In transit to Orbiting Defense Platform Odin, aboard the Flint
Our ride, the Flint, was a Voyager class transport, a sleek and slender vessel and was among the smallest classes of ship in the United Earth Alliance Fleet. Often used on the front line to get troops in and out of tight spots, it was no mystery why they had so often been equipped with precision drives.
The vessel seemed more than a like familiar. The Centennial Hawk was a prototype model, which was the basis for Voyager-class ships, like our transport. There were, however, some pretty noticeable differences. I mean, they kept it a fair bit cleaner, and the Hawk’s bulkheads were a hodgepodge of different materials Tanner and I scavenged from wherever the hell we could.
The Hawk was unique, the only one of its kind, built with a modular dock that would have allowed it to be outfitted with dozens of different pods. As near as I’d been able to determine, the only pod ever produced had been the cargo container. It had been a good idea in theory, but the engineers at Briggs Aerospace and Engineering who had worked on her hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks after Lily’s death. So the company scrapped the modular aspect and sold the design to the UEAF as a transport ship.
When we’d gotten hold of the Hawk it had been an empty shell, a husk save for the propulsion system, but one which came at an enticing enough price that we hadn’t passed it up. Retrofitting her had been a challenge, but boy had it been worth it. Few transports could match her speed or maneuverability, and we had equipped her with second-hand and re-manufactured parts. If Tanner or I had managed to get our hands on some of those military grade hardware, I can’t speak for my partner, but I think I’d have died and gone to heaven.
After we were all inside, Lt. Chev Raymont, the UEAF officer who’d greeted us outside the ship, closed the ramp behind us by slamming his hand into a nearby wall switch, then turned back to us with a smile that looked a little too forced.
“If you’ll be so kind as to follow me, we can get underway.”
The Flint didn’t appear to be a troop or cargo transport, given that those sorts of ships had a more open design, with few bulkheads and no corridors. This vessel had both. My guess, it was a transport for persons of importance, like high-ranking officers, consultants, dignitaries, government officials and whatever the hell category we fell into.
A short walk down a corridor, and into an adjoining room, later, and we soon found ourselves inside an area that must have measured a good sixty square meters, lined with padded bench seats, a minibar and a holo projector on one wall. It looked very much like the interior of a limousine, only much larger, which pretty well confirmed my suspicions.
The good Lieutenant invited us to sit, have a load off, have a drink or two and… wait. He didn’t phrase it that way, but that was the general point. He turned to leave, and I put my hand on the door and called out.
He stopped in his tracks, then ever so slowly swung back to face me. The soldier didn’t say a word, nor did I, but I peered at him, hoping he could read the silent plea on my face. How could he leave me inside a room with the Qharr diplomat, my grandmother and business partner? No way, nope, just a whole hell of a lot of nuh uh. Things were awkward enough already.
The worst part was, he didn’t seem to understand or else he didn’t care enough to do shit about it. Not one to take no for an answer, what I did next shocked even me.
I rubbed a hand along the inside of my shirt collar, massaging the skin with slow sensuous movements, popping a button loose as I did. He didn’t move his head, but his eyes pretty well followed the movement and I realized I’d gotten the reaction I wanted.
What was I doing? I almost stopped there, but as his eyes looked over me with hungry desire, I realized something that weirded me the fuck out. I enjoyed getting the attention.
“My business partner, and I,” I paused long enough to nod back toward Tanner. “We run a small shipping business and our ship is an early X-419 prototype, we’d be interested in seeing more of the ship.”
He swallowed and averted his eyes, stepped away and nodded. “Uh, yes, we could arrange something like that. The weapons systems and engine sections are off limit to guests without clearance, but you and your friend are more than welcome to join me in the control room.”
“That, would be wonderful.”
