Kingsburgh, California, Conclave Headquarters
“Ow! God dammit, what the hell are you doing back there?” I slipped my hand over my left shoulder, only to have it pushed away.
“This one won’t do,” Tanner said, all the pressure on my chest disappearing as she released her hold on the bra. I wrenched it free and spun around to face her bare chested, the bra clenched in my fist.
“Geez, the fucking Louise, why the hell do you women wear these things?”
Tanner pursed her lips, eyes never once leaving my breasts, before she coughed and averted her gaze. “Believe me, a well-fitting bra is a heaven-send. We don’t have that luxury right now, but I believe we should be able to find a close fit.”
I glared at the haphazard heap of bras, my grandmother’s assistant had brought in and grimaced, more than a little put-off by the prospect of trying each one out. There had to be at least a dozen for God sakes!
“You know,” I said, cupping both breasts in my hand. “These girls are pretty damn firm. Do I really need one of those things?”
Tanner grabbed me by both shoulders, guided me around to face the north wall and snatched a fourth bra from the pile, a little larger than the last one. “Maybe if we had some pasties, but the tops they brought are all made of thin material. If you want your nipples to show through, that’s your business, but given you’re about to meet with the Conclave Council it might give them the wrong impression.”
I gritted my teeth and raised my arms, allowing Tanner to slip this newest assault to my masculinity over my chest. When she pulled the straps tight and hooked them in place, I reached one hand down, testing the straps. She’d found one that seemed to fit. Thank God.
I obeyed and lurched back when Tanner reached out to cup my breasts. She shook her head, snorted and let out a little chuckle before grabbing me by the hand and pulling me close again. This time her hands moved across the underside of my boobs, pinching a glob of flesh between two fingers.
“Not a perfect fit. See here where you got a little hanging out,” she said wiggling her fingers. “That means this one is a little small. We can try out a few others if you like, but I think we were lucky to find this close of a fit.”
I glanced at the stack of bras, shivered, and shook my head. “Yeah, I can live with it.”
“I thought you’d say that.” She grinned and backed away, grabbing another bag, and dumping it onto the counter. She started picking through the heap and retrieved a couple sets of pants and tossed them my way.
“Try those on for size.”
I did as she instructed, more than a little surprised that the first pair fit pretty well. I half expected her to insist I tried the others, but all she did was nod and start throwing shirts my way. The first was too tight, I couldn’t even get the damn thing to slip over my breasts. The second wasn’t as bad, but it was way too long on my tiny frame. The third was too big, so were the fourth, fifth, and sixth, which all wound up looking like tents on me. I had a winner with the seventh, a simple, and very soft white blouse that hugged my curves, in all the right or wrong ways depending on how you looked at it.
“Not bad, but it needs something more.” She glanced around, eying the massive mound of clothes and frowned. She paused a moment, before slipping her hands inside another bag producing a leather jacket. “Try this.”
I yanked it from her hands and slipped it on. The leather was nice and supple and cool to the touch. I’d always had a thing for leather, and once I had the jacket resting on my shoulders, it seemed like I’d recovered an old part of myself. Nevermind that it was sized to fit a woman, it was very much the sort of thing I would wear. Just because I was swinging for the opposite team, didn’t mean my taste in clothes had to change.
Tanner slipped around my back, her hands sliding inside the neck of the jacket and pulled my hair free.
“Thanks, still haven’t gotten used to all this hair.”
I blushed, my hands sliding up my neck to collect the loose locks after she released them. I paused and grimaced, realizing that I had no idea what I had done with my scrunchie.
“Dammit, how the hell am I supposed to put my hair in a ponytail now?”
“Here,” Tanner said, grabbing hold of my locks again. “Let me put it in a braid. You’re lucky I know how to finish one without an elastic.”
I let my hands fall away and grimaced as she tugged on my hair, twisting and turning different strands in her hands. She finished yanking on the new braid hard enough for me to wince, but even I wasn’t baby enough to complain about that.
“Dammit Tanner, take it easy, would you?”
Okay, maybe I lied. I grimaced and whipped the braid around, eyed the tip. “This is how you end a braid without a hair tie? Make a knot in the end?”
