldn’t have actually known that I was planning to gut myself, but he had seen how upset I was.

Abruptly, the door flew open and a red bolt of phase energy flew through the entrance and hit me square in the chest. Caught completely off guard I collapsed to ground clutching at my chest.

“Lexa!” Strave yelled suddenly. “You fucking bastard!”

I heard his feet pounding against the floor as he jumped to from the ground and went tearing across the room toward my attacker. Then I realized something, I didn’t hurt at all. I ran my hand up and down my chest looking for signs of injury, but found none. There was a burn mark in my shirt where the phase bolt had hit me, sure, but the skin underneath was completely unblemished. This really wasn’t all that surprising considering that my body was host to an energy guzzling symbiote. It’s just, you know, you go on so long knowing something can hurt you and it tends to stick with you even after it’s no longer a concern.

Abruptly, Khala’s illusory form was sitting hunched over me on the floor. “Je… Lexa you’ve got to give me control. That was a Qharr weapon that hit you. The masters have found you, and you’ll need my fighting abilities and experience if you’re going to survive.”

“How can I trust you?” I whispered up.

“Do you really have any choice? You’re running out of time. It won’t be long before the hunter who fired on you finishes off your friend,” she hissed furiously. “DECIDE!”

Live or die, those were my choices. At the moment I didn’t really care one way or the other, but what about Strave? Even if he was acting like an unbelievable jackass I couldn’t watch him die. And there was Kaya, Jaysen, Mara and the rest, they didn’t didn’t deserve to die either. So, I made the only choice that made any sense. I closed my eyes and gave over control of my body to the K’teth.

My eyes snapped back open and under Khala’s guiding hand I leapt back to my feet with far more grace than I could have ever managed on my own.

“Gre’ga toel Edant!” She called out with my voice grabbing the knife which I had tucked away before Strave had found me.

The hunter, who was by then standing over Strave preparing to pummel him, stopped, turned his head and leveled his gaze on me. He seemed surprised, but why wouldn’t he be? He’d just heard a human rebel call out, “Glory to the masters” in perfect Qharr. I panicked upon hearing this, having somehow understood and assumed that Khala planned to betray me, but then she surprised me. She hurled the knife across the room and hit the Hunter square in eye. The Qharr gurgled a bit, and fell to the ground dead.

“Get dressed,” Khala said staring down at Strave’s naked form as he scrambled to his feet. “Where there’s one there will be more.”

“Lexa look, we need to…”

“You’re under the mistaken impression that you’re speaking with my host,” Khala interrupted. “You will refer to me as Khala until instructed otherwise.”

“By God! You’re the parasite!” he gasped.

“I am NOT a parasite and I’m only going to say this one more time. Get dressed or I’ll leave you here alone to fend for yourself!” she yelled gritting my teeth and planted my fists on my hips.

“Okay,” he said holding his hands up in defeat and turned to us grinning sheepishly. “I don’t suppose you know where my pants might have gone.”

Khala shook my head and pointed to the left side of the room. “On the other side of that counter there. Hurry, your friends’ lives are in jeopardy!”

“We should probably find some weapons, that is if the Qharr haven’t gotten to them first,” Strave said after slipping the shirt over his head.

“I have no need of weapons,” Khala answered back. “I am a weapon. It’s what the K’teth were made for.”

“Yeah, and a fat lot of good that did to your good pal the Overseer. No offense, but I’d much rather have a phase pistol in hand when we confront any of your friends.”

“Very well, locate your weapons cache then we shall take care of my friends,” she replied turning her back to Straffen and held my hand out indicating that he should lead the way.

‘You know, Khala, he might not be able to use a qharr tech, but we sure as hell can. That warrior was armed; maybe you should retrieve his weapon.’ I said, for once in complete agreement with Strave.

‘As I said I have no need of it. I am a weapon.’

“God, you’re like an entirely different person,” he mumbled as he stepped past us.

Khala narrowed my eyes and folded my arms across my chest. “In case you haven’t noticed, I am an entirely different person.”

Strave shook his head, shouldered past us and pushed the door open without waiting to see if Khala was going to follow.

‘There is something about that one that is very off-putting. Still, you do seem to be attracted to him, and human reproductive practices are very pleasurable. Perhaps, you should pursue a relationship with him,’ she thought at me as she followed Strave out the door.

I think if I had control of my body at that moment my jaw would have stopped dead in my tracks. ‘I am not going to have this conversation with you. Not now not ever! Get your priorities straight the compound has been invaded by Qharr hunters for Christ sakes!’

‘Of that I am well aware don’t worry over them. No, Qharr soldier is a match for the two of us.’

‘Just shut the hell up and keep your… my eyes peeled, would you?!’ I yelled and fought back the sudden urge to wrestle control away from the symbiote.

‘As you wish.’

“Are we going to move or are you just going to stand around like a wounded gark beast?” Khala asked tapping at Strave’s shoulder incessantly.

Strave moved aside and I felt bile rise in my throat as I looked down to find Felix’s bloodied corpse collapsed on the ground just outside the door. I’d become so accustomed to having someone tailing me all the time that I’d actually forgotten Felix had been guarding the door and had more than likely spent the entire night outside the kitchen.

Strave glanced at me then knelt down to feel Felix’s neck. “No pulse,” he said looking up at me. “The body is still warm. See the phase wound in his chest? That hunter must have gotten to him just before he attacked us in the kitchen.”

“This may sound callous, but we don’t have time to linger,” Khala said glancing around probably looking for signs of approaching threats.

Strave glared up at her then turned back down to look at Felix. Strave’s hand passed over Felix’s eyes and when it came away the dead man’s eyelids were closed. “Rest easy Felix, my friend. You fought bravely to the very end,” he whispered then turned back to look Khala in my eyes. “Now we leave.”

Without another word Strave turned away and started off down the corridor. When we got to the end he stopped to peek around the corner then slowly drew his head back. He turned to look back at Khala and me before pointing toward the bend and mouthing the words, “Gray skins.”

Khala nodded my head then brushed past our companion and took off running while rounding the corner. Phase blasts flew through the air, burned through the fabric of my clothes and splashed against my skin, but there wasn’t any pain as I felt a new influx of power flood through me each time we were hit. The hunters glanced at one another, and the foremost of the two, a pale-skinned giant, dropped his gun and drew a long knife from a sheath at his waist. Khala dodged to the side as blade came slicing down and planted my right fist into the side of his chest

“Gl’hed! No human has that kind of strength!” The hunter let out a long string of curses in Qharr and swung his fist at empty air as Khala dodged another attack.

He got close enough that I got a good whiff of him as I dodged his attacks and I almost wished I hadn’t. Most qharr had a scent about them that was an almost woodsy citrus scent, but this fellow smelled as if someone had taken a lemon, wrapped it inside someone’s stinky socks and then let it sit out to rot in the sun for a month. God it was awful! I even felt my nose scrunch up, so Khala must have found it just as offensive or else it was just some automatic reflex.

“Look at her hair! She’s bonded with a K’teth!” the other hunter, a female with a long scar running down the left side of her chest, howled raising the butt of her phase rifle like a club.

“It can’t be!” Mr. Stinky answered back.

“How else would you explain it!?” the female yelled at her companion.

“That’s right,” Khala responded in Qharr before spinning around and yanking the weapon out of the female’s hands. “I’m a K’teth bonded with a human.”

“You would betray your masters?!” the pale giant asked his eyelids twitching in disbelief.

Khala twirled the gun around my hands then jabbed it into the giant’s chest. “Yes,” she said in Qharr.

“Why not?” She switched to English and squeeze my finger around the trigger blasting a hole in her opponent’s chest the size of my fist.

The female let out a loud roar and Khala kicked her across her kneecap then ducked as her opponent’s fist came flying at me. The symbiote jumped back to my feet then brought the rifle around, but before she could fire off another shot the female slammed her fist into my left breast. The blow hurt like hell and I think it caught Khala by surprise because the next thing I knew the phase gun slipped through my fingers and clattered to the ground at my feet.

The first blow was followed by a powerful backhand across my face the force of which was so great that it sent Khala and me flying to ground where we landed on my back. The female moved in to strike again, and probably would have been successful had it not been for Strave who came barreling down the corridor yelling like a madman. The female turned to glance at him and hesitated just long enough for Khala to roll back onto my feet.

Khala stood back and waited as Strave slammed into the alien woman. She let out a disgusted growl then threw him aside with the casual ease of a child flinging away a rag doll. Khala didn’t waste any time she pounced as soon as Strave was out of the way. She leapt atop her larger opponents’ back and threw my arms around her neck. The female spun around attempt to dislodge us, but her efforts were in vain.

Khala loosed my left arm while maintaining her hold with the right then drew my left arm back and pounded my clawed hand into the back of her neck. The blow connected and I felt my hand dig into her flesh just before my fingers wrapped around something hard. There was a sick snap and Khala withdrew my hand before jumping from the falling corpse’s back.

“Damn woman, what the hell did you do?” Strave asked sitting up with a wince as he ran a hand through his hair.

“I snapped her spine,” she said looking down at my hand which was covered in violet blood.

Khala glanced to the side matching Strave’s gaze. “This body is weak in comparison to a Qharr host and I’m not yet up to full power I need to absorb more energy before I will gain full access to all the abilities granted to this body. I must be more careful I would hate for Lexa to lose her life. ”

‘Yeah that’d be quite the tragedy, then you’d be out of a host, wouldn’t you?’

‘I doubt you would believe this, but I would be saddened if you died. I’ve grown to like you in the short time that we’ve been bonded.’

‘Yeah, sure whatever you say.’

“We must hurry. I recognize the team emblem,” she said pointing down at swirled symbol on the butt of one of the guns. “This indicates that those two soldiers I took out belong to Hr’enk team. They are a specialized group of inquisitors whose sole task is to hunt down dangerous criminals. They are very well trained and without my aid I doubt any of your friends will survive,” she said holding my hand out to Strave.

“Don’t be so quick to discount us,” Strave protested. “We may be a ragtag bunch but we know how to fight.”

I could feel my lips purse before Khala replied. “We shall see.”

Strave sighed, climbed to his feet then dusted himself off. “Come on the weapons locker isn’t far now.”

‘For god sakes Khala! Would you pick up a damn weapon!’

Khala didn’t immediately acknowledge me, and when she started to follow Strave I figured she was going to keep on about this ‘I am a weapon’ nonsense. I was about to wrestle control away from her when she stopped, and gazed down at one of the phase rifles discarded by the Qharr. Strave certainly wouldn’t be able to use one of the things, but Khala had already shown that she and I could use Qharr tech. She walked over to the nearest rifle, the one she had used to kill the giant of a male, snatched it from the ground, and scurried after Strave as he continued down the corridor.

“Get back!” Khala howled pushing Strave to the ground then leapt into motion as an endless barrage of phase bolts splattered against my skin. “Oh, hell I really need a damn weapon!” Strave yelled crawling into the nearest doorway as the hunters continued their attack. We had happened upon the group of half a dozen hunters and they’d opened fire without even batting an eyelash.

“Death to the masters!” she called out in Qharr before raising her rifle and opening fire. She took out two of the bastards with the first two shots, but then the remaining soldiers rushed us and things got a bit sticky.

“What’s this? A human joined with a K’teth symbiote?” a short stocky warrior bellowing throwing his fist into my face.

Khala had just enough time to grab the fist out of the air and push it away as another soldier struck at my side. The blow brought ripples of pain and Khala gritted my teeth just before yelling, “Yes! A K’teth joined with a human! Is it really so surprising, you overgrown pl’k!?”

The first warrior howled lunging at me just as Khala slammed my fist into his windpipe. He fell to his knees, clutching at his throat as he gasped for air. Another Qharr, a slender warrior with charcoal-gray skin drew a knife and pounced at me, but Khala was ready. She dodged the attack then jumped up; kicking him across the chest then spun around to punch another of our attackers in the gut.

Abruptly, there was a loud bellow from behind and as Khala spun around to face whatever new threat had arisen there was a bright flash of light. She brought my left hand up to block my eyes against the bright flashes as a long succession of phase blasts pelted the group of Qharr hunters. When my vision finally cleared, all of the enemy soldiers were dead at my feet.

“You two alright?” Kaya said as she approached holding a cumbersome and beat-up looking old phase rifle.

“Shit,” Strave grumbled. “I’d probably be toast if it weren’t for Khala there.”

“Khala?” Kaya asked then suddenly raised her weapon pointing right at my chest. “That fucking parasite is in control?!”

“Yes, I am,” Khala replied staring back at Kaya.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t just blow Jellfree’s fucking brains out right now?! How do I know you weren’t responsible for bringing those gray-skinned bastards on us in the first place!?” She yelled.

“Lexa has been with me all night and she’s been under constant guard since she’s been here in the compound. There’s no way that thing inside of her could have made contact with the Qharr!” Strave protested.

Kaya blinked. “Lexa?”

Khala folded my arms across my chest then intoned’ “Lexa. Jellfree’s new female name.”

She bit her lip, lowered the gun, hesitated for a moment then raised her weapon again. “Let me talk to Jellfree… or Lexa or whatever the hell he or… she is calling herself now!”

“Oh, very well!” Khala proclaimed. She closed my eyes then suddenly I was back in control again. I opened my eyes and stumbled backward momentarily caught off balance from the sudden returned use of my limbs.

“Jellfree? God, it is you!” she proclaimed looking me in the eyes lowering the weapon again then looked me over thoughtfully. “Where’s Felix?”

I swallowed and shook my head. “Dead.”

“Shit,” Khala cursed. “Not Felix too.”

“Who else have we lost?” Strave asked.

“That I know of? Johan, Pyramus, Loona, Terreth and Bentley,” she replied clenching her jaw and gritting her teeth.

“Dammit!” Strave growled. “We can’t afford to lose anyone else! Our numbers were already too few!”

“Tell me something I don’t know, Strave,” she muttered. “I wish we had time to stay and chat, but there are a lot more hunters lurking about and we need to get the fuck out of here.”

“Where exactly is there for us to go!?”

“Fuck if I should know, but Jaysen and Mara have got our ship waiting. They’re leaving in just under five minutes whether we’re aboard or not,” she said motioning for us to follow.

“Well hell, lead the way. I’m not gonna get stuck here. Not if I any say in the matter,” Strave replied.

“Come on then! Let’s hurry the fuck up!” Kaya yelled just before she took off running.

Strave and I exchanged glances then we both sprang into motion running after her.

Chapter Thirteen

“Holy fuck!” Kaya cursed coming to a sudden halt and dove to the ground as a hunter jumped out at her from a nearby doorway.

She raised her rifle, but he was too fast and had it out of her hands before she could fire off a shot. I reacted instinctively pounding my fist into the warrior’s side with all the energy-enhanced strength I could muster. The hunter dropped Kaya weapon and clutched his side howling in fury as he glared down at me. He brought his hand up and casually backhanded me sending me flying into the nearest wall.

‘Give me control!’ Khala called urgently.

I slumped to the ground, bit back the pain then rose to my feet. ‘No, I’m gonna get this bastard on my own.’

The symbiote didn’t say a thing, but I swore I could sense her dismissing me, almost as if she were giving me the mental equivalent to a shrug. I didn’t waste any time mulling it over because at that moment our Qhar friend looked like he was ready to pound on Kaya.

“Hey assface!” I yelled before he could make his move. Then as he turned toward me I jumped up and kicked him across the chest. The whole maneuver was a lot more impressive when you considered he was more than a meter taller than me.

He stumbled backward and I took the opportunity to retrieve my fallen phase rifle from the ground. My opponent let out a few curses that would have made even Duvak blush then charged me, but by then it was already too late; I’d pulled the trigger. The soldier let one final below and I had just enough time to leap out of the way as his corpse tumbled to the ground.

“Gl’f Vleck!” a voice called. As we all turned to look we found a group of about a dozen Qharr hunters running straight at us.

“Holy hell! Run!” Strave called.

I took off and I didn’t have to look back to know that Strave and Kaya were right on my tail. I could hear their feet pounding against the floor tiles as they ran.

“Shit!” Kaya said suddenly. “God, I think that’s Duvak!”

I glanced back and sure enough, the all too familiar face of my old master glared back at me. A lot of humans had trouble distinguishing Qharr faces, but I knew Duvak’s face by heart. I should, I served the damned fucker for almost twenty-five years. I knew how he moved, I knew every line and crease on his face, and I knew those eyes. I fought down a sudden surge panic and just kept running.

The Qharr may have been better warriors than humans, but there was at least one physical advantage we had over them. We were smaller and thus quicker on our feet. Although, the gray-skins had greater physical endurance–greater than Kaya and Strave at least–so if we kept up our pace they’d catch us eventually.

We reached the launch bay before that could happen, but we ran into another problem, once we arrived. The door was locked. “Shit! Here take this!” Kaya yelled at Strave practically throwing her phase rifle at him. “I need to input the damned code. God, I hate auto-lock! Damned Mara and her ass fucking paranoid security system!”

“Duvak!” I yelled the cadre of pursuers drew closer. “I challenge you to the Rite of Gauhk!”

“Shit, Lexa what the hell are you doing?!” Strave protested.

I met his gaze, drew close then shared a passionate kiss with him and whispered into his ear. “Just in case,” before taking a few steps forward and gritted my teeth as I glared at a dumbstruck Duvak. He was wearing a strap and strip of cloth across his right shoulder which extended partway down his chest. I’d never seen such a contrivance, but I had a feeling it meant he’d been demoted since it cover part of his rank tattoo.

“Well?!” I yelled tapping my foot against the ground as I fought down the sudden urge to take off running. “Do you accept?”

The diminutive Qharr cocked his head and held up his hand with his index-finger raised indicating that his subordinates should halt. “The Rite of Gauhk? What justifies this call for revenge, hu-man?”

“You murdered my parents in front of my eyes, you enslaved me and my sister, you took everything I ever had away!” I yelled behind gritted teeth.

“Who are you, female, that you should level such accusations against me!?” he answered back with typical Qharr stoicism.

“It’s open!” Kaya suddenly, but ignored her and eyed Duvak.

“You know me as Jellfree Briggs!”

The corrector blinked and let out a long drawn out cough, “You think me a fool, hu-man?” He paused then turned to his cronies switching to Qharr as he bellowing out a command. “Kill them!”

“Shit!” I yelled and swirled around without waiting for Qharr to make their move.

Kaya was the first through the doorway, but Strave and I weren’t far behind. “Move it!” Strave yelled doing a one-eighty and raised the phase rifle as I came tearing through the doorway. I threw myself aside just a fraction of a second before he opened fire on the approaching soldiers.

“Kaya,” he yelled. “Get that damn door closed!”

“Working on it!” she called over her shoulder from a panel just off to the side of the door.

I sprang back to my feet then raised my own weapon and started firing into the doorway alongside Strave. One of the hunters reached the entrance just as Kaya let out a high pitched squeal then the door came sliding out from the slot in the side of the frame trapping the gray-skin’s hand between the door and the frame. Strave raised the phase rifle, tinkering with a little pop-out panel on the side, aimed it at the trapped hand then opened fire. An unusually bright flash of phase energy hit the target and blasted the outstretched appendage blowing it to pieces. The door, snapped shut and I turned to Kaya who was panting heavily.

“Come on,” she yelled. “We don’t have a lot of time left!”

The ship, the one we had captured from the overseer, was waiting for us as we made our way through the launch bay. We hightailed it up the ramp and passed through the airlock then hurried into the command center.

“Jaysen, I hope you got this fucking thing ready!” Kaya panted and collapsed in one of the many chairs strewn about the bridge.

“The Phoenix is as ready as she’ll ever be,” he mumbled. “I bypassed the lockout systems so anyone of us can now directly interface with the ship’s controls, but I still can’t get the damn inertial negator to work.”

“The Phoenix?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh,” Jaysen grinned scratching at the back of his head, “That was Mara’s idea. Apparently, a phoenix is some mythological bird that burns up and keeps getting reborn from its ashes or something like that. I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“Fuck!” a voice pronounced. “What the hell is that thing doing here?!”

I gritted my teeth and slowly turned to find Farris with a phase pistol trained on me. I folded my arms across my chest and said the first thing that came to mind. “Funny, I was about to say the same thing about you.”

It really wasn’t the sort of thing I’d typically say, and for whatever strange reason I burst into a fit of laughter after uttering the words.

“You think it’s funny, bitch?! You’re the one who brought those bastards down on us! Because of you Pyr is dead!” He yelled his hand shaking as his voice grew louder.

Kaya rolled her eyes, jumped to her feet then hauled off and decked him across the face. Farris’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, he toppled to the ground and Kaya shook her head. “We really don’t have time to be fucking around.”

“Jaysen,” she said. “Where the hell is Mara?”

“Uh… she left?”

“She left? Shit! Well, where the hell did she go?”

“I thought I’d see if I could pick up a few stragglers,” Mara said, stepping into the control room with the doctor, Marta and Nate trailing behind her.

“Jaysen, get us the hell out of here!” Kaya yelled then swirled around to face me. “You think you can pilot?”

I blinked. “Well, if you don’t mind Khala taking the controls.”

“Is that such a good idea?” Nate protested. “How do we know that thing in her head isn’t what brought the Qharr down on us in the first place?”

Thing in my head? Khala wasn’t in my head… was she? I gritted my teeth and let out a long sigh Khala’s physical location in my body didn’t matter at the moment. I opened my mouth to say something, but Strave came to my defense first.

“It wasn’t her! Dammit how many times are we going to have to cover this? I was with her all night. With Felix and the others trailing her all the time she really hasn’t had any opportunity to contact the gray-skins,” Strave protested.

Mara slowly shook her head. “We don’t have time for petty recriminations! Jellfree take the helm! I hoped that creature inside of you can be trusted otherwise this is going to be a short ride!”

I nodded, then bowed my head, closed my eyes and called to Khala. ‘You know what to do.’

My eyes snapped open. Without another word the K’teth took control of my body and moved to the nearest control console.

“As much as I hate to question what must surely be the obvious. I seem to recall it being mentioned to my host that this facility is located deep underground. How exactly is that you plan to use the Het-” she paused mid-sentence then corrected herself, “the Phoenix as an escape vehicle if that is the case?”

Jaysen looked over at Khala and grinned. “The engineer who designed this place most have been some kind of mad genius. He prepared for the eventuality of a quick escape. There are a series of retractable tunnels that lead to the surface.”

“And they have survived all this time? Impressive. You humans are nothing if not resourceful. It is a shame that the masters invaded this world I think there is very little limit to what your kind might have achieved,” she muttered then turned to Jaysen. “I am ready.”

