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Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 6 & 7

01/23/2021

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CH 06

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 host. 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.

“Done, sir.”

“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?”

“Yessir.”

“The alien corpse and the artifact? They’ve been retrieved?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

“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.

“What!?”

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.

Shit.

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.”

“Yessir.”

“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.”

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CH 07

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 my host 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?

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Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 5

01/16/2021

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CH 05

The Torrentian Void aboard the Endeavour

Our trip through the ship was short, Hinderman led us down a corridor which adjoined the one through which we entered and stopped in front of a hatch. She smiled at me again, before she tapped on the door’s control pane. The once opaque surface became translucent, revealing enough details of the room inside to give me a good idea of its size and who waited inside.

“Oh God,” I muttered under my breath as my nerves kicked into overdrive, anticipating the shit that was sure to follow.

“Ma’am,” the lieutenant tapped the door again and leaned forward, speaking into it. “They’re ready for you.”

“Send them in,” my grandmother’s voice wafted through the door, sounding a little artificial conveyed through the audio transmitters.

The door slid open, and I pulled on my new blue locks with a single hard tug, as I looked my grandmother over, face to face after more than five years apart. She pressed her lips into a line, and her eyes locked on my hair and eyes, growing a bit wide as she took me in, no doubt surprised to find me sporting the telltale attributes of a joined host.

She stood and walked across the room, her hands reaching up to finger a shock of blue hair that came loose from my ponytail. “This, is unexpected.”

I shifted my footing and cleared my throat, as I sensed rather than heard the door shut behind Tanner and myself. I pulled her hand away, shaking my skull and trying my damnedest to keep myself from looking in her eyes, but to be honest, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I could exhibit that level of self-control. Unable to resist, I locked gazes with her and uttered a single word, which explained far more than a couple dozen could have.

“Khala.”

“H-how, you said Sofia died?”

“Mom used a stasis pod, it saved Khala’s life.”

“A fact for which, I am eternally grateful,” Khala spoke up, her curvaceous form materializing beside me, wearing a dress that was only a bit more modest than the last one.

The pair were well acquainted. In fact, since she’d been host to a symbiote all of her adult life, Kaya Briggs knew the K’teth when she was still host to my great grandmother, the late Lexa Briggs. A smile touched the rim of Khala’s lips, and my grandmother returned her affection in equal measure. My grandmother’s symbiote joined our odd reunion, her hard-edged features coalescing in the empty air beside my elder.

I’d only spoken to Crae a handful of times in my life on those rare occasions my Kaya permitted her to assume control of her body. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but something about the form she projected seemed a little off. She was tall, and bulging with enough muscle that she would rival most Qharr if she possessed any actual body mass, but I guess the most remarkable thing was that she chose to project a female form at all. Crae was biologically a H’ra or a queen, but that hadn’t always been the case.

The Conclave sank a lot of money into increasing K’teth reproductive rates, and succeeded in one very significant way, by increasing the number of Queens through genetic engineering. Though Crae had been the first male to become a Queen, she was not the last. Given that she kept her male name, I sort of expected she might still identify as male. The K’teth were very different from humans, so there was no telling where gender factored into their identities, if at all.

Crae barely offered me so much as a second look, instead, offering greetings to Khala, but given that my symbiote who, in human terms, was Crae’s grandmother it would surprise no one that she would choose to greet a relative over a human who was barely aware of her existence.

As the two K’teth shared greetings, my grandmother slipped both of her hands on my shoulder and pulled me close. I stiffened, a little surprised as her arms wrapped around me. Kaya and I didn’t part on the best of terms. So it disconcerted me just a little to find myself in such a position. The oddest part? I returned the gesture.

Then sanity returned to me and I pulled away, feeling my cheeks burn as I turned my head enough to gauge Tanner’s reaction. She rubbed the back of her neck and staring at us as if she wanted to be anywhere but in that tiny little room. I jerked back, putting a good meter between my grandmother and me.

“Right.”

My grandmother cleared her throat and glimpsed at Tanner for the first time. I felt a bit of a knot form in my stomach, realizing that I hadn’t introduced either of them to one another.

“Tanner, this is my grandmother Kaya Briggs, Kaya this is my business partner Tanner Grace.”

“We sorta met already.” Tanner turned a brilliant crimson and took my grandmother’s hand. “When you called her over the HoloGRID.”

“Yes,” my grandmother replied, a smile touching the corner of her lips. “I remember quite vividly. So vividly in fact, I went to the trouble of checking up on your past.”

Tanner’s eyes grew wide, and she bit her lip, shaking her head. “Shit, you did?”

“Don’t worry, I found nothing too worrisome. Though I must say you turned out lovely. I never would have imagined that the young–”

“Right, well, um.” Tanner grabbed her by the shoulders, wearing the most grotesquely contorted smile I had ever seen. “It’s been really nice to meet you, Ms. Briggs, but we are here for a reason, aren’t we?”

My grandmother seemed surprised, but glanced toward me, nodded, and a knowing smile passed across her face. I didn’t have any idea what that brief exchange had been about, but if the wild-eyed look on Tanner’s face was any sign, I doubted I would find out about it from her any time soon. Whether I could milk it from my grandmother was another matter, but I soon put it out of my mind. Though I found the prospect worth further investigation, for the time being, I had bigger fish to fry.

“You’ve been reckless, Jek,” Kaya Briggs stated between pursed lips. “If it hadn’t been for my intervention, you would be in restraints right now.”

I blinked, then shifted on my feet and shook my head. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“The Valiant has already linked into the Endeavour’s computer systems. They ascertained that you used a Conclave access code to obtain entry to the ship.”

I bent my neck and cupped my face with the palms of both hands, ready to bite back with an angry retort, but Tanner spoke before I could say anything stupid. “You stole an access code from the Conclave?! What are you, some kind of a dumbass?”

“What else did you expect me to do?” I dropped my hands and clenched my jaw.

“I understood that if I ever found the Endeavour, I would never be included in any resulting investigation. The only way, I would have found out what happened to my mother, without the government feeding me some bullshit story, was to gain entry into the ship. Either that or force my way in. Since, my grandmother had the codes, it seemed like the easier solution.”

“You know that I would have never let the Alliance shut you out, Jek.”

“Oh, and you can’t tell me you wouldn’t have tried to shield me from the truth if you thought I couldn’t handle it? I was fifteen before I learned my dad offed himself. I found my mother’s corpse with a big ass fucking hole in its chest, no doubt put there by a creature out of my worst nightmares, don’t stand there and tell me, that you would have revealed that little tidbit to me.”

“Perhaps, when you raise children of your own, you’ll understand.”

God, how the hell could she be so clueless! I didn’t want her to shelter me, I wanted to know the goddamned truth. She’d been lying and manipulating me all my life. Supposedly to protect me, but she always wanted me to follow in the family footsteps and become joined to a K’teth. Her lies were just another way to push me toward that objective. The funny part was that she got her wish, but only because I had gone off and done the exact opposite of everything she wanted. That’s irony for you. I leave and do my own thing and end up fulfilling my worst damned nightmare. Figures.

I grated my teeth and glanced toward Tanner again. We’d had this argument before and it never ended well. It wasn’t something I enjoyed even without an audience, but I sure as hell would not let it happen with my partner lurking about.

“Look, we’ve both made our feelings known, I will not rehash the same old damn argument. Let’s just get to the point. I’ve made a shit storm of trouble and you’ve been forced to clean up my mess. Is that about right?”

My grandmother sighed. “It’s fortunate that I convinced Colonel Cayne that you were on the Conclave’s payroll and that I was the one who gave you those codes.”

“Of course you did.” I gritted my teeth. “Which means, what? I already know intergalactic law. Since the Endeavour was derelict, I had probable cause to enter and I can even justify blowing a hole in the research area wall since the artifact was going nuclear on my ass.”

“It means, Jellfree Keiran Briggs, that you’re not facing any criminal charges, but don’t believe it’s not coming without a price. I want to protect you, but you haven’t made it easy. Join the Conclave, and I promise you, whatever direction things go you will be right in the thick of it so long as you sign and abide by the NDA agreement.”

Good lord, in the thick of it? Geez, talk about cliched lines. I cringed and released a long breath of air before issuing my reply.

“If I don’t?”

“I can’t protect you any further…” And she paused, squaring her jaw. “And more importantly, you’ll never find out, who or what is responsible for your mother’s death.”

She pushed the right buttons. Honestly, unless my grandmother spilled the beans, I didn’t think I’d need to worry about any of those sticky legal issues, but I’d spent most of my life wondering what the fuck was behind my mother’s disappearance. I wasn’t certain I could step aside now that I’d come so far. Sure, that creature killed her, but who or what had sicked it on the crew of the Endeavour in the first place? She had me and she knew it.

Damn her.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to give me any time to think it over.”

“Three days,” she replied.

She left a lot unsaid, but for a change I didn’t press her for details. She wouldn’t be likely to reveal whatever secrets she might be hiding unless I agreed to her terms.

“Now that’s out of the way. I believe Colonel Cayne will want to have you debriefed . I was fortunate enough to convince him to allow us this little reunion before someone met with you, but his patience may wear thin if we make him wait any longer.”

My grandmother tapped her throat with two fingers, activating her sub-dermal transmitter. “Cayne, I’m done with him if you’d care to send someone down.”

Kaya Briggs peered at the exit, the slightest smile touching her face before pursing her lips and glanced at the door. Listening to a response transmitted back to her through a similar implant inside her ear. “It seems Cayne will debrief you himself.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but when my grandmother invited Tanner to leave the room, it set me on edge. Why the hell shouldn’t my partner be present?

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Colonel Cayne arrived moments later, just seconds after Tanner had vacated the room. He looked every bit as gaunt and severe as he had over the comm, but his most striking feature was one that couldn’t be detected over the holo system. His eyes were a cold steel blue, save for a small patch in his left one, which was a deep shape of green. An unusual birth defect, in an age where genetic engineering was so prevalent.

His parents had probably been conservers, but the fact that Cayne hadn’t elected to have this little feature fixed hinted that he might have kept some of those values. Most purist were opposed to military service since the UEAF still relied on clones to make up the bulk of its forces. Which also explained why he was scowling at the two of us. A lot of people distrusted K’teth and the Conclave by extension, but conservers took it to a whole different level.

“Ms. Briggs,” he said with a flat, almost monotone voice, so passionless and devoid of emotion that it seemed at odds with the sneer displayed so prominently on his countenance. “Please take a seat beside your grandson.”

My grandmother nodded and slipped into place at the very same time Cayne seated himself on the opposing side of the table. He set a small recording device on the tabletop and pressed a small indent on the side. “Why don’t you tell me all that happened and we’ll go from there?”

So I did just that, reciting everything that had occurred from the moment that I’d contacted the Faioloese traders until the point I contacted my grandmother. When I  finished, Cayne palmed the recording device, but didn’t deactivate it. Instead his scowl deepened as he held it out for us to see.

“The parasite was witness to everything that happened?

I nodded, ignoring Khala’s screams of indignation. “Right until the creature killed my mother.”

“Then I should speak with it. It’s answers may provide some much needed insight.”

I hesitated, knowing full well just what Cayne was asking me. Though my feelings toward the K’teth weren’t as negative as the Colonel’s I never asked to be a host and I was still annoyed that I’d gotten stuck with one. To give one control of my body was something I wasn’t prepared to do, but even though I didn’t like it, I recognized the necessity.

I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath, calling out to my symbiote. I didn’t know how it worked, but the only thing Khala told me was to relax and let go. It took me several moments, fighting down the sense of panic that rose to the surface. What if something went wrong? What if I lost command over my body forever?

As I struggled to answer these questions, a calm wave of reassurance washed over me from Khala. There was understanding there, and… love. Khala had known me through my mother’s eyes, it hadn’t occurred to me that she might have developed an attachment. It was soothing, and it was what allowed me to relinquish control.

My eyes snapped back open and my body grew very rigid as Khala assumed command. She craned my neck around, getting a good look at the room, then she snapped my head and turned her focus to Cayne pursing my lips.

“Well,” she said, folding my arms across my chest and smirked at the Colonel. “I believe this should be interesting.”

Although my lips moved when Khala spoke, the voice that escaped my mouth was not mine. It was soft and feminine, and if it weren’t produced through my vocal cords, I might have even thought it sounded sexy. I’d never heard of a symbiote manipulating a hosts voice in such a way, but seeing a person’s pitch was determined by the length and tension of his or her vocal cords it wasn’t much of a stretch that Khala would be able to manipulate my larynx to produce a much more feminine cadence. That being said, it was disconcerting.

If this surprised Cayne, he didn’t let on. Instead, he set the recorder back down and clasped both hands across the tabletop. He didn’t speak or even blink. I would have wilted under his stare, but Khala didn’t even flinch. She started speaking, unperturbed by the Colonel’s unblinking gaze.

She hadn’t even finished her first sentence before the lights in the room dimmed and a siren’s call rang through the cabin. Cayne was on his feet in an instant, tapping the side of his neck, more than likely to open a communications line to the bridge.

“Rodriquez, what’s going on up there?”