“People have been using that method for hundreds of years,” she replied, putting both hands on her hips.
“You can tell. It looks like something a medieval peasant girl might sport.” I sighed, dropping the braid and shaking my head. “I’m sorry, it’s just this whole thing has got me all twisted around. Getting bonded to a symbiote and turned into a woman is everything I’ve ever feared. I’m due to meet the Conclave Council any minute now and I just feel like everything that makes me, me, has been stripped away. I’m not sure I’m even myself anymore.”
She cupped my face and touched her forehead to mine. It was an intimate gesture, but I didn’t pull away even though my heart was hammering in my chest. Tanner’s presence was the one thing that made me feel as if I had some control over the situation. My business partner represented the life I had chosen for myself, not the one the great Kaya Briggs had been trying to push me into for as long as I could remember. True, Tanner’d kept secrets, but so had I. I couldn’t blame her given the way I had reacted.
“You’re still Jek.” She smiled and her hands grasped my shoulders. “A set of mammaries doesn’t define who you are, but I won’t lie. When you have more estrogen pumping through your veins, your perspective does change and your emotions are so much more potent, but it doesn’t change you at the core. Your interests, and personality aren’t just going to fly out the window. You are who you are, regardless of your sex.”
I nodded and pulled away, letting just the slightest bit of a smile touch the corner of my lips. “Thank you.”
There were so many things I wanted to say right there and then, but whatever opportunity we might have had to get our feelings out in the open was ruined when the door slid open to reveal my grandmother’s aging form. All my pent up hostility toward her bubbled to the surface as she waltzed into the room. I bit my tongue, forcing back all the angry words I was so close to spewing out.
My grandmother got right down to business, informing us that the council would meet any moment and it was time to go. So, I let her lead me away, glancing back at Tanner as she called after us, wishing me good luck. I had no clue what my grandmother had in store, but something told me it would not be an experience I enjoyed.
The conference room stood out from the other ones within the Conclave’s walls. Not only was it a fair bit bigger than the rest, able to accommodate a massive mahogany conference table with room to spare, but the walls were black. Now, I don’t mean, it was that dark shade we call ‘black’. This was much, much darker, the complete absence of any sort of any pigment. You couldn’t see any shadow against its surface or even tell where the damn corners were without feeling for them.
It was a bit disconcerting, but the floors were just the regular carpeted variety, so you had a good idea how big the room was without having to worry about walking into the wall. I couldn’t begin to guess why the Conclave would have designed the room in such a way. I’m sure there was an excellent reason for such an odd accommodation, I just didn’t know what it was.
My grandmother pulled two chairs out at the end of the table and motioned for me to sit beside her. I peered about, getting my first good look at all those who had already congregated around the table. There were thirteen other humans aside from myself and my grandmother, all but one of them sporting the telltale locks of a joined host. I recognized the odd man out as Colonel Cayne, and he looked no less intimidating than he had the last time I’d met him, especially when his gaze turned my way, and a frown creased his features.
The other three occupants of the room weren’t human, but all were of Terran descent. Two were Dexagarmetrax, the doctor and a violet-skinned individual who was not only broad-shouldered for a member of their race but also towered over Vakrexid by more than a head, the final was a Qharr and the only one in the galaxy I would have recognized, though our only encounter was brief, Ambassador Nyvok Nakyrr.
“Ladies and gentleman, I have the pleasure of welcoming Colonel Cayne, of the United Earth Alliance Fleet here with us today, and an Ambassador from Dexagarmetraxia, who as many of you should know customs forbid us from speaking her name, our own doctor who I won’t label for the same reasons, and Plenipotentiary Nyvok Nakyrr of the Gieff Ascendancy. Though our meetings tend to be more informal, we will follow the formal protocol as set apart in section nine paragraph three of our bylaws. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Conclave protocol, I may give only one person the floor at once, and as chairperson I will decide who may speak at my discretion. To request the floor, you may press the small yellow indent on the table in front of you.”