Jaysen nodded, pulling something out of his breast pocket fiddling with it for a moment before turning back to look Khala in my eyes. “Take the opening directly above us.”

The Phoenix lurched into motion and the ship went soaring into the opening above.

“Ah hell!” Jaysen yelled suddenly as we emerged from the long tunnel. “There are two destroyers closing on us fast!”

“I see them!” Khala yelled back sending the ship serving to the side.

“They’ve launched two squadrons of interceptors!” Jaysen yelled.

“Fuck, they must really want us dead! That’s overkill even by Qharr standards!” Kaya screamed.

I felt a sigh escape my lips then Khala spoke. “I might have been able to outrun the destroyers, but those fighters are designed for speed they will quickly catch up to us and when they do they’ll blow us out of the sky.”

“We’re screwed then!” Nate yelled collapsing to his knees as the foremost of the fighters opened fire.

“No!” Khala screamed defiantly and lunged at a nearby console. “There’s a small chance… It’s not something I would normally consider advisable, but I believe it is as you humans say desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“What are you doing?! You’re not actually thinking about activating the leap-drive, are you?! Leap blindly and the ship could wind up inside a mountain!”

Khala sighed, “I am aware of the risks, human! The gray skins and by extension the K’teth were using FTL drives before the human race had even invented the wheel! Now be silent so that I can properly calculate the leap vector!”

“Missiles incoming! Better grab onto something we’re in for a rough ride!” Jasyen screamed just before the ship suddenly lurched forward.

“The FTL rings are charging the ship will leap once it’s ready.” Khala proclaimed then jumped back to the first control panel.

Khala pounded down on the panel, launching a missile which detonated against the oncoming barrage of projectiles. The force from the resulting explosion was such that the ship was sent lurching violently forward. My fingers scrambled across the control panel’s surface as the symbiote fought to gain control of the ship, but despite her best efforts it continued to lurch and spin erratically.

“Dammit! That blast took out the aft thrusters!” Jaysen yelled. “You better brace yourselves ’cause the Phoenix is going down.”

“No, it can’t, not yet,” Khala shook my head just moments before the front view port suddenly flared with blinding bright light.

I heard Kaya let out an earsplitting shriek then everything seemed to freeze in place as the light flared and seemed to encapsulate everything. We were the light, it was a part of us, and we a part of it. The ship shook, Khala blinked, and just like that the illumination was gone, but the ship was still careening wildly toward the ground.

“Prepare for impact!” Khala called. She closed my eyes and clenched my teeth bracing us just before the ship went plowing nose first into the ground.

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: 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.”

“Hey, what the hell does freeze dried mean?” I asked furrowing my brows as I read the label on the box, but when I looked up Kaya was gone.

Chapter Three

“I said empty your damn pockets, Farris!” Strave screamed holding a weapon trained on the other rebel.

“Would someone please explain what the hell is going on?” Kaya pronounced as the two of us stepped onto the bridge.

“Yeah, Strave’s gone fucking nuts!” Farris yelled frantically.

Jaysen stepped in folding his arms across his chest. “Well, Strave and I came in and we found Farris fiddling with something. I didn’t get a good look at it, but Strave thinks it might be Qharr tech. Farris stuffed whatever it was in his pocket and insists it was nothing.”

“Oh for hell sakes!” Kaya cried stepping between Strave and Farris. “Would you two just calm down?”

Strave holstered his weapon then folded his arms across his chest and glared at Farris who turned to look at Kaya. “Look,” he said his eyes darting back and forth between Kaya and Strave.

“I found this thing in my pocket, but I swear to God I have no idea how it got there. Someone must have planted it on me,” he said turning to glare at me as he produced a small black cube that was about four centimeters square.

“When Strave and Jaysen walked in on me I panicked and tried to hide it, but, hell Kaya, you’ve got to believe me… It’s not mine!” Farris protested wiping sweat from his brow.

Kaya snatched the cube from his hands and held it out to Jaysen. “What do you think?”

“It’s definitely Qharr tech. Looks like one of those personal communicators the Inquisitors like to carry around, but sized for a human. Let’s see if I’m right there should be a slight indent in the side there that should open it,” he said absently as he gently plucked the device from her hands then turned it over and over in his hands as he held it up to the light.

“WAIT!” Kaya said flinging her hand out and clenching it around Jaysen’s. “Is that such a good idea? Opening it I mean.”

Jaysen shrugged, “Well, it’s really the only way to confirm that it’s a communicator. If you’re worried about the Qharr using it to track us. I don’t really think that’s how it works otherwise they’d probably already know where we are.”

Kaya nodded. “Do it.”

Jaysen pressed his finger into a small indent on the side of the cube and there was the faintest click as the device opened to reveal a small screen. “Damn, looks like I was right,” he muttered with sad shake of his head.

Kaya didn’t wait for a reply, she grabbed the communicator back out of Jaysen’s hand threw it up in the air, snatched the phase pistol from Strave then blew the damn thing to smithereens. “That takes care of that. Now, we just got to decide what to do with you!” she rounded on Farris, her teeth clenched as she pressed the barrel of the gun against the left side of his jaw.

“Please!” Farris begged openly weeping as his whole body trembled. “It wasn’t me! Please, just give me a chance.”

“I can’t take that risk,” she muttered her eyes narrowing as her whole body tensed.

“No stop!” I cried stepping toward the two of them with an outstretched hand.

“You’re about the last person I’d expect to come Farris’s defense,” Strave said his eyes wide with surprise.

“As far as I’m concerned we should string him up and flay him,” Kaya growled pressing the phase pistol into Farris’s skin with such force that he stumbled backward.

“We are NOT the Qharr,” I said looking about the room. “We’re better than they are! Or at least I’ve always believed so! How many of us have lost friends or family because one of those bastards decided they’d done something wrong? You guys want to kill Farris without even giving him a chance to prove his innocence! How is that any different from the gray-skins? He had a Qharr device! So fucking what! Any one of us could have easily slipped that in his pocket without him noticing! Being a jackass isn’t proof of guilt!”

Jaysen nodded. “She’s right. We can’t kill him… not without being completely sure. I don’t want his blood on my hands.”

“Yeah, well what do you propose we do with him until then? We’re coming up on your old compound now! We can’t just leave him in the ship with no one but the doctor to guard him!” Kaya panted the hand holding the pistol quivering as she yelled.

“We need to interrogate him… ” Jaysen trailed off glancing at Farris. “Maybe then we can figure something out.”

Kaya shook her head, glanced at Farris then raised her phase pistol and slammed the butt into the side of Farris’s head. The platinum-haired goon’s eyes rolled into the back of his skull and he fell to the ground face first.

“Damn, I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” she said with a dramatic sigh and turned to Strave. “You and Jaysen go and lock him up in the rear crew quarters and see if you can’t find some rope or maybe some of that organic cabling the grays like so much, so we can tie him up.”

Strave nodded then without a word bent over and flipped Farris over his shoulder then turned to Jaysen grinning from ear to ear. “Care to join me?”

Jaysen nodded then just before he left he turned to me. “Oh, by the way the new hair and eyes… Th-they look nice.”

“Shit, what the hell was that all about?” Kaya rounded on me after the two of them had left.

“This all seems a bit too convenient doesn’t it? We think we may have been betrayed and suddenly we find Farris with a Qharr communicator. I think it’s a setup. I think whoever is really responsible planted it on him knowing that we’d all be quick to jump down his throat,” I muttered with a shake of my head.

“Then what the hell do you propose we do?”

“Oh, the solution is quite simple,” Khala said suddenly appearing leaning against Kaya’s shoulder. “Set the ship down and set a trap for your betrayer.”

I relayed what Khala had said to Kaya, who then grimaced. “And how does she propose we do that?”

I stopped to listen to Khala then turned to Kaya with a shrug, “We bluff them and hope someone falls for it.”

“Well then,” Kaya grimaced. “What the hell do we have to lose? Let’s do it.”

“Vakrexid is most fond of potatoes,” the doctor proclaimed his head titling back and forth. “The taste of them when they are juiced… It is most nectarous!”

“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it,” I mumbled letting out a long yawn as the doctor continued to babble on.

“You know,” I said suddenly. “It’s probably best if no one heard me talking. I mean you are supposed to be guarding Farris alone.”

“Ah, yes. Of course, of course!” the doctor proclaimed absently running his hand across his face tubes. “Vakrexid shall talk to myself then.”

“Won’t that seem a little odd if anyone heard?”

“Odd… Why? I frequently talk to Vakrexid,” he replied letting out an odd sort of trumpeting sound.

“Alright, well just… forget it,” I mumbled running a hand through the back of my head. It felt odd having so little hair there. I’d sort of gotten used to my longer tresses.

I shook my head and let out a long sigh as the doctor continued to name the Earth foods he liked to juice; including, oddly enough, salmon and mice. How in the world could you juice a fish much less a rodent? I shook my head, suppressed a chuckle and looked down at Farris’s form. He was chained to the bed and was sound asleep thanks in no small part to the cocktail of drugs the doctor had given him. It would be so much easier if he proved to be the traitor, but as much as I tried to convince myself that he was I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.

The doctor continued to babble and nothing happened for what seemed like the longest time, then all of a sudden the door slid open and Straffen poked his head in. “Doctor,” he grinned pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “It’s time for Jaysen and me to have a turn.”

Vakrexid cocked his head. “Has it been four hours already? It is as you humans say, the passing of events flies when you are enjoying yourself.”

“Close enough doc, close enough,” Strave muttered before strolling into the room followed closely by Jaysen, who was so much smaller than the bearded rogue that he had been completely obscured by the other’s larger frame until Strave had stepped away. They both carried pistols at their hips but Jaysen’s was of a much smaller and thus less powerful variety. I gritted my teeth and sunk down further into the bunk-bed then waited for the doctor to depart.

“I don’t know why the fuck we don’t just blow Farris’s brains out here and now,” Strave growled once the doctor had zoomed out the still open door.

“I don’t know…” Jaysen trailed off. “Maybe Lexa’s right about Farris deserving the chance to prove his innocence. I know he’s a huge asshole, but he’s been fighting with the resistance for almost ten years.”

“Come on, Jaysen you and I both know the bastard’s guilty why waste the time on him?”

“Because we know who the real traitor is,” Kaya muttered suddenly appearing in the doorway toting two phase pistols in either hand.

I gritted my teeth and felt my muscles tense up. I hadn’t expected Kaya to make her appearance so soon, but knowing her impatient nature I wasn’t really surprised. It really didn’t affect the plan whatsoever so I suppose it didn’t really matter.

“It’s Strave,” Kaya said grimly.

“Very good, Kaya. So you figured it out did you?” Strave said suddenly pulling out his own phase pistol and training it on the other rebel.

“No, actually. I didn’t, but you just gave yourself away,” she scowled training both of her pistols on Strave. “Lexa thought this whole thing seemed jilted, but she didn’t know whether you or Jaysen was the traitor so we came up with this little plan. Personally, I didn’t expect it to work, but we had to try something.”

“Clever, but I’m afraid it doesn’t do you any good,” Strave muttered. “The Qharr have destroyed nearly all your bases and captured or killed most of the members of your rebellion. You’re all that’s left.”

“Why?!” Kaya shaking with rage. “Why the fucking hell did you do it Strave? You hate the Qharr as much as any of us!”

Strave threw his head back and let out a throaty laugh, “I used to, but… then I met up with a couple Hunters about a half a year back and they showed me the error of my ways. The Qharr are our rightful masters and why shouldn’t they be? We are a loathsome honor-less people. Under their rule we’ll learn the true meaning of honor and thus bring true everlasting joy into our lives.”

‘By the makers! His mind has been bent!’ Khala curses echoed through my mind.

‘Bent?!

‘This is inconceivable! I did not believe the Ascendancy would go to such lengths! To do such a thing… it is without honor!”

“Christ, you’re freaking insane!” Jaysen muttered stumbling backward with a horror-filled look on his face.

“No, it’s you damned rebels who are insane! You fight the Qharr and bring misery to the rest of us! If you served the masters like you were supposed to, they wouldn’t bring so much pain down on us! Don’t you see? It’s all your fault!”

“News flash!” Kaya yelled. “You’ve been fighting right alongside of us.”

“I know,” Strave shook his head and started to sob. “When the masters helped me to understand the truth. They gave me this task so that I could earn forgiveness and if you join me and tell them what they need to know they’ll forgive you too.”

“What they need to know? What the fuck would that be!?” Kaya yelled between clenched teeth.

“Mara’s secret plan. I never was able to figure it all out, but I know about the biometric key and I know she thought it could be used to save humanity. My handlers thought it was important enough that they instructed me to help you escape so I could find out what she had planned.”

Kaya was shaking with rage and I knew it was only a matter of time before she pulled the trigger on one of her pistols. “Just tell me one more thing, you only knew the location of a handful of bases, how the fuck, did you figure out where the rest of them were?”

“That, my dear Kaya was easy. You see as you might recall I was involved in the transfer of supplies. I didn’t need to know the locations all I had to do was place small almost undetectable tracking devices inside some of the supplies so that the Qharr could track their comings and goings.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” Kaya narrowed her eyes then pulled the trigger.

Strave suddenly dove out of the way and the phase bolt struck the wall instead. The bearded traitor trained his own phase weapon on Kaya. I picked that moment to act. I dove off the bunk bed and went flying at him, but he was ready for me. There was a flash of metal and a bang, pain exploded in my chest and I collapsed to the ground at his feet clutching at my right breast.

“Mara’s Magnum,” Strave grinned. “I grabbed it from where she had it stashed on the Phoenix. I thought it might come in handy if you caused any trouble. You honestly think I didn’t see you hiding up there on that bunk?”

“Now,” he growled turned back to Kaya and placing the barrel of the gun against my back. “Put the god-damned pistols down or I fire again!”

“Fuck,” Kaya muttered dropping both of her guns and glaring at Strave with a look that sent cold shivers up my spine.

“Well, that was easy,” Strave laughed. “… but Lexa’s too dangerous to keep alive. So I’m going to have to kill her. It’s too bad really she really knows how to give a guy a good fucking.”

“Nooo!” Jaysen yelled and threw himself at Strave.

I gasped and rolled onto my back then staggered back to my feet. My chest hurt like hell, but I didn’t let that stop me. Of course, if I wasn’t bonded with Khala I doubted I’d have the strength to even lift my arm. I slowly turned and watched as Jaysen struggled against the other man.

I swallowed hard as I realized that the much smaller man didn’t stand a chance. Whatever advantage Jaysen had gained when he jumped Strave quickly evaporated when the bigger man began to fight back. Suddenly, there was another loud bang and Jaysen collapsed to the ground with a huge wound in his chest from Strave’s weapon. I didn’t even know if Jaysen was dead or alive when his assailant rounded on me, but I did know I was going to make that bastard pay.

Rage the like of which I’d only felt a handful of times in my life filled me and I raced to where Strave was standing not caring if he shot me or not. He brought the weapon up, but before he could fire I grabbed his wrist and twisted it away from me. I felt something snap, probably one of his bones, and he howled out in pain as the gun slipped from his grip “That was a mistake, you mother-fucking bastard,” I spat and locked my hands around his neck and with one violent jerk snapped it. I shoved his body aside then I fell to my knees next to Jaysen’s inert form frantically feeling for a pulse and felt a surge of hope as I found a very faint thump.

I turned to look at Strave and felt a deep sadness come over me. Poor Strave, he didn’t deserve what had been done to him. He was a womanizing bastard to be sure, but to actually have his mind twisted in such a manner. It was horrendous. Killing him was probably a mercy to his soul, but this realization didn’t make me feel any better or help to remove the sour taste from my mouth.

“Kaya,” I breathed bowing my head over Jaysen’s chest. “Get the doctor… Hurry!”

I felt tears well up in my eyes as I stared down at him and let in a long intake of breathe as I confronted a new set of emotions. Guilt. I felt bile rise in my throat and shuddered as I thought of having sex with Strave. I’d let myself find comfort in the arms of a traitor even if he wasn’t responsible for his actions. If only I’d seen through his veil! Maybe I could have prevented this whole mess. Maybe, we could have even found a way to save Strave and return him to his former self. If I had just done something differently…

“Move aside! Vakrexid is here!” the doctor suddenly proclaimed from the doorway.

I bit my lip, struggled back to my feet and stepped away still clutching at my bleeding chest.

“No, no, this… it is not good,” Vakrexid muttered his hands tracing across Jaysen’s wound.

“Is he… is he going to be alright?” I mumbled fighting back tears.

“Vakrexid cannot say. His condition is most dire. If I had access to my equipment from the bunker Vakrexid is certain I could save him, but the implements the Qharr use they are unfamiliar and Vakrexid is unsure if I can make proper use of them.”

‘There is another way. My child, the symbiote, which is growing within your body, is nearly mature. If we were to let my daughter bond with your friend she may be able to save his life,’ Khala’s voice whispered in my mind.

I felt cold chills run down my spine as I realized the implications. I could save Jaysen, but only by making him like me. ‘He’s unconscious,’ I answered her back. ‘You agreed not to let another human be bonded against their will.’

‘I think there is call for an exception don’t you? I made the agreement with you therefore you can override it. You could save his life isn’t that what you want?’

I swallowed hard and looked down at Jaysen’s inert form. The symbiote would surely transform him just as Khala had transformed me, but wasn’t that what he wanted? He’d be saddled with an unwelcome guest for the rest of his life, but wasn’t that worth it if it meant saving him? I didn’t know, but I made the only choice I could stomach and felt an even greater surge of guilt as I came to my decision. Jaysen had taken that shot trying to save me if only I hadn’t acted more quickly.

‘Tell me what I have to do.’

‘My daughter is not mature and as such she will need extra help with the bonding process.’

‘So you need energy?’ I replied, but didn’t wait for a reply. I swirled around; my gun wound temporarily forgotten thanks in no small part to Khala, as I practically leapt out the door.

“Lexa wait!” Kaya called after me, but I didn’t stop or give any sign that I heard her.

“God dammit Lexa!” Kaya yelled grabbing my shoulder from behind.

I whirled on her, and stared into her eyes. “Let go Kaya!”

“What the hell are you doing?!”

“I… I can save her Kaya,” I growled.

“Her?! Who’s her?!”

Jaysen was a woman, even if she had the body of a man. I’d let my own perception of gender keep me from seeing that. “Jaysen! I can save her life. Now let go!”

Kaya eyes were wide as her hands slid away and I didn’t waste any more time as I broke out in a run. I hadn’t been far from the engine room so it didn’t take me long to reach it, but I could not escape the feeling that I was wasting precious minutes.

“Okay, you’re going to have to help me out here,” I spoke to Khala aloud. “What’s the best way to way to do this?”

‘Remove that wall-plate in the right corner there above that panel. From there I should be able to drain power directly from the ship’s reactor.’

“Damn, I really hope you know what you’re talking about,” I said before grabbing hold of the wall plate. There looked to be a mechanism for releasing it, but I didn’t waste the time trying to figuring it out. I summoned up all the enhanced strength Khala granted me and ripped the damn thing off the wall.

“Okay, what now?” I asked tossing the wall plate to the ground.

There was a single thick tube about twenty centimeters in diameter within the opening, and as I stared at it, Khala told me what to do. In the middle there was a slight bulge and I grabbed at it pressing my finger into an indentation wide enough around to accommodate a Qharr finger. There was a faint click and the sheathing slid away to reveal the bare wires within.

“That’s convenient,” I said tentatively reaching out to grab the exposed cords.

I felt a surge of sudden energy as electrical currents swam up and down my arm. ‘There is nothing convenient about it. All Qharr ships have an access such as this in the event of an emergency,’ she replied just before she began to feed.

Power beyond anything I had ever experiences before slammed into me with the force of a stampeding bull, so much so that I was almost painful and yet… it felt good at the same time. An abrupt and very sharp pain flared in my right breast and I heard the ping of metal against the floor as the bullet flew out from my wound. I reached up to grab at my chest only to find that smooth flesh where before there had been a mass of bloody tissue. I let out a high pitched squeal as Khala continued to take in more power and the pain seemed to increase tenfold.

“God!” I screamed.

Then, with no warning whatsoever the pain fled, I let my hand slip away from the wires and it was all I could do to keep myself from collapsing to my knees. ‘Shit! You could have warned me! That hurt like hell!’

‘Pain is a part of life. You cannot let it rule you.’

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. “I’m not some damned Qharr! I haven’t been trained to keep pain at bay! I’ve lived with pain all my life! It doesn’t mean I enjoy it!”

Khala didn’t answer and I didn’t waste any more time with her. I raced out the door and back to the room where Kaya and the others were waiting. While I was away, Kaya and the doctor had moved Jaysen from the floor to one of the bunks. I moved nervously toward where Jaysen’s inert form was resting then I took a deep breath and…

“Lexa!” Kaya said suddenly her hand latching down on my shoulder. “You’re not going to put one of those things inside of him. Are you?”

I shuddered and reached up to touch her hand, “It’s the only way.”

“Most fascinating, Vakrexid would not believe it possible for a K’teth symbiote to mature so quickly.”

I shook my head, “It… isn’t mature. Khala hasn’t exactly clued me in on all the details, but I think she’s got it figured out somehow.”

“God, Lexa I don’t know. Are you sure about this?!” Kaya asked.

I turned to grip her shoulders in either of my hands. “Hell no. The symbiote may not even be able to heal her, but there’s a chance. I just can’t let her die. I… I just can’t. ”

Kaya pursed her lips, nodded then took a step back. “Do whatever you have to do.”

‘Give me control. It will be much simpler that way,’ Khala urged through our bond.

I hesitated, a thousand reasons why what I was about to do was a bad idea sprung to mind all at once, but all my misgiving fled before one inescapable truth if I didn’t do it Jaysen would most likely die. I barely knew Jaysen, but I lost so much in my life that I couldn’t bear the thought of losing another person that I cared about. It was selfish act one born out of desperation and my own guilt at not stopping Strave, but at that point in time all I cared about was making sure Jaysen didn’t die. I swallow hard, closed my eyes and gave over control to my symbiote.

I could feel the energy pulsating into my hands as Khala placed them on Jaysen’s chest. It started out as a trickle at first, but the thick goo soon came gushing out from my pores at an alarming rate. It didn’t hurt at all, but I suspected Khala may have taken my protestations against my earlier pain to heart and was numbing the pain. Finally, the pulsating subsided and Khala withdrew my hands.