The response, issued out the loud speaker, rattled through the room, the speaker’s voice taking on a manic edge. “Sir, a ship just appeared out of nowhere. We didn’t detect any leap activity. One moment it was just there. There’s an energy build up inside the ship, we believe they’re preparing to open fire.”

“Raise, shields and ready weapons. Do not open fire unless they make the first move, do you understand Major?”

“Yes, sir!”

Cayne didn’t speak another word, spinning away and lurching toward the door with a blank expression. Khala leapt up with such force that the chair I had parked my ass on tumbled onto its side.

“WAIT!”

Cayne stopped, staring at me with a scowl. He glanced at my grandmother, then turned his back.

“What your Major just described, sounds what happened on the Endeavour. If you don’t stop and listen to me, it could very well mean the death of us all.”

Cayne stopped, craned his neck around again and studied my form with cold calculating eyes. “You come with me.”

, ,

Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 4

01/09/2021

CH 04

The Torrentian Void aboard the Centennial Hawk

I spent the rest of the night and a fair bit of the morning tossing and turning in bed. The one dream I had wasn’t what I’d call pleasant and involved me waking up with a pair of breasts while a red macaw hung over me and told me to ‘find her. Set her free.’ Right before he threatened to use his unholy powers to change me into a pigeon. Needless to say, when ten o’clock hit, I crawled out of bed with heavy eyes and a loud yawn. I didn’t often sleep so late, but considering what my previous day had been like, it wasn’t much of a stretch to say that I would be pretty damn tired.

“‘FEINE!” I let out another yawn as I moved into the control room and pounced on the coffee distributor. In mere seconds, the aroma of freshly brewed heaven wafted into my nasal cavities and I released a deep sigh of contentment just before bringing my mug up to my mouth and drawing a long sip.

Okay, so the coffee wasn’t that good, but for someone as sleep deprived as me, it was a heaven-send. With it, I just might get through the day without collapsing into an exhausted heap. I turned my head, eying the phantom form of my symbiote as she stared at me with those magenta eyes.

“Coffee, never much cared for it.” She grimaced, leaning against a nearby bulkhead.

I sneered back at her and took another sip. “Well, don’t expect me to give it up on your account.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to.” She matched my gaze and glowered before letting out a long sigh and shaking her head. “Look, we need to talk. I doubt you want to hear this, but very soon I will be ready to produce offspring and–”

“It’s time for you to turn me into a woman. Is that it? I was dying! It’s the only damn reason I let myself be bonded with you. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for any of it. Goddammit, Khala. It’s not fucking fair.”

“No, it’s not,” Khala agreed, staring at me with a sad smile on her pretend face. “I understand that you’re angry. Lexa wasn’t thrilled at first either, but she adjusted and made quite the life for herself.”

“I am not Lexa,” I tossed the coffee cup to the side, shattering it into a half a dozen pieces when it impacted the wall and found my way to the pilot’s seat doing my best to ignore my new symbiote.

Tanner had her feet kicked up on the console, trying not to make eye contact with me or call attention to the fact that she’d been in the room the entire time. She couldn’t hear Khala’s end of the conversation, but given what I had said, I wouldn’t blame her if she freaking out over it.

“Morning.” My eyes darted to my partner, who smiled and returned my greeting.

“Listen, Jek… I can’t say I understand what you must be going through, but if you wish to talk things over, you have my ear.”

“Thanks Tanner, that means a lot.”

I smiled, glancing down at the controls, getting a good look at the readings for the first time since coming back aboard the Hawk. Nothing noteworthy there, but it didn’t hurt to check, especially after what had happened on the Endeavour.

‘You can’t just ignore me. Whether you like it or not, we’re stuck with each other until one or both of us dies.’ This time Khala’s voice echoed inside of my mind. Clearly she had, at least for the time being, given up on casting an illusionary image for me to communicate with.

“Fine, fine, talk away!” I threw my hands up in air all the while shouting at the top of my lungs. Not even daring to throw a glance Tanner’s way. I’m sure she must think I’d gone insane by this point, anyway. “You know what, if you’re going to give me a pussy, just have at it. Just do me a favor and make sure it’s–”

“Would you stop that already!” Tanner screamed, cutting me short before I finished. “You realize I can hear you? Good lord Jek, aren’t you supposed to be able to talk to that thing inside of your head without speaking out loud?” People are bound to think you’ve gone nuts if they see you talking to yourself like that.”

“Right.” I clench my jaw, my cheeks burning as I glanced her way.

‘Thing?! THING?! I am a living, thinking, sapient being! Why do you humans so insist on objectifying my kind?’

I rubbed my hand through my hair before looking out the viewport. ‘Maybe it’s because most people can’t see or hear you. You’re about as real to them as the air they breathe. They accept it’s there because they’ve been told it is, but all they care about is that they can draw breath.’

‘I suppose it’s to be expected,’ Khala replied. ‘Now, how about we move on to matters of more immediate importance?’

‘You need a female host so you can reproduce, is that it? We’ve already been through this.’

‘We can postpone it, for now, but there is something which I would prefer to get out of the way, now rather than later. As I’m sure you’re aware, my kind have what you might call a compulsion which–‘

‘The blue hair… Is that it?’ I glanced over at Tanner and rocked my head back and forth. ‘I can live with the hair, if it means keeping my man junk intact for a little longer.’

‘And the eyes?’

‘Yeah, I can even make do with the freaky eyes, too.’

I closed my peepers, fully expecting Khala to institute the changes, but she gave me a bit of warning before continuing. The symbiotes’ obsession with blue hair was a sort of control mechanism put into the K’teth genetic code, a means by which their creators had ensured they wouldn’t be able to stay concealed. As far as the eyes, a lot of people thought hosts sported them for the same reason, but that had never been true. Khala was the first K’teth to grant a human host magenta eyes, because she had liked the way they looked. When she produced offspring and other symbiotes joined the ranks of the conclave, they adopted the magenta eyes to separate themselves from joined Qharr.

‘Ready?’

I nodded, which seemed like a stupid way to respond, given that Khala couldn’t see my head move, but she must have sensed it. I felt her make the changes. It started with a slight itch atop my scalp, a sensation that creeped down the sides and back of my skull. It didn’t last long, but I knew from being raised around bonded hosts what would happen if I touched it. I told myself I wouldn’t, but shit, somehow I did it anyway. Sure enough, as my hand passed across the top of my head, the hair fell away. I’m sure it would have anyway, but seemed a little like I was helping Khala along with the entire process.

I glanced at Tanner, who gawked at me with her jaw hanging half open. “You know somebody it going to have to clean that mess up.”

I snorted and burst out laughing as what was left of my hair fluttered away, unassisted by my roving hand. The itching returned and in mere moments new hair cascaded down the side of my temples. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I had expected my hair to grow out to its previous length and stop. Maybe Khala had a thing for long hair since it just kept growing and growing until it’d gotten longer even than my forearm.

“Just got a damn haircut last week.” I turned to Tanner, hoping to gauge her reaction, but she only stared back at me like a deer caught in headlights.

I groaned and hunched over, feeling a similar itch in my eyes, and snapped them shut as Khala did her thing. The sensation that followed was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt. Mostly it felt like Khala had put the old peepers under a few dozen pounds of pressure. As you can imagine, that’s not a pleasant experience. It was no small mercy that the K’teth could suppress pain. I was never so glad that Khala had spared me in that respect. Something told me that the pain which would have accompanied that would have been pretty intense. I shuddered as my eyes snapped back open, thinking about what I might expect from a full on transformation. It was probably something best left to the imagination.

I batted the hair away from my face, collecting it in fistfuls until I had it all clenched into a ponytail. “Could I bother you for a hair tie or a scrunchie?”

This provoked an unexpected fit of giggles from Tanner, and all I could do was grin and bear it. I’d just become the brunt of a joke, but I sure as hell wasn’t laughing.

separator

I spent most of the day spilling over sensor logs from the Hawk‘s computer, hoping to gleam something from the energy readings from the mysterious box or the creature who had attacked me. After many hours, the only thing I discovered was that most of the readings didn’t make a lick of sense. I was, very, very briefly, tempted to scoop the box up from out of the void of space, but given it had almost gone thermonuclear on my ass I was naturally resistant to the idea. It would be better to stick around until someone better equipped to deal with the potential risks arrived on scene.

I passed the remainder of my time ruminating over the Endeavour and her crew, but that didn’t mean it completely occupied my mind. Khala and I hardly had spoken two words to each other, but I was all too aware of her constant presence every time I batted my new length of blue hair out of my eyes. I considered, more than once, of grabbing some scissors and just going to town on my new locks, but there was a reason I went to a stylist.

I suppose I could have asked my symbiote to take care of it, but that seemed a bit like asking her for a favor. It was better to wait until I got back to Earth and have someone trim it down to its more usual length.

After what seemed ages, a ship arrived appearing from out of the darkness of the Torrentian Void with a brilliant flash of light as its leap drive transitioned the vessel out of subspace. I didn’t waste any time, opening up a communications line, making sure that our transponder signal was transmitting in the clear, before their sensors registered our presence.

“Unknown vessel, this is the cargo ship the Centennial Hawk. Please identify yourself.”

There was a brief delay, but I expected no less. The transition into regular space was more than a little traumatic to the senses, and even the most seasoned traveler would take several moments to adjust. Sure enough, a moment later the holo imager flared to life, displaying the visage of a tall, yet unassuming man in a crisp-cut military uniform. “I’m Colonel Tybrus Cayne of the United Earth Alliance Fleet destroyer the Valiant, I am here to investigate claims of a derelict ship.”

He spoke with a stiff jaw and a curled upper lip that spoke volumes for what he expected to find, but I didn’t let that deter me. The Endeavour was proof enough to win over any skeptic. I was, however, surprised that they had sent in such a large ship. From the looks of it, the Valiant was a titan-class destroyer, the largest and most powerful vessel in the UEAF. Either my grandmother had more clout with the government than I had ever guessed, or someone in power had reason to believe that the Endeavour’s reappearance represented a genuine threat. Either way, the Valiant’s presence scared the hell out of me.

I cast a sidelong glance at my business partner, who was staring at the holo display with wide eyes before meeting the Colonel’s gaze. Cayne struck me as a man that would pounce on the slightest sign of weakness, and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d let him see any from me.

“Jek Briggs.” I had hopes that my family name might at least get him to chill out a bit, but he either wasn’t impressed or didn’t make the connection.

“Look, I’m sure you’ve already detected an energy reading–”

“Yes,” he stated with a flat, almost bored tone. He turned his head as if glancing at a display or listening to some subordinate speaking in his ear, then glanced back to me. “Our sensors have detected some anomalous readings several hundred meters adrift outside the stern of the cruiser. ”

He paused again and glowered back at us. “Prepare to dock, we’ll need to debrief you, as will the representative of the conclave, to whom I believe you have a certain amount of familiarity.”

The Colonel’s holo image blinked out, and I gritted my teeth, glancing toward Tanner as my stomach sank. I put on my best grin, shook my head and started doing as Cayne had suggested.

“Why the hell am I not surprised?”

Tanner furrowed her brows and glanced at me sideways. No doubt hoping for some sort of explanation, but at the moment I was a little too preoccupied. If there was someone here from the conclave, there was a very good chance that person was my grandmother.

“Well, this ought to be fun,” I whispered under my breath as the Hawk, now under control of the Valiant’s systems, moved as if with a mind of its own.

“Why do I get the sense we’re about to walk into a shitstorm?” Tanner walked up behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Trust me,” I rose to my feet and turned to face her, “you don’t know the half of it.”

separator

Several moments later, the airlock hissed and swung open, revealing the dull gray and uniform bulkheads of the Valiant. I shuddered and stepped forward, grimacing as my roving eyes failed to find a single smudge, spot, or flaw. Even the dark steel floor plates were unblemished. God, it was horrendous!

The one thing you could always be sure of with UEAF vessels was that they always looked the same on the inside. I had no issue with the military, but there was just something about a place that looked so pristine and homogenous that set me on edge. Places like this were an anathema to me. There was no adventure, no creativity, and no sense of wild abandon. You know, the good things in life.

A young woman, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, approached, clasping her hands together as she smiled at the two of us. She was pretty enough, so I put on the charm, giving her my best smile and winked, holding my hand out or her to shake. “I’m Jek Briggs and this is my business associate Tanner Grace.”

“Lieutenant Hinderman,” she replied, a smile touching the corner of her lips as she met my gaze.

Although Tanner and I had what some would consider a flirtatious relationship, neither one of us ever acted on our innuendos. If she was uncomfortable with me coming on to Hinderman, she didn’t say so, but if the way she glared at the Lieutenant with arms folded across her chest was any sign, I don’t think she was too happy about the situation. That’s not to say I had any intention of backing away.

If Tanner really was interested, it was about damn time she stopped pushing me away. Flirting was one thing, but every damn time I’d made a move, she turned me down flat. If she wanted something more out of our relationship, maybe it was time she did something about it.

“Listen, Hinderman, I don’t know what you’re doing in your off hours, but I–”

“If you’ll come this way, Colonel Cayne is waiting,” the lieutenant said, not even giving me a chance to finish before cutting me off.

