Kingsburgh, California, The Briggs Family Estates
I shivered, folding my arms over my breasts. Pacing at the foot of my bed, it had been two days since Grey and I made love to one another and I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. God, it had been good, no strike that, it had been amazing, but it wasn’t only the sex. I’d now fucked on both sides of the fence, and my what my childhood friend and I had done seemed so… right. I wasn’t certain how to interpret that, but I would do almost anything to experience it again. The same question kept worming its way into my mind: were we in a relationship now?
I shook my head, and peered over my shoulder at the box of holo albums, curiosity supplanting musings. Zed and I devoted most of the day to dividing up Kaya Briggs’ belongings. My Aunt Muriel, as usual, hadn’t deigned to show up, leaving a message, requesting we should leave her a few specific items, and left the rest for us to decide. So, my aunt ended up with all the crap neither my uncle nor I wanted.
Not that she would even be bothered to care. In the five years before I left, I’d only seen my aunt half a dozen times, and even then her visits hadn’t lasted more than a few days. Her work was her first and only priority, but no one, not my uncle or my grandmother, had been able to tell me what she did. She worked for the government; I was aware of that much. Her advanced degrees in bio-engineering and genetics suggested a number of possibilities, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you jack shit.
Kaya Briggs may have been wealthy, but she was far from a clutter bug and not the most sentimental type either. Still, we found a few things with personal significance. I managed to snag a few odds and ends. The two boxes, which now rested atop my mattress, contained it all. The first was filled with holo albums, mostly of my parents, and my childhood, but one in particular which I was dying to take a look at entitled “Jellfree and Sofia”. I checked and re-checked, but had been unable to find one titled “Jellfree and Watt”, which seemed a strange omission, but not one which came as a surprise when I thought about it. My father had been pretty detached the final few years of his life.
I rested an open palm across the “Jellfree and Sofia” album and licked my lips. I don’t know what it was, but something kept me from opening it. A shudder worked its way up and down my spine. What dark truths would it reveal about my past? I’d already learned my parents were in the midst of a divorce when my mother left, and the guilt over her subsequent disappearance had been what prompted my father to take his life. What other revelations about my family’s past might I uncover?
So much had changed for me in recent times, I’d done a complete one-eighty reuniting with my grandmother and joining the conclave. Kaya Briggs had died, leaving me one-third of her fortune. The estates, the home in which I’d grown up in, and perhaps the biggest representation of everything I had run away from were now mine. I’d become the very thing I’d sought so hard to avoid. My ego was fragile enough as it was. Whatever revelations the holo albums might hold could very well shatter it. Despite telling myself this, I soon flipped the album in question open.
Text, not the first thing you expect when opening a holo album, popped out at me proclaiming that the album was ‘Dedicated in loving memory’ to Sofia Briggs. I fought back tears and gestured my hand above the image, signaling the album to progress to the next image. This one was one I saw a time or two before, my mother looking worn from childbirth holding a tiny little bundle in her arms. Me. I waved my hand again, and again, each time it displayed a new image.
There were multiple projections in the same location and time, each with a similar collection of smiling faces, but as I progressed through the album the infant me, aged first into a toddler than a little boy, one who looked somber for such a small child. Then, as I got further in, something changed that I didn’t expect at all. A little girl, so often wearing frilly dresses and bright-colored outfits, replaced the little boy. I stopped into the dozenth such photo and took a deep breath.
The little girl was also me, but I sure as hell possessed no memories of wearing anything so feminine. I was young in those photos, no older than four or five, and most of my recollections from before my mother’s disappearance were hazy.
Still, it freaked me the hell out. The strangest part was that in the images where I wore girly clothes, I looked happy. Happier than I ever remembered being. My whole body trembling, I stepped away from the album and turned my back to it. When I closed my eyes, I strained my mind trying to come up with an answer. I realized something: Khala had been there for everything.
I opened my eyelids and called out to my symbiote. She appeared with no fanfare, wearing what was on the conservative side, even for someone like my grandmother. A plain black dress covered her arms and her legs down to her knees. It bore the look of something someone might wear to a funeral, but it was her expression that drove the impression home more than anything.