I smiled, letting my hand slide away from my neck, but leaving the button of my blouse undone. When I peered back at Tanner, I paused before beckoning her forward. The look on her face and the one worn by my grandmother were almost identical. Eyebrows shot way up to the top of their forehead and eyes about as wide as they would go. I didn’t blame them for being surprised, so was I. The real question was, what came over me?
I shook my head, forcing breath in and out. It had gotten me all… excited, and a growing part of me was a little uncomfortable with the implications. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and snapped my eyelids open.
“Um, yeah can we forget about it?”
I turned back and took several steps away. I did not understand what that had been about, but I wouldn’t let myself take it any further. As fucking weird as that had been, I was a tad more concerned about how my companions would react.
That weird, newly discovered aspect of me was disappointed when Raymont left the room, but my sane half won out. I took one look around, noting that neither my grandmother nor Tanner looked even slightly less surprised, then marched into the corner, plopped down and cupped my face in both hands, wishing for all the world that I understood what the actual fuck had just happened.
The insides of my stomach clenched, and I remained there, burning tears streaking my cheeks, too humiliated to open my eyes or uncover my face. The room fell silent as the seconds passed into minutes. Soon enough I sensed movement, but instead of looking up to see who it was, I froze in place, unable to make eye contact with anyone. Hands slipped around my arm and a voice whispered in my ear.
‘Kaydence, you can do this. Find her, set her free.’
The voice sounded familiar, a unique combination of Salvadoran and Texas accents I had only ever heard from one person, my mother. I snapped my eyes open, and sat bolt upright, heart hammering in my chest when I discovered that there wasn’t anyone close enough to have whispered in my ear.
‘Khala, did you…’
Either Khala was messing with me or she really had no idea. I doubted Lexa would have pulled such a trick, and even if she had, the symbiote would have known. I wouldn’t be satisfied until I got an answer out of her, and when she replied in the negative, my heart sank. I was going insane. It was the only logical explanation.
For years now, I’d been hearing a voice in my dreams encourage me to find ‘her and set her free’. Until recently, I always assumed that the voice was trying to tell me I needed to find my mother, but since doing that, it had spoken to me four times, twice in dreams, and twice in the actual world. Granted, one time, I was an inch from death, but it seemed a little disconcerting that I was hearing voices.
“Kayde?” Tanner came over and sat beside me, putting a hand around my shoulder and held me. “What’s going on, you’re weirding us out.”
My grandmother hung back only a moment longer, before she moved across the room, took a seat beside me and placed her hand on mine.
“I’ll be fine,” I whispered, lying through my damn teeth. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be fine again. The experience had me shaking, doubting my sanity and confused as hell.
“I need to figure things out. Give me some time.”
That seemed to satisfy them both, but it would take more than a few paltry words to wash my doubts away. There was something very assuring about being held, a closeness that would have never been acceptable for me when I was a man. Things didn’t seem so uncomfortable anymore, even with Nyvok huddled in the corner, looking like someone who wanted to be anywhere but stuck in a cabin with a trio of human women. Quite a feat considering that the Qharr were so expressionless, but I suppose I might be getting better at reading his body language.
My first trip out since becoming a woman was less than stellar. Already, I’d pissed off a DTS agent, weirded everyone out, myself included, by flirting with Raymont, and had a very public breakdown in front of an alien ambassador who also happened to be a descendant of the warrior who enslaved my great-grandmother. Yeah, as bad days went, that one ranked in the top five, and it was only going to get worse from there.
I was never so glad when the bukheads of the transport shuddered, and an almost imperceptible snap-hiss sounded from somewhere on the other side of the wall. If I hadn’t been so attuned to space travel, I probably wouldn’t have even heard it, but it was sufficient for me to identify. I slipped my hands clear of my face and stared at the exit, all the shame and shock from earlier forgotten as I listened for any signs of movement.
My grandmother’s gaze snapped up to stare at the door at about the same moment as mine had. Tanner was slower, no doubt, because she lacked the enhanced senses of a symbiote, but soon enough she too watched the door with anticipation in her eyes.