Ouch, I’d struck out enough to recognize it when I saw it, but it left me more than just a little mystified. Either she was playing hard to get or I’d misread the smile she’d given me.

“Swing and a miss,” Tanner whispered in my ear as she followed the younger woman out on her tail coats.

I grimaced and followed suit. It would be best to just get this over with, anyway. So what if my attempt to win the lieutenant’s attentions had failed? It didn’t make me any less of a man, right?

, ,

Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 3

12/19/2020

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CH 03

The Torrentian Void aboard the Centennial Hawk

You know what? I always thought that if I ever lost consciousness that, whenever I came awake again, it would be like waking from a long nap. Yeah, not so much. It was dark one moment and the next my eyes snapped open. I sat bolt upright and screamed bloody fucking murder. It might have something to do with my encounter with the thing that should not be and the immense hole he tore in my chest, but a part of it was damn well the realization that I’d taken up a little hitchhiker.

No, we hadn’t made a stop on some cosmic highway and picked up an eccentric but charming psychopath with a pleasant smile who intended to tie us up and chop us into little pieces. If only. I let myself become bonded to a K’teth symbiote, and sure enough, it was the very same goddamned one responsible for everything wrong in my life.

A pair of hands grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me. I found myself looking into Tanner’s rather bounteous chest. Usually, that would put a smile on my face, but guess what? Not this time.

“Jek, calm down. It’s all right, you’re safe now.”

“My chest!” I screamed, my hands clawing at the fabric of my shirt, expecting to find an enormous gaping hole where the creature tore into it. Instead, I found nothing. Disturbing, right?

“God dammit,” I cursed, my hands sliding down my pants and finding a familiar bulge, but it wasn’t quite the reassurance that you might think.

“Thank God! I’m not Lexa!”

“Uh… What?”

I rocked my head, took in a deep breath and shook away the last of my confusion. It was doubtful Khala would transform me into a Lexa duplicate, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t end up batting for the opposite team.

“Forget it.”

Okay, so she hadn’t worked her voodoo… yet. I gritted my teeth and sat up, drawing in several sharp gasps as I glared into my palms. They looked the same, but that would change all too soon. K’teth queens had a nasty habit of transforming their male hosts into women, and lucky me I got saddled with one.

“Khala!” I screamed the name, waiting for the symbiote to respond, but she never did.

“Jek,” Tanner grabbed my head with both her hands and forced me to look into her eyes. “Hey, hey, you’ll be okay. Just talk to me.”

I nodded, taking in several deep breaths as I screamed Khala’s name out in my head over and over. I got a response, but not quite the one I expected. A busty girl wearing a white dress that looked like it would slide off with the slightest wrong move, appeared in the doorway, a sultry smile on her face. I might have assumed I was witnessing the beginning of an erotic dream, if I wasn’t aware the K’teth could project images into the minds of their hosts.

The woman stepped inside the room, brushing at the mane of blue hair that cascaded down her head like waves crashing against an embankment of rocks. She stared at me, with magenta eyes nearly identical to my mother’s, and neither one of us broke our gazes as we sized each other up.

“Jellfree.”

The woman was illusory, of course, the only thing Khala saw was whatever she witnessed through the eyes of her host, now me. I didn’t question how she recognized me. I could damn well guess, though we hadn’t encountered each other in almost twenty years. As an entity capable of manipulating the genetic structure of its host, first my mother and now me, it wasn’t much of a stretch that she would be able to identify me through those very same genes.

“Actually,” I grimaced, ignoring the worried look on Tanner’s face. “I go by Jek these days.”

“Jek, then. I’m assuming since you’re now grown, I was in that stasis pod for more than a few years.”

“Almost twenty.”

She walked over, passing through Tanner as she moved through the room and sat down on the bed beside me. I had to stop and remind myself that it was all an illusion when she reached out to touch my face. You know the freaky part? Those soft hands that cupped my cheeks weren’t even real.

“I’m sorry about your mother, believe me when I say there was nothing I could have done to save her. It was only because of her foresight that I survived. Our time together was brief compared to most of the hosts I have inhabited over the centuries, but she was a kind woman.”

I stood, moving away from the mirage created by the symbiote, and glanced at Tanner. She looked at me, her mouth hanging open and eyes cocked. Had I jumped off the deep end? Was it possible that I was sitting in some padded room blubbering away like an idiot? Something told me I wasn’t that lucky.

“Tanner,” I turned to my partner and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You’re probably wondering what the hell is wrong with me, but let’s just say I have a new house guest rattling around inside my brain and I think I’m stuck with her.”

“What?” She studied me with furrowed eyebrows, her body tensed as if she were ready to bolt, but I wasn’t loosening my grip.

“Okay,” I dropped my hands. “It’s a K’teth symbiote. Khala, she was bonded to my mother and Lexa before that. She was preserved in a stasis pod.”

“Okay, well, that explains some things.” She bit her lip and did about the last thing I expected. She threw her arms around me and pulled me close to her. Her breasts were pressing into my chest and my cheeks burned as less than gentlemanly thoughts flowed through my head.

She pulled back and looked up at me with wide eyes. “Did it say what happened to the Endeavour?”

Khala’s eyebrow arched, as she glared at Tanner, but if she objected to my business partner’s use of ‘it’ when referring to her, she didn’t speak up.

“I haven’t had a chance to ask her, but I was kind of wondering that myself.”

Khala fell back, landing atop the bed, and her scowl faded away before she clenched her eyelids closed and released a long sigh. Tears gushed down her cheeks as she spoke, and I almost walked over to the bed to comfort her before remembering she was just an illusion. “It all happened so fast I’m not sure where to begin.”

She jerked up, and I took a step back, startled by the abrupt movement. “I probably don’t need to tell you that the Endeavour expedition was a joint mission between the military, the Conclave, and the scientific community. Officially our goal was to search for traces of the Phyrr Lesch. What you wouldn’t have been told was that Cobaldis traders had already discovered ruins on a remote world in the Cythsten system.”

“The Cythsten system? How the fuck then did the Endeavour get all the way out here in the Torrentian Void? That’s way too far for it to have drifted out here.”

“I-I don’t understand how that would’ve happened,” Khala blinked away a new deluge of tears before continuing. “We found the ruins and started excavating. Lots of tedious, tedious work, I never understood why your mother loved it so much. We excavated for weeks, before uncovering the box. We never discovered its significance, but the ruins where we found it were right around ten-thousand years old which would put it near the end of the Phyrr Lesch’s reign over the galaxy.”

“And what exactly was the significance?”

Khala shrugged and shook her head. “We never found out. We took the box aboard the Endeavour, hoping that we could set up a clean room environment in the lab, but the moment we got the damn thing transported onto the Endeavour, a strange ship showed up. It blasted us half to hell and your mother died before I could do anything to save her. I don’t know what happened after that creature attacked your mother or even how the Endeavour ended up where it is now. I don’t have the answers.”

I turned away from Khala and Tanner, fighting away tears as I struggled to block out the image of my mother’s corpse from my mind. Most times, I wasn’t the crying type, but I don’t think anyone would blame me under the circumstances. I’d just received the closure I’d sought for so long, but in such a way that I could say would shape the rest of my life. Seeing your mother’s frozen corpse after twenty years of looking and subsequently getting pursued and almost killed by a creature right out of every child’s worst nightmares would have that effect on a person.

“Maybe, later we can put the puzzle pieces together. For now, I think we should contact the right authorities. It’s time to share the Endeavour‘s ultimate fate with the galaxy.”

I stepped out of my cabin and into the Hawk’s control room, sensing both of their eyes on me as I departed. Khala witnessed everything through my eyes, but the image she projected into my mind seemed very real to my senses. Without hesitation, I stepped toward the communications controls as my thoughts turned toward the task at hand. All my life I had sought to step out of Lexa Briggs’ shadow and distance myself from her legacy, but the very act I was now committing would have the exact opposite effect.

If I contacted the United Earth Alliance government or the military I’d wind up dealing with bureaucrats and I’d waste a lot of time trying to convince them I wasn’t trying to scam them. There had been many people who claimed to have found the Endeavour over the years and, like it or not, my reputation wasn’t exactly what you would call squeaky clean. If I convinced them, it might take weeks to lure the right people out to the Torrentian Void.

I was acquainted with someone who had the resources and power available to bypass all the rigamarole and get shit done, and as much as it sucked, that person was Kaya Briggs, the woman who raised me. Not only did my grandmother embrace the family legacy, she expected me to do the same. If I got in touch with her, it might lead to me getting pulled back into the world of the Conclave, especially now that I was bonded to the most notorious symbiote in the galaxy.

I parted my lips and opened a comm line. A sense of dread settled in as the ship’s comm array beamed the signal out through subspace. At this hour, there was only one place where my grandmother would be, asleep at the family estates on Earth. That meant communications would be patched through a subspace relay. She might be wealthy, but even someone with her money wouldn’t see a reason to install an expensive subspace module in her home communications system.

“This is Earth subspace relay station 47, servicing the greater California region. My name is Lexa, how can I help you today?” The bright and cheerful, subspace operator’s face appeared, hovering like a spectre of doom in the empty air above the console.

I grimaced between gritted teeth. Of course, the subspace operator had to be named Lexa! Good lord, a hundred and sixty years and people were still naming their children after my ancestor.

“Yes, I’m trying to contact Kaya Briggs,” I said, and gave her the routing number to the family estates.

“One moment please,” the operator offered another artificial smile, and I bit my tongue, fighting off a surge of irritation. “Uh, sir, it looks like because of the high volume of calls to that line, it has a restriction on it.”

“What sort of restriction?”

“You must have a recognized passcode or biometric signature, sir. If neither of those options are suitable, I can put in a request–”

“That won’t be necessary,” I cut her short before she went off on a long tangent.

“I’m sending over a biometrics signature now.”

I placed my hand on the console, letting the scanner do its work. Biometrics were the best and most accurate way, not only to encrypt data but also to identify a person. Every person’s body had a unique system of blood vessels that was damn near impossible to fake or copy. Even cloning couldn’t duplicate them, as circulatory systems grew in a random pattern. So even if a person shared identical DNA, the pattern would be unique. It was a shot in the dark, given that my grandmother and I hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but she had an encoded copy of my pattern on record. Whether she had me on her list depended on if she thought I was a lost cause.

“Well, the home’s AI has accepted your biometrics, sir. Have a delightful night.” The woman smiled just before her image faded away. So, my grandmother hadn’t given up on me. Not a comforting thought, given that she’d had my life mapped out from the moment my mother went missing.

I waited, sensing rather than seeing Tanner approach, all the while thrumming my hands on the control surface. I hadn’t spoken to my grandmother in almost five years and would have been happy letting another five pass me by with no contact, but given the circumstances, I was especially nervous. She would never say as much, but Mom’s disappearance had been like a dagger through her heart. I did not look forward to confirming her worst fears. Just because we weren’t talking, didn’t mean I was heartless.

An image flared to life in front of me and I froze, my breath caught in my throat as I looked into those all too familiar magenta eyes. Kaya Briggs was host to Crae, one of the first K’teth born on Earth after its liberation. Though symbiotes didn’t really see familial relationships the same way we did, biologically Crae was Khala’s grandchild through her daughter Dyssa. The two symbiotes couldn’t communicate over such great distances unless we allowed them control of our bodies or pass along messages from them, but I sensed an odd sort of tension from Khala. She knew her descendant lived somewhere behind my grandmother’s eyes and wanted to speak with the other K’teth.

“Jellfree?” My grandmother’s eyes were alert and alive despite the bags under her eyes and the late hour.

“How many times do I have to ask you to call me Jek?” I stared back at her, all the while shaking my head. Time hadn’t diminished the hard feelings I felt toward her, but it had tempered the anger.

Neither of us spoke for what seemed to be ages but was only a few seconds. I was the one who broke the silence, fresh tears streaked my face as I stared across at my grandmother’s disembodied visage. “I found her.”

Her features softened, and she matched my gaze. “Found who, dear?”

“I found Mom.”

She blinked, mouthing my mother’s name and looked back at me, all signs of fatigue and wariness replaced by that thoughtful frown I had learned to dread. “The Endeavour?”

“Adrift in space, the crew all dead…”

“Sofia too?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak the words. My grandmother seemed to get the message. She sighed and her eyelids drooped shut. “I always feared what finding the Endeavour might mean. How did she die?”

“You don’t want to know.” I shook my head and let out a sigh of my own. “Trust me, what I saw I can’t unsee.”

I expected her to press me for details, but maybe the haunted cast to my eyes stopped her. “Give me your coordinates.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” Tanner spoke up, pushing past me so that she was staring my grandmother right in the eyes. “Jek discovered the Endeavour, and I’m not letting him give you any coordinates until you guarantee the reward money is his.”

I should have expected Tanner might try something like that. She wasn’t the most trusting person, least of all, toward people in positions of authority. “Tanner, back the hell off, would you?”

I grimaced at her as she glared at me and retreated, albeit with a reluctant sigh. “Forgive my business partner she can be a bit… protective.”