I got my first good look at a symbiote and I actually pretty underwhelmed at the sight of the creature. It looked to have the consistency of a thick pudding, but was a semi-transparent milky white and devoid of color. It was hard to believe that such an unremarkable looking fluid could actually be a living thinking being. Then, the fluid suddenly moved seeming to slink its way across Jaysen’s skin before seeping into the phaseshot wound in his chest.

I stumbled backward and fell down flat on my ass realizing, too late, that Khala had returned control. “I-It’s finished.” I whispered then felt tears cascade down my face. “My God! What have I done?!”

Chapter Four

Hours passed by and nothing seemed to happen. I worried that Jaysen’s body had somehow rejected the K’teth, or else the symbiote had been too premature to do any good, but I didn’t voice my concerns not even to Khala. Instead I sat there beside Jaysen’s bed and I waited. The doctor bandaged Jaysen’s wounds and retrieved equipment from the ship’s medical bay so that he could monitor her condition, but made no attempts to move her.

The whole thing had left me drained and feeling weak. I could hardly keep my eyes open, but when Kaya and the doctor suggested I get some rest I steadfastly refused. I had to watch over Jaysen she’d been shot trying to save me. It seemed like the very least I could do.

“You know, even you need sleep, you’re not invincible,” Kaya said placing a hand on my shoulder.

“I need to look after her; it’s my fault she was shot…”

“Is that what’s this about? Lexa, trust me there’s nothing you could have done,” she said wrapping her arms around me in a hug.

“I let him touch me!” I shuddered. “God! I remember thinking there must have been more to him than he was letting on. I even thought I caught a glimmer of the real him, but good God! Whatever I thought I saw when we slept together it wasn’t really him!”

Kaya sighed and shook her head. “That wasn’t the real Strave we saw today. Whatever those bastards did to him, they killed the real Strave. He’s been dead for months. That thing was just an empty shell, a shadow of the Strave I knew. He was a selfish two-timing womanizing bastard, but even he didn’t deserve that fate. He hated the Qharr as much as the rest of us. They must have really twisted his mind to make him think those things.”

I nodded and put my head on her shoulder weeping silently. “The only reason I slept with him was because of what happened between the two of us when you told me you were pregnant. I just wanted to be close to someone.”

“Oh Jellfree,” she whispered quietly muttering my male name. “I never wanted to hurt you. It’s just… God I feel like such an ass even saying this, but I want to be with you. The mind is willing, but the body isn’t. I’m just not attracted to women.”

“I know,” I replied. “I’ve accepted that now, but when you ran off on me it forced me to finally come to grips with the fact that we could never be together and it was like my whole world came crashing down around me. After what Strave and I did I thought I might have found someone else, but I realize now how stupid that was…”

“It wasn’t stupid… Strave had a way about him. I don’t know many women who were immune to his charms at least once he set his eyes on them.”

“I don’t know, you seemed to have had his number…”

“He fooled me at first too,” she shook her head. “I even got involved with him for a while before I caught him in bed with another woman.”

“That explains some things…”

“Lexa, I think it’s about time you get some rest… don’t you?”

“What about Jaysen?”

Kaya rolled her eyes. “You’re not the only one around here who can sit around in a chair and wait for him… her,” she corrected after glancing at me. “To wake up.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but felt a wave of dizziness wash over me. Blackness creeped around the edges of my vision, but gritted my teeth and fought against it. Whatever Khala had done sure had taken a toll out of me I just hadn’t realized the full extent of it until that moment.

“Lexa!” Kaya yelled gripping my shoulders and shaking me. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I just… I think you’re right I think it’s time I got some rest…”

“Damn, I feel like shit,” I stretched my arms with a loud yawn just before I sat up with a slight groan. I looked around the room blankly trying to remember how I’d gotten there when it all came back to me in a rush of memories. Everything from confronting and killing Strave to feeling dizzy while talking to Khala and collapsing in an exhausted heap on one of the nearby bunks.

‘What the hell happened? What did you do to make me so freaking tired?’ I thought at Khala.

‘I gave too much energy over to my daughter. I was concerned that the strain of the bonding process would be too much for her,’ she muttered back her voice almost seemed muffled in my mind. ‘Since our systems are irrevocably entwined anytime I am low on energy it affects you as well.’

“A little warning would have been nice,” I said aloud and nearly jumped out of my skin as an unfamiliar face seemed to materialize right there in front of me.

I furrowed my brows and stared at the blue-haired girl with a gorgeous face and magenta eyes standing in front of me before it finally dawned on me who she was. “Jaysen?”

“The one and only,” she beamed at me grinning from ear to ear. Her lighter and very feminine voice was quite different from the soft tenor I’d grown accustomed to.

“You haven’t finished changing?” I asked look down at her still flat chest and decidedly male body.

“No, but I’m sure at this rate it won’t take more than a few days.”

‘Why so long?’ I asked Khala. ‘Shouldn’t it be faster with the amount of energy we gave the other symbiote?’

‘Remember my daughter was not fully mature when she entered your friend. The process of transforming Jaysen will be all the more difficult for her because of it and she’ll need to assume some of the hosts mass in order to reach her proper size.’

“Lexa!” Jaysen cried frantically shaking at my shoulder. “You all right?!”

“Fine,” I shook my head. “I was just talking to Khala.”

“Sorry, Kaya said you had a dizzy spell or something. The doctor ran some tests and said you were suffering from simple exhaustion. Which was probably caused by well… this,” she said holding her hands up to her face.

I winced shaking my head as tears started to gush from my eyes. “Shit… I’m so sorry. You’ve got to believe me if there had been any other way.”

“Lexa… stop!” she said planting her index finger on my lips. “I was a little freaked out, no scat that, I was really freaked out when Kaya first told me, but I don’t blame you. She said that if you hadn’t put that thing in me I’d probably be dead. You saved my life there’s no reason for you to apologize.”

I gritted my teeth and clenched my hands around my eyes. “The only reason you were injured in the first place was because of me and now you’re stuck with a K’teth for the rest of your life!”

Jaysen reached out forcing my hands away from my face then she did something I wasn’t prepared for at all. She kissed me. “God, I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time now!” she smiled shyly. “Do you know why I attacked Strave? You! God, I can’t get you out my head! Before I was so afraid to say anything because I was thought you would reject me, but I could have died and you never would have known how I felt!”

“I-I really don’t know what to say,” I muttered pushing myself away from her. “I mean I never thought of you that way.”

Jaysen bowed her head and looked at me with a crestfallen expression, “I’m sorry. I… that was stupid I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

“No it wasn’t stupid,” I shook my head then reached out and did something that, I think, surprised us both: I kissed her back. It was impulsive act one which came with a sudden and simple revelation, I had developed feelings for Jaysen. It had been why I’d been so desperate to save her… Oh hell, why hadn’t I seen it before?

“Oh wow, I honestly didn’t see that coming!” Jaysen breathed a slow smile creeping onto her face.

“Yeah, neither did I,” I smiled back reaching up to cup her face.

“What are you two grinning about?” Kaya suddenly pronounced and we both turned to see her leaning against the door frame, her arms folded across her chest and her lips spread out in a smirk.

“N-nothing,” Jaysen blushed scratching at the back of her neck. “I was, uh, I was just thanking Lexa for saving me.”

Kaya pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes glancing at us suspiciously. “Whatever you say.”

“You know the doctor would be too happy if he found you out of bed,” Kaya added moving across the room and frowned as she placed a hand on Jaysen’s shoulder.

Jaysen shrugged and looked up at her with a guilty expression on her face. “I feel fine. You can’t seriously expect me to stay cooped up in this room until this thing in me is finished do you? Besides you guys didn’t keep Lexa locked up when she changed.”

“Jaysen, you almost died!” She protested throwing her arms up in the air.

‘It’s actually a good idea if your friend took it easy. The transformation process is going to be much harder than it was for you,’ Khala’s voice rang through my head.

“Kaya’s right,” I agreed. “The symbiote isn’t mature. Khala said that it’s going to be harder for you because of it.”

Jaysen sighed and shook her head. “Damn, not you too. Well, I guess I can handle sitting still for a little while, but If I’m going to be stuck here so are you.”

I bit my lip. “I wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. I still feel like crap.”

“Alright, you two get some rest. I’ll probably be back to check on you in a few hours and I’m sure the doctor will be in once he wakes from his beauty rest,” Kaya pronounced and disappeared back through the doorway.

Jaysen watched Kaya go then turned to me with a very slight smile. “I guess I am sort of tired, but its kind of chilly in here and there isn’t much in the way of blankets. I don’t know how you guys expect me to get any sleep.”

“Duvak, my old master, used to say ‘One must endure the cold to of the night in order to endure the challenges of the day'” I shrugged. “Personally, I think it was a load of shit, but he always said he was quoting some Qharr proverb.”

“Typical Qharr attitude,” Jaysen shook her head. “Of course, I think they must have been engineered to handle a much broader range of temperatures than us, but…”

“I was thinking,” she muttered her cheeks turning bright-red as she spoke. “I mean if you didn’t mind, we could share a bed. These Qharr bunks are more than big enough for the two of us and we could keep each other warm.”

I felt my own cheeks burn at the thought of it, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d ever shared my bed for the purpose of staying warm. It was a bit chilly in the ship and knowing the gray-skins I doubted there was any way to adjust the temperature, but I suspected Jaysen might have other reasons for wishing to bunk up and I don’t really think it took a genius to figure out what those reasons were.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

She bit her lip and nodded as tears started to stream down her face, “Yeah, you’re probably right… it’s just that this thing, what it’s doing to me. It’s like a dream come true, but at the same time it scares me. Having one of those things always there inside my mind… Will it influence me? Will it change me? I-I’m terrified, and I just want to be held.”

I swallowed hard and tried to give her an encouraging smile. I understood perfectly where she was coming from because I’d been there myself. I guess, I’d misjudged her reasons for wanting to share a bed.

“It’s scary, I know, and Khala can be frustrating to the point that I want to tear all my hair out, but you know what? At the end of the day I’m still me. Is she influencing me? Yeah, she offers her opinions and provides me with information, and that influences the decisions I make, but the things I care about, my goals, what makes me, me, my heart, the core of being it doesn’t change. I’m the one in control not her!”

She nodded between sobs. “I-I hope you’re right.”

“Come here,” I whispered holding my hand out to her.

She looked down at it, bit her lip then without a word took my hand and climbed into bed with me. She didn’t say a word and I reached across to put my arm around her. She put her head on my shoulder and I could feel her tears stream down my back as she continued to weep. The warmth of her body against mine felt nice, and I reached out to stroke her hair. We stayed like that for quite a while until her tears dried up and eventually we both drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Five

“SUCCULENCE!” the doctor proclaimed his voice whistling through the room just before he sucked liquid up his center face tube from a small coffee cup with the words, ‘How about a nice big cup of shut the fuck up?’ emblazoned across its front. Where the doctor had found the thing was beyond me, and I never really got a chance to ask.

“Vakrexid is most pleased!” he added setting his drink down. “You seem to have recovered from your temporary stint of fatigue.”

“Just needed some rest I guess,” I shook my head, “but enough about me. What about Jaysen?”

“I am most unsure. As you well know, Vakrexid has little knowledge of K’teth physiology. I cannot say how long the transformation process will take in this particular instance as it is a most unparalleled and befuddling predicament.”

Jaysen gritted her teeth and pounded her fist against the bed. “It’s almost unbearable waiting! To go so many years in the wrong body and to finally be so close… I just want it to be finished so I can finally be me!”

Vakrexid cocked his head back and forth seemingly perplexed as he studied her. The doctor had been nothing if not courteous, but I got the impression that Jaysen’s gender dysphoria was a completely foreign concept to him. I guess it wasn’t so surprising, considering he came from a race of hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs. “Vakrexid wishes there was something I could do to accelerate the changes, but without Vakrexid’s implements I can only observe.”

“If I had something to do I don’t think it would be so bad. Being cooped up in this room all day is driving me mad!” she pronounced throwing her hands up in the air in frustration. “For years I found my escape by building and tinkering with machines. Just please give me something to play with so I can keep my mind off things.”

“Vakrexid has been thinking that perhaps I should have not been so quick to confine you to bed. It is true that the process of joining with the K’teth symbiote has left you weakened, but I believe if you consume enough organic matter and refrain from activity that is much too strenuous then Vakrexid sees no harm in giving you free reign of this vessel,” the doctor said sliding his hand up and down his face tubes.

“Oh, thank god!” Jaysen said letting out a sigh of relief as she climbed out of bed. “Maybe we can get this ship moving again!”

The doctor blinked. “Of course, Vakrexid thinks participating in extraordinary laborious activities, most especially those of a more violent nature would be most inadvisable.”

“I think I can handle that,” she smiled then grinned at me before grabbing me by the collar and kissing me on the lips.

“Come, on Lex,” she beamed up at me as we broke for air before grabbing my hand and tugging at it. “Let’s get out of here!”

I glanced at the doctor, shrugged and let Jaysen guide me out of the room.

“Oh my God!” Jaysen proclaimed hopping up and down like a kid who’d just been given a new toy. “I can interface directly with the computer! No gadgets or workarounds! I think I could get used to this!”

Kaya snorted shaking her head., “You may look different, but you sound like the same old Jaysen to me.”

“This,” she said bring up both hands to gesture at her face. “Is who I really am. I’m still me, I’m just finally starting to look the way I’ve always wanted to.”

“Well, of course, I mean I didn’t mean to say that—” Kaya started but was cut short by Jaysen.

“Kaya don’t, it’s fine. You’ve always been real supportive and I know it’s going to take a while to get used to the real me. Ah, there that ought to do it!” she pounded a finger down on the console and grinned triumphantly as it flared to life.

“Now, let’s get this bucket of bolts back on course,” she beamed tapping at the controls.

“You know…” I trailed off transfixed as I watched Jaysen. “Your symbiote hasn’t spoken with you yet, has it?”

Jaysen shook her head. “Well… I-I had this weird dream where a woman with blue hair, like this,” she said pointing up at her head. “was talking to me, but well… nothing she said seemed to make much sense. She kept going on and on about the bonding process and…” she trailed off biting her lips. “It’s not really important.”

“It is unlikely my daughter will make an appearance. At least not for some time,” Khala said her pretend image appearing between Jaysen and myself.

“HOLY HELL!” Jaysen proclaimed suddenly backing away as her eyes stared fixedly at Khala.

I blinked and felt my jaw drop open, “You can see her?”

Khala’s face stretched into a grin as she spoke. “K’teth can communicate telepathically with one another as well as bonded hosts. The bonding process must be further along than I believed for your friend to be able to see me.”

“See who?!” Kaya asked her eyebrows furrowed as she stared at Jaysen.

“Khala, Kai,” I answered. “Looks like Jaysen can see her too.”

“That is just unnerving,” Jaysen rubbed her eyes and letting out a long deep breath. “Does she just suddenly appear out of thin air like that all the time?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I answered. “It is… or it used to be, but I’ve sort of gotten used to it. Now, I find it more irritating than anything else.”

Khala rolled her eyes and folded her arms adopting a defensive posture. “That really is not my intent. If I could think of a less irritating way of appearing before you I would.”

“I think it’s going to take me a while t–” she stopped abruptly clutching at her crotch . “Oh!” she cried out then slid her hand away to reveal a massive erection which was showing through her slacks.

“Damn, I can’t wait till I’m rid of this thing for good. It always seems to do that at the weirdest times,” she blushed looking down at her groin then coughed and scratched at the back of her neck. “I just wish I would change faster I mean I haven’t even started to grow breasts yet.”

“Exactly how far has it gotten?” Kaya asked.

“My face, my neck, and it’s starting on my left shoulder. I-I’d show you, but its sort of embarrassing,” she averted her eyes and seemed to be fighting back tears. “Anyway I, uh, the ship’s ready to go if you are.”

Kaya nodded and pursed her lips, “Not quite.” she said then turned to me. “Is there any way you could go talk to Farris? He’s locked himself up in the supply room and won’t come out.”

I blinked. “Why me?”

“You were the one that kept us from blowing his head off. I think maybe if anyone who could get him to come out of his hidey-hole it’d be you. I mean you did save his life,” she glanced at me with raised eyebrows.

“God, that doesn’t sound even remotely pleasant, but I guess I’ll do it. Just getthe ship going and I’ll go talk to him,” I said letting out a long sigh then turned away and walked out the control room.

“Farris!” I called pounding on the supply room door. There wasn’t an answer and I cursed under my breath.

“FARRIS!!!” I repeated belting out his name at the top of my lungs pounding on the door with small bit of my enhanced strength.

“Alright!” his voice called through the door. “Just knock it off and I’ll let you in!”

I dropped my fist and watched as the door slid open revealing Farris on the other side. I stepped inside the room and let the door slide shut behind me before I turned to face him. “Kaya tells me you’ve been holed up in here and won’t talk to anyone.”

“I’m talking to you ain’t I?” he growled stepping away and collapsing atop a pile of rags in the corner.

“This is because everyone thought you were the traitor, isn’t it?”

“What do you think?” he muttered pounding his fist against the wall.

“Look, Farris. It can’t be easy having people point the finger at you like that, but you can’t just hide in here for the rest of your life! Sooner or later you’re going to have to come out!” I yelled planting my fists on my hips as I glared at him.

He groaned and cupped his hands over his face. “Why?”

“Excuse me?”

“Everyone was ready to blow my freaking brains out and the only reason they didn’t was because of you. Why did you save me?”

“I don’t know… It just seemed like the right thing to do,” I shrugged grimacing as I ran a hand through the back of my hair.

“They hate me,” he shook his head, then rolled over and buried it in the pile of rags.

“Farris, they don’t–”

“Come on, you know it’s true. All these years I’ve been hanging around Pyr and I face it I’ve been a complete ass. I just… It made me feel good putting people down, but I didn’t realize how horrible it felt being on the receiving end. I-It’s no wonder everyone was so quick to believe I was the traitor!”

“Dammit Farris!” I yelled gritting my teeth. “Would you quit your sniveling? We’re all that’s left of the rebellion and if we’re going to have any chance at success we need every hand we can get! Including you! You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself or you can try to do some good! You and Pyramus were bullies plain and simple, but you know what? It was a choice and you can choose to be a different person!”

“You done?” he rolled back onto his back then closed his eyes and gripped the side of his head with both hand. “Thank you for saving my life. I’m sorry for the things I said to you. Now please leave me alone, I need some time with my thoughts.”

“We’ve set a course for Old Salt Lake, if you decide to join us, you know where we’ll be,” I muttered shaking my head in disgust before making my exit.

Chapter Six

“Ready?” Kaya asked turning to me.

“Yeah,” I grinned. “If I were any more ready I’d already be there.”

Kaya rolled her eyes and turned away nodding to Jaysen who reached for the door mechanism. As the door slid open Jaysen reached out to touch my shoulder. “Come back safe, okay?” she whispered.

I smiled. “Don’t worry; I don’t plan on dying any time soon.”

“Good,” she smiled back then I leaned in and shared a kiss with me.

“Okay, I can honestly say I wasn’t expecting that!” Kaya said staring at the two of us with wide eyes as we finished up. “When did you two hook up?”

I rubbed the back of my neck and felt my cheeks burn. “Uh, this is sort of a new development.”

“Well, um, good for you.” Kaya frowned then bit her lip. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but at least she was trying to be supportive.

“WAIT FOR ME!!!” A voice called out and we all turned to see Farris running down the corridor toward us.

Kaya glared at him. “Well, look who’s finally come to show his miserable face.”

“I, uh, needed some time to think things over,” he averted his eyes and looked down at the floor then suddenly lifted his head and looked Kaya in the eyes. “… but I’m through feeling sorry for myself. I know what I need to do now.”

“I’d hoped you would say that,” Kaya said folding her arms across her chest as she gave him an appraising look. “You better go change into something a little less conspicuous. We’re heading into Salt Lake now and what you’re wearing just screams compound slave.”

“Right,” he replied. “Uh, alright. I don’t suppose you have any spares do you?”

“Yeah, there are some things in the supplies we picked up. There are even a few items that looked like they might be your size, just hurry would you?”

He glanced at Kaya then, eyed Jaysen with furrowed brows before his eyes grew wide, “Jaysen?”

“Yeah, I’m changing into a woman you got a problem with that?” she replied planting her hands on her hips glaring at him.

“No!” he yelled his eyes seeming to bulge out of his head.

“I’ll be back,” he added suddenly and glanced at Jaysen before leaping back down the corridor in the opposite direction.

“Better?” Farris asked stepping out from the hall in what looked more or less to be a male version of what Kaya and I were wearing. Which for him was a gray shirt emblazoned with odd swoosh label and the word VICTORIA (whatever that meant), a pair of black slacks and a plain blue cap. My own shirt, had the words ‘Green Freeze Blasters’ (your guess is as good as mine) across the chest and Kaya’s had a sort of circle symbol with a white and a black half that was divided into two tear drops with circles of opposite colors within each half. The clothes weren’t all that different from what a compound slave would wear aside from the odd designs, but they were of pre-invasion origin and such apparel was quite common among slaves within the old cities like Salt Lake, or so Kaya kept on insisting.

“Better,” Kaya agreed then turned to Jaysen. “If we don’t return within a week are you clear on what to do?”

Jaysen nodded. “I take the ship, find a nice little hiding space and then once the dust settles try to make contact with any other members of the rebellion that may have survived.”

“Alright then,” Kaya nodded. “I guess…” she started to say then sudden rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Oh for hell sakes!” she yelled glaring at the doctor as he came running toward us. “What you want to come too?”

The doctor swiveled his head. “No, Vakrexid merely wished to say farewell. Are you well? You seem most agitated.”

“I’m fine! It’s just…” she trailed off glancing at Farris and Jaysen. “It’s just frayed nerves from everything that’s happened.”

“It is most understandable. Vakrexid wishes you a safe journey and bids you farewell!” he proclaimed then did a quick one-eighty and walked away.

Jaysen watched the doctor leave with a huge grin on her face. “I guess this time it’s really goodbye.”

“Well, I guess that last kiss was practice,” I grinned then leaned in and locked my lips around hers.

“Damn, you don’t know how much I wish I was coming with you?” she whispered in my ear as we broke away.

I smiled and traced a finger across her cheek. “I think I do, but you know you’re still weak from the transformation process. Don’t worry the doc will keep you company while we’re away and we’ll be back in no time, okay?”

She smiled. “Okay.”