“Khala.” I gawked at her, all the confusion and doubts in my head personified by the image she cast, and my hands shook. “What did I just see?”
“Pictures of you and your mother.”
“I understand that, but why was I dressed like a girl?”
Khala blinked and stared at me, eyes wide. “You don’t remember?”
“No, I pretty well don’t fucking remember!” I yelled back at her and winced the moment the words left my lips.
“Sorry.” I clenched my eyes shut and sighed.
Khala paused, bit her lips and ran a pair of hands through her thick mop of blue hair. “When you were about three or four, you began expressing the opinion that you were a girl. Your mother was fully supportive, as you might surmise, and I guess your father had no qualms. At least, he raised no objections, but the man wasn’t what you would call a talker. It wasn’t long before you started calling yourself Alexana, after your great-grandmother, and your parents began using female pronouns.”
“What?” It was my turn to blink. “T-that can’t be true.”
“Why?” Khala titled her head and eyes wide as saucers.
“Because I should remember something like that, should I? And if it is true, what changed, why didn’t I transition and undergo reassignment after my mother disappeared?”
“I couldn’t begin to tell you. If you recall, I wasn’t around for that.”
“And why am I only finding out about this now? Why didn’t you mention it to me?”
“Despite, what some Conservers may lead you to believe, I’m not a mind-reader Kayde, I have no idea what you do or don’t remember. I must admit, it seemed a little odd when we first became joined, especially after all the trouble your mother went to confirm her gender, but I guess I figured you grew out of it.”
“You don’t gro–” I stopped mid-sentence and froze in place as the full gravity of what she said struck me.
“Khala, was my mother trans?”
“Let me point out to you once again, that I cannot read your thoughts. I–”
“Khala,” I cut her short and grated my teeth. “Answer the damn question.”
“Yes, she was.”
I don’t know why her answer shook me so much. I mean, it didn’t change who Sofia Briggs was, not really, but it raised questions. Did my grandmother hide the truth from me or did she, like Khala, assume I remembered? With her passing, I might never uncover the truth.
Oh sure, there were a few people in my life, like my uncle, who I might ask, but Zed had been distant. Until getting with him today I hadn’t seen him in days and when he showed up, I counted myself lucky if I could coax an entire sentence from him.
I glanced back toward the door and grimaced. I plopped down on my bed and flicked the album shut. I didn’t have the slightest clue what those old pics of me and my mother meant, but I needed time to digest everything. I wouldn’t allow myself to jump to any conclusions. Not this time.
Biting my lip, I eyed the second smaller box labeled Watt’s things. I hadn’t looked through it much, but as his only child, my uncle insisted I take it. I reached a hand inside, my fingers grasping hold of a small leather-bound notebook, and held it before me.
The leather was dry and cracked with age, and I traced the words inscribed on the cover. It read simply, ‘Ideas.’ The handwriting was in a flowing, feminine script I didn’t recognize, but I knew one thing for certain: it did not belong to my father, his messy scrawl was far too distinct.
I furrowed my brows and flipped the cover open, intrigued by what I might find. Within, I found technical notes and detailed schematics. I had some idea who the book had belonged to, and I flipped to the back, finding a page labeled, VGR-X1. My breath caught in my throat. What I saw confirmed my suspicions.
She’d scrawled details schematics of a ship, I recognized all too well, across better than a dozen pages. The drawings were of the prototype ship that Tanner and I would eventually salvage and name the Centennial Hawk.
The idea book belonged to my great grandmother, Lily Briggs. How or why it ended up in my father’s things was anyone’s guess, but what I found within was a treasure trove.
I lay back in bed, flipping through the pages, my mind racing. Thoughts of the holo album and the revelations contained within, temporarily forgotten.
One thing I always loved about flying was that I could have time alone with my thoughts, but also experienced an exhilaration like nothing else. Driving didn’t quite give me the same level of enjoyment, but it was a pretty damn good way to help me get my head on straight, even when wandering through the city without a destination. Which is what I ended up doing after my recent revelation.
Was I transgender? My mother had been, and I seemed to think I was when I was little. It would explain so many things, but I resisted the idea. Why, if I’d been assigned the wrong gender at birth, did I try to distance myself from all those rumors growing up?