“Well, she can rest assured I have no need of any reward money. Tell your friend that whatever finder’s fee that is applicable is yours. Give me the coordinates and I can get a ship out to you inside of a day.”

I complied, transmitting the coordinates via the computer terminal.

“Finally, after all this time, we can find out what happened.”

I nodded, biting my lip as I prepared to end the transmission, but before I could it seemed my grandmother had a little surprise in store for me. “Jek, I know these aren’t the best circumstances, but it’s nice to see you again. I missed you.”

I nodded, and just barely managed to croak out a reply of my own before my hand pressed down on the console, ending the transmission.

“That’s it?” Tanner asked as I turned my back to the console and retreated toward my quarters. “What do we do now?”

I reached the doorway and glanced over my shoulder at Tanner, who hadn’t taken a single step away from her previous position. “We wait.”

I entered my quarters, letting the door slide shut behind me, and collapsed onto my bed. It was going to be a long wait, and I might as well get some sleep.

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Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 2

12/12/2020

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CH 01

The Torrentian Void aboard the Endeavour

I panted, coming to a stop in front of a door. “I really, really need to spend a little more time working out.”

“Jek?”

“Forget about it,” I shook my head and gritted my teeth. “I think I’ve found it.”

“Are you sure… I mean, how can you tell?”

“The door marked ‘Research Area: Authorized Personnel Only’ kind of gives it away, Tanner. If shit is going down, it’ll be in there.”

It made a certain amount of sense. The Endeavour had been a research ship on a very specific mission. If someone brought something freaky aboard, they would take it to the one place on the ship where they would be able to examine and contain it. I toggled the controls, cursing when they failed to comply with the command to open, and took a few steps back. I whipped my pistol out and removed the energy cell. Though I wasn’t really keen on blowing the door to shit, you know what they say about desperate measures and all that.

Energy cells were designed to prevent idiots like me from doing just such a thing, but when you spend enough time with sleazebags and lowlifes who live on the outskirts of their respective societies, you picked up a few tricks and… I’d lived a pretty sheltered life until striking out on my own. Tanner was the one who showed me that trick, who had taught her was a matter I hadn’t quite figured out.

I finished the modifications and ducked around the corner, seconds before the resulting explosion rocked the corridor. Okay, so rocked was too strong of a word. What came was more like a little tremor. Either way, once I ducked my head back over the bend and got a perfect look at the huge freaking hole in the door, I didn’t pause to debate semantics with myself. I took action, running toward the opening and crawling through without hesitation. My eyes as wide as saucers, I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at the form laying prostrate on the deck.

“Mom.”

I should have figured that my mother would be at the source of the shit I stepped knees deep into. That didn’t mean I understood what the fuck any of it meant. My mother’s corpse lay sprawled out on the ground, covered in blood, and would have looked lifelike were it not for the huge gaping hole in her chest. Her dead eyes stared out into nothingness, and I knelt down, a sigh escaping my lips as I looked upon her body. Tears cascaded down my face as I found the closure I had sought for so long.

She looked exactly as I remembered. I was only six years old when she disappeared, but I etched the image of her face into my mind long ago. She looked young, perhaps in her thirties, but appearances can be deceiving. My mom had been close to eighty years old. Medical technologies progressed a lot after the occupation, and each successive generation lived longer than the last, but her longevity had more to do with her symbiote. Bending over, I stroked her blue hair, a telltale sign that, in life, she hosted a K’teth symbiote. I slipped my fingers out to close those striking magenta eyes, as tears splattered my cheeks.

I cupped my gloved hand in hers, only realizing, as I did so, that she held something clenched in her palm. With gentle force, I pried her fingers loose, careful not to break or damage her hand. What I found was a stasis pod no larger than a medium-sized orange, the sort used by scientists to preserve organic samples for later study. I had no idea what she was doing with the thing, but judging from the way she clutched it in her hand, something told me it might be important.

“Jek!” Tanner’s voice cried, and my mind jumped back to the present. “Energy levels are building to dangerous levels. If you’re going to do something, it better be soon.”

The only reason I ran towards the energy buildup’s source was to prevent the ship from being destroyed and along with it, whatever hope I had of discovering my mother’s fate. I did not expect to find her corpse within its vicinity, but now that I had, I would go to whatever means necessary in order to ensure the ship remained intact.

Not that I had a death wish or anything, but I spent pretty much my entire life wondering about the fate of the Endeavour. If it got blown up, I would never discover the truth. If nothing else, the family of the crew deserved to learn the final fate of their loved ones.

My eyes scanned the room and locked onto the only item that looked important, a plain, unadorned box that wouldn’t have looked very out of place in the Centennial Hawk’s cargo hold. That is, if it weren’t for one small little detail. The thing looked ancient, like someone buried it thousands of years ago and the Endeavour crew only recently unearthed it. There were even a few clumps of dirt still affixed to its surface, but what caught my eye were a pair of blinking lights, which alternated between green, yellow, red and orange, on the front along the seam. I couldn’t guess the box’s significance, but if I were a betting man, which I was, I would say it was the origin of all the interference.

I secured the stasis pod to a clip on my waist, walked over toward my prize, reached a hand out to touch the box, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose as the entire cabin quaked.

“What the hell?” I turned toward the source, just as the opposite wall collapsed and shot toward me with sudden violent force and a loud metallic shriek.

A figure stood in the fresh opening, a hulking creature with muscles bigger than my head. Amidst the debris still fluttering through the air, I didn’t get a very good view of it, but I understood one thing without even having to ask, it wasn’t friendly. I snatched the box off the counter and booked my ass the hell out the entrance I’d made, the tiny hole snagging the suit’s fabric on the jagged steel edges of the opening. A high-pitched wail followed me out the opening, accompanied by the collapse of metal on metal as the creature, unable to fit through the opening, tore the door free from its frame.

Tanner’s voice called out, but it was not intelligible against the creature’s roar when it came tearing after me. I risked a glance back, but it moved so fast that I saw little more than a blur. It was big, gray, and had lots of teeth. That was pretty much all I needed to know. I didn’t stop to examine it or try to reason with it, assuming it was even a sapient being. For a change, I didn’t do the stupidest thing humanly possible, I did the exact opposite. I ran like hell.

“Tanner. I uh, think I made a new friend.” I panted, rounding a bend, just barely evading the creature’s fist as crashed it down toward me.

“Holy fuck, what is that sound?” She replied as my pursuer let out a blood-curdling scream.

“My new friend, don’t you listen, Tanner?”

“Uh huh, and this new friend is trying to kill you, isn’t it?”

“That’s why I like you Tanner, you’re such a smart cookie.”

“You realize I can’t help you, don’t you? I can’t read a damn thing on my end.”

“Figures, I’m being chased down by a massive gray blur with muscles that would make any man tremor in his little booties and teeth big enough to bite me in two and all you can do is provide commentary. Story of my life.”

“Why don’t you shoot it?”

“Can’t, I already used my energy cell to blow a crater in the research area’s door and my only spare one is inside my suit. I think I might have a plan… I won’t speak it aloud in case smiley understands me, but assuming he doesn’t get to me before I institute it, it should work.”

“Why doesn’t that fill me with confidence?”

“Tanner, you need to–” I stopped short as a sudden and very violent force yanked me back and slammed me into the wall.

“Jek? Jek? JEK?!” Judging from her screams, I’m sure Tanner had at least an inkling that something had gone wrong, but the cold acceptance I experienced as I stared into the eyes of the creature was far and beyond the most terrifying feeling… ever. I know that itsounds like a contradiction, but it’s like I had divided my mind in two. One half was scared beyond reason, and the other half had already accepted that I would die.

I got my first good glimpse at the creature, as the hand grasped tighter and tighter around my neck. My original assessment had been correct, but as my eyes filled in the gaps, my imagination hadn’t, I realized just how much shit I was in. The creature looked like someone had taken a Qharr warrior and crossbred him with a Dre’k. The Qharr are big, gray, three-eyed and fairly human looking. Dre’k are not… They’re four legged reptilian beasts from the darkest depths of hell. The resulting combination was the most horrifying and fearsome creature I had ever laid eyes on. One who was all scales, teeth, muscle and claws.

Shit, it was like the living-embodiment of the fucking boogeyman.

I would have died there and then, but as my bowels evacuated, the part of my mind that was scared shitless did something completely and unexpectedly rational. I kicked out with my legs, hitting the huge bastard where it counts. That’s right, square between the legs. The effect was instantaneous. The fucking beast dropped me like a ship ejecting its cargo and I hit the floor gasping for air. I struggled back up, shaking my head as I fought the remaining effects of hypoxia.

Back on my feet before the monster had recovered, I swooped down, snatching the fallen mystery box from the deck before taking off down the passageway. I rushed forward, moving at a speed that only adrenaline could sustain, and screamed at the top of my lungs as the beast jumped at me with one spectacular and impressive leap. It prompted me to run even faster, moving at speeds I never would have believed possible without the aid of a K’teth symbiote.

I felt the creature’s hand on me again, but before his grip tightened, I spun around and forced the box into his hands. “You know what? You can have it.”

The ploy worked… in a matter of speaking. My attacker’s hand slid away as it fumbled to grasp its prize and I scrambled away, once again launching myself down the corridor. It roared and resumed pursuit, and I screamed louder. Why couldn’t he just have been happy with the damn box?

Pretty soon I reached my destination, which was a small miracle since I had no clue where in the hell I was fucking going. I didn’t make to celebrate, instead I made a beeline right for the cargo dock release controls, but before I reached them, the creature stopped me and slammed the box square into the center of my back. I went down like a sack of potatoes. This time I slid across the floor and slammed my head into the nearest bulkhead. The collision had me seeing stars, and before I could even think about getting back up, something pressed against my back.

I thrashed about, trying to break free, but the more I struggled the more the pressure tightened. I cried out, begging for mercy, in a vain hope that the creature understood me, but if he could comprehend, my cries were either unnoticed or more likely he just didn’t care. With a sharp intake of breath, I squeezed my eyes shut, preparing for what must be my end when a voice cried out, screaming the most beautiful words to have ever been uttered.

“Hey, fuck-face! Over here.”

Phase fire illuminated the corridor, as my attacker lifted its foot off my back and he went tearing through the passageway after his new prey. I rolled onto my back, just in time to watch Tanner’s fabulous ass, prominent even through the thick fabric of her EVA suit, disappear into the passageway followed by the beast. This time I had a lot more difficulty clawing back to my feet, because of the throbbing pain in my back. The fact that I could move my legs meant he hadn’t injured my spine, at least not to the point he’d paralyzed me, but there was some definite damage in my mid-back. One thing was certain, I wouldn’t be doing any running soon.

“Tanner, god dammit, I told you to stay on the Hawk!” I spoke into the comm. “Do you have any idea how dumb what you just did was?”

“As opposed to your brand of stupidity?” She replied. “Besides, you’d be dead right now if not for me, so I fully expect to hear the words thank and you some time in the not so distant future.”

I grimaced, rubbing a hand up and down my back, hoping that it would ease the overwhelming pain and thus help me move better, but the fabric of the suit was too thick for me to feel much of anything. “Right, just get back here, would you? And have a tether ready, things are gonna get pretty… turbulent in here.”

“You’re one crazy motherfucker, you know that, Jek?”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t expecting you to be here.”

“Need I remind you? Tanner here… Jek not dead.”

I hobbled over to the controls, trying to hurry, but unable to produce more than a crawl. Whatever the hell that thing had done to me, it had really fucked me up. Just walking in a straight line was a challenge. I did finally reach the control panel and, by some minor miracle, it was ready to take my commands.

A glimpse through the transparium doors, and into the area beyond revealed nothing. It was dark, probably to conserve power. Not a surprise, cargo holds saw little foot traffic compared to the rest of a ship. Why keep it lit all the time? Tanner and I did the same thing on the Centennial Hawk.

I knew what was on the far side of the cargo bay concealed by the shadows without being told: the bay doors. Though it was a stroke of brilliant deductive reasoning, I didn’t have time to congratulate myself. An unearthly scream cascaded through the corridor, hitting my ears and producing a shiver down my spine.

“Fuck it.” I anchored my tether to the console and turned my head just as Tanner reappeared, tailed by the creature.

I opened the doors leading into the cargo hold and Tanner took her cue, latching her own tether in place. Before I could open the exterior doors, the creature’s eyes locked onto me again and it let out another howl as it came charging straight toward me.

“SHIT!”

I slammed my hand down on the emergency override mechanism. I guessed it would have been too simple to have labelled it with something a tad more straightforward like ‘jettison’, but who was I to argue in a life and death situation?

The beast had me before the doors had opened. It tore into my chest with claws that looked a great fucking deal more menacing than a phase pistol. When it pulled its fist back, I got an up close and rather personal view of the serrated, jagged little growths that were sticking out from the outside of its hand. When its fist struck, it rent through flesh like butter, producing an immense hole just below my heart.

If I wasn’t completely and utterly terrified beyond rational thought, I probably would have reasoned that he ripped through the thoracic aorta, the artery that runs down from the heart.  Instead, I screamed out, blood splattering all over the place, but it was to no avail. The creature did not let up. He smashed me into the controls, and I cursed, spitting blood into his face as he raised one of his massive arms to make a swing at me.

