The Torrentian Void aboard the Valiant
We high-tailed it out of the briefing room, my grandmother following on our wake. Cayne didn’t say a word about it, nor did he seem to be aware of her as she scrambled after us. He even allowed her to follow us into the lift. In moments, he led us onto the bridge, in time to see an energy blast slam into the viewport with a violent explosion of light.
My head snapped back, and a grunt issued from my lips. Khala spun around on the balls of my feet, and planted my hands on the back of the shield station seat, gazing at the display. “The shields are still up.”
“Sir?” The shield technician asked, only peeling his eyes away from the display long enough to glance at the Colonel.
“It’s fine Sergeant, tell me if you see any changes.”
Khala looked up, staring through the front viewport, eying the dark cylinder that floated there, devoid of any lights or colors save for the tail-end which blazed a brilliant neon pink. My eyes darted around, focusing on the Colonel.
“From the looks of it, that is the same type of ship that attacked the Endeavour. They fired at us five times, maybe six, each had no effect, until the last shot. All the ship’s systems failed without warning including shields, and that creature came aboard killing everyone including my prior host,” she paused a sob escaping my lips before she continued. “Unless shield technology has made some significant advances in the last twenty years, I suggest you utilize your Rhiannon drive.”
Cayne’s eyebrows twitched. It might have been from her use of such an archaic term, but it may have had more to do with taking suggestions from a symbiote. “Rodriquez get the PLD coils spinning and leap somewhere astern of our new friends the moment it’s ready. Program a randomized attack pattern the moment we exit subspace. In the meantime, get this ship moving, at minimum we have five blasts before they disable our systems. I’d prefer to keep those weapons off us as much as possible.
Once known as Rhiannon drives, PLDs, or Precision Leap Drives, are what the name implies, a more precise means of leap travel. Once a prototype drive, code-named the Rhiannon device, used during the final battle to take back Earth from the Qharr, helping the human-allied forces to bypass the protective barrier around our world, the PLDs had continued to be an important part of the United Earth Alliance’s arsenal even to this day.
Despite more than a hundred and sixty years’ worth of research and development, they still retained a single major downside. PLDs created a lot more wear and tear on a ship’s systems than traditional drives. As a result, those ships fitted with one had a traditional drive as well.
The Endeavour didn’t have such a dual drive, but there was no guarantee it would have saved the crew. Hell, there wasn’t even a guarantee we would live to tell people what had happened. I would have crossed my fingers, but Khala was holding the reins at the moment so all I could do was sit and witness what might well have been our doom. I guess I could have wrangled control away from her, but something told me her expertise was, face it, more important than my smart mouth. So, I let her have at it.
From the edge of the viewport I made out an energy beam bursting from the unknown ship. It was a good thing the Valiant was already in motion. When something impacts a vessel’s shields, you see a tinge of color, appear around the ship. That’s more or less how I knew we’d evaded it, given that Khala was looking out the viewport and not the control panel. Still, it was a little nice knowing that we hadn’t taken another step toward death.
“Sir, the precision drive is coming online,” a voice pronounced, before the entire control room flooded with the most brilliant white light.
I gritted my teeth, as the inevitable nothingness came slamming into me with the force of a steamroller. The world fractured, breaking apart into about a bajillion microscopic light particles which swirled around like will-o’-wisps and burst into a veritable rainbow of colors with such an intensity that it hurt my eyes. What I was experiencing was my mind trying to compensate for being disintegrated into thousands of tiny pieces, transported across space, and rematerialized in the blink of the eye, but damn… It was one hell of a hallucination.
It was different every time, but I always perceived something, whether I heard, smelled, tasted, felt or saw it. Everyone experienced something unique, but I was the only person I’d ever known who’d caught the whiff or tang of the nothingness between leaps.
When the ship reappeared, the universe was still basked in light, Khala blinked, and our perceptions were still distorted as she turned my head, granting us a good look around. There was an odd disjointed quality to what should have been smooth movement. They trained military personnel to operate under reentry conditions, but even so they were still human and needed precious seconds to recover before taking action.
Fortunately for us, the ship didn’t need to adjust, it opened fire blasting into the strange ship with all batteries, as they had programmed it to do before making the leap. The world jolted back into something a little less disconcerting, but the PLD coils had already wound up enough for us to make another leap.