I let out a long deep breath, turned away, and walked down the ramp in the direction of the city. Kaya and Farris followed and we traveled in silence through the dry foliage of the Wasatch Valley. Kaya set a rather grueling pace and if it hadn’t been for my enhanced endurance and strength I doubted I would have been able to keep up. Farris didn’t fare so well and kept lagging further and further behind.

“Kaya,” I asked her suddenly. “What’s wrong?”

Kaya glared at me then glanced over her shoulder and eyed Farris who was a good twenty feet behind us. “It’s this damn pregnancy!” she hissed. “It’s driving me out of my freaking mind! I just want to scream and for some damn reason I’m having this weird craving for carrots and I hate carrots!”

“Good hell, is that normal? Maybe we should go back and talk to the doctor,” I reached out and snatched her arm.

Kaya rolled her eyes. “Of course, it’s normal! What are you stupid!?” she yelled then her eyes grew wide and she winced. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! It’s normal… I’ve never been pregnant, but women talk about these sort of things and trust me, if what I’ve heard is true, this is just the beginning.”

“Crap, good thing I can never…” and suddenly gasped and swallowed hard as I looked down at my breasts.

‘Can I get pregnant?’ I asked Khala feeling a lump form in the pit of my stomach.

‘At the moment, yes.’

“Oh God, oh God,” I yelled out loud feeling panic wash over me as I suddenly realized that it was entirely possible. “Strave and I had sex… I’m not pregnant… am I?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not pregnant. It would have been impossible for you to conceive a child while a K’teth infant was growing within your body,” she replied appearing beside me winking and giving me a reassuring smile.

“BUT, I won’t be able to produce offspring in some time and during that period you will be able to bear a child. The Phyrr Lesch put in a built in limit in how often we could reproduce in order to allow our hosts a time period in which they in turn could produce children.”

I let out a long sigh of relief and turned to Kaya. “Not pregnant. Shit, that scared me. That must be how you feel.”

“No,” she shook her head. “I mean I’m scared. No, that’s not right I’m terrified, but I don’t think it’s for the same reason. I’m afraid because I’ll have to raise this child without a father.”

“Kaya…” I muttered. “I’ll still be here.”

“It’s not the same Lexa! I mean you’re different now. It’s subtle, and it’s been a gradual process, but in some ways you’re starting to think like a woman and I always pictured myself raising a child with the man I loved. I can’t do that now, because no matter how strongly I feel about you the attraction I once had is gone,” she sighed tears streaking down her face as she struggled with whatever cocktail of emotions I knew she must be experiencing.

I reached out and grabbed her hand. “I know everything is different now and maybe I have changed a little. How could I not with everything that has happened? But God Kai, I can still be here for you and you better damn well believe that I’m going to be there for our child!”

“I know that, Lexa, but it’s not the same. Can’t you see that?”

“Yeah,” I muttered looking down at the ground and shaking my head. “We can’t be lovers or partners, but maybe… maybe we can be sisters.”

She lock gazed with me through tear filled eyes and a slight smile crept onto her face. “I don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to sisters, but I think you’d be a definite improvement over my birth sister. I’d be happy to call you my sister, Lexa.”

“God that sounded weird!” I stumbled and shuddered a bit staring at her with wide eyes then cleared my throat. “But sisters, that’s great!”

Kaya stared at me then abruptly burst out laughing. “You should have seen the look on your face! It was priceless!”

I glared at her for a moment then threw my head back and fell into a fit of hysterical laughter.

“Damn,” I shook my head. “It feels good to laugh.”

“Yeah,” Kaya agreed chuckling a bit as she choked down the last of her mirth.

“So…” I said biting my lips. “What exactly can I expect to find in the city?”

“The cities are where humans slaves the Qharr don’t have any use for are left to rot. Salt Lake is unique, at least among the human cities I’ve been to, in that it also acts as a trade hub so you’ll see a lot of alien traders, most of them will probably be Deplarans, but you’ll definitely see some Ghrev and maybe even a few Credknotts too,” she replied quietly.

“How are we going to get in?”

“That’s actually pretty easy. Security in and out of the city is a lot more lax than it is in the compounds and some slave are even granted permission to leave on special errands,” she replied.

“Special errands?”

Kaya shrugged. “Usually it’s some crap like gathering rare food ingredients or hunting for some forest creature or whatever whim those damn gray-skins happen to have at the time. Fortunately, this will actually give us a way to sneak into the city. With the right set of falsified documents, which we happen to have, we should be able to get in pretty easy. I doubt they’ll be expecting any trouble since those fucking bastards pretty well decimated the resistance.”

“And if they are expecting trouble?”

“Well, then there probably will be trouble,” she replied staring at me with a pointed look.

“Greeeaaat,” I said. “That’s just so reassuring.”

Kaya rolled her eyes then pursed her lips and stared at me thoughtfully. “So tell me about you and Jaysen… How did that come about?”

I bowed my head, let a smile stretch across my face and let out a slow chuckle as I told Kaya all about sharing her feelings for me, our first kiss and sharing a bed with her.

“You slept with Jaysen!?” Kaya yelled stopping dead in her tracks.

“What?” I blinked. “No, no! We just shared a bed… We didn’t have sex! Christ Kaya! She was freaking out about being bonded with the K’teth and we just sort of cuddled.”

“Uh huh, right whatever you say,” she folded her arms across her chest.

“Look we didn’t do anything! I don’t think that will happen for a while at least not until she’s finished changing,” I replied. “She hasn’t really said it, but I get the impression that she’d rather her first time be as a woman.”

“Jaysen’s a virgin?”

“Shit, don’t tell her I told you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are lucky their first is someone they love. For me it was a creepy jackass perv who had a thing for under-aged teenage girls, but…” she trailed off, “enough about that. We’ll be coming up on the city soon and we need to find some damn matted buckwheat.”

“Matted Buckwheat?” Farris asked suddenly from behind.

“It’s our cover to get into the city. The story is we’re supposed to be searching for some for Controller Gula Meyhr. The Qharr can’t get enough of the stuff. They make this nasty ass tea out of it,” Kaya replied glancing about her eyes roving across the terrain. “Look for a low-growing plant with red or yellow flowers and straight stalks.”

I scratched the back of my head and looked around noting that there didn’t seem to be much but scattered pine trees and miles of browned grass. “This could take a while.”

By the time we found and collected a large portion of the matted buckwheat the sun was beating down on us with an intensity that sent small beads of sweat dripping down my neck. “I forgot how much I hated the summers in Utah, the heat in compound Het’ma, where I grew up was unbearable sometimes, but I swear it’s even hotter than usual for this time of year,” I panted wiping sweat from my brow. “Tell me this is enough.”

Kaya nodded leaning over with her hands on her knees panting heavily, “Yeah, I think it’ll do.”

“This, this is nothing,” Farris shook his head. “I grew up in a compound back East. Shit some days it would get up into the low forties and it would get so damn humid your clothes would soak through with sweat in minutes.”

“I guess, I’ll have to take your word for it,” I panted shaking my head. “Kai would you toss me some of that water?”

Kaya retrieved her canteen from the supply bag, took a swig then tossed it to me. “Alright,” I said after I downed a good portion of it. “Let’s get going the sooner we get to the city the sooner we can get into compound Het’ma.”

Kaya nodded and tossed her bag of matted buckwheat over her shoulder. Farris and I grabbed our own bags as we followed Kaya back onto the trail to Salt Lake.

“Geff’ek!” the Qharr guard pronounced in a gruff voice as she motioned us forward.

“Papers, hu-man?” she asked holding her massive hand out to Kaya.

Kaya looked up at her with an obviously false smile and produced the requested papers from her bag. I bit my lip and watched as the guard examined each page then handed them back to Kaya and grunted.

“Put, plants on cart then report to masters!” she motioned at a large cart just inside the city gates.

I sighed in relief, and followed Kaya and Farris as they stepped through the city gates. Once on the other side, I looked up and felt my eyes grow wide as I got my first good view of the city. I had vague recollections of living in New Anaheim when I was younger, but Salt Lake was a very different sort of city. New Anaheim had been more of a resort town; Salt Lake was a city full of skyscrapers and office buildings. It was a dirty and grimy place and lacked much of the glamor and beauty of New Anaheim, at least the way it had been before the invasion.

Several hundred years ago Salt Lake had been founded by a group of religious pioneers looking to escape persecution, but over the course of time had grown into a major metropolitan area and had become home to a diverse population. When the Qharr invaded, the city had escaped relatively unscathed and had become home to hundreds of thousands of the gray-skins as well as continuing to house a large number of humans.

There were humans everywhere, more than I’d seen in one place since before the invasion. They were a sad despondent lot and I felt a lump form in my throat just by looking at them. Even compound slaves had more spirit than the people crowding the streets. I followed Kaya through the city and locked eyes with a small child and nearly burst into tears at the look of hopeless despair within those eyes. I felt a surge of anger fought down the urge to run back to the Qharr guards and beat them to a bloody pulp. The gray-skins were going to pay for everything they’d done to my people.

“We heading to Blebbur?” Farris whispered glancing about the city with a look I couldn’t quite read.

Kaya shook her head. “Too risky. The Qharr may know that the Deplarans were helping us smuggle resistance members into the compounds. Strave knew about her so it’s a good bet that they do too.”

“Then what the hell are we doing here?” Farris asked letting out a long sigh.

“I have someone else in mind. Mara considered her for a potential contact, but eventually decided that it was too risky,” she replied back.

“Who?” he asked.

“Velspatt Vanur,” she hissed.

“You can’t be serious! You want to make contact with the Ghrev crime syndicate!? Shit! Of course you do!” Farris growled.

“A crime syndicate?” I asked. “Is that really such a good idea?”

Kaya shushed us and clenched her teeth. “Would you two keep it down people are starting to look!”

“Besides Velspatt is no friend to the Qharr and I have something she wants.”

Farris looked around with wide eyes then nodded. “Damn, I can’t believe we’re doing this. I assume you know where we need to go.”

“Well, there’s a Ghrev deli on North Temple, which Velspatt happens to run. That’s our best bet for making contact,” she muttered.

“Well then, what are we waiting for?” I whispered holding out my hand. “Lead the way.”

“Leave humes!” The Ghrev cook yelled as we stepped into the building. “We no serve worthless slaves here!”

I eyed the alien being warily and watched as its head sunk into its neck and a spiked row of fins grew out like a Mohawk across its previously bald scalp. The Ghrev looked much more menacing that way not that it didn’t look menacing to begin with. The being was a biped had scaled purple skin with a stripe of red scales running from its chin and down the entire length of its naked body. It was tall, but not quite as tall as an average Qharr and had clawed hands and several rows of what looked to be very sharp teeth.

It was leaning against the counter, with its open hands hanging over the edge facing us. Behind the counter was a set of swinging double doors each of which had a small viewing windows and I assumed led into a kitchen. I couldn’t see much, but there was a table near the opposite side of the door at which several other Ghrevs were congregated. They had glanced at us as we entered, but turned away in disinterest when they’d seen that we were human.

The deli itself was of obvious human construction and while the nature of the food had changed, it seemed that the building hadn’t changed much in purpose. There was even the tattered remnants of a sign naming the establishment the “SLC Nostalgia Deli” still mounted on the wall. The long counter was of wood construction and stretched across nearly the whole length of the room. A glass sneeze guard protected the food which happened to be, well, I didn’t know what any of the food was. I certainly knew, I wouldn’t want to eat it any of it. Most of it looked to be small insects, sickly colored sauces, a black flatbread of sorts, and something that bore a strong resemblance to shit.

Kaya stepped forward, pursed her lips then balled her hand into a fist and slammed it into the side of the Ghrev’s head. “We’re here to speak with your clan master, you pleg!”

“Boldness for a hume!” the cook yelled the spiked fins retracting back into its scalp. “Velspatt speaks not to slaves… even ones who be bold like you. Leave now, or I skin humes and eat for dinner!”

Kaya, grabbed a knife from the counter and held it out in front of the Ghrev’s face. “Tell Velspatt that I have something she wants. Something that could help her leave Earth once and for all.”

“Velspatt needs nothing from humes!” the cook yelled slamming its clawed fists against the counter. “LEAVE!”

Kaya swirled the knife in her hands then pounded it as hard as she could into the wood counter. “I know where a working drive coil can be found for that ship she’s been trying to repair. Tell her if she’s interested to meet me in the old Tabernacle building on Temple Square in an hour. Tell her I’ll give her the drive coil in exchange for certain services.”

The Ghrev cocked its head, but didn’t say a word as Kaya turned around and walked calmly out the door. “Damn,” Farris muttered shaking his head as we followed her out the door. “I’ve never seen anyone stand up to a Ghrev like that. That woman has balls.”

I grinned and let out a soft chuckle as we both exited. “Trust me you have no idea.”

“Well, what now?” I asked Kaya as she spun around to face us. “You didn’t exactly give the Ghrev a lot of time to contact this Velspatt character. Is it going to be enough?”

“Oh, it will be enough time,” she grinned. “Did you see those Ghrev on the other side of those double doors?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “So?”

“Well one of them was Velspatt. She was probably listening to the entire thing,” Kaya grinned folding her arms across her chest.

“Velspatt? How can you be sure it was her?” Farris asked.

“Well, let’s just say that the distinctive pattern of red scales on her face is a dead giveaway,” she replied shaking her head glancing about as a group of Qharr hunters passed us by. “Come on we can continue this talk once we’ve gotten somewhere a bit more… private.”

“This way,” Kaya said motioning for us to follow as she ducked into a nearby doorway.

“The Qharr have the old Temple Square locked up and it’s supposed to be sealed up so no one can get in or out,” she spoke as soon as I stepped inside the doorway.

“Why would they seal it off?” I asked joining her inside the dilapidated old building.

Kaya shrugged. “The Qharr can be pretty weird when it comes to religious sites like this. They’re superstitious to begin with, but where religions other than their own are involved they get even weirder. They probably think that if anyone sets foot inside of Temple Square they’ll be tainted or some other bullshit.”

“You sound almost offended,” I said putting a hand on her shoulder.

Kaya shrugged. “My mother was a Mormon. I was born here in the city a few months before the invasion and I probably would have grown up here if it hadn’t been for those damn gray-skins.”

“Geez, well that explains why you seem to know so much about this place,” Farris said letting the door swing shut behind him.

“How exactly are we going to get in?” I asked putting my hands on my hips.

“That actually isn’t that hard,” she beamed. “Mara and I found a way in a few years back. There are a network of tunnels that honeycomb the area below Temple Square and as it so happens the basement in this old office is very close to one of those tunnels. With the help of a small group of other rebels we managed to dig a hole through the foundation and cleared out a tunnel that bisected the other one. It will be a tight squeeze for you, Farris, but I think you should be able to fit through.”

“And Velspatt how will she get in?” Farris asked glancing about the room and shaking his head.

“The Ghrev have their own way of getting in. God only knows what they actually use the temple grounds for, but the few times Mara and I snuck inside we caught them watching us from the shadows. The Ghrev are a pretty tight-knit community and I doubt such a prominent member like Velspatt would be left in the dark about the entrance and even if she didn’t know I’m sure one of her cronies would be able to fill her in,” she replied grinning from ear to ear.

“Okay,” Farris said scratching at the several days worth of stubble on his face. “Should we get going then?”

“Yeah, follow me,” she said waving us forward.

Kaya led us down a flight of stairs and into the basement the walls of which were lined with empty shelves. At one point, I’m sure, the basement had been used for storage, but if there had been any supplies left over after the invasion the shelves had long since been picked clean. Along the east wall was a large hole that looked just large enough for a person to crawl through. Kaya and I could certainly fit inside. Farris on the other hand, with his much broader shoulders, would definitely be a tight squeeze.

Farris took one look at the hole and shook his head. “Alright, you two first… if I get stuck I don’t want to make you guys late for your meet-up with Velspatt.”

Kaya and I exchanged glanced then she walked over to the opening, turned back to me and said, “Wait about thirty seconds and follow me in.”

I waited as she had suggested then followed her in and crawled in head first. Kaya was holding a light as she crawled ahead of me so it wasn’t completely dark, but her body blocked most of the illumination from the beam so I couldn’t see much of anything. I could hear Farris grunt loudly as he crawled into the hole behind us and a moment latter he groaned in pain and cursed under his breath.

Silence settled over us as we continued to crawl through Kaya’s tunnel.

“Shit, that hurt,” Farris broke the quiet about ten minutes later. “I hope this damn tunnel isn’t too long I’m starting to understand how someone could be afraid of confined spaces.”

“It’s not too much further,” Kaya panted glancing back over her shoulder and inadvertently shined the flashlight directly in my eyes. “I think maybe six or seven more meters.”

I held my hand up over my eyes. “Geez louise Kai, would you point that thing somewhere else?”

“Sorry, come on we better hurry it up we don’t have a lot of time left before our meeting in the tabernacle.”

“I don’t think she’s coming,” Farris said his arms folded across his chest as he paced back and forth in front of the exit door.

“She’ll be here,” Kaya pursed her lips and glared at Farris as he continued to pace.

I let the two of them bicker and looked about the large chamber in which we were waiting. It looked to have been a meeting hall with row after row of benches leading up to a large platform where several additional rows of padded seats faced the benches in the opposing direction. Atop the platform, besides the seats, there was a podium along with a massive organ, the pipes of which lined the back wall. Above, there was a balcony, but since it was so dark I couldn’t really see anything up there. It all looked to be in surprisingly good condition almost as if the building itself was just waiting for someone to come along and use it. Oh sure, there were the layers of dust and the obvious disrepair scattered throughout the chamber. Yet, the building had been left abandoned for almost twenty-five year, and it looked as if it could have been half that time or less.

“They really built this place to last,” I whispered.

Kaya chuckled. “The tabernacle is almost four hundred years old. The church had it renovated and restored so many times I doubt if it can even considered the same building as the original.”

“Four hundred years old?” I muttered looking around the chamber with wide eyes. “Damn.”

As I craned my neck about the room I caught a quick blur of motion from the center aisle. A large reptilian creature about the size of a large dog was zooming through the building at a startling speed and it was headed straight for Kaya. It was pretty far away and gaining fast, but it would be on her in less than half a minute if I didn’t step in and I did exactly that. I moved into the dog-creature’s path and just as it got close enough I knelt down and back handed the creature across its short-muzzled face. It let out a high pitched squeal as it flipped sideways onto its back.

“Mohme, Zenev!”A deep baritone voice yelled from the other side of the chamber in an almost melodic voice.

The creature rolled back to its feet and fled back in the direction from which it came. A tall Ghrev with violet scales lined with red vertical stripes across its face appeared from behind the platform and met the creature as it approached.

“I apologize,” the Ghrev yelled in perfect English its voice booming across the chamber. “My mohme, can be a bit excitable.”

“I am Velspatt Vanur,” the Ghrev woman said calmly as she approached us. “You wish to trade a certain item of interest for my services?”

“What the hell is that thing?!” Farris yelled glancing down at the dog-like reptilian creature that was standing at Velspatt’s side.

Velspatt hissed and barred her teeth at Farris. “A mohme is a Ghrev male, hume.”

“A male?” Farris asked “As is you mate with that thing?”

“Typical hume, not all species are the same as yours. All Ghrev start out as reasonless male quadrupeds like my mohme here, but when we reach maturity we metamorphisize into female bipeds,” she responded reaching down to scratch the male atop the head.

“So…” Farris trailed off staring at the two Ghrev with his jaw hanging open.

“Can it Farris,” Kaya interrupted holding her hand up. “We have business to take care of.”

“You are the leader?” Velspatt cocked her head. “Have we met before? You smell familiar, hume.”

“We’ve crossed paths before,” Kaya said folding her arms across her chest. “I grew up in compound L’beig. You used to make regular deliveries for Corrector Gydek Movur. Back then, I was one of her personal servants.”

Velspatt’s face stretched into something resembling a human smile. “I have an excellent memory for scents. Tell me did I ever sample you?”

Kaya shook her head. “No.”

“A shame, your scent is most alluring and I find many human females to be adept love makers,” she said her hand stroking the male Ghrev across the top of its head and down its neck.

Kaya shuddered and bit her lip then sighed and cleared her throat. “I-I, uh, I have a working leap drive coil and I’m willing to give it to you in exchange for certain services.”

“Yes, I gathered, hume,” she replied letting out a long drawn out and god-awful hissing sound. “Tell me what you want and stop wasting my time.”

“There is a Ghrev ground transport leaving Salt Lake tonight. It’s transporting several dozen humans to compound Het’ma” Kaya stated.

“Yes,” she replied. “But it is not an enterprise I have any direct involvement in. Why do you tell me this?”

“I want you arrange it so that my friends and I,” she said motioning at both of us. “Are on that transport. We have urgent business to take care of in the compound.”

“You ask too much, hume. The Qharr would have me arrested if I involved myself with human rebels like yourselves. I walk upon the precipice as it is!”

“What makes you think we’re rebels?” Farris asked folding his arms across his chest.

“Keep this Craonnd silent, hume! Of course, you are rebels what else would you be? I know of no other group of pink-skins who would be able or willing to meet in this manner.”

“Yes, you’re right we’re rebels,” Kaya admitted. “Look we both want something. We want into compound Het’ma you want off of Earth and we happen to have the drive component that will give you exactly what you want it seems like a pretty fair trade to me.”

Velspatt hissed. “And if I am caught I will never leave Earth. The Qharr will have me executed or worse thrown in one of those holes they call a prison.”

“There are risks in any enterprise.”

“Sometimes the risks are too great, I have no reason to remain. Good luck finding your way to the compound humes, but I see no reason to help you,” she replied, turned around and began to walk away.

“Wait!” I called after her, stepping forward. “This is important! We’re fighting to free Earth from the gray-skins! Don’t you care?”

“No,” she replied glancing back at me. “Why would I?”

“There’s got to be something we can trade for passage on that damn transport. Please, you have to help us!” I begged falling to my knees surprised at just how strongly I reacted to her departure.

Velspatt swirled around and eyed me thoughtfully. “When you hit my mohme it was a very powerful blow. It must have been, this mohme is not easily intimidated. You are very strong for a human, particularly for a female of your size. Tell me how is this possible?”

“I-I, don’t know I couldn’t say,” I said stumbling over my words staring up at her with wide eyes. Somehow I doubted it was a good idea to reveal Khala’s existence to the Ghrev.

“I’ll tell you what I think. It’s become no secret by now that the Qharr have attacked and destroyed all the rebel’s hidden bases, but during the attack on one of the more–How should I put it–local, bases something interesting happened. You see, my people have been monitoring Qharr communications and they caught wind of something very strange. Some of the Qharr units claimed to have fought a human bonded with something called a K’teth symbiote. I find that very strange, don’t you?”