He never had the chance. The doors slid open with so much force that it produced a loud clang and the ship rocked. Everything in the area not bolted down or tethered in place hurtled through the new opening. Most of that included the cargo and the mysterious box, but what it didn’t include was my buddy, the grotesquely terrifying creature from the deepest darkest recesses of my nightmares.

No, the bastard had grabbed hold of my ankle and was holding on for dear life. I took the only option open to me: I kicked the bastard with my one free leg. The blow wasn’t as hard as I liked, but his hand slipped so it must have done some good. Three successive kicks. His hand shifted a little further until finally he slid free and flew into the deep abyss of space.

Blood was everywhere, and the darkness crept at the edge of my vision as I struggled to pull myself close enough to toggle the emergency switch off. I was just able to grab hold of it and force it back into place before my hands went limp. Even as the room re-pressurized and my lungs filled with air, unconsciousness continued to creep away.

It was all the blood I lost and there wasn’t a lot I could do. I should have been delirious, but somehow, I remained lucid. Something clicked inside my dense skull, and I realized why my mother had been clutching the stasis pod so obsessively. Somehow I mustered enough strength to yank it free from my waist and slammed it down to the ground, shattering the glass into a thousand pieces.

Tanner screamed my name, but by then it was already too late. The darkness carried me away, but just before it took hold there was a blur of movement from something that looked an awful lot like a clear ball of gelatin. Maybe I was hallucinating, or maybe it was just something I knew that could save my life. Either way, I didn’t remain conscious long enough to see what happened next.

As my mind receded, I heard a voice calling out. Speaking words I had heard a thousand times over, but always in my dreams.

‘Find her, set her free.’

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Legacy of Earth: Birthright | Ch 1

12/05/2020

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Author's Note

This story is a sequel to Battle for Earth set close to 160 years after the events of the previous story. It can be read as a standalone, but (and it’s a big but) to read this without having first tackled Battle For Earth will result in spoiling the plot of the first story.

Thanks go out to the following people: Jenny North for her valuable input on the fictionmania hyperboard, Jessica Nicole for proofing the bits of Spanish dialogue, and Zapper, Patricia Marie Allen, Chris, and Xtrim for pre-reading various drafts.

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CH 01

The Torrentian Void aboard the Centennial Hawk

Cold chills trickled down my spine as I stared out the viewport of the Centennial Hawk and out into the vast expanse of space. A long cigar-shaped ship, of obvious human design, floated through the emptiness, dark and devoid of the lights that were so evident on other vessels of its type. Had I not been familiar with the class, I might assume it was a stealth vessel on some secret assignment, but the United Earth Alliance had decommissioned that line more than a decade ago and it was never used for that purpose.

“Good lord,” a voice said beside me.

I turned, studying my business partner, trying my damnedest to keep any sign of emotion off my face. I couldn’t say how good of a job I was doing, but the lump in my throat made it pretty hard. For the last twenty years, I wanted nothing so much as to find the Endeavour and discover what happened to her crew. I let my hands manipulate the controls, seemingly taking on a mind of their own, but I couldn’t keep them from shaking.

Tanner didn’t know my history with the Endeavour, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to reveal it to her. I stepped away from my past life years ago, and I was not quite prepared to let myself get pulled back into it. I wasn’t ready to cast aside all of my heritage just yet. Not until I discovered the truth. I needed to know for closure’s sake.

I bowed my head before glancing back out at the derelict ship. “Begin docking procedures.”

Tanner’s head twisted toward me, her hair whipping out far enough to brush against my shoulder. “What about the casu marzu? We have cargo that needs delivered.”

“Maggot cheese is the least of my concern right now.”

I rocked my head back and forth, and despite my statement to the contrary, let myself wonder for the briefest of moments why the Credknotts seemed to love the stuff so much, but the prospect of the task before me soon overtook such thoughts. I stood up, moving across the control room with quick determination, not saying a word as I opened one of the overhead storage compartments, my hand finding purchase on a small black duffel and helmet.

“What!? Are you nuts?” Tanner scrambled across the room and yanked the bag out of my hands. “We don’t know anything about that ship!”

I turned back to her, and grabbed her by the shoulders, a smile touching the corner of my lips even as my heart pounded in my chest at what felt like a thousand beats a minute. “Sure, we do… It’s the Endeavour.”

“The Endeavour?” She took a step back, her brows furrowed as she shook her head. “This is what you’ve been looking for, isn’t it? All these little side trips over the years. You always said you wanted to see the universe, but that’s not it at all. You were hunting for that ship.”

Tanner knew me well enough that she could tell when I was lying. So, I didn’t deny it. I bit the inside of my cheek and nodded, not even bothering to look her in the eyes before I seized the duffel out of her hands. “I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time. Start docking procedures, please.”

I expected Tanner to issue further protestations, but she didn’t let out a peep. She didn’t need to, I saw her misgivings in her eyes. Derelict ships were left abandoned for good reasons. There might be dozens of dangers lurking inside the hull of the cruiser, but no risk would be great enough to keep me from seeking the truth. The Endeavour had been missing for almost twenty years, and there wasn’t a human alive who hadn’t heard of it. My reasons for seeking it out were personal, but there were an overabundance of people who would gladly lay their hands on it. The rewards offered by the United Earth Alliance and the Conclave alone were incentive enough for most people to search it out. Of course, there was the whole bit about salvage rights to consider, but none of that mattered to me.

It smacked of predetermination, but, though I was only six-years-old I’d known from the moment they declared it missing, that I would find it.

My hands shook as I pulled the EVA suit free from the duffel. The Endeavour was devoid of energy signatures. I had no idea whether there was a breathable atmosphere inside, but even if there was, I’d still need the suit. Without working life support, the ship would be damn cold. Unless I wanted my own little ice age and to get frozen into a meat popsicle after I stepped inside, precautions had to be taken.

Modern EVA suits were pretty light, a mere nine kilos, but the damn life support tanks were another matter. Those would wait till just before I entered the Endeavour. With the ship dead, the artificial gravity would be offline and the air tanks would be weightless. I lugged the air pack out of the storage compartment and made my way toward the hatch just in time to watch through the viewport as the Centennial Hawk inched closer and closer to the Endeavour. From far off, the larger ship was a dark mass devoid of any identifying marks, but as we drew closer, I got a better look. The whole side of the vessel had been scorched to hell, no doubt, from weapons fire, but what seemed odd to me is that there was no sign of forced entry on the air hatch. If Ghrev pirates or some other marauder force had attacked them, they would have been boarded.

I caught a brief glimpse of the United Earth Alliance Fleet insignia before the lights from our ship were smothered out by the Endeavour’s darkened hull. A moment later, a slight tremor rumbled through the Centennial Hawk, accompanied by a snap-hiss. I clenched my gloved fists at my side and my heart jerked inside my chest, now beating so fast I thought it must leap out of my rib cage and perform a musical number.

With slow yet deliberate movements, I reached down and grabbed the helmet, securing it to the neck piece before moving on to the tanks. It was a major pain in the ass, let me tell you, but modern suits featured a hook on the back which allowed a person to fit the air supply without a whole damn team to help them… Well, at least when you had something to hook the damn thing onto.

“Tanner,” I spoke into the helmet, as a rush of air pelted me in the face, a sure sign the suit had transitioned from exterior air supply to the suit’s tanks. I grabbed my pistol from its hook near the door and secured the weapon around my waist and glanced back at my business partner. “I’m all suited up. Open the airlock.”

“You sure about this, Jek? That cruiser looks pretty banged up. If something goes wrong in there, there isn’t a lot I can do from inside the Hawk.”

“You bet that sexy little ass of yours, I am. I’ve wanted this for the better part of two decades.”

“All right,” she replied after a brief delay. “Just don’t get yourself killed in there. You still owe my twenty creds after that little wager we made last week.”

“Right… Well, it’s so nice to learn you got my best interests at heart.” I walked inside the airlock as the door hissed open and my gloved fingers twitched as it sealed shut behind me with a snap-hiss.

“Always and forever.”

Any other time I would have issued a reply, playing off the deep-seated sexual tension that neither one of us would ever admit to, but for once my mind wasn’t on sex. My nerves were shot to hell. To think I might, at last, discover the truth, but as much as I would like closure, I also feared what I might find. I didn’t even realize it until the hatch on the Endeavour slid open, but my hand had been resting on my pistol the entire time I’d been waiting.

“Good luck,” Tanner said seconds before the Endeavour’s entry hatch closed behind me. Most airlocks would receive power from exterior sources, like another ship, but that only applied to the outer door. Human vessels, especially military ones, required some sort of access code to allow for docking, but fortunately for us, I had one handy. The means through which I had acquired it weren’t legal per se, but they would do the job.

Even so, I was pretty relieved when the hatch slid open. Whatever had happened, the cruiser was for all intents and purposes dead in space, which meant the inner door needed to be manually opened. So, several minutes later, after a fair bit of panting and grunting accompanied by no small amount of tugging and turning, I got the damn hatch open.

The interior, no surprise, was just as dark as the exterior, but activating the light on the side of my helmet, at least remedied that problem. Though it lent a certain degree of creepiness to the whole experience. I stood there, getting my first good look at the bulkheads, and bit my lip. Like the exterior hull, phase fire had blackened the metal bulkheads, but beyond that the light from my headlamp didn’t illuminate the corridor enough to tell me a damn thing. The only thing to do was continue forward and hope further exploration would help me uncover the truth.

The means humans used to simulate gravity tended to have a bit of a bleed through effect so the first few steps were under its pull, but the further from the hatch I moved, the less of its tug I felt until I put a foot out and it didn’t fall back down. I understood what I had gotten myself into, so it was no surprise when my body drifted from the ground. The effects of anti-gravity had never been very easy on the stomach. God, my insides were crawling with grasshoppers.

I tried not to think about it, gripping my hands on a bulkhead and leveraging myself before pushing off. I glided through the passage, using whatever handholds I could find to help me bolster my momentum. “Tanner, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“You had any success mapping the corridors with the sensors? I have the ship’s layout memorized, but it’s hard to tell one corridor apart from the next when they all look the same.”

“You memorized the layout, Jesus Christ, Jek, what the hell is with you and this ship?”

I grabbed hold of a bulkhead trying to halt my momentum, but as an added bonus also slammed into the bulkhead, or I suppose in this case it was the overhead, which is ship-talk for the ceiling. I gritted my teeth and glanced down the passageway, trying to visualize the layout in my mind, but shook my head, realizing I might be almost anywhere. All the damn bulkheads looked identical.

“Tanner.” I repeated her name, trying not to let my impatience bleed through the comm.

“Sorry, Jek, I’m not getting anything useful. I think there must be some interference. I can’t even get a read on your position.”

“Just great,” I muttered under my breath before shoving off again. “Tell me if you get anything. Who knows how long it’s going to take me to find what I’m looking for.”

“Right, which means you have the perfect opportunity to fess up and tell me what the actual fuck is going on.”

I released a deep sigh.  “My mom was a member of the crew.”

The silence that followed was damned eerie. The more time I spent inside the ship, the creepier it got. I’d never explored a ghost ship before, but I’m pretty sure it beat cemeteries for level of creepiness by a long shot. The silence only made it worse. I guess if Tanner would not talk, I’d just have to do something about that. “Sofia Briggs.”

“W-what?”

“That was her name, Sofia Briggs. I know what you’re going to say and you’re right. I haven’t been completely honest with you. I am related to the Briggs of the Conclave. I just wanted to make a name for myself. It’s been almost a hundred and sixty years since the occupation ended and my family still can’t step out from under Lexa Briggs’ shadow. Do you have any idea what it’s like–” I stopped mid-sentence, catching sight of a dark form floating in the passageway a half a dozen meters in front of me.

“Hold on.”

I didn’t pause, but instead let my forward momentum carry me toward the shadowy form, and as I drew closer, the figure took shape. It was a woman suspended face down, her arms spread out full eagle as she hung there in the emptiness. I drew close enough to grab her by the shoulder and spun her around to see her face. It wasn’t one I recognized, but I felt my heart sink. She couldn’t have been much older than eighteen or nineteen at the time of her death. I couldn’t tell which had done her in, asphyxiation or the cold, but neither would have been a very pleasant way to go.

With a shudder, I moved on, trying to rid myself of those pallid, lifeless eyes. I’d long suspected that if I ever discovered the Endeavour that I wouldn’t find the crew alive and well, but I always had this faint hope they might have somehow survived. Now, it was time to accept the truth. They were all dead, which put the ship’s creepiness level up to a ten. Nothing was creepier than a derelict ship in the middle of nowhere, filled with lifeless corpses. Okay, so far there was only one dead body, but where there was one there would be others.

I grunted, propelling myself forward once again.

“Jek?” Tanner’s voice whispered over the comm. She had a direct feed into my helmet’s cam, so she’d seen the whole thing. I lucked out. She took the conversation in a different direction. “How did you figure out that the Endeavour would be here?”