I bit the inside of my cheek, an idea occurring to me, but one that forced me to feel even worse, if possible. Perhaps my mother projected those feelings on me, and I’d been so eager to please her, I went along with it. I’d put my mother up on a pedestal. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch, would it?
I blinked, aware that I was a few blocks away from the Conclave Headquarters. I’d been pretty much on autopilot, not paying attention to where I was traveling, but instead I roved where my instincts took me. Did my subconscious mind steer me to this part of town for a reason?
I needed to talk to someone with a unique perspective. Someone who knew my mother and grandmother. I wanted that individual to be Crae. She was better acquainted with Kaya Briggs than anyone, but, from my understanding, she was still fighting to keep Hexapledra alive aboard the orbital platform. My uncle seemed the next logical choice, but I wasn’t sure how he might react. Something told me he would be about as helpful as Khala.
There was someone whose mind I might pick, who wouldn’t judge me, and would have perspective unlike anyone else I knew. Above all, he knew how to keep a secret. I only hoped he hadn’t left Earth yet. With that in mind, I took another right and parked inside the Conclave underground parking structure.
My grandmother’s old Paradox shuddered and settled to the ground, and I climbed out, not even taking a second look at the aged Hover-vehicle. I’d seen it hundreds of times in my youth, and it was almost as familiar to me as the Hawk. The car seemed like an old friend. In a way, when I drove it, I kept a piece of my grandmother around with me. I smiled at the thought. Even so, I did not look back.
I found the nearest lift, making my way up through to the second level where the conclave medical facilities were, and stepped out when the doors slid open. Before long, I found myself inside Vakrexid’s lab. I smiled upon entering, and folded my arms across my chest, studying him as he scurried about the place. His head wobbled back and forth, almost as if it were made from gelatin. He let out several high-pitched squeals as he meandered about, oblivious to my presence.
The doctor had been in and out of the conclave headquarters, since the military first requested his expertise. He seemed to handle all the travel time pretty well considering his age. Vakrexid hadn’t slowed down any, and he was still his regular old, twitchy self.
Finally, the doctor turned, unleashed a squeal that was both louder and higher-pitched than any I’d ever heard from him, and rounded on me with both of his arms held out. Someone less familiar with Vakrexid might have assumed he was making some odd Dexagarmetrax gesture, but they would be wrong. I closed the distance between the two of us and threw my arms around Vakrexid, smiling as he did the same. It seemed like a long time since the doctor last hugged me and in some ways it made me feel like a little kid again.
When we broke, I was disappointed but didn’t let it show on my countenance. “Doctor, can I talk to for a second?”
He blinked, cocked his head sideways. “Of course, though Vakrexid does not believe so short of a conversation would be very fruitful.”
I grinned from ear to ear and released a soft chuckle. “Okay, maybe we should talk for an undefined amount of time.”
“That would seem to be more efficacious. Vakrexid has some time. Speak.”
“Do you remember much about my childhood?”
“Most assuredly, Vakrexid has excellent memory recall. Why is it that you ask?”
“I found some pictures of me as a little…” I paused and clenched my jaw. With a slow shake of my head, I continued. “kid and I was wearing dresses and calling myself Alexana. You remember any of that?”
“Indeed, though truth be told it befuddled to me. Human gender identity is not a concept I am capable of grasping. Vakrexid was even more befuddled after your mother died and you insisted on going back to wearing, what you called boy clothes.”
“I insisted? No one pressured me or anything?”
Vakrexid let out a low-pitched warble and bounced his head from side to side between his hands. “It would seem so.”
Not clear cut, but it was the best I could hope for from the doctor. “And my grandmother?”
“She was most distraught over your mother’s disappearance. Vakrexid suspects she did not spend much time cogitating upon it,” he warbled again and turned his back to me lurching about the room.
I thanked him and almost turned to leave, when something else occurred to me. “Doctor, how much do you know about the Tyrsh?”
‘Please don’t open that can of worms.’
