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Battle For Earth: Liberation

06/10/2017

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

Author’s Note:

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

“I’m Mara Briggs.”

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

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

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

“Why should I believe you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Back at our ship.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I take it you share these abilities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just the three of us, so far.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They are resilient animals.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what are the bandages for?”

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You killed a deer?”

“Indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why would you say that?”

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

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

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

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

‘Please, just… trust me.’

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

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

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

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

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

“That remains to be seen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marvelous.”

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

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

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

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

“There, that ought to do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Already?”

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

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

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

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

“Shield’s up!”

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

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

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

“It’s open!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You were forced to join the resistance?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thena.”

“Thena, that’s an unusual name.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, Vakrexid would never do otherwise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have reason to doubt it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That could have gone better.”

“W-what do we do now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Copy, Masterson, what are your recommendations?”

“Just, sit down the boat’s rocking.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You expecting trouble?”

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

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

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

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

Snap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss me?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A phase pistol is one thing, but–”

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

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

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

“Right,” Arianne nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We just need to decide on teams.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rodriquez and Neada.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d prefer, you call me Lexa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It won’t be permanent will it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jokeb chuckled and turned away. “Personally, I don’t mind looking at you as you are, but Max here as brought you some clothes.”

I stiffened a bit, but didn’t reply to his sentiment. Had I seen an attractive woman in a practically unclothed state as I was, I would have had a hard time not staring. It didn’t necessarily make it right, but I wasn’t about to make an issue out of it. Jokeb’s statement might have made me uncomfortable, but at least he was honest. Maxine approached, and I think my cheeks burned even brighter when I realized that her gaze had also strayed. I coughed and Rodriquez’s eyes grew wide and she quickly turned her head away practically forcing the satchel she was carrying into my arms.

Grateful for the chance to be fully clothed again, I tore the bag open and pulled out a tank top and pants from the bag. I dropped the furs, but left the rest of my scant little outfit on as I slipped the new clothes on top of it.

“Let’s get this done with,” I said as I turned to the group of armored and helmeted Ghrev. “I’m sure the gray skins know we’re here. We need to act before they put the whole place under lockdown.

The space port was massive, and hangar in which we’d made our entrance was one of many. The main reason I had been able to infiltrate the north bay was because it was the smallest and had the most lax security. There was only one bay that we needed and unfortunately it was the most heavily guarded. It was central bay where they kept all the big ships were kept including, the K’larr, a Rynnal class destroyer, the largest and most power size of ship in the entire Qharr armada.

We made our way through the corridors of the space port and at first it was pretty easy going. The crawlspace we took was mainly for maintenance access and was only used sparingly, but when we got closer to the central bay it gave way to much larger corridor which was in use and that’s when things started to get sticky.

A pair of Qharr technicians stopped dead in their tracks and turned back to us with wide unblinking eyes. Nobody moved, not us nor them, but when a third gray skin climbed down the ladder from above, well that’s when everything went to hell. He took one look at us, let out probably the most gut-wrenching, ear shattering scream I’d ever heard from any species and charged right at us, with fists swinging.

I was perfectly fine just lettings the bastard come to us, but I guess Jokeb had other things in mind. He lurched forward and went rushing to meet the gray skin. The technician was the first to attack, but Schmit ducked away and countered with a powerful blow to the chest.

For once I didn’t even have to lift a finger, the Ghrev took out the other two technicians with quick and devisive force and when I turned back to Jokeb, he too had managed to finish off his opponent. Had that been our only fight the whole affair would have been as easy as baking up a batch of fryll leaves. Unfortunately, before we could even so much as take half a dozen steps, a cadre of guards came sliding down the ladder one after another.

I don’t know if they’d heard the other Qharr’s screams or one of the technicians had tripped an alarm, but I suppose it didn’t matter. Either way the end result was the same.

Fighting in the narrow tunnel was difficult and we lost two of our Ghrev allies in the first few seconds, but we outnumbered them by nearly two to one and in the end we would have won the fight just from sheer numbers.

When it was all said and down, I looked down at the still-sizzling corpses of the guards and grimaced.” We’ve managed to get this far unnoticed, but it looks like the cat is out of the bag now. I don’t think the tunnels are our best option.”

Rodriquez nodded and glanced up at the ladder biting her lip. “Only other choice is we go back up to the surface level. There’ll be a lot more guards, but honestly I don’t like the thought of getting trapped down here if things get bad.”

We all shuffled up the ladder and that’s when yet another group of guards found us. They were firing at us from a distance and had managed to find cover behind a large support pillar which made hitting them pretty damn hard. I picked a few off with a couple well aimed head shots, but their numbers kept on growing and unfortunately they managed to take out another two members of our Ghrev escort.

Something had to be done, and as hesitant as I was to go charging in like I would have not so long ago, I was beginning to realize that I might not have any other choice. If they kept us pinned down they’d be able to pick everyone off one by one until I was the only one left. Our numbers were limited and they could easily call in reinforcements.

“Rodriquez,” I ducked behind the doorway and bit my lip. “I’m going in.”

I dashed forward and shuddered at the familiar buzz of power as phase bolts blasted and peppered my skin. I reached the gray skins, and slammed into them before they could even stand to greet me. I killed one and knocked a second to the ground before the remaining three even got remotely close to me, but that’s not for lack of trying.

“You are the one we were warned about,” One of the guards, a hulking female whose skin had an unusual violet tinge to it, said swinging a massive fist at me.

The blow hurt, but I’d suffered worse. I countered, beating her across the chest with one fist and following up with another with my second. She staggered back and I turned to meet the other two guards who were trying to get the jump on me. The first, a giant with a claw-mark scar across his mouth, threw his fist out at me, but I grabbed it out of the air and slammed it back into his face.

There was a crack, maybe I broke his wrist, but I didn’t really spare the time to check. Violet rounded on me, but rather than continue a fight I would have won anyway I drew my phase pistol and opened fire, blasting her into oblivion. I managed to kill scarmouth with another blast, before another guard, a lean-muscled fellow knocked into me and sent the weapon tumbling away.

I growled and kicked out hitting him across the chest and sent him soaring away and I spun around to face the next opponent, but my companions had already taken care of that. They’d finished off the remaining guards with their phase weapons. I snatched my weapon back up from the ground, wiped the sweat from my forehead and glanced back at Max and Jokeb as they approached.

“You got any idea how much further we have to go?”

Rodriquez pursed her lips and ran a hand through her hair. “Not far, the layout Velspatt provided has been pretty accurate so far. We shouldn’t have more than a couple hundred meters.”

“A couple hundred meters?” Jokeb clenched is jaw and glanced over his shoulder. “This place is crawling with gray skins, I’m liking this whole thing less and less.”

“Well then let’s not dally.” I waved them forward, but didn’t wait for a response before taking off at a run. No one called after me, and I took that as a good sign especially when I looked back and noted that they were keeping up just fine. A lot of that had to do with the pace I’d set which any fit human should be able to match.

We ran into trouble again along the way, and while they Qharr were appearing in greater and greater numbers we were able to take them all out. Unfortunately, our Ghrev friend’s numbers were dwindling away. By the time we’d reached the last intersection before the central bay there were only three of them left. I stopped just before we reached it, creeping around the edge until I could get a good look on the other side.

I cursed silently and backed away from the edge, turning to the others and mouthed the words. “We’ve got company.”

“When I swing around the corner, you open fire with everything you got,” I said glancing back at Jokeb and Rodriquez before taking off.

I charged the group of almost a dozen guards phase fire plastering me, the wall and the Qharr. My companions managed to kill three guards before I’d even gotten close enough to confront the group. I took out two more a moment later, blasting them with my own pistol before the remaining six rounded on me.

The corridor was wide, but face it you can only fight so many opponents at once without the other ones getting in the way. So three guards hung back and exchanged fire with Rodriquez and Shmit while I took on the other three. I was fast, but there was only so much I could do. I was looking to end it quickly, but each time I leveled my weapon on one of the guards the other two would shut me down.

I grimaced and tucked my weapon into my waistband. Clearly, they weren’t going to make it easy for me, but they were mistaken if they expected me to just lie down without a fight. I slammed my fist into the nearest, an averagely built Qharr whose only distinguishing feature was an eye-patch over his left eye and sent him reeling away just as the second, a female with a shaved head, pounced on me. She grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me up and slamming me into the wall with enough force to really disorient me.

It had happened so quickly and I’d been caught so completely off guard that she actually managed to slam me into the wall two more times before I was finally able to recover. I kicked out slamming my left foot into her chest and grunted as she went flying away and I took a bit of a tumble as result.

I scrambled to my feet and had just enough time to take stock of the situation and realized that my allies had managed to take out two more guards while I’d been occupied by just the one. Patch-eye came back and took a swing at me, but I grabbed the knife from his belt and slashed it across his chest. Baldy was right on his tail and I stabbed at her with the knife, but just as I pulled back for another blow there was a blinding flash of light.

When my vision returned to me a brief moment later, I was able to watch as she collapsed to the ground clutching at a gaping phase wound. I pounced on the next guard only to watch, yet again, as a blast also shot him dead. I rounded on the final guard, and this time I was the one who ended him. It was quick, he didn’t seem to put up much of a fight almost as if he knew his death was inevitable. It was an odd way for a Qharr to go out, but not all gray skins were cut from the same mold.

“Well,” I said stepping away from the dead bodies of the guards and approached the intersection where the others were waiting. “That was fun.”

“Ain’t the word I would use to describe it.” Jokeb replied with a shake of his head and raised his weapon. “You know things are gonna get a lot worse in that central bay.

“I believe that goes without being said,” one of our Ghrev companions and said in agreement.

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned sharply to stare at her. That voice… Could it be? “Velspatt?”

She let out a low growl, and cocked her helmeted head. “It seems I have given myself away, but at the moment I believe we have a mission to complete, don’t we?”

I didn’t know what scheme Velspatt had cooked up, but there had to have been a reason for her to conceal her identity. It didn’t sit particularly well with me, but I couldn’t spend much time mulling it over. She was right. It was time to hijack ourselves a ship.

Chapter Ten

When we stepped inside the central bay, there was a solitary figure waiting for us. His blue hair betrayed him for an Edant K’teth, but his massive two and half meter frame was enough to give any sane person pause, even one bonded to a symbiote. He watched us as we stepped into the domed chamber, but didn’t budge an inch as we slowly approached.

The bay was so massive I couldn’t even begin to guess at its size. The destroyer which was huge even by itself, and took up more space than any other ship, but from where it was resting in the chamber it looked positively tiny. On either side of it, the chamber plunged into a deep crevice that housed fighters, patrol ships, and other smaller ships.

When our friend finally moved, it was so sudden that I didn’t even realize it had happened until he was finally on top of us. I came to my senses just in time, pushing Jokeb out of the way and spinning around to face the bastard just as he planted a blow in my chest. I flew back through the air slamming into something with a loud bang and a sickening crunch.

One of the Ghrev let out a low gutteral scream as I pulled myself up and out of the pile of scraps. I grunted and rotated my neck as my bones snapped, cracked and popped back into place. I was a little slow getting back on my feet, but once I did I took off running toward the fight. The mysterious Qharr was tearing into a second Ghrev, while Velspatt, Jokeb and Max backed slowly away.

He finished off the Ghrev in no time, but by then I was ready to take him on. He spun around to face me, moving far faster than his towering frame should have allowed for any Qharr even one joined to a symbiote. I slammed my fist into his chest, he grunted a bit, but it didn’t seem to have affected him much because he didn’t budge an inch.

“Shit,” I cursed just a short moment before he grabbed me by the throat and lifted me up off my feet.

“Powerful for a human. I believe you are the one I’ve heard about,” he spoke in a low tenor, which was unusual for a Qharr especially one of his size. “I can feel the symbiote, it must seem so liberating for you. The power!”

I struggled under his grasp, trying to get his fingers free from my neck, but his grip was like iron and it was all I could do to suck in what little air I could. “Fuck you,” I said, coughing out a reply.

“Such defiance,” he replied lifting me even higher and produced a long bladed knife from his belt. “It’s a pity I have to kill you. If your species’ leaders had shown the same determination during the war I don’t think I would have pushed to invade. So many of your kind are unworthy… so weak… so frail. Maybe then…” he trailed off leaving the rest of his sentence unfinished.

I felt cold chills shoot down my spine as I stared down at him in shock. He could only be the sub-ascendant, Jykarr Bynd, the bastard responsible for the invasion of my world and the enslavement of my people. It stretched credibility that we had just wandered on him by accident. No, somehow he had known we were coming.

I felt the cold metal of the blade touch the skin of my neck and I called out to my symbiote in a final desperate plea. “KHALA DO SOMETHING!”

Fortunately the wave of distorted gravity my symbiote sent hurtling at the bastard arrived just in time. His hand was yanked out from around my throat as he was suddenly thrown away from me and his weapon shot away clattering against the metal floor planks in the distance. My landing wasn’t exactly graceful, but Khala softened it so at least there was that.

I scrambled to my feet and screamed at the others to run. Needless to say no one stopped to argue, but they weren’t moving nearly fast enough. Only K’teth enhanced speed would be enough to outrun the sub-ascendant and unless Khala was ready to spontaneously give birth to a litter of symbiotes that just wasn’t going to happen. She might have managed to surprise Jykarr once, but I doubted she’d be able to pull it off again.

I glanced over my shoulder and cursed as I watched Jykarr roll back to his feet. He jolted forward and I spun around to meet him as he came lumbering down the path to meet us. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to win in a contest of strength, but I was pretty sure I was faster than him. If I could keep him busy I just might be able to keep him off the others long enough for them to escape.

I dove forward and planted a blow in his side then ducked away as he slung his fist in retaliation. I risked a quick glance over my shoulder just long enough to be assured that the others were retreating and returned my attention back to the sub-ascendant just in time for him to plant a blow square in the middle of my face. It wasn’t as powerful as the last one, but it was strong enough to send me spinning away.

He stomped forward attempting to continue his pursuit of the others, but once I recovered I went tearing after him and slammed into his back. This time he actually staggered forward a few steps and when he roared and spun back around to face me I took off running in the opposite direction. He took the bait and lumbered after me letting out a long drawn out howl of anger.

I ran at top speed, Jykarr kept right on my tail, but never quite caught up to me. He let out another growl and I glanced back just as he came hurtling through the air toward me. I ducked and took off running back in the opposite direction. I heard a loud thump behind me, but didn’t dare stop to look. Instead I continued on my way back toward the others.

I had almost reached them when something grabbed at the back of my neck and the ground was torn out from under me. “I must say you’re very difficult to kill. I’m almost tempted to keep you alive so I can see how you’d do in a fair fight.”

I didn’t answer, but I guess Jykarr didn’t care because I soon found myself dangling in the air in front of his face like sanfai hanging from the window of a Ghrev deli as he studied me with his three malevolent eyes. “I really can’t let you live.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” I replied squirming to break free from his grip, but his massive paws just wouldn’t come free. Unfortunately, Khala’s gravity trick didn’t do much good either as his symbiote managed to dispel the attack just as soon as it hit.

I thought for sure, that my time had come, but when Jykarr pulled his fist back he abruptly lurched sideways and I toppled back to the ground. I kicked, scratched, clawed, and pounded my fists into the sub-ascendant before I finally managed to break free. I was still a little mixed-up from being tossed around like a ragdoll, but when I finally managed to pull myself together and saw Jokeb grappling with the much larger being it didn’t exactly take require an understanding of hyperjump mechanics to reason out what had happened.

Jokeb was amazingly strong, but even with all his cybernetic enhancements he just didn’t have the power or the abilities to defeat his towering opponent. The nester was a brawler, someone who got along in fights because of his superior strength, but now that he was facing an opponent who was both more skilled and stronger his deficiencies as a fighter were really showing through.

I waited for an opportunity then I sprang forward, forcing Jokeb aside before the sub-ascendant could land a blow to his face. I slipped forward and leaned in real close, but since he was so damn tall I had to whisper much louder than I would have liked. “I know the truth. I know you’re little secret. Humans are your progenitors, the first race.”

That definitely got his attention and when he spun around to swing his fist at me I took off and just barely managed to duck out of the way. I went running away and he came tearing after me howling and screaming like a mad dre’k. I’d expected my statement to get him going, but the reaction I received was far and beyond anything I had anticipated.

This time I wasn’t just trying to distract him. I actually had a target in mind. I dashed a good ninety meters, spotted a glimmer of metal, dove down sliding across the smooth stone floor of the platform on my knees and swooped up Jykarr’s fallen knife from the ground. I swung around to meet the sub-ascendant’s rush and slashed him across the chest. He howled and countered by slamming his fist into the side of my head. I stumbled back, but managed to recover just before his fists came swinging at me again.

I ducked and slipped past him making a beeline for the catwalk leading to the destroyer’s platform. He wasn’t far behind, but that was exactly what I wanted. About midway I stopped and spun around to face him as he came rushing toward me. I slammed the blade into his side just as he came barreling toward me and yanked it free as he recoiled away from me.

“Dre’k gryydda!” He exclaimed just as his fist slammed into my left shoulder.

I was sent reeling away and it was only through Khala’s intervention that I managed to stay on my feet. “I’d rather be Dre’k bile than a flaming pile of honorless shit.”

He cursed again, but this time I didn’t quite catch what he said.

I gritted my teeth and rounded on him returning his blow with what I intended to be a slice across the chest, but just as I brought blade down his hand came up to block it and wassevered from just below his wrist. It was a fluke, made possible by the weapon’s finely-honed razor edge, but even missing a hand the sub-ascendant was not about to let me gain the upper hand.

He bellowed a cry so riddled with unbridled rage and hatred that it actually gave me pause which was what tripped me up. He backhanded me and the blow took both Khala and me by surprise. The blade slipped from my fingers and I was sent up over the edge of the railing. I just barely managed to grab hold of the edge of the catwalk. My grip was tenuous at best and I didn’t even have time to climb back up before the sub-ascendant’s shadow loomed over me. He was quick to act, stomping his hard calloused six-toed feet into my hands.

I glanced down over the edge to realizing that I could probably survive the fall with my symbiote’s help, but Jykkar would make quick work of my companions by the time I made my way back up. I dodged his first few attempts to strike my fingers, but the fourth blow struck my right hand and I felt my left begin to slip. By some miracle I managed to swing my arm back up and wrap it around the railing before he struck my other hand.

This time I had a better grip, but if we kept up this pace it was only a matter of time before he managed to dislodge me. That’s when inspiration struck, I could use Khala’s gravity bending abilities to climb around the underside of the catwalk and make my way back up on the opposite side, but before I could enact that plan Jykkar spun away from me and suddenly lurched back and plummeted over the edge of the railing.

Confused, I glanced down over my shoulder, and watch him plummeting as he grappled with a much smaller opponent. I hung my head then propelled myself back over the edge of the railing.