“I didn’t.” I replied, thankful for the distraction. “Last week I had some drinks with a few Faioloese traders and one told me about a gagava… Their word for ghost ship. They’re a pretty superstitious lot, so I had some difficulty filtering out the religious bullshit, but after getting them good and drunk, I finally got one of them to reveal the location. I didn’t have a clue if I would discover anything at all, given how much the Faioloese love to exaggerate, but it wasn’t a lead I could overlook. The prospect was just too damn good.”

“Well, you’ll be happy to hear the sensors are now picking up the interior.”

I blinked. “What, how?”

“Fuck, you tell me.”

“That’s odd, maybe you can give me some direction. I don’t have the faintest idea where the hell I’m going.” I grabbed a corner, using it to swing around and stop my momentum.

“If you’re looking to reach the control room, you’re headed the right way, but there’s something else you might want to investigate. There’s a dead spot in the heart of the Endeavour the sensors still can’t penetrate. I think it might be the source of the interference which was giving me so much trouble earlier.”

“First stop, control room. If I can get backup power going, I might could get artificial gravity and minimal life support running. All this floating around makes my stomach churn.”

“Well, just keep going and you’ll reach it soon.”

I grimaced, then launched myself forward. “I’d say that’s good, but something tells me we’ve stumbled into some deep shit.”

I grunted as I continued, I didn’t know it then, but I was right. Sometimes I wish I would learn to just shut the fuck up.

separator

When I reached the control room, I found the place in shambles. Someone had blown half the consoles to shit while the other half looked almost untouched. I would have been a lot less creeped out if that was the only shit I found, but it got worse, so much worse. A full dozen corpses littered the place, two still strapped in their seats with enormous holes in their chests and the rest floating around covered with more wounds than I could count. A few were even missing limbs.

Several had bled out so much, gore stuck to their clothes and froze to their bodies. Bits of red icicles hung in the open space all around me. The creepiness level jumped from a ten to eleven surpassing my previous estimate, which was saying something since everyone knows the scale only goes up to ten.

My mother was not among the dead. It sounded odd, but I had mixed feelings about that. I mean, sure, it would be the fulfilment of my deepest dreams to find her alive, but given how long she’d been missing, it didn’t seem likely. The Endeavour expedition should have lasted a year, but when a group of people go missing for a long period, you kind of expect that they’re all dead. Some closure would be nice after so many years.

Those sorts of thoughts gave way to the sight of all those corpses. I could only ignore them for so long before they were thrown into the forefront of my awareness.

God, it was worse than the woman.

I turned my head and looked away, closing my eyes as I dry heaved. I swallowed hard and slowed my breathing. Vomiting would have been bad enough, but spewing in my suit would only make things worse. When I got my stomach under control, I slid my eyes back open and moved through the area, looking for an undamaged console, and found it.

An indicator light was blinking in the bottom left corner. It was so dim, I might have missed it, if I hadn’t been searching for that very thing. I moved close, tapping my fingertips over the console, and allowed a grin to stretch across my face as the control interface blinked to life. I looked about, my smile fading as I remembered I was surrounded by the bodies of the long dead. Not only did it seem creepy, but it was just a little… disrespectful.

“Jek, did you just do something? I’m reading an influx in power from the control room.”

“Yeah, it was me.” I grimaced, returning my attention to the console. “I activated a control panel. It’s looking for biometrics.”

I grabbed the arm of the pilot, who sat just a few feet away, and groaned as I fought to bring her hand down to palm the console. Okay, it was just a little more difficult than I imagined. It might have been because the frigid temperatures had frozen her solid, but it may also have something to do with rigor mortis. How should I know? It’s not like I was a doctor or anything. I reached for the straps which secured her to the seat and grimaced as my hand brushed her chest. It made me feel like some sicko-perv necrophiliac, but I clench my jaw and forced aside my discomfort. I released my breath as the clasp on her harness came free.

I placed her hand on the console and released her wrist the second the ship accepted her biometric signature. She floated away, and I shuddered, never so glad to have that ordeal done with. I remembered hearing stories of my ancestor, Lexa Briggs, using dismembered limbs to unlock the biometrics on Qharr ships and had always thought it sounded grizzly. What I had done was bad enough, I didn’t care to try it with a severed hand.

I paused, dry heaving again as I struggled to get the ghastly images out of my head. Bile rose in my throat and I gagged, taking in several deep breaths before managing to once again gain control over my rioting stomach. The taste in my mouth was none too pleasant, but at least I’d spared myself from soaking the interior of my suit with the not-quite digested remains of my last meal.

“Okay,” I said, clearing my throat. “It looks like I need a passcode to get into most of the major systems, but I think I can at least make things a bit more comfortable. Whether there’s enough power is another matter.”

I tapped the controls, and again a smile spread over my features as the ship responded to my commands, coming to life with a glorious humming sound. With a suddenness I wasn’t quite prepared for, artificial gravity kicked in and I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. Okay, it wasn’t the smartest thing in the galaxy to do, but in my defense the room happened to be filled to the brim with corpses. That would unnerve even the most stalwart of Qharr warriors.

Granted, most ships had safety systems to prevent just such an occurrence, but given the Endeavour was in pretty terrible shape, it seemed likely that those systems might not be functioning.

“Well,” I grunted, clutching at my chest and climbing to my feet, “gravity’s working.”

“Now let’s see what we can do about environmental systems.” I leveraged myself against the console, still shaken from having my ass slammed to the ground, and toggled the controls. I let out a sigh of relief as the life support kicked in with a hiss and whirl. Someone must have invaded the ship, then shut the reactor and secondary power supplies down. Why the hell would anyone do that? They’d already killed everyone on board and left the ship adrift. What purpose would shutting down the power serve? Something wasn’t adding up.

It would take a while for the ship to heat enough to take my helmet off, but my respirator had already switched from the tanks to outside air supply, allowing me to shed the heavy as fuck pack. I didn’t hesitate, releasing the latch that held the damn air tanks in place and set them on the ground.

“Tanner, you still there?” I asked glancing at the temperature reading on the console’s display and undoing the clasps on the helmet, relieved the ship had warmed enough.

“Yeah, I’m getting a lot of unusual readings. Whatever is causing all the interference is getting stronger. I think it’s reacting to the influx of power.”

“Shit, of course it is.” I cursed, releasing the final clasp, and slammed it onto the console before I took off running, making my way out of the control room and back into the corridor.

If I had learned one thing in my twenty-five years, it was that when you detected a strange energy signature and it started getting stronger, shit was about to go down. I know that sounds oddly specific, but you’d be surprised how often it comes up when you transport cargo for a living.

Okay, it almost never happens, but there are some situations in life that are just no-brainers. This was one of those times, but instead of running back to the safety of the Hawk, I did the stupidest thing I could ever do, I ran toward danger.  What can I say? I may very well be the biggest dumbass who was ever born.

“Tanner, I’m gonna need you to point me in the right direction. Which way is the dead spot?”

“Keep going straight and at the next fork, turn left and then left again. I can’t read anything beyond that point, so you’re on your own from there.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, why does this shit always happen to me?” I cursed, taking off down the corridor and toward what I’m sure was certain doom. Further confirming that I was, in fact, a dumbass.

The Fall of Kruhl | Epilogue

11/14/2020

AEGIS Seal

Official Report
King’s Café
New Hebron
, California

The woman sat at the corner table and peered out at the city through the large glass storefront and sighed. She collected a stray lock of hair and pushed it back, only to have it flop back in front of her eyes. She growled and entertained the idea of having it lobbed off, as so many males of this world did, but she rather liked the way her current hairstyle framed her face. Her hands slipped out, sliding over her legs to flatten the crease in her skirt, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when a voice spoke.

“Are you ready to order?”

Alexandra peered up, regarding the server, a rather attractive young woman with a wide-eyed, almost startled set to her features. Her skin was milky brown. The once-king regarded her and pressed her lips into a line. She had trouble distinguishing between human races, and Amelia hadn’t been helpful in that regard. The agent had advised her not to call attention to it, though. Which judging from the odd reactions the little blond had received seemed like sage advice.

Still, the girl’s features were appealing, even if her eyes were a bit sunken and she looked as if she could use a few solid meals. Alexandra found that she could not look away. She only regarded the other woman, mouth agape and heart pounding inside her chest. A shudder worked its way down her shoulders and through her entire body. She thought about doing rather pleasant things to the attractive woman, things which she’d long since learned were not acceptable to speak of in a public setting.

“Miss?” The girl asked, twirling the end of one of her dark locks with her index-finger.

Alexandra closed her mouth and snaked a hand over Waldere, her fingers tracing the lines of the armlet as she met the other woman’s gaze. After Leoffa’s death. The sword transformed her back into her human likeness, and she had not called up the weapon’s power since. She felt its energy pulsating whenever it touched her skin. She could not explain how the sword underwent its transformation or why it took its current form, but she knew that if she were to call upon its power, it was hers to use.

“Uh, I’ll just—” The server turned away, but Alexandra’s hand jerked out and grabbed her wrist.

“I’m ready.”

The girl studied Alexandra, then peered down at her wrist, gritted her teeth, and jerked back, breaking her hold with a flick of her wrist. Alexandra blinked. The ease and strength with which the other woman had freed herself was startling. The once-king was not strong in her human form, but the girl was much more powerful than she looked.

A smile creased Alexandra’s face and her heart beat harder. God, that was such a turn on.

“I’ll have the egg-white fiesta omelet, and the house coffee,” the little blond said, a slight quiver to her voice.

The server studied Alexandra, her eyebrows furrowed, and moved away without taking another glance. The once-king watched her move away with a lump in her throat. She hadn’t dated since Leoffa’s death, and while she’d attempted to curry the favor of certain females, those attempts were only noteworthy in how unsuccessful they’d been. Human courting rituals were even stranger on this world than her own.

This woman was special, Alexandra knew it the moment she laid eyes on her. She would win this one over and they would make sweet, passionate love.

She studied her, as she fought to remember the dating advice given to her by Jen and Hailey, but such recollections escaped her. The only thing she could think of was bedding the pretty server.

Alexandra swallowed and watched the other woman move about the café. It seemed obvious that the server was aware of her attentions, and yet she refused to meet the once-king’s gaze. Among her own people, a potential mate would meet such obvious interest with an immediate reply. Either the woman she desired would match gazes and the courting would begin, or she would receive a more violent answer. Either way, things really became heated.

Oh, how she longed for the more simple courting rituals of her homeworld.

Crystalline clinks exploded from the storefront, crashing into the tiny little diner. A shower of glass reined onto Alexandra and a long dark cylinder clanked and skittered across the tiled floor before settling into place with a metallic thud. A dark cloud began oozing out of the tube like a snake slithering out of its burrow.

Though the former Assar warrior was new to this world, she recognized the weapon at once, even if she did not recall a name for it. She had seen it in use in a film of war. She sprang from her seat, hurtling herself at the cylinder, and snatched it from the ground. Without missing a beat, she spun around and tossed it back out through the shattered storefront.

Men in black tactical gear converged on the cafe, and the frontmost of them brought up his rifle to deflect the canister. It clattered back inside and landed at Alexandra’s feet.

She howled and slid her hand up the side of her arm, already invoking the power of Waldere as smoke billowed out from all around her. As a familiar bright luminescence surrounded her. She threw her head back and a booming feline growl erupted from her lips.

The dark-haired server pounced, rushing to intersect them and pushed Alexandra back several steps even as Waldere’s magic rushed through the once-king. Alexandra peered through the illumination as the girl sped forward, slamming into the foremost of the attackers with her shoulder, and he went careening to the ground.

The attackers stumbled back as the illumination around the once-king grew more intense. The girl seemed unaffected, and Alexandra gazed in delight and fascination as she knocked them around as if they were children. Clearly, there was a reason Alexandra had been drawn to her.

The last burst of illumination spun out in a circle dispelling into the air, and Kruhl son of Wurdan stood in Alexandra’s place, Waldere, now returned to its true form, clutched in his hand. His head barely cleared the ceiling, but he paid it no mind. More men spilled into the little café and he joined the fray.

Gods, it was glorious.

The Fall of Kruhl | Ch 18

11/07/2020

AEGIS Seal

Official Report
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Tondzaosha, Idaho

A halo of light surrounded Kruhl, swirling out in all directions before settling on his massive frame. It shone so brightly that it forced even Ashley to look away. When the luminescence faded, the once-king, again wearing her human skin, was crouched over Leoffa’s corpse.

She held her former lover’s dismembered head against her forehead. Tears pattered down her cheeks and her entire body shook.

Amy turned, regarding Ashley with a frown, but the dark-haired turned most of her attention to the crystal still clenched in her companion’s armored hand. “Keep that thing hidden until I can figure out what we should do with it.”

Ashley nodded, and a series of mechanical whirs sounded from the suit. Plates retracted from her chest, abdomen, legs and arms, revealing the young woman within. She crawled out, and the armor, moving of its own accord, slipped the crystal inside the opening and closed back up.

Amy regarded Ashley for a moment, arched an eyebrow and moved toward Alexandra. The little woman set Leoffa’s head down, and rested one hand on the corpse’s shoulders, straightening the arms and positioning the body, which lay sprawled out on its side, so that its back was resting on the ground. The legs she pulled straight out and the arms she folded over the chest. She returned Leoffa’s head, positioning it over her shoulders and closed the eyes with her open palm, a sob escaping her lips.