Nyvok held a small volume resembling a book, but made of slats of a material that might have been wood strung together into sheets. Each page was about three millimeters thick, and I guessed there were around forty pages judging from the thickness. I’d never seen a Qharr text of that sort, but I’d been made to understand that they read it bottom to top and the characters weren’t so much a collection of words, but instead represented thoughts and ideas. The amount of information in a single sheet would have been the equivalent of pages and pages worth of English text. He may very well have been reading the Qharr equivalent to War and Peace.
He was either so engrossed in his reading that he was unaware that the airlock had opened or was hoping to find a good stopping place before setting the book aside. It wasn’t until the door slid open that the ambassador pulled one slat out a few centimeters, perhaps marking his spot, and rose from his feet, meeting Raymont’s gaze as he stepped inside the room.
Lurching to my feet, I was out the door before the Lieutenant could even blink at me. I had been eager to leave the ship, so eager that the desire overcame me with an almost obsessive, manic fire. In seconds, I was clambering down the hallways before the others departed the room, and when I reached the exit ramp, channeled all the patience I had to keep myself from exiting without waiting for them.
When they did join me I ran down the ramp, basking in the wide open space of the hanger as I strained my neck back looking upon my surroundings. I was more than ready to put my little breakdown behind me, but as great as that sounded, it wouldn’t be something I could cast aside. Despite this disconcerting revelation, I put on my best professional face and waited for everyone else to descend the ramp. I might have looked calm and collected on the surface, but underneath a raging storm of emotions threatened to come thundering out. I shuddered to think what would happen if someone pressed the wrong buttons.
I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and I turned to face the approaching entourage, led by an aging figure wearing a fleet uniform and sporting three bars on each of his sleeves.
Oh great, a General.
On his right side and just a meter back moved the towering figure of Hetzapledra, the Dexagarmetrax ambassador, and about the last being I expected to see. The General and ambassador were escorted by a pair of Dexagarmetrax much both closer in height to the human than the ambassador. Two servicemen trailed behind, keeping a respectful distance.
When the leader of the group drew closer, I was able to make out his nametag which identified him as General Theodore Arnoff. He greeted my grandmother with a curt nod and a flat, expressionless face. “Ma’am it’s good to see you again and ambassador so good of you to join us as well.”
“Charming as always, I see. Arnoff this is my granddaughter, Kayde, and her business partner Tanner.” Kaya Briggs held her hand out, first to me, then to Tanner.
Charming? Ha! That was the exaggeration of the century. The guy had about as much personality as food dispenser.
“It is agreeable General to once again have the honor.” Nyvok bowed his head and closed all three eyes, then stood bolt upright as he glanced around the hanger. “If it is not too impertinent of me to ask. How soon can we see this second beast? My government is very concerned about these beings. Consolidator Fryshck has taken a personal interest in the matter and will be expecting an update by the end of this Terran day.”
“The situation has changed.” Arnoff cast his eyes back at the Flint. “I’m afraid no one will be seeing the creature. We have put most of the facility under quarantine.”
“What?” My grandmother and I stepped forward and spoke up in perfect unison.
I cleared my throat, held my hands up and stepped back. My grandmother watched me and turned back toward Arnoff.
“I don’t understand. Is this second creature diseased?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” he replied.
Despite his cool facade, I got the sense for the first time that he found the subject unsettling. Okay, so he was shifting from foot to foot and he had this odd tick where his left eye kept twitching, but I swear to you it was all intuition. Hey, what can I say? I just have a knack for reading people.
“Why don’t we discuss this very classified bit of information somewhere less public? I have some surveillance footage to show you, which I believe will be very illuminating.”
I craned my neck around, my eyebrows furrowed. We were inside one of the orbiting defense platforms, which was the most impenetrable military installation in the entire alliance. Couple that with the complete absence of anyone besides ourselves, and it just seemed… odd. Who would spy on us? A hunk of space debris?