“Oh, my God!” Max cried, but I just couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eyes especially when she spoke his name. “Jokeb.”

He had sacrificed himself to save me, something I was finding more than a little difficult to swallow, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to let myself drown in my woes. I fully expected the sub-ascendant to survive and it wouldn’t take him more than a few minutes to find his way back up to our level and by then I expect to be long gone. I bent down to pick up the sub-ascendant’s severed hand and the fallen weapon then turned to Max and Velspatt. “I don’t suppose either of you can fly a Qharr ship?”

“I can.” Velspatt hissed and placed a clawed hand on Max’s shoulder. The medic flinched, but held her ground as she glanced up at the towering Ghrev crime lord.

I gritted my teeth holding the sub-ascendant’s severed appendage in one hand then with the other, I sliced down with the knife and cut it clean in two. Violet blood got everywhere, but I fought down my revulsion and held one half out to the Ghrev crime lord. Velspatt snatched it from me barred all her teeth glancing down at as if she were looking at her next meal. “Is there a particular class of ship you’re in the market for?”

“One of the smaller cruisers, something that can carry a team of a few dozen, but can be run by a skeleton crew,” I replied looking around the chamber and pointed at a cruiser parked near the north wall. “There, that Pylkar class ship ought to do the trick.”

“You two get going, head north and I’ll take a fighter and meet you outside the city,” I added before spinning around on the balls of my feet and turned to leave.

“Wait!” Rodriquez called after me. “There aren’t any fighters nearby! What is it you’re planning?”

I craned my neck back to meet her gaze. “I have something to take care of. Hurry, get going, you really don’t want to stick around for the fireworks.”

Max bit her lip, nodded then with Veslpatt took off running toward the ship in question. I turned away from them and went the opposite direction straight toward the destroyer.

In mere moments I had access to the destroyer and after a quick trip through the airlock I was sprinting down the corridor. I needed to find a control panel, but the K’larr was huge and the Qharr were minimalists in all things. There would be a few control panels in the corridors, sure, but on a larger ship they’d definitely be few and far between. Finally, I found one and slammed the half-hand down on the control and let out a sigh of relief when it finally gave me access.

The Qharr used a standard interface for nearly all their computers so navigating it was no problem, but certain features were buried to prevent just anyone from being able to access them. Finding a layout of the ship was easy, but gaining access to other systems was an entirely different story. I would have liked to just switch on the self-destruct, but even with the sub-ascendant’s bio-signature there was no way I could trigger it without access codes. Fortunately, there was always another way.

I called up a map of the ship and once I had a clear idea of where my destination was I went speeding down the hallway. The reactor from the K’larr was nearly twice the size of the Duvak’s old destroyer, but worked on more or less on the same principle. It was an easy enough task to drain out the reactor coolant, but when I made my way back to the fighter bay that’s when things got sticky.

It started with a shriek that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, followed by a thump in the corridor behind me, and when I spun around to face whatever new danger had arisen. This threat wound up being one I had already faced. That’s not to say the danger he presented was any less real. I only lingered long enough to discover his presence then I bolted putting on as much speed as I could. Unfortunately, my max speed proved to be too fast in the narrow corridors that twisted and turned far more than any built by humans would have.

It was a long chase through the corridors and each time I slowed to turn a corner, the sub-ascendant got closer and closer. Fortunately, Khala came up with a solution that allowed me to go zooming down the corridor without worry of slowing. The next time I approached a bend my feet were moving so fast that I went right up onto the wall and just kept on going. Unfortunately, Jykkar’s symbiote duplicated the trick and the bastard managed to stay right behind me.

Even with his unusual strength, I was still faster than the sub-ascendant, but only just barely. I managed to put some distance between us, but not enough that I could lose him. If I tripped or stumbled he’d be right on top of me before I could recover. I gritted my teeth and put all my concentration into running. What I was doing was dangerous, the corridor’s weren’t designed to be navigated at such incredible speeds, the only reason I hadn’t completely biffed it was because of my enhanced reflexes and Khala’s little gravity trick, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a mistake.

I had almost reached the fighter bay, when it happened. There was a control panel with just enough of a lip that when my foot hit it I was sent slamming back to the ground, hard. I scrambled back to my feet, but Jykkar pounced on me before I could get away. He slammed his good hand into me and forced me into the side of the wall with enough power to make my bones creek.

I felt a few of them pop back into place as I clawed and kicked at Jykkar. He tightened his grip around my neck and I gasped, futilely trying to bring in air. I thrashed about kicking out with my legs as hard as I could and I found purchase in a rather sensitive area. I fell down to my knees and crawled to my feet even as air flood back into my lungs.

I glanced back over my shoulder and felt a slow grin form on my face as I observed Jykarr laying on the ground clutching at his injured crotch. The Qharr prided themselves on their ability to conquer pain, but there were some injuries that even they couldn’t just shrug off. The funny thing was that his symbiote could have easily dulled the pain, but no self-respecting gray skin would ever debase themselves that way.

I spun away and went running back down the corridor toward the fighter bay. It didn’t take the sub-ascendant long to recover, but by then I’d already gained a pretty sizable lead on him. I heard his furious roar just moments before I heard his massive feet pounding against the metal floor grating in rapid succession. I was in the fighter bay in an instant, leaping over the railing, propelling myself toward the nearest cluster of fighters. A much louder thud soon followed me, but I didn’t look back. I had to reach my destination before Jykarr could catch me.

Finally, I reached a ship and I slammed the sub-ascendant’s half-hand down onto exterior control console. The hatch popped open and I leapt forward crawling up the side into the cockpit. Once inside, I reached up to pull the canopy back down just as Jykarr leapt up the side of the side after me. I got it closed before his fist came smashing down, and it impacted with a very loud thud. Fortunately, transparisteel was strong enough that even K’teth enhanced strength wouldn’t break through it. I got the engine up and running in just seconds, by bypassing pre-flight procedures and had my requisitioned fighter off the ground in no time.

The sub-ascendant wasn’t through with me yet. The bastard still clung stubbornly onto the fighter as I went zooming out the side of the bay doors which had started to close. I put on the speed and weaved around even rolling the fighter around onto its’ back, but no matter what I tried Jykkar maintained his grip. I could only guess his symbiote was using some extension of its gravity manipulating abilities to help him keep his hold.

Worse yet, he wasn’t my only problem, the K’larr was coming awake, its’ crew must have boarded and started the engines. Yes, I had sabotaged it, but there was probably still enough coolant to run the reactors for several minutes. Which was more than long enough, for them to blow me out of the sky and if they launched with enough pilots I’d have to worry about fending off fighters too. Fortunately, Velspatt and Max had already made their escape from the space port, so if I could keep the gray skins occupied there was a chance they’d be able to escape the city.

I sent the fighter shooting straight up toward the open bay doors and out into the darkness of the night. I guess they must have figured it was futile trying to close the hatch, as fast as my ship was moving I would have found my way out of the bay long before the doors could have closed.

Fighters came pouring out of the destroyer and I sent mine diving down toward the streets of the city. It was a risky move, the roadways of Salt Lake were more than wide enough to accommodate three or four fighters side by side, but navigating at such high speeds didn’t give me much time to compensate if anything went wrong. A full dozen fighters followed me down into the streets and I gritted my teeth as I realized that I’d be leading them on one hell of a chase.

For my plan to work, I needed to keep the destroyer in close proximity to the space port. This meant I’d need to stay near and keep both the destroyer and the fighters occupied.

Jykarr was doing his damnedest to disable the fighter, slamming down into the sides of the engine compartment, and tearing into the hull with his bare hand. Clearly, it was time to do something about my little pest problem. I swooped down and spun the fighter around onto its side and turned a corner scrapping the fighter against the side of a building. I pulled away and was only just barely able to gain control as the ship wobbled and jerked liked a drunken krym.

I’d managed to dislodge Jykarr from the front of the fighter, but when I craned my neck to glance back over my shoulder I let out a string of silent curses. Somehow he had found a handhold on the tail of my ship, but that would have been a minor annoyance if that had been my only problem. The pursuing craft had begun to open fire blasting away with no regard for the safety of the nearby denizens of the city, human, Qharr, or otherwise.

I don’t know if hunters in the other fighters realized it was the sub-ascendant who was hanging so precariously from my tail or if they were willing to sacrifice one of their own to bring down a threat. The latter wouldn’t exactly fit into the Qharr code of honor, but I’d seen more than enough evidence to suggest that they were not above breaking their own rules.

I went shooting straight up into the air hoping that I could shake the bastard loose, but no matter how much I twisted and turned, zig-zagged and shook he just couldn’t be dislodged. My ascent did have an unforeseen benefit, however; the Qharr ships didn’t anticipate my move and went zooming past. I gritted my teeth, reversed my course and went diving down to the ground at a speed that would make even the most stalwart of Qharr warriors think twice. Once, I was down close to the ground I spun around so that the fighter’s belly was facing up toward the night sky.

I slowed and brought the fighter down so that it scraped the ground. What followed was a the sound of tearing metal, a whole lot of sparks and what was no doubt a very painful experience for the sub-ascendant. I shot back up and righted the fighter more than a little relieved to discover that I had managed to dislodge the rat bastard–though somehow I doubted that I’d actually killed him–and even more relieved to realize that my ride was still in flying shape.

Unfortunately, that’s about when the enemy fighters found me, I shot upward and swooped around to face them, phase cannons blaring and managed to take out one of them with my volley before shooting past them. Again, I zoomed straight up, topping one of the city’s many skyscrapers in just a few seconds and went flying straight toward the destroyer which still loomed above the space port like the specter of doom that it really was.

More fighters came pouring out from the massive insectine hulk and I hung there in the air long enough to make sure they saw where I was going just before I dove back down toward the surface. On the way down I met the original group of fighters head-on blasting another out of the sky as I zoomed past. The two opposite groups of Qharr ships met and when two of them collided and plummeted to the ground in a knotted mass of burning shrapnel. That brought the final number down to nine and I wasn’t exactly real crazy about those odds.

“Hu-man,” a voice buzzed over the comm, but since I was a little busy swooping in and out of the city streets it didn’t exactly seem like a high priority for me to respond. I did however recognize the voice, it belonged to my old pal the sub-ascendant.

Phase canon fire blasted my tail, the first that had managed to find it’s way through my shields, but lucky for me it only did minimal damage. I cursed and glanced down at the display, the destroyer’s reactors had been bubbling and brewing long enough that I figured that it was just about time it’s supply of coolant should have burned away. Which meant it was about time for me to make my leave.

I did barrel roll barely managing to evade a long string of phase fire before diving down a side street where I was forced once again to dive out of the way of an obstacle which took the form of a metal arch with what might have been a statue of a bird atop it. The first of my pursers wasn’t as lucky as me and dove nose first into the arch going down in a blaze of fire. A second and third collided with the flaming debris and both exploded with bright flashes just as brilliant as the first.

“Hu-man, I know you can hear me,” the sub-ascendant’s voice buzzed through the comm system a second time.

“Yeah, well I’m just a little busy at the moment. What the fuck do you want?”

“Only to tell you that if you survive your encounter with my forces when next we meet I will see to it that your death is excruciatingly painful,” he replied his voice taking on a menacing edge.

“Well, I’m just so glad we cleared that up. Load off my mind,” I replied back and switched the comm off. As much as I just loved bantering with the bad guys I had much more pressing things on my plate like the six fighters who were trying to blow me to freaking smithereens. Well that and the massive ball of flame that rose from just a few streets away.

Though, I didn’t have a direct line of sight to the destroyer, I had no doubts it was the source of the massive wall of flamesthat burst outward stretching out through the streets, consuming entire buildings and wreaking destruction in its’ wake. I felt that all too familiar sinking feeling in form in the pit of my stomach. “Just great.”

The other fighters must have seen it too because they immediately ceased fire and put on the speed. I did the same and our dogfight quickly evolved into race against time, one where there would be only one winner. The blaze continued to expand and within the blink of an eye consumed three fighters. I gritted my teeth and sent my craft rolling into a side street just as the wall of fire consumed the final three fighters.

I sent the ship rocketing upward hoping, that I might be able to escape the blast, but the flames just kept coming. Warning lights flashed on my console and I glanced back in time to watch the flames consume the tail of my fighter. I lost all power and as I lost momentum the fighter went hurtling back down toward the ground. I tried to pull on the damn ejection mechanism, but it groaned and an error message strolled across the console indicating mechanical failure.

I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of air and waiting for the inevitable to come, but then an odd thing happened… I didn’t die. My eyes snapped back open and I glanced around me. I could see the flames consuming the city off in the distance, but somehow I was zooming through the landscape, the nose of my vessel pointed straight down at the ground. I remained aloft, which didn’t make a lick of sense sense until I looked up.

A Pylkar class ship flew in the air above me, and all the pieces suddenly popped into place. I switched the comm on and craned my neck up as a huge smile formed on my face. “Max, is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” came her reply.

“Velspatt, I’m impressed. Not many pilots could swoop in like that undetected and grab someone with a tractor.”

“It is as your people say child’s play.”

“Lexa, I really hate to say it, but we’re going to have to make a quick exit. Once we get to safety we can get you outta the fighter an–”

“It’s not a problem,” I replied cutting Max short. “Just get us somewhere safe. I can handle a little more time in this tin can if it means staying alive.”

“Copy, we’ll talk more later.”

I sank back into my seat and let out a long sigh. With the space port destroyed along with all or most of the ships in the vicinity it was doubtful there were many vessels available to offer up pursuit. Of course, those that did survive, assuming any had, were probably a little more concerned about the smoking crater I’d left in the middle of the city.

My fighter in ruins, I closed my eyes and let the world pass me by as a smirk touched the corner of my lips. Any day I survived an encounter with the Qharr was a good one in my mind.

Chapter Eleven

I sat opposite from Mara and waited patiently as she poured us each a glass of Amaretto. I didn’t have to ask her the reason for our meeting since we’d both known it was coming. The mission into Salt Lake had had more significance than either one of us had let on.

Obtaining a ship was important, but there had been another purpose for the trip. One which only Mara and I had known anything about. There was a leak, and we weren’t sure where it had originated, though Mara was adamant that it had not come from the ERF forces. I wasn’t quite so convinced, but hadn’t voiced my dissent. It was better to allow her to think I agreed than let my divisive opinion destroy our partnership which was tenuous at best. We had hoped the mission would help us root out the source but I hadn’t been as successful as I had hoped.

My willingness to sacrifice the Relentless in order to save the Defiant had been the deciding fact, in Mara’s eyes, that I could in fact be trusted. I, on the other hand, didn’t doubt Mara’s desire to retake Earth, but I also knew she’d betray me if it meant achieving her goals. Which was why I was so cautious in my dealings with her.

“Did you uncover anything?” She asked taking a sip of her glass while simultaneously pushing mine forward.

“Nothing,” I said, glancing down at the amber liquid, but at the moment I refrained from partaking.

“I’ve told you about the mission, but…” I trailed off finally lifting my glass to sip at the drink.

“But there was something you wanted to add?” Mara asked finishing off her drink and placed the glass down on the desktop.

“Yes, everything happened as I described, but it seems odd to me that the sub-ascendant just appeared as he did. Someone had to have tipped him off and to be honest it seems a little strange that the ruler of a Qharr controlled world would drop everything just to hunt a trio of humans who fought their way into a city. Something more is at work here.”

Mara paused pushing her glass away with the back of her hand before clasping both appendages in front of her.

“I agree, it’s very obvious that there is a leak, but I’m not sure if it’s taken the form of a traitor. This whole situation has a different feel to it. The Qharr obviously have information they shouldn’t, having received bit and pieces, but if they knew the full extent of it, I think they would be taking much more drastic action to find us.” “What is clear, is that the sub-ascendant has taken a very keen interest in you. Though I can’t say I am surprised, the fact that humans can be joined with K’teth symbiotes represents a danger to the Qharr ideology. It suggests a similarity to the gray skins that I’m not sure someone like him would be comfortable with.”

“That’s it,” I snapped my fingers, before downing the last of my drink as I studied my aunt’s clone. “He sees me as a threat. I’m bonded to a symbiote and assuming that he did previously know that humans are the progenitors of the Qharr that would be very good reason to want me dead. I still can’t guess why he might want to keep this knowledge under wraps, but so long as I’m alive his secret isn’t safe. I’m a link to the truth and he knows it.”

“An interesting theory, one in which I’m inclined to agree with, but it’s conjecture without any proof.”

“Does it matter? It changes nothing. We are still set on the same path, aren’t we?”

“To be sure,” Mara said with a quick nod. “Though I will urge caution. There is an information leak whether it be in the form of a traitor or something else entirely remains to be seen. Speak of our meeting to no one, not even that lover of yours and definitely not your sister.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded. Although Mara had shown remarkable trust in me, it had not extended to Lily and especially not my sister who she believed was being influenced by her symbiote. I stood to leave and had my back turned to Mara before I spun back to face her.

“I would urge you to do the same,” I said matching her gaze.

She didn’t even so much as blink and a slight smile touched the corner of her lips. “Be ready. I intend to call a meeting tomorrow. Bring that little mechanic friend of yours and that foul tempered fellow. I’ll worry about the rest of the invitations.”

I nodded, but didn’t say another word before disappearing from the room. It was, after all, time to pay my little mechanic friend a visit.

“We have two weeks,” Morris said setting his tablet down at the center of the table, around which Mara, Arianne, Farris, Lily, the doctor and I were seated, and turned to a seemingly ordinary section of the wall. He tapped his fingers against it and the whole thing flared to life with all sorts of holographic images.

“Two weeks?” Arianne asked folding her arms across her chest as she studied the Colonel. “Isn’t that a bit… quick?”

“It doesn’t give us much time, true, but Ms. Brigg’s actions in Salt Lake City have presented us with a unique opportunity,” Morris said glancing back over his shoulder. “Nearly a fifth of the Qharr warships here on Earth were destroyed. If we can attack before they are able to replace them we would have an enormous advantage on the battlefield.”

“Battlefield? Jesus, you guys sure talk big, but I ain’t seen nothing that makes me believe you have the sorta fire power that needed to retake Earth. This ship of yours, what did you call it? The Defiant? Is impressive, but it takes more than a single ship to win a war especially when you’re dealing with a society of warriors like the goddamned gray skins,” Farris said pounding a fist against the table.

Farris was just as charming as ever, but still it was nice to see he had recovered even if he could be a lot to take in. It certainly seemed to put a smile on Becca’s face which made it all worth it. I wondered why Mara would elect to invite Farris, my sister’s boyfriend, and not allow Becca to join the meeting. He would certainly share everything with my sister which pretty much defeated the purpose of leaving her out in the first place.

It was clear, that even in spending all that time with my sister Mara had not come to trust her, but at least they’d seemed to have been successful in easing the tension with the nesters. More importantly rangers from other nests were willing to join the fight and had started to descending upon Sanctum. The place was becoming positively crowded and I’d elected to spend my time away from the nest whenever possible.