“Go dígo mbealfymid le shéila arues. Bea’altene Dohan d’ynem a thraurú go sábhylt chaeig an soel aile.” Though Van den Broeke didn’t understand the words, she guessed from the reverence with which the other woman spoke, it was some sort of invocation for the dead.

Amy put a palm on Alexandra’s shoulder and the Assar warrior looked back at the agent through tear-soaked eyes. She buried her head in Amelia’s shoulder and her entire body wracked with sobs.

“You did the right thing,” Amy said, tears burning her eyes. “She would have never come around.”

The pair held one another for several moments and would have for longer had it not been for a flurry of movement nearby. Fredericks, Harris and the AEGIS task force, minus Grimes and a nameless agent, whose absence Amy only noted by counting heads.

It seemed the sorceress’s barrier had fallen with her death.

Amy put her hands on Alexandra’s shoulders, met the once-king’s gaze and nodded toward the newcomers. The former Assar seemed to understand. She nodded and pulled away, allowing the other to slip free.

Amy rose and turned to meet Fredericks, who approached, gun held ready. “Van den Broeke?”

“We have resolved the situation here,” she muttered with a long breath of air and glanced back over her shoulder. “Grimes?”

“He’s getting medical care now. He’ll live,” Fredericks replied peering around the clearing and settled his gaze on Leoffa’s staff.

Amy bent down to retrieve it and turned it around in her hands, regarding the gemstone which had turned black once again. “Fredericks, we need to focus on damage control. This town’s police force was decimated. I have reason to believe that the police forces, several local elected officials and who knows how many towns people may still be compromised.”

Van den Broeke flattened her lips, mind racing as she considered the possibility that someone within AEGIS had also had their minds twisted. Her gut sank at the prospect, but she knew she couldn’t just let her suspicions sit. Unfortunately, that meant that there were very few people within the agency she would be able to trust.

Fredericks nodded. “I’ll get a containment crew brought in.”

“You good to oversee things?” She asked Fredericks while peering back at Alexandra.

“Yeah, of course,” he replied, eyebrows shooting up.

“I… have some personal business to attend to.” She returned her gaze to him, jaw set as if expecting him to challenge her, but he just nodded again.

“You’ve had a rough time of it. I’m sure you’re tired.”

Amy did not respond, but gave him a brief smile and turned away. She gazed at Alexandra, realizing with a start that Waldere was missing.

With quick, yet furtive steps she moved back, crouching down beside the once-king and studied her features. The other woman did not take notice of her, and Amy did nothing to draw her attention. Then Amelia noted a glint of steel on the warrior’s arm and sucked breath in through her teeth.

An arm ring in the shape of a sword was coiled around Alexandra’s arm, it bore the same hilt design as Waldere. Amy understood the implications at once, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it. The former king had proven herself, and for the time being she deserved some time to rest and mourn.

“Fredericks, I’m taking Alexandra with me. You can debrief her tomorrow.”

Again Fredericks eyebrows arched, but he only nodded. Amy took a moment to help the once-king to her feet, allowing the tiny blond to lean against her, then guided her back to the car.

They say time mends all wounds, but the agent knew better. The loss Alexandra was experiencing would stick with her for the rest of her life. In time, she would think of it less and less, but there would always be an empty place in her heart.

Amy stepped out of the car and peered down at the cheap burner phone she’d purchased at a local drugstore as a temporary replacement for the one she’d discarded while on the lam to find yet another text from Sapphira.

Amy smiled and slipped the phone back into her pocket without responding. She’d spent hours speaking to her lover over the phone that very morning. As near as the agent could determine, the other woman had come awake at almost the exact moment Leoffa had met her end, dispelling any doubts that the sorceress was behind the other exemplar’s mysterious ailment.

As much as she loved and adored Liv, she couldn’t put off the task ahead of her any longer. She stepped onto the curb and approached the storefront of Phil’s her lips pressed together in a frown. Although she’d never stepped inside, she was familiar enough with the establishment to hesitate before entering.

It wasn’t so much that the place had an unsavory reputation. As bars went, it was the sort of place frequented by middle-aged men just looking for a drink and catch a game or two after work. Nor was it particularly rowdy, but there was one defining feature that gave her pause.

It had been and apparently still was her father’s favorite watering hole. She’d heard all about the ‘boys at Phil’s’ from her own father’s mouth and though it had been years, she doubted the regulars had changed much since then. It was the kind of place that resisted change.

She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Sure enough, Lucas van den Broeke sat at the counter. He looked more or less like she expected, and the years had not been kind to him. Her father was fifty-six and looked more like he was approaching his seventies. The Van den Broeke patriarch slid his fingers through a shock of gray hair and rested his palm over his bulging belly.

Amy sat down next to him and stared straight forward, her lips trembling as her insides twisted into knots. She pressed her lips together and waved the bartender down. She ordered a Shirley Temple and shifted to regard her father as Phil prepared her drink.

Lucas glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, and at last, her elder blinked. He sipped his beer, which judging from the way the foam had settled had been sitting for some time and set it down with a careless clatter.

The bartender turned to give him a warning glance, and Amy cocked her head and returned her father’s gaze with as neutral of an expression as she could muster.

Lucas cracked a smile and slipped a hand on her knee. Amy nearly lurched out of her seat, but forced herself to remain in place. The taste of bile rose in her throat and she resisted the urge to swing at him.

“Honey, are you lost?” Lucas laughed, and cast a glance over his shoulder at the barkeep who was watching the encounter between pursed lips. “Maybe, I can help you find your way. Of course, there might be a detour along the way, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate the company.”

“No,” Amy said, a surge of anger in her voice, and she slapped his hand away. “I’m not here for that, Dad.”

The elder Van den Broeke jerked back, eyes growing wide as he peered at his eldest child, understanding beginning to dawn on his face.

“Oh, God… Andy?”

“Amelia,” the agent corrected, staring back at him, her face getting redder and her expression contorting into a glower.

“The fuck, you want?” He asked, any evidence of joviality gone from his face.

“Closure,” Amy answered.

Lucas balled a fist and pulled it back. Amy was ready for the attack. She reached out with her mind and with a flick of her wrist forced his hand into the countertop. She put barely any force into it, and at worst his hand might throb for a few moments. He deserved far worse, but she would not lower herself to his level.

“Assaulting a federal office, is a serious offense, Dad. I’d hate to arrest you.”

If her use of telekinesis surprised Lucas, he didn’t show it. He continued to scowl at her, face growing redder by the moment. Amy regarded him, her features calm and collected. She snaked a hand inside her jacket and showed him her badge.

“I just need to say something and then I’ll leave. You made my life hell and I’ve spent the last decade and a half trying to forget you even existed, but I didn’t realize I was still carrying around so much baggage.”

Lucas didn’t speak, but glanced down at his fist and attempted to leverage himself against the bar to gain his freedom. He cursed, regarding her between gritted teeth.

“You’re still a man, you know that? I don’t care how pretty of a package you wrap yourself in, your DNA doesn’t lie.”

Amy smirked, almost laughing at the pronouncement, but held back her mirth. She might have mentioned that the brain structure of a trans woman was identical to that of a cis woman, or a dozen other arguments that sprang to mind, but held her tongue. Lucas van den Broeke was a hardliner and staunch conservative. He would never be swayed, even if he knew she was pregnant.

“I’m through letting your shadow cast a pall over my life. You are nothing to me, nothing.” She regarded the bartender as he approached with her glass and produced a bill out of her breast pocket before turning back to look Lucas in the eyes.

She stood, took a sip from her drink and grimaced. The agent didn’t speak another word, but set the glass back down, turned away and strode out of the bar.

She stopped outside, her heart hammering in her chest, and swallowed… hard. To some that might have seemed like a vain ego stroke, but for the agent it was her way of, at last, letting go of all the pain that had plagued her for so many years.

With a smile, she strode back into the car, slipped her phone back out of her pocket and climbed inside.

Brian van den Broeke turned the crystal in his hands, transfixed. He couldn’t say why, but the bit of Amethyst called to him in a way he didn’t understand. He should do something with it, he sensed, it would let him unleash power…

There was a knock on the bedroom door and he blinked, shaking his head. He frowned at the stone, then slipped it into his pocket and called to whoever it was to come in.

The door creaked open and Amelia stood in the doorway, arms folded across her chest. He sat up, paying no mind to his surroundings, and regarded her thoughtfully.

Before they were separated, they’d both been teenagers, and Amy had been a gangly kid struggling with her gender identity. Now she looked every bit the woman he’d always known she was. He smiled, and ran a hand through his mop of dark hair, and looked his eldest sibling in the eyes.

Amy exuded an air of confidence that he found so at odds with the troubled youth he’d known. He was happy she’d found herself, but he knew it must have been one hell of a journey to get there.

“I guess you’ll be leaving soon,” he offered, a frown creasing his features.

“No, Amy replied, dropping both of her hands.

“In light of everything, my boss is letting me take some time off. I figured I’d spend some of it reconnecting with my family.” Amy stumbled over the last word, but Brian paid it no mind.

“I mean, if you don’t mind me sticking around for a wee—”

Brian lurched to his feet, threw his arms out and embraced his sister. “I’d love that,” he said after they pulled away.

“There is one thing… though,” Amy added. “I want you to consider coming back to California with me.”

Brian furrowed his brows, but his older sibling held her hands up before he could speak. “I just want to make sure there’s no lasting effect from what that woman did to you. AEGIS has state-of-the-art medical facilities, if anyone can find something it will be our doctors.”

Brian nodded and felt a lump form in his throat. Recollections of Leoffa’s intrusion played out in his mind. He remembered very little of it, but what he recalled produced a shiver that tickled its way down his spine. It hadn’t even occurred to him that she may have messed with something while rattling around in his brain. He cupped a hand over the stone in his front pocket, but didn’t say a word.

“Y-yeah,” he nodded, his voice quivering. “That’s… probably a good idea.”

“Great.” Amy cupped his face in her palms. “Now come on, Serena said dinner’s about ready.”

Brian followed his older sister out of the room, down the stairs and into the kitchen where their mother Serena, their younger siblings Erica and David, and that odd little blond woman with the cat’s eyes waited. The second eldest Van den Broeke sibling had his own issues with his mother, but he had to admit it was nice being a family again.

The Fall of Kruhl | Ch 17 Pt 4

10/31/2020

AEGIS Seal

Official Report
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Tondzaosha, Idaho

Brilliant bright light enveloped the once-king, as power rippled out from the sword in all directions. Though her opponent shielded her face and looked away, Alexandra’s eyes pierced the brightness with no trouble. She was aware of it, but it neither obscured her vision nor caused her any discomfort.

She tilted her head up, and let loose a loud, ear-splitting roar, the like of which she would never have managed with a human throat.

“How is this possible?!” Leoffa demanded through the luminescence, her voice echoing as if in a cave.

Alexandra had only ever used Waldere as an instrument of war. It was a powerful weapon that could deflect or even negate almost any magical attack, and was also more than a match for even the finest of swords. Yet, she’d long suspected she’d never managed to unlock its full potential. As the power of the sword coursed through her body, she knew she’d been right.

At last the light faded, and she glanced down at herself, the hairs along her spine stand on end. She no longer bore the form of a tiny human woman, but the one which she had worn until coming to this world, that of Kruhl son of Wurdan, King of Eirdon, and Master of Waldere.

Again, he was whole. He stood fully seven feet tall, sword of magic clutched within his hands. Here was the king of old, the warrior who had united the scattered Assar tribes, and defeated the armies of the Sorcerer Odalrik. Here was the warrior with the strength to wield a weapon of such awesome power as Waldere.

He snarled and threw himself forward, moving at a speed that belied his massive stature. He was almost on top of his opponent when she vanished with a burst of violet flames.

“Leoffa,” Kruhl said his voice low and rumbling. “Enough with these games. Cease these coward’s tactics. I know you are a warrior at heart. Face me as any warrior would.”

Leoffa answered with a shriek of rage, appearing behind him with a second fiery eruption and an accompanying blast of power directed at his back.

Kruhl jerked away, but the beam scorched his side and he growled, rounding on the sorceress, sword arching down. Leoffa rolled away and swept her staff out, slamming it into the back of the Assar warrior’s leg. Flames lanced out from the tip and he howled, again slicing his weapon down, but his former lover was already back on her feet.

She tossed the staff aside and slipped her hands inside her cloak, producing a short sword from within. The once-king snarled, already bringing his blade around to meet her, but she ducked out of the way and slipped around to his side, slashing at his exposed midriff.

Kruhl howled, clutching at the injury, and barred his teeth, letting loose an ear-piercing growl.

Kruhl was fast for his size, but Leoffa was faster. He might have had the advantage in sheer physical power and size, but it would do him little good if he couldn’t land a blow. Having trained with and fought beside him for many years, she was familiar with his technique. It gave her an edge that few would have over the once-king.

As Leoffa swirled away, the Assar warrior backhanded her, sending her reeling to the clearing floor.