Arnoff must have had reason to worry about eavesdroppers, but I didn’t see what it might be. Still, I was dying to find out what had happened and I’m sure the others were too considering they didn’t issue a single word of protest as the good General led us away. Not that I was in any place to criticize, I didn’t either.
We never made it more than a hundred meters before, you guessed it, shit hit the fan. Okay, so it didn’t happen all at once. It starred with the sirens, which sounded out of thin air. I didn’t know what sort of sound system the UEAF used, but shit, it was loud.
“Dammit.” Arnoff cursed and cupped a hand over his jugular. “Someone tell me what the hell is going on.”
He paused, listening to a response from a subordinate, then started barking out orders.
“Get all available units prepped in containment gear, throw some god-damned coil guns in their hands and send them after that thing. Nothing gets in or out of this base, do you hear me? Nothing.”
He dropped his hand, spun around on the balls of his feet and started ushering us back toward the transport. “I need you back aboard that transport, now.”
“I thought you said–” I started to object, but the General cut me short.
“It’s not going to take off, but it’s armored and a lot more secure than an open hanger bay. Now move!”
I didn’t budge an inch, for that matter neither did my grandmother. Tanner took a few steps back, but when she saw that neither one of us had moved, she stopped and stared back at Arnoff, who’s face turned so red I half expected him to drop dead of a heart attack. Nyvok inched toward the door, craning his head around and sniffing like a dog trying to pick up a scent. Hetzapledra and their aids were the hardest to read, but they didn’t seem at all alarmed. Mostly, they quivered, which was pretty normal for members of their race.
“No.” I folded my arms across my breasts and stared him down. No small feat considering he towered over me. “You need me. I’ve gone toe to toe with one of those things already and killed it without enhanced strength. Now that I’m joined to a symbiote, I’m much faster and a lot deadlier. If there is anybody here, that can deal with that thing, it’s me.” I said, this time confirming that not only was a dumbass but also extremely self-deluded.
“You, are not trained to handle this kind of threat. My men are.”
“Your right, but my symbiote, has more experience than anyone on this base.”
Arnoff gritted his teeth and pointed at our transport. “You will get on that ship if I have to drag you onto it myself.”
The General knew damn well he would never match my strength, but maybe he hoped his size would intimidate me. I guess it worked, I actually took a step back when he moved toward me, but you know what? That’s about when I caught sight of something a fair bit scarier.
“Please, General,” Nyvok spoke, his voice rumbling above the sound of the siren’s. “Allow me to stay, you are right that, these humans are not warriors, but I have fought many engagements.”
Arnoff nodded and glanced back at me. His eyebrows furrowed. “Back on the ship, now.”
“Uh, too late.” Tanner said, staring off into the distance.
“Dammit,” I cursed and slapped the palm of my hand into my forehead. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
You know how I have a nasty habit of doing something insanely moronic? Well, this was one such moment. I should have just ran like hell, but no Kayde’s gotta try to be the hero. It was just my luck that the creature had found us, before I had seen common sense. Boy, sometimes I could just kick myself.
I slammed into Arnoff’s side, sending him reeling away. As the creature came rushing across the pavement toward us, I screamed at the others to “get the hell out of the way,” just before I leapt forward to take the thing head on. It crashed into me, sweeping one huge hand out, and sent me careening into Arnoff who had just gotten back to his feet.
We went down in a tangle of limbs and it took precious seconds for me to work my arms free, but I did just in time to hear a high-pitched squeal and look up. Tanner lay sprawled on the ground, the creature towering over her, both its hands balled up into fists at its side. I lurched free, but before I crawled back onto my feet, there was a blur of gray as Nyvok moved in to take on the creature.
The ambassador grappled with it, and for a moment I thought he would overpower it, but then it slid free and sent him stumbling into the deck. Next, a flash of blue hair, as my grandmother joined the fray.