She paused, glancing toward me, and smiled before returning her gaze to the circle of people. “This young lady beside me is Kaydence Briggs, the newest initiate of the Conclave, and my granddaughter, who you will all recognize better by her birth name Jellfree.”
Given how K’teth queens were well-known for transforming male hosts into women, it made sense that she wouldn’t need to inform the rest of the council about my apparent shift in gender, but, to me, it just seemed like an odd omission given that Cayne and the Dexagarmetrax ambassador were present.
“Cayne.” My grandmother eyed the Colonel and nodded. “I’ll let you brief them.”
The Colonel rose, peering at each person in the room until his eyes settled on me. “At approximately ten-hundred hours on April the twenty-second, my ship the Valiant arrived in the Torrentian Void following orders from General Arnoff to investigate claims of a derelict ship. These claims turned out to be true.”
“It was the Endeavour.”
This elicited more than a few whispers and murmurs from the councilors, but that stopped the moment my grandmother rose to her feet. “Do try to remember that the Colonel has the floor. I was just as shocked to learn of the Endeavour’s discovery, but spare any comments until after he has finished speaking.”
“For reasons of interplanetary security, much of what I am about to tell you, we will not be revealing to the public. As such, you are all bound by the agreement between your respective governments, the Conclave, and the United Earth Alliance. Should any of you breach those agreements, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Cayne paused just long enough to scowl my way, then cleared his throat and continued. “We found the crew dead, killed in what I can only describe as a horrific manner. The only exception being one Dr. Gina Ingraham, an expert in communications and linguistics, who is unaccounted for along with one of the ship’s support pods. We believe whatever happened to the Endeavour, happened quickly as the crew does not seem to have put up a fight. Its exterior was scorched, showing evidence of energy weapons’ damage. More troubling, most of the communications logs and all the navigation data from the computer systems were wiped.”
“We could not determine whether the ship’s crew or those responsible for their deaths wiped the computer, but what we know is that a creature of mysterious origins attacked them. The genetic evidence we’ve found pegs this thing as the killer, but given it’s small cranial capacity we believe it was either transported onto the Endeavour by accident or set upon the crew by someone or something else. The most disturbing piece of information we’ve uncovered is that we believe this being was either once a gray skin that was modified into a more primitive and brutal state or a being engineered using the Qharr genome as a base.”
All heads turned toward Nyvok, who leaned forward, clasping his hands across the table, before one of his large fingers reached out, tapping the indent before him. Rising to his feet, he looked about the room, all the while massaging the lower side of his left jaw.
“You’re not suggesting that my people are responsible for this attack, are you Colonel? We’re just as interested, if not more so, in determining the ultimate fate of the Phyrr Lesch as your race. ”
“No, of course not. None of the damage to the Endeavour is consistent with any known species or race, including the Qharr or Gieff.” Cayne replied, hands clenched at his side.
Nyvok bowed his head and looked around the room. “I cannot say who might be responsible, but given the creator race could manipulate genetics with a great deal more… How do you say, finesse? Then any of our races have achieved, even those as advanced as the servant race,” he paused, nodding toward the two Dexagarmetrax standing in the corner. “That might at least infer some sort of link to the Phyrr Lesch.”
“Please continue, Colonel,” Nyvok held his hand out then slid back into his sizable chair.
“That is the presiding theory among my people,” the Colonel replied, adjusting his uniform collar. “However, there isn’t enough evidence to give us a definitive answer. We know the Endeavour’s crew unearthed an artifact. Said artifact had been jettisoned from the craft…” He stopped to glower at me and then continued. “…along with the alien creature, some time before we arrived on scene, but we were able to retrieve both.”
A thin dome-headed man stood up, the only evidence that he possessed the blue hair of a bonded host were the two wisps of hair that clung to the sides of his head, looking for all the world as if he’d pasted them there as an afterthought.
“What artifact would that be?”
“It’s a box, but I can’t tell you much beyond that. Se know it’s ancient, and it seems to emit an immense amount of energy which is rather impressive considering that our scientists have dated it at over ten thousand years old,” Cayne replied.
“Well then, from what you say, this artifact, and the creature may be the two biggest clues as to what transpired on the Endeavour. Why exactly were they jettisoned?”