Morris narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, but it was Mara who replied. “I must say I am rather surprised to hear that sort of talk coming from someone who has fought with the resistance for so long. We are well aware of difficulties involved in retaking Earth, but suffice it to say that we have enough reason to be optimistic about our chances.”

“I fight the gray skins cause I ain’t good at much else,” Farris replied folding his arms across his chest. “Besides I never said I wasn’t going to fight. I just wanted to know if we stood a reasonable chance. That’s all.”

“Yes,” Lily spoke up from her corner. “You people have been quick on promises, but I think it’s time you showed us some proof.”

I watched Lily, my cheeks burning just a little at the memory of our little reunion celebration and shivered just a little as a consequence. It had one of our more passionate couplings, and things took an interesting turn after Lily had brought out a new toy. I bit my lip and forced those thoughts aside. They weren’t, after all, conductive to the business at hand.

I was just glad her little outing with the ERF had been successful and she had returned safely. Her party had encountered trouble at every turn, but had managed to bring the parts needed to fix the Relentless. She’d told me all about it, the first leg of their journey had been more or less uneventful, but the moment they’d stepped out onto salvage yards they found themselves pursued through the scrap heaps. For two days they had played cat and mouse with the enemy patrols before finally giving them the slip.

Forced to retreat, they’d made another run at the salvage yards, this one was successful, but after returning to the Defiant they found themselves once again pursued by gray skin ship. It was only by using the Rhianon device that they were able to escape.

I shook my head and gritted my teeth as I turned my gaze to Morris. “I for one am not going to go marching into battle without some assurances you can actually provide the sort of forces necessary. The resistance is almost non-existent. I won’t risk the few of us left without good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Mara stood and joined Morris next to the holo screen. She reached for the wall, but the Colonel put his hand on her shoulder and held her in place.

“Colonel it is time,” Mara said placing her hand over his and looking up at her with a gentle smile that seemed just a little alien coming from her. “Don’t you think?”

“Very well.” Morris nodded and backed away taking a seat at the table.

Mara cleared her throat and tapped her fingers against the wall. An image flared to life, trickling across the display revealing an image of a ship, but the like of which I had never seen. “This is the Valiant, the flagship of the Earth Return Fleet, and the most powerful of our ships. It is roughly analogous to a Qharr destroyer and has more powerful shields and more fire power than anything the Qharr can throw at us.”

She tapped the screen again and an image of a similar ship appeared on screen. “This is the Dauntless, another destroyer-class vessel, we have five more ships which are virtually identical along with twenty cruisers, like the Defiant, and more fighters than I can count. We’ve managed to make a number of allies and they’ve each made sizable contributions to our fleet. If we can bring down the shields around Earth, we stand a chance of retaking our world, but we can’t do it without you.”

I nodded glancing around the room in hopes of determining what the others might be thinking, but unfortunately their faces were unreadable masks. “Lily, you know more about this than I do, what do you think?”

She pursed her lips and thrummed her fingers on the table, and glanced up at Mara. “Taking down the shield won’t be easy. I’ve done the calculations, and as near as I can figure the absolute minimum number of shield emitters necessary to maintain a functioning barrier around Earth would be eighteen–one of which would have to be a control station–there are at least twenty-four that the resistance was able to find which means some of them are probably redundant. Assuming that we were able to account for all of them that means we’d need to simultaneously bring down at least seven of them to destabilize the entire grid.”

“We’ve determined that there are thirty-two in total, but you’re right a good number of them are redundant,” Mara replied tapping her fingers against the wall again calling up another display showing the Earth and a bubble surrounding it. “We’ve analyzed the grid array and found a weakness and have been able to determine that we will only need to bring down three in total.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?” Farris asked. For once his voice was devoid of its’ harsh tones, but wide-eyes and arched eyebrows suggested that he was probably just curious.

Mara eyed Farris her face devoid of all emotion, just before a smile cracked at the corner of her lips. “You don’t think we’ve spent the last twenty-four years doing nothing, do you? We’ve made considerable advances in our technology since the war. You’ve seen firsthand our stealth technologies, but another big leap has been in our sensors. In short, we can see through Qharr shields and have had several successful scouting missions in which we were able to make detailed analyses of the shield grid and the defense forces here on Earth.”

She tapped two spots on globe, indicating a place near the Eastern edge of North American and a second in South America. “There are two control stations, one for each hemisphere, when either is compromised the other is more than capable of compensating for the first, and the system can, for short periods of time, function without both, but if we simultaneously take them out along with a standard emitter it will be too much for the system to handle and the entire grid will come down.”

“These control stations…something tells me they’re not going to be easy to get to,” Arianne said running a hand through her long tresses.

“New York, New York, and Orsorno, Chile,” Morris said clasping his hands in front of him as he glared across the table at Lily.

“Specifically, the Sub-Ascendant’s Palace and the second would be the residence of Gydaresh Hykarr, Overseer of South America,” I said relaying the information provided by Khala. “Neither, will be easy to get into, but we’d already figured we’d have to make a run at Jykarr’s palace. Of course, you knew all this already, didn’t you?” I turned to Mara and studied her.

“There is only so much our sensors can tell us, but we did believe that both structures must have been of some significance beyond being control stations. Some of our analysts suggested that they could be residences of Qharr authorities, but we never had any way of knowing for sure. Much of their communications traffic is encrypted.”

“So all this business about retrieving another ship was because of this?” Farris shook his head and gritted his teeth. “Why the hell didn’t you people just bring more with you?”

“Because the Rhiannon device is still experimental and the Defiant was the only ship with a working drive. There are several that were scheduled to be fitted with one, but the process can take weeks because each must properly calibrated to the ship it’s installed in. Given the circumstances we believed it was best to join the resistance here on Earth as soon as possible.”

“That is most wise!” Vakrexid pronounced from the corner squirming and writhing like a worm stuck on a hook.

“Now,” I said clasping both hands together as I looked around the table. “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty, just how exactly are we going to pull this off? We need a plan of action.”

“That,” Mara said a slow smile forming on her face. “Is why I invited you all here.”

“No, no, NO!” Lily screamed dropped her wrench as she went tearing across the reactor room and pointed from one coupling then where it was supposed to go and did the same with the second. “This one goes there, that one goes there? You could have blown out the power relays.”

Darinson gritted his teeth, and furrowed his brows, but nodded silently and corrected his mistake. Lily and the ERF technicians didn’t seem to get along very well. All of her knowledge of mechanics and reactor tech was self-learned, and quite frankly she was brilliant, but she had her own way doing things that didn’t exactly jive with the way our allies worked.

They followed protocol and had a set of procedures. Lily had learned to do what she could with the tools she had which were usually few and far between. She’d already been forced to make changes to the power systems of the Relentless, but it was causing a bit of a headache for the ERF technicians who weren’t accustomed to working with a system that was clearly in need of a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time or the luxury to complete such a task so Morris had ordered his men to work with Lily to get things done as best they could.

I was there mostly to help with the heavy lifting otherwise I stayed out of the way and did as Lily said. It was very obvious she knew what she was doing, and I definitely didn’t have the foggiest clue. I could probably find a way to blow it to shit, but that’s about as far as my technical expertise ran. Mostly, I just watched in fascination. Lily’s face was covered in grease and grime, sweat covered her cloths and her hair was a mess, but somehow she never looked more beautiful to me.

She’d come a long way from the quiet and timid little man I’d first met not so long ago. Sure, she could still be shy and sometimes had a hard time expressing herself, but she was far more confident than her former self had ever been.

She approached me, tossing her wrench aside with a flick of her wrist and slid her hand across her forehead wiping the grease clean. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me aside. “We have a problem.”

I let her lead me away, and I stumbled feeling a brief surge of dizziness before I felt her lips lock around mine. I kissed her back and slipped my hand into her shirt. One thing led to another and we found ourselves back in our quarters and I forgot all about my odd little moment of disorientation.

Chapter Twelve

It seemed a tragedy that we should spend so much time fixing up the Relentless only to hand it over to our ERF allies, but given that the resistance had more experience operating Qharr tech my newest acquisition seemed the better fit for us. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean it would be any easier for us to get into New York. Lily’s little transponder trick wouldn’t fool the city’s sensors once we got close, and while we had managed to forge a transponder signal, with the help of Morris’s technicians, no one knew if they were going to buy it.

Entry into the city was going to difficult, and in the intervening weeks we’d only come up with one possible avenue of entrance. There just wasn’t a lot of information available. Unlike Salt Lake, New York was locked down tight and passage in and out of the city was controlled by the Qharr. Worse yet we were traveling into Manhattan-island, which was cut off from the rest of the city and since it was the center of the Qharr government on Earth it would be much more heavily patrolled. Humans were never given leave to exit the city even for special errands so that presented yet another difficulty.

It was one mission where so much was riding on a simple little gimmick. Not that it was much different from our usual mode of operation, but we weren’t traveling around the more sparsely populated regions around Salt Lake or Canada. This was an entirely different ballpark and truth to be told the prospect terrified me, but we were already committed. So there was nothing to do, but get underway.

“Lily, are we ready?”

“Bringing the engines online now,” she stopped and stared back at me with those big magenta eyes. “Should I launch the ship?”

“No, open a communication line to the Defiant and the Relentless. Let’s give everyone our last goodbyes.”

“Renegade,” Morris said with a nod from the bridge of the Defiant his green-tinged image just a little off due to our ship’s un-calibrated holo-emitters.

Mara was a little more talkative, but her countenance was no less muddied or distorted. “Thank you, for giving us use of the Relentless. We’ll try to bring her back in one piece.”

“If we’re successful, we won’t need her in one piece,” I replied rapping my knuckles against the console wishing that it were made of wood. “If we’re not well… I don’t think I’ll be around to complain.”

Morris stepped forward drawing almost as close to his holo-camera as was possible. “I don’t think I need to tell you all how important this is so I’ll just say this. Good luck, and God speed.”

I nodded and was about to issue a reply when he blinked out, having apparently closed the communication line without waiting for my reply.

“Lexa dear, I really do wish you and your crew the best of luck and if you happen to make contact with the ERF forces after we’ve successfully brought down the shield grid I do hope you’ll send them my regards,” she paused staring at her holo camera with the strangest look in her eye. “There’s someone with them who will be very happy to learn you’re alive.”

Her image fizzled away and I shook my head, not entirely sure what she could have meant with that last remark? Who on Earth, or in the ERF forces, cared one bit if I was alive or dead? I put the matter out of my mind and looked around the bridge. Locking gazes with each of my crew in turn, starting with Becca, then Farris, Rayland, Vakrexid and Max before finally settling on Lily. There were other members of my strike force, but they were the ones I could lean a shoulder on when things get tough.

“Lil’,” I said clearing my throat and turned away so no one could see my eyes watering up. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

And with that simple command, the Renegade went soaring up into the sky beginning the hours-long flight toward New York.

Chapter Thirteen

“Grephhak!” A deep and guttural Qharr voice demanded through the intercom. We’d reached New York and were awaiting admittance into the city, but the port master was giving us the third degree. I don’t know if he was suspicious or if he did this with all ships, but it was beginning to grate on my nerves.

“Port master!” I yelled back in Qharr, my voice artificially deepened by a vocal emulator which I was wearing around my throat attached by a snug nylon collar. Too bad no one had thought of it earlier such a device would have saved us a lot of trouble especially when coupled with the visual illusion of a real Qharr face. “I grow weary of these questions. Why is it that you delay me? I seek admittance will you give it to me or must I continue to answer these pointless questions!?”

Max’s jaw dropped and she turned to look at me like I was insane. Rayland grinned and let out a low throaty chuckle and folded his arms across his chest. Clearly he wasn’t surprised by my behavior, but I think he knew me well enough by that time to understand it was all an act. Max on the other hand didn’t really know me or the Qharr so her reaction was pretty much what I would have expected. The gray skins did not take kindly to such inquests they saw it as a question of their honor.

“I do my duty to the sub-ascendant and the empire as you well know Captain Breyga. I only have one more question, answer me or don’t, it makes no difference to me, but if you do not cooperate I will not admit you into the city.”

“Very well,” I replied between gritted teeth. It was irritating and while I hadn’t had any trouble answering the questions as yet, I worried what would happen if he asked one we hadn’t anticipated. So far I had told him that we had entered the city on an errand for a local Qharr official, one Mourrd Wyldyr who we had selected because we’d intercepted audio transmissions that said he was out of town, and had given him detailed information about the size of the crew the contents of our cargo hold as well as the technical specifications of the ship.

“I’m curious captain, my logs indicate that Castigator Wyldyr left the city almost a week ago. He will not return for several more weeks, what business will you attending to in his absence?”

“We’ve been sent to retrieve some of his personal effects as well as attend to some certain familial obligations.”

“You are kin then?”

“Yes, I have been adopted into the family’s second circle,” I replied with a slightly raised voice. A second circle was a group of trusted friends and servants who are considered so close to a family that they are able to act on behalf of them and in some cases can even serve as heirs or guardians to children of deceased parents.

“Gel’pan Garm, you have permission to enter the city. I’m sending over a flight itinerary deviate from the set path and you will be gunned down.” he said giving the Renegade’s forged name.

I didn’t bother replying, but instead clicked off the comm switch and let out a long sigh of relief. Cutting the line short like that was considered rude, but given my irritated responses to the port master it wasn’t at all unexpected. The Qharr leaders most of have been worried about incursions into the city to include such a stringent array of questions and risk offending their honor-conscious citizens.

I hit the throttle and sent the Renegade lurching forward, following the path set out by the port master. I didn’t intend to deviate from it one bit, but this whole plan had me on edge. A part of me wanted to turn the ship around and flee to some place far far away, but I was never one to be cowed so easily. Even if I did succumb to such an urge I could have never forgiven myself. The future of Earth was riding on our mission if we failed there would be no hope whatsoever for humanity.

Qharr controlled New York had six boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island, Hudson-Bergen, and Manhattan. The last of which was our destination. A lot of the reason we’d decided to masquerade as servants of Mourrd Wyldyr was that he owned and operated his own personal dock on his property which as you might have guessed was located within the Manhattan metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t reached Manhattan yet. First, we had to get through Husdon-Bergen, which had only become a borough for one simple reason. The gray skins had felt Manhattan was too vulnerable on its’ east side so they built up the New Jersey counties Hudson and Bergen along the opposite side of the river and dammed up the river making it impossible to access Manhattan by water.

When I’d first seen Salt Lake I couldn’t believe how massive it was, but it paled in comparison to the New York. Its towering structures dwarfed the other cities’ and made it seem an isolated hamlet in comparison. The buildings were dark, looming structures that thousands of ships ranging in size to small one-pilot vessels to larger cruisers like the Renegade zoomed, swirled and sped around in long streams.

The buildings of Qharr-built section of the city had a dark, almost organic look much like any structure built by the gray skins, but I’d never seen a skyscraper built by our self-declared masters. Most of their buildings were large, yes, but not at all like those in New York. Why they had elected to replicate the edifices of New York was a question I couldn’t quite grasp. Perhaps, there was some strategic reason that escaped me, but something told me that it had more to do with the ego of the sub-ascendant than anything else.

We had found our way through Hudson-Bergen and into the dirtier and grimier sections of Manhattan. Most of the structures were human built, like the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, but scattered amongst them were more than a few built by our oppressors. Each one of latter was a match for or was even taller or grander than the former. Yes, it was becoming more and more clear that ego was involved in the creation of the gray skin skyscrapers. To their line of thinking if an honor-less society of humans could be these amazing structures it goes without saying that a much more superior race like theirs could top them.

When we got closer to Mourrd Wyldyr’s estate, the comm buzzed and I waved my hand at Lily to answer it. The port master’s face appeared on screen and I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I looked over his three-eyed countenance. “Captain Breyga, we’ve found a… discrepancy. I just spoke with Castigator Wyldyr and he’s never heard of you. I’m afraid I’ll have to impound your ship pending an investigation.

“Shit,” I cursed and waved my hand at Lily. The comm line dropped and my fingers zoomed across the control interface sending the Renegade down into the deepest bowels of the city. Phase cannon blasts splattered the ground in our wake, but more than a few hit home. Fortunately, our shields held up against the bombardment, but with so many blasts pounding into us it was only a matter of time before they gave out.

I zigzagged through the city streets, sometimes forced to turn the Renegade on its side to fit through a particularly narrow side street. If navigating the avenues of Salt Lake had been difficult, flying through the roadways of New York was worse especially considering that our cruiser was so much larger than the single pilot fighter I’d taken on my little joyride the last time.

To start with we had a trio of three fighters on our tail, but each time we turned a corner we picked up a few more until we had a full squadron blasting fire up our asses. Coming up on a dead end I was forced to climb straight up in the air, and even then it was a close call. The belly of the Renegade grated against the wall of the building and no doubt producing sparks and an extremely unpleasant shriek of scraping metal.

Lily managed to hit one of the fights with a phase blast. It careened into a second as they both went slamming into the wall and consumed three more fighters with a fireball that was powerful and large enough to give our ship a good shaking. When I topped the building, I looped over it and took a nose dive back down toward the ground.

“What are you doing?” Max’s voice protested from somewhere behind me. “The mission is a bust we need to escape and regroup.”

“No, this is our only chance. If we fail now, it’s going to be even harder to get back into the city. I will not give up when we’re so close!” I yelled back at her between gritted teeth as I leveled the ship.

“Get buckled in!” I called back over my shoulder right before glancing down at my nav display and reaffirming that I was indeed headed toward the Sub-ascendant’s estates.

The thought I had was wildly reckless and not exactly in keeping with the new path I was trying to take for myself, but under the circumstances the only two other options were buckling down and hiding or running away with our tails tucked between our legs. Neither option was particularly appealing for obvious reasons, but if anyone else caught wind of what I had planned I kind of doubted they’d be very open to the idea. Not that I was about to open the matter to debate, sometimes a leader had to make decisions at her own discretion.

More phase blasts peppers our shields as another half a dozen fighters joined those already pursuing us. I sent the ship soaring up and flipped around taking up position behind the fighters and Lily blasted them with our phase canons managing to take out four of them before they even knew what hit them. The others managed to evade her attacks, five swooped up and took up position behind me while the remaining four dove down side streets presumably so that they could swing back around to meet us.

It didn’t matter if they caught up to us or not, we’d almost reached our destination and by then their pursuit would have proven to be all but pointless or so I hoped. I twisted and turned down a side street and went rocketing down a wide avenue toward Jykkar’s home. It was massive structure that spoke volumes for the ego of the sub-ascendant.

It was not a skyscraper, but much more closely resembled a fortress which stretched across three entire city blocks and must have been eight-hundred meters wide or more. It stood twenty stories tall and was so black that it almost seemed make the surrounding area darker. It was unadorned in the usual gray skin fashion, but seemed to lack the organic look of most gray skin structures. Nor did it have the usual insectine appearance I’d come to associate with Qharr, it looked like a cancerous black tumor that had grown out from the ground.