I ignored my great grandmother’s pleas and gritted my teeth. There was a reason Lexa’s consciousness remained imprinted on Khala’s mind after her death, and I wanted to understand why. If for no other reason to give myself something different to muddle over. I had a theory, but the doctor was the foremost expert on K’teth biology in the world. If anyone might understand how or why Lexa became a permanent resident in Khala’s mind, it would be the doctor.
“Little more than you do, Vakrexid believes, it is an ability of the K’teth in which I am not certain can be explained without many years of research. The initial outcome, the energy discharge, is most easy to comprehend, but the resulting deepening of the mental bond between host and symbiote is one I have yet to explain. Vakrexid once theorized that it may have left an imprint upon a K’teth’s consciousness, but as far as I was able to determine, that is not the case.”
‘Please don’t do this, Kayde. I love Vakrexid, but do you comprehend how disastrous it would be, if word of my continued existence got out?’
All at once, I understood a little better why Lexa insisted on secrecy. There were so many implications that I hadn’t considered until that moment. K’teth did not age and in theory would go on living until the end of the literal universe if they maintained a continual line of hosts. The sole reason we didn’t have any alive today dating back to the time of the Phyrr Lesch was that historical evidence suggested that the Qharr purged K’teth populations every few thousand years.
If a K’teth could imprint the memories of their host, in theory, they could perpetuate their existence for the life of the symbiote. Such a revelation could increase demand for symbiotes and worse yet, make them a commodity. It would wipe all the progress the Conclave had made these last hundred and sixty years out in an instant.
There were other ramifications to consider. The Conservers already feared the K’teth and viewed them as parasites or worse. If news spread that a person could extend their awareness past their death, it would increase their dislike for Khala’s kind by tenfold. Lexa was right, I was opening a can of worms. The more people who knew about Lexa, the more chance word would get out. Even someone like the doctor might reveal her existence.
“Then again, perhaps Vakrexid is wrong.” The doctor spun around, his unblinking violet eyes just a little too intently focused on me.
The doctor may be odd by human standards, but he was anything but stupid. In fact, I would measure his intelligence above that of most humans. If I thought it through, I might have realized that approaching him was not a good idea. Even if I didn’t tell him there was no guaranteeing he wouldn’t see through whatever load of crap, I tried to feed him. It was better to be honest and upfront and try to bring him around to my way of thinking. While the doctor must follow human laws and practices, in this case doctor-patient confidentiality, nothing would prevent him from publishing a paper about an anonymous patient.
So, I gnawed on my lip and told him everything. It felt good getting it off my chest, and when I finished, I released a long sigh, and dropped my hands as the doctor regarded me. For a change, he did not jerk about or let out any weird sounds. He took a seat across from me and spoke.
“It is unexpected. I discarded that hypothesis because your mother insisted it was not so. If Vakrexid knew, perhaps I could have helped. Vakrexid knows you humans are very social animals. To remain trapped within the mind of another, to only speak with two individuals for so many decades, must be very difficult indeed. I wonder if, perhaps, you would allow me to perform a detailed neural scan. It might help to explain how such a thing is possible.”
Then again, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Vakrexid seemed concerned for Lexa. They knew each other for over a hundred years, and he was a friend both to Lexa and I. It wasn’t so surprising he should feel something.
“Doctor, you can’t tell anyone, you understand that, right? If word got out about this, even if you kept our identities secret, there’s no way to know how people might react. This could be bad for the Conclave.”
“Vakrexid agrees, that is why I have not made my hypothesis public. Any data Vakrexid might gather through a neurological scan, you can be assured that it will remain confidential. I suggested it, so that Vakrexid might understand why this has happened and perhaps help Lexa. I believe there are many within your family, who would very much be overjoyed at another chance to once again converse with Lexa Briggs. Vakrexid knows I would.”
‘You and me both, Doc.’ Lexa’s voice whispered in my ear.
I nodded, a lump forming in my throat. “Do it.”
When I awoke the next morning, I was in good spirits, a new sense of resolve supplanted my confusion and doubt. My personal life might be a mess, but other forces drove me. I spent the afternoon after visiting Vakrexid and most of the night wallowing in my troubles, but shitty as the whole thing had been, there were bigger fish to fry. That night, I was meeting with the Conclave Council and I fully intended for something good to come out of it.