“Oh, for crying out loud! It was self-preservation.” I yelled, blurting it out without bothering to press the button. My grandmother glared at me, but I ignored her.
“Excuse me?” The man asked.
I sighed, mashed my finger into the button, and stood up. Blushing as all eyes fell on me. I’d only been female for a few hours, but was already self-conscious about the change. “The box or the artifact, whatever the hell you want to call it, got blown out with the creature which, I might add, was trying to kill me. As for the box, that thing nearly went nuclear on my ass.”
“Look, it’s hard to explain, but maybe if I go back to the beginning and tell you what happened it would probably make a whole hell of a lot more sense.”
A single nod from my grandmother was the only encouragement I needed. I wasn’t eager to tell my story, but a part of me hoped sharing it might help uncover the mysteries surrounding the Endeavour’s disappearance. I glanced around again and started telling my story, beginning with my encounter with the Faioloese traders, and described the explorations of the Endeavour, finding the box, flushing the creature into the vacuum of space and ended with becoming joined to Khala. It took me ten minutes to finish and when I had, I was met with silence so pervasive that I hesitated to break it.
Finally, a council member, an aging woman with very prominent crow’s feet around her eyes, placed her hand on her own button and after receiving a prompt from Kaya spoke up with a quiet, but firm voice.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say that news of the Endeavour’s discovery is both heartrending and a relief to those of us who had loved ones who were expedition members. You say that you are now bonded with Khala. It seems clear to me, however painful it might be for us to hear, that she would provide valuable insight. As a witness of the events that led to the Endeavour’s downfall, she would be uniquely qualified to help us get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding this terrible tragedy.”
Once again, the eyes of everyone turned to me. I met my grandmother’s gaze, and she nodded. I tapped the button, rose to my feet, closed my eyes, and let myself slip away. Khala needed no prompting this time, and when my eyelids snapped open, I no longer held the reins. My neck craned around on its own volition, and Khala paused.
When she spoke, she enunciated with a soft timbre that I never thought I’d hear coming from my throat. The voice was mine, my new one anyway, but Khala’s inflection was so different. The way she uttered each syllable sounded so feminine, it seemed as if I was listening to someone else speak.
“I must confess that it’s a little strange being here. From my perspective, less than a week ago, I was still bonded to Sofia Briggs aboard the Endeavour, studying ancient ruins. The next thing I know, I come awake, separated from my host and forced to come to terms with not only her death, but that almost twenty years had passed. In my more than a thousand years of life, I have never experienced something so very disorienting and… so very devastating.”
A sob escaped my lips and my entire body trembled. There was so much emotion in my voice… So much pain that it made me stop to think. The K’teth were sapient, reasoning beings dependent on other species to continue their existence. It hadn’t struck me until that moment, how Khala must have felt about my mother’s passing. I’d lost Sofia Briggs a long time ago, but for her, her death must have been a fresh wound which hadn’t even scabbed over.
Of course, there was the physical bond to consider. K’teth joined to their hosts at a cellular level, and such an undertaking would have been physically taxing. So, not only was she physically exhausted, but emotionally spent as well. If I’d been in her position, I probably couldn’t have formed a coherent sentence, let alone address a room full of people. Then again, she wasn’t human, so I might as well have been blowing smoke in the wind.
A hand fell on my shoulder and Khala turned my head, meeting the gaze of my grandmother who whispered into my ear. “Don’t just tell them, show them.”
Khala furrowed my brows as my grandmother shoved a small cylindrical device into my hands. “It’s based on the same technology as the doctor’s implant, and it’s tied into the holo system. Share your memories with me and the others will see it.”
“I warn you, what you are about to witness may not be pleasant to behold. The Endeavour crew’s deaths were brutal. If you are the least bit squeamish, I would urge you to leave this chamber.”
No one stood to leave, but a lump formed in my throat as the realization hit me: I was about to watch my mother’s death through her own eyes. Not a pleasant prospect, but one which could help unravel the mystery behind the Endeavour. So, when the lights blinked out, I clenched my jaw and my breath caught in my throat as images flooded through my awareness.