Again, we hurtled into the nothingness, this time the experience differed, there was the usual burst of light before, but the moment between when we dematerialized and then rematerialized was filled with an intense itching and crawling sensation coupled with a scent that resembled casu marzu and orange juice, which is to say a little like citrusy vomit… It was more or less as bad as it sounded, but the experience was short-lived. We reemerged and opened fire before we disappeared again with another flash of light.
It took two more leaps through subspace before Cayne changed tactics. When we re-emerged, we were astern of the other ship. The Colonel clenched his teeth as the fog from the transition lifted and started barking out orders.
“Bring the interphasic warheads online.”
Interphasic weapons were a new technology, and any sane person would think twice about using them. They were stupid powerful and if we were too close when they detonated, the blast would take the Endeavour, Centennial Hawk, and the Valiant along with it. If phase cannons weren’t getting through, it was probably our sole hope of taking down the enemy craft. Yeah, it was that desperate of a situation.
It was the Dexagarmetrax who had first developed them, but it was only about ten years ago that they had deigned to share the technology with their human cousins. Even then only about a dozen UEAF vessels had been outfitted with them, most of them larger capital ships, given the difficulty of retrofitting smaller vessels with the enormous launch tubes necessary.
“Open a comm line,” Cayne said with a raspy growl.
“This is Colonel Cayne of the UEAF Valiant, you have attacked without provocation. I will consider this an act of war unless you stand down. If you do not desist at once, I will be forced to utilize the most powerful weapons in our arsenal.”
Everyone aboard the ship paused, as the opposing ship hovered in the void of space, showing no sign they had heard Cayne’s ultimatum.
“Sir, they’re opening fire.”
“Evasive maneuvers.” He emitted a low-pitched growl, then turned to the communications officer.
“Are the Endeavour and Centennial Hawk still linked to the computers?”
“The alien corpse and the artifact? They’ve been retrieved?”
“Launch an interphasic warhead and get as far away as possible on thrusters, ensure that the other two ships are out of range before it detonates.”
Khala shook my skull, then sighed as she relinquished control of my body. I swirled around and got a good look at Cayne. A part of me wanted to persuade him to retract his order, but I knew it was our only hope of surviving. The shittiest thing about interphasic weapons was that leap drives destabilized them. If we tried to leap away, we’d get blown into oblivion along with the enemy vessel. The only way we might make it out alive was to get as far away as possible without activating the leap coils.
The Valiant lurched into motion, with such a violent jerk, that the inertial negators failed to nullify it.
One perk of being joined to a symbiote was the K’teth’s ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy. I could leap from the tallest skyscraper in New York without a grav-pack and walk away without even so much as a scratch. So, as you might imagine, it wasn’t so difficult for Khala to negate a simple little thing like inertia.
While everyone else lurched about, the sudden movement didn’t even phase me, nor did it phase my grandmother who hadn’t lost a single bit of her poise. Shit, she might have been standing idle at a diplomatic function for all she showed for it. The only thing missing was a wine goblet clutched in her long, delicate fingers.
I winced and bowed my head, willing the image out of my mind, my heart racing as my eyes turned back toward the viewport which displayed an image projected from the rear of the Valiant. The alien vessel, though almost black, was visible through the darkness of space. What wasn’t so visible, was the warhead. I could only catch a brief blur of motion before it exploded into a brilliant eruption of light. It was so bright, in fact, that even my enhanced eyes had trouble adjusting to the sudden shift in light.
The ship shook and rattled, and the viewscreen blinked out, reverting to the default view. I had no idea if the explosion damaged the exterior holocams or a member of the crew had cut off the feed, but either way the effect was the same. The lighting in the bridge returned to a more manageable level, and I cast my eyes about, watching as the unbonded occupants of the bridge regained their composure.
“Sir,” a crew member said with more than a little strain in his voice. “You will not believe this. They survived.”
Cayne lurched across the bridge toward the crew member who’d spoken.
As I watched Cayne glare at his subordinate’s display and ran his fingers through his close-cut salt and pepper hair, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness settle in. We were all going to die.
Then a ray of hope.
“Sir, it looks like the warhead took out their shields. If we open fire with phase cannons, we might disable their ship.”