I had a reasonable idea how they must see me, a rogue and a wildcard with an independent streak, but I would have to shatter that image if I was going to be involved in the efforts to find the mysterious aggressors and determine why the hell they attacked the Endeavour. I had more going for me then the council would like to admit, but the key was to show them how much they needed me and convince them I would play ball.
If I learned one thing from my grandmother, it was that the image you presented went a great way in shaping people’s opinions. I used those lessons to an extent while negotiating with other traders, but most of them hadn’t been humans and and none had expectations as demanding as those of the council. I needed a new look.
The very thought filled me with a dread that made my insides twist into a knot, but if I couldn’t show the Conclave I’d changed, I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving my ambitions. So, I did something out of my comfort zone. Which is to say, the knots in my stomach tangled into one great tangled mess of a ball when I stepped through the entrance of Sue-Ellen’s.
For as long as I could remember, it had been the only place my grandmother allowed to cut her hair. I’d only been inside a handful of times and never once had I made it past the waiting area. They catered to a very select clientele and while Kaya Briggs was certainly noteworthy enough to fit the bill, I hadn’t been. It was the sort of place I despised, because it was so exclusive.
Unfortunately for me, because I just attained celebrity status, I’d recently been bumped up on the social totem. Places like Sue-Ellen’s, protected the privacy of their clients. If I stepped into just any Salon, there’s no telling the kind of reception I would receive. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I was visiting. Sue-Ellen’s was one of the few places I knew of with image consultants, especially ones that were willing to work on short notice.
“Can I help you?” The woman at the reception desk peered at me as I entered. She carried a smile on her face, but it didn’t extend to her eyes.
“Uh,” I answered back, grimacing as my hand kneaded the back of my neck. I almost turned away and left right there and then, but I managed just enough self control to step forward instead. “I have an appointment, I’m Kaydence Briggs.”
The moment I gave her my name, there was a very sudden and marked shift in her demeanor. There was a sort of nervous anticipation bubbling under her calm facade that made me just a tad uneasy. “Oh, Miss Briggs! Maleena wanted to see you the moment you arrived. Right this way.”
‘Well this ought to be fun,’ I thought at Khala as the receptionist grabbed me by the wrist and led me through the Salon.
“No complaints, this is your own doing.” Khala appeared, leaning against a wall and smirking at me.
“I’m with you.” Lexa materialized, leaning against the opposite wall. “I never understood the need for places like this. I can’t understand how my Kaya developed a taste for this sort of thing. She never picked it up from me.”
There was something so overwhelmingly motherly about Lexa’s comment that I just stopped and stared at her for a few seconds. I would use many words to describe Lexa, but motherly was not one that I ever pictured might apply. I had no doubts she loved her children, but if the stories my grandmother shoved down my throat were true, even after accepting her transformation and status as a member of team woman, Lexa had always maintained a very masculine mindset. Her distaste for the Salon fit the image of her in my mind, but the tone which she spoke of her eldest child did not.
The receptionist paused, cleared her throat and looked back at me with a smile that somehow conveyed just a bit of impatience without being condescending. I bit my lip and motioned for her to continue onward and followed in her wake as her high-heels clattered and clicked against the hardwood floors. Butterflies flitted around inside my stomach, but when my guide stopped and opened a door revealing a small studio, it got a lot worse.
I took a few steps inside and swallowed hard as the door slid shut behind me. A tall, but unassuming woman stood near a bright pink salon chair. Her clothes bore the clean lines and fit that suggested they might be custom-tailored. Her face was plastered in makeup, just shy of clown proportions, and I could smell her perfume from the other side of the room, but she looked pretty normal. I half expected some half-crazed hyper-sexualized fashionista with a penchant for calling everyone ‘darling’.
Okay, maybe that’s cliched, but hell, what on Earth should I have expected? This was all new to me.
“You must be Kaydence.”
“Uh, yeah, that would be me. And you’re Maleena, I’m guessing?”
At first, Maleena didn’t speak, but stepped a few meters forward and locked gazes with me. She placed a hand on my right cheek and frowned. “Your grandmother told me about your situation.”
I arched an eyebrow, but didn’t say a word. Maleena dropped her hand and turned away. “Her death was a tragic loss.”