Kaya Briggs was no spring chicken, but her symbiote afforded her a strength and speed even an unbonded human my age wouldn’t be able to muster. She leapt forward, spinning sideways and kicked out, striking it across the side with first one foot, then landed on all fours. She rolled back to her feet, watching the creature stagger back. I wasn’t sure if Crae was manipulating gravity waves or not, but if she was, she’d only disoriented the beast. That struck me as just a little unsettling.
Strike that, it was very unsettling.
I dove forward, ready to join in the fight, but a split second before reaching the creature, it shrieked, whipped an arm out and latched a massive paw around my grandmother’s throat. I drew close and slammed a fist into its side as I called out to her, but it was a futile gesture. It’s sweeping claws raked me across my skull and I stumbled away, my face throbbing in fiery agony.
The pain soon dulled, no doubt Khala’s work, but as I staggered toward the creature, I felt something warm trickling down my countenance and reached up to touch it, realizing as I did so that I was bleeding from an open gash on my forehead. The wound began to close within seconds, thanks to my symbiote, but it had gushed out until it had trickled into one eye and blinded on side.
I tried to blink it away, but there was too much. I didn’t waste precious seconds wiping it out of my eyes, but struck out at the beast, hoping to dislodge my captive grandmother. It back handed me again, and this time I went tumbling down onto my ass.
Phase fire blasts fizzled and hissed against the beast’s skin, but it didn’t seem to have much effect besides drawing its attention towards the source of the discharge. It slammed my grandmother with enough force that the metal grating she hit groaned and shrieked in protest. Crae must not have softened the blow in time because when I bent over to check for signs of life, her eyes were closed and blood dripped from her mouth.
I bowed my head and sighed when I found a pulse. Good, she was alive, but not in very good shape. My head jerked back up and I belted out a blood-curdling scream as I watched the pair of servicemen drop their phase weapons and retrieve a set of coil guns from their sides.
Hetzapledra and their attaché stood huddled behind them, no doubt hoping that they would protect them from the beast, but I knew such an effort was futile. If they tried to make a run toward either exits, they’d expose themselves to potential attack from their aggressor. If they stayed put, the creature would bulldoze through their protectors. They stood little chance either way.
Bullet’s crashed into the creature, each inflicting enough damage to splatter blood all over the metal grating, but not enough to slow it down. I was already on my feet tearing across the hanger bay, prepared to fling myself at the rampaging beast if necessary, and Nyvok wasn’t far behind. Arnoff hung back, producing a slender coil pistol, a K5 Elite series from the looks of it, and opened fire. He was too far away to aim with much accuracy, and when they struck his bullets did not enrage the creature enough to distract it.
Neither Nyvok nor I reached the Dexagarmetrax or the servicemen in time. The monster tore into them, its own violet blood mingling with their crimson as it reduced them to dead, lifeless husks. I caught up with the alien creature as the two men collapsed, their gore seeping into the cracks in the metal grating, and grabbed at an arm as it swiped at the aliens. I diverted its fist, but it took every bit of strength I could muster. Instead, it smashed into the metal bulkhead and made a sizable dent. I released my hold, flicking purple blood from my eyes, and slammed my fists into its midsection. The attack had almost no effect, and it backhanded me, sending me careening away.
Next, Nyvok stepped up to the plate, his massive muscles bulging as he leapt at the creature. Its knees bent, almost buckling under the force of the Qharr ambassador’s attacks, but it staggered back and regained its balance. I didn’t dare step in. The beast was thrashing about and each time I got close it lurched into a new direction. Of all the beings within the hanger, Nyvok stood the best chance against the creature. He was closest in sheer strength and size, but when his opponent let out a roar and charged straight toward the bulkhead, I knew it was going to knock its opponent loose.
Sure enough, when it slammed into the wall with the full force of a freight cruiser, Nyvok slid off the beast, at least for the moment, disabled, and it swung around lurching for the trio of Dexagarmetrax and me. Arnoff changed clips and unleashed a new salvo of fire on that thing.