“Brace yourselves,” I screamed sending the ship diving down toward the palace. A particularly well-aimed phase blasts struck us and the ship rocked just a moment before Lily screamed out that the shields had failed. From there it only went from bad to worse, shot after shot pelted the Renegade and it wasn’t long before I lost complete control f and we went down in a blaze of fire.

Chapter Fourteen

After we hit, I was up on my feet before the dust had even settled, thanks to Khala, but I couldn’t say the same for the others. Dyssa must not have been as quick to dispel the effects of the gravity. When Lily finally staggered from her seat she was more than a little uneven on her feet. Becca, was pretty shaken up and had a cut on her arm that her symbiote hadn’t attended to yet, but was in otherwise good shape. Farris looked more angry than anything else, but when I went to check on Rayland that’s when my breath caught in my throat.

I thought for sure we was dead, but then his eyes snapped open and his face stretched into a grin. “Well, hello there!”

I rolled my eyes and turned awake grabbing Max by the shoulder and shaking her awake, but when she didn’t move my heart leaped into my chest. I thought for sure she was dead, but when I reached down to check for a pulse I let out a long sigh of relief.

I took a look around and shook my head. One of the nester soldier’s hadn’t been too lucky. A small piece of pipe, no wider than a half an inch had struck her in the chest clean through her heart.

“Dammit!” I cursed turning away from her corpse and gritted my teeth. Too many people had died already. That’s not to say going in I hadn’t expected casualties, but her death was on my hands. It had been my choice to make a run on the Sub-Ascendant’s estates knowing full well what could happen.

“Rayland,” I said my voice barely more than a whisper. “Go check on the strike team and get them prepped. We need to get moving, it won’t take the gray skins long to crack through the hull. I want to be ready when they do.”

Those weren’t the only preparations that we made, weapons were gathered, explosives packed up and the very last was the most important step. Getting inside the building was going to be hard with more than a few warriors and dozens of fighters ready to fire on us once we stepped out into the open. If it weren’t for the equipment we’d brought along we would probably die before we even got close. Fortunately, there was something inside the ship that could tilt the scales in our favor, a holocloaker. If they couldn’t see us they couldn’t hit us.

I didn’t even bother moving it, I just slammed my open palm into the activation switch and let the device do the rest. I wouldn’t know if it was working until I stepped out in the open, but given that it had been tossed around pretty good in the crash there was good reason to worry. Quite frankly it was our only hope, so there was nothing to do, but give it a try or wait for the gray skins to come for us. Either way, our mission would end that day whether we succeeded or fell to the onslaught of our enemy’s fire.

“Go, go, go!” I screamed as I went tearing across the open space between the wreckage of the Renegade and the sub-ascendant’s residence.

Besides the nameless nester we’d lost five members of our strike team, which put our total number down to forty-four. It didn’t seem to be enough, but it was the largest number we could have conceivably fit inside the Renegade and not overwhelm the life support systems.

Phase cannon blasts pelted the ground around us, but none of the shots even came close and I opened fire with my twin phase pistols shooting a pair of hunters. Clearly, the holocloaker was working, but there was nothing from stopping the gray skins who were already inside the barrier or ones who are on the outside from coming in and attacking us.

“Lily!” I screamed as we approached the wall.

She complied, setting a small explosive device on the wall, and we clasped our hands over our ears as the section in front of us was blasted to bits. I was last to climb inside, waiting for every last member of our crew to make it, but as the last five soldiers came tearing toward the opening, a phase blast shot down from above and blew them to smithereens.

I ducked inside just in time to avoid any harm to myself, but even so Khala managed to absorb a lot of energy from the blast. Unfortunately, it also consumed portions of my shirt and pants. Enough remained to maintain my modesty, but only just so and it would not take much, for what little remained of my clothes to be torn from my body.

I didn’t spend much time worrying about it, which I doubt would surprise anyone since the moment we stepped inside the building we were assaulted by a cadre of Qharr warriors who took down three more our guys before any of us could blink. Lily pounced taking down one guard by blasting him in the chest and a second with a slice of her knife across his throat. She looked so small, going up the massive gray skins and yet she was like a whirlwind demolishing anyone who stood in her path. There was a terrible sort of beauty about the way she moved and I wondered if that was how I looked when I fought.

I didn’t let my awe keep me back for long, I hopped in opening fire and took out three guards right off the bat, but when I turned to meet a fourth he grabbed me by the throat and tossed me away. I hurtled back and my arms twirled uselessly through the open air before I landed a quarter of a dozen meters on the opposite side of the corridor. I landed hard without any sort of cushioning effect, which probably meant Khala had been caught off guard by the attack too.

I lurched back to my feet and slammed myself into the nearest attackers and opened fire on a second and third before ducking out of the way as a fourth pounced on me. He would have gotten me, if it hadn’t been for Becca who entered the fight by throwing her slender form at the hulking gray skin. I turned to take on another opponent, but one of our Nester friends blasted him away before I could even so much as lift a finger.

We overwhelmed the guards in the corridor with sheer numbers, but that particular advantage was fleeting at best. Our strike force was large, but our crew didn’t even remotely compare to the total number of gray skins in Jykkar’s compound. The entire future of the planet was riding on our venture, and so far we’d gotten lucky, but it was going to be one hell of a fight getting where we needed.

“Rayland,” I said turning to the Nester Major then glanced down the left side of a three-way fork. “You take Becca and your crew down that way. I’ll take the center path, and Lieutenant Teadman you take Lily and the rest of the men that way.” I threw my thumb over my shoulder down the right corridor.

Each crew consisted of an even mixture of nesters, ERF and the handful of us that were left in the resistance. I took the doctor and Rayland took Farris and Max which meant Teadman’s team had Lily, but given that she had more technical know-how than anyone else put together and her K’teth enhanced strength, speed and reflexes meant she was by far the most valuable remaining member of the resistance. My stomach churned at the thought of what might happen after we separated, but I knew it was the logical thing to do. We shared a brief kiss, just before my sister rushed in and all three of us embraced.

No one said a word, as we split. We knew the importance of what we were doing. Some of us would die and if any of us survived something told me that it would not be an experience we would want to remember. Even so, we would soldier on, if for no other reason than our path had already been laid out for us. We would fight because humanity had no one else to rise up on their behalf.

“Vakrexid can hardly contain myself. It will be most tumultuous, will it not?”

“Yeah doc, it’s going to be a blast,” I mumbled under my breath as I stopped to peak around a corner.

“A blast?” He asked his big bulbous eyes blinking rapidly, in wild and seeming wild movements. “Vakrexid detects no blast.”

“Never mind, it’s just a figure of speech. Just be quiet would you, this is easily ‘the’ most heavily armed compounds on Earth. We don’t want to attract any un-do attention, do we?”

“Vakrexid would think not, but I have been wrong before.”

I didn’t respond to that, I just rolled my eyes, gritted my teeth and let out a sigh of relief when the doctor grew silent. He was just so alien, sometimes it was hard to believe that his people had descended from humans. He seemed so oblivious to everything. As much as I hated to admit it, we were more like the Qharr than the Dexagarmatrax, as most the differences were cultural. The doctor had a different way of looking at things which made me think the Phyrr Lesch must have altered his progenitor’s brain chemistry. I could never know for sure, but something told me it was to make them either more obedient, or docile, or perhaps both.

“Get down!” I yelled pushing him out of the way as a stray phase bolt came rushing down the corridor.

It struck me in the chest, leaving a sizable hole in my shirt. I didn’t let any sense of modesty deter me, however, I rushed forward slamming a fist into the face of the offending gray skin. He crumpled under the force of the blow and I turned to meet the next opponent. She jabbed the barrel of her weapon into my neck and opened fire. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it happened to be a coil gun.

I dropped to the ground clutched at my throat gasping for breath or would have if I could have drawn any in. The bullet must have lodged itself inside the air passageway preventing the flow of air. It was one of those many moments since joining the resistance that I’d come close to death, but this time it felt different. The usual fear washed over me, but this time there was despair. Fortunately, my stubborn defiant nature set in before I let it consume me. I had to survive, I had to press on. I wasn’t so arrogant to believe that our mission wouldn’t succeed without me, but the more fighters we had the better chance we stood.

Khala voiced screamed out inside my head just before air flooded back into my lungs. I gasped taking in as much as I could just before leaping back to my feet. My vision was still blurred and fuzzy, but that didn’t stop me from grappling with my attacker and forcing the gun out of her hands. I turned it on her, blasting a hole through her dense skull.

My vision was clearing up, but I didn’t have much time to celebrate. A trio of guards came dashing toward me. I clenched my teeth, opened fire on the first, a gangly fellow whose proportions were a more than a little lean for a Qharr, shooting him dead, then swung the rifle around like a club, which sent the second reeling away.

Phase fire, surged and fizzled all around me splashing the walls and splattering, first against his shoulder, then against his chest and a third and final shot took him right in the mug. His body collapsed to the ground, his countenance little more than a steaming crater.

Three more guards went down and I turned my attention to the final one who had ducked inside a doorway. His only weapon was a single phase pistol, but when I approached him he stood to face me, fists clenched at his side as he let out a single roar of defiance. I struck slamming him in the chest. He staggered back, but shrugged off the blow with much more ease than I expected. I hit him again, but he caught it in his hand.

Rather than grapple with him I release my hold, drew my pistols and blasted the bastard to bits. I re-holstered my weapons and grabbed the rifle from his steaming remains before turning back around to face Private Beckman, my ERF techie who had a small handheld device clasped firmly in his massive paws. “Is that thing picking anything up?”

He had more the look of a brawler than a tech expert, but after hearing him arguing with Lily I was certain he was more than capable. He wasn’t accustomed to unconventional thinking like my Lil’, but he did know his way around a computer network. He stared up at me as he always did, that hungry look in his eyes and nodded. “There’s a dampening field which is interfering with sensors. I can only detect a handful of grays and our own people. Anything above this level isn’t showing at all.”

“Shit,” I said slowly shaking my head as I glanced down the corridor. “Why can’t anything be easy? It’s always climbing up stairs or through secret tunnels. Why can’t we ever just go on a mission and find the baddy without having to jump through a shit-ton of hoops?”

He nodded, his eyes lingered just long enough on my breasts to make me want to haul off and smack him. I got a lot of hungry looks from the ranks of the ERF and nesters and was starting to get used to it. It sounded cliched, but it made me feel like a piece of meat rather than an actual human being. I hated being objectified, but any time I found myself getting angry over it I felt like a hypocrite. How often had I looked at a woman the same way? Lusting after one because of her body rather than her personality or her intellect.

Beckman nodded. “Ma’am? I-I’m not sure I know how to answer that question.”

“Doctor, you take point. If the gray skins see you, they’re going to be much less liable to open fire.”

“Indeed! Though it not a certainty!” He replied letting out a long drawn out squeal. “Vakrexid shall proceed with caution. Triggers pulled much too quickly could result in a very early end for me, but worry not death is not something in which I fear!”

“Good to know, doc.” I grinned wiping the sweat from my brows. “We need to find a set of stairs or lift or even a damn access hatch.”

Beckman nodded throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “If this thing is correct there should be a stairway down that way, but there’s a half a dozen guards blocking the path.”

“Right, of course there is,” I said with a nod before holding my hand out. “Doc, care to do the honor?”

Vakrexid blinked and cocked his head sideway before craning his neck and turning his head a complete hundred-eighty degrees. “Vakrexid does not understand why it would be an honor, but I shall move forward boldly and with much stealth!”

The doctor didn’t need any prodding to get going, but his movements couldn’t exactly be described as stealthy. He lumbered through the hallways his feet clattering and clomping against the organic-resin floors. Fortunately, I had anticipated this, and had set him down the path hoping that he’d distract the guards long enough for us to put them down. Given the gray skin’s aversion to harming his race it seemed unlikely that they would open fire especially since they’d see and hear him coming from a mile away.

It felt a little bit like I was throwing him out to the wolves, and felt a pit form in my stomach as my guilt began to gnaw at me. I could try to justify it all I liked, but the truth was the doctor was my friend and I had put his life in danger. I almost called out to him to retract my previous order, but by the time I did we’d already happened upon another group of gray skins.

The first four were easy enough to take out, but when I caught a flash of blue hair from the fifth that’s when I realized she was going to be a little more difficult to kill. The sixth ran off, presumably to call for reinforcements, before anyone could stop him. Which left our pal, the Edant K’teth.

She was a little short for a Qharr, and if I was an accurate judge her people’s standards her slender, sleek and well-toned body marked her as a great beauty. The rare pinkish hue of her skin was a feature I’d never seen before, but I instantly recognized it. She was part of a rare sub-race of Qharr, known as the Gieff who were said to be among the most agile of warriors. According to what Duvak had told me they had their own unique culture and religion and for the most part stayed apart from the rest of Qharr society. She lacked the usual tattoos and markings of other gray skins, which suggested she hadn’t completely given up on her Gieff upbringing. Why this particular warrior had chosen to join with her cousins was a peculiarity I doubted I would ever have the answer to. Then again… I had been wrong before.

The Gieff female pounced, her pinkish-gray skin glistening with sweat and the natural Qharr sheen. I was down on the ground before I even realized what had happened, but as her fist hurtled down toward me I scrambled back onto my feet and backed away hoping to regain my composure. My opponent remained hunched over then glanced up and met my gaze.

“You! Human you are as fast as they say,” she replied speaking with an accent so thick that it was barely intelligible. The typical Qharr accent was harsh and gutteral. Hers was singsongy and I probably would have found it charming if she hadn’t just tried to kill me.

“You’re pretty quick… for a Qharr. You caught me off guard, but believe me when I say it will not happen again.”

“I am not Qharr!” She replied between gritted teeth before leaping toward me.

I jumped back scrambling away and slammed my fist into her side. She retaliated hitting me across the face with a broad swing to my jaw. She was obviously much stronger than me, but the gap wasn’t nearly so wide as it had been against the other Edant K’teth I had come up against. Her speed however, was going to make things difficult. Every time I’d come up against an opponent bonded to a K’teth my speed had been my only advantage, but she was proving herself to be more than a match.

She pounced grabbing me by the throat and pinned me against the floor. “I am disappointed. Are you not the one who killed Corrector Taevok Typel and High Inquisitor Duvak Nakyrr?”

“That would be me,” I said barely able to form the words because her hand was gripped so tightly around my throat. “But it wasn’t just them. I’ve killed my fair share of guards and hunters too.”

“Why should I care? These kyffa could all die and I would sing no songs for them. They speak of honor without truly understanding what it means. They enslave entire races in the name of the gods who abandoned their children. They are fools.”

“Then why are you fighting alongside them?” I asked digging my hands into her fingers trying my best to break her grip.

“I have been tainted by the touch of a K’teth beast. I cannot return to my people so I fight for the only reason that is left. The joy of battle, the pleasure of destroying my enemies and in the hopes that the ancestors may see my many victories and grant me a home in the afterlife, but it should make no matter to you. To you, I am the one who is about to end your life.”

“Not.” I said between gritted my teeth and slammed my fist into her face, “freaking likely.”

“Do you know how many times I’ve been in a strangle hold?” I asked just before kicking out and striking her in the chest. This time I managed to dislodge her and I staggered back to my feet just in time to see her do the same. “Jesus you Qharr are so damn predictable.”

“I am GIEFF!”

We circled one another, each of us looking for a weakness, but neither of us seemed to find one. While we were shuffling about I got a good look at the rest of my group, who had been forced to retreat when after a cadre of Qharr guards had happened upon them. I returned my attention to the Gieff who was unlike any opponent I had faced before and if I was going to be honest it was likely she could say the same of me. She may not have shared the same culture and values as the other Qharr, but she was still standing in my way. She had to be brought down quickly. She posed a threat I could not ignore, but she had already proven she was a skilled warrior and I wasn’t sure she could be defeated through conventional means. It was time I changed tactics.

“You serve the sub-ascendant.” I said making it a statement rather than a question. When she failed to reply I took it as a confirmation rather than an outright denial. “He has no honor.”

“What do you know of honor human? You are lost creatures who live their lives empty of direction or cause.” She leapt toward me slamming a fist down toward my head.

I caught the blow, but only just barely and the strength of it forced me against the wall. “I know enough about honor to know that the Qharr Ascendancy is corrupt. I know that the Sub-Ascendant has been hiding a truth about my people that is so shocking it could very well destroy the foundations of Qharr society.”

“Why is it that you continue to speak? I wish only to fight.” She yelled and sent her fists crashing down toward me. Fortunately, I managed to lunge out of the way just in time and they went slamming into the wall instead.

She roared and spun around to face me, but before she could attack Khala’s voice rang out. ‘This truth is relevant even to you, Dynara!’

Apparently, the Gieff woman had enough of a reputation that Khala had heard of her, but I could say at the moment if that was a good or a bad thing.

The Gieff stopped dead in her tracks and studied me without making a single movement or gesture. “What relevance would that be, spawnling?”

‘”The humans are the progenitors!'”

Dynara’s reaction was not at all what I would have expected. She didn’t speak or utter a word, but simply turned away and went dashing through the corridor until finally disappearing up the stairway.

“The fuck?” Beckman said stepping forward scratching at the back his neck.

I almost ran after her, fearing that she might raise the alarm and jeopardize our mission, but something told me that she wasn’t a threat to us any longer. I let her go and instead turned away putting my mind on the task at hand. Perhaps, it was a stupid decision, but she had disappeared so fast I would have had a hard time finding her anyway.

Chapter Fifteen

I stepped up from the stairwell and ducked around the corner of the adjoining wall right alongside the others and placed a hand on the shoulder of Sandler, a young clone who had the eyes of a veteran despite his fresh face.

“Trouble?” I didn’t speak aloud, electing to mouth the word instead, but he seemed to understand.

He nodded and threw his thumb at the wall where presumably the trouble I had inquired over was brewing. Considering our location and our present predicament it wasn’t exactly a big mystery what was waiting on the other side of the wall, but I had to get a look nonetheless. I crept forward on my hands and knees and once I’d gotten close enough I risked a peak around the corner.

The was the usual cluster of guards, but had it been just them I wouldn’t have seen it as much of a reason to worry. Unfortunately, two of the guards happened to be Edant K’teth.

“Shit,” I cursed and gritted my teeth.

“It can never be easy,” I repeated my previous protest and gritted my teeth before holding my hand out to Teadman. I didn’t even have to speak the words. He slipped the item in question into my hands and I only hesitated a moment before taking action.

I jumped out into view of the guards, and raised my weapon. I had three rounds, but only one hit its intended target. The first Edant K’teth died the moment my bullet pierced her heart, but I wasn’t so lucky with my next two shots. I hit the other joined Qharr in the shoulder, but the third shot whizzed past and hit an un-bonded guard in the side, downing him.