Again, I did not speak, but it seemed Maleena had enough to say for the both of us. She turned back, a smile touching the corner of her lips. “It surprised me to hear you made an appointment. Based on what Kaya made me to understand, I would expect you to steer a wide path of this place.”
“Uh, yeah.” I said with a grimace and scratch the scruff of my neck. “I’m appearing before the Conclave Council tonight and I, uh…”
“Want to make a good impression?” She smiled, a single eyebrow arched.
Her unspoken question obvious to me though I had just met her. If my grandmother would have told her anything, it would have been that I spent my life distancing myself from the Conclave. Why then would she jump to the conclusion that I would need to impress the council? I had sound reasons, but I didn’t owe Maleena an explanation.
I met her gaze square in the eyes and smiled back. Maleena met my glare and peered deep. She nodded and tilted her head sideways before folding her arms across her chest. “I know you’d prefer not to be here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help you. Tell me, Kaydence, what is it you want?
I gulped hard, shaking my head, the slightest tremor entering my voice as I spoke. “I have a reputation. If you knew my grandmother, you know, but the conclave sees me as a loose cannon. I’ve gotta change their perception of me.”
“That’s an excellent explanation for your end goal, but it doesn’t tell me why a young person just given female form. One who has spent much of his adult life running from the Conclave, and the notoriety of his family, would want to do something that would go against everything he has fought against his entire life?”
Her choice in pronouns annoyed me more than her presumptions, which were spot on. I clasped my hands together and narrowed my eyes.
“That is none of your business.”
“If I am to help you, I must learn your motivations. If you don’t want my help, that’s fine, but I’m not just here to slap a new slab of paint on your face and make you over. If you really seek to change your image, it is important to understand what is driving you to seek this change so that I can make it stick.”
I swallowed hard and nodded. Long term planning had never been my strong suit. I’d never envisioned myself doing exactly what Maleena said, but if I really was committed to involvement in the Endeavour investigation, I couldn’t just play dress up for one night and expect the conclave to play ball. Convincing them I changed, would go a long way in doing just that. Which meant I had to keep looking the part. I would need Maleena for that. I don’t think I could do it by myself, and I kind of doubted Tanner would help me given the way I’d been treating her the last few weeks.
“I can’t say a lot.”
“Did I ask for your life story? I just need to understand how committed you are. I don’t put my time and effort into hopeless cases.”
Tears started to well up, and I averted my gaze. My entire body shaking, I met her eyes again.
“For most of my life, I’ve wondered what happened to my mother, but when I found her and the Endeavour, it left me with more questions than answers. To make matters worse, I watched my grandmother die and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I need to find out why they died. If that means selling my soul to the Conclave, then so be it.”
“Oh, how… interesting.”
Maleena released a low moan and smiled. “Well, I think that covers it. Why don’t we get started? Oh, yes, I believe you will be a lot of work, but so very worth it.” She held a hand out, motioning toward the pink and silver old-Earth-style salon chair bolted to the hardwood floor. I had no idea how old it was, but the style was consistent with the time-period when humans had only just reached out to the stars.
I took more than a few tentative steps across the room and seated myself atop the soft and supple leather of the seat after just a moment’s hesitation. My heart pounded like a jackhammer inside my chest, but as I caught my reflection in the mirror that occupied the entire upper-half of the wall in front of me, I blinked when I realized that almost none of my agitation showed on my face.
Maleena stepped up behind me and place both of her hands on my shoulder. “You are a beautiful young woman, I have clients who’ve paid an exorbitant amount of money to get a body like yours. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you need to learn to take better care of it. You were a man before, and most men are content with basic hygiene practices. Which is fine, if you have no aspirations in life, but in today’s society you won’t get very far without taking things a bit further. Male or female, if you look like a slob, very few successful people are going to take you seriously and honey you could do much better. Your hair is a mess, just look at it you have split ends, you dress like a man and worse your clothes don’t even match.”
“But I am a man… Or at least I was until about a month ago.”
“You came to me for help, remember? How you dress and groom yourself help shape the way others see you.”
“What do you propose?” I asked, the words coming out of me in little more than a squeak.
“Oh, I have some ideas.”