“You’re point being?” I asked climbing back to my feet and slowly walked up to her so that I could look her in the eye.

“I am no craonnd, unlike your friend. I can put different pieces together. I’ve seen the Edant K’teth in action and I’ve always wondered how they could do such… astounding things. Now I hear mention of a K’teth symbiote and one bonded to a human no less. A human who can fight off Qharr hunters with her bare hands. Then today I meet a human female who can hit my mohme with enough force to send the male, a most ferocious beast, fleeing. You hit him with far more force than I’ve seen any human display. It’s lucky we Ghrev are not as fragile as humans or it would have done a great deal more damage,” she replied placing a clawed hand on my shoulder.

“What can I say?” I shrugged. “I was holding back.

She let out a long wheezing hiss which I could only guess was the Ghrev equivalent to a laugh. “So it was you?”

“Yes.”

“Tell you what, hume,” she whispered in my ear tracing the back of her claw against my cheek. “I’ll help arrange transport for you and your friends for that drive coil if you can do me one small little favor.”

“What sort of favor? I’m not going to sleep with you if that’s what you want. I’m not into reptiles.”

“Reptiles are cold-hearted passionless creatures. Ghrev blood runs hot through our veins with the same passion and intensity of fire! We are no reptiles and I would be lying if I said I did not find you attractive, hume, but no, that was not the sort of favor I was hoping for. I want you to kill Corrector Taevok Typel,” she whispered.

“You want me to do what?!” I yelled taking a few steps backward as I stared at her in surprise.

‘There’s something you should know,’ Khala suddenly spoke up.

‘What is it?’

‘Taevok is Edant K’teth.’

‘Of course, he is.’ I gritted my teeth and let out a long sigh as Velspatt continued absently tapping her claws against the Mohme’s neck. “The Corrector has been making things rather difficult for my various enterprises. If you killed him it would be quite, convenient to see him gone.”

“That’s what you wanted all along, isn’t it?” I whispered feeling a lump form in my throat at the prospect of having to battle a joined Qharr.

“You are a bright one.”

“I don’t get it why play these games? Why not just tell us from the start?!”

“What would have been the fun in that?” she replied cocking her head.

“You can’t honestly think it’s a fair trade do you? Taevok is Edant K’teth killing him will be no small task.”

“That’s why it’s called a favor,” the Ghrev said letting out another ‘laugh’ before continuing. “Do it, and I will owe you one.”

“Fine,” I said with a whisper. “I-I’ll do it.”

I bit my lip and forced myself to look her in the eyes. The truth was, I wasn’t about to go looking for a fight with the Corrector, but there was a good chance we’d cross paths. If he got in the way, then I might not have any choice but to kill the bastard. Still, I wasn’t about to let the little favor get in the way of what needed to be done.

“Very good,” she said barring her teeth and let out another wheezy hiss. “Now, we need only make arrangement for delivery of my drive coil.”

We managed to work out a deal with Velspatt in which Jaysen would off drop the drive coil the day after we’d been safely transported to the compound. Jaysen had no way of knowing if we’d made it safely or not, but the alien crime lord didn’t know that. Fortunately, Kaya had thought things through and arranged a means so that we could communicate with Jaysen before we had left so the drop would go as scheduled. Once, we were finished arranging things with the Ghrev we left the old tabernacle and made our way to the loading area where we would be transported into compound Het’ma.

Chapter Seven

“Sit hume!” The Ghrev commanded backhanding me across the cheek. Caught completely off guard by the unprovoked attack, I reeled back and tumbled across the nearest row of seats. The blow was powerful compared to what a human could deal out, but it was nothing compared to what a Qharr could conflict. It hurt, a little, but as a human bonded with a K’teth symbiote it was well within my tolerance. Regardless, it wouldn’t do to be seen so easily shrugging off such a powerful hit. So I rolled off the seat and collapsed to the ground and stayed there for a few moments. I stumbled to my feet clutching at the side of my face acting as if it really hurt and stared up at the alien with wide eyes.

“Sit,” the alien repeated.

I looked up at her, let my eyes grow wide, put an expression of mock terror on my face and collapsed into my seat. The Ghrev hissed then knelt down to chain me to the steel bar which was bolted to the bottom of the seat. She grabbed Kaya–who had been behind me in the procession of slaves–and forced her into the seat next to me. A random slave I didn’t recognize was next and then moved onto the next row. I watched as slave after slave was seated until I saw Farris do the same several rows down.

“That was quite a show you put on,” Kaya, leaned in to whisper in my ear.

I shrugged and bit my lip. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to let the Ghrev or any slaves for that matter see me just shrug off a blow like that.”

“Good thinking.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Shit, I hate this. I hate being chained like this if only I could…”

“Could what?” a voice asked.

My eyes snapped open and turned to look at the stranger next to me staring at me with a single raised eyebrow. “Break free? That’s what you were about to say wasn’t it?”

“Fuck off,” I glared at him. It seemed harsh, but this stranger could easily be a collaborator.

“Just making conversation,” he smiled then winked at me. “Say, what’s your name?”

“Fuck off flake!”

“You think I’m a collaborator?” he asked shaking his head and chuckling.

I bit my tongue, gritted my teeth and turned away. I had nothing to say to the stranger and I certainly wasn’t going to risk exposing myself by talking with him.

“You know you can ignore me all you want. I’m just going to keep talking,” he whispered leaning in toward me. “Name’s Rayland Patterson. What’s yours?”

I kept silent and said nothing.

“Come on, tell me your name.”

And again I ignored him clenching my fists and shook my head.

“You don’t give me a name I’m gonna start guessing. Is it Bella? Or maybe Rose or perhaps Celia. Oh, I got it! I bet it’s something pretty. I mean a sexy girl like you…”

“My name is Lexa,” I growled gritting my teeth as I fought down the urge to break the chains holding me down and punch him in the face.

“Lexa? What’s that short for Alexandra?”

“Alexana,” I closed my eyes and shook my head irritably.

He repeated my name almost seeming to savor it as his face stretch into a grin. “So gorgeous–”

“Rayland is it? You listen to me because I’m only going to say this once. I am not your friend, I don’t want to be your friend and if you don’t leave me alone the next time my hands are free I’m going to beat you senseless. You got it, buddy?”

“Oh, I love the attitude, but I don’t think you could take me, muffintop,” he grinned.

I rolled my eyes, then bent over and palmed my face with my hands as Rayland continued to jabber on. He didn’t quit for the rest of our ride and it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming at the top of my lungs. God, he was annoying!

The ride to the compound lasted all of about forty minutes, but it was probably one of the longest forty minutes of my life with Rayland jabbering on like an idiot. The Ghrev guards didn’t seem to care what we did once they had us all chained up and a few people besides my new best friend were chattering. For the most part everyone remained silent as transport zoomed across the road to the compound. Finally, the bus came to a halt and there was a loud hiss as the door popped open and a familiar figured stepped inside.

“Jerem,” I whispered under my breathe. I hadn’t seen him in years, and although he’d aged quite a lot and even packed on a little muscle, he still had that stubborn mean set to his jaw and those angry eyes.

“Alright piss-ants!” he yelled looking around the interior of the bus. “I am Jerem Anders, I’m Head Enforcer for Taevok Typel, the Corrector in charge of this facility, and if any of you fuckheads try and cross me you will regret it. You hear me? I will make your life a living hell if you so much as sneeze without my permission. I’ll guarantee that.”

“Now these Ghrev are going to let you lose one row at a time, and you are going to file your way out quietly and most importantly, slowly with your hands where I can see them. Anyone fails to comply; they’ll get a face full of my burn rod!” He grinned wickedly holding up a long metal stick with a worn leather handle.

“And don’t think I’m the only one here to stop you. I have four more of my men waiting outside along with the two Qharr soldiers who are guarding the gates and if you were able to get past them the defensive grid surrounding this place is electrified with enough juice to barbecue any one of your miserable corpses!” he added looking about the cabin one final time before nodding at the Ghrev and stepping out the door.

“He seems like a really pleasant fellow,” Rayland beamed at me.

I rolled my eyes ignored him and turned to Kaya so that I could whisper in her ear. “Damn, I don’t think Jerem’s changed much. If anything I think he’s gotten worse. He was always a bully, but now he’s gotten a taste of power.”

“It’s not real power. None of us will ever have any real power so long as the Qharr are on Earth. He’s as much a slave to the gray-skins as we are, but he’s damned collaborator which makes him the enemy don’t forget that.”

I shook my head. “You think I don’t know that? It just tears me up inside that that bastard is married to Becca.”

“Yeah, well you’ll get your chance to deal with him soon enough,” she whispered.

Rayland’s head snapped to the side suddenly his eyes intently studying Kaya. He turned away then leaned back as a Ghrev appeared to unchain him. He glanced back at me flashing another smile. “I’ll see you two lovely ladies around. I think the three of us will be getting along just fine.”

It took only a few moments for the Ghrev to free Kaya and me then we were both shoved down the aisle after Rayland. We filed out of the transport and were herded across the compound grounds and forced to line up in single file. It didn’t take long for the bus to be completely unloaded and the Ghrev to retreat back inside.

“This is compound Het’ma!” Jerem yelled slowly walking up and down the line of people and eying each man and woman as if they he or she were a piece of meat. “Well, well,” he breathed coming to a stop in front of Kaya and me. He had this creepy grin on his face as he looked us both up and down. I glanced down at his crotch and wished I hadn’t, I could see his fully erect cock inside his pants. I shuddered a bit and looked back up to meet his gaze only to find him staring fixedly at my breasts.

I gulped and shuddered anew and realized just how uncomfortable his leering gaze made me feel. He turned away as if to leave, but then suddenly rounded on me grabbing my waist and locking his mouth around mine in a kiss. It was a disgusting slobbery affair and it took all my will power to keep myself from pushing him away. He broke away his hands brushing my breasts before he turned to Kaya and squeezed one of her boobs. “I’m not usually into Asian chicks, but god I think I may just make an exception for you, honey.”

Kaya slapped his hand away and her face was red with anger and I could see that familiar manic fire in her eyes. She looked ready to swing a fist at him, but thankfully she restrained herself and I could tell it was taking all her self control to do it.

“Bitch!” he yelled balling his hand into a fist and slamming it into the side of her face. Kaya dropped like a sack of potatoes and I fell to my knees beside her.

“I like bitches with fire,” he grinned. “It makes breaking them all the more enjoyable.”

“Roland!” he yelled turning to gaze at another enforcer who was standing a good twelve feet away. “Take care of these vermin! The Corrector wanted to speak with me once the transport had been unloaded.”

Then he glanced back at Kaya and me. “Oh and have the two cunts assigned to the kitchen with that miserable waste of space I call my wife. Spread the word around the compound, any man who so much as lays a hand on those two will get two days locked in the box. I went them all to myself.”

I gritted my teeth and glared at Jerem as he retreated into the compound. I had a feeling that the next few days weren’t going to be remotely pleasant at all. Jerem’s subordinate, Roland, started screaming out instructions and assignments, but I didn’t listen all I could do was stew over what that bastard had done to Kaya. I knew in that moment if Jerem tried anything with either Kaya or me I’d kill him even if it meant revealing myself and putting the mission in jeopardy. Finally, Roland finished his lecture and all the slaves dispersed as they were led away to their quarters for the night. I reached down to pick up Kaya when I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see Farris frowning down at me. I didn’t need it, but Farris helped me pick her up and drape her arm across my shoulder. One of the enforcers appeared to drag him off to the men’s quarters leaving us alone.

I looked back at the compound and sighed realizing that I would have to carry Kaya in by myself. Not that I couldn’t, but how was I going to get her inside without drawing attention to myself? Then my problems were answered as a slender brunette appeared from out of the shadows and move to help me. She grabbed Kaya’s other shoulder wordlessly and helped me carry my former lover inside. It was almost completely dark by that time, but there was something familiar about the way the woman moved. Then she spoke and I felt my heart leap into my throat.

“I-I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

God, it was Becca! My sister was right there and she had no idea that it was me, but why should she?

“Why should you apologize?” I asked swallowing hard as I tried hard to keep myself from openly weeping.

“He does this every time a new group of slaves arrive. He likes to show off in front of me. He knows how much I hate to see other people suffer.”

“Why?” I asked already knowing the answer.

“Because…” she muttered. “He’s my husband.”

I didn’t answer not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t think I could say anything without revealing myself. I wanted so badly to tell Becca everything, but common sense won out. It wasn’t time to reveal myself to my sister, at least not yet.

I woke the next morning letting out a long silent yawn as the memories from the previous night slowly returned to me. My dreams had alternated between reuniting with my sister and dreams of myself making love to Jaysen. At various points, in the latter, Jaysen had gone from being female to male and then back again while sometimes she was a mix of both. None of it really seemed to matter, we made love and I’d enjoyed every minute of it. I remember clearly at one point running my hands across Jaysen’s flat chest only to find, moments later, a pair of breasts appeared cupped inside my open palms.

I shook my head and did my best to set aside my lingering arousal. I slowly breathed in and out and felt my heart rate slow down. I turned to Kaya who was still unconscious on the bed pad beside mine. Her face was, by then, a mass of bruises and sores, and I felt a new surge of anger as I studied it. I swore right there and then that I would kill Jerem. Most of the other women in the room were still asleep or else pretending to be, but as I looked around I noted a few open eyes. Adult male and females slaves always slept apart, so for me it was a very strange to find myself surrounded by so many women. Here or there the form of a sleeping child was nuzzled up against the body of a woman. Young children, under the age of about eight, were the only males allowed to sleep within the women’s quarter.

My mind was still reeling from the events from the previous night. I’d been so close to my sister and she hadn’t had a clue of my true identity. It was heart rending not being able to tell her the truth, but I knew it would take a lot convincing in order for my sister to believe that I was her long lost brother Jellfree remade into a woman. Hell, if I hadn’t gone through it I wouldn’t believe it either. My sister had been my entire world, the two of us had been inseparable and her loss weighed heavily on me. Becca had kept me from giving in to despair when all hope seemed gone. She kept from the edge and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for her. Even kill.

And then there was what Velspatt wanted me to do. The mere thought of the name reverted through me with such strength that it almost seemed painful. What she wanted me to do… to fight the Corrector it made me want to vomit. I had never faced an Edant K’teth other than the Overseer and it had only been through sheer dumb luck that I’d been able to defeat her. If I fought one in open combat I had a pretty good idea what would happen and it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to sit and muddle over. It was just about time to get up anyway so I bit my lip then looked down at Kaya’s sleeping form. I let out a long sigh then reached over to shake her awake.

“Shit, I hurt,” she groaned her eyes–or I should say eye since her left one was swollen shut–snapped open. She slowly sat up and looked around. “Anything happen while I was out?”

“I-I saw my sister,” I whispered. “She helped me carry you into the women’s quarters.”

“You didn’t tell her did you?” Kaya asked reaching up to touched her face, then winced and brought it back away.

“No, how could I? I mean, god, how the hell am I supposed to tell her that I’ve been turned into a woman? She’d probably think I was nuts!”

“Well, can’t really blame you there, but you’re going to have to tell her eventually we’re going to need her help if we’re going to escape from this place.” she sighed and stretched her arms up in the air. “Did we get our assignments yet?”

“In the kitchen. Jerem wants us working there with my sister for some reason and…” I trailed off pursing my lips.

“What is it?”

“He’s claimed us for himself. I think he’s going to try something,” I clenched my jaw. “I don’t know if I can keep myself from beating him to a damned bloody pulp if he does.”

“This complicates things. It’s going to make our mission a lot more difficult with your brother-in-law breathing down our necks.”

“Don’t call him that!” I snarled. “If he gets in the way we’ll just have to deal with him.”

Kaya opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly a loud trumpet’s blare rang through the room from the speakers mounted in the ceiling. “I guess it’s time to get up,” she sighed. “Shit, this is going to be a long day.”

I nodded, and climbed to my feet and held my hand out to Kaya. She smiled gratefully as I pulled her up to her feet then we watched as the other women shuffled out of the room. We followed them down a long corridor and into the women’s shower room. I’d never been inside, but the room’s layout was almost the exact mirror of the men’s shower area so I had no problem finding my way around.

My cheeks burned as I looked about and watched the women disrobe. With wide eyes I reached for the waist band of my pants and unbuttoned them. I pulled down on the zipper then let my pants slide down my legs then pulled my shirt up over my head exposing my breasts to the humid air of the room. I tossed my clothes into the nearest receptacle then walked tentatively toward the showers. A blonde woman, about my own age, stepped into the spray of water next to me and I couldn’t help but stare as she slowly started to soap her breasts. She was quite an attractive woman and I fought down the sudden urge to reach out and caress her pert breasts.

Good lord, what the hell was wrong with me?

I turned away grabbed a bar from the tray in front of me, closed my eyes and started to soap myself up. When it came time to wash my hair I opened my eyes and felt my jaw drop open as I found a pair of breasts hanging there right in front of my face. I looked up and met the gaze of the blonde I’d been gawking at before. “Get an eye-full cookie licker. You’re new here so I’ll let it slide this once, but so help next time I catch you looking I’ll mess that pretty face of yours up. Got it bitch?”

“Uh, okay,” I mumbled staring at her with unblinking eyes then looking down at the floor.

“You can fuck whoever you want around here whether they have a cookie or a trouser snake, but keep your damn eyes to yourself in the shower room,” she spat then walked away.

I could feel everyone in the room’s eyes on me as I cleaned my hair, and once I finally I finished, I quickly toweled myself off, dressed and sped out of the room without making eye contact with a single soul.

I stepped into the kitchen and stopped dead in my tracks as I found myself staring right at the blonde from the shower room. “Well if it isn’t cookie licker.”

I ignored blondie, breezed past her and moving into the main area of the kitchen. It looked just like I remembered, everything was still in the same place right down to the smallest pot and there was even the old head cook Creg chopping away at some vegetables in the corner. It seemed so surreal as if I’d walked into a piece of my past, but then three attractive women stepped into the kitchen and I shook my head and realized that so much had changed. Other than Creg everyone within the kitchen including myself was a woman and every woman happened to be exceptionally attractive.

“Is there a reason you left me in the shower room, Lex? I had to ask for help to find the kitchen,” Kaya’s voice said from the doorway and I spun around to see her walk inside.

“Shit, is it just me or did I just step into bombshell central,” she added looking around with a huge grin on her face.

I shook my head and chuckled softly considering that she was much more attractive than the other women, aside from myself, despite the bruises on her face, the comment seemed odd coming from her. Of course, if I was going to be honest with myself so was I.

“That would be my husband’s doing,” a new voice proclaimed from the doorway.

“Becca,” I whispered as she move toward me.

My sister blinked. “I don’t remember telling you my name.”

I bit my lip and shrugged giving her the first excuse that sprang to my mind. “I asked one of the other women in the quarters.”

“Oh, of course,” she nodded then turned to Kaya. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better. I apologize for my husband.”

Kaya nodded curtly and gritted her teeth. “It’s fine. All I can say is that bastard better not touch me again.”

Becca blinked. “Right, well I guess introductions are in order. I’m Becca Anders, that blonde woman over there is Merida Baker, the woman over there with the raven black hair is Patricia Sunders, the busty red-head is Selma D’Angelo, the brunette over there in the corner is Marjorie Sudweeks and that man in the corner is Old Creg, our head cook.”

“Nice to meet you all, my name’s Lexa Briggs and this is my friend Kaya Trzcinski.” I held a hand out to Kaya remembering at the last minute to give Kaya’s agreed to false surname, but not soon enough to remember to use the one I’d picked out for myself.

“Briggs?” My sister blinked in surprise. “That was my maiden name.”

“Oh, really? That’s weird.”

Kaya rolled her eyes at me and looked around the kitchen. “We, uh, better get going. The morning meal isn’t going to make itself and I’m sure that Corrector of yours won’t be too happy if we’re late getting done.

Becca nodded. “Right, you two know your way around a kitchen?”

I grinned, snatching a spoon from a nearby counter and swirled it around in my hands before throwing it up in the air and catching it with the opposite hand. “Trust me, we’ll do just fine.”

Compound Het’ma was huge, and as such meal preparation was an all day affair. The dining hall was much too small to accommodate all the slaves within the compound so only a third of the populace was fed at a time. Back at compound B’eld the cooking crew had been in charge of cleaning up the dining area, but at Het’ma there was simply too much for us to do so each group of slaves cleaned up after themselves once they’d eaten. Since, things were so hectic we didn’t get to eat our meal until everyone else had been fed. I wasn’t accustomed to waiting so long before I ate so by the time it came time for my meal I scarfed it down feeling as if I hadn’t eaten for days.

I helped serve the food for each of the three meals so I caught glimpses of my new favorite person Rayland. Not surprisingly, he took advantage of our very brief encounters in order to grin and wink at me. Thankfully, the line moved quickly and he only had enough time to tell me that I was “looking gorgeous” before moving down the line. Farris made his own appearances too, but like the other man he only had enough time to issue a brief hello before he was forced to move down the line.

Of course, Rayland and Farris weren’t the only familiar faces, Jerem made his own appearances and frequently I’d look into someone’s face and realize that I knew them. I’d lived at Het’ma for fourteen years of my life and many of the people I’d grown up with were still there. The worst part was that I couldn’t actually let any of that recognition show on my face. None of these people could be allowed to know who I was. If they somehow found out I had no doubt the consequences would be disastrous. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces too. I had, after all been gone a very long time.

For the entire day Becca and the other women in the kitchen avoided us. They only interacted with Kaya and me when given no choice. I was sort of confused by this, at least when it came to Becca, but I had no idea how to approach her in order to break the ice. Creg seemed unaware of the tense atmosphere, as he delivered his orders with his calm voice and soft smile. Finally by the end of the third day we finished feeding the last batch of slaves their dinner and cleaned up the kitchen before joining the rest of the slaves in the dining room for dinner. Kaya and I found a vacant table in the corner and sat down to eat our meal. We had only caught brief glimpses of Farris throughout the day, and he’d already eaten his dinner during the last rotation so it was just the two of us.

“Do you mind if I sit with you?” Becca’s soft voice asked quietly from behind.

“Oh sure,” Kaya smiled up at my sister her eyes wide with surprise.

Becca took a seat next to Kaya and stared across the table at me. “Lexa… I’ve been trying to figure out a way to ask this, but I’ve never been very good at this sort of thing so I’ll just go ahead and ask. There is something that is just so familiar about you and I can’t escape the feeling that I know you. Have we met before?”