I cursed and dropped the coil gun, tossing it at the second Edant K’teth as he came zooming toward me. It didn’t have much effect, other than to draw an annoyed grunt from my attacker, but it distracted him just enough that I was able to get the first blow in. My attack didn’t do much more to make him angry, and he was pretty damn quick to retaliate, hitting me across the face with a blow that had me seeing stars. Fortunately, I managed to shake it off in time to block his next strike.

“Damn you,” I cursed pummeling him with blows across his abdomen. He staggered back and I pressed the bastard swinging a fist up to hit him across the jaw.

He recovered and swung a massive fist at my head, I managed to duck just in time, but he slammed me into the wall with a second blow before I could even blink. I dropped down as he swooped in for another attack and I swept my foot out from under him. He collapsed and I leapt up on top of him, repeatedly slamming my fist into the wound on his shoulder.

Everything had happened so fast that his symbiote hadn’t quite managed to heal the injury, but it was starting to close up. Fortunately, my attack had the exact opposite effect. He howled and tried to fend me off, but I braced myself against his swinging fists and just kept hitting him. His attacks grew more and more frantic until one of them managed to do the trick. I was thrown off him and into the opposite wall with damn near enough strength to knock the wind out of me.

He was on top of me before I could recover and grabbed me by the shoulders sending me slamming into the wall with bone-breaking force. I could feel my bones pop back into place as he pulled me free, but before they could set he slammed me into the wall again. The others tried to help, one soldier even grabbed a coil gun and tried to shoot him in the back, but my opponent swung around using my body as a club. The attack sent him tumbling to the ground and the Edant K’teth slammed me into the wall again. I screamed and struggled to break free, but the more I writhed in his grip the more it tightened.

That might have been the end of me, but I had a trick up my sleeve, literally. I elbowed him, thus freeing my arms and slipped a hand inside my sleeve. The pain was pretty intense, since my left arm was broken, but I gritted my teeth and let out a victory cry as my hand found purchase on its intended target. I slammed my hand out and stabbed the bastard in the chest.

He let out a startled cry and dropped me. The impact sent shooting pains through my whole body, but I managed to climb to my feet with more than a little effort. Bones popped into place and wounds closed in on themselves as Khala absorbed energy from one of the reserve power cells strapped to my thighs. I wasn’t completely healed and frankly, if I were in a situation that I could afford to step back and call it quits for the day I probably would have, but hell I didn’t really have that option, did I?

My opponent charged straight at me, but I leapt to the side and grabbed him by the shoulder as he passed. I slammed him into the wall, with damn near the amount of force he’d used on me. It definitely left the bastard dazed, so I did it again, and again. I was more than a little satisfied to hear his bones crunch, but I knew that his symbiote was probably a whole hell of a lot better fed than mine and would probably heal up just fine. So, before he recovered I plunged my knife deep into his heart letting him collapsed to the ground at my feet.

That did the trick, and by the time I returned my attention to the remaining guards I was more than a little relieved to discover that just one of them remained standing and even then he didn’t prove much of a threat. I stepped forward, his eyes grew wide and he booked it down the corridor.

“Coward,” I said, letting out a deep breath of relief and slipped my knife back into my sleeve. The path to the building’s communication center was just a stone throw away. Maybe, just maybe, we could make it.

Despite my previous optimism, the route to the control room was not an easy one. We encountered three more groups of guards, but only one more Edant K’teth. She put up a damn good fight, but I guess I was more determined than her. Unfortunately, the resulting fight left me separated from the group. There was nothing to do, but continue on and hope Rayland could get the remaining members of the group out of this mess alive.

By the time I reached the communications room, I think it went without saying that I was feeling pretty ragged. The doors clanged shut behind me and I got my first good look at the room. The sickly green color of the walls and floors suggested they were made from or were given a generous coating of Kylthash, a sort of organic substance that while soft and malleable in it’s natural form, could not be broken or torn once processed without an insane amount of force which went without saying was beyond that of even a host to a K’teth. There were two sets of doors the first were the ones we just entered and the second were across the chamber on the opposite wall, but given that they were made from the same substance, they looked pretty damned impregnable.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as I cast my eyes about again. I put on all the speed I could muster, moving toward the doors so fast that I slammed right into them. I tried to pry them open with every bit of strength Khala could give me, but they wouldn’t budge. I rushed across the room to the other side, but the other set were sealed just as tight.

“Dammit,” I cursed glancing back as I stepped toward the communications console in the center of the room.

By then it was pretty obvious that I’d stepped into a trap, but my trip to the communications console pretty well confirmed it. The screens were dead and none of my attempts to activate the computer system did any good. Clearly the sub-ascendant had been prepared for our arrival which meant…

My head snapped around and I made another run at the door as a single figure stepped inside the room, but it slammed shut just seconds before I could reach it. I spun around, turning to face Lily who looked like she’d been through a meat grinder.

“Dammit!” I cursed grabbing Lily by the shoulders. “Where’s the rest of your group?”

“We got separated. We ran into a few Edant K’teth on our way here,” she shook her head and stared up at me with wide eyes. “I drew them away on a merry little chase to protect the others. I barely survived the resulting fight and eventually made my way here.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think we’ve walked into a trap. The walls are lined with Kylthash and the doors too. I can’t break through no matter how hard I try.”

“What about the console?” Lily didn’t wait for me to answer, but instead dashed across the room toward the object of her inquiries. Her hands zooming across it’s dark surface with such speed that even I couldn’t make out her movements, but when she stopped and let out a long string of curses I knew she’d come to the same conclusion as me.

She returned and knelt down, her form falling out of sight as it slipped behind the control surface. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but she popped back up just a few seconds later, her face creased with a frown. “There’s a biolock on this thing. I’ve never seen one this sophisticated. Give me a few weeks and I might be able to bypass it, but even then, this thing has three factor authentication… it would be damn hard, maybe beyond my abilities.”

I can’t say I was surprised. Why lure us into this trap, with a big juicy communications array as bait if they were just going to hand us access? We’d been had, and as much as I hated to admit it, there was only one conclusion I could come to, we’d been betrayed.

My mind raced as I spread all the possibilities out in front of me. Who among us could possibly want Earth to remain in the hands of the Qharr? We’d done so much and fought so hard, I couldn’t imagine any human who would want to stop what we’d put into motion. Then it struck me, any human, but not all of our allies were human, were they? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, but I shook my head fighting back tears.

There was only one non-human who could have been in the position to betray us. I shook my head, and gritted my teeth. The doctor could not be responsible. I refused to believe it. There had to be something else at work, but try as I might I couldn’t unravel the mystery.

I’m sure, given the chance, that my mind would have supplied itself a thousand different theories, each less believable than the last. In a way it was fortunate that I didn’t have to put myself through that, but it was only because of the catastrophe that followed. The furthest set of doors swung open and a figure was thrown through the air landing a half-a-dozen yards away from me.

I rushed toward her and had just enough time to identify the unconscious form of Max before a massive figure burst into the room with a form that looked absolutely tiny in his bulging arms. The sub-ascendant had found us wearing a typical stone-faced Qharr expression, but for someone who’d spent years living amongst and serving gray skins his body language spoke volumes. Jykarr was consumed by rage and hatred to the point that I kind of doubted he was operating at a very rational level.

He threw, the crumpled form in his arms aside and slammed the door shut behind him. I couldn’t see her face, but her blue hair was enough to tell me it was Becca. I scrambled across the room toward my sister, but the sub-ascendant intercepted me, picked me up and grabbed me by the throat. “This is the end, but before I destroy what’s left of your resistance you should know that you’ve been betrayed.”

I gasped struggling to draw air in as I wheezed out my response. “Already came to that conclusion. You overgrown mother… humping bastard!”

His grip tightened and I clawed at his hands, but as I’d come to expect from the bastard he was just too damned strong. He pulled me close and I could feel his breath on my throat as he spoke again. “It was one of the most recent of your friends to enter the room. Care to guess which one?”

He threw me back through the air and I slammed into the opposing wall with so much force that I felt something snap. In the past I’d felt bones crack and even break, but this was different. This time, it was my spine. There was an odd absence of pain and I was very afraid at the implications. Was it Khala’s doing or was it a sign that something was seriously wrong? I got my answer and it sure as hell wasn’t the one I wanted.

I slid back down to the ground collapsing into a useless heap. I tried to climb to my feet, but didn’t exactly get the sort of response from my limbs that I was hoping I would. My arms seemed to work just fine, but where anything below my waist was concerned I couldn’t even flex a pinkie toe.

‘Khala!’ I cried out.

Her reply was more than a little testy. ‘I am working on it! Fixing spines isn’t like healing stab wounds or mending bones! If I do it wrong, I could seriously damage your body to the point that it would be beyond repair.”

‘Fix it!’ I replied twisting my upper torso to get a better view of the fight between Lily and the sub-ascendant which had broken out sometime after he’d flung me away. I even tried to climb onto my feet again, but without cooperation from my limbs my efforts proved futile.’I don’t care if I never walk again after today! Just get me up! I won’t watch that bastard kill the woman I love!’

‘I will do what I can,’ Khala replied. Her voice was neutral, but I got the sense from our mental bond that she was not very receptive of the idea at all. Frankly, I didn’t care if she liked it or not even if she was trying to protect me. I had to get back into the fight.

Lily was doing a fantastic job at keep the sub-ascendant occupied. She was faster than me and was using her speed to her advantage, dancing around the bastard as he swung his massive paws at her tiny little frame. Even so, I knew what Jykarr was capable of and I worried that sooner or later he would find a weakness and exploit it.

Lily seemed to have worked out a system, running around him and making quick jabs before speeding away again. The sub-ascendant made any number of counterstrikes, but each time Lily dove out of the way. She kept at it. No matter how long the two battled Jykarr just shrugged off Lily’s blows. The problem was that he was too powerful and the Qharr’s superior stamina meant that the longer she kept him busy, the better chance he had of subduing her once she started to tire.

I cursed and crawled forward, but soon gave up. A sob escaped my lips when I saw Jykarr grab Lily by the shoulders and sent her hurdling away. She was quick to get back onto her feet, but judging from her ungraceful landing I kind of doubted it had been easy. She seemed a little sluggish from that point onward and I worried what would happen if Jykkar managed to hit her again. Lily was fighting hard and was doing damned admirable job, but it was growing more and more obvious that even though she was doing her best, she was no match for him.

I clenched my fist and pounded the floor growing more anxious by the second as I watched Lily struggle against her massive opponent. Khala drained away another reserve power cell and within moments I felt a change. Finally, I could feel my feet, but when I tried to climb up onto them I flopped back down to the ground. Muscles, twitched and it was almost like a light had fluttered on. I could move again. I let a smile form on the corner of my lips as I slowly crawled back onto my feet. I crept forward, a new purpose in my steps as I made my way toward Lily and the sub-ascendant. They were on the other side of the room and Jykarr had his back to me which was exactly what I needed.

I gritted my teeth and leapt forward. I threw my arm around his neck and started clawing at the flesh around his spine. He might have had superior strength, but he was still just a flesh and blood being like any other Qharr. I tore through several layers of skin, as Jykarr hopped around attempting to dislodge me from his back. I swung and slid around trying to find good handhold, but his berserk movements didn’t exactly make it easy.

Finally, I managed to stabilize my position by clawing my way up his back and tightening my hold around his neck. When I started to tear at his flesh again. It was a little disheartening to discover that it had already healed up, but I didn’t let it keep me from continuing. He screamed out and before I even realized it he’d managed to slam me back down into the ground.

Given my recent injury, getting back up proved to be a little more difficult than it should have been. I tried climbing to my feet, only to collapse, yet again. My face smacked right into the Kylthash and I gasped and clenched my fist as a shadow fell over me.

I crawled onto my knees, but Jykkar grabbed me by the shoulders and hurled me away before I was able to stand. I slammed into the wall and fell down to the ground face first. I pushed myself up onto my elbows, and tried my very hardest to launch myself back up, but each time I was knocked down it was even harder to get back onto my feet. I heard footsteps and I turned my head fully expecting to see the sub-ascendant come to finish me off.

A slender figure stepped into view and I found just enough strength to push myself onto my ass so that I could face her. “Becca, thank god.”

Another figure, this one blood-stained, approached, limping forward an arm clutched against her side. “Get away from her, you bitch!”

I blinked, my mind reeling as I glanced from my sister to Max and back again. Jykarr had hinted that one of them had betrayed us and I bit my lip trying to decide which one it could be. The choice was obvious, I pulled one of my phase pistols free and trained it on Max. “Don’t take another step.”

She paused and her face contorting into a grotesque display of pain as she held both hands out, one of them stained with her own blood. “Just listen to me. I’m not the one you should be worried about. I know this has got to be hard to hear, but I think your sister has been brainwashed. She’s betrayed us all.

“Impossible!” I yelled my hands shaking despite my best efforts to keep the gun stable. “Her mind hasn’t been bent. The doctor ran tests on her, we would know.”

“Okay,” Max said between pants. “Then it’s something else, but you’ve got to believe me. She’s the one who’s responsible for this. My people are coming and if we don’t bring the shield down the battle for Earth will end before it’s even started. Think about it, if I had betrayed you, I could have turned you over to the Qharr any time during our trip to Salt Lake. We sat huddled in a building for three days. I could have turned you in to the Qharr right there and then. What need for pretense?”

Doubts surfaced and I bit my lip glancing at my sister. There was something different about Becca. It wasn’t so much her physical appearance, but the way she held herself and the wild look in the eyes. I knew then and there that I wasn’t looking at my sister. I felt a cold chill run down my spine as I looked her in the eyes. Max was wrong, it wasn’t Becca who had betrayed us. It was her symbiote.

I don’t know how he had gained control of my sister without her consent, but I knew that it was him calling the shots. The how or why wasn’t important. I clenched my fist, gritted my teeth and let out a primal cry of fury as I scrambled back onto my feet. I grabbed Becca’s body by the shoulders and slammed into her at full speed pinning her against the closest wall with just enough force to hopefully disorient the symbiote.

“Becca,” I whispered in her ear. “I don’t know what he did to you or why he’s managed to take control of you like this, but I need you to come back to me.”

The symbiote didn’t exactly respond very warmly to being thrown around and despite my efforts I didn’t get through to my sister. My eyes grew wide as I felt something slide into my chest. I gurgled and stepped back, blood dripping from my mouth. I reached up touching the handle of my very own knife sticking out of my chest just about where my heart was.

I gasped, for a moment convinced that I was witnessing my last moments. Then I came to a little realization, my heart was still beating. The symbiote had missed it by mere millimeters. Either, he was a bad aim or Becca was fighting him. I had an opportunity that was too good to be passed up. It was time to play possum. I let my eyes slide into the back of my head and I collapsed.

“LEXA!” Lily’s cries were almost too much to bear, but I forced myself to remain still.

‘It’s time to remember.’ Khala’s voice trickled through my consciousness as disjointed images and voices echoed through my mind. The world fled from me, and my consciousness slipped away until I was consumed by darkness.

“We have a problem.” Lily’s voice drifted in, a whisper that reverberated through my mind with the power of a scream. It took me a moment that she hadn’t actually spoken to me. The voice had drifted in from some dark corner of my mind. The world just slipped away and a strange sort of stuttering image took its place.

I got the strangest feeling of deja vu as I looked over and I felt breath catch in my throat as I realized exactly why that was. There had been a moment after I had returned from Salt Lake that Lily had said those exact words to me. I’d felt a moment of dizziness just before we returned to our quarters to make love.

‘Sorry,’ Khala’s voice whispered. ‘That memory was a fabrication. You’ll understand why soon enough.”

“I found a listening device attached to the outside of the hull.” Lily’s voice and image resolved themselves into crystal clarity.

“The hull?” My own voice replied, but the words seemed like a distant echo spoken from far off. I hadn’t spoken them and yet I didn’t feel as if someone was speaking through me.

‘Khala!’ I cried out to my symbiote.

‘Watch Alexana. Clarity will come.’ She gave no other explanation, but I was so transfixed by what I saw that I didn’t press her further.

I studied Lily, taking in all the details as I sought to comprehend what had happened. “Listening device? You don’t mean that the Qharr have been…”

Lily shook her head, some of the sickly green grease on the back of her arm streaking across her forehead as she absently rubbed the sweat away. “I might have found it sooner, but it was a tunneler designed to embed itself into hull and eventually find its way inside the ship. We got lucky, the tunneling apparatus on this one failed or it probably would have picked up enough to screw us royally.”

I gasped, feeling the images around me cascade with a rainbow of colors as realization took hold. I knew what was happening, I was witnessing a memory, my memory.

“How long do you think it’s been there?”

“Can’t be certain, but best guess is when Duvak attacked the Renegade. I’ve never heard of anyone using them except inquisitors. I think they fired it at us when we were making our escape. The impact didn’t register on our sensors because they’re designed to make a soft impact.”

“It would it explain a lot.” I felt my hands on my hips as my past self let out a long sigh. “Do you have any idea what, if anything, was transmitted.”

“Listening devices don’t keep a record of what’s transmitted for obvious reasons, but I was able to dig through our sensor logs and decode what the Renegade’s sensors originally mistook for background noise. It only managed to catch snippets of information, but it did send along a few things that could cause us some trouble.”

“Shit,” I cursed running a hand through my hair as I turned away from Lily.

I clenched my eyes shut, gritted my teeth, before turning back toward her. “I need to hear everything.”

The rest came in a flood of images that rushed through my mind at such speeds that it became almost incomprehensible. The images resolved before slipping away until all I saw was darkness. I could feel the gears turning as my mind processed what I had witnessed. Finally, I understood.

Chapter Sixteen

My awareness of the present returned, but I kept my eyes shut as I let my sense of hearing slowly return. A renewed sense of clarity had awoken within me. Becca’s betrayal which had so deeply devastated me just mere moments before had been revealed for what it truly was, a ruse. It probably would have hurt a lot more, but it was hard to feel that way when I had pulled the wool over my own eyes.

My memories had been repressed by my symbiote at my request, to ensure that my reaction would seem genuine. All to distract Jykarr, to keep him from guessing our true plans. There were other motives, but they would become clearer all too soon.

It was hard keeping my eyes shut when I knew the sub-ascendant was so close and Lily was fighting for her life, but for our plan to work I had to remain still. Before too long, a blood curdling scream rang through the chamber and I knew Lily had been downed. I just hoped it had been Becca who’d struck the blow and not Jykarr.

“They’re both dead,” Becca’s voice said. She spoke so softly that I had strain my ears just to make out each syllable. “You have what you want. You can finally crush the resistance.”

Jykarr didn’t speak for the longest of time, but I could hear the sounds of movement. I risked opening my eyes and watched, his back turned to me as he moved toward the console. I bit my lip, feeling my heart beat harder in my chest as my deepest fears came to life inside the darkest corners my mind where those sort of things were manifested. Had he bought it?