“I want a full sensor sweep, ascertain as much as you can about their systems.”
“Open a communication line.”
Again his subordinate complied. Cayne gripped his hands so tight on the top of the chair that his knuckles turned white. “Alien ship, you committed an aggressive act against a United Earth Alliance Fleet destroyer, stand down and surrender immediately or we will open fire. This is your final warning.”
“Sir, they’re charging weapons.”
Cayne gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Lieutenant you know what to do.”
The viewport blinked on again, displaying the mysterious vessel, as brilliant bursts of light shot out, peppering its hull with phase blasts from the Valiant. If the resulting explosions were any sign, the cannons were doing a shit-ton of damage. As the mysterious ship took more and more fire, I thought for sure that they would destroy it, but then Teadman announced they had disabled the alien vessel and Cayne called for a cease fire.
“Release the docking clamps tethering the Centennial Hawk to the Valiant and prepare to board our new friends’ ship. I think it’s time we got some answers.”
Cayne peered at Kaya, then me, and glowered, but before he could say a word to either of us. A slender woman sitting in the corner spoke up, with a firm yet high-pitched voice.
“Sir, I’m detecting a massive energy build-up from the alien ship. If what I’m reading is correct, sir,” she said. “I think they may have activated some sort of FTL drive.”
“Open fire!” Cayne yelled, but before any of us could even blink it disappeared, fading away without the telltale burst of light that always accompanied a leap across subspace. Whatever tech these aliens used, it must have been very different from our own.
“Fuck,” I said under my breath as I stared out into the emptiness of space. “That was close.”
Cayne glowered at me, ran a hand through his hair and collapsed into his seat.
“Teadman, damage report.”
“The shield emitters are reporting some minor fluctuations in energy output and repeated use of the PL drive has caused some minor damage to the bow inertial negators, but overall we’re in pretty good shape.”
“What about the Centennial Hawk and Endeavour?”
“The Centennial Hawk remains undamaged, and the Endeavour appears to be in the same shape as it was before, sir.”
“Excellent, get the coils spinning, and those ships linked to our systems. As soon as they’re ready, set course for Earth.”
“Hold on a second,” I said, stepping forward and wincing as Cayne scowled up at me. “I have a hold full of cargo, my buyer is expecting delivery no later than tomorrow morning on Gerrknotttt. I don’t have time to–”
“Mr. Briggs, I realize the maggot cheese in your cargo hold is of the utmost importance, but as we were just attacked by a ship of unknown origins armed with a weapon that is perfectly capable of disabling this ship, one of the most advanced in the fleet, I would expect you to be just slightly more concerned about your life, but by all means take your ship. See how long you last if one of those appears out of the void and decides you’d make a nice little target.”
“Shit,” I said, shaking my head as I watched the ship’s crew move about and prepared to make the leap through space. “Tanner’s going to kill me.”
Kingsburgh, California Spaceport, Earth
I shuddered, as I was assaulted by the frigid morning air, and wished for all the world that I’d thought to bring my winter coat from the Hawk, but given that I’d already traveled through security, returning to the ship would have taken hours. I winced and pulled my jacket close, glanced toward my grandmother who didn’t seem at all phased by the icy droplets that sprinkled our faces as we stepped out from under the eave of the spaceport and into the dull grays of Kingsburgh’s streets.
It was chilly for late April, especially in sunny California, but as we waited for our ride, a sardonic smile touched the corner of my lips. Everything about the sight and sounds around us fit my mood. The tall skyscrapers dwarfed me, making me feel insignificant while the cold droplets drizzling my face, mirrored the icy dread of things to come.
I’d become bonded to a K’teth H’ra, which meant not only had I just drafted myself into the most distrusted organization on all of Earth, the K’teth-Human Cooperative Conclave, but because of the agreement formed between the symbiotes and their human hosts, I’d be subject to the one rule all humans knew by heart. Any man joined to a H’ra, must sacrifice his masculinity so that she might reproduce.
I grimaced and shook my head, never so glad to see the Conclave hovercraft pull up to the curb. Yeah, it was a portent of doom, and was quite literally the vehicle that would lead me to my own personal hell, but at least it distracted me for the briefest of moments.