I pursed my lips staring at her then leaned back in my chair trying to think how best to answer her question. Should I tell her truth? Then I had a sudden idea pop into my head and felt immediately ashamed for what I was thinking of doing. Before the invasion Briggs had been a fairly common name, but since the Qharr had wiped away so many humans, surnames, like Briggs, had become quite rare. I hated to lie to my sister, but I knew without a lot of explanation that she’d never believe that I was her long lost brother, Jellfree. If I told her the truth she might make a scene and I couldn’t risk that, but if she thought we were cousins, that would give me a reason to be close to my sister again.

I sighed, leaned forward and bowed my head. “I’ve never met you before, but I think you probably met my parents, Mara and Harold Briggs. We’re cousins Rebecca.”

Becca bit her lip and stared across the table at me with wide eyes. “I didn’t know my aunt and uncle had a daughter.”

“My mother only found out she was pregnant a short while after the invasion. By the time I was born both my parents had been captured by the Qharr,” I replied. My hands were shaking as I spoke and as hard as I tried I couldn’t keep myself from weeping as I heaped one lie atop another. I certainly looked young enough to have been born after the invasion with my new body. “Both of my parents are dead now.”

“I’m sorry. Mine are too,” my sister replied reaching out to touch my hand. “They died during the invasion.”

“I know,” I replied without even thinking and cursed myself inwardly for saying something so stupid. I felt Kaya’s foot under the table kicking me, which confirmed that Kaya thought it was pretty dumb too. Then I had a sudden flash of inspiration and cursed myself even more for the fresh batch of lies I was about to dole out. “I met your brother, Jellfree, at the last compound that I lived. He told me all about you and your parents.”

“You met my brother? You saw Jellfree? Is he alright?”

“Well Jellfree was the compound’s head cook before I left and he was in a relationship with one of the cooks working under him,” I replied.

Becca smiled nervously and opened her mouth presumably to speak then looked back at the entranceway. Her smile transformed into a look of dread and I understood why when I followed her gaze and saw Jerem headed our way. “Damn,” I whispered under my breath.

“Bitches,” he muttered taking the seat next to me and glaring across the table at my sister with a look of contempt. “Becca get me some more to eat. I’m still hungry.”

My sister nodded and promptly jumped out of her seat sprinting for the kitchen. “What the fuck are you looking at, cunt? You want another taste of my fist?”

Kaya glared at him, but she bit her lip and merely turned away.

“Good,” he nodded and glared back at her. “That’s what I thought. Now get outta here, I don’t want to look at that face of yours until it’s healed up a bit.”

Kaya grabbed her tray off the table and I moved to follow, but Jerem grabbed my wrist. “Where the fuck you think you’re going?”

I stared at him, and balled my hand into a fist, but stopped myself and took a quick look around the room. If I hadn’t been for the fact that we had an audience I would not have hesitated to hit him, but unfortunately there were still a couple dozen people who had yet to finish their meals lingering in the room.

“Come here,” he growled yanking on my wrists forcing me to sit down in his lap. I could have easily resisted, but there was no way in hell I could do so without revealing how strong I was and that would be a very bad idea. I settled across his lap and shuddered ever so slightly as I realized that the bulge I felt pressing against my ass was his damn cock. He grabbed my chin and I shrunk away as he leaned in for a kiss. His breathe tasted like shit, literally, and when he broke away I just barely managed to keep myself from puking my guts out.

He smiled at me and for once there didn’t really seem to be any malice in his eyes. “Tomorrow, when you take your shower; make sure you get yourself cleaned up real well. If I have the time you and I will be getting better acquainted”

I could feel bile rise up in my throat as I caught a gleam of his intentions reflect in his eyes. “I-I don’t think–”

Some of that anger returned to his eyes as he cut me short. “You think you have a choice? Fuck, bitch the Qharr wouldn’t care one bit if I cut your damn throat and left you to bleed in the middle of the hallway. I keep order for the Corrector and all he cares about is if I keep these damn sheep from causing him problems. If there are a few deaths here or there it’s the price he must pay for having me keep the peace.”

I trembled and felt tears well up in my eyes as I nodded. God, how the hell was I going to keep that bastard from having his way with me without killing him? There was no way I would ever let him touch me. Letting him kiss me had been bad enough, and I wasn’t sure I could control myself if he tried again. I came to one inescapable conclusion if I went to his quarters I’d wind up killing the bastard and screw everything the hell up!

“Get the fuck up!” he yelled yanking me by the wrist and sending me tumbling from atop his lap. I twisted sideways at the last minute and managed to keep myself from landing on my breasts. I’d never actually done it myself, but I’d heard from Kaya that falling onto your chest hurt and I didn’t intend to experience it for myself. I crawled back to my feet and glared at Jerem with both of my hands clenched at my side.

“Leave bitch!”

I glared at him shaking with a barely contained fury. I wanted to beat him senseless for the way he’d touched me and for the things he intended to do to me. I had the power, but if I used it our mission would be shot to hell, but I sure as fuck didn’t care. Jereme Anders was going to die. I glared at him one final time and grabbed a half-eaten piece of bread from my plate, stuffed it into my mouth and walked away.

Chapter Eight

Steaming hot water splattered against my chest and I closed my eyes letting myself get lost in the feel of it against my skin. I’d been one of the first out of bed that morning so for once the water wasn’t lukewarm. I was dreading what the day might bring, but I also knew that I would have no choice but to go about the day’s business and hope Jerem would be too busy to bother me. It really hadn’t been that long, but I’d actually gotten used to the relative freedom I’d had in the bunker.

As with the previous night my dreams had been mostly about my sister and Jaysen. The former having to do with killing Jerem and saving my sister from the Qharr and the latter involved Jaysen and I screwing one another repeatedly and because of those dreams my shower had definitely taken an erotic turn. Unfortunately, while the shower room wasn’t quite empty there were a few women there and there was no way I was going to allow them to see me playing with myself. So, I gritted my teeth, finished washing myself and grabbed my towel off the racks.

I was careful not to stare too intently at any of the other women which was actually rather hard because some of them had pretty nice bodies. There was a time that I would have done anything to be able to get into the women’s shower room, but if I’d found myself in my current predicament, well, I’d be just as miserable then as I am now. To tell the truth, I was sort of getting used to my body, but even with the new plumbing I kind of doubted I’d ever truly consider myself as female. I certainly wasn’t any closer to understanding them. Okay, well that wasn’t completely true, I knew things about women now that would have been a surprise to me just a few months ago, but many things about women were still baffling to me.

I dressed myself, and made my to way to the kitchen where Creg was brewing some tea. Some things never changed and in an odd sort of way it was comforting to see Creg brewing his weekly batch of tea just like he had always done. I’d never really known the man that well. Creg was quiet and kept mostly to himself. I’d worked with him for years before I’d gone to Het’ma and I knew almost nothing about him.

“You’re here early,” he mumbled glancing back at me then turned back to his task.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I replied and stepped up beside him sniffing his teapot. It smelled oddly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. The name suddenly popped into my head and I had a vision appear in my head of me as a young child popping a red and white striped candy into my mouth. “Peppermint? Where on earth did you find it?”

The Corrector is fond of earth teas. He let’s me keep a small portion of the plants I grow in exchange for maintaining them,” he mumbled and scratched at the stubble on his chin.

“Enforcer Jerem will probably come around here soon. He never misses tea day,” he mumbled.

I stiffened and moved for the door, but it was already too late Jerem was standing there in the doorway leering at me. I shuddered and took a step back as he stepped inside the room. He traced a hand across my cheek , but passed me by in favor of Creg. He wore a burn rod strapped to his waist and as he walked it swung back and forth across his leg.

“Tea ready?” he asked bending over the pot and taking a good long whiff.

“Yeah,” Creg mumbled staring up at Jerem with an indiscernible look then back at me. There was a warning look in his eyes, but I had no what he might be trying to convey to me.

Jerem reached up into a cupboard grabbing three glasses out and set them on the counter next to the stove. “Well, what are you waiting for?” He glared at Creg rapping his finger against the counter.

Creg shook his head and sighed pouring tea into each of the glasses then grabbed one of them off the counter and turned away. Jerem hovered over the two remaining cups then suddenly turned back to me holding one out. I was a little surprised by this, but I took the glass from his hands. “Drink it down honey buns.”

I glared at him and took a sip of the tea, and stared back into my cup. It wasn’t bad as teas went, but it had a funny after taste. I shrugged then brought the cup up to my lips and downed the rest of it.

“Now come,” he grinned. “I’m in the mood for some morning refreshment.

I let him drag me out the kitchen and through the hall. Outside we were stopped by Becca who stared at her husband with wide eyes. “Jerem, please no!”

“Get the fuck out of my face, bitch. If you knew how to please a man in bed I wouldn’t have to find my kicks elsewhere,” he said between clenched teeth before pushing her out of the way and dragging me along after him.

‘He put something in your drink,’ Khala’s voice came unbidden inside my head.

It had been days since I’d heard from the symbiote and now to suddenly hear her voice again was startling. ‘Shit, what was it?’

‘A sedative,’ Khala replied. ‘I’m working on expunging it from your system, but it’s a toxin I am unfamiliar with. You should feel its effect soon do everything you can to fight it. If you succumb to the drug it will be more difficult for me to clear it from your system.’

“JEREM!” Becca called after us, and that’s when I was hit by the first wave of drowsiness. I gritted my teeth and tried to fight it, but my knees started to wobble and abruptly I fell face forward to the ground.

“Took long enough,” Jerem said glancing down me then bent over to throw me over his shoulder.

“You’re heavier than you look,” he groaned. “Don’t worry the effects are only temporary I slipped something into your drink to make you more submissive.”

I felt a surge of anger at his pronouncement and if I’d had the strength I don’t think I would have hesitated to kill him. I let my anger bubble and brew as it seemed to help me fight the sedative. Jerem was silent as he carried me down the hallway before stopping in front of a door. He pulled the lever, swung it open, and set me down on the ground atop the bed pad just inside. I watch him close the door behind him then slowly started to undo his pants. Oh, god! What the hell was I going to do? I tried desperately to scramble away, but my attempts to push myself up only resulted in me falling back down to the ground.

“Fuck,” he leered at me. “You are so damn hot. I can’t wait to get my cock is inside of you.”

There was a loud creak and Jerem spun around and got a face full of fist. Apparently, taken by surprise he stumbled backward and fell on top of me. “Bastard!” my sister yelled.

“You worthless piece of shit! This is how you repay me?!” he yelled climbing back to his feet.

“Repay you!” she yelled slamming the door shut behind her. “You’ve made my life miserable! Do you think I actually wanted to marry you? I hate you, I hate how you prey on the women of the compound, I hate the smell of your disgusting breath and I hate every damn thing about you. I’m not going to watch you do this anymore least of all to my cousin!”

He grinned glancing back at me. “So that’s what this is about? She’s your cousin? Give me a damn break, Becca!”

‘Try to move now,’ Khala’s voice whispered. I did as she suggested and wriggled my fingers. They still felt a bit… sluggish, but it seemed like some of dexterity had returned to my hands. I tried to sit up, but fell back down with a loud grown.

Jerem glancing down at me and stepped on my hand as he moved across the room. He grabbed my sister by the hair then grabbed her shoulder and forced her down to her knees. “You know,” he growled pulled a long knife from his belt. “You’ve always been so damn proud of that hair of yours.”

He pulled up the back of her hair and traced the blade across the back of her hair line and I could see a very slight trickle of blood as he lightly pressed the blade into her skin.

“Please,” Becca begged her whole body shaking as tears ran down her face.

I’d had enough, I was still weak and dizzy from the drug, but I couldn’t just lay there and watch that bastard scalp my sister. I lunged onto my feet, grabbed at his knife hand while simultaneously breaking his grip and pushing my sister away.

“The hell?” Jerem cursed.

“God, I never thought it possible but you’re an even bigger ass than you were before I left,” I pronounced glaring down at him and gripped my fist around his shirt collar.

“Before? I think I’d remember meeting someone like you!” he gritted his teeth and suddenly jammed his burn rod right into my chest.

My eyes flew open in surprise and I fell backward as I could feel the energy from the weapon flow into me. “Thanks,” I whispered clenching a hand around the born rod and gripped it as hard as I could until the outer casing shattered. “I needed that.”

Jerem’s eyes grew wide and he scrambled backward, “Shit, what the fuck are you?”

“Just an old acquaintance,” I narrowed my eyes then slammed my fist into his face. Jerem’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he slumped down to the ground unconscious.

I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh in relief then turned to my sister who was staring at me with eyes nearly as wide as her husband’s had been. “You alright?”

“No one is that strong,” she shook her head then shuddered. “You’re not really my cousin are you?”

I closed my eyes and shook my head, “No, I’m sorry I lied to you Becca… it’s just I was afraid of how you might react if I told you the truth.”

“The truth?”

“I’m your brother. It’s me, Becca, I’m Jellfree.”

“Oh my God! I don’t know who you really are, but you couldn’t possibly be my brother! Do you know how crazy that sounds?!” she yelled frantically climbing up to her feet and slowly edging away from me.

I sprang to my feet after her and grabbed her wrist. “Becca, it really is me. Remember after we were taken by Duvak you told me something I would never forget. You said that no matter happened we would always be there for each other. You said we would have to be strong because we only had one another.”

She blanched and took another step back, “YOU ARE NOT MY BROTHER!”

“Becca! Listen to me!” I yelled bighting my lip.

Fuck, I needed to do something and I had to convince her somehow, but what could I tell her? My nerves… I could barely think straight and as my mind raced I drew a blank as I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. Then the perfect thing to say popped into my head, and I grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Becca, believe me this all must seem strange to you, but remember everything we’ve been through. Remember how you used to sneak into the men’s quarters just so that I wouldn’t have to spend the night alone? God!” I laughed.

“Remember Robb Kelly? You used to have the biggest crush on him anytime you were in the same room as him you’d just ramble on and on! I remember one time you got so nervous and actually puked right there in front of him!”

Becca pursed her lips as tears started to stream down her face. I could tell I was getting to her, but the way in which she slowly started to shake her head told me that she wasn’t quite convinced. I whispered her name and moved across the room and embraced her in a great big hug. She tensed and I could feel her try to push me away, but I held steady and whispered in her ears, “I have missed you so much… When Duvak took me away from you I thought I would never see you, but here we are again. Becca please, it really is me…”

I released her and took a step back. She remained where she was standing and looked into my eyes then reached out and touched me in the face. “Those eyes…” she whispered. “God, Jeff! It really is you!… How?”

I glanced about the room then back to my sister, “That is pretty hard to explain and as much as I hate to say this. I don’t really think it’s a good idea for us to be sticking around. Once your husband wakes up he’ll go straight to the Corrector and then we’ll be–”

“Dead,” Becca interrupted. “the Corrector will make sure we’re both executed.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” I shook my head then snatched her hand and guided her toward the door. “Come on, it’s time we get out of here!”

“Dammit!” I cursed then slowly closed the cracked door and turned back to my sister. “Qharr guards.”

“Oh hell, what are we going to do?”

I shrugged and bit my lip, “Well, there’s only two of them so I could take them out pretty easily, but there’s a pretty good chance one of them would raise the alarm before I can get to both of them.”

She stared at me with wide eyes, “You can take out two fully trained Qharr hunters without weapons? Oh, Jeff what’s been done to you?”

I leaned back against the wall, and closed my eyes. “You ever heard of the Edant K’teth?”

Becca nodded and bit her lip. “Yeah, the Corrector is one of them.”

“Well, a lot of the stuff you’ve probably heard about them is true. They’re incredibly strong, super fast, perform feats that seem to defy gravity and they can absorb the energy from phase blasts. What the Qharr won’t tell you is how the Edant K’teth gain these abilities. They get them by bonding with a symbiotic being known as a K’teth.”

“And I’m guessing it you became bonded with one of these K’teth? How?” she asked folding her arms across her chest.

“It wasn’t exactly intentional. I…killed a Qharr Overseer who was bonded with a symbiote and it went into me. Long story short I have boobs now,” I muttered looking down at my breasts then cracked the door open and peaked through again.

“Damn, the guards are not showing any signs of leaving,” I whispered turning back to my sister.

“That’s really the least of your problems, darlin’,” a voice breathed suddenly in my ear and I froze as I felt something press into my back.

I slowly turned my head and caught sight of Jerem out of the corner of my eyes. “Say, is that a phase pistol?” I asked glancing slowly moving my hands up.

“Fuck yeah, it is!” he yelled pressing the weapon further into his back.

How on Earth had he gotten his hands on a phase pistol? Even Enforcers weren’t allowed to have anything more dangerous than a burn rod or a knife.

A slow smile crept onto my face as I swirled around to force the gun out of his hands then clenched my hand around his wrist as hard as I could. “I can absorb phase blasts but I guess you weren’t awake to hear that.”

The gun clattered to the ground and he howled in pain and reached for his wrist as I pulled my hand away.

“Bitch, you broke my wrist!” he yelled, slipping a knife from out of his jacket with his unbroken hand and pounced on me. This caught me totally off guard and I was only able to bring my arm up in time to deflect the blade and keep it from penetrating my heart, but it plunged into my left breast instead. My eyes bulged as an evil twisted grin formed on his face, but that smile suddenly fled from his face when I gripped my fist around the knife’s handle and yanked it free. Like the gun, I let the blade clatter to the ground at my feet before I rounded on him clutching at his shirt collar.

“Let go of me freak!” he yelled stumbled backwards then a dark look passed across his face. “I was awake to hear one thing.. GUARDS!”

“Bastard!” my sister yelled running up to us snatching the knife from the ground and plunged it into his throat.

I stared at my sister with wide eyes and felt my jaw drop as Jerem’s lifeless body fell to the ground at my feet. “Holy hell, Becca!”

“God, I hate that bastard!” she yelled just before the two Qharr guards burst into the room.

“Ah crap!” I yelled and pushed my sister back as the first of the Qharr guards entered the room. He glanced down at Jerem’s lifeless body then screeched at the top of his lungs and raised his phase rifle. Bright flashes of energy splattered against my skin and I felt the sudden surge of energy as I rushed the first of the two guards with my fists swinging. I smashed my hand into his face and then pounced on the second guard as the first was reeling from my blow.

The second Qharr grabbed me by the throat and slammed me into the wall with so much force that I could feel my bones groan as my body pressed into the wall, and if it hadn’t been for Khala he probably would have broken every bone in my body. As it was it still hurt like hell and I let my body slump to the ground as the Qharr released his hold and turned toward my sister. I was back on my feet in an instant leaping onto his back pelting him with punches with my right hand while keeping a tight hold of his neck with my left.

There came another screech from behind as the first guard rejoined the foray, I loosed my grip on the second attacker and slid back down his back then swung around hitting the first guard across the chest with a roundhouse kick. The guard stumbled back and I pressed forward pummeling him with blow after blow. The Qharr were a race of warriors and they could take a pretty severe beating before they were rendered unconscious. It was very obvious that my attacks were hurting the guard, but I wasn’t confident that they’d be successful in knocking him out. I was going to have to kill him and that meant a different approach. I hit my opponent across the chest with a blow that would have been bone shattering for a human then brought both my hands up and pushed him as hard as I could.

I spun around then dove for Jerem’s discarded phase pistol and snatched it from the ground as the second guard leapt at me. I squeezed my fist around the trigger and watched as the bolts sizzled through the air and slammed into the chest of the second guard in rapid succession. It took three bolts to fell the guard and two more to finish him off. The phase pistol was definitely of human-make and probably would have had the power to kill a human at close range, but the Qharr were much more resistant to phase blasts so it took a lot more to do them in. The gun was minuscule which probably explained why it was so underpowered. I wondered briefly how Jerem had gotten his hands on such a weapon as the Qharr would have never allowed it, but those thoughts were soon interrupt as the first guard let out yet another high pitched howl.

I rolled back onto my feet and raised the phase pistol for another attack, but it didn’t come, at least not right away. The guard pounded an open palm against the back of his left hand and I silently cursed as a high-pitched siren call sounded from the speakers above. The Qharr guard had sounded the alarm and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to shut it off. I gritted my teeth then squeezed my hand around the phase pistol’s trigger firing shot after shot until the guard’s chest was a mass of charred flesh. I lowered the weapon then turned my back on the Qharr guard and let his corpse fall to the ground without looking back.

“Shit!” my sister proclaimed staring at the two Qharr corpses with wide eyes. “Where’d you learn to fight like that?”

I pursed my lips then held the weapon out to my sister. “Take it.”

She shook her head and reached out to push it away. “I wouldn’t even know how to use it.”

“It’s simple, just point and shoot,” I muttered. “In a hallway full of Qharr guards it matter how well you can aim.”

“What about you? You obviously know how to use this thing. It will be better if you took it,” she replied her hands shaking as looking up at me with her jaw hanging open.

I grabbed my sisters hand and forced her to take then pistol then silently moved across the room and grabbed the Qharr’s discarded phase rifle from the ground. It was huge, and much too heavy for an ordinary human to carry, but I was no ordinary. “One thing about being joined with a K’teth symbiote is that I can use Qharr tech.”

My sister nodded then tucked the phase pistol into her waist band. “What now, Jeff? I really hope you have a plan.”

I pursed my lips and glanced down at my chest where my knife wound was gushing like a sieve. ‘You gonna take care of that?’ I thought at Khala.

‘Already working on it,’ she replied.

I shuddered a bit as my breast started to tingle then I held my hand out to Becca. “Yeah, we’re gonna get the hell out of here, but first I need to call our ride.”

She stared at my open palm and seemed to hesitate for just a brief moment. She suddenly nodded then reached over and gripped my hand tightly. “Well, I guess we better hurry then.”

I felt a huge grin stretch across my face as I led my sister out of the room and into the hallway. As we ran I realized that in a very odd way I felt as if a part of me that I didn’t even know was missing had returned. I had my sister again.

We didn’t even make it ten meters before a group of three Qharr soldiers stopped us right in our tracks. “Ah, hell,” I cursed, stepped in front of my sister as the gray-skins opened fire. I raised my newly acquired phase rifle and returned fire killing the first two guards with four quick pulls of the trigger.

A wide-eyed Becca ducked out from behind me and opened fire with shaking hands. Most of her shots splattered harmlessly against the wall, but after half a dozen shots a bolt hit the third guard. The blast wasn’t enough to fell the bastard, but I took care of him with a blast from my rifle.