A shadow fell over me, and moment later I watch Becca’s form move slowly toward the console, joining the sub-ascendant at his side. Jykarr manipulated the controls and it flashed to life presenting the holographic image of a Qharr whose face was laced with scars.

“Supreme Inquisitor Ry’kk,” Jykkar’s voice rumbled through the chamber in his native tongue. “Have the human fighters been dealt with?”

“We’re having more trouble containing them than we had anticipated, Sub-Ascendant. They are illusive, they are a credit to their race.”

“You almost sound as if you admire them, Supreme Inquisitor. Do not make the mistake of fooling yourself into believing they are anything more than wily prey. They are clever, intelligent even, but they are not worthy enough to be considered equals. Put them down as you would a pest, but do not underestimate them.”

“As you speak it, your voice is but an extension of the Prime Ascendant. Glory be to him and to you.” The holographic image fluttered and died away and before I could even so much as bat an eyelash, Jykkar had his hand around Becca’s throat.

“Your usefulness is at an end,” he said raising her until she was at eye level. “Did you really think I would let you live?”

“Fuck, do you think she’s stupid,” I said lurching to my feet and pulling the blade free from my chest.

“Sorry to say this buddy, but you’ve been had.” I stopped just long enough for the wound to close before leaping into motion, slamming into Jykkar, my knife cutting through his chest as easily as if it were butter. The force of my impact was enough to send all three of us careening to the ground on the other side of the console.

“Lily!” I screamed out shaking my head as Jykkar’s hand rose out of the tangle of limbs to latch onto me. “THE MESSAGE!”

I didn’t know if she heard me or even she was still alive, but I soon had other problems. Jykkar, lurched back onto his feet, sending both Becca and myself rolling away. He grabbed me, flinging Becca away like a rag doll and lifted me off my feet. “Reveal to me what you have done and I may spare your life.”

My face stretched into what I could only guess was a rather gruesome grin and I started laughing as a recording of voice echoed through the chamber and presumably throughout all every communication channel on Qharr-occupied Earth. “Citizens of the Qharr Ascendancy, I am Alexana Briggs, leader of Human Resistance Movement here on Earth. The gray skins would want you to believe that the resistance has fallen, but believe me when I say we are still very much a threat to continued Qharr occupation of Earth.”

Jykkar howled, sending me flying away, lumbering across the room toward Lily, but it was already too late. The damage had been done. Lily dove away as he came tearing toward her, only just managing to avoid his swinging fists. The recording continued and I rushed across the room, slamming into the bastard as he made a move on the controls. Jykarr and I collapsed again, and Lily, once again at the console, let out a high-pitched squeal followed by a ‘woop’ of elation.

“I’ve disabled the shield control! The other teams must have done their part the whole barrier is coming down.”

“Today, we have a very specific goal in mind and should we be successful there’s a good chance that no human shall ever again suffer at the hands of our self-proclaimed masters again. My human brothers and sisters and every single Qharr citizen here on our Earth has had the wool pulled over their eyes. The sub-ascendant is the perpetrator of a lie so damaging that it could very well shatter the very foundations of his people’s society. I have been told for almost the entirety of my life that humanity was enslaved because we were an honor-less and worthless race, but the truth is a lot more complicated. Jykarr Bynd started the war against humanity. Not the other way around as the Ascendancy has always wanted us to believe. I can only guess why he would do it, but we have uncovered something which I believe he dearly wants to keep hidden.”

The sub-ascendant howled, backhanding me and as I staggered back he started toward the console again. This time it was Lily and Becca who intercepted him, Becca face to face and Lily from behind. My sister lunged at him, grabbing the knife that was still embedded in his chest and twisting it as Lily, armed with a piece of paneling from the console, clubbed him in the back of his knees. He swiped at Becca, hitting her across the cheek and sending her slamming flat into the ground.

He turned his attention to Lily, but I leapt over the console and pounded my fists into him. He shrugged the blow off and grabbed Lily by the throat sending her swirling away. He rushed toward me, but I lurched aside. He slammed right into the wall with enough force that it actually seemed to daze him. It was enough to give me hope that we were finally starting to hurt the bastard.

“Humans are the progenitors of the Qharr and their cousins the Dexagarmatrax. We believe that their creators, a race that legend tells us are called the Phyrr Lesch, used our people as a genetic template. Don’t believe me? Let the facts speak for themselves. A copy of our findings are being transmitted along with this recording. All one needs to do to confirm they are true is run a genetic comparison between the three races and you will find that our genetic structures are far too similar for it to be mere coincidence.”

Jykarr was finally beginning to weaken. When I slammed my fists into the sub-ascendant he actually staggered back and let out a below of pain.

“What does this mean for humanity? It means our enslavement has been a lie, a veil by which the gray skins could conquer us. Rise up, push back! We need your help. Today along with our allies from the Earth Return Fleet and the Nester Alliance we are fighting to bring down the protective shield around Earth. Should we be successful there is an entire fleet of allied ships that will fight to the very end to ensure that every last gray skin is driven from our world.”

The sub-ascendant backhanded Lily who had launched herself at him and sent her stumbling away. Becca pounced on him next, but he grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her into Lily. I launched myself at him next, but as with the others, he was ready for me. He slammed a fist down, and sent me sprawling backward onto my ass.

“As far as the general citizenry of Qharr Ascendancy are concerned. You have been ruled over by a corrupt and dishonorable system that has finally shown its true colors. They speak of honor and pound their chests proudly and yet they have perpetrated a lie against you so great that it demands action. If you are truly honorable than you must be as horrified by this news as I am. Fight with us or stay out of the way. If choose to side with your government and resist, you are the enemy, and you will share the fate of Jykarr Bynd and his cronies. One way or another, tonight, Earth is ours.”

With this final comment Jykarr roared with a ferocity that was so inhuman, so bereft of anything a self-aware being should have been capable, I actually shuddered. He came charging toward me again and just as before I dodged out of the way, but unfortunately he stopped himself before he could slam into the wall again.

“Give it up, you overgrown piece of shit!” I screamed at him. “You’ve lost, you’ve been made. Everyone knows you for the honorless bastard that you are.”

A third time, he charged me and this time I wasn’t able to get out of the way. He pinned me against the wall and I gasped as he rammed something cold and sharp through my chest. “You! It is only because of your symbiote that you have been so successful. You humans are worthless. I would have exterminated you all long ago, but the constraints of our so called honor system would not allow me to eliminate you. Now I see that allowing you to live was a mistake.”

I spat in his face, splattering it with blood. “So you enslaved us instead? No doubt hoping we’d give you a reason to finally kill us all off.”

He slid his weapon out from my chest, but before I could make a move he plunged it back in. “Do you realize what you have done? Our society will be torn apart, there will be civil war. We’ve kept the galaxy in order. Now it will be thrown into chaos. It is everything I feared.”

“You’ve kept the galaxy clutched in your iron fists. How many races suffer under your tyrannical rule? It’s time you relinquished your hold and let the galaxy get along without you.” I coughed up more blood, all of it going right into his face.

I heard Lily and Becca cry out, but even as he held me against the wall he managed to fend them off. He swept his other arm out and a long metal blade swept out from his wrist and sliced out at them. My view was blocked by his hulking form, but their cries at least told me that the attack didn’t kill them right off the bat.

“I will prolong your death as long as I can. I will bleed you, until there isn’t a drop left of your blood.”

He stabbed me again and pulled the blade out to impale me a fourth time, but this time I managed to knock his arm aside and kick him in the chest. He barely budged, but it I just enough wiggle room to slither out of his grasp and crawl away. I was still bleeding as I climbed back to my feet, but Khala drained the last of the energy from my phase pistols and the spare energy cells and I could feel the wounds begin to close as I spun around to face the sub-ascendant.

Lily and Becca came tearing toward us, and before I could pounce on him, Jykarr swept his fist out and slammed it into the side of my head, sending me reeling into the nearest wall. When I recovered, I lurched forward, but he’d already moved away to take on Becca and Lily.

When it came to fighting a single opponent, three was a bit of a crowd. So instead of joining them, I took off running across the chamber and once I’d gained enough momentum, sent myself hurtling up the side of the wall and up onto the ceiling. I position myself above them and waited for an opening, hoping that if I hit the bastard hard enough I might finally be able to do some real damage.

Back and forth they went across the chamber, and I clenched my hands and unclenched them over and over. I gritted my teeth and growled, but still I didn’t get a good opening. Lily and Becca were doing their damnedest to subdue their towering foe, but they didn’t seem to do much damage. He knocked Lily out of the way and a moment later Becca pounced on him, leaping up and onto his back throwing her arms around his neck in a strangle hold.

He roared and spun around doing a complete three-sixty as Becca wobbled around on his back. Finally, he managed to grab her by the ankle and sent her rocketing into Lily who had only just barely managed to climb back to her feet. I had my opening, Khala reversed her hold on the ceiling, and I was sent hurtling back to the ground. I slammed down, hitting the bastard atop the head with every bit of strength I could manage.

At last, I’d found a way to hurt the gargantuan bastard. He went down like a sack of fucking potatoes, but before I could congratulate myself he was already climbing back to his feet. He seemed a little dazed and I burst forward kicking him in the side hoping that it would keep him from regaining his footing. Between myself, Lily and Becca we must have him at least a several dozen times, but our best efforts only served to delay him.

He seemed to have regained his composure when grabbed Lily by the neck and took off. He slammed into the wall, but instead of wailing on her as I expected he held his free hand out. I was already running toward them when something extended from his wrist and I dove at the bastard grabbing at his bladed appendage. He kicked out, hitting my left knee with the underside of his foot and I fell back sprawled out on the ground behind him.

I was quick to scramble back up, but I wasn’t fast enough to keep him from plunging the blade directly into Lily’s abdomen. Neither was I able to stop him from running her through a second time. I was back on my feet before he could do it a third time, but when I moved to stop him he pulled his other hand away from Lily’s neck and swiped out at me with it as another blade flew out from his wrist. I was able to bend back at the waist in time to avoid getting sliced open, but the blade was so close I felt it slice through the air.

I rolled down to the ground out of reach of the second blade as Becca came charging toward us, but as he brought it around he sliced her halfway through the chest. I don’t know if she hadn’t seen the wrist-blade or if she had simply built up too much momentum to stop. Either way, the effects were devastating and her blood splattered all over the ground as she collapsed. I cried out and fell to my knees at her side in a futile attempt to restrict the bleeding.

Her wound was not healing, and there was a sinking feeling in my heart that told me her symbiote was out of juice. I gritted my teeth and craned my neck around to watch the sub-ascendant pump Lily full of holes. Dyssa was doing pretty well healing them up, but how long could she keep up? Sooner or later he’d bleed her dry. Symbiotes could heal a lot of wounds, but replacing blood wasn’t something they could quickly enough to sustain a host who had lost large amounts of it. He could have just stabbed her through the heart and finished her off, but he was too sadistic for that. He wanted her to suffer.

I screamed and jerked back up onto my feet, my hands clenched at my side. I saw every misdeed, committed against me by the Qharr flash before my eyes. I witnessed the death of my parents, but this time it was Jykarr who had murdered them. I saw him beat and tortured those I cared about, I witnessed him leading the inquisitors who had taken down the resistance bunker, I even witnessed him killing Kaya and now the bastard was trying to take away the two people in the world I cared about the most.

Everything the Qharr had done to me and my people were his doing whether directly or indirectly were as a result of his actions. I was angry, no fuck that, I was furious, I wanted him dead. My vision turned the most vibrant crimson and I let out a blood curdling howl as I rushed toward him.

I wasn’t acting on a rational level, I’d been reduced to a wild beast. All I knew was that I want the fucker dead. There was no Lexa, no sub-ascendant, no Lily nor Becca. There was just the beast I had become and my prey.

I moved forward, swooping in with liquid grace and grabbing him by the arm I pulled him away from his victim. My prey tried to stab me with his twin wrist-blades, but I ducked to the side and grabbed by him the wrist. My fingers wrapped around the edges of the blade and I yanked on it as hard as I could. Blood dripped down the edge of the blade, mine, but I didn’t care. I grunted and let out a cry of defiance as it tore loose from where it had been fused to his bones.

Like, a tiger cub who’d just grown her claws this predator finally had herself a weapon. My prey howled in fury as my hands found better purchase on the blunt end of the blade. I tightened my grip and raised my weapon as he slammed his down. I growled, just barely able to block the blow.

Speed was the only means I had to gain an upper-hand and I took full advantage of it and lurched forward circling him at greater and greater speeds. I slashed him on the back of the knee cap, in his side, and across the chest, but each of the wounds healed. He was resilient prey.

I growled and stopped dead in my tracks, giving him enough time to catch my scent before I zoomed off again. He followed me. I kept going straight moving up the walls, across the ceiling then back down again, and little by little the gap between us grew greater and greater. I lurched sideways, and watched as he zoomed past. He corrected for his error pretty quickly, but I was almost on top of him by then. I plunged the blade into his chest as he spun around to face me.

It went clean through and he reached down to grip the blade, before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground. I blinked and looked around, the red faded from my vision and I realized what had happened. I rushed to Becca and Lily, whose bodies’ were sprawled on the floor a few feet away from each other.

I checked for signs of life and found a pulse on each of them, but how long would that last? Lily was completely unconscious and her visible wounds while relatively small had not completely healed. Dyssa had clearly been overwhelmed by number of wounds sustained by her host. I bowed my head and gritted my teeth against the tears that came washing down my face.

Becca’s condition hadn’t changed, other than the amount of blood that had pooled under her body. She was conscious, but not exactly coherent. I collapsed beside her and just let the floodgates open. What point was there left in fighting? Lily and Becca were the only bright spots in my life. If I lost my sister and the woman I loved… I left the thought unfinished as a sob escaped my lips.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and for the briefest of moments I thought that it was a friend offering up condolences, but when I reached out to touch it I realized two things. First, the hand was way too damn big, and second there wasn’t a single person in the room capable of offering condolences. I tried to get up and fight, but it was already too late. Jykarr picked me up and slammed me back down into the ground with so much force that I didn’t see myself getting back up in the foreseeable future.

I watched through tear-soaked eyes as he knelt down next to me and put one of his massive paws down to hold me in place. Violet blood dripped out from the wound in which the wrist-blade was still embedded. “I have spent years keeping the truth hidden from my people and now you have taken that all away from me. Don’t you understand? The Phyrr Lesch abandoned us! All our talk of honor and privilege of the chosen race is gre’k fodder! We are nothing, but what we have made ourselves. Now that my people have learned the truth, that illusion is gone. I will end your existence for taking that away from us!”

Unable to move, or fight back I closed my eyes waiting for the end to come, but it never did. I heard a gasp and looked up to see that the sub-ascendant’s body had fallen back and away from me and was twitching as if he’d been caught up in a seizure. Confused, I glanced around, and came to a sharp realization once I saw Lily’s hand clasped around his ankle.

I didn’t waste time wondering how she had managed to subdue him with a simple touch though, quite frankly at that moment I didn’t care. Instead, I sat up, with strength that I didn’t know I possessed and placed one of my hands on his body. Then Khala did the unthinkable. She fed on the energy of the other symbiote. It was supposed to be impossible, an ability that Khala had always insisted was beyond her capability and yet somehow she and Dyssa were draining Jykarr dry.

The moment my hand touched his flesh I felt strength return to me as new images flooded through my mind. At first I believed that the originated from Jykarr, but I’d been so wrong. Those thoughts and perceptions were so powerful that they overwhelmed my senses and the world flashed away into nothingness.

Colors, most green, some red, a smattering of blue and a whole lot of yellow filled my vision. At first the images were, blurry and ill defined, but they slowly coalesced forming the picture of a forest left wild and untamed by the absence of technology. It was as beautiful as it was alien. I was moving, but I had no control of the speed or direction. Was this how Khala, nearly always an observer, seldom the one controlling the actions?

Panting, but who? Was it me? Was I the one running through the forest? Had I given control to Khala? Why was she running? How had we gotten there?

“Oh, I cannot be too late! I simply cannot!” A booming baritone voice called out in despair. The language was not English, but was as guttural and as harsh as Qharr. I understood it, and yet I knew I’d never heard it before in my life. Still, it seemed familiar somehow.

I wanted to look around to see who had spoken, but I couldn’t. None of my limbs would move. I was simply an observer along for the ride, but for what I couldn’t even begin to guess.

‘Khala!’ I cried out hoping that my symbiote might answer, but even she could not hear me… or else would not answer.

Gradually the forest gave way to grassland with only a smattering of trees and in a structure loomed in the distance. A tall and foreboding tower that stretched so high into the night sky that I wondered if it might not stretch into eternity.

I felt determination, and desperation rolled into a strange knotted ball of nerves and emotions. It wasn’t projecting those feelings, but they were as strong to me as if they were mine. I called out again, hoping someone would listen, if not Khala then perhaps whoever was in control, but no matter how much I screamed or yelled no one answered they just kept running.

Finally, the structure loomed in front of me so close I could touch it. I felt my neck pull back and wonder paired with awe washed over me. The building was more a skyscraper than a tower, but was unlike any I had ever seen before. There were no adornments nor, windows just plain charcoal gray stone, the only break in the facade was the entrance which was a simple opening with no door.

My neck returned to eye level and those feelings of wonder and awe that had washed over me only moments ago were supplanted by the earlier feelings. My captor started running again, even faster than before and… more frantic. What was driving this person, this being, onward?

The inside of the building was a remarkable as the outside for the simple fact that it was so unremarkable. Nothing differed, everything was perfectly symmetrical and was composed of the same drab stone. What was this place and who would have built it? It was one thing to build a structure to invoke wonder and awe to those who looked upon it, but this place was something else entirely. Who could take pride in such a structure?

“Master, Master!” The same voice as before screamed out and I was sent veering sideways into another simple, unadorned doorway. Finally, I stopped and a form detached itself from the dark. A Qharr, or at least I thought at first, but her features were too soft. She drew closer, stepping into the light revealing a very human-like pair of breasts. She brushed honey hair away from her rough, angular featured and placed her hand on my shoulders or rather the shoulders of the person who had spoken. She looked like some sort of hybrid of human and Qharr.

“Husband, you are too late, father has passed into the nether realm

“Gyff, what will we do without him to lead us? The masters abandoned us. All except him. He alone remained to guide us. Now even he is gone.”

“We will persevere. It is what he would have wanted.”

Tears cascaded down her face, but the voice of the one in control pushed past her. It was dark, but there was slight luminescent glow in the distance revealing the outline of a figure resting on a simple bed pad. He drew closer and knelt down beside the unmoving form. When he drew close enough, I felt the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

It wasn’t possible, it didn’t make any sense. It was a human man, old and emaciated. One who had very obviously passed away. “Hail Myrrh, High Lord of the Phyrr Lesch.”