I threw myself between the alien dignitaries and the monster, bracing myself. Knowing that I was the only one that stood between them and life and death. The beast, disoriented at first, shrugged off the general’s weapon fire, picked up speed and came charging at us. I ran forward, knowing that if I stayed and let it come steamrolling into me, it would flatten me like a pancake.
When I was close enough, I intended to slip behind it and sweep it out from under its feet, but it had either figured out my plan or it had damn good reflexes, maybe both. It swept its claws out and around my waist, sweeping me up off my feet and threw me across the docking bay. I landed hard enough that I almost slipped into unconsciousness, but I fought it, trying to blink away the splotches of light that were disrupting my vision. I heard high-pitched, almost panicked squeals, like someone blowing into clarinets. One by one, each of those squeaks were silenced, and I knew the beasts had succeeded in either killing or subduing the Dexagarmetrax.
With slow, careful movements, which were the best I could manage, I swung my head, feeling blood trickling down the right half of my chest and from the re-opened forehead gash.
“Khala.” I said, in what came out sounding like a whimper.
‘Kayde, I am trying. You’re really hurt.’
“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”
I looked around, letting out a sigh of relief, realizing that at least the Qharr ambassador and the general were still standing. They converged, each moving toward my grandmother’s still form as the beast barreled toward them. I lurched up, gasping with pain as I put pressure on my left foot. Sharp, jagged pain flooded and my vision went pure iridescent white.
Oh, fuck it hurt, which probably meant it was broken.
Any ordinary person would have collapsed back to the ground, but I managed to inch forward. As I did so, I could feel my bones snap back into place as Khala healed my wounded appendage.
I slipped in close, but not before the creature grabbed Nyvok by the arm and swung him around, toppling the two. I was unsure if the beast just didn’t see me or if I was so injured it didn’t consider me a threat, but it ignored me. Instead, it knelt down, looming over my grandmother’s form. She moaned and tried to stand up, but it clenched her head and smashed it back into the grating. When I witnessed this, I shouted out and lurched forward, but my leg wasn’t completely healed and I collapsed again.
I caught the creature’s attention for the barest of seconds. It snarled at me, then returned its ire to my grandmother, pounding its fist down into her chest. She gurgled, coughing up blood. I fought to climb back up, but before I could, it grabbed her by the throat, pulled its fist free from her rib cage and slammed it down again, this time over her heart. As distant as I was, I could still feel blood splattering against my face, further blinding me. I saw just enough to realized it had pulled something out of her chest. A sob escaped my lips when I realized it was her heart.
I cried out, wriggling and writhing, struggling so hard to get up. I released another sob as it squeezed its fist tight, crushing my grandmother’s heart into mush. The remains of Kaya Brigg’s flesh still dripped from its hand as it turned its attention to me. It didn’t offer mercy or hesitation in the slightest. It kicked me, flipping me onto my back and slammed down into me.
I thrashed about, trying my damndest to injure the creature before it finished me, but nothing worked. It was like trying to level a mountain by driving a hover car into it. You might do a little surface damage, but you damned well weren’t going to move it. It forced its fist into me, ripping through lung, ribs and muscle and pulled flesh free. If the pain from my broken leg had been bad this was like a nuclear warhead going off. Pain rippled through my body with multiple successions of blinding white light. I could feel consciousness begin to slip away and I was sure I was a goner, but then the beast jerked back, howling in agony, before its fist pierced my skin a second time.
The General had come to my rescue. He and Nyvok had untangled their limbs from one another, and they both stood there as he once again opened fire. This time he was near enough to take careful aim, and he did just that, hitting the creature in its middle eye. It’s body collapsed, hitting the ground with a dull thud. Barely conscious, I rolled over onto my chest, my blood and guts gushing all over the floor, looking into my grandmother’s unseeing gaze, before my own eyes slid shut, ushering in the darkness.