Once we settled inside the car, I took a seat opposing my grandmother and clasped my hands together. I would have just as soon remained silent throughout the entire ride, but the great Kaya Briggs didn’t seem to share that desire. Not surprising, she loved to talk.
God, it was annoying.
“Jek, are you all right?” She leaned against the padded back of her seat and released a deep sigh. “You’ve been quiet since we left the Valiant.”
“Is that really such a surprise, after everything that has happened?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I was disappointed to learn your partner wouldn’t be coming along. I would have liked to spend more time with her, she seems like such a lovely young woman.”
I leveled my gaze and looked my grandmother square in the eyes. She’d never admit to it, but I had a good idea of what she was getting at. Kaya Briggs had never quite agreed with my life choices. She’d had it all mapped out from the day my mother had passed away, and me remaining single was not part of that plan. She hoped that my relationship with Tanner was more than a simple business partnership. This was her way of trying to ascertain whether we were also partners in the romantic sense.
I wasn’t about to get her hopes up. “Somebody had to do something with our cargo before it spoils. Since I seem to be in such high demand, it fell to Tanner to unload the stuff. I just hope we don’t take a loss on it. Our buyer isn’t very forgiving with late shipments. I had to give Tanner an extra ten percent out of my share just to keep her happy.”
Frankly, I couldn’t imagine that cheese infested with maggots could spoil or get any fouler than it already was, but according to our suppliers it had a limited shelf life.
I guess my grandmother had gotten her answer or else given up on it because she frowned, then pursed her lips and changed the subject. “Has Khala spoken much about her reproductive needs?”
“You mean, has she told me if she’ll be transforming me into a woman any time soon? No, not really.”
“There are other options available to us, Jellfree. You know that. We live in an age where genetic engineering is a simple enough matter. You are not stuck in the same boat as my mother. Khala would have told–”
My grandmother stopped mid-sentence and stared at what had been, until just a moment before, the empty space on the seat beside her.
“You know,” Khala said after materializing in the very space my grandmother had her eyes trained on, wearing a flowered sundress that was decidedly more conservative than her previous choice in apparel. “You could just ask me.”
Despite her statement, she didn’t wait for anyone to ask. “Had Sofia not put me into stasis I would have begun my reproductive cycle within days, but now… It’s delayed, the experience put my physical form under a lot of stress. I was lucky to have survived at all.”
“And?” I grated my teeth, glancing at my grandmother, then back to Khala. “That doesn’t exactly clear things up.”
“You will not like my answer,” she pressed her lips together, wilting under my gaze.
For a moment I almost allowed myself to sympathize with her, but I stopped and reminded myself that what I was seeing was an illusion. Whatever Khala might be feeling, I got the sense the facsimile she was showing me might not be a very accurate representation of her emotions.
“Tell us anyway.” My grandmother replied for me, staring at Khala’s visage, her lips so tightly pressed together that they had turned white.
“While I have never heard of a K’teth being put into stasis, as I never knew the Qharr to show any inclination for preserving a symbiote’s life, there is precedence for a H’ra’s reproductive capabilities being interrupted. Usually, this occurs to a Queen joined to a male host for a very long time. The only method I know of, is for my host to become pregnant or else…”
She leaned forward and let out a long breath, as if dreading what she must say next.
“Trick the host’s body into thinking it’s pregnant. The release of hormones is essential to restoring those capabilities.”
“A male host?” I glowered at her and shifted in my seat. “And just why would a queen allow herself to reside in a male body?”
“There have been situations in which a host sought to disguise themselves. Changing sex is a rather drastic, but very effective way of doing so.” Khala folded her arms across her chest and glared back.
“And… In the rare instances where a Gieff male became host to a queen he would threaten to take his own life, in a ritual suicide they call the Fahk Nen Rahn which when translated means something like the Eternal Sacrifice, rather than live in a transformed body. The hosts usually take the symbiote along with them since they make certain to isolate themselves. I’m sure you can understand why a queen might allow a host to keep his male body rather than die because of some silly Gieff superstition.”
“All right, I get the picture.”
“Where does that leave us?”
“I don’t really know.” Khala glanced at Kaya and pursed her lips. “But something tells me that engineering a form more appealing to you might be more complicated than Kaya has expected.”
“Just perfect.” I glanced out the window, watching the blur of the other hovercraft as we sped past them. What the hell had I gotten myself into?