Of course, Kruhl also had an edge. Not only was he familiar with her fighting style, he’d had more opportunity to practice. While Leoffa had been honing her skills with her magic, Kruhl had been training with the sword. He was an even more capable adversary than he had been when they’d last known one another, and that was saying something.

Kruhl rushed forward, blade sweeping toward the ground where his opponent lay, but again Leoffa was too fast. She twisted aside and the once-king’s blade sliced into the dirt.

Leoffa circled around him, blade slicing at his flanks, but the warrior king pulled the blade free in a shower of dirt and spun around to confront her, both of their blades clashing. Kruhl pressed forward, forcing her back and pinning her with his boot. He kicked her weapon from her grip and leaned in close.

“I’ve always loved you, Leoffa. My feelings have never changed. We can still be together,” Kruhl said, a slight quiver to his voice. He thought of their night together when he’d thought her Amelia’s sister and his heart raced. “It doesn’t have to end like this.”

The sorceress’s hand went for her neck and the amethyst crystal which the Assar warrior had all but forgotten about. A wave shot out, and Kruhl stepped back to avoid it. Although the shot landed home, nothing happened and the once-king realized his mistake at once. It had been another illusion.

Leoffa stood up, one arm stretched out. Her staff zoomed across the clearing and soared into her open palm. Power crackled from the stone and smashed into Kruhl before he had a chance to raise his sword.

The Assar warrior doubled over, Waldere dropping from his numb hands, his whole body convulsing in pain.

“You betrayed me and left me for dead! You really think I would forget that?” Leoffa shrieked between barred teeth. She stepped closer, and the glow intensified. Kruhl collapsed, unable to do anything but flail about on the ground. He wanted so desperately to tell her that he’d never meant to attack her, but even were he able to speak, he knew anything he said would fall on deaf ears.

“Now,” she said darkly, a second darker bolt of energy sizzling out and shot toward the Crystal of Ban-Sher’i. “It’s time for you to die.”

Just when all seemed lost, a dark form jerked forward, slammed into the sorceress and knocked the staff out of her palms. Amy locked her hands around the other’s wrists, planted her knees into her rib cage and glowered down at her while holding her in place with her telekinesis.

“Uh, Amy?” Ashley’s guttural growling voice asked.

Amy clenched her jaw, glanced at the other woman who was crouched about a dozen feet away, and followed her gaze. The staff was still ablaze, sending dual beams out at Kruhl and the crystal.

Leoffa took advantage of the distraction and kneed Amy. The agent rolled over, clutching at her side and groaning in pain. The magic-wielder stumbled to her feet and started for her focus, but Amelia threw a hand out, catching her by the ankle. Her adversary toppled over, fists swinging.

“Ashley!” Amelia called between blows. “Do something!”

The second the words left her lips, Ashley’s armored form surged past, rocketing not toward the staff, but toward the crystal and the violet bonfire which contained it.

Leoffa’s attacks grew more frantic. Instead of fists, she mauled the agent with her clawed hands, tearing through skin and actually drawing blood with several swipes. She struck the agent across the face with her elbow. Amelia’s hand went limp, and the magic-wielder lurched back up, dashing toward her staff.

When she was less than four maybe five steps away, a loud cwrack sounded and she froze. She spun around on the balls of her feet to face Agent Van den Broeke, who’d drawn her gun.

The agent opened fire again, and her opponent dove for the staff, her hand outstretched. When her fingers touched the polished wood, a crackle of energy burst out and the beam which had encompassed the crystal, flickered and died.

She let out a shriek and twisted around, eyes scanning the clearing. Ashley hovered above the amethyst inferno, the Crystal of Ban-Sher’i clutched in a gauntleted hand. The fiery eyes of her grotesque faceplate seemed to burn with malevolent glee.

Leoffa lashed out, sending an amethyst beam of power surging toward the armored hero, but Ashley dove forward and the attack zoomed past, dispersing into the open sky.

A roar sounded from the opposite direction and again the sorceress swirled around, realizing too late, that by attacking Ashley she’d released the once-king from her spell. Kruhl sprang to his feet and charged. She brought up her shield, but Waldere sliced right through it. Violet fire spilled out from her staff, but the sword absorbed it.

There was a glint of steel and Leoffa’s fallen sword was back in her hands. She struck out, barely managing to deflect Kruhl’s attack. She dove forward, sweeping out with her blade, but the once-king deflected it with ease and parried with an attack of his own.

Leoffa dove down, and Kruhl’s blade sliced through the air mere inches from the top of her head. Leoffa growled and rolled away as the warrior’s weapon came slashing down. Though she was an adept fighter, she could not win in a direct sword fight, Kruhl was too strong and his reach too long.

The sorceress howled and sprung back up. She dropped her sword, and instead, snatched her staff up and threw it above her head. Fire lanced out in every direction around her, burning the ground in a wide swath which consumed the dry brush all around him. Kruhl slowed eying the flames, his lips curled back from his muzzle as he emitted a low warning growl.

Seizing the opportunity, Leoffa struck out, an amethyst burst cascading around a tree. She jerked her arm up and there came a rumbling sound from the earth and a series of loud cracks as the gnarled old tree, whose trunk was twice as wide around as Kruhl’s chest, rose from the ground. With a snarl and a vicious cackle, she flung her magical focus out, and the tree hurtled toward her enemy.

Leoffa had just exposed one of Waldere’s most glaring flaws. The tree was already moving, and the sword could no sooner halt its forward momentum than it could perform a song and dance routine. The tree slammed into Kruhl and sent him hurtling away and into a copse of trees.

“Now,” the magic-wielder said, spinning around to face Ashley, Leoffa’s staff pulsating and crackling with power. “I’ll take that crystal back.”

Ashley met the other woman’s gaze, tightened her grip around her prize and raised her arm canon. The sorceress gritted her teeth, and hurled a bolt of power at the armored form, but her target spun away and the blast struck an old fir tree, splintering it into oblivion.

Leoffa brought her staff forward to attack again, but her arm stopped short. It was as if some invisible force had grabbed on to her. She turned her head and watched as Amelia van den Broeke stepped into sight. The agent threw her hands out, and the sorceress’s stomach lurched as the ground fell away and she soared into the air.

Amy spun, raised her hands, fixed her gaze on the tree which had pinned Kruhl in place and with a simple flick of her wrists sent it zooming away. Kruhl slumped over, a groan escaping his muzzle.

Sizzling power crackled and hit the agent, sending her slamming into the ground. Leoffa hobbled forward, using the staff to prop herself up. A blast of energy swirled out from the gemstone, but Kruhl pulled himself up and raised Waldere, which was still clutched in his hands, and moved forward, gaining speed with each step.

Blasts of amethyst fire followed in his wake, but his blade absorbed the only ones that came close to striking. When he drew close, the sorceress raised her staff to block a blow that would have hit her chest and sent fire rippling out in a semicircle.

Waldere blocked most of it, but even the weapon’s magic could not contain all the fire. Flames dances all around them, and Kruhl howled in pain and fury as they licked his sides.

Kruhl pulled his arm back, and his weapon swept out, slicing through her neck. She threw out more fire, but though the attack burned the fallen king, it was too late.

The Assar warrior watched her head fall from her shoulders, and her body crumple to the ground. Then, he fell to his knees, huddled over her fallen form, threw his head back and roared, tears streaming down his muzzled face. Light flared from the sword and enc0mpassed his towering from, but he paid it no heed.

It was over.

The Fall of Kruhl | Ch 17 Pt 3

10/24/2020

AEGIS Seal

Official Report
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Tondzaosha, Idaho

Alexandra tilted the sword straight up, hilt pointing skyward, and hunkered down, brandishing her weapon as if it were a shield. Raw power flew out from Leoffa’s fingertips and struck with a brilliant eruption of light. The former warrior king gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, summoning Waldere’s power.

Power crackled along the length of the sword as her attack struck. Waldere burning a brilliant bright white and the once-king released a breath she wasn’t even aware she’d been holding. The weapon had responded to her will.

Leoffa howled, lurching forward, and lunged at the sword, grappling each hand around either side of the crossguard.

“How are you still alive?” She demanded between gritted teeth, forcing the weapon into Alexandra’s chest. The former warrior king pushed back. Her tiny arms burned from the effort, and inch by inch she lost space to the other woman. Before long, the sorceress had forced her to the ground.

“At the very least you should be flat down in a hospital bed,” the sorceress growled, her voice coming out in a shrieking howl so guttural it hardly sounded human.

Alexandra didn’t answer, instead she squirmed, attempting to worm her way out from beneath her former lover, but Leoffa planted her knee atop her chest and leaned in close. 

“It’s just as well. The crystal requires a blood sacrifice to unleash it’s power. I had planned to kill my dear sister,” a vicious snarl stretched across her face as she craned her neck around to glance at Amy, who was still struggling to return to her feet. The sorceress’s staff glowed and a ripple of power streaked out, slammed into the agent and sent her tumbling into the air again. “But what better payment than the blood of a warrior king fallen from grace?”

The once-king’s blood ran cold. That was why the sorceress had allowed them in. Alexandra licked her lips and glanced at the crystal. Before she could speak Leoffa sucker punched her in the mouth and left her seeing stars.

“Don’t worry, you’ll live just long enough to see exactly what the crystal does, but by then it will be too late.”

“Really?” 

A low rumbling growl sounded from the tree line and the sorceress’s head snapped around to face the newcomer, lips curling back to display her teeth. 

“Ashley,” Alexandra mouthed the name, eyes widening. The young woman’s armor looked as if it had been through a long campaign across the fiercest most war-torn of regions. It was dung up and dented in more places than she could count, and it seemed a small miracle that the slender blond was even able to move. 

How the armor had undergone such radical damage in so short of a time the once-king couldn’t say, but her heart leapt into her throat at the mere site of her. Ashley held one gauntleted arm up. A long cylinder had extended from her wrist. 

“You move and I fuck you up, bitch.” The armored girl pronounced her augmented voice, all gravel and rage.

Leoffa froze, her face an empty mask as she regarded the newcomer for several long moments. No one spoke, and still she did not move. Then Amy rose. A soft groan escaped the agent’s mouth and the sorceress acted. She raised her staff, and a bright amethyst flash resonated from within the gem of her staff before she vanished.

“Dammit,” Amy cursed. Though she was on her feet, she was hunched over and one hand rested on the small of her back as a snap and a pop sounded from her spine. She stood bolt upright, eyes wide, and called out. 

“Ashley, the crystal!”

Ashley’s armored frame lurched forward, but before she’d made it halfway, a shrouded form appeared to interdict her. Leoffa’s staff swung out in an arc, and a wave of violet power rose through the air, sending her opponent hurtling away.

“Is that all you got?” Leoffa asked, planting the staff in the ground, power crackling across the soil in a broad swath.

“We’re just getting warmed up,” Amy responded, stepping forward, knotted fists glowing with power.

A clank of steel followed her pronouncement, and Amy watched Ashley step forward out of the corner of her eyes as a slow smile crept onto her face. 

Alexandra came next, sword held up with both arms, and planted the weapon blade-first into the soil, holding it upright before her. No one who beheld her would ever mistake her for imposing, but none would miss the glint of determination gleaming in her eyes. For the first time, Amelia caught a glimmer of the old Kruhl and felt a shiver work its way down her spine, realizing how fearsome he must have been on the battlefield.

Leoffa cast her arms out, staff rising into the air of its own accord. Fire lanced out from it in a broad sweeping arc and molten power blew out from her arms, burning through the air toward the trio. Amy brought her shield up, arms barred across her chest. When the attack struck, the barrier flashed with a burst of bright energy and the blasts bounced back straight toward the sorceress.

Leoffa threw her left hand out, only just bringing a barrier up in time to absorb the blasts. Amy dropped her own shield and rushed forward, hands alight and crackling with power.

Ashley seized the opportunity. Leaping up and rocketing across the clearing, she zoomed through the open sky toward the crystal. The armored hero extended an arm, hands mere inches from the stone, but Leoffa was too fast. The sorceress let out a shrieking growl and whipped a hand out.

A tendril of violet energy whipped out and curled around the other woman’s greave-encased ankle. The sorceress pulled her arm back and sent her opponent soaring in the opposite direction. Leoffa’s eyes did not linger, instead she returned her attention to the agent and once-king.

Amelia was pressing the attack, glowing fists pounding on the magic wielder’s shield. Alexandra remained frozen in place, Waldere now alight with swirling pink and blue tendrils which shifted and churned around the weapon at dizzying speeds, but never quite touched the blade. The tiny woman’s eyes had turned milky white and she stared off into the distance as if looking upon something no one else could see.

Leoffa clenched her teeth, grabbed her staff from the air, and sent a sizzling bolt of energy hurtling into Agent Van den Broeke. The dark haired woman careened away and slammed into a tree less than a dozen feet away. The sorceress slammed her focus into the ground, splitting it and sending sparks of electricity sizzling out in every direction.

A blast of power shot out from her staff toward Alexandra, but before it struck, the once-king threw her head back and a rumbling, ferocious lion’s growl escaped her lips. Pure iridescent light encased her, then swept out across the clearing in all directions.