“Damned gray-skins,” I cursed slinging the rifle over my shoulder.

“God, how often do you do this sort of stuff?” my sister shuddered and slipping the phase pistol back into her waist band.

I shrugged and let a sheepish grin slip onto my face, “Technically, I only joined the resistance about a month ago, so… I guess this would only be my third time.”

“My bro–” he stopped abruptly and stared at my chest then corrected herself. “Sister the rebel. You’ve only done this twice before? God, I’d have thought you’d been doing it a lot longer by the way you fight.”

“Yeah, well that has more to do with Khala, my symbiote, than anything else,” I shrugged again then glanced about the hallway. “Refresh my memory where’s the nearest computer terminal?”

My sister swallow hard and ran her hand through her hair. “Um, there’s one down that way toward the kitchen.” S pointed down a side corridor.

“Right,” I smacked my forehead, “the one across from the men’s shower room.”

“Come on,” I added looking around. “We need to get going before more guards show up.”

Becca bit her lip then trailed me as I took off down the corridor. I had to hold myself back to keep myself from out pacing my sister, but even so she seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. I kept glancing back only to find that I had to slow down for her to catch up. It was partly due to my K’teth-enhanced speed, but my sister was obviously unaccustomed to running at such a hard pace and it showed. Finally, we reached the computer terminal and I came to such an abrupt halt in front of it that my sister, unable to put on the breaks, came careening into me.

After we untangled ourselves from one another, I glanced down at the terminal and scratched the back of my head as I tried to decipher all the foreign characters arrayed across its surface. ‘You think you could help me out?’ I thought at Khala.

The symbiote didn’t respond, but suddenly all the Qharr symbols on the screen disappeared and were replaced with English words. “Damn, that is freaking cool!” I yelled out loud grinning at my sister.

“What?” she asked peering over my shoulder.

“It’s just Khala, she made it so that I could see all these characters on the screen in English,” I replied tapping on the area of the console screen labeled ‘Com System’. The screen flashed and a message appeared across its surface indicating that I was an ‘unrecognized user’.

“Dammit!” I cursed pounding my fist against the wall. I knew the Qharr would eventually wise up to the fact that there was a human who could use Qharr tech running around, but I hadn’t expect them to devise a way to keep me out so quickly. ‘Any suggestions?’ I asked Khala closing my eyes and massaged my nose, but whatever chance she might have had to answer was lost when another pair of Qharr guard’s appeared on the other side of the hallway.

“Bastard’s don’t know when to give up!” I yelled then turned to meet the gray-skins as they opened fire. “Well,” I shrugged as I knocked my sister out of the path of the phase bursts. “It’s a good thing the guards here haven’t figured out that I’m joined with a K’teth.”

I reached for the phase rifle which I had left leaning against the wall, but a stray phase bolt hit it igniting the power cell. There was a loud pop and I felt a surge of energy as Khala absorbed the resultant energy. To their credit this new pair of guards did stop firing once it became apparent that their weapons weren’t doing me any harm. I took off down the hallway and they did too screaming at the top of their lungs. The first, a slender Qharr female pounced and caught me unaware with a fist across the face. Unable to brace myself in time, my head snapped back and I tumbled down onto my back.

Both guards were on me in a second and for a moment I thought they had me, but fortunately I managed to roll away before they managed to get a good grip on me. I swung my fist at the male hitting him in the gut then leapt back to my feet and kicked the female as hard as I could in the chest as she tried to stand back to her feet. She fell to the ground and I turned to face the male as he regained his footing.

“You’re strong for a hu-man!” he breathed circling me warily.

“You have no idea,” I grinned then flung my fist at his face and watched in grim satisfaction as he teetered on his feet then collapsed to the ground. The female yelled at the top of her lungs and charged me, and slammed into my shoulder with enough force to send me reeling sideways and caused me to land breast first. I gasped and staggered back to my feet gritting my teeth against the pain in my chest as I rounded on the female.

She brought her arm up to block my fist as I swung it in a sweeping blow that would have hit her in the chest. It impacted her arm instead and there was a sick crack as her bone snapped. She howled and grabbed at her arm. I took advantage of the momentary distraction and pressed the attack planting blow after her blow. She staggered back then I screamed at the top of my lungs, jumped up and fling my fist into the side of her head.

She fell back and I turned away before her body hit the floor. I walked back to the console, but my lip as I looked down at the message displayed on the screen requesting the biometrics of an authorized user. I glanced down at the floor where the female was laying unconscious and noticed the Inquisitor rank insignia emblazoned across her flat naked chest and realized I had what I needed right there. Inquisitor was a special rank which was basically the Qharr equivalent to military police and if anyone had access to the comm system she probably would.

“I’ve got an idea.”

I sighed then moved across the hallway, grabbed hold of the female Inquisitor’s unconscious body and dragged her across the floor to the computer console.

I bit my lip, grunted then glanced back at my sister. “Help me would you?”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t lift the Qharr woman by myself, but she was a lot bigger than me and it was just too damned awkward to prop her up by myself. My sister nodded and slipped a hand under the female’s armpit. Finally, we got her positioned so that her hand was touching the screen and the words ‘User recognized. Opening Comm System’ scrolled across the screen.

I tapped my fingers against the console testing to see if I could manipulate the controls. The console responded and I opened a channel. I typed the following three words into the console Qharr, ‘Khala d’eg pokk’ which meant ‘Khala run up hill’ in English. Jaysen and I had put our heads together to work up a code which we could use to communicate should Kaya, Farris and I needed a quick way to escape the compound. To any of the Qharr who might have been listening the message would have sounded like complete nonsense, but to Jaysen the message would tell her we were in trouble and that we needed a pick up on the roof.

I knelt down to snatch the phase pistol out of the Inquisitor’s hands then turned back to her and held my hand out to my sister with a huge grin on my face, “It’s done! Now let’s go find my friends and get the hell out of here!”

She nodded and took my hand then once again we went tearing down the hallway.

“Kai!” I yelled after having taken care of the Qharr guards outside the kitchen door then flew inside with my sister–who was panting heavily and dripping with sweat from her attempts to keep up with me–in tow. “It’s time to leave.”

Everyone in the kitchen stopped what they were doing and abruptly turned to stare at Becca and me with wide eyes. Kaya set down the knife she’d been holding and stared at me with a single eyebrow crooked and the barest hint of a smile. “I take it that alarm that’s been blaring over the intercom is your work.”

I nodded and glanced at my sister before turning back to Kaya. “More or less, you ready to get out of here?”

“Fuck yeah!” She ran a hand through her hair and glancing back at old Creg and the other women in the room. “Nice meeting you guys, but I’ve been itching to get out of this damn place since I got here so… later!”

Kaya bolted for the door and I glanced around the room and grinned. “Creg it was nice seeing you again. Oh and blondie,” I said turning to look Merida in the eyes. “You have a nice rack. Can you really blame me for staring?”

Merida folded her arms across her chest and glared at me, but neither she nor any of the other occupants of the room said a word as Kaya, Becca and I all fled away from the kitchen.

“Okay,” Kaya panted running up beside me. “What the hell happened?”

I sighed, “Jerem tried to rape me… Now he’s dead.”

“Shit… are you okay?”

“Fine, he didn’t get very far,” I shuddered then burst forward putting on the speed as we turned a corner. “Now come on it’s time to find Farris.”

“Damn there are a lot of guards,” I cursed peeking through the door to the manufacturing area of the compound where Farris had been assigned. I don’t really know what I was expecting, the factory took up the largest area of the compound and there were more slaves working there than in any other area, but it went far beyond that. Factories did tend to have a high number of slave revolts which wasn’t that surprising considering that the working conditions were absolutely terrible which in turn meant there were more guards assigned to that area per slave than any other.

I grimaced and glanced at Kaya who was clutching at the pistol which my sister had long since relinquished when it became apparent that Kaya was the better shot.

“You have any ideas?” I asked Kaya running a hand through my hair and let out a long sigh.

Kaya shook her head and pursed her lips. “I have no freaking idea and I gotta say I really don’t like our odds.”

“Dammit, well we can’t just leave Farris,” I breathed closing my eyes then glanced back at the door. “I’m going in…” I trailed off gripping at my phase pistol and leapt through the doorway. I swung my weapon around taking out the pair guards who were standing near the door then fired off another few shots hitting the next few who were supervising a portion of the assembly line nearest to the door.

It had been ten years since I’d entered the manufacturing area of the compound, but nothing seemed to have changed. The assembly lines were so long that they never seemed to end, and the machines, like all Qharr tech, were massive insectine assemblage that extended all the way up the ceiling and down the entire length of the room. Within the compound they manufactured parts to Qharr ships which were then shipped to a Qharr base were they would be inspected and assembled by the expert (and more trustworthy) hands of Qharr technicians.

“MATTHEW FARRIS!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “You ready to get the hell out of here?!”

All the humans within the manufacturing facility turned to me, but no one stepped forward. Which wasn’t surprising considering that a group of nearly half a dozen guards came tearing across the room toward me.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath and raised my pistol. The gray-skins opened fire pelting me with blast after blast and I returned fire even as Khala absorbed energy from each of the individual bolts. I took down three soldiers before they remaining three were on top of me. I dropped my phase pistol and swung my fist at the foremost of the three.

Several phase bolts splattered against my back and I knew, without looking, that Kaya had opened fire with the underpowered pistol. “Farris dammit!” I yelled kicking another of the Qharr, who happened to be the only male of the trio, across the chest. “Would you get the hell out here?!”

The first gray-skin punched me in the shoulder, locked her hand around my throat, and lifted me up off the ground all within the blink of an eye. I reached up to claw at her hands, but before I could force them open she slammed me down to the ground with what was likely her full strength. I felt my bones creak just as they did when I’d been slammed against the wall, but the pain was well within my tolerance. I kicked her across the chest and was about to shove her aside when a familiar (and oh so annoying) voice proclaimed. “Let go of her dammit!”

“Spl’k hu-man!” the Qharr female spat out in a gravelly baritone voice just before she suddenly collapsed on top of me. I pushed her off then sprang back to my feet to find that Rayland and Farris were both battling the two remaining guards. Each held a long metal bar and were having a pretty hard time fending off the gray-skins’ advances. I snatched the bar from out of Rayland’s hand then slammed it into the guard which he’d been battling. I made short work of him then joined Farris as he battled the third. I swung the bar and hit her across the chest as hard as I could. She went flying back and I turned to Farris with an appreciative smile. “Thanks for the help.”

“What and I don’t get any credit?” Rayland asked as I threw the bar back at him then snatch my pistol back from the ground. He snatched the bar out of the air and I sighed. “Thanks, Ray, but your help really wasn’t necessary.”

He shook his head and grinned at me. “Whatever you say. Maybe you could explain to me how you happen to be impervious to phase fire and why you’re so strong?”

I rolled my eyes and let a long exaggerated sigh escape my lips. “Maybe another time. Look it’s been nice, but I think it’s time for my friends and I get to going.”

“Sure.” He grinned his eyes lingering on my breasts and it was only then that I realized that the phase bolts had burned a hole in my shirt and exposed my nipple.

“Dammed boobs,” I cursed under my breath then slipped my hand over the hole to hide the exposed flesh.

“Well, this is goodbye then,” I added feeling my cheeks burn as I grabbed Farris by his shoulder and motioned for Kaya and Becca to leave.

“Not goodbye,” he beamed trailing us as we moved for the door. I glanced over my shoulder and swallow hard as I caught sight of a group of guards led by a towering blue-haired Qharr who towered over his fellow Qharr standing at well over eight feet tall. It looked as if Het’ma’s Corrector had finally showed his face.

“Dammit,” I cursed. “Rayland get the hell away from us! A bunch of rebels is about the last group of people you’d want to associate yourself.”

“I’m coming,” he insisted following us as we fled out the door. “I know about the biometric key!”

“Dammit! Just who the hell are you?” I cursed. “You better not slow us down.”

“You contact Jaysen?” Kaya asked glancing back over her shoulder as a phase bolt shot past her head.

“Yeah,” I nodded firing my own weapon over my shoulder at our pursuers trying my best not to hit the corrector so that I didn’t provide him with any additional energy. “I told her to pick us up on the roof.”

“Right,” Kaya nodded. “With that funky code you two worked out.”

“The roof?” My sister panted. “You know there’s only one way up there. We’ll be trapped for sure.”

“Trust me,” I replied stepping in front of a phase bolt before it could hit her. “We know what we’re doing…”

The Qharr chased us through the corridors and it was all I could do to keep the others going. I didn’t have any trouble keeping the pace, but the others were struggling and I didn’t know how long they could keep up. There was only so much I could do, especially since I was the only one of our number capable of fending off Corrector Taevok and it was very necessary to do so. Once already he’d put on a burst of sudden K’teth-enhanced speed and appeared behind us.

“The fucker just won’t give up.” I happened to glance over my shoulder and watched him run at us and gritted my teeth as he drew closer and closer.

‘Khala if there are any special abilities we might be able use to take him out, I’m all ears. ‘

‘None’

I gritted my teeth and just kept on running. I’d been grasping at straws, and frankly I hadn’t exactly believed there was anything that I could use against the bastard besides my wit and my fists. Sometimes you just have to cover all the bases. “How different are male symbiotes from females? Will he be stronger than the overseer was?”

“The only differences are our reproductive capabilities; he will likely be much weaker than my previous host as she had unusual strength. Only the sub-ascendant is more powerful.”

“Well there’s that at least.” I glanced back just in time to see the bastard come tearing toward us again.

Fortunately, he hadn’t been expecting me to intervene with the enhanced strength and reflexes afforded to me by Khala or he probably would have had us. When he got close I spun around on the balls of my feet and hit him as hard as I could across the chest. The force of the blow coupled with his own speed sent him tumbling backwards clutching at his chest and howling in surprised fury. By the time he climbed back up, with the assistance of the guards, our lead on our pursuers had nearly doubled.

When I was just beginning to think that we might actually stand a chance after all, the Corrector tried to rush us again and this time I was not ready for him. Before I could muster any sort of defense he grappled hold of me and we both went careening to the ground. I elbowed him in the chest and tried to squirm out from under him, but he gripped hold of one of my wrists and rolled on top of me. I struggled under his grip, but he was able to force both my hands down against the ground and nothing I did seemed to do any good.

As I struggled I looked over to the side where Kaya, my sister and the two men had stopped to watch me struggle against the corrector. “Kai!” I yelled. “Take Becca and get the hell out of here!”

“I’m not leaving you!” she yelled gritting her teeth balling her hands into fists at her side.

“Go dammit! I’ll catch up!”

Taevok’s continued attacks forced me to turn away, but I caught sight of them leaving out of the corner of my eyes. Taevok growled out a command in Qharr instructing his troops to follow and they rushed to comply. I took the opportunity that the short distraction afford me and took a really cheap shot. I kneed him in the groin and thanked my lucky stars that Qharr anatomy was so similar to that of humans. Taevok’s groaned then collapsed on top of me and I could feel his breath on my throat as I pushed him away.

I staggered back to my feet and took a few tentative steps forward before breaking out into a run. I only managed to take a few steps before he got his hand around my ankle and I yelped as he pulled my foot out from under me. “Mother humping bastard!” I yelled kicking him across the jaw with my free foot before realizing that I’d been speaking in Qharr.

“So much strength! Far beyond that of an ordinary human,” he yelled in near-perfect English then switched over to Qharr as he lifted me up from the ground. “You must be joined with a K’teth to possess such power! Tell me how it is that a slave rat came to be bonded with a symbiote!?”

I grinned up at him defiantly even as his hand tightened around my throat and managed to choke out the answer. “I killed the Overseer!”

Taevok coughed.”A bold statement, but one which I think is most likely true. Given that Jahal’s symbiote was unaccounted for when they examined her corpse. Still I cannot understand how such an inferior species could ever serve as a compatible host for a K’teth.”

I gasped for breathe and clutched at my throat as I felt my life start to slip away. I clawed at his finger and tried futilely to loosen his grip, but his strength was so much greater than mine. A K’teth magnified the base strength of their host and since the Qharr were much stronger to begin with my opponent’s strength was much greater than mine. ‘Any ideas?!’ I cried desperately at Khala.

‘Working on it!’ she responded just a few seconds before his grip suddenly loosened from around my throat and he was thrown against the wall opposite me. I crawled back my knees and coughed uncontrollably before air flooded back into my lungs.

“Thanks,” I breathed. ‘You doing that gravity thing again?”

‘Yes,’ she responded.

‘How can you fight Taevok knowing that in doing so you could kill another of your kind?’ I asked her with a slow shake of my head.

‘Because I made a promise to help you. Besides if the host dies it is very rarely a death sentence for the symbiote. Hurry now. You need to get back on your feet before he attacks again.’

I took another deep breath, nodded and slowly climbed back to my feet. I felt something trickle down my face and when I reached up to touch it my finger came away red. I don’t know when it happened, but sometime during the fight I must have been hit pretty hard in the head. I shook away the sudden wave of dizziness and spun around to look for the Corrector. Khala’s gravity wave, for lack of a better term, had thrown Taevok into the opposite wall and embedded him deep into its surface.

His eyes were closed and as best as I could tell he was unconscious, but when I moved closer to check for signs of life. I heard the sound of multiple footsteps pounding against the hallway floor. I stopped mid-step and glanced over to find that nearly a dozen Qharr guards were running down the hallway in my direction. I glanced at the Corrector’s motionless body one finally time and then took off down the hallway away from the soldiers and in the same direction that Kaya, my sister and the others had fled.

Chapter Nine

I called up all the speed I could muster and zoomed down the corridor at such a pace that all my instincts were screaming at me to slow down. I couldn’t though, I had to catch up with the others before it was too late and they left without me or worse they were overtaken by the gray-skins. The Qharr guards had continued their pursuit as far as they could, but I was simply too fast for them to keep up. I did catch a few stray phase bolts before I completely outran them, but most of them missed and splattered against the wall as I ran.

I caught up to the others so quickly that I nearly ran straight into the cluster of guards that were pursuing them, but luckily I managed to come to a stop mere centimeters of the rear-most of the gray-skins. He spun around to face me, and I hit him as hard as I could the moment I saw his face. He flew back and knocked three more of his companions down. The remaining two guards were on me, throwing punches and screaming out Qharr obscenities. I ducked as the first, a tall male with a shaved head, swung his fist in a powerful blow that would have been devastating to a human then blocked a blow from the second, a lean female with her hair done up in a long braid, with my forearm. I spun around in a jump kick and hit baldy across the waist then punched the female in the chest. After, several successive blows both collapsed at my feet and I snatched a phase pistol which had fallen to the ground during the fight then I leapt down the hallway without waiting for them or any of the other guards to climb back to their feet.

I heard a loud guttural scream and looked back to find that the guards had resumed their pursuit. I kept running and managed to catch up with the others. Kaya glanced at me as I neared. “That was fast.”

“Yeah, well,” I grimaced stepping into sync with her. “I was really eager to get out here.”

“What about your friend the Corrector?” she asked glancing over her shoulder at the guards.

“Out for the count,” I replied.

“But not dead?” she asked with wide eyes.

“More guards showed up and I left before I had time to check for sure,” I shrugged.

“More guards?! Just great… You didn’t happen to take a head count did you?” Farris interrupted looking back at me.

“There were a dozen at least!”

“Boy this just gets funner and funner,” Rayland grinned back at me.

“How close are we getting to the roof?” Farris yelled as a stray phase bolt zoomed over his head.

“Not far!” my sister yelled back. “There should be a stairway down that next corridor.”

“About damn time,” Farris breathed. “This compounds too freaking big.”

“I just hope Jaysen will be there in time,” Kaya shook her head.

“It shouldn’t take her long,” I replied. “She said she’d keep the ship close, remember?”

“I’m a little more worried that he–” he grimaced then gritted his teeth as he corrected himself. “–she even got the message.”

I glared at him and bit my lip, “The communications system will alert her to any incoming messages. It would be pretty hard for her to miss it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Farris replied shaking his head.

“Yeah well,” I said. “Let’s just get up there and we’ll know for sure.”

Rayland winked at me. “Sounds good to me.”

I glanced at him, but gave him no reply as we continued to run. After reaching the stairs we traveled up nearly a dozen flights before finding our exit. The gray-skins pursued us the entire way. Once we finally reached the door Farris kicked it open and we rushed through the opening as quickly as we could.

“Fuck!” Kaya cursed as we stepped out onto the roof clenching the hair atop her head and gritted her teeth. “She’s not here yet and those guards will find their way up here any second!”

I glanced about searching the rooftop for anything that might be of use and found it just a short distance away. There were a series of ducts running along most of the length of the roof and supporting said ducts were a series of metal bars. Running up to the nearest section of ducting I wrapped my hands around one of the bars, braced my feet against the ground and pulled as hard as I could. I pulled and pulled and with one final heave the bar snapped free. The ducting groaned and sagged just a little bit as I swirled around leaping at the door with the bar in hand. I jammed it into the door and bent it around the frame so that it couldn’t be opened from either side.

“You really think that will hold?” Kaya glanced at me skeptically with a single raised eyebrow.

“Probably not,” I replied shaking my head. “But it might buy us some time.”

“God, I can’t believe this is happening?!” my sister proclaimed her hands shaking as she stared at the door with wide eyes. She looked on the verge of a breakdown and I can’t say I really blamed her after everything that had happened. My sister had always been a strong-willed person, but I’d caught a glimpse of how that bastard husband of hers had been treating her. Jerem was a bully and even back before he’d been an Enforcer and he was unrelenting when he picked a victim. How long had that asshole Jerem been mistreating her? I could only guess at the sort of things he might have done to my sister, but knowing Jerem it wouldn’t have been very pleasant.

“Becca,” I whispered her name and reached out to wrap my arms around her. “It’s going to turn out okay. You got that? You’re going to be fine.”

The water works came next and my sister collapsed into my arms sobbing hysterically. I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh as I whispered encouragements under my breath. Next came the pounding at the door and I knew that the Qharr had finally caught up with us. I bit my lip then turned to the others. “Farris!” I hissed. “Take my sister!”

He nodded then tentatively grabbed my sister by her shoulders and helped me move her. Becca resisted a bit, but once her arms were around Farris like they’d been around me she collapsed into his arms without a word. “Be ready,” Kaya glanced at me her knuckles turning white as she gripped at the small phase pistol in her hands as if her life depended on it. I gripped my own pistol and stared at the door frowning as I heard Qharr curses coming from the other side.

“Damn gray-skins,” I cursed.

“Gotta love ’em,” Rayland grinned.