“Hail!” Gyff’s voice echoed in the distance.

I screamed and the world around me fractured, and faded away.

I blinked and sat bolt upright. I was back in the real world. I shook my head to clear it and tried as I might to wrap my head around what I’d just seen, I just couldn’t quite reconcile it. They were memories of Jykarr’s K’teth, but why had it passed them on to me. What I’d seen suggested that Phyrr Lesch were human, but how was that possible? They were an advanced space faring race that lived thousands of years before humans had ever touched the stars.

‘I am ready to die.’ A voice rang through my head, it sounded tired and weary. The depth of emotion I felt conveyed to me was so intense it almost felt as if it were my own. This being was tired of life. It wanted nothing more than to end it’s long and miserable existence.

I glanced over at Jykarr, his form was still inert and I bit my lip and glanced at him. The voice could only belong to his symbiote, but why wait so long to speak?

“What was it that you just show me?” I held a hand over Jykarr’s shoulder so as to restrain him if he began to stir.

‘A memory from my past.’

I gritted my teeth and let his words settle in. I had never imagined that there might be a K’teth who was so old that he might actually remember the Phyrr Lesch.

‘Revered elder,’ Khala’s voice whispered in my mind so full of awe and reverence I could actually feel it bleed through our bond. ‘How could the Phyrr Lesch have been human? The people of this world had not even discover the wheel when the Phyrr Lesch ruled the galaxy.”

‘My memories of those times are vague, and had been passed on by mothers far older than me. Much of the truth had already passed into myth by the time I was born. It was said that the Phyrr Lesch were an advanced race on a world populated primarily by it’s more primitive cousins.’

‘And the Gieff?’

“Descendants of both Qharr and Phyrr Lesch. There is more,’ Jykarr’s K’teth whispered. ‘Touch the sub-ascendant, once again.’

I did as he suggested, but this time there were no images or flashes, just a strange tingling sensation in the back of my mind.

‘The knowledge you need will unfurl with time. There are many mysteries to which I do not have the answers, but perhaps you will succeed where I have failed. Now end it, before he comes awake again. Give me the peace I have desired for so long.’

“Why should we trust anything you have shown us,” I whispered staring at Jykarr’s unmoving form with wide eyes. “You could have withheld your abilities from your host at any time.”

‘NO! I am a slave. An addict. The substances that Jykarr has used to increase his strength beyond that of other Edant K’teth left me unable to resist. At first I tried, but I could find no way to overcome it. Forgive me.”

The symbiotes were every bit of the victim, just as the humans who Jykarr had enslaved. I bowed my head and uttered words that I never would have believed I would ever utter. “May you find peace in the next life.”

I yanked the broken and twisted blade free from Jykarr’s chest and without even a moments of hesitation I plunged it into his heart with what seemed like far less force than was necessary. It was enough. All three of his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he was finally dead.

I only lingered over his broken form, long enough to confirm he was gone before turning to Lily. She smiled and nodded at me, before pulling her shirt up to show that her wound had in fact been healed. I squeezed her hand and lightly pecked her on the lips before turning my attention to Becca.

I found my sister right where I had left her. She had lost consciousness and her skin had taken on a pasty pallor. I crawled over beside her and felt frantically for a pulse and I gasped and turned away.

Becca was gone. I collapsed to the ground and let out a long keening howl. There had been so many deaths, and I had fought so hard to prevent my sister from becoming one of them. Now, I’d lost her too, the only piece of my old life, the old me was gone. I felt… so alone. So angry.

A part of me just wanted to die, but one thing kept me from giving in. Lily. Draining Jykarr might have healed her wounds, but Dyssa couldn’t replace all the blood she’d lost. If she didn’t get help, she’d die. I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood up. I thought, I heard something and when I spun around ready to face whatever new threat had arisen.

Dynnara, the Gieff warrior from earlier burst on the scene tearing through the double Kylthash doors with more than a dozen Qharr warriors in tow. I didn’t speak, but rather held my hands up to show that I was unarmed and watched her approach. She stepped so close that I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she studied me and still neither of us spoke. Finally, she put a hand on my shoulder and spun around to face the others. “I must know.”

Her eyes turned back to me and I felt Lily’s weight against my side. I met her gaze and caught the look of warning in her eyes before turning back to Dynnara. She was right to be worried, but I was so very tired of fighting. If there was even the smallest chance that Dynnara could be convinced then I had to try.

“Show us sister,” a voice spoke, Dynnara’s symbiote.

‘Open your mind. Know the truth.’ Khala’s words echoed through my mind before the world descended into the darkness once again.

This time the images were grand and sweeping, generations of memories from the Jykarr’s K’teth flashed before my eyes in mere moments as they were shared with the Dynnara. I couldn’t say how much of what I saw belonged to the elderly symbiote and how much had been passed down to him, but the sheer magnitude of it all was staggering. It started with great ships ascending into the sky above an alien world. I couldn’t say for certain, but something told me it was Tel’c.

The images blinked blurred and suddenly I was watching through the eyes of the unnamed Qharr as he ran toward the great tower. Again, I witnessed him mourn the loss of the Phyrr Lesch who so resembled a human before the image flashed again. More visions coalesced inside my mind until they resolved themselves into that of a dimly lit room.

A Qharr child lay on the ground atop a bed pad as a slender figure knelt over her. This time the images were disjointed, broken even, but the meaning behind their words was fairly clear even if their exact translation was lost to me. Once again, I was seeing through the eyes of another, a Qharr from the distant past. The woman, the child’s mother, had features, just a little too soft for one of her kind, though much more harsh than Gyff. There were a pair of breasts on her chest, but their prevalence was such that they could have been easily overlooked. It was clear that she had the same Phyrr Lesch ancestry as the other woman. Perhaps, she was a daughter or a grand daughter.

The child spoke, she wanted to know where they had come from. The mother answered in a soft soprano, far softer than any Qharr voice. She spoke of the Phyrr Lesch in hushed tones, but there was an undertone of anger that spoke volumes. They were the creators, she told her daughter, they had created the Qharr to bring peace to the galaxy. They were…

It was so difficult to decipher, but the meaning behind the words slowly became evident as she continued. The Qharr had been created by using a primitive relative to the Phyrr Lesch as a template. These primitives were similar to the creator species, in that they could interbreed, but the creators were more advanced, more intelligent. Some of the meaning behind her words was lost on me, but I got a sense she was relaying something that had a deep spiritual meaning for her.

When she spoke of the Phyrr Lesch, there was the barest hint of contempt, but when she spoke of the other species, the so called primitives there was a feeling of reverence and awe. The creators were great and powerful, but they had abandoned the Qharr. They did not deserve their reverence, but their hatred. The ancestors were more worthy, and by exploring their origins it was believed that they could better understand their true purpose and not the one in which their creators had forced upon them.

Her neck craned around and I got the sense she was speaking to whoever’s eyes I was seeing through before everything faded to black and new images flowed through my mind.

Many were angry that the Phyrr Lesch had abandoned them, but others believe they had departed for reasons beyond their understanding and that they would one day return. Their society devolved becoming more tribalistic and fractured. Soon the two factions were even fighting amongst themselves, and as time passed knowledge passed into myth. The Qharr’s religion became more dogmatic and their society more xenophobic. Once, they explored the stars with the technology left to them by the Phyrr Lesch, but centuries of war consumed them, much of their knowledge was lost and they no longer had the means to touch the vast expanse of the galaxy.

Millennia passed and the wars continued until finally one rose up from the ranks of an insignificant Qharr clan and became their leader… their Prime. He saw and understood that the destructive path his people had taken would lead to their eradication. It took him more than twenty years, but he managed to unite his people under one banner. He became the first Prime Ascendant, under him the infighting amongst his people ceased and for the first time in many centuries, they began their first successful campaign against those now called the Gieff.

The Gieff lost. They’re population was decimated and they were driven into the more isolated regions, the islands and deserts of Tel’c. There they were hardened and gained a reputation as fierce warriors. Centuries passed and the hatred between the two Qharr clans softened, but never died out completely. The Qharr rediscovered what had been lost, the technologies of their creators, but the Gieff chose to remain isolated and apart. They remained tribalistic and sought to live a simpler life while the Qharr sought dominance of the stars.

Chapter Seventeen

The vision didn’t fade away, it simply blinked out and I was back in the real world staring at the Gieff woman as her chest heaved. Dynnara lurched back and she fell to her knees, but her eyes never left me. Her companions jumped forward weapons at the ready to scorch us with their phase rifles, but she held her hand up and climbed back to her feet.

“No!”

She stood there in the silence eyeing me up and down before a slow, but steady shiver ran up and down her body. She turned to the other Qharr and her face cracked into a smile that looked damned peculiar on her alien face.

“She spoke the truth.”

Dynnara drew close again and placed both her hands on my shoulder bowed her head and touched her forehead to mine. “You are progenitors, the heirs to the race from which we sprung. You must not be cast down as Jykarr Bynd has done. Forgive us.”

I took several steps back and let her hands fall away. She remained were she was standing, studying me with her trio of eyes.

“I’ve lived a lifetime under the thumb of the Qharr.” I shook my head and bit back tears. “I’ve watched my parents, the woman I once loved, and my own sister fall by your people’s hands. I-I can’t forgive those things. Not ever.”

She bowed her head and took three steps back. “Then I will help you. At least in some way the mistakes of the past can be undone. Earth belongs to you, let us fight the injustices of the Qharr people. If we can bring others to our path and fight against those who seek to continue your enslavement–”

“You’re talking about civil war!” Lily said her voice trembling as she stepped forward on trembling legs, bracing herself on the counter of the communications console. “Would you really betray your own people?”

“The Gieff and Qharr have warred with one another for as long as any of us can remember. I will shed no tears over the death of those who would turn their backs on the first race.”

I cleared my throat and glanced over my shoulder, a sob escaping my lips as I looked upon my sister’s corpse. Max moved forward, wincing with each step, before stopping and putting a hand on my shoulder. “We’ve done our part here. Lily needs medical attention and she damn well isn’t the only one.”

I gritted my teeth and nodded, unable to form the words, but even through the tide of grief and anger I knew she was right. I just wish I could see a way of us getting out alive. I shook my head and turned back to her and clenched my fists at my side. I took a deep breath before managing to force out a reply. I didn’t voice my concerns instead I looked around the room, careful to avoid lingering over Becca’s bloodied form.

“You have a suggestion?”

“If I can contact the Valiant, I think I can convince them to send down a drop ship, but they won’t risk an extraction in the middle of a firefight. So, we’ll need to put some distance between us and the action.”

Lily bowed her head taking in a deep breath of air before turning to me. “I-I don’t think I can make it. I can barely walk as it is.”

“I’m not leaving you… or Becca,” I clenched my hands at my side and walked to my sister’s body with slow deliberate steps.

Dynnara brushed past me and leaned down beside her body. “I shall carry this husk.” She slid an arm around Becca’s waist and turned to me as she hefted her up in her arms. “I will treat it with all due reverence and respect.”

I wanted to believe Dynnara was completely on the level and that should would do as she said, but her use of the word ‘husk’ didn’t fill me with the most confidence. A part of me wanted to force Becca’s body from her arms and carry her myself, but I bit my lip and turned away grabbing Lily by the shoulder as one of Dynnara’s hunters held the door open for us to pass through. I didn’t like it, but the Gieff was our best bet of getting the fuck out of there alive.

The Kylthash which coated the walls of the communication room had also granted the place a measure of sound resistance, but the moment I stepped through the doorway my ears were assaulted with the sounds of explosions and the much fainter sound of screams. The sheer intensity of the roar from the fighting was almost overwhelming and we hadn’t even made our way outside.

I pulled Lily close and felt a cold shiver trickle down my spine. I’d always hoped and dreamed this moment would come, but, until recently, a part of me hadn’t quite managed to believe it ever would. Humanity had suffered for decades under the rule of our oppressors and finally it was our time to fight for our freedom. Finally, the battle for Earth had begun.

Tears streamed down my face as I held Lily close to me. She’d lost consciousness sometime during our flight, but I could still feel her chest rise and fall. I fought my way through the tangle of Qharr with one hand. Firing off shots, as best I could weighed down by her inert form. It severely limited my ability to fight but I would not abandon her. Lily would get to safety and Becca would receive a proper burial even if it brought about my own demise.

It was all just a blur, phase bolts and bullets whizzed all around, but none of it mattered and I continued on somehow avoided any serious injury from the coil guns. I must have been hit maybe a dozen times, but most were from far off and all healed.

As we battled out way out, more of our friends joined us, but their faces were a blur and were soon forgotten as I continued onward. Lily was the only presence that registered and even then it was a vague nebulous presence. Farris cries when he saw my sister were enough to call up my attention, but even then it didn’t last long.

Finally, we reached the courtyard and the fog that had fallen over me finally lifted as I looked up to witness something I thought my eyes would never see. A destroyer, but not one of Qharr make, it was a human vessel reigning phase fire down on Qharr ships which were attempting to launch. Other ship’s joined it, some were recognizable as human, but many of the smaller ones were not. The ship’s were a hodgepodge of designs and colors, suggesting that the ERF had allied themselves with a number of different alien cultures.

“Thank God!” Max’s voice called out beside me. She clasped a hand over the left side of her throat and spoke. “Rodriquez to Valiant. Requesting extraction.”

She paused and I got the sense that she was listening to a response. I never heard one, but she must have had a comm implant. “Confirm, Sergeant Maxine Rodriquez, M-O-S Sixty-Eight Whisky Two, five-niner-bravo-seven-six-charlie-delta.”

She turned to me and glanced up at the one of the great skyscrapers. “We need to get higher, there’s too much weapons fire this close to the ground. They won’t risk bringing a drop ship down this close to the fighting.

“Farris!” I screamed out forced to raise my voice in order to be heard over the roar of the battle. “Take Lily!”

Farris did as he was commanded silently and reverently slipping my lover’s body out from my arms. I felt tears well up in my eyes at the sight, but I fought them away. I could mourn later… for the time being I had to keep my head.

“This way,” I called to the others just before I took off, running toward one of the great structures.

A wave of Qharr bodies swarmed through street in every direction. An endless sea of gray which stretched as far as the eye could see. We fought our way through the throng of beings headfirst, with all the grit and force of will that we could muster, but it was difficult going since the torrent of aliens seemed intent on making their way in the opposite direction.

No gray skins stopped to challenge us, but they seemed intent on getting out of dangers way. Few Qharr would cow to the threat of death, but like any species they had more than a smattering of common sense. An aerial battle taking place overhead with stray phase canon blasts and flaming debris plummeting toward the ground could end a life rather abruptly. Death while fighting an enemy was one thing, but death by falling wreckage or friendly fire wasn’t exactly the most heroic or honorable way to die.

We were less than a dozen meters away from our destination when we were finally confronted. Three hunters stopped, peeling away from the throng of fleeing Qharr and trained their weapons on us. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but those weapons were coil guns. I raised my weapons and opened fire killing the first two with a couple well-aimed shot to each of their chests. The third opened fire before I could do him in and I was forced to dodge out of the way. Fortunately, my companions scattered and Dynnara took the bastard out with a single shot to the head.

I expected that to be the end of it, but I should have known better. Instead of warriors we found ourselves confronted by an angry mob of civilians. I guess they didn’t take too kindly to us killing the warriors. There wasn’t a hunter among them, but they were still part of a culture obsessed with the warrior’s way. They might not have the training of a soldier, but most of them would still probably be better fighters than the average human.

“Fuck,” I whispered under my breath and lurched forward letting out a long stream of curses and insults in Qharr.

I holstered my weapons and held my hands up. It was time to try something a little different. I glanced back at Dynnara, cleared my throat then choosing my words slowly and deliberately I began to speak to the Qharr in their own language. “Brothers and sisters. Too much violence has been done between our two people. You are angry and understandably so. You have been lied to. We are not your enemies.”

They immediately rushed forward and I slammed my shoulder into the foremost attacker as she came at me. “Well, fuck. Fat lot of good that did.”

I raised my phase pistols prepared to open fire, but they were ripped from my hands. I screamed and ducked down as a fist soared toward me. I smashed the offending bastard in the face and moved on to my next victim, a rail-thin Qharr woman with the worst under-bite I had ever seen. I made short work of her and slammed my shoulder into a third who tried to come up on me from behind.

For every one Qharr I took down, three more took his or her place and it wasn’t long before I myself surrounded by more opponents than frankly I knew what to do with. How exactly was I supposed to fight several dozen opponents at once? They’d win by sheer numbers alone.

Farris was the first to collapse against the oncoming onslaught. He tried valiantly to fend them off, but the burden of Lily’s unconscious form was simply too great. Max fell next and one of the few remaining ERF soldiers was the third. I couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead, but I did hear a few screams from Dynnara before they closed in on me. Vakrexid’s tall bulbous head, which towered over that of even the tallest Qharr, was the last thing I saw before the weight of the bodies forced me down to the ground.

A squirming dogpile of writhing Qharr collapsed on top of me and I pressed back. I tried vainly to break free, but when I thought I might finally push through, the weight suddenly doubled. I screamed out and collapsed to the ground, unable to do anything but let myself be pulled the rest of the way to the ground.

“KHALA!”

Khala’s distress squirmed around inside my mind like a serpent slithering across my skin. It was probably the strangest sensation I had ever experienced and I wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign or bad one. Her emotions were so wrong that they almost seemed to have taken on a physical form, but they faded away just as quickly. They were replaced by a sudden influx of energy that burst out from my body and exploded into my attackers sending them flying away in all directions.

At first, I assumed that this was yet another application of Khala’s gravity manipulating abilities, but this felt different.

‘The Tyrsh!’ Khala’s voice was full of awe and wonder and I reached out to her with my mind. There was an instant connection, for a few seconds our minds became one and I understood. The Tyrsh was an ability said only to be available only to K’teth joined to the first hosts. It happened when the bond between host and symbiote was at its strongest. It was an energy discharge that could stun hundreds of enemies at once. Unfortunately, it didn’t make any distinction between friend or foe.

Knowledge of the Tyrsh wasn’t the only thing that came to me. A flood of memories and experiences, I knew everything there was to know about Khala and her previous hosts. Our consciousness was joined in a new way, a way that was so complete so intimate that there was no differentiating between me or her. We were united in a way that I never would have believed possible until that moment.

Dozens of Qharr came running across the distance, treading on the fallen bodies of their co-patriots. Dynnara, was the only one unaffected by the Tyrsh and we stood together as the oncoming onslaught. I had hoped to use this new ability again, but it had nearly drained me. There was simply no way, I could hope to call it up again without a massive energy intake.

I didn’t realize how weak I really was until the bastards were on top of us. I swung my fist at an opponent and didn’t seem to do much of anything except piss him off. He grabbed me by the throat and slammed me and slammed me down to the ground. None of my blows seemed to do a damn thing. It was as if the Kytash had drained away all my enhanced strength and reflexes. I called out for help, but Dynnara was a little busy.

I screamed out in defiance, but even that was an exercise in futility. The world seemed to slow down to a crawl and I thought that the end might finally come. There was no hope of rescue, there was no hope of survival. At least I could die knowing that the ERF might have a fighting chance.

I heard screams, and shouts followed by the sounds of struggle. My attacker was ripped away from my body and I felt a pair of hands pull me up from my feet. I blinked and looked upon my rescuer, unable to fathom what had happened and I couldn’t have been more surprised. Dynnara, looked me in the eyes and she smiled. Damn, I was never going to get used too that.

Lily was standing a short distance away, conscious again, and looking even more worse for the wear than the last time I’d looked upon her. Everywhere else I turned I saw Qharr fighting Qharr. It seems as if a pack of gray skin had come to rescue us. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but one thing was certain, I never in my wildest dreams would have ever expected one of our conquerors, let alone a whole squad of them, to come to our aid even after Dynnara joined ranks with us.

“Dynnara!” I yelled barely able to hear myself over the roar of the battle and pointed up to the building. “Can you get us up there?!”

Her head snapped around and her eyes locked on the spot where I was pointing. She screamed at the top of her lungs pointing at four warriors then turned to me. “If that is what you wish.”

The Qharr hunters moved with the brutal efficiency that few could match and struck at those who remained within the perimeter that had been created upon their arrival. The remaining fighters pushed out, peppering those who resisted them with a deluge of phase fire that devastated the rioting masses. Those that remained fled before their attacks unable to withstand the onslaught of the devastating blasts.

The bodies of our fallen attackers were slowly cleared away and I let a sigh of relief as each one of them was revealed to be alive. Some were in worse shape than others. Max’s face was a mass of bruises, Lily still looked pale and the doctor’s arm hung from his side uselessly, but Farris by far looked the worst. Even so, he climbed to his feet with a stubborn set to his jaw, and scooped my sister’s corpse up. I think he was as determined to give her a proper burial as I was.

I bit my lip and turned away fighting away the tears, but even so a few managed to stain my cheeks. I retrieved my pistols from the ground then cleared my throat and turned to Dynara. “Show us the way.”

Our fight up had been far less eventful than our flight through the streets, but when we got to the rooftops things got just a little more interesting. Fighters zoomed through the sky blasting at each other in the distance as they fought for arial domination of the sky.

If it had been just human and allied vessels fighting the gray skins it wouldn’t have seen quite so jilting, but many of the ships fighting each other were Qharr. It seemed almost incomprehensible, but we had succeeded in a way I never thought possible. The revelation that humans were the first race had clearly had a profound effect. The soldiers of the empire were actually rebelling. It was the outcome we had hoped for, but not one I had believed possible.

Max was yelling into her comm the moment we found our way onto the roof. “This is Sergeant Maxine Rodriquez, M-O-S Sixty-Eight Whisky Two, five-niner-bravo-seven-six-charlie-delta. I’m sending our coordinates now. We need immediate extraction. Repeat immediate extraction.”

She gritted her teeth and turned to me with a shake of her head. “A transport is inbound, but it may be a bit before they reach us.”

I nodded and paused for a moment to take in the battle. I’m sure there was fighting all over the city, but what little of it I could see was centered around the sub-ascendant’s residence. They were far enough away that we weren’t in any immediate danger, but that could change pretty quickly. The allied vessels were a hodgepodge of ship’s design. The human fighters were easy enough to pick out, the shared the sleek characteristics of their large counterparts, but the allied vessels were another matter entirely.

There were the orange and black dagger shaped vessels that sped through the air so fast that I wondered how their pilots could maintain control, then there were the blockier red and gray craft that flew at what I could only describe a more leisurely pace and blasted the enemy craft with powerful shots from phase canons that looked like they belonged on a much larger vessel like a cruiser and finally there were the cone-shaped craft that were a bright-blue color and covered in spikes.

Vakrexid flapped his one good arm and waved it out at the battle. He warbled and let out a high pitched squeal before turning back to me. “Those blue ones are Dexagarmetrax fighters!”

A brief image of the doctor at the helm of a fighter popped into my head and for a moment the goofy image even managed to bring a smile to my face before the weight of everything came crashing back down onto my shoulders. Again, I found myself fighting the urge to curl up into a ball, but I batted it away. I couldn’t allow myself to become distracted not when we were so close. I had to survive, if for nothing else than for Becca. She wouldn’t have wanted to me just to give up.

“Take cover!” Max screamed as a trio of Qharr fighters zoomed toward us.

I dove down and found cover behind some a large piece of machinery. If those fighters happened to spot us and opened fire, my hiding place wouldn’t offer up much protection, but it was more than suitable to conceal me. Unfortunately, the fighters weren’t fooled. I don’t know which of us they spotted, but when they stopped dead, hovering in the air above us I knew cowering behind the machinery wouldn’t do us any good.

I stepped out from cover and held my hands up. “Everyone stay down!” I screamed out as I walked slowly toward the edge of the roof. Maybe, there was a way I could fool the fighters into thinking I was alone. A phase canon put out a lot more energy than a rifle or a pistol. I wasn’t sure if I could survive the blast, if they decided to open fire, but I stood a much better chance than the others.

Fortunately, I never had to find out. A series of brilliant flashes slammed into the fighters each of which were sent careening down toward the ground where they exploded with blasts far more brilliant than the ones that had taken them out. When the resulting flashes cleared a human ship zoomed toward the building and stopped near the edge. A ramp extended from the side as a door on the side hissed open.

A lanky man, with a balding head stuck his head out and motioned forward. He spoke his voice artificially amplified by his helmet. “Sergeant Rodriquez!”

Max lurched into motion, yelling, screaming and frantically waved her hands as she motioned for all of us to follow. Most of us were already in motion, but I stayed back to assure that everyone was finding their way then turned to Dynnara who was staring at the transport ship with wide eyes.

“You coming?”

She turned to me and smiled again. “It would be an honor, but my place is here. There is a battle to be fought and perhaps even a war. The Ascendancy has committed a grievous sin and must be made to answer for what it has done.”

I bit my lip and cupped my hand around her right bicep. It was not a gesture I would have ever imagined making to a Qharr, but it was one that I believed was well deserved. It was a way of offering a fellow warrior well wishes and victory on the battlefield. I couldn’t help, but smile when she returned it.

“Go!” She yelled switching to Qharr just before she spun around and started yelling orders at the cadre of warriors that had accompanied us.

I didn’t say goodbye, that would have seemed hollow compared to the moment we had just shared. I climbed into the transport and collapsed on the ground beside Farris and my sister’s corpse. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as I finally allowed myself to morn. I had high hopes for Earth, but my future seemed much dimmer without Becca.

Even with working inertial negators the transport shook and rattled as it rocketed into the sky, but I couldn’t have cared less. My people were being carried away to safety and my part in the fighting was finally done.

Chapter Eighteen

Eyes closed, I leaned over the railing resting my head against the cold surface of the transparasteel as I stood a short distance away from the bed where Becca’s body had been placed. We had successfully made our escape and had been welcomed aboard the Valiant, the flagship of the ERF fleet, but there had been so much happening with the battle that we’d been shunted aside and forgotten. I didn’t blame them. If I had a battle to win, I wouldn’t be too worried about observing pleasantries.

At least, they had taken the time to escort us to the medical bay and treat our injuries. Well, those of us that needed it anyway. I opened my eyes, and bit my lip. Looking around at the others. Farris was seated next to my sister, his head bowed and both of his hands clasped in front of his face, the doctor was studying a display panel in the corner and Lily, who was in much better shape after receiving a blood transfusion, was standing beside me both hands on the rail. She leaned close to me and put her head on my shoulder. She didn’t say a word, and she didn’t have to. If anyone understood what I was going through it was Lily.

I glanced out the view port and shook my head. There was a sad sort of beauty in the destruction I witnessed there as the opposing forces ripped each other to shreds, but all I could think was how senseless it had all been. Our world had been invaded and enslaved and for what? Because the sub-ascendant had feared the truth about the connection between our two races. The end was near, but everything I ever cared about had been taken away from me. Except Lily. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it. Without her I would have nothing.

“This is most befuddling!” The doctor cried out and I craned my neck around to get a good look at him.

“Doctor, what is it?” Lily asked her hand still gripped in mine as she jerk sideways to meet the doctor’s gaze.

“Vakrexid is examining the scans of Rebecca’s body and cannot detect any sign of decay. She has no heartbeat, and no respiratory activity. This should not be possible.”

“What are you saying, doc?” Farris looked up his eyes red from all the tears he had shed.

“Neural activity! How can this be?! It should not be possible. Vakrexid cannot explain it… and yet. The symbiote! That must be it. Somehow it has managed to preserve Rebecca’s higher brain functions.”

“Doctor!” I screamed out. Not even realizing I had moved across the room until my I found my hands gripped around his shoulders. “What does that mean?”

“It means Alexana,” he said putting both hands on my shoulders. “That Vakrexid can revive your sister. Excuse me, Vakrexid must confer with my ERF colleagues.”

The doctor pulled away and I watched him jerk across the room unable to believe that it could be possible. I followed him, seeking more answers, but he spun around and gripped his hands around my shoulders. “No time to talk. Time is most important. Vakrexid needs you to displace your body from this place. Please, depart the infirmary at once!”

Vakrexid turned away and I felt a pair of hands pulling on mine. I let those hands leading me away. Once, the door had snapped shut behind us I turned to find Lily gazing up at me with those big magenta eyes. For most of our relationship, I felt as if I had always been the one looking after Lily. She’d always seemed… so delicate. Now I was the fragile one, the one who needed to be held. She wrapped her hands around me and we watched from the waging battle through the corridor view port.

Military vessels weren’t the only ones we witness strewed amongst the fighters and flagships. Civilian ships, merchants, cargo transports and the like fled Earth atmosphere, either disappearing with a flash of light or were destroyed by stray weapons fire. Most were of Qharr make, but there were a few of alien design. I wondered briefly if one of those vessels belonged to Veslpatt, but I had no way of knowing. A part of me really hoped the crime lord had managed to escape.

As the battle waged more and more gray skin ships turned against the main fleet, joining the human and allied vessels as they fought for dominance. The tide had turned in our favor, to be sure, but the implications of Qharr fighting Qharr went beyond this one battle. It meant civil war within the empire. If we succeeded in retaking Earth, which was looking more and more likely, our chances of maintaining control would be much greater if the gray skins remained occupied by an internal conflict.

We stood there transfixed by the spectacle, horrified, and yet, unable to look away. To me, it was almost as if by watching the battle we were, in fact, witnessing a physical manifestation of the doctor’s struggle to resurrect my sister. Each time a human vessel was destroyed or damaged I swore that I was seeing my sister’s death reaffirmed. She was dead. How could she be resurrected?

More Qharr ships fell before the growing might of the allied forces until finally so few remained that there was no doubt who the victors were.

“This is General Harold Briggs with Earth Return Fleet calling for all Qharr forces to stand down for immediate surrender. Any ships that fail to comply will be immediately fired upon.”

The voice which played over the intercom sounded older, and more worn than the one I’d heard from the message in the biometric key, but it very clearly belonged to the same man. Or did it? The ERF relied on clones to fill it’s ranks perhaps this Harold Briggs was a clone… or maybe the one left on Earth had been. Either way it was very unlikely that they were the same person.

The opposing Qharr ships didn’t surrender, but neither did they put up a fight. Instead they vanished with a bright flash of light. They’d fled with their tales tucked between their legs, an act that didn’t exactly fit within their code of honor. Those gray skin vessels that had joined forces with the ERF didn’t take long to follow until the only ship’s that filled they emptiness were human and allied vessels.

Humanity was free at last!

“Becca!” I said practically leaping across the room as the doctor motioned me inside the room.

As I drew close I could see her chest rise and fall, but her eyes did not open. Tears were streaming down my face as I reached out to take her hands. She didn’t move or respond in any way, but I felt a surge of joy when my fingers clasped around hers. Her hands were warm! “She-she’s going to make it?”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned to look into Vakrexid’s large bulbous eyes. “The symbiote did not survive, but his efforts were not in vain. Many of her internal organs were damaged and we were forced to replace them with artificial replacements for the time being. When she is in a more stable condition we will need to clone permanent implants, but it will be some time before we’ll be able to grow them. Fortunately, the ERF has the capability to produce mass quantities of blood on demand so Vakrexid was able to–”

I smiled and threw my arms around him, cutting him short in the middle of his rant. “Thank you.”

The doctor’s frame stiffened for moment just before I felt his arms slip up my back as he returned my hug. “You are most welcome.”

It felt so… miraculous after having so much taken away and now to have Becca given back. There were no words to describe the joy I felt. I pulled away and glanced over my shoulder at my sister’s inert form. “How long until she regains consciousness?”

“It is most difficult to predict.” Vakrexid let out a long mournful wail. “This situation is most unprecedented. It is unlikely that she will awaken for several days, but Vakrexid cannot say for certain.”

I nodded and walked over to my sister’s resting place and put a hand on her shoulder. “I can live with that if it means I’ll get to hear her voice again. I hope it’s alright with you, but I think I’ll keep watch over her until she wakes up. I thought I lost her twice already. I don’t intend for it to happen again.

“Indeed.” Vakrexid scurried away and I took a seat beside Becca’s bed and took her hand.

For the longest time, Becca was the sole object of my attention. Oh sure, I was aware of Farris along with the added presence of Vakrexid, and the ERF doctor’s scurrying about, but I wasn’t concerned about their presence and paid them no mind.

After a time, I felt a hand slip around my waist and a head lean against my shoulder. She’d been away debriefing the ERF commanders. I’m sure I’d be asked to do the same soon enough, but at the moment I was being given my space. The general probably had something to do with that, but I didn’t ask. Lily’s squeezed my free hand and I squeezed back. That moment stretched into an eternity and I closed my eyes letting a flood of warmth rush through me.

Khala’s presence was strong in my mind and a smile touched the corner of my lips as I felt an outpouring of love and support. Our relationship had always been tenuous at best, but that had already started to change. I cared for my symbiote and it was now obvious she returned those feelings. Earth would be need to be rebuilt and I couldn’t imagine that happening without the support of every willing being, human, K’teth or even Dexagarmetrax.

“Thank you, Sergeant Rodriquez,” a lone figure said from the view port. I couldn’t see much of his face, but his gray hair at least told me he was well past his prime. “You’re dismissed.”

Max threw her hand out in a salute and turned around on the balls of her feet before disappearing through the doorway. The figure turned toward me, once the door slid shut behind him, and smiled. He stroked his bearded chin and studied me with a pair of fierce steel-blue eyes that showed nothing but kindness. He looked so much like my father that for a brief moment I actually believed I was looking upon the spectre of Lloyd Briggs, but there was something about his bearing that gave his true identity away. It was my uncle, Harold Briggs.

He turned back toward the view poor staring at that great blue marble that was the Earth and sighed. “For almost twenty-five years, I’ve waited for this day. The day that I would return home and retake the world I’d been forced to flee all those years ago. Now that I’ve succeeded, I scarcely know what to do with myself.”

“Your job is hardly done, General. There are still thousands of Qharr left on Earth and after that there will be a world to rebuild,” I said walking slowly toward the view port.

I touched the glass and looked out at the expanse. I sensed his eyes on me and turned to meet his gaze when he started to speak. “I don’t think I was fully prepared.”

I nodded. “It was certainly an enormous task.”

“It was, but that is not what I meant. I wasn’t prepared for how much you remind me of your father.”

I bit my lip and turned away shaking my head. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember much about him.”

“You must have a lot of questions.”

I sighed and let out a soft chuckle. “I think I could probably say the same about you.”

Humanity was free, but so many questions were still unanswered. Our origins and how they related to the Phyrr Lesch were a big part of the puzzle, but there was still so much we didn’t know. Something told me the General probably knew much more about me than I did him. I’m sure the ERF had already sent up dozens of intelligence reports regarding the resistance, the K’teth, me, and our experiences, but sometimes you couldn’t truly get the measure of a person until you looked them in the eyes.

“I image we’ll have plenty of time to fill each other in on the particulars of what has transpired today and everything that has happened since the invasion, but for now… I’d really like to catch up with you and your sister. Once she has recovered, of course.”

“I’m still a little amazed by what happened. I-I thought I lost her.”

He moved toward the corner of the room where a beat-up looking wooden desk rested, a stark contrast to the uniformly cold steel bulkheads of the ship. He pulled a drawer open and set a familiar bottle filled with amber liquid atop the desktop. “Amaretto?”

I nodded and let a slow smile form touch my lips as he slid a glass toward me. I took it in both hands and took a long sip. “I’m really starting to get a taste for this stuff.”

“I take it Mara shared a drink with you?”

“Yours did. Is she alive? I haven’t heard a thing about her since the battle.”

He nodded, setting his glass down after finishing off the rest of his drink. “She’s a little worse for the wear, but the doctors aboard our medical frigate, the Nightingale, tell me she’ll make a full recovery.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“It must be disconcerting meeting different iterations of the same person. I know from personal experience that it can be rather unsettling.”

“You can say that again. The first time I crossed paths with your Mara, I was so shocked, I was ready to put a phase blast through her head. Of course, the Mara who stayed on Earth was a clone too, wasn’t she? I don’t even remember the real Mara.”

“I’m not surprised, you were very young when she passed away.”

“You know the truth, then? About who I am.”

“I know about the K’teth and how you became Alexana.”

“Any you, you’re a clone?”

“Nothing so interesting, I’m afraid. I’m the real McCoy, the dull old bland original Harold Briggs. With all the quirks and flaws that come with it.” A smile touched the corner of his lips and realize he was trying to get a laugh out of me.

I smiled, and chuckled softly before I stopped and gave him a good hard look in the eyes. He wasn’t like anything I would have expected and in small part of what I had lost. I smiled and after a bit of coaxing I started to tell him the story of my life. There was a lot of pain in my past, but for once telling it all didn’t make me sad. Nothing could dampen the joy that swelled within me at that moment. My sister was alive after her symbiote had sacrificed it’s own life to save her, I had been reunited with an uncle I believed dead and after twenty-four years of enslavement I was finally free. For the first time for as long as I could remember life was looking pretty good.

Comments, no matter the length, are very much appreciated. If you liked this story please take a minute to leave a review or even just to tell me you liked it. Criticism is welcome so long as it is constructive and I will gladly answer any personal messages or emails you want to send my way.

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.

  • Reply
    Jayjay
    10/25/2020 at 2:55 am

    It took me some time to get back to this, but glad I made it Daniela. Quite the epic, thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Reply
      Daniela A. Wolfe
      10/25/2020 at 3:52 pm

      You’re welcome and thank you for the kind words!

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