“Shit,” Kaya glared at him. “Are you insane?”

“Yes, but only just a little,” he replied back glancing at the door as the Qharr continued to pound away. Suddenly, a loud groan came from what I could only guess were the hinges just before my bar sprung away and the door shot out from its frame. Kaya and I opened fire as the first of the guards appeared in the doorway. He collapsed to the ground dead and was replaced by two more gray-skins. They opened fire just before Kaya and I peppered them with shots and they too died unable to withstand the sudden barrage of shots.

More guards came pouring out from the opening and everyone except myself moved to find cover behind the ducts. Since the blasts from the Qharr guards only strengthened me I stayed out in the opened and continued firing into the doorway and Kaya shot whenever she got an opening from behind the relative security of the ducts. Each time a blast shot into and was absorbed by the duct my sister let out a high-pitched squeal. It became quickly apparent that the six guards that had followed us had been joined by others, some of which I recognized from the group that found me after I’d taken out Taevok.

“We are so fucking screwed!” Farris cursed from behind the duct clutching at my sister as Kaya fired shot after shot beside him.

“There’s too much riding on this!” I yelled back glancing over my shoulder. “Jaysen knows that she’ll be here!”

“She better hurry!” Kaya screamed just before a phase bolt splattered into her shoulder.

“God dammit!” she howled and gritted her teeth before ducking back behind the cover of the duct.

Kaya and Rayland had some sort of exchange, but I have no idea what was said since I was a little busy fighting for my life. What I do know is that moments later Rayland leapt up from behind the duct and started firing off shots with Kaya’s weapon. He proved to be every bit as good a shot as Kaya and actually managed to take out two gray-skins before he was forced to duck back behind the duct. By that point the roof’s exit had filled up with Qharr bodies and for the next few moments we had a brief reprieve as our attackers struggled to break through the barrier of corpses.

I could hear the grunts and growls of the gray-skins pushed against the corpses, but they didn’t seem to be making much headway. Not surprising considering that the stairwell was probably only wide enough to accommodate two Qharr side by side and even then it would have been a very tight squeeze. Abruptly the pile of bodies flew out from the doorway in all directions and out from behind them emerged the blue-haired form of Corrector Taevok. “Q’ll Nas!” I cursed only realizing that I’d been speaking in Qharr after the words had escaped my lips. A group of guards followed him up out of the door and started firing at Kaya, my sister and the others.

I glanced at my hand where I had the over-sized Qharr pistol clenched then dropped it and let it clatter to the ground before pouncing. Whatever injury I might have inflicted on him appeared to have been healed by his symbiote or else it hadn’t been nearly as severe as I’d originally believe because he moved with the same fluid grace and speed as he had before. He was a trained warrior and I was just some unlucky bastard… bitch who’d gotten stuck with a symbiote and that difference became more and more apparent as we fought. Each time he swung a fist it was only my incredibly quick reflexes that kept the blows from landing home. Taevok was very angry, I could tell from his body language. Everything from the way he held his shoulders and the tilt of his head showed his fury as clearly as a scowl would have on a human. His anger translated into his attacks, his hands moved in swift blurs and it was becoming much more difficult to fend off his advances.

“Look!” Farris’s voice called out in the distance.

I was too busy fending off Taevok, but I did catch site of Rayland craning his neck out of the corner of my eyes. I suspected or at least hoped I knew what he was gawking at then I felt a surge of hope as Rayland confirmed it. “Is that a ship?!”

“Yeah!” Kaya called out triumphantly. “Looks like our ride is almost here!”

I dodged and blocked the Corrector’s blows as best I could not getting a hit in edgewise. Then things took a turn for the worse when the first of his blows cut through my defenses hitting me on the underside of my chin and I went flying backwards a near half a dozen feet. My back flared with sudden pain as I smashed into a nearby section of duct. I could feel something sharp pressing into my flesh, but I didn’t let that stop me from leaping back to my feet. There was a very slight tingling sensation as I felt Khala work her magic on the wound then I rounded on the Corrector landing my first blow. He grunted slightly as my fist slammed into his chest, but it wasn’t nearly as powerful as I’d hoped and he grabbed at my wrist before I could make another move.

I tried to break free, but his grip around my wrists was too tight. ‘Please help me!’ I yelled at Khala as I continued to struggle against Taevok.

‘Brother,’ Khala’s voice screamed inside of my head and for a moment it seemed as if she were speaking to me then I realized that she was talking to the corrector’s symbiote. ‘I have been liberated from the Qharr! Join me and you can be free too.’

‘Traitor!’ another disembodied voice which I assumed belonged to Taevok’s symbiote yelled back. ‘I have nothing to say to you!’

‘So be it,’ Khala responded her voice becoming very cold. The air around my started to ripple then I could feel a rush of pure force extend outward and shoot out toward the Corrector. Taevok stumbled back, but instead of flying away like he had before the wave reversed itself and I was the one who went soaring backward. Before I could hit the ground Khala did her gravity thing again and I spun around wildly in the air before landing feet-first atop the roof.

Before I could even so much as blink, Taevok was barreling toward me and I immediately leapt aside, but I was already too late. His fist pounded into me and again I went flying back through the air. I got another assist from Khala and landed back on my feet and this time I was ready for that bastard to come charging. I jumped sideways and slammed my fist into his side as he sprang up to me. He stumbled sideways, lost his footing then stumbled to the ground along the edges of the roof. He scrambled back to his feet, but not before I glanced over the edge and realized just what it would take to defeat my opponent. If I could press up my attack and force him off the roof it was high enough that I think if he took a tumble it might possibly kill or at least maim him.

Even if I gave Khala control of my body, something which I wasn’t ready to do, there was no guarantee she could win. There was my agreement with Velspatt to consider, but at that point all I was really more concerned about surviving my encounter with the Corrector. If I couldn’t kill him I could at least injure him sufficiently that he couldn’t pursue us and who knows I’d already gotten lucky dealing with a member of the edant k’teth once before maybe I’d get lucky again.

The air around us abruptly grew very turbulent and I knew that the ship be almost on top of us. I didn’t look back or gave indication that I knew the ship was there. Taevok was climbing back to his feet and I didn’t want myself to get distracted when a golden opportunity had just presented itself. I kicked Taevok across the chest and he collapsed down to the ground. I was bringing my foot back to do it again when my other foot was yanked out from under me. I went down rolling, kicking and swinging my fists at the Corrector as he jumped on top of me.

We rolled around the ground pummeling one another with our fists as we each struggled to gain the upper hand. His blows were powerful and hurt like hell, but he wasn’t able to bring his arm back all the way and thus utilize his full strength. My own strength paled in comparison to his, but in one way at least I had the upper hand. I was a lot faster and I concentrated my blows hitting him again and again in the same spots. Before he’d been able to overwhelm me with the pure fury of his attacks, but now that some of his steam had cooled off and my lone advantage was finally starting to pay off.

I hurled my fist at the left side of his face and the blow actually seemed to rattle him a bit because he stopped and shook his head. I seized the opportunity this provided me, pushed him up with my hands then kicked him as hard as I could across the chest with both of my feet. He flew up then down over the edge of the roof. I silently climbed back to my feet and whirled around to find, just as I had guessed, our ride was waiting hovering in the air beside the roof with the entrance ramp extended. I eagerly leapt into motion hurling my fists at the remaining three guards that Rayland was still battling with the undersized pistol. I quickly took them out then turned back to the others screaming at the top of my lungs, “What the hell are you waiting around for? Get your asses moving and get yourselves up that damned ramp!”

Rayland grinned at me, turned to the injured Kaya who he scooped up off the ground and leapt across the rooftop with Kaya in his arms. Farris, with my sister slung up over his shoulder, followed suit and in short order I was the only one left on the roof top. I don’t know what prompted it, but I got this sudden impression that I wasn’t alone. I spun and let out a dozen or so of my more choice curses as I found my friend, the corrector Taevok, speeding toward me. “Shit,” I yelled. “This guy just won’t stay down!”

“Sorry,” I shrugged gesturing over my shoulder. “You see that ship there? It’s my ride and I really must be leaving.”

I took off running toward the entry ramp and leapt across the edge of the roof. I landed on my feet and started up the ramp into the ship, but fell flat on my chest when a sudden weight came tearing into me from behind. My damn boobs hurt like hell from the impact, and I clutched at them with my hands while kicking out at the Corrector with my feet. He flew back and started to slide down the ramp, but not before his hand latched around my ankle.

“Jellfree!” My sister called out and her cries her joined by ones from Kaya, and Farris. They all rushed to the edge of the platform, but by then it was too late and Taevok and I both went tumbling over the edge of the ramp.

Chapter Ten

The two of us fell toward the ground at a terrifying speed, but all Taevok seemed interested in doing was continuing our fight. He swung his fists at me even as we continued to plummet. I dodged his blows and grappled hold of his arms pushing them away from me.

“Are you nuts?” I cried out. I closed my eyes and prepared for my life to end, but then Khala acted and I realized there was still a chance. It had been stupid of me to believe that a fall from the roof would have killed the Corrector when his symbiote had the same gravity defying capabilities as mine.

‘Grab on to Taevok and whatever you do–‘ Khala’s voice screamed within my mind, ‘–keep his back pointed toward the ground!’

Khala didn’t explain and it would have been foolish to argue with her with time running so short. I complied, immediately hooking my arms around the Corrector’s biceps. As we continued to plummet I felt Khala working her magic and I could myself swap between feeling weightless to suddenly feeling as if an enormous weight were pressing into me then back again. Taevok howled, cursing in Qharr and clutched hold of me attempting to dislodge my hands.

An invisible force pressed into my stomach, which I presumed was the Taevok’s symbiote attempting to dislodge me and it was all I could do to keep my hold. Abruptly, the pressure disappeared and I screamed at the top of my lungs as he broke free from my grip and slammed his fist into my chest. I threw my free hand back to retaliate, but then suddenly everything ended when we went crashing to the ground with a near-deafening thud.

Dust from the ground rose all around us, I clenched my eyes shut and I threw my hands up to cover them. Once the dust had settled I opened them up again and looked around breathlessly taking in my surrounding. We’d landed on the opposite side of the compound from the loading area where slaves were brought in. There were a dozen patrol ships parked about twenty meters away. I looked down at the Corrector, realizing quite suddenly that he was not moving, and discovered much to my disbelief that his body had been embedded into the ground around us. ‘How do I tell if he is dead?’

‘Feel the side of his neck, just above where his shoulder meets it.’

I did as she suggested and put my fingers against the spot she had suggested I didn’t feel anything and after some help from Khala we were able to determine that he was in fact dead. “What about the symbiote? Is it dead?” I spoke aloud as I staggered back to my feet.

“No, but if he does not find a host within the next few hours he will die,” she responded appearing at my side with her pretend hands on her illusory hips and her phantom lips pursed.

I nodded then glanced over at the patrol ships. “You think we’ll be able to get one of those flying?”

She bit her lip and shook her head, “If the Qharr have added user restrictions to a simple thing like a comm panel I do not doubt that a patrol ship would be given similar lockouts.”

I glanced up and took note of our ship, which was starting to move away from the building, and grimaced turning to Khala “They probably think I’m dead. What are we going to do?”

Khala grinned, “Do what you did with the comm panel. Use the Corrector’s biometric signature to activate the ship.”

I nodded and reached down to grab at Taevok’s lifeless hand, but dropped it when I caught sight of the phase pistol holstered at his waist. I quickly snatched it up then point it down at his elbow joint and pulled the trigger. It took nearly a dozen shots to sever his forearm from the rest of his arm and the act had cause most of the flesh on either side of his elbow to become charred. On the plus side the phase bolts had actually cauterized the wound so I didn’t have to deal with any blood as I toted around his severed limb, but on the down side it stunk like hell. I’d smelt burn flesh on a handful of occasions, but it had always been human flesh. The smell of Qharr flesh was actually a lot worse; I wrinkled my nose against the god-awful stench and fought down the sudden urge to puke.

I tucked the pistol into my waistband then snatched his severed arm up, glanced at his dead body one final time before taking off toward the ships at my top speed. In just a few short seconds I had found my way to one of the vessels. I held Taevok’s hand up to the biometric sensor and let a long sigh of relief when the hatch popped open. I quickly leapt inside and made my way to the control system where once again I was forced to use the Corrector’s hand to get the ship started, but once it had been activated I could manipulate the controls with my own hands. Just like I had with the control panel back in the compound, Khala translated the controls and strangely I knew just what buttons to press to get all the pre-flight procedures out of the way.

“How is that even possible?” I asked aloud my voice barely even a whisper.

“You really haven’t figured it out by now?” came Khala’s response from the seat beside me. “Your mind is subconsciously tied to mine. The longer we’re bonded the more of our knowledge is shared with one another. It’s why you can speak and understand the Qharr language, it’s why you’re fighting skills have such remarkable improvement it’s also why you’re able to manipulate the controls so easily.”

I swallowed hard and stared at her with wide eyes, “Our minds are merging?!”

“Not exactly,” she replied grimacing her hands tapping against the control interface. “What makes us both unique individuals remains intact. We share some things, but your memories and personal thoughts will remain yours and the same is true for me. The sort of things that are shared are learned skills, languages, fighting abilities, and any skill that is performed on a repeated basis. For instance, since becoming joined with you I’ve gain a better working knowledge of your language along with the ability to cook. As a matter of fact I know the proper means of preparing a dish you call beef stew.”

I grinned and shook my head, “So you learn to cook and I learn how to pilot ships and fight bad guys. Doesn’t sound like much of a trade off to me.”

Khala shrugged. “It’s something different. There aren’t very many Qharr warriors who can cook. They usually leave that to what they believe are lesser beings. Besides, being bonded with a hosts allows me to remain living which is definitely something I’d like to continue doing and you’re one of the few hosts that it can be said I actually like.”

I glanced at her to see if perhaps I could detect a hint of deception, but then I realized that the image I was staring at was an illusion and in and of itself a deception. How could I detect a lie from a false image? I shook my head and nodded unable to think of anything to say to her that wouldn’t sound snide. I still had a pretty hard time with what she’d done with me and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be on friendly terms with a creature that would do something like that. We’d agreed to work with each other, but that didn’t mean we had to be friends.

I glanced down at the display as I took the ship up and noted a blinking red light. It took me a second, but I realized the blip meant the sensors had picked up a ship on the long range sensors. It certainly wasn’t Jaysen since the ship she was piloting was much too close. Whoever it was they weren’t friendly and I really didn’t want to be around when they showed up. “You may want to destroy those other patrol ships,” Khala stated suddenly glancing at me with raised eyebrows.

I nodded in agreement. It made sense, destroying the patrol ships would prevent the Qharr at the base from pursuing me or the others. I waited until I’d put a little more distance between myself and the ships parked below then armed two missiles and blew all the vessels below to hell. As a slave compound, it was doubtful the Qharr wouldn’t have seen any reason to outfit the base with any other ships and lucky for me it wasn’t standard practice for the Qharr to leave the shields up for parked ships. Unfortunately, as my ride rose into the air the approaching ship drew close enough that I was able to identify its type. It was a J’narr class destroyer and while it was pretty small as destroyers went it was definitely big enough to make quick work of both me and the rescue ship.

The destroyer sped quickly across the sky, reaching the rescue ship in what seemed the blink of an eye. My comm panel blinked and I looked down to see that the destroyer was broadcasting across all frequencies. I opened a channel to listen in. “This is the Inquisitor Destroyer Qellanas to the unknown ship. Identify yourself!” An angry voice demanded in the Qharr tongue over the intercom.

“This is the rescue vessel V’narr,” I heard Jaysen’s voice responded. “Is there a problem, Qellanas? We just lifted off for a repair run to the city.”

“Why is your identifier beacon not active?!” the Qharr asked.

“That system is one of several that have been damaged. The beacon needs replacing and the compound here lacks the necessary parts,” Jaysen responded.

“Land and submit your vessel for inspection!” The Qharr screamed his voice growing even louder than it had been before.

“Ah, screw it!” Jaysen called back switching to English. “Go fuck yourselves!”

The destroyer didn’t answer, but instead started firing on the rescue ship. “Dammit!” I cursed before opening up a comm line to the destroyer. “Qellanas this is Het’ma patrol ship three, please respond.”

A new voice responded and I was more than a little surprised to find that I recognized it, “Het’ma three, this is High Inquisitor Duvak Nakyrr. We received an alert from your compound. Perhaps, you could tell us what is happening.”

Duvak a High Inquisitor? That confirmed what I had previously guessed about my former master being demoted. I guess someone higher up most have really been pissed at him to bust him back to his former position. Not surprising considering that the Overseer had been killed under his watch and he had a group of rebels to outwit him so easily. I stared out the view port and bit my lip. My mind racing as I struggled to think of something to say that would enable me to help out the others.

I was running short of time, Jaysen was doing a pretty good job dodging the destroyer’s phase fire, but it was only a matter of time before their shots got through and Duvak wasn’t going to wait around for me to give an answer for too much longer. I considered trying to convince him that the rescue ship was telling the truth about being damaged, but Jaysen had pretty well screwed that possibility up and I don’t think it would have worked in any case. I closed my eyes then let a slow smile creep onto my face when I realized what I was going to do.

“High one, a group of hu-man rats are attempting to escape they’ve already killed a number of soldiers and I believe they may have also gotten to the Corrector. One of them displayed incredible strength far beyond that of an ordinary human as if she were bonded with a K’teth,” I replied trying to keep my tone as neutral as possible.

“It is them,” Duvak responded his voice growing very quiet the way it always did when he was thinking. “Het’ma three, I’m going to let you inside the shields. I want you to dock with the Qellanas and make your way directly to the command center.”

I grinned shaking my head, in disbelief. God, he’d actually fallen for it! “As you command High Inquisitor, but I was hoping that–” I pretended to protest to add icing to the cake. Nearly any Qharr warrior would wish to take part in the attack.

“Rest easy, warrior. There is no honor to be lost. While the pilot is very skilled, the ship is weaponless, and there is no honor to be gained in participating in its destruction,” Duvak coughed in a manner which, knowing him, probably meant he was amused. “Now come, young soldier, hurry aboard. I wish to speak with you immediately.”

“As you command, Corrector,” I replied and silently cursed myself when I realized my mistake.

“Clever,” Duvak replied suddenly switching to English. “You almost had me fooled, human. Had you not slipped up and referred to me by my former rank you could have easily snuck inside the ship’s shield and turned your weapons on us. My compliments your mastery of our language is impressive, but you may wish to work on disguising your voice. It is unusually high-pitched for a Qharr.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” I replied dryly. “You know I’ve been wanting to say this for twenty-four years, Duvak. I hate you, I hate every god-damned thing about you gray-skins. You murdered my parents, and I will make you pay for that now that I have the power.”

Duvak’s initial response was a blast of phase fire that would have hit me if the ship’s sensors hadn’t warned me. I jammed my hands down on the control and the ship lurched hard to port as the bright red bolts flew past it narrowly missing my right wing.

“You are the female from the rebel hideout. The one claiming to be Jellfree?” Duvak’s voice responded through the intercom.

“That’s right, Duvak, but I really am Jellfree. I killed the Overseer and got stuck with her symbiote and well… you get the picture. Anyway, it’s just been lovely chatting with you, but I really must be going,” I said then jammed my finger on the comm panel changing frequencies.

“Jaysen!” I called out. “You there?”

“Lexa?” Came Kaya’s voice through intercom. “God we thought you were dead for sure! Is that you in the patrol ship?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ll tell you all about it once we escape… Just um… you guys have any ideas? Things aren’t looking so good.”

“Not really. We were going to use the leap drive, but the drive coils have been damaged and there’s no way we can safely jump,” Kaya responded.

“I have an idea,” Khala muttered suddenly from beside me. I listened as she relayed her idea, then slowly nodded realizing that it just might work even if it was one of the more insane ideas I’d ever considered.

“Khala’s got a plan,” I spoke twisting and sliding my hands across the control and sent the ship flying into a sideways loop. “Look I can’t risk telling you everything over the comm systems. The Qharr on that destroyer are probably listening. Things are going to get a bit messy. Watch for my sign… then I’m going to need a ride.”

“Just don’t get yourself killed,” Kaya replied and there was a brief click as the comm line closed.

I dodged another barrage of phase bolts then zoomed at high speed toward the destroyer’s belly just below the aft thrusters where, according to Khala, it would nearly impossible for the ship’s phase cannons to get a lock on me. I got as close to the shield grid as I dared then punched my hand down on the controls activating the autonav systems. I leapt out of my seat and moved within the confined space to the back of the cabin.

“Okay, you said we were going to make the reactor overload. How do we do that?” I asked Khala glancing over my shoulder to see whether her phantasmal form was still seated at co-pilot’s station. Khala had disappeared, so instead she responded to me her voice echoing through my head. ‘There to your right behind that panel.’

I glanced over and yanked the panel loose with a burst of K’teth enhanced strength before tossing the panel over my shoulder. “Okay, what now?”

Khala had me rummaging around in there and tinkering with tubes and wires, before she finally declared that I was done. I really didn’t have any clue what any of the things I had done were actually supposed to accomplish, but Khala at least was satisfied with the results. ‘Now,’ she added. ‘Get back to the controls it won’t be long before the reactor blows.’

I leapt back into the pilot’s seat and sent the ship lurching forward by tapping my fingers on the thruster controls. The Qharr destroyer’s fire pelted down from above and I veered sideways narrowly evading a barrage of bolts. I swooped around guiding the smaller vessel around the destroyer to the back where the anti-grav engines were. I got as close to the shields as I could and let out a dozen or so of my more choice curses when I was forced to send the ship careening away to dodge more blasts from the destroyer’s cannons.

A bright speck flashed across the control panel accompanied by a loud klaxon-like horn, warning me of an imminent reactor breach which was my cue to leave. I locked the course into autonav then I reached down at the side of the seat and yanked as hard as I could on the eject lever. There came a click then a loud mechanical groan and I grimaced pounding my fist against the side of the bulkhead to my right.

“Shit, I think it’s jammed. You got any ideas?”

‘You’ll have to jump out of the exit hatch,’ came the answer.

“Damn, well this ought to be fun,” I muttered before grabbing at the hatch and forcing it open. The ship lurched and I was nearly thrown out as the autonav system’s struggled to maintain its programmed course. I gritted my teeth and glanced back over my shoulder then shuddered ever so slightly before I took one last deep breathe, jumped out of the craft and went falling feet first to the ground below.

To be continued…

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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: 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…

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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 plea